Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

UEFA Champions League: Round of 16 Preview 4

Posted in European Football by peterbein on February 23, 2010
Carlo Ancelotti

Carlo Ancelotti has already won the UEFA Champions League twice as AC Milan coach. Can he do it again with Chelsea FC?

In the fourth and final installment of Stoppage Time’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 previews, we focus on those games which take place on Wednesday, February 24th with the return leg on Tuesday, March 16th:

INTERNAZIONALE FC (Italy) v CHELSEA FC (England)

With Manchester United’s 3-2 win against AC Milan last Tuesday the English Premier League currently leads Italy’s Serie A 1-0 in the Round of 16 contests. On Wednesday there is a more controversial reunion than the one enjoyed last week by a certain David Beckham upon meeting his former employers from Old Trafford. The self-proclaimed “Special One” Jose Mourinho will face up to his former comrades of Chelsea FC but will do so wanting to get one over an old adversary from Milan, Carlo Ancelotti. The former coach of AC Milan, Ancelotti has a proven track record in the UEFA Champions League winning two out of three finals (success in 2003 and 2007, defeat in 2005) with the Rossoneri but is determined to prove himself with his current team in his first season at Stamford Bridge.

Inter qualified for this stage finishing second in the toughest group of the first stage. The Nerazzurri ended up just two points behind FC Barcelona but managed to seal their place in the last 16 with a 2-0 home win over Russian champions Rubin Kazan. Since then Inter have gone unbeaten in thirteen league and cup games and have one foot in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) final having secured a 1-0 semi-final, first leg lead over AC Fiorentina. However Mourinho’s men have stalled a little since their 2-0 triumph in the most recent Milan derby in January, two draws in their last three games reducing their lead at the top of Serie A to just five points from resurgent AS Roma and six over AC Milan. Chelsea, on the other hand, increased their lead at the top of England’s Premier League to four points this weekend after their 2-0 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers was coupled with defeat for champions Manchester United at Everton FC. In fact Everton are the only team to have beaten Chelsea since the London side qualified for the Round of 16 with Chelsea losing just one from 15 league and FA Cup matches. In contrast to Inter, Chelsea arguably qualified from the easiest group in the Champions League finishing unbeaten against FC Porto, Atlético de Madrid and APOEL Nicosia.

Both teams have immense talent and strength in depth which makes them among the favourites to win the competition. Probably the strongest player at the moment is Chelsea’s Didier Drogba who has scored 25 goals in all competitions so far (three goals in Champions League) although they have a host of stars who can grab a crucial goal when required. Michael Ballack, Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard and even club captain John Terry can pop up whenever necessary. For Inter Diego Milito, who signed for the club from Genoa FC this season, is a threat in front of goal having hit the net 16 times in all competitions so far. He is ably assisted in attack by former Barcelona star Samuel Eto’o and rising young Italy star Mario Balotelli.

CSKA MOSCOW (Russia) v SEVILLA CF (Spain)

Sevilla have been much the busier of the two sides since the conclusion of the Champions League group stage due to the fact that the Russian season finished in late November. Therefore CSKA Moscow are lacking in match practice before the new 2010 domestic championship kicks off in March and may find it difficult in this competition against a Sevilla side who have played sixteen competitive games since they made it through their group which contained VfB Stuttgart, Unirea Urziceni and Glasgow Rangers.

Sevilla, though, have struggled for form since Round of 16 qualification especially in La Liga where they lost three matches in a row to Getafe, Atlético de Madrid and FC Barcelona before recovering to win four of their last five games. The Copa del Rey (Spanish King’s Cup) is where Sevilla have ridden their luck though. In the last three rounds leading up to the final they won one and lost one game in each round but were fortunate to have done enough in each first leg match of the competition against FC Barcelona (2-2 winning on away goals), Deportivo de La Coruña (3-1 on aggregate) and Getafe (2-1 agg.) to set up a meeting with Atlético de Madrid in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu on May 26th. CSKA Moscow negotiated their way through a tough Champions League group which involved Manchester United, VfL Wolfsburg and Beşiktaş. After their 2-1 win over the latter on Matchday 6 there were rumours that CSKA would be thrown out of the competition after two of their players, Sergei Ignashevich and Alexei Berezutsky, were tested positive for a banned substance but UEFA were satisifed that there was “a technical error” which led to confusion and the club were fined €25,000 and the players concerned were banned for one match which has now been served allowing the players to compete in the knockout rounds.

Sevilla’s main threats come from their striking partnership Luís Fabiano (14 goals, 3 in Champions League) and Frédi Kanouté (7 goals, 2 in Champions League) who have enjoyed the club’s recent domestic and European success together in the last five years and whose potent threat up front makes the Andalucians an outside bet for Champions League glory. For CSKA Moscow it is important that they can keep hold of winger Miloš Krasić, who has been linked with clubs from England and Spain after his four goals in the Champions League group stage alerted many clubs to his talent. However CSKA will have to make do without the servies of Brazilian forward Vagner Love who is currently on loan at Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo.

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FA Cup begins the new year in style

Posted in UK Football by peterbein on January 2, 2010

Chelsea FC lift the 2009 FA Cup after beating Everton FC 2-1 at Wembley

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:

JANUARY 2ND

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.

JANUARY 3RD

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.

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.

Champions League – Group Stage Round-Up: Part One

Posted in European Football by peterbein on December 9, 2009
Louis Van Gaal

Can Louis van Gaal win the Champions League again?

This week sees the conclusion of the group stages in the UEFA Champions League. “Stoppage Time” takes a look back at how each group has shaped up, starting with groups A-D today, followed by groups E-H tomorrow:

GROUP A (BORDEAUX, BAYERN MUNICH, JUVENTUS, MACCABI HAIFA)

Bordeaux surprised the pundits with a near faultless performance in group A. “Les Girondins” only dropped two points away at Juventus on Matchday 1 leaving the traditional big boys “Juve” and FC Bayern to fight it out for second place. During the campaign it seemed as if Bayern’s domestic troubles were going to destroy their European ambitions and, with two matchdays to go, Juve seemed to be going through. However the four time European champions from Bavaria still had a chance on Matchday 6, all they had to do was beat Juventus away in Turin. What seemed a tough task proved, ultimately, to be a stroll in the park for Louis van Gaal’s men as they won 4-1 including a penalty goal from Bayern keeper Hans-Jörg Butt. Juventus are now confined to the Europa League whilst Israeli champions Maccabi Haifa couldn’t even score a goal in the whole group stage and, unsurprisingly, remained pointless after six games.

GROUP B (MANCHESTER UNITED, CSKA MOSCOW, VfL WOLFSBURG, BESIKTAS)

As expected Manchester United topped the group in comfortable fashion. CSKA Moscow claimed the second place after a 2-1 success away in Istanbul against Besiktas on Matchday 6. The celebrations were dampened somewhat by the news that two of their players, Alexei Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich, were tested positive for banned substances. However UEFA has decided to punish the players rather than the club for what officals of CSKA Moscow called “a clerical error”.  German champions VfL Wolfsburg had a good maiden campaign in Europe’s elite class with Edin Džeko attracting the notice of some of Europe’s biggest clubs with some good performances, most notably against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Besiktas were struggling from the start but a consolation win over Manchester United in Matchday 5 proved to be their only highlight. With players such as Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen showing glimpses of their best “ManU” finished with 13 points at the top of the group with CSKA three points behind. Wolfsburg’s European campaign will continue in the Europa League whilst Besiktas have to revert back to the travails of domestic football.

GROUP C (REAL MADRID, AC MILAN, OLYMPIQUE MARSEILLE, FC ZÜRICH)

Before a ball was kicked in this group virtually everybody had tipped Real Madrid and AC Milan, two clubs with sixteen European Cups before them, to qualify for the Round of 16 and so it was proved. The only real blip which the Spanish side suffered was their 3-2 home defeat by the Italian giants on Matchday 3. FC Zürich had their moments too, a 1-0 defeat of AC Milan in the San Siro on Matchday 2 had their fans dreaming of further glory. Sadly for the Swiss champions their double header against Marseille proved disappointing and effectively knocked them out of the competition. On Matchday 6 Marseille still had a chance of progressing but they had to defeat Real Madrid, who were already through, at home and hope Milan dropped points in Zürich. The latter scenario happened as Milan could only manage a 1-1 draw but Cristiano Ronaldo was in scintillating form for Real Madrid scoring twice in a 3-1 win at Stade Vélodrome to send Marseille into the Europa League.

GROUP D (CHELSEA FC, FC PORTO, ATLÉTICO DE MADRID, APOEL NICOSIA)

Chelsea and FC Porto were clearly the two best sides in the group easily seeing off a poor Atleti and a weak APOEL team although the Cypriots were far from expected to qualify for the last 16. Chelsea’s two matches against FC Porto determined the top two placings with the London club winning 1-0 home and away. This was the difference between the two teams even allowing for the fact that Chelsea drew 2-2 away at Atleti and at home to APOEL on Matchday 6 when they’d already qualified. Chelsea finsihed on 14 points two ahead of Porto who some people fancy as a good outside bet in the tournament. “Los Rojiblancos” (the red and whites) of Madrid scraped through to the Europa League going through on their head-to-head record against APOEL. With both teams finishing on three points each after six games Atleti’s away goal in the 1-1 draw in Cyprus proved crucial as APOEL were only able to manage a 0-0 draw in Spain.

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.