Posts Tagged Europa League

During the Week: Arsenal Get Group of Death, D’Tigers Tamed at AfroBasket & More


If more people played Football Manager more often, the need for the media to stretch the slack rubber of explaining why Arsenal remains among the Pot 1 (top seeded) teams when drawing clubs into their respective UEFA Champions League groups would be more unnecessary than it already is (for those who know).

That written, Arsenal, which completed the signing of former midfielder Mathieu Flamini on Thursday, would probably wish it wasn’t a Pot 1 team afterall following being drawn with a trio of runners-up from competitive leagues; Olympique Marseille from Ligue 1, a league it currently leads, Napoli from the Serie A in a repeat of their dramatic Emirates Cup tie in preseason as well as enterprising German side Borussia Dortmund that also finished runner-up of last season’s Champions League.

Reigning champions Bayern Munich were drawn with Manchester City, CSKA Moscow and Viktoria Plzen in Group D, a group Bayern should have little trouble qualifying from. Man. City meanwhile will fancy their qualification chance this time having crashed out of Europe altogether at the group stage of the last two seasons.

Russian side CSKA on paper will fancy making the knockout stage and upsetting City, however slim that chance is on paper, or at least finish third and drop to the Europa League. Plzen on their part will be buoyed by knocking Atletico Madrid out of last season’s Europa League when they go into matches in this group from next month.

In other groups, there’s Barcelona, that scrapped to the Spanish Super Cup title over Atletico, and AC Milan finding themselves drawn together again in Group H, with Ajax and Celtic the other teams in that group. Group G comprises winners of four of the last six Europa League titles as FC Porto, Atletico Madrid and Zenit St. Petersburg come up against each other along with Austria Vienna.

Then there’s Real Madrid and Italian champions Juventus in Group B alongside last season’s quarterfinalist Galatasaray and FC Copenhagen while PSG are firm favourites in Group C ahead of Benfica, Olympiakos and Anderlecht while English champions Man. United will come up against a supposedly weakened Shakhtar Donetsk side, German darkhorse Bayer Leverkusen and this season’s exciting prospect from La Liga, Real Sociedad in Group C.

And Europa League holders Chelsea will contest Group E with Kevin Prince Boateng’s new club Schalke, Steaua Bucharest of Romania and Swiss side FC Basel. Before then, Jose Mourinho’s side come up against Bayern in this season’s European Super Cup match at Prague tonight.

Both sides boast of strong first team squads filled with an abundance of midfielders and in Chelsea’s case, strikers, after the Blues completed the signing of Cameroun forward Samuel Eto’o from Anzhi days after completing the hijack of Willian. The spotlight however would shift from the duo to the opposing managers, espcially Mourinho who has a poor record of just three wins in 15 meetings against Pep Guardiola to mull on.

Nigeria’s basketball national team have much to mull on concerning the way forward after first losing to Senegal by a point at the quarterfinal stage on Wednesday before falling to another shock 79-76 loss to Cape Verde in a 5th-8th place semifinal playoff on Thursday.

D’Tigers however recovered to thrash Morocco 105-87 in a 7th-8th playoff and complete a gruelling three matches in as many days in Abidjan, finishing a disappointing seventh having placed third at the last Championship in 2011.

Favourites Angola meanwhile are through to the last four there along with hosts Cote D’Ivoire whom they face in a semifinal tonight, with Egypt to face Senegal in the second semifinal as the last four battle for three World Championship spots available.

While the Basketball Nations Cup ends this weekend, the US Open, which began on Monday, truly begins as most of the top seeds have eased through the opening rounds and are now preparing for the third round.

One wee bit of a shock was however recorded when British player… no, not Andy Murray, he’s still on course to defend the title, but Dan Evans who came from a set down to defeat Australia’s Bernard Tomic and set up a third round tie against 19th seed Tommy Robredo. Women’s 5th seed Sara Errani was also knocked out in the second round by compatriot Flavia Penneta in straight sets.

Champion Murray will only just play his second round match against birthday mate Leonardo Mayer of Argentina, while the other usual suspects – Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Li Na – are already through to round three which serves off this weekend.

Major highlight of this weekend though will come from football in the Premier League where archrivals Liverpool and Manchester United face off in Sunday’s lunchtime kickoff at Anfield before Tottenham Hotspur visit Arsenal in the north London derby later on Sunday.

Tottenham, conveniently drawn in Group K of the Europa League with Anzhi Makhachkala earlier today, head into the derby feeling better than this time last week when their deal for Willian was hijacked, having completed the signings of Erik Lamela from AS Roma and Romanian defender Vlad Chiriches while Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen is close to agreeing a deal with the Lilywhites.

Other matches in the Premier League this weekend sees Hull City travelling to face Man. City in Saturday’s early kickoff followed by Cardiff City aiming to add another scalp in Man. United-£36m bid-rejecting Everton, Newcastle United hosting Fulham and Sunderland away at Crystal Palace in the evening kickoff.

In France, league leaders Marseille face second placed big spenders Monaco, while champions PSG welcome Guingamp to the Parc Des Princes and Olympique Lyon will look to put behind their Champions League exit at Real Sociedad when they visit Evian on Saturday.

Sociedad welcome Atletico Madrid to San Sebastien in a potentially thrilling La Liga match on Sunday, champions Barcelona visit Valencia afterwards while Real Madrid host Athletic Bilbao in Sunday’s (rather very) early kickoff.

Real’s Champions League group adversary Juventus will be at home to Lazio in a Serie A match on Saturday evening a fortnight after beating the Romans 4-0 to win the Italian Super Cup. Before that match, Napoli will pay Chievo Verona a visit.

And in Germany, Dortmund have the chance to regain top spot from Bayern (that drew 1-1 with Freiburg on Tuesday) if they pick a win from their trip to Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday.

Before then, Bayern could have dropped to fourth place even should Bayer Leverkusen, FSV Mainz and Hertha Berlin win their respective matches away at fumbling Schalke, Hannover 96 and Wolfsburg.

Finally from the home front, Enyimba went top of the league with 46 points after 28 matches, ahead of Bayelsa United on goal difference, following a 3-0 win at home to Gombe United in midweek.

Bayelsa drew goalless at Sunshine Stars while champions Kano Pillars dropped to third, a point behind the leading two, after a 2-0 loss at Heartland, with Kwara United a further point behind in fourth place following a 2-0 loss as well at Nembe City.

With that, it’s a wrap from here. Billionaire philanthropist Warren Buffet turns 83 on this day, actor Mark Strong turns 50, Charlie’s Angel Cameron Diaz and legendary former Czech midfielder Pavel Nedvěd turn 41 today as well and American tennis player Andy Roddick is 31 today.

To them and everyone else celebrating, best wishes of the day. And here’s to a pleasant weekend to you all. Cheers!

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During the Week: About Finals, Managers and More


I was going to start on an emotional note by lashing Jose Mourinho for starting Gonzalo Higuain on Tuesday night instead of Karim Benzema. In the end, two late goals from Benzema and Sergio Ramos gave majority watching in the Bernabeu and elsewhere a false hope of an unlikely qualification ticket.

In the end, Borussia Dortmund held on to qualify for this season’s UEFA Champions League final with a 4-3 aggregate win in a rather entertaining encounter whose second leg scoreline somewhat belies the true story of the match.

Real dominated on the night but Dortmund stubbornly came closest to opening the scoring when first leg chief tormentor Robert Lewandowski finally got through on goal, having been well marked prior to, only for Diego Lopez to, by the faintest graze of the ball by his glove, deflect the ball onto the crossbar and out for a goal kick.

Dortmund’s case wasn’t helped by Mario Götze’s early exit due to an injury and his absence was felt for the rest of the match. Unfortunately, Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp reckons the Bayern bound midfielder is a big doubt for the May 25 showdown against the Bavarians. Honest talk or mind game? Time will tell.

Either way, Bayern’s concern will be to claim Europe’s top club prize in their third final in four seasons, and their intent was made clearly as a cloudless sky with another emphatic victory over Barcelona to complete an absurd, yet thoroughly deserved 7-0 aggregate annihilation of the Catalans.

Barça was made a scapegoat of a footballing punishment they’re otherwise known to dish regularly by a deathly determined Bayern side that will not give thought to being runners-up in the Champions League a third time in four seasons; especially after losing last season’s against Chelsea, on home soil, in that manner.

So all the better for Juup Heynckes’ side if Götze will not be available for the final, just as he definitely won’t be this weekend when both teams meet in a Bundesliga match. That said, Götze’s has played for Dortmund like he always has hence, a feeling that his talent will be missed very much next season and crucially for Dortmund in the Champions League final, should he miss it.

For now however, with the league title won already and Dortmund sure bets to finish second (20 points behind Bayern), both teams could field much weakened sides in a dead rubber match, just to not hint at what to expect from either side when they meet again at the end of May.

No such luxurious option for Chelsea in the Premier League when they visit a Manchester United that will likely play a mix of fringe and first team players on Sunday, with the Blues still chasing a top four finish in order to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

On Thursday, Rafael Benitez’s side made it to the Europa League final with a 5-2 aggregate win over FC Basel, coming from behind to claim a 3-1 win on the night with a stellar second half performance that saw Fernando Torres, Victor Moses and David Luiz with a long range beauty get the goals for Chelsea.

Next up for them there is a familiar opponent in Portugal’s Benfica that recorded same scoreline as Chelsea at home to Fernabahce to qualify 3-2 on aggregate for the final in Amsterdam on May 15, a match that would be Chelsea’s seventh Cup final in five years.

Considering that, in the years that have been the Roman era, it leaves one wondering why the London club have had almost as many managers as the years Abramovich has owned the club, putting what success is into some weird relative context.

Such weird relative context is what Benitez finds himself in now, remaining unwanted by the club’s fans since the day in November he was appointed till the end of this season when his interim contract will expire.

And that is despite reaching the Europa League final, the last four of the FA Cup and winning five of the club’s last seven league matches; a form that led to him being named Premier League manager of the month of April, as well as seven of the last 10 in all competitions.

We will therefore see another manager leave Stamford Bridge even though that manager has, in a matter of months, performed relatively well. Unlike Roberto Di Matteo’s time however, Benitez isn’t just unwanted by the club’s Russian owner but also by the club’s fans who previously criticised Abramovich’s for making hasty decisions when it came to sacking a manager instead of exercising patience and backing a manager.

Only manager that didn’t get the hasty treatment was Jose Mourinho who left after losing a power tussle with Abramovich years ago. Old wounds however heal over time and if nuances are to be believed Abramovich could fulfill the wish of majority of Chelsea fans and bring the ‘Special One’ back to the Bridge. Time will tell.

Mourinho meantime has, with some discontent, been going on about being a ‘useless’ manager after only managing to win a league title, two Copa Del Rey titles and a Spanish Super Cup in his three seasons at the Bernabeu as well as reaching three successive Champions League semi-finals and another Copa Del Rey final.

He went further to reveal his regret at not getting Diego Lopez earlier than he did while insinuating some players (Iker Casillas perhaps one) are not exactly pleased with his training methods.

All that comes soon after he’d talked about wanting to be where he was loved following Real’s Champions League exit, saying “I know in England I am loved. I know I am loved by some clubs, especially one.” and adding he will only decide his future at the club when he meets with Real president Florentino Perez at the end of this season.

Ahead of that time, he will try to have Real Madrid put Barcelona’s league title celebrations on hold when Real Valladolid visit the Bernabeu, while Barça host Real Betis needing a win and for Real Madrid to lose in order to wrap up the La Liga title this weekend.

Elsewhere, PSG could win the Ligue Un title this weekend as well with a win at home to Valenciennes along with other results going their way. Same scenario applies for Juventus when they face Palermo in the Serie A.

Coming home, Nigeria’s last representative in continental competitions will on Sunday look to qualify for the group stage of the CAF Champions League but Enugu Rangers must at least earn a score draw at Recreativo do Libolo of Angola to do so after the first leg ended goalless in Enugu.

Egyptian giants Al Ahly need an outright win at home to Bizertin to qualify after a goalless first leg, as does Esperance of Tunisia at home to JSM Beja, while another former champion TP Mazembe have a 3-1 deficit to overcome at home to Orlando Pirates.

AC Leopards, that knocked Nigeria’s Kano Pillars out on away goals in the previous round, meanwhile made the group stage on Friday night via penalty shoot-out after losing the second leg against Algeria’s ES Setif 3-1 to leave aggregate scores tied at 4-4, having won the first leg 3-1 as well.

Finally in boxing, Wladimir Klitschko will defend four world titles against former sparring partner Francesco Pianeta on Saturday night, with the latter unbeaten in his professional career. Klitschko on his part has suffered three losses in 59 fights but has won via knockout 50 times, so Pianeta really is up against a brick here.

With that, it’s a wrap here. Today marks the 19th anniversary of Rashidi Yekini scoring Nigeria’s first ever World Cup goal at USA ’94. It sadly is also the first anniversary of his death. May he rest in peace, amen.

Wish some form of respect will be paid him in next week’s Nigeria Professional Football League matches just as the Hillsborough 96 will be remembered and Everton fans appreciated when the Merseyside derby is played at Anfield on Sunday in one of this weekend’s highlight matches, as both sides chase a Europa League spot in the Premier League.

In Italy, Inter Milan visit second placed Napoli needing a win desperately to keep hopes of finishing in a Europa League spot alive while Fiorentina host Roma with the former seeking a win to keep faint Champions League qualification hopes alive. Then there’s relegation threatened Deportivo la Coruña, unbeaten in its last six league matches, hosting third placed Atletico Madrid at the Riazor later today.

Whichever match catches your fancy though, do enjoy it along with the rest of your weekend. Cheers.

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During the Week: Oscar Pistorius, Arsenal Precarious & More


A week after Valentine’s Day turned tragic for the blade runner, paralympian and indeed, olympian, Oscar Pistorius may well get himself a favourable verdict in his bail application over the killing of his girlfriend Reeva.

And if he is granted bail, it would largely be thanks to defense lawyer Barry Roux’s meticulous approach to the case along with the prosecution’s far less meticulous handling of it.

First, the prosecution’s case against Pistorius was looking great until they brought their witnesses in. 600 meters away? And then the witness became unsure of the distance to back up their claim of hearing screams from Reeva before she was shot dead.

For me, that was the turning point to swing the case right back in Pistorius’ favour. Coupled with Roux’s focus on Pistorius being the only (physical) witness at the crime scene and thus, focusing on (favourable) probablities based on that fact rather than conjuring allusions based on vague recounts of the incident by ‘witnesses from a distance’, Pistorius seems set to guarantee his innocence per se. He did shoot the damsel but (no) thanks to the prosecution, all he’ll have handed him is manslaughter.

Worse still for the prosecution was the revelation of the case’s chief investigator having history of being charged with seven attempted murders, along with the (distracting) history of cases where he investigated Pistorius, which would make it seem that Botha (the chief investigator) was on a personal vendetta against Pistorius. **was**, since on Thursday he was replaced as chief investigator of the case, another blow to the prosecution.

The bit when the prosecution pointed to a magazine publication in which Pistorius is said to own a house in Italy also weakened the prosecution’s case. Getting a statement from that magazine’s editors to back that claim would have been better.

After all said over what was, may have been and was not done, Pistorius’ application for bail looks to be coming to an end and if he does get the verdict in his favour, he pretty much will be a free, heartbroken and single man with a few lost sponsorship deals.

Pistorius heartbreak is heavy, Arsenal’s is serial, after being outdone by an efficient Bayern Munich side in a first leg round of 16 UEFA Champions League encounter played at the Emirates Stadium. At the end of the 3-1 drubbing though, it did seem Arsenal was the away team.

That defeat effectively ends Arsenal’s relevance in Europe unless the Gunners pull off an unlikely comeback in the return leg, like it nearly did (and really should have done) last season against AC Milan where the Gunners won 3-0 in the second leg after losing the first by a goal more.

This Bayern defeat however comes right after lackadaisically letting Blackburn Rovers through to the next round of the FA Cup, raising questions once again about Arsène Wenger’s capability as Arsenal manager.

The players, especially current captain Thomas Vermaelen and future captain Jack Wilshere believe it is the players and not the manager that is to blame for Arsenal’s current precarious state.

Then if the players are to blame, why not let go of most of them and bring in a set of players that can get the right things done at the club? Cue Theo Walcott in who reiterated the massive talent in the dressing room that only need to translate that onto the field during matches.

So, in summary, the manager hasn’t lost his marbles, the players, however very good they are, are letting this manager down big time but because these players are supposedly very good, there would be little or no need to have them replaced by new, marquee signings.

Arsenal is a peculiar club indeed and it is painful to see the club that tried to propagate the idea of a complete football club on and off the field being well beaten at it by clubs that, ironically, have perfected what Wenger keeps trying to achieve.

On one hand, Bayern Munich have reached the final of two of the last three Champions League finals and are on their way to winning the Bundesliga in record fashion, having complemented its team down the years (Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribèry and co.) with the addition of very good players (Dante, Manuel Neuer and Mario Mandzukic) along with the likes of Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller who came through the ranks.

All that comes complete with a solid financial model off the pitch that makes the Bavarians formidable both on the field as well as off it. Thus spending big when necessary, just to ensure the team is capable of playing great/efficient football at the very top level isn’t a problem for the Germans as exemplified down the years in the signings of Ribery then, Neuer much later and most recently, Mandzukic.

Then on the other hand is Barcelona that now plays the most attractive football conceivable; a title Arsenal solely held once, having complemented the core of its team (Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi) with additions down the years of Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Zlatan Ibrahimovic (briefly), Jordi Alba, Alexis and Alex Song (through the transfer market) as well as Pedro, Cristian Tello and Thiago Alcantara (through the ranks, just like Messi and Fabregas initially).

Add that to the club going out of its way to allow a sponsor’s name on their jersey (now held lucratively for Barça by the Qatar Foundation), massive gate receipts and a public profile that staggers across the world, money isn’t the problem for the Catalans… at least they’ll scale the FFP hurdle set by UEFA.

At Arsenal however, the core of the team keeps changing no thanks to the exit down the years of Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole, Mathieu Flamini, Kyle Bartley, Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Alex Song and most atrociously Robin van Persie among others.

Had at least four of the above been kept and got joined by Jack Wilshere, Carl Jenkinson, Francis Coquelin, Kieran Gibbs, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott who have come through the ranks as well as any two of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal from the transfer market, Wenger would certainly not be so stressed at the moment.

The club’s heavy focus on the financials at the expense of the team itself has denied it being a combination of the current Bayern and Barça teams it had the immense potential to be. Now instead, Arsenal is simply a spoilt rich child accustomed to losing yet not too bothered to change that trend.

Barcelona meanwhile is that spoilt rich lad that has everything going for it most of the time. And the very sparse times something doesn’t go its way, well, the ‘haters’ come alive and basically amplify this lad’s low moment.

Indeed Massimo Allegri’s players gave him what he expected of them, to neutralise Barça’s inevitable possession prowess and possibly take the chance(s) that come their way. And among a few that propped, the Rossoneri buried two.

That defeat did show the Catalans’ reliance per se on Messi can also be made to be an albatross. Milan expertly marked Messi out as well as kept the other threats in the Barça team at bay so while the visitors had a chunk of possession – as usual – it came to nothing.

That fact was a source of overflowing glee to many who came up with ‘stats’ and analysis but as I stated at the start of a post exactly a month ago, “You know a team is very good when its lost matches make the headlines… ”

While Milan is in a much better position than the last time both teams met in the Champions League at last season’s quarterfinal stage, their two-goal lead this time is far from secure and the onslaught they will have to bear from this Barça side at the Nou Camp is better left imagined.

Last time out, Milan held Barça to a goalless draw at the San Siro before Messi scored two penalties and set up Iniesta to secure a 3-1 win in the return at the Nou Camp. Messi may have been caged on Wednesday, he may have a poor record in Italy but hardly at the Nou Camp. Milan will have to ‘play even better’ than on Wednesday to get a desired result.

Or maybe not, seeing as Liverpool and Atletico Madrid played well and got a good result but not the desired result while Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea were staring at elimination till stoppage time efforts from Belgians saved both London sides’ blushes and let them progress in the Europa League.

Atletico’s exit, shocking as it was, feels so much like a silver lining moment since now, the club can focus squarely on finishing at least above city rivals Real Madrid in La Liga just as winning the Copa Del Rey is also a possibility for Diego Simeone’s side.

Moussa Dembele and Eden Hazard’s late equalisers against Olympique Lyon and Sparta Prague respectively edged the Londoners through, much to the slight delight of fans of fellow Londoners Arsenal that lie fifth in the Premier League where the London trio chase the Champions League spots on the league table.

Other teams through in the Europa League include Lazio that beat Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate, Inter Milan with a 5-0 aggregate win after easing to a 3-0 win at CFR Cluj, Zenit after barely surviving a second leg barrage at Liverpool to eventually go through on away goals and Newcastle United that got its first ever win at Ukraine, a lone penalty goal from Shola Ameobi, to qualify by the same score at the expense of Metalist Kharkiv.

The biggest result of the night for me came in Napoli’s 2-0 loss at Viktoria Plzen, which completed a massive 5-0 aggregate win for the Czechs over the Italian side that previously was favourite to win the competition along with Atletico.

The Naples side have the whole weekend to drain the anguish of the Europa League exit out of their system ahead of their trip to Udinese on Monday night, a tricky trip that could further pile misery on them.

Biggest match in Italy this weekend however is the Milan derby on Sunday. AC go into that as favourites, with their domestic season on the right track having steadily caught up with the top and now occupy third spot. Inter however will go into this match in bipolar form, securing that win over Cluj in Europe either side of a hapless display in a 4-1 humbling at Fiorentina.

Another match to look forward to this weekend is at the Parc des Princes where Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint Germain host third placed Olympique Marseille on Sunday, with David Beckham reportedly to make his PSG debut in that match.

Super Sunday in Europe begins in England where second placed Manchester City host third placed Chelsea while on Saturday it’s first from top versus first from bottom when Manchester United visit Queens Park Rangers.

Weekend looks very exciting for neutrals, more so with Swansea City set to take on Bradford City in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday at Wembley. Massive day for both clubs and while it would be some story if the Bantams won, I’m all for a Swansea win, if for any reason better representation of England in the Europa League next season.

On a more personal note, I’d just be very content not to have a repeat of last weekend when all the clubs I support across Europe, somehow, lost their respective league matches… all six clubs; Arsenal, Lazio, PSG, Hearts, Werder Bremen and Deportivo La Coruña.

Latter two face Bayern Munich and Real Madrid respectively on Saturday so… I won’t even bother checking back on them till Monday morning.

Till then, have yourselves a glorious weekend!

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Lazio vs. AC Milan Preview


S. S. Lazio have the chance (again) to make a bit of a statement in the Serie A, with a match against AC Milan coming up for l’Aquile at the Stadio Olimpico.

Having lost woefully at Napoli just a month ago, third placed Lazio will see Milan’s visit not only as a chance to keep pace with the league’s pacesetters, but also as an opportunity to show that it can get the points against the big teams.

Vladimir Petkovic’s side will also be motivated by the fact that a win over Milan will see Biancocelesti reduce the four point gap between it and one or both of league leaders Juventus and second placed Napoli, as both clash at Turin in Saturday’s evening kick-off.

Saturday’s late kick-off in Rome remains a high profile match despite Milan’s misfortunes this season. The Rossoneri finds itself down in 11th place, with just seven points from as many matches.

Milan have also had to deal with head coach Massimo Allegri in a reported heated exchange with youth coach Filippo Inzaghi, continuously backing Allegri’s position as coach inspite of a poor start to the season as well as fending off rumours of a sale of the club to Qatari investors.

On the flip side, the Rossoneri played well for large spells in the loss to Inter Milan last time out. Days before that loss, Milan held their nerves to gain a crucial 3-2 Champions League at Zenit St. Petersburg after throwing a two-goal lead away.

The biggest boost for Allegri’s side however will be the return to fitness of Brazilian forward Alexander Pato from an injury sustained on international duty at the Olympics.

Milan’s main threat however will be Italian youngster Stephen El-Shaarawy. With four league goals so far, the 19 year old has proved an unlikely pillar for Milan in the absence of Pato and lack of form from the likes of Robinho, who is out injured, or Ricardo Montolivo.

With a difficult trip to face Champions League Group C leaders Malaga coming after Saturday’s trip to Rome, the next five days are crucial to Milan’s season.

Likewise to Lazio’s season, though coach Petkovic believes Lazio should only be considered contenders for the Scudetto or otherwise by Christmas while urging his players to be at their best in the league and in Europe.

The Bosnian tactician also believes Lazio at the moment can beat Milan, a view echoed by midfielder Cristian Brocchi who stated Milan is “wounded” at the moment.

And indeed Lazio, hardly ever so, is favourite going into the encounter and will be banking on Hernanes and Miroslav Klose to deliver the goods upfront, with Klose in a rich scoring streak having hit home five league goals so far; including a brace last time out at Pescara.

Lazio players celebrating a goal recently.

Lazio players celebrating a goal recently.

He also scored a brace for Germany in Tuesday’s thrilling 4-4 draw against Sweden in a World Cup qualifier to come within two goals of Gerd Muller’s record of 68 goals for the German national team.

Petkovic will hope he maintains his form on Saturday and ensure Lazio secure a result similar to last season’s corresponding fixture. A win for Milan however will help ease the pressure weighing on Allegri.

P.S: FORZA BIANCOCELESTI!!!

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UEFA Champions League Day 1 Preview – Groups A to D


You may have had some feeling at the back of your mind that the football season, perhaps wasn’t fully on the way and from Tuesday night, that piece of ‘sporting anomaly’ will be fixed when the UEFA Champions League – Europe’s elite, and the world’s most glamorous club competition – begins on September 14 and there are a few match-ups should whet the appetite and set us on our way for this season.

Just to recap, FC Internazionale of Italy is the defending champion following a 2-0 win over German champions Bayern Munich at the Santiago Bernabeu; home of Spanish giants Real Madrid that have won the competition a record nine times…though their last triumph came in 2002 and more un-graciously have been unable go past the first knock-out round the previous six seasons. Right out of the hat, the favourites are, of course, the defending champions FC Internazionale along with 2009 champions CF Barcelona, English champions Chelsea and three time winners Manchester United while outsiders include AC Milan, Real Madrid – despite their knack for Second Round exits, you always have to hope – and err, Arsenal.

Group A
Inter Milan have an efficient team of players to count on and are as a result favourites to make it out of this group on top and besides, Rafael Benitez isn’t a stranger to European success with experience from Valencia and most memorably at Liverpool. The Nerazurri have a tough trip to FC Twente that, despite the exit of Steve McLaren to manage Wolfsburg, remain a modest enough team to cause Inter some trouble on Tuesday night. Group A’s other match looks more attracting with Werder Bremen at home to debutantes Tottenham Hotspur and both sides are attack minded teams so a few goals should probably be expected even though both sides will be missing a few players – Claudio Pizzaro and Jermain Defoe especially – and they have not been in good form on the field with Bremen on four points from four matches and Tottenham, unbeaten in four matches but have been disappointing in their last two league outings against clubs they should be winning. Looks like Bremen will edge it unless Spurs get their act together.

Group B
Olympique Lyonnais could have had it worse but in my opinion, the French side have a group it can cope with without much fuss and the visit of Schalke to the Gerlande should present a good platform to launch their quest in this season’s competition. Schalke have been dismal in the Bundesliga this season despite the arrival of Spanish veteran Raul and Dutch striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and that poor form may well spill into their European adventure for now. The other group match sees Benfica host Hapoel Tel Aviv, a match the Portuguese side to win. Lyon and Benfica as a result stand as favourites to qualify from this group while Hapoel may well nick the Europa League slot by finishing third in the group unless the Schalke side gel very soon.

Group C
This is a competitive looking group that on paper readily sees Manchester United and Valencia favourites to make the next round but I like the mould of Turkey’s representative this season. Champions League debutantes Bursaspor have begun the season in blistering note, winning all four league games so far including away at Galatasaray and should prove tough hosts to Spanish side Valencia on Tuesday. The group’s star match on the day would be at Old Trafford where Scottish champions Rangers face a Manchester United side that has thrown sure win positions away in their last two league matches; still baffled at how the Red Devils allowed Everton two goals in stoppage time in that enthralling draw at Goodison Park. Wayne Rooney will definitely be in the starting line-up on Tuesday and United should have the win even though the Scots will go about showing they aren’t one to be bullied around.

Group D
If I were Panathinaikos, I’d be cursing Hercules (not the Greek superhero) for that shock result on Saturday night because it will certainly push Pep Guardiola’s men to set the record straight at the expense of the visiting Greeks. The other game in Group D has Russian side Rubin Kazan on a tricky trip to Danish league leaders FC Copenhagen. This tie looks even to me, both sides are modest enough though if there’s to be a win on the night, I’d place my bet on Copenhagen…the trip from the old Soviet to Scandinavia isn’t a stroll you know.

All matches begin 19:45 BST (British Standard Time) so you might want to check for time zone differences. This season’s final will take place at England’s Wembley Stadium in May 2011 while the group stages run from September 14 & 15 to December 7 & 8. Have fun being a part of the Champions League!

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Yahoo ~> deleke.afolayan@yahoo.co.uk

or

Twitter ~> twitter.com/d_oA or @d_oA

or by simply leaving a comment here. Cheers!

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Top Ten Players of 2009/10


This would normally have come at the end of May but being a World Cup year, I held it till the Mundial was over before coming up with players I feel deserve to be so recognised. Obviously, performances at the World Cup in South Africa has a lot to do with the players that have made this list; a lot, not all to do with who makes this list.

10.
It’s a three-way tie here made of Luis Suarez of Ajax, Englishmen Jermaine Defoe and Bobby Zamora of Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham respectively.

Africa may not like him no thanks to his hand in Ghana’s quarter final exit, but Suarez is a fine player nonetheless as shown in the three goals he scored at the World Cup on the back of 47 goals in 46 starts last season for Ajax, putting him in good stead to replace Diego Forlán as Uruguay’s main man. Besides, if not for his handiwork, Forlán most probably wouldn’t have got the Golden Ball award because Uruguay would definitely have crashed out.

Defoe appears on this list thanks to his goals that helped Spurs reach the League Cup final, FA Cup semi final, finish 4th in the Premier League and qualify for a first ever UEFA Champions League. Redknapp’s continuous faith in him (from West Ham to present) has consistently being repaid in kind. Admittedly his World Cup was average but he did score a goal (more than Wayne Rooney).

And Zamora, whose crucial goals helped Fulham finish respectably in the league and imperatively in their amazing run to the final of the maiden Europa League, shushed his critics all in a season plagued by injury which ultimately cost him a place with England’s party to South Africa.

9. Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos

Sergio Ramos

It’s difficult to place a defender among the best of them all but Ramos in my view is an excellent defender and with an average of one goal in three games for underachieving Real Madrid last season coupled with a solid performance for newly crowned world champions Spain at the World Cup, fully deserves his place here.

8. Maiçon
It’s a pity Brazil met the Netherlands in that quarter final match either side could have won and had Brazil won, Maiçon would have come in higher on this list. He had a good World Cup, scoring quite a goal but it is his season with treble winning Inter Milan that catches the eye. Maiçon was consistent for the Nerazurri and was one of the stars that helped Inter to that treble.

7. Thomas Müller

Thomas Muller

Thomas Muller

The 20 year old has had a season to remember having broken into the German national team with top rate performances for Bayern Munich on the Bavarians way to winning the league and cup double as well as losing in the Champions League final. Müller capped his season with five goals and three assists at the World Cup to win the Golden Boot award ahead of David Villa and Forlán.

6. Lionel Messi
In my initial shortlist of players, Messi actually did not make the top ten…something definitely wrong there and this is the best I could do for the Argentine hope following a World Cup below expectations for country and a season parallel to our expectations. Messi remained true to his pace, menace and sheer will to disgrace opposition – until Mourinho came with his tactics and the Germans with their machines. Messi remains a fan favourite and his four goals against Arsenal (for me) in the quarter final of last season’s Champions League sums just why.

5. David Villa

David Villa

David Villa

Fernando Torres is regarded as the golden boy of la Roja but a month at South Africa surely must have changed perspectives with Villa running the show up front and from the flanks too, scoring five clinical goals and simply justifying the £30m or so Barcelona paid Valencia for his services. Asides scoring, Villa was a team player (sometimes) and had more shots on target at the Cup than anyone else – the move from modest, cash-strapped Valencia was only a matter of time and his form for Spain with his new club mates leaves the world to wonder, who will stop Blaugrana 2010/11?

4. Arjen Robben
He’s one of those Dutchmen that fall prey to injury season after season and he’s had his little fair share this season which gives his accomplishment this season even more credence in my books, helping Bayern Munich to a German double and the Champions League final as well as playing his part in the Netherlands run to the World Cup final despite missing the group stages (safe for the substitute appearance in the third match). He however will rue for a long time his missed chance one-on-one with Iker Cassilas (who by the way, finished at no. 11 on my shortlist or having more players at the number 10 spot would just have made this lose some cred) that most probably would have won the World Cup for Oranje…bygones I guess.

3. Xavi Hernandez
Xavi’s only flaw is the lack of goals in his games, safe for the occasional free kick and poachers effort otherwise it would be his name; and not Messi or CR9 (with all due respect), that would be on every football lovers’ lips. That said, he again was at the heart of affairs for Barcelona as Blaugrana won a Spanish double and fell short of retaining the Champions League against eventual champions Inter Milan with his ever pinpoint assists and overall vision and intelligence.

2. Diego Forlan

Diego Forlan

I’ve only heard Sir Alex Ferguson state his respect for players he sold twice – Jaap Stam and Forlan. Forlan without question was the spine behind Uruguay’s run to a fourth place finish at the World Cup, finishing with five goals and capping his campaign at South Africa with a goal that had class glossed all over it against the Germans. That, plus a season with Atletico Madrid that saw him lead the Spanish side to the Europa League trophy caps a terrific season for the late bloomer.

1. Wesley Sneijder
Not saying he’s going to be named World Footballer of the year but then again, he won the Italian league and cup and the Champions League being the playmaker of the Nerazzuri before coming so close to lifting a first World Cup for the Netherlands…enough ingredients in my opinion to be named the best footballer for the year #nodisrespect. And to think he is a Real Madrid reject, along with Robben! Sneijder has come a good long way from his torrid time at the Bernabeu where ironically he won the Champions League.

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