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.
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.
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.
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.
…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”.
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.
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.