Monthly Archives: April 2012

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

Three up front: 05/04/12

The Europa League, forever the bridesmaid to the Champions League’s bride? Maybe, but sometimes your friend’s tasteful, family-only affair in a quaint rural venue is preferable to your brash cousin’s 200-guest abomination complete with sushi bar, magicians and dancing camels.

1) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Valencia vs AZ Alkmaar, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

The Dutch are 2-1 up, which means their jacket is on a shoogly nail. Valencia’s form has been dodgy recently, so much so that their manager comes out in hives every time the club releases a press statement. In goal machine Roberto Soldado and strike partner Aritz Aduriz, Los Che have the weapons to blow any team away, so AZ Alkmaar will need to keep things tighter than the proverbial duck’s posterior as they bid to become the first side from the Netherlands to win a European trophy since Feyenoord in 2002.

2) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Hannover 96 vs Atletico Madrid, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

For all the talk of an all-Spanish Europa final in Bucharest on 9th May, it’s quite feasible that Athletic Bilbao, rather than Atletico Madrid and/or Valencia, could be the only Liga side left in the competition when the fat lady lets out a burst of ‘Ole! Ole! Ole!’ later tonight. Hannover, while ending up on the losing side (1-2) in the Spanish capital, never looked unduly troubled, and will be acutely aware that one goal followed by a spot of park-the-bus will see them into the last four in what is just their second-ever foray into Europe.

3) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, second leg: Athletic Bilbao vs Schalke, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Given the first-leg score, we seriously considered not including this one, especially as the fourth tie – Metalist vs Sporting – is finely poised. But as the football on show in the initial match between these two excellent sides was nothing less than saliva-inducing at times, it gets the nod. If there is currently a finer sight in sport than Fernando Llorente, Iker Muniain and Co. rampaging forward on the break, we need, nay, we demand to be told about it.

A duck's posterior: as tight as AZ's defence?

Three up front: 04/04/12

Thought the Champions League was a European animal? Well, it is, but there’s one across the water too. Today’s three to watch come from the UEFA species, and its lesser-spotted CONCACAF cousin.

1) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Chelsea vs Benfica, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

With a 1-0 lead, an away goal and some so-so form under Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea are obviously favourites. But they’re up against two-time European Champions Benfica, who’ve lost just once away from home in the Portuguese league this season. A team containing Aimar, Gaitán and Cardozo that needs to pull off a win against the odds should, generally, do just that. But this is the quarter-final of the Big Cup, and Stamford Bridge is a tough place to go blah-blah-blah. For the neutral or semi-neutral, the best thing that could happen to this match is for big Cardozo to hit a Crouch-style screamer in the opening five minutes. That would give us a game that might make us look up from our Game of Thrones DVD boxset, as it would mean that Benfica were coming, my lord.

2) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Real Madrid vs APOEL Nicosia, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

APOEL’s run to the quarter-finals will probably never be matched by another Cypriot team or by a side from a similar-sized nation. No-one’s holding their breath for Maltese champions Valletta or Luxembourg title-holders Dudelange to take next year’s Champions League by storm. So, Brazilian mercenaries or not, it’s hats off to the Lyon-tamers (see what we did there?), but with the news coming in that Real plan on fielding a reasonably strong team, it’s also time to say ‘Kalinihta’ (‘good night’; our thanks go to the delightfully unreliable Google Translate) to our islander friends.

3) CONCACAF Champions League semi-final, second leg: Santos Laguna vs Toronto, 03.00 CET/20.00 EST

Toronto surprised many self-appointed experts (excuse us while we look the other way) by holding Santos Laguna to a 1-1 draw in the first leg at BMO Field. The Canadians have been making confident noises, but Seattle did that too, and they got gubbed 6-1 in Torreon in the previous round. The Mexicans are top of the league and unbeaten this year. Toronto are not. But, as Jimmy Greaves was fond of mumbling, it really is a funny ol’ game. If TFC somehow reach the final, it would probably rank as their biggest-ever achievement, akin to a team from, say, Cyprus reaching the last eight of the competition’s European equivalent. Which would just never happ…oh.

The Iron Throne: Westeros' equivalent of the Champions League

Three up front: 03/04/12

Things are hotting up in what we old gits like to call the European Cup, and there’s a Copa Libertadores tie thrown in for good measure. Today’s three to watch are:

1) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Bayern Munich vs Marseille, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

The German press have been less than complimentary about Marseille following Bayern’s comfortable 2-0 first-leg win in France last week, making particular fun of L’OM‘s reserve goalkeeper, who was slightly at fault for the opening goal. Usual No1 Steve Mandanda is back tonight, which should lessen the general sniggering as well as the number of goals conceded. While you should never, ever, ever underestimate a team guided by Didier Deschamps, it’s difficult to see past a Bayern victory.

2) UEFA Champions League quarter-final, second leg: Barcelona vs AC Milan, 20.45 CET/14.45 EST

The biggest game of the night by a milla en el campo, as they don’t say in Spain. Will Barcelona blow Milan away? Are AC the only team capable of stopping the Catalans? Will Messi score five? Will Ibrahimovic do anything of note? Will the Internet break down if I Rossoneri score an injury-time winner? No, Yes, No, No and Maybe are our well thought-out answers.

3) Copa Libertadores, Group 2: Lanus v Olimpia, 00.45 CET/18.45 EST

The South American Champs League has produced some closely contested groups this year, and Grupo Dos is a good example. With both teams having won on their last outing, and Olimpia’s fine form in the Paraguayan league being balanced out by the home advantage enjoyed by the mighty Mauro Camaronesi and Co., this match promises to be tighter than a Blue Man Group bodysuit.

Blue Man Group: big Las Vegas Knights supporters

¡Rabona! Trezegol shows he’s still got it

It seems an age since David Trezeguet was more feared as a striker in Europe than fuel tanker drivers. And an eternity since he provided the nation of France with a collective orgasm not experienced since the days of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. The last that football fans had heard, he was faffing about in the Argentinian second division. Which is true, but judging by this beautifully weighted volley, there’s still more fizz than faff in Trezegol’s trusty right peg. The former Juventus star’s goals have been instrumental in River Plate’s push to zip back up to the big league at the first time of asking, following their rather traumatic relegation last year.