Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Arrogance of Chelsea’s Competition

“I think collectively we completely dominated the game.” – ?

Guess who said that over the weekend? Ancelotti over our solid win over Wolves? No, that sound bite was given by Arsene Wenger after his Gunners “dominating” performance against Manchester City this past weekend.

Granted it was a good win for the Gunners, and I won’t take too much away from them for playing against 10 men for most of the match, because they successfully induced the young Boyata into a foolishly pointless tackle. But some of the postmatch comments from the young Gunners had a tinge of exuberance bordering on arrogance, i.e. from the talented but at times foot-in-mouth prone Cesc Fabregas: “We stayed composed the entire game. We were fantastic. Even if [City had] 15 men and we only had 11, we would still win.” Whaaa? Easy there Fab, yes your team played well (although Fab missed a PK and several makeable shots) against a solid squad that is a legitimate contender for the league title, but keep your feet on the ground. And I’m sure you read Chelsea D’s post on the whiny bitchiness of Clichy. So why all the pouting, chest pumping, and noses in the air?

That’s easy, it’s because they beat a team that beat us! It’s one of the classic (and fallacious) lines of reasoning in sport, if I beat someone that beat you, then I’m better than you. The rivalry between us and Arsenal is starting to get a little bit absurd, it’s obvious they’re obsessed with showing that they have as strong a side as we do, and since they can’t seem to be able to prove it on the pitch against our Blues, they’re settling for proving it against the rest of the league.

Personally, I really don’t give a shit if Arsenal are struggling or scoring five goals a match, my focus is on our Blues, because we have our own issues. But it is nice to see that we do have Arsenal’s number and that we’re in their heads, and that it’s becoming more evident that our cross-town rivals are a bunch of headcases.
And what about the high drama that went down up north with Rooney, Sir Alex and Co.? Apparently you can go back after you’ve said goodbye, I guess in the end the pull of Sir Alex’s stature and the prestige of playing for Man United was too much to leave. Or maybe it was the 250,000 pounds a week contract that he signed. Either way, after all that hullabaloo, Rooney is staying put, and since it was unlikely the Glazers were going to sell their most prized asset to a league rivals, I’m really not that disappointed.

To be honest, it’s actually been quite entertaining to witness the in-house squabbling of a rival team, and I don’t think this soap opera is quite over yet. Much like Kobe Bryant’s “trade me” phone interview tirade that he gave before the 2008 NBA season, Rooney’s transfer demand was rooted in his personal ambitions to win trophies, and his lack of confidence that he could do it with the current Red Devils squad.  The implicit statement both players made is that they felt their teammates weren’t up to the task of winning championships, which is pretty much a slight and slap to the face if you’re their teammate.

So will the reception in the dressing room be a little chilly when Rooney laces up for his return? We’ll never know, and what really matters is how the Devils play on the pitch. Bryant and the Lakers managed to make it to the Finals the same year he made his preseason trade demand, and it’s still early in the season, so it’s a very real possibility that Rooney & Co. will find their form at some point. And Chicharito showed in Rooney’s absence that he’s a potential star waiting in the wings, but will his confidence grow or wane as the season progresses? Will there be any resentment that he’s going to be relegated back to the bench in favor of his slightly more talented and infinitely more beloved teammate?

Let’s hope so, if you’re a Chelsea fan!

MP

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Champions League or the EPL: A Soccer Trophy Tossup?

Riffing off one of the topics briefly touched by TCB’s readers and myself from my first article, I’d like to try to dissect the whole European football league title/Cup/Champions League mishmash championship system, and contrast it with the somewhat more straightforward system of elimination playoff tournaments used by most American professional sports leagues.

One of the consistent phenomena among soccer fans seems to be the lack of agreement over whether winning the Champions League or a domestic league title is the more prestigious accomplishment.  In both scope and format, the two competitions could not be more different.  A domestic league title rewards a team that plays consistently well throughout an entire season, and places equal weight on each individual match.  The Champions league rewards teams that treat every match as a do or die situation, with the exception of the group stage.  The league title format is more forgiving; if a team has a bad day on the pitch it won’t severely hurt their chances of winning the ultimate prize, whereas the CL heavily penalizes a team that performs poorly in a given match, especially in the elimination stages.  So which competition is the more accurate measure of a team’s performance level?  Now that’s a loaded question.

In any competition, an essential component in gauging the performance level of a team is the quality of their opponent.  I for one believe the EPL is the deepest and most talented league in the world, and if you disagree with me(but I’m confident you won’t), then we’ll agree to disagree on that point.  But it’s a difficult argument to say that the EPL is more talented, if not deeper, than the CL.  The CL gathers the strongest teams from every major league in Europe, the so called best of the best. Now granted some of the teams in the group stage are soccer tomato cans(yes, I’m thinking of you Hapoel, Braga, and MSK Zilina), but it’s safe to say that even in the EPL, a good chunk of the domestic teams are perpetually a tier(or two) below the perennial contenders.  That’s just the reality of domestic soccer leagues; whether you like it or not, the economics of the modern game simply can’t sustain having leaguewide financial parity, which logically leads to a lack of parity on the pitch(On a sidenote, this is true of professional sports league across the world, with the exception of the NFL.  If a sporting league truly wants leaguewide financial and sporting fairplay and competition, just duplicate the NFL model, it works).  Point is, the CL is more or less the stronger competition, at least in terms of team quality.

But is it harder to win the CL or a league title?  To win a league title, I roughly estimate that a team needs to play well in 90% of their matches, which equates to about 34 matches in a twenty team league.  That’s a lot of games!  To win a CL, you have to play well in roughly 10, including the group stage.  The numbers speak for themselves, winning a league title is definitely the more daunting task in terms of duration, which by extension is equivalent to endurance.  And any athlete knows that it’s difficult mentally to stay focused over a long period of time, unless you’re an ironman like Lampard, who is a horse but also by his own admission acknowledges that he has his up and down days.  Peaking at the right time in a tournament like the CL isn’t easy either, but having a countdown, or rather a buildup, can help relieve the monotony of playing an entire season.

To win in any sport, or game for that matter, sometimes you need a little bit of luck.  The human element is one of the beautifully subjective aspects of soccer; a questionable offsides call, a hard tackle that fails to draw a card, handballs, and whether the ball crossed the freaking plane! It did not!  are all examples of this.  For Chelsea, lady luck has not been kind to us, to put it mildly.  A goal waved off or a handball properly called could have been the difference between Chelsea going for their third CL title as opposed to their first.  But that’s sport, and life, and we’re not going to whine about it.  Point is, winning the CL sometimes requires a favorable call in a specific moment, and if you don’t get it, the thrill of victory could quickly turn into the agony of defeat.  The Special One has said it himself on numerous times, the best team doesn’t always win the CL, but they almost always do for a league title.

To provide a different perspective, in America there is a growing trend towards removing the human element, at least with respect to officiating, and relying more on technology to ensure a proper and fair result.  Instant replay review, high speed cameras, and computerized sensors are all evidence of this fundamental shift in sporting philosophy.  But it’s a hybrid system, and the likely reality is we’ll never remove the human element from sport, nor should we.  But to not incorporate any technology at all, like soccer does, is in my opinion shortsighted and arrogant, and in the end bad for the sport.  In my defense, as I’m sure you recall, after two blatant missed calls in this past summer’s World Cup, FIFA president Sepp Blatter himself called for instant replay to at least be considered in the future.  Imagine the worldwide ruckus(or at least in England) that would’ve ensued if Lampard’s missed goal call happened in the final(dream on, at least for now English national fans)?


The other aspect of American sporting leagues that merits discussion is the more or less universal incorporation of a tournament at the end of the regular season to determine the season’s champion.  In many ways, the CL is more similar to this format; tougher competition later in the season, knockout stages, and a championship match.  The honest truth is that having an ultimate match to determine a champion is more thrilling than simply awarding a trophy at the end of year to the team that earned the most points, i.e. Chelsea’s magical and dominating 2005 season, where they won the league title weeks before the end of the season(ducking fellow Chelsea fans’ thunderbolts).  And perhaps the most critical point to be made in this entire discussion is that the performance level of a team during a playoff tournament is naturally going to be higher as opposed to during the regular season.  As the sayings go, you’re only as good as your competition, and if you want to be a true champion, then you have to beat the best to be the best.  Tournaments are the most logical format for ensuring this outcome, which means the CL gets the nod in terms of prestige.

So the EPL or CL?  It’s hard to say, both are significant accomplishments in their own right, and their fundamental differences makes it an apples to oranges argument(I for one love a good orange, but they seem to be more difficult to come by than a good apple, and there’s nothing more disappointing than a bad orange, although the same holds true for apples).  I guess the CL is my soccer orange, at times I yearn for its sweet rewards(I know, this analogy is getting a bit absurd). And the fact that Chelsea won three league titles in the past six years has almost certainly influenced my obsession over the CL.  If I could choose, would I take three EPLs or three CLs?  I don’t know, I just don’t know!  Goddammit, it’s like the soccer fan’s Sophie’s Choice!(FYI, I’ve never watched the movie, I just know about it’s reference in popular culture).  Thoughts?

MP

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A Tale of Two Managers: The Special One v. Carletto

I know, I know, it’s been nearly five months since my last post.  I could offer a bunch of reasons why I stopped posting, but like I said from the beginning, this is a work in progress, and I needed to assess where I was going with all of this.  For all my readers, I apologize for the prolonged hiatus, but I’m back in the saddle again, and now I have a sidekick.  TheChelseablog.org, one of the most widely read Chelsea FC sites in the blogosphere, decided to run this post, YAY!  But don’t fret, F4D is still my baby, and stay tuned for a post on the inaugural Korean GP in a few weeks.  Ciao!

He is you.  Your opposite, your negative.  The result of the equation trying to balance itself out.” – The Oracle, The Matrix Revolutions

June 2, 2004 – Less than a week after his Porto side is newly crowned as European champions, Jose Mourinho stands before the football universe and announces his new title as manager of Chelsea FC and annoints himself as “special,” giving birth to the singular moniker “The Special One.”

In retrospect, that day hailed the beginning of a new era in modern football: a star was born, and after only perhaps Phil Jackson, the most cerebral manager in all of sport declared himself king of the world.  Fast forward to today, and you know how this story played out: Wunder-manager motivates his cast of talented but estranged players, instilling an us versus the world mentality, and they go on to redefine the way the modern game is played.  In his first year as manager, Mourinho led Chelsea to their first Premier League title in more than fifty years, setting English football records along the way.  But after three years and six trophies won, Mourinho abruptly parted ways with his boys in blue and waved goodbye to the Bridge.  Fingers were pointed, feelings were hurt, and a team poised to become a tItan in european football was suddenly without their talismanic field general.  In comes Avram Grant, and in a season riddled with turmoil and upheaval, manages to guide Mourinho’s band of brothers to their first ever Champions League final.  And if it weren’t for a John Terry slip(banging head on the wall), Grant would have completed one of the great renaissances in the history of English football.  Despite his valiant efforts, Grant was a lame duck manager from the beginning and was sacked at the end of the season.

In comes Luiz Felipe Scolari, and after just 8 months and a near player mutiny, he was sacked midseason with immediate effect.  Out goes Scolari, in comes the Wolf Guus Hiddink, and he manages to salvage a lost season by winning Chelsea’s second FA Cup in three years.  But just like Grant, the writing was on the wall for Hiddink, and after four managers in a span of just 21 months, Chelsea was once again managerless.  Sensing the lack of stability within his Russian oil-funded side, our young padawan owner Abramovich signs four time european champion(2 as a player, 2 as a manager) Carlo Ancelotti to a three year deal, who promptly restores peace and order to the Bridge, and in a one-up on his predecessor and arch-rival Mourinho, brings home a Premier League title in his first year and the first true domestic Double ever for our beloved Blues.

On paper, one would normally think after reading the above, “Wow, what a great story with a happy ending!”  Then how come for Chelsea Nation, the story feels incomplete, and despite the hundreds of millions of pounds spent, countless kegs of Guinness drank, and the endless sweat and tears poured on and off the pitch, there is more to be done?  Because it’s one thing to be King of England, and it’s another to be King of Europe, and by extension, the World of the club football sphere.  To illustrate, ask any knowledgeable fan which club has won the most Champions League titles and they will hopefully answer Real Madrid.  Ask the same fan which club has been runner-up in the Champions League the most times and chances are they’ll be stumped(FYI, it’s a tie between  Benfica and Juventus at 5).  The point is no one really cares, if not remembers, who’s 2nd best(at least American sports fans don’t).  To finally cement its place in the Pantheon of footballing royalty, Chelsea needs to win the Champions League.

Abramovich has made it clear that he wants his coveted Champions League trophy, and he is not willing to settle for less.  To be fair, considering all the money he’s invested into the club, wouldn’t you feel the same way?  The truth is Chelsea should’ve won one already by now, but it seems the football gods deemed we were not ready yet.  And last year’s exit to Mourinho’s Inter squad showed that despite Chelsea’s world class quality, sometimes our boys can look a little lost at times out there on the pitch.  And despite the fact that this year’s first team is practically identical to last year’s, sans the departure of Carvalho and Ballack, Joe Cole and Deco off the bench, and the tragic retirement of Hutchinson, the return of Essien, continuing growth of Sturridge and Kakuta, signings of Benayoun and Ramires, reappearance of Zhirkov, and emergence of McEachran should be more than enough to reinforce the team for the season’s haul.  And judging from all the sound bites uttered by Chelsea’s prinicipal players this season, it’s clear they have set the bar at the highest rung, and if they fall short, then this season will be a disappointment, and I wholeheartedly agree(wince).

It’s now mid-October, Chelsea is at the top of the Premier League table where we belong, undefeated in their CL group, and most importantly, the team is clicking.  Yes, Lampard and Alex are injured, Bosingwa has been out of commission for nearly a year now, there’s a lack of depth in the back line, the point being one could nit-pick for hours.  But Malouda is in the best form of his life, Drogba is relatively happy(fingers crossed), Essien is relatively healthy(fingers doubly crossed), Ashley Cole is a force all over the left side, and Anelka, despite his atrocious summer, or rather because of it, is playing with fire and passion.  On a quick tangent, for all of the TCB readers who are also NBA fans, I’m convinced that Anelka and Lamar Odom are long lost twins, both in their physical and sporting personas, and if you don’t understand what I’m talking about, think of both players as the Batmans of their respective sports: one minute they’re there, the next minute they’re not.  But I digress…

But in the back of every Chelsea fan’s mind looms one man, a larger than life cosmopolitan figure who stands between Chelsea Nation and immortality.  You know who he is, he is undefeated at the Bridge, and he is now leading a cast of equally talented footballing mercenaries who currently reside in the heart of Spain, and they are poised to lay siege to this season.  He is the Special One, he is heavily armed and dangerous, and he is Public Enemy #1.  Sir Alex may be more revered, Capello may be more prolific, and Guardiola may be younger, but Mourinho is the top dog.  He strikes fear into every side he faces, and he arguably has the strongest team he’s ever had to work with.  He’s already publicly announced that he intends to defend his CL title, and he is a master at both motivating his players and antagonizing his opponents.

Oddly enough, in a show of goodwill and sportsmanship, he and Ancelotti publicly announced they have buried the hatchet, and that despite their prolonged feud, they have come to a delicate truce.  But if Chelsea and RM happen to meet in the elimination stages of the CL, the stakes will be high and the gloves will be off, and if they somehow manage to converge in the final, the football world could very well implode.  Ali v. Frazier, (pre-2010 ill fated comeback)Schumacher v. Hakkinen, and now the Special One v. Carletto.


To be as objective and fair as humanly possible, Mourinho is in large part responsible for fueling his very real and at times childishly petty rivalry with Ancelotti.  It started when the two were managers at crosstown rivals AC MIlan and Inter, but after Ancelotti jumped ship across the continent to Mourinho’s old stomping grounds, it reached a fever pitch.  At first after his departure, our Blues were in danger of floundering without the magnetic yet mercurial Mourinho, and the damage done was deep and lingering.  But all wounds eventually heal, if not disappear, with time, and Chelsea has moved on with Ancelotti, but it seems Mourinho hasn’t been able to do the same.  You’ve all heard the jabs of “Stamford Bridge will always be my fortress” and “Ancelotti’s winning with my Blues.”  It’s as almost if Mourinho believes he is still the manager of Chelsea, and that they are merely on loan Ancelotti, e.g. his puzzling quote before last year’s CL matchup, “But I don’t hide that Chelsea ARE an important part of my life.”  Mourinho might as well have professed “Chelsea, I’ll never let go!

In contrast, Ancelotti has been classy in both victory and defeat, and even went as far as to acknowledge Mourinho’s lasting impact at Chelsea, admitting that “he made history at the club where I work, his archive of training has been useful to me more than once, and so he deserves total and rapt attention.”  And despite the fact that Ancelotti won his silverware with a nucleus that was largely Mourinho’s vision, they’re not the same team, nor are they playing the same brand of football, illustrated by last year’s squad that scored a record 103 goals in Premier League play, in contrast with Mourinho’s 2005 team that gave up a paltry 25 goals all season(the parallels and contrasts between the 2005 and 2010 squads is uncanny).  Ancelotti has repeatedly voiced his long term commitment to Chelsea, and there is no reason to believe he isn’t being completely genuine.  It’s safe to say that as much as we want our Blues to win their first CL trophy, we want them to win it with Ancelotti at the helm, and if they beat Mourinho’s Blancos along the way, then it will be extra “special.”  Because the ugly truth is that if doesn’t happen soon, and by that I mean this year, if not next, then we could be saying ciao to our dear Uncle Carletto.

This season could end up being a tale of two teams and their respective managers on the brink of becoming legend.  For Mourinho and RM, they are trying to reassert their place as the best in the world, and if they do win it all, then there is little to dispute they are just that.  For Ancelotti and our Blues, they have the opportunity to write the final chapter in a century long epic of a footballing phoenix.

As optimistic as I am about this year’s chances, I fear that if we are eliminated yet again by a Mourinho-coached team, Abramovich will clean house, and he’ll start with Ancelotti.  In contrast, if our Blues do win it all, then Uncle Carletto will cement his position as the patriarch of the Chelsea family, and Jose will likely continue to chip away at sculpting his next masterpiece in Madrid.  But what if both teams somehow fall short?  In that case, it’s again likely both managers will stay put.  But as much as both managers have everything to gain, Ancelotti has more to lose at this point.  But underlying all this intrigue is the fact that Mourinho wants to return to England; not one to bite his tongue, he’s repeatedly voiced his preference for the English game, and he recently threw a whiny fit over the intense pressure and scrutiny from the Spanish media.  Oh waaa, would you like some manchego cheese with your tempranillo red?

If and when Mourinho returns to the Mother Country, it seems more than likely he’ll end up succeeding his peer and close friend Sir Alex at Man U.   And if that happens, Mourinho will go from the being the Special One to the The Devil in Red, and he’ll officially be dead to me.  And it’s not absurd to think he could end up at Man City, who have the financial firepower to buy whoever they want.  For a long time I romanticized over the idea of Mourinho coming back to the Bridge and finishing what he started.  But as time passed, I realized that was a pipe dream, and that for all his footballing genius, he is a mercenary and journeyman of a manager, and his loyalty remains only to himself, which makes him the perfect coach for Los Blancos.  Take that!

This is my first post for the TheChelseaBlog, and as a blue bleeding Chelsea fan for life, I hope to continue contributing to what I think is the best Chelsea site in the worldwide blogosphere.  In closing, i’d like to share a sound bite given by the Special One, which he gave after leaving Porto for Chelsea back in 2004, and after six years, it’s prophetic clairvoyance has withstood the test of time.

I hope everything goes well for them.  If I meet them in the Champions League it will be the only time I wish them to lose.  It was a wonderful story but the story has to end.

But for who will the story end, and how?

MP

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