Sunday, December 30, 2018

Liverpool's to Lose


"Football is an unpredictable game" is one of those mind-numbing cliches trotted out whenever there is an upset of sorts.

The thing is the yearly cycle of hopes and dreams alternately built up, fulfilled or smashed that is the football season lends itself so readily to repeated quips of interpretation. It's a marathon not a sprint, trip up in the home straight etc are perfectly adequate ways to describe what we know by hand now.

Of course it is a fairly predictable sport or else the betting industry would not survive, basing its business model on the laws of probability.

Liverpool FC

Leicester City's capture of the Premier League in 2016 is the frustrating spanner in the works of any accusations that money has captured the game and given birth to an unassailable hegemony of the top clubs.

Likewise the many Christmas twists in this season's Premier League race have drawn some into thinking it really is an open competition where David can kill Goliath on any given Saturday.

This is nonsense of course.

Liverpool might have found themselves in an unexpected seven-point lead at the top of the tree as we enter 2019 and Manchester City have just as surprisingly lost two on the trot but the top six are still the usual suspects at this halfway stage.

That said, it would be healthy if a club which has not won the title since the end of the 1980's could capture it in 2018, even if they have the spending power to be there or thereabouts (sorry for the cliche) every season.

The gap between the top five and the rest is substantial. Wolves, despite a rejuvenating and most unexpected 3-1 win at Wembley yesterday over the hitherto lauded Tottenham Hotspur, are still 25 points behind the leaders.

Was Spurs' recent cavalcade a false dawn? And what about Arsenal, who despite all the talk of a rebirth under Unai Emery, have still only won one point more than they had this time last season.

The Gunners were a country mile behind a rampant and ravenous Liverpool at Anfield in their 5-1 demolition so they can put their Champions League plans on hold.

Oh and then there is Manchester United who have won three on the bounce since Jose Mourinho was handed his P45. Undoubtedly the timing of the Special One's firing was timed to coincide with a run of manageable fixtures: Cardiff, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Newcastle, plus Reading in the FA Cup.

Spurs away on the 13th of January should bring the Baby-Faced Assassin's explosive arrival to an end, but that is followed by home matches with Brighton and Burnley, further smoothing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's path.

So far so good, but honeymoons always end. At this stage it still seems hard to see United making the Champions League with an eight-point deficit to fourth place to conquer plus the staying power of Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City to counter.

Solskjaer should probably remain boss given his popularity with fans and players, but missing out on the Champions League could see United on the managerial merry-go-round yet again.

As for Liverpool, the elephantine 27-year wait for the title for England's traditionally strongest club could be set to end in 2019, but there is a long way to go and some stiff competition to see off first.

I can hear another cliche coming on.

Many of us would like to see Liverpool win as a tonic to Man City's recent dominance, a reward for Jurgen Klopp's enthusiasm and a fond reminder of the Red Machine of our childhoods.

It might also help gnarled old curmudgeons like me accept there is still a sense of competition left in England's top flight.

Klopp himself of course is doing his best to dowse the fires of expectation but he cannot alone stop the media, fans, players and himself starting to get goosepimples as we pass the halfway mark.

Pep Guardiola has clearly been studying Alex Ferguson's mind games, calling Liverpool "the best team in Europe" this week as the glint of the title trophy starts to tantalise.

So no pressure there then. May the best team win.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Fifa World Rankings December 2018

Fifa World Rankings December 2018

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for December 2018 were published on December 20 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

In the final rankings for 2018 there is no change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, runners-up Croatia, beaten semi-finalists England and Portugal.

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

Senegal finish the year as the top African team in 23rd place. England remain in 5th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 42nd place; Japan are in 50th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 53rd in the list. The USA are in 25th. Scotland are 38th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 33rd place, Northern Ireland are 35th.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Still Nothing Special


Shocked but not surprised was my and most people's reaction to Jose Mourinho being fired by Manchester United.

The Special One has been in a sulk since the summer when he complained about his transfer targets not being met, proof that he and the board were not seeing eye to eye.

Once that crucial relationship breaks down, the manager's job will always be under threat when the wins dry up.

Old Trafford
Old Trafford for the first post-Mourinho home game
Mourinho probably had a point when he blamed the club for not giving him the team he wanted to create. Watching millionaire misfits Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez run around to only moderate effect while their team relentlessly failed to gel or play the attacking football Old Trafford expects has been painful for Red Devils supporters.

The world's richest club by turnover had its worst start to a season in 29 years and sat nineteen points off the top and eleven points behind the Champions League places, leaving the Liverpool match last weekend as a last-chance saloon for Mourinho.

Derbies or high-profile cup games often cock the firearm ready for the discharge of a manager.

Yet sometimes the coach does not expect to lose his job.

I remember watching Chris Coleman in his final press conference for Fulham insistent that the chairman Mohamed Al-Fayed had no problem with him when he had already issued the directive to sack him.

On the other hand it is hard to forget the otherwise calm Ronald Koeman's anguished face in his final home match for Everton, feeling betrayed by the board and fully aware that nothing would stop the axe being wielded as Arsenal won 5-2 at Goodison Park.

We surely have not seen the last of Mourinho but as of now it is hard to see where he goes from here in club football.

His defend-first, cancel out the opposition second tactics seemed resolutely obsolete in England this season as the attacking flair of Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham motored past Man U's turgid playing style.

Yes he won the Europa League at Old Trafford but it was hard to see his side advancing past PSG, Mbappe, Neymar et al in the next round of this season's Champions League, the only competition which matters to a club the size of United.

Perhaps Mourinho will return to Portugal, be lured by a Serie A side or a national team will come calling. Yet it is unlikely he will manage a big English or Spanish club again.

As for Manchester United, they are still stuck in a post-Ferguson hangover. Their third replacement for their truly special one has failed and they have admitted they will not appoint a permanent replacement until the summer of 2019 at the earliest.

Mourinho had to go as it is a results-based business and there was no sign of improvement on the horizon, but he alone cannot be blamed for all United's woes.

Ed Woodward, the club's executive vice-chairman, will doubtless maintain his public silence but he has serious questions to answer.

United are in once sense still the biggest club in the world but for far too long have been performing like one of the also-rans.

With the resources available to them they really have no good excuses.

Their legions of fans across the glove deserve much better but five years on from the end of Fergie, an extraordinary gloom persists over Old Trafford.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Shape of Things to Come


River Plate's extra-time win over city rivals Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores final was a great day out for the Bonaerense fans who had made the trip to Madrid, as well as the Argentine expats living in Spain.

My River-supporting friends from Ponferrada, four and a half hours' drive to the north-west of the capital, could not believe their luck when CONMEBOL announced the premier competition of South American club football would be coming to Spain.

81,000-capacity Bernabeu
The 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid

But the atmosphere in the 81,000-capacity Bernabeu, although warm, was not as fiery as the first leg was at Boca's 49,000-seat La Bombonera or as passionate as it would have been at River's 61,688 seat Monumental arena in Buenos Aires.

Only 4,000 fans of each club had crossed the ocean but nevertheless the occasion felt auspicious, in the home of the reigning UEFA and FIFA champion club and also with a historic connection to Argentina as the field where the great Argentine ball wizard Alfredo Di Stefano dazzled for Real Madrid and pioneered international team competition.

The game itself was a lively affair with plenty of goalscoring chances but the cauldron of the Superclasico between Buenos Aires' great rivals was not conjured up.

While River had lost home advantage thanks to some of their violent aficionados, they still won the cup in the end thanks to their Colombian midfield orchestrator Juan Quintero, whose exquisite strike was a tribute to the technical heritage of South American soccer.

The irony of the trophy named after the continent's rebels against Spanish rule returning to the home of its colonial masters was somewhat lost although as CONMEBOL's boss Alejandro Dominguez correctly confirmed, it was "an exceptional decision in exceptional circumstances."

Equally ironic was that the the Spanish Football Federation and Players' Union have been fighting La Liga's plan to stage league matches in the United States, beginning with the Barcelona v Girona clash in January, yet moved hell and high water to bring the Boca v River game to Spain.

As it stands, that particular game looks dead in the water as Barcelona have withdrawn, scared by UEFA threats to ban them from the Champions League for up to two seasons and FIFA threats to ban its players from their respective national teams. Yet you can bet your last Euro we have not heard the last of such ideas. Javier Tebas, the chairman of La Liga, is ploughing on having taken the bold or rash step of penning a 15 year deal with Charlie Stillitano and Relevent Sports.

While it was sold as helping out the South American confederation in its hour of need as they searched for a safe venue for their showpiece, the successful staging of the show in Madrid will inevitably sow the seed of future big South American matches crossing the Atlantic or heading north to Mexico or the USA, all countries which would fill stadia the size of the Bernabeu.

As a football fan who grew up with terrace culture, playing matches overseas remains anathematic to me, but as a European I have to admit the sight of two big South American sides thrashing it out in Spain was a rare treat.

Another region of the world desperate for big-name soccer is the Middle East of course and victorious River Plate are now in the United Arab Emirates for the FIFA Club World Cup, where a final with Real Madrid no less looms on the 22nd of December in Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps the genie of matches being played overseas is now out of the bottle.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, December 6, 2018

On the way to Wembley with Woking


Clubs five leagues apart facing off? The F.A. Cup must still retain some magic.

Last Sunday I watched my home town team, Woking, a team from the sixth level of English football, beat Swindon Town, a team from the fourth, 1-0 away to reach the third round of the F.A. Cup.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Swindon had made four changes and their fans were far from excited at the prospect of playing a non-league team, even if it meant a plum tie in the next round.

Out of the 3,654 in attendance around 1,000 were from Woking. The tickets were a steal at only £10, around half of what Woking charge as a matter of fact, but the locals were still not up for it.

A true supporter always feels empathy with fans of other teams and there was something melancholic about visiting a stadium barely a fifth full, when at the start of the nineties there had been a lot of excitement about the place as stylish passing football flourished under Ossie Ardiles and then Glenn Hoddle.

With such paltry crowds and takings, one could only wonder how Swindon could hope to thrive again.

Playing two divisions below in the semi-professional National League South, Woking's win was an act of (modest) giant-killing. For little teams a cup run is only a temporary fillip; in the case of the Cardinals the main battle remains getting out of the division into which they were relegated last season.

Despite a drizzly, gloomy day in the West Country, the Cards' 54th minute goal from Jake Hyde, a former trainee at the County Ground as it happened, sparked an explosion of bliss in one corner of the County Ground. The final whistle was the cue for more delirium.

So the reward for our 15 minutes of fame is a home tie with Watford in the 4th Round in January. The Hornets are not the Gunners or the Red Devils it is true but nobody in Woking is moaning about bagging a Premier League side.

If Ruud Gullit or Paul Ince had drawn Arsenal or Manchester United out of the urn instead then the  little tiled roof of Woking's Kingfield Stadium would surely have been taken off.

Memories of our greatest day resound. In January 1991 Woking were also playing in the sixth tier of English football but defeated West Bromwich Albion, then in the second, 4-2 away in the third round of the F.A. Cup.

Talk about delirium, that day for Woking fans was an ecstatic trip to heaven and beyond.

That chilly day in the West Midlands remains probably the happiest day of my life, when my dismal, concrete home town suddenly and fleetingly became, mirabile dictu, the toast of the nation.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

In a dusty drawer, I still have the yellowing sports pages of every Sunday newspaper from that weekend as Woking led the headlines and I continue to believe that the council should erect a statue of our Gibraltarian hat-trick hero that day at the Hawthorns, Tim Buzaglo.

When I met the real Mr Buzaglo in the flesh a year or so later I was truly star-struck.

For those who grew up with professional teams for their local clubs it is hard to grasp the non-league fan mindset.

Our clubs are not on the telly and our supporting lives consist of treks to rackety little stadia in peripheral settings and hunting around for news and results. Sometimes we used to travel on the same coach as the players to games, so small was our away following.

My formative football years as a teenager were spent watching the Surrey Senior Cup, F.A. Trophy et al and I felt inside at the time that all those freezing Tuesday nights on terraces with my acrylic red and white scarf for comfort were something special, although I could not quite articulate why.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

As a teenager, football appealed to my burgeoning masculinity and sense of tribe and at lower levels of the pyramid, supporters feel more deeply connected to their team. I felt pride and belonging chalking up as many Woking games as I could. Football was my favourite thing so the 1991 win at the Hawthorns was the apex of my life hitherto.

Surrey itself is a football backwater, despite its proximity to London. It has no professional sides so the F.A. Cup affords us our only moments in the sun.

Sutton United's 2-1 win over top-flight Coventry City in 1989 is generally considered the pinnacle of Surrey football history and the go-to example of non-league giant killing but in Woking we would argue our win at West Brom was the greater.

Four divisions separated the teams in both those games but while Sutton won 2-1 at home, Woking won 4-2 away. In the next round we both played top-level teams on the road: Woking lost 0-1 to Everton and Sutton lost 0-8 to Norwich City. In beating a top-flight side however, Sutton retain their claim to fame.

On the way to Wembley with Woking

Non-league football has not changed as much as the professional game since. The terrace culture of standing and surging when you score is still alive, as is running up and down steps to berate or celebrate, while the ability to move away easily from idiots is a great advantage over all-seat stadia.

Even the luxury of switching ends at half time remains common. You feel closer to the players because you physically are.

There is still something very endearing about the simply-produced programmes, parochial sponsors, cheap food and drink stalls, damp and rotting wooden stands, hospitality suites in otherwise condemned buildings and perhaps above all the loyal, decrepit old timers who still hobble to every match come rain or shine.

The English football season is largely a winter one, played in the worst weather of a country with a notoriously bad climate anyway. To subject yourself to 90 minutes of crap football in that environment so regularly says something about the powerful draw of the sport.

In 1991 after our miracle in the Midlands we were drawn at home to Everton but switched the tie for financial reasons. Our towering £1 million stand remains as the legacy of that controversial but in the end probably wise move.

We lost 1-0 away at Goodison Park to a Kevin Sheedy shot in the fourth round, unable to repeat the magic of the Hawthorns but with fond memories of an unlikely trip to Merseyside one January Sunday for a tenth of our population.

There will be five divisions' difference again for Woking in the next round of 2019's F.A. Cup.

Impossible again? Nah, we are only four wins from Wembley.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile