Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cardiff's big night of the Champions League final

I am delighted Cardiff, the first city I made my home, is hosting next month's UEFA Champions League Final, but I am also keen it puts on a good show to the continent and increasingly the world.

Whilst no-one can deny the impressive 74,500 Millennium Stadium is a fine venue for any soccer showpiece, eyebrows everywhere have been raised at the realisation that Cardiff is a little on the small size as a city (population 340,000) and does not have a major airport nearby.

Cardiff-Wales airport flies a summer timetable largely to beach resorts. Hopefully there will be extra flights laid on from Madrid and Turin, the two finalist cities.

Whilst the Welsh capital has experience of dealing with F.A. Cup finals, Football League playoffs and football and rugby internationals, the tens of thousands expected for European football's showdown will be coming from overseas via London so there must be plenty of transport options before and crucially after a game which could go on through extra-time and maybe penalties.

Given local hotel rooms for the night have been jacked up to outrageous rates, a depressing occurrence whenever a big sporting event happens, most will be leaving Cardiff the same night.

With only 4000 hotel rooms, all booked up some time ago, there is little option other than car hire and hotels further afield, or in one of the tents specially erected in a city park, Pontcanna Fields.

The now customary Final Festival will take place around a mile away in Cardiff Bay as the Millennium Stadium itself sits in the very tight streets of the city centre, which of course is a fabulous location for so big a venue. Fans arriving by train at Cardiff Central will see its looming stands and cantilevers as soon as they exit the station.

Unlike at Wembley or other out-of-town venues, there are plenty of bars and eateries within a stone's throw of the stadium. If it is a sunny day, Cardiff's ample urban parkland, particularly Bute Park beside the castle will provide a great place to relax and have a kickaround.

The centre has two main avenues. Fans will probably stroll down the pedestrianised Queen Street but not linger in the shops. St Mary Street leading to the castle is mostly bars and restaurants and will be buzzing on final day however.

The castle, originally Roman but added to by Normans and others, most notably the C19th coal baron the Marquess of Bute, is the one photo stop every visitor will make, its impressive outer walls now surmounted by a blue UEFA dragon clasping the Champions League trophy.

There will be road closures and plenty of police but if everyone is relaxed the visiting supporters will enjoy the occasion.

I have travelled to Cardiff from London by train on big match days before and found long queues at Paddington Station for passage to the Welsh capital. Pre-booking is of course advised but the fact so many Italians and Spaniards will be landing that day in London none the wiser will surely mean the railways and bus lines need extra capacity.

21 post-match trains to London have been promised and I hope that will be enough.

In changing the final from Wednesday to Saturday and adding a festival for a few days around it, UEFA have consciously tried to ape the Superbowl, increasing the price of tickets concomitantly, to make it a global event.

As much as I love Cardiff, it is not a city on the large side. Only Gelsenkirchen, the 2004 host, was a smaller place but Schalke's home is close to several other German cities in the most densely-populated part of that country.

Near to Cardiff there are only other modestly-sized cities like Swansea, Bristol and Bath. The only realistic result is that many will hop back on the London train after the match, meaning four hours of travelling on the day instead of soaking up the atmosphere of the host city.

London remains the major pull for overseas fans like it is for visitors. Travelling around Euro '96 it was clear many foreign fans were basing themselves in the capital and returning from Birmingham and Nottingham if not further afield after matches finished.

I am sure it will be all right on the night but I just hope UEFA have been adamant enough that the travelling fans, the frequently neglected factor in modern football, will enjoy the experience as much as the corporate guests, UEFA family and billion-odd TV viewers.

In the rush to make football big business, the supporters who make the effort at short notice to get off work and jet across to another country at some expense to fill the seats and cheer millionaire footballers, are usually the last to be considered.

The other issue if course security given the heightened threat of a terrorist attack on a high-profile European event. 1,500 police will be on hand to ensure nothing untoward occurs and the city did successfully host a NATO summit in 2014.

The city expects 170,000 visitors on the day, although that can only be rough guess. The Fan Zone in Coopers Fields can hold 7,000 and the Football Village in Cardiff Castle another 2,000. Down in the bay area, a Champions League museum will be open in the Wales Millennium Centre.

Many living nearby will be tempted to drop by to savour the unusually Mediterranean atmosphere.

Coming a year after Wales stunned the world by reaching the semi-final of Euro 2016, despatching the highly-fancied Belgians 3-1 in the quarter-final most notably, having the final of the European Cup in Cardiff constitutes something of a golden age in one of Europe's forgotten football corners.

Scotland remains far more famous overseas than Wales despite being of equal political status, so every piece of international fame can only be good for the local economy. I used to have to explain where Wales was to many a European but hopefully that has changed now.

Despite boasting an excellent castle, museum, parks and pleasant urban landscape as well as quick access to the Brecon Beacon mountains, the idyllic Gower Peninsula and other fine fortresses like Caerphilly, Cardiff remains a little off the standard tourist track for visitors to the UK because it is in the west of the island.

Doctor Who is filmed there but pretends it is London or various alien planets.

While Cardiff has a small Italian population, as shown by a number of family-owned ristoranti and Italian surnames in South Wales, and Juventus are the traditional team for Italian immigrants and their offspring, the fact local boy done good Gareth Bale is at Real Madrid will surely sway the majority of locals into backing the Spaniards.

Whether the Cardiff-born star can be fit in time for his big night on his home turf remains in doubt however.

A fit Bale or not, Cardiff will surely put on a good show and make a night to remember.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Real's familiar machine motors on to Cardiff

Real Madrid maintained their march of glory in Europe by thumping city rivals Atletico 3-0 in their UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg last week.

Cristiano Ronaldo scored another hat-trick and bagged yet another record, the first man to reach 50 goals in the knock-out stage of the competition.

Barring an almighty upset Los Merengues are heading to Cardiff to defend their trophy on the 3rd of June. But are we excited? Not really.

Real of course have won two out of the last three Champions Leagues and FIFA Club World Cup and successfully moved out of the intimidating shadow of the Barcelona renaissance.

And yet there is still something underwhelming about Real being the world's top team. Perhaps it is because the core of the side have been there for some years there is no excitement of expectation of the future, or maybe it is because Barça invented a new form of football - tiki-taka, which defied conventional wisdom by attacking through the middle and most congested part of the field with short passes.

Real by contrast use the conventional weapons of spreading passes wide, putting balls frequently into the box, and piling in on corners and crosses with aerial threats like Sergio Ramos and Ronaldo and the muscular Karim Benzema.

In Ronaldo they also posess the best accelerator in the game and perhaps the best aerial attacker. Gareth Bale we also know has exceptional blessings of pace and power to penetrate the best defences.

But a lot of their side underwhelm when considered as footballers alone: Keylor Navas is able between the sticks but not one of Europe's top ten goalkeepers.

While Pepe and Sergio Ramos (combined age 65) are evergreen, the rest of their back line do not excite: Fabio Coentrao, Danilo, Nacho and Rafael Varane seem reliable but not exceptional defenders, while Marcelo, a useful crosser of the ball in the final third, has long been error-strewn.

In midfield Real seem solid rather than skilful. Toni Kroos is an adequate but unexceptional holding midfielder and even his more creative partner Luka Modric is not as inventive or penetrative as his replacement at Tottenham, Christian Eriksen, who is surely on the Bernabeu radar.

Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovacic has made 24 starts this campaign but only scored once, while Brazilians Casemiro and Danilo hardly get the heart racing either.

Young Spanish attacking talent in the form of Isco and Alvaro Morata have played minor roles this season, with 16 and 13 starts this season respectively.

Meanwhile James Rodriguez, golden boot winner at the 2014 World Cup for Colombia, has made only 12 starts and eight substitute appearances in 2016/'17, although his eight goals make a decent return.


Obviously the system employed by coach Zinedine Zidane works like a treat, based around making the most of Ronaldo's talents and if they are both fit, Bale and Benzema. The midfielders work hard to make sure the back four is not exposed at the other end.


And they also have strength in depth, as evinced by their comfortable 4-0 win away at Granada last weekend with a second eleven, a strength which makes up for the lack of galacticos in every position.


Clubs with big pockets can afford to have big squads to navigate a variety of competitions and whatever injuries come their way, so what keeps Real ahead of the pack is probably settled players and a simple system, a manager they trust and the high quality of their attackers.


There have been more remarkable dynasties in the Champions League/European Cup - think of the Real who won the first five, Cruyff's Ajax of the 1970s, Liverpool of the early 1980s, Milan a decade later or Pep Guardiola's Barça for starters.


There have also been some stellar one-off winners: Red Star in 1990 (although they played for penalties in the final they had dazzled on their way there), Louis Van Gaal's youthful Ajax of 1995 and Jose Mourinho's Porto in 2004.


But the current crop from the Bernabeu, albeit less obviously outstanding, still deserve to be remembered as dominating Europe, whatever the aesthetics or ingenuity of their playing style.


A stern test in Cardiff awaits next month, but Real will almost certainly take the field at the Millennium Stadium as favourites once more.


Staying at No.1 is no mean feat in football.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Fifa World Rankings April 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for April 2017 were published on April 6 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The full top ten is: Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Chile, Colombia, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Belgium, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Switzerland and Spain.

England are 14th, unchanged from March, still behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in 11th. Egypt are the top African team in 19th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 50th place; Japan are in the 44th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in the 43th place.

The USA are in 23rd. Wales are 13th. Scotland are in 59th position. The Republic of Ireland in 26th place level with Northern Ireland also in joint 26th position.

1 Brazil
2 Argentina
3 Germany
4 Chile
5 Colombia
6 France
7 Belgium
8 Portugal
9 Switzerland
10 Spain
11 Poland
12 Italy
13 Wales
14 England
15 Uruguay
16 Mexico
17 Peru
18 Croatia
19 Egypt
20 Costa Rica

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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dutch in the ditch

The latest round of European World Cup qualifiers went largely to script.

The big boys all won comfortably - Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and England all registered victories. Surprise European Championship semi-finalists Wales drew again and struggling to make it to Russia next year have probably reverted to type.

Only Switzerland and Germany have 100% records after five games. Gibraltar, Lichtenstein, Malta and San Marino kept up their pointless campaigns. 

As it stands the seven automatic UEFA qualifiers will be France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Croatia. In the playoff berths are Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Montenegro, Slovakia, Italy. Greece and Iceland.

Dutch girls detained
Happier days for Dutch fans at World Cup 2010
The one stand-out story has to be the demise of the Netherlands, who lost 2-0 in Bulgaria and sacked coach Danny Blind afterwards.

As if failing to make it to Euro 2016 was not stunning enough for the doyens of classy soccer, the country which has produced Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullitt, Dennis Bergkamp and Arjen Robben and who finished third at the last World Cup, now languishes fourth in their group behind France, Sweden and Bulgaria.

All is not lost. For a first half of the campaign, two wins, a draw and two losses is not qualification form but recovery is still possible. The Dutch sit only three points behind second-place Sweden and a play-off spot.

Their rocky road to Russia in Group A so far:

06/09/16 Sweden 1:1 Netherlands
07/10/16 Netherlands 4:1 Belarus
10/10/16 Netherlands 0:1 France
13/11/16 Luxembourg 1:3 Netherlands
25/03/17 Bulgaria 2:0 Netherlands

They will surely take three points at home to Luxembourg in their next outing before a tricky trip to Paris at the end of August, where they really need to avoid defeat. Three days later they will have to take revenge at home to Bulgaria before winning in October in Belarus, a side who have surprisingly beaten the Dutch before in qualifying.

It looks however, like the fight for the playoff spot will all come down to the final day when the Netherlands host Sweden. 

What has gone wrong with the Netherlands? It seems to be a classic case of being caught amid an inter-generational transition. Only four of the players who came third in Brazil in 2014 were on the pitch in Sofia: Defenders Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind and attackers Arjen Robben and Georginio Wijnaldum.

Attention has centred on Danny Blind's fielding of 17 year-old debutant Matthijs De Ligt at centre-back, which even by the Netherlands' standards of developing young stars seemed recklessly premature.

The risk turned duly sour as Bulgaria raced into a two-goal lead after twenty minutes and De Ligt was hauled off at half-time. Blind, skipper of Ajax's youthful European Cup-winning team in 1995, may have seen something similar in the young Ajax defender, but it proved his downfall as manager.

Fred Grim is the caretaker choice but the KNVB will surely ring up Ronald Koeman to see if they can tempt him from Goodison Park, which seems unlikely.

Frank De Boer, most recently Inter coach last season, is a more likely possibility, or maybe Philip Cocu of PSV. One name surprisingly doing the rounds is Louis Van Gaal, who took them to third in WC 2014.
Looking at the young faces in Blind's side, none seem obviously to be of the same calibre of the great Dutch players of the last quarter-century, a revival which began with the Euro '88 triumph and featured consecutive Champions League finals for Ajax in the mid 1990's, World Cup semi-finals for the national team in 1998 and 2014 and second place in 2010.

Their domestic league was never powerful but now looks increasingly lightweight compared to England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. 
As with good players, its best managers are easily tempted away. In 2011, Martin Jol wasted little time in swapping Ajax, the great Dutch club, for lowly Fulham in the Premier League.

Three years later Ronald Koeman guided Feyenoord to second in the Eredivisie and a Champions League spot but left to coach Southampton who had finished eighth in England.

More recently two Dutch starlets have come to England but fluffed their lines: Memphis Depay, who signed for Manchester United just before the 2015-'16 season to great fanfare but was quietly sold to Lyon in this year's January transfer window after an unimpressive year and a half at Old Trafford.

Vincent Janssen, the Dutch player of the year after a whopping 27 goals in 34 games for AZ Alkmaar, has been firmly in Harry Kane's shadow since joining Tottenham. He has only scored once for the north Londoners since joining last summer and 15 of his 20 appearances have come from the bench too.

Perhaps the Dutch football philosophy needs challenging, despite the long admiration from around the world for their nation's over-achieving.

4-3-3 and multi-functional players remain articles of faith for Oranje but tactics are evolving around them. Leicester won last year's Premier League with an effective direct style, speed and three individual talents, 4-2-3-1 has been all the rage this decade and now it seems 3-4-3 as practised to effect by Chelsea on top of the Premier League (and England last week against Germany) is the formation du jour.

If the Netherlands stick to their guns and refuse to learn from the competition, they will have fallen into England's historic trap and will miss out on another tournament next summer.

And that would be a tragedy for one the most outstanding football nations of the last half century.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive

Yu keeps the Chinese Dream Alive.
* China kept their slim hopes of making it to Russia 2018 alive with a 1-0 win over South Korea 1-0 in Changsha in their AFC World Cup qualifier this afternoon.

Yu Dabao of Beijing Guoan got the only goal for Marcelo Lippi's side in the 34th minute, his nation's second win over Korea in 32 attempts.

With four games to play, Iran 1-0 winners in Qatar, remain four points clear of the Reds at the top with Uzbekistan, who fell to a last-gasp penalty away to Syria, a point behind in the playoff position. Despite a 100% home record, Uli Stieleke's Korea have only point in their three matches away from home.

China is scattering money around its domestic league to attract overseas stars and its hour must surely come, but fifth out of sixth, their national team's next realistic hope of World Cup participation is at Qatar 2022.

In Asia's Group B, Saudi Arabia and Japan occupy the top two slots with 13 points, and Australia are third with ten.

The Saudis won 3-0 away in Thailand, Japan won 2-0 in the U.A.E. but Australia could only draw 1-1 in Iraq. The top two in each group go to Russia with the two third-place nations playing off against each other home and away before another two-leg tiebreaker with CONCACAF's fourth-best for the final ticket to Russia.

*The South American qualifiers kick off later with Argentina and Colombia, fifth and sixth respectively and out of the automatic qualification spots, desperately seeking home wins against Chile and Bolivia respectively.

Elsewhere, second play first in Montevideo where Uruguay host Brazil.

* Lukas Podolski's rocket against England last night was the perfect swansong, a Roy of the Rovers winner even every Englishman watching had to doff his cap to and applaud.

Germany's wonder goal and result should not make the world champions lie back with confidence they can defend their crown in 2018: For the first half England were clearly the better team with a superior shape and excellent pressing.

But for Adam Lallana striking a post and Dele Alli letting Marc-Andre Ter Stegen off the hook with a tame shot, the visitors would have led at the break.

In the second half, the usual routine of multiple substitutions altered the nature of the game wholesale.

Gareth Southgate can nevertheless leave thrilled by his experimental formation which bodes well for the future. 3-4-3 seems to be the formation flavour of the month, much like 4-2-3-1 was in 2010.

* In a rare moment of sanity, FIFA have talked about limiting squad sizes to help increase the competitiveness of top leagues. When Premier League leaders Chelsea can send a whopping 38 players out on loan, something surely must change to even things up.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Fifa World Rankings March 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for March 2017 were published on March 9 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

The full top ten is: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, beaten Euro 2016 finalists, France, Colombia, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Uruguay and Spain.

England are 14th, down one, behind Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales and Poland in joint 12th. Egypt replace Iceland in 20th and are the top African team, ahead of Senegal, who are in 28th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 55th place; Japan are in 51st spot. Near neighbors South Korea are in 40th place.

The USA are in 30th. Wales are 12th. Scotland are in 67th position. The Republic of Ireland in 24th place, Northern Ireland are in 39th position.

1 Argentina
2 Brazil
3 Germany
4 Chile
5 Belgium
6 France
7 Colombia
8 Portugal
9 Uruguay
10 Spain
11 Switzerland
12 Wales
12 Poland
14 England
15 Italy
16 Croatia
17 Mexico
18 Peru
19 Costa Rica
20 Egypt

Full world rankings

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Monday, March 6, 2017

New Chelsea Stadium Gets Green Light

Chelsea's new 60,000 seat stadium has received final planning permission and should be ready for the 2021-'22 season.

The 'matchstick cathedral' design by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, who designed the Beijing Birds' Nest Olympic arena and renovated London's Tate Modern, got the final nod from London Mayor Sadiq Khan today.

Didier Drogba poster at Stamford Bridge.


It will certainly be a distinctive stadium with 264 bent brick piers giving a skeletal surround with no sliding roof although one wonders how much sunlight will penetrate, as with many modern arenas.

Best known for the Bird's Nest, possibly the greatest Olympic arena of all time, the firm has also designed football stadia before: Munich's Allianz Arena, Basel's St Jakob Park and Bordeaux's stadium.

On the plus side, Chelsea are staying on their historic Stamford Bridge site where they have played since 1905. After a long quest by owner Roman Abramovich to find a new home, a search which included Battersea Power Station, Earls Court exhibition centre and allegedly even an enquiry about Hyde Park, the club is staying put after all.

The new stadium will along with Arsenal's Ashburton Grove and Tottenham's rebuilt White Hart Lane be the third club ground in the capital coming in at 60,000 seats (Spurs will have 61,000).

As with Tottenham, Chelsea will have to decamp to Wembley while their new home takes shape. Tottenham are due to play at the national stadium from next season but have hinted at waiting an extra season. That might eat into Chelsea's plan to play three years away from home before moving back to the Bridge.

Stamford Bridge is the closest London stadium to the city centre, accessible by tube and surrounded by housing, albeit expensive apartments and Georgian avenues rather than the working class terraces which usually accompany English club grounds.

It has the wealthiest location of any London club, as part of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, although the adjoining Fulham Road was traditionally more blue collar than the neighbouring King's Road and its exclusive boutiques.

Unlike at Tottenham, where club owners have slammed City Hall for not subsidising transport improvements to London's most famously hard-to-reach ground, Chelsea has a tube station Fulham Broadway close by and several bus services calling outside the stadium, meaning getting to and from their new home should not be a problem even with an increase in crowds.

The name Stamford Bridge refers not to the English Civil War battle but to a crossing of a long-vanished tributary of the Thames, the Stanford or sandy creek.

60,000 is a significant increase on the current capacity of 42,000 and will boost the club's coffers as they stake a claim to return to being one of the leading sides in the Champions League, which they won in 2012. As it stands, Arsenal make substantially more money in matchday income.

The new capacity will fall short of the ground's record attendance however, 82,905 for the visit of Arsenal in October 1935.

London clubs record home attendances

  1. Chelsea - 82,905 v Arsenal, 1935
  2. Charlton - 75,031 v Aston Villa, 1938
  3. Tottenham - 75,038 v Sunderland, 1938*
  4. Arsenal - 73,295 v Sunderland, 1935
  5. West Ham - 56,985 v Sunderland, 2016
  6. Crystal Palace - 51,482 v Burnley, 1979
  7. Fulham - 49,335 v Millwall, 1938
  8. Millwall - 48,672 v Derby, 1937
  9. Brentford - 38,678 v Leicester, 1949
  10. Orient - 38,219 v Tottenham, 1929
  11. QPR - 35,353 v Leeds, 1974

* At White Hart Lane; 85,512 watched Spurs play Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League at Wembley in 2016.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile