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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The King ascends his throne

Today I feel just a little older, the greatest forward of all-time and my idol as a kid growing up Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima -- you may know him better as simply "Ronaldo" -- has retired.

For me there is absolutely no question, the 34-year-old Brazilian is the best to ever lace them up with the job to score goals. Akin to when the top playmaker would receive the No. 10 jersey because Pele wore the number proudly on the back of bright yellow Brazilian jersey, for generations to come when teams hand out the No. 9 jersey to their top forward it will be because of the original Ronaldo.

He is the all-time top World Cup goal scorer with 15. Here's a youtube clip of each glorious strike.

He has won two World Cup trophies -- yes that is right 2, he was 17 at the time Brazil won in the U.S. in 1994 although he did not play in the tournament, and then scored eight times en route to lifting the Jules Rimmet trophy in 2002. He was the first player to win the FIFA player of the year award three times ('96, '97, '02), only to be matched later by the great Zinedine Zidane. Nike married itself to Brazil thanks in large part to Ronaldo back in 1996 using the Brazilian as the outfitters centerpiece in Nike's campaign for years to come, just remember the R9 commercials, and to this day Brazil still wears Nike kits and uses Nike as its outfitter. And he's also responsible for the worst hair cut I've ever seen during the World Cup -- his 2002 decision to leave a triangular-shaped patch of hair on the top of his head in the knockout portion of the tournament, ouch.

But getting back to business, his goal-scoring record when healthy unmatched. All you need to do is look at a year like 1996-97, the only season he played at Barcelona, Ronaldo lit La Liga on fire scoring 34 goals in 37 league matches, until the 2008-09 season, no one touched that mark, and during that year he scored 47 times in 49 matches in all competitions. He scored 62 times for Brazil, just an astounding figure, only topped by the greatest player of all-time with Pele's 77.

At the top of his game Ronaldo had breakaway speed -- a gear no-one could touch when he took it to the next level -- incredible power -- he had the ability to go through multiple challenges absorbing contact without needing the showmanship or diving as we call it now that so many players partake in currently -- and alien talent -- quite simply he invented moves that other top players in the world even now cannot perfect. He was in essence the perfect forward.

But of course he was not perfect. Injuries too often halted what was a budding career early on. At just the age of 23 he ruptured the tendon in his knee. Then trying to return too soon after just five months recovery time seven minutes into his first comeback performance he suffered the same injury. Remember Oguchi Onyewu went through the same injury a year ago this past October was a shadow of himself eight months later at the World Cup, and he may never be the same player. Ronaldo was certainly not. The speed and burst, the ability to accelerate to the next level was gone, but he still was fast enough and the talent never waned.

However, it was not long before he began battling weight issues. Even when he was scoring eight goals at the 2002 tournament in Japan/South Korea he looked a smidge pudgy and then in 2006 when he still scored three times to break the all-time World Cup record, Brazilian fans were calling for him to be benched saying he was a hindrance on the team because of a lack of fitness. But who was going to sit the great Ronaldo.

We also can't forget one of the most baffling incidents in World Cup final history. In 1998 France, Brazil were heavy favorites to win back-to-back championships largely in part to Ronaldo, who was playing at a level beyond anyone. The forward took his team to the final against the host home country, but then France utterly dominated Brazil 3-0 and Ronaldo looked like a ghost on the field. It later came out that he had suffered a seizure less than 24 hours before the match without any primary cause being determined. In fact Ronaldo had been pulled from the starting lineup just 72 minutes before the match only to be reslotted after he got to the stadium and announced himself fit. But clearly he was not as several neurological doctors addressed in the aftermath, and Zidane was the one that would shine in front of a home audience scoring two headed goals.

I don't want to dwell on the negative though because for me he was so special to watch play, and when I think back over the years that I have been a fan of the beautiful game there are four players that have separated themselves in my mind as the greatest players of their generation - Zidane, Ronaldinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the original Ronaldo.

I've said lately that Cristiano possesses more overall ability than any player that I've seen, and that may still be true because he can dominate a match from set pieces, he can dominate in the air, and he can dominate on the ball with his own play-making ability. But after going back and reviewing these youtube clips that I'm going to throw in here at the bottom, the debate creeps back into my mind. There just simply hasn't ever been a player like the original Ronaldo when he was at the top of his game. He was a force of nature. You may say someone like Messi scores as much or more now than Ronaldo did, but Messi scores through the will of this present-day Barcelona team, which may be the best team of all-time. Ronaldo at his peak, not in his later days at Real Madrid, never had the team around him that Cristiano Ronaldo had at Manchester United and Real Madrid or that Messi has now at Barcelona. Ronaldo was a one-man wreaking crew.

But don't take my word for it, listen to the words of the great English legend sir Bobby Robson, Ronaldo's coach at Barcelona, "You can go anywhere in the world and you won't find a player that can score goals like that... Can anybody, anywhere, show me a better player than that?"

Now enjoy this series of youtube clips that I've hunted down:

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hodgson resurfaces at West Brom

There is truly nothing like being in the inner circle for coaching in professional soccer. Now matter how bad you've done at your last job, your next gig is always one call away.

Former Fulham manager and most recently Liverpool failure Roy Hodgson was named coach at West Brom, signing a deal that will keep him with the Hawthorns through the summer of 2012.

Far be it from me to question the motives of a team that's in serious danger of being relegated but wouldn't you try for some new blood to shake it up? How does bringing in a guy that already ran one team into the ground this season in the same league (EPL) help your chances? I don't get it.

West Brom confirmed the news on their official website, revealing that caretaker manager Michael Appleton will take charge of the team for their clash with West Ham on Saturday.

"The Club are now channelling all of their efforts into supporting Appleton, his assistants Keith Downing and Dean Kiely and the players as they prepare for tomorrow's vital game," a statement on the Baggies website read.

Hodgson will be at the helm for the first time for the derby clash with Wolves at The Hawthorns next weekend, but admitted he was shocked by the speed of how things developed.

He said: ''It was not my intention to return to Premier League football this quickly. But I was so impressed by the way the chairman (Jeremy Peace) and the sporting and technical director (Dan Ashworth) sold the project to me that I was very happy to accept the offer.

''I am delighted that a club of West Bromwich Albion's stature has given me the opportunity to help them in their quest to retain their Premier League status and to build for the future.

''I hear that Michael has done a terrific job looking after the players this week and preparing them for tomorrow's game. I know from my previous visits to The Hawthorns the kind of atmosphere the fans can generate and I am sure they will get right behind Michael and the team.''

Peace insisted Hodgson was always Albion's first choice.

He said: ''At such a vital stage of the season, we felt it was important we identified and appointed the right man as quickly as possible. Roy emerged as the outstanding and unanimous choice of the football club board and we are delighted to have appointed our number one target.

''We believe his vast experience and knowledge of the game is exactly what we need for the challenge we face, both in the short and long term.

''However, as Roy has stated, the club's immediate focus is offering Michael, Keith Downing, Dean Kiely (club coaches) and the players all the support they need as they prepare to face West Ham. We're very grateful for the way Michael has taken over the reins this week. He has fully justified our faith in him.''

Hodgson will undoubtedly have one eye on April 2, when West Brom welcome Liverpool to the Hawthorns. He endured a disastrous six-month tenure with the Reds, which saw the club suffer their worst start to a top-flight season in 57 years.

And to add insult to Hodgson's injured pride, Liverpool have enjoyed an impressive revival in fortunes since Kenny Dalglish replaced him in the Anfield hotseat.

But Hodgson still boasts an impressive managerial CV that has taken in two spells in charge of Inter Milan, as well as international positions with Switzerland and Finland. And the Englishman was named Manager of the Year by the League Managers' Association last season after guiding Fulham to the Europa League final.

West Brom are currently languishing just above the Premier League relegation zone and Hodgson has been hired with a view to saving the Baggies from the drop, as he did when he was first appointed Fulham boss.

Perhaps the only thing I can shed some light on is the fact that Roy Hodgson looks exactly like the actor that played Duncan (owner of Duncan's Toy Chest) in Home Alone 2. Haha, seriously look at a couple Google images of Hodgson. He could be his twin brother.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gary Neville calls it a career

By nature, defensive players in pretty much any sport don't get as much love as their offensive counterparts. That's the way it has always been and will be forever.

Still, we must recognize greatness when we see it and today the EPL and Manchester United said goodbye to a legend as right back Gary Neville retired.

Gary Neville has become the first of the 'Fergie Fledglings' to end his career after announcing his immediate retirement from professional football at the age of 35.

Neville, who has made only three Premier League starts this season due to fitness problems and a lack of form, made 602 appearances for United and represented England on 85 occasions.

Hailed as "the best English right back of his generation" by Sir Alex Ferguson, Neville was a member of the famous side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, and along with fellow academy graduates Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes dedicated his entire career to his manager at Old Trafford.

But while Scholes and Giggs continue to shine in the Premier League, Neville has decided that the time is right to hang up his boots, bringing to a close a trophy-filled career that saw him secure eight league titles, the Champions League, three FA Cups and two League Cups.

"I have been a Manchester United fan all my life and fulfilled every dream I've ever had," Neville told the club's official website. "Obviously I am disappointed that my playing days are at an end, however it comes to us all, and it's knowing when that time is and for me that time is now.

"I have played in the most incredible football teams, playing with some of the best players in the world as well as against them and I have been lucky to have been part of the team's achievements and the club's great success.

"There are so many people I want to thank and, of course, top of that list is Sir Alex. He has given me so many opportunities and countless support over the last 20 years - he is truly one of the greatest managers - and I have to thank him for that."

"I am looking forward to new experiences and the club will always be a part of my life going forward. However, the most important thing now is for the club to continue with the success that is synonymous with Manchester United and I will be supporting them all the way, as a fan."

Striking up a successful partnership with his good friend David Beckham on the right side of the United team, Neville came to epitomise United's spirit under the leadership of Ferguson and his dedication and professionalism saw him awarded the captain's armband in 2005.

Ferguson said: "Gary was the best English right back of his generation. He is an example to any young professional; hard-working, loyal and intelligent. As a United fan born and bred, his fantastic career at Old Trafford has cemented his place in the affection of the club's supporters everywhere.

"His impact on the club in general has been huge; his presence in the dressing room and leadership qualities have been an asset to me as a manager. All the young players who have sought his advice on many matters, particularly on contract issues owe him a great debt.

"As a young boy he had the will and determination to succeed as a footballer and that character remained with him throughout his career. That's the legacy he leaves every young player at Manchester United."

Neville also attracted tributes from his colleagues, with Rio Ferdinand writing on his Twitter page: "Gary Neville has retired from football ... the best right back in premier league history #fact. Gonna be a loss to our dressing room #banter."

You could say he should have retired a year or two earlier but you have to respect Neville for not prolonging it too much ala Brett Favre and a million other washed up professional athletes. I was never a Manchester United fan (and never will be) but I loved Neville's game: it was fundamental, tough, without flash. It was about substance not style and that seems rare these days.

Also, it's crazy that Giggs and Scholes are A) still with Man U and B) playing at such a high level.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Charlie Davies-MLS bound?

Interesting stuff today as word leaked that Charlie Davies could be loaned from his French club Sochaux to MLS' DC United.

D.C. United has agreed to take Charlie Davies on loan from France's Sochaux but wants to evaluate how far the American forward has progressed in his comeback from a near-fatal car crash before deciding whether to finalize the deal.

The Major League Soccer team said the 24-year-old is expected to report to the team on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where it is practicing ahead of the start of the MLS season in March. Davies will train with D.C. United and be evaluated by team doctors.

D.C. United said Tuesday that a weeklong evaluation period "will include training and game time with the first team and a full medical evaluation by team doctors in D.C."
"Details of a 12-month loan have already been negotiated," the team said, "but nothing will be official until D.C. United is satisfied he is physically capable of playing at the level required to be successful in MLS."

As always, best of luck to Charlie. Looking forward (fingers crossed) to see him back on the field doing what he loves.

The aftermath

Yesterday ended the January transfer window across Europe and England the big teams broke out their wallets for one more record day of spending -- $362 million in all -- as these Premier League teams get ready for the new UEFA financial rules to begin being strictly enforced beginning this summer.

Essentially the gist of the new guidelines stipulate that teams must at least balance their books. Teams that do not face harsh penalties including being barred from the Champions League or other European competitions.

With that in mind Chelsea cashed in the two biggest signings of the transfer market breaking the record spent by an English team on one player with a 50-million-pound purchase of 26-year-old Fernando Torres from Liverpool and solidifying their back line with a 21.3-million-pound purchase of David Luiz from Benfica.

Liverpool were also a very active team in Tom Henry's first opportunity to buy players since taking over the club last fall. In my opinion they got the bargain-basement deal of the winter swooping in to sign rising star Luis Suarez from Ajax for 22.5 million pounds, again you'll remember him from his terrific tournament at the World Cup last summer for Uruguay. They also plundered Newcastle for rising star 22-year-old Andrew Carroll, who ranks third in the EPL with 11 goals this campaign.

I can honestly say I don't know much about Carroll except for the fact that his transfer fee was the eighth highest ever in the history of the sport, so that should tell you about how highly Liverpool think of the young man. And together with Suarez they should form a nice striking partnership that should be able to replace the production of Torres.

Here's the complete list by the way of top 10 purchases: 1. Cristiano Ronaldo

(Man Utd to Real Madrid, 2009, £80 million)

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
(Inter Milan to Barcelona, 2009, £56.5 million)

3. Kaka
(AC Milan to Real Madrid, 2009, £56 million)

4. Fernando Torres
(Liverpool to Chelsea, 2011, £50 million)

5. Zinedine Zidane
(Juventus to Real Madrid, 2001, £46.5 million)

6. Luis Figo
(Barcelona to Real Madrid, 2000, £37 million)

7. Hernan Crespo
(Parma to Lazio, 2000, £35.5 million)

8. Andy Carroll
(Newcastle to Liverpool, 2011, £35 million)

9. David Villa
(Valencia to Barcelona, 2010, £34 million)

10. Gianluigi Buffon
(Parma to Juventus, 2001, £32.6 million)

As for the rest of the transfer market there were plenty of interesting moves. U.S. MNT players Robbie Findley and Eddie Johnson moved the Championship. Findley joined Nottingham Forest, while Johnson switched from Fulham to Preston North End. As previously mentioned Michael Bradley joined Aston Villa, who play Manchester United at 3. Emmanuel Adebayor joined Real Madrid. Steven Ireland joined Newcastle. El-Hadji Diouf joined Rangers. Demba Ba joined West Ham. Carlos Vela switched from Arsenal to West Brom. Ryan Babel joined Hoffenheim (Bundesliga). John Carew moved to Stoke City. Steven Pienaar joined Tottenham. Jermaine Jones is at Blackburn along with Roque Santa Cruz. Edin Dzeko was Man City's big buy and Brad Guzan went to Hull City.

Around the rest of Europe there was not a lot of movement. Juventus were denied a loan bid for Real Madrid striker Benzema. Cun Aguero re-signed at Atletico Madrid rebuffing a move made by Tottenham. In the Italian Serie A, a couple of minor moves were made, but nothing to write home about. Most teams stood pat.