Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

Away Days: Liverpool v Blackburn Rovers

Posted in Away Days, UK Football by peterbein on October 25, 2010

Having lamented Liverpool’s woeful start to the 2010-11 Barclays Premier League season Stoppage Time – International Football Blog went back to Anfield yesterday for what proved to be a crucial three points won for the Reds.

I wrote a report for this section of the blog towards the end of last season regarding Liverpool’s UEFA Europa League quarter-final, 2nd leg against Lille OSC. The situation at that time seemed to most Liverpool fans like a desperate one: sixth in the league, fighting for a ‘mere’ UEFA Europa League place rather than the UEFA Champions League spot they’d grown accustomed to in recent years and out of both domestic cup competitions by January. With the ending of the Rafael Benítez era at the end of last season came the reality that the club were in transition and that the successes of previous years were becoming a distant memory after a fourth trophyless season. Roy Hodgson has since taken over the club and has hardly endeared himself to his new club’s supporters in recent weeks. After a start to the season which saw only one win (1-0 against West Bromwich Albion) in the first eight league games, the club lying in the bottom three and already knocked out of the League Cup against 4th tier side Northampton Town, the time had come for Liverpool to stand up and be counted.

Thankfully the recent ownership issue, in which Liverpool fans had set out to rid the club of their previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had finally passed and yesterday was the first home match under new owners. New England Sports Ventures had taken control prior to last weekend’s Merseyside derby defeat away to Everton and were hopeful that their first home game would bring about the win needed to start things afresh. Before the game there was a surprise live performance of the club’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by the one and only Gerry Marsden, the only sad thing for me personally was that the backing track over which Marsden sang sounded like a home karaoke system. Nonetheless the great man was still able to do the song  justice and its conclusion signalled the beginning of the game.

The first half saw Liverpool create numerous chances but Blackburn’s goalkeeper Paul Robinson was showing some of the form which once made him England’s number one. Having gone in at half-time with the game goalless Rovers would’ve been satisfied that their game plan of trying to frustrate the home side seemed to be working. However it only took two minutes after the interval for the deadlock to be broken when Sotirios Kyrgiakos scored his second goal of the season getting on the end of a Steven Gerrard corner. The big Greek has started to chip in with the odd goal just like the club’s former centre-half Sami Hyypiä used to do and his personal performances have looked more consistent in recent weeks. Unfortunately for Liverpool they let the lead slip just a couple of minutes later when former player El-Hadji Diouf, not the most popular person at Anfield yesterday and constantly booed whenever he touched the ball, did his bit to silence the home fans after his shot was deflected in by Jamie Carragher. It seemed yet another ominous sign that Liverpool would prove to be their own worst enemies when faced with pressure but this time, rather than let their heads drop, they went up the other end and scored once more in the 53rd minute. Fernando Torres, whose only other league goal this season came in Liverpool’s previous win against West Brom, would score the winning goal against Blackburn and the relief in the crowd was huge, not only because Liverpool had re-taken the lead but because the popular Spanish striker was once again on the score sheet after a recent loss of form.

There were no further goals and it was surprising that Blackburn Rovers hadn’t taken the game more to their opponents especially as they had the comfort of knowing that a Liverpool victory still wouldn’t see the Reds climb above Rovers in the table just yet. Liverpool now have nine points after nine games, the same as Blackburn, but Rovers remain in 17th position (one above Liverpool) due to a better goal difference. Nonetheless for Liverpool yesterday it was about getting back on track and it seemed that Anfield was a happy place to be once more.

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Festive Football Round-Up

Posted in UK Football by peterbein on December 28, 2009
Kenny Miller

Kenny Miller scores for Glasgow Rangers in their 4-1 win away at Hibernian FC

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.

BOXING DAY

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.

DECEMBER 27TH

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.

DECEMBER 28TH

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.

DECEMBER 29TH

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.

DECEMBER 30TH

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.

England’s Premier League – a glorified SPL?

Posted in UK Football by peterbein on December 6, 2009
Manchester United 2008-09

Manchester United win yet another title in 2008-09, their eleventh in seventeen years

“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.