Category Archives: France

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: 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: 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

Three up front: 31/03/12

The best succinct one-liner we’ve ever heard came from the mouth of English comedian Les Dawson, and it is one that son-in-laws the world over can relate to: “I can always tell when the mother-in-law’s coming to stay – the mice throw themselves on the traps.” As sometimes it’s best to get straight to the point, today’s previews have a certain direct quality about them.

1) Liga: Barcelona vs Athletic Bilbao, 22.00 CET/16.00 EST

If brilliant Basque blitzers Bilbao can replicate their mind-blowing Europa League form, and allowing for awful alliteration, this match could become the must-see fixture in world football this weekend.

2) Ligue 1: Nancy vs PSG, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

PSG fans are beginning to realise that pesky leaders Montpellier, the Kim Kardashian of the French top flight, are just not going to go away, so capturing three points in Lorraine today is essential.

3) Bundesliga: Hertha Berlin vs Wolfsburg, 18.30 CET/12.30 EST

Hertha may have shipped six goals to Bayern a fortnight ago, but everybody’s doing that at the moment, so they’ll look to continue the form they showed at Mainz last week in their increasingly desperate attempts to avoid playing at Duisburg next season.

Duisburg: somebody somewhere loves it

Three up front: 28/03/12

Three Champions League ties, across two continents. Here’s today’s trio to watch:

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

The Frenchies haven’t won the Big Cup since 1993, while Bayern haven’t ruled Europe since 2001. The Germans have a far superior team on paper (Ribery, Gomez, Neuer, Robben, and I’ll stop there so I don’t have to write out 11 names), but as that toothless bloke at the bar is fond of reminding you, paper is not the surface upon which the beautiful game is played. Munich have come unstuck in France before, but L’OM will need to find some form (recent results: losses to Dijon in Ligue 1 and 3rd division Quevilly in the Coupe) if they wish to give themselves a fighting chance in the second leg.

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

The chat doing the rounds at the moment is that Milan may be the only side that can stop Barça tippy-tappying their way to Euro glory once again. For inspiration, fans of I Rossoneri will look back to 1994, when one of the finest Milan teams in history put in debatably the greatest team performance ever seen in a Champions League final, spanking their highly-fancied Catalan opponents 4-0. The odds on that scoreline being repeated tonight? 150-1. Go on, you know it makes sense.

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

The first Canadian side to reach the last four of CONCACAF’s showcase event, Toronto are also the last MLS team left in the competition, leaving Americans in the uncomfortable position of having to cheer on their northern neighbo(u)rs. Aron Winter’s men took care of GoldenBalls and the Galaxy rather impressively in the last round, but the task remains a sizeable one. Los Albiverdes currently top the Mexican league, are playing some damn sexy football and smacked six past Seattle Sounders in the second leg of the quarter-final. If they’re in the mood, it could be watch-through-your-fingers time at BMO Field.

Typical Toronto FC supporter

¡Rabona! Gaël Kakuta skins André-Pierre Gignac…

…with what can only be described as a ‘drag-back nutmeg’ (© this blog), followed by some damn sexy balls skills down the flank. From Dijon’s surprise league win over Marseille a week ago, but still worth dripping some saliva down your chin over. To quote the French commentator, “What a festival”.

 

Three up front: 26/03/12

Today’s three matches to keep an eye on are brought to you by Football Clichés, taking one game at a time.

1) French Ligue 2: Lens vs Nantes, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

‘How the mighty have fallen’.

Really? This is one of today’s picks? Well, it’s certainly the most symbolic encounter of Monday’s fixture list. French champions in 1998, desperate to return to the big league so that their fervent supporters can once again fill their 40,000 capacity stadium, Lens have fallen on hard times recently. French champions in 2001, desperate to return to the big league so that their fervent supporters can once again fill their 40,000 capacity stadium, Nantes have fallen on hard times recently.

2) English Premier League: Manchester United vs Fulham, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

‘A six-pointer for United’.

Given that those big-spending baddies across town dropped two points to Peter Crouch FC on Saturday, a win would put Man U three points clear with eight games to go. Clint D and Co., who have turned mid-table mediocrity into an art form in recent years, should put up some stiff no resistance whatsoever at Old Trafford.

3) Spanish Primera División: Granada vs Sevilla, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

‘Too big to go down’.

No not, Granada, who came up from the second division last year and are doing well to be lying (just) outside the relegation zone. Sevilla have had an awful second half of the season so far, and although they currently appear well clear of trouble, a defeat to El Graná would not augur well for the run-in. The 2007 UEFA Cup winners would seem to have more match-winners in their side (Jesus Navas, Manu del Moral), but Granada may prove to have more cojones over 90 minutes.

Some cojones

50-50 ball: ‘National’ pride

When is a third division not a third division? When it’s called something else, of course – do keep up, please. Over the last few years, the geniuses in certain European leagues’ marketing departments have generally come to the conclusion that reminding fans and sponsors that the product they are paying for is a full two tiers below their country’s elite level is a no-go, commercially speaking. And so in England we get ‘League 1’, while in Scotland, Portugal and Turkey it’s the ‘Second Division’/’Segunda Divisão’/’TFF 2. Lig’, and in France the third level is referred to as ‘National’.

The Championnat de France National, to give it its full title, is the last saloon as far as amateurs are concerned; if your team gains promotion to Ligue 2, you have to turn pro. The division currently contains a mix of fully professional, semi-professional and amateur clubs. But there was nothing amateur about the performances of its two remaining representatives in the Coupe de France this week.

With remarkable victories over the mighty Marseille and high-flying Montpellier respectively, US Quevilly and Gazélec Ajaccio qualified for the semi-finals of France’s national cup competition, the first time two sides from the third tier had achieved such a feat since the dawn of the professional era in 1932.

Deschamps in full facepalm mode after Quevilly defeat

Amazingly, this is Quevilly’s second appearance in the last four in two seasons, having narrowly lost out to PSG in 2010. Hailing from a village in Normandy of 22,000 hardy souls and playing in a stadium that holds just 2,500, their accomplishment is all the more impressive given their poor league form this year, which has had fans reaching for the Calvados at the thought of playing in the CFA (fourth division) next term.

Corsican outfit Gazélec, who cannot even claim to be biggest team in the town they represent (that honour belongs to top-flight club AC Ajaccio), also did their division proud, picking up their second Ligue 1 scalp of this year’s competition. Having had the odd shafting at the hands of the authorities over the years, their moment in the sun is proof that in football, you can be sure of two things: the ball is round, and what goes around, comes around.

While the English media never stops slavering about the ‘romance of the cup’, the FA’s equivalent contest has not seen anywhere near as many shocks, upsets and surprises as La Coupe de France in recent years. Only three third-tier clubs have gatecrashed the FA Cup’s final quartet in the last 30 years – Plymouth in 1984, Chesterfield in 1997 and Wycombe in 2001 – and none have ever advanced to the final. During that same time period, there were six finalists in France from outwith the top division, including fourth-tier Calais, whose adventurous amateurs were the talk of Europe for a couple of crazy weeks in 2000, and second division Guingamp, who actually won the flipping thing in 2009.

Other countries have had lowly clubs go on fleeting, giant-killing runs in their domestic cup competition, but it is a much rarer occurrence; this year, Mirandés became just the second third-tier outfit to reach the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey in Spain, while now-defunct Gretna became the first side from the third division of Scottish football to reach the country’s national cup final in 2006, where they narrowly lost to a strong Hearts team on penalties.

When attempting to explain why the French Cup produces as many upsets as it does, observers point to the fact that there are no replays or two-legged matches involved – the one-off games are decided on the night, be it in 90 or 120 minutes, or via penalty kicks. Even more crucial, they say, is the tournament rule that forces higher-ranked clubs to play away from home if they are drawn against opposition two levels or more below them.

Both third-level sides found out their semi-final opponents during the week, as the draw paired Gazélec with Lyon, and Quevilly with Rennes. Because of the aforementioned rule, the Ligue 1 teams now face tricky trips into deepest darkest Normandy and Corsica. If either underdog pulls off a win and reaches the Stade de France, it’s likely that there will no further need to jog the memory of fans (or sponsors) as to which division their heroes play in; ‘National’ will become a badge of pride.

Deepest darkest Corsica