Archive for the ‘Football’ Category
In the final part of my look back at some of my personal highlights of following Liverpool in the Champions League, the final three matches are from the 2007/8 and 2008/9 seasons. For the rest of the series, click to read part 1, or part 2.
9. Marseille 0-4 Liverpool
Midway through the 2007/8 group stage, there looked to be only a remote prospect of anything resulting from Liverpool’s Champions League campaign that was worthy of celebrating.
Bottom of the group with one point from three games – six points adrift of group leaders, Marseille – Liverpool’s only hope of qualifying was to win all three of their remaining games. The Reds’ response, while not as dramatic as their Istanbul heroics, has to be considered as the most emphatic turnaround in fortunes of a side who looked certain to be heading out of the Champions League at the group stage.
The recovery began with a record-breaking 8-0 home win against Besiktas, and when Porto arrived at Anfield on matchday 5 needing only a point to guarantee their passage into the next round, they too were beaten 4-1.
But the big test was to come in Liverpool’s final fixture away to Marseille on a bitterly cold December evening.
With both sides level on points, Liverpool could only go through by winning at the Stade Velodrome – something no other English club had ever managed to achieve.
Steven Gerrard’s early goal, scored from the rebound after his penalty had been saved, helped Liverpool get off to a perfect start and Fernando Torres weaved his way between the Marseille defence to add an excellent second goal with only 18 minutes played.
Marseille created chances of their own, but when Liverpool got an early second half goal, the contest was over and Liverpool had survived yet another dramatic Champions League scare.
10. Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal
It might have been tempting to include Liverpool’s second round win over Italian champions-elect Inter Milan in the list for this series, but for sheer drama, the quarter-final against Arsenal was the stand-out Champions League game of the season.
A 1-1 first leg draw at the Emirates had led to some suggestions from the Arsenal camp that Liverpool would be looking to progress on away goals, and may have looked to simply play for a 0-0 draw at Anfield.
But any ideas Liverpool had of keeping a clean sheet were scuppered once Arsenal went ahead in the first half. That was cancelled out by Sami Hyypia’s equaliser before the interval, and with 20 minutes remaining of the second period, Fernando Torres put Liverpool on aggregate for the first time with a wonder strike at the Kop end.
There was enough time left for more twists in a pulsating finish which started when Theo Walcott’s 80-yard run was finished by Adebayor to give Arsenal a second away goal – and with six minutes to go, they were heading into a semi-final meeting with Chelsea.
But less than a minute later, Ryan Babel earned a penalty that was dispatched by Gerrard, and it was once again advantage Liverpool – and the sixth time throughout the two games that there had been a change in the aggregate leaders of the tie.
As Arsenal searched desperately for another equaliser, Liverpool grabbed a fourth goal on the counter attack. In the second minute of added-on time at the end of the second leg, the tie was finally decided with some certainty.
It wasn’t to lead to a third Champions League final in four years though, mostly thanks to injury time drama at the same goalmouth in the semi-final, when a John Arne Riise own goal gave Chelsea a draw at Anfield. That result proved to be crucial in helping the Londoners to finally overcome Liverpool in the last four.
11. Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid
Despite the rich European pedigree of both teams, Liverpool and Real Madrid had never been drawn to play each other over a two-legged European tie. On departing Anfield following their first visit to the stadium in March 2009, Real Madrid may well have wished that statistic was still true.
Knocked out of the competition at the second round stage in each of the previous four seasons, Real Madrid had also started the season badly in Spain in their quest for a third straight La Liga title. But a change of manager shortly before Christmas had led to an improvement in results, and Juande Ramos’ team faced Liverpool on the back of a recent run of ten straight victories in La Liga.
Yossi Benayoun’s goal had been enough to settle a tight first leg at Santiago Bernabeu in Liverpool’s favour, and although Real Madrid hadn’t enjoyed much Champions League success since winning the trophy in 2002, there was more than enough quality in their team for them to turn the tie around on Merseyside.
Several of the Real Madrid team that started the match have since gone onto become key members of their title-winning team under Jose Mourinho, and of those who did go on to leave Madrid, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have each helped their new clubs to reach Champions League finals.
No amount of quality – or experience – could cope with Liverpool’s performance on the night though, and from the moment that Fernando Torres opened the scoring against his old city rivals after 16 minutes, the Reds never looked back.
Two goals from Gerrard and a further strike by Andrea Dossena handed Real Madrid their biggest defeat in the Champions League era, and just one goal short of their heaviest European loss of all time. But the star of the show despite the loss was Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who made a host of spectacular saves to deny Liverpool an even more convincing win.
In the resulting quarter-final, Liverpool were unable to overturn a first leg 3-1 loss at home to Chelsea, despite their considerable efforts in a 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s emphatic defeat signalled the start of a new era of ‘Galacticos’, and a €300m summer spending program was sanctioned – with an intention of seeing Real Madrid return to the summit of Spanish and European football.
Continuing the three-part mini-series of my top eleven matches watching Liverpool in the Champions League. Click here for part 1.
4. Liverpool 2-1 Juventus
Having progressed to the quarter-final stage of the 2004/5 Champions League, Liverpool were given the toughest possible route to the final.
A potential semi-final would involve taking on the runaway league leaders of either the Premier League or the German Bundesliga.
However, Liverpool first had to get past Serie A leaders Juventus, who had conceded just two goals on their way to the quarter-final, and knocked out Real Madrid in the last 16.
Fabio Capello was well aware of what Liverpool were capable of on a European night at Anfield, having twice seen his Roma team exit European competitions at the ground.
But even he would have been stunned by Liverpool’s start to the match, in which a 2-0 lead was established in the opening 25 minutes, firstly thanks to a close range strike by Sami Hyypia and then to Luis Garcia’s dipping 25-yard volley.
It was an important advantage to hold at such an early stage of the tie, though Juventus were powerful opponents with enough time to get back into the tie, and made for a nervy finale once Fabio Cannavaro had bundled in a consolation goal midway through the second half.
Liverpool deservedly held on for victory, and against all odds managed to keep a clean sheet in the second leg to set up an all English semi-final with Chelsea
5. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
Beaten twice by Chelsea in the league, and also in the League Cup Final at Cardiff, Liverpool were given little chance in a two-legged semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled Chelsea side who had already secured the Premier League title.
Neither manager took any risks in a first leg which ended goalless, so it was all set up for a tense evening at Anfield.
The stadium was packed out an hour before kick off for arguably Liverpool’s biggest home match in a generation, and the atmosphere reflected the occasion.
Decibel levels were raised higher still when Milan Baros was brought down in the area by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, but Luis Garcia played on and grabbed what ultimately proved to be the controversial winning goal.
From that moment, it was an exercise of attack versus defence, and for all of Chelsea’s superstars, they simply couldn’t find a way through – until injury time, that was.
Five minutes into a tortuous six minutes of added time Eidur Gudjohnsen was gifted a golden chance to equalise in front of a crowded Kop goal, which would have put the visitors into the final on the away goals rule. Fortunately for the majority inside the ground, Gudjohnsen scuffed his wide, and the 97th minute finally gave a cue for the start of the home celebrations.
6. Milan 3-3 Liverpool
So much has been written about the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ that it’s almost impossible to come up with something new.
Every aspect of the incredible journey, of Taksim Square’s ‘red sea’, or the fans festival outside the stadium has been documented a thousand times already.
I was in Istanbul only for the day, leaving in the early hours of Wednesday 25th May, 2005, and ultimately returning on a flight at around 8.30am the following day. Fans awaiting flights after being bussed directly from the stadium to the airport spent the night camped outside the compact Sabiha Gocken airport – situated on the Asian half of Istanbul.
The match itself is pretty well-known, too. Milan dominated the first half, and with their side 3-0 up at the break, Milan’s supporters celebrated what seemed like the inevitable success which would be coming their way.
Liverpool had other ideas though, and Rafa Benitez’s combination of players who had underachieved over the last couple of seasons along with some influential signings managed to claw their way back into the game and three second half goals for Liverpool turned the match on its head.
The one stand-out moment from a personal viewpoint was the second part of Jerzy Dudek’s double save from Shevchenko in the second period of extra time. Watching from high in the top tier, almost perfectly in line with the goal-line, the moment when Shevchenko’s outstretched leg shaped to volley the ball past Dudek from only a couple of yards out was a moment when time itself seemed to freeze, only restarting once the ball had rebounded off Dudek’s arms and was heading towards the sky.
If there was any one moment in the match when the cup looked destined not to be going back to Italy, that was it.
Dudek was again the hero in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, his final save again being from Shevchenko – and Liverpool had indeed won it five times.
7. Barcelona 1-2 Liverpool
When considering Pep Guardiola’s achievements with Barcelona over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that the team Frank Rijkaard had put together.
La Liga and Champions League winners in 2006, Barcelona looked every bit like a side capable of being the first to successfully defend the trophy in the Champions League era.
With a side consisting of an attacking line-up of Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Messi and Deco, Barcelona were the benchmark for every other club in Europe, and massive favourites against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team who were still struggling to compete with Chelsea and Man United for the domestic title.
Deco put Barcelona ahead on the night, and the Catalans looked good value for their lead until Craig Bellamy levelled the score at the end of the first half.
Liverpool grew in confidence and were rewarded when John Arne Riise added a second goal to end Barcelona’s long unbeaten home run in the Champions League, and also extend Liverpool’s impressive record in the Camp Nou to four games without defeat.
Qualification was not a straightforward affair, however, and Barcelona’s win in the second leg at Anfield meant that Liverpool only made it into the last eight on away goals.
8. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
A surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win over PSV Eindhoven set up a second semi-final against Chelsea in the space of three years.
As in 2005, Liverpool had the advantage of the second leg being at Anfield. But unlike 2005, they failed to earn a draw at Stamford Bridge, and would have to win – potentially by two goals if Chelsea were able to net an away goal.
Daniel Agger provided the breakthrough for Liverpool, who were unable to make any further impression on the scoreline, despite dominating the match.
Dirk Kuyt hit the crossbar with a strike from long-range, and Chelsea, who posed almost no threat throughout the match, would have been happy not to be eliminated long before the game went to penalties.
Liverpool had won a Champions League and an FA Cup on penalties during the two previous seasons, and Chelsea were added to the list of Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out victims without even getting an opportunity to take their final two kicks.
Leading 3-1 after three spot kicks each, Dirk Kuyt’s accurate strike into the corner of Petr Cech’s goal sparked more wild celebrations on the Kop – and a visit to Athens for a Rafa Benitez’s second Champions League final in only his third season at Liverpool.
Chelsea take on Bayern Munich tomorrow in the 2012 Champions League final.
Bayern Munich are the first finalist in the Champions League era to enjoy home advantage in the final, and will be aiming for their fifth European Cup win.
For Chelsea, it is a second final appearance and they’ll be looking to become the first London team to be crowned European champions.
Whatever complaints some may have about how money and corporate sponsorship have created a competition that often appears more concerned with finance than football, it remains the biggest single match in the European football calendar, and the final is an event that I love.
It seems a long time since Liverpool were amongst those competing for the greatest trophy in club football, but during the years in which I attended matches regularly, I was lucky to be present at some of the club’s finest Champions League nights.
In the first of a three-part mini-series, here’s a run down of my personal all time LFC Champions League XI, listed in chronological order.
1. Liverpool 2-0 Roma
In Liverpool’s first season in the Champions League, progression to the second group stage may have represented reasonable progress, particularly when grouped with Barcelona, Galatasaray and Roma.
After collecting three points from their first four games, Liverpool needed to pick up something from the Camp Nou on matchday 5 to avoid being knocked out before the final match – against Fabio Capello’s Italian Champions, Roma.
A 0-0 draw in Barcelona kept the Reds in the competition, but they were still bottom of the group going into the match against Roma.
Requiring a win by at least two goals in order to guarantee progress into the last eight, Jari Litmanen provided the perfect start, scoring from the spot in the opening ten minutes.
Emile Heskey’s headed goal at the Kop end made sure of victory mid-way through the second half on a night which was also memorable for the return of Gerard Houllier to the dugout after 4 months out following life-saving surgery earlier in the season.
2. Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Liverpool
Not many defeats live long in the memory but despite the result, the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final provided plenty of drama.
Holding a narrow 1-0 lead from the first leg, Liverpool went into the half time interval at the BayArena having scored a vital away goal. At 1-1 on the night, Leverkusen needed to score at least twice in the second half to progress.
But within minutes of Gerard Houllier withdrawing Dietmar Hamann from the action, the home side netted twice and stormed into a 3-1 lead.
Liverpool came back once more though, and it was Litmanen who provided another vital away goal with just ten minutes remaining, after beating three men before finishing superbly from the edge of the box.
With a semi final against Man United on offer for the winners, there was still just enough time for Liverpool’s defence to be caught out one more time and after Lucio fired Bayer Leverkusen into a 4-2 lead, Liverpool’s first taste of Champions League football came to an end.
3. Liverpool 3-1 Olympiakos
In Rafa Benitez’s first season in charge, Liverpool’s Champions League group consisted of two sides who had reached the semi final stage during the previous year’s competition.
Yet it was Olympiakos, the Greek champions, who topped the table with one game remaining. Liverpool were three points adrift in third place, and with Monaco facing the already eliminated Deportivo La Coruna in their final game needing only a point to qualify, it was likely that Liverpool and Olympiakos would face a straight fight between themselves for the second qualifying place. And so it proved.
A Liverpool win would only be enough to equal the number of points of Olympiakos, at which point the sides would be separated on the basis of results between each other.
And after losing 1-0 in Athens, Liverpool’s chances of qualifying became even more remote once Rivaldo had put Olympiakos ahead at Anfield. In the context of the head-to-head situation, it was an away goal and Liverpool then needed to win by two clear goals.
Substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle scored an early second half goal, and it was followed up by a strike from another substitute, Neil Mellor with a little more than ten minutes on the clock. The seemingly impossible suddenly became realistic, but as time started to run out, it seemed a long and tense wait before Steven Gerrard’s stunning finish completed the dramatic turnaround with more than 86 minutes played.
Played out in an electric atmosphere at Anfield, the evening set the tone for everything which was to follow for Liverpool in the Champions League that season.
And the three-goal second half comeback might have been a source of encouragement to Liverpool’s players during half time in a certain Turkish dressing room five months later…
I wasn’t surprised to see King Kenny shown the Anfield exit yesterday. However, nor would I have been surprised if Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s Boston-based owners, had opted to stand by the man whom they themselves appointed only a year ago.
There were strong arguments supporting each course of action and whatever decision Liverpool’s American owners were to make would involve taking a risk.
Liverpool’s 2011/12 season is not an easy one to assess. Reaching the final of both domestic cup competitions in the same season is no mean feat, and in Liverpool’s case, it involved having to overcome the best two club sides in the country as well as Chelsea and Everton.
That the Reds couldn’t repeat their Carling Cup win over Chelsea when the two sides met in the FA Cup Final at Wembley may be the source of some regret at Anfield given that their opponents were far from being at their best. Once Liverpool got themselves going they were already 2-0 down, and the task was just too much of an ask in the time remaining.
As disappointing as it was, the FA Cup loss is unlikely to have had anything to do with Dalglish’s sacking, even though a return of two trophies would certainly have made FSG’s decision much more difficult – possibly resulting in a different outcome.
However, while the club’s results in cup competitions have been excellent, results in the Premier League have ultimately cost Dalglish his job – and that’s where progress really becomes difficult to measure.
Performances have generally been better than in either of the two previous seasons. It’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that, with a couple of notable exceptions, Liverpool dominated all of their league fixtures in the first few months of the season.
Progress was clearly evident, as was the quality available throughout the squad despite the team’s difficulties in converting the many chances that were being created.
By February, Liverpool may have trailed the top three by some distance but fourth place remained a realistic goal. Only after a home defeat to Arsenal – another match in which Liverpool dominated and should have won – did the target of Champions League qualification appear unattainable, but even at that stage of the season it would have been unthinkable to imagine Kenny Dalglish losing his job.
Liverpool’s form in the three months following the loss to Arsenal is more likely to be the period of the season that has led to doubts in the minds of the owners as to whether Dalglish is still the man to get the most out of his players. Performances were poor, and were reflected by the results which followed.
Fulham won at Anfield for the first time in their history and in doing so, completed a league double over Liverpool without conceding a goal over the two games. Fulham were one of four teams that Liverpool failed to score against – a list which included Stoke as well as newly promoted Swansea. Meanwhile, West Brom won their first match at Anfield in 25 attempts dating back to 1967 and Wigan, who were being kept off the bottom of the table only on goal difference, also went home from Merseyside with all three points.
For all of the positives on show, there have been too many signs of a team simply not making the progress expected of them, which gave FSG two important questions to answer.
Firstly, was there a confidence that Dalglish would be able to guide Liverpool back into the Champions League next season with largely the same group of players who have been involved in the club’s lowest league placing for 18 years?
Putting aside all loyalty to Dalglish, it would be easy to understand why the owners would have doubts, especially when bearing in mind that having recognised at the turn of the year that all Liverpool were missing was better finishing, Dalglish found himself unable to bring about an improvement during the second half of the season.
Secondly, was there a trust in Dalglish’s ability to invest wisely, particularly after spending large amounts on players who have yet to represent good value for money?
Again, there are difficulties in defending last summer’s transfer dealings, when huge sums were invested in players specifically brought to Anfield in order to boost Liverpool’s prospects in the league.
The players brought in were those who knew the Premier League and who wouldn’t need the time to adjust to the style of English football. It’s not fair to make a final judgement of each player on the basis on one year, though not one summer signing can yet be considered a success at Liverpool.
When considering issues such as the above, John W Henry and co have clearly concluded that too many question marks remain over whether Dalglish is the man who they trust to help realise their ambitions for LFC.
Whilst I feel that any manager appointed at any club should be given at least two full seasons before he is under threat, it’s obviously important that the manager has the board’s full support at the start of the season. Any lack of confidence in Dalglish would only be highlighted further if, for example, Liverpool were to start next season badly, and uncertainties over the manager’s position once the season had started would only contribute to an unhelpful atmosphere at the club and threaten to destabilise the whole campaign.
For that reason, and taking into account the doubts that quite clearly exist in Boston, removing Dalglish immediately is probably the right move, even if it means losing a few friends on the Kop in the process. The success of FSG’s next managerial appointment will determine whether any frustration towards them for dismissing a Liverpool legend can be quickly forgotten.
Dalglish won’t leave the Anfield dugout as a manager who has failed, but rather as one who has succeeded in steadying a ship which has endured much turmoil over the last 2-3 years.
And despite the lowly Premier League finish, Liverpool FC is a much more attractive job to a potential new manager than it has been at any stage during the previous two years.
For that, Dalglish deserves more credit than anyone.
The 20th Premier League campaign saw its final round of games yesterday and a chance to reflect on a mixed bag of pre-season predictions.
Back in August, I picked Man United as title winners – purely based on Man City’s unique ability to shoot themselves in the foot whenever they seem to be making progress.
Ironically, after Man City had done exactly that – losing a comfortable lead in the title race and falling eight points behind Man United in April – it was their Manchester rivals who self-destructed, and in doing so left themselves needing a highly improbable combination of results on the final day in order to take the title.
Yet it was a combination of results which looked set to occur at the moment when the final whistle was blown at the Stadium of Light, where Man United had beaten Sunderland.
Man United were technically the league leaders at that stage, with Man City’s home match against QPR still to finish, and with QPR holding a 2-1 advantage as the game entered a second minute of added on time, there was every likelihood that Man United would stay on top.
Even an equalising goal by Edin Dzeko wasn’t enough to swing the title race back in favour of Man City, but an almost immediate winner in the 94th minute by Sergio Aguero sealed one of the most remarkable title wins, and City’s first since the 1960′s.
Chelsea and Liverpool – my picks for 3rd and 4th place – both had disappointing league campaigns, though each club did at least collect some silverware to show for a more impressive showing in knockout competitions.
Arsenal did qualify for the Champions League after a roller-coaster season of their own. Recovering from a poor start, a surge in form put them in pole position for 3rd place before a late wobble almost led to Arsene Wenger’s side throwing it away.
Tottenham’s form was quite the opposite. After a slipping out of contention for the title shortly after the turn of the year, they went on to drop out of the top four altogether before recovering in recent weeks to finish ahead of Newcastle, who lost three of their final four games.
Spurs still have a week to wait in order to discover whether or not their efforts will be enough to see them qualify for the Champions League. A Chelsea win against Bayern Munich would see them, rather than Spurs, claim one of the four slots allocated for English clubs.
Away from the teams battling for the title or for a top four position, I predicted that Everton would be 7th, which they did. Unfortunately for David Moyes’ team, the Carling Cup was won by a side finishing lower in the table, which prevented a Europa League place from being available to the 7th placed team in the league.
Offering predictions as to who will go down is always a risky exercise before the season has kicked off, but only a late Stoke goal denied me a two-out-of-three success rate! Swansea never looked in danger of being dragged into a relegation battle, and deserve credit for following the likes of Wigan, Stoke and Reading in surviving a first year in the top flight when so many people expect them to go straight back down.
Bolton’s inability to hold on for a win at Stoke yesterday meant that it was they, rather than QPR, who would go down. They joined Blackburn and Wolves in dropping into the Championship next season.
Blackburn’s miserable 18 month spell in the hands of new owners had already seen them end a 12-year run in the top flight, and after Wolves sacked the man who had kept them in the Premier League during the previous two seasons, they went on a 13 game run without a win to ultimately finish 12 points from safety and end the season rooted to the foot of the table.
For the neutral, it’s been a great end to a season which at one point looked on course to have every major position decided long before the campaign ended.
As a Liverpool fan, it’s just been great to end the season!
Wigan are becoming the Premier League’s finest escape artists. The manner in which the club continually flirt with relegation before eventually going on to secure their top flight status is starting to look as if Wigan get themselves into ever more desperate situations each year simply to provide themselves with a challenge.
Here are three of Wigan’s great escapes.
The greatest escape of all. After an impressive first top flight campaign a year earlier, Wigan looked to be following it up with another solid season, and were nine points clear of 18th placed Charlton Athletic by the middle of March.
Relegation wasn’t even on the agenda.
But that all changed after taking just three points from their next eight games, and Wigan went into the final weekend of the season in 18th position, three points behind West Ham and Sheffield United.
Ironically their last fixture was away to Sheffield United and Wigan knew that only a win would be enough. Such a scenario would even have led to both sides staying up if West Ham had lost to Man United, who had already been crowned Champions. But Carlos Tevez’s infamous winner for West Ham ensured that the Londoners were certain to survive, and Sheffield United v Wigan became a straight contest to decide who would go down.
Against the odds and playing with 10 men following a sending-off, Wigan won 2-1 and went level with their opponents on 38 points, but leapfrogged Sheffield United by virtue of a +1 better goal difference.
It was the narrowest escape of any Premier League team to have avoided relegation, and given that the two sides involved were facing each other on the last day, remains perhaps the most dramatic last day survival in the Premier League era.
A 4-0 home defeat to newly promoted Blackpool was just about the worst possible result with which to kick off a new season and Wigan’s 6-0 loss to Chelsea only a week later left the Latics looking like early favourites for the drop.
The defeats continued – albeit they were not always quite so emphatic – and Wigan looked during much of the season like a side who were very much in danger of going down.
Although they were never more than a couple of results away from getting out of the bottom three, Wigan continually failed to pick up the results that they needed, and occupied 20th place in the league with less than a month of the season to play.
A fixture list consisting of four away games and just two at home was hardly the most appealing for a team who desperately needed to pick up points, but Wigan did finally start to do just that. The highlight was a 90th minute Charles N’Zogbia winner in Wigan’s penultimate match of the season at home to West Ham, who had led 2-0 at half time – an outcome that would have sent Wigan down.
On the last day of the season, even a win for Wigan – in a difficult away fixture at Stoke – wasn’t guaranteed to be enough. Wigan took three points, which ultimately proved to be good enough to see them stay up – helped by some favourable results in games involving their rivals.
Having not learnt anything from their narrow escape only months earlier, Wigan got off to another dreadful start this season, taking only five points from their first 11 games.
A run of nine straight defeats in all competitions had many people writing off Wigan’s chances by early November. And with Wigan remaining at the foot of the table in mid-February, five points from safety and having endured a separate ten match run without a single win, all evidence suggested that their luck was finally out – and that Roberto Martinez’s side were relegation certainties.
But while a host of clubs above them were enduring a run of defeats, Wigan picked up a few draws during February and March which helped them to edge a little closer to safety.
It was enough to climb off the bottom of the table, but Wigan remained in the bottom three, with a far tougher looking set of fixtures were still to come.
Stranger things have happened in the Premier League than a relegation-threatened team winning against a top-four club, but Wigan were in a position that demanded they would need to win more than just one of their games against top clubs.
An astonishing sequence of results saw them win four such games, but not until after they’d taken maximum points in away wins at Liverpool and Arsenal, and also beaten both Manchester United and Newcastle did Wigan appear to have any genuine hope of survival.
If 2007 was the most dramatic escape, then Wigan’s form over the last weeks of the 2011-12 season in guaranteeing another season of top flight football surely mark their most impressive escape – one that was sealed with a 1-0 win at Blackburn, a sixth win in eight games.
If only Wigan could start a season in such fine form…
Set up in May last year, one of the first pieces written for this blog was about how the FA Cup had lost much of the ‘magic’ that has always led it to be such a special competition to win.
A year on, with the 2012 final set to take place in under an hour’s time, there is even more evidence of how the event is no longer the occasion it once was.
The FA Cup sponsored by AXA is no more, and in its place is The FA Cup with Budweiser 2012 Final.
Meanwhile, the traditional 3.00pm kick off has been replaced with a start time of 5.15pm, no doubt a bid to maximise TV audiences not only in the UK but also in North America – an important factor given that ESPN, an American based cable television broadcaster, secured a four-year rights deal to broadcast live FA Cup matches from the start of last season.
For those travelling to the match, there’s also been the added inconvenience caused by scheduled track maintenance work undertaken by Network Rail, meaning that tens of thousands of supporters from Liverpool were left without the option of rail travel on the day of one of the nation’s biggest annual sporting events.
At least the match itself promises plenty of drama. Liverpool and Chelsea have developed quite a rivalry over the past decade, and meet in the final for the first time.
Chelsea go into the final with a possibility of winning two major trophies this season. It’s been a huge turn-around in the fortunes of a club that appeared to be in turmoil only a couple of months ago, and Roberto Di Matteo has the chance to become the 16th person to win the competition both as a player and a manager.
His opposite number, Kenny Dalglish, can already claim that feat, and a Liverpool win would give Dalglish his third FA Cup win as a manager – a tally bettered by only five managers in the competition’s 140-year history.
From a personal point of view, Liverpool’s most recent FA Cup final success was the last major final I was lucky enough to attend in person.
Having already witnessed Liverpool winning all three European trophies on offer, and also the League Cup and Charity Shield, the FA Cup was the only cup competition left to witness live. And for much of the contest with West Ham United, the dream of watching Steven Gerrard lift the oldest cup competition in football looked to be fading away.
West Ham had performed brilliantly on the day, and were within touching distance of the cup before Steve Gerrard’s stunning 35-yard strike in the last minute of the game saw the match go to extra time, and eventually requiring penalty shoot-out heroics from Pepe Reina to decide the match.
It was a typical Liverpool cup final – plenty of goals, drama, and nail-biting tension. Neutrals watching the game on both sides of the Atlantic would probably be delighted with more of the same.
Personally I’d prefer it if, just for once, Liverpool could lift a cup following a match involving a slightly more comfortable 90 minutes for their fans!
The appointment of Roy Hodgson as England’s new manager has attracted plenty of negative reaction.
Some of the disappointment is simply from those who wanted – indeed, expected – Harry Redknapp to be appointed to the role but even amongst those who aren’t particular fans of Redknapp, there’s been a distinct lack of enthusiasm at seeing a man appointed England manager without having ever won a major trophy in English football.
Before even looking at whether or not Roy Hodgson was right to be considered for the role, it’s important to look at the team he’s actually going to manage.
Since winning the World Cup on home soil in 1966, the record of the England national team at major finals has been largely unimpressive.
Semi final losses at Italia 90 and Euro 96 represent the closest that England have come to lifting a second piece of major silverware despite the efforts by some of England’s most popular managers to change that, as well as leading names brought in from overseas.
Glenn Hoddle reached the second round of his one and only tournament in charge of England while his popular successor, Kevin Keegan, failed to lead England out of the group stage of Euro 2000 and a win over an equally poor German side was scant consolation for a thoroughly disappointing campaign in Holland and Belgium.
Sven Goran Eriksson, the first man from overseas to take charge of England, brought with him a wave of optimism following some impressive results during the early stages of his five years in charge. The fact that such results – including the 5-1 win in Germany – were achieved by playing good football only led to increased expectations, although that all fizzled out as tournament after tournament ended in quarter-final elimination.
At least the team had qualified for finals under Eriksson. Steve McClaren’s disastrous spell in charge of England’s involved nothing more than an unsuccessful bid to reach Euro 2008.
McClaren had been one of two or three English managers considered for the job before being appointed on the back of solid year at Middlesbrough and after bringing his 18-month tenure to a sudden end, the FA were quick to replace a relatively inexperienced English manager with a multiple title-winning Italian in their attempts to revive the nation’s footballing fortunes.
That didn’t work too well, either.
For all of the wins in qualifying or friendly matches, Fabio Capello’s sole tournament during his four years in the job saw England struggle to get out of a group containing Slovenia, USA and Algeria. A 1-0 win over Slovenia in the final group game was enough to ensure that England would leapfrog their fellow Europeans into second place and scrape through to the second round – where they were subsequently thumped 4-1 by Germany and put out of their World Cup misery.
So, whilst many sections of the country may find it difficult to get overly excited at seeing Roy Hodgson leading England, it’s fair to say that each person to have had the job before him have failed to get the most out of the highly talented group of players available for selection.
Hodgson doesn’t have quite the luxury of so many top class players, and some of the experienced players still involved are unlikely to be playing international football for too much longer.
However, one thing which should go in his favour is that the outgoing West Brom manager does have the benefit of experience coaching at international level.
In 1992, Switzerland went into the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup as one of the fourth group of seeds, ranked alongside Wales and Northern Ireland. But Hodgson’s team finished runners-up to Italy in the qualifying group and at the expense of both Portugal and Scotland, the Swiss went on to qualify for the finals in America, a tournament which England had failed to reach.
USA ’94 was Switzerland’s first major tournament qualification since 1966, and marked only the second time that Switzerland had progress beyond the first round – the only precedent being a quarter-final appearance in the 1954 Swiss hosted World Cup.
Within 18 months, Switzerland’s World Cup appearance was followed up with a successful qualification for Euro 96 during which Hodgson’s side easily topped a group containing Turkey and 1994 World Cup semi-finalists Sweden.
It was to be the first time in ten attempts that Switzerland’s had reached the finals of the European Championships but Hodgson resigned as soon as the qualification campaign ended in order to manage Inter Milan.
His other international experience came with a spell in charge of Finland who he almost took to the finals of Euro 2008. Despite being amongst the fifth seeds in a group of seven, only three points separated Finland from their first ever appearance at the finals of any major competition.
Roy Hodgson might not have the charm of someone like Harry Redknapp, nor a collection of silverware to rival that of Fabio Cappello. But despite some of the lower moments in his career which many English fans focus on, there have been too many successes in Hodgson’s career to ignore and for which he deserves respect.
Much of the success has been by over-achieving with clubs and national teams who have only modest expectations but with the expectation of the English national team seemingly at its lowest point since the early 1990′s, Hodgson could yet win over many of the doubters.
Men who have been more popular and more decorated have failed to deliver. Now it’s Hodgson’s turn, and every fan in the country should give him the chance he deserves.
What a difference a week can make.
Seven days ago, Barcelona were in London preparing for the first leg of their Champions League semi final with Chelsea, at the start of a week which could have ended with them closing the gap on Real Madrid in La Liga to just a point and also reaching their third Champions League final in four years.
Results could barely have been worse for a team considered by many to be the amongst the greatest club sides in footballing history.
A first leg defeat at Stamford Bridge was followed by a home loss to Real Madrid which effectively ended the Spanish title race in Madrid’s favour. And to wrap up a truly miserable week, last night saw Pep Guardiola’s men crash out of Europe in front of their own fans for the second time in three seasons.
Barcelona must be sick of playing English clubs in European competition.
For all of the success enjoyed in Champions League finals, where Barcelona’s last three European Cup wins have involved English opposition, Premiership sides continue to frustrate the Catalan giants in two-legged ties – and particularly in games at the Camp Nou.
Liverpool are still be the only English side to have beaten Barcelona in their own stadium, but Fernando Torres’ late equaliser extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run against Barca to seven games – four of which have been in Spain.
Manchester United, too, left Catalonia unscathed on their way to an aggregate Champions League semi final win during Frank Rijkaard’s last season in charge in 2008. United won the final, as Barcelona’s conquerors usually do: Of the ten sides who have condemned Barcelona to a European semi final defeat, only Leeds United and Valencia have failed to win the resulting final.
Chelsea will be hoping not to be the third, and they’ll need plenty more good fortune if they are to win a first Champions League title. Roberto Di Matteo and his players will receive plaudits for two defensive displays which frustrated their opponents, but Barcelona have only themselves to blame for their exit.
Even in the face of Chelsea’s strong and well organised defence, Barcelona created enough chances over the two legs to have rendered Chelsea’s three goals irrelevant. Wasteful in attack and a defence that was too easily caught out on the counter attack, Barcelona may see similar reasons why they are no longer competing for the two top prizes on offer.
Despite a nightmare week on the pitch, Barcelona’s season isn’t over. A cup final to Athletic Bilbao gives Pep Guardiola the chance to become the first Barcelona coach to win the Copa del Rey twice since Ferdinand Daucík achieved the feat during the 1950s. In doing so, Guardiola would also equal John Cruyff’s record of eight domestic trophies.
It may not be the season finale that manager, players or fans were dreaming of only a week ago but with three trophies already in the bag this season, a disappointing season for Barcelona is still more successful than a dream season at almost every other club.
If Guardiola opts to stay for another year, then their response to previous disappointments under his tenure should tell us that they won’t be down for long.
With Real Madrid’s lead having been cut from ten points to just four, every round of games has taken on added importance.
A Cristiano Ronaldo inspired victory in the Madrid derby on Wednesday night prevented Barcelona from gaining further ground but even though it was a huge result for Real Madrid, and one that should help to calm the nerves of some of their players, the title race is far from over.
The Clásico is next weekend, and for Barcelona to stand any chance of winning their fourth Liga title in a row, it’s almost certainly a must-win game for them.
Aside from the encounter with Jose Mourinho’s side at the Camp Nou, Barca face potentially tricky away fixtures at Levante this weekend, and then against Betis in the final round of games.
Fifth placed Levante have already beaten Real Madrid at home this season, although a dip in form has seen them win just three of their nine home games following the winter break.
Real Betis also gave Madrid a tough match when the sides met in February and at times looked like taking a point from the game before eventually losing 3-2. They were also the first visiting team to score at the Camp Nou this season, ending Barcelona’s run of nine consecutive clean sheets. Barcelona may have won 4-2, but will be aware of the threat posed by Betis not least from last year’s 3-1 defeat in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final against a Betis side who at the time were in the Spanish second division.
Barcelona realistically need to win all six of their remaining games and if they can achieve that, then the pressure will firmly be on Real Madrid’s stuttering side, who have more than one potential slip-up of their own.
Saturday’s home match against Sporting Gijon should be a formality and nor should a side of Real Madrid’s quality be too worried about dropping points in their final away game at Granada.
But Mallorca and Sevilla on their day are each capable of taking advantage of any tension at the Santiago Bernabeu when they visit the Spanish capital.
And Real Madrid’s away fixtures are tougher still – not only do they have to travel to Catalonia to face Barcelona, but also to San Mames in the Basque country to take on Athletic Bilbao. The latter may be made slightly less dangerous to Real’s title ambitions if Bilbao have their focus elsewhere – such as the Europa League semi final or the final of the Copa del Rey – but Athletic’s rivalry with Real Madrid is fierce and there’ll be no shortage in desire to get a result against Madrid in front of their own fans.
When Barcelona fell ten points behind, I felt they still had a chance of winning the title if they were able to win their remaining 16 games, something I honestly couldn’t see them being able to do.
With ten wins on the bounce, they’re on course to achieve the near impossible but there’s still so many potential twists left in the title race before any trophy is handed out, it’s difficult to predict the eventual winner.
The only prediction I’m willing to make is that the question of who will be crowned 2011/12 Spanish champions is one that will keep us guessing until the season’s final day.