World Football Columns We're fans. It's our game, so we write about it. Sat, 23 Apr 2011 02:27:42 +0000 en hourly 1 World Football Columns WFC’s Weekend Catch: The World’s Best Fixtures For 23-24 April, 2011 Sat, 23 Apr 2011 02:23:38 +0000 The WFC Staff ]]> Things are getting tight everywhere in the football world, except, of course, the USA.  The MLS season is just getting underway and needs a few weeks before the contenders and pretenders are separated.  It should be noted, though, that after starting slowly, NY Red Bulls have made a move to the top of the Eastern Conference on the back of some fellow named Thierry Henry.  The Frenchman struck for a first half brace against DC United on Thursday night in a 4-0 rout.  Beyond that, however, not much is going on in MLS.  Real Salt Lake is being given the league off until they complete their CONCACAF Champions League Final against Mexicans Monterrey, this weekend.

Everywhere else, seasons are winding down.  Bolton and Arsenal look to turn around recent adversities against each other on Sunday, Marseille look for a trophy in the Coupe de la Ligue on Saturday, Real Madrid play another match at the Mestalla, this time against Valencia, Feyenoord look for 10 goals worth of pay back against PSV and QPR seek a win against Cardiff that, barring the intervention of the FA, will have them planning for a Premier League season in August.


Sunderland v Wigan (Saturday) – Since January, Steve Bruce’s Black Cats have been crossing the wrong paths.  They have scored just seven goals and lost eight of nine games.  Prior to that, Sunderland had been doing very well for a club which had lost one of the best strike partnerships in the league, Darren Bent and Kenwynne Jones, both of which were surprisingly unhappy at the Stadium of Light.  Now, the Mackems have moved from threatening a place in Europe to being threatened by relegation.  Worse, they keep getting bad news on the injury front.  Frazier Campbell, who hasn’t featured since August, now needs follow-up knee surgery.  Titus Bramble is likely done for the season and keeper Craig Gordon is on the shelf for at least four months.  On 38 points, they sit 5 points from danger with five games to play, but if they don’t take some points soon, teams like Wigan, who pulled themselves out of the drop zone with a big win at Blackpool, last week, will quickly overtake them.  Early in the season, Bloomfield Road was a difficult place to take points, much like the Stadium of Light.  Roberto Martinez’ side has overcome the mojo at the former and would love to put themselves on surer footing by breaking the hex at the latter. — Martin Palazzotto

Bolton v Arsenal (Sunday) — It’s not good to corner a wounded animal but what happens when two of them come face to face?  We’ll find out at the Reebok, when Owen Coyle’s Wanderers play their first match since falling apart in an epic manner against Stoke City at Wembley, a week ago.  Arsenal, meanwhile, were stung deeply by the seemingly endless stoppage time which allowed Liverpool, with the very last action of the match, to level a game which Arsenal thought they had just won.   Arsene Wenger’s mood wasn’t softened by a Spanish reporter apparently twisting Cesc Fabregas’ words to once again blow the lid off the pot filled with stewing Barcelona rumours.  Both sides will have something to prove and, for the Gunners, it’s win or face another summer full of the familiar cry – why can’t they win anything? — M.P.

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Cardiff v Queens Park Rangers (Saturday)The early kick-off in the Championship is a huge fixture. No less than three points will do for either side. Victory for the league leading QPR would guarantee promotion (barring a possible point deduction) and all but secure the league title. Cardiff are comfortable in the play-off places but a win would see them leapfrog Norwich City for the 2nd automatic promotion spot. Since the shock defeat at Crystal Palace, Cardiff have gone six games unbeaten, to pull themselves back into contention. In what has been a superb team effort, the last seven Cardiff goals have all come from different scorers. QPR’s form is a little up and down of late.  After beating Sheffield United 3-0, they suffered defeat to lowly Scunthorpe, 4-1, and bounced back with a 1-0 win over Barnsley, only to settle for a goalless draw against Derby. Could the pending FA hearing, on the 3rd of May, be playing on players’ minds?  Cardiff will hope so. — Andrew Gibney

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Rangers v Celtic (Sunday) – This is the seventh and final (I promise) Old Firm encounter of the season.  Current champion Rangers need a win to put their destiny in their own hands. For that to happen, Walter Smith needs to attack Celtic as he did in the League Cup final.  Once again, the use of Gregg Wylde’s pace could be important, with in-form striker Nikica Jelavic the danger man. In what will be his last Old Firm game, Walter Smith will hope his squad can give him one more win over his main rivals.  It’s been one hell of a week for Celtic boss Neil Lennon but his side proved they were unaffected by recent events, thrashing Killie 4-0 during the week. Gary Hooper will certainly start as he is the main goal threat but will Lennon partner him with Anthony Stokes or bring Giorgios Samaras back in? Both Beram Kayal & Kris Commons have been great performers in Old Firm games this season and will be out to help Celtic take a step closer to the title.  This Easter Sunday is going to be huge in Glasgow.  Ibrox will be packed  but only one half will still be in a celebratory mood come dinner time! – Scott Johnston

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Nurnberg v Mainz (Sunday) — Hannover cruised to a 3-1 road victory over Freiburg at the [Boris] badenova Stadion on Friday night.  So, if Bayern want to save their proverbial moose and squirrel, they’ll need to make their own successful invasion against relegation threatened Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday. After their 5-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen last week, they seem to have relaxed since the departure of Louis van Gaal and they should be able to reclaim their Champions League place.  The two young teams facing off on Sunday, however, will be battling over the final Bundesliga slot in the Europa League.  André (Don’t Call Me) Schürrle’s struggles have reflected Mainz’ in the second half.  His goal, last week, was just his 4th of the new year, after 9 in the autumn.  This game would be the opportune time for the youngster to find some consistency.  If he can strike in consecutive matches, Thomas Tuchel’s squad should be all but through.  Nurnberg, naturally, have other ideas.  Christian Eigler, Julian Schreiber and Ilkay Gündogan have all been threats for der Club this season and Dieter Hecking’s lads would love to shed themselves of another moniker, der Altmeister (Past Master).  As the saying goes, there’s no time like the present. — Martin Palazzotto

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Feyenoord v PSV (Sunday) – They say revenge is a dish best served cold.   Well, Feyenoord have kept their emotions on ice for six months, waiting to make PSV regret their 10 goal feast, earlier in the season at the Philips Stadion.  Given their recent form,  there’s every chance Mario Been and company could attain their vengeance, as well.  Back-to-back victories over Willem II and FC Utrecht – in  the midst of winning 5 of their last 7 – has moved the Rotterdam giants to within a point of the Europa League playoffs.  That was unthinkable a couple of months ago.  When Been refused to rule the possibility out, the Dutch press labeled him “nuts.”  PSV, on the other hand, are deep into a three-way title race  that seems headed for the wire.   Twente won on Friday evening, setting the bar for this weekend at must win.  Yet, PSV’s  recent form doesn’t inspire confidence.   A single win from their last 3 games has allowed Ajax back into the race, too, and knowing the Amsterdammers are hosting relegation threatened Excelsior at home, the match at De Kuip is loaded with pressure.  In that regard, history is on PSV’s side, only losing once in their last 4 visits to Rotterdam.  Yet, the unpredictability of the past few weeks shows no sign of letting up. – Mohamed Moallim

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Marseille v Montpellier Coupe de la Ligue Final, (Saturday) – While title rivals Lille take on Lorient with an eye to extending their lead to four points, OM have an important appointment at the Stade de France. Last week’s 2-1 victory at the Stade de la Mosson means nothing as both teams try to win the first French silverware of the season. Marseille will have to do it without the talents of Loic Remy.  Given a straight red after lashing out at Montpellier’s Abdel El-Kaoutari, he has been suspended for three matches. The pressure will now be on Andre-Pierre Gignac to play his unfavoured role in the centre of attack. On the opposite side striker Olivier Giroud will look to build on last week’s excellent performance, when he gave the home side a surprise but short-lived lead. Marseille start favourites but no one should rule out their opponents; when it comes to finals, anything can happen. – Andrew Gibney

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Lorient v Lille (Sunday) – The title race in France couldn’t be tighter.  Marseille trail Lille by a single point , with Didier Deschamps having seen his team pick up a perfect six points from their last two matches, coming from behind to beat both Toulouse and Montpellier. Unfortunately, that momentum has been stalled by a second date with Montpellier in the League Cup Final.  Now, Lille have a free weekend to restore a little momentum for themselves and putting the pressure back on the chasing pack. It will not be an easy game, though. Lorient are one of the best attacking sides in France, other than Lille themselves.  Statistically, they actually complete more passes per game than Rudi Garcia’s free-flowing side. With the deadly instincts of Kevin Gameiro and Morgan Amalfitano’s midfield dynamism, Lorient are a team to approach with caution. Still, if anyone can go toe-to-toe with Lorient, it’s the leaders.  Goals from Gervinho and Eden Hazard against Nice in the midweek fired Lille into the Coupe de France final, where they will take on PSG on 14 May.   The result ended a run of two games without a win and brought some confidence back to Les Dogues,  reinvigorating their quest to win a first title since 1954 and a possible league and cup double.  However, anything but a win could seriously damage their chances. — Andrew Gibney

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Valencia v Real Madrid (Saturday) — This weekend offers a respite from the four game El Clasico graphic novel.  A half time intermission, bathroom break or whatever you choose to call it.  Unfortunately, I find that against my better instincts, I’ve become a slave to elitism and cannot find a better La Liga match to previewSo, it’s a Real redux at the Mestalla, whether you like it or not.  Although Barcelona should have little problem racking up 10 points in six matches, Los Blancos must run the table to have any hope of winning the league at Jose Mourinho’s first asking.  Meanwhile, Unai Emery’s side face little pressure in holding down 3rd place, six points ahead of Villareal and have less chance of catching Madrid than the visitors do of reeling in Barça.   On the other hand, a loss in this match could give the Yellow Submarine hope and that’s something Los Che really don’t want.  Angel di Maria will be unavailable for the Meringues after his two yellows in mid-week.  Mourinho would obviously like a victory but will be unconcerned by a draw, as long as his side put in enough work to maintain their momentum heading into the Champions League first leg. – Martin Palazzotto  

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Inter v Lazio (Saturday) — Three points separate both teams, as 3rd hosts 4th in the race for automatic qualification to the Champions League. Lazio haven’t picked up a point in this fixture for six seasons, but will be buoyed by last week’s 4-1 thrashing of Catania and a 3-1 win over the Nerazzurri back in December. Mauro Zarate put in an inspired performance, coming off the bench to have a hand in three of Lazio’s four goals. The problematic striker is expected to start at San Siro in place of the injured Giuseppe Sculli. Inter seem to have put last week’s 2-0 defeat to Parma behind them as they beat Roma 1-0 in the first leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final in midweek but they come into this game minus the injured Ivan Cordoba. Ex-Lazio midfielder Dejan Stankovic has talked up Inter’s unity and Leonardo knows a victory will be key if he is to secure a second season on the Inter bench. – Shaun Best

Udinese v Parma (Saturday) – Udinese ensured the rollercoaster ride for European places took another twist with last week’s away victory over Napoli. The win was even more impressive given Udinese were without lethal strike force Alexis Sánchez and Antonio Di Natale, who have contributed 38 goals between them thus far. Sánchez should return this weekend. Last weekend’s matchwinner German Denis will fill in for the still-absent Di Natale. With Arsenal sniffing around Gokhan Inler and Juventus and Inter enquiring about Sánchez, Champions League qualification may be the only way for the Friuli club to keep hold of their assets. Being assigned a referee from Rome has upset Udinese patron Giampaolo Pozzo. Coach Francesco Guidolin, however, isn’t concerned, as he just wants three points against his former club. The Gialloblu are boosted following their win against Inter and the news that midfield maestro Sebastian Giovinco has pledged his future to the club, despite being co-owned by Juventus. Franco Colomba has gone back to basics, implementing a 4-4-2 system and asking teammates to work for each other. The signs look encouraging thus far. Parma will need another performance from Giovinco and former Friuli frontman Amauri if they hope to leave Udine with anything. They haven’t won at the Friuli for ten years, but earned a draw here last season. – S.B.

Palermo v Napoli (Saturday) – Thirty-two goal hitman Edinson Cavani makes his first appearance at the Renzo Barbera since being sold last summer. Despite being linked with another move , Cavani has thus far remained tight-lipped over his future. Six points behind Milan, with only five games to play, Napoli will be going gung-ho for victory. Last week’s loss to Udinese snapped a run of four straight victories for the Neapolitans. Palermo put on a late show to rob Roma of three points at the Stadio Olimpico. Palermo will have an eye on the Coppa Italia, after drawing with Milan in the first leg of their tie. Delio Rossi has stabilised the club somewhat following his return and could earn a reprieve into next season. Both sides love to attack, so goals look like a certainty in Sicily. Palermo won the corresponding fixture 2-1 last season, while Napoli etched out a 1-0 victory at the San Paolo back in December. Mauricio Pinilla misses out for the home side after being stretchered off against Milan. The only other absentee is defender Dorin Goian, through suspension. On the other side, Marek Hamsik will provide the support for Cavani. Giuseppe Mascara will make up the other place to cover the suspended Ezequiel Lavezzi.  Captain Paolo Cannavaro could be displaced by Emilson Cribari at the back as the visitors implement a 3-5-2 formation. – S.B.

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River Plate v Godoy Cruz (Saturday) – One of the two leaders of Argentina’s Big 5, along with Boca Juniors, River were in an embarrassing position at the outset of the 2011 Clausura.  Relegation, through the 3-year average system employed by the AFA to protect their larger clubs from a bad year, still threatened if they could not put together a solid season.  Despite relying almost exclusively on their youth academy to provide players and relying on an unproven coach, the side has come through, currently sitting second, 2 points behind Velez Sarsfield at the midway point of the tournament.  Millionaros no longer, River no longer can rely upon goals.  Instead, their pride has forged a nearly impenetrable defence, which has yielded just 4 goals in 10 contests, matched only by Argentinos Juniors.  Round 11 presents a difficult challenge in Godoy Cruz, an always solid side, crowded into a 3-way tie for 3rd place.  Manager Jorge da Silva loves to attack and, with different personnel depending upon the opponent.  Leading goal scorer Alvaro Navarro has collected his 4 goals in just 7 appearances, 3 of them as a substitute.  Godoy’s unpredictability will test River and, if they slip, could leap-frog the visitors into prime position to catch Velez – Martin Palazzotto

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Santos v Club America (Wednesday) — Santos hadn’t seen much of wunderkind Neymar in the Libertadores or domestically in 2011.  That is, not until their South American lives were on the line against Venezuelan side Tachira.  Needing a victory to make the knockout stage, the youngster stepped up and scored the first in a 2-0 triumph.  He had missed the last game after a suspension for celebrating a goal by donning a mask – of himself – upside down.  New coach Muricy Ramalho must feel like his putting his professional life in the hands of Roger Rabbit but, so far, it’s working out.  Now, the Brazilians welcome Mexican giants, America, who are preoccupied with attempting to hold onto their Clausura playoff place with just two matches remaining and a pair of clubs right on their heels.  A 4600 mile flight is not what you need in such dire circumstances and Santos will surely look to place the visitors on the back foot right out of the gate. – Martin Palazzotto

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America v Atlante (Sunday) — The result of this match will have much to do with America’s state of mind on their long flight in mid-week.  A victory against the team just ahead of them in Group 2 of the Mexican Clausura won’t assure their progression to the play-offs but it will put them in a very good place.  So good that they’ll be able to doze contentedly as they travel the friendly skies and arrive refreshed.  A draw or, worse, a loss could put them in 3rd or even 4th place with one match left in the domestic tournament.  That would surely gnaw at their minds on a long, sleepless journey.  A victory for Cancun based Atlante will put them in the playoff picture and they have no other appointments to disturb their focus.  America, who have been inconsistent in the run-in, will be put to the test this week, surely. – Martin Palazzotto

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Real Salt Lake v Monterrey (Wednesday) — Will Monterrey give Mexico its 6th consecutive CONCACAF championship or will RSL break through for MLS’ first in 11 years?  Rio Tinto Stadium is not Wembley or the Santiago Bernabeu but it will see history made one way or the other this week.  El Rayados will have it all to do in the second leg, having given up a late equaliser and a dreaded second away goal in the tie.  At Utah’s near mile-high altitude, Monterrey’s desperation to turn this match around may play against them as their lungs will be tested in the late going.  Worse, they have a critical weekend match to see to first, just as America do in the Libertadores.  Salt Lake, however, have MLS commissioner Don Garber in their corner, granting them a reprieve from league play while they chase continental glory.  Their one problem is that they will be without Dread Captain Kyle Beckerman, after a second half foul in the first leg earned him a booking and suspension.  RSL’s depth and experience will be tested on Wednesday night. — Martin Palazzotto

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See you next week!

]]> 0 wfctagteam premier-league-logo npower championship logo Scottish Premier League logo Bundesliga logo Eredivisie logo Coupe de la Ligue Ligue 1 logo La Liga logo Serie A logo Argentine FA logo Copa Libertadores logo Primera Division Mexico Logo CONCACAF_CL_logo South Of The Border: America Fights Back & Monterrey Distracted Fri, 22 Apr 2011 18:00:31 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> There are two rounds remaining in the seventeen match Mexican Clausura (closing) tournament for 2010-11.  In a fortnight, we’ll know which eight clubs are advancing into the ‘Octagon’.  No, whatever Monterrey’s Jesus Zavala might have been thinking when he momentarily attempted to throttle Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio during Wednesday night’s CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, mixed martial arts haven’t gained a place in the Mexican game.  The Octagon is merely my designation for the eight team knockout round, consisting of two-legged ties all the way through, to decide the Clausura champion.  Since they call the final, six nation CONCACAF group qualification for the World Cup the Hexagon, I thought I’d expand on the theme.

With so little time remaining before the Octagon begins, clubs are reacting just as you might expect.  Some of those desperate sides still with a chance to make the playoffs are finally showing some urgency in their play and one or two who thought they were fairly well off have become a tad complacent.  Naturally, there are also the top sides who refuse to let up on the gas, showing that their eyes are truly on the prize.

At the top of Groups 1 and 3 respectively, Tigres and Pumas again took care of their business.

Damián Alvarez scored late as Tigres ground out a 1-0 away win against woeful Jaguares.  The cats from Chiapas have fallen far and fast.  After qualifying for the Copa Libertadores by finishing 6th in the Apertura tournament, Jaguares have been awful both domestically and in the South American championship.  They now sit on ten losses in fifteen league games, with easily the worst point total and goal difference of the eighteen clubs involved.   Next season, they will be starting over rather than building upon their success.

Tigres don’t look likely to make the same mistakes.  After finishing just out of the hunt in the Apertura, the San Nicolas based club have improved drastically on defence, to the point that they have the league’s second best record and are the only squad yet to concede ten goals.  Not running up the score on lesser opponents is of no concern to Ricardo Ferretti’s group; clean sheets are their priority.

The only side which has outdone them, Pumas, have also cut their goals allowed virtually in half, yet have also discovered a way to simultaneously raise their offensive output.  The club has adopted a variation of the tick-a-tack, short passing possession game that has stood Barcelona in such good stead.  While not as polished as the Catalan version, their goal difference easily outstrips the nearest competitors, as evidenced by their 3-0 manhandling of Querétaro.  Unlike Barça, however, Pumas also spread around the scoring load.  Francisco Palencia’s brace in this victory made him the eighth player on the club, in just fifteen games, to have at least two goals.

Still, should the two feline clubs make it through to the final, the matchup will be reminiscent of El Clasico, minus the tradition and stuff of legend, of course.

The Group 2 leader, Atlante, were one of the clubs which took their position too much for granted on the weekend.  It’s easy to do that when you call a paradise like Cancun home but, as a result, another stingy club who pulled off a string of upsets in the early doors before invitably fading, Necaxa, fought them to a one goal draw.  The result allowed a talented, wasteful and thus suddenly desperate América to close ranks with the islanders.

The residents of the fabled Azteca made their second trip to Guadelajara in a week.  After failing to muster themselves for a renewal of the actual Mexican Clasico against Chivas, wherein they were beaten 3-0, and feeling the pressure from the other four clubs in the group, all now within striking distance of their playoff spot, the Millionaires rolled up their sleeves and worked in the trenches to produce a 3-1 victory over Tecos at Estadio Jalisco.  It took Oswaldo Pantoja’s late first half goal to really wake América up.  It’s not often you see an indirect free kick taken from inside the box!  After the break, Diego Reyes Rosales, he of the three names and numbers (134 on his shirt, I kid you not), leveled and Angel Reyna Martinez (still three names but a more modest 18 on his back) put matters to rest with a double.

It was a good thing, too, as the quartet behind América were all facing off against one another and the capital club would be truly foolish to rely on two draws to come out of the mêlée.  As fate would have it a pair of 2-1 away victories, Toluca at San Luis and Atlas at Pachuca, mean that Group 2 now has four clubs within a result of one another, with two matches apiece remaining and just as many spots assured in the playoff.  Monterrey’s draw with Monarcas opens the door for a possible at large birth for whoever finishes third in the group, if they can manage to better Group 1 side Santos Laguna.

The concern amongst Millionaire fans, though, is that their side has left it too long.  This weekend’s match is against leaders Atlante and if they do not win that, it is difficult to see them fashioning anything out of their final game, away to the Barcelona-esque Pumas.  Meanwhile, everything is there for Atlante, despite mucking it up against Necaxa, with the game against América followed by another group clash against Toluca.  The group leaders will have no one to blame but themselves should they fall out of the running in the final fortnight.

Atlas also have a difficult final contest, against Tigres, which makes the playing field fairly level during the run-in.  Still the pressure will be on the front-runners, as their pursuers have comparatively easy affairs this week, Atlas against Jaguares and Toluca with Tecos.  Whatever happens, you can be assured that Group 2 won’t be decided until the final whistle two Sundays from now.

Over in Group 1, the other outsider, Santos, closed on struggling Monterrey by upending second-placed Chivas, 0-1, at the Estadio OmniLife.  Felipe Baloy’s goal in stoppage time dashed any hope the Goats had of knocking Tigres out of the top spot and made all the difference, four points to two, in the gap between the victorious Corona brewery side and the otherwise occupied Monterrey.

El Rayados are the one club, out of all the contenders, whose plight can be put down to simple hard luck.  While their early doors were largely against the lower half of the overall table, the final seven games on their fixture list have combined to form a deadly gauntlet which they must run in order to have any hope of adding the Clausura to their current Apertura title.

Not that holding both trophies would be an easy feat under any circumstances, mind.  Since the Apertura/Clausura came into being in 2002 only Pumas, in 2004, has won back-to-back titles.  Even from 1996-2001, when the tournaments were known as Invierno and Verano (winter and summer), no one managed to remain champion for an entire season.

In case you’re wondering, the change was made to appease that very popular fellow, Sepp Blatter, and his cronies at FIFA.  The winter and summer tournaments occurred in that order, with the extended break over the festive season, conflicting with the UEFA transfer windows.  With the well-heeled European clubs wishing to make it as easy as possible to move Central and South American talent to their clubs, the Clausura (closing) replaced the Invierno and the Apertura (opening) replaced the Verano.  The longer break was then moved to the summer months and Mexican football was turned on its fiscal head to better serve the Old World.

Hugo Sanchez scored 99 goals for Pumas, 25 in the old NASL, another 200+ for Atletico and Real Madrid and 427 in all but may have had his best year in 2004, as Pumas manager, winning the Apertura, Clausura and traveling to Madrid to beat Real 3-1 in a friendly. If you are a Madridista legend, they are happy to present you a well-polished and massive trophy.

In any case, Monterrey’s run-in has consisted of draws against Monarcas, Santos and Toluca, with a win over America tempered by a loss to Cruz Azul.  Just six points from five matches has made their grip on an at large play-off seed tenuous.  Still to come are what was a seemingly easy match against Puebla and a tournament finale against Chivas.

The match against Puebla has been complicated by two factors, however.  First, La Franja punched above their weight, stunning Cruz Azul, 2-0, in their last match.  Second, they are in a tight spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, having drawn the home leg, 2-2, with MLS side Real Salt Lake.  They must now travel to 4800′ above sea level in Sandy, Utah for the second leg, just four days after the Puebla game.  Proper acclimatisation usually requires being at altitude for a week.  The medical issues, as well as needing to overcome two away goals means that El Rayados cannot sit back in that match.  Yet, with pressure on them in the league, they cannot afford to rest anyone on the weekend against a middling team full of confidence.

If Monterrey can climb the mountain of adversity which has risen in front of them, they then face three two-legged ties which they must win to join Pumas’ as the only short-tournament back-to-back champions in the history of the Primera División.  As the saying goes, nothing is ever easy.

I’ll see you next week to set up the final week of the Clausura tournament.

]]> 0 resulteditor Primera Division Mexico Logo Mexican Clausura Round 15 Hugo Sanchez
CONCACAF Champions League Final: Real Salt Lake Halfway Home Thu, 21 Apr 2011 21:59:11 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> Monterrey has a problem.  Well, two problems, actually.

The first dilemma is whether to rest any of their key players in the Mexican Clausura on the weekend.  In the domestic competition, their at large position for the playoffs is under serious threat from any number of teams after a grueling five-game run against América, Toluca, Santos Laguna, Cruz Azul and Monarcas has seen them come away with just 6 points from a win and three draws.

Usually, the match against Puebla, on Saturday, would be looked at as an opportunity to give some tired players a day off but the visitors are feeling their oats after knocking off Cruz Azul 2-0 last week.  Beyond the spoilers, there is the final round of the tournament, which translates into another difficult trip to Guadelajara to face Chivas.

So, with Real Salt Lake having scored a vital second away goal at the death, to secure a draw in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Final, Rayados manager Victor Vucetich must decide between risking his side’s chance at a second consecutive domestic crown or letting down an entire nation, which has become used, over the last five years, to winning the continental championship.

The second conundrum is, if the first leg took place at the Tecnólogico in Monterrey, as it did, just what in the name of Peyton Manning were faded grid-iron lines doing on the pitch?  I knew the NFL players were locked out but are they starting up a wildcat league south of the border or something?  I mean, this was the first leg of the North and Central American and Caribbean championship.  Seeing those markings interrupting the perfect green of the Tecnólogico’s pastoral turf transformed what should have been the Rolls Royce of the region’s club competition into a rusted out, dust-covered pickup truck on which someone had fingered the phrase ‘wash me’.

Javier Morales, who would give RSL an all important second away goal, fights for possession with Ricardo Osorio of Monterrey

Graffiti on the grass included, everything seems to be favouring Real Salt Lake in this tie.  With the away goal rule in effect (unless the second leg is knotted at two after ninety minutes), Monterrey will have to open up in the hopes of gaining the advantage.  Not only will that leave the Rayados exposed at the back but at Sandy, Utah’s high elevation, fully three thousand feet higher than that to which the Monterrey players are accustomed, will likely leave them gasping for breath in the latter stages of the match.  Add to that Monterrey’s domestic exertions and MLS commissioner Don Garber’s helping hand, postponing yet another game for Salt Lake this weekend, so that they’ll be fully recovered, it would seem that RSL have merely to hold off a first half surge from the visitors and wait for opportunities to present themselves on the counter.

That is why Javier Morales strike from the top right of the box, in traffic, to level the match in the eighty-ninth minute was so crucial.

In the early going of the first leg, Monterrey was exerting pressure and, in fact, largely controlled the ball throughout the match.  During those first moments, however, Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando was very sharp, covering up an Aldo di Nigris worm burner bound for the near corner and then leaping to tip a Humberto Suazo cannon over the bar.  On eighteen minutes, though, the RSL defence couldn’t corral a loose ball during a Monterrey incursion from the right flank.  The ball ricocheted across the box and di Nigris swooped in to drive it home.  His yellow card for briefly raising his shirt was, refreshingly, the only discipline that El Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar felt the need to impose until well into the match.

As it would turn out, the Rayados boss, Vucetich, was a bit arrogant in his judgment of the state of affairs at that particular moment.  He would immediately make two substitutions, Jesus Zavala for di Nigris and Osvaldo Martinez for Ernesto Perez.  While that may have had much to do with the manager wanting his attacking players as fit as possible for their Saturday match, the two defensive midfielders who came in were not up to the task of containing a determined and unbowed Real Salt Lake for seventy minutes.

Suazo, having sent a dejected Nick Rimando, on his knees in the background, in the wrong direction, holds off Nat Borchers as he fishes the ball out of the goal to carry it back for the restart. This, despite having just put El Rayados ahead.

In fact, it took less than a quarter-hour from the exchanges for RSL to strike back.  Central defender Nat Borchers joined the attack and was on hand to head in a perfect cross from, and this is important, *Canadian* winger Will Johnson.

The match then continued with opportunities for both sides but remained level until Suazo converted a penalty from a Jamison Olave hand ball just after the hour.  RSL sought inroads for the remainder of the game but were unable to break through until the last.

As the Americans pressed, tempers heated and Alvaro Saborio’s aggressive lunge for a fifty-fifty ball in the box resulted in a collision with Monterrey keeper Jonathan Orozco.  The contact drew the ire of Zavala, who grabbed the Costa Rican by the throat for a moment before catching himself and letting go.  Saborio took a brief instant to get into character before collapsing in the Monterrey goal.  An exasperated Referee Aguilar reached into his pocket and produced a yellow card for each of the unruly players.

Finally, with Monterrey desperately defending as the clock wound down, Morales, the Argentine attacking mid, came up with the ball just above the box and to the right of goal.  He quickly turned, darting between two defenders.  Before a third could close on him, he unleashed a low shot past a diving Orozco, into the far side netting, sending the MLSers into raptures.

The only good piece of news for Monterrey was that RSL captain and midfield general Kyle Beckerman will miss the second leg after picking up a caution in the second half.  Beckerman is the heart of the squad, its centre pitch terrier and the focal point of their build-up.  This is a very deep, experienced club, however, and coach Jason Kreis will have them prepared despite the loss.

The 2009 MLS champions are a perfect 4-0-0 on the young season and will, as mentioned not have to play this weekend.  MLS boss Garber is backing up his demands that Major League Soccer stop worrying so much about their profit margin and begin taking international club competition seriously by stepping in and exercising his executive powers at a very critical moment.  Monterrey are surely envious but, as they are at the other end of their season, such assistance from the FMF is virtually impossible.

The return leg is scheduled for, if you’re in London, a bright and early zero three hundred on Thursday morning.  And don’t snort at me like that.  The Football Gods gave you TiVo so that you wouldn’t miss matches like this.


]]> 0 resulteditor CONCACAF_CL_logo morales, ricardo osorio ccl final Suazo, Borchers
Real Madrid v Barcelona, Game 2: Advantage Ronaldo! Thu, 21 Apr 2011 17:03:35 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> Often, I make reference to the Football Gods and the infinite cruelties they visit upon clubs and fans alike.  On Wednesday evening, however, they displayed a far more benevolent side, setting up two wonderful matches.  The earlier contest was between two English sides recently knocked out of the Champions League by Spanish clubs.  The later start pitted the victors in those ties against one another with the Copa del Rey at stake.

I’m not sure what the Footy Immortals do when there are no matches to be seen but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that they may be into the wrestling.  The evening set up just like a classic Monday Night Raw, other than the fact that it was a Wednesday and the action was sizzling.  Tottenham v Arsenal was a cruiser-weight encounter, packed with speed, quickness and high-flying moves.  If you didn’t see it – and what is wrong with you, if you didn’t?! – Spurs fought back from being down 3-1 just before the half, to earn a 3 -3 draw.  With Chelsea pounding on lightweights Birmingham, the dropped points cost Arsenal second place in the Premier League and removed much of the pressure on Man United.

Real Madrid v Barcelona, with the Copa del Rey belt on the line, was a true heavyweight battle, almost in the ‘no time limit/first fall wins’ tradition of the squared circle.  In this case, it was extra time and first goal, which didn’t come until over a hundred minutes had elapsed.  Nonetheless it was a classic case of evenly matched but contrasting styles.  Whether you were at the Mestalla, in Valencia, saw it on television or streamed it online, it was great entertainment.  The only thing missing, was a bombastic rant from Jose Mourinho, who, against the best traditions of wrestling, has decided not to taunt his opponent and simply let his players do the talking on the pitch.

This was also, of course, the second in a four game series between the Spanish giants, which will wind up with the Champions League semi-finals, played out over two legs beginning next week.  Yet, this was the only match of the quartet which held any unique value unto itself.  The opener came either too early or late in the La Liga run-in – depending upon your perspective -  to decide the title and the CL semi-final will be played over two legs.  In a one-off encounter with a trophy at stake, Mourinho had his side ready, despite Barça’s recent dominance over the length of two plus seasons.

In the first half, Real pressured the Catalans everywhere.  Pep Guardiola’s side found it very difficult to control the match, as is their wont, through possession and short passing.  With Carlos Puyol on the bench, apparently not strong enough for a full ninety (or beyond) after taking a knock in the previous match, Guardiola went with a 3-5-2 formation, with Gerard Piquet flanked by Adriano and Dani Alves and supported in the middle by Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets.  Whether it was the unfamiliar shape which hindered their movement or simply an energetic Madrid side whose confidence was boosted by the weekend draw at the Santiago Bernabeu, when Barcelona did make a push forward, the Meringues shunted them to one side and, if they couldn’t win the ball, forced Barcelona to retreat time and again.  If Real was able to wrest the ball away, they countered in quick, dangerous fashion.

Mesut Özil was giving Xavi lessons in distribution, setting up chance after chance.  Cristiano Ronaldo had a goal cleared off the line by Javier Mascherano and another well-saved by Guardiola’s second choice keeper Pinto.  The Spanish version of David James, with his neatly furrowed corn-rows, found himself in calamitous circumstances, however, badly beaten by a Pepe header.  Luckily the post proved to be his best friend.

Now, this is wrestling!

Tempers were high, as well.  When the two players became entangled, Madrid right back Arvelo Arbeloa went unpunished for a vindictive stamp on David Villa’s ankle.   Referee Alberto Undiano either didn’t see the foul or also saw the chippy kick that Villa had aimed at Arbeloa to incite the retaliation.  It has to be said that the referee did his best to let the players decide the match.

After the break, the Blaugrana settled in and began to find some rhythm.  Lionel Messi was set up on the left, making runs directly up the pitch, often feeding balls through to Villa.  Unfortunately for Barça, the former Valencia man couldn’t break his dry spell, even at his former home.  Worse, no one else seemed able to find the mark for the Catalans, with Messi sailing over and Pedro and Dani Alves going wide.

Then, it was suddenly Barcelona’s turn to counter.  Approaching seventy minutes, Messi won a ball back in the centre of the pitch and quickly headed for goal.  The Argentine slotted a perfect ball through to Villa, who beat an onrushing Iker Casillas and ran for the corner joyfully.  He never made it, though, pulling up in dismay when he saw the linesman’s flag waving high.

Reviews showed that he was narrowly but assuredly ahead of the play, which had my match commentator trotting out some rather embarrassing statistics regarding the striker.  It seems that he has not only been called for offsides more than any other Primera Liga player but has also hit the post nine times this season, spreading his attack on the woodwork out judiciously over all competitions.  I have no comment on his ill fortune other than to refer you back to the first sentence in this article.

Late in the half, Real Madrid began to surge again, with Angel di Maria and  Cristiano Ronaldo getting on the end of a few long balls but not quite finding the last touch.  After ninety minutes the sides were again level, as in the first match.  Unfortunately for the Catalans, this one could not end in a draw.

Once again, it was a long clearance that sent Los Blancos on their way.  This one headed down the left side for di Maria to run down, which he did with a defender less than half a step behind.  With no time or space in which to settle, the beanpole winger let go a scintillating first-touch cross which found Ronaldo cutting in to head home over a wrong-footed Pinto.  While Cristiano’s perfect nod had my commentator in a rapturous fit, I was more mesmerised by the quality of the delivery under pressure.

That was not the end of di Maria’s evening, however.  Earlier he had been cautioned when caught out by a high bounce as he charged in to take a pass away from Alves.  Perhaps fearing what the Brazilian, whom he had been shadowing for much of the evening, might do with an open lane, the Argentine foolishly batted the ball down.  Then, as the game wound down, he clattered into Messi and earned a second booking.

He will now miss the Valencia game on the weekend.  With the league all but decided, though, that will probably suit Mourinho just fine, as he will be rested for the first leg of the Champions League semi-final on Wednesday evening at the Bernabeu.

What can be expected from that match?  Well, with some clubs, you might expect a bit of a hangover, especially after winning a trophy that hasn’t graced the club’s cabinet for over two decades.  This is a Mourinho coached side, however, and we are talking about the Champions League.  He will have Real Madrid in a serious mood and well prepared for a Barcelona side that will be looking to re-establish their superiority.

A buoyant Madrid side are not about to throw the Special One under the bus.

In fact, if Sergio Ramos dropping the King’s Cup under the team bus is any indication, Madrid is already beginning to put the match behind them and focus on the Champions League.

Barcelona legend Johan Cruyff stated before the series began that the Catalans needn’t win all four contests, that only the second and fourth were important.  Well, one of the two important matches has gone by the wayside and the third meeting is no longer so meaningless.  When last year’s semi-final first leg against Inter, where Barcelona were completely outplayed and fell two goals behind, is coupled with the progress of Madrid this season, moving from a five-nil whitewashing to holding their own in the second El Clasico and then winning the Copa del Rey on Wednesday night, Pep Guardiola cannot allow losing to Jose Mourinho to become a habit.

Unfortunately, if you saw the deer-in-the-headlights expression he was wearing immediately after the match, it’s entirely possible that he may have no idea how to stop it.

]]> 2 resulteditor Copa-Del-Rey-Logo1 Villa v Arbeloa Mourinho ride
Man United’s Dimitar Berbatov: The Man Who Wasn’t There Thu, 21 Apr 2011 17:00:45 +0000 Shaun Best ]]> Loyalties to Red and Blue aren’t the only things that divide Manchester.  The name Dimitar Berbatov certainly splits opinions, at least throughout the Red half of the city.  While some marvel at the Bulgarian’s ball control and his ability to kill a 50 yard ball dead with the greatest of ease, an equal amount lament his lazy disposition and seemingly care-free attitude during games.

“I am a relaxed guy. I play that way and I can’t change my style. I watch games and see guys who panic on the ball – they look so nervous. I can be calm, because I sometimes know what I want to do before the ball comes to me.”

Despite the flashes of brilliance and the silky touches reminiscent of Monsieur Cantona, Berba’s lack of intensity around the pitch has led fans to question whether their #9 has the necessary je né sais qua.  It’s nothing new to hear rumblings from fans unhappy with Berbatov’s overall contribution.  Yet, their criticisms seem to hold no weight with the laid-back forward.

“The boss [Sir Alex Ferguson] tells me not to change anything – he gives me freedom to express my qualities.”

However, it’s possible that even Sir Alex has begun to tire of the Bulgarian’s ennui, as his £30.75 million prize buy has recently been relegated to the supporting cast.  With a contract that’s due to expire next summer, and talks stalling, are the Red Devils beginning to prepare for life after Berbatov?

“There are very few players who can produce moments like he does in games. It can decide them.”

If Berba would only get involved more often, his teammates would fall all over themselves to shake his hand.

Berba has proven Fergie’s assessment true enough on several occasions.  The problem is that those occasions just don’t occur with satisfactory regularity.  Full of sizzle, Berbatov sometimes struggles to bring the steak to the Manchester United table.

Signed on deadline day in September 2008, Berbatov contributed a modest 9 goals in his first season, on his way to picking up a Premier League winners medal.  The departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in the summer of 2009 gave Berbatov the golden opportunity to form a regular partnership with Wayne Rooney and spearhead the attack.  All the ingredients were there but Berbatov could only manage three more goals than the previous season, having played around the same number of games.

This season has been an improvement yet still annoyingly familiar.  Berbatov became the first non-Englishman to score five goals in a solitary Premier League game against Blackburn and also tied Ruud van Nistelrooy’s eight season old record of three hat-tricks in a season.  A total of 21 goals in 30 games and the overall lead in the goalscorers charts looks impressive but it doesn’t tell the whole story.  Following Berbatov’s first hat-trick against Liverpool in September, it took him 12 games to find the net again.

Surprise surprise!  That was the Blackburn game and the five-star contribution. It never rains but it pours.

Three goals in two festive games were the precursor to a stretch of four barren matches.  Then came another five goals in two January matches.  Since then the Berba train has again been on the siding,   sputtering to offer up just two goals in the 17 games that have followed, through the Tuesday night draw with Newcastle. In those 17 games, Berbatov has only completed 90 minutes on four occasions. On another four he’s been an unused substitute, he’s come on six times, been substituted twice and missed the Toon match through illness.  Much like former Spurs strike partner Jermain Defoe, Berbatov’s purple patches are far outweighed by his goal droughts. To be blunt, he’s inconsistent and consistency is the first thing that a club of United’s stature expects from its number nine.

Only at United is this where you would find the league-leading scorer.

It’s a case of same old story in Europe. After hitting the ground running with his first two goals for the club, away at Aalborg in 2008, and another brace in his next game against Celtic, Berbatov has since had nothing to declare at customs.  Lately, the Bulgarian has played no part in crucial second leg victories against Marseille and Chelsea in the Champions League.

Ferguson has retained sufficient faith to play him against Fulham and Bolton, but when the big games come around – and there’s lots of them this time of year – Berba can be found next to Michael Owen on the bench, going over the racing form.   Even if you’re a Berba fan, it’s not difficult to understand the boss’ position.  The business end of the season is not the time to persevere with an out-of-form striker.

[If you didn't hear that Mr. Ancelotti, you'll just have to pay better attention.  I'll not repeat myself. ]

Meanwhile, Javier Hernandez has stepped up and slotted in whenever asked.  Chicharito’s 19 goals in all competitions, not to mention 10 more for his country over the same span, is an impressive return for someone in their first season. Having the midas touch in the big games definitely helps, as well. As a result, the ship might well be sailing on Berbatov’s United career.

Such condemnations are not to say that Berbatov has not had an impact while at Old Trafford. His hat-trick against Liverpool was the spark which lit United’s fire this season.   Alas, that he seemed to go his own way from there, checking in with a flurry of goals from time to time.  His predilection for Dr. Jekyll has made him dispensable in an arena where the crowd are crying out for Mr. Hyde.

He has always been this way but his lack of verve at United may find Berba in a rocking chair of a different sort.

If Fergie hadn’t made up his mind before the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, it should be settled now.  Winning a rare start in Ferguson’s favoured 4-5-1 formation away from home, last Saturday,  filling in for the suspended Rooney, Berbatov threw away what might have been his final chance.  He toiled manfully early on but after missing two golden chances in quick succession, drifted out of the game.

In light of that performance I’d be surprised to see Berbatov on the team sheet for the upcoming Schalke game. Same goes for the Arsenal league match.

That being said, I do expect him to face Everton on Saturday. Perhaps he’ll really stick it to me with a four goal haul and a two-fingered salute. If he does, I won’t mind.  I’ll just be happy with the three points.

]]> 3 shaunbest Man United ball 2 Berba appreciation Berba benched Berba rocking
Real Men Wear Skirts – The SPL Enters Its Final Countdown Thu, 21 Apr 2011 15:45:32 +0000 Scott Johnston ]]> On the weekend, the finalists for the Scottish Cup were revealed.

Motherwell will step out at Hampden Park, in May, for their first Scottish Cup final in twenty years thanks to a first half cave-in from St Johnstone. Veteran defender Stephen Craigan scored with a free header after five minutes. Then Jamie Murphy made it two by cutting in to drive a low shot past Peter Enkelman. Motherwell scored their third and final with a well taken John Sutton volley, just before half time. The Johnnies just seemed to freeze on the big occasion.

Celtic once again dominated Aberdeen, in the other semi-final.  The Dons didn’t make it easy for themselves, giving away a penalty and having Andrew Considine sent off in the first half. Anthony Stokes managed to miss the penalty but Celtic would kick into gear in the second half with four goals. The first came straight after the break with a free kick going in from former Don Charlie Mulgrew. Joe Ledley added to his brace in the last round with the second. Kris Commons did what Stokes couldn’t, scoring from the spot just after the hour and sub Shaun Maloney wrapped up the scoring with six minutes to go.

In the SPL, Rangers played three games in a week. First off, they went up to Pittodrie and won 1-0, last Wednesday. They had to hang on in the end but got the winner through a very classy overhead kick from Nikica Jelavic. At Ibrox on Saturday, Gers overcame St Mirren to take top spot, although Celtic have two games in hand. The Buddies did equalise, only to be chagrined by Jelavic’s wizardry. Finally, this week, the defending champions thrashed Dundee United 4-0.  The Arabs gave away three penalties and had three players sent off.  Temper, temper, boys.  Steven Whittaker scored two of his three spot kicks with the miss a case of blind justice, as the foul looked to have taken place outside the box.  Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty were the other goalscorers.

Elsewhere, ten-man Inverness Caley played Hearts played to a one-goal draw. Soon to be SFL side Hamilton went to Easter Road and beat Hibs 2-1, with Jimmy’s nephew Nigel Hasselbaink wonderfully creating the opening goal for James Chambers.

Commons helped Celtic keep the pressure on Gers midweek.

Celtic were clinical at Rugby Park on Wednesday, winning 4-0. Kris Commons scored an easy first, on four minutes, then added a second a half-hour later. Main scoring threat Gary Hooper made it three before the break. Hooper also brought the scoring to a finish in the second half  by cutting back for strike partner Stokes, who smashed the ball into the roof of the net.

The Holiday weekend sees Dundee United host fifth-placed Killie at Tannadice. Meanwhile, Motherwell can leapfrog Chris Shiels’ squad if they lose to the Arabs and Well beat Hearts in Edinburgh.

In the bottom half of the League, Hibs will hope for a better result at Easter Road than their last when they entertain St Mirren. Derek McInnes is looking for his side to show the Perths that they are still hungry despite their Hampden mauling. Aberdeen are intent on driving another nail into the Accies coffin with a win over the Lanarkshire side.

Before I look at this weekend’s Old Firm game, I would like to take a minute to address the Neil Lennon nail bomb situation.

We love our game in Scotland.  Admittedly, we are occasionally over passionate but this episode has gone well beyond football. Innocent people are now being put at risk by morons who believe that they are supporting their club. Scottish football should be all about the games, not religion, wars or other country’s history!  Regardless of my own loyalties, I thoroughly enjoyed the Celtic fans show of  support in the 18th minute (Neil Lennon wore the number 18 hopped jersey), when they gave their man a two-minute round of applause.  It was also heartening to hear UEFA President Michel Platini weigh in so quickly.

“We support him, all of UEFA, all of the people of football who love football, we support him… I think we have to try to help the football [in Scotland as a nation] but to do something personally with the manager of Celtic is complicated for the President of UEFA. But I am with my heart with him. I think we have to keep [the game] out of the politics of the regions…it is very important.”

Whatever you may think of his fiery approach to managing, you have to appreciate how Lennon holds to his principles.  He was forced to withdraw from international duty in Northern Ireland after he and his family were threatened by certain factions in the conflict there and he has previously received bullets in the post while at Celtic.  It is amazing that he can focus at all as he prepares his side for a huge match on Easter Sunday, no less, at Ibrox.

Okay, so maybe this is taking peace, love and understanding too far but can we not leave the battle on the pitch?

This possible title decider begs the adjective ‘explosive’ on its own merit, although certain fanatics unfortunately take such descriptions too literally.  Yet, there is no denying that the match bears the weight of a season on its shoulders for the two Glaswegian giants.  Rangers need to win to take the title race back into their own destiny. Celtic would love to come away having won both their fixtures at Ibrox this season, especially when they can take a huge step closer to the SPL title.

Whatever happens on Sunday night, let us hope that both halves of Glasgow can celebrate Easter in peace, realising that the Holiday has absolutely nothing in common with a football match, other than the joy which both are meant to bring to all.

]]> 0 scottdog123 Scottish Premier League logo Commons lifts Celtic Celtic and Rangers
Serie A Spaghetti Western Theatre: Lazio, Udinese On The Up, Inter, Napoli, Roma Break Down & Samp Beyond Repair Wed, 20 Apr 2011 20:03:19 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> The Good

With five rounds to go in the 2010-11 Serie A season, leaders AC Milan have a comfortable six-point and fifteen-goal cushion on second-placed Napoli.  Essentially, that means the Rossoneri only need three wins to seal their first Scudetto since 2003.  Having won twenty of thirty-three to date, Massimiliano Allegri’s squad hasn’t quite set the necessary pace to reach that target but, then again, the Neapolitans aren’t looking like a side that can put together five wins on the trot just now.  So, it’s fair to say that, barring complete catastrophe – say Barbara Berlusconi dumping Alex Pato for the married Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Milan have the Scudetto in the bag. Where then is the suspense to be found in the Serie A run-in?

The answer to that all-important question is in the battle for third through fifth and, currently, the momentum is with the bottom two clubs involved and very much against third-placed Inter.  Lazio and Udinese both won on Sunday, maintaining the fourth and fifth spots and closing on a suddenly sorry-looking Nerazzurri squad.

Lazio traveled south and put the sword to Sicilians Catania, 4-1, on Sunday.  The score actually doesn’t have much bearing on matters, as they remain a distant nine goals behind the Udines.  What is important, however, is that they stayed a point in front, holding down the Champions League qualifying berth. In a relatively calm first half, there were no goals until just before time, although the visitors were on the front foot from the get-go.  It was Hernanes who gave Edy Reja’s side the early lead, with his ninth in league play.  The strike marked only the second time during the campaign that the Brazilian has found the net in consecutive matches.  His manager will be satisfied, now that the board has confirmed that he will be in charge next year, if his young talent can eliminate the long droughts of four, six and seven game stretches which plagued him in 2010-11. Matias Schelotto leveled immediately after the restart for the Rossazzurri but the only effect his goal served was to anger the Aquiles.  Stefano Mauri, on fifty-six minutes, Sergio Floccari, on seventy-three and Mauro Zarate, on eighty-nine, all scored as Lazio attacked without let-up to insure that they hold their position in the table.

The Romans were hopeful that they had left Udinese behind, considering that the Bianconeri were at the San Paolo to face off with Napoli in the evening match.  Life is never easy, though, as they were put off their dinner watching the Friuli side surge in front and then hold off Walter Mazzari’s squad, 2-1.  The weekend’s marquee match gave top billing to Liga Calcio’s top two scorers, Antonio di Natale and Edinson Cavani.  That battle never got off the ground, however, although the Uruguayan missed a penalty for Napoli in the final minute.  Giuseppe Mascara applied some cosmetics to the score with a goal in extra time but Gokhan Inler and German Denis, hitting on either side of the hour mark for Udinese, had put the game beyond reach.

That both clubs won away bodes well for their coming struggles in the final weeks.

Lazio have it tougher in the early doors.  Their immediate task, this Saturday, is to pile onto Inter’s woes at the San Siro.  A victory will bring them level on points with the Nerazzurri, although more will have to be done to pass them for a CL group stage place.  After that, it is a tough challenge in Rome against visiting Juventus.  The Old Lady are currently chasing Roma for the final Europa League spot and, if they are still close in a fortnight, will provide a stern test.  Then, of course, it is the big showdown, when Lazio visit the Friuli to face Udinese themselves.  If they can come out of that meat grinder still in front, it should be smooth sailing against Genoa and Lecce.

While Lazio is feeling the heat, Udinese will be attempting to stoke the fire with wins against Parma and Fiorentina.  Six points from those two contests should put them in good stead when Hernanes and company hit town.  That tilt is more of a must win for Francesco Guidolin’s Little Zebras, however.  Afterwards, it’s Chievo’s Flying Donkeys in an equine battle of sorts.  More troubling by far, though, is the prospect of a final round clash with likely champions AC Milan.  Surely, Udinese have their fingers crossed that the Rossoneri will have wrapped up their business by that time and dropped out of top gear, perhaps even allowing some of their stars an early start to their off-season.

♦   ◊   ♦

The Bad

Napoli’s loss on Sunday evening has all but written off the southerners title hopes.  If the Scudetto is to be theirs, then they must win out and see Milan drop at least seven points.  The fixture list offers the opportunity for the Partenopei to hold up their end, with Palermo, Genoa and Lecce to begin the climb.  If they are still breathing after those matches, they will reach more rarefied air with Inter and Juventus their final opponents.  At least, they should take enough points to secure their Champions league berth.

Inter, however, still face a fight for that and no matter the teams in their way, they will first have to stop tripping over themselves.  The 2-0 loss to lowly Parma on Saturday would try any chairman’s patience, never mind the famously testy Massimo Moratti.  Whether the club’s sudden funk is down to Leonardo’s allergic reaction to defensive tactics, the squad having exhausted itself attempting to climb out of the whole which Rafa Benitez dug for them or both is of little concern.

Rumours are running rampant that the search is on for a new manager.  Captain Javier Zanetti, perhaps unwittingly, undermined Leonardo by agreeing how wonderful it would be to have Jose Mourinho back in charge.  That’s pie in the sky thinking but a more reasonable target may be the allegedly available Carlo Ancelotti.  After all, if the Brazilian can make the trip across the Giuseppe Meazza, so can an Italian.

All speculation aside, the Scudetto is well out of reach and Inter’s only hope for a trophy is to defend their Copa d’Italia crown.  Currently they are up 1-0 to Roma with the home leg still to come.  Yet, they cannot disregard their remaining league matches, especially with their next challenge being Lazio.  If they fall to the Aquiles, then their Champions League status will be in real danger.  After the defeat to Parma, even games against Cesena, Fiorentina, and Catania must be approached with caution.  With a second-to-last round encounter with Napoli mixed in, Inter still have plenty of work to do and must support Leonardo to see it done.

Roma suffered their first league defeat under caretaker manager Vincenzo Montella but it was critical nonetheless.  Having put themselves so far behind the top sides before Claudio Ranieri stepped down, the Lupi have no margin for error left.  The loss surprisingly came at home to floundering Palermo and, to provide symmetry, was Delio Rossi’s first victory since his unexpected return.  The sides exchanged penalties in the first half and a draw seemed in the offing until the eighty-fourth minute when Abel Hernandez stunned the Stadio Olimpico on a lightning fast counter-attack.  Hernandez then put the game beyond reach at the beginning of stoppage time.  Mirko Vucinic pegged one back but time was not on Roma’s side.

It wasn’t an auspicious beginning for new American chairman Thomas di Benedetto, the second Bostonian in less than a year to buy a struggling football giant, following John Henry at Liverpool and the first foreigner ever to own a club in Serie A.  Lazio and Udinese have now taken the Champions League battle virtually out of reach and Montella will likely focus on keeping their one-point advantage over Juventus, who threw away an opportunity to pass the Giallorossi, after being held to a scoreless draw against Fiorentina.

Roma has a light schedule in the run-in, with only one troubling match against Milan.  Otherwise, they have Chievo, Bari, Catania and Sampdoria, all mired in the lower half of the table.  Their other path to Europe is through the Coppa d’ Italia but they must over come a 1-0 deficit to Inter at the Giuseppe Meazza, if they are to make the final.  Juve’s only hope for continental competition is to upend Roma in the table.  It won’t be easy as outgoing manager Luigi del Neri must guide the Old Lady past Lazio and Napoli, as well as Catania, Parma and Chievo.

♦   ◊   ♦

The Ugly

Palermo’s win over Roma will likely have the Sicilians’ maniacal chairman, Maurizio Zamparini, cackling like a mad scientist for the rest of the week.  Yet, the vainglorious Rosaneri owner has been proven to be only the second most foolhardy chairman in Serie A, as Sampdoria have continued their plummet through the table, finally reaching the drop zone.  Only Bari’s futility offers them assurance that they will not hit rock bottom.

Of course, Samp needn’t be where they are.  In November, they were well in the hunt for Europe.  Then, their star winger Antonio Cassano decided he’d rather stay at home with the wife than to attend an awards banquet with chairman Riccardo Garrone.  The boss was none too pleased, words were exchanged and Garrone decided he wanted nothing more to do with his tempestuous winger.  When the league wouldn’t permit him to void Cassano’s contract, Garrone reluctantly sold him to Milan and quickly followed up by unloading his only other star, Giampaolo Pazzini to Inter.  Since then, gravity has been the only force affecting the Blucerchiati’s league standing.    The knife was twisted once more, on the weekend, when Rossoneri boss Massimiliano Allegri entrusted Cassano with penalty duties, thus allowing him to convert for Milan’s second in a three-nil beat down.

There is time left but Samp now sit two points from safety but, to be honest, if you have no use for top flight players, you shouldn’t be in Serie A to begin with.

♦   ◊   ♦

What Would Clint Do?

This week on WWCD, Joe Pesci drops by to reveal exclusively to WFC readers exactly what Antonio Cassano said which so enraged Sampdoria chairman Riccardo Garrone.

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Did Gareth Bale Deserve To Win The PFA Player Of The Year Award? Tue, 19 Apr 2011 20:04:33 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> On Sunday night, the Professional Footballers’ Association named Gareth Bale as their Player of the Year.  In the wake of the presentation, there has been a great deal of criticism of the choice.  In all competitions, Bale has twelve goals and a three assists.  Those numbers are easily surpassed by several players, most notably by Manchester United’s Portuguese winger Nani, who has thirteen strikes and seventeen helpers.  Given their shared position, the vast difference in productive service understandably raises some eyebrows when it comes to personal accolades.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Bale was recognised.  The Premier League has been so tightly contested this year that no team, beyond Manchester United and Arsenal, can claim to have enjoyed anything close to consistent excellence.  Individually, there hasn’t been a single player who’s been outstanding throughout, since week one.

At Arsenal, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie have all taken turns in the spotlight but each has also gone missing for a significant portion of the season.  The same can be said of Bale and his Spurs teammate, Rafael van der Vaart.  At Chelsea, Florent Malouda began like a house afire but faded, along with the rest of the club, as winter set in.  Darren Bent looked set to continue his outstanding marksmanship at the Stadium of Light but then decided he’d be much better off at Aston Villa than with Sunderland.  After a brilliant start for the Villans, he too has gone off the radar.  With United, Nani has been strong but was always second choice to the recently returned Antonio Valencia.  As well, he is burdened by the prejudice that his task is made easier by having Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez on the other end of his offerings.

None of that trio have been consistent, either.  Rooney has only just begun to return to his usually combustible self, as evidenced by his two match ban for dropping the F-bomb in full HD.  Berbatov leads the league in goals but has collected them in bunches, taking long spells to rest in between each haul.  Chicharito has finally unseated him after coming on so often and taking advantage of his rare minutes to reach double figures.  Yet, it’s difficult to vote a substitute as the outstanding player in the league.

The Ghost of Winners Past

A former United player, Carlos Tevez, has carried the offensive load for Man City.  The Argenine may be second to Berba in goals but lags behind no one in leadership qualities.  Unfortunately, he too has missed a spell or two to injury and his petulant holdout over the holidays likely turned off many of his voting colleagues.

In short – sorry, didn’t mean you Carlos – there hasn’t been a single player who has been at his best over the course of the entire season, to date.  I say to date because it also puzzles me why this award is given before the most critical stage of the season has been played.  Then again, the players have essentially rejected the traditional definition of Player of the Year, haven’t they?   If they aren’t voting for the most outstanding player of the season, it really doesn’t matter when they hand it out, at all.  To be honest, in keeping with their collective play this season, there is no consistency to their recent criteria for a winner.

Last year, it was Ryan Giggs who took the honours.  His body of work over an amazing career unquestionably merits recognition but you wouldn’t have had to leave the Carrington training ground to find a player having a better 2009-10; Rooney easily fit that bill.  If you decided to cast your gaze farther away, then Tevez was again a candidate over at City.  James Milner, who made the Villa Park faithful forget Gareth Bale before cruelly jogging their memories at the start of this campaign, and Frank Lampard, who quietly piled up thirty-four goals for club and country were also eminently qualified.

Instead, Giggs took the plaudits.  This year, without a clear candidate, I can understand that the players considered Bale’s limited achievements as having more impact than some others who offered better numbers.  Before he singlehandedly demolished Inter in the Champions League, Spurs were a European afterthought.  His play sent them deep into the tournament and transformed Harry Redknapp’s club into a romantic favourite and a European powerhouse.  Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid exposed their inexperience but there is no question that more people than not would like to see them return for another go.  That is all down to two incredible performances from the young Welshman.

So, given the importance of Bale’s contributions,  I’m willing to give the PFA a pass on their choice.  However, that doesn’t stop me from wishing they’d clarify exactly what they think being Player of the Year requires and stick to their definition for more than one ceremony.

As for their choice of an All Premier League side, I agree with most of the choices but would suggest a change here or there.

The Ghost of Winners Present

In goal, there’s no arguing with the choice of Edwin van der Sar.  In the most difficult title race in Premier League history, the retiring Dutchman has been a major factor in United’s hold on the pole position.  His play is the first reason I would point to when noting that the Red Devils have won all but one of their league matches at Old Trafford, with that single blemish still being a draw.

In the center of defence, you also can’t argue with Nemanja Vidic.  The new United captain is right at van der Sar’s shoulder when it comes time to recognise the keys to Sir Alex Ferguson’s success in 2010-11.  Instead of Vincent Kompany for a partner, however, I would nominate a more controversial choice.  Robert Huth has done the job at the back for Tony Pulis at Stoke but he also is level with Kenwyne Jones for the club lead in goals, with eight.  Obviously, that’s a low number for a striker like Jones but it’s amazing for a lumbering defender.  The big Teuton deserves some love!

At full back, Vacary Sagna has been a constant for Arsenal and certainly deserves the nod.  Ashley Cole of Chelsea?  Not so much.  He may still be the best left back in the world but the only shot of his that has found its target this season wasn’t taken on the pitch.  Admittedly, the pickings behind him are slim.  Patrice Evra has had a solid season, deputising for Vidic as United captain on occasion, but his summer job in labour relations has tainted his candidacy.  Here again, I’m going to stick my neck out, by nominating Newcastle’s Jose Enrique.  The Bull hasn’t found goal for Toon, it’s true, yet he is as solid as they come defensively and his play has caught the eye of several big clubs, with Liverpool rumoured to be very close to signing the stocky Spaniard.  Maybe it’s time the rest of us took notice, as well.

Up front, Berbatov and Tevez are the league leaders and should obviously be first choices for an all-star partnership.  It wouldn’t hurt to have Chicharito, Ashley Young and Peter Odemwingie on the substitute’s bench, though, as both the starters have mercurial form.

In the midfield, I’m going to stick with Bale and Nani on the wings, although Theo Walcott’s eleven goals and twelve assists earn him strong consideration.  In the middle, I’m going to change things up, however.  For me, Samir Nasri isn’t even the first choice attacking mid on his team, so he doesn’t warrant inclusion here.  Jack Wilshere has been part of the reason for Nasri’s second-half fade, fully deserves his Young Player of the Year Award and probably has earned a place on this list, too.  Still, there is no holding mid in the PFA’s line-up, which I find to be a gross injustice, considering the prevailing style of play in the Premiership.  As well, there’s another player who may not have Wilshere’s skills but more than makes up for it in strength, determination and experienced leadership.

The Ghost of Winners Future?

Coming out of my dugout, in place of the two young Gunners would be grizzled veterans Scott Parker of West Ham and Kevin Nolan of Newcastle.  Parker’s toils during a desperate season at the bottom of the league have convinced Fabio Capello to give him a second look with the Three Lions and Nolan’s straight-ahead style has him level with Nasri in goals, excluding the Champions League and the World Football Challenge, neither of which involved Toon.  Neither Parker nor Nolan are pretty choices but they both have done quite a lot despite having much less to work with.

This has been arguably the most competitive Premier League season in its relatively short history and, while many of the players I’ve bumped off the PFA list bring plenty of star power, I believe this is a season in which some of the lesser lights deserve recognition.  They have worked in the dark long enough; it’s time the spotlight fell on them for one night.

That explains my choices but the questions remain.  Who will the PFA nominate next year and what will motivate their decision?  If I had to guess, I would at least want to wait to see if Championship side Cardiff can gain promotion.  With the last two winners in mind and the Bluebirds in the top flight, I wouldn’t be shocked if Craig Bellamy was called up to the podium in 2012.  If I’m proved correct, though, the PFA may have to re-christen the award, by coming right out and calling it the CWM Player of the Year.

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Mario Balotelli Says: Rio Ferdinand Doesn’t Know How To Celebrate! Tue, 19 Apr 2011 18:00:19 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> Why can’t people make up their minds? – Mario Balotelli asks.

No matter what I do, the fans are never happy.

They are upset when Mario Balotelli uses too much of his super-human strength and gets red carded for crushing puny Russian opponents.  When that happens, Mario Balotelli is blamed for City losing.  Then, they are angry when I hold back and play so gently that the referee can only show Mario Balotelli a yellow card.  They are ungrateful. They do not say, ‘Hurrah, Mario!  We won because You are such a sportsman!’

They are upset in Italy when I throw the Inter strip on the ground in disgust.  They say that I do not respect the shirt.  Then, they are upset in England because I kiss the badge after we win the FA Cup Semi-Final.  They say I should only do that for City’s fans, not United’s.

This confuses Mario Balotelli.  Everyone at the club has been talking to me.  Roberto Mancini says I must show restraint.  Patrick-something says I must be respectful.  Gary Cook says I must be an ambassador for the club.  Nigel de Jong screams that I must drop kick everyone into next year, but then Mr. Cook comes back and takes him away, whispering softly to him that he’s forgotten to take his medication again.

Mario Balotelli gave all this advice careful thought before the big game against United. Mario Balotelli had his personal assistant look up the word ambassador.  Apparently, My personal assistant has an iPhone with G4 where his brain should be, because he just rolled his eyes up inside his head exactly like the little thing on My iPad which means ‘one moment, loading’, and, when the page was found, told Mario Balotelli that an ambassador is someone who represents the club, tells everyone how wonderful it is and spreads Good Will wherever he goes.

Mario Balotelli liked that.  Mario Balotelli even thought that He would make the perfect Good Will ambassador for Man City.  But when we won the match and I kissed the badge in front of the United supporters, everyone was very upset.  The fans were angry and shouted some words that I bet even Wayne Rooney doesn’t know.

Then, Rio Ferdinand and Anderson came and screamed at Mario Balotelli, trying to stop Me from spreading Good Will and showing their fans how wonderful Man City is.  They were very angry.  They said that Mario Balotelli should only do these things in front of City fans.  That doesn’t make any sense.  Man City fans already know how wonderful Man City is.  How can Mario Balotelli spread Good Will if he does not preach to the uneducated masses?

How could any of you not want to be Mario Balotelli?

When I told Rio that I was only trying to spread Good Will, he told Me to meet him out on the street so that he could show Mario Balotelli some Good Will.  But then, he became even angrier when I winked at him.  Mario Balotelli doesn’t understand.  I only wanted Rio to know that I appreciated the offer of help.  Being an ambassador is much more difficult than Mario Balotelli thought.

Luckily, Mancini came over just then, to calm things down.  So did Edwin van der Sar.  He is such a nice man for a goalkeeper.  Mario Balotelli’s personal assistant read to him the comments that van der Sar made about my ambassadoring afterwards.

“I think [Balotelli] misunderstood which side of the stadium he had to go to so he could thank the supporters. Maybe in Italy they do things differently, but let’s just talk about the football.”

My personal assistant also read to me that Mancini had said he might put me in jail for celebrating in front of the United supporters.

I told Patrick-something what the nice van der Sar said about Mario Balotelli and asked him if Mancini would really put Mario Balotelli in the clink?  Patrick-something shook his head and asked Mario Balotelli if I didn’t recognise sarcasm when I heard it?  Then he told me not to mind, that it was a stupid question.

Strangely, he took me by the shoulder and told me not to worry about Rio and United.  He said that they were all talk, that Mario Balotelli hadn’t done anything wrong.  He said United used to have a very crazy player named Red Neville, who, when he wasn’t eating goal scorers for breakfast, would run down to the Kop end and spread Good Will like nobody’s business whenever United scored.

Mario Balotelli doesn’t like the sound of eating goal scorers for breakfast.  I need help learning how to spread Good Will but it will take more courage than Mario Balotelli has to ask Red Neville to teach me his secrets.  Patrick-something is very brave.  I asked him if he would go with Mario Balotelli to talk to Red Neville.  He just choked on his Perrier and muttered something about Mario Balotelli understanding sarcasm after all, as he went off to his cot in Mancini’s office.

Red Neville seems much nicer than Patrick-something made him sound. Perhaps too nice.

So, Mario Balotelli put thoughts of Red Neville aside and asked his personal assistant to look up the definition of sarcasm.  Mario Balotelli may have been wrong about My personal assistant’s brain.  His eyes rolled up in his head for so long, that it must only be G3.  Finally, he told me that sarcasm was when people said the opposite of what they meant to make a joke.

Mario Balotelli had to think very hard about this but now I understand.  It explains what My girl friends mean when they giggle and say no but later do what Mario Balotelli asks.  It also means that Rio wasn’t going to help me spread Good Will.  That wasn’t a very funny joke.

Also, Mario Balotelli now understands that van der Sar knew that I was at the right end but was trying to trick Me so that I wouldn’t steal  away United’s fans!  He is a very clever goal keeper  Those are the worst kind.

But best of all, it means that Mancini is not going to throw Mario Balotelli in jail.  I must go to him now, though, while the idea is still fresh in his mind.  Perhaps, if Mario Balotelli spreads all the Good Will He can, Mancini will speak to the government and arrange for Mario Balotelli to tour a women’s prison!  They wouldn’t let Mario Balotelli do that in Italy but Mario Balotelli didn’t understand about Good Will back then.

When he agrees, Mario Balotelli will show Mancini just what it means to be a Good Will ambassador!

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Channel Surfing: All-Action Weekends Around Europe Show Ligue 1′s Malaise Mon, 18 Apr 2011 20:36:33 +0000 Tapesh Patel ]]> <Click>

With a bumper crop of big football matches in the books in England and Spain, it’s a great time of year for any football fan. Tense matches were seen at Wembley and the Santiago Bernabeu. In Italy, there was a massive weekend of games recently, which saw all of the title hopefuls duking it out. It was heaven on Earth – or on Sky, if you’re being picky.

Portugal have almost monopolised the Europa League semi-finals, and Germany have Schalke in the last four of the Champions League – and they’re a middling Bundesliga side this season.

What then, of France’s best sides?

It’s tough for the French sides to find their place. Lyon have probably been the closest side to threatening the European elite in recent years, not forgetting, of course, the Monaco side that finished runners-up to Porto in 2004.

This year, though, no side in France reached the last eight of any European competition. Lyon and Marseille couldn’t cut it against Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively. Lille, league leaders reckoned by many to be the league’s most talented side, went out at the last 16 of the Europa League.

Lille in particular, boasting individual and undiscovered talent (a bit like that Monaco side in fact), face a tough summer. They will try and hold on to their stars but it will certainly be difficult. It’s tough to see someone like Eden Hazard, for example, rejecting the advances of one of European football’s leading lights, should [read when] they make him an offer.  Kevin Gameiro of Lorient is another who could move at the sight of greener pastures and almost did in January.  Other young sides, like Rennes, will face similar problems.

Will there be some extra spice in the bouillabaise in the near future?

Moreover, does Ligue 1  have any allure to older players?  Will it ever?  There is the case of Gaby Heinze, buried on the bench at Real Madrid, but if he hadn’t been a favourite of Didier Deschamps it’s more likely that the Argentine would have headed for a cash-friendly league in Turkey, Greece, Russia or even the US before considering Ligue 1.  Rumours are being bandied about regarding a move for Didier Drogba by former employers Marseille but could that even happen?  Considering that the tax structure in France is even less friendly than the UK’s, I’m not sure whether such a deal is even financially viable.

All of this makes me worry about the top-flight future of a country that is so paradoxically accomplished at international level. As leagues everywhere else seem to gain more strength and depth, the quality of Ligue 1 seems to have diluted amongst its title competitors.


Ligue 1 round-up

Tops down…

Lille 1-1 Bordeaux

A week after a stumble at Monaco, Lille have begun to stagger. The danger signs were present from the outset of this match, with Mickael Landreau forced into making 3 great saves in the opening exchanges. However, when Moussa Sow scored his 21st goal of the season against the run of play, it seemed that the leaders might be able to steal the win. Unfortunately for Sow, it was his subsequently missed assignment on a corner that allowed Bordeaux to equalise.

The win leaves title hopes in the balance. Last season, Lille looked destined for the Champions League, but slipped from 2nd to 4th in a dramatic match with Lorient. Is their match against them next Sunday now a bad omen?

Stade Rennes 1-2 Lorient

Lille’s next challengers prepared by taking a surprise win against Stade Rennes in the Breton Derby, helped no end by two sendings off for the home side. The first, just before half-time, turned the match in Lorient’s favour and they duly proceeded to put an all-but-irreparable dent into the title hopes of Frederic Antonetti’s side.

Montpellier 1-2 Marseille

Montpellier, harbouring distant hopes of European qualification, played host on Sunday to a Marseille side desperately wanting a win after their rivals’ struggles. Didier Deschamps’ side went about their business, as champions do, grinding out the needed result, and with it, OM closed the gap on the leaders to just one point.  Taye Taiwo displayed nerves of steel to convert the winning penalty in the 82nd minute.

This was the first game of a double-header that will see the two sides renew their battle in the Coupe de la Ligue final on Saturday.  With their success at the Stade de la Mosson, Marseille will surely now be heavy favourites for the clash at the neutral Stade de France.

PSG 1-0 Lyon

In this match between the league’s 4th and 5th placed sides, it was Paris Saint-Germain who got the three points, leaving Lyon six points adrift of Lille. Les Parisiens, meanwhile, are now back in contention, with Lyon and Rennes for the third Champions League place.


Bottoms up…

Toulouse 0-1 Auxerre

This season’s draw specialists looked set for another, until Dariusz Dudka stepped up in stoppage time and belted a free-kick to bring home two vital bonus points, lifting Auxerre from the relegation zone to 15th in the table.

Sochaux 3-2 Caen

Caen have slipped into the relegation zone with this defeat, but despite the woes of Arles, the relegation scrap is still far from over. Lens, second-bottom, are now 6 points from safety, but the gap from Caen to Bordeaux, in 10th, is another 6 points. A bad run from here could see anyone in the bottom half go down.

Arles 0-1 Valenciennes

After a grand total of one win this season, Arles-Avignon are finally mathematically confirmed as relegated.


Next Week…

Get ready for a Cup weekend, en Francais, with the Coupe de France semi-finals and the Coupe de la Ligue final to look forward to at the weekend. Until then, au revoir!


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The Scouser Report: Liverpool Pay A Heavy Price For Draw With Arsenal Mon, 18 Apr 2011 17:56:48 +0000 The WFC Staff ]]> Coming into a match against the most fluid attack in the Premier League and missing Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly, all through injury, you might have expected Kenny Dalglish to put in motion a game plan to pressure Arsenal well up the pitch, occupying their wingers and lowering the heat on a fragile defence.  Instead, Kenny took a page from the Book of Hodgson, or if that’s still a sore spot, then the Mancini Doctrine, by collapsing back and forcing Arsenal to break through a thick wall of defending Reds.

Against a squad that couldn’t hold back a severely weakened Man United or the offensive powerhouse that is Roy Hodgson’s West Bromwich Albion, surely an attack force which includes Luis Suarez, Andy Carroll, Raul Mereiles and Dirk Kuyt should be set loose, shouldn’t it?  Then again, Arsene Wenger’s side couldn’t find a way through Blackburn Rovers.  So, maybe the King knows what he is doing.

Given the opportunity, Arsenal came at Liverpool in waves but the wall held.  Lucas Leiva played masterfully in the holding role, while Jamie Carragher was at his nasty best.  With a full complement of weapons at their disposal, however, it was no surprise that Lucas and Carra’s efforts weren’t always sufficient.  As the Reds dropped back, the Gunners rearguard became emboldened and, along with Theo Walcott and Robin van Persie, Abou Diaby and Laurent Koscielny joined the barrage.

Sorry, the Red Devils made me do it...

Ultimately, it was the man whom Dalglish so staunchly defended this week who barred the door.  Pepe Reina was inhuman in goal and when he was finally beaten, on Koscielny’s blast, the bar had his back.  There was no way, not on this day, that anything was going to get behind him during the run of play.  It’s no wonder, then, that Arsenal made a £23 million offer for the Spanish keeper last summer and even less surprising that Liverpool said thanks but no thanks.

“I can’t speak for how he believes it is going. I can only tell you about how I personally, and the club as a whole, feels about him. Whatever he feels about us going in the right direction is up to him – but he doesn’t look too unhappy to me.”

For those who think that Reina may be suffering from a mild case of Nando-itis, the manager’s respectful words regarding his number one seem to have been appreciated, if Sunday’s performance was any indication.  Yet, more such efforts will be needed in the immediate future, as the Football Gods have not finished toying with the Reds.  Twenty minutes in, Fabio Aurelio limped off, apparently having re-injured his hamstring.  Then, in the second half, Carragher was knocked silly in a collision with young Liverpool full back John Flanagan.  After a long spell, in which he was not able to clear the cob-webs, he was taken off.  Other than taking out the heart of his own defence, Flanagan, along with Aurelio’s replacement, Jack Robinson – no jokes please, no matter how fast you can say them – played fairly well, offering up further testament to Dalglish’s work with the youth squad before taking over the senior team.

Concussions aren’t a good thing and, whether it kills the match or not, the officials were well advised to give the physios all the time they needed with Carra.  Typical of the man, he announced afterwards that he was fine, although he still didn’t remember the collision, and would be ready for Birmingham next week. While a player may know his body, the brain is another matter and it will be best to wait for the doctors to endorse the gritty centre back’s self-diagnosis.

Regardless of Carragher’s availability, it will be a challenge for Liverpool in the run-in, as players continue to drop like flies.  To make it even more difficult, the injury bug is moving further up in the formation.  Not only is Steven Gerrard done for the year after groin surgery, Andy Carroll went down awkwardly after contesting an aerial ball and limped off after gamely trying to soldier on for several minutes.

If Carroll is out for any amount of time, no doubt Dalglish will look to the other half of his January investment, Luis Suarez, to fill the gap.  The Uruguayan has been playing well, even if he isn’t scoring, although he came close a few times at the Emirates.  He is finding and taking good shots too frequently for them to not start hitting home soon.  Carroll’s unhappy accident may lead the Reds back to their most fluid point of the season, as well.  Before the Geordie’s height was added to the equation, Liverpool were passing and moving far more than they have in the interim, wherein, they’ve perhaps too often looked to send long balls towards their £35 million target.

The important thing, on this weekend, was that a ragtag bunch of Reds were able to hold off the Gunners for well over ninety minutes.  With Carragher’s injury causing so much concern, referee André Marriner added eight minutes of stoppage time.  That was almost gone when Jay Spearing offered out his leg for Cesc Fabregas to tumble over.  Van Persie quickly dispatched the penalty and it seemed that an amazingly gutsy defensive performance had all been for naught.

Marriner was apparently sympathetic, however, and four more minutes ticked off before Emmanuel Eboue shoved Lucas down in the box during the aftermath of a Suarez set-piece.  An incensed Arsene Wenger could only watch in frustration as Dirk Kuyt stepped up and leveled the match with Marriner holding the final whistle to his lips.  Afterwards, the Frenchman had several unkind words for Dalglish before summing up his feelings more cogently to the media.

“We conceded a penalty after 11 minutes when the referee said there was eight minutes of injury time. I don’t see where those three minutes came from and it was no penalty.”

... But, at any rate, it has been Dalglish who has played the hero at Anfield.

It’s difficult not to sympathise with Wenger, considering that the Gunners’ hopes of catching United were dealt a serious blow.  He must have been asking Dalglish exactly how the Liverpool boss rates Fergie Time, given his long hiatus away from the game.  For his part, Dalglish showed his class by refusing to reveal the nature of their animated post match conversation.

Further, when asked if he was saddened that he may have just helped hated United pass by Liverpool for their nineteenth top-flight crown, he was equally noble in his reply.

“Sadness? In my eyes we are still the best club in English football, if not world football, so I am not very sad at that. The surprise is that [Liverpool] have not won the title for a long time – that is the surprise. But it’s not sadness; it’s just a fact of life.”

King Kenny may have humbly shrugged off a movement by a group of Hillsborough families to petition a knighthood for the man who has championed their cause for so long but he has once again shown that nobility is not found in a title but in your blood.

Stephen Brandt and Martin Palazzotto each contributed to this article.

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FA Cup – Stoke v Bolton Wanderers: Both Clubs Live Up To Their Names Sun, 17 Apr 2011 22:26:01 +0000 Martin Palazzotto ]]> I live in South Florida and summer is already here, with 30°C days and humid nights.  When it rains, as it did last night, these massive things called Palmetto bugs – essentially cockroaches that can fly – try to make their way indoors, out of the damp, through any crack they can find.  So, when I came home last night and saw one sitting on my welcome mat, that was just too much cheek for me.  My left sandal came off and WHAM!  Welcome, my ass.

Yet that disgusting little wanderer’s pain was nothing compared to Bolton’s during Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.  They wandered aimlessly all over the pitch and Tony Pulis’ side was more than sufficiently stoked to stomp all over them.  Three goals in the first half-hour, every one preceded by a mindless give-away, were followed by a brace from ex-Trotter Jon Walters in the second half which sent the Bolton faithful on a very long, sad journey home.

It’s one thing to win your way to Wembley only to lose after a single lapse of concentration or to see a player get sent off, as United did on both counts on Saturday.  That is more than enough heartbreak for most fans but for your team to look like a bunch of accountants turning out for a Sunday beer league, when you’ve forked out a few hundred quid and traveled for several hours to see them play for a place in the Final and a trip to Europe is akin to having your wisdom teeth pulled on Christmas morning, with the dentist completely out of Novocaine.

The one man I truly feel sorry for, when I’m not laughing at the complete irony of his life, is Ian Wagstaff, the Bolton native who quit his job in Oz to travel to this match.  He even planned to stay for another two months, just in case the Trotters made the final.  There’s a shop steward at a certain sheet metal factory in Brisbane who’ll be getting an interesting phone call in the middle of the night in the next few days.

So, what happened to Bolton?  Did they just have too many nerves for the occasion?  Were they distracted by the swath of empty seats at their end of the pitch?  Did they eat some bad shrimp during the pre-game meal?  I have no idea but they certainly weren’t prepared for what was coming their way.  Maybe they’d have been better off channeling the spirit of club legend Nat Lofthouse, rather than just dedicating their cup run to him.  He might have warned them.

Everything began to unravel just after the ten minute mark.  Paul Robinson got a bit sloppy with the ball and Matthew Etherington swept in from the left flank to make it one-nil.  Six minutes later, Jussi Jaaskelainen watched in horror as the normally reliable Gary Cahill couldn’t head a ball clear and Robert Huth lashed a half-volley into the side netting. Jermaine Pennant then stripped Martin Petrov in the twenty-ninth minute, ran the length of the pitch and slipped a pass to the accompanying Kenwyne Jones, who had the time to gather himself before depositing the ball into the goal, past the Finnish keeper.

The whole world is stood upon its head when Robert Huth forces Kenwyne Jones to keep up with him in the goal scoring department.

By the way, how does Robert Huth have eight goals in all competitions for Stoke?  I mean, for almost a quarter-hour, that put him ahead of Jones on the Potters’ stat sheet.  Apparently in Stoke, if you’re asked the difference between a long, lean £8 million Trinidadian striker and a hulking £5 million German centre back, the correct answer is 13 minutes.

After Walters’ second half double, the celebration was on in full.  Stoke have made the FA Cup semi-finals four times in their history, crashing out in each instance.  Finally, with five goals on the fifth asking, they have soared into the final.

Bolton, meanwhile, must pick up the pieces and play out the remaining six games on their Premier League calendar. While Kevin Davies was tweeting his apologies to fans, Owen Coyle was describing his side’s collapse in no uncertain terms.

“Goals change games but even when things go against you, there are ways of losing games. That wasn’t one of them.”

For his part, Tony Pulis was hoping that the five goal barrage would put to rest any lingering misconceptions that Stoke is a one-dimensional, hoof-and-hope team but he remains doubtful.

“We have been criticised and pulled down and I am not sure whether this victory will stop it. When we lost our first game at the start of the season, one bookmaker paid out on us to get relegated. There is always the stigma. The first year we were in the Premier League we worked very hard at being organised and methodical in what we did. We have moved on from that and will continue to get better.”

There is one matter Pulis has no doubts over.   Manchester City will be in no way as careless in possession as Bolton when 14 May arrives – not if Roberto Mancini has anything to say about it.

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