Sunday, May 30, 2010

Football Americana Week 10: Stoppage time success for DC and Philly

It's been a weekend to remember for some resurgent sides in Major League Soccer, as Philadelphia, DC and New England all picked up crucial victories.

The week's action began at Toyota Park, where Chicago Fire and FC Dallas split the points. David Ferreira opened the scoring for FCD inside ten minutes, taking advantage of awful defending to bend in his first of the season. The equaliser came before half time from Brian McBride who headed past a stranded Kevin Hartman.

In the battle of the two conference leaders, it was LA Galaxy who came away from Ohio with all three points against Columbus Crew. Michael Stephens thumped in the opener with less than 10 minutes gone after good work by Chris Birchall, and Tristan Bowen doubled LA's lead after Jason Garey's disallowed equaliser.

At the bottom, two of the league's worst teams also met and it was hosts DC United who bagged a much need win against Chivas USA - but they were made to wait for it. Justin Braun squeezed the ball past Bill Hamid in the 16th minute to give Chivas the lead, but ten minutes later it was a talented teenager who stole the headlines. 17-year-old Andy Najar broke the offside trap to nod it past Zach Thornton.

The match exploded in the last 15 minutes. Adam Cristman scored the easiest goal of his career to put DC 2-1 ahead, tapping in after a possible own goal rebounded off the post. Maykel Galindo equalised with ten minutes left, but United got the winner in stoppage time. Santino Quaranta was brought down by goalkeeper Thornton, who was dismissed as a result. Carey Talley calmly rolled the crucial spot kick into the corner.

It was another 3-2 home win at Gillette Stadium, where New England Revolution triumphed over New York Red Bulls in a dramatic encounter. Marko Perovic opened the scoring, drilling his shot low past Bouna Coundoul. Seth Stammler equalised with a mis-hit cross which curled in over Preston Burpo, whose evening would get much, much worse. Tim Ream's own goal put the Revs back in front in the 25th minute but they lost Burpo to an horrific broken leg before the break. Football Americana wishes him the speediest of recoveries.

After half time, Juan Pablo Angel's diving header equalised for the second time for the Red Bulls but from there on in it wasn't to be their night. Carlos Mendes picked up a second yellow card for a horrible tackle on Perovic and Roy Miller was sent off for flailing an arm. Zack Schilawski headed in the winner ten minutes from time.

Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union also shared a 3-2, but it was the Union who came out on top thanks to a stoppage time goal. The first goal arrived courtesy of Shea Salinas, the former Earthquakes man who finished brilliantly after somehow running from his own half. Brian Ching's emphatic header leveled the game on 52 minutes and seven minutes later Eddie Johnson put the Dynamo ahead with another header. But the lead lasted only ten minutes thanks to a goal from Sebastien Le Toux that was made by rookie Danny Mwanga. And it was Mwanga who won it for the Union in stoppage time after Le Toux repaid the favour.

Colorado Rapids took on the struggling Seattle Sounders at Dick's Sporting Goods Park and picked up the expected win thanks to a single goal from Conor Casey. The big man stayed strong under pressure and eventually hit a beautiful chip over Kasey Keller. The man's a wizard when it comes to chipping, it's as simple as that.

Kansas City Wizards' promising start is collapsing all around them, and matters worsened with a 4-1 defeat in Utah against Real Salt Lake. A quickfire double from Fabian Espindola and Alvaro Saborio made it 2-0 after 35 minutes, before Josh Wolff's easy finish gave the Wizards hope at half time. Two late goals ensured that hope was unjustified, as did the sending off of Davy Arnaud who picked up a second yellow for dissent. Robbie Russell fired in after Jimmy Nielsen saved the resulting free kick, and Ned Grabavoy neatly finished the game off in stoppage time.

And there was joy for Toronto FC, who headed for Buck Shaw Stadium and defeated San Jose Earthquakes 3-1. Chad Barrett's opportunistic finish and Dwayne De Rosario's nonchalant prod made it 2-0 to the Canadian side. Ramiro Corrales pulled one back for the Quakes with a towering header, but De Rosario made sure in stoppage time by racing into an empty half and finding the net as San Jose sent all eleven men forward for a set piece.

You can see all the week ten action here and check out the latest league tables here. The Crew's lead at the top of the East is down to four points as Toronto start to click into gear. DC and Philadelphia are gaining ground on the Wizards and Chicago above them. In the West, wins for the Galaxy and RSL keep LA's lead at ten points.

32 For 2010: Algeria

The Algerian national team are suffering from something of an identity crisis these days. On the one hand you have the battling, resolute team that overcame bitter rivals Egypt in a fiery play-off to reach this year’s World Cup Finals, and on the other you have the weak, disorientated team that were thrashed 4-0 by Egypt in the Nations Cup semi finals this year, just days after losing 3-0 to Malawi in the previous round.

Yet Algeria are battlers at heart and they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to go as far as possible in their first World Cup for 24 years. One familiar face from that previous finals appearance in 1986 is head coach Rabah Saadane. The 61-year-old was in charge of the team back then during a disappointing campaign and was a deputy to Mahieddine Khalef in the 1982 World Cup.

SInce those heady days of the 1980’s, Algeria have struggled not only to retain their place among the world’s elite but also on their own continent. Since winning their only African Cup of Nations to date in 1990 (on home soil), Algeria have failed to make any great impact on the African championships and subsequently slid further and further down the world’s pecking order. Currently up to 31st in the FIFA World Rankings on the back of their World Cup qualification, they were as low as 103rd just two years ago.

Algeria’s recent rise to prominence has come about through an improved squad that has a strong Europe-based contingent. Several names will be familiar to British football fans in particular, including Portsmouth’s Nadir Belhadj and Hassan Yebda along with the Rangers defender Madjid Bougherra. Among those plying their trade on the continent, the Wolfsburg defender Karim Ziani and Rafik Saifi of Istres are two to watch out for.

Bougherra has been one of many injury concerns for Saadane, although the French-born centre back claims to be fit again after several months out of the game with a calf strain. Despite assuring the press that he’ll be ready for the World Cup when it arrives, he didn’t figure in Algeria’s 3-0 friendly defeat to the Republic of Ireland this week and will be sorely missed in the finals if he remains absent from the team.

All in all, the Desert Foxes will go into battle next month somewhat unsure of their capabilities against rather tricky opposition. Undoubtedly the game upon which their prospects will rise or fall will be their first against Slovenia in Polokwane, a match they know will give them their best chance of picking up three points. A good start there will give them the momentum they’ll need to stand up to Fabio Capello’s England side prior to their last game in Group C against the USA where a draw will be deemed a reasonable outcome.

Anything on a par with Algeria’s 1982 campaign where they beat West Germany 2-1 and Chile 3-2 will be deemed an amazing success, but in realistic terms it seems unlikely this time. Then again, if anyone knows how to make it happen again it’s Rabah Saadane and in this, his fifth spell in charge of the team, he’ll undoubtedly be as determined as ever.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

32 For 2010: Greece

OK, so a 2-2 draw against North Korea is far from ideal preparation for a World Cup tournament but then Greece have made a virtue of taking people by surprise. You do, however, suspect that even the most passionate Greeks will be surprised if the 2004 European champions make it to the second round of the World Cup in South Africa.

Their style of play is well known and, while still very difficult to play against, is not impossible as their failure to emulate their magnificent European Championship success in Portugal demonstrates. In 2004, the uber-organised defence throttled their opponent's attack while hitting them ruthlessly on the counter. These days, the team's tactics are largely unchanged but critics have argued that they're too predictable and the current squad have not been able to emulate their predecessors.

Most of the 2004 squad have, unsurprisingly, moved on. Among them former Bolton player Stelios
Giannakopoulos, legendary goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis plus the centre halves Traianos Dellas and Michalis Kapsis. However Angelos Charisteas (who scored the only goal in the Euro 2004 Final) continues. As does Giourkas Seitaridis, now a veteren with 68 caps.

Other players English fans will be aware of are Liverpool centre half Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Georgios Samaras, once of Manchester City and latterly of Celtic. The rest of the squad seem to be made up mostly of domestic-based players. Whether this will prove to be a strength or weakness remains to be seen.

Greece's top scorer in qualifying was Theofanis Gekas, a player well-known to those who read the Bundesbag as a player who mostly seems to perform well for bad Bundesliga teams. He was the league top scorer in 2007 for Bochum. Recently, he has been seen scratching his head at Berlin's Olympiastadion as he watched Hertha implode. He has just signed for the Frankfurt club where the Bundesbag predicts he'll score loads of goals.

Qualification itself was arduous. After finishing runners-up to Switzerland they had to overcome a tough but dour Ukraine side. Drawn into Group B for the tournament, they face tough challenges against Nigeria, South Korea and Argentina. I personally cannot wait to see what Diego Maradona makes of Greece's defensive tactics and sniff a potential upset. That said, the prospects of a place in the Second Round don't look too favourable.

One crumb of comfort for Greece coach Otto Rehhagel (who masterminded the team's 2004 triumph) is how Inter demonstrated that non-possession football can still win big matches in the Champions League Final last Saturday. Whether Rehhagel's players will have the ability to control the opposition the way Mourinho's men did against Bayern is unlikely. However, the Greeks are passionate about their football and to see them progress would be welcome if not too easy on the eye.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The (World Cup) Friday List of Little or No Consequence #166

Regular refs
The Only 8 Men To Have Refereed At Three World Cup Finals

1. Jean Langenus (Belgium, 1930–1938)
2. Ivan Eklind (Sweden, 1934–1950)
3. Benjamin Griffiths (Wales, 1950–1958)
4. Arthur Ellis (England, 1950–1958)
5. Juan Gardeazábal (Spain, 1958–1966)
6. Jamal Al Sharif (Syria, 1986–1994)
7. Joël Quiniou (France, 1986–1994)
8. Ali Mohamed Bujsaim (United Arab Emirates, 1994–2002)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

16 Top World Cup Theme Tunes (Part 1)

Back in March, Terry brought you a popular and much needed retrospective on those top UK TV football theme tunes that filled the air of our halcyon days. As he explained at the time, however, his list was devoid of classic World Cup theme tunes - namely because we were saving them specifically for our World Cup Pull-Out. Now at last, that time has come.

With the 2010 World Cup only 16 days away, let's take a trip down memory lane and ponder awhile on those musical sig tunes that had us all humming along merrily… or not, as the case may be.

Here’s Part 1 of our guide to the Top World Cup TV Theme Tunes, and watch this space for Part 2 coming soon...

'Lap of Honour' (ITV World Cup Theme 1974)
London Stadium Orchestra

Back in the mists of time, the BBC and ITV would look no further than to plunder their sound library for a piece of music to accompany their World Cup coverage that sounded vaguely appropriate for the host country in question. England '66? That'll be something bold and brassy to reflect the bulldog spirit of old Blighty. Mexico '70? Something with lots of classical guitars and castanets. It really was that simple.

Come 1974, however, ITV were more than happy to cast off the shackles of international stereotyping by using a fairly generic piece of musical bluster to usher in the 10th World Cup in West Germany. Full of shouty brass, it's very much of its era – in fact one could argue it was still clinging onto the late-1960's by its fingertips – yet ITV would continue to plod on with it for another four years while the Beeb looked for something that sounded less dated.

'Argentine Melody' (BBC World Cup Grandstand 1978)
Performed by San Jose featuring Rodriguez Argentina (a.k.a. Rod Argent), composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber

With the 1978 World Cup in Argentina appearing on the horizon, the BBC had a very clever idea. Rather than dip into its music library for something neglected and dust-ridden, they made a call to the composer behind the hit West End musical Evita – Andrew Lloyd Webber.

With the sound of Latin American guitars still ringing in his ears, Lloyd Webber was ideally suited to conjure up the sound of Argentina for the purpose of the Beeb's World Cup coverage that year. In fact so successful was the tune he produced - Argentine Melody - that the BBC released it as a single which eventually reached number 14 in the UK charts.

ITV, meanwhile, re-recorded their theme from 1974 with some added synthesisers and considered it a job well done. We're not sure about that, but Action Argentina was certainly a job easily done.

'Jellicle Ball' (BBC World Cup Grandstand 1982)
Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Never ones to leave a winning formal well alone, the BBC arrived at the 1982 World Cup having bagged the rights to another Andrew Lloyd Webber composition, namely Jellicle Ball - an instrumental piece from the musical Cats.

Full of euphoric triumphalism and without a single castanet in sight, this brilliant orchestral composition is full of the energy and momentum that a team thrives on in pursuit of FIFA's famous gold trophy.

What's great about it is that it hasn't aged very much at all, mainly because it was never intended to be a product of its time. The Royal Philarmonic fills every second with tunefulness and melody by using every player in the orchestra to generate three minutes of unadulterated gusto.

'Matador' (ITV World Cup '82)
Jeff Wayne

The man behind the musical version of War of the Worlds and countless other TV and movie projects came up trumps with this effort which was a little sombre by comparison to the BBC's equivalent. It was, nonetheless, a brilliant combination of electric guitars, flutes and synthesisers that somehow conveyed that unmistakable air of Spanishness that 'the other side' didn't have.

Modern (in an early 80's kind of way) and nicely understated in its execution, this was a good follow-up for Wayne who composed Jubilation for ITV in 1980 – its theme to The Big Match (see previous article). More wistful and reflective in tone than Jellicle Ball, Matador's aim was to gently ease you into an evening of football from Bil-bay-oh (check Brian Moore for correct pronunciation) rather than have you on the edge of your seat before a ball was even kicked. For that very reason it was no bad thing.

'Aztec Lightning' (BBC World Cup Grandstand 1986)

The 1986 World Cup brought us two of the best themes to date from the BBC and ITV. This one by Paul Hart and Helmut Zacharias (better known as Heads, but only just mind you) had all the traditional Mexican instrumentation thrown into the mix along with the kitchen sink, we shouldn't wonder.

The main musical motif is a phalanx of horns which keep the melody chugging along and which also herald the start of the tune itself. With a synthesized bass providing a percussive backbeat and the occasional carnival whistle to remind us we’re in Latin America, this is an exercise in upbeat rabble rousing, but good though this was, many felt it had met its match in ITV's offering that same year...

'Aztec Gold' (ITV World Cup '86)
Performed by Silsoe, composed by Rod Argent

No, we haven't heard of Silsoe either, but that's to miss the point. Here was a theme tune that was so good, ITV used it for various projects many years after Mexico ‘86, most notably Saint and Greavsie.

With some similar elements to the BBC’s Aztec-oriented theme tune, ITV once again out-moderned its rivals with a piece of music that was brighter and some would say more melodic. Rife with the ubiquitous clickety-click of the castanets plus a searing electric guitar element that made it borderline soft-rock, the song was inevitably released as a single which reached number 48 in the UK charts. Probably not high enough, in our opinion, for this was a true 80’s classic.

'Nessun Dorma' (BBC World Cup Grandstand 1990)
Sung by Luciano Pavarotti

Not strictly a specifically commissioned piece of music for a World Cup TV programme, but the BBC does deserve the credit for recognising the beauty and passion that lies within this aria by Puccini.

Before 1990, no-one would have thought to plunder an operatic work to front its World Cup coverage, but the UK populous took to it like Gary Lineker to a penalty spot. Suddenly everyone knew who Luciano Pavarotti was, everyone was discovering opera and everyone understood the raw emotions it conveyed. For that reason alone it was the perfect choice of musical accompaniment for the four-yearly footballing rollercoaster that we all found ourselves on. Overlay some visuals of Gazza blubbing his eyes out and Marco Tardelli wheeling away after scoring a goal in a state of near orgasm and you have the true connoisseur’s choice of World Cup theme tune.

'Tutti Al Mondo' (ITV World Cup '90)
Composed by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke

Unfairly overshadowed by Pavarotti & Co, Tutti Al Mondo takes the operatic oeuvre and drags it kicking and screaming into the 1990's.

Blending the traditional towering Italian vocals and orchestral overtones into a tasteful hip-hop fusion, this concoction of funk and fortissimo was improved yet further by a brilliant computer-generated title sequence (see below). Put together, ITV had created a potent opening package for its Italia '90 programming, but even without the visuals this was a vibrant and enthralling musical piece that in any other World Cup year would have gained greater exposure and admiration. Of all the years to run into Pavarotti...

Coming up in Part 2: Synth pop, retro Krautrock and the Great American songbook plus much more besides...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Football Americana Week 9: Dynamo worsen DC dive

Fortunes are mixed over in the USA, and the two main headlines dominate the top and bottom of the Eastern Conference in Major League Soccer. Columbus are flying, DC are dying. If that summing up doesn't provide the detail you require, here's all the week nine action.

Columbus Crew had a big week at the top of the East, beginning with a triumphant trip to New York Red Bulls, where a 3-1 win took them top of the conference. New Jerseyite Eddie Gaven opened the scoring for the Crew with a 35th minute header. Andy Iro's goal was an emphatic header and put Columbus 2-0 ahead before Tony Tchani headed past a stranded William Hesmer to pull one back. Emilio Renteria made sure of the win with seven minutes left on the clock on a night that saw the Red Bulls hit the woodwork three times with Hesmer beaten.

In their second game of the weekend, the Crew needed another goal from Renteria to complete an exemplary week with a 1-0 win over Kansas City Wizards in a fairly uninspiring game.

Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle are Bob Bradley's property right now, so an under-strength LA Galaxy headed for Texas to play FC Dallas. MLS Cup 2009 goalscorer Mike Magee's tap-in inside 20 minutes was enough to add another three points to LA's tally and maintain their unbeaten start.

Seattle Sounders were also beaten at home by an early goal. San Jose Earthquake returned to California with another win under their belts thanks to their fourth consecutive clean sheet and Chris Wondolowski's poacher's finish in the 11th minute. The Sounders didn't play too badly but they're in desperate need of a ruthless goalscorer, and they'll be hoping Blaise Nkufo will be that man.

Toronto FC and New England Revolution got to half time goalless, and it was a solitary second half goal by Chad Barrett that gave the hosts a much-needed victory. A badly-marked Barrett rose to head in a corner on 52 minutes, and he could have bagged a couple more on the day too. Great to see Shalrie Joseph back in action for the Revs.

At Robertson Stadium, DC United's season reached crisis point. A loss to Houston Dynamo represented their eighth reverse of 2010 and left them sizing up the very real possibility of becoming the worst team since MLS began. Danny Cruz took just nine minutes to open the scoring, firing a low shot across Troy Perkins and in off the far post. Dominic Oduro made it two with an unstoppable goal in the second half, blasting in the killer goal from a cross by Luis Angel Landin.

It took a late, late winner to continue Real Salt Lake's winning run as they emerged 2-1 victors at HDC against Chivas USA. Chris Wingert put the champions ahead just before half time, blasting the ball home after Javier Morales' cross cannoned off the post. Justin Braun's 80th minute strike couldn't see Chivas through to a point, though, because Fabian Espindola broke free in the 89th minute and flicked a left-footed finish past Zach Thornton.

You can check out all of the important highlights here and view the league tables here. If you do, you'll see that LA Galaxy are now a full ten points clear of their nearest competition in the West, San Jose Earthquakes, Real Salt Lake and Houston Dynamo. At the bottom, Chivas USA's ten points would put them fourth in a very weak East.

Columbus now top that conference by five points, leaving RBNY and Toronto FC in their wake. Everyone else is an also-ran, with the possible exceptions of DC and Philly who are still in the traps.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Midweek TV Preview: 24 - 26 May 2010

Monday 24th May

20:00 England v Mexico, International Friendly, ITV1/ITV HD
Every time England qualifies for a major tournament, a nation expects - expects most of its players to pick up metatarsal injuries beforehand, that is. Who'd have thought our very own Wembley Stadium pitch would ensure that'll probably be the case ahead of World Cup 2010? Tune in tonight to find out which players have their hopes of boarding the plane to South Africa go up in smoke.

22:00 Argentina v Canada, International Friendly, ESPN
Maradona didn't want to play this match so close to the World Cup as he felt the opposition weren't relevant or of sufficient enough standard. As it turned out, the AFA overruled him as they needed an excuse to celebrate Argentina's 200th anniversary of independence from Spain. Bad luck Diego... now just win the match for your sake and that of all your countrymen.

Tuesday 25th May

19:45 Republic of Ireland v Paraguay, International Friendly, Sky Sports 1
Paraguay aim to get a flavour of what it's like to play against tricky European opposition. Italy awaits in the World Cup, so what better than to get the next best thing - a national team with an Italian head coach.

01:00 (Wednesday) USA v Czech Republic, International Friendly, ESPN
The USMNT, meanwhile, test their mettle against a team of Slovenia doppelgangers in Connecticut. Bob Bradley has many an injury worry amongst his defence so by default this might be a good time for him to try out an attacking formation. Neither team has won many games of any sort for a long time, so there's much potential here for one of the parties to be cheered up by a win.

Wednesday 26th May

11:00 TBC, J League Cup, British Eurosport 2
At time of going to press, we're not aware of which game will be shown and that, we think, is because British Eurosport 2 are still trying to pick the best match from an uninspiring bunch. Needless to say that FC Tokyo are leading Group A and Urawa Reds are at the top of Group B. Consider yourselves informed.

Sound Of Football Podcast 39 - Champions League Final 2010

Chris and Graham present The Sound of Football's first ever '3-Way Special' for the 2010 Champions League Final.

In an innovative and possibly ill-judged move, we recorded a show before, during and after a big game - namely the battle between Inter and Bayern at the Bernabeu Stadium.

We assessed the key players, the coaches, the tactics - in fact the whole shooting match - before checking out some of the more amusing Twitter messages floating around on the web during the final prior to reviewing the action after the event from Madrid.

You can listen to the podcast 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.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

32 for 2010: Ghana

Despite a rich history in African football, including a long period of dominance in the Cup of Nations, this is only Ghana's second World Cup Finals having also qualified for Germany four years ago.

Ghana's qualification campaign almost foundered at the first hurdle when they scraped through their first group stage on goal difference. This proved a wake up call for the Black Stars and they breezed through the final stage of qualification - only conceding any goals after their finals place was secure. This strong, defensive quality helped them reach the final of this year's African Cup of Nations, though they hardly enlivened a tragic and over-shadowed tournament with three consecutive 1-0 wins before being beaten by holders Egypt.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between their opponents this World Cup and with last time: the experienced campaigners - Germany (it was Italy last time); a strong Eastern Europe team - Serbia (Czech Republic); and an emerging New World side - Australia (USA). Ghana finished second in their group last time but will be hard pushed to repeat that - and if they do they'll most likely face England in the second round. The match against Serbia, probably their most vital for progression, has added interest as it's where their coach Milovan Rajevac is from.

Essentially, Ghana need goals if they are to have any hope of surviving this tough group. Their midfield has been seriously depleted with lengthy injuries to (among others) Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah - seeing them miss most of the season for their clubs. Essein has not played for Chelsea since he was injured playing in the Cup of Nations in January while Appiah has played only two end-of-season games for Bologna since signing for them in November. Both are in the squad, but just what sort of impact these players can have is anyone's guess. Sulley Muntari, while a regular for Inter this season, has only managed to play 90 minutes three times out of 27 appearances, scoring just once.

This leaves the goal-scoring duties falling on the shoulders of Stade Rennes' Asamoah Gyan and NAC Breda's Matthew Amoah, neither of whom have particularly shone domestically. Ravejac has given repeated call up offers to Inter's precocious striker Mario Balotelli who has Ghanain parents. Balotelli, who earlier this season was described by his boss Jose Mourinho as "brainless", has refused each advance in favour of waiting to see if he can make it into the Italian senior squad (he already plays for the under-21s).

We won't see the best of Ghana at this World Cup, but that doesn't mean they'll go down without a fight.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Interview: Sir Geoff Hurst

To paraphrase Carlsberg's advertising campaign, we don't do interviews, but when we do, we generally pick only the finest people available.

And so it was that earlier this week we had the great good fortune to interview one of the legends of English football - Sir Geoff Hurst.

With a blogsite called Some People Are On The Pitch, it seemed only fitting that we chose the hero of the 1966 World Cup Final as our subject, so Chris was sent along to talk about Sir Geoff's long and illustrious career as well as England's chances of winning the World Cup in 2010.

The interview took place at Porter Novelli in London to promote a new World Cup commemorative medal being launched by the Royal Mint. You can get your own medal for free by visiting the Royal Mint website, so hurry along and pick up your own lucky charm while stocks last!

Finally, before we let you hear the interview, we'd just like to say a huge thank you to our old friend at TwoFootedTackle, Chris Nee for inviting us along to meet Sir Geoff himself. We're truly very grateful.

So now on with the interview which you can listen to here or if you right-click on that link, you can download the MP3 to your computer instead.


(This interview is also available via The Sound of Football blogsite.)

Weekend TV Preview: 22 - 23 May 2010

Saturday 22nd May

15:00 Blackpool v Cardiff City, Championship Play-Off Final, Sky Sports 1 / HD1
OK, I admit - I did rather jump the gun when I said these TV Previews had effectively reached an end two weeks ago, but it didn't look like there was much live football left on telly between then and the World Cup. Just goes to show how wrong you can be. Anyway, here's one of only three live games this weekend and we're betting each of the other 19 Premier League managers are keeping their fingers crossed that they get a day out at the seaside next year. Not that there's anything wrong with Cardiff, mind you. It's just... well, you know.

19:45 Bayern Munich v Inter Milan, UEFA Champions League Final, ITV1/ITV HD/Sky Sports 1/HD1
On a Saturday night! Yes, all the little kiddy-winkies across UK will finally get the chance to see a Champions League Final because unlike those midweek Finals, they'll now be able to stay up beyond 8pm. Yeah right...

And here this! Graham and I will be recording a special Sound of Football podcast before, during and after the Champions League Final using a special technique known as 'recording three smaller podcasts and joining them together to make one big one'. It'll be available via the SOF blogsite and on iTunes shortly after the final whistle's blown, so don't forget to look out for it and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

Sunday 23rd May

18:00 Croatia v Wales, International Friendly, S4C
Finally, it's off to Osijek for a friendly featuring a Welsh side missing 15 first-choice players including Simon Davies, James Collins, Craig Bellamy and many more. John Toshack will take a squad of only 17 with him to Croatia which, if nothing else, means a bit more space to spread out on the team bus.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #165

Final Destination
The 10 Stadia That Have Hosted The European Cup/Champions League Final Most Often

1. Wembley Stadium, London - 5 times (1963, 1968, 1971, 1978, 1992)
2. Heysel Stadium, Brussels - 4 times (1958, 1966, 1974, 1985)
3. Stadio Olimpico, Rome - 4 times (1977, 1984, 1996, 2009)
4. Hampden Park, Glasgow - 3 times (1960, 1976, 2002)
5. Olympiastadion, Munich - 3 times (1979, 1993, 1997)
6. Olympic Stadium, Athens - 3 times (1983, 1994, 2007)
7. Parc Des Princes, Paris - 3 times (1956, 1975, 1981)
8. Prater Stadium, Vienna - 3 times (1964, 1987, 1990)
9. San Siro, Milan - 3 times (1965, 1970, 2001)
10. Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid - 3 times (1957, 1969, 1980)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jeu Du Jour Podcast - Week 38

Chris returns for the final installment of Jeu Du Jour where the final secrets of the 2009-10 Ligue 1 season come to light - namely who has qualified for the Champions League, who has qualified for the Europa League and who's failed to qualify for either.

There's also a whistle-stop review of the season along with news of Laurent Blanc's switch to become the coach of the French national team after the 2010 World Cup.

Ooh la la! Thanks to those of you that have followed our reports on Ligue 1 this season... enjoy the final podcast.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Football Americana Week 8: Shea, Montero and Mwanga light up a dull weekend

Compared to the previous one, week eight was quite low key in Major League Soccer - perhaps the players knew there would be big news off the field this week. Either way, a couple of great goals punctuated a fairly uninspiring set of matches. Here's what happened.

2009 champions Real Salt Lake got things underway with a bang, beating Houston Dynamo 3-1 in Sandy. Robbie Findley made it 1-0 in the opening three minutes, heading home to notch his first of the season. In truth he could and arguably should have done so a minute earlier. Alvaro Saborio hit a brace to seal the win, cracking in a low drive in the first half and nodding in from a free kick in the second. Brian Mullan's goal was little consolation for the Dynamo.

FC Dallas headed for Philadelphia Union with all three points in their sights and looked like securing their quarry after Brek Shea's fantastic 13th minute goal, his first in MLS, stood until the 92nd minute. The Union's Danny Mwanga, the top draft pick this season, thundered in an equaliser to earn a point for the hosts.

It was goalless at Gillette Stadium where New England Revolution again dropped points at home, this time against San Jose Earthquakes.

The same looked likely when Columbus Crew met Chivas USA in Ohio until Gino Padula's goal-line heroics paid off thanks to Guillermo Barros Schelotto's 90th minute winner from the penalty spot.

At RFK Stadium, DC United lost yet again, Colorado Rapids being this week's beneficiaries as the pressure continues to pile on top of Curt Onalfo. Mehdi Ballouchy grabbed the only goal of the game, strolling in from wide far too easily and catching Bill Hamid wrong-footed.

The big news in MLS this week is the expected signing of Thierry Henry by New York Red Bulls, and it came hot on the heels of a disappointing defeat to Seattle Sounders. The deadline wasn't broken until the tricky Colombian Fredy Montero, on as a late substitute, rolled a wonderfully taken winner through the legs of Bouna Coundoul.

Chicago Fire thought they'd done the job thanks to a 2-0 lead over Kansas City Wizards, but left with just a point. Julio Martinez rounded off a lovely Fire move by knocking in the first at the back post in the 14th minute, and Brian McBride doubled the lead with a simple finish just after the break. But Kei Kamara came to the Wizards' rescue, conjuring up a lucky pea-roller for 2-1 and an 89th minute equaliser from all of six inches. Andrew Dykstra in the Chicago goal fumbled the ball into his path in the rain and won't be pleased with himself.

LA Galaxy dropped a couple of points at home to Toronto FC after a goalless draw at HDC. Omar Gonzalez of the Galaxy was fortunate not to see red for what could have been deemed a professional foul on Chad Barrett. Toronto's Maksim Usanov body-checked Landon Donovan in stoppage time and was dismissed.

LA still sit ten points clear in the west, leading no fewer than four clubs who sit on 13 points. In the East, New York are now just one point ahead of Columbus who have a couple of games in hand. Toronto, after a stuttering start, are now third. DC United have...well, I don't want to talk about it.

You can see all the week eight action here, and check out the tables here. Enjoy.

Monday, May 17, 2010

World Cup Gravy Train: Walkers Flavour Cup

Welcome to World Cup Gravy Train, a new feature in which we’ll be examining those commercial products and services that use the planet’s biggest football competition to generate some extra income – officially or otherwise.

And we start by looking at Walkers, the crisp manufacturers who are veterans at leaning on football to promote its products. When you choose Gary Lineker as the face of your advertising campaigns for 15 years, your connection with the beautiful game is bound to be considerable and therefore it's hardly surprising that they've turned to football with the World Cup only a month away.

The Walkers Flavour Cup is the natural successor to their Do Us a Flavour promotion of 2008 and 2009 where people were asked to vote for their favourite from a range of new (and only briefly available) flavours.

This new promotion uses the same premise by offering 15 crisp flavours with an international theme, some of which are more credible than others. At the plausible end of the scale you’ll find Argentinean Flame Grilled Steak and Japanese Teriyaki Chicken, while the other end offers up American Cheeseburger and Australian BBQ Kangaroo. All this from the people that brought you Cajun Squirrel flavour... go figure.

In the name of research and truthful journalism, I’ve sampled some of Walkers’ new offerings for myself and the results are at best varied. Argentinean Flame Grilled Steak was tasty enough in a Beef and Onion kind of way while Brazilian Salsa tasted a bit like Prawn Cocktail with a hint of chilli powder. As for French Garlic Baguette, I was hard pushed to detect any garlic flavour in it.

In all honesty though, it must be devilishly difficult to create new and peculiar crisp flavours. If you don’t get it right, you lay yourself open to all kinds of criticism as was shown during the Do Us a Flavour campaign. Writing in The Guardian last year, Charlie Brooker likened the Chilli and Chocolate flavour to “excreted battery acid” and equated the experience of eating their Fish and Chips flavoured crisps to “kissing someone who's just eaten a plateful of scampi.”

This new range of flavours, however, has some intriguing offerings such as Dutch Edam Cheese and Italian Spaghetti Bolognese while the inclusion of Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding, Welsh Rarebit, Irish Stew and Scottish Haggis indicates a need to cater for the home market as well as perhaps a desperation to pad out the choice on offer.

And while we’re on the subject, you have to say Walker’s have missed a trick with all this international flavouring. Where was the Thai Curry flavour? Where was the New Zealand Lamb flavour? Where was the North Korean... er... Dog... er... flavour? Ahem... yes, well, you get the picture.

All in all, the Walkers Flavour Cup is a bit of fun which has been cleverly designed to work off the back of the real World Cup without actually mentioning its name. By using some pretty packaging and even a TV advertising campaign featuring Brer Lineker and Stuart Hall (who has been scandalously overlooked by ad executives up to now), they’ve created a range of crisps that you’ll be highly tempted to snap up.

Quite what your thoughts are on the crisps themselves remains to be seen, but on that point we’d like you to tell us by leaving a comment on any of the flavours you’ve tried.

Did you become a bit partial to the South African Sweet Chutney? Did you rush with great haste to the toilet after trying the German Bratwurst Sausage? Leave us a comment and tell us your views. These things matter, you know...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Midweek TV Preview: 17 - 20 May 2010

Monday 17th May

19:45 Charlton Athletic v Swindon Town, League One Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1 (2-1 to Swindon in the 1st leg)

That sound you hear is the last knockings of the domestic football season coming to an end around Europe. That doesn't make the remaining games any less important, mind - quite the contrary. A cavalcade of drama and excitement awaits those wise enough to tune into the League 1 and 2 Play Off Semi-Finals, starting at the Valley. But for a ricket by Swindon 'keeper David Lucas, The Robins would have travelled to the Addicks with a two goal advantage and one foot on the not-so-hallowed Wembley turf.

Tuesday 18th May

19:45 Millwall v Huddersfield Town, League One Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1 (0-0 in the 1st leg)
A full house at The Den with the whole season hanging on the right result. Should be a colourful occasion to say the least.

Wednesday 19th May

19:45 Rotherham United v Aldershot Town, League Two Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1 (1-0 to Rotherham in the 1st leg)
Two former crisis clubs meet with the tie on a knife edge. Millers fans will know that a one goal lead means nothing. Promises to be a moderately less than awful atmosphere at the Don Valley Stadium.

20:30 Sevilla v Atletico Madrid, Copa Del Rey Final, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Atleti seek to turn a dreadful season on its head with a cup double. Sevilla may prove slightly tougher opposition than a Fulham side which was dead on its feet.

Thursday 20th May

19:45 Morecambe v Dagenham & Redbridge, League Two Play-Off Semi-Final 2nd leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1 (6 (SIX) - 0 to Dagenham & Redbridge in the 1st leg)
"Morecambe need to pull off the greatest comeback since me." - Lazarus

Jeu Du Jour Podcast - Week 37

Chris returns for the penultimate Jeu du Jour report of the 2009/10 season. In it, there's a focus on those teams jostling for position in the Champions League and Europa League spots behind Marseille, plus there's news of who won what at the UNFP Awards last Sunday plus the provisional France squad for World Cup 2010 and a round-up of the closing action in Ligue 2.

What more could you ask for? Answer: A video clip showing the UNFP Goal of the Season 2009/10, scored by
Mamadou Niang (Marseille) against Montpellier on 19 September 2009...

And now, the podcast...

32 For 2010: North Korea

Football just ain’t fair sometimes. When you’ve waited 44 years to qualify for only your second World Cup like North Korea have, the last thing you’d want is to be drawn in the same group as Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast.

That, however, is as good a reason why the East Asians are 1,000-1 to win the 2010 World Cup. Football observers with a glass-half-full temperament are quick to point out that these odds might be a little unfair given North Korea’s heroics during the 1966 World Cup. Back then, not even Chile or Italy could topple them in the first round and were 3-0 up in their quarter final before Eusebio almost single-handedly sent them packing.

The 2010 competition could be one of limited joy for Kim Jong-hun and his team, yet you feel they deserve to acheive something of tokenistic value in South Africa next month. Their qualification campaign has been a lengthy one, starting as it did with a two-leg tie against Mongolia in October 2007, and saw them playing their neighbours south of the border four times over two rounds. The fact that they got through from first round to last with more than enough points in the bank and only one defeat to South Korea shows what a battling outfit they are these days.

Their success in qualifying has been based squarely on their staunchly defensive tactics. Several teams including Jordan, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea all failed to score against the North Koreans, but one can’t help but feel the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Fabiano and Didier Drogba will have altogether better luck when the Communist state arrives for its first match in Johannesburg on June 15th.

Of the players in their squad, few play outside the country’s borders although one that does, Jong Tae-se of Kawasaki Frontale, has carved out a reputation as one of the best strikers in the J-League – ‘the Asian Wayne Rooney’, as he’s already been labelled. Another striker, Hong Yong-jo, is proving similarly successful with FK Rostov in Russia, and between them they’ll need to be at their most prolific if they’re to get North Korea to the knockout stages of the 2010 World Cup. If they’re not, the role of goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk and sweeper Ri Jun-il will take on even more significance.

One matter may prove decisive above player selection, however, and that’s the man selecting the players. Coach Kim Jong-hun has done a great job in getting South Korea’s oft-forgotten rivals back into the world football spotlight again, but many are wondering if he’ll soon be shown the door in favour of a foreigner with more experience. Such an act would surely be futile as anyone looking to reprogram DPRK’s fiercely defensive unit at this late stage would have a tough job on their hands. There again, Bora Milutinovic is currently out of contract so anything’s possible.

It’s almost clichéd to suggest North Korea will be looking to reach the second round this summer, but to be brutally honest a draw against Portugal or Ivory Coast in Group G will go down as something realistically worthwhile of note. As for Jong-hun’s preposterous claim that they’re aiming to reach the last eight, we’ll politely draw a veil over that.

The irony of all this is that most of North Korea’s 23 million population probably won’t see its team’s travails next month. SBS, the South Korean TV broadcaster, was planning to allow North Korea access to its pictures throughout the competition but the torpedoing of a South Korean warship by North Korea in March (leading to the death of 46 sailors) has prompted SBS to pull the plug.

A pity, that, for this will be a rare chance to see the chollima on the biggest stage in world football and no-one can say for certain when the next one will come along. The search for another Pak Doo Ik continues.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Weekend TV Preview: 14 - 16 May 2010

Friday 14 May

19.45 Swindon Town v Charlton Athletic, League One Play Off Semi Final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Well contrary to what Chris O said in the last preview there's still plenty of football left in this season and nearly all of it is on the box. First off is this tasty offering with two teams that both spent a few minutes in the automatic promotion spot during the last round of matches in the regular season. As we've seen this week, end of season form and final league placing count for very little in the play-offs. The two league meetings between the clubs ended in draws, the unlikeliest of which happened on Boxing Day where Charlton played the second half with nine men but still managed to get a last minute equaliser. Second Leg is on Monday.

Saturday 15 May

06.00 FC Tokyo v Shimizu S Pulse, J League, British Eurosport 2
S-pulse hold top spot,
But lost their first game last week.
Too early for me

12.15 Huddersfield Town v Millwall, League One Play Off Semi Final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Millwall came closest to snatching Leeds' automatic spot. How close? Well if they'd managed to get a goal against today's opponents in their fixture last month, they would have finished with an identical record to Leeds - even down to goals scored. I fancy The Terriers for this one. Second Leg is on Tuesday.

15.00 Chelsea v Portsmouth, FA Cup Final, ITV1/ITV HD
Of course, in all this football there's the matter of the FA Cup Final that needs to be resolved. More opportunity for Didier Drogba to comically flounce around the pitch like an idiot - only this time with Jim Beglin commentating. I might give it a miss to be honest.

15.00 Ross County v Dundee United, Scottish Cup Final, Sky Sports 1/HD1/BBC1 Scotland
You know what? I might watch this instead. Then again the weather forecast is good - maybe I'll go to the seaside.

18.00 Aldershot v Rotherham, League Two Play Off Semi Final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1
Just one point separated the four teams in the play-off places, so to use a much-quoted saying from the past week, none of them can claim a clear mandate for promotion. Second Leg is Wednesday.

19.45 AC Milan v Juventus, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
Not being played with the rest of the final round of fixtures but there's nothing to play for here. Milan are almost certainly guaranteed third while Juve can't do any better or worse than seventh. Officially Leonardo's last game in charge. Both teams will certainly be looking for better things next season.

21.00 Almeria v Sevilla, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Sevilla need to win to hold on to fourth place, Mallorca kick off their match at home to Espanyol at the same time. The islanders are a point behind, and their head to head (the system La Liga use if teams are level on points) is one win each, with an aggregate of 3-3. I have to be honest - my knowledge doesn't stretch to know if away goals count in that. I'm sure the good people at Sky will keep us all apprised.

Sunday 16 May

13.30 Siena v Inter Milan, Serie A, ESPN/ESPN HD
Only relegated Siena stand in the way of yet another Scudetto for Mourinho and Inter. Roma live in hope of a miracle as they travel to Verona to play mid-table Chievo. Hopefully ESPN will be cutting across the games as the goals go in as they did for the last day of the Bundesliga. Look out for updates from Palermo - if they win and Samp fail to beat Napoli, they'll steal the fourth Champions League spot.

13.30 Dagenham & Redbridge v Morecambe, League Two Play Off Semi Final 1st Leg, Sky Sports 1/HD1
These sides came up from the Conference together in 2007 and there's very little to separate them on results since their promotion. Second Leg is on Thursday.

15.00 Brechin City v Cowdenbeath, Scottish First Division Play Off Final 2nd Leg (0-0), BBC ALBA
Unlike the naming convention south of the border, this is to see who will play in the First Division next season rather than where they play at the moment. As is the way of play-offs in both countries these two were the lowest placed of the four teams that went into them. Commentary, of course, is in Scottish Gaelic.

17.00 Augsburg v Nurnburg, Bundesliga Promotion/Relegation Play Off 2nd Leg (0-1), ESPN
Second part of an all-Bavarian affair with a late Christian Eigler goal separating the two sides. Augsburg are looking to get into the top flight for the first time while Nurnburg are looking to hold on to the place they only won back last season.

17.00 Oxford United v York City, Blue Square Play Off Final, Sky Sports 2/HD2
Putting the post-match shenanigans at Luton behind them, York will be looking to improve on their last trip to the new Wembley - their 2-0 defeat to Stevenage in last year's FA Trophy. Both sides went out at this stage the last time they were in the play-offs in 2007, so at least one of them will do better here.

18.00 Barcelona v Valladolid, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/HD3
Much like in Serie A the chasing team (this time Real Madrid) are praying for a miracle. At least this time around Valladolid have something to fight for being amongst four teams on 36 points - two of which will go down ...

18.00 Malaga v Real Madrid, La Liga, Sky Sports 3/HD3 (via Red Button)
... Malaga being one of the others. Tense but ultimately futile stuff.

The Friday List of Little or No Consequence #164

Tighter than a gnat's chuff...
The Five Closest Finishes In English Top-Flight History

1. 1923-24
Huddersfield Town won the First Division title ahead of Cardiff City with a better goal average of 0.024. Both teams finished level on points and had the goal difference system been used, they’d have been level on that too. Under the goals scored system, Cardiff would have won the title by a single goal.

2. 1988-89
Arsenal won the First Division title Arsenal having scored 8 goals more than Liverpool. Both teams finished level on points and goal difference, so the title was decided on goals scored instead.

3. 1952-53
Arsenal won the First Division title ahead of Preston North End with a better goal average of 0.099. Both teams finished level on points and under the goal difference system, Arsenal would have won the title by 8 goals.

4. 1949-50
Portsmouth won the First Division title ahead of Wolves with a better goal average of 0.396. Both teams finished level on points and under the goal difference system, Portsmouth would have won the title by 9 clear goals.

5. 1964-65
Man United won the First Division title ahead of Leeds United with a better goal average of 0.686. Both teams finished level on points and under the goal difference system, Man United would have won the title by 19 clear goals.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

And the 2009-10 winners are...

As the dust finally settles after another whirlwind Premier League season, it's time to hand out the virutal trophies for our Fantasy Premier League and I Know The Score competitions.

Beginning with the former, we're delighted to announce that Chris Gordon has done it again. Having won the 2008-09 SPAOTP Fantasy Premier League, he's retained the title by winning the 2009-10 version as well (see table right - click for larger version)!

His team this year, The Glengarry Leeds, romped home with a score of 2,403 - a full 269 points more than last season - and that's 74 points more than our 2009-10 runner-up Matthew Nerney and his team Red Lions FC. Dan Arvid Bjørsvik finished third, a further 27 points behind, with his team Dango FC. Last season's runner-up, Graham Matthews, finished fifth this time around.

Once again, we're delighted to say that your collective interest in our league has made it one of the most popular on the official Fantasy Premier League website. Out of 193,262 registered mini-leagues, ours was ranked 1,674th and for that we thank all of you for taking part, regardless of how your team fared!

Over on our I Know The Score mini-league (see table left), we have a new champion in the shape of JimmyJazzzz, a Blackburn fan from Ireland. He finished top of our league of 22 teams with a score of 2,875 points - nearly 400 points more than last season's champion TokyoToffeeman who this time could only finish fourth. Our runner-up for 2009-10 was EvanQuigley, an Arsenal supporter, again from Ireland, with 2,850 points - just 25 short of JimmyJazzzz!

Third place in our I Know The Score mini-league goes to RobAdelaide with 2,740 points, and as ever we need no excuse to give a special mention to our old friend ChrissMari who this season finished a very commendable fifth on 2,415 points.

And that's about it for another season. Once again it's been a lot of fun pitting my football knowledge and tactical astuteness against you all, so thanks for taking part and the best of luck for next season too!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

32 For 2010: Slovenia

This is the third major international tournament Slovenia have qualified for - each time by manner of a play-off. They overcame Ukraine to win a place at Euro 2000 and beat Romania to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

The key to Slovenia's qualification campaign was their excellent home form (they conceded just one goal in six games) and an away victory against the eventual group winners Slovakia, denying the Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland a place in South Africa. They had a tough draw in the play-off against Russia - who had a very strong group stage. Despite falling two goals down in the first leg, a late strike from Sparta Praha's Nejc Pečnik gave them an away goal - an all important away goal as they went on to win 1-0 in the return fixture in Maribor, Bochum's Zlatko Dedič getting the goal.

Slovenia's main threat up front is FC Köln's 6'4" striker Milivoje Novakovič. However he's found goals hard to come by recently following a much publicised falling out with his club manager Zvonimir Soldo - scoring just six this season. Their only UK based player is team captain Robert Koren, a mainstay of the West Brom midfield for the past three seasons. It's likely that the squad will be entirely made up of non-domestic players.

Slovenia have been drawn with England, USA and Algeria - of these sides the only team they've played before is England - right at the start of this season. Belgian-based striker Zlatan Ljubijankič picking up a late goal in their 2-1 friendly defeat at Wembley. They may feel they have an advantage in playing England last in the group - hoping that England will have already done enough to qualify for the next stage by that time. Their key match is their opener against Algeria where anything less than a win will give them a huge mountain to climb; realistically though, the most they can hope to achieve is an improvement on their 2002 showing where they lost all three games.

The Challenge Facing McClaren at Wolfsburg

The former England boss, Steve McClaren, was linked with a move to the Bundesliga last Summer when Hamburg were deciding who would replace the Ajax-bound Martin Jol. How much truth their was behind the rumours is moot. Hamburg poached Bruno Labbadia from Bayer Leverkusen and McClaren stayed at FC Twente for another season to deliver the Eredivisie championship and fulfil the dreams of the people of Enschede. At least the ones that support their local team.

Having secured his place among the modern greats, a new and exciting opportunity awaits him in Lower Saxony as he attempts to put 2008/09 champions Wolfsburg back on course after a disappointing season.

His first challenge will be the disposal of top scorer Edin Dzeko. Many thought that the Bosnian would leave the Wolves with former coach Felix Magath at the end of their Championship winning season. However, for whatever reason, his preferred club AC Milan never ponied up sufficient dough to persuade the board to part with him and Dzeko agreed to sign a new contract. Nearly one year on and the consensus is that he will leave for a handsome fee. How much of that fee is made available to McClaren will depend on how much new blood he can bring into the squad.

The basis of the championship-winning squad is still there. Zjvezdan Misimovic, the playmaker, Grafite, Dzeko's strike partner (frequently linked with a move away) and Swiss international 'keeper Diego Benaglio form the basis of an experienced squad, more than capable of mounting a title challenge.

Wolfsburg (the club) are ambitious. Back by Volkswagen money, they have ambitions to become a regular Champions League club and take their place among the powerhouses of German football such as Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen, Hamburg, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Stuttgart.

So the target for McClaren will be unambiguous. Champions League qualification at least with a tilt at the title as a bonus. One advantage McClaren will have is that his team will not have to juggle a European campaign next season after finishing a disappointing eighth in the Bundesliga.

The pressure will be on as expectations will be high. The last coach Armin Vey, himself a Bundesliga-winning coach with Stuttgart in 2007, was sacked half way through the season when it became apparent that he was not able to emulate the achievements of the previous campaign. However, one can argue that the post championship hangover is past now and the first Englishman to coach a Bundesliga club will have a clean slate to work with. I just can't wait to hear his accent.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Football Americana Week 7: Goal spree in MLS

There were goals, goals and more goals in Major League Soccer in Week 7, and they weren't all down to individual magic. Here's your weekly MLS update.

In midweek there were a total of four matches. 19-year-old DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid made his professional debut and starred as he helped United to their first win of the season, a 2-1 victory over Kansas City Wizards. Australian Danny Allsopp opened the scoring early on, his deflected shot finding the net and giving United their first lead of the season. Allsopp was on target again before half time and made it 2-0 with a classy finish from the edge of the area. The Wizards were rattled but did pull one back thanks to Kei Kamara. Ryan Smith and Christian Castillo were probably lucky not to earn their teams a red card apiece.

New England Revolution took a good old-fashioned thrashing from Chivas USA. Jesus Padilla put the Californian side ahead in the 26th minute, pouncing on a mistake by Kevin Alston and rounding goalkeeper Preston Burpo to score. Marko Perovic was dismissed for swinging a couple of elbows a couple of minutes later, and from there on in it was a formality. Justin Braun made it 2-0 in the 33rd, and goals from Padilla and rookie Blair Gavin after the break completed a 4-0 thumping.

In Texas, FC Dallas won 1-0 against Houston Dynamo to pick up their first ever away win against their neighbours and their first of the season. Heroic last-ditch defending kept matters level until FCD's Jair Benitez was sent off controversially for a clash with Luis Angel Landin. 10-man Dallas won it 12 minutes from time with a header by Ugo Ihemelu.

It was also 1-0 at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, where LA Galaxy continued their blistering start with a 1-0 win over Colorado Rapids. The Rapids caused real problems for the Galaxy but it was Alan Gordon who made the difference, finding the net with a diving header from Landon Donovan's free kick.

At the weekend, there were goals flying in all over the place, and LA Galaxy bagged no fewer than four of them - unanswered - on an away trip to Seattle Sounders. Jovan Kirovski gave the Galaxy a half time lead with a shot which squirmed through Kasey Keller's hands. Omar Gonzalez made it 2-0 with a thumping header off the crossbar, and Todd Dunivant stooped to take advantage of bad defending to make it three. Landon Donovan opened his 2010 account with a burst of pace in front of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and a prod past Keller. Seattle have offered to refund tickets after their dismal showing.

Toronto FC also got four and conceded just once against Chicago Fire. Nick LaBrocca's goal was an overhit cross but TFC won't mind, and doubled their lead with a poacher's finish by O'Brian White just after the break. Logan Pause quickly pulled one back with a phenomenal strike from distance, but Toronto finished the job with a quickfire double from Chad Barrett.

In Sandy, Utah, newcomers Philadelphia Union were comfortably beaten, falling to a 3-0 defeat by Real Salt Lake. A defensive error caused problems for the Union, and RSL skipper Kyle Beckerman eventually rolled in the opener. Jamison Olave bundled in a Javier Morales free kick to make it two, and Alvaro Saborio capped the victory with a confident header 20 minutes from time.

A five-goal thriller at Columbus Crew saw New England Revolution beaten again. They took the lead with a shot by Zak Boggs which was fumbled horribly by the Crew's goalkeeper William Hesmer. Eddie Gaven equalised for Columbus, and Cory Gibbs' sliding own goal made it 2-1 to the Crew. Boggs levelled with a composed finish, but the Revs were defeated by a stoppage time winner by Robbie Rogers.

After both picking up their first wins of the season, DC United headed for Pizza Hut Park but were beaten 1-0 by FC Dallas. United were once again unlucky in front of goal and FCD took all three points despite taking just one of their own many chances. Jeff Cunningham slotted past Bill Hamid to seal the win for Dallas. United will rue shots from Clyde Simms and Kurt Morsink which hit the woodwork either side of Cunningham's goal.

High-flying New York Red Bulls came unstuck at San Jose Earthquakes, where they took a 4-0 beating after the sending off of right back Luke Sassano inside 15 minutes. Sassano saw red for an outrageous tackle on Bobby Convey, and the Earthquakes took full advantage. Ryan Johnson took his goal with excellent technique, and the Quakes added three more in the second half. Bouna Condoul allowed Joey Gjertsen's daisy cutter to go underneath him for 2-0, and Chris Wondolowski made the game safe with 14 minutes to go. Bobby Burling's header added insult to injury.

Houston Dynamo roared past Chivas USA in the space of four minutes at the beginning of their encounter at HDC. Brad Davis beat Zach Thornton with a lovely sliding lob in the fourth minute, and in the seventh Adrian Serioux doubled the lead by thundering a header home from a corner.

All of the above leaves LA absolutely flying, sitting top of the West and a full nine points clear of the Dynamo. In the other table, Columbus are catching up with New York and are now just four points behind them on 11. You can see those standings here, and watch all the action here.

Scotland 2009/10: How was it for you?

SO, there it is. The Scottish Cup final notwithstanding, the curtain comes down on season 2009/10, the 113th since that sunny day in August 1890, when Rangers defeated Heart of Midlothian 5-2.

Funny how history has a habit of (nearly) repeating itself. While this season Rangers kicked off against Falkirk and not Hearts, the end result was pretty much the same – Rangers champions (albeit joint champions with Dumbarton), Celtic several points behind them, St Mirren somewhere near the bottom. Taking the role of Falkirk in that first season where Cowlairs, a team currently residing in the “where are they now?” files.

Hopefully Falkirk won’t go the same way as Cowlairs, a team beset by financial and administrative problems and which eventually went out of business in 1896, but there’s many a nervous Bairns fan out there, wondering what the summer will bring.

But how was the season for you and yours?

You can’t say it’s not been exciting. Celtic, Dundee United, Falkirk, Hearts, Kilmarnock and Motherwell all changed managers at some point during the season. History tells us that changing horses in midstream is generally not a good idea, but with the exception of Falkirk, for the most part it’s worked out.

In the end, Rangers deserved their title. Despite all their problems, they won the league at a canter. A League Cup would have been matched by a Scottish Cup had it not been for United, and the less said about the European adventures the better, but worthy champions they are. The won the league against a backdrop of financial woes, but with every day bringing news of tax demands, a will-he-wont-he buyer and a bank-induced “buy one, get one free” players sale, it might not all be such plain sailing next season.

About the only team for who Rangers’ impending implosion is relevant is Celtic. Even with Lennon in charge had no chance of catching up with Rangers, but you have to credit the Northern Irish international for at least giving it a go. Unbeaten in the league since taking over from Mowbray, Lennon has made a good case for becoming permanent manager of the Hoops over the summer. Something tells me he’ll get the job, and you know what – why not? He’s a Celtic man through and through, he’s done a remarkable job in turning around a squad that just wasn’t performing particularly well and, if nothing else, at least he did something only two other teams did this season: beat Rangers.

Peter Houston, the initially reluctant Dundee United manager got off to a slow start, including a goalless draw with Killie, a 7-1 thrashing by Rangers and an away defeat at New Firm rivals Aberdeen, but he stuck it out to put together a series of results that kept them in the top half of the table (they never dropped lower than fifth) and got them into the Scottish Cup final.

Craig Brown and Jim Jefferies, two veterans of our game had seasons of differing fortunes. Appointed to their new positions within a month of eachother (Brown at the end of December, Jefferies at the end of January) both managers steered a steady course to keep their sides from straying too far down the table – though by a strange quirk brought about by the league split, seventh placed Accies actually finished the season with more points than sixth placed Hearts.

No one said Scottish football was perfect.

Fans of St Johnstone can look back on a solid campaign that, given a repeat performance next season, could well be the start of a lengthy SPL stay, if only they’d stop conceding so many goals. Jimmy Calderwood did was he was asked, keep Killie up, but his future, not to mention that of Killie remains in doubt.

Hamilton Accies did well to improve on their final finishing position from season 2008/09, finishing two places higher, and all that without their prize asset, Master James McCarthy. Whether they’ll do as well without James McArthur remains to be seen…

St Mirren managed to avoid the final day heart attacks of last season, but only just. A vital win at home to Kilmarnock and draws against Falkirk and Hamilton in the final weeks of the season kept the Buddies up, meaning SPL football will be played in their brand new stadium for another year.

Which leaves Aberdeen, easily the most disappointing team of the season. Picking holes in Aberdeen’s season is like shooting fish in a barrel, there was simply so much that went wrong. Terrible players, terrible results and a manager whose early-season PR with his own fans left many wondering about his sanity, not to mention longevity, all made up not so much a roller-coaster season as a fairly pacey downhill slalom.

Another highlight of the season has been the progress that Raith Rovers and Ross County made in this years domestic Cup competitions. Raith Rovers, somewhere below mid-table in the First Division made it as far as the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup, beating Aberdeen and Dundee along the way, before coming unstuck against Dundee United. Ross County made it one game further. They took two big SPL scalps, those of Hibernian and Celtic (providing Neil Lennon’s only copybook blot). They also put nine past Second Division champions Stirling Albion in an earlier round.

They’ll play Dundee United next Saturday at Hampden.

And I couldn’t fail to mention an old favourite, Fort William. The Fort, once Britain’s worst football team, possibly, went from a team without a win last season to winning no less than 5 games during this campaign. They finished five points above the bottom spot, the wooden porridge spoon this year going to Rothes. Despite their success, The Fort still set two records this season: the biggest home win (champions Buckie Thistle won 8-0) and the longest run without recording a win (11).

There have been some disappointments too.

The national side once again failed spectacularly on the international stage. Failure to qualify for South Africa was one thing, but friendly defeats in Japan and Wales proved too much for the SFA who fired Burley, who had won just three of his 14 games in charge. The SFA moved quickly to poach Craig Levein from Dundee United, who got his tenure off to a winning start (a 1-0 win over Euro 2012 group-mates the Czech Republic). While the start looks promising, it may not last: Levein is one of the names in the frame for the Celtic job.

The other disappointment has been the McLeish report, the much awaited inquest into past, present and future of the Scottish game. Released without any fanfare whatsoever somewhere last month (I forget when, go Google) the report made some minor waves in the national media and the blogosphere, but most of us who care about the game stopped reading after we saw the line about needing £500m in investment to get things to where they should be. Quite where that amount of money is going to come from in this day and age is a mystery to me, and McLeish for that matter.

What follows on from this first installment (there are three in total) is completely irrelevant now, because by coming up with such ludicrous amounts, McLeish has made a mockery of his own report, and any further insights or recommendations – no matter how clever – will be met with even less hoo-la than I would have ever imagined.

So that’s it. A quick summary of my Scottish football season. We’ve still got a few games to go (a Cup final and the First and Second division play-off Finals), and before the next season kicks off there will be more talk of league reconstruction and league splits. While the format may change, the football remains the same and despite all I’ve had to put up with as an Aberdeen fan, I’m already looking forward to August.

Are you?


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