Manchester United won their fourth English League Cup overall, their third in five years, in front of 88,596 at Wembley Stadium today when beating Aston Villa 2-1. James Milner had given the Villains the lead from the penalty spot after just five minutes but goals from Michael Owen and his later replacement Wayne Rooney scored the winner for United who gained an element of revenge over the Birmingham side who had had the better of their two league encounters earlier this season.
The big news before the kick-off was the decision of United boss Sir Alex Ferguson to leave Wayne Rooney on the bench for the 50th final in this competition’s history and instead play Michael Owen from the start. Martin O’Neill’s Villa side welcomed back captain Stiliyan Petrov who was struck down earlier in the week with a virus that forced him to miss his team’s FA Cup game against Crystal Palace. After the match kicked-off it wasn’t to be long until the first major incident of the afternoon when Gabriel Agbonlahor was pulled down in the United penalty area by Nemanja Vidic, the referee Phil Dowd having no hesitation in pointing to the spot but deciding not even to book the United defender. James Milner stepped up to coolly convert the penalty having sent United keeper Tomasz Kuszczak the wrong way and Villa fans were dreaming of a first triumph in this competition since they defeated Leeds United in the 1996 final. However the defending cup holders had other ideas and it wasn’t long before parity was restored. The usually reliable Richard Dunne made a mistake by giving possession away to Dimitar Berbatov. When Dunne tried to atone for his error by tackling Berbatov he only succeeded in diverting the ball into the path of Michael Owen who justified his start by placing the ball past keeper Brad Friedel and Villa’s lead had only lasted for eight minutes. The rest of the first half saw both teams making chances with Emile Heskey going close for Villa whilst Ji-Sung Park and Berbatov were involved for United who had to see their goalscorer Owen go off the field with a pulled hamstring after 40 minutes, allowing Wayne Rooney to come on in his place.
After the break Rooney made his intentions clear with a shot from distance just a minute into the second half but the resulting shot failed to trouble Friedel on that occasion. Further flowing football from Park and Berbatov followed as United started to up the ante on their opponents with further chances for Michael Carrick and Rooney before the hour mark. After 68 minutes Vidic was shown the yellow card after a foul on Ashley Young which had many Villa fans annoyed as he could’ve and, arguably, should’ve been sent off for the earlier foul which led to the penalty goal. But United didn’t let the booking for Vidic affect them and on 74 minutes the Red Devils took the lead after some great inter-play between Berbatov and Valencia brought a cross from the latter on to the head of Rooney, who stood centre to goal and headed the ball into the top right-hand corner. Four minutes later Rooney had a chance to seal it but his header, again from a Valencia cross, hit the near post on this occasion. United’s only scare in the last ten minutes came from a Villa free-kick from Stuart Downing which whipped in to the box only for the ball to come off Heskey’s head followed by Vidic’s shoulder. As stoppage time was played both teams had a chance with Valencia hitting the sidenetting for United and Agbonlahor’s header in the very last minute going harmlessly wide. The final whistle sounded and Manchester United had retained the cup to ensure that they have a chance to emulate their Premier League and Carling Cup double from last season. Despite the disappointment Aston Villa still have a Champions League place to fight for as well as an FA Cup quarter-final against second tier side Reading FC to look forward to.
The Old Firm derby took place at Ibrox Park today and the hoardes of Rangers supporters were the ones celebrating at the end of the game as they earned a deserved 1-0 win thanks to Maurice Edu’s dramatic last-gasp winner two minutes into stoppage time. The three points won are another significant step for Rangers in their quest to win a record extending 53rd Scottish league title. The Gers now have a ten point lead and a game in hand over their arch-rivals from Parkhead although Celtic boss Tony Mowbray will feel that the red card shown to his captain Scott Brown in the 65th minute was yet another example of his team receiving no favours from referees this season.
The 50,230 crowd inside Ibrox Park were in fine voice before a ball had been kicked with Rangers fans showing banners with a host of trophies highlighting their domestic dominance whilst the visiting Celtic support threw white, green and orange streamers on to the pitch whilst waving their traditional Irish tricolor flags. However it was sad that a minute’s silence before the game for former Rangers goalkeeper Gerry Neef, who died on Tuesday February 23rd, was interrupted by certain sections of the crowd. This fixture doesn’t exactly need any extra needle but the Rangers fans certainly reacted with their disapproval.
The action on the pitch soon kicked-off and it was after only thirty seconds of the contest when loan signing Robbie Keane had Celtic’s first chance, shooting at Allan McGregor from just inside the box. Three minutes later the Scottish league’s top scorer Kris Boyd had Rangers first good chance of the game when he rounded keeper Artur Boruc only to hit the side netting with his shot. As is so often typical of Old Firm games the contest turned into a midfield scrap but it was the home side who had the best chances with sub Edu, who had come on for Lee McCulloch in the 27th minute after he suffered an ankle injury, having a goal disallowed after Kenny Miller had handled the ball before it fell into Edu’s path. Kenny Miller then went close in the 29th minute but he shot straight at Celtic keeper Artur Boruc after being put through from Kris Boyd. Celtic did have their chances too with Keane volleying an effort at McGregor on 36 minutes and then, close to half-time, Marc-Antoine Fortuné turned both Madjid Bougherra and David Weir on the edge of the Rangers box but turned his shot wide of the right-hand post.
The game was goalless at half-time but the home side came out much the more determined after the break having plenty of possession and territory. In the 50th minute Rangers thought that they should’ve had a penalty kick after Edu appeared to be fouled in the Celtic 18-yard box by Andreas Hinkel but the referee waved away the shouts of the Rangers players. Six minutes later Robbie Keane thought he was fouled just inside Rangers’ half but the referee waved play on and Steven Davis picked up the ball and let fly from just outside Celtic’s box. After Boruc made the save Davis followed up along with a host of other players but the ball didn’t fall to a blue shirt in the box and Celtic were able to clear. It was in the 65th minute that the game’s pivotal moment occurred when Rangers’ Kyle Lafferty and Celtic captain Scott Brown were involved in a tangle after going for the ball. Brown appeared to lean in on Lafferty’s chest with his head and the Rangers player went down to the ground resulting in referee Dougie McDonald showing Brown the red card, much to the dismay of Celtic boss Tony Mowbray who has complained of the quality of refereeing already this season.
Following on from the red card Rangers began to dominate possession as Celtic were forced to put Robbie Keane up front on his own and try to see out the rest of the game to force a draw. Celtic’s loan signing from FC Bayern München Edson Braafheid wasted a great free-kick opportunity on 82 minutes but that was about the only chance they would have of threatening Rangers’ penalty area. Celtic infuriated Rangers one minute from regular time after Diomansy Kamara had been treated for a head injury and then kicked the ball into touch deep into Rangers half. Walter Smith and Ally McCoist were fuming on the sideline as they thought this was a blatant lack of sportsmanship from Kamara. However Rangers got their just reward in the 92nd minute of the game when Boruc dropped a corner in front of Kris Boyd whose attempts at forcing the ball home were stopped by the Celtic keeper before Edu managed to toe poke home from a couple of yards out sending the Rangers fans into raptures of ecstasy.
SuperSport United have claimed their third straight South African Premiership title in the least spectacular fashion after they were defeated 2-1 at home by Bidvest Wits University on Matchday 29. However their four point lead over Mamelodi Sundowns was preserved after their nearest challengers also suffered defeat at the hands of bottom club Jomo Cosmos from Johannesburg by two goals to nil. With only one match left to play in the championship there is no way that the Sundowns can claim the title so SuperSport will have been popping open the champagne bottles despite losing to the third bottom club in the league.
Bidvest Wits went into the game as expected whipping boys but shocked the home crowd on 27 minutes when Mark Haskins gave the visitors a shock lead. Having picked the ball up in midfield Haskins let fly from distance and this certainly gave the away side confidence. However Brian Umony equalised just six minutes later after he headed home a cross from the left-hand side and at the break the score was tied with the crowd expecting a second half onslught after United had dominated most of the possession in the first half. But Wits had other ideas and were to settle the fate of the match midway through the second half. On 68 minutes Calvin Kadi was able to tap in a cross from a couple of yards out and had stolen another goal for Wits against the run of play. Despite SuperSport piling on the pressure for the rest of the game a second equalizer never came and it was the Students who celebrated a 2-1 win to move them up to 12th in the table.
Therefore the opportunity was there for Mamelodi Sundowns to capitalize on their rivals’ mistakes but they suffered an early setback of their own away at bottom team Cosmos. Paballo Mngomezulu opened the scoring after just five minutes for the relegation threatened home side. With just one minute of normal time to go in the second half Siza Dlamini tucked away a penalty kick to give the Cosmos the three points which not only slightly revived their chances of avoiding the automatic drop (one team can also go down via a play-off route) but also denied the Sundowns their title dream.
In other South Africa games Kaizer Chiefs won 2-0 at home to Mpumalanga Black Aces to confirm third place in the table with the losing team second bottom in the table and looking over their shoulder as they hope to avoid automatic relegation. Santos FC Cape Town lost at home to AmaZulu Durban by a solitary goal which means that Orlando Pirates, who are one point behind Santos in fifth, still have a chance of overtaking them in the table.
The AFC Champions League, Asia’s top club tournament, kicked off on Tuesday with eight matches and concluded its opening set of games with eight more today. The big result on Matchday 1 occurred in Group H where Adelaide United defeated the defending champions Pohang Steelers 1-0 at Hindmarsh Stadium.
Pohang, who finished third in the FIFA Club World Cup in December, had the better of the opening exchanges with Alexandro and Mota missing good chances for the Steelers. Just as the half-time break was imminent Adelaide got the break they were looking for. After a Steelers corner was cleared United’s Mathew Leckie went on a solo run covering half the pitch. When the oncoming Steelers defender Park Hee-Chul attempted to clear the ball eight yeards from goal the ball cannoned in back off Leckie to give United the lead. After the break both teams had their spells in the attack, Adelaide started the second half the stronger but allowed the champions to attack them towards the end of the game. The Australians’ stubborn rearguard held out for a famous win and can now go into the rerst of the campaign with confidence. The other game in their group saw China’s Shandong Luneng go to Japanese side Sanfreece Hiroshima and claim all three points with a surprise late goal in the 77th minute from Han Peng.
Luis Felipe Scolari enjoyed an easy opening day win for his Bunyodkor side, the Uzbek champions easily dispatching Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad 3-0 in Group B with former Brazilian FIFA World Cup winner Rivaldo among the scorers. Iranians Zobahan sealed a 1-0 win over UAE’s Al Wahda, who qualified for the group stage via a play-off, thanks to an Igor Castro goal on the hour mark. Group A saw Iranian giants Esteghlal open with a 2-1 away victory in Jeddah against Al Ahli thanks to a brace from captain Farhad Majidi whilst Qatari side Al Gheraba also secured three points with a 2-1 win away at UAE’s Al Jazira, for whom former Real Betis star Rafael Sóbis scored a consolation goal.
Whereas Adelaide United did the business for Australian football their compatriots Melbourne Victory were unable to follow suit as they went down 1-0 to Chinese champions Beijing Guoan in Group E. Ironically it was an Australian player, Joel Griffiths, that sealed the deal for Beijing. Alejandro Molina and Dženan Radončić scored a goal apiece to secure an opening day 2-0 triumph for Korean side Seongham Ilhwa against Japanese outfit Kawasaki Frontale. Group F saw Japanese champions Kashima Antlers win a hard-fought contest at home 1-0 against China’s Changchun Yatai but for Indonesian side Persipura Jayapura it was nothing but misery as Korean side Jeonbuk Motors secured an easy 4-1 scoreline with Krunoslav Lovrek scoring a hat trick.
Both Group G matches, that were played on Wednesday, had a disappointing outcome. Koreans Suwon Samsung played against Japan’s Gamba Osaka in what was a highly anticipated match but which, sadly for the neutral, finished goalless as did the other match between China’s Henan Jianye and Singapore Armed Forces FC, who had squeaked through to the group stage on penalties in their play-off final against Thailand’s Muangthong United. Group D, in contrast, got off to a goal-laden start with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal, under new coach Eric Gerets, putting Qatari team Al Saad to the sword with a 3-0 rout while Iran’s Sanat Mes Kerman FC were involving in a roller-coaster of a match against UAE champions Al Ahli. The Dubai based team were 2-1 up with fifteen minutes to go but a brace from Mehdi Rajabzadeh and a goal from Ali Samereh in the last minute gave Sanat a 4-2 win. Finally in Group C Pakhtakor Tashkent, the second Uzbek side in the competition, won away at Al Ain thanks to a 60th minute strike from Artur Gevorkyan whilst Iranian side Sepahan FC were unable to match all their compatriot clubs by winning but were able to muster a draw out of an away tie against Al-Shabab from Saudi Arabia.
In the fourth and final installment of Stoppage Time’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 previews, we focus on those games which take place on Wednesday, February 24th with the return leg on Tuesday, March 16th:
INTERNAZIONALE FC (Italy) v CHELSEA FC (England)
With Manchester United’s 3-2 win against AC Milan last Tuesday the English Premier League currently leads Italy’s Serie A 1-0 in the Round of 16 contests. On Wednesday there is a more controversial reunion than the one enjoyed last week by a certain David Beckham upon meeting his former employers from Old Trafford. The self-proclaimed “Special One” Jose Mourinho will face up to his former comrades of Chelsea FC but will do so wanting to get one over an old adversary from Milan, Carlo Ancelotti. The former coach of AC Milan, Ancelotti has a proven track record in the UEFA Champions League winning two out of three finals (success in 2003 and 2007, defeat in 2005) with the Rossoneri but is determined to prove himself with his current team in his first season at Stamford Bridge.
Inter qualified for this stage finishing second in the toughest group of the first stage. The Nerazzurri ended up just two points behind FC Barcelona but managed to seal their place in the last 16 with a 2-0 home win over Russian champions Rubin Kazan. Since then Inter have gone unbeaten in thirteen league and cup games and have one foot in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) final having secured a 1-0 semi-final, first leg lead over AC Fiorentina. However Mourinho’s men have stalled a little since their 2-0 triumph in the most recent Milan derby in January, two draws in their last three games reducing their lead at the top of Serie A to just five points from resurgent AS Roma and six over AC Milan. Chelsea, on the other hand, increased their lead at the top of England’s Premier League to four points this weekend after their 2-0 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers was coupled with defeat for champions Manchester United at Everton FC. In fact Everton are the only team to have beaten Chelsea since the London side qualified for the Round of 16 with Chelsea losing just one from 15 league and FA Cup matches. In contrast to Inter, Chelsea arguably qualified from the easiest group in the Champions League finishing unbeaten against FC Porto, Atlético de Madrid and APOEL Nicosia.
Both teams have immense talent and strength in depth which makes them among the favourites to win the competition. Probably the strongest player at the moment is Chelsea’s Didier Drogba who has scored 25 goals in all competitions so far (three goals in Champions League) although they have a host of stars who can grab a crucial goal when required. Michael Ballack, Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard and even club captain John Terry can pop up whenever necessary. For Inter Diego Milito, who signed for the club from Genoa FC this season, is a threat in front of goal having hit the net 16 times in all competitions so far. He is ably assisted in attack by former Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o and rising young Italy star Mario Balotelli.
CSKA MOSCOW (Russia) v SEVILLA CF (Spain)
Sevilla have been much the busier of the two sides since the conclusion of the Champions League group stage due to the fact that the Russian season finished in late November. Therefore CSKA Moscow are lacking in match practice before the new 2010 domestic championship kicks off in March and may find it difficult in this competition against a Sevilla side who have played sixteen competitive games since they made it through their group which contained VfB Stuttgart, Unirea Urziceni and Glasgow Rangers.
Sevilla, though, have struggled for form since Round of 16 qualification especially in La Liga where they lost three matches in a row to Getafe, Atlético de Madrid and FC Barcelona before recovering to win four of their last five games. The Copa del Rey (Spanish King’s Cup) is where Sevilla have ridden their luck though. In the last three rounds leading up to the final they won one and lost one game in each round but were fortunate to have done enough in each first leg match of the competition against FC Barcelona (2-2 winning on away goals), Deportivo de La Coruña (3-1 on aggregate) and Getafe (2-1 agg.) to set up a meeting with Atlético de Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on May 26th. CSKA Moscow negotiated their way through a tough Champions League group which involved Manchester United, VfL Wolfsburg and Beşiktaş. After their 2-1 win over the latter on Matchday 6 there were rumours that CSKA would be thrown out of the competition after two of their players, Sergei Ignashevich and Alexei Berezutsky, were tested positive for a banned substance but UEFA were satisifed that there was “a technical error” which led to confusion and the club were fined €25,000 and the players concerned were banned for one match which has now been served allowing the players to compete in the knockout rounds.
Sevilla’s main threats come from their striking partnership Luís Fabiano (14 goals, 3 in Champions League) and Frédi Kanouté (7 goals, 2 in Champions League) who have enjoyed the club’s recent domestic and European success together in the last five years and whose potent threat up front makes the Andalucians an outside bet for Champions League glory. For CSKA Moscow it is important that they can keep hold of winger Miloš Krasić, who has been linked with clubs from England and Spain after his four goals in the Champions League group stage alerted many clubs to his talent. However CSKA will have to make do without the servies of Brazilian forward Vagner Love who is currently on loan at Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo.
In the third installment of our UEFA Champions League previews “Stoppage Time” focuses on the two games that will be played tomorrow night with the second leg played on Wednesday, March 17th:
OLYMPIAKOS (Greece) v GIRONDINS DE BORDEAUX (France)
Perennial Greek champions Olympiakos are finding it tough going in the domestic Super League this season, trailing behind eternal rivals Panathinaikos in the table. However the UEFA Champions League represents a chance for the Piraeus based side to show what they’re made of, especially in front of their fanatical supporters who make their Karaiskakis Stadium a real fortress against visiting teams. FC Girondins go into tomorrow’s clash with a three point lead and a game in hand in France’s Ligue 1 and coach Laurent Blanc will look for his players to repeat the impressive form they’ve shown thus far in Europe’s elite competition remaining unbeaten against FC Bayern, Juventus FC and Maccabi Haifa in their Champions League group.
Olympiakos, usually so dominant at home having won the league and cup double four times in the last five seasons, have endured mixed emotions by their usual high standards. Since qualifying second in their Champions League group behind Arsenal FC Thrylos (The Legend), as the club modestly call themselves, have won just half of the ten Super League games they’ve played. But despite suffering defeat to three of the top five sides, Aris, AEK Athens and PAOK, Olympiakos find themselves just two points of the pace due to Panathinaikos’ inability to pull away from their rivals. With only seven games left in the Super League there is a great chance that Olympiakos can claim their 13th championship in 14 years. Girondins de Bordeaux, a good outside bet for Champions League glory, won the French championship last season to end Olympique Lyonnais’ seven year domination and followed it up with success in the Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup). Since qualification for the Champions League Les Girondins are leading the way in Ligue 1 again and have reached yet another Coupe de la Ligue final, their third in four years, where they meet Olympique de Marseille on March 27th. Alas their chances of a domestic treble were dashed when they lost in the Coupe de France (French Cup) Round of 16 to AS Monaco, the Monégasque winning 2-0 away in Bordeaux.
Marouane Chamakh is becoming one of Europe’s most sought after footballers attracting interest in particular from English Premier League clubs. His 13 goals last season helped Girondins to their double triumph and he has scored ten more (two in Champions League) to keep Girondins ahead of the competition. Yoann Gourcuff is the playmaker through which most of Bordeaux’s goals come plus he has scored nine times in all competitions. For the Greek side Konstantinos Mitroglu has scored eleven goals (three in Champions League) and they will rely on his talent in front of goal as well as their vociferous support in the first leg if they are to have any chance of progressing into the last eight of the competition.
VfB STUTTGART (Germany) v FC BARCELONA (Spain)
Had this game taken place before Christmas VfB Stuttgart would’ve feared the worst going into the contest. After all memories of Barça’s first half destruction of FC Bayern at Camp Nou in last season’s Champions League are still very fresh to German football supporters. However the Swabians can go into the game against the European champions with new confidence thanks to coach Christian Gross who has really turned it around for Stuttgart. FC Barcelona though will still be huge favourites to progress to the next round. After winning their third UEFA Champions League last season the Blaugrana will want to successfully defend the title for the first time in their history.
Stuttgart have improved since Gross’s arrival only losing once in nine games in all competitions so far, that defeat coming at home to a Ruud van Nistelrooy inspired Hamburger SV a fortnight ago. Since VfB were victorious in a winner-takes-all clash at home to Unirea Urziceni on Matchday 6 of the Champions League group stage Stuttgart’s six wins in eight Bundesliga matches have propelled them from 15th up to ninth including a 5-1 away day demolition of 1.FC Köln on Saturday. Cacau scored four times to increase his tally to eight goals for the season. FC Barcelona also won their most recent league game by four goals comfortably defeating Racing Santander 4-0 at the Camp Nou. Barça have won ten of their thirteen games since the group stage, two of those wins helping secure their FIFA Club World Cup triumph in the UAE in December.
There are any number of matchwinners for Barcelona but the irreplaceable Lionel Messi is the man who really makes them tick. With sixteen goals and just as many assists his presence in the team ensures that they go into any game as favourites. If he should have an off day then any one from Thierry Henry, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta or Ibrahimović can dig Barcelona out of any hole. Stuttgart have Cacau’s goals but also have Pavel Pogrebnyak coming into form at the right time and the industry of on-loan Barça star Alexander Hleb although the injury to left-back Arthur Boka is a huge blow to the German side.
The winter break comes to an end in Romania this weekend. Liga 1 resumes with a very competitive championship table showing four points separating the top six teams and a top of the table clash between the top two teams Unirea Urziceni and CFR Cluj-Napoca, who are the two most recent championship winning sides with the former defending the title they won last season and the latter winning their maiden title in 2007-08. Should either or both of these teams drop points then record champions Steaua Bucharest are waiting to pounce and anyone from FC Timişoara, Rapid Bucharest or FC Vaslui can improve their prospects of a title challenge with victories against teams in the lower half of the table.
The big news in Romanian football over the winter break was the surprise resignation of Dan Petrescu from champions Unirea Urziceni in order to take over at Russian First League (second-tier) team FC Kuban Krasnodar. After guiding the club from south-east Romania to their maiden title in the 2008-09 season he led FC Unirea to third place in their UEFA Champions League group this season finishing behind Sevilla CF and VfB Stuttgart but ahead of Glasgow Rangers and ensured that they had European football after Christmas in the UEFA Europa League. He has been replaced by Israeli coach Ronny Levy who will hope to carry on where Petrescu left off with the club leading the way domestically.
However FC Unirea’s first match after the winter pause takes place on Monday against CFR Cluj-Napoca, the team who beat them in the 2008 Romanian Cup final. In the opening match of the 2009-10 season CFR Cluj-Napoca, famous for being resident in the Transylvania region, beat the defending league champions 2-0, this victory coming just a week after CFR Cluj had beaten FC Unirea in the Romanian Super Cup on penalties. Therefore FC Unirea will have a score to settle and will want to give their new coach a maiden victory especially as they narrowly lost to Liverpool FC 1-0 in the UEFA Europa League last night.
In the other important games in Liga 1 third-place Steaua Bucharest plays at home to bottom ranked team Ceahlaul Piatra Niamt in a game which the Militarii (Army Men) are easily expected to win in front of a partisan crowd. Should the top two draw in their encounter on Monday then Steaua could find themselves all alone at the top of the table. However should Steaua do the unthinkable and drop points themselves then there will be three other teams who harbour hopes of starting a run which could land them the championship. Fourth-place FC Timişoara, who were league runners-up last season, plays against second-bottom (17th place) Gloria Bastrita, fifth-place Rapid Bucharest plays against 13th place Politechnica Iasi and sixth-place FC Vaslui plays Gaz Metan Medias, who lie in tenth place. Even FC Brasov and Dinamo Bucharest, who occupy the seventh and eighth spots in the table, may have hope of at least finishing second in the league as they are both just seven points from the top three. A UEFA Champions League qualifying stage spot goes the team who finishes second in Romania’s Liga 1 with the champions gaining automatic qualification so there is everything to play for in one of the tightest championships for many a year.
ROMANIA’S TOP EIGHT
1. Unirea Urziceni Played 17/ Points 34/ Goal Difference +13
2. CFR Cluj-Napoca 17/34/+12
3. Steaua Bucharest 17/34/+11
4. FC Timişoara 17/31/+17
5. Rapid Bucharest 17/31/+15
6. FC Vaslui 17/30/+6
7. FC Brasov 17/27/+8
8. Dinamo Bucharest 17/27/+7
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 UEFA Champions League is back! “Stoppage Time” continues its preview of the Round of 16 games with a focus on those matches taking place on Wednesday with the second legs on Tuesday, March 9th:
FC BAYERN MÜNCHEN (Germany) v AC FIORENTINA (Italy)
Whereas Italian side AC Fiorentina had a comfortable ride in Champions League group E disposing of Olympique Lyonnais, Liverpool FC and Debreceni to finish top, German Rekordmeister (record champions) FC Bayern had to go to Turin and win away at Juventus to claim the second qualification spot in their group. At the time FC Bayern were struggling for consistency under new coach Louis van Gaal but a heroic 4-1 win against Italy’s Old Lady signalled a change in fortune for the Bavarian giants. Since then FC Bayern have been faultless in the Bundesliga while AC Fiorentina have slid down the Serie A table and are now finding it difficult to qualify for European competition next season.
Since the conclusion of the Champions League group stage FC Bayern have gone from strength to strength having won their last eight games in the league and are now level on points with joint leaders Bayer 04 Leverkusen, trailing behind the Werkself (Work’s Eleven) by virtue of goal difference. Having also qualified for the DFB Pokal (German Cup) semi-finals all is rosy at the Allianz Arena, at the moment, with the German side quietly contemplating a chance at going for a treble similar to what FC Barcelona accomplished last season. AC Fiorentina, on the other hand, have struggled with form and injuries since sealing their place in the knockout stages. The Viola have won only two of their last eight games in the league (against Bari and bottom club Siena) and from the heady heights of fourth have gone sliding down the table to their current rank of eleventh leaving them seven points from a UEFA Europa League place.
Although Mario Gomez has hit 14 goals so far in his maiden season at FC Bayern all of the fans’ expectations rest on the shoulders of Arjen Robben, who has been a revelation since his two goal introduction to German football against champions VfL Wolfsburg on Matchday 4 of the Bundesliga. The Dutchman is backed up by a returning Franck Ribéry who is desperate to show the fans the sort of form which led him to the German Footballer of the Year award in 2008. AC Fiorentina will hope that Stevan Jovetić, who impressed with his performance against Liverpool earlier this season, can once again perform on the European stage having scored three times in the tournament so far this season. However the Florentines have suffered with injuries this season and the news that defender Alessandro Gamberini will miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury is bad news for the club. With the Italian side having never won a competitive fixture in Germany before the omens are against Fiorentina but at least they will be at home in the second leg so it is imperative that Fiorentina can score an away goal tomorrow night.
FC PORTO (Portugal) v ARSENAL FC (England)
Two-time European champions FC Porto will be hoping to continue their good form in the UEFA Champions League this season as they have struggled in their defence of the championship back home with both SL Benfica and surprise team Sporting Braga out in front. The Dragões (Dragons) progressed in second place from group B two points behind Chelsea FC and nine points ahead of both Atlético de Madrid and APOEL Nicosia. Arsenal usually progress with ease to the knockout stages in this tournament but find the tough going when the business end of the season arrives. Five years without a trophy would be a disaster for Arsenal fans who still lament how close they came to winning the trophy in 2006 when they were losing finalists to FC Barcelona. However they topped group H ahead of Greek champions Olympiakos and will hope that they can kick-start their season again in Europe.
FC Porto lie in third-place in the Portuguese Liga Sagres nine points behind leaders SL Benfica having played a game less than the Lisbon side. In their seven games since the group stage FC Porto have won four of them but have suffered a solitary defeat in that time to Benfica which has left them trailing in their wake. The Dragons have found consolation in the Carlsberg Cup (Portuguese League Cup) having qualified for the final to be played next month against…..Benfica. Arsenal have won seven of their twelve Premier League games since the group phase but have suffered a recent dip by losing to their two challengers for the title, leaders Chelsea FC and champions Manchester United. They did recover by beating Liverpool FC at home in their most recent league encounter so are still third in the table only six points behind first place. However defeats in the two domestic cup competitions to Stoke City and Manchester City means that Arsène Wenger’s men only have the domestic championship and Champions League to play for.
FC Porto’s danger man is Falcao who, since moving to the club from Argentine giants River Plate, has scored 17 goals (3 in the Champions League) so far this season. If he can link up with Brazilian striker Hulk then the Arsenal defence may just have problems against such a strong forward line although the Portuguese do miss two key players in Ruben Micael and Ernesto Farias. Arsenal’s inspiration usually comes from captain Cesc Fabrègas and the Gunners will rely on him more than ever as they suffer from a list of injuries including the likes of Andrey Arshavin, Robin van Persie, Eduardo and William Gallas, to name but four.
REMEMBER: the other four quarter-finals ties play next week so we will continue with the previews from next Monday, February 22nd.
The UEFA Champions League is back! We have reached the Round of 16 and there are some mouth-watering ties among the eight games that will take place over the next four weeks. “Stoppage Time” gives you the lowdown on the form of each team going into the knockout stage of the competition. Some teams fortunes have improved since the group phase concluded in December but in one or two cases form has got worse so we’ll make it easy for you to see who is hot and who is not. There are four matches this week and four next week with the second legs being played two weeks later in all cases (we’ll give you the dates to each match in each of the four previews). Today we focus on the two matches that will be played tomorrow with the second leg on Wednesday, March 10th:
AC MILAN (Italy) v MANCHESTER UNITED (England)
This may be a meeting between two giants of European football but, for most observers, the match has become the latest excuse to indulge in the ‘Beckham Circus’. Only this time there is sufficient reason for the former England captain to be at the forefront of preparations for what is, in any case, a widely anticipated contest. The former United star could play against his old club for the first time in his career but it’s not known yet whether his coach Leonardo will play him from the start. Either way Beckham’s view that “for the first time… I will have to hope Manchester United lose” could just be wishful thinking as the Red Devils go into the game in much the better form.
Since the conclusion of the group stage United have won seven of their eleven Premier League matches including a 3-1 demolition away at fellow title-chasers Arsenal FC only a fortnight ago and sees the English champions only one point behind leaders Chelsea FC who have stumbled in recent weeks, most recently suffering a 2-1 reverse at Everton FC. With United having qualified for another League Cup final, their third in five seasons, things are looking up at Old Trafford. Milan, on the other hand, have won only half of their eight Serie A encounters and lie third in the Italian league, nine points behind defending champions and city rivals Internazionale. When Beckham returned in January for his second stint at the San Siro Milan’s form saw an immediate improvement, three wins in a row against Genoa, Juventus and Siena gave the side hope of a title charge. However since losing 2-0 in the ‘Derby della Madonnina’ to Inter the Rossoneri‘s form has been less impressive taking five points from the last three matches.
Despite all the Beckham talk there are two players on the pitch who will be the real stars to look out for. Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney has really shone since a certain Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford to go to Real Madrid. Rooney’s goal tally in all competitions already stands at 23, although it is surprising that none of those goals have come in the Champions League so far. Milan have a player of such skill, class and experience in Ronaldinho but even he could be eclipsed by his fellow compatriot Alexandre Pato who, like Rooney, seems to have improved after another club hero, namely Kaká, went to Real Madrid. Pato has scored eleven goals so far in 2009-10 with two of those in the Champions League and he is hoping to show that Milan are far from a spent force. Milan have a great history in this competition which they have won on seven occasions, including, most recently, in the 2006-07 season when they beat United in the semi-finals.
OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (France) v REAL MADRID CF (Spain)
With the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League final being staged at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, nine-times European champions Real Madrid are determined that they can win “la décima’ (‘The Tenth’) at their home stadium and forget all about the history-making year which their arch-rivals FC Barcelona have enjoyed in the last twelve months. Their chances of winning the tournament look good after they easily topped a group containing AC Milan, Olympique de Marseille and FC Zürich by a comfortable four points and their form in the Spanish League has been almost faultless. Olympique Lyonnais, on the other hand, have found it tough going in the French League since they surrendered their title to FC Girondins de Bordeaux last season. Although they finished second in their Champions League group they did so due to the fact that they played a Liverpool side who were lacking in confidence and the Hungarian champions Debreceni who were incapable of taking a single point from any of their opponents.
Real Madrid lie second in La Liga having won eight of their ten matches since the conclusion of the group stage in December. They have been playing catch-up to defending champions FC Barcelona for most of the season but their title aspirations improved this weekend with a 3-0 win away at bottom club Xerez CD whilst the Catalans succumbed to their first league defeat this season losing 2-1, ironically, to Real’s local rivals Atlético de Madrid. This reduced the gap between the top two teams to just two points with El Real now looking more ruthless especially now that Portuguese sensation Cristiano Ronaldo has returned after injury. Olympique Lyonnais are not yet playing like a team who could seriously challenge for the championship but they do lie in fourth place, eight points behind defending champions and league leaders Bordeaux so all is not lost yet. Since the group stage Lyon have won five of their nine league games including wins against Paris Saint Germain and Racing Lens but have lost two games in that period to championship challengers Bordeaux and Montpellier. Therefore Lyon must improve against all types of opposition if they are to claim their eighth domestic championship in nine seasons.
As previously mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo is the star man for Los Blancos having scored 17 goals so far this season including six in the UEFA Champions League. Imagine how many more he could’ve had if he hadn’t have spent a month on the sidelines due to injury. But such is the potential at Real Madrid that anyone can be a matchwinner on their day including club legend Raúl, French striker Karim Benzema (formerly of Olympique Lyonnais) and Argentinian wonder Gonzalo Higuaín who has chipped in with 14 goals this season. For the French side Lisandro López, the Argentinian who signed from Portuguese champions FC Porto at the end of last season to replace Benzema, is the current top scorer with 13 goals, five of which were in the Champions League including the crucial equalizer at home to Liverpool FC which guaranteed the French side’s progression to this stage of the competition.