On Messi, Mourinho, and Martinez

Why not end the year with a soccer post? This one will cover (1) the world player of the year award, (2) the EPL title race, and (3) Everton.

1. Three players are finalists for world player of the year, to be announced next month. The three are Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Manuel Neuer.

Ronaldo has been phenomenal this year for Real Madrid, but did not shine at the World Cup (although his last second assist nearly cost the U.S. a place in the round of 16).

Messi has had a down year, by his standards, for Barcelona, but was still phenomenal. And he starred at the World Cup, leading Argentina to the finals, only to lose in extra time to Germany. If Sergio Aguero had been fully fit or Gonzalo Higuain in good form, Argentina would almost surely be world champions.

Given what happened this summer in Brazil, I’d pick Messi over Ronaldo.

Neuer was the best goalkeeper at a World Cup that will be remembered for great keeping. I’d go for Messi over Neuer, but the comparison between a goal keeper and a forward is apples to oranges.

2. The EPL title race looks to be a two-team affair between Manchester City (the defending champs) and Chelsea. Unlike Liverpool, and Tottenham the year before, Chelsea splashed its cash, not for a half dozen Europa League quality players, but for two superstars — passing master Cesc Fabregas and goal poaching Diego Costa. They added a third by recalling goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who was on loan in Spain.

Having added three players who all rate (in my book) as among the top five in the world at their position, Chelsea became (in my book) the title favorite. And they played like it for four months, threatening to run away with the crown.

Lately, though Chelsea has faltered slightly, perhaps because manager Jose Mourinho has been unwilling to rotate his squad. I still favor Chelsea, if Costa remains fit and in form. But it should be a tight race until the end.

3. Everton sits in 12th place, ahead of Aston Villa only on goal difference. That’s quite a come down from last season, when we were fifth and barely missed out on the top-four and a place in the Champions League.

Part of the decline is due to playing in the Europa League. In essence, we’ve been playing almost twice as often as the likes of Villa, Southampton, Newcastle United, and Manchester United.

The biggest clubs usually can just about cope with this kind of schedule. But Everton lacks the depth of, say, Chelsea, and Liverpool, or even of Tottenham. Plus, as usual, we’ve been plagued by injuries to key players.

For some reason, we’ve also played our best football in Europe. For example, we dominated in two matches against Wolfsburg, the second best team in Germany this year, while losing to Stoke City, Newcastle and even Crystal Palace.

Our performances in Europe and our goal differential in the EPL suggest that we’re at least as good as several of the team ahead of us. Thus, we should move up a bit if we can get relatively healthy (but now Tim Howard, our goalkeeper who excelled for the U.S. in Brazil this summer, is going to be out for about a month).

Nonetheless, I believe that we’re looking at our worst finish since 2005-06 (11th place) or maybe even 2003-04 (17th).

Nor can we attribute our problems entirely to injuries and the heavy European schedule. The team seems to lack a bit of toughness and we’re no longer that hard to beat.

Why? Probably because of the way our second-year manager Roberto Martinez likes to play.

David Moyes, unlike David Moyes, who lifted Everton to respectability and beyond, Martinez favors elegant football. His teams eschew the long ball and instead try to pass their way forward. His teams are also of an attack first, ask about the defense later team, mindset

It’s a winning style if you have the players to do it. But does Everton, once injuries strike, have enough of those players?

There’s also a growing question about the team’s toughness. In our Boxing Day loss to Newcastle, we were bullied. At one end, Cisse was smashing his elbow into Seamus Coleman. At the other end, Samuel Eto’o was sportingly kicking the ball out of play to accommodate a Newcastle injury, while Everton was in a potential scoring position.

In the past, we were as apt to elbow as to be elbowed (and more so if Fellaini was in the vacinity). That doesn’t seem to be the case this year.

Toughness, of course, isn’t just about playing a bit dirty. It’s mostly about out-working the opposition. Against Newcastle, we were outworked. It hurt to hear game commentator Chris Waddle say so, but it was impossible to disagree.

During the Moyes era, I became used to hearing commentators say that Everton was outworking the opposition. I need to start hearing (and seeing) this again.

That’s my soccer wish for the new year.

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