Saturday, April 30, 2011

Something Is Bruin In Houston, Texas

Another two Brad Davis assists, and another win for the Houston Dynamo, as the former MLS Cup champions look to consolidate a position towards the top of the Eastern Conference.

Pre-season, Houston were handed  huge slice of fortune as they were moved into the East, to make way for Portland and Vancouver, two expansion sides that were added to the West. Significantly weaker than the West, the Eastern Conference offers a relatively easy route to the playoffs, one that Dominic Kinnear will be confident his team can take advantage of.

After losing to Philadelphia on opening day, Houston have rebounded well, and are unbeaten in the league since that loss to the Union. Two successive away draws in Seattle and New York, were followed by wins over Vancouver and New England, before a late Bobby Boswell goal earned the Dynamo a 1-1 draw with Chicago last week.

This time around, no late heroics would be needed, Houston positively cruised past DC United, inflicting a second consecutive four goal loss on the visitors. All the headlines will be devoted to rookie Will Bruin, out of Indiana, Bruin scored his first MLS goal in a 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, and he was at it again on Friday night, scoring a hat trick.

With just a few minutes on the clock, Bruin found himself through on goal, and easily slotted past goalkeeper Bill Hammid for 1-0. His second came late in the first half, a header which restored the lead for Houston, they had conceded an equalizer after DC capitalized on a free kick. Unsurprisingly, the architect of Bruin's second goal was the influential Brad Davis, who has now eclipsed Vancouver's David Chiumiento, and is currently Major League Soccer's assist king.

Fifty-seven minutes in, Bruin completed his hat trick, again off a Davis cross, and again via his head. At 3-1 down, DC were never going to come back, Charlie Davies looked severely off the pace, and Andy Najar wasn't seeing enough of the ball to make any kind of meaningful impact.

At the back, DC were all at sea, every Brad Davis delivery was causing havoc in the penalty area, and Houston players were getting in behind with ease, both Cameron and Davis' ability to spot a through ball were  reducing Ben Olsen's back line to an absolute shambles. However, the DC defense were still yet to reach their nadir, a moment which arrived on sixty-two minutes. A long throw in from the half way line set Cam Weaver through on goal, and the striker made no mistake, thrashing the ball into the roof of the net from a difficult angle. On the sideline, Ben Olsen looked disgusted at his team's error strewn performance, one embodied by the lack of concentration which resulted in Houston's fourth and final goal of the night.

With a three goal lead intact, Dominic Kinnear found time to introduce some new talent, as well as help others return from injury. Jamaican Watson, and Spaniard Koke both made their MLS debuts in the second half, and the Dynamo were able to welcome Brian Ching back from an injury sustained away in New York. With those introductions, and the Dynamo knocking the ball around with ease, the game began to develop a party atmosphere, the crowd clearly delighted by their team's showing.

Obviously, Dominic Kinnear will be delighted with the performance of his side, and particularly that of a few key individuals. Will Bruin was not only impressive in the goalscoring department, but also in his overall play, he looks strong, fast and capable of creating chances out of nothing. Captain for the night, Brad David produced yet another magnificent showing, the American midfielder's deliveries from corners, free kicks and open play took the breath away, and really he should have probably had more than just the two assists. In defense, Bobby Boswell looked solid once again, though he did miss quite a good chance to score, after he sliced wide inside the six yard box.

Screaming on the touch line all night, Ben Olsen will no doubt be furious with his team's performance. Lapses in concentration were once again punished by the opposition, with the back line not inspiring confidence in anyone save the opponent's center forwards. While the DC defense has been questionable all season, their attack has been dynamic, but last night if just wasn't clicking for any of the forward line. Davies played like a someone still recovering from a major injury, and Josh Wolff played like someone who had never seen a football in his life, his missed opportunity at 2-1 arguably lost the game for United.

With that victory, Houston have propelled themselves to top of the East, but if both New York and Philadelphia capitalize on routine home games this weekend, the the Texans will drop down to third. DC meanwhile find themselves languishing in seventh, and with the teams below them having played fewer games, the future looks ominous for the team from the capital.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

INFTH MLS Predictions

Houston vs DC United- After a fine start to the season, Ben Olsen and DC United must have thought that they were ready to compete at the top of MLS. However, last Thursday, the record MLS Cup winners were given a footballing lesson by the best team in the East, if not the entire league.

A tough away trip, but DC will be focussed on bouncing back from their 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls, however, standing in their way is a hard working Houston Dynamo team, who have encountered some success as well thus far. Last week, they found a late equalizer away in Chicago, and that result has helped them to maintain mid table status in the Western Conference.

Against New York, Charlie Davies started only his second MLS game of the season, despite being Major League Soccer's top scorer. Teammate Chris Pontius has also been in form, and Dominic Kinnear will be targeting those two, as the men who need to be kept quiet.

Prediction: 2-0

Philadelphia vs San Jose- Quite honestly, the Union didn't need that bye last week. Last year's expansion team had been in fine form, but a break in their MLS rhythm combined with New York's win over DC has led to them surrendering first place in the East.

However, at home to San Jose in Saturday's afternoon game, the Union will have the opportunity to move back on top against a team that was ripped to shreds by New York on the occasion of their last visit to the East coast. Amazingly, Philadelphia have enjoyed this fine start to the season without last year's star man Sebastian Le Toux scoring a goal, instead, MLS veteran Carlos Ruiz has ruled the roost scoring two goals so far.

Last season, San Jose enjoyed a fruitful season which ended with a fine play off run but it's tough to see them coming close to that achievement this time around. Entrenched in the league's strongest conference, San Jose face a battle to get into the play offs let alone make a run, and if they are to have any hope then they'll need Wondolowski and Convey on top, top form.

As this match is at PPL Park, I'm going to tip Philly for the win, the Union is beginning to develop a spine, and their back four has been brilliant so far.

Prediction: 2-0

Columbus vs Vancouver- The story this season for Columbus has been one of total defense, with the Crew boasting one of the better defensive records in Major League Soccer. However, midweek, attacker Rentaria  claimed that the Crew forward line deserves and "A," but I beg to differ. Last week, Columbus only managed to score one against a ten man Toronto side that happens to sport possibly the worst back four in the league. Shameful.

The Crew's opponents this week also boast a porous defense, the Whitecaps have been anything but solid thus far. However, upfront it's a different story, Chiumiento is minting assists and Hassli and Camilo are dangerous up top.

At home, it would be easy to tip the Crew for a win, but I reckon that Vancouver's superb attack will have enough to cut through the Crew, and I doubt that a forward line led by the uninspiring Mendoza will pose the Canadians many problems.

Prediction: 0-1

New York vs Sporting KC- After an inauspicious beginning, New York have clicked into gear, scoring seven goals in their last two matches. Agudelo, Henry, Rodgers, Richards and Lindpere all score goals, so even if one of them is off their game, Backe's side have more than enough options in attack.

At the back, NY have been solid, save Ream's error in Philadelphia, and they should be good enough to keep out Sporting's Bunbury and Kamara, a more than capable strike duo. In the midfield, NYRB are looking better every week, De Rosario is starting to mesh with his teammates, and Teemu Tainio has been arguably the signing of the season.

On the road, life is always tough, and you have to feel sorry for Sporting who have faced a baptism of fire in their first season under the new brand name. However, Livestrong Park is edging towards completion, and fortunes should change once KC play a few home matches.

Prediction: 3-0

Colorado vs Chicago- After a blistering start to their title defense, the Rapids have lost momentum fast with three straight defeats. Luckily for the reigning champs though, Chicago are one of the worst teams in the league at the moment, and Gary Smith will expect his team to take the maximum from this one.

In Marco Pappa Chicago have one of MLS' best midfielders, however, apart from him and Diego Chaves the squad is short of quality, particularly in defense as illustrated by their collapse away to Portland. On the other hand, Colorado is lined with quality, though they will be weakened by Brain Mullan's highly overblown suspension. In attack, Caleb Folan, Conor Casey and Omar Cummings are menacing, and throughout the side, Colorado have plenty of experience.

At home, the Rapids are clear favorites to win, and it will be interesting to see whether their players get right behind the wronged Brian Mullan.

Prediction: 3-1

Seattle vs Toronto- The loss of Steve Zakuani is a huge blow to Seattle, but they still should have enough to overcome a mediocre Toronto side at home.

Last week, Fredy Montero found the net for the first time this season, and Zhiggi Schmidt will hope that the lively Colombian keeps up his goalscoring form. However, if Montero does have an off day, the Sounders still have attacking options, Rosales, Friberg and White all have the potential to produce something when called upon.

After his bizzare sending off, Tony Tchani is suspended for this one and that his a fairly huge blow to Aron Winter's side. Apart from some sparky play by the likes of Santos and Martina, things have been pretty gloomy at BMO Field, but they have enjoyed some success this week in the NCC.

Having played games midweek, Toronto are likely to be a little short of energy, and I fancy Seattle to take full advantage of that.

Prediction: 3-1

Chivas USA vs New England- Last week, Chivas finally won their first game of the season and it's no coincidence that that result came directly after Robin Fraser's decision to move Justin Braun back to the center of the attack.

Steve Nicol's Revolution team look really exciting at the moment, striker Lekic and midfielder Feilhaber were fantastic against Sporting KC, impressive as both were debuting for the Revs. That result left New England fifth in the East, but the middle of that conference is very congested, and a run of results could put the two time finalists near the top.

Chivas USA should be lifted after their first win, but unless their strikers start finding the net on a more frequent basis the team will continue to struggle. Re-jigged after a host of transfers, New England look good, and I think they will win on the road here.

Prediction: 0-2

Portland vs Real Salt Lake- Timber Joey, Kenny Cooper, John Spencer, MLS' newest franchise boast so many likable characters. At home they are a formidable side, and Spencer will certainly feel that they are playing Real Salt Lake at the right time.

After earning a fine result in Mexico, Real failed to complete the job at home in the Concacaf Champions League final second leg, and they must lift themselves after a heartbreaking defeat. It is cruel scheduling which has led to them playing the Timbers so soon after such a morale sapping loss, but Kreis will demand that his players respond anyway.

There is no question that Salt Lake are a superior side to Portland, Borchers and Olave form a formidable back line and Morales and Espindola are at times unplayable in midfield. However, it is unclear whether any of those players will start on Sunday, and certainly, the door is open for an upset.

Prediction: 2-1

FC Dallas vs Los Angeles- Much like Seattle, Dallas lost their best player to serious injury last weekend, with Davide Ferreira facing a long time out after breaking his ankle. In Brek Shea, Castillo and a host of other, Dallas still have a few attacking weapons, but Ferreira was always the lynch pin, and he will be missed.

For LA, last week was a celebration of the return of a star rather than the loss of one, as Landon Donovan returned to goalscoring form with a brace against the Portland Timbers. LA were superb in all departments during that game and, in the wake of Real Salt Lake's break from action, the Galaxy have moved top of the West.

David Beckham will be jetted back to Dallas directly after the conclusion of the Royal Wedding, and with the Englishman starting to ping the passes around, Arena will be glad to have him. Up top, new signing Chad Barrett has finally started to fire with two goals in two games and I reckon that his form combined with help from Beckham, Donavan and Angel will lift the team to victory.

Prediction: 0-2

INFTH Premier League Predictions

 Blackburn vs Bolton-  One of the fiercest derbies in English football, and one which could be key to deciding whether Blackburn spend another season in the top flight.

Out of relegation danger and far off European football, one might could be led to believe that this game means nothing for Bolton, however, they would be wrong. Owen Coyle and his players will be desperate to see their hated rivals go down, and a win at Ewood Park would be a brilliant tonic for any post Fulham disappointments.

For Steve Kean, this is just another precious home match, in a season which is beginning to dwindle away from him. On Monday, his team defended stoutly, only to have their hearts broken by a late Edin Dzeko effort which all but secured Champions League football for Manchester City next season. Certainly, this is likely to Kean's last season at the helm of Blackburn, but he even still, he won't want to see Rovers go down.

I'm going to go for a home win in this one, Blackburn need the result more than Bolton, and home field advantage will tip the balance still further.

Prediction: 2-1

Blackpool vs Stoke- At the moment, Stoke City are one of the league's form teams, FA Cup finalists, and now well safe in the Premier League.

Earlier this week, Pulis' side almost mathematically guaranteed safety with a 3-0 win over Wolves, and the Potters will be looking to do something similar against Blackpool. Last weekend, Ian Hollaway's Tangerines were unlucky not to take all three points at home against Newcastle, with an inability to finish proving their bane. This time around, Blackpool will know they have to take their chances against a tough, in form opponent.

Stoke may be the team on form, but I'm going to go with a draw, Blackpool need to scrounge for every little point they can get.

Prediction: 2-2

Sunderland vs Fulham- Last week, despite sustaining an array of injuries, Sunderland managed to win a game at last. That result has all but guaranteed them safety, but Steve Bruce will still want to finish the season strongly, and have his side rediscover some semblance of their form from the first half of the season.

Fulham come into this one off the back of a healthy home win over Bolton, with Clint Dempsey the star, scoring two goals. Now the all time top scoring American in the Premiership, Dempsey will likely be influential in this game, but he'll have to put on some show to stop Fulham from falling to yet another away defeat.

The importance of the Black Cats' win last week can't be stressed enough, and I think the confidence gleaned from that one should be able to see them over the line, and secure them the three points.

Prediction: 3-1

WBA vs Aston Villa- Both teams are safe, and I think that might just take the sting off what would have otherwise been an enthralling local derby.

Aston Villa will once again be led by assistant manager Gary Mcallister, as Gerard Houllier is still in hospital. Last week, the inspiration provided by Houllier's illness could only propel them to a 1-1 home draw, and Villains fans will hope that their men find more goals and an away win on Saturday.

Roy Hodgson has worked miracles since his arrival at the Hawthorns, and I'm looking forward to seeing what work he does in the summer transfer window.  In this match, crucial to West Brom's chances will not only be the form of one of last week's goal scorers, Peter Odemwingie, but also how an often leaky defense deals with Darren Bent, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing. That attacking trio is more than capable of causing the Baggies problems, and I think they will fire Villa to victory in the local derby.

Prediction: 1-2

Wigan vs Everton- Last week, Everton were victims of yet another Manchester United late show, but they still have a decent chance of reaching the Europa League, and David Moyes will demand a victory at the DW.

Roberto Martinez and Wigan Athletic are certain to be relegated if they don't take advantage of their home matches, so a win on Saturday is imperative. In Victor Moses, Hugo Rodallega and Charles N'Zogbia, Wigan boast a few decent attacking options, players that are capable of keeping even a poor team like Wigan up.

Everton's injury crisis has eased slightly with the return of Tim Cahill, but they are still missing a few key names, and I think that will catch them up in this one, I'm tipping Wigan for a vital win.

Prediction: 2-1

Chelsea vs Tottenham- A London derby, and a match that has the potential to be one of the games of the season. To put it simply, both teams need to win with Chelsea and Spurs still harboring minor hopes of wresting first and fourth respectively from the two Manchester clubs.

Rafael Van der Vaart has been the big game man for Tottenham this season, and he will have to be in great form again if Spurs are to get a crucial win at Stamford Bridge. Still to come for Tottenham are away matches at Liverpool and City, so even a win in this game may not be enough to earn a return to Europe's premier competiton.

Last week, Fernando Torres scored his first Chelsea goal against West Ham, and Carlo Ancelotti will pray he adds to his total against city rivals Tottenham. If the maximum are not picked up in this game, the title is Manchester United's, but I think Drogba and co. will have too much for Redknapp's men.

Prediction: 2-0

Birmingham vs Wolves- The weekend's second Midlands derby, and a significantly more crucial match than the Villa-WBA game. Birmingham are just about safe, but Wolves are certainly not, they are marooned in the bottom three, and lost again midweek.

On paper, Wolves boast a decent attack with Matt Jarvis and Steven Fletcher, but without the crucially important Kevin Doyle, Wolves are toothless upfront. At the back, things are even worse, Wolves have been leaky all season, but in recent weeks they have been worse than usual.

Birmingham have done well to revive themselves after a post cup final slump, and Alex Mcleish would love to be the man who virtually confirmed the relegation of one of the Blues' local rivals. That motivation combined with a roaring home crowd should send all three points in the direction of St. Andrews.

Prediction: 3-1

Liverpool vs Newcastle- The Reds are flying at the moment, after a 5-0 home win last week helped Dalglish's men to yet another win. Standing in their way this time around is another team safe of relegation, and I struggle to see Newcastle United causing the home team any problems.

Remarkably, Liverpool's win over Birmingham was reached without goals from either striker, both Carroll and Suarez were kept goalless. However, Joe Cole was a scorer last Saturday, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a look in this time around.

Midweek Stephen Ireland's season was ended through injury, a fitting conclusion to a terrible year for the Irishman. The former Man City man has not had time enough to become a force that could be missed, so his absence certainly will not be used as an excuse for defeat.

Prediction: 3-0

Arsenal vs Manchester United- Just a point from this match would do for United, but it's difficult to see Fergie sending out a defensive minded team. Champions elect, Manchester United can still win the league even if they lose at The Emirates, but Ferguson will want to avoid a nervous finish to the season.

Arsenal are absolutely shell shocked at the moment, they haven't one in three, and a loss at Bolton last weekend left them facing yet another trophyless season. Lacking appropriate personnel in a multitude of departments, Wenger needs to work hard in the transfer market, but his early statements haven't been encouraging, the stubborn Frenchman is insistent that he will stick with his conservative transfer policy.

In past years, United's pace in the counter attack has destroyed Arsenal and this season they are, if possible, even more equipped in that department. Nani, Rooney and Valencia all can break quickly, and I think their strength in attack will consign the Gunners to yet another defeat.

Prediction: 1-3

Manchester City vs West Ham- Edin Dzeko's goal on Monday has almost guaranteed Roberto Mancini's team Champions League football, but the Italian will still be wary of  a late season collapse.

West Ham have once again dropped to bottom the league, and they need to pick up points fast or risk moving ever closer to relegation. The Hammers spurned chances to claim a share of the spoils at Stamford Bridge last week, and if they are equally profligate on Sunday then they will likely be dismantled.

Even without the injured Carlos Tevez, City have a stupendous array of match winners, Dzeko, Balotelli, Silva, Johnson and Toure can all win games on their own, and I suspect that at least two of them will be in good form against the Irons.

Prediction: 3-0

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wronged Madrid Savaged By Messi

Barcelona goalscorer Lionel MessiIn a game featuring two teams whom we are so used to seeing bring the finest steak to the footballing potluck, the two Spanish giants brought only dirty napkins and cheap cutlery for the first seventy-five minutes of an embarrassingly ill tempered affair.

For every moment of genius, there are always several of mortification, and every follower of football deserves to be as mortified about the behavior of Pedro and Busquets, as they are proud of Messi's second goal. Pedro's theatric fall and clutching of his face, a theatric attempt at conning referee Wolfgang Stark into sending off Alvaro Arbeloa, would have been the premier cheat of the game, had Sergio Busquets not eclipsed him moments later with an equally grotesque attempt at reducing Real's numbers. In the midst of this whirl of Classicos, Jose Mourinho had vented his fury at the refereeing decisions that have gone against his side, and openly expressed his desire to see Barcelona play with only ten men on the field. Well, both Busquet's and Pedro's actions fully warrant punishment of the utmost severity, though Fifa rules dictate that they should only receive a booking.

Of course though, the miniature drama directed and performed by the Barcelona midfield was only a subplot to an extremely intense and interesting game of football, going on across the Bernabeau turf. Tactically, not much was different from the first two encounters, Madrid operated with Pepe in midfield and a false nine up top, and were forced to make only one major personnel change, Sergio Ramos deputizing at center back for the unavailable Ricardo Carvahlo. For Barcelona, all was the same as usual formation wise, but crucially, Seydou Keita was forced to come in for the injured Andres Iniesta.

In a week that has been marked by the celebration of William Shakespeare's birthday, I suppose it was fitting that Madrid and Barca players chose to show their appreciation for the field of drama, in such an exciting and passionate way. Starting in the first seconds, every challenge was milked, every decision questioned, and every blowing of the whistle sparked a major flare up. Disgusting and embarrassing to watch, two of the greatest teams on the planet ruined what should have been a magical occasion with their antics, further fueled by the constant spats between Mourinho and Guardiola, ones which originated in the press room earlier this week.
Jose Pinto (purple) tries to pick a fight with the Real Madrid team at half-time, leading to his dismissal from the bench.

The first half ended, uneventful, no chances, but plenty of complaining. The first part of the second period was, if possible, even worse, the tension added to by Sergio Pinto's sending off during the half time interval. We had to wait, fifteen minutes into the second half, for the games defining moment to arrive, as Pepe, lunging fairly for the ball, shaved Alves with his studs, a slight bit of contact, which caused Alves to call for a stretcher. There really should be no place in football for the likes of Alves, a man who should live in shame for the rest of the season after his own contribution to the memory the Bard of Avon.

Unsurprisingly, Pepe's dismissal sparked an uncouth reaction from Mr. Mourinho who was sent to the stands after a wink filled tirade towards the fourth official. Up a man and in control, it quickly became clear that Barca were ready to press forward for a winner, and one arrived with just nine minutes to go.

On as a second half substitute for the ineffective Pedro, Ibrahim Affelay burst past Marcelo before whipping in a near post cross that was jabbed home by the onrushing Messi. That goal was the Argentine's fifty-first of what has been yet another remarkable season for him.

1-0 down, and still with several minutes left to play, it quickly became clear that the remainder of the game would be an exercise in damage limitation for the hosts. Instead of pressing forward for a leveler, the Merengues continued to sit deep, inviting pressure, a strategy eventually resulted in Barca's second goal.

Messi proved with his first strike of the match that he is more than capable of scoring goals on the scrappy side, but his second was much more like what we have been accustomed to seeing from the World's greatest footballer. Bursting past three players with consummate ease, Messi found himself one on one with Casillas, a situation he adjusted to with aplomb, clipping a lovely right footed finish into the net for two-nil.

A hush fell around the Bernabeau, as Messi wheeled away in celebration, mobbed by teammates, who must surely now believe that they are heading for Wembley. Mourinho sat passively, in his positon in the stands, observing his side's collapse, but all the while still jotting notes on his ever present pad.

The story of this match, will undoubtedly be of an Argentine's brilliance, but that moment of sheer genius masked what had been a negative, unsportsmanlike encounter. Year's before the development of football as a professional sport, Shakespeare referred to the World as a stage, if only Spain's elite hadn't taken him quite so literally.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

United Cruise, Despite Neuer Masterclass

Manuel Neuer, a future Manchester United goalkeeper perhaps? Certainly, the big German stopper showed no signs of affiliation with United, as he frustrated Ferguson's side for the best part of seventy minutes.
FC Schalke 04: Manuel Neuer

Flying this way and that, Neuer denied the likes of Chicharitio, Giggs and Evra as he kept his Schalke side in the game. Though goals from Giggs and Rooney eventually made up for all those United misses, Neuer can still exit this game delighted with his own performance, and furious at the performances of his teammates.

From the very first whistle it was clear that Manchester United were the better team, Michael Carrick dropped deep, protecting his two center halves, allowing the virtuoso Ryan Giggs free rein in the final third of the pitch. United were keeping possession well, and from the very early stages onward, it was clear that every one of their attacks would likely produce a goal.

However, a combination of United's profligacy in the final third, and Neuer's outstanding saves kept the Red Devils at bay until mid way through the second half, when Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney scored within a few minutes of each other. Those goals were greeted with as much relief as jubilation from the United contingent in the stadium, it was too soon after the semi final defeat to City for United fans to be relaxed after seeing their side miss opportunities.

Ryan Giggs celebrates putting Man United aheadIn the end, the Premier League leaders ran out comfortable victors over their German adversaries, Schalke looked like the team tenth placed in the Bundesliga, and not the one that shocked Inter at the San Siro three weeks ago. Operating on the counter, Rangnick's side never appeared likely scorers, due to a lack of pace in attack, forays forward were always slow, with even the so often superb Raul devoid of any kind of inspiration. With Raul not performing, the home side looked to their best player in that monumental win at the San Siro Farfan though, was well contained by the United midfield and defense, and with the only other attacker being the mediocre Edu, Schalke lacked bite up top.

As bad as Schalke were, United were also that good. Despite missing a hat trick of chances before finally scoring, Ryan Giggs was superb throughout, arguably United's Man of the Match, and still supremely fit at the age of thirty-seven. Upfront, Chicharito and Rooney continued to combine well, as illustrated by the second goal, when a cute Hernandez through ball gave Rooney a chance to score, one that he took with some aplomb. Rumors have been flying around today that Dimitar Berbatov's contract talks with the high ups at Manchester United have fallen through, meaning that the Chicharito-Rooney partnership could be one that lasts into next season and beyond.

In defense, United were never really tested, but the back four still had to keep their cool. Ferdinand as always read passes brilliantly while Vidic's ability to head a ball away from danger is still quite astounding. In the full back positions, Fabio and Evra got forward well, and both came close to scoring, first Fabio blazed and effort just over, before Patrice Evra was denied a rare headed goal, and then one on the break, when his daisy cutter of a strike flew wide with minutes to go. Like the central defenders, neither were stressed by an anemic Schlake attack, but their performances were still encouraging, especially heading into what will be a decisive series of fixtures.

2-0 winners, United are doubtless favorites heading into the second leg, a mere one goal would force Schalke to respond with four, a quite unlikely scenario. So, for a few weeks at least, United will be free to concentrate on the Premier League title race, one they will hope to have closed out in the next two weeks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

INFTH Champions League Predictions

RaulSchalke 04 vs Manchester United- A David and Goliath battle, one which pits potential finalists against a team that really should have been knocked out ages ago. Schalke's rise to the semi finals of the Champions League has been surprising and inspiring but I think the journey may well end here for Ralf Rangnick's men.

Schalke's opponents will be Manchester United, experienced Champions League warriors, players that have the muscle memory capable of seeing them through the final. However, United have never beaten a German team in a two legged tie, and pessimists in the United camp will think back to the team's latest European disappointment, a two legged loss to Bayern Munich.

I expect an open game in both legs of this tie, Schalke are not good enough to sit back and defend, and Manchester United will be looking to rack up the away goals against a defense which has been porous at best for most of this season. Sir Alex Ferguson was able to rest several of his key players for this match, handing United another, albeit small, advantage.

Prediction: 1-3

Real Madrid vs Barcelona- When Lionel Messi tucked away his penalty at the Bernabeau two weeks ago, virtually guaranteeing Barca the Spanish Primera title, nobody would have guessed that Real would head into this tie as favorites to advance.

However, since that Messi conversion, Real Madrid have been in blistering form, first pegging back Barca to a 1-1 draw, then winning the Copa Del Rey, and lastly eviscerating Valencia at the Mestalla, scoring six goals against one of Spain's better teams, despite fielding what was effectively a reserve side.

Jose Mourinho will look to follow the blueprint his Inter Milan side set last season, of defeating Barcelona by a two goal margin at home, and then defending at the Camp Nou. Full of confidence after consecutive wins, one would imagine that Real Madrid will be ready to attack Barca, and with injuries in the defensive third continuing to foil Guardiola's plans, Ronaldo and co. will smell blood.

Needless to say, this tie is likely to be an extremely close one, a historic match up which could hand us a sneak preview of the future of Spanish soccer. After two and a half years of dominance, Barca are beginning to be caught up, and a win for Madrid in this tie would just be another step on the road to a more lasting transfer of power.

Prediction: 2-1

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bayern Sitting On Brink Of Disaster

Robben, Ribery, Gomez, Schweinsteiger, Klose, the attacking players possessed by Bayern Munich simply roll off the tongue, but despite their talents, Bayern may well be playing Europa League football next season.

Bayern started the season well, or so it appeared, Thomas Muller and Bastian Schweinsteiger helped the Bavarians to a 2-1 win over 2009 champions Wolfsburg. Perhaps we should have seen the signs presented by that game, a struggle to win against one of the Bundesliga's weaker sides, and a lack of potency in the final third with Arjen Robben out injured. However, still caught up in the beauty of Germany's World Cup campaign, inspired by the German core of this Bayern team, we ignored Munich's deficiencies, and dubbed them favorites to retain the Bundesliga crown.

Certainly, even the most enthusiastic of Bayern supporters would have struggled to take any positives out of Bayern's next match, a 2-0 thrashing at the hands of newly promoted side Kaiserslauten. Inspired by Srdjan Lakic, Kaiserslauten were the first side to punish Bayern's many failings in defense, as they shocked the reigning champions in only the second match of the Bundesliga season.

Following that defeat, Louis Van Gaal's side continued to struggle drawing with Cologne and Werder, before a win over Hoffenheim was followed by two consecutive defeats at the hands of Mainz and Dortmund. Well off the ridiculous title pace set by Mainz, the first murmurings of discontent were emerging from the Bayern camp, the word was that some of the playing staff had become disgruntled with the methods of Dutch manager Van Gaal.

At the back Bayern were looking increasingly vulnerable, players like Van Buyten, Badstuber and Breno were proving liabilities. Upfront Mario Gomez was the only bright spot for Bayern, after an unsuccessful debut season the former Stuttgart striker was making his mark, but even his good form wasn't enough to cover up for the absence of the injured Arjen Robben.

By New Years, and the return of Bayern's flying Dutchman, the Bavarians were out of the title race, Dortmund flying high at the top of an extraordinarily strange Bundesliga table.

With Robben back, the reigning Bundesliga champions began to find some momentum, Robben and Ribery both looked dangerous and Gomez's goals were continuing to flow. However, in a week dubbed as the most important in Bayern's season, the team fell short, knocked out of the German Cup by Schalke, turned over in the league by Dortmund, and shocked in the Champions League by Inter Milan.

Before long Van Gaal, who had already announced he was leaving the club at the end of the season, was sacked, leaving Bayern in terrible condition, behind Hannover in the race for the third and the final Champions League place.

On Saturday, Munich were guilty of dropping yet more points, two as they succumbed to a 1-1 draw away at Frankfurt. Meanwhile, Hannover were yet again victorious, moving them up to third place, one point ahead of Bayern. As it stands, Bayern Munich will be returning to the bowels of the Europa League, an astounding fall in grace for a team that last season contested the Champions League final.

It is difficult to place blame on the shoulders on one particular entity in the Bayern camp, no doubt Van Gaal is partially responsible for his former side's plight, but blame must also be handed down to an obstinate board of directors who have only managed to make life difficult for the team. Uli Hoeness and Franz Beckenbauer were both fine players in their day, but their weekly roastings of Van Gaal and his players will have done nothing for morale. Moreover, their constant meddling in the team's affairs has led to tension between themselves and the manager, and then eventually the manager and the playing staff.

Also culpable must be the Bayern players, particularly the defenders who have been shambolic this season, making basic errors that lost games that looked to be won. No doubt, the attacking aspect of the team's play was not helped by Robben's long injury absence, but reliance on a player as injury prone as Robben will always end in tears.

So a season of disaster for all aspects of Bayern Munchen could end with in ultimate ignominy, the denial of Champions League football. Standing between the 2010 champions and that fate are three matches, against Schalke, St. Pauli and Stuttgart. Over the course of those games, a one point deficit must be overturned or else the Europa League awaits.

Bayern have nobody to blame but themselves for their current predicament. From the board room downward, the Allianz Arena is layered with guilty parties, a difficult chairman, a defeated coach and a leaky defense are all causes of this year's terrors. With the rise of a young exciting Borruisa Dortmund side the headline of another absorbing season, this Bayern team's time at the top German football could be coming to an end. The lure of Champions League football and the opportunity to work under the inspirational Jurgen Klopp will assist in the retention and acquisition of top class players at Dortmund, neither of those could be said for Bayern.

Five Things We Learned From This Week's MLS Action

1. Goals are like London buses- For much of the early part of the 2011 MLS season, all fans and pundits could talk about was New York's consistent struggles to find the net despite their myriad of attacking options. However, last weekend, NYRB finally broke their duck, scoring three goals to rout San Jose at Red Bull Arena. It appeared that a mental dam had been broken, and that thought was confirmed when the Red Bulls continued to rack up the goals on Thursday night. This time around, DC United were the victims, as strikes from Thierry Henry (twice), Joel Lindpere and Juan Agudelo helped New York cruise through to an easy 4-0 win. That victory has put New York on top of the Eastern Conference, and has left future opposition quivering in their boots.

2. Injuries are no fun at all- Unfortunately, what was an otherwise an absorbing MLS week was marred by two major injuries to two of MLS' most exciting attacking players. First, on Friday, Steve Zakuani was the victim of a terrible tackle from Brian Mullan, one which leaves Zakuani with a broken leg, and a hugely long absence awaiting him. Seattle went on to win that win that game, but there remained a surreal sense about the Sounders' celebrations, Zakuani's injury could come back to hurt them in the near future. Then, on Saturday, a second injury blow as FC Dallas' Davide Ferreira broke his ankle during his side's 2-1 away victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps. Last year's MVP was just starting to pick up a head of steam in this year's season, only for that injury to put him back immensely. While MLS still boasts plenty of other sources of attacking talent, Ferreira and Zakuani's injuries have certainly put a downer on what had been an exhilarating start to MLS '11.

3. Players should think before they celebrate- You would think that all the players plying their trade in Major League Soccer would have taken note of Eric Hassli's incredibly stupid sending off against New England a few weeks ago. The Frenchman, already on a booking, ripped his shirt off in celebration of a goal  only to see the referee brandish a second yellow card, one that resulted in a second consecutive dismissal for the DP. However, one man obviously wasn't watching that match, with the player in question being Tony Tchani. Tchani has done well since joining Toronto from the New York Red Bulls, and his goal on Saturday must have been a great moment in his fledgling career. Unfortunately though, the player took his celebration too far, jumping over the advertising boardings so as to celebrate along with the TFC fans. Not only did that action result in his sending off, but Toronto went on to lose the lead Tchani had given them, a precious two points gone. It is important to point out that booking players for over celebrating is one of the more asinine FIFA regulations, but the players know that such rules are in place, and not adhering to them when already on a yellow is simply unacceptable.

4. Kansas City need that stadium to be finished- MLS 2011 has all the makings of a great year for Sporting Kansas City. The newly branded franchise boasts an impressive array of attacking talent, and they're set to have a new stadium unveiled in the coming months. However, due to the need for extra time in finishing the stadium, Sporting have been forced to kick off 2011 with a run of away games, a run that has been damaging to their Eastern Conference ranking. Currently, Kansas City are enduring a tough run of results, a sequence which was continued yesterday by a 3-2 loss in New England. Despite a Kei Kamara brace, KC were unable to hold on for the three points, and they now sit bottom of the East. With only a win and a draw from the opening exchanges in 2011, Sporting Kansas City are the worst team in MLS, one in dire need of the inspiration of a home crowd. A look at the way Portland's fortunes changed once they started playing at home provides an indicator of what Sporting supporters could expect, but in the meantime they need to start winning on the road.

5. Landon is ready to roll- Until Saturday night, the Galaxy had been unable to benefit from the best of what Landon Donovan has to offer due to a combination of international engagements and injury. However, against Portland, Landy Cakes showed off his quality, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over the Portland Timbers. Donovan's decision not to make a loan move to one of Europe's elite over the MLS break was greeted with different reactions from different people, some saying that rest was a good idea while others lamented the waste of such a fine player. Personally, while disappointed not to see the American back at Everton, I thought, and still do think, that Donovan's decision will benefit LA hugely, a well rested Landon is exactly what the Galaxy need to bounce back from two straight play off disappointments.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Five Things We Learned From Saturday's EPL Action

1. Fernando Torres is capable of scoring goals- Much maligned for virtually the entirety of his Chelsea career, Fernando Torres finally has scored his first goal. The expression of joy on his face as he slid across the wet Stamford Bridge turf in celebration only served to underline the relief felt by all involved at Chelsea Football Club at the moment of Torres' first goal. Mobbed by teammates, a smiling Torres was able to enjoy his first strike for the Blues in the fairly low key atmosphere of an easy home win over West Ham, and Ancelotti will hope that more important goals are still yet to come from the Spaniard. Next up for Chelsea is a London derby against Tottenham, a match that Torres' team must win if they are stay in the Premier League title race. Hopefully for Ancelotti, Torres will carry over his goal scoring form to that one.

2. Joe Cole is out of hibernation- Pre-season, Joe Cole's move to Liverpool was dubbed one of the signings of the summer, and Reds captain Steven Gerrard even went as far as to suggest that Cole was an early front runner for the Player of the Year award. However, things have not gone to plan for Cole, first he was sent off in his Premier League debut, before a combination of a lack of form and an inability to stay fit conspired to stop him from making a mark under Roy Hodgson. When Dalglish took over in January, Cole found himself in a state of limbo, the marquee signing of a failed reign, that had yet to prove himself at Anfield. With only a few minutes of football under Dalglish, Joe Cole came on as a second half substitute earlier today, and went on to score the fifth goal of a Liverpool rout. The question mark following the name of the goal scorer on the BBC's live text feed further illustrated the troubles that Cole has faced in his Liverpool career thus far, but maybe, just maybe, he is ready for a new beginning.

3. Chicharito is United's true Player of the Year- Mexicans never do well in the Premiership. The weather in England is just too cold for them, and the speed and aggression doesn't mesh well with their style of play. To say that Javier Hernandez has proved pundits wrong would be a gross understatement. Chicharito has eviscerated the arguments mentioned above, and may well have steered United to a nineteenth league title in the process. In today's early game, Chicharito scored what is just the latest edition of a series of monumentally important goals against the likes of Stoke, Chelsea, West Brom and now Everton. The sight to Hernandez's leap to meet a back post Valencia cross will bring joy to the hearts of United supporters everywhere who have seen their little Mexican propel them to the verge of number 19.

4. Sunderland have rediscovered the winning habit- To call Sunderland's late season winless run a disaster would be putting it mildly. The Black Cats have fallen to losses against all sorts, from the Premier League's richest, to its most struggling entities. Unsurprisingly, a lack of goals has been the main reason for the team's strugges, with Gyan and Sessegnon failing to hit the heights expected of them. However, on Saturday, Steve Bruce's side finally found their goal scoring touch, finding the net four times in a twenty-two minute spell, which broke the hearts of relegation candidates Wigan Athletic. Gyan, Sessegnon and Henderson all found the net, helping Sunderland to a 4-2 win, their first at home since New Year's Day.

5. Spurs' Champions League hopes are hanging on a thread- Throughout this most historic Tottenham Hotspur season, the one enduring message has been of a need to reclaim Champions League football. Despite a fabulous European run, Spurs have struggled to hit last season's heights in the league, something which has led to their fourth place berth being usurped by Manchester City. On Saturday, Jermain Defoe's goal was not enough to see Tottenham through to a much needed victory, a late WBA fight back put pay to that. Currently, Spurs rest just one point of Manchester City in fourth, but the Citizens have a game in hand, away at Blackburn on Monday. To make matters worse, Spurs have an incredibly difficult sequence of matches ahead of them, they must travel to Stamford Bridge and Anfield before facing off with City in a potentially crucial match at Eastlands. With all their star players back in form, it would be foolhardy to write off Redknapp's men, but certainly, the road to the 2012 Champions League looks rocky.

Friday, April 22, 2011

INFTH MLS Predictions

Colorado vs Seattle- MLS's Friday night match and an interesting one too, pitting together a pair of Western Conference rivals.

After a vibrant start, Colorado have gone off the boil a little with consecutive losses to Dallas and RSL. Meanwhile, Seattle have continued to toil, drawing last week at Philadelphia, after claiming a first three points of the season at home to Chicago.

Expected to return to the line-up for Seattle is Colombian forward player Fredy Montero. Montero made a decent impact coming off the bench last week, and Seattle should pose the Colorado defense some problems with both Montero and Zakuani in the side.

For Colorado, this match must be used as a way of putting two consecutive defeats into the past and concentrating on the future. As they are at home, the Rapids are favorites to win this one and given Seattle's indifferent home form, I think Gary Smith's men will roll all over the Sounders.

Prediction: 3-1

San Jose vs Chivas USA- Last week, San Jose were victims of New York's return to form and Frank Yallop will hope that that defeat doesn't pray on the minds of the San Jose players.

Meanwhile, Chivas USA have suffered a disastrous start to the season, and the Goats are still yet to claim a win under new boss Robin Fraiser. This week, Chivas passed up the chance to sign veteran American player Benny Feilhaber, so it will be interesting to see how they fare without a player of that stature. Upfront, last year's sensation Justin Braun has been misfiring, and if that continues so will Chivas' winless streak.

Key to the Earthquakes' hopes as always are attacking duo Bobby Convey and Chris Wondolowski. Both are capped USA internationals, and, despite iffy starts to the season for the pair of them, their combination poses a threat to anyone.

I fancy San Jose to win this game, Yallop should have his charges riled up after last week's loss, and it's about time that the Convey-Wondolowski show started its 2011 edition.

Prediction: 2-0

Toronto vs Columbus- Arguably, this is a match which pits MLS's worst defense against its best. Last week Toronto continued to look shaky at the back, giving up three goals in a home loss to DC. Meanwhile, Columbus posted their fourth shut out of the season, as Robbie Rogers' goal led them to a 1-0 win over Sporting KC.

Away from home, life will be a lot tougher for the Crew, but with their back four performing so admirably, it's hard to see the likes of Alan Gordon troubling them. Upfront is where the real problem lies for Columbus, Mendoza has yet to convince, and goals from midfield cannot be relied upon.

Personally, I see this game as another disaster for Toronto and Aron Winter. The Dutchman is trying to teach his Toronto team how to play expansive football, and it just isn't working. Meanwhile, the Crew are continuing to play to their own strengths, and I see Chad Marshall leading them to another clean sheet.

Prediction: 0-1

Vancouver vs FC Dallas- Last week, Dallas were turned over by the inspired Portland Timbers, a disappointing result, Hyndeman had thought that his team's early season struggles were behind them.

Vancouver have looked highly exciting this season, Hassli, Camilo and Harris are dangerous upfront and midfielder Chiumiento is creating chances at will. At the back things are less rosy though, but they did keep a clean sheet last week against Chivas.

Towards the end of Dallas' loss at Portland, the Texans made an interesting tactical move, playing Brek Shea further up the field, a maneuver which worked a treat as Shea went on to score a goal and create one too.  I would love to see Schellias Hyndeman start out with Shea further up the park, and if he takes my advice, Dallas should win.

Prediction: 2-4

New England vs Kansas City- Sporting's long run of away matches will continue on Saturday as MLS's newly re-branded franchise travels to Massachusetts to face off with the Revs.

Last week, both these sides fell to tight away losses, and both Peter Vermes and Steve Nicol will be keen to see an upturn in fortunes. Even without the injured Omar Bravo, Sporting boast a collection of attacking riches, Sapong, Bunbury and Kamara are all dangerous.

Returning for New England will be midfield duo Shalrie Joseph and Pat Phelan, a huge boost to the two time losing finalists. New England are strong at home and I expect them to pick up the maximum here, Sporting look to be turning into weary travelers.

Prediction: 2-1

Chicago vs Houston- Chicago are really starting to struggle now, they are occupying one of the bottom spots in the Western Conference, and are coming off three consecutive losses which have put pay to a good start.

Meanwhile, Houston have been in great form, with Cam Weaver rediscovering his goalscoring touch and Brad Davis as ever, imperious in midfield. It will be interesting to see which attacking midfield player, Pappa or Davis, goes on to dominate this one, here's to a good performance from both of them.

Upfront for Chicago, Chaves has been the main man so far, but new signing Oduro managed to score his first goal last week, a terrific finish that couldn't stop LA from taking home the maximum. That goal should help Oduro to forget his terrible opening day miss, and hopefully he will be able to kick on for the rest of the season.

Prediction: 2-2

Los Angeles vs Portland- Everybody loves the Portland Timbers. From likable manager John Spencer, to a playing staff full of attacking talent, Portland are fast becoming everybody's second team.

However, despite two impressive home wins, I think a trip to LA could be a bridge too far for the brand new MLS franchise. Galaxy stars Landon Donovan and David Beckham are set to return after their respective absences, and that should add all kinds of attacking impetus to the Galaxy.

For Portland, experienced DP Kenny Cooper will be the man relied upon to produce the goals, his partnership upfront with Perlaza is starting to blossom. Last week, Ghanaian born Alhassan was voted player of the week by several popular websites, and it will be fascinating to see how he reacts to the pressures of a trip to arguably MLS's most famous team.

Once again, I feel the need to reiterate how much I love the Timbers and their fans, but I just can't see them taking anything from the Home Depot Center.

Prediction: 4-0

NYRB Rout DC To Go Top Of The East

It was almost inevitable wasn't it. With all those attacking players, it was always only a matter of time before the New York Red Bulls clicked into gear.

A win at home to San Jose last week looked to be the start of a run, and having watched New York's next match in that sequence, the rest of MLS must surely be quivering.

A hat trick of assists from Solli, a brace from Henry, and a goal a piece for Juan Agudelo and Joel Lindpere were enough to see the Red Bulls through to a comfortable 4-0 win over arch rivals DC United.

From the off, it always looked like an easy win, with Hans Backe's side keeping possession with ease, and it only took eleven minutes for the breakthrough to come. Impressive while bombing forward from right back, Jan Gunnar Solli whipped in a delicious right footed cross, which an unmarked Thierry Henry couldn't help but tuck into the net with a powerful header.

Clearly on top, New York were creating chances at will and DC United forwards Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff were starting to look isolated upfront, something which certainly could not be said for Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers. Whenever New York found the ball there were options aplenty, De Rosario was always open in the center of midfield, and the likes of Dane Richards, Roy Miller and Jan Gunnar Solli all provided excellent outlets on the wings.

Given the danger posed by those aforementioned wing men, it was inevitable that the Red Bulls' second goal would be created out wide. Dane Richards chipped a lovely ball over the top of the defense, which was pounced upon by Solli who cut the ball back for Henry to sweep home. 2-0 up and well on top, New York were once again home and dry at half time, a trend which Hans Backe will hope continues.

However, it is possible that the first half's two-nil advantage caused the Red Bulls players to take their foot off the pedal a little, in the second half DC United were a much improved side. Inspired by substitute Boskovic, DC were starting to keep possession, and on seventy-two minutes the Montenegran DP smacked a shot onto  the cross bar with a laser like free kick.

Unfortunately for United though, their revival was to be short lived, breaking into open space, Joel Lindpere latched on to a Thierry Henry through ball and drove towards goal, before cutting the ball back and dinking a lovely finish past the helpless Bill Hamid.

At this point, all in the stadium knew the game was up, but that didn't stop United from continuing to plug forward in search of a consolation goal. A Boskovic curler flew just wide, and minuted later Boskovic was again denied, this time by the outstretched arms of Bouna Condoul.

With ten minutes or so to go, teenage sensation Juan Agudelo was introduced into the fray for the tired looking Luke Rodgers and, having gone close with a snap header, Agudelo added some gloss to a superb night for the Red Bulls. For the third time, a Solli cross whipped into the middle was met by a Red Bull, this time Agudelo who, flicking the ball up for himself, smashed a super volley past Bill Hammid. That was only Agudelo's second ever MLS goal, and it looks as though the youngster has developed a penchant for the spectacular.

The final whistle was greeted by some disgruntled groans from the DC support, unsurprising, they had just witnessed their side being thrashed by the Red Bulls.

Crucial to the win was Jan Gunnar Solli who had a hat trick of assists and looked dangerous running up and down the right touch line. Once again Thierry Henry put in a solid performance, the striker now is the joint second top scorer in the league with three goals from five games.

Though last week's star Luke Rodgers looked slightly tired throughout, Henry and Agudelo more than made up for his lack of form, with Agudelo producing the moment of the night, and perhaps an early goal of the season candidate.

For Ben Olsen and DC United, this match marks another step on the path towards a better future for the club, and the performance of DP Boskovic offers some positives from what was overall a woeful showing, especially in defense. On two of the four goals, NYRB players were unmarked in the box, something that Ben Olsen will have to work on in training next week.

A win for the Red Bulls sends them to the top of the Eastern Conference, and they are likely to stay there for some time, Philadelphia don't play again until April 30th.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

INFTH Premier League Predictions

Manchester United vs Everton- On paper this match should be an easy home win for the Red Devils, but given Everton's recent upturn in form, this match could prove tricky.

Obviously, Wayne Rooney's return to the team for United's trip to Newcastle is a huge boost for the title chasers, and the Liverpudlian will certainly start on Saturday. It will also be interesting to see how Everton's star left back Leighton Baines deals with United's two wing threats, Nani and Valencia.

For the Toffees, this game has to be a continuation of what has been a highly unlikely change in form over the last few weeks. Decimated by injuries to the likes of Louis Saha, Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill, David Moyes' side have fought on and forced themselves into Europa League reckoning.

Despite their good form, a trip to Old Trafford should be a bridge too far for Everton, I just can't see the Red Devils slipping up in what will surely be a routine home game.

Prediction: 3-1

Aston Villa vs Stoke City- With Gerard Houllier in hospital, the Aston Villa players won't struggle for inspiration going into Saturday's clash with Stoke. However, Tony Pulis' side will be filled with confidence after a historic 5-0 victory over Bolton last weekend, which sent them to the FA Cup final.

You can be sure that Pulis will claim that the upcoming final won't play into his thinking in the next few weeks, but it's hard to believe that Wembley's showpiece will not occupy a large part of Stoke City's playing staff's mind. Positively, fringe players looking for a starting spot will have extra incentive to work hard, but on the other hand, established first teamers could be distracted.

I'm going to go with Aston Villa in this game, they have home advantage, and I think that Gabby Agbonlahor's late winner over West Ham last weekend will have helped to ease the tension around Villa Park. Key winger Ashley Young is likely to leave in the summer, and you can be sure that he'll be eager to show off to his potential suitors.

Prediction: 3-0

Blackpool vs Newcastle- Times are bleak right now for Ian Hollaway's Blackpool team who badly need a win. For much of this season the Tangerines have been terrific, but they seem to be running out of magic at the worst possible time. Charlie Adam, DJ Campbell and Luke Varney look to be on their last legs, and even manager Hollaway is veering towards insanity.

Midweek, Newcastle all but assured themselves safety with a credible 0-0 draw against Manchester United, and I just wonder whether Alan Pardew's men might take their foot off the pedal for the remainder of the season. However, in Cheik Tiote, Joey Barton and the returning Kevin Nolan Newcastle boast a group of players who will not take safety for granted, and who will all want to consign Blackpool to the drop.

I have to tip Newcastle to win this match, as much as I would love to see Blackpool stay up. The Tangerines have been a revelation this season, but their Premier League tenure is about to come to an end.

Prediction: 1-3

Liverpool vs Birmingham- In the past few weeks, the feel good factor has returned to Anfield, and I fancy Kenny Dalglish to lead the Reds back to the forefront of European football.

Midweek, Birmingham lost 3-1 at Stamford Bridge but with safety almost guaranteed, Alex Mcleish will be able to shake off that loss. Since winning the Carling Cup, Birmingham had been on a major slide but, credit to Mcleish, he seems to have steadied the ship at St. Andrews.

Much like the match at Chelsea, this game will be considered a bonus by the Blues, results away at Liverpool are always hard to come by, especially with the likes of Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt in such good form. Andy Carroll is set to miss this one, but I still can't imagine any result other than a Liverpool win.

Prediction: 4-1

Sunderland vs Wigan- Earlier in the season, this match would have been a routine Sunderland victory, but the Black Cats have suffered a huge drop in form, and now this match is set up as a relegation six pointer.

Last week, Wigan claimed a massive 3-1 victory at Bloomfield Road, a result which propelled them out of the relegation zone. Next up for them is an out of form Sunderland side, and Roberto Martinez will know that a win on Sunday would represent a giant leap towards safety.

Steve Bruce has to get his team back on track, or the Black Cats may find themselves in the Championship. Players like Sessegnon and Gyan must put together a run of goalscoring form, or risk further wrath from the supporters, and the media. Sitting five points off the relegation zone, Sunderland only need another couple of points to stay up, but in this form, I can't see where they're coming from.

Prediction: 2-2

Tottenham vs West Brom- After the twists and turns of Wednesday night, there is no way that Saturday's match will come close to matching the drama of the Arsenal game.

Tottenham must take advantage of bread and butter home games like these if they are to claim fourth, but with City full of confidence after their FA Cup win, even easy home wins might not be enough. Two points off
City with a game in Manchester to come, Spurs are hardly out of the race for fourth, but with some tough fixtures to come, it's a long shot.

Under Roy Hodgson, West Brom have been a team transformed going unbeaten before last week's disappointing home loss at the hands of Chelsea. Peter Odemwingie was West Brom's sole goalscorer that day and it has been the Nigerian's form which has propelled WBA to the verge of safety.

Personally, I see this match as an easy home win for Tottenham. Despite the rigors of midweek, Spurs have a deep enough squad to overcome tiredness and cruise to an important win which will temporarily take them into fourth spot.

Prediction: 3-0

Wolves vs Fulham- Wolves are doomed if they don't win this match, for me it's as simple as that. With Kevin Doyle out injured for the remainder of the season, Wolves face a struggle to stay up even if they win this game, making a three point haul at Molineux all the more important.

Fulham sit in that awkward part of the table, just about safe, but far off a European battle. Mark Hughes has led the Cottagers to another solid season, and they have even managed to claim the odd away win!

As I mentioned before, Mick McCarthy's side need to win this game, and taking into consideration Fulham's poor away form I think they will. I saw the Cottagers play away at Old Trafford two weeks ago, and they wer toothless in the final third, despite being pitted against a sub par United. That loss combined with consistently anemic away displays clearly points to a Wolves victory.

Prediction: 2-1

Chelsea vs West Ham- Arguably back in the title race, Chelsea are starting to regain some of their early season swagger. On Wednesday, Chelsea ran all over Birmingham City, with Florent Malouda showing signs of a possible return to form. On a less bright note, Fernando Torres continued to toil, but Chelsea have proved they can win without the Spaniard's goals.

After a fine run of form, West Ham have really gone flat, a loss in form triggered by Manchester United's fabulous come back at Upton Park. Last week, a late Gabby Agbonlahor goal consigned the Irons to another home loss, and Avram Grant will hope that goal doesn't effect confidence too much.

It's hard to see past a Chelsea victory in this one, the Blues are back on form and Carlo Ancelotti's men will still retain some hope of reclaiming their Premier League title.

Prediction: 3-0

Bolton vs Arsenal- Both these teams come into Sunday's match after highly damaging weeks. Arsenal dropped another four Premier League points against Liverpool and Tottenham, while Bolton fell to an embarrassing 5-0 FA Cup semi-final loss.

The Reebok Stadium is a notoriously difficult place to come to, and Owen Coyle will pray that the Wanderers' fan rally round to support the team after a difficult week. In Daniel Sturridge Bolton boast a forward in fine form, and one who didn't have to face the ignominy of FA Cup humiliation.

Now in third place, Arsenal are likely to be even farther behind come Sunday, United and Chelsea both face routine games the day before. And if the Gunners fail to win once again, they'll start to have to look over their shoulder at the increasingly inform Spurs and City sides.

Prediction: 1-1

Blackburn vs Manchester City- You've got to feel for Steve Kean. Appointed by inept owners after an unpopular sacking, Kean has faced a baptism of fire in his first major coaching role. Blackburn are unlikely to go down, but if they lose this one the fans will start to worry.

Last weekend City enjoyed one of the greatest moments in their so often glory barren history. Yaya Toure's goal gave the Citizens a one-nil win over local rival United in an FA Cup semi final, but even if they do go on to win the cup, City supporters will be disappointed unless Champions League football is gleaned.

Several weeks ago, Blackburn showed good defensive resilience to grind out a draw at the Emirates, but without inspirational defender Ryan Nelsen, it's tough to imagine Blackburn providing a repeat performance. High on confidence, City should win this game, and go one step closer to the Champions League.

Prediction: 1-2

Tottenham vs Arsenal Is Game's Greatest Derby

Chim chiminy chim chiminy, chim chim cheroo, Bentley from fifty and Lennon from two!

Van der Vaart find the net for SpursIn the wake of a Wednesday occupied by two of Europe's most exciting derby matches, it seems appropriate to reopen the discussion about the World's greatest rivalry.

Many will argue that passion fueled matches like Olympiakos vs Panathanaikos, Fenerbache vs Gaalataasaray and Boca vs River deserve mention in this discussion but I disagree. How many of you even know the scores of the last two fixtures involving one or both of those teams? Exactly, outside of the countries that house them, the participants in the above matches are not followed with any great detail, the reason being that the quality of football in Greece, Turkey and Argentina pales in comparison with that in places like Spain, Germany, England and Italy.

Last night, Premier League fans had the pleasure of witnessing one of the finest derby matches in the history of English football, a sumptuous 3-3 draw between North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. The match had everything, great saves, penalties, goals and even a come back. Both teams approached the fixture with attacking intentions, reflective of the ideals of their respective managers, and after fifteen minutes the score was already 2-1.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the game itself is that a match of the quality witnessed on Wednesday night is no rarity when it come to North London derbies. Earlier this season, Tottenham won a thrilling match 3-2 at the Emirates, coming from 2-0 down to snatch a precious win. Last year, Spurs all but ended Arsenal's title hopes with a fantastic 2-1 win at the Lane, marked by a screamer from Danny Rose. However, the best derby in recent memory was played out in the Fall of 2008, when a David Bentley stunner and an Aaron Lennon tap in helped Tottenham and new boss Harry Redknapp to a 4-4 draw at the Emirates Stadium.

So, is the rivalry between Tottenham and Arsenal the greatest in World football? There is no doubt that the fixture which routinely shows off the World's greatest personnel is the Madrid-Barcelona match, but as proved on Saturday, that match can often disappoint. It has been more than 20 years since a stoppage time goal settled a Madrid-Barca game, whereas Tottenham-Arsenal clashes seem to produce late drama on each and every occasion.

In Italy there are also a series of quite competitive derby matches, most notably the Milan derby, but Sampdoria and Genoa matches are often fiery. In Rome, the Roma-Lazio match has been one tarnished with violence over the years, but it still remains one of the finest occasions in Italian football.

Within England itself there are a host of other derby fixtures that challenge North London's claim to the title, the passion of Liverpool-Everton, and the now more crucial than ever battles between City and United help to provide story lines in the English Premier League season. Some of the smaller teams in England also boast incredible derbies, Newcastle-Sunderland is always nasty and there is certainly no love lost between either Birmingham and Aston Villa or Millwall and West Ham.

Across the border, Scotland sports one of the game's oldest and most famous matches, the Old Firm Derby, contested several times a year between Celtic and Rangers. Unlike the North London derby, that match contains a host of social and religious connotations, ones that only serve to make the rivalry more fierce.

However, in one way or another Spurs-Arsenal trumps the lot. While lacking the high profile names of Madrid-Barca, Spurs-Arsenal remains a much more local affair, a true derby, not just a rivalry between cities. While the occasional classic is produced in Italian derbies, the lack of high attendances and bubbling atmosphere takes away from the edge produced on derby day, and fan violence unfortunately continues to mar such occasions as well.

In the past, Liverpool-Everton was always an important match, but nowadays it remains crucial merely in the context of Europa League qualification. While goals are always promised when Tottenham and Arsenal kick off, the same cannot be said for United and City. Especially since the arrival of Roberto Mancini, the goals have really dried up, seriously inhibiting the quality of the spectacle.

Ask any Scot, and they'd think you were barmy to claim that Spurs-Arsenal trumped the Old Firm, but in all honesty the quality of play in Scotland is at the level of the English Championship, so it's difficult to get too excited about the Tartans' figure head match.

Spurs vs Arsenal is the only match in European and World football which has consistently produced exciting games, made all the more intriguing by the presence of high quality footballers. It pits together two local teams that absolutely loath each other, in a fixture that boasts a rich past, and an even greater present.