Team/Player of the Week: 2/5

By Kiran Balan and Joe Ballard

It was another terrific weekend of soccer in the EPL, and while our team of the week was a simple choice, there were so many great individual performances we couldn’t limit the award to just one player. So have a look at DB20′s first ever player(s) of the week as well as a team who “gunned” down their opponents this weekend. Read more of this post

How Do You Solve A Problem Like De Gea?

Mark Bosnich, Massimo Taibi, Fabien Barthez, Andy Goram, Paul Rachubka, Raymond Van der Gouw, Ricardo, Tim Howard, Roy Carroll, Edwin Van der Sar, Ben Foster, Tomasz Kuszczak, Ben Amos, Anders Lindegaard, and David De Gea. These are the 15 goalkeepers who have started for Manchester United since the legendary Peter Schmeichel retired in 1999. Whereas Newcastle had Shay Given, Blackburn had Brad Friedel, and Bolton still has Jussi Jaaskelainen, it’s been something of a circus in the United goal for the majority of the last 13 years (the Van der Sar years aside). Read more of this post

Team/Player of the Week: 1/29

With the EPL taking a break this weekend, the F.A. Cup proved once again that the old magic is still alive, with several upsets and surprise results taking place. While Clint Dempsey and Fulham made last week an incredibly simple process, this week we’ve got so many good choices that along with our usual team of the week, we’re including a few shoutouts to other teams who also pulled off excellent results. So our final team of the week award for January goes to a club from League Two, while our player of the week is a certain popular member of the US Women’s National Team! Read more of this post

Carling Cup 2012: Year of the Underdog

Strange results have been in abundance in the Premier League this season- even by its normal standards- but the Carling Cup has also thrown up its share of surprises in 2011/12. Crystal Palace only went to Old Trafford and stunned Manchester United, while Cardiff City took care of Blackburn Rovers in the quarterfinals. The semifinals pitted the two remaining Championship sides against each other (won by Cardiff), while underdogs Liverpool defeated league leaders Manchester City in the other tie. This means a second division team will be in the Carling Cup final for the first time since 2001, when Birmingham City narrowly lost to Liverpool in a penalty shootout.

Many neutrals are thrilled by this prospect, and rightly so- who doesn’t love a good underdog story? Well, others are saying that the final will be dull and predictable and that they should just give the trophy to Liverpool now. They lament that the final won’t be contested by two “bigger” teams and therefore assume it won’t be exciting. This is, quite frankly, ridiculous.  Read more of this post

EPL Team/Player of the Week: 1/22

In a new feature at DB20, my colleague Kiran and I will be choosing a “team of the week” and a “player of the week” from each weekend of English Premier League matches. We’re hoping most weeks will be debatable for all of us as well as our dear readers but quite frankly, this week’s choices were simple. Without further ado, here is the inaugural EPL Player/Team of the Week! Read more of this post

The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game: Darlington FC

“Who?” and “Why should I care?”

These were probably and understandably the first two questions to enter your head. So let’s answer them. Darlington, a fifth division English football club, was born in 1883 and is older than most Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Chelsea. They are known as The Quakers, the nickname being a reference to the religious movement that influenced the town of Darlington for many generations.  They have previously won a few divisional league titles, reached the last 16 of the FA Cup, and won the FA Trophy last season.

Why should you care? Because greedy, foolish owners are prowling around in every professional sport and this is an important story of a very old soccer club brought to the brink of extinction by the scandalous actions of a former owner.  The players and staff involved with clubs like Darlington are paid (far) less in a year than Yaya Toure is paid in a week. Some players don’t even make enough to play football full-time; they take on nightly jobs during the week after training during the day. These are young men struggling with bills, families, laundry, and car problems just like you and me. The only reason the club played their league game last weekend was because their amazing fans raised £8,000 to ensure it went ahead. And on Monday the club’s entire playing staff was laid off. Read more of this post

Tottenham Hotspur: 2012 Premier League Champions?

It already seems a lifetime ago when the “Big Four” – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – consistently dominated the rest of the Premier League. Everton broke the barrier once, but quickly fell back into their upper mid-table position. But over the past couple of years that barrier has been shattered by Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. You already know all about how City and their riches are taking over the league, but the path of Tottenham and their old-fashioned “wheeler dealer” manager Harry Redknapp is a little less obvious. For the past few years, they’ve become known as pretenders to the title race. But it’s time to forget about that – they are the real deal this time around. Here’s why: Read more of this post

Spain vs. Scotland: Quality vs. Competitiveness

When you think of the Scottish Premier League, for most people two teams come to mind: Rangers and Celtic. And with good reason – no team other than Rangers or Celtic has won the SPL title since Aberdeen (managed by one Sir Alex Ferguson) in 1985. Think about that: in 26 years, only two teams have won the league title. (Side note: how on earth do all the other teams still have a following? Talk about loyalty…)

Does this kind of dominance sound familiar? Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated La Liga in such a way that they are going down this same path. At the start of every season, the only debate is: which of these two teams will win the title? For the rest of the league, third place is the new first place.

But something memorable happened in the SPL this week. On November 5, Rangers had a 15 point lead over Celtic at the top of the table. Rangers midfielder Nika Jelavic foolishly claimed the title was already won. In less than two months, Celtic erased that lead and went top of the league courtesy of a 1-0 win over Rangers last week. A stunning achievement by anyone’s standards.

This kind of thing doesn’t happen in La Liga. Why? The simple answer: neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid ever falter to the extent that Celtic did. They are far too good for the rest of the league. But why are they too good? The complex answer: money. Barca and Real have completely monopolized La Liga. You can look up the damning financial statistics in magazines and online articles. Managers of ”smaller” teams sometimes send out weakened squads against Barca or Real, so they can concentrate on a later game they have a chance of winning.

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching El Clasico as much as everyone else. But what’s the fun in following a team that wins 98% of the time? And what’s the fun in following a league where the top two teams have such a financial advantage over the rest that they will continue to dominate for many years to come? If you’re not Barca or Real, and you’re not fighting relegation, what’s the point?

This seems contradictory, as I said that Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scotland for two and a half decades now. The difference is that because the quality of the SPL has gone down, they can no longer compete with the best leagues in Europe and therefore, have consistently lost money. Rangers’ “big” signing this past summer was midfielder Nika Jelavic, who cost £4 million, which was nothing ten years ago let alone today. The best players for other clubs like St. Johnstone and Hearts don’t go to the big two; they usually go to England. Rangers and Celtic no longer have a financial advantage over the other teams; their allure is in their illustrious histories.

So where is the preference justified? First, there is little to no diving in Scotland. Face it: in La Liga the theatrics are embarrassing, frequent and pathetic. In Scottish football you better be ready to get the crap kicked out of you. If you’re going to roll around in agony, something in your body better be broken. Second is the fans’ intensity. Many European soccer teams have intriguing histories, but Scottish teams in particular are rooted deeply in both sporting and religious connections, qualities that still reside in today’s fans. Many pundits have said that the Old Firm derby is the most intense rivalry in the world, and with good reason. The passion, both on the field and in the stands, is unmatched.

Third, and most importantly, the gap between many of the teams is closing. Celtic and Rangers remain the big two, but as Celtic’s turnaround has proved, both teams have been through rough patches. Any team can beat any other team. Celtic lost at home to St. Johnstone. Rangers lost to St. Mirren. Aberdeen, almost unthinkably, were rock bottom of the league in November. Surprises are much more frequent in the SPL than La Liga, making the ride much more fun to be a part of.

History, an old-school feel, and passion. I’ll gladly sacrifice some quality in favor of more competitiveness and less of the theatrics. And so, I’d wager, does Sir Alex Ferguson.

Funny Lookalikes in Soccer

*By Joe Ballard and Kiran Balan*

In the spirit of the holidays, my colleague Kiran Balan and I thought it would be a fun idea to get some pictures of soccer players/managers/fictional figures who look so alike you may need to do a double-take to tell them apart. Enjoy!

Chelsea’s Juan Mata and Andre Villas-Boas: clean-shaven, they look like Roger Federer’s twin brothers!

Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli and Micah Richards: same mohawk, same mischievous smile? Look for the one who can’t get his training bib on and you’ve got it!

Shrek and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney: Good thing you got that hair transplant Wayne!

Iain Dowie and Sloth: We here at Down By 20 apologize for any nightmares you’ll be having tonight.

Who knew Steve Bruce played a woman in Home Alone 2? Amazing!

Our investigative journalism discovered that Claude Makelele likes to rap with an American accent under the name Akon.

And last as well as least, a fond farewell to Carlos Tevez as he completes his move away from England…

Happy holidays from all of us here at Down By 20!

What’s Gone Wrong With United?

2010-11: Premier League winners, Champions League finalists

2011-12 (not even midway): Carling Cup quarterfinal loss to Crystal Palace (at home), 6-1 defeat to Manchester City (at home), and failure to qualify from a Champions League group that Sir Alex Ferguson might have hand-picked himself.  And now Nemanja Vidic is out for the season with a ruptured cruciate ligament.

So what on earth has gone wrong for United this season? In a word: everything.

The defense: Many people were fooled by the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal earlier in the season. The warning signs were always there; even as United were scoring goals for fun, they were conceding more goals than usual. With Rio Ferdinand clearly in the twilight of his career, the defense depends on Nemanja Vidic more than ever. This season, with Vidic injured, the kids have been forced into action and have been panic prone, particularly in European matches. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are excellent young prospects, but have made crucial mistakes that they will be expected to learn from. Jonny Evans, on the other hand, is a walking disaster of a defender.

Injuries: They’ve decimated United. A list of players who have been/are currently injured this season: Javier Hernandez, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Darren Fletcher, Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Ashley Young, Rafael, Fabio, Ferdinand, Vidic, and Jones. It doesn’t matter how big the squad is; that list would cripple any team’s efforts. A telling statistic: Ferguson has deployed no less than six different players at right-back so far this season (Rafael, Fabio, Jones, Smalling, Valencia, Fletcher). The defense simply cannot compete at its best when it is constantly being changed, whether intentionally or not.

But none of this excuses United from failing to qualify from what should have been an easy Champions League group. My theory is that the players were overconfident and half-assed their way through these six matches. Wayne Rooney in particular was culpable on Wednesday, missing numerous scoring chances and only looking half interested. After a terrific first month of the season, he again looks like the Wayne Rooney of last season, a ghost of his old self. With Hernandez, Berbatov and Owen all out injured, United looked to him for inspiration. They looked in the wrong direction.

We already spoke about the issues with the defense, but another problem has been the glaring lack of a creative central midfielder. Why oh why, Sir Alex, did you not go and get Wesley Sneijder when you had the chance? Depending on 38-year-old Ryan Giggs, god bless him, to be the creative spark in midfield is embarrassing for a club of United’s stature. Ferguson also tried to deploy Phil Jones (center-back) and Wayne Rooney (forward) in the same role; it was practically an admission of defeat. Without a Snejider-like midfielder, the likes of Carrick, Anderson, Giggs and Fletcher have been woefully predictable in attack, and this particularly showed in European matches.

Finally, the issue of the goalkeeper. David de Gea has been somewhat slaughtered by the English media so far this season. I’m here to say: lay the f*** off. He’s a 20-year-old kid who’s arrived in a new country at one of the world’s biggest clubs; of course he’s going to make some mistakes. It’s acceptable when Jones and Smalling do it, so why do we slate de Gea for it? He is young, and like any other kid, he will learn from his mistakes. Ferguson followed this kid for two years before signing him; he obviously believes in him. A certain Wojciech Szczesny (google/copy/paste name into document) was full of mistakes when he first got his chance at Arsenal, and look how he’s blossomed.

Another issue with de Gea is that, especially for a goalkeeper, he appears quiet and even somewhat reserved. Perhaps it is somewhat intimidating having to command all these experienced internationals, but as he becomes more comfortable, I believe he will grow into his role.

All in all, Manchester United fans may have to accept that this is something of a rebuilding year, what with the combination of kids and injuries. I personally don’t think they will win any trophies this season, so even though moneybags City appear unstoppable, I’ll be enjoying sitting back and watching the youngsters develop. Give them time, and have faith in Fergie. Remember the Class of ’92?

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