Thursday, 31 December 2009

Premier League half-time report

We're just over half-way through the Premier League season, so who's looking good (or bad) for 2010?

Manchester United hit five against Wigan, and Arsenal notched four at Portsmouth to give Chelsea fair warning that they're up for the fight for the title in the New Year. It's hard to see beyond these three, yet all three have faltered and the number of defeats for the title contenders this season is higher than usual. No team is showing consistency yet, and the team that does will emerge as favourites.

But who will that be? I always fancy Chelsea as they are resilient and have huge resources. However, without Drogba during the African Nations Cup, they could lose points in games that should be bankers.

I don't think Manchester United are the team they were last season, and injuries make theiur squad look brittle. Yet Wayne Rooney is having some inspirational games, and he might just win them the title in that mood.

Arsenal don't quite look the finished article - especially when up against the top teams - but it would be great to see such a fluent footballing side take the title.

However, through it all, I'll take Rooney to tip the balance United's way.

Given that these three will fill the tops three positions, who else will join them in the Champions League places. Emphatically not Liverpool, who are simply not good enough. So, what of Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa? None of them is showing enough consistency to challenge the top three, but with their resources and perhaps a bit of that elusive consistency, I take Roberto Mancinie to guide City into fourth place. It will be interesting to watch, whatever happens.

At the bottom, Portsmouth are four points adrift and look to have too many difficulties (for example, they lose four place to the African Nations Cup in January) to avoid the drop. Of the rest, West Ham look capable of survival, and I think Bolton will escape too. That leaves Hull City, Wolves, Wigan, Burnley, Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City as likely candidates, though Everton and Sunderland could yet run into a sticky patch.

I'll go with Hull City and Wigan Athletic to join Portsmouth in the Championship next season.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Championship half-time report

Of all the leagues the Championship is always the toughest one to call. Why this should be I have no idea, but it always seems to be tight and most prone to a team "coming from nowhere" to either gain a play-off spot or fall into the relegation places.

This season looks to be no different. Only seven points cover places fourth to 15th, so Cardiff, Leicester, Swansea, Sheffield United, Blackpool, Crystal Palace, QPR, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Watford, Doncaster and Barnsley are all in range, and Preston and Coventry are only another one and two points respectively further adrift.

Newcastle United are at the top, six points clear of West Bromwich Albion - who have a game in hand. Nottingham Forest are in third, two points behind West Brom, having played a game more. Cardiff are six behind Forest with a game in hand, and Leicester are six behind Forest with two games in hand.

How can you call it?!

I'll take Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest for the automatic places.

In the play-offs I'll go for West Brom, Leicester City, Sheffield United and Blackpool. But don't ask me to justify any of those tips!

As for relegation, expect some juggling, but I'll go for Peterborough United, Plymouth Argyle and Scunthorpe United to slip through the net.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

League One and Two half-time report

It's half-way through the season in Leagues One and Two, so let's have a half-time report.

In League One, it's hard to see past Leeds United for top spot, as they sit eight points clear of Charlton Athletic with a game in hand. Charlton, however, are probably looking over their shoulders and they'll see Norwich City three points behind with a game in hand - and they're in good form - together with Colchester United with the same points and games.

A further seven points adrift are Huddersfield Town and Swindon Town. Millwall, MK Dons and Bristol Rovers will be in the scrap for the play-offs, but anyone else will have to hit good form to join them.

At the bottom Stockport County are ten points from safety and have lost 11 league games in a row. They look doomed. Wycombe Wanderers and Tranmere Rovers don't look to have enough to escape, and there'll be a fight to avoid joining them between Leyton Orient, Brighton & Hove Albion, Oldham Athletic, Gillingham and Hartlepool United - at least. A bad run of form can suck anyone nearby into the battle.

In League Two Rochdale are top of the pile and look to be getting out of the bottom tier for the first time since 1992. They are five points clear of Bournemouth, but have played a game more. A further seven points behind are Rotherham United who have two more games in hand. With three automatic promotion places up for grabs, the four play-off spots will be hard fought between Notts County, Dagenham & Redbridge, Aldershot Town, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury Town, Bury, Morecambe and Accrington Stanley.

At the bottom, Darlington look doomed, and Grimsby Town have a tough fight to avoid joining them in the Blue Square Premier in 2010.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Managers changed in England in 2009: 49

Forty-nine managers have left their posts in the four English divisions in 2009, the latest, of course, being Mark Hughes.

But even he wasn't at the highest club. It seems a long time ago, but Luiz Felip-Scolari was sacked by Chelsea only in February as Chelsea struggled with their form! Then, four months later, Guus Hiddink also left Chelsea - but at least this time it was by agreement as Hiddink returned to Russia to try (and ultimately, fail) to get them to the 2010 World Cup.

Other premiership managers to leave their club in 2009 have been: Tony Adams (Portsmouth in February), Ricky Sbragia (Sunderland, May), Steve Bruce (Wigan, June), Tony Mowbray (West Brom, June), Paul Hart (Portsmouth, November).

Of the 49 managers losing their jobs, the breakdown by division has been:
Premier League:           8
Championship:            14
League One:               14
League Two:              13

Of the 49 clubs who have changed manager, their success since has varied:
Better:      18
Same:       10
Worse:     21

Hardly seems worth the trouble, does it?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Storm at Manchester City will soon blow over

Talk of conspiracy theories surrounding the sacking of Mark Hughes at Manchester City undoubtedly have some truth in them, but they have little relevance and will soon be forgotten.

It would be highly unlikely that any board would sack a manager and install another straight away if some previous talks had not taken place. Manchester City admit discussions had taken place with Roberto Mancini a couple of weeks ago, but deny they were about him taking over as manager. The truth's probably somewhere in the middle, but so what?

Yes, we feel sympathy for Mark Hughes, but the fans will soon forget that if Mancini is successful. And if he is not? Well, the fans will call for his sacking. They're not likely to chant "sack the board" when the board is worth so many billions and have put the club, if not on the cusp of, then possibly on the stony path to, success.

Player rebellion is about as likely. There is some talk that craig Bellamy is considering a transfer request and that goalkeeper Shay Given and club captain Kolo Toure had a meeting with chief executive Garry Cook, who earlier refused to speak to a larger player delegation.

Again, let's get real. Players like the money, and City is the club with the money. If Bellamy jumps ship, then he'll probably be the only one (and who could say it would be out of character?).

This is quiet-time pre-Christmas story and once the action's back underway it will die down just as quickly, especially if City beat Stoke City on Boxing Day.

Monday, 21 December 2009

City owner loses patience

It would be hard to find many people without some sympathy for Mark Hughes this morning.

Hughes lost his job as manager of Manchester City on Saturday evening after a 4-3 win over Sunderland put them into sixth place on the Premier League, still boasting the fewest league defeats fn any club in the top flight this season.

Too many draws have left the club 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, but they do have a game in hand and certainly a top four place is not beyond them - and wasn't even before Hughes's replacement Roberto Mancini was appointed in amost indecent haste after Hughes's sacking.

City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak is under no obligation to explain the move, but it can only be seen as impatience that the Sky Blues are not heading the Premier League or at least in close formation behind the Blues of Ambramovich's billions.

Money can't buy everything, but apparently Mubarak beleives it should be able to buy a place at the top of the English football pile.

The problem is that Chelsea and Manchester United invariably find themselves a place at the head of the queue; Wenger's Arsenal are getting hungry for success themselves; and while Liverpool also struggle to find a winning combination, the likes of Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur are stirring like they haven't done for many a year.

Chelsea have been through and sacked a whole host of managers despite winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the League Cup in recent years.

If that wasn't good enough for one billionaire, small wonder sixth place isn't good enough for another.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Mourinho and Beckham face old friends in Champions League

A pair of amazing ties came out of the Champions league draw today.
Firstly, Jose Mourinho was drawn against his old club as Inter Milan drew Chelsea.
Secondly, David Beckham got his wish as AC Milan (where he is on loan) were drawn to face his old club Manchester United.

Arguably, Arsenal enjoyed the easiest draw of the English clubs, against Porto. Perhaps that will will quell Arsene Wenger's recent bout of moaning.

It will be fascinating to see ex-Chelsea manager Mourinho pit his wits against current incumbent, Carlo Ancelotti. Plenty of Chelsea fans feel that Mourinho should never have been sacked.

Just as interesting will be the return of David Beckham to Old Trafford, where he will no doubt get a tremendous reception. The odds are slightly in MIlan's favour; United have not knocked them out in four attempts.

Full Draw:

Stuttgart v Barcelona

Olympiakos v Bordeaux
Inter Milan v Chelsea
Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
CSKA Moscow v Seville
Lyon v Real Madrid
FC Porto v Arsenal
AC Milan v Manchester United

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Poor Gascoigne arrested again

Football is always full of talking points.

For example:
  • Wolves's weakened team against Manchester United on Tuesday.
  • Arsene Wenger's complaints about the above as his team only drew 1-1 with Burnley on Wednesday.
  • Fulham's qualification for the knock-out stages of the Europa League.
  • The sacking of Brendan Rodgers by Reading.
  • The sacking of Jim Magilton by QPR.
  • The results achieved by Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham on Wednesday night.
  • The possible venues for England's 2018 World Cup bid.
I may return to some of these on another day, but for now it's a different topic, and a sad one.

We have all seen the fall from grace of an erstwhile England hero. Poor Paul Gascoigne has been in the news again for more misdemeanours. This tortured soul was arrested in the early hours of Wednesday morning for being drunk and disorderly, according to police.

Gascoigne was taken into custody in the Jesmond area of Newcastle, not far from where he lit up the playing arena of St James's Park in the early 1990s.

Now 42, Gascoigne has battled for many years against acoholism, and doesn't seem to be any nearer solving his problem.

There are plenty of other things that bother us about the game, but our hearts should reach out to 'Gazza', because, let's face it, at one time he warmed them all.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Avram Grant goes back to Chelsea

Avram Grant returns to Stamford Bridge this evening as Portsmouth visit Chelsea in a Premier League clash.

Sacked by manager of Chelsea at the end of the 2007-8 season, he says of tonight's match: "The fans were very supportive when I was there. I think they respect what I did for the club. For me, Chelsea are the best team in England and they play good football, especially at Stamford Bridge. They are a strong team though they haven't won for four games. They've only dropped two points at home all season, but we will try to take points. You'll see a team that will do their best to achieve a good result."

Chelsea were a John Terry penalty kick away from winning the Champions League final against Manchester United in 2008 in Moscow, but, despite coming so close, Grant was sacked by owner Roman Abramovich.

It is widely believed, however, that grant would have been sacked even if Chelsea had beaten United. Defender Ricardo Carvalho said yesterday: "I don't know if the missed penalty changed anything. There were some problems and sometimes complaints, but he had his way of doing things. In the end he was very unlucky, but his work was good."

Grant, who won 39 of 54 games when he was in charge at Chelsea, reckons Abramovich should have stuck with him. "I thought I needed to continue because the team as on the way up. Every month it was better."

I'm sure Grant would love to get something out of tongith's game, but even with Chelsea's recent winless run, I just can't see it.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Newcastle look a safe bet for a swift return

Newcastle United find themselves top of the Championship table after 21 games - seven points clear of West Bromwich Albion; ten points clear of Cardiff City who are third; and 15 points clear of Blackpool who are 7th, one place off the play-off positions.

It's looking likely that the Magpies will be making a quick return to the Premier League.

An impressive set of results since their last defeat (of three this league season) away at Scunthorpe United on 20 October has taken them clear while others below them have jockeyed for position. Seven wins and a draw have given them 22 points from the last possible 24.

Having been in a caretaker role, Chris Hughton was given the permanent job as manager on 27 October, and remained unbteaten in the league since then. (This is unusual. Most caretaker managers who are given the reins promptly fumble them and have a run of defeats!)

Another 40 points or so will probably secure promotion; that's from 25 games, and is, say, 11 wins and 7 draws, which would allow them the "luxury" of 7 defeats.

Sounds easy!

I'm sure it won't be easy, but they'll be pressing to win every game. I can't see them failing.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Ryan Giggs wins BBC's Sports Personality of the Year

Ryan Giggs won the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award last night, following up his Footballer of the Year and PFA Player of the Year successes at the end of last season.

The 36-year-old is sweeping all before him, as he has done throughout his career, being the mnost decorated player of all time in English football.

This year Giggs has passed his 800th appearance for Manchester United, scored his 150th goal and helped them reach the Champions League final.

The Cardiff-born player said: "I am playing for the greatest manager that has ever lived and I'm playing for the greatest club. Perhaps I've become more appreciated as I have got older. It's unusual for a 36-year-old to be playing with a team like Manchester United for 20 years but I am enjoying it and long may it continue."

Giggs has played in every season since 1990-1, including every Premier League season - the only player to do so.

It is to be hoped that the fine player and sportsman that he is, Ryan Giggs hae a few more years left in him yet.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Mariner takes over the reins at Plymouth Argyle

Head coach Paul Mariner has taken charge of all football activities at Plymouth Argyle until further notice after manager Paul Sturrock was removed from the position and given a business support role.

Chairman Sir Roy Gardner said: “The board has decided to make this move following the continuing poor set of results. We're convinced we have the capability to remain in the Championship.”

Argyle are currently one of the bottom of the Championship with only four wins so far this season.

Paul Sturrock joined the club for a second time in 2007, but will now be working on improving the club’s training facilities. He was first at Home Park from 2000 to 2004, and Argyle gained promotion from Division Three (now known as League Two) in 2002 and were promoted again in 2004, just after Sturrock left for Southampton.

Vice-chairman Paul Stapleton said: “Paul is remaining at the club, working closely with business director Keith Todd. We'd like to thank Paul for his considerable contribution for Plymouth Argyle over many years. But he's a realist and knows that if the results haven't come then we need to do something. There comes a time like everything in football where you have to look at the facts, look at the results, look at the points and say to yourselves we need to address that now before it gets too late.”

Fifty-six-year-old Mariner joined the club in October from US club New England Revolution. He made 135 appearances and scored 56 goals between 1973 and 1976 and made 35 appearances, scoring 13 goals for England. He said: It's a sad day, but obviously a happy day for me because I'm getting my chance to be a manager in the league. He's [Sturrock] a great friend of mine. The bond that we have together is quite remarkable and we have a mutual respect for each other.”

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Notts County up for sale

Notts County have been put up for sale by current owners Munto Finance, according to BBC Radio Nottingham, with several parties showing an interest.

It appears that one option involves a buyout which includes current direct of football Sven-Goran Eriksson and executive chairman Peter Trembling.

The club was brought into the nation’s focus when Munto bought the club in July, promising plenty of money to take the League Two club into the Championship within five years.

Eriksson reportedly wants to stay and is looking for a backer to help him finance the deal.

Munto’s promised millions saw a host of new players arrive at Meadow Lane in the summer – including an aborted capture of Sol Campbell – and the club is currently sitting in fourth place in League Two – seven points behind leaders Rochdale.

Ian McParland was sacked as manager after only two months, and was replaced by Hans Backe, Eriksson’s former assistant at Manchester City and Mexico.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Michael Owen gives Capello a firm nudge

From one oldie yesterday (David Beckham) to another today. Step forward, Michael Owen.

Although hardly a critical match for Manchester United in the Champions League, it was still an important one against Wolfsburg last night, and United had to cater for the loss of a whole host of players through injury. United wanted to avoid defeat to ensure that they topped the group to avoid some of the hardest potential encounters in the first knock-out round.

Michael Owen duly delivered with a match-winning hat-trick.

One header, one tap-in and one sprint through to chip over the keeper would surely have given England manager Fabio Capello the firmest nudge yet that Owen is not finished and would be worth a place in the England World Cup squad.

Less than a week short of his 30th birthday, perhaps Owen showed that experience is invaluable.

Although Wayne Rooney is obviously top of the strikers' pile, Jermain Defoe has scored plenty of goals for Tottenham this season, and Capello is evidently a fan of Emile Heskey, it is hard to imagine that Owen is still behind the likes of Darren Bent, Peter Crouch, Carlton Cole and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Owen has proven he can do it at the top level. The doubt had to be over his fitness and sharpness. No doubts any more.

Indeed, Sir Alex Ferguson might now find it hard to leave out Michael Owen.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Beckham the superstar worth a World Cup place

Watching the Wolrd Cup draw on Friday evening I was once again struck by the incredible worldwide popularity of David Beckham.

As the only non-South African assisting with the draw in Cape Town, Beckham still received the loudest reception of the evening, eclipsing those received by other home-grown sporting heroes.

When interviewed briefly after the draw, Beckham was diplomatically sincere.

How far he has come from his petulance in the 1998 World Cup, and his subsequent period of vilification at every venue except Old Trafford.

When I went to Wembley in September to watch England trounce Croatia 5-1, the single biggest cheer of the night - among all those goals, and World Cup qualification itself - was when David Beckham came on as substitute when the game was already won.

With Beckham on board for the 2018 World Cup bid, England's chances have risen dramatically.

Fabio Capello must take David Beckham to the World Cup next summer. As well as being a potentially game-turning substitute, Beckham's mere presence will increase England's popularity with the locals and, given that we have always struggled to stay in locals' good books at World Cups over the years, this must be worth a squad place.

He really does live up to his superstar billing.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Chelsea slip up

Since I tipped Chelsea to challenge for all four competitions they entered last week after they had humbled Arsenal at the Emirates, they have been knocked out of one competition and stumbled in another.

It is typical of the perverse nature of football!

Super-rich Chelsea were beaten on penalties in mid-week by Blackburn Rovers in the Carling Cup, and on Saturday evening lost 2-1 to even-richer Manchester City, to a goal resulting from a handball, as Frank Lampard missed a penalty and Carlos Tevez hit a superb free-kick winner.

Chelsea have already qualified for the next stages of the Champions League and will win the group, so their game against Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus on Tuesday is hardly important, but they will be keen to get back to winning ways.

Next up in the league is Everton, who will be boosted by yesterday’s comeback to draw 2-2 with Tottenham.

With Manchester United notching up an impressive 4-0 win at West Ham on Saturday, Chelsea will have half an eye over their shoulders, but they still look strong enough to be the team to beat in their priority competitions of the Premier League and the Champions League.

Meanwhile Arsenal continue to sweep aside all but the very top opponents, and their 2-0 win against Stoke keeps them in sight of the leaders. The fourth of the Big Four, Liverpool, were unimpressive again, only managing a goalless draw at Blackburn, and slipping down to seventh.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Oddities of the World Cup draw pots

And so we come to the World Cup draw, today in Cape Town at 5.45pm, UK time.

With France; without the Republic of Ireland. No Costa Rica, either, and no Croatia or Russia - the only countries in the top 20 FIFA rankings not to make it.

The eight groups will be drawn from four pots, but it is important to note that there is only ONE seeded pot. The other three pots are made up on a geographical basis.

The seeded pot however contains one "joker", and that is the host nation South Africa, who are actually the lowest rated country in FIFA's rankings, yet join the other top seven countries from October's rankings, simply because they are the hosts.

It means that fifth-ranked (in November) Portugal are not in the top seed list, and neither are seventh-ranked France (though that would have been a travesty given the way they qualified!). England have benefited from FIFA using the October rankings. The November rankings would have seen them miss out on a seeding.

Groups will be drawn from the four pots, but - as ever - it will not be completely straightforward as no other South American team can be drawn with Brazil or Argentina, and no other African team can be drawn with South Africa.

The pots are (with November rankings in brackets):

1: Spain(1), Brazil (2), Holland(3), Italy(4), Germany(6), Argentina(8), England(9), South Africa(86).
2: USA(14), Mexico(15), Australia(21), Honduras(38), Japan(43), South Korea(52), New Zealand(77), North Korea(84).
3: Cameroon(11), Ivory Coast(16), Chile(17), Uruguay(19), Nigeria(22), Algeria(28), Paraguay(30), Ghana(37).
4: Portugal(5), France(7), Greece(12), Switzerland(18), Serbia(20), Denmark(26), Slovenia(33), Slovakia(34).

The way FIFA fill their pots means we could end up with a 'Group of Death' containing: Spain, USA, Cameroon and Portugal (combined ranking of 31), and a 'Comatose Group' containing: South Africa, North Korea, Ghana and Slovakia (combined ranking of 241).

Do FIFA just pray things will work out all right? You watch something odd happen.

England will be praying the worst doesn't happen to them.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

No change to refereeing for 2010 World Cup

Yesterday Sepp Blatter announced that there will be no change to the way games are refereed in the 2010 World Cup. Two further assistant referees (as used in the Europa Cup this season) will not be introduced in South Africa.

Blatter said: "We spoke about what to do with refereeing in future. It's clear that the main match official and his assistants cannot see everything that happens on the field of play. So, is it better to have more match officials or open the door to technology? We will have to evaluate this, though we did take one decision: even if the experiment with two additional match officials in the [UEFA] Europa League continues through to the latter stages (of the competition), there won't be any changes for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. We will continue to use one main match official, two assistants and a fourth official. There's no discussion on this, (the finals) are too soon for us to evaluate other possibilities."

It seems pretty blinkered to me. The introduction of two more assistants - one behind each goal - would make it almost impossible for players to get away with hand balls in the penalty area, and goal line judgements would be improved. It seems an easy one.

Video technology - although quoted as being used in other sports (e.g. cricket, rugby) is a more difficult one. The nature of football is its flow and several interruptions per game for video reviews would not serve the game well. This, therefore, is not an easy decision to make, but at least they're looking into it.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Agents want a place on the FA council

After the figures were revealed earlier this week of the amounts paid to agents in football, Mel Stein, chairman of the Association of Football Agents has called for agents to be represented on the FA's ruling council.

It was shown that £70 million was paid to agents in the year to September 2009 and Stein was not surprised. "They are in line with the industry average, which is around five per cent on player transfers or contract renegotiation," he said. "It is unjustified to criticise agents on the basis of figures published into a vacuum and with no context of what agents do on a deal, or indeed how many people may be involved."

He said that no one was holding a gun to clubs to work with agents.

"Agents perform a valuable role," he continued. "We should be acknowledged as stakeholders in the game. The AFA has more than 300 members and I believe we should have a place on the FA council so that we can make a contribution, and other parts of the game can hear our voice directly."

Manchester City paid £12.87m to agents; Chelsea paid £9.56m; Liverpool paid £6.66m; and Tottenham paid £6.07m.

I wonder if the fans of all those clubs think the money was well spent. The trouble is that there is so much money going out of the game, and many clubs are hugely in debt.

Is this the basis for a sound future?
Do the agents care about that?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Ireland look for 33rd place in the World Cup

The Football Association of Ireland yesterday confirmed that it had asked FIFA if the Republic of Ireland could be found a place in the World Cup in South Africa next year. A statement on its website read:

"The Football Association of Ireland today (November 30) confirmed that it attended an hour and a half meeting, at its request, with Mr Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA on Friday in Zurich. A lot was discussed at the meeting and at one stage the FAI asked if Ireland could be accommodated into the World Cup 2010.

"Other suggestions were also made to mitigate against further occurrences of such incidents, including the use of additional goal line assistant referees for FIFA international matches, further use of video technology for matches at the highest level, stronger provisions to discourage players from engaging in such blatant breaches of the Laws of the Game and provisions to strengthen referee selection for such important matches."

Sepp Blatter said: "I will bring it to the attention of the Executive Committee." The committee meets on Wednesay prior to Friday's World Cup tournament draw.

Any action to accommodate Ireland would be an astonishing move. The precedent would leave tournaments open to all sorts of claims and counter-claims in the future.

Blatter pointed out that Costa Rica  also believe they were unfairly denied a place in the finals. In their case it was because of an offside goal from Uruguay, so they would also have to be acknowledged if extra places are discussed.

It is sad that Ireland missed out because of Henry's cheating and officials that missed the offence, but moves to change tournament set-ups must be avoided. The real way forward is to put in place systems which avoid such errors in the future.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Chelsea looked equipped to take all four

Watching Chelsea sweep aside Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium yesterday afternoon, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond the Blues for the Premier League title.

Unbeaten since their 17 October defeat at Villa Park, Chelsea have strung together an impressive sequence of results: Atletico Madrid, 4-0 (Champions League); Blackburn Rovers, 5-0; Bolton Wanderers, 4-0 (Carling Cup); Bolton Wanderers, 4-0; Atletico Madrid, 2-2 (Champions League); Manchester United, 1-0; Wolverhampton Wanderers, 4-0; Porto, 1-0 (Champions League); Arsenal, 3-0.

They are now 5 points ahead of Manchester United, 10 clear of Tottenham Hotspur in third, and a further point clear of the Gunners, who do have a game in hand.

Look at those results again. In only one game of the nine did they concede, and they have let in only eight goals in 14 league games so far.

Arsenal's attacking prowess (having averaged three goals a game until yesterday) was completely negated by Chelsea's stubborn defence, with John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien protecting the back four so sturdily.

Now with 36 goals in 14 games under their belt, it would unfair to level a charge of boredom against the Blues. They are scoring freely, while the back door is firmly bolted. Carlo Ancelotti has marshalled his troops superbly.

Coming this week are an away tie at Blackburn in the Carling Cup and a visit to Eastlands to see the draw specialists Manchester City (I'm sure Chelsea will end that sequence!).

January may see Chelsea's African contingent off to compete in the African Nations' Cup, but with the transfer ban suspended, this won't present a problem. Indeed, they already have the strongest squad anyway.

Come February, I'm sure Chelsea will still be competing on all four fronts, and it is not beyond them to see it through for a quadruple by May.

Friday, 27 November 2009

English football rankings since the War

Following Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's apparent attempt to revitalise the idea of a closed Premier League (i.e. little or no relegation) which would have two divisions of 18, I set to work looking at who should be included.

Why should it just be the clubs in the Premier League now? I've looked at all the league positions since the war, and gave a point for every position higher in the league; so bottom of division 4 (or equivalent, i.e. today's League Two) would get one point, all the way to Premier League champions who get 92 points.

Let Mr Gartside understand that heritage counts for a lot. It's not all about today. His club, Bolton would be allowed into Division 2 of the Premier League by these ratings.

I continue by looking at the best clubs since the war (1945-6 to 2008-9). Here are the top 50, with their current league position in brackets):

1 Manchester United 5530 (2)
2 Arsenal 5472 (3)
3 Liverpool 5410 (7)
4 Tottenham Hotspur 5224 (4)
5 Everton 5172 (14)
6 Chelsea 5062 (1)
7 Aston Villa 4948 (5)
8 Newcastle United 4876 (21)
9 Manchester City 4856 (6)
10 Leeds United 4728 (45)
11 West Ham United 4718 (17)
12 West Bromwich Albion 4576 (22)
13 Wolverhampton Wand. 4564 (19)
14 Nottingham Forest 4509 (29)
15 Sunderland 4466 (8)
16 Leicester City 4456 (23)
17 Middlesbrough 4408 (31)
18 Southampton 4366 (65)
19 Derby County 4323 (39)
20 Blackburn Rovers 4304 (12)
21 Birmingham City 4302 (13)
22 Sheffield Wednesday 4296 (37)
23 Stoke City 4211 (9)
24 Sheffield United 4208 (34)
25 Ipswich Town 4190 (43)
26 Bolton Wanderers 4130 (18)
27 Charlton Athletic 4088 (46)
28 Coventry City 4049 (38)
29 Portsmouth 3900 (20)
30 Burnley 3826 (11)
31 Norwich City 3795 (48)
32 QPR 3697 (26)
33 Fulham 3691 (10)
34 Luton Town 3529 (99)
35 Blackpool 3412 (27)
36 Preston North End 3411 (32)
37 Huddersfield Town 3283 (49)
38 Crystal Palace 3262 (33)
39 Cardiff City 3138 (25)
40 Bristol City 3029 (30)
41 Watford 2937 (28)
42 Millwall 2877 (54)
43 Barnsley 2847 (35)
44 Plymouth Argyle 2782 (42)
45 Hull City 2739 (15)
46 Brighton & HA 2622 (64)
47 Rotherham United 2599 (71)
48 Oldham Athletic 2581 (60)
49 Notts County 2566 (75)
50 Bristol Rovers 2565 (52)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The game's integrity is fundamental

It's probably the thing you want above all else. You want to believe that it's all real; that it's totally honest and not open to corruption.

If you cannot trust the integrity of football, then waht's the point?

So the match-fixing story under investigation in Germany comes as a horror to all football fans.

Yesterday UEFA named nine countries under investigations: Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Switzerland and Turkey. The cases involve more than 200 matches, and UEFA is also investigating Champions League and Europa League matches from the start of this season.

UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino said: "We want all our associations, all 53, to be at the same level when it comes to fighting this cancer we need to eradicate." He added that UEFA was investigating activities of three referees and one of its own officials.

UEFA promised strong action against anyone - player, referee, club - implicated. Infantino said: "He will be out of football - this is very clear."

Let us hope any culprits are found and dealt with severely.

We must have trust in the integrity of the game.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Portsmouth sack manager Paul Hart

Paul Hart was sacked last night as manager of struggling Premier League club Portsmouth.

The club has had a poor start to the season with only seven points from the first 13 games. The last two games have been defeats (0-1 at Stoke, 1-3 at Blackburn) after their best win of the season on 31 October, a 4-0 home win over Wigan Athletic.

The decision to relieve him of his duties had been, said the club: "made reluctantly based on results that leave Pompey at the bottom of the league".

Fifty-six year-old Hart was offered a role as technical director responsible for young players, but he turned it down. Chief executive Peter Storrie acknowledged that Hart had had to work through troubled times at the club, but said: "The board feels that the team should have accrued more points to date and that we need a new man in charge to ensure Premier League survival."

Attention now, of course, turns to who might take over as manager.

Ex-Chelsea boss Avram Grant is at the club, but has yet to receive his work permit. He says he does not want the job.

Ex Peterborough United boss Darren Ferguson is favourite with the bookies.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

How will the FIFA EGM handle Henry?

Sepp Blatter has called an Emergency General Meeting of FIFA's executive committee for next Wednesday (2 December). It will be held in South Africa and precedes the World Cup final tournament draw on Friday 4 December.

Although they may discuss Henry's handball there is no chance of a replay. They have stated this already, and the replay route is fraught with danger. It is also unlikely that they will bring in video replays, though it may get discussed. The most likely outcome of any discussion of Henry's misdemeanour will be the introduction of two more assistant referees behind the goal line, as are being used in UEFA's Europa Cup this season.

It is also likely that FIFA will try to take the heat out of the situation by denying that the meeting is solely about the incident in the France v Republic of Ireland game. They will also be discussing the match fixing investigation revealed in Germany last week, but above all they're likely to say it's a meeting about seedings for the World Cup. We shall see.

Let's hope they can avoid controversy in the World Cup seedings, but the most outrageous seeding will be host South Africa (currently 85th in the World, and 31st of the 32 qualifiers) who will be in the top pot of seeds.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Tottenham run riot with nine

Eight second half goals produced an amazing score line at White Hart lane yesterday with Tottenham blasting Wigan Athletic 9-1. Jermain Defoe became only the third Premier League player to score five goals in a game with a hat-trick in seven minutes, and two more to follow.

Defoe joins Andy Cole (Man United 9, Ipswich Town 0 in 1995) and Alan Shearer (Newcastle United 8, Sheffield Wednesday 0 in 1999) on the five-goal mark, and it is only the second time that a team has scored nine since the inception of the Premier League in 1992.

An agonising second half for Wigan and boss Roberto Martinez must have seemed interminable as goals flew in on 51 mins, then 54,58,64,69, then a lull before three late goals (87, 88, 90) turned the score line from a thrashing into a total embarrassment. Peter Crouch, Aaron Lennon, an own goal and Niko Kranjcar added to Defoe's quintuple.

Defoe complimented Lennon for his assists, saying: "Azza made the difference. He's so direct. When you've got someone with that pace in the team, he's so direct, it's just easy for everyone.

"He gets the ball, you just leave him in a one-on-one and get in the box. Two fantastic crosses, which I made sure my movement was right for, and I got on the end of them and scored."

Wigan's goal - which made it 3-1 - was courtesy of a handball by Paul Sharmer, causing the Spurs fans to sing "Are you Henry in disguise?", but they weren't that bothered as Spurs' fourth goal was scored a minute later.

The question now for Tottenham is whether they can build on this result. Now in fourth, they travel to fifth-placed Aston Villa next Saturday. They're sure to present a sterner test.

Friday, 20 November 2009

World Cup 2010 qualifiers

And so the final six qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup were decided on Wednesday, and they were not without controversy.

Republic of Ireland were denied by the hand of Henry, a 1-1 draw putting France unjustly through. Irish calls for a replay will be ignored by FIFA - and they should be, otherwise, where would it end? It doesn't stop it being a dismal failure by the officials to spot a double handball AND an offside.

Slovenia knocked out Russia on the away goals rule, winning 1-0 at home, but their late goal in the 2-1 defeat in Russia last Saturday proved crucial.

Portugal beat Bosnia Herzegovina 1-0 to win 2-0 on aggregate.

Greece had an excellent 1-0 in Ukraine after the first leg goalless draw.

In a fiery, bad-tempered African encounter Algeria beat Egypt 1-0 to qualify.

And finally Uruguay drew 1-1 at home with Costa Rica to win 3-2 on aggregate.

So, the 32 qualifiers (with there current FIFA ranking in brackets) are:

Brazil (1)
Spain (2)
Holland (3)
Italy (4)
Germany (5)
Argentina (6)
England (7)
France (9)
Portugal (10)
United States (11)
Switzerland (13)
Cameroon (14)
Greece (16)
Chile (17)
Mexico (18)
Ivory Coast (19)
Serbia (20)
Paraguay (21)
Australia (24)
Uruguay (25)
Denmark (27)
Algeria (29)
Nigeria (32)
Slovakia (33)
Honduras (35)
Ghana (38)
Japan (40)
South Korea (48)
Slovenia (49)
New Zealand (83)
South Africa (85)
North Korea (91)

High rankers to miss out were Croatia (8), Russia (12) and Czech Republic (15).

Onward to the draw on 4 December.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Irish cheated out of place in World Cup finals

Cheating. There's no other word for it. Thierry Henry handled the ball not once, but twice, before crossing for William Gallas to head home the goal that put France through to the World Cup finals and knocked out the Republic of Ireland.

Henry said: "I will be honest: it was a handball, but I'm not the referee."

Not only should the goal have been ruled out for the handballs, but there was also a missed offside call from the free-kick that led to the goal. Although he missed the ball, Sebastien Squillaci went to jump for the ball with two Irish players, and he was in an offside position when the kick was taken.

The Swedish referee Martin Hansson and his assistant both missed all three offences.

It was very sad for the Irish, but it is interesting that they refused to blame Henri.

Kevin Doyle said: "You do not blame the player if he can get away with it, it is nearly a natural reaction."

Manager Giovanni Trapattoni said: "The referee should have asked Henry, I'm sure he would have admitted there was a handball."

Richard Dunne said: "Henry admitted afterwards he handled it, but it doesn't make me feel any better. We were cheated."

With the game already in extra time, a 1-0 win for the Irish would have taken the game into a penatly shoot-out.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Last World Cup qualifiers decided tonight

It will all be wrapped up by tonight. The final six of the 32 teams for the World Cup next year in South Africa will be decided, one way or another, in the final qualifying matches.

In Europe there are four second leg matches to play.

Portugal travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina with a precarious 1-0 lead.
Republic of Ireland travel to France with a 1-0 deficit.
Slovenia host Russia, who won the first leg 2-1.
Ukraine play host to Greece, after a goalless first match.

Nothing is yet decided, and what price at least one penalty shoot-out?

In the Americas, Uruguay will play Costa Rica in Montevideo, already 1-0 up from the first leg. That will be the last game to be decided as it kicks off 11pm, UK time.

But perhaps the most intense and interesting battle will come in the neutral setting of Omdurman, Sudan, where Algeria meet Egypt for a place in the biggest tournament of them all. These two finished level on points and goals for and against, and they each beat the other 2-0. Inseparable, but apparently they hate each other!

Shame that you can only catch one of these games, Slovenia v Russia, on TV, and that's on the pay channel ESPN.

Next stop: the draw for the final tournament groups on 4 December.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

English football: club records in the last twenty years

Following Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's apparent attempt to revitalise the idea of a closed Premier League (i.e. little or no relegation) which would have two divisions of 18, I set to work looking at who should be included.

I'm glad to see the Premier League clubs rejected the idea of including Celtic and Rangers, but why should it just be the clubs in the Premier League now? I've looked at all the league positions since the war, and gave a point for every position higher in the league; so bottom of division 4 (or equivalent, i.e. today's League Two) would get one point, all the way to Premier League champions who get 92 points.

I continue by looking at the best clubs over the last twenty years (1989-90 to 2008-9). Here are the top 36 (last ten year position in brackets):

1 Manchester United 1813 (1)
2 Arsenal 1789 (2)
3 Liverpool 1781 (4)
4 Chelsea 1738 (3)
5 Aston Villa 1689 (6)
6 Tottenham Hotspur 1666 (5)
7 Everton 1638 (7)
8 Newcastle United 1605 (8)
9 Blackburn Rovers 1579 (10)
10 West Ham United 1560 (12)
11 Leeds United 1528 (now League One) (21)
12 Manchester City 1511 (13)
13 Middlesbrough 1503 (9)
14 Southampton 1495 (now League One) (19)
15 Sunderland 1406 (15)
16 Coventry City 1394 (33)
17 Charlton Athletic 1388 (now League One) (16)
18 Derby County 1385 (25)
19 Sheffield United 1374 (24)
20 Ipswich Town 1371 (currently 41st) (22)
21 Bolton Wanderers 1369 (11)
22 Crystal Palace 1365 (31)
23 Sheffield Wednesday 1356 (36)
24 Leicester City 1355 (26)
25 Norwich City 1344 (now League One) (32)
26 Nottingham Forest 1328 (-)
27 Wolverhampton Wand. 1301 (23)
28 Portsmouth 1296 (18)
29 MK Dons (Wimbledon) 1285 (now League One) (-)
30 QPR 1281 (-)
31 Birmingham City 1266 (17)
32 West Bromwich Albion 1230 (20)
33 Watford 1183 (27)
34 Barnsley 1104 (-)
35 Stoke City 1098 (35)
36 Reading 1090 (28)

Others who were in the ten-year top 36:
37 Fulham (14)
43 Preston North End (30)
45 Burnley (34)
47 Wigan Athletic (29)

Monday, 16 November 2009

Latest World Cup qualifiers

We now have 26 nations through to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Three more countries were added to the list over the weekend.

New Zealand beat Bahrain 1-0 over two legs with the win coming in Wellington in front of a record football crowd for the country.

Nigeria won an exciting game over Kenya, 3-2, in Nairobi to confirm their place in the finals. Ex-Newcastle striker Obafemi Martins got the winner.

Cameroon beat Morocco 2-0 to clinch their place in South Africa.

In European play-off first legs Russia beat Slovenia 2-1, France beat Republic of Ireland 1-0, Portugal beat Bosnia-Herzegovina  1-0 and Greece drew nil-nil with Ukraine. Second legs are on Wednesday.

In the South America-Concacaf play-off Uruguay won 1-0 in Costa Rica to take a huge step towards the finals.

The final place is between Algeria and Egypt who finished completely level in their qualification group. A play-off will take place between them on Wednesday 18 November 2009 in Sudan

The other 23 qualifiers are:

Ivory Coast
United States
South Africa
South Korea
North Korea

Friday, 13 November 2009

Sir Alex gets two game ban, but union boss says it's not enough

The FA decided yesterday that no one is above the law, including the most successful manager in the history of the game.

Sir Alex Ferguson was handed a touchline ban for two games and fined £20,000 for "grossly improper" remarks about the fitness of referee Alan Wiley in October.

Peter Griffiths, QC, who chaired the regulatory commission, said: "Each member of the commission recognised Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements and stature within the game. Having said that, it was made clear to Sir Alex that, with such stature, comes increased responsibilities.

"The commission considered his admitted remarks, in the context in which they were made, were not just improper but were grossly improper and wholly inappropriate."

Alan Leighton, national secretary of the Prospect union, which represents referees, did not appear to be satisfied with the punishment. "From our point of view it is disappointing. The Football Association had a chance to make a point and they flunked it. To question the fitness of a referee is to question his ability to do the job and his integrity. We don't think this is sending the right message out to other managers.

"This is not a personal vendetta against Sir Alex, but he has a particular stature within the game and, if he is seen to be getting off lightly, other mamagers may think what he said was not beyond the pale."

There is a further two-game ban suspended until the end of the 2010-11 season.

For me, the punishment seems about right. I think it does send the message to managers that they need to be as much part of the Respect campaign as eveeryon else, whatever their standing in the game.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

English football: club records in the last ten years

Last week I gave a big thumbs down to Bolton chairman Phil Gartside's apparent attempt to revitalise the idea of a closed Premier League (i.e. little or no relegation) which would have two divisions of 18, and would include Celtic and Rangers.

I set to work looking at who should be included. Why should it just be the clubs in the Premier League now? I've looked at all the league positions since the war, and gave a point for every position higher in the league; so bottom of division 4 (or equivalent, i.e. today's League Two) would get one point, all the way to Premier League champions who get 92 points.

We'll start today with the best clubs over the last ten years (1999-00 to 2008-9). Here are the top 36:

1 Manchester United 913
2 Arsenal 905
3 Chelsea 898
4 Liverpool 895
5 Tottenham Hotspur 837
6 Aston Villa 837
7 Everton 832
8 Newcastle United 832
9 Middlesbrough 802
10 Blackburn Rovers 793
11 Bolton Wanderers 790
12 West Ham United 789
13 Manchester City 788
14 Fulham 779
15 Sunderland 763
16 Charlton Athletic 749 (now League One)
17 Birmingham City 739
18 Portsmouth 717
19 Southampton 710 (now League One)
20 West Bromwich Albion 699
21 Leeds United 684 (now League One)
22 Ipswich Town 683 (currently 41st)
23 Wolverhampton Wand. 674
24 Sheffield United 660
25 Derby County 656
26 Leicester City 655
27 Watford 638
28 Reading 632 (currently 40th)
29 Wigan Athletic 632
30 Preston North End 629
31 Crystal Palace 628
32 Norwich City 625 (now League One)
33 Coventry City 612
34 Burnley 592
35 Stoke City 583
36 Sheffield Wednesday 547

No sign of Hull City (they're 53rd on the last ten years) who would "get lucky" by being in the Premier League. Clubs with a good record even in the last ten years, but not currently in the top 36 positions, would miss out - most notably Charlton Athletic, Southampton and Leeds United.

For a deeper record of football heritage I'll be looking further back in similar articles in the future.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Staggering: Ferguson pushed from Posh

I talked about the injustice of the possibility of sacking Phil Brown on this blog a couple of weeks back ( He has survived for now (although I just get the feeling the club is waiting for the "right" (wrong) result so that they can say goodbye).

Well, blow me, if Peterborough United haven't fallen foul of the same stupidity!

Boss Darren Ferguson has "left by mutual consent".

"Following a series of meetings with the manager, Peterborough have decided to part company by mutual consent," read a club statement.

"The football club would like to thank Darren for his magnificent service during his time at London Road and wish him and his family all the best for the future."

"The Posh" are bottom of the Championship, but there are only 16 (of 46) games gone. What on earth does the Peterborough board expect?

This is a club that was in League Two when Ferguson took over. He took them up in 2007-8 and straight through League One last season. Now, 16 games into the following season, he's out!

His "crime" is achieving too much too soon.

The real crime is at board level.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Liverpool benefit from lack of technology

It was never a penalty! We could all see that from the television replay.

Yes, Liverpool got lucky in their 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham City last night. It was a draw they deserved for their battering of the Blues, but the latter will believe they deserved the three points for some stout defending and the fact that it really was a penalty that should never have been given.

The problem is that from the referee's (Peter Walton) viewpoint it looked like a penalty. Liverpool's David Ngog was on the left-hand side of the penalty area heading towards to goal line and about to put in a probable dangerous cross when Lee Carsley came in with a sliding tackle. Down went Ngog. Penalty. The TV cameras - from on high - showed the truth, but the referee couldn't see that.

The arguments about the use of technology will rise again, and there is no doubt that a TV review would have reached the right verdict (no penalty) for that one. For long-term use, the jury is still out on the use of technology and the debate will rage on.

One thing's for sure. Video evidence should be retrospectively used to give David Ngog a yellow card for diving - with perhaps a score of 9.5 written clearly on it!

See the BBC's 606 debate for a Liverpool fan's view.

Monday, 9 November 2009

FA Cup minnows have their day

When we've just seen (or at least heard about) the real David (Haye) beat a real giant (Nikolai Valuev) in the boxing ring, it is difficult to talk about footballing Davids beating Goliaths in the FA Cup first round. The real Goliaths (of the Premier League) have not yet even joined the competition.

Yet there were one or two interesting slayings of the proverbial giants in the first round over the weekend.

Perhaps most notable was the victory of Northwich Victoria at home to Charlton Athletic (1-0) on Sunday, live on TV, and goal scorer Wayne Riley will forever live in the Vics' folklore after scoring the winner after 81 minutes. Charlton Athletic, second in League One, will be - as they say - left to concentrate on the league.

Another eye-catcher was the win of Kettering Town at Hartlepool (1-0), not least becase Kettering then drew Leeds United at home in the second round, and Leeds are definitely the pick of the draw at this stage. They'll be nervous, as they will recall their 1-0 defeat at Histon at the same stage last season.

Bath City (Blue Square South) had an excellent 2-0 win at Grimsby Town, their reward being a home time against fellow non-leaguers, either Forest Green or Mansfield Town who drew 1-1.

Blue Square Premier run-away leaders Oxford United also joined the party with a 1-0 at home to League One Yeovil Town in front of a 6,144 crowd, and they'll be confident of joining the third round draw after Barrow were picked out of the hat for their second round tie.

Another fantastic away win was achieved by Staines Town (half-way down the Blue Square South) at Shrewsbury Town (seventh in League One), and Staines's reward for their 1-0 win is a home tie against Millwall or AFC Wimbledon (playing tonight).

York City - another famous old League name - conjured up past glories with a 3-2 home win over Crewe and will visit fellow Blue Square Premier contenders Cambridge United in the second round.

The spirit of the Cup lives on!

Friday, 6 November 2009

'Closed' Premier League must never be allowed

I read in today's Daily Telegraph that Phil Gartside, chairman of Bolton Wanderers, is looking to revive proposals for a 'closed' Premier League, consisting of 36 clubs of two divisions, with only one club being relegated to the Football League each season.

The proposal would also include Celtic and Rangers from the Scottish Premier League.

It is incredible that this should be considered at this time. How on earth could these clubs in the top flight support this: Fulham, Wigan Athletic, Stoke City, Hull City, Burnley, plus Reading - all of whom have spent much of the past 10-15 years in the lower reaches of the Football League? Without promotion through the ranks they would never have made it to the top flight. There are clubs with much greater heritage, bigger grounds, better support and a fuller trophy cabinet than these and Bolton Wanderers and these facts cannot be ignored.

Of course, this sort of protective exculsivity is just what you would expect from greedy, frightened, short-termism chairman who can't see beyond the far goalposts.

As for bringing in two clubs from another country - no, no and no again. If Scotland feels compromised by the possibility of a Great Britain team in the Olympics having consequences foe their home association and national team, how does it think Uefa or Fifa would react to two of its clubs competing in another country's league?

The answer is no; it should not be discussed and never raised again.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Top European clubs face Champions League exit

Some of the most successful European clubs in European Cup and Champions League history face an exit at the group stage of the competition this season, including holders Barcelona.

Liverpool's failure to hold on to a 1-0 lead, succumbing to a late Lyon equaliser last night, has put them in peril of group exit. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that they will recover their position and they face the ignominy of joining the Europa League at its knock-out stage instead.

In Group F, it is actually possible that both Barcelona and Inter Milan could fail to qualify. The group is so tight that anything could happen. Barcelona, having lost at home to Rubin Kazan a couple of weeks ago, could only draw 0-0 with the same team in Russia, so will finish below them should the teams end up with the same number of points. Inter Milan leapt from last to first with their 2-1 late turn-around at Dynamo Kiev, but have only two more points (6) than Kiev in fourth. Rubin and Barcelona have 5 each.

In group A, it is Bayern Munich who are in real danger after they lost 2-0 at home to Bordeaux - who qualified as a result. Now, as well as hoping Juventus get nothing at Bordeaux in three weeks, Bayern will have to win their trip to Italy too. They are as unlikely as Liverpool to succeed.

Finally, in group C, both AC Milan and Real Madrid face tricky ties against Marseille to avoid being dumped out of the competition, especially Real, who visit Marseille on 8 December.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Oldham v Leeds live on the FA website - for free!

I noted from the fixtures in Sunday's paper that the Oldham Athletic v. Leeds United FA Cup first round tie is due to kick-off at 5.15pm on Saturday 7 November.

It also said "Live on the FA website".

As a Leeds United fan based in the south of England, I found that interesting, but following the Ukraine v. England game being shown live on the internet last month, I wondered with sinking heart how much it would cost to watch.

My research today on the FA website found this banner:

But I could find nothing more - no information on how to access it or how to pay etc.

Next port of call was the Leeds United website, where they are selling tickets for the game, but letting fans know that they must buy tickets before the game.

At the bottom of the ticket advice page was this line: "The game will be available to watch live on the internet free of charge at"

I'm looking forward to it already!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Beckham back at Milan to boost World Cup bid

David Beckham gave a boost to his chances of going to the World Cup with England next June by convincing AC Milan to take him on loan again this winter.

The LA Galaxy midfielder will once again take the black and red striped shirt of the Rossoneri in Serie A, where he shone last season, but this season he will be in Italy for six months - twice as long as last time round.

It will give him a much better chance of reaching his fourth World Cup and matching, or even eclipsing, Peter Shilton's England record of 125 caps. Playing in the MLS in the United States this summer, Beckham has only made 11 appearances for Galaxy, who still have a chance of silverware this month.

Beckham said: "I need to give myself the best chance possible to make the World Cup squad, and playing for Milan on loan will help me to do that."

Milan vice-president, Adriano Galliani, said: "We are very happy to see David again with the Rossoneri jersey, after the splendid experiences of last season. We are certain that this time in Europe will help the player take part in the next World Cup and to conitnue beyond his career with the Galaxy."

Monday, 2 November 2009

Time to enforce the rules

The petty cheating carried out by footballers is becoming increasingly irritating.

It's the gaining of yards at free-kicks, throw-ins, corner-kicks.

The continuing practice of corner takers to place the ball beyond the quadrant by the corner flag led to the rule-makers caving in and now the ball only has to "overhang" the quadrant. So now, not content with overhanging, many corner takers place the ball six inches beyond the quadrant. Always pushing beyond the rules.

Most free-kicks, but esepcially those taken deep in their own half by goalkeepers, are regularly taken 10-15 yards ahead of where the offence took place.

In yesterday's Birmingham v Manchester City game on TV, the home team's Liam Ridgewell took throw-ins down the left-hand side. On each occasion he ignored the ball that had gone out, took a ball from a ball-boy ten yards further up the pitch, ignored the position where the ball went out and then gained a further five yards in the walk to actually throwing the ball. On only one occasion did referee Mike Dean send him back (about half-way).

There will be those that argue, "Does it matter? It's only a few yards" for all these complaints. I would counter: "If a few yards don't matter, then take it from the right place!"

How long before it's introduced into the rules that free-kicks and throw-ins only need to be "within 20 yards" of the stoppage in play? Why stop there?

Already penalty takers like to place the ball in front of the spot so the ball's only "overhanging the spot". Hell!Why not give them a yard, "what does it matter?" With keepers leaving their line invariably, soon the taker will meet the keeper on the six-yard line!

Rule-makers and rule enforcers (referees) need to get a grip of this now.

It's time to stop the cheating.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Grimsby v Accrington: a far cry from the elite

While the usual arguments carry on at the top of the Premier League about too many games, referees, rumours and jealousy, others in the lower reaches continue to ply their trade against a backdrop of a few thousand fans, (relatively) low wages and the threat of relegation to the Blue Square Premier.

Tonight Grimsby Town take on Accrington Stanley at Blundell Park in a League Two fixture.

Grimsby sit in 23rd position - a relegation place - with only 10 points from 14 games, and they've lost their last five league games. Their last point came on 26 September when they drew at home with Darlington - the only team below them in the Football League. They have already sacked Mike Newell this season and now Neil Woods is in charge.

Opponents Accrington Stanley lie comfortably in 14th with 19 points. They have won their last two games. Although they have less problems on the field, Stanley were facing a winding up order, brought by HM Revenue and Customs, over an unpaid bill of £308,000, but have been granted more time to repay the outstanding bill. Boss John Coleman says that off-field problems are overshadowing their on-field achievements.

Crowds at Blundell Park have held up remarkably well at around 3,500 - 4,000 during the season to date, so they'll be hoping for 3,500 this evening.

A cold, wet evening is likely.

It's a far cry from the points, crowds and money that the elite enjoy, but it's strange how you hear more moans and complaints from the top than you do at the bottom. Without these clubs, English football wouldn't have the strength it does.

Good luck to both teams tonight.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Rumours abound but Phil Brown remains at Hull City

I hope we haven’t reached the stage where managers get sacked on rumours.

Yesterday Hull City were compelled to deny the rumours circulating the media and internet world that boss Phil Brown was about to be sacked.

Nevertheless, it is understood that meetings at the club will continue into Thursday to discuss the future of Brown as well as club chairman Paul Duffen.

Hull City fans booed Brown during last Saturday’s tame 0-0 draw with bottom club Portsmouth, and the Tigers remain in the bottom three.

How quickly they all forget.

It was Brown who got Hull City promoted to the Premier League via the play-offs in 2008, and the team clung on to their top status last season, finishing one place above the relegation places. Brown has been in full charge since January 2007.

Relegation could be bad for the club. According to accountants Deloitte the club needs £23m to meet its liabilities, and relegation would cost the club £7m for losing top-flight status. However, many clubs have come through this sort of problem before.

Brown’s “crime” has been over-achievement – getting the club to the Premier League too soon. It was only in 2004 that the club emerged from the lowest tier of the Football League.

It seems to me that some clubs, fans and directors don’t know when they’re well off.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Footballers told not to spit

It's taken the threat of catching swine flu for footballers to be told to stop spitting.

The warning has come after two Premier League clubs reported outbreaks of the H1N1 virus: Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers.

The spokesman at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said that the habit could result in the infection being passed on further, and football clubs should encourage their players to stop spitting.

The spokesman said: "Spitting is disgusting at all times. It's unhygienic and unhealthy, particularly if you spit close to other people. Footballers, like the rest of us, wouldn't spit indoors so they shouldn't do it on the football pitch."

A Premier League spokesman said it would follow guidelines from health experts in handling the issue.

Even worse than players is the habit of some mangers who spit in the dug-out. What's that about? There's no excuse!

It's about time spitting was banned. This disgusting habit should be a bookable offence!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

McClaren gets his contract extended at Twente

I have criticised Steve McClaren in this blog for his tenure of the England team.

However, I can’t deny that he seems to be doing a splendid job in his current role as coach of Dutch side Twente Enschede. They are currently top of the Dutch Eredivisie after 11 games, ahead of the big three: PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, by two, three and six points respectively.

He has been rewarded with a one-year extension to his contract which will keep him at the club until 2011. McClaren joined Twente in June 2008 and guided them to second place in the league and a place in the Dutch Cup final, losing only on penalties.

He said: “It is an ambitious club as we have shown. It's a pleasure to work with a management team and players who want to achieve something.”

Chairman of Twente, Joop Munsterman, said: “It goes without saying that FC Twente are delighted Steve has decided to extend his contract. Both parties are very keen for the technical policy of the club to be continued. Steve McClaren is ambitious, FC Twente are ambitious so it fits.”

Monday, 26 October 2009

Strachan is new Middlesbrough boss

The worst kept secret in football was revealed today as Gordon Strachan was named as manager of Middlesbrough.

The news follows the sacking of Gareth Southgate last Wednesday, a few hours after Middlesbrough had beaten Derby County 2-0 to trail leaders Newcastle United by a single point.

Whereas the unfortunate Southgate has confessed to being surprised by the decision to sack him, it can have come as no surprise to Strachan who had been in discussion with 'Boro chairman Steve Gibson weeks before the axe finally fell on Southgate.

Gibson says that he doubted Southgate's ability to get Middlesbrough back into the Premier League. Another factor were the falling crowds at the Riverside. Only 17,000 saw the win over Derby.

Middlesbrough headed Preston twice before drawing 2-2 on Saturday. They remain fourth in the table, but are now three points behind the leaders.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Chelsea appeal to delay the transfer ban

Chelsea were banned by Fifa for two transfer windows from signing new players after they were found guilty of illegally luring French teenager Gael Kakuta from Lens in 2007. The ban would mean that could not sign players for the whole of 2010 – being banned from the January and August transfer windows.

Now, in an attempt to escape the ban, Chelsea have appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas), wanting the transfer ban suspended until a decision on their appeal has been made.

For some reason appeals take an inordinate length of time to be heard (why?) which is part of the Chelsea delaying strategy.

"A decision concerning the request (to suspend the ban) is likely to be issued at the beginning of November," said a statement on the Cas website.

If Cas agrees to the suspension, Chelsea will be free to sign players in January 2010.

It is my forecast that Chelsea will never serve any part of this transfer ban, despite precedents being set for other clubs who have broken the rules in just the same way.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Manchester United and Chelsea show Liverpool how it's done

While Liverpool suffer from the woes of four defeats in a row and will struggle to make the knock-out phase of the Champtions League, Manchester United and Chelsea sail serenely onward, and have both almost secured qualification for the next round.

United travelled to Moscow and, despite the potential trip-hazard of the plastic pitch, managed to silence the home crowd and quell the enthusiasm of the home team before eventually coming up with an 86th minute Antonio Valenica winner to head Group B with maximum nine points. Wolfsburg, in second, have only four points.

Chelsea welcomed visitors Atletico Madrid (and on Madrid's performance last night, Chelsea would welcome them again!), and won convincingly, 4-0, in front of a 40,000 crowd. Goals from Kalou (2), Lampard and a Perea own goal put Cheslea on top of Group D, with nine points; Porto are the nearest challengers with six points, but Apoel Nicosia and Atletico have only one point each.

Both United and Chelsea can relax into the second half of the group games. Only the most amazing slip-up would see them fail to qualify from their current positions.

For Liverpool, it's a whole different story. In Group E, they have three points and lie third, behind Lyon and Fiorentina, having lost to both of them. It would seem that only three wins from two away games (at Lyon and Debrecen) and a home game will be enough for them to qualify. A Europa League consolation spot from third place looks much more likely.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Middlesbrough sack Gareth Southgate

Gareth Southgate has been sacked as manager of Middlesbrough.

He was dismissed in the early hours of Wednesday morning, after Boro had beaten Derby County 2-0 at home in a league game.

Chairman Steve Gibson said: "This has been the most difficult decision I've ever had to make in football."

Thirty-nine year-old Southgate was appointed in June 2006 and survived last season’s relegation. Middlesbrough are currently fourth in the Championship table, only one point behind leaders West Brom. Before last night’s win, Boro had lost three home games in a row.

Gibson said: "Gareth has given Boro magnificent service as a skipper and, in very difficult circumstances, as manager.

"I appointed Gareth in a situation that was greatly unfavourable to him. He is a good man and has all the qualities and integrity that we wanted in a manager.

"However, the time is right for change and that change has had to be made. Gareth will always be welcome at our football club. English football needs people of his stature and we feel certain that this experience will serve him well.

"Gareth deserves another opportunity once he has had the chance to rest and refresh himself."

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Republic of Ireland get tough play-off draw

As Shay Given and the rest of the Republic of Ireland team must have feared, it's a tough draw for them in the World Cup European qualifier play-offs. The Republic have drawn former world champions France in the seeded draw.

Given complained before the draw about the way seeding had been introduced late in the day for the European qualifiers.

The matches will take place on Saturday 14 November and Wednesday 18 November to decide who goes through to the final tournament in South Africa next summer.

Republic of Ireland  manager Giovanni Trapattoni was said to be "quite relaxed" about the draw. France manager Raymond Domenech said: "They're a team who have not lost in qualifying, who drew with Italy in their last game after conceding a late goal. We know they're tough, but so are we."

The rest of the draw is:

Portugal v Bosnia-Herzegovina
Greece v Ukraine
Russia v Slovenia 

Monday, 19 October 2009

Liverpool's championship hopes look beached

And what of Liverpool?

Here we are, nine games into the season, and Liverpool sit in eight position, seven points behind leaders Manchester United. Perhaps more significantly, Liverpool have lost four of their nine games so far this season.

In a season when (yet again) they were tipped for the top, it is a desperately disappointing start and, no club since 1964 has won the League having had so many defeats after nine games (that club was ... Liverpool, of course!).

Indeed, with the likes of Tottenham and Manchester City threatening to break into the top four, it is entirely conceivable that the mighty reds may fail to finish in the top four, thereby missing out on the Champions League next season.

The beach ball goal by Sunderland that defeated Liverpool on Saturday should not be held up as an excuse, and to be fair to manager Rafa Benitez, he did not try to do so. Without both Ferndando Torres and Steven Gerrard on Saturday, Liverpool's shortcomings were exposed, and Jamie Carragher said they would be "back to the training ground to get ready" for the next game against Lyon in the Champions League on Tuesday.

And next up in the league? Manchester United, at home, next Sunday.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Fifa rankings

The new Fifa world rankings were announced today.

Brazil remain number one, with Spain close on their heels. Similarly, Holland and Italy stay third and fourth. Germany, who were equal with Italy, have slipped back and now trail Italy by 54 points.

Despite a disappointing qualifying campaign, Argentina have actually leapfrogged England to take sixth place, but England remain in seventh, because Russia slipped from sixth to 12th.

Despite not qualifying for the World Cup, Croatia are up to eighth, and two other European teams who only made the play-offs are at ninth and tenth: France and Portugal.

Looking at the European play-off qualifiers, France and Portugal are at nine and ten, Russia 12, Greece 16 - these will be the seeds - and Ukraine (22), Slovakia (33), Republic of Ireland (34) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (42) will be the non-seeds.

The biggest riser is Cameroon, up 15 to 14.

As for the other home nations, Northern Ireland are 30th, Scotland 46th and Wales 78th.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Twenty-three World Cup qualifiers

We now have 23 nations through to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Four more countries were added to the list yesterday.

Switzerland only needed a point to qualify, and duly got it in a 0-0 draw with Israel.

Slovakia made it through to their first final tournament with 1-0 win in Poland  to clinch their group ahead of Slovenia.

Having struggled for much of the qualifying competition, Argentina clinched their spot with a 1-0 win in Uruguay, who face a play-off.

Honduras made it through to the finals with a 1-0 over El Salvador.

Countries in the European play-offs will be: Russia, France, Portugal, Greece, Ukraine, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republic or Ireland.

The other 19 are:

Ivory Coast
United States
South Africa
South Korea
North Korea

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Late World Cup seeding is unfair on small countries

Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given has complained about the seeding of countries for the European World Cup play-offs, and he is right to do so.

Seeding for the play-offs was not part of the original qualifications rules, and was only announced on 29 September.

It seems that with some big countries - who were seeded in the original group draw - about to fall into a play-off lottery, Fifa decided to give them the best possible chance of qualifying for South Africa next year. Examples are France and Portugal, and, until Saturday, even Germany were looking at the possibility of a play-off spot.

Thus, in the current Fifa rankings (with an update this Friday), the likely seeded group runners-up will be Russia (6th in the rankings), France (10), Greece (12) and Portugal (17), leaving Ukraine (25), Republic or Ireland (38), Bosnia-Herzegovina (46) and Slovakia (45) or Slovenia (54) (one of these two will win group three) unseeded. It leaves the unseeded teams looking at very tough play-off games, which could leave eighteen months' hard work all wasted.

Even these late changes cannot rescue the countries that were seeded to finish in at least the top two places, but have failed: Sweden, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria - all of whom will not be going to South Africa in 2010 - barring some very odd results tonight!

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Ferguson referee row lingers on

 wonder if Sir Alex Ferguson is regretting his outburst about referee Alan Wiley’s fitness after his side’s stumbling 2-2 draw with Sunderland on 3 October (see this blog, dated 7 October).

The row goes on.

Sir Alex apologised to Alan Wiley, but was asked to explain his comments to the FA. Apparently, he will be writing a letter of apology to the FA, as well as his explanation.

The Manchester United manager could still face FA charges of improper conduct, and might receive a touchline ban if found guilty.

It is understood that his explanation will admit that he was wrong to “personally embarrass” referee Wiley about his fitness levels. It has since been shown that Wiley covered more yardage than many of the players in that game.

Meanwhile, Alan Leighton, national secretary of the Prospect union, has called for Ferguson to be punished unless he retracts the accusations level against Wiley.

“I think the punishment should be a Uefa-type coaching ban,” said Leighton. “Referees are very fit. They have sports scientists who test them regularly throughout the season. They don’t just pass a fitness test at the start of the season.”

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nineteen qualifiers for the World Cup

Now nineteen nations have qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Eight nations were added to the list over the weekend.

The latest qualifiers are:
Ivory Coast clinched their place with a Didier Drogba equaliser against Malawi.
No mistakes by Germany, who beat Russia 1-0 to condemn the Russians to a play-off place.
Denmark won European Group One, ahead of Sweden (whom they beat 1-0 on Saturday) and Portugal, who are still fighting it out for a play-off place.
Serbia smashed Romania 5-0, which means that France have to face the play-off nightmare.
A last-minute equaliser by Alberto Gilardino (2-2) against Republic of Ireland means that Italy won their group.
Chile qualified in South America by virtue of a 4-2 win over Colombia.
Perennial qualifiers Mexico will be there again, after a 4-1 clincher against El Salvador.
The United States qualified with a game to sapre after a 3-2 against Honduras.

The other 11 are:
South Africa
South Korea
North Korea

Friday, 9 October 2009

Tranmere sack Barnes and McAteer

This can come as little surprise to anyone who's been watching results in League One:

Tranmere Rovers have sacked manager John Barnes and his number two Jason McAteer.

Tranmere have had a shocking start to the League One season, winning only two games, and losing eight out of 11. They sit 22nd out of 24, in a relegation place, with only seven points.

Patience had been wearing thin with the supporters, and now the board, and losing 2-1 at Bury in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy on Tuesday was the last straw.

Barnes and McAteer were appointed over the summer, but have failed to make any headway with Tranmere, who finished seventh in League One last season.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

World Cup: European qualification groups five to nine

As we come to the last pair of qualifying games in the European groups, there are still some fascinating possibilities. Here we look at groups five to nine.

In group five Spain have already qualified with eight wins out of eight. It looks as though Bosnia-Herzegovina will take the runners-up spot at the expense of Turkey.

England have won group six, also with eight straight wins. Ukraine will be favourites for runners-up spot if they beat England on Saturday; otherwise it will be Croatia for the play-offs.

In group seven Serbia are favourites, as they sit top, four points ahead of France. It is possible, but unlikely, that Austria could pip the French for a play-off place.

Italy are not guaranteed to win group eight, but only need a draw against the Republic of Ireland or a win against Cyprus to be sure. Bulgaria are the only team that could nudge the Republic out of a play-off place.

Group nine is finished. Holland have already won it, and Norway are likely to miss out on the play-offs with the worst runners-up record.

My forecasts:
Qualifiers as group winners: Denmark, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, Italy, Holland.

Play-offs: Portugal, Greece, Czech Republic, Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, France, Republic of Ireland.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

World Cup: European qualification groups one to four

As we come to the last pair of qualifying games in the European groups, there are still some fascinating possibilities. Here we look at groups one to four.

In group one Denmark head the table and only need two draws to win it. One of Sweden, Portugal and Hungary will have to settle for a play-off spot, and two will miss out entirely.

Group two is just as open, with Switzerland leading by three points and an opportunity to almost clinch it when they visit Luxembourg on Saturday. Greece (most likely), Latvia and Israel will probably be looking at a play-off place at best.

In group three the surprise has been the failure of the Czech Republic to dominate the group. Instead, close neighbours Slovakia lead the way by five points and are almost there, but have to play Slovenia (home) and Poland (away). The Czechs are battling for second place along with Slovenia, Northern Ireland and Poland.

Group four has the amazing possibility that Germany may have to settle for a play-off spot. They lead Russia by one point, but have to travel to Russia on Saturday. If the Russians win they are likely to win the group as they only then have bottom-placed Azerbaijan to face when the Germans play Finland on Wednesday. There are no other contenders for qualification from this group. Imagine it...

We look at groups five to nine tomorrow.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Ferguson's rant deflects criticism from United's shortcomings

Sir Alex Ferguson has been called upon by the Football Association to explain his amazing outburst against referee Alan Wiley after Saturday's 2-2 draw at home to Sunderland.

After his team had claimed a point with an injury-time own goal, Ferguson could barely contain himself: "There should have been another 30 seconds of added time, but he [Wiley] was walking up the pitch after the goal, needing a rest. He just was not fit enough for a game of that stature. The fitness of the players, the pace of the game, demanded a referee who was fit. He is not fit. It's an indictment of our game that we see referees from abroad who are as fit as butchers' dogs. We have got some good referees in our country who are fit, but he was not. He was taking 30 seconds to book a player as he was taking a rest."

Forty-nine year-old Wiley is said to be "very upset" by the comments. He has an impressive fitness record, and has been shown to run 11.5km during a game.

It is my belief that Ferguson's rant has more to do with deflecting criticism away from himself and his team's shortcomings than a real feeling that Alan Wiley is not fit enough. Manchester United were poor and petulant and got away with a lucky point when Sunderland probably deserved to win.

Ferguson is no fool. He knew saturday's team selection and performance might come under scrutiny. He has enough experience and is wily (ha!) enough to take the heat off himself when required.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Ukraine v England not on TV

People in England will not be able to watch England on TV for the first time, when England play in Ukraine on Saturday.

There are only two ways to watch the game:
1. By paying £4.99 to watch it on the Internet.
2. By watching it at an Odeon cinema.

The game was originally bought from Kentaro – an international agency appointed by the Ukrainian Football Federation –
by Setanta, which has since collapsed.

Now, Perform – a digital sport specialist – has been appointed to stream the match online.

There is some anger among England fans, and one can only imagine it would have been much worse if the game was not a “dead rubber”, as England have already qualified for the 2010 World Cup.

Peter Silverstone, managing director of Kentaro, told BBC Sport: "You will watch as you would any other streaming on the internet, like YouTube or the BBC iPlayer - there will be a pop-up player that will show the match in a very good quality stream."

The £4.99 price is only available until Wednesday midnight. It then goes up to £9.99, and then £11.99 on Saturday.

Silverstone claimed the project is commercially viable and that it had “strategic long-term value” and wasn’t a one-off.

England fans, however, will be hoping it is.