Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Six of the Best


Whoever comes out on top in England this season, it has been a refreshingly competitive campaign.

Instead of one side streets ahead, three clubs had been in contention for much of the season before the league became a two-horse race in the final straight, but the top six as a whole have created plenty of juicy stories.


Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, whose title challenge has fallen by the wayside again, are far from unhappy as they have a shiny new stadium and more importantly their side are in the last four in Europe for the first time in a half-century.

That Spurs are within touching distance of the Champions League final is remarkable enough, but to have done it without Harry Kane too is extraordinary. In him, Christian Eriksen, Dele Ali and Song Heung Min they have four world-class footballers who when on song can defeat anybody.

Liverpool and Manchester City could have enjoyed a Champions League final as well as a Premier League finale but Pep Guardiola's men fluffed their lines at the Etihad by losing on away goals to Tottenham.

What was interesting was the feeling City fans were apparently split on whether they would prefer the European Cup to another domestic triumph, perhaps an unprecedented treble of Championship, FA Cup and League Cup

On paper the Champions League is the greater prize and one which continues to elude Guardiola since he departed the Camp Nou, but whispers say he values the longer slog of the Premier League more highly.

In addition, City fans, despite their recent renaissance due to Abu Dhabi, still retain the stamp of years of domestic underachievement and would secretly prefer to finish above Manchester United and spike Liverpool's revival by bagging the Premier League.

It certainly seemed odd that Guardiola felt the need to exhort Citizens supporters to come out in force and make noise for their Champions League quarter-final.

If Liverpool win the title and Jurgen Klopp lifts the curse which has afflicted the Reds since 1990 the season will belong to them, but if Spurs win the Champions League the annals will be split on which achievement was the greater.

Expect an ocean of tears from both clubs' fans whatever happens in May.

Given Manchester United's sudden precipitous decline under 'saviour' Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, the upcoming Manchester derby could effectively hand city rivals City the title. While Liverpool have the swashbuckling romance in their campaign, City's relentless march keeps them a point ahead.

For Liverpool to have even maintained such a close contest by this stage is extraordinary and their German leader should win the Manager of the Year award for that alone. On the other hand, Guardiola would probably trump him to the prize by bagging the domestic treble.

After United's 4-0 capitulation to Everton, the knives, naysayers and doom-mongers are out in ubiquitous force for their manager everyone was hailing as a messiah and an inspirational choice only a few weeks ago.

How quickly things change in football, with all the experts who lauded the Old Trafford boardroom to the skies for appointing an insider, now delightedly dismantling their philosophy as fatally flawed from the outset.

Now hands up who saw the Norwegian having a flying start for ten games then collapsing like a pack of cards. Currently sat in sixth, United are set to miss out on European football altogether next season, which would be tragic for a team of their stature.

They might not be leading the league or advancing in Europe anymore, but the Red Devils are clearly still the biggest club in England.

Arsenal could end up winning the Europa League, a trophy Unai Emery knows better than most, and entering the Champions League through the back door if they fail to finish in the top four in the Premier League.

Gunners fans should be reasonably content with their first season post-Wenger as clubs usually slip under the surface just after a long-serving manager retires.

Chelsea supporters on the other hand will pack away their scarves in May with regret at another domestic campaign which failed to ignite with another beleaguered Mediterranean manager.

The jaw-dropping farce of goalkeeper Kepa refusing Maurizio Sarri's demand to leave the field at Wembley in the League Cup Final will live long in the memory.

The summer will surely see Belgian ball wizard Eden Hazard leave Stamford Bridge, despite scintillating form this campaign.

All is not lost however as the Blues could meet the Gunners in an all-London Europa League final in Baku in May.

Despite two sides from the North-West conducting an enthralling title race, the continent's two major trophies could be heading to London.

Whoever wins what in May, the permutations in April for the top six clubs remain intriguing.

As we enter the home straight, take a pause to consider what a season to savour this has been.

(s) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Cruyff's Kids Play on in Europe


Real's reign is over but who will take their place on top of European football?


Tonight Barcelona proved Manchester United's amazing comeback at PSG was only a flash in the pan by cruising past the Red Devils 4-0 on aggregate, while Ajax are in the last four for the first time in over 20 years.

Blaugrana 2019 might not be a Guardiola vintage but their fierce gegenpressing and moments of Messi magic were enough to make a top six Premier League side look also-rans. Pep has not been working in Catalonia for seven years now but his record-breaking tenure still echoes in the Camp Nou atmosphere and the team's quick passing style.

The Dutch masters' elimination of Serie A's runaway leaders Juventus after knocking out the holders must also make them contenders for the big prize, despite their inexperience.

A young and inexperienced Ajax won the cup in 1995 and since losing the 2017 Europa League final to Jose Mourinho's United side have maintained their revival.

United by comparison have spent ten times what Ajax have in the past two years but have stumbled out of the competition tonight.

Liverpool and Manchester City should join Barca and Ajax in the last four, which could result in a parallel tussle for the Champions League to match the pair's dual for the crown in England.

The romance is with Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool's quest to avenge last season's loss in the final and bring the trophy back to Anfield for the first time since 2005, but the blue machine of City will be hard to halt.

Tottenham stand in City's way for now and Spurs on a roll can bring the same power-play football as Liverpool can to the competition - a fascinating contrast to the Barcelona DNA in Ajax and City.

La Liga has won the last five editions and for my money the Blaugrana or its former coach are the most likely to bag the silverware this time, maintaining the Spanish succession.

2019 feels like an interregnum after Real's recent fall from grace but Guardiola's grand projet in Manchester could be the most likely replacement dynasty.

With Ajax, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola still in the competition, the spirit of Johann Cruyff is alive and well in European football.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for April 2019 were published on April 4 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

There is some change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are still top followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, England Croatia and Uruguay.

The full top ten is Belgium, France, Brazil, England, Croatia, Uruguay, Portugal, Switzerland, Spain and Denmark.

Senegal are the top African team in 23rd place. England are up one place to 4th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 41st place; Japan are in 26th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 37th in the list. The USA are in 24th. Scotland are 44th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 29th place, Northern Ireland are 33rd.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle


I've just been on a quick trip to Northern Ireland to see relatives but I could not get away from football.

For one thing the Northern Irish are mad about the game, passionate about the Premier League and the big two from Glasgow.

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle

Walk around an Ulster town and you will see more football shirts than in a comparable English town. Travel to Liverpool or Manchester United for a home game and you cannot miss the many Irish accents around.

As it happened, all Ulster eyes were fixed on the telly on Sunday as there was an Old Firm game, a classically passionate affair won by Celtic, the team Irish Catholics gravitate to. Rangers are the Ulster Protestants' club of choice, their red white and blue colours chiming perfectly with their Union flags.

The Ulster connection with the Glasgow derby remains strong: Celtic manager Neil Lennon is Northern Irish and famously resigned from captaining its national team after Loyalist death threats (he is Roman Catholic); Celtic fans fly Irish tricolours.

The Northern Protestants, predominantly descendants of 17th century English and Scottish colonisers, support Northern Ireland as their national team while the Catholics cheer the Republic of Ireland, established in 1924 after the island's partition.

As a classic marker of the complexity of this island's politics, Northern Ireland wear green and their badge is a Celtic cross with shamrocks, all symbols of Catholics and the South eschewed by hardcore Unionists who assert their British identity. Confused? You are not the only one.

Northern Ireland has traditionally been the stronger but the Republic enjoyed a golden age under England hero Jack Charlton, reaching the last eight of the European Championship and the World Cup. At Euro 2016 both Irelands reached the last 16.

Currently the North is ranked by FIFA slightly higher, 36th versus the Republic's 39th.

There are also two leagues in Ireland, the NIFL Premiership (Irish League) in the North and the League of Ireland in the South. In 2018 the average crowd in the North was 1,090, in the South it was 2,139, the level of the fifth tier of English football.

The League of Ireland (the Republic's League) plays February to October, avoiding the worst of the notorious Irish weather. It was the Romans after all who called the place 'Hibernia' - Winter Land. It also cannily plays on Friday nights to avoid competition with English football.

The North's league, the NIFL Premiership by comparison goes head-to-head with English football by playing August to May on Saturday afternoons. Does that partly explain their lower crowds I wonder?

In Derry/Londonderry, the second city of the North, the town's team Derry City have played in the South since 1972 for security reasons, another curiosity. Local hero James McClean, now at Stoke City following spells at Sunderland, Wigan and West Bromwich, plays for the Republic despite having started in the North's U21s.

McClean, who hits the headlines every year when he refuses to wear a poppy, was in the press deriding Declan Rice, who had just made his England debut having played for the Republic, the country of his grandparents, since U-16 level up to senior team friendlies.

After an assured debut against the Czech Republic for the holding midfielder, Eire's loss is surely England's gain.

A handful of Northern-born footballers have crossed the border for international football, as anyone born in the island of Ireland can obtain an Irish passport, another curiosity.

This small FIFA nation (population 1.9 million) is a football backwater on the wider stage but has produced players like Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower, Arsenal/Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings and until recently Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.

And the province also gave us one of the game's greatest ever players in George Best.

It was the Belfast-born ball wizard's wish that the two Irelands unite on the football field as they have on the rugby one, but unification is not on the agenda of either association, even though it would make sense for many reasons.

Friday night saw Derry City eke past Sligo Rovers at the evocatively named Brandywell Stadium, recently renovated to hold 8,000 and with a 3G pitch, the latter of which I was not too enamoured. Still the Candystripes fans sang and flew giant red and white flags, making for a fun night out.

Next door to the Brandywell stands another stadium holding 22,000, Celtic Park, used for gaelic football and hurling.

It is easy to forget the draw of traditional sports in Ireland as they do not feature in the rest of the British Isles, but the largest stadium in Ireland remains Dublin's Croke Park gaelic games stadium with a capacity of 82,000.

Another draw in certain parts of Ireland, particularly Munster and middle-class and anglophile areas, is rugby union, which draws sellout crowds to internationals in Dublin. Unlike in football, Ireland are a force in rugby, currently ranked third in the world.

Ireland in general is a second division nation in European football at international level and lower tier when it comes to the club game, a situation unlikely to change.

There is only so much you can do with a small population and the competing attractions of other sports and a football giant next door, whatever the local fervour.

A small landmark will be reached however when Dublin's Landsdowne Road (capacity 51,700) hosts a first and second round match in Euro 2020.

If the Celtic nations or British Isles can combine forces in the future then maybe even the World Cup itself could land on Irish soil.

In the meantime visitors can console themselves with talking soccer with locals well versed in the ins and outs of the Beautiful Game, whether over a whiskey, Guinness or Irish coffee.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Fancy getting a personalised signed shirt off the Ginger Prince for your wall? Pre-order your shirt now exclusively from @allstarsignings here for just £119.99.

It's on a first come, first served basis whilst stocks last so don't delay! Framed options also available.

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

All shirts will come with an Allstarsignings certificate of authenticity which will incorporate a photo of Paul Scholes signing at our upcoming signing April 13th 2019.

© Soccerphile.com

Friday, March 22, 2019

A hundred is too much for 90 minutes


* Manchester City are still on course for a four-trophy grand slam this season after advancing to the F.A. Cup semi-finals, where they will meet Watford. However after Sergio Aguero netted a late winner to complete a 3-2 comeback at Swansea City, TV replays showed the Argentine had clearly been offside. There were questions too surrounding City's penalty award too.

VAR was not available at the Liberty Stadium although was being employed at the other three quarter-finals. Last season when Swansea were Premier League they also used it. The jury is still out on VAR, its obvious benefits nullified in many eyes by the time it takes to reach a decision. A half-baked introduction does not help its cause either.

The F.A. should have insisted all the quarter-finals had VAR or none at all.

More Than A Profit
More Than A Profit
Barcelona v Manchester United is the most attractive of the last eight ties in the Champions League but travelling fans will have to pay £102 for the privilege of watching it live in the away ground. While Man Utd are subsidizing their followers in Catalonia by £27 to make up the difference to what they are charging Barca fans, is this the first time UCL tickets have reached three figures for this stage of the competition? As many fans protest, 'twenty is plenty' but one hundred is surely too much.

* For some reason everyone was cooing over Lionel Messi's hat-trick away to Real Betis on Sunday and it is true his third goal was so sublime the home fans applauded his magical feet. Yet since he has already netted half a century of three-goal matches for the blaugrana, most against the whipping-boys who make up La Primera, I could not get too excited.

That said we should feel blessed one of the all-time greats is still in fantastic form at 31, having scored 39 goals in 37 outings this season already.

* England's Euro 2020 campaign begins tonight with a home tie against the Czech Republic. While the media are fussing unnecessarily over an adolescent tweet from Declan Rice, set to pin himself to the Three Lions after three friendly appearances for Eire, what is surely more pertinent is that Gareth Southgate has picked his most youth-centric squad yet.

His 21-man selection includes two 18 year-olds, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho, two uncapped players (Hudson-Odoi and Rice), two with one cap (James Ward-Prowse and Callum Wilson) and one with two (James Tarkowski).

As the World Cup showed, this is a new era for England where a young player can replace an established one at any moment. Southgate has forged a production line from England's youth teams and changed the formula, hopefully for good.

* England's women's football is on the up and up too. The national team won the She Believes Cup earlier this year in the USA and are one of the favourites heading into this summer's World Cup in France. The FA Women's Super League has just got a boost of £10 million in sponsorship as part of the association's plan to double growth and participation by 2021.

Nine countries are in the race to host the 2023 Women's World Cup: Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and most intriguingly of all, a joint bid from the two Koreas.

On darker notes, a coach of PSG fans travelling to watch their side play Chelsea this week was stopped and drugs and weapons confiscated. Damage was done to Kingsmeadow Stadium and trains by fans who had been banned from attending PSG's men's fixtures.

Meanwhile, Sheffield United cancelled the contract of player Sophie Jones who was recorded making monkey noises to another player. Those are sides of the men's game the women's one can certainly do without as it advances.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Enter the Big Guns

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

The Round of 16 Second Legs this week offer some tasty morsels

Who will win this season's UEFA Champions League?

All we know for sure so far is that Real Madrid will not make it four in a row.

Los Blancos' submission before an ebullient Ajax was a death long foretold, with the exits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane in the close season and the cack-handed hiring and firing of Julen Lopetegui sure signs of a listing ship about to keel over.

Four teams have already made it to the quarter-finals but none were among the pre-season favourites: Ajax, Manchester United, Porto and Tottenham Hotspur. 

This week we will know the other eight, with bigger cannons being rolled out on deck. If the second legs throw up no shocks then Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City will be in the hat as well.

Atleti have the incentive of the final this year being played at their new home ground, the Wanda Metropolitano, and looked imperious in the first leg, winning 2-0. However, it is too early to write off the runaway Serie A leaders, Ronaldo and the cauldron of the Juventus stadium hauling back two goals. Los Colchoneros are favourites but this tie is far from over.

The same night, Tuesday, Manchester City host Schalke 3-2 up from the first leg. It is hard to see Pep Guardiola's team squandering three away goals but the fact Schalke breached their defence twice in Gelsenkirchen will keep them on their toes. A strange rumour surfaced last week that the Catalan will swap the Etihad for Juve next season. But if he captures an unprecedented four cups in a season..?

Barcelona and Bayern both drew their away legs 0-0, the lack of away goals rendering their goalless draws less an advantage than they might appear. While the Camp Nou should prove too much for Lyon, the Bayern v Liverpool clash on Wednesday should be a real cracker.

Jurgen Klopp has plenty of history with the Bavarians, not least the 2013 final with Borussia Dortmund. His rejuvenated Liverpool were beaten finalists too last season and are hungry for success this season domestically as well as in Europe. Bayern however are seemingly perennial inhabitants of the last four of the Champions League and at home must start as favourites.

While Real failed to match their five straight European Cups from the 1950s, Spanish league teams have won the last five Champions Leagues. A win in 2019 for Atletico Madrid or Barcelona would equal England's six in a row streak between 1977 and 1982.

After Spurs and Man Utd's unlikely advances last week, the possibility remains of half the last eight coming from one country.

Now Real's latest golden age is over, if Atleti or Barca are not to keep La Liga's flag flying at the summit of Europe, then it could be the start of another English reign.

Tuesday 12th March

Manchester City (3) v (2) Schalke 04
Juventus (0) v (2) Atletico Madrid

Wednesday 13th March

Barcelona (0) v (0) Lyon
Bayern Munich (0) v (0) Liverpool

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, March 4, 2019

Remembering the Dynamic Duo


First published in 1980, "With Clough by Taylor" is a frank and fascinating insight into English football's most famous managerial partnership and has just been reissued by Biteback Publishing.

To recall, Brian Clough & Peter Taylor took two provincial teams from the East Midlands, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, from the English Second Division to the heights of European football in the 1970's, an unprecedented and unmatched achievement.

Remembering the Dynamic Duo
With Clough By Taylor
Both clubs became league champions under their tutelage, Derby reached the semi-finals of the European Cup and Forest won it twice.

The pair, who had played together at Middlesbrough, found their contrasting personalities formed an electrifying cocktail in management across five teams. Their partnership was possibly football's finest, a famous male bonding commemorated in the film version of David Peace's dark and wonderful novel 'The Damned United'.

While Clough stole the limelight with his mesmerising personality and need to tell the world what he thought about everyone and everything, it was Taylor's diligence in the shadows that was fuelling that famous chutzpah.

As his partner reveals, Clough had endured spells of serious self-doubt such as when his playing career was cut short by injury, or when he was sacked by Derby, Hartlepool and Leeds.

Clough was an expert at tying up transfers, often talking his way into prospective players' houses and befriending their parents, but Taylor had a hawk's eye for spotting talent  in the first place, particularly ageing or overlooked players.

Their capture of 30-something Roy McFarland was instrumental in taking Derby to the top while they managed to turn a number of apparent journeymen at Forest into European champions.

Equally astute as their hiring was their firing - dismissing players at their peak before their transfer value dipped, a policy Taylor explains was the same as trading shares on the stock market.

He is disarmingly frank in his explanation of his methods, admitting the pair would tell new signings they would be moved on as soon as their form dipped and a better player became available. And yet they also forged great team spirits, as their results show.

Taylor put much stock in a player's character and for him the most important football skill was being able to pass well under pressure.

His way of assessing players ultimately was quite similar to the Ajax TIPS system - measuring technique, intelligence, personality and speed. The Dutch giants, along with Barcelona, actually came calling for the pair, leaving us to only wonder how Cloughie would have dealt with Diego Maradona.

Forest ironically was the biggest job the most talented managerial duo ever had. Despite overwhelming public support, Clough (and presumably he would have brought his wing man) was passed over for the national team, so in the book Taylor relishes demolishing Ron Greenwood's England selections.

Some of their methods are unthinkable today - Cloughie asking a difficult player to punch him, or the pair handing out beers on the bus to a big match to calm their nerves, but their results did the talking.

They were not perfect - Taylor admits to misjudging Asa Hartford and spurning the chance to sign a young Kevin Keegan, but their formula was mostly a winning one.

"The basic element is togetherness," he explained. "We're always picking up each other's thoughts and finishing each other's sentences - we're a twosome speaking as one."

What is also fascinating from the book is how different their characters were. Taylor explains how Clough needed company while he preferred solitude and how Clough was a monk pre-match and a talking head afterwards and he was the opposite.

As it happened, the apparently inseparable pair who had flourished together at five clubs finally fell out and did not speak for the last seven years of Taylor's life.

Apparently Clough had no idea Taylor was writing this book and did not take kindly to it either. The pair parted definitively when Taylor, then Derby boss, signed a Forest player behind Clough's back in 1983, causing Clough to denounce him as a snake in the press.

Football's strongest partnership, the Achilles and Patroclus of the East Midlands in the 1970s, was suddenly no more and would never be again.

But nevertheless Taylor's long-term football partner dedicated his autobiography, which is far less interesting a read by the way, to his old pal thus:

"To Peter, still miss you badly...You were right."

Buy this book from Amazon: USA | UK | Japan

Clough Related

Nottingham honours its sheriff

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile