International

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Belgium Looks Strong in 2014 World Cup Qualifying

Ten long years have passed since the European nation of Belgium last played in a major international tournament.  They were once regulars and boasted strong teams.  However, after an abysmal decade, the “Red Devils” look to be in serious contention for a place in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and feature a squad filled to the brim with exciting young talent.

The most dazzling of such players is Eden Hazard.  After establishing himself as a star in Lille of France’s Ligue 1, Hazard moved to Chelsea this past summer and has emerged as a brilliant young player. The winger has great speed and touch on the ball that terrorizes defenders.  In just seven EPL matches this year, Hazard has already notched 6 assists and scored 2 goals.  He also has drawn penalty fouls on several occasions.  At only 21, the sky is the limit for this wonderful playmaker.

But that is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Belgium has a set of young, fearsome strikers in Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.  Lukaku is a Chelsea player on loan at West Bromwich, and has scored several important goals for the club.  He is a large, physical presence that many in London hope will resemble former Chelsea striker, Didier Drogba.  Benteke is also a strong and big striker and recently moved to Aston Villa.  He has already opened his scoring account there and also scored the opener in Belgium’s 3-0 victory in Serbia this past weekend.  A third striker in Kevin Mirallas is very capable:  He also scored in Serbia, and now plays for Everton after he led the Greek league in scoring at Olympiakos.

Another Everton player who is vital for Belgium is Marouane Fellaini. The massive central midfielder with a big Afro has been a great physical presence in the center of the pitch.  Also, he has a wonderful ability to score the occasional goal, like his winner for Everton when they beat Manchester United on the league’s opening day.

Defensively, Belgium is also stacked with talent.  Center backs Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen both captain elite Premier League clubs in Manchester City and Arsenal.  Jan Vertonghen is another great defender and recently signed with Tottenham.

What makes this team so exciting for now is that nearly all of these players are under the age of 25.  They are all growing up together and just getting their careers started at major clubs.  Manager Marc Wilmots must be licking his chops in preparation for what could be the best feast of football that Belgium has ever delighted upon.  Their 2014 World Cup qualifying group is winnable for the team with only Croatia and Serbia as main threats, and they have started the group well, beating both Serbia and Wales and drawing with Croatia.  They next play Scotland and will surely be eyeing three points.

Marc Wilmots was captain the last time Belgium was at a World Cup in 2002, and is now their manager.  Hopefully he can help create some magic within this squad because on talent alone, they could be a major threat to any team hoping for World Cup glory in Brazil.

Team USA Needs to Regroup after Jamaica Setback

America is usually one to dominate the World Cup qualification from the CONCACAF region, which is filled with Caribbean island nations and Central American teams.  Currently in the second round of qualifiers, America is joined in a group with Guatemala, Jamaica, and Antigua and Barbuda.  Though on paper these teams hardly pose a threat, the reality of the situation is that through three games played America has earned one win, one draw, and most recently a loss when they played Jamaica in Kingston.

This leaves them tied for second in a group where only two teams will progress to the final round to decide who makes it to Brazil 2014.  For a team like America, this is unacceptable.  As the youth team learned when they were denied a place at the 2012 Olympics, there is little room for error and complacency in these high-stakes matches.

Yes there are excuses to be heard, such as the injuries to Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley that prevented them from playing in the Jamaica matches.  Yes, Clint Dempsey is way out of form because of his summer transfer saga that saw him refuse to play for Fulham while he secured a move to Tottenham.  Dempsey played 90 minutes in the Jamaica loss, and although he triumphantly scored a tap-in goal after only 30 seconds, he didn’t do much else and looked sluggish.  I’m not sure how much he will be able to play during the home match tomorrow, nor am I certain that he will be able to influence the game.  So, yes, without three key players, the Americans are hardly the lively bunch that they usually are.

But the other players need to win this game against Jamaica on Tuesday.  They will have the home support and typically perform much better at home.  Players like Jozy Altidore, Brek Shea, and Herculez Gomez need to seize upon this opportunity and earn a crucial win.  Anything less and America will head into their final two matches with everything on the line, and it could prove troublesome.

Jamaica will have strong belief coming off of their historic victory, which was produced from two fine free kick efforts.  They are on top of the group and will be ever hungry to reproduce another victory that would likely push them through.

I do see the home field advantage being a huge benefit to America here.  The crowd in Jamaica was ruckus and definitely helped swing the momentum to their favor.  Such crowd support will be in America’s favor and could possibly help them to a big victory.  I predict that America will earn a solid 3-1 win and help ease the fears of fans across the nation.

Brazil Must Become a Team to Win 2014 World Cup after Olympic defeat to Mexico

Brazil was stunned to lose the Olympic final against Mexico. All tournament long they had comfortably defeated opponents and featured a host of stars like Neymar and Hulk.  The road was paved for Brazil to win their first Olympic gold medal, but reality struck hard when the players decided to play like individuals and not as a team.

The style of play was evident throughout the game but started when Peralta of Mexico scored a brilliant goal just 30 seconds into the match.  The goal completely deflated Brazil and they never recovered.  Everyone took it upon himself to be the hero, and no one was really able to manage the feat.

Hulk was brought on after half an hour and began to show some nifty moves, but the selfish spell overtook him too, as he repeatedly got ahold of the ball and managed only to wiggle his left foot a few times before kicking a ball off a defender or losing possession.  He had a nasty long range shot in the first half but Mexico’s goalie, Jose de Jesus Corona, was able to save.

Similar things happened in the second half as Neymar also took to taking speculative heroic efforts that missed the target.  This wasn’t the “Joga Bonito” we expected from a nation like Brazil, who are supposed to pass the ball into the net with flair and ease. This was desperate schoolboys trying to do it all by themselves.

I attribute much of this problem to all the transfer news and stories surrounding the players.  Oscar is a striker who performed well in the tournament and just secured a big money move to Chelsea of the EPL.  Midfielder Lucas Moura had been courted by Manchester United throughout the Olympics, but apparently changed his mind last week and opted for a mega-move to PSG, the big spenders of French Ligue1.  His move was announced just three days before the gold medal match.

Similarly, Hulk and Neymar have been rumored all summer long to be headed to major clubs the likes of Real Madrid.  With players’ minds elsewhere, is it any wonder that they couldn’t come together in the final?  All these 20 year olds think they are the greatest things ever after earning these massive transfers, so naturally they all tried to be the hero, and naturally the team suffered and they lost the game.

So where does the team look to for hope of winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?  Most of these players mentioned will likely be in the full adult squad, and will need to be on their best for the tournament.  Pressure will be immense for the team to succeed.  Throw in the likes of Spain and Argentina’s Lionel Messi in his prime, Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal, and Brazil might just implode at the World Cup.  This nation needs a serious reality check, and the defeat to Mexico will have provided just that.  Clearly Brazil has the talent to succeed, they just need to come together as a real team if they expect to win a trophy of real significance like the World Cup.

GB Olympic Football Crests

I have not heard it mentioned or debated anywhere else; but does no one else think the British Olympic football team badge is very odd?

The Great Britain football team is wearing a plain white crest with a dark blue lion’s head logo and some Olympic rings with text “Team GB London 2012″.  I think this logo really cheapens the team; it looks a like a logo that a pub team might wear in a one-off testimonial friendly match.  It screams to me “we just threw this pick-up team together for a bit of a laugh”.

They are the official team of Great Britain, and they are representing the country; why not just use the Union Flag for the crest.  Just looking at the uniform and crest it makes me feel like the team is nothing more than a gimmick for an afternoon of light entertainment.

The logo represents England with the lion and Scotland with the colors, but where are Wales and Northern Ireland represented in this logo?  I’m not knocking the team or players in any way, this rant is directed at the FA and the designers; someone is trying to be too trendy with this and it is an epic fail, next time please just use the flag.

Most of the other teams are wearing either their plain flag for a badge, or a crest with the flag incorporated into it.

Senegal has Crashed the Olympic Party

Senegal is in their first ever Olympics appearance, and they look to be taking full advantage of the opportunity.  Through two group matches, they have drawn Great Britain and defeated Uruguay, showing the world that they are ready to contend for a medal.

Not long ago when the Olympic soccer squads were announced, Senegal looked a team destined for failure.  While serious medal contenders had called up mega-stars like Neymar, Ryan Giggs, Luis Suarez, and Juan Mata, the African nation had been denied the services of both Demba Ba and Papisse Cisse.

The players had phenomenal seasons debuting for Newcastle of the EPL, but manager Alan Pardew denied them the honor of representing their country at the Olympics.

Surprisingly, the team has played wonderfully without them.  Striker Moussa Konate looks to be both instinctive and deadly.  He scored a brave equalizer to earn a draw with Great Britain in the opening match, and he scored twice against Uruguay from corner kicks.  On the first he poked a loose ball through into the net, and on the second he beat his marker and headed in a goal.

The striker everyone had expected to succeed, Ibrahima Balde, hasn’t found the back of the net yet.  If he can start making an impact, the Olympics could very well be the coming out party for Senegal.  Considering the two strikers left home, Senegal could be well on their way to taking over African soccer in the near future.

The team is also finding success through brutal tactics that involve heavy tackles and frustrating their opponents.  They drew a plethora of complaints from the British team for their tactics, and may well have earned several red cards during the game, but good fortune enabled them to evade trouble and allowed them to scrape a draw.

During the second match facing Uruguay, their intensity was again on display but they were punished this time as Abdoulaye Ba was sent off for dragging down Luis Suarez, who was charging free towards the goal.  Incredibly, the team performed fine after the sending off and strolled to a 2-0 victory.

Although Senegal is not making any new friends during this tournament, I feel that it is hardly their aim.  They are in their first ever Olympics and look like a team that is really going for it and trying to win.

Clearly their physical style is getting into the heads of the opposition and has opened an opportunity for an upset in the group stage.  Facing their last group match on Wednesday against the United Arab Emirates, this team only needs a draw to progress and has their destiny in their own hands, while tournament favorites Uruguay and Great Britain will battle for survival.  Let’s just hope Senegal can avoid another sending off as we enter the defining moments of the Olympics.

Olympic Soccer to Showcase New Talent

The 2012 Olympics are set to begin soon in Great Britain and will provide an excellent opportunity to watch the stars of tomorrow on a major stage.  The predominantly U-23 setup allows for a vast array of young players to represent their country and catch the eye of scouts worldwide.

The Great Britain team is loaded with youngsters that already play on Premier League teams such as Aaron Ramsey, Tom Cleverly, and Daniel Sturridge.  Led by veteran Ryan Giggs, the team will be looking to win a gold medal on their home soil.  With such as exciting array of young players already featuring at major clubs, Britain will like their chances and should do very well.

Brazil are many odds-makers favorites to win the gold medal.  With soon to be superstars like Neymar, Rafael, and Hulk, who would doubt them?  The team also houses a solid group of veteran players such as Marcelo of Real Madrid, and Thiago Silva of AC Milan.  The Brazilians have never won Olympic gold, though they did earn silver in 2008 and are always candidates to succeed in big tournaments.

Mexico will be contenders as well and have a solid group of youngsters waiting to explode on the international scene.  Comprised mostly of Mexican league players, they boast stars like Marco Fabian, who has impressed with Chivas and has scored many goals during Olympic qualifications.  Also, Giovani dos Santos will be present.  Although he has found few opportunities at Tottenham, the forward is an amazing trickster who would love to prove himself at this competition.

Spain should also be considered as a favorite.  The senior team has won countless trophies but their U-23 side has shown that this dominance is likely to continue.  The team will feature EURO 2012 hero Jordi Alba, as well as a few other Barcelona youth players like Cristian Tello and Oriol Romeu, who now plays for Chelsea.  Their goalkeeper, David de Gea, starts for Manchester United and has a bright future as well.

Uruguay could also be well poised to place strongly in the Olympics.  Led by Luis Suarez, the nation bolsters defender Sebastian Coates and a group of players from Italy’s Serie A in Gaston Ramirez, Edinson Cavani, Arevalo Rios, and Abel Hernandez.  Uruguay reached the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup and won the 2011 Copa America so their fans will have high expectations entering the Olympics.

Another player worth watching will be Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Gabon.  The young striker had a superb 2012 African Cup of Nations leading his side with three goals to the quarterfinals.  He has also played well for his French team Saint-Etienne.  The 2012 Olympics could be his coming out party.

Many fantastic players start off as no-names until an event like the Olympics comes about.  The soccer world is soon to be introduced to a new group of stars, many of whom are set to embark on fantastic careers.  Although the tournament doesn’t hold quite the names as the EURO tournament did, it will still provide an excellent grounds for dramatic soccer matches.

Which Youngster Shined Brightest at EURO 2012

In addition to being perennial stomping grounds for Spain, major international tournaments like EURO 2012 can serve as proving grounds for young professionals to gain fame and secure transfers to major clubs.  With much of the world tuned in, those few games are often the most vital of any young player’s career.

Recently, players like Luis Suarez, Mesut Ozil, Andrey Arshavin, and Alexi Sanchez featured in major tournaments and earned big money moves to clubs like Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona, and Real Madrid.  EURO 2012 also enabled a new crop of young professionals to shine, and a few are likely to embark on a similar path as their successful predecessors.

One such player is Alan Dzagoev from Russia.  Already a key man at CSKA Moscow, the 22 year old burst onto the international scene scoring three goals in Russia’s first two EURO 2012 matches.  Unfortunately, a loss to Greece in the final match resulted in Russia’s elimination even though they had a better goal differential.  Thus the tournament was cut short for Dzagoev, but he clearly drew notice from a host of major clubs and has already been linked with Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester United.

Alan Dzagoev is an attacking midfielder and would improve any team with his smart passing and deft finishing.  At such a young age, he could develop into a world famous star if he seals a move to the right club.

Another exciting new player at EURO 2012 was Mathieu Debuchy of France.  The Lille right back had an outstanding performance against England in the country’s tournament opener which clearly drew interest from the English Premier League.  Earlier this year, Debuchy was heavily linked with Newcastle, but now it seems as if Chelsea or possibly even Inter Milan are set to swoop in and lure the player to a bigger club.

Chelsea would be a fantastic place for the Frenchmen where he could linkup with his former Lille team mate, Eden Hazard.  The tandem led Lille to a Ligue 1 championship in 2011 and would love the opportunity to help Chelsea improve upon their recent league troubles.  Debuchy’s attacking prowess makes him an intriguing talent.

Probably the most exciting player to emerge from EURO 2012 was Jordi Alba of Spain.  Alba was able to start each match at left back for the Spanish side after an injury to Carlos Puyol.  Those expecting a drop in quality were horribly mistaken.  Alba’s speed and technical skill helped Spain lift the trophy.  In addition to excellent defending, Alba also had an assist against France and a wonderful goal against Italy in the final.  He made a daring 60 yard run out from his own half and collected a brilliant Xavi pass and eased the ball into the net like a classy veteran.

Barcelona has already gobbled up this talent just last week, but we can expect lots of chatter about the destination of Dzagoev and Debuchy.  For these players, EURO 2012 was a tremendous success.  The soccer world will soon become quite accustomed to their names.

Samir Nasri has some Growing Up to Do

Frenchman Samir Nasri has just turned 25 years old, an age when the typical footballer matures and enters the prime of their career.  But he still has a lot of growing up to do in his dealings with other people.  The talented midfielder has had a rather tumultuous past few weeks with many highs and few lows, but his recent antics have left a rather sour taste in the mouths of his fans.

Following France’s EURO 2012 defeat to Spain, Nasri hurled a plethora of abusive swear words at a journalist.  Both the manager and the president of the French Football Federation have come out against Nasri’s words and have labeled the incident “intolerable” and “regrettable”.

This outburst was building after an apparent locker room fight following the Sweden loss, where Nasri was again in the middle of self induced drama.  His issues from that altercation resulted in his relegation to the substitute’s bench for much of the Spain match.

Samir Nasri has always been an outspoken player.  Following his first Premier League title with Manchester City this past May, he threw insults towards his former club Arsenal, berating their third place finish and lack of trophies in recent seasons.  He rejected claims that he had left for money and used the club’s celebration as an excuse for personal outrage towards Arsenal fans.

Such a level of immaturity is the work of a schoolboy scoundrel.  Although he has had a very successful past few months, helping his club to victory and scoring an impressive goal at the EURO tournament against England, his frightening comments and angry behavior lead me to assume he will never become the next Zinedine Zidane of France as so many of the scouts proposed.

He is developing into the prototypical team cancer.  Even when he scored his EURO 2012 goal, he chose to celebrate by yelling “shut up” in the direction of the journalists, as though his effort was a mere excuse for him to chastise the press.  He made little attempt to celebrate with his team mates, and I feel he is more concerned with telling people off than winning games.

Nobody likes to lose, but one would think a professional could do so in style.  Samir Nasri has nothing to be sore about, as he was part of a Premier League winning side and a country that looks set for a decade of fortune.  Yet he still embraces every opportunity to speak his boastful mind.  Let us hope that he can begin to mature in his 25th year, because for as much as he likes to talk big, he has a lot of growing up to do on and off the pitch.

With both France and Manchester City absolutely loaded with talent, his silliness could result in reduced playing time and downward spiral to professional mediocrity.  Such a turn of events would leave his angry pleas to fall on deaf ears and silence.

England March On

I have been very surprised by England’s EURO 2012 progress under the new leadership of Roy Hodgson.  I honestly expected a Steve McClaren type of reign; where the manager picks the same players, plays in the same style and makes all the same mistakes.

Hodgson has fielded mostly the same players that one would expect with a couple of new faces mixed in; no great surprises there, but the way England are playing is totally different.  It certainly isn’t pretty to watch, in fact to a neutral it is probably dead boring, but man is it organized!  And at the end of the day it gets results and results win tournaments.

England are looking like one of the most difficult teams to beat at EURO 2012.  As they showed against the Ukraine they are very difficult to break down, and have been giving away very few chances.  On the flip side they have not been creating many chances at the other end either.

All England fans would love for England to play expansive Brazilian or Spanish football, winning matches with 40 shots on target, 30 corners and 8-nill scorelines on the way to win major tournaments.  This, however, is just not reasonable with the personnel that we have available; Hodgson has embraced the reality of what England is capable of.

In my opinion playing this way is the only way England will have chance at winning the tournament, and we already owe Hodgson a great deal of gratitude for not only progressing from the group stage, but winning the group by a clear 3 points.

Germany Looks Mighty at EURO 2012

Through two games played, Germany alone has answered all the critics and won both of their matches.  Furthermore, the wins have come against serious opposition in the form of Portugal and the Netherlands.  With such an early statement being made, Germany could very well get over the hump and end up lifting the trophy in Kiev.

Although the entire side is looking quite ready to make a EURO 2012 run, Mario Gomez has been the shining beacon, scoring each of their three goals thus far in the tournament.  His goals have come from all methods.  His first against Portugal was a glorious header.  Against Holland he displayed touch on the first as he spun around and guided the ball into the corner.  His next goal was sheer power as he blasted the ball across the goal and into the top corner.  It seems as if there is no end to what the burly German can do with the ball.

Bastian Schweinsteiger has been a controlling force in the midfield and Philip Lahm looks like the world’s best full back as he withheld numerous Arjen Robben assaults and even made dangerous forays into the opponent’s half.  Another splendid player for the Germans is Mesut Ozil, who continues to shine and terrorize defenses.

The team totally dominated the Netherlands, a 2010 World Cup finalist.  After Robin van Persie scored a goal fifteen minutes from time to bring the match close at 2-1, Germany held on to the ball until the match’s end and didn’t give the Dutch any late game opportunities to scrape a draw.  Such a powerful performance showed that this team has the maturity to hold on late in a match which could prove vital in winning EURO 2012.

Another factor propelling Germany to success is that the nation is in such close proximity to Poland and the Ukraine, where the tournament is being held.  Their fans have only a short trip to support their country.  Even more helpful is that both Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose are Polish born, making EURO 2012 a homecoming of sorts for the offensive tandem who would love to score some goals on their home turf.

Germany does tend to start tournaments hot before collapsing at the pivotal moments.  In the 2010 World Cup, Germany had dominating performances against England and Argentina before succumbing to the Spanish talent in the semifinals.  Similarly, Germany had reached the EURO 2008 finals where they also lost to Spain.  Had they won those games, we could all be declaring Germany the greatest team of all time instead of Spain.  But, it was not to be.  So the question becomes, if Germany continues to play well deep into this tournament, will they finally be able to overcome Spain?  After watching the Spanish demolition of Ireland today, I’m not quite sure they will.