Champions League Semi-Finals Preview: The Storylines

27 April 2009

With the Champions League semi-finals starting tomorrow, what are some of the storylines I'll be following over the two legs between Barcelona v Chelsea and Manchester United v Arsenal? Let's take a look.

Barcelona v Chelsea
1) Which Chelsea players mark what Barcalona players? We've already been told that Jose Bosingwa will move into the suspended Ashley Cole's left back role. Bosingwa v Messi has every possibility of a major mis-match. According to my research, the only other time Bosingwa has been at left back (other than last Saturday), was back in September of 2007 when he was put there in national team duty. It's obviously a pace mismatch and Bosingwa will primarily be told to keep chipping away at Messi in hopes of taking him off his game. That won't work.

The other battles I'm expecting is Essien v Iniesta and Ballack v Toure. It's going to be up to Essien to keep the balls from spraying into the attack and Ballack's strong frame will be expected to bully Toure out of the game. However, Iniesta is no Steven Gerrard (he's just a TAD bit better...FIFA Player of the Year candidate better) and Toure's pace should be no problem for the aging Ballack.

2) The Defensive Trio. The two center backs and goal keepers for both sides are going to be in for very different battles. Alex, John Terry, and Petr Cech better be prepared to see more shots than they see in five Premier League games at the Nou Camp. Cech's confidence, penalty save aside at the weekend, is not that high right now. His positioning over the last month has been severely suspect. With Carvalho out, Chelsea's center backs will have to defend deeper as Alex or Terry do not have the pace to track back.

Puyol, Marquez and Valdes have their own issues, but are a much stronger trio than their Chelsea counterparts. If there is anyone that can be exploited defensively for Barcelona, it's Marquez. His pace and strength can let him down. Puyol's positioning is simply superb and helps him make up for his lack of pace. Their set piece defense is pretty awful and is something Chelsea should be looking to exploit. They should also look to exploit Puyol having to defend the space Alves loves to abandon when trying to get into the attack.

3) Can Chelsea avoid the red card? The last two times Chelsea played Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the knockout stages, they have seen a person sent off. Playing eleven v eleven will be tough enough as it is. Should Chelsea lose a man, it will be an open invitation for Barcelona to name their own scoreline. With Wolfgang Stark scheduled to be the man in the middle, Chelsea better not let their hot heads cost them stupid bookings.

4) Experienced Manager v First Year in the Big Time. Frankly this shouldn't even be a talking point, but I've heard too many people bring it up to not discuss it. Sure Guus Hiddink has been through the battles before, but people have over hyped the adjustments he has made in game. They haven't made as big an impact as those in the English media will want to claim. Simply stated, it will take a masterplan the likes Hiddink had in Russia's defeat of Holland to beat Barcelona over two legs.

Pep Guardiola simply has the best collection of talent in the world at present. So far this season, unless it's been after an international, this team has clicked on all cylinders. As long as he continues to manage as he has all season long (and there is no doubt in my mind he will), he will be just fine.

Manchester United v Arsenal
1) The Injury Front. Arsenal are a bit of a walking wounded at the moment. No Van Persie, no Clichy (at least until the second leg) and Silvestre is a major injury doubt. One big boost for Wenger is that Almunia returned against Middlesbrough and had a comfortable game between the sticks.

Manchester United are relatively healthy with Wes Brown coming back. Gary Neville will miss at least the first leg.

2) Who does Fergie Start? What I mean by this is who plays in the midfield and up front? I would expect Anderson and Giggs to start in the midfield and Rooney and Tevez to play up front. The rest of this Manchester United line up sets itself. I think with Giggs in the midfield, he will be the link between the back and the attack and act as a calming influence for the team overall.

I see Berbatov and Scholes being used off the bench in both games to give an added dimension.

3) Can Arsenal's back line hold? This is the key for me in this tie. Between the injuries and players returning from injuries, it's going to be vital for the Gunners to keep their shape.

4) The Crowd Atmosphere. Old Trafford in European competitions has not been loud while the Emirates has come round on European nights. The added crowd volume could be the extra motivation needed to decide this tie.

My Predictions
Barcelona I don't think will have any problem disposing of Chelsea. I see it 3-1 at the Nou Camp and 2-1 to Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Barcelona 5 Chelsea 2

As for the all-English affair, I'm going to go with my gut. I see a 1-1 at Old Trafford and a 1-0 to Arsenal at the Emirates. Arsenal 2 Manchester United 1

What are your thoughts on the Champions League semi-finals? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


Weekend Thoughts: West Brom Gives False Hope, What's In The Sandy Water

26 April 2009

This was a strange weekend for me watching football. The fan in me spent the entire weekend worried sick over my team's midweek encounter with Barcelona. Oh well I can talk about that later.

The big surprise to me was West Brom's 3-0 victory over Sunderland. The more I thought the result, the more it shouldn't have shocked me. If there is a team playing right now just as appalling as West Brom have played of late, Middlesbrough aside, is Sunderland.

The Black Cats just didn't look like they gave a toss as West Brom smoked them. I still don't know what is harder to believe, the fact West Brom scored three or the fact West Brom kept a clean sheet. I think the clean sheet is the easier of the two to believe. It was only Sunderland after all.

But this ultimately was a false hope day. My guess is that West Brom fans feels they know they are already down and this was the perfect tease. Sunderland fans be warned, you are only going to stay up because of how bad everyone else is at the bottom.

Having watched the last half hour of the first half between Real Salt Lake and New England, I wasn't impressed with the football on offer and quickly switched to Seattle and San Jose. In a way I wish I would have stayed with the events in Sandy Utah.

Six goals in a game is rare, six goals in forty-five minutes is just insane. Seeing the highlights of this game was just depressing. If there is any big storyline coming out of the first month and a half of the MLS season, it's the Western Conference is a much stronger conference than we could have ever imagined. RSL if they can ever figure out how on a consistent basis to win on the road, they could be a threat.

New England just don't look the same side that had come to winning the MLS Cup two season's back and sometime this week I will be writing on where it has all gone wrong for the Revolution.

Other Thoughts
I would like to see how anyone missed the fact Liverpool's second goal started from an illegal position? Either way it wasn't going to matter. Hull put up a fight, but couldn't finish anything they started.

Chelsea are lucky their 'let us get out of this game with West Ham with as little effort as possible' scheme didn't backfire. West Ham looked the better team from start to finish to me.

People will disagree with me on this one, but I thought Howard Webb made the right decision by calling a penalty on Gomes challenge on Michael Carrick. It wasn't an excuse however for the cheap way Tottenham folded.

You have to give Sam Allardyce credit for keeping Blackburn up. From a side that was in total disarray when he took over in December, he will now have a summer to build what he wants. I could see them making a cup run next season and flirting with a top half finish.

The attendances in Colorado and Miami did not pass my eye test. There looked like there was only about 5500 in Commerce City and only about 1000 in Fort Lauderdale.

The league has simply passed Frank Yallop by. He was taken to school by Seattle, who has a manager that has adopted to the ever evolving league. I don't see Yallop lasting out the season.

I don't know how else to say it but Chivas USA just continue to amaze me. That said, it took them way too long to get the opener against FC Dallas.

How did New York blow that game against DC United on the green concrete of the Meadowlands? Osario maybe a good tactician, but he can't tactic shambolic defending in the final five minutes of the ninety. I thought DC United were fatigued after sixty-five minutes but New York continue their tradition of blowing games in spectacular fashion.

I'm curious to see who ends up with the full time manager gig in Toronto. Despite the adversity, they handled Kansas City about as well as could be expected. I was not expecting them to get three points.

So what were your thoughts on this weekend's action? Let me know by leaving a comment below.


John Carver Quits Toronto Football Club

25 April 2009

Well I cannot say I'm shocked about this one. The writing looked to be on the wall Wednesday night.

According to the Globe and Mail in Canada, John Carver has quit as manager of Toronto Football Club with immediate effect. He was only on the job fifteen months and will most likely be remembered for two things; the first being his very outspoken nature towards officials and the second for failing miserably to get TFC into the CONCACAF Champions League.

It wasn't a big secret that Carver wanted back at Newcastle United if Alan Shearer were to ever take over as manager. With Shearer back in charge, all he needed was a reason to get out of town. With Carver feeling he didn't get the proper backing by TFC for his rant of the refereeing in their 3-2 loss against FC Dallas, that was the straw that broke the camel's back. Carver stayed in a private box for Toronto's win over Chivas USA, and it hindsight we should have had our first clue something of this nature was going to happen.

If Carver was going to quit, he should have done it on Thursday morning. To do so 24 hours before a game, is simply put, the cheap, pathetic, and disgraceful way out. I hope he enjoys being an assistant manager to a Championship side next season.

In a way I'll miss Carver. He wasn't afraid to let his mind be known. MLS needs more managers like that in the league. It also will be interesting to see who Toronto appoints as full time manager. In my mind they have enough pieces to the puzzle to be a contender. The only question is can they find the man to put them all together.


Premier Leauge Title Decided and Other Football Thoughts

22 April 2009

The story out of the Premier League this midweek is a simple one; forget any thoughts on the title race being back on. As I've said from the start, this title race is over. Thanks to another game that is no where near close to being a classic, Liverpool saw Andrey Arshavin break out, scoring four times and needed injury time to pull level. I just don't get why people see this as a classic; the sheer number of goals does not a classic make.

That result had to have Sir Alex Ferguson all giddy as Wayne Rooney's early first half goal and Michael Carrick's second half goal easily finished off Portsmouth. Chelsea on the other hand was forced to concede the title race after huffing and puffing but not scoring against Everton. By 10 pm BST, Manchester United had regained a three point lead. United also still has a game in hand.

Yes, Manchester United has been on a wobble of late. However FA Cup semi-final aside, United has always found a way to stay at the top. The pairing of Vidic and Ferdinand are back in sync. Ronaldo and Rooney have refound the drive that looked to be missing. Carlos Tevez looks completely committed to the United cause. But more importantly, it may have helped Manchester United to be knocked out of the FA Cup to regain some sense of focus as the season comes to a close.

For Liverpool and Chelsea, there is always next season. However, I'm ready to start considering Arsenal for legit title contenders next season. I'll explain why during the summer.

Other Midweek Thoughts
* Congrats are in order to Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen for making it to the DFB-Pokal final. Bayer Leverkusen needed extra time to finish off FSV Mainz 05 4-1. Mainz played their hearts out for being a second division side, but once Bayer scored to start the first period of extra time it was curtains.

Werder Bremen and Hamburg was decided from the spot in an intense affair. Hamburg had to finish off extra time down a man as David Jorolim was sent off for denying a goal scoring opportunity. The man of the match however goes to Bremen's goal keeper Tim Wiese, who saved three spot kicks in a row.

Let us not forget that this was the first of four meetings between these two sides over the next nineteen days. Bermen and Hamburg play next Thursday in the UEFA Cup Semi-Final, then they face each other in the Bundesliga on Sunday before the return Semi-Final leg the following Thursday. That's just insane.

* Toronto FC adjusted their lineup and got their first home win of the season defeating Chivas USA 1-0 at BMO Field. I couldn't believe the lack of fight Chivas USA showed throughout the ninety minutes. Zach Thornton did his best to keep Chivas in this tie, but thanks to two consecutive failures late in the first half, Amado Guevara had an easy finish to put this game to bed. In reality, Toronto should have named their own score.

* For those wondering about DC United's 2-0 US Open Cup victory over FC Dallas, here are Steven Goff's post match thoughts.


The Third Half on Forza Futbol

21 April 2009

I was privileged enough to be asked to take part in the latest Forza Futbol podcast as the Champions League quarterfinals were reviewed and the Champions League semi-finals were previewed. For anyone looking to hear about Serie A and La Liga, I would highly recommend listening to their podcast.

Along with Hannah and Mando (the hosts), we were joined by Kevin Walker from SerieAWeekly.

You can directly listen to the show from here. If you want to directly download the show, you can do so from here.


FA Cup Talking Points: Blue Is the Color

19 April 2009

Chelsea and Everton have advanced to the FA Cup finals in two very different games this weekend at Wembley Stadium. So what story lines have come from this weekend?

1) The Media Fabrication of the 'Manchester United Quintuple' is Over.
Let's look at reality here folks; no one in the English media gave a damn about the World Club Championship while it was taking place. It was only after Manchester United won the League Cup that everyone started talking about this whole 'Quintuple'.

The talk was nauseating at the best of times and downright unreadable at the worst. It just felt like the English media was forcing this fabricated title down our throats. However after today, they can not talk about it any longer. They may talk Treble, but one of the competitions will be thrown out the window. The only question is which one will it be? The World Club Championship would be the one I think they eliminate out of our minds because as I said above, the English media only paid token attention to the competition to begin with.

2) The Blunders of Lukasz Fabianski.
The game against Chelsea and Arsenal was not a great game to watch. Bad ball handling, shambolic touches, and bad finishing. But above all else, the Arsenal/Chelsea semi-final will be remembered most for the bad day between the posts for Lukasz Fabianski.

Sure he's the club's number two keeper. But the mistakes he made cost Arsenal a trip to the FA Cup final. He was beaten off his line twice, and the only reason he wasn't beaten the first time was because Kieran Gibbs was faster to the line than Drogba's chip. It would have been a harsh goal to concede so early in the match, but nonetheless they would have deserved to be down.

Malouda's goal was inexcusable. After Walcott got Cech coming from wince he came to put Arsenal ahead, Fabianski was very lax in defending the near post and it bit him in the backside. Malouda, who as most of the Chelsea squad has seen a renaissance under Hiddink, gets the ball just inside the penalty area and given the chance to turn. Fabianski had the angle well cut off on the far post, but was cheating too much to the far side. A deft touch by Malouda was all that was required to beat him near post.

The game winner isn't all on Fabianski, but one has to have learned the lesson of the earlier blunder. Drogba wasn't going to get unfortunate twice.

3) The Revenge of Tim Howard
You won't convince me otherwise, but Tim Howard was made the ultimate scapegoat for Manchester United's elimination in the Champions League to eventual winners Porto. Fergie made the Americans life hell to the point a move out was the only option he had. He got his wish and moved to Everton.

He hasn't been too successful in goal for Everton against Manchester United until today. Don't tell me he didn't have some extra motivation in the penalty shootout against his former side, because I think you'd be lying. It was the perfect opportunity for Howard to escape the ghosts of United past, and he did so brilliantly. Two perfect penalty saves in the first two rounds were all that were required to send Everton into the FA Cup final.

4) Sir Alex Ferguson's Questionable Lineup.
As soon as I saw the line up Manchester United put out against Everton, I was stunned. Sure it was a formidable lineup, but nonetheless it was a side that appeared to be thrown out there for no reason at all. I'd go as far as to say the lineup Ferguson put out in the second leg against Derby County in the League Cup Semi-Final was a stronger lineup than we saw today.

When you don't even bother to put your strongest players in the squad, it tells me that Ferguson took Everton too lightly. In all honesty, I don't think he cared. When it's all said and done, the only competitions Sir Alex gives a damn about are the Premier League and the Champions League. With Portsmouth on Wednesday to increase the lead over Liverpool to four points, this was a game Ferguson could have done without.

5) Was it A Penalty?
I take you back to the 68th Minute of Manchester United v Everton. Danny Welbeck is charging in on goal and Phil Jagielka gets the legs. Letter of the law it's a penalty, but Mike Riley plays on.

Many will scream that David Moyes's comments are the sole reason this wasn't given. Sir Alex has already questioned that fact. However, looking at the replay, there was no way on earth Riley with 100 percent certainty could have given a penalty.

I stand by what I have always said. If it's a letter of the law penalty, it has to be called every single time. For Manchester United had it been called, they are in the final and not Everton. Even David Moyes post match thought it was a penatly.

So congratulations to Chelsea and Everton who will be back at Wembley on May 30th.

What were your thoughts on FA Cup Semi-Final weekend? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


State of The Third Half

17 April 2009

Well another year has come and gone in life and as I sit back and reflect on the last year, it has had to be the most trying year of my life. Between taking care of my old man (ultimately him dying the Saturday before Thanksgiving) and adjusting to life on my own, it's been a trying 12 months.

I have to admit there have been plenty of times over this past year if I was even cut out for being a blogger, but I no longer have those doubts. From starting to blog at Champions Soccer Radio Network regularly to my return to EPL Talk before realizing I needed a serious change in the company I kept, the decisions I made I did not make lightly. If asked if I would change any of the decisions I made, the answer would be the fastest I ever gave. That answer would be an emphatic no.

The highlight of the past twelve months (and boy I have to reach hard for this one) would be getting the opportunity to start my own podcast. It was fun for a few hours a week to just let loose about what I had to think. I haven't forgotten about it and look forward to bringing it back this summer. Check this space for more information about a relaunch date.

Relaunching this blog however has to be the biggest highlight. I guess when it boils down to the bare essences, I got tired of people telling me how to do things and trying to change how I write. I am not going to change for anyone but myself and I consider it a privilege and honor that anyone would take the time out of their day to visit this blog. All I can do is be as honest as I possibly can be.

So what do I see The Third Half becoming over the next twelve months? First and foremost I want this to become a place of frank honest opinion. I am pleased that is already starting to happen and I hope it continues in earnest over the next twelve months. Secondly, I want this to become a place that you feel the need to visit daily. I know that is entirely all on me and over the course of the next few months, I intend to work my ass off for that to happen.

Overall, those who I thanked when this site relaunched deserve the same thank you now. For those who have stopped by since, thank you as well. Here's hoping a year from now there is alot for me to be thankful for!


FA Cup Semi-Finals Preview: On The Road To Wembley...At Wembley.

16 April 2009

I haven't had a proper chance to rant about this topic, so tonight I shall. The FA Cup Semi-Finals should not be at Wembley Stadium.

Say what you want to about the FA Cup, I simply love the competition. Sure with all the money in the Premier League, the competition for the top flight clubs is heading down the road of the League Cup (if it isn't already there now). But I'll always love the competition. It was this competition where I heard my first commentary for the team I support (2001-02 FA Cup: Tottenham v Chelsea). No matter who's still involved, I still look forward to each round of the knock out competition.

The semi-finals should be a good day out for supporters. No matter if the games were at Old Trafford or at Villa Park (the two semi-final venues I'm use to the most), they always seemed to be special occasions. Knowing that you were one victory away from going to Wembley (or Cardiff) seemed to bring out the best in players.

Enter the New Wembley Stadium and enter the 2008 semi-finals. A decision that I will question until the end of time was made to host both semi-finals at Wembley. Immediately the reward of making it to the FA Cup final was bastardized into a trivial semi-final. What's so special about the final at Wembley if you've just played the semi-final there? Are the FA that desperate to pay off the note on the place?

The semi-finals at Wembley only adds fuel to those who argue the FA Cup has lost it luster. Some might say that moving the FA Cup Final out of England started this trend, but I respond to that by saying it isn't that much of a stretch to move the final to a city that has a team in the English football ladder. What is wrong with using Old Trafford, Villa Park or the Emirates? The answer is the FA needing to pay off a stadium that was well late in being built.

So how do these FA Cup Semi-Finals play out? Let's take a look.

Arsenal v Chelsea (Saturday 12:15 pm on Setanta Sports): Chelsea has a serious problem right now in central defense. It doesn't help either Petr Cech is going through a spell where he has become the team's biggest liability. Arsenal's central defense without Gallas will have a fun time trying to contain Drogba or Anelka, whomever is central. Arsenal has beaten Chelsea in their last six in the competition. With Adebayor and Walcott, I expect that to be number a rout. Arsenal 3 Chelsea 1.

Manchester United v Everton (Sunday 11:00 am on Fox Soccer Channel): This is a very tricky game for Manchester United. They just got done with a tricky Porto side and have a game against Portsmouth midweek to increase their lead at the top of the Premier League. Everton will think they have a serious chance at winning. However with Jo cup tied, I wonder who up front can get the goals. Oh what am I saying, that hasn't stopped them before. Will the quad dream die here for Manchester United? I don't think so, but it won't be for a lack of trying...and extra time. Manchester United 3 Everton 2 after extra time.

Who do you think will be playing in the FA Cup final? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


Site Plan For The Rest Of The Week

15 April 2009

Don't you just love it when you are with power for any length of time?

Losing my power on Tuesday has put me in a lovely situation, trying to catch up on all Champions League matches. I should be able to do so by Friday night, when I will have my Champions League quarter final story lines.

Thursday night I will have my thoughts on the upcoming FA Cup semi-finals.

I am also working on a state of The Third Half address that I will be making a yearly tradition on my birthday which happens to be Friday.

I am tentatively scheduled to be on Forza Futbol Friday night to discuss the Champions League results.

Again, thank you for your patience as I get completely fully up and running. It should be sooner rather than later.


USL Live v The Video Wars

12 April 2009

With today being the start of the United Soccer League's season, we were privileged to have the opportunity to watch a league's matches live for free via an online platform. With the quality of USL 1 as good if not better than Major League Soccer, I was counting down the days from the press release to the opening night. Having gone against my better judgment and purchased the online video package, it makes the perfect opportunity to compare the two products.

USL Live
Obviously the word free is enticing enough to give anything a chance. I was semi-annoyed with having to register, but understand that USL and Umbro want to have a good idea of where people are watching from (and to track which matches you are following). So after a registration that took about two minutes, I clicked on the Minnesota Thunder vs the Carolina Railhawks.

Having done a quick check of the video quality, the stream is currently better than the best Setanta Broadband has to offer (Setanta's highest is only a 600 kb/s video stream. USL Live checked in at 650 kb/s). I just find irony in the fact that a free product is offering a better video quality at present (of course that could change with Setanta's new broadband package...I wait with fainted breath). While this isn't as high as the MLSNet video is, for free I can take only a 150 kb/s difference as a difference isn't that big between 650 and 800 kb/s. That is strictly from an eye test I did tonight while watching the two products side by side as I didn't notice a big enough change to make a big deal out of it.

As for the broadcast itself, the camera angles were standard fare. If I had to venture a guess, there were 8 camera angles being used and those in charge of production did a good job in using the correct ones. About the only complaint would be replays were a bit delayed, but once they were ready, you were quickly taken to them once there was a dead ball situation. There was a scoreboard with the current score, but getting the exact minute would have required using your own stopwatch from kickoff.

I did have a couple of complaints. I was not pleased with the commentary team used in Carolina (the Vancouver broadcast was much more professional in the booth) and I did have some buffering issues with the second game of the night. But overall, I was more than pleased with the product on offer and I would encourage everyone to give it a try.
Obviously the drawback is the 19.95 price tag when if you are patient, can more than likely catch the game on replay on the television affiliate. I know I have done that on a couple of occasions this season. This year they are using the tag "Featuring 800kb Streams in 2009" which tells me that they knew their product was inferior and needed a major upgrade. Having seen the product the first few weeks this season, the video quality has much improved over last season.

The biggest plus is you are dealing with a network broadcast, meaning you are going to get as close to a professional broadcast as possible out of the video you watch. Some teams like Seattle, Columbus and Toronto get it right while watching games from the New England, Chivas USA and Houston (despite having Glenn Davis in the booth) feed is like watching a broadcast that would require teeth to be extracted to get through it. Much better camera angles, quicker replays, and unless you were watching the Toronto/Dallas game tonight, a full scoreboard.

My biggest complaint about this product is the fact that despite giving one time that the stream will be live, at times it is not until after kickoff before you can get the game. In a case tonight, Seattle Sounders and Kansas City while acknowledged to be screened on, simply was not with no explanation given. Instead about fifteen minutes into the match the black screen that was up died and the listing was removed that the game was being shown live. That is simply inexcusable for a paid product to do that to fans.

Is the product worth 19.95? That's honestly a toss up for me. When there is a free product out there that is just as good a product you are charging for, why bother paying? I have no fan allegiance to any MLS side (I should not I do not as well for any USL side) and the only reason I purchase the product is so I can write about it (as I get back into the swing of things I will be more). However if left to a casual fan's perspective...I wouldn't pay.

If having to choose one as a winner, I would have to pick USL Live. Sorry MLS, but the word free when the products are pretty similar puts this war over the top.


Middlesbrough and Newcastle Keep It Interesting At The Bottom

11 April 2009

It's the same recording year in, year out. It's always more interesting at the bottom than it is at the top. It's never been truer than this season.

Just when I was ready (in fact I'm sure on more than one occasion on Twitter I have) to condemn Middlesbrough to the Championship, they got life in taking on a lifeless dull Hull City side that has been more than exposed this season. The biggest smoke and mirror manager Phil Brown sure has work to do if he wants to keep Hull City up. If there was any game that the Tigers could use to keep one foot in the Premier League, this was it...

They bottled it faster than a chef in the middle of Kitchen Nightmares. Down in three minutes, trailing for good before the half hour. Middlesbrough given belief they can stay in the top flight. Added with Sunderland's lax defending in gifting Manchester United three points, the difference between survival and the drop is just two points. However there are still six teams within four points of each other.

I wonder what Marlon King was thinking after putting the third in for Middlesbrough? If he thinks anything like me, a good sense of justice served would be it.

Newcastle needed something to build on today against Stoke City, and for the better part of an hour they didn't look like getting it. Stoke City got a gritty first half goal and continued to boss Newcastle around the park. But Newcastle weren't going to roll over in the same manner they did against Chelsea knowing the circumstances.

Newcastle finally started getting forward and Stoke City forgot how to. By the time Newcastle equalized, I felt they were going to go on and get the winner. However Stoke City decided to wake up from their nap and by the time it was all said and done a draw was the fair result.

What this weekend proved if anything was that the relegation battle is surely far from over, more so than I thought. I was expecting by the end of today's play to have two teams down for good leaving one spot left. Now we have two spots that are very open.

Other Thoughts

  • I understand today was an emotional day at Anfield, but I expected Blackburn to at least turn up. Their play was more than shocking.
  • Peter Walton continues to show why he shouldn't be a Premier League referee any longer. That was never a penalty he gave at Stamford Bridge. Even more so, it now becomes the biggest point of debate because Bolton produced one hell of a fightback, even it it did come up short. Chelsea can consider themselves the luckiest Premier League team of the moment because that game should have ended 3-3.
  • Well it was nice of West Brom to actually take the lead at Fratton Park...for less than five minutes. I hope they have fun in the Championship next season.
  • I was shocked when Wigan took the lead against Arsenal. I was only a little surprised at the 1-4 full time result. That will be an excellent result for them heading into their midweek clash against Villareal.


Where's the Good Friday Football

10 April 2009

With all the money now in the game, it's sad some traditions have gone to the wayside.

Having Good Friday off work (I understand that not all do), even as far as a couple of seasons ago, I use to enjoy waking up and spending the late morning into the afternoon watching the beautiful game. Even when it was one of the worst games of football I had ever watched, I just enjoyed the extra day to watch football.

Today there are no Premier League games. With the big four playing midweek, and Manchester City playing Thursday, that would only leave five options for games today. But why not give the spotlight for two games in the relegation zone? Why not screen Middlesbrough/Hull or Stoke/Newcastle on Friday? Considering the relegation dogfight is still not fully decided (I am of the belief the title race is won't convince me otherwise), let's see those at the bottom on a day when not everyone is working.

What is even more of a pity is of the 2 Championship games on offer, only one is on ESPN360. That means there will be no live football on U.S. television on Friday.

The Easter weekend should be known for the two game (one Friday or Saturday and then one bank holiday Monday) sprint most are use to. It's a sign that the season is coming to a close and with people looking for something to do, it's the perfect opportunity to pack in crowds.

Sadly with the money, Champions League on Tuesday and Wednesday, don't expect the Premier League to be playing anytime soon on Good Friday. At least the Football League has a full fixture list on the bank holiday Monday.


Klinsmann Faces Biggest Test In Champions League Quarterfinals

06 April 2009

It's tough to get up for the English sides in the Champions League quarterfinals. It's a case of 'been there, done that, and have enough t-shirts to donate to the Salvation Army'. I'll get into each match-up in depth later, but let's look at what we have. We have the same old same in Liverpool and Chelsea (thankfully this is the quarterfinals and not the semi's), the same old same in Sir Alex Ferguson taking on the ghosts of Jose Mourinho. We have Arsenal's and their 'youth' looking to take another European scalp. It's just too much of the bloody same. The match-up I'm looking forward to the most doesn't even have a leg on the British isle.

Bayern Munich are the Jeckyl and Hyde side of this season's competition. For every good performance they put out, there are two equally as bad. Their performance at the weekend against Wolfsburg was just shambolic. With Lucio out, Klose out, Demichelis facing a fitness test, and a back four that is leaking goals, one would assume that Barcelona is going to score at will. That considering Messi and Alves were left on the bench just to rest for this match.

This is going to be the ultimate test for Jurgen Klinsmann. Motivating this side has not been his strongest point this season. For Bayern Munich, they were almost fortunate they got Sporting Lisbon in the last round because they folded like a 99 cent tent after Munich scored. Can he get the most out of Ribery and Toni? Can he keep Schweinsteiger in the team's natural shape? Can Klinsmann point to all of his history against Guardiola and Munich's history against Barcelona and see it repeat itself?

If Klinsmann loses this tie with Barcelona, about the only thing that will keep Klinsmann in his job will be winning the Bundesliga title. With the way both sides have been scoring goals at will in this competition, it's all on the back fours and the two between the woodwork to get out of this tie alive. Right now there is only one side I can see doing a competent job at that, Barcelona. Prediction: Barcelona to win 4-2 on agg.

Other Ties
Manchester United v FC Porto: Porto has knocked Manchester United out of Europe twice before. However it was United who knocked Porto out at this stage of the competition back in 96-97. Johnny Evans will fit in just fine in Rio Ferdinand's absence. Frankly I don't see this as much of a contest. United has just too much for Porto to handle. Prediction: Manchester United wins 3-1 on agg.

Villareal v Arsenal: Arsenal will be without Eduardo, Van Persie and Diaby, but will get Nasri and Walcott back. Villareal will get Nihat and Garcia back, but lost Cazorla to a broken leg. This could be the second most open quarterfinal behind Barcalona and Bayern Munich. However I still have concerns about Arsenal scoring enough goals to advance. Villareal can score them and that's why I see them advancing. Prediction: Villareal wins 2-0 on agg.

Liverpool v Chelsea: I dread this tie with every single fiber of my being. With the lone exception of last year's Stamford Bridge second leg that actually was quasi-open, these games make the perfect advert for insomnia remedies. Didier Drogba and Steven Gerrard should be back for their respective sides. The worst part about this tie is you know there is going to be plenty of Liverpool attacking, shaky Chelsea defending, Cech working his ass off to keep an outclassed side alive, and a fluke goal in the final 10 minutes. The second leg will be worthy of a two hour nap. As much as I love Chelsea, sorry Blues supporters. Get the tissues ready because we're going out. Prediction: Liverpool wins 1-0 on agg.

What do you think of the Champions League quarterfinals? Let me know by leaving a comment below.


Weekend Premier League Thoughts: Shearer's Bad Start, Liverpool Keeps It Interesting...for 24 Hours Only

05 April 2009

All cameras were pointed to St. James Park to see if the next anointed Geordie messiah could produce another Newcastle miracle. For forty-five minutes it looked like he had a shot. However once Frank Lampard cleaned up the trash eleven minute into the second half, Newcastle didn't have a prayer at a point. A second ten minutes later confirmed it. It would have been different had Michael Owen's shot late counted, no official saw the fact Ashley Cole cleared the ball once it went in. It ended up being more of the same from Newcastle, and they still remain three points away from safety.

What was shocking was the lack of tactical changes Alan Shearer made. While I have seen him on Match of the Day and knew he added nothing to the program, Shearer had no idea how to get the side left in his care back into the match. All he could do is prowl the touchline looking like he had a clue. Instead, Shearer was exposed for what he was.

Newcastle still has a chance survival. However after their performance against Chelsea, and the lack of tactical awareness Shearer had, it's not going to happen. Shearer's only hope is that Blackburn drops points because Middlesbrough is as good as gone.

While that was going on at the bottom of the table, for 90 Minutes at Craven Cottage it looked like we were going to witness another Liverpool nil draw. Plenty of chances, plenty of shots off the woodwork, just another frustrating day. When Benayoun missed right before stoppage time, I was thinking of changing the channel. Then Benayoun's finish won the game in stoppage time.

I had already mentally written what I was going to write. Another Liverpool 0-0, another opportunity lost in a season that wouldn't be defined by the wins over Manchester United, but by the number of 0-0 draws that killed their title chances. Yet Benayoun's goal gave us hope. Manchester United were playing Aston Villa at Old Trafford and the prospect of more dropped United points had everyone thinking we had a legit title race...

And for 75 minutes those people had their wish. Villa were dominating Manchester United and had a 2-1 lead. Then Ronaldo equalized on a goal that Friedel could have done more to save, it looked United were still going to drop points. That's when the world got introduced to seventeen year old Federico Macheda who's strike in stoppage time ended the Premier League title race.

With Manchester United's game in hand being against Portsmouth (and a game I see them winning), a four point difference will be restored at the top. Sorry folks, that's title race over. If Untied is getting this result with in effect a B side (yes I know Ronaldo and Tevez were in the lineup), they aren't losing again in the league this season.

It's a bit of irony in a way. Most teams under perform when they come back from an international break. The international break may have been just what United needed to ensure winning the Premier League title.


Quick The Third Half Notes

I haven't abandoned anyone. I've spent the weekend making some changes to the blog and tweeting my backside off. Normal service will resume first thing in the morning with my thoughts on the weekend that was the Premier League and MLS (at least the matches I've seen).

Again, thank you for your patience while I get up and running in full.

Johnathan Starling
The Third Half


Follow The Premier League and MLS on Twitter

03 April 2009

As I did for the Internationals on Saturday and the US game on Wednesday, I will be using Twitter this weekend to be giving my live thoughts on all things football. If you haven't started following me on Twitter, now would be a great time to. You can do so from here.

From the first kick at 7:45 am between Tottenham and Blackburn to the final whistle of Los Angeles and Colorado, I will be updating Twitter throughout the day. The blog will also be updated with more extended analysis of the big moments I saw throughout the day.

Here's to a wonderful weekend of football!


Next US Champions League Rights Package Leaves Plenty of Questions

02 April 2009

Today Fox Sports International and Setanta Sports laid out the foundation for what the next UEFA Champions League contract will look like. The contract begins next season.

While on the surface it looks promising, there are still a few things that I have questions about.

Before I get to those questions let's look at the highlights. Thanks to Kartik Krishnaiyer at Major League Soccer Talk we know what those are.

  • On Tuesday, there will be three live games. One on the regional Fox Sports Net, Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports. This will not be the case on Wednesday as games will only be on Fox Soccer Channel and Setanta Sports.
  • Fox Soccer Channel will have three games a round on delay during the group stages. It is still unsure how it plays out from there, but one would assume that they will have 2 games from the round of 16, quarterfinals and one of the semi-finals live.
  • Setanta will have 94 games in total, two games live during each round of the group stages.
  • Fox Sports Net will only have 16 games in total, all on Tuesday.
  • Fox Soccer will do the pre-game, halftime, and post game show in house while also doing their own wrap-up show.
  • The Champions League Final will be screened on cable channel FX, which is in as many, if not more homes, than ESPN2.
That's about where the highlights end. To me, there are still plenty of questions to be asked.
  1. Why only the Champions League final on FX? To that point, why are the Fox Sports Net games only on Tuesday? Wouldn't it be wise to put at least one game a round on FX (on Wednesday) to get viewers use to a Champions League game there? The only benefit to FX is the fact they have a HD channel where they can show the final. I just get the feeling that the final will end up having a lower rating because no one will be use to seeing games on FX.
  2. Fox Sports Net is not across the whole country. Some regions of the country have Comcast Sports Net. While CSN does have some FSN programming, they do not have to show the Tuesday games live. While that is being worked on now, it should have already been agreed to before this was announced. For the game that has the most reach nationwide, there should be no doubt about parts of the country not getting the game live.
  3. Again, Fox Sports International has not decided on using the international broadcast feed. This should have already been decided before making things public. For the record I think they should.
  4. I've mentioned this in point one but it needs to be elaborated on. Why are the FSN games on Tuesday only? If it's because Wednesday is one of the traditional 'getaway days' in Major League Baseball (that are on most FSN/CSN networks) where by some games are in the afternoon, it's a lame excuse.
  5. Not that big of a point to me, but it still makes me wonder, will we see a highlights show on FSN? I would think so.
  6. The main question I have for Setanta Sports is how much will they charge for live PPV broadband games now that they have exclusive broadband rights. That said, will they be available to those who pay for the yearly package without having to pay for the games on PPV.
  7. How does Fox Sports International leverage this into getting Fox Soccer Channel available on lower tier packages?
One thing is certain, there are plenty of questions that are still to be answered. Hopefully, Fox Sports is up to the challenge.


United States 3 Trinidad & Tobago 0: Jozy Comes of Age

01 April 2009

The United States played awfully in San Salvador on Saturday, Trinidad and Tobago at home was always going to be three points. It was a matter of what type of performance the United States responded with. Wednesday in Nashville the response was mixed at best, but Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore willed the United States to a 3-0 victory.

Let's start with the changes Bob Bradley made to the lineup. We knew Tim Howard and Oguchi Onyewu were going to be back in the lineup for the United States. I felt Pablo Mastroeni should have started Saturday and did so here. Moving the midfield around and sending DeMarcus Beasley to left back was smart. When I saw Jonathan Bornstein was called into this squad I got nervous about him starting and I am proud to say I'm glad he didn't see the pitch.

Starting Jozy Altidore was a wise move by Bob Bradley, and that was before he scored three goals. Despite his lazy attitude in training that may never see him play in Europe, he is still our best option up front. Say what you want about Freddy Adu, but Altidore's is looking more likely to make an impact for this national team. Last year on The Third Half I practically demanded Adu start. Right now I don't think Freddy can do the things Jozy did tonight.

Still there were some major flaws that on the road will see the United States taken to down. Michael Bradley played too far forward all game long and left major holes in the midfield that were exploitable. Hejduk and Beasley were beaten on the wings far too often. Onyewu can't clean up everything like he did tonight. Ching though for his positive play on the night still is not a legitimate option up front. Starting the second half, the United States showed no ambition to put the game away and it wasn't until Trinidad removed Chris Birchall that the United States started to play again. Had Trinidad quickly brought on Jason Scotland, Trinidad could have pulled level before the US had a chance to get two.

There are two major bones of refereeing contention that have to be addressed. Just after the hour mark, Roberto Salazar missed an obvious Pablo Mastroeni hand ball that should have been a Soca Warriors spot kick. The other being the penalty Frankie Hejduk should have been called for on Jason Scotland when the game was 2-0. Had these decisions been correctly called, the United States is sweating another qualifier. Salazar normally doesn't make these mistakes, which is why he needs to be called out for them tonight. These are two gifts you will not get on the road.

You can get away with a performance like this at home. Playing like this in Saprissa, Mexico City or San Pedro Sula will see the United States beaten and beaten badly. Right now I'm not confident of our chances in Costa Rica or Mexico based on our play tonight. I think our chances in Honduras are only slightly better.

Think of it more as a wolf in sheep's clothing performance. It looked good, but on the whole it was not as impressive as the eyes think.

So what did you think? Let us know by leaving a comment below.


The Third Half Is Officially Back

So after the announcement was made that I would officially relaunch on April 1st, a few friends went 'is this some sort of April Fool's joke?'

I can assure you this is no joke, I'm back and I don't intend on going anywhere (that is unless a major media outlet wants to hire me).

After taking a few weeks to recharge my batteries, figure out what I wanted this blog to be about, and still take the time to write about the start of WPS, the blogs will commence with full blown regularity.

So for those who have found me again, thank you. For those of you who are finding me for the first time thanks to links from The Big Lead or on Big Soccer, I hope you stick around.

My intention on this blog is to cover the Premier League, Bundesliga and US Soccer. I am leaving US Soccer open to your interpretation as I will cover a little bit of everything there. As for internationals, I will cover as many of those as well.

One thing you will notice is a lack of photos. That is being done for my own reasons. With as many pictures out there that could be copyrighted, even on photo sites like flickr or photobucket, I am not going to chance a picture I find being copyrighted.

There are so many people that I need to thank. A massive thanks goes to Juan Arango and all the Mad About Futbol gang who wouldn't accept me leaving the blog world so easily earlier this month and kept me in the mix on Mad About Futbol while I was sorting things out. Another thanks goes to Kevin Walker of Serie A Weekly and Armando Garcia (Mando) of Forza Futbol for helping me bounce ideas and for their support. I also need to thank Kartik Krishnaiyer and Jeffrey Hash for just being there when I needed someone to talk to. I didn't take setting out on my own lightly and these people all have a major part in me starting out on my own.

For now I intend to post at least twice a day. As I really get back into the groove of things, expect more daily updates.

I'll be back tonight to give my post match thoughts on the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. As always, you can follow my in game thoughts on Twitter. Don't forget to follow me.

Again, here's to the start of something special!


About This Blog

Johnathan Starling, the self proclaimed 'most brutally honest man on the net, dishes out his own unique brand of opinions, and analysis on the Premier League, Bundesliga, and all things US Soccer.

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