Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Truly Remarkable Game of Football

Stamford Bridge, West London, was the locale, but -- really -- the whole world was watching. Quite how this second leg of the "other" Champions League semifinal on Wednesday (the one that didn't involve Manchester United and Barcelona) managed to eclipse its more-anticipated predecessor of the day before is remarkable ... but, hey, that's football.
End-to-end stuff. High-action drama. Emotional investment. (Wasn't this meant to be taking place yesterday?) Who knew that a Chelsea side deprived of Jose Mourinho's sense of panache was capable of such a display? When grieving son Frank Lampard converted a penalty in extra time just days after his mother's premature death at the age of 58, who among us could deny his bravery and sense of professionalism?
And when Blues manager Avram Grant, a Jew, dedicated his post-match center-circle celebration to Israel's remembrance of Holocaust Day, well ... who could even think of sport at that point? Chelsea v. Manchester United in Moscow for the biggest club trophy in the world. In our global village, somehow it all seems to make sense.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jozy Altidore, Superstar!

So, "Our Lad" is finally starting to grow up. He endures a tough first half during a dreary Sunday match vs. San Jose at Estadio de Gigantes. Apparently, not only his teammates but his manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, get on his case in the dressing room at halftime. He has two choices -- either he resents the veteran intervention, or he adjusts his attitude (and his game) and approaches the second frame like the USA and Europe-bound striker he is. And, if he didn't do just that!
A penalty won, and a true poacher's goal (and the contributions of fellow striker John Wolyniec can't go unnoticed) and, all of a sudden, the Bulls head into Thursday night's match against resurgent Toronto FC with a chance to make the early-season Eastern Conference standings read a bit more interesting. Hmmmm ....

La Liga ramblings from a Real Madrid fan (Vol. 3)


Two words: Iker Casillas. GolTV's Ray Hudson could commentate on a snail race at a library, but after the goalkeeping showcase Casillas put on this past Sunday to all but assure Real Madrid's place as league champions, all Hudson had to say was, "I don't have anything to say, Phil (Schoen)."
Unfortunately, those who don't understand this Beautiful Game can't appreciate the significance of a brilliant defensive play, a clearing header or the subtle play of a holding midfielder. But, even the casual observer would have been on his feet watching the brilliance of Casillas. Barcelona continued to slide further down the ladder with a loss, and Villarreal kept place with the first-place Los Blancos to hold their second-place slot.

Scholes Sends United Through

As much as one tires of Sir Alex Ferguson's myopic rants at referees and the sense of entitlement many of Manchester United's fans seem to feel, there are a few characters in the Red Devils' squad worth rooting for. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs come to mind, and it was a clinical finish by Scholesy -- the 'Ginger Pele' -- that put paid to Barcelona in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal at Old Trafford on Tuesday. Barca's efforts to lift themselves out of a season-long torpor made a difference at the Nou Camp last week, but United proved the better side over two legs. So, Man United has booked a place in Moscow ... will it be Liverpool or Chelsea joining them? The Pardew's Guardian crew predicts a 2-1 Chelsea win on Wednesday (3-2 on aggregate). We shall see.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Well, well, well ...

So, Chelsea outclassed Man United 2-1 today at the (impenetrable) Bridge courtesy of two Michael Ballack goals and, all of a sudden, a title race that was threatening to materialize is suddenly well and truly on. The unlikely claims that Avram Grant can eclipse the legacy of Jose Mourinho with a league and Euro double this season seem a bit exaggerated, but, at this point, you wouldn't put it past Chelsea to take one of the two. Man United seem to have hit a bumpy patch at a very inopportune time, with Fergie seeming to bottle his team selection today even though Barcelona visits Old Trafford on Tuesday.
The most fascinating aspect of all of this is the perception floating out there that, somehow, Cristiano Ronaldo bottles it in the big games. He is putting the final touches on a season for the ages for United, but if the side goes trophy-less no one will remember the 40-odd goals. The only calling card of the season will be failure, whether warranted or not.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Messi: World's Most 'Watchable' Player?

So, nil-nil after the first leg of Barca-Man. United in the Champions League semifinal -- a surprise, considering the attacking potential of both sides. The talking point is surely Cristiano Ronaldo's missed penalty, but the match was dominated by the electric skills of Barca's Lionel Messi. What is it about these Argentine players? They play the game with verve and daring, the way it was meant to. The lads and I saw Messi's magic up close a few years back, when Barca played the Red Bulls in New York. Every time he got on the ball, the flashbulbs popped and a primal chant of "Messi! Messi!" rocked the stadium. He is football's Mr. Excitement, even more so then Man. United's Portuguese winger. Ole!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Carlitos... Legend!!!!

It's taken me a while to comment on this, but watching Carlos Tevez score what might be a title-winning equalizer for Man. United v. Blackburn this past weekend with an acrobatic, glancing header brought all the old feelings rushing back.
This little man paid a dear price on the pride level when it came to Pards and Curbs not playing him. He must have been thinking, "What am I doing here at such a small, backward club?"
The words might hurt us who are Hammers, but to strand an international striker of his caliber on the bench for 75 percent of a Premier League season ... well, you have to wonder.
The fact that he paid such a wonderful, "crossed Hammers" tribute to us 
back in December speaks volumes about the Argentine's priorities. He could have held back and been gracious without going over the top, but our old No. 32 met us on our own terms. All the luck in the world to you, Carlos. You deserve it.

You Have Got To Be Kidding ...

UEFA insists on choosing referees on a continent-wide basis for its glamour competitions, as does FIFA worldwide. (Remember the Russian referee who scuttled the Portugal match in the World Cup?) So, on Tuesday afternoon we have a minnow from Austria taking charge of a European Cup semifinal. Fine, give the smaller countries their due. But when it comes to deciding which side parades that oversized cup around Moscow in May, can we please leave it in the hands of the professionals?
I have no rooting interest in this tie, but when you signal (albeit a minimum) 4 minutes of injury time,  and the 'Pool's John Arne Rise scores an own goal well into the 5th, well ... you have to be ready to answer some serious questions. Advantage, Chelsea. But, has it been earned?

Seth Stammler joins the Massive!

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- No need to adjust your eyes. Yes, that's Red Bulls midfielder Seth Stammler proudly proclaiming his undying devotion to the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! after the Revs game the other night. The Bulls players all know what the score is, and they are all begging to get in. You can have your ESC, your Kearny Army, your Raging Bull Nation and your First Row Idiots. The Massive! is where it's at.

Monday, April 21, 2008

MLS Match Report 2: Red Bulls 1, New England Revolution 1

East Rutherford, New Jersey -- The Red Bulls headed into their second home match of the season (Sat., April 19) on the heels of a disappointing 2-nil loss the previous week at FC Dallas, but with spring having finally sprung in the Garden State spirits were high as the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! trucked the 120 miles to Estadio de Gigantes courtesy of the Holak mobile.
We have season tickets, and the Holaks have a 4-game plan. Tonight, our calendars crossed. Cool.
Dave, Carrie and Trevor joined Alex, Ben and I for a bit of weekend MLS action, and the night got off to a good start with Coldplay and Keane pumping through the radio from Dave's iPod, an airing of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" on the DVD player for the lads and Carrie ensconsed in the back seat with the Jonathan Kellerman novel "Obsession." And that was just on the Parkway! The game lay tantalizingly ahead. Once in the stadium parking lot, the three lads and Dave went about playing small-sided games, juggling and just generally looking like the soccer players they all are. Meanwhile, I put on my fanny pack. What can I say? It's a look that works for me, no matter what anyone says.
We went inside, found our separate sections (the Massive! flag being hung in 107, Row 1 as usual) and settled in for a high-tempo match between two Eastern Conference rivals. I predicted an early goal for the Bulls, which didn't really materialize. But Bulls striker Jozy Altidore did give the home side a 1-nil lead with a well-taken goal near the half-hour mark. His pace, power and finishing skills proved to much for the Revs, who then went down to 10 men before the interval. The Bulls were in prime position to push on and be at 6 points from 9 available in the young season. Then, sadly, it all went pear-shaped.
First, Juan Pablo Angel was taken off at halftime (we figured it was a reoccurrence of his hamstring injury). Then, the Bulls conceded a free kick right on the edge of the 18. Inexplicably, goalkeeper Jon Conway built a 7-man wall (as Dave pointed out via text) and the ball went under the jumping throng to beat him at the near post. Deflating to say the least.
The rest of the match saw the Revs shut up shop, with goalkeeper Matt Reis denying Altidore and Bulls striker John Wolyniec heading over the bar. When the final whistle sounded, the Bulls had given up a golden opportunity to set out their stall in the Eastern Conference.
Oh, well. At least we had Holak's hair metal on Sirius Satellite Radio to keep the mood light on the way home ...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pandev helps Lazio stay up

Congrats to Goran Pandev, whose 12 goals have combined with the efforts of on-loan striker Rolando Bianchi (from Manchesteter City, another curious cast-off from Sven-Goran Eriksson's side) to steer Rome's sky-blue side to the safety of 10th place in the Italian Serie A after a disastrous start and middle of the season.
While Eternal City rivals Roma attempt to pull back Internazionale from the Scudetto, Lazio must find comfort in escaping relegation worries and trying to finish above the likes of Napoli when the final table is printed. Funnily enough that Eriksson is mentioned, as his Lazio conquered all before it, You had Juan Sebastian Veron, Diego Simeone and Hernan Crespo bringing a Latin flair to the peninsula that saw the side do a league and Coppa Italia double. While the title is usually the preserve of northern sides such as Juve, Inter and Milan, once in a while Rome (or Naples) mounts a challenge. English football is blood and thunder (organic and writ large) and Spain's is poetry (aesthetic and synchronized), while Italian football is opera -- dramatic, flawed and, yes, esoteric. I've been to Italy once, and I am desperate to go back. To see the football, to love, to eat ... and to live.

Spector's Super Year

Some long-overdue kudos to Yank Hammer Jonathan Spector for acquitting himself well as the side has consolidated this season, remaining a top-10 team after the chaos of last springs. "Specs" will never win any style points, but his athleticism and versatility have seen him replace new Rangers stalwart Christian Dailly as West Ham's jack-of-all-trades.
Whether employed anywhere along the backline or even in midfield, Specs has shown an admirable willingness to get stuck in for the cause. This son of Chicago has a long, bright career ahead of him in Europe, as well as a near-certain spot on Bob Bradley's USA squad for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Closer to the Pardew's Guardian part of the world, the three founding members of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! hope to see Specs up close and personal when the USA hosts Argentina for a June 8th friendly at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. We have first-row seats in Section 107 -- where the Massive! calls home for New York Red Bulls matches -- on what should be a fantastic night. Carlitos Tevez, Juan Roman Riquelme, Lionel Messi and Hernan Crespo for the Argies; Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley for the home side.
Now that's a match that gets the proverbial juices flowing.

La Liga ramblings from a Real Madrid fan (Vol. 2)


Can’t say I didn’t warn you... Barcelona is now just 1 point ahead of 3rd-place Villarreal, who don’t play a team higher than 8th place the remainder of the season. Regardless of what league you’re in or what level you play at, you can’t drop points to teams you SHOULD beat --especially not this late in the season, when every touch of the ball becomes that much more critical.

Draw, draw, lose, win, draw ... Barcelona has no choice but to beat Espanyol this coming weekend if they have any hope of catching Real Madrid who, after this past weekend's win over Murcia, are now in first place by 9 points.

But perhaps the shocker of the week was Ronaldhino coming to an agreement with AC Milan. The only sticking point is freeing himself from that pesky Barcelona contract. For months, we’ve heard there are no problems or egos at Barcelona. Of course they’re going to say that, but actions definitely speak louder than words. Not only is Ronaldinho leaving, but apparently he’s willing to buy out his own contract to be allowed to leave -- if that’s not a disgruntled employee, I don’t know what is. Perhaps the big story in La Liga will come in the offseason, when I suspect there will be a HUGE shakeup in Barcelona.

Monday, April 07, 2008

MLS Match Report 1: Red Bulls 2, Columbus Crew 0


East Rutherford, New Jersey -- A crisp, 45-degree Saturday night at Giants Stadium was the setting. The occasion? The New York Red Bulls (formerly the New York-New Jersey MetroStars, as you all know) opened their 13th Major League Soccer season with a 2-nil win over the Columbus Crew in front of 17, 119 rocking fans, who gave the match a European feel. It's nice to attend a domestic soccer match and be taken in by the noise levels and party atmosphere. Well done, Bulls fans. Keep it up, lads (and lasses)!

The Pardew's Guardian crew in the form of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (er, basically myself and my two 10-year-old sons, Alex and Ben), wearing our Red Bulls-issued tracksuit tops, made the 120-mile drive from our driveway in Atlantic County to "Estadio de Gigantes" in record time -- 1 hour, 50 minutes -- and entered through Gate D to scoop up our special-edition Red Bulls scarves and watch our good friend (no kidding!) Max Bretos of Fox Soccer Channel play in a charity match that also included Ethan Zohn, Shep Messing, some beautiful Hispanic ladies and Amani Toomer of New York Giants fame. Since he was due in the broadcast booth for Fox Soccer Channel, Bretos excused himself at halftime. Before he found the refuge of the locker-room showers, Bretos took time to greet Alex and Ben with a hearty hello near the tunnel. "Hey, it's the Clark boys!" an enthusiastic Max shouted, before producing a sincere wave to me near the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! (color red) Red Bulls flag tied firmly to Section 107, Seats 1-3. Messing and Zohn also chatted with the boys, who were well chuffed, and the match was more than an hour away!

There's nothing better than the 40 0r so minutes before the match -- the players are out warming up, the walking stadium vendors bring welcome Swedish Fish candy diversions right to the boys (hey, they are all sinewy muscle; the lads have set foot in a McDonald's maybe 3 times (!!) ever and avoid processed food as a matter of course, so an occasional all-sugar snack is allowed) and the real fans of the Empire Supporters Club make their way into Section 101. Their crew leader was very flexible when I asked him not only to tie the 40-foot-long banner that would cover our section below eye level so the boys could see, as well as respect the fact that the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! flag had been positioned for the better part of 2 hours.

An extremely-compelling 4-member parachute team dropped from a helicopter on to the stadium's turf to deliver the match ball, defying physics as they spiraled in from the sky. A usually-jaded New York crowd jumped to their feet, applauding the precision and acrobatic qualities on display.

Kudos also to the Red Bulls, who join the ESC in adding drums and other musical instruments to the matchday atmosphere. When New Jersey's own Claudio Reyna led the Bulls out of the tunnel as captain, the noise lifted the lid off the old park. And that theme stayed continued into the first minute of the match, when the lanky Dutchman Dave van den Bergh skidded a shot past the Columbus keeper to send home crowd into rapture. The fans didn't have to wait long for goal No. 2, as in the 8th minute Kevin Goldthwaite, the much-maligned defender who came into the team at the expense of the traded Marvell Wynne last season, got on to the end of a Juan Pablo Angel flick on in the box (via a van den Bergh corner) and crashed a goal home. At 2-nil, the Bulls could afford to return to new coach Juan Carlos Osorio's defensive gameplan and frustrate the Crew with lateral and backward passes (many of them coming from Reyna, who seems -- worringly -- to excel at the task.)

Angel missed a second-half penalty, which was won by the in-the-box endeavor by the absolutely excellent !! new Colombian signing, striker Oscar Echeverry (pictured above during the match, and spending a few minutes with Alex and Ben in the corridors of Giants Stadium after the game had ended.) In fact, Angel looked a bit off the pace. His usual movement was there, but his predatory instincts seemed to desert him on Saturday. If this team is to get over the hump and win a championship or a U.S. Open Cup trophy, Angel (and the injured Jozy Altidore, who did not play in the match) must be firing on all cylinders in order to make up for the shortcomings in the rest of the team.

Defender Jeff Parke (who collected two yellow cards and the subsequent red), midfield dynamo Seth Stammler and keeper Jon Conway -- who did not have much to do -- played solid matches for the Bulls, who put 3 points on the board in the "Pardew's Guardian (TM) Quest For 46 Points" (13 wins, 7 draws out of 30 total matches) that could position the side nicely for a run at the Eastern Conference final. Who did not play well? Other than the aforementioned Angel, Reyna must be singled out yet again for playing every pass laterally and backwards instead of providing a probing ball into the final third of the field. And, Luke Sassano looks a long stretch away from being an MLS defender.

La Liga ramblings from a Real Madrid fan (Vol. 1)


It continues to be the league Barcelona does not want to win, and if they're not real careful they may end up finishing 3rd in a table they should have walked away with. Unlike last season, when Madrid closed the gap at the end on Barca's late season slips, Barca can’t seem to take advantage of ANY Madrid miscues.

Barca closed ground 2 weeks ago on the first of Madrid’s consecutive losses, but the killer came when they went up on Real Betis 2-0 and lost 3-2, allowing Madrid to dodge a HUGE bullet. I’m starting to think the way you end up with Samuel Eto'o, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Deco all on 1 team is to make a deal with the devil, but he in turn gets their ability to score.

On the Madrid side, you can’t say much but “go figure.” Certainly not the soccer legends of the past, and not necessarily the household names of the future, but they seem to be getting the job done. All I can say is thank God for Gabi Heinze. He has single-handedly kept them in game after game this season. Fabio Cannavaro may be the “superstar” but Heinze is the rock.

But perhaps the biggest change for me has been the play of Sergio Ramos -- pictured above -- this season. I don’t think the departure of David Beckham has left a big hole with the team (other then the $50 million in marketing revenue they lost!), but it has definitely changed the dynamic of Sergio Ramos’ play. He still makes runs from his right-back position and he still plays an offensive and aggressive defensive style, but I think without Beckham’s holding midfield play, Ramos has exposed Madrid’s defense to strong counterattacks.

So at the end of this past weekend and with 7 weeks left, Real Madrid maintains their 7-point lead on Barca & Villarreal. Even more amazing, after mounting a win over Barcelona back on March 1st and rerouting what was a sure slide into the middle of the table, Atl├ętico Madrid has managed to find their way just 6 points back of 2nd place.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Matty Upson out for the season?

The phrase 'knock wood' never seemed more appropriate when it comes to discussing Matthew Upson's health. Were we sold a bill of goods when the player himself said a South African specialist had cured his injury woes? The fact that the so-called 'healer' used paper-thin, phonebook-style inserts in his boots seemed to set Matty up for failure. His form for Hammers earned him an England recall, and media reports had Fabio Capello well pleased with his form. I thought his headed goal against Man United in the Hammers' win prior to Christmas was a peak in a long struggle to prove Arsene Wenger wrong for letting him leave Arsenal for the less-demanding environs of Birmingham City. Where we go from here is anyone's guess.

Red Bulls' opener Saturday night

Juan Pablo Angel (pictured), Claudio Reyna, coach Juan Carlos Osorio and the rest of the New York Red Bulls crew get their MLS season started Saturday night (April 5th) against the Columbus Crew at Giants Stadium. Some of the league's teams have already played 2 matches, so it's important for the Bulls to put some points on the board early. The Pardew's Guardian crew will be on hand, of course, so if you are watching the match in the USA on Fox Soccer Channel, look for the 'Northfield, New Jersey' Red Bulls flag when corners are taken from the left (as you look at the screen). I think Osorio will get the best out of this team (with 2 or 3 additions to come). I predict 13 wins and 7 draws out of the 30 matches. Angel and Jozy Altidore are the best strike force in the league, and while we have him Altidore must imprint himself on MLS -- even if it's just for one more season. With a full campaign in front of him, you have to say Angel is capable of 25 goals, providing he receives the proper service. And, don't discount the impact goalkeeper Jon Conway can have this season. If he plays well, we make the Eastern Conference finals. If not, we struggle to reach the postseason. Simple, really!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Sending Up Mascherano (and Rooney !!! )

Kudos to The Guardian reader who came up with this excellent photoshopped version of Liverpool's Javier Mascherano having a few words too many with referee Steve Bennett when the Reds played the Red Devils (Manchester United) at Old Trafford a few weekends ago. Not only does the image perfectly capture the inflated self-importance so many of today's footballers suffer from, it adds the humorous touch of portraying Manchester United's terrifically-talented-yet- beauty-challenged Wayne Rooney as Shrek -- his common moniker among Premiership fans -- to go with Masch's Donkey. A classic bit of imagination.

Arsenal rues the penalty not called

As you can see from Alexander Hleb's reaction, the Gunners' midfielder was aggrieved that he was denied a spot kick after being pulled to the ground by Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt during the two sides' 1-1 draw in the first leg of their Champions League quarterfinal in London on Wednesday. Emmanuel Adebayor had given Arsenal a 1-nil lead, which Kuyt quickly cancelled out. With the away goal (and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez's European pedigree), you have to fancy Liverpool emerging from the second leg at Anfield as semifinalists. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has tailored his side to win the Champions League the last few seasons, and they came close in the Paris final vs. Barcelona. But, you have to wonder whether a season that held so much promise for the Gunners is now evaporating, on both the domestic and continental fronts. We shall see.

Chelsea bitten 2-1 by Fenerbahce

In one of those classic Istanbul surprises (think Galatasaray defeating all placed in front of them when they won the UEFA Cup a few years back, or Liverpool's escape from 3-nil down vs. AC Milan to win the Champions League), the bumblebee-clad Fenerbahce side take a 2-1 lead to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of their Champions League quarterfinal. That's not a gap to far for a Chelsea side that features Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, but having lost the Carling Cup final to Spurs some doubts may start to creep in about Avram Grant's ability to lead Chelsea to the kind of glory they became so accustomed to during Jose Mourinho's reign. The character of this Chelsea side is changing -- gone are the days when Frank Lampard and Drogba were the first names on the team sheet. German Michael Ballack is slowly making the team his own, and the influence of Mourinho's fellow Portuguese Ricardo Carvalho seems to be waning as well. In many ways, Chelsea are becoming a time, like AC Milan the last 5 years, a team to be feared more in Europe than in their domestic league ... and that might just be how owner Roman Abramovich wants it!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Barca lead just 1-0 over Schalke

Meanwhile, Barcelona take a slender 1-nil lead back to the Nou Camp after a workmanlike performance in Germany on Tuesday. Perhaps this photo of a yellow card shown to Barca's Mexican starlet Giovanni dos Santos sums up their day: All huff but very little puff to show for it (Barcelona enjoyed a 60-40 advantage in possession; Schalke did have 24 shots, but just 5 of them were on target). Youngster Bojan Krkic pinged in a rebound from a Thierry Henry shot, and the Spanish giants have to hope the freedom a home match on their wide pitch gives them will propel their side toward a likely semifinal, two-legged tie with Manchester United. Many observers feel Barca were lucky to beat Arsenal in the Paris final a few years back, putting their win down to Jens Lehman's dismissal. If we're being honest, that's the last time Ronaldinho really took a meaningful game by the scruff of the neck and saw it through. One has to think that the Spanish side will need a little more that that to get past Cristiano Ronaldo and co. this time around.

Ronaldo keeps it going in Rome

Cristiano Ronaldo continued his torrid form Tuesday, scoring Manchester United's opener in a 2-0 first-leg, quarterfinal win over host Roma in the Eternal City. Without the services of the injured Francesco Totti, Roma looked rather pedestrian. Ronaldo has been anything but that lately; he followed up his one-man demolition of Aston Villa on Saturday by rising high above the Roma defense to head one in just before halftime. Wayne Rooney got a classic "fox in the box" goal in the second half to give the Red Devils a 2-nil lead heading back to Old Trafford.
In a way, Man United erased the bitter taste from last season's capitulation to AC Milan at the San Siro in the second leg of the semifinals. While this performance was a good one, it does not approach the heights of the Roy Keane-led side that overcame a 2-nil deficit to get past Juventus 3-2 in the second leg of the semi in Turin in 1999. That said, it would be hard to bet against United at least making an appearance in the Champions League final for the first time since that treble-winning year.