Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Europa League Match Day 6 Preview

The Europa League Group Stages come to a close this week, and half of the 48 teams will move onto the knockout stages. These 24 teams will be joined by the 8 third placed Champions League teams in Friday’s draw.

Of the 12 Europa League groups, 6 are effectively over already. In groups A, E, F, H, I & L the top two teams have secured qualification regardless of this week’s results. Interestingly, the Italian teams have not been having a good time of things, with Juventus, Palermo and Sampdoria out of the competition, Napoli are the only Serie A team with a chance of going through.

In Group B Atletico Madrid are in a tough situation as they must achieve a better result than Aris Salonika. The Greek side are ahead of Atletico on head to head record after beating them both home and away. Lille are two points away from qualification in Group C and must beat Gent at home on Thursday in order to progress.

Only two points separate the top three teams in Group D, where Villarreal need a point away to Club Bruges to guarantee progression. In Group G, third placed Anderlecht are three points off second and need to win and hope that Zenit St Petersburg beat AEK Athens in Greece.

The most exciting match is potentially in Group J, where Sevilla host Borussia Dortmund at the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán. PSG have already qualified because of their head to head record against Dortmund, and the runaway leaders in the Bundesliga can only qualify by defeating Sevilla tonight. Finally in Group K, where Liverpool have already secured qualification, Walter Mazzarri’s Napoli currently lie third in the group, but will go through if they defeat Steaua Bucharest tonight at home.

Sadly, of the 32 places available in Friday’s knockout round draw, only 7 remain up for grabs. However, there are still some interesting ties going on and several big European teams may go crashing out over the next two days.

Europa League Tables in full

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Champions League Match Day 6 - Brief Analysis

The Champions League Group stage is now over. 16 teams are through to the knockout stage, 8 will play in the next round of the Europa League and 8 are out altogether. The draw for the next round takes place in one week and is likely to throw up some very interesting ties.

Due to the fact that many teams had already sealed qualification, some of the games unfortunately lacked any real intensity or drive. However, there were some points of interest.

Quality over Quantity
Real Madrid brushed aside Auxerre 4-0 at the Bernabeu on Wednesday but somehow the French side managed to have more shots overall.

Benfica were in an even more wasteful and apparently desperate mood as they managed to lose 2-1 to Shalke despite having 16 more shots at goal than the German visitors.

Barcelona philosophy runs deep
Despite fielding a very young and inexperienced side, Barcelona showed Rubin Kazan that their passing philosophy is so ingrained that the youth can slot right in and be very effective too. Barcelona passed the Russian side to death, completing over 700 more passes in the match.

Valencia’s Possession
An impressive statistic in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between Manchester United and Valencia was that the Spanish side had more possession at Old Trafford. Ever Banega in particular had an excellent night moving the ball around from the centre of the park, completing 25 more passes than anyone on the pitch.

Group Stage Statistics
At the end of the group stage we currently have the following statistics:

Top Goal Scorers
Samuel Eto’o (Inter Milan) - 7
Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich) - 6
Lionel Messi (Barcelona) - 6

Top Assists
Carlos Martins (Benfica) - 5
Aaron Lennon (Tottenham Hotspur) - 4

Most Successful Passes
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona) - 516
Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich) - 515
Xavi (Barcelona) - 458

Most Shots on Target
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) - 16
Lionel Messi (Barcelona) - 15

Most Shots off Target
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) - 24
Carlos Martins (Benfica) - 20

Most successful take-ons
Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur) - 28
Lionel Messi (Barcelona) - 24

Most Crosses
Gareth Bale (Tottenham Hotspur) - 72
Samuel Inkoom (FC Basel) - 48

Diagrams courtesy of the excellent Total Football - Champions League iPhone app

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Chelsea set for a tough December

The English Champions are not enjoying a good run of form in the Premier League at the moment and are now heading into a tough Christmas period. Chelsea have only won one of their last six games in the league, losing to Liverpool, Sunderland and Birmingham. Two 1-1 draws against Newcastle and Everton have not given Chelsea fans any reason to believe that their team is ready to bounce back either.

This lack of form has also come at a particularly bad time for Chelsea, and their next three games could have a significant impact on the outcome of the Premier League. On Sunday, Chelsea will travel to White Hart Lane where they haven’t won since 2005. Tottenham have an excellent home record against the top teams and Chelsea will be in for a tough examination. A week later Chelsea will host Manchester United who are buoyant after their seven goal rout against Blackburn Rovers. Dimitar Berbatov’s five goal glut and the return of Wayne Rooney have lifted spirits at Old Trafford recently, so expect a much more fluid United to arrive on Sunday 19th December. Chelsea’s gauntlet culminates at the Emirates against an Arsenal side which they have found rather easy to beat in recent seasons. However, this time could be very different, as Chelsea have looked unusually shaky at the back. Arsenal could learn from Liverpool and Sunderland’s approaches by shrugging off any intimidation and attacking from the start.

Carlo Ancelotti and his team are set for a season defining test this month, and three wins would give The Blues a massive psychological advantage going into the new year. At the end of the season, these three games could be seen as the turning point for Chelsea. If Chelsea fail the test, they will have a huge task on their hands to drag themselves back into contention. However, this season has already shown that no outstanding team looks ready to run away with things. The Premier League table may become even more congested at the top come 2011.

Tottenham v Chelsea - Sunday 12th December
Chelsea v Manchester United - Sunday 19th December
Arsenal v Chelsea - Monday 27th December

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Barcelona and their irresistible trio

Barcelona stepped on to the Camp Nou pitch last night clearly determined to prove a point against their biggest rivals, and at the full time whistle the point was well and truly proved. Barcelona beat Jose Mourinho’s Madrid to a pulp, completely dominating throughout and winning 5-0. It was a complete masterclass in pressing and keeping possession that was way too much for Real to handle.

Real Madrid have spent heavily over the past couple of seasons with the aim of besting Barcelona in the league. They shelled out €70m and €95m on Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo respectively in 2009. Jose Mourinho has improved the squad even further with the signings of Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira. Before last night Real Madrid were a point ahead of their rivals, unbeaten in all competitions and had the best defensive record of all Europe’s top teams. However, Monday night’s game at the Camp Nou may have shown the world that there are some things that you cannot buy.

Last night the Barcelona team were superb all across the pitch, with David Villa proving that he is a perfect fit for this team as so many predicted before the season, but three certain individuals were simply unplayable. Andreas Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi gave Real Madrid’s superstars a lesson that they are unlikely to forget for a long time. Barcelona’s philosophy and style cannot be replicated with money alone, and the apparent telepathy that this trio possess can only be achieved with time and care.

With the home crowd’s chants of ‘Ole’ ringing in their ears, the Real Madrid midfield could barely maintain their balance as they watched Xavi, Iniesta and Messi run rings around them time and time again. One touch, two touch, twisting, turning and impossible to stop, this trio left the Madrid players dazed and confused, desperate to go home long before Jeffren grabbed the fifth goal. Messi and Iniesta jinked passed challenges all night, while Xavi gave his World Cup winning team-mate Xabi Alonso a masterclass in passing and keeping the ball.

Barcelona were wonderful with and without the ball, constantly pressing and forcing Real into making mistakes and giving the ball away. A pressing game however is only effective if you can retain the ball once it has been won back. This is of course no problem for Barca’s irresistible trio, they could have kept the ball all night if they so wished. Some may argue that Real Madrid were poor last night, but I would say that Barcelona were unplayable and Jose Mourinho’s team did well to only concede five.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Champions League Match Day 5 - Brief Analysis

A few snippets of interest from this week’s round of Champions League Group matches:

Luka Modric and Denilson

Luka Modric had a wonderful game last night at White Hart Lane, scoring a beautiful goal and dictating the rhythm of Spurs’ play. In his new deeper role, Modric gets more of the ball than any of his teammates and is continually looking to get the side moving. In a similar role on Tuesday night was Arsenal’s Denilson, who also had the majority of the ball.

A quick glance at the comparison above could lead one to believe that both players had a similar influence of their sides. However, a closer look shows that despite Denilson’s passing being accurate and slightly higher up the pitch, it is too often short, sideways and non-threatening. Modric played balls in front of Bale, Lennon and the full-backs, starting lots of attacks down the wings where Spurs are so effective. This lack of ambition is not entirely Denilson’s fault however, as Arsenal like playing short, sharp passes in front of the opposition’s defence sometimes to the detriment of their wingers.

Barcelona’s passing masterclass

Away from home in a potentially tricky tie with Panathinaikos, Barcelona won in the most comfortable way possible. Even by Barcelona’s standards, the diagram below is astonishing.

Barcelona completed almost 700 more passes than their opponents last night, with full-back Dani Alves completing 110 of them. Xavi and Iniesta also completed over 100 passes during the match, with 95% accuracy, and Xavi was substituted after 70 minutes!

Valencia and Inter - Shooting Comparison

I admit that Bursaspor are a poor side, but the below comparison is still interesting nonetheless.

Internazionale had almost twice as many shots at goal compared with Valencia, but had to settle for a measly 1-0 win, while the Spanish side netted six times.

Diagrams courtesy of the excellent Total Football - Champions League iPhone app

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Van der Vaart and Bale give Spurs a new edge

Over the last few seasons Tottenham have bulit up a talented group of players which rivals the depth of any squad in the division. Harry Redknapp has had many injuries to deal with this season, particularly in defense where Gallas and Kaboul are working well together despite both not being first choice. This large squad means that Redknapp has viable backup options in all positions, in stark contrast to David Moyes’ situation at Everton. Even Roy Hodgson does not have the squad depth that Harry enjoys, and has publicly stated that Liverpool need to strengthen in order to manage the strains of a full season. Spurs proved their quality last season by finishing fourth, but this season may be the one where they gain the belief.

The top teams in Europe do not just have the best players, they also have the belief that they can win any game against any opposition. Manchester United currently do not have the most potent squad of players, yet remain unbeaten in all competitions. The mental strength that they display is both impressive and demoralising for opponents, who often lack the belief themselves. United’s comeback at Villa a few weeks ago is a perfect example of how this belief can destabilise an opposition team. If a team reaches a point in a match where they no longer believe that they can get a result, then the match is as good as over. Tottenham’s comeback at the Emirates on Saturday indicates that the players are beginning to believe in their own quality a little more.

This belief is stemming from the emergence of genuine world class ability at White Hart Lane. World Cup finalist Rafael van der Vaart has arrived at Tottenham with the right mentality already in place. He inspires his teammates by never giving up and revels in taking responsibility. His class is beyond doubt and he is at the centre of everything Spurs do at the moment, with a goal and two assists at the weekend. Stepping up to take the penalty at 2-1, Van der Vaart fixed a determined and inspiring stare towards goal, the jeering Arsenal fans faded into an insignificant background, there was no doubt. Van der Vaart wants to take responsibility and enjoys absorbing pressure and Tottenham benefit hugely.

A player with the determination and quality of Rafael van der Vaart needs outlets on the pitch who are willing and able to take advantage of the opportunities that he creates. Spurs have lots of quality in their squad, but in Gareth Bale they have a superstar in the making who is currently enjoying world class levels of form. His touch and finish at the weekend for Tottenham’s first goal were masterful. Bale looks as comfortable and assured in front of goal as he does when bombing down the left wing. His ability to manipulate the ball is extra impressive because he can do it at top speed. In the last year Bale has bulked up physically and has become an immense athlete. His speed and strength is intimidating to play against and his final ball is of such quality and pace that he is a striker’s dream to play with. On top of his wing play, he is now becoming a proven goalscorer.

Together, Bale and van der Vaart give Spurs that extra class which is often so crucial in key moments of games. An accurate final pass or a perfect first touch when in on goal can be the difference between winning and losing. Spurs have a new edge and are growing in belief - the Premier League’s power structure of old is increasingly looking over its shoulder.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Season so far: Magic Madrid

Europe’s top four leagues are a third of the way through, and quite a lot of change is currently in the air. Of the current reigning champions, only Chelsea are top of their respective league, and the two teams who contested last year’s Champions League Final are far from having things their own way this time around. Having lost the Milan derby at the weekend, Inter are 5th in Serie A, six points behind their great rivals AC. In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich are having an even harder time of things, twelve points behind leaders Dortmund, they sit in 6th.

Lets take a look at the statistics across the four leagues.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Rooney staying will not paper over the cracks

Wayne Rooney signed a new five year contract with Manchester United at the end of last week, just days after he announced that he wanted to leave. This is undoubtedly good news for the club as Rooney is a fantastic player, but there are big problems at Manchester United which won’t go away just because Rooney has signed on the dotted line.

Manchester United are a European and World football powerhouse and in the last 20 years they have won 11 league titles and 2 European Cups. However, over the last few seasons an unusual pattern has begun to emerge where Man Utd’s squad has dwindled and appears to be getting weaker every season. After receiving a mammoth £80m from the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo, it appears that most of this money has gone to service the club’s debt rather than to bring in top class players.

In May 2008 Manchester United won the Champions League by beating Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. Below is the team that they fielded:

Man Utd - 2008 Champions League Final line-up

Only two players have been lost from this line-up, but their performances since leaving the club demonstrate what a huge loss they have been. Carlos Tevez has been in a rich vein of form for rivals Manchester City, scoring 36 goals in 51 games. Cristiano Ronaldo has netted an amazing 43 times in just 47 appearances for Real Madrid. Ronaldo would be a huge loss to any team in the world, and replacing him is arguably an impossible task and neither Nani nor Antonio Valencia have been able to pitch in with enough goals in comparison. In 2007-08 Ronaldo scored an astonishing 42 goals in all competitions for Manchester United, and although Wayne Rooney managed a fantastic 34 goals last season, circumstances this season may prevent that from happening again.

In addition to the loss of key players, United are arguably over relying on their more experienced personnel. Next month Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs will turn 36 and 37 respectively. Scholes has played in every league game for Man Utd this season and Giggs has only missed two. 35 year old Gary Neville was very lucky not to get sent off at Stoke on Sunday after two late challenges on the younger and quicker Matthew Etherington. Neville also had a torrid time against the pace of Wolves’ Matt Jarvis in last night’s Carling Cup tie. These examples quite clearly show that Neville is starting to struggle to keep up with the pace of the Premier League, and it will be interesting to see whether or not Ferguson sticks with Neville when Tottenham and Gareth Bale visit Old Trafford this weekend. Ferguson’s reliance on his older players may be because the likes of Darron Gibson and the Da Silva twins have not progressed as quickly as he hoped.

Looking back at Man Utd’s Champions League winning side of 2008, a few more names have struggled for fitness and/or form ever since. Since that match Owen Hargreaves has only managed to play in 4 games, while Rio Ferdinand only appeared in 13 league games last season. Michael Carrick has also struggled for a long time to recapture the form he showed a few seasons ago where he dictated the rhythm of United’s play so well.

Manchester United are beginning to struggle in an emerging world where they can no longer compete financially with the likes of Manchester City and Real Madrid. They have missed out on big name signings across Europe such as David Villa, Wesley Sneijder and Mesut Ozil. In the league, while United are trying to fight off dramatically improved competition from Manchester City and Spurs, they are struggling to keep up with Chelsea at the very top. This season is crucial for Alex Ferguson’s side, as Liverpool showed what can happen to a big side that is knocked off their comfortable perch.

Things are not heading for disaster at United, however they are certainly missing one or two world class players which they may or may not be able to afford. They need to adapt to the new challenges in both the Premier League and in Europe quickly, otherwise they could get left behind.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Reckless tackles cannot be ignored

After Hatem Ben Arfa’s horrible broken leg at the weekend, Nigel De Jong is now the centre of attention. Nigel De Jong shouldn’t be vilified because he is just another player doing his job as a defensive midfield enforcer. However, maybe this role and what it entails should be looked at. Some players see themselves as destroyers who must break up play and stop the opposition at any cost. This can encourage certain players to play with a reckless abandon that they normally would not. Simply saying that these things happen is not helpful, De Jong’s tackle on Ben Arfa was excessive and not under control. Despite what many pundits would have us believe, tackling is still very much part of the modern game and top defenders often make winning the ball into a thing of beauty. There is no reason why a challenge cannot be both aggressive and controlled. Carelessly lunging around with no regard for your fellow professionals is not acceptable.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Tough opposition ahead for Barcelona

Barcelona suffered a 2-0 shock defeat on Saturday at home to Hercules, with Paraguayan striker Nelson Valdez scoring both goals. This result was definitely a huge upset, and it tells us a few interesting things. First, it was fairly obvious to see that Barcelona were really out of sorts. While they did have the majority of possession they also looked slow, lethargic and uninspired. Most have put this down to last week’s midweek friendly between Spain and Argentina in Buenos Aires. Barcelona had 9 players involved in some way in the friendly match, which involved lots of travelling. It is therefore understandable that Barca’s play seemed unusually flat.

It is also fairly apparent that every team which comes to the Camp Nou this season is pretty much guaranteed to be coming with defending and counter-attacking on their mind. After Inter showed the way last season, Barcelona could find themselves trying to break down hard working and well organised teams week after week. This is unlikely to worry Pep Guardiola at this early stage of the season, but towards the later stages of the Champions League, Barcelona could find Europe’s best coming to do no more than to defend.

In one sense this is a shame for the spectacle of European knockout football, but many big teams have tried to take Barcelona on directly, such as Arsenal in last season’s quarter final, and almost all have failed. Jose Mourinho’s blueprint of dedicated defending and devastating counter attacks may well be taken up by far more teams this season. However, Barcelona will rightfully be favourites to win the Champions League again, and the addition of David Villa should help them in the knockout stages. Regardless of how the opposition sets up, Barca will continue to try and play the beautiful game in the way that they believe it should be played, and expect beauty to defeat the beast more often than not at the Camp Nou this season.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Premier League Preview - Tough at the top

Top of the table is the glamorous place to be, especially in the cash soaked English Premier League. Glory and riches await the teams at the top, but not everyone can get everything they want.

Last season, for the first time in five years, the top four was broken by a new side. This along with a massive cash injection for a Manchester based team has shaken up the usually predictable Title and Champions League races. Champions Chelsea come into the 2010/11 Premier League season as favourites to regain the trophy. Carlo Ancelotti has had a small clear out of unwanted players, and has brought in Yossi Benayoun from Liverpool and Brazil international Ramires from Benfica. A big boost for Chelsea is the return of Michael Essien, who was sorely missed in the Champions League last season. Chelsea arguably still have the strongest team in the division and will be difficult to knock off their perch.

It could be interesting this season to watch the two teams from Manchester battle it out for league superiority. Manchester City have spent huge amounts of money once again this summer, but must overcome their lingering inferiority complex when it comes to competing against Manchester United. On paper it would appear that City have put together a squad which is as talented as it is deep. They have cover in every position, and a good mix of flair, strength and firepower throughout. The additions of Yaya Toure, David Silva and Mario Balotelli show the rest of the league just how serious a threat Manchester City will be this season. United on the other hand have not made any major improvements to their squad for some time. The arrival of Javier Hernandez is somewhat exciting, however United may find that City’s challenge is ultimately too fierce.

Arsenal still have a good chance of making an assault of the title, but in recent years they seem to have been muscled out at crucial times by the top two. Man Utd and Chelsea both beat Arsenal home and away last season and looked relatively comfortable doing so. This will be a worry for Arsene Wenger, and he will hope that his side can show more strength when under pressure this season. The signing of Marouane Chamakh could be a very good one for Arsenal, he is skillful and good in the air and offers the team a different kind of option up front. Wenger will also be hoping that Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie can stay fit throughout 2010/11, unlike last season when their absence was crucial.

Down the road, Arsenal’s local rivals Tottenham are aiming to build on last year’s fantastic season. With a Champions League playoff coming up against Young Boys of Bern, Spurs should make it through to the group stages. It is therefore conceivable that Spurs may take their eye off the league and concentrate on progressing to the knockout rounds in Europe. With such fierce competition this year for the top four places, this may not be a bad choice. The Spurs fans are not demanding another top four finish, although it would obviously be desirable. A glamorous run in the Champions League, and a solid top five finish in the Premier League would be an excellent season for the team from White Hart Lane. However, there is a possibility that Tottenham may spend some money in the transfer market after they have secured their Champions League place, so Spurs can still hope for a repeat of last season.

The last two sides aiming to force their way up the table from last season are the two Merseyside clubs. Liverpool and Everton could find themselves fighting it out for league superiority, with Liverpool perhaps no longer in the stronger position. Roy Hodgson has bought wisely over the summer and proved once again last season that his managerial ability is not in question. The arrival Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen and Milan Jovanovic could see Liverpool return to the top four this season, but with things so new and unpredictable at Anfield, it is unlikely that they will be able to maintain their form throughout the long and competitive season. David Moyes’ Everton on the other hand are far from new or unpredictable, and their run towards the end of last season shows that they are most likely to improve on last year.

An interesting and hopefully exciting season awaits at both the top and bottom of the Premier League this year. Teams like Tottenham and Everton are closer to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal than they have ever been, and Manchester City’s millions are set to throw everything up in the air. Where will the pieces fall?

Premier League Preview - Middle Ground

Unlike the bottom of the Premier League, the middle can be rather uninspiring. Certain teams seem to win more than enough games to avoid the relegation dogfight, but are still a million miles away from threatening any of the league’s big guns. Fulham and Sunderland look to me to be this season’s ordinary boys. Expect to see an equal amount of wins, draws and losses from these two as they successfully tread water through to May 2011. Roy Hodgson’s departure from the Cottagers is a real blow, and Mark Hughes faces a pretty difficult task if he aims to improve on last season. Bolton struggled last year, finishing with only 39 points. However, Owen Coyle has been in charge for 7 months now, and he starts this season with a competent Bolton side who are playing prettier football than under Megson. Bolton are in a much more healthy position than half the teams in the league this time around. Blackburn Rovers are also led by a talented English manager who has shaped them into a solid team capable of staying in the middle ground.

Following Monday’s news of Martin O’Neill’s departure from Aston Villa, it is now much more likely that they will struggle to maintain their lofty finishes of recent seasons. With James Milner also looking set to leave, Aston Villa may find that they cannot consistently compete with the teams at the top. Villa seem strapped for cash, and their squad has never been renowned for its depth as it is. This season could see Villa graciously fall away.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Premier League Preview - Fighting to stay up

Huge gaps in spending power break England’s top league effectively into 3 separate divisions. Teams in the middle cannot dream of competing with the mega-rich at the top, and teams at the bottom very rarely manage to avoid the dreaded pull of the relegation fight. The Premier League is a very predictable competition, especially when compared with the Football League. Newly promoted Blackpool for instance were tipped to go down last season, only to gain promotion via the playoffs after finishing 6th. The top 6 or 7 in the Premier League are almost permanent fixtures, and things are unlikely to change this year.

The bottom of the Premier League is a difficult and competitive place to be, and especially so this season. New boys Blackpool are hotly tipped to finish bottom of the league, and while I am not inclined to disagree, it should be fun watching the Tangerines this season. Manager Ian Holloway is quite the character and has suggested that his side will be playing some rather ambitious football this season. Holloway said "After watching the World Cup I've realised we need to get more like Spain" "You have to caress the ball, you've got to love it. We need more tiki-taka." Also expected to return straight back down to the Championship are West Bromwich Albion, although Roberto Di Matteo is a promising young manager, and hopefully can go some way to proving himself. West Brom have been up and down more than most over the past decade, but this experience could help them towards the end of the season. The Baggies have made a few solid purchases that are unlikely to stretch the finances beyond their limits, and I can see them just avoiding relegation this season. Teams such as Birmingham City and Stoke City, who did reasonably well last season, may find things a struggle this time around. Both these sides were difficult to beat at home, but Stoke in particular are likely to come up against teams who are fully prepared for the physical side of their play this season. Neither Wolves nor Wigan managed to reach the supposedly magical 40 points last season, yet stayed up because of very poor competition below them. This season’s relegation battle is likely to be far closer, and Wolves and Wigan are set to be involved in the fight. West Ham and Newcastle should be able to avoid the drop, but they both run the risk of being dragged into it all. Newcastle have made some good signings including Sol Campbell and Dan Gosling, while West Ham have brought in Frederic Piquionne and Thomas Hitzlsperger, and if they manage to keep hold of Scott Parker, they should be ok.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Spurs must seize their chance

Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have dominated English football for the past decade. The Champions League has been a private playground for these four clubs, and their domination resulted in them being dubbed the ’big four’. In the past 10 years English sides have qualified for the Champions League group stages 37 times, with 35 of those achieved by the ‘big four’. Outside of these four teams, only Leeds United in 2000 and Newcastle United in 2002 have made it into Europe’s finest club competition proper. Newcastle and Everton failed to get past the Third qualifying round in 2003 and 2005 respectively. This trend has been great for the ‘big four’ clubs, but rather embarrassing for the rest of England’s top division. Many neutrals wanted to see a new name in the top four of the Premier League, and last season saw Tottenham Hotspur finish fourth after years of near misses and disappointing shortcomings.

Last season’s fourth place finish has entered Tottenham into the relatively new Champions League Play-off round. The draw was yesterday and Spurs received what would appear to be a pretty straight forward outcome. Tottenham were drawn against Swiss side Young Boys, avoiding the likes of Sampdoria, Auxerre and Dynamo Kiev. In another bonus, the second leg will take place at White Hart Lane on August 25. Back in 2005 Everton were rather unfortunate when they were drawn against Villarreal, who went on to reach the Semi-Finals, eliminating Manchester United (in the group) along the way. Spurs have dodged such bad luck with their draw and have been given an ideal chance to add some fresh English blood to the Champions League for the first time in eight years.

Harry Redknapp has built a large, strong and talented squad over the last season or so. His team has a fantastic home record, and the win at Eastlands at the end of last season which cliched fourth place, was a superb display, showing how far Tottenham have come. Should Tottenham advance to the group stages of the Champions League, I believe that they have a very good chance of making it to the knockout rounds, considering their big squad and strength at White Hart Lane. They proved all their doubters wrong last season, and now Spurs must seize their chance to test themselves at the highest level.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Calm before the storm

Over three weeks have passed since Andres Iniesta’s extra time goal secured the World Cup for Spain. South Africa 2010 is now a distant memory, thoughts of Soccer City have faded and club football is almost ready to get going once again.

The European transfer market may have been a little quieter than last year, but some significant signings have definitely been made. David Villa’s €40 move to Barcelona back in May is clearly the summer’s biggest move. Other notable moves include Yaya Toure & David Silva joining the Manchester City project, and Sami Khedira getting a transfer to Real Madrid. There is still a month left until the window shuts, and hopefully we’ll see a late flurry of exciting transfer action.

This Saturday, Ligue 1 is the first major European top division to begin. The English Premier League starts on August 14, while the Bundesliga gets going a week later on the 21st. We must wait until August 28 for La Liga’s and Serie A’s opening fixtures. We also have the Champions League Playoff Round to look forward to, with both legs taking place this month.

Below are a selection of the best games coming up in August across the top leagues in Europe:

Saturday, August 14
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City

Sunday, August 15
Liverpool v Arsenal

Friday, August 20
Bayern Munich v Wolfsburg

Monday, August 23
Manchester City v Liverpool

Saturday, August 28
Bordeaux v Marseille

Sunday, August 29
Fiorentina v Napoli
Sampdoria v Lazio
Mallorca v Real Madrid

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Diego Forlan gets his reward

Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and co may have had all the hype before this World Cup, but different names have ended up on all the prizes. Despite what Nike and Pepsi wanted us believe, there were other players at this World Cup, players at the top of their games playing hard for their time in the spotlight. The World Cup in South Africa decided to shine its lights on the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, David Villa and Thomas Mueller. The superstars left early, and other names rushed in to take their place.

Diego Forlan had been in the shadow of the world’s so called best for too long, despite having plenty of silverware and a magnificant goalscoring record. The lack of attention was mainly due to a combination of not playing for a ‘big’ International side and being labelled by the English media as the Manchester United ‘flop’. Despite this however, with 5 goals and a Golden Ball award at his side, Diego Forlan has shown his class to the World.

Diego Forlan was born on 19 May 1979 in Montevideo. His father, Pablo Forlan, also played for Uruguay as a defender, and appeared at the 1966 & 1974 World Cup finals.

Making a name
Forlan started his career in South America, and made his name playing for Argentine club Independiente between 1998 and 2001. He quickly made a name for himself as a goalscorer, scoring 40 goals in 91 appearances. This record had attracted attention from Europe and from Sir Alex Ferguson in particular.

In January 2002, at the age of twenty two, Diego Forlan joined Manchester United for a fee of £6.9 million. Forlan played at Manchester United over the course of two and half seasons, and his struggles are well known in English football circles. Forlan was relatively young when he came to England, in a new continent speaking a new language. The environment and the pressure of playing for one of the World’s biggest clubs at a young age seemed too much for the Uruguayan. He was also not helped by being in the shadow of Ruud Van Nistelrooy, one of Manchester United’s record goalscoreres. Forlan scored a disappointing 17 goals in 98 appearances, and ultimately left English football in 2004.

New life in Spain
In August 2004, Diego Forlan joined Villarreal where he was an instant success. In his first season, Forlan scored 25 league goals, winning the Pichichi Trophy and his first European Golden Boot. His goals helped Villarreal reach the Champions League for the first time in their history. Needless to say, Forlan’s first season in Spain was a resounding triumph. Forlan spent three seasons at Villarreal before signing for Atletico Madrid in June 2007. Atletico had recently sold Fernando Torres to Liverpool and Forlan was seen as a direct replacement.

Life in Madrid was equally rewarding for Forlan, and the 2008-09 season was a remarkable one for the Uruguayan. He again won the Pichichi Trophy in La Liga as well as the European Golden Boot for the second time, scoring a staggering 32 league goals in 33 appearances. In the 2009-10 season Forlan inspired Atletico to victory in the Europa League, scoring home and away against Liverpool in the semi and getting both goals against Fulham in the final in Hamburg. Despite Atletico having a poor season, Forlan still managed to score 18 league goals, often in important matches.

International rise
Diego Forlan had to wait until he was 22 years old before he finally made his debut for Uruguay in a friendly match against Saudi Arabia. He was at Manchester United during this time, and was very much in the shadow of more established players such as Alvaro Recoba. Forlan did make the Uruguay squad for the 2002 World Cup. After being brought on as a substitute in the last group game, Forlan scored a magnificant volley in a 3-3 draw with Senegal.

Uruguay failed to reach the second round in 2002, and did not qualify for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. In 2010, Uruguay were the last team to qualify for South Africa, beating Costa Rica in a playoff. A Diego Forlan inspired team reached the semi final of the 2010 World cup, with Forlan himself scoring 5 goals and winning the Golden Ball trophy for the best player of the tournament.


Fulfilled Potential 

Forlan is truly an exceptional goalscorer. He can score as easily with either foot, is quick and ultra composed on the ball. He can strike a ball from any distance, seemingly scoring from range as easily as from the spot. He is a very clever player who rarely wastes possession and never wastes a chance on goal. During his time in Spain, Forlan has matured into a World class striker, and with each year he seems to get better. Forlan has forged fantastic partnerships with Kun Aguero and Luis Suarez at Atletico Madrid and Uruguay respectively. Even at 31 years of age, Forlan’s goals look a long way from drying up.

Forlan had an exceptional World Cup. No longer in anyone’s shadow, he was free to run the Uruguayan team from a position just off the front. His goals and influence dragged the South American team right through to the semi final, where they only just came up short. The Golden Ball award is deserved recognition for a fabulous player who won everyone over with a collection of superb goals and lashings of class.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Race over for the Golden Boot

After a month of solid football, the day we have all dreaded has finally come, the World Cup is over for another four years. The final two games were played over the weekend, and all the loose ends have been tied up. Spain are World Champions, Diego Forlan was voted the player of the tournament and Thomas Mueller won the Golden Boot.

In the end, four players all finished on 5 goals each, with Mueller winning the Golden Boot due to having the most assists.

  • Thomas Mueller (Germany) - 5 goals
  • David Villa (Spain) - 5 goals
  • Wesley Sneijder (Holland) - 5 goals
  • Diego Forlan (Uruguay) - 5 goals

The weekend’s results and scorelines were not all that surprising, and as is generally the case we got a free flowing and high scoring third place playoff match between two teams not under much pressure. Over the years the third place playoff has more often than not had lots more goals than the final.

1978 was the last time that more goals were scored in the Final than in the Third Place Playoff. The lack of pressure often means that the Third Place Playoff is a high scoring and entertaining game, if not all that important. This year’s Third Place Playoff, between Uruguay and Germany continued this trend by giving us five goals and plenty of exciting football. The game also took on a little more importance due to the inclusion of two Golden Boot candidates. Mueller and Forlan both grabbed a goal each to end the tournament with five goals.

David Villa and Wesley Sneijder were involved in a much more tense and tight match. Chances were limited and the best of them fell to other players such as Arjen Robben and Andres Iniesta, who got the winner.

There is a question mark over whether goals scored in the third place playoff should count in the race for the Golden Boot. Players who are knocked out in the Semi Finals get another chance, and play in a match which generally produces lots more goals. Would Mueller have won the trophy if Germany had made the Final? We will never know, but personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with the format of the World Cup, and another game to watch is fine by me.

Spain win the World Cup

Last night Spain won the World Cup for the first time in their history. Andres Iniesta scored the winner with four minutes to go in extra time and the Dutch had to settle for second best once again.

It was not the greatest of spectacles, but big finals rarely are. Spain and Holland were both wary of each other’s attacking threat throughout the match, and a low scoring game was inevitable. Spain once again dominated possession, and Holland pressed well to try and break up the composed passing play of the Spanish. Unfortunately Holland went too far with their aggressive and destructive tactics, and Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong were very lucky to still be on the pitch at half time. The Dutch dished out a number of horrible tackles in the match, with De Jong’s karate kick to Alonso’s chest being the worst of the bunch. Howard Webb could probably have got a better grip on the game early on, but unfortunately the match spiralled into a rather dirty affair resulting in half the Spanish team and eight of the Dutch starting eleven receiving yellow cards.

Kung Fu Soccer
Holland put a lot of work into normal time, and Robben had two excellent chances to give the Dutch the lead. This amount of effort was ultimately too much for Holland to keep up over 120 minutes. When the game calmed down in terms of fouls and various attack minded substitutions had been made on both sides, the game opened up and massively favoured the superior Spain. Fabregas set up Iniesta after 114 minutes and the little man from Fuentealbilla banged in a half volley to seal the victory and World Cup for Spain.

This World Cup win is the culmination of four years of Spanish promise and dominance across multiple tournaments and qualification rounds. It proves to the World that this Spain team is truly a great side who have conquered all before them. Spain are now the reigning European and World Champions, and have finally proved that they are winners.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Wonderful Spain reach World Cup Final

Spain were pre-tournament joint favourites for a reason. The reigning European Champions are a class act and a team so full of talent that they look almost unstoppable. In a piece that I wrote last month, I felt that even though Spain were rightfully the favourites, surely their route to the final would have more than a few bumps along the way. At the start of the tournament Spain’s probable knockout draw was looking like the toughest in the competition, however Italy, Argentina and Brazil were all eliminated before they could test themselves against the Spanish. As it turned out, a young and remarkably impressive German team and a Holland team which cannot stop winning matches have emerged at the business end of the World Cup to face up against the mighty Spain.

The Spanish team has received some rather unjustified criticism in their run to the final for not putting on a goalscoring show as they did two years ago at Euro 2008. Before the Semi-Final people were talking about how Spain have not yet reached top gear and that they need to click in order to win the World Cup. In fact Spain have been playing great in the new role that they now find themselves; favourites. Other teams don’t like letting favourites like Spain play, everyone knows how dangerous Spain can be, and it is only natural for the opposition to sit back and try not to give up cheap space. Top club teams face this kind of problem all the time, where they are expected to break lesser teams down. It is a lot easier and safer to defend deep and compact against Spain than it is to come out and try to play, simply because Spain are so good.

Tonight Germany (who had been wonderful in their two previous games) found out why Spain were favourites since before the World Cup even began. Spain are fantastic in possession, and they also press very well when they don’t have the ball. This meant that Germany went for long periods without even touching the ball, which puts more pressure on the players to do something when they do have it. Spain know that Germany will be desperate to use the ball wisely when they have it, so good pressing forces Germany into mistakes that they wouldn’t normally make. Spain do not panic in possession, neither are they desperate in any way with the ball. The pattern of the game therefore meant that Germany would have the ball for shorter and shorter periods of time, as they became more unsure and desperate on the ball, not knowing if they would ever get it back. This tactic is magical to watch, Spain put on a technically marvelous show of skill and passing, while Germany are slowly suffocated out of the match. It is worth noting that this can only work because of the sensational players that Spain have and the ease with which they keep the ball. Germany were put to death by a thousand passes once again by Spain, but should be very proud of their performances in South Africa. Their victories over England and Argentina, while fantastic, were no preparation for meeting this Spanish side. Where the England and Argentina have massive flaws and defensive frailties, Spain look as though they have no weaknesses at all.

Spain started the game with seven Barcelona players, and the team as a whole have a level of understanding that few teams manage to achieve. Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso keep the ball so easily that opponents are killed by majestic and beautiful possession. If Spain do go on and defeat the Netherlands in the final, they will surely take their place in history as true greats.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Europe’s top teams prove themselves

Three teams remain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and all three are from Europe. Many people, including me, thought that European power in the World Cup could be coming to an end due to the reduced amount of teams that made it to the Second Round. Now though, with everyone else eliminated, Europe’s top teams look like they are going nowhere.

Spain, Germany and Holland were arguably the three most impressive sides in Euro 2008. Spain and Germany contested the Final, and despite being eliminated in the Quarter Final by Russia, Holland looked devastatingly good in the group. Who can forget the Dutch hammering Italy and France 3-0 and 4-1 respectively. Despite this however, coming into this World Cup Germany and Holland were not seen as potential winners by many. Germany’s young and inexperienced team were written off early and most people thought that the Dutch would not have enough to get past a quarter final with Brazil. Yet where Brazil and Argentina have both fallen short, the top European teams have continued to impress. France, Italy, Portugal and England are all now a long way behind, and a lot of work may be needed to turn them around.

Spain were joint pre-tournament favourites, and while not necessarily hitting their stride entirely as of yet, they have impressed by showing remarkable patience and perseverance throughout. David Villa has continued to show his international class and remarkable goal scoring ability for Spain. 43 goals in 63 internationals is quite superb. Interestingly, the four most obvious candidates for the Golden Boot all still have games to play. Villa and Sneijder are on 5 goals each while Forlan and Klose have 4. With the Third Place Play-off and Final taking place this weekend, all still have a chance to add to their tallies.

Spain v Germany on Wednesday night is a wonderful match up, and is likely to be Germany’s first real test. Although that may sound ridiculous, seeing as they have just beaten England and Argentina, Spain are a different animal. England and Argentina both had massive flaws, in terms of players, formations and defensive capabilities. Germany’s team ethic was far superior, and they destroyed two teams who had massively underestimated them. Spain are unlikely to underestimate the Germans, and they do not have any of the English or Argentinian weaknesses.

Holland are the only team to have won every game; they even won all their qualification games. Germany have dazzled us with a couple of highly impressive demolition jobs. Spain are the only favourites left, and they now know who they must beat to become World Champions.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Brazil and Ghana out of the World Cup

Friday in South Africa produced two marvellously exciting World Cup Quarter Finals that have set the tournament alight. Brazil, the favourites to lift the trophy were dumped out by the Dutch, and Ghana left the tournament after Asamoah Gyan missed a penalty in the last seconds of extra time.

Brazil lost to Holland in a very uncharacteristic way, despite taking the lead early in the first half. Their inability to defend properly from a short free kick and a near post corner was surprising to say the least. The Brazilian public looked as though they were starting to accept Dunga’s approach after witnessing their team masterfully move through the rounds looking almost impenetrable at the back. An apparent lack of flair and attacking intent was seen as this team’s only possible weakness, yet indiscipline and sloppy defending ultimately cost Dunga’s team. Holland were very poor in the first half, and looked to be heading out at half time. However, they played much better in the second half, and put the Brazilian defence under enough pressure to force an error which dragged them back into the match. Holland’s second goal was both basic and brilliant, with the simplest of near post flicks from Dirk Kuyt providing Wesley Sneijder with a header that couldn't be missed. Felipe Melo was very reckless and stupid to get himself sent off and Brazil could not find a way back. Holland did provide Brazil’s first test of the World Cup, and Brazil failed it.

If the first Quarter Final was exciting, the second was World Cup drama at its best. Ghana and Uruguay ended with Uruguay going through on penalties, but things could have been so different. Sulley Muntari put Ghana ahead at the end of the first half with a great long range effort, and Diego Forlan equalised in the 55th minute. Forlan crushed a free kick from the left corner of the eighteen yard box which rifled into the top right hand corner of the net, a simply sensational strike from a fantastic player. It was Forlan’s third goal of the tournament, and his second from long range. The game ended a draw and went into extra time. As the extra time neared its end, penalties awaited, but one more moment of drama was left in the match. Luis Suarez handled on the line in the last minute of extra time, got sent off and gave away a penalty. Up stepped Asamoah Gyan with the last kick of the game, to send Ghana into the Semi Final, but he smashed his shot against the crossbar. Uruguay won the shoot-out with a magnificent final penalty, but Gyan’s pain was difficult to watch at the end. Such a shame for Ghana and Gyan.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Holland v Brazil Preview

The World Cup has reached the Quarter Finals, and the big guns are starting to face off. Holland v Brazil is a mouth-watering match up with plenty of World Cup history and shouldn’t be missed.

Dunga’s Brazil are continually looking more impressive as the days go by. Their back four supported by two seemingly tireless defensive midfielders is threatening to gain a reputation as being almost impenetrable. The samba flair may have been turned down a notch or two, but Brazil’s defensive qualities are mightily impressive. Lucio and Juan have easily been the best centre back partnership at this World Cup. Together they are both powerful and composed, and Lucio’s fantastic flamboyance can unsettle an opposition striker alone. Maicon and Michel Bastos are so dangerous going forward that their movement can force the opposition team to retreat into a much more defensive and less threatening shape. On top of this, Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo or Ramires have perfectly demonstrated the art of pressing and winning the ball back throughout this World Cup. Together, this Brazilian defensive unit is a thing of beauty, especially when you consider what great talent they have further up the pitch.

The match against Holland however should provide the first real test for Brazil so far, Holland have top quality attacking options and should ask some serious questions. Brazil have not had to deal with much attacking threat so far in this tournament, and Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie are certainly going to have to be dealt with. Brazil have faced two very negative sides in North Korea and Portugal, and while Ivory Coast and Chile were bright and energetic they were ultimately naive and straightforward for Brazil. Holland will certainly not come out all guns blazing, and much of the match will most likely be a pretty cagey affair, but there will be phases of the match when Brazil will come under some serious pressure, and it will be interesting to see how they hold up.

Brazil should not underestimate the Dutch, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben are capable of creating something from nothing. However, Brazil are superb at the back and Robinho, Kaka and Luis Fabiano are going to ask questions that I fear the Dutch defence will be unable to answer. An intriguing tie awaits, and one couldn’t ask for a more glamorous start to the World Cup Quarter Finals.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

England expects too much

England were humbled on Sunday in a 4-1 defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein. This result, together with other abject performances in the group stage, has led the English press to erupt in a fit of rage, spewing stinging criticism at the manager and the players. Fabio Capello has been accused of getting his tactics wrong, of picking the wrong players and wrong formation. The players have been lambasted for their apparent lack of ‘spirit’ and ‘desire’, and their inability to replicate their Premier League performances. The England team is now seen by the majority of English football fans as a complete failure and disgrace to the country, but do England fans expect too much?

The majority of the media seem to spend months force feeding the masses false hope, presumably in the hope of selling more papers. Advertisers churn out faux-patriotic beer commercials and ex-professionals are constantly on television telling the camera that they think we have ‘a real chance of winning it this time’. With all this hyperbolic rubbish constantly streaming into the nation’s sub-conscience, it is not hard to understand why so many people feel let down or devastated by England’s comprehensive defeat in South Africa. If only people were told the truth about our chances before the tournament began, it may not have been such a surprise to so many.

England certainly have a selection of experienced players that play in big pressure situations for their clubs. Lampard, Gerrard, John Terry and Ashley Cole should have contributed more to helping the team be more intelligent with the ball and more solid without it. Wayne Rooney also clearly did not play to his potential and may have buckled under the weight the pressure. Rooney was seen as England’s hope and his performances were sadly very cumbersome, wasteful and somewhat out of character. However, even if Rooney had been more on form, the England team would still have come up short. Matthew Upson, Jermaine Defoe, Gareth Barry and Glen Johnson are not International class players. This balance of irrelevant experience and lack of quality is not exactly a recipe for success. England have no problem creating box to box midfielders who are energetic and direct, neither do they have a problem making big, lumbering centre halves. However, England simply do not seem to produce players who are creative or skillful, players who can control the ball, keep possession and make defense splitting passes. The current England team even lacks real defensive midfielders, who protect the back four and win the ball back for their team. Germany showed England how to play with imagination, precision and speed. They continually overran England in midfield and broke time and time again through their lackluster back line. If the England players believed their own hype, the Germans certainly did not. After being told that they were young and inexperienced, Germany went out and played as though they had been set free. Germany enjoyed the game, England became tight and ragged.

The English media continually portray the England team as World beaters, and the English public lap it up. England were ludicrously third favourites to lift the World Cup before the tournament with British bookmakers. This collective delusion is the reason why people cannot seem to comprehend why England came up well short against a bright, if not brilliant German team. The simple truth is that Germany have better players and a better team than England. Portugal and Holland also have better teams than England, they are smarter in possession and while Portugal are far more solid defensively, Holland’s attacking options easily out-gun the English. On top of this, England also fall desperately short when compared to the real favourites for the World Cup. Brazil, Argentina and Spain are streets ahead of England in almost every regard. They have squads full of genuinely world class players, and unlike England they have a team of square pegs in square holes. These teams have real depth in reserve, mouth watering attacking options, intelligent ball players, tactical defensive strategies and marvellous technical ability. Why should it be a surprise that England always come up short? It seems perfectly obvious to me.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

European teams on the decline?

The World Cup in South Africa has reached the the second round, sixteen teams have departed and sixteen remain. As the 2010 tournament begins to heat up, I’m taking a look at the composition of this knockout phase in comparison with World Cups from the past.

The second round of sixteen format was first introduced in 1986 and it has been mainly populated with European teams ever since. In the six World cups between 1986 and 2006 Europe has had 10 of the last 16 on five occasions, in 2002 there were 9 European teams. In South Africa, things seem to have changed. Having seen 7 teams from Europe depart in the group stages, only 6 remain. This is a dramatic drop considering the consistent level since 1986. To make things worse for the European teams, the remaining 6 are all facing off against one another, guaranteeing the departure of 3 more.

France and Italy who contested the 2006 World Cup Final both finished bottom of their respective groups and looked very jaded and lethargic in comparison to some of the other supposedly smaller nations. The thing is, we all knew that France and Italy were in massive decline before the tournament, but many of us still begrudgingly believed that they would grind their way out of their groups and maybe reach the Quarter Finals before lamely bowing out. Refreshingly, teams like Uruguay, Mexico, Japan and Chile have really stepped up this World Cup, beaten European opposition and marched into the Second Round looking sharp, dangerous and playing exciting, entertaining football. The knockout rounds in South Africa look set to be one of the most diverse and intriguing knockout rounds ever.

Is this the beginning of the end of European dominance of the knockout phases of the World Cup? 2010 could be the beginning of a more evenly balanced World Cup future.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

England’s lack of excuses

I imagine that England’s 0-0 draw with Algeria in Cape Town last night was not a particularly entertaining watch for a neutral viewer. For me, watching England is usually a frustrating and painful experience, however last night was a little embarrassing also. Watching the tournament unfold over the first week, it seemed that matches were starting to open up, goals were starting to flow and teams were beginning to express themselves. Last night at the Green Point Stadium however, England and Algeria did their best to drag the standard of football down to new depths.

Algeria’s lack of ambition was not surprising, they played for a 0-0 and they achieved their objective. It was a risky strategy from the Algerians, especially considering that they lost their first game, but they now still have a chance to qualify from the group if they can beat USA in their final group game on Wednesday. Algeria did well last night, they were defensively compact and managed to squeeze England and not allow them any space out wide. They had few attacking opportunities themselves, but never looked uncomfortable dealing with England’s front two.

Despite setting up so defensively, Algeria managed to have 47% possession over the course of the match. Compare this with Switzerland’s 33% from their game with Spain and it is easy to see that England did not put nearly enough pressure on the Algerian defense. I am sure that Algeria were expecting much more from Fabio Capello’s team, and they were defensively prepared for an onslaught which never came. In certain periods of the match, Algeria seemed to gain confidence from England’s ineptness and came forward themselves, albeit without much result.

It is not unusual to see uninspiring England performances, but last night’s was truly terrible. England often struggle to break down determined defenses, but they are normally left with a referring decision or two to complain about, a wasted chance here and there or some other freak stroke of ‘bad luck’. Yesterday however, England didn’t even have any excuses to lamely cling to. Their play was unimaginative in the extreme, their work rate was well below par and almost every individual performance was timid and terribly poor. Lampard and Gerrard couldn’t complete 10 yard passes when not under any pressure and Rooney decided to forget how to control a football. In one particularly funny moment, Emile Heskey attempted a bit of skill when cutting in from the right, only to trip all over his own feet and the ball before kicking it straight out for a goal kick, classic. Heskey’s hold up play was also only marginally better than having a wheelie-bin up front.

It is difficult to see how England’s problems can be fixed. Players like Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard should not be constantly misplacing short passes and allowing the ball to cannon off their shins as they attempt to bring it down. Something other than tactics and personnel must at fault here. This morning’s press are indicating that the player’s could not deal with the pressure of playing in a World Cup. Fabio Capello said "We lost too many passes, it was not the same team that I know, the team I see when they train". Maybe the pressure has become debilitating for the England players, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. A goal can do wonders for relieving pressure, and beating Slovenia on Wednesday could see England finish top of Group C.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Why Spain probably won't win the World Cup

Spain are favourites with the bookies to lift the World Cup on the 11th July, and with the immensely talented squad that the European Champions have, who would argue? Well I would actually. Spain are capable of beating any team in the competition, and their success at Euro 2008 will have given them confidence in their own talent and in their ability to win a major tournament. However, Spain could very possibly have the hardest route to the final of any team in the competition. If things go to plan (which they almost certainly will not) Spain may have to beat Portugal, Italy, Argentina and Brazil one after another to become World Champions. I believe that this run of matches will prove too much, even for this great Spanish side.

It is often forgotten that in their masterful Euro 2008 triumph, Spain had to rely on winning a penalty shoot-out against the always resilient Italy in the quarter final. To win the World Cup in South Africa, Spain will have to make their way through a tough knockout draw, and penalties could quite conceivably crop up once again. They will have to find a way past world class teams who are likely to set up in rigid defensive formations, they may have to overcome dodgy goals, or poor refereeing decisions. World class players such as Ronaldo, Messi and Kaka will not go down without an almighty fight, Spain have got one hell of a job on their hands.

What I am trying to say is that for Spain to win the World Cup they could very well have to pass the sternest test any international side has ever faced. I have no doubts about the squad's quality or their ability to win, and they are rightly favourites for the competition, but football is a hard game, even for the best.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

World Cup Preview

Keep checking your watches people, if we all stare at them hard enough, maybe we can make Friday come sooner. The World Cup begins on the 11th with the hosts South Africa taking on Mexico in Johannesburg.

The 2010 World Cup will involve all seven previous winners of the Trophy, and each of its 32 teams and 64 matches promises to be fascinating in their own ways. Italy are looking to equal Brazil's World Cup record of winning the competition 5 times, while this is Slovakia's first ever World Cup. At 22 years old, Lionel Messi is aiming to set the World Cup alight with dazzling skills, while Miroslav Klose who is 10 years older needs six more goals to pass Ronaldo and become the highest ever World Cup goalscorer. Every way you turn there is a record to be broken or a story to be told.

Of the 23 players that were short-listed for the 2009 FIFA World Player of the Year award, 19 will be on show at the World Cup in South Africa. While it is no surprise that 6 of these players belong to the Spain squad, England actually have the second highest amount of short-listed players with 4.

The groups themselves are also promising to be most interesting. Italy arguably have the easiest group, and the average FIFA World Ranking of the teams in Group F is 37, compared to 18 in Group D. In Group G the highest ranked team in the World, Brazil, are grouped with 3rd ranked Portugal and Ivory Coast who are ranked 27. Group A is probably the most balanced group of them all. Hosts South Africa should be boosted by their home advantage, and France, Uruguay and Mexico are ranked 9th, 16th and 17th respectively.

Everything is ready, lets hope for an unforgettable month.

Monday, 31 May 2010

World Cup warm-up results

Teams are cramming in their warm-up games in order to be ready for the World Cup, which is only 11 days away. Chile managed to play two games in two days, with a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland on Sunday, followed up by beating Israel 3-0 today.

Yesterday England had to rely on two own goals to help them come from one down to defeat Japan 2-1 in Austria. France could only draw 1-1 with Tunisia; William Gallas equalised on 62 minutes after Tunisia had been ahead since the 6th minute. Didier Drogba was on the scoresheet as the Ivory Coast let a two goal advantage slip away, as they drew 2-2 with Paraguay.

On Saturday, Llorente scored a 90th minute winner when Spain beat Saudi Arabia 3-2 in Innsbruck, Austria. Clint Dempsey scored the winner for the USA in their 2-1 victory over Turkey and New Zealand pulled off a shock 1-0 win over Serbia.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Maradona's offensive nature

Diego Maradona's manners may not be the best, but I am writing today about his hugely offensive team selection for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Argentina have selected six forwards for the competition, and Maradona seems quite happy to ignore full backs or cover in midfield, as long as he has massive fire power up front. Argentina's strike force is certainly impressive, with five of the six playing for top European clubs (Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero & Diego Milito). Between them this season, these five players have won the Coppa Italia, Serie A title, La Liga title, Uefa Europa League and Champions League. In comparison, the England strikers between them have won the Carling Cup. Lionel Messi won the European Golden Shoe this season with a staggering 34 league goals in Spain, while Higuain and Milito finished as second top scorers in Spain and Italy respectively. The skill and clinical composure with which Diego Milito put away his two goals against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final really emphasises how this Argentina squad is bursting with attacking class, especially when you realise that Maradona only considers him as fifth choice.

Maradona's six forwards have scored a staggering 165 goals in all competitions between them this season, and have the world's best player in their ranks, yet they are still not expected to win the competition. This is because Argentina are lead by the inexperienced, eccentric, unpredictable and inimitable Diego Maradona. He may have been one of the greatest players of all time, however as a manager, nobody can quite work out what he will do next. Being unpredictable could work out for Maradona, as he certainly has the talent at his disposal to go all the way in South Africa, but there seems to be a large self destruct button looming over this team. There will be more tactically sound teams and managers at the World Cup than Argentina and Maradona, and this could lead to lots of frustration for the South Americans. A team that keeps its shape, is compact and sets up with an effective game plan is likely to cause Maradona problems to which he has yet to prove he can solve. This is where England may be in a better position in 14 days time, even if our Milito and Higuain are Peter Crouch and '3 goals for Villa' Heskey; England have Fabio Capello in charge.

Argentina lost six games in the South American qualifying group and only managed to finish fourth behind Brazil, Chile and Paraguay. Their results included losing 2-0 away to Ecuador and being beat 6-1 in Bolivia. They come into the World Cup under a cloud of confusion, people genuinely do not know what to expect. Surely with this group of players, we are bound to be treated to plenty of goals, aren't we?

Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
34 league goals, 8 goals in Europe
Won La Liga title

Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid)
27 league goals

Carlos Tevez (Manchester City)
23 league goals

Diego Milito (Inter Milan)
22 league goals, 6 goals in Europe
Won Uefa Champions League, Serie A & Coppa Italia

Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid)
12 league goals, 6 goals in Europe
Won Uefa Europa League

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Messi outshines them all

It is easy for me to accept that professional football players can do things on the pitch that I could only dream of. This is easy because I accepted the fact, long ago, that I am not very good. I wonder however, whether some of the top players in the world can accept the same thing when comparing themselves with Leo Messi.

The main reason that Messi is so extraordinary to watch, is that he has the ability to combine effective close control dribbling with very high speed. This is where Messi defies the logic which limits virtually everyone else; close control and speed do not mix. Look at players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka or even Steven Gerrard, great players with the ball at speed - direct, powerful and effective, but the pace at which they run means that they tend to push the ball quite far ahead of themselves before chasing it down. This technique can obviously still be devastating when players like Ronaldo drive into space or through a gap in a defensive line. These players however do not have a choice, they simply cannot do what Messi can with the ball. Messi doesn't need a clear gap, because of his exceptional control while dribbling he can zig-zag his way through a defence via a path which only he seems capable of navigating. I sometimes wonder whether Torres, Drogba and co sit at home watching Lionel Messi on television and think to themselves 'I wish I could do that'.

Messi is not only a brilliant dribbler, he is a great passer, fantastic at linking play and superb at creating chances for others. On top of all that, he is also a composed and deadly finisher. This season, Messi has scored 34 league goals in Spain, earning him the European Golden Shoe award and equalling Barcelona's club record for the most amount of goals scored in a season, set by Ronaldo in the 1996/97 season. He has scored more goals in this season's Champions League than any other player (so far), and has amassed an amazing 47 goals in all competitions.

Quite simply, the 2009/10 season has been dominated by the diminutive Argentinian, and everything is now set up perfectly for the World Cup in South Africa. On 11 June 2010, the world's best players will meet, and will be joined by arguably the best ever, Lionel Messi. Its going to be quite a show!

Watch Messi's goals against Zaragoza from earlier this season

News round up - Monday 17 May 2010

Lots going on at the moment in the world of football. The top European leagues have come to a close, and we only have the Champions League left to keep us going until the World Cup. Here is a selection of articles:

Michael Ballack has been ruled out of the World Cup - Telegraph
Swindon reach League One play-off final after beating Charlton on penalties - BBC
Paolo Bandini reviews the final day of the Serie A season - Guardian
Sid Lowe reports on Barcelona's season and the rest of La Liga - Guardian

A very interesting quote from Sid in his article regarding Barcelona's record this season:
'Four defeats all season have left them with just one trophy; 23 defeats could see Atlético win two.'

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Inter and Barcelona seal titles

Today saw the final fixtures taking place in both Serie A and La Liga with both titles up for grabs. In the end Inter Milan and Barcelona both started and finished the day top of their respective leagues.

In Spain, Barcelona started the day a point ahead of Real Madrid, and knew that a win at home to Valladolid would secure them their second successive La Liga title. They successfully executed their plans with a comprehensive 4-0 victory, to the delight of the Camp Nou crowd. In the other game, Madrid faltered with a disappointing 1-1 draw away at Malaga. It concludes a season which saw Real Madrid amass a staggering 96 points, yet still finish 3 points behind champions Barcelona. Leo Messi grabbed two more goals in the final game today, to see him finish with a total of 34 league goals, 47 in total.

Earlier in the day, 500 miles east of Barcelona in Siena, Internazionale claimed their fifth successive Serie A title with a 1-0 win. Diego Milito scored the only goal of the game to seal Jose Mourinho's Inter a League and Cup Double, with the Champions League final still to come next weekend. Roma finished two points behind Inter after a 2-0 win over Chievo.

We can now look forward to a great match-up on Saturday, as Inter and Bayern both have the chance to turn their Doubles into Trebles by winning the UEFA Champions League in Madrid.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Chelsea win the FA Cup

After a crazy game in which Chelsea hit the post five times in the first half, the Premier League champions finally prevailed 1-0 over Portsmouth at Wembley. The game also included two penalty misses, one for Kevin-Prince Boateng and one for Frank Lampard.

Having held on for the first half, it looked like Pompy might just pull off a remarkable shock when Dindane was brought down by Juliano Belletti in the box. However Boateng's penalty was rather weak and Cech saved with his legs. Chelsea were ahead two minutes later when Drogba scored a marvellous free kick. Lampard missed a late penalty, but it wasn't to be Portsmouth's day. This FA Cup win gave the club its first ever Double, and is a great end to a near perfect domestic season for the London club.

(Photo by Mike Egerton/Empics Sport)