Friday, May 29, 2009

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #115

During the war...
5 Football League War Cup Finals That Were Staged As A Replacement For The FA Cup Final During World War II

1. West Ham United 1 Blackburn Rovers 0 (at Wembley), 1939-40
2. Preston North End 2 Arsenal 1 (replay at Ewood Park after 1-1 draw at Wembley), 1940-41
3. Wolverhampton Wanderers 6 Sunderland 3 (on agg.), 1941-42
4. Blackpool 4 Arsenal 2 (at Stamford Bridge), 1942-43
5. Bolton Wanderers 2 Chelsea 1 (at Stamford Bridge), 1944-45

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Some corner of an English field that is for ever South American

Ever since I was introduced to the idea of the South American football league format of the Apertura and Clausura, I've become increasingly intrigued by the notion.

We've gone into this before on these web pages, albeit briefly. However, for the uninitiated, in a number South American Leagues they have two league competitions in a single season. From August to the end of the year is the Apertura (Opening Championship) and from January to May is the Clausura (Closing Championship). In some countries they have a play off between the Apertura and Clausura winners to determine the overall champions. Both championships are of equal value and I believe that corresponding qualification places for pan continental championships apply to both competitions.

Once I got my head around the idea that I've wondered if it was worth trying in Europe. I guess the only system close to it, that I know of, is the SPL system dubbed by Sp3ktor as the Scottish Clausura but in fact it's not really the same thing.

I happened to be discussing the merits of the system on Monday evening in the pub with Chris and Gary from twofootedtackle after we had the finished recording their podcast. We felt that, while implementing such a structure would be unrealistic in the professional leagues, we did wonder if it would be something the one of the non-leagues could try as a pilot.

Experimenting on non-leagues is a bit dodgy . One doesn't want to denigrate the importance of these leagues by experimenting on them like lab rats because they are not perceived to be important. However, non-leagues do occassionally get used as guinea pigs for suggested rules changes (the Isthmian League once went an ensure season using kick-ins instead of throw-ins back in the 90's) and a spruced up league format may inject some renewed excitement at the lower end of the English semi-professional pyramid.

I had a look down said pyramid to see if I could find a suitable league for this hypothetical situation and arrived at the Kent League which serves the Home Counties and parts of Greater London. This is a league with no relegation and one promotion place to the Isthmian League Division Three. With no relegation issues to resolve, this seem like an ideal league to try out the format. Each club would play each other once in the Apertura and again in the Clausura. The promoted team could be the winner of a play off between both champions. Just think, two title races in one season plus an all or nothing play off at the end of the season. What better way to keep attendances going throughout the season?

As I said, this format would not be popular at the top end of the professional level but it is a system that has proved successful for years in South America and may be just the ticket for non leagues looking to inject extra excitement in what can be a long drawn out season. I know it will never happen, but I definitely think it's worth consideration.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Europe: The Final Countdown (Part 4)

Italy / Serie A

A thrilling 3-2 win for Roma over Milan on Sunday means the former have secured a place in the Europa League for 2009/10 while Milan need to get a draw against 4th-placed Fiorentina next week to enter next season’s Champions League.

Fiorentina lost the chance to close the gap on the top three having only just grabbed a last ditch equalizer at Lecce. Their 1-1 draw means Lecce are officially relegated while The Violets are assured of a Champions League qualifier due to their superior head-to-head record over fifth-placed Genoa. Juventus remain third, level on points with Fiorentina after a comfortable 3-0 win at Siena.

In addition to Lecce, Reggina are also confirmed as Serie B contenders for next season following their 1-0 defeat at Lazio on Friday. That leaves one place left to be decided, and that’ll be between Torino and Bologna. Both teams have 34 points, however Torino slipped into the relegation zone after their 3-2 defeat against Genoa while Bologna picked up a vital point away to Chievo Verona on Sunday.

Next Sunday’s crucial fixtures see Bologna in a winnable home tie against Catania whereas Torino play Roma who haven’t lost in their last four. Perhaps the realization that a secured place in the Europa League will cause them to take their foot off the gas, but only time will tell…

Spain / La Liga

As mentioned last week, the only remaining issue to be resolved at the top of La Liga is the one surrounding the last Champions League place. What was a four-horse race has now been halved following Villareal’s 3-1 win over Valencia. Both teams were contenders to grab third spot, but Atletico’s 4-1 win over Bilbao and Sevilla’s 1-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruna means they both stay in the hunt while Villareal and Valencia are left with a less certain future.

Sevilla’s win looked just as uncertain as their winner came in the 90th minute through a Diego Perotti strike. For Atletico, however, their three points came all the easier thanks to a Diego Forlan hat-trick which takes him above Samuel Eto’o to lead the top scorers chart.

So it’s Sevilla in third, three points ahead of Atletico in fourth and while fifth-placed Villareal are assured of at least a Europa League spot next season, they could overtake Atletico Madrid if they beat Mallorca and Atletico lose to Almeria.

At the other end, two of the three relegation places were decided at the weekend when Recreativo Huelva lost 1-0 at home to Racing Santander while Numancia lost by the same score at Getafe.

The final relegation spot is likely to be fought over by Sporting Gijon (17th) and Osasuna (18th). With Barcelona resting their star players for today’s Champions League final, Osasuna found it rather easier to pick up a 1-0 win against their opponents on Saturday than would normally be the case. Walter Pandiani

Sadly for them, Gijon also picked up three points after a 2-1 victory away to Real Valladolid so it’ll be down to the wire this weekend. Gijon are at home to already-relegated Huelva while Osasuna play Real Madrid whose season effectively ended some weeks ago. Should be interesting…

France / Ligue 1

We’ll have to wait a little while longer to find out who will win Ligue 1 this season after Bordeaux and Marseille both won their somewhat nervy games on Saturday. Bordeaux remain the only team unbeaten at home with a game left to play and if they can get a draw in it against Caen (who could go down), they’ll secure their first title since 1999.

Marseille’s outside chances remain intact partly thanks to an own goal by Nancy’s Damian Macaluso which contributed to a 2-1 win for Eric Gerets’ side. They’ll be playing Rennes on Super Samedi and a win for them could bring Marseille their first piece of silverware since their Champions League win in 1993, so long as Bordeaux lose.

Lyon secured third place and a Champions League qualifying round spot after they defeated Caen 3-1. Juninho was on hand to open the scoring from the penalty spot after 34 minutes in what’s likely to be his last home match for the club. He was substituted after 80 minutes and left the field in tears as Lyon’s fans gave him a well-deserved ovation at the end of an 8-year association with the club.

In the battle for the only Europa League spot, Toulouse sneaked into fourth place with a 2-0 away win at Nice to overtake PSG who lost 2-1 at Valenciennes. Toulouse, however, have the ominous task of having to beat Lyon at home next weekend in order to retain their position while PSG play host to Monaco.

In the battle to stay up, Sochaux did their chances of survival the world of good with a 2-1 win over Nantes. It means Sochaux fly up to 15th spot in the table and though they could still be relegated next week, their fate looks somewhat more rosy than it did seven days ago.

Nantes, however, stay next to bottom in the table and will need to beat Auxerre next week to have any chance of staying up. They’ll be hoping other results go their way, but that may all be inconsequential as Auxerre have won eight of their last ten games and could condemn the yellow-and-greens to Ligue 2 action next season.

With Le Havre already down, the final place will no doubt go to either the fast-fading Le Mans, the faltering Caen or a Saint Etienne side that slipped back into the bottom three at the weekend after a 1-0 win to the aforementioned Auxerre. They’ll face a tricky Valenciennes next week knowing that only a win will do to keep them up. Sooner them than us.

Portugal / Portuguese Liga

Finally to Portugal where the only remaining issue was that concerning the two relegation places. In the end, the two favourites to go down, Trofense and Belenenses, actually did fall through the trap door.

Trofense’s 1-0 defeat at Paços de Ferreira saw them finish on the bottom of the table while arch-rivals Belenenses also failed to avoid the drop when they were thumped 3-1 by Benfica.

And so another season in Portugal ends. Porto were champions by four clear points at the close of proceedings while Sporting Lisbon were second a massive seven points in front of Benfica in third. Nacional Funchal and Sporting Braga will join Benfica in the Europa League next season with Leixões Matosinhos well short of the required total to do the same.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The 2008/09 Scottish Season Review

Take down the nets, pull up the corner flags; fetch the stray balls from off the roof of the main stand and switch off the floodlights for the last time, for another season of football in Scotland has come to a close. 

A long time ago, on another web site all about the beautiful game north o' the border, I put together a season preview wherein, using nothing more than a league table, a blindfold and a sharp
implement I predicted the outcome of the 2008/09 season in Scotland. Looking back on it now I wasn't that far out in some cases, completely off the chart in others, and prophetic in others.

As usual, one half of the Old Firm won the league. 

Rangers' final day victory over Dundee United brought to an end Celtic's three-year long dominance of the SPL title. For Rangers, it marks the end of a season in which Walter Smith really pulled the irons out of the fire following a truly dreadful start to the season. After going down 2-1 on aggregate to FBK Kaunas in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and the (some say forced) sale of Carlos Cuellar to Aston Villa, Rangers could focus on the League, doing what they do every season, namely chase and harass Celtic all the way.
 
Along the way we had ‘Boyd-gate’ (where Scotland’s top scorer and Rangers striker Kris Boyd walked out on the Scottish national side), ‘booze-gate’ and subsequently ‘vicky-gate’, where keeper Allan McGregor and club captain Barry Ferguson where caught  in an after-hours drinking session and then caught giving the world’s press the two-fingered salute from the bench. Both players where banned from ever playing for Scotland again and both where dropped by Rangers for the rest of the season.
 
Rangers kept up the chase however, twice clawing back huge Celtic leads and getting the results when it mattered, while Celtic spluttered along. Though not the best Rangers side we’ve seen for a while, they’re certainly worthy winners.  There's been much talk and speculation about the future of Walter Smith with many expecting him (and wanting him, in some quarters) to move upstairs in favour of his assistant Ally McCoist. The temptation of one more season in charge, particularly now that there’s Champions League football to look forward too may keep McCoist out of the hot seat for a bit longer.  The revenue that Champions League football will bring will also secure the club’s finances, the state of which has been a matter of much debate during the season.
 
Strachan_417643a
Celtic finished second and will no doubt look back on this season and wonder how they  managed to lose the league when, at two points during the campaign, they where so far ahead of the Ibrox side that imagining anything other than Strachan's fourth title in a row would be considered an act of sheer lunacy.
 
But lose it they did, not at Parkhead last Sunday, but at Tynecastle, Tannadice and Easter Road, where all those drawn games would go on to make all the difference. When it was announced on Monday afternoon that Strachan had resigned from his post at Parkhead, there were few surprised faces around the country. The cheeky, razor-sharp wit that had made Strachan so popular and quotable over the years had disappeared, the pressure of high expectation that life at the helm of the Old Firm sides brings with it giving way to cynicism, indifference and apathy, an apathy that was very much on display in the lacklustre way in which Celtic ended their season.

Early favourites for the job include: Celtic fan Owen Coyle, recently promoted to the EPL with Burnley, former Celtic player and Hibs manager Tony Mowbray, currently facing life in the English Championship with West Bromwich Albion and Dundee United manager Craig Levein. The most likely candidate though is Motherwell manager Mark McGhee, another former Celtic player with considerable, if not exactly outstanding, experience in both England and Scotland.

Hearts greatly improved on last seasons display. Proof, if it where needed, that too much intervention from an over-zealous owner can only lead to disaster. Vladimir Romanov, no doubt preoccupied with the credit crunch kept his nose out of first team affairs and allowed new coach Csaba Laszlo to run the team. Hearts finished 8th last season, but a solid if unspectacular campaign (not including that terrible defeat in the League Cup at Airdrie) saw them climb the table, securing third spot by some 6 points from fourth placed Aberdeen and a return to European football for the first time since 2006.

For Aberdeen, a Scottish Cup quarter final exit at the hands of Dunfermline (Jimmy Calderwood's old club) and a League Cup exit to Kilmarnock in the 3rd round ended a domestic cup campaign that saw the Dons struggle past the mighty Ayr and Alloa in previous rounds. Though Aberdeen qualified for Europe again for the second time in three seasons, it was that failure to win a domestic trophy that ultimately spelled the end for boss Jimmy Calderwood, a manager that delivered top half finishes in 4 of his 5 seasons, a record only bettered by Sir Alex.  Whoever follows on from Calderwood has a good place from which to start: a good side, possibly the best for some time, though a central defender might be handy if captain Scott Severin leaves; a backup to Jamie Langfield in goal might also be top of the list. And with the lure of European football next season and a new stadium in the planning stages, it may well be easier than normal to attract a top manager to Pittodrie. Mark McGhee was favourite to take over, that is, until Gordon Strachan resigned as Celtic manager. Other possible contenders include Eric Black, Plymouth manager Paul Sturrock and former Aberdeen player Dean Windass.

Dundee United and Hibs, the other two sides to make up the top half of the league split failed to improve on last season’s campaign. Aberdeen's win over Hibs, coupled with United's own defeat at home to Rangers meant that Craig Levein’s men would miss out on European football, pipped to the post once again by Aberdeen. Dundee United's suffered the loss of their influential and much loved chairman Eddie Thompson in October, a loss that was felt deeply around Dundee. Thompson had invested heavily in the side despite much initial success and was a ruthless chairman who sacked five managers in his time, but his dedication and love of Dundee United was never beyond doubt.

Hibernian's season started badly as they where knocked out of the InterToto Cup by Swedish side Elfsborg before the other teams in the SPL had even kicked a ball in anger.  Exit from the League Cup at the hands of Morton (on the day before city rivals Hearts where knocked out of the same competition by Airdrie, thus ending Edinburgh interest in the League Cup) soon followed, along with an inconsistent run of form that saw the Hibees win only 7 games before the New Year break. Together with Dundee United, Hibs drew the most games this season (14), but made the top half before the League split in April, where only 1 win (against Hearts), three defeats and a draw saw them back in 6th place, same as last season.

Motherwell, for whom the 2007/08 season was a resounding success given the tragedy and misfortune that befell the Lanarkshire club, managed to hang on to manager Mark McGhee, despite the temptation on offer in the shape of Heart of Midlothian FC. A last minute change-of-mind kept McGhee at Fir Park, but, as we predicted at the start of the season, he failed to live up to the standards set last season, when the Steelmen finished third. Early exit from Europe came courtesy of French mid-table side AS Nancy set up a season with little to play for. Knocked out of the Scottish Cup by St. Mirren and the League Cup by newly promoted Hamilton, Motherwell struggled about in the bottom half of the table for most of the season, but pulled it together towards the end to eventualy finish 7th. The good news for Motherwell is that they'll play in the Europe again next season on account of their finish in the Scottish Fair Play League. The bad news: they'll need a new manager as we expect McGhee to be busy at Parkhead come August.

images (1) Hamilton, last seasons promoted side did better than I expected.  Top of the table for the first two weeks of the season following wins over Dundee United and Caley Thistle, Billy Reid suddenly found himself at the opposite end of the league by week 10, a position they held for an uncomfortable period of time. And just as we where all stroking our beards saying "ah, we knew they wouldn't last the pace", the team embarked on a series of results that saw them climb back up to 8th, before finally settling on 9th place. Survival then achieved, if only late in the season, but mission accomplished, it's fair to say. Young starlet James McCarthy delivered the performances we all expected, prompting offers from far (Middlesboro) and not so far (Celtic).

We had high hopes for Kilmarnock, given their yo-yo tendencies. The Rugby Park outfit certainly started well, winning six of their first 10 games, but the inevitable mid-season slump hit around October sending Jim Jefferies into the lower half of the table, where they'd stay, and eventually finishing 8th. We had Jefferies as the first casualty of the season, but he held on and remains popular down in Ayrshire. 

St Mirren where my tip for the drop last season. In the end, I wasn't far off, a superior goal difference over relegated Caley being just enough to keep them up. Together with Falkirk, St. Mirren where the only side in the SPL not to get out of the bottom six. Gus McPherson should be rightly proud of that win against Rangers in October, a good Scottish Cup ran into the semi-finals and their brand new stadium, because apart from that there was little else to celebrate this season.

Falkirk, together with Aberdeen, where the only side whose final position we correctly predicted. John Hughes' side played lovely football all season, but all that glitters is not gold, and the Bairns spent most of the season in the bottom quarter of the table. However, all is not lost: Falkirk are in with a chance of silverware this season as this Saturday they take on Rangers in the Scottish Cup final. Falkirk battled their way through Queen of the South (last years shock finalists), Hearts, Caley and Dunfermline to reach their day in the sun. And no matter what happens, Falkirk will play in the Europa League next season as their opponents Rangers have already qualified for the Champions League. So, Premier League survival, Cup finalists and European football - all in all not a bad season for John ‘Yogi’ Hughes.

Off the field
Our club side’s performances in European competitions was something best glossed over. The debate about whether or not the Famine Song - which had the Irish government complaining - is sectarian and/or racist continues on, but one thing is sadly very clear: bigotry and ignorance still exists in certain parts of the country.

This season has also seen the credit crunch hit Scottish Football. In April, reports in the press surfaced about troubled Irish broadcaster Setanta looking to renegotiate their deal with the SPL. Setanta had previously committed to a £125m deal to show live SPL football from 2010 onwards, but following a change in the terms of the contract with the English Premier League (which saw most of the revenue go to rivals Sky), Setanta wants to reduce the investment. For clubs like Celtic and Rangers, this reduction of income – should it come - wont make that much impact, but the likes of Motherwell, for whom the television deal amounts to a quarter of their income, the impact is potentially severe.

Financial problems also affected clubs in the lower divisions, with Livingston having trouble paying players, already relegated Clyde facing eviction from their stadium for unpaid rent, and Second Division sides Stranraer and Stirling Albion both in serious danger of folding under a mountain of debt and low attendances.

images (2) Over the course of the season, we also lost several great names from days that have passed. Bob Crampsey, broadcaster, Alfie Conn, Hearts legend and part of the 'Terrible Trio' along with Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh,  Jamie Dolan, who tragically died at the age of 39 whilst out jogging, the third former Motherwell player to have died at a relatively young age in recent times and Brooks Mileson, former owner and major funder of Gretna, the fairytale story of a small provincial club that went from rags to riches to bankruptcy and ultimately complete extinction.
 
And finally...
As I look back over the last year, it strikes me how little progress we seem to have made. Scottish football continues to struggle, both technically and financially. 

Domestically, our league continues to be a two horse race, with a chasing pack of teams that will never win the league as long as you and I live. Consider that Celtic and Rangers have won over 100 league titles between them, more than 5 times the combined total of league wins of every other team ever to play senior football in Scotland since 1894.

In Europe, our clubs showed their limitations. Motherwell, Hibs and plucky Scottish Cup runners-up Queen of the South all went out in their respective first round fixtures to insignificant European sides.  Celtic won one game in their Champions League campaign (at home, to Villareal) and lost the rest, meaning they didn’t' make it out of their group. But it was Rangers' embarrassing defeat to Lithuanian powerhouse FBK Kaunas that stands out from the mediocrity. The defeat, over two legs, was a failure of such epic proportions that launched the Ibrox club and, on a wider level Scottish football as a proposition, into crisis mode.

Our national side is struggling with World Cup qualification, having so far only won 1 of their qualifying games, and that against a poor Iceland side. When you look at the the make-up of our team that lost 3-0 to The Netherlands in March, only 2 of the that took the field, Alan Hutton and Darren Fletcher, play at the highest levels in English football. The balance was made up of Championship and (mainly) Old Firm players.

As a proposition, Scottish football is simply not attractive. Outside of the Old Firm, there is no competition, no lucrative Champions League football to get your teeth into, no filled stadiums, little in the way of television revenue, small transfer budgets and even lower salary levels. And neither Rangers nor Celtic, for all their success are top sides. It's not a popular opinion, but too many years as big fish in a very small pond have brought fame and riches, but little in the way of progress. This fact is highlighted by the fact that Owen Coyle, manager of the Burnley side that won promotion to the EPL on Monday and a Celtic man through and through, considers the danger of getting pumped every week in EPL preferable to coming north to Celtic and guaranteed silverware and European football every season.

These facts have not gone unnoticed. Henry McLeish, former First Minister of Scotland and former professional footballer with East Fife has called for a review of the game in Scotland, in which boards and fans are invited to play an active role to help create a "national conversation" for Scottish football that will address some of the challenges facing Scottish football today. We can only hope that something constructive and tangible comes from that review, because football in Scotland desperately needs changing.

Next week we'll look at the Scottish Football League and the Highland League, and round off our season review with our wish list for next season. Until then, see ye efter!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bundesbag Week 34: Wolfsburg winners, Dortmund dumped, 'Gladbach for more

In the end it was pretty straightforward. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg have actually done it. They are the German Champions for the first time ever.

Congratulations go to the players, particularly their impressive attackers Dzeko, Grafite and Misimovic. Kudos should also be extended to their coach Felix Magath who has taken a club that was, for years, the very definition of mid table mediocrity and transformed them into, not only the best team in Germany but one of the most exciting teams in Europe.

They sealed their victory comfortably. Their last day opponents, Werder Bremen, had just been beaten in the UEFA Cup only last Wednesday and they have a date in Berlin next Saturday with Leverkusen in the German Cup Final. While the visitors had a good go, they were swept aside by the home team 5-1. Once again Edin Dzeko and Grafite were among the goal scorers, the latter scoring a brace. This took their combined total to 54 goals which is a new record for a strike partnership in a single Bundesliga season. The previous record of 53 was held by the Uli Hoeness and Gerd Muller back in 1972. That alone is a measure of their achievment and provides yet another landmark in what has been a landmark season for a team that used to be known as the Grey Mouse.

Second place was secured by Bayern Munich who will go straight into the Champions League. They beat Stuttgart 2-1 in a fixture which would have seen the winner take the title had Wolfsburg slipped up. The added frisson of peril associated with this game was that the loser could have missed out on a the third Champs League spot if Hertha had won. As it happened it was a bit of an anticlimax. The Berliners failed to live up to the occasion and were thrashed 4-0 by Karlsruhe. KSC's magnificent performance denied Hertha a place in Europe's top table but was not sufficient to gain them the lift they needed to grab that relegation play off spot. That position was claimed by Energie Cottbus who scored three without reply against the Berlin bound Leverkusen, Jula was the hero of the Friendship Stadium with two goals. They will play Nurnburg in the relegation play off.

Armenia Bielefeld's 2-2 draw with Hannover 96 was nowhere near enough to save them. They, along with Karlsruhe, are relegated.

Which means that Borussia Monchengladbach are safe. Even better for them, they saved their season while at the same time ruining someone elses. Hans Meyer's team needed at least a point against Borussia Dortmund to be secure. Given the form of BVB in recent weeks this seemed unlikely. Jurgen Klopp needed his players to match Hamburg's result for that coveted Europa League spot to be theirs. Having said that, Dortmund's success would have been a cruel blow to Martin Jol whose team had been in the hunt for the title all season. Hamburg had reached the semi final of the German and UEFA Cup but were faced with the prospect of ending the season with nothing. Hardly a fitting reward for such a consistent campaign. Indeed, at 5:15 last Saturday it appeared that that was precisely was about to happen.

The day started well for Hamburg who took a 2-0 lead at Eintracht Frankfurt thanks to David Jarolim and Ivica Olic (making his final appearance). Meanwhile, in Borussia Park it was goalless. Things got even better for Hamburg when Dante put 'Gladbach ahead on 57 minutes. Then things started to turn a bit wonky when Frankfurt hit back with two goals in as many minutes to level the match. A minute later, Kuba scored for Dortmund to level things up. So it was 2-2 at the Commerzbank Arena and 1-1 at Borussia Park. Dortmund were set fair for Europe.

But the curtain on this Bundesliga season was not about to come down without one final twist in the tail. With 90 minutes on the clock Piotr Trachowski struck for Hamburg to win the match and overhaul Dortmund in the table. Klopp was crestfallen and Jol was jolly but he will have to reflect on what has, in fact, been a disappointing season. BVB will have to take solace in the fact that they have had a much improved season and may come to look at their failure as a blessing in disguise.

Elsewhere, Koln and Bochum had a kick about which finished 1-1. Schalke welcomed Hoffenheim to the Arena Auf Schalke. The Hoff continued their too little too late form and won what was probably an entertaining match, 3-2. The Gelsenkirchen club can now look forward to receiving their new manager Felix Magath for what may prove to be he biggest challenge ever.

Not that this was much of a concern for Magath as he celebrated with his players at the Volkswagen Arena in the Saturday afternoon sunshine. With their coach leaving and faced with the prospect of at least two of their three front men following suit, the Wolves face an uncertain future. Already they have confirmed that ex-Stuttgart coach Armin Vey is the new man in charge but will VW continue to invest in the club as they enter the uncharted territory of the Champions League? What sort of legacy will the great 2008/09 season leave for the club? Is the this the beginning of a new era of greatness or the culmination before a steady decline back to mediocrity?

The answers can be left for another day. Right now, Wolfsburg are the champions and for the time being at least that is all that matters.

Results and final table here.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Weekend TV Preview: May 22 - 25

Friday 22 May

20:00 Arsenal v Liverpool, FA Youth Cup Final, 1st Leg, Setanta Sports 1

A chance to see next year's Arsenal first team in action.

Saturday 23 May

11:00 JEF Utd v Yokohoma Marinos, J-League, British Eurosport 2

Well past time we had a League Spotlight on the J-League don't you think? Especially with the Europeans about to head off on their holidays. I'm assuming that the "JEF" in JEF United refers to the local industrial concern rather than the stuff they use to clean the bogs.

12:30 Inverness CT v Falkirk, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Bleeding hell what a game! Falkirk are bottom and two points adrift of their opponents. Hats off to the SPL's Clausura format for throwing up such an all or nothing match at the end of the season. Falkirk manager John Hughes has urged his team to "...be free spirits and express themselves". SPAOTP thinks he should stick to making films.

12:30 St Mirren v Hamilton Academical, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 2
Even though the home side are also on 37 points, they should be OK thanks to a slightly superior goal difference.

15:00 Gillingham v Shrewsbury Town, League Two Play-off Final, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
Six points separated the Gills in fifth and the Shrews in seventh. But at Wembley, anything goes. Not sure if either team will sell their full allocation of tickets. A fact that will render fans of Chelsea and Everton mildly miffed.

20:00 Barcelona v Osasuna, La Liga, Sky Sports 1
Into the penultimate round of Lar Leega and it's all sorted, title wise at any rate. At the bottom, there's work to be done. Osasuna are in the final relegation place and praying that Barcelona put out there under 11s.

20:00 Bordeaux v Monaco, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 2
Laurent Blanc's team are going for their tenth straight league win which may crown them as champions. Only Marseille can catch them. They play Nancy at the same time. Should OM slip up, the celebrations can start.

Sunday 24 May

13:00 Millwall v Scunthorpe Utd, League One Play-off Final, Sky Sports 1 & HD1

Uncle Pete's team versus the landing point of the Duffman clan when they settled on these shores from the Netherlands before the Great War. Come on the Iron! (sorry Uncle Pete).

13:00 Dundee Utd v Rangers, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
A win for Rangers will seal the SPL title. It won't be easy though. The Old Firm have failed to win at Tannadice this seaon it says here.

13:00 Celtic v Hearts, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 2

To that end Celtic will be lying in wait while Hearts apply the bikini wax.

16:00 Aston Villa v Newcastle Utd, Premier League, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
Sky Sports "Survival Sunday" is back! The last time we saw it was back in 2005 when West Brom survived on the last day at the expense of Norwich and Palace. In those pre-Credit Crunch days the event had Ford as a sponsor. Perhaps the car giant chose not to take up that option as it did not want to be associated with losers. To the match then: Newcastle must win and hope things go there way elsewhere although a point may do it thanks to the magic of goal difference.

16:00 Hull City v Manchester Utd, Premier League, Sky Sports 3 & HD3
What words can we use to describe the supposed threats of legal action against United if they don't field a full strength team for this crunch match against Hull? Let's see. There's hilarious, pathetic, unlikely, desperate and contemptible for a start. However, the word I would use is "irrelevant" since Fergie could filed a Fetus XI and they'd still win.

16:00 Sunderland v Chelsea, Premier League, Sky Sports Interactive
Relegated to the red button as no one believes that either Hull or Newcastle have it in them to overhaul Sunderland. This is as well since they'll most likely lose 6-0.

16:00 West Ham Utd v Middlesbrough, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Meanwhile, Setanta wil spend an hour of build up trying to convince their subscribers that Middlesbrough are still in with a chance and this game is worth watching. Expect the theme to Mission Impossible to feature heavily. But don't expect it to be Lalo Schifrin's original arrangement. Setanta don't have the class.

20:00 Real Madrid v Mallorca, La Liga, Sky Sports Xtra
Move along, nothing to see here.

Monday 25 May

15:00 Burnley v Sheffield Utd, Championship Play-off Final, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
It's a Bank Holiday here in Blighty and what better way to celebrate the forthcoming summer than a Roses clash at Wembley. The stakes don't get much higher and the force is with Burnley for some reason. May not be pretty but drama and tension is guaranteed.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #114

Almost as good as United
The 18 Teams That Have Finished As Runners-Up In Each Of Manchester United's Title-Winning Seasons

1. Aston Villa (1907-08)
2. Aston Villa (1910-11)
3. Tottenham Hotspur (1951-52)
4. Blackpool (1955-56)
5. Tottenham Hotspur (1956-57)
6. Leeds United (1964-65)
7. Nottingham Forest (1966-67)
8. Aston Villa (1992-93)
9. Blackburn Rovers (1993-94)
10. Newcastle United (1995-96)
11. Newcastle United (1996-97)
12. Arsenal (1998-99)
13. Arsenal (1999-2000)
14. Arsenal (2000-01)
15. Arsenal (2002-03)
16. Chelsea (2006-07)
17. Chelsea (2007-08)
18. Liverpool or Chelsea (2008-09)P

Thursday, May 21, 2009

And when they were down, they were down...

It's fair to say we've been banging on quite a bit recently about title chases, promotion and relegation but if you can't do it now, when can you do it?

One thing we find quite interesting is to see how well teams relegated from the top-flight last year are doing one year on - that is to say 'will they gain promotion back to where they were at the first attempt?'

Here in England, only one of the three teams relegated from the Premier League last year, Birmingham City, will be returning for 2009/10. City finished second in the Championship this season, just six points ahead of Reading who reached the promotion play-offs but ultimately failed at the semi-final stage against Burnley.

The last of the three teams to go down were Derby, and things got considerably worse for them in 2008/09. They finished in 18th spot, just four positions above the relegation zone, yet in some ways this is perhaps to be expected. Quite often a team that gets relegated one year will find themselves in the lower regions of their new league the following year, as has been proved across the continent.

Spain is a good place to start where this kind of thing's concerned. Last season, Murcia finished next to bottom in La Liga and now find themselves languishing in 15th spot in the Segunda División. Despite winning promotion back to La Liga on numerous occasions - most recently in 2003 and 2007 - they could yet go down to the Segunda División B in 2009.

Hansa Rostock are another good example of this. In 2007/08, they were relegated as the second worst team in the Bundesliga, but far from bouncing straight back this season, they face the prospect of having to beat already-relegated Wehen this Sunday to avoid the indignity of a relegation play-off the following week.

Some countries, however, have seen better performances from their relegated teams this season. In Italy, Parma have already secured promotion back to Serie A while Empoli and Livorno have every chance of following them via the end-of-season play-offs.

France, too, has been a good place for relegated teams to show their ambitions. Lens currently sit at the top of Ligue 2 having secured their promotion with two games to go while Strasbourg and Metz currently occupy third and fourth. Both could yet usurp Montpellier to take the remaining two promotion places.

You do, of course, see some relegated teams return to their footballing peak with a real flourish, as can be said for VVV Venlo in Holland and Sint-Truiden in Belgium. Both have finished this season as second-tier champions and won't be concerning themselves with any distracting and nonsensical play-offs, thank you very much.

Some teams won't be as fortunate, however. There'll be much chewing of fingernails when Nürnberg play their promotion decider against one of the current bottom four in Germany's Bundesliga. It could even be Borussia Mönchengladbach, ironically - the team who came up as champions at the end of the 2007/08 season.

And spare a thought for Excelsior who dropped into Holland's Eerste Divisie at the end of last season. They finished fifth in the table a fortnight ago which qualified them for the promotion play-offs which are played over not two but three rounds. Having received a bye to Round 2, they now face the prospect of playing RKC Waalwijk over not two but three legs... and that's just to get through to another three-leg tie in the final round. Excelsior find themselves 2-1 down from the first leg and the second leg will be played tomorrow evening (20:00 CET).

All of which highlights only too clearly why some teams do their utmost to avoid relegation in the first place. Though a relegated team is often cast as favourites to return to the top division the following season, it's by no means guaranteed. It can even be the start of something amounting to a freefall down the leagues, and that's when you know whether your team's got the will to survive or not.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Premier League Title Chase 2008/09

By way of a pictorial representation of Man United and Liverpool's title chase this season, we give you below a graph showing the number of points attained by both clubs during the course of the current Premier League campaign.

On it we've marked various notable events in the timeline which of course you can add to by way of a comment left on this article. We think it's interesting to see just how far Liverpool's red line remained higher than Man U's black one back in the days when some of us thought this might just be Rafa's year...




Key:
1 - Man United get off to what seems now a weak start with a 1-1 draw against Newcastle.
2 - Liverpool beat Man United 2-1 at Anfield.
3 - It's the end of October 2008 and Liverpool have an 8-point lead over Fergie's men.
4 - Liverpool suffer their first defeat - 2-1 away to Tottenham.
5 - Man United lose 2-1 away to Arsenal.
6 - Man United begin a run of 11 straight wins.
7 - The end of January 2009 approaches and Man United are in front of Liverpool for the first time.
8 - Liverpool lose 2-0 away to Middlesbrough.
9 - Man United now have a 7-point lead over Liverpool.
10 - Liverpool beat Man United 4-1 at Old Trafford.
11 - Man United lose 2-0 at Fulham.
12 - Man United are crowned 2008/09 Premier League champions with a game to spare.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Europe: The Final Countdown (Part 3)

Italy / Serie A

The title race is all over in Italy as Jose Mourinho's Inter side sealed the championship with a comfortable 3-0 win over Siena yesterday. The only team that could have caught them on points, Milan, surprisingly lost 2-1 to Udinese on Saturday leaving Inter to turn on the style against their hosts with a display of skill and flair that the triumphant home fans lapped up.

It's a tremendous achievement for Mourinho who picks up the Scudetto in his first season at the club and who can now claim to have won five titles in seven years in three different countries. Not a bad set of statistics to put on your CV, we think you'll agree.

With Milan losing, it was up to third-placed Juventus to try and close the gap on them but they failed to do so following a 2-2 draw against mid-table Atalanta. Juve came back from 1-0 down to lead 2-1 after goals by Iaquinta and Zanetti but Pellegrino's equaliser just before half time left Claudio Ranieri's side cursing at a sixth draw in eight games - a run of form which just today has cost Ranieri his job. Contrast that with Fiorentina who have won six out of their last seven and you have an interesting race for the third and final Champions League spot next season.

Lecce are the new team at the bottom of Serie A following their 2-1 defeat to Bologna who themselves remain in the bottom three. 2-1 was obviously the big scoreline of the week for the bottom teams as 19th-placed Reggina beat Cagliari and 17th-placed Torino overcame Napoli by the same result.

Next week, Lecce play the resurgent Fiorentina in a bid to avoid the wooden spoon while Reggina play a very out-of-form Lazio and Bologna take on Chievo Verona. Torino, meanwhile, are at home to Genoa who look like they'll be playing in the Europa League next season.

At the top, Milan look to finish their season on a high by beating Roma while Juventus will be trying not to draw again when they travel to Siena.

Spain / La Liga

Without even kicking a ball, Barcelona finally captured the Primera Division title yesterday. It was all made possible thanks to Real Madrid's 3-2 defeat at Villareal which left them mathematically unable to catch the champions elect with two games remaining. As if to make them feel better, Barca themselves lost at the weekend by two goals to one against Mallorca, but by that stage the hard work had already been done.

Former youth team coach Pep Guardiola can now sit back and reflect on a campaign which has seen Barcelona play some of its best football for many years. The triumvirate of Eto'o, Messi and Henry produced 71 goals between them and their combined efforts were enough even to beat Real 6-2 recently - a scoreline which will rankle with the Madrid fans for many a long year.

All that's left to decide at the top of the league is who will get the final Champions League place, and at the moment that could be any one of four teams - Sevilla (currently 3rd), Atletico Madrid (4th), Villareal (5th) or Valencia (6th).

Atletico Madrid might be the favourites to grab it going on current form. They've won five out of the last six and face two mid-table teams before the season's out - Athletic Bilbao and Almeria. That said one of Sevilla's last two games is against next-to-bottom Numancia and a win there may just be enough to close the contest in all reality.

This weekend's fixtures saw Numancia climb off the bottom of La Liga by beating the team directly above them, Recreativo Huelva. Elsewhere, most of the other bottom-dwellers picked up valuable points - Osasuna drawing 0-0 with Sevilla, Getafe drawing 1-1 with Deportivo La Coruna and Sporting Gijon beating Malaga 2-1.

All of that means a whole raft of teams are in danger of going down as we enter the final fortnight so watch this space to see what transpires...

France / Ligue 1

The big news here is that Marseille's push for the title has been massively derailed thanks to a 3-1 home defeat to outgoing champions Lyon. Claude Puel's men are now out of the running for this year's Ligue 1 championship, but a place in next year's Champions League proved more than enough motivation as Benzema scored two and Juninho picked up a third in the dying moments.

Sylvain Wiltord had given Marseille some hope when he pulled a goal back for the home side with ten minutes remaining but it proved insufficient to stop Bordeaux knocking them off the top of the table.

Bordeaux also had a fight on their hands this weekend as they laboured to a 3-2 win at home to relegation strugglers Le Mans. It all looked very optimistic for Le Mans when Anthony Le Tallec broke the deadlock on 24 minutes but that just instigated a ding-dong battle which saw Bordeaux come from behind twice to win the match.

That win means Laurent Blanc's side are now three points clear of Marseille with two games remaining while Lyon, (third) could yet catch Marseille as long as they win both their remaining matches.

At the bottom, it was a bad week for most of the strugglers with the notable exception of Saint Etienne who are finally hauling themselves out of the relegation zone. A midweek 4-2 win away to bottom club Le Havre plus a good draw at home to Toulouse means they're now one place above the bottom three.

That means Le Havre are now officially relegated to Ligue 2 next season and they'll be joined by any two from Nantes, Saint Etienne, Sochaux, Caen and Le Mans. On current form, we'd have to go for Sochaux and Nantes - the two teams currently occupying the remaining two relegation places.

And that brings us nicely onto next week's fixtures in which, incredibly, Nantes and Sochaux face each other in a hugely important six-pointer. Saint Etienne won't have it easy either, though - they'll be playing away to Auxerre who have won each of their last five games. At the top, Bordeaux play host to Monaco while Marseille travel to mid-table Nancy who won 3-0 at the Stade Velodrome earlier this season.

Portugal / Portuguese Liga

You'll remember last week we broke the news that Porto were unofficially crowned league champions due to their superior goal difference over Sporting Lisbon. Well this week we can break the news officially thanks to Porto's 4-1 win away to Trofense.

Credit where credit's due though - Sporting also won their game on Saturday (2-1 over Maritimo), but with just one game remaining Porto's six point lead is finally now beyond the reasoning of Sporting's most ardent doubters.

So with Porto automatically qualifying for the Champions League and Sporting Listbon heading for the qualifying round of same, it was left to Benfica, Nacional and Sporting Braga to confirm their places in next season's Europa League. This they did largely thanks to the points tally they had going into this weekend's games rather than the games themselves, but no matter. European football is assured for them next season.

Finally at the other end, the bottom two switched places once again. Belenenses earned a crucial 1-0 win at home to Rio Ave while Trofense were being thrashed by Porto, so that leaves Trofense at the bottom on 23 points and Belenenses just above them on 24.

Vitoria Setubal (14th) and Rio Ave (13th) could both yet be dragged into the mire on the last day, so all eyes will be on Trofense's match at Paços de Ferreira, Belenenses' trip to Benfica, Vitoria's home game against Academica and Rio Ave's match at home to Estrela Amadora. By way of a prediction, we're going for the current bottom two to remain in situ when the final whistle's blown across Portugal on Sunday evening.

Bundesbag Week 33: Winter Champions have second to last laugh

I can say with complete honesty that it's been a long time since I enjoyed a match day as much as I did last Saturday. The permutations and complications leading up to the climax of the Bundesliga season are such that in every game, something important was happening.

In Hannover, the home side were helping Wolfsburg shore up their goal difference by getting tonked 5-0 by the Wolves. Dzeko scored a hat trick and Grafite bagged a brace.

Meanwhile in Hoffenheim, the Winter Champions made up for their post-break misery by denying Bayern three points. In a match that rivalled the reverse fixture for excitement, Bayern took the lead through Franck Ribery only for Denbar Ba and Carlos Eduardo to expose Bayern's defensive frailties and go 2-1 up. On the stroke of half time, Luca Toni equalised.

As the goals were getting racked up at Hannover, Bayern could not make the break through. There were times when the Bavarians were passing the ball around in the home side's penalty area and still they could not find the back of the net. While Wolsfburg scampered off into the distance, Bayern needed to score a winner or lose ground to the League leaders. In fairness to Hoff, they gave Bayern chances. For reasons I went into last week, I believe that Hoffenheim really wanted to beat the visitors. They went for the win and found themselves over-committed deep into injury time. Bayern broke and lofted the ball up to Luca Toni who was in space with only the keeper to beat. Was history to repeat itself? Were the Hoff about to be defeated by yet another late Bayern goal?

No. Toni put the ball over the bar. The referee had obviously decided to give Bayern that final chance and didn't even bother with the goal kick. He blew the final whistle and Bayern had surrendered two points in the title race. What's more, Hoffenheim have made a decisive contribution to the Championship which will go some way in making up for their poor form since January. Their work is done.

Bayern weren't the only team to lose ground. Unfortunately for Hertha, they were unable to score against Schalke and while not mathematically out of the race, the goal difference swingometer is going to have to see some serious action before the Berlin club hold the Bundesliga trophy aloft. While this must be devastating for the players and the supporters, they don't have time to feel sorry for themselves as there are Champions League places still up for grabs and if things go their way next weekend, second pace is within their grasp. More on that later.

Meanwhile, back in Stuttgart, the Swabians stuck to the script and vanquished Cottbus 2-0. This week, Mario Gomez stayed out of the limelight and allowed Hitzlsperger and Cacau to grab the glory.

So there it is, the top four have been whittled down to a top three with Wolfsburg needing a win at UEFA Cup and German Cup finalists Bremen to guarantee the title. Even a draw would probably be enough. A defeat on the other hand and both Bayern and Stuttgart can capitalise if they win on Saturday. It so happens that those two teams are playing each other so we're in for a fun packed afternoon. Particularly since, if Hertha win at Karslruhe (which is a big 'if' by the way), then a loser at the Allianz could miss out on the Champions League as well as the title and be content with a Europa League spot.

The final European spot is also up for grabs. This is because of the stupendous form of Dortmund and the almost complete collapse of Hamburg. Semi-finalists in the German Cup, semi-finalists in the UEFA Cup and rarely out of the top four all season they're now sixth and are paying the price for their low goal difference. Martin Jol's team risk finishing with nothing after losing 1-0 at home to Koln and BVB thrashing Bielefeld 6-0. Hamburg must beat Frankfurt at Frankfurt while Dortmund face a difficult match at 'Gladbach. Eintracht are in a terrible state at present so if Hamburg can't take three points there, they don't deserve to play in Europe.

To the bottom then and the big news is that Bochum ended their five game losing streak in emphatic style to the aforementioned Frankfurt. Vahid Hashemian and Diego Klimovitz are the heroes of the hour. The result proved decisive as 'Gladbach, Cottbus and Bielefeld all lost (in fact Bielefeld's defeat to Dortmund was so severe that their coach Michael Frontzeck was sacked). Consequently Bochum are safe!

This leaves a four way battle to escape the drop. Did I say 'four' way? Yes I bloody did. That's because Karlsruhe won! They beat the Istanbul bound Bremen 3-1 and are now only one point below Bielefeld and Cottbus. Fourth-bottom is beyond them but thanks to the third place relegation play off, Karlsruhe can survive if things go their way. It won't be easy for them because, as previously mentioned, they will play Hertha. Bielefeld have a less challenging trip to Hannover and Cottbus host Leverkusen. 'Gladbach who were the first and last team to lose in Dusseldorf to Leverkusen at the weekend, will escape the drop with a single point at home to Dortmund which on the surface, seems very unlikely.

However, on the final day of the season, anything could happen. There will be only two matches on Saturday that are meaningless. So who's up for Koln v Bochum and Schalke v Hoffenheim?

That's it. Results and tables are here.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: 18 - 21 May

(All times - UK)

Monday 18 May

10:00 Netherlands v Germany, UEFA U17 European Championship Final, British Eurosport/HD
The thirteenth and final day of the Under-17 Euros sees the Dutch playing the hosts at the Magdeburg Stadium. Both teams have already played each other once in First Round Group B, the result being a 2-0 win for the Germans last Tuesday. As for England who were also in Group B (along with Turkey), let's just say it's not so much the winning but the taking part that's important.

20:00 Portsmouth v Sunderland, Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
We don't want to diminish your excitement for this match but there are three facts you may wish to consider in advance: (1) Both teams are now safe from relegation; (2) Sunderland haven't scored in their last three games, and (3) Portsmouth haven't scored in their last four. Anyway, it's up to you whether you want to watch this game or not. No really, it's your call...

Wednesday 20 May

19:45 Ayr United v Airdrie United, IRN-BRU First Division Play-off Final 1st Leg, BBC ALBA
Airdrie fight for the right to stay in the Scottish First Division by playing against Ayr who finished as runners-up in the Second Division. An intriguing tie and one which openly invite someone to report on for us. Go on, you know you want to...

19:45 Shakhtar Donetsk v Werder Bremen, UEFA Cup Final, ITV4
It has to be said both teams worked their backsides off in the semi-finals and won't be easy to beat in this match. That said, Werder's 3-1 home defeat on Saturday to relegation strugglers Karlsruher will be sending alarm bells ringing among their fans in no uncertain terms. Expect this one to run to extra time at the very least.

Thursday 21 May

23:30 Boca Juniors v Defensor, Copa Libertadores, Setanta Sports 2
And so we arrive at the 'Round of 16' in this year's Copa Libertadores and it's two-legged ties all the way from here on in. This is the second leg between Boca and their Uruguayan counterparts, the first leg ending in a 2-2 draw on Friday. Winners play Estudiantes in the quarter finals.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Weekend TV Preview: 15 - 17 May

(All times - UK)

Friday 15 May


19.45 MK Dons v Scunthorpe Utd, League One Play-off Semi-final 2nd Leg (1-1), Sky Sports 1/HD1
All square in this one to see who joins Millwall at Wembley.

Saturday 16 May

12.30 Rangers v Aberdeen, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Setanta have the pick of the fixtures this weekend compared to Sky's raft of meaningless end-of-season ties. In Scotland, the Old Firm are separated by goal difference alone as they go into the penultimate round of fixtures.

12.45 Manchester United v Arsenal, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Man U will be crowned champions with just a point here. With Arsenal playing in their change strip of Bermuda shorts and sunglasses, they shouldn't have any trouble getting it.



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

21.00 Villarreal v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 3
Anything but a win for Real hands the title to Barcelona without them having to kick another ball. Both of these teams are stumbling towards the finish like ill-prepared marathon runners.

Sunday 17 May

13.00 Hibernian v Celtic, Scottish Premier League, Setanta Sports 1
Hibs have already thrown the cat amongst the pigeons in the title race when they got within ten minutes of taking all the points against Rangers on Wednesday. They shared the points in the end, a result Gers fans will hope they can reproduce today.
(PHOTO: football.co.uk)


13.30 West Brom v Liverpool, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
A win for Newcastle on Saturday and a point for Man U will see West Brom effectively down and Liverpool having to be content with second. West Brom have too many miracles to pray for... this recent run is just teasing.



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

16.00 Chelsea v Blackburn Rovers, Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Dead rubber, find somewhere showing...

16.00 Cambridge United v Torquay United, Blue Square Premier Play-off Final, Setanta Sports 1
The first play-off final of the season will see a team only recently relegated returning to the League. Cambridge dropped down in 2005, Torquay in 2007. Cambridge lost last year's Final to Exeter, a team who have proved that promotion needn't end after just one season.
(PHOTO: TorquayUnited.co.uk)



Chris O: Cambridge; Sp3ktor: Cambridge; Seb: Cambridge; Duffman: Torquay.

18.00 Mallorca v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 3
As mentioned above, Barca could well be champions by the time this game kicks off. If so, expect more showboating than usual.

20.00 Atletico Madrid v Valencia, La Liga, Sky Sports 3
With Sevilla getting over their run of poor form, this tie becomes a play-off for fourth spot. There's still two more rounds of fixtures left in Spain after this weekend but a result for either side will put them in the box seat for the qualifying round berth.

20.00 Marseille v Lyon, Ligue 1, Setanta Sports 2
Zut alors! Le top de le table Francais est tres close. Gitanes papier close. Ahem! Bordeaux and Marseille are level on points and Lyon are now effectively out of the picture but they'd certainly relish the chance of making their relinquishing of their seven year title more interesting.



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

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #113

Supreme drop-outs
The 16 Teams That Have Been Relegated From England's Top Flight Most Often In The Last Fifty Seasons

1. Leicester City (7 times)
2. Sunderland (7 times)
3. Birmingham City (6 times)
4. Crystal Palace (6 times)
5. Manchester City (5 times)
6. Norwich City (5 times)
7. Wolverhampton Wanderers (5 times)
8. Bolton Wanderers (4 times)
9. Chelsea (4 times)
10. Derby County (4 times)
11. Ipswich Town (4 times)
12. Middlesbrough (4 times)
13. Nottingham Forest (4 times)
14. Sheffield United (4 times)
15. West Bromwich Albion (4 times)
16. West Ham United (4 times)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Foul Play: The Seven Deadly Sins of Football

Here's news of a fantastic series of football supplements being given away free in The Guardian and The Observer from this Saturday (in the UK only).

'Foul Play: The Seven Deadly Sins of Football' scratches beneath the shiny veneer of the modern Premier League era and discovers that the beautiful game has a secret history of the odd, the unexpected and the downright shady.

The supplements have been put together by a team of The Guardian and Observer’s award-winning sports writers and feature many a tall tale from football's illustrious past. Here's an overview of what (and indeed who) to expect in each issue:

16 May - Greed featuring David Beckham and Ashley Cole
17 May - Pride featuring Andrei Arshavin and Mike Ashley
18 May - Wrath featuring Craig Bellamy and Roy Keane
19 May - Envy featuring Bruce Grobbelaar and Daniel Lloyd
20 May - Gluttony featuring Mark Bosnich and Gazza
21 May - Sloth featuring John Terry and Ian Rush
22 May - Lust featuring David Mellor and Robinho

Foul Play: The Seven Deadly Sins of Football starts Saturday 16th May in The Guardian.

Bundesbag Weeks 31 & 32: Ich würde es lieben

With two rounds of matches this week I thought it was best to wait until today before posting this week's Bundesbag. I'm glad I did because there have been even more twists and turns at both the top and bottom of the Bundesliga table.

Last week, we speculated as to whether the news of Wolfsburg coach Felix Magath's move to Schalke at the end of the season would have a negative affect on the team, particularly since their next fixture was against the side in uber-form, Stuttgart. And it couldn't have been a worse afternoon at Mercedes Benz Arena for the leaders because they were thrashed 4-1. Super Mario Gomez scored all four goals, the first of which came after 28 seconds.

Not only did the VW club lose out to one of their title rivals but most of the other contenders managed to take advantage. Bayern Munich had a tricky visit to Energie Cottbus, a place where they have tripped up before. This time however the champions kept it together and ran out convincing 3-1 winners. Hertha BSC also kept in touch after their 2-0 home win against Bochum which looked alarmingly straightforward from the away side's point of view.

It was a bad weekend for Hamburg whose season is in danger of collapsing largely thanks to their great rivals Werder Bremen. In a 19-day period, the two teams met in the German Cup, the UEFA Cup and then finally the league. Leading up to Sunday's game, Bremen had knocked Martin Jol's team out of both cups and by the time the two teams met for the final time, the Bremen club were dancing a happy jig inside Hamburg's collective head. 2-0 was the final score to Werder with two goals from Hugo Almeida. No rolled up bits up paper were in evidence.

After the weekend it didn't look good for Hamburg's European aspirations, let alone their title hopes. Especially since Borussia Dortmund spanked the hapless Karlsruhe 4-0 at the Westfalon which put even more pressure on the north Germans. However, Hamburg had a chance to make amends quickly in midweek which they duly did. Bochum were the unwilling visitors and unlucky recipients of Hamburg's ire. The 3-1 scoreline keeps the home side in the hunt and lowered Bochum deeper in the mire.

Wolfsburg also capitalised on their early shot at redemption. Edin Dzeko was back in the goals as his brace kept his team top of the Bundesliga while eliminating Dortmund from the race. 3-0 was the final score, ending BVB's fantastic run in emphatic style.

Bayern and Hertha both won against Leverkusen and Koln respectively. Stuttgart condemned Schalke to their third straight defeat which leaves only two points separating the top four teams with Hamburg back on 58, probably with too much to do.

This week, the top two face away trips. Wolfsburg have to go to Hannover which is definitely a winnable match. Bayern have got to travel to Hoffenheim which the Bundesbag identified as a potential banana skin for them. Now that the Hoff have rediscovered the winning touch, this looks like it could be a season-defining game for the Bavarians. On Saturday Hoffenheim finally won in their new stadium against Koln. Then, on Tuesday they notched up their second 2-0 win in a row at Bielefeld. While it's far too late to recover their season the Winter Champions may yet have a say in the fate of the title. It was Bayern's last minute winner in the reverse fixture that started this dreadful run for Ralf Rangnik's team and I bet he would love it if he beat them. Love it!

And the bottom? Well Karlsruhe are all but down after another two defeats. They currently share the relegation zone with Cottbus and Bielefeld who are both on 27 points. Above the drop zone on 28 are Bochum who are dropping like a stone.

"But wait a minute" I hear you say "I distinctly remember you telling me that it was hard to look beyond Borussia Monchengladbach for relegation and yet you haven't even mentioned them." Well that's because I'm leaving them 'till last, much like themsleves in fact. This is because of two last-minute goals in two consecutive games which means that 'Gladbach have won two matches on the bounce. They are now fifth from bottom on 30 points. By their standards that's practically mid-table.

The first win was at home to Schalke. Roberto Colautti's strike sealed a 1-0 win at the death after Marin had missed a penalty earlier. They repeated that scoreline last night in a massive sechs punkter at Cottbus, again on 90 minutes. This time it was Dante who ignited the inferno. This unlikely turn of events has put the cat well and truly among the pigeons. 'Gladbach are now in control of their own destiny and could even clinch survival if results go their way on Saturday. Bielefeld have to go to Dortmund and Cottbus are off to Stuttgart. Parp! 'Gladbach meanwhile are away at Leverkusen who still haven't won at their temporary ground in Düsseldorf.

That's it. Results and tables here. It couldn't be a more exciting climax to the season (well it could but there would have to be dancing girls and free money).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shirt Legend: Arsenal (home)

[IMAGES REMOVED PENDING REPLACEMENT]

It's time now for our fourth Shirt Legend which focuses on Arsenal's home shirts since 1969.

For those of you unfamiliar with what this is all about, we simply show you pictures of all the shirts worn by a particular team over the last forty or so years and ask you to vote for the one you like best. You can also leave us your comments and thoughts too, and we strongly urge you to do so.

So let's take a look at Arsenal's home shirts since the end of the Sixties, starting with Shirt A - a shirt which The Gunners wore right through the Seventies and right up until 1982, remarkably. Even though seemingly every other British club were snapping up shiny pinstriped offerings by the start of the Eighties, Arsenal were reluctant to part company with their simple round-necked shirt which was only altered latterly by a sponsor name (JVC) and Umbro's diamond logo.

By 1982, however, the need to sell football merchandise to the general public proved too strong for the traditional Gunners and a replacement was made (Shirt B) which looked altogether more up-to-date. With a silkier fabric, a smart red v-neck collar and a touch of navy blue piping across the shoulders, Arsenal finally looked the part in their more modern-looking attire.

Shirt C came along in 1984 and looked like a more modern interpretation of Shirt A. With a new white stylised collar and some white piping across the shoulders, there was also the addition of subtle white pinstripes for those with a keen eye for detail. Shirt D saw Adidas taking over from Umbro as new kit supplier in 1986 and with it came a change back to a v-neck collar along with the obligatory three stripes down the sleeves.

Two years later, Adidas extended the white sleeves to go all the way across the shoulders on Shirt E, while Shirt F changed the collar back again to the round format in 1990.

By the time 1992 came around, Adidas were ready to switch to a full-scale redesign rather than making minor tweaks hither and yon. The result, Shirt G, featured bold white sleeves with thick red and navy blue markings plus a broad v-neck collar to boot.

There was another change of manufacturer in 1994 when Arsenal called upon the services of Nike. Their first design for the North London club (Shirt H) was a little controversial in that the traditional white sleeves were reduced to little more than white panels taking up the top half of the arm area. Less controversially, the shirt also featured the introduction of a small 'flappy' collar plus a restyled club badge.

Shirt I from 1996 saw a return to the full white sleeves that everyone associates with Arsenal along with a simple if rather odd looking collar. There was also a shadow pattern featuring The Gunners' badge from the 1930's woven into the chest area (not that you'll be able to see it from our picture).

Moving onto 1998's Shirt J, Nike decided to add white sides to the white sleeves in creating a design which was slightly Ajax-esque, visually speaking. Navy blue lines were used to add further styling to the shirt which some Arsenal traditionalists may not have favoured too much but which looked very smart all the same.

Come 2000, there was a slight reworking of the 'navy blue line' motif on Shirt K. Now it appeared across the shoulders and down the sleeves while the white side panels were taken out altogether. With an all-red collar and new sponsor name (JVC replaced by Dreamcast after 18 long years), the shirt retained much of its predecessor's familiar styling.

Two years on and Shirt L appeared with a pared down design devoid of any navy blue decoration. With prominent white sleeves, a return to the old-fashioned round neck collar, a new club badge and another new sponsor (O2), there was much to differentiate it from the shirts worn since 1998.

For one season only in 2004-05, Shirt M was worn as a more sophisticated version of Shirt L. Here, the three-quarter white sleeves met the body of the shirt with a curvy flourish and yellow piping was used for the first time to add interest to the chest area. As a final touch, the badge appeared in the middle of the shirt for the first time, rather than on the right.

The reason Shirt M only appeared for one season was because Arsenal wanted to commemorate their final season at Highbury in 2005-06. To do so, Nike modelled Shirt N using the same colour worn by Arsenal in their first season at Highbury in 1913 - not red, but redcurrant.

The styling was simple but very appealing, although it no doubt polarised many Gunners fans on the 'white sleeves' issue. For those who disliked this special one-colour one-off, there was always the thought that this wouldn't be a permanent change to the sacred Arsenal shirt.

In 2006, Nike returned to old values with a reminder of what we'd missed during the brief redcurrant hiatus. Back came a straightforward 'red with white sleeves' design (Shirt O) but this time featuring a gold stripe down either side of the body flanking the new 'Fly Emirates' sponsor name.

Then finally, we arrive at 2008 with Shirt P which proves conclusively that there's always a designer somewhere that can't help tinkering with those traditional white sleeves. This time, Nike opted for a broad white stripe bordered by thinner redcurrant ones along the shoulders and arms, not to mention the sides of the shirt too.

A simple plain v-neck collar was the finishing touch to another sleek, modern design that looked a million miles away from the one worn between 1969 and 1982, but is it necessarily a change for the better? Are you one of the many football fans that prefer the uncomplicated styles of yesteryear or are the new designs a reflection of progress in the modern age?

Here's where you get the chance to tell us. Simply select your favourite shirt using the input form below and hit the Vote button. Once that's done, you can leave us a comment back here on the Arsenal Shirt Legend post or sit back and watch everyone else's votes pile in.

Either way, we're indebted to your for taking part just as we're indebted (as ever) to our friends at True Colours, Football Shirt Culture and EPL Talk for publicising our online poll. Without them, this exercise in nostalgic waffling wouldn't be anywhere near the success it has been in recent times, so thanks to all concerned!

So now then, without further ado, it's time for you to cast your vote...

Which Arsenal home shirt worn since 1969 do you like best?
Shirt A
Shirt B
Shirt C
Shirt D
Shirt E
Shirt F
Shirt G
Shirt H
Shirt I
Shirt J
Shirt K
Shirt L
Shirt M
Shirt N
Shirt O
Shirt P
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