By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
Though I do appreciate the football that Barcelona (and to a lesser extent, Real Madrid) play, I generally find La Liga incredibly boring – at this point in the season, there is a 29-point gap between second place and third place, and a team other than the big two has finished first or second only once since 2004. The last time another team won the league (Valencia) was in the 2003-04 season. This year will be the third consecutive season with at least a 20-point gap between them and the third-placed team, and likely one of the two teams will also win the Champions League. This is probably due to the fact that they take half of the TV revenue for La Liga between them, while the other 18 teams split the difference.
With this in mind, and because I’m weirdly interested in this kind of stuff, I figured out the La Liga table if Barcelona and Real Madrid didn’t exist at all (though obviously ignoring the question of where players like Xavi, Iker Casillas, et al…would play if the two teams weren’t there). And the result? Well, actually, the league wouldn’t be markedly different – but it would certainly be more competitive. I’m not going to bore you with a rundown of each team’s record against other clubs and so on, but Valencia would finish first, and Malaga (currently fourth) would finish second. The biggest benefactors of the exclusion of the two heavyweights are Atletico Madrid (who moves up to third with a +16 goal differential) and Osasuna (mostly due to their 8-0 loss to Barcelona earlier in the year). Interestingly, the team that suffers the most is Villareal, who drop into the relegation zone thanks to two draws at home against Barcelona and Real Madrid (though they did get spanked in their away matches).
So what does this tell us? Well, maybe the power base of Spanish football isn’t dramatically altered among the other 18 teams, but La Liga would be a vastly more interesting league if these two teams, say, shared an equal amount of revenue with the others. Next up: How about the Premier League without the Big 4 and Manchester City? DUN-DUN-DUN!
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood | Only Love Soccer
I love doing the world weekend previews, though I don’t always have time for them. But anyway, I’ll try and do them when I can. All times Pacific, as usual.
Tijuana vs. America/Morelia vs. Toluca. (Mexico, 6:10 p.m.) These two clashes feature four of the Top 8 teams in Mexico. Morelia and America have been steamrolling everyone, more or less (though Morelia did lose at home to Monterrey in the Champions League earlier in the week). Tijuana is much-improved after a rough first half of the year in the Primera and have the best club crest in the top division. Toluca are a bit uneven, but they do feature the league’s top scorer in Ivan Alonso (9 goals). In fact, all four of the league’s top scorers are playing in these two matches: Alonso, Miguel Sabah (Morelia), Christian Benitez (America) and Jose Sand. (Tijuana). Predictions: Tijuana 1, America 1; Morelia 3, Toluca 1
Bolton Wanderers vs. Queens Park Rangers/Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Blackburn Rovers (England, 5:45 and 8 a.m.) One of the big pluses of many world leagues is relegation, which makes what is often the inevitable (Real Madrid/Barcelona winning La Liga; Manchester United winning the EPL) a little more interesting. And here’s why, for the unitiated: In the top leagues of Europe, three teams are typically relegated to the second division. So that creates a whole new competition at the end of the season, which is often much more interesting than the title battles. Fairly big teams such as Deportivo La Coruna in Spain, River Plate in Argentina and Newcastle and Leeds in England have been taken down a notch in recent years. These four teams don’t really qualify as “big teams” per se, though Blackburn did win the league in the ’90s, but nonetheless, the matches have great potential to be back-and-forth goalfests, especially since Wigan isn’t playing. Prediction: Bolton 3-1; Wolves 2, Blackburn 2
Malaga vs. Levante (Spain, 10 a.m.). This match features two teams that aren’t in the title hunt (of course not; this is Spain), but they are competing for the fourth and final Champions League spot – Valencia is well on pace to finish third. Malaga are the new money team, bankrolled by millionaires, that are currently in sixth, a point back, but have largely been disappointing this year. Can they start to push on the second half of the season? Levante are the big shock team, nearly going out of business last year for failure to pay player salaries and operating at a fraction of the budget of the Real Madrids, Barcelonas and Malagas of the world, and then spending the first few weeks in first before their inevitable drop down the table. They’re unlikely to keep pushing for a Champions League spot, but it sure would be neat if they did. Prediction: Malaga 3-0
Shanghai Shenhua vs. Jiangsu Shuntian. (China, 4:35 a.m.) That’s right, my boys in blue (Jiangsu Shuntian) are taking on … the other boys in blue (in China, there are about four color combos, mostly blue and white, and pretty much every team wears white on the road), who have just signed French striker (and former Chelsea/Arsenal/Liverpool/Real Madrid player) Nicolas Anelka. Shanghai had a bad year last year, but optimism is renewed with the Anelka signing. As for Shuntian, they surprised everyone by finishing just out of a Champions League slot, and they signed former star and Chinese national team member Deng Zhouxiang. Yes, I’m going to occasionally highlight the Chinese league on here. Prediction: Shanghai 3-2.
Not much of note going on Sunday, unless you feel particularly interested in matches like Manchester United vs. West Brom (England), Schalke vs. Hamburg (Germany), Genoa vs. Juventus (Italy) or Racing Santander vs. Barcelona (Spain). I will pass – this is MLS opening weekend, after all.
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood
In lieu of writing 2,000 words on Spain, Germany, Italy and every other major league in the world, I thought I’d do a super-easy wrap-up of the other “big” leagues (that I feel like addressing). It isn’t scientific, and I don’t know everyone who was signed, but heck, I’ll be right at least some of the time (like in predicting Barcelona and Real Madrid will finish in the Top 2 in Spain).
As I complain about regularly, Spain bores the me. It’s not that some of the teams don’t play nice football, it’s just that the way their TV payments system is set up, the only teams that are truly competitive are Real Madrid and Barcelona. And now we get news the season openers might be postponed because some of the teams can’t afford to pay their players. Blah. Anyway, here’s my picks:
Champion: Real Madrid; Champions League: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Villareal, Valencia; Europa League: Malaga, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao; Relegated: Rayo Vallecano, Granada, Levante; Top scorer: Lionel Messi, Barcelona; Player of the season: Lionel Messi, Barcelona
I enjoy the Bundesliga a lot. It offers the high-paced play that you see in England, but without the obvious discrepancies between the top teams and other teams in the league (though this is often due to poor play on the part of Bayern. Meanwhile, teams like Borussia Dortmund and Leverkusen play free-flowing attacking soccer with players who are up-and-coming as opposed to tired retreads living on past glories (I’m looking at you, Frank Lampard).
Champion: Bayern Munich; Champions League: Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen; Europa League: Stuttgart, Mainz, Hamburg; Relegated: Moenchengladbach, Freiburg, Augsburg; Top scorer: Lucas Barrios, Dortmund; Player of the Season: Franck Ribery, Bayern
It’s been a rough couple years for Italy. Even though Inter Milan won the Champions League a couple years ago, coach Jose Mourinho bailed, and all the other Italian teams have been miserable in European play. AC Milan won the league last year with a season that could probably best be describe as uninspiring. Though it was nice to see teams like Lazio, Napoli and Udinese play strongly last season, you have to believe at least one of those teams (probably Udinese) will drop back this season. Also on the horizon? An end to Inter’s recent dominance in the league – though they should still have enough to qualify for the Champions League.
Champion: AC Milan, grudgingly; Champions League: AC Milan, Napoli, Roma, Inter Milan; Europa League: Juventus, Lazio, Fiorentina; Relegated: Atalanta, Lecce, Novara; Player of the season: Marek Hamsik, Napoli; Leading scorer: Antonio Di Natale, Udinese
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood
Bayern Munich 1 Borussia Dortmund 3. (German Bundesliga; Jeremiah’s prediction: Bayern 3-2) Sadly, I missed this match, and apparently it was a good one. I actually thought with the way Bayern has been playing, they’d win this, but Dortmund was the better team and probably could’ve won by more than two goals. For all intents and purposes, this win, coupled with Bayer Leverkusen’s draw against Werder Bremen, gives Dortmund the title. They lead Leverkusen by 13 points and Bayern by 16 with 10 matches to play. Dortmund led 2-1 at halftime thanks to goals from Lucas Barrios and Nuri Sahin. Bayern’s goal came from Gustavo. Mats Hummels finished it off in the second half.
Also in the Bundesliga: Aside from Leverkusen, no one else is in the title race, though Hannover actually edged ahead of Bayern in the race for the Champions League. In the relegation battle, Stuttgart won at Frankfurt to pull within three points of safety.
Brisbane Roar 2 Central Coast Mariners 2. (Australian A-League playoffs; Jeremiah’s prediction: Roar 3-1) This match actually looked like a bit of a shock early on, with the Mariners scoring twice in the first half to pull to 3-3 on aggregate in the two-match playoff. Brisbane scored twice in the second half, though, to advance to the Grand Final. As for the Mariners, thanks to the A-League’s convoluted playoff system, they still have a chance to play in the Grand Final, though they’ll need to beat Gold Coast United to do it.
Also in the A-League: In whatever they call the playoff game (the semi-semi-final?), Gold Coast United beat Adelaide United 3-2 behind two Shane Smeltz goals to advance to play the Mariners.
Arsenal 1 Birmingham City 2. (English Carling Cup final; Jeremiah’s prediction: Arsenal 2-0) Arsenal came into this match talking about winning the quadruple (Carling Cup, Champions League, FA Cup, Premier League). Well, if they play like they did in this game, they could emerge from this busy two-week stretch out of all four competitions, more or less. As much as I hate saying this, especially as a Villa fan, Birmingham City deserved their win. Arsenal coasted along, probably should’ve had goalkeeper Wojcech “I’m sure I’m spelling his name wrong” Szczeny sent off early, gave up a goal off a corner, and then gifted Birmingham with the win, thanks to a terrible mixup between Szczeny and defender Laurent Koscielny. Nothing else this can be described as other than a crushing defeat for Arsenal, especially when you consider that pretty much every player on their team is better than every Birmingham player (except for maybe Ben Foster or Roger Johnson). There’s always next year, right? Oh wait, now they have to try and knock out Leyton Orient in the FA Cup AND Barcelona in the Champions League. Good luck.
Also in England: Manchester United crushed Wigan 4-0 to push their lead to four points ahead of Arsenal. Manchester City could only draw at home to Fulham, effectively ending their title challenge.
Athletic Bilbao 1 Valencia 2. (Spanish La Liga; Jeremiah’s prediction: Athletic 2-1) If you’re keeping score, I’ve gotten every single prediction wrong so far. You’re welcome. Thank you for reading my stories. Athletic took the early lead, then Valencia rallied, winning on a goal from new signing Jonas. This match doesn’t move any mountains in the league standings – this is Spain after all – but it does go along way toward solidifying a Champions League spot for Valencia, who are now 11 points ahead of Espanyol in fifth. And for a team that’s perennially in financial trouble like they are, it’s important. As for Bilbao, they’re still in a position to qualify for Europe.
Also in La Liga: Barcelona win, Real Madrid lose, boring. Malaga beat Almeria in the battle of the two basement dwellers, though they’re still both a little ways away from safety.
Palermo 0 Udinese 7. (Italian Serie A; Jeremiah’s prediction: 4-4) Oh man, what can you say about this match? At least I almost got the total goals right. Udinese led 5-0 at the
break. Alexis Sanchez – one of my players to watch, thank you very much – scored four goals. A catastrophic loss for Palermo, but a win that really helps Udinese on for their push to the Champions League, particularly with Napoli playing AC Milan as we will soon discuss … As for Palermo, the loss gave owner Maurizio Zamparini (shown), who has to be one of the more obnoxious owners in professional sports, the opportunity to say manager Dellio Rossi “ruined” his team before firing him.
Also in Italy: Inter won to provisionally move up to second place; Roma blew a 2-goal lead, which is sort of like saying “Roma played a soccer match” since they do it every week.
Lille 1 Lyon 1. (French Ligue 1; Jeremiah’s prediction: 2-1 Lille) Kind of a dull match that keeps the French title race wide open. With the draw, Lille are now tied with Rennes for first, though Lille have a better goal difference. Not much else to add to this really.
Also in France: Rennes beat Lens 2-0 to move into a share of first. Marseille and PSG both won, which means four points separate the first-place team from the fifth place team. If French football wasn’t so painfully slow, I might actually watch a match to see what happens!
AZ Alkmaar 2 Twente Enschede 1, PSV Eindhoven 0 Ajax Amsterdam 0. (Dutch Eredivisie; Jeremiah’s prediction: Both draws) Anyone expecting something super-dramatic to happen in these matches had to be disappointed. Alkmaar’s win puts them in a slightly better position to challenge for the Champions League, though they’re probably too far out to challenge for the title. After a drab 0-0 draw, PSV has to be breathing a sigh of relief that Twente lost.
Also in Holland: Groningen, the other title challenger in Holland, lost, so it looks to be a three-horse race, or as they say in Holland, a drie paardenrace.
AC Milan 3 Napoli 0. (Italian Serie A; Jeremiah’s prediction: 1-1) Thanks a lot, Napoli, for ruining my one chance to redeem myself after getting every prediction wrong except for the PSV-Ajax draw. Napoli were terrible in this match, and missed their chance to grab a tie for first. If you’re keeping score, that means in five matches against Top 5 teams in Italy, Napoli have scored three goals and given up 13 in losing all five. You won’t win the title that way, guys.
By Jeremiah Paschke-Wood
This week is chock-a-block with good games, from the Club World Cup championship on Saturday to the Catalan Derby in Spain, to a Top 6 clashin Italy and a meeting of two of the dominant forces in French football. Enjoy!
Saturday (All times Pacific)
Inter Milan v TP Mazembe. (Club World Cup, 9 a.m.) Rafa Benitez will hope the stop-start nature of Inter Milan’s season so far will go into full-on start modein the Club World Cup championship match with huge underdogs TP Mazembe, the first non-European or South American representative in the title match in the history of this tournament. Casual observers, and probably most more esteemed football fans, will probably all be pulling for Mazembe to “shock the world” as too many American basketball stars like to say. Stranger things have happened …
Prediction: Inter Milan 3, TP Mazembe 1
Espanyol v Barcelona. (La Liga, 11 a.m.) The biggest match in Spain this weekend is the Catalan Derby between Espanyol and Barca. This match matters more than most Catalan Derbies in thesense that Espanyol is actually pretty good this year, and will be testing a perfect home 7-0-0 record against their municipal foes who are also a perfect 7-0-0 away from the cozy confines of the Camp Nou. Something has got to give, right?
Prediction: In most other circumstances, we’d pick high-flying Espanyol to pull of the upset or at least draw, but no one has come close to stopping Barcelona lately. Espanyol 2, Barcelona 3
AC Milan v AS Roma. (Serie A, 11:45 a.m.) In something of a rarity, the biggest match in Italy is also on a Saturday, in this case pitting Serie A leaders AC Milan against Roma, who have been lingering on the fringes of Champions League for most of this year so far. In this case, you’d have to fancy AC Milan to win, though these type of matches are always capable of springing a surprise. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as odious a character as he is, has been dominant for Milan, and Roma has been particularly terrible away from home this season, only winning once so far.
Prediction: AC Milan 2, AS Roma 1
Panathinaikos v Olympiakos. (Greek Super League, 9:30 a.m.) I know arguably less about the Greek league than I do about what is really cooking on those spinning Gyro cones you see at Greek restaurants, but I do know two things: 1. The Greek national team is epically dull to watch; and 2. Pana and Olympiakos are two of the traditionally dominant teams in the league, making a match between them – particularly when they’re No. 2 and No. 1 respectively in the table – always worth watching. So watch it, if you’re not interested in the other matches I’ve already talked about.
Prediction: Panathinaikos 1, Olympiakos 1
Chelsea v Manchester United. (English Premier League, 8 a.m.) Since The Blues emergence as a power in world football (Thank you, Russian oligarchs!) the Chelsea-Man U clash is one that many football fans across the world eagerly await, only to be lulled into a stupor, because, let’s face it, these big matches in the EPL are almost always tactical borefests. The possibility of a draw also increases the chance that Arsenal and Man City can jump into a tie for first in the table with wins.
Prediction: Dominant victories by one team in these matches are almost as rare as Wayne Rooney scoring a goal in open play this season. Oh! Chelsea 1, Manchester United 1
Real Madrid v Sevilla. (La Liga, noon) It’s hard to call this a big match with the way Sevilla (four losses on the bounce in La Liga, including a 3-1 loss at home to the powerhouse known as Almeria) has been playing of late, but the Lionel Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo, Who Will Score More? race has been quite intriguing this season.
Prediction: Real Madrid 4, Sevilla 1
VfB Stuttgart v Bayern Munich. (German Bundesliga, 8:30 a.m.) I admit it, I’m including this match more to make sure I get a Bundesliga game on the list. For those who haven’t watched any German matches this season, start. There are always tons of goals, great technical players, and bizarre occurrences whereby a team like Stuttgart, who qualified for the Champions League last year, are in the relegation zone despite winning two matches this season by at least six goals. As for Bayern, they have to keep winning to have any chance of catching Dortmund, now an incredible 17 points ahead of them at the top of the table with 18 matches to play.
Prediction: VfB Stuttgart 3, Bayern 3
Marseille v Lyon (French Ligue 1, noon) Lyon are a strange team in that they have struggled mightily the past couple seasons (at least for a team that won the title seven years in a row) in the relatively lightweight Ligue 1, but continue to perform well on the continent and have a lot of good players. Playing at defending champs Marseille will give them a chance to show that the recent good form that has them back in the Champions League picture isn’t a fluke.
Prediction: Nonetheless, I’m giving Marseille the edge here playing at home. Marseille 2, Lyon 1
Once Caldas v Deportes Tolima. (Colombia, 2:30 p.m.) Alajuelense v Herediano. (Costa Rican Primera, 2 p.m.) Metapan v Alianza FC. (El Salvadoran Primera, 1:15 p.m.) Municipal v Comunicaciones. (Liga Nacional de Guatamala, 9 a.m.) I won’t pretend to know much about these teams, but all of these matches are league final matches, so if you’re interested in seeing a game where the outcome truly matters, look these up on http://atdhe.net or one of the p2p sites.
Monday’s El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was interesting, not for the football on display, of which there was one clear victor, but rather because it allowed us to see the rare glimpse of a Jose Mourinho-coached team get utterly battered by their opponents. It was the worst loss ever by a Mourinho-coached team – the previous worst being a 3-0 loss to I think, Middlesbrough (go figure, right?). While this match certainly wasn’t a title-decider – Only 13 games in, Barcelona is leading by just two points, but Madrid fans and players have to be concerned by the way their team capitulated, particularly on defense, where they played as if they’d never seen, nor heard, about Barcelona’s style of play. In the end, Barcelona ended up with 67 percent possession, outshot Madrid 15-5, and probably could’ve scored more than five goals.
Some stats: In six matches against Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo has yet to score. Xavi Hernandez completed 110 passes before being subbed, most in La Liga this season. For some perspective, Stoke City completed 195 passes as an entire team against Manchester City. Real Madrid gave up five goals after conceding six total in their previous 12 matches in La Liga.
Scorers: Xavi (10), Pedro (18), Villa (55, 58), Jeffren (90+)
Valdes, GK – 6: Didn’t have anything to do, but never looked like he would give up a goal
Puyol, D – 7: Typically rugged and uncompromising performance.
Pique, D – 6.5: Didn’t even notice him out there, but it didn’t matter.
Abidal, LB – 7: A good attacking display; also kept di Maria quiet on the right.
Alves, RB – 6.5
Busquets, DMF – 7: I know it seems weird to give relatively low scores in such a defeat, but Madrid were so ineffective I can’t say much about his play.
Iniesta, MF – 8.5: Typically great with passing. Along with Xavi, dominated the Madrid midfield.
Xavi, MF – 9: Scored a great goal, passed excellently. Typically world class.
Pedro, RW – 8: Scored second goal. Has been in good form lately, with six goals and an assist in his last six matches, all competitions.
Villa, LW – 8.5: Set up Pedro’s goal, then scored a brace in three minutes after the break.
Messi, F – 8.5: Assisted on both of Villa’s goal. Typical excellent passing and movement.
Bojan, SUB – 7: Nearly scored twice after coming on.
Keita, SUB – NR
Jeffren, SUB – NR
Casillas, GK – 6: Has looked suspect lately, fumbling Villa’s pass for Pedro’s goal and letting Villa nutmeg him for the fourth goal.
Carvalho, D – 5.5: Yellow-carded for a handball, and probably lucky not to get a card for elbowing Messi earlier.
Pepe, D – 5: Seemed more eager to fight and argue than actually play defense.
Marcelo, LB – 4.5: Has been one of Madrid’s best players this year, but continually misplaced passes and was left for dead a couple times by Pedro.
Ramos, RB – 3: Might have been too caught up in the emotion of the game, making several mistakes in defense, then getting sent off for an idiotic foul and an even more idiotic slap at Puyol late in the game.
Xabi Alonso, MF – 4: A bystander as Xavi and Iniesta dictated the play in midfield.
Khedira, MF – 4.5: See Xabi Alonso’s description.
Ozil, AMF – 3.5: Utterly and completely missing in this match. Far below his abilities as a player. Withdrawn at half-time.
Ronaldo, LW – 5: Occasionally looked dangerous, then just petulant as the outcome of the match was decided early.
di Maria, RW – 5.5: Didn’t have the best match, but deserves credit for at least trying in the second half, more than you could say for many Real Madrid players.
Benzema, F – 5: Didn’t have a chance to have any effect on the game.
Diarra, SUB – 5
Arbeloa, SUB – 5