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Jan 6, 2006

A feast of football: Part two

For those of you who still have room, here's some highlights from England and Spain.

EPL

Chelsea rebounded from its first real blip under José Mourinho's stewardship with a 3-0 romp over Newcastle (November 19th). The Blues haven't looked back since romping to a 13-point lead with a 9-0 run. An October 23rd draw with Everton (perhaps the only team in the EPL more causing fans more ennui than the leaders) and shock defeats to Manchester United, which halted the holders EPL unbeaten run at forty games, and injury-laden Real Betis (November 1st) had the club as close to reeling as its been since Roman Abramovich's $105 million purchase some two and a half seasons removed. Since the semi-slide, the Blues are back to their winning ways, grinding out indistinguishable hum-drum 1-0 victories ever since - the Fulham game a rare exciting fixture. To the dismay of the remaining clubs, it may just be their only tough patch this season, and worse, the Russian oligarch netted approximately $40 billion from the sale of some of business interests.

Per his modus operandi, The Special One continues to make with the off-field antics, engaging the once cool continental intellect that is Arsène Wenger in a verbal skirmish, part of an emerging war of words. Although the alleged voyeur Wenger nixed the law suit notion, the budding managerial rivalry abided more fodder with the Christmas card incident. Espying the situation from a far, the Blues boss perhaps revealed concerns about the Gunners translating their European form to the EPL.

Normally European strugglers and domestic lions, the Gunners have perplexingly produced the inverse of that form. That surprise continental standard hasn't filtered into the side's EPL results; Arsenal had propelled themselves as high as third place (they now lie in fifth, 24 points off the pace) after their worst ever start to a season under Wenger. The 3-2-2 run since the start of December can only serve to further fray the already worn nerve endings around Highbury (and ease José's mind in the process). And they may yet lose skipper/talisman Thierry Henry in the off season.

Roy Keane's sacking at Old Trafford is arguably the low-point in Alex Ferguson's tenure on the sidelines of the "Theatre of Dreams." The season may yet beget a nightmare: the Red Devils, despite up-ending Chelsea (November 6th) and finding their domestic stride, were ousted from Europe. Exit from the Champion's League in the group stage -- an unthinkable catastrophe for Man U supporters -- was the result of one point earned from three continental sojourns. The loss of Champion's League money compounds the financial woes of the club -- Malcolm Glazer indebted round about $466 million in his takeover attempt -- a move Man U supporters will never forget or forgive. Even with the spirit of Georgie Best watching over the Red Devils, four wins and three draws over the last seven rounds makes the 13-point EPL chasm too far to bound. Not to be left out of the headlines, Alex Ferguson execrated the media for endeavoring to split the fans and organization at Old Trafford, leveling volleys including guilt for his fallouts with David Beckham and Roy Keane during the tirade.

As United and Arsenal struggle to steady their respective ships, the Spanish Armada sails confidently in Europe and has finally come to terms with English soil. The Reds boast the best record in the Premiership since the 4-1 thrashing Chelsea laid down October 2nd: 12-1-0. After a shambolic 1-4-1 start, the European champion's now look the part outscoring their opponents 26-3 during their blazing run. Since netting for the first time in a Liverpool strip, Peter Crouch has been the inform man with four strikes in the last six rounds ; considering the helter-skelter his mere presence affords defenders, regaining his scoring touch only makes the "beanpole" striker that much more a threat.

The dual midfield generals, skipper Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, have dominated the center of the park in recent weeks and the back line has been virtually impregnable conceding just one more goal than Chelsea's vaunted defense (despite conceding seven goals in the first six rounds). The wing play has vastly improved as the long convalescing Harry Kewell now pushes John Arne Riise for playing time and Luis García continues to shine on all stages for the Rojos, uh, Reds. In a word, wherever you look on the pitch the side is thriving, creating beautiful passing movements, controlling the tempo, and conceding next to nothing.

Despite the July 13th kickoff and the letdown of the FIFA Club World Championships, Rafa Benítez's men appear the only unit capable of challenging Chelsea's dominance - and they need maximum points from two games in-hand if they are to have any prospects. Dutch international right back Jan Kromkamp and Chilean winger Mark González, permitting approval of a work visa, will shore up any "gaps" in the side.

With little competition from the expected sectors at the outset, the emergence of Wigan Athletic had taken on a surreal light. The Latics managed to claw as high as second spot, although they now rest sixth. The11-1-9 record belies a recent dip, but hardly encompasses the team spirit, will power and physical effort defining the side. This Prussian-like work ethic couldn't surmount Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, or Manchester United as the scrappers dropped five in a row. Losses against the top clubs is pretty much the expectation during a promotion year, so the Latics can take heart from the grit displayed against the three London clubs and the points won against the rest of the pack.

With Jason Roberts and Henri Camara (14 net buldges between them) leading an industrious line, the JJB looks to host EPL fixtures well into the future as the side has all but guaranteed its place in next season's top flight. Hopefully, for fans partial to the underdog, this downward blip on an otherwise ascending trajectory won't become more than that; with consecutive manager of the month titles to his credit, Paul Jewell will be looking to ensure his side are more than just a flash in the pan during hors d'oeuvres.

Primera Liga

Yet again, La Liga's table is a jumble of what-if scenarios. Although a small gap has developed at the top, just ten points separate positions three though thirteen. Six different clubs, including promoted Celta Vigo and unfashionable Madrid-based Getafe for three weeks each, have perched atop the table. In fact, the top four have never been composed of the same sides for consecutive weeks. Former Mexican national side coach Javier Aguirre's CD Osasuna have stingily defied the bookmakers, conceding only sixteen goals through seventeen rounds. Since elimination from the UEFA Cup on September 29th, the Basque outfit's compiled a 9-2-2 league record. The Pamplona club current occupy second spot in the table finding themselves two points behind the favorites.

The favorites of course are FC Barcelona, the team leads the title push for the seventh consecutive week in the midst of a 14-game unbeaten run in the Primera (twenty in all competitions). Since opening the season 1-3-1, Frank Riijkaard's charges have outscored their opponents 40-12 in Primera action, a spell which saw the Catalans completely outclass nemesis Real Madrid in the Bernabéu (November 19th). Ronaldinho pulled out all the stops during that match, his two goals rooted in individual brilliance spurring his side to a 3-0 triumph.

Additionally, Barça dominated Champion's League Group C virtually from the word go amassing a goal differential of 14 (16-2) en route to a 5-1-0 record. Lionel Messi's emergence in an already stacked line-up has fostered fantastic hopes for the future around the Camp Nou. Boding worse for opponents, the "next Maradona" seems to have an intuitive understanding with reigning world player of the year.

Although unlikely, the holiday break could rust the Barça's form. Instead, look for a similar run in the window following the break and prior to resumption of the Champion's League action - the mouthwatering rematch against Chelsea. Contests on two fronts shouldn't denigrate the side's performances; Riijkaard's amassed a deep, talented squad in his spell. Nevertheless, maximizing league points during the limited window will be a priority for the club as they look to consolidate La Liga's top spot on their march to proposed European glory. Omens and portents appear favorable, the Catalans fixture list prior to the Chelsea matches reads as follows: at Espanyol, Athletic Bilbao, Alavés, at Mallorca, Atlético Madrid, at Valencia, and home to Real Betis.

And then there's Real Madrid...Los Merengues currently occupy sixth spot and have already compiled six losses through the first fourteen rounds of league play - just two less than all of last season. The Champion's League has hardly been a relief from La Liga: the Galácticos played second fiddle to four-time defending French champion's Olympique Lyonnais in Group F, who thoroughly outplayed Real in both their encounters. The narrow 1-0 victory over local "rivals" Getafe, a side proving very difficult to play, wasn't enough for Vanderlei Luxemburgo to stave off the chopping block; the 1-1 draw to Osasuna and 2-1 loss to strugglers Racing Santander, both at home, have done little to calm the troubled Madrid waters.

Luxemburgo's tactical system, which expedited the sale of Luis Figo, never bore the anticipated fruits. The Brazilian's attempts to implement the wingback style, part and parcel of his homeland's unprecedented international success, packing the midfield and leaving the width to Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado flopped (although many argue this was due to a lack of width). Despite Jonathan Woodgate's short-lived return to action and the additions of promising Spaniard Sergio Ramos and Uruguay midfield battler Pablo García, the defense still looks suspiciously brittle.

Factor in the loss of living club symbol and captain Raúl (Mr. Real Madrid) who's out for the season, and the outlook is pretty bleak at the Santiago Bernabéu. Florentino Pérez has appointed Juan Ramón López Caro, a man with no previous first team managerial experience, to replace Luxemburgo at the helm of the struggling giants. The new man has a most formidable challenge in the months ahead. After all, anything less than a championship simply isn't acceptable at Real Madrid.

Stay tuned as the nest few weeks will unfold a major part of the season's long saga in both leagues.

Jim Kopcak is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. He covers European and world soccer for ESPNsoccernet and currently lives and works in Providence, RI. He can be reached at JimKopcak@hotmail.com