Final Push For Glory!

With the end of the football season nearing, many fans all around the world are weeping at the prospect of a summer without anything to watch. Something that I have worried about on many occasions. For the fans of some teams, namely Juventus and Paris St. Germain, there’s nothing left to play for as they’ve wrapped up a successful domestic league campaign with many games to spare. However, there is still a lot at stake for many teams around Europe.

Everybody keeps up to date with the Premier League, so there’s no need for me to go into too much detail about that, but what about other domestic leagues?

Here’s a look at some of the most exciting finishes that all football fans should keep an eye on!

First Stop…Turkey!

I know many people will see this as a subjective suggestion, but I insist you hear me out first.

With four games left, there are three teams in with a chance of winning the title.

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Via WikiCommons

Istanbul Basaksehir (IBB) are aiming to win their 1st title, which would make them the 6th team to win the Turkish Super Lig since its creation in 1959. Turkish F.A, is one of quite a associations around the world that uses head-to-head results as the first tie-breaker if teams are tied on points (usually to avoid match-fixing), which makes the final few games even more interesting as Galatasaray will play both IBB and Besiktas. Besiktas have also got to face Trabzonspor, who are statistically the fourth best club in Turkey, and a difficult team to play away from home because their fans are absolutely “mental!”

To be honest, this league should have been over by now, but a poor run by Basaksehir (one win in the last five games) has allowed both Galatasaray and Besiktas with a chance to win a very unlikely title. If the title run-in isn’t exciting enough, then add to that an incredible relegation battle that Fenerbahce are involved in.

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Via WikiCommons

With Fenerbahce due to play both Akhisar Belediyespor (who have made it to the Turkish Cup Final), and Erzurumspor, they have to be on their game to avoid an embarrassing relegation.

The oldest professional team for now?

At the start of the season, I always predict my potential title winners, put on a season bet and watch it all unfold. At the start of the League Two season, I was stuck between Lincoln City and Notts County. Do I go for Lincoln City, the team from the city I studied at, or with the oldest professional team, Notts County, who have been a recognised club since 1862. I went with the latter!

As my partner put it, I couldn’t have really done much worse. Notts County are lying in 23rd place and needing a win in the final game of the season away at Swindon who are 14th and have nothing left to play for. Any other result and Notts County’s professional status will no longer be. If County win, then all heads will turn to see what Macclesfield Town (22nd) have done at home to Cambridge United (21st). If Macclesfield get a draw then Notts County will be relegated, simply because of their “superior” goal difference.

This could be a long and devastating day for Notts County. Lincoln City on the other hand have already won League Two. Like my partner said, couldn’t have done much worse with my prediction.

Going Dutch.

Two games to go. Two teams tied on 80 points. Champions League semi-finalists Ajax are looking certain to beat rivals PSV Eindhoven on goal difference. A free scoring Ajax team have netted 111 goals while conceding only 31 times. Even though PSV have conceded 7 goals less, they have “only” scored 95 goals. This league should be fun to watch just for the sheer attacking excellence. It will be a nail-biting finish whichever team you are supporting.

Finally… Spain.

I realise Spain is one of the top leagues, so many fans would keep a close eye on the league, but usually because they want to see who out of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid would win the title. Yet this year, the battle for the final Champions League spot (4th) is an exciting one. The current position is held by Getafe.

No need to check the league, it really is!

Getafe have never finished higher than 6th, which was a final position achieved last year. What’s more impressive is that they have both Sevilla and Valencia following them in 5th and 6th respectively.

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Similar to Turkey, in Spain the first tie-breaker is based on head-to-head performances and Getafe have the better of Sevilla, but Valencia are more superior than both of the teams directly above them. Combining that with the easier schedule that faces them, makes Valencia favourite to finish 4th.

If Getafe can somehow manage to keep hold of their current position, then it will be a historic occasion for both the club and the league itself.

How could you miss out…

I realise many people will be reading this article and feel disappointed that I didn’t list the German title race or the battle for the Premier League, but for me, both of those are wrapped up. Man City could secure the title this week, as Liverpool face a difficult away trip to Newcastle, and in Germany, Bayern will very unlikely loosen their grip on the title. They will have as firm a grip as I will have on the remote, which I am sure will not please my partner…

 

Europa League – Quarter Finals

Screenshot 2019-04-18 at 23.13.30
Via WikiCommons

Well, what an amazing couple of nights in Europe’s premier competition, the Champions League! As surprising as the semi-final lineup is for some, it’s not for me. After all I managed to somehow predict every result correctly. Usually at this point, most would accept the plaudits and not test their luck. I, on the other hand, am willing to risk it all just a mere day later.

First though, for anyone who missed my Champions League article, can feel free to check it out: Champions League – Quarter Finals

So onto today then!

The UEFA Europa League has been Europe’s second-tier competition since 1971, but has only been known by its current name since the rebranding in 2009. In the 48 years since its creation, this annual competition has changed a lot, both in name and format.

As a football fan, it is a competition I hold dearly because of Galatasaray’s success in 2000. Since 2009, UEFA (Governing body of football in Europe) has tried to make the competition more appealing to the elite teams who feel as though it’s beneath them, which seems to be working when you look at the recent winners list. Holders Atletico Madrid have won three times (2010, 2012 and 2018), which is a feat equalled by Sevilla (2014, 2015, 2016). While  Porto (2011), Chelsea (2013),  and Manchester United (2017) have taken home the trophy on one occasion. All because the winner of the Europa League is guaranteed a place in the Champions League for the following season. Something that is difficult to achieve via the league, especially if you are from England or Spain.

So, let’s take a look at the quarter final games that will be played tonight across Europe.

Napoli (Ita) vs Arsenal (Eng)

Arsenal will be heading to Italy with a two-goal advantage thanks to Aaron Ramsey and an own-goal.

This match is going to be very intriguing, because you have a team like Arsenal who ideally could defend solidly, try to nick a goal at the other end of the field and waltz into the next round. Yet, anybody who understands football knows that Arsenal never make it look as simple as it sounds. Plus, Napoli isn’t some joke team that has no chance. However, drawing a blank in England, in the first leg, is a huge negative against them.

In the end, it will come down to whether or not Arsenal can get the away goal because they are likely to need it. Napoli are a dangerous team at home. They are yet to lose at the atmospheric San Paolo Stadium in Naples, only conceding two goals in five European games – one goal each against Paris St. Germain and Red Star Belgrade. More impressively, earlier on in the season, Napoli kept a clean sheet against Liverpool in a Champions League game which they absolutely dominated.

Impressive, right? However, there is one important factor that needs considering. This is the first time that Napoli are going into a game trailing. Knowing that if Arsenal score a goal at any stage of the game, then they will need FOUR.

Verdict: Napoli 3 Arsenal 1 (Arsenal go through on away goals)

Eintracht Frankfurt (Ger) vs Benfica (Por)

Benfica won the first game 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from their 19-year-old sensation, Joao Felix.

This has the potential to be a repeat of the first-leg with plenty of goals and drama thanks to Frankfurt’s resilience in Portugal. Despite playing with 10-men for 70+ minutes, they managed to score twice and keep the tie alive.

The biggest problem facing the German team is that they are playing a team that is absolutely lethal in front of goal! Benfica has scored four goals in each of their last three games, and only two months ago won 10-0, yes 10-0, in a Portugal Primeira Liga match against Nacional.

Yet, I have a sneaky suspicion that Frankfurt are going to be the ones laughing come the final whistle, as long as they can keep all 11 men on the field.

Verdict: Eintracht Frankfurt 4 Benfica 1 (Frankfurt go through 6-5 on aggregate)

Chelsea (Eng) vs Slavia Prague (Cze)

Chelsea lead one-nil thanks to a late goal from Marcos Alonso.

This tie, despite being the closest on score, should be the easiest one to predict. Chelsea are better than Slavia Prague in every area of the field but we could have said the same about Prague’s previous two opponents, Genk and Sevilla.

Chelsea will need an early goal to calm the nerves and I expect them to get it through the irreplaceable Eden Hazard. That will give them the confidence to go and get a few more goals and put the tie to bed.

Verdict: Chelsea 3 Slavia Prague 0 (Chelsea win 4-0 on aggregate)

Valencia (Spa) vs Villarreal (Spa)

Valencia hold a somewhat lucky 3-1 advantage after scoring two goals in the 90th minute of the first-leg.

This all-Spanish affair features a couple of teams that are searching for a way back to their glory days. Both Valencia and Villarreal regularly featured in the latter stages of the Champions League, with the prior making it to the final on a couple of occasions. If truth be told, neither have convinced that they will be back competing at the highest level anytime soon.

This is not a game for the neutral, as I expect Valencia to systematically foul the Villarreal players on every occasion in order to stop their flow. There will be plenty of yellow cards, and even a sending off in the game. After all, if the home team can stop Villarreal from scoring three or more goals, then they are guaranteed to progress. There is some hope though for Villarreal – a.k.a. The Yellow Submarine – who have managed to score at least one goal in 13 of the last 15 games they’ve played. In three of those games they hit the back of the net three times, and on one occasion played out a 4-4 draw against…Barcelona!

Verdict: Valencia 1 Villarreal 1 (Valencia to kick their way into the next round. 4-2 on aggregate)

 

 

 

Not a “Real” Shock to See Julen Go

“I’m from the future and it doesn’t work out very well for you!”
(So says the wise comment below a YouTube video)

I understand that this could be said to many: Donald Trump; Prince Salman; Theresa May; the list goes on and on. On this occasion, it’s Julen Lopetegui who has been the unlucky recipient. In fact, it turned out to be very true a mere three days after the humiliating 5-1 defeat at the hands of their biggest rivals, Barcelona, when Lopetegui was sacked.

Let’s wind back five months or so …

Spain are being classed as one of the favourites for the 2018 World Cup after a magnificent qualifying campaign, and their coach, Julen Lopetegui, is being hailed as one of the best in the world. It was hard to argue with the claim.

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2018 World Cup qualification – UEFA Group G (Via Wikipedia)

Unbeaten in 10 games, winning 9 of them. They only conceded 3 goals and scored a whopping 36! For many people, Spain was back and ready to get their hands on the title they had given up to Germany four years prior.

With a week left to the start of the highly anticipated tournament in Russia, Zinedine Zidane decided to step down as Real Madrid’s coach. And there are no surprises in guessing who Florentino Perez, Real Madrid’s president, eventually wanted at the helm. Yep, you got it: Lopetegui accepted the job, giving up his chance to take charge of Spain at the World Cup as a result. (His decision to take the Real Madrid job was seen as disrespectful by the Spanish football association (RFEF), and so they relieved him of his duties.)

From Day 1, Lopetegui was thrown in at the deep end.

Task 1: Try to keep the club’s talisman and star, Cristiano Ronaldo, at the club.

Failed.

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Cristiano Ronaldo – Joined Juventus (Via Wikicommons)

Task 2: Find replacements who can provide the goals that Ronaldo provided.

Failed.

Task 3: Have a good start to the season.

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Spanish La Liga 2018/19 Season (Screenshot from Google)

… Failed!

Most football fans know that a seven-point gap in football is not that big. However, that idea can be thrown out the window in some countries. At seven points ahead, teams like Barcelona in Spain, Bayern Munich in Germany, and PSG in France are practically uncatchable.

Not only were the results not going well, but the team was performing very poorly. During Julen Lopetegui’s short reign as coach, Real Madrid won only six of 16 games, scored a mere 21 goals, and conceded 20. These are figures that are unheard of for the “best” club in the world, (termed so in terms of financial clout, trophies and an international fan base). After defeats against Sevilla, Alaves, and Levante in the league, a draw against Madrid rivals Atletico and a somewhat unlucky defeat against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League, everyone knew that a defeat in the El Clasico (the term for Barcelona vs Real Madrid games) could be the final straw for Florentino Perez. And so it proved to be.

Left: Julen Lopetegui. Right: Florentino Perez.

So, what next for Lopetegui?

Let’s get one thing straight. He is financially in very good stead. As his contract has been terminated by the club, he is due to receive a good compensation package.

Have a guess how much.

A reported €18 million (£15.9 million).

For that sort of money, you can sack me any day. I would happily sack myself. However, once we look past the money, it is important to understand that Lopetegui is unlikely to get another opportunity at one of Europe’s major clubs. So, he will more than likely return to international football. Spanish national team selectors are unlikely to take him back, and most of the major footballing countries prefer their own countrymen. This leaves the only viable option as a Middle Eastern national team, especially as they seem to love a foreign coach.

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

Come to think of it, I bet Julen Lopetegui would have appreciated the aforementioned YouTuber’s help five months prior. After all, it would have saved his reputation, and helped him avoid two sackings in quick succession.