Manchester – Home of the Europa League
On Wednesday, the Manchester clubs were eliminated from the Champions League, a mere two days before David Cameron – the British Prime Minister – took steps that could lead the entire country out of Europe.
Sticking with the football side of this, while City’s exit had been expected after their defeat in Napoli, United’s was more of a shock – they only required a draw away to Basle to secure their place in the last 16. A 2-1 defeat for United, saw them relegated to the Thursday Cup – the Europa League – along with their cross-city rivals. For Sir Alex Ferguson, this is just the third time he has failed to take his team to the knock-out stages on Europe’s top club competition (the previous occasions were in 1994 and 2005), and the failure is another signal of the possible decline of his side as the major force in English football.
Since the Glazer’s took control of Manchester United, the biggest club in the country has spent only the 8th most net amount on transfer fees – behind Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Sunderland, Stoke and Aston Villa. While spending in no way guarantees success, nor lack thereof prevent it, a failure to hold on the Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, nor adequately bolster the squad in the wake of his departure, has led United to their current predicament. Although they remain second in the Premiership, they have failed to score more than 1 goal in their last 7 premier league games. Worse still for the Old Trafford club, of the 7 goals they have scored in that time, 4 were scored by Javier Hernandez – who is missing for the next few games having got injured in last week’s win at Villa Park. Their other three scorers in those games were Phil Jones (his first professional goal), Darren Fletcher (the one consolation in a 6-1 defeat to Manchester City) and West Brown (the former United defender, now playing for Sunderland, who put one in his own net) – not players that can be relied upon to be on the score sheet on a regular basis. With Rooney playing ridiculously deep rather than leading the line up front, and the artist formerly known as Dimitar Berbatov not producing, Ferguson’s side look unrelated to the team that dismantled Arsenal 8-2 earlier in the season. However, Manchester United have shown through the years that you should write them off at your peril, and this weekend’s fixture at home to Wolves might help some of their strikers re-discover their scoring form.
Manchester City’s exit has been explained away as a club finding their feet in European competition – this being their first expedition into the Champions League. This would have been a valid point, were it not for the fact that the team that usurped them in their group – Napoli – were also first-timers. During his time at Internazionale, Mancini repeatedly failed to progress far in the Champions League, despite his side’s dominance in their domestic league – a pattern that appears to have carried over to his new club. As a fan of the side (Tottenham) closest to the Manchester clubs in the Premiership, I was rooting for both of them to progress – hoping that the knockout stages would distract them from their league matches when the competition resumes in February. Now that they are both in the Europa League, City and United will likely play their reserves on a Thursday to save their best players for Premiership duties – just like Spurs have been doing all season.
Euro 2012 Draw
The draw for the 2012 European Championships was made last Friday, in advance of the tournament – being hosted by both the Ukraine and Poland – next summer. Here is a quick analysis of the groups and some far-too-early predictions for Euro 2012
Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic, Russia
I’ll take “Group games I won’t be watching for $200 please Alex”…the least inspiring of all of the groups, with no stand out team. Hosts Poland, who have the lowest FIFA ranking of all countries in the tournament, will be delighted that they have avoided all of the big countries and can be optimistic about their chances of progressing. Russia will be the favourites to top Group A, though as Greece proved as they bored their way to victory in 2004, they can not be taken lightly. The Czech Republic are no longer the force they were when they finished third in the 2004 Euros and are unlikely to make the knockout stages this time around.
Predicted final standings: 1. Russia; 2. Poland; 3. Czech Republic; 4.Greece
Group B: Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Denmark
There is almost always one section of the draw that pundits will enjoy labeling the “Group of Death”, here is where the moniker will be placed this time around. You have: the World Cup Finalists from two years ago (Netherlands); the finalists from Euro 2008, semi-finalists in the World Cup in 2010, and the most entertaining team to watch over the last few years (Germany); the team with the second best player in the world, and the best in this tournament (Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal); and a Denmark side that cannot be discounted, having finished above Portugal in their qualifying group. While Netherlands are the top seed in the group, a lot will depend on the fitness of their best players (Sneijder, Van Persie) as the strength in-depth in their squad is not as good as Germany’s. Although Cristiano Ronaldo has the ability to drag Portugal to victory in any game, he has not done that in recent years for his country. This group also sees rematches of some great games from previous tournaments. Denmark beat Germany in the final to win the 1992 European Championships, after they had failed to qualify initially, but replaced Yugoslavia, a country that was at the start of a long civil war that would eventually break up the nation. In the 2006 World Cup, Portugal and the Netherlands played a game now dubbed the “Battle of Nuremberg” – a match which saw 16 yellow cards and 4 reds issued by the referee – the Dutch lost the game 1-0. The Netherlands and West Germany’s (as it was at the time) encounter in Italia 90 will always be remembered for a clash between Rudi Voller and Frank Rijkaard, the latter spitting on the German’s hair and both men being sent off. A group with some of the best teams around, and matches with historical significance, this is the antithesis of Group A – all of the fixtures look like they are not to be missed.
Predicted final standings: 1. Germany; 2. Portugal; 3. Netherlands 4. Denmark
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia, Italy
The World and European Champions, Spain, will be content with a group they should expect to win – but will be wary of the matchup with Italy. That game will be a clash of two styles – the Spanish play possession football and try to break down the opposition with incisive passes, while Italy are more pragmatic and willing to do whatever it takes to win the game – dive, foul, adopt negative tactics – anything. Ireland will be happy just to be in the tournament, but Croatia have in Luka Modric one of the best playmakers in European football (Spurs bias accepted) and will be hoping to upset the two more traditional powers of Spain and Italy to reach the next round. Italy were unbeaten in qualifying, though their group was relatively weak and they were very disappointing in the last World Cup, as they failed to win a game.
Predicted final standings: 1. Spain; 2. Croatia; 3. Italy; 4. Ireland
Group D: Ukraine, England, France, Sweden
After secluding themselves in a hotel/compound for the 2010 World Cup – a tactic that had nothing to do with their exit on the pitch to a superior Germany side in the second round, yet has been cited as the cause of the failure – the English FA decided to base themselves in the middle of a city this time around, so that the players will be immersed with the people and culture of the country they are playing in. Their choice of hotel is in Krakow, Poland – perfect for their three group games in…the Ukraine. The teams they have been drawn against could have been significantly harder, but it is still not automatic that they will progress to the latter stages of Euro 2012. England’s first match comes against the French – a side who will be wanting to make amends for their failure in South Africa last year. It is also a repeat of the 2004 game between the two sides at the European Championships in Portugal – a game France won with two late goals from Zidane, the second of which came from a penalty he converted moments after throwing up on the pitch. The co-hosts, Ukraine, will have been pleased to avoid Italy and Germany from Pot 2 – getting England instead – though they will have to face Wayne Rooney in their final fixture in the group – as UEFA reduced his three match ban by one game this week. Sweden qualified for the tournament as the best runner-up, having finished second in their group behind the Netherlands – but their other opponents were weak. The Swedes are always a tough opponent and in Zlatan Ibrahimovic have a player who can produce a moment of magic that can win any game – but I do not think they will have a strong enough team to progress this time around.
Predicted final standings: 1. France; 2. England; 3. Ukraine; 4. Sweden
Should the groups finish in that way the knock-out stages would setup as follows:
Russia vs Portugal (Portugal to advance)
Germany vs Poland (Germany to advance – not into Poland, in the competition…)
Spain vs England (Spain to advance)
France vs Croatia (France to advance)
Portugal vs Spain (Great match if this happens – I think Portugal cause an upset and knock out their Iberian rivals)
Germany vs France (Germany to advance)
Portugal vs Germany (Germany to win – they have the most entertaining and deepest squad)
Premiership Weekend Predictions
Moving back to the Premiership, and time for some predictions of more imminent matches than next summer’s European Championship. The highlight of this weekend’s fixtures is Chelsea vs Manchester City – the two richest clubs in the country face off in a battle between Russian Natural Gas FC and Abu Dhabi Oil United. Villas-Boas will be hoping that his side’s progression in the Champions League will be the boost they need to improve their league results and ensure they are back in the competition next year, even if they are unlikely to challenge for the title this season. Manchester United will be unleashing their wrath on Wolves at Old Trafford, expect them to come out all guns blazing to prove their detractors wrong – final score 1-0 (Evra).
Arsenal celebrate 125 years of existence this weekend, ceremonies coming before their match at home to Everton. As a Spurs fan, I could mention how these festivities should be taking place in Woolwich, South London – back where they came from before they encroached into Tottenham’s territory in 1913. I won’t mention all that though, nor the new statue of Theirry Henry outside the Emirates that made him cry – just enjoy the day Arsenal fans – in their 125th anniversary game four years ago, Tottenham came from three goals down to draw 4-4 with Aston Villa.
Elsewhere this weekend, Spurs will try to win their seventh successive league game when they face Stoke away on Sunday; Sunderland and Blackburn meet earlier that day, with Martin O’Neill taking charge of the Black Cats for the first time; Liverpool host QPR; Norwich take on a Newcastle team heavily depleted by injuries; and Swansea are home to Fulham. In the games nobody will enjoy, Bolton play Aston Villa at the Reebok stadium, and West Brom and Wigan square off in the Midlands.
Last week, 3-7; Season 52-57
Arsenal vs Everton – Home win
Bolton vs Aston Villa – Draw
Liverpool vs QPR – Home win
Manchester United vs Wolves – Home win
Norwich vs Newcastle – Home win
Swansea vs Fulham – Draw
West Brom vs Wigan – Home win
Sunderland vs Blackburn – Draw
Stoke vs Tottenham – Away win
Chelsea vs Man City – Away win