Sunday, August 31, 2008

Promoted Sides Get Best of Milan, Barcelona

Bad day to be a soccer superpower.
  • AC Milan loses to promoted Bologna, whom everyone associated with Spanish football, says will be relegated this season;
  • Real Madrid and Barcelona open the La Liga season with losses, Barcelona to a promoted side as well!
  • Spiraling Spurs draw with Chelsea;
  • Benfica can't buy a win;
  • and Celtic loses to Rangers--again.
Having watched the second half of Milan's 2-1 loss to Bologna, let's just say it was no surprise Carlo Ancelotti was lighting up a cigarette with less than 15 minutes to play. Stress relief was a must. Milan was a miscarriage of poor intentions passing the ball forward with neither imagination nor hope. Ronaldinho is a shell of his former self, Shevchenko sadly a step slower than the looping over-the-top passes coming from Pirlo and Co. in the midfield. And Clarence Seedorf, well just one word: Shocking. How many times was his pocket picked by a rag-tag bunch of nobodies from Bologna that he had to resort to fouls from behind?

Thankfully for the Rossoneri faithful, eight-plus months remain in the Serie A season.

Rough day all-around Europe too. Inter drew 1-1 with Sampdoria in Jose Mourinho's debut. Real Madrid loses 2-1 to Deportivo while Barca falls 1-0 to Numencia. Real has not won in Coruna in 17 years, while Barca hit two posts in losing to the upstarts. Atletico Madrid, however, may be the best team in the capital, winning 4-0 over Malaga, avoiding losing to a promoted side!

In England, not only was Chelsea held by the soap operatic Tottenham, 1-1, but Liverpool drew at Gareth Barry's Aston Villa nil-nil and Fernando Torres left the game with a hamstring injury.

In Portugal, Derby 1 ended 1-1 between Benfica and Porto.

Friday, August 29, 2008

How Do You Spell Portuguese Soccer?

Just let me rant a bit today:

I have a fondness for the Portuguese top division, but man, this is Mickey Mouse management at its absolute worst. On an international level, Portugal produces impressive talent; no need to run down the list, but a quick glance at the rosters of the top clubs in the world tells you all you need to know. Domestically, however, is a different story. There's very little to be savored among what remains on the club level. There are many second-tier Brazilian imports; and the top clubs are rife with either corruption, financial peril or greed.

So you'd figure that the powers-that-be would do everything in their power to promote the brand, market the big clubs, the stars and the rivalries (e.g., derbies).

So why oh why is Benfica playing Porto in Week 2 (this weekend) and Sporting in Week 4? Why do we have two of the three marquee derbies out of the way by the middle of September? Oh wait, it gets better. Guess who plays in Week 5? C'mon, guess!

Yes, you guesssed it: Sporting and Porto!!

To borrow from Internet vernacular: WTF!!!

In a league desperate for attention, desperate to keep its two Champions League spots, desperate for positive news, why would it do away with the derbies by Oct. 1??

I'm confounded by the abject stupidity of this. Are these guys that married to the randomness of the schedule draw? Is it in the best interest of the fans and the championship to have these huge matches out of the way months before the title is to be decided? Wouldn't Sporting-Porto two or three weeks prior to the end of the season (or heaven forbid, in the final week) serve the greater good much better than in Week 18 some time in February?

How much work would it have been to, you know, before you release the schedule to the public and the clubs, you know, like read it first? And have a look at the matchups and say, "Well, it's kinda top heavy. Why not move week 5 down to week 14?" Who would it hurt?

What a joke! Anyone seen my Mickey Mouse ears? I know someone who would like to borrow them.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Champions League Draw Instant Analysis

First, the groups:


Analysis: Dangerous Roma presents a threat to Chelsea at the top, but there's no stopping the Blues here.


Analysis: Mourinho's group is a breeze. Bremen and Panathinaikos battle for second behind Inter.


Analysis: Barca draws well. Sporting may finally escape the group stage, having beaten Basel in the UEFA Cup last year, 5-0. Shaktar may have something to say there as well.

Atletico Madrid

Analysis: Pretty tight fit here with Liverpool, PSV, Atletico and Marseille trading blows. This could come down to some tie-breakers.

Manchester United

Analysis: Aalborg guarantees three points for the remainder of the group. United favored with Villareal edging Celtic? Maybe?


Analysis: Bayern returns to the Champions League and hits formidable opponents at all turns. Lyon and Bayern cannot afford a slip.

Dinamo Kyiv

Analysis: Fenerbahce snuck into the final eight last year, but Arsenal and Porto may not permit this.

Real Madrid

Analysis: Interesting return to the Champions League for Juventus. Real Madrid gets in. Zenit and Juve will battle for second.

OBLIGATORY GROUP OF DEATH: D or F -- you choose. I'll say D.
UPSET BOUND TO HAPPEN: Zenit over Juventus for second in Group H; Sporting getting to the knockout stage.

Champions League Draw Today:
Quirks and Qualms

There's something inherently wrong with a club getting into the Champions League group stage by the thinnest of margins and still earning an overall No. 3 seed and be placed in Pot 1 for the draw today.

Seriously, Liverpool is a couple of Pepe Reina saves away from playing in the UEFA Cup, and they're in the top pot for the draw along with Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Inter, Lyon and Real Madrid. OK, is Liverpool among the top 8 clubs in Europe? Probably, but is that the fairest way to handle this draw?

Look at Pot 2. FC Porto actually won its country's championship. Sames goes for Bayern Munich and way down in Pot 3 we find Scottish champions Celtic. If you go by UEFA's stupid coefficient--yes I understand that's how these teams are seeded for the draw--Celtic is 22nd (Porto 13th, Bayern 9th). Handicapping what is essentially a rigged draw makes this a bigger joke than it is.

The lack of transparency here is abominable. No one can clearly explain the equations behind the coefficient. No one can explain how Sporting is in the Top 15--love 'em, but c'mon. What was the point of automatic qualification for some of these teams that aren't seeded in the top 16 (hello, Celtic, Zenit St. Petersburg, Cluj and Bordeaux)? Shouldn't there be more of a reward for getting in without the hassle of the third round qualifiers?

As for the always-dubious draw, we know if there was a way to rig Inter and Chelsea in the same group, it would be done. That said, they're going to meet in the knockout round--make bank on it. We may not get a Manchester United, Roma pairing in the group stage again, but doesn't Bayern Munich and United together sound juicy? Almost as much as Liverpool-Roma; UEFA is not above a morbid 1985-redux storyline.

I'm naturally cynical, and it probably shows here, but come draw time this afternoon, I bet I'll be closer to correct than off the mark.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Liverpool Sweats Champions League Second Leg v. Liege

Barcelona is through. Juventus and Panathinaikos too. Match Day 2 of third-round qualifying for the 2008-09 Champions League is upon us today. Just call it Drama Day.

While it was a lock for the aforementioned three European powers to get through following their first-leg performances, not so today for a host of clubs including Liverpool.

The Reds host Standard Liege today, and they're in a favorable position after having drawn 0-0 in Belgium last week. But one away goal from Standard, and Liverpool will be scrambling for two goals in front of a suddenly hostile home crowd. Liverpool has been in decent form through two weeks in the Premier League, winning both times, the latest on a late game-winner from Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard and Torres have the attention of Liege manager Laszlo Boloni, who is saying all the right things heading into today's match. Liverpool won't have Javier Mascherano and Lucas in the lineup; both have just returned from the Olympics. Sami Hyypia is injured, and that's a hole in the back line. Ryan Babel, Xabi Alonso and Jermaine Pennant should also be available despite also appearing in the Olympics (Babel) or the speculation of transfer rumors (Alonso and Pennant).

Liege, meanwhile, will ride Mbokani Bezua (four goals in two season-opening games) and Steven Defour and Oguchi Onyewu.

Also worth watching today:
  • Arsenal hosting Twente of Holland after winning a 2-0 opening leg.
  • Guimaraes in a huge battle on the road against Basel after a 0-0 opening leg. This would be Guimaraes' first time in the group stage; and remember, they would have automatically qualified for the group stage had Porto's suspension from the tournament not been upheld.
  • Fenerbhace hosts Partizan needing to hold after a 2-2 road match.
  • Atletico Madrid hosts Schalke, down a goal.
Remember, the group stage draw is tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Berbatov, Arshavin at Center of UEFA Super Cup Clash

Three months ago, Friday's UEFA Super Cup between Manchester United and Zenit St. Petersburg would have been really interesting. Remember waaaay back in May when United was in top form breezing through the Premier League and narrowly beating Chelsea for the Champions League. And remember when Zenit was dominating all comers--Bayern Munich in particular--on its way to the UEFA Cup title.

Cristiano Ronaldo was at his dominant best, wrapping up a 40-plus-goal season, and Andrei Arshavin was a relative no-name carrying his nondescript team to one of Europe's major championships.

It would have been interesting to see if this little-train-that-could from Russia could topple the might United.

But now? This week? Eh.

Forget for a second that it's essentially still the pre-season, the two teams are quite different from the teams that wrapped up the '07-'08 campaign. Ronaldo is on the shelf for a while with his infamously bum ankle--and he's still waiting on a move to Real Madrid. And Arshavin? He made his name at Euro 2008 where he was one of the brightest stars and lifting Russia to the semifinals where it lost to eventual champions Spain. Arshavin scored only two goals, but he was clearly a special player and a dangerous playmaker. That has garnered him loads of attention from clubs in western Europe.

Arshavin is one of the players at the center of the Dimitar Berbatov soap opera. Berbatov wants to go to United--he was seen signing a United jersey this weekend. Tottenham, which already lost Robbie Keane to Liverpool, won't let its star striker go unless it has a replacement, and Spurs say they're willing to let Berbatov "rot" in the reserves until their price is met. Arshavin, meanwhile, is one of a host of players reportedly in line for Berbatov's spot at White Hart Lane. But Zenit won't let him go for cheap, and Arshavin too was on the bench for Zenit's 3-1 loss last weekend. Zenit is sixth in Russia after 19 games.

Zenit, however, has landed young Portuguese star and Sporting Lisbon academy prodigy Danny for 30M pounds. Does this open the door for Arshavin's departure? Amazingly, all of these fortunes are intertwined, and someone has to blink first for the remaining dominoes to fall.

As for the Super Cup, United gets a slew of players back in its lineup, including Nani and Ryan Giggs. Michael Carrick and Owen Hargreaves remain sidelined with injuries. Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez still haven't shown a lot of flash or punch up front. There's a lot to sort out, especially with back-to-back Premier League showdowns with Liverpool (Sept. 13) and Chelsea (Sept. 21) closing in. It's doubtful Sir Alex Ferguson will go all-out to win this one, and neither will Zenit, which is in the middle of its season and scrapping for a Champions League spot.

Super Cup? Super Dud? Your call.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Running Commentary: Fox Football Fone-In

I haven't done one of these in a while.

Fox Football Fone-In on Fox Soccer Channel is the only quality football show in the country. Periodically I do a running commentary on the show and this the first for the current season. For those unfamiliar with the show, these guys do a radio show on Sirius satellite radio and this show on FSC every Monday night.
  • The bloom is already off Fabio Capello's rose? Hosts Steven Cohen and Nick Webster are down on England's performance against the Czechs last week (2-2) draw, and some of the criticism is valid. Beckham still on the team, holding back younger players who need a look; No front-line striker; a shockingly average keeper.
  • They're running through the EPL, and Portsmouth and Arsenal are on the skewer. Portsmouth loses today to Manchester United, its second straight, and chances are the going isn't about to get easier for Pompey. Arsenal, meanwhile, is under task for its lack of player movement. How hamstrung is this club by its financial situation, in particular the debt around Emirates Stadium--and Arsene Wenger's ego. Steven contends Wenger is convinced he can get it done with younger players. Nick adds the clincher: Four years without a cup.
  • Didn't take long: First viewer call of the night is a Scolari-Mourinho comparison. Scolari's in charge, and it's going to be pretty, just what Roman Abramovich asked for.
  • Poll question: Should Lampard and Gerrard co-exist continue to play together in the England midfield?
  • Sunderland and Wigan, two surprise clubs in the EPL. Do they have staying power.
  • Berbatov at United eventually, yep. Where does play? Likely in a 4-4-2, says Webster.
  • Tottenham has managed this situation "shockingly", and the closer the transfer window close gets, the lower the price gets for Berbatov.
  • Why am I not the VIP Communications blogger of the week?
  • 7 votes in the poll, 4-3 for no, they shouldn't play together.
  • Arsenal fans have had it with Wenger? The Gunners are up in arms over the lack of spending. Boring, boring Arsenal.
  • If you're watching the program, shoot me a comment. I'll post it ASAP.
  • OK, so this is a stretch. Next segment starts out with some talk on the new boys, the promoted clubs such as Hull City. I mean OK, they got points against Blackburn, etc. But no one thinks they're any kind of threat for a cup etc. Is this show destined to get chopped to an hour?
  • Love the Nutmeg shirt.
  • Good point about English managers getting a chance with the lower-rung clubs, cuz it ain't happening with the top 4.
  • Manchester City unfortunately is damned if they do and damned if they don't. If it doesn't rid itself of Thaksin Shinawatra, City is stuck with its human rights offender. If they off him, away goes his money and any hope of success.
  • I'm snoozing, this Hull City talk is riveting. Not to mention the Gerrard-Lampard debate.
  • MLS needs to go to the world calendar. Absolutely, but where are they going to play in some of these shared stadia? Where there's a will, there's a way to contrive the schedule. But seriously, who's going to a Colorado-New England match in Foxboro in December? They can't get 15,000 in gorgeous June, July and August. It's not realistic either way. MLS is not major league ball. Time to stop thinking it is.
  • John Terry as England captain is coming up again. Honestly, isn't the captaincy over-rated? How much of a leader is JT or anyone else in that role for a team that meets monthly? Maybe?
  • Hmmm, interesting. Ronaldinho tanks in the 2006 World Cup after leading Barca to the Champions League. Ditto for Ronaldo in the 2008 Euro. Ronaldinho lost Hank Ten Cate as an assistant. Ronaldo loses Quieroz. Interesting...

Wither Berbatov? Arshavin? Huntelaar?

Oliver Kay at the Times of London reports the Dimitar Berbatov will sign with Manchester United within days. United apparently re-opened negotiations with the Tottenham star and the magic number is now 25M pounds, after 20.5M had been rejected. The teams have until Aug. 31 to come to terms before the current transfer window closes.

Finally there may be an end to this novela. Tottenham boss Juande Ramos left Berbatov on the bench this weekend because he was psychologically unfit to play, and Tottenham fans flipped after Sunderland came to White Hart Lane and won 2-1.

Berbatov will play up front Old Trafford with Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney. But who steps in at Tottenham? And why, 25M pounds notwithstanding, would Tottenham let him go without a viable replacement.

Zenit St. Petersburg, apparently still in the afterglow of its UEFA Cup win, won't part with Andrei Arshavin after talking serious numbers in the neighborhood of 20M pounds. Dutch scorer Huntelaar is also reportedly in the mix for the Tottenham post. Coach Dick Advocaat, however, says the saga is wearing on his team as well, that Arshavin's head wasn't in the game this weekend as Zenit lost 3-1 to Shinnik Yaroslav.

"He's constantly wondering if they'll let him go or not,'' Advocaat said. ''He's waiting by his phone for calls from his agent.''

Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup

Like my space on the Internet, the Starting Eleven Football Blog Roundup is back--and so is Jose Mourinho and Andriy Shevchenko. Sheva apparently has decided to shadow Mourinho for the rest of their respective footballing lives. If this is Milan, then it must be the Sheva Show guest-starring Jose. Both lead off this week's roundup:
The Chelsea Blog points out that Sheva may have been doomed from the start at Stamford Bridge. His 30M pound pricetag is a tough one to live up to, made even more difficult by the apparent fact that Mourinho never really wanted the guy.

Some, such as TeamTalk, contend that Sheva is back where he belongs, where it all started for him, where it all went right for him. Milan greeted Sheva with open arms, Kaka especially warmly anticipating his return. Maybe the change of scenery is for the best.

Klaw24, meanwhile, closes out the Sheva talk points out that despite the record transfer and the general disaster that Sheva's time in London was, he never complained and never disrupted the success the team enjoyed.

As for Mourinho, he has already collected his first trophy at Inter Milan, winning the Italian Super Cup in penalties, 6-5, over Roma. 101GreatGoals has all the highlights.

BleacherReport has noticed some lasting Premier League love from Mourinho, and wonders why.

Mourinho, upon winning the Super Cup this weekend, tipped his cap to his predecessor Roberto Mancini. It's true Jose, you won this one because Mancini got you in the game. Read about it at live-score.

To come full circle on Sheva, Mourinho wished him well on his way out the door. Setanta has the gushy details.

Mourinho may want Porto's Ricardo Quaresma, but the Italian press reports Mourinho may have to fend off old rival Liverpool for his services. Liverpool FC Weblog reports that Rafa Benitez has all but conceded Gareth Barry isn't coming to pair up with Steven Gerrard in the Reds midfield, and hopes to lock up Quaresma by Aug. 31.

Anfield Online, meanwhile, carries stern words from Jamie Carragher that Liverpool could get bounced from the Champions League Wednesday by Standard Liege if the ship isn't righted. The group stage drawing for the Champions League is Thursday.

The Offside looks at Real Madrid's Super Cup win over Valencia. Madrid came from two goals down on aggregate and two players down to win, and did so without Robinho, they report. "Pffft, who needs him?" Classic.

MLS Rumors remains a must-stop. Check out the latest on Sasha Kljestan, Marvell Winn, Jorge Rojas and more.

The 3rd Half
has a great recap of the weekend in England.

Oh You Beauty takes you deep inside Liverpool's win over 'Boro.

Talking to the Doll has a great new look, and checks in on Benfica's disappointing season-opening draw with Rio Ave.

And finally, Champions League Talk has a neat feature looking at some of the obscure clubs that have made the Champions League, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners' Cup interesting. This week, it's FC Thun.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Thaksin Shinawatra On Way Out at Manchester City

Big news out of Manchester. No, Ronaldo hasn't finally moved to Madrid (yawn). No, it's from the other club in Manchester. City owner and former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has offered to step down as director for the good of the club and the Premier League.

City executive chairman Garry Cook told the British press:
He (Thaksin) said to me, 'If you need me to resign from the football club as a director, because it would serve the needs of the Premier League, then I'm fine with that as long as that doesn't change any other thing (his ownership)'
So yes, you read correctly: He won't relinquish ownership, just essentially day-to-day control. Reading deeper between the lines, a puppet regime that will still report to him. Jeez, this guy already on the run from the Thai government for disgraceful human rights violations (drugs, murder and more accusations), now he sanctimoniously offers to get out of the way. What a joke.

The Premier League rules state that directors must step down if they are found guilty of a crime in a court anywhere in the world. There are warrants on Thaksin and his wife; his assets have been seized after he failed to appear in court to face corruption charges. He is currently in exile in London; Thailand wants to extradite him, but in the meantime has already put him on trial and a guilty verdict almost certain.

It's high time the Premier League sever ties with this creep and bring some honor back to its club. Take the high road and set a precedent.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chelsea and Scolari: Destinations of the Stars

Is Luis Filipe Scolari the new Pied Piper of football?

The former Portugal manager leaves international football for the chaos, charisma and kudos of the Premier League, and suddenly players such as Deco, Boswinga, DiSanto and Sinclair trail behind like mice following the tune of his pan flute. Today Chelsea signed Sporting Lisbon youth Fabio Paim, the Next One to come out of its prized academy. They can't wait to don blue, eat bad food in London and play in the shadow of United, Liverpool and Arsenal.

And there are more. Robinho continues to insist that Madrid is no longer a fit for him and he wants to play up front for Big Fil. And reports today have it that Chelsea has upped its bid for the Brazilian star to 32M. Chelsea has reported spurned Kaka for Robinho. Robinho told EFE in Spain:
"Staying at Real Madrid is not my objective for the season. My wish is to play in the English League, Chelsea have a great squad, a great team, it will be a good deal for me and the club. It's not for the money, it's simply that I want to play in the English League. I've completed a cycle, I've played three seasons at Real Madrid and I've given everything. I've scored goals and we've won two leagues, which isn't easy. I believe my time at Real Madrid is at an end. I hope that the directors come to an agreement with Chelsea to resolve the situation as quickly as possible. Every player is different. I have my own personality and character. I haven't spoken to the press before to avoid controversy, but now I'm telling the truth. I want to leave."
(Don't you wish you had a dollar, pound or euro for every time you heard a player say it wasn't about the money?)

Give Scolari credit. He came out and said he's not playing for the treble this season, no he wants a quad of cups. Will he get it? I'm not ready to join the cult of Chelsea after its Week 1 4-0 win over Portsmouth, but Scolari may have the swagger and stars to get it done. Somehow he swayed Frank Lampard from heading to Milan to play for the first Pied Piper of Football, Jose Mourinho. Ricardo Carvalho and Paolo Ferreira are still at Stamford Bridge too.

Wigan awaits this weekend, and Manchester United is not far off when on Sept. 21, Chelsea hosts United in a Champions League final rematch. Too bad United could not hold up its end of the bargain and battled Newcastle to a draw in its opener. It would have been special to have both teams 4-0 heading into the match.

Somehow, don't you get the feeling the match on the 21st comes down to a John Terry penalty try? Somehow, I think he makes it this time.

BTW, there is a great caricature of Scolari done by Niall O'Loughlin. Check it out.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Assistance Anyone?

I may have the opportunity to be in London for the Chelsea-Arsenal match Sunday Nov. 30 and I clearly would love to head to Stamford Bridge for the match. Having never been to London, much less Stamford Bridge, anyone have any advice as far as getting tickets?
  • Where's the best (safest) place to get them online?
  • How much should I expect to pay?
  • Is it possible to walk up and get a ticket the day of the game?
Any help is much appreciated. Either leave me a comment or shoot me an email.


U.S. Women Have Hope (Solo), And Gold Medal

Remember the mess former Olympic women's football coach Greg Ryan made at last year's Women's World Cup benching goalkeeper Hope Solo on a whim in favor of veteran Brianna Scurry? The result was a predictable 4-0 loss to Brazil, a tirade from Solo and disdain from her teammates.

In the end, Ryan was not long for his job and deservedly so. Solo, meanwhile, has come just about full circle. Today in Beijing, she carried the U.S. to the gold medal with a 1-0 overtime win over, yes, Brazil. Solo made a half-dozen game-saving stops, including putting up a stone wall against the tournament's leading scorer Cristiane in the first half, and Markgraf 20 minutes before time. Solo told Reuters:
"Vindicated? I feel great, I feel amazing. I just won a gold medal. I went through hell. A lot of people did. But I feel stronger in the end. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m glad I went though it. I learned a lot about myself."
Kudos to coach Pia Sundhage for realizing she had no team without a keeper of Solo's ability. She quelled the situation, cleaned up Ryan's mess and elevated the U.S. women to the top of the heap again.
"I asked two questions: 'Do you want to win? Yes. Do you need goalkeepers to win? Yes,'We had to move on, and this day you could see that we did it."
Carli Lloyd netted the game-winner 6 minutes into overtime.

Nigeria on Olympic Upset Trail Again vs. Argentinal

My self-imposed summer layoff is over. I guess it’s a cardinal blogging sin not to keep up with a daily, or semi-regular post, but hey, like I’ve said many times, this is my personal space and I’ll keep it as tidy as I care to.

That said, I’m going to spare you any kind of summer recap. Who cares? Not you, that’s for sure.

I’m truly looking forward to Saturday’s gold-medal match between Argentina and Nigeria. I’ve always been fascinated by Nigerian football, going back to the 1994 World Cup when I was a reporter for a Massachusetts newspaper covering the matches. Nigeria trained at a nearby college, and they were gracious, courteous and available to fans and media alike.

That 1994 team was remarkable. It was the country’s first time in the finals, but it was there fresh off winning the African Cup of Nations and had a great cast of characters: Emmanuel Anuneke, Finidi George, Peter Rufai in goal, Victor Ikpeba, Oliseh, Okafor, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Uche Okechukwu. These were fresh faces, very stylish players who weren’t just content to be in the finals.

They were paired with Argentina, Greece and Bulgaria in the group based at Foxboro. Argentina featured Maradona’s final national team appearance (I saw him score his final goal—against Greece—before he was suspended). Nigeria won the group, (it did lose to Argentina, 2-1) and nearly ousted eventual finalists Italy in the second round. It was a bummer to see them go out. Their “training camp” was festive and their training sessions attracted some good crowds, probably most out of curiosity.

Any way, back to the Olympic final, this Nigerian team reminds me of the ’94 squad: talented, young and confident. Argentina blew out Brazil 3-0 in the semifinals and is a big favorite behind Messi, Riquelme and co. But there’s something to be said for Nigeria, which thrashed upstart Belguim (hello, Italy), 4-1, in the other semifinal. I’m going to call the upset. Call B.S. if you want, but I see it. And how’s this for the ultimate irony: Emmanuel Epko, a midfielder for the Columbus Crew in MLS gets the winner, 1-0.