CHI’s Best XI of March 2008: Newbies Outweigh the Usual Suspects

Fernando Torres – Liverpool (FW)

First Selection

The Reds had an amazing month of March with the only real blemish being a 3-0 loss to a unflappable Manchester United squad. Torres was the biggest reason for Liverpool’s success in March. A total of 7 goals, three of which were gamewinners. A lot of people doubted the effect Torres would have in English football and he has managed to prove the critics wrong and transplant that success in European play as well. Liverpool are now through to the semifinals in the Champions League after beating Arsenal in April and March’s road went through Inter Milan. No easy tasks. After Morientes, after Baros, there comes Torres and 21 goals in the Premiership. Regardless, however, Liverpool sits in fourth and quite a distance from third. Not somewhere 21 goals in the EPL should put you…

Goals: 3 goals vs. West Ham United (3/5), 1 goal vs. Newcastle United (3/8), 1 goal vs. Inter Milan (3/11), 1 goal vs. Reading (3/15), 1 goal vs. Everton (3/30)

Jermain Defoe – Portsmouth (FW)

First Selection

Take that Tottenham. Take that Martin Jol, Juande Ramos. Defoe gets his starting role back at Fratton Park and has since been very unkind to opposing goalkeepers. The speedy striker has 8 goals in 7 appearances with his new club and 6 goals in 4 games during March. Pompey are in a race for a spot in Europe as they sit 4 points outside of 5th with 5 games to play. Defoe is still an outright idiot for cheating on his popstar girlfriend.

Goals: 1 goal vs. Everton (3/2), 2 goals vs. Birmingham (3/12), 1 goal vs. Aston Villa (3/15), 2 goals vs. Wigan Athletic (3/29)

Claudio Graf – Veracruz (FW)

First Selection

After wasting away at Lanus in the Argentinian Primera Division, Graf has found a new home with Veracruz of the Mexican Primera. He has struck for 10 goals this year, 7 in March alone. The 32 year old has had a journeyman’s career, playing for 11 teams in almost 15 years of work. His newfound consistency has pleased Veracruz fans and almost caused them to take to calling him San Graf (Saint Graf), a nickname given to him in 2004-2007 stint with Lanus. It started fast and furious with Lanus and then waned in the homestretch, now let us see if he can continue the form that has him beloved in Veracruz in just 12 appearances.  

Goals (7): 1 goal vs. Necaxa (3/1 GW), 1 goal vs. Pachuca (3/8), 1 goal vs. Chivas Guadalajara (3/14), 1 goal vs. Atlante (3/23), 3 goals vs. Club America (3/29)

Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United (MF)

Second Selection

These stats speak for themselves. In four of out five March matches, Cristiano Ronaldo either scored or assisted EVERY goal. He had a hand in over 90% of the goals scored for Manchester United. Then add to that the intangibles, the stats you don’t see on a scorecard. Against Liverpool, he dictated the run of play, confused defenses, threaded perfect through passes. Still only 23, there’s not much more you can say about this guy without admitting a mancrush. You do have to admit, though, he’s got one hell of a supporting cast. It is Ronaldo’s 2nd selection in 2008 and I think I foresee a couple more.

Goals: 1 goal vs. Lyon (3/4), 1 goal vs. Derby County (3/15), 2 goals vs. Bolton (3/19), 1 goal vs. Liverpool (3/23), 1 goal and 3 assists vs. Aston Villa (3/29)

Alex – Fenerbahce (MF)

First Selection

After a historic night in Sevilla and a berth into the Champions League quarterfinals, Fenerbahce – led by the artistry of veteran Brazilian Alex – destroyed Turkish Super League competition. Alex provided 3 goals and had his hand in over 3/4 of a 15 goal March. Without Alex, Mateja Kezman, Deivid, and Colin Kazim-Richards would have very little to run on to. The 30 year-old not only creates the plays, but he finishes them too. Over 70 goals for Fenerbahce proves that. Long rumoured to be moving to a bigger league, it looks to actually happen this summer as many are starting to wonder after 4 years at the Turkish club, when does loyalty get in the way of ambition? The highlight of March was a two goal performance that dismantled fellow Turkish giants Besiktas 2-1.

Kader Keita – Olympique Lyonnais (MF/FW)

First Selection

Lyon exploded for a great March only to be blemished by a loss to Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League. Kader Keita, however, took March as a chance to establish his position at Stade de Gerland. You can’t say that Juninho is fading, but Keita has impressed enough to provoke talk of him being the new playmaker for OL. It is certainly a closer year for Lyon, who is looking for their 7th consecutive Ligue One title, but Keita’s efforts (4 goals, 4 assists) has kept OL with a 6 point lead over 2nd place Bordeaux. Let’s remember not to lose his name in the midst of Karim Benzema and Hatem Ben Arfa.

Aldo Duscher – Racing Santander (MF)

First Selection

Where is Santander coming from?? The veteran midfielder Duscher has sparked an upstart Racing squad to fight its way into the top 5 and a fight for Europe. He started off March by scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Valladolid and followed it with the game winner over Betis. The Argentinian has acted as the glue between a defense that played much of March without their talisman, Ezequiel Garay, and the offense which has produced over 2 goals a game this past month. Along with Jorge Lopez, Duscher has been a big reason Racing now fights for a place in Europe instead of a place in the Primera.

Edson Braafheid – Twente Enschede (DF)

First Selection

Last thing anyone was expecting from Twente was a 5 consecutive win streak in April. Braafheid captained a Twente defense that was the strength of a team now fighting for a spot in next year’s European competition. A 4-3 win over Vitesse Arnhem was the lone defensive hiccup. Braafheid – 24 years old – was the toast of the Dutch Under-21 squad and his homeland Suriname but could never secure a spot on a more competitive team, eventually falling off the radar. Is that the next step? The talent and work is there, but where are the suitors?

Jose Bosingwa – FC Porto (DF)

First Selection

Bosingwa continues to attract interest from the rest of Europe – including Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, and Tottenham. Understandably so due to his role in an undefeated March for Porto. Every game for the Portuguese giants was remarkably close and if it weren’t for Bosingwa and his backline, each one of those games could have taken a turn for the worse. Plucked from the youth ranks by Jose Mourinho, Bosingwa – Congolese born, now Portuguese – looks poised to lead Porto their second consecutive Portuguese SuperLiga title.

Rio Ferdinand – Manchester United (DF)

Second Selection

Rooney and Ronaldo take care of the offense, Ferdinand’s job is the defense. The combination of both has Manchester United tearing through EPL competition. One stinger will be the loss to Portsmouth in the FA Cup, but the eye has been the EPL crown and it looks like United is on their way to grab it. Ferdinand’s EPL accolades have paid him the ultimate dividend – captaincy of the English national team under Fabio Capello’s new regime.

Manuel Neuer – Schalke 04 (GK)
First Selection

Manuel Neuer

It certainly wasn’t a bad month for Schalke even as they struggle to hold on to a Champions League spot in the Bundesliga. It could have been a lot worse without the 22-year old, baby-faced Neuer in net. Schalke started off March with 2 straight 1-0 losses, one which still ended favorably however. Porto beat Schalke in the return leg with 31 shots. Neuer put in the performance of his life and miraculously kept the score at 1-0 and gave the Germans a chance in penalties. Schalke won to move on to the UCL quarterfinals.

Bench: Mario Gomez (VfB Stuttgart, 4 goals), Ivan Cvetkov (Sivasspor, 5 goals), Klaas Jan-Huntelaar (Ajax, 6 goals), Daniel Guiza (Mallorca, 6 goals), Marek Hamsik (Napoli), Allan MacGregor (Rangers), Daiki Iwamasa (Kashima Antlers), Marcos Gomes Araujo (Kashima Antlers)

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EPL Weekend Recap: the Reds burn themselves, Chelski tops Arsenal, and Darren Bent the super-sub

Saturday, March 22nd

Newcastle 2, Fulham 0

Roy Hodgson did arguably nothing to try for the win in this one. Basically, Jimmy Bullard had free reign in the midfield and his “amazing shot” was deemed as the way to score. Yet none of his long range efforts hit home. McBride and Johnson started up front, but no service was given to them – except the time where both of them missed a well-struck cross 10 yards from goal. Other than that, it was frustrating as hell to watch them try and post Eddie Johnson up on Taylor and then have EJ pass it back while the Magpie centrebacks pressured him. Occasionally, this would produce space on the wing – but Simon Davies picked a bad day to become invisible (especially after a great performance against Everton). Coupled with Sunderland’s win, Bolton’s tie – it’s not looking too good for the Americans. Newcastle didn’t look too dangerous either but when you have game changers like Michael Owen and Obi Martins – games like this are bound to go your way. Owen scored the second, while Mark Viduka – back after a small stint on the sidelines – struck early for Newcastle. 

Tottenham 2, Portsmouth 0

Two late goals from Darren Bent and Jamie O’Hara gave the Spurs . One could even say the Jermain Defoe decision really affected an otherwise even match-up. Utaka, Baros, and Kanu couldn’t make up for the absence of Jermain Defoe who has struck for 6 in 6 games since coming over to Pompey. His absence, however, was part of the loan deal originally agreed upon in order to get his transfer from White Hart Lane to Fratton Park done before the deadline. Berbatov and Robbie Keane gave Sol Campbell and his back four some problems, but couldn’t find the net. It wasn’t until Ramos inserted Darren Bent in the 70th minute (super-sub mode like Jermain Defoe no less) that the goal followed. Bent also had his hand in youngster Jamie O’Hara’s goal several minutes later.

Other scores:

Middlesbrough 1, Derby 0 – Eddie Lewis played all ninety, but Sanli Tuncay gave Boro the win.

Blackburn 3, Wigan 1 – Two red cards – Samba for B’burn and Palacios for Wigan – headlined a physical performance. When Santa Cruz is on brace form though, the Rovers are really hard to beat. Brad Friedel did his part on the defensive end yet again.

Sunderland 1, Aston Villa 0 – The big upset of the weekend. Thanks to Michael Chopra’s 83rd minute winner, the Black Cats received some much needed breathing room.

Everton 1, West Ham United 1 – Yakubu’s early goal was countered a late Dean Ashton goal that Timmy Howard could do nothing about. Jonathan Spector came on in the 82nd after returning from successfully leading the US U-23s to an Olympic berth.

Reading 2, Birmingham 1 – A huge step-up from an unlikely hero allowed the Royals to grab three against a relegation foe. Cameroonian Andre Bikey captained an effective back four and also scored the brace that gave Reading the win. Valued at $30 million, Mauro Zarate grabbed the consolation goal for the Blues, who looked pretty disorganized. Marcus Hahnemann did his duty, while Bobby Convey didn’t dress. Stephen Hunt kept his stock rising heading into the offseason with another inspired performance on the wings.

Bolton 0, Manchester City 0 – A point is a point right now for the Wanderers and even though Gary Megson said Nicolas Anelka’s absence won’t matter in this relegation battle, they could have used the now Chelsea man on Saturday. One good sign for Bolton was that they dictated the run of play, but their remaining fixtures put them in dark territory the rest of the way. 

Sunday, March 23rd

Manchester United 3, Liverpool 0

Liverpool was in it – they were getting crushed on shots attempted, etc, but they were still in it to say the least. That is until…Javier Maschareno bitched himself out of the game. The Argentinian decided to continue protest of a call past the boiling point of the head ref while he was already carrying a card to his name. None of his teammates decided to intervene and tell the man to shut his trap. Right before half time, Mascherano was sent off and United took control of the game. The Reds fought, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani both broke through with 10 minutes to go and the game was put out of reach. Wes Brown scored the first goal for United. Can anyone stop Ronaldo from scoring?

Chelsea 2, Arsenal 1

Didier the decider. Two late goals from the Ivorian trounced an earlier go-ahead goal by Arsenal’s fullback Bacary Sagna. Sagna headed home a Cesc Fabregas corner and his first goal ever for the Gunners to push ahead 10 minutes into the second half, but Drogba came through after surviving a frustrating first half. Partly thanks to Lampard and Joe Cole’s endeavors in the midfield, Drogba was given the firm opportunity to lift the spirits of Chelsea’s faithful past their growing disdain for Avram Grant’s tactics and style of play. The Blues have moved into second now, trailing Manchester United by 5 points – making that eventual derby a BIG one. 

EPL Daily 3.21: Ronaldo better than Best?, Defoe left home

BIG FIXTURES: Saturday – Tottenham vs. Portsmouth, Fulham vs. Newcastle (relegation clash), Reading vs. Birmingham (relegation clash), Sunday – Chelsea vs. Arsenal, Liverpool vs. Manchester United

DEFOE: Portsmouth’s Jermain Defoe was ruled ineligible to play in Saturday’s Pompey vs. Defoe’s former team Tottenham clash. The reason for this? In order to get the transfer done before the January transfer window closed – Pompey had to rush a loan deal through before they eventually followed it up with a permanent deal AFTER the window had closed. The rules stipulate that if a player is loaned, he cannot play against his former team unless put specifically in a clause within the contract (this is regardless of the fact it was eventually made permanent). Needless to say, Harry Redknapp is livid and even says that Tottenham was expecting Defoe to play. Kinda nitpicky for the English FA is you ask me, but then again – rules are rules.

TOTTENHAM: Speaking of the Hotspur, Juande Ramos is predicting a “spectacle” on Saturday in their match vs. Portsmouth this Saturday. If this Saturday’s match will be a spectacle, what the hell was Wednesday’s crazy 4-4 draw with Chelsea??? In that game, Robbie Keane grabbed the late equalizer, while 7 different people hit for goals. In no particular order they were Joe Cole (2), Drogba, Woodgate, Keane, Huddlestone, Berbatov, and Michael Essien.

DERBY: Despite fighting to keep from grabbing the worst record ever in EPL play, Derby County’s investors – American Andy Appleby – are still extremely happy with their investment. Good things are afloat for the soon-to-be-Championship team. The Rams need 6 more points in 8 games to beat Sunderland’s 15-point record set in 2005/2006. What Appleby really should be doing is forcing Paul Jewell to play out-of-form Benny Feilhaber.

CRISTIANO RONALDO: Tony Paskin over at the Daily Express UK asks if Ronaldo is in fact better than the late Georgie Best? Best held the 40-year old scoring record that Ronaldo just surpassed after scoring both goals in a 2-0 beating of relegation battlers Bolton. I’d be interested to hear your take – ESPECIALLY if you had the chance to watch Georgie Best play.

With that said – who is better – Best or Ronaldo?

Shock Deadline Moves: Benjani, Guzan’s Work Permit status

Benjani to Manchester City (very close at least)! Portsmouth’s best forward move has made Harry Redknapp’s life a living hell now, unless he’s got transfers lined up today. Benjani’s exit, Utaka and Kanu at the ANC, and Dave Nugent out with an injury leaves Portsmouth rather thin at the forward line. Milan Baros has arrived and Jermain Defoe is apparently VERY close to a $26 million move from Tottenham.

Alan Hutton finally completed his move to Tottenham, giving the Spurs a viable right back option and possibly spelling Pascal Chimbonda’s end at White Hart Lane. He can definitely move to the center, but if there’s one person it spells the end for…it’s Canadian Paul Stalteri. Walter Smith is going to like the $16 million that came from this transfer…wonder what he’ll do with it.
Apparently, Brad Guzan’s move to Aston Villa is on the verge of collapsing. The initial reuqest for a work permit has been denied – a subsequent appeal will tell the tale.
Afonso Alves has secured a work permit to play for Middlesbrough. Deal should be completed very soon. With Alves and Tuncay up front, Boro’s front line finally rivals their past pairing of Mark Viduka and Yakubu. Inter starlet Goran Slavkovski might be on his way to Boro which further improves their striker situation. Now what about that defense?

Fulham have signed not one, but THREE strikers in January. Finnish legend Jari Litmanen just arrived and at the age of 36, the former Liverpool, Ajax, Barcelona striker will vie for a starting role with Eddie Johnson and FC Groningen’s Erik Nevland. Does this mean Dempsey will move back to his true position?

Manucho, the Angolan and Manchester United striker who has been making waves at the ANC, is set to move on loan to Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos. He looks to have a very bright future at Old Trafford but will have to wait his turn.

Last but not least, David Beckham – no not transfer news – has to wait for his chance at an 100th cap as Fabio Capello is afraid that celebrity friendlies don’t constitute being “fit”. Hasn’t Capello learned his lesson about leaving Beckham on the sidelines??? No worries as Capello’s roster picks have some people thinking he’s completely insane. Emile Heskey, Curtis Davies (7 total EPL appearances this year, maybe 8), and Michael Owen (who has looked like shit recently), Peter Crouch in. Who deserved the call-up?

EPL Daily 1.10: Sissoko, Big Al and a new Magpie Boss, Hunt, Lita, Alves, Chimby, Defoe, and Downing

SAM ALLARDYCE: Sacked – well actually, Big Sam left by mutual consent – but yea, sacked. Who’s next? There are reports out there that Newcastle immortal Alan Shearer will take the post but he has already distanced himself. Everton’s David Moyes – Lucius Vorenus look-alike – was also put out there, but that’s already been shot down. Harry Redknapp, known to be linked to everything out there – including criminal charges – was next in line but that’s been refuted as well. Back to square one Mike Ashley (I’m sure he’s got other targets). As for Allardyce, he’s already moving on and ready to continue his career as told in a very ‘I’m on Oprah’ response to BBC’s questions.

MOMO SISSOKO: Sissoko to Juventus is certainly heating up and according to SkySports, it is very close.

AFONSO ALVES: The Brazilian goalscorer is most likely headed to either Manchester City or Middlesbrough in a deal reportedly worth $20 million. Other clubs interested include Turkish giant Fenerbahce. Alves could be a great purchase, but due to the many pundits’ varying opinions of the quality of play in the Dutch Eredivise, we won’t know until he puts on a different shirt. Then again look at Dirk Kuijt and Ruud van Nistelrooy (who just extended his contract with Real Madrid, one year). Either way, Alves has played his last game at the Abe Lanestra for the Frisians.

MIDDLESBROUGH : Speaking of Gareth Southgate’s side, they are desperate to hold on to young winger and English international Stewart Downing, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to do so as Downing’s ambition is getting the best of him (not a bad thing). Tottenham and Everton are in driver’s seat, biding their time and deciding whether to bid for the winger now or wait until his contract runs out in 2010.

CHIMBONDA/DEFOE: Tottenham fullback is keen on a move to Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa. O’Neill is keen to bring in the back along with ostracized striker Jermain Defoe which instantly make them a Euro possibility for the second half of the year. Defoe could offset the loss of John Carew, sidelined in recent weeks with injuries. I wouldn’t expect either of the two to go for cheap though. Alan Hutton’s possible move from Rangers to Tottenham has put Chimbonda in fear for losing his right-back position and rightfully so.

MARLON KING: The Jamaican international is wanted badly by Roy Hodgson’s new-direction Fulham squad. An $8 million bid was rejected by Championship-side Watford making that move a bit more expensive. King has a strong track record for the Hornets having struck for 11 goals so far this year and Fulham are in dire need of a true striker (i.e. healthy Brian McBride) as David Healy, Shefqi Kuqi, and Diomansy Kamara haven’t done crap for the relegation battlers.

STEPHEN HUNT: Sunderland’s third try to sign the Irish winger, who has forced Bobby Convey into a different role at Reading, was met with a warning issued by manager Steve Coppell.

“It doesn’t matter. They can come calling every day – there is no positive response from us in that direction.”

That was Coppell turning down a $9 million bid for a guy consider marginal at the most last year. He has picked up his game becoming a clutch and go-to player for the Royals. Hunt has 5 goals and 3 assists this year. Coppell’s warning was a blanket statement as he doesn’t plan on parting with highly rated striker Leroy Lita either.

Slowly but surely, this transfer market is starting to pick-up!

EPL Daily: Mass Exodus at Stamford?; Defoe still no respect;

The UK’s Sun – among many others – are reporting that Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Florent Malouda, Ricardo Carvalho, and several others are on their way out after the departure of Jose Mourinho. It won’t essentially happen until the summer, but could you see this kind of mass move going through or is it just an example of post-partem hysteria? We’ll see…

Jermain Defoe still will have to fight for a starting spot again at White Hart Lane, despite his 2 blazing strikes against Anorthosis Famagusta in a 6-1 drubbing of the Cypriot squad. Jol – who is on the hot seat himself – has said he will only get a real look if a new contract is signed sometime soon. With the results within the EPL going the way they are, I feel like Jol has no real bargaining chips. The truth is – when you’re 1-1-4 and with no real signs of recent improvement – you have to switch things around. And what a sacrifice it is (complete sarcasm), throwing Defoe in there as a ‘curveball’. Jol should be sacked. Other rumors – very unsupported ones – point Mourinho as possible successor (some have even said Manchester United, a replacement for Ole Fergie).

Martin Rogers has really established himself as a guy ready to cover every aspect of football/soccer. All this for Yahoo! Sports. I look forward to what he writes every day and it never seems to get stale…take a look at his recent feature on Hollywood FC. A club team in LA that has the financial backing of Without a Trace’s Anthony LaPaglia (and a former semi-pro Aussie keeper at that) and the soccer studs that were Frank LeBoeuf, Eric Wynalda, Vinnie Jones, etc. Take a look.

EPL Daily 9.17: Heskey and Silvestre back to square one; three of the Big Four suffers; Jol vs. Defoe

A fractured metarsal will keep Emile Heskey from his international resurgence (whether it’s a postponement or eventual involuntary retirement, who knows). It will also keep Wigan guessing as to whether or not they can stay up this year. Heskey will be out up to 6 weeks and will most likely miss the England’s qualifiers next month against Russia and Estonia in October. The former Liverpool striker also joins an odd list of those stricken with metatarsal injuries over the recent  years – Stevie Gerrard, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney (a billion times), David Beckham, etc. Even youngster Giles Barnes –  a huge prospect from Derby County – has missed the start of the EPL season due to a metatarsal injury. Heskey will bounce back, he always does but the same might not be true for French international and Man Utd defender Mickael Silvestre. The bald Frenchman suffered cruciate ligament damage against Everton on Saturday and now Fergie has to rely on young defenders Jonny Evans and Gerard Pique to plug the holes on the left as John O’Shea is out and, as we all know, Gabriel Heinze left in a huff. That’s the end of the season for Silvestre, therefore expect a move for a left back come January. But who?

A host of other EPL stars will be missing their mid-week group stage Champions League clashes. Manchester United – which takes on Sporting Lisbon on Wednesday – will miss Owen Hargreaves, Mickael Silvestre, Park-Ji Sung, John O’Shea, and Darren Fletcher. Chelsea is missing its’ best (as Jose Mourinho has already spouted about) on Tuesday against Rosenborg (Norwegian Champions) – Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, Claudio Pizarro, Wayne Bridge, and Ricardo Carvalho. Liverpool will be ailing as well against Porto on Tuesday as Xabi Alonso will most likely miss alongside Momo Sissoko and Jon Arne Riise. That’s a lot of talent on the sideline (maybe now Gerrard will keep his starting spot instead of being foolishly rotated). Who lost out the most in this one?

Maybe I only digest what the media reports, but it really looks as if Martin Jol has to go. The team – pegged to be a top-four contender this year – are back to their underperforming selves again and Jol is still firmly at the helm. This pushed me overboard as apparently it was overheard that Jol told out-of-favor Jermain Defoe that ‘he would never be sold to a top-four club’ and ‘would rot in the reserves’. Someone fill me in – is Defoe a diva or is Jol a psycho?