Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Six of the Best


Whoever comes out on top in England this season, it has been a refreshingly competitive campaign.

Instead of one side streets ahead, three clubs had been in contention for much of the season before the league became a two-horse race in the final straight, but the top six as a whole have created plenty of juicy stories.


Fans of Tottenham Hotspur, whose title challenge has fallen by the wayside again, are far from unhappy as they have a shiny new stadium and more importantly their side are in the last four in Europe for the first time in a half-century.

That Spurs are within touching distance of the Champions League final is remarkable enough, but to have done it without Harry Kane too is extraordinary. In him, Christian Eriksen, Dele Ali and Song Heung Min they have four world-class footballers who when on song can defeat anybody.

Liverpool and Manchester City could have enjoyed a Champions League final as well as a Premier League finale but Pep Guardiola's men fluffed their lines at the Etihad by losing on away goals to Tottenham.

What was interesting was the feeling City fans were apparently split on whether they would prefer the European Cup to another domestic triumph, perhaps an unprecedented treble of Championship, FA Cup and League Cup

On paper the Champions League is the greater prize and one which continues to elude Guardiola since he departed the Camp Nou, but whispers say he values the longer slog of the Premier League more highly.

In addition, City fans, despite their recent renaissance due to Abu Dhabi, still retain the stamp of years of domestic underachievement and would secretly prefer to finish above Manchester United and spike Liverpool's revival by bagging the Premier League.

It certainly seemed odd that Guardiola felt the need to exhort Citizens supporters to come out in force and make noise for their Champions League quarter-final.

If Liverpool win the title and Jurgen Klopp lifts the curse which has afflicted the Reds since 1990 the season will belong to them, but if Spurs win the Champions League the annals will be split on which achievement was the greater.

Expect an ocean of tears from both clubs' fans whatever happens in May.

Given Manchester United's sudden precipitous decline under 'saviour' Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, the upcoming Manchester derby could effectively hand city rivals City the title. While Liverpool have the swashbuckling romance in their campaign, City's relentless march keeps them a point ahead.

For Liverpool to have even maintained such a close contest by this stage is extraordinary and their German leader should win the Manager of the Year award for that alone. On the other hand, Guardiola would probably trump him to the prize by bagging the domestic treble.

After United's 4-0 capitulation to Everton, the knives, naysayers and doom-mongers are out in ubiquitous force for their manager everyone was hailing as a messiah and an inspirational choice only a few weeks ago.

How quickly things change in football, with all the experts who lauded the Old Trafford boardroom to the skies for appointing an insider, now delightedly dismantling their philosophy as fatally flawed from the outset.

Now hands up who saw the Norwegian having a flying start for ten games then collapsing like a pack of cards. Currently sat in sixth, United are set to miss out on European football altogether next season, which would be tragic for a team of their stature.

They might not be leading the league or advancing in Europe anymore, but the Red Devils are clearly still the biggest club in England.

Arsenal could end up winning the Europa League, a trophy Unai Emery knows better than most, and entering the Champions League through the back door if they fail to finish in the top four in the Premier League.

Gunners fans should be reasonably content with their first season post-Wenger as clubs usually slip under the surface just after a long-serving manager retires.

Chelsea supporters on the other hand will pack away their scarves in May with regret at another domestic campaign which failed to ignite with another beleaguered Mediterranean manager.

The jaw-dropping farce of goalkeeper Kepa refusing Maurizio Sarri's demand to leave the field at Wembley in the League Cup Final will live long in the memory.

The summer will surely see Belgian ball wizard Eden Hazard leave Stamford Bridge, despite scintillating form this campaign.

All is not lost however as the Blues could meet the Gunners in an all-London Europa League final in Baku in May.

Despite two sides from the North-West conducting an enthralling title race, the continent's two major trophies could be heading to London.

Whoever wins what in May, the permutations in April for the top six clubs remain intriguing.

As we enter the home straight, take a pause to consider what a season to savour this has been.

(s) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Cruyff's Kids Play on in Europe


Real's reign is over but who will take their place on top of European football?


Tonight Barcelona proved Manchester United's amazing comeback at PSG was only a flash in the pan by cruising past the Red Devils 4-0 on aggregate, while Ajax are in the last four for the first time in over 20 years.

Blaugrana 2019 might not be a Guardiola vintage but their fierce gegenpressing and moments of Messi magic were enough to make a top six Premier League side look also-rans. Pep has not been working in Catalonia for seven years now but his record-breaking tenure still echoes in the Camp Nou atmosphere and the team's quick passing style.

The Dutch masters' elimination of Serie A's runaway leaders Juventus after knocking out the holders must also make them contenders for the big prize, despite their inexperience.

A young and inexperienced Ajax won the cup in 1995 and since losing the 2017 Europa League final to Jose Mourinho's United side have maintained their revival.

United by comparison have spent ten times what Ajax have in the past two years but have stumbled out of the competition tonight.

Liverpool and Manchester City should join Barca and Ajax in the last four, which could result in a parallel tussle for the Champions League to match the pair's dual for the crown in England.

The romance is with Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool's quest to avenge last season's loss in the final and bring the trophy back to Anfield for the first time since 2005, but the blue machine of City will be hard to halt.

Tottenham stand in City's way for now and Spurs on a roll can bring the same power-play football as Liverpool can to the competition - a fascinating contrast to the Barcelona DNA in Ajax and City.

La Liga has won the last five editions and for my money the Blaugrana or its former coach are the most likely to bag the silverware this time, maintaining the Spanish succession.

2019 feels like an interregnum after Real's recent fall from grace but Guardiola's grand projet in Manchester could be the most likely replacement dynasty.

With Ajax, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola still in the competition, the spirit of Johann Cruyff is alive and well in European football.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings April 2019

Fifa World Rankings

Fifa's World Rankings for April 2019 were published on April 4 at FIFA HQ in Zurich, Switzerland.

There is some change in the top 20 positions. Belgium who finished third at the World Cup 2018 in Russia are still top followed by champions France who defeated them in the semis, Brazil, England Croatia and Uruguay.

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

Senegal are the top African team in 23rd place. England are up one place to 4th. Wales are 19th. Australia are in 41st place; Japan are in 26th spot. Near neighbors South Korea are 37th in the list. The USA are in 24th. Scotland are 44th. The Republic of Ireland occupy 29th place, Northern Ireland are 33rd.

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

Full world rankings

Previous Fifa World Rankings

© Soccerphile.com

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle


I've just been on a quick trip to Northern Ireland to see relatives but I could not get away from football.

For one thing the Northern Irish are mad about the game, passionate about the Premier League and the big two from Glasgow.

Soccerphile in the Emerald Isle

Walk around an Ulster town and you will see more football shirts than in a comparable English town. Travel to Liverpool or Manchester United for a home game and you cannot miss the many Irish accents around.

As it happened, all Ulster eyes were fixed on the telly on Sunday as there was an Old Firm game, a classically passionate affair won by Celtic, the team Irish Catholics gravitate to. Rangers are the Ulster Protestants' club of choice, their red white and blue colours chiming perfectly with their Union flags.

The Ulster connection with the Glasgow derby remains strong: Celtic manager Neil Lennon is Northern Irish and famously resigned from captaining its national team after Loyalist death threats (he is Roman Catholic); Celtic fans fly Irish tricolours.

The Northern Protestants, predominantly descendants of 17th century English and Scottish colonisers, support Northern Ireland as their national team while the Catholics cheer the Republic of Ireland, established in 1924 after the island's partition.

As a classic marker of the complexity of this island's politics, Northern Ireland wear green and their badge is a Celtic cross with shamrocks, all symbols of Catholics and the South eschewed by hardcore Unionists who assert their British identity. Confused? You are not the only one.

Northern Ireland has traditionally been the stronger but the Republic enjoyed a golden age under England hero Jack Charlton, reaching the last eight of the European Championship and the World Cup. At Euro 2016 both Irelands reached the last 16.

Currently, the North is ranked by FIFA slightly higher, 36th versus the Republic's 39th.

There are also two leagues in Ireland, the NIFL Premiership (Irish League) in the North and the League of Ireland in the South. In 2018 the average crowd in the North was 1,090, in the South it was 2,139, the level of the fifth tier of English football.

The League of Ireland (the Republic's League) plays February to October, avoiding the worst of the notorious Irish weather. It was the Romans after all who called the place 'Hibernia' - Winter Land. It also cannily plays on Friday nights to avoid competition with English football.

The North's league, the NIFL Premiership, by comparison, goes head-to-head with English football by playing August to May on Saturday afternoons. Does that partly explain their lower crowds I wonder?

In Derry/Londonderry, the second city of the North, the town's team Derry City have played in the South since 1972 for security reasons, another curiosity. Local hero James McClean, now at Stoke City following spells at Sunderland, Wigan and West Bromwich, plays for the Republic despite having started in the North's U21s.

McClean, who hits the headlines every year when he refuses to wear a poppy, was in the press deriding Declan Rice, who had just made his England debut having played for the Republic, the country of his grandparents, since U-16 level up to senior team friendlies.

After an assured debut against the Czech Republic for the holding midfielder, Eire's loss is surely England's gain.

A handful of Northern-born footballers have crossed the border for international football, as anyone born in the island of Ireland can obtain an Irish passport, another curiosity.

This small FIFA nation (population 1.9 million) is a football backwater on the wider stage but has produced players like Tottenham legend Danny Blanchflower, Arsenal/Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings and until recently Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill.

And the province also gave us one of the game's greatest ever players in George Best.

It was the Belfast-born ball wizard's wish that the two Irelands unite on the football field as they have on the rugby one, but unification is not on the agenda of either association, even though it would make sense for many reasons.

Friday night saw Derry City eke past Sligo Rovers at the evocatively named Brandywell Stadium, recently renovated to hold 8,000 and with a 3G pitch, the latter of which I was not too enamoured. Still, the Candystripes fans sang and flew giant red and white flags, making for a fun night out.

Next door to the Brandywell stands another stadium holding 22,000, Celtic Park, used for Gaelic football and hurling.

It is easy to forget the draw of traditional sports in Ireland as they do not feature in the rest of the British Isles, but the largest stadium in Ireland remains Dublin's Croke Park Gaelic games stadium with a capacity of 82,000.

Another draw in certain parts of Ireland, particularly Munster and middle-class and anglophile areas, is rugby union, which draws sellout crowds to internationals in Dublin. Unlike in football, Ireland are a force in rugby, currently ranked third in the world.

Ireland, in general, is a second division nation in European football at international level and lower tier when it comes to the club game, a situation unlikely to change.

There is only so much you can do with a small population and the competing attractions of other sports and a football giant next door, whatever the local fervour.

A small landmark will be reached however when Dublin's Landsdowne Road (capacity 51,700) hosts a first and second round match in Euro 2020.

If the Celtic nations or British Isles can combine forces in the future then maybe even the World Cup itself could land on Irish soil.

In the meantime, visitors can console themselves with talking soccer with locals well versed in the ins and outs of the Beautiful Game, whether over a whiskey, Guinness or Irish coffee.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Fancy getting a personalised signed shirt off the Ginger Prince for your wall? Pre-order your shirt now exclusively from @allstarsignings here for just £119.99.

It's on a first come, first served basis whilst stocks last so don't delay! Framed options also available.

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

Paul Scholes Signed Shirt

All shirts will come with an Allstarsignings certificate of authenticity which will incorporate a photo of Paul Scholes signing at our upcoming signing April 13th 2019.

© Soccerphile.com