Archive for the ‘2018 World Cup qualifying’ Category

The positives of player power are on display for Venezuela

venezuela mens national team

Yesterday’s report on agent fees was as much a glimpse of that cottage industry as it was an update on player power. The $195 million siphoned off by lawyers, fathers, best friends and former night club doormen was the headline, but remember the silver lining: Players are moving all the time, to bigger places with better salaries, enjoying a hard-fought mobility that wasn’t available for most of soccer’s history. It’s a good thing, even if terrace whispers laced with anachronistic envy dog the Raheem Sterlings of the world.

In other ways, player power is taking a more traditional form, one of unity against deaf authorities. The Venezuelan men’s national team is just the latest example. According to reports, 15 Vinotinto players are threatening quit unless federation coaches and officials are replaced. Should the players start their boycott, the ongoing 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign will be compromised.

Venezuelan currently sit bottom of CONMEBOL’s 10-team, round-robin qualifying campaign, having failed to register a point through four rounds. head coach Noel Sanvicente’s team is seven points back of the confederation’s final automatic Russia 2018 qualifying spot.

That gap could get much worse if the players don’t get a response. In a statement, as translated below by The Guardian, Venezuelan players insist the environment around the team must change immediately:

“We the players are no longer in agreement that this group of leaders of the FVF should continue as it’s not acceptable the way we’ve been treated and the way they’ve managed the project to take the national team to the World Cup,” read the statement.

“We strongly believe the team needs a complete managerial change lest we lose the work done over the last eight years.

“Our integrity is non-negotiable and the damage done can only be repaired by a total overhaul of the leaders of the FVF. We can’t continue playing in an environment so damaged by these leaders.”

Those eight years of progress have created expectations in a baseball-first country. In 2011, Venezuela reached the semifinals of Copa America, fostering to hopes the team would qualify for Brazil 2014. But the ensuing campaign proved a disappointment, transferring those expectations onto this cycle. Now, thanks to stars like former Borussia Moenchengladbach midfielder Juan Arango, Venezuela allows itself hope. Each qualifying campaign could be the first that ends with a World Cup.

Midfielder Tomas Rincon posted an image of the team’s letter on Twitter:

Venezuela’s next qualifier is scheduled for Peru in March.

In previous years, this protest may have been met by talk of privilege. Perhaps it still will. Playing a sport for a living is something so many would love to do, we’d be told. Any playing for your country? Even more so. Sure, it is a bit of a fallacy to imply most of the world still thinks like this, but if there’s any sport that needs no reminder of the power of corrupt and negligent administrators, it’s FIFA’s.

CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifying, through four rounds. Table from FIFA.com.
CONMEBOL 2018 World Cup qualifying, through four rounds. Table from FIFA.com.

Let’s also remember, this is CONMEBOL, not exactly the front lines of reform. This is the continent of Grondona, Havelange, Teixeira, and Leoz, and while it’d be unfair to assume Venezuela’s federation inherited their playbook from Argentina or Brazil, their executives and players exist in a part of the soccer world where authority has been abused. The same disconnect between the game and administrators that makes daily headlines is as alive in South America as anywhere in the world.

That’s why it’s difficult to fault players for wanting their slice of the pie, and while it’s often difficult to empathize with agents, it’s through their work that the scales have started to sway away from the boardrooms. Things get complicated when agents start having seats at that table (did you hear Valencia had to change coaches?), but by and large, voices that were previously ignored now have a say. Players shouldn’t merely be overlooked.

It’s what made the coverage of France’s debacle at the 2010 World Cup so disappointing. That’s when Les Bleus famously flamed out, finishing at the bottom of a winnable group as players revolted against head coach Raymond Domenech. But Domenech had been a problem for long before South Africa, yet the FFF allowed him to continue. It was hypocritical for France’s decision makers to take such a hard line with Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan when they’d allowed a fractured setup to enter the world’s biggest stage. The FFF, with an arrogance and detachment that’s become stereotypical of most soccer associations, was complicit in the debacle.

If the Venezuelan players are to be believed, there is a similar situation building in South America: a team that doesn’t respect its coach; a federation failing to act; a team that’s under-performing. Only this time, instead of revolting on training grounds and team buses, the players are going public. They’re using social media and the press to weave their own narrative. Would Ribery and Evra’s fate had been different if players were as Twitter-savvy in 2010?

It’s just one part of the player power that’s on display. There’s also the scarcity – the inability to outright replace 15 national team members without appearing apathetic about the qualifying cycle. There’s the growing support importance of soccer in Venezuela, something that makes accepting poor results less palatable, but it’s also the timing. Players are going public during one of the biggest gaps in the qualifying cycle. They’re being smart, giving the federation three months to work through this. They’re not holding feet to the fire, waiting until days before the next qualifier kicks off. There’s a level of empathy to them bringing this up now.

The players obviously care, so much so that they’re going to extremes. To save their qualifying campaign as well as their “personal and professional values,” they’re enacting an extreme version of player power. They’re threatening to walk out, risking much in the process. If the world’s unsympathetic, they’ll be lumped in with France’s 2010 squad – players the world saw as abusing their privilege. If, however, the world’s prepared to be more reasonable this time around, Venezuela’s players might be depicted as fighting a negligent, even privileged power. And this time, a protest might not be seen as a crime against sport.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 0-4 Chelsea: Blues one point from knockout round [VIDEO]

Photo credit: AFP.
Photo credit: AFP.

Chelsea cruised to an easy 4-0 Champions League victory over 10-man Maccabi Tel Aviv in Haifa on Tuesday to close in on the last 16. The victory, coupled with Dynamo Kiev’s 2-0 win at Porto, means Chelsea need only a draw at home to the Portuguese in two weeks to guarantee their passage to the knockout stage.

Gary Cahill gave the English Premier League champions a first-half lead before former Blues center half Tal Ben Haim was sent off just before the break. Chelsea turned the screw in the last 17 minutes as Brazilians Willian and Oscar, and French center back Kurt Zouma all found the net.

“Very important, especially with what happened in Porto, we really needed to win this match, and also important to get two victories in a few days,” Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho told BT Sport.

SEE MORE: Arsenal keeps knockout round hopes alive.

The London club have been struggling for form all season but this victory follows a 1-0 home win over Norwich City in the Premier League at the weekend and Mourinho added: “I hope morale comes, tranquility comes, confidence comes.”

The Israeli champions got off to a promising start as midfielder Dor Peretz sent a header just wide on three minutes. In the fifth minute, Maccabi defender Eli Dasa had another opportunity to give the hosts, who had lost all their previous group games, a surprising lead, but he was way off target with his shot.

Chelsea controlled possession and had created several dangerous chances before taking a deserved lead in the 20th minute when center back Cahill tapped in a rebound following a wonderful save from goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic. But perhaps the most pivotal moment came in the 40th minute when the referee controversially gave Ben Haim a straight red card for kicking out at Diego Costa. The home crowd jeered and Ben Haim looked shocked but television replays suggested the referee’s decision was fair.

Despite being down to 10 men, Maccabi got off to a determined start in the second half, but they couldn’t threaten Asmir Begovic’s goal.

In the 73rd minute, Brazil international Willian scored a spectacular free kick that left Rajkovic rooted to his line. Willian is now Chelsea’s leading scorer in this Champions League campaign with four goals.

SEE MORE: Bayern rout Olympiakos to claim Group F.

Three minutes later fellow Brazil international Oscar headed in a perfect cross from left back Baba Rahman to give Chelsea a commanding 3-0 lead.

Some Maccabi supporters began heading for the exi,t but there was worse still to come for the hosts, as Zouma headed home deep into injury time.

Chelsea had also defeated Maccabi 4-0 at Stamford Bridge in the opening group match.

The result meant the Israelis can no longer even finish third and qualify for the Europa League.

Chelsea are level on 10 points with Porto while Dynamo Kiev are two points further back. All three could finish level on points at the end if the Ukrainians win at home to Maccabi and the other two sides draw in west London. In that case, Dynamo would win the group and Porto would drop into the Europa League.

Arsene Wenger refines Francis Coquelin timeline, says midfielder out 12 weeks

Photo credit: AFP.
Photo credit: AFP.

Arsenal midfielder Francis Coquelin has been ruled out for 12 weeks, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger confirmed on Tuesday. Coquelin suffered a knee ligament injury during Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion on Saturday and scans have now revealed the extent of the problem.

Speaking after Arsenal’s vital 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League, Wenger said he doesn’t expect the Frenchman back until the new year:

“Coquelin’s injury is what we feared basically.

“We had the scan. Lets be realistic and say 12 weeks.

“He doesn’t need a surgery. It is a medial knee ligament.”

Coquelin will miss vital Premier League matches against Manchester City on Dec. 21 and at Liverpool on Jan. 13, but Wenger can take heart from the return of Wales midfielder Aaron Ramsey as a second half substitute against Dinamo. Ramsey had been out for a month with a hamstring injury.

Bayern Munich 4-0 Olympiakos: German champions clinch first in Group F [VIDEO]

Photo credit: AFP.
Photo credit: AFP.

Germany defender Holger Badstuber marked his return from injury with a red card as10-man Bayern Munich reached the Champions League’s knockout stages with a 4-0 win over Olympiakos on Tuesday.

Badstuber, 26, making his first start in the famous red Bayern shirt for seven months after tearing a thigh muscle, lasted just 53 minutes before being sent off. The German champions were already 3-0 up by that stage thanks to goals from Douglas Costa, Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller. Even the numerical disadvantage failed to slow the Bayern goal-machine as France Under-21 winger Kingsley Coman added a fourth after Badstuber’s dismissal.

The victory confirmed Bayern will advance to the last 16 as Group F winners, regardless of their final group match at Dinamo Zagreb in a fortnight, for which Badstuber will be suspended.

Having beaten 3-0 Olympiakos in Greece in their opening European match of the season back in September, Bayern completed the double in emphatic style. The hosts hit top gear in the opening 20 minutes at Munich’s Allianz Arena as Olympiakos’ Spanish goalkeeper Roberto endured a torrid time in conceding three goals.

Just eight minutes had gone when Jerome Boateng’s long-range shot was blocked, but Costa won the foot race and slotted the loose ball into the far corner. Lewandowski doubled the lead on 16 minutes when he converted Coman’s cross before Bayern’s star-studded squad combined for the third. Lahm’s cross was volleyed across goal to Arjen Robben who headed down and Mueller stabbed home on 20 minutes.

The floodgates threatened to open when Lewandowski fired wide on 24 minutes with Roberto beaten, but the Poland star fired wide of the post.

Robben went off with a leg injury on 33 minutes and Bayern’s fortunes took another turn for the worst on 52 minutes when Badstuber was shown a straight red. Nigeria international Brown Ideye was through on goal when he was brought down just outside the area, and Germany center back Badstuber was on his way for an early bath.

Bayern barely broke stride, and Coman scored with a perfect header that floated over the keeper and into the back of the net on 72 minutes. He suffered for his art after a heavy clash with Roberto with both players going for the ball.

SEE MORE: Arsenal keep knockout round hopes alive.

Both teenager Coman and Joshua Kimmich, 20, who was on for Robben, had late chances as Bayern dropped the tempo, but kept up the pressure while Olympiakos offered little. Mueller hit the post in the dying stages as the hosts chased the elusive fifth goal.

The defeat means the second-placed Greeks face possible elimination from the competition against Arsenal at home in a fortnight.

Arsenal 3-0 Dinamo Zagreb: Gunners’ knockout round hopes alive [VIDEO]

Photo credit: AFP.
Photo credit: AFP.

Arsenal kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the Champions League last 16 as Alexis Sanchez inspired a vital 3-0 win against Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday.

Arsene Wenger’s side were in severe danger of an embarrassingly early exit after losing three of their first four Group F matches. But Chile winger Sanchez was the catalyst for a result that, combined with Bayern Munich’s thrashing of Olympiakos, gives Arsenal renewed belief they can reach the knockout stages for a 16th successive year. Sanchez laid on Mesut Ozil’s first half opener at the Emirates Stadium, then struck himself before the interval and wrapped up the points with his second goal in the closing stages.

The Gunners still have work to do, however, as they face a shootout for a last 16 berth with Olympiakos in their final group fixture on Dec. 9. Second placed Olympiakos, 3-2 winners when the teams met earlier in the campaign, are three points ahead of Arsenal, and the north Londoners will only advance if they win in Greece by either a two-goal margin or by winning by a one-goal margin having scored three or more goals.

Even that tricky task will seem like a welcome assignment for Arsenal after they successfully navigated what could have been a nerve-jangling experience against Dinamo, whose shock 2-1 win over Wenger’s men in September had played a large role in their perilous predicament.

With their European campaign hanging by a slender thread, Wenger made two changes from Saturday’s defeat at West Bromwich Albion as Mathieu Flamini and Joel Campbell replaced Francis Coquelin and Kieran Gibbs.

Just one win from their last five matches was hardly ideal preparation for a do-or-die showdown, so it wasn’t surprising Arsenal made a nervous start. With Bayern doing their part to keep Arsenal in contention, the north Londoners needed to increase their own tempo after a sluggish start in a subdued atmosphere not helped by a surprisingly large amount of empty seats at the Emirates.

Wenger’s team had dominated possession without threatening to open up the massed ranks of the Dinamo defense, but they finally clicked into gear to take the lead with an incisive counter-attack in the 29th minute. Taking the ball deep inside his own half, Santi Cazorla moved possession onto Flamini, and he set Sanchez galloping clear in acres of space on the left. While Sanchez sprinted towards the Dinamo goal, Ozil had made his own lung-bursting surge, and the midfielder was perfectly placed in the six-yard box to bury a flying header from the Chilean’s clipped cross.

Confidence now coursing through their veins, there was noticeably more swagger about Arsenal’s play, and within four minutes they had doubled their lead. This time the goal came courtesy of a horrendous mistake from Dinamo defender Leonardo Sigali, whose woefully misplaced pass on the edge of his own penalty area was intercepted by Nacho Monreal. Sigali’s mistake had completely unhinged the Dinamo rearguard, leaving Monreal with room to break into the area and slide his pass towards Sanchez, who slotted a cool first-time finish past Eduardo from close-range.

Ozil could have killed off the Croatians, but the German’s shot was smartly saved by Eduardo, and the keeper did well again early in the second half when he repelled Olivier Giroud’s header.

Dinamo’s attacking impotence made the second half routine for Arsenal and, after Aaron Ramsey came on for his first appearance for a month, the imperious Sanchez capped his latest masterclass in the 69th minute. Campbell played his part with a fine run and clever reverse pass that Sanchez drove high into the net to complete part one of Arsenal’s escape act.