Champions League Qualification Round 3

Celtic head up a list of big-name clubs teetering on the brink of elimination before the play-offs for the important Group Games begin, thrashed 3-0 at the hands of unheralded Portuguese club Braga.

Zenit St Petersburg of Russia (who won the UEFA Cup in 2007/08), Ajax Amsterdam of Holland and Turkish mainstays of Europe Fenerbahce – all teams recorded unexpected draws against Unirea Urziceni of Romania, PAOK of Greece and BSC Young Boys of Switzerland, and are set for tense return matches to remain in the competition.

Likely to progress straight to potential meetings with Tottenham Hotspur, Sampdoria, Sevilla, Werder Bremen and Auxerre are FC Basel (comfortable winners away from home against Debrecen), Partizan Belgrade, Dynamo Kyiv and Anderlecht (who saw off the spirited home challenge of Wales’ The New Saints in the first leg).

In the group stages already are some of the most renowned club sides (Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich), some highly successful clubs (Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Benfica) and some hopeful pretenders (Bursaspor, CFR Cluj, FC Twente).

With the Fifa Club Rankings dictating who will avoid who, it is already possible, at this early stage, to say who will head seven of the eight groups as top seeds. Based on UEFA coefficient, the ranking of clubs exists as follows:

1) Inter Milan (Italy) – awarded by UEFA as holders (actual coefficient would see them 6th)
2) FC Barcelona (Spain)
3) Manchester United (England)
4) Chelsea (England)
5) Arsenal (England)
6) Bayern Munich (Germany)
7) Sevilla (Spain)* Not yet qualified
8) AC Milan (Italy)

All teams except Sevilla have already qualified for the Group Stages and therefore will head their respective groups when the draw is made, unless Sevilla are beaten and their place taken by Olympique Lyonnais. The most striking omission of the competing clubs not to appear in the top 8 is Real Madrid; the most successful club in Champions League/European Cup football has performed so dismally for so many years that their ranking has finally sunk to 11th – the lowest it’s ever been.

For the others, lucky enough to be considered as second tier but not lucky enough to avoid playing one of the above, the rankings continue:

9) Olympique Lyonnais (France)
10) Werder Bremen (Germany)* Not yet qualified
11) Real Madrid (Spain)
12) AS Roma (Italy)
13) Shakthar Donetsk (Ukraine)
14) Benfica (Portugal)
15) Valencia (Spain)
16) Marseille (France)

Again, there is one team looking to qualify for the final stage – Werder Bremen. In prime position to take advantage of slip-ups from either Werder Bremen or Sevilla, Zenit St Petersburg, the already-qualified Panathinaikos, Tottenham and already-qualified Rangers are hanging to the tails of grabbing a place in the second seed pot.

Currently as third seeds are:

17) Zenit St Petersburg (Russia)* Not yet qualified
18) Panathinaikos (Greece)
19) Tottenham Hotspur (England)* Not yet qualified
20) Rangers (Scotland)
21) Ajax (Holland)* Not yet qualified
22) Fenerbahce (Turkey)* Not yet qualified
23) Shalke (Germany)
24) FC Basel (Switzerland)* Not yet qualified

Some famous others such as Sampdoria, Anderlecht and Sparta Prague await further down. But for now, this is the way the qualification is panning out.

But a curious fact is that it’s already more than possible to set up groups like this:

Group A)
Bayern Munich
Real Madrid
Tottenham Hotspur
Sampdoria

While at the same time having this:

Group B)
Sevilla
Panathinaikos
Rangers
Litex Lovech

I know which one sounds a more exciting prospect.

In the Europa League, as yet in a formative stage, all that is currently known are a list of clubs currently or soon to be competing, many of whom are normally associated with the top competition:

Liverpool, Juventus, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Villareal (how lucky they are…) PSV Eindhoven, Stuttgart, Sporting Lisbon, Olympiakos, Galatasaray, Borussia Dortmund, CSKA Moscow – all have suffered the relative ignominy of dropping out of the top competition.

For other clubs, there is even worse punishment. There will be no European football for Bordeaux, Lazio, Everton, Fiorentina, Monaco or Wolfsburg. While perhaps clubs like Liverpool and Juventus may feel downhearted at playing for a lesser trophy, it’s better to still be playing than not at all. Spare a thought for RCD Mallorca, though – after narrowly missing out on 4th place (and therefore Champions League football) in the last few moments of the last game of last season, their entrance to Europe via the Europa League was denied only weeks ago because of financial instability. Call it Gregorio Manazano’s revenge.

    Bundesliga Preview 2010-2011

    With the second round of the Premier League taking place this weekend, and with the Spanish and Italian seasons another week away, the German Bundesliga begins tonight. The majority of the games take place tomorrow but the season opener between Bayern Munich (last year’s winners) and VFL Wolfsburg (the previous season’s champions) is the finest opener that could be anticipated.

    As one of the strongest teams in the world right now, Bayern have only improved on last year’s roster, adding the returning Toni Kroos to their fine group already containing Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. They won the league and cup in impressive style, bulldozing teams as the season progressed, as well as knocking out Manchester United, Juventus and Lyon to reach the Champions League final.
    For Wolfsburg, improvement comes in the form of new coach Steve McLaren – fresh from his incredible exploits in Holland with FC Twente – and the arrival of much-coveted Danish defender Simon Kjaer. With little money to spend, Wolfsburg rely heavily on retaining players. For them, the project of the summer was to hold on to star striker and captain Edin Dzeko, as well as Zvjezdan Misimovic, Diego Benaglio and Grafite.
    Bayern are undoubtedly the better-equipped team, able to call on reserves the likes of which most top teams would include as starters (Miroslav Klose, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Hamit Altintop), and, in spite of the probable omissions of Ribery, Robben and Ivica Olic, it’s best to assume Bayern will walk their first game. But rocky times lie ahead.
    The league of the season last year, no other country had a Champions League finalist and Europa League semi-finalist (Bayern and Hamburg). What is certain is that the gulf Bayern once had between themselves and the rest of the teams is shrinking. Wolfsburg, with one or two thrifty acquisitions, could really push on with their current setup; Werder Bremen finished last season with enviable power, giving them the perfect momentum for the start of this season; Bayer Leverkusen were the last unbeaten team in Europe and now have a fully fit frontline of Kiessling and Helmes, two of Germany’s strongest strikers, as well as Michael Ballack.
    There are three other teams with a reasonable chance of challenging the above. Stuttgart have lost Jens Lehmann to retirement and transferred Sami Khedira to Real Madrid but they still possess a core of very strong players; Hamburg are perfectly balanced and contain such firepower as Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Piotr Trochowski and Eljero Elia, making them a particularly tricky team to beat, and without European football to detract their attention, will focus on the league; finally, Shalke have unshackled themselves by letting want-away pair Rafinha and Kevin Kuranyi seek fresh challenges, while persuading players like Raul and Christophe Metzelder to make one final push for silverware in their careers.
    Even the lower-table teams like Cologne, Dortmund and Hoffenheim can all claim to be capable of upsetting Bayern et al.
    The first round of games is as follows:

    Friday: Bayern Munich vs VFL Wolsburg (Bayern to win).
    Saturday: Cologne vs Kaiserslautern (Cologne to win), Freiburg vs St Pauli (draw), Hannover 96 vs Eintracht Frankfurt (draw), TSG Hoffenheim vs Werder Bremen (Bremen to win), Monchengladbach vs Nurnberg (draw), Hamburg vs Shalke (Hamburg to win).
    Sunday: Mainz 05 vs Stuttgart (Stuttgart to win), Dortmund vs Leverkusen (draw).

    Tonight’s test between Wolfsburg and Bayern will be an interesting spectacle for the neutral observer. While I cannot envisage Wolfsburg leaving the Allianz Arena with anything other than defeat, stranger things have happened in German football: in the first round of last season, none of Bayern, Stuttgart, Bremen or Leverkusen managed an opening-day win, yet all 4 ended up in the top 6 and qualified for Europe.
    For Bayern to succeed in a league which is now as strong as the top 3 of Spain, England and Italy, they need a regularly fit core of players. Last season, it was acceptable to rotate due to injury problems (only 6 players passed the 30 game mark), with important players Ribery and Robben regularly unavailable. Thomas Muller was a sensation, providing the much-needed element of surprise as well as the more measurable contribution of 11 assists and 13 goals – but Muller, the Golden Ball winner of the 2010 World Cup, is hardly a surprise anymore! If Ribery, Robben and Olic continue to be absent, the problems of 2008-2009 will inevitably come back and Bayern will find a rival ready to pounce – and that’s precisely what I see happening.
    As the team with all the right ingredients (defenders, goal-scorers and a long-serving, successful coach), Werder Bremen’s time is right now. An impressive 3-1 win over Sampdoria showed that they’re back to their best. With a meeting between the two coming very early in the season (the 3rd round), it is imperative that Bayern do not lose to Bremen or face the prospect of chasing them for the remainder of the season.

      Spain vs Portugal preview World Cup 29/06/10 19:30

      The natural assumption would be to back Spain, who have David Villa, Fernando Torres, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, etc. But that belies some mixed success that has come their way and doesn’t take into account some of the form players of this World Cup – Tiago, Eduardo, Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles, not to mention one Cristiano Ronaldo.
      Read more Spain vs Portugal preview World Cup 29/06/10 19:30

        England vs Germany World Cup Previews 27/06/10 15:00

        Both Germany and England will fancy their chances in this tie, making it nearly impossible to pick a winner. But not completely.

        Two sides exist to judge the teams: recent history and potential. From the recent history, Germany have performed better than England and retain many players from their Euro 2008 Final team, as well as a core from the one that reached the semi-finals of World Cup 2006. England, on the other hand, have even more remnants from the team that failed to even make Euro 2008 and a great proportion of the side that slumped to Portugal in 2006.

        But from the potential side of things, one fact shouts clearer than any other: Germany have already been beaten in this tournament. Their shock loss to Serbia confirmed that tough European opposition can intimidate them.

        For England, the mental boost given by being unbeaten, may prove a significant advantage. While the performances have been extremely mixed and unpolished, England have slid into the knockout rounds without the taste of defeat.

        A key battle on the pitch will be Rooney versus Germany’s Arne Friedrich. Friedrich, who plays for now-relegated Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin, is the weak link at the back. His partner, Mertesacker, is far more accomplished and their full-backs highly adept at covering (though Boateng is currently a doubt). Rooney has the ability, like no other England player, to really take the defender on and Friedrich is just the sort of player to feel the nerves should Rooney find himself one-on-one.

        England aren’t without their own faults – a worrying lack of goals, inventiveness and concentration mean that this test against Germany will be at least twice as difficult as the one posed by USA. There certainly is the ability in the team to find that extra level but there is no more time to find it, it must be done immediately. Joachim Low has assembled some of the sharpest youngsters in the game, and if England don’t fire on all cylinders, Germany will overpower them… but England will find that something extra just in time.

        To counteract the lethal Podolski-Klose-Ozil front 3, Capello has an extremely on-form Terry, with Ledley King back to fitness at exactly the right moment, and with two of the most accomplished full-backs in the game, Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole, to run down the flanks. In midfield, Gareth Barry will marshal the tricky Schweinsteiger, and in the battle of the goalkeepers, keep one thing in mind: Neuer has been beaten but James, after being preferred to Green, has not.

        Things are set for the best game of the World Cup so far and England have the smallest of edges in it. Surely, now the heat is really on, Wayne Rooney will find his way to opening his account at the World Cup, too.

          World Cup Last 16 previews Uruguay vs South Korea Mexico vs Argentina

          Now that the group stage games are over – and both 2006’s finalists, Italy and France, have fallen by the wayside – the knockout rounds begin.
          The first of the Last 16 ties to be contested sees Diego Forlan’s Uruguay take on Park Ji-Sung’s South Korea.
          Uruguay will feel full of confidence after finishing above the South African hosts, France and Mexico, especially when some had written the 5th-placed South American qualifiers off before a ball had been kicked. Their forwards, Forlan, Suarez and Cavani, have looked sharp and tricky to contain, whilst at the back, they are one of only 3 teams who have yet to concede a single goal, much thanks to Lugano and Fucile. Read more World Cup Last 16 previews Uruguay vs South Korea Mexico vs Argentina

            Spain vs Switzerland Betting Preview 16 06 2010

            Not a phenomenal game, this should see Spain record a fairly accomplished win.

            Spain are the reigning European champions. They have David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres and Xavi in their ranks. They are unbeaten since losing 2-0 to the USA in the Confederations Cup, nearly a whole year ago – everything is for them, which is why they are the top team in the World Cup. There are few negatives – except that they are likely to be without Iniesta for the opening game.

            Switzerland have never been a major force but reminded the wider world of their talents in recent years by finishing top of their group in 2006, ahead of eventual finalists France, only to be knocked out of the competition in the strangest way, by not conceding a single goal in open play (they lost on penalties to Ukraine). They are a solid team but unspectacular, quite reliant on young defenders like Stephan Lichtsteiner and Philipe Senderos. Their goals tend to come through all-time leading goal-scorer Alex Frei (who is injured), Hakan Yakin (who is too old to be considered a starter anymore) or not at all. Blaise Nkufo looks set to step in.

            It seems that Torres may not start this game, so instead look to leading frontman and new Barcelona signing Villa (38 goals in 58 appearances make the 28 year-old Spain’s second highest scorer of all time). The Barcelona centre backs, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, seem destined for clean sheets, too.

            Spain v Switzerland Spain match betting Switzerland match betting Spain betting spain odds Spain World Cup Betting