Belgian Football Weekends – Waasland-Beveren vs Mons

Lee Hurrell decided to avoid ‘Survival Sunday’ and opted for a crucial game in Belgium’s 2nd tier playoffs. He reports on the history of Waasland-Beveren and the thrilling game itself

On Sunday 22nd May, I found myself at a Belgian 2nd Division game. After seeing a tweet from John Chapman, aka @BelgoFoot, about a good result for Waasland-Beveren in the 2nd Division playoffs, I mentioned that it’s good to see Beveren on the up again. John informed me that it wasn’t the same club as before, but the result of two clubs merging. I, like a lot of football fans, had heard of K.S.K. Beveren from the days of their linkup with Arsenal, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of them.

History of the club

After researching the new club, I found out that they are the result of a merger between K.V. Red Star Waasland (formerly K.V. Red Star Haasdonk) and K.S.K. Beveren. The club has retained the history of Red Star but plays out of K.S.K. Beveren’s former home, the Freethiel Stadion.

K.S.K. Beveren were well known producing some of Belgium’s best keepers, such as Jean-Marie Pfaff (64 caps, also over 150 appearances for Bayern Munich), Filip De Wilde (33 caps) and Geert De Vlieger (43 caps).

The previously mentioned linkup with Arsenal, that started in 2001, is what brought them to the attention of the wider footballing world and also ended up bringing about the club’s downfall. Well, to say the Arsenal link brought about the club’s downfall is only telling part of the story though, it’s more to do with the tie-in that Beveren had with the ASEC Mimosas academy in the Ivory Coast.

Yaya Toure - former star of Beveren. Not wanted by Arsenal.

The ASEC Mimosas academy was ran by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international who once managed Cannes with Arsene Wenger as his assistant. Guillou’s academy educated and trained young Ivorian’s before placing some of them at Beveren. This was due to the relaxed Belgian work-permit regulations that would allow players to gain an EU passport after only 2 years residency, thus making them more attractive buys for bigger clubs.

Arsenal’s involvement in this was to cherry-pick the best Ivorian talent from Beveren (they took Emmanuel Eboue, but turned Yaya Toure away after a trial period) and also send their own young prospects out on loan to Belgium to gain first-team experience. The likes of goalkeeper Graham Stack, Steve Sidwell, John Halls, Liam Chilvers and Igors Stepanovs made the move although most of those players didn’t even end up playing a game. Stack and Stepanovs both made over 20 appearances each. Stack’s spell included him becoming a cult-hero after punching a pitch-invading fan from local rivals Royal Antwerp.

Some of the Ivory Coast’s biggest names cut their teeth at Beveren and their 2010 World Cup squad included 6 former Beveren players; Yaya Toure, Gervinho, Emmanuel Eboue, Romaric, Arthur Boka and Boubacar Barry (best known for being Tupac Shakur’s doppleganger).

The Ivorian influence was heavy on the team and drew criticism from senior figures in the game, including Michel Platini, who in 2004 said the following:

“What about those clubs that buy their players abroad. Is it okay that there are a dozen Africans playing for Beveren in Belgium? I mean, why do they still call themselves “Beveren”? Why do they still play in Belgium? The European clubs who open training centres in Africa do it to further their own interests, not to help with the development of African football.

“It should be Africans themselves who take charge of their own development by investing the money they receive from Fifa for example. Otherwise, who’s going to train up the kids in Europe? Why should a young kid in Beveren bother working hard at his football if he has no chance of pulling on his local club shirt?” 

FIFA ended up investigating the details behind the Arsenal-Beveren link in 2006, as it transpired that Beveren had been paid £1m by Arsenal as a “loan” via a third party company. The murky details can be read-up on in more detail but Arsenal weren’t found guilty of any wrongdoing in the end.

Shortly before the investigation, Guillou was given the boot, the Arsenal and Ivorian ties were cut and Beveren tried to restore a bit more of a local identity back into the club. In 2007 they finished bottom of the Jupiler League and were relegated to the 2nd Division, where they stayed before announcing towards the end of the 2009/2010 season that they would not be applying for a new professional license and would be dropping to the 3rd division. Then came the merger with Red Star and a place back in the 2nd Division.

The game itself

The match had a lot riding on it, as Mons currently sat 3 points ahead of Waasland-Beveren in the 2nd Division Playoffs with 2 games remaining. A Mons win would see them confirm promotion to the Jupiler League, whilst a W-B win would level things up going into the last game.

I arrived at the Freethiel Stadion and took my seat in the new main stand. The stand is completed as far as seating goes, but the concourse wasn’t lit and the refreshment stands weren’t ready (my half-time involved a walk outside to the carpark to a burger van!). Behind the goal to my right was where the bulk of W-B’s vocal support were situated, with 1/3 of the stand segregated off to house Mons’ boisterous away support. To my left was a decaying terraced end that appeared to be condemned, but it did contain the scoreboard and various fan-banners.

Mons came out of the traps looking brighter, their purposeful passing and pressing penning W-B back in their own half and forcing them into hurried, aimless clearances. The Mons pressure paid off almost instantly as a corner evaded everyone in the box apart from Jérémy Perbet, who nodded in from close range at the back post. Mons continued to keep the hosts under pressure following the goal and right-winger Tim Matthys’ skill and direct running caused panic in the W-B defence whenever he got the ball.

W-B started to play a bit as the half wore on. Jean-Paul Kielo Lezi on the left was the main outlet, but he always wanted to try one trick or turn too many and the attacks fizzled out.

The 2nd half came to life when W-B made it 1-1. A great free-kick from a wide position was headed in by former Germinal Beerschot and Cercle Brugge man Kristof Snelders. The game then went back and forth until Jarju scored a deserved goal. The ball was played into his feet in the box before he showed great composure to side-step a defender and place the ball beyond Michael Clepkens in the W-B goal.

The Mons fans were in great voice and their manager, Dennis Van Wijk was out on the touchline, kicking every ball with his team as they looked to close out the game and seal promotion. Police had formed a barrier infront of the Mons fans to prevent any pitch invasion as the game headed towards the final minute. W-B then won a throw deep in Mons territory and goalkeeper Michael Clepkens made a mad dash for the box. The throw found him at the near post and his header seemed to take Cédric Berthelin by surprise as he could only parry the ball into the roof of the net! The W-B fans celebrated, looking at each other with a mix of delirium and bemusement. A draw would have meant that W-B would have a chance on the last day, but only a slim one.

Having just been punished for a concentration lapse, Mons were then to be caught out once more. A freekick was given away on the edge of the box. The stadium held its breath as Rachid Bourabia lined up his shot. The ball took a big deflection, wrong-footing Berthelin and flew into the net, the stadium erupted. The full-time whistle followed shortly and Clepkens was buried under a man-pile for his heroics.

“We’ve got the whole world in our hands, we’ve got the best damn team in the land” blared over the tannoy as the home fans soaked up an incredible victory with the elated players.

The win left W-B and Mons both on 10 points at the top of the playoffs, with Lommel breathing down their necks with 9. Poor Eupen sit rock bottom, with their Jupiler League adventure lasting only 1 season. Should W-B and Mons both win their final games, they will play a decider on neutral ground. Mons host Lommel on Thursday night whilst W-B travel East to Eupen.

Mons appear to be best equipped to compete if they are promoted. They were the better team from an ability point of view, Matthys and Jarju really impressed. W-B have quite a few players with limited technical skill but had that all important never-say-die attitude and heart, which ultimately won them this game.

Waasland-Beveren are clearly a club going through a rebuilding process. Before all the late drama in the game, their fans were pretty quiet. This may be mostly due to the fact that their support is made up of Red Star supporters but mainly former fans of K.S.K. Beveren. There were plenty of K.S.K. shirts and scarves on display in the crowd. The new main stand was also full of families and hopefully the youngsters will have been hooked by the amazing spectable, giving W-B a new generation of fans for the future.

Through the wonders of medium-wave radio I was able to pick up “Survival Sunday” upon leaving Beveren on the drive home and whilst drama ensued in the Premier League. It didn’t come close to what I’d just witnessed.

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Lee Hurrell writes for Fußball Wanderlust and you can find him on Twitter @FballWanderlust

Top 10 Goals from Centre-Backs

After a long hiatus (thanks to uni work and work placements), I’d thought it was best to actually keep this website running a bit. So what better early Christmas present could I give than ten of the best goals from central defenders.

Of course, we’d rather see a centre-back make a last-ditch sliding tackle that keeps the team in the game or fly in with a diving header deep into stoppage time. But it’s even better when your favourite lumbering oaf at the back unleashes a rasping 30 yard screamer, confusing the entire ground.

There are a few rules though. No free-kicks so that rules out every goal by Chelsea’s Alex. Also, Dion Dublin can’t qualify since he’s clearly a striker and was only playing centre-back because he’s huge. No headers – most centre-backs can do that. I’ve also tried to mix the type of goals a bit to add a bit of variety as well.

I apologise in advance if they are slightly Premiership-centric as well, but I’ve included AEK Athens in this so…

Tony Adams vs Everton 03/05/1998

The goal that got me thinking about this Top 10. It gets even better when you consider it was fellow centre-back Steve Bould whose lovely chipped through-ball that sent Adams in with acres of space. Sure, you could criticise the entire Everton team for being as static as a caravan park, but Martin Tyler’s commentary sums up that entire season for Arsenal. Wonderful stuff.

Gerard Pique vs Inter Milan 28/04/10

This game will no doubt be remembered for the Inter Milan masterclass at the back to keep Barcelona at bay and secure their place into the final. But it’s easy to forget how good this goal was. Slight suspicions of offside but I don’t care, Gerard Pique’s deceptive turn and finish is magnificent and left Ivan Cordoba on the deck, after he left Pique in the first place. Shame it didn’t count for anything other than me loving Pique more.

Philippe Albert vs Manchester United 20/10/96

Slight ambivalence to this goal. It was scored against Manchester United but it’s from a Belgian. But what a fantastic goal, leaving Peter Schmeichel knowingly lobbed and the final goal of a crushing 5-0 defeat for Manchester United. The Great Dane just watches it glide over his head compiling more misery on the side.

Edmilson vs Costa Rica 13/06/02

The award for most outrageous piece of innovation has to go to Edmilson at the World Cup against South Korea. An overhead kick that most strikers would want on their greatest hits Youtube video, Edmilson performs some sort of zero-gravity flip and scores a fantastic goal. His only strike for Brazil but an absolute pearler.

Ugo Ehiogu vs Celtic 11/03/07

If there’s one man I’d not expect to score an overhead kick, its probably Ugo Ehiogu. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him score at both ends at a charity match but this goal was quite superb in the Old Firm derby. Such power, such grace, so very not Ugo Ehiogu.

Daniel Agger vs West Ham 26/08/06

Little was known about Liverpool’s newest centre-back in 2006 but he announced himself very early on to the Anfield crowd. The curve on the 30-yarder is glorious as Agger unleashes a thunderous strike, leaving Roy Carroll stranded. Hardly his fault this time though. Just remember, allowing Agger space is very Dane-gerous (please shoot me in the head)

Roland Juhasz vs AEK Athens 21/10/10

Another contender for the innovator award, after Hungarian Roland Juhasz met the end of Mbark Boussoufa’s cross with a sensational back-heel volley. Pick that one out. Have a feeling he could be on the move soon, so keep an eye out.

Williams Gallas vs Spurs 11/03/06

A vital goal from London cab driver William Gallas, this time from his Chelsea stint. He scored this in the last minute against his current club Spurs after a fiercely contested game. It proved pivotal in the run-in for Chelsea’s second title win.

Jason Cundy vs Ipswich 30/08/1992

I’m no fan of Mr Cundy. Let’s forget about his media work and celebrate this unintentional hoof from near the half-way line against The Tractor Boys. Certainly Cundy’s best moment in football, but there’s not much else to compete with.

Gary Cahill vs Birmingham 16/04/06

And finally we visit the West Midlands derby and Gary Cahill’s creative volley against Birmingham City. Maik Taylor didn’t have a chance. Not bad for your first goal.

 

So there we have it. If you want to add some to the list, comment below. Although I was going to add Distin’s goal against Charlton where he ran about 80-odd yards, but the footage is missing. That means it never happened.

Player Profiles – Andy Najar

With the MLS season almost over, DC United will be looking to forget this year in a hurry. Fortunately for them, they have uncovered one of the brightest prospects in recent seasons, maybe since the inception of the MLS. Freddie Shires looks at Andy Najar:

One could be forgiven for stating that the MLS, in its short history, has hardly set the world alight with the amount and overall quality of emerging players it’s exported overseas to more established leagues in recent years.
Examples of such resounding failures like Clint Mathis, Joe-Max Moore and Josh Wolff who have failed to translate their dominance in the US into success across the pond. Their legacies have been put to bed by the likes of Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, all who’ll be familiar names to even the least informed of football fans.

The latest player who could be about to join this list of star exports is none other than D.C. United’s 17-year-old forward, Andy Najar, one of the few bright points of what has been a fairly dismal 2010 campaign for the side that dominated the early years of the league.

Najar, along with his parents and younger brother, moved to the U.S. from his native Honduras 5 years ago, settling in Alexandria, Virginia, where relatives at the time were living. A far cry from his hometown of Santa Cruz, a small rural village in the south of Honduras, boasting a population of just 6,000, Najar immediately set the local high school soccer scene alight, quickly catching the eye of D.C. United academy scouts, who signed him up to their programme after a successful trial for the under-16 team in 2007.

Initially starting out as a right back, Najar rapidly moved up through the club’s developments system, his impressive play earing a promotion to the under-18s, where his skill and attacking nature prompted coaches to move him upfront, a position he has since flourished in. Outstanding goal scoring form on various club youth tours and tournaments, including 5 in 4 games at the U.S. Developmental Academy Finals in Los Angeles, during the summer of 2009, saw Najar earn the opportunity to train with the senior side later on the year.

Najar signs lucrative deal at DC United

By this time, the Honduran teenager’s impressive play had clearly caught the eye of the club’s first team coaching staff and, after distinguishing himself as one of the stand out performers during early pre-season training for the 2010 season, Najar signed a guaranteed contract with the side, worth $40,000, and cemented a place as one of 2 home-grown academy players allowed on the 26 man roster for the forthcoming season.

While D.C. United’s 2010 season has been a terrible, with the club sitting bottom of the Eastern conference, Najar’s play has been a revelation and one of few bright spots for the club’s supporters. Head Coach Curt Onalfo was given his marching orders in early August, having only been handed the job in January, though despite the turmoil surrounding him, Najar still sits as the prime candidate to win the end of season Rookie of the Year award, establishing himself as one of the first names on the D.C. United team sheet and scoring 5 goals in 24 games. General consensus amongst coaches, players, and fans alike, is that Najar is now one of the hottest young properties the league has to offer and the most exciting prospect coming out of MLS in years.

A benefactor of the newly introduced “Home-grown” rule, allowing clubs to sign 2 players per season from their academy side to the senior roster, Najar thus bypassed the normal process of being selected by any one of the league’s 16 sides in the MLS draft, and the chance to continue to develop, both as a player and person, close to his family home has clearly been of huge benefit to him.

At just 17, Najar is considerably younger than the majority of players coming into the league out of college and it has to be stressed that he still has a huge amount of untapped potential that could yet be unearthed in the next few years.
Some will inevitably compare him to another of MLS’s past starlets, none other than the enigma that is Freddy Adu, but these comparisons could not be further from the truth.

For a start, the emergence of Adu was met with a vast amount of media hype, which transcended football and overflowed into mainstream media. Adu was labelled by many as the new Pelé, earning various endorsement deals, trials with top European clubs, and a multi-million dollar contract with D.C. United as the 1st pick in the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, making him at the time the highest paid player in the league, all before he had even kicked a ball as a professional.

Much Adu about nothing: Najar different to last DC wonderkid

Najar’s emergence on the other hand has been remarkably low key. There was no fanfare when he made his debut, no media coverage of his promising play at the start of the season, and certainly no big money endorsement deals from the likes of Nike and Gatorade. Instead, if one had put his name to a group of supporters, it most likely would have been met by a collective “Who?”

Furthermore, Adu never produced on the pitch during his 4 seasons in MLS, his time at D.C. United and one season at Real Salt Lake wasn’t great either, a mixture of inconsistent play only met by the odd flash of brilliance. Adu was simply unable to develop technically or physically as a player during his early career, never able to play to his one clear strength that was his undisputed technical prowess, as the diminutive attacking midfielder was often overpowered by his opponents and constantly knocked off the ball.

His transfer to Benfica in 2007 was arguably down to reputation more than anything else, and Adu’s career since his move to Europe has ultimately been an unqualified disaster, met with lack of playing time, poor play, and questions surrounding his work ethic and even his age.

We shall leave the Freddy Adu age dispute for another occasion, but undoubtedly these are not issues that Najar should ever have to worry about. For a start the Honduran has already shown himself to be a genuine quality player during his short time in MLS, displaying clear progress in his game from the start of the season to now, and belying his small 5ft 7in frame with tough physical play when matched up against even the most imposing of defenders. Commitment and work ethic are also not a problem.

As former coach Onalfo was quoted as saying, “The guys really like him (Andy) ’cause they respect him and he’s just a well-grounded kid. He’s also got unbelievable concentration. Usually, young players are focused for a short period of time and then they lose focus and they make errors because of that. Andy very rarely makes errors because of concentration.”

Often deployed on the wing, where his sheer explosiveness and trickery are best put to use, Najar has made a habit of burning defenders throughout MLS with his raw pace and agility, though he has shown enough versatility that he has even been employed as an emergency defensive midfielder on occasions. Strong on the ball with either foot, while possessing acute vision, deft touch, and a wide range of passing, Najar has shown in spells even at his young age that he has the confidence and ability to play the role of a playmaker as an attacking midfielder, impressive in a league where tough physical defensive midfielders dominate and the centre of the field can often become clogged. The rumours of a move however have already started, and reports of a trial at Arsenal once the MLS season ends have been widely reported.

The same clubs that were once interested in Adu, the likes of Inter and AC Milan, Real Madrid etc., allegedly all have their eyes now firmly set on Najar and it will be interesting to see what his future holds in the coming months. A tug of war too could soon be developing between Honduras, the country of his birth, and the United States, whom Najar will soon be eligible to appear for once he inevitably obtains his citizenship. Both have expressed a profound interest in the young starlet, and, though Najar himself remains remarkably coy on the issue, refusing to commit to either nation for now, fans of both countries are crossing their fingers in the hope that theirs will be the national team Najar eventually chooses to represent.

Despite the overseas interest however, many surveying the young career of Najar believe that, for now, a stay in MLS would be most beneficial for the young midfielder, where he can continue to develop with regular first team football. Plenty of American youngsters have voyaged abroad for football in the past, only to discover their chances limited and the football too competitive for their raw playing style (Landon Donovan being a prime example when he moved to Leverkusen.)

Bernabeu bound? Najar the next Galactico?

Unlike his choice of national team however, Najar has made no secret about which club team he’d eventually like to represent in the future. An avid Real Madrid fan, he’s been quoted as dreaming of one day pulling on the shirt of Los Blancos. While that day may seem a long way from now, what may seem like an overly ambitious dream of Najar’s could one day become a reality if he continues to develop and assert himself on the field the way he has been over the past 10 months. Avoiding the Freddy Adu comparisons, most would agree Najar has the ability to at least enjoy a career comparable to that of some of MLS’s most famous alumni, names such as Dempsey and Donovan, though those more aspiring of fans would be inclined to suggest he could easily surpass their achievements.

Najar certainly has the talent level to one day become a world star from what we have seen in his remarkably short professional career so far, but he still has many years of development ahead of him and a mountain of obstacles to hurdle before that day can ever arrive. For now, we must sit back and wait with baited breath, as the career of Andy Najar is only just beginning.

Follow Freddie on Twitter @fshires for more superb analysis of the MLS

Champions League group draw thoughts (Group E-H)

Group E: Bayern Munich, Roma, Basel, CFR Cluj

This group may seem very clear to whom will emerge from it, but the clash between Bayern and Roma promises to be exceptional. Bayern ran their luck all the way to the final last year, effectively with Arjen Robben bailing them out twice in the nick of time (Fiorentina/Manchester United) but they were well worthy of being in that final. Louis Van Gaal has built a tremendous side there, with the only weak area really being the left back, Holger Badstuber, which is incredibly harsh on a rookie. Last year marked a turning point in the wilderness for Bayern. Philipp Lahm finally managed to eradicate his form of a few years back, captain Mark Van Bommel is his usual combatant self and of course the combination of Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben destroying full-backs and defences in general.

Add to that some underrated talent up front in Ivica Olic, Thomas Muller (who came of age at the World Cup), Miroslav Klose and Mario Gomez and Bayern should look at least making the quarter finals. The only worry is the centre-back pairing of Van Buyten and Demichelis (a rumoured Chelsea signing) who were given the run around by Diego Milito in the final last year, and also the lack of big name summer signings. It shouldn’t be an issue really as Van Gaal is a master at getting the best of his players, that and his desire never to throw the towel in.

Roma are also very strong this year, following on from pushing Inter right down to the wire for the Scudetto. Ranieri’s improved the team a lot since he took charge, but can he convert that to European success? The centre back pairing of Juan and Mexes looks solid, but could be susceptible in the later stages. The addition of Adriano leaves a lot to be desired really, considering he doesn’t look near his former best. But Roma can call upon a superb midfield engine in Daniele De Rossi, Simone Perotta and David Pizarro, the latter being severely underrated as a central midfielder. They’ll rely on the everpresent and ever controversial Francesco Totti and Mirko Vucinic to bang in the goals, but is that enough?

FC Basel return to the Champions League after playing the Europa League last year, full of Swiss internationals who started with a bang in South Africa then ultimately petered out. The stand out players here would certainly be Benjamin Huggel, who is a consistent defensive midfielder, although at 33 could find the Roma and Bayern game tough. Up front is Alexander Frei, who has an impressive goal to game record at Basel, but again could be left wanting at this level, and his best days at Stade Rennais well in the past now. All in all, Basel have a look of Bolton about them, but a Euro version. It could work but most probably won’t, although Thorsten Fink who replaced Christian Gross as manager, has done a great job to get them here.

Finally CFR Cluj make another appearance in the Champions League, following on from two season ago where they beat Roma in the Stadio Olimpico. Serious doubts over whether they can top that. Like many Eastern European sides, they’ve got tons of journey Brazilians, none of which really have lived up to their potential. Cadu, their captain has been voted the best defender in Romania two years running will have to be at his upmost best to keep Vucinic, Olic and co at bay. They are managed by Andrea Mandorlini, who’s finally found success at  a club after knocking around Serie B for 10 years.

Winners: Bayern Runners Up: Roma

Group F: Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, Zilina

Carlo Ancelotti should be fairly content with this group albeit it conjures a travel nightmare for their away games. This shouldn’t be a problem for one of the richer clubs in the world. Their signings over the summer have certainly bolstered their midfield options. Ramires adds another wide player, something pundits have claimed Chelsea have lacked, and Yossi Benayoun is a decent back-up in the Joe Cole benchwarmer role. We all know of Chelsea’s strengths, but this season could be an opportunity for younger players to make an impact, notably Daniel Sturridge and Jeffrey Bruma, a sturdy centre-back. They shouldn’t have any issues here.

The return of Didier Drogba to the Velodrome is the highlight here, and he should be given a rapturous reception by the Olympique fans. Which is a deep contrast to the internal struggles currently going on at the club. Didier Deschamps may have led them to the Ligue Un title last year but since then he’s seen several of his best leave the club, notably Mahamadou Niang (who wanted a fresh start at Fenerbahce) and Hatem Ben Arfa’s loan to Newcastle is imminent. Apart from that, they’ve had a pretty poor start to the season, although they finally won last weekend. Players for Chelsea fans to be wary of include Benoit Cheyrou (who’s better than Bruno),  Mathieu Valbuena who should thrive under no competition from Ben Arfa and finally Gabriel Heinze, who’s attributes are clear to Premier League fans.

Spartak Moscow could surprise a few. Firstly, the Luzhniki stadium (not a happy hunting ground for Chelsea and John Terry) could see teams fall foul of the artifical turf, yet Inter and Manchester United didn’t have issues last year. The weather in November could be another factor that could catch teams out. Apart from that, they’ve signed Aidan McGeady from Celtic who will be looking to do better than Garry O’Connor at Spartak. Welliton has been in stunning form in this year’s league bagging 13 goals for himself. They will be tough to beat at home, but could come a cropper away.

Finally, MSK Zilina qualified after eliminating Sparta Prague. I won’t try and claim that I know much about the side, but I promise a further blog into the side, before the Chelsea game. Either way, its a great achievement for the Slovakian side.

Winners: Chelsea Runners Up: Marseille

Group G: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, AJ Auxerre

The group that got everyone salivating. 20 European titles between three of them, and throw in Auxerre who were sensational to beat an albeit 9-man Zenit, and you have potential for some great action. Plus Kaka returns to Milan again, Clarence Seedorf and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could return to two of their former clubs. Mouthwatering.

This group is difficult to call. Many have touted Real Madrid as the favourites for the trophy itself but Jose Mourinho would have liked to get an easier group. He drew a great top seed really, avoiding the English sides, but Ajax could easily throw a proverbial spanner in the works. It also remains to be seen whether he can co-exist with director Jorge Valdano at Real, since it seems inevitable there will be a power struggle of sorts. Will Jose adapt his style, most probably considering he has most times he’s joined a league. His summer signings have been great, Mesut Ozil was a nice bit of business for the fee, but Ricardo Carvalho could be a masterstroke. Real look weakest in defence, and it seems perfect for him to buy a player he knows so well, and generally improves his centre-back partner, which is great news for Sergio Ramos. Add to that the exciting duo Angel Di Maria and Sergio Canales (if given games), and you can see why Real have been installed as tournament favourites. That spectre of the 2nd round haunts them but not this time.

AC Milan on the other hand could struggle. Forever aging, forever manager changing, this could be a season of disappointment for the Rossoneri. That being said, some astute deals in signing Kevin Prince Boateng on loan and the impending Zlatan Ibrahamovic transfer possibly will strengthen a side that lacks youth and a good frontman. Alexandre Pato will be looking to prove Dunga wrong for not selecting him for the World Cup and the  duo of Seedorf and Pirlo have undoubted quality. They’ve also signed Marco Amelia on loan from Genoa to amend the goalkeeper problem, Abbiati is a liability at times.

Ajax finally return to the top stage, under Martin Jol, who encourages attacking football in his side. The frontline looks superb, particularly Luis Suarez who’s been dynamite up top for 12 months now. They’ve signed his international teammate Nicolas Lodeiro to strengthen the backline, which looks a lot better that it did, with Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel being the best of the bunch. The midfield looks decent, particularly Urby Emanuelson bombing down the left flank and Demy De Zeeuw, a supremely able midfielder. Ajax have huge potential.

Finally Auxerre, the outsiders handed a monster task. They dumped Zenit out to get here, and contain some quality players such as Stephan Grichting, a robust Swiss defender, Ireneusz Jelen and Anthony Le Tallec forming a good partnership up front. They will be dangerous from set-pieces mostly as Zenit found out. Had they been in an easier group they could have done well.

Winners: Real Madrid Runners Up: Ajax

Group H: Arsenal, Shaktar Donetsk, Braga, Partizan

Finally we reach the Gunners group, which looks good on paper but not so great once you delve into the logisitics of things. Wenger’s side always promise it to be their year but ultimately this passes on from season to season. This has to be their year in my opinion to win a trophy, will it be this one?

They’ve managed to keep hold of Cesc Fabregas, but his move is inevitable this following summer. The signing of Laurent Koscielny from Lorient looks to be another Wenger work in progress, and Squillaci from Sevilla will provide that experience so desperately needed. Jack Wilshere will be given time too, which is great news from an England stand-point in the long-run. Theo Walcott looks to have improved following his World Cup snub, deserved in my opinion and could mould himself into a great talent finally. But that underlying issue of the goalkeeper remains. Manuel Almunia looked assured against Liverpool and can’t get the critics off his back. Even if Arsenal did sign Schwarzer it’s a short term measure and more for the league than here. Arsenal should coast this group really.

There will be a quick reunion with former striker Eduardo after leaving for Shaktar in the summer, a good move for them since he lost pace from his leg injury and could make the Ukrainan league his playground. Other that Shaktar may look flash but otherwise don’t impress me. I saw them against Fulham in the Europa League last year. They dominated but couldn’t finish at home, and it ultimately cost them. Sounds a lot like another team in this group (I jest). Jadson is really their best player who looks skilful and a great finisher (notably in the Europa League final of 2009). The signing of Dmytro Chygrynskiy from Barca will shore up a weaker defence. Pep Guardiola didn’t want to let him go apparently, but the board needed to create funds.

Braga provided the biggest shock of qualifying beating highly fancied Sevilla in a thriller of a game. They almost won the Liga Sagres last year until a late collapse. They looked great upfront midweek, especially striker Lima who got a hat-trick. That being said they looked a bit shaky at the back, so improvement is needed there. But as Celtic and Sevilla found out, this side is lethal from a set-piece and from all around play really. Expect flair and passion from them for sure. They also have a player called George Lucas. I hope to god he hasn’t seen Brazilian Star Wars.

'The force is with Braga' George Lucas of Braga.....he did say this

Finally Partizan Belgrade will look to bring back the glory days of ’66 where they reached the European Cup Final (they don’t go on about it as much as England does). They participated in the world’s worst penalty shoot-out against Anderlecht to get here. From the highlights it was clear Cleo is a striker to be wary of, he finished off scraps and can find space easily. Also keep a look out for Sochaux loanee Ivan Stevanovic who is a decent right-back

Winners: Arsenal Runners Up: Braga

So there we have it. After today’s Europa League I’m not as excited about this draw as I was, but come September 14th I’m sure I’ll change my mind when Bremen take on Spurs.

I’ll leave you with my favourite goal from last year’s competition, starring Dutch wonder Arjen Robben

Six Pointer: Opening Day

The Premier League has returned after what seems a very short amount of time since John Terry lifted that famous trophy above his head in front of a packed Stamford Bridge. Well, of course we’ve had the worst World Cup ever in between all that, if you are to gauge punditry opinion across the board. I can ramble and rant about that again (believe me you don’t want me to) but instead we shall focus on a spectacular opening day in the English top flight and other events across Europe. Yes, that’s right the format is back. Six points recapping the best European football topics of the last week. Let’s crack on shall we?

1 Blackpool tower above woeful Wigan

Tangerine sea, amazing scenes

The start of the 10/11 Premier League will only be remembered for this game I feel. Chelsea and United played their opposition off the park, the chasing pack drew with each other. Not that these games were particularly low quality, far from it. But there was no shocking result. Fortunately for us, Blackpool announced their arrival to the big stage in the best possible manner, humiliating Wigan at the DW Stadium.

As good as Ian Holloway’s side were, Wigan’s first half performance was utterly shambolic at the back. It’s quite clear to me for the £9.5 million Wigan have spent this year, they lack a leader. No Scharner, Bramble or Melchiot to lead the troops and it showed. The back four weren’t organised, and Martinez looked despondent at what was going on. He needs to sign someone with experience to get Wigan structured. To be fair to Martinez, his substitutes worked at half time. Ronnie Stam looked decent when he came on. But all in all it was a fairly disasterous day for Wigan.

Full credit to Blackpool was laying down a superb marker in what is sure to be a tough season. Holloway is certainly creating the right atmosphere and team ethos and they’ll love every minute of being the underdog in practically every game. Doesn’t exactly get any harder than Arsenal away next. Wigan have Chelsea at home, but they did win that fixture last year. Can’t really see it this time.

2. Bellamy comes home (sort of)

39- Number of clubs Bellamy is either wanted by or played for

The first real casualty of the mega-bucks spending of Manchester City, for this year at least, looks to be Craig Bellamy. As much as I find some of his behaviour in the past to be reprehensible, I can’t really deny how good he was last year for them. His performance in the first Manchester derby last year was brilliant. It’s real shame that at the time he’s got his act together, he gets treated fairly badly by City and shipped off on a season loan to Cardiff City.

A very shrewd business move by City. He was highly sought after by their rivals, so why not give him to an aspiring club one tier lower. No doubt for me now that Bellamy will be sensational in that league and he might obtain cult status at the club (more than likely already has with that amount of Bellamy shirts printed).

It still baffles me how Bellamy didn’t make the 25 man squad for the league considering his level of performances last year, and I kind of hope that decision backfires on City. It probably won’t and of course this is me being slightly biased.

3. Steve Bruce loses rag, contrast between red face and blonde hair stark

Anthony Taylor gives Cattermole a record 234,690th red card,

He may well be one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen at United, but he’s becoming an irritating fool now. As we all know, Lee Cattermole is prone to a rush of blood to his noggin, and also drawing it from opponents with his elbow. How Bruce can slag off the ref for his officiating in the game against Birmingham is beyond me really. First yellow card may seem harsh, but I think the second offence warranted a red so it balanced out.

Bruce complained at the fast-tracking of referees. He said: “The ref (Anthony Taylor) was totally inadequate. I believe he’s only been refereeing four years so that is a huge decision to promote him to the Premier League.” Has it not occurred to you, Mr Bruce that for a referee to obtain Premier League status that quickly, he must be doing something correctly and furthermore, for us to get good referees, they need to officiate at the highest level sooner or later.

Bruce added “The last thing I want to do is criticise a young lad trying to make his way in the game but he was absolutely awful” Yeah well done there, Steve. Do exactly what you say you’re trying to avoid.

It’s opening day, it’s not going to cost you in the long run surely. He’ll escape FA punishment as well it seems.

4. European elites get off to slow start

A change of pace now as we take a Euro-trip across the other top leagues, except not as beer-fuelled.

  • Things in France are certainly intriguing and not just with the France national team investigation that has just concluded. Champions Marseille are in an early season crisis (and no I don’t mean an Arsenal crisis as hinted at by the Telegraph). Didier Deschamps hinted at club unrest, most likely down to the decisions of Mamadou Niang, who has since left to join Fenerbahce, and Hatem Ben Arfa trying to broker a Premier League move.Deschamps said: “There are a lot of negative things going on off the pitch, but we are making a lot of mistakes on the pitch also. They are not excuses, they are explanations”. Marseille have lost both their games in Ligue 1 this season against Caen and Valenciennes.
  • Over in Portugal, Benfica were stunned with an opening day defeat to Academica, with a glorious last minute winner from Laionel. Interesting to see how Benfica do this year, they’ve been well and truly raided by other European clubs, and I for one am amazed to see Fabio Coentrao still at the club. I don’t think this defeat will lead to a slide, but I think it will be a lot closer title race that last year, with Porto and Sporting both hoping to improve on last years efforts. Here’s that strike by the way, the first winner of 6Pointer Goal of the Week

5.  How to make your debut, Joe Cole style

Not that type of player.... apparently

The biggest talking point from the Super Sunday game between Liverpool and Arsenal. Now remember ‘Joe Cole isn’t that sort of player’, what a ludcrious argument that is. It was in an area of the pitch where tackles like that aren’t needed and Martin Atkinson was right to send off Joe Cole. The Koscielny red card was more contentious only for the fact he wasn’t consistent with hand balls but I thought he looked reasonably assured on his debut.

Not that it really mattered, Joe Cole was kept incredibly quiet by Arsenal and was outlassed by his Arsenal counterpart in Samir Nasri. Liverpool kicked on from that to take the lead through David N’Gog, who often recieves harsh criticism and unfair comparisons to Fernando Torres. He was aided by some poor defending from Arsenal though.

Arsenal came back, as you’d expect and grabbed a late equaliser from Pepe Reina not being able to see a football through the sun. According to Andy Gray. Either way it ended in a draw, no surprises.

6. Toon Army  Facial Hair Watch – Fixture 1

Every villain needs a moustache. Mr March perhaps for Joey?

Last night Twitter exploded with the news of Joey Barton’s moustache. The Newcastle squad have vowed not to shave until they win a league game.

Now some people can pull of facial hair. Tom Selleck, Ian Rush (sort of) and the Red Baron from the Wacky Races. Unfortunately for none of the Newcastle players can and it could be seen for a long time yet with the way Newcastle performed last night. It wasn’t bad but they were outclassed.

Could we see Joey go through different stages as the season progress? In fact I call for a calendar just for Joey Barton’s Moustaches. May’s offering could be a Fu Manchu if the situation doesn’t improve. 6pointer will keep you informed with a new feature – Toon Tash Watch.

I’m off to watch Zenit Auxerre, hopefully an entertaining game, see you next week

6 Players to Watch in Premier League 2010/11

Well it’s time for that obligatory Premier League Preview. However due to lack of time and the fact that several esteemed journalists (and some not at all esteemed) have previewed the league, I feel it’s best to highlight 6 players who have all the tools needed to be proficient and efficient in the Premier League.

It’s been a strange transfer window really. Very quiet bar the big spenders Manchester City and also a case of ‘chase the hottest prospect around Europe’ game (Loic Remy, Mesut Ozil) in which several managers have participated in and ultimately coming up with no signing.

I’ve imposed certain rulings here. Firstly I cannot go with obvious suggestions that media darling pundits have, so this means Javier Hernandez will not be selected due to the fact the world and his dog know he will be good this year and if you’re a eagle-eyed World Cup viewer, you’ll know exactly what he will bring to Manchester United. This also means no David Silva, Jack Wilshere, Gareth Bale, Joe Hart et al.

The other ruling is that I’m going to try and highlight players outside the Big Four if possible unless I feel a certain player at a big club deserves attention. So sorry Joe Cole, but I wouldn’t have picked you anyway despite the fact that you are clearly more  skilful than Lionel Messi, according to your club captain (surely a contender for Biggest Heaping of Pressure on an Overrated midfielder.)

So here we go, 6pointer’s guide to 6 players you should put into your fantasy football team if you can:

1. Mauro Boselli (Wigan)

I’ll be honest I was worried about Wigan at the beginning of this transfer window. Several players have left the club after their contracts expired, such as Mario Melchiot (who was beginning to become a liability anyway) and Paul Scharner. Other key players had jumped ship too, like Titus Bramble joining his former manager Steve Bruce at Sunderland.

Martinez had a massive summer scouting mission ahead of him. Fortunately, he’s managed to make some great signings. Antolin Alcaraz from Club Bruges, was instrumental in Paraguay’s World Cup success, forged upon a tightly knit defence. Ronnie Stam has signed from FC Twente, who’s continually improved there as a right-back and got a Holland call-up too.

But one thing that Wigan have always lacked at this level is an out and out frontman, who’s capable of consistently performing. Step forward Mauro Boselli. Signed from Estudiantes for an estimated £6.5million, he swaps the bustling streets of Buenos Aires for a wet and windy Wigan.

He’d managed to build quite a reputation for himself in Argentina, scoring 32 goals in 57 appearances for Estudiantes. He’s an intelligent striker, who knows exactly where to be at the right time.

Martinez describes him as ‘a goalscorer, who lives to put the ball in the back of the net’ and if he links up well with Hugo Rodallega or Jordi Gomez, I feel we might see a barrage of goals at Wigan this year.

Why Terry Venables thinks they’ll be 19th I don’t know, when Martinez has added some quality to a pretty ropey side. Boselli has even made a Argentinian call-up. You may see this as Diego Maradona experimenting, after all he’s used about 50 players in the last 2 years, but you have to some sort of quality to challenge that front-line.

He could flop like so many South Americans before him in this league, but I feel the top scorer in the Copa Libertadores in 2009 might just be this season’s best purchase, and will warrant a big move the year after.

EDIT – 23/9/10 – After seeing Mauro Boselli, live in the flesh, discount any information you see here. He looked sluggish against Preston. Sean St Ledger kept him in his pocket the entire night pretty much. Don’t listen to me, I have sinned.

2.Daniel Sturridge (Chelsea)

Ok, I’ve broken the Top Four amnesty. But I don’t think many people realise the quality of this young English centre-forward. This decision was mainly down to his performance in last week’s Community Shield, where came on 2nd half replacing Nicolas Anelka. I feel this might happen a lot this year, since I think Anelka is under serious threat of finding himself at another club. He’s hardly had a good summer either, and I think his time at a top level is coming to an end.

This is why I feel Daniel Sturridge is an ideal replacement. He has power and pace in abundance and Carlo Ancelotti found opportunity to play him a lot in the later months of last season, particularly in Chelsea’s FA Cup winning side. He ended up with 4 goals in the FA Cup and finished as the leading scorer for Chelsea.

If Carlo Ancelotti integrates him more this season, we may well see Sturridge challenge for national selection. The future’s bright for this young man I reckon.

3.Jerome Boateng (Man City)

If you were to ask me last season where City needed strengthening, the answer is obvious. The back four last year began superbly but then collapsed as the season progressed. For all your attacking options, you need players capable of offering protection to a solid goalkeeper. Roberto Mancini has acted this summer and brought in German international Jerome Boateng from Hamburg. Of course £11 million isn’t cheap but compared to the £24million City paid for Joleon Lescott, it looks a bargain.

Boateng is a strong and versatile defender, capable of playing really anywhere across the defence. He’ll thrive in this league, as he’s renowned for last-ditch defending. He was unsung really in Germany’s World Cup exploits, the plaudits of a free-flowing attack were well noted but it was underpinned by a strong defence. City should be improved this season as I think their major weakness has been sorted out to some extent.

4.Dani Pacheco (Liverpool)

He’s often been touted as the next best thing at Liverpool, but former manager Rafa Benitez never really used him or got the best out of him when he did. I think under Roy Hodsgon we may see that change. Pacheco was instrumental along with Sergio Canales in the Spanish side that were runners-up in this year’s U19’s European Championship in France. What Dani lacks in height, he makes up double in creativity and all-round trickiness, a general requirement of any Barcelona youth player.

If given the chance this season under Hodgson, he could link up well with a fully fit Fernando Torres (will this ever happen?) and we should see more of the man nicknamed The Assassin by team-mates due to his ability to score from anywhere.

5.Graham Dorrans (West Brom)

I feel it’s only fair to highlight someone from the promoted teams, and while Charlie Adam seems a good pick, I’ve decided to go with the Baggies playmaker. He was unbelievable last season in the Championship, and certainly worthy of his place in the Team of the Year. He’s the linchpin of the side, and his partnership with Chris Brunt was key to West Brom’s promotion last year. He’s an all-round central midfielder with a sweet shot on him too.

I still think West Brom are relegation candidates, after all the club is a yo-yo side, but if they want to avoid the drop look no further to their young midfield driving force. All they need a good striker and they may have a chance to get mid-table. Even if West Brom go down, I get the feeling he won’t find it hard to garner some Premier League interest.

Scotland, there is something to get excited about from a upcoming star.

6. Pablo Barrera (West Ham)

Another player to shine in Javier Aguirre’s exciting Mexican side, this winger could prove a real handful for some Premier League teams. The thing I remember most about Barrera at the World Cup was the torrid time he gave Eric Abidal in the France game (arguably Mexico’s best performance at the World Cup). He looks nippy and a decent crosser too, something that West Ham will need to feed Carlton Cole up top, or maybe Frank Nouble if he’s given a chance.

The 23 year old moved from Mexican side Pumas for £4 million. I’m not totally convinced about West Ham’s plans under Avram Grant but I think Barrera could be a hugely influential midfielder for them.

So there we have it. Let’s see next May how badly wrong I was.

The Premier League Fashion Fix – Kits for 10/11 (Manchester City to Wolves)

Manchester City

Rather begrudgingly, I have to admit City have got their shirt spot on once again this year. They have changed their kit maker to Umbro, which seems to be a good move. Once again the phrase simplicity crops up Sky blue, white arm trim. Done. Very similar to England’s away kit with the fabric and look used.Also like the nice touch inside of the collar, of the classic City scarf. I think that was Mancini’s idea, he just loves striped scarves that fella.

Good work Umbro though, I’m liking your shirt philosophy. Man City are again sponsored by Etihad Airways will reveal their away kit on Friday (but it’s likely going to be red and black)

Verdict – 8/10

Manchester United

I’ve got mixed opinions on these two offerings by Manchester United. The home shirt is a big improvement on last year in my opinion, with Nike dismissing the black chevron for the traditional all red. Not that keen on the white sleeve stripes as it reminds me of the Umbro kit from 99/00. But other than that, it’s an above average effort boosted by the return of a collar. Eric would be proud

The away kit on the otherhand is hideous. I’ve always preferred a black away kit for United. White ones rarely work and the shoulder/sleeve design here is just weird, with the red stripes just tacked on there. Actually maybe United should be sponsored by Red Stripe. No that’s a bad idea.  Manchester United are now sponsored by Aon

Verdict – 6/10 (away kit drags it down)

Newcastle United

After last year’s shirt show-stealing performance for all the wrong reasons. Newcastle opt for a more conservative option this time round in their return to the top flight. The Championship winners of course have their black and white striped shirts, but it’s a pretty rubbish shirt. Puma have gone for some weird fabric that doesn’t look high quality, plus they’ve kept with the unorthodox collar (I like it but many don’t). The back is all white, which goes against the Geordie grain.

Also don’t really like the black shoulder design. There’s too much black there and it’s very reminiscent of the kit they wore to relegation. The away shirt is a peculiar shade of blue and to be honest I prefer the 3rd kit to it.

Newcastle are once again sponsored by Northern Rock.

Verdict – 4/10

Stoke City

Oh dear. Stoke’s new agreement with Adidas couldn’t have produced a more unsatisfying shirt. It looks like a patchwork quilt. Too many ideas are meshed together to create a monstrosity. Harsh?

The red and white stripes are accompanied by dashes in between. Why, I do not know. The neck/collar area looks strange and again Adidas have had to put a space for a Premier League badge. Speaking of badges, the Adidas one on the left is weirdly places. Yes, it is safe to say I hate this kit. The away kit arrives on the 2nd August, I’m hoping for something better.

Stoke continue their sponsorship with Britannia for this season.

Verdict – 2/10

Sunderland

Umbro make it a three peat of superb kits. As you can tell by the promo shot of Darren Bent with a ancient football, Umbro have gone for the classic look. The new sponsor, bingo website Tombola is put onto the shirt, without it looking out place. Interwoven if you will. The red and white stripes are complemented by a good red collar look.

The away kit as you can see is all white with a subtle hint of burgundy. I really like this kit as well. Fantastic effort.

Note- Tombola will not appear on junior shirts to comply with UK law

Verdict – 9/10

Tottenham Hotspur

Puma have gone a bit crazy with the Spurs shirt. Once again, don’t understand the decsion to move the Puma badge up to the shoulder on the home kit. The diagonal navy blue strip across the top of the shirt would be fine apart from the white stripes added along it. It just looks a bit off to me. The change strip is now sky blue. It’s been a while since it has and I think it’s a move for the better.

Overall not terrible but not great either. Spurs have a new sponsor in Autonomy

Verdict – 5/10

West Bromwich Albion

Well we finally have one Umbro kit I don’t like. The Baggies have bounced back to the Premier League for the umpteenth time and brought a polostyle home shirt with them. I don’t like polo shirt in general so I may be biased here, but the contrast between that and the sponsor Homeserve offsets the vintage look Umbro went for. Shame really.

The away kit however is a lot better. Subtle black stripes are simple and effective. Only downside for me as a traditionalist is West Brom not having green and yellow in their away kit.

Verdict – 6/10

West Ham United

It was unavoidable. This promotional picture had to be used. Mark Noble and Thomas Hitzlsperger eating a full English down a East Lahndan caff. Not fulfilling any Cockney stereotypes there then are we, West Ham PR department. The kit itself is unique in a way. The claret and blue hoops around the middle of the shirt seem to be in honour of Sampdoria possibly. Then again maybe not. Overall, not a bad away kit although slightly tarnished by Macron’s logo on the sleeve.

And of course away days are very much like this. Hash browns and bacon at a service station in your change strip.

West Ham have yet to reveal their home kit but they’ll still be sponsored by Sbobet

Verdict – 6/10 so far

Wigan Athletic

Wigan have finally unveiled their kit, in a friendly with Oldham last night. The cost-cutting decision to make their kit ‘in-house’ with company Mifit seems to have paid off. I really like this kit. The off-centre vertical stripe is different and I think it sets them apart. The sponsor slightly ruins a very good shirt as it looks out of place

The wait was worth it I guess. Wigan are sponsored by 188Bet again for 10/11.

Verdict – 7/10

Wolves

They are Premier League but not in the shirt stakes. Burrda have poorly imitated Umbro in the traditionalist approach but this could well be Mick McCarthy’s desire to hark back to the Molineux of old.  Muddy pitches and parasite football as Mick moaned all summer long.

Anyway, the shirt is not too bad until you realise that the retro idea is ruined by the Sportingbet sponsor. Alternatively buy the kids shirt since it won’t have. Although this might arouse suspicion.

The away kit is the reverse sans the silly collar.

Verdict – 5/10

There we have it. The Champions League places belong to Blackburn, Man City and Sunderland (Umbro). The fashion police have relegated Bolton, Stoke and Everton. Enough with this fashion facade. Back to normal running soon