Galaxy-Red Bulls clash whets the appetite; more Monday musings
MLS' glamour matchup of New York versus L.A. lived up to its billing
Barcelona forward David Villa is struggling to find his form at present
Former Real Madrid coach Manuel Pelligrini has transformed Malaga
Some random thoughts coming off the weekend action around the world:
1. MLS' glamour showdown between New York-L.A. The much-anticipated clash between the Red Bulls-Galaxy on Saturday -- two teams that many have projected to contest the MLS Cup final -- lived up to its billing in a 1-1 draw. (The result was fitting for one of MLS' most "even" rivalries; the Galaxy and Red Bulls have 15 wins apiece with six draws in their matchup history, with Los Angeles scoring 53 goals and New York 52.)
There's no doubt that the possession play, buildup and technical quality from both teams was among the finest ever seen in MLS. However, the game had its fair share of chippiness, too. Thierry Henry's late challenge on Landon Donovan had Donovan refusing to shake Henry's hand afterward. For his part, Donovan didn't exactly leave a positive impression on the Red Bulls. After the game, striker Luke Rodgers used an obscenity to describe Donovan and told the New York Post, "Is it one rule for him and one rule for the rest of us? He needs to be more humble."
Of particular interest, though, was the trouble the Galaxy caused the Red Bulls' vaunted defense, carving out several good scoring opportunities. Part of that was due to some trademark precise passing by David Beckham, who enjoyed easily his best game of the season. However, it was also clear that the Red Bulls missed midfielder Teemu Tainio badly. He has been one of the signings of the season at holding mid, providing a consistent defensive shield in front of the back line (his 10 interceptions against San Jose on April 16 were a league single-game record), but he missed Saturday's game with a groin injury.
Tainio's replacement was Medhi Ballouchy, who, as he has for most of his career since being taken No. 2 overall in the 2006 SuperDraft, flattered to deceive. Ballouchy, who's elegant on the ball but more often than not passes sideways and backward, offered next to nothing in terms of breaking up the play or tackling. It's not clear what the answer is for the Red Bulls when Tainio is out (perhaps Jan Solli when fullback Chris Albright gets healthy), but it certainly isn't Ballouchy.
2. Another one bites the dust. In recent weeks, MLS has lost star performers David Ferreira (last year's MVP) and Steve Zakuani to either a broken leg or ankle. On Saturday, Real Salt Lake's influential playmaker Javier Morales was added to the list of those felled long term by reckless and needless challenges.
Given that Brian Mullan's tackle on Zakuani resulted in a 10-game suspension and $5,000 fine, you could argue that Chivas USA's Marcos Mondaini deserves a similar punishment for his tackle on Morales. Yes, one can trot out the tired line that Mondaini's "not that kind of player" and that he "didn't mean it," but the reality is that he made a sliding tackle from behind when he had zero chance to actually play the ball.
With MLS supposedly serious about cutting down on dirty play, it needs to continue to send a message and protect the quality of its product -- especially those players who put fans in the seats. Ferreira and Morales are two of the league's top 10 players, and Zakuani was rapidly ascending into that category. Without them, MLS' quality of play suddenly got a whole lot worse.
3. What ails David Villa? With Barcelona headed toward its third straight league title and a Champions League final showdown with Manchester United on May 28, Villa's puzzling loss in form has been largely glossed over. On the surface, the striker has had a fine season since his big-money move from Valencia in the summer, notching 18 goals and six assists in 32 games, compared to 21 goals and three assists in 32 games for Valencia in 2009-10. However, Villa has scored only one goal since March.
Aside from uncharacteristically missing countless sitters, he's looked devoid of his usual first touch and has been responsible for the breakdown of many of Barcelona's attacks. Various theories have been bandied about to explain his decline:
He's playing out of position on the left. While he's not deployed as a pure striker as he was at Valencia, Villa's not unfamiliar with playing as the left side forward. In fact, it's a position at which he flourishes with Spain, and, of course, it didn't seem to affect him during the first two-thirds of the season with Barcelona.
The demands of Barcelona's high-tempo pressing system and requirement to track back have worn down Villa. This theory certainly seems more plausible, but a look at the stats shows that Villa has actually seen less time on the field this year for Barcelona (2,594 minutes) after 32 league games than he did last year for Valencia (2,710 minutes).
Villa's simply suffering from a loss in form and confidence. This is probably the most plausible theory but the most puzzling because Villa's dip in form (one goal in his last nine games) has come directly after a hot streak in which he had nine goals in 11 games.
Regardless, Barcelona will need to find some way to reignite Villa to win the Champions League. After all, its two most recent wins in the competition were both galvanized by the goals of a striker, Samuel Eto'o, who is no longer on its books.
4. Malaga's revival. Former Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini has transformed Malaga since being hired in November, leading the team to what looks like almost-certain safety. When Pelligrini took over, Malaga looked like a team heading for relegation with just seven points from its first 10 games (which included seven losses). Under Pelligrini, Malaga is riding a four-game winning streak and has 10 wins (with 10 losses) in his 25 games.
Just as stunning has been the transformation of the formerly prolific but more recently floundering Julio Baptista. Since being acquired by Pelligrini in the January transfer window, Baptista has looked more like the striker who once terrorized La Liga defenses while at Sevilla.
Interestingly, Pelligrini hasn't used the dynamic 4-2-2-2 formation that brought him so much success at Villarreal. Instead, Malaga is playing with pace and width and looking more to counterattack.
It's also worth noting that, despite the ludicrous criticism Pelligrini received from much of the Madrid media, Pelligrini's Real team actually performed better in the league last year than Jose Mourinho's edition this season. Mourinho's Real has 83 points with three games left, meaning it can't match the 96 points the club achieved with Pelligrini. Real has a goal difference of plus-56 this season, compared to plus-67 under Pelligrini.
5. The ugly side of fandom. One coach who hasn't fared quite as well is Bordeaux's Jean Tigana. He announced his resignation after his daughter was verbally abused while watching the French club's 4-0 loss to Sochaux on Saturday.
"She already has problems at school," Tigana told reporters. "I therefore decided to stop."
With Bordeaux disappointing this season -- the team was expected to contend for a Champions League spot but is ninth in Ligue 1 -- Tigana was already under pressure. However, given his status as both a national team and club legend, one would think Bordeaux fans would refrain from harassing his family.
"If people think I'm the problem and end up abusing my 16-year-old daughter, then it's tragic," Tigana said. "To me, that's not football."
I'll end with an offbeat note. Remember the furor from Fulham fans when owner Al Fayed decided on his own personal tribute to Michael Jackson in the form of an ill-advised statue at Craven Cottage? Turns out that Cottagers fans might have gotten off lightly: Consider the Jackson tribute from the owners of a Hackney music studio, an ode to the King of Pop's bizarre moment in 2002 when he held his son over the window of his Berlin hotel.
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