It has been reported on The Guardian website today that up to 900 away end tickets have been returned by Manchester City to their hosts Arsenal ahead of the forthcoming Premier League clash between the two teams. The reason is suspected to be that, at £62 a ticket, it is simply either too expensive or a case of fans not wanting to pay such an extortionate amount of money out of principle. For fans of the English game this is simply not a surprise anymore; indeed the only surprise is that anybody still puts up with being ripped off.
Since the formation of the English Premier League in the 1992-93 season ticket prices have been rising at an alarming rate. Even in the last year, a survey published by the BBC revealed that the cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions had risen by 11.7%. Of course it is Premier League clubs who will be largely responsible for the biggest of price hikes especially as the clubs are finding it more difficult to pay ever increasing wages to top stars, despite the fact that the Premier League is raking in more money than ever before due to increased television revenue. The advent of all-seater stadia was supposed to herald a new era of safety and comfort in English stadiums with the TV money a prime reason to help keep ticket prices as cheap as possible. In recent years, however, it seems that clubs will rip the fans off anyway, a situation which has arguably been a factor in increased calls for the re-introduction of standing areas in English football grounds. Fans simply cannot keep forking out at the current rate for match tickets along with all the usual necessities that going to a football stadium brings such as a match programme, food, drink and transport.
In recent months many English newspapers and football websites have made comparisons between the situation in England and that in Germany and how fans of Bundesliga clubs get such a bargain. Current German champions Borussia Dortmund, for example, charge as little as €190 for a season ticket which allows a fan to see seventeen home league games, an average of €11 a game. When one takes into account that the possession of a match ticket allows free travel on public transport to the stadium and the fact that one can drink beer whilst watching the match (something that ceased to be the case in England years ago where beer must be drank in designated areas away from the seating) and it is clear that fans in Germany have a much better deal. Even when clubs have tried to raise prices for big games in the Bundesliga fans have always been ready to vote with their feet, a most famous example was when fans of Borussia Dortmund boycotted a derby match against arch rivals Schalke 04 due to their hosts raising the ticket price to €20. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve been to watch many games as a fan of Eintracht Frankfurt, the most amazing deal was going to the Olympiastadion in Berlin to watch Eintracht play against Hertha BSC five years ago. The cost of a ticket? Only €9! And in a stadium which has hosted the FIFA World Cup final too.
Such a ticket price, which would work out at £7.30 at the current exchange rate, would be a dream to any English football fan in the current climate. The worst offenders in the English game tend to be clubs from the south of the country, the worst being Chelsea at £41 for the cheapest ticket, perhaps not surprising given that the cost of living is much higher than elsewhere in the country. Even Manchester United, who are the par excellence example in the commercialisation of the game throughout the Premier League era, still keep their cheapest ticket prices to a reasonable £30. Season ticket prices are an even more obvious example in how fans are having to dig deep in their pockets with Arsenal being the most expensive. There wouldn’t be much change given from £2000 if you were to get a season ticket at the Emirates stadium.
The fact is that Premier League clubs will always be prepared to charge what they want as long as people are prepared to keep paying the money. If fan movements in England had any importance, such as they do in Germany, then perhaps there would be no need for clubs to have to send batches of tickets back in the first place for such big games. After all it is the big games which fans want to see but the clubs should know where to draw the line and, in the name of fairness, stop testing the patience of loyal, hard-core fans whose bank balances suffer terribly in order to subsidize those of their heroes.
Pre-season expectations have been dampened in North London as both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC succumbed to heavy defeats by Manchester clubs City and United respectively with the two northern giants beginning to look the most likely candidates to fight it out for the English championship crown.
Tottenham Hotspur began the weekend at the bottom of the Barclays Premier League table but they had only played one game due to their opening home match of the season against Everton FC being called off due to the recent rioting that affected England’s capital city. Despite performing well in the UEFA Europa League qualifying stages, Spurs’ first match of the domestic campaign saw the White Hart Lane club lose 3-0 away at champions Manchester United while yesterday’s 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City compounded the misery further for coach Harry Redknapp and his club whose ambitions to fight for the title already look shattered even at such an early stage of the season.
The only consolation for Tottenham was that their bitter rivals Arsenal FC have had just as traumatic an opening to the new season. Before yesterday’s soul-destroying 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, Arsenal had only picked up a point from their opening two Premier League games away at Newcastle United and at home to Liverpool. Despite the consolation of scoring their first Premier League goals of the season reality is surely hitting home for coach Arsene Wenger who increasingly looks ill-equipped to do anything about the situation.
Indeed it’s been a difficult summer for both Redknapp and Wenger, both of whom have had to deal with a deluge of questions regarding want away players such as Luka Modric, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Modric started for Spurs in yesterday’s defeat and it has emerged that the player himself had asked before the game not to be featured. With the transfer window due to finally close on Wednesday it is looking like Modric’s proposed departure to Chelsea would be best for everyone concerned. Arsenal’s enforced parting of Fabregas (FC Barcelona) and Nasri, who linked up well with Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko in his first game for Manchester City yesterday, have shown that Arsenal are yet to do anything about addressing their major weaknesses. The sad fact of the matter for Wenger, however, is that he has continually sold some of his club’s best players in recent years without finding adequate replacements. It was obvious to everybody last season that the club lacked quality at the back and a leader in the midfield and these concerns still remain in the air and is beginning to make many Arsenal fans doubt Wenger’s ability to carry on in the job.
At the top of the table the two Manchester clubs continue to go from strength to strength and they are the only clubs in the English Premier League to have a 100% record after three games. Manchester United got most of their pre-season targets and the likes of Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea are starting to fit in nicely at Old Trafford. Manchester City, meanwhile, have spent countless millions on propping up an already talented squad of players and with new signings Kun Aguero and Samir Nasri featuring so prominently already in their fledgling City careers then it is clear to see that the future looks bright for the Eastlands club. The two Manchester giants won the league (United) and the cup (City) between them last season, the first time this had occurred since 1955-56, and with the talent and the money at both clubs’ disposal then the immediate future looks bright for them and seemingly bleak for everybody else. Even Chelsea and Liverpool, who have both started off well with two wins and a draw in their opening three league games, still seem a bit off the pace but those clubs do at least have more reason to be optimistic than the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham at the moment in light of recent performances.
There are 35 games to go and fortunes can turn around quickly in football. However the minimum that both north London clubs want at the end of the season is to qualify for the UEFA Champions League but with decline seemingly setting in at Arsenal and the increased competition for the top four spots for the likes of Tottenham to worry about, things are definitely looking better if you’re a Mancunian rather than a Londoner at the moment.
This was supposed to be the season when Arsenal FC was to benefit from Arsène Wenger’s policy of matching limited spending with upholding the ethos of giving youth a chance. Only a couple of weeks ago Arsenal fans were quietly hopeful that anything from a single League Cup triumph to an amazing quadruple of Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Champions League could be on the cards as the club was progressing well in all four competitions. Sadly for all Gunners fans it seems that the club could slowly be losing momentum at a time when they should be gaining it and their latest elimination from Europe’s top club competition by FC Barcelona could hit them harder than they think.
Arsenal FC haven’t won a trophy since the 2005 FA Cup final triumph against Manchester United and have yet to lift silverware since playing in the Emirates Stadium, their home since 2006. For a club who have made great investment off the pitch the fans are starting to become impatient at the lack of investment and reward on the pitch as manager Arsène Wenger sticks to his guns in refusing to splash the cash on big name players, preferring to place faith in youth players either developed or bought from other clubs. But despite the progress of players such as Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Niklas Bendtner the Gunners are lacking strength in key areas. The absence of a top class centre half, a warrior in the heart of the midfield, a prolific goalscorer and a world class keeper are the key concerns for a club who are vastly underachieving.
Fans of most other clubs would be desperate to have the sort of team that Arsenal possess with their football being some of the most impressive in European football but it was they who were put in their place on Tuesday night by an FC Barcelona team who have made an art form out of possession football and who can press any team to death when they don’t have the ball. Having won the first leg 2-1 in London, Arsenal FC were hoping to go into the second leg having learnt the lessons of twelve months earlier when Lionel Messi inspired his team to a crushing 4-1 win over Arsenal in the Camp Nou. Sadly for the North London outfit they hardly saw any of the ball with virtually all of the action taking place in Arsenal’s half of the field. The home side had 20 shots at goal whilst Arsenal didn’t have a meaningful shot all night; indeed FC Barcelona even had the good grace to score a goal for them. Following Messi’s opening goal on the stroke of half-time Arsenal restored parity on the night to 1-1 in the 53rd minute after Sergio Busquets put through his own net to allow the visitors to restore an aggregate lead of 3-2. Arsenal’s night would get difficult however when Robin Van Persie was sent off having been shown a second yellow card in the 56th minute after he shot the ball when failing to hear the referee’s whistle following an offside call. Despite Arsenal’s bad luck on that occasion it was only a matter of time until Barcelona ran them further into the ground with goals from Xavi and Messi (pen) in the last twenty minutes putting paid to the Gunners’ Champions League hopes for another year.
But it wasn’t the manner of the sending off that should concern anybody connected with the club it was the manner of how Arsenal, for the second consecutive year, went to the Camp Nou and were taught a lesson in keeping possession and breaking down defences in a way which they usually do to teams back home. Despite regular UEFA Champions League football the club is forever failing in Europe and, without a meaningful European trophy in Arsène Wenger’s sixteen years in charge, some fans are now starting to publicly question whether it is time to finally replace the man at the helm. On the domestic front Arsenal just can’t seem to overtake league leaders Manchester United despite the Old Trafford club losing three times in their last five games. Arsenal also recently lost the first big cup final of the season after a defensive calamity between keeper Wojciech Szczęsny and centre half Laurent Koscielny gifted Obafemi Martins the winning goal and saw Arsenal go down to a 2-1 reverse at the hands of Birmingham City. With the FA Cup quarter final match to Manchester United iminent the priority for Wenger is to go to Old Trafford and get a result and, at the same time, strike a psychological blow in the race for the Premier League title. Should Arsenal lose to United on Saturday then that could be the ultimate hammer blow to their chances of any success this season.
Who’s the biggest club NEVER to win the Champions League (formerly European Champions Cup)? There are clubs who have a decorated history in the other UEFA club tournaments over the past fifty years but have, sadly for them, failed to lift the greatest prize of all. The UEFA Champions League resumes next week and “Stoppage Time” is conducting a poll with a difference. We have selected six clubs who, we think, could be considered the best of the failures. Do you agree with any of our choices? If so please place your vote otherwise there is a space to choose another team if you so desire:
ARSENAL FC (13x English League, 10x English Cup, 1x Fairs Cup, 1x Cup-Winners’ Cup)
It still irritates the fans of Arsenal that, for all their domestic success, their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur have won more trophies at European level, winning three to Arsenal’s two. However Arsenal’s success since the formation of the Premier League in 1992-93 has led them to be regular contenders for the UEFA Champions League but, thus far, they’ve failed to deliver the big prize to their loyal fans. The club’s first European final was the 1970 Fairs Cup (now Europa League) where they beat Belgian side RSC Anderlecht 4-3 on aggregate. Ten years later Arsenal would lose their first European final on penalties as they failed to beat Spanish giants Valencia CF in the 1980 Cup-Winners’ Cup. The nineties saw the “Gunners” reach back-to-back Cup-Winners’ Cup finals winning one against Italian team AC Parma (1994) but losing the other to Real Zaragoza (1995), the Spanish team winning in the last minute of extra-time thanks to a former Spurs player’s goal from the halfway line. Two further European defeats in the 2000 UEFA Cup (now Europa League) final to Galatasaray (losing on penalties) and, most painfully, the 2006 Champions League final to FC Barcelona rubbed more salt into Arsenal’s European wounds.
DYNAMO KYIV (13x Ukraine League, 9x Ukraine Cup, 13x USSR League, 2x Cup-Winners’ Cup, 1x European Super Cup)
Dynamo Kyiv are an institution in Ukraine and were very much the flagship club during the heyday of the Soviet era. Dynamo were the most successful team before the USSR broke up in 1991 with 13 domestic championships and, since independence, have continued to dominate the new Ukrainian set-up having won their 13th title in the 2008-09 season. In Europe Dynamo enjoyed Cup-Winners’ Cup success in 1975 defeating Hungarian side Ferencvaros 3-0 (following this up with a win in the European Super Cup against FC Bayern Munich) and in 1986 winning their second CWC against Spanish giants Atletico de Madrid (also 3-0). In terms of the Champions League Dynamo have reached the semi-finals, most notably against FC Bayern in 1999, but sadly the final continues to elude them.
GALATASARAY (17x Turkish League, 14x Turkish Cup, 1 UEFA Cup, 1x European Super Cup)
“Gala” created history when they defeated Arsenal in the 2000 UEFA Cup final to become the first, and so far only, Turkish team to win a European trophy. This was followed up by a 1-0 European Super Cup victory against European champions Real Madrid to create a new chapter in the history of this massive Turkish club. The fans of Galatasaray always provides a hostile welcome to visiting teams, most famously their ‘Welcome to Hell’ episode against Manchester United in 1993-94, but even this doesn’t give Gala an advantage as they have yet to even reach a semi-final of Europe’s elite competition. Despite the regular domestic success and a massive fan base Gala’s record in the Champions League is not worthy of their place amongst Europe’s biggest clubs.
GLASGOW RANGERS (52x Scottish League, 33x Scottish Cup, 1x European Cup-Winners’ Cup)
Despite being the world’s most titled club (over 100 domestic trophies if you include the Scottish League Cup triumphs) the blue side of the “Old Firm” are forever in the shadow of their eternal rivals Glasgow Celtic when it comes to European success. Whilst the Hoops won the 1967 European Champions Cup with the famous Lisbon Lions side, Glasgow Rangers could only muster a solitary European Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph in 1972 when defeating Dinamo Moscow 3-2 in Barcelona. All the other finals that Rangers have participated in have ended in defeats: 1960-61 CWC final against Fiorentina, 1967 CWC final against FC Bayern and, most recently, the 2008 UEFA Cup final against Zenit St. Petersburg. The best that Rangers have done in the elite competition is the semi-final of the 1959-60 tournament where a heavy 12-4 aggregate defeat to German champions Eintracht Frankfurt denied them a ‘home’ final at Hampden Park against the mighty Real Madrid. In the first ever Champions League of 1992-93 Rangers reached the group stage, the winners of which would go on to contest the final, but just didn’t have enough luck as they narrowly failed to top the group losing out to eventual winners Olympique de Marseille.
SPORTING LISBON (18x Portuguese League, 15x Portuguese Cup, 1x European Cup-Winners’ Cup)
Sporting Clube do Portugal, to give their correct name, are very much the third force of Portuguese football having never won the European Champions Cup nor Champions League in contrast to their rivals SL Benfica and FC Porto who have each been European champions on two occasions. Sporting’s only European success came in 1964 after they defeated Hungarian side MTK Budapest in the Cup Winners’ Cup final 1-0 after a replay. They had a great chance in 2005 to add to their honours as they reached the UEFA Cup final which was played at the club’s home stadium. However Russian side CSKA Moscow shocked the expectant ‘home’ support in the stadium by winning the game, therefore adding to Sporting’s European woes.
VALENCIA CF (6x Spanish League, 7x Spanish Cup, 2x Fairs Cup, 1x Cup-Winners’ Cup, 1x UEFA Cup, 2x European Super Cup)
Valencia’s record on the European stage is remarkable and would be truly complete if they could win the Champions League. Valencia’s run of success began when they won two consecutive Fairs Cups against FC Barcelona in 1962 and Dinamo Zagreb in the following year before losing their first final in 1964 against compatriots Real Zaragoza. Their next European success came via a penalty shoot-out against Arsenal FC in the 1980 Cup-Winners’ Cup final following that with a Super Cup win over Nottingham Forest. It would be another two decades before Valencia reached another European final but when they did it was in two consecutive Champions League finals where they lost convincingly to Real Madrid in 2000 and unluckily to FC Bayern on penalties in 2001. In 2004 Valencia won the UEFA Cup beating Olympique de Marseille 1-0 before going on to claim their second Super Cup later that year beating FC Porto 1-0.
You know that a new year has begun in earnest when the FA Cup third round fixtures come to be played on the first weekend of January. After two preliminary rounds, four qualifying rounds and the first two rounds proper of the competition, the FA Cup for 2009-10 has reached the stage where excitement levels reach fever pitch as the Premier League clubs fight it out among lower league and non-league clubs alike. The dream of lifting the most famous piece of knockout football silverware in world football at Wembley Stadium in May still has fans and players buzzing with every new competition, this despite the fact that some top-flight managers refuse to play strong teams for the early rounds. In this day and age where “fourth is the new first” the Premier League and its mountains of wealth seem to be more important than winning a trophy for today’s modern coaches. However the FA Cup is still a trophy whose history and tradition will ensure that it remains an important part of the football calendar. “Stoppage Time” previews the third round of matches played from January 2-3:
Usually the first thing that happens after the draw for the third round is made is to see where there are any potential ‘banana skins’ where a lower league club could upset one of the big boys. This round has certainly got a few of those to look forward to. Liverpool, whose troubles have been well documented all season, go into an away tie against Reading FC from the Championship (English football’s second tier) having finally won two matches in a row in the Premier League for the first time since September. Reading, on the other hand, have recently lost their manager and haven’t won in five matches. If Liverpool slipped up here then it would be a disaster for the club as their chances of domestic silverware realistically lie in this competition. Their local rivals Everton FC, who lost in last season’s final to Chelsea 2-1, will be hoping to avoid what would be a huge upset as they play against a Carlisle United side who will have 6,000 fans at Goodison Park for the game. Carlisle will be hoping to emulate Oldham Athletic’s achievements in 2007-08 when the Coca Cola League One (i.e. third tier) club went to Everton and came away with a win. Other ties where Premier League clubs play against lower league opponents are Tottenham Hotspur’s home game against Peterborough United, Roberto Mancini’s rejuvenated Manchester City are away at Gordon Strachan’s Middlesbrough, Stoke City play York City from Blue Square Premier League (i.e. fifth tier), a similar upset could await Sunderland if they lose at home to Barrow FC, who are also in the Blue Square Premier. A tough encounter could be on the cards for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City side, who lie eighth in the Premier League, taking on Nottingham Forest who currently lie third in the Championship. Burnley will be hoping to put a bad spell of league form behind them with a win away at MK Dons and Portsmouth, who have failed to even pay their players for the last three months, will want to a good cup run to keep players’ spirits high by beating 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry City at Fratton Park. Bolton Wanderers, who sacked their coach Gary Megson earlier this week, have a home tie against League Two strugglers Lincoln City whilst Roy Hodgson’s Fulham will hope to put the disappointment of defeat in last week’s West London derby to Chelsea behind them with a home win against Swindon Town. Two all-Premier League ties to be played on Saturday are seven times winners Aston Villa at home to Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic against Hull City. Also Newcastle United fans must make the long trip from their north east home to south west outfit Plymouth Argyle. There are twelve other ties on Saturday involving clubs from the lower divisions playing against each other for a place in the fourth round.
There are half a dozen fixtures on Sunday that will finish off the third round action. The tie of the round is the eagerly awaited clash between old foes Manchester United and Leeds United at Old Trafford. Since Leeds’ relegation from the Premier League five seasons ago the Yorkshire outfit have struggled for the most part in League One but they look like finally getting back into English football’s second tier this season. Leeds will be hoping to beat their arch-rivals in Manchester for the first time since 1981. However the Red Devils will hope to put Leeds cup dreams to bed with a convincing win in front of a sell-out 76,000 crowd, as many as 9,000 of whom will be following Leeds. The only all-Premier League tie on Sunday is West Ham United’s welcome to Upton Park of London rivals Arsenal who will hope that they can add to coach Arsene Wenger’s tally of four FA Cups this season. FA Cup holders Chelsea FC will start the defence of the trophy against Watford FC who the Blues have beaten when winning the cup in 1970 as well as last season. In the remaining ties Tranmere Rovers from League One welcome Premier League Wolverhampton Wanderers (a game you can read about in our new section “Away Days” starting on Monday, January 4th), an all-Championship tie between Sheffield United and Queen’s Park Rangers and Notts County, under the directorship of former England coach Sven Goren Eriksson, play against non-league Forest Green Rovers.
Should football pause for Christmas? Give me a break! Football in the UK is as much of a tradition as the Queen’s Speech, Mince Pies and Santa Claus and this weekend has been no exception. With further football to come in the next couple of days “Stoppage Time” takes a look back and looks forward to the action to come in our English and Scottish football festive round-up.
English Premier League leaders Chelsea got the ball rolling in their tough away tie at Birmingham City. Both sets of Blues had their chances to win but, in the end, perhaps a 0-0 draw was a fair result. The next game to finish was the important six pointer at the bottom of the table between West Ham and Portsmouth. The “Hammers” claimed a 2-0 home win over a Portsmouth side who had beaten Liverpool just seven days earlier. After the drama surrounding Mark Hughes’ sacking it was the football that took centre stage as Manchester City, under new coach Roberto Mancini, claimed a comfortable 2-0 win against Stoke City thanks to Martin Petrov and Carlos Tevez. In the other games Liverpool got back to winning ways but only after their opponents Wolverhampton Wanderers had Stephen Ward sent off on 52 minutes. Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun scored the goals in a laboured 2-0 victory. Everton left it late to claim a point away at Sunderland. Marouane Fellaini scored with five minutes left on the clock to give Everton a share of the points after Darren Bent had given the Black Cats an early lead. The remaining three games finished as draws, a London derby between Fulham and Tottenham ended goalless whilst two clashes between North West clubs saw Burnley v Bolton and Wigan v Blackburn finish 1-1. In the Scottish Premier League Glasgow Celtic kept up their pursuit of champions and league leaders Glasgow Rangers with an 2-0 win at home to Hamilton. A last-minute strike from Niall McGinn made sure of the points as Celtic found it hard to finish their opponents off. Dundee United title hopes have dipped in the last couple of games. A 3-0 home defeat to Rangers was followed with a disappointing 0-0 draw at home to Kilmarnock. Csaba Laszlo’s Hearts side kept up their recent upturn in form by beating Falkirk 1-0 away to lift them into fifth place. In the final match of the day newly promoted St. Johnstone claimed all three points in a 3-1 win at Motherwell. After struggling at the bottom of the table for many weeks the Saints now lie seventh in the SPL.
Although only a few matches were played on this day they all had some significance at the top of the table. In Scotland Hibernian were hoping to keep up a title challenge by beating champions Rangers and after twelve seconds the Edinburgh side were in dreamland as Anthony Stokes gave the home side a dramatic lead. However the champions came back after a difficult first twenty minutes. Rangers’ Kenny Miller (pictured) equalised after 21 minutes and top scorer Kris Boyd gave them the lead eight minutes before half-time. Any hopes of a Hibs comeback after the break were dashed as Nacho Novo increased Rangers lead on 53 minutes and Miller got his second of the game after 66 minutes. With no further scoring Rangers boss Walter Smith was delighted that his charges had opened up a four point lead over nearest challengers Celtic with Hibernian a further four points behind. In the English Premier League Arsenal were finding it difficult to break down a dogged Aston Villa side who have high hopes of a top four finish. However the introduction of Cesc Febragas in the second half proved the difference as his 25 yard free-kick on 65 minutes was followed by his second nine minutes before time. In the act of scoring his second the Spaniard injured himself and had to come off but the impact had already been made. Vassiriki Diaby made it 3-0 for the Gunners in stoppage time and Aston Villa’s hopes of beating all of the Big Four this season were temporarily halted (they’d already beaten Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United so far). At the KC Stadium champions Manchester United, despite Wayne Rooney giving away a penalty, were too strong against their opponents Hull City. United had the lead at half-time thanks to a stoppage time Wayne Rooney strike. After the break the United star’s pass back was significant in United giving away a penalty, converted by Craig Fagan to restore parity on the hour mark. After that it was Rooney who made the telling difference in the latter stages of the match. Rooney’s low cross into the box on 73 minutes was turned into the net by Hull City defender Michael Dawson to give United a 2-1 lead and the game was sealed after Rooney set up Dimitar Berbatov for Uited’s third goal. The win lifted United up to second place, just two points behind Chelsea, but Arsenal are two points behind United with a game in hand.
Today sees six games in the English Premier League with the most interesting being the West London derby between Chelsea and Fulham at Stamford Bridge. Carlo Ancelotti’s men can’t afford too many more slip ups if they are to win their fourth championship title. Roy Hodgson’s Fulham go into the game unbeaten in their last eight games in all competitions including a 3-0 demolition of Manchester United. The other fixtures are Tottenham v West Ham, Blackburn v Sunderland, Everton v Burnley, Stoke City v Birmingham City and the late kick-off at Molineux where Wolverhampton plays against Manchester City.
In England Aston Villa will hope to get over their drubbing at Arsenal by attempting to the double over Liverpool who have failed to win two matches in a row in the Premier League since September. The other game sees Bolton Wanderers and Hull City in a match that will have importance in the bottom half of the table. In Scotland there is just one game as Aberdeen play Falkirk at Pittodrie.
Two of the title contenders, Manchester United and Arsenal, will hope to increase their championship hopes with a win against Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth respectively. There are five matches in Scotland, the best of which involves champions Rangers at home to fourth place Dundee United. Celtic won’t want to lose points in what appears an easy game against second bottom Kilmarnock. The other games are St. Johnstone v Hibernian, Hamilton v St. Mirren and Hearts v Motherwell.
In the second half of our look at the Champions League group stage “Stoppage Time” focuses on groups E-H:
GROUP E (OLYMPIQUE LYONNAIS, FIORENTINA, LIVERPOOL FC, DEBRECENI)
The biggest disappointment in this year’s competition, without any doubt, was five-time European champions Liverpool. After the opening group match against Hungarian champions Debreceni the Reds were caught short against group rivals Lyon and Fiorentina. Too many mistakes at crucial times proved Liverpool’s undoing and this was emphasized in the last minute of Matchday 6 where Alberto Gilardino was able to capitalize on a defensive error to give Fiorentina the three points needed to top the group. Lyon were impressive throughout especially in their games against Debreceni, against whom they scored eight goals without reply in two matches. Fiorentina finished top on fifteen points, two more than Lyon, whilst Liverpool have to be content with a Europa League place finishing on a dismal seven points in a group they were widely expected to qualify from. Debreceni’s maiden Champions League finished, as expected, in last place but no doubt their team would’ve enjoyed the experience.
GROUP F (FC BARCELONA, INTERNAZIONALE, RUBIN KAZAN, DYNAMO KYIV)
This was the most open group in the Champions League. All four teams harboured hopes of qualification to the Round of 16 prior to Matchday 6. In the end the big boys, FC Barcelona and Internazionale, managed to qualify but they were made to work hard for their place. Jose Mourinho’s Inter had the upper hand in their final game at home against Russian champions Rubin Kazan thanks to goals from Samuel Eto’o and Mario Balotelli whilst European champions FC Barcelona had to come from behind to beat Dynamo Kyiv in Ukraine 2-1. Goals from Xavi and Lionel Messi were sufficient for the Catalans to finish top of the group, two points clear of Inter. Rubin Kazan’s first season in the Champions League provided much drama, the 2-1 win against Barcelona in the Camp Nou was one of the highlights of the tournament so far. However they just didn’t have enough killer instinct to put the group to bed but at least they can be content with a Europa League place. For Andriy Shevchenko and his Dynamo side it’s another disappointing exit from a European campaign but they should be back next year barring a dismal second half to the domestic season in Ukraine.
GROUP G (SEVILLA CF, VfB STUTTGART, UNIREA URZICENI, GLASGOW RANGERS)
Sevilla were the clear winners of the group remaining undefeated through the campaign. Their 4-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox Park on Matchday 2 was their most convincing of the tournament thus far. The chase for second became a Matchday 6 “cup final” between VfB Stuttgart (who fired coach Markus Babbel and replaced him with Christian Gross in the weekend prior to the game) and Unirea Urziceni (coached by Chelsea legend Dan Petrescu). The German side started like a train and were 3-0 up inside eleven minutes. Despite Unirea pulling a goal back early in the second half the Germans managed to preserve their lead and the three points allowed them to overtake the Romanians into second place. Unirea go into the Europa League whilst Glasgow Rangers must swallow their pride and be hopeful that they can be back next season.
GROUP H (ARSENAL, OLYMPIAKOS, STANDARD LIEGE, AZ ALKMAAR)
Arsenal were comfortably the best team in the group and had already qualified for the Round of 16 when they went to Greece to play Olympiakos on Matchday 6. They played a young team with an average age of 21 but Arsene Wenger’s men couldn’t maintain their unbeaten record in Athens going down 1-0. Zico’s Olympiakos finished second thanks to some good results earlier in the tournament against Standard Liege and AZ Alkmaar. The third and fourth placed teams came up with some drama of their own on Matchday 6 in Belgium. Dutch champions AZ took the lead in the first half through Jeremain Lens and they held on to their advantage until five minutes into stoppage time. A free-kick was whipped in at pace and among the crowd of players in the penalty box was Standard’s goalkeeper Sinan Bolat who headed home to gain the ‘Liegeois’ a precious point and a place in the Europa League.
“The most exciting league in the world” is a phrase that’s become synonymous with Sky TV’s presentation of the Barclay’s Premier League, such is the TV station’s devotion to hyping up even the most dullest of matches. Although there are great players and teams in the league, just how true is it to say that the English Premier League is “the most exciting league in the world”?
One couldn’t doubt the quality of the players on show in the Premier League, on the contrary it’s true to say that with players such as Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney and Dider Drogba to name but three that the English Premier League contains some of the finest players in the modern game. However this discussion focuses on the concept that the league is branded as much about ‘entertainment’ as much as it is ‘sport’. When one thinks of last day cliffhangers they are very few and far between in the Premier League. As for the multitude of teams capable of winning the title in any given season then you can usually count them with a couple of fingers on one hand. If this criteria were applied to football then the English Premier League (EPL) would be no better than being a glorified Scottish Premier League (SPL).
When people in England talk about the SPL they will patronisingly refer to it as a ‘pub league’ and lament the fact that only two teams, Rangers and Celtic (the Old Firm), have any chance of winning the title. But it’s usually the case that only two teams have any chance of winning the EPL too, Manchester United and A.N. Other. The main challenger to United may change from time to time but it’s hardly any more exciting to see the Red Devils win title after title than it is to see two supposed ‘pub teams’ in Rangers and Celtic win title after title north of the border.
The only thing that maintains a sense of quality in England is the notion of the ‘Big Four’ (i.e. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) and their regular appearances in the UEFA Champions League, European football’s showpiece tournament, helping to preserve English football’s position in the UEFA Co-Efficient table (a place in the top three of this table guarantees a nation four places in the Champions League). It seems increasingly the case, however, that some teams are happy just to finish in a top four spot – ‘fourth is the new first’ if you want – and secure the riches that the Champions League provides. In the case of the Old Firm at least they have been punching above their weight in European competition. Regular Champions League appearances coupled with two UEFA Cup finals, Celtic in 2004 and Rangers in 2008, has seen the SPL maintain a respectable standing despite its lack of wealth and international exposure. There have been examples in recent years of English teams qualifying for the Europa League (ex-UEFA Cup) then trying as hard to get knocked out of a competition that they’ve tried even harder to qualify for. When some English club managers talk about finishing in the top four rather than winning a trophy then it seems to strengthen the view that most clubs in the EPL have very limited ambitions.
Another thing which adds to the lack of real excitement in the overall picture of the English Premier League is the absence of any final day cliffhangers at the top of the table. There may be some exciting finishes at the bottom of the table but the lack of any meaningful matches in respect of the championship means that the EPL is not always so worthy of its hype. You would think this would worry the people at Sky TV seeing as they talk about “the most exciting league in the world” as if its an unquestionable truth. Despite the dominance of the Old Firm in Scotland at least there have been exciting climaxes on the final day in three of the last five seasons including the last two in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Since the English Premier League’s formation in 1992-93 there have been only two final day pieces of drama to witness: the 1994-95 season when Blackburn Rovers beat Manchester United to the title despite losing their final game against Liverpool and the 1998-99 season where Manchester United saw off a spirited Tottenham Hotspur performance at Old Trafford to beat nearest challengers Arsenal to the title by one point. All of the other Premier League titles have been decided on or before the penultimate matchday.
One may argue that it’s too early to write off the English Premier League as a contest but then there are teams such as Liverpool and Arsenal whose title challenges have been written off as early as December after some bad results therefore leaving Manchester United and Chelsea as the only realistic challengers. The irony is that the EPL doesn’t look as entertaining from a competition point of view as its northern neighbour at the moment where the Old Firm have a challenge from Hibernian and Dundee United. For those of you who enjoy a regular two-horse race then “the most exciting league in the world” may just be your best bet for the season.