The 2012 OFC Nations Cup will be the most important football tournament to be held in the Oceania region for many years. As well as playing for continental glory, the competition also doubles as the second round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The top four teams will go on further in the World Cup qualifying process whilst a place in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup will also await the team who triumphs in the Nations Cup final on Sunday, June 10th.
It is all to play for in the tournament which begins on June 1st in the Solomon Islands. The host nation have never won the OFC Nations Cup, their best performance coming in 2004 where they finished second to an Australia team taking part in the competition for the final time before they switched over to the Asian Football Confederation. The Solomon Islanders have been drawn in the same group as defending champions New Zealand so the odds on topping their group appear slim but a place in the top two of Group B would see them through to the semi-finals of their home tournament.
Favourites New Zealand are still basking in the aftermath of their 2010 FIFA World Cup campaign in which they went undefeated against group opponents Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia and were unfortunate to be eliminated on goal difference. That tournament represented real progress for the All Whites who will hope to carry off the OFC Nations Cup for the second consecutive time following their 2008 victory in which they topped a four team league table which included New Caledonia, Fiji and Vanuatu. The champions will face off against the Fijians in their group again this time around with Fiji hoping to cause a real upset this around and get to their first tournament final. Papua New Guinea are the real underdogs in the tournament, their position in the FIFA World Ranking is 193rd (the lowest out of the eight teams), but they do contain a significant number of players from 2010 O-League champions Hekari United and will hope to transfer some top level club experience onto the international stage.
Group A seems more open and not just because of the absence of New Zealand. New Caledonia finished second in the most recent tournament in 2008 finishing seven points behind the Kiwis in the tournament table. Amongst their opponents are Tahiti whose squad includes a sizeable contingent of players from 2012 O-League finalists Tefana FC. Also in the mix are Samoa who qualified for this tournament on the back of a successful first phase in FIFA World Cup qualifying. They saw off neighbours American Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga in order to take their place in the OFC Nations Cup. The final team in the competition is Vanuatu who are still hoping for a maiden final appearance having only ever finished as high as fourth place on four occasions, the most recent being in the four-team tournament of four years ago.
The group stage will be played out from June 1-6 where the top two teams in each group will qualify for the semi-finals of the OFC Nations Cup as well as the final round of FIFA World Cup qualifying which will begin in September this year. The semi-finals will be played on June 8th and the tournament will come to its natural conclusion on June 10th at the Lawson Tama stadium in the Solomon capital of Honiara.
Saudi Arabian football will be well represented in the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League. Following this week’s Round of 16 matches three sides from Saudi Arabia made it through to the last eight with another five teams, all hailing from different nations, to join them in the business end of the tournament.
Al Ahli, who finished second in their domestic championship this season, will join compatriots Al Ittihad and Al Hilal with all three teams encountering different levels of difficulty in order to qualify. Al Ahli had to go through the tension and drama of a penalty shoot-out following a 3-3 after extra-time against UAE outfit Al Jazira. Al Hilal made much easier work of another side from the United Arab Emirates, namely Baniyas SC, thrashing them to the tune of seven goals to one with Korean Byung-Soo Yoo getting on the score sheet four times. Al Ittihad also made light work of Iranian giants Persepolis, eliminating the Tehran based club 3-0.
In the all-Iranian clash Sepahan FC, who won their domestic championship this season, will hope to add continental honours to the trophy cabinet after defeating Esteghlal 2-0 thanks to goals from Bruno Correa and Mohsen Bengar. South Korean side Ulsan Hyundai won through a difficult encounter by the odd goal in five in a 3-2 win over Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol. South Korea’s representation was halved, however, following the elimination of 2010 Asian champions Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma who lost out to a Hayrulla Karimov penalty in a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan champions Bunyodkor FC.
China and Australia also enjoy representation in the last eight following triumphs for Ghangzhou Evergrande and Adelaide United respectively. Ghangzhou, now under the management of former FIFA World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, were thankful to Brazilian striker Cleo who was the lone marksman on target in a 1-0 win over FC Tokyo. Australian side Adelaide also went through against Japanese opposition, defeating Nagoya Grampus Eight by the same score line thanks to a Jonathan McKain goal three minutes before the half-time break.
The draw for the remainder of the tournament will be made on Friday, June 14th in Kuala Lumpur.
In the AFC Cup each of the eight quarter-finalists hails from a different nation as the competition proves to be geographically diverse. The biggest winners in the Round of 16 stage were Iraqi side Arbil SC who defeated Neftchi Farg’ona of Uzbekistan by four goals to nil. Kelantan got the better of compatriots Terengganu as the all-Malaysian clash finished in a 3-2 win for the former. Arema FC, who hail from Indonesia, also went through at the expense of Hong Kong champions Kitchee SC with a 2-0 win. There were also wins for Al Kuwait, Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia), Al Wehdat (Jordan), Al Shorta (Syria) and Chonburi FC (Thailand).
José Mourinho has extended his contract at Spanish champions Real Madrid CF until 2016. The self-proclaimed “Special One”, who had initially signed until 2014, has won both La Liga and the Copa del Rey in his two seasons in charge at Madrid but the prospect of bringing a tenth European Cup to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu must have weighed heavily in his decision to stay at the club. Having won the UEFA Champions League with FC Porto (2004) and FC Internazionale (2010), Mourinho could become the first coach to win the trophy with three different clubs as a coach. This would be a significant achievement along that which he succeeded in doing this year in becoming one of only four coaches to win a league championship in four different countries.
Didier Drogba will be leaving European champions Chelsea FC, it has been announced by the club today. The Ivorian, who signed for the West London club from Olympique Marseille in 2004-05, has scored 157 goals in 341 games for the Blues and won an assortment of medals including three English Premier League, four FA Cups, two League Cups, two FA Community Shields and the UEFA Champions League. The latter he won in Saturday’s final in which Drogba scored the equalizer in the last minute of normal time before going on to score the winning penalty in the shoot-out. It is understood that Drogba now seeks a fresh challenge elsewhere with China looking the most likely destination, having been linked strongly with Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua.
Radamel Falcao has already had a great first season at UEFA Europa League winners Atlético de Madrid. Having scored 36 goals in 50 games the Colombian has already attracted the interest of many of Europe’s top clubs hoping to lure him away from los Rojiblancos. In his club’s friendly away at Colombian side America de Cali last week Falcao scored this wonder goal which will no doubt add another couple of million onto his value. Enjoy!
Montpellier HSC are the French champions for the very first time in their history. They needed only to draw away at bottom club Auxerre but managed to secure a 2-1 win, thanks to a brace from John Utaka and help send their hosts down into Ligue 2 for the first time since they were promoted back in 1980. Paris Saint Germain were the only team who could hope to prevent Montpellier from winning a maiden title but despite their best efforts they had to be content with second place. Carlo Ancelotti’s men won their final day match against FC Lorient also by a 2-1 scoreline with strikes coming from Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta but it proved academic. Lorient, despite defeat, were able to survive in the top flight by the skin of their teeth finishing one point clear of SM Caen who were relegated along with Dijon and Auxerre.
Orlando Pirates (Played 30, points 58) are the ASBA Premiership champions for the second consecutive year following their 4-2 win away at Lamontville Golden Arrows last weekend. A brace from Benni McCarthy proved crucial for one of South Africa’s most decorated clubs, his two goals coming in the last half an hour of the game to help push his team over the winning post. Nearest challengers Moroka Swallows needed to win, which they did with a 1-0 victory away at Maritzburg United, but also needed the Pirates to lose. Instead it was the Johannesburg-based Pirates who triumphed by a two point margin and, thus, seal their place in the 2013 CAF Champions League. SuperSport United, three times league champions, finished the campaign in third spot with a 2-1 win at Bloemfontein Celtic while Mamelodi Sundowns and Kaizer Chiefs make up the rest of the top five. At the bottom of the table Jomo Cosmos, who were promoted as First Division champions last season, go straight back down again with a poor return of 19 points from 30 matches played.
It may not be the “dream final” that the majority of the world’s football fans had craved but for tonight’s UEFA Champions League final opponents, FC Bayern München and Chelsea FC, the culmination of their own dream is so near. FC Bayern, playing in their home stadium tonight, can join the European elite by winning the competition for the fifth time to rank alongside great names such as Real Madrid CF, AC Milan and Liverpool FC. Chelsea, on the other hand, are desperate to claim a maiden title in this competition, especially as their only other final appearance ended in heartache when losing the 2008 final to Manchester United on penalties.
FC Bayern’s European pedigree is without question. Their first continental title came in 1967 when defeating Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers in the Cup Winners’ Cup. The club’s heyday came in the mid-1970’s when the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Sepp Maier helped the club win three European Cups in a row from 1974-76. The Münchener then became only the fourth club ever to have all three European titles in the trophy cabinet when defeating Girondins de Bordeaux in the 1996 UEFA Cup (the other clubs are Juventus FC, Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona). The Bavarians’ most recent European triumph came in 2001 when a nervy UEFA Champions League final against Valencia CF had to be settled on penalties following a 1-1 draw in Milan’s San Siro stadium.
Chelsea’s European success came on the back of two victories in the Cup Winners’ Cup but their regular participation in the UEFA Champions League over the last decade has ensured that they are now regarded as one of the game’s heavyweights despite the lack of success in the main competition. Chelsea’s first Cup Winners’ Cup triumph came in 1971 when they needed extra-time to defeat Real Madrid whilst the second title came at the hands of VfB Stuttgart in the penultimate version of that competition in 1998. As well as the 2008 final, Chelsea have appeared in five Champions League semi-finals in the last decade but if the Stamford Bridge side are to finally get their hands on “Old Big Ears” then this is arguably their greatest opportunity to do so.
FC Bayern have been one of the strongest teams in this season’s competition. The Germans finished top of what was arguably the toughest group in the tournament, finishing above Napoli SSC, Manchester City and Villarreal CF. After easily disposing of Swiss champions FC Basel 1893 in the Round of 16, Bayern reached the final by virtue of eliminating Olympique Marseille and Real Madrid in the latter stages. Chelsea, on the other hand, have often been on the back foot this season. The Londoners, following a Matchday 5 defeat away at Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the group stage, were on the cusp of elimination only for a Matchday 6 victory at home to Valencia CF to save their season. In the knockout rounds Chelsea saw a change of coach midway through their Round of 16 tie against Napoli SSC in which an Andre Villas-Boas led team crashed to a 3-1 first leg defeat but turned it around under the tutelage of Roberto di Matteo when winning the return fixture 4-1 at Stamford Bridge. The Italian has continued to work his magic with subsequent victories over SL Benfica in the quarter-finals and, most famously, over defending champions FC Barcelona in the semis.
After claiming their places in the UEFA Champions League final both teams have completed their domestic campaigns. FC Bayern, normally the dominant force in the Bundesliga, had to be content with second place whilst watching Borussia Dortmund win their second consecutive championship. If that weren’t enough Dortmund thrashed Bayern 5-2 in last weekend’s German Cup final to leave the latter empty-handed domestically for a second successive year. Chelsea, following a poor start, did finish the English football season by claiming the FA Cup for the fourth time in six years when defeating Liverpool FC 2-1 in the final. However Chelsea could only finish sixth in the Premier League meaning that qualification for next season’s Champions League hinges on the result of tonight’s final. Win and Chelsea will displace Tottenham Hotspur as England’s fourth representative next season, but lose and Chelsea will end up in the Europa League.
Much attention has been placed before tonight’s final on those who will be absent, most prominent among them being the Chelsea captain John Terry. Following a stupid off-the-ball attack on Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez in the semi-final, Terry must sit it out tonight although UEFA have given him permission to lift the Champions League trophy as winning captain should Chelsea prove successful. Terry, along with Ramires, Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanović, are all suspended for Chelsea whilst FC Bayern must play without the services of David Alaba, Luiz Gustavo and Holger Badstuber. Both sides, though, possess many potential match winners with FC Bayern, in particular, well equipped in this area. The Germans’ front five of Mario Gómez, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos have scored an impressive 94 goals between them this season. The Londoners’ main threat comes from Didier Drogba who has scored eight goals in as many cup finals in his time at Chelsea and was instrumental in his team’s success against Barcelona. Frank Lampard is also a dangerous player, whether it is from open play or from a set-piece, and he is desperate to bring the big one to Stamford Bridge as it is the only major trophy missing from his collection. If Fernando Torres is in one of his big game moods then there is every chance that he can also add to his collection of big game medals alongside those he has won with the Spanish national team.
Although both sides have a very good chance to win the trophy it is FC Bayern who will go into the match as favourites due to their home advantage. Before their 2001 victory over Valencia, Bayern fans held up a banner which read “heute ist ein guter Tag, um Geschichte zu schreiben” (“Today is a good day to write history”). Will it be they who write another chapter into their glorious history or will Chelsea upset the odds once more and write an entirely new chapter of their own? It should prove to be a fascinating final….
No sooner have Brazil’s vast array of localized state championships reached their conclusion does the time come for the national championship to commence. The “Brasileiro” is now in its 41st year and the quality of the competition has increased in recent years thanks to the adoption of a standard round robin league format, as used in many of Europe’s top leagues, which has brought about many a dramatic finish since it was introduced in 2003.
Corinthians are the defending Brazilian champions having pipped Vasco da Gama to the 2011 season title with just two points separating the top two as the Timão sealed their fifth national crown in dramatic fashion. Corinthians were involved in a big derby clash against São Paulo city rivals Palmeiras whilst Vasco were due to face off against their eternal rivals Flamengo CF in Rio de Janeiro on the last day of the campaign. Corinthians could only muster a goalless draw at home to Palmeiras but, with the visitors thinking that they had done enough to deprive their arch-rivals of the title, news came through that Vasco had blown their big chance, dropping two points with a 1-1 draw.
The allocation of places for the South American club tournaments has certainly played its part in helping to create a more interesting domestic championship. At the end of the season only four clubs will finish in a league position (i.e. from 13th to 16th) with virtually no meaning other than league safety. The top four, along with the winners of the domestic knockout competition “Copa Brasil”, qualify for South America’s premier continental competition Copa Libertadores whilst the next eight teams qualify for the secondary tournament Copa Sudamericana. The bottom four, meanwhile, go straight down into Serie B with famous clubs such as Grêmio, Corinthians and Vasco da Gama having seen the drop at some point over the last decade which is an indication as to how competitive this league has become.
Four clubs – Corinthians, Santos FC, Vasco da Gama and Fluminense – may lose some of their focus in the first few weeks of the season as they play out the latter stages of this year’s Copa Libertadores competition, which is currently at the quarter-final round, but should feature prominently as the Brasileiro season progresses. Out of that quartet, Santos and Fluminense have had state championship success to celebrate over the past seven days; the former defeated Guarani in the Paulista final to win their 20th São Paulo title whilst the latter got the better of Botafogo to claim their 31st Carioca state crown. Amongst the other state title winners in the Brasileiro include Internacional of Porto Alegre (Campeonato Gaúcho), Coritiba (Paranaense), Atlético Mineiro (Mineiro) and EC Bahia (Baiano) with those clubs have varying degrees of potential for success in this year’s national championship. Famous clubs such as São Paulo FC and Cruzeiro will have their eyes on one of the South American spots with the former hoping to win their first title since the famous “Tri-Campeão” season of 2008 in which they won the Brasileiro for the third successive year, the first time a club had accomplished that feat in the modern era.
This season’s Brasileiro begins this weekend and is due to finish in early December. In the first round of matches Corinthians will begin their title defence with a home tie against Fluminense, Vasco da Gama welcome Porto Alegre giants Grêmio whilst Santos FC, champions in 2010, must travel to face EC Bahia. Other stand out fixtures on the opening weekend sees São Paulo FC play host to losing Carioca state finalists Botafogo, three-time champions Internacional face off against Coritiba and 2003 champions Cruzeiro play against Atlético Goianiense. The four teams that were promoted from Serie B last season will also begin their campaigns. Portuguesa, promoted as Serie B champions, begin with a difficult away tie against Palmeiras whilst Club Náutico also find themselves on the road with an away day at Figueirense. Ponte Preta and Sport Recife, on the other hand, will begin the new season with home fixtures, the former against Atlético Mineiro and the latter face up to the challenge of Flamengo CF.
WATCH THE CONCLUSION OF THE 2011 BRASILEIRO SEASON HERE:
Asian football’s two major continental tournaments have reached the knockout stages following the conclusion of the group stages this week.
The AFC Champions League is usually dominated by South Korean clubs but only two of this year’s four representatives have made it through the group stage. The two successful clubs are Ulsan Hyundai and Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma, both of whom topped their groups with unbeaten records, whilst the unfortunate clubs to depart the tournament are last season’s losing finalists Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Pohang Steelers. The latter two clubs, who have been crowned Asian champions four times between them, could only finish third in their respective groups and are eliminated.
The most successful countries in this year’s group stages are Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia who all have three clubs remaining in the last sixteen. Gamba Osaka, the last Japanese team to win the Asian Champions League, was the only J-League club to fail to progress this time with Nagoya Grampus Eight, FC Tokyo and Kashiwa Reysol going on to represent Japan in the latter stages. Al-Ittihad and Sepahan FC, the last Asian champions from the nations of Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, have made it through to the last sixteen with both clubs finishing top of their groups. Al Hilal and Al Ahli also progress as Saudi Arabian representatives while Iran can count on two of Asian football’s biggest names, Esteghlal and Persepolis, to provide tough competition in the latter stages. The United Arab Emirates will feature two clubs in the latter rounds. Al Jazira finished top of Group A with an unbeaten record whilst Baniyas Sports Club finished second in Group B behind Al Ittihad and well above Nasaf Qarshi, the club from Uzbekistan who gained a place in this year’s AFC Champions League having won the secondary AFC Cup in 2011.
Nasaf’s compatriots Bunyodkor are the only club from their nation still involved in the last sixteen with the ambitious Tashkent based side hoping that the major investment pumped into the club over the last five years will soon pay off. Australian side Adelaide United, who finished above Bunyodkor in Group E, are the only side from Down Under to make it through while Central Coast Mariners and two-time defending A-League champions Brisbane Roar, were easily swept aside by stronger opponents. The only country left remaining with one representative in the top competition is China who will rely on Ghangzhou Evergrande to fly the flag. The club has announced today (see previous report) that former FIFA World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi has joined on a two-and-a-half year deal and expectations are high that Ghangzhou could become the first Chinese club to become Asian champions for a quarter of a century.
AFC CHAMPIONS LEAGUE ROUND OF 16 DRAW
Adelaide United (Australia) v Nagoya Grampus Eight (Japan)
Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia) v Baniyas SC (UAE)
Al Ittihad (Saudi Arabia) v Persepolis (Iran)
Al Jazira (UAE) v Al Ahli (Saudi Arabia)
Ghangzhou Evergrande (China) v FC Tokyo (Japan)
Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma (South Korea) v Bunyodkor FC (Uzbekistan)
Sepahan (Iran) v Esteghlal (Iran)
Ulsan Hyundai (South Korea) v Kashiwa Reysol (Japan)
The AFC Cup, Asian football’s equivalent of the Europa League or Copa Sudamericana, will see three Kuwaiti teams progress to the last sixteen. Two of those three, Al Qadsia and Al Kuwait, will meet each other in the Round of 16 whilst Kazma Sports Club face the only remaining Jordanian side Al Wehdat SC. Another tie which features two teams from the same country is the all-Malaysian affair between Kelantan and Terengganu. Iraq is the final nation to be represented by two clubs in the latter stages, namely Arbil SC and Al Zawra’a SC, while another seven nations will be represented by lone representatives in a competition showing great diversity, as is shown in the draw (below):
AFC CUP ROUND OF 16 DRAW
Al Qadsia (Kuwait) v Al Kuwait (Kuwait)
Al Ettifaq (Saudi Arabia) v Al Suwaiq (Oman)
Al Wehdat (Jordan) v Kazma Sports Club (Kuwait)
Al Shorta (Syria) v Home United (Singapore)
Arbil SC (Iraq) v Neftchi Farg’ona (Uzbekistan)
Chonburi (Thailand) v Al Zawra’a (Iraq)
Kitchee SC (Hong Kong) v Arema FC (Indonesia)
Kelantan (Malaysia) v Terengganu (Malaysia)