The 2012 African Cup of Nations begins this weekend with two host nations, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, which have such a limited record in this competition. The former has never qualified for an African Cup of Nations before and will be an unknown quantity to most observers of this year’s tournament whilst the latter have competed in just four previous tournaments and have only progressed beyond the group stage on just one occasion when reaching the last eight in 1996.
Indeed there is quite a strange feel about the Cup of Nations this year if only for the fact that defending champions, and record winners of the tournament, Egypt will not be there as they failed to qualify this time out finishing bottom of their qualifying group behind Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone. Egypt, seven times winners of the trophy, made history in the most recent tournament two years ago in Angola when winning the competition for a third consecutive time, the first time this had ever been achieved. Another African powerhouse, Cameroon, failed to qualify as they were always playing catch-up on qualifying group winners Senegal who topped the table with a five point margin on the four-time winners.
With the absence of two of the most successful nations in the tournament’s history this year could be the year that a nation such as Senegal or Ivory Coast finally get their hands on the cup again whilst there will be many amongst the sixteen nation tournament who will be hoping to spring a surprise.
GROUP A: Equatorial Guinea; Libya; Senegal; Zambia
Hosts Equatorial Guinea should enjoy this tournament seeing as it will be their maiden appearance but they will have a tough group to negotiate. Senegal are amongst the favourites to win the competition even though they are one of the strongest countries never to win the trophy before having ended up empty-handed in twelve tournament finals appearances. Libya were one of the two best runners-up to qualify for the finals and have done against the backdrop of civil war and one can only hope that a good showing in this tournament will help to heal some of the wounds that have torn the country apart in recent months. Zambia made the quarter-finals in 2010 and will be hoping of a repeat performance as a minimum requirement this time out.
GROUP B: Ivory Coast; Sudan; Burkina Faso; Angola
1992 champions Ivory Coast, in the absence of Egypt and Cameroon, will be the favourites to win this year with a host of stars based in some of Europe’s top leagues. Players such as Salomon Kalou, Didier Drogba and the Touré brothers of Yaya and Kolo will have high expectations of getting their hands on the trophy especially as they will compete in one of the easier groups of the tournament. Sudan, like Libya in Group A, qualified as one of the two best runners-up and have a squad which comprised of players based only in their home nation, the only such squad to do this in this tournament. Both Burkina Faso and Angola participated in the 2010 tournament with the latter unable to progress beyond the group stages and the latter, as tournament hosts, reaching the quarter-finals. With the strength of the squads in this group it is more than likely that this will be the case again this time around.
GROUP C: Gabon; Niger; Morocco; Tunisia
Gabon will have the honour of hosting the 2012 African Cup of Nations final in its capital of Libreville on February 8th but whether the co-hosting nation will be there is debateable. Gabon has qualified for the tournament for only the fifth time in its history and has only got beyond the group stage on one occasion. However, home advantage does give Gabon hope of reaching the last eight this time but the likelihood of the two North African superpowers of Tunisia and Morocco finishing in the top two spots in Group C is strong given both teams’ strengths within their squads. Each of those nations can be classed as a good outside bet to win their second title whereas the final team in this group, Niger, did impress in qualifying finishing top of a group containing both Egypt and South Africa but have no previous form in the finals to speak of with this being their maiden appearance.
GROUP D: Ghana; Botswana; Mali; Guinea
Outside of Egypt and Cameroon, Ghana is the most successful nation in this tournament having appeared in a record eight finals winning it on four occasions. However the glory days are becoming a distant memory for the Ghanaians who last won the African Cup of Nations in 1982 and are desperate to claim a fifth title especially as they finished in second and third places in the last two tournaments. Mali and Guinea should battle it out for one of the two quarter-final spots from this group but Botswana, who are participating in their maiden finals, will arguably be one of the weaker sides in the competition.
The KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) clash between Ajax Amsterdam and AZ Alkmaar, which was suspended due to an attack on AZ keeper Esteban Alvarado in the initial encounter, was completed today in the Amsterdam ArenA with the home side going down to a 3-2 defeat.
Siem de Jong gave Ajax the lead as early as the 10th minute only for the visitors to restore parity fourteen minutes later through Maarten Martins. AZ were then able to take the lead in the 32nd minute with Charlison Benschop getting his name on the score sheet only for the hosts to peg back six minutes before the break with de Jong grabbing his second goal of the game and that was how the game finished after a lively first half.
The second half, by way of contrast, only saw one more goal with Rasmus Elm netting the crucial strike from the penalty spot in the 55th minute to give Alkmaar a sense of justice following the first game which saw their players leave the pitch following the attack on Alvarado. Ajax, on the other hand, would be forgiven for thinking of what might’ve been as they had lead in the initial tie with a 1-0 score line after 38 minutes before the game had to be abandoned.
AZ Alkmaar’s reward for reaching the last eight of the competition is a quarter-final match against third-tier GVVV Veenendaal. The other games at this stage will see PSV Eindhoven take on NEC Nijmegen, Heracles Almelo at home to RKC Waalwijk and Vitesse Arnhem host SC Heerenveen. The games are due to take place on January 31st.
It’s that time of the year again when local pride is at stake in the numerous state championships which are prevalent in the opening months of the Brazilian football calendar. From Amapá in the far north to Rio Grande do Sul in the south, from Acre in the west to Paraíba in the far east of the country, twenty seven regions of Brazil will be involved in their own local championship, mixing the big boys with the smaller village teams, with each club hoping to win their respective title and qualify for a place in next year’s edition of the national cup, Copa Brazil.
The Rio State championship, more popularly known as Carioca, will begin next weekend with the first of the two component tournaments which make up the competition. The first of these is the Taça Guanabara (from 21st January – 26th February) which sees sixteen teams split into two groups. Each team plays the other seven teams in its own group once only with the top two in each group going through to a knockout round comprising of one leg semi-finals and final. Almost as soon as the action in the Taça Guanabara is finished the second half begins with the Taça Rio (29th February – 22nd April). Again the sixteen teams are split into two groups of eight but this time each club will play each of the eight teams in the opposite group once only. After eight games in the league phase there is another knockout phase involving the top two of each group using the same format as the Guanabara. If the same team wins both competitions then they are crowned Carioca champions. If the Guanabara and the Rio competitions see different winners then they will face off in a two-legged final to decide the overall champion of Rio State. In 2011 Flamengo won both competitions and took the overall Carioca title for a record extending 32nd time. This time around the likes of 30-times winners Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama will hope to reclaim the title from the Mengão.
The other major state championship in Brazil is in São Paulo state, known to all and sundry as the Paulista. The duration of this tournament is longer than the Carioca beginning on January 21st and running until the May 13th. The format of this competition is rather more straightforward than its Rio counterpart with a twenty team league, each team playing the rest once only. After 19 rounds of games the top eight go through to the knockout rounds with the quarter-final and semi-final stages played over one leg followed by a two-legged final. In the 2011 competition Santos finished in fourth place in the regular season table but managed to win their way through each of the knock-out rounds to take their 19th Paulista title by getting the better of arch rivals Corinthians in the final. Following a goalless first leg Santos won the return fixture 2-1 at home and claimed the first of two major titles in that year with the club also going on to lift the Copa Libertadores. In 2011 the likes of record Paulista champions Corinthians, São Paulo and Palmeiras will be determined to add to the honours board.
There are some other notable state championships outside of the big two but many of these will contain an outstanding rivalry which has been the focus for many a tournament over the years. In the Mineiro championship, played in the state of Minas Gerais, Atlético Mineiro and Cruzeiro have won 77 of the 95 tournaments that have been played to date (Atlético hold a narrow 40-37 advantage) and their dominance is expected to continue this year. Cruzeiro defeated Atlético with a 3-2 aggregate win in last year’s final helping them to the title. The Gaúcho championship will no doubt see the Porto Alegre rivalry between Grêmio (36 titles) and Internacional (40 titles) light up the campaign with Inter hoping to reclaim the title they won over their arch rivals in last year’s competition. There’s more than just local bragging rights at stake for two clubs who have won all but two championships that have been played since 1954. The Campeonato Paranaense was won in 2011 by Coritiba FC for the third time in four years as they won both league rounds of the regular season, therefore making an end-of-season play-off match unnecessary. There was, however, one major surprise in the Campeonato Baiano as neither of the big two of EC Vitória or EC Bahia, winners of this tournament 69 times between them, could win the trophy leaving it up to Bahia de Feira to sample title success for the first time in the club’s history.
ABC FC, who hail from the city of Natal in Rio Grande do Norte state, are the most titled club at state championship level. The current Potiguar championship holders recorded their 52nd title triumph in 2011 having seen off the challenge of Santa Cruz with a 3-2 aggregate win in the final. Although they play in the second tier at national level, ABC FC carry on to dominate at regional level in a tournament which has been won by them five times in the last seven years. They will begin their 2012 campaign this weekend with an away fixture against Baraunas whilst the championships in the states of Pernambuco, neighbouring state Alagoas and Pará will also get under way over the next few days.
Argentinian giants River Plate, who are currently playing in their country’s second division following last season’s shock relegation, have showed their ambition to get back into the top flight by signing former France international David Trezeguet.
Trezeguet, who won a FIFA World Cup and who scored the winning “Golden Goal” for the French national team in the 2000 UEFA European Championship final against Italy, had only recently been playing in the United Arab Emirates but had decided not to continue at his club Bani Yas Sports Club following some injury problems. Now Trezeguet, who is of mixed French/Argentinian descent, will now go back to play in the land of his birth some seventeen years after he made his debut with CA Platense. As well as international success, he has also won league titles in France with AS Monaco and in Italy with Juventus.
Trezeguet signed a three year deal with River and there will be huge expectations amongst his club’s fanatical supporters for him to score the goals which will get Los Millionarios back into the top flight.
Avram Grant has taken many pundits by surprise by joining Serbian champions Partizan Belgrade as coach from today.
With fifteen games played so far this season in the Jelen SuperLiga, Partizan have a ten point lead over arch rivals Crvena Zvezda and already look set to continue their recent dominance by winning a fifth consecutive title. Because of this it was all the more surprising to see ousted coach Aleksandar Stanojević have to depart his post which he had occupied since 2010 and had helped win two league titles, one Serbian Cup and helped the team reach the UEFA Champions League in the 2010-11 season.
However it seems that there had been some internal politics at the club which had forced the board to sack Stanojević and appoint Grant who, after a little more than four years in England, was at the point where he was seeking a new challenge. It was only at the end of the 2010-11 season when Grant lost his job at English club West Ham United after he failed to prevent the London club from getting relegated to the Championship (second tier).
Watching the FA Cup 3rd round tie between Arsenal and Leeds United on Monday evening might not have proved so entertaining if former Arsenal defender Martin Keown had not have been struck by a ball hit by a visiting Leeds player in the pre-match warm up. Keown was standing by the pitch alongside ESPN presenter Rebecca Lowe and ex-footballer Robbie Savage.
At least Keown had an inkling that the ball was coming towards him. In contrast German TV presenter Jessica Kastrop had absolutely no idea that a ball was aiming towards the back of her head whilst working on the side line ahead of the 1. FSV Mainz 05 v VfB Stuttgart clash in the Bundesliga last season. If one thing is to be learnt by television companies it is that presenters and pundits should not be anywhere near the teams while they are warming up; that’s unless the broadcasters are just hedging their bets in case the main event doesn’t prove quite as exciting.
FIFA’s annual awards ceremony took place in Zurich last night and there weren’t too many surprises as to who would come top of the main awards of the evening.
It was obvious to all of the world and his dog that Lionel Messi would come to win the Player of the Year award in 2011 following yet another truly successful twelve months with his club FC Barcelona. The Ballon D’or award will adorn his mantelpiece for the third year in a row but it could easily have gone to any of his club colleagues Xavi or Andres Iniesta due to their consistency, as well as Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo who was conspicuous by his absence at last night’s ceremony. However Messi topped the poll once more due to his amazing ability to stand out in one of football’s greatest ever club sides. His recent performances in this season’s El Clasico against Real Madrid and FIFA Club World Cup final against Santos FC have put to bed the recent question as to who is the best player in the world with Messi getting the better of Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar respectively in those games.
A repeat of the historic sextuple triumph of 2009 was almost replicated but for the head of Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2010-11 Cope del Rey final which deprived Barcelona of one trophy last year. Nonetheless the 2010-11 league title was won with an astonishing total of 96 points, four ahead of Madrid, and the UEFA Champions League win was the club’s third in five years. Wins in both the Spanish and European Super Cups at the start of the 2011-12 season took Barcelona’s haul of trophies to four for the calendar year before December’s triumph in the FIFA Club World Cup, which culminated in a 4-0 pasting for South American champions Santos FC in the final, meant that five out of six had been achieved and cemented the club’s recent dominance in world football. On a similar theme the Manager of the Year award went to Pep Guardiola who, three years after taking the job at the Camp Nou, shows that he is still as hungry for success as ever and has raised the bar of how football should and can be played. Upon receiving the award Guardiola said that he would like to share the award with his two challengers for the prize, namely Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Sir Alex Ferguson would admit himself that what is happening at FC Barcelona at the moment means that they should grasp the limelight but, outside of Catalonia, Ferguson is still going strong at Old Trafford and showing no signs of slowing down. His continuing exploits at the top of the English and European game saw him recognized by FIFA last night with a special Lifetime Achievement Award. Last year saw Sir Alex win his twelfth Premier League title with Manchester United, which was the club’s 19th English league title overall and saw them overtake Liverpool FC’s total of 18 which had been an English record for over three decades. Although the 2010-11 season wasn’t the most dominant title win during his reign, Sir Alex has at least set the ball rolling for another potential era of sustained success and his charges currently lie second in the English Premier League table three points behind arch rivals Manchester City who they knocked out of the FA Cup last weekend. In a year in which Ferguson was recognized by all and sundry in the football world for the remarkable contribution he has made to football during his 25 years at Old Trafford his peers at the club invoked the most perfect of tributes by renaming the North Stand in his honour and has now been similarly held in high esteem by world football’s governing body.
Sir Alex’s club Manchester United saw two of their players reach the FIFPro World XI in the shape of Nemanja Vidic and Wayne Rooney. The latter was denied the Ferenc Puskas prize for the goal of the year with the prize going to Santos FC and Brazil wunderkind Neymar (see goal below). Neymar didn’t get into the World XI this time but surely his time will come whilst this year nine out of the eleven players came from either FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. Finally the FIFA Fair Play award went to the country of Japan which having started off the year in tragic circumstances following two natural disasters in the form of an earthquake and subsequent flooding, the country paraded itself on the world stage in the eyes of football fans everywhere with the men’s team winning the 2011 AFC Asian Cup whilst the women’s team became 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup champions from which Homare Sawa stood out to win the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.
FIFPro WORLD XI 2011
Iker Casillas (Real Madrid) – Daniel Alves, Gerard Pique (both FC Barcelona), Nemaja Vidic (Manchester United), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) – Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Lionel Messi (all FC Barcelona), Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid) – Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
NEYMAR’S GOAL OF THE YEAR 2011
The FA Cup third round saw very few shocks this weekend but did see some interesting results and a bit of controversy along the way.
In the tie of the round cup holders Manchester City lost in the derby match against record holders Manchester United by three goals to two. The Red Devils, who were the visitors to City’s Etihad Stadium, took a 3-0 lead going into the half-time break thanks to a brace from Wayne Rooney and a super strike from Danny Welbeck. Ten man City, who saw defender Vincent Kompany harshly sent off for a two-footed tackle on Nani as early as the tenth minute, did well to pull two goals back through Alexsandar Kolorov and Sergio Aguero but the dream comeback ended incomplete as United held out to eliminate their neighbours. United will now face arch-rivals Liverpool FC in the 4th round with another away trip looming for the Old Trafford outfit.
On Friday evening Liverpool’s third round tie at home to Oldham Athletic ended in a flattering 5-1 victory over the League 1 (third-tier) side but ended on a sour note with Oldham’s Tom Adeyemi on the receiving end of some alleged abuse from a home supporter. This episode along with the never-ending row regarding the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra affair, in which the latter accused the former of using racist language against him, continues to hang over the Anfield club who now need to move on and focus on football and regain some of the credibility which has been lost in recent weeks.
In other ties the main shocks came at League 2 Swindon Town who disposed of Premier League outfit Wigan Athletic with a 2-1 win. League 1 outfit Sheffield Wednesday got the better of West Ham United from the Championship (second-tier) with a late goal from Chris O’Grady separating the two sides. There would be no such upset at Stamford Bridge on Sunday where, in a repeat of the 2010 final, six-time winners Chelsea FC defeated Portsmouth FC 4-0 with Ramires bagging a brace for the West London side. Sunderland continue to flourish under the guidance of Martin O’Neill, this time winning away to Peterborough United. Sebastian Larsson proved influential for the Black Cats by scoring the opening goal and creating the second for James McClean as the Mackems notched up a fourth win in five games since O’Neill’s tenure began and will face a trip to nearby Middlesbrough in the next round.
It all pretty much went to form however as the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Aston Villa saw off lower league opposition in the form of Cheltenham Town, Tamworth and Bristol Rovers respectively whilst Newcastle United’s impressive season continued with a 2-1 home win against Premier League strugglers Blackburn Rovers.
FA CUP FOURTH ROUND DRAW
Brighton & Hove Albion/Wrexham v Newcastle
Sunderland v Middlesbrough
Dagenham & Redbridge or Millwall/Southampton
Hull City v Crawley
MK Dons/Queens Park Rangers v Chelsea
West Bromwich Albion v Norwich City
Blackpool v Sheffield Wednesday
Arsenal/Leeds United v Aston Villa
Stevenage Borough v Notts County
Watford v Tottenham Hotspur
Liverpool v Manchester United
Derby County v Stoke City
Everton v Fulham
Macclesfield Town/Bolton Wanderers v Swansea
Sheffield United v Birmingham City/Wolverhampton Wanderers
Nottingham Forest /Leicester City v Swindon
Ties to be played on the weekend of 28-29 January, 2012.
Marco Reus, the rising star in the German Bundesliga having helped Borussia Mönchengladbach to a respectable fourth place during the winter break, will be leaving the club at the end of the season to play for Borussia Dortmund.
It was announced today on Mönchengladbach’s website that the player will remain at the club for the 2011-12 season before signing a five year deal with the current German champions Dortmund for a transfer fee of 17,5 million Euros.
Having started his career at Rot-Weiss Ahlen in 2007, Reus moved to his current club for the 2009-10 season during which the club sealed a twelfth placed finish. In the following season Gladbach looked set to go down but some fantastic form late in the campaign helped them avoid the drop thanks in no small part to Reus’s goals including one in the promotion/relegation play-off match against VfL Bochum.
Now in his third season with the Rhine club Reus finds himself amongst the league’s top scorers with ten goals, six behind leading scorer Mario Gomez of FC Bayern, and many had been tipping him to leave for the Bavarians before news of his impending transfer to Dortmund broke today.
On Monday I knew that I could wake up and forget about work for at least another 24 hours as it was a public holiday. Therefore I decided that I would go to a football ground in my home city that I’d been meaning to go to for quite some time.
The Arriva Stadium, at one time known as Rossett Park before the ground was sponsored by the Arriva bus company, is the home of Marine AFC and lies in the outer Liverpool suburb of Crosby. On quite a few occasions already this season I had sacrificed a visit to this particular stadium in order to watch Waterloo RFC, a rugby union team just ten minutes up the road, and who I’ve never seen lose whenever I have gone to see them play. The reason why I always had to choose is that, for some peculiar reason, both Marine AFC and Waterloo RFC’s home games always seem to kick-off at exactly the same time. This time though, on a cold and windy Monday afternoon, Waterloo had no game to play and Marine were able to fill the void.
Marine AFC, fifth in the league, played host to fourth placed Chorley FC, a team based in a town of the same name just 35 miles away, in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Premier Division, effectively the seventh tier of English football, with the two teams separated by just three points before the game kicked off. I took my seat in the only seated stand in the stadium, located behind one of the goals, and found myself sitting next to a Roberto Mancini look-a-like. Just in case I was actually lucky enough to be sitting next to the Manchester City coach himself I asked him if he knew the time but his accent was more Scouse than Italian. “Roberto” did prove useful in one area; his knowledge of the English non-league football scene was encyclopaedic and he came in useful in pointing out players whose identities remain as anonymous with me now as they were before I entered the stadium.
The game started with Chorley enjoying most of the possession and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 20 minutes thanks to a Tom Ince shot from an acute angle beating Marine keeper Ryan McMahon. This spurred the home side into life and it wasn’t too long before the game’s major flashpoint flared up. A midfield battle, culminating with some flying tackles from both sides, ended up in a needless mêlée in which Marine’s Thomas Moore was given a straight red card after seemingly throwing a punch at an opposition player. Despite the numerical disadvantage Marine were able to pull level just three minutes before the break with Neil Harvey scoring from the penalty spot following what looked to me to be a soft foul on Aaron Rey.
For the second half I left the confines of the seated area and was able to stand on the side lines in what looked like a glorified garden shed. In a game which had been largely devoid of atmosphere throughout the first half both sets of supporters amongst the crowd of 575 suddenly began to make some noise and made it worthwhile standing in the bitterly cold weather. Chorley re-took the lead eight minutes into the second half with another penalty converted, scored by Steve Foster. But Marine wouldn’t lie down and came back to level things again with Aaron Rey able to tap the ball home from a couple of yards out in the 68th minute to set up a grandstand finish between two teams who both have genuine hopes of gaining a spot in the top five and being in the end-of-season play-offs this season. However the home side were not able to enjoy parity for too long as Chorley wrapped up the game in the last twenty minutes; a Mark Ross free-kick from the halfway line somehow lobbed over McMahon in the Marine goal in the 71st minute before a glorious strike from the edge of the box by Steve Denham sent the visiting fans wild, knowing that the three points would be theirs unless the home side had some luck in the dying minutes.
Chorley’s reward following the victory was to see their advantage in the table double over Marine from three points to six and cement fourth spot with 48 points, five behind league leaders Chester FC who have two games in hand. Despite defeat Marine should not be too disheartened but they will have to fight it out with the likes of Bradford Park Avenue and FC United of Manchester who lie just below them in the table. Whether I will get to see Marine again anytime soon is anybody’s guess. After all, with my record amongst the Crosby sporting scene, something tells me that the oval ball merchants of Waterloo RFC will welcome me back a lot sooner than the round ball practitioners of Marine.