Three days after Oldham’s League One success against Portsmouth saw the continuation of the Latics’ FA Cup adventure. Having knocked out Liverpool FC in the fourth round, Athletic had salvaged a replay out of their fifth round clash against the blue half of Merseyside, Everton FC, when Matt Smith headed home a 95th minute equalizer in an exciting 2-2 draw at Boundary Park. For Oldham it was a return to Goodison Park where they had achieved a famous 1-0 win over their hosts in the 2007-08 season and hopes were high amongst the Latics faithful that a repeat was on the cards.
I met up with the guys from the “Two Teams One Spirit” group once again as it was thanks to them that I had the opportunity to go to the game in the first place. We met in the Taxi Drivers’ Club on Walton Hall Avenue, just a brisk 5-10 minute walk from the stadium, and a decent proportion of the 4,000 travelling support had already congregated there for a pre-match pint or two. At 7:45 we took our seats in the Bullens Road End and the travelling support were in good voice right from the off but it wouldn’t be long before all of the pre-match optimism would suddenly disappear.
Fifteen minutes was all it took for Everton to take the lead, a Darron Gibson cross from midfield was taken from close range by an unmarked Kevin Mirallas on the half volley. The closest Oldham would come to scoring in the first half was when Jose Baxter, a former Everton player, was unfortunate to hit the post, a miss which would be punished on the 34th minute mark. A handball from Connor Brown saw a penalty given to the hosts for whom Leighton Baines made it 2-0 and already there was a big mountain to climb for the visitors. It was hard to take for Oldham to concede a goal from the penalty spot, especially as they had a strong case for a penalty of their own turned down following a handball by Gibson following the aforementioned Baxter opportunity.
At half-time most of us talking over a quick beer in the stand agreed that the next goal would be crucial; if Everton scored it would be game over but an Oldham goal would bring back some hope. Unfortunately for Oldham it would be the former that would ring true as Leon Osman got a crucial touch onto a Steven Pienaar cross to make it 3-0 and put the game to bed. There was at least a consolation goal for Oldham fans to cheer as Matt Smith, who had scored some crucial goals in the cup run, rose highest to meet Jonathan Grounds’ corner kick to reduce the arrears just after the hour mark. However, that would be as good as it got for Oldham with the game finishing 3-1. After the game there was only enough time for me to wish the Oldham boys, whether they be English or German, a good trip back as they boarded the coaches lined up outside the stadium whilst yours truly took a short cab ride home with some very good memories from the last few days.
On the pitch Everton are looking to qualify for Europe, either through a sufficiently high Premier League placing (currently lying in 6th place) or by winning the FA Cup for the first time since 1995. Oldham, on the other hand, will now hope to maintain their place in English football’s third tier as they currently lie 20th in the 24 team league.
Pre-season is usually a time when football fans begin to feel optimistic about their team’s chances ahead of the new season. With new signings to be unveiled as financed by the ever-growing amounts of money pumped into the game it is also a time when fans look forward to seeing some new blood in the squad which can help the team improve from last season’s performance, and maybe even win a trophy.
For fans of English Premier League side Everton Football Club, however, fans are starting to tire of a board which promises much but delivers little. The Toffees have done really well on a restricted budget thanks to their canny manager David Moyes who, almost every season, refuses offers from rival clubs and shows his loyalty to the Goodison Park club despite the lack of financial muscle at the club. For that particular problem, as well as a host of other off-the-pitch issues, a new group has been formed to become a voice for fans of a club that should be aiming higher but whose internal problems deny it that opportunity.
The People’s Group has recently been set up with the aim of trying to oust a board, led by chairman, local celebrity and impresario Bill Kenwright, whose promises of seeking further investment for the club only for nobody to come forward with any fresh money whilst seeking an unpopular move to a new stadium on the outskirts of the city of Liverpool has become too much. Even for those supporters of the club who are still on Kenwright’s side the promises have become an ever growing sign of tedious disappointment. As every new season approaches players have to be sold before new ones can be bought and Moyes has done very well in the circumstances to keep the team competitive. It’s all the more frustrating for loyal Evertonians to see their team enjoy six top-eight finishes in the last seven seasons and see their team reach the 2008-09 FA Cup final only for ambitions both on-and-off the pitch to be thwarted by a constant lack of finance which, when playing in the richest league in the world, begs questions to be asked about where the money is actually going.
The People’s Group have recently issued a letter which they have sent to a number of UK newspapers in the hope that their cause will be highlighted in much the same way as fans of Manchester United have protested over the Glazer family or fans of local rivals Liverpool FC protested against previous American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks before the club was eventually taken over by New England Sports Ventures. The People’s Group’s has highlighted a number of issues which they feel need addressing:
KING’S DOCK FAILURE – Everton seemed destined to move home from Goodison Park to a prime location on the Liverpool waterfront at King’s Dock in 2003. However the move fell through after the club were unable to guarantee their share of the funding (£30 million) which was all the more disappointing given that Kenwright had said that this was an opportunity that they “would not let….pass us by”. Given that the Liverpool Echo Arena, which hosts pop concerts and other sporting events, has subsequently been built in its place and is extremely lucrative, this missed opportunity was perhaps Everton’s biggest mistake in recent times.
WAYNE ROONEY SALE – When speculation began that home-grown talent Wayne Rooney would be sold to another club Kenwright stressed that “David Moyes and I agreed Wayne has to be a £50m player now….I would turn down any bid for him”, only for the club to sell the player a couple of months later for an initial £20m fee which eventually rose up to £27m due to various added extras. The fact that Rooney was sold was one thing, the actions of a board that spoke tough and acted weak was another.
LACK OF INVESTMENT – There have been a couple of false dawns over the years regarding investment opportunities. Kenwright has been honest in the past to admit that he doesn’t have the sort of cash that many of his Premier League counterparts have but any chances to gain fresh investment from other sources or to sell the club on to something with adequate resources have consistently failed. As The People’s Group eloquently argue in their letter:
“Kenwright says that there are people out there who have looked at buying the club but then never show up with the money. So, every potential investor who ever has an interest in Everton gets to the final stages but never come up with the money? Really? If that is so then why? Why are people not showing up with the money? Who are these people he claims were interested…….They all just suddenly disappeared conveniently? Was it due to the amount they were asking, or were they even there to begin with? No names were mentioned, why not? “
PROJECTED MOVE TO KIRKBY – Another group called Keep Everton In Our City (KEIOC) was created in 2007 to fight against plans to move the club from its present home of Goodison Park to a new stadium on the outskirts of the city in the Kirkby area. Despite the King’s Dock fiasco the club said that they had the deal of the century and could finance the £78m share needed to make the dream a reality. However the move to Kirkby was scuppered by in 2009 by the UK government and now the club has been linked with a ground share with arch rivals Liverpool, another move which is deeply unpopular.
These are just some of the major points which The People’s Group have highlighted in their fight against what they see as the incompetence and lack of business acumen of Bill Kenwright and his fellow board members. How can a club which is a founder member of the Football and Premier Leagues, nine times champions of England, has enjoyed more top flight seasons than any other club and enjoys a massive fan base be mismanaged to this scale? And how can The People’s Club, as David Moyes famously referred to the club when he joined Everton in 2002, appear to be so detached from its own supporters? This, it seems, is only the beginning of football’s latest fan/owner dispute.
For anybody interested in looking further into The People’s Group you can find them on Twitter and Facebook.
After a miserable 2-0 defeat at the hands of local rivals Everton FC today, Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson defended his players saying that “I don’t think it is a crisis, I thought the way we played today was not the level of a team in the bottom three.” If he really thinks that then it is clear that the man is not in the right job.
To be fair to Hodgson the situation he walked into at Anfield was far from ideal. Having replaced Rafael Benítez in the Reds’ dug out amid the off-pitch turmoil that has affected the club in recent weeks, the new boss of the five-time European champions has had his work cut out. His first match of the season saw Liverpool drop two points at home to Arsenal in a game they could’ve won but a tough start has seen defeats to the two Manchester clubs and newly-promoted Blackpool as well as defeat in the English League Cup to fourth tier side Northampton Town. With champions Chelsea coming to Anfield in three weeks time the situation could get worse before it gets better for the team who now languish in 19th place in the Barclays Premier League table and who have made their worst start to a league campaign for 57 years.
The Blue side of Merseyside were revelling in rubbing their neighbours’ noses in it following a 2-0 defeat of Hodgson’s men in what ranks as one of Liverpool’s worst derby performances although that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to take any credit of an Everton team who were by far the better side. Everton pressed the Reds in midfield and denied them any time on the ball in the first half and their territorial domination reaped the rewards after Tim Cahill gave The Toffees the lead after 34 minutes. If an inspirational half-time team talk was to wake Liverpool from their slumber then it certainly didn’t happen as Everton doubled their lead five minutes into the second half thanks to a fantastic strike from Mikel Arteta on the edge of Liverpool’s 18 yard box. The victory could’ve been greater had David Moyes’ men taken the game further to Liverpool but, instead, the Blues were content to hold on to their lead and allow their hapless opponents to keep possession in the knowledge that Liverpool seemed incapable of doing anything with it.
For the Reds’ new owner John W. Henry it must have been a sorry sight to see the team he’d worked so hard to buy in the last few weeks cave in before his eyes. Had Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres et al shown any of the commitment on the pitch that the new ownership and vital figures such as Martin Broughton and Christian Purslow had shown off it then the game could’ve been different. Perhaps this defeat will make the players and, more importantly, the manager realise that Liverpool are in a different kind of fight this season. In recent years the fight has been either to win the Barclays Premier League or to qualify for the UEFA Champions League. Now the club is fighting to drag itself out of the bottom three and up the table. Yes, it is still early days and Hodgson can justifiably still ask for more time to prove himself but following the strange upbeat tone of his post-match comments today perhaps Hodgson is now in danger of deluding himself that things are not as bad as they appear. Either that or he’s very good at deflecting attention away from his players’ recent inept performances.
In my opinion Roy Hodgson only became a contender for the Liverpool job following his achievement in taking Fulham to the UEFA Europa League final last season which, admittedly, was a marvellous feat for somebody at a club of limited resources. Nonetheless the English media, who slaughtered Benítez at any opportunity for his negative tactics, have been very quiet in their treatment of Hodgson who has shown no greater desire to play people in their correct position or to adopt an attacking mentality in the team’s play. Today’s post-match comments have not helped with Hodgson saying he “thought at half-time we were a bit unlucky to be a goal down because we had got back into the game well…in the second half we did everything the team could possibly do, we played well, created chances, we limited them to very few and put them on the back foot.” What Roy calls putting Everton “on the back foot” was really the Blues comfortably holding on to a lead they never looked like relinquishing and it is a disservice to Hodgson who has tried to put a positive spin on what everybody else saw: a continuation of the clueless nature of Liverpool’s play so far this season which has seen them only attain six points in the first eight games.
Next up in the Premier League for Liverpool is Blackburn Rovers, a team coached by Sam Allardyce who is known for making life difficult for any opponent. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog will be at Anfield for the game next Sunday and you will be able to read my report on the game in the Away Days section next week.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for Merseyside football it did. Much to the disappointment of loyal followers of Red and Blue everywhere the teams of Liverpool and Everton are not only struggling in the Premier League but have been knocked out of the Carling (League) Cup at the third round stage. Stoppage Time – International Football Blog reviews the situation.
In a third round which saw the likes of Chelsea FC, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City suffer early exits it was the two Merseyside clubs that suffered most. At least the aforementioned trio of clubs can claim to have been shown the door by fellow Premier League sides – by Newcastle United, Arsenal FC and West Bromwich Albion – whereas Liverpool and Everton were subject to penalty shoot-out losses at the hands of Northampton Town (4th tier) and Brentford (3rd tier) respectively.
These things do happen in football and even the biggest clubs have been known to be on the receiving end of an embarrassing defeat from time to time. What makes this so disastrous for the two giants of Merseyside football is that both clubs had pre-season plans to fight for the top four in the league and embark on a decent cup run. After five games of the English Premier League so far both teams share just one win between them (Liverpool’s slender 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion) and lie at the wrong end of the standings. Liverpool have had a tough start which has seen them drop two points late on against Arsenal on the opening day of the 2010-11 campaign before going down to subsequent losses to both Manchester clubs (a bitter pill to swallow if ever there was one). This sees the club lying in 16th place with just five points from a possible fifteen. For Everton, however, the current scenario is even worse having only secured two points from five games. One of those was an unlikely one against Manchester United when the Toffees were 3-1 down with minutes to play and somehow seized a 3-3 draw in stoppage time. This spell at the beginning of the new campaign means that the Blues have made their worse start to a season for 16 years. When thoughts turned to the possibilities of winning trophies before the season started I don’t think their fans wanted to settle for the “Copa del Everton”, a game in which the Blues beat their South American namesakes from Chile during the pre-season campaign.
So having started the league campaign badly it was imperative that both teams at least progressed to the fourth round of the League Cup in order to provide a much needed boost to each other’s confidence. Sadly the demise continued on Tuesday as Everton went to Griffin Park, the home of Brentford FC, and were made to pay for some wasteful finishing. Initially the Blues had started well with Seamus Coleman putting Everton in front after just six minutes but the League One side restored parity four minutes before the break thanks to Gary Alexander. Brentford could even have avoided the lottery of a penalty shoot-out by converting from the spot in normal time but Charlie MacDonald’s second half penalty kick was saved which brought about the extra thirty minutes and the shoot-out. For Brentford fans it was a famous victory although allegations from Everton coach David Moyes that one of the home team’s supporters threw a bottle towards the Everton end during the post-match pitch invasion could mar what was a fantastic victory.
That did appear to be the biggest shock of the round until their neighbours from across Stanley Park decided that they were going to put in a performance against Northampton Town that was every bit as wet as the weather on a very rainy evening at Anfield. Like the Blues on Tuesday it all started off so well for the Reds when new signing Milan Jovanović put Liverpool ahead after just nine minutes but the players then became sluggish and appeared disengaged as the Northampton team gained confidence gradually as the match went on. They got their reward in the 56th minute when Billy McKay allowed the League Two side the chance to dream of a famous night and when extra-time came around it would’ve been easy to write them off imagining that they would get tired legs as time wore on but there wasn’t a bit of it. Northampton took the lead thanks to Michael Jacobs’ close-range effort in front of a stunned Kop only for David Ngog to equalize at the same end in the second half of extra-time. With Liverpool’s proud history in penalty shoot-outs it was they who were favourites to scrape through especially as the shoot-out took place in front of the Kop. Northampton even missed their first penalty to help out the hosts but Liverpool were still unable to take advantage as David Ngog shot one of the worst penalties ever taken at Anfield well wide and the initiative went back to the visitors. Both teams exchanged successful kicks before Nathan Eccleston hit the bar with Liverpool’s fourth penalty so it was then up to Abdul Osman to make a name for himself and he did so with great aplomb to stun Anfield into silence. The performance was so bad that coach Roy Hodgson apologized for it immediately after the game.
So what next? The Merseyside Derby is played on October 17th and each team plays two league matches before the big one. Liverpool at least have the comfort of playing two home matches but their opponents of Sunderland and Blackpool should not be taken lightly. Sunderland are led by former Manchester United defender Steve Bruce who has a good record as a coach against the Reds while Blackpool have an attacking style of play under their coach Ian Holloway who will use the underdog status as a motivational tool to his players before their short trip to Anfield. Everton, on the other hand, face difficult away trips to Fulham FC, where they’ve only won once since the Premier League began, and to Birmingham City who have lost only two games in the last twelve months at their St Andrews home. For teams who had trophy winning ambitions before the season neither can predict where their next three points will come from at the moment. With the strength in depth of each squad I would bet on both teams’ fortunes improving sooner rather than later but before then a much needed dose of realpolitik is in order before they can start dreaming of silverware and something that’s a bit stronger than Carling to drink.
The European Former Players Association (EFPA) will hold their annual congress in the city of Liverpool from Thursday, April 15th which will feature a gala dinner on Thursday and a six-a-side legends tournament to be played at the Liverpool Echo Arena on Friday.
Normally the EFPA holds its annual congress in the organisation’s birthplace of Barcelona but have decided to take this year’s show on the road to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Everton FC Former Players Foundation. The EFPA Congress is designed in order to define the roles which former footballers can play after their sporting retirement and also celebrates the work of similar organisations based across the continent. The Congress will also help to raise awareness of the new British Alliance of Former Players Associations (BAFPA), an umbrella organization hoping to co-ordinate the work of such groups across the United Kingdom.
Thursday sees a conference take place at Liverpool’s Hilton Hotel in which Manchester United and England legend Sir Bobby Charlton will be the keynote speaker. In a gala dinner later that day Sir Bob will be awarded with a lifetime achievement award in a ceremony in which his former international team-mate Sir Geoff Hurst will be the main guest Speaker. EFPA President Ramon Alfonseda pays the ultimate tribute to England’s record international goalscorer saying “if anyone symbolised the values of EFPA, it can be summed up in the two words known by every football fan in the world – Bobby Charlton.”
Friday night will see the first ever EFPA Champions Cup, a six-a-side tournament which will bring together some of the great players from England, Scotland, a combined Ireland/Wales team and a European legends team. There will be many former players of local clubs Liverpool FC and Everton FC involved, including Ian Rush (as a player/manager for Wales/Ireland), Robbie Fowler, Peter Reid and Dave Watson. Some of the legendary European names showing off their skills will include the likes of the “Maradona of the Carpathians” Gheorghe Hagi, Danish legend Michael Laudrup and 2005 UEFA Champions League winner Vladimir Šmicer, all of whom doing what the EFPA’s slogan proudly proclaims: “Still Playing!” The four teams will be coached by some top names including Terry Venables (England), Ally McCoist (Scotland) and Italian 1982 FIFA World Cup winner Antonio Cabrini (Europe) so it is clear that each team will contain the same will to win as all of the players involved showed during their illustrious playing careers. The four teams will meet each other once only in the group stage with the top two teams after three matches played going through to the EFPA Champions Cup final.
If you can make it to the Liverpool Echo Arena on Friday, April 16th to watch the EFPA Champions Cup tournament the doors open at 17:00 with tickets still available costing £20 for adults and £10 children and concessions although the Liverpool Echo newspaper has announced that if you buy a ticket on the night then you can get 25% off if you show your copy of that day’s Echo.
The UEFA Europa League is back and has reached the Round of 32 stage. There are plenty of matches that whet the appetite in this competition and “Stoppage Time” has a guide to all sixteen ties in the first knockout round:
EVERTON FC (England) v SPORTING (Portugal)
The first leg of this game took place last night to avoid a clash with Liverpool FC’s home game against Unirea Urziceni on Thursday. Everton have a slight 2-1 advantage going into the second leg thanks to goals from Steven Pienaar and Sylvain Distin. However French defender Distin was sent off late in the game for a foul on Liedson and Miguel Veloso (pictured) was able to pull one back for Sporting from twelve yards out. An intriging return game in Lisbon awaits.
AJAX AMSTERDAM (Netherlands) v JUVENTUS (Italy)
This is a game worthy of Champions League status with both clubs sharing six European Cup triumphs between them. Ajax are currently third in the Dutch Eredivisie whilst Juventus are sixth in Serie A. With both teams harbouring realistic ambitions of Champions League qualification next season they may decide to play weakened sides in Europe. Nonetheless this should be a fascinating contrast of styles between two great clubs.
ATHLETIC BILBAO (Spain) v RSC ANDERLECHT (Belgium)
The Basque side should have more motivation to progress as the Europa League is the club’s only realistic hope of silverware this season. Anderlecht, one of three Belgian clubs remaining in the competition, comfortably lead the Jupiler League but may find Athletic a tough proposition. Although if the Mauves can get an away goal in the first leg in Bilbao then the tie could be in the balance.
ATLÉTICO DE MADRID (Spain) v GALATASARAY (Turkey)
The Spanish giants are in good form having reached the Copa del Rey (Spanish Cup) final and beaten Spanish, European and World champions FC Barcelona 2-1 at the weekend. Galatasaray are top in the Turkish Süper Lig, at the moment, and are taking this competition seriously having won it in 2000 becoming the first Turkish team to win a European trophy. With both stadiums expected to be at their intimidating best these two legs won’t be for the faint hearted.
CLUB BRUGGE (Belgium) v VALENCIA CF (Spain)
Club Brugge haven’t been such a force in Belgian football in recent years having to put up with their big rivals Standard Liège and RSC Anderlecht win the last four league titles. Valencia, despite being a distant third in the Spanish League, have high hopes of winning this competition and are likely to include big hitters such as David Villa and David Silva in order to progress to the next stage.
FULHAM FC (England) v SHAKHTAR DONETSK (Ukraine)
London outfit Fulham FC will have to get a good result at home if they want to progress in this competition as their away record this season is really bad, just one win in thirteen Premier League games on the road. However Shakhtar, the last ever winners of what was the UEFA Cup last season, haven’t played a league match since December as the Ukrainian championship is still in its winter break until February 27th so will be lacking in match fitness.
HAMBURGER SV (Germany) v PSV EINDHOVEN (Netherlands)
The German side will want to go one better than last season, when they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by rivals Werder Bremen, especially as the inaugural UEFA Europa League final takes place at their home stadium.PSV Eindhoven, currently top of the Eredivisie, are accustomed to the Champions League but have done well in the second competition having qualified for this stage with an unbeaten record so will be a tough grame for HSV.
HERTHA BSC (Germany) v SL BENFICA (Portugal)
Benfica are huge favourites to advance to the next round. The Portuguese giants are leading the Liga Sagres back home whilst the German capital team are propping up the rest of the German Bundesliga and were in second place behind the other Lisbon giants Sporting in the group stage. The second leg, to be played in Lisbon, will take place on Tuesday, February 23rd to avoid a clash with Sporting’s home game against Everton FC two days later.
KØBENHAVN (Denmark) v OLYMPIQUE DE MARSEILLE (France)
The Danish champions, known locally as FCK, have played well against big clubs in Europe in recent years but fail to score many goals. FCK will also be lacking match practice as the SAS Superligaen has been in hibernation since early December. Marseille, currently lying in fifth position in Ligue 1, should have too strong a squad and will want to go all the way having lost in their two final appearances in 1999 against AC Parma and Valencia CF in 2004.
LILLE OSC (France) v FENERBAHÇE (Turkey)
“Fener” are involved in a title battle with eternal rivals Galatasaray in the Turkish Süper Lig so may decide to rest a couple of players in the two games against a Lille side who lie in third place in Ligue 1, seven points behind leaders FC Girondins de Bordeaux. The Turkish side will be slight favourites as they play the second leg at their intimidating Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium which hosted the UEFA Cup final last season.
LIVERPOOL FC (England) v UNIREA URZICENI (Romania)
Both teams are in the Europa League having finished third in their respective Champions League groups. Liverpool’s recent results have improved even if their performances aren’t always easy on the eye. However coach Rafael Benítez will want to win this trophy for a second time having previously won the title with Valencia CF in 2004. Romanian champions Unirea finished above Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers in their Champions League group but have seen coach Dan Petrescu jump ship to obscure Russian second league outfit FC Kuban Krasnodar during the winter break so may find it difficult against The Reds.
PANATHINAIKOS (Greece) v AS ROMA (Italy)
The Italian capital side are on fire, at the moment, having gone unbeaten in 14 Serie A matches stretching back to late October and have one foot in the Coppa Italia (Italian Cup) final with a 2-0 semi-final advantage over Udinese Calcio. Panathinaikos, including in-form striker Djibril Cissé, may be top of the Greek league but have stumbled in the last fortnight with their lead now just three points from perennial champions Olympiakos.
RUBIN KAZAN (Russia) v HAPOEL TEL AVIV (Israel)
The Russian side have had a dream couple of years winning back-to-back championships. However they’ve been out of action since the end of November and face a Hapoel side lying in second place of the Ha’Al League. If the Israeli side can sneak an away goal in the first leg then they may fancy their chances against rusty Rubin.
STANDARD LIEGE (Belgium) v RED BULL SALZBURG (Austria)
This is a fascinating contest between Champions League drop-outs Standard Liège and Red Bull Salzburg, who were the only team to qualify from the Europa League group stage with a 100% record. If Huub Stevens’ Austrian side can get a win in Belgium then expect the second leg to be a formality. However the Liègeois have one of the noisier stadiums in the competition and will make it difficult despite Standard having disappointed in the Belgian Jupiler League this season.
TWENTE ENSCHEDE (Netherlands) v WERDER BREMEN (Germany)
Steve McClaren, having taken unfashionable Middlesbrough FC to a UEFA Cup final in 2006, would love to take the Dutch side to the final in May. However Thomas Schaaf’s Werder side will be motivated to make up for last season’s disappointment in Istanbul against Shakhtar Donetsk by taking the short trip to Hamburg and, with their experience, will be favourites to go through.
VILLARREAL CF (Spain) v VfL WOLFSBURG (Germany)
Both teams have massively disappointed in their domestic leagues this season especially Wolfsburg who were surprise Bundesliga champions last season but who currently lie in 11th place this time around. Villarreal’s current form is slightly better, at the moment, and they seem to save their best performances for Europe.
The 213th Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton kicks-off the action in the English Premier League this weekend. Both teams are going into the game during their best run of form this season with hosts Liverpool unbeaten in six league games whilst opponents Everton are undefeated in their last nine, including draws away at title hopefuls Arsenal and Chelsea. With both teams now in confident mood having endured a miserable start to the season this derby is being widely anticipated.
The first meeting of the season between these two rivals in November was arguably the most low-key that one can remember. Liverpool had picked up only five points from their last six matches before the game whilst Everton were hovering just above the relegation zone and their woes were further compounded when Liverpool, thanks to a Joseph Yobo own goal and a late Dirk Kuijt tap in, emerged victorious 2-0 although Everton were unlucky not to get a point in a game where they dominated for long periods.
The negativity surrounding the previous derby clash has been replaced by a renewed mood of optimism as both teams have rekindled their sense of purpose and direction since that encounter at Goodison Park. Liverpool are still hopeful of finishing in the top four although they have tough competition from ambitious clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa and Manchester City, the last of whom appear to be favourites to gain that spot at the moment. Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez has had his critics this season for playing negative tactics and making strange substitutions. However things have picked up for the Reds despite Steven Gerrard’s lack of form and Fernando Torres’ injury problems thanks mainly to the hard work of Kuijt, the emergence of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at the centre of defence and the reliability of goalkeeper Pepe Reina. If big money signing Alberto Aquilani can produce a quality performance in a game of this magnitude then his early detractors might think again about his potential.
Everton, meanwhile, have risen from the bottom of the table up to a respectable ninth place and a finish in the European qualification places doesn’t appear to be so far-fetched now. David Moyes’ men have become a resilient, hard to break down side and have benefitted from Maraoune Fellaini’s consistency in midfield, Tim Cahill’s appetite in front of goal and loan signing Landon Donovan has looked a shrewd short-term move. Everton are also hopeful that long-term injuries Phil Jagielka and fans’ favourite Mikel Arteta will be back featuring regularly for the Toffees again in the near future. Everton will, perhaps, not have a better chance to end their Anfield hoodoo, their last win at their former home coming in 1999.
A win for either side is not only crucial to their respective ambitions in the league but also due to the fact they expect a tough month ahead. Liverpool’s next four games are against Arsenal (away), Manchester City (away) and a two-legged encounter against Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the UEFA Europa League. Everton’s next games are even tougher playing at home to league leaders Chelsea and champions Manchester United as well as their UEFA Europa League double header against Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon.
In the other Premier League games title contenders Arsenal and Chelsea meet in a London derby on Sunday which means Manchester United should beat bottom side Portsmouth on Saturday to go top of the table, even if just for 24 hours. Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa meet in a game with huge importance in the fight for fourth place whilst Manchester City play away at struggling Hull City, who gained a crucial point at home to Chelsea in midweek. The other games are Birmingham City v Wolverhampton Wanderers, Bolton Wanderers v Fulham FC, Burnley v West Ham, Stoke City v Blackburn and Sunderland v Wigan Athletic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the second half of our UEFA Europa League group stage round-up “Stoppage Time” looks at the groups that concluded on Thursday, December 17th:
GROUP A (RSC ANDERLECHT, AJAX AMSTERDAM, DINAMO ZAGREB, FC TIMISOARA)
Blessed with years of European experience and tradition, Benelux neighbours Ajax Amsterdam and RSC Anderlecht of Brussels easily negotiated their way through this group. Their Matchday 6 match in Amsterdam still had some importance, though, as Anderlecht’s 3-1 win meant that they topped the group on account of a better head-to-head record over their Dutch challengers, both teams finishing on eleven points. Dinamo Zagreb were optimistic of further progress earlier in the competition as they had three points from two matches but they failed to build on their good start. Champions League Play-Off losers FC Timisoara scored a respectable five points on their maiden Europa League campaign but still finished fourth in the group table.
GROUP B (VALENCIA CF, LILLE, GENOA FC, SLAVIA PRAGUE)
Valencia secured qualification and the top spot on Matchday 6. They went into their game away at Genoa needing only a point to be certain of going through to the last 32 whilst hosts Genoa needed all three points to finish at least second. With the game tied at 1-1 in stoppage time, David Villa was gifted the ball from Genoa goalkeeper Alessio Scarpi to secure the victory in the 94th mnute. Elsewhere Lille’s 3-1 win at home to Slavia Prague ensured that they finished second, two points behind the leaders. Slavia, who have dominated the Czech league in the last two seasons, have been struggling domestically this season and this form was transferred into Europe as they remained without a victory after six games.
GROUP C (HAPOEL TEL AVIV, HAMBURGER SV, GLASGOW CELTIC, RAPID VIENNA)
Israeli side Hapoel were the surprise winners of this group finishing two points ahead of German giants Hamburg. Their Matchday 6 encounter in Tel Aviv ended as a 1-0 win for the hosts and it was they who leapfrogged “HSV” into first place. The biggest disappointment of the group were Scottish club Celtic who were unable to re-create their many great European nights under new coach Tony Mowbray. Among the highlights of the group were the encounters involving Celtic and Austrians Rapid Vienna, whose little known rivalry dates back to a controversial European Cup Winners’ Cup second round match in 1984-85. Both games ended drawn but the Matchday 6 encounter would’ve felt like a win for the Glasgow giants as they came back from 3-0 down after 18 minutes to draw 3-3 with virtually the last kick of the game and demote their Austrian hosts to last place.
GROUP G (RED BULL SALZBURG, VILLARREAL CF, SS LAZIO, LEVSKI SOFIA)
The only team who finished their campaign with a 100% record was Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg suggesting that they could be a good outside bet to go far in the competition. Huub Stevens’ men beat all challengers home and away to finish a clear nine points ahead of second place Villarreal. Italian capital side Lazio frustrated their followers as they could only win two of their six games and finished three points behind the little Spanish village team. Bulgarians Levski Sofia fared little better than their local rivals CSKA (see previous blog) finishing bottom with three points.
GROUP H (FENERBAHCE, FC TWENTE ENSCHEDE, STEAUA BUCHAREST, FC SHERIFF TIRASPOL)
Steve McClaren’s FC Twente were looking comfortable after two games but then nearly blew their qualifications chances. After Turkish side Fenerbahce secured the leadership of the group, FC Twente were relying on them to do them a favour on Matchday 6. Twente needed a win away at 1986 European champions Steaua Bucharest but could only manage a 1-1 draw in very cold, frosty conditions played in front of a sparse crowd. However the surprise team FC Sheriff from Moldova had to win against the already-qualified “Fener” to grab the second spot but the Turkish team did McClaren’s a favour beating the Moldovans 1-0.
GROUP I (SL BENFICA, EVERTON FC, BATE BORISOV, AEK ATHENS)
No surprises in group I were Benfica and Everton went through to the Round of 32 with one match to spare. Benfica, in particular, showed their class in their two matches with nearest challengers Everton scoring seven goals without reply in their two games (5-0 at home and 2-0 away). The Merseysiders, however, did progress thanks to three wins out of four against their eastern European opponents, the only defeat coming on Matchday 6 at home to Belarussian champions BATE Borisov but Everton were already through to the next round and played a very young team on the night. Benfica finished top with 15 points (only a shock defeat away at a very poor AEK Athens denied them a 100% record), Everton scored nine points, BATE avoided the wooden spoon scoring seven points compared to AEK’s four points.