Monday, April 30, 2007

Premiership Game Blogging

Thanks to the wonders of a free three-month digital cable trial (complete with DVR), I was able to catch the Reading-Newcastle match from the comfort of my couch. I’ll be reporting in with thoughts. This match is interesting for several reasons: 1) Reading needs a win to keep up in their battle for the final UEFA Cup spot, thanks to wins by Tottenham and Portsmouth over the weekend. 2) Michael Owen, one of England’s best strikers, is back for Newcastle after injury kept him out most of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if he can display the form that might lead English soccer fans to believe their team could actually score an international goal every now and then. 3) This is a match between a team who is playing for nothing (Newcastle, who can neither get to 7th nor be relegated) and a team who desperately needs a win. 4) No Sidwell for Reading. This will probably be the Reading side we’ll see next year, since Sidwell is almost certainly gone after the season.

Dumbass announcer moment of the day: there’ll be a moment of silence to “celebrate” the passing of England great Alan Ball. Celebrate? Really? Was he that much of an ass?

On to the game.

1’: Already a golden opportunity for Newcastle, as a cross narrowly missed Owen in front of goal. That’s not auspicious at all.

3’: And already a corner for Reading. Looks like a lot of offense today, kids.

6’: Reasons why I love Reading: I just watched Royals striker Dave Kitson practically throw himself at the Newcastle keeper after a back-pass. He was honestly trying to block the keeper’s outlet pass. That’s playing with intensity, right there.

7’: Another good cross from Newcastle goes unmolested to a striker, this time Obafemi Martins. Fortunately the shot is blocked… but not that one from Owen which finds net. Fortunately he was offside, but if this keeps happening they’ll get six by the time this is over. Where’s the Reading defense? Maybe Kitson should throw himself at every Newcastle player that has the ball.

8’: Another shot by the Magpies (which is a horrific nickname, up there with Banana Slugs and Terrapins in the “mascots I could probably kill with a shovel” category) forces a Marcus Hahnemann save. Trivia: Hahnemann is the only player to play every Reading fixture this year. Having that kind of bench strength is a good thing.

9’: Kevin Doyle almost takes advantage of the worst clearance by a keeper ever – Newcastle keeper Harper basically passed it directly to Doyle. Note: if you’re on defense and not sure about a pass, kick the crap out of it. Is the mascot going to take the corner kick? It sure looks like it.

11’: Why do soccer players so often pass up open 20-yard shots, only to screw up a pass and kill the attack as Stephen Hunt just did? I don’t get it.

18’: And that’s why none of our attacks go down the right-hand side: midfielders just gifted Newcastle two promising possessions. Which raises the question: how is Seol Ki-Hyeon better than Bobby Convey? Is Convey really that awful? I seem to remember him being pretty good during the first part of the season.

22’: Reading defender Brynjar Gunnarson swings and misses. That’s something I do, not the pros.

24’: Free kick for Reading. I think this is the first free kick in the game, and it was rewarded by the linesman. Is there a referee?

28’: We’ve kind of settled down a little bit here. Perhaps the defenses finally discovered that they were, in fact, useful.

31’: Yellow card on Hunt, probably deserved since it was a bad challenge. But the Newcastle guy decided to try to milk it a little bit by holding his knee and feigning pain, even though the tackle clearly hit him on the ankle. If you’re going to play-act, buddy, make it believable.

35’: Two near misses for Newcastle, first by Milner and then by Martins on the corner. Meanwhile, Reading hasn’t gotten a reasonable chance in a while. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before Newcastle punches one in.

37’: Great tactic on the free kick by Newcastle – running someone ahead well wide of the goal, passing to him, and letting him cross it. Seems like with so much of the defending team’s manpower expended in the wall, that cross will pretty much always be free. Only some lackluster striking on Newcastle’s part kept that from being a goal.

39’: Another swing-and-miss by Gunnarsson. I wonder if that’s an official stat.

40’: Another thing I love about soccer: the fact that goalkeepers routinely feel the urge to dive after shots that are going well wide of goal, as Hahnemann just did. He can’t just be bored – all the play’s been in his end this half.

45’: I think the referee almost yellow-carded the mascot. Which would be awesome. (Update 5/1: Apparently the ref actually red-carded the mascot. I can't describe how awesome that is.)

Halftime thoughts: Reading’s lucky to get out of this half without allowing a goal. There’s been some God-awful passing in midfield and some pretty bad defending as well. Reading definitely misses Sidwell, and will need to find someone to replace him next season. Newcastle looks good, but not great; they’re just missing that final touch from Martins and Owen. Look for a couple of Newcastle goals next half.

And here we go…

47’: Dicey series of clearances from Reading defenders almost leads to a goal – fortunately, a God-awful shot saves them. Newcastle’s shots can’t be awful forever, can they?

51’: And Kitson strikes for Reading! That was completely not what I expected. This is a great goal created by something I don’t see a lot of teams doing – using the strikers and attacking midfielders to put pressure on the defense, thus forcing bad clearances and sometimes getting outright steals. That time, Hunt and Doyle combined to mug a Newcastle defensive midfielder, then Doyle laid the ball back to Seol. In the confusion, Kitson was left unmarked in the box, a fact recognized by the Reading offense who let Seol’s cross bounce to him, and Kitson hammered it home.

54’: And then the spectacle of Stephen Hunt challenging three defenders and drawing the foul. Hunt’s one of those players that is simultaneously a scoring risk and a red-card risk, and you’re not really sure which is greater.

59’: Awful defending by Reading leads to a perfect cross to a wide-open Ameobi who heads it to goal from close range… and a great save by Hahnemann. How many times this season has Hahnemann bailed out suspect defending by the Royals’ back line? Emre being carted off now thanks to a legal but tough challenge from Kitson. That’s sad – he’s one of Newcastle’s best offensive weapons and he’s been all over the place in midfield this game. That’s two Newcastle players who have gone off to injury in the past ten minutes, leaving them with only one substitution (which will presumably be used on Owen). This takes away their ability to sub in an extra striker later on…

63’: Kitson almost adds another, just missing the near post on a defensive gaffe by Newcastle. Now it’s Reading putting together good offensive possessions while Newcastle is reduced to hopeful long balls. That goal and those injuries completely deflated Newcastle.

69’: Should have been a penalty for Reading as Doyle got thrown to the ground in the box, but the referee was reluctant to give the penalty on a play that probably wouldn’t have resulted in a goal so it went past. There needs to be some sort of penalty for a foul in the box that isn’t an almost assured goal – perhaps a free kick from just outside the box or something. I see too many referees balk at calling defensive fouls in the box because they know it’ll practically give the other side a goal. This needs to change.

70’: Good shot by Milner goes just wide of the Reading goal. That’s the kind of thing that a good team can use to start swinging the momentum back.

73’: Newcastle is starting to panic a little bit. There’s no reason they should have taken a shot from distance on a really good offensive possession, especially with open turf in front of the shooter.

75’: …and that’s followed with some horrifyingly bad defensive mistakes by Newcastle’s back line that lead to Reading chances. Newcastle is playing like a team that just discovered that they really don’t care about the outcome of this game. It just doesn’t look like the Magpies not named Ameobi are really concentrating.

82’: Good possession for Newcastle there… maybe they’re starting to wake up. Martins just missing a shot, though he was offside so it wouldn’t have counted anyway. This last ten minutes look to be interesting…

85’: Shot by Seol gets deflected off target. I see a lot of teams sit back on a one-goal lead… not Reading. Their attack knows two speeds – fast and game over. Personally, I like it. Soccer’s answer to the prevent defense is just as ineffective as the real thing.

89’: Another one of my favorite tactics: the delay substitution, this time Kitson for Long and Harper for Gunnarsson. Nice touch by screwing up the substitution, thus causing the clock to run past 90’. There’s no other explanation for these substitutions. Of course, the ref saw through it, giving five minutes of extra time. It’s still a funny delay tactic.

92’: “I have an idea,” said the Newcastle defender. “Let’s give up a completely unnecessary corner, thus allowing a valuable minute to run off the clock! Brilliant!” Like I said, no concentration.

93’: Newcastle has given up possession three times this minute. Just sayin’.

94’: Shoddy clearance by Reading generates a chance for Newcastle, saved by Hahnemann… maybe no one’s concentrating now.

95’: Another delay substitution by Reading, Oster for Bikey, followed by the whistle.

Final analysis: good win for Reading. The dedication to the attack led to some fun moments towards the end when Newcastle started to play again, but I still like it. The level of motivation was rather clear – Reading played hard even when the flow of the game was against them, and in so doing, forced some key mistakes by Newcastle, one of which led to the deciding goal. On the other side, Newcastle just didn’t look motivated anymore after that goal, and it seemed like they just wanted to go home. They got their wish.

Anyway, the race for 7th looks like it’s going down to the wire… this will be fun, especially since the title race just became uninteresting thanks to massive choke jobs by Chelsea and Everton.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Random Update

Well, let it never be said that there's no competition for anything in the Premiership. I may have a sincere dislike for both teams, but the Manchester United-Chelsea duel at the top is nothing short of fascinating. Now that Man U drew today at home against Middlesbrough - talk about a no-no - Chelsea can pull within one point with a win at Newcastle tomorrow. Better yet, the two teams meet May 9 at Stamford Bridge for both teams' second-to-last game of the season. Both teams have one difficult away match left (Man U has to go to fifth-place Everton next week; Chelsea has to go to fourth-place Arsenal on May 6). Whatever happens, that match on May 9 is must-see TV for any soccer fan, even for those who (like me) hate both teams.

There's also a big five-way scrum for the 5th and 6th spot which guarantee a UEFA Cup berth. Everton and Bolton currently hold them, but Reading, Tottenham, and Portsmouth lurk. Right now, I'd think Everton and Tottenham will get the spots, but anything could happen.

This race just got more interesting thanks to Reading's 3-1 away win over Bolton today (not to mention Everton's inexplicable loss to relegation fodder West Ham), a game which I was fortunate enough to be able to watch. A few notes:

- A three goal in ten minute flurry is always fun to watch, especially when it makes the announcers eat crow because they suggested Reading should stay defensive after the game went to 1-1. It always cracks me up how soccer announcers seem to think that the away team should always play for a tie, especially if the game is past the 80th minute. After Kevin Doyle's 83rd minute penalty tied the game up, the announcers seemed honestly suprised that Reading kept pushing forward. Honestly, Reading had an attacking team on the field at that moment, they had the momentum, and they weren't going to go for the jugular? Really?

- I think I heard the announcers say something about Reading manager Steve Coppell commenting that he hoped his team didn't make the UEFA Cup because he felt like they weren't ready. Excuse me? Did Coppell really say this? If so, he's damn lucky I'm not the owner of the team or he'd be right out on his ass. Can you imagine a football coach saying, "you know what, I hope we don't make the playoffs this year, because we'll just lose?" Isn't making the UEFA Cup always better than not making the UEFA Cup? What am I missing here? I really hope that Coppell is using an elaborate reverse-psychology ruse here (which seems to be working - since he made the remark, Reading has made it to 7th place, one game out of the Cup).

Anyway, the third interesting competition is at the bottom, where Fulham, Wigan, Charlton, Sheffield United, and West Ham are struggling to stay in the Premiership. With Watford's goose officially cooked, those five teams are battling for three spots. Unfortunately, Fulham's got the roughest schedule left (Arsenal, Liverpool, Middlesbrough), but Charlton and West Ham don't exactly have it easy either and Fulham's got a game on both of them. Wigan and West Ham have a game next weekend that could have huge implications; should Wigan lose that game, they'll have an end-of-season match with Charlton that could make for fascinating, if morbid, television.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

But Did He Call "Grass"?

Watford fans know it's not their season when something like this happens: Tottenham keeper Paul Robinson buries an 88-yarder into the upper right corner of the goal. Apparently this was his second career goal. How many keepers have scored two goals?

Robinson's the England keeper, and England's been sucking on offense lately. Maybe he should be taking their shots for them instead of Wayne Rooney.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tampa Recap

Been a while since I've posted here. I wonder if anyone's still reading.

Anywho, I just got back from Tampa where Mike and I saw the U.S. men's team smash Ecuador 3-1. I definitely found out that soccer is a sport that benefits greatly from being there watching it in person. (A good thing about being an American soccer fan is that you can generally get really good tickets late for under $50.) You can see more of the game develop; when a midfielder is sending a through ball up to the forwards, you can see where the pass is going rather than waiting for the camera to pan enough to answer the question of who the heck that pass is intended for.

Soccer's fan base is growing - yesterday's match set the record for most people to see a soccer game in Tampa - but the authorities just don't give it the support it needs. Case in point: there were absolutely no police officers directing traffic on the streets in front of Raymond James Stadium. You think that would happen for a Bucs game? There were plenty of police officers stationed in front of churches, and very few of these churches had 30,000 people descending onto their buildings. There was also the inexplicable decision to open only one entrance gate to the stadium, thus forcing the roughly three quarters of the fans who parked on the north side of the stadium to walk around the stadium to get to the entrance. As a result, we missed the first six minutes of the game, by which point it was already 1-0 (thanks to a first-minute Donovan strike).

Some thoughts I had while watching the game:

- Welcome back, Landon. Where the hell was this Donovan last year? Could have used you in Germany, buddy. Landon's well on his way to becoming the pre-2006 Peyton Manning of soccer - the caliber of his performance is inversely proportional to the importance of the game. Actually, Donovan looked kind of mediocre during much of the first half. Then in the second half, Bob Bradley wisely shifted him to forward - and boom went the dynamite. Given our lack of forward talent (and the solid play of our no-name midfielders), Bradley would be wise to leave him there.

- Oh yeah, and it's nice to see Run DMB back. It seemed like every time I turned around, Beasley was making another spiffy tackle-and-steal or starting an attack. Note to Manchester City coach Stuart Pearce: who the hell could you possibly have at left midfield that's better - or at least more explosive - than Beasley? He's too good to be a benchwarmer.

- I don't know who Benny Feilhaber is, but I remember on several occasions saying to myself, "ooh, nice play by, um... number 5?" He certainly looked better than either Mastroeni or Clark usually do. Not that we're short on midfielders or anything.

- Anyone who thinks that soccer is a sport for pansies or whatever should be forced to watch Brian Ching during the last ten minutes of the first half. Ching damn near scored a goal, got his nose broken, then proceeded to stuff a tissue in his nose to stop the bleeding and play out the half. That's pretty sweet.

- I like Bob Bradley's style. He's letting players attack and make runs, which is something Arena never really did. Our offense has been consistently potent under Bradley, which is something that U.S. soccer has never been able to say.

- Ecuador's fans may have been outnumbered 2-1, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in volume. There was this one woman who was about three rows in front of us who let out a scream that would make Howard Dean's blood curdle every time Ecuador did something good. Eventually, that became so rare that she screamed every time Ecuador did something marginally passable. My point is, she was screaming at regular intervals for pretty much the entire game. I wasn't yelling that much, and my voice gave out around the 75th minute. Is there a training camp that South American soccer fans go to so they can yell for 90 minutes straight without destroying their vocal cords? If so, can I go?

- The power of suggestion: at around the 55th minute, the Ecuador fans in our section started chanting "si, se puede" ("yes, you can") to cheer on their team. Being a bastard, I started responding with "no se puede" around the 61st, and it caught on somewhat among the Yanks. Soon thereafter, Donovan went on his two-goals-in-two-minutes tear. There was some girl a little ways down our section that was chanting "no se puede" for the rest of the match. My existence is validated.

- Incidentally, Ecuador must be the happiest country on Earth - their team got pummeled and yet I didn't see a sullen face in a yellow jersey. All the Ecuador fans were singing and chanting on the way out of the stadium. If you looked at the fans, you wouldn't have been able to tell who won.

- Some Ecuadorian fan approached me and Mike, told us that the U.S. deserved to win, said something unintelligible in English, and took a picture with us. Good times.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jose Mourinho Is A Whiny Little Bitch

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho is up to his old tricks again, bitching to anyone who will listen about how Manchester United has been unfairly lucky all season. He whined about Man U's lack of injuries (Chelsea lost keeper Petr Cech for a long stretch to a freak accident against Reading, and other injuries have hurt the Blues), and about some bad calls that went Man U's way, and about how Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger is apparently under less pressure than he should be despite the fact that Wenger's Gunners have a steady stream of top four Premiership finishes and a second-place finish in the Champions League to their credit.

Mourinho's a good manager, and I don't begrudge him that, but would it kill him to admit that Man U (which just beat Reading in the FA Cup 3-2 after the Royals' back line apparently failed to take the field until six minutes in) has a damn good team this year? Or that his front office wasted money on high-profile underachievers like Andriy Shevchenko and Michael Ballack, thus making Chelsea less able to pick up capable backups to hedge against injuries? Whining about some other team's "good luck" and trying to get another coach fired is simply being annoying.

Also, I love the beginning of this column written by an Italian guy about the Italian teams' performance in the Champions League. He seems honestly surprised and dismayed that one of the Italian players blatantly dove to get a penalty (and ended up with a yellow card). An Italian player diving? What a development! Absolutely shocking! It isn't like Italy only beat Australia in the World Cup because of the most blatant dive in recent memory or anything. Seriously, dude, Italian players dive. It's how they roll. If you pay attention to Italian soccer and haven't noticed this, you're either crazy or in denial. There's a reason Fark calls Italy's national team the "Azzurri grass-diving squad."

Here's a YouTube clip of the dive. It's absolutely hilarious.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Olimpic Feat

Let's hear it for D.C. United, who prefaced their MLS season with a big 4-1 victory in Tegucigalpa over Honduran champions CD Olimpia in the CONCACAF Champions Cup (CONCACAF's answer to the Champions League). This means that barring a complete meltdown at RFK on Thursday, D.C. United will reach the CONCACAF Final Four (okay, it's an eight-team tournament). The Houston Dynamo, the other US side, has a chance when it hosts Costa Rican champions Puntarenas in College Station; Houston trails, 1-0.

DCU would face off against either Chivas Guadalajara or Trinidad champions W. Connection. Suprisingly, the Trinidadians lead 1-0 going into the second leg at Guadalajara.

In other news... Middlesbrough? Really? Does anyone lose to them? Shit almighty. That was three points Reading really needed for the Europe chase, too. With Arsenal having two games in hand and up by six, this whole Reading-in-Europe thing might be turning into a pipe dream...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Few Random Musings

- Good to see Reading's B-team draw with Manchester United's B-team in the FA Cup Sweet Sixteen. Okay, it wasn't completely either side's B-team - Cristiano Ronaldo still took the field for Man U - but there were still a combined 15 or so starters that aren't week-to-week regulars in Premier League competition. These cup competitions can be fun since they give players who are either recovering from injury (Convey, Kitson) or who wouldn't usually play (keeper Adam Federici) a chance to show off what they can do. They also give minor-league teams a chance to play against the big boys of the Premiership and occasionally make some waves.

And I love the idea of replaying a tournament match if it ends in a draw. It reminds me of the 18-hole playoff in golf's U.S. Open, which should be the standard for every tournament (or at least every major). The best part, at least for a Reading fan such as myself, is that the match goes to the underdog's home field for the replay. I say if you can't get it done at home against a supposedly inferior opponent, you deserve the road trip you're about to get.

- Plenty of hand-wringing, and deservedly so, over the recent deaths in Italy following soccer matches. Hooliganism in professional soccer is something I'll never understand, I don't think. The only time our sports fans riot is when the Lakers or the Pistons win the NBA championship (or whenever Ohio State does anything, but come on, you'd riot too if you lived in Columbus). But these are riots that are quite often occurring in the stands. It simply seems unthinkable to most Americans that a riot could break out in the stands of a sporting event between rival factions of fans unless Ron Artest was somehow involved.

Anyway, one of the precautions that Italian police are taking is that Italian soccer fans will no longer be able to take fireworks into the stands. Which, of course, makes me wonder: why the hell were fireworks allowed in the stands in the first place? Who thought this would lead to anything but disaster? I'm picturing the Guinness scientists here: "Allowing emotionally charged fans to bring miniature explosive devices into a tightly-packed crowd? Brilliant!" I hear Italian authorities are thinking of not allowing bombs on airplanes anymore either - stay tuned.

I also hear that skinheads have taken over the fan base for a Paris club, which led to rioting and an attempt on a Jewish fan's life when an Israeli team whooped them in Paris. Maybe I can't be a soccer fan. I don't know if I have that capacity for violence. I simply can't picture myself trying to kill a Cowboys fan if they beat the 'Skins - or really, doing anything more than drinking another beer and talking crap.

Update: Looks like Germany's got problems too.

- The MLS season starts in about a month. My prediction - the L.A. Galaxy will have Landon Donovan and David Beckham... and will still suck.

- Since I didn't post on this earlier, kudos to the U.S. women for winning the Four Nations Cup in China. Winning a competition that involves Germany when Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach don't participate is no small feat. That'll prepare them well for the World Cup in September.

- U.S. men's team draw in Copa America - Argentina, Colombia, Paraguay. I really want to see the U.S.-Colombia game. Specifically, I want to see if all the players on the Colombian team survive for at least a month following the match, which would be a welcome change from the 1994 World Cup match. At least that's one thing in the Italian fans' corner - when their defender scored an own-goal against the U.S. in the World Cup, they didn't kill him.