Monday, February 23, 2009
And now for some European content. Aside from Beckham and the World Cup, and if we don't count MLS as a viable option then most US-based soccer fans will answer this way: "UEFA Champions League." Nowhere else on Earth do so many multi-million dollar players and clubs go head to head against one another. MLB World Series, NFL Superbowl and NBA finals aside, this competition garners worldwide attention on a weekly basis and during the workweek... during the day (here on the flip side of the Prime Meridian). This, after all, is the world's game. And these, after all, are all the world's stars. A good majority of the planet is represented in one way or another with Brazil and Argentina taking up most of the teams (think of it like the US population and its energy consumption in relation to the rest of the world). Now, after a two month hiatus the UEFA Champions League is finally here and in single elimination, 16 team format.
I don't pretend to be an expert and I aim to be objective, always. If this were my real job I would gladly put considerable more study towards it and maybe don a journalism major. Alas, I am only a scientist. But here's what's at stake: Coaches, players, fans, sponsors and the future of the game. The match-ups are legendary: Man U vs Inter, Roma-Arsenal, Real Madrid-Liverpool, Juventus-Chelsea. Other teams like Barcelona (Lyon), and Bayern Munich (Sporting Lisbon) are virtual shoe-ins as eternal favorites but upsets abound on this planet. What if Messi's Barca is knocked out? Who cares what happens with Villarreal and Panathinaikos or Atletico Madrid and Porto? Well, for one, some of these teams are prime locations for future (present) US national teamers, as is the case with Jozy Altidore (Villarreal albeit on loan to Xerez at the moment).
And here's the other thing. Many coaches and teams are hanging tenuously by a thread.. Wenger isn't getting any better at his job with Arsenal (ESPN's Tommy Smyth made it blatantly open that he feels the Dutchman should leave the Gunners), Rafa Benitez has been quiet about his future with Liverpool, Guus Hiddink is an interim for Chelsea. On the other hand we have managers new to their teams but with distinct success. Such is the case with the "Special One" himself--Jose Mourinho and Spurs misfit Juande Ramos (now interestingly successful with Real).
This season it's closer than you may imagine, although the favorites still gravitate amongst the top European leagues--England, Spain and Italy. Guardiola's Barcelona is nearly perfect and a better team than the champion in 2006 with Ronaldinho and Deco. Messi has made up for it and overflowed his talent banks so that the rest of the team is elevated closer to a higher deity (interestingly, Maradona sure likes Messi). Manchester United is nowhere near the team that won it all last season with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo, but their defense has been superb and unless all their players get hurt I see it very hard for anyone else to win the EPL in 2009. But that's Alex Ferguson's Achilles heel--a defense depleted by injuries against Ibrahimovic, Adriano and company. Mourinho may have a few cards up his sleeve yet.
And this is where I end this discussion about the premier soccer competition... A battle between two old foes: Sir Alex Ferguson and the Special One. I pick Inter. As long as Rooney's kept busy and Ronaldo frustrated, Berbatov, Scholes, Nani and Park may be force to cut back on their attack mode. There are 180 minutes to this match. San Siro should be a fortress and Old Trafford a castle to be conquered.