2017 | APRIL | AWESOME APRIL
This month’s team of updates sits together as friends, stands together as teammates and plays together as winners, professionally sharing news, stories, scores and standings from around planet football. This team listens to the coach and sticks firmly to a 4-4-2. At the back, the four defenders bring us up to speed on some World Cup qualifying. The midfield foursome link up to provide useful paragraphs from European club football and up front, two strikers discuss this week’s Champions League quarter-final first legs. These ten players, play ahead of a good young goalie, getting better every year. Mentioned here also are numbers twelve and thirteen, who are way good enough to be starters… though this game… they start on the bench. I hope you enjoy the read and feel free to share with kids and teens – it builds geography.
FROM THE PITCH
Right here in North America, Major League Soccer marched past March and arrived in April with many interesting developments, including (1) new franchises making waves near the top of the Eastern Conference, (2) last year’s Eastern playoff teams starting slowly and (3) reigning League champion carrying right on with its excellent league form. New boys, Atlanta United FC start the week in third place in the Eastern Conference, taking points in 4 out of its 5 games and scoring 13 goals in the process. One point ahead in second is Orlando City SC (third year team), who want to do more than participate. One more point ahead in first is Columbus Crew (one of the originals). None of last year’s six Eastern playoff teams are currently in the top 5. The only undefeated team of the bunch (and across the East) is Toronto FC, who have one win and four draws. In the West, FC Dallas continue its consistent league form and have pocketed 10 points from 4 games and sit second behind Portland Timbers who have 13 points from 6 games. The action continues Friday with matches in Philadelphia, Vancouver and San Jose.
World Cup Qualifying continued two weeks ago during the planet’s most recent international break. In CONCACAF, the region’s 6 best teams are competing in the final stage, known sharply as the Hex. After 4 games, Mexico sit top with 10 points, followed by Costa Rica on 7 and Honduras on 5. The USA, who lost its first two games, bounced back beating Honduras 6-1 on home soil and drawing 1-1 away to Panama. The Americans’ first four points of the Hex lift them out of the basement into fourth and seemingly back on track to qualify for an eighth straight world cup finals. Remember, the top three teams in this region advance to Russia 2018 and the fourth place finisher gets a play-off match-up against Asia’s fifth place qualifier.
After 14 of 18 games in CONMEBOL, Brazil continue to cruise – winning both recent games and stretching its lead atop the table to 9 points. The resurgent Brazilians, fresh off Olympic Gold last summer, have 33 points, scoring 35 goals and conceding only 10. Behind Brazil, a whole bunch of things happened after these last two results.
- Uruguay goes from second (4 points back) to third (10 points back) after two humbling losses.
- Columbia jumped from 7th to 2nd with two huge wins. Chile drops one spot after a win and a loss and Argentina fall into fifth and out of the automatic berths, dropping its last game 2-0 in La Paz, Bolivia. Of note, only 6 points separate second and eighth.
- Crazy happenings in South America means… same old, same old.
- Out of contention are Bolivia and Venezuela.
In Asia, the final phase of qualifying involves two six-team qualifying groups, wherein the top 2 from each qualify for Russia 2018. Each team in this qualifying tournament has played 7 out of 10 games and the teams are settling into their realities. Iran and South Korea lead Group A and are on track for two of this region’s golden tickets. Uzbekistan has some hope, sitting a point behind second, while fourth place Syria are only alive mathematically. China and Qatar are finished (maybe Canada can get a friendly with one of these other losers next year). In group B, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia are hunting the other two automatic berths. Currently Japan and Saudi Arabia are tied for 1st with 16 points, followed on 13 points by Australia. Games yet to be played are Australia home to Saudi Arabia (on June 8th), Japan home to Australia (on August 31st) and Saudi home to Japan (on September 5th). By the way, this region’s two third place finishers meet in a two-legged Asian play-off. The winner gets to play an international play-off with CONCACAF’s fourth place finisher, with that winner qualifying for Russia 2018.
In Africa, 5 golden tickets are available and the last phase of qualifying entertains us with five four-team groups, with each group winner advancing to Russia 2018. After 2 (of 6) games, trends are trying to set. In Group A, Congo and Tunisia each won both games and play each other next. In group B, Nigeria won both and all other games in the group were drawn, leaving the leaders 4 points clear. In Group C, Ivory Coast lead on 4 points, followed by Gabon and Morocco who both tied their first two games. In group D, Burkina Faso and South Africa lead with 4 points each. Senegal has a win and a loss and are only a point back. In Group E, Egypt won twice to top the group, followed by Uganda, who took a point from Ghana and beat Congo. Not mentioned yet is the recently crowned African Nations Cup Champion Cameroon, who have two points from two 1-1 draws in Group D. Cameroon plays the group leader, Nigeria, home and away in two enormous games five days apart near the end of the summer.
In Italy, the Juventus train continues to roll along and even a blip here or there can’t stop the certainty of another Scudetto title. This famous club from Turin enter this weekend with a 6 point lead over AS Roma and a 10 point lead over Napoli.
Each week, each game the drama and delight Italian football shines but, it is disappointing that the Scudetto race is once again a one-team race. However, to all who enjoy this famous old league, it is terribly awesome to watch Juventus Football Club from Turin play with such intensity, talent, togetherness and at times… perfection… week in and week out. The old lady keeps the bar high, demanding its Italian cousins and all friends around the world to find ways to get better. By the way, AS Roma players and fans will not (must not, cannot, better not) ever give up the fight, especially with the two teams still to play (in Rome on May 14th). However, given the form of the champions (and leaders), 6 points must seem like 16.
In Spain, many eyed last Saturday as an important day in the chase for the La Liga crown. Leaders Real Madrid had to play an intense derby at home to Atletico Madrid, while later in the day, Barcelona had an “easy” game against a bottom dweller. Real and Atletico played an entertaining and intense match that ended 1-1 at the Bernabeu. Knowing of the leaders’ dropped points, Barca was licking its chops as kickoff approached against 15th place Malaga, however a few small problems were at foot for the famous Catalan club. First – there are no easy games and certainly not away from home. Second – Malaga love to play Barcelona and entered the match getting points in 3 of the last 5 matches against Barca. Three – surprises in Spain are commonplace, especially down the stretch and in particular on the same weekend that a famous Spanish golfer – Sergio Garcia – surprised the world and won the Masters on his 19th try. So yes… you guessed it… Malaga ran out 2-0 winners, soaking up all of Barca’s 67% possession and using its own 33% to good effect to find victory. The Galacticos upped its lead to 3 points and continue to have one game in hand. The two Spanish giants will meet in the Classico on Sunday April 23, but even a Barcelona win may not be enough to catch ZZ’s boys. Atletico Madrid (3rd) and Sevilla (4th) are also in line for more European adventures next season.
In England, the EPL league trophy is firmly in the hands of Chelsea FC. Despite a loss to start the month at home to resurgent Crystal Palace, the Blues remain on track to lift this coveted trophy. Before that slip, they won 5 straight and since that loss, the Blues have reeled off two wins – 2-1 at home to Man City and 3-1 away to Bournemouth. Some tricky fixtures remain, including away to Manchester United this weekend, but Chelsea’s current 7 point lead appears safe enough. Second place Tottenham is playing excellent, entertaining football and has distanced itself from the remaining pack. Spurs are destined to return to CL football next season. Liverpool FC hold on to third place (63 points), followed closely in fourth by Manchester City (61 points). Inconsistent Manchester United sit in 5th (57 points), followed in 6th by struggling Arsenal and confident Everton (54 points).
In Germany, Bayern Munich continue to dominate, stretching its lead atop the Bundesliga table to 10 points over 2nd place RB Leipzig, who can be most proud of its play this season – its first in Germany’s top flight. TSG Hoffenheim and Borrussia Dortmund sit 3rd and 4the and look likely to claim Germany’s other two spots in next season’s CL. In France, high scoring AS Monaco continue to cling to 1st place in Ligue 1, three points ahead of holders Paris St. Germain. Third place Nice continue to play well and are another point in arrears (having played one more game). In Portugal, Benfica (68 points) are a nose ahead of FC Porto (67 points). On April 1st, the two teams tied 1-1. In Holland, its Feyenoord first (73), Ajax second (72) and PSV third (68). Other league leaders include Besiktas (Turkey), Spartak Moscow (Russia), Celtic – 29 wins, 3 draws, no losses, 90 points (Scotland), Olympiacos (Greece), Anderlecht (Belgium), FC Coppenhagen (Denmark), FC Salzburg (Austria), and FC Basel (Switzerland).
Barcelona versus Juventus is meant to be a European final, but this season these two famous clubs meet at the quarter-final stage. The first leg was played Tuesday at Juventus Stadium and the hosts (quite simply) had their way from start to finish. Two clinical first half finishes from the superb Paulo Dybala gave Juve a well deserved advantage. In between and after these goals, Juventus locked up the back with aggressive, clinical defending and behind it all, Gianluigi Buffon – the immortal one – assured a clean sheet with excellent leadership, proper communication and a sparkling save at 1-0 off the feet of Andres Iniesta. A third goal from Giorgio Chiellini from a second half corner rounded out a perfect night for the Italian champions. For Barcelona, iffy road form was fully exposed as the Catalan side was clearly second best on the night. Next week at the Nou Camp, Barca need another miracle comeback, but against this experienced, savvy Juventus squad, don’t bet on it.
In the other powerhouse quarter-final, German champion Bayern Munich hosted reigning European and World Club champions Real Madrid at the Alliance Arena. It was an excellent game of football. In the first half, Bayern took the game to the guests and were rightly rewarded with a goal after 25 minutes. Arturo Vidal’s thumping header beat Real’s #1 and brought the capacity crowd to its collective feet. The goal was followed by more excellent football from Carlo Ancellotti’s men, who looked and played liked champions. Vidal could have doubled the lead with a free header or from the penalty spot, after Bayern was gifted a penalty late in the first half. Vidal took responsibility (which is good), but blazed over the bar in the defining moment of the match Bayern started the second half a shadow of its true self and Real took full advantage. That man, Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t need a second invitation to bag an equalizer two minutes after the break. Then, Ronaldo’s speed and trickery brought two quick cynical fouls from Javier Martinez, who was promptly sent off. Up a man, Real Madrid took over the match and got a second goal from Ronaldo in the 77th minute and really could have, should have had another. But, Real Madrid will happily take this 2-1 away victory back to the Bernabeu for next week’s second leg.
FROM THE BENCH
In Germany, Borrussia Dortmund played AS Monaco in front of a packed house at the Signal-Iduna-Park. Dortmund started in an understandable fog (after the unnecessary events of the day before) and fell behind 2-0 to AS Monaco after 35 minutes. The high flying Ligue 1 leaders also missed a penalty in that first half. Dortmund eventually settled and played better in the second half, getting a goal back and looking more the part. However, another defensive mistake allowed Kylian Mbappe to score his second of the game and restore a two goal lead for Les Rouges et Blancs. Dortmund found a second goal late on and can take some hope into the second leg. However, that 3-2 scoreline looks pretty good for Monaco, who will play the second ninety minutes in front of home fans at Stade Louis II in Fontvieille.
In Spain, Atletico Madrid hosted Leceister City, who are without doubt the biggest surprise in this tournament in many years. This match was a true chess match, one that had stalemate written all over it, unless someone special could create a special moment. Indeed, except for one such special moment from the game’s best player, Antoine Griezman, all attacking ideas were expertly thwarted or bounced away by the woodwork. To be fair, it was Leceister’s defense who had much more to do and last season’s EPL champs deserve much credit for keeping to the game plan and leaving the Spanish capital still in the tie. As for that special moment, Atletico defended a long throw in its own end and then immediately sent its talisman on a 77 yard run from one box to the other, where the Frenchman’s speed, skill and confidence won his side a penalty. Griezman, as always, took the penalty and dispatched it beautifully into the bottom left corner for the game’s only goal. Expect a similar match next week in England, save perhaps the final 15-20 minutes, when really… anything is possible.
Soccer is the game we love to play. Marathon is the act of doing something for hours on end. So, we therefore have a Soccerthon and it’s happening May 7. It is a special fundraising event to provide much needed funds for the Beit Issie Shapiro Center, who are changing the lives of people with disabilities. I am friends with some Canadian friends of Beit Issie who are running this tournament. I fully support this charity and look forward to coaching and playing in this year’s tournament. What a day it is going to be. There is a Kids Tournament followed by the Men’s Tournament. There is a fun zone for the kids; there are opening and closing ceremonies and of course, hours of soccer games. If you want to join us, know more or donate, click here: Kicking For Kids If you want to be on my team, contact me directly.
On the senior circuit in and around toronto, I spent the month playing pick-up old guy soccer here and there with a few groups and managed to stumble into one “real” game. A few Fridays ago, I joined some brown guys – next generation malton cougars – who know how to have intense, competitive, fun scrimmages and then sit around after and tell stories for hours. My one game of the month arrived courtesy of Maccabi Canada, who invited me to play with a senior squad in a game against a talented U16 team. The “kids” did enough to earn a result, but us old guys prevailed 4-3. A couple days later on a Tuesday night, I joined some 50 year olds in an old fashioned pass-fest. I played with many of these guys in the YRSL O35 League, where they helped me win seven or eight straight scoring titles (just saying). On another random Thursday, I played with a happening group of Israelis, who take indoor soccer to a very high level…it’s not just old guys… but also a few very good, very fit, young guys. They always pick teams that make for a great game and then play with speed, precision and passion (or so we think).
By the way, I made an error last month in my reporting. In the grand scheme of things, this error was quite mild, very likely missed by any casual reader. But to the people of the particular region of my mess-up, it is a gross error…inexcusable from a guy trying to be… the best writer in the league. You can think what it was, even re-read last month’s blog if you wish and then send me your reply at eleven anything… am or pm (or at 1:21) and if you are correct… I’ll buy you lunch.
Until next month,
All the best, keep well, be safe, take care, and sincerely… thanks for reading,
BY THE WAY
- These books are meant to be informative and fun (great for soccer people).
- These books find opportunities to provide lessons about soccer, sport and life (perfect for students of the game).
- These books are made to build vocabulary (perfect for kids with a dictionary or teenagers without one).
- These books are meant to be inexpensive (perfect gifts to players on your team, coaches on your staff, people in your organization or old friends who like a good story).