Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

Europe: Weekend Review (+video)

Posted in European Football by peterbein on May 17, 2010
DFB Pokal

FC Bayern have won the DFB Pokal this weekend defeating Werder Bremen in Berlin

There have been various domestic league and cup titles decided in Europe all weekend and “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reports on the winners and losers across the continent:

Ahead of the Champions League final in Madrid on Saturday both Internazionale FC and FC Bayern München had doubles (and trebles) on their mind as they finished their domestic league and cup seasons respectively. Inter needed to beat Siena to claim an 18th Scudetto which would allow the Nerazzurri to overtake city rivals AC Milan in league titles won and, although it was a narrow win, it proved to be so when Diego Milito scored just before the hour mark. Nearest title challengers AS Roma did what they had to do when defeating Chievo 2-0 with two goals just before half-time from Mirko Vučinić and Daniele de Rossi but it proved not to be enough for the Giallorossi who will rue their Matchday 35 defeat to Sampdoria as the one that lost them the title. In Germany FC Bayern made easy work of the DFB Pokal final against Werder Bremen, who had been in very good form recently, by beating the northern side 4-0 to claim their 15th domestic cup triumph and their sixth Double in the last decade. Goals from Arjen Robben, Ivica Olić, Franck Ribéry and Bastien Schweinsteiger gave the Bavarian giants the cup defeating the defending holders in the process. Louis van Gaal’s men now face a Treble showdown with Inter in Madrid to see which one can create history by following another Treble winning side, FC Barcelona, as European champions.

Speaking of FC Barcelona they claimed their 20th La Liga title after defeating Valladolid 4-0, with a brace from Lionel Messi amongst the highlights, to get one over arch-rivals Real Madrid in the title race. Los Blancos, who spent up to £300 million on a new squad of players at the start of the season, finish empty-handed after they could only draw 1-1 away at Malaga, although a win for Madrid would’ve made no difference anyway. In England Chelsea FC secured a domestic league and cup triumph by defeating Portsmouth FC 1-0 in a tense affair thanks to yet another Didier Drogba strike at Wembley. The Ivorian has scored on his every visit to England’s national stadium and his free-kick in the 58th minute maintained his perfect record to help the Stamford Bridge outfit win the Double for the first time in the club’s history just a week after securing the Premier League title with that famous 8-0 rout of Wigan Athletic. Another Double winner was FC Basle in Switzerland who, having won the Swiss Cup one week ago, followed it up with a 2-0 victory over Young Boys Berne in what was, in effect, a title play-off to secure their thirteeth league championship crown. In Turkey there was an historic first championship win for Bursaspor who took advantage of a final day slip up by Fenerbahçe to claim the title in dramatic fashion. Fener were surprisingly held to a 1-1 draw at home to Trabzonspor whilst Bursaspor defeated outgoing Süper Lig champions Beşiktaş by two goals to one to claim the title by a single point and, thus, gain automatic entry into next season’s UEFA Champions League. Watch match highlights and title celebrations here:

Other league champions crowned this weekend were Sparta Prague who won their first title since 2006-07 when beating FK Teplice 1-0 to pip nearest challengers Jablonec by a single point to seal the championship while in Poland Lech Poznań won their sixth Ekstraklasa title after defeating Zagłębie Lubin 2-0 which gave Lech their first league championship in seventeen years. In cup competitions Dundee United won only their second Scottish Cup after beating minnows Ross County 3-0 at Hampden Park (for a full report go to the “Away Days” section of the blog) whilst Zenit Saint Petersburg claimed the Russian Cup with a narrow 1-0 victory over Sibir Novosibirsk thanks to a penalty from Roman Shirokov.

Away Days: Dundee United v Ross County

Posted in Away Days, UK Football by peterbein on May 16, 2010

“Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” has been on a journey to Glasgow to watch the final of the 125th Scottish Cup take place at Hampden Park between Scottish Premier League (SPL) club Dundee United and Scottish First Division (second tier) minnows Ross County, the first club from the Highlands of Scotland to reach this showpiece occasion in the competition’s history.

Three friends and myself went to Scotland’s national stadium on Saturday afternoon having had a drunken introduction to Glaswegian nightlife the previous evening only hours after arriving from a four hour drive from Liverpool. On the occasions that conversation with the locals turned to football most people’s reaction was the same; “So you’re going [to] the game? Who do you support?” Within moments of realizing that we were neutrals, two of whom from Scouseland and the other two from Germany, natural surprise would set in; “What do you want to watch that for? Unbelieveable!” But then maybe this reaction is natural from people in a city whose natives are so used to having either one or the other, if not both, of its two giant football clubs Celtic or Rangers play in the final every year. More surprising was that we had tickets for the Ross County section of the ground which was deliberate on our part because it was a truly historic occasion for the club from the small Highland village of Dingwall (population 6,000) whose team were in its first ever major cup final. Their opponents Dundee United had only ever savoured cup final success on one occasion in 1994 when the Terrors defeated Glasgow Rangers 1-0 thanks to a goal from Craig Brewster who, ironically, would be sitting on the bench for Ross County at Hampden Park as County’s assistant to manager Derek Adams.

So as we set off for the stadium it was obvious to all concerned that we should have a pre-match pint but all of the pubs in the vicinity had queues which stretched for what seemed like miles. Having finally managed to squeeze a couple of beers before the game the time was nigh to take the road to Hampden which was considerably shorter for us then it was for the two clubs who had both claimed some big scalps in the tournament before reaching the final. Dundee United had prevented Glasgow Rangers’ quest for the domestic Treble at the quarter-final stage when, in a replayed game, David Robertson claimed a dramatic last-gasp winner for the Tangerines whilst Ross County’s exploits were even more incredible, defeating Hibernian 2-1 in their replayed quarter-final before disposing of cup favourites Glasgow Celtic in the semi-finals thanks to goals from Steven Craig and Martin Scott. But could the Staggies claim a third big scalp or would this be a hurdle too far for the minnows?

The teams come out to a colourful reception at Hampden Park

The first half of the game, played in front of a crowd of 47,122 which was much larger than anticpated, was light on real goalmouth chances but Dundee United were usually the team that looked more likely to make a breakthrough at some point as they ran the Ross County defence ragged attimes in the first 45 minutes. The best chance of the half came with ten minutes remaining when County’s Alex Keddie came from seemingly nowhere to block a clear opportunity for Danny Swanson who was through on goal after playing a one-two with David Goodwillie. With the game goalless at the break many County were crossing their fingers that they could strike early in the second half and put the pressure on Dundee United but, when the whistle re-started the game, the Tangerines were the only team who looked like they could win the game having a few decent chances before the deadlock was finally broken with an hour of the match gone. County ‘keeper Michael McGovern, who had at times looked indecisive in his penalty box, came out to try and clear the ball only for it to fall to Goodwillie whose impressive lob sent the hoardes of Dundonians in the stadium wild. Craig Conway would go on to complete the scoring for United in the 75th and 86th minutes with two nicely taken goals to give Peter Houston his first silverware as coach after he took over from Craig Levein earlier in the season.

For Ross County the dream was finally over but their 15,000 strong contingent, including two Scousers and two Germans, gave the side the rapturous send-off the team deserved for what was a fantastic cup run for the Highland club and their followers will hope that they don’t have to wait another 125 years to make a second appearance in Scotland’s showpiece cup final. Dundee United, on the other hand, were celebrating their second ever Scottish Cup success and the party was only just beginning.

Dundee United complete their lap of honour after the Scottish Cup final

It’s Cup Final Week For Stoppage Time

Posted in European Football, UK Football by peterbein on May 13, 2010
Scottish Cup

Stoppage Time will be in Glasgow to watch the Scottish Cup final between Dundee United and Ross County

“Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” is going to two cup finals in the space of a week but they’re not, perhaps, the cup finals that would immediately spring to mind on most fans’ radar. I’ll be at Hampden Park on Saturday, May 15th to witness what should be a fascinating duel as Scottish Premier League (SPL) side Dundee United face off against First Division (second tier) underdogs Ross County for the Active Nation Scottish Cup Final. Should favourites Dundee United win the trophy it’ll be their first piece of silverware since 1993-94 when the Tangerines defeating Glasgow Rangers to win the same trophy. For Ross County it’s a first major final in a season which has seen them knock out SPL giants Glasgow Celtic and Hibernian FC on the way to the big one.

On Wednesday May 19th I shall be, barring any disruption from a certain Icelandic volcano, at Skonto Stadium in the Latvian capital of Riga to watch a cup final which was every bit as unexpected as its Scottish counterpart. FK Jelgava, newly promoted to the Latvian top flight (Virslīga), play against FK Jūrmala-VV with the former hoping to win the cup for the third time whilst the latter will be playing in their first ever final. FK Jelgava have surprised everybody by disposing of Latvian giants Liepājas Metalurgs and Skonto Riga in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively having taken both teams to penalty shoot-outs in order to progress. FK Jūrmala-VV have had an easier route to the final knocking out SK Blāzma Rēzekne and JFK Olimps/RFS from Riga in the hope of landing the big prize.

Read “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” for the best of the action.

Latvian Cup

FC Daugava won the 2008 Latvian Cup. Stoppage Time will be in Riga to see who wins in 2009-10

Scotland: SPL in need of a shake-up

Posted in UK Football by peterbein on April 13, 2010
Rangers FC

Current SPL champions Glasgow Rangers have called for the league split system to be scrapped

The voices seem to get louder and louder at this time of year from the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and the clubs within it, over the issue of the controversial “league split” system which sees the twelve clubs in Scotland’s top flight split into two groups of six for the final five matches of the league season. This season is no exception with many critics of the system expressing disbelief in this year’s end of season fixtures with some teams having to play certain opposition for a third time away from home. The SPL have argued that there was no way that the post-split fixtures could have worked out with everybody having two home and two away games against all opposition this season because of the way the table finished after 33 games. If that’s the case then there is only one thing to do and that is to scrap the current system.

After the announcement on Saturday that champions Glasgow Rangers will have to play three away games in a row in the final games of the season the club have lashed out at the SPL saying that the system lacks “sporting integrity”, especially as they have to play Dundee United for the third time in four league fixtures between the two clubs this season away from home. Seeing as Rangers finished top of the table at the time of the split it seems like they’re being penalised for their success. It also doesn’t help Rangers that the three away games against Hibernian, Dundee United and Celtic come in the space of ten days so it’s just as well that Rangers will have a double digit lead going into the final five games of the 2009-10 season. But Rangers are far from the only team that are unhappy with their lot. Motherwell are angry at having to play Glasgow Celtic for a third time away from home and St Mirren also have a third away game at Falkirk. For any team that is fighting for European places or against relegation it is invariably going to be controversial to keep a system which can throw up these sorts of anomalies from time to time.

So what changes should be made to eradicate the need for a split? Rangers’ coach Walter Smith has often called for an eighteen team league with each team playing everyone else twice a season, instead of the usual four times as it is currently, meaning thirty four league games a season for each club – four fewer than it stands at the moment. If anything, in my opinion, eighteen teams may just be a couple of teams too many as the necessary quality and finance just isn’t there at the moment to sustain a league of such numbers. Gradually I feel that the Scottish Premier League should be looking at ways to increase the league to sixteen teams, therefore playing thirty league matches. This will mean that clubs have more time to recuperate inbetween matches, even allowing for the fact that there are two domestic cup competitions in Scotland. At least there will be a balanced fixture list which is drawn up at the start of the season with teams not playing against the same opposition so many times. The clubs may talk about losing potential revenue, especially the smaller clubs who rely on the Old Firm coming to their grounds at least four times a season, but I think the financial aspects will sort themselves out over time. If one wants an example of a country with a sixteen team league and two domestic knockout competitions which is doing well in UEFA’S Co-Efficient table (a system used to rank leagues across Europe) then Portugal is perfect. Using a similar system to the one suggested Portugal currently ranks as Europe’s ninth strongest league in the UEFA rankings and their clubs have often performed well in European competition, an area where Scottish football as a whole really needs to improve despite the heroics of the Old Firm reaching UEFA Cup finals in recent years.

In my view the split, which has been a part of the SPL since 2001, has not helped the quality of the league whatsoever. It was used as a balancing measure between those people who advocated a smaller league but who wanted the income and additional revenue by the extra end-of-season matches created. Now that this silly situation has come about it is time that the powers-that-be in Scottish football began to produce a new system which reflects fairness, balance and which is seen, most of all, to help the quality of the domestic game.

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.