Sorry wrong audience! Champions league has started, and all the excitement has come back. The talk with friends all week has pretty much been about the Champions League, better known as the trophy Chelsea have failed to win even after spending £350m+, but that’s another debate. Who will win this year’s champions league? 

My friend Darren said- ‘Chelsea… Mourinho knows he needs it so he will do his best to win it’

My friend Pete said- ‘Man Utd… Fergie wants to win it one more time before he retires’

And my friend Behfar said- ‘Real Madrid… they have bought sensibly for once and it will come to aid them this year in the champions league’ 

The truth is, nowadays no-one knows. Apart from me. This year no ‘surprise package’ will win it… either Real Madrid or Chelsea will win it. Why? Because they will. More seriously, Mourinho is edging closer to being sacked by Roman. Roman has done something this season we have never seen him do; walk out after Chelsea let in a goal. This was done after Villa scored their second goal at Villa Park a few weeks ago. Read the rest of this entry »

When fans of the English Premier League refer to the ‘top four’, they are generally talking about Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. However with the influx of the new TV money there appears to be a tide of contenders threatening to break the dominance of the big four.Ever since Rafa Benitez joined and started reshaping a Liverpool side that often failed to deceive into genuine contenders for honours and Roman Abromovich came in and gave Mourinho so much money to spend that they could afford to buy £21 million bench players like Shaun Wright Phillips, the top four places in the league table have generally been filled by those teams each season. Finishing in one of the top four places gains qualification for the Champions League- the two top automatically enter the group stages while the teams that finish third and fourth play a two legged tie against often substandard European opponents.

The last time the stranglehold on the top four was broken was by a spirited Everton side in 2004/05, who finished three points ahead of a Liverpool team distracted by the Champions League – but the Toffees then failed to advance in either the Champions League or the UEFA Cup, losing to Villareal and then getting thrashed by Dinamo Bucharesti. Liverpool still qualified for the Champions League the next season by virtue of them picking up the trophy and being allowed back in by UEFA. Other than Everton, the closest a side has come spoiling the party was the Tottenham Hotspur team of 2005/06, who led a struggling Arsenal side for large parts of the season before succumbing on the last day of the season to West Ham United and thus gifting Arsenal their place in the Champions League qualifiers. While most do not think that another team will break into the top four very soon, with the amount of big spending and the types of players being brought into the Premier League, anything is possible. Here, I will take a look at the four teams that I feel are the most capable of doing so.

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When Barcelona wrapped up arguably the coup of the transfer window by picking up the world class Thierry Henry for just over £16 million pounds, football fans were both puzzled and ecstatic about the transfer. Yes, they would be able to finally see four of the most formidable attacking players play together for one team- but on the other hand did Barcelona really need Henry? Already possessing Ronaldinho Gaucho, Leo Messi and Samuel Eto’o up front, Barcelona had three players that any team in the world would be happy to have one of- let alone three. Those that watched last season’s title race would surely argue that their defensive needs needed improving much more than their attacking ones, which is why the purchase of Henry was seen as unneeded by many top football pundits around the world (Gabriele Marcotti stated that “where else but La Liga would their [Real Madrid] closest rivals sign one of the greatest attacking weapons in footballing history at great expense despite already boasting three of the best strikers in the world?”). Although Barcelona scored more goals and conceded fewer goals than any other team in La Liga, they finished second, not winning the title due to their inferior head to head record against champions Real Madrid.

Barcelona scored 78 goals in their 38 league games, meaning they scored an average of around 2 goals a game. Their 33 goals conceded meant they conceded an average of just below 0.9 goals a game. If you take these two figures into account, this means that should have (on average) won every game 2-1, so why didn’t they win the title? Obviously in football you cannot win all your games- you will draw some, and yes you will lose some. However, given the fact that Barcelona scored 12 more goals and conceded 7 goals less than champions Real Madrid, this shows that they should have not even let the Bernabeu side close enough to let the head to head results have any meaning on the title race. The conclusion we can draw from these facts is that when Barcelona won games, they won them well yet when they conceded in games, they often lacked the impetus to claw their way back into a winning position. Most would argue that a striker of Henry’s calibre would only help them do this- here I will reason whether Henry’s signing was as needed or not. Read the rest of this entry »

While the Gunners are currently second in the table, level on points with leaders Liverpool albeit with an inferior goal difference, nearly no one apart from their fans have even mentioned their names with regards to who will be competing for the title come May 2008. Liverpool will finally do it is the cry, or that Manchester United and Chelsea will both recover from their shaky starts to reclaim their places at the top. The young Arsenal side is written off as being too youthful, too experienced- how can they do it when the average age of their first team is so low? Read the rest of this entry »

Real Madrid Club de Fútbol. 30 La Liga titles, 9 European Cups- that is what you think of when the name of the current Spanish title holders is mentioned. Synonymous with tapping up, big name players and a succession of sacked managers, Real Madrid is arguably the biggest, and certainly one of the most interesting clubs in the world of football. In the past seven years of football alone, Real spending in the transfer market for a who’s who of world football includes- £47m for Zinedine Zidane, £39m for Luis Figo, £26m for Ronaldo and £25m for David Beckham. These four were the main stars brought in as part of president Florentino Pérez’s Galáctico Era, in which he promised to bring in one Galáctico, or star player , every year.

Vicente Del Bosque was the manager at that time under Pérez and renowned for his calm and emotionless demeanour. He created a team capable of outplaying and outscoring any team, and his star -studded team won trophy after trophy- the Champions League in his first season followed by two La Liga triumphs and another Champions League win in his four years in Madrid. During these years Real Madrid were not just the rulers of Spain , but of Europe as well. While all good things come to an end, it was a surprise how the end came about at Real. Del Bosque, the man who had so calmly managed the big egos at Real , was sensationally not offered a new contract just a day after he had orchestrated the club’s march to its 29 th La Liga title. Under Perez, Real had always focused on attack rather than defence- their belief seemed to be that they would always outscore their opponent and thus it did not matter how many the opponent scored as long as they scored more. This failure to view defence of major importance led to the departure of Claude Makalele to Chelsea, the best defensive midfielder in the world leaving after he was not offered the same wages as the Galácticos Real employed. Patrick Vieira, one of the world’s premier midfield maestros, also rejected Madrid’s advances because they refused to offer him the same salary offered to Real’s attacking players.

This blinkered view towards defence, a failure to let new managers have ample time to build a team and a series of bad signings led to four barren years at Real, during which not a single trophy was won. Seven different managers came and went in those four years and many signings failed to impress, such as Walter Samuel, Antonio Cassano and Julio Baptista. This unfruitful period reached it’s lowest point when Real’s squad of ageing superstars were thoroughly outclassed by a youthful Arsenal side in the Champions League, where Real were seen off due to a wonder goal by once targeted striker Thierry Henry. Finally, on February 27th, 2006 Florentino Perez resigned, ending the Galáctico Era and signalling the start of a new time for Real Madrid.

This new period started on July 2nd, 2006 when Ramón Calderón was chosen as club president. Calderón started off by putting Fabio Capello in control of Real’s squad . As Capello had led AC Milan, Juventus and AS Roma to title wins in the notoriously defensive Serie A, it was clear he would sort out the defensive issues Real Madrid had faced. Immediately going back to his old club to sign Emerson and Cannavaro, available on the cheap after a disruptive Serie A scandal, Capello also added Mahamadou Diarra from Lyon. These three defensively minded players were regarded as being among the best in the world in their respective positions. Lastly Capello went to Manchester United in the English Premiership and bought star striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy for a mere £10.3m- a bargain for one of the best goal-poachers in the world.

Season 2006/07 started off poorly, with the club’s dour style compared to prior years coupled with poor results left them behind Barcelona and the season’s surprise package Sevilla FC. When Real were knocked out of the Champions League on away goals by the also struggling Bayern Munich, fans of the club were calling for Capello’s sacking. With hindsight, they will be glad that their cries were not answered as Real’s performances improved in the second half of the season due to a return to form of their right winger David Beckham- even after Capello had previously said that the Englishman would never play for Real again. The partnership between Beckham and ex Manchester United team-mate Ruud Van Nistelrooy, contributed to many goals for Real; Beckham pinging the ball in from the right while Van Nistelrooy rose to power a header past a helpless goalkeeper was a common sight in Real’s revival. The club snatched top position in the La Liga standings for the first time that season after a late winner against Espanyol, coming from 3-1 down to snatch all the points in the last minute was coupled with a last minute equaliser by Betis’ Brazilian striker Rafael Sobis in the Barcelona-Betis match. A never say die attitude coupled with Barcelona’s complacency meant Real kept their position at the top till the last day of La Liga. Real Madrid were ahead of Barcelona despite having a weaker goal difference by virtue of a better head to head standing, which is how La Liga determines positions when two teams are level on points. Sevilla FC, just two points behind fell out of the race as they slumped to a 1-0 loss to Villareal. Barcelona started the day better, Puyol putting the Catalan side ahead as Valera gave Mallorca a shock 1-0 lead against Real. Barcelona’s 5-1 victory was proved to be all in vain by the end of the night as Capello’s inspired substitution, taking Beckham off for Jose Antonio Reyes, the winger on loan from Arsenal reaped rewards. Reyes fired in two goals to leave Real with their first trophy in four years while Barca nursed their wounds.

Even though Real have just won La Liga for the first time since the 2002/03 season, it would not be Real Madrid without internal disputes. Despite Capello’s success, Calderón has still not confirmed that the ex-Juventus man will be there next season, publically stating he had drawn up a list of four possible managers to replace Capello- Arsène Wenger, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and Bernard Schuster. One would have to be extremely overconfident to sack a coach after he has just won you a domestic title, and Real Madrid fans will point to the barren years that followed Del Bosque’s departure in the hope Calderón does what is best for the club.