• Thursday, 31 May 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #40

    The last of our Group A previews focuses on the Czech Republic.

    Petr Cech

    Jan Laštuvka

    Jaroslav Drobny

    Petr Cech may still be one of the best goalkeepers around, but the headgear he's been sporting since 'the incident' at Reading does rather undermine his authority. But in Laštuvka and the gloriously eccentric Drobny, the Czechs are well covered.

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #39

    Russia are the third team in group A that we'll have a look at via the tried and trusted mechanism of goalkeepers yelling at defenders.

    Igor Akinfeev

    Anton Shunin

    Vyacheslav Malafeev

    With Akinfeev recovering from injury in time for the competition, it'll be interesting to see if Dick Advocaat goes with him or Malafeev who played the majority of qualification. He'd better hope both those two remain fit as Shunin looks a callow youth with low yelling at defender abilities.

    Wednesday, 30 May 2012

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #38

    Our second team to be profiled is Greece.

    Michalis Sifakis

    Kostas Chalkias

    Alexandros Tzorvas

    Good depth and a variety of facial expressions will score highly with the judges. That's a classic from Tvorzas, but was that just a one-off from a usually relaxed keeper? When the pressure is on, is he able to step it up?

    Euro 2012 Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #37

    Part one of our Euro 2012 previews via the medium of goalkeepers yelling at defenders, here we have a look at Poland.

    Wojciech Szczesny

    Grzegorz Sandomierski

    Przemysław Tytoń

    Not a bad selection by Franciszek Smuda. Plenty of variety, though Sandomierski needs to up his yelling. Leaving out the master shouter Artur Boruc may yet come back to haunt the Poles.

    Monday, 28 May 2012

    TW3 #14

    For the second time in quick succession, Athletic were blown away in a cup final, this time by Barcelona in the Copa del Rey at the Vicente Calderon. This was Athletic 63rd game of the season, and it showed. Not that Barcelona haven't also had a lot of games, but their possession-based game doesn't place quite the same physical demands on players as Marcelo Bielsa's high-tempo pressing game. At the end of the first year of the Bielsa project, the players, quite frankly, look knackered. With Messi at his unplayable best and Iniesta pulling the strings, Barcelona took control early with Pedro beating Gorka Iraizoz at his near post. Twenty minutes later, Messi had doubled the lead and Pedro bagged a second - game over. Even the introduction of Euroballs favourite Toquero could get Athletic back into it.
    So Pep Guardiola leaves with 14 trophies - from 19 contested - in his four years as Barcelona manager. Not bad, really. He leaves for a sabbatical and Tito Vilanova has the task of taking the side forward. Tough gig.

    Torino and Pescara are promoted to Serie A, Torino as champions. They drew with AlbinoLeffe while Pescara were beating Nocerina. With the better head-to-head record, Torino finish top. It's Sassuolo against Sampdoria and Hellas Verona v Varese in the play-offs. Deportivo La Coruna are promoted to the Primera Division in Spain, as champions, after coming from behind to beat Huesca. They're four clear of Celta Vigo with a game to go. Celta need a point in the last game to seal second, Valladolid's draw with Alcorcon giving them a bit of breathing space.

    We're previously waxed lyrical about our love of the penalty shoot-out, and this week has seen the venerable institution make headlines again. First, Sepp Blatter wished to find a better way of resolving drawn games and then players on two continents show why that's a misguided notion. Two quarter-finals in the Copa Libertadores went to spot-kicks. Santos matched Vélez Sarsfield's 1-0 thanks to Alan Kardec before prevailing 4-2 on penalties while Universidad de Chile and Libertad drew 1-1 for the second time in the tie. La U won the shoot-out 5-2 to progress. It looked like Boca Juniors and Fluminense would go the same way as Flu led the second leg 1-0 heading into the dying moments, but Santiago Silva grabbed a stoppage time equaliser to send Boca through 2-1. In the final tie, Paulinho's goal was enough for a 1-0 aggregate win. Boca play La U in the semi-finals while the other tie is an all-Brazilian affair with Santos at home in the first leg to Corinthians.

    The League 1 play-off final also went to penalties after a drab 0-0. Sheffield United's well-documented issues with forwards necessitated a change of approach and their flooding of the midfield blunted Huddersfield and the two sides cancelled each other out. Town missed their first three penalties, but in Alex Smithies they have a goalkeeper who is something of a 12-yard specialist. He saved two of United's first three before the players finally found their shooting boots. At 2-2 after five each, it went to sudden death, eventually coming down to the goalkeepers against one another with the 11th penalties. Smithies tucked his away, but Steve Simonsen sent his into the stands and Town are promoted. In League 2, Crewe were comfortable winners against Cheltenham.

    Back in domestic action, three assists from Juan Roman Riquelme helped Boca to a 3-0 win over Godoy Cruz and, combined with Tigre's draw with Atlético Rafaela, opens up a three-point lead at the top with three games to go. Reigning Brazilian champions Corinthians lost their second game of the season and remain without a point. Atlético Mineiro were their conquerors, one of three sides with 2-0 records - Vasco da Gama and Botafogo the others. Colo Colo won their Chilean Apertura quarter-final against Deportes Iquique 5-4. A 3-3 draw on Thursday was followed by a 2-1 win on Saturday, Colo hanging on with ten men for the last ten minutes. Universidad Catolica are out, well beaten by Union Espanola, and O'Higgins progress after two wins over Union La Calera. Universidad de Chile are 2-0 up in their tie against Cobreloa ahead of the return in the small hours of Tuesday morning. Universidad Cesar Vallejo are Peruvian champions. They got the point they needed in a 0-0 draw with Universidad San Martin which rendered Real Atlético's 1-0 over Union Comercio academic. Defensor Sporting are Uruguayan champions with a round of fixtures remaining. A 3-0 win over El Tanque Sisley leaves them four points clear of Liverpool - 3-1 winners against Cerrito - with a game remaining. All done in the Colombian regular season and the top eight are now split into two groups of four, the winners of which will contest the final. Deportes Tolima finished top, seven clear of the field, and they're in group A and red-hot favourites.

    In the international friendlies, an Eren Derdiyok hat-trick helped Switzerland beat Germany 5-3. Without their Bayern players, Germany were not anywhere near their best and this isn't representative of their chances in the Euros. The Dutch were beaten at home by Bulgaria, Joris Mathijsen taken off injured early on as well. The form of both Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has seen Bert van Marwijk try to play them together, going away from the 4-2-3-1 that served them so well previously.

    And that'll do us for now. The Euros are just eleven days away now.

    Friday, 25 May 2012

    Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #35

    Jack Butland

    If this is the best image we can find of him expressing anything to his defence, we wonder if he's that good a pick. Bet there are loads for David Stockdale and Scott Carson... Anyway, he's third choice keeper, the ultimate gooseberry in any tournament squad.

    Marking your card #10

    What we'll be watching this weekend.

    First up, the Copa del Rey final. It's Athletic v Barcelona at the Vicente Calderon in Madrid and it's already causing problems with one senior Madrid politician calling for it to be played behind closed doors in case either of these clubs partisan and nationalistic support dare boo the Spanish anthem. Yeah, whatever. When these sides met at San Mamés, they played out a wonderful 2-2 draw described by some as a hymn to football. More of that please. It's Guardiola's last game - for now at least - in charge of the Blaugrana against the man whose advice he sought before taking the job. Athletic haven't been on a good run and a defeat here will leave them not just exhausted, but also potless which would be an incredible shame. Barca have 'only' won three of the five competitions they've completed so far, but would of course love little more than to send off their favourite son with one more piece of silverware for the mantle.
    There are still two rounds remaining in the Segunda División and Deportivo La Coruna can seal a return to the Primera with a draw at home to Huesca. The other automatic spot is between Celta Vigo and Valladolid - locked together on 81 points. Celta are away to relegate Nastic while Valladolid play Alcorcon who are in the mix for the play-offs. They, Hércules, Córdoba and Almería are the three clubs fighting for the other two places for that final promotion spot.

    It's the final round of Serie B fixtures in Italy. The top two - Torino and Pescara - are already up with Torino needing a win over rock bottom AlbinoLeffe to make sure of taking the title. The play-off places for the remaining promotion spot are already sealed - Sassuolo, Hellas Verona, Varese and Sampdoria - but not the order or who will play whom for that final Serie A spot next season. Of the four, it's Verona in the best form.

    The other two games in Europe concern promotion in England. On Sunday, Cheltenham play Crewe for a place in the third division while there's an all-Yorkshire affair the day before as Huddersfield Town play Sheffield United for a second division place. It's all gone a bit wrong for United after two of their strikers displayed differing levels of mindless idiocy to deprive the club of their services - one for three matches, the other for five years (minus good behaviour). Town, meanwhile, struggled to find their feet after replacing their manager, but began to come into form in the final weeks of the season. It should be fun.

    Further afield, the Chilean Championship play-offs begin with leaders Universidad de Chile against Cobreloa. Two points cover the top five in Argentina, but none of them play each other this weekend. It's the final round in Colombia with loads of teams trying to make the top eight play-offs . Pretty much every game has something ridin on it on a great weekend for lovers of the word 'permutations'. It's the last round in Peru with Universidad César Vallejo top by three from Sporting Cristal who must beat Juan Aurich and hope for Universidad de San Martín to overturn UCV.

    The Toulon tournament and U19 European Championships rumble on as well with loads of games over the weekend. We'll pick Czech Republic against Netherlands in the latter and Netherlands v Turkey in the former.

    There are international friendlies galore as well as the Euros - just a couple of weeks away - loom on the horizon. Germany v Switzerland looks a particularly nice one.

    The season may be over, but the football never stops. Have a good one.

    Tuesday, 22 May 2012

    Good to be back

    Some self-indulgent reflections following York City's return to the Football League after a play-off win over Luton last weekend.

    Some ten years ago, York were almost out of business. It's not a coincidence that so many clubs that have found themselves in financial trouble have had the ownership of the ground transferred away from them. This was true of York. The board decided that it was better for the club not to own the stadium any more and placed it in a holding company. The plan to sell the ground for housing effectively left the club without a home. Then along came John 'I fuck companies' Batchelor, the Walter Mitty of our time. Fancy promises were his modus operandum, just fancy enough to make you think 'hmm, that sounds ludicrous, but it could work' for long enough that you'd be distracted while he helped himself to the takings. Having failed to deliver anything other than a swanky new house for himself, Batchelor steered the club into administration. It was steered out by a determined effort from supporters. Times were hard.

    They were on the pitch as well as off it. Manager Terry Dolan was sacked in March 2003 with the board citing financial reasons. In his place, Chris Brass was put in charge at the age of 27. Under his leadership, the club managed find a way of not winning any of their final 20 games of the 2003/4 season and were relegated to the Conference.

    Seven seasons and five managers later, York are back. Billy McEwan got the club to the play-offs once and Martin Foyle to the final. While both of those played their part in rebuilding the football side of the club, it was when Gary Mills arrived at the club in October 2010 that things started to happen. As a teenager, Mills won a European Cup with Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and, like so many others that learned under Clough, he's clearly picked up a bit. He's very forthright and has a particular style that he will not detract from. I've written about formations and philosophies before, theorising that there's no 'right' way to do it, so long as there's 'a' way. Any theory or method is equally as good as any other, providing that your recruitment and training is geared towards that. Chelsea want to play deep and hit on the counter - fine. Barcelona want to play tiki-take - equally fine. Mills likes a 4-3-3, possession oriented game with a high tempo. He got players comfortable in that style on board and hasn't deviated from that.

    And that was the team that took the field at Wembley - Gary Mills's team. With 8000 supporters from York and Luton with around four times that amount, Luton went in front inside 80 seconds. But York came roaring back and led 45 minutes later. They closed it out brilliantly, Luton reduced to shooting from range.

    Inside the ground, it was impossible to enjoy. The previous weekend was the FA Trophy final, a nice day out for all. During the intervening week, I'd had broadcast commitments at the second leg of Huddersfield Town's play-off against Milton Keynes and a big Super League game between Huddersfield and Wigan to distract me. From 10pm on Friday though, there was nothing else to worry about. By the time kick-off arrived, I was in bits. This never happens. I'm the last of the pragmatists. I'm cold, laid back and rational, not a quivering mess of nerves. I believed that if we played anything like, then we'd win. After all, in four games against Luton this season, we'd won three and drawn one. We'd beaten them in the FA Trophy semi-final, we'd seen off the physical threats of Mansfield and Newport and are generally better against sides like Luton who come out and play. But logic and reason had taken a leave of absence.

    While the game itself - and the stadium hot dog, which tasted of fish - was anything but enjoyable, the win eliciting feelings of relief rather than happiness or even satisfaction, I had the chance to watch it back. It turns out that my friends watching at home were right - it was a really good game. And Matty Blair was at least a yard offside for what proved to be the winner. Luton must be fed up of the sight of us - they've won one of eleven games against us in non-league football - and they, along with Wrexham, must be favourites to go up next season.

    So it's farewell to the Conference. Farewell to a league where the fixtures are drawn by hand. No trips to Forest Green - now on their own as the longest serving club in the division - or Braintree, Barrow and Tamworth. Over the non-league years, I've been to Salisbury, Weymouth, Grays, Ebbsfleet, Rushden, Kettering, Kiddersminster, Woking and many others. While it's a relief to be promoted, I've had some good times at these places. There's no more qualifying rounds for the FA Cup and no more FA Trophy at all. What we do have is the FA Trophy on our list of honours, a permanent reminder of where we were and where we should determine we don't return. Instead, we can look forward to Bradford, Rotherham, Rochdale and Chesterfield, Plymouth, Torquay and Exeter. The Johnstones Paint Trophy and the League Cup. It also means central funding for the youth system, something which charitable donations have paid for over the last five years as funding ceases after three years outside the Football League.

    The ten years since our ground was effectively taken from us feel nicely bookended by a week in which we've won something, got permission to advance plans for a new community stadium and got promoted back to the Football League. It's good to be back.

    TW3 #13

    Big prizes dished out this week, a parade or two rained on in the process.

    First, to Munich where the unthinkable happened - Bastian Schweinsteiger missed a penalty. Even odder was that Arjen Robben, rather than the normally ultra-reliable Schweinsteiger, took a spot-kick in extra-time. Playing up to Dutch stereotypes, Robben missed which allowed Chelsea the opportunity to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. That Petr Cech guessed correctly at all five can't have been coincidence, but after Juan Mata had missed Chelsea's first effort, it looked like being Bayern's day, but Cech pushed Ivica Olic's tame effort away and Schweinsteiger hit the post after seeming to change his mind midway through his run-up. Didier Drogba, who had taken the game to extra-time with a thumping header two minutes from the end, beat Manuel Neuer with the decisive penalty to give Chelsea a first European Cup.
    It had an air of inevitability about it. The game itself, for all the personal trauma for Robben, Olic and Schweinsteiger, resembled Steaua Bucharest against Barcelona in the 1986 final with Chelsea content to sit deep and play on the counter. Bayern, like Barcelona in the semi-finals, just couldn't find a way through and attempting to sit on 1-0 - Daniel van Buyten replacing Thomas Muller - backfired badly.

    Ricardo Vaz Te ensured West Ham's stay outside the English Premier League was a short one, bagging a winner two minutes from time at Wembley against Blackpool. York City's Matty Blair proved the winner in the Conference play-off final at the same venue 24 hours later to make his team the 92nd entrant into the professional leagues. We'll have more on that soon.

    Second-half goals from Edison Cavani and Marek Hamsik denied Juventus a league and cup double in Italy, rather spoiling Alessandro del Piero's last game in the black and white. It also spoiled Juve's unbeaten season. They'd only once ended 90 minutes behind, in the semi-final second leg against Milan, but that only served to send the game to extra-time where Mirko Vucinic sent them through on aggregate. This was the first time the final whistle blew with them trailing. Sporting CP were beaten by a fifth-minute Marinho goal for Académica in the Portuguese Cup final and Hearts took the honours in Scotland after a thumping 5-1 win over city rivals Hibernian, Rudi Skacel with two.

    PSG did what they had to do to try to wrest the Ligue 1 title away from Montpellier's clutches by winning 2-1 away at Lorient. Trailing to Kevin Monnet-Pacquet's opener, Javier Pastore and Thiago Motta ensured the points went back to Paris. It proved futile though as a John Utaka double for MHSC sealed a comeback win after Olivier Kapo had given Auxerre the lead. A side built for €2m had beaten the side that spunked almost 20 times that amount on Pastore alone. Dijon were thumped 5-0 by Rennes and go down, their cause not helped by red cards for Younousse Sankharé and Chaher Zarour. Caen, 3-1 losers to Valenciennes, are the other side to be relegated.

    Vitesse will play Europa League football next season after beating RKC in the play-off. VVV Venlo retained their place in the Eredivisie, a 2-2 draw on Sunday enough to complete a 4-3 aggregate win over Helmond Sport and Willem II are back, promoted after a 2-1 win over Den Bosch following a goalless first leg.

    The last round of games in the Chilean Apertura saw Universidad de Chile finish top, a 4-0 win over Huachipato enough to seal the position after a bit of a wobble. They'll play eighth-placed Cobreloa in the first round of the play-offs. O'Higgins and Deportes Iquique finish second and third, five points adrift. Deportes Tolima will finish top of the Colombian Apertura as they are five clear of the field after the penultimate round of fixtures. Robin Ramirez snatched a late draw with Deportes Pasto this weekend. Behind Tolima, there's a real log-jam for the rest of the top eight places with five points covering second to tenth and 11th-place Atlético Nacional still have a chance to crack the eight.

    It was quite a week, all told. Next week sees the focus shift to matters promotion as several second divisions reach a conclusion.

    Friday, 18 May 2012

    Marking your card #9

    As one door closes, another opens so the old saying goes. That's as true this week in football as it is in life.

    The final round of Ligue 1 dominates Sunday and the cheeky upstarts of Montpellier need a point from a trip to Auxerre - already relegated - to seal a first ever championship. They may not even need that should PSG lose to Lorient, and with Lorient desperate for points to avoid relegation that can't be ruled out. Anyone from 12th-placed Valenciennes down are in a spot of bother. Ahead of Auxerre, Dijon are on 36 points, with Brest, Caen and Ajaccio two ahead of them and Sochaux, Lorient and Nice a point further clear. Valenciennes are on 40 and should be OK as it would take an extraordinary set of results to relegate them. The fixtures in this eight-way relegation battle are:
    Evian v Brest
    Lorient v PSG
    Lyon v Nice
    Sochaux v Marseille
    Toulouse v Ajaccio
    Valenciennes v Caen
    Of the clubs in trouble, only VA and Caen face off directly. Their futures are in their own hands. Everyone else will have a radio pressed to the ear in the time-honoured fashion.

    There were lots of cup finals in midweek - Basel completing a double in Switzerland and Fenerbahce thumping Bursaspor with a superb display in Turkey the picks - and more finals follow this weekend. The last two places in next season's Eredivisie are up for grabs as Willem II and Den Bosch - 0-0 in the first leg - and Helmond Sport and VVV - VVV lead 2-1 after the first - complete their ties. Vitesse, 3-1 up from the first leg, play RKC for the final Europa League place. Sporting CP and Académica contest the final of the Taca de Portugal, there's the Coppa Italia final between Juventus and Napoli - that should be a cracker - and Endinburgh rivals Hibernian and Hearts take part in the Scottish Cup final in Glasgow. There's also the small matter of the Champions League final. Bayern are at home to Chelsea, the game being played at the impressive Allianz Arena in Munich although without the usual number of Bayern fans, but both sides are missing key players through suspension. Bayern are the bookies favourites and by a fair chunk which is probably representative.

    While all these competitions come to an end, the Brazilian national championship kicks off this weekend. After months of increasingly tedious and pointless state championships, Serie A gets underway. Two of the promoted clubs kick us off, Portuguesa away to Palmeiras and Sport Recife at home to Flamengo. Champions Corinthians start on Sunday at home to Fluminense, last year's runners-up Vasco da Gama are at home to Grêmio and favourites Santos are away to Bahia.

    Elsewhere in South America, Newell's continue to lead in Argentina and take on third-placed Tigre this week. Boca, in third, are away to traditional rivals Racing Club. Universidad de Chile have lost the last two in the Primera División de Chile. They need to get back to winning ways and take on Huachipato, in seventh, this week. O'Higgins are poised to take advantage of any slip as they take on rock-bottom Cobresal.

    England sees two particularly massive games at Wembley over the weekend. First up is the clash between West Ham and Blackpool for the chance to play in next season's Premier League. This will be hyped beyond all recognition as a consequence of so much money suddenly being made available to the winners, but no less important is the Conference play-off final for the right to play in the Football League. Former league sides York City and Luton Town are going for this one and while the numbers may be smaller, it's no less important for the two clubs. You lose funding for your youth teams after dropping out of the league and both have been down there a while - eight years in York's case - and getting back up is a big deal. They've played each other four times this season already, York winning three with one draw, but none of that will matter come 3pm on Sunday. That's where we're going. Come on York (impartiality be damned).

    We will also have spies in Radom in Poland where Radomiak travel to take on neighbours Bron needing a win to secure promotion from the regional leagues to the national II Liga - the third tier of Polish football.

    Wednesday, 16 May 2012

    Awwwwww, poppet. Unbelievable Jeff #24

    This has been everywhere so you've probably already seen it. Also, it's a rare example of the KNVB and their broadcast partners leaving a clip online for long enough for people to watch and share.

    Basically, Graafschap got relegated after a defeat to Den Bosch in the second round of the play-offs that determine the final two places in next season's Eredivisie. Players slump to the floor in the time-honoured fashion, none moreso than skipper Rogier Meijer. His daughter comes over to see if he's OK.
    Run VT:

    It is almost - almost - enough to make me think that having kids might even be a worthwhile thing to do in case I ever have to cope with major disappointment in life  (if you never expect anything good to happen, disappointment is rarely an issue), rather than believe them to be harbingers of doom, impingers of lifestyle and drains on beer money that I have until now suspected them to be.

    Unbelievable Jeff.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I seem to have something in my eye.

    Tuesday, 15 May 2012

    Fail in England, fail in life

    As league titles are decided, thoughts turn to the next season. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Barcelona who have lost not only their league title, but also their scion of Johan Cruyff's Dream Team, Pep Guardiola. His successor Tito Vilanova has, according to the gossip and rumour pages recently, identified David Luiz as a key signing for his first season in charge. Cue much hilarity from the British press. "Ha ha ha, he's terrible at defending". "Tee hee hee, he done a blunder a couple of times this year". So it goes.

    This isn't the first example of such a phenomenon. Juan Sebastian Verón copped much the same after not being at his mercurial best in spells with Manchester United and Chelsea. Diego Forlán was written off as failure on the back of his time with United despite scoring absolute bucketloads of goals wherever else he's been in his career. Indeed, whenever he's featuring in a game on UK TV, hearing mention of the fact that 'he failed to set the Premier League alight' is rarer than not, presumably because someone feels that that's the benchmark by which all careers should be measured.

    Luiz has his faults - that much is clear. But to focus on that does the man a disservice and blinds the observer to the things that a club like Barcelona see in him. In a back three, he's absolutely ideal. Like Gerard Pique, he's very accomplished on the ball, has a bit of pace and can pick a pass. That latter point is absolutely crucial in the Barcelona system where Pique is as much a quarter-back as he is defender. With Carles Puyol approaching the end of his career, it's a move that screams sense.

    If it does go through, expect him to be labelled in the UK as a Premier League flop for the rest of his life. He could win countless trophies and personal accolades, but if he comes back to this country for a European fixture or an England v Brazil friendly, expect the phrase to appear before the anthems are over. The appointment of Roy Hodgson to the role of England manager was the same - his entire 35-year career overlooked for nine months at Liverpool, a basket case of a club at the time and one which £120m of players made appreciably worse.

    Yes, you can file this under S for 'stating the bleeding obvious'. It's still worth saying though and is a reason why we in this parish watch so much football from abroad and will watch the Euros with the sound down. We want an appraisal of the football we're seeing, not speculation as to how much one of the Manchester clubs will offer for the genius that is Mats Hummels. We wonder, though, if it is the same elsewhere. Was Dennis Bergkamp known as a 'Serie A flop' by the Italian media after he left Inter? What of Gary Lineker at Barcelona, where Rinus Michels played him as a winger? Or is it just the British that are willing to write people off on the basis of a tiny proportion of a career with no appreciation of the rest of it? A genuine question.

    Monday, 14 May 2012

    Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #33

    Ruud Boffin

    Because everyone deserves a Ruud Boffin once in a while.

    TW3 #12

    Well that was dramatic...

    On a quite remarkable day in the Premier League, the title ended in the hands of Manchester City, Sergio Aguero's late, late goal capping a turnaround of quite large proportions. City were looking good to do something that only they ever could and chuck it all away, even after Joey Barton confirmed his idiot status by getting sent off after a contretemps with Carlos Tevez. Djibril Cissé, Lord of the Manor of Frodsham, kept up his record of either scoring or getting sent off in every game this season, but Edin Dzeko and Aguero struck in injury time to deny United who had won up at Sunderland.
    At the bottom, Bolton join Blackburn and Wolves in relegation after conceding two sloppy goals - one to a clear foul as the keeper was charged into the net like it was 1899 and one a very dubious penalty - to draw at Stoke. Bolton are massively over-leveraged and what happens to them from here could be very painful indeed. Arsenal, after a shambolic start to the season, finish third and in the Champions League places with Tottenham fourth and sweating on the result of the Champions League final next weekend. If Chelsea win that, it's the Europa League for Spurs.

    Speaking of Germany, Dortmund claimed a first ever league and cup double after a brilliant performance in Berlin's Olympiastadion against Bayern. From the off, they were unplayable. Shinji Kagawa, in what appears to be his last game for the Schwarzgelb, put them in front early on and, despite Arjen Robben equalising from the penalty spot, they looked in little danger from there. Mats Hummels bagged a penalty of his own, but Robert Lewandowski grabbed the headlines. The lanky Pole was unstoppable, countryman Kuba Blasczykowski similarly good and Kevin Grosskreutz also impressed. It was as complete a performance by any team in Europe this season.

    Galatasaray are champions of Turkey after a 0-0 draw with Fenerbahce. It wasn't the most noteworthy of games other than that, though both sides finished a man short, Issiar Dia for Fener and Gala's Tomas Ujfalusi both cautioned twice and sent off.

    Juventus completed a season without a defeat in winning Serie A. They beat Atalanta 3-1 and Alessandro del Piero, in his last game for the club, on the socresheet. Milan also bade farewell to a number of players - Gattuso, Nesta, Inzaghi, van Bommel, Zambrotta - after a 2-1 win over Novara. Udinese finish third and in the Champions League, another veteran helping them to a 2-0 win over Catania. Antonio di Natale, as if you couldn't guess. Lazio beat Inter to finish fourth and leave Inter outside the European places and Napoli finish fifth after Andrea Dossena scored twice in a 2-1 win over Siena. Genoa got the win that ensured survival - 2-0 against Palermo - which means that Lecce go down with Cesena and Novara. Lecce lost anyway, away to Chievo. Coming up are Pescara, but the other promotion and play-off places are to be decided in midweek.

    Villarreal drop out of Spain top division after a dramatic final day. Sporting Gijón lost to Málaga and go down - Málaga make it to fourth and Champions League - while Villarreal were sunk by a late Radamel Falcao goal. With 88 minutes on the clock, they were safe. Even after the goal, they were OK, but then Raul Tamudo bagged a winner for Rayo Vallecano against Granada and they were down. Zaragoza completed a remarkable escape in a foul-tempered match against Getafe who finished with eight players. A fourth straight win for Zaragoza where once they couldn't buy one. Incredible.
    Pep Guardiola's last league game in charge of Barcelona finished with a 2-2 draw against Real Betis while Real Madrid beat Mallorca to hit the 100-point mark. Falcao's goal gave Atléti fifth place and Levante beat Athletic to make it to sixth and Europa League football. Deportivo La Coruna are Segunda División champions, but there's one more round to go to decide the second promoted side and who goes into the play-offs.

    Montpellier are almost champions of France after beating Lille with a last-minute Karim Ait-Fana goal. Lille will be third and in the Champions League places. Nene hit a hat-trick to ease PSG past Rennes, but a point next week against relegated Auxerre will be enough for the south coast team to lift the title. Auxerre's 3-0 loss at Marseille condemned them to the drop, but it's two from seven to join them after next week's last round. Bastia are Ligue 2 champions and Reims and Troyes are also promoted.

    FC Twente have had a really poor end to the season, capped by a loss to RKC Waalwijk in the Europa League play-offs. RKC were promoted last season and this marks quite a rise. Furkan Alakmak got the only goal of the second leg after a 1-1 draw last Thursday to make it to the final where they'll face Vitesse who beat nine-man NEC 2-0 in the other game to overturn a one-goal deficit from the first leg.
    De Graafschap are down after a loss to Den Bosch. VVV are still in with a chance of maintaining their Eredivisie status after beating Cambuur Leeuwarden 4-3. At 3-3 with seconds left, Cambuur were through on away goals, but Michael Uchebo ensured they live to fight on. Willem II and Helmond Sport also won and progress to the final stage. It's Willem II against Den Bosch and Helmond against VVV, the winners of which will be in next season's Eredivisie.

    We marked your cards with a bit of South American football, but omitted to mention the Bolivian Clausura which came to a quite thrilling climax this weekend. San José led the way by a point from Oriente Petrolero and three from The Strongest and Real Potosí. Universitario and Blooming were only a point further back. The Strongest and San José went head-to-head with Luis Melgar sealing a 2-1 win with little over ten minutes to go. That wasn't enough as Oriente were leading by the same margin away to Nacional Potosí. But with five minutes of the season remaining, José Rios found an equaliser for Nacional and suddenly Oriente were dropped to third and The Strongest were top. The final table shows The Strongest win from San José and Oriente on goal difference, all three sides on 38 points. Universitario and Blooming are a point further back after both won, Blooming against Real Potosi who drop to sixth, but only three points from the summit. Incredible scenes, more than matching the drama in England.

    Friday, 11 May 2012

    Marking your card #8

    The major leagues of Europe are winding down now and play-offs for everything are in full swing. There are some issues still to be resolved though, but it's time to start looking a little further afield for footballing kicks. Here's what we'll be keeping an eye on this weekend.

    The big one is in Turkey. Fenernahce v Galatasaray clashes are always tasty and Saturday sees the two clash at Fener's Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in a winner-takes-all title decider. Any winner will take the title. A draw, and it's Gala's. Gala went into the play-off series as league leaders, but haven't been at their best once there having drawn two and lost one of their five games. Fener, meanwhile, have won four and lost one to draw within a point. You don't want gambling advice from us, but back the draw and Gala to take the title.

    The big game in France sees Lille - in third place, five points off the lead - take the long trip south to Montpellier. A win for Lille will boost their hopes of retaining the championship, but could also play into the hands of rivals PSG who are away to Rennes this week and three points behind leaders MHSC. It's a pivotal week. At the bottom, Auxerre could be relegated if they lose and a series of results go against them, but it's so tight down there that it's likely to go to the final round.

    It's the final round in Spain where Gijón will be relegated unless they can beat Málaga. Even then, a point for Rayo in their game against Granada - both those sides are in trouble and desperate for points - will send them to the Segunda. Zaragoza occupy the third relegation place, but are on a great run and play Getafe this week while Villarreal play Europa League winners Atlético Madrid. They'll be hoping the celebrations have been wilder than is professional. It's a little more clear-cut in Italy. If Genoa get a point, Lecce are gone with Novara and Siena no matter what. Genoa play Palermo at home, Lecce are away to Chievo.

    And that's really that for the big leagues. The multitudinous play-offs are ongoing and we'll wrap that up later, but now it's time to look further afield.

    We'll be keeping an eye on Scandinavia. The Danish league looks like a race between FC Kobenhavn and Nordsjælland, but nothing catches the eye this week. Elfsborg have started the Swedish league like a train and Rosenborg and Stromsgodset have set quite a pace in Norway.

    There are six games to go in Argentina's Clausura and it is, typically, tight as a drum. Boca, defending champions, lead the way, but Arsenal in fifth are only three points behind. Vélez are fourth and play Boca this week at la Bombonera in the big game of the week. Estudiantes play Godoy Cruz, the last time Juan Sebastian Veron will take the field as a professional.

    The Uruguayan Clausura is similarly tight, with Defensor Sporting leading by a point from Nacional and Liverpool. Serial trophy winners Peñarol are on the move though and their game away to Montevideo Wanderers is the pick of the week. Chile isn't quite as tight, but the clash between Universidad de Chile and Universidad Catolica is a mouth-watering one. U de Chile are away and clear at the top, but with the title decided on play-offs it's far from over. There's a real logjam to try and make that finals series with four clubs locked on 20 points. Two of those - Santiago Wanderers and Cobreloa - face off this weekend.

    Finally, the MLS. In the Eastern Conference, Sporting KC are the class outfit, but two defeats in a row have allowed the field to close in, New York mainly. The Red Bulls take on Philadelphia Union this week and any New York/Phillie clash in any sport is normally tasty. It's high time football acted likewise. The West looks a three-way battle between Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle, the latter of whom are on a tremendous run. The stand-out fixture sees RSL go to Seattle.

    We, however, are off to Wembley. It's the FA Trophy final, the highlight of the British sporting calendar. It's York City against Newport County this year. Newport have the upper hand in the league clashes between the two this season, but York finished the league far higher. Let's just hope York football is the real winner.

    The most curious of play-offs

    Play-offs have come to dominate the end-of-season over the years. Most of them are for positive outcomes - deciding who gets promoted, gets one of the Europa League spots, things like that - and they're going on all over the place.

    England has them for promotion places in all the leagues, right through the system. Turkey has the top four playing off for the championship and fifth through eighth going for the final Europa League spot. But it's northern Europe where they really go mad for a play-off, and it's not always a positive thing to be involved.

    In the Eredivisie, the top two get Champions League football, third and fourth go into the Europa League. The final Europa spot is played for between the sides finishing fifth to eighth. At the bottom, only one club is relegated automatically. The next two go into an eight-team competition along with the teams finishing second through to seventh in the Eerste Divisie. In Belgium, they play off for everything - the championship, a Europa League place and relegation. The relegation play-off consists of a five-match series between the bottom two, the loser of which is relegated, the winner of which goes into a further four-game series with the clubs finishing second to fourth in the second division.

    But the real killer is the Bundesliga relegation play-off. The bottom two in the German top flight are relegated. The team finishing sixteenth goes into a one-off two-legged tie with the side finishing third in 2.Bundesliga. Really, it should be stacked in favour of the top-flight side. They've got the better paid and - so it should follow - better standard of player. They've been playing better quality opposition all season long. On the flip-side, you have a team from the second tier that, by defnition, have been winning more often than their first division rivals and therefore carry more momentum and positivity into the end-of-season showdown. Whichever is the case - if either are at all - there is no room for error.

    What happened in this year's German league was that Hertha BSC - thanks largely to FC Koln's incompetence - dragged themselves up into sixteenth on the final day. Fortuna Dusseldorf needed a draw in the last round of fixtures to make it to third in a highly competitive 2.Bundesliga. Fortuna were one of six clubs who, with just a month or so remaining in the league, had a real chance of winning the division. Barely a handful of points separated the front-runners all season until that final month when Greuther Furth and Eintracht Frankfurt pulled away and each of them drove the others on in a gripping contest.

    And so to the Olympiastadion in the German capital on Thursday night. It was clear which of the scenarios described above was in effect. Fortuna were bright, breezy and created plenty. Hertha's additional quality came to the fore briefly when Roman Hubnik put them ahead in the 19th minute, but the unease, the lack of confidence and the just plain brittle defence that haunted them all season soon came back. First, they stood and watched as Thomas Broker swept through to equalise and were similarly static as Adrian Ramos got in the way of another swift attacking move and turned the ball into his own net. It remained 2-1 to full-time and it's back to Dusseldorf on Tuesday for the return leg. Hertha are in a huge hole and with the away goals rule in effect they have to score at least twice - something they've done just 12 times in all competitions this season. Fortuna are favourites from here and should they complete the job, Germany will stand alone in Europe as having a league not featuring a club from the capital.

    It's a cruel game sometimes, and the German relegation play-off is perhaps the cruellest of them all.

    Copa Libertadores - round of 16

    We've highlighted previously the importance of home advantage in the Copa Libertadores. With the potential for vast distances between clubs and the extreme altitude in many parts mean that a failure to grasp those factors that lie in your favour often spell doom.

    La Paz and Quito are two cities that lend themselves to this. Bolívar, of the former, and Deportivo Quito both had home games in the first leg of the round of 16 against fancied runners. Bolívar won 2-1 against Santos, Jhasmani Campos with the winner after Maranhão had equalised an early Rafael own goal. Would that away goal prove crucial? Depor, meanwhile, thumped the quite excellent Universidad de Chile to the tune of 4-1, Gustavo Alustiza bagging two of them. Surely the away goal here was even less relevant?

    It became irrelevant, but not in that way. Depor and Bolívar were both brought down to earth at sea level, and in emphatic style. Santos were back on terms with Bolívar within six minutes, Elano with the goal, and more followed at regular intervals. A Neymar penalty was quickly followed by strikes from Ganso and Alan Kardec and it was five by half-time as Juan Valverde turned one into his own net. After the break, Elano and Ganso both got seconds and Borges wrapped up an astonishing 8-0 win sending Santos through 9-2 on aggregate. In Santiago, Universidad weren't as quick oout of the blocks, but by half-time had drawn the tie level, La U ahead by that away goal. In the space of fifteen first-half minutes, Juan Fernandez had nipped in for two and Marcelo Diaz made it 3-0. After the break, Eugenio Mena gave La U a bit of breathing space before a late brace from Ángelo Henríquez completed a 6-0 rout and a 7-4 aggregate win.

    Emelec had failed to make the mnost of their home leg against Corinthians with a 0-0 draw. In the return, the Brazilians were comfortable 3-0 winners. Unión Española also flopped at home, losing 3-2 to Boca Juniors after being beaten 2-1 in La Bombonera. It was the same story for Atlético Nacional who lost 1-0 at home to Vélez Sarsfield before a draw in Buenos Aries saw Vélez through. In the all-Brazilian tie, Inter and Flu drew 0-0 in the first leg before Flu won at home 2-1 after going a goal down early on. Leandro Damião put Inter in front, but Leandro Euzébio equalised moments later. Fred's goal late in the first half proved enough for Flu. Libertad had the longest trip, all the way up to Mexico and Cruz Azul, but they returned from there with a 1-1 draw. Back in Ascunción, they completed a 2-0 win to progress.

    In the final tie, both Lanús and Vasco da Gama won at home. Both won 2-1, Tefilo Gutierrez's late goal in the second leg sending the tie to extra time and, ultimately, penalties. There, Lanús striker Silvio Roméro was the only one to miss, crashing his 12-yarder off the bar, and Vasco progress.

    So to the quarter-finals then which get underway next Tuesday. It's a Brazil-dominated affair, half the sides coming from the continent's largest country. There are two Argentine sides while the only sides from outside those two countries meet each other. Here's how they line up:

    Fluminense x Boca Juniors
    Corinthians x Vasco da Gama
    Universidad de Chile x Libertad
    Santos x Vélez Sarsfield

    Thursday, 10 May 2012

    Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #32

    Thibaut Courtois

    Absolutely outstanding in the Europa League final last night, and can't have been far behind Radamel Falcao in the man of the match stakes, even if we would have given it to Gaizka Toquero because he's Gaizka Toquero.

    Tuesday, 8 May 2012

    TW3 #12

    A busy weekend all over the place and for all sorts of reasons, so let's get to it.

    For the first time since 2003, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a league champion. It was the Milan derby on Sunday evening and it turned out to be one of the games of the season. Having cut Juventus's lead to a single point in midweek, Milanese hopes were high, especially as a brace from Zlatan put the Rossoneri ahead after Diego Milito had put Inter ahead early. Two Milito penalties restored Inter to the lead and a complete thunderbastard from Maicon put the tin lid on it. As job interviews go, it was a pretty good one for Andrea Stramaccioni who now looks like being confirmed in the role full-time. More remarkably, with Inter three points from third, he could yet get them back into the Champions League. While it was all going off in Milan, Juventus were cruising to a 2-0 win over Cagliari in Trieste. Mirko Vucinic had them in front early on and an own goal from Michele Canini sealed the game and, as it turned out, the championship. The club, or elements within it, still claim it's their 30th Scudetto and another star needs adding to the badge, but that conveniently ignores the 2005 and '06 championships that were stripped for... well, y'know... that massive cheating scandal. They've earned this one though. Still unbeaten, they've conceded just 19 goals in the league all season.
    At the bottom, Novara beat Cesena, but both were down anyway. Nine-man Genoa lost to Udinese and need a point from their last game at home to Palermo to make sure of survival. Lecce need a win to draw level with them and force a play-off. They're away to Chievo. Speaking of Udinese, Antonio di Natale gave hints that he will be finishing at the end of the season. Now 34, he has been fighting through injuries for a while and the sudden death of Piermario Morosini has seemed to give him pause to reflect on the potential issues inherent in carrying on.

    Anderlecht are champions of Belgium after a 1-1 draw with Club Brugge left the gap at seven points between the two clubs with two games remaining. A last-minute penalty from Guillaume Gillet snatched a point after Maxime Lestienne had looked like wresting the initiative back. The top four in Holland all won, so Ajax finish top with Feyenoord in second and in the Champions League play-offs. PSV and AZ go into the Europa League directly with Heracles taking a spot after their cup final loss to the Eindhoveners. Heerenveen and Twente go into the play-offs for the remaining Europa League spot along with Vitesse and NEC, but the Eredivisie has an extra place through the fair play league. Twente will get it if they don't make win the play-offs. If they do, the extra place goes to Excelsior who were relegated. De Graafschap and VVV go into the promotion/relegation play-offs with Eerste Divisie sides Den Bosch, Cambuur Leeuwarden, Willem II, Sparta Rotterdam, Helmond Sport and FC Eindhoven. FC Zwolle replace Excelsior.

    With things tied up at the top end of the Bundesliga, all eyes were on the bottom this week and big black clouds - metaphorically and literally - descended over Koln. Lautern were already down and they were joined by Koln who were thumped 4-1 at home by FC Bayern. Fans reacted by letting off smoke bombs leaving the pitch shrouded in thick black smoke causing the game to be called a few minutes early. Hertha BSC face a play-off to maintain their Bundesliga status as they beat ten-man Hoffenheim to leapfrog Koln. Greuther Furth sealed the 2.Bundesliga title after a 2-2 draw with bottom placed Hansa Rostock as Eintracht Frankfurt - also promoted - lost to Karlsruher, a win that gives Karlsruher a shot at survival in a play-off. The push for the promotion play-off place was a three-way affair with two sides facing each other, St Pauli beating Paderborn 5-0 at the Millerntor. It wasn't enough as Fortuna Dusseldorf drew 2-2 with MSV Duisburg to finish ahead on goal difference. St Pauli needed another five.

    The title is sewn up in Spain as well, so again we look down the table for action. Racing are down already, but the other two spots are still open. Sporting and Zaragoza both won while Rayo - in horrible form - Villarreal and Granada were all beaten and could all go. Sporting have it all to do - They go away to Málaga next week needing a win and a run of results to go for them - but that final relegation place is wide open. Granada are away to Rayo in what appears the pivotal clash, but Granada will be depleted after having two sent off at the end of their defeat to Real Madrid on Sunday as tempers boiled over with the Zaragozan referee.
    Valencia sealed third, but Unai Emery - as has been rumoured for some time - will be leaving the club. Mauricio Pellegrino will take over.

    Intrigue in Portugal surrounds the fate of União de Leiria. Having olnly raised eight players last week, they at least had 14 for the loss to Benfica this week as players who have been unpaid for some time decided to withdraw their labour. Leiria are done as a Primeira Liga side. The other relegation place is a straight fight between Feirense and Académica. Feirense need a win on final day and hope Académica lose. Anything else and they're gone. Estoril are promoted with one of Moirense and Desportivo Aves joining them.

    The gap in Turkey is down to one point, Galatasaray leading despite being held by Besiktas this week. Fenerbahce beat Trabzonspor to close the gap so it's all on next week's Fener/Gala clash next week. Manchester City's Yaya Touré bagged a crucial brace against Newcastle to leave his side ahead of United in the race for the EPL with a game to go while Chelsea won the cup. Shakhtar Donetsk completed the first part of what they hope is a double with a cup win over city rivals Metalurh. A draw on the final day of the league will seal that double. Still two games to go in France and little is decided. Any one of seven sides could still go down while the top three all won, so Montpellier still lead by three from PSG who are two clear of Lille. Lille go to Montpellier next week.

    Another big week awaits, the headline event being Wednesday's Europa League final between Athletic Club and Atlético Madrid in Bucharest. Atlético are the nominal home side and will wear the red and white stripes.

    Thursday, 3 May 2012

    TW3 #11

    That was the (mid)week that was. Lots of action all over the place with more champions decided and a whole host of quite outstanding goals. Oh, and a manager cuffing a player.

    Real Madrid were crowned champions of Spain after beating Athletic in Bilbao. With a couple of huge Cup finals, Athletic did rotate their squad and had Javi Martinez sent off, but it's doubtful whether it would have made a huge amount of difference. Indeed, had Real not won, it would only have been delaying matters. They've been comfortably the best side all season long. Earlier in the evening, Barcelona beat Málaga 4-1 with Lionel Messi bagging yet another hat-trick and going past Gerd Muller's goals in a season record in the process. The little feller is on 68. Valencia took advantage of Málaga's downfall by stuffing Osasuna to take a grip on third. Sporting Gijón are all but down after a loss to Villarreal, but Zaragoza won again - 1-0 over Levante - and can still save themselves.

    While Real Madrid were celebrating title number 32, Ajax made it 31 after a win over VVV. Siem de Jong got both in a 2-0 win and they're six clear of Feyenoord with a game to go. Yes, Feyenoord, whose revival this year has been the big story. They duffed up Heracles, but PSV remain on their heels after tubbing ADO. The second coming of Steve McClaren at FC Twente is turning into a bit of a nightmare and they blew a 2-0 lead - Luuk de Jong with both - before going down 4-3 at home to upwardly mobile Heerenveen. Twente slump to sixth, one place behind AZ who were held by NEC. The European places are complicated, to say the least, not helped by PSV's Cup win over Heracles. Rather than go through it here, we'll just wait for events to unfold next weekend and see where we are. Totalfootballnl.com had a look ahead of this round of fixtures and the picture hasn't become much clearer after it.

    Juventus's lead in Serie A is down to a point after a blunder by Gianluigi Buffon allowed Luis Muriel to snatch an equaliser for ten-man Lecce. His first touch on a routine back-pass was awful, showing far too much of it to the diminutive Colombian who nipped in to equalise Claudio Marchisio's early opener. Milan won 2-0 at home to Atalanta to close the gap. Lecce's point keeps them in with a shout of stopping up, but a win for Genoa and a draw for Novara consign the latter to Serie B. But the big story of Novara's game was the sideline shenanigans between Delio Rossi and Adem Ljajic. After being subbed off, Ljajic gave his manager a sarcastic round of applause. Rossi reacted the only way that can be expected - by diving in windmilling and slapping the cheeky bastard. Rossi has been sacked, so we know where the power lies at that club.

    PSG close the gap to Montpellier at the top of Ligue 1 to three points, MHSC effectively having their mulligan this week in a fiery draw at home to Evian. They had a chance to win it after winning a last-minute penalty that sparked a scuffle that ended with four players sent off. Souleymane Camara missed. PSG beat St Etienne 2-0 the following day. Lille remain in touch, two points back from PSG. Auxerre - seemingly dead and buried a couple of weeks ago - play Dijon tonight (Thursday) and a win would move them out of the bottom three. Dijon are in the worst form of anyone in Ligue 1.

    Anderlecht and Club Brugge both won - at home to Gent and Standard Liege respectively - meaning the gap between the two remains seven points. They play each other on Sunday and a draw will win the title for Anderlecht. Dynamo Kiev dropped points in a 0-0 draw at Zorya while Shakhtar won again, 2-1 away to Metalist. That means a draw will do for Shakhtar against rock bottom Oleksandria in the final round of games this weekend. Galatasaray were held by Trabzonspor in the Turkish championship play-offs which gives Fenerbahce the opportunity to go top on goal difference if they beat Besiktas tonight (Thursday).

    A range of stunning goals were scored all over the place, but the top three and this screamer from Seattle's Fredy Montero and these two from Newcastle's Papiss Demba Cissé. That's 13 in 12 for the ex-Freiburg man. And there's only one word for that: Woof!

    Tuesday, 1 May 2012

    Goalkeepers yelling at defenders #31


    Oh, stop being so childish...

    TW3 #10

    The weekend in review.

    Cup joy for Lyon, 1-0 winners over Quevilly who will forever be called 'plucky', and Olympiakos who sealed a league and cup double.

    League joy for Porto where their win over Marítimo and Benfica's draw with Rio Ave meant that the gap is out to six points. With Porto shading the head-to-head record, they cannot now be caught in the final two games. League joy for Basel who beat Lausanne while Luzern could only draw with Grasshopper. No joy for Christian Gross, offed by Young Boys after defeat to embattled Servette.

    Almost impossible to interrupt league joy for Ajax. A win over FC Twente - who slump to sixth as a result - leaves the Amsterdammers six points clear of Feyenoord who move up to second. But with a goal difference superior to the tune of 24, it's pretty much a done deal. Quite a start to the managerial career of Frank de Boer. At least one, maybe two, of the top six will miss out on European football for next season. There's a hell of a scrap on for second, third and fourth. The final European spot is decided by play-offs.

    So close to league joy that you can almost smell it in France. Montpellier scraped past Toulouse on Friday night and sat back while PSG took on Lille and lost. The gap is out to five points now, as big as it's been all season, but four games remain.

    Three games and three points; so goes the equation in Italy. Juventus remain unbeaten and beat lowly Novara easily. Milan did likewise in Siena, maintaining the status quo. Behind them, four teams - Lazio, Napoli, Inter and Udinese - are locked on 55 points in the scramble for third.

    European places are settled in Germany. Dortmund are champions, Bayern are second, Schalke - who bade a home farewell to Raúl - are third. Gladbach are fourth and go into the Champions League qualifiers. Levekusen and Stuttgart go into the Europa League. Hertha were battered by Schalke and now must win their final game to stand a chance of staying up through the relegation play-off. Koln will go into that play-off with any other outcome, the opponents being Fortuna Dusseldorf, Paderborn or St Pauli. The latter two play each other next week, Fortuna against mid-table MSV Duisburg.

    Delayed league gratification in Spain. El Real comfortably beat Sevilla and then hoped Rayo could take something from their home game with Barcelona. They couldn't, emphatically so. 7-0 it finished. And so we go to Wednesday and El Real's trip to the Basque country and Marcelo Bielsa's Athletic. In the race for third, Málaga beat Valencia by a goal to nil to go level on points. Wins for both Sporting Gíjón - 3-0 away to Espanyol - and Zaragoza - 2-0 over Athletic - kept their survival hopes alive for now. Another win for Villarreal will end it for both. On Tuesday, the Yellow Submarine go to Gijón.

    Derby joy for Wisła Kraków and Manchester City. The former doesn't really ignite the race for the Ekstraklasa title - that's a five-way scrap between Legia, Slask, Ruch, Lech and Korona - but, coupled with Lechia's win over Widzew Łódź, confirms Cracovia's relegation. It didn't help that Cracovia finished with nine men. Vincent Kompany and some strangely negative tactics from Alex Ferguson helped City to a win over their neighbours United and leaves the EPL title race on a knife-edge.

    Finally, title joy for the Brisbane Roar, recipients of one of the worst calls in refereeing history. With the game locked at 1-1 and in the fifth of four minutes of added time at the end, a complete airshot in the box from Roar striker Besart Berisha ended with him falling over and claiming a penalty. To the incredulity of most of the 50,000+ in the ground, it was given. You know it's a dodgy call when the recipient of the penalty runs off celebrating like Marco Tardelli. After a bit of a scuffle, for which Perth defender Billy Mehmet was booked for slapping Berisha, the man 'fouled' slotted home the spot kick to win the title for his side. The referee Jared Gillett is a Brisbane man. The final was played in Brisbane. Gillett's other half works for the Roar. Why the A-League put him in charge is a mystery. Not for one moment are we suggesting it was anything other than an error, but when you have the opportunity to nip conspiracy theories in the bud, why not take it? It's as much to be seen as being beyond reproach as actually being it. Needless to say, the head of the refereeing board backs his man to the hilt, reckoning that even after replays, he saw enough contact - we saw none, incidentally - to warrant the penalty. Rubbish.

    Still lots to play for around the leagues and a busy midweek schedule to come.