Monday, February 28, 2011

Irresistible Pato Finally Comes Of Age

- 0The aftermath of Milan's 3-0 win over title rivals Napoli may well be draped in bullish statements of intent and analyses of the Serie A table, but the by far the most important aspect of AC Milan's win is the renewed form of Alexandre Pato.

Much maligned over the course of the season, Pato has suffered injury problems as well as lapses in form. Though his goalscoring record throughout his time at Milan has been solid, this latest match is the first brilliant Pato performance the San Siro fans have had the pleasure to witness. Many thought that Pato's superb solo goal away at Chievo last week was the beginning of a renaissance, and they may well be correct. However, it is one thing to drift past the defense of one of Serie A's struggling sides, but it is a completely different undertaking to do so against a back line as solid as Napoli's. From the off Pato troubled the azzuri defense with his silky skills and blinding speed. But in a half  fraught with cynical tackling, minor handbags and Gennaro Gatusso temper tantrums, the Brazilian number seven was unable to carve out an opening for his side.

Fortunately for Milan, however, all that was soon to change. It was Pato's challenge for the ball which resulted in Aronica's foolish handball (gifting Milan a penalty which Ibra duly tucked away) and it was also Pato, following some terrific play on the left hand side, who whipped in a pin point cross, for Kevin Prince Boateng to flick into the net. As the clock wound down and the intensity of the game diminished, at this point Napoli had given up all hope of a fight back, one wondered whether Pato would get the goal his performance deserved. It's probably fair to say that when it finally came, it was more than worth the wait. Latching onto a Van Bommel header, Pato drove into the heart of the Napoli defense, ignored Ibrahamovich's run, and curled a sumptuous shot into De Sanctis' top corner. As the man they call the duck was mobbed by a crowd of jubilant team mates, and Adriano Galliani blew kisses to the Milan faithful, you got the feeling that this goal was, perhaps, not only the just deserts of what had been an exhilarating performance, but the horsd'oeuvre, a mere taste of what is to come.

Looking away from Pato's performance, and towards the broader picture, one would imagine that this loss will spell the end of Napoli's valiant title chase. Yes, Matzarri's men rebounded well after their last embarrassing defeat in Milan, but one struggles to see a way back into the race for them, with both Milan and Inter in excellent form. Before this match, Marek Hamsik told the press that the only team that had anything to lose in this game was Milan, seemingly indicating that the Napoli camp never really saw the Scudetto as a possibility, but, whatever he says, Napoli will surely be disappointed by what was an anemic display.

The red and black side of Milan will celebrate tonight, a victory, putting them in the driving seat of the Serie A automobile, but few of them will realize that, what they have just seen is only the switch of the ignition, in the career of Alex Pato.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dynamic Udinese Crush Palermo

logoIn what was probably the most clinical performance of this, or any Serie A season, Udinese dispatched seven goals into the Palermo net.

Udinese this season have been highly entertaining to watch, with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Antonio Di Natale conjuring up breathtaking moment after breathtaking moment. Already this season, Udinese have beaten Juventus and Inter, not to mention a scintillating 4-4 draw against Milan. But today's result against Palermo tops the lot. With attackers Di Natale and Sanchez on fire in front of goal, Udinese smashed seven past a helpless Palermo side, likely to soon be shorn of their coach, Dellio Rossi.

The win was made even more incredible by the distribution of the goals within the team. Despite scoring seven, only two players' names actually made it onto the score sheet, with Sanchez netting four and Di Natale plundering a hat trick. Sanchez's contribution to the game was particularly telling. The Chilean winger's second goal of the game brought back memories of Ronaldo's 2006 World Cup goal against Ghana, having been played through by the aforementioned Di Natale, Sanchez beat the keeper with a double step over, and slotted the ball into the empty net. Then, after scoring his fourth just minutes into the second half, Sanchez was substituted, to the sound of a standing ovation from the Palermo crowd, one reminiscent of another Brazilian superstar, Ronaldinho.

Looking away from the individual aspect of this match, the three points secured by Udinese in Sicily put the team just one point off fourth place in the Serie A. And with current fourth place occupants Lazio in indifferent form at the moment, Francesco Guidolin's side will fancy their chances of a successful Champions League push.

Unfortunately for Udinese, there is also a negative side to their comprehensive, 7-0 win. Having starred at the World Cup in South  Africa, Udinese did well to keep Alexis Sanchez at the club for this season alone, and they will surely find it impossible to keep him for next season, even if they do qualify for next year's Uefa Champions League. Manchester United are said to be lurking, but if rumors of a move for Ashley Young are true, then Sanchez may well be headed for a different destination other than Manchester.

Will Udinese qualify for the Champions League?

How much is Alexis Sanchez worth?

Wenger Only Has Himself To Blame For Cup Disappointment

A mix-up between Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and keeper Wojciech Szczesny let Birmingham striker Obafemi Martins to grab the winner in the Carling Cup finalAs Arsene Wenger trudged up the Wembley steps, followed by eighteen, disconsolate, Arsenal players, the French manager must have been reflecting on what could have been.

The seeds for the Carling Cup final debacle were sewn in London on Wednesday when Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas picked up injuries in Arsenal's 1-0 win over Stoke. While Walcott was instantly ruled out of the Wembley showpiece, Fabregas' omission was surrounded in furore, with reports emerging that Arsenal's captain only found out about the depth of his injury  via the club's official website. In the direct aftermath of the news of the Spaniard's cup final fate, Fabregas' fitness advisor leaked information to the press, insisting that Fabregas was indeed fit to play. But Wenger, obviously believing in his side's potential to beat Birmingham even without their captain and talisman, left Fabregas out, pointing to immense matches against the likes of Barcelona in the next few weeks. What Wenger failed to realize in the build up to Sunday's match was that the League Cup final was just as, if not more, important to Arsenal then their upcoming Champions League second leg. The match against Birmingham presented Wenger's team with an opportunity to exorcise demons which have haunted the hearts and minds of fans and players alike, for all of six seasons. It was worth risking Fabregas' fitness to secure the League Cup. Though absences through injury and unavailability can be easily quantified into a disadvantage, the psychological boost that silverware can provide a team can be translated into an advantage more than great enough to cancel out the loss of one, albeit brilliant, central midfielder.

Did Arsene Wenger realize how important a League Cup victory could have been to Arsenal's trophy hunt? Does he not see, in the smiling faces of Birmingham's jubilant players, the impact that one victory can have on a team? And does he realize, in the tears, streaming down the face of Jack Wilshere, how galling and how damaging to a season a cup final loss can be? If this loss is to be the first nail in the coffin of Arsenal's season, then Wenger must realize that he is the one wielding the hammer. He first began to swing it when he elected not to purchase a top class goalkeeper this summer, leaving an inexperienced 19 year old, to be scarred forever, he arced it over his head when he left Cesc Fabregas out of his match day squad, and he brought it down, with a deafening clang, when his tactical error prompted the substitution of Robin Van Persie.

If Arsenal fans want a scapegoat for their team's unsuccessful cup final performance, then they will find him, wrapped in his trademark rain coat, on the sideline for their next home game, against Leyton Orient.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What Will Carling Cup Success Or Failure Mean To Arsenal And Birmingham?

When Patrick Viera scored the decisive penalty kick against Manchester United in the FA Cup final of 2005, few of Arsenal's celebrating fans realized that the 2005 success would be their last for at least another six years. Now, in 2011, Arsenal find themselves facing their best chance at winning a trophy since that victory in Wales. On Sunday, they will face a Birmingham City side that they have already beaten twice this season, including a 3-0 victory at St. Andrews earlier this year. Many Arsenal fans see their third game of the year against Birmingham as a bit of a formality, but these are dangerous thoughts. If the Gunners are to take home their first trophy for six years, then they will have to prove they want it more than a group of players that may see Sunday's final as their best, and last, chance at winning silverware.

Arsenal have already been dealt a double blow in the build up to the final, with both Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas ruled out through injury, but if Arsene Wenger's side are to win, then they will have to push the two absences to the back of their minds, and concentrate on overcoming a fully committed Birmingham team. The truth of it is, even without Fabregas and Walcott, Arsenal have more than enough in reserve to overcome Alex Mceish's side. However, Arsenal have been proved psychologically delicate on numerous occasions this season, and one wonders whether they would be able to respond to an early Birmingham goal. Last year, Manchester United successfully overcame a 1-0 deficit against another Midlands team in Aston Villa, but, as we all know, United have the title winning nous to maneuver themselves out of any situation.

For Birmingham, this final marks the culmination of what has been a fantastic cup run, and the Birmingham players will feel that they have nothing to lose in the final. They surely don't expect to win, and if  they don't, they always have the consolation of their continued progress in the FA Cup. What would a cup victory mean for Birmingham's season? One would imagine Alex Mcleish would refuse to let his players undergo a Spurs like collapse following cup victory, but Birmingham fans will have to hope their players can get themselves up for less fashionable games in the weeks following their Wembley trip.

So for which team is this match a more important game? If Arsenal were to win the final, then one could see them using their cup success as a platform to launch assaults on both the League and Champions League. However, the blow that defeat would deal, could be equally detrimental to Arsenal's hopes in other, more important, competitions. In fact, since the turn of the century only one Carling Cup final loser has rebounded well enough to win the league title that year, with that team being current Carling Cup holders Manchester United, in 2003. If Arsenal were to come unstuck, then Arsene Wenger would be keen to avoid the fate met by the title campaigns of the likes of Chelsea in 2008 and Arsenal in 2007, following their respective Carling Cup disappointments.

If Birmingham were to produce probably the greatest cup final shock since the opening of the new Wembley, then how would they react? Would they become distracted ala Tottenham Hotspur circa 2008, or would they use their victory as the inspiration behind a renewed charge for Premiership survival? One things for sure though, if the Birmingham players begin to let their standards drop in the slightest, Alex Mcleish will be onto them in an instant, and the problem may well be nipped in the bud. The last struggling team to reach the Carling Cup final, Wigan in 2006, managed to stay up in the months following the loss, and Birmingham supporters will pray that their side can manage a similar feat, if victory does not arrive on Sunday.

Who will win the 2011 Carling Cup final?

What effect will the result have on the two participating sides?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

INFTH Premier League Predictions

Aston Villa vs Blackburn- Both sides got the weekend off last time around, with Blackburn already knocked out of the cup, and Villa on standby due to Man City's replay against Notts County. Presumably, both sets of players will be fresh and raring to go for this one, so we should be in for an exciting encounter.

Villa will look to English trio Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Darren Bent for inspiration, a group of players more than capable of scoring goals. New Blackburn signing Roque Santa Cruz has yet to get off the mark following his return to Ewood Park, and it will be up to Villa defensive pairing Richard Dunne and James Collins to keep that run going.

Gerard Houllier will expect his side to take all three points from this encounter, but he will know full well that Blackburn are never a push over.

Prediction: 3-1

Everton vs Sunderland- Had Everton lost on penalties to Chelsea at the weekend, then I would have been one of the first to wonder what effect their tired legs would have on this encounter. However, as it transpired, Everton came out of Stamford Bridge victorious and the morale boost provided by that win will surely cure any possible bout of tiredness inflicted on the squad by their extra-time exploits.

Sunderland have lost a little momentum in the weeks following Darren Bent's move to Aston Villa, and Steve Bruce will hope to see an upturn in the fortunes of his side during their game at Goodison. Asamoah Gyan has been integral of late, and one would imagine that any Sunderland win would have to come courtesy of a strike from the Ghanaian.

David Moyes will pray that Everton's recent cup success manages to spark their league form into some life, but even if it doesn't, he will still have the consolation of a fifth round cup tie against Reading in the week.

Prediction: 2-0

Newcastle vs Bolton- Ever since the loan signing of Daniel Sturridge on transfer deadline day, Owen Coyle's Bolton side seem to have recovered their early season swagger. With Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies not on goal scoring form, it will be vital that the in form duo of Daniel Sturridge and Ivan Klasnic hit the heights of their exploits in previous weeks.

For Newcastle, this game will be perceived as very winnable, and if all three points are not gleaned on Saturday, then their will be some very disappointed Geordies. Leon Best and the returning Shola Ameobi will both be key to Newcastle's cause, and the mid-table side will hope to continue the decent run of form that they have enjoyed of late, as well as take advantage of the rest they enjoyed last weekend.

Prediction: 2-1

Wigan vs Man United- All the top teams are notorious for being very vulnerable in games directly following a European fixture, but one would imagine that United's experience in these kinds of situations will help them through this fixture.

United's away form has been shaky at best all season, and if the Red Devils make a poor start to this one, then Wigan may well find themselves with a chance of grabbing something. Once again though, United's attacking trio of Nani, Rooney and Berbatov will be crucial to their push for the points, and with some key players returning from injury United will fancy their chances in this one.

Prediciton: 0-3

Wolves vs Blackpool- Blackpool come into this game off the high of beating Tottenham in midweek, but one wonders whether their frail squad will be able to cope with two important games in a week.

Wolves will know the importance of taking the maximum from this game, especially with West Ham beginning to creep back into form. However, blunders against the little teams have not been atypical of Wolves this season, and one wonders whether Mick Mcarthy's side will become unstuck against the Seasiders.

With Charlie Adam in red hot form, and DJ Campbell a constant threat in front of goal, Ian Hollaway will know that his side is capable of claiming yet another away win, but it certainly won't come easy against a resolute Wolverhampton Wanderers side.

Prediction: 3-2

West Ham vs Liverpool- Liverpool and West Ham both enter this game after wins in cup competitions midweek, with West Ham smashing five past Burnley in the FA Cup and Liverpool just about overcoming Sparta Prague in the Europa League.

With the likes of Demba Ba, Frederic Piquionne and Thomas Hitzelsperger in tow, West Ham know that they are capable of beating Dalglish's Liverpool team, especially at Upton Park. Avram Grant will understand the importance of this game, especially if Wolves beat Blackpool on Saturday, and he will have made sure that his players aren't distracted by their fabulous cup run. If everything comes together on the day for West Ham, then they may well claim the points.

Despite their recent resurgence, only the most ridiculously optimistic of Liverpool fans will still harbor hopes of a top four finish, and for the majority of people involved with the club, this game will only serve as an opportunity to consolidate a Europa League spot.

Prediction: 2-2

Man City vs Fulham- Man City will come into this game on a high, having overcome Aris Salonika and securing a place in the last 16 of the Europa League. Meanwhile the bubble that was slowly formulating over Craven Cottage has been well and truly burst following Ivan Klasnic's heroics for Bolton at the weekend.

Earlier this season, Fulham were absolutely thrashed by Man City, and Mark Hughes will be keen to avoid a repeat of that painful encounter. For Mancini's City team, the rest of the season remains a battle to stay in the Champions League places as, following Rooney's derby goal two weeks ago, City are now all but out of the title race.

Prediction: 3-0

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fabulous Robben Runs Inter Ragged

In the wake of Mario Gomez's last gasp winner for Bayern Munich at the San Siro, all the headlines will surely be devoted to the German international forward's goalscoring feat. However, the lion's share of the credit for Bayern's terrific performance should go to dynamic winger, Arjen Robben.

While skipping past Inter defenders at will, Robben provided a valuable outlet for the Bayern attack, and it should be noted that it was his fierce drive which led to Gomez's goal. Not only did the Dutchman claim the assist for that goal though, he also hit the outside of the post with an angled strike, as well as provide countless numbers of superb deliveries into the box.

In a match dominated by Bayern Munich, the main story of the ninety minutes was missed chances and excellent goalkeeping. The aforementioned Gomez was guilty of blowing a gilt edged chance over the top, while Esteban Cambiasso was equally culpable at the other end. Not to be forgotten, young Bayern keeper Thomas Kraft put in yet another excellent performance, time and time again standing between Samuel Eto'o and the Munich goal. In fact, if it had not been for the current Bayern starter, Inter may well have had a healthy advantage in tow, a fact which would certainly have softened the blow dealt by Gomez's crucial away goal.

In the second leg, Bayern fans will be asking for more of the same, and Inter can certainly expect more penetrative wing play from star wingers, Robben and Ribery. If Leonardo's side are to have any chance of continuing their defense of the trophy they beat Bayern to win last year, then they will have to find a way to deal with Bayern's two, brilliant wingers. However, even if they do, Inter will find it difficult to overcome a Bayern team that will be full of confidence from the first leg, not to mention inspiration from the vociferous Allianz Arena crowd which will be roaring them on every step of the way.

In between now and the second leg, both teams will face decisive periods of play in their respective domestic championship pushes, with Bayern going up against league leaders Dortmund at the weekend and Inter facing a difficult trip to Genoa to face struggling Sampdoria. Both managers will be keen to see their troops remain injury free, with Van Gaal in particular right to worry about the fitness of the fragile Arjen Robben.

Can Inter Milan overturn the first leg deficit?

United And Marseille Toil To Uninspiring Draw

Man Utd winger Nani (left) challenges for a ball with Marseille left-back Gabriel HeinzeIn a match marred by the quality of the Stade Veledrome turf, Manchester United and Olympique Marseille played out 90 minutes that will not live long in the memory.

Short on quality in the center of midfield, United failed to impose any kind of dominance on the match, with the late introduction of Paul Scholes just not enough to get United the vital away goal. Sir Alex will be some what disappointed in his team's showing. Nani found himself in decent positions on several occasions but could not find the finish necessary to give his side the lead. Dimitar Berbatov was often left isolated up front as Wayne Rooney dropped deep to receive the ball, and Darrens Gibson and Fletcher were once again ineffective in the center of midfield. With the Red Devils crying out for a substitution all game, Sir Alex Ferguson finally relented, bringing on Paul Scholes for the aforementioned Gibson. With Scholes improving United's possession game, one would imagine that a further ten minutes of play might have led to a United goal, but on the day it was just not to be.

Weak on the road all season, United will perhaps not be surprised by yet another away draw, but the lack of an away goal will create a tense atmosphere at Old Trafford in three weeks time. But before that second leg encounter, United have more pressing matters to concentrate on, with three straight away matches in Wigan, Liverpool and Chelsea. If United can come out of those tough matches injury free, then they will surely remain strong favorites to progress to the last 8.

Didier Deschamps and his Marseille side will take plenty of positives from their first leg encounter. Having avoided the concession of an away goal, they will be in a strong position if they manage to find the net in Manchester, and with Andre Pierre Gignac set to return from injury, they'll fancy their chances. Perhaps even more importantly for Marsielle, key man Matieu Valbuena should be fit to start the match at Old Trafford, and you can rest assured that he will be eager to make an impact.

Who will go through to the quarters?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Real Madrid Fail To Take A Lead From The Lyon's Den

Karim BenzemaThe French for script writer is scenariste, and whom ever Karim Benzema has employed in that particular role, deserves a pay raise. Coming on as a substitute at the home of his, beloved, former club, Benzema delivered what will probably be a knock out blow in Lyon and Real Madrid's Round of 16 bout. Following a first half of more perspiration than inspiration, a rare moment of the latter was delivered by Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. Following a disappointing display from Togolese international Emmanuel Adebayor, The Special One saw fit to release former Lyon man Benzema into the fray. With his first touch Benzema jinked his way into some space in the box, and with his second he put the ball between the legs of Hugo Lloris, and into the back of the net.

Reeling, from the shock of the concession of an away goal, Lyon looked ripe for a pounding, and only wasteful Angel Di Maria finishing stood between Real Madrid and a two goal advantage. However, there was to be a sting in the tail, and Bafetimi Gomis' late strike will certainly sting Real Madrid. The striker, who had remained on the periphery of things for most of the encounter, capitalized on a superb flicked header from Cris, and, displaying coolness as well as technique, calmly slotted into the bottom corner. With round about five minutes left, Real Madrid found themselves suddenly of the back foot and by the time the final whistle blew, Mourinho probably would just about have settled with the one away goal.

Though Madrid will remain heavy favorites for the second leg, the Bernabeau crowd will be wary of the threat posed by a sparky Lyon side, and if the Merengues fail to come through this tie, one things for sure, what has been talked about as just a bad run in Europe, will quickly become a curse!

Will Real Madrid go through to the quarters?

Is Benzema's goal enough to move him ahead of Adebayor in the pecking order?

Torres Drought Continues, But Anelka Is On Hand To Inspire Blues

Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka (left) powers in a shot to put Chelsea in front against CopenhagenIn what is a result that may well have saved Carlo Ancelotti's job, Nicolas Anelka once again showed that he is Mr. Reliable in the Champions League for Chelsea. With seven goals in six matches, Anelka sits atop the Champions League scoring charts, and his brace away in Copenhagen will go some way to strengthening his case for a place in Ancelotti's starting line-up. Having pounced on a Gronkejaar mistake early in the first half, Anelka went on to torment the Copenhagen back line with his sharp movement and wonderful touch. Even more encouragingly for Chelsea, Fernando Torres began to show signs of a possible return to form, and his partnership with Anelka looks to be one destined for success.

Under pressure following a penalty miss against Everton, Anelka once again showed why he remains an important cog in the Chelsea machine. The quality of finishing that he is capable of producing was highlighted by his brilliant shot in the second half, one that was teed up by the ever improving Frank Lampard. If Anelka carries on the form he showed at the Stadium of Light a couple weeks ago, and the sheer quality which he displayed earlier in the day, then Carlo Ancelotti will have little reason for benching him.

Pre-match, the word on the street was that Ancelotti was one poor performance away from becoming unemployed, and with Claudio Ranieri handing in his notice at Roma, a return to Italy looked plausible. However, following Chelsea's blistering showing in Denmark, one would be hard pressed to imagine any scenario involving King Carlo receiving the sack.

On a slightly darker note, Didier Drogba continued his impersonation of "Stacy the sulking teenage girl" as, having come on to replace Anelka, he put in yet another performance devoid of any verve, passion or commitment. If the powerful Ivorian forward has any ambitions of reclaiming his spot in the Chelsea first team, he will have to come into form very quickly, as fellow countryman Kalou will be eying a sneak up the pecking order. If, in the coming weeks, Kalou does slip ahead of Drogba, then that long mooted summer move back to Marsielle may well become reality.

For Copenhagen, the result will come as a severe disappointment with much more expected from the Danish champions who, earlier in the competition, managed to hold Barcelona to a 1-1 draw. They will certainly have a mountain to climb if they expect to progress any farther in the tournament, but an early away goal at Stamford Bridge would make things extremely interesting.

Can FC Copenhagen overturn a two goal deficit?

Who are your preferred striking options for Chelsea?

Links Of The Day: February 22nd 2011 reviews the key battles of Real Madrid vs Lyon.

Paul Macdonald recalls past Real Madrid, Round of 16, failures.

Kris Voakes draws parallels between the Milan team of 2007 and the Chelsea team of 2011.

EPL Talk writes about the English tabs.

Monday, February 21, 2011

INFTH Champions League Predictions

FC Copenhagen vs Chelsea- For Carlo Ancelotti and Chelsea, the Champions League is now an only realistic chance at silverware this season. Following a loss on penalties to David Moyes' Everton team, there is a feeling of depression around Stamford Bridge, one which could only be cured by a healthy away win over the West London side's Danish opponents.

FC Copenhagen will see this as an ideal opportunity to play Chelsea with, as Ancelotti put it yesterday, only three Chelsea players (Cech, Ivanovic and Terry) playing well at the moment. The Copenhagen players will feel a need to bring a healthy lead away from this fixture, as in three weeks times Chelsea may be beginning to recover some of their early season swagger.

 Bizarrely, despite playing in the Europa League earlier this season, Fernando Torres will be allowed to compete for Chelsea, with fellow new signing David Luiz being consigned to the bench having played for Benfica earlier in the competition.

Prediction: 2-1

Lyon vs Real Madrid- Real Madrid's Champions League Round of Sixteen jinx has been well documented over the years, but lets rehash the facts. Real Madrid haven't reached the quarter finals of Europe's premier competition for six years, and their exit last year was at the hands of the very Lyon side which they will be facing tomorrow.

However, there is much hope around the Bernabeau that this year's Real Madrid team will end the side's recent slump and finally go beyond the last sixteen. Jose Mourinho seems to have brought a new era of stability to the Merengues, and with the gap on Barcelona being closed to just five points a week ago, the feel good factor has definitely returned to the Spanish capital.

Lyon, who finished second in their group behind German outfit Schalke, are enjoying another solid year in Ligue 1, with more Champions League football expected in 2012. Last year they managed to reach the semi-finals, and Claude Puel will hope that his side can show that 2010 was no fluke.

Prediction: 0-2

Manchester United vs Marseille- Sir Alex Ferguson had the huge luxury of being able to rest some of his key starters at the weekend, ensuring that the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Luis Nani will be well rested come kickoff on Wednesday.

United have been shaky on the road this season, but one struggles to see the hard-to-beat side being shocked in France. The main mission of this trip will be to return to Manchester with at least one away goal in tow, so as to enable a more relaxed second leg at Old Trafford.

The key to this match for Marseille will be to make sure to keep a clean sheet. If they are to have any chance of progressing, then they will have to be tight defensively, especially as key forward player Andre Pierre Gignac will be missing with injury.

Prediction: 1-2

Inter Milan vs Bayern Munich- With new signing Giampaolo Pazzini sidelined due to having participated in the competion's qualifying rounds with Sampdoria, Inter Milan will be slighty less of a threat going forward. However, even if it is just Samuel Eto'o plowing a lone furrow up front for the Nerazzuri, he can be assured several good chances on goal, as the defensive play of Louis Van Gaal's Bayern side has been less than exemplary.

But for every mistake that the Bayern defense makes, the forward line for the Bavarian club can be expected to force two more out of the opposition. With two lightning fast wingers in Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, as well as one of the form strikers in Europe, Mario Gomez, Bayern Munich pose quite a threat. Against Mainz at the weekend, Munich's attack clicked, ominously, into gear and Inter Milan can expect to be put under severe pressure on Wednesday.

Leonardo's side will have to be resigned to the possibility of the concession of an away goal, but they will also see themselves as in with a decent chance of taking a lead to the Allianz Arena, where they will doubtless have the opportunity to plunder a few away goals themselves.

Prediction: 3-2

Napoli Show Championship Credentials With Win

Napoli 1-0 Catania  In a result, perhaps, even more significant then their win away in Rome last weekend Napoli defeated Catania 1-0 thanks to Zuniga's first half effort.

From the start, what appeared to be a routine home match against a relegation candidate, famed for struggling away from home, looked as though it might be tougher than expected. Schelloto hit the post from a Catania corner and the normally ice cool Cavani missed from the penalty spot after Jose Sosa had gone down inside the area.

At this point one would be entitled to wondering whether Napoli had the strength of character to continue their Scudetto pursuit. Coming off a mid week European match, into an unfashionable, run of the mill 90 minutes at home to Catania, the Partenopei looked short of inspiration. However, the home team were finally given the lead through the most unlikely sources, Juan Zuniga, as a deflected shot from Edinson Cavani fell invitingly into the defender's path. If Napoli are to win the league this season, then they will have to stop relying on goals from the "Fab Three" of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Markek Hamsik and Edinson Cavani, and with players like Zuniga contributing as well, Napoli's title chances look a lot more promising.

A slightly fortuitous, 1-0 win over the Serie A's relegation fodder might not be remembered at the end of the season, but for Walter Matzarri and the rest of the Napoli coaching staff, this match may well be used as a blue print for winning matches while not playing well, a skill this Napoli side will have to pick up fast if they are to turn themselves into a title winning team.

The Azzuri have done well to come through this past week unscathed, but they can expect new and ever more difficult challenges in the ones ahead, with Thursday's Europa League encounter with Villareal next on the agenda. Following that enticing Round of 32 match up, Napoli will face perhaps their biggest game of the season, namely, a trip to the San Siro to face off with current league leaders, AC Milan. A win in that game would send Napoli to the top of the Serie A table as well as give the Naples based team the confidence they will need to go all the way.

Can Napoli win the Scudetto?

Will Napoli balance their Europa League ambitions with their Serie A exploits?

The Enigma, Bebe

When Manchester United announced the signing of an unknown Portugese youngster last August, many a memory harked back to two past raids of Portugal, namely, the signings of Nani and Ronaldo. However, based on his lackluster performance against Wolves earlier in the season, as well as his woeful showing against Crawley Town on Saturday, Bebe seems to rest in an inferior class to his two, brilliant, countryman.

Bebe admirers will point to the unconvincing starts that both Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo made to their Old Trafford careers, but the truth is that mid way through their first seasons at the club they had already made an impact. Ronaldo's step over laden debut at home to Bolton put him in the minds of United supporters everywhere and, though considered a little over zealous with his foot work, Ronaldo was still appreciated as a very talented player.

When Nani arrived at United he made an impact arguably faster than Ronaldo, with screamers against Tottenham and Middelsborough early in the season proving invaluable for a United team who began the 07/08 Premier League season with a stutter. Though Nani faded some what towards the end of the season, he still contributed to United's finest moment of the season, scoring a penalty in the shoot-out win over Chelsea which gave Sir Alex Ferguson his second Champions League title.

Though it is surely to early to write off Bebe's chances of success at United one does begin to wonder about the thoughts going through Ferguson's head as Bebe smacked another cross into row Z on Saturday. In the past Ferguson has been patient with young, developing talent, but one struggles to see any way that Bebe will break into the first team with Nani, Obertan, Park and the returning Antonio Valencia, well ahead of him in the pecking order.

It would be a brilliant rags to riches tale if Bebe was to make it at Manchester United, but Cinderella stories like that rarely play out in real life, and the wily Scotsman in charge of Bebe's future could hardly be accused of sentimentality in his dealings with under performing players.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Links Of The Day: February 18th 2011

Henry Winter reflects on Spanish football following Arsenal's Champions League heroics.

Fantasyepl offer a little comic relief.

EPL Talk discusses a new set of Uefa rules.

Kevin Mcarra discusses Arsenal's win over Barca.'s Matt Monaghan discusses the United fringe players who need to impress against Crawley.

Gareth Lowe offers his opinion on the race between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

INFTH FA Cup Predictions

Chelsea vs Everton- In what will be one of a two FA Cup fourth round replays taking place this weekend, a stuttering Chelsea take on an Everton side coming off a humiliatingly bad performance against Bolton at the Reebok.

Chelsea may well rest a few of their stuttering stars for Saturday's match, as Carlo Ancelotti will have one eye on Tuesday's Champions League action. However, he will surely start out of form Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to being dropped against Fulham last Monday. Drogba already has one goal against Everton this season, a penalty in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, and one would think that the Ivorian forward would love to grab another one in this fixture.

Prediction: 2-1 aet

Birmingham City vs Sheffield Wednesday- Alex Mcleish's men will look to bounce back after a disappointing home loss to Birmingham on Tuesday, and so far this season cup competitions have proved the perfect antidote for such drops in form as these. Buoyed by the ever growing impact of former Valencia striker Nikola Zigic, I fully expect Birmingham to cruise into the sixth round against a team which is finding survival in Leauge One, very difficult indeed.

However, new Owls boss Gary Megson will have other ideas, and the former Bolton manager's Premier League experience may be crucial if Wednesday are to have any chance of advancing in the competition. Crucified, for his love of direct football, Megson will still be slightly hurt by the treatment he received from the Bolton support, a band of supporters for whom survival just wasn't enough, and he will see this match as the first stepping stone on the path to redemption.

Prediction: 2-0

Stoke vs Brighton- Since their promotion in 2008, Tony Pulis has done wonders with a Stoke City side that have become one of the staples of Premiership football over the last few years. However, they will face a stern test on Saturday as League One high fliers Brighton come to town.

A real feel good feeling exists over Brighton football club, with a new stadium ready for the start of next season, one which will most likely take place in the heady heights of the Championship. If Stoke are to beat Brighton, then they will have to disrupt the Seagulls passing game, and impose their own, physical brand of football onto the League One outfit. But this is surely easier said then done, as Brighton are a side full of confidence at the moment.

Prediction: 3-1

Manchester United vs Crawley Town- Non-League Crawley Town will attempt to make history by pulling off what would be one of the most remarkable cupsets of all time by beating Manchester United at Old Trafford. However, Ferguson will not have forgotten United's embarrassing exit at the hands of Leeds last season, as well as past struggles against the likes of Exeter and Burton.

With a slew of United's reserve players in line to make an appearance, one can expect an intense game, with the United youngsters keen to impress, and the Crawley players keen to leave their mark on what will be the biggest day of their entire football careers.

United can't take anything to granted, especially in a competition with a history of providing the unexpected, but I fully believe that Fergie's men will have too much for their Blue Square Premier opposition.

Prediction: 4-0

Manchester City vs Notts County- For Paul Ince and his Notts County team, this game is well and truly a bonus, after a 1-1 draw in the original tie set up this money spinning encounter. Quite frankly, the best result for County's season would be a loss, as they have to concentrate on surviving the drop in League One, but all the neutrals will be firmly behind the Notts County cause.

Roberto Mancini will face a tough task in inspiring his troops, following a morale sucking 2-1 loss at Old Trafford, as well as a disappointing away draw in the Europa League. For Edin Dzeko, this match is an ideal opportunity to cast his mark on a City team which has yet to see the best of the Bosnian striker. Steve Mclaren came out earlier this week, saying that he didn't expect to see the former Wolfsburg striker reach peak form until next season but, knowing City, he may not be given that long.

Prediction: 3-0

Fulham vs Bolton- After a dry run, Owen Coyle's Bolton side have finally rediscovered the form which made them one of the most popular Premier League teams during the first half of the season. Inspired by the signing of Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge on loan for the rest of the season and delighted with the return from international duty of winger Chung Yong Lee, the feel good factor appears to have returned to the Reebok Stadium and with it, improved results.

For Fulham, what would have been considered a decent point against Chelsea last Monday, was marred by Clint Dempsey's late penalty miss. However, that aside, Fulham have been in sumptuous form of late with returning striker Andy Johnson rediscovering the goalscoring touch. Certainly, if Fuham can recreate the form which led them to their evisceration of Tottenham in the fourth round, then Bolton will be no match for Mark Hughes' side.

Prediction: 2-0

Leyton Orient vs Arsenal- Arsenal will have to come down to Earth following their brilliant come back against Barcelona on Wednesday, but one suspects that the mid week result will serve to inspire them, rather than distract them. Orient will be delighted with this, money spinning, draw and one can expect an intense atmosphere in what will surely be a packed Brisbane Road.

This week Orient challenged the decision to award West Ham United the Olympic stadium, believing that the presence of the struggling Premier League side will threaten their very existence. One would hope that the Orient players will use the anger generated by the stadium decision to fire themselves up for the tie, and Arsenal can expect anything but an easy ride in this match.

Prediction: 1-2

West Ham vs Burnley- West Ham will really fancy themselves going far in the cup this year and with the likes of Victor Obinna and Demba Ba in reserve, it's difficult to doubt their cup winning pedigree. The FA Cup has provided West Ham with much needed relief this season, as their league form has been less than exemplary. However, the Irons will be buoyed by their terrific second half come back against West Bromich Albion last weekend and the Upton Park faithful will expect a top performance.

For Burnley, this match provides a further taste of Premiership action after their relegation last season. And though the Championship club will doubtless see winning the competition as one bridge too far, they will expect to put up a decent resistance against West Ham on Monday.

Prediction: 3-1

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Delicious Shakhtar Blast Past Roma

Shakhtar Donetsk's Douglas Costa celebrates his goalIn the build up to AS Roma's Champions League home tie against Shakhtar Donetsk, all the attention was focussed on a Shakhtar team which hadn't played a competitive fixture since December. The Ukranians appeared ripe for a beating, and what chance would they stand against 11, wily, Romans?

As it happened, Roma started the better team, taking the lead through Mancunian born Simone Perrota's deflected header. Unfortunately for the Italians, it was a lead which lasted all of 67 seconds as Jadson's deflected effort from the edge of the box gave Shakhtar Donetsk a precious away goal. With Douglas Costa running Claudio Ranieri's defense ragged, and Luiz Adriano causing all kinds of problems inside the penalty area, it seemed only a matter of time before Brazil's Ukrainian colony struck what would surely be a knock punch.

After a brilliant counterattack, Shakhtar struck with Douglas Costa, performing like the player that Sir Alex Ferguson admired so much during his time at Gremio, scoring Shakhtar's second away goal. Upon receiving the ball on the left wing Costa cut inside before rifling a curling, left footed shot into the top corner of Doni's net. Still reeling from Costa's effort, Roma were caught out again before half time when Riise's slip presented Douglas Costa with an opportunity to square for Adriano, who slid the ball into the net via a slight deflection off the Roma goalkeeper.

Though Jermey Menez pulled a goal back for the Giallorossi in the second half, one struggles to see a Roma side, devoid of any confidence, scoring twice in Ukraine. As the final whistle blew, Roma were greeted with whistles by their vociferous home following, and a banner was unfurled, questioning whether the current crop of  Roma players' were fit to where the shirt.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Brilliant Wilshere Propels Arsenal Past Barca

Jack Wilshere England ArsenalWhen David Villa clinically dispatched his best opportunity of the game mid-way through the first half, one struggled to see anything other than a Barcelona rout, from Arsenal's first leg Champions League tie with the Catalan club. However, due to a combination of Barcelona profligacy in front of goal and a lucky, mis hit Robin Van Persie cross, Arsenal found themselves leading  the tie upon the conclusion of the first leg.

Though all the headlines will be of Arshavin gaining redemption for what has been a woeful season by his standards, by sweeping home the all important goal, the lion share of the credit for Arsenal's comeback should really go to young Gunner, Jack Wilshere. From the start it was clear that Arsenal's homegrown prodigy was up for the game, and as the minutes ticked by the England international just got better and better. Providing a rare combination of aggression in the midfield, and an ability to spray out accurate passes, Wilshere dominated a midfield also occupied by legendary duo Iniesta and Xavi. About mid way through the second half, Martin Tyler mentioned during his commentary that he thought "the biggest compliment that could be payed to Wilshere was that he had performed like a player capable of playing in Barcelona's midfield." These comments truly summed up what was a master class in midfield play, made yet more remarkable by the fact it was carried out by a player aged a mere, 19. Like Lennon last night and Ashley Young a week ago, if Wilshere continues to perform like this, he will find himself a fixture in the England national team.

Countless positives can be drawn from the spirit Arsenal showed in coming back from a goal down, but Arsene Wenger will know that this tie is anything but over. In what is set to be a spectacular encounter at the Nou Camp in three weeks time, Arsenal can be expected to be battered by waves of Barcelona pressure, and only a brilliant performance by the midfield and back four will give Arsenal any chance of going through. There is no question that Lionel Messi will not be kept quiet for two game running, and Arsenal can anticipate a master class from the Argentinian. Last year in this fixture Messi tore Arsenal to shreds with his skill, pace and finishing but, hopefully, Arsenal will be better equipped this time around to deal with his considerable threat.

Will Arsenal succeed in making it to the quarter finals?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valencia Made To Pay For Wastefulness

Raúl Schalke ValenciaHow often has a team, seemingly sitting pretty on a one-nil advantage, been punished for a failure to convert dominance into goals? Once again we were showed exactly why a 1-0 lead, particularly in Europe's premier football competition, is just not enough. With left-back Mathieu providing brilliant cross after brilliant cross, and Ever Banega dominating the midfield, it seemed inevitable that Valencia would run away with their first leg match, and leave Schalke facing an exit from Europe. However, we were once again reminded never to write off the Germans, as living legend, Raul, cashed in on his first clear cut opportunity of the game, and rifled the ball into the Valencia net.

Raul's 70th goal in European competition, pulled Schalke back into a tie which looked to be done and dusted as a confident Valencia ran the German side ragged for the first 60 minutes at the Mestalla. The picture now looks significantly more gloomy for the 2000 finalists, and in light of Schalke's magnificent defensive record in European competition, one struggles to see a way back into the tie for Unai Emery's team. At one-nil Valencia would have had Schalke exactly where they wanted them, chasing the tie. But following Raul's equalizer, it is now Valencia who will have to chase the game, as a nil-nil draw in Germany will not be enough to progress through to the quarter finals.

Can Valencia battle through to the quarters?

Where does Raul rank in the pantheon of European goalscorers?

Tottenham Must Be Wary Of Wounded Milan

Peter Crouch shows his delight after his winner for Tottenham at AC Milan Following Tottenham Hotspur's magnificent 1-0 win at the San Siro, fans of the Lily whites are right to be optimistic. Not only did Spurs show superb maturity in the way they dealt with the physicality of the Milan midfield, but they also showed mettle in defense despite a series of injuries. If that wasn't enough, then the performance of England winner Aaron Lennon certainly was. Under pressure following the performance of Ashley Young in England's match against Denmark, Lennon certainly showed what he was made of in a match, ironically, at the home of one of England manager Fabio Capello's former teams. Not only did Lennon show terrific pace and skill as he ripped past Mario Yepes in the process of creating Tottenham's winner, but his diligent tracking back totally negated the threat of full back Antonini. If Lennon can keep up the kind of form he showed at the San Siro last night, then surely he will reclaim a spot in the England team.

What with the imminent return of Gareth Bale, and the returns to full fitness by Luka Modric and Rafael Van der Vaart, many Spurs fans consider the Milan tie to be done and dusted. However, they are deluding themselves, any side with attacking players of the ilk of Robinho, Ibrahamovich and Pato are a force to be reckoned with, home and away. Harry Redknapp's men can be certain that Allegri's side won't come out of the traps so flat a second time around, and an early Milan goal at the Lane would make things very interesting indeed.

What may be most interesting about the return leg in North London, is the attitude that Spurs approach the game with. If, as promised, they come out all guns blazing and attempt to finish off the tie swiftly, then they may well be punished by the Milan counter attack. However, Harry Redknapp will know the risks of sitting back and inviting pressure, especially from a side with as much Champions League experience as AC Milan. Personally, I expect Redknapp to come out firing with a classic 4-4-2 formation, with Bale and Lennon on either side and Defoe deployed upfront alongside San Siro goalscorer Peter Crouch. Crouch was quite effective in the away match, but one thing I noticed was, following the removal of Rafael Van der Vaart, that no one was running onto Crouch's flicked headers, rendering his ability in the air quite superfluous. If their is one player within the Spurs ranks, capable of turning Crouch flicks into assists, then it is Jermain Defoe, who I am convinced will start the second leg.

Whatever transpires in the final act of this Champions League drama, Spurs can certainly be proud about the progress they have made since Juande Ramos' last game as manager, back in 2008. Particularly this year, in the Champions League, Spurs have proved that they have the quality to compete with Europe's finest, and I doubt anyone would be surprised if they were doing so next year as well.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Tribute To Ronaldo, The Fat One

From sprinting through on goal after skinning a defender, to sprinting away from a grocer who's pies he had knicked, Ronaldo's career has taken him to heights, and depths, that not even the greatest Brazilian footballers, had ever reached before.

It was clear to virtually all connoisseurs of the world game, from the moment Ronaldo played his first minutes as a professional, in the shirt of Brazil's Cruzeiro, that Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima was very special indeed. After playing just 45 games for his first club, Ronaldo was off to Eindhoven, where his growing  reputation would continue to be enhanced, at PSV. However, following two very successful seasons in Holland, Ronaldo was on the move again, this time to the Catalan city of Barcelona. Scoring a magnificent 47 goals in 49 games for Barca, Ronaldo was to win the Fifa World Player of the Year award following his one, and only, season with the club. It seems ridiculous that a team the size of Barcelona could let go a player of the quality of Ronaldo after only a single season, but, following the breaking down of contract negotiations, the Brazilian striker joined Inter Milan for what was a record sum at the time.

In his first season in Italy, Ronaldo finished Serie A's top scorer, helped his Internazionale team to Uefa Cup glory and one the Fifa Player of the Year award for the second season running. An incredible return from a player with only a hand full of years of European experience under his belt.

Following his first few years of success in the European club game, much was expected from Ronaldo during the Fifa World Cup finals in France. And, at least to begin with, Ronaldo didn't disappoint, scoring four goals in Brazil's run to the final. In the final itself however, Ronaldo underperformed and Brazil subsequently lost 3-0, in a match that will always be remembered for the moment Zinedine Zidane forced himself onto the world statge. However, this match was to prove to be only a blot, on an otherwise stainless Ronaldo copy book, which was further cleansed by a World Cup win in 2002.

More than a year after the '98 final, in November 1999, Ronaldo suffered the first of a series of knee injuries which would come to haunt him for the rest of his career. During a match against Lecce, Ronaldo began to feel his knee and was forced to limp off, with plenty of the game still to go. In the following days it became clear that Ronaldo would need surgery, and the Brazilian superstar wasn't to play again until April, 2000.

Having rebounded strongly after his knee injury, Ronaldo went on to win the 2002 World Player of the Year Award, following his starring performance in Brazil's World Cup triumph in Japan and South Korea. However, 2002 was also to be his last year for the Nerrazurri as, following his World Cup success, he joined Florentino Perez's Galacticos at Real Madrid.

Ronaldo's tenure at Madrid was to prove to be the longest of his career, with the striker playing 164 times for the Merengues, while plundering 98 goals. Also during his time in Madrid, Ronaldo became one of a select group of players, with two fellow members being Luis Figo and Michael Laudrup, who have played on both sides of the El Classico divide.

Despite all the success that preceded it, the end of Ronaldo's Real Madrid career simply fizzled out. Following Madrid's purchase of Manchester United striker Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo became more and more out of favor with manager Fabio Capello, and on January 30th 2007, Ronaldo sealed a move back to Italy, this time with AC Milan.

Unfortunately, due to a variety of injury and weight related issues, Ronaldo was never able to have the impact at AC Milan that he had had on the blue and black side of the city, and it came as no surprise to anyone that, after just 20 appearances for Carlo Ancelotti's Milan side, Ronaldo would be joining Brazilian team Corinthians.

During his two seasons with Corinthians, Ronaldo boasted a healthy enough scoring record, something which certainly could not be said about his weight, which was beginning to spiral out of control. Finally, in February 2011, following Corinthian's elimination from the Copa Libertadores, Ronaldo retired from professional football, admitting that at last, his series of injuries had caught up with him.

The latter years aside, Ronaldo's career was one of boundless success. Winning trophies in Spain, Holland, Italy and Brazil cemented Ronaldo's reputation as one of the all time greats. Certainly, he will forever be remembered not just for his achievements with some of Europe's biggest clubs or his ridiculous hairdo, revealed on the day of the 2002 World Cup final, but for the array of fabulous moments he provided those lucky enough to see him play, week in, week out.