World Football Columns » Champions and Europa League http://worldfootballcolumns.com We're fans. It's our game, so we write about it. Thu, 08 Dec 2011 01:15:43 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.com/ http://1.gravatar.com/blavatar/3cd929bc9ae0c61da1d12b1d8913dfb9?s=96&d=http%3A%2F%2Fs2.wp.com%2Fi%2Fbuttonw-com.png World Football Columns » Champions and Europa League http://worldfootballcolumns.com The System Isn’t Perfect: A 2011-12 Champions League Preview http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/09/12/the-system-isnt-perfect-a-2011-12-champions-league-preview/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/09/12/the-system-isnt-perfect-a-2011-12-champions-league-preview/#comments Mon, 12 Sep 2011 19:39:03 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=21603 Continue reading »]]> ________________________________________________________________________

My basic problem with human beings is that they act out of fear, feeling a desperate need to control their environment as much as possible.

On a small scale, that attitude has made it a felony, in the county in which I live, to falsify applications to register your (typically minority) child in a school district which might offer him/her a better education than your local one.  In the UK, it means there are several schools where girls are not allowed to wear skirts.   To the authorities, it matters not whether the rules are having an unintended and adverse effect, or make little to no sense, only that they must be followed for the sake of control.

On a larger scale, this fear and the urge to conquer it has seen the same country which proudly displays the words, “Give me your tired, your weak, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” at the foot of the Statue of Liberty build a wall across its southern border with Mexico, to keep out said huddled masses who, diabolically, wish to take jobs cutting grass, digging ditches and keeping house from unemployed American college graduates.  In Australia, it means that the government seeks a way to ship its huddled masses to nearby Malaysia, where there is no work, education or opportunity, but rampant disease and political oppression.  When a decision must be made between two groups of man, the rationale as to who must suffer is always better you than me, rather than both of us together.

On an environmental scale… well you get the idea.  Man tries to organise everything down to the tiniest detail, intending to raise the ‘quality of life’, but too often with the opposite result.  He fights the natural order every step of the way, when he might be better advised to trust somewhat to fate, respect the planet, and just let things be.

Yet, I am human, too.  So despite my ideology, I feel sorry for the big teams in one or two of the groups in this year’s Champions League.  These clubs have spent money, worked hard and done well, only to be pitted against each other from the outset, while poorer sides from lesser leagues have been granted an easier road, through the luck of the draw.  There is something within me that believes it would be much fairer for the teams to be properly seeded and distributed evenly throughout the groups, so that fans might see the best sides — aka the traditional, established powers — meet in the later rounds.  Yet, on a weekly, if not daily, basis, I can usually be heard asking the question, “Since when is life fair?”

It’s tough being me.

On the other hand, it’s probably tougher to be Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Napoli or Villareal.  This group contains Sergio Kun Aguero, Edin Dzeko, David Silva and Carlos Tevez in the City attack; Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller powering Bayern; Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi for Napoli: and Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar with Villareal.

Each of these clubs finished in the top four of one of the Big Four leagues in Europe.  City and Bayern are both perfect in the Prem and Bundesliga, respectively, running riot over the opposition, this season.  Napoli have started well in their quest to do more than challenge for the Scudetto in 2011-12.  Villareal have been sluggish out of the gate in La Liga, which can perhaps be forgiven, as the Yellow Submarine may have had its sights set on making this group stage.  At any rate, the Spaniards are the club most accustomed to dealing with powerful neighbours, being measured against Real Madrid and Barcelona, year in and year out.

If UEFA ranked its teams in a manner similar to American college football, all four squads would be in the top twenty, and, conceivably, in the top sixteen, which would put the entire group in the top half of a thirty-two team Champions League table.  Yet half of a set which all ‘deserve’ to progress to the knockout rounds will not. One will drop to the Europa League, another will have its continental adventure end before Christmas, and even Man City, with their wealth of talent, realise that, in such a short competition, they could be the unfortunates.

This is not a group of death; it’s a group of utter annihilation.

As someone who believes that everyone deserves a fair shake, and who tries to maintain some objectivity in writing about football around the world, I usually make every effort to reel in my own biases when they try to creep in to my work.  In this group, however, there is one team that I will definitely be rooting against.  I don’t believe Trabzonspor, or any Turkish club, should be in this competition.

The Super Lig has acknowledged that the corruption and match-fixing in its competition is so rife that it has delayed the start of its campaign until it can be sure that the cheaters have been rooted out.  Like most other Turkish clubs, Trabzonspor have been implicated in wrong-doing.  One should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise, but, when there is sufficient reason to suspect guilt, the honourable usually step aside for the betterment of the whole.  I believe it would be best for football’s integrity, that no Turkish teams compete in Europe until their house is put in order.

That leaves three very strong clubs, however, to compete for the two berths providing passage into the round of sixteen.

Normally, Inter, with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti, Maicon and the Diegos, Milito and Forlan, would be heavy favourites to win the group.  However, now on their third coach, Giampiero Gasperini, in the year since Jose Mourinho departed, there is a sense of confusion at the club which has affected their confidence, most notably goalkeeper Julio Cesar, who has been very erratic of late.  They’re still favourites, of course, but consider them as having been to Jenny Craig.

French Champions Lille were weakened by the exodus of Yohan Cabaye and Gervinho to the Premier League and Adil Rami to La Liga, but, with Eden Hazard pulling the strings, they are still a threat to anyone.

CSKA Moscow are an unknown quantity despite their annual presence in Europe.  Seydou Doumbia is the danger man, but can’t be focused on to the exclusion of Vagner Love and Japanese set-piece magician Keisuke Honda.  Zoran Tosic and Tomas Necid are also in this squad and it shouldn’t be forgotten that keeper Igor Afinkeev was one of the names mooted to replace Edwin van der Sar before United narrowed the list to Manuel Neuer and David de Gea.

Now, Manchester United aside, here’s a group of those huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Benfica were in the Europa League semifinals last season, but that only proved they were the third best team in Portugal, although, at the moment, they are nipping at a weakened Porto’s heels.  Having signed Joan Capdevilla from Villareal and Ezequiel Garay from Real Madrid, when players of that ilk typically travel in the opposite direction, this is not a team to take lightly.  Belgian Axel Witsel is also a promising talent in the midfield.

You’d be forgiven for not giving FC Basel a second glance had you not watched this competition, last year.  Led by Marco Streller and Alex Frei, the Swiss champion didn’t progress but gave much better opposition a game every time out.  Expect the same again this year.

I was half tempted to do a Shearer, shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t know that much about Otelul Galati.  However, unlike the Geordie legend, Wiki doesn’t strike fear into my heart or impede on my golf time.  Thus, I can proudly recite that Otelul are Romanian champions and, unsurprisingly, are made up almost exclusively of Romanians, with three Serbs and a Czech goalkeeper most of you wouldn’t be familiar with added into the mix.  The club has sprinkled in some global influence, in the form of Argentine Gabriel Viglianti, Peruvian Daniel Chavez and Nigerian John Ibeh.  Haven’t heard of them, either?  Hmmph.  Maybe Shearer organises his time better than people think.

With this trio to contend with, Sir Alex Ferguson must be feeling quite pleased with the draw.  Given that City will have to bring their A-game every weeknight, while United will likely feature Michael Owen, Dimitar Berbatov, Park Ji-sung, Michael Carrick and several other reserves with regularity and still progress easily, the wily old Scot surely sees an advantage for his club as they attempt to fend off the ‘noisy neighbours’ in domestic competition.

Okay, having done with Wiki, I’ve now accessed a copy of the UEFA rulebook and nowhere inside does it say that Real Madrid must play Lyon in the Champions League every season.  So, what’s up with that, then?  The Spaniards finally got the better of the French side in the knockout round, last year, only to draw them in the group stage for ’11-12.  Still, better the enemy you know…

Los Blancos will also have a second date with Ajax, who joined them in ’10-11 to form the famous Group of Champions, along with AC Milan.   Overall, however, it shouldn’t be Jose Mourinho’s side concerned with progressing, with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, the in-form pair of Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, Angel di Maria and Mesut Özul in attack.  The Castilians will also be confident, having gained an early advantage over rivals Barcelona.

Although Dutch sides took a beating in the Europa League last season, Ajax weren’t one of the battered and bruised.  With Frank de Boer taking over for Martin Jol in mid-stream, the Amsterdammers didn’t get all their oars in the water until too late in the year.  Although Maarten Stekelenberg moved on to Roma in the summer, the club improved through the additions of Theo Janssen and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.

Lyon, on the other hand, stood pat.  New boss Remi Garde’s first order of business will be to coax better performances from Yohan Gourcuff than Claude Puel managed.  The club’s early chances will suffer from the absence of physical midfielder Lisandro Lopez, who is out for a month with an ankle injury.  So, for the moment at least, the smart money is on the two past European champions to move on.

Dinamo Zagreb, the Croatian champion are a slightly stronger version of Otelul Galati.  Dynastic within domestic confines, they simply don’t have the quality to do more than cause an upset or steal a point somewhere along the way.  At the moment, they are sniffing around Lyon, hoping that they might be able to sneak past the preoccupied Ligue 1 club.

The ugly duckling in Group E is Racing Genk.  The Belgian side are languishing in mid-table, having drawn half of their six league games in the early going.  Given that the Jupiler League champion replaced UAE bound manager Frank Vercauteren with Mario Been, who left Feyenoord in the summer after receiving a vote of no confidence from his players, there is a bit of ‘I told you so’ surrounding their current plight.  Been will have to make a positive impression quickly, if this side is to transform itself into a swan and fly on into the elimination rounds.

Like fellow Premiership title hopefuls, Man City, Chelsea are probably shaking their heads at a draw which places them in such a dangerous group, while Man United are seemingly cooling their heels in Group C.  The Blues are finding their stride in England, but it is still far from matching the leaps and bounds of the two Mancunian clubs.  Fernando Torres is beginning to settle in — at the end of the bench — while a cheeky Daniel Sturridge is making a case for being the first option in attack.  With Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka also in the picture, Juan Mata impressing immediately and John Terry helping out on the offensive end, new boss André Villas-Boas’ selection problems are by and large of the positive variety, but there is not much room for error.

Valencia are perfect in La Liga’s late starting campaign and Bayer Leverkusen, with a physically and verbally in-form Michael Ballack are right there in the Bundesliga.

Ever Banega, Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado have made Mestalla faithful forget the Davids, Silva and Villa, with Adil Rami arriving from Lille to create a formidable central midfield partnership with Hedwiges Maduro.  Los Che pushed Manchester United in the group stage last season and, being stronger this year, they will enjoy a crack at Chelsea.

New Leverkusen boss Robin Dutt feels some empathy for AS Roma gaffer Luis Enrique.  With Jupp Heynckes at Bayern and Sami Hyppia retired, Dutt has chosen Simon Rolfes to fill the void in leadership but the ever-ambitious Ballack has been speaking ‘for the club’ both in the press and on the pitch.  Dutt has had to pull on his reins more than once, but the competition has been healthy for the squad, so far.  Newcomer André ‘Don’t Call me’ Schürrle is a nice complement to fellow young gun Stefan Kieβling.  As long as the contentious factions in the side continue to pull in the same direction, Leverkusen will be a tough proposition for the rest of the group.

Group F seems to have been reserved for the fashionably late.  Arsenal, everyone knows about.  Losing your two most influential midfielders, playing an early scoreless draw with Newcastle, a loss to Liverpool, and an absolutely crushing defeat to United is not how a title contender expects to begin their season.  Yet, if you ask Arsene Wenger, the side’s confidence was totally restored by the narrow 1-0 win over newly promoted Swansea.  As they say in French:  <cough> –Bullshit!–<cough>

Yet, Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund are also languishing in mid-table after a slow start.  The sophomore blues have hit Jürgen Klopp’s youngsters, with Mario Götze, Lucas Barrios and Shinji Kagawa unable to match the torrid pace set by Bayern Munich.

Marseille, meanwhile, are five matches into the Ligue 1 season, and sit on the relegation bubble.  They’ve lost two straight, after opening with three draws, and the crowds at the Stade Velodrome are not happy.  Loic Remy, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Lucho Gonzalez should make an impressive attack force, but they’re not getting it done at the moment.

Greek side Olympiakos are the ultimate procrastinators in the group, however.  While Panathanaikos has won a perfect two of two in the Greek Super Lig, their rivals have yet to play a match.  So, as is àpropos in such circumstances, if you want a prediction on how this group will shake out, I’ll have to get back to you.

Okay, all you leftist guerillas and student activists out there, here’s the group for you!  There is no favourite in this quartet; no rich, fat cat, bourgeoisie, pet of the establishment, already assured of advancing into the lucrative elimination stage.

The closest thing to that is Porto, the defending Europa League champion.  Yet, the manager that masterminded their epic run is at Chelsea, spending Roman Abramovich’s new oligarchy billions — can you say irony?  As well, the striker who carried them to Irish glory — can you say oxymoron? — is at Atletico Madrid.  Porto is used to its players and coaches selling out to the man, though, so it’s no surprise that they are right at the top of the Portuguese Super Liga again this season.

Joining Porto in this socialist experiment are 2008 and 2009 UEFA Cup winners Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk, and APOEL.  The Nicosian side, which has dominated the Cypriot league since its inception, winning over twenty titles, may be a big fish in a little pond at home, but here they are very much the minnows.  Zenit have spent decades chasing after the scraps of the Muscovites, CSKA, Spartak, Dinamo and Lokomotiv, but, under first Dick Advocaat and now Luciano Spaletti, are creating a revolution in the Russian Premier League, while Shakhtar have done much the same by overtaking Dynamo Kiev, in the Ukraine.

As all of the contenders play an open attacking system, so this may be the most exciting group to watch, provided that you can suppress all those years of subliminal advertising, peer pressure and brand marketing with which Big Brother has indoctrinated you, in order to make you an unwitting pawn of the state.  Good luck with that.

Now, after a pair of very well-balanced foursomes, we return you to your normally scheduled, predictable Champions League group.  Barcelona, the new establishment in La Liga, are paired off with Serie A champion AC Milan, owned by one of Viagra’s biggest clients, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. With Lionel Messi, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas on one side and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Pato and Alberto Aquilani on the other, if either of these two Mediterranean giants fail to advance, I’ll eat my copy of Mao’s little red book.  Oh wait, mine was written by Harvey Penick.  You get the idea, though.

BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen, Belorussian and Czech champions, respectively, stand as much chance of progressing out of this group as Moammar al Gaddafi does to win a Nobel Peace Prize.  Essentially, the duo will be looking forward to playing each other, to see which will be given a second chance in the Europa League.   My vote is cast for BATE, who fought well in Europe last season, and are champions five times running, giving them a better measure of experience on the continental stage.

Try as I might, I just am not a radical at heart.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/09/12/the-system-isnt-perfect-a-2011-12-champions-league-preview/feed/ 0 The UEFA Manifesto resulteditor The UEFA Manifesto Champions league logo Group A Group B Group C Group D Group E Group F Group G Group H With A 2013 Wembley Champions League Final, Platini Extends An Olive Branch http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/17/with-a-2013-wembley-champions-league-final-platini-extends-an-olive-branch/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/17/with-a-2013-wembley-champions-league-final-platini-extends-an-olive-branch/#comments Fri, 17 Jun 2011 16:33:19 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=18379 Continue reading »]]> ________________________________________________________________________

Roughly a year ago, the World Cup kicked off in South Africa.  From a competitive standpoint, it was a forgettable chapter in English football history.  The confidence and swagger of the team which ripped through UEFA qualifying was torn asunder by the tabloid accusations against Three Lions Captain John Terry.  When the side failed to light up the Dark Continent, the pulp scavengers gleefully tore into Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, alleging similar transgressions to those they laid against Terry.  Then they decimated any chance the country had of landing the 2018 World Cup by running a sting against FIFA delegates Issa Hayatou and Reynald Temarii and rehashing ticket scalping allegations made against CONCACAF president Jack Warner.

Lost in all the furore over the England team’s woeful tournament was the success FIFA enjoyed in putting on the first African World Cup.  Admittedly, the organisation made a healthy profit and the continent did not suddenly evolve onto a democratic haven or burgeoning global economic force.  Yet, the massive support for Ghana, with citizens of every African nation behind them, suggests that the event had some positive impact on the region.

When the Black Stars lost in a heartbreaking – some would say criminal - fashion, there was no rioting, no violence and no bitterness.  The continent was happy to have seen one of their own fight bravely and, on even terms with the best the world had to offer.  Conversely, Wednesday evening saw fans of the national Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks riot in the streets, looting shops, overturning cars and setting fires, after their club lost another Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Finals, remaining winless in hockey’s greatest competition.  North American and European sports fans have been known to do this, both when winning and losing.  Ironic how the so-called downtrodden exhibit nobility in the same circumstances where those considered privileged succumb to savagery.

No surprise, then, that defeat to Russia and Qatar in December’s World Cup selections did not go down well in either England or the US.  Accusations of deceit, bribery and corruption were rife in the aftermath.  England felt that there was a legacy to be upheld, while the Americans simply believed they were the best economic option and what other criteria could possibly take precedence over the bottom line?

Neither nation bought into the concept that there was also a legacy in bringing the tournament to the Middle East for the first time or in forcing Russia to address its terrible record on racism by challenging them to put on a perfect spectacle for the planet, rather than denying it to them.  No, pride was injured, people were angry and they lashed out.

Former FA chief Lord Triesman used a Parliamentary platform to level damaging accusations at Qatar and FIFA.  CONCACAF’s American Secretary-General Chuck Blazer followed up by accusing his superior, the aforementioned Jack Warner, and FIFA Presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of bribing several members of the Caribbean Football Union.  The accusers briefly thought they had caught the man they most wanted to pull down, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, who had lobbied influentially for both Russia and Qatar.  Instead, wily Sepp sprang the trap and walked away with an unopposed fourth term as FIFA President.

When I look at some of the events which have taken place away from football since the failed bids, I almost think that Blatter deserves his victory, however much graft and impropriety may have been behind it.  It seems to me that Qatar’s triumph had some little influence on the regional populace.  Citizens in larger countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya had to have thought that if a tiny emirate like Qatar could claim such an honour, then their own possibilites would be limitless if they were only free to act.  While the World Cup may not have been the banner around which oppressed Arabs and North Africans rallied, it was, I believe, one of the inspirational events which helped to bring about the Arab Spring.

Not every uprising has been a success and many have died.  Still, there can be no denying that an unforeseen change is taking place.  If Qatar hosting the World Cup played any part in improving the lives of so many people, who are we to belittle Sepp Blatter’s role in that?  Morally flawed leaders throughout history have been recognised for their greatness, despite their peccadilloes.  For the Christian world, it stretches at least as far back as King David, who was happy to line his pockets while building a nation, and did Blatter one better by lifting the veil of every curvaceous lady who caught his eye.  As much as some may shudder to think of the possibility, historians may look upon Sepp Blatter as a heroic figure.

Of course, we’re free to despise him in the interim and take heart from the knowledge that his fourth term will be his last.  With that in mind and also considering that Lord Triesman and Chuck Blazer’s machinations seem to have put paid to bin Hammam’s ambitions, the stage appears set for UEFA President Michel Platini to inherit the FIFA Presidency in 2015.   While the former Les Bleus midfield engineer has declined to step in sooner, preferring to see through the implementation of his Financial Fair Play initiative, that economic handbook is just the type of discipline and transparency for which everyone interested in the game seems to be calling.

Platini has pointedly not ruled out ever seeking football’s top post, merely preferring to take care of unfinished business first.  Thus, awarding England the 2013 Champions League Final, only two years after they have just hosted another, is possibly a long-term political strategy to begin consolidating his support.  Yet, at the same time it is a constructive and heartwarming gesture.  The Frenchman, without any public pressure, has shown the respect for England’s football heritage that the FA had hoped to receive from FIFA delegates before Christmas.

“There are always many candidates for the Champions League final and the Congress but this is to mark the special year of the English FA. Founded in 1863, the Football Association is the oldest of all the national football associations and in 2013 it will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Given the exceptional nature of this historic moment in our beautiful game, and the fact that we will also celebrate 150 years of the Laws of the Game, we felt it was our duty at UEFA to help the FA celebrate in some special way. For this reason we have decided to return to England and specifically to Wembley Stadium – the home of the English FA – for the 2013 UEFA Champions League final. In addition we will also hold the XXXVII Ordinary UEFA Congress in London in the days leading up to the UEFA Champions League final.” 

Unprovoked kindnesses from Frenchmen towards the English don’t occur everyday.  England now find themselves in Platini’s debt.  His message is clear.  UEFA respects that England gave the world the beautiful game and, regardless of all the difficult times and misunderstandings which have occurred since, remains grateful for such a wonderful gift.  A hand has been offered in friendship.  Now the pressure is on the FA to put aside enmities and work with UEFA and FIFA, too, as a full partner in the betterment of the world’s game.

With two Champions League Finals bookending an Olympic Games in 2012, Londoners, as well as the rest of the UK, should feel special over this three-year stretch.  The challenge will be to remember who their friends are afterwards.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/17/with-a-2013-wembley-champions-league-final-platini-extends-an-olive-branch/feed/ 0 Wembley pride resulteditor Wembley pride Champions league logo blatter legacy cameron, platini
WFC’s 2010-11 UEFA Yearbook: Club Most Likely To Spend Big Over The Summer http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/09/wfcs-2010-11-uefa-yearbook-club-most-likely-to-spend-big-over-the-summer/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/09/wfcs-2010-11-uefa-yearbook-club-most-likely-to-spend-big-over-the-summer/#comments Thu, 09 Jun 2011 17:10:31 +0000 The WFC Staff http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=18141 Continue reading »]]> _________________________________________________________________

Big Ro and Manny may be the last of the Big Time Spenders, when it comes to player transfers.  That’s because Mickey Blue Eyes has laid down the law.  Okay, okay, so Michel Platini has brown eyes. Geez, you can’t get away with anything, anymore.

That is the point behind this chapter of the UEFA Yearbook, however.  UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules will likely kill off the mega-transfer deal and this is the last window where teams will be able to spend big.  So, expect the summer to be full of big name transfers.

At the writing, Liverpool had already coughed up £20 million plus David Ngog for Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson, Manchester United were strongly linked to Blackburn’s Phil Jones, allegedly for £16 million and Bayern Munich spent most of the spring negotiating an €18 million deal with Schalke for Manuel Neuer.  As well, Miroslav Klose has moved to Lazio on a free transfer and Swiss midfielder Gokhan Inler will be heading from Udinese to Napoli, after a €20 million fee was agreed by the clubs.

Why will this be the last free-spending window?  After all, UEFA has no say in the business of individual leagues.  Technically, teams can invest as they see fit.

The catch is that, beginning in the 2013-14 season, a club’s balance sheet will have to virtually free of loss in order to receive a license to play in Europe.  In 2018, no team with a negative profit will be permitted to play in the Champions or Europa Leagues.  Up until now, as Real Mallorca discovered to their regret, administration was the only thing that could keep you out of Europe.  Eligibility for 2013-14, though, will be determined by a club’s 2011-12 and 2012-13 balance sheets and a losing record won’t do.  So, if any manager is desperate for a player, this is the last chance to get him before the long arm of the law bars the way.

Extravagant Chairmen are going to have to find something else to throw at their problems.

The idea behind the initiative is not only to promote fiscal responsibility but to close the gap between big and small clubs, making the continental competitions all the more difficult and unpredictable.  If a Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour want a marquee player in the future, they’ll have to carefully consider how much they’re willing to spend.  If they bid too high, they might not earn the revenues to cover the cost and, thus, would be denied a license to compete in the Champions or Europa League for the coming season.  Meanwhile, if a smaller club, such as Palermo, would like to hold on to an eagerly sought after player, say Javier Pastore, they can set a price which will truly discourage any interested buyers.   Of course, Maurizio Zamparini has been doing that, loudly, every week for the entire 2010-11 season, so maybe the Rosanero were a poor example.

Critics of Platini’s legislation complain that the big clubs, with larger stadiums and far more lucrative sponsorships will still be able to outspend their lesser cousins and subsequently be permanently locked into the top spots.  As well, there is the Bosman rule to consider.  If a player wants to move, he can refuse to play and the club may be forced to accept the best offer they can get.   The rich will get richer and the poor will rue the day they supported Mickey Brown Eyes’ candidacy.

So, which clubs will be getting in their last licks this summer?  The cracked WFC staff is here with a short list of the most likely suspects.

Internazionale

Simply put, Massimo Moratti will not be happy with finishing eight points behind his noisy neighbours AC Milan.  After struggling for decades to get the upper hand on the Rossoneri and Juventus, a five-year run at the top of Serie A, replete with a Champions League title, actually seems too short a time to the proud Inter President.

I predict millions of Euros being handed to the manager, who it appears will be Leonardo – the Coppa d’Italia seemingly enough to warrant his being given a full season in charge.   Nothing less than a Scudetto will be acceptable in 2011-12, however.

As with Chelsea, Inter’s Mourinho leftovers are getting older, especially on the back line, although thirty-seven-year-old Javier Zanetti looks fit enough to outlast Ryan Giggs.  Maicon, while just 29, was badly exposed by Gareth Bale, and then Robinho and Antonio Cassano in the past campaign.  The health of Lucio and Walter Samuel, both thirty-three, are question marks and Marco Materazzi, thirty-seven, will surely not be sitting at the end of the bench, dreaming up new pranks, for yet another season.

There is also the question of whether they’ll be able to keep mid-field wizard Wesley Sneijder from Manchester United’s clutches.  If they don’t, the attack-minded Leonardo will be desperate to fill the gap immediately.

Knowing the shenanigans that go on in Italy, Inter will find a way around the Fair Play rules, but to be ‘fair’ does anyone actually understand them? That will be Moratti’s excuse anyway. – Andrew Gibney

Olympique Lyonnais

Looking at the Ligue 1 table, Lyon haven’t had that bad a season. However, another campaign devoid of trophies has definitely annoyed chairman Jean-Michel Aulas, even if he won’t openly admit it.  If you think Massimo Moratti is greedy for not being satisfied by a five-year run, Les Gones’ seven-year French dynasty positively spoilt their chairman.  This means that departures (and arrivals) this summer are all but certain.

Manager Claude Puel, who has already stated that he may move, could be the first to go, after a poor three-year record with the former champions. If he is sacked, he may be followed through the exit door by some of his unhappy stars, such as Michel Bastos, who is linked with a move to Serie A.

This may add to the existing holes in the squad but, luckily for OL supporters, Aulas’ deep pockets don’t seem to have any. Lisandro Lopez, Yoann Gourcuff and Bastos himself have all commanded sizeable fees in recent years, so I’d back a similar, likely more intense, raid of opposing Ligue 1 clubs by Aulas in the coming weeks. – Tapesh Patel

I’ll start by admitting I don’t really know what the FIFA Fair Play Initiative is, or whether that’s even its proper title. Nor do I have any desire to find out. As me mum’s Labi Siffre record bleats out, ‘The more you take our spending rights away/ the more loopholes we shall seek’. Or something along those lines.

What I can do is list the clubs who definitely won’t break the rules:

Manchester United – Whether they are £700m in debt and still scraping by with the Ronaldo money, let’s call them ‘Cristieuros’, is a moot point.  What’s clearer, and less controversial, is that they don’t need to spend big, with Javier Hernandez, Chris Smalling, Anderson, the da Silva boys and Jonny Evans (yes, Jonny Evans) all still getting better.  Although Evans may have some competition from Phil Jones, this summer.

So, expect only two important purchases from Sir Alex Ferguson this summer.  One will be a keeper, probably David de Gea, although he seems to have a bug up his arse about coming to Old Trafford.  Then, in spite of all the hullabaloo surrounding Wesley Sneijder as a replacement for the dinosaurs currently roaming the center of the Old Trafford pitch, Fergie will continue to think young and sign Steven Defour, from Standard Liege.  I know, I know.  A twenty-three-year-old from the Belgian League hardly seems the player to be found at the heart of the United attack but Defour is capable; he has been the captain of Les Rouches since he was nineteen.  Trust me on this.  I’m only pretending to be adolescent.

Manchester City – Am I the only one smart enough to realise the blue half of Manchester only need a couple of new faces? Apparently not: I just logged into Twitter to check out what Rio’s having for supper and to indulge in some of the Neville brothers’ brilliant banter, and there’s some poncy journalist out there, by the name of Iain Macintosh, and he’s spouting out something about City having ‘holstered their scattergun’. Fancy way of copying my thoughts, although how he knew what I was thinking escapes me.  Have to pay more attention to who’s on the stool next to me, I suppose.  Anyway, like United, City have improving youngsters in Adam Johnson, Mario Balotelli, Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards.  Roberto Mancini will make one or two signings at most, Carlos Tevez or no Carlos Tevez.

Chelsea – Like Jermaine and Bret from Flight of the Conchords – sick show, that – Chelsea have parted with all their pocket-money in one go and on an ill-fitting purchase. There will be no more spending until they’ve worn out Nando completely (about another six months, then). That is, unless they can find a bargain down the local Christian Aid charity shop. [Hint, hint.]

Liverpool – Sure, they’ve reinvested Torres’ money on two, younger, better models. Wise move. Their new owners seem too boring sensible to keep spending like this, but with Damien Comolli in charge of transfers I think they’ll be OK.  I’ll stick my neck out and wager that they’ll manage to finish ahead of the Frenchman’s old team next year.  What’s that?  Comolli splurged on Jordan Henderson to the tune of twenty mil?  Oh.  Never mind, then.

Arsenal – Despite having more leeway now that his hands are no longer tied by the costly construction of the Emirates, Arsene Wenger won’t splurge this year. Because he’s une tête de mule.

So who will spend big? Well, it looks like Liverpool, doesn’t it?  But, since I followed Alan Shearer’s example and refused to do any proper research, I say we’ll just have to wait and see.  I learnt this laissez-faire, plans are for pussies approach from watching The Apprentice’s Edward Hunter. Missed the end, anyone know how he’s getting on? — Jude Ellery

Barcelona – What?  Am I crazy?  Barcelona is perfect.  They’d never overspend or stretch the rules.  Not even an inch.  Not with that UNICEF brand across their chests.  Oh, wait.  They’re moving on from that, aren’t they? In 2011-12, they’ll happily to accept €150 million from the Qatari Foundation to push the children to the side.

What’s more, they’ll need the money if they keep agreeing €40+ million deals for players that they only keep for a season, mostly on the bench yet, while throwing strikers who have notched Champions League winning goals into the bargain.  According to published reports, the club has lost €83 and €21 million, respectively, in the last two seasons.

To be fair, that shows that Barça is moving towards compliance with Financial Fair Play but not exactly at a hurried pace.  The Catalans have just announced a €45 million transfer budget for the summer.  As well, they have been strongly linked to both Alexis Sánchez and Giuseppe Rossi, after also adding Ibrahim Afellay in the January window.  All of this despite the incredible success of their academy, La Masia, and the fact that, other than captain Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez, none of their key starters is even thirty years of age.

So, why are they spending at all?  If any club should be doing an Arsene Wenger and sitting on their cash, it’s the European champions.  It would seem that the pressure of Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid coming up fast in the rear-view may be causing a bit of a panic. – Martin Palazzotto

On Saturday, keep an eye out for the sixth instalment in WFC’s 2010-11 UEFA Year Book:  Player Most Likely To Make A Big Splash In The Summer Transfer Window.

In the meantime, you can read the previous chapters in the UEFA Yearbook by clicking on the links below.

          1. Most Memorable Moments
          2. Most Forgettable Moments
          3. Player Not Named Messi Or Ronaldo Most Likely To Win Ballon d’Or
          4. Club Most Likely to Win the 2012 Champions League

Enjoy!


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WFC’s 2010-11 UEFA Yearbook: Club Most Likely To Win The 2012 Champions League http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/07/wfcs-2010-11-uefa-yearbook-club-most-likely-to-win-the-2012-champions-league/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/07/wfcs-2010-11-uefa-yearbook-club-most-likely-to-win-the-2012-champions-league/#comments Tue, 07 Jun 2011 22:03:36 +0000 The WFC Staff http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=18096 Continue reading »]]> ________________________________________________________________________

The Champions League Final was played just a fortnight ago.  In its wake, it is difficult to criticise the popular opinion that Barcelona are going to become the first club to defend that title since AC Milan did the deed at the end of the ’80s, with a squad that included a young Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, on the cusp of thirty, at the back, future managers Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Donadoni in the midfield and, providing the flair, the Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten.  That no one has repeated the feat in over two decades indicates just how great that squad was and how competitive UEFA has since become.

So can Barcelona manage the near impossible?

Well, unlike previous champions, Inter, Barça’s coach is going nowhere.  Pep Guardiola may feel the need to prove that he can build another dynasty from something other than the Blaugrana blueprint.  That is why he insists on rolling one-year contract extensions.  Yet, at every season’s end, he rediscovers that there is no other place he’d rather be. Pep came up through La Masia.  He knows the strength of that academy, none better.  He matured on Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team and could step into the current line-up and distribute the ball blindfolded.  Camp Nou, simply put, is home and for Guardiola, ruby slippers or not, there is no place like home.

Nor should there be any important departures from within the squad.  In fact, there might be a couple of significant additions, if the rumours regarding Alexis Sánchez and Giuseppe Rossi hold any water. If the Catalans actually improve, it might actually be impossible for any club to catch them.

However, our cracked staff of WFC bloggers have identified three clubs who have the potential to trip up the world’s undisputed heavyweight – figuratively, not literally – side.  Want to know who they are and how they might manage it?  Read on, MacDuff…

Manchester United

Truthfully, I can’t see beyond Barcelona.  However, if Sir Alex Ferguson can identify and recruit the proper reinforcements this summer, Manchester United may go one better than the past season. Rightfully, they are currently the second best side in Europe, although Real Madrid may want to say something about that.

But as the Scot has pointed out, his side has, in recent years, worked out the right formula to compete in Europe. In this just finished campaign, they won all their away games without conceding. In fact only Barcelona and Bayern Munich can say they have beaten the English side in Europe over the past two campaigns.

The one conundrum Sir Alex must solve is how to beat Barcelona when they’re in at their irresistible best. In a game that matters, notably in the knockout rounds, luck can be a factor but one that is minute.  What Fergie needs is the talent to compete with Barça in midfield, presuming the sides do meet again.  With Paul Scholes retiring and one and two other question marks – Ryan Giggs, anyone? – This may be the summer in which United finally address their weakest area, central midfield. – Tapesh Patel

- Editor’s note – Well, that was logical, considered and well thought out.  Here’s Jude Ellery, still in character, to present the same argument without all that unnecessary stuff. - 

Come on, give me something difficult! Manchester United is going to blow the field away.  Why?  Because I support them and can’t imagine anyone else winning anything.  Ever. It’s that simple.  We dominate football and we will do forever, because that’s how it works.

Huh? What do you mean, Fergie will retire soon and then where will we be?  Who said that?  Whoever you are, you don’t know anything!  Fergie is going to live forever, if only to stop Arsene Wenger from ever winning another trophy.  You probably like some French team that thinks it’s actually Spanish, like Valenciennes or somebody. What do they ever do in Europe?

Look, it’s really simple, so I’ll spell it out for you.  The better your club, the more you know about football and the more obnoxious you can be. It’s kind of like Rule One of being a casual fan.  And, if I’m anything, I’m a casual fan! – Jude Ellery

Chelsea 

There is every chance that this summer could see a bit of a rebuilding process at Stamford Bridge. Of course without knowing who they will or won’t sign makes it difficult to predict but I can’t imagine Guus Hiddink, or whoever the new manager turns out to be, not demanding funds to build a team in their own image.

And, if Roman Abramovich gets the ideal man, I can’t see him refusing.  Frank Lampard is slowing down, John Terry is becoming all bark and no bite and Fernando Torres is becoming quite the embarrassment.  It’s time for the next generation.   Bring on Daniel Sturridge.  Bring on Neymar.  Bring on a winning side.

Especially if the man in charge is Hiddink, a busy summer of buying and selling will likely be in the offing.   Don’t be surprised if Chelsea come out smelling of roses come September the 1st and go on to finally lift the Champions League Trophy.
 — Andrew Gibney

Real Madrid 

There is a reason that Barcelona are going after more than one big name this summer.  It’s not that they’re weak in any area or getting old.  Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and the rest are all still in their mid-to-late twenties.  The problem is Jose Mourinho and Real Madrid.

Xavi, who rarely makes any public criticism, recently came out and said that he much preferred Man United’s approach to the Meringues’.   He said, as most proponents of tick-a-tack do, that the English side “played” football.  Read into that  the insinuation that the Special One’s charges don’t.  Negative tactics, to the positive mind, do not belong.  It’s almost as if they cannot comprehend anything beyond their own existence.  That is understandable but it is also blinding oneself to reality.

Ultimately, we live in a binary world.  For every positive, there is a negative.  Up down, in, out, man, woman - I won’t say which is which on that count! – winners, losers, Barcelona, Real Madrid.  The aspect of proper negative tactics which particularly perturbs Xavi is that they naturally cancel out the positive variety, creating a neutrality.  Nobody likes to be neutered.  Just ask Fido.

And the Prince of Darkness shall walk the touch line again!

This season under Mourinho, Los Blancos went from being blanked 5-0 at the Nou Camp, to drawing 1-1 in the return match.  Then they actually won the Copa del Rey.  They had also effectively neutralised the Catalans for much of the first leg of the Champions League semi-final, at the Santiago Bernabeu, until the entire match disintegrated and Pepe was sent off.  An argument can be made that the Nou Camp reprise might have gone very differently, had certain calls gone the other way.

This is not to say that Madrid are already better than their rivals.  I’m very fond of quoting the famous wrestler Nature Boy Rick Flair, who, when he wasn’t tilting his head back to let out a big “Wooooo!”, was fond of saying that “To be the man, you have to beat the man!”  For Real, the Copa del Rey victory is nullified by a 1-2-2 record and 3-9 aggregate score on the year against their Clasico sparring partners.  They aren’t the man, yet, but they’re getting there.

The additions of Nuri Sahin and Hamit Altintop add players to the squad who have flair in possession and grit and determination out of it.  Add to that the anticipated arrival of left back Fabio Coentrao and a yet-to-be-named front man and you can expect Real to not only ask questions of the Blaugrana but to give them the fifth degree.  Mourinho is perfecting his anti-football but also adding some punch to an already dangerous line-up.  Close examination says that it is inevitable that the Portuguese’s third Champions League title and the Madridista’s tenth is not far off.

No wonder, Barcelona is stockpiling talent. – Martin Palazzotto

On Thursday, keep an eye out for the fifth instalment in WFC’s 2010-11 UEFA Year Book:  Club Most Likely To Spend Big & Run Afoul Of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules.

In the meantime, you can read the previous chapters in the UEFA Yearbook by clicking on the links below.

          1. Most Memorable Moments
          2. Most Forgettable Moments
          3. Player Not Named Messi Or Ronaldo Most Likely To Win Ballon d’Or

Enjoy!


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It’s Been A Week Since Man United Lost & I Still Think Fergie Was Wrong http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/04/its-been-a-week-since-man-united-lost-i-still-think-fergie-was-wrong/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/06/04/its-been-a-week-since-man-united-lost-i-still-think-fergie-was-wrong/#comments Sat, 04 Jun 2011 21:36:24 +0000 Sean O'Brien http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=17645 Continue reading »]]> ________________________________________________________________________

Nani has stated that he believes United can beat Barcelona next year and I agree with him. In fact, I think United could have beaten Barcelona this year, although it would have been a one-in-ten type of result. Nani’s faith in next year might fall under the same category but forecasting the next 12 months is a pointless exercise. More interesting is what Sir Alex Ferguson could have done to give his team a better chance to win Saturday’s game.

To my mind, since Fergie is regarded as one of the best 2 or 3 managers in the world, the fact that he made a huge mistake in the lead up to the Champions League Final is being overlooked or brushed to the side. That mistake is simple – leaving Dimitar Berbatov off the squad completely.

Can you imagine any other manager leaving the (joint) Golden Boot Winner off of the squad for the biggest game of the year? Admittedly, Berbatov’s replacement in the line-up, Javier Hernandez, has been playing excellently and has more than justified his inclusion in the line-up. I don’t blame Sir Alex for not starting Berbatov but leaving him off the squad completely is inexcusable.

Berbatov’s approach to football is viewed by many in England as lazy and disinterested, his style flying in the face of the dedicated work rate that is so valued in the UK. In contrast, Hernandez’s frenetic pace and constant running epitomize what the typical English punter looks for in his football hero. With such an attitude, United fans would be making a complete flip to call out Ferguson for not subbing Berbatov in for Chicharito.

As well, we’re talking about Sir Alex Bloody Ferguson here.  Twenty-three seasons.  Twenty-three trophies.  Calling him out for screwing up is simply unheard of. Ferguson is too respected. Too feared. He doesn’t screw up.

As I said above, I understand why Ferguson began playing Chicharito more and more towards the end of the season, as well as why he started him in the final. He’s young, energetic, popular and successful. But leaving Berbatov off the squad was simply an error and betrayed a bit of Sir Alex’s usually well-hidden megalomania.

There is no other way to describe it. When United was struggling (by their standards), early in the season, Berbatov became an unlikely savior and netted 20 goals by the end of the season, good enough to earn him a share of the EPL’s Golden Boot Award, as previously noted. What makes this number even more impressive is that his season was essentially ended early, when Hernandez was worked into the squad and began to thrive.

His tally of 13 goals in 27 appearances is also very impressive, especially considering it was his first year in the notoriously ruthless EPL. Because of this success, I don’t fault Fergie for sticking with Hernandez and starting him in the CL Final. The problem was the lack of options on the bench in case things went south for United in the Final.

Ferguson stated after the match that he decided to load his bench with midfielders so as to have more options to combat Barcelona’s midfield.  Not a bad idea, although this left him with only one spot each for a defender and a forward, leaving him to choose between Berbatov and Owen.

"As one Fergie speaking for another, I would have picked Owen over Berbatov, too. I mean, they're both sexy but Michael has such great hair!"

After the match, the manager claimed that he chose Owen because “if you are looking for someone to nick a goal in the last few minutes you want Owen’s experience.” Now, since United being down and having trouble creating chances towards the end of the game was not exactly a surprising turn of events, experience is a good criteria on which to choose your substitutes.

Someone who could go in for Hernandez, knowing how to cause problems for the Barcelona defense might have altered the outcome of the game tremendously. However, there is a big flaw in Ferguson’s choice, Owen’s “experience” at United has come almost entirely against weaker sides in comparatively meaningless matches, rather than against the best sides on the continent.

When examined closely, it becomes clear that Berbatov was left out simply due to the fact that he had fallen out of favor with Ferguson and the Scot had closed his mind on the matter.  That is surprising from such an accomplished manager, especially as the two players’ careers are traveling in diametrically opposed directions.

Owen burst onto the scene in 1997 for Liverpool and spent the next 7 years cementing his status as an Anfield legend. He won the Ballon d’Or in 2001 but then moved on to Real Madrid in 2004. He spent one year on the Bernabeu bench before joining Newcastle, who basically paid him to be injured for 4 years.  Finally, last year he came to United and has shown himself to be exactly what he is – an aged striker who has lost the skills that were the keys to his early success. He scored just 5 goals this year, none of which were in European competition.

On the other hand, Berbatov has worked his way up, playing for CSKA Sofia, Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham Hotspur before signing with United. Berbatov struggled somewhat in his first two years at Old Trafford before exploding this year. In addition to that more upward trend, he was used as a substitute two years ago in Rome when Manchester United faced Barcelona in the Champions League Final.  If you ask me, having played in the Champions League Final against Barcelona once already seems like pretty good experience if you are preparing to do it again.

Barcelona’s second half was an absolute masterpiece, but if Berbatov had been subbed in for Hernandez (who was absent aside from a few offsides early on), he might have made an impact. Hernandez is an energetic, youthful poacher whose success is thus far largely a product of his ability to get to capitalize on chances very close to the goal.  The Catalan’s defence by possession rendered Hernandez invisible by not allowing United to get the ball far enough up the field to get him properly involved. Aside from Rooney’s goal, their deepest penetration was on the two occasions when Victor Valdes punched the ball away at the edge of his area.

Had Owen come on, he would have been an older slower version of Chicharito.  How would that have helped?

Berbatov is a much different player. His experience and high football IQ would have provided Barcelona with a different problem to solve. he is also capable of coming back and holding the ball very well under pressure.  Odds are that it wouldn’t have mattered but if you are looking for an ace-in-the-hole who could score a goal to change the game, an experienced player who won the Premier League’s Golden Boot isn’t a bad option.

Instead of this, Sir Alex Ferguson opted to select an aged veteran who he know wouldn’t play because he couldn’t be effective. My CV wouldn’t get me hired as a manager in a five-a-side community housing league, yet I can’t help thinking that United would have been better served by Berbatov’s presence on the bench.  At the least, it would have been interesting to find out.


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European Lights: Barcelona, Messi Shine Brightest http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/31/european-lights-barcelona-messi-shine-brightest/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/31/european-lights-barcelona-messi-shine-brightest/#comments Tue, 31 May 2011 21:37:17 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=17672 Continue reading »]]> ________________________________________________________________________

The dust has finally settled on another Champions League campaign, many fans and experts alike will be happy to see Barcelona lift the trophy after playing the best football throughout most of the competition. It may have soured a little with the antics against Real Madrid but the best of the Blaugrana was displayed on the Wembley stage and they thoroughly deserved to be crowned champions of Europe.

Questions remain over the future of the club. Will Pep Guardiola continue for another year? In the joy of the moment, he says yes (!) but the contract remains to be signed.

Will the players have the desire to again climb the highest mountain of continued success? How long can they maintain their dominance over Spain and Europe? The rapturous media believes that no one can stop them in the foreseeable future but, when it really comes down to it, who knows what is going to happen when they walk out the door to work in the morning?  Certainly, Jose Mourinho and a busily improving Real Madrid are eager for another crack at their old rivals.

It is easy to talk about how good Barcelona were, and we will but let’s look at their opponents on the night,Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson said in the lead up that he had learnt his lesson from the 2-0 defeat in Rome. Looking at the 3-1 score line from Saturday instantly puts doubt to his observations.

After most defeats, the first thing to do is question the tactic and line-up so let’s.  Playing what was a 4-4-1-1 Ferguson left Giggs and Carrick 2 v 3 against Iniesta, Busquets and Xavi, instant suicide. Usually against Arsenal – who are probably the closest to Barça in the PL – Ferguson will start in a 4-5-1 and pack the midfield so it was surprising not to see this sort of set up. Perhaps with Park, Giggs and Carrick in the middle they could have limited the time the Barça midfield had on the ball.

Obviously the pressure was on for Javier Hernandez to start after his great form of late but to sacrifice the midfield to play two upfront was the move that gave United no chance in the final. United started the game very well, pressuring Barcelona all over the pitch and for 10 minutes, as in Rome, it worked to great effect and Barça failed to settle.

Eventually, the Spanish champions took control and limited the amount of the ball United saw. Rooney became a figure of frustration and Hernandez basically disappeared. No disgrace to the young Mexican but this wasn’t going to be his night.

The pre-match decision to leave Dimitar Berbatov out of the squad seemed to come back to haunt Sir Alex. Hernandez and Rooney worked well at the start but once the team had gone in level for me it was time to change the tactic. Sir Alex simply moved Park inside and Giggs outside; ultimately this led to Barça’s second, with Giggs not there to close down Messi.

Perhaps there was a case for Berbatov to come on at half time and get his foot on the ball. Although he is not a typical number 9 he does do a very good job holding onto the ball and creating some chances. Rooney could have played off the Bulgarian and perhaps cause the Catalan defence some problems. Instead, United’s second half was spent chasing shadows.

Back to the worthy winners. It was a superb performance from Pep Guardiola’s side. After the scores were brought level through Rooney’s excellent strike, Barcelona took control and United never looked like threatening again. Busquets controlled the midfield and started the majority of their moves. Xavi and Iniesta were majestic – the little tiki-taka passes were in full flow – and Pedro and Messi continued to find space around the defence to operate.

Two superb goals from Messi and Villa were enough to separate the sides and in the end it was an impressive win for the Spanish champions. United did give a better account of themselves over the 90 minutes, the second time around but remain light-years away from Barça’s level.

Messi’s goal has led to a revival of the “Best Ever” conversations which surround the Lego master.  Winning a World Cup does not come into the discussion anymore, if it ever should have, given that Johan Cruyff is often brought up in this debate.  Regardless, the Champions League is now football’s elite tournament, the opponents are tougher and form has to stretch over a whole season. For Messi to have two winners’ medals in his pocket at the age of 23 means he should now be included in the Maradona/Pele conversation. He may not win it yet but he is certainly in the race.  One has to wonder, though, if the lucky fellow below was aware of what would occur on a balmy May evening not too far from Hackney Marshes in just eight and a half months?

So that’s it for another year of European nights.  Whoever is last off the pitch, turn off the flood-lights, will you?


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Barcelona Leave Man United In Their Wake Again http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/28/barcelona-leave-man-united-in-their-wake-again/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/28/barcelona-leave-man-united-in-their-wake-again/#comments Sat, 28 May 2011 23:47:47 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=17571 Continue reading »]]> _______________________________________________________________________

If Manchester United were going to win the Champions League Final against Barcelona, even at Wembley, they needed to be at the top of their game.  Unfortunately for them, it was the Blaugrana who were perfectly in tune.  United were more determined, playing much stronger than in the 2-0 loss in Rome, two years ago.  Still, Barça, who cruised to victory at the Stadio Olimpico, put it into overdrive in the second half in London, pulling away for a 3-1 confirmation of their superiority.

There can be no criticising the Catalan’s approach to the match, either.  Despite Man U’s early pressure, with Park Ji-Sung picking Dani Alves’ pocket almost immediately, Pep Guardiola’s side remained calm and did not revert to the antics which, in tandem with Real Madrid, disgraced their semi-final opening leg.  Sergio Busquets did cover his face early on, a trademark routine from him, but this time he had the valid excuse of being mashed in the puss by an errant ball.

The visitors soaked up the opening onslaught and, by the ten minute mark, were beginning to settle into their typical control of possession.  Lionel Messi and David Villa were both able to penetrate the box and it was United’s captain, Nemanja Vidic, whose precisely timed tackling kept the first of many probings from drawing blood.

In fact, with no play acting from Barcelona and little extracurricular contact from the Red Devils, the quality on offer in this final was heaven-sent.  The only player struggling with his interventions was Antonio Valencia, who, more than once in the first half could have been booked for taking down Messi.  The Ecuadorian just wasn’t up to his recent form in this match, on either side of the ball.  Of course, when you’re assigned to man-mark the FIFA World Player of the Year, a struggle is not unexpected.

Pedro trumps Chicharito

One of the anticipated advantages for United, coming into the match, was the big-goal prowess of young Mexican forward Javier Hernandez.  Yet, he and Wayne Rooney, who have partnered well throughout the season, couldn’t seem to synchronise their thoughts on this night.

Instead, it was Barcelona’s young scoring sensation Pedro, who found the target, opening the scoring just before the half-hour, finding open space in the box and accepting Xavi’s pass after the midfielder had worked his way deep.

With two key players, in Chicharito and Valencia, misfiring, being a goal down did not bode well for Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad.  Rooney, though, wasn’t going down easily.  If the youngsters were nervous, he’d turn to the veterans.  Working a pair of give-and-goes with first Michael Carrick and then Ryan Giggs, Rooney maneuvered into the box and slotted past Victor Valdes to equalise less than ten minutes after Barça had gone in front.

Rooney leveler

In the second half, Barcelona tightened their grip on possession.  Ten minutes after the restart, Messi slipped past Patrice Evra and curled a twenty yard shot past Edwin van der Sar, one talisman cancelling out the effort of the other.

Behind again, United began to exhibit frustration with their inability to win back the ball.  Rather than begin movements of their own, they began to hit more long balls before the mid field could move up the pitch in support of Rooney and Hernandez.

Fergie moved to make his first change of the match, bringing on Nani for Fabio and shifting an ineffective Valencia to the full back position.  Unfortunately, the Portuguese let him down, quickly coughing up the ball to Xavi and then which resulted in a goal for David Villa.

Messi reveler

Now down two goals, Rooney tried to break through the Blaugrana defence again.  This time, though, he did not enjoy the support he had in the first half.  Giggs seemingly ran out of gas, after trying to match the pace of Dani Alves and Andres Iniesta for an hour and Carrick was labouring.  Park moved into the middle for Giggs but the home side couldn’t fashion another fight back like the memorable victory over Bayern Munich.

With the match in the books, Barcelona will celebrate but both sides will look ahead to next year.

Fergie will almost certainly be looking to improve his midfield.  Paul Scholes will be leaving, Ryan Giggs is finally beginning to show signs of age, Darren Fletcher is still a doubt after being stricken by an undiagnosed virus and Nani’s gaffe may have shaken the marginal confidence the Scot has in him.  Worse, Owen Hargreaves was never able to overcome his injuries, managing only to qualify as a home-grown player under the Premier League’s new squad rules.

In the end and despite appearances, it's Fergie who's seething and Pep who can relax.

The overhaul in the middle of the pitch will only put more pressure on the club’s new goalkeeper, whether or not it turns out to be the young and relatively inexperienced David de Gea.  On top of all that, both Fergie and Dimitar Berbatov will have to come to terms, or part ways, after the Bulgarian allegedly left Wembley after being left entirely out of the squad for the Final.

The forecast sounds grim for United but it is best remembered that the club was largely written off after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, just when Liverpool had pushed them to the brink.  Instead the Red Devils finished a point behind Chelsea for the league and claimed the Carling Cup, while it was the Anfield outfit who crumbled.  It may finally be time to spend some of that Ronaldo swag, this summer, but don’t expect United to be anywhere else than in the thick of it, next season.

For Barcelona, ironically, there is nowhere to go but down.  Just as in 2009, the Catalans are already being hailed to repeat their Champions League glory in the next campaign.  Other than the possibility of the thirty-three-year-old and increasingly brittle Carles Puyol yielding more and more minutes to Javier Mascherano, the squad is unlikely to change significantly.

What will be different is that Jorge Valdano is no longer Sporting Director at Real Madrid, with Jose Mourinho assuming control over player recruitment and movement.  In 2011-12, the Special One will no longer have one hand tied behind his back at the Santiago Bernabeu.  He can now go after another striker, should he feel the need, without interference and mocking from the boardroom.  Can you say Carlos Tevez?  Or perhaps a midfield enforcer along the lines of Esteban Cambiasso.

Whatever choices Mourinho makes, however, his opposite number at the Nou Camp is no one’s fool.  He knows that the challenges are only going to get tougher and the road harder.  That is the test of greatness.  Already, many are nominating this Barcelona dynasty as one of the greatest sides ever but Pep Guardiola has already admitted that such determinations are best left to future generations.

Barcelona is certainly putting forth a strong case, however.


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European Lights: Falcao Does A Forlan For Porto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/21/european-lights-falcao-does-a-forlan-for-porto/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/21/european-lights-falcao-does-a-forlan-for-porto/#comments Sat, 21 May 2011 19:50:21 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=17365 Continue reading »]]> _______________________________________________________________________

It was a game that, like most cup finals, flattered to deceive. The goal machine of Porto was held in a cagey scrappy Europa League final. Braga gave a good account of themselves but, like Diego Forlan last year, there was a man on the pitch who no one could stop, the Colombian assassin Radamel Falcao.

With the first half coming to an end, Domingos Pacienca would have been delighted to see Braga reach the interval all square and possibly devise a plan of attack for the second 45. Freddy Guarin had a different scheme and he brought it to fruition with just minutes remaining. An excellent cross flung in from the right found Falcao in front of goal, where in this tournament, he just wasn’t going to miss. It was a dagger to the heart of Braga and there was no way back from there.

Porto began the match strong favourites. A chance to claim their first European trophy since the Jose Mourinho era and for André Villas Boas to continue his exciting and impressive managerial career. He becomes the youngest manager to win a European trophy, taking that mantle from Gianluca Vialli and it will be a huge shock if Villas Boas doesn’t go on to have a fantastic career.

Until Falcao’s goal, the striker had not really featured in the match.  To be honest, no one had really featured in the match. The second half didn’t really improve in terms of spectacle.  With eight bookings, the game never really found any momentum, stopping and stuttering throughout.

Braga did try to open up in the second half, when substitutes Mossoro and Albert Meyong added a little more guile to the side.  With the changes, they finally exerted some pressure on the Porto defence. Mossoro had a gilt-edged chance to bring the teams level shortly after the restart but his shot was aimed straight at Helton and the Brazilian saved easily with his legs. That chance was to be their best.

Meyong had a sight on goal but scuffed his shot and Porto defended well towards the end of the match.  In the closing moments, the tension built and there were a few scrambles near the box but Porto would not let the match get away from them.

With Braga throwing everything at Helton’s goal Porto really should have done better in killing the game off on the break.  Both Hulk and substitute Fernando Belluschi went close but neither player could hit the target. In the end it was Falcao’s superb flying header that was enough to separate the two sides.

Falcao nets his seventeenth of the tournament and seals Porto's victory.

Porto lifted the trophy to some great scenes at Ireland’s Aviva Stadium. With the league already in the bag, the Europa League becomes the second jewel in a possible triple crown season.  Villas-Boas sends his side against Guimares in Sunday’s Portuguese Cup Final, looking to complete the trifecta.

Villas-Boas was diplomatic in the victory citing that the game had “not been the spectacle” he had imagined. That will matter little when he looks back on his achievements this season. Perhaps the biggest achievement is still to come. Keeping the now record scorer with 17 Europa League goals – Falcao – at the Dragao for next season.  That’s assuming he stays himself.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/21/european-lights-falcao-does-a-forlan-for-porto/feed/ 0 Porto Europa League joy gibfootballshow Porto Europa League joy Europa-League-Logo Falcao one more time
European Lights: Man United & Barcelona – Theatre Of Dreams v Ridiculous Theatrics? http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-man-united-barcelona-theatre-of-dreams-v-ridiculous-theatrics/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-man-united-barcelona-theatre-of-dreams-v-ridiculous-theatrics/#comments Fri, 06 May 2011 19:21:56 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16981 Continue reading »]]> This year’s Champions League final will be between Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona but we sort of knew that last week.  With both teams holding 2-0 away wins from the first leg, it was going to be a big ask for either Schalke or Real Madrid to pull the ties back in their favour.

A Jose Mourinho-less Real went first. Happily, this game was without the same level of theatrics as the first leg but the niggle remained.  Thus, the match never really got going as a contest. Andres Iniesta’s perfectly weighted pass to Pedro gave the Spaniard a gilt-edged chance to put the ties out of their rivals reach. He didn’t let it pass, a calm finish and Barcelona had a 3-0 lead.

Pep forked out quite a lot in airfare and to get a decent seat from a scalper outside Old Trafford, only to wonder where all the players he came to see had gone.

Yet, the whole tie could have been played out much differently had Gonzalo Higuain’s first half goal been allowed. Cristiano Ronaldo broke forward and was seemingly tripped from behind, his fall then lead to Javier Mascherano crumbling to the ground with minimal contact. The ball fell to Higuain who tucked away the finish but Frank deBleeckere brought the play back, believing Ronaldo to have brought the Argentine down.

This wasn’t to be Mascherano’s last tumble to the ground.  If the theatrics of last week weren’t enough, the former Liverpool midfielder decided to show us his acting skills as he spent more time rolling around on the ground then he did on his feet. Marcelo grabbed a late lifeline for the away side.  However, the horses had already escaped through the barn door.

On Wednesday, Manchester United completed their task, seeing off Schalke 4-1 on the night for a commanding 6-1 victory on aggregate.  There were two late goals for Anderson, who was superb the entire evening.

Antonio Valencia got the party under way when he slotted the ball under Manual Neuer after Darron Gibson’s excellent through ball. Gibson himself got the second, although it was due to  a rare Neuer mistake, Gibson’s powerful shot deflecting off Neuer’s arms into the net.

Imagine how he'll feel when he finds out that Rio and Roo scored their seats for free!

The impressive Jurado did hit back before half time, although it wasn’t nearly enough to spark a revival. Anderson’s second half double capped off a comfortable performance from the home side and sets up a repeat of the 2009 final when Barcelona won 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome.

Despite Xavi Hernandez’ spinning, Barcelona will start favourites for the Wembley final.  Questions are already being asked as to what Sir Alex can do differently to stop Messi & co. this time. He has previously said he knows where went wrong in the last final.  Whether or not the remark is a tactful reference to their excessive reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo or to other factors, on the 28th of May, we will find out if Fergie is right.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-man-united-barcelona-theatre-of-dreams-v-ridiculous-theatrics/feed/ 0 Ronaldo's natural position gibfootballshow Champions league logo Pep - Who are these guys Rio, Roo, Carrick & Hargreaves
European Lights: Porto & Braga Head to Eire, Searching For A Cup Of Silver http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-porto-braga-head-to-eire-searching-for-a-cup-of-silver/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-porto-braga-head-to-eire-searching-for-a-cup-of-silver/#comments Fri, 06 May 2011 16:44:42 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16974 Continue reading »]]> Come the 18th of May it will be “Olá Dublin!” Aggregate victories for both FC Porto and Sporting Braga confirmed the Aviva stadium will host the first ever all-Portuguese European final. A fitting end to what has been a fantastic season for teams from the Liga Zon Sagres.

Porto’s place was already all but confirmed; Falcao’s four goals in the Estadio Dragao gave Porto a commanding 5-1 first leg lead and made it all but impossible for Villarreal to overturn the deficit. Cani made sure the Yellow Submarine was not going to sink without a trace; the diminutive Spaniard opened the scoring with only 17 minutes gone after Marco Ruben squared the ball to the midfielder inside the box.

However Porto were not going to be upstaged. The half time break was sandwiched by two goals for the away side.  Before the break Hulk’s deflected shot beat the despairing Diego Lopez.  Then, only minutes after the restart, Falcao calmly finished from Freddy Guarin’s superb pass.  It was a record sixteenth goal in a single Europa League/UEFA Cup competition.  Faced with a 7-2 deficit, Villarreal were all but eliminated.

Spanish World Cup winner Joan Capdevila brought the teams level on the evening when he blasted the ball into the net after Cani’s cross. Giuseppe Rossi then scored a penalty with ten minutes to go after Ruben was brought down, but it was too little too late.

With Porto’s place booked, it was over to Braga.  Seventy-two hundred fans packed into the Estádio AXA to find out if it would be a historic Clasico final with the André Villas-Boas’ side facing Benfica, or if their squad could overcome the 2-1 deficit to advance.

It was a spirited beginning from the home side, taking the game to their much fancied opponents. The great start paid off after 19 minutes, when Custodio found half a yard between two Benfica defenders to power home an unstoppable header and bring the teams level on aggregate, with Braga enjoying the advantage of last week’s away goal.

The 70 minutes of action that followed saw a mixture of poor finishing and great goalkeeping to deny the Eagles a place in the final. Javier Saviola should have scored when Oscar Cardozo set him up before the break but the Argentine striker was beaten by the upright.

Custodio soared to put Braga through on away goals.

Braga goalkeeper Artur had a night to remember, after denying Cardozo and Fabio Coentrao, he then got down quickly to stop a Gaitan shot which looked destined for the bottom corner. Spurred on by the home support, Braga’s defence held strong and Artur kept his clean sheet.

The final in Dublin will cap off a wonderful season for both Porto and Braga. Will the Braga fairytale provide the perfect ending or will the rampant Porto, led by André Villas-Boas, ultimately prove too strong for the underdogs?

Prediction

It is hard to look past Porto to lift the Europa League.  Head to head against Braga, they came out on top 3-2 and 2-0, domestically. Further, they’ve scored twenty goals in their last five Europa League matches. It would take a miracle for Braga to keep a clean sheet. Braga will not be blown away, as they have performed superbly and deserve to be in the final but I don’t think that they will be able to overcome Porto.

Final score:  Porto 2-0 Braga


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/06/european-lights-porto-braga-head-to-eire-searching-for-a-cup-of-silver/feed/ 0 Falcao record gibfootballshow Europa-League-Logo Custodio EL Winner
Manchester United v Barcelona – A Light At The End Of A Long, Listless Champions League Tunnel? http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/05/manchester-united-v-barcelona-a-light-at-the-end-of-a-long-listless-champions-league-tunnel/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/05/manchester-united-v-barcelona-a-light-at-the-end-of-a-long-listless-champions-league-tunnel/#comments Thu, 05 May 2011 16:43:15 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16941 Continue reading »]]> When football historians look back at the 2010-11 European season, they will probably give it a quick glance and then flip the pages to a more interesting year.  If they look to give the campaign a title, their choices will be limited to the Year of the Inconsistent, the Underachievers or the Deceivers.

Of the four major leagues, the title has already been decided in three, with Borussia Dortmund running away with the Bundesliga, AC Milan the Scudetto and Barcelona La Liga.  If Man United, who just employed a second choice side to dismantle Schalke 4-1 (6-1 on aggregate), can win out over Chelsea on the weekend, that will make it a less than perfect four for four.

Even the second tier leagues have, for the most part, been less than thrilling. Porto has absolutely demolished all Portuguese competition, QPR, pending FA disciplinary consequences, have wrapped up the Championship and, even though Celtic and Rangers are battling down to the wire, seven Old Firm encounters have drained most of the enthusiasm from supporters.  Only in France and the Netherlands are there anything close to compelling climaxes in store for season’s end.  Yet, although Ajax and FC Twente are set for a final round showdown for the title at the Amsterdam ArenA in a fortnight, both the Eredivisie and Ligue 1 remain undecided largely because every suitor who has had the chance has failed to separate themselves from the pack when presented with the opportunity.

The ennui of the domestic competitions quickly spread to the Champions League, as well.  Critics often complain that the group stages are merely a cash cow for UEFA and don’t offer sufficient bang for the buck.  This year, however, it’s a close call as to which has been more boring, the knockout stages or group play.

Of the ninety-six group matches, a grand total of three were played with sufficient quality and competitive drama to live up to Champions League billing.  Those, of course, were the two Tottenham/Inter encounters dominated by Gareth Bale and the San Siro leg of the Milan/Real Madrid tie.  Shakhtar Donetsk did earn a memorable victory over Arsenal and went on to win the group but circumstances saw the Gunners playing a significantly weakened side.  Both FC Basel and Copenhagen earned results which made it appear that they were playing above their station.  When looking at the collective seasons of their opponents, though, it would be more accurate to say that their foes were well below their best.

Bale may not have deserved the PFA Player of the Year Award but his play against Inter easily remains the highlight of this Champions League season.

In the twenty-eight elimination clashes, there was a similar dearth of thrill.  Roma’s season was at such a deep nadir in January that Shakhtar’s rout of the Lupi was almost predictable and, if anyone held out hope that a new power was rising in the east, the Ukrainians showed a startling lack of self-belief in their tie with Barcelona.  Inter did offer up a stunning fight-back in Munich to oust Bayern, in a rematch of the 2010 final, but they followed that up with a woeful performance against Schalke which encapsulated their bi-polar season under Rafa Benitez and Leonardo.  Real Madrid finally exorcised both their quarterfinal and Lyon demons to reach the semis but their promising battle with Barça degenerated into an unpopularity contest of finger-pointing, diving and ref-baiting.

As unsavoury as both sides conduct was, Real Madrid’s complaints were at least supported by events.  The Catalans have come through to the final with far more luck than a side of such alleged quality should require.  Arsenal, with most of Arsene Wenger’s preferred starting eleven healthy pushed them hard at the Emirates and, despite being a goal down at the Camp Nou, were looking like getting back in it when the referee inexplicably sent Robin van Persie off for kicking a ball less than a second after the whistle had been blown.  Obviously, it’s uncertain that the Gunners would have triumphed but all doubt was conveniently nipped in the bud.  That was followed by Shakhtar’s unconditional surrender, which their coach offered in pre-tie media interviews.

Then came the disturbing El Clasico debacle.  When Real drew Barça in the league, with offsetting penalties from Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and then defeated them in the Copa del Rey, Barcelona had the cheek to claim that their diving and referee intimidation in the first leg of the semi-final was down to Jose Mourinho’s negative tactics.  Suddenly, it seems to be a crime to play any other style of football than the one at which the Spanish champions excel.

Yet, it remains that their on-pitch theatrics and politicking resulted in Pepe being sent off and suddenly freeing a hitherto well-contained Messi to score two goals which virtually sealed their place at Wembley.  If that wasn’t enough, when Madrid began to prove difficult in the second half of the return match, it was the referee who again rescued Barcelona, disrupting and disallowing Gonzalo Higuain’s strike, which would have blown the contest wide open.

Barcelona certainly have enough talent to be considered as one of the greatest sides of all time but, to my mind, they need to earn the appellation.  This year, they have yet to overcome any serious challenge on their own.  Whenever their supremacy has been legitimately challenged, they’ve had outside help in overcoming it.   While it may be better to be lucky than good, luck does not confer greatness.

Throughout all of this, Man United weathered the Wayne Rooney storm, Rio Ferdinand’s continuing injury woes and Sir Alex Ferguson’s own outspokenness regarding questionable officiating, to book their place at Wembley.  United have been neither great nor dominant over the course of the season.  Chelsea’s brief run in August and early September, in which they outscored their opponents 25-2, was the closest thing to greatness the Premier League has seen this footballing year.  United, even during their extended unbeaten run, have just been good and more consistent than anyone else in Europe.

The problem is that consistency goes out the window in a one-off match, as Fergie knows from last weekend’s loss at the Emirates.  The luck of the draw, however, has put them in the position to pull out all the stops at Old Trafford on Sunday.  If the Red Devils can produce the spirit and drive necessary to put down Chelsea’s resurgent challenge, then it may set the stage for a Champions League Final at Wembley which might make fans forget the overwhelming mediocrity which has preceded it.

Pep Guardiola, at the Theatre of Dreams, felt like he was watching a Broadway show just after the first run cast had been replaced.

Pep Guardiola hopped a flight to Manchester immediately after his sides qualification on Tuesday and was in the crowd to watch United dispatch Schalke.  Broadcasters wondered what he hoped to see, considering that none of Sir Alex Ferguson’s key men, other than Edwin van der Sar, were involved.  What the Blaugrana boss saw, however, was that United are a much more flexible side than his own.  Guardiola prefers to do one thing and do it well, while his Scottish counterpart likes to have tools in his belt suitable for any eventuality.  Meetings between opponents of contrasting styles are often the most contentious and unpredictable.

United can sit back and counter, they can attack, come at you from the flanks and bulldoze down the middle of the pitch.  The fact that Cristiano Ronaldo is gone is actually more of a dilemma than a relief.  United have lost some of the predictably that such a talented talisman accumulates.  That is the one weakness of Lionel Messi.  He may have over fifty goals in all competitions and eleven in the Champions League but Real Madrid proved that all things being equal – especially the number of men on the pitch – Barça are much more ineffective when the Argentine is shut down.  In that respect, the tables may be turned from the 2009 final.

Xavi Hernandez, who, when he isn’t shouting in an official’s face or lobbying for Cesc Fabregas to leave Arsenal, is one of the more rational and thoughtful players in the game, has claimed that United should be considered favourites in the contest.  Naturally, they won’t be but you can see why Xavi might say such a thing.  First of all, it’s an obvious warning to teammates against complacency.  Yet, there are also the facts that United have been very consistent throughout a much tougher schedule than the Catalans could imagine and that the match is taking place at Wembley.

The Spaniard knows that defending their national ground will add an emotional element to United’s game that will be difficult to overcome.  If the two sides are evenly matched going in, that added incentive will need to be countered.  Let’s just hope that the counterweight doesn’t prove to be a controversial call from the match official, as fitting to the rest of the campaign as that may be.  If the referee can remain invisible throughout the match and United then claim victory, the venue will also provide a handy excuse for Barça, beyond the simple fact that they may not be as good as everyone seems to think.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/05/manchester-united-v-barcelona-a-light-at-the-end-of-a-long-listless-champions-league-tunnel/feed/ 4 2011 ucl matchup resulteditor Champions league logo Gareth-Bale-006 Pep at United v Schalke
Barcelona v Real Madrid, Game 4: Of Heroes & Villains, El Clasico Style http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/04/barcelona-v-real-madrid-game-4-of-heroes-villains-el-clasico-style/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/05/04/barcelona-v-real-madrid-game-4-of-heroes-villains-el-clasico-style/#comments Wed, 04 May 2011 18:34:32 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16911 Continue reading »]]> Finally, the four game series between Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid has come to an end.  Despite the headlines offered by some media outlets with selective memory, the final confrontation was not without controversy.  Still, the match, which saw Barcelona advance to the Champions league Final 3-1 on aggregate was an anticlimactic conclusion to a series where passions, rhetoric and tempers had soared to a level that would make WWE CEO Vince McMahon blush.  To be fair, however, even Wrestlemania would have a difficult time coming up with a script capable of following the wild encounter that was the third match and that master of manipulation, Triple H, would surely pay for lessons in post match interviews from Jose Mourinho.

Yet, if this short series has shown us anything about football, it’s that, to those in charge, the game is nothing more than an elaborate dog and pony show designed to extract the maximum amount of money from the paying customer.  Whether the governing body has a four letter appellation which begins with UE or FI or simply sticks to the final two letters, when it comes to the sport’s integrity, none of them could care sweet FA.

Pep Guardiola has the evil scientist cackle perfected.

Jose Mourinho’s rant with regard to UNICEF went completely over most people’s heads and those in the media who did understand him chose to interpret his statement in the most flagrant and controversial manner possible.  Barcelona did not take on the shirt sponsorship with the UN organisation as part of a premeditated conspiracy to hoodwink the entire world, just so they could win a few trophies.  They did so out of a genuine interest in children’s welfare.  Mourinho was never suggesting otherwise. However, once they had risen to the top of the food chain, Barça soon found that their sociopolitical philosophy and pacifist style of play brought with them an unexpected line of credit in a world obsessed with political correctness.   All the Portuguese was saying was that, like most humans, the Catalans are not above taking advantage of people’s misconceptions and are willing to step outside the rules to get what they desire.

What irked UEFA, and will surely lead to a large fine and a lengthy match ban for the Special One, was his accusation that Michel Platini and company are complicit with the Blaugrana through their tolerance.  The truth hurts and when you hurt the establishment, they don’t throw up their hands and say, “My, God you’re right!  How could we have been so foolish?”  They do what every power does: circle the wagons and put down any uprising.

Football, however, is very much like professional wrestling.  Both ‘sports’ identify the most talented and marketable entity of the moment, which for now is Barcelona, and grease the wheels of the machine to keep their new moneymaker in the public eye for as long as possible.  I don’t believe that UEFA goes to its referees and orders them to protect Barça in any way they can.  The comparison between footy and the squared circle becomes a contrast when it comes to competition.  The outcome in the beautiful game is not predetermined.

Yet, when Michel Platini or any other UEFA football speak publicly about the game, they gush about the technical prowess and artistry of today’s best players.  Such talents are often labeled virtues.  Conversely, they find no redeeming qualities in resolute defenders or strong, physically imposing types.  Methods and tactics of that ilk are looked upon as villainy in most circles.  So, if you believe that UEFA looks at the Catalans as just another child, whom they love equally, you are naïve.  Barcelona, plainly put, enjoy UEFA’s protection and will until someone more attractive and lucrative comes along to bolster the organisation’s coffers.

What is Spanish for "Again? You have got to be kidding me!"

At one time, remember, Real Madrid were the flavour of the moment.    They enjoyed a very long run in the limelight, too.  But, like Hulk Hogan, their star finally began to fade and they were re-cast as the bad guy.  In turn, they have filled that role with aplomb.  Yet, whether it is ultimate villain Mourinho’s maniacal diatribes, Cristiano Ronaldo’s antics or Xabi Alonso’s somewhat hypocritical but entirely truthful assessment of the Meringue’s fortunes, Real suffer from the same condition which afflicts every blackguard; deep down, all they want is to be as beloved as the hero.

For my part, I have a soft spot for a good villain and supposedly pure of heart heroes bore me.  Perfection is overrated.  So, when Gerard Pique knocks Ronaldo into Javier Mascherano and the referee waves off the goal that puts Barcelona’s mastery in doubt, I commiserate with the hard done by miscreants and wonder, momentarily, if there truly is a conspiracy against them.

Whether you love your football petite and pretty or prefer a bit of the rough stuff, though, this series did not re-confirm Barcelona’s clear superiority, as some would have you believe.  Over the four matches, the Blaugrana came out ahead by a single goal (with Frank deBleeckere’s help), Real Madrid won the Copa del Rey and, by suddenly posing a real threat to Barça’s three-year run of dominance, revealed the Catalans for what they are:  just another group of eleven flawed, very human footballers, capable of tapping into their dark side when frightened.

I take heart in knowing that their fall from grace will not be too long in coming but am utterly frightened at what manner of laurel wreathed and blindly worshipped golden boys will replace them.


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European Lights: Champions & Europa League Semi-Final First Legs http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/30/european-lights-champions-europa-league-semi-final-first-legs/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/30/european-lights-champions-europa-league-semi-final-first-legs/#comments Sat, 30 Apr 2011 18:01:01 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16755 Continue reading »]]> This week’s European round-up starts in Gelsenkirchen where the wheels finally fell off the Schalke bus. It took visitors Manchester United less than five minutes to expose a woeful Schalke defence but another hour to finally find a way past the impressive Manuel Neuer and in what was a very commanding away performance.   It was Ryan Giggs and, two minutes later, Wayne Rooney who ultimately found the cracks in the Neuer wall and gave their side a comfortable lead going into the second leg.

United played what could be considered their best performance of the season. Schalke hampered with an injury to Benedict Howedes had to reshuffle the defence and it proved very telling. The Mancunians cut through them like a hot knife through butter. Luckily for Schalke, Manuel Neuer was in inspired form.

Giggs’ eventual opener came when he latched onto Wayne Rooney’s superb through ball and slipped it under the onrushing Neuer. Rooney then beat the German keeper in a similar move to make it 2-0. Schalke never looked like putting any pressure on the United defence and it came across as a very toothless performance from the home side.

After what was a superb footballing display, the world turned its attention to the Santiago Bernabeu to watch twenty-two men throw handbags at each other for 90 minutes. With so much at stake over the two legs, this match was never going to be an open free-flowing game, and as with most derbies there is always tension and more tackling than actual football.

As much as Barcelona are revered as one of the most beautiful football sides ever to play the game, their antics on Wednesday night were down right disgraceful. Dani Alves, Sergio Busquets and Pedro’s simulations were a low point for a Catalan club which fashions itself as beyond such chicanery.

In a field full of nettles and thorns, there was a rose glistening in the Madrid night sky.  Lionel Messi opened the scoring after great work from Ibrahim Affelay down the right and then “Leo” picked the ball up in midfield and took it upon himself to beat three Madrid defenders and caress the ball past Iker Casillas. A 2-0 lead with 90 minutes to go in the Nou Camp looks a very strong position from for Barcelona.

The manager's pre-game handshake was the aspect of sportsmanship in the match

Mourinho should be disappointed with his in-play and post-match decisions.  Talented players such as Kaka, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema would easily make the starting line-ups of most other European teams and with such exceptional ammunition available to the manager, it was strange to see Mourinho only use one sub at half-time and not react when Barça went 1-0 up. Benzema would have been ideal, either drifting wide to take on Puyol or Dani Alves on a yellow card.  Either way he would have given Barcelona something different to think about.

Then, of course, we get Mourinho’s post-match comments. Claiming Barcelona gain favour from referees in the derby matches and that the sponsorship with UNICEF had some influence on the referee’s decisions. Nothing to do with the fact his team sat back, defended and never looked like scoring. Pepe’s red card for the tackle on Dani Alves did look suspect.

Portuguese champions FC Porto played host to Villarreal in the first leg of the Europa League semi-finals. A very even first half saw both teams enjoying large periods of possession.  After forty-five minutes, it looked like this game would go down to the wire. Just before half time Villarreal took the lead when Nilmar played in a lovely cross to the near post for midfielder Cani to glance a header past Helton in the Porto net. The old cliché says that it’s great to nick a goal just before the break.

Two minutes into the second half Porto were given a penalty when Diego Lopez was adjudged to have brought down Colombian striker Falcao. There was definite contact but it seemed more like Falcao making sure that Lopez made contact with his flailing legs. The Colombian stepped up and sent the keeper in the wrong direction.

Freddy Guarin made it 2-1 on the hour mark. Hulk then did well down the right to deliver the ball for Falcao’s second and Porto’s third.  The flood gates were opening.  Porto soon made a fourth when Freddy Guarin played in a free-kick from the right.  Villarreal tried to step up and play the Porto attackers offside but Falcao managed to just stay onside before powering his header past Helton for the hat-trick. He wasn’t done yet,  as with a minute of normal time remaining, he lost his marker and placed a header into the corner.

Four goals for the in-form striker, five goals in the third straight Europa League game for the home side, and it looks like they will be booking their flight to Dublin.

Over in the Stadio da Luz it was a much tighter affair. There was no doubt in this tie that a Portuguese club would be making the final but would it be Benfica or Sporting Braga?

Falcao stepped into Diego Forlan's 2010 Europa League boots with his four goal masterpiece.

Ten minutes in, Benfica made their case but Oscar Cardozo was in an offside position when he smashed in a rebound.  It wasn’t until the second half that the opening goal came. Maxi Pereira found Cardozo with a near post cross, only for his header to bounce off the post but midfielder Jardel was there to knock the carom into the empty net.

However, the lead only lasted three minutes, as Vandinho flicked in a Braga free-kick to bring his side level.  Unfortunately, Braga couldn’t hold Benfica off for long, as Oscar Cardozo found the top corner with a super free-kick from 20 yards out, just moments later.

Braga couldn’t respond and the match finished 2-1. Benfica are well poised for the second leg, with a slight advantage but Braga give themselves a lifeline with the all important away goal.  Only a miracle will see Villarreal in Ireland for the Europa League final but there could be several twists and turns before we find out who Porto’s opponents will be.


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Real Madrid v Barcelona: Is This UEFA Or The Stanley Cup? http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/16/real-madrid-v-barcelona-is-this-uefa-or-the-stanley-cup/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/16/real-madrid-v-barcelona-is-this-uefa-or-the-stanley-cup/#comments Sat, 16 Apr 2011 17:13:02 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16215 Continue reading »]]> For those of you who are not familiar, the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup Playoffs got under way this week.  After a long, drawn out eighty-two game schedule, fourteen of the NHL’s thirty teams are punished for their futility by being forced to break out their golf clubs and hit the links two months earlier than everyone else.  The remaining sixteen are rewarded for their success by being given the opportunity to run a gauntlet of knock-out rounds, each consisting of a grueling best-of-seven series.

To advance from each series, clubs must be the first to win four games against the same foe, whom they battle every other day – with an extra day off thrown in when they travel to the opponent’s rink – over the course of a fortnight.  When one series is done, the loser goes home and the winner gets to do it all over again against another, even tougher team, until there are just two left, fighting for hockey’s holy grail, Lord Stanley’s Cup.

From the player’s standpoint, when you’re going up against the same opponent night after night, every bump, every check, every elbow, shoulder or trip, each bit of trash talk and every cheap shot is remembered.  Frustrations grow, grudges flare and each game is more physical and intense than the last.

From the coach’s perspective, it is very difficult to win even two games in succession, much less sweeping four in a row.  When you’ve earned one victory over your rival, he goes into the video room, pours over the tapes and makes whatever tactical adjustments he feels necessary to turn the tables.  If they work, then it’s your turn to review that match and make your own changes.  Thus, few series are won in the minimum four games.  If teams are closely matched it often takes the entire seven games to come out on top.  Fighting your way through four such series to hoist the Cup is the forging of a true champion but winning just one best-of-seven is no easy feat.

You may not care for hockey but if you can imagine what I’m talking about, then you can appreciate how difficult the next three weeks will be for Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Theirs is no best of seven series.  It’s four matches with three prizes at stake:  the chance to win La Liga, a Copa del Rey and a berth in the Champions League Final.  Each club want to claim the entire haul and their legions of supporters expect nothing less from their respective squads.

The strength of this partnership, more-so than Xavi and Iniesta, will matter most over four matches in close succession.

The pressure on Jose Mourinho and Madrid is especially intense, given that the Madridistas do not enjoy being on the losing end of a rivalry they’ve traditionally dominated.  After decades of putting down Catalan uprisings, a mere two years on the receiving end seems an eternity.

Yet, Pep Guardiola and Barça face expectancies that measure only a hair’s less weight in their crush.  They bear the unofficial title of world’s greatest club and only through victory can they make it official.  For their fans, a draw in tonight’s El Clasico may be grudgingly acceptable as it will end Los Blancos’ hopes for the league.  Even defeat would guarantee nothing for Real, as they would still be five points in arrears with six matches remaining, but to lose even a meaningless match against the club which represents their Castilian oppressors and denies them independence, would be wholly unbearable for Barça.

Both managers are expected to do the impossible and win out on all three fronts.  For Guardiola, whose side has won the last five El Clasicos – the series’ second best run, behind Real’s dominance from 1962-65 – the goal seems more tangible.  On the other hand, it represents a Herculean task for Jose Mourinho, made worse by the still-fresh memory of his victory over the Blaugrana in last years Champions League, while boss at Internazionale.  Yet, just as in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, what may work in one match will surely be countered in the next.  With two such capable coaches leading two immensely talented squads, how does either one stay on top for the duration?

Despite all the hype, the outcome of this quartet of matches will not be decided by the supremacy of either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Barcelona’s confidence will surely help them but just as in the NHL, it will likely be superior defence and goaltending which mark the eventual winner.  Unfortunately for Mourinho and the Meringues, Carlos Puyol and Gerard Pique are easily the stronger central pairing between these tow teams.  Ricardo Carvalho has a strong pedigree, too, but has yet to forge a strong partnership with anyone in his first year at the Santiago Bernabeu.  That, in turn, negates any advantage in experience or skill that Iker Casillas can claim over his opposite number, Victor Valdes, between the sticks.  In fact, Guardiola’s entire preferred eleven have functioned as a group for far longer than Mourinho’s new team.

To change this perception, Ronaldo will have to resist going to his knees and begging for cheap calls.

To overcome that, Real Madrid can only employ sheer determination, unmatched discipline and unbending will.  They have begun to exhibit those traits in increasing amounts as they’ve progressed through the Champions League but whether they can exert themselves over four matches against a squad that has become accustomed to dominating every opponent as a matter of course remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, the discipline will have to begin with Cristiano Ronaldo.  The Portuguese cannot afford to waste his efforts trying to wheedle calls from unsympathetic officials.  It is one thing to remember every little nudge, each foul and every mistimed lunge with studs exposed but to get distracted by them will cost Real any chance of raising themselves to Barcelona’s level.  Ronaldo would be best advised to take a page from Messi’s book by simply picking himself up and getting right back in the match.

If Madrid hold an edge in any area, however, it may be in the dugout.  Jose Mourinho has shown that he can match wits against any manager in the game and did turn the tables on Pep Guardiola, overpowering the Catalans in last year’s Champions League semi-final.  As well, he has a reputation for being able to make adjustments in his tactics as needed.  Pep, on the other hand, has simply forged Barcelona, through sheer repetition, into a near-perfect football machine.  They play the same game, no matter the opponent’s or their own personnel.  If Messi is not available, Bojan Krkic will step in.  If David Villa isn’t firing, then Pedro is called upon.  The players may change but the tactics don’t.

The question is, can Jose Mourinho throw enough different looks at Barcelona to upend their dynasty and return Madrid to the top of Spanish football in the space of four matches over eighteen days?


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European Lights: Champions League & Europa League Move On To Semi-Finals http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/15/european-lights-champions-league-europa-league-move-on-to-semi-finals/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/15/european-lights-champions-league-europa-league-move-on-to-semi-finals/#comments Fri, 15 Apr 2011 18:14:25 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16177 Continue reading »]]> An unusual feeling of anti-climax filled this week’s European games, with only two games, one in each competition, really left in the balance.  Fans of the game were left wondering from where the excitement was going to come.  Now that the eight matches played out, it would seem they are still waiting.

Festivities began at Old Trafford where Chelsea had the arduous task of coming from a goal behind to make it to Wembley. Javier Hernandez’ goal just before half-time punctured Chelsea’s chances, and although Didier Drogba pegged one back after coming off the bench in the second half, the Blues were aptly named, as, seconds later, Park Ji-Sung scampered onto the end of a long pass to seal the visitor’s fate with United’s second.  Enquiries are well under way as to how much time Ancelotti has left as Chelsea boss and how long he can keep starting Fernando Torres. Not long seems the likely answer to both queries.

In the other game on Tuesday, Barcelona sauntered through to the semi-finals, literally with one hand tied behind their back. Shakhtar never looked like they believed in their impossible dream. Lionel Messi got the only goal of the game on 43 minutes , with a nice bit of control in tight quarters and a neat finish at the near post. A resounding 6-1 win on aggregate saw the Catalan club through to the semi-finals.

Wednesday night had an air of anticipation.  Could Inter or Tottenham stage a mighty come back or would the leads held by Schalke and Real Madrid prove too much. White Hart Lane provided a fantastic atmosphere but the players couldn’t convert it into goals and Cristiano Ronaldo’s powerful effort, fumbled by Gomes, ended Spurs hopes. The keeper’s blunder fittingly summed up their performance in the first leg…limp.

In Gelsenkirchen, Leonardo knew his men would need four unanswered goals to book a place in the semis. So did Schalke.  Ever one to spoil the party, it would be Raul – the Champions League all time leading goal scorer – who latched onto Jurado’s throughball to dance around Julio Cesar and pass the ball into the net, goal number 71 on Europe’s grandest stage. Thiago Motta put his team back into the game four minutes into the second half but it was too little too late.

With nine minutes left Schalke centre back Benedikt Howedes brought back memories of Tony Adams – against Arsenal – and charged through the Inter defence unmarked.  Clear through on goal, he smashed the ball past Cesar and fired his team 7-3 up and into the semi-finals.

Schalke will take on Manchester United, with the first leg at the Veltins Arena. If the Germans can keep things tight at home, who knows what Raul & Co. can accomplish at Old Trafford? Real Madrid and Barcelona will partake in a Champions League “El Clasico.”  The matches will be numbers 3 & 4 between the two side in the space of 17 days.  Will Jose Mourinho have a game plan (or 3 or four) in store for Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi?

Thursday night was time for the Europa League clubs to take the stage. With Benfica already ahead 4-1, it seemed very unlikely that PSV would have any chance but when Jermaine Lens put PSV up 2-0 on the night and back to 4-3 on aggregate, you could sense the panic in the Benfica back line. Captain Luisao steadied the nerves just before half time with an acrobatic scissor kick which gave the Eagles a 5-3 lead. Oscar Cardozo’s second half penalty settle the tie and Benfica were one step closer to the final in Dublin.

Porto made light work of Spartak Moscow, already enjoying a 5-1 advantage.  Hulk, Cristian Rodriguez and Fredy Guarin made it 8-1 on aggregate after 47 minutes. Well finished, the Russians still made one last prideful push and the match ended 5-2.  It’s not too often a tie this late in a European tournament sees a side reach double digits.   If the bookies don’t have Porto down as favourites, they should reconsider.

In a similar situation to Spartak and rivals PSV, Twente took an early lead in Enschede.  Unfortunatlely, that only made angered Villarrea. Giuseppe Rossi and Marco Senna scored penalties and Cani wrapped up the 8-2 win.

Despite all the lopsided scores, UEFA somehow managed to save the most promising game for last. After Sporting Braga’s superb 1-1 draw away in Kiev, a comeback wasn’t on order for a change.  Instead, the question was could the Portuguese hold their slim advantage against a Ukrainian side without Andriy Scevchenko or could Dynamo beat the Arsenalistas in their own manor?  Unhappily,  the match didn’t offer as much drama as fans would have liked. There were no goals and two sendings off where the only points of interest. Kiev had the majority of the ball but could only manage three shots on target.  Braga managed six with only 31% of the possession. Kiev seemed intent on kicking their way to Dublin with a whopping 22 fouls commited. However, form held sway over fouls and Braga’s advancement makes it an Iberia League semi-final.

There will be at least one Portuguese club at the Aviva stadium, come the final, as Sporting Braga take on Benfica in the first semi-final.  FC Porto still have their eyes on a treble but face a tough challenge from Villarreal over two legs.

Hopefully, the semi-final first legs won’t be as one sided as the quarters, offering a much more entertaining two weeks of football.  See you in a fortnight!

Can the last team out turn off the lights!


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Man United and Barcelona: Which Is Artist & Which Artisan? http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/13/man-united-and-barcelona-which-is-artist-which-artisan/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/13/man-united-and-barcelona-which-is-artist-which-artisan/#comments Wed, 13 Apr 2011 18:26:41 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16099 Continue reading »]]> If all the matches play out as expected – and given Schalke’s overpowering performance last week at San Siro, that is by no means guaranteed – then Wembley will be playing host to a rematch of the 2009 Champions League Final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona.  Yet, with the two having cemented their places in the semi-finals on Tuesday evening (and because such a final match-up is indeed not set in stone), I wanted to talk about the contrast between how the two dominant clubs in European football over the past three years are perceived.

It’s true that last night’s vanquished foe at Old Trafford, Chelsea, won the double in the Premier League last year, stealing some of United’s thunder.  Yet, the Red Devils still managed to come away with the League Cup in what was supposed to have been a lost season.  After the long fought against departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney stepped to the fore and, even though he was injured during the run-in, United still managed to finish within a point of the Blues.  Who’s to say what would have been had the fiery Scouser not been sidelined?  Meanwhile, this season, Chelsea seem destined to go hungry for a lack of silverware, despite having added significantly to their line-up in the winter window, something United rarely do these days.  No, until Chelsea break their duck in European waters, they will not rate top billing.

Even if you choose to debate Man United’s recent success, there is no question that they join Barcelona as one of the two strongest teams on the continent this season.  Each is running away with their respective league.  Barça enjoy an eight point lead, level on matches with Real Madrid in La Liga, while United have played a game more than Arsenal but lead them by seven in the Premier League.  Both sides have yet to visit their main rivals thus far in their campaigns, with the Bernabeu edition of El Clasico on tap this weekend and United’s trip to the Emirates set for Saturday, 1 May.  Any points for either in those tilts should seal their league title while a loss will throw the door open to the chasers.

Still, the Catalan’s wider margin over their pursuit is largely enhanced by comparably weaker opposition.  Beyond Real Madrid, there is a significant drop-off in the quality of opposition in the Primera Liga.  Not so, In the Premier League.  With Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and a rejuvenated Liverpool all seen as real threats to United both home and away, and any club in the competition capable of defending their turf – just look at relegation threatened Wolves’ record against the top eight sides, there are no off weeks for United.

Yet, with the British media’s diet exclusively negative, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has been defined as the weakest champions the Prem has ever seen, rather than one of the most complete teams in Fergie’s long reign.  Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola’s club are roundly rated as the best eleven on the planet.  There’s no question that until United evens the score, after their 2-0 loss to Barça in 2009, the English side will have to be content with holding down second place in that popularity contest but the gap between the duo is not as great as some make out.

It tends to get him in trouble but Rooney's fire burns deep...

As I’ve said, both clubs dominate their leagues and each has an array of talented players, as well, but there is a fundamental difference between the two sides.  Barcelona, under Guardiola, play what many consider beautifully artistic football.  Certainly, their intricate passing is hypnotising in its precision but it’s not what I would call artistry.

To my mind, art is spontaneous, creative expression and is borne of emotion.  What the Catalans offer is coldly calculated, near-perfect technical football.  Whomever is on the pitch, whether it’s Lionel Messi or Bojan Krkic, David Villa or Pedro, or Javier Mascherano instead of Sergio Busquets, the difference in individual skill sets does not matter; the tactics are the same.  Barcelona are the ultimate football machine.

United on the other hand, are a more multi-purpose, hand-made squad.  Its players can move to new positions, perform fundamentally different functions and carry out various stratagems.  Ryan Giggs alone has played virtually everywhere on the pitch in the last two seasons.  He has appeared on the wings, in central midfield, at both full back and centre back and just last week partnered with Rooney in attack.  With Edwin van der Sar retiring, Tomasz Kuszczak moving on and David de Gea denying that he has signed a contract, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Giggsy donning a pair of gloves and standing between the sticks next season. Then there is John O’Shea, who will step in at a moment’s notice anywhere in defence or midfield.  Even Rooney is prepared to move from striker to wing to midfield if needed.

It’s not just the veterans who can change their spots at Fergie’s whim, either.  If you want a perfect example of creative expression in football, I offer you United’s FA Cup victory over Arsenal, achieved with seven defenders and young full backs Rafael and Fabio da Silva moving up to the wings to shred an unsuspecting Gunners squad.  United were beset with injuries going into that match and facing a Champions League tilt seventy-two hours later.  Yet, Fergie created victory out of spare parts and imagination.  When Pep Guardiola does that, I will acknowledge him an artist.  Until then, I’ll continue to think of him as a football engineer.

If you are shaking your heads and wondering who let me near a keyboard with such dangerous thoughts, I’ll offer up two more proofs of Barcelona’s technocracy.  Both of them are in Milan, these days, and their names are Samuel Eto’o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  Neither lasted in Guardiola’s squad because they were too individualistic for the communal environment that Pep has fostered in the Camp Nou.  The Blaugrana boss prefers quiet craftsmen to outspoken artistes.

... While Messi is cool with a steady stream of trophies.

Even the magically gifted Messi, the one Barcelona player who still thrives on making something out of nothing – well, except for his understudy Bojan -  simply goes about his business, silently picking himself up and dusting off rather than beseeching referees after being bundled over for the umpteenth time.  As much as I admire his skill and class, I confess that, just once, I’d like to see him get in a defender’s face for taking one liberty too many.  I suspect that Argentina fans would like to see that fire, as well, as his quiet ways have not translated into international success.  The Albiceleste has certainly had its share of firebrands, from Diego Maradona to Juan Roman Riquelme, to Gaby Heinze to Esteban Cambiasso to Ezequiel Lavezzi.  Unfortunately, seven years at Barcelona have smoothed away any rough edges from Little Leo.  For him, emotion is something to be controlled on the pitch.

Sir Alex Ferguson, on the other hand, sees emotion as a force to be tapped.  His most important players have always shown a tempestuous side, whether it was Mark Hughes, Jaap Stam, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Gary Neville, Ronaldo or Rooney.  As much as or perhaps even more than  technical proficiency and footballing intelligence, desire is a quality that the Scot instills in his teams.  Such a philosophy comes with its downside, naturally.  If United were more efficient, they likely wouldn’t have such a reputation for snatching late results and the phrase Fergie Time would never have been coined.

That is the nature of artists, however.  To produce their best work, they must suffer.


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UEFA Champions League Lesson #14: Be Careful What You Ask For, You Just Might Get It! http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/11/uefa-champions-league-lesson-14-be-careful-what-you-ask-for-you-just-might-get-it/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/11/uefa-champions-league-lesson-14-be-careful-what-you-ask-for-you-just-might-get-it/#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2011 20:13:41 +0000 Steven Jones http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=16031 Continue reading »]]> Give me a dull first-leg any day.

The first leg of the Champions League quarter finals produced 3 results that might well have decided those ties before the second legs kick off.  Barcelona, Real Madrid and Schalke have 4, 4 and 3 goal leads respectively, with Schalke’s 3 goal lead consisting of away goals. Only the all England game between Manchester United and Chelsea is in the balance.  Whether that points to the strength of competition in the Premier League or the lack of creative freedom is an argument for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, not me, although it seems that they’re destined to debate more pressing matters in the near future.  Namely a place in the Champions League Final.

I have regularly heard fans wanting explosive first legs in the Champions League. Whether that involves a tightly scored draw, a narrow win, a high scoring win or just an abundance of goals – they want to be entertained and they want to be entertained now.

However, I think it’s in the best interest of the competition for the first leg to set up the second and for the climax to come then. Memories of Barcelona/Chelsea from a few years ago and Manchester United/Bayern, last year, spring to mind as eventful second legs which leave a fan buzzing at the sheer entertainment football can provide.  This week, the only such entertainment on offer will be, appropriately enough, in the Theatre of Dreams.  The rest of Europe, bless their instantly gratified little hearts, might as well go antiquing with the missus.

There is the other side of the coin, though. Inter have set the precedent of staging a stirring fight back on German soil in the not too distant past.  Who is to say they can’t do it again?  Real could have a man sent off early on and ironically find themselves trying desperately to contain Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon and a vengeful Rafael van der Vaart for most of the game.  I almost want to say that even Shakhtar could come up with a miracle, although nothing short of Immaculate Conception would suffice.

So, even though it looks like Real, Barça and Schalke can just mail it in this week, if you’re a supporter of one of their opponents, it’s best to cross your fingers and remember that the games are played on grass, not paper.  Otherwise, all eyes on Old Trafford. Here’s hoping the first half is a dull affair, setting the stage for a grand finish.   Or is that taking this entertainment thing a bit too far? After all, when it comes right down to it, it’s winning that matters.  Right?


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European Lights – After the Opening Legs Of The CL & EL Quarters, UEFA Sends Out An Urgent Call For Fat Ladies Who Can Carry A Tune http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/08/european-lights-after-the-opening-legs-of-the-cl-el-quarters-uefa-sends-out-an-urgent-call-for-fat-ladies-who-can-carry-a-tune/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/08/european-lights-after-the-opening-legs-of-the-cl-el-quarters-uefa-sends-out-an-urgent-call-for-fat-ladies-who-can-carry-a-tune/#comments Fri, 08 Apr 2011 19:28:53 +0000 Andrew Gibney http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=15888 Continue reading »]]> During the group stage of the Champions League there were moans and groans about the competitive nature of the competition. Games that meant nothing, teams able to rest star players, not what you expect from the grandest club competition in the land. “Wait till the knock-out stage!” was the explanation, “that’s when the tournament really begins.”

The round of 16 was close, only two fixtures saw teams win by more than two goals, the highlight being Goran Pandev scoring in the 88th minute to guide Inter to the Quarter-Finals. Four exciting match-ups were drawn out of the hat. Could Spurs upset Los Blancos, the Brazilians of the East had a chance to shock Barcelona, the Battle of England and, last but not least, could Schalke’s European form continue?

As great as some of the games were to watch, 48 hours later we have been left with a bit of a flat feeling for the second legs. Apart from the close game at Stamford Bridge – which could have easily finished level – the next closest game would need Tottenham to score four unanswered goals at White Hart Lane to see the game go to extra time.

After Peter Crouch’s early red card and Aaron Lennon’s mysterious illness it was always going to be hard to get a result in the Bernabeu. Add two goals from the enigma aka Emmanuel Adebayor and you have a recipe for Spurs disaster. Shakhtar Donetsk promised so much and had all the appropriate pre-match hype regarding whether their mixture of Eastern European steel and Brazilian flair could upset Guardiola’s Barcelona. It was not to be, though, after Andres Iniesta’s early goal and Luiz Adriano fluff of a quick equaliser.  Barcelona took control and finished the game 4 goals better off, even the late away goal will not be enough to give Shakhtar a chance.

The most exciting game came at the San Siro. Inter took the lead against Schalke when Dejan Stankovic volleyed home a Manuel Neuer clearance from about 45 yards, superb technique and imagination. Schalke twice levelled from behind and then went into 5th gear. Edu, the Brazilian striker, was in superb form and, partnered with Raul playing like a 19 year old Madrid forward, they made the European Champions look a poor side. Raul’s goal sandwiched by Edu’s double means Schalke will start with a three goal advantage when the teams kick off next week. Inter need four clear goals to advance, a very tough ask.

The Europa League then took centre stage on Thursday night and the four games gave us a glut of 20 goals, not a night to be a defender. The newly crowned Portuguese champions, FC Porto, had a superb night. The 5-1 victory at the Dragao should see them advance comfortably. Spartak kept it tight until the 36th minute when Falcao launched himself for the first of his hat-trick. From there, Porto didn’t look back. With all the talk of how good Brazilian forward Hulk has been for Porto there is no doubt how important his Colombian partner has been in their championship season and deserves all the praise he gets.

Across the country in the Estadio de Luz, Benfica put in an equally impressive performance, seeing off Dutch giants PSV. Javier Saviola’s 90th minute goal saw Benfica win 4-1 and gives PSV very little chance of a come back. To cap off a great night for Portuguese clubs in Europe, Sporting Braga went away to Kiev and come back with an impressive 1-1 draw, after going a goal down early it was a Gusev own goal that levelled the game and gives them the precious away goal. To add to Braga’s fortunes, Dyanmo’s returning star, Andrei Shevchenko, picked up a second yellow and will miss the return leg.

The other game saw Villarreal put FC Twente to the sword. Marc Janko’s 90th minute consolation goal makes it look slightly better but needing five goals in the second leg and trying to keep Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar away from your net seems an impossible task. We could quite easily see the semi-finals all being played on Iberian soil. Dynamo Kiev will be quietly confident that they can upset the apple cart, however, and pull their game back.

So in two competitions, eight games saw 37 goals. Looking forward to next week, there are only 2 of the eight matches realistically still undecided.  That is unless we get buried under another avalanche of goals.


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Man United Thrive On The Edge While Chelsea Placidly Live In Denial http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/07/man-united-thrive-on-the-edge-while-chelsea-placidly-live-in-denial/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/07/man-united-thrive-on-the-edge-while-chelsea-placidly-live-in-denial/#comments Thu, 07 Apr 2011 18:00:41 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=15821 Continue reading »]]> Let’s get the obvious out of the way first.  A 1-0 scoreline for Manchester United at Stamford Bridge has by no means sewed up a berth in the Champions League semi-finals.  One has only to look back as far as Chelsea’s last trip to Old Trafford to confirm that they’re capable of achieving the 2-1 result that they now need in the second leg.  It’s also true that it’s at home where United have conceded goals in this Champions League campaign, not on the road.  No, there’s still 90 minutes to go in this tie and Sir Alex Ferguson’s war-worn side know it.

Yet, even if you threw this match out the window, pretended that United’s 11 point advantage in the Premier League didn’t exist and put aside any devotion to either club, to examine the two squads from a neutral perspective, wouldn’t you rather start from scratch with the lads in the red shirts?

Four years ago, I wouldn’t have offered you the same argument but only because Jose Mourinho was still at Stamford Bridge.  Back then, the two sides were far more alike.  In the interim, it’s not that the personnel has changed that drastically for the Londoners, just the mindset.  In Mourinho’s time, Chelsea were far more consistent on the pitch and, with the Special One setting the example by constantly piercing the defences of thin-skinned rivals such as Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger, far more contentious away from it.  Under his successors, the Blues have adopted a nature far more attuned to their kits, a placid blue.

If Chelsea prefer to keep their skeletons in the closet, United supporters are happy to bring them out into the light.

Red-shirted United, however, while almost always in complete control during matches, always seem to be sticking their hand in the fire during their downtime.  Last season, their boldness saw them burned.  Unable to keep Cristiano Ronaldo happy in Manchester any longer, they accepted Real Madrid’s £80 million offer but didn’t turn much of the windfall over to purchase new players.  The fans and the media holler that the Glazer’s debt-ridden ownership model sucked up the proceeds of the deal, while David Gill and Sir Alex calmly shrug such allegations off, saying they’ll spend when the price is right. Fergie then rolled the dice on Wayne Rooney being able to carry the squad, which was looking like the right decision until April, when the Scouser went down and United’s season went up.  In smoke, that is.

Chelsea weren’t exactly having a peaceful spring themselves, with John Terry accused of bedding Wayne Bridge’s ex.  Still, Carlo Ancelotti was able to deflect the first real controversy that had attacked his Chelsea regime.  Unlike with the Three Lions, John Terry remained captain but his more gentlemanly deputy, Frank Lampard, became the voice of the squad in the media.  Chelsea ended the season with a domestic double and Ancelotti tempting fate by singing Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ as the alumni from the Mourinho era watched.

This season, keeping a lid on the dirty laundry hasn’t been so easy.  The Blues began like gangbusters but the board’s decision to sack the Italian’s right hand man, Ray Wilkins, stopped their momentum like a sumo wrestler stepping in front of an onrushing Kate Moss.  Yet, Ancelotti chose not to fight for his lieutenant, preferring to toe the company line.  With every bit of controversy that has come their way since, the Italian’s response has been the same; it is not a problem.

Inevitably, such an attitude invited the mother of all dilemmas.  What do you say when the boss goes out and, for £50 million, buys a striker who is struggling for one of your hated rivals, when you already have two of the most dangerous forwards in the Premier League and a fresh young prospect who is pushing for first team minutes every time he steps on the pitch?  Does any thought of protest cross your mind when the starlet is loaned out to Bolton and scores a goal in each of his first four games for the Wanderers?  Further, do you dare suggest that there may be a problem when the new man has yet to score, despite being in the squad for almost three months?

Van der Sar was their to preserve Torres' futility...

The short answer to all three is that, if your name is Carlo Ancelotti, you claim to be unconcerned with Fernando Torres lack of production.  Worse, if you’re Didier Drogba or the usually vocal Nicolas Anelka and find yourself either watching matches from the substitute’s bench or saddled with a partner who bollocks every chance you feed him, you say nothing and defer all such questions to the boss.

All this denial is merely the lid on a boiling pot of discontent.  As the heat continues to rise, it’s inevitable that the suppressed emotions will boil over onto the surface.  When that finally happens, the man who has been holding down the lid will be scalded the worst.

Ancelotti is probably wondering why it’s so difficult to keep the lid on things this season, when it was relatively easy in the previous campaign.  Well, Carlo, the fact that Fergie applied a little fire of his own to the easy-going Dimitar Berbatov and further spiced up the line-up by signing Javier Hernandez, thus giving Rooney some much needed support at exactly the right time has something to do with it.

The main reason, however, is that when the Scot is  burdened by a problem, he meets it head on rather than sweeping it under the rug.  As just mentioned, when it became evident that Rooney couldn’t carry the whole load for United, Fergie acknowledged it publicly, taking the heat off his young star, and then secured the support he needed.   When Rooney then turned on him and began making noises about leaving, Fergie took the opposite tack to his counterpart, stunning the press by fully confirming the rumours at the first asking.  His frankness showed a strength that Rooney ultimately respected and, subsequently sees the Scouser rededicated to the club.

Sometimes, of course, Fergie takes it too far, which is why he is sitting out a five match ban for running the rule over what he considers to be inadequate officiating.  Yet, he makes that work for him, too, creating an ‘us against the world’ culture in the clubhouse.  Mourinho used the same approach when he was at Chelsea and Inter, whether it was to fend off a meddling Russian billionaire or a viciously nationalistic Italian media.

The old cliché which says teams take on their manager’s personality has proven to be true.  The change in what remains largely the Portuguese’s squad at the Bridge, is mostly down to the low-key influences of Avram Grant, Guus Hiddink and Ancelotti.

...And when he wasn't, Evra denied Lampard a chance to cancel out Rooney.

Meanwhile, like his red-nosed gaffer, Wayne Rooney is at his best when he gives his emotion free rein.  As with Fergie, there is a price to be paid for not holding your tongue in check.

At the moment, the bill is a two-match ban for swearing into a television camera.  The suspension will keep Rooney out of the FA Cup semi-final against Man City but, seeing as it was a precedent setting punishment from the FA, the fiery number 10 isn’t likely to let himself go in the same fashion in the future.

In fact, his goal in this match proved that, as he pointedly pulled up well short of the cameras for this celebration.  Further, he can have reasonable faith that Berbatov and Chicharito will step up in his absence, especially with Antonio Valencia back from injury, in form and providing the type of service that Kate and Bill would envy when they celebrate their nuptials.

Regardless of the missed games, who would you rather be?  Rooney, with a hat trick at West Ham and a game-winner against Chelsea in your pocket, or Frank Lampard, who predicted Rooney’s strike but was powerless to stop it?

I won’t argue that Lampard and Ancelotti exhibit far more class and professionalism than Rooney and Ferguson and kudos to them for it.  Still, the bottom line is that when strength and cunning are evenly matched, it’s audacity and fearlessness which will win you through.  Conversely, courtesy and denial will avail you nothing.


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Real Madrid v Spurs – Redknapp Says With Friends Like Jose, I Think I Need An Enema http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/06/real-madrid-v-spurs-redknapp-says-with-friends-like-jose-i-think-i-need-an-enema/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/04/06/real-madrid-v-spurs-redknapp-says-with-friends-like-jose-i-think-i-need-an-enema/#comments Wed, 06 Apr 2011 17:30:49 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=15792 Continue reading »]]> If Tuesday evening at the Santiago Bernabeu was an example of what it means to have Jose Mourinho call you friend, Harry Redknapp might want to consider becoming Rafa Benitez.  Mourinho was never at a loss for a criticism for the former Liverpool boss and has also famously called Arsene Wenger a voyeur, as well as more recently questioning  why the Gunners’ faithful put up with his continual failures.  Yet, ever since the Champions League quarter-final draw was announced, the Special One has been heaping the praise on his Tottenham counterpart.

“I left England in 2007-08 and Spurs were not in the UEFA Cup, they were not even finishing in the first six of the Premier League. Martin Jol started the good work and Harry has continued it in amazing ways. I’m so happy for that. He’s a friend, one of the few really good friends I made in England.”

And, as anyone would for a friend, Jose was willing to offer an excellent personal reference for his next job.

“He is a good manager for any team, including a national team.  I think there is no limits for him. Give him a team, a national team and he is ready for anything.”

Nor would he entertain the thought of looking past his friend to a possible European version of El Clasico in the semi-final.

“The possibility of a Madrid/Barça semi-final is the same as a Tottenham/Shakhtar one. It’s not worth talking about a semi-final when you don’t know what teams are going to be there.”

Finally, on the eve of the match, the Real boss just oozed brotherly love.

“I’m very, very happy (for him). I hope, and I say this from my heart, that if I don’t reach the final, then I hope he does it.”

Naturally, having said that, Mourinho sent his side out with murder in their hearts, as a brace of headers from Spurs nemesis Emmanuel Adebayor, followed by goals from Angel di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo all but put paid to Spurs’ Champions League dreams.  For Ade, his pair made it nine goals in nine matches against Spurs.

 

Football Fundamentals 101: See Crouchy arrive late. Slow, Crouchy, slow.

It is always true, as Jose noted,  that the games must be played and not just written on paper.  So, it remains to be seen whether Pep Guardiola and Barcelona can dispatch a frisky Shakhtar Donetsk but a clash between the Ukrainian club and Spurs is suddenly not looking too likely.  For the moment, anyway, Jose remains on track for his third winners medal with three different teams.

 

In the other dugout, Harry had to know that his pal had been fattening him up for the slaughter – he’s been around the block enough times.  As cozy as they may be, business is business.  It promised to be an interesting meeting of the minds, too, as the pair are managerial opposites.   Mourinho is literally the devil in the details, working out every edge, playing every trick of the mind and maintaining absolute control of his squad at all times.  Redknapp, however, is very off the cuff and has admitted having little use for tactics.

“You can argue about formations, tactics and systems forever but to me football is fundamentally about the players. Whether it is 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, the numbers game is not the beautiful game, in my opinion. It’s 10 per cent about the formation and 90 per cent about the players. If you have the best ones and they do their jobs, then they can pretty much play any way you want them to.”

Certainly, what Harry says has some truth to it.  That is, until you ask Peter Crouch to help out deep in his own half.  Fifteen minutes into the match, his assistance had resulted in two cautions and Spurs being down a man.  First, the beanpole striker was late with a challenge on Sergio Ramos, then he slid into Marcelo well after the ball had left the vicinity.  Crouchy’s enthusiasm for his assigned task was first-rate even if his suitability for it was not. Willing or otherwise, he simply should not have been on the pitch.

 

Football Fundamentals 102: Crouchy sees red. Red, Crouchy, red

While his height would have been an advantage against the Meringue’s vertically challenged back four, that edge could only be exploited when Spurs had control of the ball.  In an encounter against a Jose Mourinho side, teams not named Barcelona or Man United tend to suffer from a severe lack of possession.  With that in mind, winning the ball back should have been more of a priority than having Crouchy waiting in the box for a few infrequent crosses from the wings.  In that case, This match may have been the time to look to the more gazelle-like Jermaine Defoe, or if he wasn’t quite fit, perhaps give the match-starved but reliable Roman Pavlyuchenko a rare opportunity.  One or the other may have been better suited to harrying – no pun intended – Ramos, Marcelo et al.

 

If Redknapp’s percentages are correct, then Crouch’s inclusion in this match meant that his manager got it 90% wrong.  Expectedly, the result of that miscalculation was not pretty.  The last time Harry was in Madrid, on a scouting trip for this match, he had his pocket picked as he left the Bernabeu.  This time, the robbery occurred a little sooner and something much more valuable was taken.

 


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European Lights: Chelsea & Bayern Stake Their Final 8 Claims, Man United & Real Madrid Have Work Still To Do http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/26/european-lights-chelsea-bayern-stake-their-final-8-claims-man-united-real-madrid-have-work-still-to-do/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/26/european-lights-chelsea-bayern-stake-their-final-8-claims-man-united-real-madrid-have-work-still-to-do/#comments Sat, 26 Feb 2011 18:38:31 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=14371 Continue reading »]]> In the dugout, Karim Benzema looked the unhappiest man in the stadium. Talk about a fall from grace. Not two years ago, here at the Stade Gerland, he was revered and loved in equal measure. Now, he could not even make the Real Madrid team who were aiming to break their jinx over a Lyon side they had never beaten.

After a quarter of the second half, coach Jose Mourinho decided it was time for Benzema to make his bow. The substitution was made amidst raucous applause. Ironically though, it was the Lyon fans celebrating a return of a hero. Most of the away contingent grimaced. To them, Adebayor out and Benzema in seemed like a last throw of the dice.

Yet, a return to the scene of his greatest triumphs must have sprinkled some star-dust on the young Frenchman of Algerian roots. Within a minute, he had shut down the very fans who were cheering him, with a goal that could prove to be the decisive one in this tie.  Combining well with Mesut Özil and Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema took one touch, beat three defenders and then finished through the legs of Hugo Lloris to give Real Madrid the advantage and ensure that he received ample cheers from the Spanish contingent of supporters as well.

Real’s lead was later cancelled by a volley from the man with the exotic locks and the even more exotic name, Bafetimbi Gomis, but Mourinho’s charges will still fancy their chances to progress into the quarterfinals thanks to the valuable away goal from the former Lyon hero.

Meanwhile, Mario Gomez scored, enabling Bayern to exact some revenge on Inter Milan for last year’s final loss, and to complete the day for strikers, Nicolas Anelka scored a brace as Chelsea virtually assured passage into the last eight with a 2-0 victory away at Copenhagen.

Lyon 1 -1 Real Madrid

If you were a Real Madrid fan, this was a painful encounter to watch. Lyon were wonderfully well-drilled defensively and used the counterattack to great effect, through the pace of Ceasar Delgado and Michel Bastos. Real were content to sit deep, break up play ahead of their own penalty area and try to catch the French side napping.  With both sides attempting to exploit the counterattack, the match was much like two nuns each trying to be the more courteous – ‘After you… No, after you… You first, I insist…

Lyon had the more presentable opportunities in the game but Gomis spurned a number of chances that would have given les Gones the lead, not to mention being caught offside a few more times than a top-notch striker should.  Benzema’s goal, when it came , led Mourinho to adopt an even more defensive posture, removing Özil, but the change proved fruitless as Gomis finally took his chance to give Lyon with much to play for in the return leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Copenhagen 0 – 2 Chelsea

Nicolas Anelka put Chelsea within touching distance of the competition’s elite eight with two well taken goals that also served to ease the pressure on coach Carlo Ancelotti. Anelka ensured the faltering Blues stayed in the hunt for silverware this season while at the same time extending his remarkable scoring record in the competition to seven goals in six games.

Ancelotti preferred Fernando Torres to Didier Drogba in attack, partnering Anelka but it was another night to forget for the Spaniard.   His overall performance improved but he still fluffed his lines against a vulnerable and rusty Copenhagen back four.

Marseille 0 – 0 Manchester United

Manchester United will have no safety net at Old Trafford in three weeks time after they ground out a goalless draw in their meeting with Marseille at the Stade Velodrome.  United have failed to clinch victory from similar positions before but they will still be favourites to progress against a limited Marseille outfit, even if life would have been so much better for the visitors had a Darren Fletcher snap-shot been able to break the deadlock in a drab contest.

With seven first-team regulars missing the trip to France, Sir Alex Ferguson will not be overly disappointed with the scoreline.

Inter Milan 0 – 1 Bayern Munich

In a repeat of last season’s final, Gomez proved to be the difference at the very death. Arjen Robben’s long range shot was handled poorly by Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar.  His spilled save provided the German with the perfect chance and Gomez  quickly rounded him and slotted into an empty net. The despondent Cesar was left with some soul-searching to do as he reportedly walked home from the stadium instead of using the more practical car or team bus.

The match was similar to the OL/Real encounter, with both sides playing at a deliberately slow pace but looking to press home any advantage they could find. Inter’s defensive 4-3-2-1 was meant to counter with the inverted wing threats of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery and both Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti played extremely well up to double up on Bayern’s wingers.  Leonardo’s strategy left a lot of room in the middle, which Bayern did not always use wisely.  Thomas Müller and Bastian Schweinsteiger, who were in excellent position to benefit from the pressure on the outside men, had largely average games, but the true star on show for the Bavarians was midfielder Luiz Gustavo. The Brazilian, signed in the winter break to cover Mark van Bommel’s departure, provided able distribution and closed down Wesley Sneijder on the counter-attack.

Although Cambiasso missed a sitter, and Thomas Kraft made a number of fantastic saves, Gomez’s goal when it came, was surprising only in the lateness of its arrival.  Bayern will be confident of progressing, given their home form this season, but Inter, as already exhibited by Julio Cesar, will have some soul-searching to do in the weeks to come.

Villarreal 2 – 1 Napoli

This was supposed to be the tie of the round and, although the first leg proved a dull and drab encounter, the second lived up to its billing.   When Marek Hamsik stooped low to head home an advantage for the Italians at El Madrigal, a section of fans came tumbling down onto the pitch, courtesy a broken fence.  Yet, if Napoli, who had left hotshot Edinson Cavani on the bench, thought that was all done and dusted, they were wrong. Villarreal have cultivated a superlative attacking style of football on the backs of forwards Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar.  With their continental hopes in the balance, both men scored within two minutes of one another to turn the tie on its head.

Napoli came back strongly in the second half and hit the woodwork twice but Villarreal held on, setting up another sumptuous tie with Bayer Leverkusen in the next round.

Bayer Leverkusen 2 – 0 Metalist Kharkiv

The Germans disposed of Metalist Kharkiv with a goal from Michael Ballack (remember him?), which also proved to be a stab in the heart of Italian fans. The strike shifted the UEFA co-efficient in the Bundesliga’s favour, costing Serie A its fourth Champions League place in the 2012/13 season.

Manchester City 3 – 0 Aris Salonika

Hotshot striker Edin Dzeko has found it tough going, after moving from the Volkswagen Arena to the Eastlands, but here he scored twice to ease the Mancunians into the next round ahead of Aris. Yaya Toure’s late 25 yard deflection provided added sheen but Dzeko’s two super finishes, one off the right post, one off the left, will leave City fans screaming for more in the days to come.

With one less knockout round, the Champions League can afford to drag its heels a bit but the Europa League will be playing its Round of 16 over 10 & 17 March, while the senior competition wraps up its corresponding round.  Below are the next set of matchups for the Europa League.

See you in a fortnight!

 

 


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Chelsea Could Be In For A Copenhagen Surprise http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/21/chelsea-could-be-in-for-a-copenhagen-surprise/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/21/chelsea-could-be-in-for-a-copenhagen-surprise/#comments Mon, 21 Feb 2011 22:32:12 +0000 Kristian Anker-Moeller http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=14461 Continue reading »]]> Although the consensus in the Danish capital that Chelsea are favourites for tomorrow’s Champions League clash, there is also a strong belief that FC Copenhagen may have what it takes to deliver a surprising result. Here’s why.

The current squad has been a number of years in the making and the players know each other well. Flamboyant coach Ståle Solbakken has been at the helm for five years so he has had plenty of time to implement his ideas. His team works as a unit and the players know his tactics and moves by heart.

Whether FCK line up in the 4-4-2 that has been their formation of choice in the domestic tournaments or the slightly more cautious 4-4-1-1 European variety, the fullbacks are key to the Lions’ game. Both contribute with goals and assist but they are very different in style. Left back Oscar Wendt is technically gifted and has a great left foot, whereas Zdenek Pospech, on the opposite flank, relies more on his drive and determination to deliver the goods. They both like to come forward on every occasion, not rarely both at the same time, to provide extra options and to free up the wide midfielders to roam.

He doesn't have the continental pedigree, the eyebrow, or any hair for that matter, but Solbakken does have the know-how.

Solbakken fields what are essentially two holding midfielders in captain William Kvist and Brazilian Claudemir. Both have the technique and vision to move the ball around effortlessly, and they make very few mistakes. Their tireless work in the middle of the park is instrumental to setting the scene for the attacking players as well as protecting the back four.

In attack, the star is Dame N’Doye. A physical striker and a great finisher, the Senegalese is the club’s top scorer both at home and in the Champions League. He will be partnered either by Brazilian striker Cesar Santin, who also knows his way to the back of the net, or former Chelsea winger Jesper Groenkjaer in a role as a deep-lying forward. Backing them up is teenage sensation Kenneth Zohore.

On the flanks, Solbakken can choose from right-sided dribbler Christian Bolaños, set piece specialist Martin Vingaard and Groenkjaer, with the flexibility of deploying the last two on either side of midfield. The central defensive pair of experienced Mikael Antonsson and hot prospect Mathias Zanka Joergensen has been rock solid and usually leaves the more-than-able keeper Johan Wiland with little to do.

On the coach’s five-year watch, the club has won the league four times and the cup once. This season, another set of gold medals has virtually been secured, as the reigning champions are undefeated and lead second-placed OB by 19 points with 14 games to play. In Europe, FCK finished their group runners-up to Barcelona, managing a home draw with the Catalan giants along the way, and ahead of Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, qualifying as the first Danish team ever for the latter stages of the tournament. In total, FCK have played six home games in the finest European tournament and never lost.

Captain Kvist displayed a true holding mid mentality in his interviews with the media, stating that a scoreless draw would be a good result.  While the attacking players would love to stun the disoriented Blues, Kvist has made it clear in the clubhouse that a clean sheet is the most important thing, “then at the Bridge, anything can happen.”

The Danish tournament hibernates over the winter, so the Lions haven’t been in competitive action since beating Panathinaikos 3-1 on December 7. They have played six friendlies over the past month winning all but one – lost on penalties to IFK Gothenburg – in preparation for this tie. Their last game was a week ago against Norwegian champions Rosenborg. On that occasion, Solbakken fielded both N’Doye and Santin in attack, perhaps indicating that this could be his prefered constellation against Chelsea. FCK won 5-0. All the moves and plays from the training field were there, the passes found their targets, the strikers found the goal. Winter break or not, FCK should be ready on Tuesday night.

N'Doye has the power, pace and confidence to challenge a struggling Chelsea defence.

Which is more than can be said for Chelsea. The English champions were absolutely gutted by their FA Cup defeat to Everton on Saturday, and tired too, after a full 120 minutes of football. In the last three games, Chelsea haven’t managed a goal in regulation time, and since assistant manager Ray Wilkins left in November the West Londoners have won just six of 19 games. Looking further back, Chelsea have won just two of their last 15 Champions League knockout games away from home.

With key players John Terry and Didier Drogba unsettled by the arrivals of David Luiz and Fernando Torres, and with the latter’s inability to find his best form, the Stamford Bridger’s confidence is at an all-time low.  Carlo Ancelotti is spending more time than he’d like fending off media questions regarding the club’s woes and his own job security.

That said, the Everton performance still represented a marked improvement over the previous two games. There was good movement and the team created plenty of chances.  Whatever their form, Ancelotti’s men are still favourites for Tuesday’s clash in the Danish capital.  In Copenhagen, however, players, pundits and the public alike think that there could be a surprise in store.  The Lions of Winter would love to give Chelsea a reception appropriate to the below zero weather expected for the match.  Solbakken summed it up for all, when speaking to bold.dk.

“The players are in great shape and I think we can put up a good fight tomorrow. We very rarely lose in Parken and we have to play our own game. We must try and control the match. We want the ball and we want to create chances, both in our build up play and by capitalising on their mistakes.”

Indeed, belief is strong in Copenhagen.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/21/chelsea-could-be-in-for-a-copenhagen-surprise/feed/ 0 Drogba unhappy krolstar Champions league logo Solbakken, Stale N'Doye, Dame Copenhagen
European Lights: Gunners Fire A Broadside Against Barca, Spurs Dine On Italian Again http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/19/european-lights-gunners-fire-a-broadside-against-barca-spurs-dine-on-italian-again/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/19/european-lights-gunners-fire-a-broadside-against-barca-spurs-dine-on-italian-again/#comments Sat, 19 Feb 2011 18:37:02 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=14369 Continue reading »]]> When Andrei Arshavin curled his first time effort beyond the despairing dive of Victor Valdes and into the net, he did something far more than give Arsenal a slim advantage in their seemingly insurmountable two-legged tie against Spanish behemoths Barcelona. Arshavin convinced the world that Barcelona, perhaps the greatest club side in football, could be beaten, if you were brave, able and willing. It also emphasized the philosophy of his manager Arsene Wenger to playing the free-flowing creative football that has won him many admirers but few trophies over the last few years.

The vanquishing of Barcelona was the biggest story in a week of European football but there were other interesting results in the week as well.  Tottenham reinforced a great week for English teams with a slightly fortuitous but no less deserving victory over Milan at the San Siro. It was a game marred more by an extraordinary bust-up between AC Milan dynamo Gennaro Gattuso and Spurs assistant manager Joe Jordan, himself a former Milanista.  Shakhtar Donetsk sparked the biggest surprise of the staggered week of European action with a superb 3-2 win at the Olympic Stadium against Roma and the old war-horse Raul showed that class is permanent with a finely struck goal to earn German side Schalke a tough draw at Spain against Valencia.

Arsenal 2 – 1 Barcelona

The best tie on paper lived up to its hype on turf. In a scintillating display of football, both sides started at break-neck speed with Arsenal’s attacking mentality knocking the Catalans off their stride. So flummoxed were Barcelona that even Lionel Messi, set through on a counter attack, left the keeper on the ground but dinked it past the post. Not to worry, though, as soon the Catalans led, courtesy of David Villa’s tidy finish after being set through by Messi.

But Arsenal were not to be denied.  Egged on by a superlative Jack Wilshere, the constant probing of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, aided by the blistering Theo Walcott, proved too much.  Despite that, Barcelona will be unhappy at how they conceded the equaliser. Van Persie finished from an impossible angle, after Valdes had left his near post unguarded expecting a cross rather than a shot.

If the first was a punch that dazed, the second was surely a knock-out. Set through on a counter-attack, Samir Nasri, who had just moved into central midfield to accommodate Arshavin, raced down to the Barcelona box, cut back and found the diminutive Russian. The pass was perfect, eliminating five Barcelona defenders in one movement.  Arshavin hardly had to break stride and for a player of his quality, his curled finish beyond Valdes’ attempt sent the Emirates Stadium into raptures.

Barcelona will likely still win this tie, but Arshavin’s goal may yet serve a more enduring message.

AS Roma 2 – 3 Shakhtar Donetsk

On the same night, Shakhtar Donetsk scored three goals in 13 minutes to claim a stunning come-from-behind win at Roma.
Simone Perrotta put Roma ahead in the 28th minute before Jadson equalised a minute later, after his effort took a deflection off Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi.  Douglas Costa then gave the visitors a 36th-minute lead before Luiz Adriano made it 3-1 before half-time.
Roma striker Jeremy Menez reduced arrears on the hour mark but the Italians could not find the equalizer, try as they might.  Claudio Ranieri’s side now have it all to do in the return leg, but the smart money is now against them thanks to the Samba trio in the Russian line-up.

Valencia 1 – 1 Schalke 04

On Tuesday, a tie that had been all about one Spaniard was defined by another.  Roberto Soldado scored a superbly taken goal past Manuel Neuer in the first half but the legendary Raul was not to be denied on his return to Spain. The Mestalla has been the scene of many great Raul performances, and while this may not have been vintage Raul, the finish certainly was his trademark. The ex-Real Madrid striker is all about angles and precisions, and on this occasion, he took the ball in his stride and finished acutely past Vicente. Schalke thereby hold the advantage in this tie, going into the return leg in Germany.

AC Milan 0 – 1 Tottenham Hotspur

Milan are masters of Europe with a squad as timeless as fine wine but on this occasion, Tottenham’s upstarts proved more than a match for the Italians. The height of Peter Crouch was always a factor and superlative performances by Rafael van der Vaart and Aaron Lennon were ably supported by the defensive leadership of Michael Dawson. The whole Spurs contingent aroused themselves, so much so that some Italians had difficulty accepting the result.

Gattuso was enraged by the insults emanating from the wooden-faced figure on the bench next to the Spurs' boss. If he had paid more attention, though, he'd have realised that Harry Redknapp's lips were moving.

Mathieu Flamini, no stranger to tough tackling, went in with a two-footed lunge on Vedran Corluka that was made all the more shocking by the lenient punishment of only a yellow card. But even Flamini’s horror tackle was overshadowed by the antics of Gennaro Gattuso. The Italian’s frustration boiled over and he  totally lost his head, during a face-to-face clash with Spurs bench coach Joe Jordan, which began with a throttling and ended with a head-butt, which in all honesty, barely drew a flinch from the tough as nails Jordan.

Pugilistics aside, the game itself was interesting but not a high quality affair.  Tottenham were always going to be most dangerous in counter-attacks, and it was no surprise when a blistering turn of pace by Aaron Lennon left Mario Yepes on his back. His pass took out Alessandro Nesta, leaving the towering Crouch the relatively simple task of tapping home from twelve yards out. The beanpole striker’s sixth goal in eight European games means that Spurs now have a lead to defend at home in London.  If that isn’t concern enough for the Rossoneri, there is the small matter of Gareth Bale’s impending return.

Highlight

The Villarreal-Napoli tie should have been the tie of the round, but an insipid 0-0 draw meant that the biggest result of the night was Bayer Leverkusen’s rout of Metalist Kharkiv. Even their manager Jupp Heynckes, admitted that he did not expect such a comprehensive victory, made all the more flattering through two late Sidney Sam strikes. A 4-0 result away from home is as comprehensive as it gets and Rudi Vøller said that his side can now plan for a tie against either of Napoli or Villarreal.

Lowlight

If Bayer provided the best display, Liverpool gave the worst. An absolutely uninspiring performance from the Reds saw them fail to muster a single shot on target in their tie against Czech side Sparta Prague. Cue headlines of Reality Czech. Interesting fact; Kenny Dalglish waited almost ten thousand days to manage Liverpool in Europe, but after a performance like that, he must have surely wondered why.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/19/european-lights-gunners-fire-a-broadside-against-barca-spurs-dine-on-italian-again/feed/ 3 Van Persie v Barca zulquar Champions league logo Jordan v Gattuso Europa-League-Logo
WFC’s UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Predictions Redux http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/15/wfcs-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-predictions-redux/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/15/wfcs-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-predictions-redux/#comments Tue, 15 Feb 2011 07:00:42 +0000 The WFC Staff http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=14285 Continue reading »]]> Written by Quazi Zulquarnain & Martin Palazzotto

***This article originally appeared immediately after the draw for the round of 16.  Of course, there have been some developments in the meantime.  Roma are heading into their clash with Shakhtar in a match funk rather than match fresh.  The Spurs/Milan tilt has been altered dramatically by the rumoured signing of  Antonio Cassano coming to fruition and Gareth Bale’s injury, which, even if he’s ready to go, as Harry Redknapp has intimated, will render the Welsh starlet less than fit.  As well, Leonardo has had the predicted positive effect on Inter,  United have lost and Chelsea are a mess.  Still we’re too lazy to write a whole new article, so you get the chance to see how badly we stuck our foot in it!***

The Champions League group stages concluded two weeks ago, with at least one surprise entry into the knockout round (FC Copenhagen) and several of the big names unable to win their group (Arsenal, Inter and last year’s semi-finalist Lyon).  Now, everyone gets a chance to rest, except, of course for the Premier League sides, who will spend the holidays playing enough matches to compensate for everyone else’s inaction.

The Round of 16 draw was held on Friday, 17 December and we’ve had a week to see how the first half of the European seasons shake out and choose our picks for the final 8, ahead of the restart in February.

Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Roma

Quazi: Despite finishing top of a group that also included Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk will very much be underdogs in this round of sixteen clash against AS Roma. That does not mean that they will not be able to pull out a surprise win against the Italians. Roma have been sketchy in the tournament, pulling out a remarkable victory against Bayern Munich, but then failing to hit the heights against Basle and Benfica .  At face value, that sounds like a motivational issue, but when you have the likes of Daniele de Rossi and the eternal Roman, Francesco Totti, your chances of progress are better than most. On a side-note, the cold may play a factor in Ukraine in February and expect Totti to pull out all the fashion stops in a snood to beat all snoods. Roy Keane beware.

Martin: It will indeed be cold on the Ukrainian steppes in February, but the Miners are likely to feel it just as much as Roma, given that their encounter will be the first action that Shakhtar will have seen in ten weeks.  Claudio Ranieri’s side, meanwhile, will have had 6 or 7 matches to round themselves back into form after the holiday break.  With their main attacking weapons, Eduardo and Luiz Adriano both native Brazilians, the cold weather may actually play into Roma’s hands, even if Totti forgets to pack his snood.

Predictions

Quazi: Roma to negotiate safe passage, despite the cold.

Martin: I agree, but the Giallorossi will move on thanks to the weather!

♦   ◊   ♦

Tottenham Hotspur v AC Milan

Quazi: Perhaps the most enticing draw of the round of sixteen, despite some other marquee ties.

Milan are second only to Real, as regards their pedigree in the competition and throughout the noughties, their players have regarded the Champions League as their home away from home. Players of the ilk of Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta ooze class and are more than a match for any team. Add to the mix, the amazing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the mazy Robinho and you have a team capable of beating anyone on their day; although that day tends to come around somewhat infrequently.

On the other hand, Milan may be readying to kill the golden goose of Massimo Allegri by signing the mercurial Antonio Cassano. Although February might be too soon for him to wreak his usual havoc. As for Spurs, if any team goes into this tie fearless, it is them.  Gareth Bale is no stranger to the San Siro and, on his next visit, might even get a chance to review the skid-marks he left behind in his annihilation of Maicon. Milan’s full backs are notoriously poor and it is here that the game might be won and lost, if, that is, Luka Modric and company can get a hang of the midfield.

Martin: It’s difficult to argue, on current form, that this isn’t the tie of the round.  Inter and Bayern are both less than they were last year and while Arsenal/Barcelona is a heavyweight match-up the outcome seems inevitable.

It’s also a tough match-up to handicap, with the sides very evenly matched at the moment.  Transfer window activity, such as the rumoured signing of Antonio Cassano, may swing the balance, one way or the other.  Spurs, remember, are also having to fight off the advances of Chelsea on Luka Modric.   Cassano’s signing should help more than hinder the Rossoneri, with the tumultuous winger chomping at the bit to get back into action.  As well, his presence may occupy Bale more on defence, which can only be a good thing.  Another concern for Milan is that Ibra is their only player finding goal, at the moment.  Still, the difference for me is Spurs’ pace.  Milan’s midfield is experienced, true, but too slow and their fullbacks will be exposed to a blistering attack, which I don’t think they’ll withstand.

Predictions

Quazi: I’m tempted to go for Spurs but Milan’s experience will pay dividends.

Martin: Spurs have tested the water and it’s just fine.  Their speed will negate their lack of experience.  As with Inter, look for copious amounts of scoring.

♦   ◊   ♦

Schalke 04 v Valencia

Quazi: Every opening round draw throws up a relative dud, but this one isn’t it.  Although on its face, Valencia against Schalke looks a dour encounter, in truth it will be a fascinating battle between two intriguing sides who have gone different ways this season. Schalke finished top of their group, but at home they have struggled to impose themselves, although results have picked up of late.

Valencia have had a solid season thus far, inasmuch as possible in a league with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their two-legged tie will provide ample ammunition to the never-ending debate about the comparative strength of the leagues. Felix Magath is no stranger to these scenarios but will find an able match in Unai Emery. Oh, and, of course, Raul returns to Spain.

Martin: This is an intriguing match-up and, as is so often the case in cup competitions, league form is not a reliable indicator for choosing a winner.  At first glance, you’d have to go with a team holding down a European place over one that has only just moved away from the drop zone.  Add to that the imposing home pitch advantage of the Mestalla and the resourceful Unai Emery at the helm and Los Che would seem a no-brainer to advance.  Yet, Felix Magath made significant changes to Die Knappen, in the summer, which are now seeming to take the desired effect.  The two biggest alterations, the additions of Raul and Klass-Jan Huntelaar, not only ended the Autumn season in fine form but will be less intimidated in the away leg, having had some pleasant experiences at the Mestalla, with Real Madrid.

Predictions

Quazi: The only way Schalke can go are up and Raul and Huntelaar do play better in Europe.  It’s the Germans for me.

Martin: That sums it up nicely.

♦   ◊   ♦

Bayern Munich v Inter Milan

Quazi: The great thing about (almost) random draws is that they have the capacity to throw up games of great magnitude. Which is why last year’s Champions League Final will be replayed over two legs in this year’s round of sixteen, albeit minus a certain Jose Mourinho.  That, not surprisingly, might prove all the difference. Both Inter and Bayern have struggled to replicate last year’s form but, while Bayern coasted the group stages, Inter looked shaky in numerous encounters, albeit in a harder group.

Rafa Benitez’s dismissal, followed by rumours of a move for the Brazilian, Leonardo, casts even more doubt on the Nerazzurri’s chances.  Mourinho’s boots, as Benitez found out, are not so easy to fill.   Whoever takes over may find out the same very quickly.

Bayern and Louis van Gaal have been consistently inconsistent. On some days, their football can be dreamy to behold but then one of the notoriously poor back line makes a gaffe and you are bought back to sudden reality. It will be an intriguing tie with the side on form winning this one.

Martin: Inter will indeed have to move on from the failed Rafa Benitez experiment.  If it’s Leonardo who assumes the reigns or an unexpected candidate, say Didier Deschamps, it will be interesting to see whether they revert to the system under Mourinho or press a third program on the disoriented Italian champions.  Bayern, meanwhile, have rounded into form, as Mario Gomez has forced a reluctant Van Gaal to play him, by scoring at a torrid pace.  Arjen Robben is expected to be back by February and Franck Ribery has begun to find some consistency.  Yet the Bayern which went into the break looked capable enough even without their two high-profile wingers.

Predictions

Quazi: Bayern, with Robben and Ribery back in the side, will edge this one.

Martin: Everything points to Bayern now but the tie takes place in February.  The significance in the timing is that Inter’s new boss will likely have a positive effect, in the short-term at least, while Van Gaal, à la the departed Benitez, continues to irk the higher-ups at Bayern, especially Uli Hoeness.  I expect Inter’s newfound confidence to get them through.

♦   ◊   ♦

Real Madrid v Lyon

Quazi: Hold on a minute while I check my calendar.  Are we back to last season? Or the season before? Lyon against Real Madrid has become Champions league vogue, it seems. But hang on, there is a catch. Real have not beaten Lyon in that stretch.  Three wins and three draws will give the French side all the confidence they need.

Still, Real are a different ball game this year, if you ignore the 5-0 debacle against Barcelona. Mourinho’s sides look compact as usual and most importantly their front four of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain look more than a match for any side. Jose’s pedigree in this competition is unrivaled and his players are hungry to make an impact in games. Add to that Lyon’s lack of their customary zeal and picking the winner in this tie becomes quite a simple task.

Martin: Lyon have moved up through Ligue 1, after a dismal beginning to their season, but they couldn’t get the better of Schalke, finishing second in a relatively lightweight group.  Real are every bit as aware as anyone that they haven’t been able to crack Les Gones but third time pays for all.  Jose Mourinho, Master Motivator, will not only challenge them to get the monkey off their back, he will remind them of the two match ban and media flack he bore to ensure they were at full strength when the time comes.  There will be no excuses.

Predictions

Quazi: Real Madrid, a different beast under Mourinho, will finally defeat Lyon.

Martin: Grrrrrr!

♦   ◊   ♦

Barcelona v Arsenal

Quazi: This is it. A clash of two homogeneous styles. Arsene Wenger versus Pep Guardiola. Lionel Messi versus Cesc Fabregas. Only it wasn’t during last year’s clash.

Despite Arsene Wenger’s defiant insistence that they were level with Barcelona for 110 minutes of the 180 minute tie, the Catalans blew Arsenal out of the water with a mesmerizing display of attacking, possession football. Lionel Messi struck four times and Barcelona were generally jaw-drop amazing in their fluidity.

Yet, this was still the clash everyone again wanted to see. Like any good movie, there is always a sequel. The problem is that the remake usually doesn’t live up to expectations. The chances of that happening in this tie are minimal, especially since Barcelona are involved.  Then again, that’s what they said of Wall Street and Michael Douglas too.   With both sides committed to attacking, this promises to be the single most exciting tie of the round and Arsene Wenger wasn’t lying when he said that Barcelona would have rather seen someone other than Arsenal, themselves. Arsenal are good and getting there but Barcelona, with no hyperbole, are perhaps the greatest club side ever.

Martin: Wouldn’t it be something if Arsenal walked away from this tie winners?  The press would have a field day, hundreds of bookies will go belly up and Mephistopheles will be calling British Gas to inquire why his service has been cut off.  As things stand now, however, the Gunners have next to no chance.  Yet, if they can come away from their upcoming clash against Chelsea with 3 points, their confidence will soar.  Further, if Wenger has been bluffing about staying out of the market and does manage to land Eden Hazard, the gap between the two sides will shrink even more.  For all that, it will still take more than one lucky break for the Emirates outfit to overcome Barcelona’s experience.

Predictions

Quazi: It’s difficult to see beyond Barcelona, at this point.

Martin: Yeah, I haven’t got the balls to pick Arsenal, either.

♦   ◊   ♦

Manchester United v Marseille

Quazi: The Red Devils narrowly missed the enviable record of having kept a clean sheet across the group stage, but their stingy back line, marshaled by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, will have to keep on their toes to carry a forward line with a noticeable lack of goals. Wayne Rooney remains the ultimate culprit with his run of poor form stretching back across most of this year. Sir Alex Ferguson recently crossed Busby’s mark and his side will likely prove too strong for a Marseille side, who will nonetheless draw inspiration from their win over Chelsea, in the group phase. The quarterfinals though, will be a step too far for the French team.

Martin: Marseille is on the rise under Didier Deschamps and the club’s board has ratcheted up negotiations to extend his contract, with managers dropping like flies and the phone ringing off the Frenchman’s wall.  As Ligue 1 is a rich source of talent for the Big 4, French clubs tend to lose key players in the winter window and require some time to recover.  Yet, if OM can hang onto their boss, they will give United a run for their money.

Unfortunately, Rooney is showing signs of revival, Ferdinand and Vidic are both healthy (fingers crossed) and Nani is thriving in Antonio Valencia’s place.  It’s almost as difficult to imagine Fergie’s crew losing at this stage as it is Pep Guardiola’s Catalans.

Predictions

Quazi: Rio Ferdinand says this tie is “negotiable.”  Who am I to disagree?

Martin: Oh, we’re quoting the Eurythmics now, are we?  Well, United don’t dominate the way Barça does, but they just don’t lose.  OM will show up but in the end it will be Sweet Dreams for them.

♦   ◊   ♦

Chelsea v FC Copenhagen

Quazi: Chelsea are in awful form but how much longer can that last? Really?  Much of the Blues’ struggles this season have come about from their lack of bench strength.   After their squad shuttling in the summer, Frank Lampard picked up an injury and the Blues have missed Michael Ballack and Joe Cole, in his absence.  Chelsea have looked a side lost without their leader. John Terry continues to abate and John Obi Mikel’s progress seems to have stalled slightly. Didier Drogba is still deadly but the Londoners seem to lack the extra punch they possessed in seasons past.

Copenhagen, on paper, looks a pretty easy tie, but the Danish side are no push-overs. Their country’s first representatives at this stage of the competition, they negotiated a group including Barcelona, giving the Blaugrana a good game in the process. If that doesn’t say anything about your quality, nothing ever will.

Martin: Are the Danish lions here because they’re that good or because Rubin Kazan and Panathanaikos were so horribly bad?  No one on their roster really jumps out at you and, therefore, you’d think it was the latter but they did play very well in their home match against Barça.  Chelsea, who looked a juggernaut in September now look mostly not.  Try as I might, though, and I squeezed my eyes shut really tight and nearly burst a blood vessel in my temple, I cannot see Copenhagen, on their best day, beating even a half-strength Blues squad over 180 minutes.

Predictions

Quazi: Ah yes, predictability is my forte.  Chelsea wins this one.

Martin: Don’t hurt yourself, Quazi!  You’re right, though, it’s virtually a foregone conclusion.

♦   ◊   ♦

Well, the fact that we agree on 6 of the 8 ties says one of two things.  Either the critics are right, claiming that the group stages are completely unnecessary, good only for squeezing money out of the fans or the two of us are the worst handicappers on the planet.  We’ll know, one way or the other in February.

In the meantime, we’ll take another crack at it over the New Year’s weekend, when we turn our eye to the Europa League draw.  We’ll see you then but, in the interim, have the best and safest of holidays!


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2011/02/15/wfcs-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-predictions-redux/feed/ 0 Messi feeling it wfctagteam Shaktar Donetsk AS Roma AS Roma AS Roma Tottenham Hotspur AC Milan AC Milan Tottenham Hotspur Schalke 04 Valencia Schalke 04 Schalke 04 Bayern Munich inter Bayern Munich inter Real Madrid Lyon Real Madrid Real Madrid Barcelona Arsenal Barcelona Barcelona Manchester United Marseille Manchester United Manchester United Chelsea FC Copenhagen Chelsea Chelsea
WFC’s UEFA Champions League Round Of 16 Predictions http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/24/wfcs-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-predictions/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/24/wfcs-uefa-champions-league-round-of-16-predictions/#comments Fri, 24 Dec 2010 20:29:51 +0000 The WFC Staff http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=12306 Continue reading »]]> Written by Quazi Zulquarnain & Martin Palazzotto

The Champions League group stages concluded two weeks ago, with at least one surprise entry into the knockout round (FC Copenhagen) and several of the big names unable to win their group (Arsenal, Inter and last year’s semi-finalist Lyon).  Now, everyone gets a chance to rest, except, of course for the Premier League sides, who will spend the holidays playing enough matches to compensate for everyone else’s inaction.

The Round of 16 draw was held on Friday, 17 December and we’ve had a week to see how the first half of the European seasons shake out and choose our picks for the final 8, ahead of the restart in February.

Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Roma

Quazi: Despite finishing top of a group that also included Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk will very much be underdogs in this round of sixteen clash against AS Roma. That does not mean that they will not be able to pull out a surprise win against the Italians. Roma have been sketchy in the tournament, pulling out a remarkable victory against Bayern Munich, but then failing to hit the heights against Basle and Benfica .  At face value, that sounds like a motivational issue, but when you have the likes of Daniele de Rossi and the eternal Roman, Francesco Totti, your chances of progress are better than most. On a side-note, the cold may play a factor in Ukraine in February and expect Totti to pull out all the fashion stops in a snood to beat all snoods. Roy Keane beware.

Martin: It will indeed be cold on the Ukrainian steppes in February, but the Miners are likely to feel it just as much as Roma, given that their encounter will be the first action that Shakhtar will have seen in ten weeks.  Claudio Ranieri’s side, meanwhile, will have had 6 or 7 matches to round themselves back into form after the holiday break.  With their main attacking weapons, Eduardo and Luiz Adriano both native Brazilians, the cold weather may actually play into Roma’s hands, even if Totti forgets to pack his snood.

Predictions

Quazi: Roma to negotiate safe passage, despite the cold.

Martin: I agree, but the Giallorossi will move on thanks to the weather!

♦   ◊   ♦

Tottenham Hotspur v AC Milan

Quazi: Perhaps the most enticing draw of the round of sixteen, despite some other marquee ties.

Milan are second only to Real, as regards their pedigree in the competition and throughout the noughties, their players have regarded the Champions League as their home away from home. Players of the ilk of Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Alessandro Nesta ooze class and are more than a match for any team. Add to the mix, the amazing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the mazy Robinho and you have a team capable of beating anyone on their day; although that day tends to come around somewhat infrequently.

On the other hand, Milan may be readying to kill the golden goose of Massimo Allegri by signing the mercurial Antonio Cassano. Although February might be too soon for him to wreak his usual havoc. As for Spurs, if any team goes into this tie fearless, it is them.  Gareth Bale is no stranger to the San Siro and, on his next visit, might even get a chance to review the skid-marks he left behind in his annihilation of Maicon. Milan’s full backs are notoriously poor and it is here that the game might be won and lost, if, that is, Luka Modric and company can get a hang of the midfield.

Martin: It’s difficult to argue, on current form, that this isn’t the tie of the round.  Inter and Bayern are both less than they were last year and while Arsenal/Barcelona is a heavyweight match-up the outcome seems inevitable.

It’s also a tough match-up to handicap, with the sides very evenly matched at the moment.  Transfer window activity, such as the rumoured signing of Antonio Cassano, may swing the balance, one way or the other.  Spurs, remember, are also having to fight off the advances of Chelsea on Luka Modric.   Cassano’s signing should help more than hinder the Rossoneri, with the tumultuous winger chomping at the bit to get back into action.  As well, his presence may occupy Bale more on defence, which can only be a good thing.  Another concern for Milan is that Ibra is their only player finding goal, at the moment.  Still, the difference for me is Spurs’ pace.  Milan’s midfield is experienced, true, but too slow and their fullbacks will be exposed to a blistering attack, which I don’t think they’ll withstand.

Predictions

Quazi: I’m tempted to go for Spurs but Milan’s experience will pay dividends.

Martin: Spurs have tested the water and it’s just fine.  Their speed will negate their lack of experience.  As with Inter, look for copious amounts of scoring.

♦   ◊   ♦

Schalke 04 v Valencia

Quazi: Every opening round draw throws up a relative dud, but this one isn’t it.  Although on its face, Valencia against Schalke looks a dour encounter, in truth it will be a fascinating battle between two intriguing sides who have gone different ways this season. Schalke finished top of their group, but at home they have struggled to impose themselves, although results have picked up of late.

Valencia have had a solid season thus far, inasmuch as possible in a league with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Their two-legged tie will provide ample ammunition to the never-ending debate about the comparative strength of the leagues. Felix Magath is no stranger to these scenarios but will find an able match in Unai Emery. Oh, and, of course, Raul returns to Spain.

Martin: This is an intriguing match-up and, as is so often the case in cup competitions, league form is not a reliable indicator for choosing a winner.  At first glance, you’d have to go with a team holding down a European place over one that has only just moved away from the drop zone.  Add to that the imposing home pitch advantage of the Mestalla and the resourceful Unai Emery at the helm and Los Che would seem a no-brainer to advance.  Yet, Felix Magath made significant changes to Die Knappen, in the summer, which are now seeming to take the desired effect.  The two biggest alterations, the additions of Raul and Klass-Jan Huntelaar, not only ended the Autumn season in fine form but will be less intimidated in the away leg, having had some pleasant experiences at the Mestalla, with Real Madrid.

Predictions

Quazi: The only way Schalke can go are up and Raul and Huntelaar do play better in Europe.  It’s the Germans for me.

Martin: That sums it up nicely.

♦   ◊   ♦

Bayern Munich v Inter Milan

Quazi: The great thing about (almost) random draws is that they have the capacity to throw up games of great magnitude. Which is why last year’s Champions League Final will be replayed over two legs in this year’s round of sixteen, albeit minus a certain Jose Mourinho.  That, not surprisingly, might prove all the difference. Both Inter and Bayern have struggled to replicate last year’s form but, while Bayern coasted the group stages, Inter looked shaky in numerous encounters, albeit in a harder group.

Rafa Benitez’s dismissal, followed by rumours of a move for the Brazilian, Leonard, casts even more doubt on the Nerazzurri’s chances.  Mourinho’s boots, as Benitez found out, are not so easy to fill.   Whoever takes over may find out the same very quickly.

Bayern and Louis van Gaal have been consistently inconsistent. On some days, their football can be dreamy to behold but then one of the notoriously poor back line makes a gaffe and you are bought back to sudden reality. It will be an intriguing tie with the side on form winning this one.

Martin: Inter will indeed have to move on from the failed Rafa Benitez experiment.  If it’s Leonardo who assumes the reigns or an unexpected candidate, say Didier Deschamps, it will be interesting to see whether they revert to the system under Mourinho or press a third program on the disoriented Italian champions.  Bayern, meanwhile, have rounded into form, as Mario Gomez has forced a reluctant Van Gaal to play him, by scoring at a torrid pace.  Arjen Robben is expected to be back by February and Franck Ribery has begun to find some consistency.  Yet the Bayern which went into the break looked capable enough even without their two high-profile wingers.

Predictions

Quazi: Bayern, with Robben and Ribery back in the side, will edge this one.

Martin: Everything points to Bayern now but the tie takes place in February.  The significance in the timing is that Inter’s new boss will likely have a positive effect, in the short-term at least, while Van Gaal, à la the departed Benitez, continues to irk the higher-ups at Bayern, especially Uli Hoeness.  I expect Inter’s newfound confidence to get them through.

♦   ◊   ♦

Real Madrid v Lyon

Quazi: Hold on a minute while I check my calendar.  Are we back to last season? Or the season before? Lyon against Real Madrid has become Champions league vogue, it seems. But hang on, there is a catch. Real have not beaten Lyon in that stretch.  Three wins and three draws will give the French side all the confidence they need.

Still, Real are a different ball game this year, if you ignore the 5-0 debacle against Barcelona. Mourinho’s sides look compact as usual and most importantly their front four of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain look more than a match for any side. Jose’s pedigree in this competition is unrivaled and his players are hungry to make an impact in games. Add to that Lyon’s lack of their customary zeal and picking the winner in this tie becomes quite a simple task.

Martin: Lyon have moved up through Ligue 1, after a dismal beginning to their season, but they couldn’t get the better of Schalke, finishing second in a relatively lightweight group.  Real are every bit as aware as anyone that they haven’t been able to crack Les Gones but third time pays for all.  Jose Mourinho, Master Motivator, will not only challenge them to get the monkey off their back, he will remind them of the two match ban and media flack he bore to ensure they were at full strength when the time comes.  There will be no excuses.

Predictions

Quazi: Real Madrid, a different beast under Mourinho, will finally defeat Lyon.

Martin: Grrrrrr!

♦   ◊   ♦

Barcelona v Arsenal

Quazi: This is it. A clash of two homogeneous styles. Arsene Wenger versus Pep Guardiola. Lionel Messi versus Cesc Fabregas. Only it wasn’t during last year’s clash.

Despite Arsene Wenger’s defiant insistence that they were level with Barcelona for 110 minutes of the 180 minute tie, the Catalans blew Arsenal out of the water with a mesmerizing display of attacking, possession football. Lionel Messi struck four times and Barcelona were generally jaw-drop amazing in their fluidity.

Yet, this was still the clash everyone again wanted to see. Like any good movie, there is always a sequel. The problem is that the remake usually doesn’t live up to expectations. The chances of that happening in this tie are minimal, especially since Barcelona are involved.  Then again, that’s what they said of Wall Street and Michael Douglas too.   With both sides committed to attacking, this promises to be the single most exciting tie of the round and Arsene Wenger wasn’t lying when he said that Barcelona would have rather seen someone other than Arsenal, themselves. Arsenal are good and getting there but Barcelona, with no hyperbole, are perhaps the greatest club side ever.

Martin: Wouldn’t it be something if Arsenal walked away from this tie winners?  The press would have a field day, hundreds of bookies will go belly up and Mephistopheles will be calling British Gas to inquire why his service has been cut off.  As things stand now, however, the Gunners have next to no chance.  Yet, if they can come away from their upcoming clash against Chelsea with 3 points, their confidence will soar.  Further, if Wenger has been bluffing about staying out of the market and does manage to land Eden Hazard, the gap between the two sides will shrink even more.  For all that, it will still take more than one lucky break for the Emirates outfit to overcome Barcelona’s experience.

Predictions

Quazi: It’s difficult to see beyond Barcelona, at this point.

Martin: Yeah, I haven’t got the balls to pick Arsenal, either.

♦   ◊   ♦

Manchester United v Marseille

Quazi: The Red Devils narrowly missed the enviable record of having kept a clean sheet across the group stage, but their stingy back line, marshaled by Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, will have to keep on their toes to carry a forward line with a noticeable lack of goals. Wayne Rooney remains the ultimate culprit with his run of poor form stretching back across most of this year. Sir Alex Ferguson recently crossed Busby’s mark and his side will likely prove too strong for a Marseille side, who will nonetheless draw inspiration from their win over Chelsea, in the group phase. The quarterfinals though, will be a step too far for the French team.

Martin: Marseille is on the rise under Didier Deschamps and the club’s board has ratcheted up negotiations to extend his contract, with managers dropping like flies and the phone ringing off the Frenchman’s wall.  As Ligue 1 is a rich source of talent for the Big 4, French clubs tend to lose key players in the winter window and require some time to recover.  Yet, if OM can hang onto their boss, they will give United a run for their money.

Unfortunately, Rooney is showing signs of revival, Ferdinand and Vidic are both healthy (fingers crossed) and Nani is thriving in Antonio Valencia’s place.  It’s almost as difficult to imagine Fergie’s crew losing at this stage as it is Pep Guardiola’s Catalans.

Predictions

Quazi: Rio Ferdinand says this tie is “negotiable.”  Who am I to disagree?

Martin: Oh, we’re quoting the Eurythmics now, are we?  Well, United don’t dominate the way Barça does, but they just don’t lose.  OM will show up but in the end it will be Sweet Dreams for them.

♦   ◊   ♦

Chelsea v FC Copenhagen

Quazi: Chelsea are in awful form but how much longer can that last? Really?  Much of the Blues’ struggles this season have come about from their lack of bench strength.   After their squad shuttling in the summer, Frank Lampard picked up an injury and the Blues have missed Michael Ballack and Joe Cole, in his absence.  Chelsea have looked a side lost without their leader. John Terry continues to abate and John Obi Mikel’s progress seems to have stalled slightly. Didier Drogba is still deadly but the Londoners seem to lack the extra punch they possessed in seasons past.

Copenhagen, on paper, looks a pretty easy tie, but the Danish side are no push-overs. Their country’s first representatives at this stage of the competition, they negotiated a group including Barcelona, giving the Blaugrana a good game in the process. If that doesn’t say anything about your quality, nothing ever will.

Martin: Are the Danish lions here because they’re that good or because Rubin Kazan and Panathanaikos were so horribly bad?  No one on their roster really jumps out at you and, therefore, you’d think it was the latter but they did play very well in their home match against Barça.  Chelsea, who looked a juggernaut in September now look mostly not.  Try as I might, though, and I squeezed my eyes shut really tight and nearly burst a blood vessel in my temple, I cannot see Copenhagen, on their best day, beating even a half-strength Blues squad over 180 minutes.

Predictions

Quazi: Ah yes, predictability is my forte.  Chelsea wins this one.

Martin: Don’t hurt yourself, Quazi!  You’re right, though, it’s virtually a foregone conclusion.

♦   ◊   ♦

Well, the fact that we agree on 6 of the 8 ties says one of two things.  Either the critics are right, claiming that the group stages are completely unnecessary, good only for squeezing money out of the fans or the two of us are the worst handicappers on the planet.  We’ll know, one way or the other in February.

In the meantime, we’ll take another crack at it over the New Year’s weekend, when we turn our eye to the Europa League draw.  We’ll see you then but, in the interim, have the best and safest of holidays!


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Gaby Heinze: A Prodigal Son Returns To Old Trafford http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/18/gaby-heinze-a-prodigal-son-returns-to-old-trafford/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/18/gaby-heinze-a-prodigal-son-returns-to-old-trafford/#comments Sat, 18 Dec 2010 16:42:02 +0000 Eliot Rothwell http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=11910 Continue reading »]]> Cristiano Ronaldo, emblazoned in the deep red of Manchester United, picked up the ball on 87 minutes. The Craven Cottage crowd, with the score at 1-1, breathed a long and lasting sigh of inevitable despair as the Portuguese winger cut inside from the left flank.

The rest: the drop of the shoulder, the poked finish and the finger wagging celebration; paved the way for something altogether more unusual. The greasy haired man from Madeira, not usually one to shun the limelight, ran, like a man possessed, over to the Manchester United dugout. The man he was so irrepressibly intent on reaching was not manager Alex Ferguson, not club captain Gary Neville but feisty Argentinian left-back Gabriele Heinze, the man who will return to Old Trafford with his Marseilles side following Friday’s Champions League draw.

When Didier Deschamps brings his Ligue 1-winning Olympique Marseilles to Old Trafford for the return leg of the last 16 tie, next year, the feisty Argentinian left-back will be greeted with respect and adulation by former teammates and fans alike. The respect, displayed so emphatically by Ronaldo, was earned through the wholehearted performances of a man whose Manchester United career was cut short by debilitating injuries.

Heinze missed a large portion of the 2005-2006 season, forcing manager Sir Alex Ferguson to sign another feisty, combative left-back, Patrice Evra, from Monaco. Unable to ever truly regain his best form for the Old Trafford side, the following season would be his last in the Theatre of Dreams. He was moved on to Spanish giants Real Madrid in 2007. It is, however, worth noting that Ferguson, usually known for his fiery attitude, sentimentally gifted the former Paris Saint German player the captain’s armband for the final two games of the season, against Chelsea and West Ham United. Heinze is a man clearly respected by both the managerial and footballing hierarchy at Old Trafford, providing significance to what many journalists have already dismissed as an “easy” draw for last year’s Premier League runners-up.

The Argentinian won the league once whilst at Old Trafford, in his final season, and then again, in his first season as one of the darlings of the Madridistas. Too soon, however, the man born to a German father and an Italian mother, found himself on the periphery of the Spanish club.

Gaby also tends to impress the men in black.

He soon found a new home on the pristine south coast resort of French side Marseilles, enthusiastically recruited by their new coach, Deschamps, who was looking for a veteran player capable of instilling a winning culture in the once great club, which hadn’t won a title since 1992.

He is a true defender who loves the fight, is tough and has technical qualities. He isn’t just a destroyer – he hasn’t got more than 50 caps by chance. He has experience. He has no fear. His experience at big European clubs, in his international team, in European competitions means he knows pressure. – Didier Deschamps thinks Gaby Heinze has true grit.

Deschamps’ assessment was spot on. Heinze’s influence again illuminated the darkened path to success, as the left-back immediately embedded himself in the OM starting line-up, provided a solid base on the left-hand side, as well as the winning mentality needed to turn the tricky tide of the title race in the favour of the French Riviera club.

The title win came with a 3-1 win over Rennes as Heinze opened the scoring with a well struck free-kick. The fact that Jimmy Briand equalised for Rennes seemed irrelevant, as Deschamps’ side remained imperious on their march to silverware.

Heinze will make the trip to Old Trafford the next side of New Year with the same zest and attitude of his 20’s, keen on success and ensuring that the respect that United have for him is upheld with aplomb. Ferguson, during the 32-year-old’s time at Old Trafford praised the bravery and dedication that endeared himself to the United faithful: “Gabi is brave enough, that’s for sure, and he’s got so much courage.


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European Lights: Europa League Group Stage Wrap-Up http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/17/european-lights-europa-league-group-stage-wrap-up/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/17/european-lights-europa-league-group-stage-wrap-up/#comments Fri, 17 Dec 2010 22:32:41 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=11578 Continue reading »]]> The champions crumbled, the ex-champions play-acted, and a frustrated contender remonstrated.  They were not alone in watching their dreams transformed into nightmares in an entertaining final match day of the Europa League first round, this week

Defending champions Atletico Madrid crashed out, while Sevilla resorted to ‘gamesmanship’ to see off a spirited Borussia Dortmund challenge.   The cheap tricks had Dortmund manager, Jurgen Klopp, fuming well after the game had finished. As well, AEK Athens were left cursing their luck, after failing to qualify despite starting the day three points ahead of their nearest rivals.

The BVB/Rojiblancos clash was the marquee tie of the week and the game lived up to its billing, in drama if not in quality.  With much at stake, both sides let their nerves get the better of them early.  Dortmund needed a win to qualify while a draw would suffice for Sevilla.  When Shinji Kagawa put the Germans ahead, it seemed to be their night. But Sevilla, who are having a wretched season at home, made up ground in a stirring comeback.  Freddi Kanoute headed them into the lead after Ndri Romaric had drawn them level.

Neven Subotic drew the sides level again, early in the second half, but despite a string of long balls played into the area, Dortmund failed to make much headway and slumped out of the competition. The result left Klopp feeling more than a little sore and his ire was hardly quelled by the copious amounts of play-acting by the Sevilla players, also aided in no small part by their ball-boys’ reluctance to throw the ball into play.

Curiously, the referee himself failed to add on enough time at the end and may expect a hearing sooner rather than later.

Those teams which had already qualified for the last 32, fielded largely reserve sides.  Roberto Mancini’s Manchester City, deprived of want-away striker Carlos Tevez, secured top spot in Europa League Group A after coming from behind in their match to take a point against Juventus, with a 1-1 draw in Turin.

Leading the line in what amounted to the world’s most expensive second team, the well rested Jo rose to the challenge to cancel out the opening goal from Niccolo Giannetti. The Brazilian steered the ball home at the back post following a cross from rising star Adam Johnson.  As deep as his squad is, Mancini did pay some attention to the City youth program (it does exist!), giving a first start to England U-20 Alex Nimely.

In the group’s other game, Semir Stilic’s first half goal was enough for Lech Poznan to win away to Red Bull Salzburg and qualify,  if not enough to overtake the Mancunians.

The shock of the night was reigning champions Atletico Madrid crashing out after seeing results go against them in Group B.  Atletico needed to better Aris Thessalonika’s  result, at home to Rosenborg, in their match with group winners Bayer Leverkusen in order to pip the Greek side.

Atletico failed to help themselves, as Quique Sánchez Flores’ men could only record a 1-1 draw at a snow-covered BayArena.  Patrick Helmes putting the second-string hosts ahead in the second half and, although former Arsenal player Fran Mérida equalised almost immediately, Los Colchoneros were unable to summon the magic which saw them go the distance in ’09-10.   Rosenburg were also unaccommodating.  Aris sealed their place in the knockout stages with a 2-0 win on goals from Danijel Cesarec and Ricardo Faty.

Lille snatched second place in Group C from opponents Gent, thanks to a 3-0 win.

Yet, not even Atletico suffered as much heartbreak as AEK Athens. The Greek side began the day in the box seat to progress, sitting three points clear of Anderlecht in Group G but defeat, plus the Belgians’ 2-0 win over Hajduk Split, eliminated AEK due to their inferior head-to-head record. The loss was made even harder to stomach after Ismael Blanco missed a penalty to put AEK ahead against Zenit, before goals from Alexander Bukharov, Alessandro Rosina and Igor Denisov ensured Zenit’s perfect record in the group.

Stuttgart welcomed new head coach Bruno Labbadia with a comfortable 5-1 home victory over Odense to finish off Group H of the Europa League as table topper.  PSV Eindhoven secured top spot in Europa League Group I as they played out an entertaining goalless draw with Metalist Kharkiv.

With the draws coming out immediately, for both the Europa and Champions Leagues, keep an eye this weekend for our previews of the first rounds in each.


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European Lights: Champions League Group Stage Round 6 http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/11/european-lights-champions-league-group-stage-round-6/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/11/european-lights-champions-league-group-stage-round-6/#comments Sat, 11 Dec 2010 05:58:58 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=11386 Continue reading »]]> The group stage of the Champions League drew to a shuddering halt, this week,  across a freezing Europe.  The highlights had a disitinct French flavour, with flops Franck Ribery of Bayern Munich and Karim Benzema of Real Madrid displaying a fleeting glimpse of form, no matter in meaningless matches, whilst Arsenal’s Samir Nasri continued to watch his stock rise with yet another sterling performance. Not to be outdone, fellow Frenchman Bacary Sagna managed to step into the limelight himself, albeit with a red card.

But as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, even when it’s fire brandishing Moscow Spartak fans . Hey, that’s the spirit that earned them the 2018 World Cup, isn’t it?

It was also a good day for Germany.  All three of their teams won, gaining them valuable co-efficient points in their never ending battle with Italy for that extra Champions League place.

Overall, most of the big guns qualified, if not all in the positions they expected. With the draw pencilled for next Friday, it will be an exciting week of permutations and computations before we know who faces whom come February. So without further ado, here is the final Champions League roundup of the year. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday

In a free-scoring game, full of incident, Nacer Chadli played the hero but Sander Boschker’s whiff on an easy back pass cast him as the villain in Twente’s thrilling 3-3 draw with Tottenham.  The Enschede club’s point was enough to earn them a place in the Europa League round of 32.  Tottenham’s share of the spoils, with some help, put them into the hat for the next phase as Group A winners.

Harry Redknapp’s success was a major setback for Inter coach Rafa Benitez, whose make-shift side capitulated too easily to what had been, to date, a listless Werder Bremen, the loss consigning the defending champions to second in the group.  Ex-Inter boy Marko Arnautovic scored a stunning left-footed volley as Thomas Schaaf won the battle of the under-pressure managers. Claudio Pizarro didn’t let Arnautovic have all the fun, capping a long-awaited return with a typical strike from distance to put the cream on a 3-0 win.  The positive result was no help as Bremen still crash out of Europe, bottom of the group.  In the aftermath, Benitez has been charged with bringing home the Club World Cup, lest he crash out of a job.

As Andreu Fontas made evident, Barça never gets old.

Schalke 04 added to the German joie de vivre, grinding out a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Benfica to top Group B.  The Royal Blues are having a miserable domestic season but Europe feels more like home for the likes of Raul and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who have thrived in more familiar surroundings.  It was Raul himself who set up Jose Jurado for the opener after 19 minutes. Up-and-coming defender Benedikt Hoewedes made it 2-0 with a straightforward finish and, although Benfica pulled one back, Schalke sailed home comfortably.  No points meant that the Portuguese were unable to reel in Lyon and will continue their European adventure in its secondary competition.

Lyon emerged as runners-up through a 2-2 draw with Hapoel Tel Aviv. An exciting game’s pure moment of magic came on Eran Zahavi’s absolutely sensational goal.  The strike had pundits purring and proclaiming it the latest ‘best Champions League goal ever.’ Hyperbole indeed, but Zahavi’s strike was definitely worth the price of admission on its own.

Meanwhile, Manchester United missed out on the record of going through the entire Champions League group stage without conceding a goal when Valencia winger Pablo Hernandez scored an early opener. Much maligned midfielder Anderson got a second-half equaliser and, for his effort, was promptly slapped by Wayne Rooney, who later made a slightly more positive contribution, although his thumping shot came back off the post. One good slap in the face deserves another, apparently.  Both United and Los Che qualified, one and two respectively, and Scottish side Rangers took the Europa League spot, despite a 1-1 draw with Turkish upstarts Bursaspor.

In Group D, Barcelona fielded mostly youngsters and both La Masia graduates Andreu Fontas and Víctor Vazquez responded with goals, coasting past Rubin Kazan, 2-0.  The Russians, having recently ceded their RPL domination to Zenit St. Petersburg, will again have to settle for sloppy seconds, dropping down to the Europa League.   Danish upstarts FC Copenhagen surprisingly confirmed a spot in the round of 16, rolling over Greek side Panathinaikos, 3-1. Copenhagen created a little piece of history, becoming the first Danish side to advance to the knockout stage of the Champions League.

Wednesday

On Wednesday, Bayern Munich signed off the group phase in style. After already confirming themselves as leaders of the group, the Germans breezed to a 3-0 win over FC Basel. The Swiss side, however could feel a bit hard done by the scoreline, having had a number of opportunities thwarted by Bayern’s stand-in custodian Thomas Kraft.  When Bayern finally imposed their supremacy, under-fire Frenchman Franck Ribery scored twice.  Still, he hardly had the best of games and looks to still be finding his feet.

Basel's Marco Streller reacts to the defeat which drops them out of the Champions League and into the less affluent Europa League.

Meanwhile, Roma knew a point against CFR Cluj would be enough to ensure progress, as they began the evening three points clear of Basle and that was precisely what they achieved despite leading for over an hour.  Marco Boriello’s strike put the Romans ahead but, appropriately for a Transylvanian night, Lacina Traore left it to the death to head home a late equaliser.

There was not much to decide in Group G but they played the matches anyway.  Following on Ribery’s good fortune, another of the Les Miserable cast had reason to smile.  Karim Benzema hit a ‘perfect’ hat-trick, as Real Madrid triumphed 4-0 over Auxerre.  Benzema scored a headed and left & right-footed treble to assure coach Jose Mourinho, watching from on high, of his not inconsiderable talents.  Milan slumped to a 2-0 loss at home against Ajax, who confirmed their Europa League spot via the result.

In Group F, Chelsea’s recent woes showed no sign of abating, as the Blues fell to Marseille. Despite the result on the night, Carlo Ancelotti’s men had already sewn up the top spot and the Velodrome faithful had to be satisfied with runner-up status. Spartak Moscow’s 2-1 win over MSK Zilina insured a Europa League spot, so the Muscovite ultras will be sure to keep the home fires burning.

However, the most interesting matches of the night were staged in Group H.  Arsenal went into the final match day with 11 years of group stage success on the line.  Coming in, they were level on nine points with Braga and needed a win over Partizan Belgrade to be sure of progressing.  Glass man Robin van Persie’s penalty set them on their way but Cleo’s deflected equaliser almost shattered Arsenal’s hopes. Two superb goals from live wire Theo Walcott and the in-form  Samir Nasri eventually secured the 3-1 win. The result was marred by a first-half injury to Kieron Gibbs and the late dismissal of the other starting full-back, Bacary Sagna.

No sooner had Nasri found the net than Shakhtar Donetsk replied with a pair of their own, over a five-minute span, to sink Braga 2-0 at the Donbass Arena and render the Gunners’ result immaterial. Razvan Rat and Luiz Adriano were the scorers.
Braga drop to the Europa League but Arsenal will be the team every group champion will be looking to avoid come next Friday’s draw.

I’ll be back next week with the conclusion to the Europa League group play.


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UEFA 2010-11 Champions League Group Stage Wrap Up http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/10/uefa-2010-11-champions-league-group-stage-wrap-up/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/10/uefa-2010-11-champions-league-group-stage-wrap-up/#comments Fri, 10 Dec 2010 15:55:53 +0000 Martin Palazzotto http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=11528 Continue reading »]]> The final week of the 2010-11 Champions League Group Stage was much like the final stage of the Tour De France.  That is to say that not much was decided.  The biggest doubt was Arsenal but they didn’t have to be at their best to dispatch Partizan and insure progression.

This isn’t a case for eliminating the group stage, as some might like, however.  Many think the group stage is merely a cash cow, rigged to see the big sides through, but Ajax, Werder Bremen, Rubin Kazan and Panathanaikos might disagree.  For others, like Inter and Arsenal, progressing turned out to be no formality.  As it should be in any competition, a dark horse or two came to the fore, testing the thoroughbreds and, on occasion, finding them wanting.

The counterweight to Tottenham, Schalke and Shakhtar winning their groups is that Inter, Arsenal and last season’s semi-finalists Lyon join hard luck AC Milan amongst the second seeds.  With those four, as well as Didier Deschamp’s Marseille, Claudio Ranieri’s Roma and Unai Emery’s Valencia in the pot, no side can reasonably expect a favourable draw in the last 16.  There is a very real possibility for more than one major confrontation in the first elimination round.  Following are each of the group winners and the possible clubs they can be drawn with on Friday next, 17 December.

♦   ◊   ♦

Harry Redknapp was honest when asked, last week, who he’d like to avoid in the later rounds.  His reply, no surprise, was Barcelona.  As they’re both group winners, he’ll have no worries for at least the last 16.  Nor does he need be concerned about kicking off with a London Derby, even if his side did hand the Gunners a shock loss, last month.  UEFA doesn’t allow intra-league match-ups in the opening knockout round.

Of the clubs in the pot for Spurs, Harry is likely to be ‘gutted’ should Milan be the one to pop up.  Copenhagen are the juiciest target but the squad will remember this week’s trip to Enschede before taking anyone in this competition for granted again.

Considering the abysmal start to the Bundesliga campaign that Schalke have suffered, the Royal Blues must be amazed that they have taken honours in Group B.  Fortunately for them, Lyon endured a similar start in Ligue 1, Benfica were absolutely woeful and Hapoel Tel Aviv, limited by Israeli homegrown rules, had only the very active Vincent Enyeama, in goal, as a top player.

Felix Magath would like to get his club as deeply into Europe as possible, as they simultaneously attempt to climb back topsides in the Bundesliga.  With that in mind, Copenhagen, everyone’s first choice would be ideal, but the fact is that the Germans are the Copenhagen of the top seeds.  Looking an easy mark, all the clubs in their draw are hoping to land them.

Manchester United’s season has been enigmatic, to say the least.  Antonio Valencia went down and Nane stood up.  Rio Ferdinand and Ryan Giggs have been out for extended periods.  Wayne Rooney has gone from Mancunian to Machiavellian and Dimitar Berbatov has scored goals in bunches.  For every match the club has pulled out at the death, they have squandered another in the same fashion, settling for a draw rather than victory.  Yet, it is almost Christmas and Sir Alex Ferguson’s herky-jerky squad are still undefeated in all competitions.

Given past histories, this may be the only group winner who would prefer to draw someone other than Copenhagen.  The Danes hold no particular threat, mind.  It’s Fergie’s history with Rafa Benitez of which I speak.  If the Spaniard proves able to hang in long enough, the Scot would dearly love to be the one to bang the final nail in his coffin.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I can’t watch a match wherein the opposition, and this includes the recent El Clasico, doesn’t give Barcelona a game.  It’s like watching a cat toy with a mouse.  I have no silly PETA hang-ups, wanting to rescue cruelly treated Rodentia; natural selection suits me to a tee.  I just wish the cat would hurry up and get it over with.

In the upcoming round, Pep Guardiola could play carpenter’s wife and cut off the tail of virtually any of the mice in his pot.  That includes Roma, Inter and Arsenal, the latter two with which he would surely love to renew acquaintances, if for different reasons.  Should he draw Milan, though, he may find a very big rat waiting to bite back, especially with Zlatan Ibrahimovic having an outstanding account to settle.

At the moment, the remainder of Bayern’s season will be spent chasing after scraps.  They sit seventh in the Bundesliga, six points from a provisional Champions League place and seventeen from the rapidly disappearing Borussia Dortmund at the top.  Their only domestic concerns, realistically, are defending the DFB Pokal Cup and regaining a place in Europe.  On the bright side, Franck Ribery is back and has found his form almost immediately.

Another deep run in this competition would save face for Louis Van Gaal, who knows that the tether restraining Club President Uli Hoeness is only as strong as the club’s next result.  Beyond the obvious desire to face the Danes, a finals rematch with a crumbling Inter would be a significant emotional boost, if a victory were in the offing.

For the last month, since Ray Wilkins was let go in a fit of piqué, Chelsea have been a fractured side.  Losses and draws have been commonplace; victory has been elusive.  Carlo Ancelotti has come out publicly to admit that the squad’s usual bravado has gone missing and they are instead playing with fear.  When your squad is getting older and slower and key players like John Terry and Frank Lampard are absent for extended spells, it would be beneficial to have a figure in the clubhouse with the ability to pull everyone together.  As vindicating as current circumstances might be for Wilkins, you can bet he’s feeling the pain as much as those he left behind.

When you’re in a rut, there’s nothing like an easy win or two to get you back in the groove, so Blues supporters are probably writing to Santa wishing for a Danish treat in the New Year.  Unfortunately, just as everything seems to go your way when you’re riding high, it all seems to pile up when you’re down and out.  Call me a hater, but I have a gut feeling we’re going to see a Chelsea/AC Milan match-up in the last 16.  With Ancelotti’s ties to both clubs, such a draw even has a hint of  poetic justice about it.

Jose Mourinho likes lemonade.  Every time the football gods throw lemons at him, he laughs and gets out the juicer.  Draw defending champions Barça in the Champions League?  No problem, he was thirsty, anyway.  Sergio Busquets does his best Al Pacino and the referee, an obvious fan, sends off Thiago Motta?  Being a man down was just the excuse he needed to park the bus and block out Messi & Co..  Champions League, here we come!

This year, he’s slapped with a one match ban for ‘allegedly’ relaying messages to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, ordering the pair to intentionally wipe their slates clean?  Perfect.  Not only does he have an excuse to rest those players, he can use the punishment to motivate the reserves against Auxerre.  It’s us against them, mano!  If AJA has any hard feelings over their 4-goal thrashing, they should be directed at Michel Platini.

Some have complained that the light punishment also plays right into his hands, with the two players’ suspensions not being extended.  As obvious as the matter seems, though, there is no proof of what he said to Jerzy Dudek, what Dudek passed on to Iker Casillas, etc, etc..  After all, on Monday, it seemed just as obvious that Martin Jol had quit Ajax to take the Newcastle job, didn’t it?  Life is good when you’re Jose Mourinho.

So, who will Madrid draw in the last 16?  Haven’t you been listening?  It doesn’t matter a tinker’s damn.  Jose is prepared for all eventualities.  Just hold out your glass and he’ll pour you another helping of lemonade.

If you can lure tropically acclimated Brazilians into the mountains of the Ukraine and motivate them to play their best football while their bait and tackle are in permanent cold storage, you can do anything.  Winning a UEFA Cup against Werder Bremen was just the tip of the iceberg.  Now, Shakhtar Donetsk have defeated mighty Arsenal at their own game and won their Champions League group.

Of course, the road only gets steeper as you climb.  The Miners await one of any number of clubs steeped in tradition, be it the Milanese Inter or AC, the Olympians Lyon, Marseille or Roma, or the other remaining club cheeky enough to wear Orange, Valencia.  Matching any one of them poses a Herculean task and this club seems to relish those, as it singlehandedly justifies UEFA’s choice to stage a portion of the 2012 Euros in the Ukraine.   To draw Copenhagen, while it may represent a greater opportunity, would almost seem a letdown to Shakhtar.

♦   ◊   ♦

As well, there are eight sides which will parachute into the Europa League knockout stages, with that draw also being held on Friday, 17 December.

Amongst them, kudos are deserved for FC Basel and FC Twente, who fought well against overwhelming odds.  Basel especially looked impressive.  Veteran Alex Frei seemed to pop up with a key goal or set piece delivery on a regular basis.  In a different group, for instance Barcelona’s, the Rotblau may have progressed.  It certainly would have been interesting to see if they could repeat on the club stage what Switzerland accomplished against Spain in South Africa.  Look for them to do well in the second tier tournament.

Another team which played with chutzpah, even though it crashed out of Europe entirely, was Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv.  Their domestic rules severely limit the use of foreign players, yet Hapoel were competitive in every match.  Much of the credit can be laid at the feet of their Nigerian goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeami, another World Cup standout, whose acrobatics frustrated every attacker in the group.  How this man is not in the frame for any of the job openings in the Premier League is beyond my understanding.  United and Arsenal each could use him, although, both in his ethnicity and athletic approach to tending goal, he seems exactly the type of player Arsene Wenger values.  Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised in the January window to see him move to a club where I can enjoy his play more often.

I’ll see you next week with a preview of the last 16 matchups, after they’re announced, as well as a wrap up of the Europa League group stage and the final 32 pairings in that tournament.

Cheers!

 


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/10/uefa-2010-11-champions-league-group-stage-wrap-up/feed/ 0 Benzema, Diarra resulteditor Tottenham Hotspur Lyon Valencia FC Copenhagen AS Roma Marseille AC Milan Schalke 04 inter Valencia FC Copenhagen AS Roma Marseille AC Milan Arsenal Manchester United inter Lyon FC Copenhagen AS Roma Marseille AC Milan Barcelona inter Lyon AS Roma Marseille AC Milan Arsenal Bayern Munich inter Lyon Valencia FC Copenhagen Marseille AC Milan Arsenal Chelsea inter Lyon Valencia FC Copenhagen AS Roma AC Milan Real Madrid inter Lyon FC Copenhagen AS Roma Marseille Arsenal Shakhtar Donetsk inter Lyon Valencia FC Copenhagen AS Roma Marseille AC Milan
European Lights: Balotelli & Rossi Shine While Serie Go Snow-Blind in Europa League, Round 5 http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/04/european-lights-balotelli-rossi-shine-while-serie-go-snow-blind-in-europa-league-round-5/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/04/european-lights-balotelli-rossi-shine-while-serie-go-snow-blind-in-europa-league-round-5/#comments Sat, 04 Dec 2010 06:03:34 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=11384 Continue reading »]]> All may not we well at Scouseland but Roy Hodgson’s ploy of using the Europa League for his replacements seems to be paying off, as Liverpool progressed to the last 32 despite a 1-1 draw with Romanian giants Steaua Bucharest.  Elsewhere, Italian teams fell like nine pins, even as their strikers bagged goals aplenty and the sub-zero temperatures across Europe meant that many games were played in a wintry wonderland.

Liverpool progressed despite a shocking blunder from Spanish goalkeeper Pepe Reina, which let Steaua in with a late equalizer. Milan Jovanovic, who has seen little action this season, made the difference initially with a powerful header.
There were goals aplenty in the other Group K game where Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani grabbed a hattrick in Napoli’s 3-3 draw in Utrecht, where forward Ricky van Wolfswinkel also scored twice for the hosts.  The draw means Napoli are the only Italian side still in the hunt, lurking two points behind Steaua ahead of a last home game against the Romanians.

Apart from Napoli, it was a dark day for Italy as both Juventus and Palermo went out with a whimper.
Palermo’s exit means that CSKA Moscow, who handed Swiss side Lausanne a 5-1 thrashing in Russia, advanced and maintained their perfect record in the group stages, courtesy of a double from promising Czech striker Tomas Necid.

Cavani's treble haul was only good enough for a single point, the best any Italian side could claim in the extremely non-Mediterranean conditions.

Unsaddled by geography, Italian starlet Giuseppe Rossi struck a brace and supplied another for Marco Ruben to give Spaniards Villarreal a resounding 3-0 win at home to Dinamo Zagreb, in Europa League Group D.  Club Brugge struck late to seal a 1-1 draw against Greek side PAOK, graciously sealing Villareal’s passage into the last 32 of the tournament, despite having begun the day outside the qualification places.

French hopefuls Paris St Germain also booked their passage, with a 4-2 victory over Sevilla.  Gregorio Manzano’s side must now fight it out in a winner-take-all clash against Borussia Dortmund for the second qualification spot, in a fortnight. Dortmund for their part, moved a point behind Sevilla with a comprehensive 3-0 win over Karpaty Lviv.

Manchester City also went through, courtesy of goals from Italian fire-brand Mario Balotelli. The former Inter Milan striker scored two goals but trudged off midway through the second half with a worrying niggle. Adam Johnson scored a superb third to add gloss to the scoreline as Red Bull Salzburg perished 3-0.  City’s win, combined with Lech Poznan’s 1-1 home draw with Juventus means that the Poles advance and the knockout rounds will be no country for Old Ladies.

Finally, defending champions Atletico Madrid find themselves staring at an early exit from the competition, following a shocking 3-2 reversal to Greek side Aris Thessalonika.  Combined with Bayer Leverkusen’s yeoman 1-0 away win at a freezing Rosenberg forces Atleti to better the Greek sides result in the pairs final matches. It will be no small ask, since Atletico will be away to Leverkusen while Aris will host frostbitten Rosenberg at the Kleanthis Vikelidis, where the scions of the God of War have not lost a home European battle in 40 years.


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/12/04/european-lights-balotelli-rossi-shine-while-serie-go-snow-blind-in-europa-league-round-5/feed/ 0 play on zulquar Cavani v utrecht
European Lights: 2011 Champions League Group Stage, Round 5 http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/11/26/european-lights-2011-champions-league-group-stage-round-5/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/11/26/european-lights-2011-champions-league-group-stage-round-5/#comments Fri, 26 Nov 2010 23:21:57 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=10974 Continue reading »]]> In an exciting week of Champions League action most of Europe’s big names confirmed their progress into the round of sixteen even as Champions League action for the first part of the season draws to a swift close.  Mario Gomez has finally rediscovered the joys of scoring, as has Karim Benzema.  Tired or not, Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to bulge the twine and Francesco Totti is still Roma’s choice when they absolutely must score.  Meanwhile, Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi seem almost incapable of missing.  All of them made the score sheet in this round of the group stage and most importantly for United fans, Wayne Rooney scored, too.  As an added bonus, Coleen Rooney need not be worried, this time, that it came while he was playing away.

♦   ◊   ♦

Tuesday’s star was Cristiano Ronaldo.  The Portuguese’s early season scoring woes are a distant memory. Now, to paraphrase Midas, anything he touches turns to goal.  Even his mistakes are golden, as Alvaro Arbeloa thumped in a long-range strike after Ronaldo’s free-kick had rebounded off the wall.  The man himself netted two, one a cheeky penalty, as Real Madrid routed Ajax at the Amsterdam Arena, 4-0.

While Ronaldo’s audacity from the spot was one for the picture-books,  Karim Benzema’s game-breaker was arguably the goal of the day, if not the week. Benzema’s first time rocket was indicative of his killer instinct but, as good a finish as it was, Mesut Özil’s mid-air, bottom-of-the-foot, back flick to set it up was the kind of action people will pay to watch time and again.  It was sublime, and while Real, on the whole, have not yet achieved that status, they already look like a tough nut.

The win was tempered by two ridiculous red cards shown to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos, late in the game, for blatant time-wasting.  Both were sitting on a yellow card and to receive a second in this match, suspending the for the last group match, would clear the originals off the books heading into the round of 16.  With Los Blancos, up by 4 and  Jose Mourinho caught on camera allegedly relaying instructions to the pair, moments before each was sent off, the ploy looked atrcoiously premeditated.  UEFA has charged the pair, along with Mourinho and the players who passed his instructions along.  Don’t count on the charges holding up, however.

The second biggest team in the history of European football also advanced out of Group G, although six-times champion, AC Milan, booked their place through a scrappy 2-0 victory over Auxerre in Burgundy.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s wonderful 64th-minute opener was good enough to see him substituted but his replacement, Ronaldinho, had to be satisfied with afters as he put the game and progression beyond doubt.  Massimiliano Allegri, it seemed, did not mind Ronaldinho staying out late on this particular occasion.

In Group F, Marseille cruised into the last 16, with a 3-0 victory over Spartak Moscow at the Luzhniki Stadium.  Pint-sized dynamo Mathieu Valbuena set Didier Deschamps’ men off to the perfect start with a fine opener inside 20 minutes.  Further strikes by Loic Remy and Brandao, after the break, ensured that Marseille reached the margin of victory they required to progress.

In the group’s other encounter, Chelsea went a step further, progressing as group winners defeating MSK Zilina, 2-1, at Stamford Bridge.   The victory alleviated a fortnight of troubles surrounding Carlo Ancelotti’s immediate future with the club, after the sacking of his lieutenant, Ray Wilkins.  At first, it seemed those woes would be compounded, when the Blues fell behind to Babatounde Bello’s 19th-minute opener but second-half goals from wrestler-wannabe Daniel Sturridge and rapper-wannabe Florent Malouda ensured the three points for the home side.

In Group E, Louis van Gaal flirted with bi-polarity, confessing simultaneous fury and happiness after Bayern Munich threw away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 to a spirited Roma side. The loss did not prevent Bayern from clinching top of the group but it did not impress Van Gaal.  Roma were inspired, if only in the second half, and captain Francesco Totti showed he could still find the goal, scoring a late, albeit scrappy penalty to complete a magnificent turnaround.  Mario Go-miss continued his re-branding to Mario Goal-mez with another two-goal haul.  Marco Borriello and Daniele De Rossi also scored for the Romans.

The result put the Wolves within sniffing distance of the next round, as they sit three points clear of third-placed Basle.

Speaking of the surprisingly competitive Swiss champions, Frederico Almerares scored the only goal of their match against CFR Cluj, to keep Basle’s slim hopes of qualification alive.

In Group H, Arsenal suffered a shock 2-0 defeat to Braga at the Estadio Municipal.  The Gunners were denied a cast-iron penalty by referee Viktor Kassai before Braga scored two late breakaway goals from Brazil striker Matheus, leaving Arsene Wenger’s men not yet assured of their place in the last 16.

Shakhtar Donetsk scored three second-half goals to brush aside Partizan Belgrade and virtually assure progression and a surprise group win.  Goals from Taras Stepanenko, Jadson and Eduardo put Shakhtar in charge of the group as news came through of Arsenal’s setback.  The results leave the intriguing prospect that three teams could now be tied on twelve points at the end of the round. If that happens, bring your calculators out and pray UEFA gets it right.

♦   ◊   ♦

On to Wednesday and while Rafa Benitez did not score, he must have felt like he did. Esteban Cambiasso proved an able proxy, netting the sole strike of the game to ensure Inter Milan’s progress into the knock-out stage, with a win over FC Twente.  The Dutch side defended their goal with all the rigour of a Catholic schoolgirl but Cambiasso managed to charm his way in, very late in the game.

Tottenham progressed, from Group A, alongside the Italians.  First-half goals from Younes Kaboul and Luka Modric set them on their way to a 3-0 win over Werder Bremen at White Hart Lane.  Gareth Bale missed the scoring band-wagon, but after his thorough workout of Maicon on the last matchday, he won’t be unduly worried. Peter Crouch sealed the win, which put Spurs level on 10 points with Inter and 3 ahead on goal difference.

In Group C, Manchester United progressed thanks to a late Rooney penalty, which was celebrated with all the joy of a first love.  Playing away seems to be suiting Rooney but Rangers defended their honour for the best part of the game, before  ultimately failing to resist the lure of the Red Devils.

United will be joined in the second phase by Valencia who seemingly like it rough.  Bursaspor would have preferred they try a little tenderness, after being manhandled 6-1, at the Mestalla.  Roberto Soldado was the author of a wild display of machismo, and Los Che will be no pushovers at Old Trafford, despite trailing United by three going into the last game.

Barcelona sealed top spot in Group D with a 3-0 victory away to Panathinaikos.  Pedro scored twice for the Catalans, on either side of a Lionel Messi effort, the Argentinian capping yet another inhuman performance with a goal.  Earlier in the evening, Rubin Kazan breathed fresh life into their hopes of reaching the last 16 with a 1-0 victory over visiting FC Copenhagen, in Group D.  Captain Cristian Noboa netted from the spot, in first-half injury time, as third-placed Rubin moved to within a point of their opponents.

Last season’s semi-finalists, Lyon, progressed from Group B despite a 3-0 loss at Schalke, who also went through.  Two goals in the first 20 minutes, from Jefferson Farfan and Klaas Jan Huntelaar, put the Germans in control and Hunterlaar sealed the deal a minute from time.  The win put Schalke a point clear of Lyon at the top of the group, but the Ligue 1 side was relieved to learn, in the clubhouse,  that third-placed Benfica had spurned their opportunity, going down 3-0 at Hapoel Tel Aviv.  To cap a week for the goal-scorers, the Israeli’s Eran Zahavi claimed a brace, with a Douglas da Silva strike coming in between.

♦   ◊   ♦

I’ll see you next week for the now staggered Europa league matches.


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European Lights: 2-4 November, 2010 http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/11/06/european-lights-2-4-november%c2%a02010/ http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/11/06/european-lights-2-4-november%c2%a02010/#comments Sat, 06 Nov 2010 17:31:46 +0000 quazi zulquarnain http://worldfootballcolumns.com/?p=10297 Continue reading »]]> Filippo Inzaghi only scored a brace but broke a hattrick of milestones; Andre-Pierre Gignac netted a proper hattrick but found his feats matched by Bayern Munich’s Mario Gomez (yes, that Mario Gomez)  and Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard. Marseille hit seven, Bayern, Chelsea and Real and Milan together all hit four while suddenly woeful Man City were hit for three.  Eduardo came back to haunt his former team and in the words of Rafael van der Vaart, Gareth Bale achieved the extremely diabolic feat of ‘killing’ Maicon. No word yet on police enquiries.

♦   ◊   ♦

In three enthralling evenings of European football, this week, Filippo Inzaghi stood like a titan over his peers; this despite the fact that the 37 year old played all of thirty minutes in their marquee clash against Real Madrid.  Inzaghi scored both Milan goals to become the record scorer in European competition with 70 goals; beating the 69 of Schalke’s Raul and the great Gerd Muller. As well, Pippo overtook Marco van Basten in Milan’s all-time scoring charts, by moving onto 125 for the club, and replaced Andriy Shevchenko as the Rossoneri’s leading scorer in Europe, with 40.

The jury is out on how many of those were offside.

It was a different Milan that took to the pitch at the San Siro in their repeat clash of two weeks ago. While the only change in personnel were the introductions of Kevin Prince Boateng and Ignacio Abate in place of Clarence Seedorf and Luca Antonini, this time Milan refused to fall prey to the same deficiencies that saw them so thoroughly outplayed in the opening fixture.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s early stamp on Xabi Alonso was a precursor of things to come as Milan pressed and harried from the top up, looking to get close to Xabi as swiftly as possible and hoping to pin back the Real wingbacks.

Yet for large parts of the first half, Real were the dominant side and carved out the best opportunities, the last of which was capitalized on by Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine forward pounced on a wonderful through ball from compatriot Angel di Maria and beat Christian Abbiati from close range.  It was no less than Madrid deserved for a half when they created the best chances, even though they did not have the game by the scruff of the neck.

With the lead, it looked like Real would achieve their first ever victory at the San Siro, in over 20 attempts, but they had failed to appreciate the resolve of the Italians, and of the beanpole Inzaghi.  Milan might be old, but this is a side packed with winners and world-beaters and Pippo might just be the most underrated of the lot.

The 37 year old hardly ever starts a game these days, but give him an opportunity and he can be absolutely lethal.  BOn each of his strikes in this pressure cooker tie, Inzaghi capitalized on misunderstandings in the Real defence. His first goal was due to three consecutive mistakes by Real. First they lost the ball high up the pitch. Defender Pepe then missed a routine clearance, letting in Zlatan down the left. The Swedish striker’s cross was too close to Iker Casillas but the Spanish number one inexplicably fumbled an easy catch. Inzaghi, who has made a career for being at the right place at the right time, did exactly that and suddenly the Rossoneri were back in it.

With a partisan crowd roaring them on and Massimo Allegri and Gennaro Gattuso gesticulating fiercely from the touchline, Milan grabbed the lead. This time Inzaghi was clearly offside (he was born there if Alex Ferguson is to be believed), a decision missed by referee Howard Webb and his assistants, but when he got between Casillas and Ricardo Carvalho there was only ever going to be one outcome.

An unlikely victory looked on the cards but Milan’s Allegri learned that you count out Jose Mourinho at your own peril. The Portuguese pulled off a master-stroke of substitutions by introducing both Karim Benzema and Pedro Leon and it was their collaboration which brought Real the late equaliser. Benzema’s inspired slide rule pass put Leon alone, inside the penalty box, and his low drive was through the legs of Abbiati and in the back of the net.

Mourinho’s race along the touchline showed how much it meant to him and Real now sail comfortably into the second round. Real are five points clear of Milan, themselves just two points ahead of Group G’s bottom side Auxerre, after the French team kept their hopes of a last-16 place alive with a 2-1 home win over Ajax.

♦   ◊   ♦

Chelsea joined Real in the next phase, after seeing off Spartak Moscow at Stamford Bridge in their Group F encounter. Nicolas Anelka opened the scoring with a smart chipped finish before Didier Drogba marked his first start in the competition this season with a penalty. A brace from Branislav Ivanovic made sure of the points.

Spartak have dropped level on six points, with Marseille, after Didier Deschamps’s side belatedly hit form with a 7-0 thrashing of MSK Zilina — a record for an away game in the competition.  Andre-Pierre Gignac claimed a hattrick for the visitors, with Lucho Gonzalez netting a brace.

♦   ◊   ♦

In Group H, Gunners old boy Eduardo scored the winner just before the break, following an error from left-back Gael Clichy, to draw Shakhtar even, on nine points, with Arsenal at the group summit.  Eduardo’s winner completed a fight back,  after Theo Walcott’s opener  was equalized by Dymytros Chygrynsky.  The Gunners now lead the group on goal difference, from the Ukrainians, with Braga three behind after their narrow win at Partizan Belgrade.

♦   ◊   ♦

In Group E, Bayern Munich’s forgotten striker Mario Gomez took centre-stage with a fine hattrick as the German champions disposed of Romania’s CFR Cluj 4-0 away from home. Gomez and his out of favor mates, Martin Demichelis and Anatoliy Tymoschuk had been fodder for a simmering row between coach Louis van Gaal and president Uli Hoeness.  Hoeness had accused Van Gaal of not integrating certain out-of-favor players into his team and now having to rely on them for results due to Bayern’s vicious injury crisis.  Indeed Van Gaal has often shunned certain players and had suggested that all three were free to leave Bayern this season.

Gomez had looked likely for an exit after falling behind Miroslav Klose and Ivica Olic in the pecking order. But with both men out injured, Van Gaal had little choice but call on a man, whose confidence had been suffering from a horrid miss at Euro 2008.  But Gomez showed no hangovers as he put Cluj to the sword.  Van Gaal, true to form, did not miss the chance to take credit for Gomez’s recent good form.

“I adjusted the system to give him more room, and he has delivered,” said the typically smug Dutchman.

♦   ◊   ♦

But if Wednesday belonged to Inzaghi, Tuesday’s true star was Gareth Bale. The Welsh winger added to his burgeoning reputation with a startling performance as Tottenham beat Inter Milan in what is set to go down as a famous European night in White Hart Lane history.  Bale was brilliant; his pace, directness and ability far too much for Inter Milan’s formidable Maicon. He laid on countless opportunities and Spurs were already three up through Rafael Van der Vaart, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko, when Samuel Eto’o stroked an 80th minute consolation.  According to last reports, Rafa Benitez is camped beyond his sugar mountain.

In the other game in Group A, FC Twente kept their hopes of qualification alive with a crucial 2-0 win away to ten-man Werder Bremen. Torsten Frings’ 74th minute dismissal was key as Twente scored two goals soon after through Nacer Chadli and Luuk de Jong.  Tottenham are top of the group with seven points, level with second placed Inter thanks to a marginally superior goal difference. FC Twente are third with five points while Werder Bremen make up the tail with two points.

♦   ◊   ♦

In Group B, Lyon’s visit to Benfica ended with a thriller of a game, which the Portuguese side won 4-3, surviving a late comeback from the French. The group’s other game was a drab goalless encounter between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Schalke.

After four games, Lyon head the table with nine points.  Schalke are nervous in second, with Benfica breathing down their neck. Any of the three can still qualify for the next ground.

♦   ◊   ♦

In Group C, Manchester United are within a point of the knockouts after a 3-0 win at Bursaspor. It was easy going for the Red Devils, once midfield engine Darren Fletcher opened the scoring. United had much to celebrate, with two of their youngsters – Gabriel Obertan and Bebe – grabbing their first goals for the club.

In the other game of the group, Valencia handed Rangers a 3-0 hammering,at the Mestalla. Real Madrid reject Roberto Soldado poached a double before Tino Costa added another late in the game.

At the end of this round, United sit comfortably  atop the pile, with 10 points, needing just one more win to qualify. Valencia are in second spot with seven points and Rangers two behind. Turkish champions Bursaspor are yet to register a point.

♦   ◊   ♦

Finally in Group D, Barcelona continued their current indifferent form as they were held to a 1-1 draw by FC Copenhagen at the Parken stadium, in the relative backwaters of European football.  Barca needed a win to ensure passage into the next round, but Copenhagen showcased a strength that belies their ‘unknown’ status to rescue a draw.  Lionel Messi had given Barcelona the lead but Copenhagen equalised through Claudemir to keep alive their hopes of advancing from the group.

The group’s other game also ended in a draw, a drab goalless encounter between Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos.  So, the Spanish champions lead the group with eight points, only one ahead of Copenhagen, who can now qualify for the second round. Rubin and Panathinaikos both have little chance of making it through, but then again, as Filippo Inzaghi would testify, stranger things have happened.

♦   ◊   ♦

Of the 24 matches on Europa League Thursday, the two standouts involved English sides.

As mentioned, Steven Gerrard hit three, coming on late at Anfield to do so and rescue a listless Liverpool from the off pitch fallout that would have surely followed a home loss to Napoli.  Ezequiel Lavezzi continued the buzzsaw like form which saw him net an improbable goal against Milan, last week.  His first half strike, the brightest moment in a highlight filled first half performance from the Argentine, looked to be enough until the late arrival of the Reds captain awoke the home side.  Stevie G tore a page from the Book of Inzaghi as his first and third efforts, sandwiched around a well taken penalty, were very much instances of right place, right time.

As manager Roy Hodgson noted after the match, the victory, which almost assures Liverpool of advancement to the elimination rounds, affords them the opportunity to focus more fully on improving their poor domestic position.

Meanwhile, in Poland, Roberto Mancini felt the pressure mount on his tenure with Manchester City, as they were convincingly beaten by lowly Lech Poznan.  The home side did not waste their chances in this one, to be sure.  The opening and closing goals were both perfectly struck long range volleys resulting from disorganised clearances, neither of which permitted any chance to an outstretched Shay Given.  The second tally, it has to be admitted, was pure chance but again derived from a poor clearing effort.  Colombian defender Manuel Arboleda went up in a losing battle with his Belgian counterpart Dedryck Boyata, for a delivery into the box, but the City center back’s header was low and ricocheted off the Lech Poznan man and passed a flummoxed Given into the City goal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcVc2h9BStg

If Mark Hughes’ string of draws wasn’t acceptable to the Mansour regime, one has to think that three losses on the trot would be viewed even less favourably.  Over at Craven Cottage, Sparky must be quietly congratulating himself on being well rid of a bad situation.

In other significant matches, CSKA Moscow (3-1 v Palermo), Vfb Stuttgart (3-0 at Getafe) and Sevilla (4-0 v Karpaty Lviv) all earned a thumbs up, while Sampdoria (0-0 v Metallist Kharkiv, without Antonio Cassano) and Villareal (0-1 at PAOK Salonika) suffer the dreaded thumbs down.

See you in a fortnight!

 

 

 

 


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http://worldfootballcolumns.com/2010/11/06/european-lights-2-4-november%c2%a02010/feed/ 0 AC Milan's forward Filippo Inzaghi celeb zulquar