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Welcome to the Total Football Cafe

My new website www.nathannipper.com is now live.  There you will also find my new soccer blog Total Football Cafe.  My blog content is moving permanently to the new site so I hope you will migrate there along with me and continue reading and posting your comments!

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Yes They Can!

Chelsea grinds out 1-0 win over Barcelona

Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Possession-wise it was one of the most lopsided matches I’ve seen in a long time (in favor of Barcelona in case you didn’t watch).  But Chelsea held on for dear life, defended with steely resolve, and it somehow worked!  They capitalized on a sliver of an opening at the end of the first half when Lampard stole the ball from Messi, launched it down the left-hand flank to the on-rushing Ramires, who then slid it across the box to who else?  Old-man Drogba, who knocked it in.  I giggled with delight, caught my breath at halftime, then went back to nervously rocking in the fetal position as Barcelona played keep-away for another 45 minutes, occasionally rattling the post or forcing Petr Cech to make Gumby-like stretch saves.

Six months later when the final whistle blew, I pried my fingers out of the couch armrest, allowed myself to smile and breathe normally for a few minutes, then began wondering if my heart will be able to weather the return leg next Tuesday at Barcelona!  It was a heroic effort today, far from Chelsea’s best, but they got the job done.  One down, one to go!

Will Chelsea be able to finish off Barcelona at Camp Nou?

Chump-ions League

Chelsea continues dreadful form in 3-1 loss at Napoli

I thought the 2-0 loss at Everton a couple weeks ago was the low point of Chelsea’s season.  The team looked absolutely lifeless.  Most disturbingly, they showed no fighting spirit.  Everton looked exactly the way I wish the Blues would – aggressive, hungry, and energetic.  After the Everton match, the rumor mill kicked into high gear about Chelsea locker room turmoil and especially how long it would be until AVB gets shown the door.  I was going to explore all that in the wake of the Everton match but it was too depressing.  Chelsea looked so bad it was hard to know where to start.  Plus, I had my hands full at my day job as my soccer team made it to our state’s final four playoffs (alas, we lost in the championship game).  So I decided to wait it out, hoping for a Blues turnaround in the FA Cup against Birmingham City and in their Champions League visit to Napoli.  Guess I shouldn’t have waited it out.

For now, I’ll skip over the 1-1 draw with Birmingham in the FA Cup.  I mean, it’s bad enough, but at least they get to try again in the replay.  The Napoli game this past Tuesday was terrible.  Except for the few minutes Chelsea was up 1-0 in the first half, they never looked like they might win.  What is it about every team Chelsea faces this year getting one or two players to slip in behind the Blues defense?  It happens every game, usually more than once.  It’s maddening!  Even worst, Chelsea very rarely generates similar opportunities.  To be sure, Chelsea still owns the middle of the field, but in the final third, the Blues are completely predictable.  Savvy opponents just cram the box and are content to let Chelsea pass around the perimeter until someone gets impatient and lobs a ball into the middle where one or two Blues are surrounded by an army of defenders!  Even the slippery Sturridge who was so effective earlier in the season is going through a dry, bland spell.

Some pundits are questioning AVB’s starting lineup choices against Napoli, but that’s not the reason Chelsea tanked.  The Blues just didn’t play well.  They haven’t played well for about two-thirds of the season.  Champions League play was the last hope for Chelsea to take this season’s lemons and make lemonade.  Now they’re hanging on by the thinnest of threads in all competitions.  Poor AVB is probably on his way out, and like Carlo Ancelotti last season, it’s not all his fault.

With each week of the season my expectations for Chelsea slip further.  Now it’s starting to look like the most they have to play for is a Champions League slot for next season.  It’s a grim time for Chelsea fans, but tomorrow’s a new day.  Maybe a big win over Bolton will bring some much-needed hope!

Is AVB to blame for Chelsea’s woes this season?

Loan Stars

FC Dallas’ Brek Shea and George John hone their skills in Britain

FC Dallas standout Brek Shea capped a successful 2011 with a month-long training stint at Arsenal.  Few expected much to come of the opportunity in terms of a loan deal or something more permanent – least of all Arsenal skipper Arsene Wenger who downplayed their invitation to Shea – but it was a great chance for Shea to train with some of Europe’s best during the MLS offseason.  Between U.S. Men’s National Team call-ups and the Arsenal invite, FC Dallas fans were proud to see one of their best get so much deserved recognition.

Then a few weeks ago came the news that defender George John was heading to West Ham United for a two-month loan spell.  Again fans were pleased to see one of FC Dallas’ outstanding young talents validated with such a high-profile opportunity.  Both Shea and John were also invited to the U.S. Men’s National Team winter training camp, though John is unable to attend due to the West Ham loan.

 

The Shea and John opportunities highlight a catch-22 for American soccer as a whole.  MLS is getting better every year and helping produce world-class players, but they’re not necessarily able to keep those players stateside.  On one hand, the more our best players get to play top-level soccer the better – especially for national team purposes.  On the other hand, it doesn’t bode well for the development of MLS if its best prospects get scooped up by foreign clubs (latest example:  Bolton’s snag of Tim Ream from NY Red Bulls).  I don’t blame players at all for wanting to give Europe a go if a club comes calling – it will probably make them a better player (and make them more cash).  But as a fan, I want to see top players like Shea and John don the FCD red and white for the long haul.

For now, we can supposedly look forward to seeing Shea and John in the FCD lineup when the new MLS season kicks off in March (though John’s deal apparently leaves an opening for West Ham to keep him on if things go well).  I hope we do get to see them back in Dallas, as they’re both rising stars playing for a franchise that needs the potential drawing power of stars more than most other MLS teams.  I think the sky’s the limit for Shea in particular.  He could be the U.S. National Team’s best player in a few years.  FC Dallas fans better enjoy these guys while we can, because the reality is they may soon be too good for a club our size to afford to keep.

What do you think of offseason loan deals for MLS players?  Does it help or hurt MLS?

Goal-less Blues

Chelsea’s title hopes vanish with 0 – 0 draw against Norwich City

Chelsea is not a championship team this season.  There, I’ve said it.  Now I actually feel a bit better.  If admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, then I’m freely admitting it now on behalf of the Blues:  they cannot win the Premier League this season.  They can’t win any trophy this season playing the way they are.  They simply don’t have the confident, hungry look of the ‘09/10 EPL Champion Blues.  Not even close.  I held out hope through the fall and Christmas season that the team’s veterans would shake off whatever was ailing them, turn the corner on this season, and really grapple with the Manchesters for the title.  But this weekend’s 0 – 0 draw at Norwich City (coupled with the Manchesters winning their Sunday matches) made it official – at fourteen points behind league-leading Manchester City, the title is out of reach.

I just don’t have confidence in Chelsea right now (and haven’t for most of the season).  I want to, but they’ve done nothing to instill any confidence.  Saturday’s game at Norwich was one of those maddening contests in which Chelsea didn’t play poorly at all – they dominated possession and generally dictated the pace – yet they couldn’t cope with that pesky little aspect of the game called scoring goals.

For all the players Chelsea get forward, it’s remarkable how unoriginal the attack was Saturday.  It usually consisted of crossing the ball in front of the goal where it could be headed away or cleared by one of the tall, tenacious Norwich City defenders.  On several occasions Chelsea didn’t even have anyone attacking the crossed ball.  Where’s the urgency?

I’ve ignored the Chelsea naysayers this season, stubbornly insisting that the Blues would turn the ship around in time.  Now I’m concerned the naysayers may be right.  I think it’s now officially a rebuilding year for the Blues.  So I should probably start treating it as such – try to just enjoy the games one at a time and forget about the EPL title for this season.  At least we’ve still got Champions League play (though I can’t realistically see Chelsea beating Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, or Barcelona at this point).  Maybe with the title pressure off I’ll be able to enjoy the games more and stop expecting wins every time out because it’s simply not going to happen this season.

What do you think – are Chelsea’s title hopes out of reach for this season?

Seeing Red

Chelsea’s Premier League title hopes look bleak after loss to Liverpool

I had a bad feeling about yesterday’s game.  Chelsea has looked shaky lately.  The shakiness started with that ridiculous loss at QPR a month ago, then was exacerbated by the Arsenal-supplied thrashing, and followed by the weak Champions League draw at Genk.  All this in a season where Manchester City’s usually reliable meltdowns have yet to materialize, Man U beats everyone at will (except invincible Man City), and even Arsenal is suddenly unbeatable.  String those factors together with the momentum-killing international break and you have the recipe for a disastrous loss against a very tough Liverpool.  That was my fear going into yesterday’s game anyway.  My fear was unfortunately confirmed.

The 2 – 1 loss to Liverpool was one of those absolutely maddening games for fans.  One where you question why you care for any team or sport at all.  Throughout my life, my favorite teams in all sports have been the almost teams – good but never quite good enough.  There are probably some psychological insights to be mined as to why I always seem to favor almost-champions.  Whatever the reason, I’ve never been drawn to the Manchester Uniteds of sports.  I don’t know what it’s like to be able to kick back and enjoy domination.  That’s why Chelsea’s ‘09/10 title win was so fun – it was an anomaly for me as a fan – with goals and wins flowing easily.  But starting about this time last year, virtually every Chelsea game has seemed precarious.  Last season’s slump seemed like a passing storm, but this season’s slump is worse because it seems to be rooted in deeper team problems that I can’t fully identify.  At least with last season’s slump, first place was still in sight.  This season I’m already sweating the unthinkable… loss of a Champions League slot.

Against Liverpool the Blues once again dominated possession, and once again had nothing to show for it.  Possession is virtually worthless if it doesn’t produce legitimate scoring opportunities.  The most frustrating aspect of the match was another hallmark of my favorite teams over the years:  major mistakes (in this case defensive) that never seem to afflict opposing teams.  Defensive errors are killing Chelsea this season!  Liverpool had no such hiccups and therefore earned the win.  Fox Soccer analyst Warren Barton had an interesting post-game Chelsea analysis.  I hope he’s wrong about them, but I fear he’s right.

With things going so poorly for Chelsea domestically, it should be a relief that they’re still atop their Champions League group.  But even that is little consolation this season, because while they’ll most likely advance to the knockout stages, it is very difficult to see them getting past the likes of the Manchesters or Bayern Munich, not to mention Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Indeed, things aren’t looking up for Chelsea at the moment, but at least they – and we, the fans – don’t have to wait very long to begin righting the ship.  Wednesday it’s back to Champions League play at Bayer Leverkusen, then Saturday it’s home against Wolves.  Let’s hope these harsh recent losses inspire new resolve in the Blues!

Will Chelsea finish in the top four in the Premier League this season?

Stadium of Might (Chelsea’s!)

Blues dominate at Sunderland

The big news before today’s match was that Torres would start… on the bench.  Word is that AVB ain’t all that thrilled that Nando left his magic scoring boots in Liverpool.

On the good news front for Chelsea:  Cech was back in goal today.  It was also great to see David Luiz again, even if it was just on the bench.

Overall, a rather un-dramatic match today.  It was pretty much a walk in the park for the Blues.  But after the last couple nail-biters, this Chelsea fan welcomed the break.  Here are a few of my game notes:

-Early on, some classic Cole runs up the left wing from the back.  Ashley Cole is an unsung workhorse for Chelsea.  He’s so reliable in his position that it’s easy to take him for granted.

-11th min:  Mata made a great run into the box, but Anelka couldn’t do anything with Mata’s cutback pass.  In fact, Anelka was virtually absent for the first 10 minutes.

-18th min:  Fantastic finish by Terry for a Chelsea goal!  And nice cross from Sturridge to kick off the frantic sequence in the box, which led to the goal.

-First quarter of the game was nothing for Chelsea to write home about.  Not bad, but nothing flashy.  Expected a little more precise possession.  Apparently they’re still working out the kinks with new players in the lineup.

-Mata was a very bright spot for Chelsea in the first half hour.  Always moving, trying to make things happen.  Some smart and spot-on passes from him.

-Sturridge was energetic, trying hard to get involved, though he missed a great low-level cross from Bosingwa in the 37th minute.

-By the end of the first half the game was very casual with Sunderland content to let Chelsea bring the ball forward.

-51st min:  Great 40-yard pass from Anelka to Sturridge who then cleverly back heeled the ball into the goal!

-63rd min:  Awesome on-goal half volley from Malouda (in his very first touch of the game), but it was saved by Sunderland’s keeper.

-75th min:  Torres replaced Mata.  Probably a well-timed choice by AVB to get Torres into a low-pressure situation.  Unfortunately, Torres barely touched the ball.

-79th min:  Oriol Romeu made his Chelsea debut, replacing Anelka for the game’s home stretch.  He didn’t see the ball enough to make much of an impression.

-91st min:  Chelsea allowed a very disappointing Sunderland goal to make it 2 – 1.

-94th min:  Scariest minute of the game as Sunderland suddenly sprang to life, launching several balls into the Chelsea box.  Chelsea had a sudden 3-on-1 offensive situation after Cech launched the ball downfield out of danger.  Torres received it and had a wide-open Ramires to his right, but made an absolutely dreadful waste of a pass that went out of bounds.  Fortunately for him, the game was over seconds later!

So, a solid win for Chelsea, even though it wasn’t the kind of commanding victory that the Manchesters have produced.  After Man U thrashed Bolton today, I’m leery of the Blues’ trip to Old Trafford next weekend.  Before psyching themselves up for that one, Chelsea turn their attention to Bayer Leverkusen in Champions League play on Tuesday.  Things are about to get interesting!

What did you think about Chelsea’s performance against Sunderland?  How will Chelsea fare against Bayer and Manchester United next week?

Chelsea Clips Canaries

Blues’ 3 – 1 victory over Norwich City was no cakewalk

Well, it was another nail-biter on Saturday.  Typically, Chelsea seemed in control for most of the game, yet the outcome was in serious doubt until Ramires’ late second half roadrunner tear into open territory, chasing down a delectable Anelka pass, which led to Ramires’ takedown in the box, which led to Lampard’s reliable PK conversion, which led to this run-on sentence.  Lampard’s goal was topped off eight minutes later with an exciting pounce and confident goal by Chelsea newbie Juan Mata.

I was surprised to see Mata and Romelu Lukaku debut so quickly after joining the team.  Based on AVB comments earlier last week I thought he was going to give them a few weeks to settle in.  Apparently they’re already settled.  There seemed to be a real buzz among Chelsea fans as they entered the game (Mata first, then Lukaku sixteen minutes later).  And the new pair, no doubt eager to please, made immediate impact.  They were energetic, aggressive, and total troublemakers for the tiring Norwich defense.  Mata & Lukaku were instant hits, providing the right boost at just the right time.

I wonder if Lukaku would’ve seen game time if Drogba hadn’t been literally knocked out of the game by the Norwich keeper.  The blow to Drogba’s head and his subsequent crash to the pitch were sickening in slo-mo.  Here’s hoping he recovers very soon.  The fact that Drogba had to leave the game and Lukaku entered at forward fifteen minutes later was made all the more surreal by the fact that Lukaku indeed reminds one of Drogba in stature and playing style.  It’s hard to believe Lukaku is only eighteen.  He is a bear of a player who looked very strong on the ball.

Likewise, I couldn’t help comparing Mata to Torres, if for no other reason than they are both Spanish World Cup winners.  I also couldn’t help feeling a bit for Torres who, though he seems to be improving over last year, still hasn’t scored this season.  Then Mata races in and scores in his first twenty minutes in a Chelsea jersey.  That was the script written for Torres.  Perhaps having Mata in the team will relieve some of the performance pressure on Torres and help the goals start to flow.

Mata and Lukaku provided a very exciting glimpse of Chelsea’s future.  Combined with all the regular fan faves, Chelsea is faced with an embarrassment of player riches.  I don’t envy AVB’s having to decide whom to play among so many high-caliber stars.  With Jose Bosingwa on a hot streak for example, it’s almost easy to forget David Luiz who was my favorite new Blue last season.  And of course there’s Essien as well, who will hopefully be ready to go by Christmas.  There’s nothing but potential at the Bridge these days.  Let’s just hope no one picks up any major knocks over the international break this week!

What did you think of Mata and Lukaku?  Should they be immediate Chelsea starters?

Chelsea v. Kitchee

Blues roll to another preseason victory

1stHalf Highlights/Commentary

-Chelsea sported their new black away kit for the first time in a match.  Looked snazzy overall.

-Chelsea came out looking confident and enthusiastic with a lot of immediate possession.  Much more energetic from Chelsea than their previous two Asian games.

-Chelsea didn’t get the ball to Drogba enough in the first fifteen minutes.  He wasn’t a threat.  Granted, it’s not easy to crack the goal with eight or nine Kitchee defenders cramming the box.

-16th min:  Drogba finally found some space and served a great cross from the right to Kalou who connected with his head, but the ball bounced off the ground, then off the crossbar.  No goal.

-A primary difference between Drogba and Torres – Drogba usually fights to win back the ball when he loses it.  Torres often lets it go.

-Thirty minutes in, Chelsea still looked better than previous games, but for all their possession, still not enough shots on goal to show for their effort.

-Chelsea had plenty of room on the flanks, as they often do, but they’ve got to figure out a way to deal with these defenses packed in the center of the box, because they’ll be facing similar strategy all year against EPL teams.

-36th min:  Benayoun made a great cut into the box.  One touch too many took away his shooting opportunity, but he was hacked down, and the ref awarded a PK which Lampard put away to make it 1 – 0 for Chelsea.

-43rd min:  Great free kick by Drogba from about 35 yards out.  Kitchee GK had to make a good save.

2nd Half Highlights/Commentary

-49th min:  Great grounder cross from Malouda on the left.  Drogba made a good run to tap it in, but didn’t have to as the Kitchee defender knocked it into the net.  2 – 0 for Chelsea.

-60th min:  Deflected cross from Malouda was knocked in by an aggressive Drogba header (once again the kind of hustle I’d like to see from Torres).  3 – 0 for Chelsea.

-61st min:  Torres, Sturridge, McEachran, Ivanovic, and Mikel entered the game for Drogba, Malouda, Zhirkov, Terry, and Lampard respectively.

-Sturridge was off target with a distance shot and a free kick just a few minutes after entering the game, but it was good to see his hunger and enthusiasm for goal.

-72nd min:  Sturridge made a nice leading pass down the right to Fereirra who crossed it right across the goal and past Torres who seemed to jog toward it.  For some reason, commentator Martin Tyler immediately came to Torres’ defense, saying “at full throttle – and he [Torres] shouldn’t be expected to be at full throttle at this stage of the preseason – that would’ve been a goal.”  I disagree.  Why isn’t Torres digging deep to try to win a starting spot?  Torres didn’t seem to be expecting the cross.  I don’t get it.  Drogba would’ve gone all out trying to get the ball in the net.  Torres was hesitant and slow and it was entirely typical of his play since joining Chelsea.  I’ll try to take a break from Torres-bashing, but I just can’t believe we haven’t seen any change in his effort.

-Rajkovic has potential.  He’s a tall, intimidating presence in the back line.  He did have a few awkward touches on the ball today, which he probably would’ve paid for in an EPL match.  Shortly after one such touch late in the second half, Nathaniel Chalobah replaced him in the game.

-77th min:  Sturridge showed tremendous skill in the box, getting by two defenders and rifling in a smart shot from a tough angle on the right side.  4 – 0 for Chelsea.

Sturridge is making a strong case for himself to be a regular starter.  At the moment, if there are three starting forward positions open, Drogba and Sturridge deserve 2 of the 3 slots (with Kalou and Malouda neck-in-neck for the 3rd).

-The “Barclay’s Man of the Match” was Yossi Benayoun – a deserved honor for a player who has looked aggressive and hungry throughout the preseason to win a regular starting spot.  After struggling with injury last year, it’s good to see him fit and contributing.

-90th min:  Torres took a strike from 30 yards out that hit the right post.  It was a good idea.  Here’s hoping we see more of that assertiveness from him Saturday against Aston Villa.

Who are the top three Chelsea forwards so far this preseason?

Chelsea Welcomes New Manager Andre Villas-Boas

Former Porto honcho a bold choice by Chelsea

My initial reaction to the recent rumors and subsequent hiring of Andre Villas-Boas as the new Chelsea manager was surprise, followed quickly by this could be good.  Surprise, because after weeks of Guus Hiddink the Sequel rumors, I was pretty much resigned to Hiddink landing the job – not in too much of a negative sense mind you, it just wasn’t all that exciting a choice.  Hiddink would be a safe, solid pick, with loads of experience and previous Chelsea rapport to build on, he just doesn’t seem like a candidate who would be in for the long haul.

Villas-Boas on the other hand could be the perfect man for the long haul.  He’s young (33) and energetic.  He aspires to coach in the EPL.  He’s already worked at Chelsea for a spell during the Mourinho years.  Any hesitance is simply due to his limited track record.  Porto’s last season was undeniably fantastic, and Villas-Boas has been tutored by some renowned managers, but it does give me pause considering most Chelsea starters have been playing three, four, or five times as long as he’s been a manager (I haven’t done the math, but it’s a lot).

It also gives me pause when you read comments about what great friends he is with his players.  Really?  Do managers need to be best buds with their team?  Certainly, at this level, you want to have good manager-player rapport, but I don’t like the idea of the manager being a peer, texting buddy, BFF with the team.  Call me old school, but I prefer a manager at least a few years older than his players because of the perspective and wisdom it can afford him.

After those last two paragraphs I almost talked myself out of Villas-Boas enthusiasm.  Plus, “Villas-Boas” doesn’t really roll off the tongue (or keyboard).  I wonder if we can call him “VB” for short?  Or maybe just Andre.  He is a risky choice, but I like the idea overall.  It’s not as if he has to build the club from the ground up.  He has a lot to work with.  If he works out, he could be just the kind of long-term manager Chelsea could build their future around.  Hopefully they’ll demonstrate more patience with Andre  than they did with Carlo!