PLAYERS OF THE YEAR: Andres Iniesta and Xavi, Barcelona/ Spain...We have never split the VI MVP award over the past decade but decided to do so this year because we simply can’t make up our minds which of these two is more important to the Spain or Barcelona causes. Give Iniesta credit for scoring the all-important goal vs. Holland to prevent us from enduring a PK shootout in the World Cup final, but the fact is that he and Xavi are almost interchangeable as they combine for the most irresistible midfield combination on record. They’re the engine room for club and country, and no better way to reward both than for them to share our award for this season.
HONORABLE MENTION: Lionel Messi, Barcelona/Argentina...We admit to having been tempted to give Messi the award for the second straight year; he remains as potent as ever as the linchpin of the Barcelona attack. Although he impressed at the World Cup, he did not dominate as many expected he would, which could be down to Diego Maradona not using him properly in a more-withdrawn role behind the frontline. No matter, Messi was still brilliant this season, and we rate him just a tick behind teammates Xavi and Iniesta this season.
MANAGER OF THE YEAR: Jose Mourinho, Inter Milan/Real Madrid...We’re not wild about doing this, but we suppose we have little choice but to reward the "Special One" with this honor after doing the treble at Inter before moving on to Real Madrid, where he has the Bernabeu crew neck-and-neck with Barcelona as we approach New Year’s. We might as well let the "Special One" himself sum up his work this season: when recently asked how he would grade his own personal managerial performance this season on a scale of 1 to 10, Mourinho gave a predictable response. "I would give myself an 11," said the Special One. Begrudgingly, we might have to agree.
Past winners: 2000-Hector Cuper, Valencia; 2001-Mane, Alaves; 2002-Guy Roux, Auxerre; 2003-Raynauld Denoueix, Real Sociedad; 2004-Jose Mourinho, Porto/Chelsea; 2005-Paul Le Guen, Lyon; 2006-Jurgen Klinsmann, Germany; 2007-Carlo Ancelotti, AC Milan; 2008-Luis Aragones, Spain; 2009-Pep Guardiola, Barcelona.
HONORABLE MENTION: Vicente Del Bosque, Spain...Del Bosque is gathering quite a collection of silverware, adding the 2010 World Cup to his personal trophy case that also includes 2000 and 2002 Champions League crowns with Real Madrid. Del Bosque had a tough act to follow in Espana, after Luis Aragones retired following the win at Euro 2008. But Del Bosque kept the Spanish ship afloat, and even though some critics wondered about his insistence at playing two "holding" midfielders throughout the tournament, he was rewarded when Spain finally won the whole thing for the first-ever time, its Xavi-Iniesta midfield axis dominating proceedings, while almost all of Del Bosque’s substitution moves worked like a charm.
TEAM OF THE YEAR: Spain...In retrospect we can now say we saw something special with this version of Spain, which became only the third country to win back-to-back World Cup and Euro titles in a 2-year period (West Germany did it in 1972-74, and France did as well in 1998-2000). Along the way, La Seleccion has shattered the old stereotype that Spain couldn’t win the big one. Interestingly, Spain prevailed in South Africa without getting much help from striker Fernando Torres, whose emergence a few years earlier had finally given Spain the sharp edge in attack it had lacked for so long at the international level. Torres, who scored the winner in the Euro 2008 final vs. Germany, was limited by leg injuries in the summer, but Spain managed to compensate with David Villa doing the heavy-duty scoring work before Carlos Puyol and Iniesta stepped to the fore in the semis and final with the winning goals. Remarkably, in the KO phases of both Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, spanning seven games, Spain did not allow a goal in seven matches. Which not only are a credit to GK Iker Casillas, but an underrated defense and the ball-control abilities of the midfield led by Xavi and Iniesta.
Indeed, we recall one Euro contact telling us several years ago, "Once this Spain team starts to win, it will keep winning." So it has. And with most of the main components still likely to be in their primes for Euro 2012, Spain has a chance to be the first country to win three international tourneys on the trot. We’re not betting against Espana, either.
2010 VI ALL-STAR TEAM
All-Star notes...We might not field this team, as we have neither bothered with right nor left-sided designations, nor adhered to certain formations. These are just the players, loosely grouped by their positions, that we believe deserve the highest accolades for their efforts in 2010.
GK-Iker Casillas, Real Madrid; D-Walter Samuel, Inter Milan; Maicon, Inter Milan; Gerard Pique, Barcelona; Carlos Puyol, Barcelona; M-Xavi, Barcelona; Andres Iniesta, Barcelona; Wesley Sneijder, Inter Milan; Mesut Ozil, Werder Bremen/Real Madrid; F-Diego Forlan, Atletico Madrid; Lionel Messi, Barcelona.
There’s a definite Barcelona/Inter Milan look to the team, with eight of the eleven performing for those two sides. The inclusion of Inter’s timeless Argentinian defender Samuel is a poignant one; he becomes the All-Star with the greatest number of years between appearances in our team, having last appeared way back in 2001. This is also Puyol’s first appearance since 2005. Making their debuts on the All-Star team are Puyol’s Barca and Spain defensive comrade Gerard Pique, Inter’s Dutch midfielder Wesley Sneijder, Werder Bremen/Real Madrid German midfielder Mesut Ozil, and Atletico Madrid/Uruguay striker Diego Forlan, the hero of Atleti’s UEFA Europa League triumph.
Past VI All-Star teams
2000-Francesco Toldo, GK,Fiorentina; Paolo Maldini, D, AC Milan; Alessandro Nesta, D, Lazio; Jocelyn Angloma, D, Valencia; Roy Keane, M, Manchester United; Gaizka Mendieta, M, Valencia; Zinedine Zidane, M, Juventus; Luis Figo*, M, Barcelona/Real Madrid; Mario Jardel, F, Porto/Galatasaray; Gabriel Batistuta, F, Fiorentina; Thierry Henry, F, Arsenal.
2001-Oliver Kahn*, GK, Bayern Munich; Sami Hyppia, D, Liverpool; Roberto Ayala, D, Valencia; Walter Samuel, D, Roma; Nourredine Naybet, D, Deportivo La Coruna; Stefan Effenberg, M, Bayern Munich; Luis Figo, M, Real Madrid; Eric Carriere, M, Nantes; Francesco Totti, M, Roma; Teddy Sheringham, F, Manchester United; Henrik Larsson, F, Celtic.
2002-Oliver Kahn, GK, Bayern Munich; Stephan Henchoz, D, Liverpool; Lilian Thuram, D, Juventus; Roberto Ayala, D, Valencia; Lucio, D, Bayer Leverkusen; Ivan Helguera, M, Real Madrid; Freddie Ljungberg, M, Arsenal; Michael Ballack*, M, Bayer Leverkusen/Bayern Munich; Ruben Baraja, M, Valencia; Thierry Henry, F, Arsenal; Ruud van Nistelrooy, F, Manchester United.
2003-Timo Hildebrand, GK, Stuttgart; Cristian Chivu, D, Ajax/Roma; John Terry, D, Chelsea; Lilian Thuram, D, Juventus; Javier Zanetti, D, Inter Milan; Pavel Nedved*, M, Juventus; Michael Ballack, M, Bayern Munich; Zinedine Zidane, M, Real Madrid; Juan Valeron, M, Deportivo La Coruna; Ruud van Nistelrooy, F, Manchester United; Roy Makaay, F, Deportivo La Coruna/Bayern Munich.
2004-Antonis Nikipolidis, GK, Panathinaikos/Olympiakos; Cafu, D, AC Milan; Roberto Ayala, D, Valencia; Ricardo Carvalho, D, Porto/Chelsea; Ashley Cole, D, Arsenal; Ludovic Giuly, M, Monaco/Barcelona; Deco, M, Porto/Barcelona; Johan Micoud, M, Werder Bremen; Ronaldinho*, M, Barcelona; Thierry Henry, F, Arsenal; Ailton, F, Werder Bremen/Schalke.
2005-Gigi Buffon, GK, Juventus; Carlos Puyol, D, Barcelona; Paolo Maldini, D, AC Milan; John Terry, D, Chelsea; Juninho Pernambucano, M, Lyon; Steven Gerrard, M, Liverpool; Frank Lampard, M, Chelsea; Ronaldinho*, M, Barcelona; Adriano, F, Inter Milan; Thierry Henry, F, Arsenal; Samuel Eto'o, F, Barcelona.
2006-Gigi Buffon, GK, Juventus; Philipp Lahm, D, Bayern Munich; Ashley Cole, D, Arsenal; Fabio Cannavaro, D, Juventus/Real Madrid; Alessandro Nesta, D, AC Milan; Andrea Pirlo, M, AC Milan; Steven Gerrard, M, Liverpool; Juninho Pernambucano, M, Lyon; Ronaldinho, M, Barcelona; Thierry Henry, F, Arsenal; Samuel Eto’o*, F, Barcelona.
2007-Dida, GK, AC Milan; Fabio Cannavaro, D, Real Madrid; Dani Alves, D, Sevilla; Rio Ferdinand, D, Manchester United; Paolo Maldini, D, AC Milan; Cesc Fabregas, M, Arsenal; Kaka*, M, AC Milan; Cristiano Ronaldo, M, Manchester United; Lionel Messi, M, Barcelona; Frederic Kanoute, F, Sevilla; Didier Drogba, F, Chelsea.
2008-Iker Casillas, GK, Real Madrid; Sergio Ramos, D, Real Madrid; Per Mertesacker, D, Werder Bremen; Philipp Lahm, D, Bayern Munich; Gael Clichy, D, Arsenal; Xavi, M, Barcelona; Cristiano Ronaldo, M, Manchester United; Bastian Schweinsteiger, M, Bayern Munich; Steven Gerrard, M, Liverpool; Fernando Torres*, F, Liverpool; Lionel Messi, F, Barcelona.
2009-Petr Cech, GK, Chelsea; Maicon, D, Inter Milan; Nemanja Vidic, D, Manchester United; Dani Alves, D, Barcelona; Patrice Evra, D, Manchester United; Xavi, M, Barcelona; Andres Iniesta, M, Barcelona; Andrei Arshavin, M, Arsenal; Cristiano Ronaldo, M, Manchester United/Real Madrid; David Villa, F, Valencia; Lionel Messi*, F, Barcelona.
*-Player of the Year
MATCH OF THE YEAR:Manchester United 3 - Bayern Munich 2, Champions League quarterfinal 2nd leg at Old Trafford, April 7...The score-line hardly tells the story of this match that still has Man U supporters mumbling to themselves. That’s because, for all practical purposes, this was effectively a Bayern Munich win. After allowing the German side to steal the first leg at the Allianz Arena the previous week when Ivica Olic robbed Patrice Evra of possession in the box in injury times and coolly beat Edwin van der Sar to give the Bavarians an unlikely 2-1 win, the Red Devils stormed to a quick 2-0 advantage after seven minutes in the return leg through goal by Darren Gibson and Nani. The latter put Man U up 3-0 with another strike in the 41st minute; at this stage, Ma United supporters could have been excused for making reservations for the semifinals, as they seemed safely ahead on aggregate, 4-2. But that man Olic struck again just before halftime for Bayern Munich, throwing the Bundesliga rep a real lifeline when converting his side’s first decent chance of the half at the 43-minute mark. Man U’s lead on aggregate was now particularly precarious, because one more goal from Bayern Munich would put it ahead on road goals. And when Man U’s Rafael, who saw yellow for a petulant kick at Mark van Bommel in the first half, was given another for pulling down Franck Ribery shortly after halftime at the 50th minute, the Old Trafford bunch was down to ten men and a pall descended upon the home crowd, sensing the advantage slipping away. And wouldn’t you know, a Ribery corner kick ended up in the path of Arjen Robben at the far post, and the Dutchman rocketed a spectacular volley past Edwin van der Sar in the 74th minute that put Bayern Munich up on road goals. A few minutes later, Bayern Munich was advancing to face Lyon, Man U was out, and England was minus a rep in at least the semifinals of the Champions League for the first time since 2003.
GOAL OF THE YEAR: Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Holland, vs. Uruguay in World Cup semifinals…Old warrior van Bronckhorst picked a great time to score the goal of his career and what we deem as the goal of 2010. Gio, who announced he would retire at the end of the World Cup to pursue a career in the coaching ranks, got the Dutch off to a flying start in the semifinal at Cape Town vs. Uruguay with an almost-impossible strike 18 minutes into the match, putting Holland ahead 1-0. His blast, from about 40 yards to the right of Uruguayan GK Fernando Muslera, sailed high and beyond Muslera’s outstretched hands and into the upper far corner of the net, an incredible strike from a difficult angle. The Dutch proceeded to win by a 3-2 margin and advanced to the final.
Honorable mention: Andres Iniesta, Spain, vs. Holland in World Cup final...We gave van Bronckhorst the "Goal of the Year" because of the difficulty of his strike against Uruguay. But the most important goal of the year, and the one that will resonate forever in international football, was Iniesta’s 116th-minute strike vs. the Dutch that gave Espana its first ever World Cup.
FOUL OF THE YEAR: Nigel de Jong, Holland, in World Cup Final vs. Spain...De Jong’s kung-fu kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the finale should have been worth a red card and international suspension on the spot. It was the most reckless and dangerous challenge of many in the World Cup.
SAVE OF THE YEAR: Iker Casillas, Spain, World Cup Final vs. Holland...Casillas made several big-time stops in South Africa, including smothering a Paraguayan spot-kick when Spain appeared on the ropes vs. the dour South Americans in the quarterfinals, but his spectacular kick save of an Arjen Robben breakaway midway in the second half of the finale kept the match scoreless and paved the way for Spain to eventually prevail in overtime.
OVERRATED PLAYER OF THE YEAR: John Terry, Chelsea...Terry remains a serviceable component for club (Chelsea) and country (England), but has lost a step or two and proved wholly unsatisfactory as a central defender in the World Cup, especially when turned inside-out numerous times vs. a more pacey German side in the second round. All in all, it was not a year to remember for Terry, whose reputation took a big hit at home when lurid details of his fling with Wayne Bridge’s-ex made tabloid headlines in England, with the resulting controversy prompting Fabio Capello to remove the captain’s armband from Terry for the England side. Injury problems then hampered Terry late in the calendar year as Chelsea closed 2010 in a disturbing tailspin.
UNDERRATED PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sergio Busquets, Barcelona/Spain...Does a lot of the unsung work for club and country as a holding midfielder. A ball-winner and deft passer who comfortably tracks back on defense, the perfect complement to flashier components Xavi and Iniesta, and, on the club level, Lionel Messi.
Honorable mention: Diego Milito, Inter Milan…Scored many of the big goals for Inter as the San Siro crew notched the treble, but was mostly overlooked for native Argentina in the World Cup when playing behind Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain.
DISAPPOINTING TEAM OF THE YEAR: England...Another false alarm on the big stage, even we have to question ourselves for projecting the English to reach as far as the semifinals at the World Cup. The team looked mostly awful in South Africa, with no bite in attack and little flair in midfield. The comprehensive 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at the top of the KO phase summed up a completely unsatisfying World Cup. But coach Fabio Capello, who had squeezed an expensive contract extension out of the FA when it seemed as if he might bolt the English stable for the Inter Milan job after Jose Mourinho departed, proved too costly for the FA to hit the eject button after the subpar effort in South Africa, which was complete with internal bickering and complaints about almost every aspect of the Capello approach. Yet, he’s still in charge of the English side.
Still, we can’t put it any better regarding England than our London-based correspondent, Andy Korman, who left us with this little nugget-filled post- mortem after the World Cup exit vs. Germany.
England - absurdly over-rated. As always, I knew they would crash out the the first decent team they met (see my brief analysis of their WC record below):
Let's see what happened in the post '66 tournaments:
70 - Get past Romania and Czechs in group stage (losing to Brazil), lose in quarters (first KO round) to W Germany - defeated by both decent sides we played.
74 - Did not qualify (by definition worse than the current mob, surely?).
78 - Did not qualify (as above).
82 - Coast through group, but fail to beat either W Germany or Spain. Out in the last twelve.
86 - One group win in the group and finish second to...er...Morocco. Cruise past mighty Paraguay before running aground against the Argies in the quarters.
90 - Escape the group, humbling Egypt 1-0 to go through. Exciting victories v Belgium and the Super Roons, granted (though frankly we should have put them both away no bother) but we all know what happened next.
94 - Did not qualify. I repeat, did not qualify.
98 - Second in group to Romania, out on pens in the round of 16 to the Argies.
02 - Second in group (this time to Sweden). Beat Denmark, out against Brazil in the quarters.
06 - Group winners. Bored our way past Ecuador 1-0 in the round of 16, then out to Portugal in the quarters.
See the pattern? Knocked out every time by the first decent team we play. Which of our knockout victories was against a "better" team? No need to do a similar analysis for Germany - at least the quarter finals in every tourney since 1938.
Yes we were hopeless this time around and yes we went down without a whimper (unlike some of the heroic failures of the past) but frankly we've never really been that good.
And '66? Fiddling the draw so we get to play all our games at Wembley, dubious (to say the least) goal in the final, the shambolic sight of a pitch invasion when our last goal was scored (how would we have reacted if we'd have been on the wrong end of that I wonder)...
My quote of the tournament? Steven "one WC quarter final" Gerrard after the 0-0 with Algeria - "It was their cup final". Surely you can only be that patronising if you're any good?
They should put this Korman fellow on TV, don’t you agree?
BEST LEAGUE: Spain Primera Liga...Hands down, Liga remains Europe’s most-entertaining and colorful league. Liga is a dizzying array of attacking football, passes whizzing all around the pitches, with teams rarely sitting back and playing for nil-nil ties. Perhaps that’s why the lower reaches of Liga are annually more dangerous to the top-level clubs than elsewhere in Europe. The maw between the upper and lower-tiers of Liga simply isn’t that wide, even though the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid usually dominate proceedings. They don’t always, however as in the last fourteen years, Atletico Madrid, Deportivo La Coruna, and Valencia (twice) have also won the league crown. Although it looks like another Barca-Real Madrid race this season.
WORST LEAGUES: Italy Serie A and Scottish Premier...Yes, we know Inter Milan won the Champions League last May (although they’re odds of repeating look slim and none, with none in the lead). Serie A football is often a bore, with "catenaccio" still alive and well with many teams. It’s simply dull, dull, dull. For years, most Italian sides have been reluctant to play attacking football, instead content to absorb pressure. The better teams usually have the sort of individual talent that can occasionally overcome the monotony, but not always. Check out the crowds at most of your Serie A games as well...lots of fans disguised as empty seats these days. Meanwhile, the never-ending and now monotonous Celtic-Rangers duopoly of the SPL makes us think Sir Alex Ferguson must be a genius after all for actually winning that title with Aberdeen in 1985 (the last non-Celtic or Rangers Scottish title winner).
BEST MATCH COMMENTATOR: Martin Tyler, Sky Sports/ESPN...The best move made by ABC/ESPN for the World Cup was picking up England-based Tyler as the lead match commentator for US television in the World Cup. Tyler was a free agent for the event in South Africa only because Sky does not own the World Cup TV rights in England, those instead shared by the BBC and ITV. Smooth, never ahead of the action, but never lagging behind it too much, either, Tyler provides just the right dose of dialogue and occasional humor along with his match commentary skills. Can rise to the occasion with a spot-on description of the big moments in any match. The best in the business.
BEST IN-STUDIO PUNDIT: Alan Hansen, BBC...All comparisons cease when the category of in-studio pundit comes up. Hansen is and always will be the best, as the ex-Liverpool, Scot defender has set the standard for football punditry. His insights, though often scathing, remain must-see-and-hear stuff. Though his criticisms don't come off as mean-spirited, because he always has that twinkle in his eyes when he talks about that "shockin' defendin'" or another biting (but not too biting) criticism est of all, he doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, not seeming to mind the ribbings he's likely to get from Gary Lineker or another member of the Match of the Day team. The best thing about Hansen, however, is that when he offers praise, you tend to believe him, because he doesn't throw around the accolades and compliments unless they are warranted. American sports TV journalists could learn a thing or two from Hansen instead of the many characters who continually spout platitudes on U.S. sports airwaves.
WAG (Wives and Girlfriends) OF THE YEAR: Sara Carbonero, Spain...The Telecinco presenter gained immediate notoriety at the World Cup not only for her TV work, but also as the girlfriend of Spain and Real Madrid GK Iker Casillas. For a brief while became one of the most-photographed TV presenters in the world. And the most-discussed, too, after the English press (who else?) reported that Sara was a distraction to Casillas in Spain’s shock opening-game loss to Switzerland, when she stationed herself behind Casillas’ goal for parts of the match. We’re not sure if that was true, although we do know that she distracted The Guardian and The Times journalists were definitely distracted.
VegasInsider.com Euro Soccer Rankings (As of Dec. 28)
In this week: Lyon
Out this week: Getafe
PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Mario Balotelli, Manchester City...It has been a turbulent recent time for the young 20-year-old Balotelli, brought from Inter to Man City and renown for his petulance, not to mention reported homesickness in his new locale. We suspect he might now start feeling more comfy at the Eastlands after the first hat-trick of his City career on Tuesday against outclassed Aston Villa. Balotelli converted two of those goals nervelessly from the spot, and was Johnny-on-the-spot when finishing up what David Silva had created when creating an opportunity against Villa keeper Brad Friedel. Balotelli was definitely man of the match in the 4-0 City romp.