• Friday, 27 March 2009

    Still tighter than a mermaid's brassiere: (late) Ligue 1 reviews

    Le Havre 0-3 Bordeaux
    Rennes 0-0 Valenciennes
    Nancy 0-1 Monaco
    Auxerre 2-0 Le Mans
    Nice 2-2 Caen
    Lille 2-1 Grenoble
    Marseille 2-0 Nantes
    Lyon 2-0 Sochaux
    Lorient 3-1 St Etienne
    Toulouse 4-1 PSG

    Lyon still lead by a point, but it's all swirling around below that. Marseille have emerged as the leading contenders over the last two weeks, though they will have to play an upcoming match behind closed doors after the club was punished for their fans continuing to deploy flares around the Vélodrome. No worries on the field. Brandao finally opened his Ligue 1 account for the club following his switch from Shakhtar Donetsk. He got the second after Renato Civelli had headed home under no pressure early in the second half. Nantes are in trouble as a result. Big trouble. Toulouse refuse to lie down and, after banging three past Marseille two weeks ago, stuck four past PSG this week. OK, so the loss to Monaco in between sums things up about their season, but they were irrepresible here. Les Violets were terrific here with Bryan Bergougnoux putting them ahead on just six minutes. André-Pierre Gignac and Moussa Sissoko made it three before half-time. Though Larrys Mabiala got one back, Daniel Braaten completed the job and indulged in a spot of breakdancing by way of celebration. Toulouse go ahead of PSG who slip to sixth from second just two weeks ago. Bordeaux despatched Le Havre thanks in no small part to some more Yoann Gourcuff magic, leaving Girondins third and Le Havre 12 from safety with nine games remaining. They're as good as gone.

    Lyon march on while all around them squabble over the scraps. An early goal from Ederson calmed nerves, though the makeshift defence did wobble at times. Jeremy Toulalan and Mathieu Bodmer formed an unlikely centre-half pairing and Hugo Lloris was called on more than he ought to have been. He did the necessaries though, and Anthony Mounier's 71st minute goal sealed it. All of which has pulled Lille right back into the mix, just four points off the pace. They won again, at home to Grenoble with Michel Bastos's penalty setting them on their way and Robert Vittek making it 2-0 before the break. Grenoble didn't roll over though and fought back in determined fashion, though only had Sandy Paillot's injury time goal to show for it.

    St Etienne are in more trouble than they seem willing to admit, but they still look like they should be on the fringes of the UEFA Cup places. That's the sort of football they play, but it ain't working right now. They need results and not the sort like 3-1 defeats away to Lorient. Lorient had slipped down the table, but this win pulls them out of immediate danger. Two goals in two minutes set them on their way - Morgan Amalfitano and Marama Vahirua the scorers - with Rafik Saifi wrapping it up late on after Yohan Benaloune pulled one back. Monaco are just about safe, put plunged Nancy deeper into the mire with Park Chu-Young's goal enough to win their clash. Le Mans still have a bit of breathing space despite a defeat to Auxerre who now are looking up at the UEFA Cup spots. It was a win designed and executed in Poland, with Ireneusz Jelen and Dariusz Dudka scoring early goals.

    Rennes are just falling away from European contention after a goalless draw with Valenciennes in a game in which both sides were reduced a man. Rennes defender Abdou Mangane saw red for a horror challenge on Jonathan Lacourt just 25 minutes in. Clumsy rather than malicious, Lacourt suffered a double fracture of the ankle and there was a lengthy delay as the stretcher was brought on and the midfielder taken quickly to hospital for immediate surgery. Neither side looked interested after that and it was perfectly understandable as to why. Carlos Sanchez was dismissed for VA in the second half for an ugly, mistimed tackle on Stephane M'Bia, fotunately without injury. Caen are still deep in trouble and haven't won since November. They came within an ace of doing so this week against Nice. Loic Remy put the southerners ahead, but second half goals from Vincent Hognon (an own goal that he could do nothing about) and Nicolas Seube put the Norman side ahead. Gregory Leca was then dismissed, but the ten men held out and looked to have done enough, but a minute from time, David Hellebuyck's free-kick was met on the charge by Olivier Echouafni to break Norman hearts. Caen look doomed.

    Rutten pays the price: (late) Bundesliga reviews

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

    Another week, another defeat for Schalke and, finally, patience has finally run out on Fred Rutten. Andreas Moller had previously gone from his role as sporting director - Oliver Kahn is being lined up for that job - after being accused of overseeing "the most expensively assembled flop" in German history. The straw that broke the camel's back was the 2-1 home defeat to Hamburg, a result which leaves Martin Jol's side right in there at the pointy end. A cagey opening was edged by Hamburg, but after the break, the northerners dominated, though it took a calamitous bit of goalkeeping to help Hamburg into the lead. Manuel Neuer decided to come out for a header, but fluffed it horribly and collided with one of his defenders. The ball dropped invitingly for Paolo Guerrero who walked it in with the debate raging behind him. Guerrero grabbed the second in more stylish fashion before Jefferson Farfan pulled one back, though Frank Rost's reluctance to give the Peruvian forward the ball back led to an unedifying wrestle in the goal which lead to both players being booked. But 2-1 it remained and Rutten paid with his job.

    Bayern remain in the hunt, though they were utterly unconvincing in beating rock bottom Karlsruhe. With Miro Klose and Luca Toni injured, Landon Donovan's loan spell finished and Lukas Podloski seemingly already back in his beloved Cologne, it was left to Argentine nipper José Sosa to tuck home Franck Ribéry's delightful ball through late in the first half. Karlsruhe had keeper Markus Miller to thank for keeping them in it, but they had the bulk of the chances in the second half as misfiring Bayern clung on. Hertha continue to lead, but went down 2-0 in Stuttgart. Andriy Voronin missed a great chance to put Hertha ahead and, once there, you'd fancy they'd hold out. Instead, Stuttgart grabbed two goals in seven second half minutes to win it. Cacau and Sami Khedira got them and Mario Gomez pulled all the strings and could have had a couple himself but for some good defending. Wolfsburg's amazing run goes on, though they didn't have it all their own way against Arminia. Christian Gentner gave the Wolves an early lead, but Bielfeld had chances only to find the outstanding keeper in the league, Diego Benaglio, in top form. Some of his saves were right out of the top drawer and the Swiss is in the running for the player of the year. Make no mistake about that. Inevitably, Wolfsburg them hammered the point home and, almost equally as inevitably, it was Grafite who did with his 18th of the season. Ashkan Dejagah wrapped it up late on. Hoffenheim drew yet again and their title challenge looks all but over. The squad simply isn't there at this point and building for next season and a more concerted effort may now be their priority.

    Bochum won the big game at the bottom thanks to a wonder-strike from Dennis Grote in the first half. Gladbach couldn't find a way through, though shots rained in with Michael Bradley, Tobias Levels and Marko Marin prominent. That gives Bochum a three-point cushion back to the drop zone, leaving Gladbach in it. Cologne look safe after beating Energie, who don't, 2-0 at the Freundschaft. Eintracht took a point from their trip to Leverkusen which helps them a little, but it all but finished Leverkusen as a genuine contender. Dortmund won the battle of the mid-table underachievers through an Alexander Frei penalty. With Schalke showing a ruthless streak in dismissing the manager they pulled all stops out to hire in the summer, Thomas Schaaf will be hoping that his bosses at Bremen are more charitable.

    AZ in no goals shocker: (late) Eredivisie reviews

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

    Just 13 goals in round 28 - a paltry return and just one more than the record low of 12 set a few years ago. It's said that every side has a blip. Barcelona certainly had theirs, Lyon have had more than a few over the past three seasons, but AZ simply haven't. Well, maybe they have when they lost their opening two games, or is this week's insipid 0-0 with Feyenoord what passes for a blip down Alkmaar way? After starting in their cutomary, swaggeringly confident style, it all rather petered out and their play fell apart when they approached the opposition penalty area, perhaps highlighting the importance to their play of the suspended Demy de Zeeuw. Without him, they looked comfortable if unthreatening. Stijn Shaars had a couple of good chances, but the best opportunities went Feyenoord's way with Roy Makaay spurning a glorious first half chance and Luigi Bruins blazing over when found expertly by Makaay late on.

    Twente and Ajax both kept their winning runs going. Groningen were down to ten men very early on after a comical handball by Andreas Granqvist on the edge of his own area. Twente dominated and goals from Blaise N'Kufo and Peter Wiesgerhof were enough to render a late consolation from Marus Berg just that. Ajax had Luis Suarez back to his mercurial best in beating NAC 3-0. He scored the third and was a general nuisance throughout. Ajax have a tradition of goal scoring defenders and full-backs Thomas Vermaelen and Gregory van der Wiel were both on target.

    PSV got back to winning ways in an open game against Vitesse. Ibrahim Afellay had been through a quiet period, but was back to his best in the 2-0 win. Another to have impressed lately has been Ola Toivonen, only arrived from Malmo in January, and those were the two to get the goals in a thoroughly professional display. Heerenveen were tripped up away against De Graafschap who lifted themselves off the bottom in the process. In a game more entertaining than it ought to have been, Heerenveen paid the price for overelaboration and were twice caught on the break, first by on-loan Chelsea striker Ben Sahar and, late on with the visitors pressing, Peter Jungschlager. That dropped Volendam back down to the bottom and they could only manage a goalless draw at home to Utrecht in a game best forgotten. NEC and Willem II also failed to produce a goal at Nijmegen.

    Nine-man Heracles went down by a goal to nil at Sparta. Edouard Duplan got the goal shortly after Mark Looms saw his second yellow and was dismissed and Birger Maertens followed in stoppage time as Sparta eased their worries. Den Haag aren't out of danger after going down in Kerkrade. Goals from Andres Oper and Sekou Cissé helped Roda to a win that keeps them just out of the automatic relegation spots and pull them within two of ADO.

    Monday, 23 March 2009

    La Liga Round 28: Barcelona lamp Malaga

    Villarreal 2-0 Athletic
    Sevilla 4-1 Valladolid

    Barcelona 6-0 Malaga
    Real Madrid 3-0 Almeria
    Mallorca 2-0 Atletico Madrid
    Racing 0-1 Valencia
    Osasuna 1-0 Espanyol
    Getafe 2-1 Recreativo
    Deportivo 1-1 Betis
    Numancia 2-1 Sporting

    As you were up top where all of the sides in the top four achieved convincing victories. On Saturday, second half goals from Santi Cazorla, rifling home Giuseppe Rossi’s pass, and Chilean Mati Fernandez, who scored a lovely late solo goal, gave Villarreal a deserved victory over a gritty Athletic side who lacked cutting edge, and found goalkeeper Diego Lopez in inspired form. The evening’s other game consisted of Fredi Kanoute turning in another inspired performance as Sevilla beat Valladolid. The Mali striker put the home side in front early on only for Swedish striker Henok Goitom to equalize minutes later – his 9th of the season. Kanoute was not about to be outdone, however, volleying brilliantly from Navas’s cross to put the Andalucians back in the lead. Luis Fabiano extended their advantage before Kanoute completed a superb hat-trick with a towering header 20 minutes from time. It is 15 for the season for Sevilla’s main man, coming good just at the right time.

    On Saturday, Barcelona showed they are back to their devastating best with an utter dismantling of high-flying Malaga at the Camp Nou. Xavi, Messi, Alves, Henry and Eto’o (2) got on the scoresheet, the Cameroon striker scoring his 25th league goal of the season, an outstanding return. There was little Tapia’s men could do against such an onslaught, but they remain very much in the European hunt tied on 43 points with a host of other teams. Real Madrid encountered little difficulty against Almeria, making it 13 games unbeaten in La Liga. Marcelo’s fierce shot gave them a first half lead, before Klaas Jan Huntelaar scored his 7th and 8th goals of his short spell to wrap things up.

    Valencia are back in business on the pitch if not of it, after a 1-0 win at Racing, who are most accommodating to visiting sides at the Sardinero these days. Valencia even had a man sent off, Alexis, and still eased to victory thanks to Juan Mata’s 78th minute strike. Racing even had time for Oscar Serrano to blaze a penalty over the bar, meaning Racing join the sides who are by no means safe from relegation. Atletico Madrid’s defeat at Mallorca, thanks to goals from Aduriz and Castro, means there is now a 5-point gap separating Villarreal in fourth from the 4 teams on 43 points.

    Deportivo remain in that group after a 1-1 win at Betis; Espanyol’s survival hopes are fading by the week and a 90th minute Javed Nekounam winner condemned them to yet another defeat, this week at Osasuna; Numancia boosted their prospects with a 2-1 win over Sporting while Getafe eased their worries with a much-needed 2-1 victory over Recreativo. Osasuna, third bottom, are just a point behind Recre and Betis above them.

    Serie A Round 29: The Ibra show

    Catania 1-0 Lazio
    Roma 1-4 Juventus

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

    Milan missed out on the chance to cement their third place spot after being held in Naples. In truth the Rossoneri were fortunate, as Marek Hamsik was dubiously ruled offside for a second-half goal and Napoli had much the better of the match. Carlo Ancelloti’s men continue to look far from their best without Kaka, and they now have Genoa just four points behind them after their win at Udinese thanks to goals from Giuseppe Sculli and Diego Milito’s 15th of the campaign.

    Inter remain comfortably top after strolling past bottom side Reggina at the San Siro. Makeshift centre-half Esteban Cambiasso opened the scoring from Dejan Stankovic’s delightful backheel, before Zlatan Ibrahimovic stole the show as usual with a penalty and then a well-taken lob to seal the points. Reggina were woeful and sit bottom six points adrift. Juventus copped the result of the weekend with a 4-1 beating of Roma at the Olimpico. Vicenzo Iaquinta opened the scoring finishing a sublime team move, before Simone Loria equalized for the hosts. Parity did not last long, however as Iaquinta headed in his second before Olof Mellberg and Pavel Nedved completed the scoring.

    Roma are now three points behind Fiorentina in 5th as a solitary Adrian Mutu goal was enough for the Viola to dispatch Tuscan rivals Siena on Sunday. Cagliari kept up their hunt for a UEFA Cup spot after a 1-0 win at Bologna while Michaele Paolucci gave Catania a well-deserved 1-0 win over Lazio, a result which dents Delio Rossi’s own European ambitions. At the bottom, Chievo continued their impressive run with a 1-0 win over Palermo at the Bentigodi – 3 wins in the last 4 for the flying donkeys now, moving them six points clear of the drop. Torino’s home defeat to Sampdoria – goals from Pazzini (his 8th in 10 games), Diana and Sammarco giving Samp their first away win in three months – means Torino remain third bottom, only ahead of Lecce on goal difference after the southerners scored a last-minute penalty to earn a perhaps fortuitous draw over Atalanta. Bologna are far from safe, two points above them.

    Saturday, 21 March 2009

    Ligue 1 week 29

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

    Every time Lyon mess it up, so do the chasers. Every week after Lyon stuff it up and look vulnerable, they have a winnable fixture to follow it up. And so it is again, with Sochaux the visitors to the Gerland. Sochaux are out of the bottom three, but still in big trouble and Lyon are hot, hot favourites here providing they have the rout in Barcelona out of their system. Toulouse and PSG meet in tie of the round. Expect goals. Guillaume Hoarau and André-Pierre Gignac are vying for the golden boot with the latter called up to the national side while the former has not. Bordeaux should beat Le Havre, all but down, to maintain their push and Marseille should do likewise over Nantes who are in freefall.

    Valenciennes have been great lately and their revival goes to Rennes this week while St Etienne need a win at Lorient. Should they do that, then Nancy and Nantes will be in huge trouble, Nancy with a tough home game against Monaco, themselves not out of danger. Auxerre suddenly look down from mid-table and can heap more pain on Le Mans this weekend. Nice should beat Caen who are rubbish, and Lille, now the form side in the league, play Grenoble who are comfortable in the middle of the pack having flirted with the bottom few at times throughout the season.

    Bundesliga week 25

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

    Gladbach's revival came to a stunning halt on Friday night in a bottom-of-the-table clash with Bochum. A glorious strike from Dennis Grote won it for Bochum who pull themselves out of the relegation zone. Karlsruhe are well and truly in it and look all but down. The last thing they need is a trip to Munich to face goal-happy Bayern. Even Martin Demichelis, even him, has been among the goals lately. That's how gung ho they've been. Energie welcome Cologne in an intriguing clash with Cologne needing points to confirm safety while Energie flit between half decent and pisspoor. Arminia face red hot Wolfsburg which won't help them escape danger, especially with Grafite and Edin Dzeko firing the goals in from all angles. Hannover aren't safe either and they go to Hoffenheim who need wins to resurrect their faltering championship campaign.

    Hertha continue to lead the way and they take on Stuttgart in what is game of the week. Markus Babbel lost his first game in charge of Stuttgart last week while Hertha continue to grind out the wins. Goals are likely here, much as they are in Gelsenkirchen in the Sunday game between Schalke and Hamburg. Martin Jol's side won a sensational UEFA Cup tie with Galatasaray on Thursday night while Schalke are beginning to find some rhythm. Dortmund and Werder Bremen face off in a mid-table clash between two underachieving sides and Leverkusen can get their campaign back in track against the frankly rotten Eintracht.

    Eredivisie week 28

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

    A bit late with these this week, meaning that the round has already begun, with Heerenveen suffering an upset at De Vijverberg. That dents Heerenveen's challenge to the Champions League places while taking De Graafschap out of the relegation place. That may be temporary as Volendam welcome Utrecht on Sunday. Utrecht have virtually nothing to play for while Volendam are going OK at the moment. Roda need points as well, but ADO have been going well lately and will make it tough. Sparta are plummeting and Heracles can heap more misery on them while easing any lingering worries over their position.

    With nine games to go and an eleven-point buffer, AZ can just about wrap up the title with a win over Feyenoord while Twente and Ajax are very much squabbling over second place. Ajax have the easier assignment this week going to Breda to face NAC. Twente play Groningen with the visitors still in European contention. PSV can close on Heerenveen, but can't pass them. They'll surely beat Vitesse who are in awful form. So are Willem II and they take on NEC at De Goffert with the Nijmegen side losing ground on the European places in recent weeks.

    Serie A Round 29 Preview

    Catania vs Lazio
    Roma vs Juventus

    Lecce vs Atalanta
    Bologna vs Cagliari
    Chievo vs Palermo
    Inter vs Reggina
    Torino vs Sampdoria
    Fiorentina vs Siena
    Genoa vs Udinese
    Napoli vs Milan

    A controversial week in Serie A draws to a close after Inter and Jose Mourinho were each heftily fined for suggesting that their rivals applied pressure to the referee during the recent match against Roma, with Daniele De Rossi also fined for a similar offence. Inter host bottom side Reggina on sunday in what should be a straightforward game for the Nerazzuri, but their continued injuries in defence cause concern. The calamitous Nelson Rivas is the only fit centre back and he is likely to be partnered in a makeshift role by Esteban Cambiasso. The visitors have drawn six of their last seven games and sit six points from safety.

    Juventus visit Roma in what is the game of the weekend. Both sides are short of their star men - no Totti, Pizarro, De Rossi or Marco Motta for the Giallorossi, whilst Amauri and Legrottaglie miss out for Rainieri's men. Roma were held at Sampdoria last week and with so many key players missing the Gobbini will scent blood in their race to keep up with Inter. Above Roma, there is a Tuscan derby of sorts as Fiorentina, beaten in their last two games, host Siena, who are looking to pull further away from the drop zone but have won only twice on the road all season.

    AC Milan provide a real test for Roberto Donadoni in his first home game in charge of Napoli, who have taken just three points from their last 30 games since the turn of the year - an extraordinary run given the talent on display in Naples. Milan are in good touch, scoring freely but Kaka is doubtful and that could provide Donadoni's men with some much needed confidence. Genoa, who hold the vital fourth place, welcome Udinese to the Luigi Ferraris, who, despite their mid-table position, are still dangerous and have lost only once in eight.

    Palermo and Lazio are the main challengers for UEFA Cup placings, four and five points behind respectively. Lazio visit Catania, who have not won since so clinically dispatching their Sicillian rivals at the start of the month, while Palermo visit the Bentigodi to take on a Chievo side who have won two of their last three, a run which has taken them out of the bottom three. Torino have replaced them and host Sampdoria, who have Giampaolo Pazzini in superb form. Lecce, who are second bottom and have the joint-worst defence in the league, play Atalanta while Bologna host Cagliari, whose European challenge has stalled recently.

    Wednesday, 18 March 2009

    Balls to the Premiership: A Riposte

    Many of our non-UK readers will be aware of English club’s recent success in the Champions league with four clubs making up the quarter final draw to take place this Friday in Switzerland. Cue unbearable amounts of smugness on the part of newspaper journalists on these shores regarding the Premiership’s status as ‘The Best League in the World’. Honestly, if they could have been any more pleased with themselves on Sky’s Sunday Supplement they would have spontaneously combusted.

    If you measure quality of an entire league based on four team’s success in a European club competition, then in this instance you would be correct. The Premiership is the best league in the world. I, however, do not. I measure the quality of a league based on the quality of football played and the entertainment yielded as a result. In this respect, La Liga at worst holds its own against its English counterpart and at best by far outstrips it.

    If you need any indication of the arrogance in which the British now hold their top league competition, I refer you to a comment made by Graeme Souness (failed manager turned pundit) before Chelsea’s game against Aston Villa last month. It was due to be Guus Hiddink’s first game in charge of Abramovich’s plaything, and he was emphasizing just how tough a job it would be. ‘He will not find this easy, obviously he is a coach with a great track-record but this is different from his previous postings. Teams don’t make it easy for Chelsea, Chelsea have no easy games. PSV, Real Madrid….they have easy games – Chelsea don’t’

    I’ll let that unmitigated horseshit sink in first of all. Graeme Souness (in the employ of Sky, lest we forget) is suggesting that the Premierships is some kind of egalitarian football utopia where anyone can beat anyone. He is a moron. Chelsea have difficult games because they are a functional, uncreative team with no width who, John Terry apart, really are not very good at the back. The Premiership has rubbish teams coming out of its ears, and is no different from any other league, dominated by a coterie of three or four of the richest sides year after year, with the occasional exception. Souness’s comment, no doubt to murmured agreement on sofas across the UK, only adds fuel to the fire generated by English clubs success in the Champions League this year.

    There is a reason why there are four English teams in the CL quarter finals – they have more money. They are able to pay inflated sums for players that other teams from other leagues do not match. £26m for Fernando Torres. £30m for Dimitar Berbatov. £20m for Robbie Keane. £28m for Wayne Rooney. Teams in France, Germany and Italy cannot match this spending, and only Real Madrid and Barcelona can match it elsewhere. Real Madrid are a basket case of a club not worthy of comparison, and Barcelona are probably the only realistic challengers to English hegemony in Europe. The TV money bumps English sides up, with Sky forking out ever-larger sums that dwarf those paid out to teams in Germany, Italy and Spain. How are they going to compete? Fans in Germany don’t really want the TV money to skyrocket if it turns their football into the sanitized, overpriced experience the Premiership has become. The Bundesliga title race is the closest it has been in years this season, while La Liga, for people who enjoy football played on the floor, continues to set the standard in entertainment. The day the Premiership is held up as the benchmark, where clubs are controlled by billionaires on highly debt-leveraged purchases, where fans are charged £60 a ticket and £32m is shelled out on fancy dans like Robinho, and where clubs in the lower divisions bankrupt themselves trying to make it there, is a sad day indeed.

    Monday, 16 March 2009

    Getting away with it: Ligue 1 reviews

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

    How on earth have Lyon been getting away with it for so long? Yet again, they present a great opportunity for someone else to take over at the summit and, yet again, the opportunity is spurned. Having been taken to school by Barcelona in midweek, a home game against Auxerre should have been the perfect tonic for Les Gones. Not quite how it panned out. Despite controlling the game, Lyon failed to take their chances with Karim Benzema untypically profligate. Ireneusz Jelen has spearheaded the Auxerre revival and he didn't mess about, putting AJA ahead just before the break. Auxerre could also afford to miss a penalty, Cedric Hengbart seeing Hugo Lloris guess correctly, but Thomas Kahlenberg added the second and decisive goal moments later. That meant that PSG, in the late game, could go past Lyon into top spot by beating Marseille. They failed. After Bolo Zenden had opened the scoring (and then fallen through a box advertising Orange whilst celebrating) and Ludovic Giuly equalised in grand style, PSG crumbled. Zoumana Camara was sent off for tripping Zenden when last man back and PSG paid for his indiscretion. Bakari Koné and Lorik Cana got the goals that saw Marseille win 3-1 and leapfrog PSG into second, a point back from Lyon.

    Bordeaux got back on track and move back to fourth, beating Nice 2-1, but had Ulrich Ramé to thank for keeping them ahead. Marouane Chamakh had put Girondins ahead early, only to be pegged back by Nabib Bamogo's penalty. Carlos Henrique restored the advantage early in the second half, but Ramé's fine save from Chakoui Ben Saada's late free-kick ensured the points stayed in Bordeaux. Toulouse slipped up in Monaco, a result that eases any immediate worries in the Principality. The writing appeared to be on the wall when André-Pierre Gignac scored yet another in this prolific season. Frédéric Niami equalised, but Mauro Cetto restored the lead after the break. Seven minutes later, Monaco were back level through Francois Modesto and Igor Lolo snuck a winner after Cedric Carasso could only palm Yohan Mollo's free-kick into the path of the Ivorian.

    Le Havre continue to prop up the rest of the league, going down this week to Valenciennes who pull themselves well clear all of a sudden. They needed a late winner from Johan Audel to snatch it though, as Le Havre levelled through Kevin Anan with six minutes remaining. St Etienne drop back into the danger zone, going down to Grenoble who now look relatively safe. Efstathios Tavlaridis was sent off eight minutes from the end for a foul on Nassim Akrour and it was he who punished his indiscretion with a stoppage time winner. Caen are the other side in the bottom three and they lost again, 1-0 at home to Lille who now find themselves back in the title race. Michel Bastos scored again, on the hour for the only goal of the game.

    Sochaux are out of the bottom three on goal difference after beating Nancy who are now just one point above trouble. Youssuf Hadji equalised Ryad Boudebouz's opener and Vaclav Sverkos won it twelve from time after Mevlut Erding had missed from the penalty spot. Nancy are also just a point above the danger zone after a home draw with drifting Lorient. Another penalty miss here too, Kavin Gameiro spurning the chance of an equaliser to Guirane N'Daw's opener. The equaliser did come eventually, Jérémy Morel giving Lorient a share of the points. Rennes remain on the fringes of the top half dozen, but could only draw with Le Mans who are by no means safe. They needed a late, late goal from Moussa Sow to get the draw after Thorstein Helstad, on just two minutes, and Gervinho had given Le Mans a two-goal lead. Kembo Ekoko got one back and Sow was johnny-on-the-spot when Yohann Pele failed to deal with Jerome Leroy's cross, presenting Sow with a tap-in into an empty net to break Le Mans' hearts.

    Goals, goals, goals: Bundesliga reviews

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

    Goals galore in Germany this weekend, but results mean that the overall picture hasn't changed much, with Hertha leading the way by four from what is now three clubs locked together as Hoffenheim's run of draws continued.

    The goal glut started on Friday night as Wolfsburg, one of those three chasing clubs and they must now be considered as genuine challengers now. They're on a terrific run and didn't panic when Heiko Westermann put Schalke ahead early on. Grafite struck back quickly with a penalty after he was hacked down in the box and Edin Dzeko's beautifully worked goal - Grafite the supplier this time - sent the Wolves into oranges ahead. Grafite's second looked to have made it safe with quarter of an hour to go, but Jermaine Jones struck from range to bring Schalke back into it. Six minutes to go and Grafite completed his hat-trick, but there was still time for Kevin Kuranyi to get a third for the visitors.

    Hertha continue to lead and Andriy Voronin continues to score goals. He got the only one of the game as the Berliners eased past Leverkusen. That's eight in his last six games and, though Hertha were not at their best, they were comfortable winners. Bayern remain in contention thanks to a 3-0 win over 10-man and relegation threatened Bochum. Marcus Pfertzel was dismissed for upending Jose Sosa in the box and, though Lukas Podolski missed the penalty, that was that. Ze Roberto had earlier put Bayern ahead and goals from Philipp Lahm and Martin Demichelis finished the job. Bad news though for Miro Klose, out for eight weeks with an ankle injury. Quick fire goals from Ivica Olic and Piotr Trochowski ended Hamburg's little wobble with an easy win over doomed Cottbus. Hoffenheim just drop off the pace a little having drawn yet again. Goals are suddenly hard to come by for the villagers and they surrendered a one goal lead away at Frankfurt. Despite dominating the play, they only had Carlos Eduardo's tenth minute effort to show for it and they paid for not converting chances with Michael Fink's equaliser early in the second half. Hoffenheim now lie six points off the pace.

    Hannover twice came back from two-goal deficits in drawing 4-4 with Dortmund. It was a truly bizarre game with goals coming in pairs throughout. Alexander Frei, from the spot, and Florian Kringe put BvB two up with goals within a few minutes of each other before Jiri Stajner and Arnold Bruggink brought Hannover level with goals a couple of minutes either side of the break. On the hour, two more Dortmund goals restored the advatage - Kringe and Frei again. Ten minutes left and Mike Hanke pulls one back and Mickael Forssell levelled it from the spot three minutes later. Bizarre. Cologne and Glabach shared six goals unevenly, Michael Bradley scoring twice as Gladbach continued their good from. Miso Brecko scored both Cologne goals, but Rob Friend and Karim Mantour helped the visitors to the win which pulls them ever closer to getting out of trouble.

    Markus Babbel finally saw his side beaten, 4-0 at Bremen. Jens Lehmann. You've got to love him eh? He was incensed at the final whistle and had a right go at Diego, accusing him of cheating and sparking a scuffle. Lehmann felt the Brazilian had gone down too easy in winning the free-kick on the half hour that he opened the scoring from. Second half goals from Claudio Pizarro and Markus Rosenberg (twice) sealed the rout which eases the pressure on Thomas Schaaf a little. Arminia kept themselves just above the drop zone with a narrow win over Karlsruhe, now rock bottom and becoming cut off. In a game of few chances, Zlatko Janjic's goal four minutes from the end was enough, though Christopher Katongo's sending off at the end of normal time made for a jittery end for the visitors.

    New champions for definite: Eredivisie reviews

    Groningen 2-0 Roda
    Vitesse 0-3 NAC
    Willem II 0-2 Twente
    Heerenveen 5-2 Sparta
    Heracles 1-1 Volendam
    Feyenoord 1-0 PSV
    Den Haag 3-0 NEC
    Ajax 3-0 De Graafschap
    Utrecht 0-1 AZ

    The king is dead. While we have to wait a wee while for the destiny of the championship to be confirmed - but let's admit that it's off to Alkmaar, just that we've to wait to confirm it - we do know that the reigning champions cannot defend their title now. Four in a row is where it ends for PSV and they could not have surrendered their title more meekly than they did in a poor display in Rotterdam. Danko Lazovic, twice, and Edison Mendez missed open goals that would have put a dogged Feyenoord to bed. Typically, they were made to pay for their profligacy as Leroy Fer rose highest to nod home with seventeen minutes of the match remaining. Coupled with AZ's win over Utrecht. Maarten Martens scored early and AZ created a host of chances and dominated the game in typically ruthless fashion, though their clinical nature in front of goal seems to have deserted them temporarily.

    PSV's defeat also gave Heerenveen the chance to go above the Eindhoveners and into an automatic qualifying spot for next season's Europa League. And this they did, stuffing Sparta 5-1 in a foul-tempered game that saw two of the Rotterdam side dismissed and Sparta in desperate bother at the wrong end of the table. Kim Jaggy was the first to go, picking up a second yellow on 31 minutes with Sparta already behind to Danijel Pranjic's penalty. Ruud Knol went for a professional foul, also giving away a second penalty, this one despatched by Roy Beerens. Patrik Ingelstein had scored in between times and a crazy last quarter of an hour saw Edouard Duplan pull one back before late, late goals from Michal Svec and Bonaventure Kalou wrapped things up. Twente remain second, eleven adrift of AZ. They extended their unbeaten run to seventeen with a routine 2-0 win over Willem II in Tilburg. Blaise N'Kufo scored early and Marko Arnautovic late on, keeping Steve McClaren's side on course for Champions League football. Ajax kept up the chase, beating De Graafschap 3-0 with Luis Suarez bagging two and Dario Cvitanich the other.

    De Graafschap drop to the bottom of the table on goal difference as Volendam finally got off the foot with a 1-1 draw with Heracles. It could have been better, but Jan Wuytens equalised with seconds remaining. Melvin Platje had scored for Volendam with 20 minutes remaining, but they're the one side down at the bottom that's going in the right direction. Roda remain in the other relegation play-off place having been beaten 2-0 at Groningen on Friday night, Danny Holla and Tim Matavz with second half goals. That maintains Groningen's chase for European football, as do NAC who beat Vitesse in an impressive display and Den Haag eased any relegation worries, easing to a 3-0 win over NEC who look finished for the season a few weeks early.

    La Liga Round 27: Huntelaar helps himself

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

    Barcelona remain top by six points following a 2-0 win at Almeria. The Andalucian club were not the first and won’t be the last to milk an encounter with the Catalans – reports say seats were being sold for as much as £270, which is quite simply criminal behaviour – and as a result only 9,000 turned up. Guardiola’s men dominated the game but only found their way to goal late on, Bojan Krkic scoring a quick-fire double to secure the blaugrauna 3 points and silence some of his own doubters. The talented youngster has endured a tough season but this match has hopefully given him some confidence.

    Real Madrid remain in second after a controversial encounter at the San Mames which saw them finish 5-2 winners. They exorcised the week’s horror show at Anfield with a dominant display, Huntelaar (2), Robben, Heinze and Higuain all getting on the scoresheet. Heinze had earlier put through his own net and Llorente had drawn Athletic level only for the home side to implode after Fran Yeste was sent off. 13 cards were shown in all in the match.

    Sevilla remain in third, but have now dropped off to 9 points behind Real following a draw at Malaga. Tapia’s men raced into a 2-goal lead through the veteran former Pichichi winner Salva Ballesta, only for Sevilla to storm back second half, first Kanoute converted Diego Perrotti’s through-ball then Luis Fabiano headed in Adriano’s cross. In between, Javier Calleja was sent off for the home side who are two points away from the Champions League spots.

    Atletico Madrid bounced back from their midweek knock-out by beating Villarreal in an entertaining match at the Calderon. Mati Fernandez gave the visitors the lead against the run of play, before Cani doubled their lead just after half time. Diego Lopez had been in inspired form for the Yellow Submarine but he could do nothing to stop Kun Aguero cutting the arrears, or Forlan’s equalizer after Javi Venta had received his marching orders. Antonio Lopez headed in the winner with 7 minutes to go to send Atletico 5th on goal difference.

    Elsewhere, Valencia were once again lacklustre as they were held at home by Recreativo, further increasing Unai Emery’s woes; Valladolid are now just a point behind Los Che as they condemned Getafe to their third straight defeat. Racing hit 5 past a woeful Numancia, with Oscar Serrano and Nikola Zigic helping themselves to braces; Mallorca played out their second 3-3 draw in a week, this time away at Espanyol, a result which means Manzano’s men are three points above the drop; Sporting Gijon turned over Deportivo in Asturias to jump 7 points clear of relegation.

    Serie A Round 28: Beaten Champions League sides Recover

    Juventus 4-1 Bologna
    Cagliari 0-1 Genoa
    Inter 2-0 Fiorentina
    Sampdoria 2-2 Roma
    Reggina 1-1 Napoli
    Siena 1-5 Milan
    Palermo 5-2 Lecce
    Lazio 0-3 Chievo
    Udinese 1-1 Catania
    Atalanta 2-0 Torino

    As you were up top in Serie A as Inter beat Fiorentina to remain clear at the summit. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who so flattered to deceive against Manchester United, headed a controversial goal for the lead in the first half and doubled it in stoppage time but Jose Mourinho once again had Julio Cesar to thank for a string of fantastic saves to safeguard the points. Juventus remain the leader of the chasing pack following a comfortable victory over stricken Bologna. Massimo Mutarrelli had given the visitors a surprise lead but the Gobbini overpowered their opponents in the second half, with goals from Salihimidzic, Giovinco, and of course two from Alex Del Piero (his 8th and 9th of the campaign).

    AC Milan barely got out of first gear and still hammered Siena, which included Filipo Inzaghi notching up his 300th league goal. His brace, alongside that of Alexandre Pato, combined to brush aside the limp Tuscans although there was bad news for Carlo Ancelloti with both the returning Kaka and David Beckham limping off with injuries. Genoa moved into that golden fourth spot thanks to an 85th-minute goal from Ruben Olivera, his second of the season, gave the Grifone all three points against 10-man Cagliari. Cagliari lost Andrea Cossu to a harsh red card in the 39th minute but held out until just five minutes from the end when Olivera punished them as Genoa's pressure finally paid off.

    Roma could only be held at Sampdoria after they had Marco Motta sent off. And it was a duel of two strikers as Pazzini and Julio Baptista helped themselves to two each, under the circumstances Luciano Spalleti will be the happier. Napoli have a new coach – Edy Reja paying the price for some terrible form, replaced by Roberto Donadoni – but he could not get off to a winning start, being held at rock-bottom Reggina. Ezequiel Lavezzi’s equalizer to Bernado Corradi’s goal was just that, not a springboard to a victory. The other new coaching appointment, Gigi De Canion, could only inspire his Lecce side to a 5-2 thumping at Palermo, who were once again inspired by their South American stars Simplicio and Cavani who scored twice.

    At the bottom, there was a massive win for Chievo, 3-0 at Lazio which takes them three points off the bottom three. Torino’s defeat at Atalanta, for whom Sergio Floccari scored twice, leaves them two points adrift ahead of Lecce and Reggina. Udinese and Catania could only draw, leaving both in mid-table.

    Saturday, 14 March 2009

    Ligue 1 week 28

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

    Dismantled by a rampant Barcelona in midweek, beaten by Lille last week and seeing their lead cut to one point may have made this a poor week for fans of Les Gones, but they received a significant boost after that European disappointment with Karim Benzema confirming that he's staying with the club for next season. So often they've failed at this stage in Europe, retaining Benzema may see them able to build something around him that can get over this stumbling block and really make a European impression. In truth, the opportunity was probably greatest two or three years ago and it may never come up again. This week though, they have an eminently winnable fixture at home to Auxerre. Jean Fernandez has guided his once-struggling side to mid-table, though still just five points above the drop zone. They need more points from somewhere to remain with their heads above water, but it's difficult to see them getting any at the Gerland.

    PSG moved within a point of Lyon with their impressive run of form continuing and they take on fellow challengers Marseille on Sunday in what has to be game of the week. PSG will recall Mickaël Landreau and Ludovic Giuly who were rested for their goalless draw against Braga in the UEFA Cup. Marseille welcome back striker Bakari Koné from a knee injury while Mamadou Niang should be OK after picking up a knock in the UEFA Cup win over Ajax in midweek. PSG will start as warm favourites, but this promises to be a cracker. Toulouse's win over Bordeaux last week put them right back in the title hunt and they go into a game against Monaco almost at strength. With no European distractions, they look fresher than many of their rivals, a point spectacularly highlighted in the burial of neighbours Bordeaux. Monaco need points desperately, but they're without top scorer Alexandre Licata and goalkeeper Flavio Roma among others for this one. TFC are not free scoring, despite André-Pierre Gignac's heroics, but they ought to be winning this quite comfortably. Bordeaux look to get back in the groove at home to mid-table Nice. Top scorer for Les Girondins, Fernando Cavenaghi, is out for up to six weeks, harming their chances severely. This will mean a recall for David Bellion alongside Marouane Chamakh in attacks. Nice are adrift, well clear of danger and in no danger of making the European places. And that's where they are as a club. If they made Europe, they don't have the resources to bring in the sort of player needed to make a success of it, but they're way too good to be bothered by relegation talk. It may be that this is the limit of their abilities in their current form.

    The big game at the bottom sees St Etienne travel to Grenoble, although it'll be without Balise Matuidi, injured in the midweek defeat in Bremen. Grenoble just pulled away from immediate trouble in beating Caen last week, but defeat here brings them right back down and pulls Les Verts clear. Le Havre scord a morale boosting win last week, but take on resurgent Valenciennes, who have Jean-Claude Darcheville back. It looks all but impossible for Le Havre to get out of trouble, so far adrift are they, and Valenciennes are unbeaten since December. There's surely only one winner here. Nancy sit just above the drop zone after a horror run and they take on Sochaux this week. Sochaux lost to Le Havre last time out, just as it looked like they were getting out of it down at the bottom and that makes this a big, big game. Caen fell into the bottom three last week and face Lyon's conquerors and European hopefuls Lille this time out. It was November 22 when Caen last won - relegation form in anyone's language - while Lille have rediscovered form at a crucial time in the season.

    Nantes have been doing it tough lately too and are now just three points above danger. They welcome Lorient to La Beaujoire-Louis Fonteneau with the visitors slipping away from the pack chasing European representation next season. Indeed, all of a sudden, rather than pushing for Europe, they're now only four points above the bottom three in a congested table. Rennes are chasing Europe and sit just off the pace at the top. They go Le Mans this week with the hosts another side that, just lately, have been dragged into a relegation battle they wouldn't have thought likely a few weeks previously. Any team from ninth (Grenoble) down that gets a win this week will move upwards significantly. Defeats are unthinkable at this crucial point of the Ligue 1 season.

    Friday, 13 March 2009

    Eredivisie week 27

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

    It's only a matter of time until the maths says that the title is AZ's. It won't happen this week, but with an away game at Utrecht, the gap ought to be at least eleven points after the weekend is complete and there'll only be seven games left. It's unlikely to be more than eleven, second placed Twente have a game against fast falling Willem II while Ajax, two points further back, host De Graafschap. Heerenveen have snuck up on the pair of them and they face Sparta - awful these last few weeks - at the fortress that is the Abe Lenstra. AZ apart, Trond Sollied's side are the form team in the league and could yet gatecrash the Champions League party.

    Tucked in behind those guys are the teams vying for a place in next season's Europa League. PSV travel to De Kuip and should come away with the points. Feyenoord are just about safe from the unthinkable and the rebuilding for next season starts here. Groningen host Roda in what looks like a foregone conclusion while NEC should see off Den Haag and, if not, then they probably don't deserve European football next season. Vitesse have no such ambition, but NAC are still in with a shout and down at the bottom, should Volendam get past an inconsistent Heracles, they'll finally get off the bottom. Heracles have been awful lately and with De Graafschap facing a tough game, this is Volendam's chance. With games running out, they won't get too many more.

    Bundesliga week 24

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

    In-form Wolfsburg can go within a point of leaders Hertha on Friday night if they beat out-of-form Schalke. They go in unchanged from the line-up that saw them ease past Cologne last week with Grafite and Edin Dzeko the dangermen. Schalke dispensed with Andreas Möller's services leaving Fred Rutten in complete control of first-team affairs, much like Felix Magath at the Wolves. Möller was widely blamed for assembling what has been described as the most expensively assembled flop in Bundesliga history and he's carried the can. Rutten hasn't got them working together yet and it may take the off-season for the Dutchman to work his magic. Wolfsburg are one of four sides in a share of second on 42 points and, of the others, Hoffenheim have perhaps the easiest task this weekend, away at Frankfurt. Eintracht are just dismal to watch and, while Hoffenheim aren't firing on all cylinders, should still be too strong. Demba Ba hit the frame of the goal three times last weekend and must be due a turn in fortune, but the absence of Sejad Salihovic further dents a weakened forward line. Bayern have gone goal crazy lately, but still struggle for domestic form and Bochum, whose recent form has seen them ease away from danger, won't make it easy for them. Hamburg, meanwhile, have fallen from grace in spectacular style, shipping seven goals in the league in the last two games. Cottbus, though, are not going well and a recent loss to Bochum left them deep in trouble.

    Whatever happens elsewhere, Hertha will remain top come Sunday evening. A home game against Leverkusen gives them a good opportunity to maintain the four-point gap, the biggest for some time in this crazy league. Leverkusen can't string results together and, having lost last week, are due a win and have a host of players back, including the influential Bernd Schneider.

    Gladbach pulled themselves off the bottom with a stunning 4-1 win over Hamburg and their revival continues with an away day in Cologne. Recent form has pulled them into mid-table mediocrity and it remains to be seen whether they continue to grind out the results or ease off now that they're safe in all but name. Bremen find themselves in that position as well and face Stuttgart who are scoring plenty of goals. Markus Babbel is still unbeaten in charge of Stuttgart and there's nothing to suggest he won't continue that record here. Dortmund too are adrift in no man's land, but should prevail over an indifferent Hannover side still battling with relegation. Karlsruhe are rock bottom and need to start getting results soon. This could prove difficult against an Arminia side who welcome back top scorer Artur Wichniarek, scorer of just the 60% of his side's goals this season.

    Serie A Round 28 Preview

    Cagliari vs. Genoa
    Juventus vs. Bologna.

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

    With both Juve and Inter knocked out of the champions league, its not been a good week for Italian football. Inter face the far from simple task of beating Fiorentina, who, although they rather surprisingly lost last week at home to Palermo, possess a formidable attack. Juventus have the easier challenge of Bologna, who, after a good start under Sinisa Mihailovic, have fallen away and find themselves just two points above the relegation places.

    AC Milan were knocked out of the UEFA Cup last round so had a rest this week which should stand them in good stead ahead of a trip to Siena. The Rossoneri’s away record isn’t too clever but they should still possess too much class for the Tuscans, who are probably safe from relegation for another year. Genoa visit Cagliari with the 4th Champions league slot still very much in their sights. The Sardinians have a decent home record but have won once in four. Lazio also have UEFA Cup ambitions and their match is at home to struggling Chievo; Roma will look to bounce back from their European disappointment with a win at Sampdoria, who were crushed by Bologna last week.

    Jekyll-and-Hyde Catania, who followed up their derby drubbing of Palermo with 3-0 surrender at home to Siena, visit Udinese who finally seem to have turned the corner following their dreadful November-January run which ruined their season. Pascuale Merino’s men are safely ensconced in mid-table. Reggina will target a win against Napoli who are in awful nick, while Torino face the unenviable prospect of winning in Bergamo, something few sides do. Palermo host Lecce who are a point from safety and looking desperate.

    La Liga Round 27 Preview

    Valencia vs. Recreativo
    Athletic vs. Real Madrid

    Valladolid vs. Getafe
    Malaga vs. Sevilla
    Espanyol vs. Mallorca
    Betis vs. Osasuna
    Sporting vs. Deportivo
    Racing vs. Numancia
    Atletico vs. Villarreal
    Almeria vs. Barcelona

    After a mixed week in Europe for La Liga sides, the focus returns to the league and the six point gap Barcelona hold over Real Madrid. Pep Guardiola’s men are not in action until the weekend’s last game, away at Almeria whose defeat at Sevilla last weekend had halted a good run. Hugo Sanchez has energized the Andalucians and emphasized their attacking flair, if not their brittle defence. In Alvaro Negredo they have one of the best strikers in Spain, and they have lost twice at home all season. However, after they cruised past Lyon in midweek it seems Barcelona have overcome their blip and should dispatch their hosts fairly comfortably.

    Real Madrid endured a humiliating time at Anfield and were predictably cut to shreds by the rapacious Spanish media. Juande Ramos has the task of lifting his side for the visit to the San Mames. Real’s away record is almost identical to Athletic’s home record so this could be tight, although on the other hand Caparros’s men are without a win in 5 matches. Also on Saturday, Valencia host Recreativo. Los Che are in disarray, their poor form undoubtedly linked to the club’s ongoing financial woes. Manchester City are circling, making eyes at David Villa and expect other star players such as David Silva and Joaquin to be on their way in the summer. Recre are four points off relegation and will fancy their chances with the hosts’ morale being so low.

    Sevilla are in third and are looking an increasingly safe bet for a champions league spot due to the inconsistency of the other challengers. They visit Malaga for what should be a cracking game against the team that has impressed so many people. Antonio Tapia has constructed a formidable team on a shoestring budget but 8 points separate them and Sevilla and Jiminez’s men are likely to prove too strong. In Sunday’s main game, 4th placed Villarreal visit Atletico Madrid after their sides experienced contrasting fortunes in this week’s Champions League fixtures. Abel Resino is under pressure to deliver a top 4 slot after being knocked out by Porto while Manuel Pellegrini is looking far more comfortable. Villarreal have Nihat and Llorente back and with Atleti’s defence should like their chances.

    There’s three big games at the bottom; Espanyol’s match against Mallorca is a real relegation six-pointer with Gregorio Manzano’s men three points above the bottom three while Espanyol are desperately looking for points, 7 off safety. These two sides have had woeful seasons but Mallorca look far better placed. Real Betis, above Mallorca on goal difference, host Osasuna who are third bottom. Racing, not out of the woods by any means, simply have to beat Numancia but that won’t be easy give their atrocious home record. Sporting host Deportivo, the home side incredibly still have not drawn this campaign. Finally, Getafe, in trouble themselves, visit a Valladolid team that on their day are a match for anyone, although suspensions from last week’s card-fest at Recre will hamper their efforts.

    Wednesday, 11 March 2009

    Lech Win, Legia Rout, Polonia Slip up - Ekstraklasa Round 19 Summary

    Lech - Jagiellonia 1:0
    Robert Lewandowski once again proved to be the hero of the day for Lech. The Kolejorz frontman scored the only goal of the game on 48 minutes, making the most of Tomasz Bandrowski's wonderful assist. Jagiellonia did threaten on occassion but Tomasz Frankowski was unable to recreate the fantastic form he showed last week and Lech's title challenge carries on strong.

    Legia - Odra 4:0
    Legia steamrollered Odra Wodzislaw at Lazienkowska, not giving their opponents a single chance to at least gain a modicum of respectability. Rybus, Iwanski, Giza and Roger (yes, the "Polish" Brazilian) were on target for Legia.

    Wisla - Polonia Warszawa 2:1
    After their opening day draw in Bytom Wisla needed a result against one of their main rivals for the title and, thanks to Pawel Brozek, they got it. Brozek, once touted as the next great talent in Polish football has taken some time to develop and live up to the hype but it seems that this may well be his season. His two goals in this fixture saw The White Star gain an invaluable three points in an evenly fought game. Polonia could do with someone of Brozek's talent in their forward line - it was all they were missing in an assured and confident performance.

    Slask - Polonia Bytom 3:0
    A deserved win for Slask which took them to within two points of fourth placed Polonia Warszawa. Key in their win was playmaker Marek Gancarczyk, whose passing was exceptional and created all three Slask goals. Polonia were never really in this fixture from the start and their embarassment could have been greater had it not been for Sebastian Mila's inability to convert his spot kick.

    Lechia Gdansk - Ruch Chorzow 2:0
    After a fairly even first half Lechia came out for the second period looking like a team on a mission and totally dominated the final 45 minutes. Krzysztof Bak opened the scoring with a header from a free-kick on 61 minutes and 20 minutes later any doubt that the three points were staying in Gdansk were dispelled by a fine headed goal from Jakub Kawa which came off both crossbar and post before crossing the line. The win takes Lechia level on points with their rivals who have looked decidedly shakey in their opening two games of the spring round.

    Piast Gliwice- GKS Belchatow 1:0
    Dariusz Fornalak's side showed that they have the measure of GKS, having drawn away in Belchatow in the Autumn round and taken the full complement of points this weekend. Sebastian Olszar gave the home side the lead early on in the first half and GKS could not break down the home side's defence. Piast will no doubt view this result as an opportunity to kickstart their climb out of the relegation zone.

    LKS - Cracovia 4:3
    LKS looked to be heading for a defeat until the 89th minute when, with the Lodzians 3:2 down, Piotr Polczak (89) and Dejan Ðenic (95) snatched the game from the visitors, leaving them in the relegation play=off spot.

    Górnik - Arka 2:2
    Górnik Zabrze, having spent 4 million PLN on strengthening during the winter break, whould have hoped for a better result at home against 7th placed Arka. It looked highly likely that the Zabrzans would indeed come out on top but, leading 2:1 with 10 minutes to go, their defense just wasn't strong enough to keep out Arka and they missed out on the chance of moving out of the relegation places. Still, Henryk Kasperczak must be more confident of keeping his side in Ekstraklasa than he was after the Autmn round.

    Tuesday, 10 March 2009

    Superliga Round 21: Braga miss out

    Academica 1-0 Trofense
    Amadora 2-2 Braga
    Guimaraes 3-1 Belenenses
    Leixoes 1-4 Porto
    Naval 1-2 Benfica
    Rio Ave 1-1 Maritimo
    Setubal 2-0 Nacional
    Sporting 2-0 Pacos de Ferreira

    It is as you were for the top of the Superliga, after wins for each of the big three. FC Porto remain two points ahead of Benfica after a convincing win in the ‘local derby’ at Matosinhos side Leixoes. Leixoes pulled off the shock of the season by winning at the Dragao in October but they were unable to make lightning strike twice. Lucho Gonzalez gave Porto the lead from the penalty spot before Hulk took advantage of some awful defending to double the lead. Raul Meriellles made it three on 65 minutes, with Argentine Ernesto Farias completing the rout with a fourth. Diogo Valente’s goal provided little comfort for the home side, who have slipped in 6th on goal difference – four games without a win now for them.

    Benfica’s victory at Naval was not nearly as easy, with the Figueira side drawing level after Benfica had taken the lead through Pablo Aimar’s first goal in a O Glorioso shirt. After Marcelino’s equalizer Benfica were indebted to Kostas Katsouranis, whose winner from Jose Reyes’s free kick keeps them in touch.

    Sporting are a further two points behind, but still definitely in the hunt after a comfortable 2-0 home victory over Pacos de Ferreira. Goals in each half from the Brazilians, Liedson and Derlei – the latter really hitting some form with his fourth in five outings – were enough to overcome Pacos who remain perilously close to the drop zone on 19 points. There is a five point gap between Sporting and fourth placed Braga, who twice came from behind to secure a point in Lisbon against Estrela Amadora. The Brazilian Jardel (no relation to the pie-munching former Sporting striker) was on the mark twice for Os Tricolor only for Paulo Cesar and then the very highly rated Portugal U21 striker Orlando Sa to draw Os Arsenalistas level.

    Belenenses are the new bottom side in the Superliga after their 3-1 defeat at Guimaraes. It is seven matches without a win for Jaime Pacheco’s men, who have been leapfrogged by Rio Ave following their creditable draw with Maritimo. Nacional missed the chance to put some daylight between them and Leixoes in sixth following a surprise 2-0 defeat to struggling Setubal, while Senegales striker Modou Sougou was the hero for Academica as the Coimbra side overcame Trofense 1-0.

    Monday, 9 March 2009

    Hertha in charge: Bundesliga reviews

    Schalke 1-0 Cologne
    Wolfsburg 1-0 Karlsruhe
    Bayern 5-1 Hannover
    Stuttgart 2-1 Dortmund
    Hoffenheim 0-0 Bremen
    Energie 1-3 Hertha
    Monchengladbach 4-1 Hamburg
    Leverkusen 1-1 Bochum
    Arminia 0-0 Eintracht

    Schalke's disappointing season has finally seen someone carry the can for it. Not coach Fred Rutten, but general manager Andreas Möller. And that despite the club scoring a much-needed win over Cologne at the weekend. Jermaine Jones hit the only goal of the game in the first half of a game which Schalke dominated without creating too much, though Kevin Kuranyi did have the ball in the back of his net. You're not supposed to use your hand though Kevin. They remain mired in mid-table obscurity alongside Leverkusen who were held 1-1 at home by Bochum. It took a Patrick Helmes penalty to rescue a lacklustre Leverkusen after Christoph Dabrowski had put Bochum ahead.

    Away in Cottbus, Hertha had few problems in recording a 3-1 win despite going a goal behind to Çagdas Atan on 20 minutes. Step up Andriy Voronin. He can't stop scoring at the moment and added another three to his tally as Hertha continue to set the pace at the top. Bayern took advantage of results elsewhere to go second after thrashing lowly Hannover 5-1. They had to come from behind as Jiri Stajner put Hannover ahead on 15 minutes. With no Toni and no Ribéry, a shock could have been on the cards, but Bayern instead opened a 54-gallon can of whup ass on them. Goals rained in, Daniel van Buyten with the first and others coming from Miroslav Klose, Hamit Altintop, Lukas Podolski and, late on, Martin Demichelis. Hoffenheim remain third after yet another draw, 0-0 at home to Bremen. Maybe the bubble really has burst for the villagers. They're struggling to win games at the moment. Hamburg went down in sensational fashion, losing 4-1 at Gladbach who pull themselves off the foot of the table for the first time since Adam was a lad. Marko Marin was unstoppable as he was the architect of this rout. He crossed for Rob Friend to open the scoring on 24 minutes. Mladen Petric pulled Hamburg level within minutes, but it was all Gladbach - all Marin - from there. Marin and Alex Baumjohann played in Tobias Levels to put them back in front, Roel Brouwers got the third and, fittingly, Marin scored a penalty late on to make it four. That leaves Karlsruhe bottom after their 1-0 defeat to Wolfsburg - still the form side of 2009 so far - Edin Dzeko with the winner.The Wolves are now one of four clubs level on 42 points, four behind the leaders from Berlin.

    Another Mario Gomez winner for Stuttgart keeps them still in with a shout of honours. Elson put Stuttgart ahead on 10 minutes before Nelson Valdez pulled Dortmund level until Gomez slotted home his 14th of the season to win it. Bielefeld and Eintracht played out a 0-0 draw which doesn't really help either side. Arminia have scored just 19 league goals this season and Artur Wichniarek, who has 12 of those, was out injured. But Frankfurt couldn't break them down, so goalless it remained.

    Game back on again: Ligue 1 reviews

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

    At the Stade de France on Sunday, Lille threw the title race wide open again, beating Lyon 2-0. Les Gones were a bit off and Lille took full advantage, Robert Vittek heading the opener on the hour and, as Lyon poured forward in search of an equaliser, Michel Bastos scored on the break. It's PSG who slot in just a point behind the multiple champions with the irrepressible Ludovic Giuly volleying home spectacularly to give his side the lead at Lorient. It could have been so different, but Mickaël Landreau saved Rafik Saifi's late penalty to secure the points. Bordeaux lost ground in losing heavily to Toulouse, who leapfrog them to go fourth. Les Violets were in charge from the off and goals to François Sirieix, André-Pierre Gignac (inevitably) and, in stoppage time, Moussa Sissoko stamped TFC's authority all over a sorry looking Girondins outfit. Toulouse are level on points with third placed Marseille who could only manage a draw with Valenciennes who now look down on the relegation places with something approaching contempt. It wasn't a completely insipid 0-0 with chances at either end, but Hatem Ben Arfa and Jean-Claude Darcheville both found the goalkeepers in top form.

    St Etienne also pulled themselves out of the drop zone, coming from behind to beat Nantes, plunging them into big trouble. Ivan Klasnic put Nantes ahead just five minutes in, but Les Verts were level from the penalty spot five minutes later, Aruajo Ilan converting from 12 yards. And Ilan put his side ahead on the half hour. All that leaves St Etienne, Valenciennes and Nantes three points above the drop zone, now occupied by Caen - beaten by Grenoble who did themselves an enormous favour into the bargain - Sochaux and Le Havre. The latter two faced off this week and rock bottom Le Havre won it, coming from behind after Jacques Faty had put Sochaux ahead on 12 minutes. Four minutes later, they were level through Amadou Alassane and Kevin Anin scored the winner just after the break. They remain eleven points from safety, so it still looks a tall order for them to get out of it, but they've halted Sochaux's mini-revival.

    Monaco and Nancy remain just four clear of the relegation places after both clubs drew. The Monagasques drew at Nice 0-0 despite thumping the frame of the goal on a number of occasions. They were left to thank the woodwork for denying Nice a late winner, Loïc Remy striking a post in stoppage time. Nancy twice led at home to Le Mans, Youssuf Hadji opening the scoring after three minutes and André Luiz restoring the advantage after Mathieu Coutadeur's equaliser. They couldn't hold out and Thirstien Helstad levelled it up again. Le Mans lie on 31 points, just five away from trouble, and level with Auxerre whose revival came to a shuddering halt at Rennes. Carlos Bocanegra put Rennes ahead early on and Jimmy Briand doubling the lead ten out from the break.

    Chasers draw as AZ roll on: Eredivisie reviews

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

    If there was little in the way of a challenge to AZ's premacy before this weekend, there's virtually nil now. Both Twente and Ajax drew, so AZ's gazillionth game without a defeat pulled them eleven points clear at the top. With just eight games remaining, they'll have to implode spectacularly for anyone else to have a chance. They were far from their best in beating NEC 1-0 this weekend, defender Kew Jaliens heading home Demy de Zeeuw's fine cross for the decisive goal. They're without first choice keeper Sergio Romero for the foreseeable, not that it matters a great deal. So irked was Romero by conceding one goal last week that he punched a wall and broke his hand. Goalkeepers being nutters is supposed to be a stereotype, but it's incidents like this that keep the notion alive and well. NEC just couldn't convert chances with Bas Sibum and Dennis Rommedahl among those that probably ought to have done better. Instead, AZ continue their cruise to the title.

    The extra breathing space was gifted to them by draws for Twente and Ajax. The Amsterdammers' fans were banned from ADO's compact Zuiderpark making for an odd atmosphere. The fayre on the field didn't exactly inspire anyone to start making some noise. Ajax were poor without the suspended Luis Suarez, although Evander Sno's attempts in getting himself sent off - Marco van Basten withdrew him before it could happen - were mildly diverting. Rob Wielaert got his first goal for Ajax since joining from Twente with a deflected volley, a move which ADO boss André Wetzel responded to by bringing on Wesley Verhoek and the substitute exchanged passes with Richard Knopper before volleying home to square it up. A draw was about fair in the end. Twente needed a late, late, late equaliser to snatch a draw at home to PSV. Balázs Dzsudzsák had put the Eindhoveners ahead after Ibrahim Afellay had taken a quick free-kick with the Twente players still whining at the referee. As the board went up to indicate three minutes of stoppage time, it looked like PSV would take all three points, but four minutes later, Andreas Isaaksson spilled Marko Arnautovic's shot at the feet of Blaise N'Kufo and the veteran Swiss fired home.

    Both Ajax and Twente are in danger of being usurped by fast rising Heerenveen who are in terrfic form and playing some lovely football. A bad tempered Friesian derby at the Abe Lenstra saw Groningen lose two players to red cards, Martijn Meerdink the first to go on 25 minutes. It took Heerenveen 35 minutes to capitalise when Christian Grindheim fired in from 20 yards. Danny Holla got Groningen back on terms ten minutes later but then lost Gonzalo Garcia to a second yellow after kicking the ball away. From then on, it was a matter of time and Viktor Elm finally broke Groningen just as the 90 minutes were up. That leaves them just a point back from Ajax.

    Tension down at the bottom was lifted when De Graafschap finally won a game, 1-0 at home to Heracles. Luuk de Jong's goal early in the second half was enough and piled on the pressure for Volendam's home game against Vitesse the following day. They responded magnificently with Jack Tuyp scoring in the first half and the entire team holding solid for the remaining hour. Volendam are still bottom by a point from De Graafschap, but they're both within sniffing distance of safety. Roda lie sixteenth, two points above De Graafschap and they drew 0-0 with Utrecht in a poor spectacle while Sparta were plunged back into trouble on Friday night as Willem II ended a six-game losing run thanks to George Mourad's late goal. Feyenoord have ended all talk of relegation by finally winning away from home, beating NAC 2-1 in Breda. They had to come from behind as Breda took the lead through Donny Gorter's penalty late in the first half, but second half goals from Georgino Wijnaldum and a late winner from Jon Dahl Tomasson sealed it for the Rotterdammers.

    Serie A Round 27: Inter crack Genoa fortress

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

    Inter came away from the potential stumbling block of a visit to Genoa, unbeaten at home, with a 2-0 victory which should give them a boost ahead of this week’s crucial trip to Manchester. This was a clinical display, Zlatan Ibrahimovic putting the Nerazzuri in front early with a lovely chipped finish before Mario Balotelli added to his burgeoning reputation by doubling the lead in the second half, nudging the ball past Rubino. It is a result that sees Genoa miss out on the chance to break the top four.

    There was some stubborn resistance in Turin as Juventus struggled to break down local rivals Torino, which is becoming a recurring theme for the Gobbini. In the end, Giorgio Chiellini headed home Pavel Nedved’s free kick but not after Buffon had been called into action on a number of occasions.

    AC Milan had no such troubles, breezing past Atalanta at the San Siro thanks to an inspired hat-trick from the veteran Filipo Inzaghi. He scored his first on seven minutes, then added two in 3 minutes during the second half to seal a win which sees the Rossoneri five points clear of Fiorentina, who suffered a shock home defeat to Palermo. The Sicilians were looking for vengeance after their humiliating defeat to Catania the week before, and achieved it through a double from the excellent Fabrizio Miccoli.

    Roma drew with Udinese on Saturday evening in what was a frustrating afternoon for the Giallorossi. After Felipe gave the visitors the lead, Daniele De Rossi was sent off and only a late intervention from Mirko Vucinic (we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – he’s a top, top player) spared Spalleti’s blushes.

    Roma are sixth, four points ahead of their city rivals after Lazio beat Napoli 2-0 through a Tommasso Rocchi brace. Rocchi has not been able to produce last season’s stellar form but could just be coming good at the right time – the same cannot be said of Napoli who have now gone winless in 9 and Edy Reja is under mounting pressure after setting the early pace.

    At the other end of the table, Serie A top scorer Marco Di Vaio netted the second hat-trick of the weekend to give Bologna a 3-0 win over inconsistent Sampdoria and take his season's tally to 19. Reggina, four adrift at the foot of the table, drew 0-0 at second-bottom Lecce but were unfortunate when Bernardo Corradi's effort was ruled not to have crossed the line. Elsewhere, Siena put further distance between them and the relegation places with a 3-0 win at Catania, Cagliari's faint European hopes took a hit with a 1-1 draw at 18th-placed Chievo and the bottom-of-the-table clash between Lecce and Reggina ended 0-0.

    La Liga Round 26: Numancia make me look stupid (again)

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

    Well, perhaps a semblance of normality returns to La Liga after the last couple of weeks of madness. Barcelona got back to winning ways with a thoroughly dominant performance, overwhelming Athletic 2-0 at the Camp Nou. Goals from Busquets and Messi in the first half should have been followed up with more after the break, only for the Blaugrauna’s finishing to desert them. Still, they looked much better against an overwhelmed Athletic, who are now utterly stuck in mid-table.

    The game of the week was the Derbi Madrileño at the Bernabau, and what a game it was. Plenty of chances for both sides, some truly terrible defending (you expected something else?) and some excellent counter-attacking football from the visitors. Atleti took the lead in the first half after snuffing out a Real attack to stream down the other end, Aguero feeding Forlan who finished beyond Casillas. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored his fourth goal of his Real Madrid career to level things up, although Kun Aguero in particular was guilty of extraordinary (and uncharacteristic) profligacy in his efforts to put the rojiblancos back in front. In the end, Juande Ramos will have been much the happier of the two coaches.

    Elsewhere on Saturday, Villarreal beat Espanyol 1-0 but it was a far from convincing display, even after they took an early lead through Fuentes’s header. Los Pericos proved their own worst enemy, spurning a number of opportunities before Luis Garcia – you know, the striker without a goal in six months, that Luis Garcia – struck the crossbar from the penalty spot, which would have given Pochettino’s men a deserved point. As it is, Espanyol’s mini-revival is well and truly over, one win in 17 for them and bottom, 7 points adrift.

    Numancia were unexpected beneficiaries of Garcia’s misery, beating Valencia 2-1 the very weekend I decided to declare their relegation a certainty. After Vicente had given Los Che the lead, Aranda levelled matters before an excellent Barkero free-kick (where would they be without him?) sealed a sensational win for the Sorian strugglers that means they are now 5 points off safety. Osasuna remain third bottom after a 2-1 home defeat to Sporting Gijon, who arrested their recent slide thanks to first half goals from Barral and Castro. Elsewhere, Malaga continued their European charge by moving into 5th with a win at Getafe in the weekend’s final fixture. Two of their stars, Eliseu and Bahia, scored before half time with Cosmin Contra pulling one back for the hosts. Each side finished with 10 men – Soldado seeing red for the hosts, Cuadrado following suit for Tapia’s men.

    Deportivo leapfrogged both Atletico and Valencia into the final European spot after a pulsating 5-3 win at the Riazor over Racing Santander. Jonathan Pereira put Racing ahead after just a minute and Nikola Zigic restored their lead before the break after Juan Rodriguez had levelled. But Riki scored twice in nine minutes, either side of an Angel Lafita strike, and Joan Verdu made it 5-2 to Depor in the 68th minute. Jesus Berrocal scored Racing's third 11 minutes from time, but it could not prevent defeat, meaning it is six games without a win for the Cantabrians

    Valladolid are three points behind Valencia after their 3-2 victory over Recreativo, which was achieved despite ending the game with nine men, with Henok Goitom scoring twice;Real Mallorca scored three times in 11 minutes as they came from 3-0 down to snatch a point at home to Real Betis. Gonzalo Castro scored twice and Pierre Webo to stun Betis. Mark Gonzalez, Mehmet Aurelio and Arzu had earlier put the visitors in a seemingly unassailable position.

    Friday, 6 March 2009

    Ligue 1 week 27

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

    This could be a defining week in Ligue 1 both at the top and down at the bottom. The top five are all in action on Saturday with top of the bill being Toulouse, currently fifth, against Bordeaux, fourth. The loser here can wave goodbye to any real tilt at the title, whittling the list of contenders down to four. Toulouse seem to have lost their way in front of goal and where André-Pierre Gignac couldn't stop scoring, he's now just lost his way. You could forgive Laurent Blanc being driven to drink given Bordeaux's erratic form. Perhaps they rely too much on the talents of Yoann Gourcuff, but they need a run of wins if they're to re-establish themselves as the side most likely.

    The team that's taken that mantle is PSG and they go to Lorient, both of whom lost in the cup in midweek, PSG to amateur side Rodez. They rested a few for the cup tie, but will still be without Claude Makelele and Sébastien Sessegnon through suspension for this. Marseille's challenge has faltered lately, mainly through a lack of goals and they take on a resurgent Valenciennes, no longer in the bottom three. As midfielder Benoit Cheyrou admits, "They have the profile of a team that suits us the least". Getting his excuses in early? Maybe, but he has a point. Valenciennes are now on a run of nine games without defeat and they'll fancy continuing that against a fragile Marseille. Lyon continue to lead, but travel to the Stade de France to take on Lille this week. There was a big scare when Karim Benzema was carried off last week, but there was no major damage and he should start this one. Lille beat Lyon in the cup, with Benzema not risked and Juninho and John Mensah rested and Jeremy Toulalan suspended. They're all back and there's a wiff of revenge in the air.

    Nantes are on the slide, a big slide at that. This week, they go to St Etienne, second from bottom. Despite their position, Les Verts are playing pretty well - just totally unable to hang onto a lead. Win this one though, and they're out of the drop zone and Nantes are deeply in the merde. The opposite is equally true. Sochaux, too, are on the rise and they face Le Havre who are, let's face it, gone. There's a proverbial six-pointer up in the Alps where Caen go to Grenoble. The loser here is in major trouble - more so than now. Le Mans take on Nancy, another team sliding rapidly down the standings. Le Mans are four points clear of the drop zone, so a win here lifts them into relative safety while Nancy are getting dragged into something they really don't want to be. Form is worryingly absent. Monaco are only three points above the trapdoor and face a derby against Nice at the Stade du Ray. Nice are in something of a no-mans land and their president has been saying that qualifying for Europe may be more bother than it's worth, with the stadium not having a UEFA license. That's worrying talk and taking their eye off the ball may give the Monagasques a sniff.

    Also sat in the middle of nowhere are Auxerre, whose terrific recent run has pulled them clear of danger, for now. They face Rennes this week where an away win for AJA will all but end any hope of Rennes making Europe next season. Auxerre need to keep winning to end any talk of relegation - they remain just five clear of the drop zone - though should results go for them, they should be alright. Ireneusz Jelen's return has given them a huge boost and his quality is the difference between them now and relegation.

    It remains tight at top and bottom, but the picture will begin to clear after this weekend's games.

    Eredivisie week 26

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

    Game of the week is at the Arke Stadion in Enschede where PSV roll into town to take on FC Twente. The Eindhoveners were undone by Heerenveen last week after a good run while Twente continue to grind the results out. Steve McClaren doesn't have the biggest squad to work with, but his key players have all remained fit and, so far at least, they've not missed Rob Wielaert too badly at the back. They remain a difficult side to break down, though the likes of Ibrahim Afellay, Nordin Amrabat and Ola Toivonen will test that theory, while remaining dangerous on the counter. This should make for an end-to-end game.

    AZ go to Nijmegen still only having dropped points on one occasion since mid-November. Basically, the Eredivisie is just ticking off the games until they hand over the trophy. They shouldn't have an issue here. NEC are a tidy side, but not one that's going to threaten AZ's long unbeaten run. Should PSV do them a favour, Ajax can go back second with a win over Den Haag who need the points to stave off relegation fears. Jan Vertonghen won't play for the Amsterdammers having torn a hamstring in last week's unconvincing win over Utrecht and that's a blow as the young Belgian - an imposing figure at the back is the 21-year old - has been in superb form lately. Heerenveen are looking good at the moment and have a home game against Groningen who have just dropped out of the picture at the top end lately. The Abe Lenstra (capacity larger than the town itself, fact fans) is proving quite the fortress for the Frieslanders and they beat a sorry NEC 3-1 in the cup in midweek. Groningen have had to face up to two of the form sides in the league these last couple of weeks, but need a win here to maintain a push for Europe.

    Friday's game sees Sparta take on Willem II. The Tilburgers have been awful recently and Sparta not much better. A win for either side here sees them pull away from immediate danger and Willem II's form suggests it won't be them if there is to be a winner. Heracles walloped Willem II last week to pull themselves out of the drop zone and they can put more distance between them and the bottom three by beating De Graafschap at De Vijverberg. And they will. Well, they should, at least, and if they do, Volendam can finally move off the bottom if they overcome Vitesse at the Kras. Vitesse are no pushovers with Nicky Hofs in particular playing very well indeed, but Volendam have been hard to beat at home since the break and I fancy them to get something out of this one.

    A few points here and there have suddenly pulled Feyenoord to seven points clear of immediate danger and they go to Breda this week where their recent revival - such that it is - will get more of a test than it's had lately. NAC are chasing European football and they've sort of sidled up into that position without anyone noticing. They play decent football with no stars. Basically, it's their work ethic that's got them into the position, but a lack of quality in key areas will stymie them at some point. Finally, Utrecht travel to Kerkrade to face Roda JC and in need of points to maintain their own European ambition. Roda are now a feature of the bottom three and Utrecht will be short priced to win this.

    La Liga Round 26 Preview

    Barcelona vs. Athletic
    Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid
    Villarreal vs. Espanyol

    Recreativo vs. Valladolid
    Mallorca vs. Real Betis
    Osasuna vs. Sporting
    Deportivo vs. Racing
    Numancia vs. Valencia
    Sevilla vs. Almeria
    Getafe vs. Malaga

    And so to another high-octane weekend in La Liga, but one that is perhaps overshadowed for the bigger sides by crucial matches in Europe this coming week. Juande Ramos is expected to rest or use sparingly a number of his top players despite the big occasion of a Derbi Madrileño. Pepe and Sneijder are suspended, while Guti and Robben will only play bit-parts. For Abel Resino, he must do without Raul Garcia but elsewhere things are expected to stay unchanged from the side that sensationally beat Barcelona last weekend. Atletico Madrid have not won a derby in living memory and despite last week’s result, they should revert to type against an extraordinarily disciplined and focused El Real.

    Pep Guardiola managed to exorcise some demons with aggregate victory at Mallorca in the Copa Del Rey midweek, which sees Barcelona through to the final against Athletic. Curiously enough, it is the Basques who visit the Nou Camp in the weekend’s first fixture. Barcelona are wobbling, of that there is no doubt – a 12 point lead reduced to four, without a win in four in all competitions, their worst run of the season. Joaquin Caparros’s men are on a similar trot of four league matches without a win but fairly brushed aside Sevilla in the cup so will be full of confidence. Expect Guardiola to rotate the team with the Lyon game in mind.

    Completing Saturday’s line-up is Espanyol’s trip to Villarreal. Los Pericos are still deeply ensconced in the relegation battle despite the derby win two weeks ago, and are six points from safety. They’ve collected two wins away from home all season, while the hosts are in better nick, unbeaten in five in all competitions. Joseba Llorente is back, which is crucial – he shoulders the goalscoring burden alongside Giuseppe Rossi.

    On Sunday Sevilla host Almeria, who are showing themselves to be feisty competitors under Hugo Sanchez – two defeats in nine for them. Sevilla are formidable also, with the best defence in La Liga and Fredi Kanoute showing his class recently. However, it remains to be seen how the cup loss in Bilbao has affected them – it may act to their advantage, focusing their minds on a top four position. Valencia, whose off-the-field woes continue and future looks bleaker by the week, face the morale-boosting prospect of a visit to Numancia, who stand about as much chance of escaping relegation as Zurich has of suffering a tidal wave.

    The other two Champions League chasers, Malaga and Deportivo, will both be targeting wins at bottom half clubs. Malaga were well beaten by Recreativo last week in a surprise result, and Getafe have proved stubborn drawing 4 of their last 5, but Tapia’s men should still prove the stronger. Depor host Racing, whose recent indifferent form has extinguished their UEFA Cup hopes but who have fared much better away from home. Racing have suffered following the sale of the talismanic Cesar Navas and just need to rediscover their touch.

    At the bottom, Recreativo can better their four point cushion over the bottom three with a win over Valladolid – and with the form Javier Camunas is in, who would bet against them? There’s a crucial game at the Reyno de Navarra as Sporting visit Osasuna. Camacho’s men are unbeaten in six whilst Sporting continue to slide, having gone without a win in four. Mallorca and Real Betis meet at the ONO Estadi, where only goal difference separates the two, hovering above the trap door.

    Serie A Round 27 Preview

    Roma vs. Udinese
    Genoa vs. Internazionale
    Torino vs. Juventus

    Milan vs. Atalanta
    Chievo vs. Cagliari
    Napoli vs. Lazio
    Fiorentina vs. Palermo
    Lecce vs. Reggina
    Bologna vs. Sampdoria
    Catania vs. Siena

    Inter suffered a shock hammering at the hands of Sampdoria in the Coppa Italia midweek, and they will hope to banish that from their memories with a win over Genoa, although at the Luigi Ferrari that will not prove easy. The Grifone are unbeaten at home and Jose Mourinho will need the returning Zlatan Ibrahimovic firing on all cylinders to overcome their stout defence. Genoa have been beaten just once in their last 15 matches.

    Juventus, the leaders of the chasing pack, take part in a Turin derby that illustrates the yawning chasm between the two city sides – Torino have less than half the points total of their rivals and have won 1 of their last 9. Claudio Rainieri has one eye on the Champions League but this should not prevent his team from securing derby spoils. Elsewhere on Saturday Roma host Udinese, a match of special significance for Luciano Spalleti as his former club visits. Roma have striker problems – Totti is doubtful, as are Mirko Vucinic, Julio Bapitsta and Jeremy Menez. The Friuli’s form has improved of late but they are still ten points behind their opponents.

    On Sunday AC Milan host Atalanta, who are not half as challenging to host as they are to visit, it seems – just two wins on their travels for the Nerazzuri. Milan have lost just once at home all season and have been boosted by the news David Beckham is staying until the end of the season. There’s no Kaka or Ronaldinho though.

    Fiorentina host Palermo with the Sicillians still smarting from last week’s derby humiliation. The Viola are unbeaten in their last six, have the league’s second-most potent striker in Alberto Gilardino and a great home record, so expect things to continue to be difficult for the pink-shirted ones. Napoli and Lazio, two teams whose seasons have fallen away, play each other in Naples while Cagliari, still hopeful of a European spot six points behind Roma, visit Chievo.

    Bundesliga week 23

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

    Game of the week this week is at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Stuttgart, where Markus Babbel's goal-happy side welcome Dortmund - capable of a few pot shots themselves. Remarkably, Babbel has still to taste defeat in his reign at the Schwabian side, though they do draw too many. However, those draws tend to be 3-3 or better, so entertainment is almost guaranteed and Mario Gomez, despite being able to do things like this, is on fire at the moment. Dortmund need wins to avoid being cast adrift in mid-table.

    Will we have another new leader this week? Doubtful, as Hertha travel to Cottbus who are firmly in the bottom three having lost by the odd goal in five to relegation rivals Bochum last week. Hoffenheim need to start winning to maintain their push - they've yet to win in 2009 - and a visit from form starved Bremen might well be the ideal point at which to break the series, though the draw will be the short price favourite outcome. Hamburg, too, look good for three points away at improving Gladbach. Bayern face lowly Hannover as they look to get their first league win of the year, but they'll have to start playing a lot better than they have been lately and perhaps it's up to the players to ignore Klinsmann and just do what they know they can do. Coming up fast on the rails are Wolfsburg, the form team at the moment, and they welcome Karlsruhe to the VolkswagenArena. Again, they look good for the points with Karlsruhe in terrible form and now three points from safety.

    Improving Cologne go to pisspoor Schalke on Friday night in another stern test for Fred Rutten's misfiring Königsblauen. If it starts going against them, the exacting Gelsenkirchen public will let him know. It's been a poor season by the high standards expected of a big-spending club and they spent so long in chasing Rutten, you wonder how much more patient everyone around the club will be. Bochum pulled themselves out of the drop zone last week in beating Energie, but they travel to Leverkusen this week where the home side are impossible to read. It's win or lose for them, and they beat Bayern in the cup 4-2 in midweek, meaning that a loss is the favourite outcome this weekend. Front two Patrick Helmes and Steffan Kiessling have 25 goals between them and they pose a real threat which Bochum will have to be on their mettle to deal with.

    Tuesday, 3 March 2009

    Euroballs young picks

    Euroballs columnists run down the young stars who have caught the eye in Europe this season:


    We may as well start with a goalie, and there is a young man at Valladolid who has caught all the plaudits in this regard. Sergio Asenjo, a 19-year-old who has been capped by Spain at U17, U19 and U21 levels, is already seen as a future international and the heir to Iker Casillas. Big shoes to fill, but Asenjo’s assured shot-stopping and command of his area has attracted the attention of a host of big club since his debut for Valladolid when he was just 18.

    Sporting Gijon left-back Roberto Canella is a product of the Asturian side’s cantera and has caught the eye as an ever-present in the Rojiblancos defence. Despite Sporting’s current poor form the 20-year-old has consistently impressed, proving a willing attacker and a robust defender. Athletic Bilbao caused quite some surprise in 2006 when they spent €6m on midfielder Javi Martinez when he was a raw 17-year-old from Osasuna. He had never played a first-team game yet, now, 20, he has matured into an experienced, tenacious midfielder and a regular in the side with well over 80 matches to his name. Tipped for a big future in the Spanish national team.

    Up top, Alvaro Negredo is a relative veteran at 23 but is in the form of his life for Almeria, with 15 goals and counting for Hugo Sanchez’s fledgling Andalucian outfit. The former Rayo Vallecano junior spent three impressive seasons in Real Madrid’s B-team without ever really getting a chance at the Bernabau, but he has grabbed his opportunity in Almeria with both hands. Tall, quick and strong, he is a handful for defenders and one should not rule out Real exercising their buy-back clause on him this summer.


    Zdravko Kuzmanović has been on the scene at Fiorentina for a while and the 21-year-old Serbian international has developed considerably since joining the Viola in 2007. He retains a commanding presence in the Viola midfield and has worked up a good understanding with the likes of Ricardo Montolivo and Martin Jorgensen.

    Domenico Criscito is a versatile defender who has been the lynchpin for an impressive Genoa team that has one of the best defensive records in the league. A product of the Grifone academy, he is now officially owned by Juventus and is an experienced U21 international. Paolo Maldini, no less, has tipped the calm 22-year-old for stardom and he’s not wrong.

    Marek Hamsik is one of several Napoli players to have caught the eye this season. The spiky-haired Slovakian is indeed so highly thought of by his own fans that when he was mugged outside the San Paolo, Napoli supporters tracked the culprit down and recovered his valuables. A two-footed, goalscoring attacking midfielder reminiscent (in play rather than appearance) of Pavel Nedved, he is a precocious talent who you imagine won’t remain in Naples for much longer.

    Alexandre Pato will, and you can hold me to this, be European football’s leading striker in five years time. When AC Milan announced his €22m transfer from Brazilian club Internacional, he was just 16. His record of 21 goals in 43 appearances for the Rossoneri is nothing short of outstanding for a player of his age. Diminutive in height but very fast and immensely skilful, Pato has it all. A phenomenal player is in the making – and as an Internazionale supporter, that isn’t easy for me to say!


    They may be bottom of the league, but Borussia Monchengladbach have the brightest midfield talent in the country at the moment in the shape of Marco Marin. 20 in a couple of weeks time, he's been protected by his club boss Hans Meyer, keeping him out of the firing line as Gladbach's general poverty of talent has seen them rooted to the foot of the Bundesliga for much of the season. Marin is among their top scorers and creates far more than his team-mates are able to put away. He's already made his debut for his country, and scored against Belgium in his second appearance, and looks set to be a feature for many, many years, though Gladbach will have to cash on on their prize asset when the season ends.

    If you've got the likes of Marin creating opportunities, you need someone to put them away. Leverkusen have that man, Patrick Helmes. Perhaps I'm pushing the envelope of the term 'young' by nominating a 24-year old, but 51 Bundesliga goals in 87 appearances marks him out as a special talent. When Dimitar Berbatov left Leverkusen to pursue his career in England, it was to Helmes that they turned to replace the Bulgarian who had done so well for them. If anything, he's even better than the £30m pound man he replaced.

    Borussia Dortmund have the best defence in the Bundesliga at the time of writing, and the star man in there is the Serbian Neven Subotic. He qualifies for the USA as well, having spent much of his youth there and has played at under-17 and 20 level for the States. He's expected to declare for Serbia though, and it won't be long before he's capped. A very athletic centre back, he impressed with Mainz in their brief stay in the top flight before Jurgen Klopp took him with him to BVB. For a 21-year old, he leads the defensive line well and has quickly become the key man at the back in an ever-changing Dortmund back four.


    PSV seem to have a bit of a monopoly on young talent at the moment. Much of it is still raw, though it's worth bearing in mind that Ibrahim Afellay is still only 23. Winger Nordin Amrabat is a bit younger and has been boosted more by Dwight Lodeweges tenure in the top job than any other. He has bags of pace, though his touch has let him down on more than one occasion. He is getting better though and when combined with other lads in their early 20s like Afellay, Ola Toivonen and Balázs Dzsudzsák, they've an attacking line-up that will serve them well for years to come.

    Perhaps Steve McClaren's biggest job in the coming off-season is hanging onto Eljero Elia. Twente have a blend of youth and experience, but much of the experience is coming to the end of it's shelf life while the younger guys are going to want moves to bigger clubs. And the way Elia's played over the last couple of season's, he going to be high up many clubs wanted lists. Playing a classical Dutch 4-3-3, Elia's played on one side with Marko Arnautovic on the other with the veteran Blaise N'Kufo up the centre. Having those wide guys with pace, energy and enthusiasm is vital to how Twente go and with a front three becoming the vogue across the footballing world, they'll be in demand.

    While forwards like Luis Suarez and Miralem Sulejmani grab the headlines, much of the good stuff Ajax have done this season has been built on a solid defence. While they were struggling, they were drawing more than they lost because they were so hard to break down and still are. At the heart of that defence is 21-year old Gregory van der Wiel. This is his second full season since making his debut for the club late in the 2006/7 season and he's been undroppable since then. Not the biggest defender, he has a calm, imposing presence and his partnership with Jan Vertonghen, himself only 21 as well, looks like laying the bedrock of an Ajax revival.

    Rotten season though they're having, incoming coach Mario Been will still have some talent available to him when he takes over at Feyenoord. Prime among those is Georgino Wijnaldum who, while many older players have been unavailable or out of touch, has played a lot of football for a teenager. He's raw, but has been one bright spark in midfield and is the sort of player the club needs to reassert themselves after a miserable recent period.


    It'd be too easy to point to Karim Benzema and go "he's dead good he is". And he is, and still very young, but way too easy. Besides, my current favourite at Lyon is Hugo Lloris, the 22-year old goalkeeper. With Gregory Coupet gone from the club having held sway for so long, Lyon snapped Lloris up from Nice and now the only talk of Coupet is to say "Gregory who?". He makes up for his lack of stature by his athletic nature, flinging himself about in all directions. In a position where cliché says players don't mature until their thirties, he reads a game very well indeed already.

    Lille have gone well this season and their driving force in midfield has been 18-year old Belgian Eden Hazard whose driving runs and support of the front men typify his game. He's already made two appearances for Belgium, a nation building something for the future on talents like him, Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele of AZ and Marouane Fellaini of Everton.

    Oh, and Yoann Gourcuff is still only 22 and can do things like this.