One of the most interesting tales from golf’s Vatican this week has been the performance of Phil Mickelson, who tees off this afternoon with an eye on his third green jacket. Mickelson has played exceptional golf, and until Friday, no one that wasn’t there really noticed, as we’ve been fed every possible Tiger Woods story by the four-letter. We had a column a day since Tiger’s Monday press conference. We had Jason Sobel on Twitter and via live chat covering Tiger’s every shot. I’m pretty sure we even got a “Tiger put blank pants on this morning, ate a bagel” update on the bottom line. I understand the guy is one of the premier athletes, and jacklegs, in the world, but it isn’t like he just started playing again after hitting a fire hydrant in his car on Thanksgiving and having that story spiral into an image-shattering sex scandal. Wait… regardless, Woods has been the story at a Masters with many other interesting storylines, and the fine play of Mickelson has been overshadowed, until his eagle-eagle-birdie stretch Friday afternoon. If you won tournaments based on people pulling for you, general decency, or smiles issued, Phil would have lapped the field. Instead, he’ll try to win today, and if he does, he’ll be the story.
The lack of Lefty coverage got me thinking about the World Cup, though. I think our soccer blog and other sites have focused so much on the exciting Champions League quarterfinals, the current form of American players, and the build-up to Bob Bradley’s final choices for the World Cup, that we’ve forgotten there are three other sides in our group. Well—correction—we’ve forgotten there are two other sides in our group, as one can’t forget the Three Lions. Since Dru Boyer has you covered on the form of Yanks abroad, I thought I’d do my best to keep you abreast of the performances and form of key players on the other three sides as we head into the final two months before South Africa 2010. I’ll write this every week until final rosters come out, and pick a few players each time. We’ll start with those pesky Redcoats.
Gareth Barry, Blankcheckster City—The heady midfielder started and played 90 in Blankcheckster’s fine 5-1 performance this morning against Birmingham. He does have seven assists this season, but has only two goals and hasn’t tallied a helper or a goal in over a month. Not necessarily cause to panic—but a quiet year for the former Villa man.
Jermain Defoe, Tottenham Hotspur—It has been a fine year for Defoe, whose tallied seventeen goals this year. He’s back from a slight knock and played a half in Tottenham’s loss at the Stadium of Light last week. He also played 60 minutes in Spurs FA Cup extra-time, disastrous affair with Portsmouth today. With Rooney battling injury, Defoe certainly has to be in the spotlight as the English prepare to send their usual “greatest side ever” to the Cup this summer.
David James, Portsmouth—The maligned English keeper on the maligned English side played the hero today, with several massive saves in Portsmouth’s remarkable 2-nil victory over Tottenham. All eyes will be on James in the final—so this is a great dress rehearsal for the summer. It is tough to judge James’ form because Portsmouth are so dreadful, but be sure Fabio Capello will watching him like a hawk in the final weeks of the season.
Yes—they do in fact have a team, and they do have players who ply their trade in top European Leagues. They may not play a brand of football fitting of Ian Poulter’s trouser collection—but they did beat Russia and they are in the group. Here’s a look at three top players.
Bojan Jokic, AC Chievo—He scored in Slovenia’s last friendly, a 4-1 pasting of Qatar, so he’s as good a place to start as any. The AC Chievo man has only three appearances for AC Chievo in Serie A, and the left back is probably dreaming of a return to Chuck D and Sochaux, who retain his rights.
Zlatko Dedic, Vfl Bochum—The Slovenian national hero whose golazo sent “Zmajceki” past Russia in the FIFA Playoff has made 22 appearances for the Bundesliga side this year, and he started and scored today as Bochum fell 2-1 at home to Hamburg.
Samir Handanovic, FC Udinese—The Serie A goalkeeper has started 32 games for Udinese this year, and he kept his clean sheet for the second consecutive week as Udinese followed a thumping of Juventus with a 2-nil victory over Livorno today.
The game so many Yanks are foolishly putting in the win column features several players competing in top European leagues. Here’s a look at the form of a select few:
Karim Matmour, Borussia Monchengladbach—Playing with MB 90 on a year-round basis seems like a large enough personality challenge—but Matmour is also tasked with helping one of the Bundesliga’s more anemic attacks. He hasn’t helped much, either—as he’s only found the back of the ol’ onion bag once this season along with one dime. He did play 87 minutes in Monchengladbach’s 2-nil over Frankfurt on Friday.
Yazid Mansouri, Lorient—Look, I probably don’t need to put Yazid Mansouri in here since every part of the Algerian captain’s is dissected on the four-letter—but why not jump on the bandwagon? He played five minutes yesterday in Lorient’s draw with the Stade Rennes, who of course feature American captain Carlos Bocanegra. Boca better not draw his next meeting with the Algerian captain this summer, or it will be a short June for the Yanks. Mansouri picked up a slight knock yesterday, but it is nothing Algerian fans should be alarmed with. If it were, the guy would have led SportsCenter.
Antar Yahia, Vfl Bochum—The 2009 Arab Footballer of the Year had been a bit out of form this year and seemed to be out of the good graces of Bochum manager Heiko Herrlich. He’s recovered—starting the last two games or Bochum and playing 90 yesterday in the 2-1 defeat o Hamburg. It doesn’t really matter what Yahia does of course—he’s already assured himself that he’ll never again pay for a drink or meal in Algeria after he stunned the soccer universe, scoring the stunner below to eliminate the African champions from the World Cup and send Les Fennecs to their first World Cup in 24 years. For the goal, fast forward to 1:22.
Oh, and let’s go Phil.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @nwb_USMNT.