Friday Foreplay – Gameweek 38

My regular Fantasy Premier League (FPL) preview article has been published over at All Things FPL (ATFPL):

Speaking of last round heroics, Romelu Lukaku’s late brace in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game in charge is well remembered by Fantasy fanatics. The last Gameweek of the season more often than not involves a real surprise and Lukaku could well deliver once more. In the last four Gameweeks the Everton striker tops the league in goal attempts, shots in the box, and key passes and has a good fixture in the Toffees’s home game against Tottenham. Spurs have kept only one clean sheet in the last six Gameweeks and have, in the same timeframe, conceded almost 10 shots in the box per game (fifth worst) — that’s Lukaku’s hunting ground.

Check it out. There’s also loads more good FPL stuff at ATFPL.

“More than 62 Workers Will Die for Each Game”

Fantastic piece by Marina Hyde for The Guardian on the appalling treatment of migrant workers by the Qatari government:

But that’s Blatter for you. When he talks about football, you never really know which version of the game is going to turn up. Either it is the super-powered version, able to heal the planet. Or it’s just a lil ol’ sport, doing its best to get by in a world of forces beyond its control. By way of an example of the former, Blatter was recently fluffing another dictatorship. “Honoured to meet the King and the PM of Bahrain,” he tweeted. “Very encouraged by their support of the role football can play to bring peace to the region.” To which the only possible response is: good luck with that, football! What are you going to do about Islamic State? Catch it in the offside trap?

Great piece.

Too Much Praise

John Nicholson didn’t feel quite comfortable during the Steven Gerrard tribute. A dissenting voice over at Football 365:

I do understand why footballers are held in high affection but the mawkish display at Anfield this weekend was almost unpleasant in its bizarre sugariness. I’m not really sure what was going on. It seemed very odd for the crowd to stay behind in order to wave goodbye and say thank you to a man whose name they have been chanting for 15 years. Was that not enough recognition and adulation already? Why was it necessary to do it all again. For longer.

It isn’t as though playing for Liverpool was an act of selfless sacrifice that has gone without accolade or reward. This wasn’t a nurse who wiped backsides for 20 years on minimum wage for little or no recognition. It was a man paid beyond the dreams of avarice to play football. It wasn’t a small, unrecognised act that needed extra praise. It had already been acknowledged thousands of times.

He might come across bitter to many, but I share his sentiment. I sometimes feel uncomfortable with the thought that my kids might worship another human being. I don’t think it is particularly healthy, especially for many celebrities that aren’t worthy of praise above other working people. That’s not to say there is something wrong with Gerrard, it’s just the level of adulation that is off-putting.

Juventus Win Coppa Italia

Ben Lyttleton for Sports Illustrated’s Planet Futbol:

This has already been a momentous campaign for Juventus. Allegri will no doubt play things down and focus on the Barcelona game on June 6. The Spanish champion may just have preferred to play Real Madrid in Berlin. Juventus will be the underdog, but Allegri will like it that way. He has already proved people wrong this season. He’s just another 90 minutes from securing his place in history.

Luis Figo Pulls Out of FIFA Presidential Race

Gordon Brunt, reporting for The Score:

Without getting into details, Figo painted a bleak picture of the campaign trail he discarded.

“I have witnessed consecutive incidents, all over the world, that should shame anyone who desires soccer to be free, clean and democratic,” he said.

Benitez to Replace Ancelotti at Real Madrid

Aiden Cusick for 90Min:

​Rafa Benitez will replace Carlo Ancelotti as Real Madrid head coach, with the Italian set to be sacked after a trophyless campaign at the Bernabeu, according to Italian publication ​Gazzetta dello Sport.

I normally don’t post rumours but this has been reported all over the place and seems likely. I’m convinced Real Madrid’s success over the years has been despite their constant managerial changes. It just seems bonkers to me to sack the coach that finally delivered Champions League success last year and is being beaten by a monstrously good Barcelona team.

Qatari Police Detains German Reporters

Florian Bauer, on his arrest and detainment in Qatar:

After the interrogations are over, we’re allowed to return to our hotel in Doha, but we’re not permitted to leave the country. Five days later, after it has become clear that the situation could take weeks or months to resolve, the Qatari Foreign Minister intervenes, and we’re free to go. The equipment we’ve had confiscated is supposed to be returned four days later. In fact, that takes three-and-a-half weeks. All the data on our mobile phones, my laptop and our hard-drives have been erased. This includes private photos and contact details of friends. In diplomatic circles, people are outraged. To this day, I still have never had my private data restored.

This is the country that was awarded the FIFA World Cup.

“This is Not Disneyland”

Mark Lobel, reporting on Qatar’s attempt to stop the press from getting to the truth behind the conditions of migrant workers working on World Cup stadiums:

We were invited to Qatar by the prime minister’s office to see new flagship accommodation for low-paid migrant workers in early May – but while gathering additional material for our report, we ended up being thrown into prison for doing our jobs.

Boca Fans Ruin Super-Classic by Throwing Pepper Spray at River Players

Tim Vickery for the BBC:

High farce and low morals sullied one of the showpiece occasions of South American football on Thursday night, when, with a place in the quarter finals of the Copa Libertadores at stake, the Buenos Aires super-classic between Boca Juniors and River Plate was abandoned at half time.

As they made their way onto the field for the second half, the visiting River players were attacked with a home made concoction of pepper and acid thrown by a group of Boca fans. The incident cast a global spotlight on some of the problems faced by Argentine football and society; the atmosphere of general disorder in which organised groups of fans, with strong links to the formal political process, promote violence and profiteering.

What a bunch of idiots.

Benfica Wins Second Consecutive Portuguese League Title

Brian Homewood for Mail Online:

It was the first time for 31 years that the Eagles have won two titles in a row and a remarkable achievement for coach Jorge Jesus, who had to rebuild his side after several key members of last season’s treble-winning team were sold.

‘Benfica were better than our rivals and that’s why we reached the end in first place,’ said the fiery 60-year-old who has also led his side to two Europa League finals in six years in charge.

Zenit Win Russian Title

James Ellingworth for U.S. News:

This season Zenit has been untouchable. Villas-Boas’ first full campaign in charge started with eight straight wins, with 26 goals scored and only four conceded. None of Zenit’s title rivals came close to matching the performance of a team which has not lost a league game since November. The only black mark was a Champions League campaign which saw Zenit eliminated in the group stage.

“There Was Trouble Then; There May Be a Treble Now.”

Sid Lowe for The Guardian:

It wasn’t back because they did not lose, not often. “Everything changed,” Messi later admitted. Players may have still had their doubts, they may not have always appreciated the work done by their manager, but things were falling into place and they were certainly fitter than ever before. Compromises were made, differences were diminished, the relationship reconstructed. With victory came union, a shared purpose. “We believed at difficult moments,” Javier Mascherano said on Sunday. “We overcame adversity. We laughed when we had to laugh and suffered when we had to suffer.” His message on Sunday night was important; his message that night, following the 3-1 win, was even more vital. The Chief playing chief.

Great as usual from Lowe. He is a fantastic writer.

Atlético Madrid 0-1 Barcelona

Edward Stratmann for Licence to Roam:

With the pacey Antoine Griezmann often his opponent for large periods (he also had to deal with Fernando Torres, as the pair regularly switched), Pique’s knack of knowing where to situate himself was crucial in dealing with the dynamic Frenchman. By using his masterful ability to read the game, amazing awareness and excellent concentration, he was able to not let Griezmann get goal-side of him, nor get in behind him. This was vital, for it limited an avenue of attack which Griezmann has proven to be so lethal from this season, plus it also limited the effect of the former Real Sociedad man’s pace very well.

Great year for Barcelona. First title secured in what could become another treble.

Thank You Steven Gerrard

Chris Bascombe for The Telegraph:

The Kop will say thank you. Thank you for being everything you promised as an 18-year-old. Thank you for the 185 goals; thank you for the match-winning performances that could fill the Anfield museum; thank you for the Olympiakos life-changer and the second half in the Ataturk; thank you for the 2006 FA Cup final and every other major occasion you showed up for.

Most of all, thank you for still being here through some of the most turbulent periods in the club’s history.

I’m not one for the focus on the individual, in football and in life, but Gerrard was a special player.

A Liverpool Fan’s Farewell to Gerrard

Meghana Naidu for EPL Index:

With a total of 708 appearances and 185 goals for Liverpool until now, this man goes down as one of the biggest legends of the club. Kenny Dalglish may be the greatest individual our club as seen, but Steven Gerrard is our greatest ever player. Zinedine Zidane, a legend himself, considered Gerrard to be the best in the world. Some of the best in the world considered Gerrard to be the best – which for me he was, and will always be.

Fastest Hat-trick in the Premier League

Kirsten Schlewitz for Fusion Soccer Gods:

Southampton’s Sadio Mané completed his hat-trick in less than three minutes, shattering Robbie Fowler’s previous record of 4 minutes and 33 seconds, a feat the Liverpool player accomplished against Arsenal back in 1994.

Sevilla 2-0 Fiorentina (Aggregate 5-0)

Andrew Gastelum for allsportsnews:

Sevilla punched their ticket to Warsaw with a chance to defend their Europa League title after breezing past Fiorentina with a 2-0 win at the Stadio Artemio Franchi to advance to the final on a 5-0 aggregate.

There wasn’t much doubt Sevilla would advance after Aleix Vidal scored two goals and Kevin Gameiro led the Spanish side to a 3-0 victory in the first leg last week, but the defending Europa League champions made sure of it with two first-half goals five minutes apart to have the tie wrapped up before the half-hour mark.

Sevilla through to the Europa League final, where they will face Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.

Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 1-0 Napoli (2-1 Aggregate)

Conor Dowley for The Siren’s Song:

And so it was that Napoli were hapless and incapable of finding the equalizer they needed to force extra time. It was a truly miserable match for the partenopei, and fans were left frustrated and angry as their team failed their way out of Europe, just one step away from a cup final. The tactical haplessness is almost infuriating as the result, and is just a continuation of a long and aggravating line of such “performances” since Rafa Benitez showed up. European expert my past white Irish…

Dnipro through to the Europa League final. What a result for them.

Phillips on Blake Griffin

Brian Phillips for Grantland:

He’ll play the most important basketball game of his life on Sunday, Game 7 at Houston, with a trip to the conference finals on the line. And it suits him, I think, that the best stretch of basketball he’s ever played is also the moment when you’d reflect on how tenuous his hold on greatness is, how easily his game dissociates. That you’d see how much awkward, grueling work went into forging something that can look so inspired. Blake isn’t a player like LeBron or Kobe, whose legends depend on your sense that they were somehow created perfect. He’s not saddled with that kind of importance. He plays like something in a comic book. He makes the game seem a thousand times more serious than it is — and so, in a different way, not very serious at all.

Whittall on Juventus and Italian Football

Richard Whittall for The New Yorker:

Ironically, the club at the center of calciopoli has become a model for the league in this regard. In 2011, Juventus finished construction on a new stadium in Turin, the first in Italy to be owned by its club rather than by a local municipality. Juventus Stadium put the crowd much closer to the pitch, and it looks gorgeous on TV. Gate revenues increased by a hundred and eighty-three per cent in the stadium’s first season, despite the fact that the new venue has a significantly smaller capacity than its predecessor, the Stadio delle Alpi. Naming rights and the sale of land adjacent to the stadium have provided additional sources of income. Juventus is now the only Italian club to make the top ten in Deloitte’s report. It has also been able to invest in talent, like Tevez and the Italian national team legend Andrea Pirlo. Since moving into its new stadium, the club has won four scudetti and, in 2012-13, it made it to the Champions League quarterfinals, before reaching the semis this year.

Great piece. I loved Whittall when he was writing at The Score — it was such a shame that they couldn’t make it work with the staff they had.

Smalling’s Hot Tub Machine

The always excellent Kelly Welles at The Football Ramble blog with her take on Chris Smalling’s hot tub catching on fire:

Rumours that he deliberately spilt a radioactive energy drink on the controls because he thought it would turn into a time machine have not yet been confirmed by the club.

Friday Foreplay – Gameweek 37

My regular Fantasy Premier League (FPL) preview article has been published over at All Things FPL (ATFPL):

Speaking of differentials, Olivier Giroud, this weeks Risk v. Reward pick, could be the answer. The argument for Giroud centres around his home form as Arsenal’s home game against Sunderland is more likely to yield goals than their away trip to Old Trafford. According to the last Beat the Fixture List article (which was published before the Swansea game and thus does not include stats from that game), Giroud leads Arsenal players at the Emirates in goal attempts, shots in the box, and shots on target as well as recording a healthy two key passes per game. The argument against is his four game streak of not scoring — he’s also failed to finish a game in those four Gameweeks. Nonetheless, he’s a good pick and has been consistent throughout the season, both in shots in the box and in scoring and is your second best pick behind Sánchez.

Check it out. There’s also loads more good FPL stuff at ATFPL.

Honigstein on Guardiola’s Future at Bayern

Raphael Honigstein for ESPN FC:

Modern football is drenched in nostalgia but it has no memory.

What a line. Just do yourself a favour and read the piece. It’s perspective seldom seen in football reporting.

Bayern Munich the Guardiola Way

Mike L. Goodman for Grantland:

None of this is a knock on Guardiola. He is clearly one of the best soccer coaches in the game today and an iconic force who shapes how the game is played. He is stylistically extreme, and that makes him interesting. For it to become transcendent, he needs a team that’s built — from the youth system on up — to play his demanding, possession-or-die style. With Lionel Messi, Xavi, and Andrés Iniesta, Barcelona were that team — and Manchester City would certainly be improved by hiring him and letting him completely revamp the way they do things. Only a tiny handful of clubs wouldn’t.

But Bayern Munich were one of those very few teams. And now, two years later, with the club knocked out of Europe by a team that not only outplayed them, but also outstyled them, the question remains: Is winning with Pep Guardiola better than winning without him? And if the answer is “no,” then is there anything left for him in Germany?

Barcelona’s New Tactical Shape Under Luis Enrique

Sam Tighe at Bleacher Report:

But they no longer retain possession for possession’s sake, and they’ve moved away, to an extent, from working tight openings through shorter interchanges and runs. Enrique has opened this side out in several ways, varying the way they are able to attack, and three key components have risen to the fore.

Brilliant piece by Tighe. He’s a great tactical analyst and a lovely writer.

Barcelona’s Front Three

Sam Borden for The New York Times:

Messi, Suárez and Neymar are the brightest lights in European soccer this season, brighter even than the blinding yellow uniforms Barcelona wore on Tuesday, which looked like a cross between radioactive waste and a highlighter. The three have combined to score 114 goals this season, a staggering total that does not even fully convey the depth of the interplay between them when they attack.

Bayern Munich 3-2 Barcelona (Aggregate 3-5)

Henry Winter for The Telegraph:

Messi was magical. Again. Truly, it is a privilege to be following football in the age of this fabulous Argentine. It is not simply the artistry, agility and intelligence that he brings to moves time and again, shredding defences and conquering keepers with such elegance. It is the work off the ball, hounding Juan Bernat and Bastian Schweinsteiger here, making sure Bayern laboured to progress down their left.

I normally do not like the overemphasis on the individual over the team in football but Messi is the exception. What a player.