Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

CONCACAF: Cruz Azul strike first in Champions League final (+video)

Posted in North and Central American Football by peterbein on April 22, 2010
Emmanuel Villa

Emmanuel Villa scored the first goal in Cruz Azul's 2-1 victory over Pachuca in the first leg of the final

In the first leg of the all-Mexican CONCACAF Champions League final on Wednesday night. Cruz Azul, who are record champions in this event under its previous guise, have a slender 2-1 advantage to take into the return leg at the home of their opponents Pachuca, who are looking for a third title in four years.

La Maquina, as Cruz Azul are widely known, took advantage of some dreadful defending twenty minutes into the game when striker Emmanuel Villa seized on the ball after Pachuca defender Gregorio Torres miscontrolled it just ten yards outside his own penalty area. Villa’s run into the box resulted in Pachuca keeper Miguel Calero coming out to try and narrow the angle but Villa took his goal with great aplomb to give the Blues the lead. The home side didn’t have to wait long to extend their lead when a cross from the right side by Maxi Biancucchi was turned into his own goal by Pachuca’s Carlos Rodríguez clipping the ball past his own keeper at the near post. Pachuca did come back into the game after a nightmare start having the better of the chances as the first half progressed but without success on the scoring front.

The second half continued in much the same vein for the away side as they took the game to Cruz Azul in the hope of reducing the arrears and getting a foothold back into the game. They were finally rewarded in the 69th minute after Raúl Martínez’s cross found its way into the path of Damián Álvarez who, from the corner of the six-yard box, struck his shot low to halve the deficit, the ball just clipping the near post on its way in. Cruz Azul were finding it increasingly difficult to get a grip of the game from midfield as Pachuca tried to force an equalizer to level the tie. Cruz Azul may have had the advantage on the score sheet but they were to be at a numerical disadvantage for the last ten minutes of the game when Julio Domínguez was sent off for a foul on José Francisco Torres. Strangely it was La Maquina who found their urgency and created the most chances from that point on with Emmanuel Villa and Horacio Cervantes hitting the woodwork in the final minutes of the match. In the end Pachuca had to be grateful for a 2-1 defeat which they will hope to overturn in the second leg which takes place on Wednesday, April 28th. Will Cruz Azul be celebrating a record enhancing sixth title? Or will Pachuca maintain their recent continental dominance following title wins in 2007 and 2008?

First Leg HIGHLIGHTS: Cruz Azul 2-1 Pachuca C.F.


UEFA Europa League: Semi-Final Preview

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 21, 2010
Roy Hodgson

Fulham FC coach Roy Hodgson has had plenty to smile about in the UEFA Europa League this season.

The semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League are approaching this Thursday with two very intriging ties. Liverpool FC, thrice winners of the old UEFA Cup, have made the journey to the Spanish capital and are ready to face battle against Club Atlético de Madrid. Meanwhile surprise outfit Fulham FC, who have had some glory European nights this season, will hope to add Hamburger SV to the list of high-profile scalps and, thus, deny the German side a place in the final to be played at their home stadium on Wednesday, May 12th. “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” previews the last four:

HAMBURGER SV (Germany) v FULHAM FC (England)

Will the fairy tale ever come to an end for Fulham FC? All fans of the Cottagers will be hoping that they’ll be returning to the northern German port of Hamburg for the inaugural UEFA Europa League final next month. Roy Hodgson’s men will be hoping that their defeat of another German club, VfL Wolfsburg, in the quarter-finals will prove to be a good omen. Hamburger SV, on the other hand, are determined to salvage something from what is fast becoming yet another disappointing season. Their fans have high expectations that the club can go one better than last season, when they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup semi-finals to northern rivals Werder Bremen, and are desperate to lift the trophy on home soil.

Having already disposed of last season’s UEFA Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk, Italian giants Juventus FC and German champions VfL Wolfsburg in the knock-out rounds of the competition Fulham FC face another mammoth task in the form of HSV. Domestically Fulham FC are unbeaten in their last three games with a 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic and two goalless draws against fellow Europa League semi-finalists Liverpool FC and relegation threatened Wolverhampton Wanderers. On the European stage Fulham continue to surprise having overcome the challenge of VfL Wolfsburg in the last round. The first leg at Craven Cottage saw the London side score two goals in the space of three minutes around the hour mark thanks to Bobby Zamora and Damien Duff before the Germans pulled one back with just one minute of regular time to go thanks to a powerful header from Alexander Madlung. For Fulham the disappointment of conceding late in the first match, however, was counterbalanced by the euphoria of scoring early in the second. Bobby Zamora added to his tally of goals after just sixty seconds to seal another famous win for Fulham.

Hamburger SV have stuttered under coach Bruno Labbadia as the season has progressed and there are reports that many of the players in the team have lost faith in him. Despite this the club have reserved their best performances for the UEFA Europa League, no doubt hoping to satisfy the levels of expectation before their home public to reach the final in May. Domestically it has been mixed form in recent weeks for HSV who drew 0-0 at home to struggling Hannover 96 before beating VfL Bochum 2-1 and losing their most recent league game at home to 1.FSV Mainz 05 by a goal to nil. However the Hanseaten secured a priceless couple of wins in the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals against Belgians Standard de Liège. Having gone behind at home in the first leg HSV came back with two quickfire goals before half-time thanks to Mladen Petrić and Ruud van Nistelrooy to take a 2-1 lead into the second leg. Croatian intenational Petrić scored twice in the first half to increase HSV’s lead before his replacement as substitute Paulo Guerrero sealed the deal to give the Germans a 5-2 aggregate victory to take them one step closer to a first European final since they beat Juventus FC in the former European Champions Cup in 1983.

Diego Forlan

Diego Forlán scores against Valencia CF in the quarter-finals to take Atlético de Madrid through on away goals

CLUB ATLÉTICO de MADRID (Spain) v LIVERPOOL FC (England)

This game should’ve heralded the return of former Atleti hero Fernando Torres to his old club but, unfortunately for Liverpool, he has been told that his season is over due to the extent of a knee injury which he picked up in the last round against SL Benfica. Nonetheless this game will be interesting as it will test the energy of the Liverpool squad who have had to travel to the Spanish capital using various methods of transport due to the aviation crisis that has affected Europe in the last week since a certain Icelandic volcano erupted.

Los Colchoneros still have hopes of reaching a second cup final this season having already secured their place in the Copa del Rey against Sevilla FC to be played at the home of arch-rivals Real Madrid CF on May 25th. Unfortunately for Atlético they have taken their eye off the ball in La Liga recently having lost their last three matches against RCD Espanyol, Deportivo Xerez and Villarreal CF as they attempt to juggle the demands of three different competitions. In the quarter-finals Atleti secured a 2-2 draw away at Spanish rivals Valencia CF thanks to goals from Diego Forlán and Antonio López and rode their luck in the second leg where they held out for a 0-0 draw to go through on away goals.

Liverpool FC’s troubles have been highlighted by many this season but in the UEFA Europa League they seem to have found a competition in which they’ve impressed many. The club still harbour slight hopes of qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League but this looks unlikely as the Reds are still five points behind fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur having played a game more. Their last three Premier League games have included two draws against Fulham FC and Birmingham FC but they did easily see off the challenge of struggling West Ham United on Monday with an easy 3-0 win. In the Europa League quarter-finals two penalties from Portuguese league leaders SL Benfica coupled with a red card for Ryan Babel saw Liverpool go into the second leg trailing 2-1, an early Daniel Agger goal keeping the Reds close. In the second leg Liverpool were cruising with a 3-0 lead on the hour mark thanks to goals from Dirk Kuijt, Lucas and Fernando Torres before Oscar Cardozo made life slightly uncomfortable for the home side when pulling a goal back on 70 minutes. But Liverpool’s passage to the final four was sealed when Fernando Torres scored his second goal of the night to give the Reds a 5-3 aggregate win.

Carioca: Botafogo win 19th Rio title

Posted in South America Football by peterbein on April 20, 2010

Botafogo have won the Campeonato Carioca (Rio State Championship) for the 19th time in their history having won the two component parts of the tournament. When any one team wins the first competition, known as the Taça Guanabara, and the second competition, known as the Taça Rio, then a championship play-off is unneccessary. Thankfully for Botafogo their Taça Rio final victory over record champions Flamengo on Sunday added to the Taça Guanabara crown they had already won in February meaning that the club could have a couple of weeks off before resuming action in the oncoming Brasileiro (Brazilian National Championship). “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reviews how Botafogo sealed the title:

Taça Guanabara

The Campeonato Carioca sees sixteen teams split into two groups of eight in two distinct tournaments within the competition. In the first stage each team plays the other seven teams from inside their own group before the top two from each group go into the semi-finals. After seven games Group A was topped by Flamengo who had nineteen points, three more than nearest challengers Fluminense. Group B was topped by Vasco da Gama who also led their group with nineteen points with Botafogo just one solitary point behind. The semi-finals saw the top team from each group play the runner-up in the other group. Flamengo, who had won the last three Campeonato Carioca in a row from 2007-09, were to be knocked out by Botafogo after the latter won 2-1. The other semi-final was decided by penalties after a goalless stalemate with Vasco da Gama prevailing from the spot defeating Fluminense 6-5. The final saw Botafogo get revenge on Vasco, the latter had won their group stage encounter by a heavy 6-0 scoreline. Fabio Ferreira and Sebastián Abreu scored the goals to give Botafogo a 2-0 win to claim the first trophy in the competition (see VIDEO):

Taça Rio

In the second half of the Carioca the same two groups of eight teams from the first stage remain intact, only this time each team plays the other eight teams in the opposing group. Despite the change of opposition for each team the groups had a similar finish to them as in the first stage. Group A was again topped by Flamengo who accumulated 22 points in eight games, three ahead of Fluminense. In Group B the roles were reversed from the first stage as Botafogo topped the group with fifteen points, two ahead of Vasco da Gama. In the semi-finals Botafogo defeated Fluminense 3-2 whilst Flamengo defeated arch-rivals Vasco da Gama 2-1 to set up an interesting Taça Rio final. Flamengo had to beat Botafogo in the Taça Rio final in order to set up a grand final against the same opponents to decide the overall champion. Botafogo had other ideas as they wanted to secure the title without the need for a play-off and they got their just rewards albeit with the help of two penalty kicks. Herrara converted the first penalty in the 23rd minute and Sebastián Abreu scored with one of the coolest penalties ever in the 71st minute. Vagner Love’s goal for Flamengo sandwiched the two Botafogo strikes but proved not to be enough. Botafogo had won the two stages and, therefore, took Flamengo’s Carioca title away from them in the process (see Video):

CFU: Second Round Review

Posted in North and Central American Football by peterbein on April 20, 2010
Tempête FC logo

Tempête FC had to withdraw from the competition

The Caribbean Football Union (CFU) Club Championship second round has been completed over the last week and “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reviews the highs and lows.

Before a ball was kicked in the second round the competition was bugged by many of the administrative problems which had dogged it in the first round. Two Haitian teams, Tempête FC  and Racing de Gonaïves, had trouble obtaining Visas to travel to Puerto Rico where their respective group matches were to be held. But whereas Racing de Gonaïves eventually carried on their participation in the tournament their compatriots Tempête FC had to ultimately withdraw due to further difficulties with bureaucracy. But they weren’t the only team to withdraw from the championship as Surinamese side Leo Victor declined to play because of financial difficulties. Therefore two of the four groups in the second round only had two teams compared to the other groups which both had three teams each. The top team from each group will go on to compete in the final round of the tournament where the four teams will compete for three places in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League tournament.

GROUP E (played in Puerto Rico)

Racing de Gonaïves 0-2 Puerto Rico Islanders

Puerto Rico Islanders 3-0 Racing de Gonaïves

(1. Puerto Rico Islanders 2 games/6 points; 2. Racing de Gonaïves 2 games/0 points)

GROUP F (played in Puerto Rico)

Avenues United 2-5 Bayamón FC

Bayamón FC 3-0 Avenues United

(1. Bayamón FC 2 Games/6 points; 2. Avenues United 2 games/0 points)

GROUP G (Played in Trinidad & Tobago)

San Juan Jabloteh 2-0 Alpha United

Alpha United 1-1 River Plate

San Juan Jabloteh 1-0 River Plate

(1. San Juan Jabloteh 2 games/6 points; 2. River Plate 2 games/1 point; 3. Alpha United 2 games/1 point)

GROUP H (Played in Trinidad & Tobago)

Joe Public FC 5-0 Walking Boys

Walking Boys 2-0 Systems 3

Joe Public FC 3-1 Systems 3

(1. Joe Public FC 2 games/6 points; 2. Walking Boys 2 games/3 points; 3. Systems 3 2 games/0 points)

So the final four will feature two clubs each from Puerto Rico (Islanders; Bayamón FC) and Trinidad & Tobago (Joe Public FC; San Juan Jabloteh) with the games to be played on the dates between May 5-9 in Macoya, situated on the island of Trinidad.

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UEFA Champions League: Semi-Final Preview

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 18, 2010
Ribery and Robben

Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben played crucial roles in FC Bayern München's progression to the UEFA Champions League semi-finals

The UEFA Champions League reaches the semi-final stage and there are two great games to look forward to. There have been fears that the games would be postponed because of the travel disruption that has affected Europe since the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted last week, bringing the whole continent to a standstill. According to the UEFA website on Sunday “the two UEFA Champions League semi-final first legs will go ahead as scheduled this week despite the current restrictions on European air travel due to the volcanic cloud.” Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the two fixtures ahead of the first leg ties which, we presume, will still take place later this week:

INTERNAZIONALE FC (Italy) v FC BARCELONA (Spain)

Both of these teams have already played against each other this season in the UEFA Champions League group stages with FC Barcelona getting the better of their Italian opponents. After the teams drew blank in a Matchday 1 stalemate the European champions made Inter pay at the Camp Nou on Matchday 5 with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Gerard Piqué and Pedro Rodríguez. Inter coach Jose Mourinho has had many battles against the Catalan giants in his managerial career and he will hope that the Nerazzurri can provide him with more cause to celebrate against the club who once employed him as Sir Bobby Robson’s interpreter.

In the quarter-finals FC Barcelona performed amazingly well against an Arsenal FC side who came back well in the first leg to claim a 2-2 draw having been two goals down at one stage. The London side even had the cheek to take the lead in the Camp Nou in the second leg after much-maligned striker Niklas Bendtner gave the Gunners an 18th minute lead. After that the game became a one man show and who else but Lionel Messi was going to step up to the plate? After scoring a hat-trick just before half-time the Argentinian superstar capped off a wonderful performance two minutes from the end of the game with a fourth goal, the first player to score four in one game during the UEFA Champions League knock-out stages. Since defeating Arsenal the Blaugrana have continued their impressive league form including a 2-0 away win at Real Madrid in “El Gran Clásico” and an easy 3-0 win at home to Deportivo de La Coruña before dropping two points in the derby of Barcelona drawing 0-0 against local rivals RCD Espanyol on Saturday.

Inter defeated CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals with two 1-0 victories home and away. Diego Milito scored the winning goal for Inter in the first leg whilst Wesley Sneijder scored the only goal in the second leg in Moscow. In Serie A, however, the Nerazzurri have lost top spot to AS Roma despite having taken four points in the two games since defeating CSKA in the second leg. A 2-2 draw away at AC Fiorentina could prove to be the pivotal moment in the domestic season for Inter as the two dropped points allowed AS Roma to overtake them at the top of the table. They have kept the pressure on the capital side though having defeated Juventus FC 2-0 in the “Derby of Italy” on Saturday.

FC BAYERN MÜNCHEN (Germany) v OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS (France)

FC Bayern are dreaming of The Treble after knocking out English champions Manchester United in sensational fashion in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. Olympique Lyonnais are still just about involved in the title race domestically too and took great satisfaction from emerging triumphant in the Battle of France against FC Girondins de Bordeaux, going through with a slender one goal advantage over the two legs.

FC Bayern have seemingly got the 1999 UEFA Champions League final defeat out of their system having put Manchester United to the sword in the last round. After Wayne Rooney gave the Red Devils the lead after two minutes of the first leg in the Allianz Arena, there was late drama which decided the outcome of the match thanks to a deflected free-kick from Franck Ribéry and a last minute winner from Ivica Olić. It was to be Olić who began the comeback for FC Bayern in the second leg at Old Trafford after United had raced into a 3-0 lead on the night after just 41 minutes. Two minutes before half-time Olić struck home from an acute angle to reduce the arrears for the Bavarians and it wasn’t until the 74th minute when Bayern’s Dutch maestro Arjen Robben beautifully struck from the edge of the penalty box to equal the match 4-4 on aggregate which was how it stayed, much to the relief of Bayern who went through courtesy of the away goals rule. Domestically they have taken charge in the race for the Bundesliga title having defeated nearest challengers Schalke 04 away from home as well as picking up a point from suffering Bayer 04 Leverkusen. On Saturday FC Bayern disposed of Hannover 96 in style putting seven goals past their hapless opponents without reply with Arjen Robben scoring a hat trick.

There was much anticipation in France ahead of the battle between Olympique Lyonnais, seven times French champions from 2002-2008, and Girondins de Bordeaux who took OL‘s title away from them in 2008-09. With both teams dropping points in the domestic title race this European clash became more important as they both wanted to be the team that would represent French football going into the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. The first leg in Lyon was a fantastically open affair with many chances for both sides, especially in the first half. Lisandro López scored the opening goal on ten minutes only for Marouane Chamakh to equalize just four minutes later for the Girondins in a frantic set of opening exchanges. Olympique Lyonnais regained the lead after Michel Bastos had put them 2-1 up before the break. A penalty from Lisandro López further enhanced OL‘s lead in the 77th minute and it was the men from Lyon who were celebrating going into the second leg. Understandably the return fixture in Bordeuax was a more tense affair with both sides cancelling each other out for most of the first half but then came the breakthrough on the stroke of half time thanks to Maraoune Chamakh scoring the opening goal of the night. Try as they might in the second half Les Girondins just couldn’t find that crucial second goal which they needed to take them through. Olympique Lyonnais won 3-2 on aggregate and will hope to upset the odds against FC Bayern in the next round.

UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SEMI-FINALS (Team on left at home first)

Internazionale FC v FC Barcelona (1st Leg 20th April; 2nd Leg 28th April)

FC Bayern München v Olympique Lyonnais (1st Leg 21st April; 2nd Leg 27th April)

EFPA: Former players to bless Liverpool in two-day Congress

Posted in European Football, International Football, UK Football by peterbein on April 15, 2010
Sir Bobby Charlton

Sir Bobby Charlton will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the EFPA gala dinner

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.


Scotland: SPL in need of a shake-up

Posted in UK Football by peterbein on April 13, 2010
Rangers FC

Current SPL champions Glasgow Rangers have called for the league split system to be scrapped

The voices seem to get louder and louder at this time of year from the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and the clubs within it, over the issue of the controversial “league split” system which sees the twelve clubs in Scotland’s top flight split into two groups of six for the final five matches of the league season. This season is no exception with many critics of the system expressing disbelief in this year’s end of season fixtures with some teams having to play certain opposition for a third time away from home. The SPL have argued that there was no way that the post-split fixtures could have worked out with everybody having two home and two away games against all opposition this season because of the way the table finished after 33 games. If that’s the case then there is only one thing to do and that is to scrap the current system.

After the announcement on Saturday that champions Glasgow Rangers will have to play three away games in a row in the final games of the season the club have lashed out at the SPL saying that the system lacks “sporting integrity”, especially as they have to play Dundee United for the third time in four league fixtures between the two clubs this season away from home. Seeing as Rangers finished top of the table at the time of the split it seems like they’re being penalised for their success. It also doesn’t help Rangers that the three away games against Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic come in the space of ten days so it’s just as well that Rangers will have a double digit lead going into the final five games of the 2009-10 season. But Rangers are far from the only team that are unhappy with their lot. Motherwell are angry at having to play Glasgow Celtic for a third time away from home and St Mirren also have a third away game at Falkirk. For any team that is fighting for European places or against relegation it is invariably going to be controversial to keep a system which can throw up these sorts of anomalies from time to time.

So what changes should be made to eradicate the need for a split? Rangers’ coach Walter Smith has often called for an eighteen team league with each team playing everyone else twice a season, instead of the usual four times as it is currently, meaning thirty four league games a season for each club – four fewer than it stands at the moment. If anything, in my opinion, eighteen teams may just be a couple of teams too many as the necessary quality and finance just isn’t there at the moment to sustain a league of such numbers. Gradually I feel that the Scottish Premier League should be looking at ways to increase the league to sixteen teams, therefore playing thirty league matches. This will mean that clubs have more time to recuperate inbetween matches, even allowing for the fact that there are two domestic cup competitions in Scotland. At least there will be a balanced fixture list which is drawn up at the start of the season with teams not playing against the same opposition so many times. The clubs may talk about losing potential revenue, especially the smaller clubs who rely on the Old Firm coming to their grounds at least four times a season, but I think the financial aspects will sort themselves out over time. If one wants an example of a country with a sixteen team league and two domestic knockout competitions which is doing well in UEFA’S Co-Efficient table (a system used to rank leagues across Europe) then Portugal is perfect. Using a similar system to the one suggested Portugal currently ranks as Europe’s ninth strongest league in the UEFA rankings and their clubs have often performed well in European competition, an area where Scottish football as a whole really needs to improve despite the heroics of the Old Firm reaching UEFA Cup finals in recent years.

In my view the split, which has been a part of the SPL since 2001, has not helped the quality of the league whatsoever. It was used as a balancing measure between those people who advocated a smaller league but who wanted the income and additional revenue by the extra end-of-season matches created. Now that this silly situation has come about it is time that the powers-that-be in Scottish football began to produce a new system which reflects fairness, balance and which is seen, most of all, to help the quality of the domestic game.

El Gran Clásico: Barça regain advantage over Real Madrid

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 11, 2010
Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi scored the first goal in FC Barcelona's 2-0 win at title rivals Real Madrid

The game didn’t quite manage to live up to the hype but it still provided an important outcome as FC Barcelona won the latest version of “El Gran Clásico” with a 2-0 victory away at eternal rivals Real Madrid CF thanks to goals from Lionel Messi and Pedro either side of half-time. The win gives Barça a three point lead at the top of La Liga with seven matches left to play and although the title is far from over the Catalans do have the psychological advantage of having the better head-to-head record over Los Blancos having won both encounters against Real Madrid this season. Those results will decide the title in the event of both teams finishing level on points this season.

Although the headlines will be dominated by Messi’s contribution more credit should be given to the role played by Xavi Hernández who further cemented his position as one of the world’s great playmakers, whose distribution in this encounter was as near to faultless as it could get. His beautifully timed chip over to Messi in the 33rd minute allowed the Argentinian superstar to control the ball on his chest before steering it past Real Madrid keeper Iker Casillas from just in front of goal. The home side had the chance to equalize not long after but Xabi Alonso could only manage to head over the bar from close range when the goal was at his mercy. Despite the statistics showing that Real Madrid had the most chances in the first half FC Barcelona were far from troubled in a game which they controlled with their superior possession and strong defence. The game was practically over as a contest when Xavi (who else?) provided the killer pass to Pedro which the young starlet beautifully shot low past Casillas in the 56th minute to double Barça’s lead. Having scored in every competition in FC Barcelona’s sextuple winning year Pedro has now also scored his first goal in “El Gran Clásico”, a record that any player would love to have at the end of his career, never mind a 22 year old.

At this point Real Madrid decided that they needed to attack and, for a while, they did create a couple of chances but the ever-improving Barcelona custodian Victor Valdes was comfortably controlling everything that Real threw at him, whether it be crosses into the box or shots from long range. Even Real Madrid’s £80 million (€94m) signing Cristiano Ronaldo was easily shut out by the Barcelona rearguard. His trademark free-kicks failed to trouble the keeper or the wall in front of him and his impact on the game was limited. As Real Madrid chased the game their opponents were able to soak up any pressure and hit the home side on the counter attack. Xavi provided Lionel Messi twice in the last twenty minutes of the game with a pair of fantastic opportunities which Messi should’ve scored but for some good goalkeeping by Spain’s numer one Casillas. Very late in the game it looked like Real Madrid’s talisman Raul had finally provided them with a lifeline but his goal was chalked off becuase of a handball by substitute Karim Benzema, a decision the Frenchman was seen to clearly disagree with by gesturing at the linesman. At the end of the game there were just four hundred people within the capacity 80.000 crowd who were celebrating up in the heavens of Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium as FC Barcelona had secured the win which takes them one step closer to a 20th Spanish league title.

New Zealand: Waitakere and Canterbury reach Grand Final

Posted in Oceania Football by peterbein on April 11, 2010
New Zealand Football Trophy

Waitakere United will play Canterbury United on April 25th to decide the New Zealand Football Championship

New Zealand’s football championship (NZFC) Grand Final will see Waitakere United face-off against Canterbury United after the latter surprised the form guide on Sunday by defeating Minor Premiers Auckland City whilst Waitakere United scraped through on Saturday having been taken all the way by Team Wellington.

Waitakere United, who recently reached the final of Oceania’s Champions League (O-League), were just seconds away from a shock exit from the competition but some dramatic events turned the match in United’s favour. After Waitakere had lost the first leg 3-2 in Wellington their task was made more difficult after just ten minutes of the second leg, played at United’s Fred Taylor Park stadium, when Team Wellington’s Andy Barron struck a free-kick from the edge of the penalty area to increase his team’s aggregate lead. It wasn’t until the 70th minute of the game that Waitakere United regained their focus as that was when they equalized through Ryan de Vries to set up a frantic last twenty minute period for Team Wellington’s defence. The game had reached stoppage time when Waitakere United set up the last major incident of the game. A hopeful punt upfield by Jake Butler was met in the box by Brent Fisher whose backward header went past unlucky Wellington keeper James Bannatyne to secure a 4-4 aggregate score and progression to the final thanks to the away goals rule. Team Wellington were deeply disappointed not to reach the Grand Final as their performances over the two legs merited more but Waitakere United maintained the luck which sees them on the verge of an impressive New Zealand championship and O-League double.

Having won the minor premiership Auckland City were contemplating another NZFC grand final showdown with their arch-rivals from Waitakere United. However, despite having a slender 2-1 advantage from the first leg, Auckland City blew the chance to follow up their regular season success with another shot at the overall title. Canterbury United finished the regular season thirteen points behind Auckland and only qualified for the play-offs by virtue of having a better goal difference than Otago United. Even so the way in which Canterbury United took the game to their more fancied opponents is a credit to them as they didn’t allow the first leg result to affect their approach in the return leg in Auckland. With plenty of good football played by both teams the game came to life in the 26th minute when Russell Kamo scored the first of his two goals to give Canterbury United the lead. The game was still finely poised when Kamo scored his second just before the hour mark leaving the Auckland defence trailing in his wake. Auckland City, knowing that they were now trailing on aggregate, had to push further forward in the hope of levelling the tie overall but the Canterbury rearguard remained resolute and the outsiders were to be rewarded deep into stoppage time when Andy Barton completed the win by grabbing the third to secure a famous win for The Dragons. At least Auckland City can console themselves knowing that they have already secured one of New Zealand’s two places in the 2010-11 O-League as their reward for winning the regular season table.

The Grand Final takes place on Sunday, April 25th at the home of Waitakere United, the higher-ranked team in the regular season final table receiving home advantage. Waitakere United will hope to become New Zealand football champions for the second time in three seasons whilst Canterbury United will hope to have better luck than in their only appearance in the NZFC Grand Final in 2005-06 when they lost out to Auckland City via the lottery of a penalty shoot-out.

Latvia: 2010 Season Preview

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 8, 2010
Rüdiger Abramczik

Coach Rüdiger Abramczik gets his hands on the Latvian League trophy after guiding Liepājas Metalurgs to the 2009 title

The top flight of Latvian football, known as the LMT Virslīga (Higher League), kicks off this weekend with the usual suspects touted as championship contenders. Liepājas Metalurgs will hope to successfully defend the championship they won in 2009 whilst, at the same time, hoping to make a mark on the European stage. FK Ventspils may have failed in their quest for a fourth consecutive championship in 2009 but they are fancied as the team most likely to prevent Metalurgs from winning the league title this year. The third team in with a chance are Skonto Riga, Latvia’s record champions hoping to win their first league title since 2004 under the guidance of coach Alexandrs Starkovs, returning for a second stint at the helm.

Metalurgs’ coach Rüdiger Abramczik won the 2009 LMT Virslīga title in his first season in charge thanks to a five point margin over arch-rivals FK Ventspils. For most of the season the title was a three-horse race but Skonto had dropped out of the running by the time the penultimate round of league matches came around. This round of games included a head-to-head between the two title chasers Metalurgs and Ventspils, the former only needing a point to clinch their second Latvian championship which they got thanks to a 1-1 home draw. In 2010 much will depend on the champions’ ability to rotate their squad throughout the season as they fight for three trophies domestically as well as their participation in the qualifying rounds of the UEFA Champions League. At least they have maintained the services of last season’s top scorer Kristaps Grebis who will wish to emulate his figure of thirty league goals from 2009 into the new season.

FK Ventspils may have privately regretted the decision to let three-time title winning coach Roman Hryhorchuk go midway through last season after they ended 2009 without the league title. They did make history by becoming the first Latvian club to qualify for the group stages of a major European competition upon reaching the UEFA Europa League but this seemed to affect their performances domestically and new coach Nunzio Zavattieri is now under pressure to get FK Ventspils back on track especially as there have been major changes to the squad with many comings-and-goings during the pre-season. The high profile departures include Vits Rimkus, who was the league’s top scorer for two consecutive seasons in 2007 and 2008, Latvian U-21 international Edgars Gauračs and Latvian legend Vitālijs Astafjevs, who has gone back to Skonto Riga to become assistant manager.

Skonto Riga have now gone five years without a trophy which is too long for a club of their stature and history. At the end of last season Skonto decided to release English coach Paul Ashworth from his job and announced that the current Latvian national coach Alexandrs Starkovs would be his successor. Hopes are now high that Starkovs can do wonders in his second spell in charge at the club and finally bring some much needed silverware back to Latvia’s record champions, with whom Starkovs won eleven of Skonto’s fourteen championships in his first spell from 1993-2004. As well as bringing back club legend Vitālijs Astafjevs to serve as Starkovs’ number two, Skonto have made one notable player change bringing in Latvian international midfielder Juris Laizāns back from FK Ventspils to join up with the squad which retains many of the players who put up a close fight for the title last season eventually finishing six points behind Metalurgs in third place.

There have been many travails off the pitch in recent years within the LMT Virslīga, most damaging were the revelations that FC Dinaburg (Daugavpils) were alleged to have been involved in match fixing and the club were duly disqualified from participating in the league for the last six matches of the 2009 season and all of the points they’d accumulated that season taken away from them. Hopefully the league can put this terrible episode behind them and can concentrate on the football with the league increased from nine to ten teams in the 2010 season. As well as the “Big Three” the Latvian top flight contains SK Blāzma (Rēzekne), FK Jūrmala-VV, JFK Olimps/RFS (Riga) and FC Tranzits (Ventspils) and those seven have been joined from last season’s First League champions FK Jelgava, First League runners-up FK Jaunība Riga (who beat Daugava Riga in a two-legged end-of-season promotion/relegation play-off in 2009) and FC Daugava (Daugavpils) who have been included in order to have at least one representative from Latvia’s second largest city.

LMT VIRSLIGA MATCHDAY 1 FIXTURES

Liepājas Metalurgs v SK Blāzma Rēzekne

FK Jelgava v FK Ventspils

JFK Olimps/RFS v FC Daugava Daugavpils

FC Tranzits (Ventspils) v FK Jaunība Riga

Skonto Riga v FK Jūrmala-VV

All matches played between 10-11 April, 2010