It had already been a fantastic week for cup shocks in England, with Bradford City and Swansea City both reaching the League Cup final, but this weekend saw the FA Cup provide further upsets for some of football’s big names. The same can also be said of the Scottish League Cup where favourites Celtic FC were knocked out at the semi-final stage by St Mirren. In Northern Ireland there would be cup celebrations for Cliftonville FC who convincingly defeated defending title holders Crusaders FC 4-0 in the League Cup final on Saturday.
The FA Cup could be accused of having surpassed itself in terms of shocks this weekend with the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Norwich City going out to lower league opposition. Seven times winners Liverpool were the biggest casualties of the round losing 3-2 to League One (third tier) side Oldham Athletic whose progression to the next round has guaranteed them a home draw with Liverpool’s local rivals Everton. Matt Smith (2) and Reece Wabara scored the goals for Oldham whilst Luis Suarez and Joe Allen replied for the visitors in a match which effectively ruined Liverpool’s season. Out of both cups and lying in seventh place in the Premier League, Brendan Rodgers’ men can at least now concentrate on trying to climb the league table.
Tottenham Hotspur also lost on Sunday away at Championship (second tier) side Leeds United at Elland Road. Luke Varney and Ross McCormack scored the goals which gave Leeds a 2-0 lead which was later halved by Clint Dempsey. Tottenham, however, were unable to equalize and Leeds held on to seal a fantastic win and will be rewarded with an away trip to Premier League champions Manchester City in the fifth round. Chelsea almost made it a hat-trick of cup shocks on Sunday but were able to secure a late draw against Brentford FC. Fernando Torres’ 83rd minute equalizer was enough to give the Blues a second chance and, should Rafael Benitez’s side prove successful in the replay, will see them travel to Middlesbrough in the next round.
Amongst the other FA Cup games over the weekend struggling Aston Villa went out of the competition. Just three days after their elimination from the League Cup at the hands of Swansea, Villa were forced out of the FA Cup at the hands of League One side Millwall FC who defeated the Premier League side 2-1 on Friday night. Millwall’s reward for progressing is a trip to the only non-league side left in the competition, namely Luton Town. Luton narrowly defeated top flight club Norwich City 1-0 away at Carrow Road with Scott Rendell’s goal proving the difference. Elsewhere in the competition some of the big boys managed to get through to the next round unscathed. Record winners Manchester United easily saw off Fulham FC 4-1 at Old Trafford whilst Manchester City edged past Stoke City 1-0 at the latter’s Britannia Stadium. Arsenal did suffer a couple of scares, going behind twice, before persevering 3-2 away at Championship club Brighton and Hove Albion.
The 2012-13 Scottish League Cup final will see Heart of Midlothian play against St Mirren following another exciting round of knockout action north of the border. Saturday saw Heart of Midlothian, currently holders of the Scottish FA Cup, play against Inverness Caledonian Thistle at Easter Road, the Edinburgh home of Hearts’ big rivals Hibernian FC. Andrew Shinnie (Inverness) and Michael Ngoo (Hearts) traded strikes as the game finished 1-1 with thirty added minutes of extra-time unable to separate the two sides. A penalty shoot-out then saw Inverness’ Phillip Roberts miss the crucial spot kick as Hearts went through 5-4 on penalties to leave the Jambos hoping of lifting their first League Cup title since 1963. Sunday saw another exciting semi-final at Hampden Park where Celtic FC have made a bad habit of losing crucial cup matches in the last couple of years. Following defeat to Kilmarnock in the final of last season’s tournament, Celtic went out at the hands of St Mirren today to leave coach Neil Lennon wondering just when he’ll enjoy some more luck in Scottish domestic knockout competition. Esmael Goncalves gave St Mirren the lead after 8 minutes but Gary Hooper equalized for the Hoops on the stroke of half-time. In the space of five second half minutes, however, St Mirren would set themselves up for a famous win thanks to a Paul McGowan penalty (64 mins) and a wonder strike from Steven Thompson (69 mins). Celtic did pull one back through Charlie Mulgrew’s stoppage time effort but the damage had already been done for Lennon’s men. St Mirren will hope it will be third time lucky for them in the League Cup final having lost in their two previous final encounters in 1956 (v Aberdeen) and 2010 (v Rangers).
In Northern Ireland’s League Cup tournament Cliftonville FC won the trophy for the second time in their history on Saturday following a convincing 4-0 win over 2011-12 winners Crusaders FC. Goals from Diarmuid O’Carroll, Joe Gormley (2) and Ryan Catney saw off the defending title holders and gave Cliftonville their first success in this competition in eight years.
After a miserable 2-0 defeat at the hands of local rivals Everton FC today, Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson defended his players saying that “I don’t think it is a crisis, I thought the way we played today was not the level of a team in the bottom three.” If he really thinks that then it is clear that the man is not in the right job.
To be fair to Hodgson the situation he walked into at Anfield was far from ideal. Having replaced Rafael Benítez in the Reds’ dug out amid the off-pitch turmoil that has affected the club in recent weeks, the new boss of the five-time European champions has had his work cut out. His first match of the season saw Liverpool drop two points at home to Arsenal in a game they could’ve won but a tough start has seen defeats to the two Manchester clubs and newly-promoted Blackpool as well as defeat in the English League Cup to fourth tier side Northampton Town. With champions Chelsea coming to Anfield in three weeks time the situation could get worse before it gets better for the team who now languish in 19th place in the Barclays Premier League table and who have made their worst start to a league campaign for 57 years.
The Blue side of Merseyside were revelling in rubbing their neighbours’ noses in it following a 2-0 defeat of Hodgson’s men in what ranks as one of Liverpool’s worst derby performances although that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take any credit of an Everton team who were by far the better side. Everton pressed the Reds in midfield and denied them any time on the ball in the first half and their territorial domination reaped the rewards after Tim Cahill gave The Toffees the lead after 34 minutes. If an inspirational half-time team talk was to wake Liverpool from their slumber then it certainly didn’t happen as Everton doubled their lead five minutes into the second half thanks to a fantastic strike from Mikel Arteta on the edge of Liverpool’s 18 yard box. The victory could’ve been greater had David Moyes’ men taken the game further to Liverpool but, instead, the Blues were content to hold on to their lead and allow their hapless opponents to keep possession in the knowledge that Liverpool seemed incapable of doing anything with it.
For the Reds’ new owner John W. Henry it must have been a sorry sight to see the team he’d worked so hard to buy in the last few weeks cave in before his eyes. Had Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres et al shown any of the commitment on the pitch that the new ownership and vital figures such as Martin Broughton and Christian Purslow had shown off it then the game could’ve been different. Perhaps this defeat will make the players and, more importantly, the manager realise that Liverpool are in a different kind of fight this season. In recent years the fight has been either to win the Barclays Premier League or to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Now the club is fighting to drag itself out of the bottom three and up the table. Yes, it is still early days and Hodgson can justifiably still ask for more time to prove himself but following the strange upbeat tone of his post-match comments today perhaps Hodgson is now in danger of deluding himself that things are not as bad as they appear. Either that or he’s very good at deflecting attention away from his players’ recent inept performances.
In my opinion Roy Hodgson only became a contender for the Liverpool job following his achievement in taking Fulham to the UEFA Europa League final last season which, admittedly, was a marvellous feat for somebody at a club of limited resources. Nonetheless the English media, who slaughtered Benítez at any opportunity for his negative tactics, have been very quiet in their treatment of Hodgson who has shown no greater desire to play people in their correct position or to adopt an attacking mentality in the team’s play. Today’s post-match comments have not helped with Hodgson saying he “thought at half-time we were a bit unlucky to be a goal down because we had got back into the game well…in the second half we did everything the team could possibly do, we played well, created chances, we limited them to very few and put them on the back foot.” What Roy calls putting Everton “on the back foot” was really the Blues comfortably holding on to a lead they never looked like relinquishing and it is a disservice to Hodgson who has tried to put a positive spin on what everybody else saw: a continuation of the clueless nature of Liverpool’s play so far this season which has seen them only attain six points in the first eight games.
Next up in the Premier League for Liverpool is Blackburn Rovers, a team coached by Sam Allardyce who is known for making life difficult for any opponent. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog will be at Anfield for the game next Sunday and you will be able to read my report on the game in the Away Days section next week.
For anybody in the city of Liverpool during the FIFA World Cup there is a festival of beer to go alongside the feast of football to be enjoyed from June 11th. The city’s most traditional real ale pub The Ship and Mitre, located on Dale Street at the heart of the city centre, is hosting an event which will not only see each match shown on the big screen during the tournament but will also see many of the world’s top beers going head-to-head in a “World Cup of Beer”. For any football fan who loves to enjoy a pint of the good stuff whilst simultaneously cheering on his (or her) favourite team then you can do no better than check it out during the tournament.
The Ship & Mitre has been an institution in the city for many years and has gained a well-earned reputation as the city’s finest supplier of British, German and Belgian beer and the proof is there for anybody to see when you see the host of awards that the pub has achieved in the last few years. This is further enhanced by the fantastic selection of beers that will be available throughout the four week duration of the FIFA World Cup tournament.
There are thirty-one different beers on the list with most of them coming from the country they represent on the list, whereas in the case that a beer couldn’t be obtained from a particular country a replacement from (usually) a neighbouring state would suffice. For England supporters there is a beer that has been especially brewed for the Ship & Mitre from the Hornbeam brewery called Three Lions which is available at the very novel price of £1.966 a pint!! For fans of non-UK beer there are plenty of famous names such as San Miguel, Becks, Brahma, Quilmes and Castle Lager available whilst some lesser known ales (e.g. Little Creatures, Modelo Especial, Tsingtao) will also be on sale in order to provide a truly international flavour to proceedings. On matchdays you can buy five bottles of beer from a competing nation for just £10, a bargain by any stretch of the imagination. Even when the footie’s not on you can still get four bottles for the same price so the deals are truly amazing and in keeping with the pub’s reputation for quality ale, a selection of which you can see on the photo below:
Liverpool, whose slogan is “The World in One City”, now gives to you The World in One Pub. If you’re in the city during the tournament check it out, sample any of the beers on the list below (countries in brackets are replacement beers where no appropriate brew could be found for a particular nation) and cheer your favourite country in style:
Algeria = Skol
Argentina = Quilmes
Australia = Little Creatures
Brazil = Brahma
Cameroon = Savana Cider (S.Africa)
Chile = Chili flavoured beer (USA)
Denmark = Tuborg
England = Hornbeam Three Lions
France = Kasteel Cru
Germany = Beck’s
Ghana = Casablanca (Morocco)
Greece = Mythos
Honduras = Red Stripe (Jamaica)
Italy = Peroni
Ivory Coast = Windhoek (Namibia)
Japan = Asahi
Mexico = Modelo Especial
Netherlands = Grolsch
New Zealand = Stein Lager
Nigeria = Tusker
North Korea = Tsingtao (China)
Paraguay/Uruguay = Cusqueña (Peru)
Portugal = Sagres
Serbia = Stiegel Goldbräu (Austria)
Slovakia = Zlaty Bazant
Slovenia = Eggenberg Hopfen (Austria)
South Africa = Castle Lager
South Korea = Hite Max Prime
Spain =San Miguel
Switzerland = Hurliman Export
United States of America = Anchor Steam Beer
The European Former Players Association (EFPA) will hold their annual congress in the city of Liverpool from Thursday, April 15th which will feature a gala dinner on Thursday and a six-a-side legends tournament to be played at the Liverpool Echo Arena on Friday.
Normally the EFPA holds its annual congress in the organisation’s birthplace of Barcelona but have decided to take this year’s show on the road to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Everton FC Former Players Foundation. The EFPA Congress is designed in order to define the roles which former footballers can play after their sporting retirement and also celebrates the work of similar organisations based across the continent. The Congress will also help to raise awareness of the new British Alliance of Former Players Associations (BAFPA), an umbrella organization hoping to co-ordinate the work of such groups across the United Kingdom.
Thursday sees a conference take place at Liverpool’s Hilton Hotel in which Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton will be the keynote speaker. In a gala dinner later that day Sir Bob will be awarded with a lifetime achievement award in a ceremony in which his former international team-mate Sir Geoff Hurst will be the main guest Speaker. EFPA President Ramon Alfonseda pays the ultimate tribute to England’s record international goalscorer saying “if anyone symbolised the values of EFPA, it can be summed up in the two words known by every football fan in the world – Bobby Charlton.”
Friday night will see the first ever EFPA Champions Cup, a six-a-side tournament which will bring together some of the great players from England, Scotland, a combined Ireland/Wales team and a European legends team. There will be many former players of local clubs Liverpool FC and Everton FC involved, including Ian Rush (as a player/manager for Wales/Ireland), Robbie Fowler, Peter Reid and Dave Watson. Some of the legendary European names showing off their skills will include the likes of the “Maradona of the Carpathians” Gheorghe Hagi, Danish legend Michael Laudrup and 2005 UEFA Champions League winner Vladimir Šmicer, all of whom doing what the EFPA’s slogan proudly proclaims: “Still Playing!” The four teams will be coached by some top names including Terry Venables (England), Ally McCoist (Scotland) and Italian 1982 FIFA World Cup winner Antonio Cabrini (Europe) so it is clear that each team will contain the same will to win as all of the players involved showed during their illustrious playing careers. The four teams will meet each other once only in the group stage with the top two teams after three matches played going through to the EFPA Champions Cup final.
If you can make it to the Liverpool Echo Arena on Friday, April 16th to watch the EFPA Champions Cup tournament the doors open at 17:00 with tickets still available costing £20 for adults and £10 children and concessions although the Liverpool Echo newspaper has announced that if you buy a ticket on the night then you can get 25% off if you show your copy of that day’s Echo.
The UEFA Europa League is back and has reached the Round of 32 stage. There are plenty of matches that whet the appetite in this competition and “Stoppage Time” has a guide to all sixteen ties in the first knockout round:
EVERTON FC (England) v SPORTING (Portugal)
The first leg of this game took place last night to avoid a clash with Liverpool FC’s home game against Unirea Urziceni on Thursday. Everton have a slight 2-1 advantage going into the second leg thanks to goals from Steven Pienaar and Sylvain Distin. However French defender Distin was sent off late in the game for a foul on Liedson and Miguel Veloso (pictured) was able to pull one back for Sporting from twelve yards out. An intriging return game in Lisbon awaits.
AJAX AMSTERDAM (Netherlands) v JUVENTUS (Italy)
This is a game worthy of Champions League status with both clubs sharing six European Cup triumphs between them. Ajax are currently third in the Dutch Eredivisie whilst Juventus are sixth in Serie A. With both teams harbouring realistic ambitions of Champions League qualification next season they may decide to play weakened sides in Europe. Nonetheless this should be a fascinating contrast of styles between two great clubs.
ATHLETIC BILBAO (Spain) v RSC ANDERLECHT (Belgium)
The Basque side should have more motivation to progress as the Europa League is the club’s only realistic hope of silverware this season. Anderlecht, one of three Belgian clubs remaining in the competition, comfortably lead the Jupiler League but may find Athletic a tough proposition. Although if the Mauves can get an away goal in the first leg in Bilbao then the tie could be in the balance.
ATLÉTICO DE MADRID (Spain) v GALATASARAY (Turkey)
The Spanish giants are in good form having reached the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) final and beaten Spanish, European and World champions FC Barcelona 2-1 at the weekend. Galatasaray are top in the Turkish Süper Lig, at the moment, and are taking this competition seriously having won it in 2000 becoming the first Turkish team to win a European trophy. With both stadiums expected to be at their intimidating best these two legs won’t be for the faint hearted.
CLUB BRUGGE (Belgium) v VALENCIA CF (Spain)
Club Brugge haven’t been such a force in Belgian football in recent years having to put up with their big rivals Standard Liège and RSC Anderlecht win the last four league titles. Valencia, despite being a distant third in the Spanish League, have high hopes of winning this competition and are likely to include big hitters such as David Villa and David Silva in order to progress to the next stage.
FULHAM FC (England) v SHAKHTAR DONETSK (Ukraine)
London outfit Fulham FC will have to get a good result at home if they want to progress in this competition as their away record this season is really bad, just one win in thirteen Premier League games on the road. However Shakhtar, the last ever winners of what was the UEFA Cup last season, haven’t played a league match since December as the Ukrainian championship is still in its winter break until February 27th so will be lacking in match fitness.
HAMBURGER SV (Germany) v PSV EINDHOVEN (Netherlands)
The German side will want to go one better than last season, when they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by rivals Werder Bremen, especially as the inaugural UEFA Europa League final takes place at their home stadium.PSV Eindhoven, currently top of the Eredivisie, are accustomed to the Champions League but have done well in the second competition having qualified for this stage with an unbeaten record so will be a tough grame for HSV.
HERTHA BSC (Germany) v SL BENFICA (Portugal)
Benfica are huge favourites to advance to the next round. The Portuguese giants are leading the Liga Sagres back home whilst the German capital team are propping up the rest of the German Bundesliga and were in second place behind the other Lisbon giants Sporting in the group stage. The second leg, to be played in Lisbon, will take place on Tuesday, February 23rd to avoid a clash with Sporting’s home game against Everton FC two days later.
KØBENHAVN (Denmark) v OLYMPIQUE DE MARSEILLE (France)
The Danish champions, known locally as FCK, have played well against big clubs in Europe in recent years but fail to score many goals. FCK will also be lacking match practice as the SAS Superligaen has been in hibernation since early December. Marseille, currently lying in fifth position in Ligue 1, should have too strong a squad and will want to go all the way having lost in their two final appearances in 1999 against AC Parma and Valencia CF in 2004.
LILLE OSC (France) v FENERBAHÇE (Turkey)
“Fener” are involved in a title battle with eternal rivals Galatasaray in the Turkish Süper Lig so may decide to rest a couple of players in the two games against a Lille side who lie in third place in Ligue 1, seven points behind leaders FC Girondins de Bordeaux. The Turkish side will be slight favourites as they play the second leg at their intimidating Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium which hosted the UEFA Cup final last season.
LIVERPOOL FC (England) v UNIREA URZICENI (Romania)
Both teams are in the Europa League having finished third in their respective Champions League groups. Liverpool’s recent results have improved even if their performances aren’t always easy on the eye. However coach Rafael Benítez will want to win this trophy for a second time having previously won the title with Valencia CF in 2004. Romanian champions Unirea finished above Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers in their Champions League group but have seen coach Dan Petrescu jump ship to obscure Russian second league outfit FC Kuban Krasnodar during the winter break so may find it difficult against The Reds.
PANATHINAIKOS (Greece) v AS ROMA (Italy)
The Italian capital side are on fire, at the moment, having gone unbeaten in 14 Serie A matches stretching back to late October and have one foot in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) final with a 2-0 semi-final advantage over Udinese Calcio. Panathinaikos, including in-form striker Djibril Cissé, may be top of the Greek league but have stumbled in the last fortnight with their lead now just three points from perennial champions Olympiakos.
RUBIN KAZAN (Russia) v HAPOEL TEL AVIV (Israel)
The Russian side have had a dream couple of years winning back-to-back championships. However they’ve been out of action since the end of November and face a Hapoel side lying in second place of the Ha’Al League. If the Israeli side can sneak an away goal in the first leg then they may fancy their chances against rusty Rubin.
STANDARD LIEGE (Belgium) v RED BULL SALZBURG (Austria)
This is a fascinating contest between Champions League drop-outs Standard Liège and Red Bull Salzburg, who were the only team to qualify from the Europa League group stage with a 100% record. If Huub Stevens’ Austrian side can get a win in Belgium then expect the second leg to be a formality. However the Liègeois have one of the noisier stadiums in the competition and will make it difficult despite Standard having disappointed in the Belgian Jupiler League this season.
TWENTE ENSCHEDE (Netherlands) v WERDER BREMEN (Germany)
Steve McClaren, having taken unfashionable Middlesbrough FC to a UEFA Cup final in 2006, would love to take the Dutch side to the final in May. However Thomas Schaaf’s Werder side will be motivated to make up for last season’s disappointment in Istanbul against Shakhtar Donetsk by taking the short trip to Hamburg and, with their experience, will be favourites to go through.
VILLARREAL CF (Spain) v VfL WOLFSBURG (Germany)
Both teams have massively disappointed in their domestic leagues this season especially Wolfsburg who were surprise Bundesliga champions last season but who currently lie in 11th place this time around. Villarreal’s current form is slightly better, at the moment, and they seem to save their best performances for Europe.
The 213th Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton kicks-off the action in the English Premier League this weekend. Both teams are going into the game during their best run of form this season with hosts Liverpool unbeaten in six league games whilst opponents Everton are undefeated in their last nine, including draws away at title hopefuls Arsenal and Chelsea. With both teams now in confident mood having endured a miserable start to the season this derby is being widely anticipated.
The first meeting of the season between these two rivals in November was arguably the most low-key that one can remember. Liverpool had picked up only five points from their last six matches before the game whilst Everton were hovering just above the relegation zone and their woes were further compounded when Liverpool, thanks to a Joseph Yobo own goal and a late Dirk Kuijt tap in, emerged victorious 2-0 although Everton were unlucky not to get a point in a game where they dominated for long periods.
The negativity surrounding the previous derby clash has been replaced by a renewed mood of optimism as both teams have rekindled their sense of purpose and direction since that encounter at Goodison Park. Liverpool are still hopeful of finishing in the top four although they have tough competition from ambitious clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Manchester City, the last of whom appear to be favourites to gain that spot at the moment. Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez has had his critics this season for playing negative tactics and making strange substitutions. However things have picked up for the Reds despite Steven Gerrard’s lack of form and Fernando Torres’ injury problems thanks mainly to the hard work of Kuijt, the emergence of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at the centre of defence and the reliability of goalkeeper Pepe Reina. If big money signing Alberto Aquilani can produce a quality performance in a game of this magnitude then his early detractors might think again about his potential.
Everton, meanwhile, have risen from the bottom of the table up to a respectable ninth place and a finish in the European qualification places doesn’t appear to be so far-fetched now. David Moyes’ men have become a resilient, hard to break down side and have benefitted from Maraoune Fellaini’s consistency in midfield, Tim Cahill’s appetite in front of goal and loan signing Landon Donovan has looked a shrewd short-term move. Everton are also hopeful that long-term injuries Phil Jagielka and fans’ favourite Mikel Arteta will be back featuring regularly for the Toffees again in the near future. Everton will, perhaps, not have a better chance to end their Anfield hoodoo, their last win at their former home coming in 1999.
A win for either side is not only crucial to their respective ambitions in the league but also due to the fact they expect a tough month ahead. Liverpool’s next four games are against Arsenal (away), Manchester City (away) and a two-legged encounter against Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the UEFA Europa League. Everton’s next games are even tougher playing at home to league leaders Chelsea and champions Manchester United as well as their UEFA Europa League double header against Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon.
In the other Premier League games title contenders Arsenal and Chelsea meet in a London derby on Sunday which means Manchester United should beat bottom side Portsmouth on Saturday to go top of the table, even if just for 24 hours. Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa meet in a game with huge importance in the fight for fourth place whilst Manchester City play away at struggling Hull City, who gained a crucial point at home to Chelsea in midweek. The other games are Birmingham City v Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton Wanderers v Fulham FC, Burnley v West Ham, Stoke City v Blackburn and Sunderland v Wigan Athletic.
You know that a new year has begun in earnest when the FA Cup third round fixtures come to be played on the first weekend of January. After two preliminary rounds, four qualifying rounds and the first two rounds proper of the competition, the FA Cup for 2009-10 has reached the stage where excitement levels reach fever pitch as the Premier League clubs fight it out among lower league and non-league clubs alike. The dream of lifting the most famous piece of knockout football silverware in world football at Wembley Stadium in May still has fans and players buzzing with every new competition, this despite the fact that some top-flight managers refuse to play strong teams for the early rounds. In this day and age where “fourth is the new first” the Premier League and its mountains of wealth seem to be more important than winning a trophy for today’s modern coaches. However the FA Cup is still a trophy whose history and tradition will ensure that it remains an important part of the football calendar. “Stoppage Time” previews the third round of matches played from January 2-3:
Usually the first thing that happens after the draw for the third round is made is to see where there are any potential ‘banana skins’ where a lower league club could upset one of the big boys. This round has certainly got a few of those to look forward to. Liverpool, whose troubles have been well documented all season, go into an away tie against Reading FC from the Championship (English football’s second tier) having finally won two matches in a row in the Premier League for the first time since September. Reading, on the other hand, have recently lost their manager and haven’t won in five matches. If Liverpool slipped up here then it would be a disaster for the club as their chances of domestic silverware realistically lie in this competition. Their local rivals Everton FC, who lost in last season’s final to Chelsea 2-1, will be hoping to avoid what would be a huge upset as they play against a Carlisle United side who will have 6,000 fans at Goodison Park for the game. Carlisle will be hoping to emulate Oldham Athletic’s achievements in 2007-08 when the Coca Cola League One (i.e. third tier) club went to Everton and came away with a win. Other ties where Premier League clubs play against lower league opponents are Tottenham Hotspur’s home game against Peterborough United, Roberto Mancini’s rejuvenated Manchester City are away at Gordon Strachan’s Middlesbrough, Stoke City play York City from Blue Square Premier League (i.e. fifth tier), a similar upset could await Sunderland if they lose at home to Barrow FC, who are also in the Blue Square Premier. A tough encounter could be on the cards for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City side, who lie eighth in the Premier League, taking on Nottingham Forest who currently lie third in the Championship. Burnley will be hoping to put a bad spell of league form behind them with a win away at MK Dons and Portsmouth, who have failed to even pay their players for the last three months, will want to a good cup run to keep players’ spirits high by beating 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry City at Fratton Park. Bolton Wanderers, who sacked their coach Gary Megson earlier this week, have a home tie against League Two strugglers Lincoln City whilst Roy Hodgson’s Fulham will hope to put the disappointment of defeat in last week’s West London derby to Chelsea behind them with a home win against Swindon Town. Two all-Premier League ties to be played on Saturday are seven times winners Aston Villa at home to Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic against Hull City. Also Newcastle United fans must make the long trip from their north east home to south west outfit Plymouth Argyle. There are twelve other ties on Saturday involving clubs from the lower divisions playing against each other for a place in the fourth round.
There are half a dozen fixtures on Sunday that will finish off the third round action. The tie of the round is the eagerly awaited clash between old foes Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford. Since Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League five seasons ago the Yorkshire outfit have struggled for the most part in League One but they look like finally getting back into English football’s second tier this season. Leeds will be hoping to beat their arch-rivals in Manchester for the first time since 1981. However the Red Devils will hope to put Leeds cup dreams to bed with a convincing win in front of a sell-out 76,000 crowd, as many as 9,000 of whom will be following Leeds. The only all-Premier League tie on Sunday is West Ham United’s welcome to Upton Park of London rivals Arsenal who will hope that they can add to coach Arsene Wenger’s tally of four FA Cups this season. FA Cup holders Chelsea FC will start the defence of the trophy against Watford FC who the Blues have beaten when winning the cup in 1970 as well as last season. In the remaining ties Tranmere Rovers from League One welcome Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers (a game you can read about in our new section “Away Days” starting on Monday, January 4th), an all-Championship tie between Sheffield United and Queen’s Park Rangers and Notts County, under the directorship of former England coach Sven Goren Eriksson, play against non-league Forest Green Rovers.
Should football pause for Christmas? Give me a break! Football in the UK is as much of a tradition as the Queen’s Speech, Mince Pies and Santa Claus and this weekend has been no exception. With further football to come in the next couple of days “Stoppage Time” takes a look back and looks forward to the action to come in our English and Scottish football festive round-up.
English Premier League leaders Chelsea got the ball rolling in their tough away tie at Birmingham City. Both sets of Blues had their chances to win but, in the end, perhaps a 0-0 draw was a fair result. The next game to finish was the important six pointer at the bottom of the table between West Ham and Portsmouth. The “Hammers” claimed a 2-0 home win over a Portsmouth side who had beaten Liverpool just seven days earlier. After the drama surrounding Mark Hughes’ sacking it was the football that took centre stage as Manchester City, under new coach Roberto Mancini, claimed a comfortable 2-0 win against Stoke City thanks to Martin Petrov and Carlos Tevez. In the other games Liverpool got back to winning ways but only after their opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers had Stephen Ward sent off on 52 minutes. Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun scored the goals in a laboured 2-0 victory. Everton left it late to claim a point away at Sunderland. Marouane Fellaini scored with five minutes left on the clock to give Everton a share of the points after Darren Bent had given the Black Cats an early lead. The remaining three games finished as draws, a London derby between Fulham and Tottenham ended goalless whilst two clashes between North West clubs saw Burnley v Bolton and Wigan v Blackburn finish 1-1. In the Scottish Premier League Glasgow Celtic kept up their pursuit of champions and league leaders Glasgow Rangers with an 2-0 win at home to Hamilton. A last-minute strike from Niall McGinn made sure of the points as Celtic found it hard to finish their opponents off. Dundee United title hopes have dipped in the last couple of games. A 3-0 home defeat to Rangers was followed with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Kilmarnock. Csaba Laszlo’s Hearts side kept up their recent upturn in form by beating Falkirk 1-0 away to lift them into fifth place. In the final match of the day newly promoted St. Johnstone claimed all three points in a 3-1 win at Motherwell. After struggling at the bottom of the table for many weeks the Saints now lie seventh in the SPL.
Although only a few matches were played on this day they all had some significance at the top of the table. In Scotland Hibernian were hoping to keep up a title challenge by beating champions Rangers and after twelve seconds the Edinburgh side were in dreamland as Anthony Stokes gave the home side a dramatic lead. However the champions came back after a difficult first twenty minutes. Rangers’ Kenny Miller (pictured) equalised after 21 minutes and top scorer Kris Boyd gave them the lead eight minutes before half-time. Any hopes of a Hibs comeback after the break were dashed as Nacho Novo increased Rangers lead on 53 minutes and Miller got his second of the game after 66 minutes. With no further scoring Rangers boss Walter Smith was delighted that his charges had opened up a four point lead over nearest challengers Celtic with Hibernian a further four points behind. In the English Premier League Arsenal were finding it difficult to break down a dogged Aston Villa side who have high hopes of a top four finish. However the introduction of Cesc Febragas in the second half proved the difference as his 25 yard free-kick on 65 minutes was followed by his second nine minutes before time. In the act of scoring his second the Spaniard injured himself and had to come off but the impact had already been made. Vassiriki Diaby made it 3-0 for the Gunners in stoppage time and Aston Villa’s hopes of beating all of the Big Four this season were temporarily halted (they’d already beaten Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United so far). At the KC Stadium champions Manchester United, despite Wayne Rooney giving away a penalty, were too strong against their opponents Hull City. United had the lead at half-time thanks to a stoppage time Wayne Rooney strike. After the break the United star’s pass back was significant in United giving away a penalty, converted by Craig Fagan to restore parity on the hour mark. After that it was Rooney who made the telling difference in the latter stages of the match. Rooney’s low cross into the box on 73 minutes was turned into the net by Hull City defender Michael Dawson to give United a 2-1 lead and the game was sealed after Rooney set up Dimitar Berbatov for Uited’s third goal. The win lifted United up to second place, just two points behind Chelsea, but Arsenal are two points behind United with a game in hand.
Today sees six games in the English Premier League with the most interesting being the West London derby between Chelsea and Fulham at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti’s men can’t afford too many more slip ups if they are to win their fourth championship title. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham go into the game unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions including a 3-0 demolition of Manchester United. The other fixtures are Tottenham v West Ham, Blackburn v Sunderland, Everton v Burnley, Stoke City v Birmingham City and the late kick-off at Molineux where Wolverhampton plays against Manchester City.
In England Aston Villa will hope to get over their drubbing at Arsenal by attempting to the double over Liverpool who have failed to win two matches in a row in the Premier League since September. The other game sees Bolton Wanderers and Hull City in a match that will have importance in the bottom half of the table. In Scotland there is just one game as Aberdeen play Falkirk at Pittodrie.
Two of the title contenders, Manchester United and Arsenal, will hope to increase their championship hopes with a win against Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth respectively. There are five matches in Scotland, the best of which involves champions Rangers at home to fourth place Dundee United. Celtic won’t want to lose points in what appears an easy game against second bottom Kilmarnock. The other games are St. Johnstone v Hibernian, Hamilton v St. Mirren and Hearts v Motherwell.
In the second half of our look at the Champions League group stage “Stoppage Time” focuses on groups E-H:
GROUP E (OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS, FIORENTINA, LIVERPOOL FC, DEBRECENI)
The biggest disappointment in this year’s competition, without any doubt, was five-time European champions Liverpool. After the opening group match against Hungarian champions Debreceni the Reds were caught short against group rivals Lyon and Fiorentina. Too many mistakes at crucial times proved Liverpool’s undoing and this was emphasized in the last minute of Matchday 6 where Alberto Gilardino was able to capitalize on a defensive error to give Fiorentina the three points needed to top the group. Lyon were impressive throughout especially in their games against Debreceni, against whom they scored eight goals without reply in two matches. Fiorentina finished top on fifteen points, two more than Lyon, whilst Liverpool have to be content with a Europa League place finishing on a dismal seven points in a group they were widely expected to qualify from. Debreceni’s maiden Champions League finished, as expected, in last place but no doubt their team would’ve enjoyed the experience.
GROUP F (FC BARCELONA, INTERNAZIONALE, RUBIN KAZAN, DYNAMO KYIV)
This was the most open group in the Champions League. All four teams harboured hopes of qualification to the Round of 16 prior to Matchday 6. In the end the big boys, FC Barcelona and Internazionale, managed to qualify but they were made to work hard for their place. Jose Mourinho’s Inter had the upper hand in their final game at home against Russian champions Rubin Kazan thanks to goals from Samuel Eto’o and Mario Balotelli whilst European champions FC Barcelona had to come from behind to beat Dynamo Kyiv in Ukraine 2-1. Goals from Xavi and Lionel Messi were sufficient for the Catalans to finish top of the group, two points clear of Inter. Rubin Kazan’s first season in the Champions League provided much drama, the 2-1 win against Barcelona in the Camp Nou was one of the highlights of the tournament so far. However they just didn’t have enough killer instinct to put the group to bed but at least they can be content with a Europa League place. For Andriy Shevchenko and his Dynamo side it’s another disappointing exit from a European campaign but they should be back next year barring a dismal second half to the domestic season in Ukraine.
GROUP G (SEVILLA CF, VfB STUTTGART, UNIREA URZICENI, GLASGOW RANGERS)
Sevilla were the clear winners of the group remaining undefeated through the campaign. Their 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox Park on Matchday 2 was their most convincing of the tournament thus far. The chase for second became a Matchday 6 “cup final” between VfB Stuttgart (who fired coach Markus Babbel and replaced him with Christian Gross in the weekend prior to the game) and Unirea Urziceni (coached by Chelsea legend Dan Petrescu). The German side started like a train and were 3-0 up inside eleven minutes. Despite Unirea pulling a goal back early in the second half the Germans managed to preserve their lead and the three points allowed them to overtake the Romanians into second place. Unirea go into the Europa League whilst Glasgow Rangers must swallow their pride and be hopeful that they can be back next season.
GROUP H (ARSENAL, OLYMPIAKOS, STANDARD LIEGE, AZ ALKMAAR)
Arsenal were comfortably the best team in the group and had already qualified for the Round of 16 when they went to Greece to play Olympiakos on Matchday 6. They played a young team with an average age of 21 but Arsene Wenger’s men couldn’t maintain their unbeaten record in Athens going down 1-0. Zico’s Olympiakos finished second thanks to some good results earlier in the tournament against Standard Liege and AZ Alkmaar. The third and fourth placed teams came up with some drama of their own on Matchday 6 in Belgium. Dutch champions AZ took the lead in the first half through Jeremain Lens and they held on to their advantage until five minutes into stoppage time. A free-kick was whipped in at pace and among the crowd of players in the penalty box was Standard’s goalkeeper Sinan Bolat who headed home to gain the ‘Liegeois’ a precious point and a place in the Europa League.
“The most exciting league in the world” is a phrase that’s become synonymous with Sky TV’s presentation of the Barclay’s Premier League, such is the TV station’s devotion to hyping up even the most dullest of matches. Although there are great players and teams in the league, just how true is it to say that the English Premier League is “the most exciting league in the world”?
One couldn’t doubt the quality of the players on show in the Premier League, on the contrary it’s true to say that with players such as Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney and Dider Drogba to name but three that the English Premier League contains some of the finest players in the modern game. However this discussion focuses on the concept that the league is branded as much about ‘entertainment’ as much as it is ‘sport’. When one thinks of last day cliffhangers they are very few and far between in the Premier League. As for the multitude of teams capable of winning the title in any given season then you can usually count them with a couple of fingers on one hand. If this criteria were applied to football then the English Premier League (EPL) would be no better than being a glorified Scottish Premier League (SPL).
When people in England talk about the SPL they will patronisingly refer to it as a ‘pub league’ and lament the fact that only two teams, Rangers and Celtic (the Old Firm), have any chance of winning the title. But it’s usually the case that only two teams have any chance of winning the EPL too, Manchester United and A.N. Other. The main challenger to United may change from time to time but it’s hardly any more exciting to see the Red Devils win title after title than it is to see two supposed ‘pub teams’ in Rangers and Celtic win title after title north of the border.
The only thing that maintains a sense of quality in England is the notion of the ‘Big Four’ (i.e. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) and their regular appearances in the UEFA Champions League, European football’s showpiece tournament, helping to preserve English football’s position in the UEFA Co-Efficient table (a place in the top three of this table guarantees a nation four places in the Champions League). It seems increasingly the case, however, that some teams are happy just to finish in a top four spot – ‘fourth is the new first’ if you want – and secure the riches that the Champions League provides. In the case of the Old Firm at least they have been punching above their weight in European competition. Regular Champions League appearances coupled with two UEFA Cup finals, Celtic in 2004 and Rangers in 2008, has seen the SPL maintain a respectable standing despite its lack of wealth and international exposure. There have been examples in recent years of English teams qualifying for the Europa League (ex-UEFA Cup) then trying as hard to get knocked out of a competition that they’ve tried even harder to qualify for. When some English club managers talk about finishing in the top four rather than winning a trophy then it seems to strengthen the view that most clubs in the EPL have very limited ambitions.
Another thing which adds to the lack of real excitement in the overall picture of the English Premier League is the absence of any final day cliffhangers at the top of the table. There may be some exciting finishes at the bottom of the table but the lack of any meaningful matches in respect of the championship means that the EPL is not always so worthy of its hype. You would think this would worry the people at Sky TV seeing as they talk about “the most exciting league in the world” as if its an unquestionable truth. Despite the dominance of the Old Firm in Scotland at least there have been exciting climaxes on the final day in three of the last five seasons including the last two in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Since the English Premier League’s formation in 1992-93 there have been only two final day pieces of drama to witness: the 1994-95 season when Blackburn Rovers beat Manchester United to the title despite losing their final game against Liverpool and the 1998-99 season where Manchester United saw off a spirited Tottenham Hotspur performance at Old Trafford to beat nearest challengers Arsenal to the title by one point. All of the other Premier League titles have been decided on or before the penultimate matchday.
One may argue that it’s too early to write off the English Premier League as a contest but then there are teams such as Liverpool and Arsenal whose title challenges have been written off as early as December after some bad results therefore leaving Manchester United and Chelsea as the only realistic challengers. The irony is that the EPL doesn’t look as entertaining from a competition point of view as its northern neighbour at the moment where the Old Firm have a challenge from Hibernian and Dundee United. For those of you who enjoy a regular two-horse race then “the most exciting league in the world” may just be your best bet for the season.