• Saturday, 28 February 2009

    Ligue 1 week 26

    Nantes v Grenoble
    Valenciennes v Lille
    Sochaux v Nice
    Le Mans v Le Havre
    Auxerre v Toulouse
    Bordeaux v Lorient
    PSG v Nancy
    Caen v Marseille
    Monaco v St Etienne
    Lyon v Rennes

    After the chasers all let themselves down with draws last week, they all have winnable fixtures this week, while Lyon are at home, where they've struggled. Having drawn with Barcelona at the Gerland last week, they welcome Rennes on Sunday and it promises to be a tough game. Lyon have no new injury problems and their subtle mid-season reinvention that's brought players like Ederson and Abdul Keita more into it is paying dividends. Rennes still rely too heavily on goals from midfield, so key man for Lyon will be Jeremy Toulalan, sitting in front of the back four and spoiling. Fred, however, has finally left Lyon and will shortly return to Brazil - Fluminense, probably - while club president Jean Michel Aulas was very publicly touting Karim Benzema around Europe in what will shortly come to be described as a "come and get him plea".

    Toulouse look good to spoil Auxerre's revival and Marseille have an eminently winnable game away at Caen and both need to win to maintain the pressure on Les Gones at the top. Bordeaux and PSG have tougher tasks, at home to Lorient and Nancy respectively. Les Girondins lost a thriller in the UEFA Cup in midweek, 4-3 away at Galatasaray while Lorient haven't won this year yet. PSG, meanwhile, won in midweek against Wolfsburg in impressive style, and meet a Nancy side who have lost three of their last four.

    Down at the bottom, Valenciennes' recent resurgence will be tested in the derby against Lille, in good form themselves. It's been five games since VA conceded and this should be game of the week. Sochaux had a great win last week and have another tough one against Nice this time out. With both sides desperate for points - to stave off relegation and to chase a UEFA Cup place - this could be a cagey affair. Le Mans have been sucked into it down at the bottom, but a home game against Le Havre - surely gone already - is the perfect tonic. Nantes and Grenoble are locked together on 28 points, just above the drop zone, and they face off against one another this weekend. Grenoble are on a run of draws, and that outcome looks favourite once again.

    St Etienne dropped into the bottom three last week, although they won well in midweek against Olympiakos, going through 5-2 on aggregate. They travel to Monaco, three points above them on the league ladder, with the home side in poor form. Les Verts need to win this one and will go level with the Monagasques if they do. They'd also put a potential four clubs between them and the bottom three. Again, this looks a cagey one with the price of defeat a heavy one.

    Friday, 27 February 2009

    Serie A Round 26 Preview

    Lazio vs. Bologna
    Juventus vs. Napoli

    Palermo vs. Catania
    Atalanta vs. Chievo
    Reggina vs. Fiorentina
    Siena vs. Genoa
    Udinese vs. Lecce
    Sampdoria vs. Milan
    Cagliari vs. Torino
    Inter vs. Roma

    On Saturday, Juventus welcome Napoli to Turin with the visitors on a truly wretched run of form which has seen them collect just 2 points from the last 21 available and crash out of European reckoning – they sit 10th, 8 points off Roma in 6th. Juve were mediocre midweek at Stamford Bridge but will still fancy their chances here. Also on Saturday Lazio, whose season has well and truly petered out, host Bologna, who sit just a point above the drop zone despite Marco Di Vaio’s goals.

    On Sunday, Inter play Roma in what is the obvious candidate for the match of the weekend. Mourinho’s men are in great touch domestically but Roma’s form is also excellent and Luciano Spalleti should be able to call on the services of Cicinho and Juan – two players injured for the defeat at Arsenal. If results go their way this weekend the Nerazzuri could have a 12 point lead come Monday morning or Roma could jump into the top four.

    AC Milan, dumped out of the UEFA Cup on Thursday, visit Sampdoria who are finally starting to click into gear, unbeaten in five as they are. Much of this is to do with the burgeoning partnership of Antonio Cassano and new man Giampaolo Pazzini, who combined so beautifully last week against Chievo. The Rossoneri, by contrast, have picked up just one win in their last four matches.

    Fiorentina visit bottom club Reggina with strikers Mutu and Gilardino in excellent nick – 27 goals between them makes the former Hellas Verona stars the league’s best strike partnership – While Genoa, their rivals for that coveted fourth spot, visit Siena, without a win in five. Udinese, looking enviously up at the top half, host Lecce and there’s a Sicilian derby in the offing which is sure to be a fiery encounter – Palermo matches against Catania have provoked plenty of violence and debate in the past. Cagliari will look to keep hope of their unlikely European qualification alive by beating struggling Torino.

    La Liga Round 25 Preview

    Athletic vs. Sevilla
    Espanyol vs. Real Madrid

    Almeria vs. Getafe
    Atletico Madrid vs. Barcelona
    Malaga vs. Recreativo
    Numancia vs. Deportivo
    Sporting vs. Mallorca
    Racing vs. Osasuna
    Real Betis vs. Villarreal
    Valencia vs. Valladolid

    After a lacklustre midweek which featured not a single win for any of La Liga’s sides involved in Europe, attention is once again back on domestic issues as Real Madrid will look to make further inroads on Barcelona’s lead at the top. On Saturday night, they have the opportunity to close the gap to four points, albeit for just 24 hours. Juande Ramos’s men are unbeaten in the league in 9 matches but will have been disheartened by their display against Liverpool and visit the Montjuic to play an Espanyol team revitalized following their derby triumph last weekend. Pochettino’s men are still three points from safety and statistically have the worst home record in the division.

    Elsewhere on Saturday Sevilla face the none-too-easy task of a trip to the San Mames to play Joaquin Caparros’s Athletic Bilbao. Only Barcelona possess a better away record than Manolo Jiminez’s side and a win in Vizcaya will further entrench their top four position. For Athletic, sat in 9th and losing touch with the UEFA Cup spots, a lot will depend on whether Fernando Llorente, back from injury, can trouble the Andalucian’s back four. They’ve gone three matches without a win and Llorente’s goals have bolstered their position considerably.

    On Sunday, Barcelona will look to put what has been a poor week by their standards behind them with victory at the Calderon. They beat los Colchoneros 6-1 back in October and Atleti once again demonstrated their defensive frailties midweek against Porto. Abel Resino desperately needs to rouse his side back into the top four but I doubt this weekend is when they’ll do it. Villarreal, in fourth, visit Real Betis as Manuel Pellegrini tries to get his fractured team to string some results together. With one defeat in their last 7, things are looking up and Betis’s woeful home record will encourage them further.

    Valencia, two points behind the Castellon side, host Valladolid and will be without David Villa following his brain fart last week. Valladolid are as unpredictable as ever – in February they’ve beaten Atletico Madrid and Athletic yet lost to Almeria and Malaga. Malaga’s European challenge continues apace and the visit or Recreativo should cause Tapia’s men few problems; Numancia, who have lost six of their last seven matches, host the mercurial Deportivo; Mallorca, unbeaten in three, visit Sporting who are still my tip to go in freefall; Racing, mid-table personified, host Osasuna as they look to peel away from the drop zone and Almeria, who have showed character in recent weeks, welcome Getafe to the Medittereano.

    Eredivisie week 25

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

    Top game this week is the Friday game at the Philips Stadion where Heerenveen travel to take on PSV. The Eindhoveners have been outstanding since getting shut of Huub Stevens and Heerenveen play a similar, open, counter-attacking style. This one should be a belter. As should AZ v Groningen. While Groningen have slipped a bit lately, they still go about things the 'right' way and with AZ playing a new brand of total football - well they are coached by Louis van Gaal - this should again be a thriller. Ajax go to Utrecht - a tough fixture for Marco van Basten's charges. Ajax were lucky last week, having wasted chance after chance before finally beating Volendam and Utrecht are unlikely to be as generous in defence. Also up at the top, Twente have to put UEFA Cup disappointment behind them - they lost 7-6 on penalties to Marseille - and get back on the horse against ADO.

    NEC too suffered in midweek, Hamburg winning 1-0 and completing a 4-0 aggregate win over Mario Been's side, and they have a tricky one against Volendam. They're still rock bottom, but playing fairly well - certainly more so than their relegation rivals. They need to start turning fancy football into points sooner rather than later though or this nice play will be wasted. Feyenoord just pulled themselves away from immediate danger these last couple of weeks, but a game against Vitesse isn't what they need right now. Lose this and they're back in the mire and the Arnhem side are going OK. There's a proverbial six-pointer at Kerkrade where Roda face De Graafschap. Both sides are in terrible form and this will be won by the side that makes fewest mistakes. Sparta remain in trouble and travel to face UEFA Cup chasing NAC this week. Breda need points to maintain any chance they may have of European football whiel Sparta are beginning to look desperate. Willem II are in danger of being sucked into trouble at the bottom, but a home game against Heracles is just what they need now. Win it, and suddenly they look comfortable. Don't, and the knives will be out. It's all coming to a tipping point.

    Bundesliga week 22

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

    New leaders Hamburg continue their title challenge at home to Wolfsburg looking good to remain in top spot for another week at least. Wolfsburg were completely undone by PSG in midweek in the UEFA Cup, a second 3-1 defeat ending their interest in that competition. Recent results have seen the Wolves rise up to sixth place and they should test Martin Jol's side, but Hamburg have that little bit of quality that Wolfsburg don't, especially in the continued absence of Grafite. Hoffenheim aim to get their stuttering challenge back on the rails at Dortmund with striker Chinedu Obasa and goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand both back from injury. That gives Ralf Rangnick a major boost in what promises to be a tough game. Dortmund are a capable side, but way too inconsistent. The outcome depends on which Dortmund turns up at the Westfalenstadion. Also up at the sharp end are Hertha, and they take on Gladbach who are beginning to show signs of being able to compete. The Berliners face a bit of a problem up front with Marko Pantelic out and Andriy Voronin struggling to be fit. Hertha have won five straight at home and this one should be comfortable for them.

    Bayern go to Bremen with both sides in a bit of a form slump. Bremen did win through in the UEFA Cup on away goals over AC Milan in midweek with a 2-2 draw, Claudio Pizarro with both goals, but they are stinking up the Bundesliga of late. Bayern had the mercurial Franck Ribéry to thank for their sparkling 5-0 win in the Champions League and two goals to Luca Toni may just see the big Italian back to form. Both Jurgen Klinsmann and Thomas Schaff are under pressure and a win for either here will silence a few critics, for the time being at least. The loser should be preparing his CV. Stuttgart are the best value team in the best value league in Europe at the moment, as they played out their third consecutive six-goal thriller last week. They take their free-scoring - and free-conceding - ways to Karlsruhe this week with their hosts dropping into the bottom three last week. With Mario Gomez in top form, Stuttgart have the goals, and, while the defence is letting them down, Karlsruhe aren't in the best position to take advantage.

    Hannover are on the slide and they have a tough game at home to Leverkusen, needing a win to keep the pressure on at the top. Bruno Labbadia's side are frustrating in their inconsistency and they need to start stringing wins together if they're to be considered as true challengers. The big game at the bottom sees Energie go to Bochum with the home side two points behind the visitors. It's all getting a bit fraught down there and neither side has any real form to call on. That promises to be exceptionally tight and nervous. Cologne host Bielefeld in the Friday game and their win over Bayern last week has helped Cologne into a position of relative safety and they can heap more misery on a poor Arminia side here.

    Finally, Schalke go to Frankfurt to face Eintracht. With both sides playing rotten football with any flair, excitement or passion totally taken out of the gameplan, this will be rubbish.

    Monday, 23 February 2009

    Lyon forge ahead: Ligue 1 reviews

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

    How the chasers must be ruing not taking advantage of Lyon's wobbles earlier in the season. After this week's games, they now lie six points clear as they were the only side in the top five to register a win. When they were playing badly, none of the others could string enough of a run together and now Lyon have punished them in the only way they know how. Defender Cris opened the scoring on 19 minutes, heading home unmarked at the near post as a corner was flicked right onto his shiny pate. He really couldn't miss. Youssuf Hadji missed a penalty early in the second half as Lyon maybe relaxed too much, and they were duly made to pay by that man Karim Benzema. With Nancy attacking, two quick touches freed the striker and he finished in style to seal it.

    Marseille, PSG, Toulouse and Bordeaux could all only manage draws, allowing Lyon to pull clear. Marseille were booed from the field after their goalless draw at home to Le Mans, a game they utterly dominated. They're looking poor in front of goal and, despite weight of possession of 3-to-1, they could only manage three shots on target in the 90 minutes, though Bolo Zenden struck a post late on. Not good enough for the exacting Vélodrome crowd. PSG too couldn't find the net up in the mountains in Grenoble and came close only once, early on when front two Ludo Giuly and Guillaume Hoarau combined to set up the former who failed to hit the target. Toulouse were also held to a goalless draw at home to Valeciennes, who secured another point as they inch their way to safety. Short on numbers, this was a good, battling performance from Valenciennes, but without Jean-Claude Darcheville up top, goals were always going to be hard to come by. But they blunted the threat of André-Pierre Gignac and Daniel Braathen effectively to grind out a vital point. They remain ahead of St Etienne and just outside the relegation places after Les Verts also drew with one of the front-runners, Bordeaux. It could have been so much better for them too, as they conceded a late, late goal to Fernando Cavenaghi at the Geoffrey Guichard. Blaise Matuidi put St Etienne ahead just after the break following a first half that Bordeaux dominated. He fired a beauty past Mathieu Valverde but it was a case of them failing to hold onto a lead for the umpteenth time this season, altough it was extremely late on when Marouane Chamakh flicked on a header for Cavenaghi to rescue a point.

    Le Havre are now ten points off the pace at the bottom after Auxerre did themselves a big favour in beating them. Thomas Kahlenberg put Auxerre ahead in the first minute, profiting from some slack early defending. Jean-Michel Lesage equalised late in the first half and they gave as good as they got for much of the game, but Auxerre proved more clinical in the final third and a neat passing move ended with Valter Birsa slotting home to seal it. Sochaux pulled themselves within two points of safety with a win over a fast fading Lorient, their first away win of the season. Kevin Gameiro put the home side ahead, but Lorient couldn't find a way through some obdurate defending and Sochaux duly came up with a couple of goals of their own. Czech striker Vaclav Sverkos equalised on 66 minutes and, in the first minute of injury time, they went ahead through Mevlut Erding. A point for Caen arrests their alarming slide. They took a third minute lead when Anthony Deroin, catching Nantes cold. They couldn't hold on though and Nantes levelled it just before the break when Frederic De Rocha's free-kick was turned in by Christian Bekamenga. In the second half, neither side could test the opposing keeper and it duly finished 1-1.

    Lille took advantage of all the draws above them to put themselves back in the European picture beating 10-man Monaco 2-1, leaving the Monagasques in bother, just three points above the relegation places. Ludovic Obraniak put Lille ahead on 12 minutes who climbed highest to head home Michel Bastos's cross. A second booking for Aljero Alonso reduced Monaco to ten just after the hour and Lille went 2-0 up on 90 minutes, Stephane Dumont controlled Eden Hazard's cross and fired past Stephane Ruffier to win it, though Adriano Pereira fired in a stoppage time free-kick. Rennes also won to get their faltering campaign back on track, while leaving Nice in something of a no mans land in mid-table. A solitary goal from Olivier Thomert in the second half, Bruno Cheyrout and Jimmy Briand combining to set up the left winger to seal Rennes' third away win of the season.

    Another new leader: Bundesliga reviews

    Schalke 1-1 Dortmund
    Arminia 1-1 Bochum
    Energie 2-1 Bremen
    Bayern 1-2 Cologne
    Stuttgart 3-3 Hoffenheim
    Karlsruhe 0-1 Eintracht
    Monchengladbach 3-2 Hannover
    Wolfsburg 2-1 Hertha
    Leverkusen 1-2 Hamburg

    There's a third leader in three weeks in the Bundesliga as Hamburg take over at the top this week with fellow challengers failing to win. They beat fellow challengers Leverkusen with a brace from Marcell Jansen either side of another goal for Patrick Helmes. They were Jansen's first goals of the season. His first came on 18 minutes as he cut inside from the left flank and fired past Rene Adler before Helmes equalised, voleeying past Frank Rost at his near post. Just after the hour, Jansen put his side back in front tapping in from six yards after Ivica Olic had gone close. That put them top after previous leaders Hertha were beaten in Wolfsburg. Cicero had put the Berliners in front on the hour, Patrick Ebert intercepting a poor clearance from Wolfsburg stopper André Lenz, but Edin Dzeko's late double gave the Wolves the points. He showed great strength to shake off Marc Stein for his first and heading in off the bar six minutes from time. That lifts his side to sixth, level with Leverkusen. Bayern were beaten at home by Cologne. Bayern should have had the lead when Miroslav Klose had a header ruled out for offside, though replays showed the decision to be wrong. Instead, Cologne went ahead through Fabrice Ehret, latching on to a loose ball after sloppy play from Martin Demichelis. Just after the half hour, Daniel Brosinski doubled the advantage, blasting home from the edge of the box. Lukas Podolski had started for Bayern, but was withdrawn at half-time for Landon Donovan after failing to impress either his current or future employers. There were six goals in a Stuttgart game for the third successive week as they drew 3-3 with Hoffenheim. It should have been seven goals and all three points for TSG, but Sejad Salihovic blasted a stoppage time penalty over the bar and into the stands after Demba Ba's hat-trick goal had brought them level. Ba's first put Hoffenheim ahead as Ralf Rangnick's three-man attack caused havoc. Jens Lehmann got a hand to Ba's shot for the opener, but it was hit so hard, he didn't really stand a chance. Two minutes later, Stuttgart were level as Mario Gomez - excellent again - played in Cacau who nicked it past Daniel Haas and inside the far post. Gomez then got the first of his double, heading in from close range before Ba levelled it up again, clipping a delightful finish high past Lehmann. Gomez's 13th of the season put his side back in front on the hour, lobbing Haas, but Ba's third levelled it up for the third time, beating Lehmann at his near post. Ludovic Magnin brought Carlos Eduardo down in injury time, giving Salihovic the chance to snatch the win, but he wasted the chance. Hoffenheim remain second. They have bigger worries though, with Gladbach appealing their 1-1 draw after it emerged that two Hoffenheim players were late for their mandatory drug tests.

    Gladbach did themselves a massive favour, winning at home against Hannover. They remain bottom, but now just three points from safety, veteran striker Oliver Neuville coming off the bench to hit a late winner after his side had blown a two-goal lead. Alexander Baumjohann and precocious youngster Marko Marin had given Gladbach that cushion going into half-time, but second half goals from Sergio Pinto and Christian Schulz levelled it up before Neuville who volleyed home with seven minutes remaining. Bochum and Bielefeld drew with one another, helping neither side much, indeed both being leapfrogged by Energie who beat Bremen. Bochum were leading for much of the game after Diego Klimowicz's goal in the first half, but a late equaliser from Andre Mijatovic ensured a share of the spoils. Bremen are in rotten form and Energie took full advantage, coming from a goal down to win it and give themselves a massive boost. Hugo Almeida had put Werder ahead just after half-time, but Ivica Iliev replied in quick time. It wasn't until stoppage time that Dimitar Rangelov put Energie ahead to take his side out of the drop zone. Thomas Schaaf has no excuses as Almeida, Diego et al were all in the side, making it his strongest side for some time. Eintracht pulled themselves out of immediate danger, ending a poor run with a narrow away win over Karlsruhe, Caio - a half-time substitute - making an almost immediate impact, volleying home from Michael Fink's cushioned header.

    The Friday game was the big Ruhr derby and the honours were once again shared, although without the controversy of the first meeting of these sides earlier in the season. Schalke should have been out of sight as they bossed the game for long periods, but paid for profligacy in front of goal. Kevin Kuranyi scored an absolute peach on 20 minutes to open the scoring, a flying volley from Halil Altintop's cross, but he also wasted the best chance of the match shortly before the break - a huge let off for their big rivals. Schalke continued to waste chances after the break, but Dortmund had brought on Mohamed Zidan at half-time for Kevin-Prince Boateng who was in danger of getting himself sent off for a series of wild tackles. Zidan's extra pace caused Schalke more problems, especially on the counter, and, sure enough, the Egyptian was the one to level it up nine minutes from time, slamming home as the ball broke to him in the box. And he nearly won it as Dortmund finished the stronger, but Manuel Neuer pulled off a fine save.

    Status quo maintained: Eredivise reviews

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

    Hells teeth, De Graafschap are bad. Sunday's TV game from Doetinchem was played out on a terrible pitch at De Vijverberg and, as such, was not a spectacle of any great magnitude. Especially when the opposition are the hapless Feyenoord. The Rotterdammers have benefited from playing teams below them these last couple of weeks which has pulled them away from immediate danger, but they're still a poor side and laboured to a 2-0 win which wasn't sealed until Jon Dahl Tomasson's injury time goal. Karim El Ahmadi got the opener ten minutes into the second half and he'd looked most likely in the first half, but really, you do see better games on park pitches. Better pitches too.

    The status quo remains at the top with the top four all winning in routine fashion. AZ barely broke sweat in scoring another 2-0 win in Almelo. Heracles were completely outplayed, but held the Alkmaar side out until thirteen minutes into the second half when Mounir El Hamdaoui - inevitably - broke the deadlock, played in by Ari. Heracles were forced to change it and actually attack and were eventually picked off by El Hamdaoui for his 20th of the season, beating Martin Pieckenhagen when put through one-on-one. That put AZ back into a 12-point lead, but Twente pulled it back to nine on Sunday in beating Sparta in Rotterdam. Just four minutes in, Sparta midfielder Sander van Gessel put through his own net, shanking an attempted clearance of Eljero Elia's cross with Blaise N'Kufo lurking. Twente didn't really capitalise on their stroke of luck and Sparta got back into it with a penalty on the half hour after Slobodan Rajkovic handled in the area, Ruud Knol slotting home the penalty. Sparta looked good for a point as the game looked to be petering out into a draw, but in stoppage time, Theo Janssen unleashed a 40-yard thunderbolt to snatch the points. Volendam took a shock lead away at Amsterdam, Gerson Sheotahul capitalising on a counter-attack after Ajax had dominated the early going. Luis Suarez was once again the big Ajax threat and wasted a chance to level matters when one-on-one with Jeroen Verhoven, but made amends when heading home Rasmus Lindgren's cross. Thomas Vermaelen has been in good goal scoring touch for a defender lately and he bagged another one, heading in Miralem Sulejmani's cross. Suarez wasted a number of chances, which kept Volendam in it and they may have stolen a point when Rowin van Zaanen's late effort came back off the post, but Dominique van Dijk's follow up was ruled out for offside. PSV needed a late goal to beat Groningen who finally conceded after a record 575 minutes of football. An entertaining game looked destined to end goalless until Dwight Lodeweges pushed Danko Lazovic on with seven minutes to go and he popped up to head home Stefan Nijland's cross after good work in midfield from Jason Culina.

    Heerenveen got back to winning ways, further putting Willem II in the mire at the same time with a convincing 3-1 win. They went in to the break 2-0 ahead through Paulo Henriques and Kritian Bak Nielsen as Tilburg keeper Maikel Aerts was the busiest man on the field. Roy Beerens made it three late on before Willem II finally broke through to score through Mohamed Messoudi. Two early goals for Vitesse in the Friday game took the wind out of Roda's sails, leaving the Kerkrade club deep in trouble. Dalibor Stevanovic and Sébastien Sansoni scored in the first 20 minutes to all but win it there and then. A third duly followed in the second half through Nicky Hofs as the Arnhem side completed a routine win. Den Haag picked up a precious point at home to NAC, Rick Hoogendorp equalising Nourdin Boukhari's opener. Utrecht were upset at home to NEC by two late goals from Youssef El Akchaoui and Joel Tshibamba.

    Volendam remain rooted to the bottom, now eight points from safety and all but down. Roda and De Graafschap are in the relegation play-off places, fully five points from getting out of it. AZ lead from Twente with Ajax and PSV in the UEFA places. Heerenveen, Groningen, Utrecht and NAC are in the UEFA play-off spots with NEC right on their heels.

    Serie A Round 25 Review: Euro sides warm up well

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

    Inter required a slice of good fortune to beat Bologna on Saturday, as Mario Balotelli’s free-kick evaded everyone to loop into the bottom corner in the 82nd minute. Inter had dominated for long periods, but had to wait until the 57th minute for Esteban Cambiasso to turn that dominance into a goal. With 11 minutes remaining the home side were sparked into life after Britos’s header but Balotelli’s free-kick ensured the three points headed back to Lombardia.

    Juventus kept the gap at 9 points with a safe negotiation of a potentially tricky trip to Sicily. The Gobbini took a first-half lead afterfine individual goal from Momo Sissoko, who picked the ball up just inside the Palermo half, left Fabio Liverani in his wake, side-stepped Cesare Bovo and unleashed an unstoppable shot past Amelia into the top right-hand corner of the goal. David Trezeguet then wrapped things up in the second half. Roma bounced back from last week’s surprise defeat at Atalanta with a 1-0 win over Siena thanks to Rodrigo Taddei’s 63rd minute strike, a win that keeps them in 6th and puts 6 points between them and the chasing pack.

    Fiorentina were far from convincing in their laboured 2-1 win over Chievo, the home side seemed to be suffering a hangover from their midweek UEFA Cup defeat to Ajax. The struggling visitors went ahead through Santiago Morero and lead for almost an hour before Alberto Gilardino levelled the score with less than 20 minutes remaining. A frantic final 10 minutes then saw Vincenzo Italiano dismissed for his second yellow card before Adrian Mutu, with the last touch of the game, ensured all three points remained in Florence – that’s five matches unbeaten for Prandelli’s men. Genoa remain in fifth just a point behind La Viola after a 1-0 win at Napoli, condemning Edy Reja’s men to their fifth defeat in 7 matches after Bosko Jankovic latched onto a Thiago Motta pass for the only goal of the game.

    Milan laboured to a 1-0 win over Cagliari thanks to Clarence Seedorf’s solitary strike, Sampdoria beat Atalanta 1-0 – Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini combining yet again to good effect (brilliant business by Samp). Torino beat Udinese for their first win in 2009 and goals from Pasquale Foggia and Aleksandar Kolarov gave Lazio a 2-0 win at Lecce. Reggina look more adrift than ever at the bottom, now 6 points from safety after they were beaten 2-0 at Catania with a goal in each half from Capuano and Potenza.

    La Liga Round 24 Review: Pericos shock Barca in derby

    Saturday 21/02
    Barcelona 1-2 Espanyol
    Real Madrid 6-1 Real Betis
    Villarreal 2-1 Sporting Gijon
    Sevilla 1-0 Atletico Madrid

    Sunday 22/02
    Valladolid 1-3 Malaga
    Recreativo 1-1 Almeria
    Mallorca 1-0 Racing
    Osasuna 2-0 Numancia
    Getafe 1-1 Athletic
    Deportivo 1-1 Valencia

    Well. Any pretense I had about my predictive abilities has been well and truly blown away after this weekend’s results. On Saturday, two Ivan De La Pena goals led Espanyol to their first league win at the Camp Nou in 27 years – this, against supposedly the best Barcelona ever. After putting them in the lead with a 50th minute header, the former Camp Nou and Lazio star then pounced five minutes later on a dreadful Victor Valdes clearance to brilliantly chip in the far corner for two nil. This, incidentally, after the referee sent Seydou Keita off for an innocuous-looking tackle on Moises. Yaya Toure’s fine volley gave the home side hope but in the end they could not break down a stubborn Pericos defence for an equaliser. That is Guardiola’s side’s first league defeat since Matchday 1, and it could not come at a more crucial time for Espanyol as they have moved off the bottom yet remain three points from safety.

    Real Madrid closed the gap on the leaders with an extraordinary first-half display at home to Real Betis. All of the match’s 7 goals were scored, incredibly, in the first 45 minutes as Juande Ramos’s side ran riot. Betis were, quite simply, catastrophically bad, as centre halves allowed easy goals. Huntelaar (2), Raul (2), Higuain, and Sergio Ramos all reached the scoresheet, giving Los Merengues perfect confidence-boosting preparation for what is sure to be a much tougher game midweek against Liverpool. Certainly, with 9 straight victories under their belts, it is the Bernabau side who go in with the better form. For Betis, it is the end of a little good patch where they took points off Sevilla and Barcelona and they are now just two points above the relegation places.

    Sevilla remain in third after a narrow 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. It was an even contest throughout, a midfield battle with few chances although Abel Resino will be ruing Diego Forlan’s incredible miss from 2-yards out. The Uruguyan had the goal at his mercy from Maxi Rodriguez’s cross and somehow managed to strike the crossbar. Jesus Navas, by some margin Sevilla’s best player this season, made him pay for his profligacy by finishing well from close range with four minutes to go, and cue pandemonium in the arena. It’s a result that leaves them 3rd, on 44 points, three clear of Villarreal who came from a goal behind to beat Sporting 2-1. The visitors went ahead after just one minute courtesy of Sporting Gijon’s striker Mate Bilic (his 8th of the season, some time after his 7th). However, Manuel Preciado will be furious with the way his side lost their concentration as the Yellow Submarine went straight up the other end to equalize courtesy of Giuseppe Rossi’s 12th of the campaign. Joan Capdevilla headed his side ahead from Marcos Senna’s cross and Bilic was guilty of missing chances to level things up. It is Sporting’s 5th defeat in 6 and leaves them 3 points above the drop zone.

    On Sunday Valencia missed out on the chance to jump into the top four after being held by Deportivo. David Villa had put Los Che ahead, capitalizing on a bizarre Julian De Guzman backpass to curl home in the first half only to get himself sent off later on, first feigning an injury for his first yellow card and then impeding goalkeeper Aranzubia. Lotina’s men took advantage of their numerical superiority as Piscu headed home Verdu’s free-kick. The Galicians remain in 8th, 3 points behind Malaga who coasted to victory away at Valladolid. Albert Luque gave Tapia’s men the lead, Apono doubling the advantage with a penalty just short of the half-hour mark. Pedro Oldoni gave Valladolid a lifeline with six minutes left, but Nacho sealed a fine win for Malaga when he lobbed home a third in the closing stages. Malaga are now 6th, level on points with Valencia, a brilliant run this from the newly promoted side.

    Numancia are the new bottom team in La liga after Osasuna scored two first half goals, through Jaroslav Plasil and Masoud Shojaei, to inflict a sixth straight defeat on the struggling Sorians, who are now 4 points from safety – the managerial change not having an immediate effect. Real Mallorca did their survival prospects a good turn with a 1-0 home win over Racing. Ezequiel Garay was sent off for the visitors and Pedro Munitis struck the woodwork before Jose Manuel Jurado slotted home the rebound after his original effort was saved by Tono from the penalty spot. Getafe and Athletic drew 1-1, Roberto Soldado put the hosts ahead, Iraola had a penalty saved for the visitors before Fernando Llorente, returning to the Athletic ranks after injury, scored from Velez’s knock-down to notch up his 10th of the season. Recreativo and Almeria drew, leaving Huelva just two points above the bottom three.

    Saturday, 21 February 2009

    Ligue 1 round 25

    Nantes v Caen
    Nancy v Lyon
    Grenoble v PSG
    Le Havre v Auxerre
    Toulouse v Valenciennes
    Lorient v Sochaux
    Nice v Rennes
    St Etienne v Bordeaux
    Marseille v Le Mans
    Lille v Monaco

    The big action this week is down at the bottom of the league this week, with the big one being Le Havre v Auxerre. With Auxerre winning last week, they've just eased away from the bottom and another three points here will put them up towards mid-table. St Etienne dropped into the bottom three after Valenciennes beat Caen in midweek to pull themselves out of it. All three of those clubs will be doing well to get anything out of their games this weekend, though St Etienne had a very good win in midweek in the UEFA Cup. Valenciennes go to Toulouse who are still in the thick of it up at the top and Caen have a tough trip to Nantes. With the likes of Valenciennes moving up, Grenoble are looking vulnerable and form side PSG visit the Alps this week. Paul Le Guen rested Claude Makelele, Ludo Giuly and Jeremy Clement for the UEFA Cup game against Wolfsburg in the week - a comfortable 2-0 win - and are scoring for fun. Grenoble's good start saw them win 1-0 at the Parc des Princes early in the season, so there's a whiff of revenge in the mountain air.

    Sochaux also slipped into the drop zone in recent weeks and they go to Lorient this week, whose European tilt has taken a turn for the worse lately. Sochaux hoped welcome back skipper Stephane Dalmat who has been out for a long time, but his knee problem flared up again after 70 minutes in the reserves in the week. With five out injured and one suspended, this could be tougher for Lorient than it needs to be. Rennes have just fallen away recently after getting as high as second, but a Nice win will lift them above the Brittany side. Lille missed a chance to draw closer on the leaders with a 0-0 draw with Le Mans on Wednesday and their once-likely title challenge has now faded. But a home game against Monaco gives them a good chance to get back on track with the Principality side poor away from the Stade Louis II and Lille especially string on their own midden.

    Marseille were beaten at home by FC Twente in midweek in Europe, but should have a happier time at the Vélodrome this weekend when Le Mans visit. They've slipped five points behind the leaders over the last few weeks, but with Le Mans not having won since November, they should be OK here despite injury worries over Mamadou Niang and Brandao. Lyon travel to Nancy looking to maintain the gap at the top and they should do just that. After some rocky weeks, the multiple champions look back to form - although at home they could still do to sharpen up - and appear on course for eight-in-a-row.

    Friday, 20 February 2009

    Serie A Round 25 Preview

    Saturday 21 February
    Bologna vs. Internazionale
    Roma vs. Siena
    Palermo vs. Juventus

    Sunday 22 February
    Napoli vs. Genoa
    Sampdoria vs. Atalanta
    Milan vs. Cagliari
    Fiorentina vs. Chievo
    Lecce vs. Lazio
    Catania vs. Reggina
    Torino vs. Udinese

    On Saturday, Inter visit Bologna where Jose Mourinho will undoubtedly have one eye on the crucial Champions League clash midweek against Manchester United. Christian Chivu and Nicolas Burdisso (no loss IMO) are both suspended so Walter Samuel and Ivan Cordoba are likely to pair up at the back. The Nerazzuri have gone a month unbeaten including last week’s derby win and will fancy their chances even below full strength against Sinisa Mihailovic’s side, who have picked up 4 points out of 15 recently.

    Roma’s good run was brought to a shuddering halt by Atalanta last week and the visit of Siena brings its own problems, as Simone Perotta and Daniele De Rossi are both suspended and Francesco Totti is doubtful through injury. Siena have drawn their last two games but only Torino possess a worse away record so Luciano Spalleti will still be confident of victory. Completing Saturday’s card is the mouthwatering prospect of Juventus, short of form, visiting Palermo – Amauri’s old club. The Brazilian has already said he will not celebrate if he scores but there’s no guarantee of that as the Rosanero have collected 9 wins from 11 home games. With Fabio Simplicio and Fabrizio Miccoli in good touch, and Juve in anything but, this could be a cracker.

    On Sunday Genoa, who seem to be serving up belting games at the moment, visit a Napoli side who have not won in six matches, their worst run of the season. The Grifone are just a point off the top four and will fancy their chances even in the forbidding San Paolo. Fiorentina, who staged such a memorable second-half comeback at Genoa last week, face the easier prospect of Chievo at home while Udinese, nowhere near their best but a whole chunk improved on their pre-Christmas form, visit a Torino side desperate to scrabble out of the bottom three.

    Sampdoria, unbeaten in four, host Gigi Del Neri’s Atalanta while AC Milan play host to Cagliari, who have been beaten just once in 2009 and already have taken a point from one visit to the San Siro since the turn of the year. Lazio visit Lecce and bottom club Reggina, with one win from 12 away matches, visit Catania.

    La Liga Round 24 Preview

    Saturday 21/02
    Barcelona vs. Espanyol
    Real Madrid vs. Real Betis
    Villarreal vs. Sporting Gijon
    Sevilla vs. Atletico Madrid

    Sunday 22/02
    Valladolid vs. Malaga
    Recreativo vs. Almeria
    Mallorca vs. Racing
    Osasuna vs. Numancia
    Getafe vs. Athletic
    Deportivo vs. Valencia

    Saturday sees a bumper evening with four matches taking place. Three of the top four are in action as Barcelona, not at their stratospheric best but still 10 points clear, stage the Barcelona derby at the Camp Nou. Guardiola’s men stuttered to a draw last week at Betis, shorn as they were of Messi and Henry. Those two are likely to come back for at least part of this big game. Although there is a massive difference between the two sides in the table, Espanyol were extremely unlucky to lose a controversial first derby back in September, which was marred by crowd trouble. Two coaches have been fired since then and Mauricio Pochettino is still looking for his first win as their coach. Since he took over his side have scored three draws and a defeat, yet they are looking increasingly frail and sit bottom of the table. Barcelona will want to preserve their double-digit lead over Real Madrid, and its been a long time since Espanyol scored a victory at the Camp Nou.

    Real Madrid, invigorated and disciplined under Juande Ramos, welcome an improving Betis to the Bernabau. The visitors are 5 points above the drop zone and will be anxious to put more daylight between them and fellow strugglers, but it seems unlikely they’ll take anything from the Bernabau which has become a fortress since the ex-Sevilla coach arrived. Real look far stronger and miserly with Raul and Robben bang in form. Elsewhere, Manuel Pellegrini’s frustrating Villarreal side host Sporting Gijon. Nothing less than a win will do for the Yellow Submarine if they value their Champions League prospects.

    Completing Saturday’s line-up, two sides with the top four very much in their sights, Sevilla and Atletico. The corresponding fixture in September produced a Sevilla win and both these sides are just emerging from a poor run of form. Five points separate them in the table but in reality I feel there’s little to choose between these two sides. Sunday’s big game is at the Riazor where Valencia visit Deportivo. The hosts’ form is decidedly mixed but they still have the capacity to trouble the big sides at home whilst Valencia’s away form is also a tad shabby, 3 wins out of 11. There is no doubt that the financial turmoil off the pitch, where players have not been paid for at least a couple of months, is affecting morale in Unai Emery’s team and this weekend could see them drop out of the top four, and, less likely, the top six.

    Athletic Bilbao visit Getafe with the Basques still very much eyeing a European spot but their away form will have to improve for that to become a reality – 2 wins out of 11 isn’t enough. Alvaro Negredo is single-handedly, it seems, keeping Almeria above the drop zone and a win at Recreativo would allow Hugo Sanchez much-needed breathing space. Racing visit Mallorca as they look to break the top half, while Malaga will look to keep up the pressure on the top six with a win at Valladolid – no mean feat, mind, as Valladolid have picked up 23 of their 30 points from the Zorilla. There’s a crucial game at the bottom too, as Osasuna and Numancia meet. Numancia, somewhat surprisingly, dispensed with Sergio Kresjic’s services midweek and Jose Camacho is desperate for Osasuna to pick up points at home to ignite their escape act.

    Financial Crisis Reaches Polish Football

    It seems that the global financial crisis has reached Polish football, having a particularly severe effect in Division I where the running costs are not much different to those in Ekstraklasa but clubs cannot bank on millions of zloty rolling into their coffers from Canal+. Things are getting pretty desperate - training facilities are being sold off, clubs are cutting back on everyday costs such as meals and match time liquids for the players and squads are being trimmed and filled up with youth team players.

    Ruch Chorzow are currently sitting in mid table in Ekstraklasa and looking fairly certain of retaining their seat at the top table for next season but their chairman Mariusz Klimek is still worried by what he's seeing in the lower leagues - "I don't want to be too pessimistic about it but I have a real concern that most of the clubs in Division I will go under". Now if that's not being pessimistic I hate to think what he would have said were he a "glass half empty" type of chap. It has to be said that he has a point though. A lot of the sponsorship deals at the lower levels of Polish football are with small to medium sized local businesses and as these are being hit by ever declining income it is unlikely that they will want to support their local side with little or no benefit to their business.

    Surprisingly, news of the impending crisis has filtered through to the Polish FA, an organisation which is usually so slow on the uptake that it has probably only just realised that the Berlin Wall has come down. There have however already been rumblings from ul. Miodowa that a number of clubs are behind on the payments for referees, observers and delegates attending their games thus starving PZPN of the cash they need to do whatever vital service it is they perform (answers on a postcard please - I've not figured it out yet).

    Apart from a small group of clubs fighting for the promised land of Ekstraklasa (Widzew, Zaglebie Lubin, Podbeskidzie Bielsko-Biala) the majority are struggling to make ends meet and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

    GKS Katowice, currently bottom of Division I, are suffering more than most. Staring at almost inevitable relegation this season they have been unable to secure sponsorship and are culling their squad and will be fielding their junior side in the coming round. There was a chink of light which could have kept them going for a bit longer, namely a 300,000 PLN grant from the city council, but this has been withdrawn due to the 300,000 PLN the club owes in unpaid National Insurance. This same debt could also see the club lose its right to the grant it would normally receive for youth and junior player development.

    The lack of funds is having a knock-on effect on the players themselves. At GKS Jastrzebie the players have not been paid for over three months and according to an un-named source at the club the squads nutritional supplements consist of "whatever the physio can find and mix up in a 10 litre barrel". Last season Jastrzebie could rely upon 500,000 PLN provided by sponsors Jastrzebska Spólka Weglowa (a coal company) but, according to JSW spokesperson Katarzyna Jablonska-Bajer, "Due to the global financial crisis funds available to the club will decrease in the order of 30%".

    Two other clubs in trouble are Odra Opole with over 1 million PLN owed in taxes and National Insurance and Kmita Zabierzów who have lost 10 first teamers and whose entry into the coming round depends on a 400,000 PLN donation from the local council.

    It seems that the ambition for many of Poland's smaller clubs in the near future will not be to achieve sporting success but simply to remain in existence. Some have over-exerted themselves financially with sides that should, in truth, be in the lower leagues rising way above their natural level through the generosity of local businessmen who can no longer bankroll their hobby. The knock on effect could be extremely serious for the future of Polish football as a whole, particularly the national side with many clubs going bust and many others taking the decision that a move to amateur status is the only option. If this proves to be the case then who will provide the youth players who will one day go on to make their names on the international stage? It certainly won't be the Ekstraklasa sides who more and more seem to be moving towards foreign imports to satisfy their playing needs.

    Eredivisie round 24

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

    It's one of those weeks in the Netherlands where all the top sides are apart from one another. AZ should have no trouble in beating Heracles in Almelo, PSV travel to Groningen looking good to continue their rich form, Ajax host bottom club Volendam and Twente take on Sparta. All of them look more than capable of scoring wins. Had Ajax not managed to get a win last week, you'd think they'd be there for the taking by a vastly improved Volendam, but that win over Feyenoord seems to have settled a few nerves and in Luis Suarez, they have that ace in the pack that many sides lack. Twente had a good win in midweek in Marseille with Marko Arnautovic on the scoresheet and their attacking array - Eljero Elia, Blaise N'Kufo and Arnautovic - should be too strong for Sparta who are neither good enough to go upwards or bad enough to go any further down.

    Feyenoord sit six clear of the bottom three and face De Graafschap - well and truly in it - this week. It's probably the best fixture Feyenoord could have wished for at this stage, but they were truly dreadful last week and aren't going to get much better any time soon. However, in the tireless Roy Makaay, they have a match winner and De Graafschap simply don't. Game of the week is probably Utrecht v NEC. The Nijmegen side lost heavily to Hamburg in midweek, so don't arrive in confident mood, but are a difficult side to beat while Utrecht like to force the pace. Given that NEC played on Wednesday, Utrecht go into this as favourites as both sides look for a European place next season. Vitesse host Roda on Friday night and the visitors will remain in the bottom three whatever the outcome, which will probably be a home win with Vitesse prolonging their unbeaten run at the Gelredome while Roda have lost the last three straight. Heerenveen welcome Willem II to the Abe Lenstra with the Tilburgers having changed manager in the week. Andries Jonker moved upstairs leaving Alfons Groenendijk in charge of the first team with Willem II on a horror run of four straight losses. Heerenveen should be too good. Finally, Den Haag - rebuffed by Dick Advocaat in midweek - host NAC. ADO stopped a poor run with a narrow win over De Graafschap while Breda are terrible away from home. There's a big difference between De Graafschap and NAC - chasing European football - and this should be an away win.

    Ruckus on the Ruhr: Bundesliga week 21

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

    No doubting the top game in this week's Bundesliga action. All eyes on Gelsenkirchen on Friday night where Dortmund make the short trip for the big derby and there's a tinge of revenge in the air after their controversial meeting back in September. Schalke, quite understandably feel aggrieved about the circumstances in which Dortmund battled back to a 3-3 draw. The ugly words 'match' and 'fixing' reared their heads in the aftermath of that one. For those that missed it, a précis of events that day. Schalke took a 3-0 lead ten minutes into the second half, but Dortmund hit back with goals from Neven Subotic and Alexander Frei. Moments after Frei's goal, referee Lutz Wagner saw fit to dismiss Christian Pander and Fabian Ernst, leaving Schalke hanging on with nine men. Neither offence seemed to warrant a red card, but that was as nothing to the controversy over Dortmund's equaliser. Over 80,000 people packed the Westfalenstadion, but only one person saw a foul when the ball hit Mladen Kristajic's arm - there was nothing he could do about it - with three minutes remaining. Up stepped Frei to bang it home and the referee blew for full time, despite there being one minute of normal time remaining and a significant amount of stoppages to play. Half the drama of that one tonight and we're all laughing, but it looks unlikely. Schalke are in a worrying slump and the pressure is mounting on Fred Rutten and sporting director Andy Möller. Dortmund would love nothing better than to hammer a significant nail in the coffin of their big rivals and look more than capable of doing so.

    Hertha are the leaders and they go to Wolfsburg on Saturday. The Wolves are without goalkeeper Diego Benaglio, but fans won't be worried after two horrid gaffes in the UEFA Cup handed St Etienne a 2-0 win in midweek. With Andriy Voronin in great form (there's a sentence I thought I'd never have to type), Hertha are coping without Marko Pantelic and will have to do so again here while Wolfsburg are again without their own hot-shot, the Brazilian Grafite. Hoffenheim will look to get their possibly fading title challenge back on track at Stuttgart where the promise is of goals, goals, goals. Twelve have gone in in the last two Stuttgart games and they are unbeaten since Markus Babbel took the reins there in November. Former Stuttgart keeper Timo Hildebrand misses out on a reunion as he's injured while Ralf Rangnick may look to kick start the title challenge by going in with a three-man attack. Expect goals.

    Bayern host Cologne with all eyes once again on Lukas Podolski. He infuriated his current employers with his celebrating with the Cologne fans after scoring in Bayern's 3-0 win at the Müngersdorfer and later secured a deal to return to the club he clearly loves and is loved at. With Luca Toni injured - and bang out of form - Podolski is in line for a rare start, although Jurgen Klinsmann's bizarre preference for Landon Donovan may scupper that yet. On Sunday, Leverkusen, in bewilderingly inconsistent form, take on Hamburg who have Ivica Olic back from his four-game suspension and Mladen Petric from his two-game ban. That'll be a worry for Bruno Labbadia and his charges. Leverkusen are equally able to score a dozen and ship just as many. Again, this could be a goal-fest.

    Should Karlsruhe beat Eintracht, the Frankfurters will be sucked right into the mire at the bottom and KSC did beat high-flying Hamburg last week, so that could be an interesting one. Bochum pulled themselves out of the bottom three with their win over neighbours Schalke last week and would go above Arminia with a win in Bielefeld. And there's another big one down at the bottom where Hannover travel to Monchengladbach. Should Hannover win, they'd give themselves a bit of breathing space, while Gladbach - improved lately - would put themselves right back in it. So that'll be a draw.

    Tuesday, 17 February 2009

    Superliga Round 18: Benfica and Porto keep the pace

    Belenenses 1-2 Sporting CP
    Benfica 3-1 Pacos de Ferreira
    Braga 0-1 Leixoes
    FC Porto 3-1 Rio Ave
    Maritimo 1-0 E. Amadora
    Nacional 3-0 Guimaraes
    Setubal 2-1 Academica
    Trofense 2-2 Naval

    FC Porto remain top of the Superliga by just a point but they left it rather late to beat a Rio Ave side bereft of confidence but with plenty of grit still left as they try and avoid relegation. Porto dominated for long periods yet failed to convert that into goals. Lucho Gonzalez put the Dragons ahead from the penalty spot in the first half and the visitors were lucky to go into the break just one goal down. But a magnificent strike with 20 minutes remaining by Fabio Coentrao stunned the hosts and at one stage looked enough for the bottom side to salvage a point before Ernesto Farias, the Argentine striker who has been more miss than hit during his spell in northern Portugal, struck two quality finishes to ensure Jesualdo Ferreira's men remained top.

    Benfica were made to work hard for their win too, a 3-2 victory over a spirited Pacos de Ferreira. The Mata Real side, who are far from safe from the drop themselves, held out for 69 minutes playing a resolutely stubborn defensive game. The Eagles finally broke the deadlock through the Paraguyan striker Oscar Cardozo, with Ruben Amorim doubling the advantage four minutes later. Striker Ferreira then pulled one back for the visitors before a lovely chip from Angel Di Maria - an Argentinian winger setting tongues wagging in Portugal - restored the 2-goal cushion. It was a tense finale however as Chico Silva once again reduced the arrears and defender Kelly nearly stole a point late on.

    Benfica are three points clear of Leixoes, who won at Braga in an attacking encounter. Both sides had their chances and Braga, in good form, will be rueing their wastefulness as, in the 79th minute, home defender Freachaut headed a Jean Sony cross into his own net. Sporting sit fourth on goal difference after a a frantic finish to their game across the city at Belenenses. substitute Marcelo put Jaime Pacheco’s team into the lead early in the second half. But Helder Postiga came off the bench and proved decisive, setting up a goal for Simon Vukcevic with 17 minutes remaining and scoring the second himself shortly afterwards which could prove vital for Paolo Bento's men.

    Elsewhere, Setubal scored an important victory at home to Academica which lifts them up to 13th, Trofense and Naval played out a 2-2 draw and Nacional breezed past Guimaraes, a win that very much keeps alive their European ambitions.

    Monday, 16 February 2009

    Hertha forge ahead: Bundesliga reviews

    Hoffenheim 1-4 Leverkusen
    Bochum 2-1 Schalke
    Cologne 0-0 Karlsruhe
    Bremen 1-1 Monchengladbach
    Hannover 3-3 Stuttgart
    Eintracht 0-2 Wolfsburg
    Hertha 2-1 Bayern
    Dortmund 1-1 Energie
    Hamburg 2-0 Arminia

    New leaders in Germany where Hoffenheim's iffy form finally sees them knocked off their lofty perch after a tubbing from Leverkusen - their first defeat at home all season. Leverkusen are now right in the mix at the sharp end, but their up and down form must be frustrating their fans and management alike. If only they were able to go on something like a run. Patrick Helmes got two, opening the scoring just three minutes in, with Simon Rolfes and Gonzalo Castro getting the others. Hoffenheim had just Sejad Salihovic's penalty to show for it and Ralf Rangnick now faces his first major test in charge in attempting to stop the rot. With Hoffenheim messing it up, Hertha emerged as the new leaders after they beat Bayern 2-1. Deploying Josip Simunic as Luca Toni's shadow - an odd tactic as the big Italian striker is more than capable of messing up without the presence of a burly Croatian marker - it was Andriy Voronin again who proved the difference, scoring both goals. Miroslav Klose did equalise for Bayern on the hour, but Voronin's second 13 minutes from time was enough. Jurgen Klinsmann tried his usual substitutions, bringing on Tim Borowski who has dug him out of many holes already this season, but perhaps there's more to management than just sending for Borowski when you're in trouble.

    That leaves Bayern in fourth as Hamburg won at home to Arminia to go third. Hamburg struggled in the attacking third without Mladen Petric, but went ahead through Piotr Trochowski's booming 30-yard free-kick. Bielefeld had a great chance to draw level from the penalty spot, but Frank Rost saved from Artur Wichniarek and, five minutes later, Ivica Olic headed across goal for Paolo Guerrero to score.

    Schalke lost again, this time to Bochum - just their third win of the season which pulls them out of the bottom three. Schalke went ahead when Kevin Kuranyi was johnny on the spot as Daniel Fernandez spilled Halil Altintop's free-kick right at his feet. After the same two combined to go close on the half hour, Bochum responded with a goal of their own from former Schalke man Mimoun Azaouagh. Christoph Dabrowski put Bochum ahead on the hour and they held on for the win despite Christian Pander striking a post with a free-kick. Bochum are now one of three clubs on 17 points, but go ahead of both Energie and Karlsruhe on goal difference. They both drew, Karlsruhe 0-0 Cologne where not much happen and Energie 1-1 away at Dortmund - a much better result. Cottbus went ahead through Atan Cagdas, reacting quickest when Ervin Skela's shot came back off a post. Alex Frei equalised from the penalty spot five minutes later when Cagdas gave away a silly foul. Despite dominating possession, Dortmund didn't test Gerhard Tremmel often enough and they couldn't force a winner. Just to cap it all, Lee Young-Pyo managed to get himself sent off in stoppage time for a crude challenge on Savo Pavicevic. Gladbach also drew, but remain four off the pace at the bottom after a 1-1 draw with Bremen. Werder had over 30 efforts on goal compared to just six for Gladbach, but only had Claudio Pizarro's 76th minute goal to show for their dominance, the Peruvian heading home from Mesut Ozil's corner. The lead lasted just three minutes when Marko Marin's free-kick was turned home by Michael Bradley.

    Hannover's draw with Stuttgart moves them ahead of Eintracht, losers at home to Wolfsburg. For the second straight week, Stuttgart featured in a six-goal thriller. Mario Gomez put them ahead early and Martin Lanig doubled the lead on 22. Kiri Stajner got one back before the break and Jacek Krzynowek equalised shortly after it. Five minutes from time, Hannover thought they'd won it with Mikael Forssell's goal, but two minutes later, Tomas Hitzlsperger smacked home another one to split the points. Wolfsburg had the better of the game at the Commerzbank Arena, but struggled to convert pressure without the prolific Grafite up front. Edin Dzeko filled in and put Felix Magath's side in front on nine minutes and their second goal on 66 minutes came after a spell of Eintracht pressure with chances wasted. Marcel Schaefer's free-kick was adjudged to have been handled in the box and Zvjezdan Misimovic converted the penalty.

    Serie A Round 24: Inter Grab Derby victory as Juve flounder

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

    A breathless Milan derby delivered on its billing as game of the week as Internazionale overcame their great rivals to extend their lead at the top of Serie A to 9 points. What was refreshing about this derby, in contrast to previous skirmishes between these two illustrious sides, was the level of respect shown between players - There were very few nasty tackles, incidences of play-acting or petulant behaviour which so blight 'big' premiership fixtures. In the end, Carlo Ancelloti's side were overcome by a more pragmatic, dynamic team in Jose Mourinho's Inter.

    Inter took the lead midway through the first half when Adriano, who I have labelled in the past a waste of talent and oxygen, headed a Maicon cross onto his arm and past Abbiati. As an Inter fan I am freely admitting this goal should not have stood - the impact of ball on arm, however unintentional, crucially causes the ball to deviate goalwards and Abbiati, the only Rossoneri player to protest, has a right to feel aggrieved. He could do little about Inter's second, however, a consumate finish from Dejan Stankovic after the Serbian had missed a sitter earlier in the half. Milan, though competing throughout, failed to create anything of note in the first 45 but came out with renewed purpose in the second half. Alexandre Pato, the solitary youngster in an ageing side, duly obliged in pulling a goal back and Filipo Inzaghi, on for the ineffectual (and injured) David Beckham, had a goal correctly chalked off for offside before missing a gilt-edged chance to level late on.

    For Milan, their ageing defence simply couldn't cope with the intensity and pace of Adriano and Ibrahimovic. Ronaldinho, shouldering the creative burden with Kaka out, had Esteban Cambiasso snapping at his heels the whole game and, while Pirlo and Pato were exceptional, in the end Mourinho's more counter-attacking, disciplined approach came out on top.

    Juventus fell further behind the Nerazzuri after being held to a 1-1 draw by Sampdoria in a frustrating sunday afternoon in Turin. Gianpaolo Pazzini gave the visitors a first half lead only for Amauri to level with a brave header for his 12th of the season. Alessandro Del Piero struck the bar and then the post with the same free-kick and the Gobbini could not find a way through, further jeopardising their title chances.

    Comeback of the week goes to Fiorentina, who came from three goals down to record a point in a pulsating match against Genoa at the Estadio Luigi Ferrari. The Grifone had raced into a seemingly unassailable lead through ex-Barcelona midfielder Thiago Motta, Raffaelle Palladino and Diego Milito (The Prince recording his 15th of the season) and even had time for Giuseppe Biava to be sent off in between. The viola looked dead and buried only for Mutu to record a hat-trick inside 20 second half minutes, his first from the penalty spot, to rescue a draw that keeps Cesare Prandelli's team a point ahead of Genoa in fourth.

    Roma's great 2009 was brought to an abrupt halt by Gigi Del Neri's Atalanta - a tricky side at home as regular Euroballs readers will note - with a 3-0 hammering. All the goals came in a quick-fire second half spell during which Danielle Capelli fired home the first before Cristiano Doni, the veteran playmaker still doing the business at 35, showed skill and precision for a brace before Simone Perotta capped Luciano Spalleti's miserable afternoon by getting his marching orders from the referee.

    Napoli were unable to capitalise on this slip-up by being held at home by Bologna. Marco Di Vaio hit his 16th of the season for the visitors after Christian Maggio had earlier put Napoli ahead, in a result that leaves Edy Reja's side in 10th, a far cry from their position at Christmas. Beneficiaries here were Cagliari, who moved to 7th following a 2-0 win over Lecce. Fini and Matri scoring either side of half time to condemn Lecce to a third straight loss and strengthen the Sardinian's European ambitions. Ambitions fading fast for Lazio as they were held at home by Torino; Udinese, who have stopped their rot, could not find their way past a stubborn Siena side even after Antonio Di Natale had grabbed an equaliser; And draws for Chievo and Reggina do little for their survival prospects. Its getting tight down at the bottom with 6 points seperating Sampdoria in 15th from Chievo in 19th.

    La Liga Round 23: Raul record helps to close gap

    Atletico Madrid 1 - 1 Getafe C.F
    Deportivo La Coruna 0 - 0 Osasuna
    Espanyol 0 - 2 Sevilla
    Sporting de Gijón 0 - 4 Real Madrid
    Athletic Bilbao 1 - 1 Recreativo Huelva
    Almeria 3 - 2 Valladolid
    C.D Numancia 0 - 1 Mallorca
    Racing Santander 1 - 1 Villarreal
    Real Betis Balompié 2 - 2 Barcelona
    Valencia 1 - 1 Málaga

    Real Madrid breezed past Sporting Gijon to close the gap at the top to a mere 10 points (snigger) and Raul also scored twice to break Di Stefano's league record for Real Madrid, a great achievement for the number seven. Sporting were outclassed, offering little resistance as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar also recorded his first Merengues goal. Juande Ramos once again scored a clean sheet, his 8th consecutive performance as such, and his side did not seem affected at all by the absence of Arjen Robben. In his place stepped Marcelo, who looked far more comfortable in a more advanced position than he ever did at left-back earlier in the season.

    The gap is closed because on Saturday Barcelona recorded something of a surprise draw at Betis. Paco Chaparro's men, buoyed by their derby victory last week, raced into a two goal lead through Melli and ex-Liverpool winger Mark Gonzalez. Samuel Eto'o scored twice, including from the spot, two level things up but it showed that Barcelona are not infallible, especially when Messi and Henry don't start. Both sides had chances to win but Ricardo was in excellent form between the sticks for Betis and a draw was the least they deserved.

    Sevilla left it late to record an important win at Espanyol which alleviates some of the pressure on Manolo Jiminez. Los Rojiblancos had lost their previous three games including last week's painful derby defeat, but they were able to somewhat exorcise those demons here. They were helped by an Espanyol side whose profligacy seems to know no bounds. Luis Garcia, the striker who hasn't scored since October, was the main offender missing a hatful of chances to leave Mauricio Pochettino exasperated and still looking for his first win in charge at the fifth time of asking. Two goals in the last six minutes from Fredi Kanoute had an air of inevitability about them and Los Pericos are winless in 14 and as a result, finish the weekend bottom of the table, 3 points adrift.

    Valencia and Malaga played out a draw, David Villa gave the home side the lead before Raul Albiol put through his own net to equalise. Villarreal and Racing also drew, Zigic gave the verdiblancos the lead only for Santi Cazorla to equalise just before half time. Atletico Madrid were foiled at home to Getafe, Diego Forlan had given Atletico the lead (his third in two) only for Albin to level with two minutes to go. Its a result that means Valencia and Villarreal are level on points in 4th and 5th, Atletico and Malaga two points behind and Sevilla on 41 points in 3rd.

    I did say in my preview that Hugo Sanchez can't keep relying on Uche and Negredo to bail his side out but it seems he can after all, so I apologise for wasting your time. Valladolid raced into a two goal lead in Andalucia only for Crusat, Uche and, yes, Negredo to capture three points that means Almeria jump to 13th. To the surprise of absolutely no-one, Deportivo and Osasuna played out a dour 0-0 draw and Mallorca's win in Numancia takes them to third bottom level with Osasuna with Recreativo on 25.

    Racism row overshadows Lyon win: Ligue 1 reviews

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

    A Le Havre fan was arrested at the Stade Gerland for directing racist abuse to Lyon's Ghanaian defender John Mensah. Whatever was said obviously had an effect on Mensah as the big feller, upset and frustrated, managed to get himself booked twice and, consequentially, sent off. Two bad, clumsy fouls did for him and he looked like he was elsewhere. It all spoiled what should have been a good day for Lyon as they won at a canter. Ederson, Abdul Keita and Juninho got the goals for the champions with Loic Nestor getting one back late on for the north coast side. They remain four clear, but now it's PSG who move into second place following their win over St Etienne. All three goals came in the space of ten first half minutes. Mamadou Sakho put the Parisians in front before Dimitri Payet equalised. Jeremy Clément put PSG back in front as Ludo Giuly impressing in the build up.

    Bordeaux lost ground in a disappointing draw with Grenoble and slip to fifth as a result. Grenoble were happy to soak up the pressure and try to hit on the counter, though they're just not good enough to make it work effectively. Marouane Chamakh scored at the right end this week in putting Bordeaux ahead, but Ulrich Ramé's mistake let Grenoble in. A poor clearance fell to Laurent Courtois whose shot hit the post, fell to Bostjan César and he stuck it home. It could have got worse for Bordeaux late on when Sofiane Feghouli's shot came back off the bar. Marseille were rather let off by Monaco as the home side wasted a host of chances and failed to turn their early dominance into goals. And as so often happens, back came Marseille to win it with Bakari Koné's goal. Marseille finished the stronger and should have added more goals with Brandao and Mathieu Valbuena wasting good chances late on. Toulouse continue to keep the pressure on with another win, 2-1 away at Sochaux. They came from a goal down after Rabiu Afolabi opened the scoring in the 12th minute, but were back on terms when Jacques Faty put through his own net just before the break. Inevitably, it was André-Pierre Gignac who won it with his 15th of the season, beating Faty en route to goal, rounding off a miserable afternoon for the Sochaux defender.

    Auxerre were the big winners down at the bottom with a win over form side Lille, despite Thomas Kahlenberg's dismissal. Two goals around the half hour mark from Ireneusz Jelen and Kamel Chafni did the damage and Jelen's return to the side really has helped their attempts to get out of bother. Kahlenberg got a straight red for an ugly challenge on Mathieu Debuchy and coach Jean Fernandez was also ordered from the sidelines for protesting. And yet Auxerre still looked more likely to go on and get more with Jelen forcing a fine save late on from Gregory Malicki. Valenciennes picked up another point as they continued their unbeaten run. Rafael Schmitz put them ahead against Nantes volleyed in on 14 minutes, but Ivan Klasnic equalised on the hour mark, beating two men on a mazy run to the goal before smashing it home.

    Caen also picked up a point, mildly averting their slide, as they drew at home to Lorient. Steve Savidan got their goal and he'll have to do more of that if Caen are to avoid trouble. Rafik Saïfi equalised before Lorient were reduced to ten with Benjamin Genton's second yellow in stoppage time. Rennes aren't going so well any more and again drew, Jimmy Briand rescuing a point two minutes from time after Youssouf Hadji had put Nancy ahead ten minutes into the second time and Nice got back on track in beating Le Mans. They came from behind with Mahamane Traore snatching the winner in stoppage time after Emerse Fae had equalised Thorstein Helstad's opener.

    AZ don't win! Eredivisie reviews

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

    AZ in not won shocker! Not only that, but neither Moussa Dembele or Mounir El Hamdaoui got on the scoresheet. It looked like the leaders were on their way to yet another routine win after Gill Swerts headed home from a corner after PSV were caught dallying in defence and Maarten Martens made it 2-0 following up Demy de Zeeuw's saved penalty. Danny Koevermans, in the side in place of the suspended Ola Toivonen, got one back five minutes after the restart, heading in from a tight angle and, with PSV dominating, he equalised seven minutes from time, profiting from some unusually lax defending. The lead is, therefore, back down to nine points, though that's still massive. Twente continue to lead what chase there is with a win over ten-man Volendam. The bottom side did lead early on, Paul de Lange converting a sixth minute penalty, but were reduced a man just quarter of an hour later when Gerry Koning picked up a second yellow. Marko Arnautovic got Twente back into it, waltzing through a defence not yet reorganised following the dismissal and Blaise N'Kufo smashed home a penalty after Arnautovic had been held back in the area. The woodwork took a pounding from both sides, but 2-1 it remained.

    Ajax got back on track with a win over big rivals Feyenoord in Sunday's early game. With both sides in poor form, it took an age to get going, but Ajax had the trump card in Luis Suarez. Forget the first half - that shouldn't be hard. Early in the second, Thomas Vermaelen headed home as Henk Timmer in the Feyenoord goal was finally beaten. He had a superb game, though he had the frame of the goal to thank on five occasions for keeping his side in it. Feyenoord offered little and their task was rendered impossible when Dwight Tiendalli was sent off eight minutes from the end. Ajax took advantage when Suarez - head and shoulders above anyone else on the field - set up Urby Emanuelson in stoppage time to seal it.

    The league table changed little as a result of the weekend's action. De Graafschap had a one man advantage for 75 minutes against Den Haag and still ended up losing. Bery Powell got the decisive goal just before the break. Roda also had a man sent off as they went down to Nourdin Boukhari's goal for NAC. Utrecht kept up their European challenge on Friday night with a 2-0 win in Tilburg: Willem II are on the slide. A draw helps neither NEC or Heerenveen in their pursuit of European football next season while Sparta will be happier with a point than Vitesse from their drab goalless draw. Two goals in three first-half minutes were enough for Groningen to beat Heracles.

    Saturday, 14 February 2009

    Ligue 1 week 24

    Valenciennes v Nantes
    Caen v Lorient
    Le Mans v Nice
    Rennes v Nancy
    Auxerre v Lille
    Bordeaux v Grenoble
    PSG v St Etienne
    Lyon v Le Havre
    Sochaux v Toulouse
    Monaco v Marseille

    Game of the week this week is in the nation's capital where Paris St Germain welcome St Etienne to the Parc des Princes. Les Verts can score goals and also concede a lot of them too while PSG are in tip-top form and scoring for fun. This one promises goals and PSG are the side now emerging to challenge Lyon. Bordeaux and Marseille both have winnable games - Marseille away in the Principality where Monaco are struggling and Bordeaux at home to Grenoble who are on the slide - as they keep up their pursuit, but after a rocky time at the Gerland, how better for Lyon to prove to their home fans that they're not just an away side with a beating of Le Havre? The northerners remain rooted to the bottom despite an improved showing in recent weeks, but Lyon are breathing easier with a four-point gap back to the rest and the pressure they were under is lifted and should see Claude Puel's side batter Le Havre.

    The other real challengers, Toulouse, are at Sochaux on Sunday. Les Violets' goals should see them through here against an unpredictable Sochaux. The form side in the league is Lille and they travel to Auxerre who are in trouble. A win last week for Auxerre lifted the immediate gloom surrounding the club, but they remain in big bother and Lille, chasing European football, are just the sort of side to bring it back.

    Valenciennes' revival looks set to continue with a home game against Nantes. Suddenly they look the best of the bunch down at the bottom, which heaps pressure on everyone else. Nantes themselves are in danger of getting dragged into it down there and this could be a tight game. Caen are sliding down the table and a visit by Lorient isn't what they need to turn around their fortunes. Lorient have slipped a bit lately, but this looks like a banker for them. Rennes, like Lorient, are chasing a European place and they have a tough game against Nice this week that should be quite a spectacle and Rennes host Nancy with the home side looking to get back on the horse after a reverse at Le Havre last week.

    There are three games in midweek as well as the fixture calendar unwinds. Le Mans host Lille and Nancy welcome Nice to the Marcel Picot, but the big one is Valenciennes v Caen by which time the home side could be out of the relegation places.

    La Liga Round 23 Preview

    Real Betis vs Barcelona
    Deportivo vs Osasuna
    Valencia vs Malaga

    Almeria vs Valladolid
    Athletic vs Recreativo
    Sporting vs Real Madrid
    Racing vs Villarreal
    Numancia vs Mallorca
    Espanyol vs Sevilla
    Atletico Madrid vs Getafe

    With Barcelona and Real Madrid safely ensconced in the top two positions, the race for the other two champions league spots has become the main focus of attention, with several sides in the mix and in varying degrees of form. On Saturday, Unai Emery’s Valencia – who are once again hitting the headlines for their financial woes, having only part-paid their squad for the month of January – welcome Malaga to the Mestalla. Antonio Tapia’s men are a well-organised, free-scoring outfit who showed true character to come from two goals down to defeat Almeria last weekend. They’ve also lost just once in their last 8 games, a run of results which means only two points and three league positions separate them in seventh from Valencia in fourth. Lose Che, meanwhile, have been dumped out of the Copa Del Rey and have lost 4 out of 6 in all competitions, including last weekend’s loss at Osasuna. Despite having a good home record, this should be a close encounter and is my game of the week.

    Elsewhere on Saturday, Barcelona visit Real Betis who have been enjoying a week of understandable elation following their derby win at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan. However, they’ll need to get their act together for the Verdiblancos have the worst home record in La Liga, and they’ll be playing the team with the best. It should be fairly routine for Guardiola’s men, even with many of the squad backing up from midweek international duty. Completing Saturday’s line-up is Osasuna’s visit to the Riazor. Camacho’s men are in good nick and have dragged themselves out of the bottom three while Depor have suffered recently against the bigger sides. Osasuna, though, are the only side in the division without an away win and you’d think they’re unlikely to beat that in Galicia, a traditionally tough place for visiting sides.

    On Sunday, Real Madrid visit Sporting Gijon, a real Jekyll-and-hyde team who are still without a league draw this season. Under Ramos, El Real play a solid, if rather functional, game which isn’t winning fans in the media but is proving undeniably effective in picking up points. Raul will have another chance to break Di Stefano’s record and this could very well be where he does so. Villarreal, who are proving impossible to predict having picked up 8 points from a possible 18 since the turn of the year, visit a Racing side who in the last two outings have been the victims of narrow defeats against the top two, although their away form far outstrips their record at El Sardinero. Athletic, who suffered a setback in their UEFA Cup ambitions last week at Valladolid, are six points off the final European spot but will fancy their chances of gaining ground at home against a Recre side who, after three wins in January, are still looking nervously down the table.Sevilla, arguably the league’s most scrutinized side due to their poor form, visit Espanyol in what is a must-win game for Manolo Jiminez if he has any ambitions to keep his job. The hosts are in trouble too, without a win in 13 matches. It promises to be an unpretty encounter at the Montjuic. Atletico host Getafe in what you might call the ‘other’ Madrid derby.

    Abel Resino started his tenure with a bang last week and, although Getafe are no mugs, you’d expect a newly revitalized strike partnership of Aguero/Forlan to be too much for Victor Munoz’s men. The league’s bottom side, Mallorca, visit Numancia in what is a must-win game for both sides and Almeria, still smarting from last week’s events, host a buoyant Valladolid. Hugo Sanchez has had a mixed start to his Almeria career and his side are only four points above the drop zone – he can’t keep relying on Uche and Negredo to score his team out of trouble.

    Serie A Round 24 Preview

    Saturday February 14
    17:00 Lazio v Torino
    19:30 Napoli v Bologna

    Sunday February 15
    14:00 Chievo v Catania
    14:00 Genoa v Fiorentina
    14:00 Cagliari v Lecce
    14:00 Reggina v Palermo
    14:00 Atalanta v Roma
    14:00 Juventus v Sampdoria
    14:00 Siena v Udinese
    19:30 Internazionale v Milan

    So, its Derby della Madonnina weekend as Internazionale and AC Milan face off at the San Siro with Jose Mourinho’s men leading their great rivals by 8 points with a little over half of the season played. Its been far from a procession for the Nerazzuri in recent weeks with hiccups at Atalanta and home to Cagliari and Torino but AC Milan are not faring much better, held by rock-bottom Reggina last weekend. The Rossoneri, though, have got the better of their rivals in recent derbies and this one could genuinely go either way. Javier Zanetti will be leading Inter in his 35th Milan derby, a magnificent achievement whichever team you follow. David Beckham is expected to start for the ‘visitors’ and for this reason (and, sadly, it seems this reason alone) the game is broadcast live on Sunday on BBC3. Prime the armchair, collect the beers and enjoy.

    On Saturday, Lazio, who have collected just a point from their last 5 fixtures, host Torino at the Olimpico. Walter Novellino’s men are three points adrift of safety and have a severe goalscoring problem – their top scorer is Rolando Bianchi with four – and a miserable away record that reads 0 wins, 4 draws and 7 defeats. Inspite of the Biancocelesti’s poor form, this should be 3 points if they still harbour European ambitions. Later that night Napoli, in poor form themselves, host Bologna who, try as they might, cannot quite pull away from the bottom three even though Marco Di Vaio, the league’s top scorer, is doing his level best. Napoli are still a force to be reckoned with at the San Paolo (1 defeat in 11) so should pick up a much-needed win.

    On Sunday, Juventus will look to capitalise on any Lombardian slip-up by beating Sampdoria at home. Rainieri’s men continue to lack conviction in their title challenge and are 7 points off the pace but are still in better form than Sampdoria who are having a miserable time. The Genovese club have picked up just 1 victory and 6 goals in 11 away games. By contrast Roma are in superb form, probably the form team in Italy having lost just once in 14 matches. They visit Atalanta, themselves in decent touch and a tough side to beat at home – as Inter and Napoli have discovered. A win for Spalletti's men could propel them to fourth position.

    Two sides in the mix for the Champions league meet at the Luigi Ferraris. Genoa and Fiorentina are seperated by just a point in fifth and fourth respectively, with two of the league’s best frontmen in Gilardino and Milito leading superbly. Form would suggest a narrow Fiorentina victory but the Grifone have, rather quietly, developed an unbeaten home record that only Inter can match, so this is a very tough one to call. Any other weekend, this would be my game of the week. Elsewhere a resurgent Udinese visit Siena, Catania and Chievo, two sides who have a problem closing games out, meet in Verona and Cagliari host Lecce with the Sardinians looking to carry on their rather splendid run of form in 2009. Finally Palermo, who are 5 points away from the European spots but who have one just once in their last 9 away outings, visit the bottom side, Reggina.

    Superliga Round 18 Preview

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

    After their slightly fortunate draw in Lisbon last weekend, FC Porto have a one-point lead over Benfica in the title race and welcome third-bottom Rio Ave to the Estádio do Dragão this weekend. Jesualdo Ferreira’s men are still, you feel, far from top gear but the way French full-back Aly Cissokho has settled in following his January move from Setubal has been one unanimous positive. The visitors, meanwhile, have scored just 11 goals all season but they bounced back from a run of 5 straight defeats with a home win over Academica last weekend.

    In Lisbon, Quique Sanchez Flores’s side welcome Pacos de Ferreira, whose problem is not so much scoring (Brazilian striker William is the second top scorer in the Superliga) as conceding – no team has shipped more than their 29 goals. One win in their last six means they are unlikely to cause Benfica too many problems as O Glorioso look to keep pace with the leaders.

    Braga, fresh from turning over Sporting Clube de Portugal in their own backyard last weekend, welcome Leixoes to the Axa Arena as 4th plays fifth. Braga have one of the best strike partnerships in Portugal with Colombian Wason Renteira (on loan from Porto) and Cameroon’s Albert Meyong both in good nick. Leixoes, on the other hand, have hit something of a wall lately having collected 4 successive 0-0 draws before last weekend’s 2-0 beating of Trofense. Braga have an excellent opportunity to leapfrog their opponents.

    Sporting, meanwhile, must regroup and make the short journey to Belenenses, a team that held Benfica 0-0 back in January but otherwise have a fairly dismal home record. Nacional are hot on Braga’s heels for that final European spot and will look to maintain the pressure at home to Guimares; Maritimo in 7th play Estrela Amadora in 9th; Bottom side Setubal host Academica; and Trofense host Naval.

    Friday, 13 February 2009

    Eredivisie round 23

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

    Big game of the week in the Netherlands would normally be Ajax v Feyenoord. Reason dictates that this one kicks off at midday on Sunday, but with both sides in rotten, stinking, majorly whiffy form, this could be a battle of attrition. Instead, attention turns to a resurgent PSV at home to runaway leaders AZ. Louis van Gaal's side haven't been troubled for months, but with PSV banging them in from every angle at the moment, this could be the week. 15 goals in four games is a lot, though AZ seem to just ride it all out whatever. No Ola Toivonen for the Eindhoveners. That could be the difference.

    Should Ajax feck it up again, Twente should surely forge further ahead into second with a win over Volendam. Though the cellar dwellers have improved of late, they were belted by PSV last week and Steve McClaren's men should again be too strong. If Volendam are to get out of it, then it'll be points picked up elsewhere that will do it for them.

    Den Haag against De Graafschap will be a draw. Neither side has the gumption to win this relegation six-pointer. Utrecht go to Tilburg to face Willem II on Friday, but neither club shows the necessary to make the European places. Utrecht was where one Tony Adams did his apprenticeship. Don't be surprised if, like fellow Englander McClaren, he chooses to do his rehab in the lowlands. Sparta have a tough game at home to Vitesse, rampant against Ajax last week, Groningen welcome Heracles to the Euroborg with goals promised and, at Nijmegen, NEC face off against Heerenveen. That could be a super game. Equally, it could be rubbish.

    Bundesliga round 20

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

    Hoffenheim have a chance to forge ahead as they're involved in the Friday night game in the Bundesliga, at home to European hopefuls Bayer. The SAP backed side have proved strong, but recent form is shaky and they're drawing too many at the moment. Thanks to the combined incompetence of the sides around them, they're still top, but Leverkusen will fancy a piece of them tonight. Carlos Edurado is back from suspension for Ralf Rangnick's men after his set-to with Ivica Olic, and a defeat for Leverkusen will all but see them out of the running for a UEFA Cup spot.

    Olic too is back for Bayern as they face off against fellow front runners Hertha in what is possibly game of the week. The Bavarians got back on track with the win over Dortmund last week, but this promises to be a tougher test in the capital. Luca Toni. What to say? He was rubbish again for his country on Tuesday and looks like the shambling twin brother of the man who banged in all those goals for La Viola in Italy not so long ago. The ruminations over Franck Ribéry's future doesn't help either. Hertha are without a few key players and this is a tough test for Lucien Favre's side.

    Also up at the pointy end, Hamburg host Arminia Bielefeld on Sunday, though Martin Jol is sweating on the availability of Marko Pantelic. Sent off last week, SV appealed and the outcome is yet to be decided. Dortmund face Energie at the Westfalonstadion hoping to get back up there. Energie have improved, but still struggle away and Dortmund's encouraging, counterattacking performance will hearten those fans in the Ruhr valley. The other side of the river, Schalke have their problems, but should have few troubles in getting past Bochum. Stuttgart face last week's big losers Hannover and are scoring far too many goals for it to be an issue. Bremen, meanwhile, face Gladbach. While a point against the league leaders was a decent result for them, doing it two weeks running is a tough task and Bremen are hot favourites here.

    Eintracht face Wolfsburg in what should be a goal frenzy. With the likes of Grafite on one side and Nikos Liberopoulos on the other, and with the Volkswagen-owned side yet to win on their travels, this could be an interesting one. The Frankfurters need the points to pull clear of trouble with Felix Magath needing points to maintain a UEFA Cup spot. The big game at the bottom end sees Cologne host Karlsruhe, the latter being the big winners last week with a highly unexpected win over Hamburg. With two poor defences on show, this could be another high scoring match.

    Monday, 9 February 2009

    La Liga Round 22: Betis claim derby spoils

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

    On Saturday, Real Madrid squeezed past an obdurate Racing side in a win that keeps them rooted in second but does little to dispel the doubters in the media who have quickly labelled Juande Ramos's team boring. Raul missed the chance to break Alfredo Di Stefano's goal record in front of his home fans, instead it was his Argentine strike partner Gonzalo Higuain who did the honours 4 minutes after half time.

    Barcelona closed the gap back to 12 points on Sunday evening with a serene win over Sporting Gijon at the Camp Nou. Samuel Eto'o's embarrasment of riches for service - Thierry Henry on the left, Lionel Messi on the right - set up both of his goals in the first half before Dani Alves smashed home from an acute angle to put the result beyond doubt. A smart finish from Gijon midfielder Kike Mateo meant little and Sporting drop to 12th - only Numancia have suffered more defeats which must surely be a concern to Manolo Preciado. His team have, incredibly, yet to draw a league match this season.

    Elsewhere, on Saturday Real Betis heaped further pressure on the beleagured Manolo Jiminez with a pulsating derby win away at Sevilla. Ricardo Oliveira, back for his second spell at the club, scored the decisive second goal after Sergio Garcia had headed Betis in front 20 minutes earlier. Fredi Kanoute scored a consolation goal but it could do nothing to stop a first win in the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan for Betis in 13 years, and almost certainly grants a stay of execution for their under-pressure coach Paco Chaparro. Thats 3 straight defeats for Sevilla - will Jose Maria Del Nido, one of the more patient chairman in La Liga, feel compelled to act?

    Valencia missed out on the chance to overtake Sevilla in the table as they went down to a 1-0 defeat to Osasuna, a solitary Miguel Flano goal enough to derail Los Che's weekend. Valencia had their chances but paid a hefty price for their profligacy. Villarreal beat Numancia 2-1 to give themselves a fighting chance of top four status, thanks to a welcome double from Giuseppe Rossi - one of the few highlights of an otherwise disjointed season.

    It was a case of the new manager having a big impact for Atletico Madrid, as Abel Resino celebrated his first game in charge with a comfortable 3-0 win at Recreativo Huelva. Sergio Aguero certainly looked happier, scoring one and creating two for strike partner Diego Forlan to propel Atletico back into the European spots. Malaga sit in 7th after a thrilling 3-2 win over Almeria. Salva Ballesta scored 2 second half goals to cap a memorable second half comeback from Antonio Tapia's men. Almeria had led 2-0 through first half goals from Uche and Negredo (his 11th of a very productive season) but Malaga fought back. Elsewhere Valladolid ended Athletic Bilbao's recent good run, Getafe and Espanyol played out a 1-1 draw and there was a similar result in the Mallorca-Deportivo match.

    That means Mallorca are the new bottom team in La Liga, with Espanyol second and Numancia third bottom. Osasuna sit 17th, with Almeria and Recreativo four points further up with 24. I predict it to get tighter as the season progresses.

    Serie A Round 23 Review: Milan slip up

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

    On Saturday the two Milan clubs experienced contrasting fortunes. Reggina took the lead at the San Siro thanks to Davide Di Gennaro's left foot strike, only for his team-mate Matej Krajcik to let the side down by up-ending Alexandre Pato in the penalty area in the second half. Kaka duly converted to score his 11th league goal of the season but a draw was all Milan could manage, a result that 8 points behind their biggest rivals going into next weekend's derby.

    Inter performed far better down south, scoring a comfortable 3-0 win at Lecce thanks to goals from Ibrahimovic (his 14th of the campaign), Luis Figo (yes, for some reason he is still there) and a fine header late on from Dejan Stankovic. Jose Mourinho's men seem to have overcome their short form blip, but nerazzuri fans will still be nervous ahead of next week's clash as the Milan derby is not a fixture they have fared well in past seasons.

    Juventus moved back into second following a last-gasp victory over Catania in Sicilly. Juve took the lead when Vincenzo Iaquinta converted Camoranesi's free-kick but he was sent off just 10 minutes later for a second bookable offence, and Catania looked to take advantage as their Japanese striker, Takayuki Morimoto levelled matters from close range. A draw looked likely as both sides looked hard to break down, only for Christian Poulson, who has flattered to deceive since his summer move from Sevilla, popped up in stoppage time to scramble home a winner after some rather panicky home defending. The gap between them and the leaders is 7 points.

    Roma's sensational run continues as they beat Genoa 3-0 at the Olimpico, but the scoreline is unfair on the Grifone who competed for most of the game but were in the end beaten by a far more ruthless Giallorossi. Cicinho's 26th minute opener was enough to give them a first half lead before Mirko Vucinic's sensational left-foot volley doubled the home side's advantage after a great lung-busting run from Daniele De Rossi. Julio Baptista completed the win with a marvellous third and it means Luciano Spalleti's men are just a point off that decisive fourth spot.

    Fiorentina are the team that currently reside there after a hard-fought, and some might say fortuitous win over Lazio following Alberto Gilardino's late, late winner. It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Biancocelesti who had Lorenzo Di Silvestri sent off. Napoli's dodgy 2009 continues as they went down 2-1 at Palermo, who were inspired by Fabrizio Miccoli. The former Benfica man created both their goals, and Marek Hamsik's splendid strike, his 9th of the campaign, was only a consolation. Udinese after their terrible run are back on the way up, Alexis Sanchez's long-range effort enough to beat Bologna. After an 11-game winless run, the Friuli are back to 12th and have taken 7 points from their last 3 matches.

    Elsewhere Atalanta beat one of the league's form sides, Catania, thanks to a Luca Cigarini strike; Sampdoria and Siena played out an entertaining 2-2 draw at the Luigi Ferrari; And a 1-1 draw between Torino and Chievo has done little to dispel their relegation fears.

    Next week's Milan derby is live on BBC3 and it should be a belter.