World Cup 2018 Previews – Group B Battle of The Iberians

Group B looks certain to be a straightforward battle to decide who wins the group as football giants Spain and Portugal battle it out in a group containing Iran and Morocco. The Spanish remain unbeaten since their Euro 2016 defeat against Italy and will be looking to get some World Cup joy back after their abysmal 2014 finals display in Brazil, one that saw them thrashed by their 2010 final opponents Netherlands.

Spain’s journey was relatively easy had Italy as their main rivals, but we all know that things can go wrong. The Spanish coach has not been afraid to wield the axe in the chase for World Cup glory. One of the biggest names is Alvaro Morata, whose Chelsea form has seen his place in the Chelsea team disappear. In fact it’s not a good time for a few of Chelsea’s Spanish contingent. Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Marcos Alonso all miss the journey to Russia, but Azpiliceuta does make the plane. It’s not just the Chelsea players missing the cut as Hector Belerin of Arsenal, Vitolo of Atletico and Javi Martinez all find themselves with more time over the summer period.

Andres Iniesta makes the squad in what will no doubt be his last World Cup. The Barca legend who scored the winner in 2010 said goodbye to the La Liga champions and Russia 2018 be his international farewell with a World Cup win. Despite his seven goals in 23 games, former Chelsea striker appears to have done enough to take his place. He is not the only former Premier League player featuring in the Spanish squad. Iago Aspas appears to have reignited his career after his disappointing time at Anfield. Since being back in Spain he found his shooting boots. A loan spot at Sevilla bought him 10 goals in 26 games, but then signing with his old club Celta, he has bagged 55 goals in 101 games. Will their strike force of Aspas, Rodrigo and Costa, get them to the final? We shall have to wait and see.

Portugal, neighbours and rivals of Spain, go into the tournament as European Champions and will hope to join Spain and France as nations to win both tournaments. Portugal looked like finishing second in their group as the Swiss were in control having remained undefeated until the last group game in Lisbon. Whilst the Swiss were winning, they were not bagging enough goals. Portugal were winning and bagging the goals. Cristiano Ronaldo bagging 15 of the 32 goals whilst Switzerland were only managing 23 between them. The World Cup is the only trophy that Ronaldo has yet to win, so can he in what could be his last World Cup and what would be the price of Portugal finally adding the trophy to their association cabinet.

Spain and Portugal meet in the second group game and face each other for only the second time in finals competition where Spain have the edge. Both games coming in the knock out stages. Will Portugal turn things around and beat their neighbours or will Spain make it 3-0 in World Cup final encounters.

Morocco feature in the group, they are at their fifth finals, the first since France 98 were they went out in the group stage that featured Scotland. They will do well to repeat their feat at Mexico 86 when they reached the last 16 following their best third place record. Their path to the World Cup was fairly easy with three wins and three draws. They were the only African nation not to concede a goal but they only managed 11 goals in their six games, of which 6 were netted in one game. Khalid Boutaib was the top scorer with three goals. All those came in one game in a home game against Gabon. In their pre World Cup friendlies the North African nation have managed wins against Serbia and a draw against Ukraine, but they are far from the likes of Portugal and Spain. I think they may well struggle.

Iran complete this look at Group B. The Middle Eastern nation qualify for their fifth World Cup Finals and their first back to back finals following their appearance in Brazil. Iran’s journey to the finals saw an initial group stage which they breezed through unbeaten and six points ahead of second place Oman. They were the best Asian team going into round three and another group round. The group made of six nations saw another unbeaten round and top spot finish, beating South Korea in the process.  The nation currently has a handful defeats in the last three years although that reflects mostly in Asian Federation matches. They did though recently hold World Cup hosts Russia to a 1-1 draw.

Group Prediction

Spain finish top on goal difference ahead of Portugal. Iran finish third and Morocco fourth.

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Champions League Final – Liverpool’s Road to Kiev

Saturday night sees the Champions League final in Kiev’s between Liverpool and Real Madrid in what looks certain to be a classic in the making. The 63rd final sees Liverpool go in as the underdogs despite having knocked out the likes of Man City and Roma whilst playing some quality football along the way.

Liverpool started their journey back in August with a play off tie against German club 1899 Hoffenheim. A 2-1 in Germany and followed it up with a 4-2 win at Anfield,  the tie being over after 21 minutes when Liverpool cruised to a 5-1 aggregate lead.

The Reds found themselves in the Group stage in with the likes of Sevilla, Maribor Branik and Spartak Moscow. The Reds had a good chance of progression with the Spanish club Sevilla being the club most likely to cause some uncomfortable moments. Sevilla indeed deny Liverpool a win as they took two points off the Merseyside club over the two ties.

Apart from a third draw at Spartak, the Reds dominated the group sticking a total of 23 goals past their opponents, a total only bettered  by Paris Saint Germain who had netted 25.

The first knock out stage saw Liverpool drawn against Porto. A Liverpool team that waste now minus Brazilian playmaker Phillipe Coutinho. It was thought that the Reds might suffer without him, but it seemed not to be. The Reds stormed to a 5-0 win in Portugal. The dynamic trio of Mane (3) Salah and Firmino secured the result in Portugal.

Next up for the Anfield club was an all English tie as Liverpool were drawn against Premier League leaders Man City. It was one of the ties that stood out and one that could see either side go far.  The two clubs had already produced 13 goals in the two league ties including an outstanding Liverpool performance at Anfield. So when the two sides met at Anfield in the first leg, wow what a tie that would turn out to be. Klopp’s team crushed City and by half time it seemed game over. Not even the departure of Salah with a possible injury could hinder the reds. The tie was certainly looking like a Reds win but the  game was not over, but given this competition and these two teams, anything could happen.

A week later the Etihad was to host the second leg knowing that anything could happen. City needed a an early goal and they did, Jesus struck early and set the game up. The Reds were up against it in the first half and a second goal would have made things very interesting and shortly before half time City were denied a legitimate goal. It was 1-0 at half time. The second half began with Guardiola sent to the stands.

Liverpool needed something and in the 56th minute they got it. Mane looked like he was felled, but as everyone looked to the ref, that Egyptian wonder Mo Salah took hold of the ball, took it around Ederson and poked it over Otamendi. It was significant and it made it 4-1 on aggregate. After the Premier League game, anything was still possible. Liverpool had conceded goals from being 4-1 up and at the same time they hadn’t beaten an English club away from home in the European Cup.  The visitors had the edge and the tide had seemingly turned. In the 77th minute it was good night City as Firmino capitalised on a City defensive error to make it 2-1 and totally game over. The Five time winners were through and into the semi finals. The next opponents were going to be tough and the Reds found themselves paired with  AS Roma, the team that had come back shocked Barcelona. It was another Anfield first leg and 90 minutes of tantalising football.

Tantalising football was most certainly the case. Liverpool didn’t change a thing tactically against Roma. Having watched Barcelona overcome, Liverpool knew that they Roma weren’t to be taken lightly. For all the talk, it seemed that Roma were the rabbit in the Liverpool headlights. Klopp’s team were running rings around their Italian opponents and should have taken the lead much earlier than they did in the 36th minute. Mane had missed a couple of opportunities but they were forgotten when Mo Salah struck with the first of two quality goals. The Egyptian was facing his former club, but he was certainly not being kind to his former employers. Salah made it 2-0 on the stroke of half time.

The Italians of course were still not out of it even when the Reds went 3-0 up through Mane. The Senegal player finally hit the score sheet. If the home fans were ecstatic at 3-0, they were delirious five minutes later when Firmino scored the fourth. Anfield was rocking and Roma could have been almost 10 down but five it would be when Firmino added goal number two.

Could the first half missed opportunities cost Liverpool in the second leg as Roma stunned Anfield with two late goals one of which was dubious penalty. Things were looking interesting now going into the Rome second leg. Liverpool knew of the risks that Roma could spring but the visitors grabbed an early goal through Mane. Advantage Merseyside, the aggregate score was now 6-2. That soon became 6-3 when a Lovren clearance hit James Milner square in the head and went in.

Liverpool were still in charge of the tie and didn’t really need to do anything stupid.There was no need to worry as Liverpool were back in front on the night and 7-3 ahead on aggregate as Gini Wijnaldum bagged his first ever goal away from  home.  Roma hadn’t just received a bloody nose, but they were on the canvas. Could they recover. They hit shot after shot, but couldn’t break through in the rest of the first half. Roma needed one hell of a team talk, the best half time team talk they needed.

The comeback looked certain to start as Dzeko bagged a leveller to make it 2-2  an 7-4 on aggregate. Could Roma repeat their Barca comeback? Surely not. The Italians were doing their utmost to get back in but it seemed all in vain as time started to run out. Nainggolan though netted Roma’s third of the night and fifth of the tie. Could they do it, could they burst the Red’s bubble? They would come close as Nainggolan converted another fortuitous penalty, it came at the death and all too late, with the ball in the back of the net, the referee blew his whistle and brought the game to a close. A thirteen goal thriller and probably one of the best ties of the knockout stages.

Liverpool were heading to Kiev for a Champions League final, the second European final under Klopp. On 26th May will it be Champions League number 13 for Real or trophy number 6 for Liverpool. Which ever way it goes, we are in for an exciting final.

They Predict its All Over – It is now

So the final whistle went and the final predictions tailed away to a 50/50 performance, that’s not to say it they weren’t helped by the fact that some teams decided to turn up or go into holiday mode before the full time whistle.

Arsenal sent Arsene Wenger away with his first Premier League away win in 2018. Three points at Huddersfield gave the Frenchman a happy send off that he deserved. It was a shame that he was calling it a day, but that is football. I wonder though who Arsenal will appoint next and how long they will get before they are on the receiving end of an out chant. For Huddersfield, they would have preferred a draw at least but they knew they were safe. Whilst I had predicted a 3-1 win to Arsenal, they were having to suffice with a single goal victory. It was a correct result either way.

Burnley had hoped to finish their season with a win, but their opponents Bournemouth had other ideas. Having had a bit of a losing streak, Sean Dyche’s team had sealed a spot in the Europa League and some new destinations for next season. Despite taking the lead, the hosts saw the south coast club not only grab a second half leveller, but a 93rd minute winner. Burnley finished 7th whilst Bournemouth missed out on a top 10 spot on goal difference. My prediction was for a 2-1 home win.

Crystal Palace hosted relegated West Brom. It was unfortunate for Darren Moore, who had seemingly turned the Baggies fortunes round and maybe had he been appointed a few games previous, may well have kept the club up. West Brom were playing Crystal Palace who not so long ago, were in the midst of having to escape the relegation fight, they though had pulled away to safety under Roy Hodgson. The Eagles ended up finishing 11th on goal difference behind Newcastle Utd. I had predicted and end of season at the beach 1-1 draw.

Chelsea visited the already mentioned Newcastle United knowing they needed to win to be in with a chance of grabbing the fourth spot ahead of Liverpool.  Having beaten the Reds and having seen Spurs beat Newcastle United, Conte’s team we’re surely favourites to win. It was hard to imagine a more spineless defence of a Premier League title than Chelsea but that it was. The Blues had not even manage to hit a shot on target in the first half and paid for it when Newcastle went ahead after 23 minutes through Dwight Gayle. Nothing seemed to improve in the second half and the Chelsea were consigned to the Europa League when Ayoze Perez added two quick second half goals. It would turn out to be meaningless as Liverpool strolled to victory in their game at Anfield. My prediction was a 1-1 draw which would have reflected both sides recent performances.

Liverpool hosted Brighton & Hove Albion knowing a point would be enough. Klopp’s side weren’t interested in finishing the season with another home draw but instead stormed to a 4-0 win including a Mo Salah goal, that clinched the golden boot. The Reds were on fire and probably should have had more than they did. Lovren, who was disappointing in games throughout the season, connected well to net a powerful header 5 minutes before half time. Lovren had headed home an Andy Robertson cross. The signing of Robertson last summer seemed to raise a few eyebrows, but the Scotsman has been quite impressive with his attacks from defence this season. It seemed fitting that he should bag a goal and he did five minutes from time to seal the win for his first Liverpool goal. He wasn’t the only one bagging his first Reds goal as Dominic Solanke scored with his shot powering off the crossbar. My prediction for this game was 3-0, so I was not too far off with this one.

Man Utd who had already secured second spot signed off not only their Premier League season with a win, but were also saying farewell to Michael Carrick. It wasn’t much of a game, but the former England international helped set up the only goal of the game when sent a lofted pass to Mata, who in turn set up Rashford.

Carrick looks certain to join the Man Utd coaching squad, is a player who England often missed. He was given an ovation in the 85th minute when replaced by Frenchman Paul Pogba. In regards to the game, I had predicted a 1-1 draw.

Tottenham hosted Leicester City in their final game at Wembley, they were assured of a place in next seasons Champions League, but a failure to win combined with a Liverpool win, could see the Lilywhites finish fourth. It seemed that Leicester were not in the mood to just give Spurs an easy game, especially having previously beaten Arsenal. Jamie Vardy opened the scoring early in the game, the hosts were level three minutes later through another England striker, Harry Kane. Previously wantaway Mahrez put Leicester back in front and it stayed that way till half time.

It looked even bleaker for Tottenham as the fell 3-1 behind whilst Liverpool were 2-0 up. Lamela scored his first of two early in the second half to make it 2-3. Spurs were level in the 53rd minute when Fuchs put through his own net. Lamela put Spurs ahead for the first time when he netted on the hour. Leicester though seemed unlikely to be finished and they were back level when Vardy struck again. The game saw its ninth goal a few minutes later when Kane netted again and with the game like it was, many wondered if he might even steal the golden boot off Mo Salah. It wasn’t too be as the game finished 5-4. It will probably be a while until we see another nine goal thriller at Wembley. My prediction had been a slightly narrower result of 2-1.

At the other end Southampton who were virtually saved were unlucky not to finish the season with a point as they lost at home to Man City with a injury time goal. I had a correct result here although I had predicted 2-1.

The Saints defeat mattered little as Stoke won at Swansea. Relegation was inevitable for the Welsh side but a 14th minute goal gave them hope. That hope though was squashed as Stoke netted two goals in the space of ten minutes to take all three points. It was Stokes first win since January very much all to late. I had predicted a 2-0 win for Swansea.

Everton and West Ham faced off in a match where both managers of each club were likely to be departing at some point after the game. The Hammers always seemed to be in charge of the game having almost 60% possession. Possession doesn’t necessarily give you the points, but in this case it did as the Hammers nailed their chances to win 3-1. For David Moyes, he had done his job in East London and secured their Premier League safety. In the end they finished two points off tenth spot. For Sam Allardyce and Everton they turned things around and secured Premier League safety. His style of management did not go down well with the fans who will not be to sad to see him depart Goodison Park.

Having spent several million during the summer, the club and their fans must feel really disappointed that they didn’t fair better. Silva of Watford is being linked with taking over the helm at Goodison Park.

My prediction wasn’t too far out with a 2-1 win for West Ham.

 

 

 

FA Premier League Predictions – Week 39 The Final Hurrah

So a disappointing penultimate round of fixtures three  correct results out of six. The footballing gods were throwing a curve ball and Southampton seem to have made the great escape as they beat Swansea. That was one of my correct results predicted. Man City provided the other, although somewhat predictably.

Sunday afternoon sees the Premier League reach the final hurrah, we finally reach the final round of games and Premier League predictions. There is not too much left to play for. The title is won, Man Utd need at least a point to secure second, Tottenham have qualified for next seasons Champions League. That just leaves the final Champions League spot to play for. Liverpool currently hold fourth spot after Spurs win and Chelsea’s surprise draw. Liverpool know that a point at home to Brighton will be enough should Chelsea win. This though due to Liverpool’s significantly better goal difference.  I can’t imagine Liverpool losing at Anfield home on their final home game of the season. Chelsea will need to go to Newcastle and win, which given any other season wouldn’t be in doubt, but this season the London club has been all over the place.

At the other end it’s seemingly a formality. Swansea host Stoke City  whilst Southampton host Man City. Only a heavy mauling by Man City in Southampton and a heavy win by Swansea over Stoke City would see the south coast club doomed to the Championship. Depending on results, the Swans could even finish bottom but again that depends on Stoke being able to win 4-0, which would seem a tall feat.

So for the final time, my predictions for the last round of Premier League. I will though be looking back through the whole season to see how well or not so well my predictions turned out.

 

  1.                                  Burnley. 2-1 Bournemouth     Hosts end fab season with a win
  2.                       Crystal Palace.  1-1 West Brom.        Point each in nothing game
  3.                        Huddersfield.  1-3. Arsenal.             Wenger signs out with a win
  4.                              Liverpool.   3-0. Brighton.          Reds win and seal CL spot
  5.                                Man Utd.   1-1. Watford.           Hornets take point at Man Utd
  6.                    Newcastle. Utd.  1-1. Chelsea.              Chelsea blow CL hopes
  7.                       Southampton. 1-2. Man City.            Saints lose but stay up
  8.                       Swansea City.   2-0 Stoke City.          Swans win but go down
  9.                          Tottenham.   2-1 Leicester City.    Spurs end with Wembley win
  10.                             West Ham.  2-1 Everton.             Hammers end season with win

 

So the Premier League curtain comes down for another season, Liverpool give their fans a sense of relief as they get vital win to secure Champions League for next season. Can they add the trophy itself. Chelsea finish with a draw that costs them a Champions League place and will it cost Conte his job.

Man Utd end their league season with a drab draw although Watford, their opponents will miss out on a top ten spot.

FA Premier League Predictions – Week 38 Rearranged fixtures

After a less than fruitful weekend with 1 correct score and three correct results, the Premier League still has some things to sort. Friday night had seen Brighton secure their place in the Premier League for next season, whilst having predicted a comfy win for their guests Man Utd, it was to be a home win. Having predicted a draw between Bournemouth and struggling Swansea, the Cherries made the battle for survival even more interesting with a 1-0 win. Man City seemed to be enjoying a relaxed affair as the party mood seemed to take over. The Premier League champions played out a 0-0 draw against Huddersfield, who were looking to secure survival, so much for my prediction of a 3-0 win.

West Brom fans may wonder if appointing Darren Moore much sooner than he was, they might have secured Premier League football. I had predicted a 1-1 draw. It had looked like a 0-0 draw until Jake Livermore netted a last minute win. It was a result that Spurs didn’t need as Chelsea beat Liverpool.

Stoke were relegated with a home defeat by Crystal Palace. It was a result that saw my only correctly predicted score. A few months back Palace were looking like going down, but Hodgson somehow managed to get his team working and staying up.

So to this penultimate week and some crucial fixtures

  1.                         Chelsea.  2-0.  Huddersfield.  The Blues have too much for visitors
  2.               Leicester City.  0-3.  Arsenal.           Gunners 1st PL away win of 2018
  3.                       Man City.   2-0. Brighton.          City sign home fixtures with a win.
  4.                   Tottenham.   1-1  Newcastle Utd. Spurs held by Toon, twist for 4th?
  5.                       Swansea.   1-2. Southampton.  Southampton get crucial win
  6.                    West Ham.   1-1  Man Utd.           Hammers hold indifferent Man Utd.

 

So some interesting results predicted, I wonder correct they will be as we move closer to the finish line. My prediction sees Southampton win the key clash between them and Swansea who are in 18th on goal difference. This would relegate West Brom ahead of their final league clash Huddersfield travel to Chelsea probably at the wrong time. The Terriers need a positive result to survive, whilst the hosts need to win to keep their top four hopes up.

Arsenal win their first league away win in 2018 whilst the chase for 4th looks like taking a twist. West Ham will hold a disappointing Man Utd, who probably have one eye on Wembley.

Arsène Wenger changed my life – Victoria Sharkey guest post

Follow Victoria’s football tweets here at Groundhopping Girl

I don’t remember the day that Arsène Wenger was appointed as Arsenal manager. I’d have been 19, still a season ticket holder, but still reeling from the bitter disappointment of Bruce Rioch. We had a few things going for us; a stalwart Captain in David Platt, safe-hands Seaman between the posts, the amazing but disgruntled Ian Wright, the new boy Vieira, and the talented, quiet, respected Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, who looked slightly out of place in our team of bruisers and boozers. Ah, the boozers! What had been the best defence in the country had seemingly had one pint too many, had stopped being quite as reliable as they used to be, and were looking more than a little jaded.

Enter The Professor.

I can’t remember the first time that I realised the impact this elegant Frenchman was making on the side but I do remember the gradual realisation that we were getting…well…a bit more serious about things. Not just in his signings (though it was to be many years before I realised he was behind the Vieira signing even though he’d not yet been appointed!) but in the attitudes of the old guard. Players who had been solid under Graham suddenly became skillful too.  “He’s using ball control!!!” I exclaimed in shock about ‘Donkey’ Adams on more than one occasion. We’d never really seen that before! Players like Adams, Dixon, Winterburn became sleek and demonstrated more pace and intelligence than I’d ever seen before. Steve Bould and Ray Parlour got a new lease of life. Suddenly Dennis didn’t look so out of place.

And then we became ‘Le Arsenal’.  Where do I start? Vieira, Petit, Wiltord,  Anelka, Grimandi…eventually Pirès and Clichy…we had the stars of the World Cup, the European Championship winning side, players who would never have dreamt of coming to play for us under Graham or (haha!) Rioch.

And of course Freddie. We can’t forget Freddie! And the controversial signing of Sol Campbell from Spurs…what other manager could have pulled that off?

Something happened to Arsenal when Mr Wenger came along. It was more than just about winning trophies, we’d done that under George. It was a change of style. No, more than that, it was a change of ethos, and we could see it both on and off the pitch. No more tabloid shots of players leaving clubs at 3am. No more Tuesday Club, sorry boys. A change of diet, a change of lifestyle, a change of attitude, and with that he truly brought us the epitome of The Beautiful Game. As Ivan Gazidis said at his press conference today, he made “art out of football”.

And then was Thierry. Of course, Thierry.

I don’t need to reel off the trophies he won with Arsenal. I don’t need to talk about his winning the title in his first full season. I don’t even need to talk about the historic Invincibles. The impact that Mr Wenger has made on my life is more than even all that. I was always proud to be a Gooner, even through the Terry Neill and Don Howe years, but after Mr Wenger took over my head was held just a little higher. Being Arsenal meant more than mere silverware. It was about having the greatest team of players I had ever seen or even imagined. It was about playing week in, week out, the sort of football I had never dreamed would be seen at gritty down-at-heel Highbury. “It’s just like watching Brazil” was a regular song, but that wasn’t true. We were better than Brazil!!!

The move to the Emirates and the lack of league titles since then have of course been disappointing and I’m not naïve to think that our manager has nothing to do with that. But right now that doesn’t matter. What matters is how he changed my club for the better, how he changed football in England for the better, and how he changed my life.

He is Mr Arsenal.

Au revoir, Arsène, et merci.

Is this really the best eleven – Dan Raywood guest blog

Today saw the announcement of the PFA team of the year.

 Unsurprisingly the team was dominated by players from Manchester City (5), Spurs (3) and Chelsea, Man United and Liverpool got one player in each.

 PFA team of the year:

GK | David De Gea
RB | Kyle Walker
CB | Jan Vertonghen
CB | Nicolás Otamendi
LB | Marcos Alonso 
MID | David Silva
MID | Kevin De Bruyne
MID | Christian Eriksen
FWD | Harry Kane
FWD | Mohamed Salah
FWD | Sergio Agüero

It is unsurprising that Manchester City dominated this team, as they have dominated the league. But in the case where U2 are the greatest band, does that mean that The Edge is the greatest guitarist? Of course not, there are some sublime guitar players in this world, and would The Edge be as revered if he were in a different band?

 To drop the analogy, my issue here is with the inclusion of Sergio Aguero. To be very cynical, has this really been an outstanding season for Aguero? Yes he’s third in the goal scoring charts, but no one really mentions him as being in the form of De Bruyne, Sane and Silva – a lot of players could count themselves as being very unlucky to not be selected.

Think the likes of the of Leroy Sane, Sadio Mane, Dele Alli, Glenn Murray and Ashley Barnes, they can count themselves unlucky to have not been included.

Is it the case that some players are in great teams, and therefore are better? Arguably yes, but I do wonder if the PFA are looking at an easy spine, and rest are filled in by looking at the form teams.

 As for the problem positions, well De Gea has been the outstanding goalkeeper this year when some others have faltered, and the overall poor form of Chelsea and Manchester United has left some players, who should have been outstanding (hello Pogba, Lukaku. Morata) very much in the B team.

Overall it is hard to pick fault as apart from De Bruyne and Salah, the rest of the top 11 have had consistent patches of form but I do wonder if a better representation of the league would have been better for all.