Thursday, May 29, 2014

Nigeria share goals with Scots

International Friendly

Nigeria 2:2 Scotland

Craven Cottage, London

A bizarre pre-match story had involved London's Metropolitan Police highlighting a possible attempt by Far East gamblers to fix this match, but in the end there was nothing fishy by the river as Scotland and World Cup qualifiers Nigeria shared an entertaining 2:2 draw.

With Nigeria's second string looking to play themselves into manager Stephen Keshi's final 23 for Brazil and Scotland looking for some valuable experience ahead of their Euro 2016 campaign in the autumn, as well as two boisterous ex-pat communities of London ready to party, there was always the prospect of a lively 90 minutes.

Gordon Strachan's men looked the slicker of the two teams from the kick-off; Scotland were fielding a strong starting eleven while Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi was auditioning players for his final 23-man squad.

But it was the Scot with the Nigerian father, Ikechi Anya, who caught the eye early on. Flattened by Nigeria's Kunle Odunlami in under two minutes, the quick and clever Watford winger almost got his name on the scoresheet two minutes later by firing a shot onto the far post from an acute angle.

Nigeria were slow out of the blocks and went behind after ten minutes from a set piece. Shaun Maloney and Anya combined to tee-up James Morrison from a left-wing corner and Charlie Mulgrew tipped his succeeding blast looping high into the corner of the net.

The Scots were worth their lead. Their formation was solid and balanced, their passing sharper and terrestrial and in Steven Naismith they had a livewire striker. Nigeria had more height so were using more of an aerial approach, but a host of crosses lumped into the box and snatched attempts at finding killer balls had led to a disjointed final third of the field for the African champions.

Strikers Shola Ameobi & Uchebo were drifting around posing no obvious threat, yet against the run of play Nigeria drew level in the 41st minute. Uchebo received the ball in the middle and advanced without challenge to let rip, a deflection off the unlucky Grant Hanley wrongfooting McGregor.

The second half took little time to catch fire, as McGregor tipped away a close range Ameobi shot before Scotland regained the lead.

Raiding right-back Alan Hutton was allowed too much space to sneak into the box and the Aston Villa man whipped a ball across the goalmouth which took a couple of deflections before billowing the onion bag.

Nigeria's support cheered loudly when West Brom's Peter Odemwingie took the field in the 55th minute and after Chelsea's Victor Moses joined him up front six minutes later, the Super Eagles at last had some skilful footwork to add to their strong and direct approach.

Yet still the Scots pressed. The Tartan Army cheered just after the hour mark as the ball was again in the Nigerian net but the almost identikit goal was disallowed for a foul. Scotland were denied a third again in the 67th when substitutes George Boyd and Chris Martin combined for Martin to pull the trigger, only to see his snapshot draw an equally reflexive save from Nigerian custodian Austine Ejide.

As medleys of 'Flower of Scotland' boomed out from the Hammersmith Road end, Strachan's men looked all set to register their fourth successive away win before Uche Nwofor capitalised on fatal defensive hesitation to lash in an equaliser in the final minute.

Nigeria: Ejide, Yobo, Echiejile, Obi (Igiebor 53'), Egwuekwe, Odunlami (Emuobo 75'), Uzoenyi (Moses 61'), Ameobi (Nwofor 62') Uchebo (Odemwingie 55'), Gabriel, Babatunde (Oduamadi 66').

Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Robertson (Forsyth 77'), Greer, Hanley, Morrison (Boyd 63'), Mulgrew, Brown, Naismith (Martin 45'), Maloney, Anya (Whittaker 84').

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

International Friendly: Scotland v Nigeria


Craven Cottage, London

After a month's rain in 48 hours, the heavens have mercifully held off before Nigeria grapple with Scotland in their World Cup warm-up match here in London.

Stephen Keshi will be looking to audition several potential members of his final squad in the first of three friendlies before they tackle Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iran in Brazil, while Gordon Strachan is planning his assault on Euro 2016 and Scotland's first qualifier, a tall test away to Germany this autumn.

A contrast in styles should be useful preparation for Nigeria's Brazilian adventure, while Scotland manager Strachan is also hoping to benefit from the 90 minutes, explaining, "A good team is a good team."

The supporters have wended their way along the river Thames through the tranquility of the historic Bishops Park.

Outside on the Hammersmith Road, the hum of Nigerian drums and the roar of their trumpets mixed with the bagpipes and good-natured singing of the Tartan Army. We are all set for a fascinating friendly.

Nigeria: Ejide, Yobo, Echiejile, Obi, Egwuekwe, Odunlami, Uzoenyi, Ameobi, Uchebo, Gabriel, Babatunde.

Scotland: McGregor, Hutton, Robertson, Greer, Hanley, Morrison, Mulgrew, Brown, Naismith, Maloney, Anya.
  
- Sean O'Conor

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Falcao & Suarez risk World Cup KO

Will the first World Cup in South America since 1978 be missing South America's top marksmen?

News that Luis Suarez has had emergency meniscus surgery was shocking, given that the recovery time is between three and ten weeks. Images of the Uruguayan star being carried out of hospital in a wheelchair so close to the World Cup was painful viewing for soccer fans worldwide.

While Suarez and the Uruguayan F.A. are insisting he will be ready to play in Brazil, the fear is that even if he does, he will not be the almost unstoppable goalscorer he has been in the Premier League this season.

Even England, Italy and Costa Rica, who have been agonising about how to stop Suarez in the first round in Group D, will feel his absence would diminish the competition.

If it is the World Cup, we want to see the world's hottest players there, and no striker is hotter right now than Suarez, whose 31 league goals for Liverpool bagged him both the PFA and Football Writers' Player of the Season award.



Colombia's El Tigre Radamel Falcao also risks missing the big show, having been out of action since January after tearing knee ligaments playing for Monaco in a French cup tie. Last summer Falcao was Europe's most sought after striker and with nine goals in 13 qualifiers, he bears his World Cup hopes on his shoulders.

Falcao posted an Instagram of himself on the 13th of May, boasting of running 9.4km and swimming 1.5km as he battles to make the 2nd of June deadline for Jose Pekerman's 23-man squad.

Los Cafeteros were given a send-off in Bogota on Friday night in front of 30,000 fans at El Campin stadium. Next they fly to Buenos Aires, where they take on Senegal on the 31st of May and Jordan on the 6th of June in friendly action before going to their base in Cotia on the outskirts of Sao Paolo. Falcao, for now, remains in Spain continuing to recuperate.

For the sake of the tournament, let us hope they both win their races against time.



(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, May 23, 2014

Donovan dropped from US squad

Landon Donovan, all-time top scorer for the USA, will not be going to the 2014 World Cup after Jurgen Klinsmann left him out of his final 23-man squad.

Jurgen Klinsmann.Donovan has 57 goals in 156 appearances for his country and, age 32, was looking forward to his fourth World Cup finals.

The Californian has scored two memorable goals for the US at World Cups, a header to knock out CONCACAF rivals Mexico in the round of 16 in Korea in 2002 and a last-gasp winner against Algeria in 2010 which sent the USA into the second round as group winners above England.

If Klinsmann was wanting to be bold in his choices, he could hardly have dropped a bigger name, and with a 'group of death' awaiting in Ghana, Portugal and Germany in Group G, we will see if fortune really favours the brave.

USA final squad:

USA SquadGoalkeepers: Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nurnberg), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Moenchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders).

Midfielders: Michael Bradley (Toronto), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Ten of the 23 selected are from Major League Soccer, up from four in 2010 and there are six survivors from the squad taken to South Africa - Howard, Guzan, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore and Beasley.

Upcoming games:

USA v Azerbaijan       27th May     San Francisco, CA     Friendly
USA v Turkey              1st June     Harrison, NJ               Friendly
USA v Nigeria              7th June     Jacksonville, FL          Friendly

World Cup 1st Rd

USA v Ghana              16th June      Natal
USA v Portugal           22nd June     Manaus
USA v Germany          26th June      Recife

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This is the year for Brazil

Brazil - land of colour, music, soccer, sensuality and social unrest


It was Pele, the greatest player of them all, who first anointed his beloved futebol with the now universal sobriquet 'O Jogo Bonito' aka 'The Beautiful Game.'

Maracana, Rio, Brazil


No other country on earth is so mythically linked with football, so a World Cup in Brazil makes perfect sense. In fact, an outsider must wonder how such a huge soccer-obsessed country has not hosted the game's biggest show since 1950.

Brazil is the fifth-largest nation on earth and the sleepiest of sleeping giants, so much so that politicians have used the phrase 'the nation of the future' with unthinking pride. So when will it all be ready?

It should be. Now it is a BRIC nation, one of the next generation of global powers alongside Russia, India and China and with almost 200 million people.

And hosting this summer's World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games is supposed to rubber-stamp Brazil as the country of the present and not the future, a bona-fide South American super-nation.

In the eyes of the world everything was always rosy: The colour of the Rio Carnival, the samba and the bikini-clad girls on Ipanema and Copacabana, the happy children playing football on the beach, a nation personified by Carmen Miranda with the fruit on her head.

Yet 2013's 'summer of hate' sent a different image of Brazil around the world as thousands protested and riots turned nasty. Expensive bus fares was the catalyst but the nation's spending priorities and the 'waste' of the World Cup became the focus. Pele has waded in ineptly, first criticising, then siding with and then just lamenting the protests.

"Brazil", intoned FIFA President Sepp Blatter at the start of this year, "has started work much too late. No country has been so far behind in its preparations since I have been at FIFA."

"We are not ready" was the less than feel-good message from General Secretary Jerome Valcke in April this year, referring to World Cup preparations. A month later he added, ominously, "We have been through hell."

The International Olympic Committee added salt to the wound by calling Brazil "the worst prepared" Olympic host it had ever seen.

Waving the white flag at FIFA so early on is an attempt to pre-empt criticism before the big kick-off on the 12th of June, but the proof is in the pudding.

The dominant narrative in global news has largely been of a country on the up: Brazil is projected to become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2050, with only China, the USA and India ahead of it, while their government eyes a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The evidence of economic prowess is clear: Brazilian oil giant Petrobras is the fourth-largest non-financial company on Earth while Brazil is the fifth largest agricultural producer, No.3 for fruit and meat and No.1 for coffee and sugar.

When vast new oilfields were found in 2007 the nation's stock exchange boomed, and the country moved onto France's shoulder as the sixth-largest world economy. As a vote of confidence in its future, China overtook the USA as Brazil’s major overseas investor in 2009. Salaries have risen and millions have been lifted out of poverty thanks to bolsas familias (family allowances).

Yet the country's dark side is also hard to ignore. Crime is a constant issue for the locals, let alone for tourists, so a heavy police presence will greet the half a million visitors expected this summer.

Recent films like Bus 174 and City of God have brought the favelas, the jaw-dropping shanty-towns dotting Brazil's sprawling metropolises, to the world. A quick peek on GoogleEarth and the social apartheid of Rio and Sao Paulo is laid bare. This is a country which still has a long way to go.

Behind the glowing statistics lies a nation handicapped by extremes of wealth and poverty. The World Bank states that the richest 20% of Brazil owns 33 times as much as the lowest 20%, placing the country in the top ten of unequal nations on earth. Less than 3% of the people own two-thirds of the land and while the top 10% take almost half the nation’s income, the bottom 10% are illiterate.

In GDP per capita, Brazil actually trails the rest of South America. The Economist rates it as low as 37th for business competitiveness.

This inequality has led to swathes of gated communities, helicopters and a burgeoning security industry: Brazilians are afraid of each other, and with double the murder rate of the USA, can you blame them?

Governments sell Olympics and World Cups to their doubters with the carrot of glistening new infrastructure, but in Brazil's case the promised new airports, roads and rail links have not arrived. At the same time, the cost of the as yet unfinished stadia has jumped to a staggering three times that of South Africa in 2010.

By last year, it was clear frustration was about to spill over, and it did, across the nation. 60,000 people demonstrated in Belo Horizonte alone, one of this summer's host cities.

Who needs expensive new sports arenas when the people do not have proper schools or hospitals, ran the incontestable logic of the movement.

President Dilma Roussef has struggled to maintain authority as a doubling of income per capita and the lifting of 20 million out of poverty over the last decade have led to spiralling expectations for faster change.

The anger is somewhat middle-class driven. The lives of the rich elite have remained cocooned while some of the poor have seen their lives bettered. But the rest of the population is demanding to know why they are paying European levels of tax without concomitant European standards of living.

A month of football will make everyone happy, especially if the home team lift the cup, but Brazilians are itching for real progress, not temporary parties.

The government and FIFA are expecting more unrest this summer, but praying the nation's love of football will stop it from disrupting the nation’s big night on the world stage.

On paper Brazil should already be a superpower: 200 million citizens, a quarter of the world's arable land, plentiful oil and biofuels, and no enemies to threaten it.

But a ragged history of colonialism, slavery and military dictatorships have held back this sleeping giant for decades.

Independent from Portugal since 1889, Brazil went backwards in the second half of the twentieth century following a military coup d'état in 1964.

Rapid growth soon led to economic ruin, censorship, torture, political murders and rampant inequality.

Democracy returned in 1990, which makes Brazil a young nation at heart. 2014 does offer Brazil a unique chance to promote itself, as the last World Cup Final was watched by an estimated 700 million people.

And it needs more tourist dollars. For all its attractiveness, Brazil barely ranks in the top 50 most-visited countries on earth, attracting almost half the amount of overseas tourists who visit Morocco, for instance. Crime if often cited as the explanation.

Yet if anything can take Brazilians' minds off their problems it is football. While other countries have wars, artists, Nobel Prizes and scientific inventions to celebrate, Brazil can point to its five World Cups as its greatest achievements. Football has allowed a nation with weaknesses to dream it is beating all others with ease.

The adjective Brazilian has also become synonymous in football with flair and breathtaking skill, a world away from the muscular northern European sport Englishman Charles Miller brought to Sao Paolo, like a missionary, in 1894. It feels like Brazilians play football to an instinctive samba rhythm and the phrase sexy football could have been coined for them.

Football is such a potent uniter of a divided nation, a social equaliser bar none, that although there will be protests again in June, they won’t be happening while the green and gold of the seleçao are playing.

The game's potential for manipulation has not been lost on politicians, who have tried to ally themselves to the nation's favourite pastime for years. President Roussef is only the latest leader to schedule the general election in a World Cup year. If Brazil wins, she will surely reap some benefit in November.

Home advantage and a soccer-mad population means Brazil are the clear favourite for the World Cup, so elimination is unthinkable. But at the back of everyone's mind lurks the trauma of 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup.

On the 16th of July 64 years ago, 174,000 packed Rio's Maracana stadium and millions more listened on the airwaves expecting Brazil to overwhelm Uruguay in the World Cup Final.

Brazil took the lead but Uruguay equalised and then won thanks to a late goal from Alcides Ghiggia, a name which still unnerves Brazilians to this day. A nation was distraught and some fans even committed suicide.

The so-called Maracanazo (Maracana disaster) has obsessed Brazilians ever since. Nelson Rodrigues, the great Brazilian writer, called it "our Hiroshima."

Other writers concur on its significance beyond football: Joao Maximo believed it split Brazilian history into two, Paulo Perdigao likened the footage of Uruguay's second goal to the Kennedy assassination, while novelist Carlos Heitor Cony thought a monument to defeat should have been built, because nothing had ever united the nation more.

Brazil went on to win five World Cups and their 1970 team is feted as the greatest of all time, yet the nation is still haunted by having lost at home 64 years ago.

2014 affords the world's most famous football nation a chance to atone at last, yet the historical baggage of another final at the Maracana will be an emotional burden.

When the tears of joy dry up and the catharsis of exorcising 1950 is over, Brazilians can get back to tackling their nation's myriad problems, but first they must win 'their' World Cup.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Super Eagles are ready for take-off

No one is tipping Nigeria, but confidence and a favourable draw could carry them far in Brazil

Nigeria Super Eagles
Of the less-fancied teams travelling to the World Cup Finals next month, it might be worth keeping an eye on Nigeria.

The Super Eagles warm up next week for their Brazilian adventure with a friendly against Scotland at Fulham's Craven Cottage.

Stephen Keshi's team head to the World Cup Finals unbeaten in qualifiers and ranked 44th in the world, without heavy expectation on their shoulders. The African champions are rated by William Hill at only 250/1 to lift the trophy, 24th out of the 32 finalists.

In reality, a run to the quarter-finals would be considered an achievement as Nigeria have never gone beyond the second round before and no African side has gone further than the last eight – Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010.

And yet there are reasons for cautious optimism. Not only do Nigeria arrive confident after winning the African Cup of Nations last year for the first time since 1994, but they also find themselves in the easier half of the draw, avoiding Brazil, Spain, Colombia, Uruguay, England, Italy and the Netherlands until the semi-finals.

It will be big ask to top a group containing Argentina, but with Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina the other first-round opponents, Nigeria will feel they have a real chance of finishing in the top two positions in Group F.

Round of 16 opponents would then come from the less than terrifying Group E of Switzerland, France, Ecuador and Honduras, which should give Nigeria genuine hope of reaching the last eight for the first time in their history.

They will be mindful of course of their two second-round odysseys which ended with conflicting fortunes: In 1994 they were two minutes from eliminating Roberto Baggio's Italy, who ended up losing the final on penalties, but went down 2-1, and at France '98 they collapsed surprisingly easily 4-1 to Denmark.

Keshi is cut from the traditional disciplinarian cloth of Nigerian head coaches, but remains popular with his players after the Nations Cup win and loved domestically for his blooding of Nigeria- based players: Despite Nigerian footballers being scattered to the four winds, five of the preliminary squad for Brazil play their trade at home and over 30 have been called up over the past year.

'Big Boss' Keshi  & his assistant Daniel Amokachi are also fondly remembered as skipper and striker for Nigeria at USA '94, their country's historic first World Cup Finals appearance.

Softly-spoken goalkeeper and captain Vincent Enyeama speaks highly of his manager. "He is a great guy," he told FIFA.com, "a man-manager who tries to build a team on unity." Chelsea’s Jon-Obi Mikel added, "He always wants you to work 110% every day in training and in games…and I think every player is enjoying the challenge."

Mikel is the best known Nigerian player worldwide after eight successful seasons with Chelsea, but has yet to feature in a World Cup Finals. The pivot of the side's attack-minded 4-4-1-1 formation, Mikel's job is to orchestrate the attacks using his pacy wingmen Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa.

Behind Mikel just to his right, Lazio’s young anchorman Ogenyi Oyazi has impressed recently and additional speed can be injected into the attack from Brescia’s Nnamdi Oduamadi and Heerenveen's Uche Nwofor. Expect vertical play from Nigeria instead of possession football or a slow build-up.

Kesha has to choose between Chievo's Victor Obinna or Fenerbahce's Emanuel Emanike as the main marksman. Another option could be Stoke’s Peter Odemwingie or Newcastle veteran Shola Ameobi, and the team can adjust to 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3  when required to accommodate more than one striker.

At the back is where Nigeria will sink or swim. It is hard to glean much from their African qualifiers against Malawi, Kenya, Namibia and Ethiopia, so the friendly clashes with Scotland and after that Greece and the USA before flying to Brazil will be illuminating. 

When Nigeria last met decent overseas opposition, competitively in last summer's Confederations Cup, they lost to Spain and Uruguay.

The expected centre-back pairing of Middlesbrough's Kenneth Omeruo and Caykur Rizespor's Godfrey Oboabona have a combined age of only 44, though Keshi may be tempted to field 24 year-old Azubuike Egwuekwe, who plies his trade in Nigeria with Warri Wolves and has 31 caps.

Keshi's team will play on the front foot in Brazil and should entertain the neutrals with fast and attacking football. If there are question marks they surround their untested defence, although Keshi has worked hard to get his back four working as a solid unit.

Team spirit, so often an African bugbear, will not be a problem this time around.

"We all go out there and help each other and play for each other and support each other. We are all in it together," confirmed Mikel.

In a nation in the news for ethnic and religious strife and boasting 521 different tongues, the common language of football and the Super Eagles at the World Cup will bring 170 million people in Africa's most populous country together for a month.

And unity is the key.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Scudamore keeps his job but we are not amused

Scudamore keeps his job, but we are not amused
The Richard Scudamore affair has highlighted football's failure to move with the times once more.

That the Chief Executive of the Premier League had used such derogatory language about women is extraordinary to most people in Britain in 2014, even if it was in the context of private emails sent to male buddies with a wink-wink nudge-nudge tone about them.

It is worrying to think that anyone in a position of power could slip so casually into the sort of crude discrimination which should have gone out with the dark ages, or at least when the 1928 Representation of the People Act equalised male and female voting rights in the United Kingdom.

The manner of the comments was at the very least puerile and ill-becoming of a middle-aged married father of five and the head of a major organisation in the public eye.

In Scudamore's defence, his emails were sent jokingly to friends alone and claims his temporary P.A. had no right to search through his emails.

The idea that all our private discourse should be gone over with a fine-toothed comb in public is Orwellian, and a civilised society should include the possibility of forgiveness and atonement instead of rushing to punish every time. If Scudamore has truly repented having seen the error of his ways, and henceforth fights the corner of women in sport then that would surely be a triumph, of sorts.

"The apology I have made is sincere," pleaded Scudamore, "as is the contrition I feel...It is something that will never be repeated."

That said, the language he used was particularly shocking to many people for whom only his head on a platter will do. It is hard to see the England goalkeeper Rachel Brown for instance, shaking Scudamore's hand after she branded his emails "an insult to women".

As with the Press Complaints Commission's historic failure to regulate the excesses of Fleet Street, it seems clear leaving Scudamore's fate to the Premier League clubs he works with on a daily basis is an inadequate reflex compared to employing an external and objective board of enquiry.

It was 17 club chairmen (including two women - Margaret Byrne of Sunderland and Karren Brady of West Ham) who rubber-stamped his exoneration on the basis that the sum total of all his correspondence did not find evidence of "wider discriminatory attitudes, inappropriate language or a general attitude of disrespect to women."

Brady said Scudamore was "categorically not sexist," the same Karren Brady who got into football via her advertising sales work for pornographer David Sullivan. Margaret Byrne meanwhile brushed off all the furore by saying she was "delighted common sense had prevailed."

But if English football does contain a bedrock of sexism, self-regulation is probably not the way forward in such a male-dominated sport. It would be a surprise if football, with its focus on male athletes and the masculine culture of the dressing-room had less sexism than industries employing a 50-50 balance of men and women.

Its male dominance also explains why there have been no openly gay footballers in English football, while openly lesbian players work in the women's game.

In my experience as a journalist in English football, I cannot say I have witnessed open sexism or other popular forms of discrimination in any dealings with clubs or governing bodies.

And yet there is a residual oddness about being in a workplace in which the only women one sees are office staff, cheerleaders and the occasional journalist, but never centre stage as protagonists on the field or in the dugouts.

Visit the Premier League headquarters in London's elegant Marylebone district and you are struck by the number of women employed in its offices. No wonder then that Scudamore's dinosaur language was flagged up once noticed, but how many other men in football think the same and have done so, unrepentant, for years because they have never been caught?

Some clubs are better than others at employing female press officers, who do just as good a job if not better than their male colleagues, yet press rooms are overwhelmingly male and dressing rooms completely so, which made me realise I was working amid one of the last bastions of male domination. Despite being a lifelong football fanatic, being on the inside still felt odd.

The female journalists and press officers I encountered were often more interesting as people than their male counterparts, probably because they had ploughed a more arduous and unfamiliar furrow in getting to where they were.

On the few occasions I socialised with professional footballers, I was struck by how many young women threw themselves at them, doubtless entranced by knowledge of their telephone-number salaries and possible brushes with fame. This inevitably created an unbalanced relationship between the sexes, where women happily deferred to often less intelligent men.

Thus, football's gender bias is an intrinsic absurdity. Because all the players and most of the supporters are male, men unthinkingly relate more easily to male commentators and administrators as a result and a locker-room mentality emerges too easily, a safe haven for jokes about those out of sight and mind.

But this is still 2014, wider society has moved on and soccer is not hermetically sealed from it, like it or not.

No-one is suggesting men's and women's football should merge into a co-ed sport of mixed teams, but certainly there could be more efforts to bring women into football at all levels, even if the ladies are not about to take the field alongside the lads. In every other football job, women are as capable as men.

Women in Football (WiF) is one group trying to redress the balance by promoting equal participation in all facets of the game.

Its board members include BBC commentator Jacqui Oatley, sports lawyer Jean Bevan and Chief Executive of the Sports Grounds Safety Authority Ruth Shaw, as well as Vicki Orvice, who writes for Rupert Murdoch's tabloid The Sun, which is hardly a paragon of sexual equality with its daily bare breasts.

WiF called Scudamore's words "offensive" and added, "the comments have yet again proved we are a long way from equality." According to their own survey of 1,000 women in the game, over two-thirds have witnessed sexual discrimination in their workplaces, a damning statistic for any industry in 2014.

As it stands, the dinosaurs have won the day, but the war is far from over. The F.A.'s Inclusion Advisory Board, which features former England left-back Graeme Le Saux, will be watching like a hawk. Its chair Helen Rabbatts, who spoke of a "closed culture of sexism" at the Premier League, will we are told be working more closely with the organisation to promote its equal opportunities agenda. Suffice to say, any sexist will think twice now about emailing any 'jokes' to his mates.

Rani Abraham, the woman who first leaked the emails, called the Premier League's decision to take no further action against their boss "a whitewash" which "sends out a very damaging message as to how women are regarded in football."

That the Premier League is considering suing her for accessing Scudamore's emails in the first place seems perverse, not least because she insists it was within her job description.

Ms. Abraham should rather be congratulated for shining a light into one of football's most primitive corners, an uncomfortable truth which must be confronted and which for those on the receiving end is no laughing matter.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Cantona aims kick at Platini

Manchester United legend Eric Cantona has criticised UEFA President Michel Platini for his role in choosing Qatar as 2022 World Cup host.

Cantona, who played under Platini for France in the early 1990s, told Le Parisien newspaper in Paris that the blame for handing the World Cup to a nation with extreme summer temperatures should not lie with FIFA President Sepp Blatter. 

"It was an idea of Platini," said Cantona. "It was also Platini who gave the European U21 Championship to Israel, which is also disrepectful on the level of human rights. In Qatar," he went on, "there is absolutely nothing to develop, no potential. It is a small country...(the) people are absolutely not interested in the sport and never will be."

Platini has admitted he voted for Qatar, but has not come out openly to say he was the driving force behind the bid within FIFA. In the final round of voting with the Executive Committee in 2010, Qatar beat the USA 14-8, but the decision has been dogged by controversy ever since.

Platini's role has been the subject of attention in the French media after he admitted attending a dinner ahead of the vote at the Elysée Palace with then President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Emir and Prime Minister of Qatar.

France Football magazine devoted an issue to the topic recently entitled 'Le Qatar-Clysme' and has also referred to the political mess as 'Qatargate'.

Nevertheless, FIFA seems adamant the vote will not be re-run and General Secretary Jerome Valcke confirmed this month there will be no summer World Cup in the Middle East.

"The World Cup will be played in winter," said Valcke. "I think everyone has said that and repeated it. Now we need to know when in winter it will be played and the Executive Committee will try to reply to that in March 2015." 

November to December 2021 is the expected period for the tournament, to avoid being staged too close to the Winter Olympics in February 2022.

Meanwhile in Qatar, work has started on the first of eight stadia for 2022. The Al-Wakrah venue ten miles south of the capital Doha will have a capacity of 40,000 for the World Cup Finals, reducing to 20,000 after the tournament.

The design is by the internationally-acclaimed 'starchitect' Zaha Hadid, creator of London's 2012 Olympic Pool amongst other buildings and is inspired by the local tradition of pearl fishing.



-Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sepp comes clean on Qatar

Sepp comes clean on Qatar.
Well, it's official now. Even the FIFA President is saying that handing the World Cup to Qatar for 2022 was an error.

"Of course, it was a mistake, " Sepp Blatter told Swiss radio station RTS, adding wistfully, "You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life." Well, you said it, Sepp.

What has been obvious to everyone since the vote in 2010 is that this was an extraordinary risk at best, a glaring error at worst.

The elephant in the room, Qatar's boiling summer temperatures, was cited in FIFA's Technical Report but casually ignored by the 14 Executive Committee members who chose it ahead of the eight who voted for the USA in the last round of voting.

The same report incidentally rated England as the premier choice for 2018, yet that same nation was eliminated in the first round of voting. Clearly FIFA does not listen to its own experts.

Promises of stadium-scale air-conditioning may well be fulfilled, but as Ex.Co. member Chuck Blazer noted at the time, "you can't air-condition a whole country". Plus the idea of hordes of beer-swilling fans filling the normally conservative Islamic country should have raised an eyebrow or two.

Subsequent revelations of the Jack Warner leveraged bribery of voters and the use of slave labour in stadium construction has made Qatar 2022 a PR disaster. UEFA boss Michel Platini has not helped either by suggesting the tournament be extended to other Arab nations.

With a Winter World Cup the only realistic solution unless the Gulf State is stripped of the hosting, the shake-up to domestic leagues could leave serious repercussions in the perennial club v country struggle. US Soccer meanwhile has thus far remained silent despite it having a cast-iron case for a voting re-run if as expected, the winter switch is ratified next year.

FIFA sure has a knack for choosing troublesome hosts.

General Secretary Jerome Valcke has just confessed they have "been through hell" with Brazil in 2014.

And if they are thinking of relaxing in 2018, the FIFA World Cup bandwagon travels to Vladimir Putin's Russia, of all places.

Sean O'Conor

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thiago blow for Spain

Thiago blow for Spain
Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago Alcantara will miss the World Cup for Spain after aggravating ligaments in his right knee.

The 23 year-old son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho was named in Vicente Del Bosque's provisional squad of 30, but has now been ruled out for three months by his club so will not travel to his parents' homeland with Spain.

Thiago, who has lived in Spain since the age of five, made 68 appearances for Barcelona before following Pep Guardiola to Munich at the end of last season.

He has represented Spain from U16 level and has five caps for the national team, but missed Euro 2012 and the 2012 Olympics through injury, leaving his U21 appearances as his most memorable for Spain.

The final 23-man squads must be sent to FIFA by the 2nd of June.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

C'est la vie says Nasri

...but his girlfriend's less than thrilled


France World Cup Squad
Manchester City's French ace Samir Nasri must be gutted after learning today he will miss out on a second World Cup Finals. 

But not half as unhappy as his model girlfriend Anara Atanes, who took to Twitter, that celebrity minefield, to tell the world exactly what she thought of French manager Didier Deschamps' decision to exclude her fella from his list of 23 plus seven stand-by players.

"F*ck France and f*ck deschamps," she tweeted. "What a sh*t manager!"

After being banned for three games after a foul-mouthed clash with a journalist at Euro 2012, it seems likely the only blue Nasri will be wearing again will be that of City. 

Deschamps defended his decision by claiming Nasri's attitude was to blame and that his insistence on first-team action caused friction in the squad. 

"I built the best squad. I did not pick the 23 best French players", he said, adding, perhaps unfairly, "His performances for France have not been at the level of those for Manchester City."

City teammate Gael Clichy was also left out, as was Monaco's Eric Abidal

"C'est la vie," tweeted Nasri. "Another World Cup at home. What doesn't destroy you makes you stronger."

Argentina, as somewhat expected, have left out Carlos Tevez, despite his 19 goals this season in Serie A for title-winning Juventus. Coach Alex Sabella has been planning the team around Lionel Messi instead for a while.

Also missing the Albiceleste boat are Tottenham's £26 million man Erik Lamela and PSG attacker Javier Pastore.

Colombia have named Monaco hitman Radamel Falcao among their thirty, but their talisman is still recovering from a knee injury and remains touch and go for the finals.

Manchester United starlet Adnan Januzaj meanwhile, should end his international tug of love soon after Belgium boss Marc Wilmots named him in his squad.


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, May 12, 2014

World Cup squad announcements

Soccer news from Soccerphile.com.
Several finalists released their squads for the World Cup finals today.

England and Japan published their final lists of 23 players.

Ecuador released a preliminary squad of 24, Uruguay 25, Ghana and Costa Rica 26, Cameroon 28, while Russia, Algeria and the USA and Costa Rica announced lists of 30 players.

Roy Hodgson's 23-man England squad for the World Cup finals released today held no great surprises, with the expected emphasis on youth comfirmed by the inclusion of Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Everton's Ross Barkley, Liverpool's Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling and Southampton's Luke Shaw.

Jack Wilshere's last-gasp return from injury at Arsenal stamped his ticket to Brazil, but doubts over Kyle Walker's recovery means he missed out. Frank Lampard and James Milner retain their places, two of six veterans of England's ill-fated 2010 World Cup campaign.

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Ben Foster, Frazer Forster
Defenders: Glen Johnson, Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones
Midfielders: Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner, Ross Barkley
Attackers: Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Ricky Lambert

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Jurgen Klinsmann announced an initial 30-man squad for the USA.

Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley, John Brooks, Matt Besler, Jeff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Fabian Johnson, Michael Parkhurst, DeAndre Yedlin
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Mix Diskerud, Maurice Edu, Julian Green, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi
Attackers: Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski

Half the squad are from Major League Soccer, four play in Germany, four in England, two in Mexico, and one in each of Austria, France, Netherlands, Norway and Turkey.

If they make the final cut, DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan will travel to their fourth World Cup finals. Nine of the 30 were picked by Bob Bradley for the 2010 competition in South Africa.

The most notable absentee is DC United striker Eddie Johnson, who has 63 caps for the US and scored four for them in qualifying. Stoke City winger Brek Shea, tipped a while ago as a future star, was also ignored, as were several other England-based players: Bolton pair Tim Ream and Stuart Holden, Nottingham Forest's Eric Lichaj and the Birmingham City pair of Jonathan Spector and Will Packwood.

The remaining teams have until the 13th of May to send their 30-man squads to FIFA, who will publish them formally on the 16th. The final deadline for the 23-man list is the second of June, with official publication on the fifth.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Now if my name were Roy...

If my name was Roy.
Thoughts on the eve of England's 2014 World Cup squad announcement

It is always fun for fans to second-guess their national team coach's World Cup squad. And so it is galling when the manager picks players you had cast off the list long ago, revealing his mind works on a different wavelength to the supporters'.

Fabio Capello surprised many an England watcher four years ago by leaving Theo Walcott at home and plumping for experience in the shape of thirtyish-somethings Gareth Barry, Jamie Carragher, Emile Heskey, Ledley King and Matthew Upson, none of whom looked match-sharp in South Africa.

Had Capello had his way, Paul Scholes and David Beckham would have also made the team. Despite the outrage of Frank Lampard's disallowed goal in Bloemfontein, England were ruthlessly dispatched by a fitter and faster Germany.

Roy Hodgson should do the opposite tomorrow and plump for untried and untested youth, as an antidote to Capello's failed experiment and the quarter-final roadblock England have met for the past few tournaments.
Football memories are short, but most people were calling for a sudden end to England's so-called 'golden generation' in the aftermath of South Africa.

Hodgson has dropped only a few hints, but his desire for fresh legs in the heat of Brazil seems clear. He will have been buffeted by the loss of Andros Townsend, Theo Walcott and Kyle Walker, but England right now is oddly blessed with a crop of fleet-footed youngsters.

As at Euro 2012, expectations are low and with Italy and Uruguay in the first phase to hurdle, many are convinced the squad selection demands a throw of the dice since the old faces have failed time and again. The dilemma of course is that England are between generations and the incoming youngsters lack experience so much that no obvious spine has emerged of the team that should be aiming to challenge at Euro 2016.

Another failure of the established stars and Hodgson will be pilloried for not being brave enough. Should the kids fail in Brazil however, the manager will still be credited for having looked to the future.

Predictions are never a doddle, so for what it is worth, this is the 23 whom I would pick tomorrow with a bias towards youth firmly in mind and veterans only included for want of fit alternatives:

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart, Frazer Forster, John Ruddy
Defenders: Glen Johnson, Jon Flanagan, Leighton Baines, Luke Shaw, Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones
Midfielders: Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Tom Cleverley, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana
Forwards: Raheem Sterling, Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Ricky Lambert

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, May 9, 2014

George's Premiership Predictions May 11 2014

bet365So here we are - the last weekend of the Premiership with Manchester City just needing to avoid defeat at the Etihad to lift their second title in recent years. Liverpool face Newcastle at Anfield hoping City slip up.

We think it unlikely and this weekend will see the title move east across the city from Old Trafford to their Blue rivals. Cardiff and Fulham are already relegated and Norwich, home to Arsenal look odds-on to join them.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Cardiff 0 v Chelsea 1
Fulham 1 v Crystal Palace 1
Hull 3 v Everton 2
Liverpool 2 v Newcastle 1
Man City 3 v West Ham 1
Norwich 0 v Arsenal 1
Southampton 2 v Man Utd 1
Sunderland 1 v Swansea 0
Tottenham 1 v Aston Villa 1
West Brom 2 v Stoke 2

Relegated Trio 25/1 For An Instant Return To Premier League

The Canaries are all but relegated to the Championship after Sunderland's result on Wednesday night and bet365 are betting on how many of the trio of Cardiff, Fulham and Norwich make an instant return to the Premier League.

2014/15 Championship

Number Of Cardiff/Fulham/Norwich To Be Promoted

None 7/4 One Evs
Two 7/2 Three 25/1 (Stakes returned if Norwich avoid 2013/14 relegation!)

Soccer - Cattermole aims for brighter future

Lee Cattermole hopes Sunderland can learn from this season's mistakes and enjoy a much better 2014-15 campaign. The Black Cats were seven points adrift of safety with just six games to go, but have confirmed their place in next season's top-flight by taking 13 points from their last five matches. After drawing 2-2 at Manchester City, they beat Chelsea, Cardiff City and Manchester United, before sealing their spot in the 2014-15 Premier League by cruising to a 2-0 victory against West Brom. Former Middlesbrough midfielder Cattermole said: "I think there'll be a day in the summer when we wake up and think 'that was some achievement'. "We've pulled it off and we've got to be looking at pushing at the other end of the table next year. That's what we've got to aim to do." Sunderland face Swansea City in the final game of their Premier League campaign on Sunday. Gus Poyet's side are available at 17/2 with bet365 to win the match 2-1 with Cattermole 10/1 to score at any time.

Soccer - Rosler has faith in experienced Latics

Wigan Athletic boss Uwe Rosler thinks his side's big-match experience will help them beat QPR in the semi-finals of the Championship play-offs. The Latics will host the first leg at the DW Stadium and will be keen to win through to Wembley yet again. Wigan, 17/2 with bet365 to beat QPR 2-0 on Friday and 11/4 to win promotion from the Championship, have played at Wembley three times in just over 12 months, having featured in two FA Cup semi-finals as well as beating Manchester City in last year's final. Former Brentford manager Rosler insists: "The players have plenty of experience in these situations. This squad knows all about big games at Wembley and that can only be a positive. "We will be physically and mentally prepared. It will be important we use the right players at the right time."

Soccer - Zabaleta refusing to take anything for granted

Pablo Zabaleta insists Manchester City's players have the 'know-how' to cope with any final-day title nerves. The Citizens' 4-0 victory over Aston Villa on Wednesday leaves Manuel Pellegrini's side on the verge of a second Premier League crown in three seasons. City will host West Ham United on Sunday, knowing a point will be good enough to send the Etihad Stadium into raptures. A 1-1 draw can be backed at 20/1 with bet365. Zabaleta, 15/2 to score at any time against Sam Allardyce's side, insists: "We know that things are not over and that we have to go again against West Ham. "We still have many members of the team that were here on the final day two seasons ago. We know we cannot take anything for granted."

Last time's predictions

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Fifa World Rankings May 2014

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

Euro 2012 winners Spain are still on top of the FIFA rankings for yet another month and there were only minor changes in the top 20 positions.

Trailing Spain are Germany, Portugal, and World Cup hosts and 2013 Confederations Cup winners Brazil. Next come Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece.

England remain in 11th place. Ivory Coast are the top African team in 21st place.

Japan are in 47th place.

England remain in 11th place with their last game a home friendly win against Denmark at Wembley.

The USA are in 14th place, down one spot from last month. Scotland are in 22nd position. The Republic of Ireland are in 66th place, Wales are in 47th, Northern Ireland are 84th.

Ranking Team
1 Spain
2 Germany
3 Portugal
4 Brazil
5 Colombia
6 Uruguay
7 Argentina
8 Switzerland
9 Italy
10 Greece
11 England
12 Belgium
13 Chile
14 USA
15 The Netherlands
16 France
17 Ukraine
18 Russia
19 Mexico
20 Croatia

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

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Friday, May 2, 2014

George's Premiership Predictions 3 May 2014

bet365The big game in this weekend's round of Premier League fixtures sees Everton try to do their city rivals, Liverpool, a favor by beating Manchester City. Cardiff, Sunderland, Fulham and Norwich are fighting for their lives to beat the drop.

Saturday 3 May 2014

West Ham 1 v Tottenham 1
Man United 1 v Sunderland 0
Stoke City 1 v Fulham 1
Swansea City 1 v Southampton 0
Aston Villa 0 v Hull City 0
Newcastle 0 v Cardiff City 2
Everton 2 v Man City 2

Sunday 4 May 2014

Arsenal 2 v West Brom 1
Chelsea 1 v Norwich City 0

Monday 5 May 2014

Crystal Palace 1 v Liverpool 2

Chelsea 9/2 For Mour Semi Final Heartbreak Next Season

Jose Mourinho has now lost four Champions League semi finals in a row and bet365 are 9/2 about the Blues being dumped at the same stage next season.

Mourinho also looks set to suffer his second season without any major silverware and bet365 rate Chelsea at even money to finish 2014/15 potless.

Goal machines Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa are set for a showdown in Lisbon with the Real Madrid man at 7/4 to outscore his La Liga rival.

2014/15 Chelsea Specials

Stage Of Champions League Elimination

Group Stage 5/1 Last 16 11/4
Quarter Final 15/8 Semi Final 9/2
Runners Up 11/1 Winner 14/1

To Win A Major Trophy

Yes 8/11 No Evs

(PL, FAC, LC, CL/EL)

2013/14 Champions League

To Lift Trophy

Real Madrid 4/7 Atletico Madrid 11/8

90 Minute Goalscorer Match Bet (Both must start)

Cristiano Ronaldo 7/4 Tie Evs Diego Costa 7/2

Brazilian midfielder Fernandinho has backed Manchester City to make the most of their chance to become Premier League champions for the second time in three seasons. The Citizens are 4/5 with bet365 to regain the crown they won in May 2012, with wins in each of their last three games all but certain to be enough to secure the title. The South American told the Manchester Evening News: "We are not depending on other teams - it only depends on us and that has changed a lot. "We are back with a big chance of being champions again. We have waited a long time for this moment and the positivity of the whole group is now very high. "I think we will get better and better until the last game and then we must see what happens at the end of the season." City face a tough test this weekend when they head to Everton, before finishing the season with games against Aston Villa and West Ham.

Last time's predictions

Thursday, May 1, 2014

AFC Champions League Rotation

Asian Champions League
Rotation has undoubtedly been the buzzword for the group stage of the 2014 AFC Champions League.

Much debate has been had about the extent of squad rotations this year and just what that says about the attitudes of clubs towards participation in the ACL.

It's a difficult issue, and not one that can be viewed as black or white. It is very much grey.

No one will argue that squad rotation isn't required to be competitive in multiple tournaments. Given the vast travel distances, more so in East Asia, playing three games in seven or eight days, with, for example, a 30-hour return trip to Australia sandwiched in between will test any player the world over.

The issue this year is that, on paper, teams are fielding what can only be described as weaker sides in the ACL, particularly when travelling, and saving their best players for regular league matches on the weekend.

The perception is that the ACL is a clear second priority for clubs, when the AFC are trying to market the competition as the pinnacle for club football in Asia.

The rhetoric and the reality don't match up.

How to get them to match up? It's the million-dollar question. What can the AFC do to force clubs to field their strongest team? Should they force clubs? Is wielding a big stick the best way to make clubs take the ACL more seriously, or would it just lead to resentment?

Their own regulations (section 28) state that:

On entering the Competition, the Club shall automatically undertake:

f) To field their strongest team throughout the competition

Clubs have taken their rotation policy to the nth degree this season, particularly in the East. More often than not a significant number of their regular best XI have been left out of away trips, with clubs hoping their home form was enough to see them through.

That meant inconsistent performances with only two clubs in the East (Western Sydney and Kawasaki) winning more than half their games. Three clubs advanced to the Round of 16 having won only two games.

While you could argue that is a good thing, highlighting the evenness between all teams, you get the sense it's not a true reflection of the strengths of the various teams.

One club who deserve to have the book thrown at them is Guizhou Renhe for their clear contempt in their final game against Western Sydney. Not in the fact that they bought a 'B' team, given they had no chance of advancing that was no unexpected, it’s the fact they only named two substitutes and didn't bring a reserve goalkeeper. It was clear they were disrespecting not only the competition but also their opponents, who duly thumped them 5-0.

It bought in to sharp focus the rotation issue that has cast a shadow over the group stages. But what sanctions can AFC issue? A fine? Given the number of teams that are backed by wealthy owners and corporations, such a punishment may have little effect.

It's clearly a difficult issue and one that AFC need to address to ensure what we have seen this year doesn't get out of hand in future campaigns.

But while the issue dominated discussions, it’s the action on the field that really matters and with the group stages completed we can now look forward to the Round of 16.

In the east it is Pohang Steelers who are the early favourites after going through the group stage undefeated (Foolad in the West the only other team to achieve that feat). Their most impressive performance came at home against Shandong Luneng, who were challenging them for top spot at the time. More on them later.

Two goals and a man down after 25 minutes it looked grim for the 2009 champions. But for the remaining 65 minutes they played Shandong off the park, despite being a man down, and deservedly walked away from the game with a 2-2 draw. It could easily have been more. They haven't looked back since, and are on an 11-game winning streak across the ACL and K League Classic, where they are two points clear on top.

With no foreign players on their roster, they are proving that it's not all about the money and how much you can spend on foreign players. Lee Myung-ju and Kim Seung-dae are the two leading lights for the defending K League Champions.

They will face fellow Korean side Jeonbuk Hyundai in the Round of 16 in one of three 'derby' clashes, with Al Ittihad-Al Shabab (Saudi Arabia) and Al Jazira-Al Ain (UAE) the others.

One of the most disappointing teams this year had to be Shandong Luneng. After spending big in the off-season, compiling a squad many thought could challenge Guangzhou not only domestically but also in the ACL, people expected and assumed they’d be one of the two teams to advance from Group E.

They started well with a win and two draws from their first three games setting them up nicely for the final three games, two of which were at home.

Inexplicably they lost all three, suffering the ignominy of finishing last in their group. Defence was their biggest issue. While Vagner Love terrorised defences (he scored five goals in six games), it was their failure to keep them out at the other end that prevented them from advancing. Their 11 goals against was the worst record in the East, and second worst overall.

In the West the Saudi clubs look strong, particularly Al Hilal and Al Shabab, while Al Ittihad can never be discounted. And after they failed to qualify for the 2015 ACL, they'll be looking to make a statement this year. The UAE's Al Ain, who struggled domestically this season, are always going to be a contender so long as Asamoah Gyan keeps banging in the goals - he scored seven in the group stages.

It wasn't such a good campaign for Qatari clubs, however, with only 2011 champions Al Sadd making it through to the Round of 16, and even that was in doubt until the final moments of their clash with Al Ahli (who they replaced in second).

With the AFC looking to overhaul the criteria once again, this time putting in place a system that puts significantly more emphasis on on-field performances, it’s not a great time for clubs to struggle.

Given how unpredictable the group stage has been, I won't dare make any predictions for the Round of 16, but one thing we can be sure of is entertainment and quality on the pitch. It's the one area the ACL rarely fails to deliver.

Copyright © Paul Williams and Soccerphile.com