There was a report in the British press earlier this week in which the UK prime minister David Cameron is said to have expressed his desire for the Glasgow “Old Firm” of Celtic Football Club and Rangers Football Club to join the English Premier League (EPL). One may question Cameron’s political motives behind the proposal as he seeks to influence the vote north of the border in the oncoming referendum on Scottish independence to be held in September 2014 but the idea is far from new. In the Former Soviet Union (FSU), momentum has also gathered pace as a number of owners from top clubs in Russia and Ukraine seek to form a breakaway championship run along the same lines as the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) which has been a major success since its inception in 2008. In the United States three Canadian clubs feature alongside their American counterparts showing that cross-border championships do happen in soccer as well as in other sports such as ice hockey, basketball and baseball. If the ideas proposed in the UK and the Former Soviet Union are eventually given the green light in the future will the leagues be as super as they look on paper or will it destroy the essence of the game?
As the Scottish Premier League has diminished in strength over the last 25 years it was always going to result in calls for the big two of the Scottish game to apply to join the English league system. Since Aberdeen FC, under the management of Alex Ferguson, became the last team from outside the Old Firm to win the Scottish championship in the 1984-85 season, Rangers and Celtic have completely dominated the league to the point where any potential third force capable of breaking the duopoly seems almost impossible. But where would the Old Firm begin any potential English journey? Some have suggested that they should begin the Conference league (fifth tier), some say in the Championship (second tier) whilst some call for the Old Firm to join the Premier League at the first opportunity in order to increase what is already a substantial TV contract. Were the two Glasgow giants to join the EPL any time soon they see themselves playing against the likes of traditional major English clubs such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, to name but four, as well as the possibility of facing the two biggest Welsh clubs of Swansea City, who are already in the EPL, and Cardiff City, who look very likely to join them next season, in order to create a truly British super league.
This proposal, although attractive to many, would also see any number of clubs voting themselves out of a certain league in order to accommodate the Old Firm. Therefore the situation would be unlikely as it would be like turkeys voting for Christmas but it seems unlikely that the issue will go away. The alternative for the Old Firm would be to create what has been termed the “Atlantic League” along with the biggest clubs from the likes of Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia in order to create more meaningful and lucrative opposition. The biggest clubs from those countries, for example FC Porto, Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht, continue to dominate leagues in which competition over the years has weakened due to the increasing financial and sporting might of the big leagues. An Atlantic League would, therefore, allow stronger competition outside of officially sanctioned UEFA tournaments such as the Champions League and Europa League.
In the case of the Former Soviet Union there will be many who miss football matches of the calibre of Spartak Moscow v Dynamo Kyiv, Zenit Saint Petersburg v Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Shakhtar Donetsk v CSKA Moscow. Owners and sponsors of the some of the biggest football clubs in the region are behind the idea to merge the top leagues of Russia and Ukraine together. Just like with the situation in the UK, there are perhaps political machinations at work in relation to the proposed new set-up here too. Ukraine is a country which is stuck between a rock and a hard place and seems to face a choice as to whether it wishes to become a member state of the European Union or to align itself with its former master of Russia. Whatever the political issues the new money which is prevalent amongst the biggest clubs in both Russia and Ukraine could force the hand of European football’s governing body UEFA who are naturally against such mergers. Increasingly, in the modern game, money talks and one wonders if the status quo will remain in place for much longer especially as the sport of ice hockey in the FSU region provides the footballing hierarchy with a prime example of a trans-national sporting competition which provides ice hockey clubs from Russia the chance to compete in arguably the second best competition in the world (after the National Hockey League in the US and Canada) alongside clubs from Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhstan, Belraus, Czech Republic and Slovakia.
It is not just in ice hockey where the trans-national approach has been broadly welcomed. Rugby union has embraced such competition in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the Anglo-Welsh Cup, Celtic League (top 14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy), Heineken Cup (equivalent to the UEFA Champions League) and the Super 15 (featuring the top 15 provincial teams from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). The other oval ball code of rugby league also embraces such competition but on a much limited scale with one French club, the Catalan Dragons, playing in the northern hemisphere UK-based “Super League” whilst the New Zealand Warriors feature in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL). As mentioned at the top of the piece there is currently one example of a football championship which currently uses such a system, namely Major League Soccer. Three of Canada’s top clubs – Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps – play alongside the best 16 American clubs in a league which is run alongside similar lines to the other major leagues of ice hockey (NHL), baseball (MLB) and basketball (NBA).
These events have largely come about for two reasons. With travel getting easier and the world becoming smaller thanks to modern technology it is natural that teams and individuals want to constantly challenge themselves against the very best on a regular basis. With the financial rewards that this brings then it is, for better or worse, another natural consequence that such teams and individuals will try to gain those rewards and, if necessary, upset the status quo in order to do so. If UEFA was to allow such cross-border league mergers along the Russia/Ukraine route or allow more of the MLS style leagues to become a reality (for example, a British League as discussed) then this could, and probably would, open up a can of worms for the game’s administrators at both UEFA and at FIFA, world football’s governing body. If such eventualities occur in Europe then how long before mergers become commonplace in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? Whereas administrators from other sports have had to think outside the box and have undertaken such measures in order to broaden their appeal, football is the one truly global sport and it seems that whatever the traditions and customs which have made the game great in the past, its future could and probably will take a financially driven path down a whole new route.
It has been reported on The Guardian website today that up to 900 away end tickets have been returned by Manchester City to their hosts Arsenal ahead of the forthcoming Premier League clash between the two teams. The reason is suspected to be that, at £62 a ticket, it is simply either too expensive or a case of fans not wanting to pay such an extortionate amount of money out of principle. For fans of the English game this is simply not a surprise anymore; indeed the only surprise is that anybody still puts up with being ripped off.
Since the formation of the English Premier League in the 1992-93 season ticket prices have been rising at an alarming rate. Even in the last year, a survey published by the BBC revealed that the cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions had risen by 11.7%. Of course it is Premier League clubs who will be largely responsible for the biggest of price hikes especially as the clubs are finding it more difficult to pay ever increasing wages to top stars, despite the fact that the Premier League is raking in more money than ever before due to increased television revenue. The advent of all-seater stadia was supposed to herald a new era of safety and comfort in English stadiums with the TV money a prime reason to help keep ticket prices as cheap as possible. In recent years, however, it seems that clubs will rip the fans off anyway, a situation which has arguably been a factor in increased calls for the re-introduction of standing areas in English football grounds. Fans simply cannot keep forking out at the current rate for match tickets along with all the usual necessities that going to a football stadium brings such as a match programme, food, drink and transport.
In recent months many English newspapers and football websites have made comparisons between the situation in England and that in Germany and how fans of Bundesliga clubs get such a bargain. Current German champions Borussia Dortmund, for example, charge as little as €190 for a season ticket which allows a fan to see seventeen home league games, an average of €11 a game. When one takes into account that the possession of a match ticket allows free travel on public transport to the stadium and the fact that one can drink beer whilst watching the match (something that ceased to be the case in England years ago where beer must be drank in designated areas away from the seating) and it is clear that fans in Germany have a much better deal. Even when clubs have tried to raise prices for big games in the Bundesliga fans have always been ready to vote with their feet, a most famous example was when fans of Borussia Dortmund boycotted a derby match against arch rivals Schalke 04 due to their hosts raising the ticket price to €20. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve been to watch many games as a fan of Eintracht Frankfurt, the most amazing deal was going to the Olympiastadion in Berlin to watch Eintracht play against Hertha BSC five years ago. The cost of a ticket? Only €9! And in a stadium which has hosted the FIFA World Cup final too.
Such a ticket price, which would work out at £7.30 at the current exchange rate, would be a dream to any English football fan in the current climate. The worst offenders in the English game tend to be clubs from the south of the country, the worst being Chelsea at £41 for the cheapest ticket, perhaps not surprising given that the cost of living is much higher than elsewhere in the country. Even Manchester United, who are the par excellence example in the commercialisation of the game throughout the Premier League era, still keep their cheapest ticket prices to a reasonable £30. Season ticket prices are an even more obvious example in how fans are having to dig deep in their pockets with Arsenal being the most expensive. There wouldn’t be much change given from £2000 if you were to get a season ticket at the Emirates stadium.
The fact is that Premier League clubs will always be prepared to charge what they want as long as people are prepared to keep paying the money. If fan movements in England had any importance, such as they do in Germany, then perhaps there would be no need for clubs to have to send batches of tickets back in the first place for such big games. After all it is the big games which fans want to see but the clubs should know where to draw the line and, in the name of fairness, stop testing the patience of loyal, hard-core fans whose bank balances suffer terribly in order to subsidize those of their heroes.
While the rest of European football shuts down for a well-earned break at Christmas time there is no such luxury in the United Kingdom. It has long been a traditional within the Home Nations to continue over the festive period and this season will should see some interesting action.
In England there is the very real possibility of the top two teams pushing away from all the rest to indulge in their own private dual to win the Barclays Premier League. Manchester City (Played 17, Points 44) will top the standings on Christmas Day for the first time since 1929 but they only have a two point advantage over arch-rivals United who, as usual at this time of year, are peaking are just the right time. Having trailed City by seven points only a few weeks ago, United are now breathing down their neighbours’ necks and have dropped only two points out of the last 24 available since they suffered an embarrassing 6-1 at the hands of City in the Manchester derby.
City will hope to preserve their place at the top but will face tough challenges against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on Boxing Day followed by a home tie against a Sunderland team revitalized since Martin O’Neill became their manager a fortnight ago. Roberto Mancin’s men have done well to remain at the top given all of the antics happening on and off the field. The Carlos Tevez saga has annoyed and bored everybody in equal measure whilst Mario Balotelli remains a constant source of fascination whether he is setting off fireworks in his home United, meanwhile, will play two home games, both of which look very winnable on paper. Wigan Athletic have taken points from both Chelsea and Liverpool in their last two games but recent history suggests that the Latics will do very well to take anything off United as the Lancashire side have lost every game against United in thirteen matches since they came into the Premier League in 2005. Blackburn Rovers are the visitors to Old Trafford on New Year’s Eve with Rovers fans’ campaign to get rid of their coach Steve Kean likely to take up the headlines going into that match.
In case either of the Manchester teams slip up Tottenham Hotspur are still the best placed team to take advantage despite their 1-1 draw at home to Chelsea FC on Thursday night. Spurs face two of last season’s three promoted sides in the form of Norwich City and Swansea City over the festive period. Three-time Premier League champions Chelsea hope to maintain their top four ambitions with wins in the local derby at home to Fulham FC and against struggling Aston Villa. Just outside of the Champions League places Arsenal FC have two home games against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Queens Park Rangers whilst Liverpool, who have had to contend with recent allegations of racism towards star player Luis Suarez, also have two home games with Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United providing the opposition. Nothing less than six points will do for the Reds who have struggled for consistency and dropped too many points against teams they should’ve beaten this season. If Kenny Dalglish’s men are to challenge for the Champions League spots then they really need to start a good run from here.
In Scotland defending champions Glasgow Rangers (Played 19, Points 48) have an early kick off today away to St Mirren with three points essential if the Gers are to at least preserve their current four point lead going into next Wednesday’s Old Firm derby against eternal rivals Glasgow Celtic. Neil Lennon’s Celtic side have a home tie against sixth placed Kilmarnock today with the former having enjoyed a run of seven straight wins following a tough start to the season. Old Firm games always have something riding on them and Wednesday’s encounter will be no exception. The first meeting between Rangers and Celtic this season saw the former etch out a 4-2 win over the latter after Celtic had led the game 2-1 at half-time. Celtic, however, will have home advantage next time and go into the game in better form. Even so coach Lennon must prove that this is a Celtic team that will be capable of taking the champions all the way in this season’s title race following a three year title drought at Parkhead.
Outside of the Old Firm, Motherwell have had a great season under Stuart McCall and they hope to continue their impressive form with wins against Heart of Midlothian, who have been beset by internal upheaval with players in dispute over unpaid wages throughout the season, and Dunfermline who are currently bottom of the table on goal difference with Edinburgh side Hibernian just above them on goal difference. Speaking of Hibs they will face local rivals Heart of Midlothian in the capital city derby on January 2nd in a game neither club dare lose given their current predicaments.
In the Welsh Premier League there is currently an exciting tussle at the top with the best three sides – Llanelli AFC, The New Saints and Bangor City – all separated by just two points. With just two games left before the twelve team league is split up into two groups of six it is imperative for clubs to see out 2011 on a high. League leaders Llanelli (Played 20, Points 45) will face off home and away against fourth place Neath Athletic, who are ten points behind the league leaders, whilst The New Saints and defending champions Bangor City will also face double headers against Newtown and Prestatyn Town respectively.
In Northern Ireland table toppers Linfield FC (Played 22, Points 52) have a five point lead over Portadown and Cliftonville going into the festive period. Record champions Linfield, who won their 50th championship last season, will meet fifth placed Glentoran and ninth placed Glenavon over the next seven days. Should Linfield slip up then Portadown and Cliftonville will be looking to close the gap. Portadown, whose last league title came in 2002, have games against Glenavon and sixth placed Crusaders to look forward to whilst Cliftonville, whose most recent title triumph came in 1998, meet Crusaders and fourth placed Coleraine FC.
Pre-season expectations have been dampened in North London as both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC succumbed to heavy defeats by Manchester clubs City and United respectively with the two northern giants beginning to look the most likely candidates to fight it out for the English championship crown.
Tottenham Hotspur began the weekend at the bottom of the Barclays Premier League table but they had only played one game due to their opening home match of the season against Everton FC being called off due to the recent rioting that affected England’s capital city. Despite performing well in the UEFA Europa League qualifying stages, Spurs’ first match of the domestic campaign saw the White Hart Lane club lose 3-0 away at champions Manchester United while yesterday’s 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City compounded the misery further for coach Harry Redknapp and his club whose ambitions to fight for the title already look shattered even at such an early stage of the season.
The only consolation for Tottenham was that their bitter rivals Arsenal FC have had just as traumatic an opening to the new season. Before yesterday’s soul-destroying 8-2 defeat to Manchester United, Arsenal had only picked up a point from their opening two Premier League games away at Newcastle United and at home to Liverpool. Despite the consolation of scoring their first Premier League goals of the season reality is surely hitting home for coach Arsene Wenger who increasingly looks ill-equipped to do anything about the situation.
Indeed it’s been a difficult summer for both Redknapp and Wenger, both of whom have had to deal with a deluge of questions regarding want away players such as Luka Modric, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Modric started for Spurs in yesterday’s defeat and it has emerged that the player himself had asked before the game not to be featured. With the transfer window due to finally close on Wednesday it is looking like Modric’s proposed departure to Chelsea would be best for everyone concerned. Arsenal’s enforced parting of Fabregas (FC Barcelona) and Nasri, who linked up well with Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko in his first game for Manchester City yesterday, have shown that Arsenal are yet to do anything about addressing their major weaknesses. The sad fact of the matter for Wenger, however, is that he has continually sold some of his club’s best players in recent years without finding adequate replacements. It was obvious to everybody last season that the club lacked quality at the back and a leader in the midfield and these concerns still remain in the air and is beginning to make many Arsenal fans doubt Wenger’s ability to carry on in the job.
At the top of the table the two Manchester clubs continue to go from strength to strength and they are the only clubs in the English Premier League to have a 100% record after three games. Manchester United got most of their pre-season targets and the likes of Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea are starting to fit in nicely at Old Trafford. Manchester City, meanwhile, have spent countless millions on propping up an already talented squad of players and with new signings Kun Aguero and Samir Nasri featuring so prominently already in their fledgling City careers then it is clear to see that the future looks bright for the Eastlands club. The two Manchester giants won the league (United) and the cup (City) between them last season, the first time this had occurred since 1955-56, and with the talent and the money at both clubs’ disposal then the immediate future looks bright for them and seemingly bleak for everybody else. Even Chelsea and Liverpool, who have both started off well with two wins and a draw in their opening three league games, still seem a bit off the pace but those clubs do at least have more reason to be optimistic than the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham at the moment in light of recent performances.
There are 35 games to go and fortunes can turn around quickly in football. However the minimum that both north London clubs want at the end of the season is to qualify for the UEFA Champions League but with decline seemingly setting in at Arsenal and the increased competition for the top four spots for the likes of Tottenham to worry about, things are definitely looking better if you’re a Mancunian rather than a Londoner at the moment.
All of the four major championships in the United Kingdom are under way for the 2011-12 season. The big kick-off took place in the English and Welsh Premier Leagues on Saturday whilst the Northern Irish championship and Scottish Premier Leagues are two and four weeks old respectively.
It may only be the opening weekend but The Barclays Premier League saw, just like in previous seasons, yet another round of games in which champions Manchester United enjoyed a late win whilst many of their title rivals dropped points to lesser teams. Sir Alex Ferguson’s United were being held 1-1 by West Bromwich Albion before a Steven Reid own goal gave the Red Devils three points with eight minutes remaining. This happened on a weekend in which Chelsea (0-0 v Stoke City), Arsenal (0-0 v Newcastle United) and Liverpool (1-1 v Sunderland) all faltered early on to ensure that the Premier League kept up its tendency to allow perennial champions United the opportunity to take advantage of opposition ineptitude. Bolton Wanderers take the plaudits for their 4-0 thrashing away to newly-promoted Queen’s Park Rangers whilst Wolverhampton Wanderers came from behind to defeat Blackburn Rovers 2-1 at Ewood Park. There were opening day draws for Fulham (0-0 v Aston Villa) and Wigan Athletic (1-1 v Norwich City) whilst Manchester City begin their campaign at home to Swansea City on Monday night. The game between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, scheduled to be played at White Hart Lane on Saturday, was postponed due to the recent rioting that affected the area last week.
The Welsh Premier League also began this weekend with a win for the champions Bangor City. In a highly entertaining game Bangor gained some revenge for their Welsh Cup final defeat last season to Llanelli AFC by defeating the same opponents by three goals to two. Alan Bull scored twice including the winner in the 85th minute to ensure that the champions got off to winning ways. The biggest winners of the opening weekend were Neath Athletic for whom Lee Trundle scored twice in a 4-2 win over Aberystwyth Town. Elsewhere the other two teams enjoying a winning start to the new season were Newtown AFC (1-0 v Carmarthen Town) and Prestatyn Town (1-0 v Afan Lido) whilst five-time champions The New Saints could only draw 1-1 to Bala Town which was the same score line seen at the Airbus UK versus Port Talbot Town fixture.
The Carling Premiership sees familiar faces at the top of the table with both Linfield FC and Glentoran FC as the only teams to enjoy a 100% record after two matches. Defending title holders Linfield FC put five past Donegal Celtic this weekend with Philip Lowry getting on the score sheet four times in their 5-0 win. Glentoran FC scored both goals in their 2-0 win over Dungannon Swifts in the first half as an Adam McMinn own goal and Darren Boyce strike sealed the three points for the home side. Elsewhere Ballymena United and Cliftonville followed up opening day wins with closely fought draws with the former involved in a thrilling 3-3 at home to Glenavon and the latter saw a first half lead equalized midway through the second half by a Leon Knight goal in a 1-1 draw.
The Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League began a couple of weeks early this season and, having played four matches so far, Motherwell FC are currently enjoying life at the top of the table. They sealed their third win of the season this Saturday when defeating St Mirren 1-0 thanks to a Tom Hateley free-kick in the penultimate minute of the match. Both of the Old Firm also enjoyed wins as Glasgow Celtic thrashed Dundee United 5-1 while Glasgow Rangers made hard work of a 2-0 win away at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. With the Old Firm having a game in hand Motherwell may not find themselves in first place for very long. At the bottom of the table Aberdeen FC find themselves struggling along with Inverness and Perth-based St Johnstone as the only clubs in the league without a win. It is a blow for former Scotland coach Craig Brown who left Motherwell FC in controversial circumstances last season to take up the job at Pittodrie which has become something of a poisoned chalice in recent seasons.
All four championships of the United Kingdom have been completed for another season. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the situation in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.
Manchester United finally broke the stranglehold of their arch-rivals Liverpool FC and won a record 19th English championship thanks to a combination of some late-winners and ineptitude of their fellow title challengers. The Red Devils were unbeaten for their first 24 matches of the Premier League season despite the fact that they played far from free-flowing football but the team’s spirit allowed them to remain at the top of the table for most of the season. Manchester City, forever living in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours, finally had a trophy to show for their efforts as they defeated Stoke City in the English FA Cup final. Chelsea FC, who were defending the title at the start of the season, started superbly but saw their form dip from November into the early weeks of the new year and allowed North London rivals Arsenal FC to overtake them as United’s main challengers. However Arsene Wenger’s men also collapsed in a manner which used to befit the English national cricket team as they saw their chances of winning four trophies in one season reduced to dust in the last couple of months and they finished the season empty-handed. Tottenham Hotspur pipped Liverpool FC into fifth place and the final UEFA Europa League spot but both teams will consider the season to have been a disappointing one. At the other end of the table West Ham United lost their first four games of the campaign and remained rooted to the bottom of the league all season. Birmingham City, who defeated Arsenal FC in the Carling League Cup final, also drop into the Championship (2nd tier) next season along with Blackpool FC.
WATCH MANCHESTER UNITED DRESSING ROOM CELEBRATIONS HERE:
It was a troubled season in the Scottish Premier League but, despite the negative headlines which affected Scottish football in the last few months, there was a fantastic title chase between the two Old Firm giants. Glasgow Rangers finally managed to clinch a world record extending 54th domestic championship on the final day of the season when their 5-1 victory away at Kilmarnock saw them over the line. Outgoing manager Walter Smith leaves the club having won his tenth SPL title with the Ibrox club and will go down as a club legend, especially as he also sealed a double triumph having beaten arch-rivals Glasgow Celtic to the CIS Insurance League Cup in a tense Hampden Park final in March. At least the green and white half of Glasgow had some silverware of their own to celebrate as they won the end of season showpiece Scottish FA Cup final with a 3-0 win over Motherwell, allowing manager Neil Lennon the chance to reward the loyal fans who had stood behind him during difficult times. Outside the Old Firm Hearts of Midlothian showed signs of a title challenge in the early months of the season which, sadly for them, evaporated as the season progressed but at least the Edinburgh club could claim to be the “best of the rest” finishing third in the table. They will play in the UEFA Europa League next season along with fourth place Dundee United whilst, at the bottom of the table, Hamilton Academicals will go down into the First Division (2nd tier) next season.
WATCH GLASGOW RANGERS TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
The Welsh Premier League had a final day title decider which was worthy of the name. With just a single point separating them, Bangor City and defending champions The New Saints would face off on the final day at the former’s Farrar Road stadium to decide the destination of the title. Bangor City scraped a 1-0 win and claimed their third league title by just two points allowing them the opportunity to compete in next season’s UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds. Bangor City were in line to celebrate a league and cup double for the first time in the club’s history having also reached their fourth consecutive Welsh Cup final but blew their big chance, going down to a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Llanelli AFC which proved to be a maiden Cup triumph for the victors. The New Saints got their hands on the final piece of silverware, winning an exciting Welsh Premier League Cup final against Llanelli by four goals to three. As well as the two victorious cup sides, Neath Athletic will also feature in the UEFA Europa League next season after they won an end-of-season play-off tournament. At the bottom Haverfordwest County look set to drop down into the second tier having only accumulated 19 points in 32 games.
WATCH BANGOR CITY v THE NEW SAINTS TITLE DECIDER HIGHLIGHTS HERE:
There appears to be no stopping Linfield FC at the moment. The dominant force of the Northern Ireland Premiership easily won their 50th championship from nearest challengers Crusaders FC by a gaping margin of eleven points. The latest league triumph was the fifth in the last six years for Linfield who also secured the Irish Cup at the hands of Crusaders winning the final in their Windsor Park home by two goals to one. The League Cup final saw a new name on the trophy as Lisburn Distillery defeated Portadown and, at the very least, allowed somebody else to experience some success. Crusaders, Glentoran and Cliftonville FC will compete in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds next season whilst Newry City will find themselves playing second division football in 2011-12 having finished bottom of the table.
WATCH LINFIELD FC v PORTADOWN FC & TITLE CELEBRATIONS HERE:
Just three weeks into the new season and it’s a case of as you were in England and Scotland as familiar names lie in the top spots in each league. In England champions Chelsea are the only team with a 100% record following their 2-0 victory over Stoke City at the weekend but familiar foes Manchester United and Arsenal FC aren’t far behind. In Scotland the two Glasgow clubs, Celtic and Rangers, are the only teams with a perfect three wins from three games following wins over Motherwell and St. Johnstone respectively. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the latest action as both leagues take a break for international week.
There doesn’t appear to be any stopping Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea team at the moment. Fourteen goals scored in their first three Barclays Premiership games shows that the firepower at the Stamford Bridge club’s disposal is as reliable as ever with last season’s Golden Boot winner Didier Drogba carrying on where he left off last season having scored four goals so far including a first day hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion. He was on the score sheet again on Saturday as Chelsea beat Stoke City 2-0 with Florent Malouda also joining the Ivorian on four goals for the season with his 31st minute strike to give the Blues the lead. Arsenal FC and Manchester United are two points behind the league leaders with the Gunners edging second place at the moment through a better goal difference. Arsenal’s coach Arsène Wenger got the better of his old adversary Sam Allardyce in Saturday’s early kick-off against Blackburn Rovers with Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin scoring the goals in a 2-1 win. Later that day Manchester United easily disposed of a West Ham United team who remain rooted to the bottom of the table following a 3-0 victory for the Red Devils in a game which saw Wayne Rooney’s first league goal since March.
Aston Villa went up to fourth place on Sunday with a narrow 1-0 win over Everton thanks to a Luke Young goal in the 9th minute which arguably gives caretaker boss Kevin McDonald a winning conclusion to his short spell as coach as an announcement on a new full-time coach seems to be imminent. Everton, on the other hand, have started the season poorly with one point from three games but were unfortunate not to take anything from Sunday’s game as they had more shots and possession than their hosts but for boss David Moyes the pressure could soon be on if results don’t improve in the very near future. Manchester City were confident of following up Monday’s 3-0 drubbing of Liverpool FC with a win away at Sunderland AFC but the game would go wrong for City on two fronts. Carlos Tevez missed an open goal in what was an embarrassing moment for the Argentine and he would later rue that miss as City eventually lost to a Marcus Bent penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time to give Steve Bruce’s team all of the points. Liverpool FC won their first league game on Sunday but laboured to a 1-0 win thanks to a sole Fernando Torres strike midway through the second half against West Bromwich Albion.
In other results this weekend Tottenham Hotspur, fresh from UEFA Champions League qualification, surprisingly lost 1-0 at home to Wigan Athletic who had lost both their opening matches by 4-0 and 6-0 before going to White Hart Lane. Hugo Rodallega’s 79th minute goal took his side out of the bottom three and relieved some of the pressure on his boss Roberto Martínez. Blackpool FC continued their maiden Premiership adventure with their first home match of the season against Fulham FC and a famous win was on the cards before Dickson Etuhu’s late equalizer gave the West London side a share of the points in a lively 2-2 draw over Ian Holloway’s side who have a respectable four points from three matches. Two further matches ended in draws as Newcastle United scraped a point away at Wolverhampton Wanderers thanks to Andy Carroll’s fourth goal of the season in a 1-1 draw while on Sunday Bolton Wanders came from two goals down at home to Birmingham City to gain a welcome point in a 2-2 draw at the Reebok Stadium.
The Scottish Premier League has a familiar look to it after three matches with Glasgow Celtic leading their eternal rivals Rangers by goal difference after this weekend’s matches. After Rangers had come from behind to beat bottom club St Johnstone at Ibrox Park on Saturday it was important for Celtic boss Neil Lennon to keep up his 100% winning record in the SPL since taking over from Tony Mowbray at the end of last season. The Bhoys travelled to Fir Park to play Craig Brown’s Motherwell FC who, like Celtic, were knocked out of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday in the play-off round. There were no goals in the first forty-five minutes of the match and the Celtic fans began to get impatient as the second half dragged on but then came the decisive moment in the 73rd minute after Celtic’s Shaun Maloney was brought down in the penalty area with Motherwell’s Steve Saunders shown a red card for his trouble. Daryl Murohy stepped up to score his first goal for Celtic to gift the Hoops a 1-0 win which allowed his team to leapfrog over Rangers at the top of the SPL. Rangers were on top after goals from Saša Papac and Kenny Millar gave the Gers all three points after coming from behind after St Johnstone’s Danny Grainger had scored an amazing goal to give the Perth-based side the lead. As usual the Old Firm take control of the league early on and nobody expects them to relinquish the leadership for the remainder of the season.
In the other SPL matches at the weekend the only other 100% record going into Matchday 3 was lost as Aberdeen FC, who had beaten Hamilton Academicals and St Johnstone in their opening two games, were surprisingly beaten at home by a Kilmarnock side who had yet to score a point before going to Pittodrie Stadium on Saturday. Jamie Hamill rounded Aberdeen keeper Mark Howard to slot the ball home two minutes into stoppage time to give Killie a much-needed first win of the season. Dundee United, who had high expectations following their Scottish Cup win last season, are second bottom in the table and remain without a win after Morgaro Gomis sneaked an equalizer five minutes from time in the Arabs’ 1-1 draw away at Hearts of Midlothian. Craig Dargo scored the only goal of the game as St Mirren won their first game of the season against a Hibernian side who have lost their last two games and are in a tight bunch of five clubs who have three points in the table. Another team to gain their first win of the season this weekend was Hamilton Academicals who beat Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1-0 thanks to an opening minute goal by Dougie Imrie on Saturday.
Football is well and truly coming home this weekend with each of the individual championships up and running in the British Isles. The Carling Premiership in Northern Ireland is already seven days old whilst its equivalents in England, Scotland and Wales all look forward to the big kick-off. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews the weekend’s action.
Many pundits are predicting that this could be one of the most open Barclays Premiership titles ever with a multitude of teams catching up to those clubs who have graced the top of the league for many years, namely Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. West Londoners Chelsea, who won their fourth English title in 2009-10, have what appears to be an easy start on paper at home to newly promoted West Brom. Manchester United, who were denied a history-making fourth consecutive Premiership title by a solitary point last season, also start off against a club who have risen from the Championship (i.e. 2nd tier), namely Newcastle United. Amongst the usual suspects Arsenal have the toughest start playing against a Liverpool side who are under the stewardship of former Fulham boss Roy Hodgson and hope to challenge for the title again after a dreadful campaign last term. Amongst the other title hopefuls there is an intriging first match of the weekend when Tottenham Hotspur, buoyed by last season’s fourth place finish, meet Manchester City in the 12:45 kick-off at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Everton hope to get off to a good start but will have their work cut out away at Blackburn Rovers whilst Aston Villa, still getting used to life after Martin O’Neill after the Irishman surprisingly handed in his resignation last week, face off against West Ham United. In games affecting the predicted strugglers Blackpool FC start life in their first ever Premier League with a home tie against Wigan Athletic, Sunderland meet Birmingham City, Wolverhampton Wanderers play Stoke City and Bolton Wanderers meet Fulham FC.
Having won a record extending 53rd domestic championship last season Glasgow Rangers are under even more pressure to lift the trophy again after a very limited transfer market for the Ibrox club this time. With money scarce not just in the blue half of Glasgow but throughout the league most teams haven’t spent heavily on new recruits this time around. The only exception are Glasgow Celtic under new coach Neil Lennon and the Bhoys open up this weekend’s action in the the Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League with an away tie at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who return to the SPL after a twelve month absence. Champions Rangers have a home tie against Kilmarnock at Ibrox Park where the traditional unfurling of the championship flag will take place before kick-off. Dundee United, for whom Peter Houston enjoys his first full season in charge after taking over from Craig Levein midway through last season, hope to keep up momentum following a successful 2009-10 season with an away win against St Mirren. The usual wannabes such as Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian and Aberdeen will start afresh and will hope for winning starts against St Johnstone, Motherwell and Hamilton Academicals respectively. Once again the Scottish Premier League has maintained the “split league” system whereby after 33 matches the league splits into two halves of six teams each, with teams playing every other team in their section once.
The Principality Building Society Welsh Premier League, to give it its full name, resumes this season with just twelve teams (reduced from eighteen) after the clubs voted to restructure the league in order to increase the quality of the competition and to provide a new criteria which aspirant clubs should adhere to if they wish to play in the Welsh Premier League in the future. Rhyl FC, Welsh Premier League champions in 2004 and 2009, were the biggest name casualities of the restructure as their stadium didn’t meet up to requirements and, thus, have been demoted to the Cymru Alliance which forms a new second tier of football in the principality. As a result of the restructure teams will play each other twice before the league splits for the top six and bottom six. The teams in each section will then play each other twice again to determine championship and relegation issues. This weekend sees The New Saints, who claimed their fifth title last term, get the new season under way on Friday night with a home tie against Prestatyn Town. Llanelli, runners-up in the last two seasons, begin away at Airbus UK Broughton whilst Bangor City, another team who hope to be there or thereabouts at the end of the season, entertain Neath FC. Three more games make up this weekend’s opening round with Haverfordwest v Newtown, Carmarthen v Aberystwyth and Port Talbot, third in last season’s title race, facing off against Bala Town.
The new Carling Premiership began last weekend in Northern Ireland with champions Linfield FC hoping to claim their 50th league championship this season but they got off to a goalless start last weekend only able to muster a 0-0 draw at home to Ballymena United and will hope to improve on that by beating Dungannon Swifts on Saturday. Glentoran, who last won the title in 2009, are hoping to reclaim the Premiership trophy and made a fantastic start to the new campaign with a 6-1 demolition of Lisburn Distellery in the opening round of games and will hope to keep up momentum at home to Coleraine this weekend. Two teams who didn’t get play last weekend get their new seasons under way with Portadown away at Glenavon on Friday and Cliftonville starting away at Newry with Cliftonville a good outside bet for the title after they finished five points behind Linfield in the championship race last season. In the other games this weekend Ballymena United play at home to Donegal Celtic and Crusaders, who won their opening match last weekend, at home to Lisburn Distillery. The Northern Ireland championship takes on a similar “split league” system as that in Scotland with twelve teams playing each other three times before they split into two groups of six.
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 München 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 Olić 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 Nürnberg 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 Marítimo. At the bottom last season’s surprise package SC Leixões were relegated along with Os Belenenses, both of whom will play in the Liga de Honra next season.
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 Kanouté 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 Higuaín 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.
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 München 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 Ribéry 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 Müller 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 Kießling 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 Arsène 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 Vučinić 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 Brandão’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 København who consolidated their lead at the top of the SAS Superligæn with a 2-0 home win over nearest challengers Odense Boldklub. Goals from Dame N’Doye and Jesper Grønkjær 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 Balázs Dzsudzsák. With four games left FC Twente lead the table four points ahead of Ajax and a point further ahead of PSV Eindhoven.