Stoppage Time – International Football Blog

Euro 2012 Preview – Group A

Posted in International Football by peterbein on June 4, 2012

Euro 2012 logoWith the 2012 UEFA European Championships due to begin this coming Friday, Stoppage Time takes a look at all four groups going into the tournament. First up is Group A which includes tournament co-hosts Poland as well as the Czech Republic, Russia and Euro 2004 winners Greece.

CZECH REPUBLIC: Best Performance = Winners 1976 (as Czechoslovakia); Runner Up 1996 (as Czech Republic)

The Czechs have a distinguished record in the European Championships. In 1976, as part of Czechoslovakia, they won the trophy following a penalty shoot-out victory over West Germany. In the post-independence period, the Czechs reached the final of Euro ’96 but were thwarted by Oliver Bierhoff’s Golden Goal winner in extra-time. They are far from fancied to get anywhere near the final this time around but have a reasonable chance of reaching the quarter-finals. The Czech Republic qualified for this tournament finishing in second place in Group I behind runaway leaders Spain and then negotiating their way through a play-off against Montenegro. If the Czechs are to progress far in the tournament much will rest on the shoulders of Euro 2004 top scorer Milan Baroš in what is expected to be his last international tournament. At the back UEFA Champions League winner Petr Čech will be instrumental in keeping what could be a potentially brittle defensive line in check.

COACH: Michal Bílek

FIFA WORLD RANKING = 26

GREECE: Best Performance = Winners 2004

The Greeks stunned Europe when winning this competition in 2004, defeating hosts Portugal 1-0 in the final in Lisbon. They had seldom qualified for the tournament before their unexpected victory and failed to get beyond the group stage in 2008. Nevertheless the Greeks will fancy their chances of progressing this time in what is arguably the weakest group of the competition. Greece came top of Euro 2012 qualifying Group F with an unbeaten record and clinched the group with a two point margin ahead of Croatia. If Greece are to reach the group stages then the experience of Euro 2004 winner and captain Giorgos Karagounis will prove to be crucial whilst striker Theofanis Gekas will hope to keep up his impressive goal scoring record for his country.

COACH: Fernando Santos

FIFA WORLD RANKING = 14

POLAND: Best Performance = Group Stage 2008

It is something of a mystery that a country which has finished in third place on two occasions in the FIFA World Cup has only ever been able to qualify for the European Championship just once. The Poles made their debut in this competition four years ago and finished bottom of a group containing Germany, Croatia and co-hosts Austria. This year’s tournament co-hosts expect to do better this time around with the trio of players from Borussia Dortmund – Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Błaszczykowski and Łukasz Piszczek – hoping to transfer their fantastic form at club level into success at international level.

COACH: Franciszek Smuda

FIFA WORLD RANKING = 65

RUSSIA: Best Performance = Winners 1960 (as Soviet Union); Semi-Finals 2008 (as Russia)

As a member of the former Soviet Union, the Russians were part of the country to be crowned inaugural European champions when they defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 in the 1960 final played in Paris. Three further finals were played in 1964, 1972 and 1988 as part of the Soviet Union but they all ended in defeat. Since independence the Russian national team has qualified for all but one of the European Championships since 1992 but only got beyond the group stage on one occasion in 2008. The Russians lost out to eventual winners Spain and any repetition of four years would represent a good tournament this time. Russia qualified for the tournament after finishing top of qualifying Group B two points ahead of the Republic of Ireland. Forward Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who has won back-to-back domestic league titles with Zenit Saint Petersburg, looks set to be Russia’s most influential player.

COACH: Dick Advocaat

FIFA WORLD RANKING = 11

GROUP A FIXTURES

08/06/12 Poland v Greece

08/06/12 Russia v Czech Republic

12/06/12 Greece v Czech Republic

12/06/12 Poland v Russia

16/06/12 Poland v Czech Republic

16/06/12 Greece v Russia

Greece: Panathinaikos back in the hunt thanks to Cissé (+video)

Posted in European Football by peterbein on October 31, 2010
Djibril Cisse

Djibril Cissé scored twice for Panathinaikos against Olympiakos

Djibril Cissé was the star man for Panathinaikos as he helped his side to a crucial three points in a fiery Athens derby against old foes Olympiakos on Saturday. The win for Pana helps ensure that the gap between the two teams is reduced to a solitary point with Olympiakos just holding their own at the top.

In what resembled a former Premier League players’ gathering there were ten players in total who either started the game or sat on the substitutes bench who have former connections with clubs from England and one such player, the former Liverpool and Sunderland star Djibril Cissé, was to play a prominent role. After seeing Panathinaikos fall behind in the first half to a 37th minute Kevin Mirallas strike it was Cissé who took centre stage after the break. In the 57th minute it was the Frenchman who restored parity after firing home from close range to send the home fans into raptures. Just six minutes later Cissé won a penalty kick which he duly dispatched to score his seventh goal of the campaign and give his side the 2-1 lead which they never relinquished.

Panathinaikos, who won their 20th league title last season, are hoping that this victory can signal the beginning of a winning run which will take them back to the top of the table. Olympiakos, who finished empty-handed last season for the first time in six years, are hoping not to repeat the experience but yesterday’s defeat will have them fearful of the very real challenge that the current champions will pose throughout the season. After eight games of the Super League Greece campaign Olympiakos have 18 points, one more than Panathinaikos and five more than joint third AEK Athens and Asteras Tripolis.

WATCH PANATHINAIKOS v OLYMPIAKOS HIGHLIGHTS HERE:

 

FIFA World Cup Review – Europe

Posted in European Football, International Football by peterbein on July 15, 2010
Spain World Cup champions

Spain finally managed to win the FIFA World Cup beating the Netherlands in extra-time

In the last of Stoppage Time’s continental reviews we look back at the varying fortunes of the thirteen European teams that competed in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

With the exceptions of Brazil and Argentina, most people’s predictions before the World Cup tended to centre on teams such as England, Germany or Italy but it was to be two nations that had never previously won the competition who were to reach the final. Spain, a very popular choice of team due to their 2008 UEFA European Championship success, would face off against two-time finalists Holland in a game which, as most finals do, tended to disappoint but did at least have the justice of seeing the right team win the game.

But more on the final later. In the group stages the biggest disappointments were unquestionably Italy, France and England. In the case of Italy and France it was difficult to believe that these two nations competed in the most recent World Cup final in 2006 such was the depths to which team had sank during this tournament. They both finished bottom in groups which, on paper, seemed amongst the kindest in terms of difficulty. England, on the other hand, did manage to make it through the group stage but even the most hardcore England fan knows that they were poor in their first two games, scraped past Slovenia in the final group match before going out to a classic Germany performance in the round of sixteen. Even arguments over Frank Lampard’s disallowed goal cannot escape the fact that the Germans were the better team.

After the group stage had been completed seven of the thirteen European nations had failed to qualify for the round of sixteen. As well as Italy and France, the countries who feel that they should’ve done better in the group stage were Denmark (third behind Holland and Japan), Switzerland (finished third after defeating Spain in their first group game), Serbia (who admittedly suffered some bad luck against Australia) and Slovenia (lost out when USA beat Algeria) whilst Greece would’ve been happy just to score a goal, let alone win a game, before the competition kicked off after their one and only previous appearance in 1994 saw them goalless and pointless. In the event they did finally score their first World Cup goal in their second match against Nigeria in which they also chalked up their first victory. Alas they lost to Argentina in their final game and failed to progress any further.

The round of sixteen saw England, Portugal and Slovakia say goodbye although in the case of Slovakia they did have many good chances to beat the Netherlands before suffering a 2-1 reverse at the hands of the Oranje. The quarter-finals saw previous talk about South American dominance turn to European dominance as Spain, Netherlands and Germany all made it through with victories over Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina respectively. The semi-finals saw Spain reassert their style of play over a Germany team who were perhaps weighed down with expectation after two earlier against England and Argentina. Despite the dominance of possession and territory for the Spanish it took until the 73rd minute for Carles Puyol to head home the only goal of the game to gift the Spain a place in their first ever FIFA World Cup whilst the Netherlands got the better of Uruguay with a 3-2 win securing their third World Cup final appearance.

So the only certainty about the FIFA World Cup final would be that it would create a first time champion. Many neutrals before the game saw it as a breath of fresh air that none of the previous winners had reached the final for, in theory, this should’ve provided the motivation for two hungry teams to go out and secure their place in the history books. Sadly the game as a spectacle failed to live up to expectations but that has happened on so many occasions. Much of the post-match reaction centred upon English referee Howard Webb who dished out a World Cup final record 14 yellow cards and one red card in a game which saw many tough challenges (how Nigel de Jong didn’t go for his lunge on Xabi Alonso is a mystery) and a controversial moment at the end where, just before Andrés Iniesta’s 116th minute winning goal, a Wesley Sneijder free-kick was deflected by a Spanish player and should’ve been a corner but Webb gave the goal kick for Spain instead. With this incident leading up to the goal the Dutch were understandably furious but even allowing for this incident the Spanish had the more positive approach and were deserved winners. Spain became the third nation in history to win the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup double after West Germany (EC 1972, WC 1974) and France (WC 1998, EC 2000) and ensured that Europe overtakes South America in World Cup wins with a 10-9 lead.

FIFA: Groups A and B Review

Posted in International Football by peterbein on June 22, 2010
Raymond Domenech

Raymond Domenech saw his France team go out of the tournament with a 2-1 defeat to host nation South Africa

GROUP A: URUGUAY 3 /7; MEXICO 3/4; SOUTH AFRICA 3/4; FRANCE 3/1

Unfortunately for South Africa they made history by becoming the first host nation not to make it to the knockout stage of a FIFA World Cup but they did restore some pride by chalking up their first win of the tournament against a French side whose internal strife under coach Raymond Domenech has been well documented. Bongani Khumalo and Katlego Mphela were the men who did the damage for Bafana Bafana in Bloemfontein giving the hosts a 2-0 lead at the break. Florent Malouda pulled one back for Les Bleus with twenty minutes of the game remaining but the celebrations were gradually beginning in Rustenburg where Uruguay won by a Luis Suárez goal in the first half and the Mexicans, despite defeat, knew that the South Africans hadn’t done enough to overturn the goal difference in their favour. Uruguayan coach Oscar Washington Tabárez will be relieved that his team have avoided one of the tournament favourites, Argentina, in the next round and may now fancy their chances of springing an upset later in the competition. Mexico, however, will have painful memories of the most recent FIFA World Cup in Germany where they were knocked out of the competition by Argentina, the team who they now face in this year’s Round of Sixteen.

Diego Maradona

Unlike his French counterpart, Diego Maradona saw his Argentina team win all three group matches

GROUP B: ARGENTINA 3 Games/9 Points; SOUTH KOREA 3/4; GREECE 3/3; NIGERIA 3/1

With all due respect to lovers of Greek football it is one of the great reliefs of the tournament that Otto Rehhagel’s Greece team is out of the tournament after playing some of the most negative football I can remember seeing in a FIFA World Cup tournament. They kept Argentina at bay for 77 minutes but the deadlock was finally broken when Martin Demichelis scored the opening goal from a corner kick to cue customary manic celebration on the touchline from El Diego. Veteran striker and substitute Martín Palermo sealed the game for the Albiceleste in stoppage time turning in a rebound from a Messi shot and Argentina deservedly go through to face Mexico in Johannesburg. Sadly for African football Nigeria were unable to become the first side from the continent to reach the next stage after managing a 2-2 draw against South Korea. After taking the lead early on through Kalu Uche Nigeria surrendered the lead early in the second half after the Asian side had turned it around with goals from Lee Jung-Soo and Park Chu-Young. Ayegbeni Yakubu did dispatch a 69th minute penalty kick to give Nigeria hope but they were unable to break Korean resistance any further and it was South Korea who reached the last 16 with a tie against Group A winners Uruguay, who they will meet in Port Elizabeth on Saturday, June 26th.

FIFA: Argentina win again; Greece get first victory; France stumble to defeat

Posted in International Football by peterbein on June 17, 2010
Gonzalo Higuaín

Gonzalo Higuaín scored a hat-trick for Argentina in their 4-1 win over South Korea

Having lamented the lack of real action in the opening week of the FIFA World Cup, with only Germany being spared from any criticism due to their fantastic 4-0 triumph over Australia, the tournament now seems to have opened up and the goals have been flying in over the last two days of action. Many pundits have suggested, quite justifiably, that every team in the competition was frightened to lose in their opening matches and, therefore, placed an emphasis on defence with no real inclination to attack. But now that every team has played their opening game it is evident amongst those teams that have played their second matches already that there is an instinct to attack that wasn’t there before. Suddenly the action is better and the games have become more of a spectacle. Today’s action is a case in point.

The Group B table saw Argentina top after the first round of matches and it remains the case after the second round as the Albiceleste saw off a spirited South Korea side by four goals to one with the brilliant and, in my humble opinion, under-rated striker Gonzalo Higuaín scoring the first hat-trick of the tournament. Argentina, though, did have to rely on a bit of luck to take the lead after a 16th minute free-kick from the left by Lionel Messi was inadvertently turned into his own net by Park Chu-Young from six yards out. The second goal for Argentina began in the same area of the pich with a cross from Maxi Rodríguez flicked on by Nicolas Burdisso, an early substitute for Walter Samuel who went off with a hamstring injury, and Higuaín was able to direct the ball goalwards at the far post to double the lead. At this point the Argentines were coasting the match but were given a wake-up call from South Korea when Lee Chung-Yung dispossessed Martín Demichelis on the edge of Argentina’s penalty area and tucked it past Sergio Romero to pull one back on the stroke of half-time.

The second half would belong to one man and that man was Gonzalo Higuaín. His second goal was a true poacher’s effort with Messi and Sergio Agüero combining well with the former’s shot hitting the keeper and a post before crawling along the line where a grateful Higuaín tapped it home to make it 3-1 with thirteen minutes to go. Three minutes later and he’d got his hat-trick thanks once again to some fantastic work between Messi and Agüero. Messi fed Agüero with a lofted ball into the box, with Agüero supplying a beautifully weighted cross over to Higuaín at the far post and his header sealed what was a well-deserved scoreline for a team who have seemingly found their rhythm in this tournament now.

In the other Group B game Greece, who had started the tournament so appallingly in their opening game against South Korea, looked to be heading in the same direction after just sixteen minutes when Kalu Uche’s long distance free-kick somehow avoided everybody in the box and deceived Greek keeper Alexandros Tzorvas into diving the wrong way. But the Greeks finally got that bit of luck when Nigeria’s Sani Kaita was shown a red card in the 33rd minute for kicking out at Vasilis Torosidis after a needless scuffle on the touchline. This provided the perfect platform for the 2004 European champions to get back into the game and, with just seconds of the first half remaining, they did just that. Even then Greece, who hadn’t scored a single goal in World Cup finals football before today, finally broke their duck thanks to a cruel deflection, Dimitris Salpingidis’ shot came off Lukman Haruna and sent the keeper the wrong way to make the score 1-1 going into the break. From the second half the Greeks took the game to the Super Eagles who had decided to try and hold on to what they had. But constant Greek pressure soon paid off in the 71st minute when Torosidis, the man at the centre of the red card furore earlier in the game, saw Alexandros Tziolis’ shot from the edge of the box parried by Nigerian keeper Vincent Enyeama and it was Torosidis who put the rebound in from just inside the six yard box to give his country its first ever victory in the FIFA World Cup after they lost all of their previous four games from the 1994 and 2010 tournaments. In the final Group B matches, to be played on Tuesday June 22nd at 20:30 local time, Argentina meet Greece whilst South Korea face off against Nigeria.

Javier Hernández

Javier Hernández gave Mexico the lead in their 2-0 win over France

Group A had already seen the host nation South Africa crumble to an efficient Uruguay side on Wednesday night, Diego Forlán’s contribution of two goals and an assist for Álvaro Pereira saw the two-time winners victorious to the tune of three goals to nil to silence the vuvuzelas in the crowd. Thursday saw the second game in the group for France and Mexico, both of whom drew their opening matches in the tournament, therefore a win was absolutely imperative for both teams to stake a serious claim of further progress in the competition. Despite the lack of goals in the first half the Mexicans gave a good account of themselves and were clearly the hungrier of the two teams. The French, personified by their expected star of the tournament Franck Ribéry, were lacklustre, devoid of ideas and barely threatened their opponents all night. The second half saw Mexico break the deadlock on 64 minutes when Javier Hernández, who came on as a substitute just ten minutes earlier, beat the offside trap and had all the time in the world to take the ball past a helpless Hugo Lloris and into the French net. The game was won fifteen minutes later when another second half substitute Cuauhtémoc Blanco dispatched a penalty kick which had been won when Patrice Evra brought down Pablo Barrera in the box. The celebrations started in the stadium and the result seriously hinders French chances of qualification to the next round. In the final Group A games, to be played on Tuesday, June 22nd at 16:00 local time, group leaders Uruguay and Mexico meet each other in Rustenburg, with both teams knowing that a draw will be enough to take them both through, while South Africa plays against France in Bloemfontein in what will almost certainly be their last match in their home tournament.

FIFA: Wins for South Korea and Argentina while England stumble to draw

Posted in International Football by peterbein on June 12, 2010
Lee Jung-Soo

Lee Jung-Soo scored South Korea's opening goal in their 2-0 victory over Greece

Saturday saw six more teams get their FIFA Wold Cup campaign underway with Groups B & C taking centre stage. The first match of the day is an early contender for the Stoppage Time Most Boring Game Of The Tournament award as South Korea and Greece provided an utterly underwhelming exhibition – a term I use very loosely – of football which could’ve put an insomniac asleep. The only moments to behold in an otherwise forgettable affair were Lee Jung-Soo’s seventh minute opening goal and Park Ji-Sung’s goal which doubled the lead for the Koreans in the 52nd minute. The defending from Greece for the first goal was poor with an entire back four standing still while Lee turned the ball home at the far post whilst unmarked. Another defensive slip allowed the Koreans to double the lead with Loukas Vyntra giving away possession to Manchester United star Park who bust a gut to get into the box before sliding the ball home past a helpless Alexandros Tzorvas.

The unforgivable crime from the Greek side, even worse than their defending, was their inability to raise themselves for the occasion in a game they were, on paper at least, most likely to obtain any points from. They seldom looked like any kind of threat up front and it is no surprise that their unenviable record of having never scored a goal in FIFA World Cup finals to date still stands true after this match. After the Greeks scored no goals in three matches in the 1994 tournament I wouldn’t be surprised to see them replicate that statistic this time around. Credit, though, must go to the South Koreans who didn’t need to be at their best to obtain three points from this most dire of football matches.

The irony is that, despite the sorry football on show in the first game, there were more goals to be seen between South Korea and Greece than there were in the following Group B encounter involving Argentina and Nigeria which was a much more entertaining game. The game was decided by an early Gabriel Heinze header with the Argentine centre-half completely unmarked twelve yards out to head home a Juan Sebastián Verón corner in the sixth minute. Their opponents Nigeria were finding it difficult to get going in the first half with the Argentines having much more possession but unable to find the second goal with it. Lionel Messi had at least four great chances in the match to get on the scoresheet and, as the game went on, the Nigerians were finally encouraged to go further forward by otherwise defence-minded coach Lars Lagerbäck, therefore allowing for a much more open game as it entered the final twenty minutes. Taye Taiwo had Nigeria’s best chance in the 71st minute when his toe-poked effort from the edge of the box shaded past the post and Obafemi Martins’ long-range effort seven minutes brought a decent stop from Sergia Romero. Diego Maradona was restless on the touchline but was able to celebrate the victory after the final whistle and provide a much-needed three points to start the tournament for La Albiceleste.

Steven Gerrard

England captain Steven Gerrard scored after just four minutes in their 1-1 draw against the United States

The final game on the second day of the competition was in Rustenburg where Group C got under way with an intriging clash between England and the United States. It was a confident USA team who got the game under way but they were made to pay for some slack defending after just four minutes when Steven Gerrard, replacing the injured Rio Ferdinand as England captain, ran into some clear space in the penalty box and was put through by Emile Heskey to give the Three Lions an early lead. England looked comfortable early on but the Americans gradually grew into the game with Jozy Altidore having their first real chance  after twenty minutes and then the USA had the most possession for the rest of the half. Just when it looked like England would go in at the break holding on to a slender lead it suddenly disappeared when goalkeeper Robert Green failed to hold on to Clint Dempsey’s speculative drive in the 40th minute to restore parity for the Americans and this was how it remained going into the interval.

The second half saw no real improvement from England and there were times when the United States looked the better side. They certainly had the best chance of the second half when Jozy Altidore got the better of England substitute Jamie Carragher and his low shot was turned against the post by Robert Green, who made up for his first half blunder at that moment. The expected stars of the match, England’s Wayne Rooney and USA’s Landon Donovan, didn’t really live up to star billing although the former did become more prominent in the last fifteen minutes of the game winning a number of free-kicks whilst the latter had a couple of shots from distance but didn’t really trouble the England keeper. The Man of the Match, in my opinion, was Emile Heskey whose tireless devotion to the cause made some of his critics, including yours truly, eat their words. As well as setting up the goal he was hard-working, won many aerial challenges and was a menace both in and around the USA penalty box until replaced by Peter Crouch in the 79th minute. Next up for England is Algeria in Cape Town on Friday, June 18th whilst the USA face Slovenia in Jo’Burg on the same date.

FIFA: World Cup Guide – Part Three

Posted in European Football, International Football by peterbein on June 2, 2010
Morten Olsen

Can Morten Olsen guide Denmark beyond the group stage in South Africa?

In the final part of our build up to the FIFA World Cup, which kicks off on Friday, June 11th, Stoppage Time – International Football Blog looks at those teams that qualified from Europe (FIFA world rankings correct on May, 26th):

DENMARK – Winners of Europe Group One; FIFA World Ranking = 36

The Danes qualified from a tough group including Portugal, Hungary and arch-rivals and neighbours Sweden. Although not expected to win the competition Morten Olsen’s men will prove tough opponents and history has proven that anybody that takes the Danes lightly does so at their peril. Their group opponents are the Netherlands, Japan and Cameroon so may fancy their chances of reaching the last sixteen.

Coach: Morten Olsen

Star Player: Niklas Bendtner

PORTUGAL – 2nd in Europe Group One (won in play-off); FIFA World Ranking = 3

Portugal were in danger of not even getting a play-off place after a dreadful start to the campaign. A strong finish saw them placed second, one point ahead of Sweden and Hungary. In the play-off they then beat Bosnia-Herzogovina 1-0 in each leg; Bruno Alves deciding the first game in their favour, Raul Meireles scoring the only goal in the second leg. Expected to get past the group stage.

Coach: Carlos Queiroz

Star Player: Cristiano Ronaldo

SWITZERLAND – Winners of Europe Group Two; FIFA World Ranking = 24

The Swiss qualified fairly comfortably in a group where Greece were the only real rivals for the first place position and Latvia threatened on occasions to spoil the party. Solid if not spectacular, Switzerland will see anything beyond the second round as a successful World Cup but first they must negotiate their way past a group containing Spain, Honduras and Chile. Can the wily old fox Ottmar Hitzfeld get the best from a limited squad in these finals?

Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld

Star Player: Tranquillo Barnetta

GREECE – 2nd in Europe Group Two (won in play-off); FIFA World Ranking = 13

Otto Rehhagel steered the Greeks to the World Cup after a two-legged play-off against the Ukraine. The 2004 European champions drew the first leg at home 0-0 but managed to win the away leg 1-0 thanks to a strike from Dimitrios Salpingidis. Like the Swiss not many pundits expect the Greeks to go beyond the second round but could, at the very least, qualify for the last sixteen from a group containing Argentina, South Korea and Nigeria.

Coach: Otto Rehhagel

Star Player: Theofanis Gekas

SLOVAKIA – Winners of Europe Group Three; FIFA World Ranking = 34

Slovakia qualified from what was an open group containing neighbours Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland and Slovenia. A 1-0 away win in Poland on the final matchday of the qualifiers secured their place and succumbed Slovenia to a play-off. In a group involving Italy, Paraguay and New Zealand so will definitely be involved in a fight for second place but may just lack some quality to get to the knockout phase. Sadly for Slovakia they will have to play without their defensive talisman Martin Škrtel who injured himself in a friendly game before the tournament.

Coach: Vladimír Weiss

Star Player: Robert Vittek

SLOVENIA – 2nd in Europe Group Three (won in play-off); FIFA World Ranking = 25

Slovenia surprised everybody by finishing second in the group above heavyweight eastern Europe neighbours Czech Republic and Poland. They surprised everybody again by beating the mighty Russians in the play-offs on away goals. After a narrow 2-1 defeat in Moscow, the Slovenians scored on the edge of half-time in the return fixture in Maribor thanks to Zlatko Dedič and the away goal proved to be the crucial difference between the two teams. Slovenia have a tough draw and may struggle for the third spot behind England and the United States but recent history proves that they can cause a shock on their day.

Coach: Matjaž Kek

Star Player: Milivoje Novakovič

Michael Ballack

Michael Ballack (left) will be a huge loss for Germany but they should still progress far in the tournament

GERMANY – Winners of Europe Group Four; FIFA World Ranking = 6

The Germans remained unbeaten in a relatively easy group although impressive home and away victories against Russia proved to be crucial as they won their group by four points. Joachim Löw will be quietly optimistic about his side’s chances in South Africa despite a list of pre-tournament injuries including the likes of Michael Ballack, Simon Rolfes and René Adler to name but three. With new captain Philipp Lahm ready to take charge the Nationalmannschaft will hope to progress from the group stage and reach the last sixteen with, perhaps, a potential clash with old foes England on the cards.

Coach: Joachim Löw

Star Player: Bastien Schweinsteiger

SPAIN – Winners of Europe Group Five; FIFA World Ranking = 2

It’s been a vintage couple of years for the Spanish national team; European champions in 2008, a 100% record in World Cup qualifying and a spell at number one in the FIFA world rankings, can they go all the way and be the best team in South Africa? Last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup saw them surprisingly knocked out by the United States at the semi-final stage so they will still have to be weary of so-called ‘lesser opposition’. Having been written off as chokers in previous tournaments the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa and Xabi Alonso will be determined to do it for Spain when it really matters and a group containing Honduras, Chile and Switzerland shouldn’t cause too many problems.

Coach: Vicente del Bosque

Star Player: David Villa

ENGLAND – Winners of Europe Group Six; FIFA World Ranking = 8

Fabio Capello’s men easily saw off the likes of Ukraine and Croatia in their group and qualified with two matches to spare. Hopes are high that the so-called “golden generation” including Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney et al will perform in South Africa but will there be the usual disappointment to follow all the hype? Fabio Capello thinks not and one can say that England are real candidates for the title mainly because of the Italian’s stewardship. The group stage shouldn’t cause too many problems but the mentality of the squad will be questioned once the knockout stages get under way.

Coach: Fabio Capello

Star Player: Wayne Rooney

SERBIA – Winners of Europe Group Seven; FIFA World Ranking = 15

Although Serbia could only get one point out of six against group favourites France other results in the group went in their favour and, therefore, they went through by topping the group by one point against their more illustrious opponents. Will be tough to beat and contain a number of technically skillful players with experience from many of Europe’s top leagues. They will find it tough in Germany’s group but can progress if they make full use of their ability.

Coach: Radomir Antic

Star Player: Dejan Stanković

FRANCE – 2nd in Europe Group Seven (won in play-off); FIFA World Ranking = 9

Les Bleus started the qualifying campaign in terrible fashion only collecting one point in their first three games. In the next seven games they took 17 from 21 points and, though never convincing, did what they had to do to secure a play-off place. France later played Republic of Ireland in a two-legged play-off and despite the controversy that surrounded Thierry Henry’s infamous handball leading up to the goal that secured France’s passage to South Africa the French will be considered one of the favourites to provide a strong challenge in South Africa although they are in an open group containing the host nation, Uruguay and Mexico so they’re not far from certain to qualify for the Round of Sixteen just yet.

Coach: Raymond Domenech

Star Player: Franck Ribéry

ITALY – Winners of Europe Group Eight; FIFA World Ranking = 5

The current world champions were taken all the way by the Republic of Ireland in their group but a late equalizing goal from Alberto Gilardino in Dublin secured the point that the Italians needed to top the group. If Marcello Lippi can steer the Azzurri to further World Cup glory in South Africa then they will join Brazil as record champions of the competition with five wins each. Should qualify with relative ease from their group which contains Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia and, despite an ageing squad, are expected to go far in the tournament.

Coach: Marcello Lippi

Star Player: Andrea Pirlo

NETHERLANDS – Winners of Europe Group Nine; FIFA World Ranking = 4

It’s difficult to judge just how tough an opponent the Dutch will be in South Africa. They qualified with a 100% record from arguably the weakest group in qualifying including Norway, Scotland, Macedonia, and Iceland. As usual there have been pre-tournament reports of internal arguments so it seems that the Dutch, despite their potential, never learn the lessons from previous mistakes. A further setback for the Dutch is the injury in a pre-tournament friendly against Hungary to Arjen Robben who may miss some, if not all, of the tournament with a hamstring problem. At the very least they should easily get past a group containing Japan, Denmark and Cameroon without too many problems but anything beyond that remains questionable knowing past history.

Coach: Bert Van Marwijk

Star Player: Robin Van Persie

Italy National Team

Will the Italians be celebrating World Cup success yet again in South Africa?

Greece: Panathinaikos celebrate league and cup double

Posted in European Football by peterbein on April 24, 2010
Panathinaikos

Panathinaikos are celebrating winning the league and cup double in Greece

Greek Super League champions Panathinaikos are celebrating winning their first league and cup double since 2004 after they defeated Aris Thessaloniki 1-0 in the Greek Cup final on Saturday. Argentinian Sebastián Leto scored the only goal midway through the second half to give Prasinoi (the Greens) victory in a memorable season. “Stoppage Time – International Football Blog” reviews the 2009-10 season in Greece.

Before the season got under way many were asking if anybody could halt the juggernault that was Olympiakos, the perennial Greek champions having won thirteen of the previous fourteen league titles. In that time Panathinaikos’ 2004 triumph was the only time that Thrylos (the Legend) had gone without the trophy. However there were to be hard times ahead for Olympiakos as they  sacked two coaches, Temuri Ketsbaia and Zico, during the season despite only losing four league games in the campaign. Current coach Božidar Bandović was able to take the title race to the penultimate game of the season but it was clear that Panathinaikos, whose coach Henk Ten Cate left during the season through mutual consent, were the most consistent side throughout the campaign and they had the league’s top scorer Djibril Cissé. The Frenchman scored twenty-one goals on the way to leading his team to a six point title triumph over Olympiakos and a further two ahead of third place PAOK Thessaloniki. PAOK had a very respectable campaign and, at one point, threatened to take the title over the Big Two but had a little less strength in depth than their title rivals, dropping points towards the end of the season. In the end it was Panathinaikos who held their nerve and claimed their 20th league championship in the process.

In the race for European places there are four teams who will compete in the end of season play-offs for the second UEFA Champions League for next season with each team allocated a number of points depending on where they finished in the regular season. Second place Olympiakos start with four points, one ahead of PAOK. AEK Athens, who had a truly bad start to the season, will begin the play-offs with one point while fifth place Aris will begin pointless. Each team will play each other in a home and away round robin with the leader after six games claiming the spot in Europe’s top club competition next season. At the bottom of the Super League it was a very difficult campaign for Panthrakikos who didn’t win a league game until Matchday 20 by which time they were as good as relegated. They will be joined in the second division next season by PAS Giannina and Levadiakos, the latter were unlucky to be the final team to go down as anyone up to Larissa in eighth place could’ve gone down with only three points separating those teams after thirty games.

The final of the Kypello Elladas (Greek Cup) pitted champions Panathinaikos against Aris Thessaloniki, the latter hoping to win their second cup title after their one and only to date in 1970. However the final didn’t really live up to the billing as both teams cancelled each other out for large chunks of the game. The game was 63 minutes old when the crucial moment arrived. Former Liverpool player Sebastián Leto hit a hopeful shot from 30 yards out which bounced twice along the ground before finding the back of the net. Aris tried to attack the Pana goal late on the game in the hope of finding that all important equalizer to take the game into extra-time but it wasn’t to be. Panathinaikos secured their 17th Greek Cup triumph and, with it, their seventh league and cup double.

Cissé fires “Pana” five points clear in Greece

Posted in European Football by peterbein on January 7, 2010
Djibril Cisse

Djibril Cissé scored twice in Panathinaikos' 4-1 win over Ergotelis FC

The Greek Super League returned to action this week and it proved to be a welcome return for Panathinaikos who were the big winners after all the Matchday 16 games had been completed.

Already two points ahead in the championship table Panathinaikos (41 points from 16 games) came from behind to dispose of Ergotelis FC 4-1. After Ergotelis had taken a shock lead through Michail Fragulaikis, former Liverpool FC striker Djibril Cissé scored a brace, one goal in each half, and was joined on the scoresheet by Giorgos Karagounis and another ex-Liverpool player Sebastián Leto, who scored two minutes into stoppage time to complete the rout. “Pana” increased their lead in the table over champions Olympiakos to five points just hours before their main title challengers were due to play a big city derby against AEK Athens.

Olympiakos (36 points), who have won all but one of the last thirteen Greek championships (‘Pana’ breaking up the spell winning the 2004 title), played at home against the team whom they defeated to win the Greek Cup final last season in one of the greatest matches of all time (4-4 after extra-time followed by a penalty shoot out which Olympiakos won 15-14). When the home side took the lead through a controversial Avraam Papadopolous goal on 28 minutes things seemed to be going the way of Zico’s men. However the lead only lasted five minutes after Nacho Scocco equalised with a well taken strike. When the same player scored his second to give AEK the lead on 40 minutes the home fans were stunned. It is not very often that Olympiakos fans see their team lose at home but after another frustrating 45 minutes in the second half that was exactly what they were to experience for the first time this season. For AEK it could prove to be a turning point in a hitherto miserable season. The win took them up to fifth place and now they can hope to challenge for a place in Europe next season.

In the other games PAOK Thessaloniki remain third after a 1-0 home win over Panionios. Vladimir Ivic’s strike took PAOK to thirty-one points, five behind second place Olympiakos. Their arch-rivals Aris beat Atromitos 3-0 to remain fourth in the table, six points behind PAOK and one ahead of AEK. At the bottom of the league it’s looking more and more desperate for Panthrakikos (2 points from 16 games) who remain without a win after going down to a 3-1 defeat away at Iraklis. Second bottom Giannina gained a point away at Xanthi to increase the deficit between themselves and Panthrakikos to thirteen, therefore highlighting the mountain which the latter have to climb if they are to avoid relegation.

European Leagues: Winter Break Round-up

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

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

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

SPAIN

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

ITALY

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

GERMANY

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

PORTUGAL

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

HOLLAND

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

GREECE

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

TURKEY

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