• Monday, 30 April 2012

    In praise of: Non-league terraces

    As mentioned in last week's Marking Your Card, we were at York for their final game of the regular season in the Blue Square Premier on Saturday. We've been paying the extra quid to go and sit down lately, but eschewed that in favour of standing on the Longhurst, behind the goal at the Shipton Street end of the ground.

    It's only when you've not done something for a while that you remember why you did it in the first place. Or perhaps it's more that you didn't realise why you were doing it - it was habitual - and time away allows you to reassess. Whatever, standing on the terraces behind the goal is great.

    The dynamic of the terrace is fascinating. It works along socially democratic collectivism means and is unashamedly masculine. Of course there are plenty of women in there these days and that's undoubtedly helped mollify the worst excesses, but it is still an overwhelming refuge for the male of th species. The heady aroma of stale beer, cigarettes and testosterone - all similarly strange and exotic when the young fan first risks a trip into the bear pit - dominate the air, the only difference being that you realise you're now a contributor to that rather than the passive consumer you once were.

    It can be unforgiving, but also diplomatic. York's winner came in front of the Longhurst late on, Portuguese winger Adriano Moké's weak shot squirming through the legs of Forest Green keeper Sam Russell. Russell's distribution had not been good all afternoon and the terrace let him know. And yet when an over-eager ball boy in front of the Longhurst picked up the ball before it had gone out, you could sense the urge to berate him, but destroying a six-year old would have been a step too far. The poor kid was soaked anyway and diplomacy reigned; the lad was spared with only a few titters the giveaway to the casual observer that something was afoot.

    Planning wrangles aside, York will soon be moving to an out-of-town, all-seater stadium in the middle of a retail park, as is the style of the time. The days of the Longhurst are numbered. It's a thing to be cherished in the time it has remaining.

    Friday, 27 April 2012

    Marking your card #7

    Herewith our picks of the more interesting games around Europe this weekend.

    After the fun and games of title deciders last weekend, there could be a few more this week too. There are also some cup final shenanigans.

    First to Russia, where long-time leaders Zenit just need a point at home to second-placed Dinamo Moscow to seal the title. They're 12 points clear with four games to go including this one, so Dinamo need to win everything while hoping Zenit lose everything. If not this week for Zenit, it will surely come soon. They've been the best all season by some distance. The chase for second place and a Champions League spot is perhaps more interesting. Dinamo are a point ahead of Spartak with CSKA two further back. Spartak are away to CSKA this week.

    Ajax need a win to seal a second successive championship in the Netherlands. When all around have faltered, they've kept on keeping on. Frank de Boer has already been spoken about in terms of the Barcelona job should Pep Guardiola step down (not confirmed at time of writing) and two Eredivisie soup dishes isn't a bad way to start your managerial career, especially given the state Ajax were in when he took the reins. They are in Enschede this week to play FC Twente who are in a similar hunt for points to make it to that second Champions League spot. It's third v second at De Kuip where Feyenoord host AZ and PSV aren't out of the hunt for second either. They're in Kerkrade to play Roda JC. Heerenveen are still in with a shout of European qualification and are away to Heracles this week.

    It's the French Cup final on Saturday with minnows US Quevilly playing the giants of Lyon. Quevilly getting this far has been one of those feel-good stories that cup football throws up occasionally and it's sure to be quite a party in the tiny Norman village whatever the outcome. It's all on Lyon, a no-win situation in many respects.
    Ligue 1 continues as well and PSG's trip to nearby Lille is the big clash of the round. Lille need the points to maintain a Champions League spot and any hope of overhauling their near neighbours. PSG need points for their title push. Montpellier have a tough Friday night assignment in Toulouse, though TFC have dropped off the pace a little of late.

    Olympiakos sealed the Greek championship a while back and get the opportunity to make it a double this weekend in the Cup final against Atromitos. Olympiakos have only lost one of their last twelve against domestic opposition while Atromitos - fourth place in the Super League table - haven't won for a month. It should be a formality. Should be...

    Basel are technically champions of Switzerland at the moment, but for an appeal by second-placed Luzern over points docked in relation to FC Sion's ineligible player row, specifically points they think they should have been awarded for a game against Sion. Basel, diplomatically and sensibly, aren't claiming anything, but a win over eighth-place Lausanne will be enough no matter what happens to Luzern either at CAS or away to Grasshopper this weekend.

    The Spanish title is all but decided after last week's clasico and it would take a choke of spectacular proportions to deny El Real now. The big race is on for third place and Valencia go to Málaga this weekend. Málaga trail Los Che by three, but Valencia beat them 2-0 in the Mestalla. Málaga therefore need to win this by three to go ahead on the head-to-head. Should Valencia win, there's a real push for fourth with Levante, Athletic, Atlético and Osasuna all in the frame.

    The English championship could be decided in all but name on Monday where the two Manchester clubs meet at City's ground. A draw will pretty much do for United, allowing them a mulligan in the final two games. City have to win and, at home, the onus is very much on them. It promises to be quite a game.

    Us? Well it's the final round of games in the Blue Square Premier. We're off to York's home game with Forest Green Rovers. York are sealed in the play-off places, but who they play is open to question. It could be Mansfield - safe in third - or it could be Wrexham - ina lonely second. Who the fourth team in those play-offs is yet to be decided as well. Luton are fifth at the moment and are away to runaway champions Fleetwood. Kidderminster are two points behind them and play Mansfield at home. Intrigue right the way through. Who Fleetwood plus one replace in the football league is two of Macclesfield, Hereford and Barnet. That picture won't become a lot clearer until five o'clock tomorrow.

    Thursday, 26 April 2012

    In praise of: The penalty shoot-out

    We love a good penalty shoot-out here. We love a bad one as well. It's an unfairly maligned way of settling tied games in knockout football, testing as it does a perfectly normal part of the game.

    It's not like we're asking players to write essays on the physics of galaxial inter-relationship - though we're sure that would play into Shaka Hislop's hands - or teach home economics to some unruly 12-year olds. Other methods have been tried, but the silver goal was even worse than the golden goal and the 35-yard rule in MLS, while innovative, was quickly scrapped in favour of the IFAB standard. Like democracy, the shoot-out is the worst system apart from all the others.

    A certain mythology has arisen around the shoot-out, largely around their status as a lottery and that the Germans are ruthlessly efficient at them. Both of these myths, largely English in origin, can be debunked with one word: practice. Penalties are only a lottery if you don't practice and the Germans are good at them because they do. Moreover, Toni Kroos and Phillip Lahm hit two of the worst penalties seen in a long time in the Champions League semi-final at the Bernabeu. Fortunately for them, Kaka picked up the baton of Brazilians missing in shoot-outs, Sergio Ramos sent his into a lower earth orbit and they had the back-stop of one of the finer exponents of the spot kick to win it for them in Bastian Schweinsteiger. His technique is exemplary and that's no accident.

    The shoot-out provides high drama, dizzying highs and crashing lows. It should be embraced for what it is, not decried for what it isn't. And any side with difficulties in this department are better off looking at why that might be than writing it off as a lottery.

    Wednesday, 25 April 2012

    I don't know much about art, but I know what I like

    Art is entirely subjective. For every piece lauded by all and recognised as Good Art - the Mona Lisa, say - there's a piece of brutalist architecture like Birmingham Library, unloved by many but also recognised as an exemplar of it's type. Modern art is even more divisive and for every acclaimed Antony Gormley statue there's an Eduardo Paolozzi head that remains unseen by many, praised by few and loved by even fewer. For every one of Dali's melting clocks that adorn the walls of students, there's also something like his Portrait Of My Dead Brother, a dark, disturbing piece, but also utterly compelling.

    Football, we are told, is art. Barcelona, we are told, are the Flemish Masters of their day. But the art they produce is only one interpretation. Widely acclaimed and admired it may be, but it's not the only way to produce something that someone, somewhere will love. Nothing is right, nothing is wrong. Some styles may have more aesthetic appeal to a mass audience and be easier on the eye, but that's not to say that alternative methods of achieving the same goal are worthless or devalued.

    What Chelsea did at the Nou Camp was not pretty, but there are plenty of other things it wasn't as well: dull, ineffective, unworthy. It wasn't some major tactical masterplan, rather a case of needs-must and pragmatic determination brought on by events (stupidity and misfortune in equally large measures) that left them without either of their first-choice centre-backs. Whatever else had to happen to ensure that it worked did and it's that confluence of circumstances that makes it something worth celebrating.

    Tuesday, 24 April 2012

    TW3 #9

    Protests. Two of them this weekend and for very different reasons. Sevilla fans weren't taking the fact their game at home to Levante was held back until 10:30 - meaning it finished the following day - so that TV could analyse every last second of the clasico that went before it. With banners such as "stop the game, Mou is talking", a shower of tennis balls rained down onto the field in scenes reminiscent of those at FC Basel when their game was held back because Roger Federer was playing tennis. Heaven help us if the World Snooker Championships ever takes precedence over a football game. You could really hurt someone with a cue ball.

    A protest of a different sort in Genoa where they're in all sorts of trouble at the wrong end of Serie A having spent a fair wedge to get there. Supporters launched fireworks onto the field which left the referee with no option but to take the players from the field. The Genoa players stayed out to remonstrate with the fans, but a number demanded that the players hand over their shirts as they were not worthy of them. Ten shirts were handed over, Giuseppe Sculli the refusenik. Eventually, the fans were persuaded to return to the stands where they observed the remainder of the game with backs turned to the pitch. Siena ran out 4-1 winners and on Monday morning Alberto Malesani was sacked. To be sacked from a club once in a season is bad. For the same club to sack you twice is perversely impressive. Genoa sit one point and one place above the drop zone.

    On to the actual football and that clasico then. Real Madrid won it against a tired looking Barcelona. El Real are not about to drop eight points in the remaining four games and the title will be theirs. Valencia strengthened their grip on third place after thumping woeful, nine-man Real Betis, but are a whopping 33 points behind El Real. Racing are down after losing to Athletic. A win for Granada and a point for Villarreal means that Sporting and Zaragoza are going to join them before too long.

    Dortmund sealed their second successive championship with a 2-0 win over Gladbach. Bayern came from behind to beat Bremen with Franck Ribéry scoring a last-minute winner, but it mattered not with Dortmund's win. Bayern will finish second, Schalke and Gladbach are fighting for third while Stuttgart need a series of events to go their way to pip Gladbach for fourth. Lautern won for only the fourth time this season, a 2-1 win in Berlin against Hertha, a result that leaves Hertha in deep trouble. The problem for Lautern is that Koln's point against Stuttgart was enough to condemn them to 2.Bundesliga football next season. They'll be replaced by Greuther Fürth whose point against FSV Frankfurt on Friday was enough to seal promotion and they're joined by Eintracht Frankfurt who beat bottom side Alemannia Aachen on Monday.

    When is a championship not a championship? When it's mired in the increasingly odd world of Swiss football. Basel took an unassailable 16-point lead in the standings after a 3-0 win over Sion, but refused to celebrate as second-placed Luzern are appealing against a decision regarding two competition points they feel should be theirs after the Sion ineligibility row. Basel have said they'll only celebrate when they're out of range even should the points be reinstated. Meanwhile Young Boys and FC Zurich have been refused licenses to operate next season, joining Servette and Neuchatel Xamax in that regard. Seven second-tier clubs are also subject to the same penalty.

    Sint-Truiden were relegated from Belgium's top flight after losing the fourth game of their play-off with Westerlo. The fifth game will not now be needed, Westerlo having won three of the first four. Anderlecht opened up a five-point gap in the championship play-offs by beating Club Brugge. Five games remain there. In the Turkish championship play-offs, Galatasaray were beaten by Fenerbahce, closing the gap to two points with four games to go. Besiktas and Trabzonspor cannot win it - it's a straight fight between Gala and Fener. Ajax need one more win for a second successive Eredivisie title as the top five all won. They're six clear of AZ, but one point covers second to fifth in the chase for Champions League football. A draw for Heerenveen at home to Vitesse sees them drop back. The French title race rumbles on as Montpellier and PSG both won - the Parisians 6-1 at home to Sochaux - leaving the gap at two points. Zenit's lead in Russia was trimmed to 12 points after a draw with Kuban Krasnodar, but with just four games to go, one more point will do it. They're at home to second-placed Dinamo Moscow next week as well.

    Friday, 20 April 2012

    Copa Libertadores heads to the knockout rounds

    While Europe was in the grip of the Champions League semi-finals this week, South America's premier club competition finally reached the end of it's tortuous group stage.

    Four of the eight groups were settled quite early on  with two teams dominating throughout. Fluminense and Boca Juniors dominated Group 4 with Flu only losing in gameweek five, to Boca. The Argentine champions had a slow start with a draw against Zamora in Venezuela and a loss to Flu, but then won their final four games to secure second place behind the Brazilians. Back-to-back wins over Arsenal de Sarandi in the middle two weeks made all the difference both to Arsenal and to Boca. Zamora's only point came from that first game.

    Libertad and Vasco da Gama dominated Group 5 in similar fashion ahead of Nacional and Alianza Lima and Group 6 was even more divided with Nacional Ascunsión and Deportivo Táchira only mustering one win between them. Corinthians and Cruz Azul progressed unruffled. And in Group 8 Universidad de Chile picked up their Copa Sudamericana-winning form to top the group from Atlético Nacional. Godoy Cruz and Peñarol won a game each.

    The big drama came in Group 1 where Flamengo were dumped out in dramatic fashion. Lanús had secured top spot before the final round of matches, but the other three were all in with a shout. Fla had to win - they did, 3-0 against Lanús - to have a hope. Emelec and Olimpia were tied at 2-2 when the final whistle went at the Engenhão, but in stoppage time in Ascunsión, José Quinonez grabbed a winner for Emelec that sent them through instead. Ronaldinho's team were out.

    Bolívar had to win on the final day of Group 3 to join Unión Española in the knockout stages and they did, 3-0 over Universidad Catolica. That rendered Junior's win over Unión academic. Vélez Sarsfield dominated Group 7 with a battle on between Deportivo Quito and Defensor Sporting to join them. Fortunately for Depor, they were playing group whipping boys Guadalajara on the final day and duly whipped them 5-0 which meant Defensor's win over Vélez counted for nothing.

    Santos walked Group 1 and were joined by Internacional after a nervy final round. Needing a win to be certain of qualifying, Inter lose 1-0 in Peru to Juan Aurich. Fortunately for them, Santos did them a favour by beating Bolivians The Strongest in São Paulo by two goals to nil. Inter snuck through by a point.

    And so to knockout football where no Uruguayan side appears for what feels like the first time in ages.

    Corinthians take on Emelec where the altitude of Quito could be vital. Both sides will be looking for big home wins, Emelec to take advantage of the altitude and Corinthians to negate it's effect.
    Fluminense and Internacional meet in an all-Brazilian tie whiole Brazilian champions Santos have to take on Bolívar and La Paz's rarefied atmosphere. Universidad de Chile, probably the most exciting team in world football at the moment, drew Deportivo Quito while Libertad have the long trip to Mexico to take on Cruz Azul. Boca Juniors play Unión Española, Lanús take on the might of Vasco da Gama and Atlético Nacional, Colombia's only representative in the last 16 with an attack led by group stage top-scorer Dorlan Pabón, will play Vélez Sarsfield.

    The knockout round starts on March 30 and, as ever, it should be cracking.

    Marking your card #6

    What we'll be looking out for this weekend. We feel quite sure there's a big game going off somewhere on Saturday evening. Errmmm.... errrr.... Oh, it'll come to us. Onward...

    Lots of things can be resolved in Germany this weekend. A win for Dortmund over Gladbach in the big Borussia derby will seal the championship for the second year running for the Schwarzgelb no matter what FC Bayern do at Bremen. Gladbach need a win to secure at least fourth place and the Champions League qualifying berth and Schalke, away to Augsburg, need a win to be safe in that top four. Anything other than a win for Lautern will condemn them to relegation and even that might not be enough if Koln get anything out of their game against Schalke. In the division below, Greuther Fürth just need a point for promotion and play away at FSV Frankfurt tonight. Eintracht Frankfurt need a win to seal an immediate return to the top flight and are also away, to Alemania Aachen on Monday. Paderborn, Fortuna Dusseldorf and St Pauli are all still in the mix for third and the promotion play-off against the 16th placed team in the Bundesliga which looks like being either Hertha BSC or Koln.

    Ajax opened up a six-point gap at the top of the Eredivisie last week, not a decisive lead, but one big enough to make one think they're almost home. Four games to go here and everyone else is looking for them to slip up at home to Groningen this weekend. Twente are away to Excelsior, Feyenoord - all of a sudden in third place - got to Den Haag, AZ have VVV at home, PSV - outside the European places now - play NEC at home and Heerenveen host Vitesse. With only one down automatically, one of Excelsior and De Graafschap - at home to Heracles - look doomed. There's a point between them.

    Still six games remaining in Ligue 1 which means nobody from 12th down can consider themselves safe. Auxerre are beginning to be cut adrift though and look like one of the three to go down. The top two look clear, Montpellier leading from PSG, and they are both at home this week to Valenciennes and Sochaux respectively. A midweek loss for Lyon has all but ended their hopes of Champions League football and locked with Toulouse for fourth. Lille run in a lonely third.

    If Genoa beat Siena on Sunday, Cesena will be relegated from Serie A even if Cesena manage to beat Palermo. Novara - away to Napoli this week - also need to start picking points up before it's too late. A point continues to seperate Juventus and Milan at the top. Milan are at home to Bologna this weekk while Juve have the game of the round, at home to Roma who still have chances to make the Champions League places.

    Another big game in Turkey this week with Fenerbahce going to Galatasaray. A win for the latter and they'll have an almost decisive lead.

    Spain now and if Villarreal beat Real Sociedad and Granada beat Getafe, Racing will be relegated. Even if not, it's a long road back for Racing who host Athletic on Sunday. Sporting Gíjon and Zaragoza also remain deep in the mire and are at home to Rayo and away to Mallorca respectively.

    And that's it for this week.

    Oh no, wait. There's the small matter of Barcelona v Real Madrid on Saturday. The Catalans are four points behind. Both come off Champions League defeats. A draw will probably do for El Real. Nothing but a win will suffice for Barcelona. It will probably be a pissy, whiny bitch-fest, but some football could break out. Strap in.

    Us? Well we're off to Huddersfield v Scunthorpe, so you don't have to. Enjoy the game wherever you end up.

    Monday, 16 April 2012

    TW3 #8

    The weekend's football was largely overshadowed by the tragic death of Piermario Morosini in a Serie B clash between Livorno, with whom he was on loan from Udinese, and Pescara. The Lega Calcio immediately cancelled the rest of Italian programme for the weekend - Milan and Genoa learning this during their pre-match warm-up - with nobody in the mood for a game. Questions are being asked. There is a rigourous testing regime in place, but all the screening in the world isn't going to help, especially if pitchside treatment isn't up to scratch or ambulance staff are prevented from accessing a stricken player by a badly parked traffic officer's car.

    Morosini has been talked about in glowing terms in the aftermath and seems a genuinely liked person. Not that he'd had it easy. Both his parents died when he was still a teenager, his severly disabled brother committed suicide in between. And yet at no point does it appear to have affected him negatively, rather to spur him on. If anyone had the right to dwell on things and wear 'why always me?' t-shirts, it was Morosini. That he took such a philosophical outlook on things only serves to increase the sense of tragedy. He leaves behind a physically handicapped sister, but just when you thought you couldn't respect Antonio di Natale any more, he goes and pledges to ensure she's looked after. When tragedy strikes, real heroes emerge. Di Natale has always been a footballing hero. He's so much more than that now.

    Football does pale in light of that, but it did go on as it always will, the unstoppable behemoth that it is. We'll have a whizz round the leagues very quickly.

    Cup joy for both Marseille and Benfica. Brandao's extra-time goal settled a dull Coupe de le Ligue final in St Denis while a late Javier Saviola strike snatched glory for Benfica just after Zé Luís had equalised for Gil Vicente. In Ligue 1, Montpellier still lead despite losing to Lorient as PSG were held by bottom club Auxerre.

    Dortmund won the big derby in Germany at the home of their rivals Schalke. Bayern and Mainz struggled to a goalless draw, opening the gap out to eight and almost certainly ensuring that the salad bowl remains at the Westfalenstadion. Gladbach hammered sorry Koln - without a manager after offing Stale Solbakken in the week - to all but seal a place in the Champions League qualifiers. In 2.Bundesliga, Greuther Fürth and Eintracht Frankfurt are all but promoted. It would take a monumental collapse to deny either as with Fortuna beaten by Dynamo Dresden on Monday night, Greuther need one point, Eintracht two.

    AZ losing to PSV and Twente drawing with NAC has allowed Ajax to pull out a six-point gap at the top of the Eredivisie. Zwolle will be promoted after a 0-0 draw with FC Eindhoven sealed the Eerste Divisie title. In Spain, wins for the top two left everything as was, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi both moving on to 41 league goals for the season.

    Unseemly goings-on in Turkey where Didier Zokora accused Emre Belozoglu of racially abusing him during the Fenebahce v Trabzonspor game. Emre coughed to it and apologised, in fairness. In the big game, Galatasaray triumphed over Besiktas and remain five points clear.

    The Champions League semi-finals take centre stage in midweek while Lega Calcio have confirmed that Italian football resumes next weekend.

    The Euroballs man of the week #2

    Antonio di Natale

    The banality of brilliance

    Despotic regimes the world over have displayed how evil can be utterly banal. Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil describes that beautifully. A dystopian, authoritarian regime drowns it's subjects in bureauracy, the hoops to jump through and sheer misery of getting anything done grinds the populace down. The only escape is dreams. That desire for escape is seen through the eyes of Jonathan Pryce's Sam Lowry and (spoiler alert) ends with him humming the film's theme song while in a catatonic stupor.

    Last Wednesaday; Barcelona 4-0 Getafe. Lionel Messi bagged one - it was sublime, as ever - Alexis Sanchez got a couple, one set up by Messi. Pedro wrapped it up with a fourth. It was Barcelona. It was an outstanding performance, but it's not going to be reported as such. Instead, words like 'routine' will be used because this is routine for Barcelona and that's sad. Such sustained brilliance has become standard, banal, borderline boring.

    Life in the age of Guardiola's brilliant Barcelona hasn't quite been the dystopian nightmare imagined by Gilliam, but instead of having our collective spirit as football fans crushed by the weight of the bureaucratic machinations of state, we are instead assailed daily by ream after ream of eulogising copy from the fourth estate. It becomes harder and harder to bash out a piece on how good they've been because they do it so often. Pundits repeat themselves endlessly and flounder as they try to come up with another superlative to describe Messi's dancing feet, broad smile and another delicate chip to set or extend yet another record.

    It's not Barcelona's fault. This is the culmination of a plan long in the making and the ingredients are all there to keep this up for some time yet. It's not the fault of the press as they have a duty to write something, even when it feels like it's all been said before. It's not even the fault of every other football team out there as there are myriad ways of playing the game, none of which are more correct than any other for so long as the game remains a contest about which side can get the round bally thing into the back of the netty thing the most times. It's not evil, but it is a plan for world domination only without the hollowed-out volcano lair and the white cat on the lap. And it has become normal, staid, routine, run-of-the-mill and, yes, banal.

    And there we sit, glued to the TV, gently humming our own end credits to ourselves as we watch Barcelona eviscerate some hapless lamb thrown to the slaughter, slowly descending into a catatonic stupor.

    Friday, 13 April 2012

    Unbelievable Jeff! #23

    We love a penalty shoot-out and wish a pox on the house of anyone who describes them as a lottery.
    Self-indulgently sharing the best penalty shoot-out ever. On a freezing night in York three years ago in a sparsely attended FA Trophy 3rd round replay, York City and Kidderminster Harriers mustered 25 successful penalties in a row in an epic shoot-out.

    This week, we're sending a Euroballs delegation to York for a league game against Newport County, the two sides that will be appearing in this season's FA Trophy final.

    Marking your card #5

    Herewith the highlights of the coming weekend around Europe.

    Biggest game of the weekend is the Ruhr derby as Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund make the short trip to Gelsenkirchen to take on rivals Schalke. Dortmund built up a six-point buffer by beating FC Bayern midweek and the Bavarians are at home to Mainz awaiting a slip-up by the Schwarzgelb. And if it's derby action you want, try Galatasaray travelling to face Besiktas in the Turkish league. Slightly more tame than that is the game on Sunday in Vienna between Rapid and Austria.

    Saturday is League Cup final day in France and Portugal as Lyon take on Marseille - the Olympique derby - at the Stade de France and Benfica meet Gil Vicente in Coimbra. Marseille go into it in stinkingly rotten form and Lyon are huge favourites to take the first silverware of the year. Benfica are even stronger favourites in their final.

    Inter travel to Udine in a big clash in terms of the minor European placings. Udinese have just gone off the boil a little lately while Andrea Stramaccioni has had a solid start to his Inter career, already taking more points in four games than Claudio Ranieri did in his last ten.

    The Eredivisie became a lot more clear-cut after the midweek matches. PSV are at home to AZ in the one clash between the top six. Twente are at home to NAC, Heerenveen go to Nijmegen and Feyenoord face their feeder club Excelsior at De Kuip. Anyone hoping for a slip-up from leaders Ajax will be disappointed - they're at home to De Graafschap.

    The top two in Spain are both in action on Saturday ahead of Champions League assignments midweek with Real Madrid at home to Sporting Gíjon and Barcelona with the marginally tougher assignment of playing away at Levante.

    And in English non-league football, Fleetwood Town can confirm their promotion to the football league with a win over Lincoln City at Highbury tonight. They will win that. Lincoln are rubbish.

    Enjoy the game wherever you end up.

    Thursday, 12 April 2012

    Top 10: Jobs more suitable for Nicolas Anelka than football manager

    Nicolas Anelka is now player-coach of Shanghai Shenua. Yes, really. No, I promise you I'm not. He really has. It says it in respectable newspapers and everything. It's hardly your obvious choice of role for the lad given his past history of being Nicolas Anelka.
    It could be worse though and here are ten jobs he'd be less suitable for:

    10. Navy SEAL.

    9. Victim support liaison officer.

    8. Stand-up comedian.

    7. Children's entertainer.

    6. Finance advisor for the Citizens Advice Bureau.

    5. Tourism officer for the city of Madrid. Or Paris. Or London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bolton, Istanbul...

    4. France's Ambassador to... well, anywhere really.

    3. Motivational speaker.

    2. ACAS mediator.

    1. Careers advisor (for anyone other than his brothers)

    The Euroballs man of the week

    Marius Ebbers

    TW3 #7

    That was the (mid)week that was. And what a midweek. So much going on, we'll rattle through as best we can.

    Where to start? France, probably, where third-tier Quevilly made it through to the final of the Coupe de France by beeating Rennes. The Ligue 1 side were ahead early on through Julien Féret, but couldn't find a second. Karim Herouat equalised midway through the second half and, with the game heading for extra-time and Quevilly under massive pressure, they broke quickly and Anthony Laup slid one past Benoit Costil for a sensational late win. They take on Lyon in the final on the 28th of this month after they beat Gazelec Ajaccio on Tuesday. In Ligue 1, Montpellier eased past an increasingly shambolic Marseille side 3-1 to take a three-point lead in the standings over PSG.

    On Tuesday, Barcelona took Getafe apart at a stroll to move within a point of Real Madrid who had a derby clash at the Calderon the following day. A Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick helped the leaders past their city rivals with a 4-1 win. Atléti were level, briefly, but El Real were rarely in serious danger of dropping points. The battle for the league rolls on. Valencia were also big winners, 4-1 over Rayo, and move back to third with Málaga in action on Thursday.

    A potentially decisive clash in Dortmund saw BvB place one hand on the championship plate with a 1-0 win over nearest challengers Bayern. Despite the Schwarzgelb dominating the first half, the sides turned round at 0-0, Robert Lewandowski with the best chance as he crashed a thunderous header off the post with Manuel Neuer - the ex-Schalke keeper getting dogs abuse all evening from the local fans - well beaten. Bayern were better after the break, but Dortmund still created the better chances and went ahead as a short corner routine ended with Lewandowski getting a vital touch onto a Kevin Grosskreutz shot. Arjen Robben was playing the big Pole onside and later had a tame penalty easily saved by Roman Weidenfeller, the keeper atoning for his brain explosion that caused him to give it away in the first place. Neven Subotic played the Martin Keown role in reminding Robben of what he'd done and the Dutchman's night got worse when he missed an alomst open goal from all of a couple of yards. Lautern lost again and are nine points from the relative safety of the relegation play-offs with four games remaining.

    In Serie A, Milan went back to the top after Sulley Muntari's early goal was enough to beat Chievo, but a late winner from the ageless Alessandro del Piero helped Juventus beat Lazio and return to the summit a day later. Inter beat Siena and move within three points of Udinese in fourth, though Roma and Napoli sit in between.

    It was a good midweek for Ajax, 5-0 winners over 10-man Heerenveen who had goalkeeper Brian Vandenbussche sent off early on. Theo Janssen converted the resultant penalty and Ajax strolled to a win. PSV lost at Waalwijk to leave themselves and Heerenveen seven points off Ajax with five games to go and all but out of the race. Feyenoord were held 0-0 by Roda JC and are six points back from the Amsterdammers while AZ and Twente drew 2-2, Emir Bajrami with a late equaliser for the Tukkers, leaving them three and five points adrift.

    A surprise defeat for Manchester United at Wigan sees the latter pull themselves out of the relegation places in England for the first time since September. It's also caused a frisson of intrigue at the top, but United's lead over city rivals City remains at five points - a gulf. With QPR winning as well as Wigan, it was a bad midweek for Bolton and Blackburn who were both beaten and both slip into the bottom three along with the doomed Wolves.

    Finally to Scotland where it's congratulations to Ross County on making it to the SPL for the first time. Playing in the Highland League up until 1994, they've slowly been building towards this, coming via a Scottish Cup Final in 2010. Not in action this week, their promotion was confirmed when Dundee were held at home by Queen of the South. This isn't a case of cashed-up Gretna or a financial basket-case like Livingston. It's been slow, steady progress and more power to their elbow for that.

    Tuesday, 10 April 2012

    TW3 #6

    Rounding up last weekend's action.

    Game on in Spain. Real Madrid were held by Valencia at the Bernabeu while Barcelona beat Zaragoza with something to spare. The gap is down to four with a game between the two contenders to come. Suddenly, games for El Real against city rivals Atlético and Athletic look potential deciders. Málaga go above Valencia who drop to fourth, but Levante refuse to go away in teh chase for that final Champions League place. Performance of the week though belongs to Rayo Vallecano. The perennially cash-strapped club thumped Osasuna 6-0, Michu with a couple. There's a full midweek programme this week with that Madrid derby the highlight. Barca are at home to Getafe.

    Porto have taken charge of the Liga Zon Sagres after beating Braga 1-0, Hulk the goal-scorer, and seeing Benfica lose by the same scoreline to Sporting the following day. Ricky van Wolfswinkel got the Sporting goal from the penalty spot early on and Luisao was sent off in teh last minute. Porto lead by four from Benfica who remain a point ahead of Braga.

    Juventus, still unbeaten, move back to the top of Serie A after beating Palermo 2-0 and seeing former player Amauri grab a late winner for Fiorentina in Milan. Zlatan had given the Rossoneri the lead, but Stevan Jovetic squared it up and Amauri struck with a minute to go. There's a midweek round of fixtures here too with Juventus at home to Lazio who remain third after Stefano Mauri's stunner helped them to a 3-1 win over Napoli. Milan are away to Chievo.

    The gap at the top of the Bundesliga remains three points after routine wins for both Dortmund and Bayern. The two meet on Wednesday at the Westfalenstadion with Dortmund reporting that they've had 450,000 applications for tickets for the 81000 capacity ground. It should be a cracker. At the bottom, Lautern are toast.

    Wins for Montepellier and PSG in Ligue 1 leaves the latter at the top on goal difference with their game in hand against Marseille to come on Wednesday. Lille lose pace after defeat in Brest which brings Lyon within striking range for third place and the final Champions League place.

    Silverware in Holland where PSV beat Heracles 3-0 in the cup final in Rotterdam and in Scotland where Celtic finally got over the line after thumping Kilmarnock. There are midweek games in the Eredivisie with AZ v Twente and Heerenveen v Ajax the highlights. PSV are away to Waalwijk and Feyenoord at Roda JC. In the Ukraine, Shaktar won the big game and go ahead of Dynamo on goal difference.

    Sunday, 8 April 2012

    Unbelievable Jeff! #22

    Lazio. Napoli. Whipped-in cross. Stefano Mauri at the back post.

    Unbelievable Jeff!

    Friday, 6 April 2012

    Marking your card #4

    A busy Easter schedule and here are our picks of what to look out for.

    Starting in the Ukraine. The top four face each other this weekend with Metalist away to Dnipro on Monday, but the top two, the two big boys, play on Saturday as Dynamo travel to Donetsk to face Shaktar. Three points separate them with Donetsk playing catch-up (channelling our inner Henry Kelly there). This game is huge.

    A similar thing happens in Portugal as well. Porto go the quarry in Braga with the hosts two points behind the leaders. Benfica, sandwiched between the two, are in derby action at the Alvalade against fifth-placed Sporting Clube de Portugal. Tasty.

    The big game in Germany sees leaders Dortmund go to a resurgent Wolfsburg. With Bayern at home to Augsburg and having rediscovered their mojo, any slip-up by BvB will be sized upon.

    A week off for the Eredivisie as it's cup final day in the Netherlands. Heracles are long odds to beat PSV, but the chances of Almelo's plastic pitch hosting European football next season may rest on the Eindhoveners making it to the top four. The top two in the Eredivisie make it to the Champions League, the next two go to the Europa League and one of the next four join the latter through the play-offs. With a genuine top six vying for those four top places, nothing is guaranteed.

    More derby action in Poland's Ekstraklasa, this time in Łódź where Widzew are away to ŁKS. Given the lack of action in previous derby, especially the recent one in Warsaw, stick the farm on 0-0.

    Finally, to MLS and a derby of sorts in an all-Canadian affair as Toronto go to Montreal. Just the 542km each way for TFC fans...

    Thursday, 5 April 2012

    Champions League ennui

    The quarter-finals of this season's Champions League have come and gone with barely a flicker of recognition on the Euroballs interest-o-meter. Is this a one-off or something more serious?

    There's no doubt that the modern structure of Europe's premier cup competition lends itself to this, set up as it seems to be in order to ensure the passage of the same few big clubs. The revenues clubs generate from participation also helps ensure that the same clubs are more likely to be back time after time. Michel Platini's tinkering with the qualifying rounds has helped us see more national champions in the group stages and that's been slightly more refreshing - APOEL's progress has been this season's highlight - but once we get to the knockout rounds, the gulf between the have-a-bits and the have-bloody-loads is horribly exposed.

    But for that sense of familiarity with the regular appearances of a small number of clubs in the last eight, this year has felt even duller. While we cheered APOEL through their last-16 tie against Lyon, Real Madrid were always going to be a step too far and the other ties lacked any sense of jeopardy. Milan playing for a 0-0 at home was never a good idea with the return at the Nou Camp and Barcelona duly got the expected result. FC Bayern eased Marseille aside home and away without either side looking particularly bothered and Chelsea did likewise against Benfica. Broadcasters here in the UK tried their best to engage viewers in Chelsea's games, but we were still too busy wishing it was Napoli and lamenting their inability to finish the job at Stamford Bridge after giving them a touch at the San Paolo. We tried watching, but as soon as Chelsea scored in Lisbon, the game was pretty much up. In the return, an early penalty all but sealed the deal and we flicked over to re-runs of Man vs Food on Dave*.

    There is intrigue left. The British press are trying to whip up something about a Chelsea/Barcelona rivalry after a semi-final between the two a few years ago that featured a poor refereeing performance. We're not buying it and presume that Barcelona couldn't really give a flying one. Moreover, if form in the quarter-finals suggests anything, it's that the Catalans will be in the final in Munich after a comfortable victory. That would mean that they either face their old rivals or Bayern get to play a final on their own ground.

    The Bavarians have made much of the fact that they're hosting the final and why not? They have it all to do to beat Real Madrid to get there, but let's hope they do and save us from two weeks of the usual bollocks that accompanies el clasico that, frankly, is getting tiresome coming as it does just half a dozen times a year. The Mourinho 'mind games', the hunt for new Lionel Messi-related superlatives, the endless wittering oh merciful god make it stop. So at least we will have a new thing to experience during the semi-finals: rooting for FC Hollywood to rescue the Champions League. Urgh.

    * - Note for overseas readers. Yes, there is a TV channel in the UK called Dave. No, us neither.

    Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #29

    Tim Wiese

    One of the more expressive German goalkeepers, and that's up against some stiff opposition. Leaving Werder Bremen in the summer, so someone's getting a bargain.

    Tuesday, 3 April 2012

    TW3 #5

    Rounding up last weekend into a neat little package.

    What a game in Dortmund on Friday night. Leading 2-0 early in the second half, BvB were looking good for win number 17 from their last 18 games. But Stuttgart turned the game on it's head with a Julian Schieber double helping them into the lead. Back came Dortmund only for a defensive mix-up deep in stoppage time to allow Christian Gentner to snatch a dramatic 4-4 draw. Bayern's fourth win in a row sees them close within three points. Dropped points for both Schalke and Gladbach leave it a two-horse race. Leverkusen, on the fringes of the European places, sacked Robin Dutt after their fourth successive league defeat. Sami Hyypia takes temporary charge. Down in Regionalliga Nord, the Magdeburg fans arrows clearly worked and backed up their goal from last week with two more this week, and it was enough for a win which lifts them off the bottom.

    More goalfests in Italy where Inter won their first game under Andrea Stramaccioni by the odd goal in nine in a game that featured four successful penalties and two red cards. Genoa scored three of the penalties - two by Alberto Gilardino - but still came up short. Diego Milito bagged a hat-trick for the Nerazzuri. Genoa responded by sacking coach Pasquale Merino and replacing him with Alberto Malesani who previously coached the club as long ago as last December before being replaced by Merino. There were seven more goals in Roma's game against Novara, Luis Enrique's side running out 5-2 winners. Milan were held by the quietly effective Catania and Juventus were comfortable winners over Napoli. The gap at the top is down to two.
    All of that was rather overshadowed by events elsewhere as nine former Bari players were arrested as part of match-fixing investigations, Andrea Masiello admitting to scoring a deliberate own goal after being offered €50,000 to lose a game against Lecce. This one will run and run.

    As you were at the top of La Liga as Real Madrid came away from Pamplona big winners. Barcelona beat Athletic shortly afterwards to retain the status quo. El Real's five goals against Osasuna took them to the 100 mark for the season. Valencia dropped more points with a draw at home to Levante who are still right on their heels. Málaga couldn't take advantage with a home defeat to Real Betis where a win would have sent them third. A third straight win for Zaragoza pulls them within four points of safety. The greatest of escapes is still on. Defeats for Sporting and Racing make them look doomed.

    In the Eredivisie AZ were held at home by Vitesse which allowed Ajax, who stuck six past Heracles, to go top by a point. FC Twente are two points further back from the Alkmaarders, one point ahead of the next three - PSV, Feyenoord and Heerenveen - who all won.

    Benfica beat Braga, bringing the latter's brief leadership of the Liga Zon Sagres to an end. However, it's Porto who now lead the way after a comfortable 2-0 win over Olhanense. Benfica are a point behind, Braga one point further back. Marítimo and Sporting CP look certain to finish fourth and fifth - the Europa League spots - one way round or t'other.

    Montpellier weren't in Ligue 1 action, but stay top after PSG were beaten by Nancy. Lille laboured to beat Toulouse to close within four points and give themselves breathing space back to the chasing pack.

    Celtic have to wait a week for the Scottish title. Rivals Rangers won as did the hooped half of Glasgow, but one more point will do it for Neil Lennon's men. Olympiakos did seal the deal in Greece, beating Panaitolikos 1-0. Despite Panathiaikos beating Aris by the same score, Olympiakos are ten points clear with three games to go. Manchester United put one hand on their 20th English championship by beating Blackburn as rivals City were held by Sunderland. The gap is five, but it feels like 50 such is the difference in momentum between the two sides.

    Midweek sees the intra-continental competitions take over with Champions League and Europa League quarter-final second legs and the Copa Libertadores centre stage - Godoy Cruz v U de Chile looks a cracker - before a packed Easter schedule.

    Sunday, 1 April 2012

    Unbelievable Jeff! #20

    Back to Germany for yet another Unbelievable Jeff. Friday night saw Stuttgart go to the Westfalenstadion to take on champions Dortmund. What a game. 1-0 at the break, it ended with eight goals, lots of drama and despite conceding four times, the outstanding player on the pitch was centre-back Mats Hummels. Have a look at the ball for BvB's second and the finish for the third. And on the sidelines, Jurgen Klopp and Bruno Labbadia were almost as entertaining as everything that went on elsewhere.
    Game of the season? Something pretty bloody spectacular has to happen to top it. The Bundesliga is bloody great.

    Unbelievable Jeff!