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Countdown to Derby Day

My trip to the heart of rival territory…

BBVA_Compass_Stadium_East_Facade

The first week of March was exhausting.  My high school soccer team had a regional playoff game on Monday night, which we won, propelling us into the state final four in Houston the following weekend.  I spent the rest of the week leading up to our Thursday afternoon departure madly scrambling to arrange all the last-minute Houston trip details.

One of the main scheduling conundrums that needed solving was what to do with our 22-man team on Friday afternoon.  With our semifinal game scheduled for 9:00 Friday morning, we had quite the time to kill afterward.  I needed something fun and economical that wouldn’t completely sap their energy ahead of the state championship game on Saturday (assuming we won our semifinal of course).

I considered visiting the Johnson Space Center, but it is actually rather far from where we were staying in Houston.  After scuttling NASA, my natural inclination was something Houston Dynamo-related – despite the fact they are the sworn enemy of FC Dallas.  But what could we do?

I contacted the Dynamo’s Director of Soccer Operations, inquiring as politely as possible whether it would be possible for my team to attend a Dynamo training session if they had one Friday afternoon.  I suppose this would be akin to a Liverpool fan wanting to visit a Manchester United training session.  I did feel slightly traitor-ish since I’ve never arranged for my team to attend an FC Dallas training session, but these were unique circumstances, us making the final four in Houston and all.  At least that’s how I soothed my fan conscience.

Surprisingly, I actually heard back from the Soccer Operations guy that the Dynamo would be training Thursday and Friday morning at 10:00 AM and that we were welcome to attend either session.  My heart sank as my super cool (and cheap!) team outing would not be possible since we would be playing our semifinal Friday morning at 9:00.

The Dynamo training session bust led me to wonder if the club offered tours of their practically brand new BBVA Compass Stadium (it opened in 2012).  I called the number and talked to account executive Ken who was very enthusiastic about the prospects of arranging a tour for my team.  He got our request approved, called me back and just like that we were set for a 3:00 PM stadium tour on Friday.

I was excited.  Not only am I endeavoring to be a more faithful MLS supporter, but I also want to spur impressionable young men to support it as well, thus doing my part to influence future generations of American soccer fans.  Selfishly, I really wanted to find out if BBVA Compass Stadium is as cool as it looks on TV.

rise_and_shine_the_jay_demerit_story

On the nearly five hour drive from our school in suburban Dallas to Houston, I tried to inspire the team with a screening of Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story which I had recently purchased expressly for this trip.  While documentaries may not be everyone’s cup of tea (much less teenagers’) I thought this soccer-centric story would surely have widespread appeal.  The film may be sluggish in parts, but who wouldn’t be roused, perhaps even get a lump in the throat, when Demerit scores the winning goal that gained Watford promotion to the Premier League in 2006?  Well, apparently I am the only one so affected.  Every time I glanced around at my players on the bus during the film, no one was remotely paying attention.  Each was absorbed in his own digital devices and oversized headphones.  My inspirational/motivational attempt became the running joke of our state trip as I was the only one interested in watching Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story (and I had already seen it).

Friday morning we dispatched Houston St. Thomas Episcopal 4-0 in our semifinal, advancing to Saturday’s state championship game against Houston Cypress Christian.  Immediately following our game, the team shuttled over to another venue to watch our varsity girls’ team win their semifinal 1-0.  From there, both teams traveled to a deli that was supposed to accommodate our huge troupe for lunch.  After finally directing our charter bus driver (who mystifyingly did not have a GPS) to this very difficult-to-locate deli, we immediately discovered the deli had not been forthcoming on the phone about their ability to serve and seat our huge group (which included over forty players, plus coaches and several parents).  This deli was in fact a lunch counter inside a high-rise office building.  We had to find another restaurant capable of serving us in a timely manner, as it would have taken approximately 36 hours for everyone to eat had we stayed at the deli.  The deli owner was furious and gave my assistant coach an earful, but we really had no choice but to head elsewhere.

By then I was severely stressed as I could see no way we would make it to the stadium on time for our tour.  Strategizing at the alternative restaurant where we finally landed, I decided to call account executive Ken and see if there was any way to move our tour time to 4:00.  Ken could not have been more laid back and accommodating.  This in spite of the fact that the Dynamo brass had given Ken and the rest of the club’s staff the day off because of all the midnight oil they’d been burning in the weeks leading up to the MLS season opener.  Ken told me to give him a call when we were on our way to the stadium, that he would be passing the time playing FIFA ’13 at a buddy’s apartment directly across the street from the stadium.  Now I felt extra pressure – this guy was basically giving up his afternoon off to make this tour happen for us.

Houston traffic was the next hurdle on our BBVA Compass Stadium quest.  We inched along for an hour on Southwest Freeway 59.  I’m pretty sure Los Angeles has the only traffic I’ve experienced worse than Houston’s.  I had to call account executive Ken again to explain our lateness.  He still seemed cucumber-cool, assuring me he had no problem playing FIFA while he waited.  Ken’s FIFA fun wasn’t quite enough to assuage my stress over our lateness though.

Finally, at 4:45 PM we pulled alongside the stadium.  The team universally proclaimed the structure’s coolness.  I wholeheartedly concurred.  My first thought was disdain at how much the exterior aesthetics of the Dynamo’s stadium trumped FC Dallas’.  From the outside BBVA Compass Stadium looks like it was constructed by and for NASA, all silver and sleek and airy.  From the outside, FC Dallas Stadium looks like part of a nice strip mall.

Ken met us outside the stadium, checked us in with security, and led us straight into the lower level inner ring tunnel.  He explained straight away that we unfortunately wouldn’t be able to visit the Dynamo locker room, that not even he had ever been that far inside the inner sanctum.  That roused my suspicions that ridiculously successful Dynamo Head Coach Dominic Kinnear has a vault of secrets in there.

CCA @ Dynamo 1

Our first tour stop was the players’ tunnel leading to the pitch.  Ken led us down the ramp to the edge of the pitch right behind one of the goals.  We were allowed to step to the edge of the grass, but no further.  The Dynamo are apparently extra finicky about their pitch.  Ken said he’s only been on the pitch once, during last year’s staff Christmas party when they played an inter-office staff match.  From field level the empty stadium is awesome – a truly soccer specific venue.  I’ve never been in a stadium so large that feels so intimate.  Though it seats 22,000, the seats on the top row feel remarkably close to the pitch.

That's me enjoying the view from field level.

That’s me enjoying the view from field level.

Ken proudly moved us through various sections of the stadium – the south party deck available for corporate rentals, the premium season ticket holder sections featuring leather seats with hand-stitched Houston Dynamo monograms, and finally the President’s Club interior lounge overlooking midfield.  Stunning.

The lateness of our arrival unfortunately meant limiting our tour to half an hour.  Ken would have let us stay longer, but we had a dinner reservation to get to and considering the traffic, we wanted to eat before midnight.  As Ken led us back out of the stadium, we passed the Dynamo team shop, which surprisingly wasn’t much larger than FC Dallas’ shoe box-sized shop.  One of our team captains asked Ken, “Everyone gets a free jersey, right?”  Ken assured him that not even he gets a free jersey as a Dynamo employee.  I guess you have to pay for that awesome space-aged stadium somehow.

As I forked over the cash for our tour (the admission included a match ticket, but since none of us reside in Houston we opted to donate our tickets to a local charity) and thanked Ken for his helpfulness, he informed me he would be at FC Dallas with the rest of the Dynamo front office staff for the big FC Dallas v. Dynamo Derby match on Sunday, March 17.  I said I’d look for him there.  We shook hands, our eyes narrowing as our grip tightened and the rivalry vibes took over… in my mind at least.  He hasn’t been to FC Dallas Stadium before and I felt like apologizing for our home ground relative to the Dynamo’s awesome environs, but caught myself.  What would I apologize for?  So what if the Dynamo have a sweet stadium?  That doesn’t make me like their team any better.  I hope Ken has as pleasant an experience at our stadium as we had at theirs – right up until game time at least.  Then I hope it’s a sad, sad day for Dynamo fans.

On Saturday, after a fierce 0-0 first half, we finally breached the goal and never looked back, defeating Houston Cypress Christian 4-0 for our school’s first-ever varsity boys soccer state championship.  It must have been that inspiring Dynamo stadium tour – either that or Rise & Shine: The Jay Demerit Story.

I'm the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.

(I’m the exhausted-looking coach on the far left.)

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Happy Blue Year

The January transfer window is open and Chelsea changes are afoot

Rah, rah, sis boom Ba!

Rah, rah, sis boom Ba!

Chelsea’s post-Club World Cup recovery was going great with a League Cup victory against Leeds, followed by three successive EPL wins over Aston Villa, Norwich, and Everton.  Plenty for fans to be enthused about over the Christmas holiday.  All that came to a frustratingly screeching halt Wednesday with the 1-0 home loss to QPR – who just happen to be the worst team in the league.  Simply unbelievable.  The slim hope of catching up to Manchester United by season’s end has all but vanished now.  It will be a dogfight just to qualify for the Champions League.

The QPR loss confirms that Chelsea is not an elite team right now.  There are currently only two elite teams in the EPL and they’re both located in Manchester.  The Manchesters repeatedly demonstrate their knack for winning games they should win, as well as clawing their way back into games when they’re not performing at their best.  They always seem to find additional goals, even when they’re letting goals in themselves.  Chelsea has not shown the same ability this season.

A team’s fortunes don’t rest entirely on one player of course, but Man U does have the remarkably reliable Robin Van Persie at striker, and Man City has the similarly prolific Edin Dzeko.  Chelsea has Fernando Torres.  Yeah.  I know Torres has scored much more this season, but would anyone really put him in the same league as Van Persie and Dzeko right now?  Well, Chelsea may be about to get a lift in that department…

Today Chelsea made it official that Demba Ba is joining the club from Newcastle.  Now that the remote possibility of Didier Drogba joining the team on loan from China seems to have vanished, the arrival of Senegalese striker Ba is great news for Chelsea fans.  If his Newcastle stint is any indication, he will be a physical handful in the box for opponents – something Chelsea has desperately missed since Drogba’s departure.  For all the deft, speedy skill of Hazard, Mata, and Oscar, they are small guys who frequently get muscled off the ball, so having Ba’s strength and nose for goal will be a welcome addition to the offensive mix.

The only things tempering my enthusiasm over Ba are his past knee-injury struggles and the fact that he’s 27-years-old.  I’m not saying 27 is old, I just wish Chelsea would find an elite under-the-radar striker at the beginning of his career rather than splashing mid-season cash for perhaps final-third-of-their-career guys.  I thought they had done that with young Lukaku last season, but they let him languish on the bench before loaning him to West Brom for this season.  Still, getting Ba was much more economical than the rumored move for Atletico Madrid’s Falcao.  Overall, I’m quite glad Ba is a Blue.  Having lived in Senegal for five years as a youngster, I always root for Senegalese players.  Hopefully Ba will accelerate his scoring prowess for Chelsea over the next few seasons.

On the flip side of the January transfer window fun, new arrivals usually mean departures as well.  Daniel Sturridge moved to Liverpool this week.  I like Sturridge and think he has a lot of potential that was never fully explored at Chelsea.  He deserved a lot more playing time this season in place of the bland Torres.  I wish him the best at LFC.

Seriously, who would let this guy go?

Seriously, who would let this guy go?

The other big name in Blues news this week is one of my favorite Chelsea players (isn’t he everyone’s?):  Frank Lampard.  It seems unthinkable that Chelsea would even consider letting this legend go and yet that seems to be what’s happening.  Lampard’s contract is up at the end of this season and Chelsea doesn’t seem eager to re-sign him.  I don’t understand this.  Lampard is beloved by fans, a leader on the field, and still produces goals at the highest level.  Just look at Scholes and Giggs at Man U – guys older than Lampard who still contribute.  Lamps has a few more seasons in him and Chelsea should allow him to end his career as a Blue.  He has certainly earned it.

What do you think of Chelsea’s transfer window action so far?

International Break Blues

Will Chelsea’s momentum stop after the latest international hiatus?

The International Break is a necessary evil I suppose.  It’s fun sometimes, particularly during World Cup Qualifying.  Well, if your team wins that is.  I love supporting the USMNT (I always want to read that as U.S. Mutant Ninja Turtles), but it kills momentum for clubs.  It’s like tennis matches that get rain delayed overnight – it gives the guy who’s losing the match opportunity to regroup, rest, and heal if necessary.  Sometimes it totally changes the match.  And that’s what I’m afraid of because Chelsea has been on a roll, but now the international break – the IB if you will – has stopped the Blues in their tracks.

Compared to the past two seasons, this campaign is strange for Chelsea fans in that the team is sitting relatively pretty for a change, atop the league table, four points above the Manchesters.  So far we haven’t had to deal with the kind of angst that plagued us the past two seasons.  Yes, it’s hard to justify complaints when your team won the Champions League last season, but as anyone who followed that saga knows, it was the most stressful possible tournament in which Chelsea repeatedly cheated death, somehow escaping Munich with the big-eared trophy in their clutches.  By comparison this Premier League season has been downright docile.  So far at least.  That’s the main reason I’m concerned about this most recent momentum-killing IB.

I’ve really enjoyed watching Chelsea go undefeated this season – it’s been refreshingly un-stressful.  But now the team has to shake off their jet lag (Chelsea players are on a lot of national teams) and get their groove back in time to do battle at Tottenham this Saturday.  Add in the weirdness factor that they’ll be facing their old manager Andre Villas-Boas for the first time since Chelsea fired him last season and you have the makings of a potential perfect storm.  You can bet your booty AVB will have his Spurs revved up for maximum pride salvaging (meaning AVB’s pride).  It’s certainly not the cushy assignment a first place team would prefer to get to ease back into Premier League play after a tiring IB.  On the other hand, resuming the season with a dogfight like this may be the best way to get Chelsea back in the full swing of things.

Saturday’s game at Tottenham is a bigger match than initially meets the eye.  It is a crucial encounter that could mean the difference between establishing dominance in the league and giving the Manchesters a toehold.  The Manchesters do not need toeholds given to them.

Will Chelsea be able to regroup and shake off the cobwebs in time for the big clash with Tottenham Saturday?

Chelsea’s Champions League Week

Blues wrap up EPL season with win, now focused on Champions League Final

Another Premier League season came to a rousing close on Sunday.  Though I can’t stand either of the Manchester teams, I was glad to see Man City snatch the title from Man U at the last second.  It was the lesser of two evils I suppose.

On the relegation side of things, I was disappointed to see Bolton go down instead of QPR.  I don’t like QPR – too many thugs.  I do like Bolton coach Owen Coyle though and never expected them to be relegated this season.

As for Chelsea, their 2-1 win over Blackburn on Sunday was devoid of any suspense since Chelsea had completely tanked against Liverpool the previous Wednesday (losing 4-1).  It was quite a bizarre defeat on the heels of beating Liverpool just three days earlier in the FA Cup Final!  It was such a frustrating loss, I couldn’t bear to blog about it until now.

I’m not sure how Chelsea was so bad in the Liverpool loss, particularly since it was their last chance to possibly salvage a top four finish and ensure Champions League play next season.  I really wanted to see them have that insurance just in case things go poorly in the Champions League Final in Munich this Saturday.  Now there is added pressure because if they don’t beat Bayern Munich in the Final, Chelsea will suffer a yearlong Champions League drought.  Not cool.

Chelsea previewed their new kit Sunday against Blackburn (see below).  I like the classy, simple design.  I was iffy about the gold lettering/stripes at first, but I think it’s going to work.

Conspicuously missing from the club’s ad campaign for the new Adidas kit is Didier Drogba.  I hope his absence doesn’t mean he already has a foot out the door.  If he does, everyone is keeping their lips impressively sealed.

When Di Matteo put Drogba in the game in the second half against Blackburn, the moment, and the crowd’s reaction, had a farewell vibe to it.  Drogba has always been one of my favorite Chelsea players.  I really hope he has a huge Champions League Final that will help motivate him to stay with Chelsea a couple more seasons.

This week is all about Champions League Final prep for Chelsea.  Cahill and Luiz apparently trained with the team today, so hopefully they’ll be fit by Saturday.  With all of Chelsea’s injuries and suspensions, I’m not feeling particularly confident at the moment.  I’ll have to remind myself for the rest of the week that they got past Barcelona, so anything’s possible on Saturday, right?

What do you think of the new Chelsea kit?  Do you think Drogba will be at Chelsea next season?  Feel free to weigh in below…

My First Trip of 2012 to FC Dallas Stadium

In which FC Dallas gifts Portland Timbers a goal for 1 – 1 draw

I spent St. Patty’s day, or evening actually, at FC Dallas Stadium (formerly Pizza Hut Park).  I wasn’t able to make it to the season opener last Sunday versus NY Red Bulls as I was traveling with my family on spring break.  I enjoyed watching FCD beat the Red Bulls on NBC Sports Network though and thoroughly enjoyed their coverage.  NBC didn’t dumb anything down at all (unlike a certain channel that starts with an “F” and ends with an “ox” during their nationally televised Champions League final).  So Saturday night was my first opportunity of the 2012 season to see FCD live as they battled the ax men from the northwest, better known as the Portland Timbers.  Here are my random musings on the match experience:

FCD’s new forward Blas Perez of Panama (I think he should go by that full moniker, including “of Panama” just for fun) has been impressive in his first two games.  He kept the Timbers on their toes in the first half (scoring FCD’s only goal), but in the second they paid closer attention to his wily maneuverings and that, coupled with a lack of offensive support from his FCD cronies, kept him from threatening as much.

Enjoyment of a match in person is seriously affected by those seated around you.  Most of my experiences at FCD games have been quite positive, but last night I had a trio of male knuckleheads babbling incessantly behind me.  They quickly beat everyone over the head with the fact they are Timbers fans, though only one had on a Timbers jacket (the other two inexplicably wore a Man U jacket and an old Dallas Burn jersey).  They regaled the rest of us with comedic gems like “Nice dive!” (directed at an FCD player), quickly followed by “Nice scuba suit!”  They also got a kick out of “Hey linesman, your sports bra too tight?” which I thought was a blow aimed at the poor linesman’s manhood until I realized that he actually was wearing some sort of clearly visible sports bra-like device under his ref jersey.  As if fans need further excuse to ridicule refs!  Not sure what that was all about – perhaps MLS is tracking refs’ vital signs this year via the bra, I mean device.  The Timber Trio’s favorite barb of the night though was their admonishment to any FCD player who got knocked down to “Hit the weights!”  They apparently thought this sage advice since they screamed it approximately one thousand times during the match.  Oddly enough, the motor mouths didn’t appear to be drunk at all.

Vuvuzelas mar the soccer world.  Unfortunately, the plastic horn menaces – that sound like a cross between a wounded Wookie and an elephant – are a perpetual presence at FCD matches.  I much prefer the steady crowd roar, singing, and chanting of European matches to vuvuzelas and drum beating.  The honk of the vuvuzela is a truly melancholy wail that sounds downright depressing, particularly in the 88th minute when your team is tied or losing and could use an aural spark.  That’s the main problem with vuvus – they’re not peppy in the least.  Perhaps the suits think vuvus help create “atmosphere”.  They are mistaken.  Vuvus sound ridiculous and aren’t festive in the least.  The only good thing about vuvus is that every time I hear one I’m reminded of Will Ferrell as “Jeff Vuvuzela” at the Espy’s a couple years ago.

FC Dallas has made several improvements to the match experience for fans.  I like the new seating right behind the north goal, which helps a bit to enclose the cavernous stage/beer garden space.  The halftime videos hosted by Vydra were very well done and quite entertaining – I particularly enjoyed the Q&A with Ricardo Villar in which he had to choose between random things like “Man City or Man U” (I forgive him for choosing Man U – was hoping he’d say “neither”).  One improvement the club still desperately needs however is a larger on-site team store.  The current shoebox size shop is entirely inadequate.  Saturday night before the game they had to use a frazzled bouncer to allow folks in a few at a time, but even then, once finally inside, the shop was literally shoulder-to-shoulder which made it impossible to fully browse the merchandise.

 

As for the match, Dallas controlled the first half, but the Timbers adequately adjusted after halftime and came out looking like a different team.  Even so, the Dallas defense (led by Ugo Ihemelu and Zach Loyd) was solid and likely would’ve held on to win were it not for Kevin Hartman’s uncharacteristic blunder in which he booted the ball straight up to the top of his own box where Portland’s Darlington Nagbe was waiting to pounce and slipped in an easy goal to tie the game.  Unfortunately, Dallas often found themselves short-handed on the attack as the spark provided by Loyd’s wing runs in the first half virtually disappeared in the second.  There was precious little offensive creativity from Dallas in the second half (which only encouraged the restless vuvuzela blowers).  FCD really needs David Ferreira back from injury and Brek Shea back from Olympic qualifying duty!

Despite the vuvus and obnoxious Timbers fans, it was a good time as usual at FC Dallas Stadium.  The draw was disappointing, but Dallas generally looks strong and should be very competitive this year.

Where do you think FC Dallas will finish in the Western Conference standings this year?

Bravo Blues!

Chelsea defeats Napoli 4-1, advancing to Champions League quarterfinals

Wednesday’s second leg round of 16 clash with Napoli at Stamford Bridge was hands down Chelsea’s biggest win of the season.  It was a crackling night of classic and dramatic Champions League action that saw Chelsea overcome a 3-1 aggregate deficit by netting four goals.  The game was thrillingly suspenseful for 120 minutes, having been forced into extra time since the aggregate score was 4-4 at the end of regulation.  In the 104th minute, Ivanovic scored the winning goal for Chelsea in the kind of triumphant moment reminiscent of the Blues’ better days from the past several years.  It was the kind of moment that makes soccer fans swoon, the kind that have been unfortunately few and far between for Chelsea supporters this season.

Particularly gratifying in this match were the unified heart and fighting spirit the team demonstrated throughout.  It was the kind of will to win that has been oddly absent for much of this campaign.  The fact that three of Chelsea’s four goals were scored by Chelsea’s “old guard” (Drogba, Terry, and Lampard respectively) was also quite gratifying.  Their goals and leadership were emphatic parries to critics’ jabs this season that Chelsea would be better off without these “geezers”.  What is remarkable about this rampant critical ageism is the double standard demonstrated by the rave reviews heaped on Manchester United’s own geezers Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.  Wednesday night’s performance proved that Drogba, Terry, and Lampard are not done yet!

The victory over Napoli keeps hope alive that perhaps something magical can be salvaged from this otherwise dreary season for the Blues.  Today’s Champions League draw determined that Chelsea will now travel to Benfica for the first quarterfinal leg on March 27th.  Here’s hoping that Chelsea’s recent recovery blossoms into a resurgence that will propel them all the way to the final in Munich!

How will Chelsea fare against Benfica in the quarterfinals?

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?

Champions League Blues

Chelsea settles for a point against Valencia

I’m still smarting from Chelsea’s draw at Valencia in Wednesday’s Champions League group stage match.  Chelsea seemed in utter control of the game.  The Blues played well – not great – but their effort seemed to be more than enough to secure three points.  But they only got one point thanks to an 86th minute PK scored by Valencia after Kalou hand-balled on a Valencia corner.  Very frustrating.

Chelsea never should’ve been in danger of drawing as they had some seemingly easy scoring opportunities swatted away in the second half by Valencia’s acrobatic goalkeeper Diego Alves.  Ramires had one such opportunity.  I’m growing frustrated with Ramires because he seems to have trouble finishing.  I love his endurance, work ethic, and willingness to ram the ball ahead, but he really must come through with his finishing.

Finally, Frank Lampard got the better of Diego Alves when Malouda sent a smart diagonal pass through the box which Lamps lethally one-timed into the back of the net with one of his trademark grass-scorchers.  It was a great goal and a well-timed “shut up” to the over-eager soccer pundit boneheads who’ve lately been trying to read a lot into Lampard’s recent time on the bench for Chelsea and England.  Giles Smith had some great things to say in Lampard’s defense in his weekly Chelsea blog.  I agree with Smith that Frank still has much to contribute to the team.

Now back to that Kalou hand-ball in the game’s dying minutes… wow.  Seriously?  I’ve been impressed thus far with AVB’s handling of the squad, but it was definitely a mistake to insert Kalou.  When I saw Kalou warming up alongside Drogba, I had a feeling AVB was going to go with Kalou because Kalou hasn’t seen much playing time lately, the game seemed to be in the bag so it might be a good chance to show Kalou some love, etc., etc.  But it was the wrong game at the wrong time to show Kalou love.  Why not just let the veteran Lampard see out the game?  What on earth was Kalou, a striker, supposed to contribute in the last eight minutes?  It seemed to be one of those political moves managers feel obliged to do at this level – giving run-outs to players who have lately been out of the rotation.

Balancing playing time is surely one of the trickiest aspects of managing a club with Chelsea’s talent.  But Kalou should’ve remained on the bench.  AVB understandably didn’t toss Kalou under the bus in his post-match comments, but I will:  what was Kalou thinking?  He wasn’t match-sharp and he ran out there and blew a perfectly good win.  Sure, it’s early in Champions League play, but those squandered points could certainly come back to haunt!  I’ve always had doubts about Kalou – the necessary consistency just doesn’t seem to be there.  If I had to pick anyone to consider off-loading come January, it would be Kalou.

Anyway, it’s back to Premier League play tomorrow for Chelsea at Bolton.  The pesky Manchesters are still refusing to lose domestically, so a win over Wanderers is a must for Chelsea!

What do you think – am I being too harsh toward Kalou?

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?