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.
To all of those people who have taken time out to read one or more of my blogs I would like to convey my appreciation and gratitude to you for reading my work. Having only started on December 1st, 2009, things are moving slowly in terms of expressing myself to a wider audience so if you know somebody who is interested in international football then please let them know about Stoppage Time. Next year there were be a lot more features and articles about the Beautiful Game. In the near future I shall be having a few days off for Christmas and the next blog shall be back on Sunday, December 27th with all the latest thoughts of the festive football played in England and Scotland.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND SEASON’S GREETINGS!!
With the exception of England, Scotland and France, most of the league championships in Europe have taken a well earned break for Christmas time. “Stoppage Time” reviews the season so far in Europe’s top leagues:
This looks like it will be a two horse race between arch-rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Spanish, European and World champions FC Barcelona (39 points from 15 games) hold a slim two point advantage over ‘El Real’ whose performances haven’t always been great but whose capability of getting results has improved. Sevilla looked for a while like a potential ‘stalking horse’ candidate for the title, keeping close to the top but they have slipped off the pace in recent weeks. At the bottom of the table newly promoted sides such as Xerez (7 points from 15 games) and Real Zaragoza have found the going tough. A traditional giant of the Spanish game, Atlético Madrid find themselves just one point from the cellar after a string of poor displays.
FC Internazionale of Milan (39 points from 17 games), including striker Samuel Eto’o (pictured) find themselves in charge of Serie A yet again. Going for a fifth consecutive championship, the Nerazzurri’s only challengers to date appear to be local enemies AC Milan, who are eight points behind with a game in hand. The Rossoneri have come back strongly after a really poor start under the stewardship of Leonardo. Juventus appeared to be going well under new coach Ciro Ferrara but have lost their last three games and remain a point further behind Milan having played a game more. At the bottom of the league six points separate Udinese in 14th place from AC Siena in last place (12 points after 17 games), signalling that a tight relegation battle could be just around the corner.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (35 points from 17 games) remain unbeaten to be crowned the unofficial “Herbstmeister” (autumn champions) in the Bundesliga. However the ‘Werkself’ (Work’s Eleven) have drawn a lot a games meaning that their lead is a narrow one point margin from nearest challengers Schalke 04, who have done well considering their financial troubles. Despite Bayern Munich’s less than impressive start to the season the Bavarian giants are a further point behind Schalke. Louis Van Gaal has withstood the criticism and has guided Bayern to third place at the halfway stage with 33 points. The surprise of the season so far is 1. FSV Mainz 05, who were promoted from the second division last season, who have a respectable eighth place finish after 17 games. Hertha Berlin is the surprise team at the bottom of the table (6 points/17 games), all the more surprising considering they won on the opening day against Hannover 96. Other big clubs close to the bottom are 1. FC Nürnberg, who sacked their coach Michael Oenning on Monday, and VfB Stuttgart, who replaced Markus Babbel with former Tottenham Hotspur coach Christian Gross in early December.
The Portuguese Superliga normally has three contenders for the title but one of this year’s contenders is an unfamiliar one: Sporting Braga. They lead the table jointly with SL Benfica (33 points from 14 games) with perennial champions FC Porto four points behind. Many hope that Braga can keep up with the big two especially since the tradional third power of Portuguese football, Sporting, are struggling domestically (21 points/14 games) but performing well in Europe. Also many remember last season’s surprise package Leixões, who led the table early on in 2008-09, falling away late in the season. Could Braga really become only the sixth club (after Benfica, Porto, Sporting, Belenenses and Boavista) to win the Portuguese championship? At the bottome Leixões’ glory days from last season are well and truly behind them as they now are fighting against relegation lying just one point above the bottom two clubs Olhanense and Belenenses (10 points/14 games).
Steve McClaren has done an impressive job at FC Twente (47 points/17 games) thus far and he’s already hoping to go one better than last season. The club from Enschede were runners-up in both league and cup in 2008-09 but McClaren’s men currently lead the Eredivisie by two points from PSV Eindhoven. PSV’s coach Fred Rutten has given new purpose to the Philips owned club after they lost direction last season under Huub Stevens which led to them weakly giving up their run of four consecutive titles. Ajax, coached by Martin Jol, have suffered a few defeats and are nine points off the pace. Their arch-rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam have also been rejuvenated under new coach Mario Been and a further point behind having played a game more. At the bottom RKC Waalwijk (12 points/18 games) will hope to avoid the automatic relegation spot at the end of the season as they are not far off the teams above NEC Nijmegen, ADO Den Haag and Willem II Tilburg.
It’s the same old story in Greece as champions Olympiakos Piraeus are involved in a two-way tussle with league leaders Panathinaikos (38 points/15 games) for the championship. As usual PAOK Thessaloniki threaten to make a fight of it but end up dropping too many points but they should easily get a place in Europe. Athen’s third club AEK have struggled for form and consistency in both Greek and European competition thus far and lie in eighth place on 21 points. At the bottom of the table it’s been a dreadful time for promoted Panthrakikos who remain without a win after fifteen games. They have only two points at this stage and are dead certs for the drop. Above them the likes of Giannina, Levadiakos (14 points), Larissa and Iraklis (15 points) will hope to avoid joining them in the second division next season.
The Turkish Superlig could be one of the most exciting for years. Fenerbahçe (37 points/17 games) lead at the halfway stage by just one point from eternal rivals Galatasaray. Then there are two unexpected title chasers in Bursaspor and Kayserispor (35 and 34 points respectively) as well as last season’s champions Beşiktaş (32 points). “Fener” will miss on the services of Roberto Carlos after the winter break as he heads back to Brazil to finish his career at Corinithians. Last season’s surprise package Sivasspor struggled in the early weeks of the season but will hope that they can take recent good form into the second half of the season. They are ten points ahead of second bottom Denizlispor (7 points/17 games) and seventeen ahead of Ankaraspor who are pointless (numerically speaking, of course) at the halfway stage and look certain for the drop.
It was a case of third time lucky for FC Barcelona as they sealed their maiden triumph in the FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Their opponents, Copa Libertadores champions Estudiantes de La Plata, were so close to winning the trophy themselves after leading the contest for so long. However the Catalans rounded off the final leg of an unprecedented “grand slam” of trophies by scoring late in reglaur time and rounding off the game in extra-time.
The first half of the game started with no real flow due to the number of fouls being committed on both sides. The first thirty minutes saw few real chances and it resembled the proverbial game of chess. However the deadlock was broken on 37 minutes as Mauro Boselli headed in a Juan Manual Diaz cross from the left to give “los Pincharatas” a 1-0 lead and they saw this lead through to half-time.
In the second half Estudiantes seemed determined to hold on to their lead allowing the European champions as much time and possession as they wished, with the Argentines hoping to break on the counter attack. For so long the rugged Estudiantes defence kept wave after wave of “Barça” attacks out of reach and their defensive tactics appeared to be paying off. However the breakthrough for Barcelona came very late. In the 88th minute Pedro managed to loop a header over goalkeeper Albil into the top right hand corner and the hoardes of Barcelona fans in the stadium were ecstatic.
Barcelona started the extra-time period in much the same fashion as they’d ended the regulation period. Ibrahimovic and Toure had shots blocked in the first period of fifteen minutes. It wasn’t until five minutes into the second half of extra-time until Lionel Messi was able to pop up with the game’s decisive moment. Dani Alves’ right sided cross was chested home by the Argentine superstar from close range and the Catalans could sense that their day had finally come after two previous disappointments in Club World Cup finals.
The excitement wasn’t quite over as an urgent Estudiantes side finally found some forward momentum to try and take the game into penalties. A free kick was won in the last minute of extra-time and Estudiantes had everybody in the penalty area including goalkeeper Albil. However Juan Sebastian Veron’s free-kick was headed just wide by defender Leandro Desabato and the last chance for Veron Jr. to emulate his father’s achievement of 1968 (see “FIFA Club World Cup – Preview” blog) was over. The final whistle was blown and Barcelona’s fans were rejoicing the completion of an unprecedented sextet of trophies: Spanish League, Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup, Champions League, European Super Cup and Club World Cup. In a little under eighteen months Barça coach Pep Guardiola, already much decorated as a player, had won everything there was to win as a coach. Already in his fledgling managerial career he will go down as one of the legends of the game for this remarkable achievement.
In the other two matches played to close the tournament Asian champions Pohang Steelers clinched third place beating North/Central American champions Atlante CF 4-3 on penalties after the game had finished 1-1 after 90 minutes (no extra-time in this contest). The South Koreans’ success means that the Asian representatives have finished third in the last three tournaments (Urawa Red Diamonds and Gamba Osaka also finished third in 2007 and 2008 resepectively). In the fifth/sixth place play-off, played on Wednesday December 16th, Oceania’s Auckland City continued their dream tournament by beating African champions TP Mazembe 3-2 securing the win with a last minute winner from Riki van Steeden. This ensured the best ever performance by an Oceanian team in the tournament’s history.
In the second half of our UEFA Europa League group stage round-up “Stoppage Time” looks at the groups that concluded on Thursday, December 17th:
GROUP A (RSC ANDERLECHT, AJAX AMSTERDAM, DINAMO ZAGREB, FC TIMISOARA)
Blessed with years of European experience and tradition, Benelux neighbours Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht of Brussels easily negotiated their way through this group. Their Matchday 6 match in Amsterdam still had some importance, though, as Anderlecht’s 3-1 win meant that they topped the group on account of a better head-to-head record over their Dutch challengers, both teams finishing on eleven points. Dinamo Zagreb were optimistic of further progress earlier in the competition as they had three points from two matches but they failed to build on their good start. Champions League Play-Off losers FC Timisoara scored a respectable five points on their maiden Europa League campaign but still finished fourth in the group table.
GROUP B (VALENCIA CF, LILLE, GENOA FC, SLAVIA PRAGUE)
Valencia secured qualification and the top spot on Matchday 6. They went into their game away at Genoa needing only a point to be certain of going through to the last 32 whilst hosts Genoa needed all three points to finish at least second. With the game tied at 1-1 in stoppage time, David Villa was gifted the ball from Genoa goalkeeper Alessio Scarpi to secure the victory in the 94th mnute. Elsewhere Lille’s 3-1 win at home to Slavia Prague ensured that they finished second, two points behind the leaders. Slavia, who have dominated the Czech league in the last two seasons, have been struggling domestically this season and this form was transferred into Europe as they remained without a victory after six games.
GROUP C (HAPOEL TEL AVIV, HAMBURGER SV, GLASGOW CELTIC, RAPID VIENNA)
Israeli side Hapoel were the surprise winners of this group finishing two points ahead of German giants Hamburg. Their Matchday 6 encounter in Tel Aviv ended as a 1-0 win for the hosts and it was they who leapfrogged “HSV” into first place. The biggest disappointment of the group were Scottish club Celtic who were unable to re-create their many great European nights under new coach Tony Mowbray. Among the highlights of the group were the encounters involving Celtic and Austrians Rapid Vienna, whose little known rivalry dates back to a controversial European Cup Winners’ Cup second round match in 1984-85. Both games ended drawn but the Matchday 6 encounter would’ve felt like a win for the Glasgow giants as they came back from 3-0 down after 18 minutes to draw 3-3 with virtually the last kick of the game and demote their Austrian hosts to last place.
GROUP G (RED BULL SALZBURG, VILLARREAL CF, SS LAZIO, LEVSKI SOFIA)
The only team who finished their campaign with a 100% record was Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg suggesting that they could be a good outside bet to go far in the competition. Huub Stevens’ men beat all challengers home and away to finish a clear nine points ahead of second place Villarreal. Italian capital side Lazio frustrated their followers as they could only win two of their six games and finished three points behind the little Spanish village team. Bulgarians Levski Sofia fared little better than their local rivals CSKA (see previous blog) finishing bottom with three points.
GROUP H (FENERBAHCE, FC TWENTE ENSCHEDE, STEAUA BUCHAREST, FC SHERIFF TIRASPOL)
Steve McClaren’s FC Twente were looking comfortable after two games but then nearly blew their qualifications chances. After Turkish side Fenerbahce secured the leadership of the group, FC Twente were relying on them to do them a favour on Matchday 6. Twente needed a win away at 1986 European champions Steaua Bucharest but could only manage a 1-1 draw in very cold, frosty conditions played in front of a sparse crowd. However the surprise team FC Sheriff from Moldova had to win against the already-qualified “Fener” to grab the second spot but the Turkish team did McClaren’s a favour beating the Moldovans 1-0.
GROUP I (SL BENFICA, EVERTON FC, BATE BORISOV, AEK ATHENS)
No surprises in group I were Benfica and Everton went through to the Round of 32 with one match to spare. Benfica, in particular, showed their class in their two matches with nearest challengers Everton scoring seven goals without reply in their two games (5-0 at home and 2-0 away). The Merseysiders, however, did progress thanks to three wins out of four against their eastern European opponents, the only defeat coming on Matchday 6 at home to Belarussian champions BATE Borisov but Everton were already through to the next round and played a very young team on the night. Benfica finished top with 15 points (only a shock defeat away at a very poor AEK Athens denied them a 100% record), Everton scored nine points, BATE avoided the wooden spoon scoring seven points compared to AEK’s four points.
The final matches of the group stage have been taking place in the UEFA Europa League, the final of which will be played in Hamburg on May 12th, 2010. Having looked at the Champions League last week, Stoppage Time rounds up the twelve groups in the Europa League, starting with the six groups that concluded on Wednesday, December 16th:
GROUP D (SPORTING LISBON, HERTHA BERLIN, HEERENVEEN, FK VENTSPILS)
This was an easy group for Sporting having qualified by Matchday 5 for the Round of 32. Second spot was up for grabs on Matchday 6 and despite Heerenveen’s best efforts at home to Ventspils (winning 5-0) they were ousted by German side Hertha Berlin whose European form was in stark contrast to their dreadful domestic form. Hertha’s 1-0 win over Sporting on the last day meant that they finished on ten points in second place (one point behind Sporting) whilst Heerenveen settled for third and Latvian champions FK Ventspils were unlucky not to gain more points in the tournament and finished bottom of the group.
GROUP E (AS ROMA, FULHAM FC, FC BASLE, CSKA SOFIA)
Fulham were made to work for their place in the last 32 but Roy Hodgson’s men secured qualification in the best way possible beating nearest challengers FC Basle 3-2 away to clinch the second spot behind Roma who led the group on 13 points, two ahead of Fulham who, in turn, finished two ahead of Basle. CSKA Sofia proved to be the whipping boys of the group after they finished the campaign with one point gained on Matchday 1 in a home draw against Fulham.
GROUP F (GALATASARAY, PANATHINAIKOS, DINAMO BUCHAREST, STURM GRAZ)
Galatasaray and Panathinaikos easily qualified for the next stage. Turkish giants “Gala”, UEFA Cup winners in 2000, finished one point clear of their Greek rivals but there was nothing for the Athens based club to fear as they ended the group stage six points in front of Dinamo Bucharest. Dinamo secure third place after they got the better of Austrian side from Graz, the teams finishing on six and four points respectively.
GROUP J (SHAKHTAR DONETSK, CLUB BRUGGE, TOULOUSE, PARTIZAN BELGRADE)
Shakhtar Donetsk, the last ever UEFA Cup winners in 2009, are hoping to defend the trophy under its current guise of the Europa League. The Ukrainians won the group in dominant fashion having qualified by Matchday 4. In the end Club Brugge finished second as they defeated nearest challengers Toulouse 1-0 on Matchday 6 to clinch a spot in the Round of 32. Alas the French side had more than further progress in the competition to mourn as one of their fans, Brice Taton, was tragically killed after being attacked by Partizan supporters in Belgrade ahead of their match on September 17th.
GROUP K (PSV EINDHOVEN, SPARTA PRAGUE, FC COPENHAGEN, CFR CLUJ)
PSV Eindhoven’s European experience was evident in Group K as they topped the table with 14 points. The second place went down to the wire as Sparta Prague played Danish champions FC Copenhagen in a winner takes all encounter on Matchday 6. Two Dame N’Doye goals and a Jesper Gronkjaer penalty secured the Danes a place in the last 32. Sparta finished third on seven points, three points behind FC Copenhagen, whilst CFR Cluj only won once in six games and finished bottom.
GROUP L (WERDER BREMEN, ATHLETIC BILBAO, NACIONAL MADEIRA, AUSTRIA VIENNA)
Last season’s UEFA Cup losing finalists Werder Bremen made easy work of their group only dropping two points out of eighteen (in a 2-2 draw against Austria Vienna on Matchday 3). Athletic Bilbao’s campaign also went well finishing six points behind Werder and five ahead of Portuguese side Nacional. Austria Vienna ended up with the wooden spoon with two points from six games all to show for their efforts.
The FIFA Club World Cup is well under way now in the United Arab Emirates and, as expected, there will be a showdown between European champions FC Barcelona and their South American equivalents Estudiantes de la Plata on Saturday, December 19th. Stoppage Time looks at the tournament so far.
The tournament kicked off in Abu Dhabi with the Oceania representatives Auckland City FC, who had previously participated in this tournament in 2006, winning the first match against host team Al Ahli FC 2-0 thanks to goals from Adam Dickinson and Chad Coombes. Thanks to that win the New Zealanders had already achieved their main goal which was to qualify for the quarter-finals, in which they played against North/Central America champions Atlante CF (Mexico). Alas they were unable to progress any further as the Mexicans cruised into the semi-finals winning the game 3-0 due to strikes from Daniel Arreola, Christian Bermudez and Lucas Silva. In the other quarter-final it was a Brazilian who helped Asian champions Pohang Steelers (South Korea) overcome a half-time deficit as Denilson’s two second half goals helped see off the challenge from African Champions League winners TP Mazembe (Congo DR) in a close match 2-1.
The big two of the tournament entered at the semi-final stage. First to play were Estudiantes (Argentina) against Pohang Steelers. Although the Argentines enjoyed twice the amount of possession and had nearly three times as many shots at goal as their opponents they were made to work hard by a Pohang side that were tough to break down. Leandro Benitez scored two minutes into first half stoppage time to give “the Students” the advantage at half-time and followed that with his second goal eight minutes into the second half. It was the Koreans’ own South American influence that brought them back into the game when Denilson pulled one back after 71 minutes. However their discipline, or lack of it, proved their undoing as they had three players sent off the pitch. Two of the players, Kim Jae Sung and goalkeeper Shin Hwa Yong, were sent off in the final eighteen minutes of the game and the numerical advantage allowed Estudiantes to cross the line in comfortable fashion and into their fourth Club World Cup final.
Barcelona’s campaign started with a tougher challenge against Atlante CF just four days after they had won their local derby against Espanyol 1-0 in La Liga. The scorer in the derby, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was among the starters for Barça while Lionel Messi, newly crowned European Footballer of the Year winner, was on the substitutes’ bench. However the Mexicans hadn’t come to the Middle East to make up the numbers and they stunned their more illustrious opponents early on thanks to a Guillermo Rojas goal after five minutes. The game ebbed and flowed for the next thirty minutes until Barcelona equalized thanks to a Sergio Busquets strike and the half finished 1-1. However the second half was to be dominated by the “Blaugrana” as Pep Guardiola’s 52nd minute substitution bringing on Lionel Messi for Yaya Toure, proved a masterstroke as the little Argentine made an immediate impact, rounding the keeper to make it 2-1 on 55 minutes. From here the “Blaugrana” began to take charge and they were further rewarded on 67 minutes when some good work by Andres Iniesta was turned home by Pedro from close range making the score 3-1. The remainder of the game was played almost as a Barcelona training session as Atlante failed to trouble the scoresheet any further and it was the giants from Catalonia who sealed their place in Sunday’s final, their third final since 1992, against Estudiantes de la Plata.
As an Englishman who has always valued the sacred kick-off time of 15:00 every Saturday afternoon it also seems that the English football authorities value it in much the same way. Throughout England at that time every weekend the whistle sounds and the action kicks off in many stadiums throughout the country. That’s great, yet for those who can’t go to the match or would like to watch it on television it’s ironic that the most popular time for football in England is the one time that you can’t watch any of it live on English television. After my many recent trips to Germany in the last couple of years it is more obvious than ever that the German tradition of allowing fans to watch the action live on the “Konferenz” channel is exactly what the English football fan needs more than ever, especially when one looks at the alternative.
The main argument from the English football authorities for the lack of TV action every Saturday (from 15:00-17:00) is that most matches in all four English professional divisions begin at this time and to have significant television coverage of the Premier League will have a detrimental affect on attendances in the lower divisions. For me there are two arguments against this. Firstly loyal fans will always go to the games whether they are live on TV or not, unless they’re unable to buy a ticket for a sold out game. Secondly, in this age of technology and greater media influence within the game of football, how difficult can it be for Sky Television or ESPN (the broadcast rights holders for Premier League matches) to have cameras at every game showing viewers the action live on Saturday? The cameras are there in any case for various highlights packages within the UK and for live screening of such games to overseas markets. After all Sky TV has been able to manage this perfectly on the final matchday of each Premier League season. Even then they only show one or two main games and show goals in a tiny section of the screen when goals are scored elsewhere. It would be great if this approach could be further enhanced every week on English screens by replicating what German television does every Saturday from 15:30-17:30 (their sacred football kick-off time).
In Germany the broadcast rights holders of the Bundesliga (ironically Sky has just acquired the rights in Germany too) have a service which allows TV viewers to either pick the game of their choice (like Sky TV in the UK allows for the Champions League) or, if you’re a neutral who just wants to see bits of each match, you can see the goals and other major events as they happen on the “Konferenz” channel. The coverage will start at what the broadcaster deems to be “Das Spiel des Tages” (Game of the Day) and from there the coverage will switch from game to game depending on when goals are scored or other significant events happen (e.g. a penalty kick given; a red card shown to a player etc). This is especially a great way to watch the day’s events unfold when there are goals flying in all over the place. Any argument that this would affect attendances is countered by the fact this coverage exists in a country which has consistently had the largest crowds in Europe for the last six years. As an added bonus for fans of lower league teams there are similar Konferenz shows at various times on any given weekend which are dedicated to the second and third professional leagues. Therefore if the English authorities were to learn from their German counterparts then they can spread the fixtures out more evenly over the weekend and give each division its own time slot(s).
In Germany this has helped maintain excellent coverage with an even spread of airtime for the lower divisions as well as the top flight. With the money and TV coverage in England at an all-time high at the same time as attendances have stayed consistently high since the Premier League began, then the notion that Saturday afternoons should be a football-free zone on television is clearly not in keeping with modern trends. However what Sky shows in Germany is in stark contrast to what Sky UK shows at the same time, a service going from game-to-game as events happen (sounds familiar?) but, instead of actual football action, we see four ex-professional footballers commentating on games that the viewer can’t see on their screens. Listening to these ex-footballers, whilst being deprived of the action, sounds more like a conference than a Konferenz.
Argentina’s football championship has come up with a few surprise champions in the last few years (e.g. Estudiantes in 2006, Lanus in 2008) but the latest champion Banfield are probably the biggest surprise of them all. On the final game of Argentina’s “Apertura” (Opening) Championship they were defeated 2-0 away at Boca Juniors but this turned out not to be so tragic as, at the same time, their nearest title challengers Newell’s Old Boys were succumbing to the same scoreline at home to San Lorenzo.
On a dramatic final day in the “Apertura” (not to be confused with the “Clausura” or “Closing” championship that makes up the second half of the season) Banfield went to cross city rivals Boca knowing that a win would make them champion and a draw would at least guarantee a play-off for the title in the event of a Newell’s win in Rosario (in Argentina play-offs decide the destination of the title in the event of a tie on points between two or more teams). If Banfield lost then a Newell’s win would mean the championship going back to Rosario since their last title win in 2004.
After six minutes of the first half there were cheers around Boca’s home stadium, La Bombonera, when Banfield fans heard the news that Newell’s were 1-0 down thanks to a goal from San Lorenzo’s Fabian Bordagaray. At almost that exact moment Boca won a penalty kick which Martin Palermo dispatched with great aplomb to make it 1-0 and to stun the legions of Green and White fans who had been cheering only seconds earlier. Both games ended 1-0 at half-time and the second half would progressively get more nervous for the title contenders.
Sixteen minutes into the second half at La Bombonera saw Boca Juniors double their lead thanks to a close range strike from Martin Palermo. This goal had the fans of Banfield holding their heads in their hands in disbelief. Were their title chances going up in smoke before them? Thankfully, for Banfield, they heard more cheers nearly ten minutes later after news filtered through of a second goal for San Lorenzo. Fabian Bordagaray, like Martin Palermo, had scored his second goal of the afternoon and would become a hero for Banfield fans everywhere. This news allowed both Boca and Banfield to take their foot off the gas and see out the game. Whilst those Banfield fans lucky enough to get a ticket were getting the party started at La Bombonera there were even bigger celebrations at Banfield’s home stadium where thousands of supporters had been let in to the stadium to watch the game on a big screen.
With both games finishing in 2-0 defeats for the title contenders it was Banfield that secured the title, the very first league championship success in the club’s history, with 41 points from 19 games, Newell’s Old Boys two behind on 39 whilst Colón Santa Fe, Independiente and Velez Sarsfield all had 34 points. Banfield qualify for the 2010 Copa Libertadores along with the 2009 Clausura champions Velez, the reigning Libertadores champions Estudiantes de la Plata and the three teams who had the best points average in the Clausura and Apertura tournaments in 2009 (Lanus, Colón and Newell’s). Relegation matters will be decided after the conclusion of the 2010 Clausura championship.
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.