The Limey
Friday December 11th, 2009

On the evening of Sat., June 12, 2010, we expect to be holed up in Castle Limey with the drawbridge raised and defenses at full in an attempt to halt a baying mob of SI.com journalists, distraught at the U.S. national team's defeat to our mighty Three Lions.

We accept that you're world leaders in pointlessly putting wood on station wagons. We appreciate that you've had major names such as ex-Norwich and Coventry stalwart Darren Huckerby starring in Major League Soccer. And we acknowledge your genius in hosting the most staged penalty "miss" in World Cup Opening Ceremony history. But we're afraid that's not going to be enough to beat our boys in Rustenburg, South Africa, next year. Poor Bob Bradley will be mopping up the spillage from the can of proverbial whoop-ass we'll be opening onto your starred-and-striped buttocks.

As Team Limey relaxed by a roaring fire in the bowels of Castle Limey last Friday evening, we howled with excitement as we witnessed World Cup draw emcee Charlize Theron playing with some balls, and placing yours alongside ours in Group C. Yes, Theron looked good; but the main reason for our joy was the prospect of six months of heated banter firing from the ramparts of Castle Limey in the direction of you, our friends across the pond.

In all seriousness, England will be wary of you Yanks, and not just those sizeable members of your population who look like they'd eat us in a flash if only we were topped in French's mustard. Clint Dempsey, Fulham's top scorer, is having his best season yet in the English Premier League, while keeper Tim Howard would walk straight into England's No. 1 shirt were he not American. Regardless, we're confident that revenge for the defeat England suffered in the sole competitive meetings between the two sides (the 1950 World Cup, when England went down 1-0 in Brazil) is firmly in the offing.

As we've said in previous columns, Theron's World Cup draw associate and MLS ambassador David Beckham should be in the squad to face his current country of residence -- from the substitute's bench at least. Beckham will be a useful asset to have for England boss Fabio Capello, not only as a player, but also for his intimate knowledge of the U.S. squad. Conversely, it looks like Bradley will have another spy in the EPL with Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy teammate and U.S. all-time top scorer Landon Donovan on the verge of a loan move to Everton for the lead-up to the World Cup -- an arrangement similar to Beckham's with AC Milan.

After their opening match on June 12, both England and the U.S. realistically should beat the two other teams in the group, who both scraped into the World Cup via playoffs. One is Algeria, a team that has only qualified three times for the World Cup and never gone beyond the first round on any of those occasions. The other is Slovenia, which has qualified only once (in '02) since it was formed out of the 1991 divestiture of Yugoslavia. (The Slovenians lost all three of their group games in South Korea.)

As we see it, England and the U.S.' course through the rest of the tournament is entirely down to their opening match. The losers of that game likely would get a round-of-16 date with Germany, the team that always steps up a gear in big tournaments, and England's penalty-shootout nemesis. That should be incentive enough for England to beat the U.S.

The winners probably will play Michael Essien's Ghana, which we foresee overpowering Australia to second place in that group. Then, assuming results go as one would expect, England could face France in the quarterfinals. Assuming France plays as poorly as it did in the qualification period, and assuming Thierry Henry's hand doesn't intervene in extra time, England probably would face Brazil in the semis -- time for Capello to really start earning his money.

Late last month, following its 3-0 exploitation of an Arsenal side full of flair but weak in substance, Chelsea, then five points ahead of Manchester United in the EPL, was prematurely crowned champion by many commentators. But not by contrarian Team Limey. We've waited for the "no wins in three" Blues to slump in form before tipping them for success.

The first crack in Carlo Ancelotti's armor was a Carling Cup quarterfinal exit on penalty kicks at Blackburn Rovers. Chelsea then lost 2-1 in the EPL at Manchester City before suffering a humiliating draw against Cypriot minnow APOEL Nicosia in the Champions League on Tuesday.

We're Chelsea apologists, perhaps, but let's look more closely at those results. Chelsea, though disjointed in the first half, looked to have gone on top at Blackburn following a triple halftime substitution -- its entire quota -- and two early second-half goals. With the score even at 2-2, Salomon Kalou was injured, leaving Chelsea to play the last 15 minutes and the whole of extra time with 10 men. Picking 18-year-old Gaël Kakuta to take the crucial, fifth penalty -- which was saved by Blackburn keeper Paul Robinson -- was a second tactical error Ancelotti surely won't repeat.

Chelsea was then deservedly beaten at Man. City last weekend, and questions must be asked about how Nigel de Jong so successfully controlled the midfield for City, allowing the home team to dominate long periods of play. But Frank Lampard's blundered late penalty kick or Didier Drogba's uncharacteristic subsequent near-miss could have tied the match. Earlier, Chelsea keeper Petr Cech should have dealt better with Carlos Tévez's free kick and, in truth, for all its hustle and time on the ball, City created few other real efforts on goal.

City poses a side packed with international stars and is unbeaten at home. It's precisely the sort of match that champions-elect like Chelsea can afford to lose: playing on the road against a team that, on its day, is a match for anyone, but one that hasn't found the season-long consistency to challenge at the top. Chelsea's 2-1 defeat at Aston Villa falls in the same category.

Much more important to the Blues is continuing their fine form against the lesser teams and its real title rivals. Aside from an off-day at Wigan, Chelsea is consistently winning the games it's expected to win. Last year's runner-up, Liverpool, will tell you the importance of not being held to draws in such matches if you're going to win the EPL. Meanwhile, Chelsea already has beaten Arsenal, Liverpool and, most importantly, Man. United. If Ancelotti's crew can find goals while Drogba is on African Cup of Nations duty next month, Chelsea will triumph in the EPL.

Realistically, only on-form Man. United will challenge. Alex Ferguson's men will be looking to continue the form that helped them destroy West Ham 4-0 at Upton Park last weekend before winning 3-1, incredibly, days later at defending German champion Wolfsburg in the Champions League with an injury-compromised team. Midfielders Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher filled in impressively at center back, while Michael Owen bagged his first hat trick since '05. United, prone to off-days, and with a less cohesive midfield than Chelsea's, will, we think, finish second. Chelsea hosts out-of-sorts Everton on Saturday, and will be keeping a close eye on United entertaining on-form Villa.

We also expect Chelsea to feature in the latter stages of the Champions League. Read little into the result against APOEL, which occurred after Chelsea already had qualified for the knockout rounds. In the draw for the round of 16 on Dec. 18, Ancelotti is hoping his squad will be paired with either CSKA Moscow, Lyon, Stuttgart or Olympiakos. He sees Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and, especially, his former club AC Milan as the greatest threats barring his route to the quarterfinals.

The debate on playoff systems continues unabated. Michael Kelley correctly notes that while playoffs are about money, they're also necessary to decide the overall winners of a number of different divisions and conferences. Those league set-ups, obviously, reduce travel times for regular-season games in a huge country.

John Pasowicz and Chris McCabe of Redondo Beach, Calif., point out that unlike in MLS, many table positions in the EPL have consequences. Finishing first to third qualifies you for the Champions League, fourth for a Champions League qualifier and fifth (and sometimes sixth) for the Europa League. Meanwhile, finishing in the bottom three leads to relegation to the Championship.

Though MLS now has as many as five CONCACAF Champions League berths to award its top teams, that's clearly not enough motivation for most MLS squads. Neither is winning the U.S. Open Cup, the closest thing the U.S. has to a knockout competition like the FA and Carling Cups. And winning the MLS Supporters' Shield for having the best regular-season record is a nice prize, too. But none of the above holds fan interest like the MLS Cup playoffs.

Mike Lilley extends this further, attempting to make a case that baseball -- which only awards eight total postseason spots after teams trod through a 162-game season -- is the least-passionately followed sport in the U.S. (We're pretty sure the revenue numbers, TV ratings and millions of loveable-loser Chicago Cubs fans would argue otherwise, Mike, but that's your opinion.) Lilley believes this is because of baseball's elitist playoff system. Most teams are out of the running before June. There is, therefore, no reason to follow those teams, particularly when there is football, basketball and hockey to hold interest.

Once one team is out of it, Lilley writes, American fans have their other sports to hold their attention. Maybe a relegation system would keep interest for fans of perpetual cellar-dwellers, Lilley writes -- but he doubts it. America loves the underdog, and playoffs allow more people the dream of winning it all.

And finally, Allan Welsby, a welcome addition to any pub-quiz team, notes that Premier League veteran Nick Barmby witnessed three of the five most sensational EPL goal celebrations (Jimmy Bullard, Robbie Fowler, Jürgen Klinsmann) we ranked in our last column.

Send your thoughts on England vs. USA to thelimey@hotmail.co.uk.

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