Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

TV: ESPN ruins my weekend

Posted in European Football by peterbein on September 17, 2010
Eintracht Frankfurt

In case ESPN don't know - this is what Eintracht Frankfurt look like

No doubt that not a lot of people will know, nor actually care, about what I’m going to write but I shall do it anyway. During the current Bundesliga campaign this season there has been a live game shown every Friday night. FC Bayern v VfL Wolfsburg opened the 2010-11 campaign a little under a month ago and each of the Friday night games to have graced each matchday in the German league has been shown on the sports TV station ESPN in the UK. So why is it that just as my favourite team Eintracht Frankfurt is about to play in its first Friday night match of the season against SC Freiburg has ESPN decided to show live rugby union? Bloody typical!!!

Rugby Union

The oval ball dominates on ESPN tonight - much to my annoyance!

This isn’t the first time that I’ve endured such disappointment amongst the schedules. ESPN’s predecessor as Sky Sports’ chief broadcasting rival, Setanta Sports, also used to show live Friday night German football and they used to make a point of leaving the Eintracht games off the list so long as they could put live rugby or something else supposedly more exciting on in its place. Now, just when I thought that my faith in Friday night sporting TV was restored, ESPN has decided to follow suit in dropping the Friday night game. You may say that I wouldn’t be here slagging off ESPN if they cancelled a game involving any other teams but that would be nonsense. I’ve been following the Bundesliga for a few years now and have come to regard it as preferable to the overblown, over-hyped coverage of England’s Premier League that prevails on Sky Sports. However I just think it’s an amazing coincidence that people in “TV-land” (wherever that is) always seem to drop these games whenever Eintracht Frankfurt are involved. In my opinion all of the teams in the league should be given as much coverage as everybody else, whether it be FC Bayern, Eintracht Frankfurt or whoever.

ESPN: It’s Good To Be Here. Except, of course, when they’re in Frankfurt ­čśŽ

PS – A critique and an advertisement in the same piece. That’s quite an achievement from my good self ­čÖé┬á However I shall recommend ESPN for Sunday’s live game involving Germany’s biggest derby Schalke 04 and Borussia Dortmund. Schalke 04, the home team, have decided to significantly raise the prices for standing areas for away supporters to ÔéČ20 which goes against the spirit of cheap ticket prices for people from all sectors of society. Many Borussia Dortmund fans have decided to boycott this fixture and I support such fans who hope to keep the Bundesliga the most affordable and best attended league in the world. Hopefully many other fans will hold their own boycott in the future should other clubs begin to adopt the modern day “English disease” of ripping off the fans.

UPDATE: Since yesterday’s blog was written I’ve since found out that ESPN are only showing the second half of the biggest derby in German football. What will they be showing during the first half? Yes, you’ve guessed it: more rugby!!! Either show 90 minutes of the football or don’t pretend to make the effort. A disappointing show this weekend………

Bundesliga: 2010-11 Season Preview

Posted in European Football by peterbein on August 17, 2010
FC Bayern M├╝nchen

Mark Van Bommel lifts the Bundesliga trophy for FC Bayern last season. Will they win it again in 2010-11?

Der Ball rollt wieder! The Bundesliga is back on Friday and everybody is looking forward to another great season in arguably Europe’s most exciting league. Germany’s Rekordmeister FC Bayern M├╝nchen have already sent out the warning signs to the rest of the Bundesliga having secured the DFB Supercup over Schalke 04 in Augsburg a fortnight ago. Seventeen clubs are hoping to knock the Bavarian giants off their perch but can anybody really stop Louis Van Gaal’s men from winning the Meisterschale for a 23rd time? Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the weekend’s games ahead of the new campaign:

It has become a recent tradition in the Bundesliga that the defending champions take part in the opening match of the following season but this season’s big kick-off sees the last two title winning teams facing off in Munich’s Allianz Arena on Friday. FC Bayern, under the stewardship of Louis Van Gaal, will hope to emulate their achievements of last season in which they won the league and cup double for the sixth time in the last decade. Their opponents will be 2008-09 champions VfL Wolfsburg who have reignited their ambitions by bringing in English coach Steve McClaren who has been such a success in neighbouring Holland with FC Twente Enschede. Not only have Die W├Âlfe kept hold of important players such as D┼żeko, Grafite and Misimovi─ç but have brought in some new talent such as Simon Kj├Žr and Arne Friedrich.

Ra├║l

Ra├║l (middle) is the biggest signing of the summer for Schalke 04

Last season’s runners up Schalke 04 are hoping to go one better under determined coach Felix Magath and pulled off one of the transfer coups of the summer bringing in Real Madrid legend Ra├║l who, although is past his prime, can still perform on the highest stage and will bring some much needed experience to the Gelsenkirchen club. They play Hamburger SV on Saturday evening with the northern port club needing Ruud Van Nistelrooy to kick-start their season with plenty of goals after they narrowly missed out on a European place last season. Their northern neighbours Werder Bremen may be pre-occupied by UEFA Champions League qualification matters in the opening days of the new season but they’ll still want to get off to a good start especially as they have failed to win on the opening day of a league season since 2006-07. Their preparations have been hampered somewhat by the ongoing speculation surrounding their star player Mesut ├ľzil whose move to Real Madrid was finalised today. Bremen’s opponents on Saturday are TSG 1899 Hoffenheim who are in their third season of Bundesliga football and still maintain the high ambitions they had from when they arrived on the scene in 2008-09.

Michael Skibbe

Eintracht Frankfurt coach Michael Skibbe wants the club to challenge for Europe

In the other Saturday matches Eintracht Frankfurt will hope to continue their steady progress under coach Michael Skibbe and after a successful pre-season, the highlight of which was a 2-1 win over English double winners Chelsea FC, Die Adler will hope to better last season’s tenth place and challenge for a UEFA Europa League place. Having signed Theofanis Gekas from Bayer Leverkusen the club should be guaranteed more goals from a striker who is used to life in the Bundesliga. Eintracht play Hannover 96 who have suffered in recent times due to the untimely death of keeper Robert Enke but will approach this season fresh after staying up in the midst of last season’s relegation battle. N├╝rnberg, who avoided relegation last season thanks to a 5-0 aggregate win against FC Augsburg in the play-off, are away at five-times champions Borussia M├Ânchengladbach whilst the two newly-promoted teams both face away trips on the opening day of the new season. Last season’s 2. Bundesliga champions 1.FC Kaiserslautern return after a four year absence and travel to Cologne to play 1.FC K├Âln for whom superstar Lukas Podolski will want to get back amongst the goals after a disappointing 2009-10 campaign. St Pauli, the legendary cult club from Hamburg, also return to the top flight and may fancy their chances against an SC Freiburg side who finished 14th last term and are amongst the favourites for the drop having signed very few players in the close season.

Leverkusen

Michael Ballack (middle) is back at Bayer 04 Leverkusen

On Sunday VfB Stuttgart, rejuvenated under the guidance of coach Christian Gross following the sacking of his predecessor Markus Babbel last Christmas, will hope to start with an away win at 1.FSV Mainz but that is no way guaranteed against a team who finished in a respectable ninth place in 2009-10. The final game of the weekend is a widely anticipated clash between an improving Borussia Dortmund and ambitious Bayer 04 Leverkusen who, despite an unbeaten 22 game start, could only finish in fourth place last season. Leverkusen have made their intentions clear for the new season by signing Michael Ballack from Chelsea and have kept stars Stefan Kie├čling, Patrick Helmes and Simon Rolfes although they had to see Toni Kroos return to FC Bayern after his loan spell. Dortmund have qualified for the UEFA Europa League in the two seasons that J├╝rgen Klopp has been their coach but they may harbour quiet ambitions towards the UEFA Champions League this time especially as they have kept the nucleus of the team which finished in fifth place last season.


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European Leagues Round-Up

Posted in European Football by peterbein on May 9, 2010
Meisterschale

FC Bayern have won the Bundesliga title for a record-extending 22nd time

FC Bayern and Chelsea were amongst the teams crowned national champions in Europe this weekend whilst Italy’s champions-elect FC Internazionale have been taken to the wire by AS Roma who will complete the Serie A season next weekend. In other leagues Real Madrid and FC Barcelona also will fight it out on the last day in Spain after both teams won their Saturday night matches against Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla CF respectively.

FC Bayern M├╝nchen had pretty much sealed the title after the penultimate round of games after they had beaten VfL Bochum at the same time their only title challengers FC Schalke 04 were going down to home defeat against Werder Bremen. On the last day FC Bayern travelled to the German capital to face a Hertha BSC side who were already facing up to the prospect of Second League football next season. This game proved to be a stroll for the Bavarians with goals from Ivica Oli─ç and a brace from Dutch sensation Arjen Robben sealing a 3-1 win in the Olympiastadion where FC Bayern have the chance to complete a domestic double against Werder Bremen in next weekend’s DFB Pokal (German Cup final). Schalke 04 could only draw 0-0 away at 1.FSV Mainz 05 to put a disappointing end to their campaign whilst Werder Bremen gave themselves a boost before the cup final by gaining a point at home to bitter local northern rivals Hamburger SV and clinch the third UEFA Champions League place. Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund and a rejuvenated VfB Stuttgart will take their places in the UEFA Europa League next season. As well as Hertha BSC the 2.Liga will be joined by VfL Bochum next season with the possibility of 1.FC N├╝rnberg joining them should they lose a promotion/relegation play-off to FC Augsburg.

In England it was a topsy-turvy campaign in the Premier League with the leadership changing hands on no fewer than twenty two occasions during the campaign. Thankfully for the Blues of Chelsea FC it didn’t turn out to be twenty three as the Stamford Bridge side won with considerable ease against Wigan Athletic by eight goals to nil. A hat-trick for Didier Drogba and a brace for Nicolas Anelka was supplemented by solitary strikes by Frank Lampard, Solomon Kalou and Ashley Cole to give Chelsea their fourth English championship, their first since the days of Jose Mourinho in 2006. Present Chelsea coach Carlo Ancelotti has a real chance to win the Double in his first season in charge should the Blues do, as expected, win next weekend’s FA Cup final against Portsmouth FC at Wembley Stadium. Chelsea’s title rivals Manchester United saw off Stoke City 4-0 at Old Trafford but the Red Devils only have the League Cup to show for their efforts in the 2009-10 campaign. The top two will be joined by Arsenal FC and Tottenham Hotspur in next season’s UEFA Champions League while Manchester City, Aston Villa and a very disappointing Liverpool FC will be playing UEFA Europa League football next term. At the bottom of the table Portsmouth FC’s relegation was confirmed some time ago and they will be joined in the Championship (second tier) by Hull City and Burnley FC who go straight back down after their maiden Premier League appearance.

SL Benfica sealed their 32nd championship title in Portugal’s Liga Sagres thansk to an Oscar Cardozo double which gave the Eagles a 2-1 home win over Rio Ave. At the same time their only title rivals Sporting Braga could only muster a 1-1 draw on the island of Madeira against a determined Nacional side who ensured that the league title would’ve gone to Benfica even had the league leaders had surprisingly lost at home as Braga needed all three points coupled with a Benfica defeat to win the title. In any case Sporting Braga can be very proud of their efforts as they finished second and, thus, qualify for the UEFA Champions League next season. Deposed champions FC Porto finished three points further back in third and will only play in UEFA Europa League next season along with Sporting Lisbon and Mar├ştimo. At the bottom last season’s surprise package SC Leix├Áes were relegated along with Os Belenenses, both of whom will play in the Liga de Honra next season.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi was amongst the scorers in FC Barcelona's 3-2 win at Sevilla CF.

Title races in Spain and Italy must be sorted out on the final day of the season as both the main challengers in both countries won their penultimate fixtures this weekend. On Saturday in Spain both defending champions FC Barcelona and arch-rivals Real Madrid won tough fixtures against Sevilla CF (3-2) and Athletic Bilbao (5-1) respectively. Pep Guardiola’s FC Barcelona side were coasting to a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Messi, Bojan and Pedro before they allowed the Andalucians back into the game with two goals in the space of sixty seconds from Fredi Kanout├ę and Luis Fabiano to give the Blaugrana a real scare but the visitors held out for three very important points. Real Madrid were being held at one all with a little under twenty minutes to go before Gonzalo Higua├şn opened the floodgates for los Blancos who went on to record a 5-1 win and keep up the pressure on the Catalans. Next week sees FC Barcelona at home to Valladolid and Real Madrid away at Malaga FC on what should be an exciting final day’s action.

In Italy FC Internazionale, who won the Coppa Italia final against AS Roma earlier in the week, thought that they were going to celebrate their fifth straight Scudetto as they were beating Chievo 4-1 with goals from Mantovani (own goal), Cambiasso, Milito and Balotelli, giving the Nerazzurri a healthy advantage whilst nearest challengers AS Roma were losing 1-0 at home to Cagliari Calcio. But in the last twenty minutes Chievo pulled two goals back to give Inter a scare and AS Roma’s talismanic captain Francesco Totti scored twice to give the Giallorossi hope of winning the title with one game left. Next Sunday’s action sees Inter away to already relegated Siena and AS Roma away at Chievo and many will fancy the Nerazzurri to do the domestic Double before meeting up with FC Bayern in the UEFA Champions League on Saturday, May 22nd.

Europe: Easter Round-Up

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 4, 2010
Maik Franz

Maik Franz scored the winning goal for Eintracht Frankfurt in their 3-2 home win over title-chasing Bayer Leverkusen

The European football scene is being kept on edge with many of the major leagues potentially going all the way in the hunt for the various national championships across the continent. “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reviews the Easter weekend.

FC Bayern M├╝nchen went into the 29th Matchday of the German Bundesliga two points behind their opponents Schalke 04 in the table but had beaten the Gelsenkirchen side in the DFB Pokal (German Cup) semi-finals recently and were determined to repeat the winning feeling. After a tight opening period the match came to life in the 25th minute when Franck Rib├ęry shot from distance to give Bayern the lead which was doubled only a minute later with Bayern taking advantage of some terrible defending from Rafinha allowing youngster Thomas M├╝ller to shoot home from close-range. The league’s top scorer Kevin Kuranyi pulled one back for Schalke 04 but, try as they might, they couldn’t find an equalizer against a Bayern team playing most of the game with ten men after Hamit Altintop was sent-off just before half-time.

In the other game affecting Germany’s title race Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s chances of championship success were reduced further having lost four of their last five games. The latest setback came against an Eintracht Frankfurt side who are serious contenders for a UEFA Europa League spot after a thrilling 3-2 win over the title chasers. After Selim Teber had given Eintracht the lead from the penalty spot after 28 minutes it was Stefan Kie├čling who gave the visitors the lead with strikes on 33 and 46 minutes. But life is never dull in Frankfurt this season and die Adler (The Eagles) came back through an incredible long-range strike from Caio (62 mins) and an overhead kick from Maik Franz (pictured) two minutes from time to secure the three points for Eintracht who have now won their last three games whilst Bayer 04 Leverkusen now lie six points behind FC Bayern with five games to play.

In England’s Premier League the top two, Manchester United and Chelsea, faced-off at Old Trafford with the visitors seemingly unable to afford a defeat against the champions if they were to keep the title race going. United led the table by one point before the game but Chelsea were to emerge after it with a two point advantage after they became only the second team to beat United at Old Trafford in the Premier League this season with a 2-1 victory. Goals from Joe Cole and Didier Drogba, albeit a dubious one in the latter case, gave Chelsea a 2-0 lead before Federico Macheda pulled one back for the Red Devils with nine minutes left to play but there were to be no further goals and Chelsea emerged back on top of the table. Arsenal FC made hard work of their 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers with Ars├Ęne Wenger’s men scoring five minutes into second half stoppage time thanks to substitute Nicklas Bendtner allowing The Gunners to move back to within three points of Chelsea and one behind Manchester United in the table. With five matches remaining anything can happen in what is one of the most intriging title races in English football for many years.

All fixtures in Serie A were moved forward to Saturday as is traditional on Easter weekend in Italy. It was to be a good day for all the three title chasers, Internazionale FC, AS Roma, and AC Milan with each chalking up wins over Bologna, Bari and Cagliari respectively. Inter easily disposed of Bologna 3-0 thanks to goals from Thiago Motta (2) and Mario Balotelli to ensure that the Nerazzurri would remain on top for at least one week more. AS Roma had Mirko Vu─Źini─ç to thank as he scored the only goal in the game away at Bari whose faint hopes at chasing a UEFA Europa League spot may just have faded with this defeat. AC Milan had a tough encounter on the island of Sardinia against a mid-table Cagliari side who were determined to make life difficult for the Rossoneri coming from behind twice in the first half before an unfortunate own goal from Davide Astori sealed the deal for AC Milan just before half-time. With six matches to play in Serie A and only three points between the top three sides this could also be an interesting year for Italian football.

FC Girondins de Bordeaux seem to be losing the plot in France’s Ligue 1 having gone down to another defeat on Saturday, this time losing 2-1 at home against AS Nancy. Youssouf Hadji and Issiar Dia secured the three points for Nancy as Bordeaux, whose solitary strike was scored by Fernando Cavenaghi, have now lost seven matches this season and have now been overtaken at the top of the standings although they do still have two games in hand. Olympique Lyonnais, who defeated FC Girondins in the Champions League earlier in the week, went top with a 2-1 away at Stade Rennais thanks to goals from Michel Bastos and Lisandro Lopez whilst Montpellier HSC also went above Bordeaux into second place having secured a point away at AS Monaco in a goalless stalemate. Olympique de Marseille, fresh from winning the Coupe de la Ligue final last weekend, moved into joint third with a 1-0 win at home to Racing Lens thanks to Brand├úo’s 22nd minute strike. On Sunday AJ Auxerre missed the chance to go outright top of the table when they mustered a 1-1 draw at home to Paris Saint Germain.

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona continue to set the pace in La Liga with both teams easily victorious in their Matchday 30 fixtures. FC Barcelona got the weekend off to a predictable start when disposing of the weak challenge of Athletic Bilbao by four goals to one. On Sunday Real Madrid, thanks once again to Cristiano Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain, went back to the top of the table after a 2-0 away win against Racing Santander. In Denmark on Thursday the top of the table clash went the way of defending champions FC K├Şbenhavn who consolidated their lead at the top of the SAS Superlig├Žn with a 2-0 home win over nearest challengers Odense Boldklub. Goals from Dame N’Doye and Jesper Gr├Şnkj├Žr have allowed “FCK” to move further ahead of “OB” with a four point margin separating the two sides with nine matches left to play. There was also a big clash between the top two in Belgium where RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge shared the goals and the points with their game in the Jupiler League championship play-off group finishing in a 2-2 draw. Les Mauves maintain their eight point lead over Club Brugge with seven matches left to go in the season. Things remained the same in the Netherlands with wins for all of the top three as FC Twente beat VVV Venlo 2-0, AFC Ajax Amsterdam squeaked past Den Haag 1-0 with a 93rd minute winner from Toby Alderweireld and PSV Eindhoven defeated Willem II Tilburg thanks to a late penalty from Bal├ízs Dzsudzs├ík. With four games left FC Twente lead the table four points ahead of Ajax and a point further ahead of PSV Eindhoven.

Euro Leagues Round-Up

Posted in European Football, UK Football by peterbein on March 28, 2010
Luca Toni

Luca Toni scored the winning goal in AS Roma's 2-1 victory over Internazionale

This weekend could prove to be one of the most crucial in the season in many of Europe’s top leagues. In Italy defending champions Internazionale have been showing the pressure in the last two months and a famous 2-1 win for AS Roma over the Scudetto holders means that the Giallorossi are just one point behind Inter. Elsewhere FC Bayern suffered a shock 2-1 home reverse at the hands of improving VfB Stuttgart whilst in Portugal a crucial 1-0 win has given SL Benfica a six-point cushion over nearest challengers Sporting Braga. The English Premier League saw Manchester United and Chelsea thrash their opponents whilst Arsenal FC conceded a last-minute equalizer to drop two points further behind in the race for the title. There were also crucial matches in Greece and Turkey whilst the championship was decided in Andorra.

Serie A has practically been a one-horse race for the last three seasons and it looked like that scenario would continue earlier in the season when Internazionale FC enjoyed an eight point lead after the Milan derby in January. However the Nerazzurri have wobbled a bit since then and their lead is now just a single point from AS Roma after the capital side enjoyed a 2-1 win at the Stadio Olimpico thanks to goals from Daniele de Rossi and Luca Toni, the latter enjoying a personal renaissance since his return to his homeland from FC Bayern. AC Milan, meanwhile, could only manage a home draw against SS Lazio and are three points behind Inter as a result. Marco Borriello gave the Rossoneri the lead from the penalty spot after 18 minutes but it didn’t take long for Lazio to get back on equal terms as Stephan Lichtsteiner restored parity in the 32nd minute to leave Milan frustrated.

In the German Bundesliga it looked like service as usual for FC Bayern when Ivica Oli─ç gave the Munich side the lead after 32 minutes but their southern rivals VfB Stuttgart struck goals either side of half-time to leave FC Bayern, who qualified for the German Cup final earlier in the week, visibly stunned. Christian Tr├Ąsch scored from 24 metres to equalize in the 41st minute and then Ciprian Marica headed home from short range after a beautiful cross to the far post from Cacau to give the Swabians the three points. In the big game at the BayArena home team Bayer 04 Leverkusen lost 2-0 against Schalke 04 to lose further ground behind the top two. Having gone unbeaten in the first 24 matches of the season Leverkusen have now lost three of their last four games. Two goals from Kevin Kuranyi helped to give the side from Gelsenkirchen a two point lead over FC Bayern ahead of the big clash between the top two next Saturday.

It was business as usual for Manchester United in the English Premier League as the champions comfortably won 4-0 away at Bolton Wanderers with two of the goals coming from Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov. A Jlloyd Samuel own goal and a late strike from United substitute Darron Gibson kept the Red Devils on top from Chelsea FC who were impressive in their 7-1 demolition of Champions League hopefuls Aston Villa. Frank Lampard scored four goals, including two from the penalty spot, along with goals for in-form Florent Malouda (2) and Solomon Kalou to rout the team from Birmingham whose heavy schedule in recent weeks may be starting to take its toll on Martin O’Neill’s side. Title hopefuls Arsenal FC were just seconds away from an away win at Birmingham City after an 83rd minute goal from substitute Samir Nasri looked to have given The Gunners all three points. However it was another substitute, Kevin Phillips, who would have the final say as his goal two minutes into stoppage time gave The Blues a share of the points and dented Arsenal’s hopes of title glory. Manchester United lead the way with 72 points after 32 games, one ahead of Chelsea and four ahead of Arsenal.

In other leagues SL Benfica, fresh from winning the Portuguese League Cup last weekend, now have one hand on the Superliga trophy after defeating second place Sporting Braga 1-0 at home thanks to a goal in the 44th minute from Luis├úo. The win takes The Eagles six points clear with six games to play and now has Benfica fans dreaming of their team winning a possible treble as they still have a chance of continental glory in the UEFA Europa League. The Turkish S├╝per Lig continues to fascinate with the top four teams separated by five points with seven matches left to play. Leaders Bursaspor lost 2-1 at Istanbul BB on Friday night leaving it up to the big three to try and catch them. Last season’s champions Be┼čikta┼č had to come from two goals down to beat sixth placed Eski┼čehirspor 3-2 whilst in the big derby match on Sunday Fenerbah├že beat eternal rivals Galatasaray 1-0 to move into second place three points behind Bursaspor. In Greece Panathinaikos have all but sealed the title having won 3-0 away at Atromitos with top scorer Djibril Ciss├ę amongst the goals. Champions Olympiakos could only draw 0-0 at home to ┼ákoda Xanthi whilst PAOK Thessaloniki conceded a stoppage time goal to lose 2-1 away at Larissa and cannot now possibly catch Pana who have a six point lead over second place Olympiakos with two matches still to play.

In Andorra FC Santa Coloma have won the Primero Divisio title for the second time in three years, and fifth title overall, having drawn against local rivals and only challengers UE Santa Coloma 1-1 to win the championship by three points.

Title races hot up all over Europe

Posted in European Football by peterbein on March 15, 2010
Stefan Kie├čling

Stefan Kie├čling scored two goals for Bayer Leverkusen in their 4-2 home win over Hamburger SV

As the season comes to the business end in many countries throughout Europe there are some very interesting title chases developing. Stoppage Time provides the latest news after another weekend of top quality action on the continent:

The German Bundesliga, more often than not, provides a tight finish and this season could continue that trend as the top three teams all won this weekend. On Friday night Schalke 04 got the weekend under way with a 2-1 home victory over VfB Stuttgart thanks to goals from Edu and Kevin Kuranyi. Twenty-four hours later FC Bayern retained the number one spot with a hard-fought 2-1 win over struggling SC Freiburg. After Cedric Makiadi had given Freiburg a shock lead the Bavarians left it late before Dutch international Arjen Robben performed a one-man rescue act with goals on 76 and 83 minutes, the latter from the penalty spot, to put Bayern back on top. On Sunday Germany’s top scorer Stefan Kie├čling increased his tally by two goals as his Leverkusen side eventually saw off a spirited Hamburger SV side by 4-2.

In England all three title contenders managed wins to keep the title race interesting. On Saturday Chelsea FC easily disposed of a weak West Ham United side 4-1 thanks in part to two goals from Ivorian ace Didier Drogba. In the late game Arsenal FC had to rely on a last-minute winner from Niklas Bendtner to give The Gunners a 2-1 win over relegation-threatened Hull City, who played all of the second half with ten men after George Boateng was sent off. On Sunday Manchester United eased their way to a 3-0 win over Fulham FC at Old Trafford with in-form Wayne Rooney scoring twice to increase his tally of goals for the season to thirty-two. Dimitar Berbatov sealed the deal with an 89th minute strike to give the leadership back to United who have a two-point lead over both Chelsea and Arsenal but United have played one game more than Chelsea.

In Spain both title protagonists Real Madrid and Barcelona recored victories to keep up their domination of the La Liga. Gonzalo Higua├şn scored a hat-trick and Cristiano Ronaldo scored the other as Los Blancos recorded a 4-1 win over Valladolid to remain on the same points as champions FC Barcelona whose 3-0 home victory against Valencia CF saw Lionel Messi score a hat-trick. In the fight for UEFA Champions League places fourth place Sevilla dropped more points at home as they could only muster a 1-1 draw against Deportivo La Coru├▒a. Fazio’s opener for the home side on 21 minutes was cancelled out by Adrian three minutes later to leave the Andalusian side frustrated.┬á

In the Netherlands FC Twente Enschede were the big winners of the weekend. Not only did they triumph 3-1 at home to ADO Den Haag, Bryan Ruiz scoring a brace for the home side, but the leaders saw the gap remain at five points between themselves and PSV Eindhoven who were demolished by an ever-improving Ajax Amsterdam by 4-1. In France things are a lot tighter after this weekend’s games. Champions Girondins de Bordeaux could only muster a 0-0 draw away at AS Monaco whilst second place Montpellier shared a 1-1 draw at home to AJ Auxerre. In the top six only Lille OSC were victorious as they defeated Grenoble 1-0 thanks to a Bostjan Cesar own goal. Only three points separate Bordeaux in first place from Olympique de Marseille in sixth, who failed to capitalise on most of their rivals inability to gain three points as they could only draw 1-1 away at Toulouse FC. Italy’s Serie A also took an unexpected twist with champions Inter going down to a surpise 3-1 away defeat at Catania whilst their city rivals and chief challengers AC Milan won 1-0 at home to Chievo thanks to a last-minute Clarence Seedorf winner although David Beckham’s Achilles tendon rupture made the headlines as the severity of his injury has ended his season. Elsewhere in Italy AS Roma dropped two points in their chase for lo Scudetto being involved in an exciting 3-3 draw away at struggling Livorno Calcio.

Euro Leagues Round-Up: Part 1

Posted in European Football by peterbein on March 1, 2010
Danny Koevermans

Danny Koevermans scored twice for Eredivisie leaders PSV Eindhoven in their 5-1 triumph over RKC Waalwijk

With international football taking place on Wednesday “Stoppage Time” today focuses on eight of Europe’s top leagues, with another ten tomorrow, in order to give you the latest on how each of the major championships are shaping up after this weekend’s games:

ENGLAND (1st – Chelsea 28 games played/61 points; 2nd – Man.United 28/60; 3rd – Arsenal FC 28/58)

With Manchester United in League Cup final duty on Sunday, league leaders Chelsea had a fantastic opportunity to increase their lead at the top of the Premier League to four points. However they came up against an ambitious Manchester City side who still harbour hopes of finishing in a Champions League place. Despite the build-up to the game being mainly centred on the private lives of former team-mates John Terry and Wayne Bridge the game will be remembered for an amazing City performance as they cruised their way to a 4-2 win. A goal three minutes before half-time from Frank Lampard gave Chelsea the lead but two goals each from Carlos T├ęvez and Craig Bellamy stunned the home side with Lampard scoring a last-minute penalty to give the scoreline some respectability. In other games Arsenal’s 3-1 win away at Stoke City was overshadowed by the broken leg sustained to Aaron Ramsey after a tackle from Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross, who left the pitch in tears after the incident following a red card. Tottenham Hotspur beat Everton 2-1 at White Hart Lane thanks to goals from Roman Pavlyuchenko and Luka Modri─ç whilst Liverpool beat Blackburn Rovers by the same scoreline at Anfield with Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres securing three points for the Reds who are only one point behind Spurs in the quest for Champions League football next season.

NETHERLANDS (1st – PSV Eindhoven 25/65; 2nd – FC Twente 25/64; 3rd – Ajax Amsterdam 25/58)

The Eredivisie is hotting up with PSV Eindhoven and FC Twente fighting it out all the way and Ajax hanging on by their coat tails. PSV easily defeated bottom club RKC Waalwijk 5-1 at Philips Stadion with Danny Koevermans (pictured) scoring a brace. Steve McClaren’s FC Twente are not giving up, though they did struggle to a 2-1 win at home to NEC Nijmegen. Bryan Ruiz, the club’s top scorer with 17 goals, gave the home side all three points with the winning strike just five minutes from time. Ajax are finally coming into a good run of form under new coach Martin Jol and they dispatched the challenge from FC Utrecht with great ease winning 4-0. The League’s main marksman Luis Su├írez bagged two goals for the Amsterdammers who have claimed 23 points in the last nine games.

FRANCE (1st – FC Girondins de Bordeaux 24/51; 2nd – Montpellier 26/51; 3rd – Olympique Lyonnais 26/49)

Ligue 1 is shaping up quite nicely as the champions FC Girondins de Bordeaux are top of the pile with six points separating them from sixth place AJ Auxerre. However the league leaders didn’t play this weekend so they still have two games in hand on nearest challengers Montpellier who beat Rennes 3-1 at home on Saturday with Joris Marveaux scoring twice. Third place Olympique Lyonnais are keeping up the challenge for their eighth title in nine years with a 2-0 defeat of C├┤te d’Azur outfit OGC Nice. On Sunday the whole nation’s attention turned to le Classique as Olympique de Marseille easily dispatched arch-rivals Paris Saint Germain 3-0 at the Parc des Princes thanks to goals from Hatem Ben Arfa, Lucho Gonz├ílez and Beno├«t Cheyrou to send the Marseillais up to fourth while PSG linger in mid-table obscurity.

GERMANY (1st – FC Bayern M├╝nchen 24/52; 2nd – Bayer Leverkusen 24/50; 3rd – Schalke 04 Gelsenkirchen 24/48)

After weeks of chasing, FC Bayern are back on top of the Bundesliga after beating fourth place Hamburger SV 1-0 in the Allianz Arena thanks to a stunning strike from Franck Rib├ęry with twelve minutes of the game left. On Saturday Leverkusen could only manage yet another draw at home to 1.FC K├Âln, their eleventh in the Bundesliga this season, in a goalless stalemate. The usual jibes about “Neverkusen” are coming back to haunt the second placed team, who have recently been dubbed “Meister der Unentschieden” (‘Champions of Draws’) by one German paper. Schalke 04 beat their rivals Borussia Dortmund 2-1 at home on Friday night in the big Ruhr derby. Benedikt H├Âwedes and Ivan Rakiti─ç scored the goals for the “Null Vier”, coming from behind after Dortmund’s Nuri Sahin had given die Schwarzgelben (Yellow and Blacks) the lead from the penalty spot on 47 minutes. Werder Bremen beat 1.FSV Mainz 2-1 to consolidate sixth place whilst seventh place Eintracht Frankfurt were defeated away at their “Angstgegner” (bogey team) VfB Stuttgart, the resurgent Swabians coming from behind at the end of the first half thanks to two goals from in-form Cacau.

SPAIN (1st – FC Barcelona 24/61; 2nd – Real Madrid CF 24/59; 3rd – Valencia CF 24/46)

Lionel Messi saved Bar├ža’s blushes with a goal six minutes from time to preserve the Blaugrana’s two point lead at the top of La Liga. Earlier on Saturday night Real Madrid had easily seen off the challenge from Tenerife on the island with a 5-1 win with two goals from Gonzalo Higua├şn and a strike apiece for Ronaldo (penalty), Kak├í and Ra├║l. This meant that los Blancos were top of the table for at least two hours during Barcelona’s home game against Malaga. After a goalless first half the Camp Nou were getting impatient following some resilient Malaga defending. Finally the deadlock was broken thanks to Pedro in the 69th minute but within twelve minutes the visitors shocked the home supporters thanks to a equalizing goal from Valdo. With nine minutes left Bar├ža needed a saviour and, as ever, it was the Argentine wonder who stepped up to the plate tapping home from short range on 84 minutes. In other games Atletico Madrid came from behind at home to Valencia to impressively seal a 4-1 although it did help that los Che had Carlos Marchena and Miguel sent off. Two goals for Diego Forl├ín saw him take his season’s tally for twelve with Kun Ag├╝ero and Jurado adding one apiece for good measure. Fourth place Sevilla could only draw 0-0 at home to Athletic Bilbao.

ITALY (1st – FC Internazionale 26/58; 2nd – AC Milan 26/54; 3rd – AS Roma 26/51)

The Serie A title race seems to look over one minute and looks interesting the next. Thankfully after this weekend’s action it looks once again like the latter as AC Milan kept up the chase on local neighbours FC Internazionale with only four points separating the Milanese giants. Alexandre Pato was the star for the Rossoneri scoring twice in the first half in AC Milan’s 3-1 win against Atalanta whilst Inter were involved in a close match away at Udinese Calcio. Pepe scored for the home side after just two minutes but Inter were ahead just nineteen minutes later thanks to Mario Balotelli and Maicon. Diego Milito scored on the edge of half-time but Udinese, thanks to an Antonio de Natale penalty, pulled one back early in the second half. Mercifully for Jose Mourinho his Inter team manged to hold on for three points but they do seem to be in a battle to keep hold of lo Scudetto. Another important game took place in Naples where local side Napoli took on AS Roma in the ‘Derby of the South’. Julio Baptista (penalty) and Mirko Vu─Źini─ç seemed to have won the game for Roma but the Neapolitans didn’t lie down and got their reward with goals from Germ├ín Denis (75 minutes) and Marik Hamsik (penalty 90th min.) denying the visitors two points with the game finishing 2-2.

PORTUGAL (1st – SL Benfica 21/52; 2nd – Sporting Braga 21/51; 3rd – FC Porto 21/43)

The Liga Sagres has looked like a two-horse race for some time and this assumption was further cemented after Sporting Lisbon defeated third place FC Porto 3-0 in Sunday’s big match. The Lions, who knocked out Everton FC from the UEFA Europa League three days before, easily had the Dragons of Porto on the ropes by the 47th minute thanks to goals from Yannick (6 min.), Marat Izmailov (45th.) and Miguel Veloso (47th.) kept Sporting in fourth place in the table, a distant twenty points behind leaders Benfica. The leaders had an easy 4-0 away win at Leixoes thanks mainly to a hat-trick from Angel di Maria. This kept the Eagles one point ahead of surprise contenders Braga who went behind early at home to 13th place Olhanense but who came from behind to secure a 3-1 win with strikes from Matheus, Evaldo and Albert Meyong Ze.

SCOTLAND (1st – Glasgow Rangers 26/61; 2nd – Glasgow Celtic 27/51; 3rd – Dundee United 27/45)

The Scottish Premier League title race is all but over after a thrilling climax in yesterday’s Old Firm between Rangers and Celtic at Ibrox Park. After ninety goalless minutes the game was decided in stoppage time thanks to a dramatic last-ditch winner from Rangers’ Maurice Edu. The three points has all but sealed a 53rd league championship for Rangers as they currently lead the SPL with a ten point lead and a game in hand. Third place Dundee United are in pole position to challenge for a Champions League place should Celtic slip up having easily defeated Falkirk FC 3-0 but Hibernian FC aren’t far behind, just one point behind United in fourth spot, but they’ll have been disappointed to drop two points at home to St. Johnstone in a pitiful 1-1 draw.

Euro Leagues: Weekend Preview

Posted in European Football, UK Football by peterbein on January 28, 2010
HSV - VfL Wolfsburg

Eljero Elia scored for HSV in their 4-2 win over Wolfsburg earlier this season. Both teams meet each other again in the Bundesliga this Friday.

With all of Europe’s top leagues back in full swing after the winter break “Stoppage Time” previews this weekend’s top matches:

ENGLAND (Chelsea 22 games/51 points; Man. United 23/50; Arsenal FC 23/49)

For the first time in many years it looks as though more than two teams can challenge for the English Premier League title. However two of the contenders are to meet on Sunday as second place Manchester United, fresh from their League Cup semi-final win over local rivals Manchester City, travel to the Emirates Stadium with hopes of doing the ‘double’ over Arsenal FC after their 2-1 win at Old Trafford earlier this season. Chelsea will hope to put some more distance between themselves and their rivals in the Saturday evening fixture where they meet struggling Burnley FC. In other games in-form Birmingham City meet Champions League contenders Tottenham Hotspur whilst Liverpool FC, not for the first time in this tough season, hope to get back to winning ways at home to Bolton Wanderers.

SCOTLAND (Glasgow Rangers 22 games/51 points; Glasgow Celtic 21/41; Hibernian FC 21/39)

Sadly it seems that the much anticipated four-way challenge for the SPL has now hit the rocks after Rangers’ good form has coincided with all of their potentials rivals dropping points. While the league leaders and current champions Rangers were strolling to a 2-0 win at St.Mirren on Wednesday Old Firm rivals Celtic lost 2-1 at home to Hibernian FC, who now have ambitions of claiming the second Champions League spot for next season. This weekend sees Rangers at home to bottom side Falkirk FC, Celtic play away at Hamilton Academicals and Hibernian face-off against mid-table St.Mirren.

GERMANY (Bayer 04 Leverkusen 19 games/41 points; FC Bayern M├╝nchen 19/39; FC Schalke 19/38)

In recent years the Bundesliga, arguably more than any top European league, has concluded with final-day drama and tension and this season has the potential to emulate some of the drama from the past. The top five teams in the league are separated by only seven points and with none of them playing against each other on Matchday 20 then this weekend may tell us more about each team’s title hopes. Leaders Leverkusen, still unbeaten after 19 games, play against SC Freiburg on Sunday evening knowing if they need to win to reclaim top spot. In the meantime either FC Bayern (at home to 1. FSV Mainz) or Schalke 04 (at home to Hoffenheim) can take over the leadership of the league, if only for a matter of hours. Other top games include Hamburger SV against champions-in-crisis VfL Wolfsburg, Borussia Dortmund’s trip to VfB Stuttgart and Eintracht Frankfurt host 1.FC K├Âln.

FRANCE (Girondins de Bordeaux 21 games/47 points; Montpellier 21/39; Lille OSC 21/37)

Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux have ambitions to usurp Olympique Lyonnais as the top team in France and have a handy eight point lead over nearest challengers Montpellier. Many expect them to stroll to another three points in their latest match at home to second bottom team Boulogne. After reaching the Coupe de la Ligue semi-finals this week, Olympique Marseille will play against surprise title contenders Montpellier in a southern derby. A win for l’OM will allow them to overtake Montpellier in the table. Lille OSC, who were knocked out of the Coupe de la Ligue on Wednesday, will hope to put cup disappointment behind them with a win against┬á Racing Lens. In the C├┤te d’Azur derby AS Monaco play against OGC Nice, a win for the former will improve their European credentials whilst for the latter will help les Ni├žoise pull further away from the relegation zone.

SPAIN (FC Barcelona 19 games/49 points; Real Madrid CF 19/44; Valencia CF 19/39)

La Liga has looked like a potential two-horse race ever since Matchday 1 and not much has changed now that we have reached the halfway stage of the campaign. FC Barcelona became only the seventh team to end the first half of the league season unbeaten and will hope to consolidate their position with a win away at Sporting, which is traditionally a tough place for any side to go due to the hostile reception their fans provide their opponents. Cristiano Ronaldo endured mixed emotions in his last outing for Real Madrid, his two goals in a 2-0 win over Malaga were overshadowed by his red card in the second half. El Real must play without their record signing this Saturday away at Deportivo de La Coru├▒a where, surprisingly, Madrid haven’t won since 1992. Third-place Valencia play against the team who occupied that position for most of the season Sevilla, who recently embarked on a torrid spell of one win in the last five games.

ITALY (Internazionale 21 games/49 points; AC Milan 20/40; AS Roma 21/38)

After last weekend’s Milan derby many people have already suggested that the Nerazzurri should be given their fifth consecutive lo Scudetto already having built up a nine-point lead over their eternal and nearest rivals. However Inter coach Jose Mourinho would not want to take their next opponents Parma lightly as they are a team capable of beating anybody on their day. In other games AC Milan are at home to Livorno, who are struggling against relegation lying fifth from bottom, AS Roma hope that they can continue their recent good form at home to bottom side Siena whilst Juventus, with talk of crisis in the air, will have their work cut out at home to SS Lazio.

NETHERLANDS (PSV Eindhoven 19 games/51 points; FC Twente 19/49; Ajax Amsterdam 19/42)

The Netherlands is expecting the mother of all battles on Sunday afternoon as De Klassieker between Feyenoord Rotterdam and Ajax Amsterdam resumes again. Feyenoord are at home this weekend and will hope to avenge the 5-1 mauling they suffered at the home of their bitter rivals earlier in the season. Ajax will hope that a win for themselves can bring them closer to the main title challengers above them. FC Twente, who had led the table for most of the season, have been overtaken by PSV since the resumption of the Eredivisie after the winter break but Steve McClaren’s men will be hoping to get back to winning ways at home to Roda JC Kerkrade whilst PSV are away at mid-table Vitesse Arnhem.

PORTUGAL (Sporting Braga 16 games/39 points; SL Benfica 16/39; FC Porto 16/33)

Little Sporting Braga have captured many people’s hearts in Portugal as their title challenge continues. They lead the table despite having a much inferior goal difference to Benfica due to their head-to-head record (Braga won the first meeting 2-0 in October) but the ‘Eagles’ of Lisbon have been stronger since that game winning five and drawing two of their last seven games. Braga play against Benfica’s local rivals Sporting Lisbon on Friday whilst Benfica plays at home to Vitoria Guimar├úes. Only six points behind both teams are FC Porto who have a tough away tie against Nacional Madeira on Saturday.

Bundesliga Preview: FC Bayern not such big fans of The Hoff

Posted in European Football by peterbein on January 15, 2010
FC Bayern v TSG 1899 Hoffenheim

Ivica Olic quietens the crowd as he scores in the 1-1 draw between Hoffenheim and FC Bayern on the opening day of the 2009-10 Bundesliga

Thankfully, for all fans of Baywatch, FC Bayern have not taken a dislike to cult hero David Hasselhoff. After a shorter than usual winter break the German Bundesliga returns tonight with a modern day rivalry between FC Bayern and nouveau riche club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim.

Since the promotion of the latter into the First League in 2008 there has been no love lost between the two clubs who indulged in public spats last season as both teams were hoping to challenge for the title. Despite winning the unofficial “Herbstmeister” (Autumn champion) title, upstarts Hoffenheim gradually fell away in the second half of the 2008-09 season but, generally, had given the Bundesliga a shot in the arm. Ultimately both clubs had to take a back seat while surprise team VfL Wolfsburg won the title. However, after a slow start this season, both clubs are in a healthy position going into the “R├╝ckrunde” (latter half of the season). The bad blood from last season has been replaced with words of respect from both coaches Louis van Gaal (Bayern) and Ralf Rangnick in a game both teams must win if they’re to build on any hopes of a title challenge. FC Bayern could go top for the first time in 51 matchday rounds (since May 2008) whilst a win for Hoffenheim would see them go into joint sixth with Werder Bremen (seven points behind leaders Leverkusen) before the weekend’s other games.

On Saturday the current “Herbstmeister” Leverkusen will hope to retain the unbeaten record they had at the midway point of the season (Played 17, won 9, drawn 8, points 35) but will have it tough against the league’s surprise package 1.FSV Mainz 05 who have hopes of fighting it out for a European spot. Fourth place Hamburger SV are looking for a third consecutive victory as they face lowly SC Freiburg whilst Werder Bremen will hope to gain revenge for an opening day defeat against Eintracht Frankfurt whose coach, Michael Skibbe, has threatened to quit the club at the end of the season after he accused his employers of lacking ambition due to the lack of funds available for new players during the January transfer window. Ex-Frankfurt coach Friedhelm Funkel has his work cut out at bottom club Hertha BSC who accumulated the lowest number of points ever after 17 games (a measly six) and is up against Hannover 96, a team still suffering from the death of goalkeeper Robert Enke, and who are in danger of being dragged into the “Tabellenkellar” (relegation zone) as they lie in 14th place, five points away from 1.FC N├╝rnberg in the second automatic relegation spot. Borussia M├Ânchengladbach will hope to keep up their good form, 13 points from the last seven games, against a VfL Bochum side who currently lie in the relegation play off 16th spot. In the Saturday night game Armin Veh, who has a mixed record since taking over at champions VfL Wolfsburg, will hope for three points at his old stomping ground in Stuttgart, who he led to the 2006-07 championship. Now under new management following the dismissal of Markus Babbel, Stuttgart and their new coach Christian Gross will hope to start ascending up the league to the relative safety of mid-table.

In the Sunday games Felix Magath will hope to keep up the pressure on the top teams as his Schalke 04 side play at home against struggling 1.FC N├╝rnberg whilst J├╝rgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund travel to 1.FC K├Âln, for whom local hero Lukas Podolski has only scored one goal in the Bundesliga following his much publicised return from FC Bayern at the start of the season. No wonder then that “Die Gei├čb├Âcke” (Billy Goats) find themselves as the league’s least prolific team in front of goal having only scored ten times in 17 games.

European Leagues: Winter Break Round-up

Posted in European Football by peterbein on December 22, 2009
Samuel Eto'o

Samuel Eto'o is all smiles as his club Internazionale lead Italy's Serie A

With the exception of England, Scotland and France, most of the league championships in Europe have taken a well earned break for Christmas time. “Stoppage Time” reviews the season so far in Europe’s top leagues:

SPAIN

This looks like it will be a two horse race between arch-rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Spanish, European and World champions FC Barcelona (39 points from 15 games) hold a slim two point advantage over ‘El Real’ whose performances haven’t always been great but whose capability of getting results has improved. Sevilla looked for a while like a potential ‘stalking horse’ candidate for the title, keeping close to the top but they have slipped off the pace in recent weeks. At the bottom of the table newly promoted sides such as Xerez (7 points from 15 games) and Real Zaragoza have found the going tough. A traditional giant of the Spanish game, Atl├ętico Madrid find themselves just one point from the cellar after a string of poor displays.

ITALY

FC Internazionale of Milan (39 points from 17 games), including striker Samuel Eto’o (pictured) find themselves in charge of Serie A yet again. Going for a fifth consecutive championship, the Nerazzurri’s only challengers to date appear to be local enemies AC Milan, who are eight points behind with a game in hand. The Rossoneri have come back strongly after a really poor start under the stewardship of Leonardo. Juventus appeared to be going well under new coach Ciro Ferrara but have lost their last three games and remain a point further behind Milan having played a game more. At the bottom of the league six points separate Udinese in 14th place from AC Siena in last place (12 points after 17 games), signalling that a tight relegation battle could be just around the corner.

GERMANY

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (35 points from 17 games) remain unbeaten to be crowned the unofficial “Herbstmeister” (autumn champions) in the Bundesliga. However the ‘Werkself’ (Work’s Eleven) have drawn a lot a games meaning that their lead is a narrow one point margin from nearest challengers Schalke 04, who have done well considering their financial troubles. Despite Bayern Munich’s less than impressive start to the season the Bavarian giants are a further point behind Schalke. Louis Van Gaal has withstood the criticism and has guided Bayern to third place at the halfway stage with 33 points. The surprise of the season so far is 1. FSV Mainz 05, who were promoted from the second division last season, who have a respectable eighth place finish after 17 games. Hertha Berlin is the surprise team at the bottom of the table (6 points/17 games), all the more surprising considering they won on the opening day against Hannover 96. Other big clubs close to the bottom are 1. FC N├╝rnberg, who sacked their coach Michael Oenning on Monday, and VfB Stuttgart, who replaced Markus Babbel with former Tottenham Hotspur coach Christian Gross in early December.

PORTUGAL

The Portuguese Superliga normally has three contenders for the title but one of this year’s contenders is an unfamiliar one: Sporting Braga. They lead the table jointly with SL Benfica (33 points from 14 games) with perennial champions FC Porto four points behind. Many hope that Braga can keep up with the big two especially since the tradional third power of Portuguese football, Sporting, are struggling domestically (21 points/14 games) but performing well in Europe. Also many remember last season’s surprise package Leix├Áes, who led the table early on in 2008-09, falling away late in the season. Could Braga really become only the sixth club (after Benfica, Porto, Sporting, Belenenses and Boavista) to win the Portuguese championship? At the bottome Leix├Áes’ glory days from last season are well and truly behind them as they now are fighting against relegation lying just one point above the bottom two clubs Olhanense and Belenenses (10 points/14 games).

HOLLAND

Steve McClaren has done an impressive job at FC Twente (47 points/17 games) thus far and he’s already hoping to go one better than last season. The club from Enschede were runners-up in both league and cup in 2008-09 but McClaren’s men currently lead the Eredivisie by two points from PSV Eindhoven. PSV’s coach Fred Rutten has given new purpose to the Philips owned club after they lost direction last season under Huub Stevens which led to them weakly giving up their run of four consecutive titles. Ajax, coached by Martin Jol, have suffered a few defeats and are nine points off the pace. Their arch-rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam have also been rejuvenated under new coach Mario Been and a further point behind having played a game more. At the bottom RKC Waalwijk (12 points/18 games) will hope to avoid the automatic relegation spot at the end of the season as they are not far off the teams above NEC Nijmegen, ADO Den Haag and Willem II Tilburg.

GREECE

It’s the same old story in Greece as champions Olympiakos Piraeus are involved in a two-way tussle with league leaders Panathinaikos (38 points/15 games) for the championship. As usual PAOK Thessaloniki threaten to make a fight of it but end up dropping too many points but they should easily get a place in Europe. Athen’s third club AEK have struggled for form and consistency in both Greek and European competition thus far and lie in eighth place on 21 points. At the bottom of the table it’s been a dreadful time for promoted Panthrakikos who remain without a win after fifteen games. They have only two points at this stage and are dead certs for the drop. Above them the likes of Giannina, Levadiakos (14 points), Larissa and Iraklis (15 points) will hope to avoid joining them in the second division next season.

TURKEY

The Turkish Superlig could be one of the most exciting for years. Fenerbah├že (37 points/17 games) lead at the halfway stage by just one point from eternal rivals Galatasaray. Then there are two unexpected title chasers in Bursaspor and Kayserispor (35 and 34 points respectively) as well as last season’s champions Be┼čikta┼č (32 points). “Fener” will miss on the services of Roberto Carlos after the winter break as he heads back to Brazil to finish his career at Corinithians. Last season’s surprise package Sivasspor struggled in the early weeks of the season but will hope that they can take recent good form into the second half of the season. They are ten points ahead of second bottom Denizlispor (7 points/17 games) and seventeen ahead of Ankaraspor who are pointless (numerically speaking, of course) at the halfway stage and look certain for the drop.