Friday, 31 August 2012

UEFA Champions League - German teams challenged at Group stage

Hello! I'm back in full swing, since CreComm restarted, and my first post for the new semester is about one of the most prestige tournaments in all of soccer: The UEFA Champions League.

At around 11 am on Thursday morning, the draw for the Group stage of the Champions League begun, with the pots containing the names of great clubs from the biggest leagues in Europe, including Manchester United (England), Real Madrid (Spain), Juventus (Italy), and Germany's defending champion, Borussia Dortmund. The results are mixed for the German clubs entering this year.

Dortmund is having probably the most successful run in club history, claiming the Bundesliga crown two years in a row, with a German Cup this year to complete their first double ever. I don't know what head coach Juergen Klopp is doing to keep his team so motivated and strong, but it's really doing the trick, placing Bayern Munich on a two-year title drought.

But nothing comes easy, and certainly not in the CL. Dortmund will be experiencing that first hand in their Group D, which consists of Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Ajax Amsterdam. All three claimed the championships in their respective countries and will look to make a big impact. This draw puts the "black-and-yellows" in an underdog position, just like last year, when they finished last in their group with just 4 points in 6 games. But can they get their break through on the international stage this year? It would make for a great story.

The next German club I'm going to talk about is Schalke. Now, Schalke finished 3rd in the Bundesliga last season, thus they already have undertaken an underdog rule for this group stage. Their best run in the CL happened just two years ago, when they eliminated Italian powerhouse Inter Milan in the quarterfinals before falling to Man U in the semis. Considering that "Die Knappen" will be facing Arsenal, Olympiacos (Greece) and French champions Montpellier in their Group B, their chances are still good. But then again, easier said than done.

Last, but not least, Bayern Munich. Runner-ups in the Bundesliga, runner-ups in the German Cup, AND... (wait for it) losing to Chelsea in the 2012 CL Final on their own turf! Holy deja-vu, if you remember 2002 Bayer Leverkusen! Isn't that a tragedy? Though I think Bayer fans are still laughing their butts off over Bayern's hatrick of second-place finishes. "Now you know what it feels like." Am I right?

On a serious note, Bayern will probably have one of the easiest groups this year, facing Spanish side Valencia, Lille OSC of France, and Belarusian champs BATE Borisov in Group F, while keeping most of the core team players over the summer, and signing a few key additions, including Spanish star Javi Martinez. If Bayern keeps playing the way they did last year, and kick it up a notch with fresh new legs, a long run is possible once again.

Tough challenges ahead for all three German teams in the Champions League, but it will be exciting to see who will become the Kings of Europe this year.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Canadian women's team lifts national soccer pride

What can I say after what we witnessed today in Old Trafford in Manchester, England? I got nothing. Except this blog post. And pride.

With probably the best performance by captain Christine Sinclair, and important contributions by the team, including absolutely solid and sturdy defending by Winnipeg's own Desiree Scott, the Canadian women's soccer team gave the US team an incredibly tough time, but it just wasn't enough at the end, as the US won 4-3 in the very last minute of extra time to move on to the Olympic Gold medal match to take on Japan.

Let me say this though: Wow. Just WOW. I was so afraid that the US might just dominate the game and win by two goals or so, since they have been so dominant throughout the 2012 London Olympics. But did the Canadian ladies ever show heart and courage.

The first half was dominated by the Americans, but after a solid set-up, Sinclair pushed through the defence and shocked us by putting Canada up front 1-0 at the half. At that point, I thought we were really going to beat them. Hopes were raised.

The second half was more balanced, as the Canadians became more brave and made some great plays, but the Americans would equalize after a direct corner kick that unluckily bounced off several players guarding the 5-yard crease. But that didn't stop Canada. Sinclair put Canada back on top after a wonderful cross, putting the ball just off the post and in. The Americans would tie the game again with an unstoppable strike off the post and in.

Canada answered with another brilliant Sinclair header into the left side of the goal after a greatly taken corner, making me jump off the couch for joy. How Canada found an answer to every equalizer was beyond me.

But then came the minutes that would've made every Canadian soccer fan kick a Norwegian referee. Canadian goalie Erin McLeod was called by Norwegian referee  for holding the ball too long in her hands. Indirect free kick in the penalty zone. A call that made the Canadian team furious. Rightly so. McLeod was winding up for the kick as the whistle blew. A completely unnecessary call.

The free kick was block by several bodies, but the ref saw something differently and awarded the US a penalty shot after having seen a hand ball by Canadian defender Marie-Eve Naul. If you have seen the replay, you should see that the shot was blocked with self-defence, NOT using the arm to block the shot intentionally. Another unnecessary call by the referee, the Canadian players thought, rightfully stating their case again.

The US would tie the game on the penalty shot and send the game to extra time. It felt like the whole country was at the edge of their seat. I was. No Canadian Olympic performance so far could not match what was happening that day.

Extra time would not solve anything. At least that's what a lot of us thought, as the last minute of stoppage time in the second extra time half was over. The ref kept the game on, and Alex Morgan would shatter Canadian gold medal dreams with a header that McLeod could not stop, sending the US to the Gold medal match. Again.

We could all be blaming this game on the referee, who just giggled at Sinclair after she asked about the calls she made (See National Post), and I would not blame anyone who does, but we should not forget what our Canadian team has accomplished this year.

They had an excellent run this year, that was highlighted by a brilliant new coach in John Herdman and excellent performances by proven veterans, including Sinclair. Not to mention beating the host Great Britain 2-0 on their very own turf!

Canadian soccer has something to be madly proud of. The determination, the guts, the heart that these ladies showed on the pitch against the Number 1 team in the world is something that we should remember for a very long time. They made the giant force to be their best in order to get that gold medal. And did they ever make them work for it.

Canadian women's soccer team of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games: Your country salutes you.

Allez les Rouges!

PS: Winnipeg, be super proud of Desiree Scott! She defended like a warrior, and got right back on the field after getting hit in the leg on a challenge. What a tough woman! What a player!