Saturday, 11 December 2010

A virada de mesa

On Monday, the who’s who of Brazilian football gathered in the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro for the traditional curtain-closer to the Brazilian season, the Prêmio Craque do Brasileirão. Basically it is an awards ceremony, the player of the year (or Prêmio Craque) is announced, as are various other awards like manager and team of the year. Furthermore, the ceremony sees the first time the Brasileirão trophy is presented to the champions of that year.

This year’s edition belonged to Fluminense. Not only did the 2010 champions receive their third Brasileirão trophy in their long history, but midfield talisman Dario Conca was chosen as Prêmio Craque and Craque da Galera (fan’s player of the year), while manager Muricy Ramalho scooped the manager of the year award. However, not everyone was cheering for Flu.

Taking to the stage as part of his team’s centenary celebrations, Corinthians president Andrés Sanchez took the microphone and delivered a speech that seemed to be congratulating the Rio de Janeiro club. However, his words soon changed the mood amongst the audience. Here’s what he said:

“Quero parabenizar Fluminense, Coritiba e ABC, que foram campeões. Eu sei o que é cair para a Segunda Divisão, porque eu caí com meu time. Mas tenho orgulho de ter voltado a Primera Divisão pela porte da frente.”

Roughly translated, this reads: “I want to congratulate Fluminense, Coritiba and ABC, who were champions. I know what it is to fall to the Second Division, because I fell with my team. But I am proud to have returned to the First Division through the front door”. Now, those with knowledge of Brazilian football over the last fifteen years would recognise right away that this was a direct dig at the club in the spotlight Fluminense.

The sounds from the Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro were truly superb. At first there was a collective (and somehow audible) cringe throughout the audience, the cameraman then focused on Corinthians left back Roberto Carlos, who had by now adopted a hilarious facial expression of complete surprise (see picture). Soon after a group of Fluminense supporters sitting in the upper tier began chanting “Sem ter nada” (meaning “having nothing”, a popular chant directed at Corinthians this year, a play on the word centenário (centenary), it refers to Corinthians being without any trophies this year, and without owning their own stadium.)

Roberto Carlos pulling the classic "arse-clencher" pose.

Now, even though this untimely slur smacked of sour grapes, and perhaps a little too much cerveja, what Sanchez said wasn’t untrue. So here’s a (hopefully interesting) history lesson about the bizarre story of Brazilian football in 2000, and the Copa João Havelange…

Before we get to 2000, we need a little background on Brazilian league football up to that date. From the 1970’s all the way up to 2001, the format of the league was constantly changing. These changes included some bizarre rule introductions, constant alteration of the number of teams in the top flight, and one year they even tried to do away with tied games.

This particular story starts in 1996, and our current champions Fluminense finished the season in 23rd position in the league of (at the time) 24 teams. This meant Flu were to be relegated, something that was unheard of in Brazil, a big team being relegated into the second tier. What followed were debates and arguments behind the scenes, resulting in the decision that 1997’s Brasileirão was to contain 26 teams, conveniently allowing Fluminense to avoid relegation and remain in the top tier.

The CBF were pretty happy with themselves, until the end of the 1997 season, where Fluminense managed to finish second from bottom once again. This time, not even the dodgy dealings of the CBF could save Flu, and they were relegated, eventually finding themselves in the Third Division by 1999.

The CBF were presented with yet another problem in 1999. As another measure to try and avoid large sides being relegated, they introduced a relegation system similar to the one used in Argentina (in Argentina clubs are relegated based on their cumulative performances over three years). This didn’t work as well as the CBF would have liked, because soon afterwards another Rio de Janeiro side Botafogo fell into real danger of relegation.

Near the end of the season Botafogo lost a match against São Paulo, in which it was later revealed that the Paulista club had fielded an ineligible player, Sandro Hiroshi. Botafogo contested the result in the Sports Supreme Court of Justice (STJD), and bizarrely they were awarded the points for the game. This brought Botafogo out of the relegation zone, and sent smaller side Gama down to Série B. Naturally outraged at the STJD, Gama took the case to the civil courts, who granted them the right to stay in the top division. Then to further complicate things, with clubs not being allowed to contest issues in the common justice system, FIFA stepped in and banned Gama from all competitive leagues.

Oh Sandro Hiroshi. Who knows what would have happened had he not lied on his birth certificate.

Ok so are you still with me? The CBF now had a major headache to contend with, FIFA had banned Gama from being included in any national league they organized, but due to civil court ruling, Gama had to be included in the top division by law. What followed was arguably the largest virada de mesa in Brazilian football history, and this is what Sanchez was referring to in his speech on Monday.

The heads of the most influential clubs in Brazil, a group known as the Clube dos 13, got together and created their own one-off national league; they called it the Copa João Havelange, named after the Brazilian former FIFA president. The Clube dos 13 took all 116 league clubs (including Gama), and split them into three ‘modules’. Essentially this gave them the freedom to put whoever they liked into the top division. So into the highest module, the ‘Blue Module’, went the teams of the previous Série A campaign (including Gama), and funnily enough, Série C’s Fluminense.

The Copa João Havelange was played out in haphazard fashion, with uneven fixtures, ending with a final between Vasco de Gama and São Caetano. Vasco eventually won that tie 4-2 on aggregate after a controversial two legs featuring violence and crowd trouble, but that’s another story. As the year 2000 ended, the CBF announced that they would revert to the original Campeonato Brasileiro format (if there ever was an original), and that all teams who contested the Blue Module would form the 2001 Série A, ‘to avoid legal disputes’. How convenient.

Nowadays it seems that the days of radical change in the Brazilian leagues are over, the CBF have established a stable and popular format, gaining viewers from all around the world. This obviously meant that when Corinthians were relegated to Série B for 2008, they had to make their way back the ‘honest’ way, winning the second tier at a canter to return to Série A for 2009. Or rather in the words of Sr. Sanchez, they had to do it pela porta da frente.

I hope you found this interesting, and if you are looking for some further reading in regards to the history of Brazil’s constantly changing championships, check out Marco Aurelio Klein’s Futebol Brasileiro, it’s also full of loads of invaluable stats and reference from Brazilian football history.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Brasileirão 2010 - Quem vai ganhar?

As the dust settled at the end of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, television, newspapers and radio in Brasil was subjected to much debate over the failures of Dunga's seleção. However there was hardly any time to dwell on it, as South America's premier domestic league, the Brasileirão, continued almost instantly.

Brasil's confidence was quickly restored as Internacional from Porto Alegre won the 2010 Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the Champions League. O Colorado took the trophy after a thrilling 5-3 aggregate win over Mexican side Chivas Guadalajara in the final.

Elsewhere, Santos succeeded in winning the 2010 Copa do Brasil, Brasil's top cup competition. Santos beat Vitória in the final, sealing a place for the Peixe in the 2011 edition of the Copa Libertadores.

So back to the Brasileirão. The exciting action continued as usual, with Rio de Janeiro side Fluminense forming a good lead at the top of the table, no-one looking capable of taking them off the top spot. But as those who follow the Brasileirão will know, the team in first position through August and October isn't always guaranteed to be there after the last game in December. In fact, history shows that being on top for the majority of the season often turns out to be a bit of a curse when it comes to the title run-in.

There have been some important personnel changes between the end of the World Cup and the present day, Santos' captain Robinho returned to Europe after his loan spell, and Cruzeiro's talisman Kleber returned to Palmeiras, o time do seu coração. There were returns to Brazilian football for top-class midfielders Deco and Tinga, moving to Fluminense and Internacional respectively. Also, arguably the biggest piece of news concerning transfers, Santos' wonderkid striker Neymar turned down a big money move to Chelsea, opting instead to stay with Santos for a little while longer.

So now here we are, with six rounds and just more than a month remaining in this year's Brasileirão. As I previously mentioned, Fluminense sit in the top spot with 57 points, Cruzeiro of Minas Gerais are close behind, there is only seven goals between the two sides. Occupying third spot are São Paulo giants Corinthians, who are only three points behind the other two. So the question is, who's going to win? Or as they say in Brasil, quem vai ganhar?

First of all let's take a look at the current leaders Fluminense. The Rio de Janeiro club are looking for only their second Brasileirão trophy, their first coming all the way back in 1984. Fluzão have been the most consistent side in this year's league, grinding out important wins where their rivals have slipped up. Most of this seems to be down to the leadership of their head coach Muricy Ramalho. Ramalho is no stranger to success, he won the Brasileirão for three consecutive years with São Paulo, and he is looking to get his fourth winner's medal this season.

Muricy is hoping for his 4th Brasileirão title with leaders Fluminense

Muricy has built a pretty strong side with Flu this year, with Argentinian Dario Conca orchestrating their midfield and providing support for proven strikers Fred, Rodriguinho and Washington. Another weapon in their arsenal is that of left-back Mariano, a classic lateral who has recently been called up to Mano Menezes' national squad.

Perhaps Fluminense are the favourites for the championship, but a tough run-in featuring away trips to Internacional, São Paulo and Palmeiras could give them real problems.

Next up, Cruzeiro. By the time the World Cup ended, I don't think many would have predicted a Raposa to be in such a high position. They lost their talismanic striker Kléber to Palmeiras, also their manager Adilson Batista, who took over briefly at Corinthians when Mano Menezes took the post at the national team. By the looks of things this was a team who would need a rebuilding phase, however the Minas Gerais club pulled off a sound piece of business when they signed Argentinian midfielder Walter Montillo.

Montillo was placed firmly onto the radar of Brasil's top clubs when he scored this goal against Flamengo in the Copa Libertadores. Cruzeiro won the race to sign him from Chilean side Universidade de Chile and he went straight into the first team, filling the gap that Kléber had vacated. At 26 years old, Montillo may not play a big part in Argentinian football in the future, but he will surely continue to star in the Brasileirão, and could be a great accquisition for countless European sides in the future.

Cruzeiro have arguably the hardest run-in of all the sides challenging for the trophy, they still have to face São Paulo, Corinthians, Vasco, Palmeiras and Flamengo, and they also have a potentially fatal away trip to play Vitória. However I am noticing some excellent form in this Cruzeiro side, and if they manage to bring good performances to these key games, they are my tip for the trophy.

Finally, the third side still with a realistic chance of winning the title, Corinthians. As usual, Timão have shown consistent and resolute performances throughout the season, which has seen them hovering around 2nd and 3rd place for most of the year.

Despite having a squad boasting such footballing legends as Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo, Corinthians' success has been largely down to their two energetic midfielders Jucilei and Elias. Their work-rate is truly astounding, and it hasn't gone unnoticed either, as both have been called up by Mano Menezes for the current Brasil squad. Ronaldo Fenômeno has been struggling with injuries this year, so Timão's goals have been coming from Bruno Cesar. The young man has been on impeccable form this season.

Corinthians have undoubtedly got the easiest of run-in fixtures, but the clássico against São Paulo FC in a week's time should be a really stern test. Despite not having as many tough games as their rivals, I can't see Corinthians taking the title this year. In recent weeks they have slipped up in important games and they can't afford more points dropped.

So there we have it, we are set up for a truly monumental run-in to the 2010 Brasileirão, and I haven't even mentioned Botafogo, Santos and Internacional, who are all in with a calculated 1% chance of winning this year's title. We are guaranteed some more twists and turns and some more excellent matches, and who knows, perhaps 6th place Internacional will manage to stage the greatest comeback in history and take the title? In the Brasileirão, anything goes.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

World Cup so far: Group A and B preview

So the last time I wrote, it was the end of the first round of matches, and there were serious concerns about the lack of goals and truly exciting games. As it turns out, our fears were proven wrong, with the second round of matches providing us with some of the really exciting and entertaining football that we associate with the World Cup. Now every team has played their second game, and we find ourselves with 8 groups with something to play for in each one.

Only two teams have qualified so far (Netherlands & Brazil), and only two have been eliminated (Cameroon & North Korea). From now on the early games are over, and we have 4 games per day. What this means is that there are two games at 3pm (11am here in Brazil), and two games at 7.30pm (3.30pm here). Now what I want to do here is write a wee bit about each group, and preview the two final matches that are ahead, giving you a clear idea about what is at stake, and the conditions needed for each team to progress. So let's begin with Tuesday's games, Groups A and B.


Remaining fixtures: France x South Africa, Mexico x Uruguay (both 1500 BST, 1100 BRT)

Group A has been an interesting one so far, from the exuberant and plucky hosts South Africa, to a failing France side, to the excellent Americans Uruguay and Mexico. Matchday 1 saw every team leave with one point, Mexico being held by a great South Africa performance, and Uruguay and France playing out a bore 0-0 draw. The interesting stuff came in the second matchday, with an impressive Uruguay bringing the hosts down to earth with a 3-0 victory, and Mexico pulling off a relatively unexpected 2-0 victory over France.

Uruguay and Mexico, both with four points, will be expected to qualify. While either France or South Africa would need a big win in their last game, and hope the two Americans do not play out a draw against eachother.

France x South Africa

This should be an interesting match. Both teams know that anything less than a win (and a big win at that) will see them eliminated from the tournament. From a French point of view, this is already a disastrous World Cup, and only reaching the final would redeem them. On the field, results have been extremely disappointing, with only one point from a possible six, and not even one goal scored. Off the field there are more problems, striker Nicolas Anelka has been sent home after criticising boss Raymond Domenech at half time during the Mexico defeat, and Patrice Evra had to be separated from fitness coach Robert Duverne after the two had a heated disagreement in training.

Things have truly gone from bad to worse for Les Bleus, and now Domenech has said there is a possibility that some of his squad "may boycott" this final game against South Africa.

Despite having the same results, the mood in the South Africa camp is much more positive compared to that of the French. Bafana Bafana are on the verge of becoming the first ever host nation to exit the tournament at the group stage, but they are looking to end on a high note with a memorable victory over France.

Mathematically speaking, both nations can still progress to the next stage if either side can win and overcome the goal difference of either Uruguay or Mexico. It may be unlikely, but it is still a definite possibility.

Prediction: Should be a really good competitive game, France will try to do whatever they can to avoid another defeat, but Bafana Bafana will be driven on by thousands of supporters to try and record a famous win.


Mexico x Uruguay

Before the World Cup, many would have expected this one to be the deciding match as to who would secure the second qualifying spot behind France. As it turns out, this is the match between the two sides who top the group and look big favourites to qualify. Mexico and Uruguay have both impressed so far, Uruguay put three past South Africa in their last game, and Mexico outplayed the French and won 2-0. As a reward for their performances previously, both sides now only require one point to qualify, and even a defeat for either side should still see them through to the last 16.

Despite the fact both teams have one foot in the next round, there is still a lot to play for here. Whoever wins the game will finish in first position in the group, meaning they should avoid big-guns Argentina in the last 16, so this game is still going to be competitive.

Prediction: My money is still going to be on a draw, but both teams will go out to win and we should see a good game with two good sides.

Mexico 1x1 Uruguay


Remaining fixtures: Nigeria x Korea Republic, Greece x Argentina (both 1930 BST, 1530 BRT)

Another interesting group so far, early favourites Argentina have strolled to the top as expected, but the real interesting battle will come for second place. South Korea got the group started, with a 2-0 win over Greece, and they were soon joined at the top by Argentina who defeated Nigeria 1-0. The next matchday produced more goals and excitement, as Argentina preserved their 100% record with an emphatic 4-1 defeat over Korea Republic, and Greece recorded their first ever World Cup victory with a 2-1 win against 10-man Nigeria.

Korea Republic look in the best position to finish in second place, but in truth either the Koreans, the Greeks or the Nigerians could find their way into the second round.

Nigeria x Korea Republic

Nigeria go into this last game with zero points and only one goal, but still with a possible chance of qualification. The Super Eagles have been a little unlucky to find themselves with no points, after a pretty good performance against Argentina losing only one goal, but the 2-1 loss against Greece was unforgivable.

Personal errors were to blame for the defeat. It began with star keeper Vincent Enyeama flapping at a long range shot to allow Torosidis to score, and then previously impressive Kaita got himself sent off after a silly outburst, leaving them with only ten men. Their luck seemed completely gone when striker Chinedu Obasi missed a golden opportunity to bring them level late in the game.

On the other hand, the South Koreans have impressed so far. A great performance against Greece got them off to the best possible start, but a 4-1 defeat against Argentina was harsh on the Koreans who had a relatively good game. Many will now believe that second place is South Korea's to lose.

Nigeria's objective is clear, the only scenario that allows them to qualify is if they defeat Korea Republic, and Argentina beat Greece in the other fixture. I'm sure you will agree that it is surely a possible outcome, and the fact that they know only a win will be enough may give them the encouragement and incentive to go for the win. However their opponents are in the completely opposite position, mathematically even if they were to win against Nigeria, they could still be eliminated if Greece were to achieve a better result against the Argentinians.

Prediction: Although the qualification of either of these teams hinges on the other fixture, this one will be exciting. Nigeria need a win, but do not expect Korea to give it up easily.

Nigeria 1x1 Korea Republic

Greece x Argentina

Now Argentina are virtually assured of qualification, needing to lose by three goals or more to have a chance of being eliminated. Even though they are under very little pressure, do not expect Maradona's men to settle for anything less than a victory. Some players may be rested, but there a lot of players who have a lot to prove and will be looking to make it into the first eleven like Kun Aguero, Milito etc.

Greece will be buoyed by the fact they managed to get their first World Cup win in their last game, and now the prospect of qualifying for the next round will have Greek confidence at an all-time high. Losing is not an option for Greece, and they will surely do everything they can to avoid that and better the result of their main qualification rivals Korea Republic.

Prediction: Being in Brazil, this is the game I'll be watching. Should be an interesting one unless Argentina flex their muscles and put the game to bed early. Greece will battle hard, and if they can avoid mistakes, they should give Argentina a good game.

Greece 0x2 ARGENTINA

Thursday, 17 June 2010

World Cup so far: Winners & Losers

So the World Cup has finally begun, and every team has now played their first group game (except for South Africa + Uruguay, who at the time of writing have just completed their 2nd match). It has been a strange tournament so far, goals are at an all-time low, only 28 goals after 17 matches (there were 40 goals at this point in 2006, and 48 in 2002), but the passion and excitement is still there.

I've been impressed by the staging of the World Cup by our hosts South Africa. The stadiums look amazing, support is strong and the vuvuzelas are so loud that everyday life now seems to be accompanied by a low buzzing sound as someone watches highlights nearby.

The first round of games is usually where the big teams are tested and often nations are completely written off depending on their first result. What I'm going to do here is just have a look at the big winners (and losers) of the World Cup so far. So let's start with the positive side, the nations who will be the happiest after their first games...

Korea Republic

I've predicted Korea Republic to have a good tournament this year, and they got off to the best possible start with a 2-0 victory over group rivals Greece. This was a must win for the Koreans if they are going to have a chance of getting through this group, and with tough games against Argentina and Nigeria to come, the importance of this result is massive.

The South Koreans played some nice football, and capitalised on some errors in concentration in the Greek defence to score twice. The first goal came early, after only 7 minutes, when a neat free-kick from Ki Sung-Yeung found Lee Jung-Soo at the back post who volleyed home. The second goal came 7 minutes into the second half, a terribly misplaced pass from Vyntra handed possession to Park Ji-Sung, the Manchester United midfielder then took the ball past his man and beat the keeper with a lovely finish.

Korea Republic now go in to tomorrow's game against Argentina full of positives, and they will fancy themselves to spring a surprise result against Maradona's men.


One of the most successful nations in the history of the World Cup, the Germans entered this year's tournament with various injury troubles, a tough group and a seemingly pessimistic attitude. However, these worries will have been washed away by now, with Deutschland finding themselves named as "the team to beat" after an emphatic 4-0 win over Australia on Sunday.

Everything worked out nicely for the Germans, taking an early lead through Podolski and then getting another through Miroslav Klose to go in at half time with a 2-0 lead. Their opponents were left in further trouble when star man Tim Cahill was red-carded, and Germany then exploited their one-man advantage, finding two more goals through Thomas Müller and substitute Cacau.

It was a fabulous result against a sorry looking Australia side, and it leaves Germany top of Group D, only requiring one more win to seal their place in the next round. The hard work is most certainly not over for Germany, as their next two games are arguably the toughest, against Serbia and then Ghana.


There has been a lot said about the Japanese national team in the build up to the tournament, many people (including myself) doubted the team's quality and whether they would be able to finish Group E with any points. Despite that, the Samurai Blue got the job done on Monday when they nicked a 1-0 win against Cameroon in Bloemfontein.

This game was by no means a classic match, with both sides lacking in flair and concentration at times, but Japan dug in for the result after taking the lead on 39 minutes through Keisuke Honda. The goal was a little more about poor Cameroon marking than Japanese quality, but it was a good cross from Matsui, and a composed finish from Honda.

Their opponents were poor, Samuel Eto'o was not himself, showing the form that drew criticism from Cameroon national icon Roger Milla, suggesting he only plays well for his club as opposed to his country. In a very tough group with Netherlands and Denmark being their other opponents, Japan will be delighted to be able to go into those games knowing that any results will give them a healthy chance of qualifying.


No doubt the most surprising result of the tournament so far, Switzerland are our other big winners after their 1-0 win against tournament favourites Spain earlier on today. Group H is, in my opinion, the real 'Group of Death' in this year's tournament, with favourites Spain, newcomers Honduras, and the hotly tipped duo of Chile and Switzerland. Earlier on we saw Chile battle past Honduras to win 1-0, and then we expected to see a spectacular show of attacking football with Spain heavily favoured to win.

First of all, I have to say Switzerland got it dead right. Their coach Ottmar Hitzfeld is full of experience, and he called the tactics perfectly, allowing Spain to play their attractive brand of passing football, but keeping men behind the ball and starving the Spaniards of space in the key areas. Spain continued to control the game without managing to break down the last line of Swiss defence, and they were punished when Switzerland took a shock lead on the counter-attack through Gelson Fernandes.

Switzerland kept their tactics exactly the same, staying deep and soaking up the Spain pressure. They hit on the counter-attack again with Eren Derdiyok hitting the post after an excellent run, a total shame as it would have been a truly memorable World Cup goal.

Switzerland now have their big match against Chile approaching, and will have to be at their best to get past Bielsa's men and seal qualification.

Now I believe those are the four biggest winners of the World Cup so far, it's still to be seen whether they will be as happy after their second match, but they have made excellent starts.

So it's now time for the four losers.


We have already covered the Greeks briefly when talking about their opponents Korea Republic, and their disappointing 2-0 loss leaves them as one of the tournaments biggest losers so far.

As I mentioned in one of my World Cup preview posts, Greece rely on a strong and water-tight defence to be able to beat teams, and their defensive performance against Korea was nothing short of shocking. South Korea's two goals both came from defensive mistakes, the first goal saw Lee Jung-Soo completely unmarked with three Greek defenders ball-watching, and the second was a horribly misplaced pass in defence.

If this is what happens against South Korea, I dread to think what ultra-offensive Argentina and Nigeria will do to them.


Ok they did not actually lose their first match, but the manner in which England drew 1-1 against rivals USA is why they are one of the biggest losers of the first matches.

Please do not get me wrong, this isn't just an opportunity for me to call England "losers", or give out unfair criticism because I do not support them. England did not play terribly against the USA, and the USA were not particularly good either, but the manner in which they lost the equaliser and their failure to get back in the lead could cause some problems in the side.

Surely you've all seen it by now if you weren't watching at the time, but Robert Green's awful handling error to allow Clint Dempsey's tame shot to roll over the line was so surprising I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball went in. After that moment, England didn't manage to pick themselves up again, squandered some chances and the game finished 1-1.

I've still got no doubt that England will stroll through the group stage, I expect big wins against Algeria and Slovenia, but this result puts a little bit of doubt on whether this is a team capable of going all the way. But on a positive note, this was the best possible time for a setback like this to occur, as England have time to recover and if they hammer both Algeria and Slovenia team morale may be better thanks to the draw.


They are one of my tips to be dark horses this year, but Serbia got off to a poor start losing 0-1 to Ghana. Despite some pretty poor warm-up results, Serbia still have a squad capable of turning heads at this year's tournament. But in Group D with Germany, Australia and Ghana, their opening game against the Black Stars seemed like a must-win.

The game ended up very close, only decided by a Gyan penalty after Kuzmanovic handled the ball in the area with only five minutes remaining. The most worrying part for Serbia is that they failed to show the quality that they have in their team, the defence played well but nothing spectacular and attacking players like Zigic and Milos Krasic didn't get a chance to show off their skills going forward.

The result leaves Serbia chasing qualification from behind, with a huge match against Germany approaching and then the grudge match against rivals Australia, while their main qualification rivals Ghana have the upper hand from the beginning on both points and head-to-head standings.

That said, if Serbia do manage to get a result against the Germans, they would still be in a good position to get one of the qualification places if they can keep their head against Australia.


Again, I touched on Spain's surprise 0-1 defeat against Switzerland earlier. I have included them as one of the biggest losers for a few reasons, the obvious one being that Spain were the favourites to win this tournament at the beginning, and losing the first game is a huge shock.

The other reason is that Spain were a bit unlucky in this game, they didn't play particularly poor, but were left with nothing after 90 minutes. Compare this to the likes of France, Italy and England, who played fairly bad but managed to leave with the draw and gain at least a point.

Spain had opportunities, Xabi Alonso even hit the bar, but Switzerland played a tactically superior game and took all three points. Also to be noted is that Spain were forced to bring a not completely fit Fernando Torres off the bench to try to win the game, something which del Bosque would not have planned unless Spain were comfortably leading the game.

This result now makes this amazing group even more exciting. Switzerland and Chile have three points each, and with Spain expected to beat Honduras next week, it will all be down to Switzerland x Chile and Spain x Chile to see who will grab qualification... It might even go down to goal difference.

Now that's it for now, hope you have enjoyed reading this and have enjoyed the World Cup so far. One more thing before I go, on Tuesday I was at home with ten Brazilians watching Brazil beat Korea DPR 2-1. It was an amazing day, the match was good, but being able to support Brazil and join in the celebrations was so cool. Football is everything here in Brazil and watching that game was an awesome experience. Thanks to everyone involved for an awesome day, and I can't wait until the Ivory Coast game now.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

World Cup News

Just a bit of quick-fire World Cup news from the last week or so... Just to keep you up to date.


The hosts South Africa have released their final 23-man squad for the finals, the main surprise being the omission of their all-time record goalscorer Benni McCarthy. The West Ham striker has been struggling for fitness recently and seems to be a bit out of shape, the team may miss his talismanic goalscoring ability, but it was a brave choice to exclude him.

Meanwhile their group rivals France have made a few surprising choices in their squad selection, leaving out Karim Benzema and Patrick Vieira. Les Bleus forward Thierry Henry has also admitted he expects to feature in this World Cup only as a substitute after failing to get a starting place in France's recent friendlies. The Barca striker said that "the most important thing is the team" and that "we're all in this to go as far as we can together."


Argentina boss Diego Maradona has raised a few more questions surrounding his managerial decisions, as he is choosing to go with four natural centre-backs as his defensive line for this year's Finals. Velez Sarsfield star Nicolas Otamendi is expected to be forced to play as a right-back. Maradona also chose to exclude big names like Riquelme, Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti in his squad selection.

Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel has been pronounced 'fully fit' and has joined up with the rest of the Nigeria squad. Mikel was feared to be a doubt for his side's opener against Argentina after he underwent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. The Super Eagles have also had their departure to South Africa delayed, after their aircraft at Stansted Airport "developed unspecified problems". They do not know yet when they will be flying out, but the Nigerian government are sending a new aircraft from Paris to fly the team.

There has been mixed news for the Korea Republic, with in form striker Lee Dong-Gook managing to regain fitness in time to be included in the final squad. However defender Kwak Tae-Hwi has had to pull out of the squad with a knee injury.


England boss Fabio Capello has announced his final 23-man squad for the finals excluding Leighton Baines and Theo Walcott. Baines was expected to be in the squad as back-up for Ashley Cole at left-back, but that spot has been handed to the relatively untested Stephen Warnock. Walcott's exclusion also comes as a surprise, four years on from his shock inclusion in the 2006 World Cup squad.

Group opponents Slovenia have instilled an interesting mentality ahead of their World Cup campaign. Forward Valter Birsa believes they have "nothing to lose". The striker went on to say that "all we can do now is carry on giving our all and fighting for every ball, like we have up until now". Team captain Robert Koren is also reinforcing the team spirit in the Slovenian camp, saying the team do not have individual stars, but a strong unit as a team.


Before the World Cup there are always injuries to important players, this year there have been few more important than Germany's Michael Ballack. The Chelsea star was injured in his team's FA Cup victory over Portsmouth and will miss the finals. This adds to the existing injury problems for the Germans, with 'keeper Rene Adler missing out, and midfielder Trasch is struggling for fitness.

Australia's final squad selection included one Middlesbrough player, while omitting two others. Boro 'keeper Brad Jones will be on the plane to South Africa, whilst right-back Rhys Williams and former Celtic striker Scott McDonald missed the cut. Manager Pim Verbeek has blamed Middlesbrough directly for Williams' exclusion, saying that he had been carrying an injury and continued to play for the Teeside club through a series of injections. Verbeek said he "could never train fully", and the manager was disappointed to have to exclude him.

Despite looking like a squad to really surprise everyone at the finals, Serbia's poor warm-up form has drawn its critics. The problem got serious in their friendly defeat against New Zealand, as fans rioted in the stands. Defender Nemanja Vidic had to act as the peacemaker, addressing the fans via a microphone in the middle of the field, asking for calm.

Along with the aforementioned injury to Michael Ballack, Group D has suffered another major injury, with Ghana losing star player, and fellow Chelsea midfielder, Michael Essien. Essien has been injured since January, but he was confident of making a return in time for the finals. After much assessment, Ghanaian medical experts said he would not be fit until the end of July.

Group E

The Netherlands have chosen not to pick striker Ruud van Nistelrooy for their campaign in South Africa, throwing his international future into extreme doubt. van Nistelrooy has a fabulous record for the Oranje, scoring 33 times in 64 games.

Former Celtic icon Shunsuke Nakamura has recovered in time from an ankle injury to be fit for Japan's World Cup squad. After missing the friendly defeat against England, it was feared that the player (now at Yokohama Marinos) could miss out on the final squad selection due to injury.

Cameroon star man Samuel Eto'o had threatened to pull out of this year's World Cup, after national legend Roger Milla had criticised his performances for the national team. Eto'o has since been named in the final squad and will be taking part at the Finals, but this latest scandal is one of many which could unsettle a talented Cameroon side.


Giuseppe Rossi and Mattia Cassani were surprise exclusions in what is an otherwise very strong Italy squad. However, Rossi and Cassani had both been expected to make the final squad, with Rossi's place taken by Giampaolo Pazzini of Sampdoria, and Cassani being dropped in favour of extra striker Fabio Quagliarella of Napoli.


On Tuesday 11th May, Brazil coach Dunga announced his seleção, sparking many debates all over the world. First of all, there was no room for fantastistas Ronaldinho and Adriano, after they both failed to impress for the national team in recent times. Secondly, Dunga refused to give in to national pressure and select the Santos duo Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar. Thirdly, there was surprise inclusions for Wolfsburg striker Grafite and Flamengo midfielder Kleberson (formerly of Manchester United), and surprise exclusions for AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato and Juventus midfielder Diego.

Now, there are a lot of talking points here, and I'll go through them a bit here instead of writing a new article.

I am very pleased with Dunga's selection. The main way he has chosen his team is by those who have impressed when given the chance for the national team. This explains the exclusions of everyone mentioned there. On the other hand, when called upon by the national team, players like Grafite, Josue, Julio Baptista and Kleberson have really impressed.

However there is one player I'd probably have picked instead. Hernanes of Sao Paulo is a 25 year old defensive midfielder, a truly fantastic player, I've always said he could walk into most squads in Europe. Unlike other prospective picks like Pato and Diego, when Hernanes has been called upon for Brazil (2008 Olympics squad) he has really impressed. So my only change would be Kleberson out, Hernanes in. Feel free to suggest your own changes.


Spain's striker David Villa has said that he will happily play on the wing for the European champions if it means he will get a spot in the starting line up. This follows the news of Fernando Torres' return to fitness and the general consensus that El Nino of Liverpool will get the starting spot up-front. New Barcelona signing Villa says that "the important thing is to play".

Tips for success Chile are sweating over the fitness of their top striker Humberto Suazo. Suazo is suspected to be suffering from a muscle injury, and would prompt significant changes in the Chile system. However some people in the know are putting this down to Coach Marcelo Bielsa's mind-games, trying to get teams to change their strategy to playing a team without Suazo. Such doubters are confident Suazo will not miss any games, should be interesting to see how that plays out...

So that's it for now, just to keep you all up to date on what is happening around the nations. Its only 8 days away, and I'm sure that like me, you can't wait for it to begin.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

WC 2010: Whos Going? (Part 7)


In my youth watching international football, Nigeria were always the top African nation. Names like Okocha, Finidi George, Amokachi, Babangida, Kanu and Oliseh were all big players in world football, and were all from Nigeria. However in recent times the “Super Eagles” have slipped down the African pecking order, illustrated best by their failure to qualify for World Cup 2006, at the expense of teams like first timers Angola and Togo.

Despite the disappointments, one cannot easily overlook Nigeria. They still have some excellent quality in John Obi Mikel, Obafemi Martins and Joseph Yobo, and with “nothing to lose” I expect them to have a real go at it this summer.

The new national team boss is former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback, who took Sweden to many big tournaments with relative success. His secure and intelligent tactics will be very important for Nigeria to achieve anything this year.

Nigeria are drawn into Group B in South Africa, this puts them up against Argentina, South Korea and Greece. As I’ve mentioned when talking about the other nations in the group, it is a close one. Argentina have quality, but there are real worries about their ability to play as a team, and the other sides appear quite closely matched. Nigeria will have a tough time trying to get out of the group, but they have a chance.

Star Man: Joseph Yobo

In a team which is known more for their quick and dangerous forwards, Everton’s Joseph Yobo at centre-half provides a required stability for the Super Eagles. Alongside young John Obi Mikel who plays in front of him in midfield, they form the defensive spine of this current Nigeria side.

Yobo has been generally regarded as one of the more solid centre-halfs in the Premier League in recent years, mainly down to his comfort in possession and superb pace for someone his size. He is an extremely important part of Nigeria’s squad and will feature heavily in South Africa.

Player to Watch: Chinedu Obasi

Obasi is a player who has been on the fringe of international selection for Nigeria the past few years. Earlier in the season, the Hoffenheim striker was called up to the squad for the African Cup of Nations at the last minute and rewarded his manager’s decision with some inspiring performances. He has now done enough to make the final cut for the Nigeria squad, and will attempt to continue his solid international progress.

Obasi (or “Edu” as he is often called) plays in an attacking role, usually just behind the centre forward or out on either wing. He is blessed with immense pace, on and off the ball, and his drive and determination will see him making forwards runs and then tracking all the way back to defend if needed.

He is in a similar mould to that of Carlos Tevez or even Franck Ribery, in that he can run at defenders all day long and cause constant threat. Nigeria is a tough team to play for at international level (the national pressure is unbelievable), but Obasi thrives on the pressure and always seems hungry to get as many games as possible. Now that the final squad has been announced, I am happy to see he will be on the plane, and ready to play a big part in the team.

Prediction: In a close group, potentially they could finish anywhere, but I believe South Korea have the quality to progress, and Argentina will prove too strong for the Super Eagles and Greece. Nigeria to go out in the group phase.


Another of the South American qualifiers, Paraguay will be looking to make a big impact on this year’s World Cup. Traditionally they have not been one of the most successful South American nations on the big stage, but with 2010 being their fourth consecutive Finals appearance, and with a talented crop of players and their best qualifying campaign in history, the Albirroja have the right to be optimistic.

However along with all of these positive points and improvements, Paraguay and the entire football world received some truly shocking news in January, when star forward Salvador Cabanas was shot in the head following an incident at a Mexico City nightclub. Fortunately since then Cabanas has been recovering well, and was almost in contention to be selected for the World Cup squad. Though he will not be appearing, the excellent news of his recovery will be sure to spur the Albirroja on during the Finals. I wish him all the best in his continuing recovery.

Paraguay have a pretty capable squad this year, they generally go for a standard 4-4-2 formation which has strength and balance. Their strongest area of the field seems to be their forwards, shown by the fact that even without Cabanas, Paraguay have chosen six strikers who will all be challenging for the two starting places. The assumed first choice would be Roque Santa Cruz (if he regains fitness) and Dortmund striker Nelson Haedo Valdez. However waiting in the wings are Benfica hitman Oscar Cardozo, Valdez’s Dortmund team-mate Lucas Barrios and young boys Édgar Benítez and Rodolfo Gamarra.

La Albirroja are placed in Group F alongside reigning champions Italy, Slovakia and New Zealand. In truth it is a pretty handsome draw for them. On their current form, Paraguay could potentially win every game in the group. Though I do believe Italy will be too strong for them, la Albirroja should make it through in second place.

Star Man: Nelson Haedo Valdez

With Santa Cruz struggling for fitness, Nelson Valdez will be Paraguay’s definite starting striker. He has really proved his worth to the national team over the years; he was one of the standout performers in an otherwise poor World Cup 2006 campaign, and his goals and good performances helped Paraguay achieve their greatest ever qualifying campaign this year.

Currently plying his trade for Borussia Dortmund in Germany, Valdez adopts a centre forward role and often drifts out to the left side to support his fellow Albirroja strike partner Lucas Barrios (we’ll talk about him later). Valdez’s greatest attribute is his energy and effort, though sometimes he has trouble directing that energy, meaning he can spend long periods of matches without making an effect on the game.

Valdez is quick, energetic, dangerous in front of goal, and he has the heart of a lion. He fights for every ball and comes up with some important goals for the national team. He will be a very important part of the team if they are going to have any success.

Player to Watch: Lucas Barrios

Just four months ago, Argentinian-born Lucas Barrios was scoring goals in the Bundesliga for Dortmund, and hoping for a call-up to Maradona’s Argentina side. However a lot can change in four months. Thanks to his Paraguayan mother, and after talking with his BvB team-mate the aforementioned Nelson Valdez, in March 2010 Lucas Barrios set about the process that would grant him Paraguayan citizenship. This now made him eligible for selection for the 2010 World Cup, and after much deliberation, manager Gerardo Martino called him up for the World Cup training camp in May.

Since then, Barrios has made his first two appearances for la Albirroja, picking up two goals in the process, and has now been chosen for the final 23-man squad for this summer’s finals. It’s a long way from four months ago when he was hoping to line up alongside Messi, Aguero and Tevez for Argentina.

His nickname la Pantera (the Panther), refers to his danger in the penalty area and top-notch acceleration. Barrios is a true penalty box striker, and his potency in and around the area has been an integral part in Borussia Dortmund’s pleasing 5th position at the end of this year’s Bundesliga.

Despite this success and reputation building, Barrios will have to work a lot harder than some of his national team mates to earn playing time in South Africa. Unlike his other home-grown team-mates, Barrios still has a lot of critics and doubters who don’t believe an Argentinian should be playing for the Paraguay national team. The reality is, that if Paraguay opt for the Valdez/Barrios partnership in South Africa, they will have a proven goal scoring, match winning and crowd pleasing combination.

Prediction: As they are quite an accomplished side, they have a fairly straightforward group. However they are in the hardest half of the draw, and their second round/quarter final opponents will be some of the best teams in the tournament. I expect them to exit in the second round.


Now I must warn you, this might turn into a little bit of a rant... Back at the very start of this blog, I posted some thoughts about Portugal (read here) and in all honesty my opinion has not changed. Portugal’s new Golden Generation aren’t proving as successful as their predecessors, their massive egos mean they don’t function well enough as a team. I mean c’mon, look at this result from last week, 0-0 against CAPE VERDE?!? I know it was a friendly and holds no real indication of how they will perform in South Africa but C’MON.

I’m not saying Portugal are a bad team, far from it, they have so much quality all over the field and I should be saying they have what it takes to win the trophy this year. I should, but I won’t. Sure if by the end of July, Portugal win the World Cup, manager Carlos Queiroz is named a national hero and Portugal hail their current Golden Generation as the greatest of all time, then I will eat my deserved slice of the humblest pie in town.

Queiroz’s squad selection is another thing that confuses me and I believe it is another thing that will work against their chances of winning. First of all, Pepe of Real Madrid has been chosen in the final 23-man squad. He’s a top player, no doubt, but he hasn’t played football since he was injured back in December, 6 months ago... Surely he has to have passed certain fitness tests to be included, so it’s not like Queiroz is bringing an injured player with him to South Africa, but I’m confident he is not 100% fit by any stretch of the imagination. However, with a quality squad like Portugal, bringing one player who isn’t fully fit is no problem right? Wrong. Pepe generally plays as a DMF (defensive midfielder or volante for Portuguese speakers) when he is with the national team, other players that usually play in that position for Portugal are Joao Moutinho (wasn’t chosen, rightly so) and Pedro Mendes (chosen, but has picked up an injury and is struggling for fitness). So this leaves Portugal’s DMF spot to two unfit players, with the rest of the midfield completely attack minded. Ay caramba Queiroz!

Also another quick problem with the squad selection: Ricardo Costa. I guess he is Queiroz’s godson or something. If you’ve seen him play and you have also seen Zé Castro play (the player who was dropped for R. Costa), then you will know what I mean. I don’t understand it.

Portugal are in Group G this summer, the “Group of Death”. There they will face Brazil (who I think will be champions), Ivory Coast (truly quality African squad) and Korea DPR (unknown quantity). Sure they will be expected to go through, and they might well do, but every game is a potential loss or win based on this inconsistent, frustrating, lacking, yet quality Portugal side.

Star Man: Cristiano Ronaldo

Now he’s one of the most famous players in the world, and rightly so as he is one of the best. I’ll be doing a separate post about him after the World Cup, to follow the Messi & Rooney articles, so I’ll keep this fairly brief.

We all know his abilities; he is lightning fast, capable of moments of magic, he has a vicious shot and his dribbling skills are probably the best in the world. For Real Madrid (and Manchester United before that) he has played world-class football with such consistency, rightfully putting him in the place he is now as one of the best in the world.

Unfortunately for the national team it is often a different story. He is the captain of the national team simply because he is the best player in the squad, and he’s no captain. He’s a flamboyant winger who can score loads of goals and turn the game around for his team, but the role he is asked to play for Portugal, being a “captain”, can sometimes put him under too much pressure and he has been visibly struggling for his country. For Portugal’s sake, they need a captain who is not just the most talented in the team, and then they can let Ronaldo be Ronaldo.

Player to Watch: Liedson

The post that I linked to earlier was when I was reviewing Liedson’s first game for Portugal since gaining his dual Brazilian-Portuguese nationality. Again I don’t want to keep going on about Portugal’s problems as maybe it is not as bad as all that, but Liedson is now one of the most positive things to come out of what was a tight and disappointing qualifying campaign.

Before the introduction of Liedson, Portugal were really struggling to find goals. They have so many talented forwards like Ronaldo, Nani and Simao, but no true centre-forward who could stay in the middle and convert all of the crosses that these world-class wingers would provide. Their old hope was Hugo Almeida, tipped as the new Nuno Gomes, tall striker, good in the air, and they hoped he would be the main goalscorer. But Almeida struggled, he really hasn’t lived up to his hype as of yet.

Enter Liedson, regular top scorer in the Portuguese league with Sporting, and now qualified to play for the national side. He provided just what Portugal needed at the end of that qualifying campaign, someone to get on the end of the crosses and someone to hover around in the area and make goals out of loose balls.

At 31 years old, Portugal will be wishing they had naturalised him sooner. He should be Portugal’s main source of goals this summer, and a key part in their success.

Prediction: In my opinion, the furthest Portugal can go is the second round. They could exit in the group stage, but I believe they will manage to see off the Ivory Coast and other opponents Korea DPR to finish second behind Brasil. But then they would surely face Euro 2008 champions Spain in the next round, and they are not going to beat them.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

WC2010: Whos Going? (Part 6)

World Cup is fast approaching, so here's some more info on some of the qualified nations. I hope to finish this quite soon, so hope you can find them interesting.


Since Pelé famously predicted an African nation would win the World Cup by the year 2000, the African qualifiers are always scrutinised before the World Cup and people speculate over whether an African team will finally take the trophy. This year, many supporters and pundits say that the best chance for an African victory lies with Les Éléphants of the Ivory Coast.

Never before has there been an African nation who can call upon so many well-known, top class footballers than this year's Ivory Coast squad. Boasting such household names as Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, Yaya Toure, Didier Zokora and Salomon Kalou, they really have a lot of true strength all over the field. However as has been proven in football many times over the years, big names do not make a good football team. Ivory Coast have suffered from a lack of team spirit and a distinct laziness from some top players in recent times, and if this continues in South Africa then they will surely fail.

The introduction of Sven Goran-Eriksson as manager seems to be a good choice, but as he does not have much time to really unite the squad as a unit, Les Éléphants will need to rely on the influence and leadership of their captain Didier Drogba.

The Ivory Coast find themselves in the "Group of Death" that is Group G where they will face Brazil, Portugal and North Korea. Any nation would have a tough job of qualifying from that group, but with Brazil looking sure to finish first, and North Korea true underdogs, the Ivory Coast should look to single out Portugal as their main rival and attempt to overcome them to reach second place.

Star Man: Didier Drogba

One of the best centre-forwards in world football when playing with English champions Chelsea, Drogba takes on a considerably different role when he plays for his country. At Chelsea he is employed as a centre forward who is given good service from both wings and the team is led by captain John Terry and Frank Lampard. The difference for his national team is that Drogba is the one with the responsibility of leading the team.

Don't be fooled into thinking that this is a one-man team, but Drogba's leadership and world-class quality can grind out results even when the rest of the team isn't playing particularly well. He should end the World Cup as Ivory Coast's top goalscorer, and he will be hoping to lead them as far as he can.

Player to Watch: Gervinho

Gervais "Gervinho" Yao Kouassi, 22, has a nickname that sounds a little more suited to a player in the squad of their Group G opponents Brazil, but like captain Drogba, Gervinho embodies everything that you would expect from an Ivorian footballer. The Lille forward is staking his claim to start up front alongside the Chelsea striker, and in my opinion Sven Goran-Eriksson should grant him that spot.

Listing Drogba as his main influence and idol, Gervinho takes several talents from his captain’s game. From his bullish, almost superhuman strength on the ball, to his natural eye for goal and expert finishing, and even down to the hairstyle.

Keep an eye on him in this year's Finals, a really dangerous and exciting footballer.

Prediction: With Portugal looking a bit lacklustre, I expect the Ivorians to finish 2nd in Group G. However their last-16 tie would then more than likely be up against Spain, who look too strong for them. They have the squad to go far, but I fear their draw will see them leave in the last-16.


The Mexicans, in my opinion, always bring something exciting to the World Cup finals. I'm sure most of you remember their clash with the USA in 2002, also the fantastic second round match against Argentina in 2006. Whether it is a memorable match, or memorable individual performances like Cuauhtemoc Blanco's sublime skills in 1998 or Jorge Campos' eccentric goalkeeping and zany kits in 1994, Mexico always leave the supporters entertained.

This year we will be hoping for something similar when they open the Finals against hosts South Africa. Mexico are a team who have passed through a lot of ups and downs recently, and a few different managers. Now they seem to have found some stability with Javier Aguirre as boss. El Vasco ("The Basque") has brought a new found optimism to the Mexican fans, with many of them hopeful of a memorable World Cup appearance.

The squad itself is littered with gems but also flaws. For example they have a great young attacking pedigree with players like Giovani dos Santos, Andres Guardado, Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez, and alongside that they have strong experienced players like Rafael Marquez, Carlos Salcido and the aforementioned Cuauhtemoc Blanco still running the midfield at 37 years old. On the other hand they have some problematic positions on the field, with heavily criticised Adolfo "Bofo" Bautista struggling to impress in his midfield spot. This is a hard problem to solve, with the squad itself only having 5 recognised midfielders, something which could leave them struggling against teams who like to dominate in midfield.

Mexico are entered into Group A in the Finals this year, meaning they will face the hosts South Africa aswell as former world champions Uruguay and France. It is a tough group for el Tri, but if they can play well as a team they should qualify alongside either Uruguay or France.

Star Man: Andres Guardado

Andres Guardado is one of the more experienced of Mexico's young attacking contingent. At 23 he has made 51 appearences for the national side, including a substitute appearance against Argentina in World Cup 2006. He plays on the left of midfield for Mexico and his club Deportivo La Coruna, and he is an automatic starter for both squads.

Truly Guardado is a player that the football world should really start to notice. One of the most energetic wingers I have seen in a long time, Guardado can run up and down the left flank for the full 90 minutes. At only 5’6” (169cm for our metric friends) he does have a slight figure, so you would be forgiven for thinking he would be knocked off the ball easily. However the reality is that Guardado has an ability, similar to that of fellow La Liga winger Lionel Messi, to throw his weight around so that it is near impossible to knock him down.

I can’t wait to see him in this year’s finals, as he is an exciting player to watch and has a huge future ahead of him. I truly believe he is one of the best young left wingers in the world just now and I expect big things in the future.

Player to Watch: Carlos Vela

Vela is a name many supporters will have heard of by now; he has been highly coveted by Arsenal for many years in their youth system, and has started to break into the first team with some impressive substitute performances. He is a real favourite in Mexico, with their support believing that he and his team-mate Giovani dos Santos will be two of the best forwards in the world in a few years time.

It is not at all guaranteed that Vela will start for el Tri, but with him held in such high regard by the fans and manager, he will surely get plenty of playing time. Vela brings a really raw attacking pedigree to the team, with great pace and fabulous dribbling skills. However, one thing about Vela’s play which will need to improve in time is in his decision making. Sometimes when he is in possession he doesn’t always know the right time to pass, or when it’s better to keep the ball than to give it away, though he is still young and hopefully he will develop this intelligence over time.

Prediction: They have a decent chance to qualify from Group A, and could find themselves with a really nice draw in the later stages. However I predict Mexico to exit in the group stage behind Uruguay and France.


Regarded by many as one of the strongest teams in this year's Finals, Netherlands will be looking to try and finally win their first ever World Cup after many years of trying. Many would say that this year is one of their best chances since 1978, with their squad full of top class players and real danger in attack. The Dutch have their sights set on the Final, and will settle for nothing less.

Coach Bert van Marwijk will surely stick to the 4-2-3-1 formation that saw them qualify with a 100% record. It is an attacking, sometimes spectacular, but yet a secure system. Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie link up to form a scintillating attacking force, while Mark van Bommel, Joris Mathijsen and Andre Ooijer keep the back door shut with a really strong defensive spine. Definitely one of the best squads in this years finals, if they can stay strong as a unit, their quality could take them far.

The Dutch are in Group E for this year's finals, there they will face Japan, Denmark and Cameroon. It's a tough group for sure, Denmark are currently one of the strongest underdogs in Europe, and I believe Cameroon to be the strongest African side in the draw. Holland will have enough to finish 1st in Group E, but they should be wary of their last 16/quarter final/semi final opponents, with possible opponents including Italy, Brazil and Spain.

Star Man: Wesley Sneijder

Holland and Inter Milan’s creative force Wesley Sneijder is certainly one of the top midfielders going to the World Cup this year. He has been an inspiration for both club and country recently, and he plays a particularly key role in the national team. A true team player, he links up so well with his team-mates, and is very energetic, always adopting a “pass and move” style of football.

Another great attribute of his is his set-pieces. Whether it be corners or free-kicks, Sneijder is one of the top set-piece takers in the world at the moment. He is deadly when shooting for goal, and he can pick out a perfect cross almost every time, all this with either his left or right foot.

For the Netherlands, he initiates most of their attacking moves. A player truly deserving of the number 10 jersey, expect him to shine in South Africa.

Player to Watch: Eljero Elia

As a young forward in this Netherlands squad, you may not expect him to feature much behind Robben, Kuyt, Huntelaar et al, but there is a buzz in Holland surrounding Eljero Elia that they haven’t seen for a long time. Since moving to Hamburg in 2009, Elia has been gathering admirers from around Europe, and is now featuring heavily in the Oranje national setup.

Playing as a winger or forward, Elia is expected to be used liberally as a substitute by van Marwijk. Scottish fans like myself may remember his name from our decisive World Cup qualifier against the Oranje, where Elia was the man who scored the only goal into our defence at Hampden.

Elia’s best attributes lie in his speed and great dribbling abilities. He is relentless in attack, always happy to bomb forward and pressure his defender. He should perform well this year in South Africa, and I’m expecting a bright future from him.

Prediction: They should advance through their group easily enough, and they have the team to see off the best of opponents in the later rounds. I expect they will exit at the quarter finals, where they have a good chance of facing teams like Brazil or Spain.


Unfortunately, New Zealand are a nation that I do not know much about, so this report will come more from what I’ve read and the little bits of them that I have seen. But well, I don’t think many people know much about the Kiwis.

Traditionally a nation mad about rugby, the national football team (nicknamed “the All Whites”) have struggled to gain popularity thanks to some disappointing campaigns previously. This year is the second team the All Whites have qualified for the World Cup, the first time coming in 1982 in Spain where they lost all three group games against Brazil, the Soviet Union and Scotland.

New Zealand seem to have gained their success through a strong and stubborn defence, and a dangerous attacking partnership of Shane Smeltz and Chris Killen. Generally the squad is made up of players relatively unknown to most football fans, although team captain Ryan Nelsen, and aforementioned Chris Killen and Motherwell winger Michael McGlinchey may be recognisable to SPL followers.

Group F is New Zealand's group this year, where they face reigning champions Italy, as well as Paraguay and Slovakia. The Kiwis have a massive task ahead of them if they are thinking of qualifying, even defeating Slovakia looks like an unlikely prospect. They should have a great game against Italy, giving them the chance for a truly huge upset.

Star Man: Ryan Nelsen

Without a doubt the All Whites’ most important player, the Blackburn Rovers centre-half leads the resolute defensive line that has brought New Zealand to the finals. Nelsen, captain for both club and country, has fantastic determination and organises the All Whites defence expertly.

In a group where they will be on the back foot for most of the time, his leadership and quality will be absolutely imperative to the Kiwis.

Player to Watch: Shane Smeltz

New Zealand’s number 9 and main goal source, Shane Smeltz will have a big task ahead of him, trying to get past such stubborn defences as the Italians and the Slovakians. Playing for Gold Coast United in Australia’s A-League, he’s pretty much unknown to most of us here.

From what I have seen of him for the national team, he is a good finisher who links up well with target man Chris Killen. I’m not sure how he would fare against some of the World’s top defences, but looks an interesting player. Unfortunately I don’t know anyone who follows the A-League so can’t really shed any more light on him.

Prediction: The squad and fans will have a great time in South Africa, and I'm sure a lot of neutrals will be cheering them on against Italy, Paraguay and Slovakia. However, sorry Kiwis, they're finishing fourth in Group F...

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Champions League Preview

So this week, we have two of the biggest games of the footballing year so far. The greatest club competition in the world, the Champions League, has reached the semi-final stage, and this week sees the second legs of those ties, letting us know who will contest this year's Final in Madrid on May 22.

The first of the semi-finals is the one we have tonight, Lyon x Bayern at Stade Gerland. The first leg last week in Munich was an interesting encounter, Bayern coming out as 1-0 winners thanks to an Arjen Robben goal, but it wasn't all positive for the German giants. The sending off of Bayern's talisman Franck Ribery means he will be unavailable for selection this evening, along with winger Danijel Pranjic who reached the yellow cards limit in the first leg. If you add that to the injury to Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and fitness worries over Martín Demichelis, Daniel van Buyten and Diego Contento, we see Bayern with a depleted squad, and they will surely have to make a few changes from last week's game. However one big positive for Bayern's team selection is that they will welcome back Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel from suspension, and he will bring a lot to their midfield in such an important game.

OL have selection worries of their own, with Jeremy Toulalan suspended after his red card last week, and there are injury doubts over centre-half Cris and winger Michel Bastos. There are also worries over the fitness of Jean II Makoun and Lisandro López, but both should play. OL will be able to welcome back French international centre-half Jean-Alain Boumsong who is fit again after injury. Another worry for Lyon is the large amount of players who are only one yellow card away from being suspended for the Final, if they were to make it through. Six of their key players (Cissokho, Cris, Delgado, Gonalons, Kallstrom and Pjanic) all of whom are expected to start this evening, would miss the Final if they were yellow carded and OL progress.

Now as I mentioned, Bayern are leading the tie 1-0 going into tonight's game thanks to Arjen Robben's goal last week in the Allianz Arena. Last week's game was a little slow at times, OL playing defensively without taking many risks going forward, meaning they were hard for Bayern to break down, but also that Lyon did not threaten their German hosts half as much as they needed to. Expect Lyon to really go for it tonight, as they know they need to score at least twice to win the tie.

I'm looking forward to a really open game tonight, with goals and both teams going forward for the win. The smart money would be on Bayern to qualify tonight, as you would expect them to score at least once during the game, and if they do, OL would then have to score three times to progress. However it would be unwise to write off Lyon, they have a really strong team this year, and you will remember they recently went to the Bernabeu and defeated Real Madrid to advance to this stage. OL have some great attacking players, Lisandro López being the pick of the bunch, a really dangerous centre-forward, who is athletic and strong, and has a great eye for goal. If OL really go for it tonight, creating chances and asking questions of the Bayern defense, then I believe they have a good chance to get the goals they need.

As we know, Bayern are fantastic going forward. Dutch winger Arjen Robben is in unbelievable form, scoring and creating goals. However their defense has been much less convincing, with the worst defensive record out of the four remaining teams, conceding 13 goals so far in this year's tournament. With a question over the fitness of centre-halfs Demichelis and van Buyten, Bayern will more than likely field an unfamiliar back four, and they will be hoping it doesn't affect them too much. If Bayern's defence is anything but solid, OL can really take advantage and score goals into their German opponents. Bayern are aware of this though, with Mark van Bommel saying that it isn't a problem if they leak goals, because even "if we [Bayern] concede six goals, but score five, we're through". Doesn't really make the most sense, but it seems he believes Bayern's attacking strength will compensate for their defensive frailties.

My prediction for tonight, similar to what van Bommel was saying, is 2-1 to OL. I believe Lyon will really go for it, and will find gaps in Bayern's defense, but Bayern are too good going forward right now, and I expect them to score at some point in tonight's game and seal their place in this year's Final. So there is about an hour left before the game, if you are a betting person and looking for some quick tips before the game, I'd go for my 2-1 prediction, and for most likely scorers, its got to be Lisandro and Arjen Robben.

I'll be back either later tonight or the same time tomorrow to preview the other big semi-final, Barca-Inter. So look out for that.

Enjoy the game!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Who's Number One? (Part 2: Wayne Rooney)

Now the second part of my 3-part series on the best players on Earth right now. Last time was Messi, this time I'll talk about the reason England have a decent chance in World Cup 2010...

Wayne Rooney (Manchester United & England)
Date of Birth: 24 October 1985 (age 24)
Place of Birth: Croxteth, England
Position: Striker

Ever since he scored the winner for Everton against Arsenal in 2002, five days before his 17th birthday, Rooney has been tipped for big things. What followed was a £25.6 million transfer to Manchester United, then 6 amazing seasons at Old Trafford, and Wayne Rooney is widely accepted as one of the most dangerous players in the world.

Similar to Messi, Rooney is in one of the best places in the world to play football being at Manchester United. This season he leads the offensive line, finding great success linking up with Antonio Valencia and Nani on the wings. In his time at Man Utd he has had some fantastic players to play alongside, Ryan Giggs, Dimitar Berbatov, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Ruud van Nistelrooy but to name a few. Despite competing with some big egos and a lot of quality, Rooney has always been the first name on the teamsheet, and shows his quality in every game.

The reason why Rooney always seems to play well is that without a doubt he is the most determined player in the world. No matter how United are playing, no matter how tired he may be, Rooney will put 120% into every tackle, sprint the full length of the field at top speed, and put the ball into the goal with amazing power.

There isn't much point going through all of Rooney's best attributes, because he is the closest to a "complete footballer" I have ever seen. He has amazing stamina and determination, he is unbelievably fast, he has great balance and strength, his shooting skills are amazing, and his positioning and heading is now up among the best. He is even a pretty good tackler.

Rooney has all of these skills at 24 years old, when he has his best games he is capable of single-handedly defeating teams, he is the reason that England have a real chance at the World Cup this summer. I mentioned his age there, most forwards will reach their peak between 27 and 31, so that would suggest Rooney still has some time to develop (yes I know, he might get even better), and with his mentality and determination he really could improve even more.

On my Leo Messi post, I posted a really long video with all of his best skills and moments of genius, but for Rooney, I think this video is more appropriate. It is a compilation of all of his goals in this seasons Champions League. There is only five goals there, and we all know he has scored better quality goals, but these show some of his best striking attributes, and his value to the Manchester United team.

That's everything for Rooney just now. Tomorrow he plays in the Manchester derby against Man City, a hugely important game for Man Utd's title hopes, and at, Rooney is even money to score at any time in tomorrow's game.

The next and final post in this three part series will talk about one of Wayne Rooney's former team-mates, another candidate for number one in the world.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Brazilian Football: 2010 So Far..

Now as a few of you will know, I am currently residing in São Paulo, Brasil for the next month or so, and following on from my previous post about Brazilian football, I thought I would post a bit of an update on the current 2010 Brazilian football season.

As is mentioned in that previous post, the Brazilian football season starts in January with the State Championships, which run until May, when teams get prepared for the National Championship, the Brasileirão. So what I'm going to do here is give a little recap of where we stand currently in the major state championships, and any important cup competitions.

We'll start with arguably the biggest of the Campeonatos Estaduais, the Paulistão of São Paulo state.

Campeonato Paulista

The Campeonato Paulista, or Paulistão as it is popularly known, is the State Championship for the state of São Paulo. The top division is made up of 20 teams from the state. Each team plays eachother once during the campaign, after all games have been played, the four best-placed teams enter into the final knockout stage to compete for the trophy.

Generally speaking, the top four is usually made up of the G-4 clubs in São Paulo state; São Paulo, Palmeiras, Corinthians and Santos. This year has been a little different though, with only São Paulo and Santos progressing to the final stage.

Of the two that missed out on the top-four places, Palmeiras had by far the more disappointing campaign. The Verdão finished in an embarassing 11th position, with 6 losses and 11 points behind fourth place. This recent disappointment is just another in a series of disappointments for Palmeiras fans, and they will be fearing what may happen if the team does not improve quickly with the 2010 Brasileirão approaching soon. Palmeiras' main rivals Corinthians were the other G-4 side to miss out on a top-four place. Unlike Palmeiras, Timão came very close to qualification, only missing out by one point.

Now enough about the teams that failed to make it, let's go over the four semi-finalists. First of all, the most impressive team of the tournament this year, Santos. Finishing 10 points clear of their nearest challengers, Santos dominated this year's Paulistão, beating teams by four or five goals on a regular basis, even recording a 9-1 victory over Ituano. Santos are a team in a great position, with the loan signing of Robinho, and great performances from young stars like Neymar, Paulo Henrique Ganso and André, they are truly a great team to watch.

The next two qualifiers are the surprise finalists, Santo André and Grêmio Prudente. Both sides had solid campaigns, with both finishing on 37 points. Arguably, they would not have qualified if São Paulo, Corinthians and Palmeiras played to their potential, but with the poor performances of the other G-4 teams, the hard work and perserverance of Santo André and Grêmio has paid off with a semi-final place.

The last semi-final place went to São Paulo, despite having a fairly disappointing season by their standards. The Tricolor finished with 36 points, with 5 losses, just managing to outmuscle their rivals Corinthians and reach fourth place. The four finalists will now compete in two-legged semi-finals (Santos x São Paulo and Santo André x Grêmio) to compete for a place in the two-legged 2010 Paulistão final.

Here is the final league table and the schedule for the semi-finals of the 2010 Paulistão. Note that the times are in Brazilian time (UTC-3). The semi-finals will most likely be available to watch this Sunday on the free Live Streaming service.

(tables taken from
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Campeonato Carioca

The Campeonato Carioca is the State Championship for the state of Rio de Janeiro. The format is a bit different from the Paulistão, as the Carioca is split into three phases, the Taça Guanabara, the Taça Rio and the Finals. In the Taça Guanabara, the 16 teams in the top division are split into two groups of 8. The G-4 of Rio de Janeiro (Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco) are seeded so they are split equally into the two groups. The teams then play every team in their group once, and the top two from each group progress to the knockout stage to determine the winner. This year, Botafogo became the champions of the 2010 Taça Guanabara, defeating Vasco 2x0 in the final.

Next comes the Taça Rio, it's format is very similar, with the 16 teams kept in the same groups as the Taça Guanabara, but this time they play each team from the other group once. Then, same as the Taça Guanabara, the top two sides from each group progress to the knockout phase to find the winner. The winner of the Taça Rio will then play the winner of the Taça Guanabara in a two-legged final to determine the winner of the Campeonato Carioca (unless of course the same team wins both the Taça Guanabara and Taça Rio, then they are automatically crowned champions).

This year's Taça Rio saw Flamengo and Fluminense cruise to victory in Group A, and Botafogo and Vasco progressing from Group B, Vasco only qualifying by one point. This weekend will see the semi-finals of Botafogo x Fluminense and Flamengo x Vasco. The winner of the Taça Rio will then play Botafogo over two legs to decide the Campeonato Carioca (unless of course Botafogo win the Taça Rio as well). The Final will be played at the Maracanã on the 26th April and the second leg on the 2nd May. Once again, there is a good chance these games will be shown on's free Live Streaming service.

Campeonato Gaúcho

Now, just a quick review of some of the other major state championships. The Campeonato Gaúcho is contested in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, home to the two big sides from Porto Alegre; Internacional and Grêmio. The format is somewhat similar to the Carioca, with 18 sides contesting two seperate cups (this time the Taça Fernando Carvalho and Taça Fábio Koff) with the winners of each playing a two-legged final for the Campeonato Gaúcho title. One difference from the Carioca, is that in each cup, the top four from each group progress to the knockout phase, as opposed to just the top two teams in the Carioca.

The 2010 Gaúcho has so far seen Grêmio win the Taça Fernando Carvalho, beating Novo Hamburgo 1x0 in the Final. Currently, the Taça Fábio Koff is in the quarter-final stage, Internacional and Ypiranga booking their places in the semi-finals against eachother, after beating Novo Hamburgo and Caxias respectively. In the other quarter finals, São José eliminated Inter de Santa Maria through penalties for a place in the semi-finals where they will face Pelotas, who surprisingly outclassed Grêmio to win 2x1 in the fourth quarter-final.

Inter will now be desperate to win the Taça Fábio Koff, to set up the grand final against bitter rivals Grêmio, and they will be highly favoured to do just that. The semi-finals will be played this weekend and may well be available on the Live Streaming service.

Campeonato Mineiro

The last of the Campeonatos Estaduais I'll review is the Campeonato Mineiro of Minas Gerais state. Minas Gerais is the second most populous state in Brasil behind São Paulo state. It contains the urban centre of Belo Horizonte, home to the two big sides in the Mineiro; Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro. The Mineiro has a simple and straightforward format, there are 12 teams in the top level, throughout the campaign each team plays one another only once. Then the 8 best-placed sides advance to the knockout stage to decide the champion.

At the moment, the 2010 Mineiro is in the semi-finals stage, Cruzeiro facing Ipatinga and Atlético Mineiro being drawn against Democrata-GV. The first legs of these semis will take place this weekend, with the second legs played one week later. Generally a Atlético x Cruzeiro final is expected, but after the solid league display of Democrata-GV, Atlético may have a tougher time making the final than they first thought.

Copa do Brasil

Copa do Brasil is Brasil's top domestic cup competition, held in high regard in clubs throughout Brasil with the 2011 Copa Libertadores place at stake for the winner a huge incentive for success.

The tournament itself has a straight two-legged knockout format with 64 teams entered (they qualify either through their 2009 State Championship performances, or by CBF rankings). Teams that are qualified for the 2010 Copa Libertadores are not entered into the competition due to scheduling conflicts, so that means that reigning champions Corinthians and Flamengo, Internacional, São Paulo and Cruzeiro were not entered.

Currently we are in the last-16 stage of the tournament, and only two Série A teams have thus far been eliminated, Botafogo and newly promoted Ceará. The last-16 ties include four all-Série A clashes and the first legs are played on Wednesday 14th and Thursday 15th April, with the second legs one week later. The complete list of last-16 ties are as follows:

Corinthians-PR x Vasco de Gama
Goiás x Vitória
Santa Cruz x Atlético-GO
Palmeiras x Atlético-PR
Fluminense x Portuguesa
Grêmio x Avaí
Santos x Guarani
Atlético-MG x Sport

Now, that's it for this post. I do recommend you have a look out for these upcoming games, the State Championships get quite tense, and with local pride at stake in every game, expect some really intense encounters. I'll post a final review of these competitions in May, just linking back to this post letting you know how it all turns out...