Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bundesbag Week 29: Tschüss Klinsy

Well, the story of the weekend would have been about Wolfsburg finally losing after a ten-match winning streak and missing out on the record by one game. Alternatively, you could spin it another way, and make the story about the victors, Cottbus. Their stunning 2-0 win comes just one week after they were humiliated at Schalke and the club refunded their travelling supporters for the price of their tickets.

Unfortunately for them, it pales somewhat into the background thanks to those perennial attention seekers Bayern who, like a jealous dog seeking to distract people from a new born baby, dramatically sacked their manager on Monday morning.

It would be fair to say that Jurgan Klinsmann never really won the majority of the Bayern fans over. In fact, it would be understating things to say that. Furthermore, the Bavarians are a very traditional club and while they engaged Klinsy to instigate a revolution and change the set up, bringing it into the 21st century and all that, they did not bank on him changing the winning football matches part. That’s the bit they wanted to keep. One can imagine the conversation now:

Karl Heinz Rummenigge: Now Klinsy, I specifically remember saying when you arrived that, you could do what you like as long as we kept winning things.

Klinsy: Ja, sure Karl, but first you have to alter the karmic balance and adjust the feng shui of the training ground...

KHR: Yes Jurgen but karmic balance is no good to us if we cannot beat Schalke at home. For the love of Buddha, Klinsy: Schalke!

And that was that. A single goal from Halil Altintop and a red card for Franck Ribery was the final straw on the camel's back and Klinsy was gone.

Former coach Jupp Heynckes (famously sacked by Real Madrid after winning the European Cup in 1998) has been given the gig until the end of the season and despite all the broohaha, he has a good chance of winning a third Bundesliga title to add to the ones in 1989 and 1990.

Quite where this affects Bayern’s future is uncertain. Klinsmann's brief was to reinvigorate the club. Something they obviously feel they must do in order to take their place on the top table of the major European clubs in Spain, England and Italy.

Speculation on long-term replacements has been restricted to the likes of Roberto Mancini or Martin Jol. Neither come across as the Svengali types that the Munich club seek. But the trouble with your average revolutionary is that they are volatile, they want to do things their own way and they’re expensive. Three attributes not really associated with Bayern Munich.

Personally, I'm struggling to see why it was necessary to fire Klinsmann now. OK, the Schalke result was a bad one, but the team are still in the hunt for the title. No one gets any prizes for speculating that Jurgen was out the door at the end of the season, title or no title, so why run the risk of further upheaval right in the middle of the league run in?

My guess is that it was more of an emotional reaction. The Bayern board simply lost their collective temper and sacked the coach accordingly. Nothing wrong with showing a bit of emotion in sport but surely this is the time of the season for cool heads?

Anyway, it's done now so lets move on to the title race and there's a new kid on the contender's block in the shape of Stuttgart. The Swabians join three teams on 54 points by virtue of a 2-0 win over Eintracht. The other two are Martin Jol's Hamburg who lost to the all conquering Dortmund and of course, Bayern.

In second are Hertha, ruled out of the race two weeks ago after three straight defeats. The Berliners have bounced back with two wins and sit just two points behind Wolfsburg.

So we have five teams at the top within three points of each other. There are big questions attached to all of them: How will Wolfsburg react to their first defeat since the introduction of the Euro? Will Stuttgart's momentum continue for another five rounds of fixtures? Will there be a post-Klinsy Bayern bounce? Does Hamburg's poor goal difference equate to a dropped point? And Berlin... Who would have seriously predicted that they'd still be in the thick of it?

At the bottom, Karlsruhe are now four points away from the coveted fifteenth spot thanks to a great away win at Leverkusen. That spot is currently held by Cottbus who should be congratulated for their efforts last Sunday. The Sechs Punkter between 'Gladbach and Bielefeld finished 1-1 which is damn all use to either side. The bottom four are squeezing up nicely and the Bundesliga is set for a dramatic climax at both ends of the table.

That's it. Results and tables are here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Why do we care about player awards?

Firstly, let me make one thing clear. Ryan Giggs is a fantastic player. He’s a credit to his club and to the game. If anyone deserves a player of the year award, it’s the Welshman. You could definitely argue that there were other nominees that have played much better this season. However, as I suggested on the Onion Bag this week, you get the feeling that, like John Wayne in True Grit and Paul Newman in The Colour Of Money, it was quite simply Giggs' turn and that is good enough for me.

Having said that, it’s hard to ignore the controversy surrounding his selection by the PFA for their Player Of the Year. Last week it was all about the nominations. Many accused them of being biased towards Manchester United players. Some said that the nomination process took place too early in the season and so on. What’s of greater surprise to me isn’t that Giggs’ selection is controversial - it’s that the award should be of any genuine interest to anyone in the first place.

To coin a phrase, football is a results business and, ultimately, it is results that determine the success of a football player. Awards are a nice for the people who win them, but if you were to ask a winner which was of greater value - a Champions League medal or the Ballon D’Or - I’d hope that the player would opt for the former (bearing in mind that it is difficult to achieve the latter without one).

Despite this, I’ve noticed that in recent years, more attention is being paid to these sort awards, whether it be the PFA, Football Writers awards or the Ballon D’Or and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

It can’t be because the trophies and medals have become devalued. If anything, the European cups and domestic titles have become even more prestigious thanks to the game’s ever growing popularity and success. A lot of it is simply down to the pressure that football newsmakers are under to generate content. It’s Monday, there is not much else happening so let’s talk about this, maybe even try and stoke things up a bit. You can be sure that pretty much every mainstream Football media website, blog or podcast will be talking about the rights and wrongs of whether one of the greatest players ever to play in England deserves an award or not.

However, I think that a more worrying reason is the notion that some footballers see themselves as celebrities as much as they do sportsmen (although I should stress that I don’t believe that Giggs is one of them). The top players understand how much money and fame they can acquire by marketing themselves as superstars. Consequently, individual awards are now becoming a much more important part of their portfolio.

This worries me because football is a team game before anything else. Yes it does allow individuals to shine but these individuals would be nothing without their holding midfielders, uncompromising centre halves, coaches, managers and dare I say it, the many thousands of supporters who collectively pay millions of pounds a year to watch him play.

Perhaps player awards have become more interesting to football supporters and the media, because they have become more important to players themselves. But they shouldn’t. Awards are individualistic achievements in a game that relies on teamwork for success. I’m not suggesting they should be ignored, just taken with a pinch of salt. After all, football is a game, not a popularity contest.

Midweek TV Preview: 27th - 30th April

(All times UK)

Monday 27th April

19:45 Norwich City v Reading, Championship, Sky Sports 1/HD1
"Where are you?" Delia Smith was once heard to ask. She may soon get the answer "in League One" if things don't go Norwich's way. Here's the deal: The Canaries are in the relegation zone and need to win this match to retain any slim chances of staying up, whereas Reading are in the play-off zone and need to win to retain any slim chances of gaining automatic promotion (or avoid losing a play-off spot). On current form, you'd have to side with Reading for this one...

20:00 Newcastle United v Portsmouth, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Two points from the last eighteen does not a survival candidate make. While Newcastle wait for 'the Shearer Effect' to kick in, teams like Portsmouth have just been grinding out the odd point here or there to see them draw clear of the proverbial trap-door. It's do or die for Newcastle tonight - a defeat will leave them with as much chance of going down as Hull, and that's saying something.

Tuesday 28th April

19:45 Barcelona v Chelsea, UEFA Champions League Semi-final 1st Leg, ITV1/HD
Averaging just under three goals a game, Barcelona have been the form team in the Champions League this season while Chelsea are back for their fifth CL semi-final in six years. The only safe thing you can bet on here is that Petr Cech has been reading his book 'How to Position a Defensive Wall for Free Kicks.'

Wednesday 29th April

11:00 Kashima Antlers v Vissel Kobe, J-League, British Eurosport 2
Third-placed Kashima remain just two points behind the leaders Urawa after seven games having lost only once since the start of the season. Vissel are down in seventh and already look likely to finish tenth for a third successive year.

19:45 Manchester United v Arsenal, UEFA Champions League Semi-final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 2/HD2
PFA Player of the Year Ryan Giggs will make his 800th appearance for the club if he gets on the pitch tonight in United's first European tie against The Gunners. And here's a gem for all you trivia fans: United have never been knocked out of Europe by an English team before and Arsenal have never progressed having played one. Home win then, surely?

01:50 (Thursday morning) Colo Colo v Palmeiras, Copa Libertadores, Setanta Sports 2
Crunch time in Group 1 of this season's Copa Libertadores. Both teams have seven points going into this final game of the group but with Colo Colo currently occupying the last qualifying spot, Palmeiras must win if they're to go through to the Round of 16.

Thursday 30th April

17:30 Dynamo Kiev v Shakhtar Donetsk, UEFA Cup Semi-final 1st Leg, ITV4
Funny how the UEFA Cup semis have panned out this season. This one's an all-Ukrainian tie between current league leaders Dynamo and Shakhtar. Kiev are a country mile ahead of second-placed Shakhtar in the Ukraine Premier League but Shakhtar have only lost three of their last 21 games in all competitions. Should be a fascinating encounter...

19:45 Stevenage v Cambridge United, Play-off Semi-final 1st Leg, Blue Square Premier, Setanta Sports 1
Following Cambridge's inability to beat Altrincham on Saturday, the U's must now face a Stevenage team that beat them 2-1 in the league earlier this month. Both teams are evenly matched going into this one, so expect an even more tense second leg on May 4th.

19:45 Werder Bremen v Hamburg, UEFA Cup Semi-final 1st Leg, ITV4
And so to the all-German UEFA Cup semi which has all the potential to be as good as its Ukrainian counterpart. Hamburg are going through a pretty poor run at the moment and have slipped to fifth in the Bundesliga but Werder have the capability to beat them as they did on penalties in last week's DFB Pokal. An away goal or two should be a useful insurance policy for Martin Jol's men.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #110

Rampant Commercialism
19 Football Clubs Whose Names Incorporate Those Of Companies And Other Organisations

1. Airbus UK - Wales
2. Air India - India
3. Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Germany
4. Cable & Wireless Pointe Michel - Dominica
5. Camell Laird - England
6. Carl Zeiss Jena - Germany
7. Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation FC - Ethiopia
8. Honda FC - Japan
9. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors - South Korea
10. Lada Togliatti - Russia
11. Petrojet - Egypt
12. Red Bull New York - USA
13. Red Bull Salzburg - Austria
14. Skoda Xanthi - Greece
15. Supersport United FC - South Africa
16. Suwon Samsung Bluewings - South Korea
17. TDK - Japan
18. Thai Airways-Ban Bueng FC - Thailand
19. Vauxhall Motors - England

Weekend TV Preview: 24 - 26 April

(All times - UK)

Friday 24th April

19.45 Liverpool v Birmingham City, FA Youth Cup Semi-final 2nd Leg (3-0), Setanta Sports 1
Those hoping to settle down and watch some hot Bundesliga action on Setanta are in for a disappointment as Hertha v Hoffenheim gets missed for essentially a dead rubber. Liverpool (the 2006 and 2007 winners) lead by three goals from the first leg and look easy favourites to get to the Final to face Arsenal - who knocked out the holders Manchester City on Wednesday.

Saturday 25th April

12.15 Rangers v St Mirren, Scottish Cup Semi-Final, Sky Sports 1/HD1
With Rangers a point behind Celtic in the league, St Mirren will hope they'll be suitably distracted to get a famous win here. St Johnstone almost managed it last season, losing eventually on penalties.

17.20 Birmingham City v Preston North End, Championship, Sky Sports 1/HD1
This weekend sees the penultimate round of fixtures in the Football League. By the time this match kicks off Birmingham may have already been promoted (if Sheffield United lose to Swansea). Preston's play-off hopes realistically evaporated on Monday with Burnley's win over the Blades.

17.30 Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Tottenham are frankly hopeless at Old Trafford. during their sixteen Premiership trips they've managed just two goalless draws amongst a pile of defeats. Of course, a win here for Spurs could see them grab a Europa League spot - and we all know how 'Arry loves playing in Europe.

Chris O: Home win; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Draw; Duffman: Home win.

20.30 Valencia v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
Game of the Week from La Liga finds two teams in hot form. Valencia are back to their early season best, putting in five wins on the trot - Barcelona have only dropped points in six games all season. Barca go to second place Real Madrid the weekend following their Champions League semi-final against Chelsea. Suddenly that six point cushion doesn't look so unassailable.

Chris O: Away win; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Away win; Duffman: Draw.

Sunday 26th April

13.30 Arsenal v Middlesbrough, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Part of Sky's red button action on their Sunday football includes a thing called Fanzone where two die-hard supporters of the clubs involved get to shout and scream down microphones in place of the usual tones of Tyler and Gray. It's of limited appeal and enjoyment - really, if I want to hear ill-informed, amateurish, biased commentary I'll listen to Alan Green on Radio 5. It must be doing appallingly badly because this week they've decided to do something to jazz it up. Today is Ladies' Day on Fanzone as the mics are given to girls to shout and scream down. Honestly, they really can't do any worse.

16.00 Torquay United v Burton Albion, Blue Square Premier, Setanta Sports 1
Burton really should have made certain of the title by now but here we are, final weekend of the season and they need a point to guarantee automatic promotion. Torquay need the win to claim a play-off spot. If Burton lose, and Cambridge win it's all down to goal difference - Albion have a four-goal advantage and have scored much more. Expect constant nail-biting updates from the 7-4 Cambridge v Altrincham match.

Chris O: Draw; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Home win; Duffman: Draw.

16.00 Blackburn Rovers v Wigan Athletic, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Part two of the girl's Fanzone take-over sees two teams that have both lost their last two games. For Wigan this has simply meant no trips to eastern Europe on Thursday nights for them next season, for Blackburn, however, things could get considerably worse.

18.00 Sevilla v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports Interactive (1st half)/Sky Sports 1 (2nd half)
Sevilla's season could end really badly: defeat here and next week to rivals Villarreal could see them drop out of the Champions League spots that looked so assured just a couple of weeks ago. Real must get three points to maintain pressure on Barcelona.

20.00 Atletico Madrid v Sporting Gijon, La Liga, Sky Sports 1
I've developed a soft spot for Gijon. 32 games into the campaign and they still haven't played out a draw. Unfortunately this stubborn resistance to share points sees them sitting just a point above the relegation places having lost their last five games. Gijon fans may take heart in the fact that they lost their first five games of the season only to follow it with five straight wins.

20.00 Lille v Marseille, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 2
Six games to go in France and it really is anybody's. Marseille currently have the advantage, two points clear of Bordeaux, and four ahead of Lyon who play fourth place PSG tonight (Friday). Up until a couple of weeks ago Lille were still in the hunt themselves, so certainly not a stick-on three points for Eric Geret's men.

Chris O: Away win; Sp3ktor: Away win; Seb: Away win; Duffman: Away win.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bundesbag Week 28: Making history

It happens very occasionally (in fact this is the first time it's happened this season) and when it does I either have to front up and pretend it never happened or 'fess up and admit that it has. I am, of course, talking about missing the Bundesliga Highlights on TV. I won't go into the whys and wherefores of the circumstances behind my missing the programme for fear of turning this blog into a rant about Setanta's Scheduling Team. However, you will notice that this entire paragraph has been written without mentioning football.

So before we crack on, let me apologise in advance if I miss anything out that might have happened at a game that you think would normally turn up in this blog. At least you know the reason why.

To business then: Up until last weekend, Borussia Monchengladbach held the Bundesliga record for consecutive wins. They now share that record with Wolfsburg. The landmark tenth victory was at home to Bayer Leverkusen. Both of the Wolves goals were from Grafite who is now 4 goals clear in the top scorer count ahead of Mario Gomez. Felix Magath's team have not lost at home all season in the League. In fact they have won all their home league matches this season save one and that was a 2-2 draw with Eintracht Frankfurt.

Away from home, their record is somewhat different. In fact their form away from the Volkswagen Arena during the Hinrunde was pretty poor with only four points. Contrast that with their form on the road since the Winter break and it's not difficult to see why they are now top of the league. A 1-1 draw at Koln represents the only dropped points in the Rückrunde.

Despite this, the Bundesliga remains fiercely competitive at the top. Despite Bayern's well publicised problems and high profile defeats, they have still won four of their last five league matches and remain genuine championship contenders. Hamburg are third, level on 54 points with Bayern. What is impressive about their efforts is that they were participating in three competitions until the midweek when they were knocked out of the German Cup by Werder Bremen (who will face Leverkusen in the Final).

In fact, it is a measure of the competitiveness of the German League this season that Wolfsburg have had to write themselves a chapter in the history books just to get themselves some breathing space at the top of the table.

Losing ground in the race are Hertha Berlin. Prior to their 2-1 win against Bremen at the weekend, they had lost three in a row. You feel that their moment is past. It's possible that Stuttgart could come from nowhere to challenge for the title. They are only three points off Hamburg and Bayern after their impressive 3-0 win at Koln (who I think have given up for the season).

Below Stuttgart in the table are the two Ruhr giants Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund who are both on 46 points, four points off a Europa League spot. The Royal Blues have won three in a row compared to BVB's four. Schalke's good form started pretty much after the dismissal of Fred Rutten, their coach, and possibly Andy Muller the General Manager at the Arena Auf Schalke. Mike Buskens is the caretaker there along with Youri Muldur and may be hopeful of getting the gig full time after watching his team thump Cottbus at home 4-0 (a result that led to the Cottbus refunding their 600 travelling supporters the price of the tickets by way of an apology).

Why Buskens would want the job is anyone's guess. Unless he is given a whopping great transfer kitty and carte blanche to kick out the trouble makers in the dressing room. I may not know that much about the Bundesliga, but I do know a rotten football club when I see one and any team that can stitch their coaches up in the way the Schalke players have needs a serious clear out by a strong and experienced coach.

In fact, Schalke could do worse than look at BVB (although I'm sure it would pain them to do so). Jurgen Klopp still has a great deal of work to do in order to return the glory days to the Westfalon. However, he has led his team to four straight wins and seems to have the germination of a decent team there. The Bundesbag looks forward to seeing more from the Dortmund club next season.

At the bottom, it's pretty much as you were. Karlsruhe are propping up the table despite being the only team in the bottom four to avoid defeat. Four points above them are Cottbus and 'Gladbach who were walloped 4-1 by Frankfurt. Fourth bottom are Bielefeld who lost to Bayern. Then there is a gap of four points to Bochum who got beat by BVB.

So it's beginning to look like a four way battle for the drop (remember only two go down automatically, the third bottom team plays off with their third placed counterpart in 2 Bundesliga). Next week, 'Gladbach welcome Bielefeld in yet another sechs punkter. A win for either side could establish a platform for survival going in to the final stages of the season. Cottbus are also at home this Sunday to Wolfsburg who are looking to surpass 'Gladbach's record and notch up their 11th straight league win. I've got a funny feeling that Energie will trip the leaders up. Don't ask me why. It's a shame that the game is not live on Setanta but let's not get into that.

That's it. Results and tables here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

League Spotlight: Greece / Super League

Though the Greek Super League is a competition for sixteen teams, historically speaking you need only concern yourself with five that have ever done anything of note. Actually, make that two. Come to think of it, in recent terms you can probably round that down to one. There, that's made things nice and simple.

Yes folks, apart from Olivia Newton-John, the only thing to come out of Greece with any lasting reputation is Olympiacos. (OK we admit - that joke works better aurally than in written text, but what the hey...)

Over the last thirteen seasons, Olympiacos has won the league twelve times (pausing only to allow Panathinaikos a moment of glory in 2004). 'Legend', as they're known with some justification, hold the record for the most title wins at 36 and as we approach the last week of the 2008/09 season, Olympiacos have already made certain of title number 37.

It's a formidable record for a team that between 1984 and 1996 only won the Alpha Ethniki (as it was known then) once. Yet from the moment the Greek championship came to life in 1927, Olympiacos quickly made their presence felt and continue to do so today.

These days, the team features the goalscoring talents of Argentinean Luciano Galletti (signed from Atletico Madrid in 2007), veteran Polish international defender Michael Zewlakow and Blackburn Rovers' very own Matt Derbyshire, loaned out to the Greek champions in January this year. He's already scored four goals in six league appearances and with that kind of goals per game average it's a wonder Blackburn haven't brought him back sooner, given their Premier League position at the moment.

Despite being the top dogs in their own country, Olympiacos struggled this season to make much of an impact in Europe. Joining the Champions League in the Third Qualifying Round, they were immediately knocked out by Cypriot team Anorthosis Famagusta, 3-1 on aggregate. Ironically, Anorthosis became the first Cypriot team to make the group stage of the Champions League and came bottom of Group B, the winners of which were Greece's second most successful team, Panathinaikos.

'The Greens' are currently third in the Super League but could overtake PAOK Saloniki to finish second if they manage to beat already-relegated OFI Crete this Sunday. Either way, they're assured a place in the complicated end of season play-offs that will determine who gets to enter next season's Champions League at the Third Qualifying Round stage.

This shouldn't pose a problem for Panathinaikos who joined the Champions League in the Second Qualifying Round this year and knocked out Dynamo Tblisi and Sparta Prague before topping Group B ahead of Inter, Werder Bremen and Anorthosis. Sadly for them, Villareal were waiting to bring that impressive run to an end in the first knockout round, but nonetheless they showed a capability to up their game when facing European opposition.

Finishing the 2008/09 Super League season with a fine run of form are the aforementioned PAOK who fell just short of getting their first title since 1985. Led by Sérgio Conceição at the ripe old age of 34, PAOK failed to grab a win over Olympiacos or Panathinaikos but have remained unbeaten at home all the while as they surged back to the top end of the Super League following their ninth place finish last season.

Elsewhere, AEK Athens look good for a Europa League place next season, largely thanks to the current top scorer in the Super League, Ismael Blanco. The Argentinean has bagged fourteen in the current campaign and with a ratio of two goals in every three games since he joined AEK in 2007, we can expect to see his star rise yet further in the future, albeit probably elsewhere in Europe.

To complete your need-to-know guide to the Greek Super League, we end with Larissa, a team that were champions once and once only back in 1988. They'll be hoping to snatch the final play-off spot ahead of Aris this weekend and should do so thanks to a squad that boasts Maciej Zurawski (recent favourite of Celtic fans) and Laurent Robert (popular with followers of Newcastle United, Portsmouth and, er, Derby).

Much more than that is largely insignificant thanks to the dominance of the big clubs in Greece. What's odd is that Greek clubs don't do better in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, given their consistency and superiority on the domestic front. With a wealth of players arriving all the time from South America, Africa and the rest of Europe, it wouldn't be so irrational to believe that that could all change in the near future, but for now it remains a league desperate to be taken seriously.

And perhaps that's just as well. There is, after all, only so many jokes involving John Travolta that a bunch of amateur writers like us can produce in one sitting.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: 20th - 23rd April

(All times UK)

Monday 20th April

19:45 Burnley v Sheffield United, Championship, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
Had the Blades managed to beat ten man Forest at the weekend they would have been looking at this game in hand to ease into second and a precious automatic promotion spot. Unfortunately for them, they choked and could not score against the relegation threatened Forest. Even if they had, getting past Burnley is far from a formality even though Owen Coyle's players have drooped off a bit and need the points to help cement their position in the play-offs. This should be a decent game at Turf Moor and well worth a look for those who tend not to dabble in the Championship.

Tuesday 21st April

20:00 Liverpool v Arsenal, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
The prospect of a blue riband game under the floodlights of Anfield is enough to have even the most grizzled football fan rubbing their hands with anticipation. Both teams have been knocked out of cup competitions by Chelsea over the last few days. Liverpool have had a chance to pause since their European Cup exit last week. Arsenal on the other hand, have only had a few days to expel the sound of "Chelsea Chelsea" from their collective memory. However, there is so much more to this game beyond two jilted lovers comparing notes. We will know much more about the fate of the title come ten o'clock on Tuesday.

Wednesday 22nd April

20:00 Chelsea v Everton, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
A dress rehearsal for the FA Cup Final (I've always wanted to use that expression). You suspect that their rendezvous in Wembley at the end of May means more to the Evertonians than the west Londoners. Also, by making it to the Final, that 'coveted' Europa League spot that they are competing with Villa for, is already secured. Even if Everton lose, Chelsea should qualify for the Champions League and the European spot that comes with winning the FA Cup is passed to the runner up. In theory this takes to pressure off the Toffeemen in the League. David Moyes will have to be careful that his players don't spend the next six weeks with one eye on the Cup (I've always wanted use that expression too) and impress upon them the importance in seeing a season through to the end.

Thursday 23rd April

01:50 Sao Paulo v America de Cali, Copa Libertadores, Setanta Sports 2
Interesting choice of game to cover. Sao Paulo are top of Group 4 by three points. While the Brazilians still need a point against their Colombian visitors to secure top spot, their progress to the second stage is assured. Far more interesting is the game taking place at the same time between second and third placed teams Defensor Sporting and Independiente Medallin. If Sporting can beat the group's other Colombian team, they'll overhaul their opponents in the table and go through. Surely, it would have been better to screen that game instead.

19:45 England v Norway, Women's International, Setanta Sports 1
Both teams topped their respective qualifying groups for the European Championships which kick off in August. We're not sure how many of the top players for both nations are in the States for the Women's Pro Soccer League which has only just got underway. It may be that Kelly Smith and Karen Carney will not be playing. However, it should make for a decent sighter ahead of the Euros.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Weekend TV Preview: April 17 - 19

(All times - UK)

Friday 17th April

19:45 Burton Albion v Oxford United, Blue Square Premier, Setanta Sports 1
Burton could clinch the Blue Square Premier title tonight if they can grab at least a draw against an Oxford side unbeaten in ten matches. Burton will be all too pleased if they can get everything over and done with tonight as they've been wobbling a bit of late, but Oxford are hell bent on a play-off place. Roy McFarland may have to wait a bit longer yet...

Saturday 18th April

11:00 Urawa Reds v Kyoto Sanga, J-League, British Eurosport 2
Three wins out of five for both sides so far, placing them fifth and seventh respectively in the table. An interesting tie between two teams with higher ambitions for this season.

Chris O: Home win; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Home win; Duffman: Draw.

12:30 Motherwell v St. Mirren, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
A relegation dogfight in the Scottish 'Clausura' which Mark McGhee's men are heavily backed to win, according to the bookies. We're inclined to agree.

12:45 Rochdale v Darlington, League Two, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
With three games remaining in League Two, Rochdale are hovering just two points away from an automatic promotion place. Neither side are in particularly good form, but perhaps the proverbial carrot of playing in League One will focus the minds of Keith Hill's men more than their opponents.

17:15 Arsenal v Chelsea, FA Cup Semi-Final, Setanta Sports 1
The Gunners play The Blues for the first time at the new Wembley Stadium, glowing profusely from their Champions League wins this week. While Arsene Wenger's been moaning about the new Wembley pitch being rubbish, Florent Malouda's been expressing a child-like wonderment at having the chance to play on it, which is exactly as it should be. John Terry's back for Chelsea, so expect him to shore up the defence rather more than we saw on Tuesday.

Chris O: Chelsea; Sp3ktor: Chelsea; Seb: Arsenal; Duffman: Arsenal.

19:00 Getafe v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
The first part of Sky Sports' four-course tapas selection sees La Liga leaders Barcelona trying to keep Real at arms length against The Dark Blues of Getafe (who can expect to be in the drop zone before you can say 'relegado'.

21:00 Recreativo v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
On paper, the home side should get massacred but Real only managed a 1-0 win back at the Bernabeu in November. Something similar may ensue tonight, but the overall outcome will be much the same, we fear.

Sunday 19th April

13:30 Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
A 2-1 win's in the offing today for someone. Spurs won by that score in the League Cup back in September while The Magpies won 2-1 against their rivals in the Prem just before Christmas. If anything, Spurs should go 2-1 up in the series (ahem) after this one.

14:00 Hibernian v Rangers, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Ferguson and McGregor are back for The Gers and not a moment too soon with only a point separating them and Celtic at the top of the Scots Prem. Hibs could go clear of Aberdeen on points if they can get their first win over Rangers since October 2007.

15:15 St. Johnstone v Queen of the South, Scottish First Division, BBC ALBA
If you're prepared to forego the language barrier, here's a chance to see St Johnstone take a big step towards the championship title in Div 1.

16:00 Manchester United v Everton, FA Cup Semi-final, ITV1 / ITV HD / Setanta Sports 2
Expect the Everton supporters to greet Wayne Rooney with a cheery wave and a gentlemanly 'Bravo!' as he takes to the Wembley pitch in the scarlet shirt of Man United. More likely, perhaps, is an Everton win, but not by much.

18:00 Valencia v Sevilla, La Liga, Sky Sports 1
Though this is a match-up of the teams in fourth and third respectively, Sevilla are a good eight points clear of their rivals and, barring a collapse of Hull City proportions, should be assured of the last Champions League place for 2009/10. An intriguing tie and one that Valencia must win if they're to leapfrog their opponents before the season's out.

Chris O: Draw; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Away win; Duffman: Draw.

20:00 Real Betis v Sporting Gijon, La Liga, Sky Sports 1
Hee-Hon are just one place above the relegation zone but can overtake Betis in 13th with a win today. Definitely 'squeaky bum time' in the bottom half of La Liga for all concerned.

20:00 Bordeaux v Lyon, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 2
'Le grand un' as far as this week's listings are concerned. As we've already discussed verbally, Lyon are finally off the top of Ligue 1 and Bordeaux are waiting to push them down to third if they can get all three points today. Actually, Bordeaux could go top ahead of Marseille if they win this match, so grab a baguette and a can of Kronenberg 1664 and treat yourself to a cagey encounter between these two French heavyweights.

Chris O: Draw; Sp3ktor: Draw; Seb: Away win; Duffman: Draw.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #109

Change for the better
12 Early Rule Changes That Transformed The Sport Of Football

1. The offiside rule as we know it today was implemented - 1873
2. Teams forced to change ends at half-time - 1874
3. Introduction of the crossbar (rather than a piece of tape) - 1875
4. Match length set at 90 minutes - 1877
5. Referees start using whistles - 1878
6. Clubs start charging for admission - 1880
7. Two-handed throw-in introduced - 1882
8. The penalty kick introduced - 1891
9. Goalkeepers only able to handle the ball in their penalty area - 1912
10. Players able to score a goal direct from a corner - 1924
11. Shirt numbering made compulsory - 1939
12. Use of a white ball permitted - 1951

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bundesbag Week 27: Hungry like a wolf

Well, it's taken them nine straight wins and ten games unbeaten in all but Wolfsburg are finally top of the Bundesliga. And they're not top by a squeak either. There is in fact an enormous gulf of 3 (three) points behind the swarm of teams immediately behind them. OK that may not seem like much, but by this season's standards it's a gaping chasm.

Mind you they had to work for it. Borussia Monchengladbach may lack quality (with the exception of the magnificent Marco Marin) but they are fighting for their Bundesliga lives right now and gave the Wolves a really hard game. It took a late and fortuitous goal from Sascha Riether to maintain their run at Borussia Park. 2-1 was the final score.

Inevitably, however, our attentions turn to Bayern Munich. This blogger was pretty certain that had Barcelona needed to score 8 goals last week (for whatever reason) then they would have done. That's how bad Bayern were. I know the Bavarians were short of defenders but they must have had injury problems of this nature in their long and illustrious history and not received the kind of pastings that they suffered at the Nou Camp and at the Volkswagen Arena. What, then, are we to deduce from their 4-0 at home win over Frankfurt? A return to form for Bayern or worst away performance ever?

Well, there certainly appeared to be a response from the players and things got off to a great start with a cracker from Franck Ribery. You suspect that Frankfurt are the kind of team to fold under pressure from superior forces and conceding after such a short period of time seemed to be too much for them. Goals from Luca Toni, Lucio and Schweinsteiger wrapped things up after 48 minutes and allowed the Champions to concentrate on recovering some dignity against Barca, which they pretty much did.

In third place are Hamburg. They had something of a set back against VfB Stuttgart who have made an art of providing setbacks to a number of teams of late. This time it was the much maligned Mario Gomez who struck at the death to maintain his team's fifth spot in the table and drop Martin Jol's men to third. In between VfB Setback and Hamburg's Martin Jol are Hertha, for whom it seems the wheels are falling off.

The Berliners went down to their third defeat in a row, this time at Hannover. It was a wretched match for the former leaders made far worse by a frankly idiotic red card earned by Andrei Voronin for a stupid kick out at Leon Andreason. The on loan Liverpool striker is banned for three matches which is unlikely to aid his team mates cause. He was also fined for his trouble.

Elsewhere, look out for a fantastic long range goal from Tamas Hajnal of BVB in their impressive 3-1 win over local rivals Koln. Dortmund go up to 8th and level on points with their even more local rivals Schalke who beat Hajnal's old club Karlsruhe 2-0. The curse of the stadium move continues for Hoffenheim who lost 3-0 at home to lowly Bochum. The same could be said for Leverkusen. Since they moved to their temporary stadium in Dusseldorf they have only won once at home. At least they didn't lose against Werder Bremen last weekend. An unsatisfying 1-1 draw sees the Bayer club consigned to mid table.

That leaves us at the bottom. Karlsruhe are adrift on 18 points but the next three places are seperated by a single point. This is thanks to a thundering Sechs Punkter at Cottbus between Energie and Bielefeld. two goals from the Bulgarians Dimitar Rangelow and Stanislav Angelov were enough to seal the points. At present it looks like a three-way fight to avoid those two places after Bochum's excellent win at the Hoff gave them a four point cushion. Mind you, there are still seven games to play in this most unpredictable of leagues so who knows what's around the corner. A late surge from Karlsruhe perhaps...? No.

That's it. Results and tables here.

SPAOTP @ TwoFootedTackle

Short of creating a podcast of our own, the only way you'll ever have heard our voices here at SPAOTP was for us to appear on someone else's podcast.

If that's something you've been eagerly waiting for, (a) you really should get out more, and (b) you're in luck. Thanks to our good friends Chris Nee and Gary Andrews, two of us have made recent appearances on the TwoFootedTackle podcast which started about a month ago.

Episode 2 featured Duffman as special guest to talk about the Bundesliga (amongst other things) while I (Chris O) appeared on Episode 4 (launched today) to talk about Ligue 1 (amongst other other things).

Short of Sp3ktor and Seb turning up on future TFT podcasts, we thought for the time being we'd point you in the direction of our two appearances thus far, just in case you wanted to hear what we really sound like 'in the flesh'.

Click on the links below to download Episodes 2 and 4 and don't forget to visit TwoFootedTackle for some great writing on all aspects of football around the world.

For now, our thanks go to Gary and Chris for asking us to take part in their podcasts.

TwoFooted Tackle

Monday, April 13, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: 14 - 16 April

Tuesday 14 April

19.45 Bayern Munich v Barcelona, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 0-4), ITV4
If any game was going to have the greatest comeback of all time it would probably be this one. It won't happen though, Bayern are just too frail at the back.

19.45 Chelsea v Liverpool, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 3-1), ITV1/HD
Rafa never has a problem with chucking the towel in if there are bigger fish to fry. He has a real chance at the League title this year and nothing to prove in this competition. Don't expect Liverpool to bust any lungs trying to claw this one back, especially with the prospect of a tough semi-final against Barcelona to follow. Chelsea are 7/2 to take the title, well worth a punt.

Wednesday 15 April

19.45 Arsenal v Villarreal, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 1-1), Sky Sports 3/HD3
While Arsenal's attacking options seem to expand every week, their defence is looking thinner than anorexic fag paper. Villarreal have got problems of their own after first leg goalscorer, Marcos Senna, was ruled out for the remainder of the season, and they've lost three of their last four League games.

19.45 FC Porto v Manchester Utd, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 2-2), Sky Sports 2/HD2
The hacks description of Manchester United in recent weeks has been like George Foreman in Zaire: big and powerful but slow, tired and punching thin air. They can't rely on a 17 year old to get them through the run-in and while they might not go out tonight, by the end of the season they may wish they had.

02.00 Independiente Medellin v Sao Paulo, Copa Libertadores Group 4, Setanta Sports 2
Match Day 5 sees Sao Paulo already in the hat for the knock-out stage, a draw here will be good enough to see them finish top of the group. Their Colombian hosts have played four, drawn four so far but they'll have to go for the win if they want to progress.

Thursday 16 April

17.30 Dynamo Kiev v PSG, UEFA Cup Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 0-0), ITV4
'Advantage Kiev' you'd say here but PSG have saved some of their best performances for away ties in this competition, including a 3-1 win at current Bundesliga toppers Wolfsburg. PSG's league form however has dipped; a shockingly competitive Ligue 1 looks to have finally taken its toll on the Parisians.

19.45 Manchester City v Hamburg, UEFA Cup Quarter-final 2nd Leg (Agg 1-3), ITV4
Probably Mark Hughes' last chance to shine at City, he really needs to throw everything at this game. Winning the UEFA Cup will look good on his CV when he's looking for a job in June.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #108

The Last 'Team GB'
The 11 Players That Made Up The Last Great Britain Team Ever To Take To A Field

1. John Swannell (Hendon)
2. Paul Fuschillo (Wycombe)
3. Bill Currie (Albion)
4. Ted Powell (Wycombe) (captain)
5. Derek Gamblin (Leatherhead)
6. John Payne (Enfield)
7. Roger Day (Slough)
8. Rod Haider (Hendon)
9. Peter Hardcastle (Skelmersdale)
10. Ken Gray (Enfield)
11. Joe Adams (Slough)

The above team played and were beaten by Bulgaria in an Olympic qualifying match in 1971, hoping to reach the final tournament in Munich a year later.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Weekend TV Preview: April 10 - 13

Friday 10 April

15:15 Wolverhampton Wanderers v Southampton, Championship, Sky Sports 1 & HD1

The nearly there meets the nearly gone. Having dodged a ten point deduction for entering administration, the Saints will need to stay in the Championship as the noises coming from the administrator suggest that a drop into League 2 could destroy the club. This will not be easy since they can't even beat Charlton at home and are about to face a Wolves team enraged by their defeat to Birmingham last week.

17:30 Reading v Sheffield United, Championship, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
The Blades overtook The Royals in the table on Tuesday in their feisty derby win against Barnsley. Steve Coppell's Reading have a game in hand over the Sheffield club and a win at the Madejski puts them ahead in the race to miss out on automatic promotion and lose in the Play Offs.

Chris O: Draw; Sp3ktor: Away win; Seb: Home Win; Duffman: Away win.

19:45 NAC v AZ, Eredivisie, Setanta Sports 1
NAC have lost a little ground recently after going down to recent defeats at Willem II and at home to Ajax. Having said that, they recently knocked runaway leaders AZ out of the Cup so they can draw some scant solace from this.

20:00 Glentoran v Linfield, JJB Premiership Play-off, Sky Sports 2
The 'Clausura' stage of the IFL gets underway as the top six teams play off for the Gibson Cup and title of League Champions. This fixture sees the top two team from the 'Apatura' meet for the opening fixture.

Saturday 11 April

12:30 Hearts v Celtic, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1

A tough encounter for The Bhoys who would much prefer to keep a distance between them and Rangers by beating third placed Hearts.

12:45 Liverpool v Blackburn Rovers, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
Liverpool must play each league game as though it is their last. While Man United are far from at their best, that game in hand means the Merseysiders really have to match their rivals point for point until the end of the season. A Lancashire derby against a determined Blackburn will provide a stiff challenge for the Reds.

17:30 Stoke City v Newcastle United, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
If The Magpies are going to stay up then they must get something from the Britannia Stadium. They may have to settle for a decent performance though as better teams than Newcastle have gone to Stoke and left with nothing.

Chris O: Home win; Sp3ktor: Draw; Seb: Home win; Duffman: Draw.

19:00 Barcelona v Recreativo, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
That final spot in the relegation zone is keenly contested, if that's the expression I'm looking for. No less than five teams are within a three point reach of its claws of despair. Recre' are sat there now and will be keen to take advantage of any post-Champs League fatigue. Fat chance.

20:00 Rennes v St Etienne, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 2
Yikes! St Etienne are third bottom and face the drop. This means that future previews will be missing oblique references to Sarah Cracknell.

21:00 Villarreal v Malaga, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
The Yellow Submarines haven't faired too well straight after Champions League matches. Thing is they can't afford to mess about lest they lose that precious fourth spot and the hallowed pot of glory covered with Euro gold.

Sunday 12 April

14:00 Aston Villa v Everton, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
The Big One. Villa will need to have stopped seething with indignation over their Old Trafford Injury Time Tribulations to get anything out of this game. The form says Everton but the season is drawing to a close and this time of the year can mess with the minds of even the best players. A must watch, this game.

16:00 VfB Stuttgart v Hamburg SV, Bundesliga, Setanta Sports 2
Marcus Babbel's Stuttgart are making their characteristic late surge up the table sweeping aside all who dare try and stop them. They may find a more solid obstacle in Martin Jol's Hamburg who are joint top with the mighty Wolfsburg. A closely matched encounter awaits anyone wise enough to watch this instead of the City game.

Chris O: Draw; Sp3ktor: Home win; Seb: Away win; Duffman: Away win.

16:00 Manchester City v Fulham, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
Mid-table game scheduled on the understanding that many Sky Sports subscribers will be sat at some table noshing up with extended family members or watching the Bundesliga on Setanta.

20:00 Deportivo v Atletico Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 1
Depor have done well to get themselves together into a nice mid-table position after their fortunes took a downturn in recent years. In fact they are level on points with Atletico who are in that final Europa League spot. Neither team is in great form at the moment so don't be alarmed if it ends 0-0.

20:00 Lyon v Monaco, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 1
Lyon seem to have adjusted to the reality that this season's title race will actually be competitive and have won their last two matches after something of a slump.

Monday 13 April

12:15 Leicester City v Leeds United, League One, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
A rare chance for fans to tut and shake their heads wondering at the irony while saying things like "Oh how the mighty have fallen". In fact, this is a top of the table clash between The Foxes who can smell promotion (that's how close it is) and Leeds who just need a couple of wins to cement that play-off place.

Chris O: Away win; Sp3ktor: Draw; Seb: Draw; Duffman: Draw.

15:00 Barrow v York City, Blue Square Premier, Setanta Sports 1
The Barrow boys have only lost one in five and have clawed their way out of the bottom four. York on the other hand are in serious peril and sit nervously in the drop zone. Woking are only a point behind them. With Weymouth dropping like a stone, the likelihood is that only one from York and Woking will be relegated along with Northwich and Lewes. Three points against fellow strugglers may be just the ticket.

19:45 Millwall v Peterborough United, League One, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
It should be a cracking atmosphere at The Den as second meets third. Both teams are in great form and if The Lions can win, they'll close the gap on the Posh to just two points.

19:45 St Mirren v Hibernian, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
St Mirren have a three point cushion between themselves and Falkirk and will want to keep it that way, thank you very much. Hibernian will already be thinking of the warmer climbs of the close season.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Bundesbag Week 26: Doing a Brazilian one

The Wolfsburg v Bayern game was always going to be a classic. However, none who sat down to watch the game could have anticipated what was to follow. The home sides 5-1 victory was an act of deconstruction topped off by a moment of sporting genius.

Christian Geltner got things kicked off before Luca Toni equalised. With the scores level at half time, there was still very little indication as to what was to follow. Then came a fifteen minute period of madness which ended four goals in the back of the Bayern net. The last of those goals is now being celebrated by the whole German footballing nation.

It is the 76th minute and the score is 4-1 to Wolfsburg. Bayern are in an advanced position trying to get something from the game by way of consolation in that typically committed yet bumbling way that teams do when they're being thrashed.

Zvjezdan Misimovic
takes possession of the ball in the centre circle and spots Grafite on a run ahead of him and to the left. The man in the full back position is Andreas Ottl who had only been on the pitch for ten minutes. Misimovic passes the ball straight to Grafite with the kind of accuracy that would be the envy of a US missile targeting system.

At pace, Grafite has the ball and heads straight for the penalty box. Ottl is pursuing and is joined by his team mate Christian Lell. They try to double team him but Grafite is too quick and frankly, to smart for them. He cuts inside, bisecting the Bayern duo about seven yards from the goal. The keeper Michael Rensing tries to intervene by diving at the ball and tipping it off the tips of Grafite's toes. He is too slow and the striker pushes the ball beyond Rensing's reach leaving the big man sprwling on the floor. Seeing what is about to transpire, Ottl heads towards the goal line. Meanwhile Breno also anticipates a shot and moves into a likely position for a block. Grafite is still facing the far touch line, sideways on to the goal. Phillip Lahm is a whisker away and ready to make a tackle. Rather than turn and shoot, Grafite improvises with a back heel which sedately passes the wrong footed Ottl and bounces off the outstretched boot of Breno into the back of the net. The ball moves slowly enough to entice Ottl into a desperate lunge at it to no avail. He ends up in the goal mouth on his backside with a look of a man who has just seen a puppy dog skinned alive.

The commentator for the English language feed is Gary Preston. A man who tends to trip over his words when he gets excited. This is how it happened according to him:

"So this is the room I was talking about... Grafite... still Grafite, tying knots in the complete defence. Briliant stuff... Ooooh it's gone in for the goal of the season! What a goal! I'm gonna do a Brazilian one here now... GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!"
Not exactly Herbert Zimmermann however a few seconds later he described Grafite's strike as the "goal of the year" which seemed to be catching on in various posts on Youtube before the clip was taken down and sold to the Sun.

Steve McManaman on Setenta Sports last Monday described it as the kind of goal you'd only try if you were 4-1 up. That was a bit uncharitable, albeit true. However, its worth bearing in mind that the goal was scored against Bayern Munich. That's Champions League quarter finalists Bayern Munich. Also, the goal should be seen as the defining moment of a team performance that had reduced the champions of Germany to rubble. For that reason alone it will probably be remembered as one of the greatest goal ever scored in the Bundesliga and rightly so.

For the record, that was Grafite's second goal. The other two were scored by Edin Dzeko. Wolfsburg are now top after 8 straight wins. Hertha dropped to third after losing 3-1 at home in front of a rare capacity crowd by Dortmund. Hamburg are second thanks to a hard fought win over the Hoff. Bayern are fourth and currently out of the Champions League qualifying spot. However, there is still only three points between the top four so it's far from over.

Elsewhere, Koln and Leverkusen met for a big derby game which resulted, finally, in a win for Bayer. Schalke seem to be doing quite well without a general manager or coach. they beat Bielefeld 2-0. Stuttgart's impressive march up the table continued with a good result at Bochum. Frankfurt are staying out of trouble thanks to a 2-1 win over Cottbus. Hannover's disgraceful away record continued at the Weserstadion and are only three points away from the third from bottom spot, a place occupied by 'Gladbach. The Foals traveled to bottom club Karlsruhe for a sechs punkter. Alas, for both clubs, a 0-0 draw was the outcome, the only scoreless game of the weekend.

That's it. I'm off for a lie down. Results and table are here. Grafite's goal is here.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: April 6 - 9

(All times - UK)

Monday 6th April

19:45 Burton Albion v Torquay United, Blue Square Premier, Setanta Sports 1
Top-of-the-table Burton suffered a shock 4-0 defeat to Crawley Town on Saturday. Still, if you're going to crash and burn, best do it when (a) you're nine points clear at the top, and (b) your nearest rivals - Cambridge and Histon - lose at the same time. Torquay come to the Pirelli Stadium unbeaten in ten so expect a close-fought encounter here.

19:45 Birmingham City v Wolverhampton Wanderers, Championship, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
With six games remaining, Wolves have a five point lead over their hosts and the inevitable return of Mick McCarthy to the Premier League takes another step closer to reality. Just as well as the 'miserable bugger' quotient in the top flight has been dropping a bit lately.

Tuesday 7th April

19:45 Manchester United v FC Porto, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 1st Leg, ITV1 / HD
Porto come to Old Trafford having not been beaten away from home in a Champions League match since September. Back then, they lost 4-0 to Arsenal but this time they face a Man U team struggling to regain their form while holding a seven point lead at the top the Portuguese Liga themselves. Could be tricky, but expect United to come through it smelling of roses, as ever.

19:45 Villarreal v Arsenal, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 1st Leg, ITV4
Or 'Arsenal Rejects v Arsenal', if you prefer. Yes tonight sees Arsene's men reaquaintanced with the likes of Pascal Cygan, Robert Pires and... well that's about all actually. Villareal do have a goalkeeper called Viera... does that count?

Wednesday 8th April

19:45 St Mirren v Rangers, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Second-bottom plays second-top. Given that The Buddies have already beaten Rangers 1-0 back in October, it should be fascinating seeing who wants the victory more. No Barry Ferguson for tonight's game though - he's on drinking leave.

19:45 Barcelona v Bayern Munich, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 3/ HD3
'El Gran', as it's known in Catalonia, and a real crunch tie for Bayern following their 5-1 thumping by Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. Klinsmann's already said the Munich club's very future depends on this tie, but more of a worry might be Luca Toni's comment that he'll run naked round the Marienplatz in Munich if they win the Champions League.

19:45 Liverpool v Chelsea, UEFA Champions League Quarter-final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 2 / HD2
Well here we are again. Another year, another Reds v Blues tie in Europe. Liverpool demolished Real Madrid 5-0 on aggregate in the last round but a shaky 1-0 win against Fulham at the weekend will give Guus Hiddink hope of at least an away goal before the return match at Stamford Bridge next week.

01:50 (Thursday morning) Estudiantes v Cruzeiro, Copa Libertadores, Setanta Sports 2
The Argentineans have made an awful start to their league season. Just six points from a maximum 24 sees them one off the bottom of the Argentine Primera Division but like countless other teams, the Champions League has brought the best out of them. That said, Cruzeiro currently lead Copa Libretadores Group 5 and are second best in Brazil's Serie A so logic dictates a win for them in our books.

Thursday 9th April

17:30 Shakhtar Donetsk v Marseille, UEFA Cup Quarter-final 1st Leg, ITV4
Marseille remain just a point behind Ligue 1 leaders Lyon and are unbeaten in nine - perfect form with which to be approaching a game against the team that knocked Tottenham out in the Round of 32.

19:45 Hamburg v Manchester City, UEFA Cup Quarter-final 1st Leg, ITV4
Martin Jol's men won their crucial Bundesliga tie against The Hoff on Saturday to go level on points with leaders Wolfsburg while City were comfortably beaten by The Gunners. If nothing else, this'll be a great and all too rare chance to see the current Hamburg vintage on British TV - or a feeling of salt being rubbed into the wounds if you're a Spurs supporter.

20:00 Forest Green Rovers v Telford United, Setanta Shield Final, Setanta Sports 1
A real curiosity, this, as the Final's being played at Forest Green purely on account of them being higher up the Conference table than their opponents. You can see why this competition was ditched twice in the last decade.

Friday, April 03, 2009

World Cup 2010 Round-up: The rest of the world

And so to the final part of our mammoth World Cup round-up where we tie up all the loose ends in Asia, the CONCACAF region and, to begin with, Africa...


The third and final round of qualifying got underway last Saturday with the remaining twenty teams split into five groups of which only the winners will reach South Africa 2010.

To start with, we must reflect on the terrible news from Ivory Coast where 19 people were killed and 130 injured in a stampede before the match against Malawi in Abidjan. It's still unclear what caused the stampede, but it is known that thousands of fans were flocking to the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium to witness the return of Didier Drogba to the national side after injury.

Many fans were still outside when the match started and it's believed huge numbers had made a late desperate attempt to get in, thus causing a stadium wall to collapse. Unaware of what was happening, the two sets of players kicked off and after the home side won 5-0, the full scale of the tragedy was made aware to Drogba and his team-mates.

Moving onto other more prosaic events elsewhere, Burkina Faso won their Group E match against Guinea 4-2 to start their campaign level on points with Ivory Coast while in Group B, Tunisia took the early advantage with a 2-1 win over Kenya. Nigeria, favourites to win the group could only draw 0-0 away to Mozambique and it's said the home side could and should have picked up all three points.

Arguably the shock result of this batch of games was the 2-1 win for Gabon over Morocco in Group A. Alain Giresse's side didn't even qualify for the last African Cup of Nations, but two first half goals from Pierre Aubameyang and Roguy Meye were enough to snuff out the threat of the Atlas Lions.

Elsewhere in the group, Emmanuel Adebayor's eleventh minute goal proved good enough for Togo to beat Cameroon 1-0 and he was even allowed the luxury of missing a penalty late on. All is therefore set for a great round of games at the start of June when Togo travel to Gabon and Cameroon play host to Morocco.

Group D predictably saw Ghana get off to a winning start with a 1-0 win over Benin while Fredi Kanoute's goal for Mali was soon equalised by Sudan's El Tahir meaning both teams trail the Black Stars by two points at this early stage.

Finally in Group C, African champions Egypt were held to a 1-1 draw against Zambia while in Kigali Rwanda picked up an impressive point against former African champions Algeria.

June 2009 will see twenty more matches take place, and we'll be reporting on the latest news from across Africa when they happen.


It's a case of 'as you were' in the two Final Round groups in Asia with the top two teams in each case both retaining their places.

In Group 1, Australia survived a tough first half against Uzbekistan to win 2-0 in Sydney on Wednesday. Goals from Karlsruher's Joshua Kennedy and Galatasaray's Harry Kewell mid-way through the second half ensured the Socceroos stayed top of the table while Japan enjoyed a narrow 1-0 win over Bahrain at the weekend to stay second.

Had Bahrain and Qatar drawn their match a couple of days ago, Australia would have confirmed their place at the 2010 World Cup, but a 52nd minute Fouzi Aaish goal for Bahrain means Pim Verbeek's side will have to wait until at least June 6th to start their celebrations.

In Group 2, South Korea laboured to a rare victory over North Korea thanks to a late goal from FC Seoul's Kim Chi-Woo. It puts the Taeguk Warriors one point clear of their northern neighbours at the top of the group, but Saudi Arabia have turned up the heat on both teams following a poor start to their campaign.

Last Saturday saw the Saudis begin a successful week by beating Iran 2-1 away from home which was followed by a 3-2 win over the United Arab Emirates which ends the latter's chances of reaching South Africa next year.

The Group 2 table appears to show a three horse race but Iran have a game in hand which, if won, will put them only a point behind Saudi Arabia. All remaining matches in both groups will be played throughout June, so watch this space to see which four (or maybe five) lucky teams make it through to the Finals...

North and Central America

News reached us last night that the Mexican FA have sacked Sven-Goran Eriksson following a 3-1 defeat to Honduras which leaves his former side looking at a play-off if they're to reach the next World Cup.

Eriksson went into the match buoyed by a 2-0 win over Costa Rica last Saturday which temporarily lifted the pressure on the former England manager, but the Hondurans were better in every department as a disjointed Mexico once again failed to pick up any points away from home.

That win - Honduras' first in the final round group - lifts them into third place in the table behind leaders United States and Costa Rica. Both teams play each other on March 6th and for home side Costa Rica a win will be vital if they're to overhaul the unbeaten Americans.

SPAOTP's friend on Twitter, @sensei208, tipped us off about the USA's sensational young striker Jozy Altidore and with some justification. The 19-year-old became the youngest ever scorer for the USA when he grabbed the first of two goals in a 2-2 draw away to El Salvador last Saturday. He went onto follow that up with a hat-trick against Trinidad and Tobago during the week.

Without his first goal, the USA may have been on the receiving end of a shock defeat to the Salvadorans who were 2-0 up with 18 minutes remaining. Once Altidore had pulled one back for the visitors, Frankie Hejduk headed in from close range with two minutes left on the clock to salvage a point.

America's second match was an altogether more straight-forward affair and cemented T&T's position at the bottom of the hexagonal. Jozy Altidore's three goals against the Soca Warriors show why he was snapped up by Villareal last year and will no doubt prompt them to recall Altidore from his loan spell at Second Division side Xerez too.

All in all then, the USA and Costa Rica are living up to their top billing at the moment but Honduras are making the most of Mexico's slip. El Salvador and Trinidad & Tobago are yet to win in three matches and with some tough opposition to come in their next games their task won't be getting any easier.

The thing to note, however, is that none of the teams are quite getting things all their own way. The USA and Costa Rica will always bring out the best in the weaker teams and with a relatively few games to play, a point lost or gained here and there could prove vital to all of them. With the competition set to end in October, no-one's taking anything for granted just yet.


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