Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010: The year I quit smoking and/or support Lucas

As you can see, I'm really going for it with my New Year's resolutions this time around. It's going to be a hard dollar to do the double, but the time has come to go for it. I'm in an ambitious mood after yesterday's Torres (late, late, late) winner at Villa Park.

Adding to all this is over the last couple days of my holiday vacation, I've been watching bits and pieces of Liverpool 2 - United 0 from October. First, it was just for the nostalgia of a consistent Liverpool performance. Then today – to be more precise, five minutes ago – I finished watching the last half hour plus stoppage time. Golly that was fun. Other than the simple thrill of the victory, repeat viewings of it keep leading me to see that match as the last great marauding show of defiance from Jaime Carragher. He had somewhere between 20 and 4,357 headed clearances in the match. I'm not sure about the exact number, but it seems closer to the latter number the more I watch that performance. Age will take him sooner than later – as it will for all of us – so let's appreciate things while we can.

That brings me back to the resolutions. I've got my Liverpool moaning out of the way, as you can read in this post, where I all but hump an 8" x 10" glossy photo of Xabi Alonso. That's OK. Sometimes reactions like that are unavoidable, particularly after losing to Portsmouth in this of all seasons. From this point forward, it's time to appreciate what I have.

So Lucas, you're in luck in 2010. RJ Reynolds, not so much. There's 18 matches left in Liverpool's season, and the team is four points out of fourth. That's the goal now, and there probably isn't a "Jim kvetching" level I can reach that will affect whether Liverpool finishes there or lower, which is why I'm throwing my support to you, Lucas. I was irrationally harsh toward you at the start of 2009, and I'm going in the other direction to end the year. It's not your fault the term "favorite son" is an understated way of describing how Rafa treats you. Lately, I've come to appreciate your more subtle gifts, such as how you play well against United – which always counts for a lot in our world – and you've shown a gift for falling down when slightly challenged outside the box in a way that consistently convinces the referee just enough that there's been a foul committed.

See, we're off to a good start.

The whole coming year feels like a countdown. We're 162 days from the World Cup. We're however many days from this potentially life-altering, paradigm-shifting, future-wrecking, Leeds-inducing change in the course of Liverpool Football Club. And on July 5, 2010, all of the city of Milwaukee goes smoke free. Many of my friends, along with my Match Pricks co-writer Colin, cannot wait for that ban to take effect. I've come to accept it and realize people I care about want it to happen now, though they're just glad it will become law soon. Plus, it's as good an incentive as you can find to get on with dropping the habit. It's going to be odd handling my typical match day nervousness when it's 0-0 in the 86th minute and I can't chase my shot and a beer with the full, rich taste of a delicious cigarette. Then again, it would be much more difficult to handle those moments next season with Torres playing for Barcelona, so there's no point in worrying about my own struggles while watching these things transpire.

I got your back, Lucas. After all, if things don't go well, maybe Liverpool won't even be able to entice you back for another year. I don't want to live in a world where your blond pompadour isn't adorned in red. Kick some ass in 2010, buddy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Would you calm down already!?

Goodness me. You'd think the trains stopped going to the Emirates and Arsenal were crashing into 13th place.

Allow me to offer a brief preface as I get my ankles wet here. And by the way, yeah, I know ... far too many prefaces given the fantastically sporadic nature of Match Pricks in the last several months. It's like each post needs a mea culpa. He pleads, with his hands up and a knowing if not utterly regretful sideways grin etched across his face, "look, I know, you know, we all know, alright? But hey, it's a start. Gotta get the, what do you call it? Momentum, yeah, momentum, going again somehow or another, don't you?" I don't have a lot to say here this morning. This isn't a treatise that I've been munching on and outlining for days and hours on end. But it's a start. And it's better than nothing, which is, frankly, just about all you've gotten ... save some micro-blogging via the Match Pricks Twitter feed.

Here's the situation ...

Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal's still very young captain, has rounded the corner and is clearly pulling away from the pack. Even considering the substantial amount of time he missed last season, he jumped into the '09 - '10 season with bold vigor and a clear statement for all to recognize - that he is vaulting himself into the conversation as one of the very best in the world. For years, everyone recognized his talent and potential. Yet, to be very honest, I for one was beginning to tap the counter with hidden utterances that followed along the lines of, "ok, Cesc, let's see it then ... start winning games ... " And no, I'm not mad.

But he's been doing just that, winning games. He's been turning games, changing them, adding the all important element of 'exerting his will.' Cesc gathers possession near the center circle and the opposition just about shits themselves. His passing makes the masses groan with adoration as well as the passing hope of 'would you look at that, it's so simple,' and he's got a helluva Street Clothes wardrobe.

Of course, for evidence we need look no further than his display against Aston Villa in what was not only a massive game, it was a game that needed a statement. And he made it.

Cesc is undoubtedly important for the Arsenal's title hopes this season. The team is not simply poised to launch an attack on Chelsea and United for the top two or for the title. They are making an attack for the title. They have been all year. It is not a shock assault for the title. It is not the whispered hope of a bunch of kids oozing with inexperience. This team has been together for many years now. They have been together for many big games ... home, away, in Europe, far from home, in derbies, in rain, sleet and snow, in front of 60,000 and in front of 20,000. They have been tested and they have had answers.

They have lost four matches this season. Sunderland came after an international break and they 'just weren't up for it.' Granted that is an excuse that no longer cuts the mustard when pushing for a title, but it's the situation. Chelsea and Manchester City socked them and socked them good. If there's such a thing as a bogey team(s), they fit it at the moment. It's a hurdle, psychological in the case of City I think, and clearly physical in the case of Chelsea. As for the champions, Manchester United? I may catch some heat for this but we played them off the park at Old Trafford for the majority of the proceedings. Losing that match was a clear case of, 'well, that's football, isn't it?' So as it stands they are five points back of the leaders and hold a game in hand. Not bad, eh? That could well be called, 'right in the thick of it.'

But all that is beside the point. Just a quick glance at the records and the table to show that yeah, Arsenal are in it ... not as darkhorses but as legitimate candidates for the title and they should be recognized as such.

What's making me lurch over the last couple of days is that apparently the final chapter in Arsenal's title assault is being written as we speak. Somewhere in London, Cesc Fabregas, the young man who is performing so brilliantly and is so brilliantly leading the way to what will - either way - be a thrilling April and May, is climbing onto a table to receive a scan on his injured hamstring upon which the fate of the entire team hangs.

You see, after a downright moving first half against Burnley on December 16, Cesc limped off with a bit of niggle in his hamstring. He missed the 3-nil win over Hull that weekend and would only feature on the bench against Villa. All week he was noted as 50/50 to play. Would he have made a difference were he to play? Surely. If he didn't feature, might the Arsenal have found a way to win? Quite possibly yes, the match was very much in the balance, wasn't it? Arsene Wenger, in his stunning and sterling wisdom (that I will never question, no siree), brought him on in the second half. Cesc scored two stunning goals to pave the way to the win. One from an unlikely free kick (he's never been particularly strong in that department) and the second from a gut-busting (and apparently hamstring-busting *cymbal clash*) run and a delightfully gilded pass from Theo Walcott. Sure enough, Cesc limped off with the hamstring barking at him and the game wrapped up for his team. A world-beater performance. A best-in-class performance. A performance that could well cost the team but with such massive points on the table to be picked up against a worthy challenger it was a risk worth taking.

Immediately following the match, Arsene supposed that AT WORST Cesc could miss three weeks. Three weeks, people. That covers Pompey, West Ham in the FA Cup, Everton and Bolton. And now we get passages like this from the article in the Times that I linked to above:

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, predicted a worst-case scenario of “three weeks” out for the midfield player, an absence that would seriously hamper the team’s pursuit of Chelsea and Manchester United at the top of the league.
And we get headlines like this:

Arsenal braced for the worst with Cesc Fabregas set to undergo injury scan
Look, I never expect any level of level-headed self-restraint from the media, much less the football media (bless their little hearts). Still, the man will be fine. Arsenal will be fine. Cesc missing a couple of games will by no means whatsoever derail Arsenal's fine season. In fact, it'll be good to get Diaby, Ramsey or Denilson a little more time and a little more responsibility.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Occam's Razor, Jesus Christ and my treasured Sidney Moncrief 'Sir Sid' poster

Yes, after two-plus months of inactivity, my return to actual writing – not tweeting! – at Match Pricks is going to be a fan's lament about Liverpool. However, I can offer you a 100 percent money back guarantee that you are not going to come across one similar to this – at least in execution. It'll be like scrolling through one man's private journal, only any sexual allusions that somehow end up in this will be more comical than you might expect.

I have spent a good deal of time during the past two or three months thinking about why I can't seem to piece together long-form (i.e., more than 140 characters) football thoughts here at Match Pricks – enough time, actually, to probably write four or five fun and somewhat-interesting posts. It's been a good deal of wasted energy thinking about football, and I've definitely overthought it. After all, I'm the Liverpool guy here, and there's little else to do when you have a massive football obsession but your team is currently specializing in conceding stoppage-time winners and equalizers, own goals and whatever that was yesterday at Portsmouth.

I could've written a dozen posts about the team's injuries. There also is fodder for the strategic approach: breaking down Glen Johnson's forward style at fullback; breaking down how Glen Johnson's defense is always breaking down; the sudden, unexpected demise of Jamie Carragher (minus the United match); and, of course, The Aquilani Conundrum™.

Look, nobody cares what I think the reason(s) might be for Liverpool spray painting the word "SUCK" all over English top-flight football grounds (and the one in Florence, too). But I do want to shout out a simple reason for my own unique pain. It's the simplest answer available: I miss Xabi Alonso. Not, "I wish Alonso was still there." Not, "The team was better with Alonso" or "They failed to replace Alonso." I miss Xabi Alonso.

I didn't work as a newspaper reporter and editor for 7 1/2 years because scientific theory and mathematics were my specialty, so until recently I never understood what Occam's Razor represented. In thinking more philosophically in my old age, I came to realize the easiest answer or possible solution to something was also the easiest one to defend and explain a situation. Of course, a few weeks back I stumbled across Occam's Razor in the dictionary. (There's the sentence you'll never see in any other Liverpool fan's lament.) Well, I started thinking really hard again, but in a much more clean, productive way.

Ultimately, this is an irrational hobby I've dedicated myself to enjoying. There's a million ways to explain it and also no ways to explain it. I could give you five hours of one-sided conversation about why I love Liverpool and football in general, but sometimes it comes down to "I miss Xabi Alonso." Last year, it came down to "I worship Xabi Alonso! He's a footballing genius!" In 2005 it was, "Way to finish off Juve, Xabi!" There's two moments lately that have kept popping into my head, both innocuous but unforgettable. In the Carling Cup at Tottenham last season – a match in which Philipp Degen etched his name on the "Rafa Benitez failed transfers" granite tablets alongside that of Dossena, Voronin, Pennant and the others – Alonso came on as a second-half substitute. Previously, Liverpool had looked even worse than their most-abysmal performances from this season. He suddenly calmed all of the action around him. Things slowed down but didn't become ponderous. Liverpool took a deep breath and the team's play became coherent. They had been losing something like 3-0 or 4-1, and if I'm remembering correctly, they actually got within a goal and briefly threatened to make a game of it. The transformation in the entire team's play was what was unforgettable – and not a coincidence.

The other moment was at Portsmouth last season, a match Liverpool trailed 0-1 and then 1-2 with only a few minutes left. Again, Alonso was a second-half substitute. The action at the end was quite frantic and Liverpool was desperate for possession to create their winning chances. There was a scramble for the ball in the Portsmouth half along the right side, about 35 or 40 yards away from goal. Four or five players spent several seconds fighting for it. Alonso put a foot in and flicked the ball over his head into free space – which he didn't glance to see was available – then turned to control it, assessed his options and restarted the Liverpool attack. Watching it at my friend's place, I gasped. We shared a quick moment muttering something like, "F***ing genius," and then we went back to the match.

Now, that's an ephemeral quality that's impossible to fully convey the emotion of seeing, so your impression of my brief description there might be underwhelming. But I'll never forget it. Never.

That's why this week Colin and I had an email exchange that brought all of this together. It was the very first thing that popped into my head when I read a short note from Colin about a Mascherano transfer rumor. Here it is:

"One of these days, I'm just going to have this "born-again" moment. Only instead of finding Jesus, this figurative dark shroud is going to be lifted from around my head and all the truths of Liverpool without Alonso will be revealed to me in a soul-shattering epiphany that leaves me weeping uncontrollably on my knees in the middle of the bar at 9:21 a.m. on a Saturday.

"What I'm getting at is, I miss Xabi Alonso."

Other than the moment actually happening at my desk in the middle of the afternoon, everything else there is true – well, I didn't weep on my knees, but you get the idea. It sounds ridiculous and absurd, but it's how I'm viewing my Liverpool fandom at this moment. At a Christmas gathering yesterday, during a conversation about traveling to Spain, I mentioned how I want to go to San Sebastián. Of course it's because that's Alonso's hometown! I want to see Real Sociedad play a home match. I want to just walk around there and enjoy the experience, the whole time knowing in the back of my mind that this is the place that gave birth to Xabi Alonso, my favorite player of all time. The midfielder who revealed the secrets of football passing, tempo and control to me as a latecomer to the experience that is the best-possible way to kill two hours during any day.

It's an idealistic, childish way to look at something I take so seriously. It's also goofy and a little weird. Yeah, so?

Whatever your reasons for following a sport might be, fun has to be in there. Are you having fun? Is this a fun thing to do? Did I consider the previous two hours a fun experience? You want to answer "Yes" to those questions as often as possible. And you want to do it as simply as possible. It's why I wish I still had my Sidney Moncrief "Sir Sid" poster from when I was a boy. Surprisingly, I can't find it on the Web to post here. It's a crazy, "only in the '80s" sort of sports hero worship. Milwaukee Bucks guard Sidney Moncrief, dressed in his uniform and holding a basketball, posing with a full suit of armor. I had it as a boy, and in college we tracked down one of them to re-live the joy of it.

Now I'm going to be 33 years old in a week and a half, and I'm searching for my current version of the "Sir Sid" poster. I had it every time Alonso stood on the ball in a Liverpool shirt. Last year, it was in a golden, diamond-encrusted frame when I watched the proceedings at White Hart Lane, Fratton Park, Anfield and elsewhere. Now, I can't find it anywhere. It doesn't get beamed to me via satellite television technology and Web searches are fruitless, so I'm stuck recalling it in my mind's eye.

Well, that isn't a lot of fun.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


This isn't the glorious return to Match Pricks I envisioned when I came home from work tonight, but I just can't let go of the Match Pricks Twitter-plosion from Wednesday, December 9 that was #JohnnyCashfootballsongs among this here site's oft-used Twitter feed and the more-polished, regular writers from Run of Play, Sport Is A TV Show and others.

So, here then, for better or (groan-inducing) worse, is "Personal Jesús Navas"

Reach out and touch del Bosque
Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who attacks with flair
Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who's there – on the wing

Feelings unknown and you're all alone
Flesh and bone but can't go out on loan
Haunted by homesickness
Shows the limits of your quickness

Take second best
Put me to the test
Just got a first cap – hey!
Came on for Iniesta!
I will deliver
You know I'm a forgiver
Reach out and touch del Bosque

Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Feelings unknown and you're all alone
Flesh and bone but can't go out on loan
Haunted by homesickness
Shows the limits of your quickness

Lift up the receiver
Chelsea wanted you with Sheva
I will deliver
You know I'm a forgiver
Reach out and touch del Bosque

Your own Personal Jesús Navas
Reach out and touch del Bosque

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

He just can't get enough

Here he is, ol' Crouchy (long-running joke wherein I insist athletes who are called, affectionately, "Crouchy or the like, are actually called "Croucher" is inappropriate in this instance, though I'll stick to my guns on it in any other situation) ...

Ol' Crouchy wants that striker position for South Africa next summer. It's probably the thing he's wanted most in his professional life. The whip-cracking manager Fabio Capello is deadset on getting the team in his image. They'll behave. They'll train. They'll do things his way, dammit. They'll even ... ready for it? ... respect the team.

It's working for them so far. No one would argue that the England team are wholly unrecognizable from the one under Steve McClaren.

Still ... There's ol' Crouchy ... Sure he's training. Sure he wants in. But we are what we are, aren't we? And Crouchy ... That man needs to dance. Regardless of what he may insist. What's that they say, after all, about men over 6' 5"? I don't know either, but they must say something.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We interrupt this radio silence

Who would have thought?

I've been silent here for more than a month. It's bothered me, but then again, so has football. So has covering every inch of football. So has covering every inch of the covering of football (are you with me on that one?).

Don't get me wrong. I am in love with Arsenal's start to the year. It makes me giggle. There's a lot to be happy and proud of. To get into what has driven me to a certain level of disgust over the last several weeks will take a long time. And frankly, it's old news. No one cares. Reactionary press, managers who deserve to be dropped in the wild somewhere ... I'm a pacifist, I won't directly contribute to the violence that should be bestowed on them. Indirectly? Hey, it's not on me.

Yet who would have thought the one instance that made me stir enough to put a quarter back in the Match Pricks machine came from a comment on an article on the Internet of all places. I mean, those are generally reserved for the leeches, the bottom-feeders of society, aren't they? Not this one. Take note ... and here's the article. Yeah, sure you play to win the games. You play to eventually haul in a trophy. You play to succeed. But, aren't there levels, or degrees of success? It is, after all, a venture there to uncover happiness and joy, isn't it? As treacherous as the path may be ....

lja Albrecht wrote:
Trophies and silverware are for people who need something to waggle in front of other people's faces, be it a t work or in the boardroom.

To declare this the single goal for a club is one of the best explanations for the sad state football is in today: A reckless money-game that will one day culminate in a football-version of the the credit-crunch.
Arsenal are playing the game in all its beauty and, supported by a vast majority of their fans, have the patience to wait until their time has come - winning it with sheer talent and craftsmanship rather than buying titles like most of the others do these days. To achieve this and at the same time manage the club into financial soundness is a masterpiece. Anyone who doesn't see this either has no idea about the game or abuses it for personal/business reasons.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Voronin for Kuyt = Well, we do have that match at Chelsea on Sunday, so ...
Well, at least they have the all-white kits. If you're going to play poorly in Italy and lose, might as well look nifty while doing it.
Back of the bar is me and three Fiorentina supporters. Italian is being spoken at a rapid pace. Ominous doesn't really do justice to the tone right now.
Halftime thoughts: I can only assume Liverpool has been inflicted with some kind of grave illness/Tuscan gypsy curse.
Fiorentina is redefining attacking in space. This is brutal. What I wouldn't give for boring ol' Arbeloa, no attacking fullbacks Liverpool right now.
Carragher put more effort into the offside appeal than he did into defending that attack. Ugh.

And the commentator is taking shots at Liverpool for beating Hull. Whatever.

Is the pitch 25 yards wider? Can't believe how much space is available on these Fiorentina attacks.

Meanwhile, I've added about three of these all-white kits to my Christmas list.

Missed the start, don't know who's playing yet, sound has crapped out for a minute. Perfect.

Love the all-white Liverpool European kits.

Liverpool v. Fiorentina posts coming via this damn phone.

Here's the deal: I am connected to this phone at all times. Steve Jobs' marketing and magic tricks have me in thrall. If he said BlackBerry owners should be thrown into a pond and if they float that means they're witches, well, sure, I'd believe him.

So I am going to make a half blogging return to Match Pricks for the match today - on this phone. I mean, I'm not even tapping this out in landscape mode. That's how sick in the head I am with this phone!

I'm looking forward to this. Liverpool and Fiorentina, and then Chelsea on Sunday. Oh yeah, things are picking up again. Let's see what happens.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I remember when you could still tell a joke in this bar without the world coming to an end

A couple weeks ago, I pulled myself out of my typical midday, pre-work routine of playing poker online while guzzling black coffee and huffing cigarette after cigarette long enough to wander upstairs and push the appropriate buttons on the remote control – in the correct order, this time – to put Arsenal v. Celtic on the TV. I had remembered about the match after it started. Sure, I knew Celtic wasn't likely to come close to even getting to extra time, but I always enjoy the football.

Much to my surprise and eventual delight, I tuned in, if that term still applies to television in 2009, right as Eduardo had won a penalty and given Arsenal the lead. My first thought? "Oh well. Celtic wasn't going through anyway." But as I continued settling into the couch, I started to feel a little quiver and jolt in the parts of me that react in such ways when a controversial sporting moment takes shape. The commentators were moaning about something Eduardo had done. "It's probably best if I wait for a replay," I thought. Well, it took a few different angles, but finally I witnessed what I was sure would be comedy gold and powerful ammunition for weeks and months to come among my friends.

I saw Eduardo – conclusively, definitively, undeniably – go down like a community playhouse trainee desperate to impress the leading lady he had been longing for since the auditions.

It was outstanding – beyond funny, really. I couldn't wait until the weekend so I could meet my friends and regulars, some of them Arsenal supporters, at the only bar in Milwaukee stupid and crazy enough to open at 6 a.m. for "soccer" matches. I was prepared to, quite frankly, give them loads of shit about such an abysmal effort from one of their heroes.

Then everyone in the world went loony tunes about it. Of course, the most important has been the two-game ban Eduardo received. I maintain it's essentially meaningless because Arsenal will sashay through their Champions League group, but still, it's a real thing that has been put into effect and it has repercussions, however unimportant I deem them. But also, there have been the downright silly tangents that sprung from that decision. Arsenal supporters have, perhaps understandably, jumped to Eduardo's defense. But the obscene reactions to the ban startled me, and there's now Zapruder-esque compilations online of "fellow diver" Wayne Rooney that have been posted as a response. I've read calls for a full UEFA retrospective of dives that have affected Arsenal. On the other end of things, the Daily Mail is excitedly urging (is there any other action for that paper?) to join their campaign to "shame the divers."

The back and forth about this for two full weeks has been stunning, even surviving the similarly outrageous Chelsea "child trafficking" development and all it has given birth to regarding luring talented young players from overseas to the promised land of Premier League riches. Such is the never-ending bore of each and every international break.

Not all of this ruckus has been pointless, of course. These debates are revealing as to what sprouts from the mind-set of modern football supporters. The best take that I've seen came from Sport Is A TV Show, which offered many more sensible layers and arguments about diving than I'll likely ever be prepared to discuss here – particularly the case for a player having the good sense to go down once he is actually fouled in the box.

See, I've written this post about seven times since Eduardo dived, but the central point has never changed: Eduardo's dive was a gifted moment I could use over and over to enliven the ephemeral qualities that make watching football in a large group so much fun. I feel like climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro and shouting, "But wait, wait – just wait a goddamn minute!! He got caught in an hilariously awful dive! We can use this!"

When I was on that couch watching those replays, the very first thing that entered my mind was how I could point to such a silly display the next time I was at the bar, seeing my Arsenal-supporting pals "Ooohing" and "La-La-ing" when Eboue and Arshavin and van Persie played a nifty yet fruitless triangle sequence among them that ended with a through ball played a touch too hard that Jussi Jaaskelainen would easily collect. These are the moments we, as snorting and chortling men, come to embrace while taking part in our routine of getting together, watching these most-often agony-inducing matches and loving how we can do it again and again and again.

And with it happening so early in the season, I had a full nine months to wear that joke out. I couldn't wait. Now, it seems like all the fun is gone. Why bring it up anymore in such a setting? "But, but, but Boruc kind of nicked his foot!" "Johnny Foreigner always does such things. We must stop it!" "Rooney dives, too!! At least Eduardo doesn't snog his granny!!!"

Ack, to hell with it. Look, these sorts of moments matter, people. Eduardo falling over like someone told him to pretend he was studying under Lee Strasberg had a lot of potential. This was something to cherish for those among us who love our Arsenal-supporting friends but, honestly, must admit sometimes it all becomes a bit much. I've seen Colin – and buddy, I'd take a bullet for you – turn over a scoring sheet at a bowling alley and sketch out Arsenal's attacking intricacies for a perfect stranger! Turning to a friend like that and reminding Eduardo was shamelessly exposed for a fraud one time helps keep our loved ones grounded. It keeps them humble – and if anyone could use some humility right now it's Arsenal supporters.

Look, football is humbling in its nature. The highs are followed by equal lows – I know as a Liverpool supporter – and moments like what happened with Eduardo are natural examples of that aesthetic. But the wild-eyed reactions all around with Eduardo's dive have, I feel, robbed me of that opportunity. I could've kept my great friends on their toes and level-headed all season if people would've just laughed and shut the hell up. Accept what happened for what it was and move on. Instead, I'm forced to spell it out in a more-direct fashion in this post.

The world took all the fun out of Eduardo's dive. Pardon my unseriousness, but that's the biggest travesty for me.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The CW Chimes in

I hope y'all read. There's lots of fun out there. In particular, on our recommended reading list. The fantastically crafted "Sport is a TV Show" blog is a gem worth remembering and spending time with.

Of note today on Sport is a TV Show, a sneak peak at the CW's Gossip Girls. Now please note that were I to come across the show, I wouldn't be able to recognize it from the belly of a whale. I am a 32 year old male, not a 23 year old male wishing I was spending time with 23 year old females. That said, I may well watch an episode in the near future, provided I can find the CW on my dial. It would appear, at even a passing glance, that the writers of the show, and even the young woman who so delightfully delivers the lines, have scored a blow clear across the brow of Jintao - that cretinous little letch.

See, as has been well documented, Jintao and his troops (even his proteges, we see that smarmy little smirk on your face Nani) want you to submit. They want you to ignore their leering existence so they can continue to run rough-shod over the ideals of the just and fair ... and turn in their FREE PENALTY token whenever the script-girl seems to have ignored her responsibilities and let the play get away from what was the expected outcome by page 45. "Oi, says here, yeah, right here on this token I've got that we've a FREE PENALTY coming to us. Wha? No, doesn't say when, just that it expires by the 94th minute. Might as well go ahead and use it then, eh?"

Fortunately, the good folks at the CW are keeping the fight alive for freedom from the skewered world view so many subject us to on such a regular basis, unsanitary as it may be (as Marina Hyde clocks in with another blow, honestly, it's like a tag-team of justice today). And fortunately Sport is a TV Show has served this wonderful adjustment to the accepted plot for us all to enjoy. Go for the clip, stay for more, go back another day.

Watch it, and just soak in the way that saintly actress delivers the lines ... and smacks Jintao square in the mouth while he scrambles for a page in the script he is certain is missing. Oh no, Sir Alex, that was most assuredly not in the script. Not in the least. Every now and again, things might get away from you a little, eh?

They may as well have had Purple Rain playing in the background. Hell, maybe they did, it was only a clip.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Never a better time ...

... to trot this one out after Saturday's 2-1 loss for the Arsenal at Old Trafford. Say it with me now!

Murky waters

I'm not sure I even want to dip a single toe into this whole thing. If you so much as open a newspaper's (or rather, click on one) sporting section across the globe, you'll have seen all of the details, opinions (including these interesting comments from Scotland goalkeeper Craig Gordon. Hey, Craig, by the way, the tie was over. "They pay the games" and all, but it was over), facts, misstatements and over-reactions. I have some remarks, draped in what was, at the time, disgusted brevity, down below from last week (remember the Match Pricks motto, scroll, baby, scroll!).

Now, after Eduardo's dive and the "witch-hunt" as Arsene Wenger put it, he has indeed been - rather arbitrarily, mind - suspended for two games in the Champions League group stage. Am I angry about it? Yeah. I think it's unjust finger-pointing and I definitely have a major whine here in the treatment of Arsenal as a special case. Whatever that complex is, it's real. And the anger was only multiplied on Saturday against a Manchester United side that showed nothing in the face of an Arsenal team that looked like they'd be winners from the start (in spite of a rather toothless effort in the very final yards of the pitch).

First, Arshavin is torn down in the box with a clear chance on goal. The defender hadn't even considered the ball. He flew in with both feet in the space that Andrei owned. Ball or no ball, he took the space with a foul and it was in the box. It was a penalty. But it was at Old Trafford, wasn't it? No penalty. Didn't matter much as a clearly steamed Andrei Arshavin belted in a magnificent effort with zero run-up or planting to the ball (for the Americans out there, it was like Brett Favre throwing a zipper across the field on his opposite foot). 1-nil to the Arsenal at halftime.

Anyone who has seen United knows it would have been important to survive immediately after the half. Arsenal didn't. Rooney went down in the box in one of those penalties that just really grinds your gears, you know? What is the keeper, Manuel Almunia, supposed to do in that situation? He went for the ball on floor, Rooney was going down. It wasn't a dive, it may not have been a clear penalty. In my clearly skewered opinion, it was a 50/50 ball that both players had a right too. Rooney won the penalty and Almunia won a yellow card for the effort. 1-1. And you know what it reminded me of? Jens Lehman's sending off in the Champions League Final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006. Then, that was unjust. This week, it's still unjust. To top it off, a circus own goal from the always-improving Abu Diaby gave United their only other chance and a 2-1 lead. Arsenal responded well after the penalty, poorly after the own goal. But they still played football. They just didn't have the cut in the final 20 yards of the pitch to make the difference.

The final thing I was reminded of with the dives and penalties this week? Rooney's dive against the Arsenal to snap the 49 game unbeaten streak. Remember that? Hmmm, not much of a furor there, eh? Or what about every single time Cristiano Ronaldo stepped on the pitch? Or what about Didier Drogba, a man who has even claimed that, yes!, he dives all the time?

Can of worms and all that. The points have been covered. I'm just angry and I have a very sour taste in my mouth right now. Damn good thing I watched the match in the solitude of my living room as I had to scoot off to a wedding straight away. Not sure how I would've been in public. Anyway, here's Arsenal's response and I fully agree with them. I also appreciate the backing they are giving their player. We know he dived and made a meal of the confrontation but everything that has come after sure doesn't seem in line with the way the world has been cast.

Look, there's a laundry list of incidents that stir the bile and I'm fully aware that it's the same case for every team out there. But for now, Arsenal supporters will clearly feel aggrieved. (SIDEBAR: those drunk-driving commercials with the guys in cars filled with booze, olives, cranberry juice and beer ... whew, I don't know about you but the last thing they make me want to do is have a bevvy and drive even a single block.)

But then again, I said it myself last week, didn't it? What goes around comes around. Sometimes, in a win, you create your own luck. Sometimes, in a loss, you create your own bad luck. Jintaodenfreude. Just sucks when you're on the receiving end of it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On Milwaukee ... on Match Pricks

The proverbial hat tip goes out to Drew Olson and for their mention of Match Pricks in this look at watching live football/soccer at pubs in Milwaukee.

If you haven't checked us out at the Highbury at 2322 Kinnickinnic Ave., what are you waiting for?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Recommended Reading

Jim and I love The Guardian. We will unabashedly reference their excellent columnists often. Sometimes, one of them hits me with fantastic insight and truths - as opposed to retooled drivel and hyperbole. And when it happens, we need to share it and make sure people get a look at their good work.

Today's big winner, Marina Hyde. Give it a read.

She sums up, quite well, why I hate predictions. I couldn't care less what you think, random person, about how the league will shake out or who will score how many goals in the FC Twente match this weekend. I quite prefer, thank you kindly, to actually watch it blossom myself (even if it might be quite a bit like staring down the road in the hope that Godot fella will turn up). What's the fun of piping in with, "Well, I reckon 3-1 today, friends. Could be 2-1 though, couldn't it?" If you're reading closely you'll quite rightly call me out on that. "But Colin, didn't you just the other day say you predicted 6-nil for Arsenal's first match!?"

Yeah, I did. I also predicted the first goal would come from the team. It's a helluva lot more fun to slap down a 6-nil whopper than it is to say, "Hmmm, well, let's see here, we're on the road, pitch should be a little dry, that won't do at all, will it? No, Arsenal need that fast pitch don't they? And that Arteta, he's top, top quality, isn't he? What's that? He's out? Hmmm, well Lescott, he's been in form, hasn't he? What's that you say? Distracted, eh? Yeah, I reckon you're right, but then, for all their attacking talent, Arsenal are weak in the spine, aren't they? Not much experience there, is there? No, no, no. That new Dutch boy, well he's unproven too, isn't he? How's that? Belgian? Really! Well, who knew!? We all know how qualified Belgians are (eye roll). Ah, I suppose you're right, Marc was Beligan, wasn't he? Wait, no, I always thought he was Dutch. He's Dutch, isn't he? Tim Howard though, top keeper, he'll be a difference maker, maybe a clean sheet in store for the home side! Huh? He's got that Tourette's? Didn't know that. Well, I reckon it's gotta be 1-1 then, yeah? I mean Everton really are up for it, aren't they."

Your favorite team's Champions League group of death scenario is quite real, my friend

We've got the 2009-10 Champions League group stage draw less than a half hour away, and while poking around UEFA's Web site a minute ago, I stumble upon this very real – though, of course, statistically far-fetched possibility – for one of the eight top seeds:

1. Liverpool/Arsenal/Utd./Barca/Chelsea/Milan/Bayern/Sevilla
2. Real Madrid
3. Atlético
4. Wolfsburg

How's that grabbin' ya, ultra-confident fan of a No. 1 seed side?

Real Madrid in that pot of No. 2 seeds: You don't need me to say any more than that. Atlético in the post of No. 3s, with Kun Agüero and Diego Forlan might not have enough in defense to really scare the balls off anyone, but that attacking talent is certainly more dangerous to face than some of the others in that pot, like Olympiacos, Bordeaux and Besiktas. And lastly, for the top teams, those two matches with the No. 4 seed are supposed to be walk-throughs that only aid qualification for the next round. Well, Wolfsburg only won the Bundesliga last year.

OK, that's the end of this post, or as I call it, "The perfect example of the 21st-century short-attention Internet generation." I spent 10 minutes writing something that has a shelf life of exactly 20 minutes.

On with it then ...

UPDATE: Barry Glendenning informs me that apparently the group stage draw offers country protection, so Atlético could not be in my little fancy-pants "group of death" vision. But Chelsea and Liverpool got paired together only a couple, two, three years ago. Hmmm ... For argument's sake, throw Dynamo Kyiv in there as a replacement because no one really enjoys traveling all that way to play in some dodgy relic of a stadium.

UPDATE: 'Eh, screw it. My little scenario theory is shot right through. I couldn't even get a blog post up to last more than 10 minutes or have any usefulness. I'm leaving this up just so you can laugh at me. I'm cool like that sometimes.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Here's the thing Part II

The Sun, fanning the flames as ever, brands Eduardo a diver.

Allow me to chime in with a point of semantics. Eduardo dived. He is not a diver. Branding him a diver implies a habitual occurrence, that he has dived before, is diving currently and will dive again - pending, ahem, rehabilitation from his habit, at which point he will become someone who has dived.

Yes, I recognize I'm drawing a line in the level of degree here and marking diving, until done habitually, as something that happens to someone ... like being possessed. You plagiarize, you are a plagiarist. You kill, you are a murder. You lie, you are a liar. You steal, you are a thief. Ten Commandment stuff (plagiarism should have been up there instead of 'coveting thy neighbor' #missedopportunities). Diving? No, not Ten Commandment stuff. Unless ... say it with me now ... it becomes habitual. Savvy?

Arsene's quotes in the article are more pragmatic (some may say delusional, I'll stick with pragmatic). He doesn't deal in absolutes and understands that there are complexities to all matters.

Whatever ... I'm going to bed. And as I do so I'll be thinking about this ... and Saturday.

Here's the thing

It was never a penalty.

I'm not getting into the whole, "well, he earned it, didn't he?" argument either. I felt bad, and more than a little embarrassed when Eduardo went down. I'll admit, while I had those feelings and I recognized that the keeper, Boruc (who kinda scares me), definitely did well to keep his arms away, I thought that his thigh is what actually clipped Eduardo's foot and brought the penalty. That's when the embarrassment sat in. It seemed Eduardo made a meal of what I thought was actually a penalty.

Now, I recorded the match and watched it about six hours after the scheduled kickoff. Thinking in advance that I might want to see some comments from Sky Sports News, I recorded that as well. I just saw, in those highlights, yet another reply. It wasn't a penalty. And I say that with what is a less than begrudging admittance that I feel bad about Eduardo resorting to such tactics ... especially given how much I strive for and embrace the 'purity' of the game (as Jim so rightly noted in the Match Pricks Twitter feed earlier today).

Still ... What goes around comes around, you create your own fortune, blah, blah, blah, blah. That's football, isn't it? We've been on the bad end of that, we will be again and rest assured we'll be on the fortunate end of it again as well. At Match Pricks, we have a word to deal with this: Jintao-denfreude. You reap evil, you sew evil. It'll all come around. Doesn't make it right, but it'll all come around

What are we left with? An angry pope? I think I can live with that.

Meh ... pass the Bushmills.

No place, no glory, no clue

The scenes from the West Ham v. Millwall Carling Cup match last night, with yobs running rampart, squaring off against riot police, confronting other so-called supporters (their peers, mind) with arms raised like some kind of jungle animal threat, stabbing and lord know what else are sad. It also makes me wonder ...

It makes me wonder if I'll continue to hear songs about burning Scousers and other assorted opposing teams from people who share in the same lucky community of a football pub where everyone is there for the same reason. It makes me wonder if I'll continue to see arms raised in direct and confrontational threat, like planting a flag in someone's face. It makes me wonder if I'll be told to "eff off" on a routine basis, or see divisive lines being drawn instead of a recognition of respect. It's got no place in the game and it's got no place in a community where people are all there for the same thing. Sure, it's tribal as all hell. But stripe the false machismo and respect those who celebrate it with you. There's fun, celebration, singing, community and yeah, there are tribes and pockets. But there's also a mighty big difference between that and this ...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chess: Give 'em rules, watch 'em take over the board

Editor's note: This is being transcribed from notes taken at a bar four hours ago. It may or may not make sense. So early in the year, it's tough to latch onto content that is steeped in reality (i.e. "What a game," "What a goal," "Did he really say that?") as opposed to the realm of my crippled emotions (i.e. "We're good enough," "It's early," "Oh, god, are we good enough?"). There will be a follow-up. Think architecture. After all, the pieces on a chess board have to protect something, don't they? For a structure to soar, it needs subtle innovation, doesn't it?

I enjoy my football. Especially (and here's the most obvious thing I've said this decade) when it's going as well as it is now for the Arsenal. In that light I also (as regular readers will recognize in my fragile psyche) find my football, especially when it's going this well, to be fully and deeply layered in abject torture. It's terrifying. The better it gets, the worse it gets. At this point, early as it is, I'm flat out terrified. Arsenal have looked like a big top, merry-go-round, tilt-o-whirl and ferris wheel all rolled into one. Winners of their first three and 12 goals to boot. I should be thrilled, shouldn't I? If only. Elation comes with goals, in that split-second. It's a euphoria that eases the tension. For now, until the next time that moment comes, I'm afraid of my shadow. I'm afraid Eduardo will fall down the stairs, that Gallas will lose his mind and end up jumping off the Tower Bridge, that Bendtner will trip on his shoelaces and somehow break his foot, that Cesc will tear a massive cut in his neck with that damned side zipper jacket he wears, or that Arsene Wenger will move to Lhasa to be worshipped by people who care not for the saddled expectations and restrictions of a system that trades in the cash of today and the promised cash of tomorrow (it seems he'd feel disgraced even saying such a word, even offering the slightest hint that he is aware of its grip on the reality he finds himself in.)

As such, I haven't been able to bring myself to utter aloud a perspective or analysis. Yeah, I know, some good that'll do for a blogger, eh? Don't worry, I'm sure it'll go wrong soon, right? Wrong. For months I've been saying it, "we'll be fine, we're strong enough." Aren't we? Hell yeah! Shit, I need some pure pleasure out of this life I subject myself to, don't I? There's loads of pleasure alright. Each goal has been more pure fun than the last. Doesn't mean it gets any easier though. What ends up happening is that you look back with a gleeful and confident smile, and look ahead with a fearful and tepid patience. It's 'hold your horses' time, folks. In spite of that, I'll pass a measured glimpse into what I've seen so far, and what it's made me think about. As noted above, there's a follow-up on the agenda.

The pacing of what we've been watching so far in this high-speed 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3?) is pinhead stuff. It's an evolution of what we've watched with a simultaneous smirk and groan for three years. The slightest and simplest of touches to move the ball at top speed past defenders diving in at each angle. Tap, touch, push and sprint into the opposite direction. Fill the emptied space and start the triangular and interchangeable progression again. The opposition, in particular against Celtic in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier, has been spun on its heels, rolling backwards down hill, filling the space their teammates have just awkwardly fallen out of. In the end, it's like a living model of DNA you'd see in high school biology, captured in its spiraling motion as players try to cover for each other.

I was asked at the onset of the first game of the season, one which I'll quite retroactively note I called for a 6-nil win (or at least a statement through a ton of goals), "who will score the first goal." I replied, "the team." Sure, I was being a pretentious ass (hey, if the shoe fits ...) but I meant it.

The team now closely resembles a fully refined assembly of working parts. Finally.

They have just about found themselves liberated by the rules and expectations now set before them. This project of Arsene Wenger's has shed its training wheels (and do please note it doesn't mean there won't be wobbles along the way, it's a concept used to illustrate a point). Hleb, Flamini, Gilberto, Adebayor, Toure, even Henry as he bridges the gap for Arsene to today's team - they are gone, leaving the current team to grow into their potential and into their assigned roles without restraint.

I said up above that it's early. I mean, it's really, really, really (like, 36 more "reallys") early. While it may feel like we're picking up the same narrative, the one we hit 'pause' on back in May, this is not the same team as last season. Not the same 'Young Guns' that the newspapers talk about. Not by a long shot.

There are new rules. New roles. New expectations. For everyone in the team. And it all adds up to allow full expression, and a shattering of the opposition while they do it. The creative mind, placed in a situation ripe for flourishing creativity ... it does often call for refinement first, doesn't it?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Liverpool v. Aston Villa: Live-ish here at Match Pricks

While I continue to struggle with the question, "What is a live blog in the age of Twitter?" we're going to try something a little different here at Match Pricks for Villa's visit to Anfield.

Kickoff is in a minute, and I'm going to post in the comments here some thoughts, but not really a blow-by-blow description like the well-visited Match Pricks Live Blogs from last season's Champions League. Just mixing it up and seeing what might work.

First up is my appreciation to get Jon Champion as the lead commentator for this effort here in the States. My second favorite in that role, behind Martin Tyler, naturally.

OK, off to the comments ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Glen Johnson looked great today for Liverpool – and they won 4-0!

Liverpool half of Match Pricks here. We're watching the match on a PC laptop routed through a Vizio. It's a terrible feed, but enough is there to see some of the same problems from Sunday (Gerrard too deep), but luckily it's Stoke and there's Torres and Glen Johnson is quality.

I've become fascinated with our new Twitter tool over there on the right, so loom there or on our Match Pricks feed for 2nd half thoughts/jokes/random screaming.

Gotta believe this one is pretty much finished, though.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Welcooooommmme Baaaaaack!!!

YES!!! Today is the perfect reminder why summer is the looooooongest season of the year. It's so nice to have these matches back – even if we have to sit through the three straight months of "I'm telling ya, Barcelona is going to sign Fabregas – and this time, they really, really mean it. For serious."

Happy Season Starts Today Day, everybody.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Deep breath

I have some over-riding impulses to levy some terrible words in the direction of a few miscreants in advance of the coming campaign. There are several who need a firm word. A talking to. A reminder.

Mmmm. (recall: that's not the "mmmm" of something delicious so much as it is the "mmm" of acceptance.)

I'll just leave it with this as I lay down for a nap before the league well and truly gets underway and all of the expectations are spilled out on the table ...

Up the Arsenal! Come on the football!

Stay tuned for the Alarm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The jumbled mess of summer

That's what I've been reduced to. From mid-May straight through to this day when we stand at my favorite spot, the much discussed precipice of the unknown that we're about to hurtle ourselves into, I've been reduced to a jumbled mess. Had I hair enough to tussle (short as it is), it would be tussled. Were I able to capture coherent and fluid thought, you'd have heard it - or at least read it. Every thought, pursuit or action through this torturous period stands as a gate that has crashed down in front of me before the date hits. Before, with trembling anticipation, I finally get to set the alarm.

Each task is an interruption. A mirage. A senseless motion that offers no fulfillment. Read the news. Search the rumors. Scour the exhibition reports. Debate strategy, formation, attack, defense, scheduling. Debate quality, expectations, chances, truth. Fool yourself. Breed confidence. Admit hubris. Remember that day, that goal, the pass, the cross, the save. Remember the comeback, the dropped points, the substitution, the clean sheet. Remember the result. Forget the result. Worry. Hope. Convince yourself.

Readers read. Writers write. Painters paint. Performers perform. The imaginative create, search, share, express, exhibit, desire ...

Fans of the football do all of it. At the same time. For 90 minutes at a pop.

When it's taken away? That's what others embrace as summer, isn't it? Supposedly it's something to take advantage of, summer. Especially in our corner of the world when we've nary a whiff of warmth or a reflection of sun for seven months of the year.
Summer, to this distracted mind, mutated into a series of notes. Texted to my email from a traffic jam. Voice memos recorded on my phone.
Sticky notes that cover my desk, my dinner table, my bookshelves, my dashboard. Napkins pulled out of the laundry. "Suffocated," reads one. "Ricky Hatton. There's a KO. There's a sound beating. We got both," reads another. Some unintelligible, "The shin burned and ravaged ..." others leaving a clear trail, "Evra's comments, Ronaldo's face."

Too many, far too many, growing from that ultimate annoyance. A team with a style - style beyond mere football, style as an essence of life, style you can't help but be attracted to. A team you hope never meets your girlfriend - sure as you are in your insecurity that they'll just take her, that they'll win. "Painfully sick of Barca representing everyone's dream move." "LAPORTA! Damn LaPorta!" "We won't sell him, he's an Arsenal player." "It was an interview trap!" "What is he supposed to say?" "He's from there, he'll go back ... fine!" "No way are we selling him!" "Yet..." "We only just signed him!" "Is Benzema good enough? He may not be good enough." "Is Arshavin the Premier League's best? Who else? Gerrard, Torres ... who else?"

It's what I've been reduced to. Violently trying to shake the muck out of head so I can focus and get past the obsessive search for proof that I'm right. So I can enjoy it. So I can start again. It's nature, it's life, it's art. And it's starting again.

Mmm, that's right. That old man, the wiley old obstructionist finally got off his ass, rubbed his calloused hands together and ripped that curtain back on Sunday for the Charity Shield.

He's letting us, against all of his spitful will, get on with it, isn't he? So yeah ... that look in my eyes? Purpose. That bounce in my step? Anticipation. That grin that just flashed across my face? Confidence.

Arsenal kickoff against Everton on Saturday. Get some batteries for your alarm.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

So, FSC, got a question for you. Programming guide this week, including the on-screen DirecTV one right now, claims L'pool v. Atletico friendly is being aired on delay starting at noon CDT. It's 12:17 CDT right now. You're showing Hull v. United from May 24. It's August 2009. What's the deal?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Welcome Alberto Aquilani (and others)!

The Liverpool half of Match Pricks here would like to wholeheartedly embrace new playmaking midfielder Alberto Aquilani at Anfield. Don't worry, you're only replacing Xabi Alonso, The Director. Or as I called him, my favorite Liverpool player by a mile.

In all serisousness, though, I'm going to give you some time to settle in before I make any judgments about how good you are. Good luck, buddy. We need and want you to play well.

Also, Match Pricks wishes a courteous hello to Michela Quattrociocche, Aquilani's squeeze:

I guess they handle driver's license photos a bit differently in Italy.

(UPDATE: I might have welcomed Aquilani and his girlfriend too soon. The scuttlebutt in Liverpool is that there's a problem with his medical. Well, we'll see, I guess. Not sure what happens if he fails the medical. Silva? Probably their best bet. Updates coming, although I'm sure if something's wrong, it'll be all over the Web shortly.)

I might have rushed to judgment

Fully aware that Putin's devious ways leave me susceptible to the harsh bite of the Russian bear, I still have to applaud the man for this naked – literally(!) – appeal to Match Pricks and many of the ideals we represent.

Shirtless, free, caring for animals. I mean, I love the zoo. Who doesn't love the zoo?! Only cretins and malcontents don't love the zoo. And a lot of zoos have horses. And here's Putin – shirtless and free, without a care – tending to a horse.

It's a tricky business with these Putin photos. He seems to be reaching out, extending an open hand to Match Pricks, and saying, "Match Pricks, I am not unlike you. I, too, embrace and cherish the warm touch of freedom. Let us welcome the new season together, arm in arm, like brothers awaiting the return of our beloved papa!"

For now, I await rather than reject Putin's efforts. Bring me photos similar to these, only with Jintao joining you in your freedom pursuits, and we can discuss things further, Putin.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Don't look back in anger

"The English just don't work on developing players like Alonso - a 'pivote' in Spanish terms."
– Phil Ball, April 18, 2005

My denial ended this morning when I saw that Xabi Alonso handed in a formal transfer request at Liverpool. He's set, certainly now, to move to Real Madrid for somewhere in the area of £30 million or a bit less. It's an excellent profit on the £10.5 million Rafa spent in 2004 for him, but it's only money. Liverpool is clearly the loser in this transaction.

The above excerpt from Phil Ball is from what has always been my favorite take on Alonso. Nothing I've ever read elsewhere about Xabi's unique skills and ability to play the game ever matched up so closely with how I felt about what I was seeing from him. I strongly encourage you to read the entire piece, Ball's take on Liverpool's place in the European game after the 0-0 draw in Turin that paved the way for the miracle of Istanbul. Oddly enough, Ball's 2005 Champions League analysis also holds the answer to how we've arrived at today, with Liverpool set to lose its absolutely priceless "pivote."

"I remember late last summer when Alonso's transfer to Liverpool was confirmed. He'd been in Real Madrid's orbit for several months, and there had been rumours here in San Sebastián that he'd signed some kind of pre-contract agreement with them - something Xabi always denied.

He has a flat just around the corner from me (well - it belongs to his folks) and almost every morning before he packed his bags to try his luck abroad he would have his café con leche (in a glass) and croissant in my local bar. One morning, as he sat quietly on his own on a barstool reading Marca, some wag standing at the bar quipped 'Xabi! Don't go to bloody Madrid, please!' Alonso looked up from the tabloid and smiled. 'I'm not going there. Don't worry', whereupon the local star went calmly back to his coffee and paper.

What neither I nor the wag knew at that precise moment was that José Antonio Camacho, newly returned to Madrileño fields to sort out the galácticos, had told Florentino Pérez that he didn't fancy Alonso - that he wasn't his type of player. Pérez, who had been previously advised by the Director of Football Jorge Valdano to buy Alonso at all costs, was keen on placating Camacho at that delicate point in proceedings, and wanted him to feel that he he could get his own way, particularly in matters of signings. This had been Camacho's big whinge the previous time he'd walked out on the club. So Alonso was dropped from the shopping list, Benitez replaced Houllier at Anfield, and wasted no time in bringing him over to the Mersey."

In 2009, there is no more Camacho that needs to be placated. There is only Valdano who tells Perez how to spend the money – wherever it's coming from. And with Xabi making his intentions unmistakable, here we are then.

It is impossible – and, I would maintain, improper and impolite, too – for Liverpool supporters to look angrily toward Alonso for choosing this move. He is owed every gratitude for his part in the two most thrilling Liverpool stretches of this decade: the miracle of Istanbul (only possible because of his brilliance in Turin in that 0-0 with Juventus when Gerrard didn't play) and his consistent brilliance last season, when the team made its most serious, sustained run at the title.

But from a personal standpoint, I owe Alonso for the lifelong gift he gave me during his time with Liverpool. He showed me how to understand – really understand – the game: how it works, how attacks form, how its most thrilling aspect – the pass – can reveal the joys and exhilirations that come with watching it. I am one of those ignorant Americans the popular press enjoys mocking. I've never played the game at any serious level, didn't grow up watching it, had no mentor to show me the ropes at any point. In 2004, I was blindly watching Liverpool, having only grown attached to the team in about 2000 when I first seriously started watching football. In the five years Alonso spent at Liverpool, that all changed. Alonso's approach to "executing football" unlocked all the doors for me, and I came to treasure the sport beyond those who just thrill at the sight of a grease-topped fancy lad spreading his legs over a free kick, his ass perched daintily in the air, and blasting the ball over a wall. Brilliant free kickers and penalty takers come and go. But Alonso, this was someone whose calm, reasoned approach to distributing the football explained to me in easy-to-understand terms how 11 players work together.

I'll watch the game for the rest of my life through Alonso-colored glasses. I couldn't be more grateful.

Good luck, Xabi – to an extent, of course. As a Liverpool supporter, I so desperately want the team to meet Madrid in the knockout stages of the Champions League that it will likely border on a type of mania as that stage of the competition approaches. It is not hatred for you or what you want to accomplish. I hope Liverpool gets a chance to face you at your best. You felt insulted by the Gareth Barry madness of summer 2008, responded with your finest-ever season and then chose to move on. I can accept that. Rather, it is the colorful trinkets that have been assembled to surround you at Madrid that I want Liverpool to conquer – again, I should remind.

Here's hoping that meeting is coming up soon.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Emiliano ‘the balls’ Insua about to get the shot he needs to blast the Premier League into a concussed state

Match Pricks has no choice but to interrupt its summer-long smacking of Jintao in the face to actually get back to business and post something today. Yes, you've forgotten about us, but thanks to Twitter and Facebook, those of you who could be bothered to remember we exist during the Summer of '09 are back here reading this today. And there's a good chance you're as jacked into the stratosphere as I am because you heard Fabio Aurelio hurt his knee pretty seriously while playing with his children back home in Brazil.

Why is a serious injury to Aurelio being greeted so warmly? Why am I positively giddy about a loyal, effective servant looking at a long stretch out of action? It's all about the balls, baby.

Type in the term "Insua" on our handy-dandy Match Pricks search engine here, and you're going to to find buckets of high praise for Emiliano Inusa, who is by any definitiion, the balls when it comes to exciting possibilities for Liverpool out of the left back position. Insua blew doors off the League at times and offered thrilling attacking possibilities when pressed into duty last season in December while Aurelio was hurt and Dossena was playing like he was wearing the opposition's shirt.

In short, I'm hopeful Aurelio loses his spot in the first team. Yeah, that sounds awful, but I have seen the way and the light, and its name is Insua. He was unfairly ripped from the team in January to go play in some U-20 hooey-phooey tournament for Argentina. He never got all the way back into the lineup – mostly because Aurelio in the second half of last season was so amazing. Still, Blackburn at Anfield as spring was sprung featured Insua and Riera performing an Astaire-like showstopper of movement and one-touch passing up and down the Liverpool left flank that looked like professionals giving some good-natured business to a group of giggling schoolchildren.

Fabio, you're amazing. We love you. We really do love you. The free kick at Old Trafford last year is seared into my memory. Your second-half play was a jolt of energy to a nervous bunch of fans clinging to a title chase that didn't pan out. I hope your health returns and you live a happy life that includes much more football.

I just want to see Insua charge out this season and blow the dicks off the Premier League. The kid is incredible. And I'm certain given an extended run with the first team, we're going to see even more great stuff. With Johnson and Insua out there, well, whaddya know, Liverpool will feature a pair of attacking fullbacks. Who knew?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Current Status: Attacking throw, Arsenal Gunners of London

Big news today. Potentially widespread ramifications and something we've all been hearing whispers of for months, if not dreading for years. After all, sports will all be under the same umbrella by 2015, won't it? And by it all I mean down to the game of whiffle ball you're playing in your background, with that oak tree as second base, the neighbor's sidewalk as the warning track and the old man next door's Ford Taurus as third. That heated match, between you and your eight year old nephew, will probably be on ESPN 523. Or maybe I'm quite certain you'll be able to just pull up the live blog an see the updating status on your iPhone. It was bound to happen.

For now, however, we'll have to settle for what we've got and somehow make do. ESPN has acquired Setanta's rights to broadcast the English Premier League.  

The details will surely trickle out in the coming days and weeks. The biggest thing we worry about when it comes to such things is a change in our routine. Please say it ain't so. Please say you, ESPN, wont unravel what has become the structure of my life. I'm having a hard enough time shaking off a severe level of depression with the absence of league football and the onset of a summer with no proper international tournament to pass the time until August. And yeah, the Confederations Cup does not count. This year's tournament is akin to Rocky Balboa's final exhibition fight against Mason Dixon. A bunch of nobodies trotting out and taking their shot against a team that is so far and away superior that it almost tarnishes how well they are actually playing to even face the opposition. It remains to be seen whether or not one of the upstarts (perhaps those plucky Americans on Wednesday?) will actually turn up and make a fight out of this exhibition. But I digress...

In America, when it comes to ESPN, we get announcers with no credentials (see the comments in the above article - Shaka Hislop?). We get terminology that churns our pretentious and stuck-up stomachs ("and that'll be a PK for the Samba Kings from South America's BraZil"). And we get Manchester United. A lot of Manchester United. In fact, we get so much Manchester United that ESPN featured the club on their ticker just the other day when it was announced that Carlos Tevez would not be returning to the club. Now, rightly so and credit where credit is due, they have won the league three years running and have made the last two Champions League finals - winning, of course, in 2008. They deserve the coverage. But at what cost? Watching the coverage from the American sports conglomerate one would think it a fait accompli that United would surely win the league each year ... if they don't, well, my oh my, they must've been cheated. It's their trophy, isn't it? In fact, all trophies really and truly belong to them. Surely there aren't other teams in the league who compete? 

When news of ESPN potentially winning this contract first started reaching our ears several months ago Jim and I had a conversation that focused on the potential changes at hand. Whether it was out of pure absurdity, silliness, jealousy or even fear of the full reach of Jintao's spindly little fingers, we ended up with a rather terrifying and distopian view of our future as football viewers in America who hitch their very sanity to the fact that they count on a 6:30 a.m. match, a 9:00 a.m. match, an 11:30 a.m. match and a 1:30 p.m. replay - every Saturday - with a 7:30 a.m. match and a 10:00 a.m. match - every Sunday. Clock.Work. Much more than our watches are set by that schedule. And rest assured we're not alone. Every one of you reading Match Pricks from these shores is in the same boat. We've got the schedule, the lifestyle and the bags under our eyes to prove it. And you know what? We enjoy getting to watch Aston Villa vs. Fulham (hell, we relish it!). We're happy to check in on Bolton (no, really, we are) and Tottenham (no, I'm not smirking, really, full respect) and a shot of White Heart Lane in full voice. West Ham, Birmingham, Reading, Southampton, Portsmouth, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal, Charlton, Norwich, Sheffield United, City ... we embrace and enjoy watching all of them through the course of a weekend. It's like family members coming over to dinner, or rather, breakfast (and lunch, sometimes we make it to dinner too ... sometimes).

So imagine our fear when we hear that ESPN - the network that broadcasts every one of Manchester United's European Cup group stage and knockout matches, the network that regularly gives us highlight updates on their Sportscenter shows, the network that runs news of Carlos Tevez simply not re-upping his contract on their ticker - has won the rights to broadcast the league that we turn to like a five year old turns to his tattered old teddy bear. As I say, we toyed with this look into the future a few months ago and we didn't like what we saw. That we never laid out the thoughts in full, beyond an assortment of notes, must've spoken at some primal level to a desperate hope that it wouldn't come true. Well, gird yourselves, folks. The dam is about to burst.

ESPN will be tripping over itself to bring us more news every day in the run-up before the season. It'll be an effort to continue to convert their American audience. We'll get news of United's bid for Karim Benzema. We'll hear all about Ecuadorean and soon-to-be ex-Wigan striker Valencia and how he'll incorporate with United's midfield. Little Tommy Smyth will stop rubbing Sir Alex Jintao's feet long enough to tell us just how deadly Dimitar Berbatov is (Barry Melrose will stop talking about hockey for the few minutes necessary to chime in and compare him to Brett Hull) and how versatile Rooney can be now that he's not watching Ronaldo loping up and down the pitch, Mike & Mike in the Morning will have a couple of United bobbleheads on their desk every morning. We'll get updates on Colleen's ultrasounds straight up until delivery in US Weekly and on Entertainment Tonight (that show is still on, isn't it?)

And don't forget the diving. We'll hear all about how the departure of Ronaldo will be a good thing for United, ushering in a greater level of team play ... one that will allow Sir Alex Jintao to build a new team for the future, for the next five to 10 years, so that he can sit back and retire, knowing fully well that his treasured side will be on auto-pilot. Selling Ronaldo will have been the most brilliant stroke of his long career. After all, no one really and truly liked him anyway, did they? Not that egotistical, pawning, preening and self-promoting poon-hound. Oh rest assured, we'll hear all about that.

And you'll get your hopes up, won't you, for some nice, clear and shiny high-definition games? It's ESPN after all, isn't it? You bet it is, kiddies. E.S.P.N. And hey, they're American. If they won't bring you football in HD, who will? Oh yeah, it'll be sweet. We'll get those HD games alright. Live and direct from Old Trafford where they'll have that pitch lined with HD cameras all set to bring it straight to America from 68 different angles. You'll see those prawn sandwiches in enough detail to tell just how fresh they are. You'll be able to tell how old van der Saar really is, how many minutes Rio was late for his most recent drugs test just from looking deep into his eyes, how muddled Owen Hargreaves' accent is from watching his lips move and just how many shades of purple Sir Alex Jintao's nose is by now. Hell, you'll be able to read the song sheet that kid is clinging to in row YY and see that it's simply the tune to Old McDonald.

But will you get to see your team? A team you once referred to simply as The Arsenal, or Liverpool, even Chelsea, Everton, or West Ham? Well for starters you can get used to hearing about the legendary career of Theeray Hen-ry at the Arsenal Gunners of North London, the heroics of Ferdinand Torres at the Liverpool Reds and the fortunes of other far-flung teams like the Chelsea Lions, the Everton Toffees (a team based in Everton, England of course) and the West Ham Hammers - with their popular number one fan Elijah Wood.

That'll be a trip, won't it? You'll have the TV on mute by the second week of September. If, that is, you can get the signal to come in. See, ESPN will have poured so much money into acquiring the rights and upgrading their equipment to project the most fantastic HD images out of Old Trafford that the rest of our games will come through in a jumpy black & white feed of 80 percent static that'll make everyone feel like a bunch of junior high kids trying to get the Playboy channel to come in at a sleep-over. Look inside yourself, you know it's true. No matter what size television screen your football pub or living room comes equipped with, you'll be squinting at a snowy 13 inch transmission that'll have you swearing Paulo di Canio just scored for Chelsea and that Arsenal actually featured a team of veterans. 

Shortly thereafter, we'll be forced into the streets. Our retinas will be too burned out. Flattened and cross-eyed we'll scramble into the closest public square outside of our favourite football pubs where a giant board will have been erected and our publican, rather than insulting the early morning drunks in jest and tossing napkins in the air after another famous goal, will update the giant tote board from a ladder and with a long reaching stick like a man pulled forward out of 1893, sliding numbers and names across the ledger to keep us up-to-the-every-20-minutes as the news trickles in from such far-flung non-Manchester outposts as London, Liverpool and Birmingham. For those of us too far back to get a decent look at the board and the score updates, we'll rely on his partner who stands at the base of the board equipped with a large cardboard shouting tube, no mega-phone here folks, there's no municipality in the United States crazy enough to allow an electric amplification device that early in the morning (There are decent folk here! By God, they need their sleep to keep society running!). With each update, with each pass of that long reaching stick across the beloved and soon-to-be cherished Big Board (I can only imagine it'll evolve into a shrine, like the unexploded bomb in Beneath the Planet of the Apes), that man will simply bellow out for all to hear ...

"Attacking throw to the Arsenal!"

And a general "hurrah!" will push up from the crowd. My how quickly things can change. At least there'll still be booze.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Slightly more detailed first impressions of the 2009-10 Premier League fixture list

(Editor's note: Scroll down for more fixture list 2009-10 news not covered here. This one is basically how things start and how they end, with a key point or two thrown in.)

After looking at things a bit, there's some stretches that jump out at my Liverpool fandom. First up is the opportunity for a flying start. (I'll get to Arsenal in a bit as Colin is sleeping like a normal person while I stay up after work for these sorts of things.)

NOTE: There's no dates and times included because, obviously, TV rules all over this stuff and things can change/get postponed. Hey, the list came out 30 minutes ago.

Here's the first seven before Liverpool heads to Chelsea:
– @ Spurs
– Stoke City
– Aston Villa
– @ Bolton
– Burnley
– @ West Ham
– Hull City

The pessimist or Liverpool detractor would point out the two 0-0 with Stoke last year and, of course, Burnley's infamous FA Cup victory at Anfield a couple years back. Sure, but I'll take my chances with this start.

The Merseyside derbies are 28 Nov. (Goodison) and 6 Feb. (Anfield). The second one is interesting in that, as the schedule now stands, Liverpool is slated to play at the Emirates on 9 Feb. in the second of this season's Match Pricks derbies. That's an intense four days.

OK, the run-in, which we all love to think about:
20 March – @ United
27 March – Sunderland
3 April – @ Birmingham City
10 April – Fulham
17 April – West Ham
24 April – @ Burnley
1 May – Chelsea
9 May – @ Hull City

I included the dates here because toward the end of the season, the fixtures are generally less clogged with competing competitions. Like last year, that March date at Old Trafford looms large. I'm talking 4-1 kind of large. Too far away to think too hard about it. Chelsea on the season's penultimate weekend is too much to comprehend right now, either. Fun to think about, though.

OK, on to Arsenal, though not as in depth as Colin's the better voice on that particular subject.

Arsenal's start:
– @ Everton
– Portsmouth
– @ United (Such fun to see the early biggie on the list)
– @ Manchester City
– Wigan Athletic
– @ Fulham
– Blackburn
– Birmingham City
– @ West Ham
– Spurs

Some away challenges there to start, but my first thought is it gives Arsenal an excellent chance to get tricky ones out of the way and really lay a quick punch on United.

Here's the Arsenal gauntlet for 2009-10, though:
– 27 Jan. @ Aston Villa
– 30 Jan. United
– 6 Feb. @ Chelsea
– 9 Feb. Liverpool

I included the dates there mostly for effect, because at that time of the year, fixtures are getting postponed all over the place with the Carling Cup wrapping up, the FA Cup kicking up and all sorts of other stuff. But if it goes off as set, what a crazy two weeks for Arsenal supporters.

Arsenal's run-in:
– 3 April Wolves
– 10 April @ Spurs
– 17 April @ Wigan Athletic
– 24 April Manchester City
– 1 May @ Blackburn
– 9 May Fulham

Ahem ... well, that's not exactly a set any title-chasing side would overly stress about when considering. Where will Arsenal be in the table when they wake up April 3, 2010?

OK, all good stuff. We're less than two months away. Can't wait.

Can't forget Boxing Day

What are you doing Dec. 26, 2009? I know where I'll be, friends. Here's the lineup:

Arsenal v. Aston Villa
Birmingham City v. Chelsea
Burnley v. Bolton Wanderers
Fulham v. Tottenham Hotspur
Hull v. Manchester United
Liverpool v. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Manchester City v. Stoke City
Sunderland v. Everton
West Ham United v. Portsmouth
Wigan Athletic v. Blackburn Rovers

It's a Saturday this year, by the way. (sniff) (looooong tooth suck) (deep ear plunge)