Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Europa League group stage

"You can't win the Cup in December, but you can lose it."

Really, with words of wisdom like that, I should be selling philosophy textbooks.

Digo: a Spanish phrase that translates to "I have spoken" and not, as I once thought, a Spanish philosopher who specialised in writing about the beautiful game.

The playoffs for entry into the Europa League group stage brought us fierce competition. Would the groups themselves be of the same standard? In a word, yes. We saw goals, red mist, thrillers, chillers, upsets, upset and our mistress eye's being nothing like the sun. And everything in between.

Group A
Tottenham Hotspur, Rubin Kazan, PAOK, Shamrock Rovers.

"Looks nice enough for the top two seeds"
Dave Beattie

Tottenham were the highest seeds left in the competition, and had seen off the challenge of Hearts quite comfortably in the playoffs. Rubin fell in the Champions League playoff round to Lyon. PAOK had comfortably seen off Valerengen and Karpaty in Qualifying rounds. As for Shamrock? Their route started with a tense 1-0 aggregate victory over Estonian Flora in the Champions League 2nd round qualifiers. In the 3rd round of that competition, they took on FC Kobenhavn, and swiftly lost 3-0, thus being ejected to the Europa League playoff round where they had to take on Partizan Belgrade. Readers of the Playoff Round article may recall their stunning extra time giant killing performance against the European always theres, and so they made up the brunt of this group.

The group started in controversy caught by the BBC:

Chaotic scenes at the Toumba Stadium. Stefanos Athanasiadis surges into the area and is caught by Carlo Cudicini as he tries to go round him. This time, that is a penalty, and Cudicini is booked. Lino steps up to slot coolly home and turns to celebrate. He gets quite far too, before being called back and told to retake it because Cudicini had come off his line. Incredible. Lino has another go, and this time drills the ball low and wide of the left-hand post.

Funny listening to Gordon Strachan on ITV4 commenting on the highlights. I guess he doesn't understand the term "encroachment". For the first penalty there was a PAOK player inside the penalty area when the kick was taken & this is what I understand is meant by the term. But for the second penalty - which was missed - Strachan was talking about the goalkeeper doing the same thing (being slightly off his line) as for the first penalty & not understanding why one was being retaken & the other not. 
Dave Beattie

PAOK got a 2-2 draw in Russia which I, possibly uncharitably, referred to at the time as an "unexpectedly good result" for them.

This group was summed up by Tottenhams indifference to the Europa League. Weakened sides saw a draw in Greece and defeat in Russia (though a great goal by Pavyluchenko saw them win 1-0 against Rubin at White Hart Lane), whilst everyone was beating poor Shamrock despite some tough Irish displays. On the last day Spurs had to beat Shamrock, and did 4-0, to have any chance of qualifying.

Tottenham 1-2 PAOK

After defeat in Russia, Tottenham really needed to get 6 points from their last 2 games. They were to beat Shamrock comfortably 4-0 on match day 6, to cement the plucky Irishmens 0-0-6 record. The home game vs PAOK, after the controversial 0-0 in Greece, was pivotal.

Five minutes into the match, a nice pass by Georgiadis saw Salpigidis unmarked for a free header into the net that Gomes ought to have done better with. Spurs were stunned, and PAOK carved them apart with some fine passing, Athanasiadis slicing the ball home as it zoomed along the floor of the box. 0-2 PAOK, 14 minutes gone. Stafylidis was sent off before half time for the Greeks (he was judged, possibly unfairly, to have handled on the line), and Spurs began pushing forward after Modric scored the resulting penalty. Despite chances for Modric, Kane, Defoe, Livermore and Bale, PAOK marshalled by their goalkeeper Chalkias kept the result in their favour. So at full time, a remarkable away win for the Greek underdogs, who booked their place in the Knock Out rounds. A just reward for some fine displays.

Spurs victory over Shamrock left them on 10 points. So a Rubin defeat in Greece would help Spurs qualify for the Knock Out stages, but a draw or better for the Russians would knock out the English laissez-faire.

PAOK 1-1 Rubin
It was a crunch game, made all the more by worries that "Zagreb 1-7 Lyon" would repeat itself in the Shamrock/Spurs tie. PAOK were qualified, it was do or die for Rubin. Ten minutes into an end to end game, only a flicked defensive header prevented Rubin taking the lead. Nemov made a great pass in but Nelson Valdez scuffed his shot wide.

Then came amazement and controversy in the same move. A Rubin corner should pause no problems for the Rubin defense. Nobody had told Georgiadis, the star of White Hart Lane, this as he grabbed the ball from Natchos corner and then made a dazzling one man run the length of the pitch. Rubin had mostly all gone up for the corner, and were completely caught out. The sole defender all at sea at Georgiadis swept past him into the box. Only the Rubin keeper Ryzhikov stood between his side and an opening goal that would bring back memories of George Weah. The keeper had to do something brave, instead, he did some brash, and took out the player. You could even see the Russian defenders running up to the scene thinking: "Oh you complete idiot!" It was no surprise to see the red card out for Ryzhikov, nor a penalty given to the Greeks. Twelve minutes gone, red card, penalty. It could not have gone worse.  Arlauskis, the sub goalkeeper, had no chance in saving Vierinha's penalty, which was rifled into the bottom left corner. The Greek crowd cheered, but the loudest cheers were coming from the Spurs fans in Ireland.

PAOK were having chances to extend the score but the Russian defence was just about holding firm, knowing another Greek goal would probably eliminate them from the competition. Arlauskis was helping his side along with some nice saves. Then Ansaldi had a shot for Rubin but ballooned the shot well over the bar. The chances continued to flow at both ends before early in the second half a second goal did come, and it was the equaliser for Rubin, Nelson Valdez rifling home from outside the box. Now the scoreline eliminated Tottenham!

The Greeks continued to carve apart the opposition at will, and it was an Alamo stand for the Russians, especially the sub Arlauskis, without whom the game could have ended 5-1 to PAOK. But no more goals were forthcoming, and so both sides qualified.

Tottenham's disinterest in key games saw them to an early exit.

For all the fear of conspiracy before the final matches, we could take this idea to extremes.

For example, Otelul get 3 goals against Basel, after 0 in 4! Fixed...badly.

Thistle score 1 after 0 in 6. Thank god.

Man U score 1 in 1 vs Basel after 10 in 5. Hilarious.

And so on.
Group B

Kobenhavn had qualified for this group stage by the above mentioned victory over Shamrock, as in the CL play off round they were thumped 5-2 by Victoria Plzen. Standard Liege had been ousted at the first stage of the CL playoffs by Zurich but had then won their EL playoff beating Helsingborg. Hannover had defeated Sevilla to qualify in the EL Playoffs, and Vorskla had seen for Dinamo Bucharest.

After Standard got a comfortable win over FCK, I receieved the following communication:

@Michael. Still think FCK will end above Standard after this 3-0?

That'll be Michael S. Collins, football predictor extraordinaire, still coasting on the prediction of Italy winning the World Cup several years ago.

FCK were massively disappointing, losing to Standard and drawing in Vorskla on the road to an early exit. Vorskla were overmatched, and finished bottom. Hannover, whom many thought would hurt Germanys coefficient, easily finished 2nd, but top spot went to the undefeated Standard Liege. Not a group of much interest, really.

Group C
Rapid Bucharest saw off Slask Wroclaw in the Playoffs. It was another Polish affair for Rapid Bucharest, but Legia were slightly more experienced at Europe than Slask Wroclaw. Legia won a thriller against Spartak Moscow, 3-2 in extra time in Russia after a 2-2 in Poland. Hapoel Tel Aviv beat plucky Ekranas, and PSV beat Reid 5-0.

Rapid's journey started in controversy, with a potential penalty ignored, but they still dug deep to win 1-0 in Israel, a fine win with the goal of Herea. There, the journey went to a hasty end, with five straight defeats.
How can I describe Rapid best? Like a car with 600 HP engine, but with a gearbox that has its 3rd gear ruined. All that immense power is not properly transmitted to the wheels. Therefor, any decent 100 HP car can look like a rocket compared to them. 1-3 & 0-1 with Legia, 0-3 with Pandurii, 1-3 with Hapoel Tel-Aviv. All this within 1 month. This may look as Rapid is an inferior team, that doesn't know any football. Far from the truth. Which is that the potential of the players is not harvested corectly... 
Disappointed fan in Romania. With such analogies, I couldn't NOT quote it.

PSV qualified comfortably, undefeated in all six group games.

Hapoel's bad start meant they were needing big results away from home in the rest of the group. They won 3-1 in Romania, but had to travel to PSV (lost the home leg 0-1) and Legia (won the home leg 2-0, but Legia won home and away vs Rapid).

Legia 3-2 Hapoel Tel Aviv
An early Match Day #2 crunch game for both sides who had lost 1-0 on Match Day #1. On the half hour, a free header saw Tamuz take the lead for Hapoel. That was the score till twenty five minutes from time, when a similar free header at the same end saw Ljuboja equalise for the Poles. Soon after, Igiebor made the challenge (and saw a yellow card), the ref gave the penalty, and Komorowski smashed the ball down the middle for 2-1. Trying to make up for his efforts, Igiebor had a shot on target for Hapoel which the keeper Kuciak could only parry, allowing a flipping header over the keeper from Lala into the box. 2-2! Legia were not to be undone on this night, however, and in the 89th minute Radovic broke free from the Israeli defence to slot the ball into the net. 3-2 it finished, and a crucial victory for Legia.

However, in the return leg on Match Day #6, Hapoel won 2-0, as detailed above. This means that the Match Day #4 tie in Holland was actually a crucial one, as PSV hosted Hapoel Tel Aviv. Had the Israelis won that match, they would have qualified for the next stage on the head to head rule.

PSV 3-3 Hapoel Tel Aviv
Barely ten minutes in, the Dutch defence were asleep, and Tamuz's ball found Damari who slid it into the net. 1-0 Hapoel, and the dream was alive! The flick of the feet from Tamuz to assist the goal was a trick Cryuff would have been proud of. Hapoel might have been on dream street though, as a cheeky flip of the ankle from Wijnaldum brought an immediate PSV equaliser. Tamuz, who was haunting PSV, scored next as despite frantic defending by the PSV defenders, they couldn't get the ball away from the hitman.  Tamuz had set up Damari for his goal, now Damari had set up Tamuz for his.

Early into the second half, Abutbul's free kick careers into the box, Badiers header is going straight into the net but Isaksson the PSV goalkeeper manages to tip the ball off the bar. The ball is still live though and Tamuz - who else? - fires it into the net. 3-1 Hapoel, and as it stood, they would have qualified in the final table.

Just when it was beginning to look good for the Israelis though, they lost concentration, and Toivonen scored  for PSV to make it 2-3. The ball caught the defence by surprise, and the Swede had to score from that angle. Strootmans equaliser from outside the box was an adept finish to kill off the Israelis, but it had been coming from Toivonens goal. And so finished a match UEFA called "extraordinary". The result actually qualified PSV for the next stage, and eliminated Hapoel despite how close the table was later to look. But for some calmer defender of a good away lead, it could have been so much more for the dispirited Israelis. A victory here, at least, was the least  Tamuz deserved for his Man of the Match display.

Instead PSV qualified with 16 points of a possible 18, and Legia finished 2nd, just about, to continue their fine story. Rapid said farewell with a whimper after an exciting start, and for Hapoel Tel Aviv, the slow start killed what looked to be a fine team before they'd even got properly started.

Group D
Vaslui crashed out in the Champions League to Twente, before notching up a great aggregate win over Sparta Praha in the EL playoffs. Zurich had KO'd Standard Liege from the Champions League before meeting the road block that was Bayern Munich in the final Playoff round. Lazio ended my hopes for Rabotnicki quite viciously, and Sporting edged past Nordsjaelland of Denmark. The group had two clear favourites and two clear underdogs, but how would it progress?

Lazio 2-2 Vaslui

"Vaslui's defenders give the impression they won't be able to stop Djibril Cisse even with baseball bats "

Quote of the round, from Romania

It was Cisse who opened the scoring for Lazio, a thunderous penalty into the net after Baluur had brought down Rocchi in the box. Cometh the hour, Adailtons free kick for Vaslui was knocked into the net by Wesley. Zauri took down Temwanjera in the box, and the Lazio man got a red card for his offense. Wesley scored from the spot and suddenly Vaslui, with a man advantage, were minutes away from a massive shock.  As was much the case with Vaslui's group stage though, it was not to be, as a nothing heading from Sculli saw the Rome side level. 2-2 it remained. A good result most times for the Romanians, but here it certainly felt like two points dropped.

And so with Vaslui drawing 2-2 at home also, this time to Zurich, we could turn our attention to the first meeting of the big two in the group.

Sporting 2-1 Lazio
Sporting made the UEFA Cup final in 2005, but lost 3-1 in their own stadium to CSKA Moscow. Lazio used to be good in Europe, but have failed in recent times to make much of an impact. The stage was set for a crucial tie in the Estadio Jose Alvalade. Lazio had several early shots, before Insua missed the target with a great effort. Sporting kept at it thought, and on 20 minutes Van Wolfswinkel, who I saw torment Celtic a few seasons ago, scored the opener for the Portuguese. The crowd went nuts, but were not so happy when Miroslav Klose scored a typical predatory goal to equalise for Lazio, a neat flick off a free kick. Marchetti of Lazio was responsible for several saves keeping the score down.  Sporting were on the break, just before half time and of all people, Van Wolfswinkel missed the target, shooting across the goal. Sporting thought that was it heading into half time, but a goal was to come after all: Insua from well outside the box hitting a deflected shot into the net. Liverpool fans can stare in disbelief. There was no goals in the second half, so Insua's lucky shot was the winner in a tight match.

Vaslui 1-0 Sporting
Zmeu scored for Vaslui as they got the biggest win in their history, and left themselves with a great chance to advance, as Lazio had been held away by Zurich. Lazio won their last game at home to Sporting though, which meant Vaslui had to win away in Zurich.

Zurich 2-0 Vaslui.

They couldn't.

So the top two go through, though Lazio did it by the skin of their teeth. Zurich couldn't get two results in a row so went out. Vaslui, plucky, determined, courageous, but concentration lapses cost them dearly

Group E
Eagle eyed Israeli pundits feared this draw, as they would have to start off in the Turkish cauldron and finish in Kiev in the middle of Winter, add in the English double header inbetween and it didn't speak well for qualifying hopes. Besiktas fans feared Dynamo Kiev who had humiliated them in the previous season. Kiev didn't like drawing an English side. Stoke disliked the look of all the travelling. Truly, it was the Group of Disdain!
Dynamo Kiev had been beaten by Rubin in the CL Playoffs, before beating Litets in the EL playoffs.

Besiktas 5-1 Maccabi Tel Aviv
Besiktas also won with good football and 5 goals (6 goals in total, 2 goals cancelled for off-side, most entertaining game of the day so far). Maccabi isn't a weak team at all, they were in a bad day (especially the defence) whereas we played very well
View from Besiktas fan.

It wasn't to be happy for Besiktas for long though, as:

I was expecting a Stoke win, but I feel frustrated after this game. All of the English team's tactic is based on set pieces. The players only think about getting free-kicks, and for this, they fall on the ground extremely easily in every challenge. Touch them with your finger, and they'll fall. Whereas when they made fouls on Besiktas players, it was nearly red card positions in each of them. The penalty position - it was clearly ridiculous. If Stoke's penalty is considered as a penalty, then there should be a lot of penalties in every match. Not only this, a penalty for Besiktas wasn't given when a Stoke's player (Upson?) touched the ball with his hand/arm in the penalty area, and noone of the referees did see that. 
Same fans view after Stoke 2-1 Besiktas

The only bit of this that surprises me is the "falling over easily". Stoke are well known as a "hard" team who are very reliant on set pieces & grit & determination for their success. Not far off the old Wimbledon. That said they can (occasionally) play a more attractive style than given credit for and supposedly have upgraded their level with their summer signings this year. Unfortunately I often think that almost every English team (including the national side) has a mental block/default when there is a tall guy up front. They can't help but lump the ball in their general direction. Even Liverpool - a team far more inclined towards the patient build up - have had the same issues with Andy Carroll. On the falling over easily - though not a good excuse it's possible they have already taken a (bad) lesson from their earlier European games. I seem to recall some Stoke players being frustrated at some of the free kicks awarded against them in Kiev & perhaps they've decided that if European referees are inclined to make "easy" awards for minimal contact they should take advantage. Saw the penalty incident & concur it looked very, very soft. 
Dave Beattie's response to Besiktas fan.

Stoke's draws against Kiev, and wins over M Tel Aviv saw them qualify for the next stage, a fine result for both. The matter of who would join them was settled in three games.

M Tel Aviv 2-3 Besiktas
Seven minutes in, Besiktas defence day dreamed and allowed the Israelis in, but they huffed and puffed about taking a shot and the Turks recovered. Then Itzhaki's shot balloons wide. Colautti then missed the target when it looked like he had sliced the ball into the net. Gonen of Besiktas had to make several saves as the Israelis bombed forward for their opener. Besiktas had their own attempts, and though the Israeli defense was somewhat akin to Keystone Cops in trying to get rid of the danger, to this point it was working.  Just after the half hour, Atar missed for Maccabi, despite having an open goal to fire into!

Had Almeida put any effort into a header, Besiktas would have scored in the forty-fifth minute, but not to worry for him, as Besiktas did have a 1-0 Half Time lead, courtesy of a Quaresma goal in the 2nd minute of added on time. He was on the edge of the box and neatly smashed the ball home. It was cruel for the Israelis, who had scorned chance after chance.

Into the second half, Quaresma went for a repeat of his previous, but this time Levy of Maccabi made the save. From the resulting corner, Toraman scored a free header to make it 2-0 Besiktas. So after all that concerted Israeli effort, suddenly they were 0-2 down! Besiktas could taste the Knock Out round.

Tel Aviv could have shut up shop and gone home or bombed forward. They chose the latter option.  A miscommunication allowed Israilivich to fire in a shot which Gonen just kept out. From the corner, the ball fell everywhere, before a low bicycle kick from Yeini found the back of the net. It was a slice of beauty carved out of a farcical exchange.

When Atar was fouled by Kavlak, the Israelis had a free kick. Eventually the fussy referee, Guimenny, decided everything was as he liked it, and allowed play to continue. "I'm the referee, I decide when the ball is played!" He must be a joy at parties. Atar calmly knocks the ball to Logasi, who takes one step forward from the half way line and fires the ball into the net. A proper "OMG" goal followed by mass delirium in the stands! From 0-2 down, Maccabi Tel Aviv are level! Logasi's wide opened disbelief at his own effort as he was swamped by team mates reminded one of Tardellis joy in the 1982 World Cup final.

The wind was in the Israeli sails, though Quaresma and Hugo Almeida were coming closer to knocking at the door for Besiktas. Even so, it was a cruel blow in the 3rd minute of added time when Quaresma slotted the ball home. The Israelis had given so much to the match, now they were down and out. Besiktas, so long under the cosh, had been clinical when it really mattered, and were a good result against Stoke away from the last 32.

A cruel end to a fantastic match.

D Kiev 3-3 M Tel Aviv
Maccabi were now out, with only one point to show for their superlative efforts, but in this game they could take Dynamo Kiev out with them. A side some predicted to even win the tournament, in serious trouble. And so they did with a 3-3 draw away from home, responding to going 2-0 down to winding up 3-2 ahead. I'm sure it was a great match, but I can't find decent highlights of it anywhere. Nevertheless, Tel Aviv had taken Kiev out with them. A great end to a brave showing for the Israelis, disappointing compounded for the Ukraine after Shakhtars similar early exit in the Champions League.

BEsiktas 3-1 Stoke
Pressure off both sides, Besiktas got revenge for their early issues in England, with a comfortable win to top the group. The runners up would go on to face Valencia in the last 32, so this match was more crucial than it may have seemed at the time.

Stoke City FC is the biggest surprise for me this season!! They are based in Stoke-on-Trent (population about 200,000). Their stadium's capacity is just 27,598! Founded in 1863, it is the oldest club in the Premier League, and considered to be the second oldest professional football club in the world, after Notts County.

They were promoted to the PL just in 2008; prior to this Stoke had not participated in top flight football for 23 years!! Its first, and to date only, major trophy was won in the 1972 Football League Cup Final, when the team beat Chelsea 2–1. The club's highest league finish in the top division is 4th, which was achieved in the 1935–36 and 1946–47 seasons. Stoke have competed in European football in 1972 and 1974; and are competing in Europe just for the 3rd time in 2011!

They are 9th in Premier League after all the 'big boys' and Newcastle Utd. This year they have earned the 3rd highest amount of points of all the english clubs, above Man City, Man Utd and Tottenham!! They started in the Third qualifying round, and were ranked 8th in pot 3 for this year's EL GS!
Stoke catching the eye of Greek commentator.

Group F

PSG and Bilbao both had similar passages to the group stage. PSG had originally drawn Olympiakos Volos, only for the Greeks to be thrown out of Europe for "match irregularities" and for their vanquished foes, Differdange of Luxembourg, to be put in their place. And easily beaten. Bilbao had Trabzonspor, who benefited from Fenerbahce's removal from the Champions League for similar reasons. This time, Bilbao had a bye to the group stage as the first meaningless leg of Bilbao/Trabzonspor had been played.

PSG 3-1 Salzburg: A good win for PSG, yet the injury time goal of Sekagya for Salzburg wound up being a crucial one.
Bilbao 2-2 Salzburg: Salzburg went 0-2 up, before the Bilbao Flair Machine went into overdrive for a draw.
Salzburg 2-0 PSG: Here we saw a disinterested PSG losing 1-0. Fair enough, all ok. But then in the 95th minute Svento scores, and suddenly PSG are losing the head to head.

Bilbao went through comfortably, Slovan Bratislava (conquerers of Roma) went out comfortably. It all came down to the final two.

The likely elimination of PSG is a clear under-achievement. For the Salzburg game, Kombouaré rested players like Pastore, Menez, Gameiro (who entered as a sub) but still, most observers thought that they could grab a point at Salzburg (at least not lose by 2-0!). Well, this performance will not add to the glory of the club but again, I am not sure that PSG management are that annoyed of this elimination. They are much more concerned by the situation in the league because they see that the team is struggling and their minimum objective this season is to get the Champions League at the end of the season (and Paris anyway don't have the bench to play the 2 competitions).
Slovan 2-3 Salzburg
PSG 4-2 Bilbao

Despite the 2-0 lead for Slovan giving PSG some hope, Salzburg pulled back to win in Slovakia, so that PSG's admittedly impressive victory over Bilbao counted for nowt.

And once again, I got to see none of it. Hence the cribnotes.

PSG are out, and they have only themselves to blame, really.

Group G
Malmo's campaign had seen wins over HB Torshavn and Rangers before defeat to Dynamo Zagreb put them in this group.
Austria Wien got a 2-1 away win in Malmo, getting off to a flying start with a great goal from Barazite from outside the box.
Despite the best efforts of Austria Wien, AZ scrapped through to the next round. Metalist qualified in style, undefeated. Malmo were out of their depth even at this level.

Group H
Maribor had defeated Dudelange before being knocked out of the Champions League by Maccabi Haifa, before then defeating Rangers in a playoff round for the Europa League group stage.

To say people were unhappy in Portugal after Club Brugge's surprise win in Braga was to slightly understate the matter:

Sick game in Braga. A totally controlled win, Braga best team in the field and all of a sudden an illegal goal: the belgium forward pushes the defender against the goalkeeper making him to miss the ball. The forward then throws it into the net. Braga got surprised, lost control, tried to go forward to make amends and win the game, and got some dangerous counter attacks. in a corner they suffered the second. I'd say it was a very unfair result in the way it was (illegaly) obtained. But this just shows how naive Braga was and how "stick to the plan" they were and unable to deal with an unexpected circumstance and a bad refereeing.
View from Portugal

Braga seemed to be coasting with home and away wins over Birmingham, despite this Brugge set back. Maribor were everybodys whipping boy. Birmingham, despite their problems, got ever so close to the last 32, but Brugge escaped: they were 3-0 down in Maribor at one point, but rallied for a 4-3 victory.
Group I

How seriously will Atlético take the EL? Think of it this way--they won't be "competing" to win la Liga. Their big push will be for third or fourth place. I think it's fair to say they'll take the EL very seriously up to crunch time in la Liga--and with Manzano as coach, they'll probably go for it. Remember, Atleti has only won two trophies in what seems like forever to their fans (EL and European Supercup in 2010), so the idea of winning something will probably be the determining factor.
AlanK, the man in Spain

"Goodbye Rennes!" was the post-draw opinion from France, and they were right to fear the two big sides. At this point Sion were in the group having KO'd Celtic. However, Sion played several ineligible players in the Playoff round, despite being told not to, and so were thrown out of the competition, with Celtic replacing them. Sion then sued UEFA for their place, and were re-awarded it by a civil court, but then that got over turned so they went to a higher court. Local courts ordered match day cancellations and UEFA ordered in the CAS to settle the matter. Eventually Sion were threatened with points deductions in the Swiss league (they wound up with minus 36 points), after a suggestion only the winners of Group I advanced and Sion automatically advanced as "reward", but are likely to stay up anyway as Neuchatel Xamax went bust. Despite the threat of Swiss invasion hanging over this Group, and the various court actions where Sion seemed to be on the verge of suing UEFA, FIFA, the SFA, the Swiss FA, Disney World, Fabio Capello and the estate of Terry Nation, the group went on like any other. In the opening tie, most Celtic fans did not show up in Spain, and neither did the Sion team, but several Sion fans did. None of this was confusing at all, as you can guess.

Not that a group which lead Dave Beattie on the draw to exclaim "Bloody hell!" needed much more excitement than the football itself!

Udinese had drawn and lost to Arsenal in the CL playoffs.

Udinese 2-1 Rennes
Celtic 3-1 Rennes

The domestic league is seen as a much more important competition to get access to the Champions League. Moneywise, our clubs need the money from the Champions League and this is the biggest priority for all of them (and to some extent as much important as getting the title). As a result, the Europa League is often seen as a problem for domestic affairs (no money to earn, games played on Thursdays which is annoying for the domestic WE games , little interest of media and public, sometimes exotic trips with long distances, etc.). I would say that the Europa League is seen a bit like the League Cup. If you can do well, this is fine but it cannot be a problem for domestic games. That's the reason why most teams send "mixed teams" so that they can rest their best players for the league. Lille for example last season openly sacrificed the Europa League to concentrate on domestic affairs and sent their substitutes to play PSV (and they were not that ridiculous). This is not a franco-Frenc issue. I understand that most Italian and possibly English teams (Tottenham) have the same kind of behavior.
Lyonnaise on French issues in the Europa League

Atletico 4-0 Udinese

Atletico were through, Rennes out. The crunch game was Udinese/Celtic.

Udinese 1-1 Celtic

Much to my shock, Celtic took the lead!

@ Michael: Rumor has it that a team from Scotland just scored. 

My response to this was captured for posterity:

I....uhm....errrrr.....bloody hell!

Dear Mr Platini

I hear you like to rig games for countries now. Can you rig some games in Scotlands favour please? We cannot afford many suitcases of money, but we can offer you a free ticket to see our newly acquired pandas.
Me. It didn't work.

Udinese's equaliser finally ended Scottish hopes in Europe this season.

Group J
Steaua had some insider information on the Israelis, as their manager Ronny Levy had previously managed M. Haifa! Not to worry, Steaua's temperamental owner Gigi Becali is not one to accept gift horses in the mouth, as he fired Levy after the sides draw with AEK Larnaca on 30/9/11. This was, at a rough estimate, the twenty millionth managerial sacking by Steaua under Becali. Not to worry for Levy's sake,  he walked into a new job twenty-four hours later at Anorthosis: maybe AEK put in a good word  for him! Also, as a bit of spice for the group, Ton Caanen, the AEK manager, had previously worked for Beitar Jerusalem and Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Steaua's opening game with Schalke had to be played in Cluj due to the unsatisfactory condition of the Bucharest pitch. Becali claimed he had brought in a team who had laid pitches at the Bernebeu within a week, so naturally the game had to be played elsewhere or face postponement. In the end it was a dull 0-0.

There is a real problem with the IQ level of Steaua's player. I am extremely annoyed by this game. This draw could hurt Steaua very much. We must take 4 points from the next 2 matches at least. We really should have won this game and we could have won one it we just needed a little brain. But what they do, Brandan gets 2 yellow cards in the middle of the field, Stanca the goalkeeper injures himself while shooting the ball. While AEK's goal wasn't deserved Steaua goal was pure luck and chance the strikers didn't know were to stay, I am not even sure if we had strikers. And now I wonder how many matches Steaua will have to play with a 16 years old goalkeaper after the other 2 injured themselves. By the way did I mention I am extremely annoyed of the game. 

View in Romania after aforementioned 1-1 draw in Cyprus. I get the slight impression they weren't too happy.

M Haifa 5-0 Steaua
Steaua 4-2 M Haifa
AEK 2-1 M Haifa

AEK Larnaca succeeded, tonight, another glorious for Cypriot football triumph. AEK dominated the game for the first 70 minutes and in the next 20 the game was balanced, Maccabi attacking achieving a goal and AEK having chances in the counterattacks. Fair result 100% but it could be with a bigger margin. Gonzalo Garcia scored again and is certainly the MVP of the game 

Our man AEK4ever.

Schalke 2-1 Steaua
Steaua 3-1 AEK

AEK Larnaca had huffed and puffed but it was the end of the road for them. Maccabi Haifa were out despite two big victories. Schalke were through with minimum fuss, and so were Steaua, who on the last day decided to play, and qualified.

"So that was the end of a sensational game, wouldn't you say so, Romanian MOTD pundit?"
"Yes, you don't see a 10-all draw very often."
"What do you put it down to?"
"Well, the lack of goalkeepers, really."
Just my little joke about the Romanian teams: they played that weekend, and it was only 3-2, not the 10-10 predicted!

Group K
Wisla's campaign had started in the Second CL round, where they had seen off Skonto Riga, followed by a victory over Litex Lovech in the next round before a narrow playoff defeat to APOEL saw them consigned to the Europa League. Odense won a thriller in the CL playoffs against Panathinaikos, before losing narrowly to Villarreal. Twente saw off Vaslui before crashing to Benfica in a thriller in the CL qualifiers.

Wisla 1-3 Odense

Wisla, if they had better defenders, and attacking players who can put the ball in the net, could have even won the game. So basically half the team needs to be better for them to win. OB did start off better but all 3 of their goals were big errors by the Wisla defence and/or goalkeeper. The 3rd one was just an absolute gift. The OB coach said he felt his team was in charge and Wisla only dominated for 15 minutes in the 2nd half. I think that is a bit over the top. Odense was better in the first half, then in the second Wisla was dominating, and scored. They managed to dominate, Biton even missed a 1 on 1 with all the time in the world. They they conceded the 2nd goal that I agree was not a foul, just poor goalkeeping, [77th minute I think or something like that] and then it evened up with Wisla attacking and Odense obviously having a lot of counter attacks that eventually brought them the 3rd goal. Overall Odense was more disciplined and deserved their win. 

View from Poland

The referee largely decided this game - which was very dull at least in the part I saw. Krakow player reacted ridiculously to the raised hand of the Fulham player so in that sense it was a very soft card but still all players should know by now that any raised hand in such circumstances is a potential red card regardless of whether the opponent reacts like a little girl. 
Dave Beattie

Odense 1-4 Twente
Fulham 4-1 Wisla

Odense were out, Twente were through. It came down to the last two games. If Fulham were to slip up, a victory for Wisla would qualify them at the English sides expense.

Wisla 2-1 Twente

Not that it'll matter, but Wisla leads 2-1.
Our man AlanK in Spain

Fulham 2-2 Odense

Substitute Djiby Fall scored with the final move of the match to dump Fulham out of the Europa League. 
Began the BBC website match report.

The final LiveScore update on the BBC before the equaliser read:

2154: Injury time. We're in it. Odense haven't really stepped up since their goal. Fulham looking good for qualification. 

And yet:

2158: It was literally the last kick. That's full-time. Craven Cottage is in shock. Utter shock.

Odense goal: Absolutely. And. Utterly. Incredible! How? Seriously, how has this just happened? Well, I'll tell you. Odense were gone. It was over. And then in a flash they strike. Espen Ruud swings over a hopeful cross from the right andDjilby Fall steals in to head Fulham out of the Europa League!

Despite everyone's shock, it was as true as it came: Fulham were out of Europe. They could blame the dodgy red card in the away game at Wisla, but equally they could blame their own disinterest in the away leg at Twente. Wisla lost the head to head to all the other sides in the group, yet scrapped through by the smallest of margins.

Group L
"Not a bad draw for AEK!" came the word from Greece.
Sturm had seen off Videoton and Zestafoni before crashing to BATE in the Champions League playoffs.

Much as I'd like to claim otherwise, Sturm were no hopers here, as Anderlecht and Lokomotiv gobbled up the points. AEK were done and only a win in Austria on the final day prevented an 0-0-6.

And so to the final Group Stage match, for ownership of top spot in Group L

Anderlecht 5-3 Lokomotiv
Ignatyev scored early on for Lokomotiv, and on the half hour, Glushakov had a shot blocked for the 0-2. This miss seemed to galvanise Anderlecht, and everybody's favourite American loony Sacha Klejstan bombed forward in the middle of the field, before setting up his own looping equaliser! He'll either get sent off or score brilliant goals, that man. Anderlecht were in the ascendancy, and Klejstan floated the ball down for Fernando to slash it home.

In the Belgian studio at half time, the pundits admitted it hadn't been too bad a match so far. Ten minutes into the second half, Maracek took the free kick, and Wasilewski was able to head into an empty net. There was a hint of handball by Suarez in the build up but the referee ignored it. 3-1 Anderlecht. On the hour, Jovanovic shot the ball into the box, and Suarez finished it off for four, before celebrating with Jovanovic.

Lokomotiv were bombing down the wings though, and won a penalty when the explosive Ignatyev was tumbled in the box by Kouyate. Sychev, dependable, stood up and made no error from the spot. 4-2.

With fifteen minutes to go, Proto launched the ball up field, catching the Russians completly unaware, and allowing Gillet to finish for 5-2. He looks like Fernando Torres and does the triple somersault goal celebration: that's Guillaume Gillet.

Lokomotiv were not finished, though Ivanov was as he took an early bath for a second yellow after a foolish foul. Late in the game, Anderlecht went to sleep allowing Sychev to score again.

It finished 5-3, with one red card, and two attacking sides. Anderlecht finished top of the group, but really football was the winner here in a great game.

Anderlecht have become one of the few sides to go 0-0-6 in an European group stage, and 6-0-0 as they did here. A remarkable feat.

And that was The Group Stage that was!

Thursday, 15 March 2012


My love affair with the train is long running and consistent. It would be easy to blame the several people involved in keeping that flame going, but really the best response is that I keep that flame going for it is a sensible one.* At university, some labelled me the Anti-Beeching: it is a moniker I am proud of. Short term gains which breed long term issues is a politic stance which should all should be dissuaded from.

*(Mere hours after Jim Steel points out how much he hates comma conjuctions that I go and use one in my second sentence here!)

Years ago we saw the great plans for subway extension in Glasgow, set up for consultation at Glasgow University. I graduated in 2009, and nay a word of it in the near decade since those plans. Even the lesser but worthy mirror track for the Commonwealth games has seen no light of day. So I took to thinking, if I were Minister without Portfolio for Trains (to use a hypothetical job description) how I would go about fixing the situation.

The current set up works well as a city centre set up. What I came up with originally was four lines that branched off this main one, ala how the London Underground works. The four main stations which would be used for these branch lines would be: Govan, Partick, Bridge Street and Buchanan Street. They are at set points which make them easier for branching off - although, as will be seen in the Partick proposal, the jumping off point could as easily be Kelvinbridge if that would come off easier at planning stage.

So without further ado, some extensions. Not even plans; mere wishful thinking.

Buchanan Street Line.

1 Buchanan Street
2. Sighthill Park
3 Old Balarnock
4 Robroyston
5 Millerston
6 Craigend
7 Easterhouse
8 Ballieston
9 Edinburgh Road/Forge/Parkhead
10 Foxley
11 Braidfauld
12 Dunn Street
13 Peoples Palace
14 Tollbooth

Up to Sighthill, along through to Millerston (with playing grounds and Hogganfield Loch), down towards deprived Easterhouse and Ballieston before heading back to town via The Peoples Palace and the Tron Theatre.

Bridge Street Line

1 Bridge Street
2 Gorbals Laurieston
3 Gorbals Ballatar Street
4 Cambuslang
5 Scotcart Centre
6 Halfway
7 Silverburn
8 Cathkin
9 Ardencraig Road
10 Castlemilk
11 Linn Park
12 Newlands
13 Queens Park
14 Dumbreck
15 Eglinton Toll

A highly important line, linking the run down Castlemilk to the city centre in these days of bus cuts. Some places (esp Newlands) have elderly populations away from a good chunk of public transport too.

Govan Line

1 Linthouse
2 Southern General
3 North Cardonald
4 Dean Park
5 Gallowhill
6 Glasgow Airport
7 Woodside
8 Foxbar
9 Dykebar Hospital
10 Barrhead Glasgow Road
11 Hurlet
12 Pollok
13 Belahouston Park
14 Helen Street

Linking Govan (which we forever hear is in the midst of a great regeneration) with Paisley, Barrhead and Pollok within the same area. If the Southern is to become the biggest hospital in the South of Glasgow, it needs more transport links than a few half hourly bus services which seem temperamental as to if they wish to turn up! Just now it is trust the buses or taxis, neither of which is a long term solution. So a rail link is required. Further links between the four named areas are also required as the number of transport links does not currently equate to the movement of labour between the four.

Pollok especially I single out here. The nearest stations to Pollok, one of the busier suburbs of Glasgow, is Crookston nearer Cardonald, or a walk down to Nitshill, and for safetys sakes, I don't think we should be encouraging late night walks from Nitshill to Pollok on many. It is inconceivable to me that a deprived area such as this, with such a high rate of old folk, should be reliantly solely on buses and their own means to get from area to area.

Partick Line

1 Partick
2 Botanic Gardens
3 Firhill
4 Kelvindale
5 Gartnavel
6 Temple
7 Baldwin Avenue
8 Drumchapel
9 Duntocher
10 Whitecrook
11 Knightswood Golf
12 Jordanhill
13 Victoria Park
14 Whiteinch

It was a key point for me to link up the hospitals in this way. Gartnavel is a fundamental sound hospital, and needs better access from the city than the perils of Great Western Road not having something broken.

The four lines link deprived areas and areas of inconvenience together, as well as great areas of public interest that are hard to get to, even for those with cars.

But what of the expense? I agree such plans would be expensive in the long run, but their use would outgrow their short term issues. Not just through job creation (estimated 4000 odd, before thinking of the trains themselves), not just through linking areas left for dead to the city centre and vice versa. When Haggs Castle was shut, the women working at it on its last day muttered how this wouldn't have happened "if we'd have a transport link".

This would just be the start. I'd propose further lines from Drumchapel, Pollok, Castlemilk and Easterhouse. Not only linking further afield communities to the Second City's centre within minutes travel, but also increasing the jobs and opportunities in these run down areas.

If we take Langside railway station for example, I advise no one to go to it after dark. A wired mesh across industrial ground leads 100 yards to an unlit tunnel which takes you to ground level, and there is no safety whatsoever between stepping off the train and getting to the street. The station is unmanned. I've just described the situation of many of the needed stations across Glasgow left to waste. It needs three staff in the ticket office, lights, and security checking the route from platform to street: at a guess, another four staff. Factor in three shifts a day, and we're talking around sixty jobs to one station, and that's one already in use.

The trains of Glasgow already provide veins throughout our city, with which we can boost the economies heart. To leave that tool to rot is to do the city, and it's peoples, a great injustice.

To misquote that great church sign once seen on London Road: "Don't let stress kill you. Let the Church help":

Let Glasgow flourish. Let the trains help.