50-50 ball:19.02 reasons why Hearts will beat Hibs on Saturday

Big Cup, bigger than Wee Cup

The Big Day is almost upon us. The Old Firm have been well and truly side-lined, like that psycho girlfriend you really should have binned ages ago. Ridiculously enormous flags are being folded up with the utmost care, while kids across Edinburgh are driving their parents insane with incessant demands for maroon or green face paint. Finishing touches are being put to cheesy cup final playlists all over the land. Fans in families with split loyalties, of which there are many in Auld Reekie, have worked out their contingency plans for the evening, should their wife’s / dad’s / daughter’s / brother’s team actually do the unthinkable and win. Said contingency plans generally involve slinking off to bed with a bottle of Talisker for company.

Journalists have their Rudyard Kipling ‘meet with triumph and disaster’ and Theodore Roosevelt ‘grey twilight that knows not victory or defeat’ quotes scribbled down for their upcoming faux-live match reports. STV will do one more repetitive piece on James, the Jambo from Jamaica, and Hugo, the Hibbie from Honduras, who’ve both flown 150,000,000 km to make the final, although neither of them have a ticket yet (Ach…I’m just jealous, really).  Reporting Scotland will respond by interviewing the great-nephew of the 1896 final referee, and demand to know if there was a valid penalty claim in the 87th minute. Or something.

Kipling: thought Hibs were a bunch of Baloo-ns.

All that will be forgotten come 3 pm on Saturday, when the two teams that represent the greatest city on Earth take to the Hampden Park pitch to contest debatably the most important Edinburgh derby in the history of the fixture. The Hearts fans will sing of stories and songs, while Hibs supporters will respond with a ditty about glory, and then more glory. At one point in the afternoon the hashtag #scottishcupfinal will no doubt make a fleeting appearance in Twitter’s worldwide trending topics.

Enough poorly thought-out intro stuff. After a careful, unbiased analysis of all the key factors, here are the reasons why Marius Zaliukas, rather than Ian Murray (if he can get a game) or James McPake, will be holding the grand auld trophy aloft come 5 o’clock:

1) Hearts finished 5th in the SPL, in what was a bit of a mediocre league campaign by their high standards. Hibs scraped 11th (i.e. 2nd bottom), and needed a win over a truly awful Dunfermline side – an outfit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Papua New Guinea Premier Division this season – in their penultimate fixture to ensure that they avoided the dreaded drop. The Jam Tarts scored more and conceded fewer goals than their weekend opponents. To put it bluntly, Hearts are the better football team.

2) As any non-Martian knows, the all-conquering Hibees haven’t won Scotland’s premier domestic knockout competition since 1902. Hearts have lifted the oldest cup in world football four times in that intervening period. Any way you look at it, the pressure is all on the Easter Road side.

The Boer War: fought by success-happy Hibs fans

3) Heart of Midlothian’s castle rock-like defence contains established internationals such as Andy Webster and Marius Zaliukas. Hibs’ back four features loan signings from Wolverhampton Wanderers and Coventry City.

4) Hearts emerged victorious from all three Edinburgh derbies this season, and are unbeaten in the last ten meetings between the clubs. Ah, facts – annoying wee buggers, eh?

5) A cursory glance through the squads shows an embarrassing disparity in quality in almost every department. The defence has already been covered (please pay attention), but elsewhere on the pitch, Hearts simply appear to have the more effective players. Hibernian fans will point to their strikeforce as the one area where they have the edge, but Gary O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths are such flickering shadows of their former selves that Craig Beattie also gets the nod from our expert panel, which doesn’t really exist. Even Jamie MacDonald, Hearts’ unfairly maligned goalkeeper, is a sizeable step above his opposite number, who has spent the last 45 seasons warming the bench in the SPL. Whisper it, and this won’t go down well in Leith, where there’s a general belief that they taught Barcelona all they know, but Hibs look a bit, well, humpty.

6) A comparison of the respective managers’ pre-match quotes is revealing.

Pat Fenlon (Hibs): “Yes, I think there’s a bit of fear there. They feel they have the hex over us but I also think there’s a little doubt in some of their heads as well. I think there’s a bigger fear for them than there is for us.”

Paulo Sergio (Hearts): “I hope and I believe that at 5pm it’s going to be a tremendous day. Before that, it’s just a normal day. If I say that it’s different then maybe I’ve not been such a good professional as I have been in the games before. If you believe that losing puts the pressure on the team that wins all the time, okay. Keep losing.”

If that doesn’t make you want to stick the mortgage on the boys in maroon tomorrow, nothing will.

7) Hibs fans have been peddling all manner of superstitious nonsense in the run-up to the big game. Their on-line forums have been rife with tenuous theories. 1 + 9 + 0 + 2 = 12, apparently. One poster’s Hibs-supporting relative, long since passed away, had predicted in writing that the ‘Cabbage and Ribs’ (Really? Does anyone really say that?) would next lift the cup in 2012. And those are just the two most sensible examples. I’d never indulge in such tomfoolery (oh, go on, then: see point 0.2*), except to mention that the wife, kids and I very recently spent a relaxing week sunning ourselves on the South Carolina coast. As we exited the lift on the 19th floor, I was amused to discover the number of the room we’d been allocated:

It’s a sign. Literally.

Oh, and the view was great, and the wee ones had a cracking time at the beach – cheers for asking.

8) The Edinburgh derby, rightly described by shameless media whore Graham Spiers as ‘a jewel of the Scottish game’, is traditionally one of the most one-sided contests in European top-flight football. To my knowledge, only Spanish outfit Espanyol have a poorer statistical record in derbies, but we’ll let them off, because their ‘eternal rivals’ just happen to be the best team on planet Earth. Even Manchester City, who up until recently were the Bobby Kennedy of Mancunian football, have won 28% of derby clashes, compared to Hibs’ 27%.

Espanyol – worse than Hibs?

9) The twelfth man factor, anyone? Football fans are a fickle lot at the best of times. And the effect of supporters’ primal screams and non-stop chanting is no doubt exaggerated by the media. That said, any Hearts supporter who was at the Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Slavia Prague games at Tynecastle, the Braga game at Murrayfield, the away games in Vienna, Bordeaux and Braga, the Rangers final at Celtic park in 1998, the Gretna final at Hampden in 2006 and the Champions League decider against Aberdeen at Tynecastle that same year, would find it difficult to deny that the crowd did  indeed play a part – a small part, perhaps, but a part nevertheless – in propelling their heroes to victory. Can Hibs say the same? When was the last time that, their drubbing of the worst Dunfermline side to ‘grace’ the SPL in years aside, they actually won a game that mattered?

10) The media attention has been largely focused on Hibs and their attempts to improve on their abysmal Scottish Cup record. As any England or Scotland manager will tell you, this type of pre-tournament hype almost always transforms into a slurpy smacker of death. And while Hibs are unlikely to be getting pumped by Sweden, France and Ukraine any time soon, they will undoubtedly find themselves on the wrong end of a doing on Saturday.

11) Hibs’ manager, the ever-so-slightly glaikit Pat Fenlon, bears more than a passing resemblance to Martin O’Neil chewing on a scorpion. Or new French President François Hollande upon discovering the fine mess Nicolas Sarkozy had left behind for him.

Suave Hearts supremo Paulo Sergio, meanwhile, is more than likely the son of the ‘most interesting man in the world’ from the Dos Equis ads, which either makes him the newly-appointed most interesting man in the world, or the second most interesting man in the world, depending on how you view hereditary genetics. Which one is going to deliver the more inspiring team talk, I ask you?

“Stay thirsty for trophies, my Hibs friends”

12) Midfield will be a key battleground during the match, and Hearts appear to have more experienced, exciting and efficient players in this area of the pitch. Rudi Skacel is an explosive match-winner, a veritable cometh-the-hour Human Torch who has a habit of pinging in spectacular goals with his dependable left boot at crucial moments. Ian Black, a dynamic tough tackler with a Bruce Banner complex (Just don’t make him angry), has also had an excellent campaign. Spanish winger Suso adds un certain je ne sais quoi, or un no sé qué, to be linguistically accurate/anal (delete as appropriate).

Skacel burning McPake for pace

On the opposite side of the pitch, Tom Soares, Jorge Claros and Co. look rather lightweight in comparison. Neither are bad players (and to be fair, Claros has faced more high-pressure situations than a Scottish Cup final), but they’ll need to have had their Weetabix to compete effectively.

13) Hibernian’s line-up contains Pa Kujabi, a self-styled Roberto Carlos, who rather inexplicably has racked up ten caps for Gambia. My American wife (zero caps for the Stars and Stripes) is better than Kujabi.

14) A few years back, I was distracted by a member of the opposite sex and walked right into a pillar outside the Royal Commonwealth Pool, almost knocking myself out in the process. Certain statistics give you the same kind of unexpected thwack in the chops. Since winning the Scottish Cup in 1902, Hibs have lost thirteen finals, Scottish FA and League Cups combined.

Pillars: dangerous

15) Sometimes you just have to step back and look at whether or not a team deserves to win. While this has not been a vintage season for Hearts, they’ve played good football at times, beating the now-defunct Rangers, Celtic (twice; once in the league and once in the cup) and Champions League-bound Motherwell. Hibs managed one solitary league victory over a top-six side all season (vs. St Johnstone in September).

16) Alright, so it might have been 116 years ago, but Hearts’ 3-1 skelping of Hibs in the 1896 final is the only point of reference available ahead of the weekend clash. The vast time gap doesn’t appear to have prevented the Glasgow Herald from using the result as a form guide, so who am I to argue?

17) An underdog (Kilmarnock) has already claimed the other cup on offer in Scotland this year. Those that believe in flying spaghetti monsters will state that the gods would never be that generous twice in the one season. More reasoned thinkers would simply say that logic suggests the trophy is on its way back to Tynecastle.

The gods were bloody fed up at Hibs’s whiney requests for help

18) A useful if slightly unscientific method for gauging the quality of team A’s players compared to team B’s players is the good, old-fashioned Mum Test. For those wishing to try this at home, it goes like this:

“Mum, can you name me any current Hibs players?”

“Um, um, whatsisname…thingamajig…Ian Murray?”

“Mum, that doesn’t count. Your daughter went to high school with Murray.”

“Erm, well then, no, no, I can’t, son. Is there a game on tomorrow, by the way?”

19) Football is all about iconic moments. Hibs have certainly had theirs in Edinburgh derbies over the years (the oft-mentioned 7-0 game, for example), but in recent times they’ve been in scant supply. Heart of Midlothian, meanwhile, have stacked them up like a student-y beer bottle pyramid display over the past couple of decades, with Wayne Foster, Mark de Vries, Graham Weir, Phil Stamp and Paul Hartley all taking pride of place at the top of the triumphant tower. Despite the usual blah-blah about previous matches and results not making one blind bit of difference, Paulo Sergio could do worse than remind his charges of some of those moments at 2.55 tomorrow afternoon.

A pyramid system

0.2*) Hector Nicol knew the score. Music’s equivalent of a mercenary journeyman (the St Mirren supporter wrote talismanic tunes for Hibs, Hearts, Dundee and Dundee United) took a leaf out of a bad Dan Brown novel (Is there any other kind?) and hid subliminal messages in the clubs’ respective songs. The ever-handy Word Count button in MS Word reveals there to be 1902 characters in the Hibs classic ‘Glory Glory to the Hibees’, choruses included. The same copy-paste job with the wonderful ‘Hearts, Hearts, Glorious Hearts’ yields a count of 2012. Ye couldnae make it up.

A much-quoted line from Nicol’s Hearts-themed song is ‘the talk of the toon are the boys in maroon.’ By this time on Saturday evening, that statement at least should play out in reality.

Come on Hearts.

Rudi wasn’t that fussed, as he knew he’d win another six years later

Three up front: 15/05/12

A nerve-wracking German play-off, a must-win clash in Spain and an Israeli Cup final: despite seasons shutting down all over FIFAland, there are some seriously suspenseful live footy matches on offer today.

1) Bundesliga play-off, second leg: Fortuna Düsseldorf vs. Hertha Berlin, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

It can’t be easy being a Hertha Berlin fan. Your favourites are regularly mentioned as the reason behind Berlin being the least successful European capital, football-wise. You spend just as much time in the second division as you do in the first. And when you find yourself embroiled in a relegation/promotion play-off, the lower-division upstarts have the temerity to go and win the first leg 2-1, playing your side off the pitch in the process. Fortuna haven’t played in the Bundesliga for 15 years, and a 51,000 second-leg crowd is expected to cheer them on their way back to the top flight. Roman Hubník and Co. now have to show what they’re made of, if they’re to avoid travelling to football hotspots like Sandhausen (population: 14,000) next season. Hertha are actually named after a steamship, and it’s looking increasingly likely that they’ll be well and truly sunk later today.

2) Spanish Segunda Division: Guadalajara vs. Celta Vigo, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

Last year was akin to a kick in the nether regions for Galician football, with Deportivo La Coruña dropping down to the Segunda and Celta Vigo failing to gain promotion. This year is looking a bit brighter: Depor are odds-on to clinch the championship and go back up at the first time of asking, while Celta can still grab the second promotion spot, if they keep their eye on the prize, hold steady, show their mettle, keep their heads etc. etc. etc. Usually, a trip to Guadalajara wouldn’t pose Los Celestes much of a problem, but their relegation-threatened opponents are more desperate for points than a British Eurovision Song Contest entry. The prospects of a leisurely-paced, friendly encounter are not high.

3) Israeli Cup final: Hapoel Tel Aviv vs. Maccabi Haifa, 19.00 CET/13.00 EST

“Why do Israeli teams play in Europe?” is one of those questions your girlfriend asks now and again, when she inadvertently pays attention – for just a couple of seconds – to some football-related nonsense you happen to be boring her with. While we’re not going to attempt to answer that question (except via a sneaky and lazy link), we’ll simply point out that there is a Europa League place on offer for the winner of Tuesday evening’s Israel State Cup final between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv. The former team haven’t won the domestic knockout competition since 1998, while the latter side are the holders of the trophy. The pair played out a 1-1 draw in the league at the weekend, and already met each other in last year’s final, so fans will be hoping for a few goals to break through the tedium. Haifa are ‘sweating’ (© the tabloid press) over the fitness of captain Yaniv Katan, who will be crucial in their battle to stop league runners-up Tel Aviv winning their third Israeli Cup in a row.

Eurovision: pointless

Three up front: 07/05/12

What do Hibs, Montpellier and Blackburn all have in common? No, it’s not that their fans have been spending an inordinate amount of time in the toilet recently. It’s that they’re part of today’s three to watch:

1) Scottish Premier League: Hibernian vs. Dunfermline Athletic, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

It is a testament to how abysmal Hibs have been this season that Dunfermline, the worst side to ‘grace’ the SPL in many a year, can still  mathematically leapfrog the once-proud Edinburgh outfit and send them spiralling into the eternal black hole that is the Scottish First Division. Worryingly for fans of the home team, the Pars’ form has improved since Jim Jefferies – a legend at city rivals Hearts – took over, and a win at Easter Road would see them close the gap on their feckless opponents to two points with one game to play. Should the worst case scenario materialise for Hibs, their ensuing Scottish Cup final encounter with Hearts would take on a whole new complexion, providing those of a maroon persuasion with a brand new set of lusty, schadenfreude-inspired songs for the occasion. For Hibs, who rather famously haven’t won the Cup since 1902, it would be a bit like finally getting a date with the busty blonde in marketing, only to discover as you walked through the door of the cheesy wine bar that you’d left your wallet in the taxi…

2) Ligue 1: Rennes vs. Montpellier, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

Fans of cursed, middle-of-the-road, trophy-less sides across Europe will be stealing occasional sympathetic glances at the Ligue 1 scores this evening, as Montpellier strive to prove that a cursed, middle-of-the-road, trophy-less side can, with the right set of players, a lot of bottle and a large dose of luck, occasionally have a day in the sun. Said bottle will never be put to the test more stringently than at Rennes, where defeat will leave away fans facing the prospect of their team chucking the league away when, just a fortnight ago, it seemed like destiny was finally grinning down inanely at them. Billionaires’ playthings PSG, top on goal difference but having played a game more, and defending champions Lille (remarkably) simply refuse to go away, which means that the Languedoc-Roussillon club need at least a point to go into their last two fixtures as league leaders. Red cards, a 95th-minute missed penalty, on-pitch brawls, squad disharmony, controversial statements to the press and a decimated midfield have conspired to turn this into a rather tumultuous week for Montpellier, who can put all that behind them with a victory over Rennes, who are still in the hunt for a European place. All in all, it promises to be a belter in Brittany.

3) English Premier League: Blackburn Rovers vs. Wigan Athletic, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

You’ve got to feel for Blackburn and their ever-optimistic manager, Steve Kean. You’d think that Wigan would be exactly the team they’d want to face in this position: direct relegation rivals, with just six points presently separating the two sides. A football-loving Martian landing on Earth today would probably agree. But that would be because he hadn’t got his seven pairs of hands on the Latics’ recent results, which would give the likes of Real Madrid pause for thought before taking them on. In the past few weeks, Shaun Maloney and Co. have beaten Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle, taking 15 points from a possible 21. A win at Rovers will seal Wigan’s place in the Premier League for next season, and it would be a foolish punter who would bet against them on current form.

Martian visitor: “I’m tipping Blackburn”.

Three up front: 03/05/12

In a week where Sotheby’s in New York sold Edvard Munch’s 1895 work “The Scream” for $119.9 million, setting a record for the most expensive piece of art sold at auction, football supporters all over Europe have been doing a fairly good impression of the Norwegian painter’s mysterious squawker over the past few weeks, as league championship, relegation and promotion issues come to a head.  In a rather fortunate coincidence, one that we’ll pretend was a conscious choice, all three aspects are addressed in today’s three to watch:

1) Turkish Super Lig, play-off stage: Besiktas vs. Fenerbahce, 19.00 CET/13.00 EST

If Fenerbahce overcome their Istanbul rivals tonight, it’s fans of another Istanbul rival that’ll be crying into their chilled glasses of Tekel Birası. Galatasaray have stumbled badly in recent weeks, and will be hoping for a favour from The Black Eagles, who, like Newt Gingrich, can now finish no higher than third. Three points for Sarı Kanaryalar (The Yellow Canaries) will see them flutter to the top of the table with two games to play.

2) Ligue 1: Dijon vs. Auxerre, 19.00 CET/13.00 EST

In a league where proud, once-mighty football institutions (Lens, Nantes, Monaco, Metz and poor old fifth-divsion Strasbourg, to name but five) drop down to the lower leagues with surprisingly regularity, this year it’s Auxerre’s turn to stick their fans into the game’s equivalent of the dentist’s waiting room. The 1996 league champions are the only French club never to have been relegated, although they appear intent on pushing that stat to the max this year. Tonight’s game in Dijon is of the must-win variety, but if AJA are  to cut the mustard (oh yes, we did), they’ll need top performances from underperforming stars like Olivier Kapo and Édouard Cissé.

3) English Championship play-off semi-final, first leg: Cardiff vs. West Ham, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

It’s the business end of the season, or so they tell us. Cue endless tedious references to how much a place in the Premier League is worth, forgetting (if you’ll excuse our naivety for a second) that some neutral observers just like to see a good, old fashioned football match. Malky Mackay’s Cardiff side are generally, well, crap in these pesky play-offs, and West Ham have won a club-record 13 matches away from home this campaign. Which probably means the Welsh team’ll win 3-0.

Football: the universal anxiety of modern man

Three up front: 27/04/12

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, they say. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, they say (although Pep Guardiola appears to have misread that one…it is a tad ambiguous, to be fair). Or they may badly misquote Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Al Pacino’s Tony D’Amato. Unusually for a Friday, there is a lot at stake in all of today’s chosen games, which should please that mysterious ‘they’. If you prefer your football desperate, intense and gut-wrenching, now’s the time to put your feet up with a six-pack, and act in exactly the opposite way as those preceding adjectives.

1) Ligue 1: Toulouse vs. Montpellier, 19.00 CET/13.00 EST

There are five matchdays left in France. Montpellier, surprise leaders, are on a quest for their first-ever French league title, but their fans are feeling the heat as moneybags PSG mercilessly hunt them down. Toulouse are having a great season, are on cracking form (as demonstrated by their thwacking of Lyon last week) and can still qualify for the Europa League. A couple of days after Chelsea somehow knocked out Barcelona, and Bayern and Real showed the world how not to take penalties, could this game prove to be the outstanding fixture of the week?

2) Belgian Pro League, play-offs: Racing Genk vs. Anderlecht, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

It’s officially squeaky bum time in Belgium. Anderlecht hold a  four-point lead over Club Brugge as the much-maligned play-off system draws to a close, but a loss to a rejunenated Genk side would give their closest challengers the chance to cut it to one on Saturday, and invite today’s opponents back into the race. The supposedly all-important psychological advantage goes to Thomas Buffel and Co., who have already spanked their Brussels-based adversaries 3-1 away from home. A repeat of that result would see cats leaping unannounced into gatherings of  unsuspecting pigeons all over Belgium.

3) Portuguese Primeira Liga: Sporting Braga vs. Olhanense, 21.15 CET/15.15 EST

Braga have never won the league. And let’s face it, it’s not an easy task, what with Benfica, Sporting and Porto peskily snapping up 97.4% of the available titles since the formation of the Portuguese championship (sadly, that’s a real stat). In the last few years, they have attempted to gatecrash this private three-team party, finishing 2nd in the table and notably reaching the Europa League final last year. Recent slip-ups have probably ruined their chances of lifting the trophy this year, so they must concentrate on the next best thing, second place and the Champions League spot that comes with it. Defeating a useful Olhanense outfit is about as must-win as they come for Braga this season, especially if they want to be known for something other than having quite simply the coolest stadium on the planet.

Belgian pigeons are traditionally a bit slow

Three up front: 26/04/12

“The Europa League is coming,” goes the murmur on the streets of Bucharest, the city that will have the pleasure of laying on a lavish banquet for an Iberian love-in on 9th May. Or it could be that Romanians are all massive Game of Thones fans, and have a flair for the dramatic? With that in mind, we thought it would be an uproarius jape if, in a twist on Celebrity Death Match, we assigned one of George R. R. Martin’s morally ambiguous characters to each team below, based on how long they have left in the Europa League/Brazilian Cup and in the TV/book series. So not only can we not be bothered doing any proper work today, but we’re going to blithely toss around cryptic spoilers at the same time. Here’s today’s three to watch:

1) UEFA Europa League semi-final, second leg: Valencia vs. Atletico Bilbao, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Robb Stark vs. Jamie Lannister

2) UEFA Europa League semi-final, second leg: Athletic Bilbao vs. Sporting Lisbon, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Tyrion Lannister vs. Jon Stark

3) Brazilian Cup: Coritiba vs. Paysandu, 00.30 CET/17.30 EST

Littlefinger vs. Catelyn Stark

Ghost: distraught at Wolves' relegation

Three up front: 19/04/12

The Europa League has reached the last four, but if Pouty Platini has his way, it won’t be around for much longer for people to slag it off (behaviour they indulge in mainly because their club has failed to qualify, you’ll generally find). Get it while it’s hot in today’s three to watch:

1) UEFA Europa League semi-final, first leg: Atlético Madrid vs. Valencia, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Atlético have won nine in a row in the EL, while Valencia are coming into the game off the back of what can only be described as a 4-0 rogering by Espanyol. The presence of quality performers like Diego and Radamel Falcao on one side, and Roberto Soldado and Sofiane Feghouli on the other, should at least ensure an entertaining encounter at the Vicente Calderon. Fans of Los Che still moan about how Madrid “conned and cheated” them out of the 2010 quarter-final, so a win here would doubtless cut down on the carping a little. Until the next media-created controversy.

2) UEFA Europa League semi-final, first leg: Sporting Lisbon vs. Athletic Bilbao, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Athletic Bilbao have become the second favourite side of anyone who claims to know anything about football this season, and at 3/1 to win in Lisbon tonight, there will be more than one punter currently sticking his hard-earned spondoolicks on the Basques putting on another masterclass. Sporting struggled against Metallist in the last round, and will be hard-pressed to contain the charging hordes if Iker Muniain and Fernando Llorente are in el moodo.

3) Copa Libertadores, Group 1: Santos vs. The Strongest, 00.45 CET/18.45 EST

Twelve teams have already reached the knockout stage of the Copa Libertadores, but reigning champions Santos have a wee bit of work to do to join them. Neymar, Ganso and Co. need a point at home to the team with the coolest name in football, The Strongest of Bolivia. If The Strongest happened to prove that they were, erm, the strongest, and Internacional won at the same time, Pele’s old team would be out on their 100-year-old ears.

Truly The Strongest

¡Rabona! U-15 whippersnapper scores jaw-dropper

Let’s face it, we’ve all been there at 5-a-sides: the ball comes over, and despite knowing that your attempt has a 99.5% chance of flying over the bar, you think “I’m going to back-heel this while it’s still in the air, then turn and execute a delightful overhead kick which will propel the ball into the back of the net for a wonderful goal”. Or something like that.

But that’s exactly what Nkosi Burgess of the Dix Hill Heat U-15 team in Long Island, USA, did at the weekend. Hats off to the young Yank:

Three up front: 18/04/12

A Champions League final, semi-final and a group stage match. Confused? Don’t be. Here’s today’s three to watch:

1) UEFA Champions League semi-final, first leg: Chelsea vs. Barcelona, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

The much-awaited clash between passing perfectionists and robust Route One-ers is finally upon us. The Catalans are huuuge favourites, but quietly confident murmurings have been coming out of Stamford Bridge over the past few days, albeit slightly incomprehensible ones. As ever when facing Pep Guardiola’s men, the way in which their opponents go about finding an answer to the ol’ question “how do we deal with wee twinkle-toes?” is likely to decide the outcome of the match. If Messi can be muffled (they could always steal his boots, but that’s soooo last night), and Drogba and Mata are on top form, we might just get a game.

2) CONCACAF Champions League final, first leg: Monterrey vs. Santos Laguna, 04.00 CET/22.00 EST

Yes, they’re both from the same country, and goodness knows that doesn’t normally lead to enthralling matches in the CCL’s European equivalent (we refer you to the AC Milan-Juventus snorefest final of 2003), but both Mexican sides are playing well, scoring goals and flying high at the top of the league. What’s not to like?

3) Copa Libertadores, Group 4: Boca Juniors vs. Zamora, 00.30 CET/18.30 EST

Boca Juniors could feasibly clinch first place with a win, but they may not be all that bothered, having already qualified for the next round. They’ve won four games in a row in all competitions, while their modest Venezuelan opponents, who’ve struggled badly in this year’s tourney, have lost their last four. One player who sadly won’t be taking to the pitch is Boca forward Santiago Silva, who broke two fingers smacking a Tigre fan on Sunday. No, really.

Santiago Silva: a bone-crunching tackler

Three up front: 06/04/12

Today is ‘Good’ Friday, the day that intelligent, grown adults across the Western world commemorate the fact that their god sacrificed himself to himself to allow himself to forgive humanity for a sin made up by himself.

If you’d rather pray at the church of football, here are three must-see games today:

1) English Premier League: Swansea City vs Newcastle Utd., 17.30 CET/11.30 EST

Swansea, transforming the traditional cliché uttered about promoted clubs into a ‘breath of Welsh air’, look to be pretty safe from the drop now, while Newcastle are playing well, possess one of the most in-form strikers in Papiss Cissé, and aren’t quite yet out of the hunt for Champions League football, such has been the level of crapness inconsistency shown by Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea. It should be an Easter Egg of a match – tempting, enjoyable and horribly addictive.

2) Belgian Pro League, play-offs: Standard Liege vs Anderlecht, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

Anderlecht’s draw with Kortrijk in the first week of the much-maligned play-off format was a big shock, and it cut their lead over Club Brugge to just one point. The Brussels-based club really need a win in Liege, as otherwise they may be looking at Brugge’s swaggering behinds by the time the final whistle of their rivals’ own match with Kortrijk sounds on Sunday.

3) French League 2: Monaco vs Nantes, 20.20 CET/14.20 EST

Ten years ago, this match would have paired the reigning French champions with the champions of the preceding year. As recently as 2004, Monaco were playing in the flippin’ Champions League final, for goodness sake. It’s not been the best time to be a fan of Les Canaris or Les Rouge et Blanc, but things are looking up – the once-rich-but-now-not-so-much-Monegasques have moved up the table to put to bed nightmares of a second successive relegation, and Nantes have finally put themselves in with a shout of escaping the Ligue 2 quicksand. For that reason alone, we’re taking the away side to sneak it in front of a bumper crowd of, um, 4,000 hardy souls at Stade Louis II.

Monaco: More spondoolicks than supporters

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