West Bromwich Albion v Liverpool - Premier League

Shipped from Abroad, England: ‘Til the landslide brought them down

Leave a comment

LONDON – The Brendan Rodgers era at Liverpool would have gotten of to a worse start if there was anything to glean from their 3-0 loss at West Bromwich Albion. At least, there wasn’t much to glean as it concerns their prospects to improve this season. After Saturday’s match, we can say Liverpool are incapable of stopping aberrational Zoltan Gera goals and they don’t play well when they’re down to 10 men. But there’s nothing more general – more applicable to future games – which came from the match. No team stops that Gera goal, and teams are generally pretty poor when outmanned. As it concerns Liverpool’s 2012-13, Saturday was neither hint nor revelation.

“It was just one of those games” is one of soccer’s many overused clichés, mostly because “those” is so ill-defined. In the context of Saturday’s game, it means a match where your team had little chance to winning. West Brom’s first goal (Gera’s) was unstoppable, and while Daniel Agger’s straight red was probably the right call, the penalty kick awarded after Martin Skrtel was judged to have fouled Shane Long almost certainly wasn’t. Peter Odemwingie’s conversation, coming minutes after Pepe Reina had stopped Long’s attempt after Agger’s foul, sealed the match.

Without the Skrtel call (at which time the score was 1-0, West Brom), perhaps Liverpool could have held out for half an hour before stealing a goal late. But to score two and allow none while down a man? That was too much.

There is a counter to the claim Liverpool could do little to win Saturday’s match: They could have scored some goals before Agger’s sending off. That’s fair enough, but Liverpool isn’t the first talented team to go an hour without scoring. They were on the road, against a moderately talented opponent, facing a man (former assistant Steve Clarke) who knew their personnel inside and out. They also generated a number of chances for Luis Suarez, with the Uruguayan justifiably disappointed not to have converted two relatively easy headers. Though it’s always precarious to apply “if” to strikers, it’s natural to wonder how the game would have changed if Suarez converted with his normal efficacy.

Rodgers is unlikely to be up late thinking about Suarez’s finishing. Those goals will come, though there are other issues that should cost Rodgers sleep. Suarez was Liverpool’s only real threat, with Fabio Borini, Stewart Downing and Steven Gerrard failing to generate chances. The Reds looked disjointed, often needing to play directly to their main threat rather than crafting better chances. In the middle, Lucas Leiva’s obviously rusty, while at the back (particularly, in the middle), Liverpool looked predictably slow, offering the Baggies little second half resistance.

But Leiva will undoubtedly improve. Rodgers still seems to be looking for help in attack (he shouldn’t be happy having to start Downing), while Jamie Carragher, badly exposed at times on Saturday, won’t play often (though Agger will now serve a suspension thanks to his dismissal).

There’s no need to listen to Chicken Littles, if there are any chirping about after Liverpool’s opener. It was just one of those games.

Two 5-0s, and it could have been worse

Reflexively, you want to give credit when teams score five goals, but the terrible defending we saw from Queens Park Rangers and Norwich City makes it difficult to aggrandize Swansea City and Fulham. With both winners early Premier League leaders (sitting on top of the table thanks to their +5 goal difference), they don’t need adulation from random American bloggers to round out their raucous openers. If I point out the lopsided scores were more the defenses’ doing than the attacks’ skill, they won’t notice, let alone take offense.

Norwich City, under new manager Chris Houghton, were inexplicably stoic, with players often standing still, the Canaries’ midfield and defense cemented to their positions as Fulham weaved through them. Against a Cottager attack that Martin Jol’s based on passing and movement, it was a disastrous approach. Mladen Petric scored twice in his Premier League debut, while the likes of Damien Duff, 20-year-old Alexander Kacaniklic, and Steve Sidwell also open their accounts. It’s not like Fulham needed performances from the likes of Moussa Dembele, Bryan Ruiz, and Clint Dempsey (not in the game day squad) to post the landslide.

Elsewhere in West London, QPR was giving new Swansea manager Michael Laudrup an unexpectedly warm welcome to the Premier League, making new attacking midfielder Michu look like an early steal. The former Rayo Vallecano man was brought to Wales for £2 million this summer. Within an hour of his debut, he had two goals. The first was the result of a botched effort from new goalkeeper Robert Green. The second came after it became clear Park Ji-Sung, failing to track a jogging Michu through midfield on a counter, left his third lung in Manchester.

Nathan Dyer followed with two relatively easy goals, while Scott Sinclair was unbothered as he came off the bench of tee up the fifth.

Queens Park Rangers were disorganized, lacked initiative, and were a poor reflection on a manager who had over a month of training to get his team prepared for this game. Mark Hughes claiming (post-game) his team should have been much better was as much an indictment of his preparation as his players’ performance.

Elsewhere in England …

  • Arsenal dominated Sunderland but could never break through, opening the season with a 0-0 at Emirates Stadium. It’s a disappointing result, but one that should (but likely won’)t leave Gooners encouraged. Santi Cazorla looks like he might be on of the leagues best players. The team constantly generated chances. Alex Song wasn’t missed. The defense was largely fine (if untested). Fans need not be worried unless Arsenal strings together two more of these.
  • Stoke City’s the same as ever, which was almost enough to get three points at Reading. According to the BBC, captain Ryan Shawcross was warned in the first half to calm his team down, the Potters giving the Royals a rude (and rough) welcome back to the Premier League. Perhaps it was only appropriate that a penalty allowed Reading to snare a point on their return.
  • There was unwarranted controversy at the Boleyn Ground, with many onlookers thinking West Ham’s Ricardo Vaz Te was offside before setting up Kevin Nolan’s goal against Aston Villa. Replays showed Mike Dean made the correct call, noting Ciaran Clark played a header back to the Hammers’ attacker. Of greater importance than the perceived blown call to Villans: Their team gave no impression this will be anything but a long, dramatic year for the Midlands’ biggest club.
  • In the Match of the Day, Tottenham gave fans reason to believe the transition to Andre Villas-Boas will be a smooth one. Unfortunately or them, Newcastle was still able to take a 2-1 win. Though Spurs looked the better side for much of Saturday’s match at Sports Direct Arena, a great second half goal from Demba Ba and penalty kick drawn (and converted) by Hatem Ben Arfa were enough for the Magpies to take three points. Spurs missed Luka Modric and need more striking power (Harry Kane was their forward off the bench). Perhaps instead of creating undo drama (and wasting time) with Modric, Daniel Levy can start addressing this squad’s needs?

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
Leave a comment

A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
Leave a comment

We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
Leave a comment

The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
Leave a comment

What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.