LaLiga Thoughts, Matchday 8: Valencia do it again, Atleti-Barça, BakamBOOM

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Espanyol 0-0 Levante. The visitors had to scramble quite a bit to keep their clean sheet in one of the weekend’s two goalless games. Just the way I like it.

Athletic Club 1-0 Sevilla. An ugly goal secured a huge three points for the Iker Muniain-less leones (yes, I am still in mourning over my Basque son’s torn ACL).

Getafe 1-2 Real Madrid. Madrid got goals from two players who never score — Benzema and Cristiano — to beat a now-consistently feisty Getafe (who scored an offside goal). I pity the next big team that goes to the Alfonso Pérez.

Alavés 0-2 Real Sociedad. LA REAL KEPT A CLEAN SHEET! And Mikel Oyarzabal scored. He’s awesome and probably a future Spain star. You should watch him.

Atlético Madrid 1-1 Barcelona. Saúl Ñíguez did that thing he tends to do in big games, but Luis Suárez quite literally silenced the Wanda Metropolitano eight minutes from time. Spoils shared, Barça’s perfect start finished. Atleti probably out of the title race.

Eibar 0-0 Deportivo La Coruña. The beat goes on for two underachieving sides. Potential good news for Eibar though, as coach José Mendilibar’s new 3-5-2 will hopefully stop his side’s defensive bleeding.

Girona 1-2 Villarreal. Cédric Bakambu was a bit forgotten amidst Villarreal’s busy summer of flashy new acquisitions. He’s scored five goals in two games and Javi Calleja’s side are back in the top half. Forgotten no more. Cristhian Stuani’s awesome backheel goal, however, likely will be.

Málaga 0-2 Leganés. Leganés into a European place and tied for the fewest goals conceded in LaLiga. Oh, and don’t worry about Málaga, they’re fine. They can’t score, they can’t defend, and they only have Barça away next.

GAME AND GOAL OF THE WEEKEND ALERT:

Real Betis 3-6 Valencia. This game is my everything. Nine different goalscorers. Valencia’s incredible counterattack blazing to a 4-0 lead before Betis imposed their will and brought it back to 4-3 with less than 10 minutes left. This strike from Gonçalo Guedes, one of the best goals you’ll see this year — which he followed up by racing all the way up the pitch to set up Andreas Pereira’s second half stoppage time golazo. Joel Campbell rising from the dead to lead Betis’ rally. Neto summoning the spirit of Diego Alves to stop Sergio León’s spot kick. Marvelous.

Las Palmas 2-5 Celta Vigo. Iago Aspas played as a striker, and you’ll never guess what happened: he scored a hat trick. Las Palmas boss Pako Ayestarán has lost nine straight games dating back to last season at Valencia; in his 14 games as a coach in LaLiga, his teams have conceded an eye-watering 30 goals.

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LaLiga Thoughts, Matchday 7: Closed doors at Camp Nou, Valencia on fire, Villarreal recover

Happy international break!!!1!

The table:

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Results: 

Celta Vigo 3-3 Girona. Celta striker Maxi Gomez has been awesome since his arrival from Uruguay’s Defensor this summer, but his side have won just one of the four games he’s scored in. Big point for Girona away, as they calmed down a game that was 2-2 inside 20 minutes.

Deportivo La Coruña 2-1 Getafe. Atlético loanee Amath scored a peach of a goal for Getafe, but Depor struck twice in the final 25 minutes to get a much-needed win. Lucas Pérez scored his first since returning to LaLiga last month, and the criminally underrated Florin Andone netted the winner on 87 minutes.

Sevilla 2-0 Málaga. I don’t get Sevilla. They’re playing poorly. Eduardo Berizzo has yet to settle on a reliable XI or a reliable formation. And yet…two goals in two minutes from summer signings Éver Banega and Luis Muriel lifted them to second.

Levante 0-2 Alavés. Alavés notch win #1 under new manager Gianni De Biasi, late of the Albanian national team. Levante missed badly the presence of midfield destroyer Jefferson Lerma.

Leganés 0-0 Atlético Madrid. The less said about this one, the better.

*GAME AND GOAL OF THE WEEKEND ALERT*

Real Sociedad 4-4 Real Betis. So this was the midday match Sunday, which meant it aired at 3 a.m. Arizona time. Naturally. Each goal in this match was answered within 15 minutes. Big takeaways: Joaquín and Xabi Prieto still have it, Betis look like they have another midfield star in Fabián Ruiz (two assists), while La Real right back Álvaro Odriozola laid on another assist and just got his first call up to the Spanish national team. Speaking of Real Sociedad, they’ve conceded the most goals in the division but only Barça have scored more. Watch them.

Tough call between this and Daniel Wass’ free kick, but Sergio León’s goal from this match is my goal of the weekend. Tight, close, powerful finish.

Barcelona 3-0 Las Palmas. Barça handled Pako Ayestarán’s Las Palmas at an empty Camp Nou, as a large crowd on the day of an independence referendum was deemed too dangerous. (But Mariano Rajoy denied it even occurred??) Sergio Busquets scored his first league goal for three years, Lionel Messi scored his first brace for three weeks.

Villarreal 3-0 Eibar. Eibar have been hit for 3+ goals on four separate occasions this season — this time, all from Cedric Bakambu. While their magic appears to be running out, Villarreal may have reclaimed theirs under new boss Javi Calleja. It’s as if playing Pablo Fornals in central midfield is #good.

Valencia 3-2 Athletic Club. Los Che are up to third and developing into one of the league’s best counterattacking sides. Their meteoric rise, summed up in a tweet:

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Also, what is the deal with Athletic’s away strip?? No bueno.

Real Madrid 2-0 Espanyol. Isco Disco netted a brace as Madrid got back on track. Cristiano Ronaldo did everything but score. Espanyol haven’t stopped Madrid scoring against them at the Bernabéu since 1978 and looked like scoring about twice. Gross.

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LaLiga Thoughts, Matchday 6: Four-goal games galore

The table: Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 4.13.22 PM.png

Results: Atlético Madrid 2-0 Sevilla. Atlético have kept three clean sheets in the last four and have held an opponent to zero shots on target twice in that span. I tipped Yannick Carrasco to notch 15 league goals this season; he’s got three already.

Alavés 1-2 Real Madrid. At least Alavés finally scored a goal, right? Unfortunately for them, Dani Ceballos scored two, his first career doblete. Considering that apparently everyone is out to get them, this was a Herculean effort from Real Madrid.

Málaga 3-3 Athletic Club. Monster result for 10-man Málaga, perhaps granting Míchel a stay of managerial execution. Athletic, up 3-1 with 10 minutes to go, should have had this one, especially after the Aritz Aduriz-Iker Muniain-Iñaki Williams trio created all three goals.

Girona 0-3 Barcelona. Girona had a decent chance in this one, as Montilivi is an emergent fortress and Lionel Messi was man-marked and somewhat mortal. Instead, they went and scored two own goals. Oh well. Barcelona remain perfect.

Espanyol 4-1 Deportivo La Coruña. I think Pepe Mel’s days are numbered. Espanyol are a total bore and still crushed a Depor side that desperately needs leadership at the back and stability in midfield. Gerard Moreno scored twice — what a fine all-around #9 he’s becoming.

GOAL OF THE WEEKEND ALERT: You’ve gotta see this goal from Celso Borges. What a finish. (Keep the video muted, though. Bad EDM lurks.)

Getafe 4-0 Villarreal. One of LaLiga’s more impressive sides through six weeks, Getafe put a second half hammering on a Champions League hopeful. Their defensive structure is sound, they have a strong counterattack, they score beautifully weird goals. This result ended Fran Escribá’s year-long stint at El Madrigal/La Cerámica.

Eibar 0-4 Celta Vigo. Eibar have been hit for 3+ goals on three separate occasions this season. Not good. Pione Sisto IS good, however, as he scored from a loooong free kick and assisted two other goals. The 22-year-old winger is finding a home in new coach Unzué’s system.

Las Palmas 0-2 Leganés. Guess who’s conceded the second-fewest goals in LaLiga through six weeks? That’s right, little Leganés. And thanks to performances like this one from midfield anchor Rubén Pérez (84 percent pass completion, 12 tackles, four interceptions), the cucumber growers may yet find a way to stay up again.

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Rubén, level 12 tackling mage.

Real Sociedad 2-3 Valencia. The game of the weekend. Two red cards, top-notch goals (watch Nacho Vidal and Mikel Oyarzabal in particular), Valencia win at Anoeta for the first time in seven years because Simone Zaza apparently can’t be stopped anymore. It was so good, Marcelino pulled his hamstring celebrating.

Real Betis 4-0 Levante. Betis followed up a stunning win at the Santiago Bernabéu with an evisceration of previously-unbeaten Levante. Tony Sanabria scored twice; Quique Setién’s found his center-forward.

 

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Barcelona’s Summer of Discontent

Barcelona’s summer transfer window has been less than ideal, to say the least. Before last season even ended, even the casual observer knew that Barca needed a right back, midfield options, and maybe some defensive cover. The Blaugrana also needed to unload a lot of dead weight.

Now, if the casual observer knew this in May, it doesn’t bode well for the Barca faithful to know that the board didn’t address any of these issues until late in the summer (Nelson Semedo was brought in earlier, but Ernesto Valverde doesn’t seem to play him as often as I would like. Given that he is quite possibly the only natural right back on the squad right now, that seems less than ideal).

So, Barcelona had three months to address gaping holes in the squad – a squad that isn’t as bad as I may think it is, but I would wager would not realistically challenge for trophies this season, save for a Messi miracle – and plugged one, albeit unconvincingly. On the face of it, this seems less than ideal but isn’t necessarily a disaster. After all, the MSN trident is arguably good enough for at least one trophy, and Semedo’s signing meant that Sergi Roberto, a good but not great midfielder who was filling in at right back last season, would be another option in an already crowded midfield.

Then disaster struck.

Neymar’s August departure upset the balance of football, to say nothing of his former club. A team that was built on the brilliance of the front three was now missing an important piece. What’s more, Neymar was heralded as the future, the Barcelona star after Messi, and now he was gone.

A lot of talk has come about as to why Neymar left, and when exactly the board knew, with Pique saying he knew in June – at Messi’s wedding – that Neymar was leaving, and reports that the Brazil office of Barcelona warned the club of such a move probably transpiring, but that’s neither here nor there. Neymar was gone, and what was transpiring to be a good but not great season for Barcelona was looking like a wreck.

Had the board addressed some issues before Neymar’s departure, then maybe it wouldn’t have been so great an issue. For all the deserved plaudits the MSN trident got, there was a sense of imbalance to the team, that the team was reliant on individual effort – not team play – to win games. There was certainly some truth to that – Neymar’s 10 minutes against PSG come immediately to mind – but I don’t fault the coaching staff too much for that. They had a weapon that was at times unbeatable, and they utilized the living crap out of it.

But there was always a sense that it was unsustainable, especially with Real Madrid finally getting out of their own way and building a team, perhaps the best team ever. It’s funny, but Real Madrid basically adopted the Barcelona model of strengthening the midfield and building a team, while the Catalans started looking for galacticos.

But I digress. Barcelona had a huge problem on their hands, with the financial means to fix it, although it seemed like they were wont to do so. Two senior players asked for transfers after the Supercopa debacle, and the board was talking a big game but had nothing to show for it.

Plans for Nice’s Jean Michel Seri were scrapped at the last minute with no explanation, and three primary targets – Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembele, Liverpool’s Phillippe Coutinho, and Angel di Maria from PSG – were quickly identified. Only one of them would start September in Barcelona colors.

Perhaps the saving grace for this window is the acquisition of the talented Dembele, a dribbling wunderkind who can play on both sides of the forward line. He’s young, with only one season of first division football under his belt, but if he adapts quickly, he can be a great player for years to come.

As for the rest of the “business” of the summer, it’s bad. Despite Liverpool continually refusing to sell him, Barcelona went after Coutinho – and only Coutinho – for the better part of two months, even before Neymar’s departure. And certainly he would have made sense on the squad, but there are several players of his ilk that would have made sense as well. (A certain Dane plying his trade in North London immediately springs to mind.)

Yet this board, as was their modus operandi for the better part of seven years, zeroed in on one player, perhaps to have an excuse if they failed to get him. This happened with Thiago Silva, Marquinhos, and Verratti, all players from PSG incidentally. (It’s almost like PSG got tired of Barca’s shit and decided to flex its financial muscle.) And despite PSG embarrassing Barcelona all summer, they still went after Angel di Maria, a player they were never going to get, just to show that they were doing something.

What they certainly are not doing, what is looming in the background of all this dithering, is this board’s failure to sign Messi – and Iniesta – to a contract extension, and lying to the press and the fans that they had done so. For three years, there were rumblings that Messi was going to leave Barcelona, culminating in 2015 when he “innocently” followed the Chelsea Instagram account, and caused such an uproar in Barcelona that the president, Josep Bartomeu, fired his entire backroom staff and called for elections the following summer – elections which he won thanks in no large part to the first team winning a treble.

That treble win masked a lot of issues with the squad, and rather than address those issues, the board signed players that were incompatible with the Cruyff system, while Real Madrid gobbled up all the young Spanish talent – talent like Marco Asensio, who is a confirmed Barcelona fan. The individual brilliance of the front three was enough to win La Liga in 2016, while Madrid began their run of dominance with the first of two consecutive European crowns. They are hugely favored to win a third this year.

And if they win a third, if Messi decides that he has had enough, that his loyalty to Barcelona (can I write about loyalty?) means less to him than losing to Madrid and Cristiano again and again, then Barcelona is in for a rude awakening, a downward spiral that may take years to undo.

For what it’s worth, I don’t believe Messi would leave. I think his show of force, saying that he would not sign an extension before 2018, is a way to make the board uncomfortable and show the socis – the ones in Catalonia that vote – that all is not right. Iniesta’s refuting of the claims that he had already agreed an extension, claims made by, you guessed it, the board – fall in the same vein. Right now, the future looks bleak for the club, and the players are showing the world how bleak it is. 

Thankfully, there appears to be some light at the end of a small tunnel. Some of the Barca members, the socis, have decided enough is enough, and former candidate Augusto Benedido is trying to get votes for an election and a vote of no confidence.

It’s messy and requires at least 16,000 soci signatures – signatures he says he has to get by October 2nd, but the board is giving him until September 19th – and then a 2/3 vote of no confidence. Needless to say, it’s sort of a long shot.

If he is successful, however, and this board is replaced by a competent board, then maybe Barcelona rediscovers its mojo.

Maybe the summer of discontent becomes the autumn of new beginnings.

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We back? We back!

 

A new season of European football kicked off last month, and what better way to celebrate it than to bring back your favorite football blog.

After a hiatus, Every Day Is Zlatan Day is back.

Hopefully, this iteration, with more writers and more content, sticks.

I spent my deadline day mostly laughing at Arsenal, but also hoping for a last minute signing from Barcelona. Phil Coutinho will come to Camp Nou, damn it!

Speaking of Camp Nou, it’s been an interesting summer for the Blaugrana. We lost Neymar, and after dithering on a few targets (Jean-Michael Seri, we hardly knew ye), it looks like Barcelona found a replacement for the Brazilian in 20-year-old French phenom Ousmane Dembélé. Yes, the winger isn’t as seasoned as Neymar was, but the sky is the limit for him, in my opinion.

As for what this means for Barcelona, well…to be honest, I have no feeling whatsoever about the league — it really is Real Madrid’s to lose — but if Ernesto Valverde gets his act together, Barcelona could be scary by January. The season looks eerily similar to 2015 when Barcelona rode the MSN trident to a treble. Now, that shit ain’t happening, but if we get a good draw in Europe, we could stop Real Madrid from a three peat (trademarked by Pat Riley). I would like to emphasize could here, as I’m not that confident… yet.

Anyway, just thought I’d welcome you guys back to the blog. I know you missed us.

 

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Poland’s Dreams of a Generation

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Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told that Poland’s national sport is football, not a surprising thing for an European country. However, from my perspective, we might as well admit that our national sport is disappointment.

The early 90s were quite the time for Poland. The communist regime has been finally overthrown after over 40 years of horrors, everyone was getting used to their newly found freedom, the newly opened world ahead of them, and in August 1992, the Polish national football team finished with a silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Granted, the Olympics aren’t the most prestigious international competition, and certainly haven’t been ever since they essentially became a glorified youth tournament (quite fittingly, the Barcelona Olympics were the first to adopt such a format), but it was certainly something. For a nation that was a dwindling football superpower, a team that had won Olympic Gold and a World Cup Bronze Medal in the 70s, and repeated the latter feat in the 80s once more, this was hope of a new generation to carry that legacy.

The Poland side of old, the Poland that played beautiful, free flowing football, was something my parents experienced and told me stories about. Me? I was born a bit over month after the Barcelona Olympics Final. Poland hasn’t even reached a knockout stage of a major tournament stage since.

Mind you, this drought up until 2002 wasn’t really down to incompetence or mismanagement. Poland simply lacked any kind of proper talent. Sure, there were some standouts during that time, mostly on the defensive end, with Jacek Bąk, Tomasz Hajto and Tomasz Wałdoch playing at solid clubs in Europe, and Maciej Żurawski slowly establishing himself at Celtic. All these players were, however, a far cry from Zbigniew Boniek, Grzegorz Lato and such.

In 2002, Poland even managed to secure their first World Cup qualification in 16 years with the help of the aforementioned gentlemen, and Polish-Nigerian sensation Emmanuel Olisadebe.

American readers might remember that Poland team as the team that almost cost them a knockout stage spot, beating the USMNT 3-1 after losing both of their opening games. This sort of party-pooping has become a signature of the 00s Poland team, to the point where it created a running joke about their group stage fate: “Match number 1 – The Opening Match, Match number 2 – Do or Die, Match number 3 – The Consolation Match” we’d say to each other in school corridors and  later on internet message boards. Despite a boatload of support for the team, there was a certain conditioning that lead us to stop ourself from believing that the team can achieve anything. Belief was a disease. Belief only lead to disappointment.

And it didn’t take long to prove us right, either. The 2004  Euro qualifiers, is when the seams on the national team started tearing. Olisadebe disappeared back into obscurity, the team was incapable of performing properly and the Euro qualifiers were always the nation’s Achilles’ Heel. Even the giants from the 70s and 80s never qualified for a European Championship. It was at this time, however, when Poland decided to miss out on a certain very talented attacker.

You probably know him as Lukas, but out here we call him by the non-Germanized version of his name – Łukasz, even though it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it if you try to sing the Podolski song. Between 2002-04, he was playing in the German youth teams, as well as impressing in Koln in the Bundesliga. Poland manager (and noted joke punchline) Paweł Janas, however, decided that we had better strikers on our team, and we didn’t need a player who hadn’t even finished a full Bundesliga season, even though Podolski was very willing to represent Poland. Never called up, Podolski became another Pole to represent Germany. (Miroslav Klose, never quite as willing to play for Poland being the other very notable one)  The strikers Janas was referring to? Maciej Żurawski, Mirosław Trzeciak, Ireneusz Jeleń and Grzegorz Rasiak, a man so legendary for his inability to play football that he not only had a song and video about his horribleness but also an entire Polish Uncyclopedia page dedicated to mocking him in the cruelest way possible. Essentially, the anti-Chuck Norris. All in all, skipping on Podolski may have been a great decision for comedic purposes.

However, despite being – and I don’t say this lightly given some of the men who followed him as national team managers – an absolute nincompoop idiot of a coach, Janas managed to qualify into the 2006 World Cup, where Poland would face old foes Germany, which, quite frankly, has become an annoying trend in various competitions in recent years. The build up to the tournament was embroiled in controversy when Janas decided to not take Champions League winner and all around talisman Jerzy Dudek, deciding that Artur Boruc and Tomasz Kuszczak should be the top goalkeeping dogs. While it was hard to really argue with Boruc, who was really at the top of his game, Tomasz Kuszczak did this during one of the pre-World Cup friendlies, leaving us all saying “Oh, no, not again.”

And wouldn’t you know it…

Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland Loses 2-0 to Ecuador looking way out of their depth in the process.

Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland loses 1-0 to Germany after Artur Boruc performs his best Donald Trump impression, building a wall for 90 minutes. Poland fell in the 91st, after a red card and some horrible substitutions from Janas.

Game 3 – The Consolation Game
Poland wins 2-0 over Costa Rica with centre-back Bartosz Bosacki scoring both goals.

Janas was fired shortly thereafter and then… A miracle. Poland decided to hire a foreign coach, as Leo Beenhakker, notorious international overachiever came into the squad. The results came quickly. Poland absolutely dominated the qualifying stages, including a glorious 2-1 victory over Portugal, with Euzebiusz Smolarek (quite ironically, named after PortugueseEusebio), the son of highly respected 80s player Włodzimierz Smolarek leading the charge alongside a young Kuba Błaszczykowski. Despite finishing first in the group, Poland’s coefficient lead it to end up in a group with hosts Austria, Germany and Croatia. You know the drill.

Game 1 – The Opening Game
Poland loses 2-0 to Germany, Łukasz Podolski scores both goals. Doesn’t really celebrate. Reportedly, his grandma was very disappointed with him.

Game 2 – Do or Die
Poland draw 1-1 after a late penalty is called against them by Howard Webb. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be allowed in the country after this.

Game 3 – The Consolation Game
I had to check the result on Wikipedia because at this point, nobody really cared. It was 1-0 Croatia, by the way.

The 2010 World Cup qualifier was really disappointing as Leo totally lost the team. Smolarek’s form was dwindling, and the only hope was a young, very raw Robert Lewandowski. With a large chunk of the midfield also retiring, the team failed to qualify, with the highlight being a 10-0 trouncing of San Marino. Literally, the only highlight as well. As such, Leo was fired, and in his place came Franciszek Smuda, one of the most successful Polish club coaches with a German know-how and toughness.

Euro 2012 was actually hosted by Poland, so at least the team qualified for that one. Poland also got drawn a relatively easy group with Russia, Greece and the Czech Republic. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, and coincided with the rise of Borussia Dortmund and their three-headed Polish beast of Lewandowski, Błaszczykowski and Piszczek, we had a right to drop our guard and feel confident of the knockout stage this time. What could possibly go wrong?

Game 1 – We’re gonna do it!
Game 1 vs Greece, Poland had an absolutely dominating first half, coming out of it leading 1-0 after a Robert Lewandowski goal. Everything was going the way it was supposed to, until Smuda’s half-time team talk seemed to zap the energy out of the team. Greece got one goal, later Wojtek Szczęsny got sent off, conceding a penalty that was saved by new national hero Przemysław Tytoń. Poland just barely got a draw out of that game.

Game 2 – Not over yet
Game 2 vs Russia, after a dominating Russian performance in the first half, Kuba Błaszczykowski came up with an absolute GOLAZOOOO to make it 1-1. This 1-1 was sweet. It meant that the last game will be do or die this time.

Game 3 – We’re at home, come on!
Game 3 vs The Czech Republic, should’ve been easy, looked to be easy. Poland dominated the entire match, but Rafał Murawski decided to give away the ball for a Czech counter right as Poland were looking to finally score. 1-0. A loss. The only consolation being that us losing screwed the Russians out of the group stage as well. Franciszek Smuda was fired shortly after.

The 2014 World Cup qualifiers were just a continuation of that Euro form under domestic coaching revelation Waldemar Fornalik. Nothing interesting happened, Poland just failed to win with inferior opposition, Robert Lewandowski was being called out for choking on the big stage, a wholesale collapse that had Poland finishing 4th in their group. Our eyes once again turned to the Euros.
With Fornalik quickly gone, in steps Adam Nawałka. Disappointing friendly results were met with cries of international coaches again, as Poland faced a hard qualifying group including Germany, Scotland and Ireland. Mind you, I haven’t mentioned this earlier, but Poland has NEVER beaten Germany in a competitive game prior to these qualifiers. There was a friendly where Poland was winning 2-1 in the 90th minute, and everyone was prepared to celebrate as if we won the World Cup, when the Germans got a late equalizer. This wasn’t really a rivalry, more like a mandatory whipping. So, as we approached the Germany game, having seen them just win the World Cup, none of us expected what happened next. Poland won, despite the Germans bombarding the goal, with Wojciech Szczęsny taking up the mantle of saviour this time. Arkadiusz Milik and way-past-his-prime Sebastian Mila scored the two goals, and once again, we’re doing that stupid thing, we’re believing.

A few games later, Robert Lewandowski started scoring like a maniac, including a 4 minute hat-trick vs Georgia, a suitable prelude to his act against Wolfsburg a year later, despite some disappointing results against Ireland and Scotland, and an away loss to Germany Poland managed to qualify with an emotional win over the former in Warsaw. Poland’s playing well again. Poland’s playing as they should, again.

And now we’re here. Poland finally got the monkey off their back, they won a game at the Euros, after 90 minutes of constantly running into an aggravating wall of Northern Irish green, with Robert Lewandowski subject to triple coverage the entire game on Sunday. A lot of good things came out of that game, including a breakout performance for 19-year-old Bartosz Kapustka. A few question marks, as well, with an injury to Wojciech Szczęsny and a shaky performance from centre-back Michał Pazdan.

But now, comes the real challenge. Germany, again. Will this be a familiar story? Or did Sunday’s breakthrough, and last year’s historic victory change anything? I truly don’t know. I just know that this isn’t going to be any other game. A draw virtually guarantees Poland a knockout spot. A win will give them immeasurable confidence. A loss might see them go back to their old ways.

Thursday night’s game in Paris may very well define the tournament for two important teams – one, an underdog looking to validate their dark horse status, the other, the World Champions looking to show their true might. It will very likely be an open, entertaining game, and you should watch it for that reason. And when you do, I hope you will recognize that for 40 million people living in Central Europe, this is more than just another football game.

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Leicester are a Freak, and That’s it

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Hi there,

Sit down, grab a seat, make yourself comfortable.

So if you have been hiding under a rock, Leicester have won the Premier League title. Leicester who had the 17th best odds to win the title at 5000-1 actually did it. The same club that were hanging by a thread at this time last year will be hosting Champions League matches next year and at the very least will play host to one of the biggest clubs in the world. Even the most ardent of Leicester critics will acknowledge that this is the greatest team achievement in PL history. Hell it’s the greatest team achievement in English football history when taking into account the rigidity of the PL hierarchy. This feat should be celebrated, told as a sort of folk tale for generations to come. We should all tell our kids that we once saw Gary Lineker host Match of the Day wearing only his underwear.

I was watching Monday Night Football yesterday and they obviously talked about Leicester winning the title. One of the remarks being made was about how smaller clubs will now have the belief that they could do a Leicester, which almost made snort with laughter. Let’s get this out of the way: There’s almost nothing in Leicester’s title run that teams can take and replicate. Certainly you can look at their scouting for talent and maybe pick up some hints here and there on how to scout on the margins but outside that, this was built on variance of the highest volatility.

Leicester’s penalty differential of +8 is the 2nd highest mark that I could find on record in the PL over the last decade, with only Chelsea from 12-13 beating it. There have been numerous clubs who achieved that +8 mark, with 13-14 Liverpool being the last one. In some ways that Liverpool side were a template for how so many things can go your way in one season. While not to the same extent, they did have injury luck in the sense that their major players were pretty healthy (I mean they somehow coaxed over 2000 league minutes from Daniel Sturridge that season). Liverpool had sky high conversion rates, had no European football to deal with and were eliminated from domestic cup competitions early. Add to that their similarities in how they attacked with pace and both sides being powered by goal scoring duos, and Liverpool were almost an older brother to Leicester. And look what happened to them the next year: Their conversion rates dropped from sky high to borderline rock bottom, They lost the best PL player since Ronaldo in Luis Suarez, they suffered from numerous injuries including Daniel Sturridge and bottomed out in the Europe League spots. It isn’t hard to see how Leicester who were built on similar methods could break down in the same way going forward.

The idea of teams now thinking that they can move upwards in the PL is somewhat naive. Want to know how hard mobility in the PL is? Look at Southampton. Southampton were pretty average in 12-13 finishing lower midtable. And then boom: 8th in 13-14, 7th in 14-15, and as currently stands 7th again this season. Going from bad -> decent for a small club is hard but isn’t inconceivable. Going from decent -> very good is damn near impossible. Southampton have been stuck in 7-8th for three seasons with no end in sight. Everton were experts in the adage “close but no cigar” when it came to breaking the top 4 barrier. Don’t we all remember the year when Alan Pardew nearly pulled the greatest magic trick in getting Newcastle into the Champions League? This is my way of saying that your team won’t do a Leicester. Your team probably won’t even do a Southampton/Everton. Money talks and the correlation between wage bill and points is damn strong. Does it suck? Yes it does. But that’s life in the PL and it’s not changing just because Leicester pulled off the heist of the millennium. This isn’t a sign that the times are changing, this is just literally a freak thing that happened.

I don’t want to have this post just be demeaning Leicester because this is the greatest sporting achievement by a team I’ve ever seen, and it’s the greatest one of modern time. We can pick and choose other ones that vaguely resembled this. Atletico winning the double in 2014 was astounding, although Atletico did win the Europa League in 2012 and the Copa Del Rey in 2013. The USA men’s ice hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in 1980 was a huge shock, but it also was only a one game final and not a 38 gameweek marathon. Similar things can be said about Greece winning Euro 2004 and Denmark winning in 1992.

The closest comparison that could be made to Leicester is Montpellier winning Ligue 1 in 2012. Montpellier were a small club that previously only had domestic cup victories in 1929/1990 to their name, and they held off big bad PSG when they were in the beginnings of their Qatari rich era. It was wonderful, great and all that but now ask yourselves, did Montpellier really change French Football and usher in a new era? Or were they just an outlier that took advantage of what was in front of them and everything maintained its status quo afterwards? Now I’m not saying Leicester are going to be Montpellier because they have things that Montpellier don’t, mainly money. With the TV deal and Champions League money coming in, Leicester are in a much stronger state to keep all their players and add more in the summer to beef up for their contest in multiple fronts next season. Meanwhile Montpellier in the years after that miraculous title win basically sold everyone relevant from that team. That same fate probably won’t happen with Leicester.

Also we should get this out of the way: Leicester aren’t a bad team. I know that a lot of this post has been spent yelling about how this isn’t sustainable but it has to be mentioned that Leicester were a good team. This isn’t that Newcastle side from 2012 that performed some form of dark magic to nearly sneak into the CL. By looking at their shot numbers, their expected goal numbers and the overall talent of the squad they would project as somewhere between the 5-7th best team in England, which if that had happened still would’ve ranked as one of the 3-5 best achievements in the PL era. But instead that caliber of club got the breaks that propelled them from the Europa League Spots to something much more grander. Despite the luck, it is impressive that they were built in a way to take advantage of a lot of the big teams in England who were susceptible to high flying counter attacking football. Their performance versus Manchester City was extremely vicious and efficient, one of the great counter attacking exhibitions in years. Their ability to grind out one goal victories was commendable, even though its not really a repeatable trait to have.

There’s also the tiny chance that Leicester can learn from this season and have another great summer to gain stronger depth. Perhaps in the next two seasons, Leicester will have somehow clawed their way into being a club that could challenge for the top 4 like Liverpool/Tottenham and we’ll have a different discussion on them as a club. None of this is written in stone, but merely educated guesses. I’d have no problem raising my hand by 2018 and saying I was wrongly pessimistic about what Leicester could be as a club. I’m just skeptical that enough of what’s happened this season is strong enough on its own to be used as a springboard for future success along the same lines.

Leicester are a freak team. For a demanding style of play they were one of the healthiest teams in the league. No one of note on Leicester missed significant time due to injury. Their penalty differential was very favorable and if we took a hard look at penalty decisions throughout the year, you could argue that Leicester were perhaps even more luckier than their raw differential would suggest. They’ve had stretches when literally every shot they took went in, and other stretches where the opponent could take a shot from the 6 yard box and somehow miss. Combine all that with a league that saw Chelsea collapse, Manchester City meander around and Arsenal doing another Arsenal, and you had the recipe for something like this happening. Leicester should be celebrated (to a relative amount, they do employ Jamie Vardy after all) for achieving the possible, for creating the greatest sports story in modern history. Just don’t make them out to be some shining example on how football is moving in another direction.

Your team isn’t going to do a Leicester next season and that’s no shame, because Leicester probably won’t do this again next season

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