Sunday, March 22, 2015

Advantage Barça at home, Spanish four march on in Europe

* The 230th clásico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was of course the match of the week, with 98,760 in the Camp Nou and an estimated global TV audience of 400 million.

Barça arrived the clear favourites on the back of their excellent form and Real the underdogs based on the Champions League loss to Schalke, Cristiano Ronaldo's grouchy mood, Gareth Bale's only recently re-watered goal drought and James Rodriguez' ongoing injury absence.

Lionel Messi's 17 goals in the calendar year of 2015 versus the 'BBC''s total of 15 also bolstered Catalan hopes of victory.

Real led Barça in wins 92 to 89 going into the game but the azulgrana had a 42 v 18 wins record on home turf and leading the league had not lost at home to Real for 85 years.

It was not a classic clásico by any means but had a heap of talking points and incidents. Having enjoyed the better of a first half and scored an exquisite equaliser, Real will be scratching their hands as to how they ended up playing such a muted second 45 minutes and losing 2-1.

They can point to Ronaldo hitting the bar and having a swerving long-range effort tipped over, Bale wrongly being flagged offside for a goal, two Claudio Bravo saves from Karim Benzema and narrow misses from the Welshman and Isco as evidence the gods were not on their side.

Yet the lack of true strikers beyond Benzema was again laid bare, as was the lack of fire in the midfield duo of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who burnt out early, and Bale's ongoing search for his old magic.

Much criticised for his selfishness, Bale played so many horizontal short passes one longed for him to run with the ball into his own channels, but he was compelled by Carlo Ancelotti's 4-4-2 shape to track back and keep the shape in the middle.

Despite exciting runs from Messi and Neymar and a brace of last-gasp saves from Iker Casillas to stop further scores, Barça themselves never really caught fire either.

The game as a whole threatened to descend into a bad-tempered scrap of fouls and simulations as referee Antonio Mateu flashed 11 yellow cards, and the show was not a patch on last season's memorable battles in the league and Copa del Rey.

But the Catalans were deserved winners simply for netting one more than Real, the first a simple Messi free-kick met by a diagonal run and header from Jeremy Mathieu, and the second a route one ball from right-back for Luis Suarez to run onto and fire into the corner.

Four points is the gap at the top now, which looks wider than it is given Barça's rich vein of football (19 wins in the last 20), but the big two could yet meet again in the Champions League.

Valencia maintained their fine form with a 4-0 win at Elche to stay third, a point clear of Atletico Madrid, who beat Getafe 2-0 at the Manzanares. Fernando Torres scored in the second minute for Los Colchoneros, his first strike in La Liga since 2011.

* It was a great midweek in the Champions League for Spain as Atletico Madrid and Barcelona joined Real Madrid in the last eight to form the largest country contingent.

Atletico rescued their waning season by advancing to the quarter-finals on a tense night at the Manzanares. Trailing Bayer Leverkusen 1-0 from the away leg, Los Colchoneros won 1-0 after 120 minutes and 3-2 in the resulting shoot-out.

The tie started nervously for the home side who lost goalkeeper Miguel Angel Moya through injury on 21 minutes. They took the lead six minutes later from Mario Suarez' blast from the edge of the box but had to endure a nervous further hour and a half as both sides failed to find a decisive second.

Watching a German side fluff three out of their five penalties was a surreal sight, and Hakan Calhanglu's opening miss, a powder-puff pass down the middle to the goalie, will probably find its way onto football-comedy DVDs before long.

Atletico had an escape in truth as Raul Garcia and Koke both missed their penalties too. Luckily for Atleti, Omer Toprak and Stefan Kiessling scooped their kicks sky-high. During the shoot-out, Atleti's Turkish midfielder turned his back and prayed in Islamic fashion.

Two of his compatriots playing for Bayer then missed. For the 48,273 packed into the Manzanares, it was a mighty relief.

On Wednesday, Barcelona had it a little more comfortably as they edged Manchester City 1-0 at the Camp Nou to go through 3-1 on aggregate.

The Catalans dominated the game and showed flashes of their old brilliance, which doubtless pleased Pep Guardiola, looking on from the stands.

Messi was once again imperious, setting up the only goal, orchestrating Barça's best attacks with flambloyant aplomb and at one point nutmegging James Milner delightfully.

Ivan Rakitic's goal just after the half hour was the only goal they had to show for their efforts, but a lot of that was down to Joe Hart making a string of top-drawer saves for the visitors in the closing stages.

The Blues missed a golden chance to get back into the tie with twelve minutes to go when Sergio Aguero's spot-kick was saved by Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, but they could not complain as Barça outshot them 19 to 10 overall with nine versus five efforts on target, and enjoyed 57% of the ball.

The last eight of the Champions League has three La Liga clubs but no more than two Spanish teams will be in the last four however, as last season's finalists Atletico and Real were drawn against each other, with Atletico at home first on the 14th of April.

Barça travel to PSG the following night for the first leg of their tie.

Over the past six seasons, the quarter-finals have witnessed 14 La Liga entrants compared to eight from the Premier League, eight from the Premier League and five from Serie A. Will it be the second all-Spanish final in a row?

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QFs: Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid, Juventus v Monaco, PSG v Barcelona, Porto v Bayern Munich.

* In Thursday's Europa League action, Sevilla eliminated Villareal 5-2 an aggregate after a 2-1 win at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.

Villareal were looking for a miracle having lost 3-1 at home in the first leg but attacked manfully and certainly did not throw in the towel. Their endeavour was not rewarded by goals however and their hopes took a hammer blow in the 69th minute when Vicente Iborra tapped in for Sevilla.

Giovani Dos Santos curled in an equaliser but Denis Suarez' header in the 83rd minute sealed the deal for the Andalucians.

As luck would have it the two clubs, who sat 5th and 6th in La Liga, met again on Sunday at El Madrigal in Villareal and Sevilla again emerged triumphant, 2-0, with goals from Coke and Vitolo.

Sevilla's reward is a quarter-final showdown with Zenit St Petersburg, who knocked-out Torino 4-1 on aggregate. The first leg is in Seville on the 16th of April.

EUROPA LEAGUE QFs - Sevilla v Zenit St Petersburg, Club Brugge v Dnipro, Dynamo Kiev v Fiorentina, Wolfsburg v Napoli.

* Real Sociedad boss David Moyes might have left the Premier League under a cloud following his traumatic few months at Manchester United, but he now claims from his La Liga vantage point that the English top flight is "probably the poorest Premier League I've seen in a long time."

Moyes' comments are timely as no English club has made it to the last eight of the European competitions. The Scot admitted that most Spanish clubs have no buying power compared to the big two, but that Atletico, Valencia and Villareal had still managed to go far in Europe.

* Sevilla's in-form Vitolo was the most notable addition to the Spain squad for their Euro 2016 qualifer with Ukraine on Friday in Seville and friendly with Holland in Amsterdam the following Tuesday.

The 25 year-old left-winger has scored eight goals in 28 appearances this season, helping guide Sevilla to the last eight of the Europa League.

Another new face was Villareal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and Malaga's 21 year-old striker Juanmi, who replaced the injured Diego Costa.

Vicente Del Bosque dropped Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta, citing ample cover at left-back in the form of Barcelona's Jordi Alba and Bayern's Juan Bernat.

There was no recall for Fernando Torres, Juan Mata or Alvaro Negredo, but Juventus' Alvaro Morata was selected on the basis of his contributions to Juve's Serie A and Champions League campaigns. Valencia's 21 year-old striker Paco Alcacer was also overlooked.

Goalkeepers: Iker Casillas (Real Madrid), David De Gea (Man Utd), Sergio Asenjo (Villareal)

Defenders: Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), JuanFran (Atletico Madrid), Jordi Alba, Marc Bartra, Gerard Pique (Barcelona), Raul Albiol (Napoli), Juan Bernat (Bayern Munich)

Midfielders: Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Mario Suarez, Koke (Atletico Madrid), Mikel San Jose (Athletic Bilbao), Vitolo (Sevilla), Santi Cazorla (Arsenal), David Silva (Man City), Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea), Isco (Real Madrid)

Forwards: Juanmi (Malaga), Pedro (Barcelona), Alvaro Morata (Juventus)

* Cristiano Ronaldo wants to move to MLS in 2018, according to Sports lllustrated and the Daily Telegraph.

The Portuguese would be 33 then and would have a maximum three seasons left in Spanish soccer.

If he went it would probably be to a major city like New York or Los Angeles, and he could link up with David Beckham, who still hopes to get his Miami franchise plan off the ground.

* The Daily Star claims Jose Mourinho is proposing a €200 million raid on Real duo Gareth Bale and Raphael Varane, joining the dots and coming up with a suitably large figure.

UPCOMING BIG GAMES ; kick-off times GMT

Fri 27th Mar - Euro 2016 qualifier - Spain v Ukraine 7.45pm

Tue 31st Mar - Friendly - Netherlands v Spain 7.45pm

Sat 4th April - La Liga     Cordoba v Atletico Madrid  5pm

Sun 5th April - La Liga    Real Madrid v Granada 11am, Valencia v Villareal 4pm, Celta Vigo v Barcelona 8pm

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Saturday, March 21, 2015

George's Premiership Predictions March 21 2015

Manchester City's loss away to Burnley last week means that Chelsea are now very much the almost nailed on favourites to win the 2014-2015 Barclay's Premiership title.

The "rat race" is for second to fourth places now includes Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Southampton with Spurs all but out of this race after a 3-0 hammering at Old Trafford last Sunday.

At the bottom QPR need a win over Everton, fresh from a thrashing in Kiev, and we take them for a 1-0 win. From way out in left field, we also fancy Leicester to sneak a win at White Hart Lane.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Man City 2 v West Brom 0
Aston Villa 2 v Swansea 1
Newcastle 0 v Arsenal 2
Southampton 2 v Burnley 1
Stoke 0 v Crystal Palace 0
Tottenham 1 v Leicester 2
West Ham 0 v Sunderland 1

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Liverpool 1 v Man Utd 0
Hull 0 v Chelsea 2
QPR 1 v Everton 0

Soccer - United last job for LvG

Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has confirmed his job at Old Trafford will be his last managerial role in football. The Dutch tactician has not put a time scale on how long he will be in Manchester but he has said he won't be taking up another position after his time with United, who are 4/5 with bet365 to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League this season. He told the Daily Telegraph: "I am old. This is my last job. For sure. "I have to pay attention to my kids, my grandchildren but also to my wife. They deserve it. Now I cannot pay that attention. I was not at the birthday of my grandson for example. I don't like it. "My wife wants to quit now already! Five years ago! "I have a paradise in Portugal. I want to quit to go there, play golf, eat fantastic food."

Last time's predictions

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Real Baled out of another 'crisis' but the clásico beckons


* A week which began badly for Real Madrid as Barcelona leapfrogged them in the league got worse as they lost 4-3 at home to Schalke in the Champions League, qualifying but with a chorus of boos and press opprobrium.

Real Baled out of another crisis but the clasico beckons.

Fans turning up at the Bernabeu on Wednesday expecting a cakewalk after Real's comfortable 2-0 away win in Gelsenkirchen instead had to endure a rollercoaster ride to the next round and the awkward spectacle of former merengue Klaas-Jan Huntelaar bagging a brace and almost knocking out his former employers.

Skipper Iker Casillas tried to round up his shattered troops at the final whistle for a centre-circle mea culpa to the fans but Cristiano Ronaldo refused to take part and the boos rang out anyway.

Cries for Costa Rican custodian Keylor Navas to be fast-tracked into the first team returned as Casillas failed to stop three goals, but the veteran goalkeeper also kept his club alive in the competition with a crucial late save.

Carlo Ancelotti announced Navas would start at home to Levante but that Casillas would return for next week's crunch clásico with Barcelona, a game which could decide the title.

Opinion polls showed 56% of Real fans blamed the players, 27% Ancelotti and 17% owner Florentino Perez for the defeat and subsequent 'crisis'.

Three wins, three losses and a draw in their last seven games is not the stuff champions are made of, and Barça's stunning show at Manchester City and bypassing of Real could not have come at a worse time for Los Merengues.

Of the players, few came away with much credit against Schalke although Karim Benzema's sole strike and Ronaldo's two goals were of top quality, while Toni Kroos ran his socks off.

Ancelotti was slated once more for his over-reliance on 4-4-2 as well as recalling the soon-to-be-sold Sami Khedira only to substitute him on the hour anyway, while expensive recruits Illarra (€39 million) and Lucas Silva (€14 million) warmed the bench.

The much-vaunted 'BBC' Real's attacking trio of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano, currently compares unfavourably with Barcelona's Messi, Neymar and Suarez (MSN?) and should really be renamed the BC given Bale's barren spell.

Until Sunday night, Bale had failed to score in the last nine games and had provided only one assist, a meagre return for the world's most costly footballer.

While the Bernabeu's whistling of the Welshman has seemed a little cruel, looking at those stats they might have had a point. That said, Bale's ratio of shots to goals this season is better than last - 15% v 21%, as is his passing accuracy - 79% v 76%.

Ancelotti's system is perhaps the reason. The Italian insists on a 4-3-3 going forward with Bale on the right of the BBC trident, but this shape is not making the most of Bale's thoroughbred speed.

His most memorable goals, such as against Barcelona in last year's Copa del Rey final, or for Tottenham against Inter in the Champions League, have come from the left flank when he has yards of grass ahead of him on the counter-attack.

Too often this season he has been marooned around the halfway line on the right and close-marked, preventing him from making his buccaneering charges, but with CR7 a fixture on the left this is not about to change soon.

Ancelotti also wants Bale to drop back into midfield when Real lose the ball to form a 4-4-2, but Bale has been getting a lot of stick for not tracking back enough, adding fuel to the gripes that he has been selfish in attack.

Maybe he has had a few arachnophobic encounters in the Spanish capital, as he admitted last week apart from playing badly that his greatest fear was spiders.

Club owner Perez reminded hacks how good an opening season Bale had enjoyed last year and that other big clubs still want to buy him. Perez is inevitably a controversial figure given the power he wields and a sector of Real support, including the tabloid Marca, seem to be poking him by slating Bale's waning contribution to 'the cause'.

The Schalke defeat put a real dampener on Real's week, while over in Catalonia Neymar could chuckle to journalists how close the holders had been to the Champions League exit door.

Outside the Bernabeu, fans chanted for Jose Mourinho no less to return. Ronaldo meanwhile, shaking his head as he left the field, has vowed not to speak to journalists for the rest of the season, although they will not be missing much to be honest.

* As Barcelona won comfortably with Messi on fire again, bagging a brace in a 2-0 win at Eibar, the gap at the top grew to four points for 24 hours, upping the pressure on Real to make amends in the final game of the week.

With a cloud of gloom and recrimination hanging over the Bernabeu, Real took the field against Levante for the 9pm Sunday kick-off. Then as if it had been scripted, Bale bounced back with two first-half goals to turn the tide of despair and bring his club back to within a point of Barça ahead of next week's showdown.

Bale celebrated his first by putting his hands over his ears and his second by kicking the corner flag, both entertaining and deserved, but equally proof that the constant criticism had got through to him. Perhaps it might have been better to have celebrated as normal and ignored the boo-boys.

As in politics, a week is indeed a long time in football, or in Real's case, four days. As tragedy turned to triumph, so again the wheel of fate could turn this coming Sunday at the second clásico of the season.

With only a point separating Spain's big two, there is little Ancelotti or his opposite number Luis Enrique can do to stop the press turning this into the do-or-die title decider.

* Valencia moved past Atletico Madrid into third after beating Deportivo la Coruna 2-0 on Friday night, while Los Colchoneros could only draw 0-0 at Espanyol on Saturday, leaving their title defence looking dead in the water.

Diego Simeone's side are now nine points behind leaders Barcelona with eleven games to go and are looking nervously over their shoulder at Sevilla, who sit only four points behind in the race for the fourth Champions League spot having downed Elche 3-0 at the weekend.

* At the foot of La Liga, Cordoba stay bottom with Granada in 19th, but Levante slipped into the drop zone on goal difference after Almeria won a point at home to Villareal.

* David Moyes' Real Sociedad finally won their first away game of the season in the Monday night game, 1-0 at Getafe to go tenth. The Basques were the only La Liga team not to have triumphed on the road this season.

* Leo Messi's double against Eibar was his 31st & 32nd league goals of the season, two ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in the race to become this season's pichichi. Neymar is third on 17.

* In the Europa League's Round of 16 all-Spanish tie, Sevilla shell-shocked Villareal at their El Madrigal home, winning 3-1.

Vitolo found the net for the visitors after only 15 seconds, the fastest strike in Europa League history and Villareal hit the woodwork from their first advance in the second minute, setting up a mouthwatering contest.

The home side poured forward in search of an equalizer but fell behind again in the 26th when Stephane Mbia scored against the run of play.

Luciano Vietto scrambled in a goal for Villareal shortly after the break to keep the tie alive but Kevin Gameiro volleyed in a third for Sevilla two minutes later, a lead they did not surrender for the remaining 40 minutes.

Villareal now have a huge task in the return leg at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in a week's time. The Yellow Submarine's season is suddenly sinking fast following this defeat and elimination from the Copa del Rey.

* Atletico will try to claw back their 1-0 deficit at home to Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday in the Champions League, while Barcelona, 2-1 up from the first leg, will hope to seal the deal at home to Manchester City on Wednesday. Chelsea's three Spaniards Cesar Azpilicueta, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas are out of the Champions League after PSG beat the Blues on away goals.

* Real Madrid look set to buy River Plate's Argentina U-20 goalkeeper Augusto Batalla in the summer on a year's loan with an option to buy, making the retirement of Iker Casillas and promotion of Keylor Navas more likely. Real are also said to be keen on Bayern Munich's

* Pepe Reina made his debut for Bayern Munich in their 4-0 win at Werder Bremen, becoming the first goalkeeper to have played in Europe's four major leagues - the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League and Serie A.

* This Friday Vicente del Bosque names his 23-man squad for Spain's upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier in Seville against Ukraine (27th March), and the friendly with the Netherlands in Amsterdam four days later. La Roja are currently second in Group C, three points behind Slovakia.

* Alex Ferguson watched Real's loss to Schalke sat alongside super-agent Jorge Mendes, before having dinner with his prize possession Cristiano Ronaldo.

After CR7's angry exit from the field and Fergie's long relationship with the player, it was surprising the press did not make more of the potential for Man Utd to persuade their former star to return in glory to Old Trafford. Ronaldo might be the face of Real and an untouchable demigod at the Bernabeu, but stranger things have happened.

* The Neymar transfer controversy stepped up a gear this week as the court judge announced proceedings will go ahead against club president Maria Bartomeu, ex-president Sandro Rosell and the club itself over the creative accounting surrounding the Brazilian's transfer from Santos in 2013.

Barca are accused of tax evasion worth €9 million on the €42 million the club paid to his parents but did not disclose to the inland revenue. If either man is convicted of defrauding the treasury they could face a jail term of between two and six years.

Santos' ex-president Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro told ESPN last summer that Neymar's dad, who owns a yacht and holiday homes on the Brazilian coast, was "a liar" who "only thinks about money."

According to Ribeiro, Barcelona's €90 transfer fee included the expenses Santos had forked out for Neymar Sr such as flights, food and drink and "an orgy in the Piccadilly Hotel in London."

"He never paid for a coffee," claimed Ribeiro. "I paid for the 200 coffees he drank with me."

* Will Man U's Spanish custodian David De Gea be heading back to La Liga because of his ditsy other half?

De Gea has been in excellent form for the Red Devils so much so Roy Keane called him the best goalkeeper in the world last week, but his girlfriend of five years Edurne Garcia said his city of work does not impress her much.

"I've been told Manchester is uglier than the back of a fridge," she told Spanish TV. "It's not very nice, that's for sure."

Garcia is singing for Spain in the Eurovision Song Contest in May. Looks like she'll get nul points from the Northwest of England's tele-voting.

THIS WEEK'S BIG GAMES (kick-off times GMT)

Tues 17th Mar 
Champions League: ATLETICO MADRID (0) v (1) BAYER LEVERKUSEN 19:45

Weds 18th Mar
Champions League: BARCELONA (2) v (1) MANCHESTER CITY 19:45

Thu 19th Mar
Europa League: SEVILLA (3) v (1) VILLAREAL 19:05

Fri 20th Mar
La Liga: ELCHE v VALENCIA 19:45

Sat 21st Mar

Sun 22nd Mar

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, March 13, 2015

George's Premiership Predictions March 14 2015

The 2014-2015 Barclay's Premiership season is getting down to the endgame with Chelsea and Manchester City the only two clubs in with a realistic chance of winning the title, with Chelsea firm favourites.

The more interesting race is for third and fourth places with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs all vying for the remaining Champions League spots.

The race to beat the drop to the Championship is also hotting up and there are a number of potential "6 pointers" over the weekend as Crystal Palace face QPR, Sunderland play Villa and Leicester City take on Hull.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Crystal Palace 2 v QPR 1
Sunderland 0 v Aston Villa 1
West Brom 2 v Stoke City 0
Leicester City 1 v Hull City 0
Arsenal 2 v West Ham 0
Burnley 1 v Man City 3

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Chelsea 1 v Southampton 0
Everton 0 v Newcastle 1
Man Utd 2 v Tottenham 1

Monday, 16 March 2015

Swansea 0 v Liverpool 2

'Best League In The World' 1/6 Not To Be Represented At QF Stage (Again)

It's often said that the Premier League is the best in the world but bet365 are 1/6 about there being no English representation at the quarter final stage of the Champions League - just like two years ago.

bet365 are betting on when an English club will next win the Champions League and they’re 8/15 it’s not before 2018.

Bayern Munich, who demolished Shakhtar Donetsk 7-0 on Wednesday, are bet365's favourites to lift the trophy with Chelsea's conquerors PSG priced at 10/1.

Total Number Of English Sides To Reach 2014/15 CL QF Stage

None 1/6 One 4/1 Two 80/1

Next English Champions League Win

2014/15 40/1 2015/16 10/3 2016/17 9/2 None Of The Above 8/15

2014/15 Champions League Outright

Bayern Munich 5/2 Real Madrid 11/4
Barcelona 11/4 PSG 10/1
Atletico Madrid 20/1 Juventus 22/1
FC Porto 33/1 Borussia Dortmund 33/1
Monaco 50/1 Bayer Leverkusen 66/1
Man City 66/1 Arsenal 80/1

Soccer - Demichelis extends City deal

Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis has signed a contract extension to remain at the Etihad Stadium until the summer of 2016. The Argentine moved to the Citizens, who are 7/1 to win with bet365 the Premier League this season, from Atletico Madrid in 2013 and has been a regular under manager Manuel Pellegrini since. The 34-year-old has made 30 appearances this season and says he signed a new deal with City so he can help the club fight for more silverware. "Manchester City is a club with a lot of ambition," said Demichelis. "When you get to hold a trophy, it's the best feeling for any player."

Last time's predictions

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Fifa World Rankings March 2015

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for March 2015 2014 were published on Thursday at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

2014 world cup champions Germany remain at the top of the Fifa rankings followed by Argentina, Colombia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Brazil, Portugal, France, Uruguay and Italy.

England are in 17th place, down two spots, despite reasonable form in Euro 2016 qualifying, and a 3-1 win in Scotland in their latest friendly.

Algeria are the top African team and are still in 18th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 65th place; beaten quarter-finalists Japan are in 53rd. South Korea are in 56th place after making the final of the Asian Cup.

The USA are in 32nd place, down from last month. Scotland are in 39th position with Wales in 37th. The Republic of Ireland are in 66th place, Northern Ireland are in 43rd position after a decent start in Euro 2016 qualifying.

Ranking Team
1 Germany
2 Argentina
3 Colombia
4 Belgium
5 The Netherlands
6 Brazil
7 Portugal
7 France
9 Uruguay
10 Italy
11 Spain
12 Switzerland
13 Costa Rica
14 Romania
15 Chile
16 Czech Republic
17 England
18 Algeria
19 Croatia
20 Côte d'Ivoire

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Barça back on top as Real stumble again

* For the first time since the start of November, Barcelona are on top of La Liga, though only by a point,after mauling Rayo Vallecano 6:1 at the Camp Nou. Real Madrid lost 1:0 at Athletic Bilbao and with only two wins in five league games, paid for their recent ropy form this weekend.

Aritz Aduriz headed Athletic into a 26th minute lead from Mikel Rico's cross and the Basques survived a second-half Real fightback to dethrone the leaders on Saturday.

Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo were denied but Gareth Bale almost scored the goal of the season seven minutes from time when his shot from within his own half beat the goalkeeper but cannoned off the left-hand post.

Real can point to their injury list as excuses - particularly the lack of midfield creators Luka Modric and James Rodriguez, but boss Carlo Ancelotti will shoulder the blame in the coming week for surrendering their perch on top of the league.

Barça got a lucky break when Lionel Messi's 56th minute penalty was ordered to be retaken for encroachment after his initial effort had been saved, though the blaugrana did lose Daniel Alves to a straight red card ten minutes from time.

Messi bagged another hat-trick, his 32nd for his club and a Spanish football record, to take his goals to 30 for the season, level with Cristiano Ronaldo. Luis Suarez scored a brace to take his tally to seven, while Neymar netted to take him to 15.

87,151 watched the one-sided contest, the Camp Nou's biggest crowd this campaign.

Atletico Madrid drew 1:1 at home to Valencia to sit six points behind Real in third. Los Colchoneros led through Koke's 33rd minute opener but failed to net a second and had their lead hauled back by Shkodran Mustafi's 78 minute leveller.

Appropriately for a match in which eleven yellow cards were handed out, Valencia's Javi Fuego ('fire') saw red in the final minute.

Valencia are a point behind in fourth and then there is a five-point gap to Sevilla. The top four qualify for the Champions League, as in England.

With only a point between first and second, the showdown at the Camp Nou in a couple of weeks looms ever larger in deciding the outcome of this season's title.

The race to avoid relegation is a lot closer, with only three points separating Eibar in 13th from Almeria, third to bottom, in 18th. Andalucian clubs occupy the entire drop zone at present, with Cordoba and Granada propping up the division.

* The Copa del Rey final will be between Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao on the 30th of May.
Barca won 3-1 at Villareal to go through 6-2 on aggregate and Athletic won 2-0 at Espanyol to advance 3-1 and end hopes of an all-Catalan final.

After Villareal's draw at the Bernabeu there had been some talk they would claw back the two-goal deficit from the first leg but hopes were dashed only three minutes in as Neymar scored. Jonathan Dos Santos equalised before half-time but second-half goals from Suarez and Neymar again sealed the tie.

Villareal midfielder Tomas Pina seemed to be on a mission to maim however. Sergio Busquets was stretchered off in the first half after meeting Pina's flying studs and a horror tackle almost did the same to Neymar in the second, for which Pina was shown a straight red,

In Barcelona, Athletic raced into a 2-0 lead before half-time through Aduriz and Etxeita and did not let Espanyol back into the game.

Oddly, the Spanish football federation has not decided on a venue for the final yet. Real Madrid are not keen on hosting it, probably because the sight of Barcelona triumphing in their home stadium is too much to bear. Valencia's Mestalla looks likely to step in.

Cristiano Ronaldo has now scored 30 goals in five consecutive seasons in a major league, which is a record, but given the cannon-fodder Real Madrid are up against most weeks one has to wonder how amazing that stat really is. Messi's 32nd hat-trick for Barça has equally failed to amaze for the same reason.

* Spanish football's Antiviolence Commission issued several fines this week as La Liga strives to clean up its act. Granada were fined €7,500 for failing to stop pitch invaders on two occasions and Sevilla the same amount for two unpleasant fan placards and one fan bringing in a can of beer.

Other fines included €1000 for an Eibar fan who insulted the referee, €300 to three different teenage Granada fans who invaded the pitch and €1,500 for an Athletic Bilbao fan wearing a t-shirt with insulting messages about the club's owners.

Carles Rexach, the rent-a-quote former Barcelona player and coach who hangs around behind the scenes at the Camp Nou, is at it again. After spouting his belief that Lionel Messi ate too many pizzas last season, he has now claimed Real Madrid buy players on looks.

"Perez is selling an international brand," he explained. "Vicente del Bosque and Di Maria are too ugly for Real Madrid. They are different from Toni Kroos and James Rodriguez."

* Police raided Rayo Vallecano's fan group the Bukaneros an hour before their game against Levante and seized 416 pyrotechnic objects, which they claimed were "very dangerous". They also took the names of 200 ultras planning to attend the match and stopped them entering the stadium. The fans themselves were livid however, claiming their arsenal of fireworks was bought to celebrate 90 years of the little Madrid club with the three-sided stadium.

* Barcelona's youth system is falling to pieces, or its building at least. In a court battle over payments between the club and its contractor, it was revealed "two, four and even six pieces of glass 1m x 2m" came crashing down from the façade, potentially endangering pedestrians.

* In this week's rumours, Raphael Varane has again been linked with Man Utd. This time the figure is around the £30 million mark for the Real Madrid centre-back, who has missed training this week with a sore knee.

Meanwhile shopaholic Manchester City are said to be eyeing one of Madrid's bosses Carlo Ancelotti or Diego Simeone to replace Manuel Pellegrini following their loss to Barcelona.

Real midfielder Illara is attracting Liverpool according to rumours. The Basque-born 24 year-old has represented Spain up to U-23 level, while Man Utd may swoop for Barcelona's soon to be out of contract Dani Alves.

Los Merengues are also set to beat Barcelona and Man Utd to Porto's highly-rated right-back Danilo. A figure of €40 million has been mentioned.

French midfield star Paul Pogba has said he could leave Juventus this summer and would be interested in a move to Barcelona.

The Catalan giants are also sniffing around Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Lars Bender but face competition from Manchester United.

Finally Barça legend Xavi, who turned 35 in January, could ink a deal to play in Qatar next season in a three-year deal which could earn him €18 million. The former Spain international will still have a year left on his Camp Nou contract but is said to be considering an early getaway to the Middle East, having turned down MLS last summer.

This weeks' big games (kick-off times GMT):

TUE 10 MAR UEFA Champions League Round of 16 2nd leg:
Real Madrid (2) v (0) Schalke 04  19:45

THU 12 MAR UEFA Europa League Round of 16 1st leg
Villareal v Sevilla   19:05

FRI 13 MAR La Liga
Valencia v Deportivo La Coruna  19:45

SAT 14 MAR La Liga
Espanyol v Atletico Madrid  16:00
Eibar v Barcelona   18:00

SUN 15 MAR La Liga
Real Madrid v Levante   20:00

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Van Gaal's Mancunian Mystery Tour


I am usually bored to tears by talk of anything Manchester United, but Louis Van Gaal's debut in English football is for me the most intriguing story this season.

The former Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern and Netherlands coach is undoubtedly one of the world's best, but has eschewed England for years, admitting in interviews the country's football did not impress him. Now he has finally landed on our shores the results have been confounding.

First impressions count and Van Gaal does not just not speak like English managers, let alone Dutch ones, whose English skills are typically flowing if not near-native. This is the first obstacle in making sense of Man U this season.

We understand him but he is still speaking a different language. Just take what Van Gaal told journalists what he liked most about England, a reply which understandably left them open-mouthed: Chinese food and wine lists.

We get the familiar bluntness of a Dutchman but he does not remind us in any way of the other Netherlanders who have made a name in English football, whether Arnold Muhren, Ruud Gullit, Martin Jol or Ronald Koeman. Van Gaal is his own man all right.

I asked Dutch friends for enlightenment and they joked that Van Gaal was a dictator, which explains why Man Utd homed in on him in their pining for the familiarity of the Alex Ferguson regime after 'nice guy' David Moyes' failed audition.
Van Gaal has three Dutch assistants with him in Manchester yet his relationship with the very British Ryan Giggs remains perplexing. Giggs has never played abroad and was a winger in the 'fantasista' tradition, a type of player Van Gaal was not known to have favoured over the years. They are sat together on the bench as if chalk and cheese have been placed next to each other at a dinner party.

When Ashley Young netted an 89th minute winner against Newcastle this week the manager screamed with joy in the face of a stone-faced Welshman. What could that mean, wondered everyone.

Does Giggsy still harbour resentment at not being offered the job long-term after picking up the reins from Moyes' messy and premature divorce last season? The press went like bloodhounds after this simplistic line, leading to predictable denials from both parties of any rift, but left the public none the wiser.

The season started erratically with a home loss to Swansea, a draw at Sunderland, an embarrassing 4-0 mauling at third-tier MK Dons, albeit with a B team, then a 0-0 draw at Burnley. Hardly the stuff of champions.

But soon enough, the style of play into which Man Utd settled caused a tide of consternation which has never quite subsided, as if a continental club had been suddenly transplanted into the familiar red shirts, or dropped by for a Champions League tie and stayed.

A slow and patient approach in all phases of the game is a clean break with the attacking and entertaining heritage of the Red Devils, a real fork in the road. The Dutchman has persisted with this possession-first philosophy even when it is clearly paying no dividends, most notably in the FA Cup ties against lower-league opposition.

United bored their way to a 0:0 draw at fourth-tier Cambridge United and trudged to another goalless 45 minutes at third-tier Preston North End, before triumphing 3-0 and 3-1 respectively. Both opponents just shut up shop and let Van Gaal's millionaires frustrate themselves in front of the camera.

Despite apparently ample evidence that they are more dangerous when using wingers and are getting the ball forward faster, Van Gaal has been slow to tweak his favourite formation, which typically has a three-man back line and a single front man.

Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have begun on the bench many times but clearly transform the team when brought on, providing a refreshing change of pace and width to the laboured build-up. Van Gaal's juggling of the team suggests he is struggling to know his best side and has not been a fast learner.

On the plus side, the Dutchman has given new faces like James Wilson and Patrick McNair a chance and has not bowed to reputations by dropping Falcao when the Colombian had not impressed enough.

Wayne Rooney might prefer to be pursuing his boyhood dream of being a centre-forward but he is doing better in his new job working behind the front line. New recruit Daley Blind has quickly become the lynchpin of the side but too many players seem uncomfortable and unsure of their roles.

Not least the £60 million Angel Di Maria, whose pace is best employed on the flanks where he excelled at Real Madrid. At Old Trafford the Argentinian has been used more centrally and in tighter spaces where he has not proved as useful.

After sunny Spain, Di Maria is probably culture-shocked by the rainy North-West and following a traumatising burglary, is clearly not in the best frame of mind.

England international Luke Shaw was expected to dazzle at his first big club but has almost gone missing, while Marcus Rojo is running around breathlessy trying to avoid making errors.

While the much-slated Marouane Fellaini has stepped-up from last season to become one of Untied's key men, Robin Van Persie, whom Van Gaal knows well from Holland duty, has not been firing on all cylinders while Falcao and Juan Mata seem headed for the exit despite their large transfer fees and past glories.

£150 million has been spent since the 63 year-old was handed the keys to Old Trafford but as with Tottenham's spending spree following the sale of Gareth Bale, the expensive replacement parts do not seem to be fitting together smoothly.

Van Gaal's United had better be a far from finished work if this is the best he can offer and hopefully for the fans' sake he is learning to swallow his pride and adapt his beliefs instead of dogmatically trying to fit his players into his chosen system rather than the other way around, committing a cardinal error of coaching in the process.

The most bizarre fact of all however is that United are still on course for a Champions League spot, sitting fourth in the league and rising as high as third on occasion.

They are also in the last eight of the FA Cup and the season's script could well end with a heroic failure to make it to Europe while winning the Cup in style. The next five games will be key, against Arsenal in the Cup and against close rivals Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham in the league.

Two defeats in 22 games shows United are not doing badly under Van Gaal, but their soporific style of play is leaving so many supporters bored and frustrated.

There is some logic behind keeping hold of the ball long enough for the opposition to tire, but this continental tenet translates differently to English opponents, who tend to throw all their men behind the ball and create a stalemate scenario.

English fans too expect an entertaining 90 minutes in a full, compact arenas, and are loathe to settle for a cat and mouse show, which they interpret as possession for possession's sake.

That is not to say Van Gaal is doing the wrong thing, merely that his attempt to speak a foreign language from the off is being misinterpreted and having mixed results.

Perhaps the problem is he has bought badly. He is on record as favouring play-making centre-backs but Rojo and Johnny Evans are yet to become the new Frank De Boer or Frank Rijkaard.

This summer will surely see a clear-out at Old Trafford and new faces arrive, perhaps more personally selected than last year's recruits, who arguably had already been scouted under Moyes' tenure and were hastily signed after Van Gaal jetted in from the World Cup in Brazil.

Time is the precious commodity all managers need but are rarely granted enough of. It is the luxury all sacked coaches complain they were never afforded. It is the precious resource and key to success David Moyes' backers claim he was denied.

And it is also what Louis Van Gaal undoubtedly needs to sculpt Manchester United in his own image before he can fairly be judged. Given his exceptional track record at the world's best teams, he will be given another season at least to present his finished product.

But time will not wait for him forever, no matter how brightly his CV shines or how loudly his reputation precedes him.

Man Utd, ultimately, is bigger than this Dutch master.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile