• Friday, 30 January 2009

    Ligue 1 week 22

    Monaco v Grenoble
    Le Havre v Nancy
    Le Mans v Nantes
    Auxerre v Lorient
    PSG v Caen
    Valenciennes v Nice
    Rennes v Toulouse

    Bordeaux v Lille
    Sochaux v Marseille
    Lyon v St Etienne

    Top of the shop in France this week is a relatively local derby at Stade Gerland where St Etienne make the short trip. Added spice is liberally sprinkled over the top of it with Alain Perrin taking Les Verts up the road to the place he was at as late as last June after taking Lyon to their seventh consecutive title and first ever domestic double. His reward? The boot. Lyon need the points to hold the pack at bay while St Etienne need to stop throwing away leads and pull away from the drop zone. It looks a tall order for Perrin to get on over in his former employers.

    The aforementioned chasing pack is headed by Bordeaux, the form team in the league. They take on an inconsistent Lille side that really ought to be in the running for a UEFA Cup spot, but just lack that killer instinct. Fourth play fifth as in-form Toulouse travel to Rennes. Les Violets are a free-scoring side with André-Pierre Gignac the league's top scorer while Rennes have just had a bit of a wobble lately. Of the other challengers at the top end, Marseille have a seemingly comfortable trip to Sochaux while PSG travel to Caen, the one Ligue 1 side to succumb to lower league opposition in the cup last week. Not only that, but without a win in five games, Franck Dumas' side are in freefall. Bad news for them, then, that Claude Makelele is back for the Parisians and Mateja Kezman, in favour after a stop-start (mainly stop) season so far.

    At the other end, Le Havre host Nancy this week and they might just fancy their chances of an upset. The Lorraine side have been shipping plenty of goals lately. However, Le Havre have scored just two in their last six league games. They do have a host of new signings ready to go, but that eight-point gap to safety looks wider with every passing week. Nice travel to Valenciennes where the cold is the biggest problem. Travelling from the Cote d'Azur to the far north is tough at the best of times, but when the north is in the grip of freezing temperatures, you could forgive the southerners for wishing it was called off. Nice are going well, and Valenciennes seem to have turned a corner, not losing any of their last six. Converting draws into wins is what they need to start doing now though.

    Auxerre are in danger of being dragged back into danger having lost four on the bounce and Lorient are the visitors to Burgundy this week. Auxerre have Polish striker Ireneusz Jeleń back after a broken collarbone which could spruce up their misfiring attack, but Lorient are nobodies mugs. Monaco are also on a poor trot and aren't out of danger themselves while their opponents in the Principality this weekend, Grenoble, are in wretched form. The Alpine side did start brightly though, and those early season points are what's keeping their heads above the waterline. Finally, Nantes travel to Le Mans where they hope to overtake their hosts as the two sides move in opposite directions in the league. Le Mans have been awful lately while Nantes are slowly discovering some form.

    Superliga Round 16 Preview

    Academica v E. Amadora
    Belenenses v FC Porto
    Benfica v Rio Ave
    Braga v P. Ferreira
    Maritimo v Naval
    Nacional v Leixoes
    Setubal v Guimaraes
    Trofense v Sporting

    A big weekend in prospect in Portugal in the context of the Superliga title race. Porto, a point ahead of Benfica and Sporting at the top, visit Belenenses. The Estadio do Restelo is one of the most difficult places to visit in Portugal and that was proved by Benfica drawing a blank there last weekend. Despite O Belém having won just twice all season, the challenge of this fixture should not be overlooked.

    Benfica host rock-bottom Rio Ave in what is sure to be three points, further heaping pressure on Jesualdo Ferreira’s team. Although they fell away last weekend Quique Sanchez Flores’s team are simply too good to let that continue, and Sporting are unlikely to follow suit visiting Trofense, who are third from bottom themselves. Game of the weekend, though, contains none of the big guns as Leixoes, in fourth, visit Nacional, in fifth in a battle of the UEFA cup spots. Leixoes have a two point advantage over their rivals but this could be eradicated at the weekend. Braga, in 6th, host Pacos de Ferreira while Maritimo host Naval and Guimares and Academica will both target maximum points from the weekend’s matches.

    Serie A Round 21 & 22

    I took my eye off the ball this week and didn’t notice that there was midweek action in Serie A on Wednesday. The results were as follows:

    Fiorentina 2 - 1 Napoli
    Chievo 1 - 1 Lecce
    Sampdoria 3 - 1 Lazio
    Udinese 2 - 1 Juventus
    Catania 0 - 2 Internazionale
    Milan 1 - 1 Genoa
    Atalanta 0 - 1 Bologna
    Cagliari 1 - 0 Siena
    Torino 0 - 0 Reggina
    Roma 2 - 1 Palermo

    Inter stretched their lead to 6 points after Juventus lost, and Milan’s draw with Genoa leaves them further off the pace. Roma have steamed into a UEFA cup spot and there was a vital win for Sampdoria. All of which means, round 22 shapes up like this:

    Saturday Jan 31
    17:00 Napoli v Udinese
    19:30 Juventus v Cagliari

    Sunday February
    14:00 Atalanta v Catania
    14:00 Bologna v Fiorentina
    14:00Siena v Lecce
    14:00 Genoa v Palermo
    14:00 Reggina v Roma
    14:00 Chievo v Sampdoria
    14:00 Internazionale v Torino
    19:30 Lazio v Milan

    On Saturday, Napoli have the chance to get back to winning ways having only collected 3 points from a possible 15 recently. They will do so, however, against an Udinese team that beat Juventus on Wednesday to record their first win in 11 matches which has taken Pasquale Merino’s men back to the relative sanctuary of 12th.

    Juventus were awful on Wednesday with Sebastian Giovinco copping the most flak, and he will most likely be replaced by Alessandro Del Pierro for their home clash with Cagliari. This will be no walkover for the Gobbini as the Sardinians are unbeaten in 2009 and have collected 10 from a possible 12 since the new year, with the strikers Jeda and Acquafresca in enviable form.

    On Sunday two Jekyll-and-Hyde teams Atalanta and Catania, clash at the Azzuri d’Italia with just a point separating them. On their day, both these teams can beat the best but those afternoons do not come frequently enough – although Atalanta’s home form should tell in this case. Fiorentina visit Bologna looking to keep their European credentials intact, although the Rossoblu bounced back from their Milan beating last week to win at Atalanta to put 5 points between them and the drop zone. Siena and Lecce meet at the Artemio Franchi with the visitors desperate to pull away as well, while Reggina, in some trouble at the bottom, welcome Roma who are quite simply red hot, having taken 19 points from their previous 8 games.

    Genoa, who are European contenders depending on whether Diego Milito scores, entertain Palermo and Chievo host Sampdoria. Jose Mourinho will be without Sulley Muntari and Adriano (both suspended) for the visit of Torino but only a miracle will enable Walter Novellino’s team to gain so much as a point. Rounding off the weekend Lazio host Milan, the visitors are unlikely to have David Beckham, as well as being without Maldini or Flamini. But with Lazio continuing to struggle after their brilliant start, the Rossoneri will still be confident of gaining three points from their trip to the capital.

    La Liga Round 21 Preview

    Saturday January 31
    19:00 Athletic Bilbao v Málaga
    21:00 C.D Numancia v Real Madrid

    Sunday February 1
    16:00 Atletico Madrid v Valladolid
    16:00 Espanyol v Recreativo Huelva
    16:00 Real Betis Balompié v Getafe C.F
    16:00 Racing Santander v Barcelona
    16:00 Deportivo La Coruna v Villarreal
    16:00 Osasuna v Mallorca
    18:00 Valencia v Almeria
    20:00 Sporting de Gijón v Sevilla

    On Saturday Real Madrid, who have been winning of late without playing particularly well, visit Soria to play a Numancia side who are hanging precariously above the drop zone following recent results and are in the middle of the run of fixtures against the top sides. Nevertheless, Real have won six straight league fixtures under Ramos and you would expect this to be a fairly routine victory for Los Merengues.

    The first game of the weekend comes from the San Mames where Athletic, fresh from Copa Del Rey success, will look to break down a stubborn Malaga outfit who are unbeaten in six matches and are breathing right down the neck of Atletico in the final European spot. On Sunday, the embattled Javier Aguirre will watch his team play Valladolid. It could not be a better time to play Zortilla’s side, who have taken just one point from a possible 15 in the league. However, with Aguero and Forlan struggling for goals and looking familiarly brittle in defence, it could be a struggle.

    Espanyol, who fought valiantly at the Camp Nou on Thursday, welcome Recreativo to the Montjuic in what has all the makings of being an ugly relegation dogfight. Pochettino is unbeaten in his short tenure with Los Pericos and I fancy they’ll grab an important 3 points, even though Recre won last time out against Betis. Speaking of Betis, Paco Chaparro is under pressure there and a defeat at home to Getafe could be the last straw. Betis have the worst home record in the league (5 defeats from 9 – woeful) so Getafe, fresh from their shellacking of Sporting last week, will fancy their chances.

    Barcelona make the trip to Santander to play a Racing side who have looked full of confidence since the return of Nikola Zigic up front. Racing’s home form is poor, so Pep Guardiola will still be fairly confident his team can cruise unstoppably on. For Racing, a win, however unlikely, will strengthen their fight for UEFA cup place that looked out of the question in December. Manuel Pellegrini’s Villarreal, who continue to stumble, visit the Riazor to play a Deportivo side wounded from three straight league defeats. Mallorca, who pulled off the result of the week last time with their win over Valencia, visit Osasuna and Gregorio Manzano will be praying the form lasts so they could jump out of the bottom 3. Unai Emery will look to bounce back following league and cup disappointment with a win over Almeria, who have picked up just one away win this season. Finally, Sevilla visit Sporting Gijon which is a simply must-win fixture for Manolo Jiminez’s men if they wish to remain in the top four.

    Eredivisie week 20

    Roda v Heracles
    Den Haag v Groningen
    NAC v Volendam
    Willem II v Vitesse
    Ajax v Heerenveen
    Twente v Utrecht
    Sparta v AZ
    NEC v Feyenoord
    De Graafschap v PSV

    Troubled PSV have named Huub Stevens' former assistant Dwight Lodeweges in temporary charge of first team affairs, but he can't have a much easier debut appointment than a home game against De Graafschap. These managerial moves often work in strange ways and one such example is Mario Been welcoming his future employers to his current ones as Feyenoord take on NEC. Caretaker Leon Vlemmings has to keep Feyenoord up in order that Been will have an Eredivisie club to take over next season. With them lying just four points above the drop zone, it looks perhaps more nervy than it actually is. The bottom few are truly terrible, but Feyenoord are not out of danger yet.
    Feyenoord's city neighbours Sparta have the daunting task of knocking the AZ train off it's rails. Unlikely. Ajax take on Heerenveen still smarting from their 5-2 humbling at the Abe Lenstra earlier in the season. Heerenveen are on a terrific run of form at the moment, though they've never had much joy in Amsterdam and Ajax are unbeaten in 15 at home. Should Ajax slip up again, Twente look good to take advantage and move past their rivals. They're at home to Utrecht, a dangerous side on their day, but that day comes round too infrequently.
    Volendam are truly abysmal and NAC will have little trouble there while Groningen, good winners over Ajax last week, travel to The Hague in buoyant mood. Vitesse need a boost after climbing out of the bottom three last week. Lasse Nilsson arrived from St Etienne this week, but not in time to play in this one while Willem II are looking to put some breathing space between themselves and danger with a win here and midweek against Volendam. Yes, midweek. It's a 'Belgian week' with a full programme.
    Roda and Heracles kicked the weekend off in the Friday night game and, despite Harm van Veldhoven saying his Roda side only needed one goal to get a win, they got three, beating the Almelo side 3-1.

    The Bundesliga returns

    Hamburg v Bayern
    Cologne v Wolfsburg
    Hoffenheim v Energie
    Dortmund v Leverkusen
    Stuttgart v Mönchengladbach
    Hertha v Eintracht
    Hannover v Schalke
    Bochum v Karlsruhe
    Bremen v Arminia

    No doubting the top game as Germany's top league kicks back into action. In fact, as this is being typed, the sides are just about to emerge onto the field at the NordbankArena in Hamburg where SV are about to take on FC Bayern. "We're not scared" says Hamburg boss Martin Jol, but Bayern's 5-1 cup win over Stuttgart was mightily impressive and, if anything, flattered Stuttgart. They could even afford a comedy penalty miss from Franck Ribéry in that and they're at strength tonight. Hamburg started the season well, leading for a long time, but have slipped to fourth and have lost Rafael van der Vaart, Vincent Kompany and now Nigel de Jong along the way. They still have the hugely impressive Mladen Petric on board and ex-Bayerners Marcell Jansen and Paolo Guerrero. Ivica Olic - set to join Bayern in the summmer - misses out due to suspension having thumped Hoffenheim's Carlos Eduardo before the break.

    Hoffenheim will be looking to take advantage should Bayern slip up at Hamburg as they take on lowly Energie Cottbus on Saturday. With Vedad Ibsevic out for the rest of the season, TSG moved quickly to fill the gap, securing the season-long loan of Bremen striker Boubacar Sanogo. He'll be partnered by Demba Ba with Chinedu Obasa injured and Eduardo suspended for his part in the Olic punch-up. Cottbus have won just once at home and are deep in the mire at the wrong end of the table.

    Hertha lie third and host the erratically inconsistent Eintracht with massive injury problems. Lucien Favre is without six first-teamers, though new signings from Real Betis Leandro Cuffre and Marko Babic are available. Eintracht are in the same sort of boat, also without six and also with a new man making his debut. Nikola Petkovic should start at the back. Schalke have a seemingly straightforward trip to Hannover, though Jermaine Jones and Orlando Engelaar will be suspended having both seen red in their last league game, a 1-1 draw with Hoffenheim, which leaves Fred Rutten short in the midfield. He spent big in the summer on the likes of Jefferson Farfan and Engelaar and seventh place at the turn isn't good enough for the exacting fans in Gelsenkirchen. Hannover are just about keeping their heads above water, but it will be tough for them to hold Schalke at bay.

    Leverkusen lie in fifth, just three points off the top and a solitary point behind third placed Hertha and they face Dortmund this week in a tasty looking clash. The veteran midfielder Bernd Schneider is out injured as is Vratislav Gresko, but Lukas Sinkiewicz returns. Tranquilo Barnetta, the young Swiss winger, is an exciting player who Dortmund will have to keep close tabs on. Dortmund are without three due to injury and one to suspension, but are on something of a mission having been dumped out of the cup by Bremen last week. A fan died at that game after falling over a barrier and Jurgen Klopp has said that any win would be dedicated to him.

    Stuttgart are unbeaten in the league since Markus Babbel took over. Stuffed by Bayern in the cup, keeper Jens Lehmann laid into his team-mates claiming they don't train hard enough - an outburst that cost him twelve grand, but there's no better way of getting back on the horse that with a home game against Mönchengladbach. They're rubbish. Really rubbish. They do have a rare young talent in Marko Marin, but Hans Meyer looks set to start without him for "tactical reasons". With tactical reasoning like that, is it any wonder they're absolutely rock bottom? Just four point separate Wolfsburg and Cologne and their match could be interesting. Cologne skipper and top scorer Milivoje Novakovic is banned for this one, but taking his place will be Sergui Radu, on loan to Cologne from Wolfsburg. Brazilian hot-shot Grafite is back for Wolfsburg, though perhaps not quite 100% fit. His hat-trick in the cup against Hansa Rostock will help the healing process though as he looks to add to the eleven goals he's already bagged this season.

    Bremen host perennial strugglers Arminia Bielefeld and there's a bottom of the table clash at Bochum where Karlsruhe are the visitors on Sunday. Bremen shouldn't have many issues, especially being the home side, while a winner in the game at Bochum will really give them some breathing space while virtually sending Gladbach down already. So that'll be a draw.

    Wednesday, 28 January 2009

    Just the one upset in France

    Strong winds lashed France all weekend, but the football largely remained unaffected. Just one Ligue 1 club was blown off course by lower league opposition with Caen losing away at Boulogne by three goals to one. Boulogne's reward is a home tie against high-flying Toulouse who disposed of amateurs Schirrein 8-0 as Soren Larsen bagged four for himself. Lyon also beat amateur opposition in their round-of-64 clash, sticking six past Concarneau. They move on to play Marseille tonight in the round-of-32.
    Le Mans needed extra time to see off Ligue 1 bottom club Le Havre in one of the all-top-flight clashes. Jimmy Briand's double for Rennes disposed of the terminally inconsistent St Etienne and Monaco won the derby against Nice by a single goal in the others.
    Lorient needed extra time against Tours, but the other Ligue 1 clubs against lower league opposition had less trouble. PSG stuck three away in Ajaccio against GFCO and Grenoble won 3-1 away at Grande-Synthe. Three was also the magic number for Lille on the northern coast at Dunkerque.
    Sedan and Vitré both needed penalties to get through their ties. It took eleven penalties for Sedan to beat Romorantin, but Vitré went to 9-8 against Créteil.
    The other lower league sides to get through are Guingamp, 2-0 winners over Brest, AC Ajaccio who beat Vannes 2-0 and Dijon who were comfortable 4-1 winners over Villefranche.

    The round-of-16 draw has seen all bar one of those lower league clubs at home, with the Sedan v Vitré clash ensuring there'll be at least one non-Ligue 1 side in the last eight.

    The draw:
    Rennes v Lorient
    Lille v Marseille/Lyon
    Boulogne v Toulouse
    AC Ajaccio v Monaco
    Guingamp v Le Mans
    Dijon v Grenoble
    Rodez v PSG
    Sedan v Vitré

    Shocks look improbable, though Monaco's trip to Corsica won't be plain sailing and Guingamp might fancy their chances against Le Mans, but the other Ligue 1 sides all look very heavy favourites.

    A late edit:
    Karim Benzema's early goal was enough to see off Marseille tonight, the first time Lyon have beaten OM in the cup since 1973. It's Benzema's first goal of 2009 and it came in the second minute of the match off César Delgado's cross. With half an hour remaining, Adbul Kedar Keita picked up a second booking in a bad tempered game, leaving Lyon down a man, but Marseille couldn't take advantage, though Hugo Lloris saved well from ex-Lyon forward Sylvain Wiltord late on. The reigning champions move on to face Lille in the next round.

    Ajax lose ground and Stevens quits

    Heerenveen 2-0 Roda
    PSV 2-2 NAC
    AZ 2-0 De Graafschap
    Feyenoord 1-1 Willem II
    Vitesse 0-0 NEC
    Volendam 0-1 Den Haag
    Utrecht 3-3 Sparta
    Groningen 1-0 Ajax
    Heracles 1-2 Twente

    With so many of the traditional powerhouses of Dutch football struggling, it was inevitable that the managerial merry-go-round would clank into action at some point. The only surprise is that it's taken up until this week to do so. PSV have fallen nine points behind the Champions League placings as they drew at home to Breda and Huub Stevens quit the club, just six months after joining. His final act was seeing Carlos Salcido both put the Eindhoven megalith in front and then equalising for NAC just after the break as he put through his own net. Veteran Finn Jonas Kolkka then put the Breda side in front before that man Ibrahim Afellay rescued a point. Not enough, it seems, for Stevens.

    Ajax also slipped up away at Groningen. The northerners had started the season well, but had fallen away. Now they look back on track with this win which came courtesy of Danny Holla's cracking strike just before the break. Somewhat against the run of play, he profited from some good build up work to fire past Maarten Stekelenberg from 20 yards. Luis Suarez was good again for the Amsterdammers, but that final ball proved elusive and Groningen hung on for the points, a task made easier by Jan Vertoghen's late dismissal.

    Ajax's woes became Twente's delight as their derby win over Heracles put them just a point behind Marco van Basten's side. Heracles had been beaten just once at the Polman all season before this weekend, but Steve McClaren's men despatched them with relative ease. Kenneth Perez is a man in form and he scored one and created another for Marko Arnautovic as the Twente built a 2-0 lead. Ricky van den Bergh was brightest for the home side and he pegged one back - too little too late for the Almelo side.

    AZ are still laughing out front. Everyone else stumbles, but they just keep rolling along, this week with a 2-0 win over struggling De Graafschap as they stretch the lead at the top of the table to six points. It took eleven minutes for Mounir el Hamdaoui to cross for Brazilian striker Ari to head the first and the goalscorer was involved twice in setting up the second for Sébastien Pocognoli. De Graafschap had chances, even getting the ball in the net shortly after going behind, but on-loan Chelsea striker Ben Sahar was offside. Feyenoord left it late to snatch a point at home to Willem II when Andwélé Slory's shanked shot somehow crept past Maikel Aerts to level Jens Janse's second half goal for the visitors. At least the Rotterdammers have identified their new manager: Mario Been will leave NEC to take over in the summer. That's a bit of a surprise given the relative strengths of the two sides at the moment, but NEC fought out a tedious 0-0 away at Vitesse. Indeed, NEC only really had one effort on goal, that coming 17 minutes from time, but their rearguard kept Vitesse - hardly the most frightening attacking machine in the Eredivisie - at bay.

    The lack of excitement there was more than made up for in Utrecht where Sparta battled to a 3-3 draw. Five of those goals came in a busy first half. A terrible defensive error from Utrecht's Michael Silberbauer allowed Kevin Strootman to open the scoring, but Silberbauer atoned with the equaliser before Cedric van der Gun blazed in a long-range effort to put Utrecht ahead. Teenage prodigy Joey Godee levelled it back up, but only for a minute as Loic Loval's tame shot somehow sneaked under Cor Varkevisser and it. The second half was rather more sedate and on 68 minutes, Rydell Popeon fired in Joshua John's cross from the edge of the box the square it up once more. Heerenveen took advantage of PSV's slip-up to tighten their grip on fourth place with a 2-0 home win - their fourth win in a row - over Roda. Roy Beerens got the first and Danijel Pranjic's second half penalty saw them ease to a win over the men from Kerkrade. Finally, Den Haag eased the pressure on themselves while leaving Volendam well and truly in the mire thanks to Danny Buijs' (Oh Danny Buijs, the pipes, the pipes are calling...) late strike in a less-than-enthralling encounter.

    Monday, 26 January 2009

    Serie A Round 20 Review: Roma Blitz Napoli

    Reggina 0-1 Chievo
    Juventus 1-0 Fiorentina
    Bologna 1-4 AC Milan
    Genoa 1-1 Catania
    Inter Milan 1-0 Sampdoria
    Lazio 1-4 Cagliari
    Lecce 3-3 Torino
    Napoli 0-3 Roma
    Palermo 3-2 Udinese
    Siena 1-0 Atalanta

    We start the round-up in Turin where a solitary goal from Claudio Marchisio was enough to see off Fiorentina in a hotly contested game at the Olimpico. Alessandro Del Piero was again in good form providing the assist for Marchisio, but there was controversy later on as a seemingly valid Alberto Gilardino goal was ruled out for offside. Gianluigi Buffon also made several fine saves to deny the former AC Milan striker as well as Manuel Pasqual.

    Elsewhere on Saturday, Reggina battled bravely with 10 men after Chilean midfielder Carlos Garmona was sent off in the first half. They looked like they’d rescued a point against fellow cellar-dwellers Chievo only for Vincenzo Italiano to break Calabrian hearts with a 93rd minute thunderbolt that lifts Chievo off the bottom.

    On Sunday, Inter returned to the top of the league albeit in not entirely convincing fashion at home to Sampdoria. A solitary goal from fat, egomaniacal oxygen thief Adriano was enough to settle it, but the Brazilian has subsequently been banned for a snide punch on a Sampdoria defender as he was going up for a first-half corner – thus emphasizing his utter worthlessness. A sorry tale of a talent well and truly wasted.

    AC Milan remain safely ensconced in third after an emphatic victory in Bologna to end Sinisa Mihailovic’s unbeaten run as manager of the Rossoblu. After Marco Di Vaio scored a penalty to notch up his 15th goal of the season, it was one-way traffic as Clarence Seedorf equalised within five minutes, before Kaka put the visitors 2-1 ahead with a penalty of his own then doubled his tally three minutes before half-time. On the hour mark, David Beckham completed the victory with a fourth and his first goal in Serie A. It is a victory that leaves them 3 points off the pace.

    Genoa fell behind the top 3 after being held at home by Catania. The visitors’ Uruguayan striker Jorge Martinez gave the Sicillians the lead in the second half, but the advantage was short lived as the Grifone’s main man Diego Milito scored his 13th of the season to level things up – a frustrating result for Genoa given their current form. It was not a costly draw though, as Napoli lost for the second week in succession, going down 3-0 at home to a rampant Roma side who have lost just once in their last 10 league matches. Totti returned for Luciano Spalletti’s men and it was obviously a boost – Phillipe Mexes and Juan scored in the first half to put the visitors in control before Mirko Vucinic – in this writer’s opinion one of Europe’s top strikers – rounded things off. Thanks to results elsewhere the Giallorossi move up to fifth.

    Roma’s city rivals Lazio stumbled big time, going down 4-1 at home to Cagliari with Jeda scoring twice inside the opening 10 minutes. Palermo beat struggling Udinese in a thriller in Sicily, the south American duo of Fabio Simplicio and Edison Cavani doing the business for them as is so often the case. Lecce and Torino played out a breathless 3-3 draw at the Via Del Mare that does neither team any favours escaping the trap door and a Mario Frick strike was enough for Siena to beat Atalanta.

    Barcelona plough on

    Barcelona 4-1 Numancia
    Villarreal 1-1 Osasuna
    Almeria 2-1 Athletic Bilbao
    Getafe 5-1 Sporting Gijon
    Malaga 1-1 Atletico Madrid
    Mallorca 3-1 Valencia
    Real Madrid 1-0 Deportivo
    Recreativo 1-0 Real Betis
    Sevilla 0-2 Racing Santander
    Valladolid 1-1 Espanyol

    On Saturday, Barcelona eventually overpowered plucky Numancia after the visitors kept them out for the best part of 50 minutes. Inevitably Messi was the gamebreaker, scoring twice as well as Eto’o and Henry. Barkero provided the consolation for the team from Soria. Down the coast in Castellon, Villarreal continue to stutter as they are the lastest side to be tripped up by Osasuna, who are picking up the odd point that means they still have a chance of beating the drop. Giuseppe Rossi gave the hosts a first half lead but a second half strike from Cape Verdean striker Dady levelled matters.

    Real Madrid closed the gap back to 12 points at the top thanks to Raul’s 34th minute ear-touch to Lassana Diarra’s cross. It was the skipper’s 213th league goal for Los Merengues and means he is just 1 behind Alfredo Di Stefano’s all-time record, quite an achievement regardless of what you might think of the man. Juande Ramos’s side have conceded once in just five matches to belie the political wrangling and instability going on behind the scenes.

    Sevilla missed out on a chance to shore up their top 4 position with a thoroughly lacklustre display at home to a disciplined Racing side who scored set-piece goals either side of half time through Cesar Navas and the magnificent Nikola Zigic. Only Sevilla and Barcelona have conceded fewer goals than the men from Cantabria and they now sit 9th within spitting distance of the European places. Mallorca pulled off the shock of the weekend with a thoroughly professional dismantling of Unai Emery’s Valencia. Midfielder Jurado scored twice in Mallorca’s first league win since late October. Atletico Madrid also missed out on a chance to gain ground by being held by Antonio Tapia’s resolute Malaga.

    Getafe, for want of a better word, absolutely mullered Sporting Gijon on Sunday, with Roberto Soldado grabbing his first La Liga hat-trick in the process. Its a result that means Los Azulones leapfrog them and four others into 11th. Hugo Sanchez’s Almeria halted Athletic’s recent excellent run with a 2-1 victory, Javier Camunas carried Recreativo to a priceless win over hapless Real Betis and Mauricio Pochettino’s first league game in charge of Espanyol ended in a 1-1 draw at Valladolid – not a bad return under the circumstances but wins are the priority, and plenty of them given their situation.

    Advantage Porto

    Porto are back at the summit of the Superliga in the latest round of league musical chairs in Portugal after a frenetic weekend. They took 3 points from a potential banana-skin of a trip to Braga, a side who are good at home and had only lost once at the Axa Arena before the weekend. However, first half goals from Cristian Rodriguez and Lisandro Lopez knocked the stuffing out of Jorge Jesus’s team.

    It was a result that meant Sporting needed to keep pace, but they could not do so as they were held by Nacional, a side proving tricky for a great many visitors this campaign. Spurred on by a vociferous home crowd, The Madeirans took the lead when the highly-rated Brazilian Nene scored his 9th of the season with a delightful 30-yard lob over Rui Patricio in the visitor’s goal. Sporting did eventually level through the ever-reliable Montenegrin Simon Vukcevic, but it means that they drop back in the title race. Its a terrific result for the hosts who are chasing a very possible UEFA Cup place.

    Benfica could not capitalise either as they were held to a frustrating goalless draw across town at Belenenses. David Suazo and Oscar Cardozo both went close but could not find a way past Julio Cesar in the hosts’ goal. Elsewhere Pacos Ferreira scored a priceless away win at Trofense, there were home wins for Academica and Amadora and Naval won away at struggling Vitoria Setubal.

    The Top Table:

    Porto 31
    Benfica 30
    Sporting 30
    Leixoes 27
    Nacional 25

    Saturday, 24 January 2009

    Serie A Round 20 Preview

    Saturday 24 January
    Reggina v Chievo 17.00
    Juventus v Fiorentina 19.30

    Sunday 25 January
    Bologna v AC Milan 14.00
    Genoa v Catania 14.00
    Lazio v Cagliari 14.00
    Lecce v Torino 14.00
    Napoli v Roma 14.00
    Palermo v Udinese 14.00
    Siena v Atalanta 14.00
    Inter Milan v Sampdoria 19.30

    Kicking off the action this weekend is a real basement battle at the Stadio Oreste Granillo as Reggina host Chievo. Both sides are joint bottom on 13 points but the visitors will be buoyed following their surprise win over Napoli last weekend. The Amarento have the worst defence in the league with 37 goals conceded at the turn. Elsewhere, Juventus face Fiorentina in Turin with both sides struggling with injuries - Sissoko, Chiellini and Camoranesi missing for the Gobbini, Mutu and Comotto missing for the Viola. A victory for Juve will see them go top, albeit probably temporarily.

    On Sunday Carlo Ancelloti takes his AC Milan side to Bologna who are unbeaten in the league under new coach Sinisa Mihailovic. Kaka is staying and Pato is in hot form so this could most likely end that memorable run for the Serb, though Ancelloti's ageing defence will have to cope with Marco Di Vaio who is top of the scorers charts. Genoa will look to maintain their Champions League place at home to Catania and their attack is bolstered by the return of the brilliant Diego Milito. A terrific game in prospect down in Naples too, as Roma visit the San Paolo hoping Julio Baptista will be able to conjure up another piece of brilliance like last week's bicycle kick against Torino. They may also be boosted by the return of captain and talisman Francesco Totti. Napoli will be without the suspended Marek Hamsik.

    Round off the weekend is Inter against Sampdoria. Jose Mourinho reportedly berated his team after their performance in Bergamo last week but they have the perfect tonic to rectify the situation - a home tie against Sampdoria, who are just 5 points above the drop zone and have won only 1 of their last 7 matches. Two of the sides' most influential players could be missing though - Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended whilst Antonio Cassano is a doubt with a neck injury. With Juventus playing a big game against Fiorentina, this is a big opportunity for the Nerazzuri to re-establish a lead at the top.

    La Liga Round 20 Preview

    Saturday 24 January
    Villarreal v Osasuna 19.00
    Barcelona v Numancia 21.00

    Sunday 25 January
    Almeria v Athletic Bilbao 16.00
    Getafe v Sporting Gijon 16.00
    Malaga v Atletico Madrid 16.00
    Mallorca v Valencia 16.00
    Recreativo Huelva v Real Betis 16.00
    Valladolid v Espanyol 16.00
    Sevilla v Racing Santander 18.00
    Real Madrid v Deportivo La Coruna 20.00

    After a week of turmoil behind the scenes, Juande Ramos now has the task of focusing the minds of his players away from events off the pitch. Ramos has stabilized Los Merengues and they will fancy their chances on Sunday evening against a Deportivo La Coruna side that has lost their last four and desperately wants to stay in touch with the European spots. If they harbour any title ambitions, Real must defeat a team who have in recent seasons become a real bogey outfit for them. Barcelona, who were held 0-0 midweek by struggling Espanyol in the cup, welcome Numancia to the Camp Nou – the only side to have beaten them in the league this season. Alves, Eto’o and Henry, rested on Wednesday, will return and the odds are heavily stacked against the team from Soria repeating their first-round exploits.

    Elsewhere on Saturday, Manuel Pellegrini will look to continue his team’s gradual recovery as they host bottom side Osasuna. Los Rojillos are 7 points from safety and need to start picking points up from somewhere – though El Madrigal is never an easy place to go. On Sunday, 3rd place Sevilla play Racing, two sides in good form of late with Nikola Zigic having rediscovered his goalscoring touch since rejoining the side from Cantabria. Valencia, who trail Sevilla by four points, will want to heap as much pressure on them as possible by taking maximum points from their trip across the Mediterranean while Atletico Madrid will want to reverse their wretched 2009 run with a victory at in-form Malaga, who have apparently ramped their prices up thanks to their recent success.

    Another side in prime nick, Athletic, travel to Almeria, a side who could be sucked into the drop zone if they aren’t careful. Mauricio Pochettino’s first league game in charge of Espanyol is a trip to Valladolid – he’ll be hoping the hosts’ press the self destruct button like they did last week against Betis. Speaking of them, they make the short trip to Recreativo – bet you wouldn’t pay to watch that – and completing the line-up Getafe host Sporting Gijon, a team who have incredibly reached the halfway stage without recording a single draw.

    Thursday, 22 January 2009

    Coupe de France

    No Ligue 1 action this week as it's the last 32 stage of the French Cup. Unlike the league, this isn't a competition Lyon have dominated of late, though they are the reigning champions. In fact, their fixture backlog meant that their round-of-64 clash with Concarneau takes place this week with the winners - Lyon, you would think - at home to Marseille.
    One game has taken place already, Guingamp beating Brest 2-0 after extra time on Tuesday, and there are two games on Friday; Ligue 1 Lille are at Dunkerque and Vannes take the trip to Corsica to face AC Ajaccio. GFCO Ajaccio are also at home as they welcome PSG to the island. All-Ligue 1 ties are thin on the ground - there are three in total. On Saturday Rennes host struggling St Etienne. Rennes are doing well, but may see the cup as a better way into Europe come season's end. St Etienne need to stop shooting themselves in the foot. Le Havre host Le Mans on Sunday and it's difficult to see them getting any change out of that one. Also on Sunday, Monaco face Nice in something of a local derby. Nice are playing nicely and scoring plenty of goals while Monaco aren't.
    Upsets look unlikely. Tours may be your best bet as they face inconsistent Lorient and Boulogne, second in Ligue 2, are at home to Caen.

    The full draw:
    Guingamp 2-0 Brest (aet. Played Tuesday)

    AC Ajaccio v Vannes
    Dunkerque v Lille

    Schirrhein v Toulouse
    Dijon v Villefranche-sur-Saône
    Lorient v Tours FC
    Boulogne v Caen
    ESTAC v Rodez
    Vitre v Créteil
    Romorantin v Sedan
    Rennes v St Etienne
    Concarneau v Lyon (round of 64. Winner to play Marseille)

    Le Havre v Le Mans
    Grande-Synthe v Grenoble
    GFCO Ajaccio v PSG
    Monaco v Nice

    Eredivisie previews

    Heerenveen v Roda
    PSV v NAC
    AZ v De Graafschap
    Feyenoord v Willem II

    Vitesse v NEC
    Groningen v Ajax
    Heracles v Twente
    Volendam v Den Haag
    Utrecht v Sparta

    It's derby time out east as Twente make the short trip from Enschede to Almelo to take on Heracles. The Almelo side were cruelly denied their first win in five attempts last week against Den Haag when Bas Dost's injury time header was ruled not to have crossed the line despite all evidence to the contrary. It'll be tough against Steve McClaren's side who are playing some nice football. The one worry for Twente is the thin nature of the squad. If any of the back four suffer a knock, they could be in trouble, but they shouldn't have an issue here.
    PSV face NAC with the Breda side just a point behind the champions. Matthew Amoah's 12 goals have helped NAC into this position, but recent results haven't been good. They conceded deep into stoppage time against Utrecht last week but have won just one of the last seven. Huub Stevens is under immense pressure over at Eindhoven and the side is crumbling, though the continued brilliance of Ibrahim Afellay papers over a number of cracks. Players are leaving and, really, the club hasn't been right since Ronald Koeman left for his ill-fated stint at Valencia. Recruitment isn't easy either with Mark van Bommel ruling out his former club.
    AZ face struggling De Graafschap and it ought to be routine for the league leaders. They've not been beaten since losing their opening two fixtures of the season and have been ripping sides much better than the Super Farmers limb from limb. De Graafschap have Chelsea's Ben Sahar on loan for the rest of the season, and while they need goals, it's the defence that's so terribly porous. NEC saw coach Mario Been committing to the club in the long term and new signing Dennis Rommedahl available for the trip to Arnhem. New Vitesse boss Theo Bos has a tough task in turning their fortunes around, especially with goals so hard to come by. Heerenveen are on the up, largely thanks to Danijel Pranjic's dozen goals, and they made the move into the UEFA Cup places by easily disposing of Feyenoord a week ago and they face Roda who are in something of a crisis. Fans are naturally upset by their lowly league placing and attempted to storm the main stand and main entrance during a pre-christmas loss to Groningen.
    Leon Vlemmings takes charge of Feyenoord again as they continue the search for a new permanent manager. Their bloated squad is a bigger burden than anyone in the Eredivisie can possibly stand and they desperately need to clear the decks. They face the inconsistent Willem II at the De Kuip this week and, given that they lost last week, Feyenoord could be in trouble. Ajax, without the suspended Dario Cvitanich, travel to Groningen with Marco van Basten pledging to cut down his squad further after releasing Rommedahl and seeing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar move on. Marcus Berg is keeping Groningen in the hunt and they could give the Amsterdammers a scare here. Volendam look down already and Den Haag should fill their boots. Utrecht are still in a bit of turmoil after the shoddy sacking of Willem van Hanegem. There's no sign of a replacement as yet despite interest from around Europe in what is generally thought to be a solid, stable club. The fact that the board saw fit to sack van Hanegem's backroom staff from beneath him may give lie to that perceived fact. Sparta are the visitors this week with teenage striker Joey Godee beginning to make people sit up and take notice.

    Bundesliga still on a break

    The Germans are still on a break and will be for another week yet. With an 18-team league, proper breaks in summer and winter, is it any wonder that they (with very few exceptions) always turn up to the major international championships?
    It's been a tight competition this season. Inevitably, Bayern have been among the front runners, but it's in danger of imploding down in Bavaria. Lukas Podolski, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, especially with Miroslav Klose and Luca Toni both misfiring badly, will be going back to his former club Cologne at the end of the season and the announcement was made along with a broadside fired at Jurgen Klinsmann. Willy Sagnol, so long a regular in the back four will shortly announce his retirement as he has failed to recover from an Achilles injury and ructions are afoot with Mark van Bommel reportedly told to "take or leave" a new contract offer.
    While Bayern have been tripping over themselves, it's league new boys Hoffenheim that have made hay. Bankrolled by Dietmar Hopp, the chap who set up and subsequently sold software giants SAP, their progress is remarkable. And it's not just the money. At each stage that they've gone up, they've added to the side players that can take them to the next level. And it's worked. The man in charge is Ralf Rangnick who left Ruhr giants Schalke to take over at the tiny village side when they were way down in the regional leagues. Like the more successful owners in other leagues (think Randy Lerner at the Villa), Hopp is a hands-off chairman who leaves footballing matters solely to Rangnick, nicknamed "The Professor", a soubriquet in football that normally means 'he wears glasses and once read a broadsheet paper', and Rangnick has responded. He's got so far up the noses of the more established, old-school coaches to the point at which Uli Hoeness referred to him as a "smart alec". The second half of the season could be tough without leading goalscorer - for the club and in the league as a whole - Vedad Ibsevic who tore ligaments in his knee and is out for the season. Finding a replacement for those goals is key to their fortunes.

    Bayer Leverkusen started brightly, but have begun to fall away. They're not out of it, for sure, but they need to turn current form around to maintain a push. Patrick Helmes is the bright young thing of German football - Germany's Benzema if you like - and his goals are keeping Bayer up there. Hertha and Hamburg too are well in the mix. Hertha are built on sold defensive foundations while Hamburg are winning games by the odd goal. Nigel de Jong (the club wangled £17m out of Man City for him when he had a £2.3m release clause in his contract) has gone and Ivica Olic could be on his way to Bayern, but they've a good manager in Martin Jol and should provide a stern challenge all season long. Ruhr rivals Schalke and Dortmund are locked together in mid-table. Both are tight in defence, but aren't scoring enough goals to the point at which Schalke boss Fred Rutten is considered under pressure. The derby game early in the season was a cause of controversy with Schalke 3-0 up. After Dortmund came back to 3-2, Schalke duo Christian Pander and Fabian Ernst were both dismissed, and a dodgy penalty awarded a minute from time was put away by Alexander Frei to level things. And just before the board went up to indicate the amount of added time to be played, the referee blew for full time. An investigation is underway as the spectre of match fixing rears it's head once more.

    Bremen, Wolfsburg and Stuttgart are all drifting, neither pushing on to Europe nor being in danger of the drop. Bremen can't stop scoring, hitting five on four occasions, but they concede far too many. The goals of Grafite are keeping Wolfsburg out of danger while Mario Gomez is doing likewise for Stuttgart. Premiership watchers will be pleased to know that Jens Lehmann's penchant for yellow cards goes unabated. He's picked up three already.
    Everyone from Cologne down is in bother. Cologne simply do not draw, but have won enough to be ahead of immediate danger. The rest don't. The bottom six clubs have won just 22 matches between them with Bochum just one. And yet Monchengladbach's incompetence is keeping them off the bottom. Energie don't score enough - 12 in 17 games is woeful - and Karlsruhe and Arminia aren't much better. Eintracht aren't doing too badly, but have copped for a few hidings and Hannover are just going nowhere. One thing all these sides have in common is a lack of any sort of quality. In this league, the haves and have-nots are a thrupenny bus ride apart.

    The league resumes on 31st of January and it promises to be a tight race at both ends.

    Wednesday, 21 January 2009

    La Liga Half Term Report (Part Two)

    Osasuna 2/10 The Pamplona side have slowly improved since Jose Antonio Camacho’s arrival in October but remain bottom of the table. Camacho’s managed over 600 league games and will need all his nous to get his team out of this. Goals have been the problem, with just 19 scored but this stat has got considerably healthier recently – they pushed Barcelona mighty close and scored a draw in Sevilla. Don’t write off a great escape, assuming someone (Pandiani probably) scores enough goals.

    Racing Santander 6/10 With Marcelino moving to Zaragoza, no-one was expecting Racing to repeat their exploits of last season in making a European spot. Typically miserly at the back thanks to Cesar Navas, Ivan Marcano and Exequiel Garay, creativity and goals were their problem with the January signings of Nikola Zigic and Toni Moral made with the specific aim of rectifying that. Zigic has already found the net twice since returning to Cantabria and his goals should bean, barring a disaster, a mid-table finish.

    Real Betis 2/10 Betis had a purple patch in November which saw them jump to 8th, but since then have been in freefall and Paco Chaparro must fear for his job under the notoriously trigger-happy Juan Lopez de Ropera. New signing Achille Emana has impressed but their home record is woeful, taking just 8 points from 9 games. Betis are a big club but continually underachieve and, even with a six point gap to the drop zone, look anything but comfortable.

    Real Madrid 7/10 Real Madrid have been so comprehensively overshadowed by their Catalan rivals it has clouded everyone’s judgement – Bernd Schuster was unceremoniously fired after calling an El Clasico victory ‘impossible’ and Juande Ramos has, barring that defeat, improved the team. Arjen Robben is in great form and so are Higuain and Casillas. Realistically the title is out of their reach, but for people to say this season has been a disaster is rather inaccurate. New signing Diarra should help things out in the centre of the park.

    Recreativo Huelva 3/10 Given their small squad and smaller budget, no-one expects miracles from Recre and so it has proved. The excellent Javier Camunas apart, Huelva cannot find the net and no-one has scored fewer goals in La Liga. Upcoming games against Betis, Espanyol and Athletic could have a huge bearing on their season one way or the other.

    Sevilla 8/10 Some Sevilla fans are calling for Manolo Jiminez’s head but this reporter has no idea why. Only Barcelona have lost fewer games or a better away record. He has got the team functioning whether or not Kanoute or Fabiano are scoring. Renato is in inspired form and Prieto, Escude and Navarro are solid at the back. Should they fail to make top four Jiminez will be out but so far I think he’s done a very good job.

    Sporting Gijon 7/10 Sporting Gijon have defied my prediction of relegation to enter half-way in the top half. The Asturians are shit-or-bust – 18 games, 8 wins, 11 defeats, 0 draws. Carmelo and Mate Bilic are doing the business up front and they have a couple of top young players elsewhere, including highly rated left-back Roberto Canella. 39 goals conceded though – not infallible.

    Valencia 8/10 After such a turbulent 07/08, Unai Emery has brought welcome stability on the pitch but financial malaise paralyzes the club off it. The debts are huge and may mean the sale of top assets (but not this season, apparently). Villa, Silva and Mata are in superb nick but Emery deserves more credit for how he’s shored up the back and midfield. Get rid of unreliable Brazilian flap-merchant Renan in goal and you’re onto a winner. Top 4 contenders and I reckon they’ll pip Atleti to that 4th place.

    Valladolid 6/10 Mid-table at half way, Valladolid’s fans will take that. Jose Mendilibar has built this season’s success on a terrific home record where they’ve beaten, amongst others, Real Madrid. Jonathan Sesma and Pedro Leon have caught the eye on the wings and Valladolid should, at worst, finish in lower mid-table.

    Villarreal 5/10 Manuel Pellegrini has much to ponder at half way. His usually reliable team have become increasingly inconsistent, particularly at the back, and it has cost them their once-assured placed in the top four. Injuries up front have hardly helped, but Joseba Llorente has proved a good acquisition from Valladolid, supported well by Giuseppe Rossi. The spending power of the other top sides is perhaps starting to show, it may be a case of Villarreal occupying the UEFA cup slots for a while. Yellow Submarine fans spoilt by recent success have cause for concern.

    La Liga Half Term Report (Part One)

    Almeria 4/10 The Eastern Andalusians have come down with a fairly typical case of second season syndrome. With Unai Emery gone they have been unable to replicate last season’s form, resulting in the sacking of Gonzalo Arconada in December. New coach Hugo Sanchez is under pressure, only the goals of Alvaro Negredo keep them out of the bottom three.

    Athletic 6/10 Athletic Bilbao’s season has ebbed and flowed. A bad start has been rescued by the goals of Fernando Llorente, who has 8 for the campaign. Andoni Iraola at the back has also impressed. 8 points from the drop zone, Joaquin Caparrós’s men look safe for another year, anchored as they are by a formidable record in the San Mames

    Atletico Madrid 6/10 A poor start to 2009 has brought back the chants of ‘Go Home Javier’ to the Vicente Calderon, undoing much of the Mexican’s good work before Christmas which saw them go 15 games unbeaten in all competitions. That defence is still massively vulnerable despite the expensive additions. On the plus side, they’ve got a good chance of progressing to the Champions League last 8, Maniche looks a player re-born, Maxi Rodriguez is leading superbly and Forlan & Aguero will always bring goals. Top four still the overriding priority.

    Barcelona 10/10 What can you say? No-one will catch them, they are simply too good. Messi’s on another planet, Eto’o’s scoring for fun, even Eidur Gudjohnsen looks interested. Iniesta, Xavi and Puyol do not seem to be tired like some of the other Euro 2008 winners. Guardiola’s intense, strict approach is performing the impressive feat of applying discipline to the players’ minds while giving them the freedom to express themselves physically. Aside from the opening day, they’ve not put a foot wrong – Phenomenal.

    Deportivo La Coruna 8/10 Fans in Galicia should be very happy with the first half of this season’s exploits. In the mix for a UEFA cup spot (and possibly better – who knows?), Lotina’s young side, powered by the go-forward of Angel Lafita, Verdu, Andres Guardado and Rodolfo Bodipo, have played some lovely football but we’ll see whether they can keep that up. Money worries persist which may reverse some of this progress, however.

    Espanyol 1/10 Oh dear. Espanyol fell away after Christmas last season but they can’t do a whole lot worse this time around. With Riera and Zabaleta gone and Raul Tamudo increasingly brittle, Los Pericos have struggled both at the back and up front leading to Tintin Marquez being sacked in November. His replacement, Mané, went without a single league victory during his tenure before being fired this week by Daniel Sanchez Libre, to be replaced by Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine will find himself up against it in his first managerial role – relegation beckons if points are not picked up at home (2 wins at the Montjuic from 9).

    Getafe 5/10 A mixed bag from Los Azulones. Víctor Muñoz’s side beat Real Madrid and drew away at the Camp Nou but are also prone to horrendous displays. The days of EuroGeta seem far away but they should still aim for a top half finish. More is needed from the likes of Granero, Uche and Manu for that to happen, though.

    Malaga 9/10 The best of the promoted sides, Malaga sit improbably in 7th thanks largely to a disciplined, balanced defence and the goals of their Portuguese stars up front, Duda and Eliseu. I expect them to step off the gas a little and finish around 10th – Nonetheless, a great job so far from Antonio Tapia in his first season in charge as well.

    Mallorca 2/10 One cannot help but feel sorry for the Islanders’ fans. Shorn of their three best players in the summer – Ibagaza, Guiza, Gutierrez – without sufficient replacements, Gregorio Manzano has been unable to inspire his depleted side. The property crash claimed an early victim in the club, who are still desperately trying to find a buyer. On the pitch, their soporific form combined with no likelihood of transfer window wheeler-dealing leaves them relegation candidates. Their sole saving grace? The tireless Venezuelan Juan Arango.

    Numancia 5/10 A team I predicted to come straight back down, Numancia have defied my expectations not least by holding the honour of being the only team to beat Barcelona, on matchday one. They lie 5 points above the drop with the influential Jose Barkero having a great deal to do with that. However, don’t expect them to pull away from trouble.

    Serie A At Half Way

    19 games have been played so lets review what has gone on so far in the world of calcio. Reigning champions Internazionale top the table at the half way point, 3 points clear of nearest challengers Juventus and 6 points ahead of city rivals AC Milan. The Nerazzuri started a tad sluggishly, drawing their opening game and losing the Milan derby at the end of September as Lazio set the pace early on. From then on, though, they really hit their straps and with 33 goals have scored more than any other side in the competition. Their start to 2009 hasn’t bee so assured with a home draw to Cagliari and a thumping at the hands of Atalanta showing Jose Mourinho hasn’t quite got the hang of Serie A yet. The mercurial, opinion-dividing Zlatan Ibrahimovic continues to lead from the front with able support from Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Sulley Muntari. New, expensive signing Ricardo Quaresma has rarely been seen however, and the likes of Adriano, Julio Cruz and Mario Balotelli have not figured much on the radar either. At the back Ivan Cordoba and Walter Samuel have formed an effective partnership but if either of these get injured (as happens often) their replacements aren’t up to scratch. With Juve breathing down their neck, Inter need to get back into the pre-Christmas groove, fast.

    Juventus have been inspired by the rejuvenated Alessandro Del Piero so far this term and the acquisition of Brazilian striker Amauri at considerable expense from Palermo already looks a shrewd move – he is their top scorer with 11 goals. Claudio Ranieri also presides over the most miserly defence in the division thanks largely to the impressive Giorgio Chiellini, Olof Mellberg and Nicola Legrottaglie. Much is expected of young Sebastian Giovinco but he has so far been overshadowed by the evergreen Del Piero. Most definitely title contenders, they will be giving Jose Mourinho sleepless nights as long as they are snapping at his team’s heels.

    The only other realistic title contender is AC Milan, Carlo Ancelotti’s team who are currently worrying about whether or not playmaker Kaka will be a Rossoneri player for much longer. Ancelotti’s efforts to tinker with his ageing team have only met with partial success – Alexandre Pato continues to look like a superstar in the making and Ronaldinho has shown in patches form which once made him the best in the world. Yet Mathieu Flamini, Marco Borriello and Phillipe Senderos have been frustratingly inconsistent and that creaking backline continues to look just a little too vulnerable. They are still definitely in the mix at 6 points behind but one wonders whether the sale of Kaka, if it happens, will sap some of the energy from the team that relies on him.

    Genoa sit fourth after a first half of the season that couldn’t have gone much better for the Rossoblu. Diego Milito, back at the team where he made his name and where he is still known as ‘The Prince’ has banged in 12 goals and forged a great understanding with Giuseppe Sculli (7). At the back they’re functioning too, with Matteo Ferrari, the former Roma and Everton man, looking revitalized in the colours of the Grifone. Napoli gatecrashed the top four for most of 2008 and the exciting young team at Edy Reja’s disposal are a feared proposition in their San Paolo home – no team has a better home record. Marek Hamsik, Ezequiel Lavezzi and German Denis, the attacking triumvirate who are attracting so much attention from the top clubs, continue to impress as well as the likes of Cristian Maggio and the experienced Manuele Blasi.

    Completing the European places are Fiorentina, who have Alberto Gilardino scoring plenty of goals but everyone else is struggling to keep up, and with 7 defeats they are showing just a tad of inconsistency. Kuzmanovic and Montolivio have impressed for them but big signing Vargas so far hasn’t and in my view they miss the calming influence of Fabio Liverani in midfield. Udinese, who started so promisingly, have fallen away alarmingly and they now sit 13th having gone winless in 10 games. Pasquale Merino is under all sorts of pressure and it shows on his underperforming squad, the likes of Di Natale, Quagliarella and Gokhan Inler are all looking shadows of their former selves.

    Roma suffered a shocking start but patience with Luciano Spalleti appears to be reaping rewards and they sit just outside the European spots as they enter the back nine. Their neighbours Lazio made all the early running but have fallen away sharply in parallel to Mauro Zarate’s goals. Goran Pandev continues to be the man with which to measure the Biancolocesti – if he plays well, Lazio win.

    Its tight at the bottom, with anyone from Sampdoria down still a severe relegation worry. Reggina are bottom and have no luck, but Chievo and Torino are not much better. Bologna started terribly but are unbeaten under new coach Sinisa Mihailovic, and Marco Di Vaio, a journeyman of European football, is somewhat improbably Serie A’s top scorer with 14. I predict Inter to retain the title – but only just.

    Meanwhile in Europe there's a couple of mouthwatering ties in prospect as Man United face Inter while Juventus take on Chelsea. Rainieri will fancy his chances against his old team who are showing their age and lack of creativity in midfield. Mourinho, as much as he loves playing Ferguson, may not be so successful because Inter are widely known as awful in Europe and their erratic qualification for this stage reflects that.

    Tuesday, 20 January 2009

    As FC Barcelona coast...

    Spare a thought for fans of their lesser-known cousins, the Torino to Pep Guardiola's Juventus. RCD Espanyol are constantly living in the shadow of their monolithic neighbour and none more so than this campaign, where club president Daniel Sanchez Libre has fired his second coach of the season, Mané. The 58-year-old former Alaves, Athletic Bilbao and Real Mallorca manager was unable to shake Los Pericos out of the terrible run of form they've suffered since October, and has paid the price with his job having only been appointed in November following the sacking of his predecessor, Bartoleme Marquez.

    The blue-and-whites sit 18th in the table, 5 points adrift of Numancia above them. It is a shame to see a team such as Espanyol hit hard times, especially since it was not all that long ago they seemed on the up.This time last year, Ernesto Valverde had led them into the Champions League places after a stellar first half of the 07/08 season. The likes of Luis Garcia, Raul Tamudo and Albert Riera all impressed, while Carlos Kameni continued to improve between the sticks and Dani Jarque spent much of January being linked with the new Juande Ramos regime at Spurs. However, they badly faded in the second half of last season and it was enough for Valverde, one of a crop of talented 'young' Spainish coaches, to resign, jumping ship to Greek giants Olympiakos - who he has since guided to a 9-point lead in the Greek league, ahead of bitter rivals Panathanaikos, coached by former Chelsea and Barcelona assistant coach Henk Ten Cate.

    Riera and right-back Pablo Zabaleta, lynchpins of the side, headed for the Premiership and were not adequately replaced. Ivan De La Pena, so long a creative force of the side, has once again been stricken by injuries (the same goes for Raul Tamudo) and the team looks unsettled, inexperienced and woefully lacking in confidence. Marquee signings like an ageing Steve Finnan have misfired totally and the result is not unlike the situation facing Mallorca, albeit without the financial chaos. The big players in the side have been sold, and a vacuum has been created a change of coach will not solve. Espanyol are in the process of building a new, long-overdue, stadium in El Prat de Llobregat but it appears highly likely that it will be Segunda football their long-suffering fans will welcome there.

    The new coach is Mauricio Pochettino, a 36-year-old former Argentine international defender who is a crowd favourite in Catalunya having played 276 matches for Espanyol in two spells at the club. This is the former Paris Saint-Germain man's first coaching position and it is certainly a baptism of fire trying to turn around a team bereft of confidence and stability. I'll admit that, despite admiring the football their big-city rivals play, I'll always have a soft spot for Espanyol as I watched my first live La Liga game at the Montjuic earlier this year. It is a team that, like Real Zaragoza and Real Sociedad before them, have perhaps been deemed 'too good to go down' but anyone with any sense knows that that maxim is a misnomer. Hopefully they'll turn it around and it will be Villarreal rather than Rayo Vallecano welcomed to that new 40,000 seater stadium.

    Monday, 19 January 2009

    Serie A Round 19 Review

    Atalanta 3 Inter Milan 1
    Cagliari 2 Udinese 0
    Catania 1 Bologna 2
    Chievo 2 Napoli 1
    Lazio 1 Juventus 1
    Lecce 0 Genoa 2
    Sampdoria 0 Palermo 2
    Torino 0 Roma 1
    AC Milan 1 Fiorentina 0
    Siena 1 Reggina 0

    Bergamo is always a tricky place to visit and if Jose Mourinho didn’t know that about Italian football before the weekend, he certainly does now. His Nerazzuri team, who drew at home to lowly Cagliari last week in a misfiring start to 2009, have further undermined their own position by being beaten convincingly 3-1 by Gigi Del Neri’s Atalanta. Goals from Cristiano Doni (2) and Sergio Floccari pummeled the Champions, for whom a 90th minute Ibrahimovic goal flattered them. The visitors were dreadful, barely mustering a shot on goal and it says quite something that Julio Cesar in goal was their best player, producing a number of good saves to keep the scoreline down.

    That shock meant Juventus has the chance to close the gap on Sunday evening to just one point when they visited Lazio. Close it they did, but only to three points rather than one. Cristian Ledesma's goal was cancelled out by Olof Mellberg's 29th minute header and 1-1 it stayed, a frustrating night for the Gobbini but they still have plenty of time to overcome the Champions.

    On Saturday, Inter’s city rivals did their bit for the title race by beating Fiorentina in a tight game at the San Siro, with Alexandre Pato scoring the only goal – his sixth in six. Another shock was in store on Sunday afternoon when Napoli slipped up against bottom side Chievo. Edy Reja’s men were below par throughout, and Chievo took advantage through two goals from Michele Marcolini. Ezequiel Lavezzi’s equalizer proved a false dawn. Genoa took advantage of the Neapolitan slip-up by leapfrogging them into fourth thanks to a comfortable 2-0 win at Lecce. Second half strikes from Giandomenico Mesto and Giuseppe Sculli saw the Rossoblu home.

    A last minute Julio Baptista goal gave Roma a priceless win over Torino – The Brazilian providing the goal of the round with a flamboyant volley. It puts Roma up into 8th. Elsewhere two Mark Bresciano goals for Palermo condemned Sampdoria to a home defeat, Cagliari heaped further pressure on Udinese coach Pasquale Merino with a 2-0 win in Sardinia and Bologna continued their extra-ordinary run under new coach Sinisa Mihailovic with a 2-1 victory at Catania. Marco Di Vaio scored his 14th of the season and there was a goal for new Brazilian signing Adailton.

    Holding pattern

    Marseille 2-0 Le Havre
    Lorient 1-1 Valenciennes
    St Etienne 1-1 Le Mans
    Grenoble 0-2 Lyon
    Nice 2-0 Auxerre
    Toulouse 3-0 Nancy
    Nantes 1-2 Bordeaux
    PSG 2-1 Sochaux
    Caen 2-2 Monaco
    Lille 1-0 Rennes

    It was that man Yoann Gourcuff again that grabbed the headlines, this time with his scoring of a header that gave Bordeaux the lead up the coast in Nantes. And so it looked like remaining until late on when Mohamed Chamakh rose above the Nantes defence to nod his side into a 2-0 lead. Filip Djordjevic's late goal was mere consolation. Lyon won comfortably, Ederson and César Delgado relieving a bit of the pressure that was beggining to mount on Claude Puel. Marseille were also comfortable winners at home to struggling Le Havre; Mathieu Valbuena and Ronald Zubar scoring in a routine win. Sochaux gave PSG a scare. Guillaume Hoarau's penalty put the Paul Le Guen's men in front, but Vaclav Sverkos hit right back and it took Pegguy Luyindula to snatch it, this coming after he'd missed an open goal very much in the Chris Iwelumo style.

    Toulouse also won easily which means that Rennes were the only one of the front runners to lose this week. They couldn't have done much more to ensure this result as they scored Lille's goal - Petter Hansson getting the vital touch on Nicolas Fauverge's shot - and Bruno Cheyrou seeing red in the final minute. While it's a setback for Rennes, it puts Lille back in the hunt. At the bottom, Le Havre are pretty much screwed already while St Etienne keep picking up the points that allow them to keep their heads above water. Realistically, it looks like three from five at this stage, but the likes of Monaco, Nantes and Caen need to start stringing some wins together.

    The table:
    1 Lyon 21 42
    2 Bordeaux 21 41
    3 Marseille 21 38
    4 Rennes 21 37
    5 Toulouse 21 37
    6 PSG 21 36
    7 Lille 20 35
    8 Nice 20 33
    9 Lorient 21 28
    10 Nancy 20 25
    11 Le Mans 72 20 25
    12 Grenoble 21 25
    13 Caen 20 24
    14 Monaco 21 24
    15 Nantes 21 23
    16 Auxerre 21 20
    17 St Etienne 21 20
    18 Sochaux 21 17
    19 Valenciennes 20 16
    20 Le Havre 21 12

    La Liga Round 19 Review

    Almeria 1 Atletico Madrid 1
    Athletic Bilbao 3 Valencia 2
    Getafe 0 Racing Santander 1
    Malaga 4 Espanyol 0
    Real Madrid 3 Osasuna 1
    Recreativo Huelva 2 Sporting Gijon 0
    Valladolid 1 Real Betis 3
    Villarreal 2 Mallorca 0
    Barcelona 5 Deportivo La Coruna 0
    Sevilla 1 Numancia 0

    Barcelona's lead remains at 12, after their thumping 5-0 win at the Camp Nou over a Deportivo side that looked like it had surrendered after half an hour. Juan Rodriguez had a brain fart in midfield for 1-0 and that set the tone. Lotina chose Cristian on the right over Lafita, a puzzling tactical move and as a result Bodipo up front looked isolated all night. Barcelona coasted for much of the game with Iniesta looking characteristically brilliant off the bench while Henry and Abidal were superb. If all Barcelona's games are this easy, the title will be wrapped up before April.

    Real Madrid survived a bit of a scare when Osasuna took the lead at the Bernabau, but second half goals from Ramos, Higuain and Robben rescued them. Valencia's slip-up in that entertaining game at the San Mames means there's a 4-point gap between them and Sevilla in third. Manolo Jiminez's side laboured to an unconvincing win over Numancia which was settled by a solitary Renato goal, after the visitors missed some very good chances. Only goal difference keeps Malaga, unstoppable at the moment, out of the European spots as they leapfrog Deportivo. The Andalucians quite simply put miserable Espanyol to the sword. Having not watched the game I can only assume Los Pericos' performance was that bad, for even Albert Luque got on the scoresheet. Villarreal's important win, their first in ages, sees them fifth. At the bottom, a big win away for Real Betis with Sergio Garcia scoring twice, that puts them six points clear of the drop. There's a gap opening up between the bottom three and the rest, Osasuna are 7 points from safety, Mallorca 6 and Espanyol 5. Racing's win at Getafe, thanks to Nikola Zigic, sees them enter the top half.

    PSV fall away

    Heerenveen 3-1 Feyenoord
    De Graafschap 1-0 Willem II
    Twente 2-1 Vitesse
    Den Haag 2-2 Heracles
    NAC 1-1 Utrecht
    Roda 1-1 PSV
    Sparta 1-1 Groningen
    Volendam 0-2 AZ
    NEC 2-4 Ajax

    The top three all won in the Eredivisie this weekend, but PSV dropped points away at Roda. AZ were comfortable against Volendam and Twente had a Kenneth Perez thunderbolt to thank for rescuing them against Vitesse. The Arnhem side had levelled matters through Sébastien Sansoni following Blaise N'Kufo's opener before Perez rattled one in from 20 yards following some slick play. That all put pressure on Ajax to keep up by beating NEC in Nijmegen. Having led 1-0 and 2-1, NEC equalised through El Akchaoui before Dario Cvitanich was needlessly sent off for a second booking, having earlier been cautioned for a stupid handball. It had the effect of galvanising a patchy Ajax side and with Luis Suarez prominent, an own goal from Dani Fernandez and a late one from Gabri snatched the points.

    Tim Simons' penalty on the hour for PSV was nullified a minute later by Will Janssen. The sole point meant that Heerenveen's win over struggling Feyenoord now leapfrog them into fourth. A point does nothing for Roda, still deep in trouble. Sparta are now level with they're city neighbours after an uninspiring draw and there were draws at Breda and in the capital.

    The table:
    1 AZ 18 44
    2 Ajax 18 41
    3 FC Twente 18 37
    4 Heerenveen 18 32
    5 PSV 18 31
    6 NAC 18 30
    7 FC Groningen 18 27
    8 NEC 18 26
    9 FC Utrecht 18 26
    10 Willem II 18 24
    11 Heracles 18 21
    12 Feyenoord 18 19
    13 Sparta 18 19
    14 Den Haag 18 16
    15 De Graafschap 18 16
    16 Roda 18 15
    17 Vitesse 18 15
    18 Volendam 18 11

    Saturday, 17 January 2009

    Serie A Preview

    Saturday January 17
    17:00 Catania v Bologna
    19:30 Milan v Fiorentina
    Sunday January 18
    14:00 Atalanta v Internazionale
    14:00 Cagliari v Udinese
    14:00 Siena v Reggina
    14:00 Torino v Roma
    14:00 Chievo v Napoli
    14:00 Lecce v Genoa
    14:00 Sampdoria v Palermo
    19:30 Lazio v Juventus

    There's some football going on this weekend amidst the tedious and frankly distasteful Manchester City pursuit of Kaka. The Brazilian should feature in AC Milan's match against Fiorentina in a game David Beckham is also slated to start. Two points seperate the hosts in third from the visitors in second, and two of the league's in-form strikers, Alexandre Pato and Alberto Gilardino will face off here. Gilardino has flourished since leaving the Rossoneri and will want badly to get one over on his former employers. If you've not already seen it, watch Pato's goals last weekend - in particular the way he strolls past Phillipe Mexes like he isn't there. Hilarious. Elsewhere on Saturday Siniša Mihajlović takes his Bologna team to Catania. Like or loathe him, the former Lazio and Inter man is unbeaten since he took over from Daniele Arrigoni, and he's inspired journeyman Marco Di Vaio to 13 goals, making him Serie A's top scorer.

    On Sunday, Inter Milan face a tricky visit to Bergamo, against an Atalanta side who are notoriously good at home. Inter's nemesis last week, Robert Acquafresca (who they own) and his Cagliari side welcome Udinese who have been in free-fall since October - only a point seperates them. Siena will look to put some daylight between them and the bottom three by defeating second-bottom Reggina, Roma will accept nothing less than 3 points away at Torino while Napoli, who are enjoying a good season, visit bottom side Chievo. Genoa, who have a series of teams coveting their European spot, will hope to maintain it away at Lecce who have won twice at the Via Del Mare all season, Palermo visit Sampdoria with the home crowd desperate for improvement and finally, Lazio and Juventus face off at the Olimpico. In what way will Alessando Del Piero dominate this week? The veteran is in terrific form and is carrying his side, who have one of the best records away from home.

    La Liga Preview

    Saturday January 17
    19:00 Barcelona v Deportivo la Coruna
    21:00 Sevilla v C.D Numancia
    Sunday January 18
    16:00 Villarreal v Mallorca
    16:00 Real Madrid v Osasuna
    16:00 Getafe C.F v Racing Santander
    16:00 Recreativo Huelva v Sporting de Gijón
    16:00 Valladolid v Real Betis Balompié
    16:00 Málaga v Espanyol
    18:00 Athletic Bilbao v Valencia
    20:00 Almeria v Atletico Madrid

    For the first time in a while there are no stand-out games in this weekend’s round. Top of the pile I suppose is Barcelona hosting Deportivo on Saturday evening. Deportivo have had a wretched last week or so, losing both in the league and cup to Sevilla but Miguel Angel Lotina’s men are still in position for a European spot. However, Barcelona are the runaway leaders and have scored 31 goals in 9 games at home – the visitors will be up against it. Saturday’s other live game comes from the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan as Numancia visit Sevilla. Sevilla’s demanding fans will expect nothing less than a convincing victory against a team desperate to pull away from the relegation places.

    Sunday sees Real Madrid welcome Osasuna to the Bernabau. Camacho’s men gave Barcelona an almighty fright last week – can they go one better and get a result here? It looks unlikely but never say never. Villarreal and Mallorca, two teams in bad nick, meet at El Madrigal with the hosts looking for their first win since the end of November. Getafe and Racing, two sides looking over their shoulder, meet in Madrid while Valencia face the not entirely straightforward trip to the San Mames - Joaquin Caparros’s men are unbeaten in six. Real Betis and Valladolid are another duo in bad form clashing, while Sporting visit Andalucia’s struggling Recreativo. Espanyol will do well to get anything out of a trip to Malaga, while the final game of the weekend seems embattled Javier Aguirre take his Atletico outfit to Almeria for a game that promises to see one thing – goals, since both sides are crap at the back.

    Friday, 16 January 2009

    Eredivisie resumes

    Heerenveen v Feyenoord

    De Graafschap v Willem II
    Den Haag v Heracles
    Twente v Vitesse
    NAC v Utrecht

    Roda v PSV
    Volendam v AZ
    Sparta v Groningen
    NEC v Ajax

    Coming back after the winter break, we're back underway in Holland this week. At time of writing, the first game is underway with the visitors a goal to the good. This is something of a shock. Feyenoord's pricey team have grossly underperformed. The likes of Gio van Bronkhorst and Roy Makaay cost a pretty penny and simply haven't fired, leaving the club down in the bottom half. Heerenveen play some nice football, but they're weak in the middle and the Rotterdam giants would have fancied their chances there before kick-off.
    In an odd looking week, game of the week is at the Goffertstadion in Nijmegen where Ajax are the visitors. NEC aren't possessed of (m)any stars. Indeed, the closest they get is the fact that Lorenzo Davids is Edgar's cousin. But under Mario Been, they've become more than the sum of their parts to lie in eighth at the turn. Ajax lost Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the transfer window, but gained Rob Wielaert. Huntelaar's goals will be hard to replace - the job falls to Dario Cvitanich - but the €20m will help pay off those pesky debts. AZ should see off struggling Volendam to maintain their lead. 12 clean sheets in 17 games - just 11 goals conceded so far this season - is testimony to their defence while Mounir El Hamdaoui sits on 15 goals so far. Volendam only 19 between the lot of them. Moussa Dembélé ain't bad either.
    Twente should be too good for Vitesse despite Wielaert's departure. Steve McClaren's young side play a nice passing game and the wide men - Eljero Elia and Marko Arnautovic - are a real threat. De Graafschap continue their slump and though Willem II aren't so hot themselves, they should return to Tilburg with the points. NAC sit top of a middle section of the table that their opponents this week, Utrecht, are also a part of. Neither are in great form and the draw looks the pick of the results. Groningen started well, but have fallen away while Sparta never really got going in the first place. Sparta look competitive for the first hour of most of their games and it's that ability to see out the full 90 is the main issue Foeke Booy has to address. Finally, PSV travel to Kerkrade for the game against Roda. PSV rather rely on the mercurial Ibrahim Afellay, but he has the skills to back it up. He could use some support from the likes of Nordin Amrabat, who still looks very raw, but they should be way too good here, especially as Eric Addo - on loan to Roda from PSV - won't play.

    This week in Ligue 1

    Grenoble v Lyon
    Marseille v Le Havre
    St Etienne v Le Mans
    Lorient v Valenciennes
    Nice v Auxerre
    Toulouse v Nancy
    Nantes v Bordeaux

    Caen v Monaco
    PSG v Sochaux
    Lilles v Rennes

    It's one of those weeks where none of the big guys are facing each other. Of the championship contenders, Lyon look to have an easy-ish one away at Grenoble who are plummeting after a bright start and have severe financial problems. Only the Alpine weather may frustrate the champions, although they're without Sidney Govou, out for the season with a buggered Achilles. Marseille have two new strikers on board for the home game against rock bottom Le Havre. Sylvain Wiltord and Brandão both joined this week from Rennes and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively, although the club have allowed international defender Gaël Givert to go to Blackburn on loan with an option on making it permanent.
    Sochaux are coming off the back of a win against fellow strugglers St Etienne last week, but PSG should have too much for them. Watch out for young forward Guillaume Hoarau. He's not Karim Benzema, but he ain't far off. Rennes v Lille sees two sides unbeaten in five against one another, so expect a draw. Lorient ought to see off Valenciennes, Le Mans should fill their boots against a confidence-shorn St Etienne and Bordeaux should see off Nantes. Nancy are on a decent run and will provide a decent test for Toulouse and Auxerre really need the points at Nice. It won't be easy as Nice have claimed some notable scalps already this season and sit nicely in mid-table. Recent form is patchy, but Auxerre's is worse. It won't be pretty, that one.

    Thursday, 15 January 2009

    Mid Season Break In Polska

    Corruption scandals aside (I'm sure I'll have many more occassions to enlighten you on this side of the Polish game) it's been an excellent first half of the season in Ekstraklasa. It seems possible that the old guard may be on the wane and that Poland could see the Wisla/Legia stranglehold on the title broken come the summer.

    Currently topping the table are Lech Poznan, finally taking advantage of what is, in Polish terms, a massive home support and giving their fans something to get excited about. It's by no means a foregone conclusion though - only six points seperate the top six sides. Along with the two most successful sides in recent years, Legia and Wisla, a number of pretenders to the crown have emerged and it should be a bracing race for top spot.

    One of the "newcomers"are Polonia Warszawa. Currently sitting in third spot they have seemingly recovered from the slump which followed the "Olisadebe years". I have to admit that I have a soft spot for Polonia but this is tempered somewhat by the way in which they have reached their lofty position. You see Polonia gained their place in Ekstraklasa via a takeover Groclin Grodzisk Wielkopolski, effectively buying promotion to the top division. In my very very humble opinion this stinks of franchising at its worst. Polish football seems to be rife with this sort of "MK Dons mentality" and I for one would like to see someone bring a stop to it. Football is not a plaything for rich men that want to big themselves up.

    At the other end of the table the situation is no less exciting - a mere six points seperate the bottom seven clubs. A surprise, for me at least, is the performance of Gornik Zabrze. The Silesians currently occupy last place and for the Manchester United of Poland this is something of a shock. Granted, their best years are way behind them but with experienced man Henryk Kasperczak installed as manager, the arrival of Tomasz Hajto and Jerzy Brzeczek at the Ernest Pohl and a rather lucrative sponsorship deal with German insurance firm Allianz, I expected better from them this season. Following speculation in the press that his two most experienced players were turning the dressing room against the manager, Kasperczak has informed both Hajto and Brzeczek that their services are no longer required, something that will no doubt see a number of forwards in Ekstraklasa breathing a sigh of relief. Hopefully the spring round will see Gornik pick up in form as it would be a shame to see a club with such a rich history fall into the obscurity of Division 1.

    Speaking of Division 1, the next enthralling blogpost from your new Polish correspondant will look at the financial difficulties facing a number of Division 1 clubs and the real fear that 2009 could see many in the second tier of Polish football cease to exist.

    Wednesday, 14 January 2009

    Superliga So Far

    With the Superliga one game away from the halfway point it seems like a neat time to review the events so far, with 14 rounds gone.

    Benfica’s expensively assembled team lead the table on goal difference from Lisbon rivals Sporting. O Glorioso have lost just once all season and no team can better their goal tally of 25 from these opening 14 matches. Much of this success can be put down to the new personnel drafted in by Luis Filipe Vieira in a desperate attempt to challenge the hegemony enjoyed by FC Porto in recent years. Former Valencia and Getafe coach Quique Sanchez Flores was hired, becoming Benfica’s sixth coach in four years. Quique had been out of the game since being stupidly fired by his boss at Valencia, Juan Soler, and his disciplined, methodical approach has reaped instant rewards. In mitigation, he does probably have the best squad in the Superliga at his disposal. 15m Euros has been spent on Pablo Aimar and Jose Antonio Reyes, while up front, David Suazo, the Honduran, was recruited also on loan from Inter Milan with Jose Mourinho deeming him surplus to requirements. Suazo has so far looked pretty good, but really he should be scoring more at this level. Oscar Cardozo, the Paraguyan, has also been in decent touch while the likes of Angel Di Maria and Kostas Katsouranis have made an impression this campaign.

    Down the road at the Estadio Alvalade, Sporting Clube started the season sluggishly but have really hit top gear since December. Neither as rich nor as flamboyant as Benfica, much of their success depends on Liedson, the veteran Brazilian who has been their top scorer in each of the last four seasons. His record, of 119 goals in 223 games for Sporting, is quite incredible considering he has never been called up to the Brazil national team. He has been supported well this campaign by midfielders Simon Vukcevic and Marat Izmailov, as well as the highly-rated duo of Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso, but at the back there are still question marks.

    Champions FC Porto endured a torrid spell in November where they momentarily dropped out of the top four, but they have since recovered some ground. A 0-0 draw at home to Trofense last weekend relinquished their grip on top spot and Jesualdo Ferreira’s men have struggled to maintain the form that made them so dominant last season. With the departure of Ricardo Quaresma, Ferreira lost his main playmaker and his replacement, Cristian Rodriguez, has been inconsistent and this has had a knock-on effect on the potency of Lisandro Lopez up front. The Argentine forward’s tally of 4 this season is disappointing and Porto’s diminished firepower is arguably the reason why they sit third rather than top. Top scorer at this stage, rather improbably, is struggling Paços de Ferreira's William with 8.

    The elephant in the room is 4th placed Leixões. This tiny club from Matosinhos, a suburb of Porto, started brilliantly and were top after 10 games. They have fallen away since then, but are still only four points behind Benfica. One wonders whether, with their small squad, they will be able to keep up this impressive form until the very end.

    Much will be decided on how consistent these sides are. That has been Benfica and Sporting’s problem in the past – not necessarily their performance in the big games against their rivals, but their propensity to slip up against the likes of Belenenses, Trofense and Academica. Benfica look well placed but one can never rule out FC Porto, who may also fancy their chances against Atletico Madrid to progress to the last 8 of the Champions League. However, in Sanchez Flores Benfica have the best coach in the competition and someone who could deliver their first title in five seasons.

    Open wide

    All fun and games in Ligue 1. Once the sole preserve of Lyon, they've been dropping points at will this season, the latest being a home draw against mid-table Lorient. However, nobody else has managed a sustained challenge to put themselves in the frame to break the Lyonnais monopoly. Rennes have been the surprise packet, losing just once but managing ten draws already. Marseille are marvellously inconsistent and PSG win a lot, but lose a lot as well. Instead, it's Larry White's Bordeaux who procide the main challenge. Just before the christmas break, they managed to turn round a 3-0 deficit away at Monaco into a late, late 4-3 win and in the first game of the new year, battered PSG 4-0. And the guy making it all happen isn't even their player. They have a €15m option to relieve AC Milan of the services of Yoann Gourcuff, and the available evidence suggests they really ought to.
    His free-kick created their first and the skill for his goal - Bordeaux's third - comes pretty close on it's own to justify those "new Zinedine Zidane" claims. So many have been labelled such in the past - it's the French football equivalent of labelling an English cricketer 'the new Ian Botham' - and such luminaries as Bruno Cheyrou have suffered under the weight. And it looked like Yoann would suffer also. Since leaving Milan for Bordeaux, he's flourished and it's been his performances for the national side that's keeping Raymond Domenech in a job. Whether that's a good thing or not is a different matter. If he stays fit, Bordeaux have a very real chance of taking the trophy away from the Gerland for the first time since Noah was a lad.

    It's league cup quarter-finals this week, with PSG travelling to RC Lens in a repeat of last season's final. Lens got relegated, but are storming the second division and will be tough opponents. Both sides have appealed for calm among their supporters. Good luck with that. Bordeaux have a home game against second division Châteauroux in a game that looks to have just the one outcome. Yesterday, Vannes beat Metz on penalties after a 1-1 draw in an all division 2 clash despite going a man down in extra time. And Nice beat Le Havre in the other game. No surprises there with Nice looking for European football and Le Havre bottom of the pile.

    Monday, 12 January 2009

    While they're away

    The Eredivisie is still on a break, but news comes in that FC Twente skipper Rob Wielaert is off to Ajax. This is a massive blow to Shteve McClaren's side. The skipper leads from the centre of defence and lends experience to an otherwise young side.
    Twente had got themselves in a comfortable third place before the break, although the top two - AZ and Ajax - had begun to break away. McClaren hasn't changed much since he arrived in Enschede, personnel-wise, but he may have to dabble in the market to replace his defensive rock.

    It's been a strange time in the Eredivisie this season. Traditional powerhouses of the Dutch game have struggled, with Feyenoord in particular having a tough time with the accountants. Ajax are going OK, but may face issues if they fail to get Champions League football next season, and with the second spot in Europe decided by a play-off rather than league position, it's not as straightforward a proposition as it may seem. And so it's the well run clubs that are prevailing. It looks like AZ's to lose, but they've been in that position many times previously. PSV are just coming up on the rails, but they've also spent an eye-watering amount of money.
    The league gets back underway next week and we'll preview it in due course.


    Welcome to Euroballs, highlighting the good and bad from continental Europe's major football leagues.
    From an early age, I was fascinated by the exotic sides that came to England in European competition and still keep an eye on certain sides: St Etienne in France, Sampdoria in Italy, FC Twente in the Netherlands, Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany and Athletic in Spain. Together with my colleague Chris, we'll preview and review the major happenings in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany and France as the leagues progress.