World Cup Memories – France 98

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90, USA 94; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Two years prior to the 1998 World Cup, England had made it to the semi-finals of the European Championships where they were once again knocked out on penalties by Germany, after they had come the width of a post and Paul Gascoigne’s toe length away from winning the match in extra-time.  The tournament had been held in England and the fervor and excitement around the team had reached fever pitch beforehand with the release of the anthem “Three Lions” by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds.  The unfortunate manner of their exit in those European Championships – although they once again were beaten on penalties, it was not until the first round of sudden death since both sides converted their first five spot-kicks – there was a growing belief that the generation of England players could actually achieve World Cup glory for the first time since 1966.

One of the most exciting things for me about France 98 was not just the increased expectations for England – which had grown even further thanks to a victory in Le Tournoi, a friendly tournament held in the summer of 1997 and also featuring Italy, France and Brazil – but also during the competition, there were going to be special episodes of Fantasy Football League.   The show was based around the premise – unsurprisingly – of a fantasy football league, with various celebrities having teams as well as the two hosts, the aforementioned Baddiel and Skinner. In truth, it was just a vehicle for comedy about football and had started on Radio 5, before transferring to the BBC2 between 1994 and 1996, but the show had been off the air for two years, thus its return – on a different channel – was almost as exciting for me as the tournament itself.  Essentially, Baddiel and Skinner were just fans of the game so their comic take came from a place that was very relatable to the average supporter, just phrased in a much funnier way.

There were several highlights of Fantasy Football League that summer, but the one that stick in my head 16 years later is Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, an Arsenal fan, blaming the national team’s failings on the “Tottenham influence”.  France 98 was probably the height of my England fandom – the end of which I will cover in the 2006 Memories – in part because their manager at the time was the Spurs legend, Glenn Hoddle, but club tribalism was always more important than the international game.  Even then – and infinitely more times now – if I could choose, I would pick Spurs winning the league of even F.A. Cup over England being World Cup champions and finding out Rotten was an outspoken Arsenal fan also resulted in me never wanting to listen to the Sex Pistols’ music.  My loyalties to Tottenham also meant that I was actively rooting against France for the tournament, because two of their main players – Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieiria – had just helped the Gunners win their first Premiership title.  The unfortunate side to this was that I never fully appreciated the genius and talent of Zinedine Zidane in his prime.  In retrospect, I wish I had been rooting for Zidane during his career, because he was such a great player to watch.

Group Stages

Group A: 1. Brazil; 2. Norway; 3. Morocco; 4. Scotland.

The holders of the World Cup starting off their defence of the trophy with a 2-1 victory over luckless Scotland, who had recovered from conceding an early goal to draw level before half-time through a John Collins penalty, but then Tom Boyd scored an own goal to give Brazil the win.  Compared to 1994, there was far more style and flair to the 1998 version of the South Americans, as they were led by Ronaldo up front and had the talented Rivaldo in the midfield.  Also, at left-back Brazil played Roberto Carlos, who had come to everyone’s notice with a ridiculously brilliant free-kick in Le Tournoi the previous summer, before he spent the rest of his career sending most of his set-pieces into the stands, the wall and anywhere but the net, as he attempted to emulate that one great goal.

There was plenty of attacking brilliance on display in Brazil’s second victory, as they won 3-0 against Morocco with goals by Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Bebeto.  However, they were defeated in their final group match, 2-1 by Norway, who scored twice in the final seven minutes to secure qualification to the knockout stages.  That was harsh on Morocco, who had the stylish Mustapha Hadji in midfield, as well as  Yousseff Chippo, Salheddine Bassir and Abdejalil Hadda – all of whom had good tournaments – and they beat Scotland 3-0 in their third fixture, but were eliminated because of that Norwegian comeback and have not returned to the World Cup since. Continue reading

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World Cup Memories – USA 94

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In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: Italia 90; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

It’s hard to remember exactly how my love affair with the United States started, but before I was 19 and visited the country for the first time, I had become fascinated by the thought of one day living in New York.  While several factors probably contributed to that: movies of course, but more than that, television, since the shows I was most fond of in my formative teenage years were The West Wing, E.R, Seinfeld and even Friends; plus my love of the NFL and baseball which turned into full-flung fandom by the time I was 16.  But while the genesis of this interest in America is unclear – and it proved to be a well founded desire, since when I moved to Brooklyn it became clear that it was home – the World Cup of 1994 must have been a huge contributing factor.  Just take into account the opening credits from the BBC’s coverage of the tournament (click here to see them) – it was full of Razzmatazz, an upbeat soundtrack and great images: the Status of Liberty; the U.S. Capitol; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Chrysler Building; three cars bouncing down a road…it all just looked so…American.Now, 20 years later, this will be the first World Cup I am watching as a citizen and fully-fledged fan of the US national team – part of the reason that has come about is due to USA ’94.

Because of the time difference between the UK and America, many of the games kicked off late at night – or in the case of the semi-finals and final, early hours of the morning – so much of my viewing was on a 10″ television in my bedroom, using the bedcovers to shield the light to avoid waking up the rest of the house.  Maybe staying up till all hours to watch football might seem crazy, but with the tournament occurring only every four years I would do it again now, even as a sleep-deprived parent, rather than just a teenager who often stayed up late anyway.

Onto the tournament itself: like Italia 90, there were 24 teams that qualified for the World Cup in the USA, so once again the first round consisted of six groups of four countries, with the top two guaranteed a place in the knockout rounds, alongside the four third-placed teams with the best records.  The tournament kicked off with a glitzy opening ceremony, complete with Diana Ross missing a penalty from just a few yards in front of a massive goal and the USA’s opening match against Switzerland at the Pontiac Superdome in Michigan was the first in World Cup history to be played indoors.  That moment of history was just one small part of the competition’s many storylines however, as there were several fascinating narratives that emerged during USA 94.  I will start with the most tragic.

Colombia and Andreas Escobar*

*I suggest everyone should watch the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Two Escobars” about this subject – it is available for streaming on Netflix in the US

In the buildup to the 1994 World Cup, Colombia were being touted as one of the potential favorites, with Pele even predicting that they would win the tournament – at the time the Brazilian legend’s prognostications were taken seriously, now he is notorious for being wrong with his picks.  However, there was a good logic behind the thought that Colombia could go far in the competition: they had been in good form in the two years before the tournament – although they finished only third in the Copa America, they did secure their qualification for the World Cup with a 5-0 thrashing of Argentina.  More than that, they had a group of players who were dynamic, exciting to watch and skillful – most notably the big-haired Carlos Valderrama in midfield, Rincon and Faustino Asprilla up front, plus the assured defensive presence of Andres Escobar.

One player who was missing from the squad was the talented but eccentric goalkeeper, Rene Higuita, who was deemed not fit enough to be included in the 23 heading to the United States due to an 8 month spell in prison for kidnapping.  It was a big loss for Colombia – even though he had made a notorious mistake against Cameroon in their Second Round defeat at Italia 90, Higuita was a dominant presence for his country in goal and in the 1989 Copa Libertadores final, he had saved all four penalties he faced in the shootout to help Atletico Nacional become the first Colombian side to win the trophy.  In that penalty contest, Andres Escobar had scored his spot kick to give Nacional the advantage before Higuita shut out Olimpia, and Nacional were owned by the renowned drug lord, Pablo Escobar.  During a period that was known as narco-soccer in the South American country, many leaders of cartels used football clubs not just to launder money, but also as their own personal play things as they competed with each other for domination, with Pablo Escobar even ordered the death of a referee after he felt he had cheated his side out of a victory.

For all his myriad faults and crimes, the one thing that could be said about Pablo was that he loved his football team and wanted them to come to visit and play with him first in his compound, then in the Cathedral Prison where he was incarcerated.  Some of the players were happy to do this and considered the drug lord a friend who had built football pitches in poor suburbs that could not previously afford them – in particular this was true of Higuita, who claimed that following his arrest, the only thing he was asked about was Escobar – but Andrés was more reluctant to cosy up to the notorious criminal, but had little choice in the matter.  However, in December 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot and killed by the Colombian National Police and after that, there was no protection for the national football team and that would prove to be fatal for Andres Escobar in particular.

Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper - the only own goal of his career.
Andres Escobar diverts the balls past his own keeper – the only own goal of his career.

In their opening match, Colombia dominated Romania but could not find the break through and were then caught on the break by their opponents, who took the lead through Florin Raducioiu, then doubled their advantage thanks to a brilliant goal from Gheorghe Hagi.  Just before half time, Adolfo Valencia got Colombia back in the game, but they could not find an equalizer and Raducioiu added a third for Romania in the last-minute to make the final score 3-1.  Following the loss, the Colombian players received death threats and it was made known to the manager, Francisco Maturana, that if he should select the midfielder Gabriel Gomez for the match against the USA, the entire squad would be killed.  Although he was reluctant to do this and wanted the veteran Gomez in his lineup, Maturana felt like his hand was forced and thus dropped the player who was known as “Barabbas”.  Once again, Colombia were all over their opponents in their second fixture, but they could not put the ball into the net and in the 35th minute, Andrés Escobar diverted a cross from Tab Ramos past his own goalkeeper.  The look on his face suggested that the defender knew the serious implications that could come from his mistake and although Colombia conceded another in the second-half before grabbing a late consolation, it was the own-goal from Andrés that stood out.

Despite a victory in their last match against Switzerland, the highly touted Colombian team were eliminated in the first round and on July 2nd in the car park of a nightclub in Medellin, Andrés Escobar was shot six times in his car and died.  According to reports, Andrés was berated by people for having scored the own goal and called a “faggot”, to which he replied that it was an honest mistake – and it seems that his decision to talk back was another error since it cost him his life. A vehicle that was used by the shooter(s) was connected to the Gallon brothers – who had previously worked with Pablo Escobar, but then later joined “Los Pepes (Los Perseguidos por Pablo Escobar = People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar) but they then paid off the prosecution to focus the investigation on their bodyguard, Humberto Castro Munoz as the sole shooter.  Munoz was convicted and served just 11 years of a 43 year sentence before being released in 2005, while the Gallon brothers faced no charges for the murder, even though their bodyguard would likely only have shot Escobar on their orders.  The Colombian defender was just 27 when he was killed and the death put the rest of the tournament in perspective, though not for BBC pundit Alan Hansen who – the day after Escobar was murdered – said that an Argentine player “warranted shooting” for some particularly poor defending in his team’s second round defeat to Romania. Continue reading

World Cup Memories – Italia 90

In the build up to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, I am going to do a series of pieces recounting my memories of World Cups gone by, as well as a preview for this year’s tournament which kicks off on June 12th. Other posts: USA 94; France 98; Japan/Korea 2002, Germany 2006

Italia_90_mascotBackground to Italia 90

Because I was only five when it was played, I do not have any memories of watching the 1986 World Cup that was hosted by Mexico, so my only knowledge of Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God“* goal and his brilliant second against England in the quarter-final are from watching videos at a later time.  Thus the first World Cup tournament I vividly remember viewing at the time is Italia 90, which in retrospect, was one of the poorer major tournaments of my lifetime (perhaps slightly ahead of Euro 2004 in terms of quality).  However, it was a formative experience for me since it was only the second time I had the chance to watch anything outside of English domestic football, following on from the 1988 European Championships.  Back then, there were only four channels to choose from in Britain – the Sky revolution was still a couple of years away – and with English teams banned from European competitions as a punishment for the Heysel disaster in 1985, seeing other countries playing football was something completely novel and exciting to my nine-year-old self. Even the official World Cup anthem – Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma – was fascinating and, for want of a better word, completely foreign to me and made me want to take in every single moment of the competition.

*One note about that handball goal – it is often said that the only people who did not see the handball were the referee and the linesman, but in the linked video, it is not until the second replay that commentator Barry Davies realizes that the appeal from the England players is not for offside, but for use of the hand.  It is clear looking back what happened, but in the instant it happened it was easy to miss that Maradona had hit the ball with his hand not his head.

Despite my young age, I had already become a fanatical football fan and was a Tottenham Hotspur supporter, so the fact that two of their main players were on the England team (Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker) was particularly exciting, as well as Chris Waddle, who had been jinking around defenders at White Hart Lane for a couple of years prior to his move to Marseille in 1989.  From the 1988 European Championships, I knew something about the Dutch team, whose main three players were Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten and the Netherlands played with a style and panache that was completely exhilarating.  Ireland had also qualified for the World Cup for the first time in their history and were led by former England player, Jack Charlton, so I found myself having two rooting interests for the tournament, which was only tough when they met in their first game.

Unlike now, when 32 teams compete at each World Cup, there were only 24 countries that took part in 1990 and thus they were split into six groups of four, with the top two in each – plus the four best third place teams – progressing to the Round of 16.  Another difference was that a win was only worth two points, compared to three now, so a victory and two draws was worth the same as two wins and a defeat (four points for either – now the former would get four points, the latter six).  Looking back at the list of nations that competed in Italia 90 also provides a snapshot of European history from that period:

Group AItaly, Austria, United States and Czechoslovakia – A year before the tournament, the Velvet Revolution had brought an end to Communism in the country and on January 1st, 1993, it peacefully dissolved into two nations: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. 

Group B: Argentina, Romania, Cameroon and Soviet Union – Following on from Lithuania declaring itself an independent nation in March of 1990 – with other states following suit over the coming months – the Soviet Union was dissolved in December of 1991 and this would the final World Cup at which the unified team would play.

Group C Brazil, Costa Rica, Scotland, Sweden

Group D Colombia, United Arab Emirates, West Germany – The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and on 3rd October 1990, Germany was reunified and henceforth played as a united team, including in the qualifiers for the 1992 European Championships, when West and East Germany had been drawn to face each other in the same group. Yugoslavia – This was also the final tournament at which Yugoslavia played as the Socialist Federal Republics of Yugoslavia: in 1992, they were banned from the European Championships due to the Yugoslav Wars, with UEFA making the decision just ten days before the first match was to be played and their place was given to Denmark, who ended up winning the trophy.  Serbia and Montenegro continued playing under the name of Yugoslavia until 2003, but now each compete under their own name alongside Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Slovenia.

Group E Spain, Belgium, Uruguay, South Korea

Group F England, Netherlands, Egypt, Ireland Continue reading

Premiership End of Season Grades

The noisy neighbors have a loud celebration
The noisy neighbors have a loud celebration

With their 2-0 defeat of West Ham at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Manchester City confirmed their second Premiership title in three seasons, as they finished two points above Liverpool, who came from behind to beat Newcastle 2-1 at Anfield on the league’s final day.  To round off the campaign, here is a look at how each team fared compared to what their expectations were back in August; plus my picks for player, manager and goal of the season.

1. Manchester City – Grade A

On the back of their league title, Manchester City also lifted the League Cup and qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time, although with the expenditure that the club has made on playing personnel that should be the minimum they achieve every season.  For the first part of the year, it was the goals of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo that fired Manuel Pelligrini’s side to the top part of the table – though they did have to overcome some shaky away form in the early part of the season – but in the latter part of the campaign, it was the magnificent YaYa Toure who carried them over the line as he fired 20 goals from midfield, including a hat-trick against Fulham, which he rounded off with a fantastic 30 yard curled effort into the top corner.  After he was dropped following a series of mistakes, Joe Hart did not make another error when he returned to the team and three clean sheets in the final four matches helped City ensure they suffered not more slip ups following their defeat at Liverpool and home draw with Sunderland.  Despite two defeats to Chelsea, the blue half of Manchester looked like the strongest team in the division over the course of the campaign and were worthy winners.  One big negative for the club is that they are now going to be sanctioned by UEFA for failing to meet the Financial Fair Play regulations and could have a limited squad in next year’s Champions League, as well as a hefty fine levied upon them (which will hardly help the balance sheet either, not that the Abu Dhabi investment group will be too concerned).

2. Liverpool – Grade A

For someone who grew up in the 1980s, it is a strange concept to think that Liverpool should be delighted by a season in which they won no trophies and were beaten into second place in the final week of the league season, but the progress they have made under Brendan Rodgers has been phenomenal.  It’s almost impossible to remember that back in August, Luis Suarez was angling for a move away from the club and was suspended for the first five fixtures of the campaign as, by the end of it, he was picking up accolades as Player of the Year and had tied the Premiership goals total for a 38 game season, despite having missed those opening handful of matches.  However, one note of warning for Liverpool fans comes from the summer signings that Rodgers brought in last year: Luis Alberto (£6.8m), Iago Aspas (£7m) and Tiago Ilori (£7m) all struggled to get in the team at all (though the latter is still only 21); Kolo Toure (Free) and Mamadou Sakho (£15m) played 18 and 20 times respectively in a defense that conceded more goals (50) than anyone in the top 8 other than Tottenham (51); while only Simon Mignolet – who had a good season despite the regularity he had to pick the ball out of his net – could be considered a definite success.  The recruitment this summer will need to be more prudent if Liverpool are not only going to maintain a title challenge once again, but they must also cope with the added demands that playing in Europe will bring.  This season, the Reds had only 43 competitive matches compared to: 57 – Manchester City & Chelsea; 56 – Arsenal; 54 – Tottenham & Manchester United. Liverpool will have at least six extra fixtures to contend with in 2014/15 as they enter the Champions League group stages, so strength in-depth across the squad will be vital for them to maintain the level they achieved this campaign.

3. Chelsea – Grade B+

The highlights for Chelsea this year were doing the double over the eventual champions, Manchester City; an impressive away victory at Anfield that put the title back into the balance; plus a Champions League run that saw them reach the semi-finals and get within 50 minutes of returning to a European final for the third season in succession.  However, a trophy-less campaign for Jose Mourinho is always going to be something of a disappointment and uncharacteristic defeats against Sunderland, Stoke and Aston Villa proved to be very costly in their title challenge.  While Chelsea had the best defensive record in the division – conceding just 27 goals – their sometimes negative style of play will become a frustration to even their own supporters if it does not result in silverware and their strikers, who were criticized by Mourinho throughout the campaign, were evidently not good enough.  Out of all the strikers who are on the books at Stamford Bridge, only one broke double figures in league goals scored and that was Romelu Lukaku, who notched 15 in the Premiership while on loan at Everton.  The problem with a trophy-less year for Mourinho (his second in a row as he failed to win anything in 2012/13 while in charge of Real Madrid) is that next season, the defensive tactics could be an ever-present feature of Chelsea and he could recreate their 2004-5 season, when they conceded just 15 goals in the league.

4. Arsenal – Grade B- or A

The variation on the grade comes down to whether or not they win their first trophy since 2005 this Saturday, when they take on Hull City in the FA Cup final at Wembley. In the league, there was much early season promise – well at least there was after the opening day loss to Aston Villa that saw supporters berating Arsene Wenger for his lack of activity in the transfer market.  However, on the last weekend of August the Gunners beat Tottenham and then spent £42.5m on one of the best midfielders in the world, Mesut Özil, who had a big positive impact, even if his form tailed off a little in the first part of 2014.  Had it not been for injuries to Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and, in particular, Aaron Ramsey, then Arsenal may have maintained their title challenge longer than March, when they eventually fell away from the leading three having been top of the table for longer than anyone else this season.  Finishing fourth maintains their streak of both qualifying for the Champions League (17) and finishing above Spurs (19); while winning the FA Cup would make this campaign an unqualified success for the Gunners and ensure that Wenger is given a lucrative new contract this summer. Continue reading

Premier League Roundup – Liverpool do a Tottenham as City Close on Title

Kolo Toure reminds a crying Suarez that it was his mistakes that costs Liverpool the title
Kolo Toure reminds a crying Suarez that it was Gerrard’s mistake that cost Liverpool the title

Liverpool Falter

“Attack, attack; attack attack attack” – Liverpool fans at Selhurst Park after their side went 3-0 up, as they hoped to close the goal difference gap with Man City

“We should have just defended the lead” – prevailing opinion among Liverpool fans following the final whistle

The most enjoyable part for me of Monday’s match at Selhurst Park between Crystal Palace and Liverpool, was watching a side throw away a 3-0 lead and for once it was not Tottenham. I was in the stands for Spurs’ FA Cup replay against Manchester City in 2004, when a three goal and man advantage at half time was not enough to stop us losing 4-3 inside 90 minutes. And memories of the 2001 debacle against the red half of Manchester – which ended up 5-3 to United despite a similar 3-0 lead for Tottenham at the interval – will take some Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-type therapy if they are ever to be erased. But on Monday, it was Brendan Rodgers’ side who suffered the ignominy of failing to win from such a dominating position, but this had a much bigger impact on Liverpool than those two Spurs capitulations did for them (even in the Cup defeat, the next round would have been a trip to Old Trafford, where we had not won for 15 years at the time) as the Reds saw their title chances slip (sorry Gerrard) away from them.

Things had started well for Liverpool against a Palace side who had nothing to play for – since they had secured their Premiership status for next season two games previous – as Joe Allen opened the scoring in the 17th minute with his head. Ten minutes into the second half, an assault on the goal difference advantage that Manchester City enjoyed seemed possible as Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez both scored to give the Reds a 3-0 lead. However, it was not as if Rodgers then went to an all-out attack: first Rahim Sterling made way for Phillipe Coutinho, when Lucas or Allen could have been withdrawn; then Sturridge was replaced by Victor Moses. Nevertheless, as soon as Palace got one back, thanks to a deflected shot from Damien Delaney, the Eagles looked like they believed they could get something from the match. They ended up gaining a point thanks to two strikes from Dwight Gale, the second of which he was played through for by a fantastic chest pass by Glenn Whelan.

Although Liverpool were understandably downbeat at the final whistle – Luis Suarez, who had earlier tied the 38 game Premiership record with his 31st goal of the campaign, went from an incredulous laugh when the equalizer went in, to uncontrollable, head-in-shirt crying at the final whistle – it was bizarre that Rodgers claimed afterwards that the “title was gone” for his side. Considering that when he said that, Liverpool were actually sitting in first place and it was an insult to both Aston Villa and West Ham (City’s last two opponents) that the Liverpool manager was writing off their chances of getting anything from those fixtures.

Manchester City A Point From The Title

“You can stick your Pelligrini up your arse” City supporters during last year’s FA Cup Final vs Wigan

“Pelligrini – This Charming Man” Banner at the Etihad during Wednesday’s match with Aston Villa

YaYa Toure scores his 20th - and best - goal of the campaign
YaYa Toure scores his 20th – and best – goal of the campaign

When Manchester City drew 2-2 with Sunderland on April 16th, it appeared as though the title was moving beyond their grasp as they sat six points behind Liverpool, albeit with an extra match still to play.  However, their 3-2 win at Everton on Saturday – where they came from 1-0 down following a stupendous strike from Ross Barkley that should secure him a place in England’s World Cup squad – and a 4-0 victory against Aston Villa, rounded off by a superb goal by YaYa Toure, on Wednesday have put City within a point of claiming the Premier League trophy for the second time in three seasons.  Nevertheless, it would be unlike the blue half of Manchester to do anything simply – just ask those who witnessed two late goals that saved them from almost certain failure: not just in 2012 when injury time strikes from Eden Dzeko and Sergio Aguero won them the title with a 3-2 victory over Queens Park Rangers on the campaign’s final day; but also in 1999 in the Second Division Playoff-final, when it was Kevin Horlock and Paul Dickov who found the net after the 90th minute to force extra-time against Gillingham (then managed by current Palace savior, Tony Pulis).  Had City not managed to get out of the third tier of English football that year – they ultimately beat the Gills on penalties – then who knows what trajectory the club would have taken and if they even would have been candidates for the Abu Dhabi Group takeover in 2008.

Now, barring a 13-0 victory for Liverpool on Sunday (though they are playing Newcastle, so do not rule it out) a draw for City in their final match against West Ham secures for them the title, while Chelsea have been eliminated from contention and will end the season without a trophy following their 0-0 draw with Norwich at the weekend.  What Liverpool will have in their favor is that the West Ham captain, Kevin Nolan, was a boyhood fan of the Reds and would be motivated to help out the team he once supported by scoring a crucial goal that helps them win a championship; while Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll were both sent to East London from Anfield last summer and may be looking to prove their worth to their old employer. Continue reading

Premiership Roundup – Chelsea Beat Liverpool But Knocked Out of Europe

Quick, get some help he's grabbing his heart…no wait, just his badge, Carry on
Quick, get some help he’s grabbing his heart…no wait, just his badge, Carry on

Chelsea and the Title Race

Last Sunday, Jose Mourinho was rightfully receiving acclamations from many sources for his tactics at Anfield that saw Chelsea end Liverpool’s winning run at eleven games as the Londoners triumphed 2-0, scoring their two goals at the end of each half.  While there was an element of fortune to the opener just before half-time – Steven Gerrard slipped in the middle of the field, allowing Demba Ba a free run at goal that he did not waste – the approach the Blues took to the game to cancel out the formidable attacking threat of Brendan Rodgers’ team was not lucky, rather further evidence of how well thought-out Mourinho’s game-plans are.  When Willian provided a simple finish from Fernando Torres’ pass in the final moments of the match, the Portuguese manager ran down the touchline thumping the badge on his chest to the Chelsea supporters and celebrated that they club were back in a title race that had been started to look all but over in the buildup to this fixture.

There was a less happy ending for Chelsea in Europe, as they bowed out of the Champions League on Wednesday following a 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge by Atletico Madrid, this time the Blues were unable to protect a lead and were completely outplayed in the second half.  However, although people have been fast to jump on Mourinho – almost as quickly as they heaped praise on him three days earlier – the real story was just how good Atletico are this season, as Diego Simeone has led them to the brink of a La Liga and Champions League double.  In the final, they will play their cross-city rivals Real Madrid – ironically, the two teams from the Spanish capital will face off in Lisbon – as the pace of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo saw Carlo Ancelotti’s men thump the reigning champions Bayern Munich, 4-0 in Germany.  While I still wish he had stayed at Spurs, I found myself rooting for and happy for Bale in making the final of Europe’s top club competition in his first season with Real, as he has proven that his astonishing form over the last couple of years at White Hart Lane.

Back in the Premiership, Liverpool’s defeat meant that, if Manchester City could win the rest of their fixtures, they would have the opportunity to claim the title once again on goal difference, should the Reds also take six points from their last two games but not overhaul an 8 goal deficit in the process.  In the first of those matches, City held their nerve to beat Crystal Palace 2-0 at Selhurst Park as they opened the scoring inside five minutes through Eden Dzeko, then doubled that advantage before the break with a fantastic goal from YaYa Toure, his 19th of the season.  Although they probably only need three wins to claim their second championship in three years, Manchester City still have a lot to do and their biggest test will come this weekend as they travel to Everton.  With three teams still having a realistic chance of topping the Premiership after 38 games, here is a run down of the remaining fixtures for Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City:

Liverpool – 80 points +50 Goal Difference: May 5th – Crystal Palace (Away); May 11th – Newcastle (Home)

Chelsea – 78pts +43 GD: May 4th – Norwich (Home); May 11th – Cardiff (Away)

Manchester City – 77pts +58GD: May 3rd – Everton (Away); May 7th – Aston Villa (Home); May 11th – West Ham (Home)

So if everyone wins out, then City will almost certainly be champions but, if they and Liverpool each lose once, then Chelsea can take the title by taking the last six remaining points available to them.  All five of the three clubs’ home fixtures look like they will be relatively easy victories: Newcastle stopped playing competitive football in December; Norwich are useless and heading to the Championship; Aston Villa are not much better; and West Ham have nothing to play for other than Sam Allardyce’s job, which doubtlessly will be saved when he engineers a third victory over Tottenham this campaign on Saturday.  So the crucial matches will be:

Everton vs Manchester City – If they lose, Everton will be eliminated from the race for Champions League qualification, but even if they were to win then Arsenal will claim fourth the following day, should they beat West Brom, so the motivation for the Toffees could be decreased.

Crystal Palace vs Liverpool – All depends on which Eagles team turns up, the one that won five in a row to secure their place in the Premiership next term; or the one that did not put up much of a fight against Manchester City last Sunday.

Cardiff vs Chelsea – If Mourinho knows that a victory would secure the title (which would be the case if City and Liverpool lose the two games listed above) then I cannot see him allowing his team to mess up, but Cardiff are also fighting for survival and are not going to be an easy three points by any stretch of the imagination.

My prediction: Liverpool win both of their games and are Champions; Chelsea win both; Manchester City lose 1-0 to Everton this Saturday and finish third.  Continue reading