tclogo


HotelsCombined.com

Recent Comments

Hugo on Eurosport beams Nations Cup matches: Really hoping Nigeria do well in this tournament b ...
Delivery Hero on England, France paired in Euro 2012: Can't wait for Euro 2012! ...
Wes on 2011/12 English Premiership Preview: Thanks Sybil, I think Man City cannot easily be di ...
Wes on 2011/12 English Premiership Preview: Thanks Bambo for the comment. I think its going to ...
Phil on 2011/12 English Premiership Preview: Good post, this looks like a very unpredictable se ...

Archive for Football

Socceroos drawn in tough group

The Socceroos were drawn in a tough group that includes the two finalists from the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the 2014 World Cup draw.

The Socceroos were drawn in Group B which also has Spain, Netherlands and Chile.

Spain are the defending champions whilst the Netherlands were the runners up from the previous tournament.

Also both Spain and the Netherlands qualified for the finals without losing a single match.

' Chile qualified third in the South American qualifiers only four points behind leaders Argentina. Also Chile is playing on its continent.

So it will be a mountain to climb for the Socceroos in Group B.

The rest of the World Cup draw is as follows:


Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon.

Group B: Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia.

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan.

Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy.

Group E : Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Iran, Nigeria.

Group G: Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA.

Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea.

Kewell joins Melbourne Heart

Melbourne Heart has announced that former Melbourne Victory player Harry Kewell has signed for the team for the 2013/14 A-League season.

Kewell last played a full season for Victory and then left for the United Kingdom for personal reasons.

I think this is a good deal for the Heart and I hope they will be able to capitalise and increase membership even if it is for the next season only.

If the Socceroos qualify for the Brazil 2014 World Cup then it will become even more interesting as I think Kewell's main aim is to play well enough to be in the 2014 World Cup squad.

I am looking forward to the first match of the season when Victory play Heart in the Melbourne derby. Its going to be interesting to see Kewell playing for the Heart when two seasons ago he would have have been wearing blue.

Melbourne Heart is saying that Kewell has not been signed as a marquee player and so it means they could be other big name players coming to the Heart for next season.


Old guard still left hanging at Chelsea

The future of two of Chelseaís greatest ever players is still very much hanging in the balance after the club continued their determination not to open contract talks with English mainstays John Terry and Frank Lampard this winter.

As anyone following the football betting news will know, Terry and Lampard have led Chelseaís rise in the Premier League from an uncompetitive outfit struggling to make the top four consistently, to one of the most feared clubs in world football. Although they failed to make the Champions League knockout stage this season, last Mayís emphatic final victory over Bayern Munich propelled the club into European footballís elite band of clubs and Terry and Lampard played integral parts during that long campaign.

Yet speculation over their future continues to rumble on and with neither player close to agreeing new contracts, the walls of Chelseaís successful team are about to come crumbling down.

Lampardís current deal expires this summer while Terryís has 18 months to run, meaning that both players could be out the door by this time next year.

Luckily for Blues fans, the club have already given left-back Ashley Cole a new one-year deal. Cole may be 32 but he is nevertheless still one of the world's best, if not the best, in his position and unarguably vital to Chelseaís title challenge next season, with the Blues currently not being backed ahead of the Manchester clubs by those looking ahead to the future bet365 football betting odds.

This should prove the same for Terry, who can still handle defensive duties despite a lack of pace and occasional injury scares; while Lampard has grown into an even greater midfield general this season after accepting responsibility as the central point the side rotates around.

Last season Andre Villas-Boas tried to exile the English core to devastating effect and was quickly dismissed, before Lampard and co. returned to win the Champions League and FA Cup. Although owner Roman Abramovich may want to faze out the old guard, it would be folly to dismiss a pair proven still capable at the top level of world football.


2012 African Nations Cup kicks off

The 2012 African Nations Cup being co-hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon kicks off this weekend with the match between Equatorial Guinea and Libya.

It will the co-hosts' first taste of the tournament as they battle Zambia and also Senegal in Group A.

I think its very hard to look beyond Senegal and Zambia as to who is going to come out of this group.

I think home advantage can carry you so far and the co-host will have to try very hard and to try and not anchor the group.

Let me say that this year's edition seems like a straight fight for the Cup between Ghana and Ivory Coast but if surprises that started from qualifying continue then it could be anyone's Cup.

Those surprises have meant that the likes of Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Cameroon and South Africa are all missing.

The last four in that list went to the 2010 World Cup whilst Egypt are the current defending champions.

Turning to group B, Ivory Coast look too strong in that group. Equally it would be hard to separate the next three teams Sudan, Burkina Faso and Angola.

In Group C we have co-hosts Gabon, Tunisia, Morocco and Niger.

I think Gabon have a better chance of reaching the quarters than Eq. Guinea but they will have to navigate a difficult path past Tunisia and Morocco.

Ghana is in group D alongside Botswana, Mali and Guinea.

Its Botswana's first tournament and therefore they will be trying to prove that they are as good as they were in qualification.

Unfortunately for the Southern Africans, they are in arguably the toughest group which also includes Mali and Guinea.

I hope we are going to see some interesting matches and I hope the likes of Niger and Botswana will show everyone how good they are.


England, France paired in Euro 2012

The Euro 2012 draw has been made and England and France have been placed in the same group.

Euro 2012 will kick off on June 8 next year with the first match being played in Warsaw, Poland.

Co-hosts Ukraine, Sweden, France and England have been placed in the same group which I think is going to be a very interesting group.

The groups in next years competition have been made much header because the co-hosts were seeded as hosts and they would normally would have been in either pot C or D.

This has resulted in a group like Group B which pits Netherlands, Germany, Portugal and Denmark.

This could see an increase in online betting as people followed the tournament to be held for the first time in the former East European bloc.

Group A will see co-hosts Poland play Greece, Russia and the Czech Republic and I think this is arguably the easiest group of the four.

Group C will have defending champions Spain fight it out against Italy, Ireland and Croatia. Whilst Spain and Italy are favourites in that group its not hard to see both Croatia and Ireland causing an upset or two.

I will certainly follow the tournment through Tipschallenge.

Big guns create A-League interest

There has been a lot of interest in the 2011/12 A-League season so far because of the return of Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton to Australian club football scene.

The protracted Kewell talks to join Melbourne Victory made for some for some interesting discussions on a lot of Australian football forums like this one.

Then came the sacking of Branco Culina by the Newcastle Jets in the final week that took a lot of people by surprise.

The increased interest in the league could also see an increase in online betting as people try to follow the league that way and also tipping as well as huge attendances in the stands.

I am looking forward to the new A-League season and its good that this year there is an even number of teams and so every team will play in each round.

Its rather unfortunate though that the North Queensland Fury had to fold but I hope that next time the A-League will introduce two teams to make it twelve and not go to eleven again.

I also quite like the idea of regional matches because its good to take football to some people who otherwise could only follow the league on television.

Lets hope there are going to be lots of quality goals to match the off season interest.

The Jets will put their problems aside as they face a Melbourne Heart team aiming for the finals.


2011/12 A-League season Preview

Its less than ten days before the new 2011/12 A-League season starts and maybe a time to have a look at what the season can bring.

With North Queensland Fury folding, the A-League is back to ten teams like it was in the 2009/10 season and therefore no more byes.

This season is being touted as one of the most anticipated one because of the arrival of Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton at Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC respectively.

While those are the most high profile arrivals, there are other significant arrivals with Melbourne Heart getting former Victory player Fred and Newcastle Jets getting Jason Culina(although he is injured and will miss the season) and Bruce Djite going back to Adelaide.

There has been some departures as well notably Matt McKay leaving champions Brisbane Roar for Scottish champions Rangers and Marcos Flores leaving Adelaide United for Henan Jianye.

I think the Roar set the benchmark last season when they lost just one match and played some brilliant football throughout.

I think they will still be the team to beat and I expect them to be in the finals. The A-League final series will still involve the top six teams.

Last season saw the revival of Adelaide and though they finished to reach the final, they had a good team throughout the season. The question is how they will cope without Flores.

Whilst Victory got Kewell, I doubt they have a strong defence. For many seasons their defence has relied on Kevin Muscat at least in terms of organising it and now that he has retired it will be interesting how the team will embark on the first full season without him.

Going forward Sydney will have Emerton and also Nick Carle and so on paper they look like they will be dangerous.

The Central Coast Mariners almost won the grand final last season and I think they are going to be there and thereabouts.

Perth Glory always look like a better team than the season before but by season end they fizzle out. Hope this season will be different for them as they start the season without Robbie Fowler who left for Thailand.

The Wellington Phoenix was one of the solid teams last season especially at home. Now with new owners on board, they have to improve their away form and start racking wins away from Westpac Stadium.

Last but not least the youngest team in the league, Melbourne Heart. They Heart have brought in David Williams, Maycon, Fred, Curtis Good, Mate Dugandzic and they should have a better start than they had last season which I think ultimately cost them a place in the finals.

I was surprised that Victory let Dugandzic who was lively every time he played for Victory.

The A-League is one of the most difficult leagues to predict because any tea but I will see how I go on TipsChallenge this season.


2011/12 English Premiership Preview

2011/12 English Premiership review The English Premier League kicks off over the weekend with defending champions Manchester United going for their 20th title.

I think this season is going to be much tougher especially with the emergence of Manchester City as real title challengers and with Liverpool regrouping after two "bad" seasons where the team has finished outside the top four positions.

I think the days of the top four are gone now and what we have now is a top three and then a top six.

I think in the top three there are the two Manchester teams United and City and then Chelsea.

Manchester United has brought in Ashley Young, Phil Jones and David de Gea and the team will not sit back but will try and to successfully defend its title.

I can see the strongest challengers being Man City and Chelsea.

Chelsea's purchases so far has been young promising players and I think the new manager wants to have a mixture of youth and experience. Players like Ramires will be in their second season and so the team should not have the dip in form like last season that caused them to drop down to fifth at one stage.

Man City have brought in Sergio Aguero, Gael Clichy, Stefan Savic and Costel Pantilimon so far but it is Aguero who I think will make the difference for them.

I think they need to play like champions but not as defensive as they were last season only to react when they are down.

I think Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham will complete the top six and fight for fourth place.

I think there will be a big improvement in a Liverpool team that finished sixth and is out of Europe for the first time in many years. I think not being in European competitions will help Kenny Dalglish's side concentrate on the league.

Arsenal tend to start the season very well but towards the end they falter. This has happened in the last two seasons and it could happen once again. If it happens this season then they could finish fifth or sixth.

I think one of the strongest teams outside the top six is Everton despite no activity on the transfer market so far.

I think its fair to say that the rest of the teams are just trying to stay in the division.

There has been a lot of movement at Sunderland after a slide in the second half of last season and on paper Steve Bruce has a team to finish in top half of the table.

The other two teams I tip to be in the top half are Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers.

Leading the bottom half will be the likes of Newcastle, Fulham and Stoke City.

As for relegation, I have seen anything from three new teams QPR, Swansea and Norwich City to suggest they have much stronger teams than last year's teams.

The same can also be said of Wigan Athletic, Blackburn and Wolverhampton Wanderers who just managed to survive relegation and I think those six teams will be candidates for relegation.

Once again this season I will be putting my predictions on TipsChallenge and hoping to finish in the top half.


Russia, Qatar hosts 2018, 2022 World Cups

Russia and Qatar have won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

I am not surprised by Russia winning the right to host the tournament because I always thought it was going to be between them and the joint Spain/Portugal bid.

But being the first time for the World Cup to go to Russia gave them an upper hand.

I am a bit surprised though by Qatar's win.

Qatar is hosting the 2011 Asian Cup in January and I thought that the reason it was moved to January was because it was going to be too hot in June/July.

So if Qatar can host the World in the June/July time, why cant the country host the Asian Cup in the same month and see how things go.

This will be be the first time the World Cup has been hosted in the Middle East which I think is good to go new regions.

The results mean that the FIFA 2026 will be in North America, South America, Africa or Oceania.

For Australia in the Asian region our next chance to bid for the Cup will be in 2034 unless if the bidding rules change.


2010/11 English Premiership review

The 2010/11 English Premiership starts in a few days time with Tottenham Hotspurs taking on Manchester City in a an early kickoff match.

I think the team to watch this season will once again be Manchester City. City has brought in new talent in the likes of Yaya Toure for example and England goalkeeper Ian Hart has been brought back from loan.

I think the trick for City will be to convert the many draws against lowly sides into wins. Beating Chelsea in both matches but then drawn drawing against the likes of Burnley at home did not help their cause last season.

As always the problem I think will be how quick enough the team will gel together to form a formidable unit that can challenge the established sides.

I think Chelsea still look good and these days the team just adds in a few new players which is good for team stability. This will be manager Carlo Ancelloti's second season and so he pretty knows what to expect from the opposition.

Last season's runner-up Manchester United are not that much changed from last season but they have added Mexican striker Javier Hernandez to their ranks and that should ease the heavy dependence on goals from Wayne Rooney.

The other addition has been and Chris Smalling from Fulham.

I still think the teams to contest the top four places will be the Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Man United and Man City.

I think for Spurs the challenge is how they handle Champions League and the premier if they do manage to go past Young Boys.

Liverpool now have a new manager in Roy Hodgson but I still think their best bet will be a good run in the Europa Cup plus a top six finish.

Aston Villa finished sixth last season but with Martin O'Neill gone and without knowing the new manager I think it would be safe to say that they will finish in top half of the table at least. That will change

Turning to relegation matters, normally the first place I look at is at the promoted sides. I cannot see Newcastle going down straight because I expect to finish mid-table at least.

As for the other two, Blackpool and West Bromwich, I can see them flirting with relegation for most of the season and lets hope I am wrong.

This time the Baggies have Roberto Matteo at the helm but he has no experience managing at the top level and the quicker he adjusts his team to the top flight then he will have a good chance at survival.

Last season West Ham just survived relegation but I think that with Avram Grant in charge there will not be any of those problems this season.

Once again I hope that I will get most of tips right on TipsChallenge.

2010/11 A-League season preview

The 2010/11 A-League season starts in a few days time when the new club Melbourne Heart hosts the Central Coast Mariners at AAMI Park.

For the first time the A-League will have eleven teams which means that every weekend one team will have a bye.

The increased number of teams have meant that there is an increased number of matches that will be played midweek and some rounds will have six or seven matches meaning that some teams will play twice in one round.

An example will be round 6 where Wellington Phoenix and Melbourne Victory will each play two matches even though the North Queensland Fury will have no match in that round.

I think a season like the 2010/11 one calls for squads with more options and depth and I think rotating players will become an important issue in the new season.

I think the defending champions Sydney will once again be the team to beat.

It looks like the champions have a stronger side this season especially having snared Nicky Carle into their team and they have also played some quality pre-season friendlies in the Sydney Festival of Football tournament.

There hasn't been much movement at Melbourne Victory in terms of players coming in but both last season's goalkeepers have left the club.

With Archie Thompson out for the start of the season I think last season's runners up will struggle for goals this season.

I expect the Wellington Phoenix to be better than last season and so I expect them to finish in the top four places.

Ricky Herbert is staying as coach and they have also acquired Jade North and I expect a stronger team compared to last season's which reached the team's maiden finals.

There will be three new foreign coaches in the A-League this season.

The North Queensland Fury, Adelaide United and Melbourne Heart have all acquired new foreign coaches and it will be interesting to see how these teams will approach their matches.

Also the Mariners have a new coach with Graham Arnold taking over the reigns as he moves from international football to club football.

There has been so many changes at Fury and I don't know what to expect from the team. I am hoping that they will be as competitive.

I would expect Perth Glory to be better this time especially now that they have Robbie Fowler in their ranks and they should have a reliable source of much needed goals.

Last season the Glory had a very good home record and if they can build on that I cannot see them failing to reach the finals again.

The introduction of Heart will see a true city derby for the first time in the A-League when Heart meets Victory in round 9.

One thing that makes the A-League interesting is how hard it is to predict the matches as any team can beat anyone and so I will continue with my A-League tipping on TipsChallenge.

Socceroos moment of truth against Ghana

The Socceroos play Ghana tonight in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Group D fixture knowing that a defeat will make them the first team to exist the tournament this year.

After the 4-nil humiliation against Germany things cannot get any worse and I hope that the Socceroos will rise to the occasion and at least snatch a draw and also at least score a goal.

Ghana beat Serbia 1-nil in their opening fixture and they looked very comfortable in that match even though they needed a penalty to score their lone goal.

Ghana knows that a win will make them the first team to qualify for the second round and what has made things complex is that Ghana knows they have to get something from this match because Germany having lost to Serbia means the Germans need something from their last fixture.

Tim Cahill is suspended for this match and I think that will make things a lot complex.

I think the injury to Vince Grella is not of much concern because he didn't have a particularly good game against Germany and I was expecting him to be on the bench anyway.

I think people may blame coach Pim Verbeek but the truth is that the Socceroos don't have the players to draw from.

Its surprising the Socceroos still depend on Harry Kewell a player who last played for his team in December last year and is no longer in top form.

The team certainly needs renewal and the match against the Black Stars may have come at the right time.


2010 World Cup preview

The 2010 FIFA World Cup is now less than a week from kick-off and in this post I will have a quick preview of the tournament.

The hosts South Africa are in group A with France, Mexico and Uruguay. I think South Africa as hosts will have that bit extra going for them with local support but there is also France who reached the final last time around in Germany and I think are the strongest in this group.

I think that France will get out of this group and joining them will be either the hosts or Uruguay.

In group B I expect Argentina to comfortably come through but as for who will join them it looks very tight.

I think Nigeria would have more of a chance had they played more matches under Lars Lagerback and as it is at the moment to me they look like an unknown quantity.

Greece missed the last World Cup when most people expected them to be there as European champions and South Korea have a good compact team that sometimes plays like a club team.

Group C is all about England but I expect the United States to give them a run of their money. At the last Confederation Cup the United States were very good and even reached the final which they lost to Brazil and therefore I am expecting them to get out of that group with England.

I don't think Slovenia and Algeria will cause a lot of problems.

In group there is the Socceroos, Germany, Ghana and Serbia. I think Germany are the strongest team in this group and should win even without Michael Ballack.

Ghana and Australia reached the second round in Germany but I think one of them if not both are going to go home after just playing three matches because Serbia has a strong team.

The Netherlands stand out in Group E and to me I think they should go as far as possible and the semis and even the final is a possibility.

Cameroon is in this group and I think its the African team in the easiest group and should they not qualify from here then that would be a disaster.

I think second place will be a shootout between Denmark and Cameroon with Japan finishing last.

The defending champions Italy are in Group which I think is the weakest of all the groups. Italy should win that group with Paraguay or Slovenia coming second.

I am not sure about New Zealand but I think they will not be able to cause an upset here.

Group G is one of the toughest but Brazil should come through all the same and I think as group winners.

I think its a lottery for second place and I think all the three other teams have a good chance. I don't know much North Korea and I think that is their strength that they are very much unknown by most people and therefore can spring a surprise or two.

Finally in Group H there is Spain who I expect to reach at least the semis but I don't think its that straight forward as to who would join them in the second round.

I would go with Chile but I think Switzerland and Honduras are quite capable and so I think it could be tight in this group.

Now I am now going to say who I think will the final but I expect four countries to do very well and these are Brazil, Argentina, Spain and the Netherlands.

I am looking forward to this World Cup and I will also be predicting the scores on TipsChallenge.

Brazil to play Zimbabwe, Tanzania

The Brazil national team will play Zimbabwe and Tanzania as it prepares for the FIFA 2010 World Cup.

This development will mean that people in Zimbabwe and Tanzania will be able to watch some top class football action from their local stadiums.

Its rather unfortunate that many teams have not chosen to play the countries neighbouring South Africa as they prepare for the World Cup.

Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Angola all played at this year's Africa Nation Cup and I think they would give good practice to the World Cup teams especially those facing African opposition in their groups.

McDonald not going to World Cup

Scott McDonald will not be going to the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa after being omitted from the 28 man squad that will leave for South Africa this week.

The squad will further be reduced to the required 23 and the other players will stay in South Africa and be on stand-by in case of any injuries.

Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek thinks that McDonald does not fit his preferred formation of having one striker upfront and he has decided to leave him.

Although McDonald has never scored a goal for the Socceroos so far I think he must be given a chance because he is always going to be a goal threat and this World Cup could have been the time he was going to break his duck.

I think now there is a crisis for strikers because in the squad there is Josh Kennedy and Nikita Rukavytsya left as recognised strikers.

How much the Socceroos miss Mark Viduka?

I think Verbeek is looking for goals to come from midfield from players like Tim Cahill. That could be expecting too much.

Also out of the squad is Nick Carle and defender Jade North. I am not surprised by Carle's omission because he hasn't been playing regularly for his team Crystal Palace.

He was on the bench in the last two matches of the season and never got onto the pitch.

I am now very keen to see what happens in the next match against Denmark. The New Zealand did not give any pointers and I think that was understandable but against Denmark I expect to see more cohesion.


Baggies get automatic promotion

I was excited to see West Bromwich Albion promoted back into the English Premiership and I hope that this time the team will stay in the top flight for at least more than one season.

One frustrating thing being a Baggies fan is seeing the team getting promoted one season and then soon after seeing the team getting relegated.

I hope that there will be enough money to strengthen the team so that it can at least avoid the bottom three places come May 2011.

I was disappointed when Tony Mowbray decided to leave the Hawthorns for Celtic Park because I thought we had a very good chance of getting promoted under him.

But I have liked Roberto di Matteo's approach this season. It will be Matteo's first time managing in the Premiership but that doesn't worry me a lot as long as he strengthens the squad with the right players.

The team has been playing good football and not just grinding out results. The Baggies have scored a total of 85 goals so far and with only seven losses so far it looks its been a good season.

For now I will just enjoy the automatic promotion

Victory reaches another Grand Final

Its good to see that once again Melbourne Victory will host the A-League after beating Sydney FC 4-3 on aggregate in the A-League major semi.

Its good to see Victory got the better of Sydney because during the normal season the Victory could not even score against Sydney.

Also I was disappointed when Victory lost the minor premiership after losing 2-nil at the SFS. In that final match of the season, the Victory needed a draw but I assume it had to be goalless in order to get it.

Now we can look forward to another grand final and I think Victory is now in a far stronger position with Archie Thompson and Robbie Kruse both back in the team.

I hope there will be no more further injuries coming from the Asian Champions League.

In the grand final, Victory will play the winner between Sydney and Wellington Phoenix.

I actually prefer to play Sydney because if Sydney reaches the final, win or lose Victory will play in next year's Asian champions League.

However, if the Phoenix were to reach the final, then Victory will need to win the grand final in order to play in the competition in 2011.

For now its good to see the Etihad Stadium hosting another grand final and hopefully home advantage will mean another championship.


CAF's decision on Togo harsh

I think the decision by the Confederation of African football(Caf) to ban Togo from the next two Africa Nations Cup editions after withdrawing from this year's tournament is too harsh.

I think the decision by Togo to withdraw after two members of their delegation were shot dead in Cabinda made sense given the circumstances.

Togo could have played but equally they could have chosen to leave which they did and I think it was a reasonable decision to make.

What is unreasonable and also insensitive is to ban the country from not one but two tournaments and then a add a fine on top of that.

No ban should be imposed on the team and in any case I was looking forward to them appearing in 2012 when the tournament is hosted jointly by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.

How does Caf think the players feel after going through the shooting episode and then banning them from the next two editions.

I hope this decision will be reversed soon and what Caf should be doing instead is help the Togolese players and officials recover from what happened in Cabinda and making sure there is tight security at future tournaments.


Last match in Cabinda

The Africa Nations Cup quarter-final match between Ivory Coast and Algeria will be the last match to be played in the Cabinda province in this tournament.

Cabinda came into the limelight after the tragedy involving the Togolese bus in which three people died and others injured after a shooting.

In this match I am expecting the Ivory Coast to reach the semi-finals especially given the way they played against fancied Ghana.

I think the Elephants had a slow start to the tournament after the goalless draw against Burkina Faso but against the Black Stars they showed that they can defend well and also score goals.

Algeria were on the other hand stunned by Malawi in their first match but they later recovered their form against Mali before the infamous goalless draw against Angola which meant that them and the hosts stayed in the competition.

In other quarter-final matches, hosts Angola will play Ghana and I think this could be the last time we see the hosts in this competition.

Although Ghana are without star midfielder Michael Essien, they should be too strong for the Angolans who blew a 4-nil lead against Mali in ten minutes.

Champions Egypt will face Cameroon whilst surprise group leaders Zambia will face Nigeria.

I expect the Pharaohs to beat the Indomitable Lions and I think Nigeria will be too strong for Zambia.

In the 2008 Africa Nations Cup no match was decided on penalties and lets hope it will be the same this year.


Tough group for Socceroos

The draw for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa has now been conducted and the Socceroos have been drawn in a tough Group D.

The Socceroos will meet Germany, Ghana and Serbia and this seems to be a very tough group and I think getting out of it will be hard.

I think the toughest match will be against Germany who are the seeded team in this group but its good also that this is the first match. I think that will set the tempo for the remaining two group matches.

The second match will be against Ghana and the last one will be against Serbia.

I would have liked the Black Stars and the Socceroos to go through from this group but I think its a group where any two of the four teams can go through.

Germany has big match experience and they know exactly how to play at these kind of tournaments and I would very surprised if they are not in the second round.

This is the same German team that reached the final of Euro 2008 and lost narrowly to Spain and also in qualifying they managed to put fancied Russia into second place.

Serbia qualified from the same group as France and forced France into the playoffs.

They lost two matches and drew one and they scored a total of 22 goals and only conceding eight. Milan Jovanovic scored five of those goals.

The matches they lost were 2-1 narrow defeats against France and Lithuania and their drawn match was the home match against France.

I think also they don't have much to lose and that gives them another advantage.

I think Ghana is one of the top two teams from the African region and like Ivory Coast they play as as a team even though they have stars like Michael Essien in their ranks.

This will be a very tough match for the Socceroos especially as this will be in Africa with most of the local people probably supporting Ghana.

Ghana has some very fast play and they would have gained experience from participation in Germany three years ago. I will watch the Black Stars very closely now in the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.

I hope the preparation from now on until June 13th will be spot on in order to get the Socceroos ready for this tough group.

Meanwhile its good to see that in the first two rounds of the 2010 World Cup there will be matches at 9:30 pm Melbourne time and then midnight and 4:30 am.

From round three onwards kickoff will be midnight and 4:30 am.

The Socceroos have one group match against Ghana at midnight and then the other two are all at 4:30am.


A 33 team World Cup?

I found the article on the BBC website saying that the Football Association of Ireland(FAI) had asked FIFA to consider an extra place for Ireland at the 2010 FIFA World Cup very interesting.

Its unfortunate that Ireland lost out on a place at the 2010 World Cup because Thierry Henry handled the ball before passing it to William Gallas who scored the equaliser for France in extra time but I don't think that warrants an extra place for Ireland at the World Cup.

I would have very much liked Ireland to be at the World Cup in South Africa but surely not as a 33rd team because then every team that had a decision against them would claim for an extra place for themselves as well.

In the France/Ireland second leg match in Paris, the aggregate score before Gallas scored was 1-1 and therefore the match was heading towards penalties to decide the winner.

Its not like Ireland were in the driving seat en-route to the World Cup but they were going to go to penalties and then it would have been anybody's game.

There is nothing to suggest that France were going to lose those penalties or that Ireland were going to win those penalties but either team was going to have a fair chance of qualifying.

I am waiting to see what FIFA will do but I will be surprised if they will allow a 33rd team at the World Cup because that will create all sorts of problems in terms of organising that World Cup.

I also think that if that were to happen a lot of teams will review all their matches and if they find any wrong decision they will also claim a place at the World Cup which I think it will be a fair claim if Ireland were get a place themselves.

I think FIFA should try to do away with these playoffs where possible for the 2014 World Cup qualification.

The playoffs are very tense matches for the officials, players and spectators alike and everything is analysed in great detail because of the World Cup place at stake.

There is a lot riding on the World Cup for the whole nation let alone the players and so everybody wants to be involved and if teams can be decided in group games that would be great.

The playoff can then be held for matches like in the situation of Egypt/Algeria where there was no way to separate the two teams.

Also FIFA should punish the players who cheat. So far as far as I know nothing has been said about what is going to happen to Henry and I think FIFA should do something about it.

That will not stop players from cheating especially with a World Cup place on hand but it will act as a deterrent especially if a player is banned say three matches at the World Cup.

Meanwhile the World Cup draw will be conducted on Friday in Cape Town but it will be in the early hours of the morning here in Australia.

The SBS will show the draw live but I think I will miss that live cast and wait for the analysis after.


Home advantage fails for Victory

Melbourne Victory had its worst home loss when it lost 4-nil to the Central Coast Mariners over the weekend.

This is the second humiliating defeat after losing 3-nil to Sydney FC and it looks like there is no home advantage at all this season for Victory at the Etihad Stadium.

If I look at it closely though its not as bad as it sounds because Victory has only lost three games at home - twice to the Mariners and once to Sydney.

Out of the remaining five matches played so far at the Etihad Stadium Victory has won two and drawn three.

What causes concern for me though is the magnitude of the losses. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger at the moment.

I think the team can lose at home like any other team but even then the magnitude of the loss should be reasonable.

The first loss was a 2-nil loss and this was followed by a 3-nil and now a 4-nil. Its interesting to see that so far when Victory has lost at home, it has failed to score a consolation goal.

The next home match will be against Gold Coast United and I hope we are going to see a better performance from Victory whatever the result.


2009/10 English Premier League preview

The English Premier League kicks off the 2009/10 season when last season's FA Cup winners Chelsea take on Hull at Stamford Bridge and maybe now its a good time to take a brief look at the season ahead.

I think one team most people will be looking at next season is Manchester City after the club brought in Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez, Roque Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure.

I will not be surprised to see Mark Hughes adding more quality to his side before the transfer window closes at the end of the month and so on paper they should at least challenge for the title.

I think that even if they don't end up challenging for the title, they should at least finish in the top four places ensuring a champions league place in the 2010/11 season.

Manchester United lost Cristiano Ronaldo who was sold to Real Madrid and added to that they also lost the services of Tevez.

I think it is the services of Ronaldo who they will miss most because the player was their top goal scorer for the last two seasons. Also he drew so much attention and that would free other players.

In return the Old Trafford outfit has brought in Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia and unless they can add on to the list they could find the goals hard to come by this time.

I still think that United are still a strong side will still be favourites to defend their title. I think their biggest challenger will be Chelsea who will now be managed by Carlo Ancelotti.

Ancelotti will come with lots of experience but this will be his first season in the premiership and unless he adjusts quickly his team may struggle a bit. I think its in the Champions League where his team will fare better maybe reaching the final again this time.

Liverpool had a very good season last season and on all accounts should have won the title but I think they will still be strong again this season.

They have managed to retain the key players from last season in Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and so far they haven't sold any other major player.

The key for Liverpool will be consistence and avoiding the countless draws at home against lowly placed teams. Liverpool did not lose at Anfield last season but they also had a lot of draws which did not help their cause.

I think the team to lose out its top four position to Man City will be Arsenal. So far the Gunners have lost Adebayor and Toure without necessarily replacing them with equally experienced players and so I think they could finish fifth.

I still think Everton, Tottenham and Aston Villa will compete for the top eight places with the rest of the teams fighting relegation.

Last season Spurs had a poor start but I cannot see them having a similar start again this season hence I think they will finish in the top eight.

Talking about relegation, normally the first place I look are the newly promoted sides but last season Stoke did very well whilst Hull had a flying start and it was only West Bromwich that got relegated in the end.

This season I think Birmingham will be safe but I am not so sure about Wolves and Burnley. Wolves come in as champions but I think the premiership will be a big challenge for them.

I also expect Hull to struggle after a poor finish to the season last season. If we talk about surprise packets then maybe it will be Fulham and Portsmouth.

Pompey have new owners and if they can get some good players then they can be surprise packets and Fulham had a very good season last on the back of their excellent home record and if they continue in the same vein then they could also be surprise packets.

I will continue with my premiership tipping on TipsChallenge and with the Baggies no longer in the premier league I should fare better than last season.

So lets hope that the best team will win the premiership and I hope we will also see some exciting football.

2009/10 A-League season preview

The 2009/10 A-League season starts next week and for the first time there will five fixtures per round.

There will be two new teams this season, the Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury.

Apart from the number of teams participating in the league, there is also going to be a change to the finals with the top six teams on the ladder now qualifying for the finals compared to four last season.

Like always there has been much manager movement in the off-season. Sydney and Newcastle Jets will have different managers from the ones that finished last season.

Sydney will now be coached by dd whilst the Jets have turned to Culina. Vitezslav Lavicka will experience his first year in the A-League while Culina has had some experience with Sydney.

I don't how much influence Lavicka will have on the team but judging by the pre-season friendlies, the team looks like its getting results but whether that will translate into results its hard to tell.

Culina will take a team that finished bottom of the league last season and try to make sure they at least reach the finals.

There has been some new faces at Jets throughout their Asian campaign and I think these will help Jets avoid finishing last again.

Of the new teams that are coming in, the Gold Coast United have made the most noise especially after their win over Fulham in a pre-season friendly.

They have very good players including Jason Culina and last season's top goal scorer Shane Smeltz.

The Fury's biggest name is former Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler but they also have some A-League experienced players like Robbie Middleby, Ufuk Talay and James Robinson.

I think after at least three rounds it will be a little bit clear where these new teams stand.

I will not be surprised to see the Gold Coast outfit reaching the finals at the end of the season. They have set themselves some high standards and the challenge will be to live up to them.

For the rest of the league teams, the defending champions Melbourne Victory have retained most of its squad from last season and should at least be able to reach the finals.

There was a lot of movement in terms of players at Adelaide United and it will be interesting to see how the team will shape now in the new season.

There has also been a lot of activity at Perth Glory and with six teams reaching the finals, this could be the year for the Glory to play beyond the home and away season.

The Wellington Phoenix just missed out on the finals last season and in the off-season they lost the services of the top marksman Smeltz but I still think that last season they went beyond the stage of easy beats. I expect them to hold their own especially at home.

The renamed Brisbane Roar will now find themselves with two state rivals and I think there will added pressure to win those matches against the state rivals as they are the more established side.

I hope for better luck this time with my A-League football tipping on TipsChallenge. I think it will be a bit easier to pick up points each week now that there are five fixtures in each round.

I hope the best team in the season and will go on and win the Grand final.


Man City shows ambition

Manchester City has shown lots of ambition with the kind of players it has bought so far with less than a month before the 2009/10 English Premiership league season starts.

I think their biggest buy so far has been Carlos Tevez whom I think will make a huge difference especially when he plays alongside Robinho upfront.

Buying Emmanuel Adebayor from Arsenal also shows that they will have lots of options upfront with Roque Santa Cruz also in the mix.

Mark Hughes will have to manage his strikers well because I think that now the club has talent in abundance.

In the midfield Man City will have new signing Gareth Barry and also Elano.

I think with the kind of squad Man City have assembled so far they should finish in the top four and get Champions League football in the 2010/11 season. If that happens that will mean a shake-up of the established top four sides and I think if anyone may lose out it looks very likely to be Arsenal.

But there is still some way before the transfer window closes and any purchases between now and then may change the shape of the season.

I am happy to see another team challenging the top four who have been like that for some seasons although not so long ago Everton managed to finish fourth ahead of Liverpool.

Also with the City getting stronger, the Manchester derby is going to get even better especially with Tevez on the other side.

The problem for City could be getting the players to gel together but I think they have done very well buying these players so early and not just as the window closes at the end of August.

In defence Man City already has Wayne Bridge, Vincent Kompany and Micah Richards and should they add an experienced centre-back then surely they should challenge for the honours.

With all these purchases will also come the pressure to perform week in week out and I think that will be one of the greatest tests for City. I think handling that pressure and fans expectations will be crucial.

With the kind of squad Man City has now I think they should challenge for the title and anything less would be a worst of talent.

Di Matteo replaces Mowbray

Former Chelsea midfielder Roberto Di Matteo has been tasked with the job of getting West Bromwich Albion back in the Premiership after replacing Tony Mowbray.

I was very disappointed when Mowbray decided to leave the Hawthorns for Celtic Park and I am pretty sure with him at the helm promotion back into the premiership was a big possibility.

I am not so sure with Di Matteo. He did very well with Milton Keynes Dons to get them to the playoffs in their first season in that league but that was his only year in management.

Now he has an even bigger task of trying to get the Baggies back into the English Premiership.

If most of of the players from last season stay and he is able to get one or two strikers then it will be possible but I will have to wait a few games in the league season to see how things are going.

On that note another thing that maybe bothers a lot of Baggies fans is this idea of going up and down. I think focus should now look beyond promotion but actually staying in the premiership.

And this brings the question of whether Di Matteo will be able to make the team stay in the top flight for more than one season.

I wish Di Matteo all the best and hope he will get the team promoted directly and not have to go through the playoffs.

Socceroos reach World Cup

The Socceroos secured a place at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa after a goalless draw against Qatar on Sunday morning.

The Socceroos only needed a draw to make sure that the worst position they could finish in the group would be second which secures a spot at the World Cup finals.

In the same group, Japan also secured a place at the finals after beating Uzbekistan with a lone first half goal.

Now Japan and Australia will use the remaining matches to decide who will win the group and the teams play each other next week here in Melbourne.

The Socceroos reaching the World Cup is very good news for the local game and I think that will help raise the profile of football in Australia even further.

I also liked the straight forward way of qualifying compared to going through South America as happened for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

I have watched all the qualifying matches that the Socceroos have played and I think they will need to raise their game to go beyond the group stage.

The good thing is that there is a still a lot of time - a year actually - to prepare for the World Cup and the coach Pim Verbeek will need to fine tune the team to make the team better than it is at the moment.

Meanwhile its going to be good watching the last two matches of qualifying knowing that a place has already been secured at the finals and it could be a chance to try some fringe players.

Ancelotti replaces Hiddink at the Bridge

The managerial merry go round continues at Chelsea with Carlo Ancelotti being the latest manager to come to Stamford Bridge.

Whilst Ancelotti has seen stability at AC Milan where he has been manager for eight years, he comes to a team that that been changing managers almost on a year to year basis since Jose Mourinho left.

Mourinho left the club in the 2007/8 season and he was replaced by Avram Grant.

Grant only stayed until the end of that season and he was replaced by Luiz Felipe Scolari who then got replaced on a temporary basis by Guus Hiddink.

I think Grant did so well in the 2007/8 season and the only reason the team did not win the league was because of the poor start to the season under Mourinho.

Now in comes Ancelotti and I think if Chelsea wants sustained success then they should let him at least last a full season.

The situation at the Bridge mirrors that at Real Madrid where there have been so many managerial changes one easily loses count and next season there will be another new manager in Villarreal former boss Manuel Pellegrini who replaces Juande Ramos.

Meanwhile the stability at Manchester United seems to be paying off with the team winning its third consecutive premier league title and reaching the finals of the UEFA Champions League in consecutive years.

But at the Emirates there have been stability with Arsene Wenger being at the helm since 1996 but there hasn't been much success in recent years.

To be fair Arsenal hasn't spend as much money as Man United but the club has gone four years without silverware.

Back to Chelsea, I am keen to see how the team will perform next season under this new manager. I am expecting Manchester City to be much stronger than this season and so there could be real competition for the top five clubs at least.


Barca outclass Man Utd

Barcelona won this year's UEFA Champions League after outclassing Manchester United in the final played in Rome this morning.

Whilst Barca did not look as convincing in the two-legged semi against Chelsea, they turned on the heat against the English champions to produce a classic display of football.

I think Man U started very well in the first eight minutes or so and they looked like they were going to dominate the match but once Barca scored through Samuel Eto'o they took hold of the match for the rest of the game and could have scored more than two goals.

Interestingly Man United's start looked very similar to the start Arsenal had at the Emirates in the semi-final match against Man U before they also fizzled out after the bright start.

Last season Barca were stopped from reaching the final after they were knocked out by the eventual winners Man U but this time they had their sweet revenge.

Although people talk a lot about Lionel Messi and rightly so, I think it is Andres Iniesta who makes the whole difference with the way he dominates midfield.

Manchester United's midfield had no answer for him and together with Xavi they took control of the match and in the process made the Barca makeshift defence look so brilliant.

It was good to have a champions league final between champions from the respective leagues but with the way Barca played they made Man U look so ordinary.

Looking at the whole season I think Barca deserved to win although some may argue that they were very fortunate to go past Chelsea.

It will be interesting to see if the Catalan giants will continue in the same vein of form next season and if they do then they will keep the trophy for some time.

For the Old Trafford side, I think it was a reality check and to be fair this is probably the toughest opposition they have faced in the competition this season and they came short.

Congratulations to Barcelona on their treble and I think they deserved the trophy to cap their wonderful season.


Newcastle join Championship

The biggest news on the last day of the English Premiership was Newcastle United getting relegated to the Championship after finishing third from bottom.

At the start of the season I wouldn't have thought that the team with such talent would get into so much trouble to the point of getting relegated but this has happened.

Also before kick-off Newcastle needed just a draw to stay in the Premiership if Hull lost their match but the loss to Aston Villa ensured that the Magpies joined Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion in the second tier league next season.

I think the problems for Newcastle started when Kevin Keegan left the club. I still think that had he stayed the club would have challenged for Europe.

As for Boro, they had a very bad season and even on the last day a win was not going to be any good because of their vastly inferior goal difference compared to the other teams fighting relegation.

I wonder what's going to happen to some of the big name players who play for Newcastle. Next season leads to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and I think for most of the players going down to the Championship in such a year wouldn't be a good idea.

Closer to home there is Mark Viduka and I think he may have to look for another team if he wants to play at a high level although I doubt that going to the Championship would hamper him from going to South Africa if he wants to.

I think if he was to stay with Newcastle he would still go to the World Cup if he wanted to because I think he is still a very good player.

Its also interesting to see that Mark Schwarzer left Boro at the right time. His new team Fulham have done so well its going to play in the new Europa League next season.

The Cottagers just survived relegation last season and at first I thought Schwarzer was making a mistake by joining Fulham but he has helped his team to finish with one of the best home records this season.

I hope my team the Baggies will be able to bounce back after next season but we better be better prepared for the premiership because its not good for the fans going up and down every other year.

Its interesting to see that for next season whilst the North East of England has lost two teams from the premiership, the Midlands has gained two with Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham getting promoted.

Also good for the Midlands is that Stoke were very safe in the premiership and I hope they keep like that next season.


Shearer to the rescue

Newcastle have appointed former captain Alan Shearer as manager until the end of the season.

There is eight matches left in total to save the team from possible relegation for the team that slipped into the relegation after losing at home to Arsenal.

I think its been a roller coaster season for Newcastle with constant change of managers but now this is the business end of the season and the team has to survive the chop.

Four matches are at home starting with one against Chelsea and then Middlesbrough, Fulham and Portsmouth.

I think these will be the crucial matches because at 29 points, I think the Magpies need another 11 points to survive. Getting as many points as possible from St James Park could be the key.

I think the toughest match there will be the one against Chelsea but with Boro also fighting for survival and being a local derby the Boro match could be another tricky one.

If you look at the away matches they all look tough. The away matches are at White Hart Lane, Anfield, Villa Park and Britannia Stadium.

I think Shearer will be very lucky to get anything from Anfield and Villa Park but I think there might be a chance of points even if it means one against Spurs and Stoke.

If Newcastle lose all those away matches then it could be very tricky although other results could help.

I don't think it should have come to this for Newcastle this after starting brightly and with the kind of players they have but at the moment the most important thing is to survive and I still think they will survive.

Liverpool to face Chelsea again

In the 2009 UEFA Champions League quarter final draw, Liverpool will once again meet Chelsea in what is slowly becoming an annual contest.

This time the first leg will be played at Anfield with the second leg a week later at Stamford Bridge. I think once again its going to be an interesting tie and after Liverpool's recent wins over both Real Madrid and Manchester United they must riding high with confidence.

But for Chelsea it will be time to avenge the two losses in the league suffered at the hands of Liverpool.

But one thing has changed though and to me I think that could prove to be significant and that is the change in coaches at the Bridge.

When Liverpool won the league matches Felipe Scolari was in charge and now Guus Hiddink is at the helm and that could swing the match to Chelsea.

I don't see playing the second leg at home as a huge advantage because if you are playing away your goals are very significant and that can put the home team under a lot of pressure.

On the same side of the draw Barcelona will come face to face with Bayern Munich. Barca and Bayern have scored the most number of goals in the competition so far and this tie must be very interesting but I expect Barcelona to prevail.

The winner between Liverpool and Chelsea will play the winner between Barcelona and Bayern Munich. I consider this to be the stronger side of the draw.

On the other side of the draw, Arsenal will face Villareal whilst holders Manchester United will face Porto. I can see an all English semi-final here but Porto and Villareal are quite capable of springing surprises of their own.

Its very likely that there will be an English team in the final if not both teams like last year but lets wait and see what will come out of the quarter-final matches.

I am nearer the bottom on the Champions League tipping ladder on TipsChallenge and I hope I will get my predictions right this time.


Stability pays off at Victory

Melbourne Victory won the A-League grand final on Saturday to become the first team to win the grand final twice and so its far its the only team to have won both the premiership and the championship.

If you were to go back to the pre-season cup then Victory won the treble and also the first team to do so and I think that the stability at Victory has contributed to this.

Out of the eight foundation coaches only Melbourne's Ernie Merrick and Central Coast Mariners' Lawrie McKinna remain and the Mariners have also been consistently good and are in Asia this year.

I was at the grand final and it was tense and I knew that whoever scored first would definitely win it.

Unfortunately Adelaide lost a player early in the match when Cristiano was wrongly send off and from then on they did not play well and Victory dominated a lot and I think they should have scored.

I think referees should take their time when making some of those big decisions especially in a final. Its not surprising that both red cards issued in the final have now been revoked.

After half time I think Adelaide came back stronger and could easily have been two up before the Victory scored but once Victory scored I knew that was it.

Its good to see Adelaide's recovery after the mauling two weeks before and I think in the end Victory deserved their second championship.

Its going to be interesting next year when the competition will have ten teams and already the Gold Coast team looks strong.

But I think its the continuity at Victory that will help defend the title. I am hoping that next season will not be like the season after winning the last championship when Victory even failed to reach the finals.

But Newcastle Jets fared even worse getting the wooden spoon a year after winning the title.

The disappointing bit though is that the team will have to wait a year to play in Asia. I think by then the squad will have changed but it also underlines the need to go into Asia in consecutive years.


Victory to face Adelaide again

Melbourne Victory is going to face Adelaide United again in a grand final after Adelaide beat Queensland Roar in the Preliminary final.

Two years ago the two teams met at the Telstra Dome and the Victory overhauled Adelaide winning by six goals to nil.

This season the two teams have met five times and on every occasion Victory has won but to be fair four of those five matches were very tight.

In particular the match Melbourne won 3-2 at Hindmarsh was a tough encounter. Adelaide led at half-time but Melbourne managed to come back in the second half and win.

The other two matches in the league all finished 1-nil in favour of Melbourne.

I think it is in the finals series when Adelaide has been outclassed by Victory but Saturday's match will be a different and all that will count for nothing if Victory loses.

I will be at the match and I hope that it will be another win for Melbourne for Victory to be the first team to achieve the double twice.

But if Adelaide can defend well and sneak one goal and defend it then they can win the match and so I have to be a bit cautious because over the ninety minutes anything is possible.

Both Adelaide and Melbourne will represent Australia in next year's edition of the Asian Champions League and it should be good experience for both teams.

It will be Adelaide's third foray into the competition making them the most experienced A-League team in that competition.

I think the good thing is that two teams will qualify for the knockout phase and I think that will make the competition very interesting.

Back to the grand final, although I would like Victory to win, I am also hoping that it will not be a one-sided encounter and I hope the better team will win.


Grand Final at the Dome

Melbourne Victory beat Adelaide 4-nil in the second leg of the Major Semi-final to make sure that this year's A-League grand final will be at the Telstra Dome.

This season has seen ups and downs and at one time I thought the Victory were going to fail even to reach the finals but good news is that the team had a good finish to the season and won the minor premiership.

I was very keen for Victory to get back into the Asian Champions League in 2009 and by getting the minor premiership the Asian Champions League is back at the Dome or at the new stadium.

Carlos Hernandez had a very good game on Saturday and its not surprising he was involved in all four goals and I hope he will play like that again in the Grand final to make sure that Victory will be the first team to get the double twice.

Adelaide will play Queensland Roar at Hindmarsh on Saturday and whoever wins that match will also play in Asia next year regardless of what happens in the final because Victory are already minor premiers.

I will not be surprised to see Adelaide win that match because they had the second best home record in the league this season behind the Victory.

On the other hand the Roar had the best away record and so it should be a very interesting match.

Whoever wins knows that it will be very difficult to beat the Victory at home and I am looking forward to an entertaining Grand final.

Hiddink takes over at the Bridge

Former Socceroos coach Guus Hiddink will take over the reigns at Chelsea following the dismissal of Luiz Felipe Scolari early in the week.

After Chelsea's goalless draw against Hull City, the Stamford Bridge outfit slipped to fourth position on the league ladder and I think that caused the hierarchy at Chelsea to panic.

With the unconvincing displays from Chelsea especially at home I think there was a real fear that Chelsea could end up fighting for a Uefa Cup place instead of a Champions League place and Hiddink's job I think will be to make sure the team is in the Champions League next season.

Chelsea needs to find a way to score goals because sometimes they have had the upper hand but have failed to convert that into goals especially at home.

The team nearly lost to Stoke City at home and against Middlesborough it was so hard for the team to get the two goals they scored despite dominating the match.

I think Hiddink knows he has the players to turn things around but the matches are running out and I will be very surprised if he can chase for the title in the last rounds because I think at this point in time Manchester United are in the box seat and should be able to defend their title.

Another interesting thing is whether Aston Villa can maintain a top four place. Villa are playing very well at the moment and if they continue like that it could mean Arsenal missing out on a champions league place and that will be very interesting.

I think that Everton are also in a good position to get fifth place because at the moment they trail Arsenal by just four points.

I hope Hiddink's arrival at Chelsea will make the last rounds of the English Premiership very interesting

Victory wins minor premiership

Melbourne Victory won the minor premiership after Adelaide United failed to win its match against the Central Coast Mariners by the required two goal margin.

This minor premiership is very important for Victory because it means that Victory will be back in the Asian Champions League next in 2010.

With two teams qualifying from the group phase for the knockout stage, the Asian champions league should be more exciting and I am glad to see that Victory are back in the mix.

I doubted Victory would win the minor premiership after the 2-nil win over the Wellington Phoenix because I thought that a three-nil victory was needed to make sure Adelaide had to win by three clear goals.

But in the end Archie Thompson's late goal proved to be decisive as it meant that Victory finished with the same goal difference as Adelaide but Victory scored more goals than Adelaide.

I think the fact that the premiership had to be decided by goals scored shows how competitive the A-League is. Queensland Roar in third place was two points behind the top two teams.

With the Asian champions league secured I think Victory can now enter the finals more relaxed and there is a very good chance of a grand final appearance because Victory beat Adelaide in all three matches.

I know the finals are different but the second leg will be at the Telstra Dome and that is going to help Victory a lot.

Hats off to the Mariners for putting everything into the match where the result didn't matter to them but ideally these last round matches should be played at the same time.


Victory still with a chance

Melbourne Victory's win over the Central Coast Mariners means that a comprehensive win over the Wellington Phoenix may be enough to win the A-League minor premiership.

Its sad that the the matches in the last round of the A-League are staggered like any other round but Victory can put pressure on Adelaide United by having a massive win like 4-nil or something like that against Wellington.

Ironically a win for the Victory means that that the Mariners no longer need to beat or draw Adelaide to secure fourth place but I am sure they would like to finish their season with a flourish at home.

Queensland Roar are still in the frame for the minor premiership but they need both Victory and United to lose or draw to win it.

That's a possibility because if Victory were to lose to the Phoenix then the Mariners will need to beat Adelaide or draw to get back fourth place and that will let Roar through.

The only problem with a draw is that the Roar will need to win and better Adelaide's goal difference.

To be fair the matches should be played at the same time so that all teams go for it from the start. Also in the event of either Victory or the Roar winning the minor premiership, the home fans cannot celebrate because that will only be known after Mariners/Adelaide match and that will be on Sunday.

I am hoping Victory wins it so that the team can get back into the Asian Champions League and failing that then Victory will need to win the grand final or play against the minor premiers in the final.

Adelaide's draw good for Victory

Adelaide United's goalless draw against Queensland Roar was good news for Melbourne Victory because that meant Adelaide extending their lead at the top by just one point and the Roar staying in third place.

Whilst I think that Adelaide are still favourites to win the minor premiership, I think the draw gives Victory at least a chance of also winning it but they need to win the last two matches and also score as many goals as possible to increase the goal difference.

On the other hand Adelaide will need to draw at least one of their remaining matches if Victory are to be in with a chance.

A win for the Roar would have taken Frank Farina's team above Victory on the ladder on goal difference and so a draw keeps them two points back.

Things would have been easier had Victory got maximum points against Perth Glory at the weekend but that failure to win means that even second place doesn't look very safe if any of the remaining matches is lost or drawn.

The next match is against Central Coast Mariners who themselves need a win to reach the finals because a loss would mean that the Wellington Phoenix would get a very good chance of overtaking them.

Its interesting because the Phoenix play Victory in their last match and that match will be a final of some sort.

I think the easier route to go into the Asian Champions League is through winning the minor premiership and so I am hoping that somehow Victory can get it.

Once it gets to the finals I think its anybody's game and anybody can win it. The other route would be to reach the final against the minor premiers because that would guarantee a place in Asia.

So the match against the Mariners at the Dome is going to be very important and for the Mariners their season is on the line and I am sure they will throw everything into it to make sure they reach the finals.

Mourinho to face Fergie test

Italian giants Inter Milan were drawn against Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League round of 16.

Once again it will be Jose Mourinho against Alex Ferguson and the last time around the two managers clashed in a Champions League encounter Mourinho won with Porto and went on to win the coveted trophy.

This time the second leg once again will be at Old Trafford in March and its going to be interesting to see what will happen in that match because one thing is certain and it is the fact that one of them will not reach the quarters.

In a draw which pitted all Italian teams against English ones, Chelsea were paired against Juventus whilst Arsenal will battle it out against Roma.

Because the Gunners and the Blues finished second in their groups, both second legs will be in Italy.

I think it will be a tough test for Chelsea who I think began the season well but have become inconsistent of late.

Claudio Ranieri now with the Turin giants will be playing against his former team for the first time since he left the Bridge and so both legs will be played in familiar surroundings for him.

As for the Gunners its hard to tell with them and I think you basically see how they play on the day. These fixtures are so far away as well and its very hard to predict what may happen because in between there is also the January transfer window.

Liverpool were drawn against Real Madrid and this is going to be a tricky fixture. Juande Ramos is now in charge at the Bernabeau and surely he will be trying to make sure he shows the English fans he is a good coach after a bad spell at Spurs and if he strengthens his team in January it could be a very tight encounter.

Villareal were drawn against Panathinaikos and I think it was fair these two teams were drawn together. It means that one of them will be in the quarter finals which I think is good for the fans of these two teams which I wouldn't classify as one of the biggest left in the draw.

If Barcelona continue playing the way they are doing at the moment then I think Lyon are as good as out after being drawn against the Spanish giants.

Bayern Munich will battle it out against Sporting Lisbon and I fancy Bayern to go through especially as they play the last leg in Munich.

Lastly but not least former champions FC Porto have been drawn against Atletico Madrid and I this is an even tie which can easily go either way. I was impressed with Atletico in the group phase and they should have won at Anfield but in Porto they are facing a very experienced team in this competition.

I think I will do a review sometime in February because at the moment the fixtures are so far away and a lot can happen in between. Key players can be injured, clubs could bring new talent in January and so on but by mid-February it should be clear who is likely to advance to the quarters.

All in all this draw produced some appetising encounters and I am keen to see who will remain standing in March and into the quarter-finals.

Victory take disciplined approach

Discipline seems to have been restored now at Melbourne Victory because the team has not been issued with a card for the last three matches.

The last card issued to a Victory player was the yellow card issued to captain Kevin Muscat in the loss to Sydney FC at the Telstra Dome and from then on the team has gone for more than 340 minutes without getting any card.

This is a welcome development for Victory especially after the discipline problems that started from round 3 when Ney Fabiano was given his marching orders against Adelaide for spitting.

From then on goalkeeper Michael Theoklitos got send off in the match against the Central Coast Mariners and then midfielder Carlos Hernandez was then send off in the next match against the Queensland Roar.

Against Perth Glory at home in round 7 no player was send off and no card was issued to a Victory player in the match and Victory won but in the game after that against Newcastle Jets Archie Thompson got send off and that was the last sending off.

Discipline is part of football and its good to see the Victory now finishing matches with eleven players on the pitch and its no surprise now that they have managed to win their last three matches and now sit comfortably on top of the ladder.

Losing key players to injury is understandable but having four key players suspended does not help any team and I am happy to see that coach Ernie Merrick seems to have resolved that problem and there has been a marked improvement as well.

I hope that the Victory winning run will continue at Westpac Stadium on Friday when they take on Wellington Phoenix.

The match kicks off at 5,30 pm Melbourne time and so I am bound to miss the start of the match but I hope to see a 'good' scoreline when I reach home.


Adelaide fall short against Gamba Osaka

Adelaide United were no match to Gamba Osaka as they lost 2 nil at home and 5 nil on aggregate in the AFC Champions League final.

There is no doubt it was a big achievement for Adelaide to reach the final in the first place but in the final itself they were totally outclassed by a Gamba Osaka outfit who could easily have had the score line in double digits had they wanted.

The second leg was always going to be difficult for Adelaide after losing the first leg 3 nil even though it was at home but Gamba had a good plan to come and score quickly and settle their nerves.

That they did after Lucas' two early goals and then from there went on to dominate the match especially in the first half.

I thought Adelaide came a better team in the second half and maybe that was their best half out of the four in the two legged final but they did not take their chances when they got them.

I thought Gamba were having problems dealing Adelaide's corners but still Adelaide failed to take advantage of that.

It would have been good for Adelaide to have scored a consolation goal for their supporters but they failed to do that but they now have some good experience and something to build upon for the future.

I think this one sided final showed that there is no need for a two legged final. I think its better to have a one off match. Maybe its not ideal for Asian football considering how big Asian is but they could choose the final venue depending on who reached the final. Thats for the AFC to think about.

Its good that Gamba did not score more than three goals in the first leg otherwise it would have made the second leg academic and less appealing and yet the trophy is presented in the second leg.

Adelaide reaching the final has been good for the A-League and its now up to the other teams in the A-League to emulate what Adelaide has done with limited resources.

Next season Newcastle Jets and Central Coast Mariners will be participating in the AFC Champions League and I hope that they will give a good showing.


Adelaide make A-League history

Adelaide United made history yesterday morning by becoming the first A-League club to reach the AFC Champions League final where it will meet Japan's Gamba Osaka.

This is by no means a small achievement by Adelaide especially after having lost their star players Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns and they have managed to rebuilt their squad to come up with a squad that can bring the necessary results when needed.

I hope the final will a be good one and that it will showcase the talent that is available in the A-League. Its good to see that the club has achieved such a feat despite the constraints posed by the salary cap and fixed squad sizes.

This final is a two legged affair and the first leg will be in Osaka on the 5th of November and the second leg a week later in Adelaide.

I think this time the A-League should postpone the match scheduled for the weekend between the two legs against the Central Coast Mariners to give Adelaide the best possible chance to win the final in the second leg on the 12th.

Its unfortunate that Adelaide have a very small stadium in the form of Hindmarsh Stadium that has less than 20,000 capacity.

This is a very important match to be played in such a small stadium and I hope that this final is a wake up call for the Adelaide city authorities or the state government to build a bigger stadium with a capacity of more than 40,000 not only for these kind of matches but also for World Cup qualifiers.

While Adelaide can play in another stadium in the city like the cricket ground or Football Park, I think it will be to their disadvantage playing in unfamiliar territory and therefore they should stick to Hindmarsh.

If Adelaide win the match then there will be three teams from the A-League in next year's AFC Champions League with the two other teams being the current champions Newcastle Jets and the Central Coast Mariners.

But I think the biggest result is that Adelaide will be going to play in the 2008 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan where among the teams playing there will be Manchester United.

Its a good experience for the team plus also it will bring some money which can help strengthen their squad.

I also hope that it wont be long before another A-League club reaches that final because this is very good for the league which is just four years old now and I also hope this will help attract more sponsorship to the league.


Jankovic nets three in a row

Jelena Jankovic over the weekend won her third title in a row cementing her position as number one.

With Serena Williams not playing at the Kremlin Cup, Jankovic's position was not in doubt but I think that by winning her third title in three weeks she has shown that she is in very good form.

Talking about the actual match Jankovic beat Vera Zvonareva in straight sets to deny the home favourite a chance to win.

I am keen to see how she will progress at the Australian where one of her biggest challengers will be defending champion Maria Sharapova who is injured at the moment but is expected to feature at Melbourne Park.

Man City takes the shine

The transfer window in the English Premiership finally closed this morning and I think Manchester City had the biggest scoop signing Robinho from Real Madrid.

What makes this deal more interesting and even sweeter for Man City fans is the fact that Robinho was rumoured all summer to be going to be going to Chelsea but he landed at Eastlands.

The Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which is set to take over from Thaksin Shinawatra, is reported to have helped to land Robinho's signature and thats a good start for them.

I also think that Chelsea sold Shaun Wright-Philips to Man City thinking that Robinho was coming their way and therefore did not need another winger and this latest twist should have stunned Stamford Bridge who until now could do anything they wanted in the transfer market.

Other big news on the last day is the signing of Dimitar Berbatov by Manchester United and I think Sir Alex Ferguson really needed another striker especially after recent matches have shown that goals are hard to come by when Cristiano Ronaldo is not in the team.

I think it was also good to finally see Everton bring in some new faces after inactivity in the transfer throughout the off-season until last week.

Everton brought Louis Saha from Manchester United, Carlo Nash from Wigan and then record signing Marouane Fellaini from Standard Liege on a busy last day at Goodison Park.

Now to the interesting bit. With the new Man City demanding a top four finish to get into the Champions League I am wondering which of the current big four teams would lose out.

I think in the short term it looks like it would be the Arsenal because they don't tend to buy experienced players unlike the other three teams.

However, Arsenal's team of youngsters has so much as been evidenced from time to time but last season showed that sometimes they cannot last a whole season of 38 matches.

Man City's next match is against Chelsea and it will be interesting to see what will happen in that match. If they can beat Chelsea in that match then that will send shock waves throughout the league but as always the season is 38 matches long and therefore its always the teams with the biggest depth who rise to the top come May next year and the question is will City be one of them? Maybe.

2008/9 UEFA Champions League draw review

The draw for the 2008/9 UEFA Champions League competition has been made and already there are some groups that look tough and some appetising fixtures to look forward to.

Its always good to see some new teams enter the competition because they bring with them an element of surprise and this year there are a number of new teams.

This time the top seeded teams were the four English teams Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal plus Lyon, Inter Milan and the Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid.

In Group A, Chelsea and Roma seem to be in a good group and I expect those two to go forward to the next stage. In saying that I don't know a lot about CFR Cluj-Napoca but I think however good they may be they don't have the experience that Chelsea and Roma have in this competitition and if they do really well then maybe they can get the UEFA place ahead of Bordeaux.

Group B has another Champions League debutant in Anorthosis Famagusta who will be joined by Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan plus Werder Bremen and Panathinaikos.

I think Inter Milan will easily go to the next round as group winners and I see second place as likely to go Werder Bremen.

Mourinho has a lot of experience in this competition and I think he should be able to guide his team as winners in this group.

Groups C is another group with a clear favourite in Barcelona who will play against Sporting Lisbon, Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk. Basle makes a welcome return to the competition and I think second place is hard to call in this group. I will go with Sporting Lisbon because Shakhtar Donetsk has not impressed in recent seasons.

The toughest group could be group D where Liverpool will fight it out with Marseille, Atletico Madrid and PSV Eindhoven. This group was made tough by Atletico Madrid being in the fourth pot of seeds and yet I don't think they are the weakest team in this group.

I still think that if Liverpool gets itself sorted it should use its experience to negotiate its way out of this group but its hard to tell which team will join it in the next stage.

Apart from last season, PSV has been very good in this competition and Marseille played reasonably well last season but Atletico Madrid may lack experience but the team has very good players. For me that could be the difference.

So its a very tough group and if I had to choose which team I thought would make it to the next stage I think I will go with Atletico Madrid. Its interesting to see that Liverpool's Fernando Torres will face his former team and that should be an interesting match.

Group E brings together Celtic and defending champions Manchester United and Villareal could be the team that spoils it all in this group.

Celtic have a very good home record but I think they should start getting at least draws to sail comfortably in this group where I expect Man Utd to be too strong for the other teams in the group. It will be interesting to see what AaB Aalborg are made of.

After a one year absence Bayern Munich makes a return to the competition in Group F where its opponents will be Steaua Bucharest, Fiorentina and Lyon. This looks like another tough group comparable to Group D and I think the French champions Lyon will need to be at their best to come out of this group.

I think Fiorentina and Steaua Bucharest will battle for the UEFA place whilst Bayern Munich should progress to the next stage.

In Group G the deciding team should be Fenerbahce which could spoil the party for Arsenal and Porto. Last season Fenerbahce proceeded to the knock-out phase and they should be confident of doing the same this year whilst Dynamo Kiev has been a disappointment over the last few seasons.

Lastly but not least in Group H, former champions Real Madrid and Juventus clash but they will have to take care of Zenit St Petersburg if they are going to reach the next level.

Zenit St Petersburg are the current UEFA Cup holders and they surprised everybody with their great run last season in the UEFA Cup and if they were to have a similar run this season which I think they can we could see one of Real Madrid or Juventus not coming out of this group.

But once again it could end up being down to experience in the competition but I think this is one group that could produce some very interesting results.

I cant wait for the for the first round of fixtures and once again I will take part in the Champions League tipping competition on TipsChallenge.

2008/9 A-League Season Preview

The 2008/9 A-League season kicks off this week in what looks the last time it will kick-off as an eight team league.

So once again it will be another 21 matches in order to win the minor premiership or reach the finals and being an even league as it is I think it's very hard to see exactly who might come up tops.

I will have a quick look at the season ahead and look at the teams and see what has changed since last season.

Its very hard at this point to even try to pinpoint which team might reach the finals because there have been a few changes over the off-season for all the teams.

Melbourne Victory won the pre-season cup but I don't think it will translate to much because when the season proper starts all teams will have a different approach.

But by winning the pre-season cup it shows that Victory are better than what they were at the start of last season where I think they finished bottom of that same cup and when the season started it was hard to get goals until the last third of the season.

This year's team on paper looks balanced and I watched the team play Whittlesea Zebras in a friendly and I was impressed by what they did especially in the second half.

I think the most important addition will be Michael Thwaite and I don't expect Jose Luis Lopez to click straight away. Upfront the addition of Ney Fabiano is welcome and I hope that coach Ernie Merrick will choose the forwards on form to make sure that there is competition.

Adelaide did well in the Asian Champions League but they have since lost Bruce Djite and Nathan Burns to European clubs. They have added Robert Younis, Fabian Barbiero and Cristiano and its very hard to tell what impact these players will have when the season starts.

Sydney FC's marquee player this time is John Aloisi. I think Simon Colosimo will be their most important acquisition he has so much experience in the A-League and was very influential at Perth Glory.

Newcastle Jets are the champions and I expect them to continue with their fast flowing football and getting results in difficult matches.

They now have Edmundo Zura as their marquee player and he can only be judged after playing a few matches for them. They also now have Kaz Patafta and I am keen to see whether he will be given more of chance by coach Gary Van Egmond than what he got at Victory.

The Central Coast Mariners will no longer have the services of John Aloisi but they have new talent in Dylan Macallister and Adrian Caceres.

Perth Glory lost Colosimo to Sydney FC but they have also brought in Amaral, Eugene Dadi and Adriano Pellegrino.

The Queensland Roar reached the finals last season and I am sure they will be keen of doing the same this season.

To help the Roar do that will be Sergio Van Dijk, Tim Smits, Isaka Cernak and Tommy Oar, David Dodd and Luke DeVere.

This will be the second season for the Wellington Phoenix and therefore naturally I expect them to do better than last season. Among the players they have added to their ranks are Manny Muscat, Leilei Gao and Adam Kwasnik.

By reaching the pre-season cup final I think it will not be surprising to see the Phoenix reach the finals as well but that will call for consistency especially in the away matches.

Once again I will be playing the A-League tipping competition on TipsChallenge and hope that me and Victory will do well this season.

2008/9 English Premier League Preview

The 2008/9 English Premier League season kicks off next week and just like last season there is all the buzz and excitement associated with a new season.

For me I am excited because my team West Bromwich Albion is back in the top flight and they kick off against one the top four teams away from home at the Emirates.

I will start by looking at the title race. I think that once again it will be a two horse race between the defending champions Manchester United and Chelsea. Man United hasn't really added to its ranks so far but they had a very good team last season and I think it can help them deliver the goods this season.

I think the key for the Old Trafford team was to retain Cristiano Ronaldo for yet another season. But if I have any concern then it will be the loss of assistant coach Carlos Queiroz who is now the Portuguese national coach. His influence will be missed but it also depends on how influence he had.

Like every new season Chelsea continues to add to its ranks and this time maybe their high profile acquisition so far is Deco who was signed from Barcelona. I don't think Deco will make much of a difference because I think Chelsea already had a good midfield and it will be a problem of whom to pick if all the players are fit.

But a new dimension to Chelsea this time is the new coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. This will be Scolari's first season in club football for a long time and if he re-adjusts quickly to club football management then that could be the turning point for his team.

I think Chelsea lost the title last season because of a slow start and if they can avoid that this time then they could give Man U a big fight. Also scoring many goals will be a key.

I think Liverpool will look a bit different this time and I think they are now a class apart from Arsenal. I think the Anfield outfit will easily finish in the top three positions and even better depending on how Chelsea and Man U play.

The Gunners have lost some experienced players in Gilberto Silva, Alexander Hleb and Mathieu Flamini and have replaced them with inexperienced players and I think that will spell trouble for them.

A threat for them will come in the form of Tottenham Hotspurs who I think can challenge the top four this season. I know I have said this several times before about Spurs and got disappointed but I think that this time they have a team capable of challenging the top four and a very good coach in Juande Ramos.

Before looking at relegation, I will quickly look at the teams that could challenge for the UEFA Cup places. I expect Roy Keane's Sunderland to be as near the top as possible by just going by the players that have been brought to the club so far.

So far the former Man Utd captain has brought in Pascal Chimbonda, David Meyler, Teemu Tainio, El Hadji Diouf and Steed Malbranque and there could be more to come before the window closes.

I think Keane has rejuvenated his team well team this time and if it gels together quickly I think they could be challenging for a UEFA Cup place and not flirting with relegation like last season.

I think they will find competition from Aston Villa, Manchester City and Portsmouth.

Man City have a new manager Mark Hughes and I think he has brought in some exciting talent and how he will work with it is unknown at this point. But looking at Hughes record at Blackburn I will not be surprised with City finishing in the top six.

I think for the rest of the teams it will be a relegation fight. I think for the rest of the teams it will be a relegation fight. The only team that intrigues me is Fulham because Roy Hodgson has brought in so many good players this time including John Pantsil, Bobby Zamora, Zoltan Gera, Mark Schwarzer, Fredrik Stoor and Andrew Johnson and I can't really tell how he is going to get them playing well together and win games. They could be the surprise package for this season.

I expect at least one of the promoted sides to go down. Until they start playing it's very hard to tell which one is going to be but I hope it will not be the Baggies.

I expect the likes of Blackburn and Middlesbrough to struggle whilst you never know with Newcastle and West Ham.

I am looking forward to the start of the season and once again I will be playing the football tipping competition on TipsChallenge and I hope that the Baggies will not cost me a lot of points. because I think I will always be backing them.

Spain crowned champions

Spain were this morning crowned European champions after beating Germany in the Euro 2008 final in Vienna through a Fernando Torres goal in the first half.

I think I should say Spain deserved to be champions after playing some brilliant football throughout the tournament. The Spanish team was a complete team from goalkeeper to the strikers and its not surprising to see that they only conceded three goals and more importantly none in the knockout stages.

Germany on the other hand did well to reach the final and their highlight was probably beating Portugal in the quarter-finals when many expected them to lose but their defence always looked suspect.

I thought Germany started the final well in the first ten minutes but then they fizzled out for the rest of the match although they had another good five minute spell in the second half.

After a few jitters I think Spain dominated the whole match and could easily have scored more than one goal.

Spain should now be looking to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa knowing that winning the World Cup is a strong possibility but a lot can happen in two years and so maybe its a little bit too early to say but I will be keen to see how they perform in the Confederation Cup next year.

I didn't do that well on TipsChallenge managing only 15 points and I think its because my favourite teams did not well.

Germany face Spanish challenge

Spain will meet Germany in the final of Euro 2008 after easily beating Russia 3-0 in the semi-finals.

I think Spain are the favourites to win and lift the trophy on Sunday after maintaining an unbeaten run so far in the tournament.

If there is any blemish in their run so far then it would be their nil-all draw against Italy when they needed penalties to oust the world champions.

Germany on the other hand haven't looked very comfortable in defence although they have two clean sheets to their name obtained in the matches against Poland and Austria.

But those two teams are not in the class of Spain and therefore Germany have a lot of work to do.

On the other hand Spain's last conceded a goal in open play in their last group game against Greece and if they continue like that it means that they can only lose on penalties.

I think Germany's key player will once again be Michael Ballack and Jens Lehmann will need to have more confidence than what he had against Turkey.

With Spain they have class in every department but I think Cesc Fabregas could be their key if he starts. He had a brilliant game against the Russians when he came on as a substitute and this time he could prove pivotal.

For my tipping for the final on Tipschallenge I will go with the underdogs Germany and hope they can get a surprise win and me an extra point or so.

Spain face Russia again

The second semi-final of Euro 2008 will see Spain face Russia again and I think this time they will face a totally different Russian side from the one they beat in Group C's opening group.

In that match Russia lost 4-1 despite playing some good football and it was their defence that looked very shacky and David Villa scored what could turn out to be the only hat-trick for the tournament.

Russia's coach Guus Hiddink has since fixed the defensive frailties and now Russia can exploit leaks in other team's defences.

After that win over Russia, Spain need last minute goals to beat both Sweden and Greece and failed to score against Italy and so it would appear that the momentum is with Russia.

I actually don't think Spain will repeat their win in the group stages and I think this match will be a lot closer and I think Russia could be in the final come Sunday. They are on a good run and also they have nothing to lose because not many expected them to go this far.

But since they are now in the semis I think all the pressure will be on Spain who now have a very good chance of getting some silverware and all they need is win the next two matches only if it was that easy.

I expect Germany to be in the final and I will make my prediction for the final after seeing the actual teams to reach that will reach stage.


The Dutch to face Russia

The Netherlands will face Russia in their Euro 2008 quarter-final match after Russia beat Sweden 2-0 in this morning's match.

Russia were so impressive they literally overran the Swedish team who could easily have lost by half a dozen goals had the Russians been more clinical in front of goal.

I think the Netherlands/Russia match will be a very exciting one with two attack minded teams facing each and I think Russia could edge past the Dutch. I am waiting to see what plan Guus Hiddink will have for that match.

I was disappointed with France who were knocked out of the tournament after scoring just one goal and one point from a goal less draw. But the Netherlands played so well they made it look like an easy group in the end.

For France, Raymond Domenech's constant changes from match to match seemed to suggest to me that he didn't have a settled side in his mind and I still don't understand why he brought in Bafetimbi Gomis in the match against the Dutch when he could have brought in Karim Benzema for example.

Italy will face Spain and that should be another interesting where I expect a penalty shoot-out to separate the two sides. Italy will be without Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso and I think they will just turn defensive and see how far they can keep Spain at bay.

I am hoping that Portugal will beat Germany and in the last match and I cannot see another comeback for Turkey and therefore Croatia should reach the semis.

Chelsea turn to Scolari

Chelsea has now appointed Luiz Felipe Scolari to replace Avram Grant and he will take his appointment at the end of the Euro 2008 tournament.

Its have been reported recently that Chelsea were keen on the AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti but the Milan club wouldn't let him go and so they have settled for Scolari who I think is not a bad choice.

There is no doubt Scolari has a big job ahead of him and he has to win the league at least to do better than Grant who only missed on the title by two points and on the last day of the season.

What Grant lacked was that he was not a big name manager even though he proved to be quite capable and in Scolari Chelsea now have a big name manager.

I guess one good thing about big name managers is that they help attract big name players and it will not be surprising to see another big name player added to the Stamford Bridge outfit ranks.

It remains to be seen whether Scolari will last more than a season or maybe he will be given more time to build up his own squad.

Manchester United can only be better next season and they will prove very hard to beat once again for the league title and I think they will continue to score many goals. If they retain all their players which looks very likely unless Cristiano Ronaldo goes to Real Madrid then they will certainly be a better and that will cause problems for Chelsea and also Arsenal and Liverpool.

Chelsea have taken a coach who has been an international manager for some time now but Scolari has been a club manager before. I don't think having not coached in England or Europe before at club level is such a big problem because as Portugal manager he would have been familiar with most European leagues.

I still think that for Chelsea to emulate the success of Manchester United at league level they need to keep their managers for longer because if you look around their biggest rivals, they have managers who have been around for more than four seasons at minimum.

So with the Chelsea job filled the other one left is the Blackburn Rovers one left vacant when Mark Hughes went to join Manchester City.

Under Hughes Rovers have been consistently towards the top of the ladder and the new manager will have to match that and not toy with relegation.

Euro 2008 Preview

In a few days time the Euro 2008 tournament kicks off with co-hosts Switzerland taking on the Czech Republic in a Group A match.

I will try to do a quick preview of the groups and try to guess who I think will proceed to the quarter-finals stage in each group.

Starting with Group A which has Switzerland, Czech Republic, Portugal and Turkey, I think Portugal stands out as one of the strongest teams in that group. Portugal lost in the final of Euro 2004 when they were hosts and reached the semis of the 2006 World Cup and I can see them actually winning this group.

They also have one of the best players in the world at the moment in Cristiano Ronaldo and that is a big boost for them. Its a bit hard to see who will be runner up in that group but I think the Swiss team as co-hosts could sail through to the next stage.

In Group B, Germany looks like the stand out team even though they haven't had really done well in the last two Euro tournaments despite doing well in the World Cups around those tournaments.

Poland had a good run in qualifying and even though I think qualifying is qualifying and sometimes you may qualify well and not do well in the tournament proper I think Poland could edge out Croatia for a place in the quarter finals.

Croatia had injured Gunner Eduardo da Silva score most of their goals and I think they may find it hard going in this group. I will be very surprised if co-hosts Austria will come out of this group.

I think the most difficult group is C. This group has 2006 World Cup finalists Italy and France in it plus Romania and the Netherlands.

I think any of these four teams can easily reach the quarter-finals and I think it will some simple mistakes in the end to decide who reach the quarters.

But having said that I will go with France and Italy as the two teams to reach the quarter-finals. I think these two teams have all the experience needed at this level especially for matches that are likely to be won by an odd goal.

Group D sees the defending champions Greece joined by Sweden, Russia and Spain. I would like to think that Greece will be able to get the goals they need to reach the quarter-final stage and I think that Russia and Spain will be the other team to join them.

I more inclined with Spain here and I think Guus Hiddink's may be heading home after just three matches.

The European championships are very hard to predict because you have teams that are nearly of equal strength and it may take some moment of brilliance to win a match.

I also hope we will be able to witness some free flowing football from all the teams and not the cagey defending hoping that somebody makes a mistake and then pounce.

If you were to ask me who I think the overall winner will be I think it will be between Portugal, Italy and France.

I also hope to do well in my tipping for Euro 2008 on TipsChallenge

Chelsea, Grant part company

Chelsea over the weekend parted company with their manager Avram Grant after Grant failed to get any silverware during his eight months in charge.

I actually think that Grant did a good job overall although I think he should at least have got the Carling Cup in the bag. I think he made a few selection errors in that match but that is expected of anybody.

Chelsea finished second in league and I have said before that they would have won the league had they not had a string of last minute draws at Stamford Bridge. The drawn matches against Spurs, Aston Villa, Everton, Wigan Athletic and Bolton all with goals scored in injury time made sure that Grant's team finished second in the league.

Had Chelsea just held on to win just two of those drawn matches they would have pipped Manchester United to the title.

As for the Champions League, it was down to penalty kicks and I don't think Grant could have done anything about it. Once it comes to penalty kicks its anybody's game and some key players can miss them like what Cristiano Ronaldo did.

Back to Grant, one thing against him was that he wasn't a high profile manager and high profile managers makes it easier to get top players.

Grant was always going to be compared with Jose Mourinho and I think in that respect he did very well in reaching the Champions League final and finishing a close second compared to Chelsea's finishing the previous season under Mourinho.

I think whoever takes over from Grant will have to be a high profile manager and I think that one thing that Chelsea has to do is to make sure that their manager stays for a longer time. You only have to look at Old Trafford and then at the Emirates to see how long Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger respectively have been in their roles and the success that they they have had over the seasons and not judged in a mere eight months.

I think Frank Rijkaard is the likely man to take over and he has Henk ten Cate, his former assistant manager at Barcelona already there at the Bridge.

Man Utd wins Champions League

Manchester United won the UEFA Champions league final this morning after beating Chelsea in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

I thought that the match was going to be very cagey but it turned out to be an interesting contest between the top two English premiership sides and just like United triumphed over Chelsea in the league they repeated it again in Moscow.

I think overall Chelsea were the better team in the final with Sir Alex Ferguson's side controlling most of the first half where they could have scored three goals but Chelsea controlling the rest of the match.

I think just like Barcelona in the semis the Stamford Bridge outfit failed to take their chances and in football its goals that count and once its a penalty shoot out its anybody's game.

Over the whole season I feel that Manchester United have been very consistent and have capped their season with a league and Champions League double.

This was Manchester United's third European title and I think if the present team is strengthened a little bit more then they could easily add to that number because their biggest competitors are from the premier league with teams like AC Milan not even featuring in the champions league season.

For Avram Grant, I think they came so close and it was a matter of John Terry converting his penalty kick but even then Nicolas Anelka had a chance to at least force another round of penalty kicks.

So I will looking forward to next season's Champions League competition and I will not be surprised to see the same two teams once again in the final.

All English final at Luzhniki

Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, host of this year's UEFA Champions league final will host an all English final after Manchester United brushed aside Barcelona and Chelsea beat Liverpool in the semis.

Barcelona could have stopped an all English final but they could not find the back of the net over the two legs despite dominating possession in both matches and Paul Scholes first half goal was enough to take his team to the final at the Luzhniki Stadium.

If the match at Old Trafford was a boring encounter then the one at Stamford Bridge compensated for that because I think it was a very entertaining match in which a determined Chelsea outfit finally managed to beat Liverpool in a champions League semi final after three attempts and I think they deserved to win.

As I said in an earlier post the difference this time was that the second leg was not at Anfield and Chelsea took advantage of home advantage to dominate most of the match.

Chelsea started the match with a mission to score rather than dwell on a goalless draw which would have been enough to take them through but five goals in total made for an exciting semi final and a tense one for that especially in the last three minutes after Liverpool scored their second goal.

Its interesting to see that Avram Grant has managed to take Chelsea to a Champions League final at first attempt after Jose Mourinho failed on three occasions of which two were in the semis.

On TipsChallenge I will be tipping Chelsea to win their first European crown because I think they are the better team at the moment.


Battle to avoid relegation

While there is a tie at the top in the English Premiership, I think itís the battle to avoid relegation that has become the most interesting after this weekendís matches.

After Derbyís relegation it looked like Fulham were going to follow soon after but in the last few weeks Fulham has managed to secure rare away wins which have brought them six points and with that some hope for survival.

The last two matches for Fulham are against Birmingham and Portsmouth and I think they should win their home match against Birmingham and a loss in that match will certainly mean relegation.

I think the Fulham/Birmingham match is the most important in the relegation because the certainly be relegated if they lose. A draw will not of much help either but will survival for one more week.

Birminghamís big loss against their arch-rivals Aston Villa cost them a lot in terms of goal difference but they bounced back and got a point against Liverpool.

They played Liverpool at a good time when their focus was on the Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea. A win against Fulham will go a long way securing their survival. Their last match of the season will be against Blackburn Rovers.

Of all the clubs threatened with relegation, Reading has the worst goal difference of -28 and they have a lot of work to do in their next match. Reading next face Tottenham at home and then finish off the season against Derby County.

I think if Reading can get a point against Spurs and then three points against Derby then they could save themselves from relegation.

Bolton are currently out of the relegation places and I think they hope they stay there. They are going to play Sunderland at home but then they play title chasing Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and thatís a difficult match.

I think anything other maximum points against Sunderland will see Reebok Stadium get Championship football next season and the fact that the Black Cats are no longer under relegation may help them get the points.

Middlesbrough need two points to be certainly safe and they next face Portsmouth and then finish off the season at home against Manchester City.

I think Boro should be able to survive but if they lose both matches and depending on other results they could find themselves in trouble.

Wigan and Sunderland have a mathematical chance of going down but I think they are safe and look forward to another year in the premiership next season.

So after a weekend of dramatic matches it looks like we are set for another exciting round but I hope that both the title and the final two relegation places will be decided on the last day of the season.

Chelsea's slip helps Man U

Chelsea's draw this morning against Wigan has almost handed the title to Manchester United because the draw means that Chelsea now trail the Old Trafford outfit by five points with only four games to go.

Even if Chelsea were to beat Sir Alex Ferguson's side at Stamford Bridge there will still be a two point gap (assuming both teams win their next match) and that will require Man U to lose some three points because being equal on points will not benefit Chelsea at all because Man U has a healthy goal difference of 54 compared to Chelsea's 35.

Apart from the Chelsea match Man U are still to play two away matches to Blackburn and Wigan and then one home match against West Ham.

Interestingly, the Manchester side lost that match last season on the last day of the season. That may give Chelsea fans some hope.

Chelsea still has to play Bolton at home and then Everton and Newcastle away and they will have to win all those fixtures plus the home match against Manchester United to be able to wrestle the title from Old Trafford.

Against Wigan Chelsea had so many good chances to score which they failed to convert and when three points looked so likely Wigan pounced.

This last minute draw is similar to the other ones earlier in the season against Aston Villa and Everton where in both matches Avram Grant's side looked like it was about to get maximum points.

One of the reasons why Man U has got such a huge goal difference is that the team has been scoring so many goals in each match thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo's scintillating form throughout the season and at home the team has been devastating in most matches and I cant remember a match where they tried to defend a 1-0 win.

On the other end of the table wins by both Fulham and Bolton last weekend has made the relegation fight even more interesting.

Now Birmingham and Reading are in greater danger with Wigan and Sunderland maybe needing just two more wins to be certainly secure.

I am sure its going to be an interesting end to the 2007/8 premiership season.

Liverpool to meet Chelsea again

Liverpool will meet Chelsea whilst Manchester United will clash with Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals.

I was hoping that the Liverpool/Chelsea tie would not take place again this season after some boring matches in the last four seasons but Arsenal and Fenerbahce were not able to progress to the semis after their losses in the second leg.

Once again it showed that Arsenal lack the strength and depth to last the whole season but at the same time I also think that they could easily have won at Anfield had Emmanuel Adebayor converted what looked like an easy chance with the score tied at 2 all.

In the last three times Liverpool played Chelsea in this competition they were victors but the difference this time is that the second leg is at Stamford Bridge and that could turn the tie in Chelsea's favour especially if they can avoid a defeat at Anfield or lose by no more than one goal.

Rafa Benitez, the Liverpool coach has proved once again that he specialises in the European knockout competition but with Everton just three points behind Liverpool may need to concentrate on the league as well this season in the last few matches unless they are certain of winning the trophy in Moscow or else they will lose their place in next season's competition.

I think Manchester United will overcome Barcelona in the other tie because the Catalan giants are far from convincing this season.

The first leg will be played at Nou Camp and so United have the advantage of playing the second leg at home.

If Lionel Messi comes back in time for those two matches then things could change but as it is right now Barca are finding it hard to score goals in the La Liga even at home.

So there is going to be one English team in the final and its up to Barcelona to make sure that the final in Moscow is not an all English affair.

AC Milan stopped that from happening last season and went on to lift the trophy and lets wait and see if Barca can do the same this time.

Baggies miss out on Wembley

I was disappointed to see West Bromwich Albion miss out on the FA Cup final at Wembley when they lost to Porthsmouth in the semi-finals at the weekend.

With due respect to both Cardiff and Barnsley I still think that had we drawn one of them we would have had a better chance of reaching the final but such is the FA Cup sometimes that you lose matches that everybody thinks you will win and it has happened a lot already in this year's cup run.

So now Cardiff are going to meet Pompey and I think its going to be a good match to watch with both teams knowing that this kind of chance doesn't come that often.

Its also good to see that both teams are not one of the so-called big four teams and this gives the smaller teams a chance to get some silverware.

As a Baggies fan I am hoping the team does not come back to Wembley again for a play-off final but will get automatic promotion instead.

Now that the cup run is out of the way I hope the team will be more focussed on the league and with teams at the top of the Championship not doing that well this weekend the chance of automatic promotion looks quite good.

I was happy this morning to see Stoke lose to Crystal Palace and that means they stay two points ahead but we have two games in hand.

Derby goes down after poor season

After the weekend action in the English Premier League, Derby County got relegated from the premiership with 6 games to go after drawing with fellow relegation threatened Fulham.

Derby hasn't done well at all this season and they have so far managed just one win and its no surprise to me that they are going down this early. The East Midlands' team's goal difference currently stands at -51 and lets see if it can go to -60.

Surprisingly some teams tend to play better after relegation and that could be the case for Derby but Paul Jewell will now start preparing for the Championship knowing that if he retains most of his players he will have a good squad for the Championship.

Bolton who currently complete the teams lying in the relegation places had a good chance to get at least get a point against Arsenal but the last minute own-goal with the match at 2-all means that they stay on 26 points. After going two nil up by half time and against ten men, I think they should have defended that margin to get the crucial three points.

Statistically any of the teams with less than 40 points at the moment can go down but I think realistically the teams that have to get worried are Birmingham, Wigan, Reading and Sunderland and I think Newcastle and Middlesbrough will have no problems at all.

At the top end, Liverpool's derby win over Everton was crucial and they have now opened a five point gap over their Merseyside neighbours and I think they should be able to get the last champions league place.

Everton do not have Tim Cahill for the rest of the season and I think they will settle for a UEFA Cup place in a season where they have been very impressive so far.

Next weekend's match between Arsenal and Liverpool should be very interesting and Liverpool with their five point gap can go into that match without fearing for their fourth place. I still see that match as a draw though.

Liverpool draw Gunners in quarters

In the UEFA Champions League quarter final draw on Friday, Liverpool drew Arsenal to set up an all English quarter final match and to ensure that there will be at least one English team in the semi-finals.

On the same side of the draw, Chelsea drew Fenerbahce and in what would seem on paper to be a kind draw for Chelsea since they play the second leg at home.

But it is actually Fenerbahce that can decide whether they can be a premiership side in the final because if they were to win their quarter final match and then the semi then they would have denied Chelsea and the winner between Liverpool and Arsenal a chance to reach the final.

Fenerbahce have been so good in the Champions League this season and they played very well against Seville to force a penalty shoot out which they won and I will not be surprised to see them oust Chelsea.

On the Arsenal/Liverpool match I think that the Gunners will sail through to the semis despite playing the second leg at Anfield. The young Gunners side have been gaining confidence with each round and I think they will be able to overcome the more experienced Liverpool side.

On the other side of the draw Manchester United will play Roma for the third time in two seasons and I think its going to be two tight matches. This time Roma have to win comfortably at home and not lose like they did last season in order to reach the last four.

In their group matches this season, Roma lost 1 nil at Old Trafford and could only draw one all at home and they have to do better than that to deny Sir Alex Ferguson's team a second successive semi-final place.

In the last match Barcelona will meet Schalke 04 and I think Barca should win this one. Barcelona will play the last leg at home and that should give them a huge advantage but Schalke could cause an upset especially if they win the first leg like they did against Porto.

So there are some appetising ties for the quarters but should Liverpool and Chelsea win their respective matches I think we will have another boring Liverpool/Chelsea match which will likely have as few goals as possible. I hope that does not happen.

Baggies draw Pompey in semis

West Bromwich Albion were drawn to play Portsmouth in the the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley in April whilst Chelsea conquerers Barnsely will play Cardiff.

Its been an amazing run to the semi-finals but there is no doubt that this will be the most difficult match so far in the campaign. I am just hoping that this run in the Cup will not distract the Baggies from the promotion chase where things don't seem to be going on well for the Baggies.

Its good to see that none of the so-called Top Four are out of the FA Cup and thanks to Barnsely who ousted two of them in Liverpool and then Chelsea. This will give some other teams a chance for glory.

Before the draw was made I was hoping West Brom would avoid Pompey being the only premiership side left in the competition but now it would seem that the semi would be harder than the final should the Baggies win.

Cardiff will not be able to play in the UEFA Cup and I hope that if they were to reach the final, whoever they play would automatically get a UEFA place in next season's competition.

The last match at Wembley for the Baggies was against Derby County in the Championship and we lost that one but I hope that there will be a better result this time.

But as a Baggies fan I still think that getting automatic promotion to the premiership will still the most important achievement of the season if that can happen.

The Jets soar

The Jets success has continued in the awards arena with Joel Griffiths winning the Johnny Warren Medal plus the 2007-8 golden boot for his 12 goals this season.

The award for Griffiths is not surprising for a player who was so influential for the Jets throughout the season and had 12 goals to his name.

The other awards won by the Jets were the A-League Coach of the Year Award won by their coach Gary Van Egmond and A-League Fair Play Award.

The Jets on Sunday denied the Central Coast Mariners the double after beating them 1 nil in a tight contest but once again there has been some controversy after the Mariners were denied what appeared like a clear cut penalty.

At last year's grand final the controversy came from comments from Adelaide United especially from their captain at the time Rossi Aloisi after their humiliating loss to Melbourne Victory but I think this year the controversy has come from Danny Vukovic who was send off for striking the referee Mark Sheilds.

He has since been banned for 15 months with six months suspended, a ban which is less than what I expected. That ban means that he will be back in November and therefore he will miss around three months of action because between now and August its off-season.

I actually think the ban should have covered a whole season but I am waiting to see what happens on appeal.

I don't think there is any need to talk about the ban for the Olympics or not because he should simply be banned from that because he will not be participating in club football.

My focus A-League wise will now turn to the Asian Champions League where Melbourne will play their first match against Chunnam Dragons at the Telstra Dome. With just one team getting promotion into the next stage its going its going to be tough but whatever happens I think the experience will be worthwhile.


Mariners gun for double against Jets

The Central Coast Mariners will be aiming for a double when they meet Newcastle Jets on Sunday in the A-League Grand final at the Sydney Football Stadium.

Just like last season both teams in the grand final have qualified for the 2009 Asian Champions League because the Mariners as minor premiers take one position and then because they have reached the final the other finalist will automatically take the other position whether they win or lose the final.

I think the Mariners had a good start to the season and I remember watching them play against Melbourne Victory at Telstra Dome in a goalless draw early in the season and they looked like a solid unit but the addition of John Aloisi helped them to become even better.

I think they deserve their place in the finals as minor premiers but Sunday is a one-off match and anything is possible.

These teams have played each other lately in the major semi-final and the Jets won the first leg 2 nil whilst the Mariners won the return leg 3 nil after extra time.

I think the Jets let themselves down by trying to defend the two goal margin and hence they defended from the start but I think that they defended too deep as well and thats something thats not their natural form of play.

If they play offensively this time with their normal type of play keeping possession of the ball even if they take an early lead then I think they can be declared A-League champions come Sunday.

When the season started I expected the Jets to struggle especially after losing play maker Nicky Carle but they didn't really struggle and their only problem was their signing of Mario Jardel who failed to make an impact of any sort.

I think its good to see that in the 2009 Asian Champions League, the A-League will be represented by two teams that have never played in that competition before and I think that spreads the experience to other teams in the league.


Egypt retain African crown

Egypt this morning successfully defended its Africa Cup of Nations title after beating Cameroon by a lone goal scored in the second half.

Egypt won the last tournament when it was the host but they proved that that win was no fluke as they beat the determined Cameroonian side who could not deal with the Pharaoh's fast free flowing football.

This was Egypt's record sixth crown and ironically had Cameroon won they would have equaled Egypt previous of a record five titles.

Egypt scored in the second half when Mohamed Aboutrika received a pass from Mohamed Zidan when he tussled the ball off Rigobert Song.

I think Carlos Kameni, the goalkeeper, did very well to make sure that the match was goalless up to that stage because he made a number of crucial saves to thwart the Pharoah's attacks.

I am now hoping to see Egypt qualify for the 2010 World Cup and see what they can do at the world stage. I still think that their toughest test was against Ivory Coast but they easily passed that one and now the next stage should be the World Cup.

Meanwhile in the third place playoff match hosts Ghana won a consolation third place when they beat Ivory Coast 4-1. Credit to both teams as they fielded strong teams for this bronze medal match.

From conceding no goal at all up to the semi-finals, Ivory Coast conceded 8 goals in their last two matches of the tournament and that should be cause for concern for a team with so much potential.

This African Nations Cup finished without a single match of the knockout phase going into a penalty shoot out plus only one match went into extra time. Its good to see matches settled in normal time of play.

The next tournament will now be in Angola in two years time and I hope it will be a repeat of Ghana 2008 in terms of success and I hope that Angola will also produce a colourful and successful tournament like Ghana did.

Egypt to meet Cameroon in final

The hosts Ghana and the favourites Ivory Coast were stunned this morning when they lost to Cameroon and Egypt respectively who will now meet in the final of the 2008 Africa Nations Cup in Accra.

The hosts Ghana would have made it three in a row for hosts to reach the final but they could not get a goal against the determined Cameroon side who will now feature in a final for the first time in six years.

The much touted clash between Ghana and Ivory Coast will now take place a day before most people thought it would take place in a third place playoff match. A win for either team will see them get a bronze medal but I don't think that is what they were thinking a day ago.

To put it into context I think the biggest blow to Ivory Coast was the injury to their first choice goalkeeper Boubacar Barry who got injured in the first half to be replaced by Stephan Loboue. Loboue hasn't played first team football for the whole season and I think he came in in the wrong match and with the team already losing when he came on that did not help his confidence.

But credit to Egypt who had a game plan and executed it well. They haven't lost yet in these finals and they now meet a Cameroon side they beat in their first match and that will make the final very interesting indeed.

Egypt last met Cameroon in a final in 1986 and won on penalties but I hope this final will not go to penalties. So far no match has gone to a shoot-out which is good I think.

For Ghana and Ivory Coast I think its a chance lost when a lot of people expected them at least to reach the final. I think Ghana will need some better strikers to move on to the next level because I think thats the area where they are light-weight and Ivory Coast have think about who to have as a backup goalkeeper.


Egypt face Ivorian challenge

After this morning's quarter final matches in the Africa Cup of Nations the Ivory Coast will meet Egypt in a repeat of the 2006 final which Egypt won on penalties.

Two years ago it was a goalless draw and the host team won their fifth trophy after winning the shootout but I doubt very much that the match will go to penalties this time.

Ivory Coast are still to concede a goal so far in these finals and were Egypt to score they would be the first team to score against them.

I think Egypt lack the cutting edge of the Ivorians. I can see the Elephants winning the match and going on to win the final where they would meet the winner between Ghana and Cameroon.

I think that the match between Ghana and Cameroon could be the match that could lead to the first penalty shoot out in this year's tournament.

I think Ghana has been playing enough to win their matches but I was impressed with their win against Nigeria where they won with ten players.

I think against Cameroon they will need all their eleven players if they are to please the home crowd.

Against Tunisia all eyes were on Samuel E'too to see if he was going to increase on his five goal tally so far but it was Stephane Mbia who stole the limelight as he scored a brace.

I thought Tunisia did well to come back from two goals down and then force extra time but Cameroon looked the better side throughout and I think they deserve to reach the semis.

Six years ago Cameroon were the leading African side having won the Nations Cup in 2000 and 2002 but now they are not and I think the current team would like to restore their pride back by reaching the final at least and possibly winning it.

Ghana will have the home support and I think they will also rely heavily on Michael Essien but they will have the work cut out against a determined Cameroonian side.


Morocco, Senegal bow out

I think Morocco and Senegal were the surprise eliminations from the quarter-finals of the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations but I also think their replacements Guinea and Angola duly deserved to advance.

Its good to see Angola advance beyond the group stages for the first time and to do so they had to beat Senegal who I thought played quite well against Tunisia but could only get a draw.

Guinea also deserve to be in the last eight after nearly getting a draw against the hosts in the first match but ended up losing to a late goal by Sully Muntari.

Looking at the quarter-finals, Ghana versus Nigeria promises to be a very interesting fixture indeed but I expect the Black Stars to go past the Super Eagles of Nigeria. I am still not convinced by Nigeria and I think they need some to get their squad to gel a little bit more.

I think Nigeria has a good squad of individuals but it is a team that will win you games just like Angola is showing.

Ivory Coast has scored eight goals so far and I expect them to score more as they go past Guinea but I think the match is going to be won by a small margin because Guinea have shown already how good a team they are especially when they beat Morocco.

Egypt against Angola must be very interesting match especially with the way Egypt are playing and for Angola to get something out of this match I think they have to slow down the match and dictate it. I can see this match as one that could be decided by penalties.

The last quarter final match will see Tunisia play Cameroon. I haven't been convinced by Tunisia so far and I think the resurgent Cameroon side should be able to go past them.

Samuel E'too now holds the record of the highest scorer at the Africa Nations Cup and I think Tunisia will have a tough time preventing him from increasing his record. But against Egypt Cameroon's defence was exposed and if the Tunisians can do what Egypt did then anything is possible.

Lastly I don't know what plans South Africa had for this tournament and whatever they are I think they have a lot of work to do before hosting the next World Cup in two years time.

Ivory Coast reach quarters

The Africa Cup of Nations has reached half way stage of the group stages with the drawn match between Mali and Nigeria being the sixteenth match and there are sixteen more group matches to go.

At this stage it looks like Nigeria are on their way out and their stay in the tournament now depends on Ivory Coast beating Mali.

Nigeria will still need to beat Benin and get a better goal difference than Mali.

Ivory Coast on the other hand are the first team through to the quarter-finals after Nigeria's draw and they will need a draw to win the group and potentially avoid the hosts Ghana who look certain to top Group A.

Its interesting to see that Nigeria with arguably the best strike force at the tournament have so far failed to find the back of the net. Nigeria has the likes of Obafemi Martins, Nwanko Kanu, Stephen Makinwa, Yakubu and John Utaka in their ranks and yet surprisingly they have recorded zero goals so far.

In Group A Ghana seem to be doing enough to win games and like Ivory Coast they will also need a draw against Morocco to win their group. I think Ghana were fortunate to get away with a win against Guinea but they played very well against Namibia and could have scored more goals had their strikers been sharper.

Cameroon have a mountain to climb after losing to Egypt in their opening match. Zambia's win against Sudan has shown that they are not going to be pushovers and they are capable of beating the Indomitable Lions.

Every team in Group D has scored one goal in the two draws we have witnessed in that group and I think it is Tunisia and South Africa who should be happy about those draws as they did not play very well and therefore both will need to up their play in the remaining two matches.

So the picture is a bit clearer in Groups A and B after the two matches played and I am looking forward to see what happens in Groups C and D over the coming two days.

Tough Task for Roar

Its finals time now in the A-League and the Queensland Roar have a tough task to stop an all NSW grand final for the second time in three years.

Last week I had tipped the Roar to go and get the minor premiership and hence bring the Asian Champions League to Suncorp but they just fizzled out before Adelaide United and in the end finished fourth on the ladder.

Despite finishing fourth one thing in their favour is that they get to play the second leg at home and that could bring them an advantage but it also brings with it a lot of pressure before your home fans.

But playing the second leg away may not be as bad as it sounds for a team like Sydney who went through the regular season without losing away. If they can continue that streak then they can certainly overcome the Roar at home or at least hold them for a draw.

The Roar will be without Danny Tiatto for both matches after he got a two match suspension in the match against Adelaide.

One thing for certain though is the fact that the final will be in Sydney and the home team will be either Central Coast or Newcastle. I think its a good decision to bring the final to a bigger stadium because that will allow a lot of people to watch the final instead of just a few.

But the question is what happens if say Adelaide where to host the grand final. They have a small stadium at Hindmarsh and so will be the match then be moved to Football Park or to the cricket ground? The Jets and the Mariners are evenly poised because its hard to see who might emerge the winner in this contest. The Jets have just won their last two matches and are therefore on a good run but the Mariners main problem lately has been their defence and if they can get that sorted they could on their way to the second final in three years.

Top four face bottom four

This week will see the penultimate round of the 2007/8 A-League season and after the weekend results it has turned out that the top four teams will be playing teams in the bottom half of the league ladder.

The minor premiers will be decided in the last round which is good and all teams who have qualified for the finals have 31 points.

With Newcastle beating the pacesetters Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Victory's hopes of securing a finals spot were all but dashed but there is no denying the fact that Melbourne is the form team at the moment but the problem is that they picked the form at the wrong time of the season.

However, it will be good if that form can be carried over into the Asian Champions League but with the first match on March 12 that form could have been lost by then which is why I think the finals would have been very important this time for Victory.

Back to round 21, just like last season, Newcastle Jets have the disadvantage of playing the first match of the round and this time against the resurgent Perth Glory and this could be a tough match for them especially against a team trying to avoid the wooden spoon.

I still think the matches in the last round of the season should all be played at the same time but it appears like television schedule by FoxSports means this will not happen. They could use Viewer's choice if they wanted to like they do for the English Premiership and make all four matches available live.

I think the Mariners should have wrapped up the minor premiership by now but they have had a horror last six matches only managing to win and draw once in the last six matches. Their form is identical to Adelaide's who have also collected four points from their last six matches.

In Wellington they face a team that is playing reasonably well and trying to avoid the wooden spoon which I don't think they deserve because they have been good throughout the season. It seems like this match will end up in an exciting draw.

Sydney did not lose away this season but they face the in-form Victory at home and I think this will be three points in the bag for the Melbourne team.

Of the top four teams, only Queensland Roar are playing away from home as they match against Adelaide United. I think if recent form is anything to go by then I expect the Roar to collect all three points and possibly win the minor premiership aided by their healthy goal difference.

Adelaide has lost its last four matches and has only won once in the last six matches and so this is a good chance for Roar to claim the minor premiership against a team struggling for form going into the Asian Champions League.

I am sure this is going to be another interesting and unpredictable round and lets hope there are more matches or teams next season.

2008 Africa Nations Cup Preview

The 26th edition of the Africa Nations Cup kicks off in Ghana on the 20th of January with the host nation playing Guinea in Accra.

I think with every new tournament winning the Africa Cup of Nations is getting tougher and tougher with most of the teams having so many European based players and some squads like those of Ghana, Nigeria and Ivory Coast for example being composed of mostly European based players with some of them being key players in their teams.

The sixteen teams that qualified for the Nations Cup are divided into four groups of four teams and are based in four different cities for the group stages. I will try to briefly look at each of the groups and give my verdict on whom I think will reach the quarter-finals stage.

In Group A I think Ghana as the hosts nation will come through that group and I think they will be joined in the quarter finals by Morocco. While Guinea have a very good team I still think Morocco will use their experience to power themselves into the quarters.

Although Nigeria are the seeded team in Group B, I think Ivory Coast will win that group. Ivory Coast is one of the most balanced teams in the competition with a solid defence marshalled by Arsenal's Kolo Toure and a strike force led by Chelsea's Didier Drogba and a midfield that could feature Didier Zokora and Yaya Toure. I would actually tip them to go and win the tournament itself after losing out to hosts Egpyt the last time around.

While Mali will cause problems and will be a real threat I still think Nigeria should be able to hop past them and I think debutants Benin will prop that group. Nigeria's greatest strength lies in their strike force where they are blessed with an array of talent that includes Obafemi Martins, Nwankwo Kanu, Ayegbeni Yakubu and Stephen Makinwa.

In Group C only Zambia haven't won the competition before but they have reached the finals twice but they look to me like the weak team in the group that boasts past winners Cameroon, Egypt and Sudan.

I think Cameroon and Egypt should be able to fill the top two places of this group. Cameroon missed the last World Cup and since then they have been playing well despite having problems with coaches. Their biggest threat will still be Barcelona's Samuel E'too whilst current holders Egypt should have enough depth to negotiate their way into the quarters.

I think that Group D is probably the trickiest of all the groups. Here we have teams who are all capable of reaching the quarter-finals and I think there will be no run-away leader in this group.

The seeded team in this group is Tunisia but we have a resurgent Senegalese team who I think will be trying to reclaim their success of 2002 in this tournament. Senegal ill once again be looking at Henri Camara, El Hadji Diouf and Mamadou Niang for goals whilst in defence they will miss Ferdinand Coly.

Then there is South Africa who under coach Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira are trying to build a team that will take them at least into the knockout stages at the next World Cup which they will host and I therefore expect them to be very competitive.

The South African squad does not include Benni McCarthy but every player who will be chosen to play will know that a good performance here could mean a place in the squad that will be playing at home in 2010 and that will be a big incentive to perform.

One can also not discount Angola who held their own at the last World Cup in Germany despite going out at the group stages and are also scheduled to host the next edition of the Nations up. So I am sure they would like to be hosts having done well in this competition.

All I can say is that there is a high chance that Tunisia will be in the quarters but at the moment its very hard to see who might join them.

The Nations Cup has been won nine times by the hosts and when Ghana has hosted the tournament on their own they have won it. It is also worth noting that the previous two tournaments have also been won by the hosts. That would probably point to a Ghana winning it but I think that Ivory Coast will win it this time.

Looking at the schedule, for Ghana to avoid Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals, they have to finish in the same position in their groups, that is both first or both second otherwise they will meet in the quarters assuming they both finish in the top two positions.

For the first time I will be participating in a Nations Cup tipping competition on TipsChallenge and it is there I hope to test my knowledge of African football.

Victory win in record goals round

Melbourne Victory won at last in a round in which a record number of goals were scored in an A-League round.

In round 18, a total of 21 goals were scored and this is highest number of goals ever scored in a single round in the short history of the A-League. Before this round the highest number of goals scored in a round was 19 and this happened twice in the first season in rounds 11 and 16.

It is interesting to note also that of the 21 goals scored, 15 of them were scored by the away teams with the home teams accounting for the remaining six. Its no surprise then that all the away teams won in this particular round.

Back in season 1 in round 11, the away teams scored 14 goals compared to the home team's five but in round 16 of the same season it was the home teams which scored more goals with 12 goals.

And talking about all the away teams winning, this was the third time in the A-League for all the away teams to win and not surprising the other two times occurred in season 1 in rounds 6 and 11.

Back to Victory this was a welcome win for the Victory and a good one to end the year where things haven't really worked out as expected since the season begun.

This is only the fourth win of the season and another three wins in the remaining rounds will see the team finish with 29 points but maybe this is expecting too much from this team. I still think that at this moment avoiding bottom place will be a good achievement.

Having said that I am waiting to see what will happen against high flying and table toppers Queensland Roar this coming round in round 19. A win there could make the season look not so bad after all.

I was pleased to see Archie Thompson and Danny Allsop combining well again and it is this type of display that will be needed in the Asian Champions League.

Kind draw for Chelsea, Barca

The UEFA Champions League round of 16 draw brought some interesting fixtures and the one that I found to be very attractive will be the one between Liverpool and Inter Milan.

Inter Milan are flying in Serie A and have just beaten AC Milan but against Liverpool they will be meeting a team with lots of experience in the knockout phase of the competition having reached the finals twice in the last five years.

I think Inter could have an edge but with the matches scheduled for February and March next year Inter will have to maintain their current form to overcome Rafa Benitez's side.

Another of my picks will be ties between Arsenal and the defending champions AC Milan and also Real Madrid against Roma. I think the tie between Arsenal and AC Milan will be between youth and experience and I have a feeling that this tie could easily favour Arsenal especially with the current erratic form of AC Milan.

Roma are on a good run at the moment in Serie A and lie second whilst Real Madrid are top of La Liga and they should be an appetising encounter. Its hard to see Real falling on the wayside but I am sure Roma will like to erase the memories of how they exited last year's competition by ousting Real.

I think the ties that will easily go either way will the Manchester United/Lyon and Schalke/Porto ones. Like Liverpool, Lyon started slowly in the Champions League this season but at Old Trafford they will be facing a very consistent side but I think Lyon could reach the next round if they can avoid defeat at home.

When the competition started I thought Valencia would qualify but instead it was Schalke who did and they should fancy their chances against an otherwise impressive Porto side who showed their beatable side at Anfield.

With due respect to Olympiacos who reached this stage for the first time, I think Chelsea have a draw which they should be happy about especially as they play the second leg at Stamford Bridge. This could be the kind of draw Avram Grant's side needs in order to reach the final in Moscow.

I think Barcelona should be able to push aside Celtic at the end of the two legs. Celtic are hard to beat at home but over the two legs I don't see them celebrating at the Nou Camp.

I don't know what to expect in the tie between Fenerbahce and Seville and I think this is one that could be potentially be decided on penalties.

Whatever the outcome will be, it looks like we have some very interesting matches to look forward to and I am hoping that I will also be able to score well on TipsChallenge

Uncertain road into Asia

The draw for the 2008/9 Asian Champions League was made early this week and the Australian representatives in the competition Melbourne victory and Adelaide United at last got to know the teams they will have to fight out to reach the next round.

This will be the second time for Adelaide and so the experience from last season will give them some bit of advantage especially against teams from countries they played the last time around. Adelaide has been paired against Chinese champions Changchun Yatai, Korean Republicís Pohang Steelers and Vietnamese champions Binh Duong.

Victory will play its first Asian champions league match on March 12 against the South Korean side Chunnam Dragons. I think this is the second tough side in the group for Victory and so I think this match will give some indicators as to how the campaign may go.

The first away match for Victory will be against Thailand's Chonburi FC. Chonburi FC will also be the last team to visit the Dome on May 21. I think its good to finish with what I think is a winnable match because if you need a win to advance you could possibly get the win.

The biggest match will possibly be against Gamba Osaka at the Dome on the 9th of April. I think this is the strongest side in this group and I am happy to see that Victory will face them first at home before playing them in their own backyard two weeks later.

The Asian Champions League is a tough competition because only the group winners proceed to the next round and its the end of road for the other three teams. So a team basically pays heavily for any slip-ups and I am hoping that by that by March Ernie Merrick would have got some reinforcements especially having an attacking midfielder who can supply the strikers because so far this season the team has just been so defensive minded without doing a good job at it anyway and also creating very few scoring opportunities.

Also another factor that makes it tough for A-League teams is that all the first round matches are played in the A-League off-season and this is not a good thing at all. The A-League off-season is unusually very long and I hope that in future it could be shortened somehow and so that some of the matches can fall into the normal season. This will only when the number of matches or teams is increased.

With Victory's season having gone pear shaped, Victory's only chance to be playing in the competition next season would be to win it and thats very unlikely.

The Jets threat

This weekend will see another crunch match for Melbourne Victory against the Newcastle Jets at the Telstra Dome with just five matches to go before the end of the season and therefore fifteen points to play for.

This has not been the season I thought it would be at the start and as the season comes to an end its becoming obvious that the two problem areas so far have been lack of goals and discipline.

I think the lack of goals has led to the team having too many draws, eight so far of which three of them were goalless draws and all at home. If you were to convert just just three draws out of the eight into wins that would be an extra six points and the team would easily be in the top four on the ladder.

Like all the remaining matches the Newcastle match is a must win match and with goal difference likely to come into consideration it will be good to win by a number of goals but that seems very unlikely. In that case a win of any sort will do.

After the Newcastle match there will be just one more home match against the Wellington Phoenix and that sums up how difficult its going to be to get many points from the remaining five matches. The away matches will be against Queensland Roar, Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC and all these teams are currently above Victory on the ladder.

If in the end Victory does not reach the finals I think it will be easy to say that overally they did not deserve to but if they do that would be a bonus.

Liverpool, Arsenal first taste of defeat

Over the weekend both Liverpool and Arsenal lost in the league for the first time this season in matches a lot of people would have expected them to win or at least draw.

But Reading played the game of their life and managed to beat a Liverpool side which included influential captain Steven Gerrard and also Fernando Torres. From the line-up I could see that this time Rafael Benitez was going for a win despite an important Champions League midweek fixture which they must win to stay in the competition.

When Reading went ahead I was a bit surprised but I thought Liverpool would come back and win but then they equalised but from then Reading went on to score two further goals of which the third one was a very good goal.

On the other hand the Gunners are missing key players in the form of Cesc Fabregas, Alexander Hleb, Mathieu Flamini and Robin van Persie and that told as the team never looked like the scintillating side we had got accustomed to in the past few weeks.

So Arsenal went to the North East for two matches and came back with just one point and the lead that could have been six points by now is now just one point.

The next fixtures are going to be even more interesting. Arsenal are going to host Chelsea and Liverpool are going to play arch-rivals Manchester United at Anfield.

After a poor start to the season I think Chelsea are beginning to play well and I would fancy them to at least get a draw at the Emirates whereas I will be very surprised if Liverpool beat United at Anfield.

Liverpool tend to play very well in the big teams but I think Sir Alex Ferguson's side are going to be too hot for them to handle and play on the side of caution I will probably go for a draw on TipsChallenge.

I am keen to see how premier league ladder will look after this weekend's matches but I have a feeling that come next week United will be on top of the pile. Hope I am wrong.

A drawn round

Last week's A-League's round 14 had all the matches drawn with just four goals scored and this was the first time in the short A-League history that all the matches for a particular round have been drawn.

Previously the highest number of drawn matches in a round has been three and this has happened three times before, twice this season in the first two rounds and once in the inaugural season in round 2.

The drawn round means that the number of draws this season so far is 23 out of 56 matches played so far which is just over 40% of the matches. To me that looks like a big percentage of drawn matches but I think it is to be expected from teams which are nearly of equal strength.

A quick comparison with the English Premier League will show that so far this season there have been 37 draws which is 26% of all the matches played. It will be interesting to see the comparison at the end of the season and if I get the time I could add some graphs to the analysis.

The draws meant that the league ladder did not change at all in terms of positions which I think could benefit the teams near the bottom of the ladder as the points difference has remained the same.

For Melbourne Victory, unfortunately instead of seeing more goals, what we are witnessing are more red cards. The match against Wellington Phoenix was a good chance to get all three points and overtake Sydney FC on the ladder but with Kevin Muscat's red card, the task was made harder and it now looks like its going to be tough reaching the finals.

Last week I said that it was important to get four points from the matches against Phoenix and Perth Glory and now it looks very hard because in order to do that the team has to win in Perth and thats not going to be easy against a resurgent Glory team which may include returning Stan Lazaridis.

Thankfully Muscat will be back for the crunch match against Adelaide at the Dome and assuming there are no reds in Perth, Victory could have a strong line-up for the grand final rematch.


England fall short as Russia progress

England this morning lost to Croatia and with that failed to qualify for Euro 2008 to be jointly hosted by Austria and Switzerland.

After Israel's surprise win over Russia at the weekend, England only needed a draw to qualify for next year's Euro championship but the loss means England will miss a major tournament for the first time since the 1994 World Cup.

I never thought England would fail to get a draw they needed to get through to the Euros especially against a team that had already qualified but performance on the night was so poor I could not believe these were top premiership players playing for England.

I thought that it was a good idea by Steve McLaren not to play Paul Robinson but I think he should have opted for more experienced David James instead of the inexperienced Scott Carson. It was also a brave decision to drop Robinson especially as he had not let in a goal at home throughout the campaign and all his famous blunders were away from home.

But I think its early in the campaign when McLaren messed up when he decided not to play David Beckham especially when he was in very good form that time at Real Madrid. He then recalled him but by then the campaign was not going too well already.

England's failure to qualify is more painful given the fact the team that is going in their place Russia has not been playing any better. They could not get a point in Israel and could only beat Andorra by an odd goal but the fact now is that they are going to the Euros and I think by the time they start Guus Hiddink would have made them a better team.

Now I am keen to see who will replace McLaren who said he is not resigning but I think the Football Association will have to replace him with somebody who can give England a better chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.

Crunch time for Victory

After last weekend's loss to Queensland Roar, the next two matches are against Wellington Phoenix at home and Perth Glory away and these matches have to be won or at least get four points from them if the season has to salvaged.

Wellington should have got four points from last week's match against Sydney some moments of madness in the dying moments of that game made sure they could only get a point. So against Victory I think they will be fired up to get a win to tie the points tally with victory.

A few weeks ago I said that it was too early to write off a top four finish for Victory but since then the team has collected just one point after losses to Central Coast Mariners and Queensland Roar and then the goalless draw against Sydney.

At this moment in time there are twenty four points to play for but the most important thing is start winning some matches. Apart from the Roar match were Victory were pathetic in the three previous matches I thought that team played well but its up front where there are problems.

Danny Allsop and Archie Thompson are lacking the supply from midfield and therefore the goals have suddenly dried. Also the team doesn't seem capable of scoring from set pieces and that is something that I think Ernie Merrick should work on.

Elsewhere there are some interesting match ups this week with Newcastle Jets playing the Mariners and the Roar going to meet in-form Sydney. The later is a clash between two teams playing very well at the moment and it will be interesting to see if the Roar can pull an away win.

If the Mariners win against the Jets then they will open a seven point gap at the top if the Roar lose to Sydney. I think that could set them on their way to the finals.

Scotland miss out

Scotland missed out on the Euro 2008 qualification when they lost to Italy at Hampden Park and now France and Italy qualify from Scotland's group B.

It has been a dream run for Scotland who earlier in the campaign looked all set to qualify for Euro 2008 especially after beating Ukraine at home but the result that made things a bit difficult was the one against Georgia four days later when Scotland lost 2 nil at the Lokomotivi Stadium.

When the draw was made it looked to me like it was going to be a straight fight between France and Italy but Scotland shook the group especially with the away victory against France which will long be remember for James McFadden's spectacular shot for the only goal of the match.

At Hampden Park I thought Italy deserved their win and I think that the referee's assistant made a mistake in disallowing Italy's goal in the first half.

I now hope that Scotland will be encouraged by this campaign and be there in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. The team should be more experienced then and more confident knowing that they are a very good team and can pull out results even in difficult matches.

Elsewhere I was surprised by Turkey's win over Norway and that gives them given a huge advantage to join Greece and qualify from Group C.

Also now England know that anything other than a loss will see them at Euro 2008 and this is something that looked very unlikely before Russia surprisingly lost to Israel.

I will also be interested to see what happens between Portugal and Finland where a win for Finland will block Euro 2004 finalists from going to Austria and Switzerland.

Indiscipline costly to Victory

Melbourne Victory has received three red cards in the last two matches to players Steve Pantelidis, Joseph Keenan and Rodrigo Vargas and these could prove costly in the next few matches as all three players are defenders.

Victory's next match is against arch-rivals Sydney FC and its a kind of a match when you need all players to be available but Victory will have to make do without three important players and will have to operate with a makeshift defence.

The losses in those two matches have added pressure on the champions to win some games. I think its too early to start talking of missing the finals because the points difference between the top team and sixth placed team is just six points and I think even the seventh placed team which is nine points adrift still has a chance with thirty points to play for.

Round 11 of the A-League was an interesting round with the away teams winning the first three matches 1-nil and it was Victory who couldn't continue the trait when they lost away to Central Coast Mariners.

Despite the red cards I think Victory have played some of their best football in the last two rounds and its been good to watch. Carlos Hernandez has been more involved and is beginning to show some class.

The next match against Sydney is an interesting one because unlike last season there is only one match against Sydney at the Dome. Sydney are on a high at the moment winning their two matches so far under the new coach John Kosmina and they should give Melbourne a tough match.

Former Leeds star Michael Bridges is playing well and scored last week and I think he can only get better as he adjusts to the A-League. Juninho is expected to take some part in the match despite failing to play the full match in the last round against Newcastle Jets due to injury concerns.

Perth Glory now have a new coach in Dave Mitchell but I think they have a lot of work to do in order to start climbing up the table. They need to start scoring goals and once they score the goals defend well to keep that lead. The Jets will be the first test for the new coach.

In the other matches the Mariners can increase their lead at the top if they can beat Adelaide at home whilst I think Wellington Phoenix will be very fortunate to get a point against the high flying Queensland Roar.

Jol finally leaves Spurs

Martin Jol finally left Spurs this morning after the club announced on its website that he and the first team coach Chris Hughton were to leave the club.

This does not surprise a lot of people but whats surprising is that it took longer than expected especially when Spurs started badly and have only managed just one win in the league this season and that was a win against lowly Derby.

Results have not been coming for Jol and for example against Newcastle earlier this week the team just could not defend. I wonder whether things would have been different had Ledley King been fit and playing.

I also think one of Jol's problems has been trying to play Darren Bent instead of Jermaine Defoe. Bent cost so much money and to justify that expense I think Jol tried to get him to play as many games as possible but the return so far hasn't been there.

Also the goalkeeper Paul Robinson hasn't been up to scratch. Many times he has failed to command his area and then conceded goals from long range kicks notably against Manchester United and also against Arsenal and then there were comical errors against Aston Villa and the team had to fight hard to get four goals just to get draw.

I wonder who the new coach will be but whoever is going to get the job he has his work cut out. Current Seville coach Juande Ramos is rumoured to be the next coach and some even suggest former Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho to start at the end of the season.

Talking about coaches, Bolton have appointed former Leicester coach Gary Megson to replace Sammy Lee. I was a bit surprised by the appointment because Megson has not been that successful in his two stints in the premiership with West Bromwich.

As a Baggies fan I have no doubt he is a good manager but I think he was good at getting promotions but once the team got promoted he found it hard to get the team to stay in the top flight. His teams are a bit defensive and don't lose by many goals but the problem was also the team didn't get to score many goals in order to win.

With Bolton at the bottom of the ladder he has a lot of work to do but I think that this time he has a better squad than what he had at the Hawthorns and that should help him and I wish him all the best as he tries to get Bolton out of the relegation zone.

So third manager gone and once again the speculation will start again as to who the next one will be.

Glory still winless despite goals

Perth Glory still stands out as the only team without a win after nine rounds in the A-League but over the last two rounds they have played some very good football and I think that their first win must be around the corner.

At first the Western Australian outfit were struggling to score goals but in the last two matches they have scored a total of four goals.

I thought that the Glory were very unfortunate not to get a win against Sydney FC in round 8 especially after going 3-1 up and against Victory they had a very strong second half but could not find a way past the Victory defence.

Glory's next match is against early scoring Queensland Roar away and it wont an easy against a team which has collected seven points from the last three matches. Also in those matches the Roar has scored a goal in the first five minutes of the match and so the Glory must be on their guard earlier on in the match.

It seems like we are now beginning to see some good football at last after a very poor start in the earlier rounds. I thought that the match between Sydney FC and Adelaide was quite good and Adelaide had a good all round match and could have scored more than one goal had it not been for the poor finishing and good goal-keeping by Clint Bolton.

Melbourne Victory had a very good first half and it was good to see Carlos Hernandez score his maiden A-League goal. It was a well taken goal and I am sure Victory fans will be hoping for more of the same.

Across the Tasman, Wellington Phoenix have only themselves to blame for coming pointless from a match they dominated so much. They seemed to lack ideas in the last third and most of their attacks in the second half easily fizzled out. Against Adelaide this coming weekend they have a very tough match indeed and I think they will be very fortunate to grab a point especially if their defenders have a repeat of the lapse in concentration they had at Westpac Stadium.

I will be looking at this graph to check the trend of this week's tipping on TipsChallenge.

Lee the second casualty

Sammy Lee became the second manager to lose his job in the English premiership this season when he left his role at the Reebok Stadium.

After Jose Mourinho left Chelsea it looked likely to me that either Derby's Billy Davies or Spurs' Martin Jol would be the second in line but it has been Bolton's manager after they have taken residence in the relegation zone this season from the lofty top six placement of last season.

What surprised me was the fact that he lost his job in the second week of the international break instead of the first one. In the first week a few managers were relieved of their duties in the lower divisions of English football and most notably in the Championship at Norwich and Crystal Palace but nothing seemed to happen in the premiership.

I think that the Bolton job was always going to be hard especially after Big Sam over-achieved at the Reebok. But Lee did not help his cause by sidelining some senior places especially Ivan Campo and soon or later with results not going his way the inevitable happened.

At Spurs I think Jol is doing alright but his problem is not getting a replacement goalkeeper for Paul Robinson in the summer. Spurs play quite well but they need a better goalie who can take command of his area and in the 4-all draw against Villa, Spurs were let down by their errant goalie and thankfully they managed to claw back in the later stages of that match.

I think Davies is a doing a good at Derby especially given the squad he has got. Compared to the other two promoted sides, the Rams did not invest much in new players and its not surprising that they are propping the ladder and I think they may do it for the rest of the season and head back to the Championship unless they inject some quality in January.

So its going to be interesting to see who will follow after Lee. A few teams are not doing well in the premiership at the moment and that includes the likes of Middlesbrough, Fulham and Birmingham and unless things turn around the third guy will come from one of these teams. Lets hope not.

Shocks galore in UCL

This mornings UEFA Champions League produced a number of shocks as Liverpool and AC Milan lost to Marseille and Celtic respectively.

The other shock result was the Olympiakos win over Werder Bremen away in Bremen. This was Olympiakos' first away win in the Champions League in 32 matches. Its also impressive that they came from behind to snatch the historic 3-1 win. On any other day I think this would have been the greatest result.

I expected Liverpool to win against Marseille but I was surprised to see them outclassed in their own backyard. Marseille looked so comfortable you would have thought they were the home team and now Liverpool have some work to do with just one point in two matches.

I know Celtic are very good at home and rarely lose at home in Europe but I expected the defending champions to at least get a draw but Celtic scored a last minute winner to get all three points. It was also good to see Scott McDonald score his first champions league goal.

After the recent problems at Stamford Bridge coupled with Valencia's current good form in La Liga, I expected Valencia to get all three points against Chelsea or at worst a draw but Chelsea came with all three points to now head that group on four points.

Another home team to lose was Benfica who lost by an odd goal to Shakhtar Donetsk. Infact if you look at it in terms of home teams winning Celtic were the only home team to win this morning as Besiktas also lost to Porto.

The shock losses should make the back to back matches interesting in matchday 3 and 4 as teams try to recover lost ground in order to secure their places in the knockout round.

As a result of these surprising results, I could only muster just one point on TipsChallenge and this was for the match between Rosenborg and Schalke 04 where I managed to predict a Schalke win but not the exact result and I think nobody fared any better as there was not much movement in the Challenge league standings.

From an Australian television coverage point of view, it was interesting to see that ESPN and SBS chose to show the same matches on both days. Its so frustrating to see two channels showing the same match when there are seven other matches to show. I expected at least ESPN to show something different and I think there must be Viewer's choice in the champions league so that fans can watch whichever match they would like to follow.

Home teams dominate

For the first time this season all the home teams won as Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United got their first wins of the season. The other winning teams Sydney FC and Wellington Phoenix also got their first home wins in round six.

The A-League is one of those leagues where home advantage doesn't necessarily count for much but it was good to see all the home teams win and with that bring some joy to the home fans and moreso at the Dome where Victory scored its first home goals for the season.

Last week I wrote about the Mariner's clean sheets but Bruce Djite became the first player to score against the Mariners as Adelaide just about managed to beat them. The Mariners still have a healthy lead at the top of the ladder going into round seven where they will face Newcastle Jets.

Wellington Phoenix not only recorded their first ever home victory but they also posted the biggest winning margin of the season so far after putting four goals past the struggling Perth Glory. That match was for me easily the best match to watch over the weekend and that win continued a good run for the team from Wellington.

Glory continue to struggle and despite being the first to score they went on to let in four. That goal they scored was only their second this season and you can see where their problem is and I think they will need to work hard from here if they are to avoid the wooden spoon come January.

I was happy to see Victory get their first league victory at the Dome in almost a year. The first half was very poor from both sides with Victory failing to have even a single shot on target let alone force a corner kick but it was better in the second half especially after the introduction of Adrian Caceras.

Leandro Love is proving to be more important with every match and it was good to see his contribution in both Victory goals after another assist last week against the Jets in the last round.

Victory's next match is against Sydney and that's going to be tough one especially with Juninho back for Sydney but it could turn out to be another draw for Victory.

So for round six, a total of eleven goals were scored making it the highest scoring round of the season so far and the lowest was round three where only four goals were scored and I hope we will see more goals in round seven.

Mariners' clean sheets face test

Looking at this weekend's fixtures in the A-League one stand-out fixture would be the match between Sydney FC and Newcastle Jets which as close to a derby as we can get but I think the match that I will follow closely is the one involving Adelaide and the Central Coast Mariners.

The Mariners have had an excellent start to the season and so far have scored six goals which is the highest number of goals scored by any team so far but more importantly they have kept clean sheets in all the five matches. On the other hand Adelaide began the season well by getting the pre-season cup but in the league proper they have done a Melbourne and that is get draw after draw.

Last week Adelaide had a good showing against Wellington Phoenix and I think this is their chance to notch their first win. A win for Adelaide would mean they would have been the first team to score against the Mariners and with the kind of strikers they have at their disposal they should be up to the task.

The match will also see the Vidmar brothers Tony and Aurelio face each other. Also Damien Mori will come back to Hindmarsh but playing for the Mariners. I don't understand why Mori cannot get a long-term contract with any of the A-League clubs especially in a league of so many misfiring strikers.

Elsewhere Victory welcome the Queensland Roar at the Dome still searching for their first win. Victory had a disastrous first half against the Jets last weekend but played better in the second half to come up with the fifth draw in as many games. I am hoping that if this match is a draw, then it wont be a goal-less draw.

What I don't understand about Victory are the substitutions. Against Newcastle Joseph Keenan was easily the best player on the park for Victory and yet he was substituted and players who were having a poor game like Kevin Muscat and Grant Brebner were left to finish the whole match with minimal contribution. The same thing happened the previous week against the Mariners when Adrian Caceras was taken off instead of taking off the said two central midfielders.

I also think Carlos Hernandez should be left to last whole match because he seemed to do very well against a tiring Jets defence. I just think that the more he plays he the more he gets used to the pace and conditions of the A-League.

For the two remaining matches, I think Sydney and Phoenix should be able to get their first home wins against Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory respectively. Perth still have problems with scoring and I cannot see them go past an impressive Phoenix outfit whilst for Sydney if Juninho plays that would be a big boost and help them win after their lucky win against the Roar last weekend.

Meanwhile on TipsChallenge there is no clear leader as predictions get harder with each passing week.

Mourinho leaves Chelsea

It didn't come as a great surprise to read that Chelsea have parted ways with their coach Jose Mourinho of three years after a less than satisfactory start to the season.

This season hasn't started well at Stamford with the team struggling for goals and hence the nil-all draw against Blackburn over the weekend but a lot of people expected Chelsea to beat Rosenborg in the Champions League but Chelsea had to struggle for a draw. Before that Chelsea lost to 2 nil to Aston Villa.

There are reports that Chelsea owner wanted Chelsea to play some exciting football but Mourinho's type of football is the kind of football that brings in results, exciting or not exciting. And you cant blame him after all football is all about results and in that regard I think he has been successful.

What has really surprised me is the fact that Chelsea seem to be heavily reliant on a few players namely Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, John Terry and Petr Cech and if one of these players is injured the team struggles terribly. I wouldn't expect that to happen to a star-studded team like Chelsea because I think they should have enough other players to fill in those gaps.

Now the speculation will start to see where Mourinho goes after the stint at the Bridge. If he stays in England I think he will go to Tottenham where another London team is struggling after spending so much in the off-season. I cannot see any other team beyond that but the only problem is that Spurs are currently not in the Champions League.

In Serie A the most likely team would be Inter Milan if the team does not have a good start whilst in La Liga the usual suspects Real Madrid look stable for a change. Barcelona haven't started the league well but they should be okay unless they get very bad results in the next few weeks.

I am also wondering as to who will take over at Stamford Bridge. Currently they are two great managers out of a job and these are Fabio Capello and Marcello Lippi. If exciting football is the requirement then these may not be ideal but they can bring results including results in the Champions League.

I will also not be surprised should the stand-in manager Avram Grant take the job full time because he was a successful manager in Israel and could give the premiership a go.

One thing for certain is that the premiership will never be the same without Mourinho.

Goal drought at the Dome

Melbourne Victory managed their second consecutive goalless draw at the Telstra Dome albeit with an improved performance against the league leaders, the Central Coast Mariners.

I went to watch this match hoping that this time there was going to be a goal of some kind after the first goalless draw against Perth Glory a fortnight ago but all we got was a reasonably good game but also a game that showed lack of Victory's organisation in the centre of the park.

Leandro Love introduced some creativeness into Victory in the second half and I think Ernie Merrick should let him start the next match against Newcastle together with Carlos Hernandez or else let Hernandez or Leigh Broxham start from the bench. Also Adrian Caceres should be left on the pitch for a bit longer because he offers more attacking options than Steve Pantelidis.

The next home match will be against Queensland Roar and I actually think its going to be a tough one with Queensland now beginning to play well as they showed against Perth Glory to get their first win. There was also a first win for Wellington Phoenix who won away to a disjointed Sydney FC outfit.

The fourth match saw Melbourne next opponents Newscastle Jets get a narrow victory over Adelaide United. In the last match of last season Victory lost 4-nil at the EnergyAustralia Stadium and though I don't think this scoreline will be repeated this time, a loss is quite likely and I will take a draw any time.

Meanwhile on TipsChallenge it was an improved performance from me as I managed to get the exact score for the Perth/Roar match and direction for the Jets/Adelaide.

Draws dominate A-League season start

Twelve matches have so far been played this season in the A-League and of those twelve matches, only four have been wins and the rest have been draws and with one team, the Central Coast Mariners, having 75% of the wins.

If we look at the previous two seasons it was the complete opposite picture. In the 2005/6 season, after three rounds there were four draws and eight wins with 25 goals scored and by then all teams had at least scored a goal.

The start of the 2006/7 season had even fewer draws by round 3 with just three draws and nine wins plus a staggering 30 goals. So far this season a total of 22 goals have been scored which is not as bad as it sounds if you consider that these have been scored in just nine matches compared to eleven and ten in the 2005/6 and 2006/7 seasons respectively.

The Mariners have won all their matches so far with three clean sheets and they are one of only two teams still to pick the ball from the back of their own net. The other team is Perth Glory but in different circumstances as I will show below.

It is interesting to see that that three of the four wins so far have been 1-nil wins and all these have been away wins and the only home win resulted in a 3-nil win. This was in the match between the Mariners against the Wellington Phoenix.

Therefore, this season's start is not the kind of start that I had expected but having said that its also not surprising given the fact that the A-League is a fairly balanced league and the salary cap helps even things out. What may make a difference is whom you recruit as marquee player and Sydney seem to have done well on that front.

Now if you look at Perth Glory then it doesn't look very good for their fans with the team so far failing to register a single goal. They have got three points to their name which is the third highest points tally on the league and thats not bad from a points perspective. I wonder how much celebration will greet their first goal when it comes and in round 4 they host Queensland Roar.

The Wellington Phoenix started brightly against reigning champions Melbourne Victory but have since gone on to lose their next two matches and therefore now anchor the ladder with just one point but they should fancy their chances away to Sydney FC in round 4 after a spirited display in their loss to Newcastle Jets.

It is therefore not surprising with these draws dominance that on TipsChallenge very few points have been scored out of a possible maximum of 48 points. I hope to see more wins in the coming round 4 especially as I will be at Telstra Dome to see if Melbourne Victory can hand the Mariners its first defeat of the season. I think its high time for a Victory win in the league at Telstra Dome with the last league win happening some ten months ago.

2007/8 UEFA Champions League draw review

The 2007/8 UEFA Champions League draw has now been made and it throws some very interesting ties that should bring some talking points until matchday six in early December.

In Group A we see the return of Marseille to the Champions League but its hard to look past Liverpool as to who are mostly likely to win this group. It could be a tough fight for second place though but I think Porto should use their experience to pull through and let Besiktas and Marseille fight for the UEFA Cup place.

Chelsea were a top seed for the first time in this competition and therefore avoided the European big guns in their group but they have found Valencia and FC Schalke to fight it out. Although last season's matches between Valencia and the Blues were very tight I think the Stamford Bridge outfit have strengthened their side and should win their group this time. I also think Valencia will come out a close second with Schalke coming third. Interestingly Rosenborg are nearly always in the competition but they never seem to get better and should anchor this group come December.

The new look Real Madrid will remember that last season they were knocked out of the competition by a German team and therefore will need to give Werder Bremen respect. This group looks like a straight-forward fight between Werder Bremen and Real Madrid for top spot and I am not convinced by both Lazio and Olympiacos who I think are going to have their own battle to see who still plays European football in the new year.

Defending champions AC Milan find themselves in a very tough group where I think one of Celtic, Benfica and Shakhtar Donetsk can easily make it to the next stage. I don't think there is any doubt that Carlo Ancelloti's team will come out of this group but its hard to tell who will join them.Celtic will be hoping that their home form will be helped by a better away form but Benfica and Shakhtar are equally good teams. Only two years ago Benfica knocked out Manchester United out of the competition but last season the finished below Celtic in their group and will be hoping to do better now under Jose Antonio Camacho .

Barcelona should rule supreme in Group E and Lyon should take second place with Stuttgart and Rangers fighting to avoid bottom place. I will be surprised if there is a surprise in this group because both Barca and Lyon are very experienced in this competition. My only concern would be that Lyon haven't their domestic season well this year and if that continues then Stuttgart might well get second place.

Its interesting to see that Manchester United find themselves in the same group as Roma. I don't think there will be seven goals this time at Old Trafford but these two teams should easily overpower Sporting Lisbon and Dynamo Kiev.

Serie A champions Inter Milan should fancy their chances of topping Group G with PSV Eindhoven firm favourites to follow them into the round of sixteen. Roberto Carlos and Fenerbahce will have a lot say about that and so will CSKA Moscow.

In Group H, the real strength of the group will be known after the Seville/AEK Athens match has been played in a match which I think Seville will go through. Whatever happens though Arsenal should qualify from this group and of the four English clubs the Gunners seem to have the easiest group of them all. Although Slavia Prague knocked out Ajax from the competition I think they will finish bottom of this group with Steaua Bucuresti getting the UEFA spot.

For the first time, this season I will be participating in the tipping competition at TipsChallenge and it should be great fun.

Phoenix looking good

I have decided to have a quick review of the weekend football action from the A-League and the English Premier League. Once in a while this season I will be touching on La Liga as well if I get the time to watch the matches on ESPN.

It was the first round of the A-League and therefore you would expect that teams will still be gelling together but there was some cracking matches especially at the Suncorp and Westpac Stadiums. Incidentally both matches ended 2-2.

It was good to see such a big crowd of more than 14,000 people come to watch the Wellington Phoenix. Phoenix played so well in the last twenty minutes they deserved to win the match. They are going to be a very difficult to beat and they have players with very good ball skills plus there was so much variation in their play that left Victory hoping for the final whistle in the dying minutes of the match.

I was impressed with Adelaide at Suncorp in another scintillating draw. Adelaide could have won this match had they not decided to sit back after scoring first hence allowing Queensland to come back into the game.

I thought Juninho had a good debut in the match against the Mariners even though Sydney lost. I thought the Mariners rode their luck in the end but with Juninho getting fitter, Sydney FC should get better.

In the premiership, the new Viewer's Choice FoxSports feature that allows viewers to follow up to five live matches at the same time is very good because you get to choose which match you want to watch. So I followed the Chelsea/Portsmouth match and the Arsenal/Manchester City matches and with a peek view of the others especially when there was a goal.

I thought City showed how good they are and should have drawn the match at least. Chelsea had problems with Pompey and were very fortunate to get all three points in the match. Harry Redknapp has built a very strong team this season and should expect to be at least in the UEFA Cup next season.

Its good to see Liverpool go the Stadium of Light and keep a clean sheet and get three points. This is what they have to do if they are to challenge for the title because its no use just concentrating on the big games and then failing when playing the 'lesser' sides.

After some disappointing initial matches, Spurs played very well against Manchester United and should have won the match had they taken their chances. They had the better chances in the match but all the time failed to convert. I think Paul Robinson should have saved Nani's shot had he stayed on his line and I think Spurs must think of getting a better goalkeeper or somebody who can put pressure on Robinson.

On TipsChallenge I managed to get three points in the A-League for the Roar/Adelaide 2 all draw but in the premiership I fared worse managing only to pick up two points out of a possible 30 and I have to improve in the next few rounds if I am to filter to the top.

Early days but City are top

Manchester City top the English premiership table after an excellent start to the season but the same cannot be said of their neighbours Manchester United who are still winless but have a chance to remedy this against Spurs over the weekend.

Man Utd are doing everything right but in the final third they are failing to convert their chances and hence the one goal scored so far. I think they really need a central striker as cover for Louis Saha who can help convert chances they create especially when Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are not in the team.

On the other hand its very hard to tell about Spurs. I thought they played reasonably well against Sunderland without causing any damage and then lost but they had a very poor display against Everton and then turned on the style against Derby.

I think this is the kind of inconsistency that had Spurs allegedly looking at Sevilla's coach Juande Ramos. They should be at their best at Old Trafford because Sir Alex will be going for his first victory of the season.

Elsewhere Jens Lehmann blunders in the first two matches seem to overshadow Arsenal's good performances. Its only two matches so far for the Gunners and therefore too early to judge their performance but at least they have four points which is maybe fair because I think Fulham deserved a draw in their first match.

Liverpool should have beaten Chelsea at Anfield to get a head start against their rivals but a draw suited Chelsea especially with so many players injured at the moment. I think the next time the two teams will meet at Stamford Bridge will see a Blues victory.

On the other end of the table there seems to trouble galore for Bolton. The Trotters are the only team who are still pointless in the premiership and with the way they are playing, its hard to see where they will get their points from.

Things could get worse at Reebok Stadium if they lose El-Hadji Diouf or Nicolas Anelka or both. You cannot afford to lose your best players and still achieve good results especially if you don't replace them with equally good players.

The good news though for all clubs is that the transfer window is still open. I am wondering whether Man Utd will replace Gabriel Heinze who is set to join Real Madrid after he was denied the chance to join Liverpool. With Arjen Robben also set to join Real, I am also wondering whether Chelsea will now go ahead and get Seville's Daniel Alves.

Meanwhile, tipping on TipsChallenge is still tight at this stage of the season but lets see how things will look after another two rounds.

2007/8 A-League Preview

The 2007/8 Hyundai A-League season kicks off this weekend with Sydney FC taking on the Central Coast Mariners at the Sydney Football Stadium.

There have been a few changes during the off-season and the major ones being the appointment of Branko Culina and Aurelio Vidmar as coaches of Sydney FC and Adelaide United respectively.

From a player perspective, maybe we can look at the departure of David Carney and Fred from Sydney and Melbourne respectively as possibly the major player departures but there has also been an influx of new players which should make the first few rounds very unpredictable.

With the A-League, basically the first aim is to finish in the top four places to go into the finals series and also winning the minor premiership is also very important as it gets a team in the Asian Champions League.

Its very hard at this stage to even try to predict which teams will finish in the top four positions in such a balanced league like the A-League. I think the team that has changed everything is the new Wellington Phoenix which replaced the New Zealand Knights. While the New Zealand Knights teams were sort of easy beats until the very last few matches, their replacement looks like a far much stronger side which should be capable of finishing in the top four places.

Melbourne and Newcastle lost their most influential players in Nicky Carle and Fred. while Newcastle have tried to cover that gap with some south American players notably Argentinian Jorge Drovandi, Melbourne have brought in Carlos Hernandez.

The off-season has also seen 12 Brazilians signed by the A-League teams and the most famous of them all must be Juninho signed by Sydney FC and then there is also Mario Jardel signed by Newcastle.

Queensland Roar have brought in some experience in Craig Moore and Danny Tiatto. That should form a better team than last season with a good chance of getting a finals spot and coach Frank Farina has a full season to play with this time around.

Perth Glory narrowly lost in the pre-season cup final and if they continue their pre-season form then they should make it hard for teams to come away with three points from Western Australia.

Adelaide who won the pre-season cup benefited from their participation in the Asian Champions League and with a new coach at the helm should be just as strong as they have always been. I think this is only team I definitely think will finish in the top four places.

Lawrie McKinna at Central Coast has added Sasho Petrovski and Greg Owens among others to his ranks. These are two players with A-League experience and he has also welcomed back Dean Heffernan from FC NŁrnberg. Interestingly, CCM has not signed any South Americans preferring to sign local players instead and I am keen to see how they will do.

To make the season more interesting for me and to keep engaged with the A-League I am going to participate in the A-League tipping competition at TipsChallenge.

2007/8 English Premier League Preview

The English Premier League kicks off this weekend in what promises to be a very interesting season at the top as Manchester United defend their title and Chelsea and the rest of the premiership try to wrestle it from them.

I could say the rest of the premiership but in reality the premiership title looks set to be a two horse race between Manchester United and Chelsea. Liverpool have brought in some new faces and in particular Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid but I think they will lack the consistency required to chase for the title especially if they want to do reasonably well in cup competitions which has become their specialty.

Manchester United have made their intentions of retaining the title clear by bringing in Nani, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves and Carlos Tevez but after strengthening their midfield and strike-force only they must be happy with their defence where no new faces have been added.

Jose Mourinho's team has been strengthened in defence where midfielders like Michael Essien were used last season with the arrival Tal Ben Haim, Alex and also Glen Johnson has come back from loan. The rest of the team should be alright and Claudio Pizarro will provide competition for Andrey Shevchenko and Didier Drogba. If pre-season is anything to go by then Florent Malouda playing on the wing looks set to have the biggest impact of them all.

With the top two more or less decided, I think Liverpool will easily get third position without much competition because they have a stronger team than Arsenal who would have otherwise competed with them for that position. The Gunners lost their captain Thierry Henry and have brought in Eduardo da Silva but I think they needed more than just replacing their captain in the first place. I think they needed to add some more experienced players in their team to complement the exciting young talent in the team.

The Gunners will get competition from Tottenham Hotspurs mostly although I think West Ham, Portsmouth, Newcastle and Manchester City could be the teams to look out for. These four teams have brought in a number of new faces and are definitely stronger teams than what they were last season.

Since the takeover at Eastlands by Thaksin Shinawatra and the subsequent appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson as manager, Man City has seen a number of players arriving with the key players being Brazilians Elano and Geovanni. If Sven can get the team to gel quickly together I don't see why they cannot challenge for the European places.

I cannot also ignore Newcastle who have now added Mark Viduka and Alan Smith to their striking ranks. Now their strike force will also include Michael Owen, Obafemi Martins, Albert Luque and Shola Ameobi and with such a strike force they should be high up the league.

Everton and Blackburn will make the battle for the European places even more exciting. I have my doubts about Everton who haven't really strengthened their squad so far but I think they are going to get many points from Goodison Park and then get points here and there in their away matches.

I see Bolton, Aston Villa, Reading as the teams who are going to be safe from relegation but nothing much after that. Bolton have a new manager in Sammy Lee and this will be his first full season whilst Villa and Reading had good squads last season and they more or less maintained them even though Reading lost Steve Sidwell to Chelsea.

When I start talking about relegation, I start by looking at the promoted sides and of three promoted sides Derby County look the weakest and they haven't really gone and strengthened their team and I think they may find the going hard. Birmingham and Sunderland have brought in a number of new faces and I think Steve Bruce's team will finish above the Black Cats whether inside or outside the relegation zone.

I think they will be joined in the relegation fight by Wigan, Middlesborough and Fulham. These three hovered at the bottom last season and in the case of Wigan just survived relegation and Fulham have Liverpool to thank for as they fielded a weakened team as they prepared for the UEFA Champions League final.

I hope that its going to be another exciting season with lots of surprises.

Iraq win Asian Cup

Iraq won its first Asian Cup after beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the 2007 Asian Cup final. A goal from the impressive Younes Mahmoud with less than twenty minutes to go was all Iraq needed to get a deserved win and land their hands on the Asian Cup.

Iraq started the final on a very quick tempo and took the Saudi's by surprise. Even though Iraq dominated the first half they could not get a goal that matched their play even though they had some very good chances.

Like as been said before, not many people thought that Iraq would reach this far especially after their less than ideal preparations for the tournament, but Iraq proved everybody wrong with some slick football, very good ball control and discipline.

There was no doubt that Iraq had more hunger to win this final than Saudi Arabia whom I thought never got going until the last few minutes of the match where they put Iraq's goal under some siege. But by then it was too late.

Iraq's dominance of midfield made sure that they cut off all supplies to the Saudi strikers leaving the goalkepper Noor Sabri Abbas with little to do until the latter stages of the match.

There was always the danger that Saudi Arabia could score just one goal against the run of play and defend it and go on to win like they did against Uzbekistan but this time they found the Iraq defence solid tight.

Iraq's defence was well organised as it thwarted the few counter attacks that the Saudi's launched. Its not surprising then to see that Iraq conceded only two goals in the whole tournament and of those two one was a penalty which means they conceded just one against the Socceroos from open play.

Unfortunately Iraq will defend their title without their Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira but for now its time for celebration.

As a side-note, in the third/fourth place play-off match, Korea Republic once again failed to score and had to rely on the penalty shoot out to beat Japan and hence gain qualification to the next edition of the Asian Cup to be hosted by Qatar.

Credit to both coaches who fielded strong teams for the third place match and the match deserved a goal at least but none came and the result places Japan as fouth best down from first.


Iraq face Saudi test

The Asian Cup is now down to its last two matches with Japan facing Korea Republic in third place play-off and Iraq meeting Saudi Arabia in the final on Sunday in Jarkata.

At the beginning of the tournament I wouldn't have thought that Iraq would be in the final but they have earned their place through some good all round football and I think their only blip was in the second half of their opening match against Thailand but from there on they have been a joy to watch.

I was happy to see Iraq beat Korea in the semis because in Korea we had team that more or less depended on set pieces to score because from open play they simply could not get their game right. Hence in the quarters they beat Iran in the penalty shoot-out and that wasn't surprising but against Iraq they met a team whose penalty taking was par excellent.

Some nil-all matches are very boring especially if they go for 120 minutes but I found the Iraq/Korea match interesting and Iraq had the better chances although they were few and far between.

In the third place play-off Japanese striker Naohiro Takahara has a chance to increase his goal tally and boost his chances of getting the golden boot and for him that should be an important match. Saudi's Yasser Al Qahtani and Iraq's Younis Mahmoud are the only players who could possibly challenge him because they have both scored three goals so far in the tournament.

For Japan it must be an unfamiliar position playing in the bronze medal match having played and won the last two finals but I still think Japan will win the third place match because they have been better than Korea Republic and lost to Saudi Arabia who scored some brilliant goals and defended well for the latter stages of the match. What could change the tilt is if both teams decide to field their fringe players and in that case it will become any body's game.

Now talking about the final I would think that Saudi Arabia may have an edge over Iraq but I would like to see an Iraq win. Saudi were very fortunate against Uzbekistan but against Japan they deserved their win and after starting slowly and absorbing the Japanese pressure they surprising took the lead and from then on stepped up the gear to make the match one of the most interesting in the tournament so far.

Whatever happens in the final, I think Iraq have done so well and deserve their place in the final.

Asian Cup quarter-finals review

Australia and Iran were knocked out of the 2007 Asian Cup at the in the quarter-final stage on penalties by Japan and Korea respectively when the teams could not be separated in normal play and after extra time.

In the other quarter-finals Iraq easily dispatched the last remaining host Vietnam whilst Saudi Arabia managed to ride their luck to beat narrowly beat Uzbekistan and reach the semis and help erase memories of the 2004 tournament where they finished bottom of their group.

But the match that I followed closely was the one between the Socceroos and Japan. The Socceroos started the match better than I thought and I was a bit surprised to see Mark Bresciano start ahead of Tim Cahill but he justified his starting spot with a good display in midfield and denying the Japanese midfielders much room to maneuver.

It was evident that both sets of players were finding it a bit difficult to cope up with the conditions and as a result the game at one time became very pedestrian. I thought Mark Viduka had a good game and the Japanese defenders had problems taking the ball from him and that brings in Aloisi. Apart from the goal, I didn't think that John Aloisi did enough to justify starting the match ahead of say Harry Kewell or even Archie Thompson. At times it looked like the Socceroos were just playing with a lone striker.

On the balance of things I think Japan deserved their victory because they had the better chances and could easily have wrapped up the match in extra time had it not been for Mark Schwarzer's acrobatic and point blank saves.

I think a few things to learn from this tournament is that preparation must be thorough and every opponent must be respected and every match must be taken seriously. It was good to see the A-League players coping well at this level especially David Carney and I hope that whoever takes over from Graham Arnold will recognise the talent in the A-League and select players from their form and ability and not by the league they play in.

In the other matches, Vietnam should be proud of their achievement at this tournament and I think they gave a good account of themselves in their defeat against Iraq. I think the early goal that they conceded unsettled them but after that their effort was great.

The Korea/Iran match was one of those tight matches that neither team deserved to go out. But Korea took their penalties well and the Iran substitute goalkeeper Vahid Talebloo who came on just before the penalties were about to be taken could only save just one penalty.

The Saudi's continued their good run at the tournament with a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan but Uzbekistan must be wondering how they lost this exciting tie after hitting the woodwork five times. They had the better chances and played some good football but they need to bury their chances.

In the semi-finals Iraq will play Korea whilst Saudi Arabia will face Japan and as I consider my tips on TipsChallenge it doesn't look easy at all.

Uzbekistan dumps China out of Asian Cup

The most surprising result in the Asian Cup so far for me has been China's defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan and the team that reached the finals at the last tournament will now have to watch the rest of the tournament from home.

China started the tournament with an impressive win over hosts Malaysia and scored five goals in that match. At that stage you would have thought that China would survive the group stage even though it was after just one game. In the next match against Iran, China continued from where they left against Malaysia but unfortunately only as far as half-time.

At half-time China led by two goals to nil through goals from Shao Jiayi and Mao Jianqing and that at stage I think their supporters would have thought it was going to be goals galore again but Iran came back in the second half and levelled the tie with their own two goals from Fereydoon Zandi and Javad Nekounam. Four points to China at that stage and it looked good but that's where it ended.

Against Uzbekistan China held their own until when there were less than twenty minutes to go because thats when Uzbekistan pounced. For Uzbekistan only a win would do and they left it late to score three goals.

I still don't understand why FoxSports decided to show the Iran/Malaysia match live where only Iran could qualify and not the China/Uzbekistan match where both teams still had a chance to qualify for the next round.

Uzbekistan will now meet Saudi Arabia on Sunday. The Saudi's have been very impressive so far with their fast free flowing football and are still to lose a match. Uzbekistan have so far scored a total nine goals and conceding only two and they should give the Saudis a good test.

Also on Sunday Iran will face Korea in Malaysia after winning their group without losing a match. I have watched all Korea's three matches so far and I think they are not at their best yet and they will have to be to go past Iran.

The Saturday quarter-finals will see the Socceroos square up to Japan. That match should be a cracker with Japan actually playing very well and the Socceroos picking up slowly. Graham Arnold will have to decide whether Lucas Neill takes back his spot at the back in defence but I think it would be better to start without him.

Vietnam is the only the host team that managed to advance to the knockout stages. Before the tournament started, I thought no host team would reach the quarter-finals but looking back now Thailand and Indonesia came so close to reaching the quarter-finals there could easily have been three hosts in the quarters. The only disappointing host was Malaysia who shipped in 13 goals and scored just one and no wonder why they have now parted ways with their coach Norizan Bakar.

Back to the match, Iraq should pose a lot of problems for the Vietnamese defence which was given a tough time by the Japanese in the last group match. I would think that Iraq will win this match but given the way things have gone so far in this tournament, it can easily go either way.

Let's see if the 2007 Asian Cup quarter-finals will emulate the just ended Copa America quarters where a total of 22 goals were scored with the losing teams only scoring two goals out of that number.

Socceroos to face Japan in quarters

The Socceroos this morning beat Thailand 4 nil in the final Group A match at the 2007 Asian Cup to finish second in the group with four points as Iraq topped the group after a goalless draw against Oman.

I think the four nil scoreline is a bit harsh on the Thais who dominated almost 35 minutes of the second half but despite their dominance and possession they could not get that crucial goal.

It is during that spell that the Socceroos defence stood firm although there were a few anxious moments here and there but as long the as the Thais did not score it was alright.

It was good to see the team changed around especially giving a start to Michael Beauchamp and Mark Milligan whom I thought had a brilliant game.

It was important for the Socceroos to start well in this match and they did exactly that fighting for every ball and supporting the player with the ball some things that were glaringly missing in the first two matches. That made sure that Thailand only came into the game in the second half and by then the Socceroos had adjusted to their type of play and the conditions.

The last ten minutes of the match were more or less a Tim Cahill show. Although he himself didn't score, he had a hand in all three goals to help come up with a flattering scoreline that maybe the Thais will feel didn't fairly reflect the play on the field. But winning football matches is determined by goals and possession and dominance while good are all good for statistics and analysis but not much after that if they don't produce goals.

Now this maiden Asian Cup win means that the Socceroos will meet Japan in Vietnam with group winners Iraq staying in Thailand to meet Vietnam. This is why it was all-important to win the group and stay with familiar conditions but as things turned out just qualifying in itself was more important than anything else.

There is no doubt that the Japan match will be a very tough one with Japan playing particularly well at this tournament. But this will be a new match and its interesting to see whether Lucas Neill will be recalled to the starting lineup after serving his suspension.


Asian Cup nightmare for Socceroos

The Asian Cup nightmare continued for the Socceroos when they were outclassed by Iraq in a Group A match played at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand.

After watching the poor performance against Oman earlier in the week, it wasn't very surprising to see the Socceroos lose to Iraq but it was the manner of the loss that was quite surprising.

The team literally gave up especially after Iraq scored the second goal and maybe it was because the team thought they would not be challenged at this tournament and let alone be trailing for the second time in a match.

I thought that Mark Viduka's goal came at a very good time, minutes into the second half and that gave the Socceroos plenty of time to score a second goal and possibly win the match but that never happened despite having the bulk of possession early in the second half.

It looks like the Socceroos never really prepared for this tournament. They finished with three recognised strikers but lack of inventive play meant that you just couldn't see the difference. A lot of balls into the box were wasted apart from the one that lead to Viduka's goal.

The other problem is defence. Iraq easily created chances for themselves and could easily have scored half a dozen goals because the immobile Socceroos defence allowed them to do so.

Then came the frustration. The frustration in the players could easily be seen by the number of yellow cards dished out to the Socceroos. The Socceroos got themselves five yellow cards including two given to Lucas Neill which means he will miss Monday's encounter against Thailand. Whether he will be missed after his performances so far is open to debate.

Despite the loss, the Socceroos can still qualify for the quarters if they manage to beat Thailand. Thailand are going to be very hard to beat being the host team and very much accustomed to the conditions and not only that they have been playing very well so far especially in their win against Oman.


Cahill saves the day

The Socceroos got a very lucky draw against Oman in their opening match at the 2007 Asian Cup in a match played in a nearly empty stadium in Bangkok.

By the time the Socceroos scored, Oman should have been at least three goals up had they taken some easy chances that fell their way especially in the second half. Mark Schwarzer showed once again that he is a dependable goalkeeper but the leaky defence should be a worry should the team progress to the later stages of the tournament.

Australia's left huge gaps at the back and the defence looked largely unco-ordinated and every Oman attack looked like it would lead to a goal but Schwarzer was the real star because without his acrobatic saves it could easily have been a humiliating score.

The Oman team managed to impose their game earlier on with short passes starting from the back and then building up from there and trying to go through the middle and on the other hand side you just couldn't tell what the Socceroos were trying to do or what the game plan was.

When Oman scored I thought we would see an immediate response from the Socceroos but none came despite a bit of pressure at the start of the second half and that pressure only managed to yield a succession of free-kicks and corner-kicks which were wasted.

Then came on Tim Cahill and he scored the goal the Socceroos barely deserved but which will mean so much especially with Thailand and Iraq drawing the previous day.

This match showed that FIFA world ranking counts for nothing and its what you do on the day that really counts.

Looking at the other matches, I think the most interesting match so far was the match between Vietnam and UAE. UAE were fancied to win against the hosts but the Vietnamese team roared on by the vocal local support played some very good football that left the UAE stunned.

I thought UAE did everything right but ran out of ideas when they came close to the Vietnamese goal. Bruno Metsu, the UAE coach, will have a lot of work to do before the next match against Japan if he is to get his team to the quarters.

2007 Asian Cup preview

The 2007 AFC Asian Cup kicks-off on Saturday the 7th of June with Thailand playing Iraq and I can't wait to see how the Socceroos will fare in the first tournament they will play since exiting the 2006 World Cup in the second round.

When the draw was for the tournament was made in December last year I wrote of a review of the Australia's group and I thought that the Socceroos would top their group ahead of Iraq and I still think that will be the case.

There hasn't been much to tell from the friendlies that has taken place since that time and also sometimes its not good to read too much into friendlies but they can give you a rough guideline on what to expect.

Looking briefly at the other groups, Group B should be one of the most interesting groups. I think Japan should be able to top that group but beyond that its very hard to tell who will join them in the quarter-finals.

Qatar have slowly built up a good domestic league with some veteran players from the European leagues coming to join their teams and that has certainly helped some of the local players. UAE is also a good team with lots of experience and its hard to tell who will progress between the two teams.

Unfortunately the host Vietnam is not that strong and I don't expect them to progress. I could say that for all the hosts and I will be very surprised if any of the hosts can make it to the next round. This may not be very good for the locals but I think it will be helped by having four hosts instead of one.

In Group C, previous hosts and finalists China should fight it out for top position with Iran. I would think that Iran, my favourites to reach the final would beat China who looked less than convincing recently against the Socceroos and also this week against Melbourne Victory despite the 1 nil win.

Finally in group D, on paper Korea Republic should have an edge over the other three countries and Saudi Arabia would to me come a close second. I also think that Bahrain are capable of causing a surprise or two but they will have to play a lot better than they did in qualifying for the tournament if they are thinking of staying beyond the first round.

As the matches are played, I have to remember to enter my tips in TipsChallenge and see if I can top the league at the end of the tournament.

Real, Capello part company

Title winning Real Madrid coach Fabio Capello has lost his job after the club decided to get rid of him supposedly for the football style the team was playing on their way to the title.

It seems that at the Bernabeau winning alone is not enough but the team has to win in style and it seems the top hierarchy at Real were not too pleased with the way his team played even though it was winning.

I feel for Capello who was taken aboard at Real with the aim of getting the title back to the Bernabeau and he managed to do that although with some late shows as I mentioned in an earlier post. But I also think he made a number of mistakes and one the biggest ones was not seeing the value of David Beckham to the team and declaring that he was never going to play for Real the moment he announced that he was going to the MLS club, Los Angeles Galaxy.

I also think he didn't treat Ronaldo well and did not get the best out of him and that resulted in him leaving for AC Milan where his has been re-ignited his career.

But having said that, Capello can walk tall having had two one season stints with Real and in both seasons managing to get the La Liga title.

Capello managed to get the team playing as a team and fighting for results soemthing which the previous coaches in the last three years failed to do.

Looking at his replacment, the fact that they want a younger manager seems to rule out Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger which would be good news for the Gunner's supporters but the Getafe coach Bernd Schuster seems to have the job in the bag.

Whoever the takes the job will be under even more pressure because the team has just won a title.

The changing heights

A few weeks ago FIFA announced that no World Cup qualifying matches were going to be played at altitudes of more than 2500m but yesterday that maximum altitude was adjusted upwards to 3000 metres.

Pressure from the South American federation (Conmebol) has paid off because it had at least four of its members affected by the controversial ban.

The latest increase will now allow Colombia to play in its capital Bogota at 2640m and Ecuador to play in Quito at 2800m.

However, this new altitude maximum still rules out Bolivia's La Paz at 3650m and Peru's Cuzco at 3400m and obviously the latest change will not please Bolivia and Peru.

I don't understand why FIFA only looked at altitude without looking at other conditions like heat, cold and humidity. As long as they concentrated on altitudes alone and left other extremes untouched it was always going to look like they were deliberately targeting South American countries.

I think the best thing to do is to remove the ban altogether unless FIFA rules that no football of any sort should be played in places like La Paz. That they won't do and that is the problem.

I am wating to see what will happen at the special FIFA conference in October that will now discuss playing football in all extremes.

Henry exits Arsenal

One of the biggest transfer news so far this off-season in the English Premiership is the Arsenal captain Thierry Henry's move to the Spanish giants Barcelona.

The news that Henry will be moving to Barcelona comes as no surprise as it was always question of when and not if. Last season it was thought that he was going to move to Nou Camp at the end of his contract but he decided to renew the contract and stay with the Gunners.

I think there were three reasons why he stayed in North London and sign a new contract. One of them I think was the lure of the new stadium and he was keen to lead Arsenal into a new era and a new stadium.

The second reason I think was because of the treatment he got from the Barca players during the Champions League final. He wasn't their player and they needed to win the final and so you can't Barca players for that. I still contend that had Arsenal not met Barca in that final, he would have gone to Barca at the end of that season.

The third and final reason I think is his loyalty to Arsenal manager Arsenal Wenger. And so what has changed then?

I think what has changed is that David Dein is no longer there at Arsenal and with his departure it looks likely that Wenger may not stay beyond next season.

Wenger's contract expires at the end of the new season and Wenger has stated that he will serve out his contract which means he will be at Emirates as the new season starts. What he hasn't said though is whether he will renew that contract when it expires and for me it looks very likely that he will not and that will change the face of Arsenal as we know it if that does happen.

So Henry knowing that Wenger may go in a year's time has decided its the time to seek a new challenge and I think that's a good move on his part. In a year's time he may not have been as an attractive proposition and this looks like perfect timing.

I think Henry's departure will not affect the Gunners as much because for most of last season he was injured and the Gunners coped reasonably well. A few years back they wouldn't have.

What affected the Gunners more was the loss of both Henry and Robin van Persie at the same time. No team wouldn't have been able to replace both those players and so Arsenal may now have to build their team around van Persie and assuming Cesc Fabregas stays, the future may not be as gloomy as it seems.

Arsenal created so many chances last season last season but could not put them away and one match in particular was the home match against West Ham. In the end they lost that match but could have easily scored at least five goals.

That's a problem that they have to solve by bringing in somebody who can put the ball in to the net and still fit in with their present and I am sure Wenger will be able to do that before the transfer window closes.

However, it will be very gloomy should Wenger leave because it will mean bringing in somebody to come and continue building Wenger's team and that will not be an easy undertaking for anybody. I hope that doesn't happen.

Real snatches title

Real Madrid this morning won the La Liga title after beating Real Mallorca by 3 goals to 1 in an exciting match played at the Bernabeu to snatch the title from arch rivals Barcelona.

Despite Barcelona winning 5-1 against Gimnastic and finishing with the same points as Real, La Liga uses head to head results before considering goal difference and so Barca lost out on that head to head criteria. So the loss by Barca at the Bernabeu proved very costly.

I still think that Real were very fortunate to win the title this year because they got some very late goals to win matches in the last month whilst Barca drew matches also in the dying minutes of matches to lose their lead. One match in particular was the match between Real and Espanyol. Espanyol, with one eye on the UEFA Cup final led 3-1 in the second half only for Real to come and win 4-3 in the dying minutes of that match.

Barcelona on the other hand against the same team were leading 2-1 until the last few minutes of that that match only to draw 2-all and that draw proved costly because on the same day Real had drawn 2-all against Real Zaragoza.

Some may argue that in a league format spanning thirty eight matches head to head should not be considered especially if you consider that Barca had a 45 goal difference compared to Real's 26. Maybe the lesson is that you shouldn't lose to league title rivals or else that may cost you the title.

Having said that, Fabio Capello has to be commended for coming and winning the the La Liga title on first attempt again despite his job not looking very safe for much of the season with every draw or loss. This is the second title he has won with Real Madrid and I hope that the powers that be at the Bernabeu will allow him to continue and build a strong Real team that can once again challenge for the Champions League crown.

I thought that ESPN's coverage of La Liga throughout the season was great but I expected them to at least show the goals from Barcelona's match instead of just announcing the result on the screen. That was was done very well by Sky Sports on the last day of the Championship season for example and made it very interesting.

Uruguay upset Socceroos

Uruguay upset the Socceroos in a friendly played at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney in the latest match preparing for the Asian Cup to be played next month. Debutant goalkeeper Brad Jones let the ball slip through his hands allowing Alvaro Recoba a simple tap in on goal.

With the match evenly poised on 1-all after first half goals from Mile Sterjovski for the Socceroos and Diego Forlan for Uruguay, Jones' slip meant the South Americans got away with a victory to continue with their recent good away performance.

Despite being a friendly I thought this was a very competitive match with tackles flying everywhere and Italian referee Roberto Rosetti was forced to issue some yellow cards to keep the game under control.

I thought Australia did quite well and for me the best spell came in the first twenty minutes or so and then after the Uruguay goal. But Uruguay made sure the match was always in their reach and never looked like losing and showed off some good ball control.

Of the A-League players who played, I thought Nick Carle played very well in the 20 minutes or so he got and I will be surprised if Graham Arnold left him out of the squad for the Asian Cup. Danny Allsop on his debut didn't have much time to impress although he came on when the Socceroos were playing well trying to get an equalising goal.

A draw would have been a fair result but I think this was good preparation for the Socceroos as the Asian Cup nears.

Derby in top flight

Derby County beat West Bromwich Albion 1-nil at Wembley in the Championships play-off final to book their place in the Barclays English Premiership next season.

I thought the Baggies played well in the first half dominating possession and creating a few chances. I think the idea was to score an early goal but that didn't happen and the Rams had a breakthrough early in the second half through Stephen Pearson. Once the Rams scored I just thought that was it because I know they can defend very well and it proved to be so.

I think Derby deserve their place in the Premiership even though its at the expense of my team. They were consistent throughout the season and it was some poor results towards the end that cost them automatic qualification.

The Rams had a clear game plan for the final and that was to stop the Baggies from playing their attacking football and in particular to stop Jason Koumas from dominating midfield play. That worked and also they had their own good chances.

For the Baggies its back to the drawing board and try and prepare for next season. The manager Tony Mowbray will now have a full season to plan for which is good because he came in the middle of last season.

My only fear is that we may lose key players like Jason Koumas and Diomansy Kamara. They have been key this season and may not fancy another season in the Championship especially if the premiership clubs coming knocking.

West Brom's loss means that it becomes the only one of the relegated sides from last season to miss out on promotion after the elevation of both Birmingham and Sunderland.

Milan overcome Liverpool

AC Milan beat Liverpool to win the clubs seventh European crown in Athens with a Filippo Inzaghi double either side of half time.

But I think it could all have been different had Liverpool taken advantage of their dominance in the first half and score a goal or two but it was Milan who snatched a goal towards the end of the first half and that changed the complexion of the game.

Whereas in first half Liverpool had to probe Milan in search of an opening, in the second half they had to chase the game but still aware that Milan could hit them on the counter which they surely did in the second half to second Milan's second and after that only another miraculous comeback could save Liverpool.

I think the difference in the first half was Liverpool's packed midfield which outplayed Milan's and managed to contain dangerman Kaka but that dominance only saw one shot on target and also credit to Milan's defence that held firm.

I also think Harry Kewell should have come earlier to replace Boudewijn Zenden who was rather quiet and this could have been due to the ankle injury. Possibly Rafa was cautious with with Kewell because he hasn't played for a long time and had only two substitute appearances before this match.

But the day belonged to Inzaghi whose brace ensured that Milan won their seventh European title and two more they will catch Real Madrid. Interestingly a Liverpool win would have meant six apiece between Milan and Liverpool.

Liverpool's goal came too late for them and on the course of the whole match I think the Rossoneri deserved their win.

Chelsea in cup double

Chelsea beat Manchester United in the FA Cup played at the new Wembley to clinch a cup double thanks to a Didier Drogba goal scored in extra time.

The much hyped first FA Cup final at the new Wembley never lived to expectations and especially the first twenty minutes which looked more like training session than a cup final. Drogba's goal was class but by then I was actually bored but it meant that we were saved a third consecutive FA Cup decided on penalties.

Just a few weeks ago there was talk about a quadruple for Chelsea and a treble for United but it has all come down to a cup double for Chelsea and a single for United if you can call it that. Actually I think its good these two teams did not make it to meet in this year's Champions League final because it would have meant enduring another cagey two hours.

After a scoreless draw in the league ten days before the final, some people thought that the final would be much better but unfortunately it turned out to be exactly the same cagey style, with both teams trying as much as possible to avoid a loss.

The next match between the two sides will be the Community Shield in August and again at Wembley and lets hope that its going to be a bit more interesting than this FA Cup final.

Baggies reach Wembley to face Derby

West Bromwich Albion this morning beat Wolverhampton Wanderers in a Black Country derby play-off to set up a Championship play-off final against Derby at Wembley on May 28.

After an exciting first leg at Molineux, the second leg was a bit sub-dued as the expected Wolves attack never eventuated but it was the Baggies who dominated the second leg as Kevin Phillips continued his scoring run.

Derby had to go through the penalty shoot-out after losing the second leg 3-2 at Pride Park. The two games yielded a total of eight goals but I think the Saints played quite well in the second leg knowing they had nothing to lose and so they just went for it.

The play-off final should be a tight encounter and I won't be surprised if the match is decided on penalties. In the normal season, the Baggies beat the Rams 1-0 at the Hawthorns and at Pride Park the home team won 2-1. So its honours even but this time there is a very big prize at stake and that's the premiership.

If the Baggies win at Wembley it will mean that for the first time all the three relegated sides from one season would have gone back to the premiership on first attempt.

UEFA places and relegation on last day

With Manchester United already crowned champions going into the final round of the English Premier league, focus will be on who will join Charlton and Watford in the championship next season and there is also the UEFA Cup places to be decided.

In an earlier post I discussed about Watford's relegation and who was going to follow suit but since then Charlton has followed them after their loss to Spurs and now Wigan, Sheffield, West Ham are the only ones who can still be relegated.

Fulham escaped after a vital win against what was essentially Liverpool's reserve team and a Carlos Tevez inspired West Ham have put themselves in a comfortable position after beating Bolton in the last round.

Wigan and Sheffield meet at Bramall Lane in a match where Wigan has to win to lengthen its short stay in the premiership. Wigan are now the only team whose survival is dependent on other teams and but its made easier by the fact that should they beat Sheffield, then they will end up above them.

West Ham and Sheffield both need draws to survive. West Ham have made the relegation battle seem a little easier because they have picked up form at the right moment and their key victory in the last few weeks was the one against Wigan. To be able to survive relegation you need to beat teams around you and Wigan failed in that respect when they lost 3 nil to the Hammers at home.

Turning to the UEFA cup places, Everton, Spurs, Bolton, Reading and Portsmouth all have a chance to bring European football to their stadiums next season. The fact that Manchester United and Chelsea are playing in the FA Cup final at Wembley has meant that seventh position gets a UEFA Cup place that would otherwise have gone to the winner of the FA Cup.

Spurs and Everton are most likely going to get the two of the places. Spurs meet Manchester City at White Hart Lane needing only a draw to secure a UEFA place. Although Everton meet Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea will have one eye on the FA Cup and therefore are likely to rest some key players and therefore Everton should be able to get the draw they need at least.

Bolton meet in-form Aston Villa and I will not be surprised to see a Villa win there. For them all they need is a win and they are in although a draw could be enough depending on what happens to Reading and Portsmouth.

Reading lost a great chance last week when they lost to Watford at home and now they will need to beat Blackburn to be in with a chance. Bolton will have to either draw or lose for them to qualify.

Portsmouth will meet Arsenal at Fratton Park knowing that a win coupled by losses by both Reading and Bolton will land them a UEFA place. I see their chances as slim as I cannot see Arsene Wenger's men losing the last match of what has been a disappointing season for them by their standards. Also a win or a draw might secure the Gunners third place depending on what happens between Liverpool and Charlton at Anfield.

Meanwhile from an Australian perspective, I am hoping that Foxtel will show these matches the way they were shown last week for the Championships last day. Last week on the last day of the Championship, one match was featured but goals from the key matches and latest league table were shown to keep viewers up to speed with developments around the grounds.

Fight for play-off places

Sunderland and Birmingham will go into the last round of the season on Sunday knowing that for them it's a question of who takes the Championship title for 2007 but their places are already assured in the premiership next season.

I wish the same could be said for the six teams that lie from fourth to ninth position who still have to fight for a play-off place and for some of them a loss or a draw in that final match will just bring the season to an end.

Birmingham only needs a win against Preston North End to secure the Championship title at Deepdale and that win if it happens would end Preston's season. Preston is one of six teams that include West Bromwich Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, Stoke City and Colchester who could end up in the play-off positions if results go their way.

To win the title Sunderland would need to beat relegated Luton and hope that Birmingham does not win against Preston. I don't think the Black Cats fans will care that much because they are now back in the premiership and winning the title would just be an icing on the cake.

Derby have already qualified for the playoffs in third place and their position is guaranteed. Derby has had a wonderful season but getting only seven points from a possible eighteen from their last six away matches has cost them dearly. They know that the playoffs are a bit of a lottery but playing the second leg at home should at least give them some comfort.

My team West Brom currently lie fourth and a win against Barnsley will secure that fourth position. There must be jitters among the Baggies fans because this is a team that lately has only managed one win at home from the last six matches although it has managed to pick up wins away from home and crucially last week's win away to Coventry City. At the start of the season I thought they would be promoted but I am afraid it doesn't look that way at the moment.

Wolves play Leicester away at Walkers Stadium and a win would secure them a playoff place but a draw may not be enough depending on other results. Leicester having failed to win any of their last six home games, don't seem able to win at home at the moment and that should give Wolves some confidence.

Now for the interesting bit. Southampton and Stoke have exactly the same number of points and goal difference and whilst Southampton host relegated Southend, Stoke are away to QPR. While both teams have what I think are winnable games, it could come down to goal difference to determine who reaches the play-off and I am expecting these two teams to try and score as many goals as they can.

For Preston and Colchester a draw will not be enough. Colchester's chances are slim because of their inferior goal difference. They would need to win their match against Crystal Palace by at least five goals and hope that Southampton, Stoke and Preston all lose.

Its unfortunate that the none of the teams vying for the play-off places are playing each other but it should be interesting all the same. There is also a possibility that all the teams involved in the play-offs could all be from the Midlands which would give two promoted sides from that region.

The play-off route is hard but it also produces some very exciting football to wrap up the Championship season and lets see which team will deliver the goods come Sunday.

Liverpool to face Milan again

Liverpool will play AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League final at the Olympics Stadium in Athens on the 23rd of May after both teams were victors over Chelsea and Manchester United respectively.

Liverpool beat Chelsea on penalties to advance to the final for the second time in three seasons whilst Chelsea are still to reach the final. Of the so-called big four clubs in the English premiership Chelsea are the only one to not have qualified for the final of Europe's premier club competition.

I think Chelsea lost the plot in the first leg at Stamford Bridge because after dominating for long periods, they could only score a single goal. I think a second goal would have gone a long way into securing their place in the final. They should have been sharper in front of goal because taking such a slender lead to Anfield was never going to make Liverpool's life difficult.

It would also appear to me that whilst Liverpool practiced penalties prior to this match Chelsea don't seem to have done that and you can tell from their poorly taken penalties and the lack of confidence in the face of the takers. Liverpool on the other hand were well drilled for the penalties and all their kicks were excellent. They even brought in Robbie Fowler towards the end and I think he was brought in potentially as penalty taker and that was a good move on behalf of manager Rafael Benitez.

In the other semi-final Milan outclassed Manchester United at the San Siro and will now again meet their 2005 conquerors in the final. The Milan/Manchester United semi-final produced the better football and Milan showed their class and United never looked like scoring against a Kaka inspired Milan. Cristiano Ronaldo never rose to the occasion and now Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, will have to wait another year.

I think the final should be an interesting one being played between two sides with contrasting styles. I don't think Milan will allow Liverpool to come back again should they go in front this time and my verdict is that Liverpool will only win this final if the match goes to a penalty shoot-out.

Now turning to the losing semi-finalists, its now back to the league and the FA Cup business for both teams. Chelsea's quadruple dream has now been reduced to a treble if not a double whilst for United the dream is now for a double.

With the league title seemingly gone to United, it will not be surprising to see Chelsea just holding on the less prestigious League Cup but whatever happens the next three weeks should be interesting for both set of fans and even the neutrals like me.

Birmingham and Sunderland go up

After Derby County's 2 nil loss to Crystal Palace on Sunday, Birmingham and Sunderland were both promoted to the premiership because now Derby can only finish on 84 points should they win their last match against Leeds on Sunday.

Birmingham and Sunderland should be congratulated for having such strong finishes to the season after both had sluggish starts and at one time it looked like the Birmingham manager Steve Bruce's job was on the line but all credit to the directors at St Andrews who stated that his job was safe for the whole season.

Sunderland also had an indifferent start to the championship especially when Niall Quinn was briefly in charge and could not find a away of winning a football game but then they brought in Roy Keane as manager who has now steered the team back to the premiership.

What this means is that of the three relegated sides last season West Bromwich Albion is the odd one out but it currently lies in the play-off places and a win against Barnsley at the Hawthorns will secure a playoff place. This is a far cry for a team that once graced the top of the league at one point this season but the playoffs are still not that bad because they give an alternate route to promotion.

Talking about playoffs, Derby have secured the third place and will play the second leg at home against whoever finishes sixth and it can be any one of six teams at the moment - West Brom, Wolverhampton, Southampton, Stoke, Preston and Colchester.

I think there will be a lot of attention on the team that Derby plays - Leeds United. Leeds are on the verge of dropping into League 1 at the moment and mathematically they can stay up but its not looking good at all. This is a team that not so long ago played in the Champions League semi-final but I am sure they will come back.

So congratulations to both Birmingham and Sunderland and I will now waiting to see who take over the remaining three playoff places come Sunday.

Who will join Watford?

Watford became the first team to go down this season after a one-all draw with Manchester City and its not clear yet at this stage who will be joining them in the Coca-Cola Championship next season.

The writing has been on the wall for Watford for a long time but recently they have been playing well and could easily have drawn against Chelsea at home only for Salomon Kalou to score a last minute winner. I think a lot of teams coming from the Championship start very slowly and lose a few matches initially but by the time they warm up to the premiership it would be too late to save their premiership status and I think that's what happened to the Hornets.

I am just wondering who will join Watford and at the moment it could be any one of West Ham, Charlton, Sheffield, Wigan and Fulham. Bobby Zamora's wonderful strike against Everton kept the Hammers hopes of surviving alive but I think their goal difference could be a real stumbling block.

West Ham's last three games are away to Wigan and Manchester United and then at home to Bolton and it is that Old Trafford fixture that must be causing a lot of concern for the Hammers supporters. The teams West Ham are playing all need to win their matches for various reasons - Bolton for Europe, Wigan for survival and Manchester United for the title. So its a tough road ahead.

Charlton who also started the season badly are facing Blackburn and Liverpool away and then Tottenham at home. Compared to West Ham's fixture list, this is not a bad one at all and a win against Blackburn could get them on the right path but Spurs will still be fighting to finish in the EUFA places and that could a real big one. Liverpool might have secured third place by then but would want to finish with a win at Anfield but all the same Charlton could get something out of that match.

Sheffield, Wigan and Fulham are currently outside the relegation zone and of the three Sheffield have a favourable fixture line up. At the beginning of the season I didn't give the Blades much of a chance to survive life in the premiership but they look like they will certainly avoid the drop especially after their brave deserved draw at The Valley.

Neil Warnock's side have two games against Watford and Wigan and an away match at Villa Park. They should be able to push aside already relegated Watford and from there all they need are four points from the last two matches to survive.

Wigan has an interesting fixture list facing two relegation threatened teams, West Ham and Sheffield and then a home match to Middlesborough. For them its going to be like playing in three cup final matches in a row but I guess depending on other results the last match against Sheffield may not be all that significant.

Fulham quietly slipped into the relegation dog-fight after losing their way in the second half of the season which culminated in the axing of their manager Chris Coleman. Their fixture list is a tough one with just one home match against Liverpool but two tough away matches against Arsenal and Middlesborough. On 36 points, they should should be hoping that results elsewhere will save them but I will not be surprised to see them relegated especially if they fail to garner more than three points from their remaining three matches.

So we enter a critical phase of the premiership season as teams at the bottom try to avoid the drop and I hope we are going to watch some exciting matches to cap what has been a wonderful season so far.

Its Liverpool/Chelsea again

One thing that can be guaranteed in this year's UEFA Champions League is that there will be an English team in the final as Liverpool will meet Chelsea in the semis for the second time in three years.

Manchester United will meet AC Milan in the other semi-final to decide who goes to play in the final in Athens. Manchester United made easy work of Roma scoring seven goals in one of the most one sided matches I have watched for a long time. At 3-nil I thought Roma would come back but once it became 4-nil by half time the match was effectively finished as a contest.

Manchester United will now meet another Italian team in the form of AC Milan who beat Bayern Munich 2-0. I thought Milan had wrecked their chances of playing in the semis when they conceded a late equaliser at the San Siro in the first leg but they re-grouped in the second leg and dominated Bayern in their own backyard.

I think the best match of all the second leg ties would have been the match between Valencia and Chelsea. Chelsea needed to win but it was Valencia who scored first and making it even harder for Chelsea because then they needed two goals to win. Chelsea came in the second half a different team and played Valencia off the park in their own backyard.

Chelsea's strength and depth showed in this match and also Jose Mourinho's tactics worked all right and I think Michael Essien was the difference. Essien marked his return from injury with a stunning goal to secure a place semi-final berth for his team.

After winning the first leg 3-0, the second leg at Anfield was a mere formality for Liverpool and it proved to be so. As mentioned in a previous post, PSV are not the team they were in the first half of the season and I think they only came to make sure they didn't lose by an even bigger margin.

The all English semi-final between Chelsea and Liverpool should be an exciting one at least on paper. The last time these two teams met at the same stage two years ago, the matches themselves were not as exciting and I hope that this time we will not see two cagey and ultra defensive matches.

On the Austrlalian TV front, we were subjected once again to the same match being shown on both ESPN and SBS on both days. SBS had scheduled to show the Liverpool/PSV match but after the result from the first leg they decided to show the Bayern/Milan match instead which in a way made sense but I don't think the Liverpool fans liked that decision that much.

Liverpool in driving seat

Now that the first leg matches of the Champions League quarter finals have all been played, at this moment Liverpool look set to be the one with one leg in the semi-finals and the other three ties can easily go either way but Bayern Munich and Valencia can sleep easily knowing that a scoreless draw is all that is needed.

Liverpool played some simple but effective football which rewarded them with three goals which will make it very difficult for PSV Eindhoven to come back in the return leg at Anfield. Since PSV ousted Arsenal from the Champions League in the previous round they haven't played particularly well and the stand out result was the 5-1 mauling by arch rivals Ajax.

So it doesn't really come as a surprise to me that they lost to Liverpool but it is the margin of defeat that causes some concern and the erratic play displayed. To say that Liverpool played great football will not the truth but its just that PSV were not just there at the races. It was good to see Javier Mascherano, a player who couldnít get a game at West Ham, boss the midfield in the manner he did.

I think AC Milan began their match confidently against Bayern Munich but as the match progressed Bayern crawled their way into the game and it was a matter of time before Bayern scored. The drawn result means that Milan has to win the second leg and without suspended Alberto Gilardino and cup-tied Ronaldo it doesn't look like an easy task at all. Bayern only have to take off from where they left in the first leg and they will see themselves in the semis.

Chelsea came back from behind to draw at Stamford Bridge and could not add to the one goal to go to the Mestalla with an advantage. I think Valencia have the edge and all they have to do is do what they did against Inter Milan in the previous round minus the fighting in the end of course.

Chelsea lacks some innovative play and their play has now become rather predictable and Valencia were comfortable with that type of football and there wasn't much threat on their goal although Chelsea had one or two good chances.

Valencia have lost only twice at home in the league this season and Chelsea will have to play their best football if they are going to make it to the semis. Also Chelsea haven't played well away from home in the Champions League this season and this is going to be a very tough test indeed. Manchester United will have to make do without Paul Scholes in the second leg at Old Trafford. Roma should have put some of the chances that came their way away but at least they go to Old Trafford with a lead and all the pressure will be on Manchester United.

From an Australian perspective, it was good to see that SBS and ESPN showed different matches this time. So it was possible to press the Back button and keep track of both matches. I am hoping that next week ESPN will not show Manchester/Roma and Liverpool/PSV matches which SBS are showing live.

The second legs are next week and so itís not going to be a long wait at all to see who will go into the semis.

Socceroos cruise past China

The Socceroos managed to brush aside China in a good first half display scoring two goals in the first thirty minutes through Brett Holman and Mark Bresciano in Guangzhou.

China and the Socceroos were using this friendly to prepare for the 2007 Asian Cup and the Socceroos should be more than pleased with the way things went in the match. The Socceroos were missing a number of key players including Tim Cahill and Vince Grella but all the same played some decent football for most of the match.

The Chinese team on the other hand had most of its key players in the team including Charlton striker Zheng Zhi but they looked disjointed and lacked ideas in the middle of the park especially in the first half. One key player missing for China though was PSV Eindhoven's Sun Xiang.

I thought Socceroos debuntants Carl Valeri and Shane Stefanutto had good games and should look forward to more Socceroos caps whilst Brett Holman's overall contribution was very good.

This was the kind of international friendly a lot of football fans have been asking for - a friendly against Asian opposition and in Asia and it was a good preparation for the Asian Cup and I think one or two more friendlies nearer the time would be also good.

Champions League quarter-final draw

The UEFA Champions League quarter-final draw has been conducted and thrown in some interesting ties. A draw was also made for the semis and we could see yet another Liverpool/Chelsea clash in the Champions League.

AC Milan who knocked out Celtic will meet Bayern Munich. Bayern have the advantage of playing the second leg at home but I think AC Milan will sail through and this could be decided by an odd goal. The winner of this match will meet the winner of Roma/Manchester United.

Roma have done very well to reach this stage after disposing of early favourites Lyon. I think they are going to give Manchester United a tough match and I will put my money on Roma to go through.

PSV Eindhoven have been paired once again against Liverpool this season in the Champions League. After dismissing Arsenal from the competition PSV should fancy their chances against yet another English opposition but I think Liverpool are well drilled for Europe and I will not be surprised to see Liverpool in the semis facing the winner of Chelsea/Valencia.

Valencia have been paired against Chelsea and this is going to be a very interesting tie indeed. After starting the season on a high in La Liga, Valencia's form dipped just before Christmas but they are now flying high again and because of that I think this could be the last time we see Chelsea in the competition this season.

With three weeks before the first legs to be played in the first week of April, the teams have enough time to study their opposition and map out a strategy that may pave their path to European glory.

Arsenal, Barca bow out

Last year's UEFA Champions League finalists Arsenal and Barcelona are both out of the competition after being dispatched by PSV Eindhoven and Liverpool respectively.

Having lost the first leg by one goal to nil, Arsenal had to beat PSV by at least two goals and they would have been in the hat for the quarter-finals draw. With PSV securing a draw with seven minutes left on the clock and Arsenal now needing two goals to win or one to force extra time I could see that Arsenal's season was literally over after being knocked out in the FA Cup and languishing a distant fourth in the league. All Arsenal can do now is prepare for next season and at the same time hold on to fourth place.

Goals by Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise at the Nou Camp proved invaluable for Liverpool as they booked their place in the quarters thanks to the away goals rule. I think Barca blew it in the first leg where it looked too easy for them in the first half but could only score a solitary goal. Liverpool then came back in the second half and snatched the two away goals.

Valencia will now fly the Spanish flag as the only Spanish team left in the Champions League after a nil-all draw at home ensured progress on the away goals rule. Inter who are leading Serie A by sixteen points at the moment must be regretting the goal scored by David Silva with just three minutes remaining in the first leg. That goal proved decisive.

The other Spanish team Real Madrid bowed out after losing 2-1 to Bayern Munich. In a match between two teams not doing particularly well in their domestic leagues, Bayern came out tops especially with their home performance where Roy Mackaay scored a goal with less than fifteen seconds on the clock. After conceding such an early goal, and for a team seemingly low on confidence, it was obvious from then on that it was going to be Bayern's night. Ruud van Nistelrooy late penalty goal only meant a frantic finish and a more respectable loss on away goals for Real.

Only one goal was needed to separate AC Milan and Celtic and that goal was scored in extra time. This was the only match to go into extra time in this round. Celtic came as close as they could get and I think they can go out with their heads held high because they were so close to an upset but Milan's experience shown through in the end.

Another match that could have gone into extra time was the one between Chelsea and Porto but Michael Ballack, in a rare goal for Chelsea, made sure that that didn't happen. Chelsea were not at their best and especially in the first half but it looks like they drew so much from their experience to dump former winners Porto out of the competitition.

Lyon are also out after being bundled out by Roma. To me Lyon were easily the best team of the qualifying round but they could not find a goal against a Francesco Totti inspired Roma and therefore exit the competition at the first qualifying stage when I thought they could go as far as possible this time around.

Manchester United made sure that there would be no French team in the quarter finals by beating Lille 1-0 in both legs. Although Lille disputed the United goal from the first leg it was up to them to at least score twice at Old Trafford and win the tie but that they couldn't and will now have to watch from the sidelines.

Its hard to tell the favourite to win the competition at the moment. The first knockout qualifying stage was tight and you can tell with three ties being decided on goal difference, three by a one goal margin and the remaining two by a two goal margin. But I think for most of the teams going into the quarters, the most important thing is to be in the hat for the draw.

For additional news, interviews, and other features about the UEFA Champions League, checking the world wide web for podcasts can be a good option. This internet medium is considered as the the sport's aficionado's bestfriend because of valuable information that can attained from it. Many podcasts are widely available in the Internet and are often sponsored by prominent companies. For instance, telecommunications giant O2 have been sponsoring free podcasts that can be downloaded from iTunes.

Title beckons for Man Utd

Looking at the English Premier League table and the remaining fixtures there is no denying the fact that Manchester United now have one hand on the title. I think they now have the title to lose and its up to them to keep on the winning streak and come May they will be declared champions once again.

Of the remaining fixtures up to last weekend, I thought the match against Liverpool was the match United were likely to lose but after winning one nil at Anfield, the only other tough match would be the one at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. Even if United were to lose that match they would still be three points ahead assuming both would have won their matches up to that stage.

Chelsea on the other hand have got Arsenal away in their remaining fixtures. The Gunners are still to lose at the Emirates Stadium and its hard to see a Chelsea win especially when Chelsea only managed to narrowly beat a youthful Arsenal side in the Carling Cup final.

Going to the other end of the table, relegation looms large for West Ham and with the other teams around them picking up points here and there, they may soon find themselves in a difficult position.

Alan Curbishley hasn't really turned things around as expected and the January signings seem to have added nothing to the team so far and so they have to start winning matches starting with the local derby against Tottenham Spurs.

Melbourne clinches double in style

Melbourne Victory became the first team to win the A-League double when it beat Adelaide United by six goals to nil in the A-League Grand final today at Telstra Dome.

This match exceeds any other match played by Victory at the Dome in terms of entertainment value and it was goals galore thanks to Archie Thompson. Thompson was the hero of the day and the official man of the match and rightly so as he scored five brilliant goals. Fred was involved directly in four of the goals and indirectly in the fifth and he too had a brilliant game.

I think all in all it was a good day at the office for Melbourne as everything seemed to work as expected. It wasn't like that for Adelaide though and whilst before the match much talk was around coach John Kosmina's banishment from the bench, in the match itself the major talking point is easily the two yellow cards awarded to Adelaide captain Ross Aloisi resulting in a send-off when the team was already two goals down. Aloisi becomes the first player to be send off in an A-League grand final.

With the team two goals down and the captain on a yellow card the needless challenge on Grant Brebner was uncalled for and reckless. I think when Aloisi was leaving the field he knew that he was leaving his team with an insurmountable task and there would be no way to come back against a clinical Melbourne side.

Adelaide went on to concede four more goals without Aloisi but they could have been more with at least three shots hitting the woodwork and Danny Allsop squandering two golden chances in a space of three minutes in the second half.

Kristian Sarkies capped his time on the pitch with the sixth goal in injury time to record a score which I think will take some time to overtake.

The A-League now goes into a very long off-season but in between Sydney FC and Adelaide will participate in the Asian Champions League.

A club shopping spree

Not exactly a spree at the moment but maybe soon we will come close to it. Not so long ago most speculation in English football used to be about either coach sacking or player transfers. But now you can't miss the speculation about which club is going to be bought next and mostly by a foreign buyer.

The fashionable thing for a club in the past was for the club to be listed on the London Stock Exchange enabling fans to own a share of the club but this has since been replaced by a buyer, mostly foreign coming along and buying a club.

The positives for this are that the product, the premiership, is good and that is why there are many suitors hovering around in search of a purchase. Coupled to this though is the question of whether the new owners would still hang around on the first signs of lustre? I think only time will tell.

Chelsea was the first purchase in this new era when Russian Roman Abramovich splashed his cash and bought the club and went on to transform it into Premier League champions in a short space of time. Next we saw the purchase of Manchester United by the Glazer family in a deal that incensed some fans but still went ahead and its business as usual at Manchester United - at least they are on top of the league at the moment.

The latest deal has seen Liverpool being bought by Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Before this we saw Porthsmouth go to Russian Alexandre Gaydamak and the midlands outfit Aston Villa go to American Randy Lerner and also West Ham United to the Icelander Eggert Magnusson .

I don't think that there is anything wrong with these foreigners buying these clubs as long they work on improving the clubs and stick with them especially when they are unfortunately relegated and that's the danger in all these deals. Unless you buy one of the top four teams - Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal - the threat of relegation always looms.

West Ham is lying in the relegation zone at the moment and if things don't improve they could see themselves in the Championship which is not as glamorous as the Premier League. The question is will these new owners still be interested when the teams they have purchased now languish in the Championship?

Many a team have gone down into the Championship or Division One as it was called before claiming that they will be back after just one season and whilst some of them have done it like my team West Bromwich Albion recently, for others like Leeds United that hasn't been the case. The championship is not an easy place to come out of because the teams are more evenly matched and every season there is a surprise team like Derby this season.

Which brings another interesting scenario about people buying clubs in the Championship. Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates is now chairman of Leeds United and this week it was confirmed that former Portsmouth owner Milan Mandaric has now bought Leicester City. I wonder whether this will be the new trend with locals (Mandaric is American) buying in the lower leagues and mostly foreigners buying the Premier League.

On the Australian front, I am wondering whether the A-League would reach such a state that teams will draw so much attention from across the globe. I think its a mixed bag at the moment because Perth Glory is still under the administration of the FFA whereas there has been some positive interest for the New Zealand franchise. The real test will come though when it comes time to increase the number of teams in the league from the current eight.

Back to the speculation we await to see which club will be bought next. Will for example Dubai International Capital (DIC) come back to buy another club after failing to buy Liverpool? And will Newcastle be next or maybe Tottenham? The speculation continues on unabated.

Melbourne's final test

After Adelaide United's win over Newcastle United on penalties, Adelaide will meet Melbourne Victory at a sold out grand final at Telstra Dome on Sunday to test Melbourneís resolve to be the first team to win the A-League double.

Adelaide nearly blew their chance of reaching the grand final by once again trying to defend a one goal lead by defending very deeply and more or less inviting Newcastle to attack. That allowed Newcastle more space and possession and they were able to equalise and Adelaide had to start chasing the game again and for me that was the most exciting phase of the match when both teams were trying to notch a winner on tired legs.

Newcastle's Nick Carle could have given Newcastle the lead four minutes after the Newcastle equaliser but he could not get the better of Daniel Beltrame who was in goal for Adelaide.

Looking at the grand final, Melbourne and Adelaide have met five times so far this season at three different venues, once at Olympic Park and twice each at Hindmarsh Stadium and Telstra Dome. Melbourne has won 3 matches and Adelaide one and the other match one was drawn.

In the five matches ten goals have been scored with Melbourne scoring seven to Adelaide's three. In the normal home and away season Melbourne had the better defence conceding 20 goals compared to Adelaide's 27 and Melbourne scored 41 goals and Adelaide 32.

The statistics would make Melbourne slight favourites and added to that they will also be playing at home. Adelaide's strength lie at the back where they have two good goalkeepers in Daniel Beltrame and Robert Bajic and a defence well marshalled by Angelo Constanco and Michael Valkanis.

Melbourne's strength are upfront where in Archie Thompson and Daniel Allsop they probably have the best strike partnership in the league and they have the goals to prove it, scoring a combined twenty two goals this season. Fred chips in to help in attack and he has scored four goals including one against Adelaide at Hindmarsh.

On the other hand Adelaideís top goal scorer Fernando has only scored six goals and Carl Veart has scored five. But the grand final doesnít look like its going to be a high scoring encounter and could easily won by a single goal just like last yearís one.

I think the grand final will be won and lost in midfield. If the Melbourne midfield can supply their strikers up front with good balls then they could come up with a goal or two but Rossi Aloisi and Diego Walsh will have a lot to say about it. Adelaide will be missing Mathew Kemp in midfield who got a second yellow card against Newcastle.

Whatever happens in the grand final, itís good to see the top two teams fighting it out for the top prize and both teams will represent Australia in Asian Champions League in 2008.

Danes down Socceroos

This morning Denmark beat the Socceroos 3-1 in an international friendly played at Loftus Road Stadium, London. It was a nightmare first half for the Socceroos with some comical defending and by-passing of midfield that should have left Graham Arnold with some thinking to do.

Its good to see that the Socceroos created chances of their own in that first half but the big difference between the two teams was finishing. Whilst the Danes buried their chances to score three goals through double scorer Jon Dahl Tomasson and Daniel Jensen, the Socceroos could only see their shots missing the target or tamely hit giving the Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen no problems at all.

It was an improved display in the second half with a more organised defence and stand-in captain Brett Emerton gave us something to cheer about when he scored with five minutes remaining.

Although this was a friendly I think Arnold wanted a result and that could explain why the Socceroos only used two substitutes Jacob Burns and Ryan Griffiths who came in for Josip Skoko and Tim Cahill respectively instead of five. I don't understand why the full quota of five substitutes was not used. The Danes used five substitutes. This could have been due to the lack of depth on the bench with so many withdrawals from the squad but I would have given some of the players a run and thats how they get the experience.

This friendly was a preparation for the Asian Cup later in the year and if Arnold wanted to learn something it is that chances have to be taken whenever they come because in the later stages of the Asian Cup chances may not be that many. It was also a good exercise played against an organised team something that could be handy against the likes of Japan and South Korea.

Also this was the first match under the new agreement to show Socceroos matches exclusively live on Foxtel and not the usual SBS. While obviously this deal brings more money for the FFA, a lot of football fans wouldn't have been able to watch the match this morning which is a bit of a shame especially when it is the national team playing albeit a friendly. I don't even know whether a full replay of this match is going to be shown on free to air television because its not the TV guide as far as I have checked.

Adelaide face Newcastle test

After the weekend round of finals football the home teams, Newcastle Jets and Melbourne Victory, came through and now Melbourne will host the grand final and Adelaide will play it out against Newcastle for the right to come to Telstra Dome.

On Friday night Newcastle dispatched a disjointed Sydney FC outfit in a match where they outplayed Sydney in every department. Sydney had no answer to Newcastle's free flowing brand of football and Newcastle should have at least had a goal in the first half had decisions gone their way. But with Alex Brosque being send off late in the first half, it was a matter of time before Newcastle scored.

Sunday's match at the Dome should have been exciting for the neutrals I think but for the Victory fans the second goal came very late but in a way it was worth the wait. I think Adelaide's goal came a little bit too early for them because after scoring that goal they suddenly withdrew into their shell opting to defend that slender lead. I doubt it was their plan to defend for such a long period.

Despite the erratic and wayward passing on the part of Victory in the first half, Melbourne still finished the first half on top because Adelaide were content on defending resolutely and they knew that Melbourne needed two goals to win because of the away goals rule.

The need to defend restrained Adelaide and that gave Melbourne the impetus and the second half was one of the best I have watched for some time. It should be noted that this was Melbourne's first win this year and the first win at the Dome since November 9 last year. Melbourne threw everything that they had at Adelaide and the Adelaide goalkeeper Daniel Beltrame was equal to everything that Melbourne had to offer, well until James Robinson's header.

Now Adelaide will face Newcastle in what promises to be a cracker of a game. The Newcastle encounter is bound to be more testing than the Melbourne one going by the way Newcastle has been playing in the last fortnight.

This time there is no more away goals and whoever wins on the day will go and meet Melbourne at the Dome. To me Newcastle are favourites to win this tie and playing away from home sometimes has its advantages because there will be less pressure.

Last season Adelaide lost to Central Coast Mariners at the same stage and this should be at the back of their minds as they prepare for the Jets. Adelaide will have to bring their shooting boots because I think there won't be that many chances. I cannot see this match being a nil all after ninety minutes because I predict we are going to see some goals during normal time.

Being a Melbourne fan, I would rather meet Adelaide than Newcastle but I will have to wait and see.

Tough tasks for Melbourne and Newcastle

This weekend will see the second legs of the A-League major and minor semi-finals and the home teams this time around Melbourne Victory and Newcastle Jets, know that only victory will be good enough to progress to the grand final and preliminary final respectively.

Newcastle lost 2-1 to Sydney FC in the first leg and the positives on their part are that they played very well in the second half and scored the all-important away goal and should they pick up from where they left last weekend and score another goal then they could see themselves in the preliminary final.

Newcastle's away goal means a 1-nil win will do but on the other hand Sydney only need a draw to advance or if they lose by a one goal margin after scoring more than one goal then they will still be okay using the away goals rule. This means a 3-2 or 4-3 loss for Sydney FC will still be good enough to carry them through for example.

On the other hand Newcastle need to win and should Sydney FC score only a two goal winning margin will give passage to the next stage with a 2-1 victory resulting in a penalty shoot-out. Not so long ago Sydney FC went to Queensland only needing a draw and they got it and I think they will do so again on Friday.

Turning now to the Melbourne/Adelaide match, Adelaide should have scored given the numerous chances that they had at Hindmarsh Stadium in the first leg. Melbourne decided to play an ultra defensive game and had very few attempts on goal but at the end of the day they had no choice because the team lacked creativity and penetration even when they had the ball.

The worrying thing for Adelaide though is that despite all their dominance both in territory and possession they had very few clear cut chances. Shots from outside the area were never going to give Michael Theoklitos, the Melbourne goalkeeper, a problem.

Adelaide got so many corner kicks as a result of their pressure but they failed to get any mileage from them. None of them caused Michael Theoklitos problems and I expected them to change the way they took them but they never did and Theoklitos just easily clutched the ball before any of the Adelaide attackers got their bodies to it.

Despite all that, Adelaide for me will go into the second leg as favourites because Melbourne will have to change a lot of things in order to make an imprint in the second leg. The Melbourne midfield was easily overrun by Adelaide and the few counter attacks that were launched didn't cause many problems for the astute Adelaide defence and Archie Thompson and Danny Allsop were lone figures upfront lacking supply.


The Finals swansong

The regular home and away A-League season ended on Sunday night with Adelaide beating Central Coast Mariners in the final match of the season and now the A-League grand final will be played either at Telstra Dome or Hindmarsh Stadium depending on results in the major semi final.

Watching SBS's World Game program on Sunday, most pundits were of the opinion that its all over for Melbourne and rightly so because of recent form but I think the finals series is a different stage altogether and all teams in a way will be starting from the same position.

Of the teams now left in the finals Adelaide would go in as the form team. In round 20 they overcame Sydney and on Sunday night they easily subdued the Mariners. Newcastle played well against Melbourne no doubt but they were pretty average against Perth Glory and only came to life in the dying minutes of that match.

Although Newcastle have never beaten Sydney FC before, if they play the way they played against Melbourne and most of the season after round 6 they should give Sydney a run of their money. I still think Sydney will prevail though.

Even though Melbourne lost the final two matches of the season, I still think they still have the right kind of players to carry them past what I believe is a very good Adelaide side. With the first leg at Hindmarsh its imperative for Victory to score at least an away goal to ease the nerves before coming to the Dome.

Elsewhere in the A-League, the New Zealand Knights finished off with a flurry and I wonder what would have happened had Ricki Herbert managed them from the start. To some teams they became the finals spoiler and the only blemish for Herbert's team was the fifteen minutes at Olympic Park where they conceded four goals.


Early kick-off disadvantages Newcastle

This weekend will see the last matches of the A-League regular season being played and we still have four teams vying for the remaining three positions in the finals. The fact that the four matches are being played at different times makes it unfair especially for Newcastle Jets who are going to play first on Friday night.

After Newcastle's dramatic draw in Perth last weekend they now need to win to guarantee a place in the finals or draw and then depend on a result in the match between Queensland Roar and Sydney FC to be played on Saturday.

If Newcastle were to draw with Melbourne then Queensland and Sydney can just play out for a draw which will guarantee both teams a place in the finals. Why would either team attack and risk a counter attack and end up losing and out of the finals?

I wouldn't have expected all the four matches in this round to have been played at the same time because New Zealand Knights and Perth Glory are both out of contention and they should have played at their own time but the other three matches I think should have been played at the same time to make it fair to all four teams vying for the three finals places.

Whilst the team having the biggest disadvantage is Newcastle, the team having the biggest advantage is Adelaide. Adelaide play on Sunday and by then they will be knowing exactly what they need to do to get what position on the final ladder. In the event of a draw in the earlier matches then they will get second place automatically and therefore in that case they can afford to field a weakened side because a result wouldn't be that important anymore and keep their key stars fresh for the finals.

I hope that in future seasons the A-League organisers will make sure that the final fixtures are played concurrently. Hard as it may be due to the differing time zones, its the only fair way to finish off a season.

Time for Dome Victory

This Friday Melbourne Victory play Queensland Roar at the Telstra Dome in what is going to be the last home fixture for the regular home and away season before moving on to the finals.

Its been more than two months now since Victory last won at the the Telstra Dome and that match was the Oaks Day match against Perth Glory where victory was secured by a solitary goal scored by Grant Brebner in the dying stages of the match. Interestingly that match recorded the lowest Telstra Dome attendance so far this season of 22,890.

Going into the finals I think its important that Victory starts winning now at the Telstra Dome and I hope coach Ernie Merrick will put up a strong side that will sign off with a victory come Friday and it will also be good for us fans as well.

Although this match may not be all that important for Victory having secured the minor premiership already the same cannot be said for the Roar who have to win to keep their slim finals hopes alive. Currently sitting in fifth position and with 25 points, winning their last two matches will help them secure a top four finish especially if Sydney FC loses away to Adelaide this weekend.

Chelsea off the pace

As it turned out Chelsea only managed to get half the available points in the four match festive period program and Manchester United only dropped two points after the 2 all draw at St James Park against Newcastle United.

The gap at the top of the premiership table has now increased to six points which means that if Chelsea were to win all their remaining matches they would still trail Manchester United by three points assuming Manchester United win all their matches but lose the away match at the Bridge.

After the last two seasons you wouldn't think Chelsea would have problems that they are having this time around but I think that the two players being missed are Damien Duff and William Gallas. Duff and Robben used to create so many chances between the two of them that Chelsea would be certain to score at least a goal and also many teams would defend deep fearing a counter on the wings. Now Duff has gone and the replacements in the form of Salomon Kalou and Andriy Shevchenko are still coming to grips with the premiership at the same time Chelsea is losing grip of the premiership title.

People may talk about World Footballer of the Year Fabio Cannavaro as the best defender around at the moment but I think William Gallas is up there with the best insofar as defenders are concerned. Here is a player who can play very well in all four defensive positions and therefore a very vital player for Chelsea last season. Chelsea got Ashley Cole and while he is an accomplished left back that's about it.

Now with John Terry injured it has been a real panic at the back and you only have to look at the match against Everton how Khalid Boulahrouz panicked at the back and also the match against Reading where in the end Michael Essien scored an own goal.

No late goal for Chelsea

Chelsea could only manage a 2-all draw against Reading this morning, a scoreline which could have been for the last two league matches had Chelsea not scored late goals against Everton and Wigan. This time around there was no late goal to clinch the now familiar 3-2 win.

The way Chelsea are conceding goals this season its hard to believe that this is the same team that used to win 1-0 so often last season. Against Wigan Chelsea went to 2 up and Wigan responded with their own two goals and Arjen Robben had to score in injury time to secure all three points.

The Chelsea draw means that Manchester United now lead by four points with two more matches to go in the 4 match Christmas holiday program.

The next two matches for Manchester United are at home to Reading and then away to Newcastle whilst for Chelsea its home against Fulham and then away to Aston Villa. With the way Man U are playing you can foresee the possibility of six points whilst I wouldn't be able to say the same for Chelsea especially the away match at Villa Park. Its interesting to see that in the four matches both teams meet Reading, Wigan and Aston Villa. Should the gap increase to more than 4 points it could be difficult for Chelsea to claw back but one thing I know is that its going to be an interesting run in this time to the premiership crown.

Socceroos and Iraq in same group

The Socceroos were drawn in Group A alongside co-hosts Thailand, Oman and Iraq in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup finals to be held in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam . Being seeded meant that the Socceroos were always going to avoid the Asian powerhouses of Japan and South Korea.

I think in this group the Socceroos' main threat will come from Thailand and Iraq. Thailand as hosts are going to have crowd support behind them and they are also going to be familiar with the conditions.

But Thailand didn't play particularly well in the last tournament in China where they finished pointless with just one goal to their name and conceding nine goals in the process. Hence Thailand will have to up their game a lot to be able to qualify for the next round and gain from the home crowd support.

Interestingly, Oman was in the same group with Thailand the last time around in the 2004 Asian Cup in China and their only win came against Thailand. Oman did reasonably well in qualifying but they could only salvage one away win against lowly Pakistan who lost all their matches and this could suggest that they are poor travellers. But this is in a tournament environment and I don't think they will be pushovers.

Iraq topped its group in qualifying and that wasn't an easy group if you consider that in that group was China as well. I think this will be the tricky tie for the Socceroos and one that could potentially cause a few headaches.

Elsewhere, I think that the toughest group must be Group D which brings together co-hosts Indonesia, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Although the hosts may not be particularly strong in this group the other three teams are and I will be watching this group closely.

As the saying goes 'there are no easy games at this level' complacency could be the Socceroos greatest enemy in the effort to bring the Asian Cup home.

Victory's premiership and Knights plight

Over the weekend Melbourne Victory won the A-League minor premiership with four rounds to spare and they are now guaranteed a place in the 2008 Asian Champions League. The team they played and beat New Zealand Knights seem to have a lot of problems to content with at the moment and it was good to at least see them show a bit of flair in the second half.

It seems like a long way ago now early this season when we went to Victory's last match of the 2005/6 season against the Knights, a match between the bottom two teams in the league then. I remember at that match some people came just to show their displeasure with Ernie Merrick and also Danny Allsop. Ten months later the two are the toast of town. How quickly things can change in football!

Now that the minor premiership is won I hope Merrick will play some of the fringe players. In particular I would like him to play the Brazilian Claudinho. I liked what I saw of him when he came on as a substitute early in the season against Adelaide and scored a beautiful goal but since then he has hardly been in the team and thatís due mostly to Thompson and Allsop rich vein of form.

I also hope that should Victory reach the grand final on February 18, then the match would be played at the MCG for the simple reason that a lot of people will be able to go and watch it.

Talking about the Knights, I am one those people who think its good to have a New Zealand team in the A-League mostly because it could probably help the growth of football in New Zealand. I also agree with many observers who say that there must be more New Zealand players in the team because that way it helps the NZ national team.

But its always a fine balance in trying to pursue success on the field and then trying to groom local players and many teams are failing on that front and thus we have seen Arsenal, for example, failing to have a single English player in their starting lineup. But Knights are not Arsenal and they should at least have half the team being New Zealanders.

I also go further and say that the team should be named after a city or state or region and not the country. The team is from Auckland and it should just be called Auckland Knights or something like that. This is also in line with the naming convention for the rest of the A-League teams.

Giants clash as L'pool face Barca

To me the most outstanding match from yesterday's UEFA Champions League draw is the match between 2005 champions Liverpool and current holders Barcelona. Barcelona was always going to be the team to avoid for the teams that finished top but somebody was going to draw them and in this case it was Liverpool.

The first leg of these fixtures is going to be played on February 20 or 21 and by that time Barcelona should have most of its stars back from injury including Lionel Messi and possibly Samuel E'too and that should make it even more difficult for Liverpool.

I think Barcelona will prove to be too powerful to Liverpool even though they have to play the second leg at Anfield.

The second interesting tie for me is the one that pits Bayern Munich against Real Madrid. Bayern did well in the group stages where their main challenge came from Inter Milan but I think we could be seeing the last of them in the competition this season in these two legs.

I see the Arsenal/PSV Eindhoven, AC Milan/Celtic and Valencia/Inter Milan as ties that can easily go either way although Valencia could easily be overcome by Inter if they have not regained their form by then.

For the rest of the matches, Chelsea should see off Porto and I don't think Lille will cause Manchester United too many problems this time around whilst Lyon should be good enough to dismiss Roma.


Champions League Roundup

The final round of the UEFA Champions League didn't produce any real surprises and in the end the usual suspects went through to the knockout stages.

After their impressive showing earlier on in the campaign Werder Bremen and CSKA Moscow would feel hard done by having failed to reach the next stage of the Champions League. As for Werder Bremen, I think this was mainly because they found themselves in a very difficult group and having to play the deciding match at the Nou camp didn't help them either.

In Group A, Chelsea and Barcelona have gone through leaving Werder Bremen to drop to the UEFA Cup. I think Chelsea and Barcelona showed their class in this group and deserve to go to the knockout stages. In any other group Werder Bremen could possibly have qualified but they were in a tough group and they will have to show what they are made of in the UEFA Cup.

An intense battle for the UEFA Cup place ensued in Group B where Spartak Moscow had to beat Sporting Lisbon away to secure it. At the top Inter started the campaign badly but recovered in time to take second place behind Bayern Munich.

2004 winners Liverpool had a straight-forward run to clinch top spot in Group C ahead of PSV. This was to be expected in a group where Bordeaux and Galatasaray were expected to fight it out for the UEFA place which eventually went to Bordeaux.

Valencia made it look so easy in Group D losing just the final match to Roma who themselves needed a to win to secure second spot. In the end Roma's win wasn't as important as Shakhtar Donetsk could only get a point against Olympiacos to finish with six points and get the UEFA place. Olympiacos required a win in their final match to get third place and the draw means Europe will now have to wait until next year.

Lyon and Real Madrid had Group E to themselves with Lyon finishing top. Lyon conceded just three goals in their six matches finishing with the best goal difference in group qualifying of nine. Steaua Bucuresti grabbed third place ahead of winless Dynamo Kiev who finished last.

Group F was probably the tightest group of them all the with team finishing last, FC Copenhagen, amassing seven points. This is more than what Steaua Bucuresti(5), Spartak Moscow(5) and Shakhtar Donetsk(6) amassed but still qualified for the UEFA Cup. Manchester United finished top winning the last day match against Benfica who dropped into the UEFA Cup while Celtic who won all their home games and lost all the away ones finished second.

A three way battle raged between Arsenal, Porto and CSKA Moscow which was won by Arsenal and Porto with CSKA Moscow having to settle for third place. Hamburg was disappointing and the win against CSKA Moscow on the last day just helped them avoid finishing with zero points.

Finally, AC Milan achieved top post with a match to spare and therefore the last day loss to Lille wasn't surprising. However, that loss helped Lille reach the qualifying stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history. AEK Athens had a great chance to secure second but their failure to get all the points against Anderlecht means their European adventure will now continue in the UEFA Cup.

Liverpool face Arsenal test

The most outstanding fixture to come out of the FA Cup draw this morning is without doubt the fixture between Liverpool and Arsenal.

With an indifferent form in the league for both teams, I think both teams would have loved a 'favourable' draw but as the case now stands unfortunately one of them will not be going into the next round.

I think its too far out at the moment (match to be played 6/7 January 2007) to predict who the winner is likely to be but having home advantage to me makes Liverpool the favourites. They are also current holders and that should add an extra dimension to Liverpool as they will be defending the Cup.

My team West Brom play Leeds at home and although I am not very confident with the team at the moment its a winnable match. Leeds currently like in the relegation zone of the Championship league but they have gained some ground since Dennis Wise took over.

Manchester United have been drawn to meet Aston Villa at Old Trafford but its interesting to see that the two teams meet again at Old Trafford the following weekend in the league. By the time they meet in league the following weekend the two teams should be very familiar of each other I suppose.

UEFA Champions League reaches climax

Its one more round to go in the UEFA Champions League and for teams who have qualified for the next round it will be a question of securing top spot if that hasn't been already been achieved but for some teams the chase continues.

In Group A Barcelona know what they have to do, beat Werder Bremen at home and they will be in. Anything else they will drop into the UEFA Cup. Although Werder Bremen are a good team, I think Barcelona will win that match and progress to the next stage and I think Chelsea will easily top that group.

In Group B, after a stuttering start, Inter Milan have ensured qualification to the next stage by winning three straight matches. In their first two matches, they failed to score a single goal and were pointless and now they go to play Bayern Munich fighting to top the group.

In the end Group C was a straight fight between Liverpool and PSV Eindhoven with Liverpool taking the honours. Galatasaray have been disappointing with just one draw and in the process conceding ten goals and will now say bye to Europe with Bordeaux getting the UEFA place.

Valencia are home and dry in Group D leaving Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk to fight it out for second place. Olympiacos still have a chance to get third place but they have to get their first win of the campaign to do that.

As predicted, Group E was a tussle between Real Madrid and Olympic Lyon, a tussle which the French team. For the second year running Lyon got the better of Real Madrid netting four points from their two matches and winning the group.

I was happy to see Celtic qualify for the knockout stage for the first time after four unsuccessful attempts. Manchester United will now have to make sure that Benfica will not go away with full points from Old Trafford or else they will drop into the UEFA Cup in Group G. I expect that match to be a tense one given that last year Benfica ousted Man U from the competition and three years ago another Portuguese team Porto also knocked them out of the competition.

And still talking about Porto, their win over CSKA Moscow means they can decide their fate and could easily knock Arsenal out of the competition. This group has been very competitive despite Hamburg being winless so far and I should add that I was very disappointed with Hamburg.

In Group H, as expected AC Milan have qualified for the next stage but there is a very interesting contest for the other place. I think AEK Athens have a better chance of qualifying because they play still winless Anderlecht and Lille have to go to Milan for their last match. It would be good for Greek football for AEK Athens to qualify for the knockout stage and all they need to do that is win their last game.

So it will interesting to see whether Barcelona and Manchester United will progress to the next round or whether it will be Werder Bremen and Sporting Lisbon. In two short weeks we will know the answer.

Mowbray gets first win

I should say I was relieved over the weekend to see West Bromwich Albion gets its first win under manager Tony Mowbray..

Since Mowbray took over some five matches away, the Baggies had failed to win a single match and the only highlight if anything was the heart-breaking 3 all draw against QPR. I say heart-breaking because the Baggies were leading 3-1 with six minutes to go and then QPR scored two goals to draw the match.

During that same period the team exited the Carling Cup after a 2 nil loss to Arsenal. The team wasn't playing badly as such but a lot of chances just went begging. Ironically, before Mowbray took over the reigns at the Hawthorns the team had a four match unbeaten run.

So when I looked at the weekend fixtures last Friday and I realised it was going to be against Burnley who themselves were enjoying an excellent run I just thought it was going to be another bad result even though it was a home match.

So all in all it was a weekend of good results for West Brom because Cardiff the league leaders lost and Birmingham drew with Wolves although Preston and Derby both won away.

Now with this win its now imperative to get at least four points from the next two away matches against Stoke and Sheffield Wednesday before the December 2 match against Derby.

Black Stars, Socceroos share spoils

The Black Stars and the Socceroos this morning played out a one-all draw in an international friendly at Loftus Road, London. The Socceroos are using these matches to prepare for the Asian Cup next year whilst the Black Stars, as hosts of next edition of the Africa Nations Cup in 2008 are using these friendlies to prepare for that tournament.

It was good to see the Socceroos play so well, especially in the first half where they dominated possession, despite not having players like Lucas Neill, Mark Viduka and Tim Cahill. Ghana on the other hand had a full strength squad with the likes of captain Stephen Appiah, Michael Essien and Sulley Al Muntari all present.

The Socceroos scored first through a penalty scored by John Aloisi in the first half and the Black Stars responded with just a quarter of an hour to go to full time when Junior Agogo was quick to respond to a spillage by Mark Schwarzer.

It was a game of two halves with Australia dominating in the first half and making a number of forays into the Ghana half which kept Ankaraspor based goalkeeper Richard Kingston busy despite some pain from what looked like a bad knock to the head early on in the match.

It took some time for the Black Stars to find their feet but once they did they had a fair say in the second half with their star players like Essien and Asamoah Gyan coming more and more into the game.

At the end of the day a draw was a fair result but for me it was good to see players like Patrick Kisnorbo and Luke Wilkshire come in and slot well into the Socceroos squad. Such strength and depth is what you need at the international level because you are not always going to have your first eleven players available.

The next international friendly for Australia will be against Denmark and for Ghana it will be against Argentina.

Van Nistelrooy hits four

I decided to watch the La Liga match between Osasuna and Real Madrid this morning on ESPN and I was impressed by the Real Madrid striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy who scored all Real's four goals against Osasuna's one. Just last week Real Madrid lost to Celta Vigo at home but this time they were in top form scoring three goals before the break.

This is good news for the Real fans who want their team to win and win in style but I don't think its exactly good news for Ronaldo who has just come out from an injury and is fighting for a place in Real's starting eleven. Ronaldo featured in the midweek Copa del Roy match and scored one goal he but was not even on the bench for this match.

Its also good news for England defenders who are not going face Van Nistelrooy on Thursday morning in a friendly international against the Netherlands unless he gets a last minute recall like the one AC Milan's Clarence Seedorf got. Van Nistelrooy has not been picked up by coach Marco van Basten since the end of the World Cup.

Van Nistelrooy is now joint top goal scorer with Real Zaragoza's Alberto Diego Milito and Sevilla's Fred Kanoute with eight goals. Its interesting to note that Ruud's eight goals have been scored in just three matches - against Barcelona(1), Levante(3) and this morning's four against Osasuna.

Spurs break Chelsea hoodoo

Tottenham Hotspurs beat Chelsea for the first time in the English Premier League early this morning. To me this was the most outstanding result together with wins for Watford and Sheffied United who beat Middlesborough and Newcastle respectively.

Spurs last beat Chelsea in the league in the old First Division in 1990 when Gary Lineker scored and that was at Stamford Bridge but the last home win over Chelsea was in 1987.

So for my Challenge Lawro predictions I had no problems giving Chelsea a win and coupled with Spurs having played in the UEFA Cup during the week I thought they wouldnít be able to break the hoodoo.

Spurs have improved very much under Martin Jol and are now able to at least stand up to the big four of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and high flying Manchester United and they are cruising well in the UEFA Cup. To me they still seem to have problems with the 'smaller' teams like the draw last week against Watford.

Chelsea on the other hand are not playing like the Chelsea of last season and may have to up their game if they are to come with anything from Old Trafford later this month. That match is critical because assuming both teams win their matches till then, them a win for Man U would open a formidable six point gap. But somehow Chelsea are able to rejuvenate themselves and I can see them coming back strongly with the squad that they have and they better do.

Elsewhere, Arsenal fired yet more blanks as they lost to Tevez and Mascherano-less West Ham. West Ham have won their last two matches and they have done so without the two Argentineans but relying more on in-form Teddy Sheringham. That seems to be a working formula for them and maybe worth keeping to continue the climb up the ladder.

Good to see both Watford and Sheffield win and more importantly for Sheffield it was an away win and that became only their second win of the season. Newcastle could be heading for a relegation battle if their form doesn't change soon but they have a good squad which if it clicks they should see off most teams easily.

But all in all the weekend belonged to Spurs!

Bigger squads for A-League

Sydney FC has got only 13 players available for Saturday night's match against Newcastle Jets with the rest of the players not being available either through injury or suspension.

This to me raises the question of whether the 20 man squad limit is not enough in a demanding A-League season spanning a minimum 21 normal season games without including the pre-season tournament and finals.

Technically I think an A-League club can have up two 22 players with the other two being a four week guest player(remember Kazu) and the other a marquee player.

Given that a team like Sydney FC is having to go to a match with just 13 players and with the number 2 goal-keeper Justin Pasfield being touted as a possible outfield player if need be I think the salary cap must be raised and the number of squad players increased to at least 23. This will also enable teams to have three goalkeepers compared to the current two.

Recently Perth Glory lost their first choice goalkeeper Jason Petkovic to injury and they had to scramble around to find a replacement. The situation would have been better if they had had three goalkeepers in their squad to start with.

Injuries and suspension especially given the pace of the A-League will continue to mount and I hope we won't have a case where a team will go to a match with just eleven players.

I am hoping that the salary cap will reviewed upwards at the end of the season to allow for bigger squads going into next season especially given that two of our teams will also be involved in the Asian Champions League

Make or break for Butcher

Just looking at this weekís round 10 A-League fixtures itís very hard to ignore that the most eye-catching one is probably the Sydney/Perth clash. For a start both teams lost their round 9 matches but more importantly for Sydney the winless run has now been going on for some time with only three matches won so far.

I think Terry Butcher would be the first one to admit that football is all about results and when you get results everybody is happy and when you donít itís a totally different scenario. In his case he is not getting the results and hence the pressure is on him.

To be fair to Butcher he hasnít been fortunate with injuries and suspensions and also the Benito Carbone injury and the subsequent cancellation of the proposed long term contract didnít help either.

Talking about injuries, against Victory, Sydney had the upper hand but when Mark Milligan and Steve Corica went out through injuries the team struggled to maintain the momentum of the first half and subsequently lost the match.

Against Perth Sydney simply has to win or maybe at the minimum draw otherwise the pressure will be unbearable. Sydney is at home for this match and under pressure sometimes that doesnít help because the crowd expectation will just be great.

We all know what happened to Nick Theodorakopoulos at Newcastle. The team had a winless start to the season and the club thought it was the time to change the coach. Whether that decision was good or bad is something else but the decision had to be made that led to the coach's exit. I am not saying that will happen to Butcher but it could.

Looking at the other fixtures, the Queensland Roar versus Central Coast Mariners match should be an entertaining one and I can't just imagine that the Roar can lose two games in a row at home.

Adelaide should test Newcastleís resurgence and I won't be surprised with a draw in this match.

Lastly but not least, I expect Victory to come out with something from their match against New Zealand Knights even if it means a draw. You just donít know with Knights, against Adelaide in the second half they played quite well and yet in the first half of that match they were all but ordinary.

Baggies look to Mowbray

As a Baggies fan I was a little bit relieved that the club at last managed to get a manager to replace Bryan Robson in the form of Tony Mowbray. The team has been doing well since Robson's departure and now lie a comfortable fourth on the table and just seven points from the top team Cardiff.

I never doubted whether Robson would be able to get promotion because he has a good record of getting promotions with Middlesborough. So I was surprised when he was shown the door after not so good results and the worst for me being the first team to lose to Sunderland.

My only issue with Robson is that I felt that once the team got promoted he wouldn't then be able to sustain it in the Premiership and before long the team becomes a yo-yo team going in and out of the Premiership which is clearly not good.

Now comes in Mowbray. From what I have read from BBC's 606 he has done a good job at Easter Road and Hibs would rather wish he stayed. Well, that sounds good.

With the team we have at the Hawthorns we should get promotion at the end of the season even if it means going through the play-offs but the problem is that I am not so sure whether we now have a manager who is capable of making the Baggies stay there without flirting too much with relegation.

This is I think more than anything else is the challenge that will face Mowbray as he takes the reigns at the Hawthorns.

Time to Salute Victory

I feel now its time to acknowledge how well Melbourne Victory has played over the last seven matches in the A-League. Victory has completed a third of the season without a defeat and thatís something that we couldnít dream of last season.

I think there are a number of factors that have led to this success.Victory did well in bringing in the Brazilian trio of Fred , Alessandro and Claudinho and of these three I think Fred has already made a big impact. He is a player with such good vision he can get some good through passes and also his off the ball is quite good making it hard for the opposing team to trek him. When the team had needed to dig in deep he has also played his part in not neglecting his defensive duties.

Alessandro is the most exciting of them all and he has given Victory a few penalties. I think he doesnít the release the ball early enough but I hope he will back in the starting line-up soon. I also think that Daniel Allsoppís form is partly due to the arrival of Claudhino because now there is real competition for places and any slip ups one can easily end on the bench.

Grant Brebner and Adrian Caceres have also been good additions to the team and Caceres came on for Alessandro against Perth and added some steel to the midfield and capped it all with scoring the first goal.

The fixture list has also helped the season. The fixture list has now matured and compare to last season when Victory would play four successive home matches in October and then followed by something like four successive away matches in November. This time its at least a maximum of two away or home matches and that doesnít put too much pressure on the players like last year when the team wasnít playing well and had four successive away matches to play.

The other positive factor has been the Victory fans. I remember last season when more that 11,000 fans went to watch Victory play New Zealand Knights. This was a match between the bottom two teams and yet the fans went all the same to support their team and that was very good.

This has continued this season and Victory made a good decision in moving six home fixtures to the Telstra Dome. Now I can decide on the day to go and watch the match and still get a good seat whereas at Olympic Park just a few minutes late and the match is sold out. Also the 10,000 plus memberships has been a good boost.

Captain Kevin Muscat scoring every penalty he has taken has been good. Its good to have such a player in the team especially when a penalty could possibly win you the match.

Looking ahead to the round 8 fixture, Adelaide should give Victory a run of their money at the Dome especially now that Shengqing Qu is back.

Socceroos easily overcome Bahrain

In the end it was an easy match for the Socceroos against a youthful Bahrain team. The Socceroos overran Bahrain for the first twenty five minutes or so and for once I thought we were going to end up with a high score but that never materialised.

Of concern was the second half were despite the possesion, there wasn't much clever use of the ball and the attack was too one-dimensional to be of any concern to the Bahrain defence. This was also a Bahrainian Olympic team who managed to hold their own especially in the second half and had some decent chances on goal.

I would have expected the Socceroos to vary their attack especially on seeing that the wing wasn't working partly due to the excellent defending by the Bahrain wing backs and also lack of co-ordination on the Socceroos part. John Aloisi possibly needed another striker to help him because as a lone striker this didn't seem to work at all.

Marco Bresciano's goal was excellent and it showed the confidence that the player has in his own skill to execute such a wonderful kick when others would have opted for safer tried and tested methods. The first goal by John Aloisi was scored when the team was playing very well and build up to that goal bears testimony to that.

Between now and the Asian championships in July next year I hope coach Graham Arnold will be able to sort out the defence problems and I think upfront will be sorted out once both Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell are back.

Moore, Paraguay and the Socceroos

It would have been good to have Craig Moore in the Socceroos team and captain the side against Paraguay at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane but I think the FFA have taken the right decision to suspend him for one match. Whatever he didn't do or did do is unfortunate, the FFA has to be seen to be in control and they have shown just that.

Turning to the match itself, although this is an international friendly, for the Socceroos it also carries some emotion with four players retiring from international football. The foursome of goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac and defenders Tony Vidmar, Stan Lazaridis and Tony Popovic will be ending their international careers at Suncorp Stadium and this is why Moore will be required even more next time because we are losing three very experienced defenders. Also this is the first match to see nineteen of the players who players who made history at the World Cup by reaching the second round.

Paraguay failed to reach the second round at the World Cup in Germany and I think this was more to do with the fact that they couldn't create good enough chances for scoring. Against England they lost to a early goal and even though they tried to come back in the game they just didn't have enough firepower upfront. Against Sweden it was a similar story although they did play quite well and it was only towards the end that they lost.

We should therefore expect a good game from Paraguay and depending on the substititions in the second half I think it will be a scoring draw.

I would have thought the A-League would have taken an international break this weekend. For a start Brisbane Suncorp Stadium hosts this international friendly and then less than 24 hours later Queensland Roar battle it out with Sydney FC at Aussie Stadium in Sydney. You would assume that some of the Sydney and and to a little extent Roar fans who would have attended Saturday night's match are the ones more likely to attend Sunday's match and that makes it a very football congested weekend for them should they decide to attend both matches.

In future I hope the FFA will consider giving the A-League a break in similar circumstances.

Inter top card list

Its only two rounds of the UEFA Champions League and already it doesn't look right for Inter Milan. They have scored no goals and have no points but where they are tops is in the card list with 5 yellow and 3 red cards.

Its too early to suggest that they will fail to qualify for the next round because if they win all their remaining four matches which the can given the superb squad that they have then they will have 12 points but they should treat each of the remaining matches as a final. They will also need to be disciplined otherwise they could end up missing key players at key moments.

Elsewhere, there are 100 percent records for Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Valencia, Arsenal, Man U and Lyon. Its always good to have points in the bag and that should ease the pressure for these teams going into the third match.

Victory's Telstra Dome decision right

I think Melbourne Victory has made the right decision to play six of the last remaining eight A-League home matches at the Telstra Dome. There was no point having sell-out matches at the 18,000 capacity Olympic Park stadium week in week out whilst denying a lot of fans a chance to watch A-League football live.
I was there at the Telstra Dome for the match against Sydney FC and compared to Olympic Park it was a more comfortable venue that catered well especially for families with young children with its world class facilities. Olympic Park on the other hand is good for the fact that fans are quite closer to the action but the facilities cannot be compared to the Dome whichever way you look at it.
What's left now is for the Victory to feel comfortable at the Dome where the turf has been criticized for being a bit hard by other football codes. I also hope that people of Melbourne will turn out in large numbers for those six matches to justify the move.

2006/7 UEFA Champions League Season Preview

This year's UEFA Champions League kicks off on Wednesday morning Melbourne time and for the first time in many years there is no Juventus and another team that is missing is Ajax Amsterdam but the competition should still be very interesting. There are going to be some mouth watering fixtures and one of them is Manchester United/Celtic and then the other Barcelona/Chelsea.

Group A is very interesting with Barcelona facing Chelsea again. I think Barcelona are stronger than what they were last season with the addition of Thuram and Zambrotta and they should come top in this group with Werder Bremen and Chelsea fighting it out for second place.

Group B brings together Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. This looks like a straight forward contest between Bayern and Inter for the first two places but I think Sporting Lisbon and Spartak Moscow could cause some upsets especially when playing at home.

Three weeks ago I would have said Liverpool are red hot favourites to win this group but having watched their last three league matches I think its a pretty open group with all teams PSV, Galatasaray and Bordeaux plus Liverpool having a good chance. PSV have done well in the past two seasons but that was under Guus Hiddink and we will have to wait and see what happens this season.

I think Valencia will come top in Group D but its very hard to see which other team will join them in the second phase. The Greek champions Olympiacos have lots of experience in this competition and that should give them a bit of an edge but Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk are no pushovers and so I think this will go down to the last match of the group phase to decide who proceeds to the next stage.

I think Lyon and Real Madrid should easily sort themselves at the top of Group E. Real Madrid should be a better team this season under Fabio Capello. Lyon are more or less the same team minus Diarra who ironically went to Real Madrid and should be able to navigate their way in this group.

Group F is another group where there is one very strong team in Manchester United but with three very good teams Celtic, Benfica and FC Copenhagen comprising the group. Its quite difficult to separate Celtic and Benfica to start with but there is also FC Copenhagen who knocked out Ajax in the qualifiers.

Arsenal haven't started well in the Premiership and should raise their game if they are entertaining hopes of winning this group because Group G has got some good teams in Hamburg, FC Porto and CSKA Moscow. I still think that Arsenal and Hamburg will go through this group with former champions Porto and CSKA Moscow fighting it out for the UEFA place.

Finally Group H and here AC Milan should easily cruise through and it should be an even battle between AEK Athens, Anderlecht and Lille. I think it will be a good chance for the other three teams to reach the group stages for the first time and it could come down to goal difference to decide the second place and UEFA place.

Eye opener for Socceroos

The Socceroos lost to 2 nil to Kuwait this morning in match so many people expected them to win. This result showed why the FIFA ranking counts for nothing when it comes to playing in a home and away series. Kuwait were playing in conditions that they are familiar with and they had the home support behind them and the Socceroos just couldn't navigate the conditions.

I think this defeat came at the right time because Australia had already qualified and it wasn't in the crucial World Cup qualifiers. However, this shows us that we should expect tough matches in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and every game will need to be taken seriously.

It will not that easy because a lot of teams are not going to give up easily when playing at home and a high priced opponent like Australia and therefore the Socceroos will have to dig deep to grind a result.

This then means that there is a need to win all the home matches because the away ones are unpredictable. This wasn't the case in Oceania where the only match that posed problems was the last match against the fifth placed South American team.

Yorke, O'Neill will be missed

It hasn't been a good week for the A-League this week with the departure of Sydney FC's Dwight Yorke to Sunderland and with the news that the FFA Chief Executive Officer John O'Neill will not be renewing his contract when it expires next March.

It was a good job in the first place for Sydney FC to lure Yorke to the A-League but in the end I think Yorke benefited a lot as well from the one year stint with the league champions. He managed to get his form back because he was playing week in week out and that also helped Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup.

I didn't like the timing of the transfer coming as it were on transfer deadline day and so Sydney will have a hard time finding a replacement for Yorke unless they get a an out of contract player. I was hoping to see Yorke play Sydney at Telstra Dome tomorrow but nevertheless we will play whichever team Sydney puts up and hope that Melbourne Victory will go on another goal rampage.

Now turning O'Neill, he has done a very good job with the setting up of the A-League and organising the Socceroos World Cup campaign and its unfortunate he didn't want to stay longer. My only gripe with his administration was to give A-League highlights to Foxtel instead of giving them to a free-to-air broadcaster. A lot of people without pay TV don't know much about the A-League and had just the highlights been on say SBS or ABC I am sure awareness and interest in the A-League would have been more than it is now. All the same I wish him the best in his next move.

When retirement is no retirement

I just can't quite get the situation between France and the Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele. According to BBC Sport Claude Makelele apparently retired from international football after France's loss to Italy in the World Cup final. But the interesting thing is that France's coach Raymond Domenech has called him for international duty for the Euro 2008 qualifying matches this weekend.

I can understand that France would need Makelele especially as he is an expert in his position and there would be no ready replacement but surely if somebody says they have retired from international football then their wish should be granted. For France it looks like if you are still playing somewhere at club level then you can always be called to play for France if needed.

I actually think that nobody should retire from international football. The national team coach should just stop calling a player if he thinks there are other equally good players in their position. With so many matches now being played in European leagues you can understand why some players would rather concentrate on club football without the distraction of international football but won't be the case for Makelele at least for now.

2006/7 A-League Season Preview

The A-league kicks off this weekend for the second season. Last season being the first season was more like an adventure as most fans didn't know what to expect but the season was surprisingly successful. Its different this year and we know what to expect from some teams but the expectations are also higher than before.

I think Adelaide will go on and win the title this year. John Kosmina has built up a very good balanced side and with the big prize of playing in the Asian Champions League at stake for the top two teams Adelaide should charged up for it.

Last year Adelaide won the minor championship and then fizzled out in the finals but I expect them to go all the way this year. They have already made their intentions clear by winning the pre-season cup and I expect them to pick up from there and continue in the same vein for the rest of the season.

I think Sydney FC will still be good under the tutelage of Terry Butcher but I don't see them winning back to back titles. They have brought in midfielder Alex Brosque and apart from that they are nearly the same team they were last year.

I expect the last two berths in the top four to be filled in by Central Coast Mariners and Melbourne Victory. To me the Mariners played the most entertaining football and it was fitting that they finished as runners up.

My team Melbourne Victory has brought in three Brazilians Claudinho, Fred and Alessandro and also the added midfielder Adrian Caceres and we are expecting a lot more compared to last season's near the bottom of the ladder position, seventh to be precise. The problem last year was relying too much on Archie Thompson for goals with Danny Allsop not scoring that many but should change this year with competition for places upfront.

I don't see the New Zealand Knights being the whipping boys anymore this season. They have been impressive in pre-season cup and I expect them to notch more wins this coming term than the one they had last season. Its very hard for me separate Nick Theodorakopoulos' Newcastle and Queensland Roar but I think Perth Glory don't look very convincing to me despite the prized capture of Stan Lazaridis and the much respected coach Ron Smith.

2006/7 English Premier League Preview

The English Premier League kicks off this weekend and once again everyone is hoping for the best for their team. This time last year I was quite excited about the new season after the previous season's Baggies 'great escape' and this year I will just be following the action closely because the Premiership is such an interesting league.

Whilst last year it was a question of whether Chelsea could defend their title or not this time its a question of whether they can win three titles in a row and how far they will be pushed should they do that. I think they can but the gap won't be that big anymore.

Chelsea have done well in bringing in Andriy Shevchenko because he will probably finish off most of the chances that the star studded team will create but the other teams have now wisened up to their play and hence it won't be as easy this time around. I think their biggest challengers are going to be Liverpool. Over the last two seasons Rafael Benitez has built up a very good side centred around Steven Gerrard and also Xabi Alonso and its now a question of time before they win the title.

Turning to Manchested United, I think they can finish in the top four. They won't be able to replace Ruud van Nistelrooy and have to rely on Louis Saha and Wayne Rooney for goals. Michael Carrick, well, he is a good player and was very good for Spurs last season but still I don't think he will make a big a difference for Man U, at least for this season.

I think we will now see Tottenham finish in the top four this season after missing out narrowly last season to Arsenal which will mean that Arsenal will be outside the top four according to my prediction. I still think that Arsenal are too reliant on just one player, Thiery Henry, and while the purchase of Tomas Rosicky was good I think they will find it difficult to fight for honours this year. Maybe Arsene Wenger will be prove me wrong.

Before looking at who I think will be relegated let me take a look at the teams I think could be the surprise packages. I think Portsmouth, Blackburn, West Ham and Newcastle could be the teams to take everybody by surprise. I would have said Aston Villa if I knew what's going to happen with the proposed purchase of Villa but if the Villa find new owners and Martin O'Neill is able to make a few purchases then they could finish in the top six but as it is now they are relegation candidates to me.

Its usual that the three promoted sides are relegation candidates but I think Reading should do well and survive the chop just like Wigan did last season but I am afraid I don't see Sheffield United and Watford surviving. The team to join them could be one of Wigan,Fulham, Middlesbrough and as I said before Villa. While Wigan did very well last season I can't see them repeat that same feat this season and for Boro before Steve McLaren left they were on a slide and inexperienced Gareth Southgate may not be able to stop that slide.

I think Man City, Everton, Charlton and Bolton should be able to stay clear of relegation. For me, I am just hoping to top my BBC Challenge Lawro local league and for the first round it looks difficult already!

Becks not missed as England rout Greece

England produced a scintillating first half display in new coach Steve McLaren's first match scoring four goals in the process and passing passes through the normally dependable Greek defence with easy.

Compared to the World Cup this was a far much better performance and the team played as a team which is very important for a team with so many stars like England. All in all it was a good start for McLaren and his team and the only problem will be to sustain such a performance going forward.

So much has been said about the omission of David Beckham from the squad against Greece but I think to qualify for the 2008 Euro championships England still need Becks. I think the reason why he was left out was more to do with giving John Terry time to settle in the captain's job without Beckham being around. Beckham has been an influential captain for England and his presence would always be felt.

I also don't think his performance at the World Cup had anything to do with it otherwise Frank Lampard wouldn't have been in the squad as well.

England will need everybody including Beckham because England's Euro 2008 qualifying group is not as easy some people may suggest. Russia under the guidance of Guus Hiddink are going to be very tough to beat and also Croatia has a very good qualifying record but the reality is that one of these three teams is going to miss out. Only the two teams in each group are going to qualify and so without the cushion of play-offs this time around all teams are going to treat every game like a final.

Although not trying to read too much into friendlies Croatia beat the world champions Italy 2 nil and this morning and that just shows they are a quality team.

Hard fought win for Socceroos

The Socceroos qualified for the 2007 Asian Cup with a 2 nil win over Kuwait and when you look at it now it looks so easy. In this decimated group after the withdrawal of Lebanon, six points are enough to qualify and an extra point would possibly win the group.

It was indeed a hard fought win for the Socceroos but for a while it looked like it was going to end up in a draw. Credit to Kuwait who defended so well and it was rare lapse in their defence that led to Socceroos' first goal but it was a good counter attack that led the second.

The Socceroos dominated the match for long periods which was good to see and Kuwait looked like they had a game plan to come and go away with a respectable draw. Their counter-attacks were quite good and had it not been for wayward finishing they could have been the first to score in the second half.

I just didn't appreciate the high numbers used by the Socceroos. Why for example give the goalie number 51? To me it gave an impression that the lower numbers were reserved for the World Cup stars and these guys had to settle for the numbers after say 23 and yet the team played so well and gave all they could against a well organised Kuwait team.


Championship now on Fox Sports

When my team the Baggies went down last year from the premiership I thought that I was just going to see them on short snippets on Sky News UK but that has all changed now with Fox Sports now covering the English Championship league. Fox Sports are going to show the Championship matches for the next three years.

Until Fox Sports 3 is launched on October 1, we will have one live match and three delayed matches every month plus the usual highlights on the Total Football show. With Fox Sports 3 offering more space it will then be at least 3 matches live every month according to the Fox Sports website plus a delayed one.

Meanwhile, I am happy with the deal that will take the West Brom goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak on loan to Manchester United because it means that should we get promoted at the end of the season he can always come back. However, getting defender Paul McShane and goalkeeper Luke Steele permanently from Man U is possibly the best part of the deal. With Danny Shittu having decided to go to Watford instead we have now got the extra defender we needed and hopefully Bryan Robson will now be able to bring in a striker before the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Beginning life in the Championship

This season I will be closely following football in the Championship after my team West Bromwich Albion got relegated last season. The championship is not an easy league at all because the strength of the teams is more even and any team can beat any team on its day.

However, I think the Baggies have a very good chance of promotion. Bryan Robson has a very good promotion record and also we haven't been forced to sell players just because we have been relegated and that means we retain the core of the team and notable absentees will be Kevin Campbell and Kanu. But I think these two won't be missed that much although I feel the strike force is the area where we need players. I am hoping that John Hartson will bring will bang in some important goals.

The purchase of Danny Shittu from QPR would be good but I think we had a reasonably strong defence last season and retention of Curtis Davies has been good for the club. I also hope that goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak will not be sold to Manchester United.

I think our main rivals will be the Midlands duo of Birmingham and Wolves and then Sunderland, Leeds, Crystal Palace and possibly Southampton. But as I have said before the championship is full of surprises and who would have guessed that Watford would be promoted at the end of last season when the season begun.

Whilst Birmingham has lost some of its players they have also managed to bring in some good players in Cameron Jerome and Stephen Kelly. I think Wolves would have been stronger had Glenn Hoddle stayed but they should still be a formidable force whilst Leeds and Crystal Palace finished strongly last season.

So I am looking forward to first match at home at the Hawthorns against Hull as my team begins life in the championship.

Stability at Villa Park essential

As a Baggies fan you would wonder why I would be concerned by the goings-on at Villa Park but the truth is that I am a bit concerned. Itís not for Aston Villa per se but for football in the Midlands. Aston Villa are going into the new premiership season as prime relegation candidates unless something dramatic happens to change that view.

At the moment Aston Villa is the only midlands club left in the premiership and should they go down and if none of West Brom, Blues, Leicester, Derby, Wolves, Coventry get promoted then there would no midlands club left in the premiership next season and this is what concerns me. Its good for the Midlands to have at least one club in the premiership and for many years that club has been Villa. Not so long ago there was Derby, Coventry and Leicester all in the top flight but this has since changed.

I can only imagine what problems led to David O'Leary's resignation but whether Doug Ellis sells the club or not at the end of the day most fans would expect a competitive Villa team. I hope they are going to retain captain Gareth Barry because he is an important player for Villa and then bring in some new players but the real truth is that time is slowly running out and the ship has to be steadied and now.

Personally I think getting Martin O'Neill would be a real coup for Villa because he is a proven coach who can sustain a team in the premiership. But for now I can wait and see.

World Cup coaches continue to tumble

It's now nearly two weeks after the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany ended but the coaches continue to tumble as a result of what happened there and Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira is the latest to go. It seems like a long time ago now when Jose Pekerman, the Argentina coach offered to resign after the quarter final loss to Germany but since then a lot more coaches have left their posts. Of the 32 coaches that went to the World Cup, at least fifteen of them are no longer in their positions if my counting is right.

Some coaches decided to leave 'on a high' like Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann and Italy's Marcello Lippi while others whose World Cup was a nightmare like Croatia's Zlatko Kranjcar and Poland's Pawel Janas maybe had to go because of results. I should mention that other coaches had already decided they were leaving their posts before the tournament started like England's Sven Goran Eriksson and Japan's Zico and our own Guus Hiddink.

What I have found particularly interesting is the variation in the speed with which replacement coaches are appointed. For European teams this has to be done quickly especially with qualification for Euro 2008 starting in September and some friendlies lined up before that. Take for example Italy's appointment of their new coach Roberto Donadoni. The previous coach Marcelo Lippi stepped down on a Wednesday and Donadoni was appointed on Thursday. That was a one day turnaround. The other appointments have been quick like Wim Rijsbergen for Trinidad and Tobago and Joachim Loew for Germany because these two were previously assistants to Leo Beenhakker and Klinsmann respectively.

Compare this to the time it took England, for example, to appoint Steve McLaren. Looking at it now this should have taken the shortest time since McLaren was already working under Sven.

Which begs the question as to why it takes so long for some football associations and yet its so quick for others. I think there are a number of factors including whether the replacement is already employed somewhere or not. Australia is also looking at appointing a coach to take the Socceroos forward after their exploits in Germany. I would expect this to take some time because Australia's situation is a bit unique with most players based overseas but also a good number in the local A-League. The coach could be based in Europe like Hiddink was or could be based here in Australia. The US have to replace Bruce Arena as well and they also face the same situation with a number of players in the domestic MLS and others based abroad mostly in Europe.

Talking about the new England coaching setup, this rumour of Terry Venables assisting Steve McLaren, shouldn't this be the other way round?

Italy wins on penalties

Italy won the 2006 FIFA World Cup on penalties and I think they deserved it on the strength of their performance throughout the tournament. I thought France did enough to win this World Cup in regulation time but they just couldn't break down Italy's defence well marshalled by their captain Fabio Cannavaro. France dominated the game especially from the second half onwards but they couldn't get that vital second goal and Italy depended on their illustrious defending and sporadic counter attacks and set-pieces to force the match into penalties.

The talking point in this World Cup final will however, be always about the sending off of Zidane in extra time. In Zinedine Zidane's last match before retiring from football that wasn't the best way to say farewell but he did enough in the final to show why he is regarded one of the best footballers ever. Before the sending off I reckon the major talking points would have been the foul that led to France's penalty and Italy's disallowed second half goal.

Its unfortunate that David Trezeguet is the one who missed a penalty for France because when more that one player misses it doesn't look that bad. Trezeguet's penalty was so similar to the one Zidane scored in normal play but the difference is that his didn't cross the line. For Italy it was fitting that Fabio Grosso scored the winning penalty. He has been a revelation for Italy and has had a very good tournament. For me Grosso and Germany's Philip Lahm were the best left backs in the tournament.

From the way Italy played after their equaliser and more so in the second half I could tell that these guys were not so concerned by penalties the way they were against Germany in the semis and when it came time to take them you could see that they had practised penalties very well and I think the whole team could have scored if that was needed.

So for a change Italy triumph on penalties in a World Cup.

France meets Italy in World Cup Final

France edged past Portugal this morning to set up a date with Italy in the 2006 FIFA World Cup final. Portugal's lack of goals proved to be the decisive factor as France scored through a penalty and defended that goal to the end. On the other hand, Portugal whom I thought would be the winner, did everything right but score.

Portugal would have learnt that possession and corner kicks are good but if they don't produce goals then they are only good for post match analysis and very little after that. Having said that, the central defensive partnership of Lilian Thuram and William Gallas was superb and worked vey well and in the end it forced Portugal to resort to long range shots which caused France no problems at all.

I think that in a way this match was rather subsued because ten players went on the pitch knowing that another yellow card would rule them out of the final. For France this included Zidane and Vieira but in the end Louis Saha is the only one who is going to miss out and I think he will look at his first yellow card against Brazil and wish he had been more thoughtful then.

Turning now to the incident that led to the penalty: Was it a dive? I will leave it for others to answer but what I can say is that if it was then its unfortunate because Thiery Henry always says that he never dives but if it wasn't then then the referee did a very good job in spotting the foul.

Looking forward to the final, it will be 4am local time here in Melbourne which is good in the sense that we can watch the whole match including extra time if there is any and still have ample time to start preparing for work and other daily activities. I don't forsee it as being a classic final but one that will be dominated by defence and attack on the counter but you never know.

In my opinion, the USA game aside, Italy have played very well in this tournament and if I were to choose a winner I would choose them. France on the other hand have to come to life in the knockout stages where they are still to concede a goal in open play and rightly deserve to be in the final. A win for France will be a good send off for Zidane.

Italy stops Germany run

Germany's splendid run came to an end this morning against a well-organised Italian team that I think in the end deserved to win in the way they took the game to the Germans especially in extra time. Just like against the Socceroos the Italian won the match in the dying minutes of the game only this time there was no controversy because both goals were excellent especially Fabio Grosso's one.

Following on from the last World Cup the hosts fell in the semis and ironically it was Germany who knocked out the hosts South Korea last time around and now they will have to fight for third place which is not bad for a team that was never expected to reach the semis and whose coach was dismissed as inexperienced. I donít know whether Germany was holding on for penalties in the latter stages of the game because had the match gone on to penalties I think Germany would have won it.

Italy now go to the final knowing that so far no opposition player has scored against them. Italy last conceded a goal that was an own goal by Cristian Zaccardo in the 27th minute against USA in their second group E match. That sounds like a long time ago now. Whoever they meet in the final must therefore be aware of this good defensive record.

I just want to mention the refereeing. This time I think the referee Benito Archundia was too lenient to both teams. A lot of fouls that would have earned a free kick at least or a yellow card at worst in previous rounds were waved play on. If you look at the fouls and yellow cards given to Tunisia in the Tunisia/Spain match and to Australia in the Australia/Brazil match, you can't just ignore the sense of injustice to both teams or maybe I am wrong in my assessment. Any thoughts?

Looking ahead to the other semi, I am still going for Portugal but it wont be easy and possibly depends on whether Zidane clicks again.

England, Brazil bundled out

I didn't think both England and Brazil were going to bow out in the manner they did but the fact of the matter is England and Brazil were bundled out of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany this morning.

I think England put on their best performance in the tournament but once again came short in the exciting penalty shoot-out. But I think there were always questions about England the moment Sven-Goran Eriksson decided to take inexperienced Theo Walcott at the expense of Bent and Defoe. Before being sent off Wayne Rooney didn't have the best of games but it wasn't because he is not good, it was just because he was performing an unfamiliar role of lone striker and also very few balls were coming his way and hence the frustration.

Had say Defoe been in the team, Sven might have used two strikers instead of one with Rooney playing behind Defoe. I think one striker was used because the combination of Crouch and Rooney doesn't seem to work. So the question is: Why did Walcott go the World Cup in the first place?

Talking about Brazil, there was a marked difference between the Brazil that played in the 2005 Confederation Cup and the Brazil that was in Germany this time. Were they overconfident going into the tournament? Whatever the answer to that France picked up from where they left against Spain and the Brazilians could not find their rhythm and for France the next stop is Portugal.

With Deco and Costinha back for Portugal it looks like it will be an exciting and evenly poised encounter but I will go for Portugal.

Germany march continues

I should say I was disappointed with Argentina who bowed out of the World Cup this morning after the penalty shoot-out against Germany. Argentina dominated the first half although creating very little in terms of chances but once they scored I thought they just lost control a little bit and this was partly because Germany was coming back into the game in search of an equaliser.

In my opinion Argentina got it wrong with the substitutions. Yes, it was unfortunate that Abbondanzieri got injured because that threw away Argentina's game plan out through the window and they were now limited to two on-field substitutions but taking off Riquelme I think was a mistake because then the game was not won. Also when Jose Pekerman, the Argentian coach took off Crespo, he should have put in Messi or Saviola instead to put pressure on Germany. Riquelme's absence was acutely felt in extra time where Argentina just played like another ordinary side.

On the other hand Germany substitutions were quite good especially David Odonkor who really made Sorin work hard in the second half and Sorin's overlaps from then on were limited.

Once again Germany prevailed in a penalty shoot out and you couldn't bet against them especially with Jens Lehmann being so good at penalties. Now Germany meet Italy who I thought played quite well.The match could have been different had Ukraine converted their two chances just before Luka Toni scored his first goal. Also credit to Italy, they did not try to defend the one goal advantage and in the end scored three.

Italy-Germany will be an intriguing match and I am can see Germany in the final again for the second World Cup running.

Ghana bow out as Ronaldo breaks record

The Black Stars of Ghana bowed out of the FIFA World Cup this morning but they gave good account of themselves. I was impressed by Ghana's first half display but once again they were let down by their wayward shooting and discipline. Brazil knew what they had to do and they got what counts in football and that's goals.
In the last ten minutes alone Brazil could have scored at least three goals and you cannot afford to play with ten men against Brazil let alone eleven. Once again as expected all the marginal decisions went the big team's way and I think that included Adriano's goal.
It was good to see Ronaldo break the World Cup scoring record and after so much criticism at the start of the tournament he is beginning to find his feet. I guess it will take long time to break that record especially with football getting so defensive and standard of play having been raised across the board.
Back to Ghana, Ghana's exit means the end of African participation in this World Cup and now there are only two continents left, South America and Europe compared to five at this stage at the last World Cup.
For Ghana its time to move on. They can look back with pride at this campaign and they can build upon the good platform they have laid especially with Ghana hosting the next edition of the Africa Nations Cup in eighteen months time.
In the last game of the second round France turned on the style and Spain looked out of their depth as Vieira and Zidane dominated the midfield. To me it looked like the only way Spain could score was through another penalty and for once there was a very good referee in Roberto Rosetti who nearly got every decision right.
Interestingly, Spain alongside Switzerland are the only first round group winners to fail to qualify for the quarter finals where Portugal and Ukraine are the only non-previous winners among the eight teams left standing.
But for me its back to the France 98 final as Brazil meet France in the quarter finals and will Ronaldo this time be a match winner instead?

So near yet so far for Socceroos

The Socceroos went out of the FIFA 2006 World Cup with a fight and I think they gave their all but in the end Italy most probably deserved to win given that they had better clear cut chances and played the game to their strengths.
The turning point of the game was obviously the sending off of Marco Materazzi. I think that the red card in a way actually benefited the Italians more because they were then able to revert to the defensive game which they are more than capable of doing. They defended very well and the Socceroos needed a creative player on the park to take the game to them but there just wasnít any. The absence of Brett Emerton through suspension and Harry Kewell through injury was strongly felt as we could not take advantage of playing the ball along the flanks and I think the presence of these two players could have dramatically changed the course of the game.
Then came the penalty. The referee was so close to the action but I donít seem to have seen what he saw as foul play. With the match so close to the finish and some of us already preparing for another 30 minutes or so of less sleep it just wasn't the right time to concede a goal and especially when the team had given so much and made every Socceroo fan proud. The rest is history.
I hope the experience from this campaign will help shape the future of the game and especially looking at the South Africa 2010 World Cup. The bar has now been raised and we are no longer just happy to qualify for the World Cup but to also get there and play a big part in the proceedings. I also hope that there is going to be a big improvement in the FIFA ranking for the Socceroos.
In the other game it was sad to see Switzerland go home having played so well and conceded no goal in open play but such is football. I didnít understand the Swiss substitution of Alexander Frei with penalties looming. Being the top Swiss striker he could have a say in the shoot-out and in the end they failed to convert a single penalty.
Italy/Ukraine match to me looks like there can only be one winner and that will be Italy. Shevchenko will have big say on that against the defenders he knows fully well from Serie A but I think the semi-finals are a bridge too far for Ukraine.

Sixteen yellow cards, four red

I have never seen a match like this one before where cards flew like confetti. This was the Portugal/Netherlands match or contest if you like. Portugal should try to avoid any more yellow cards against England as they most probably would be second yellows otherwise they will have very few players to select from should they win and proceed to the semi-finals.
Talking about the match itself it was good to see the Netherlands fight back trying to score and contrast this to the earlier match where you couldn't tell that Ecuador were a goal down and were trying to even the score against a disappointing England. I should say I was happy to see Portugal go through because they play some entertaining football and have a very good coach in Scolari.
Ruud van Nistelrooy must be wondering what is happening in his world now that he found himself on the bench for the whole match and even when his team needed a goal Marco van Basten chose to send in Jan Vennegoor of Hesselin instead. He found himself in a similar situation for his club Manchester United towards the end of last season and its unfortunate he finds himself in the same situation at international level as well.
I think the England/Ecuador match is the most boring and uneventful of all the second round matches played so far. I was regretting having to stay up late to watch this match where Ecuador looked pleased with just getting to the second round of the World Cup and had only one shot on target for the whole match. England against Portugal should therefore hopefully be an interesting tie and its a match where England's resolve will definitely be tested. I am picking Portugal to win by a handful.

Socceroos, Black Stars march on

Yes, the Socceroos and the Black Stars have made it to the second round. All talk in Group F before the tournament was about how Croatia qualified without losing a match and hence were favourites to qualify behind Brazil but this morning that counted for nothing as the Socceroos fought back from behind twice to clinch the required draw. Such was their determination I guess if a win was required they would have got it all the same.
Now Italy awaits and that one is going is be an even tougher assignment with Italy beginning to show why they are one of the favourites to win the World Cup. I take comfort in the fact that Hiddink knows a thing or two about how to defeat the Italians having guided South Korea to victory over Italy in the last World Cup. Having said that the goalkeeping duties must be returned back to Mark Schwarzer.
Turning to the match itself, I don't know what happens to Simunic after he got the second yellow card and didn't leave the field and then went on to get a third yellow card. Is the responsibility with the player or the referee? I wonder what would have happened if he had gone on to score a goal for Croatia. Surely you don't expect such referee blunders to take place at the World Cup stage.
Ghana, what can I say. Before the tournament all talk was about the Czech Republic and Italy and justifiably so because these are top football nations but Ghana has turned the tables upside down. With Ivory Coast having gone out it was looking likely that there was going to be no African nation in the last 16 but Ghana has played some scintillating football especially against the Czech Republic and deserve to be there. Brazil will offer a very stiff test especially without Michael Essien but Ghana have nothing to lose and all they have to do is give their all and see what happens after all this is their first World Cup.
Looking forward to tonight's matches Tunisia can qualify if they can overcome Ukraine whilst the most interesting tie is the one involving Togo and France. France could go out if they don't win this match and I will be watching this match with much interest.

Advantage Socceroos!

Yes, its advantage Soccerooos as the Socceroos have their fate in their own hands going into the last game against Croatia. It was a very good composed display against Brazil who everybody expected to win anyway and the good news is that none of the players on one yellow card got another one and so all players will be available for selection come Friday's game. The same cannot be said of Croatia though with Robert Kovac now suspended and they will miss his influence in defence.
Croatia were a shadow of the team that played Brazil and if they play like that against the Socceroos then we would be in the second round before we know it. Its going to be very important for the Socceroos not to play for a draw and in the event of a one goal lead it will be better to try and avoid defending that slender lead but continue to attack. Friday morning could see another whole new chapter written in the history of Australian football.
Mathematically Japan can still qualify for the second round but they would need to beat Brazil by a sizeable margin and then hope that either Croatia hold Australia or Croatia narrowly beat Australia. I just can't see that happening.
Although France only managed a draw against S Korea, I think they will be able to beat Togo in their last match and advance to the second round. You would expect a team like France to be able to kill off the game especially having scored so early but S Korea to their credit finished strongly and now a win against the Swiss will see them through to the next round.
Turning to yesterday's action it was good to see Africa's first win in the form of Ghana beating the Czech Republic. This is a game I didnít expect Ghana to come up with anything especially given the way the Czech dismantled the USA but in the end Ghana could have won by a bigger margin had it not been for the brilliance of Peter Cech. For a moment I thought that Ghana would regret the missed penalty but then they sealed the game with a spectacular goal. Its very important that Ghana keeps its feet to the ground because nothing has been won yet and USA are going to give them a very good game because they also can still qualify for the second round.
And talking about the US/Italy game, it was good to see that referee took the bold decision and dished out the red cards when they were supposed to be given.

Unexpected World Cup results

I think there hasn't been some real upsets in the 2006 FIFA World Cup so far but I could say there has been some unexpected results. The most notable one is the Serbia and Montenegro's 6 nil loss to Argentina. From a team that qualified having just conceded a solitary goal to a team that has now shipped in 7 goals is a bit of transformation. Without taking anything away from Argentina who I thought did nothing wrong and gave by far the best performance so far, one would have expected the goal margin to be at least a two goal margin but six no. By the time Kezman was sent off, his team was already 3 goals down so that wasn't much of a factor either.
Another result which was a bit unexpected is the Mexico draw with Angola. I should say Angola played particularly well and whilst they did everything well in defence and midfield they ran out of ideas in the final third. But having watched Mexico against Iran my expectation was for Mexico to at least score a goal.
Back to Angola, its good to see Angola going into their final match with a chance to still qualify for the second round but to do that they have to score and possibly not just one goal. Also good was the fact that Joao Ricardo became the second African player to get the Fifa man of the match award in this tournament.
England, well, have their work cut out and I just don't see them beating Sweden in the final match unless the team's form changes dramatically overnight. Trinidad and Tobago were unfortunate to lose that game having done everything right but score in their few chances and I hope they will be able to score at least a goal against Paraguay.
It would be interesting to see if Ukraine can still come back from their humiliating defeat against Spain and qualify for the second round and having said that I think it would be appropriate for a profilic goal scorer in club football like Shevchenko to come up with at least a goal from the World Cup. I should also add that the goal margin in that match was also unexpected.

Socceroos on pole position

The first round of the FIFA World Cup Group F matches has been completed and guess what the Socceroos are on top of the table! If this was the final table surely I would frame it. The truth is there is still a long way to go
Now that I have seen all the four teams in the group play I can look forward and see what we can expect in the coming games. It was very important to win the Japan match but the way it was won meant at one time I wondered where the goal was going to come from but when the goals came there were three of them. I think Japan invited trouble by defending too deep for long periods and one was bound to make a mistake which their goalie did and that led to the first goal and hence the opening of the floodgates.
Looking forward to the next game against Brazil, from the eleven players that finished the Japan match I hope Hiddink starts with ten of them plus Moore minus Kennedy. Its very important that Viduka gets somebody who supports him upfront from the start in the form of Aloisi to cause the Brazil a bit of problems.
Talking about Brazil, Croatia stretched them to the limit and a draw would have been a fairer result but not good for Australia. Croatia played so well that if they play like that in the next two matches then they will have a very big say on who goes to the next round. The only positive thing from the Socceroos point of view, if anything, are the three yellow cards given to Croatia's key players and if they get second yellows then they would miss the final crunch game with the Socceroos.
Elsewhere, I wasn't expecting much from Togo given the reported turmoil in their camp but they gave all they could against South Korea and although France did not win I still expect them to sail to the next round. Ghana's athleticism was good but was required of them was shots on target which Italy to their credit did. I would rather have weak shots on target than blazing powerful shots off target.

Three days gone

Three days have come and gone and its been an interesting World Cup so far. I thought a draw would have been a fair result in the Paraguay/England and Ivory Coast/Argentina matches. Ivory Coast more than impressed me but the million dollar question is can they repeat their performance against Argentina in their next match against Holland. On England, their display against Paraguay means they still have a lot of work to do if they still want to win the World Cup. With Wayne Rooney playing in the later games maybe that will give them more options.
Interestingly, there have been some real nervous starts especially for Paraguay and Angola. In the Angola/Portugal match I was about to reach for my abacus but then Angola settled well and gave Portugal a run of their money in a display that would have made every Angolan proud.
Tonight its the turn for the Socceroos. As said before the Japan game is a must win match for the Socceroos as even a draw may not be good enough with the Brazil and Croatia in such a group. I will wait and see.

Kick off at last

After weeks of hype, analysis, reviews, previews and injury reports at last its kick off time for FIFA 2006 World Cup. For us here in Melbourne, Australia the matches are at 11pm, 2am and 5am local time and I have made a simple decision to just watch the 11pm and 5am matches if possible and leave the 2am ones for repeats or highlights.
So this morning I watched the Poland/Ecuador match and it was good to see Ecuador come off with a win (away from Quito!) and they now have a very good chance of making it to the second round. I thought they played quite well at times after a shaky start but gave away silly free-kicks in dangerous positions and if they repeat that against Germany they may well be punished. Poland defence looked very shaky and they have to get something from the Germany game or they will be going home.
Now turning to tonight's matches I expect England to come up with a win and anything less will be a huge disappointment. The match I have been waiting for is the Argentina/Ivory Coast one and I am hoping it ends in a draw. I would like both Argentina and Ivory Coast to go through but its a tough group and we will have to wait and see.

Socceroos' group review

I am sure every Socceroos fan was just excited for Australia to be represented in Germany at the World Cup but now with less than a week to go to the actual tournament I am expecting the Socceroos not only to be there but to progress to the next round.
In the Socceroos' Group F, Brazil are obviously the favourites to go through to the next round possibly as group winners. Brazil has got a very strong and experienced squad and score goals from almost anywhere. I think its up to Australia, Japan and Croatia to grab the second spot and I think the Socceroos have a very good chance of doing it.
The team has changed dramatically since the Confederation Cup in 2005 with Hiddink taking over as coach. While the players have remained nearly the same since the Confederation Cup, the attitude has changed and the team is more organised and bubbling with confidence. Having said that Croatia and Japan are no pushovers.
Croatia qualified for the World Cup without losing a single game but just one draw. Having failed to qualify for the second round for both the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004 tournaments, they will come here with determination to progress as far as they can.
Japan on the other hand are the current Asian champions and are well organised and disciplined and very fast on the ball. The team has continued to improve under Zico and they now more players with European exposure and on their day they can beat anyone. One thing in their favour is that they play Brazil last. If Brazil has qualified by then (by winning the first two games), I don't see them risking their top players in the third game and that could give Japan an advantage. For that to be worthwhile Japan should have got points from their first two games. The flip side is that if Brazil has not qualified by then, it will then become a cup final for Brazil and you can guess who winner will be.
Therefore its important that the Socceroos get something from their first game against Japan so that they don't go into the game against Brazil pointless. The fact that Socceroos play Croatia last is good because that's a winnable game and it would be good for us fans for the team to go into that last game with qualification to the next round still a possibility.

African World Cup teams review

I am normally used to seeing Cameroon and Nigeria at the World Cup but this year there are four new African teams compared to the last World Cup and so its going to be interesting to see how they perform.
When I saw the draw for Ivory Coast in December 2005 I just thought that was the end of it for Ivory Coast because theirs is a very tough group and one would normally expect at least Argentina to go through. But over the last few months I have to come believe that Ivory Coast could potentially go into the second round. With the emergency of Eboue they have a very good defence marshalled by the dependable Toure and up front they have Drogba and so it looks like they could pull through but I should say its not going to be easy for them.
Ghana didn't do well in the African Nations Cup but with Essien in the team they look like a different team now. They have played well in their friendlies but having said that their group is very tough. The Czech Republic is a very good team and so are Italy and the USA and its interesting to see if Ghana goes through who will miss out.
From the little I have seen of Angola I don't think they will be in the second round. Their squad is mostly the one that took part in the Africa Nations Cup and they also failed in their bid to get some players who ply their trade in Portugal and have played for Portugal before to play for them. I would fancy Portugal to be top in their group with Mexico slight favourites for second although Iran are quite capable of an upset because they now have a stable and experienced team.
Tunisia is only African team that were there in the S Korea/Japan World Cup that will be in Germany. They have a very experienced coach and in the Africa Nations Cup they did quite well and I think their group is an open one and they could potentially be in the second round. I actually think they have the best chance of progressing to the round of 16 of all the African teams.
I don't know what to expect from Togo but I think they will get 'special' treatment from France. Having lost to Senegal in the last World Cup, I think France will make sure they win this game. Togo should have a good chance of reaching the second round if they can get at least four points from the Switzerland and South Korea matches but again that's its quite a tall order for them. They now have a new coach after having had Keshi at the Nations Cup and hopefully they will up for their game for the World Cup.
What do you think?

World cup friendlies - any pointers

For the last two to three weeks we have seen a number of pre-World Cup friendlies and I wonder whether as a fan I can draw any conclusions from them.
Our own Australian football team, the Socceroos played well last night against the Netherlands especially in the second half where they had good exchanges of their own and even though they where down to 10 men. But that friendly said more of the Dutch team if anything because they had so much possession especially in the first half but had only goal to show for it. Given how tough their World Cup group is they will probably need to take all their chances to get into the second round. But then again it was just a friendly.
Ivory Coast have played so well in their friendlies and did well to beat Slovenia but does that mean they are going to perform well in the actual world cup with the pressure and only three substitutes and not six?
England did well against Jamaica but in a way that was expected with Jamaica having lost earlier in the week to world cup debutants Ghana who have also done well in their friendlies.
But the likes of Angola and to some extent Poland would possibly like to quickly forget about the results from the friendlies and hope for better fortune in the tournament itself.
Are these friendlies just practice games that we dont have to read too much from them? Or are they real pointers to what is going to happen in Germany over the next month? I wonder.
For us Socceroos fans, expectation couldn't be higher.