Manfriend’s Mumblings | Sports Chat: The Champions League 2018

[Hey everyone! Manfriend, here. So, I’m sure people have been worried about my absence, but I decided to take a short break off from blogging after this summer’s awesome World Cup. I wasn’t really sure when to start back up again, but then I got a request from my partner about writing something for the Champions League, so here I am! Let’s get to it.]

The Champions League.

In 1955, what was originally named the European Cup was established. In 1992, the tournament changed its name to Champions League. Today (and in all the years of its history), this tournament is one that excites most football fans around the globe. It is Europe’s No. 1 club competition, and it gives every football club on the continent a “chance” to lift the trophy. Whether you are from one of the big footballing nations, such as, England, Spain, Italy or Germany, or from minnows like Luxembourg or Andorra, as long as you have a recognized domestic league, your clubs have an opportunity to be victorious.

Well, kind of.

Let me explain this thing.

First, how to qualify:

This takes care of itself, really. Every recognized European nation, apart from Liechtenstein (who don’t have a domestic league) will be assigned places in the two European competitions, the other being Europa League, Europe’s second-tier club competition. The allocations are based on the performances of that nation’s domestic clubs over the last five seasons. So, the better your teams perform in Europe, the better your ranking is as a nation, which leads to more spots in the larger competitions. As a result, England and Spain are given four spots apiece, whereas San Marino only get one.

Those allocated spots are filled by clubs who win their domestic leagues or finish in the top four. This all also depends on how many places you have been allocated. For example, the top four teams from England qualify, whereas only the champion from San Marino gets a spot.

On its surface, it may seem unfair. However, it may also be OK. Ultimately, though, the chances are that you will never see that team from San Marino compete, as they have to enter in at the qualification rounds. Think of it as a “getting rid of the trash” round. A nation with one qualifier will need that team to play three to five home and away matches in order to get to the competition proper, while three-quarters of the teams from England qualify automatically for the group stage, with the fourth team having to play just one home and one away tie to make it.

Alas, that’s just how it goes.

(Still don’t get it? Here’s my friend, Wikipedia, to help explain.)

Anyway, once you get to the group stage, that’s when the competition really sets in. Groups are decided with a random draw based on seedings. Once assigned, things kick off!

Eight groups of four teams play in a league format. Each team plays the other three teams both at home and away. The points system is as follows: 0 for a loss, 1 for a draw and 3 for a win. The games are played on a weekly or fortnightly (that’s every two weeks for friends in America) basis, with the top two teams advancing to the knockout stages. The third team drops down to play in the knockout phases of the Europa League. The fourth team is eliminated.

Then there’s a winter break from December to February.

Once we reach the knockout phase, all eight teams who finished first will play the eight teams that finished second, in accordance with another random draw. The games take place at home and away, with the advancing team being decided on by an aggregate score. Winners go into the quarters. The draw repeats, and things go on until there are two left for the final. This year, that match will take place in Madrid.

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Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid, where this season’s final will be held. (WikiCommons)

I realize the Champions League may sound no different to any other football tournament, and that’s partly true. But once again, the drama, talent and unpredictability makes this a great spectacle. The past has seen teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Celtic, Red Star Belgrade, Feyenoord and Steaua Bucharest achieve greatness. Unfortunately, these teams will be very unlikely to repeat such triumphs again, as money has taken over. That doesn’t mean, though, that predicting the winner is easy. It’s predicting the country of origin that’s not so difficult. The last time a team from outside the top four nations (England, Spain, Italy, Germany) won was in 2003/04: Porto of Portugal.

Since then, the top four nations have monopolized victory:

  • England took home three, with Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool;
  • Spain nabbed eight, with Barcelona and Real Madrid each winning four times;
  • Italy took two, with AC Milan and Inter Milan;
  • Germany won one with Bayern Munich.

The last time a club outside one of those four countries even reached the final was in 2003/04, when Monaco lost to Porto. This year, the only chance of it happening will be if PSG (Paris Saint Germain) make it (which wouldn’t shock anyone, as they are filthy rich). Money has completely eradicated the “fairytale ending,” yet, as always, I’m excited.

Why?

Just look at the teams that are involved: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and the list goes on.

More importantly, my team, Galatasaray from Turkey, are involved again, following some tumultuous years for the club.

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Galatasaray fans in London, cheering the team on in a 2004 match against Chelsea. (WikiCommons)

(Much to my partner’s chagrin,) I will be up at 3 a.m. with my club’s colors on, willing the boys on to victory through the screen of my iPad. I hope you will join me and my team from wherever you are, ideally all the way through the knockout phases (but more likely to the end of the group phase.)

The Champions League is exciting, with a caliber of football skill on show that’s no less fantastic than that of the World Cup. Matches can be full of drama. If that isn’t enough to hook you, then maybe you should listen to the best intro music of any sporting event!

I mean honestly, how could anyone not be a fan of the Champions League?


As of this article’s publishing (Sept. 18, 2018), the Champions League is set to begin. Find information on the tournament here. And from our little home in Beijing: Go Galatasaray!

FIFA World Cup 2018 | The End of Round 1

Manfriend here again. Let’s talk the World Cup.

So the first round of the group games are over, but what have we actually learned from them?

Welcome to my roundup of what’s happened, and my predictions for each group at the end of the group stage.

Group A

Russia v. Saudi Arabia 5-0
Uruguay v. Egypt 1-0

Don’t let the 5-0 result trick you into thinking that Russia are a good side. Saudi Arabia were woeful. Absolutely diabolical. Their keeper wouldn’t be able to a catch a cold, never mind the ball. It was a dull game that didn’t deserve the number of goals it got.

The other game in the group wasn’t much better. Uruguay, one of the more fancied teams of the tournament, showed no urgency or desire to win the game. They were very slow, inconsistent and just plain boring. Only their captain, Diego Godin, who I believe is the best central defender in the world, showed any sort of world-class talent on the pitch. Egypt, on the other hand, were heroic in defeat.

I mentioned that Group D is the “Group of Death.” Well, the best way to describe this Group A so far is as the “Group of Wanting to Stick Needles in my Eyes”.

My predictions:

  1. Uruguay
  2. Egypt
  3. Russia
  4. Saudi Arabia

[Editors note: Due to both writer and editor needing sleep (time zones, they’re a b****), we weren’t able to post this until after the Egypt v. Russia match. Unfortunately, Egypt weren’t able to beat Russia in their second match, making this prediction impossible. Damn.]

Group B

Portugal v. Spain 3-3
Iran v. Morocco 1-0

What a game! Portugal and Spain played good football, showing lots of attacking intent and guile. Spain were a little unfortunate not to win the game, as they dominated the majority of it, but it was that man again, Cristiano Ronaldo. Fifty-one hat-tricks in his professional career (completing the the 51st hat-trick in the World Cup, too). Most people don’t get that many playing with friends at a park. Many people will look at Portugal as a one-man team, but they’re really not. It just happens to be that the “main man” always seems to grab the headlines. Spain will definitely do well in the tournament. They looked fantastic with the ball, and in Isco, they have a world-class player with incredible ability.

In the other game of this group, it was no surprise the match wasn’t a high scoring affair, as both these teams don’t tend to concede many goals. But the game was much more interesting than the result suggests. Morocco will be distraught with the 1-0 loss to Iran, as they created enough chances to win. But let’s get one thing straight: Neither one of these nations will be picking up another point. However, they will both still be vital to see who wins the group, as it will come down to goal difference.

My Predictions:

  1. Spain
  2. Portugal
  3. Iran
  4. Morocco

Group C

France v. Australia 2-1
Denmark v. Peru 1-0

France got their campaign off to a winning start, thanks to Video Assistant Referees (VAR). The newly-devised system removes the human error part of the game, taking the pressure off the referees in the middle. Having said that, no one really knows what is happening or whether it’s being used. According to the commentators, it’s being used constantly. Soon, I’m expecting VAR to be used at home to determine who ate the last doughnut. Anyway, France got their win over Australia thanks to technology. Both of their goals would never have been given two years ago.

Denmark and Peru, as expected, were closely matched, with the prior scoring the only goal of the game after Peru missed a penalty in the first half. An absolutely huge win!

My Predictions:

  1. France
  2. Denmark
  3. Peru
  4. Australia

Group D

Iceland v. Argentina 1-1
Croatia v. Nigeria 2-0

As mentioned in my first World Cup post, this is the group to watch. Iceland were excellent against the Argies. Despite only having 23 percent of the possession, Iceland created the better opportunities. Yes, they’re a very direct team, which is what made this match interesting. Argentina weren’t bad but you can see how reliant they are on Messi, which baffles me. Their other players, with the likes of Sergio Agüero, Angel Di María and at least another three or four, are world class, too.

Croatia are a good side, one that will trouble any team in the competition. In Kramaric, they have a striker who will cause trouble for an opposition’s defenders. If only he could finish the chances that fall to him. Nigeria are and will always remain an enigma to me. They should be good, but in the finals, they never perform.

My Predictions:

  1. Croatia
  2. Iceland
  3. Argentina
  4. Nigeria

Group E

Brazil v. Switzerland 1-1
Serbia v. Costa Rica 1-0

This wasn’t a a good return to World Cup football for favourites Brazil, as they were held to a draw by defiant Switzerland. Neymar was kept quiet by the Swiss midfield, in particular Valon Behrami, though not always in a sportsmanlike manner, if truth be told. You may think Brazil were unlucky not to win, but the truth is that they were never really in control. Yes, they did have more chances, and some of them were clear-cut, but a lot were just wayward shots. Once they get their shooting boots on, Brazil could become unstoppable.

Serbia and Costa Rica were well matched. Both teams battled in midfield and managed to create some good-looking attacks, but the lack of quality up front was obvious. Costa Rica don’t have a quality striker, and Serbian Mitrovic couldn’t get his feet under control. In the end, a fabulous free kick from the experienced Kolarov settled the game. The lack of firepower will be a huge problem when these two teams take on their more powerful opponents.

My Predictions:

  1. Brazil
  2. Switzerland
  3. Serbia
  4. Costa Rica

Group F

Mexico v. Germany 1-0
Sweden v. South Korea 1-0

Since 1998, four of five World Cup holders have been eliminated at the group stage of the tournament, with the only exception being 2002 winners Brazil, who lost in the quarterfinals in 2006. After the loss against Mexico, fans all over the globe have started wondering if Germany will be the next nation on that list. If they are to make it through to the knockout stage, then they are going to have to find a way to get Toni Kroos more involved. Mexico, on the other hand, are in a great position to win the group. They were impressive both in attack and defense, carving out many chances while restricting a lackluster German team to shots from a distance. Unfortunately they are a nation that likes to self-capitulate on many an occasion. Yet, this time around, I feel the Mexican party won’t be over for a while.

The other two countries in the group, Sweden and South Korea, didn’t look like they could score a goal in 300 minutes of football, let alone 90 minutes. In the end, Sweden were awarded a penalty, thanks to VAR, and that was the goal that separated the two teams. South Korea are a bizarre team. They have a gargantuan forward who is a foot taller than everyone else, yet no crosses were being sent in his direction for him to attack. Also, despite being behind for a large chunk of the second half, they only decided to attack for the last 10 minutes. It begs the belief that they didn’t try to do more in the earlier parts of the game. Poor all around!

My Predictions:

  1. Mexico
  2. Germany
  3. Sweden
  4. South Korea

Group G

Belgium v. Panama 3-0
England v. Tunisia 2-1

These two matches ended with expected wins for Belgium and England, but in very dissimilar ways.

Belgium dominated the game against Panama, and could have scored many more than the three goals they ended with. Panama did show effort and willingness to make a game of it, but the chasm between the two sides’ abilities were very clear from the 1st to the 90th minute.

England, on the other hand, were made to sweat by the Tunisians. The movement of the Premier League’s Elite was excellent, but the same brilliance deserted them in and around the box with Jesse Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli all lacking the kind of class shown by captain – and talisman – Harry Kane, who scored twice.

My Predictions:

  1. Belgium
  2. England
  3. Tunisia
  4. Panama

Group H

Japan v. Colombia 2-1
Senegal v. Poland 2-1

The Colombian team were rocked by the first red card of the tournament three minutes into the game against Japan for handling a ball that was on its way to a goal. This proved crucial. The resulting penalty for the handball was converted expertly by Kagawa. Playing with 10 men for 87-plus minutes proved too great a task for Colombia, and Japan managed to take an unexpected three points.

The Japan win had a huge impact on the second match of the group, making a win even more vital. Senegal, Africa’s last hope for a win, are arguably the best representative of the continent, and so it proved to be. They ran out winners over Poland, who are ranked 8th in the world rankings. Now, this sounds like a huge deal, but it really isn’t. The FIFA World Rankings are a joke of a system, as evidenced in this game.

My Predictions:

  1. Colombia
  2. Senegal
  3. Poland
  4. Japan

No matter what happens in the remaining games, the groups are shaping up nicely. Soon, the need to win will take over, forcing teams to play more expansive football, and leading to more games of Portugal v. Spain quality rather than Sweden v. South Korea.

Do tell, folks. What do you think will happen in the groups?


To read Manfriend’s initial piece about FIFA – and see his first thoughts on the tournament, read on.

Manfriend’s Mumblings | Sports Chat: FIFA World Cup 2018

World Cup 2014
Germany, celebrating the 2014 World Cup win. (via WikiCommons)

So, that dreaded month is upon us – a month that can be very challenging, yet incredibly rewarding. Nope, it’s not Ramadan again! It’s the World Cup!

Excitement fills me even as I type the words.

But I can hear the voices already.

“It’s not actually that interesting …”
“The players are always diving around like little b*****s!”
“It’s run by a group of criminals!” *
“There’s a lot of violence.”
“It happens every four years anyway!”

To which I say:

No.
Yes.
I know that.
Not always.
And finally, what the heck is wrong with you?!

The World Cup is one of the only events, in any sport, that really deserves the title of a “world cup,” as it actually involves every recognized footballing nation, big or small. Whether you call it football, like smart people, or soccer like … others, it’s a huge deal all around the world. I challenge you to name one other thing that has this much of an impact, brings this many people together, and is this full of entertainment.

FIFA World Cup 2018
Flags of all the nations competing in the finals. (Via Pixabay)

To those people who have been under a rock for eternity, and don’t know anything about football: I feel sorry for you. Nothing can be more fun than seeing 22 sweaty men treating a ball with more love and care than one of their five girlfriends. Actually, seeing them score a goal, and then celebrate by sliding on their knees is quite fun, too, especially as most players spend the entire game spitting all over the pitch.

Ahhh, memories.

I could talk forever about the World Cup, [Editors’ Note: Yes, he can. *eye roll*]  but instead, what I want to do is to give newcomers a chance to get the best out of the group stage.

So, welcome to my must-watch and don’t-even-bother selections. However, before I reveal that information, it’s important that you understand the basics of this year’s World Cup:

  • It’s being played in the very ‘welcoming’ country of Russia.
  • The opening game is on June 14th, with the final match being played on July 15th.
  • Thirty-two nations, from five different continents, are competing: Africa x 5; Asia x 4; Europe x 14, including host Russia; North and Central America x 3; Oceania x 1; South America x 5.
  • There are initially eight groups of four teams.
  • In the group stage, all teams play each other for points, with the top two teams going through to the knockout phase.
  • Knockout games are one-off games, which will go to extra time and penalties if there is no winner.

If you want to enjoy this tournament, then there are many games that you should avoid, but before we get to those, lets look at the must-sees:

Games to Watch

Portugal vs Spain

This game will be on Saturday at 2 a.m. Beijing time, and my alarm is already set. It is a historical footballing battle between two of the better nations in the tournament. Portugal are the reigning European Champions, and Spain are globally accepted as having the second best domestic football league in the world (second to the English Premier League). More interestingly, Spain have no coach now, after Lopetegui got sacked for accepting a job from Spanish giants Real Madrid without asking for The Spanish Football Association’s permission. If you’re still not sure about tuning in, the players on show are of world-class reckoning.

Plus, we get to see the amazing talent of Cristiano Ronaldo (Don’t even dare ask “Who?”) come up against his teammate Sergio Ramos. Normally, games between these two teams can be hit or miss, but the chance of seeing my man-crush Ronaldo – alongside the actor who played Aquaman in “The Justice League,” – in what is very likely to be his last-ever World Cup. Yes, please!

All of Group D

Every major tournament has a group branded the “Group of Death,” and this year it is Group D. Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria and Iceland. Every game in this group will be interesting. Any one of these four nations could win the group or come last. Argentina will undoubtedly be favorites, but they’re not well-balanced. The Argies are very top-heavy, like the guys who go to the gym but always miss out leg day. They play Iceland in the first game and it will give us a good idea as to how well Argentina will do. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of controversy surrounding their coach, Sampaoli. Rumor has it that he has been a very, very bad man.

Iceland, around two decades ago, were classed as a minnow of international football, even tagged as “whipping boys.” But now, they’re about to play in their first-ever World Cup. They don’t have any major stars, but Iceland are a great example of a team. They qualified from arguably the most difficult group, overcoming Ukraine, Turkey, and Croatia to win the group. The latter they will play again during the group stages. They are a great team to watch, and not just because of the ‘Viking Clap’.

Still not happy? Maybe you will want to see Croatia, in their amazing tea towel-looking football shirts, or Nigeria with their confusing ones.

Brazil vs Switzerland

You have to watch Brazil. They are the most coveted nation, winning the World Cup a record FIVE times, and they are once again favourites. But this time, rightly so: For the first time in a long time, Brazil has strength and depth, the likes they haven’t had since the millennium. This is their toughest game of the groups, and one that I expect them to win. The more important thing for me is to see how many games Brazil can go without conceding a goal. Unbelievably, in the build-up to this year’s tournament, Brazil has only conceded one goal, despite playing friendlies against decent footballing nations. Plus, you get to see Neymar, the most expensive player in history. He is a delight to watch, especially surrounded by players like Coutinho, Willian and Jesus. No, he looks nothing like the one you are thinking of.

FIFA World Cup
Devastated home fans after the Semi-final against Germany in 2014. (Via WikiCommons)

The most important aspect of this game is that it is the first World Cup game Brazil will play since their humiliating defeat against Germany in the Semi-Finals of the tournament 4 years ago, which was held in front of their home fans.

Denmark vs France

This game is likely to be a group-decider. France are one of the favourites for the tournament, but they have a tendency to capitulate in tournaments that are not held in their home country. The main reason: squad harmony. I know you are surprised to hear that, as the French never moan about anything … *queue skeptic eye-rolls*

Denmark are a good side, and will be a difficult team to play. In Christian Eriksen, they have a play-maker who is as good as anyone else in the world. He will be influential if the Danish – mmmmmm, a danish … wait, concentrate, where was I? Ah, yes, Eriksen. He will be influential if the Danish are to progress in this tournament.

Germany vs Mexico

Germany have had a bit of a strange 2018 so far. They have lost the majority of their games played, and are looking very weak. In their last friendly, they won 2-1, which would be a good sign, but they played Saudi Arabia. The game against Mexico will definitely be an entertaining one for the neutral. Expect a bucket full of goals. I predict four, at least. Both Germany and Mexico are high-tempo attacking teams. Hopefully they won’t change their styles.

England vs Belgium

This will be the final group game of the tournament, and what a game it should be. If all goes to plan, which it usually does not, this match should be a decider to see who will finish top of the group, as both teams are likely to win against Tunisia and Panama, respectively.


As for the all of the other games, you shouldn’t really make an effort to watch them. Definitely don’t wake up in the middle of the night to watch any of them. (That last note is more for personal use. I know my partner appreciates the self-reminder.)

However, if you do feel like you want to watch other games, you should definitely avoid the following:

Games To Avoid

Russia vs Saudi Arabia

Normally the opening game of a tournament is huge … except this time. The game is between a Russian team, who are awful at best, against a nation who are always prone to a 7-0 loss. I’m expecting a very boring draw – maybe 1-1. Not even the Russians and Saudis will want to watch this, so why would you?

Belgium vs Panama

This game will be the World Cup equivalent of the initial confrontation between the “Sky-People” and the Na’vi. (If you are not sure of the analogy, then instead of watching this game, turn on Avatar. You can thank me after.)

England vs Panama

Again, I would urge you to watch Avatar. Even for a second time. This game will be very boring. England have a tendency to play boring football against weaker teams, and win 2-0.

Uruguay vs Russia

It’s very likely that Uruguay will have wrapped up the top spot by the third game, and watching their reserves kick lumps out of old men isn’t my idea of fun. If it is yours, then by all means, enjoy.

Panama vs Tunisia

Poor Panama. I didn’t realize that I had selected every one of their games on this list. I have nothing against them, really, apart from that they will be boring, none more-so than in this game, which I expect to be a dead rubber. Normally, when a game lacks stress, teams will end up playing good, expressive football. I don’t expect that to happen here. I will even stick my neck out and say that Panama has featured in this section more times than the number of goals they will score in the competition.


I realize that this article would have been a lot easier to write four years ago, when I nearly put myself into an early grave by attempting to watch every game. This time around, I have decided that it might be better for my health and well-being to moderate. Plus, it will keep my partner happier with me. [Editor’s Note: Wise move, sir.]

Whether you like the FIFA World Cup or not, you cannot undermine its importance for billions of people around the world. So, even if you are not a fan of football, and hate FIFA, give this tournament a chance.

You won’t regret it.

* FIFA is an organization riddled with massive, cringe-worthy problems. Don’t believe me? Check out John Oliver’s pithy summation of the whole thing. Released four years ago, it’s as salient now than ever.