Archive for March, 2007

Euro 2008 Roundup and Best of Sports

March 30, 2007

Lost a post yesterday, so here is a quick recap of Euro 2008 qualifiers from Wednesday.  Northern Ireland shocked Sweden 2-1 behind goal-scoring phenom David Healy to propel N. Ireland to the top of Group F.  Healy has scored 9 goals in 6 qualifying games including a hat trick in the victory over Spain.  N. Ireland has qualified for 3 World Cups but never for a European Championship.  They will have to continue to punch above their weight to beat out Sweden and Spain but what a glorious week for the oft-troubled country. 

England beat the part-timers from Andorra 3-0 behind two 2nd half goals from Steven Gerrard.  English manager Steve McClaren was unmercifully taunted by the 12,000 “fans” who traveled to Barcelona to hurl abuse at the underwhelming English side.   Only the English can enjoy chanting phrases like “You’re a wanker” at the top of their lungs.  To all those “supporters,” TTL simply replies Pot. Kettle. Black. 

Keeping with the British theme, Wales beat San Marino (tiny republic in Italy) 3-0 to give their qualifying campaign a faint pulse.  Scotland fell 2-0 in Italy as Luca Toni netted 2 goals for the fired-up Italians.  Scotland is in 2nd place in Group B, but the heavy breathing behind them belongs to France and Italy.  The Scots have given themselves a chance at qualification with some impressive performances but they probably don’t have enough to emerge from this tough group.   

Congrats to Azerbaijan who achieved their first competitive victory in 4 years with a 1-0 over Finland.  And the party will continue well into the weekend in tiny Liechtenstein as they defeated Latvia 1-0 with Mario Frick providing the winner.  It was only the 2nd win in UEFA European Championship football for the tiny country who just survived an invasion by those “neutral” Swiss.  All hail Liechtenstein. 

Here are the tables at roughly the halfway point.  And just for fun here are TTL’s predictions. 

Group A:  Poland & Portugal  Sorry to Serbia who’ll finish agonizily close 3rd.

Group B:  France & Italy        Sorry to the Scots who’ll fight to the finish.

Group C:  Turkey & Greece     Sorry to Norway.  Just doesn’t have enough quality overall.

Group D:  Germany & Czech Republic   Sorry to Ireland but did lose 5-2 to Cyprus

Group E:  Croatia & Russia       Sorry (but not really) to England

Group F:  Sweden & Spain       Sorry to upstart N. Ireland

Group G:  Netherlands & Romania (sleeper TEAM)   Sorry to Bulgaria

Have to check back on those predictions after the next round of qualifiers which take place during the 1st week of June.  

Now to start a new Friday feature with the Best of Sports.   These are clips or stories or comments or anything that highlight what is great about sports.  The first in this series comes from the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean.  The catch is great in itself, but the commentary is priceless.  Enjoy. 

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Euro 2008 Qualifying

March 28, 2007

After enduring a crisis of confidence, TTL is back.  Commenting on the NCAA felt unauthentic, having watched so little college hoops this year.   So, let’s get back to more familiar territory. 

This week brings a halt to the European domestic leagues as Euro 2008 qualifying takes place.  This is not the “Euro Cup” as ESPN incorrectly coined it but the European Championships.  Fourteen nations qualify for next June’s tournament co-hosted by Switzerland and Austria (tickets on sale now at www.uefa.com ; but since qualifying doesn’t end until November it is basically just picking dates and sites). 

Europe is divided into 7 groups with the winners and runner-ups advancing to join the hosts (Austria and Switzerland) in the tourney.  As standard format, each country plays home & away (12 games) against the other countries in their group.  Currently the tables look like this.

Tonight brings a bevy of games but not every team is in action.  The most meaningful game is surprise Group B leaders Scotland traveling to 3rd place Italy.  If the Scots can manage a tie, they’ll be thrilled.  They won’t as an inspired Italy should dispose of the Bravehearts.  TTL is unabashedly rooting for the Scots though, as they are the greatest fans in the world even if no one can understand what they’re saying. 

England travel to Barcelona in full crisis mode to take on the semi-pros of Andorra.  England manager Steve “I’m the right man for the job because the bloody bastards at the FA had to hire an Englishman” McClaren is being shredded by the press for his side’s lackluster play.  Those wacky English have gone 3 games without scoring (come back soon Michael Owen) and still have two tricky games against Russia to play.  Blowing out Andorra tonight should calm the waters for a bit, but even a 4-0 win will have the critics spewing.  Remember to check the jolly old British Press on the ‘morrow while enjoying a spot of tea. 

Turkey is currently playing some excellent football as they destroyed their heated rival (and defending European Champion) Greece 4-1 on the weekend.  Turkey hosts Norway tonight in Germany, as the Turks are serving a ban on home games due to fan violence.  Be a contrast in styles, as the Norwegians like to serve up a lot of crosses and long balls to their taller forwards while Turkey prefers to play a controlled passing game.  This one has draw written all over it. 

Another semi-interesting match-up is 2004 runners-up Portugal traveling to Serbia.  Ronaldo was injured in training yesterday and might not play.  Serbia is very tough at home and both teams need at least a point from this game.  Serbia will probably look to defend at all costs and hope to score on the counter while Portugal should be the more offensive-minded team. 

As it is only the halfway point of qualifying, no team looks safe.  Traditional powers Italy and Spain got off to slow starts and now have no real room for error.  Surprise teams Scotland, Northern Ireland and Finland will hopefully keep up the solid play.  Tonight’s games just might ask more questions than answer.  

Back tomorrow with a round-up of the qualifying action. 

NCAA Day 1 Thoughts

March 16, 2007

Well, halfway through the 1st day’s action and no upsets or even close games yet.  Trouble with the NCAA tourney is that all the great games depend on random match-ups.  Butler has no size but neither does ODU.  Butler shot better for a stretch and won.  Louisville had a huge quickness and athletic advantage over Stanford and exploited it via the fullcourt press in a rout.  As of writing this the best game is VCU-Duke because VCU has a much quicker team to combat Duke’s inside presence of McRoberts. 

Any tournament play is all about match-ups and not seeding.  If a team is a #13 seed but matches up well with a #4, then its better to get seeded #13 instead of “respectable” #8 seed.  TTL thinks the “experts” get too caught up with seeding and major conferences when calling a game an upset.  Sometimes a mid-major just has the right team chemistry to “upset” a big-name team.  (As VCU closes to 67-66 with 7 minutes to play).  The key ingredients to look for in an upset team is senior leadership (especially at guard), a good system (trapping “D”, Princeton offense etc.) and a good coach.  Just think back to George Mason last year with a senior dominated team, who absolutely pounded the ball inside better than anyone else and had a good coach who never strayed from his system. 

Down goes Duke!  Not an upset when everyone is predicting it.  Been more surprising if Duke won.  TTL loves all Internet stream sporting events, especially this means can watch from the comfort of the Belgian home.  Awesome that they show feeds with no announcing, as just heard P.A. announcer of Gonzaga-IU game announce that Duke won to a smattering of applause and then correct himself to a big cheer.  Duke-haters unite.  Now to fall asleep to the IU-Gonzaga game. 

Countdown to the Madness

March 14, 2007

In a charity game last night to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Man U’s playing in Europe (and the Treaty of Rome marking the start of the EU) Man U defeated an Europe XI 4-3.  Like an all-star game in any sport there was plenty of goals, chances, highlight moves and zero tackling.  And the booing of LP’s Carragher, Fowler and Gerrard when they had the ball was excellent.  Did anyone say Charity Match?  But the highlight of the match was this insane free kick from Ronaldo who’s simply the best player in the world right now. 

These are games sports fans watch in order to prepare for March Madness.  It was perfectly mindless sporting entertainment.  Fast-forward to Thursday afternoon when millions will be sweating every point scored as they frantically check brackets, point spreads, upset specials and then shove all that aside when their favorite team plays.   And then let’s do it all again on Friday.  That is the greatest part of the NCAA Tournament, the turnaround time.  No 50 days between games like the Florida-OSU football title game or endless marathons that are the hockey, basketball and baseball playoffs.  If your team scores an upset on Thursday, get ready for Saturday’s game.  In the age of chatrooms, hyper talk-radio, endless Sportscenters etc. its great not to have every game over-analyzed to the extreme.  Except for the Final Four, the longest lay-off teams have between games is 5 days before the Sweet 16.  And since there are 8 games over those 2 days its easy to avoid all the hype that encompasses 1 game.   The single worst media invention in sports is the two weeks before the Super Bowl.  The single best media invention in sports is switching to close games during the NCAA tournament.  Can’t wait for the Madness.    

CL Line-up & March Madness

March 12, 2007

The draw for the CL is set and shape’s up like this:

2006/07 UEFA Champions League quarter-finals
1st leg: 03/04 April
2nd leg: 10/11 April
1 AC Milan (ITA) v FC Bayern München (GER)
2 PSV Eindhoven (NED) v Liverpool FC (ENG)
3 AS Roma (ITA) v Manchester United FC (ENG)
4 Chelsea FC (ENG) v Valencia CF (ESP)

(courtesy of www.uefa.com)

In the semis, winner of quarterfinal 1 plays 3 and 2 plays 4.  Which sets the stage for a possible rematch of the 2005 semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool.  Delicious. 

At first glace, Milan, LP, Man U and Valencia are the picks.  But April is an eternity away as evidenced by PSV who just lost defensive linchpin and goal-scoring hero Alex to a possible torn hamstring at the weekend.  This is the time of year where injuries and cup competitions can drain a team quickly.  Both Man U and Chelsea are in the title race for the Premiership, the FA Cup (and both teams have replays) and the CL obviously.  That is a lot of football to play.  And neither of those teams have particularly deep squads. 

But March is college hoops.  Glad the Illini snuck into the tourney although Illini-Wisconsin game on Saturday was painful.  Be happy when Warren Carter and Rich McBride graduate.  Neither brings much to the table except on rare occasions.  Have an inkling that Illini could take Va. Tech in the 1st round.  Seems winnable. 

TTL would like to thank President Bush for changing time.  He is that powerful.  In perhaps the finest legislative piece passed by the Bush government, Daily Savings Time has been extended a few weeks.  (Wake up America!!).  Now Europe is only 5 hours ahead, so basketball viewing will commence at more normal times.  Final Four could even tip-off before midnight.  Coupled with the no-smoking laws being enforced TTL could actually stumble home before dawn wreaking of stale beer (but no smoke!) after countless hours of basketball enjoyment. 

March Madness is slowly catching on with European fans of basketball.  While the NBA is quite popular in certain countries (Germany & Italy especially) college is quite unknown.  Besides the occasional boat race down the Thames between Oxford&Cambridge, there are really no college sporting events on the European radar.  Europe embraces the club system wholeheartedly and most high schools and universities have no real sports program.  If one plays sports at this age they play for a club team.  And if the kids are really good, then they get picked up by one of the pro teams and play for their academies.   There is nothing like the Sooner nation or die-hard Alabama fans across Europe.  Which is too bad, as the concept of a crazed Frenchman rabidly supporting the Sorbonne would be great.     

Odds&Ends

March 8, 2007

Quick update of last night’s CL action:

PSV shocks Arsensal with a 1-1 draw to advance 2-1 on aggregate.  Alex does the double, scoring an own goal and then winning the game on a great header for PSV in the 82nd minute.  Definitely worth a youtube search has he got UP.  Lots of Arsenal possession with little to show for it.

AC Milan wins 1-0 in extra-time over Celtic to advance.  Celtic did themselves proud, but Milan was clearly the better team with Kaka providing the superb winner.  Milan simply wins in the CL. 

Manchester United beat Lille 1-0 to advance.  Professional performanced turned in by Man U with the ultimate pro Henrik Larsson scoring the goal.  That Swede is one cool dude.  Still insists he’s going back to Swedish league though after his loan deal expires in the next couple of weeks. 

Bayern Munich beats Real Madrid 2-1 to advance on away goals in a wild affair.  These games were the best of the round for entertainment with ejections and goals galore.  Real Madrid manager Capello is truly on the hot seat now and it gets no easier for Madrid as they play Barcelona in the Primera League on Saturday. 

The quarterfinal teams are Liverpool, Chelsea and Man U from England along with AC Milan and Roma from Italy.  The Dutch club PSV Eindhoven, Bayern Munich from Germany and Spanish club Valencia complete the group.  The match-ups will be announce sometime on Friday.  For a complete rundown of the CL action go to www.uefa.com.

The posts will be limited in the next few days as coaching in a 3 day high school basketball tournament.  Its great fun except for the 2 last place teams (12 total) get relegated to Div II.  Unfortunately was in that battle last year and managed to stay up but it was awful.  Don’t know how teams can handle that stress.  And relegation is something that would work well in US sports.  Baseball is a good example but also probably with the NBA.  That topic will be the next big post.  Until then, have fun watching all the NCAA conference tourneys. 

CL Week Cont’d

March 7, 2007

Got to see all 4 games (albeit at the same time) and while stole some glances at the other games, TTL  spent much of the night sweating bullets as LP pulled out a glorious 1-0 loss to Barca to advance.  You’ll never walk alone indeed. 

Roma waltzed into Lyon and won rather easily 2-0.  TTL wrongly predicted a Lyon win.  Let’s hope Lyon’s poor display ends talk of Lyon’s manager Gerard Houllier taking over the US National Team.  Houllier is a decent manager with an impressive resume (Liverpool, French National Team) but he is far from the dynamic international presence the US wants.  It’d be like replacing Bruce Arena with a French version of Bruce Arena.  TTL likes the Bob Bradley interim hire and thinks Bradley should be given time to prove himself.  Enough digression as at least Roma’s Mancini provided the goal of the night.

Chelsea defeated Porto 2-1 overcoming a 1-0 deficit.  TTL predicted a Chelsea romp and it was far from that.  Chelsea won it on a solid goal with fine passing and a clinical finish by Ballack.  Porto’s goalie committed a colossal blunder in gifting Chelsea their first goal.  Without that gaffe this game would have been super tense as Porto really got stuck in and played well at Chelsea. 

Valencia drew 0-0 with Inter Milan allowing Valencia to advance due to away goals.  TTL foresaw Inter winning on penalties.  Each team had their chances and it was a rather entertaining game, especially the end.  Fortunately, there were plenty of stretchers around to carry all the players off the field. 

As for tonight’s action let’s do 2 sentence previews.  Home team is listed 1st along with goals from the 1st leg. 

Manchester United (1)-Lille (0).

This is the year of Man U as they are riding some outstanding play (particularly Ronaldo) and some glorious luck to the Premiership Title.  Lille will put up a fight but Man U’s offensive firepower along with Gigg’s disputed 1st leg goal are too much for Lille to overcome. 

Arsenal (0)-PSV Eindhoven (1)

Doubt this will be one for the purists as expect the Dutch squad to put all 11 men behind the ball and defend at all costs.  Arsenal’s magical Henry will start and Arsenal should nip PSV in a very tense affair. 

AC Milan (0)-Celtic (0)

Celtic will come to pick a fight but don’t have the talent to match-up with Milan all over the pitch.  Milan’s midfield anchored by Pirlo and the little strongman Gattuso will control the play as Milan cruise to an easy win. 

Bayern Munich(2)-Real Madrid(3)

Everyone is picking Bayern to win this game due to their good form and Madrid’s poor play coupled with Beckham being injured.  TTL  is jumping on the beerwagon and picking Munich to win. 

If Man U and Arsenal win tonight that means 4 English clubs will be in the quarterfinals.  Possibly a fifth British team as well if Celtic manages a win.   The Premiership is the best domestic league this year and are proving it in the CL.  Enjoy the games.   

CL Preview

March 6, 2007

Off and running with that most global of all sports, football or err soccer.  Before the preview, first a primer on all things Champions League.

How, why and when?

Teams qualify for this season’s CL based on last season’s results.  The top 2 finishers in the big leagues (Spain, England, Italy etc.) automatically qualify for the final 32 spots in the CL.  The winners of the smaller leagues (from Romania to Wales) along with the 3rd and sometimes 4th place finishers in big leagues have to up to 4 rounds of games before placing into the final 32. 

The Last 32 (Group Stage)

This is when in the CL kicks off in earnest in September.   Teams are split into 8 groups of 4 based on a complicated series of rankings and are country-tied.  This avoids the problem of having the top teams play each other right away and ensures that teams like Chelsea and Manchester United (or Real Madrid and Barcelona) are not in the same group.  Teams play each other twice (home and away) with the top 2 advancing to the knockout stages.  3rd gains an entry into the UEFA Cup (another post entirely) and 4th places receives a nice cutlery set.  A complete round-up of this year’s groups is here

Last 16 or Knockout Stages

The 8 1st place finishers and 8 2nd place teams are put into a hat and drawn against each other.  Seriously.  The only caveats being teams from the same group will not draw each other nor will clubs from the same country.  Again, no hot Madrid-Barcelona match-up or even Ajax-PSV Einhoven games allowed.  The teams play home and away with the team ahead on total goals after two games advancing.  One huge thing to keep in mind is the away goals rule.  For instance, Liverpool beats Bayern Munich 2-1 in Munich and then Bayern wins 1-0 in Liverpool.  The aggregate score is 2-2, but since Liverpool scored 2 away goals to Bayern’s 1, Liverpool advances.  This is designed to make the visiting teams attack instead of simply playing for a tie.  If teams are still tied at the end of the 2nd game (or leg in Eurospeak) then it goes to Extra-time and penalties.  Which brings us to tonight’s games, the 2nd leg if you will. 

Liverpool v Barcelona.  (Home team is always listed first and all games are at 20:45 CET or 2:45 EDT)

Battle of the last 2 CL winners as LP (2005 Champs) and Barca (2006 Champs) battle at Anfield.  LP won 2-1 at Barca so they hold a huge advantage going into tonight’s game.  The Third Leaf (TTL) fully supports LP (along with the Cubs, Illini and Bears) and doesn’t have any real insight into this game besides huge nerves.  Expect Anfield to be an absolute cauldron of noise and Barca to attack at will since they need at least 2 goals to advance.  Having rested Thuram, Deco and Et’o on the weekend Barca is primed.  Hopefully LP will strike back on the counterattack.   And if they leave Crouch on the bench and go with the Porn Star Kuyt and the Punk Ass Bellamy up-front instead,  TTL can barely sense a great celebration of a memorable LP victory. 

Valencia v Inter Milan

Valencia twice recovered from a goal deficit to tie Inter 2-2 in the first leg.  Inter has been storming through a weakened Italian domestic league but Valencia are a step-up in class.  Valencia boasts an excellent home record but its extremely doubtful they can hold on to a 0-0 tie and go through on away goals.  Prediction is that this one is headed penalties after a 1-1 tie and Inter hold their nerve to win it. 

Chelsea v FC Porto

Special game for the Special One as Chelsea manager Jose Mourniho tries to eliminate  the club he guided to the CL title in 2004.  Good money says Chelsea will win easily despite the absence of English captain John Terry in defense.  Luckily they have all-world Michael Essien to fill-in for Terry.  Plucky Porto need to score after the 1-1 tie in the first leg and Chelsea excels at the counterattack.  Stroll in the park for the Chelsea lads.  And for those who say soccer is a non-contact support here is Terry’s frightening injury from the Carling Cup Final against Arsenal.  Thankfully Terry will be back soon.  

Lyon v Roma

5-time defending French Champs Lyon attempt to reach the CL quaterfinals for the 4th consecutive year.  Lyon were the trendy pick to win the CL before it started (ok TTL’s pick) but have played poorly in the past 2 months.  Still think Lyon will be too much at home for Roma to handle, but after a 0-0 tie in the 1st leg a Roma goal would turn this game into a mouth-watering affair. 

On paper this looks like a fine night of viewing.  LP-Barca could be an absolute cracker as Barca needs to score twice.  Soccer games like these are great to watch when teams throw everyone forward in order to get those precious goals.  Situations like these don’t happen very often, so enjoy. 

Tomorrow TTL will have a recap of tonight’s action along with a preview of Wednesday’s encounters.  And to fulfill contractual obligations to speak about David Beckham in every soccer-related post, it looks as if his knee injury will keep him out for 6 weeks.  Great news for the MLS but terrible news for Becks, as there is no way he will be called up to the National Team in April for the important Euro 2008 qualifying games.  

As always, enjoy the games.