It is not easy being a soccer fan in America. The MLS is a joke (but overtook the NHL and NBA as the #3 most attended sport in America). European games air on weekend mornings when sleep is far more desirable. Champions League runs during the week when most people have responsibilities and a life. We got lucky with a classic 3-3 tie between Chelsea and Man U on Fox’s Super Bowl Sunday, but such offerings are rare as a Fernando Torres goal. Access is limited to seedy foreign streaming websites, expensive subscription or premium television add-ons and 90% of the few establishments that show live games are bars. Apparently not everyone enjoys a Saturday morning pint of Guinness at 7:30. I beg to differ.
It blows me away that ESPN or Fox Sports does not run a weekly hour-long global football highlight show. The Beautiful Game is similar yet unlike anything the US offers. The brief moments of teammates in harmony or individual brilliance and creativity with the world watching. The games can be sleep inducing, pathetic and unexplainable at times, but simply amazing at others. The magic is in the details and no sport demonstrates this greater than soccer. Now, for everything you need to know from this past week (click on scores for video highlights).
UEFA Champions League: Knockout Round- 1st Leg
Arsenal self-destructed in Milan, a wonderful sight for this Spurs supporter. An absence of defense or anything positive not named Robin Van Persie, Arsenal has been a mess this year and this Wednesday night. Kevin Prince Boateng (former Spur) received a pass neatly and perfectly placed home Milan’s first goal in only the 15th minute. Beauty in its simplicity and ease. With fresh legs following a recent three game suspension, Zlatan Ibrahimovic picked up two assists to Robinho plus a late penalty.
Barring a miraculous comeback at the Emirates (and pending a potential Chelsea turd-laying against Napoli, which is totally in play), the quarterfinals could be EPL-absent for the first time since 1996. It has been Barca’s run unquestionably of late, but the CL has been dominated with English champions and finalists. In the last seven years, the EPL has: two champions, five runners-up, and six semi-finalists. For some perspective, in the last seven years Barcelona has: three championships, two additional semi-finals and at least a quarter-final appearing in six of the campaigns. Insane consistency (and obvious conspiracy if you are a Chelsea or Real fan). Speaking of Barca…
Following the disappointing 3-2 loss to Osasuna over the weekend, Barca have essentially conceded the La Liga championship to Real Madrid. Leo Messi needled two assists to Alexis Sanchez, who calmly knocked home both. Messi just plays a different game. A key difference between him and Ronaldo. CR9 has all the physical tools and some special skills (last week’s third) but Messi’s unselfishness is unmatched.
Kadler climbed high for a header to get Bayer tied between Sanchez’s goals. But Barca is too good. A fingertip save by Valdez the could have tied it at two and changed the run of play. A nutmeg and chip over the keeper results in another off the post by Little Leo. In the 88’ Messi gets the goal he deserves, finishing off a Dani Alves cross. Too much class, Barca should advance to the quarters with no trouble.
Probably best CL game of the week. In frigid St. Petersburg (-10 degrees at kickoff) and on one of Europe’s few artificial turf pitches, Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Zheynov mishandled two, resulting in the two Benfica goals. Quality finishing and late drama were provided by Zenit. Shirokov scores first with a well-hit volley in the 27’ and the game winner in the 88’. Sergei Semak had the moment of the match with his back heel in front of goal. A worthwhile two minutes of highlights.
The two away goals could be crucial for Benfica advancing to the quarterfinals. I see the Portuguese getting an early goal at home, putting 10 in the box on D and anti-footballing their way to the next round.
And in the game no one really cared about, Alexandre Lacazette dipped inside for a nice finish in the 58’ which was enough for Lyon on their home turf. Entertaining (though low-scoring) match, uninteresting matchup. Second leg could be interesting in Cypress (where APOEL Nicosia plays apparently).
European NIT: Europa League
Manchester’s United and City clubs took away victories in the tournament that will only distract them of their EPL title showdown. United unfortunately lost Antonio Valencia for some time with a hamstring injury. He has been instrumental in steadying the United side of late. City will look forward to the return of Yaya Toure from the African Cup of Nations, replenishing their already absurd lineup. Speaking of the segues…
Moment of the Week
African Cup of Nations Final: Zambia over Ivory Coast (8-7 PEN)
The emotional end of the tournament saw Zambia win the title in Libreville, Gabon, the same city where 18 Zambians died in a 1993 plane crash. Ivory Coast was a clear favorite heading into the tournament, full of international superstars, including Didier Drogba who came up short with a penalty kick in the 70’. Great video of the Zambian coach carrying the injured Joseph Musonda to join his teammates in celebration.
Under-appreciated Match of the Week
A goalfest in France featuring perhaps Europe’s most prized young talent, Eden Hazard. Two extra-time goals capped off this wild one that deserves the long-highlight viewing.
Andre Santos (Sporting Lisbon) vs Legia Warsaw
A beauty from the outside of the boot
Mehmet Topal (Valencia) vs Stoke City
A rocket to the upper 90
Next Seven Days
The EPL is off for an FA Cup break in the action. Barca hosting Valencia on Sunday, on ESPN3 and Deportes. Champions League continues on Tuesday with CSKA Moscow v Real Madrid and Napoli v Chelsea. FC Basel v Bayern and Marseille v Inter Milan round out the action on Wednesday in the first leg of the knockout stages.
To pints of Guinness and golazos galore.