Craig Bellamy and Liverpool-Cardiff

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Craig Bellamy recently said that, “my time will not be judged by medals”; however, he will get a chance to boost his résumé this Sunday as his Liverpool squad faces off against Championship side Cardiff City in the Carling Cup Final. Although Liverpool comes in as heavy favorites, it would be behoove them to not forget Birmingham’s upset of Arsenal in last year’s final.

This game is the culmination of fixtures between teams of each of the English leagues since the beginning of August. Liverpool had a tough road to get this point, as they had to advance past Chelsea and Manchester City in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. Cardiff City, on the other hand, faced rather weak competition in Championship foes Crystal Palace and Premier League strugglers Blackburn Rovers, respectively.

Liverpool welcomes back Daniel Agger and Craig Bellamy to the team as they return to fitness. They will most likely replaces deputies Jamie Carragher and Jordan Henderson in the starting lineup. The latter most likely being replaced because of his run of poor form. Not only does Liverpool have two returning starters, but also they will be boosted by Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll’s return to form.

Furthermore, Cardiff City has had a decent run of form that has seen them occupy a playoff spot in the Championship. Even though Cardiff lost Craig Bellamy in the summer to their opponents, they went out and replaced him with Scottish international Kenny Miller.

All in all, Liverpool should handle this final rather easily, but Cardiff will still pose a challenge. Cardiff should look to last year’s final as inspiration for a strong performance because of Birmingham’s shocker over Arsenal.

My prediction: Liverpool 4-1 Cardiff 

Jonathan Zinser

Champions League Resumes, Giants Cruise

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After dominating a rather weak group, Barcelona came into the Round of 16 confident. Against Bayer Leverkusen, it was more of the same from the Blaugranes. Controlling the ball well, they had a lion’s share of the possession, 75%, and used patience and opportune attacks to beat their German opponents. This was not hard as Bayer gave the ball away very easily, which led to one of Alexis Sánchez’s goals. Leverkusen, like many other teams, could not contain Lionel Messi as he continued to float balls over the top, one of which was latched onto and dispatched sweetly by Sánchez. The Germans only easy chance was a high cross which was headed home by Michel Kadlec, and this game has all but confirmed that this matchup may be a walk in the park for Barça.

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Flying under the radar as they entered the tournament, Apoel Nicosia won their group and booked their next round matchup against French giants Lyon. Though Apoel is the only Cypriot side to ever reach the Round of 16, they did not show the endeavor or inspiration that was so prevalent in getting them this far. Their only shot came in the 88th minute which produced a fine save from French international Hugo Lloris. Unlike Apoel, Lyon had many opportunities on goal, but only five found the target, one being the fine finish from Alexandre Lacazette that gave them the victory.

As the temperatures continued to drop at the Stadion Petrovskiy in St Petersburg, there was still a game that needed to be played between Zenit and SL Benfica. The frigid temperatures hovered between 5 and 10 degrees the whole game, but watching the cold spectacle was well worth it. Maxi Pereira of Benfica put his side up after an error by Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Zhevnov, but Zenit’s Roman Shirokov quickly drew his side level after a well taken volley. After the break, the fireworks began as Sergei Semak scored after brilliant team play. Then, shortly after, Benfica looked to have snatched a draw when another Zhevnov howler allowed Oscar Cardozo finish from close range, but just two minutes later Benfica conceded a killer as Shirokov completed his brace and assured a win for the Russians.

Yet again, defense is the reason for the bemoaning of the Gunner faithful. Arsenal never looked settled at the San Siro and were humiliatingly torn apart 4-0 by the Rossoneri. Milan’s Kevin Prince-Boateng struck a beauty to put AC up in the 15th minute, and, from then on, it was pure domination. In the 38th, Zlatan Ibrahimović crossed for Robinho to tap in from 6 yards out. Things got worse quickly for Arsenal before halftime as their impressive defender Laurent Koscielny limped off the pitch and was replaced by Johan Djourou. After halftime, Robinho took advantage of Thomas Vermaelen’s slip outside of the box as he slammed home the clincher from 18 yards out. Any hopes of comeback were ended in the 78th minute, when Koscielny’s replacement Djourou clumsily knocked over Ibrahimović to concede a penalty, which the big Swede slotted into the bottom right corner, leaving Arsenal with a lot of work to do in the 2nd leg at the Emirates Stadium on March 6th.

Jonathan Zinser

Weekly Awards

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As we take a look back there are awards that need to be handed out. Here is how we saw last week play out. For the 9th time this year Newcastle and their jordie fans are indebted to the sharp display of their Dutch goalkeeper Tim Krul. Krul handled Aston Villa’s immense pressure very well, and his only goal conceded was an unstoppable shot from Robbie Keane at close range. He came up with stops in the waning minutes against Gary Gardner’s header and Emile Heskey’s follow-up attempt.

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Another player that put out a sensational performance against the Villans was defender Mike Williamson. Time after time he dealt with Villa’s long balls and headed them or passed them to safety. Not only did he deal with the barrage of through balls well, but he also kept poacher Darren Bent off of the score sheet.
Though Newcastle didn’t earn a clean sheet, Sunderland defender Michael Turner and his crew did. Turner, along with John O’Shea, dealt with Stoke’s long balls and the snowy elements rather well. Any team that holds Stoke to a clean sheet has to look at their defense with gratitude and, in this case, Turner was the leader of the back four that held Stoke goalless.
Leighton Baines is the next man in the squad after the Everton defender helped earn his side a point at Wigan. Baines’ runs and crosses have long been the envy of coaches in the Premier League, and, this time, his cross to Victor Anichebe resulted in the goal that helped the Blues draw level.  Throughout the game Baines seemed to be the danger man for Everton and in the end, he was the man who created the game tying goal.
When Swansea brought in midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, people weren’t expecting much or didn’t even know who he was. However, since his move, the Icelandic international has fit seamlessly into the Welsh side’s quick passing style. Sigurdsson finished Neil Taylor’s teasing cross with a goal and then provided an assist, himself, with a splitting pass to Danny Graham who put the Swans up 2-1.
One thing Arséne Wenger did accomplish in the summer transfer window was the purchase of 18 year old stud Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton. Chamberlain has provided some great performances lately for the Gunners, and Saturday was no different as he scored his first goals for the club as he netted a brace. He looks to follow the footsteps of fellow Gunner and former Southhampton player, Theo Walcott, as strives to break into the England first team ahead of Euro 2012.
The Martin O’Neill era at Sunderland has started remarkably well, and as a fixture in the side since O’Neill’s arrival, young James McClean has impressed when he has been featured. Scoring the only goal of the snowy outing against Stoke, McClean was dangerous throughout and his fearlessness to take on defenders has been a real asset since his breakout into the first team.
Not many regard Arsenal midfielder Alex Song as a playmaker, but recently Song has been nothing like a defensive midfielder. His passing has been excellent but his defense-splitting passes have been more impressive. After taking possession from the opponent, Song is always looking for the killer pass to set his team off on a counterattack and against Blackburn, he did it phenomenally.
After Leon Best’s unfortunate injury, Alan Pardew’s hand was forced as he brought on new boy Papiss Demba Cissé for the Irishman. Cissé’s excellent left-footed half volley was the highlight of his afternoon, and was no doubt the goal of the weekend. Besides scoring the goal, Cissé was very lively and almost had his first, prior to the volley, when he headed a cross barely over the crossbar.
Why have Batman, when you can have Robin? That’s the question among Londoners these days especially Arsenal fans. Robin Van Persie can boast his Premier League high 22 goals in 24 games, and Blackburn’s tattered back line were the latest to feel the wrath of RVP. He grabbed a hat trick against Rovers, and he now hasn’t gone more than one game without a goal since October.
The desperation of survival in the Premier League is brutal, and many a coach has been fired for failing to keep their team up.  If there’s one thing that Wolves can rely on from their Irish striker Kevin Doyle, it’s his never-say-die attitude and this quality is one thing his teammates should do their utmost to emulate if they want to survive. Doyle’s work rate earned him a goal this week to give his side the win against fellow strugglers QPR, 2-1.
Being responsible for subbing in the diligent Doyle, was Wolves’ boss Mick McCarthy. Although he has come under fire recently for his team’s failure to get a win for what seems like forever, McCarthy stuck to his guns and put a team out that will always fight for him, specifically when they were down 1-0 to relegation rivals QPR at Loftus Road. For this, Mick, I commend you.
Starting 11:
GK: Tim Krul (Newcastle)
Def: Mike Williamson (Newcastle), Michael Turner (Sunderland), and Leighton Baines (Everton)
Mid: Gylfi Sigurdsson (Swansea City), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Arsenal), James McClean (Sunderland), and Alex Song (Arsenal)
Fwd: Papiss Demba Cissé (Newcastle), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), and Kevin Doyle (Wolverhampton)
Manager: Mick McCarthy (Wolverhampton)
Jonathan Zinser

Transfer Window in Review

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As this reasonably quiet and predictable January transfer window closes, let’s look and review the moves that went down and the ones that should have as we grade each English Premier League team on their transfer activity or lack thereof.
Arsenal: D

(Crickets…) (Pen Drop!!!) Once again Arséne Wenger has gone through a transfer window without making one purchase and his only move came in the form of former great Thierry Henry. Come on Arséne, really? The only reason that the Gunner’s didn’t receive an “F” was because of their loaning of Ryo Miyaichi to Bolton because he was in need of playing time as a young 19 year old.
Aston Villa: C+

When Alex McLeish entered his first January transfer window with Aston Villa, fans weren’t expecting much, and the expectations held true as he made no transfers except for a temporary loan deal for LA Galaxy striker Robbie Keane, who has performed well thus far. McLeish went without purchasing a creative central midfielder or an established holding midfielder to pair Stiliyan Petrov.
Blackburn Rovers: D-

Not only did Steve Kean lose his consistent central defender Ryan Nelsen, but he also didn’t bring in any replacement to play alongside the disgruntled Christopher Samba. The only recruits Kean found were QPR backup defender Bradley Orr and Bordeaux’s young striker Anthony Modeste. There isn’t much else to say except have fun in the Championship next year.
Bolton Wanderers: B

The imminent loss of Gary Cahill was no surprise, and promptly after losing the Englishman, Owen Coyle signed Tim Ream from the NY Red Bulls to vie for the central defender spot with Dedryck Boyata. Coyle also brought in Japanese speedster Ryo Miyaichi from Arsenal on a 6-month loan and Marvin Sordell from Watford.
Chelsea: B+

Andre Villas-Boas addressed his leaky defense with the addition of English defender Gary Cahill, and he invested in young talent with the addition of winger Kevin De Bruyne. Villas-Boas loaned out youngsters Patrick Van Aanholt, Josh McEachran, Sam Walker, and De Bruyne. Also, he sold want away defender Alex to PSG.
Everton: A-

The defensive stud, Gary Cahill. Picture From:

The old bear has awakened from his slumber as Everton finally participated in a transfer window. The Toffees added Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic to solve their goal scoring problems, Steven Pienaar on a 6-month loan to shore up their outside midfield, Darren Gibson to add solidarity to their central midfield, Landon Donovan on a 3-month loan deal to add some flair and creativity, and they only lost two of their players, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Louis Saha, who were quickly replaced by Pienaar and Jelavic, respectively.
Fulham: B

Not much here to report, except for the sale of rogue striker Bobby Zamora to QPR and the purchase of his replacement, Pavel Pogrebnyak from Stuttgart.
Liverpool: B

Liverpool weren’t very busy either, but they did loan out defender Danny Wilson to Championship side, Blackpool. Liverpool didn’t have many needs to address, except a right sided winger, which they will address in the summer and a temporary replacement for Lucas Leiva, which proved unnecessary with the return of “Stevie G”.
Manchester City: B+

Roberto Mancini didn’t have any business in the transfer market for once, except loaning in David Pizarro from Roma for 6-months, and he got rid of two wage weights by loaning out Wayne Bridge to Sunderland and selling Nedum Onuoha to QPR.
Manchester United: D+

Is it just me or has Sir Alex Ferguson become big-headed? With only the addition of former retiree Paul Scholes to show for himself, SAF definitely let down fans this January because everyone knows that Man U needs a world-class central midfielder, not a 37 year old nanny to take care of the position until July. Ferguson did loan out young Italian forward Federico Macheda and sold reserve Mame Biram Diouf.
Newcastle United: B+

Alan Pardew completed another successful January transfer window with the addition of Papiss Demba Cisse, who will pair fellow Senegalese striker Demba Ba. Pardew loaned out Alan Smith to MK Dons to complete another quiet, but efficient transfer window for the Magpies.
Norwich City: B

Not many needs to fill, but they did add depth to the midfield with the addition of Jonathan Howson from Leeds United. Paul Lambert continues to use the lower leagues as his “farm system”. He also loaned out youngster Korey Smith to Barnsley.
Queens Park Rangers (QPR): A-

With the arrival of new owner Tony Fernandes, came new funds to be used to ensure survival from this year’s EPL. By adding Djibril Cissé, Bobby Zamora, Nedum Onuoha, and loaning in Samba Diakité, Taye Taiwo, and Federico Macheda, Fernandes has truly rectified a squad that looked destined to go back down.
Stoke City: B

Tony Pulis’s only business was the sale of Danny Pugh to Leeds Utd. and loaning Danny Higginbotham out to Nottingham Forest. Overall, this was a quiet transfer window for Stoke.
Sunderland: B+

Martin O’Neill loaned in Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos to mend up his injury depleted defense.
Swansea City: B-

The Swans only addition is Josh McEachran on a 6-month loan deal to shore up the midfield. That defense does look shaky, but Brendan Rodgers will have to cope now with what he has.
Tottenham Hotspur: B+

Ole’ Harry added Ryan Nelsen and Louis Saha in the dying seconds of the window, and he sold wage weight Roman Pavlyuchenko to Lokomotiv Moscow, and he loaned out Sebastien Bassong to Wolves, Vedran Corluka to Bayer Leverkusen, Steven Pienaar to Everton, and finally, Yago Falqué to Southhampton. Good Ole’ Harry….
West Brom: A-

Roy Hodgson added Liam Ridgewell and Keith Andrews on deadline day to sure his defense and attack. He let Roman Bednar go to Blackpool on a free and loaned Gonzalo Jara out to Brighton.
Wigan Athletic: C-

Wigan owner Dave Whelan held onto his man Hugo Rodallega, despite interest from all over England, and he added Jean Beausejour. However, this little activity may not prove enough to secure safety, and for this reason, they received a lower grade.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: B-

Wolves loaned in Sebastien Bassong and Emmanuel Frimpong for the remainder of the season, and bought Eggert Jonsson and Patrick Bamford from Hearts and Nottingham Forest, respectively. Mick McCarthy also sold Andrew Keogh to Millwall, and he loaned Adlene Guedioura to Nottingham Forest, Sam Vokes to Brighton, and Jamie Reckord to Scunthorpe United.
All in all, this transfer window was quiet in comparison to last year’s extravaganza with 55 million pounds being thrown around this year in comparison to the 225 million pounds spent by Premier League clubs last year. Whatever the case, this time of year always intrigues us through its frantic last minute deals or lack thereof (sorry Arsenal…).

Jonathan Zinser

‘Sporting’ New Personnel

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 As a loyal Arsenal fan, a team notorious for sitting on their laurels come transfer time (a tendency that has finally come back to bite them, as they sit just out of the top 4, and will need to fight to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in years), nothing warms my heart like seeing a team go after young talent and experienced veterans to improve their chances for the upcoming season.  Sporting Kansas City has been keeping my heart nice and cozy all offseason.

 The good news is, Sporting is widely seen as a team that has no pressing needs in order to improve the team after a monumental season that came with a new name, a new stadium, and a deep run into the post season.

Nonetheless, Peter Vermes and his team have been hard at work over at 1 Sporting Way, to keep the fans happy, and to do as best he can to keep Sporting in contention next year, and for years to come.  Here’s just a few of the more important off-season moves from the people at Livestrong.

 Dom Dwyer

            Sporting’s pick in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft was Englishman Dom Dwyer, an attacker out of the University of South Florida. First, some stats: 16 goals and 2 assists in 21 matches, Big East Offensive Player of the Year, leading goal scorer in the Big East conference, and a member of the NSCAA’s All-American Second team.

The Big East Conference Player of the year, Dom Dwyer, looks to crack the Starting 11 this season.

Previous to his time at South Florida, Dwyer played at Tyler Junior College, where he scored 52 goals in 2 seasons, and won back-to-back Junior College National Championships.  The man is a goal-scoring monster, but I don’t see him starting anytime soon.  As I said earlier, Sporting is a team with very few pressing needs, and the front line is the least of Vermes’ problems, with the so-called “#StrikeForce” (as they like to call themselves), consisting of C.J. Sapong, Teal Bunbury, and Kei Kamara, all three of whom play at the international level.  As an added bonus, Dwyer is a Generation Adidas player, meaning he doesn’t get counted against Sporting’s salary budget, which, says Vermes, “doesn’t put a lot of pressure on him to have an impact right away, and it keeps him off-budget for us.”  With the loss of Omar Bravo, however, Sporting gains a solid forward presence off the bench in Dwyer, and more importantly, an attacker who can grow into a starting player over time.

 Cyprian Hedrick

One of Sporting’s main weaknesses this past season, especially early on, lay in its defense.  This was the inspiration behind Sporting’s second MLS SuperDraft pick, central defender Cyprian Hedrick.  Coming out of Coastal Carolina University, Hedrick was primarily picked, according to Vermes, as “someone we can develop.”  Again, since Sporting has few holes to fill, the coaching staff and Vermes looked mainly for raw, talented players like Hedrick, who received All Big South First Team honors, and Big South player of the year.  Hedrick gives Sporting room to breathe on the injury front and keeps us in good shape for the future with the back line.

 Seth Sinovic

Sinovic, a native of Leawood, KS, and a former Rockhurst Hawklet, played a tremendous role in Sporting’s amazing season last year.  As a wing defender, Sinovic was a rock (no pun intended) both on Sporting’s back line and as an attacking winger.  Sporting left Sinovic open in the MLS Expansion Draft, where he was picked up by the Montreal Impact, much to the dismay of many of Sporting’s fans, with whom Sinovic is a favorite.  Five days later, however, Sinovic was back on his way to KC in exchange for Davy Arnaud.  By retaining Sinovic, Vermes essentially keeps his entire back line, with a full season of experience together, intact, and important move to keep our defense strong.

In addition to these three, Sporting holds on to Graham Zusi, Teal Bunbury, and C.J. Sapong, who are all three currently featuring for the USMNT (with Zusi providing the game-winning goal in the team’s third straight win over Panama).  Chance Meyers, the White Puma (Jimmy Nielsen), and Aurelien Collin also return to provide solid defense.  The future looks bright at Sporting Park, and look for me in the front row of the Cauldron this upcoming season. #IBelieve.

Briek Pauwels

Milans face-off

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Of all of the great rivalries in Italian football from Lazio vs. Roma to Napoli vs. Palermo, AC Milan vs. Inter Milan has to be the greatest. The Rossoneri vs. Nerazzurri have produced some epic displays of football and the passion that is involved in every tackle or attack thwarted is something for other rivalries to take note of.

In every sense of the word, Inter Milan’s start to the season was awful. Losing to teams that were cellar dwellers and abysmal displays of defense left management stunned, and so the manager was fired leading everyone to just mark this season off as “just one of those years.” However, the last ten matches for the Nerazzurri have been anything but bad, thus ending 2011 in the form of yesteryears. Claudio Ranieri will be no doubt elated with this great run of form and with their decisive victory last weekend over Parma, 5 to 0. Coming into the weekend, the pressure is definitely on Inter Milan to continue their great run of form and mark the resurgence of their title challenge.

Kevin-Prince Boateng will look to use his pace to counter against Inter Milan this weekend

Despite starting poorly to the 2011-2012 season, AC Milan has found their footing with the patching-up of a leaky defense and the great form of their talismanic striker, Zlatan Ibrahimović. Since that awful beginning to the season, the Rossoneri have just kept on chipping away at the deadlock at the top between Udinese and Juventus and with their steady comeback, they have surpassed Udinese in the table and have become even on points with Juventus, but leading in goal difference. So when they meet with their city rivals, Inter, this weekend, AC Milan will have to stay solid at the back and burst out when counterattacking with the pace of Kevin-Prince Boateng and the trickery of “Ibra” to land that decisive blow to Inter’s title hopes.

Although both of these clubs started the season off slowly, both have gotten back into the thick of things at the top with Inter Milan on a great run of form and AC Milan steadfast at the top alongside Juventus. Inter’s leaky defense has been mended with goalkeeper Júlio César in the best form of his life, and AC Milan has used their superstars to get them back to the top. The scene is set, and the lights are on these two giants of Italian football as they face off this weekend in the “Derby Milan.”

Jonathan Zinser

Blue Moon Rising?

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In yet another installment of the long and cherished rivalry of Manchester United and Manchester City, this one seems different because it is a rematch from last year’s FA Cup semis. This 4th round FA Cup match means that one of these top sides is sure to go home empty-handed as the loser is ousted from the tournament.

Last year, Manchester City pulled off a shocker at Wembley when they beat Manchester United and City looks confident to make it three in a row including the 6-1 thumping of United earlier this year. Not helping United’s cause, Man City has now gotten back on track after a shaky holiday season which included a 0-0 draw at West Brom and 1- 0 loss at Sunderland. With City’s plethora of skilled attacking players, United can only hope for a miracle with their poor defensive performances this festive period.

After struggling against Newcastle, Rio Ferdinand must have a strong game if Manchester United wants to win.

Like Manchester City did last year in surprising many with their victory, Man U hopes to do the same. Manchester United has been galvanized on the injury front the last month and their depth at midfield and defense has been tested. The pairing of Phil Jones and Rio Ferdinand in the last match did not work out well at all as Man Utd. were bombed 3-0 at Newcastle. Ferdinand looked clumsier than ever and unable to make a fair tackle and Jones looked susceptible to the long ball and slow in one-on-one battles with Newcastle forwards Demba Ba and Shola Ameobi.

There is not much cover on the bench; however, with the mistake-apt Jonny Evans, injury prone Rafael Da Silva, and Chris Smalling all waiting in the wings. Smalling is uncertain to return yet from his tonsillitis though. Moreover, the midfield pairing of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick, in the center of the park, seemed to have no flair in  attack and Giggs looked like he had never played defense before, highlighted by his atrocious tackle on Newcastle’s Ba. All in all, the Red Devils look in for a long afternoon.

In the end, the Blues come in off a fantastic performance at home to Liverpool and Man. Utd. did the polar opposite when they traveled north to Tyneside. One thing is for sure, if Manchester United is to have a chance, their defenders must play mistake-free football for 90 minutes against the freight train of the City attack.

Jonathan Zinser