"Liverpool FC: Suárez and Dalglish Are Now Tarnished"

Original Date: 4th January 2012
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/liverpool-fc-suarez-and-dalglish-are-now-tarnished/

With Kenny Dalglish, Luis Suárez and Liverpool Football Club now failing to see why one man calling another “negro” on the pitch is a matter worth of an apology it is clear to see their reputation is declining rapidly. Liverpool have gone from a historic and respected football club to a club that even fails to condemn a racial slur due to blind loyalty.

Just before Christmas here on this fine footballing corner of the internet, The Oval Log, I posted a piece claiming “Liverpool Have Lost the Plot on Evra/Suárez”. It got quite a bit of attention and there were many comments as something like that tends to receive. Vindication is nice but now let’s begin the second and (amazing-twist-not-withstanding) final part of this whole debacle.

Even in light of a very thorough report by the FA’s independent commission it seems that Liverpool haven’t moved on from there. Liverpool still has emphatically not admitted to any wrongdoing on their, or more importantly, their player’s part. Patrice Evra is no doubt still awaiting an apology for being racially abused and then terribly slandered by what should be a “professional” football club.

An apology from the club and from Suárez to Evra would surely have killed the story and meant the club and player could start to move on and draw a line under everything. Yet they still refuse to even admit that one player calling another a “negro” is wrong. It’s something that deserves further scorning from all corners of football and beyond.

After Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat away to Manchester City last night at the press conference Kenny Dalglish seems to have perfectly summed up the childish logic that the club has shown since this entire fiasco started soon after the 1-1 draw back in October.

Firstly he says that linguist experts will say that it is “perfectly acceptable” in Uruguay for this to say. Interesting considering the linguistic experts at the hearing said that although in some circumstances it can be seen as acceptable when there is confrontation going on it certainly is not. Especially when you are not in Uruguay – this is something he should have be told by Liverpool management a long time ago.

Liverpool also claim there are things that were said at the hearing there were not in the report. A remarkable accusation and yet if they continue not to pursue such ideas then they will simply come off as having made it all up. It now serves as the only real straw they can grab hold of.

Included in that Kenny Dalglish’s support for himself and the squad wearing t-shirts in support of Suárez before the Wigan game in spite of the fact they were supporting someone who they knew had racially abused another player.

The club most also desist in claiming that it is a matter of “one player’s word against another” something that is clearly untrue. We now for a fact that Suárez admitted to using the word “negro” once – the only claim where it is one man’s word against another is that Evra claims he used the word several times more. The extra racial abuse is something Luis Suárez has not been punished for.

Liverpool’s futile attempts at disagreeing with the verdict and continuing to place themselves as victims in the most surprising of ways is only going to aggravate the entire situation. They have taken the lead in something their fans will most likely continue on in more unpleasant ways.

Indeed their failure to appeal despite the fact they are so “innocent” is perhaps the most obvious proof of guilt. After all of this Liverpool need to find a way to dig themselves out of the abyss of a hole that they have dug themselves in if they even can. There is no “Justice for Suárez” because he simply doesn’t deserve it.

What next for Liverpool? A grand firing of their PR team would be a start and perhaps some of their law team too. Suárez should be given a slap on the wrist from the club and everyone involved, Dalglish included, should so even smallest bit of humility and apologise. Even if in fact they don’t mean it – they should at least show that racist remarks on the pitch are unacceptable all of the time and try and restore the club’s prior reputation.

"Liverpool Have Lost the Plot on Evra/Suárez"

Original Date: 22nd December 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/liverpool-have-lost-the-plot-on-evrasuarez/

Liverpool are threatening to make themselves into the laughing stock of the Premier League with their failure to admit Luis Suárez is anything but a perfect little angel.Now the club has got to the stage in which their star striker was seen wearing a shirt in support of himself. It’s a curiosity that has come from the club trying to create a siege-mentality like many clubs do but it’s surely too transparent to work.

Liverpool has always been a club that has prided itself on its connection with its own fans. It’s quite an achievement for there still to be some connection between the club and fans in the modern era of football in which investors and marketing partners have replaced the old connection with the club’s true supporters.

Since the return of “King” Kenny Dalglish to Liverpool has been a massive boost for the club since the dark times with the slow decline of Rafael Benítez and then the depressing reign of George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Now with John W. Henry and the resurgent Kenny Dalglish the club seems to have got it’s act together once more to challenge for the league.

Or has it? With the club’s recent reaction to the Patrice Evra / Luis Suárez incident you would be forgiven for thinking the Liverpool Football Club PR department was run by a various assortment of passionate scouse bloggers.

Firstly way before the decision was in, Liverpool completely ignored the FA’s request that both clubs do not comment on the case as it is in motion. This would be to avoid affecting the outcome and causing it to be blown all out of proportion. Liverpool probably did not succeed in the first and certainly have accomplished the second. Surprisingly even Manchester United were able tokeep completely quiet about the entire situation. Sir Alex Ferguson did not comment on it where as Kenny Dalglish could barely contain himself.

Most pathetic of all was Wednesday’s attempt to show solidarity and develop a siege mentality when, in pre-match training, before the 0-0 against Wigan Athletic the entire team (yes, Suárez included) and manager wore t-shirts in support of Luis Suárez as if he had just been handed a lifetime ban – not just 8 games (before appeal). It’s one step away from black armbands and a minute’s silence – all for one player who called another player “negrito”.

Judging from Liverpool’s statements they released after the hearing you would assume Luis Suárez had been given his 8 game ban for being racist. Not so, – yet Liverpool repeatedly state that he isn’t – the FA (via an independent regulatory commission) have though banned him simply for using an insulting word with a reference to Evra’ skin colour.

Some Liverpool fans and, strikingly, the club itself have said there is a lack of evidence that Suárez said anything at all to Patrice Evra in spite of the fact that the player himself admitted to it. The FA and the Independent Regulatory Commission would not do anything had their been no evidence at all – the can of worms that could be opened up by one player’s word being seen as more truthful than the others would not be easy to deal with. Indeed, some Liverpool fans who use the “lack of evidence” defence will quickly tell you that also Evra is alleged to have called Suárez a “South American” in a derogatory way – ignoring the fact that this allegation has even far less evidence than the “negrito” one.

The word “negrito” itself is a funny one – the FA have had to deal with the difference in culture and language when reaching this verdict, probably the main reason for the delay in coming to a decision. Indeed, although it’s unlikely that what Luis Suárez said had any real malicious intend or was a sign of racism is unlikely. Gamesmanship and an ignorance of what is proper to say is much more likely. Although it maybe a slip of his native tongue when speaking to a Frenchman you expect their common language would be English, and this is where the word breaks down into something less savoury.

Regardless of any linguistic arguments the FA are dead right to punish Suárez on using the word even if it is something that is taught in Spanish 101. Referring to someone by his or her race, whether friendly or not (and in a football match, it’s rarely going to be friendly) is not something to be tolerated in football. Liverpool Football Club have to acknowledge this and have some sort of admission on their own player’s part even if it is through gritted teeth – anything else or the sort is bad publicity for the club.

Finally we must point out Liverpool’s attempt to lower the reputation of Patrice Evra from a professional footballer into someone who tries to play the race card in a game of poker – it is simply not true. There indeed have been two previous incidents of possible racial abuse linked to Patrice Evra before, let’s explore them more thoroughly:

First was the incident sometime back in that Patrice Evra refused to take further, in which a deaf fan that using lip-reading skills had apparently seen Steve Finnan racially abuse the left-back. Evra was unaware of any of this and left it as it was – not really someone playing the race card.

The second, and more famous, incident was the confrontation between some of the United coaching staff and Patrice Evra against the some of the Chelsea ground’s staff. Patrice Evra once again did not play the race card here – in the official report of the incident he claimed never to have heard a racial remark. Assistant manager Mike Phelan and goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis put this forward instead.

What Liverpool have insinuated about Patrice Evra is perhaps far worse than the fact that two players had a dispute over a word with some ambiguity in one of the most heated and furious matches in football. The club have shown absolutely no respect to Patrice Evra – seeming to accuse him of something that is simply made up. Liverpool should apologise to the Patrice Evra and give up on their campaign against the great conspiracy and safe face whilst they still can.

It has taken two months for the FA to examine everything and deliver its first verdict but there is no way it is going to end here. First, Luis Suárez is set to appeal, and then the issue could be pushed further and further and it’s very unlikely Luis Suárez will actually serve an 8-match ban. The only loser in this though so far is Liverpool Football Club and not Luis Suárez.

"The Good and the Absurd: A Preview of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations"

Original Date: 5th December 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/the-good-and-the-absurd-a-preview-of-the-2012-africa-cup-of-nations/

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will host the upcoming Africa Cup of Nations that kicks-off from January 21st with the final set to be played on February 12th. Should the tournament follow in the same path as the qualifying campaign, it could be quite a ride. Before a ball is even kicked in the forthcoming tournament there is plenty of intrigue that surrounds the upcoming showpiece for African football.

African football continues to develop but it still has a long way to go before it can catch up with Europe.  The World Cup last year in South Africa though went well and it was a massive occasion not just for the country of South Africa but the entire continent.

There are still though massive amounts of corruption in many of the football associations around Africa. It’s things like fake teams being played, overage players played in youth level football, ineligible players and just plain old greed (all very recent occurrences) that are preventing the continent’s football from developing further. There is the good and the absurd in Africa and there is also still the shadow of the terrible machine gun attack on the Togo team last year.

The best example of mixing the good with the absurd is Group G that featured South Africa, Niger, Egypt and Sierra Leone. The good: Niger qualifying for the first time ever whilst astonishingly Champions Egypt finish bottom. The absurd: South Africa, the last World Cup hosts, fail to understand the rules of qualification and believed goal-difference was enough to secure their route through. They were eliminated on head-to-head records.

In another case that is perhaps typically unique to football in Africa – former Zambia manager, Dario Bonetti, filed a €1.2m lawsuit against his former employers at the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) to FIFA just last month on the grounds of unfair dismissal. The FAZ counter saying that they have not received any letter of claim from Bonetti and that the separation between the FAZ and Bonetti was through mutual consent – whilst FIFA confirm the lawsuit. It is a fitting summation of the level of incompetence that many football associations in Africa operate at.

More surprisingly is that after Bonetti, who successfully ensured Zambia’s qualification into the Africa Cup of Nations, was fired just 48 hours after qualification and was replaced by former manager Hervé Renard. Renard is the man who left Zambia to take a larger contract to become manager of Angola before resigning after just 6 months.

Egypt (winners for the last 3 tournaments) are not the only surprise exclusions from the forthcoming tournament and you will not be seeing any of these previous winners either: Nigeria (3rd place 2010), Algeria (4th place 2010), or Cameroon.

Going into the tournament two clear favourites emerge after the shock of some of Africa’s major teams failing to qualify. The Ivory Coast and Ghana are odds on with the bookies to win the tournament, with the Ivory Coast slightly ahead. The likes of Senegal, Morocco and Tunisia make up the outside bets.

François Zahoui’s Côte d’Ivoire side on paper is indeed a fairly daunting prospect for any opponents, the likes of captain Didier Drogba, Gervinho, and the brothers Touré. Goran Stevanović’s Ghana will feature the likes of Asamoah Gyan, Sulley Muntari and promising youngsters like André Ayew and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu but will be without Michael Essien.

The two teams could well meet in the impressive 40,000 capacity Stade d’Angondjé (developed with help from China) in Libreville, Gabon which is the favourite to host the final of the tournament. Where as the Estádio de Bata, Equatorial Guinea will host the opening games.

It’s another interesting point though that although the two nations are co-hosting the Africa Cup of Nations there is still some friction between the two countries – both still disputing the claim over who it that actually owns Mbanié island, a tiny uninhabited island off the coast of oil-rich Corsico Bay.

The fact that Equatorial Guinea and Gabon can join together to host a huge sporting occasion and yet have long-standing disputes over a tiny lifeless island that has been causing friction since the 80’s is another perfect example of the state of African football at the moment – for the good there’s usually the absurd somewhere around the corner.

Expect the two sides of African football to be on show come January when the tournament begins – for all the good football there will certainly be something absurd.

"The Re-emergence of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar "

Original Date: 25th November 2011 
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/the-re-emergence-of-klaas-jan-huntelaar/

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is currently one of Europe’s top goal-scorers with 23 goals already and yet it’s a statistic that has taken many by surprise.

It doesn’t seem so long ago now that the 28-year old Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was a “ wonderkid” and was consistently being linked to every major European club. Comparisons to compatriots Marco van Basten and Ruud van Nistelrooy were common and it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Huntelaar would move on from Ajax and leave the Netherlands behind for bigger and better things.

When “the Hunter” (a nickname that was ever so inevitable) finally did make his big-money move it was perhaps not under the truest of circumstances. His €20,000,000 move to Real Madrid in January 2009 was mostly due to Ruud van Nistelrooy’s serious knee injury back in November 2008 that finished off his season early. It meant that with only Raúl, Javier Saviola, and Gonzalo Higuaín left and Juande Ramos (a replacement for the short term reign of Bernd Schuster) and his Madrid felt they needed another striker up front.

January is frequently a difficult time for new signings to impress at their new club. In the summer players get a period of pre-season and time to adjust to their new environment, language, culture and style of football. It was perhaps the reason Huntelaar did not quite light up the Bernabéu as many had expected – he certainly did not live up to the reputation.

It was not entirely Huntelaar’s fault – not only was he a new signing struggling to adapt to his new club but this was a very different Real Madrid than the club is now. Barcelona was the unstoppable force in La Liga and Madrid were far behind. Madrid finished with ten defeats in the league alone that season and they even signed Julien Faubert on loan. That season finished off historically with Madrid being trashed 2-6 at home to Barcelona.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar couldn’t have picked a worse time to join Real Madrid and perhaps couldn’t have picked an even worse time to leave – although in truth he hardly picked it. That summer was a huge overhaul for Madrid, the four Dutchmen of Wesley Sneidjer, Arjen Robben, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar all departed. In their place came Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso.

AC Milan is not the worst club in the world to fall back onto when your time at Madrid doesn’t go exactly as planned. Once again though for Huntelaar it seemed like a case of wrong club and wrong time. Leonardo’s AC Milan side was perhaps exactly what you would expect of a first-time manager – naive and lacking a true purpose in their play.

Alexandre Pato and Marco Borriello were the main men then so Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s first team starts were much harder to come by. Indeed, his loss of confidence become apparent too as he scored just 7 times in 30 appearances for the Rossoneri.

Huntelaar made his third transfer in as many seasons in the following summer when he moved on from AC Milan to join Schalke and become the Gelsenkirchen club’s record signing.

At first you could be forgiven for perhaps assuming Huntelaar’s timing to join Schalke was off. Although the side finished as DFB-Pokal (the German cup) winners (with Huntelaar scoring a brace in the final), managed to get to the semi-final of the Champions League and won the DFL-Supercup they finished a very poor 14th in the league – barely above the relegation places and lost manager Felix Magath in March.

The Hunter hit 13 goals for Schalke that season – again not his prolific best – but at least an improvement over his time in Milan and Madrid. His goal scoring record would have been far more impressive had it not been for the fact that his debut season with Schalke included a 1,002-minute goal draught. He was also outscored by his former Real Madrid teammate, Raúl.

Things now could not be more different for the top scorer of the UEFA European Championships Qualifying phase with the Netherlands as well being currently one of the top scorers in Europe’s big leagues.

Starting the 2011/2012 season for Schalke by scoring 4 goals in his first game albeit in an 11-1 win against FC Teningen – a team in the sixth level but Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has really kicked on from that start with some outstanding goalscoring form.

Sitting now on 23 goals in just 20 games and things seem entirely different for Huntelaar. At the peak age of 28 his stock is higher now than it has been since he first left Ajax way back in 2008. It’s been a tough time for him since then but it seems under Ralf Rangnick and at Schalke he has found a new home and can prove once again that he can be one of the top strikers in football.

"Champions-elect Boca Juniors and the 2011 Apertura So Far"

Original Date: 18th November 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/champions-elect-boca-juniors-and-the-2011-apertura-so-far/

The Argentinian Apertura 2011 is drawing to a close with only 5 games left to play and only one question remains to be solved: Can Boca Juniors really lose the title now?

Undefeated Boca Juniors will on Sunday host the Primera Divisón’s other undefeated side Racing Club at La Bombonera knowing that a win will almost certainly mean that Boca Juniors will pick up their first league title since the Apertura of 2008.

 

Having two undefeated clubs after 14 games is surprising but perhaps more crucial is the points gap between them, with Boca Juniors 8 points clear of La Academia. Boca have played won 9 and drew 5 of their games where as Diego Simeone’s Racing Club have won 5 and drew 9 – it’s those small margins between a win and a draw that have almost decided the title.

Racing Club’s story this season has been one firmly based around the idea of building from the back. In the 2011 Clausura Racing finished a lowly 15th position making this season’s current position even more impressive.

Perhaps the thing that make it extraordinary is that so far Racing Club have scored only 11 goals in 14 games with 6 goalless draws in the process. Indeed, only 17th place Newell’s Old Boys and last place Banfield have managed to score fewer goals so far. Racing have in fact only scored more than 1 goal in a game once – a 3-0 win over Godoy Cruz back in August.

Unlike Boca Juniors, currently Racing Club are in a precarious position in the league. Although they stand 2nd place currently they are only 4 points clear of 11th place side Arsenal di Sarandí.

Boca Juniors are having the dream season so far with River Plate relegated it seemed like the perfect time for Julio César Falcioni’s men to really rub their rivals faces in it.

Although Racing may certainly be goal-shy that doesn’t mean Boca Juniors have been an attacking force. Their current goals tally of 17 is wholly average for a team at the top of the league and they too have made the majority of their points based on defence contributions – they are the only team to concede less than Racing so far; 3 goals to Racing’s 4.

It means Sunday’s tie will be important, intriguing and perhaps a great occasion for those wit ha Boca-allegiance but probably not a goal-fest. That won’t Boca Juniors who would take a 0-0 knowing that 2 wins in their last 4 games would secure them the title regardless of what the distant runners can produce.

Elsewhere there are more surprises in the league table – Atlético de Rafaela’s promotion season has been wholly impressive and the Santa Fe club currently sit 4th in the Apertura table. Manager Carlos Trullet will know they still have work to do to continue to be in the Primera División and that a tricky Clausura campaign could seem them sent back down to Nacional B.

Speaking of Nacional B – it’s the kind of thing the bosses of Estudiantes will begin to be worried about. Although the club are currently 2nd place in the Relegation table (an average points system based on the past three seasons) but this campaign has been so bad for the La Plata club they will know the next couple of campaigns must see dramatic improvement.

It’s a huge fall of grace for Los Pincharratas (that delightfully translates to The Rat Stabbers) just back in 2009 they were the champions of South America with a 2-1 aggregate win over Cruzeiro in the Copa Libertadores finals. The club followed that up by securing the 2010 Apertura but 2011 has been a bad year.

First they went from winners in the 2010 Apertura to 13th in the Clausura of 2011.  A congestive fixture list (a problem we will encounter later with Vélez Sársfield) could well have been the sole reason but when manager Alejandro Sabella left to take over the national team after their disastrous Copa América campaign it meant things were going from bad to worse. Miguel Ángel Russo was the man to take over from Alejandro Sabella but his reign came to an end after just 5 months when Russo resigned as manager in his second Estudiantes stint. Not to mention, despite his best efforts Juan Sebastián Verón is finally aging.

Then there’s Vélez Sársfield the 2011 Clausura Champions whose Apertura campaign has been a struggle after losing several key players as well as fighting for the Copa Sudamericana. Ricardo Gareca has had to cope with departures of Maximiliano Moralez, Santiago Silva and Ricardo Álvarez to Italian Serie A clubs and these factors have taken their toll on Vélez’s campaign.

Juan Manuel Martínez is still a shining ray of light but the exciting forward has had to shoulder more responsibility of being the most creative player on the teams with a foil like Moralez or Álvarez to rely on. They need to rebuild but they do have promise in their ranks with Jonathan Ramírez and Ezequiel Resaldani aged 20 and 19 respectively – but have still yet to replace the players lost. It’s a catch-22 for many South American clubs – be successful and your best players are taken away by Europe’s big clubs. Perhaps now Neymar and Santos can give Argentine clubs hope to retain their best talent.

It’s been a close and tight 2011 Apertura but for Boca Juniors it couldn’t have gone better should they finish what they’ve started – and beating Racing Club this weekend would almost certainly ensure t hat they do. Whilst River Plate looks on it’s Boca Juniors returning to the summit of Argentinian football.

"Sporting U19s So Far"

Original Date: 14th November 2011
Original Link: http://unofficialnextgenseries.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/richard-cole-sporting-lisbon-so-far/

It’s been an almost perfect beginning to the NextGen tournament for the Ricardo Sá Pinto’s side that has had four wins and one draw from their opening five games.
 
Sporting’s NextGen side will go into their final fixture at home to Liverpool knowing that top spot has already been secured in their last game, a 4-3 win over Molde in Norway.
 
The 4-3 victory over Molde was made all the more impressive when you consider that Sporting were without some of their key players including the club’s top scorer, Betinho.
 
A further seven players were absent as they travelled with some of the senior players, who were not playing international games, for a friendly match against the Angolan national team. The friendly, in celebration of the former colony’s 36th anniversary of independence from Portugal, was ultimately a 4-0 defeat for Sporting, but for those youngsters it was an excellent opportunity to play first team football.
 
Those players will return for the forthcoming Liverpool fixture but with top spot assured the question of the mental state of the players is the main problem facing Ricardo Sá Pinto. When you consider the fixtures relative lack of importance, for both sides have already qualified, complacency could lead to a dull game.
 
It is a mentality that Sá Pinto will have to make sure does not prevail in the psyche of his players – some of which certainly have bright futures ahead of them. In a time when Portugal’s senior side is looking increasingly more like “the Cristiano Ronaldo show” their development is massively important for the nation as well as the club.
 
One such man eager to impress will be the London-born Tiago Ilori. Ilori made his first team debut in the senior side’s last fixture, a home win over União de Leiria. His debut came about out of a somewhat defensive crisis for Domingos Paciência with Alberto Rodríguez, Ânderson Polga and Oguchi Onyewu all injured. It wasn’t the dream debut he may have hoped for as his mistake lead to Leiria’s goal that day – though his overall performance was solid.
 
That defensive crisis though, could mean that Domingos Paciência decides to prevent Ilori from playing as a back up for the first team, as they face a cup game with Braga before the huge derby game against Benfica.
 
Then there’s Felipe Chaby who is, arguably, one of the best prospects in the Sporting youth system. At just 17 years of age the midfielder, whose playing style inevitably draws comparisons with a player whose name sounds a lot like “Chaby”, played the full 90 minutes in the friendly against Angola. His progress is perhaps best shown by his latest reward, his first professional contract.
 
This Sporting U19 side hasn’t lost a game since they played Porto back in April; they were comfortable winners when they met Liverpool back in August with a 3-0 victory at Anfield. They may well go into the game against Liverpool as favourites but as it is a dead rubber game the possibility of complacency and squad rotation means it may not be as thrilling an ending to the group stage that seemed at first apparent.

"Lisbon Prepared for the Best Derby in Years"

Original Date: 10th November 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/lisbon-prepared-for-the-best-derby-in-years/

It’s not long now until the first Lisbon derby (Derby de Lisboa) of this new Portuguese Primeira Liga season in which Sporting Clube de Portugal make the incredibly short journey to take on their major rivals, Benfica, in one of the games of the European football calendar.

Benfica have won five straight games over Sporting Clube de Portugal and haven’t lost to their city rivals in seven and yet Sporting will feel more hopeful than ever they can put one over their more successful rivals.

 

In the first league game after the international break (26th November, 20:15 GMT to be exact) Sporting be aiming successive 8th league game in an arena in which they haven’t won since January 2006. Meanwhile Benfica will want to remain unbeaten as they have in the first ten league games so far this season.

Both clubs in recent years have been overshadowed by the qualities of FC Porto. Porto’s incredible season last year, in which the Northern club won a treble and remained unbeaten in the league, left both Lisbon clubs knowing they had some catching up to do.

This is the first time in years in which Sporting can feel competitive in the league after a major investment of sixteen new players and one new manager, Domingos Paciência and this will be his first major test.

The former Porto player and Braga coach has, after a wobbly start, breathed new life in the green and white side of Lisbon. Their football has improved massively and they now site just one point behind second place Porto and leaders Benfica.

There will be a selection headache for Benfica manager Jorge Jesus as to which striker he selects out of the prolific Óscar Cardozo and the young up and coming Rodrigo. With Benfica often playing in a 4-5-1 position with Pablo Aimar as the man behind the striker the Paraguayan and the Spaniard are rivals for the starting spot.

Rodrigo looks to be another player to benefit from a loan move to Bolton Wanderers like Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere. The Spain U-21 international has scored five goals in his last seven games including the equaliser against Braga in their last match.

Óscar Cardozo has the history and experience in the fixture and the Paraguayan has scored five goals in the last five meeting between the two teams and has got seven goals in total against Sporting. Cardozo did begin the season in blistering form and has already got nine goals in all competitions but he has not managed to find the target in his last three games.

Domingos Paciência too has a problem in which first team selection, the Argentine destroyer Fabián Rinaudo picked up an injury in the Lions’ 1-0 defeat (their first after a ten match winning streak) away to FC Vaslui in the Europa League and will be out until at least January.

The choice will depend on how ambitious Paciência is about the possibility of picking up all three points in the Estádio da Luz. In Sporting’s last game, a 3-1 win of over União de Leiria, Paciência chose a very forward-thinking midfield trio of record summer signing Elias, Stijn Schaars and the in-form Matías Fernández.

If Paciência’s tactics are anything to go by it may mean the more defensive-minded André Santos will take up that role. Although Sporting do play attractive passing football Paciência has not been afraid to shut up shop in matches – and that instinct may win out in the derby.

Defence may well be the best option for Paciência when you consider that even the best defence will have trouble coping with the in-form Nicolás Gaitán. The former Boca Juniors player has started to come into his element within the past year and looks like he’ll be the latest to make a big money move away from the club.

When you add his talents mixed in with the likes of Axel Witsel and Pablo Aimar – a sometimes-shaky defence like Sporting’s can have life made very hard for them.

For both clubs this could be a defining game in the league so far. A Benfica win would give them confidence to go on and perhaps push for yet another league title and reclaim the title that Porto won last year. Beating their confident local rivals could send them on their way.

Meanwhile for Sporting this is perhaps an even more important encounter, although this is their best team since perhaps 2006-2007 (in which they finished 1 point behind Porto) they have yet to face a top team like Benfica. A win at the home of their arch-rivals could be a massive shot of self-belief into the newly formed team and convince them, and perhaps most importantly the fans, that they are back to being a contender with a serious chance of winning the league in 5 years.

"It’s Time to Watch Serie A Again"

Original Date: 14th October 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/10/14/it%E2%80%99s-time-to-watch-serie-a-again/

For years now Italy has been perceived to be a footballing nation in decline. A national team that vastly underperformed in the tournaments of 2008 and 2010, and with a league that is barely mentioned in the same breath as the “top two” leagues of England and Spain anymore.

Yet it’s time for people to take another look at Serie A, to regular fans I may be preaching to the choir, but to those who still remain sceptical – it’s the place to be entertained once more.

Rising clubs under clever management and the old romantics returning to a force have made this season’s Serie A more open than it has been since the Calciopoli scandal of 2006.

There’s plenty going on everywhere you look in Italian football right now. Juventus have been rejuvenated by their brand new stadium, Udinese’s excellent business model seems to becoming to the foray, Napoli’s counter-attacking football has them fighting at the top once more, Roma are trying to be Barcelona and the Milan clubs are struggling.

Last year’s Scudetto winners were AC Milan and it marked the first season since Calciopoli that Internazionale hadn’t won the league. It also highlights the continued process of the Serie A clubs evening out in ability once more, post-Calciopoli saw talent flocking away from AC Milan and Juventus and either going to greatly enforce Inter or reducing the overall quality of the league by moving abroad.

Juventus in particular deserve a mention; the Turin club have been in a constant phase of development since their demotion to Serie B post-Calciopoli. The new Juventus Stadium (as it will be known until a sponsor is found) certainly isn’t the reason for the club’s improvement so far this season but it’s recent timeline mirror’s the clubs fortunes well.

The stadium has had to be renovated much like the team, and much like Italian football in general, it has had to sacrifice capacity and attendance for the sake of intimacy and a new, improved atmosphere.

Of course a stadium does not make a good team and the Juventus squad has improved. The signings of Chilean midfield general Arturo Vidal, pacey winger Eljero Elia and the supremely classy Andrea Pirlo have arguably made this side the best Juventus team since before the scandal.

A first look at Andrea Pirlo in the Juventus kit and you can be forgiven for being confused at first. Seeing Pirlo outside of a Milan shirt of the Azzurri blue and you could well imagine that this is the Bizarro World Pirlo. Watch him play and you’ll soon realise that even at 32, Andre Pirlo is one the best midfielders in the world to watch play. His elegance with the ball of the feet is something that will never deteriorate and he has been the centre of this new Juventus team. Milan may look on and wonder if letting the fantastically-haired-one go out on a free was the right thing to do – even if he didn’t’ fit in to Massimiliano Allegri’s style of play.

Then there’s AS Roma, a team also starting an entirely new era. The summer take over of the club by Thomas R. DiBenedetto has seen Roma become the latest club to try and imitate Barcelona’s style of play and management. Indeed, the Giallorossi brought in former Barcelona player and Barcelona B manager, Luis Enrique, to oversee the ambitious transition.

Roma have certainly not been afraid to throw a bit of money around to help them to try and emulate Barcelona. Twelve new faces arrive into the team including the likes of Bojan Krkić, who certainly knows the Barcelona way, Fernando Gago on loan from Real Madrid, Miralem Pjanić, Maarten Stekelenburg, Simon Kjær (on loan from Wolfsburg), Pablo Osvaldo, and Erik Lamela just to name a few.

Success for “Roma-lona” has not been instantaneous for Luis Enrique’s men. ŠK Slovan Bratislava knocked Roma out of the Europa League play-offs 2-1 on aggregate and the Roman team have won just two of their first five Serie A games – and the next game sees them as the away team against city-rivals Lazio. A defeat there could abort the Tiki-Taka-ing of the club prematurely.

Meanwhile special praise must be reserved for Udinese. The Udine club has paid massive dividends for the amount of time and money invested in its scouting network. Udinese have brought low from South America, Africa and smaller European states and managed to sell them on for massive profits. Keeping the club running and being able to invest more in further acquisitions.

Plucking stars like Alexis Sánchez (now of Barcelona – landing his old club a massive €26,000,000 in the process), Mauricio Isla, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, and Kwadwo Asamoah is a testament to the way Udinese have slowly built themselves up from the yo-yo club of the early 90’s, to a mid table team, and until more recently a team competing in regularly in Europe and aiming for the Champions League.

Francesco Guidolin’s team though still owe a massive debut to their captain, Antonio Di Natale. The 33-year old is still certainly aging well, last season he beat his season record of 29 goals with a brilliant 30 goals – and he only set the 29 goal record the last before. Di Natale is the old head that guides a young and exciting attacking team – and certainly a club with a bright future.

Moving to the opposite end of the country, it’s hard for any neutral football fan not to have some sort of affinity with a club like Napoli. The Azzurri have been the leading fighters for the South of Italy in Serie A since they returned to the top flight after finishing runners up to Juventus in the Serie B season of 2006-2007.

The current Napoli, which under the leadership of Walter Mazzarri has become famous for it’s quick counter attacking football is another club on the up. Napoli’s current exiting dynamic football going forward is epitomised in their Uruguayan striker, Edinson Cavani. Cavani has been a much-converted talent since his days at Palermo and his move to Naples seems like a perfect match. In his first season he bagged 33 goals in 47 appearances and is currently 6 in 6 for this new campaign – not to mention wowing fans by his penchant for the spectacular.

Napoli are most importantly to any fan of football not far from something exciting happening. Last season’s 4-3 win at home to Lazio was perhaps the best game of football in top-flight football – a Cavani hatrick completing a superb comeback for Napoli. Already they have impressed this year, they played well in their 1-1 draw with Manchester City early on in the season and since then beat AC Milan at home and Internazionale away – comfortably. For Napoli, this is their best chance at winning a scudetto since the days of Diego Maradona.

On to the city of Milan. The two footballing giants the share the superb Stadio Giuseppe Meazza or the San Siro seem to be on the wane and their monopoly potentially falling away from them.

First, to Internazionale: a team that has declined surprisingly quickly after the departure of treble-winning manager José Mourinho to Real Madrid. Since then Rafael Benitez has been fired, Leonardo left, and Gian Piero Gasperini lasted barely 3 months in charge. Now it is up to Claudio Ranieri, a man who helped turn Roma from relegation candidates to a credible side again, to once again demonstrate how he can restore the order for Massimo Moratti.

Ranieri’s new men sit just 17th in the league currently and yet arguably have the best squad in the league. Inter managed to keep hold of Wesley Sneidjer and have added Diego Forlán, Jonathan, Ricky Álvarez, Andrea Poli and promising youngster Joel Obi to the side.

Over in the red and black side of Milan last year’s champions are only 2 places above their city neighbours. Massimiliano Allegri’s side have only managed to win one Serie A game so far having lost to both Napoli and Juventus as well. It marks what looks to be a difficult second season for the young manager.

The main stays at AC Milan have always been the butt about the jokes for their old ages and for the most part this is a team in their prime years. Thiago Silva, Alberto Aquilani, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Philippe Mexès, Robinho and Antonio Cassano are all in the 27-30 window that can be considered a player’s peak – when the experience and the athleticism are together as high as they can go until the legs fade away.

It’s something that finally seems to be affecting 35-year old Alessandro Nesta – and it seems this will be his last ever year. Nesta, over the past decade, has arguably been consistently the world’s best defender. If there’s one reason to watch Serie A this season is to finally see a true great like Nesta bringing his medal-filled career to an end – perhaps with yet another title under his belt.

It’s going to be tough for the Milan clubs to catch up once again and should they fail to do so it will be the first non-Milanese scudetto since the last time Juventus “legitimately” won the league in 2002/2003.

Sure this is season’s Serie A is not been graced by greats like Marco van Basten, Zinedine Zidane or Gabriel Batistuta but it has the potential to be the most memorable Italian league season in years.

"Boca Juniors Thrive in River Plate’s Absence"

Original Date: 16th September 2011
Original Link: http://theovallog.wordpress.com/2011/09/16/boca-juniors-thrive-in-river-plate%E2%80%99s-absence/

Boca Juniors currently sit at the top of the 2011 Apertura in Argentina, level on points and goal difference with Lanús, and in River Plate’s absence from the Primera División Boca appear to be thriving.

The end of last season’s Clausura winners Vélez Sársfield excellent performances in the league and on the continent were over shadowed by the dramatic events that occurred when in the relegation playoffs, River Plate lost 2-1 on aggregate to Belgrano and the incredible riot scenes at the Monumental that followed.

One of the things that was also overshadowed that season was the distinctly average season that Boca Juniors had. Indeed, over both the 2011 Clausura and the previous 2010 Apertura, River Plate finished with more points than Boca Juniors, a strange result of the Primera División’s relegation co-efficient.

Had there been no River relegation than Boca’s fans wouldn’t have too much to cheer about. Indeed, the most significant event for the club itself was the retirement of the legendary Boca Juniors forward, Martin Palermo. It seems though that now, with no distractions to find from their Superclásico rivals, that Boca have found their feet once more.

Boca have failed to win a domestic league title since the Apertura of 2008, and that won by the slimmest of margins too. That season, Boca, Tigre and San Lorenzo all finished level on points, and although San Lorenzo had the greater goal difference, that was not a factor in deciding whom the title would go to. Instead the top 3 teams went to a Championship Playoff, each team playing each other once.

In a typically paradoxical Argentinian football way, this time Boca did win, on goal difference of all things. The 3-1 victory over San Lorenzo ensured Boca would return home as champions.

Since then Boca have failed to challenge for league silverware, indeed after their Apertura win in 2008, they finished a miserable 14th in place in the following Clausura.

One of the factors helping Boca Juniors so far this season is their lack of continental distraction. For example, last season, Vélez manager Ricardo Gareca had to become a master of rotation as his side fought in the league and to the semi-finals of the Copa Libertadores. Vélez would end up playing 3 games a week almost on a regular basis – enough to wear even the best squads down.

Currently fellow Primera División rivals Vélez, Independiente, Godoy Cruz and Arsenal di Sarandí have progressed to the final stages of the Copa Sudamericana – meaning their sides will have to fight on two fronts and stretch squads, which unlike those in money-fuelled in Europe, are not of the strongest depth. Major rivals Lanús were knocked out of the tournament in the second stage, and that will only help secure themselves as one of the stand out favourites to win the Apertura this year.

Personnel-wise Boca have kept an important consistency. In a league in which players are frequently moving abroad to Europe – Boca have managed to keep their star players for now. Vélez’s star name’s departures in particular are a massive blow to their side, for example Ricky Álvarez’s move to Internazionale, Maximiliano Moralez’s move to Atalanta and Santiago Silva’s move to Fiorentina.

The great Juan Román Riquelme is still pivotal to the side, indeed, he very much is the pivot. Riquelme turned 33 in the summer and that has failed to affect him as a player – with his unique style meaning he was never a pacey player.

The retirement of Martin Palermo has increased the importance on Lucas Viatri to become the team’s new striker. They’re massive boots for any player to fill but fortunately in Boca’s opening games so far this season there has been an array of goals from all over the pitch. The likes of Riquelme, Pablo Mouche, Nicolás Colazo and new boy Darío Cvitanich have helped fuel the supply line of goals.

Boca’s next big test will come this weekend, Sunday night to be exact, against Lanús – the team that finished second behind Vélez in the last Clausura. Lanús may not have won a league title since the Apertura in 2007 but they have been consistently in and amongst the title scraps.

This year Lanús have come out of the traps flying, most recently overturning Argentinos Juniors away from home 4-0 in some style. World Cup winner Mauro Camoranesi is still going for Lanús and can still play good football in spite turning 35 in October and was excellent against Argentinos.

A win, and Boca Juniors could really rub salt into River Plate’s wounds. Winning the title as River scrap just to get back into the second league. Defeat though could mean that Boca lose their momentum and return back to their old ways of only being good in frustrating spats of inconsistency.

The Boca manager, Julio César Falcioni, must use Boca’s current stability (which may not last long should they prove to be successful) and the talented squad at their disposal to finally bring back a league title to La Bombonera and now might just be their best time to do it. The fans will no doubt miss the distraction of the Superclásico – but for the club it could be the best thing to happen to them.

"FC Zurich 0-2 Sporting"

Original Date: 15th September 2011
Original Link: http://portugoal.net/index.php/more-europa-league-news/27347-insua-stars-as-sporting-win-in-zurich

Sporting got off to the ideal start in their first game of the Europa League group stages with an away victory over Switzerland’s FC Zurich. Lazio could surprisingly only draw at home to FC Vaslui which means Sporting top Group D after the first round of games.

Sporting began the game in the best possible fashion, after just 3 minutes a Stijn Schaars freekick floated to an unmarked Emiliano Insua, who cleverly turned in midair before heading to the goalkeeper’s opposite side for his first Sporting goal in just his second game. Zurich had only themselves to blame for it, as poor marking left the Argentine with plenty of room, though nothing can be taken away from Insua’s great finish.

The visiting side continued to press Zurich whenever the hosts had possession and when in possession Sporting looked to create down the left side through the impressive Insua and Diego Capel.

FC Zurich’s first chance came in the 16th minute. Ogucihi Onyewu passed the ball back to Rui Patricio who proceeded to pick it up. The Sporting players felt Onyewu had been fouled, which perhaps explains Patricio’s decision to pick up the ball.

The Portugal goalkeeper had given away a free kick in identical circumstances on Saturday against Pacos de Ferreira, a highly disputed decision that led to a goal. Free kicks inside the box are always tricky to defend and Sporting had to rely on luck to survive this one. Ricardo Rodriguez’s shot hit the outside of the post and Sporting survived a genuine moment of danger.

The Lions went back on to the attack and a Stijn Schaars free kick was well saved by Zurich goalkeeper, Johnny Leoni, who palmed it out to Diego Capel on the outside of the box. The Spaniard pulled the trigger and Leoni once again made an impressive save.

But Leoni could do nothing about the next Sporting chance. Once again Insua and Capel linked up on the left-hand side, and Insua found himself in lots of space to play a square pass for Ricky van Wolfswinkel to tap home. The Dutchman scored his second goal in two games after opening his Sporting account at the weekend.

Zurich failed to create much in the attacking third. The Swiss team tried to play long balls behind the defence to catch out the centre-back partnership of Onyewu and Rodriguez but the pair were capably dealing with the threat.

In the 26th minute a neat interchange outside the box fed Alexandre Alphonse, but his pass to the lively Yasine Chikhaoul was well cut out by the Sporting defence. Sporting went into the break after undoubtedly their most confident half so far this season.

In the second half Zurich stepped up their game, with Sporting taking their foot off the pedal and happy to sit on the 2-goal cushion. Zurich had their chances, the impressive Admir Mehmedi hitting the post in the 57th minute after weaving past Insua and Alberto Rodriguez.

That scare may well have been a deciding factor in Domingos Paciencia’s first substitution of the game, bringing on midfielder Andre Santos for the lively forward Andre Carrillo, which meant moving Bruno Pereirinha on to the right and Santos into the middle. Paciencia then brought on Diego Rubio for goal-scorer Ricky van Wolfswinkel, and the final change was a far more defensive one. Evaldo came on for the very impressive Diego Capel, with Insua moving into Capel’s former position.

On 76 minutes Ricardo Rodriguez, the man who hit the freekick onto the post in the first half, stepped up to take another one but this time the shot smashed the bar instead of the post with Patricio beaten. At the other end of the pitch Diego Rubio had a great chance to open his account with the club in a competitive match, after a typically battling Fabian Rinaudo found space for the Chilean forward but Rubio’s resulting shot went narrowly wide.

Zurich refused to lie down and gave Sporting some worrying moments in the closing stages. A goalmouth scramble could so easily have ended up in a Zurich goal and in the dying seconds of the game Alexandre Alphonse headed a free header over the bar from a corner.

In the end though a 2-0 win away from home in the Europa League is a very positive result and for the first time since the 24th January of this year Sporting have won two games on the bounce.