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.

Three up front: 02/04/12

The much talked about Mega Millions jackpot was won over the weekend, and news outlets are currently racing about trying to ruin the life of some sorry sod before he actually does it himself, Michael Carroll-style. The media was full of ponderous pearls of statistical wisdom in the run-up to the $640 million draw, the pick of which had to be USA Today’s claim that you were nine times more likely to die from a TV falling on your head. Having failed to beat the 175 million to 1 odds, allow us to help you get rich in three easy steps.

1) Liga: Sevilla vs Mallorca, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

Take ten of your finest dollars, pounds or Euros, and stick it on Mallorca at 9/2. The islanders’ away form is reasonable, while Sevilla’s home record has been poor this season.

2) English Premier League: Blackburn vs Man Utd, 21.00 CET/15.00 EST

Now you have 45 of your finest dollars, pounds or Euros. Bit of a leap of faith this one, but shove it all on Blackburn at 7/1. With a supportive home crowd behind them, an early goal could see Steve Kean’s men hang on for a surprise victory. And it’s not like they haven’t done it before.

3) Bulgarian A PFG: Levski Sofia vs Ludogorets, 18.30 CET/12.30 EST

Your total stands at a rather tasty 315 of your finest etc. etc. While we’re not generally in the habit of venturing out into outposts such as the Bulgarian league, this fixture is interesting in that it involves a side – Ludogorets – that came up from the second division to challenge for the title this year, and a traditional heavyweight club that has just changed coaches due to patchy form. Take the promoted side at 7/2, spend your $£€ 1,112.50 wisely, and remember to send us our 15% commission.

What you won't get from reading this blog

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

Daily Dribbles: Guffawing Germans stomp on stereotypes

The Germans are known for many things, but humour is not necessarily one of them. A couple of incidents in the football world this week have sent disseminators of lazy stereotypes scurrying back to their caves, however. First, there was this image, depicting the resourceful way in which fans of German regional side Magdeburg decided to help their team regain its nose for goal (their heroes had gone 5 matches without finding the net):

A few pointers

It worked, kind of. They scored, but ultimately lost 2-1

And then there was this photo, which shows Schalke fans protesting at the cost of tickets for their upcoming Europa League second-leg away clash with Atletico Madrid:

Germans: football should not be compared to sex, contrary to popular opinion

The banner reads (in Spanish, cleverly): “Tickets at 90 Euros = 1 Euro per minute? Football isn’t phone sex!”

Creators of the banner were heard explaining to their wives (in German this time) that a ‘friend’ had told them how much it cost, and that they had no personal experience of such a salacious service.

Three up front: 30/03/12

Today is National Cleavage Day. Apparently. Which is perfect timing, as we’ve been waiting for a chance to try out our new mankinis.  Today’s Scaramanga-like voluptuous set are:

1) Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund vs Stuttgart, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

Dortmund’s front pair have been doing the business recently, while Stuttgart’s have been rather flat. A win for the away side would give them a bit of a lift as they lean forward towards Europe, but the league leaders have been in bouncy form recently, and should emerge on top.

2) Belgian Pro League Play-offs: Club Brugge vs Genk, 20.30 CET/14.30 EST

Belgium’s terribly distracting play-off system, now in its third year, has never truly been welcomed into fans’ bosoms. We don’t really have the time to explain it here (especially when we’re racking our brains for boob puns…ooh – ‘rack’, nice one), but suffice to say that Club Brugge look hot and Genk do not.

3) MLS: DC United vs FC Dallas, 01.30 CET/19.30 EST

If you’ve been keeping abreast (ha!) of early MLS results, you’ll know that DC have done little to arouse their fans so far, and that the Texans have been udderly inconsistent. Goals have not always flowed from this fixture, so we’re tipping the home side’s twin-pronged attack of Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi to bust through the Dallas defence.

Gratuitous gazongas

Three up front: 29/03/12

It’s a Europa League extravaganza today, a competition that, for Marathon-eaters of a certain age, will always be the ‘UEFA Cup’.

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

Alkmaar are going well in the league, but got booted out of the Dutch Cup last week by modest Heracles. Valencia look like they may achieve this season’s domestic objective, which was to finish within 800 points of Real and Barcelona. Amazingly, despite making that third spot their own, coach Unaï Emery is under considerable pressure, mainly due to a run of poor results, including a shock home loss to bottom club Real Zaragoza. A bad defeat here coupled with a failure to beat Levante in this weekend’s Valencia derby could see him being politely asked to spend a little more time in his vegetable garden.

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

Schalke are playing well and contain debatably the most in-form striker in the world in their line-up, Jan-Klass Huntelaar.  Bilbao gave Man United the most awful rogering (x2) in the last round that at times made it seem as if they were the league champions and the English team the also-rans. Watch for strong Schalke pressure and speedy Basque counters. It could well be an absolute cracker, but then, we’ve said that a few times this season.

3) UEFA Europa League quarter-final, first leg: Atletico Madrid vs Hanover 96, 21.05 CET/15.05 EST

Hanover, in just their second-ever European campaign, have crept stealthily into the last eight like a Rush Limbaugh sponsor, but have recorded impressive results along the way – they lost just one of their pool games, and comfortably dispatched a solid Standard Liege side last time out. Atletico, who won this competition as recently as 2010, will be favourites, but if the Germans can keep it watertight at the back, a raucous 50,000-strong second-leg crowd awaits to propel them into the uncharted seas of the semis.

Limbaugh: closet Hanover fan

 

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