Sunday, April 27, 2014

Champions League Bayern vs Real Madrid

Bundesliga title not enough for Guardiola, but European glory may be out of reach this time

Ozren Podnar

Should Bayern Munich lose to Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals on Tuesday 29th of April, Josep Guardiola will be tar-and-feathered by the German press. And worse, by his club's heavyweights such as Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Franz Beckenbauer.

Allianz Arena Munich Germany

That has always been a risk since the previous manager, Jupp Heynckes, took the Bavarians to the unprecedented quadruple crown last season (Champions League, Bundesliga, DFB Cup and League Cup).

The enormity of the task was not known to Guardiola when he signed for Bayern in January of 2013, but there it is. And after the 0-1 loss in Madrid in the first leg his team face an uphill battle to reach the finals in Lisbon against either Chelsea or Atlético.

Ok, under Pep, Bayern have won this season's Bundesliga at a record-early date, in late March. They were also crowned European Supercup winners against Chelsea last August and the World Club Cup winners against Raja Casablanca in December.

Cool, but no more than expected of the world's most-hyped manager and his star-studded squad. Bayern did not bring Guardiola for that but to become the first club to win back-to-back continental titles since AC Milan did it 24 years ago.

Franck Ribery Bayern Munich

Munich, a "cursed city"

Both in Spain and in Germany much was made of the fact that Munich had always been an unconquerable fortress for Real Madrid. In ten trips to Bayern's stadium, they lost nine games and drew one. No other European team have caused Madrid so much heartbreak. And the city of Munich is generally hostile to the blancos: they lost even to München 1860 when the two sides met in the Champions Cup in the late sixties.

But, beware: out of ten games played at either the Olympic Stadium or Allianz Arena, only three times did Bayern achieve the result that would take them to this year's finals, and only once in the past 27 years! In 1976, in the glory days of Maier, Beckenbauer, Müller, Hoeness or Roth, the Bavarians defeated Real by 2-0 in the semis (and qualified). The same outcome would put them through on Tuesday evening.

Eleven years later, Bayern thumped Madrid 4-1, also in the semis, before losing the finals in Vienna to Rabah Madjer's back heel flick. The only other big win, again by 4-1, came in the spring of 2000. And it was not even a cup-tie, but an irrelevant match in the group phase of the Champions League, with both teams already qualified for the quarter-finals.

When the same teams met again in the semifinals of the same season, it was Real Madrid that came on top with a 3-2 aggregate thanks to a rare but providential goal by Nicolas Anelka in the second leg in Munich. In the past six home games against the madrilenos, Bayern achieved five 2-1 wins and were held to a 1-1 draw on another occasion.

Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany

Madrid just too quick

Not one of those results would do the German champions any good this time. And they may also be worried to note that Madrid scored at least once in every one of their last nine away games with Bayern. Should they score again on Tuesday, Guardiola's men would need at least three goals to remove this ultimate, nasty obstacle on the way to Lisbon.

And Real can score, more than once. Their counterattack is arguably the most lethal in the history of the game. There is no defence that Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or even their super-fast full backs like Fábio Coentrao cannot outrun. In Madrid, they created three clear chances on the break and were unlucky to be just 1-0 up before half-time.

Guardiola must be concerned about his defence since it proved porous once more this weekend against Werder in the Bundesliga. The visitors went ahead twice before Bayern turn it around to win 5-2. The playing style the Catalan has transplanted from Barcelona onto his current team works wonders against everybody except opponents who, like Real, have a couple of sprinters upfront, who also happen to be clinical finishers.

Ancelotti to outfox Pep

Bayern's defenders are usually deployed in a very advanced position since it is expected of them to participate in the team's intricate short passing game. But when they give away the ball, there are vast expanses of space behind the central defenders for rivals to exploit. Not many teams have sufficiently rapid players to seize such opportunities, but Real Madrid (and Borussia Dortmund) do and that may prove Bayern's undoing.

The possession Guardiola's team boast will do nothing to advance their cause. In order to overcome the deficit, Bayern will have to assume risks and take chances, but odds are the things will not play out as he is hoping. For on the other side there awaits a manager who knows everything about defending a slim advantage and striking with lightning-quick counter-attacks. Incidentally, an Italian: Carlo Ancelotti.

It is no doubt ironic that the current Madrid's coach was a regular on AC Milan's squad who last won two consecutive Champions Cups by defeating none other than Real Madrid on the way to the finals in both seasons. And now he could prevent Bayern to emulate that feat in which he so prominently featured.

Bayern vs Real Madrid

The teams have played 21 matches in the European cup competitions, all of them in the Champions League (until 1992 called the European Cup).

1976. Real 1-1 Bayern; Bayern 2-0 Real (Bayern through 3-1)

1987. Bayern 4-1 Real; Real 1-0 Bayern (Bayern through 4-2)

1988. Bayern 3-2 Real; Real 2-0 Bayern (Real through 4-3)

2000. Real 2-4 Bayern; Bayern 4-1 Real (group phase - both teams through on points)

2000. Real 2-0 Bayern; Bayern 2-1 Real (Real through 3-2)

2001. Real 0-1 Bayern; Bayern 2-1 Real (Bayern through 3-1)

2002. Bayern 2-1 Real; Real 2-0 Bayern (Real through 3-2)

2004. Bayern 1-1 Real; Real 1-0 Bayern (Real through 2-1)

2007. Real 3-2 Bayern; Bayern 2-1 Real (aggregate 4-4, Bayern through on away goals)

2012. Bayern 2-1 Real; Real 2-1 Bayern (aggregate 3-3, Bayern through on penalties)

2014. Real 1-0 Bayern; Bayern ? Real


Friday, April 25, 2014

EURO 2016 Finals schedule announced

EURO 2016 Finals Schedule

UEFA has released the dates and venues for the 2016 European Championship finals in France.

France will kick-off the finals at 9pm on the 10th of June at the Stade de France in St. Denis, where the final will take place on the 10th of July 2016
The host nation will play their other first-round games in Marseille and Lille and the semi-finals will be played in Lyon and Marseille.

There are three kick-off times for games, 1500, 1800 and 2100.

Euro 2016.

Ten venues are being used:

  • St Denis    80,000
  • Marseille   65,500
  • Lyon         58,000
  • Lille          50,186
  • Paris         47,000
  • Bordeaux   42,052
  • St.Etienne  41,965
  • Nice          35,624
  • Lens          35,200
  • Toulouse    33,000
There are 53 European nations, including Gibraltar for the first time, competing for 23 final spots (France qualify as hosts) and qualifiers kick-off on the 7th of September this year. The final qualifiers are in October 2015 and the play-offs the following month.

The slogan for the tournament is 'Le Rendez-Vous'.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Scottish Premier League News April 2014

Scottish Premier League News
SPL News April 2014

by Lisa Dillon


Inevitably, Celtic cantered their way to a third successive SPFL tile win, with the ribbons on the trophy before March was out. A midweek win at Firhill formally secured what has been expected all season, although despite the expected nature of the success, Neil Lennon remains adamant that there are still ambitions to fulfil at Parkhead.

The dilemma for the club, who have at least another season in the top flight without Rangers, is whether to spend or not this summer. Lennon, majority shareholder Dermot Desmond and chief executive Peter Lawwell have met to define the outline of the club's five-year plan. The budgets and strategies they come up with could take them to eight championships in a row - but it is European success that Lennon has his eye on.

"Basically the board work that way, a five-year strategy," said Lennon. "We're getting round to that again. We have frank and open discussions and it's always pretty healthy. Dermot's satisfied with the way things are going and has his finger on the pulse of the club. "I think we're on the same lines. Don't get me wrong, it's not about my elevation - it's about me elevating Celtic. They're the same. It's not about Dermot's elevation, Peter's reputation or anything like that, it's about the security and the future of the club. They have all the information in front of them and that's the way they lead the club."

For Lennon, the aims are more immediate. Having had a fairly paltry return in the cup competitions to date, he craves a treble and a return to the last 16 of the Champions League next term, and would even go so far to suggest that Celtic could burst into the quarter-finals at some stage.

"I've done the last 16 now, the next step is 'can we go last 16, can we go last eight?'," Lennon said. "And certainly the treble is a viable incentive for [the players] as well. So there's a substantial amount to go for. You always have to present challenges for yourself. My worry is, at the back of my mind, if we just have domestic football next year -will I improve myself? That's just my concern, not the club's." With the likes of Stefan Johansen and Leigh Griffiths adjusting well to their new surroundings, the squad is undoubtedly further advanced in its rebuilding than 12 months previously, with Van Dijk the template for new signings who can be persuaded to join in June.

"I would take this squad into the qualifiers but as we progress I would like to add to it," Lennon said. "We want, if we can, to get business done before the World Cup because some of the players we're after, if they have a good World Cup their price will elevate."

To consider how seemingly outlandish goals can suddenly become a reality, Lennon needs look no further than his countryman Brendan Rodgers. Long before he was chasing the Premier League title at Liverpool, Lennon visited him at Reading, and the two men have kept in touch since an early season friendly meeting between the two clubs in Dublin this season.

"I must say I'm surprised by how well they have done because I always felt Chelsea and Man City would be dominating, but Brendan's done brilliantly," Lennon said. "Not just the fact they are winning games but the style of football too. "When I went to see him he had a file, a really thick file, and it was his methodology on the game. Early on in the season we were in contact, largely through text message. But I think at this stage of the season he doesn't need too many distractions."


The on-going stresses and tribulations that continue to engulf Rangers off the park may dissuade many from joining the club. But manager Ally McCoist has insisted that he considers himself 'the luckiest guy alive' to be in charge of his boyhood team, although he did qualify that statement by admitting that he would like to have assumed control in less turbulent times.

Asked if he was feeling the strain of being Ibrox manager in the period since administration, he replied: "It's the dream job without doubt, perhaps not at the right time but, that said, I am the luckiest guy alive. "To play for the club you supported and then be assistant to Walter Smith and then get the job - I still believe I am the luckiest man alive in managing the club you supported since you were a wee boy.

"At best it has been a turbulent two and a half years since even prior to the club going into administration.The problems were there and you could see it coming. The signs were not good around the place and the staff and players could sniff it out."

Having led the Ibrox side to their second successive title as they edge their way back to the top flight in Scottish football, McCoist believes that Celtic, perhaps not publicly, are keen to have a strong Rangers snapping at their heels.

"Celtic thoroughly deserved their league title this year and won it very comfortably,' he said. "They have some very good players but they also lost some, Joe Ledley to Palace, Gary Hooper to Norwich and Victor Wanyama, who was a terrific player for them.

"So I think from Neil Lennon's point of view he will want to keep hold of the squad he's got and to build because, and this is only my opinion, it's maybe not as difficult for Celtic - but it's certainly very difficult without real competition in the league.

"History will tell you Rangers and Celtic have always given each other strong competition so Neil has to maintain the standards he has set while also looking to improve." McCoist admitted he was in the dark as much as anyone when it came to forward planning and budgets.

Rangers will play in a Championship next season including the likes of Hearts and possibly Dundee, Dunfermline and Falkirk.

He admitted he will be under intense pressure to take Rangers back into the top flight to challenge a Celtic side whose bank balance will have been swelled by continued involvement in the Champions League.

"We are planning already," said the Ibrox boss. "We have a couple of plans because we don't know if will we get any money to spend. In an ideal world we would like to plan long term. That would be the perfect scenario where we can bring players in. That would hopefully get us through the league next year and stay with us to challenge in the top flight the year after. That is the ideal scenario and I would love the opportunity to do that but as yet we don't know if we can.

"If we got told the budget is X amount and you can only plan for next season then we will just have to adapt to it.

"It's difficult. We have a list of free transfers all over Europe but if you get money to spend there is another market you can look at. The problem we have at the moment is we don't know if we can shop and where we can shop."


The Scottish national team have found that the improvements they have enjoyed since Gordon Strachan took charge last year have been reflected in the FIFA rankings. The Scots have moved into 22nd place - making them the world's most improved country. The jump means the Scots have risen an astonishing 47 places since Strachan was appointed in January last year.

Strachan's Scots continued their excellent recent run of form with a 1-0 win in Poland last month.

That was enough for Scotland to be the biggest risers in the world in April's ranking where they have jumped up 15 places to 22nd. When the former Celtic manager took over last year, Scotland were languishing in 69th place and even dropped as low as 78th spot four months later.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

David Moyes Sacked

David Moyes

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest that David Moyes was never likely to be capable of filling Sir Alex Ferguson's shoes at Manchester United.

David Moyes Sacked at Manchester United

When Moyes was appointed as Ferguson's successor last summer, the unprecedented six-year contract handed to him by the club's restructured hierarchy gave the strongest indication of all - even more then the ringing endorsement of Ferguson - that he would be given football's most precious commodity, time.

However, that time has been called on Moyes only 10 months into his tenure, quick even by recent Premier League standards, which was unflattering compared with the Italian league of 20 years ago by former United defender Gary Neville this week. In a statement, the club said it "would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role".

Manchester United - and Moyes in particular - have made a series of miscalculations this season that has left their title defence in tatters. Indeed, according his detractors at Old Trafford, miscalculations would be too soft a description.

Reports suggest that Moyes has alienated senior players such as Rio Ferdinand, Robin van Persie and Ryan Giggs, which has in turn allowed some of United's younger squad members to push the boundaries of the Scot's control further than they would have ever dared under Ferguson

But even if you doubt the authenticity of such reports, the decision-making of Moyes has been questionable from the beginning, especially when you consider that the primary reason behind his appointment was to provide a consistent transition from Ferguson's generation-long reign. One of his first decisions was to dispense with the backroom staff that had served his predecessor well in recent seasons and bring in his own team of trusty lieutenants from Everton despite the lack of silverware among them.

Moyes has also - staggering - not yet named the same starting XI for consecutive matches, while he has been tactically out-thought by not only the experienced managers of Manchester City and Chelsea but also the relative novices at Liverpool and Everton. But Moyes' greatest shortcoming was perhaps his own judgement that he was capable of bridging the enormous gap left by Ferguson's sudden retirement.

Ferguson's own verdict might be called into question on this point, too. That the pair were friends and fellow Scots would have certainly clouded the decision-making process, as would have the feeling that, given time, Moyes would gently, gradually mould the club into his own, just as Ferguson had been allowed to do in the late 1980s before the raft of success enjoyed during the 1990s and 2000s.

The benefit of hindsight allows us all to see that managing Manchester United has been a step too far for Moyes at this stage in his career. He has been seriously let down by a number of his senior players - Wayne Rooney excluded it must be mentioned - as well as by the club's hierarchy during last summer's disastrous transfer dealings.

David Moyes Sacked at Manchester United

But Moyes must still carry the can for a woeful defence of the Premier League crown that the club won by 11 points last season as well as failure in the cup competitions, which has been all the more difficult for supporters to accept because of the numerous insipid displays from their side throughout the campaign.

The thinness of United's attacking threat compared with that on offer by champions-elect Liverpool, Manchester City and Everton - Moyes' former employers of course - must have left a seriously bad taste in the mouth of the United owners.

Indeed, Everton's transformation under Roberto Martinez might not have helped Moyes' plight, with Sunday's 2-0 win for the Toffees confirming that United would miss out on Champions League football next season and thus allowing the club to fire Moyes with only a one-year payoff under the terms of his contract.

© Marc Fox & Soccerphile

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What is wrong with Barça?

Bale's wonder strike capped a miserable season for the Blaugrana

Marc Bartra heading an equalizer and Neymar hitting the post in the final of the Copa del Rey encapsulated Barcelona's hit and miss season, while Real Madrid march on.

Barça might be third in La Liga but more worryingly failed to make the last four of the 2014 Champions League. Meanwhile, memories of being thrashed 7-0 on aggregate last season by the young pretender Bayern Munich are still raw. Times are tough down the Camp Nou.

Bale's wonder strike capped a miserable season for the Blaugrana.

The most recent clasico saw a crazy league clash at the Bernabeu end 4-3 to the Catalans, so in last night's Spanish Cup final in Valencia, both sides began more defensively.

The blaugrana entered the changing rooms at half-time a goal down to their arch rivals, yet made an energetic fight-back and deserved to draw level. Barça then had the upper hand for a while at 1-1 before some Gareth Bale magic and a Neymar miss settled the tie.

This was more fading Catalan grandeur under the microscope. The mesmerising tiki-taka through the middle had largely gone, replaced by a few short exchanges before the ball was spread to the flanks for a lob into the box from Andres Iniesta or Daniel Alves, neither of whom are natural wingers.

Iniesta, Xavi and especially Lionel Messi were often invisible and many a cross found a white shirt. It was as if they were mourning former totem Pep Guardiola so much they had tried to ape Bayern's style, yet without the requisite type of player.

Alves wasted many touches and looked angry and frustrated. Messi saw one shot saved but dropped deep and influenced little. Neymar was elusive for both Real's defence and his attacking teammates.
Fabregas pulled a few useful strings in midfield but the ensemble did not convince in any meaningful way. The ferocious pressing of a few years back was nowhere to be seen. This was a Barça, if not firing blanks, then revolving at 33rpm instead of 45.

Real employed their familiar anti-Barça plan of counter-attacking at speed, with flat blanks of four behind them. Cristiano Ronaldo was out injured yet Angel Di Maria and Bale had plenty of velocity to make up for him and both scored. Indeed, it has been said that Bale plays better when Ronaldo is not there stealing his space, while similar things are whispered about Messi and Neymar.

Di Maria was particularly dangerous in the first half while Bale, far from energetic throughout, bided his time until a golden chance sprung up twenty minutes from the end and he was able to switch on his deadly afterburners.The Welshman's 50-yard run and strike was a wonder goal, but Barcelona had left their back door open for him to steal in.

They had a total of six in the opposition box when Daniel Carvajal headed Messi's cross out to begin the move. Barcelona were not alive to the risk of a swift counter so when Fabio Coentrao played the ball quickly upfield, Bale had already ghosted clear of Sergio Busquets, who jogged back exhausted and unable to give chase.

The fleet-footed Cardiffian had spied yards of open grass ahead and as the ball was played to him close to the halfway line, a scoring chance was already on the cards. Bartra's attempted obstruction was no obstacle as the Welshman just sprinted around him, invading Barça's technical area momentarily before bearing down remorselessly on goal. Kick and rush still works.

Barcelona are four points off the top with five games to go, third behind two teams who unlike them are still in the Champions League. Having lost the Copa del Rey, it looks like a trophy-less season for the team dubbed the best of all time when they won the last of their European Cups, three years ago in London.

So what has gone awry?

For a start there is the age question. Is the backbone of the side getting long in the tooth? And if so why was young starlet Thiago sold to Bayern and two promising youngsters loaned out - Gerard Deulofeu to Everton and Bojan Krkic to Ajax? At 36, Carles Puyol is in his final season, Xavi is 34, Alves 30 and Iniesta and Mascherano 29. Yet Pique is 27, Fabregas, Messi  and Pedro 26 and Busquets 25, while Neymar is only 22.

Neymar's nine goals in 25 outings is a moderate return so far on his £46.8 million transfer, but time is on his side and his stock should surely rise after this summer’s World Cup Finals.

The Brazilian of course was at the heart of a transfer scandal involving tax evasion which ended up with Barcelona’s President Sandro Rosell resigning over tax evasion in February. Further investigations into the club's recruitment of under-18 boys ended with FIFA banning the club from buying any players until the summer of 2015.

What was strange was that the club was warned a year before and did nothing to change its practices, as if it felt it was untouchable. Whispers have long circulated that UEFA has a soft spot for Barça, yet blaugrana aficionados have countered with the theory that Real Vice-President Pedro Lopez Jimenez was the driving force behind the ban, abusing his position on FIFA’s Player Status Committee.

Yet unless an appeal succeeds, Barça will have to go through all of next season without reinforcement from outside the club at a time when the youth system is not producing superstars. On and off the pitch, this season has been one of anguish.

While in theory boardroom activities should not leak onto on-field actions, the bad headlines and press attention for the wrong reasons cannot have helped the squad’s morale as they registered disappointing results.

Surely a side boasting the world’s greatest player should not be moaning one might think, but Messi has not been sensational this season. He was injured for a total of almost three months and found the changing system means he has less influence in attack than before.

There are murmurs that he is keeping something in reserve for the World Cup Finals in June, a suspicion not helped by the permanent presence at the Camp Nou of an Argentine F.A. physiotherapist. The FIFA World Cup would of course be the jewel in Messi’s crown and put him on an even footing in the annals with his nation’s hero Diego Maradona.

Camp Nou
Camp Nou
Perhaps the malaise is largely a prolonged hangover from the wondrous era of Guardiola which ended two seasons ago. It was almost impossible for that golden age to be replicated or topped, and a radical transformation of the club is required instead of producing perennially pale imitations.

Tito Vilanova was unlucky to be diagnosed with cancer barely a season into his job, meaning Gerardo Martino was handed the poisoned chalice of a great side having peaked and needing overhaul, while bearing the psychological imprint of its former leader, an unenviable task much like David Moyes' at Manchester United.

What Guardiola honed of course was a system everyone understood, a playing style based on short diagonal passing triangles creating an attacking force which advanced up the middle until it crashed like a wave on the edge of the opposition's penalty box.

Understanding the system came from having being schooled in La Masia and having played together for so many years that it became telepathic. Yet Martino & Neymar are newly arrived from another continent and other clubs. Martino has tried to install a more direct approach than before, but without the time to procure the players necessary for a new system, a muddle has ensued.

The Argentine's appointment looks decidedly like a stop-gap until the club land their intended fish, in much the same way it callously used Bobby Robson for a season until Louis Van Gaal became available. Yet who that special one is we will have to see.

The club probably should have reinforced the defence given Puyol's recurrent knee problems and found a quality partner for Piqué instead of making midfielder Javier Mascherano play at centre-back. It could also have invested in genuine wide men if that was the system to be used, but instead went for the marquee signing of Neymar.

Scoring more goals than the opposition is one way to win games, but a club neglects its defence at its peril and it appears Barcelona are less interested in backline recruitment. If Bayern are the leaders in world soccer right now it seems sensible to learn from them.

The Bavarians press like the Barça of old, have recognizable strikers and in Frank Ribéry and Arjen Robben two world-class widemen. But they are also physically impressive and perhaps Barcelona should improve their speed and strength to compete with the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Guardiola's new boys.

At the end of the day however, Barcelona, as its motto reminds us, remains 'more than a club' and its star will rise again. Soccer success comes in waves and there is no guarantee of sustaining it. Golden generations never occur on a regular basis and when a crop of several top players arrives at once but is not replicated for years, the reasons are never clear.

The competition across Europe is also fierce with millions being invested by arriviste oligarchs and sheikhs in new powers like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain to add to the existing powers in England, Germany and Italy. With the rise of Atletico Madrid, Spain itself is now hosting a three-horse dynasty for the first time in years.

The blaugrana will rise again, there is no doubt. With a vast sold-out stadium about to be expanded to 105,000 seats, a long history of being run by its members and its greater symbolism in Catalan folklore, there is no prospect of F.C. Barcelona continuing to decline as a football power.

But this is one season they will want to airbrush out of the official history.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A-League Finals 2014

A-League Finals 2014

Finals time in the A-League can only mean one thing - the annual debate about the merits of a finals system.

While the debate has been more muted this year, it's one that bubbles beneath the surface as five clubs vie to stop Brisbane Roar claiming what would be just reward for their season - a third A-League championship in four years.

Almost all football purists in Australia prefer the first-past-the-post system, rewarding the most consistent team across the 27-round season. This year there can be no argument that Brisbane Roar has been that team.

This is where the debate regarding the merit of a finals system becomes interesting.

With a first-past-the-post system, and with no relegation in the A-League, such was Brisbane's dominance this season the season as a contest would have ended weeks ago, with the final few rounds reduced to being, effectively, dead rubbers, except for the battle for the remaining ACL spots.

However, given the way some clubs seem to treat participation in the ACL that might be something some would be happy to avoid.

Yet with a finals system in place, the final few rounds generated excitement as teams swapped and changed positions all the way up to the final minute of the final game as Sydney’s last minute winner saw them climb above Adelaide into fifth, and set up an Elimination Final against arguably their biggest rival, Melbourne Victory.

In the process, however, the Premiership gets undervalued, particularly by FFA who seem intent on playing down its significance so as to not take away from the finals series. One just has to look at the low-key trophy presentations since the A-League’s inception to get an idea of where the Premiership sits in the pecking order according to the FFA. Finals are king, and by some margin, with the Grand Final winner (the 'Champion') the team recognised as the best of the season.

And rightly so, in my opinion.

Finals are an Australian tradition, across all sports, and whilst football shouldn’t always borrow from other sports on this occasion it is something that works. Just look at attendances, television ratings, media interest. Finals matter in Australia. And for the most part, the deserving Champion has emerged at the end of each season.

Let's hope that continues this season as Brisbane is the only club that truly deserve the title of Champion this season. The inconsistency, and at times, terrible form of other sides means there is only one deserving Champion this season. It would be an injustice should any other club hold aloft the toilet seat on May 4.

While following the other codes with a finals system is fine, one area the FFA and the A-League should be a leader is with simultaneous kick offs in the final round. Damien de Bohun's rationale for not having simultaneous kick offs, which is standard in almost all leagues across the world, was, quite frankly, a joke.

Television, time zones, stadium availability he cried.

Has he not heard of the red button on his FOXTEL remote? Fox Sports utilise it every weekend with their EPL coverage and did likewise with their Saturday night NRL coverage. It is entirely possible to screen five games at one time. Imagine the drama on the final day, especially one like this year when every game mattered and every goal altered the outcome of the top six.

With the fixture already manipulated to within an inch of its life, time zones aren't an excuse with any credibility. There was a round earlier this season when all five games were played in New South Wales. It's tough for Wellington and Perth, but scheduling the final round entirely on the East Coast isn't, or shouldn't, be an issue.

Even Adelaide, with only a 30-minute time difference, could comfortably host a game.

Stadium availability is the only excuse that has some merit given the difficulties in obtaining access to multi-use stadia when the three other football codes are also in-season. However, it is not insurmountable. With careful planning it can be overcome.

The one thing lacking is the will to actually make it happen. It's no longer good enough for the FFA to dismiss it out of hand.

Given the same debate has been had in the other football codes, who also steadfastly refuse to consider the option, it's time for the FFA to stop being a follower and be a leader.

Paul Williams


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

Hillsborough 25 Years On

25 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, asphyxiated following a crush in a spectator pen at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. 766 fans in total were injured, 300 of whom required hospitalisation.

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

The Liverpool v Nottingham Forest F.A. Cup semi-final was abandoned barely six minutes into the match as a tragedy of horrific proportions was unfolding across England's airwaves.

The aftermath was extraordinary, with an entire nation momentarily convulsed by the senseless carnage. English football came to a standstill, and Liverpool's manager and players said it felt impossible to continue playing the season after such a tragedy.

Although the whole country was touched in sympathy, the playing-out of the disaster was particularly Northern, involving three cities born of the 19th century industrial revolution: Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield. The blood spilt was largely working-class and in the resulting tableau football still flew the flag of the people's religion, a remnant of close-knit solidarity in a post-industrial age.

In an age of increasing individualism and dying collectivism, those Liverpool supporters wore the same colours, sang the same songs, surged into the ground together and were crushed and died as one. And Merseyside's very public reaction to the deaths - a tapestry of flags and scarves, packed cathedrals and wailing families, was decidedly Victorian in its sensibility.

Had the tragedy occurred in London or the South of England the mourning would have been more private and curtailed. Yet this cultural nuance was lost on some right-wing Southerners, such as conservative commentator Simon Heffer, who was angry at the victims' relatives and boldly claimed that "Liverpool fans were killed by the thuggishness and ignorance of other Liverpool fans."

Sunday Times writer Edward Pearce opined, "The shrine in the Anfield goalmouth, the cursing of the police, all the theatricals, come sweetly to a city which is already the world capital of self-pity."

Britain's best selling tabloid The Sun, prompted by Conservative M.P. Irvine Patnick, went further and claimed that dying Liverpool fans had been stolen from, sexually assaulted and urinated upon by their comrades, in a notorious front-page splash entitled "The Truth."

The then government was hardly football-friendly, considering its rowdy supporters a nuisance at best and a national disgrace at worst. Until the Taylor Report into Hillsborough destroyed its credibility, a scheme to force all fans to carry special I.D. cards was being planned.

The sports minister hastily despatched to Sheffield was the diminutive and shrill former rowing cox Colin Moynihan, whose clipped accent and private school background could scarcely have made him less qualified to understand northern football culture.

Although government ministers hurried to be photographed in Sheffield, the Thatcher administration's cultural distancing was laid bare, confirming many a suspicion it did not really care about the Northern cities, whose allegiances it had assumed to belong to the opposition.

Liverpool was a decidedly left-wing place, but with a special history that set it apart from the rest of the country. With quick access to the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, its deep-water harbour meant that since the 1800s it had become a working city of docks, cranes, ships and ocean liners. It had long been used to African and Irish immigration, lived off transatlantic trade including slavery and managed a religious divide unique for an English city.

While the Beatles made the Scouse accent famous across the world, the docks were starting to close and by 1989 Liverpool was reeling in the social wreckage left by industrial collapse. Nottingham and Sheffield had also witnessed decline but still profited from the labour of coal-miners, whom the Prime Minister had dubbed "The Enemy Within" during their bitter conflict a few years earlier.

The people of Liverpool had no option but to take control of the situation: Anfield became a sea of scarves and flowers of condolence, a charity single topped the charts and an appeal raised £12 million. Whatever the divisions, the nation appeared to come together in grief and consolation in a fleeting return to the spirit of the Blitz. There is thus some nostalgia for what was a famous cultural moment of the 1980s, a decade when politics and identity really mattered.

Football fans felt a particular brotherhood, and I well remember collections at grounds for the appeal.

When the semi-final itself was eventually replayed in Manchester, a surreal atmosphere enveloped the occasion, with Nottingham Forest coach Brian Clough admitting before kick-off his team was in "a no-win situation". Forest manfully respected the nobility of the sport by trying to win, but Kenny Dalglish's side was in a rabid mood, exorcising their demons as they tore into Clough's team, eventually winning 3-1 before lifting the cup itself in May.

Wembley dismantled its hated fences for that game, and across the nation, the cages which had imprisoned supporters like animals since the 1970s were taken down, never to return. Such was the feeling of catharsis after Hillsborough that English soccer hooliganism lost its appeal and would never dictate the direction of the national sport again. It was undoubtedly a watershed.

Justice Taylor's report analysed the tragedy precisely, yet drew the controversial conclusion, having been egged on by the Football Association, that installing all-seater stadia was the way forward, when standing can be perfectly safe, as German football proves today. The conversion of the nation's grounds to all-seated arenas began in earnest, initially aided by F.A. grants and later by the windfall of TV money from Rupert Murdoch's Sky.

Fans argued against the death of the terraces on phone-ins and in print, yet were powerless to prevent the transformation. English stadia certainly became safer as a result of Hillsborough and would never be again the "medieval fortresses" which had horrified Taylor, yet the sport lost an extraordinary atmosphere to be mourned ever after by the 'terrace generation'.

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

It is a mistake, as is often claimed, to argue that the Taylor Report and by extension Hillsborough helped midwife the Premier League. Technology had made satellite TV possible and a number of companies spotted there was a gap in the market for regular live football. As England's No.1 sport, football was always going to be snapped up by the highest bidder, all-seat stadia or no.

25 years later, the fulsome tributes to the 96 victims are a measure of the emotional strength of Liverpool as a city and football's undimmed power to unite, while the new inquest is a pertinent reminder of the immense and unresolved pain the tragedy caused.

The new age of the Premier League since 1993, along with its 'year zero' statistics erasing what came before means some may look on Hillsborough as an embarrassing detail of the past, or a merely local issue. Yet Liverpool fans' refusal to forget while the team returns as a force heading for this year's title, and perhaps the personal connection of skipper Steven Gerrard, who lost a cousin that day, has meant Hillsborough remains a hot topic in English football in 2014.

What remains frustratingly unresolved a quarter of a century on is the blame for it all. While some tried and failed to smear the supporters, the police's handling of the event, the design and maintenance of the stadium and the actions of the emergency services have never come under proper scrutiny.

The persistent campaign of 'Justice for the 96' never died down, and finally bore fruit a couple of years ago. In September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which had been formed the year before, exonerated the fans of any blame and reported that an astonishing 116 witness statements had been doctored by the police. It also concluded up to 41 of the 96 lives could have been saved had the emergency services been properly prepared.

At the end of 2012, the initial verdicts of accidental death were quashed by the Lord Chief Justice and a fresh inquest was launched, which is hearing testimony as we speak. Amid the commemoration of an unspeakable loss, the fusion of football and religion which filled Anfield today reminds us of the healing powers of community and friendship, and at the heart of that memory burns a defiant flame of justice undimmed by time.

Trevor Hicks, the highest-profile campaigner, who lost two daughters at Hillsborough,  had told the inquest earlier this week,

"To lose both your children is devastating, It's not that it's twice as bad, it's that you lose everything, the present, the future, any purpose."

Today he reminded the thousands gathered in the stadium today how strong they had all been:

 "We stuck together," he said. "We pulled, we pushed, and we refused to lie down. We refused to go away."

Following the failure of a number of private prosecutions against the South Yorkshire Police, the release of a number of previously withheld documents could finally see those negligent that fateful afternoon face justice.

Only then will the families and friends of the dead feel public vindication, although their personal losses will remain, tied to an unforgettable date:

The 15th of April 1989.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, April 14, 2014

History Tells Us That Brazil May Not Actually Be Favorites for 2014 World Cup

World Cup 2014, Brazil
Brazil May Not Actually Be Favorites for 2014 World Cup

With the 2014 World Cup taking place in the warm confines of Brazil this summer, many experts and fans alike have basically come to the consensus that this the Brazilian World Cup to lose.

The host nation has an incredibly talented squad, a pure striker in Neymar who is ready to burst on the international scene, and a pride that is simply unmatched by any other soccer nation on the planet. In front of their vibrant home fans, the Brazilians should stroll to glory!

But one thing that might actually crush this blind hope is a little trip down memory lane. 2014 will actually be the second time that Brazil has hosted a World Cup, with the first edition coming in 1950. That year was also supposed to be a resounding victory for the host country of Brazil, but instead, it became a great soccer tragedy widely known as the "Maracanazo".

The 1950 World Cup was a strange one in many ways. Because of World War II, the event had not been held since 1938, and by 1950 there were many famous soccer teams that took no part in the tournament, including France, Germany, Argentina, Belgium, the Soviet Union, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Turkey. Nevertheless the tournament would go on, and still did contain some famous contenders like Italy, Spain, Uruguay, England, the United States, Mexico, and Yugoslavia.

Another strange quality to the 1950 World Cup was the organization. Because of teams dropping out, only 14 teams participated, and one of the 4 groups contained just Uruguay and Bolivia. But Brazil had a group they could dominate, featuring Mexico, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia.Brazil certainly liked their chances, but with the event having not occurred in over a decade, it was hard to place a finger on any favorites.

That all changed in the first game between Brazil and Mexico. Brazil won 4-0 thanks in large part to a brace by the fantastic striker at that time Ademir. Although a draw with Switzerland was not ideal, Brazil pushed on to the final round with a win over Yugoslavia, Ademir again scoring a goal! The final round would be a round robin affair with the 4 group winners taking part.Spain and Sweden both won their groups, while Uruguay turned a few heads with an 8-0 rout of Bolivia, but were still seen as outsiders.

In the final round, Brazil again opened strongly. They routed Sweden 7-1 (Ademir with a hat trick) and trounced Spain 6-1. Other potent Brazilians from this team included Cico and Zizinho, and they played beautiful soccer that wowed the spectators. Meanwhile, Uruguay struggled. They could only draw 2-2 against Spain and barely beat Sweden 3-2 with a late goal by Miguez. Heading into the last match, Brazil was a team on fire and needed just a draw to be crowned champions. Uruguay looked shaky at best and needed to win.

The days leading up to the match were a party for Brazilian fans who had already declared themselves as champions. The worldwide press agreed with these sentiments. A special song was being composed for the soccer team of Brazil, FIFA president Jules Rimet had a speech written in Portuguese for the impending "winners", and victorious medals had already been assembled for the Brazilian players. Everyone seemed to forget the simple fact that there was still a soccer match to be played.

On the morning of the final game, Uruguay captain Obdulio Varela collected a batch of newspapers (all declaring Brazil to be the World Cup champions) and brought them forth to his teammates, instructing them to pee on them!  In the dressing room, he brought forth a rousing speech, urging his players to not be intimidated by their opponents and go forth with an offensive strategy.

This famously contradicted with the views of the Uruguayan coach Juan Lopez, who had wished for his players to defend. But the players then had to march into a stadium filled with nearly 200,000 roaring fans, nearly all of which supported Brazil. It was the largest crowd for a soccer match in history!

Something tells me that such a monstrous crowd may have actually played to the favor of Uruguay. Due to all the pre-match hype and declarations of glory, Brazil was under immense pressure.  For such a proud soccer country, they had yet to actually attain the World Cup, and in front of their fans this was supposed to be their coronation. Even the mightiest of contenders can falter under such circumstances!

The match began tensely as this weight was firmly upon their Brazilian shoulders. At half time the score was still tied 0-0 and Uruguay was gaining hope that they could snatch victory. But Brazil scored early in the second half and the party was full on!  Friaca had broken through and beat the keeper, sending the crowds into frenzied celebrations.

Varela played a typical soccer stall tactic and began arguing a nonexistent offside call.  Eventually the crowd had settled from their cheers due to the delay and the game continued.  This move may have been the vital act that prevented an all-out trouncing from occurring.
Uruguay then took command of the game and played with an immense spirit beyond what people thought was capable. Schiaffino and Ghiggia both scored goals as the half winded down, and by the time of the final whistle, Uruguay had become the champions!

An eerie silence descended upon the stadium. There was no presentation for Uruguay simply because no one had thought they would win. The trophy was merely placed in Varela’s hands as the stadium began to empty.  Despair was widespread throughout Brazil as people failed to believe their eyes.  There were even reports of fans committing suicide!  The horror became known as the "Maracanazo" and Brazilian football would never again be the same. Players were booted from the team permanently. They even discarded their white uniforms forever, taking on the current yellow home jerseys. In essence, it was a national tragedy! So can something of the same sort actually happen now, 64 years removed from this infamous occasion?

You better believe it can! The latest odds makers only mark Brazil as 3/1 favorites to lift the cup. While those odds are the best among the contenders, it would still be less than a 50% certainty that Brazil should take home the title!
Additionally, with so many close competitors like Germany, the Netherlands, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and even Uruguay all vying for glory, Brazil will have an even tougher task at winning the World Cup than they did in 1950.

In some way, I could even see Uruguay completing the feat once again.  They have top class strikers in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and I am sure that they are being reminded regularly about that famous triumph in 1950.
However, this 2014 World Cup progress, we can be certain of one thing.  This will be no cake walk for Brazil!

© Nicholas Spiller &

Friday, April 11, 2014

Fifa World Rankings April 2014

FIFA World Fifa Rankings
Fifa World Rankings April 2014

Fifa's World Rankings for March 2014 were published yesterday at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland. The Fifa World Rankings are now published on Thursday and not Wednesday as before.

Euro 2012 winners Spain are still on top of the FIFA rankings for yet another month and there were only a few changes in the top 20 positions. Spain are followed by Germany, Portugal, Colombia, Uruguay, Argentina, World Cup 2014 hosts Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, and Greece.

England are 11th up one place with their last game a home friendly win against Denmark at Wembley.

Scotland are in 22nd position, up an amazing 15 places. The Republic of Ireland are in 65th place up 3 places, Wales are in 47th, up 2 places with Northern Ireland down in 84th place, up 2 spots from last month.

Ranking Team
1 Spain
2 Germany
3 Argentina
4 Portugal
5 Colombia
6 Uruguay
7 Switzerland
8 Italy
9 Brazil
10 Belgium
11 Netherlands
12 England
13 Greece
14 USA
15 Chile
16 Croatia
17 France
18 Ukraine
19 Russia
20 Mexico

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Race that never ends

EPL news.
Norwich Sack Hughton

Chris Hughton's dismissal from Norwich City yesterday was the ninth sacking  in the Premier League this season.

Eight of the twenty teams have fired their managers since the campaign began last August, Fulham have pulled the trigger twice (on Martin Jol and Rene Meulensteen) and the result is a tableau of carnage with only six clubs employing the same coach they had in 2012.

Three of the top ten longest-serving managers currently working in the top flight were appointed as recently as last summer: Mark Hughes, Roberto Martinez and Jose Mourinho.

It is unlikely any more heads will roll before the end of the season, but expect another round of blood-letting in the summer. Last year five new Premier League bosses were appointed during the close season.

Despite the incessant opprobrium heaped upon Arsene Wenger, Spurs' Tim Sherwood is the bookmakers' favourite to be pushed next, followed by West Brom's Pepe Mel and Newcastle's Alan Pardew.

A Race that never ends

The merry-go-round is revolving so fast, the rewards of top-flight survival so high and the desperation of directors to avoid relegation so painful that at least half of the coaching roles on offer must be, as Graham Taylor said of England, impossible jobs.

If Michael Laudrup could bring Swansea their first major trophy and a host of admiring suitors but then be shown the door less than a year later following one win in ten, nobody is safe.

A fear of relegation is of course not the only reason for dismissal: Andre Vilas-Boas was booted out by Spurs with the team in seventh and having won eight out of sixteen matches.

A lust for short-term success militates against the sort of long-term planning the best teams have benefited from, leaving the hapless managers in Catch-22 positions, with no job security and an ever-present fear of the boot after a run of duff scorelines. Forget that new youth policy, the psychologist, advanced conditioning and new playing style you had in mind when you took the job, we need to get the ball into the box or I am out of a job on Monday.

Give him time is the perennial mayday call for managers in trouble, but since no-one can specify how long is enough, directors tend to plump for the fear factor, shift the blame and wield the knife. If Fulham go down this season, the owners can always blame it on Martin Jol instead of the mid-season upheaval his abrupt departure and the hasty appointing of his inexperienced assistant brought.

As of today, the bottom seven teams in the Premier League have all fired their managers this season, which makes Norwich's move with five games to go look like a clueless card, a last-ditch throw of the dice, or what they aptly call in American Football, a 'Hail Mary.'

God help us indeed.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, April 7, 2014

£40 a goal adds insult to Spurs' injury

Tottenham Hotspur

It has been a troubling season for Tottenham Hotspur.

After a £100 million summer spending spree and the capture of much-coveted talents like Christian Eriksen and Jan Vertonghen, Spurs failed to spark and fired coach Andre Vilas-Boas in December in the wake of  a 5-0 home humiliation by Liverpool which left the North Londoners seventh in the Premier League.

Tim Sherwood enjoyed a brief honeymoon but with six games to go the club are seventh again, out of the Europa League and need a miracle to reach the Champions League qualifying positions. Louis Van Gaal is widely tipped to take over at White Hart Lane next season and with a new stadium in the pipeline for 2017, there are nonetheless reasons to look forward hopefully.

Tottenham Hotspur

Spurs fans are also forking out for their frustrating campaign. If goal are what supporters want then Tottenham fans are being milked more than anyone else.

Although Arsenal have the dearest season-tickets, Tottenham's cheapest works out at £40.26 a home goal, the worst value in the Premier League, according to research done by the Manchester Evening News.

Their North-London rivals come second in the poor value for money table at £33.97 per strike, just ahead of struggling Norwich at £33.30.

Manchester City's surge means at £5.75 a goal, they are the best value team, followed by Everton at £13.33 per goal and Chelsea at £14.17.

Manchester United are twelfth with an average supporter outlay of £24.18 per home goal.

Best value teams

1. Man City    £5.75
2. Everton      £13.33
3. Chelsea      £14.17
4. Liverpool   £14.79
    Swansea     £14.79
5. Stoke          £15.64

Worst value teams

1. Tottenham      £40.26
2. Arsenal           £33.97
3. Norwich         £33.30
4. Sunderland     £28.57
5. Newcastle      £27.89

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Man U & Real top replica sales

Man U & Real top replica sales

Manchester United and Real Madrid are the teams who sell the most replica shirts, according to Germany's Bild newspaper.

Man U & Real top replica sales

Both clubs shifted 1.4 million jerseys in 2013, with Barcelona third with 1.15 million.

Chelsea are fourth with 910,000 official sales just ahead of European Champions Bayern Munich with 880,000.

The next five best-selling are in order Liverpool, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter and Milan.

U.S. sports firm Nike just edge out their German rivals Adidas in supplying the top ten teams with five clubs - United, Barça, Arsenal, Juve and Inter, versus Adidas' four - Real, Bayern, Chelsea and Milan.

Liverpool use American firm Warrior.

-Sean O'Conor

Weekly Football News April 7 2014

Weekly Football News
Norwich gamble on Premier League future

English strugglers Norwich City have taken a massive gamble in the race for Premier League survival by dismissing manager Chris Hughton with only five matches of the 2013/14 season remaining.

Hughton led the Canaries to 11th position in the top flight last season but fans have become increasingly restless in recent home matches, with some sections demanding the manager's sacking during their side's 1-0 home reverse to West Brom on Saturday.

Even though Norwich are five points clear of the relegation zone in 17th place, they do face an uncomfortable run-in with games against 18th-placed side Fulham as well as champions-elect Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. A Norwich statement said: "The decision has been taken to give the club the maximum chance of survival."

Youth coach Neil Adams, who led Norwich to FA Youth Cup success against Chelsea last season, has been placed in temporary charge until the end of the season.

Arsenal's slump continues

At the other end of the table in England, Arsenal face potentially missing out on a Champions League finishing position after their late-season slump continued with a 3-0 loss to resurgent Everton.

Goals from Steven Naismith, Romelu Lukaku and an own goal by former Everton midfielder Mikel Arteta condemned Arsenal to another heavy defeat by a leading side following convincing losses to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has led his side to 16 successive top-four finishes, but now admits that a place in next season's Champions League is under threat. Fifth-placed Everton are point behind Arsenal with a game in hand, although they do still have to play Manchester City and Manchester United.

"It is a massive worry to lose a game like that. We need to go back to basics," bemoaned Wenger.

"I wouldn't question the spirit of the team - they are focused and want to do well, they have just lost something on the confidence front. "It is difficult to identify if it is fear. The heavy defeats away from home have taken some of our charisma away. Is that fear, is that belief, is that confidence? Maybe a bit all together."

Bayern suffer shock league loss

Pep Guardiola has allowed having one eye on the return leg of the Champions League tie with Manchester United to deflect from league responsibilities, with Augsburg beating the new Bundesliga champions 1-0 on Saturday.

Guardiola fielded an experimental side ahead of Bayern's clash with the English champions on Wednesday, but his line-up failed their task, ending the Bavarians' 53-match unbeaten league run in the process.

"We tried everything until the end," Guardiola said. "But we have to accept that in football you cannot always expect to win.

"Now we have to prepare quickly for our big game against United in Manchester." Manchester United also rested some key players but still managed to run out 4-0 winners over Newcastle.

Maran humiliated by second sacking this season

A fifth straight defeat for former Cantania manager Rolando Maran has led to the coach being sacked by the club for the second time this season. Maran was originally dismissed in October and replaced by Luigi De Canio, who he subsequently replaced in January.

However, Cantania's seventh loss in the past eight games under the reinstated manager was enough to see him suffer the humiliation of parting company with the club for the second time in six months.

Maurizio Pellegrino, who managed the club in Serie C between 2001 and 2003, has been placed in charge.

Marc Fox

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Is the J-League Too Big?

J-League Talent Production Line
J.League 2014 News

The new J.League season kicked off recently with 18 teams all aspiring to hold aloft the J.League trophy come December.

But that begs the question - is 18 teams too many?

For those who listen to the excellent JTalk Podcast, they would've heard the animated Cesare Polenghi pose that very question in the final podcast last season. And it's a question that deserves serious consideration.

As discussed in my previous column, the number of Japanese players moving to Europe is growing steadily every year. This cannot help but have an affect on the quality of the league. While there are young talents coming through, invariably they too are leaving for Europe.

While Japan has a seemingly endless production line of talent, it can only stretch so far. As the top tier of players head to Europe, those players who would ordinarily be squad players, or playing in J2, are having to step up to fill the void. That's not intended as a slight on their ability; it is just the raw fact of the matter.

The K League Classic has undertaken a similar contraction in recent years, from 16 teams to 12 for that very reason - to increase the quality of the top tier as they introduced a new second division.

The Thai Premier League will also undertake a contraction in coming years as they have come to realize the rapid growth in recent years hasn't necessarily been a good thing for the league.

Sadly the J.League missed a golden opportunity to undertake a comprehensive review of its league structure with the introduction of J3 this season. With 18 teams in J1 and 22 in J2 the introduction of J3 was the perfect opportunity to cull some teams from both divisions, with those relegated from J2 forming the bulk of teams in J3, providing a stronger base for the division than promoting teams from the amateur JFL.

While the J.League see the introduction of J3 as the perfect vehicle to achieve their goal of a team in each of Japan's 47 prefectures, it could still have been achieved as J3 expanded in future years. Currently 36 prefectures have teams across the three divisions.

Back to J1, however. What is the perfect number of teams? Is it 14? 16?

It would be hard to see four teams cut from J1, on face value it appears to be too drastic. But again, that is what the K League Classic has done recently (16 to 12). If you want to create the ultimate 'Premier League' with the absolute best talent in Japan then 14 could possibly be the ideal number, ensuring that each club has a squad of relatively equal strength.

Then what to do with the fixture? A 14-team league means only 26-rounds using the traditional home and away format. That is clearly not enough. It would require a solution similar to the K League Classic where after 26 games the season is split into two (top seven, bottom seven) with each team playing the other six teams in their group one more time in a Championship and Relegation Group, creating a 32-round season, two less than they currently play.

On paper this could also satisfy the J.League's desire for a 'two-stage' season to grow declining attendances, with the final six games of the season played between the best (and worst) teams ensuring a thrilling climax to the season.

Looking at J2, a reduction from 22 to 18 teams would be the ideal situation. This allows for a simple 34-game home and away season, plus playoffs. With the added teams relegated from J1 (assuming a 14-team league), this means eight teams would have to have been relegated from J2 to create J3. Too much for one season, clearly, which is why with a little forward planning this could have been achieved over two seasons (two teams from J1 each season and four from J2 each season).

After the first season of relegation from J2, four new teams could have been added to J3 to ensure an eight-team league for its debut season, with the extra four relegated teams joining the following year to create a 12-team league.

Alas, that opportunity has since passed, but the same forward planning can still be made to achieve the same result.

The proposition wouldn't be popular, especially with the clubs most likely to face relegation from J1 and J2, but it would be in the best interests of the overall league structure and football in Japan.

So, what do you think? At 18-teams, is the J.League currently too big?

© Paul Williams & Soccerphile