Monday, October 23, 2017

Futbol's Going South

CONMEBOL NATIONS MUST UP THEIR GAME BEFORE RUSSIA 2018

What would a World Cup be without the South Americans?

The opportunity to test the best of European football nations against the faraway empire of CONMEBOL is so exciting because it only happens every four years.

Yes there is the Confederations Cup now and the World Club Championship as well but in effect the two poles of world soccer only cross swords for the FIFA World Cup.

Growing up I assumed Brazil were always the best and that their players were born with superhuman ball skills and effortless flair, two qualities traditionally absent from their prosaic English equivalents.

Whenever the seleçao came to Wembley for a friendly it was a big event as the name Brazil carried so much weight and legend behind it.

Argentina were close behind in our imaginations. If they lacked the samba rhythm of Brazil, they were always an extremely tough cookie to crack for European sides, stacked with talent.

Their 1998 team for instance only made it to the last eight but included the dazzling skills of  Gabriel Batistuta, Hernan Crespo, Marcelo Gallardo, Ariel Ortega, Juan Sebastian Veron and Javier Zanetti.

On the rare occasions we saw a Peru or Colombia in London we would still waxelyrical about their Latin élan on the ball.

The bubble burst somewhat in 2014 of course when a European team won the trophy on South American soil for the first time. Not only did Argentina lose the final but Brazil, the hosts, were utterly humiliated in the semi final.

I would still like to think the South Americans are the big boys to beat in Russia next year but the greater resources of UEFA associations have probably favoured a European victory in Russia next year.

Money talks sooner or later and the increasing professionalism of the European club game in recent years has tilted the balance of power towards the UEFA nations and their higher levels of funding.

When you compare football to the Olympic Games where advanced industrialised nations swamp the medals table thanks to their elite funding programmes, it is a wonder South American football associations have managed to keep pace at all in the World Cup.

Surely no South American nation can match the organised professional preparation behind the Deutscher Fussball Bund’s top to bottom planning for success for instance.

France, Spain and England also have detailed plans for achievement while the Latin American nations still rely to a great extent on their ingrained skills.

Brazil have improved since their 7-1 Mineirazo and group exit in the 2016 Copa America and qualified with ease for the World Cup finals in 2018. A new crop of starlets like Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus have brought hope of a return to the golden days of the green and gold.

While the 2014 hosts concluded an impressive campaign by eliminating Chile 3-0 and probably put the misery of their 2014 exit behind them, sterner tests await in Russia.

Brazil are playing with confidence and dominance right now but the possibility of falling flat again at the finals can never be ruled out.

For now they can relax but should beware of having peaked too soon. A comfortable qualification counts for nothing when you do not impress at the finals. Just ask England.

Argentina are a traditional power at the World Cup but have only scraped through the qualifiers.

The biggest story on the final night of CONMEBOL qualifiers was undoubtedly Argentina’s last-gasp qualification against Ecuador thanks to a vintage hat-trick from their talisman.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Messi. The World Cup without soccer’s best player? Not in 2018.

Argentina’s win in Quito was almost the stuff of legend after they had fallen behind after only 30 seconds. An already demoralised and under-pressure side reacted by showing fighting spirit, not succumbing to their beckoning fate.

Messi’s second was breathtaking, firing a catapult past an unprepared goalkeeper to put his side in the driving seat after their nightmare start.

The Argentines I know stayed up all night partying afterwards. More than anything else I can name, football can turn gloom into elation in matter of seconds.

Messi probably never will win a World Cup which in many eyes sets him apart from Pele and Diego Maradona, the other all-time greats. This is unfair as Johann Cruyff never won it either and Cristiano Ronaldo probably never will.

Similar ball wizards George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano never even played in a World Cup finals.

The romanticist in us all wants Messi to play again at a World Cup finals and that is reason enough that it should transpire. Hoping against hope is an integral part of the game. If it all depended on cold logic few would be interested.

Argentina’s win spared huge embarrassment for one of football’s greatest nations and the first time that a World Cup finalist had not made it to the following edition since the Netherlands failed to qualify for Espana ‘82 after losing the final in 1978.

The fact Argentina qualified for Russia should not disguise the fact the Albiceleste are in a bad way - three managers in a year and three draws and a defeat going into their must-win night in Quito. At the start of CONMEBOL qualifiers, they were ranked No.1 in the FIFA World Rankings.

Luckily for them perhaps, Ecuador were already eliminated after a more demoralising collapse having been the early pace-setters with four straight victories.

While it would be churlish to call Argentina a one-man team, the fact is with Leo Messi on the field they won 20 points from nine games, without him only seven.

Accommodating Messi has been an ongoing conundrum for Argentina managers but the trident with Angel Di Maria and Messi behind Boca Juniors striker Dario Benedetto against Ecuador allowed the Barcelona star to run riot.

A dose of vintage Messi, snatching glorious victory from the jaws of defeat should not paper over the cracks however, particularly in Argentina’s leaky defence.

Outstanding individuals can and often do paper over the cracks in flawed teams it should not be forgotten, not least when a certain Diego Maradona hauled a workmanlike Argentina eleven to become world champions in 1986.

The four automatic CONMEBOL qualifers for Russia are ranked thus by FIFA at time of press: Brazil are second, Argentina fourth, Colombia 13th and Uruguay 17th in the world. Should Peru make it as the fifth South American nation in Russia, the tenth-best team in the FIFA family will be at the World Cup.

But the ninth-best nation in the world will not be among the 32 finalists.

Chile will be the biggest absentee in Russia, missing the boat after a 3-0 capitulation to group winners Brazil in Sao Paolo, their fourth qualifying loss in 2017. Alexis Sanchez, one of the Premier League’s best players, will be watching the finals on television, as will Bayern's Arturo Vidal.

While Chile do not carry the star appeal of Brazil or Argentina, it is easy to forget that the team which finished sixth in the CONMEBOL group of ten had not only won the previous two Copa Americas in 2015 and 2016 but also reached the 2017 Confederations Cup final. On paper that country should be at the World Cup as well.

The nucleus of Chile's purple patch had been together since the 2007 FIFA U20 World Cup, but they seem to have reached the end of the road.

Their inspirational coach Jorge Sampaoli resigned in January of last year and will now be in Russia coaching Argentina. The golden age of Chilean football is surely over.

Ironically Chile had won six of their nine home games in qualifying, two more than the three teams who finished above them - Argentina, Colombia and Peru. Their away form let them down badly but their nadir was really a calamitous 3-0 home defeat to Paraguay in August.

A loss of confidence, team spirit and off-field discipline have been to blame, alongside an inability to maintain the high-intensity football which had brought them silverware.

Bizarrely the 3-0 wins awarded to Chile and Peru after Bolivia had fielded an ineligible player in their 2016 qualifiers cost Chile their place in Russia - they had originally drawn 0-0 with the Bolivians, who had beaten Peru 2-0.

That said, La Roja only missed out on fifth-place and a playoff on goal difference to Peru. The Peruvians, who should overcome New Zealand next month, have not been in the finals since 1982 and duly celebrated wildly at the end of their 1-1 draw with Colombia.

Los Cafeteros, buoyed by a quarter-final in 2014 and James Rodriguez’s golden boot, bagged the last automatic spot but the collective feeling in Colombia was one of disappointment that they had limped over the line after failing to beat bottom team Venezuela and giving away two late goals cheaply at home to Paraguay the week before.

Colombia began qualifying ranked fifth in the world and they have risen as high as third since the last World Cup finals but their wilting towards the end is a cause for concern.

Falcao should get to play in a World Cup finals having missed out through injury in 2014, but despite much of the 2014 team - David Ospina in goal, Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado in attacking midfield still there as well as the manager, the defence looks ropey. Tottenham’s talented young centre-back Davinson Sanchez provides hope however but the full-backs are beatable.

Jose Pekerman's side were the exciting new blood of 2014 after missing the previous three World Cups but it is far from clear if they can build on that success this time around. As with Argentina, they suffered a disjointed qualification campaign and have only a few months to find a rhythm for Russia.

Paraguay's surprise 2-1 win in Baranquilla against Colombia had given them an unexpectedly golden chance of making the finals but fluffed their big opportunity by shockingly losing at home to last-placed Venezuela when a win would have carried them to Russia.

They had beaten Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela away but won only three of their nine ties games in front of their own fans in Asuncion.

Winning the lion's share of one's games at home and not losing more than twice away is still the winning formula for World Cup qualification.

So South America's football nations head to Russia without the wind in their sails at this stage.

Brazil lost much of their fear factor in losing humiliatingly in 2014 to Germany while the other qualifiers looked riddled with shortcomings.

They have just over seven months to hone their engines for the greatest race of all.


FIFA WORLD CUP INTER-CONTINENTAL PLAYOFF

New Zealand v Peru   11th November
Peru v New Zealand   15th November


(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, October 16, 2017

Fifa World Rankings October 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for October 2017 were published on October 16 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland after the final round of qualifying matches for World Cup 2018.

Confederations Cup winners Germany remain first with Brazil second with Portugal third. Argentina, who struggled to qualify for World Cup 2018 are in fourth.

The full top ten is: Germany, Brazil, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, Argentina, Belgium, Poland, France, Spain, Chile, and Peru.

England are 12th, Wales are 14th. Egypt are the top African team in 30th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 43rd place; Japan are in 44th spot and have qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Near neighbors South Korea are in 62nd place and have also qualified for the 2018 World Cup.

The USA are in 30th and failed to qualify for World Cup 2018. Scotland are in 29th position. The Republic of Ireland are in 26th place now behind Northern Ireland who are in 23rd position.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2

Oldham Athletic and Wigan Athletic have both fallen on relatively hard times as of late and find themselves at opposite ends of League One.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2.


Oldham, under Joe Royle, were one of the founding clubs of the Premier League in 1992-1993 and Wigan won the FA Cup as recently as 2013, the year the club were also relegated to the Championship.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2, August 19, 2017.


Oldham's heart-breaking loss to Manchester United in a 1994 FA Cup semi-final reply after Mark's Hughes equalizer in the first game at Wembley, is seen by many fans as the start of a long and gradual decline.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2, August 19, 2017.


The two athletics, both nicked named the "Latics" met at Boundary Park (aka SportsDirect.com Park) on August 19, on a typically cool, grey August day in the north.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2, August 19, 2017.


The more vocal Wigan supporters were packed into the "Chaddy" end (ZenOffice Stand) which was once the preserve of the home fans, who were subdued, not surprisingly perhaps considering their current plight, and now don't seem to have a home end of their own.

This is similar to Wigan's situation at the DW Stadium where away fans now occupy what was once the home end.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2, August 19, 2017.


From the outset, Wigan seemed the more composed team on the ball and took an early lead through goals from Ivan Toney and Michael Jacobs within the first quarter. Oldham improved after the break but
when Wigan's star performer, former Manchester United midfielder Nick Powell, was substituted on the hour, the game petered out and some fans began to turn to their phones to keep up with the action elsewhere.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2.


At the end, Wigan supporters chanted "We are top of the league" while home fans contemplated rock bottom, where they unfortunately remain with four points from eight games.

Oldham Athletic 0 v Wigan Athletic 2, August 19, 2017.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Sheffield FC Happy 160th Birthday Football

On the 24th October 1857, Sheffield FC was founded and the World’s most popular sport was born. The World's First Football Club, Sheffield FC turn 160 years old this year and have long been recognised by World football for their impact on the game through the creation of the rulebook, the first organised team, the first football derby and much more.

Happy 160th Birthday Football.


160 years on and #theworldsfirst is still pioneering, leading the way with the lowest priced current season fan jersey in World football, working to rebuild the original 'Home of Football' stadium, uniting the oldest football clubs from each country under the banner of 'The Club of Pioneers' and developing grassroots football around the world, through social projects like 'Boots for Roots', which includes shipping over 38,000 pairs of football boots to disadvantaged children worldwide.

Pele.


To mark this special occasion, Sheffield FC will be looking to celebrate with fans, players, teams and media from around the World. Highlight activities will include a celebration dinner in Sheffield and the release of a limited edition heritage shirt based on the earliest known kit designs of the club, alongside partners Classic Football Shirts.

Talking on the birthday, Sheffield FC Chairman Richard Tims stated: "160 years of the beautiful game is an historic landmark for football and a great opportunity for all involved to celebrate the roots of our beautiful game. We're looking forward to taking the story out to the world and also using the 160th as a platform to create never before seen content. We're inviting, fans, players, clubs, media & brands worldwide to join the celebrations, cherishing the roots and kick off of football".

Sheffield FC Happy 160th Birthday Football.

For more information please visit us at www.sheffieldfc.com

Friday, September 15, 2017

Parisian starlets set the pace

Parisian starlets set the pace.
The UEFA Champions League gets going once again
After the first round of Champions League games it looks like money talks for PSG.

Their galacticos made light work of Scottish champions Celtic at Parkhead, cruising to a 5-0 away win in Glasgow with their newly acquired gemstones, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe both on target.

While it is hardly news to say that a club's success correlates with their spending, the quantum leap PSG took in the summer by bagging that duo made the transfer arms race that much more of a handicapped one.

It is probably true that their summer splurge had more to do with Middle Eastern geopolitics than football, as Qatar is quarrelling with its Arab neighbours right now, but that puts more of an onus on UEFA to enforce its financial fair play rules and prove that the game has a soul.

When sovereign nations start owning teams the only end game is China v the USA, and given the ownership of several Premier League teams (7:3 to America so far), that already seems to be happening.
The Dutch champions Feyenoord lost 4-0 at home to another expensively assembled toy shop Manchester City, proving the gap between Europe's top leagues and the rest is now an impossible chasm.

Pity the fans at De Kuip, eager to see their side back in top continental action, winded and grounded within minutes as their visitors cruised into a commanding lead.

The days of Ajax, PSV, Porto, Red Star or Steaua Bucharest, sides skilfully assembled with a modest amount of money, capturing the Champions Cup, are long gone.

Monaco, the most exciting team in last season's competition, were decisively asset-stripped over the summer, losing Tiemoue Bakayoko, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva as well as Mbappe, and began their campaign inauspiciously with a 1-1 draw away to Leipzig. There are no obvious suspects for a dark horse this time.

The usual suspects all won convincingly with the exception of Juventus, who defended uncharacteristically abysmally in losing 3-0 in Barcelona.
Only Besiktas' 3-1 win at Porto and Tottenham's defeat of Borussia Dortmund by the same score could be seen as surprises but neither are expected to topple the big usual suspects.

The latter game was exceptionally entertaining and interesting for the fact once more that clinical, thrusting attacks trumped ball possession. Spurs too, have finally managed to make the vast spaces of Wembley work for them.

The most notable event of the night however was Sevilla coach Eduardo Berizzo, recently arrived from Celta Vigo, being sent off for idiotically throwing the ball away twice when gathering Liverpool throw-ins.

How such infantile behaviour is still practised by top team managers in front of the camera beggars belief, but any entertainment is welcome to the neutral.

His team had started off some lovely passing football beyond the ken of their English (despite not fielding one British Isles player) hosts and were good value for their 2-2 draw in the end, reminding us the Premier League still has a technical deficit.

The bookies rate the top five in order this season as Real Madrid, PSG, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City.

PSG look already likely to reach the semi finals at least but their lucre-gilded gatecrashing of the party seems to devalue their challenge somewhat.

Bayern seemed to stutter at home to Anderlecht but came out 3-0 winners in the end, a reminder that the German giants are always a wise bet for the final four.

City's slick win in Rotterdam seemed to suggest they could make the semi-finals this time, while Chelsea's equally efficient 6-0 demolition of Qarabag means nobody should write off their chances either.

Even Manchester United, with a world-class No.9 in Romelu Lukaku, defensive steel in Nemanja Matic and Victor Lindelof and an emboldened Jose Mourinho, still the tactician par excellence, could be in with a shout.

Barcelona remain in transition, longing for a new Xavi and a young Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi and hoping Luis Suarez remains fit and avoids suspensions. Roma and Juventus showed hairline cracks ready to be breached.

Atletico Madrid are hampered by their transfer ban which expires in early 2018 and Tottenham lack Champions League experience however attractive their game is to watch.

Real are clearly therefore the team to beat again, as their polished, well-honed capture of the crown in Cardiff last season confirmed.

They might have some players who seem to have been there for yonks - Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo for instance, but 21 year-old Marco Asensio is shining very brightly and the old guard still have plenty of life in them.

For the sake of spectator interest however, let us hope Zinedine Zidane's men face some stiff competition at least in this season's competition.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fifa World Rankings September 2017

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa's World Rankings for September 2017 were published on September 14 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

Confederations Cup winners Germany change places again with Brazil with Portugal third. Argentina, who are struggling to qualify for World Cup 2018 drop to fourth.

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

England are 15th, Wales are 13th. Egypt are the top African team in 30th place.

Asian Cup winners Australia are in 50th place; Japan are in 40th spot and have qualified for the 2018 World Cup. Near neighbors South Korea are in 51st place and have qualified for the 2018 World Cup.

The USA are in 28th. Scotland are in 43rd position. The Republic of Ireland are in 34th place now behind Northern Ireland who are in 20th position.

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

Full world rankings

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Saturday, August 26, 2017

Oranje squash

Oranje squash.
LAST SEASON'S EUROPA LEAGUE FINALISTS ARE OUT OF EUROPE ALREADY

Spare a thought for Ajax, who thrilled at times on their way to last season's Europa League final before a Mourinho masterclass floored them.

Unsurprisingly, the stellar eleven which dazzled as recently as May has now been whittled away.

Inspirational midfield skipper Davy Klaassen was snapped up by Everton in the summer and the Amsterdam club's offer of doubling the wages of talented centre-back Davinson Sanchez was easily outgunned by Tottenham, who bought the young Colombian last week.

Two more of their starting eleven in Stockholm have left. Defender Jairo Riedewald has swapped Ajax for Crystal Palace and on-loan Bertrand Traore was sold by parent club Chelsea to Lyon.

On the bench for the final in Sweden, defender Kenny Tete is now at Monaco and reserve goalkeeper Diederik Boer has gone to Zwolle.

Yesterday, the depleted team, having been eliminated from the Champions League earlier this summer by Nice, albeit only on away goals, was knocked out of the qualifying round of this season's Europa League by Rosenborg 4-2 on aggregate, leaving the modest challenge of the Dutch league alone.

The domestic season has barely started but one of last season’s major performers in UEFA is already out of Europe.

Holland's other clubs have fared little better. PSV were knocked out of the Europa League by Osijek of Croatia 2-0 on aggregate in the third qualifying round and Utrecht went the same way as Ajax in the play-off round, losing 2-1 overall to Zenit St Petersburg.

Feyenoord are the last Dutch club standing by mid August and they have not played in Europe yet.

Having won the Eredivisie last season they progressed directly to the Champions League group stages, where they will play Manchester City, Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk in Group F.

Ajax’s precocious prodigies have long been cherry-picked by richer teams abroad, particularly after their young guns reached two European Cup finals in the mid 1990s, so this is nothing new.

It was just that last season's run to the Europa League final had teased a renaissance of one of the continent's most storied clubs.

And it is not just the players who happily leave Holland in search of a greater payday. Last season's Ajax manager Peter Bosz is now coaching Borussia Dortmund, which is certainly a bigger club, but other top Dutch managers of the moment are exchanging top Dutch teams for modest English clubs which pay higher wages.

Ronald Koeman has coached Holland's big three of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV but was happy to leave Feyenoord for Southampton, on paper a lower club, though it gave him a stepping-stone to Everton where he is now; Martin Jol swapped Ajax for Fulham in 2011 and Frank De Boer is now managing Crystal Palace having left Ajax for Inter in 2016.

Ajax remain unable to keep their top players or managers. The Dutch league's modest market simply cannot produce enough capital to pay wages on a par with Europe’s big four leagues.

The best they, PSV or Feyenoord can hope for, unless the proposed 'Atlantic League' featuring the best of the Netherlands, Portugal and Scotland ever got going, is to earn more from progressing in Europe.

And this week, less than three months after their first European final in over two decades, the club of Johann Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rinus Michels, Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Frank Rijkaard and the De Boer brothers, was out of Europe.

For how long, nobody knows.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile