Sunday, November 29, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: 30 November - 3rd December 2009

Monday 30th November

19:45 Blackpool v Preston, Championship, Sky Sports 1 & HD1

These two old Lancashire rivals first met in November 1901 at Bootham Crescent. Blackpool will be looking to avenge that 4-1 home defeat which could have been so different if the officials had been allowed to use kinematic evidence!

Tuesday 1st December

19:45 Manchester Utd v Tottenham Hotspur, Carling Cup 5th Round, Sky Sports 2 & HD2

Shame that Sky are showing a match between two teams who will most likely take this match the least seriously. United have bigger fish to fry and Tottenham are under the impression that they have bigger fish to fry. Pompey v Villa may not have brought in as big an audience but at the those watching would have witnessed a more committed performance.

19:45 Sampdoria v Livorno, Coppa Italia, ESPN
Mind you if you think the Carling Cup is looked down on in England you haven't seen a Coppa Italia Fourth Round Tie. Come to that neither have most Italians.

Wednesday 2nd December

18:00 Red Bull Salzburg v Lazio, UEFA Europa League, ITV4

The penultimate round kicks off a week after the Champions League no doubt as a deliberate ploy by the villainous Platini to prevent us here at SPAOTP from a quiet week on the Previews. If you're a disciple of the Italian game or are working on a dissertation on branding in football then this is the one for you. If not then...

18:00 AEK Athens v Everton, UEFA Europa League, ESPN
... must surely be the correct choice. Defeated, exhausted, depleted by injuries and having fallen foul of the British Government's guidelines on supermarket development and sustainable communities, Everton now have to travel to a midweek fixture in Athens. The question is, how badly do the Toffees really want this?

20:05 Valencia v Lille, UEFA Europa League, ESPN
One point seperates the two at the top of the Group B table. Lille enjoyed a 4-0 romp over Valenciennes at the weekend so will be feeling chipper as they travel to their high flying opponents with a similar name.

20:05 Celtic v Hapoel Tel Aviv, UEFA Europa League, ITV4
While it's not over for Tony Mowbray's men they do need to start winning NOW and everyone else needs to start losing also NOW. A victory for Hapoel should just about see them through.

19:45 Manchester City v Arsenal, Carling Cup 5th Round, Sky Sports 2 / HD2
The meat in a Europe League sandwich and a tender cut it is too. City are a club anxious to get their hands on some silverware so as to reward their masters' generosity. Also, given Arsenal's men-against-boys-style defeat to Chelsea on Sunday, the Carling Cup may take on some extra significance for The Gunners too.

21:00 Xerez v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 2
Top meets bottom, hilarity ensues, Ibrahimovic misses a hat full of sitters, 0-0, crisis.

Thursday 3rd December

18:00 PSV Eindhoven v Sparta Prague, UEFA Europa League, ESPN

Definite whiff of faded glory about this fixture. Like the leather upholstery in an Austin Cambridge. ESPN is the home of Dutch football in the UK so the commentator should know at least half of the players names.

20:05 Fulham v CSKA Sofia, UEFA Europa League Group E, Five
Something tells me that wiley old Woy wouldn't be devastated if Fulham made a dignified exit in the group stages of this compo in order to concentrate on the domestic situation. But the next England manager's no fool. He realises that there is nothing to be gained by losing in front of an enthusiastic home crowd and a relatively large terrestrial TV audience (relative to Channel Five that is). Consequently he'll instruct his boys to have a right go. I wonder if there are any tickets available?

20:05 AS Roma v FC Basel, UEFA Europa League, ESPN
Having said that if The Cottagers can open up Sofia and if Basel can score in Rome then things could get a bit tasty. Know what I mean?

(Not) The 2010 World Cup Draw

As all you football connoisseurs will know, Friday 4th December 2009 is undoubtedly the most important day in this year's calendar, for that is the day when FIFA make their draw for the 2010 World Cup Finals.

The *second* most important day, however, is Monday 30th November 2009, for that is the day when The Sound of Football podcast does its own draw for the 2010 World Cup.

Yes, this week's show will be entirely devoted to the drawing out of teams into each of their eight groups as they might appear on Friday evening in Cape Town. We'll be conducting our draw live (well, as live as a pre-recorded podcast can be) and will use all the appropriate seeding groups that we think Sepp Blatter and chums will be using on the big night.

This is a once in a lifetime chance to see who England could face in the first round in South Africa (once in a lifetime if your life expectancy is four days, that is) or to see any one of a million different permutations for your country when the Finals roll around in 193 days time.

So listen out for (Not) The 2010 World Cup Draw on the Sound of Football Podcast - heading for your ears this Monday night / Tuesday morning.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bonus related play

Now that we've all finished laughing up our sleeves at Wigan following their 9-1 defeat at Tottenham last weekend, it's about time we stoked the fires of the whole freakish affair once again. To do that, I relate to you an email I received from my SPAOTP co-founder Martin Lewis this week.

He confided in me that when his wife saw the 9-1 scoreline in favour of his beloved Spurs, she said "How many points do they get for that?" When he told her it was still the standard three, she was nothing if not a little disappointed. All faintly embarrassing for her, but I assured him his wife would be spared any further ridicule on account of my not telling anyone about it.

Here in the UK, of course, there are other sports that reward high-scoring teams with the handing out of extra points. Cricket's County Championship gives batting teams an extra bonus point if they accumulate 200 to 249 runs, two bonus points if they score 250 to 299 runs and so on up to a maximum five bonus points for teams that score 400 runs or more.

The aim, of course, is to encourage teams to play in an attacking way that, as a rather pleasing side-effect, is also more entertaining for the watching audience. The question is, could football accommodate a similar system?

They say there's nothing new under the sun, and indeed the 'bonus points in football' debate is not new either. Arsene Wenger is a regular advocate of such a system (as shown by his utterances in 2005 and early in 2009) but for all the rhetoric, would it really make much difference to anything?

As usual, SPAOTP wanted to find out by doing some research of its own, specifically so that you don't have to. So here's how we think it would work. On top of the usual points system (3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, none for a defeat), extra bonus points would be awarded to all teams (regardless of whether they'd gained a win or not) using the following system:

0 to 2 goals scored = 0 bonus points awarded
3 to 5 goals scored = 1 bonus point awarded
6 to 8 goals scored = 2 bonus points awarded
9 goals or more scored = 3 bonus points awarded


So let's use an example to explain things more simply. If Portsmouth beat Manchester United 3-0 (hey, it could happen), Portsmouth would earn four points in total (3 + 1 bonus point) while Man United would earn no points (as is traditional). Additionally, if both teams drew 3-3, they'd get two points each (1 + 1 bonus point).

A system such as this is entirely open to debate, of course, but using this one would have had the following effect on last season's Premier League table (see left - click for larger version).

The first thing you notice is that Liverpool would have won the title by three clear points from Man United – primarily on the basis of being the most free-scoring team in the table. As you look further down, there's little change until you reach Man City who go up three places to 7th thanks to their nine bonus points.

In the middle order there's some minor shifting around but nothing to frighten the horses before you get to the bottom two where Middlesbrough have the honour of finishing bottom of the table, rather than West Brom. All rather academic considering both teams were relegated anyway.

And that's about it. Apart from the change in teams at the two extremes of the table, there's not a huge amount to discuss unless you analyse the money gained or lost from the Premier League on account of the new positions.

But what about this season and the aforementioned 9-1 win for Spurs? Would it have sent the North London club surging to top spot in the league? Well here's the Premier League table as it looked prior to today's matches but with the appropriate bonus points added on (see right).

As you can see, Spurs haven't budged an inch. In fact only three teams have moved more than a single place thus far in the season, although Arsenal deserve a special mention for having picked up 9 bonus points already. At this rate, they'll far exceed last season's total of 13.

Once again, Liverpool are one of the main beneficiaries of our bonus points system. They'd have started today in fifth place rather than seventh, but therein lies the quandary. Does a team that's lost five of its thirteen matches deserve to be fifth in the table – largely on the back of some high-scoring victories? To put it another way, can you defend the awarding of a point to a team that loses 5-3 (as Burnley did at West Ham today) alongside a team that draws 1-1?

When you weigh everything up on the evidence of the above, one is left with a single overriding thought. Yes, the bonus points system would almost certainly encourage more goal-scoring, but the effect of the extra points gained would change very little as far as the final table's concerned.

You, however, may feel differently about the matter, and if you do, we'd very much welcome your thoughts. Leave us a comment and tell us what you think.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #141

Née bother...
15 Footballers' Names As They'd Appear If They Took Their Wives' Surnames Rather Than The Other Way Around

1. Ashley Tweedy (Chelsea)
2. Carlos Mansillo (Man City)
3. Didier Diakite (Chelsea)
4. Fernando Liste (Liverpool)
5. Jamie Hart (Liverpool)
6. Jlloyd Pritchard (Bolton)
7. Joe Zucker (Chelsea)
8. Mikel Bernal (Everton)
9. Robbie Palmer (Tottenham)
10. Robin Elbali (Arsenal)
11. Roque Tavarelli (Man City)
12. Ryan Cooke (Man United)
13. Shay Cunningham (Man City)
14. Steven Curran (Liverpool)
15. Wayne McLoughlin (Man United)

Weekend TV Preview: 27-29 November 2009

Friday 27th November

19:45 Sparta Rotterdam v PSV Eindhoven, Eredivisie, ESPN
You've got to go back eight long years to find Sparta's last win over PSV. Three years ago, PSV put seven (ZEVEN) past them. It shouldn't be quite so much of a massacre here, but, well, how can we put this... we don't fancy Sparta's chances much. PSV haven't lost a game in any competition since March 15th this year. Best of luck with that one, Sparta...

Saturday 28th November

11:00 Kashima Antlers v Gamba Osaka, J-League, British Eurosport 2
While someone here at SPAOTP goes off to find out what the Japanese phrase is for 'Squeaky Bum Time', we feel it's our duty to tell you about the thrilling climax to the J-League season. With only two weeks remaining, Kashima have only a two point lead over Kawasaki Frontale in second, and they in turn are only one point ahead of Gamba in third. It's any one from those three for the title and that list could be down to two if Kashima win here. On the other hand, if Gamba win it could well and truly put the 猫 amongst the ハト.

12:45 Northwich Victoria v Lincoln Town, FA Cup, ITV1/HD
As mentioned in our Sound of Football podcast this week, Northwich, conquerors of Charlton Athletic in the previous round, take on Lincoln knowing that they're only 90 minutes away from a glamorous Third Round tie against one of the big boys. For the sake of their worryingly dwindling finances, we hope they do.

12:45 Aberdeen v Rangers, Scottish Premier League, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Rangers are back on top of the SPL, a point clear of Celtic with a game in hand. Having suffered at the hands of Stuttgart in the Champions League this week, they'll be ready to bounce back against a side that rarely troubles them these days. That said, The Dons are well capable of putting a dent in Rangers' title charge, so don't write off the prospect of a draw in this one.

17:30 Aston Villa v Tottenham Hotspur, Barclays Premier League, ESPN/HD
Nine-bloody-one! Now that the dust has finally settled, Spurs have to convince everyone *outside* N17 that they're Top 4 material. Villa have been there before and know how difficult it is - a harsh lesson they'll attempt to teach Harry and Co. today.

19:00 Valencia v Mallorca, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Fourth v Sixth. Mallorca continue to impress in this season's La Liga but they'll have a job on their hands trying to beat a Valencia side that are currently on a 12-game unbeaten run.

21:00 Sevilla v Malaga, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Malaga, on the other hand, have got a job on their hands beating anyone at the moment. They're bottom of the table and haven't won a game since the end of August. The perfect time to be playing the team currently third in the table, then.

Sunday 29th November

11:00 Zenit St. Petersburg v Spartak Moscow, Russian Premier Liga, ESPN
The last week of the 2009 Russian Premier League season. Rubin Kazan are already confirmed as champions and Zenit are the runners-up, but if Spartak are to join them in the Champions League next season, they'll have to win here. A great note on which to end ESPN's Russian coverage.

13:30 Everton v Liverpool, Barclays Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
No new stadium, a defeat to Hull during the week and now this - a game against one of the giants of European football. No wait... it's OK Everton fans, we got that wrong. You're playing Liverpool.

13:45 Kettering Town v Leeds United, FA Cup Second Round, ITV1 (excluding Scotland)/ITV HD
This time last year, Kettering were taking Fulham to a replay in the FA Cup Fourth round. A similar struggle looks likely against the League One leaders. Directly after this, it's the draw for the Third Round, so Kettering/Leeds fans - yours is ball number 49.

14:00 Inter Milan v Fiorentina, Serie A, ESPN
Inter's unbeaten home run in the league should be tested by Fiorentina today. Cesare Prandelli seems to have made the Champions League his main priority this season rather than Serie A. The opposite could be said of Jose Mourinho.

16:00 Arsenal v Chelsea, Barclays Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Chelsea inflicted a 4-1 defeat on The Gunners at The Emirates near the end of last season, but this will be an altogether different proposition we think. Both teams had good wins in Europe during the week and will be looking to push Man U further out of the title race.

16:30 Hannover 96 v Bayern Munich, Bundesliga, ESPN
With four draws in their last six matches, Bayern are the Man City of the Bundesliga. Kind of. A win for Hannover will see them draw level on points with Bayern - a sign of how far Van Gaal and Co. have slipped this season.

18:00 Barcelona v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1 and BBC Red Button (from 18:00 First half)
Manuel Pellegrini's future as coach of Real Madrid could hinge on the outcome of this match. Averaging just over one goal scored in each of their last five matches and having struggled against village side Alcorcon in the Copa Del Rey recently, Barca will know that their rivals are their for the taking. A win for the home side will not only put them top of the table but also plunge their opponents into a major tailspin.

19:45 Catania v AC Milan, Serie A, ESPN
Catania don't often play in Serie A and with one win in thirteen so far this season, they'll soon be back in Serie B. Watch them in their ridiculously bright and colourful kits while you can.

20:00 Atletico Madrid v Espanyol, La Liga, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Atletico Madrid are the Catania of La Liga. The pain goes on for Los Colchoneros as Quique Sánchez Flores tries everything to avoid relegation. Espanyol are long overdue a win, and they'll probably get it here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bundesbag Week 13 - Ozil reigns while Toni heads for the door

It's looking likely that the only thing that might save Luca Toni's career at Bayern Munich is coming to a close. Toni can feel the clock ticking down to the Big Show in South Africa and is probably very conscious of the fact that the Italian National Team coach is filling up and his name is not on the passenger list. In short, if he doesn't start playing and scoring regularly he'll miss out on what will be his last World Cup. His anxiety was finally given form this week after a blistering attack on Bayern coach Louis van Gaal which he gave in the form of an interview to an Italian TV Station:
"For four months, I have had a problem with Van Gaal. Everything has borders and our relationship is nearly at the end. I would like to return to Italy so I can start scoring goals again and get back into the national team."
OK, as blistering attacks go this one can easily be treated by some soothing ointment in the right spot. It's hardly a stand up row in the middle of an open training session in front of the entire German media. Nevertheless, Toni's words were deemed strong enough to earn him a suspension and it seems almost nailed on for the Italian to leave Bavaria in January. Of course, given the amount of pressure Van Gaal is under at the moment there may be a change at the top. However, Toni's wages are high and you suspect that the powers that be at the club would probably carry his bags to the flughafen given the chance.

Bayern's woes did not seem to lift after the international break. Saturday's visit of the Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen seemed the perfect opportunity to put the upstart pretenders in their place and send a message that they are in this title race. The 1-1 draw was far from convincing for either side frankly although as the away side Bayer will claim the psychological victory for whatever that's worth at this stage of the season.

The Munich club face Haifa from Israel tonight in the Champions League with their chances of progressing through to the knockout stage hanging by a thread. If they fail to do so, few people will be surprised and the word is that Bayern will be in the market for a new coach. Who knows, if they've got a spare £20 million lying around they could buy Rafa out of his contract with Liverpool.

The Leverkusen result was mildly indicative of the weekend's fixtures in that it was not the best time to be a season ticket holder. Of the nine matches played five were away wins, three were draws and only one was a home win. The most impressive of the away day specials was probably Bochum's victory at Hamburg. The hosts are struggling under the weight of injuries and expectation. Despite that, Bochum's form has been wretched and there was little to suggest that they were capable of putting up much of a fight going into the game. But new coach Heiko Herlich had other plans and set his team up in the classic counter attacking style. Bochum absorbed, rode their luck and broke out when they could. Eventually they were rewarded by a goal from Dennis Grote which proved decisive and ended a four game losing streak.

Almost but not quite as impressive was Nurnberg's knockabout 3-2 win at champions Wolfsburg. The visitors took the lead with a goal from Swiss international Albert Bunjaku who was to score again after Ashkan Dejagah's equaliser. A controversial penalty was awarded to the Wolves on 79 minutes which Grafite converted. Tempers started to get a little frayed at this point and Zvjezdan Misimovic was denied a clear penalty at the end of the match after getting kicked in the bollocks by Nurnberg 'keeper Raphael Schafer. There was still enough time in the game for Nurnberg to rush forward and score the winning goal courtesy of Peer Kluge. An embarrassing result for Wolfsburg but a tremendous boost for the newly promoted side struggling to find their level.

Top player in the Bundesliga this weekend is Mesut Ozil in Werder Bremen's 6-0 (gerd) mullering of Freiburg. The young German International is destined to be a star in the World Cup and had a hand in all but one of the six goals. He scored one, won a penalty for another and supplied the killer passes for the rest. Freiburg's home record is nothing to write home about but that shouldn't take anything away from the comprehensiveness of Bremen's victory. If anything Werder look a better team now that Diego has left. Apart from anything else they no longer have to fill in for his frequent absences from the team due to injury or suspension. Defensively they are sound and in the attacking sense they are something else with Marin, Ozil, Aaron Hunt and Hugo Almeida providing the goals.

Elsewhere: Hoffenheim thrashed Koln 4-0; 'Gladbach beat Frankfurt 2-1; Lucas Barrios didn't score for once and neither did Dortmund against Mainz. The only home win took place in Gelsenkirchen under solemn circumstances as Schalke beat a Hannover side still grieving the loss of Robert Enke.

Finally Stuttgart's run at home is so dismal that they couldn't even beat Hertha. Everybody seems to be waiting for Markus Babbel's team to spring into life but it's not happening. Clearly the new signings have yet to settle (Pavel Pogrebnyak seeming the most hapless) but there are silver linings to the clouds hovering above the Mercedes Benz Arena. Mainly via the form of young Sebastian Rudy and the Serbian Zdravko Kuzmanovic who scored the late equaliser on Saturday and again against Rangers last night. Their pace and goals were key to the Champions League victory at Ibrox and also suggests why they play ever so slightly better away from home. Still, Babbel lives to fight another minute and I'm sure he'll look back and laugh at the end of the season when Stuttgart just squeeze Hamburg out of a Champions League spot on the last day. You heard it here first.

That's it. Results and tables here. Don't forget to follow the Bundesbag on Twitter here.

Jeu du Jour Week 13: Les chaises musicales

Over the last few weeks, Jeu Du Jour has brought to your attention the incredible rise and rise of Auxerre, a team that won only one of their first six games this season but who this weekend took their place at the top of the Ligue 1 table.

It's been seven years since they've been at the French football summit, but a run of seven consecutive wins means they've now dislodged champions Bordeaux from their lofty perch.

Their incredible achievement came about following a 2-0 win over Monaco at the weekend. AJA's man of the moment Benoît Pedretti crossed for Adama Coulibaly to head in the opening goal at the end of the first half. Though Guy Lacombe's men tried to fight back, it was Auxerre who maintained their momentum and added a second through Delvin Ndinga two minutes from time in the second half.

Monaco, for their part, looked all the weaker without star striker Nenê and his absence in recent weeks has been instrumental as his side have slipped from second place a few weeks ago to eighth at present.

For Auxerre, however, there's no denying they've got to be taken seriously as a potential title winner in an ever-changing Ligue 1 season. While other teams have struggled to remain consistent, Jean Fernandez and Co. have timed their run perfectly, hitting top spot on the back of a ten-game unbeaten spell.

Bordeaux were leading the table before Saturday's games, but they lost 1-0 at home to another team showing impressive form, Valenciennes. Laurent Blanc's men were made to suffer their first defeat at home since Lyon beat them 3-1 on October 7th 2007 and it was all the more remarkable given Mamadou Samassa's goal was one of only three attempts the away side managed to get on target throughout the game.

Bordeaux were admittedly missing the talents of Yoann Gourcuff and Alou Diarra but this second consecutive defeat in the league for Les Girondins suggests a worrying need for consistency at the moment. Bordeaux drop to second in the table, a point behind Auxerre, while Valenciennes rise to sixth as they extend their current unbeaten run to five games.

Lyon were also guilty of not taking their chance to lead the table when they only drew 1-1 at bottom club Grenoble who, for the last twenty minutes or so, were playing with ten men. Lyon took a long time to string together any play of a decent standard and it wasn't until the 66th minute that they made their breakthrough.

Bafetimbi Gomis, coming on as a substitute, didn't waste any time in setting up Cesar Delgado for his second goal of the season, but their lead was to last just seven minutes. Shortly after the sending off of Laurent Courtois, Danijel Ljuboja calmly finished off a fine move to score his fifth goal of the campaign and amazingly only the sixth for Grenoble in total.

Lyon, surprisingly, showed little fight for a winner, all of which left Claude Puel's team in third place while Grenoble will feel happy at having doubled their points tally for the season.

Regular visitors to this feature will remember PSG's match against Marseille nearly a month ago was postponed due to an outbreak of Swine Flu, but the game was finally last Friday at the Stade Velodrome.

It turned out to be a straight-forward affair with Marseille winning 1-0 thanks to a goal from Gabriel Heinze, playing against his former team-mates. Marseille looked easily the better side and dominated the significant action in both halves while PSG reverted to the lame form that's permeated much of their season thus far.

That match, taking place so late on in the week as it did, precluded both sides from playing at the weekend and leaves them both a game behind everyone else in the league. As a result, PSG are now down to 13th (but be under no illusions: this is down to poor form rather than having a game in hand) while Marseille are down in 7th. If Marseille do win their game in hand, they'll find themselves up in the top three or four. The way the title challengers have been throwing away their good form this season though, I wouldn't put any money on it...

Speaking of the top of the table, Lorient and Montpellier are leading the New Wave charge as they find themselves in fourth and fifth place respectively. Lorient were 2-0 winners at Saint Etienne. Goals from Marama Vahirua and Franco Sosa inside the first 17 minutes did the damage as Lorient made it just one defeat in their last eight while Saint Etienne return to 17th spot – the position they finished in at the end of last season, avoiding relegation by the narrowest of margins.

Montpellier, however, prove to be easily the best of the three promoted sides following a 2-0 win at home to Lille. A brace from Victor Montano means Montpellier remain unbeaten at home (a claim only they and Lorient can make), and Lille continue to struggle in their efforts to reach top-half safety.

The other two promoted teams, Lens and Boulogne, remain in the bottom five, but Lens at least are summoning up some fighting spirit. Their 2-1 home win over Nancy sees them overtake Saint Etienne while Boulogne sat out the weekend's action and remain second-bottom.

The only other result to tell you about was Nice's 1-0 win over Toulouse. A Loic Remy penalty early in the second half was enough to help Nice overtake Toulouse in the table and earn their fourth straight win in the league. Another example of a team stringing together some good form – something which strangely can't be said of many supposedly better teams in Ligue 1 this season.

Finally, a brief look at what's going on in Ligue 2 and first of all we see it's Caen leading the way with a seven point lead at the top of the table. It was they who finished 18th in Ligue 1 last season but their current campaign has been a success virtually from Day 1. With 14 games under their belt, they've lost just one so far and already look like certs to return to the top flight.

In second are Le Havre, last season's bottom club in Ligue 1, then in third place and level on 25 points are Arles, a team that have come out of nowhere having finished third in last season's Championnat National (France's third tier). Nantes, the other relegated team from Ligue 1 in 2008/09 are fourth.

Apparently Arles have recently signed an agreement to become Man City's feeder club, whereupon Mark Hughes will have first pick of any of their best players while Arles get the underachievers from the City of Manchester Stadium. At this rate, Man City could be getting themselves some decent talent – possibly at the expense of a rapidly improving Arles team. Let's hope it works out mutually acceptable for both parties in the long run.

Well that just about wraps it up for another French football round-up. Full results and standings can be picked up here. For now though, it's à bientôt...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Football Americana: Glory for Real Salt Lake

Ladies, lords and gentleman, it's time for the last Football Americana of 2009. Thanks to the Collective Bargaining Agreement dispute and the return of the NASL name (now attached to a USL breakaway league which could begin life next year) we're sure to have a fun-filled off-season, but for now the action on the field of play is over - and it ended in suitably dramatic fashion.

Emerging victorious from Sunday evening's showpiece MLS Cup Final game at Seattle's Qwest Field were not, as so many of us predicted, LA Galaxy, but Real Salt Lake. Jason Kreis and his team went down in league history, Kreis as the youngest ever coach to win Major League Soccer and RSL as the first team to win the title after posting a sub-.500 regular season record. We also, sadly, saw the first ever goalkeeper substituted in the Final, as LA Galaxy's Donovan Ricketts was unable to continue after injuring his hand.

And it was substitutions that gave the game much of its drama within the regulation 90 minutes. LA started David Beckham despite a foot injury which kept him out of training until Friday, but he made it through 120 minutes with a little help from painkilling injections. Not so lucky was RSL's Javier Morales, who left the field in tears after a "robust" first half foul by the man they call D-Bec ended his participation in the evening. Kreis had to make another unplanned substitution at half time, Will Johnson suffering with illness having recovered from food poisoning in time to start the match.

The Galaxy took the lead just before half time. Salt Lake's football was neat and tidy but very predictable, while LA's urgency was inefficient but finally paid off with the opening goal. Beckham played a through ball to Landon Donovan in the channel and he picked out Mike Magee with an irresistable cross to the far post. Magee kept his knee over the ball and controlled his finish into the bottom corner to give Bruce Arena's side a half time lead, and it was just about deserved. For all RSL's good quality play, they'd created next to nothing.

Robbie Findley was Salt Lake's hero in the second half. After he and Yura Movsisyan had created havoc in the Galaxy penalty area, the ball fell handily at his feet and he easily stroked home past the injured Ricketts, who was replaced by Josh Saunders after the goal. Saunders did well, keeping RSL at bay throughout the rest of the game despite appearing to be playing in pyjamas. LA had their chances to win it too, but the sides could not be separated after 120 minutes of play and after the draining experience of extra time, MLS Cup 2009 went to penalty kicks.

And from the spot, Real Salt Lake triumphed. Beckham kicked it all off with a goal but misses by Jovan Kirovski and Donovan (LA) and Kyle Beckerman and Andy Williams (RSL) saw the shoot out go into sudden death at 3-3. Chris Klein and Chris Wingert took it to 4-4 before LA's Edson Buddle had his kick saved by MLS Cup MVP 2009 Nick Rimando, whose heroics were set in stone by Robbie Russell, who stepped up to score the winner and trigger the team sprint from the half way line which must be one of the best feelings in football.

So, too, must be lifting the cup after winning the title - just ask Beckerman. Congratulations to Real Salt Lake, MLS Cup Winners 2009. Football Americana will be back in 2010, unless something happens that's so dramatic it either pops in during the off-season or isn't necessary at all. See you next year.

...and our thanks go to Chris Nee for reporting on MLS matters for Some People Are On The Pitch since June of this year. To read more of Chris' great football writing, visit TwoFootedTackle.com.

Sound Of Football Episode 16 - World Cup Wigans

With Terry experiencing technical issues, it is left to Graham and Chris to struggle through this week's Sound Of Football podcast. Mercifully the wonderful world of football has thrown up plenty of talking points including Spurs thrashing of Wigan 9-1, Liverpool's impending Champions League exit/dramatic recovery and of course, there's that World Cup Qualifier to talk about... plus France v Ireland. Didn't see that coming did you?

You can listen by clicking here. Or if you right click on that link, you can download the MP3. Alternatively, you can subscribe via the your reader of choice or via our iTunes feed.

Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think. You can do so on the comments section below or on our Facebook Fanpage.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Midweek TV Preview: 23 - 26 November 2009

Monday 23 November

19:45 Preston North End v Newcastle Utd, Championship, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
These two sides haven't played each other in the league since 1981. That season, Preston went down to the old Third Division and if they maintain their current form (one win in their last seven games), they might just replicate that. Newcastle, however, have won their last three and a win here at Deepdale will see them return to the top of the Championship table.

Tuesday 24 November

17.30 Rubin Kazan v Dynamo Kiev, UEFA Champions League Group F, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Group F is the tightest of all the Champions League groups with only two points separating Inter at the top from Kiev at the bottom. The interesting thing to note here is that all four teams have won just one game, and Dynamo Kiev's was in their opener against Rubin Kazan. A chance for the Ukrainians to get their revenge here then, we feel.

19.45 Rangers v Stuttgart, UEFA Champions League Group G, Sky Sports 3
Rangers finally managed to double their points tally with a draw against Unirea Urziceni last time out and they'll be heartened going into this fixture by the fact that (a) they're back on top of the Scottish Premier League table, and (b) Stuttgart aren't playing much better than they are in this group. Could be an interesting encounter, on that basis.

19.45 Barcelona v Inter Milan, UEFA Champions League Group F, Sky Sports Xtra Interacive (Screen 4)
The previous encounter between these two teams ended 0-0 back in September. Barcelona were denied a late winner that night when Dejan Stankovic was said to have handled the ball in the area but the referee didn't give it. So that's where Thierry Henry got the idea from.

19.45 Fiorentina v Lyon, UEFA Champions League Group E, Sky Sports Xtra Interacive (Screen 5)
Lyon missed the chance to go top of Ligue 1 this weekend after drawing 1-1 against Grenoble, and as readers of our Jeu Du Jour feature will know, Grenoble are about as much use as a plastic oven. And Grenoble played part of the match with only 10 men! Lyon looked like they were saving some of their best players for this match, though, and perhaps that was Fiorentina's excuse too. Let's hope so for both their sakes...

19.45 Arsenal v Standard Liege, UEFA Champions League Group H, Sky Sports Xtra/HD3
Arsenal fans will remember the Belgians took a 2-0 lead five minutes into their previous encounter before coming back to win 3-2. If Wenger's men can convert their chances better than they did against Sunderland on Saturday, there's no reason to suggest they won't do the double over Liege and confirm top spot in the group.

19.45 AZ Alkmaar v Olympiakos, UEFA Champions League Group H, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 7)
A win will see Olympiakos to the next stage, assuming Arsenal don't lose to Liege. AZ need a result and favours to progress.

19.45 Debrecen v Liverpool, UEFA Champions League Group E, Sky Sports 2/HD2
The plucky Hungarians haven't won a match yet in their campaign, but they could make Rafa's life that bit more uncomfortable tonight by salvaging a draw on home turf.

19.45 Unirea v Sevilla, UEFA Champions League Group G, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 6)
Sevilla are already through, if Unirea win this then they join them in the next phase.


Wednesday 25 November

17.30 CSKA Moscow v Wolfsburg, UEFA Champions League Group B, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Wolfsburg comfortably beat CSKA 3-1 back in September but having lost in disappointing fashion to Nurnberg at the weekend we wonder whether this'll be the match where they seal their qualification to the next round. CSKA need to win this to stay in the hunt themselves.

19.45 Manchester United v Besiktas, UEFA Champions League Group B, ITV1/HD
Elsewhere in the same group, Man U are home and dry after their 3-3 draw against CSKA last time out. Besiktas may as well start planning for a new Europa League campaign at best.

19.45 Porto v Chelsea, UEFA Champions League Group D, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Group D's even more sewn up - Chelsea are top with ten points, Porto are second with nine. Both are through to the next round. Dead rubber.

19.45 Real Madrid v FC Zurich, UEFA Champions League Group C, Sky Sports Xtra
Real are caught in a Milan/Marseille sandwich at the moment. Their first priority will therefore be to beat the Swiss and hope Milan and Marseille draw elsewhere tonight to give them their best chance of progressing beyond the group stage.

19.45 AC Milan v Marseille, UEFA Champions League Group C, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 3)
Game of the night, a win for Marseille really mixes it up going into Matchday 6 when they host Real. A win for Milan sees them through, making the Group of shock results end up as everyone expected it would.

19.45 Bordeaux v Juventus, UEFA Champions League Group A, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 4)
The French champions are through, for Juve a win will give them passage to the knockout phase and a Europa League spot to Bayern.

19.45 Bayern Munich v Maccabi Haifa, UEFA Champions League Group A, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 5)
Surely Bayern can't mess this one up, can they? Maccabi haven't scored in any of their four group games - but maybe being in Munich can give added incentive to the Israelis. Bayern are relying on Bordeaux not going on cruise control tonight, and then beating Juve at the Stadio Del Alpi on Matchday 6.

19.45 APOEL v Atletico Madrid, UEFA Champions League Group D, Sky Sports Xtra Interactive (Screen 6)
Ok, which one of you wants to go into the Europa League? Anyone, anyone...

Thursday 26 November

19:30 Palermo v Reggina, Coppa Italia, ESPN
Arguably one of the most complicated formats to a Cup competition you'll ever see pits these two teams together in the Third Round Section 2 Final. Aside from sounding like something from an episode of The Krypton Factor, we can tell you that the winner of this goes through to the mercifully straightforward 'Round of 16'. Well done ESPN for introducing us to this strange, undiscovered netherworld of Italian football.

Friday, November 20, 2009

World Cup 2010 Draw Seedings

With 32 names in the bag (regardless of how they got there) thoughts can now turn to the subject of the draw for the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa.

The first thing to be decided is which countries to seed. This is calculated just before the draw and is based on past performances in recent World Cups and the FIFA World Ranking. Controversially though, the same calculation never seems to be used twice and the choice of calculation is only decided once all the figures are available, leading to allegations that the whole system is rigged.

For 2006, past performances in the last two World Cups were considered with the performance in 2002 carrying twice the value of 1998. This was added to the FIFA ranking over the last three years. Both figures carried equal weight.

In 2002 and 1998 though, the past three World Cups were considered, and in 1998 the past World Cup performance carried 50% more weight in the final totals than the Ranking score.

Confused? It's easily done. Anyway to save you a headache, we've calculated the scores for each country using the same method as 2006 and the results are shown on the left (click to enlarge)...

The good news is no matter which system from the last three World Cups you use, the seven seeds selected are the same every time. However, should FIFA cook up a new formula between now and the draw, everything could change.

Do the seeds deserve their placing? Well it's almost impossible to argue with the inclusion of Brazil or Germany, with Italy as holders and Spain as European champions and ranked number one in the world their places are secured. England make it by virtue of their consecutive quarter final placings and France have reached the Final in two of the last three tournaments.

Argentina are there despite recent form and they only just manage to nudge out Portugal who also failed to impress during qualification. The team it's hardest on is the Netherlands - ranked third in the world for over a year, they're suffering from failing to qualify in 2002. If the new system of calculation puts more weight on ranking rather than finals performance, England could be in trouble.

One thing is for sure - if Netherlands aren't seeded, they're guaranteed to be drawn in the "Group of Death"...

Likely draw Pots:

Pot A: Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, England, France, Argentina, South Africa
Pot B: Paraguay, Ghana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Uruguay, Chile, Algeria
Pot C: Portugal, Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Serbia, Denmark, Slovenia, Slovakia
Pot D: Mexico, USA, Australia, South Korea, Japan, Honduras, New Zealand, North Korea

The draw takes place on Friday 4th December, with the seeding being announced two days before.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #140

Why are we waiting...
The 17 Clubs Around The World Who Have Been Waiting The Longest To Win Another Championship Title Despite Holding The Record For The Most Championship Titles In Their Country

1. Club Colonial, Martinique (18 titles, last one - 1972)
2. Horseed, Somalia (8 titles, last one - 1980)
3. Santos FC, Jamaica (5 titles, last one - 1979/80)
4. Saint Etienne, France (10 titles, last one - 1980/81)
5. Enugu Rangers, Nigeria (6 titles, last one - 1984)
6. Hafia FC, Guinea (15 titles, last one - 1985)
7. Górnik Zabrze, Poland (14 titles, last one - 1987/88)
8. Millonarios, Colombia (13 titles, last one - 1988)
9. Vitória FC, São Tomé and Principe (5 titles, last one - 1989)
10. Liverpool, England (18 titles, last one - 1989/90)
11. ASC Police, Mauritania (7 titles, last one - 1991)
12. Tokyo Verdy, Japan (7 titles, last one - 1991/92)
13. Ministry of Defence, Cambodia (3 titles, last one - 1993)
14. Shamrock Rovers, Ireland (15 titles, last one - 1993/94)
15. Gor Mahia, Kenya (12 titles, last one - 1995)
16. Saint Louis Suns United, Seychelles (13 titles, last one - 1995)
17. SV Dakota, Aruba (15 titles, last one - 1995)

(With thanks to FourFourTwo for giving us the idea for this Friday List.)

Weekend TV Preview: 14-21 November 2009

Saturday 21st November

11:00 Rubin Kazan v Zenith St
Petersburg, Russian Premier Liga, ESPN
What better way to return to club football than by watching a potential domestic title decider? Yep, it's starting to get a bit parky in Russia and this is the penultimate round of the season. Rubin require a win against third placed Zenit to put the Championship beyond Spartak and claim their second successive crown.

12:45 Liverpool v Manchester City, Barclays Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
And once the action in the Motherland is over, switch over to Google Botherers Sports 1 who are interrupting their usual schedule of pro-video evidence propaganda for a football match. And it's a huge match in terms of the fight to finish in that final Champions League spot. City may not have lost in seven matches but they've drawn their last five and the pressure is on Mark Hughes. Liverpool are there for the taking too.

17:20 Ipswich Town v Sheffield Wednesday, Championship, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Two teams whose respective clubs have money in the bank but are having trouble getting to grips with this most fractious of leagues. Roy Keane may win the Most Murderous Stare Competition but is having trouble winning football matches. Don't tell him I said that though as he's bigger than me.

17:30 Manchester Utd v Everton, Barclays Premier League, ESPN/HD
Thought I'd double-check the head-to-head on these two in recent years and I was right. United pretty much own this fixture. The last time Everton took so much as a point at Old Trafford was in 2004. However, The Toffees did beat United at Wembley the last time they met so perhaps... Nah who am I kidding? Worth watching if your a supporter otherwise go ahead and watch something else. The Dortmund v Mainz game will be somewhere on the Internets.

18:55 Real Madrid v Racing Santander, La Liga, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Second meets fourth from bottom. Expect a home win and a lot of wank about Cristiano Ronaldo.

19:45 Fiorentina v Parma, Serie A, ESPN
La Viola can overhaul Juventus with a win but have a massive game against Lyon during the week. They'll be grateful af the extra day's preparation, no doubt.

21:00 Athletic Bilbao v Barcelona, La Liga, Sky Sports 2/HD2
This is a bit more like it. A lively atmosphere is in store for the visit of the winners of everything last season. Bilbao are in eighth and Barca have the Champions League on their minds.

Sunday 22nd November

12:30 Dundee
Utd v Celtic, Scottish Premier League, ESPN/HD
We keep hearing that the financial constraints of Rangers and Celtic are making Scottish football interesting. Yet a quick glance at the table reveals that the Old Firm are still at the top. It would be great if the home supporters unfurled a huge banner before the match saying "Don't forget, you're here forever."

13:30 Bolton Wanderers v Blackburn Rovers, Barclays Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Definitely falls into the 'Not Quite As Dull As It Looks' category. A rip-snorting local derby featuring Allardyce versus a re-imagined version of Allardyce. Sort of like Escape From New York v Escape From LA. Which team will be New York? Watch and find out.



16:00 Stoke City v Portsmouth, Barclays Premier League, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Another deceptively intriguing match. Both teams have bags of commitment and the away side will try to take it to Stoke for fear of being bullied. Having said that, if Stoke play with the sort of ambition they lacked at Hull two weekends ago this could be a walk over. Be interesting to see if Tuncay makes an appearance.

16:30 Hamburg v Bochum, Bundesliga, ESPN
Both teams are pretty awful. Hamburg's injury problems are hampering their progress while Bochum's lack of good players is sending them down with the Hertha.

17:55 Malaga v Zaragoza, La Liga, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Jermaine Does Malaga sounds like a Seventies soft porn movie but is in fact a football match. I'll leave you to decide which you'd rather watch.

19:45 Juventus v Udinese, Serie A, ESPN
Assuming Fiorentina take the points on Saturday, Juve will need to win this one to regain second spot. Udinese are looking at a fairly meaningless season.

01:30 (Monday morning) LA Galaxy v Real Salt Lake, MLS Cup Final, ESPN
The final game of the Major League Soccer ends in a grand final. Say what you like about the quality and interest of football in the US but all tickets are sold and an a lively atmosphere awaits the teams at Seattle's Qwest Field. The Galaxy are a poor side being carried by the excellent Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Real Salt Lake are a more solid if unspectacular unit who, much like New York last year, are surprise entrants in the Final. Unlike NY, they're a better team and the outcome of this match is not nailed on by any means. You'll be able to read all about this match in Chris Nee's excellent Football Americana on this very website.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World Cup Round-up: Play-offs Part 2

Africa

Arguably the headline match of the day was the special play-off match between Algeria and Egypt to decide the final World Cup qualifier from Africa.

Both teams had finished with identical records in Group 3 of the final qualifying round which led to this hastily-arranged one-off match in Sudan to decide the winner.

Sparks were predicted to fly and within a minute of the start they did when Portsmouth's Nadir Belhadj was booked for fouling Ahmed Al-Muhammadi. Three minutes later, Mourad Meghni's challenge on Egypt's captain Ahmed Hassan prompted a huge free-for-all which, fortunately, was quickly dispersed by the referee but led to a yellow card for Hassan.

Eventually the game simmered down somewhat as both teams tried their luck in front of their opponents' goal but just as Egypt were starting to look the more likely to score, Algeria pipped them to it. With five minutes of the first half remaining, Antar Yahia received the ball from a cross into the area and volleyed it in off the crossbar from a very tight angle.



The second half began with more great goalkeeping at either end to deny some fine efforts on goal but the longer the game went on, the nervier both sides looked. Either team could have scored but the Algerians swapped attacking tendencies for defensive ones and eventually held on to secure their first World Cup qualification since 1986.

Egypt, for all their African Nations Cup wins, must wait another four years to confirm their standing on the world stage. The only scant consolation for them must come in the fact that in the end only a single goal stopped them ending their 19-year wait to reach the Finals. Perhaps the thought of playing in Brazil in 2014 will spur them on that little bit more next time around...

Europe

The big news from Europe surrounds France's somewhat dubious qualification for South Africa 2010 following a 2-1 aggregate win over Ireland.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, Ireland struck first at the Stade de France last night when Robbie Keane exposed a lapse of concentration in the French defence to slot home after 33 minutes. As in the first leg, both sides looked evenly matched and while France had played the faster, more aesthetically-pleasing football, it was often punctuated by some inaccurate passing. Ireland looked the more industrious but had lacked any real penetration up front until Keane's goal.

During the second half, both sides continued to battle away but the aggregate score remained 1-1 by the final whistle to send the game into extra time. Tired legs were the order of the day and gaps started to appear, one of which saw Nicolas Anelka dribble into the Irish penalty area before apparently being fouled. The referee remained convinced this was not the fact (and the replays showed Anelka had dived) and no penalty was given.

Finally it was William Gallas who broke the deadlock in the 103rd minute but only after Thierry Henry had handled the ball prior to setting up his team mate from close range. The entire Irish defence saw it, we, the television audience saw it, but referee Martin Hansson did not. The goal stood and with it France had avoided a repeat of their Bulgarian nightmare in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup by beating Ireland 2-1 on aggregate. Heartbreak for Trappatoni's men – some soul-searching to be done by Thierry Henry.

Elsewhere, Slovenia made use of their home advantage to overturn a 2-1 first leg defeat in Russia by winning 1-0 in Maribor. Zlatko Dedic, a possible contender for Man of the Match, grabbed the winner just before half time to leave Guus Hiddink's Russian side rueing the goal they conceded two minutes from time in the first leg.

Slovenia enjoyed less possession than their opponents in this second leg, but Russia looked ineffective up front. In the end, frustration and tension crept into their game and they finished the match with only nine men following the dismissal of Alexander Kerzhakov and Yuri Zhirkov.

Slovenia reach only their second World Cup Finals, then – a feat matched by Greece who ended up 1-0 winners over Ukraine last night. Alexei Mikhailichenko's men seemed to lack imagination in their tactics as Greece opted to counter-attack at pace whenever possible, the result of which was a Dimitrios Salpingidis winner in the 31st minute. Greece therefore head off to the Finals next year for only the second time in their history after their only previous encounter in 1994 where Maradona and Co. got in the way of further success.

Finally to Zenica where Bosnia-Herzegovina had it all to do as they attempted to reverse the 1-0 win gained by Portugal in the first leg of their play-off. Like Greece before, Portugal sat back and used the counter-attack as their choice of tactic and it worked well in the face of an ineffective Bosnian side.

The fate of the home side was sealed in the 56th minute when Porto midfielder Raul Meireles received a pass from Nani and calmly shot past Kenan Hasagic in the Bosnian goal to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. The Portuguese continued to defend solidly after that and when Sejad Salihovic was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 77th minute, the home side knew their chance to make history had effectively ended.

The game ended on a sour note as many of the Bosnian fans reacted aggressively to their team's defeat and the match was stopped for a short time as the officials noted objects being thrown onto the pitch. One of them appeared to have struck Roberto Rosetti, one of the referee's assistants, and for that the Bosnian FA can expect a heavy fine from FIFA.

For the Portuguese, however, their objective of qualifying for their third successive Finals was finally achieved, but who'd have put money on that given their very poor run at the start of their campaign? It's inconsequential to say it, perhaps, as Carlos Queiroz and his men now prepare for the honour of playing at the World Cup next June.

South America / North & Central America

The second leg of the tie between Uruguay and Costa Rica looked a formality on paper. Uruguay were returning to the Centenario Stadium with a 1-0 lead gained in Costa Rica and with home support their quest for a second and presumably conclusive goal would be a straight-forward affair.

The first half, however, gave hope to both sides and ended goalless. Junior Diaz saw a spectacular long range shot go just wide for The Ticos while Diego Forlan lost control of the ball with only the keeper to beat just before the interval.

The second half started with Uruguay looking the brighter of the two sides as they enjoyed the best of the early chances, yet it wasn't really until Sebastian Abreu came on as a substitute in the 65th minute that the home side really looked a more dangerous proposition. The 33-year-old striker who plays for Aris Thessaloniki in the Greek Super League almost scored with his first touch of the ball but made certain of it with his second.

'El Loco' (as he's known, like one in every three South American footballers) was in the right place at the right time to head in Andres Scotti's cross in the 70th minute. 'Game Over', so it seemed, but Uruguay's lead was to last only four minutes after Walter Centeno took advantage of some sloppy defending to put the ball in the net.

Sadly for Costa Rica, however, there was nothing left in the tank and Uruguay played out the rest of the match comfortably to qualify for the World Cup as 2-1 aggregate winners. It'll be their 11th appearance in the Finals and their fourth in the last seven attempts.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The SFA and the search for the next manager of Scotland

Now that the bunting has been torn down from between the tenements and the houses, and the last of the party revellers bundled into a taxi for the long ride home, the mandarins at the SFA find themselves in a situation that gets less unique with every tournament that passes Scottish football by.

Like many other blogs and newspapers, we published our own list of candidates yesterday over at Inside Left. Our list is fairly standard in that it contains the same names that appear on most other lists, and when we published it yesterday, we felt confident that whoever takes over at the helm will probably feature on our hit parade.

But the SFA should take a long, hard look in the mirror before they take a look at the CV’s.

In an ideal world, and in a recession when finding a job is not the easiest of challenges, the Scotland job should be one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities. It comes with a few perks. There’s a nice compensation package, travel to exotic locations and the opportunity to work with some of the brightest talents (sic) in the Scottish game.

In reality however, finding someone who is prepared to work with a limited talent pool and a governing body whose organisational skills couldn’t arrange a ride in a brothel is like the search for a piece of hay in a giant stack of needles.

Between Berti Vogts and now George Burley, the position of national manager has become, if you’ll excuse the oft-quoted cliche these last few days, a poisoned chalice. Constantly pilloried by the press and often left in the dark or the lurch by the SFA, who’d want to take this job on?

The job requires someone who can take on the suits at the SFA and who is willing to deal with the politics and Machiavellian machinations all the way up the greasy pole. Someone with a big gob and a tough skin. Unfortunately, the only candidate we can think of with the balls to pull that off, Graeme Souness, has put himself out of the running.

At a time when Scottish football is at a crossroads, the new manager needs to be an individual who has the vision and the clout to force the SFA to make changes needed to get the national team back on the road to respectability. And that is something that goes beyond picking the 22-man squad for every tournament – it’s about changing the youth setup, it’s about training and supporting a raft of new coaches to be deployed in schools and clubs around the country, it’s about getting the funds to improve the facilities at every club to foster a culture of ambition and success.

Does such a candidate exist? And would we be able to afford them?

The SFA is not a rich organisation, so the salary on offer to the lucky candidate is going to discount most of the names who currently ply their trade south of the border and who have appeared on some lists of successors: David Moyes, Roy Hodgson, Billie Davies, Alan Irvine and Steve Clarke, to name but a few.

Aside from the fact that none of these people would ever give up a relatively successful career in leagues that offer more challenge than the Scotland job would ever do, the amount of money we’d have to pay them to even join up would be prohibitive. The biscuit tin at the SFA is still very much in existence.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with candidates who certainly carry a degree of gravitas, and who, more importantly wont ask for too much money. Jim Jefferies can’t be on a whole lot, John Collins, Darren Ferguson and Jimmy Calderwood are all on the dole, so could be brought in relatively cheaply. Walter Smith probably doesn’t need the money anyway.

You then have to ask the question “would I want these people managing my squad?“.

Jim Jefferies has operated for years at a club with little funds or talent yet he’s been able to keep Kilmarnock in the league (just, on some occasions). Like Walter Smith, he’s a safe pair of hands, someone to steady the ship without really setting the heather alight.

John Collins would certainly keep the team fit, but his management skills leave a lot to be desired. He survived a mutiny during his time at Easter Road (they where not too happy with his constant team and formation changes), suggesting perhaps that his tactical nous and man-management qualities are open to question.

Jimmy Calderwood is a man who is often derided for his appearance and questionable media skill, but underneath the orange exterior you’ll find a canny manager who, like Jefferies, has a long track record of getting the best out of a pool of players with limited ability.

Darren ’son of Alex’ Ferguson is, was, an up-and-coming manager who also has experience with crappy squads. He led Peterborough to the Championship before leaving earlier this month after a run of poor results. He clearly has talent, but given the amount of work needed to get the national squad into shape, is he really up to it, even if he has the auldyin on the end of the phone. And would he want to be tainted with the Scotland post at the risk of putting him out of contention for any future English club management jobs?

Mind you, that could also be said for a candidate we see that can fulfill our requirements – Craig Levein.

The Dundee United manager has expressed an interest in the job and is currently doing the sort of thing at Tannadice that, on a broader scale, the Scotland setup requires: investment in youth and an overhaul of the youth academy and total control over all football-related activities. He’s getting results on the pitch with a largely Scottish squad, but would he want to risk the massive kudos he’s built up at United? He’s the bookies favourite, but we see him staying at United for a few more years to finish what he started.

Having thought about the situation for a few days now, I’ve come to the conclusion that while the quality of manager is important, the other issue facing the country is the august body of people who ultimately make the final hire or fire decision.

The Scottish Football Association, an 11-man strong board of cronies and hangers-on are aware changes needs to be made, but are unwilling to give up the cosy lifestyle or to invest the time in changing the very structure that keeps them in power.

This means that whichever candidate we get will more than likely be another meek and mild character, like Burley, who won’t rock the establishment boat too much. This is why you’ll never see Craig Levein get the job, no matter how much he says he wants it, because he would simply demand too much, too soon.

The concept of ‘the buck stops here’ is not one that seems to apply to SFA. For them, the buck stops one level below them. The men responsible for Burley’s appointment, those responsible for keeping him in a job when clearly the man was failing and those responsible for so much of the challenges facing the Scottish game need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and question the value of their own contribution to the national game.

Neither Chairman of the SFA George Peat, whose outbursts about Chris Uwelumo’s miss against Norway where particularly sickening and uncalled for, nor Gordon Smith, our erstwhile Chief Executive whose only contribution has been to change the rules to give Islam Feruz a game for Scotland, have made any real difference to the game north of the border, and both have presided over a period when the national side has become an object of ridicule and embarrassment.

While Burley, his reputation forged at successful spells at Derby, Southampton and Hearts forever damaged by his sacking earlier this week, is busy signing on, the leading lights of the SFA return to work, looking for the next man to carry the can for the institutional failings of the people who run the game.

Good luck to him, whoever it is.

Monday, November 16, 2009

World Cup Round-up: Play-offs and more

Europe

With four places left to be filled, the eight best runners-up from the group stage took to the field on Saturday to kick-off the first leg of the European play-offs.

In Dublin, Ireland battled tenaciously against the visiting French team but somewhat frustrating played true to form, i.e. they didn't score many (not any, as it turned out) and couldn't grab the win either. The final result was a 1-0 win to France, the goal coming from Nicolas Anelka whose 72nd minute goal took a big deflection off Sean St. Ledger and then Shay Given's left post.

The Irish will have a mountain to climb in Paris this Wednesday as draws seem to be their speciality these days, but a draw won't be good enough to swing this tie in their favour. Hard-working Giovanni Trapattoni's men might be, but they'll need to improve on their goalscoring capabilities if they're to reach South Africa next year.

In Lisbon, Portugal earned a 1-0 lead of their own to take into the second leg against Bosnia-Herzegovina this Wednesday. With Cristiano Ronaldo watching the match from the stands due to injury, Portugal had to rely on stand-in Nani along with other experienced players like Deco for support and it proved enough in the end – albeit only just.

Portugal had much of the possession throughout the match but could have won by a far higher margin had they been more efficient in the final third of the pitch. Eventually it was down to Porto defender Bruno Alves to get the winning goal in the 31st minute and though the Portuguese will be pleased to have stopped Bosnia-Herzegovina getting an away goal, they'll find it hard to retain that advantage in two days' time.

Everton's Dinyar Bilyaletdinov put Russia in the driving seat having scored either side of the interval in their game against Slovenia on Saturday. Guus Hiddink's side looked solid and professional for the greater part but crucially took their foot off the gas going into the closing minutes, allowing Nejc Pecnik to grab a vital away goal for the Slovenians.

Were it not for that lapse in concentration, Russia could have been home and dried heading into the second leg, but some fervent support and a gifted set of players in Slovenia could make their charge towards South Africa that bit more arduous.

Finally in Europe, Greece played Ukraine at the Olympic Stadium, Athens and the final score there was 0-0. It was, so we're told, quite a dull game with neither side showing many of the qualities needed to do well when the Finals roll around. We're optimistic that the second leg will be different, however, as Greece go on the attack in Kiev to get that valuable away goal advantage.

Asia / Oceania Play-Off (2nd Leg)

The Cake Tin was full, the scene was set and with it New Zealand and Bahrain played out Part 2 of their decider to see who'd take their place at the 2010 World Cup Finals.

Last month, the first leg of this tie finished 0-0 in what's generally being regarded as one of the dullest games seen by anyone in recent memory. Truth be known, this rematch could have ended up the same way but fortunately for the neutral onlooker, New Zealand came out looking like they wanted a holiday in South Africa next year more than their opponents.

In front of a 35,194 capacity crowd at the Westpac Stadium (or 'Cake Tin' as the locals call it), the All Whites came out on Saturday knowing that a goal for Bahrain would immediately give them the away goal advantage, therefore a goal of there own was vitally important. In the end (and after some good, positive football), Ricki Herbert's men took the lead just before half-time thanks to a header by Rory Fallon.

Herbert, who played for New Zealand the last time they qualified for the World Cup in 1982, had obviously organised his team to go in search of goals and to their credit they created several chances to improve on Fallon's opener. Only the crossbar and some good goalkeeping by Bahrain goalkeeper Sayed Jaffer prevented New Zealand extending their lead, but they were nearly made to rue their missed chances.

Five minutes into the second half, Tony Lochhead brought down Abdulla Ismaeel in the penalty area and Bahrain had their chance to equalise, but Sayed Mohamed Adnan's weak spot kick was easily saved by the excellent Mark Paston in the NZ goal.

From that point on, Bahrain looked like a team with little to offer in the way of decent attacking football and New Zealand were largely untroubled on their way to the final whistle. When it came, the stadium erupted as the All Whites celebrated qualification to only their second World Cup ever, and certainly on the basis of this match it was very well deserved.

South America / North & Central America Play-Off

Not much to say here, other than the fact that Uruguay travelled to Costa Rica and beat their opponents 1-0 in San Jose. Fenerbahce defender and Uruguayan captain Diego Lugano scored the only goal of the game in the 21st minute for the South Americans. Costa Rica, meanwhile, had to play much of the game with only ten men after Randall Azofeifa was sent off for a second bookable offence, but by that stage they were already a goal down and playing well below par.

The second leg is therefore all set to be an exhibition of Uruguayan defending and occasional counter-attacking when the chance arises as they aim to book their place among the final 32. Nothing short of a major upset is required if Costa Rica want to change all that.

Africa

Finally to the Dark Continent where we thought we'd establish the last three qualifying countries by the time Saturday's games were over. How wrong we were. We now know two of them while the third will remain a mystery until this Wednesday.

In Group A, Cameroon did what everyone expected and finished top of their group after a 2-0 win away to Morocco. It's strange to think that the Moroccans threw their hat into the ring when it came to the bidding rights for the 2010 World Cup, yet like the eventual winners South Africa, we now find them at something of a low ebb in their fortunes. Achille Webo and Samuel Eto'o were on hand with the goals to ensure Cameroon reach their sixth consecutive World Cup – a record for an African country.

Group B offered something extra in the way of suspense. Going into the final pair of games, Tunisia led the group but had to win their last game away to Mozambique in order to qualify. Nigeria, second in the group behind Tunisia, had to win in Kenya and hope for the best.

With eight minutes remaining in both games, Tunisia were holding out for a 0-0 while Nigeria had equalised for a second time in Nairobi to make it 2-2. Tunisia looked to be going through, but a minute later, it was all change. In Maputo, Dario had put the home side 1-0 up against the Tunisians while in Kenya, Obafemi Martins was scoring his second of the day and Nigeria's third to go 3-2 up. And that was the way it stayed until the final whistle went – Tunisia were out and Nigeria were through. An amazing turnaround in fortunes and one which sees Nigeria reach their fourth World Cup while the Tunisians are left with much soul-searching to do in the days to come.

And finally to Group C where Algeria and Egypt had a straight fight to the death to see who'd make the trip to the other end of the continent next summer. Before the game, Algeria led the group knowing that a three-goal defeat to the Egyptians would see their dreams end in tatters. Scoring even a single goal would be the first priority for Algeria while a 2-0 win to Egypt would see both teams end the campaign exactly level on points, goal difference, goals scored and on their head-to-head record.

Just three minutes after kick off, Wigan's Amr Zaki opened the scoring for Egypt in front of a boisterous home crowd. Algeria regained their composure and created several chances of their own but it was to little effect. The score remained 1-0 as the game wore on and it seemed Egypt's chances of bagging a vital second were slipping away. That was until the fifth minute of injury time at the end of the game when Emad Meteab popped up with almost the last kick of the game to end the match 2-0 to Egypt.

And so it was that both teams finished exactly level in the group, thereby forcing a replay in Sudan to be put in place for this Wednesday. Pretty remarkable stuff, and probably not the last of the amazing football we'll see between these two sides as the prospect of extra time and penalties looms large in two days' time.

Sound Of Football Episode 15 - World Cup Qualifiers

As the last batch of teams book their reservations at next year's World Cup Finals. The gang reflect on the drama and excitement in Moscow, Dublin and Cairo. We also ask if Portugal can navigate their way past a tricky Bosnia team and celebrate the qualification of the All Whites.

You can listen by clicking here. Or if you right click on that link, you can download the MP3. Alternatively, you can subscribe via the your reader of choice or via our iTunes feed.

Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think. You can do so on the comments section below or on our Facebook Fanpage.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Midweek TV Preview 16 - 18 November 2009

Monday 16th November

19:45 Coleraine v Glenavon, IFA Premiership, Sky Sports 1 & HD1
Not much to talk about this week. The last knockings of World Cup qualifying is underway with precious little local interest. So instead, Sky have wheeled out this rare gem from Northern Ireland.

Tuesday 17th November

19:45 Northern Ireland v Czech Republic, U21 International , Sky Sports 1& HD1
This is a European Championship Qualifier. Northern Ireland, who haven't won in five, try to stop a Czech team who have won their last four matches.

Wednesday 18th November

19:45 France v Republic of Ireland, World Cup Qualifying Play Off Second Leg, Sky Sports 1& HD1 (first leg 0-1)
Sky have this down as 'TBC' so I'm assuming that the game will be screened in this slot. What is there to say? Ireland have it all to do and you feel only a meltdown of catastrophic proportions will prevent La Marseillaise being sung in South Africa next year.

19:45 Slovenia v Russia, World Cup Qualifying Play Off Second Leg, ESPN & HD (first leg 2-1)
Again, ESPN haven't scheduled it on their official listings but it's definitely on. The Russians have complicated what looked to be a very straightforward process. The Slovenians are tough to beat and know that a single goal will see them through and enrage some pretty powerful men in Russia.

And that's about it. There's a stack of Beach Soccer on Eurosport if that takes your fancy. Hopefully a broadcaster will decide to pick up the Egypt v Algeria Play Off in Sudan on Wednesday where drama is guaranteed.

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