Champions League, Uncategorized

In part three of our series on the best away performances by English sides in the Champions League, we focus on the dramatic Champions League semi-final in 2012 between Chelsea and Barcelona.

The London club entered this game with a 1-0 lead from the first leg at Stamford Bridge as Didier Drogba gave the Blues a precious advantage to take to the Nou Camp. Pep Guardiola’s side had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and chances in London but they were unable to secure an away goal.

Many felt that Barcelona would not miss those chances again as they had scored 102 goals at the Nou Camp prior to this game and when John Terry was sent-off after 37 minutes played, the odds of Chelsea progressing reduced even further. Despite the numerical disadvantage, Chelsea produced a brilliant display to stun the defending champions in a classic away performance.

Chelsea v Barca
Chelsea celebrate an historic triumph against Barcelona. Photo By: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images.

Barcelona 2 Chelsea 2

On April 24th 2012, Chelsea lined up at the Nou Camp looking to protect their one goal advantage from the first leg as they tried to derail Barcelona’s attempts to become the first side to secure back-to-back Champions League titles. They faced a daunting challenge with Barcelona scoring goals for fun across all competitions. Lionel Messi had found the back of the net 14 times during the 2011-2012 Champions League, the most scored by any player in a single campaign in the competition’s history at the time.

Barcelona were struggling to emulate their amazing 2010-2011 season where they won La Liga for the third time in a row and also secured the Champions League after defeating Man United 3-1 in the final. Pep Guardiola’s side had also completed the treble in the 2008-2009 season by winning the Copa Del Rey, Champions League and Champions League.

However, they entered this contest off the back of a damaging defeat to Real Madrid in La Liga which effectively ended their hopes of retaining La Liga as the loss put them seven points behind their arch rivals with only four games left to play. After the first leg defeat to Chelsea, the pressure was on for Messi and co. to salvage their season and create Champions League history.

Chelsea had endured a tumultuous season with Roberto Di Matteo becoming ‘the Blues’ caretaker manager after André Villas Boas, who became manager at the start of the season, was sacked in March 2012. This meant Di Matteo took over with Chelsea on a run of one win from six in the league and staring down the barrel of exiting the Champions League in the Last 16 after losing 3-1 to Napoli away from home.

However, Di Matteo was in charge when ‘the Blues’ beating the Italian side 4-1 at home after extra time to reach the quarter finals. They continued to struggle in the league but they defeated Benfica to reach the last four and thrashed Tottenham 5-1 in the semi-final of the FA Cup ten days before this game.

Entering this encounter, the belief was that Barcelona would have the lion’s share of possession while Chelsea would need to mainly rely on the counter-attack. And that is how the game started off, with Barcelona pressing the action and they should have taken the lead in the third minute when Alexis Sanchez and Messi produced some deft touches to set the Argentinian through on goal but with just Cech to beat, Messi’s right footed effort hit the side netting.

The away side suffered a blow when Gary Cahill suffered a hamstring injury and was forced off. And with David Luiz also injured this meant Di Matteo had to call upon Jose Bosingwa with Branislav Ivanovic moving to the centre of defence.

Chelsea struggled to get out of their own half with Xavi and Iniesta helping the Spanish side keep the ball for large periods of time. Barcelona looked capable to carving open the Chelsea rearguard at any moment and on the 18th minute it was Messi once more involved in creating a scoring opportunity. He threaded a ball through to Fabregas and with his back to goal the former Arsenal captain played a delightful back heel in behind the Chelsea defence to set Messi free. However Messi, who scored a staggering 73 goals in the 2011-2012 season, fired his effort too close to Cech and Chelsea survived.

Fabregas hit the side netting with a right footed volley from a tricky angle before Javier Mascherano’s 30 yard drive was only inches over Cech’s crossbar with Chelsea now camped on their own 18 yard line. Didier Drogba was proving an effective target man for a Chelsea side looking for revenge after their last gasp semi-final defeat to Barcelona in 2009. The Ivorian latched onto a long Cech delivery before he shrugged off Gerard Pique but his effort from a tight angle only found the side netting.

Barcelona found the breakthrough they were searching for after 35 minutes after the visitors cleared a corner but their defence failed to push up with Dani Alves finding Isaac Cuenca, whose cutback was slotted home by Sergio Busquets. This goal gave Barcelona confidence with Chelsea needing calm heads to deal with the Barcelona onslaught.

John Terry red card v Barcelona
John Terry saw red as Chelsea were forced to play the majority of the game with 10 men. Photo By: David Ramos/Getty Images.

However, one minute after conceding, John Terry inexplicably placed his knee into Alexis Sanchez’s back with the Chelsea captain receiving a red card from referee Cuneyt Cakir. Barcelona began to pour forward in search of a second before the break with Sanchez failing to get the ball out of his feet in a promising position. The Catalonia side were not to be denied however with Messi sliding Iniesta through with the Spanish playmaker slotting low beneath Cech. This seemed to be the end of Chelsea’s dreams of reaching the final as they fell behind on aggregate.

But Chelsea refused to collapse and instead they shocked the Nou Camp by pulling a goal back before the break. Frank Lampard played Ramires through on goal with the Brazilian midfielder producing a deft lob over Victor Valdes who barely touched the ball in the opening 45 minutes. Ramires channelled the spirit of Roy Keane in 1999 as he received a yellow card that ruled him out of the showpiece event moment before scoring.

The goal certainly came as a surprise but Barcelona were still expected to overcome this stubborn Chelsea side in the second half. Inter Milan did achieve a similar feat in 2010 when they lost 2-0 to Barcelona at the Nou Camp with ten men which was enough to progress to that year’s final. However, the Italian side had their first choice defence, whereas Chelsea were forced to play Ramires and Ashley Cole as full backs with Ivanovic and Bosingwa in the centre of defence.

Barcelona almost scored again a minute into the second half when Fabregas’ chest down found Iniesta but Ivanovic produced a superb block to prevent Chelsea conceding a third. A one-two between Fabregas and Messi saw the Spaniard tripped by Didier Drogba inside the box with the referee not hesitating in awarding Barcelona a penalty. Messi stepped up but his effort from 12 yards hit the crossbar as his run of failing to score against Chelsea continued.

The pressure Barcelona were exerting was relentless and this time a Dani Alves cross was met by Sanchez but the Chilean’s header went wide at the near post. Just after the hour mark Messi and Iniesta combined to carve out a chance for Cuenca but Cech narrowed the angle and saved the low effort.

Chelsea began to increase their physicality with Lampard earning a yellow card for a late challenge on Fabregas. With 15 minutes remaining Barcelona were struggling to break down Roberto Di Matteo’s side although Sergio Busquets fired over for the Catalonian side when he should have at least hit the target.

Pep Gurdiola’s charges did find the net in the 82nd minute but Dani Alves was offside before he cut the ball back for Alexis Sanchez to slot home. A minute later Messi cut in and unleashed a left footed effort that Cech got the slightest touch on with the ball hitting the post and rebounding out. Barcelona continued to attack down the middle but Chelsea continued to stood firm as Mascherano’s effort from outside the box was saved by Cech.

Torres goal v Barcelona
Fernando Torres’ late goal against Barcelona sealed a memorable night for Chelsea. Photo By: David Ramos/Getty Images.

Puyol headed over from the resulting corner with three minutes of added on time signalled. Barcelona poured everyone forward but an Ashley Cole punt found Fernando Torres all alone as he strode forward.

The Spanish striker coolly rounded Victor Valdes and scored an unforgettable late goal to seal Chelsea’s place in the Champions League final. Chelsea subsequently won the final against Bayern Munich in a penalty shootout and they also claimed the FA Cup in what was an unforgettable end to the season for the Blues. Chelsea’s resolve and last ditch defending made this one of the greatest performances by an English side in the Champions League.

Boxing, Uncategorized

The fights boxing fans want to see once the sport returns

With boxing edging closer to a return due to the COVID-19 pandemic, boxing fans will be clamouring to see the biggest names in the spot compete against each other. In this era of boxing we are getting more fighters willing to take risks and put their records on the line in order to prove a point to the viewing public. The hope among the boxing community is that promoters will make the fights that the fans want to see once it is safe for the sport to return. Here we pick five fights that boxing fans around the globe will be eager to see.

Fury v Joshua

In the most popular weight division in boxing, having two fighters from the same country currently in possession of all the major belts is a promoter’s dream. Both Fury and Joshua can sell out arenas and their polarising personalities would lead to interesting press conferences and discussions before the pair meet in the ring.

Realistically this fight will not be either fighter’s next one with Fury set to face Deontay Wilder in a trilogy bout after the Gypsy King kncoked out Wilder in a one-sided contest. Their upcoming bout will draw plenty of interest but the comprehensive nature of Fury’s victory and the fact that many in the sport believed the Manchester fighter came out on top in their first meeting means many will write Wilder off and therefore this fight might not do the same numbers as their bout in February of this year. Joshua will more than likely need to face IBF mandatory Kubrat Pulev before he can consider facing the Gypsy King but if both Brits come through their next fights, then the fans will be demanding that Fury and Joshua meet in the ring for what will be one of the biggest fights in boxing history.

Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue is one of the biggest punchers in boxing today. Can he knockout Casimero when the duo eventually meet? Photo By: Getty Images.

Lomachenko v Lopez

Vasyl Lomachenko is one of the biggest names in boxing today with his mix of attacking prowess, expert footwork and unique defence making him a boxer worth watching. The Ukrainian was a highly regarded amateur winning two Olympic gold medals and despite losing his second fight, in what was a controversial fight with his opponent not being penalised for repeated low blows. Despite the loss he won a world title in his very next fight and he has continued to dazzle audiences with his skills ever since.

Lomachenko has claimed world titles at three different weight classes and it is in the lightweight division where he looks set to face Teófimo López. The IBF lightweight champion is one of the sport’s biggest personalities and he proved that he has the skills to challenge Lomachenko after winning the IBF lightweight title last November. The 22 year old claimed his world title by knocking out Richard Commey in two rounds with his explosive power giving him a chance of upsetting any lightweight in the world.

This match-up would pit a master tactician against a fighter with knockout power and blistering hand speed. López has shown so far in his career that he is not afraid of fighting the big names while his dancing and backflips after beating opponents has placed more eyes on the man born in America to parents from Honduras. He divides opinion but one thing is for sure, when he fights, fans are always entertained. Coming up against one of the best in the sport in Vasyl Lomachenko is a bold move for López but it is a fight which boxing fans will be eager to witness.

Inoue v Casimero

Naoye Inoue is one of boxing’s most powerful hitters with the Japanese fighter winning 16 of his 19 fights within the distance. Japan has a proud history of producing high quality fighters in the lower weight classes however these are often not represented in the media. Inoue started out as a light-flyweight and has won world titles in three different weight classes. The 27 year old beat Nonito Donaire last November with the duo producing a Fight of the Year candidate with the Japanese fighter gaining even more fans after winning on points.

Inoue was due to face Johnriel Casimero before the pandemic led boxing events around the globe to be cancelled. The Filipino is not a household name and he does have a record of 29-4 but there is no doubting the 30 year old’s pedigree. Casimero has also won world titles in three different weight classes and he earned his shot at facing Inoue. The Filipino upset Zolani Tete by knocking the South African out in three rounds as he secured the WBO bantameight title.

With Inoue holding the Ring, IBF and WBA (Super) titles, this fight would see all the major titles bar the WBC be on the line. The winner of this bout would be considered by many to be the best in the division and with two boxers with plenty of knockouts on their record (Casimero has won 20 of his 29 fights inside the distance) there is sure to be fireworks when these two meet in the ring.

Naoya Inoue
Naoya Inoue is one of the biggest punchers in boxing today. Can he knockout Casimero when the duo eventually meet? Photo By: Getty Images.

Taylor v Amanda Serrano

Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano are arguably the two biggest names in women’s boxing today and the duo were set to face each other on May 2nd before COVID-19 struck. Taylor is an Olympic gold medalist and is undefeated in the professional ranks with a record of 15-0. The Irish woman has helped propel the popularity of women’s boxing with her aggressive fighting style and slick boxing skills as she has become undisputed lightweight champion and she won the WBO junior-welterweight title.

Amanda Serrano is the most decorated female fighter of all-time winning nine major world titles across seven different weight classes. The Puerto Rico fighter has a 38-1-1 boxing record and has also ventured into MMA winning one and drawing her other bought. She is a trash talker who has shown throughout her career that she can back up her words. Taylor meanwhile is the polar opposite, quiet and reserved while letting her boxing skills do the talking.

To add intrigue to this bout, Taylor beat Amanda’s sister Cindy in 2018 although Amanda will offer a bigger threat to the Irish woman’s undefeated record. Serrano has been calling out Katie Taylor for a fight and with both trying to prove they are the best female fighters in the world, this bout will be easy to sell to the public and it could help female fighting grow even further.

Canelo v Saunders

Any fight involving Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez will sell although the Mexican is at the stage of his career where he will want to fight the biggest names within the sport. Although there are talks of a trilogy bout against Gennady Golovkin, the Kazhakstani did not look impressive in his most recent win against Sergiy Derevyanchenko. Although this fight would do large numbers, the fear is that GGG has taken part in one too many wars. There are also talks of Canelo facing Derevyanchenko but the Mexican facing a guy with a 13-2 record will leave the fans disappointed.

Saunders is unbeaten in his career although he has failed to kick on since becoming WBO middleweight champion in 2017. The Brit produced a punch perfect display in outpointing David Lemieux but he has not helped himself with his antics outside the ring since then. Saunders looked sluggish when he beat Marcelo Esteban Coceres in November 2019 but he has the potential to trouble Canelo with his boxing ability.

This fight would present Canelo with a different challenge to what he has usually faced. The Mexican has won wars and beaten bigger men but how can he cope when he needs to press the action against a slick mover and puncher in Billy Joe Saunders? There are question marks surrounding Saunders’ focus and whether he can overcome a boxer of Canelo’s ability. With the duo keen to answer questions about their abilities, this clash could be a classic if both fighters produce the performances they are capable of.

Billy Joe Saunders
Could Billy Joe Saunders upset Canelo Alvarez? Photo By: Getty Images.

The public may have to wait until we get to watch the biggest names in boxing face each other but once the sport can resume, the public will be eager to see who can prevail in these mouthwatering match-ups.

Champions League, Uncategorized

Best away performances by English teams in the Champions League – Arsenal conquer Madrid

The second part of our series on the best Champions League performances by English sides away from home focuses on Arsenal beating Real Madrid at the Bernabéu during the 2005/06 season.

The Gunners faced Real Madrid away from home in the first leg of the Round of 16 and they became the first English side to secure a Champions League victory against Los Blancos in the Spanish capital. Thierry Henry scored a memorable solo goal in the 47th minute as Arsenal secured a famous win.

Thierry Henry
Thierry Henry celebrates after helping Arsenal secure a famous away win against Real Madrid. Photo By: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images.
Real Madrid 0-1 Arsenal

Entering this Round of 16 clash, Arsenal could have been forgiven for cursing their luck. The Gunners had won only one of their last five Premier League games before they faced a daunting trip to the Santiago Bernabéu. Arsene Wenger’s side had also suffered a shock FA Cup defeat to Bolton Wanderers and had seen their hopes of claiming the Football League Cup fall by the wayside after losing out on away goals against Wigan Athletic in the semi-finals. They were beaten 1-0 by Liverpool in the league before this clash with Luis Garcia scoring late on to move Liverpool 10 points ahead of Arsenal in the premier league table.

To add to the Gunners’ woes, they were suffering an injury crisis and were forced to field a back four of Emmanuel Eboué, Kolo Toure, Phillipe Senderos while midfielder Mathieu Flamini lined out at left back. They came up against a Real Madrid attack that contained David Beckham, Guti, Zinedine Zidane, Robinho and Ronaldo with Raul on the bench. The fact that Arsenal managed to keep a clean sheet in this game and the second leg at home was an impressive feat.

They faced a Real Madrid side who were still hurting from a humiliating two-legged defeat to Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey semi-final. Despite winning the second leg 4-0 at home, Los Blancos had suffered a 6-1 defeat away to Zaragoza in the first clash between the sides which meant they were knocked out of the competition. Juan Ramón López Caro’s Real Madrid side were trying to atone for this defeat and they wanted to make up for their Round of 16 exit in the previous season’s Champions League against Juventus after extra time.

Real Madrid
The Real Madrid team that lined up to face Arsenal was filled with stars including Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Iker Casillas and Robinho. Photo By: Adam Davy/Getty Images.

Arsenal started quickly as a loose Sergio Ramos pass led Theirry Henry to feed José Antonio Reyes. The Spanish international’s left footed effort was saved by Iker Casillas in the Real goal. The Gunners continued to press the action as a sweeping move saw Alexander Hleb find Henry before the Frenchman slipped a through ball through to Freddie Lgungberg. The Swedish winger tried to round Iker Casillas but Roberto Carlos put in a brilliant last ditch tackle to deny Arsenal an early lead.

This was a nervy start by the Galacticos who lost centre back Jonathan Woodgate through injury during the opening ten minutes. Woodgate was one of two English players lining out in this game alongside David Beckham as the only English players on the field were lining out for the Spanish club.

Wenger’s side, wearing their yellow away strip, should have taken the lead when Reyes’ cross found Henry but the Frenchman directed his free header off target. The home side survived Arsenal’s whirlwind start and they began to settle in to the contest. Their first opening appeared when Zidane’s cross found David Beckham but the ex-Manchester United player miscued his header. The then England captain spurned a glorious chance six minutes later when Philippe Senderos was overturned which saw Ronaldo play Beckham through on goal but Jens Lehmann saved with his feet.

Madrid targeted the left side of Arsenal’s defence with Beckham up against stand-in left back Mathieu Flamini. Right back Cicinho also drove forward to create overlaps but this meant that when Arsenal overturned possession, they could counter down Real’s right-hand side. Before Beckham’s big chance, Reyes tried to power through on goal but Cicinho earned a yellow card as he cynically took the winger down as the Gunners began to exploit the space that the Brazilian was leaving any time he powered forward. Arsenal exploiting Real Madrid’s right hand side proved a shrewd tactic and one that paid rich dividends.

José Antonio Reyes
José Antonio Reyes excelled down Arsenal’s left hand side. Credit: News Group Newspapers Ltd.

Los Blancos continued to probe with Robinho seeing a low volley well saved by Lehmann. Hleb managed to pick out Henry before the break with Arsenal’s all time top goalscorer exposing the space Real Madrid left on the right-hand side of their defence. The Frenchman got caught in two minds whether to shoot or square the ball to Ljungberg and in the end he produced a weak effort that Casillas comfortably saved. The final chance of the half fell to the home side as Roberto Carlos produced a trademark swerving freekick that the German shot-stopper pushed away before he saved Robinho’s miscued rebound.

Two minutes in to the second half, Arsenal found the goal that their play had deserved. Cesc Fabregas, who was born in Barcelona, fed Thierry Henry just inside the Real Madrid half. He had plenty to do but he shrugged off a half-hearted challenge by Ronaldo before he strode past Thomas Gravesen’s lunge. He powered into Madrid’s final third and attacked the right-hand side of Madrid’s defence where he moved past Guti and Sergio Ramos. His left footed effort beat Casillas to give Arsenal a lead few thought likely before the game started.

Real Madrid threatened with Robinho’s wild left footed effort shot almost finding Ronaldo at the back post but the Brazilian was unable to make anything of the chance. Reyes was cynically stopped in his tracks twice by the already booked Cicinho but the Real Madrid right back avoided further punishment. Robinho was subbed off for Raul with Real Madrid’s second highest goalscorer of all time missing a big chance when David Beckham’s freekick found him unmarked at the front post but the Spaniard’s header flew over the crossbar.

Robinho
Robinho struggled to penetrate the Arsenal defence and was eventually subbed off. Photo By: Adam Davy/Getty Images.

The Galacticos struggled to break down a stubborn Arsenal rearguard with Senderos, Toure and Flamini all producing important headed clearances. Beckham was played through on goal once more but Lehmann narrowed the angle and comfortably blocked the effort. Iker Casillas came off his line to deny Ljungberg a scoring opportunity at the other end.

Abou Diaby came on as a late substitute and he could have scored with his first touch with Fabregas slipping a deft ball through but Diaby’s attempts to round Casillas came unstuck and the chance went abegging. Robert Pires was the next Arsenal player to be denied before Real Madrid threatened. A Beckham free kick was headed by Ramos but the centre-back did not get a clean connection and Lehmann saved. Real created the final opening of the game as Beckham’s cross was flicked on by Raúl but Ronaldo was unable to make the necessary contact at the back post.

Arsenal defied the odds as they produced a memorable away performance against a team packed with attacking talent. The Gunners produced clean sheets in all of their knockout games en route to the final with the second leg ending in a 0-0 draw as the Gunners moved through to a quarter final against Juventus. They beat the Italian side and Villareal before coming unstuck against Barcelona in the showpiece event.

Champions League, Soccer, Uncategorized

Best Performances by English sides away from home in the Champions League

By Ivan Smyth

With the UEFA Champions League currently behind schedule due to COVID-19, we will take a look back at some of the finest away performances by English teams in the history of the Champions League. We have decided to exclude Champions League finals themselves as they were played in neutral venues and instead we are focusing on group and knockout games up to the final itself.

 

Lazio 0 Leeds United 1

Leeds United’s first and only season in the Champions League was a memorable one. After coming through a qualifying round against 1860 Munich, David O’Leary’s side then progressed from a group with AC Milan and Barcelona as the Catalonia side finishing third and were demoted to the UEFA Cup. In the second group stage, the Whites were paired with Real Madrid, Anderlecht and Lazio in what was considered a difficult group.

Leeds United
Leeds United secured a famous win away to Lazio in what was an unforgettable Champions League campaign. Photo By: Getty Images.

On December 5 2000, a Lazio side who had lost their opening group game away to Anderlecht hosted Leeds United knowing that the pressure was on to secure all three points. The Italians were managed by Sven-Göran Eriksson while their starting 11 contained household names such as Alessandro Nesta, Diego Simeone, Pavel Nedved, Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo. Lazio lifted the Scudetto for the second time in the club’s history in the 1999/2000 season as they secured a dramatic triumph after Juventus lost on the final day of the season with Sven-Göran Eriksson’s side winning the league by a single point.

Despite this, Leeds United were not overawed as they also spent money to ensure they could compete with the best Europe had to offer. Mark Viduka was signed from Celtic while French midfielder Olivier Dacourt was signed for a club record fee of £7 million in the summer. Rio Ferdinand moved from West Ham to Elland Road in late November for a record fee of £18 million but he was not named in the squad that traveled to Rome.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Leeds United v Liverpool
Mark Viduka helped Leeds embark on a memorable Champions League. Photo from: Planet Football.

Leeds started quickly and created the early openings with Lee Bowyer’s cross just evading Viduka, Alan Smith and Jonathon Woodgate with Eirik Bakke seeing a header cleared off the line moments later. However, the Biancocelesti were still a threat from set pieces as they carved out two excellent goal scoring opportunities. On the 18th minute Crespo hit the side netting from a corner by former Crystal Palace player Attillio Lombardo, who caused problems throughout the game for Leeds United defender Dominic Matteo. Three minutes later, Lazio created the clearest scoring chance of the half as a Giuseppe Pancaro header from point blank range rattled the crossbar.

Lazio hit back with Marcelo Salas meeting a cross but Jonathon Woodgate produced a crucial intervention as he cleared the ball off the line. However, the final chance of the half fell to Leeds United with a Mark Viduka cross finding Lee Bowyer but the current Charlton Athletic manager could only poke wide at full stretch. The second half saw both defences dominate with Leeds’ centre back pairing of Woodgate and Lucas Radebe both producing confident displays as Lazio struggled to engineer opportunities.

Olivier Dacourt broke up attacks by the reigning Serie A champions throughout and it was the French international who had the first real opportunity in the second half on the 58th minute as his effort from 20 yards out went over the crossbar. However, Pavel Nedved began to become more influential for Lazio and he was repeatedly at the centre of their intricate passing moves. The Czech Republic international beat Leeds United goalkeeper Paul Robinson in the 60th minute but unfortunately for Lazio, his shot did not beat the post.

Olivier Dacourt
Olivier Dacourt excelled in midfield for Leeds. Photo By: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images.

Lazio netminder Angelo Peruzzi was called into action after a cross deflected off Attilio Lombardo with the Italian netminder reacting quickly to flick the ball over the bar.  Jonathon Woodgate scuffed wide from 15 yards out moments later as Leeds began to claim the ascendancy. Dacourt continued to cut out Lazio attacks in a fine display by the French man but the Italians almost opened the scoring when a long ball by current Atlético Madrid manager Diego Simeone found Crespo as the Leeds United defence were caught napping. However, the Argentine’s attempted chip was saved by Paul Robinson in what was Lazio’s last clear cut opportunity.

The defining moment of the game came after 80 minutes when Harry Kewell played  found Alan Smith who flicked the ball around the corner to Viduka. The Australian produced a delightful backheel to play Smith through on goal as he slotted the ball past Peruzzi to score a famous goal. Leeds  held on for the remainder of the game as they produced one of the great performances in the history of the club.

Alan Smith Leeds v Lazio
Alan Smith’s goal in the 80th minute helped Leeds to a 1-0 win against reigning Serie A champions Lazio. Photo By: Stu Forster/AllSport.

Lazio struggled to replicate their excellent season previously and despite drawing 3-3 with Leeds at Elland Road in the reverse fixture, the Italians were knocked out of the competition in the second group stage and finished third in Serie A. The economic crisis in 2002 forced them to sell their star players and they have failed to replicate their previous successes. In what was a simply unforgettable European campaign for Leeds United, this away performance was one of the finest seen by an English side in Champions League history.

Soccer, Uncategorized, Women's World Cup

Women’s World Cup Group C

Group C – Australia, Italy, Brazil, Jamaica

Australia

The Matildas are in a tricky pool as they aim to make an impression in this year’s World Cup.

They have qualified for seven out of the eight World Cups and have reached the quarter finals in the last three tournaments.

Sam Kerr
Eyes on the prize. Sam Kerr will try help Australia progress beyond the group stages. Photo by: Nigel Owen/Action Plus via Getty Images.

Australia have not made an impact in their previous campaigns but they do possess one of the best players in the world in striker Sam Kerr.

She was shortlisted for the inaugural Ballon d’Or last year and will captain her country this summer.

She has failed to score in her last two World Cup campaigns but at aged 25, she will be expected to put that right.

Australia have experienced off field issues, firing their coach Alan Stajcic in January and they are now lead by Ante Milicic, a former assistant with the men’s national team.

This is a difficult group but Kerr should be able to steer her side in to the knockout stages.

Italy

The Italians have qualified for their first World Cup since 1999 and have enjoyed an upsurge in form, reaching the final of the Cyprus Cup this year before losing to North Korea on penalties.

They have won seven out of nine games in 2019 including a victory in a friendly against Ireland.

Italy Women's Soccer Team
This is the first Italy team to reach the World Cup since 1999. Photo by: Getty.

Their striker Crisitana Girelli scored seven goals in qualifying  while Barbara Bonansea is a skillful winger who helped Juventus win the league and cup double this year.

Sara Gama will captain the team from midfield while Manuela Giugliano is another to keep an eye on after she helped Italy finish in third place at the U17 World Cup in 2014.

The side ranked 15th in the world would have been hoping for an easier group as they seek to progress to the knockout stages for the second time in their history.

With some third placed teams progressing to the knockout stages, they will not have a better chance to change that statistic.

Brazil

The 2007 runners up have plenty of World Cup experience as they have competed in all seven previous campaigns.

They looked assured in wining the Copa America Femenina, winning all seven of their matches while scoring 31 goals.

Fourteen of their 19 outfield players scored in the tournament but they traditionally dominate the competition, winning seven of the eight tournaments held.

Cristiane
Cristiane (centre) celebrates after scoring a hat trcik in Brazil’s opening round win against Jamaica. Photo By: Naomi Baker – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images.

Their problem however is their ageing squad which may not be able to withstand the quick turnaround in games.

Marta is one of the most recognised names in the women’s game and the World Cup’s record goal scorer with 15, will look to add to her tally this summer.

Beatriz is another to watch as she finished top scorer for her country at last year’s Copa America Femenina.

Midfielder Formiga, who turned 41 in March, retired in 2016 but returned last year.

Brazil have the experience and the pedigree and will be hoping for a deep run but can they find their form?

Jamaica

The feel good story of this World Cup, the Jamaicans have qualified for their first ever World Cup after a cut in funding in 2010 caused the team to not be able to take part in the 2011 World Cup qualifiers.

The turnaround was financed in part by Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella who became an official ambassador for the team and has helped with their fundraising.

They are nicknamed the Reggae Girlz and their fans will be expected to bring plenty of colour to France.

Jamaica made history by becoming the first Caribbean nation to qualify for the World Cup after beating Panama in a penalty shootout last year.

Khadija ‘Bunny’ Shaw is a top class striker and has scored 31 goals in 22 appearances for her country.

She scored 19 goals in qualifying, the most scored by any player representing the 144 nations attempting to qualify for the World Cup.

They could reach for the knockout stages if they finish in the top three but they will need Shaw to produce big performances.

It would be a terrific story if they could but the odds are stacked against them.

Group Fixtures: 

9th June

Australia 1 Italy 2

Brazil 3 Jamaica 0

13th June

Australia v Brazil 17:00

14th June

Jamaica v Italy 17:00

18th June

Australia v Jamaica 20:00

Italy v Brazil 20:00

Soccer, Uncategorized, Women's World Cup

Women’s World Cup Group B

Group B – Germany, China, Spain, South Africa

Germany

Dzsenifer Marozsan
Dzsenifer Marozsan will be crucial to Germany’s hopes of winning the World Cup. Photo By: Lar Baron/Getty Images.

Two time World Cup winners Germany would have been delighted with their World Cup draw.

They will be expected to top the group and will look to maintain their record of at least reaching the quarter final stage in each of the seven previous World Cups campaigns.

Martina Voss Teckelenburg’s side have not lost a game this year recording wins against France, Sweden and Japan.

The second ranked side in the world will look towards Olympique Lyonnais midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan to anchor the midfield.

She is capable of creating and scoring goals, while Lea Schuller is another to keep an eye on as she has scored eight goals in 13 games for her country.

This could be her breakout tournament as Germany aim to join the USA as three time winners.

China

China are the most unpredictable side in the tournament as they reached the final in 1999, suffering a defeat on penalties to the US but they have not progressed beyond the quarter final stage since then.

They will be looking towards Wang Shuang to provide the goals needed to see them progress.

The reigning Asian Footballer of the Year plays her club football with PSG and is the only player in the Chinese squad to ply their trade abroad.

China have qualified for the World Cup seven times but their form in the Algarve Cup, a warm up tournament for teams, saw them finish last after losing all of their matches.

Spain

Women’s soccer in Spain has grown rapidly over the past few years as they won the Algarve Cup in 2017 and the Cyprus Cup a year later.

They qualified for their first World Cup tournament four years ago, failing to win a single game and finishing in 20th place.

La Roja have improved greatly since then and won all eight of their qualifying games for this tournament.

Jennifer Hermoso will be crucial to their hopes of progressing beyond the group stage for the first time.

She helped Atletico Madrid win the league title ahead of Champions League finalists Barcelona as the striker finished top scorer with 24 goals.

Jennifer Hermoso
Spain will need Jennifer Hermoso to be in top form if they are to progress in the World Cup.

Patri Guijarro is another attacking player who could shine as she won the Golden Boot at the Women’s U20 World Cup last year.

Spain face China in the final group game and the result there should determine who finished behind the Germans.

South Africa

South Africa are the second lowest ranked side in the tournament and will find it difficult to gather points in the competition.

The wonderfully nicknamed Banyana Banyana are competing in their first World Cup after finishing as runners up in the African Cup of Nations, losing to Nigeria in a penalty shootout.

They beat the Super Falcons in the group stage but their results against European teams is worrying.

South Africa
South Africa will hope to make an impression in France. Image via: Eyewitness News

South Africa have conceded a combined total of 10 goals  in friendly games against Norway and the United States before this tournament.

Janine van Wyk is the heartbeat of their defence and holds the record as the country’s most capped player of any gender.

Striker Tembi Kgatlana won Player of the Tournament at last year’s African Cup of Nations but she may struggle for service as her side are favourites to finish bottom of the group.

Fixtures: (British and Irish Times)
8th June:
Germany 1 China 0
Spain v South Africa 17:00
12th June
Germany v Spain 17:00
13th June
China v South Africa 20:00
17th June
China v Spain 17:00
Germany v South Africa 17:00
Soccer, Uncategorized, Women's World Cup

Women’s World Cup Group 1 Preview

The Women’s World Cup kicked off last night with France laying down a marker with a 4-0 victory against Korea Republic. The month long festival of football will showcase the best players in the world with the tournament taking place in France. Here I discuss each team in the group and how likely they are to progress beyond the group stage. 

Group A – France, Korea Republic, Norway and Nigeria

France

France will start this group as favourites as they seek to become the first nation to hold the Men’s and Women’s World Cup trophies at the same time.

Les Bleus have never won this tournament and are seeking to become only the second side after Germany to win the Men’s and Women’s hosting of this competition.

The team are ranked fourth in FIFA’s rankings and with home support should progress to the knockout stages.

Their striker Eugénie Le Sommer will lead the line.

The Olympique Lyonnais player has won six Champions League titles and has scored 74 goals in 159 French appearances.

They are unbeaten since February and their home fans will be expecting them to go deep in the tournament.

Eugenie Le Sommer
Eugenie Le Sommer will hope to lead hosts France to World Cup glory. Photo By: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images.

Korea Republic

Korea Republic, also known as the Taeguek Ladies will compete in their third World Cup finals having reached the knockout stages in 2015 where they were defeated by France.

Their other appearance in 2003 saw them suffer a 7-1 hammering to Norway as they failed to progress from the group.

Their captain Cho So-hyun is a midfielder who plays with West Ham United and is considered one of her country’s greatest ever players.

Ji So-yun plays for Chelsea and is another midfielder worth keeping an eye on.

They are hoping to get out of the group but they only just secured the final qualifying place in Asia while their poor form against European teams is cause for concern.

Norway

The World Cup winners in 1995, Norway, would have been widely regarded as dark horses for the tournament but the first ever winner of the Ballon d’Or feminin prize Ada Hegerberg’s decision to boycott the competition is a major blow.

She argues that female players are shown a lack of respect and will miss the tournament. Hegerberg has scored 38 goals in 66 appearances for her country and they may struggle for a cutting edge without her.

Norway have won six of their seven games this year and will need Chelsea player Maren Mjelde to create chances.

Caroline Hansen is a talented winger who has signed for Barcelona after impressing with Wolfsburg.

The opening game with Nigeria looks to be vital towards deciding who progresses from the group.

Ada Hegerberg
Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg will not be playing for Norway at the World Cup.

Nigeria

Africa Women’s Champions Nigeria will be hoping to bring their success in their nation to the global stage.

The Super Falcons are the only African team to have qualified for every World Cup.

They have only got out of the group stages once, in 1999 when they reached the quarter final stage before losing to Brazil.

Nigeria will be looking to Asisat Oshoala to provide the goals; she announced herself on the world stage when she finished top scorer at the U20 Women’s World Cup.

Oshoala scored in the Champions League final as Barcelona were defeated by the all conquering Olympique Lyonnais.

They know that a top three finish may be enough to progress and the format gives them every opportunity to rectify previous World Cup failings.

Champions League, Soccer, Uncategorized

Best XI To Never Win the Champions League

As Mo Salah, Virgil Van Dijk and co. will now finish their careers with Champions League medals, some great players have graced the Champions League without winning it. Here we pick the best players to never win the competition (1992/93 onwards). We have not included players who are still active in the competition which means that Gianluigi Buffon cannot be picked. Also, we will not include players who won the old European Cup and they must have played in the Champions League era.

GK: Jens Lehmann

The two time UEFA Club Goalkeeper of the Year will be remembered for his sending off in the 2006 Champions League final which Barcelona eventually won 2-1. The German international undoubtedly enjoyed the greatest goalkeeping campaign in the Champions League in the 2005-06 season as Arsenal went a record 10 games without conceding a goal. That saw him go 853 minutes without the ball ending up in his net which is a record to this day. He maintained that record in the final as Manuel Almunia was between the sticks when Barcelona struck twice. Lehmann never got as close to Champions League success again with many Arsenal fans wondering what could have been if he did not get sent off in that final.

Jens Lehmann
Seeing Red. Jens Lehmann’s sending off left Arsenal fans wondering what could have been. Photo By: EPA.

RB: Lilian Thuram

One of the best defenders of his generation, Thuram missed out on Champions League glory with Juventus and Barcelona. A world cup winner who is a record appearance holder for France, he surprisingly ended his career without lifting Europe’s biggest club trophy. He was part of the Juventus side that lost the 2003 Champions League final to a star studded AC Milan side on penalties. He joined Barcelona in 2006 after the Calciopoli scandal saw Juventus relegated to Serie B. He left the club and retired in 2008 before they won the Champions League the year after.

Lilian Thuram
Lilian Thuram was one of France’s finest defenders. Photo by Getty Images/

CB: Laurent Blanc

Le Président was never able to claim the Champions League during a 20 year career which saw him win the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships alongside the Premier League with Man United. Despite playing for Barcelona, Inter Milan and United, he failed to claim victory in the tournament. The closest he came was when the Red Devils reached the semi finals in the 2001/2002 season when they were defeated by Bayer Leverkusen on away goals. He retired the following season but he did so without lifting the ultimate honour in club football.

Laurent Blanc
Laurent Blanc never claimed Champions League glory. Photo via: www/101greatgoals.com.

CB: Fabio Cannavaro

The great Italian defender surprisingly never claimed the Champions League despite playing with Parma, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid. He captained Italy to World Cup glory in 2006 and helped his side concede only two goals during the whole tournament. Cannavaro claimed the Ballon d’Or the same year but despite this he never reached the final of this competition. He was part of the Inter Milan team that lost to bitter rivals AC Milan on away goals in the semi finals in 2003. It is simply unbelievable that Djimi Traore has won a Champions League while Cannavaro has not.

Fabio Cannavaro
Despite playing for Real Madrid and Juventus Cannavaro never won a Champions League winners medal. Photo By: Getty/John Walton.

LB: Gianluca Zambrotta

The 98 times Italian international failed to win the Champions League despite playing with clubs such as Barcelona, Juventus and AC Milan. Zambrotta played over 200 games for Juventus but he was another member of the side which lost the final to AC Milan in 2003. He reached the semi final with Barcelona in 2009 when they lost 1-0 to Man United on aggregate. Zambrotta successfully kept Cristiano Ronaldo quiet during the second leg but it was his poor clearance which led to Paul Scholes’ goal. A consistent player who is often overlooked for lists such as this, Zambrotta was an excellent defender but that did not translate to Champions League success.

CM:Patrick Vieira

The French international was one of the best midfielders of his generation but that did not translate itself in to Champions League success. He left Arsenal in 2005 but unlike Thierry Henry his move did not result in winning the competition. In fact the Gunners reached the final the year after he left while he departed Inter Milan in January 2010 befoe they won the competition that season. He was not eligible for a medal. Amazingly he never progressed beyond the quarter final stage of the competition for any team he played.

Patrick Vieira
Patrick Vieira left Inter Milan six months before they win the Champions League in 2010. Photo By: Getty.

CM: Pavel Nedved

Nothing sums up the highs and lows of football better than Pavel Nedved in the 2003 Champions League semi-final between Juventus and Liverpool. The Czech Republic player scored a wonderful goal to help send The Old Lady in to the final but unfortunately for him a needless foul on Steve McManaman saw him receive a booking which ruled him out of the final. Juventus ended up suffering an agonising defeat on penalties to AC Milan with many wondering would Nedved’s presence have helped Juventus beat their Italian rivals. He did win the Ballon d’Or that season but the devastation remained for the rest of his career.

Pavel Nedved
Pavel Nedved missed the 2003 final through suspension. Photo By: Reuteurs.

CM: Lothar Matthaus

This player came closer than anybody on this list to claim the Champions League crown. Matthaus was part of the Bayern Munich side which came agonisingly close to winning the 1999 final before Man United scored twice in injury time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Matthaus was an excellent box to box midfielder in his prime before he became a sweeper later in his career. The World Cup winner with West Germany was one of the best players in his era. He was 38 years old when he played in that final and it proved to be his final opportunity to claim a title that his talent deserved.

ST: Roberto Baggio

One of the most gifted players to grace the game, Baggio never claimed the Champions League title despite wreaking havoc in Italy and on the international stage. He helped Inter Milan qualify for the Champions League in the 1998-1999 season before they were defeated by eventual champions Man United. Baggio was in his prime before the introduction of the Champions League but for a player of his talent to never come close to winning the trophy is a shame.

Roberto Baggio
Roberto Baggio (right) won the Ballon d’Or in 1993, never claimed a Champions League winners medal. Photo By: EPA.

ST: Gabriel Batistuta

A player whose trophy haul did not match his obvious talent. Batistuta was among the most feared strikers in the world in the 1990s as he terrorised defences with Fiorentina and Argentina. He was 30 before he made his debut in the competition while his goals against Arsenal and Man United will never be forgotten. For those who had not seen him score hat tricks in the 1994 and 1998 World Cup he did not disappoint. Batistuta was one of the most feared strikers of his generation but he did not finish his career with the medals that his talent deserved.

ST: Ronaldo

Quite simply one of the greatest players of all time. The Brazilian failed to win the Champions League despite playing with PSV, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. He famously scored a hat trick for Real Madrid against Man United in the 2003 Champions League before he helped them beat Juventus 2-1 in the first leg of the semi final, scoring the first goal. He limped off in the second leg as injuries began to take their toll. Juventus beat them to reach the final before the Galacticos were aiming for a treble the following season but lost to Monaco in the quarter finals with the Brazilian injured for the tie. One of the all time great players who unfortunately finds himself without a Champions League winners medal.

Ronaldo
Ronaldo is one of the all time great players. Photo By: Bru Garcia.

Honourable Mentions: Jose Francisco Molina, Roberto Ayala, Amadeo Carboni, Phillip Cocu, Michael Ballack, Denis Bergkamp, Eric Cantona, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Francesco Totti,

 

Uncategorized

Four for Four for Irish Provinces but Injury headaches for Joe Schmidt

I pick out the main talking points from the European action as Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht all secured victories.

Leinster remind Toulouse of the path ahead

Toulouse entered their clash with Leinster on the back of 12 successive victories and on top of their Champions Cup pool. For 40 minutes the RDS was home to a slugfest, one which closely resembled an international game. Leinster however are an 80 minute side and they had too much for their French counterparts. This was a stark reminder that although Toulouse have improved they are still not on the level to compete with the best in the competition. With Johnny Sexton and other internationals to return, Leinster once more look the team to beat.

Leinster Pro 14 Champions
Leinster are the defending champions and look the team to beat once more Photo by: Billy Stockland/INPHO

Carbery’s response to adversity is very encouraging

Joey Carbery suffered an off day when Munster lost to Castres in their fourth game of the Heineken Cup. His response to that poor performance has been extremely encouraging. He has kicked 17 successful penalties in a row in games against Leinster, Connacht and Gloucester. His mental toughness shows just why he has the potential to be a pivotal player for Munster and Ireland in the years ahead. His game management has improved too and a 26 point haul against Gloucester will do his confidence no harm at all.

joey carbery
Joey Carbery celebrates his try against Gloucester. Photo by: Inpho.

Stockdale continues incredible try scoring form

Jacob Stockdale has took to senior rugby like a duck to water. The 22 year old winger scored his fifth and sixth tries as Ulster surprised last year’s finalists Racing 92. Stockdale’s second try in which he sidestepped past Olivier Klemenczak before breaking ahead, chipping on with a crisp-left foot strike, showing tremendous pace and then stepping inside to read the bounce quicker than three Racing defenders. Frighteningly good and as he is only 22, there is plenty more to come.

jacob stockdale
Jacob Stockdale scored a brace of tries for Ulster. Photo By: Getty.

Connacht have strength in depth

Connacht overcame Sale Sharks in the European Challenge Cup and now look poised to qualify for the quarter finals. The Westerners have used the competition to test their squad. Andy Friend did name a strong side but the performance of James Mitchell at scrum half and James Cannon in the second row. Substitute fly half David Horwitz kicked the winning penalty. If Connacht are to push for Champions Cup qualification then they will need a strong squad.

Schmidt’s scrum half crisis

If there is one negative that can be drawn from the weekend’s rugby, it is Ireland’s problem in the no9 position. Luke McGrath’s injury in Leinster’s win coupled with John Cooney not being fit to play for Ulster against Racing means that Conor Murray is Ireland’s only fit scrum half. Kieran Marmion was injured in Ireland’s victory against New Zealand last November and is not due back until late February. This means that Murray is the only capped Irish scrum half currently fit, less than three weeks out from the 6 Nations.

conor murray
Conor Murray is currently Ireland’s only fit scrum half. Photo By: Inpho.

Competition for Places for 6 Nations

The clean sweep of victories for the Irish provinces was notable because of the strength of performances by individuals fighting for a place in the Ireland squad. Since Ireland’s defeat to Argentina at the World Cup in 2015, Schmidt has tried to develop strength in depth. The provinces have allowed Irish talent to develop and now it is coming to fruition for the and the national side. This has raised hopes of a strong 6 Nations and World Cup.

Boxing, Uncategorized

My Boxing Awards 2018

Fight of the Year: Canelo-Golovkin II

The Canelo-Golovkin rematch was the biggest fight of the year in my opinion. Often rematches fail to live up to the hype but tis fight was even better than the first bout. After the Mexican star failed a drugs test, the fight was pushed back until September. Golovkin was angered by the failed test but the fight went ahead. The pair produced 12 rounds filled with phenomenal intensity, character and huge punches. Canelo gained the decision and in the eyes of many is now the biggest star in boxing.

 

Canelo v GGG
Canelo lands a right hook on Gennady Golovkin in what was an epic rematch. Photo By: Al Bello’Getty Images.

 

Fighter of the Year: Oleksandr Usyk

The Ukrainian boxer enjoyed a sensational 2018 as he became unified Cruiserweight champion of the world. He defeated Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series to win the WBC, WBA (Super), IBF, the Ring and lineal Cruiserweight title alongside the WBO title he already held. For the first time in British boxing history, all four cruiserweight titles were on the line. Usyk’s  knock out win against Bellew as he won all three of his fights in his opponent’s back yard. He is planning to move to heavyweight and add some extra spice to the division. Other contenders included Naoya Inoue, Mikey Garcia, Vasyl Lomachenko and Canelo Alvarez.

Usyk
Oleksandr Usyk enjoyed a stellar 2018. Photo By: WBSS

Knockout of the Year: Whyte-Browne

This was a tough category to pick a winner but the devastating knockout that Dillian Whyte inflicted on outclassed Lucas Browne gets my nod. The Brit dominated his opponent before a sensational left hook ended the Aussie’s night. Other contenders for this award were Alexander Povetkin’s knockout of David Price, Usyk’s finish of Tony Bellew while Naoya Inoue’s KO of Juan Carlos Payano was very close to winning the award.

Dillian Whyte
Dillian Whyte celebrates his victory against Dereck Chisora. Photo By: Getty.

Comeback of the Year: Tyson Fury

This was a relatively simple category to pick a winner as Tyson Fury came back from over two years of inactivity and mental health difficulties to challenge Deontay Wilder in a heavyweight classic. Fury shed 10 stone and won two comeback fights. He fought the Bronze Bomber for the WBC Heavyweight Championship of the World in what was an epic contest. The Gypsy King looked to be knocked out in the 12th round but he defied the odds to get up just as he proved the doubters wrong by coming back from the lowest point of his life. A deserving winner.

Round of the Year: Fury v Wilder Round 12

The final round of the Fury-Wilder contest is my pick for the best round of the year. The Bronze Bomber landed a devastating three punch combination to knock Fury down. Wilder celebrated as he thought he had won his 41st fight with 40 knockouts. Instead Fury somehow got to his feet and survived the onslaught from the heaviest puncher in boxing today. It looks as if we will get a rematch in what should be another epic contest.

Fury Wilder
Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder produced an epic fight and an exhilarating twelfth round. Photo By: Showtime Boxing.

2018 was an excellent year for boxing with some epic fight staking place. Next year promises to be exciting with plenty of big fights taking place. I hope you enjoyed this blog post and feel free to comment on your suggestions for winners in the above categories. I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and all the best for 2019!!