Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spain vs. Italy (The Euro Final)

Tomorrow Euro 2012 will end and either Spain will have set a mark for the ages or Italy will have completed an improbable run to the title. It has been a mixed Euro 2012, with some exemplary play and lackluster efforts by some of the continents biggest teams. The Dutch were terrible, Germany could not complete their role in the predicted final and England played better than expected but went out on penalties once again. Ireland was awful, Russia somehow failed to make the knock-out stage and Portugal's momentum seemed to evaporate as Ronaldo decided (or was told) to take the fifth and final penalty. So we have one of  the co-favorites in the final and another that many expected little from. And in a bizarre twist of fate, Spain is being called boring and Italy has moved from its defense first approach to play some wonderfully entertaining football, led by the reemergence of Pirlo on the world stage. So who will win?

As a former resident of Spain, I would love them to win the triplet and assert themselves as the best national team in history. Their style of play, flair and cadre of world class talent certainly deserves to stand alone at the top of the sport. But it is fair to say that this tournament has not seen the best of the Iberians. The odd 4-6-0 formation they have employed in most of their games has led to a certain staleness and inability to put in as many goals as many would like to see, except against the inept Irish. They are missing their World Cup and World Class Barca striker David Villa and don't seem to trust Torres, who has been in slightly better form of late but still seems anemic at times. They have often relied on their best-in-the-world keeper to make key saves as their defense rattles but doesn't break (clearly missing the aging star Puyols). And they have lacked the creative flair that had made them the envy, and scourge, of the rest of the world for eight years now. 

Italy, on the other hand, is in the midst of a Renaissance. They came into the tournament again suffering through the early stages of another match-fixing, betting scandal. They lost to the lowly Americans this Spring, after a terrible World Cup. They clearly have some young talent but seemed to be relying on old fading stars. And yet they have improved with each game and could have easily beat Germany 4-1 and England 2 or 3 nil, but for the failure of someone not named Mario to score. The team is as tight defensively as ever but have developed a nice possession style centered around Pirlo, who may very well be the player of the tournament. They come into the final on a high and know that, baring 2008, they have a good record against the Spaniards. So who will win?

I think Spain needs to abandon the 4-6-0 in this game and put either Torres, Negredo or Llorante up top (the last being all but impossible to imagine). Negredo was not great against Portugal and I wonder if they will give Torres the nod to find the glory yet again eight years after starting this incredible run of form. The problem with the 4-6, besides lacking a seasoned finisher (though many pretenders to the throne including Iniesta (who often scores on the big stage) and Fabergas), is that Italy will clog the middle and make it difficult for Spain to attack there with their pinpoint passing; as they like to do. But if Torres shows a little of the old magic, as he did for Chelsea a few times toward the end of the season, he can go on his classic runs to break the defense or they can try to attack from the wings. I suppose I wouldn't be surprised to see the less exciting formation again, but I hope not. As for the Italians, they will probably have a few chances and it is a question of putting one or two in the back of the net if this isn't to be another 1-0 Spain victory or nervy shootout for the Euros. Spain will clearly need to keep Pirlo in check and keep Balotelli continuously marked. I think Italy has a real chance but will go with my heart and a 1-0 or 2-1 victory for Spain. If it does go to a shootout we will see two of the best goalkeepers in the world go at it, with plenty of great penalty takers 12 yards away. If we end up there, I take Spain 4-3. 

In any case, it will be a stirring conclusion to the tournament and one hopes the battle creates compelling moments to remember rather than a Spain possession-Italy defense snorer. We shall see!

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Supreme Court and Healthcare

So in a surprise that wouldn't have been a surprise at all a few months ago, the Supreme Court upheld "Obamacare" and the mandate. The "hero" here appears to be Roberts, who went against his conservative brethren and affirmed the limitations of the court in overturning the will of the people (kind of). So now what will happen with healthcare? Well, according to estimates the now 60 million without insurance will fall to 30 million by 2022. That is great news, but still lives 30 million uninsured. People cannot be denied coverage for preexisting conditions, which is just as important. But the issue of costs continues to be a big stumbling block to actually solving our continuing healthcare crisis. And it will only get worse. The population is aging, youth obesity is on the rise and people are living longer in general. An article in Slate today outlines the deeper problems Obama was unable to fully address in his landmark legislation: Slate.

At the heart of the problem, really, is economics. Too many people in America are paid too little, even as corporate profits hit another record high and productivity increases (aka labor) continue to contribute to the windfall for the few. Costs are not controlled because corporations still yield too much power over policy, even when our lives are on the lines. And too many Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Sure many of the uninsured are young, but they actually help insurance companies if they are insured, as their premiums help offset those more likely to get sick. Poverty leads to sickness and we have the highest poverty rate of any industrialized country (as well as the highest healthcare costs by a country mile). Pharmaceutical companies contribute as well, by charging outrageous prices for new drugs and keeping patents (and blocking generics) well beyond acceptable rates. In the end, socialized medicine is really the only answer, unless we decide the premise of In Time will move from clever metaphor for inequality and exploitation to reality ...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Day of Upsets

While Germans and most of Europe prepared for the predicted final with Spain, Italy had other ideas. In a masterful performance by the Azurri, they scored twice in the first half and held on for a 2-1 victory over the best team in the world not winning anything at the moment (they haven't won a major tournament since the 1996 Euros). The Germans started the game brightly and almost took advantage of two early Buffon errors, but neither ended up in the back up of the net and several important saves from the veteran keeper over the remainder of the game ensured Italy would return to the Euro final for the first time since their 2000 2-1 loss to France. It was a major upset, taking out the pre-tournament co-favorites, who looked flat at times and lacked the finishing touch. Italy has looked stronger as the tournament has gone on after a 1-1 draw against the team they will meet in the final. And while Spain will be favorites to become the first to win three major tournaments in a row, Italy looks set to give them a tough rematch. Balotelli will be remembered with as the hero, but it is the continued resurgence of Pirlo (after a wonderful season leading Juve to an undefeated campaign and Series A title) that was really begin the victory here. The result continues a long-standing trend of Germany being unable to beat Italy on the grand stage, but the young team will certainly compete in Brazil in 2004. On a side note, it certainly puts England's defeat in a new light, given Italy's impressive performance, though it is still fair to say that England looked quite average in the quarters defeat. 

The first semi went more to script, as Spain won on penalties after the baffling decision to have Ronaldo kick last (a penalty he never had a chance to take). Ronaldo has choaked on penalties in the past, most recently in this year's Champions League semi, but one wonders what the coach and/or player were thinking. Spain now stands on the precipice of solidifying their standing as the best national side in history, though some will still take the Brazilian side of Pele et al.

In the other even more astounding upset of the day, Nadal lost to a player ranked number 100 in the world, a player who had lost his first qualifying match at Wimbledon the past four years. Lukas Rokol of the Czech Republic pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history, leaving Nadal shaking his head in disgust and Andy Murray with a much stronger chance to claim a first major (or Federer to possible compete for his last). Nadal lost in five sets to a player who decided to go for every shot, hitting blazing aces, stunning forehand winners and a 99 mph backhand. His fifth set performance, after losing the fourth 6-2 and having to wait with Nadal for the 40 minutes it took to close the new roof on Centre Court, was masterful, making the Spaniard look truly average in the process. He won 6-4 after breaking Nadal in the first service game and making it stick wasn't really that close, as he stormed through one service game after another. For Nadal it is probably just  stumbling block on his road to future glory, but it does give Federer hope that his record tally of majors might just stand the test of time.  

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Semis Predictions

So after four quarterfinals, with four expected winners we move onto the semis today and tomorrow. England lost in penalties after a very negative game and terrible passing (what's new?). Spain powered past the Czechs 2-0, Germany recovered from a shock Greece equalizer to stampede their economic Achilles heal and Portugal pulled off a nice victory behind Ronaldo's magic. So are we headed for the expected Spain-Germany final? I think it is likely, even as Portugal might give Spain a match and Italy could hang with Germany for a while. My predictions, Spain 2-1 and Germany 3-1 (hopeful for some scoring, just as likely Spain 1-0 and Germany 2-0). In any case, off to watch the first semi on tape delay. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Euro 2012 Quaterfinal Predictions

After a rousing two weeks of major and minor surprises and a lot of goals, we enter the knock out stage of Euro 2012 today. My predictions for the four matches ...

1. Czech Republic vs. Portugal
While the Czech Republic was impressive in coming back from the opening 4-1 thrashing by Russia, I don't really see them having enough to deal with a surging Portuguese side, particularly with Ronaldo potentially back in top form for the national team (though one game does not a comeback make). The Czechs do have on of the best big game goalkeepers in the world, but with creative midfielder Rosicky only available as a sub, I see Portugal holding firm at the back and running down the wings without mercy. Prediction: Portugal (2-0).

2. Germany vs. Greece
On paper this should be a mauling by the Germans. But, as Russia found out and everyone in Europe in 2004 for that matter, matches are played on the pitch. Greece has only lost twice in the past two years and while they don't play the most beautiful soccer you will ever see, do have a penchant for holding teams scoreless and poaching a goal on the counter. However, they will be without their best striker and are playing a team that is among the best in the world. If Greece scores first, they could very well go through 1-0, but I see Germany taking this match in the end. Prediction: Germany 2-0. 

3. Spain vs. France
After looking impressive in their mauling of Ireland, Spain looked quite average in beating Croatia 1-0, and actually looked on the verge of a unthinkable knockout before finishing off the job. So are they vulnerable? Well, France comes in after a relatively average group stage, losing their last match 2-0 to Sweden (who were already eliminated) with a chance to win the group. But when these two teams play, there are always fireworks and France certainly has a chance if they can find a way to be menacing in the mid-field and take their chances. I see a higher scoring affair here, though if France does score first, one couldn't blame them for sitting back. Prediction: Spain 3-1.

4. England vs. Italy
England has gotten so used to failing to live up to expectations that even as they won their group, announcers and soccer pundits there are careful not to take anything for granted. But this looks like a game the Lions could win if they shore up the back and find a way through the Azzuri back line. It will probably be a cagey, defense first game, but I going to go with England, against my better judgement. Prediction: England 2-1.

Obama Gets Some Good News

After weeks of bad news, President Obama has finally heard something positive -- he has a double-digit lead over rival Romney at present (53-40%). While we should not put too much stock in polling before August, when both Gore and Kerry saw their leads diminish on the way to "losing," it is a positive sign. Why? Because voters have turned toward Obama mainly out of concern for Romney (Slatest) even as unemployment and overall economic figures continue to disappoint and the Presidents approval rating falls. The reality is that a barrage of negative campaign ads are coming, but one wonders if Romney's character, Mormonism (1 in 5 voters said they would never vote for a Mormon in a recent poll), position within the one percent and tendency to put his foot in his mouth with measured aplomb will cost him as the election cycle heats up. Money may be on his side, but I have a feeling personality and positionality are not, and a too negative campaign (while effective at the local and state level) might just resonate poorly with a public that wants positive change, not more fear mongering and "same old, same old" rhetoric. Obama should now start making his case for reelection in earnest, reminding voters who has stood as the major stumbling block to his economic policies.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Arsenal and the Euros

So the European Championships are in full swing and there have been some major and minor surprises, often involving players for Arsenal. Walcott helped save England from further international ignominy by contributing to the second and third goal in a stunning 3-2 comeback against Sweden Friday and Ox put in a decent performance in the 1-1 draw with France. Rosicky helped the Czech's rebound from their thrashing by Russia (4-1) in the second match but is now injured and likely to miss their quarterfinal match. Arshavin has played well for a Russian team that looked among the best of the rest until they went a game and a half without scoring and ended up out of the knock out stage. And RvP has clearly underperformed along with early co-favorites Netherlands, though he did score a lovely right-footed goal against Germany in a losing effort (2-1). Ex-Gunner Fabergas also put in a goal that helped secure a tie for Spain in their first match, before thrashing Ireland.

Watching the matches so far, it is clear that Germany and Spain remain the cream of Europe and that Spain has a real shot at accomplishing what has never been done before -- winning three international competitions in a row. Standing in their way is a German team that has shuttled off the ugly style of play that made most of the non-Aryan world hate them (including me). Now they play a nice mixture of strong defense and creative counterattacking and offense. I think the two are likely to meet in the final, but after Greece's win 8 years ago, one never knows. Other teams that have impressed in my estimation are France, who looked great against Ukraine after a sub-par performance against England, Croatia, who has two great finishers and, at times, Italy, who might very well go out. England has been decent as well, but I find it hard to believe they can get past Spain in the knock out stage. 

Today two important matches will determine the two that come out of the Group of Death. I favor Germany to beat the Danes and Portugal to complete the disgrace that has been the Netherlands effort this year. They have had chance after chance against first the Danes and then the Germans but only put in one. While they certainly could beat Portugal by two, I wonder if their relatively weak defense this time could be exposed by Nani and Ronaldo (who continues to fail to impress for the national team). In Group D, I like England to beat Ukraine and France to take down a Swedish team that has nothing to play for but pride. The interesting question will be the goal differential, with England having to make one up to avoid Spain. In Group C, Italy still has a chance, and one assumes Spain will be motivated to beat Croatia, though a tie is certainly a possibility.

Arsenal is thus well-represented at the Euros, though certainly to mixed results. But much exciting news surrounds players that might soon be joining Podolski at the club. These include French striker Oliver Giroud and defensive midfielder Yann M'Villa, together with the exciting young attacking midfielder from Russia Dzagoev. With these additions, a central defender and maybe Kalou (on a free), this could be a team to reckon with next year, even given the improvements Chelsea has already made and Man United and City appear on the verge of. The team will be young and menacing with some more experienced players in the mix. However, the big story continues to be whether RvP will stay or go. Recent news that Arsenal are willing to sell the star for $30 million is not good news, but really could mean a stronger team in the long run. If we have Vermaelen and Koscielny in the middle of the defense (one assume Vermaelen will improve from his late season drop in form by stopping the constant forays forward), along with Mertesacker, Sagna and Gibbs/Santos as our fullbacks, M'Villa policing from the midfield with some combination of Wilshire, Arteta, Song, Ramsey and/or Rosicky farther forward and Podolski, Giroud (an aerial threat up front), Dzagoev and Ox or Walcott splitting time up front, we could be a quality team that stops bleeding goals in the back and stops relying on one player up front. Rumors also surround Walcott's future, and while his late season form certainly quelled some of my concerns, I wouldn't mind seeing him go either. He is an average footballer who we could live without. If he goes, he should probably pick up another winger, but could use Ox in that spot as he grows into his future as the man in the hole. The other good news is we seem on the verge of getting rid of a lot of dead weight. Bendtner, who has had a great Euro, can now be sold for a decent return, Arshavin as well, Squillaci will be history, Djourou might go and hopefully Denilson will be sold. 

A squad of that strength could both compete for cups and at least be competitive for a long shot league title (though I see a bright future with Miyachi and others on the ascendancy). If Van Persie stays and we do add another defender or two, we would leap to title contenders in my mind, able to take on even the Manchesters (lest us forget we beat City last year and lost squeakers in the other two and had United in our sights in the rematch before the bizarre Ox substitution). The future is starting to look brighter for the Gunners and one hopes the rumors are rewarded with the two Frenchman and a few other pickups.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Spending Spree to Begin in Earnest

As over $60 million dollars are thrown around to try to keep right-wing darling Scott Walker in the Wisconsin Governor's seat (Daily Caller), news emerges today that a coterie of conservatives are planning on raising $1 billion to unseat Obama and put another CEO president in the hot seat (AmericaBlog). Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hope to reach the billion dollar mark in working to give Romney the presidency and Republicans both houses of Congress, thus sealing the fate of the American economy and democracy for the foreseeable future. 

And their goal? The usual call for lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations, less government oversight and regulation, steady military spending and the dismantling of the last bastions of the dying Welfare State. While the U.S. and Europe remain mired in an increasingly dire financial crisis that is being felt acutely by both the poor and working class and young college graduates, one wonders if we are on the verge of a fascist renaissance. That seems the only final solution if conservative forces continue to forge victories, cutting taxes and services while only paying lip service to reviving the economy for the other 99%. The plan would be insane if it didn't fit into the revised social darwinist world view of winning at any cost. The very future of the globe hangs in the balance and one wonders if the people can withstand the power of money to skew their perspective. European populations are waking up but it remains to be seen if Americans will follow suit. The clock is certainly ticking though ...