Real Madrid (Played 13, Points 34) took the initiative in the Spanish league last night as a 4-1 derby success at home to local rivals Atlético de Madrid was sweetened by a defeat to champions FC Barcelona whose 1-0 defeat to Getafe saw them go six points behind los Blancos at the top of the table. Next door in Portugal, SL Benfica (Played 11, Points 27) have provided themselves with a platform to challenge for the title this season by defeating local rivals Sporting by a narrow 1-0 scoreline.
In the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu last night local honours were once again afforded to Real Madrid who haven’t lost a league match against Atlético since 1999. The visitors did shock the home support by taking the lead through Adrián after quarter of an hour but that would be as good as it got for Los Rojiblancos who would see their goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois shown the red card for bringing down Karim Benzema in the box allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to equalize from the penalty spot in the 24th minute. The game ended 1-1 at the break but, not surprisingly, Real took advantage of the extra man to stamp their authority on the game in the second half. Goals from Ángel di María, Gonzalo Higuaín and another penalty for Ronaldo, which brought a red card heading in Diego Godín’s direction, capped off a good night for the home side whose 4-1 victory cemented top spot for at least a couple of hours until the result in the neighbouring suburbs of Getafe was known. A good night soon became a great one with the news later on that FC Barcelona had gone down to a 1-0 defeat to FC Getafe and the six point advantage had been preserved. Juan Valera’s goal midway through the second half proved the killer blow for Barcelona who now must look over their shoulder at the oncoming Valencia CF whose 2-1 defeat away to Rayo Vallecano brought los Che to within one point of the champions.
In neighbouring Portugal the Lisbon derby was played out with all the usual tension one would expect from a Benfica v Sporting game. The match was settled by Javi García with a goal just three minutes before half-time but it was far from plain sailing for the Eagles who saw Oscar Cardozo sent off for a second bookable offence in the 63rd minute. The win was Benfica’s sixth on the trot against their local rivals in all competitions and allowed them the opportunity to enjoy sole possession of top spot in the Super Liga for at least 24 hours until defending champions FC Porto play at home to Sporting Braga this evening. Benfica have 27 points from eleven games but FC Porto will draw level should they claim all three points tonight.
The word “Superclásico” has come into footballing lexicon in recent years as a way of describing those games which are amongst the biggest and most widely anticipated in world football. Sunday sees five such encounters taking place all over Europe and Stoppage Time – International Football Blog previews them all here (all times given are local):
FEYENOORD ROTTERDAM v AJAX AMSTERDAM (12:30)
A repeat of last season’s KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) final, these two oldest and bitterest of enemies meet again in the first Klassieker of the new season. Home team Feyenoord last won this fixture in the 2005-06 season and their success starved supporters will feel that a victory over Ajax is long overdue. They start the game in eighth place, six points behind Martin Jol’s Ajax who, in turn, lie in joint second place with PSV Eindhoven and have the chance to go top of the table this weekend. Ajax have won five out of the last eight matches between the two sides in the Eredivisie and are favourites to win again on Sunday.
MANCHESTER UNITED v LIVERPOOL (13:30)
The most decorated fixture in English football takes place at Old Trafford with both clubs experiencing different fortunes. Manchester United are in third place and unbeaten in the 2010-11 season so far going into this game whilst Liverpool, under new coach Roy Hodgson, have had some teething problems and have only won one of their four matches and lie in 16th place before kick-off. Manchester United still has the whip hand in this fixture having won 59 games to 52 with 43 draws (league game stats only) but Liverpool’s recent record against United is pretty good having won three of the last four matches. The odds, though, are certainly more favourable towards the Red Devils with United expected to gain all three points.
SCHALKE 04 v BORUSSIA DORTMUND (17:30)
Die Königsblauen (Royal Blues) of Schalke 04 have caused controversy ahead of this game by significantly raising prices for visiting Borussia Dortmund fans who, in turn, have threatened to boycott the game in large numbers in protest. On the pitch Dortmund are in good form and have won two of their three Bundesliga matches so far in stark contrast to Schalke 04 who have lost all three of their matches and lie rooted to the bottom of the table. The head-to-head record between these two arch-rivals is close with just one Schalke win (27 wins) separating them from Dortmund (26) and it’s the Gelsenkirchen club who have had the better of it in recent times with six wins in the most recent ten league matches, die Schwarzgelben (Yellow and Blacks) from Dortmund last winning in 2007.
FENERBAHÇE v BEŞIKTAŞ (19:00)
OK, so many people would argue that the true Superclásico of Turkish football is the game between Fener and Galatasaray but the statistics show that games involving Beşiktaş are every bit as important as those involving the original Big Two. Beşiktaş go into Sunday’s game three points better off having won three and lost one of their four games thus far in the Süper Lig whilst Fenerbahçe have won two and lost two. In recent years honours have been even in these games with each team winning one each in the last two seasons but the picture overall favours Fener who have won 122 of the 326 matches between them (all competitions) with Beşiktaş just three wins behind.
SPORTING v SL BENFICA (21:15)
Champions Benfica have struggled domestically this season with just one win and three defeats in their first four matches of the new campaign whilst local rivals Sporting lie in sixth place with seven points. The head-to-head record between these arch local rivals – despite FC Porto’s recent dominance this is still regarded as the biggest derby fixture in Portugal – goes in Benfica’s favour with 168 wins in 401 official matches (all competitions) compared to 153 for Sporting. Last season Benfica got four points from the two league derbies whilst Sporting last had the better of this fixture in 2005-06 when they did the ‘double’ over the Águias (Eagles).
Two more important league derbies which take place on Sunday but are not quite of Superclásico status involve the derby of Hamburg between newly-promoted St Pauli and the traditional giants of the city Hamburger SV (kick-off 15:30) whilst across the border in Denmark an important derby in the capital city of Copenhagen sees the defending SAS Superliga champions FC København take on arguably the country’s most famous club Brøndby IF (kick-off 18:00). St Pauli won their opening match of the new Bundesliga campaign away in Freiburg but have lost both their subsequent games whilst HSV hope to jump into second place with a win against their local rivals from the local district of the same name. In Denmark the New Firm take centre stage with Brøndby IF needing a win away from home to stay in touch with their neighbours FC København who come back to domestic action following their 1-0 home win over Russian champions Rubin Kazan in the UEFA Champions League.
Like him or loathe him there is no denying that José Mourinho is one of the finest and most astute football coaches in history after the self-styled “Special One” led Italian double winners Internazionale FC to their third European Cup against German Double winners FC Bayern München in an emotional night for the Milanese club in Madrid on Saturday becoming only the third coach after Ernst Happel and Ottmar Hitzfeld to win the competition with two different clubs. After the final his team flew home to Milan returning to a heroes’ reception at their legendary San Siro stadium but José himself stayed in Madrid to reveal football’s worst kept secret – that he would almost certainly be joining Spanish giants Real Madrid CF for the 2010-11 season.
José Mourinho is very much a man who has courted controversy throughout his maverick coaching career. Having started life within football as an interpreter for Sir Bobby Robson whilst the former England coach plied his trade for Sporting Clube do Portugal, FC Porto and FC Barcelona Mourinho would then work with Robson’s successor Louis Van Gaal before fate dealt him his first proper coaching job at Portuguese giants SL Benfica. Sadly for Mourinho he lasted only nine games there before he took a modest provincial club União de Leiria to their best ever finish of fifth place in the 2001-02 season. After moving to FC Porto the beginning of the Mourinho legend was really starting to take off after he guided Os Dragões to two league titles, one Portuguese Cup, a UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League glory. The manner of his departure from Porto upset some of the club’s supporters who thought that his cold and unemotional demeanour after the 2003-04 UEFA Champions League win over AS Monaco had soured his legacy somewhat. Nonetheless Mourinho then went to Stamford Bridge to guide a Chelsea FC side to their first league championship in fifty years before going on to win another five trophies with the Blues before club politics with billionaire chairman Roman Abramovich saw him discarded and move on in 2008-09 to Italian giants Internazionale FC with whom he has prospered immeasurably.
The Internazionale side that he inherited was already a successful one having won the previous three Serie A titles prior to his arrival albeit the first of these titles was won in the courts after a match-fixing scandal and the second won in a championship minus giants Juventus FC, who’d been forcibly relegated to Serie B, and an AC Milan team who were deducted eight points in the 2006-07 season. In Mourinho’s first season at the San Siro Internazionale won the Serie A title by a ten point margin from both AC Milan and Juventus FC but were denied the Double having surprisingly lost to Sampdoria in the Coppa Italia semi-finals. In 2009-10 the Nerazzurri had to tough it out against AS Roma in the battle for lo Scudetto as Claudio Ranieri’s men recovered from a poor early-season start to take Inter all the way in the championship fight. However Mourinho was able to take his Inter team ahead in the title race with three matches to go and the club stayed there and won the league by just two points. The 18th league title for Internazionale ensured that they overtook Milan’s number of 17 Scudetti and also secured the Double, the first half of which had been secured a couple of weeks earlier when Inter defeated old adversaries AS Roma again in the Coppa Italia final.
Now it was only Louis Van Gaal’s Treble-chasing FC Bayern team that stood in the way of Mourinho and history and the Special One had certainly done his homework on the opposition stifling the creativity of danger man Arjen Robben whilst playing the sort of combative, compact football which have become Mourinho’s hallmark. Diego Milito, a player who Mourinho had brought to the club from Genoa at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, was to play as fundamental a role for Inter as Pedro had for FC Barcelona in their Treble winning 2008-09 season. Milito scored the winner in the Coppa Italia final, the only goal of the game in Inter’s final Serie A game of the season against Siena to secure the league title and the two goals to win the UEFA Champions League for Inter, their first triumph in this tournament since 1964-65 in the old European Cup. The credit for the triumph has to go to Mourinho who has guided Inter into an elite group of clubs who have completed the Treble – domestic league and cup plus European Cup or UEFA Champions League – and has maintained a personal record of having not lost a home league game since February 23rd, 2002 (where his FC Porto team lost to Beira Mar) chalking up 136 games undefeated on home soil which is a truly remarkable record by anyone’s standards.
Now it seems that José Mourinho will take over at Real Madrid CF with whom it has been reported he could start negotiations to take over Manuel Pellegrini as recently as Monday. Should he take over los Blancos one can only imagine just how much more unpopular he will become in Barcelona but that will be the sort of thing that the Special One will thrive on. Always up for a challenge Mourinho will want to become the man who takes Real Madrid to their tenth European Cup/UEFA Champions League victory and only from Monday will we be nearer knowing that the Real Deal will soon be signed and sealed for Mourinho.
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.
Who’s the biggest club NEVER to win the Champions League (formerly European Champions Cup)? There are clubs who have a decorated history in the other UEFA club tournaments over the past fifty years but have, sadly for them, failed to lift the greatest prize of all. The UEFA Champions League resumes next week and “Stoppage Time” is conducting a poll with a difference. We have selected six clubs who, we think, could be considered the best of the failures. Do you agree with any of our choices? If so please place your vote otherwise there is a space to choose another team if you so desire:
ARSENAL FC (13x English League, 10x English Cup, 1x Fairs Cup, 1x Cup-Winners’ Cup)
It still irritates the fans of Arsenal that, for all their domestic success, their North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur have won more trophies at European level, winning three to Arsenal’s two. However Arsenal’s success since the formation of the Premier League in 1992-93 has led them to be regular contenders for the UEFA Champions League but, thus far, they’ve failed to deliver the big prize to their loyal fans. The club’s first European final was the 1970 Fairs Cup (now Europa League) where they beat Belgian side RSC Anderlecht 4-3 on aggregate. Ten years later Arsenal would lose their first European final on penalties as they failed to beat Spanish giants Valencia CF in the 1980 Cup-Winners’ Cup. The nineties saw the “Gunners” reach back-to-back Cup-Winners’ Cup finals winning one against Italian team AC Parma (1994) but losing the other to Real Zaragoza (1995), the Spanish team winning in the last minute of extra-time thanks to a former Spurs player’s goal from the halfway line. Two further European defeats in the 2000 UEFA Cup (now Europa League) final to Galatasaray (losing on penalties) and, most painfully, the 2006 Champions League final to FC Barcelona rubbed more salt into Arsenal’s European wounds.
DYNAMO KYIV (13x Ukraine League, 9x Ukraine Cup, 13x USSR League, 2x Cup-Winners’ Cup, 1x European Super Cup)
Dynamo Kyiv are an institution in Ukraine and were very much the flagship club during the heyday of the Soviet era. Dynamo were the most successful team before the USSR broke up in 1991 with 13 domestic championships and, since independence, have continued to dominate the new Ukrainian set-up having won their 13th title in the 2008-09 season. In Europe Dynamo enjoyed Cup-Winners’ Cup success in 1975 defeating Hungarian side Ferencvaros 3-0 (following this up with a win in the European Super Cup against FC Bayern Munich) and in 1986 winning their second CWC against Spanish giants Atletico de Madrid (also 3-0). In terms of the Champions League Dynamo have reached the semi-finals, most notably against FC Bayern in 1999, but sadly the final continues to elude them.
GALATASARAY (17x Turkish League, 14x Turkish Cup, 1 UEFA Cup, 1x European Super Cup)
“Gala” created history when they defeated Arsenal in the 2000 UEFA Cup final to become the first, and so far only, Turkish team to win a European trophy. This was followed up by a 1-0 European Super Cup victory against European champions Real Madrid to create a new chapter in the history of this massive Turkish club. The fans of Galatasaray always provides a hostile welcome to visiting teams, most famously their ‘Welcome to Hell’ episode against Manchester United in 1993-94, but even this doesn’t give Gala an advantage as they have yet to even reach a semi-final of Europe’s elite competition. Despite the regular domestic success and a massive fan base Gala’s record in the Champions League is not worthy of their place amongst Europe’s biggest clubs.
GLASGOW RANGERS (52x Scottish League, 33x Scottish Cup, 1x European Cup-Winners’ Cup)
Despite being the world’s most titled club (over 100 domestic trophies if you include the Scottish League Cup triumphs) the blue side of the “Old Firm” are forever in the shadow of their eternal rivals Glasgow Celtic when it comes to European success. Whilst the Hoops won the 1967 European Champions Cup with the famous Lisbon Lions side, Glasgow Rangers could only muster a solitary European Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph in 1972 when defeating Dinamo Moscow 3-2 in Barcelona. All the other finals that Rangers have participated in have ended in defeats: 1960-61 CWC final against Fiorentina, 1967 CWC final against FC Bayern and, most recently, the 2008 UEFA Cup final against Zenit St. Petersburg. The best that Rangers have done in the elite competition is the semi-final of the 1959-60 tournament where a heavy 12-4 aggregate defeat to German champions Eintracht Frankfurt denied them a ‘home’ final at Hampden Park against the mighty Real Madrid. In the first ever Champions League of 1992-93 Rangers reached the group stage, the winners of which would go on to contest the final, but just didn’t have enough luck as they narrowly failed to top the group losing out to eventual winners Olympique de Marseille.
SPORTING LISBON (18x Portuguese League, 15x Portuguese Cup, 1x European Cup-Winners’ Cup)
Sporting Clube do Portugal, to give their correct name, are very much the third force of Portuguese football having never won the European Champions Cup nor Champions League in contrast to their rivals SL Benfica and FC Porto who have each been European champions on two occasions. Sporting’s only European success came in 1964 after they defeated Hungarian side MTK Budapest in the Cup Winners’ Cup final 1-0 after a replay. They had a great chance in 2005 to add to their honours as they reached the UEFA Cup final which was played at the club’s home stadium. However Russian side CSKA Moscow shocked the expectant ‘home’ support in the stadium by winning the game, therefore adding to Sporting’s European woes.
VALENCIA CF (6x Spanish League, 7x Spanish Cup, 2x Fairs Cup, 1x Cup-Winners’ Cup, 1x UEFA Cup, 2x European Super Cup)
Valencia’s record on the European stage is remarkable and would be truly complete if they could win the Champions League. Valencia’s run of success began when they won two consecutive Fairs Cups against FC Barcelona in 1962 and Dinamo Zagreb in the following year before losing their first final in 1964 against compatriots Real Zaragoza. Their next European success came via a penalty shoot-out against Arsenal FC in the 1980 Cup-Winners’ Cup final following that with a Super Cup win over Nottingham Forest. It would be another two decades before Valencia reached another European final but when they did it was in two consecutive Champions League finals where they lost convincingly to Real Madrid in 2000 and unluckily to FC Bayern on penalties in 2001. In 2004 Valencia won the UEFA Cup beating Olympique de Marseille 1-0 before going on to claim their second Super Cup later that year beating FC Porto 1-0.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The final matches of the group stage have been taking place in the UEFA Europa League, the final of which will be played in Hamburg on May 12th, 2010. Having looked at the Champions League last week, Stoppage Time rounds up the twelve groups in the Europa League, starting with the six groups that concluded on Wednesday, December 16th:
GROUP D (SPORTING LISBON, HERTHA BERLIN, HEERENVEEN, FK VENTSPILS)
This was an easy group for Sporting having qualified by Matchday 5 for the Round of 32. Second spot was up for grabs on Matchday 6 and despite Heerenveen’s best efforts at home to Ventspils (winning 5-0) they were ousted by German side Hertha Berlin whose European form was in stark contrast to their dreadful domestic form. Hertha’s 1-0 win over Sporting on the last day meant that they finished on ten points in second place (one point behind Sporting) whilst Heerenveen settled for third and Latvian champions FK Ventspils were unlucky not to gain more points in the tournament and finished bottom of the group.
GROUP E (AS ROMA, FULHAM FC, FC BASLE, CSKA SOFIA)
Fulham were made to work for their place in the last 32 but Roy Hodgson’s men secured qualification in the best way possible beating nearest challengers FC Basle 3-2 away to clinch the second spot behind Roma who led the group on 13 points, two ahead of Fulham who, in turn, finished two ahead of Basle. CSKA Sofia proved to be the whipping boys of the group after they finished the campaign with one point gained on Matchday 1 in a home draw against Fulham.
GROUP F (GALATASARAY, PANATHINAIKOS, DINAMO BUCHAREST, STURM GRAZ)
Galatasaray and Panathinaikos easily qualified for the next stage. Turkish giants “Gala”, UEFA Cup winners in 2000, finished one point clear of their Greek rivals but there was nothing for the Athens based club to fear as they ended the group stage six points in front of Dinamo Bucharest. Dinamo secure third place after they got the better of Austrian side from Graz, the teams finishing on six and four points respectively.
GROUP J (SHAKHTAR DONETSK, CLUB BRUGGE, TOULOUSE, PARTIZAN BELGRADE)
Shakhtar Donetsk, the last ever UEFA Cup winners in 2009, are hoping to defend the trophy under its current guise of the Europa League. The Ukrainians won the group in dominant fashion having qualified by Matchday 4. In the end Club Brugge finished second as they defeated nearest challengers Toulouse 1-0 on Matchday 6 to clinch a spot in the Round of 32. Alas the French side had more than further progress in the competition to mourn as one of their fans, Brice Taton, was tragically killed after being attacked by Partizan supporters in Belgrade ahead of their match on September 17th.
GROUP K (PSV EINDHOVEN, SPARTA PRAGUE, FC COPENHAGEN, CFR CLUJ)
PSV Eindhoven’s European experience was evident in Group K as they topped the table with 14 points. The second place went down to the wire as Sparta Prague played Danish champions FC Copenhagen in a winner takes all encounter on Matchday 6. Two Dame N’Doye goals and a Jesper Gronkjaer penalty secured the Danes a place in the last 32. Sparta finished third on seven points, three points behind FC Copenhagen, whilst CFR Cluj only won once in six games and finished bottom.
GROUP L (WERDER BREMEN, ATHLETIC BILBAO, NACIONAL MADEIRA, AUSTRIA VIENNA)
Last season’s UEFA Cup losing finalists Werder Bremen made easy work of their group only dropping two points out of eighteen (in a 2-2 draw against Austria Vienna on Matchday 3). Athletic Bilbao’s campaign also went well finishing six points behind Werder and five ahead of Portuguese side Nacional. Austria Vienna ended up with the wooden spoon with two points from six games all to show for their efforts.