World Cup Preview – Group H Poles in position with a South American follower

The final group appears to be one that is looking tough to predict. Completing the finals line up are Colombia, Japan, Poland and Senegal all of which have finals nations have finals experience and experience of reaching the knockout stages.

Poland appearing in finals number seven, have great World Cup history. The 1970’s and 80’s had great promise which saw two third place finishes and a quarter final exit to Brazil in 1986. More recently though fortune has been difficult to find. The finals in Russia are Poland’s first since 2006 where they were eliminated in the group stage.

This time round the Poles will be looking to Robert Lewandowski for inspiration. In the pre World Cup games he has delivered with four goals in six games and if his club form is anything to go by, he should bag some goals. The nations top scorer could, also with progress from the group stage collect his 100th cap for his country but that would need a Quarter final visit. More likely though is midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski is one game from reaching a ton. One observation is the fact that two of Poland’s goalkeepers ply their trade in England.Fabianski playing for Swansea and Bartosz Bialkowski of Ipswich. The other keeper is of course Wojciech Szczesny formerly of Arsenal and former team mate of Fabianski.

The Poles are in a strong position will face either England or Belgium.

Colombia qualified for the finals by taking the fourth and final automatic spot. Had Ospina not conceded an own goal,they could have even finished third above Argentina. Safe to say though they have looked generally strong and should not be underestimate. Pre tournament friendlies saw the South American nation beat France in Paris.

Wearing the armband for Colombia will be Colombia’s all time leading scorer Radamel Falcao. Since returning to Monaco following his disappointing loan spells at Man Utd and Chelsea, he has been firing on all cylinders and whilst playing for his national side, he has bagged four goals in seven games.

The midfield will look strong as well with James Rodriguez lining up with Juan Cuadrado there will be the good chance of goals although they failed to hit the net in their last two games against fellow finalists Egypt and Australia. They will be buoyed by the fact that they face Japan once again. They met in Brazil where they breezed to a 4-1 win. It was also their best tournament performance as they reached the quarter finals. If they can keep their defence tight then they have a good chance of progressing and even causing an upset.

Senegal go into only their second tournament. This time round managed by former Portsmouth and Birmingham City player Aliou Cisse. Like other nations, they have a fair contingent of English club based players including Mane of Liverpool, Idrissa Gueyes of Everton, Mame Diouf of Stoke and Cheikhou Kouyate of West Ham whom all have 150 caps between them. That itself is good experience.

Their form is not too bad, they might not be scoring much but at the same time they have been keeping a fair number of clean sheets, which will be crucial if goal difference is the decisive means of ensuring qualification.

Whilst the clean sheets might be good, the lack of goals might hinder them.

Japan completes the line up in Group H. The most successful Asian nation are at their sixth consecutive World Cup finals. Their build up though was hampered when the Japanese FA sacked Vahid Halilhodzic in April and replaced him with Akita Nishino,who it seems hadn’t been in a managerial position since 2015. It seems a strange choice but whether this is a temporary option who knows.

Premier League fans will recognise Maya Yoshida, Shinji Kagawa formerly of Man Utd and now back with Borussia Dortmund and Shinji Okazaki. These players along with the German based players should give them a reasonable hope. Will it though be enough to see them progress? Possibly not.

Group Prediction

1) Poland 2 ) Colombia 3) Senegal 4) Japan

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Real Madrid – The Road to Kiev

Real Madrid  as Champions League winners, had automatically qualified for the group stage of the competition. Their group on paper looked like it could be a battle rather than a stroll as they were joined by Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia. Whilst the Cypriot side would be the support act, Spurs and Dortmund were expected to make it hard work for the Spanish club. Tottenham took four points from the defending champions including a 3-1 win at Wembley. Dortmund though failed to cause any issues apart from a all but two late attempted comeback in a 3-2 defeat.

Madrid could always count on Ronaldo to bag the goals and he did by chipping in 9 of the teams 17 group stage goals, but the Portuguese star was not finished by all means. In the second round, Madrid were drawn against French side PSG in what looked to be a classic encounter. The first leg in Spain saw Ronaldo hand the hosts a 1-0 lead just before half time and a second to restore the lead late in the second half. The Spanish looked to have secured the tie when Marcelo made it 3-1. A two goal margin in this seasons competition would seem unsafe in many game, but the second leg remained goalless until early second half when Ronaldo opened the scoring. PSG pulled one back, but it was never going to be enough and ten minutes from time Casemiro secured a winner on the night and a 5-2 aggregate win.

The Quarter final draw had paired the Italian giants Juventus against Real and a tie that was going to be full of cards over the two legs. The first leg was in Turin and the Italians were relatively stingy in defence at home. They had conceded only one at home in the group stage and two at home to Spurs in the last 16. That would change as the Italians were on the receiving end of a 3-0 pasting from the Spaniards. It didn’t help that they lost Dybala for the second leg with his two yellow card offences.

The second leg, well that turned into a thrilling affair. Juventus knew they had to go at Madrid to have any chance of saving the tie and that was exactly what happened. Mandzukic struck early as he headed home. Mandzukic  grabbed a second in the 37th minute and the game was well and truly on. Real’s grip on the game was becoming a little loose and then on the hour mark, Navas’ fumbled to allow Matuidi to strike home. The Italian’s had appeared to have pulled it off, the game was heading to extra time but could Real hold on? Could Juve snatch a killer fourth goal? Well in the 90th minute Benatia was judged to have fouled Vazquez, referee Michael Oliver awarded the penalty and chaos erupted, Juve players surrounded the English referee as a very angry Buffon remonstrated and pointed at Oliver enough for the Italian to be shown the red card. A twist in the tale it would seem. Juve took off Higuain and brought on Szczesny. Ronaldo stepped up, could he immerse himself even further in football glory or could the former Arsenal keeper become a hero. It would be the former as the Portuguese star drilled the ball home.

The Semi finals brought up German champions Bayern Munich as the opponents for Real. The Germans were always going to be a difficult opponent at home and when they took the lead, we thought the Spaniards may have met their match. Unfortunately the Germans couldn’t take their chances managing five shots on target out of seventeen. It would prove costly as Marcelo netted an away goal just before half time. Ronaldo had also had a goal disallowed for handball. A mistake from Rafinha lead to a break away goal. Having four key players going into the game, losing Robben after 8 minutes and Boateng in the 34th, things couldn’t get any worse for the Germans.

The Germans knew what they had to do and Kimmich struck first blood after 2 minutes, the lead though lasted until the 11th minute when Benzema headed home. It was all even on the night but advantage Madrid 3-2 on aggregate. On any other day and with those missing players available, Real Madrid may well have been fighting for their Champions League survival. Luck was favouring the hosts as a goalkeeping blunder by Sven Ulreich gave the hosts the advantage once more. It was 2-1 Madrid and 4-2 on aggregate. As the game moved on Munich searched for a leveller and they got one through James Rodriguez. One of Madrid’s on loan players levelled on the night. Whoever got the next goal would no doubt secure the tie. Madrid scoring would increase the gap, probably too far, whilst a single goal from the visitors would level the tie on aggregate and send Bayern through on away goals.  The game though finished level and 4-3 on aggregate. Real were heading to another final and yet another defence of their title.

 

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 36 and time ticks away

It’s back to a full week of Premier League fixtures this weekend and after last weeks poor show, I’m totally pleased. Week 35 brought a miserably 2 out of 6 correctly predicted. Only Arsenal and Man City gave me any joy as Liverpool were denied late on, Everton beat Newcastle and whilst Stoke and Watford games both finished as draws. This week can only be an improvement as the chase for Champions League football hots up and the battle for Premier League survival moves closer to being resolved.

This weekend sees Liverpool in another Saturday lunchtime kick against Premier League strugglers Stoke City. The Reds will look to avoid a repeat of last weekends dropped points as they also look towards Wednesday nights second leg in Rome. Having drawn the last two games, Stoke might think they have a chance. That maybe their only hope given that the Reds are now the only team left unbeaten at home in the Premier League.

  1.                           Burnley.  2-1.  Brighton            Clarets closer to Europa League
  2.                          C.Palace   1-1.   Leicester City   Eagles closer to security
  3.                 Huddersfield.  0-2.   Everton.            Terriers lingering closer to drop
  4.                       Liverpool.  2-0.   Stoke City.         Stoke heading for drop
  5.                         Man Utd.   1-2.  Arsenal.             Wengers final Old Trafford win
  6.              Newcastle. Utd.  2-0.  West Brom.        Toon send Baggies down
  7.                Southampton.   1-1.  Bournemouth   South Coast draw
  8.                        Swansea.   2-2. Chelsea.              4 goal thriller no good for either
  9.                    Tottenham.   1-1. Watford.             Dropped points for Spurs
  10.                    West Ham.    1-3. Man City.            City not easing off

 

Another week sees chances missed and costly points dropped for some sides. Palace look certain to be taking their fight for survival right to the end of the season after drawing 1-1 at home. Stoke City’s trip to Anfield might come inbetween a Champions League semi final, but that won’t be enough to get even a point thus pushing them closer to relegation. For Liverpool the win will strengthen their top four spot.

It doesn’t look promising for Southampton. They need to win and their league game against Chelsea saw them throw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2. Holding on to that win might have given them hope of survival. The game against Bournemouth looks certain to give them nothing more than a point.

It’s Arsenal travelling to Man Utd on Sunday in what is Arsene Wenger’s last game at Arsenal against United. This fixture has seen a rivalry throughout the years and the Gunners will no doubt look to turn it on at Old Trafford for Wenger’s last trip to Manchester as Arsenal boss. Usually it would be more than likely a home win, I expect Arsenal to steal a 2-1.

Chelsea travel to Swansea knowing they need to ensure a win to keep Champions League qualification hopes up. They went 2-0 down against Southampton before stealing a win against Southampton. They host Swansea City who are looking to ensure Premier League status next season. The Swans wont be as easy to overcome and Chelsea are still prone to moments of unpredictability. Expect the visitors to get a point and deny Chelsea Champions League football.

 

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.

FA Premier League Predictions – Week 35

It was rescheduled fixtures this week, so less fixtures although it seems that the BBC decided that the Burnley and Leicester midweek games would be week 35 and not 34, but hey ho. The four fixtures saw 1 correct result out of fout as Brighton and Spurs played out a 1-1 draw and not the 2-2 that I had predicted. United took all three points. Chelsea beat Burnley whilst Leicester and Southampton played out a draw. This week Im hoping normal service resumed.

  1.                   Arsenal 2-1 West Ham.         Arsenal closer to Europa League
  2.                   Everton 1-2 Newcastle Utd. Toon win eases pressurE
  3.                 Man City 3-0 Swansea City.    Man City post title win
  4.               Stoke City 1-2 Burnley.              Stoke City close to the drop
  5.                 Watford 2-0 Crystal Palace.    Palace lose, but should be safe
  6.            West Brom 1-3 Liverpool. Reds  Win ahead of Roma game

(Burnley and Leicester midweek fixtures were included in Week 34 but according to BBC Lawro predictions, were part of week 35)

Some key games taking place mostly affecting the teams at the bottom. Having beaten Man Utd at Old Trafford, West Brom host Liverpool, hoping that the Reds will be fully focused on the Champions League semi final at home to Roma. They will need another win to keep up the slim hope of survival. Unfortunately, the Reds will still be focused on the league and securing a win to ensure they stay in the top four. A temporary reprieve for the Baggies may in the fact that Swansea City travel to newly crowned champions Man City. The hosts should win this one and prolong West Brom’s woes even further.

Stoke City’s hope of survival look certain to take a hit as they will lose to Burnley who bounce back from defeat against Chelsea. Im not sure many Arsenal fans will be sad to see them go should they go down.

Palace travel to the unpredictable Watford and will find themselves up against it, but other results will mean that Palace should come the last game, be safe in the Premier League.

Enjoy the weekend and good luck to all

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.