6 things you may not know about MSK Zilina

With the Champions League opener drawing near, it seems only fair to cover the team I glossed over in my main Champions League preview piece. After hours of trawling through many Slovakian websites (some not exactly kosher to my eye) and some Champions League highlights, let me attempt to give Chelsea fans the low-down on their unknown away day to the home of the Slovakian League Champions.

1. MSK Zilina make the group stages for the first time in their history, after dispatching Sparta Prague in impressive fashion, with a  3-0 aggregate win. Admittedly Sparta Prague are in the wilderness after a decade of relevant success. The early 2000’s saw Karel Poborsky lead the side to impressive results and the club itself produced several talented Czech players that left for bigger clubs. Now with only former Reading player Marek Matejovsky and ex-Hammer Tomas Repka being recognisable to English fans in that side, it’s maybe understandable why they lost heavily.

But don’t take anything away from Zilina. They won 2-0 away from home, a match which you can see below.

Well, the first goal may well be gifted by some comical goalkeeping, but the finish from Gambian striker Momoudou Ceesay (more on him later) is brilliant although aided by two defenders providing adequate blinding. The second is typical of what we may see Zilina doing against Chelsea; set-piece dangers. A terrific result for Zilina who entered the competition in the second qualifying round.

2. A few facts about the club itself. They’ve won 5 domestic titles, all coming in the last 9 years. Their best European run was 40 years ago where they made the quarter final of the now defunct Cup Winners Cup (a competition I miss). They play in yellow and green, so maybe some Norwich fans cheering them on. Zilina itself is in the North West of the country, about 200km from capital city Bratislava.

The club is curiously nicknamed Sosoni after the Soshone native American Indian tribe. A bizarre nickname for a club several thousand miles away, although the most likely reason is the tribal nature of the fans.

3. Here is a video of said fans. Passionate is a slight understatement. They’ll certainly drown out the Chelsea away support, even in strong voice. Note the modified We All Dream of a Team of Gary Breens chant.

4. One slight problem as highlighted in this fantastic piece, is that many Slovakian fans aren’t content to pay Champions League prices for a one-off game. With the lowest prices being at around 50 euros, the ultras of the club protested against the hike by leaving their weekend game against Presov at 60 mins, leaving the Stadium Pod Dubnam an empty shell, devoid of much atmosphere. Hopefully, they don’t boycott their biggest game in their history.

5. Arguably their most influential player is new signing Momoudou Ceesay. He should be a player familiar to Chelsea diehards, having spent some time there in the Chelsea Academy. He then moved to Belgian club Westerlo, where he found the league’s physicality tough going, only bagging 1 goal in 30 appearances. A move to Zilina has reignited his career with 3 goals in the Champions League qualifying already. The best being this one, a self-set up overhead kick. Special one:

It will be interesting to see if the 21 year old causes John Terry problems. He has pace and some skill as well, nutured by the youth coaches at Chelsea. Theoretically Chelsea should know what to expect, but this is football isn’t it and wouldn’t it make a fairy-tale story.

Captain Marvel?

6. Zilina retook top spot in the league at the weekend. Their league form has been a bit patchy, most probably down to their campaign in Europe, but they have still yet to lose this season (4 wins and 4 draws). Through looking at statistics, it seems as if Zilina like scoring late goals, with 4 coming in the last 10 minutes this season. Other players to watch include battling and industrious captain Robert Jez, who this week said the side are ‘aiming to go down in history‘ on Wednesday. Jozef Piacek is also important at the back having played all 8 games in the league.

So there we have it, the rank outsiders of Group F, but certainly they deserve every success amongst the elite of Europe.

In more important news, according to Chelsea fans on Twitter, an alcohol ban has been introduced for Wednesday’s game in Zilina, maybe as a pre-caution against hooligans. But of course this is ludicrous.

No beer and no win make Chelsea fans go crazy

For the latest Slovakian football news, follow britskibelasi on Twitter. A man clearly in the know.

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World Cup Preview – The Quarter Finals

Well that round certainly lived up to the hype. Many many talking points, but it seems fairly obvious to start with Germany vs England. I had a slight inkling that England were going to get a spanking but due to my blind patriotism, I decided to undermine my prediction.

As I said, the game would all come down to who was covering Ozil. In this case Gareth Barry took up that role and provided a truly underwhelming performance. He was meant to be the shield for Terry and Upson; that shield was metaphorically made out of crate paper and Germany stook 4 past the woeful defence. I felt sorry for David James as he’s played pretty well but had a pretty poor defence in front of him. I don’t even want to go into the whole Lampard goal as it would have made no difference at all to lacklustre England.

Downbeat England during Germany game

I could do a blog about everything that went wrong and how we can look to other national sides in an effort to improve the development of young players. But several respectable journalists have done this to much better effect than I could ever do, so I’d merely be reiterating them. Plus I could ramble all day about what’s wrong with the FA which is boring.

On to much less depressing issues. Paraguay and Ghana made the Quarter Finals for the first time. Ghana were brilliant against the U.S. and Kevin Prince Boateng continues to impress me. He’s made the step up to international level look effortless. Paraguay edged past Japan on penalties in quite possibly the dullest game so far, but to their credit, they provided a penalty master-class.

The heavyweights of Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Holland all came through their games, some easier than others. Brazil were relatively comfortable against Chile, and Chile can surely be proud of this campaign after bringing some flamboyance and also some hard tackling when pressing. Argentina Mexico was a great game, sealed with a terrific strike by Carlos Tevez. Unfortunately this game will be remembered for the second officiating blunder of the day, when it really should be remembered for being a terrific spectacle. Javier Hernandez scored a great goal as well, and I hope to see more of that at Old Trafford this season.

Spain and Portugal was fascinating tactically. Portugal looked the better side until Del Bosque brought on Llorente, who played well unlike Fernando Torres. Portugal capitulated and David Villa sneaked in past a lax Simao. Holland provided an efficient performance against Slovakia. Holland looked a lot better with Arjen Robben, and he scored the first in a 2-1 win.

I’ve left Uruguay last for a reason. I genuinely believe they could make the final. The front 3 have been sensational and it’s great to see Diego Forlan finally cast that lazy tabloid tag of being ‘forlorn’. Without doubt one of the best players this year.

So onward to the Quarter Final previews:

The Netherlands vs Brazil

Port Elizabeth, Friday 2nd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • A reincarnated Total Football vs Dunga’s defensive policy. Maybe they’ll both cancel each other out. Ranking 4th and 1st respectively in the world, this has all the makings of a classic.
  • They last met in a World Cup in 1998, which was also a tight affair with Brazil coming out on top on penalties after Phillip Cocu and Ronald DeBoer both missed their spot kicks
  • Holland now with Robben look better with that injection of pace. Brazil have gone about their business with little effort but Luis Fabiano’s found his goalscoring boots at the right time. Juan and Lucio have done well and I think Van Persie will have to play a blinder to break them down
  • I don’t think Holland have been tested yet defensively and that will be their undoing if Robinho and Luis Fabiano play well.

PREDICTION – 0-2

Uruguay vs Ghana

Soccer City, Johannesburg  19.30 GMT (ITV)

  • Both sides can see the semi-final within grasp, a superb achievement for them with neither really expecting to form a run like this.
  • Uruguay front three of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Diego Cavani have been the driving force behind the team, but have been well supported by the defence. Ghana on the other hand have arguably been led by Asamoah Gyan who’s scored most of their goals, his winner against the U.S. being the highlight.
  • I think the Black Stars don’t have enough at the back to keep Uruguay out, especially with some suspensions. They are also missing Ayew wh0’s been solid. Uruguay are missing key defender Diego Godin, the defensive clearance speciallist in the France game.

Prediction – 3-1

Argentina vs Germany

Cape Town, Saturday 3rd July 15:00 GMT (BBC)

  • The second titanic clash of the quarter finals. Diego’s dynamic Argentina versus ‘Yogi Love’s’ youthful Germany. Both sides have been clinical so far and have shown the best attacking football in the competition.
  • The key contest here is Messi vs Ozil. Both have been instrumental in their teams providing the foil to attack and also creating key chances. Both have exceptional off the ball movement.
  • With such great attacking players, both sides look decidedly average at the back. Germany have been flattered by poor opposition, and Manuel Neuer has looked flappable.  Also, at times whereas I still worry about Martin Demichelis but if Diego plays Burdisso, it might tighten them up a bit.
  • It’s only a matter of time until Messi scores. I see it being here. I’ve been convinced by the extrovert Diego Maradona and I think Argentina will edge a classic although I’m going to sit on the fence, and say a Germany win isn’t out of the realms of possibility if they show the camaraderie and efficiency of the England performance.

PREDICTION3-2

Paraguay vs Spain

Ellis Park, Johannesburg 19:30 GMT (BBC)

  • Paraguay have to be considered underdogs here, but their performances so far have been so inconsistent its impossible to say which Paraguay will turn up. They’ve been good defensively however and you’d have to think that’s what will be needed here. Antolin Alcaraz has been the standout centre-back at this tournament for me, which was a great move from Roberto Martinez at Wigan to sign him pre-tournament.
  • Spain have been underwhelming so far. Their tactics need fine tuning, for example I don’t think they need two defensive midfielder, so Del Bosque needs to drop Sergio Busquets or Xabi Alonso and put in either Pedro, Jesus Navas to add width and ideas.
  • Dropping Torres is also a good move in my book. He’s been terrible mainly as I don’t think he’s match fit. Del Bosque, put in Llorente or Cesc Fabregas behind Villa please.
  • Spain should win this easily but they’ve yet to show anything like they can produce (except David Villa). Paraguay have a certain gritty determination about them, and I think they’ll give it everything but fall short.

PREDICTION – 0-2

So that’s it. Let’s hope my record of prediction continues to be better than Mark Lawrenson and level with Paul the Octopus.

World Cup Preview – Clockwork Oranje

When every World Cup comes around, everyone places an outside bet on Holland. Based on their qualifying campaign, it seems a very safe bet. Their football is certainly entertaining and at times, dazzling for the spectator. But when it comes to tournaments, the Dutch will often begin with performances full of flair and vigour, but then collapse in the late stages. So can this crop of flying Dutchmen eradicate the memories of old?

For so many years, Holland have been the nearly men of international football. In the 1970’s, they were the creators of Total Football and had the maestro, Johan Cruyff as the master of that system. The 1980’s saw other great players emerge. Rijkaard, Gullit, Van Basten. All superb footballers who had an hand in Holland’s only tournament victory, Euro 1988.

The 1990’s saw Dutch club football reach its heights, with the Ajax youth system reaping dividends. Bergkamp, the De Boer brothers, Kluivert, Davids, Overmars. I could go on. But they didn’t win anything internationally either.

The point is Holland produces some of the best footballers of their respective generations. But they’ve never won the big one. The question is why?

This decade has seen the Dutch decline set in, after failing to make the World Cup in 2002 (under arguably their most successful manager Louis Van Gaal). They were arguably the most fluid side at Euro 2008, dismantling World champs and runner-ups Italy and France. These goals show the pure tactical class of the Dutch passing system and also their ability to counter attack like no other side.

But once again, Holland fell short after they were undone by their former manager and national team specialist, Guus Hiddink.

This time round, Holland possess arguably the most dynamic frontline out the European teams. Wesley Sneijder has had a sensational season at newly crowned Champions League winners Inter Milan, and was in my opinion, the best footballer in Europe this year. He was the creative engine behind that side and similarly here, he will look to link up with Robin Van Persie. Van Persie, by his own admission has had a injury-plagued season, but there’s no denying what he brings to the side: a accomplished striker. If he reaches peak fitness in time, then he can be deadly.

The wings in the adapted 4-2-3-1 formation will often blaze forward in an aid to help Van Persie. Arjen Robben, like Wesley Sneijder, has excelled after leaving Real Madrid, scoring some outrageous solo efforts. His form could well be key to Dutch success in South Africa but if reports are to be believed, he’s suffered a hamstring tear. On the right should be Rafael Van Der Vaart, who chose to stay in Madrid. He offers may options as well, and could also cut inside with devastating effect.

Oranje is the colour for these passionate fans

Bert van Marwijk has balanced his side well. The glamour up front is well supported by bruising determinism and experience behind. Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong will likely be the holding midfielders, each bringing different aspects. De Jong has proved at Manchester City that he’s a superb no-nonsense tackler, which City really needed. Van Bommel is an enforcer but also a great passer as well. Tackling isn’t exactly his strongest attribute and he has  a short fuse.

The subs bench also looks good as well. Ibrahim Affelay has been a revelation for PSV, and will be a useful impact sub when called upon. Dirk Kuyt’s work ethic is often underrated and he would also easily slot into Van Marwijk’s system.

Holland’s defence however worries me. Some players are way past their prime, particularly captain Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, a superb servant over the years, but I doubt he could cope with particularly fast wingers at left back. Andre Ooijer also falls into this category, and both him and Gio are 35. They both provide vital experience and composure to the defence, but speed is lacking at the back. This could see Johnny Heitinga partnering Joris Mathijsen in the heart of defence.

If the Netherlands had a world-class centre back, like so many other nations, then they would be classed as one of the favourites. Brazil have Lucio, England have John Terry (on his day can superb, just not this season) and Spain have Gerard Pique. All 3 are great centre-backs, although I’ll gladly except one has been haphazard at times this year.

Holland need a defensive rock similar to Jaap Stam, a player who would cast fear into opponents. They don’t have that.

The goalkeeper situation is worse however. Since Edwin Van Der Sar retired from international football, Holland have struggled to find a replacement. Maaten Stekelenburg lacks the leadership qualities of predecessor and he often looks shaky at times. This could prove to be disasterous, but he’s the best option viable to Van Marwijk.

If Holland’s defence perform as well as they did in a easy qualifying group, then there won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, for them as they well know, this stage is much tougher. Injuries will be a factor as well, the side is ridden with players prone to injuries.

So, is the future bright for Holland? Certainly, but they’ll need a lot more luck on and off the field, if they are to make the final in Johannesburg on July 11th.

World Cup Preview – England

44 years of hurt now and it’s made England the laughing stock of world football. Several world-class teams and managers have passed by. But now under Fabio Capello, the ingrained pre-tournament hype has resurfaced again:England will do it this time.

Same again boys please (Photo courtesy of Colin Palmer)

Many believe this is the best chance since Italia 90 and with the squad that Capello has picked, that assertion seems well placed.But I can’t help but have a sense of forboding about the Three Lions. I mean, its only natural. They were one of the favourites for 2006, but ultimately Sven’s squad stuttered and never really hit top gear. Also, as we all know, England lack the winning mentality that rivals Germany always seem to pluck out of nowhere. Efficency and an ability to take penalities.

So, let’s take an in-depth look into England’s chances for South Africa.

ATTACK

After several years, England can finally call upon a truly world-class forward in Wayne Rooney. The supporting cast is also very promising. Up front, England can call upon several strikers for a tactical change if needed. Peter Crouch is menacing against smaller nations due to his size. Emile Heskey, whose inclusion surprised many, provides the perfect support for Rooney by holding up the ball. Plus Jermain Defoe proved earlier this season that he can prove to be an able hitman. If Darren Bent avoids the cut, his form could prove to be useful from the bench if England need to nick a goal.

The only issue I see up front is the fact that other than Rooney and Bent, the others don’t score enough. Crouch’s international record is sensational, but his chances of finding the net against tournament contenders is unlikely. Ditto Heskey, who might be a scapegoat in waiting (joining David Batty and Gareth Southgate) if England fail.

MIDFIELD

England’s engine room is now at full capacity, with several options throughout the squad. The key player within this system should be Frank Lampard, who has been sensational this season for champions, Chelsea. He never seems to replicate his club form on the international stage. But with over 20 goals in the league, he is a proven goal threat. In contrast, Steven Gerrard has arguably had one of his worst seasons with Liverpool, but is often reliable in the England set-up.

The main issue for England is where to place these two. My suggestion would be Gerrard on the left, with Lampard and Gareth Barry (if fit in time) joining him. If Barry is injured, then England would have to use the upcoming friendlies to attempt to find another defensive midfielder, as the importance of Barry is underestimated.

The more interesting scenario is who to put on the right. With D-Beck on the sidelines, attentions turn to Theo Walcott, who has undoubtedly matured and improved since his surprise inclusion in 2006. His crossing has improved and he isn’t all about pace, like he used to be. I’m still not 100% convinced however. Aaron Lennon has just come back from injury and would be a decent choice. Shaun Wright Phillips has the experience plus James Milner can play across the midfield to a fairly high standard.  Adam Johnson’s transfer to Man City in January propelled him into the squad and he would probably be useful in the groups.

My choice would be Milner, mainly as he would be the best crosser for Rooney.

DEFENCE

What was once considered the strongest area of the side now seems the most shaky. The once rock solid partnership of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry seems under threat. Rio has been constantly injured this season whereas the revelations about John Terry have seen the no nonsense centre-back become very erratic. Both clearly on their day are world-class but their faults have been shown often this season.

The other defenders are also prone to problems.  Ledley King is often touted as ‘the best centre back in the world when match fit’. But the key word here is when match fit. Which is never. King has managed to play more than a game a week, but at the World Cup, fixtures come thick and fast. Michael Dawson, for my money the most improved player in the Premier League this season, is theoretically the player in form. But he’s never played at this level before, so Fabio will probably stick to his guns.

One in, one out (Photos by Nigel Wilson)

The full-backs, especially on the right, seem the weakest part of the back four. Ashley Cole is fairly certain of his place as left-back, and will probably be backed-up by Leighton Baines. Both are capable, and Cole is one of the best left-backs in the world, no question. The right-back position is an issue. There are no quality English right-backs in the league, with Glen Johnson being the best candidate. Jamie Carragher has come out of retirement to aid the cause. One issue, Jamie Carragher has also had a bad season for Liverpool. He seems likely to make the cut as well, as he can ‘play’ centre-back. Bizarre

Also, if Johnson was picked, both him and Ashley Cole would often bomb forward to aid the wingers, which could leave England exposed.

GOALKEEPER

This selection is no-brainer for me. Robert Green hasn’t been great at West Ham this season and David James is often prone to mistakes. James has been pretty good for Pompey, but Joe Hart has been outstanding on loan at Birmingham. His only problem is the one international cap to his name, meaning a lack of experience. I say give him a shot, he deserves it.

KEY PLAYER – Wayne Rooney

After bursting onto the international stage at Euro 2004, ‘the next big thing’ never looked back and has established his place in the top 5 players worldwide this season. With Cristiano Ronaldo leaving Manchester United, Rooney managed to become the focal point of United’s attack, and if England want success in South Africa, they must use him as the spearhead of any attack. 34 goals this season in all competitions gave his best haul in his career, plus ability for super strikes. I think it’s time for Young Wayne to become a national hero.

MANAGER – Fabio Capello

England’s best manager since Sir Bobby Robson. The Italian has won several league titles in many countries so his calibre can’t be underestimated. He’s managed to transform a side with no confidence in Dutchman Schteve McClaren to a team of possible world-beaters.The side has quality and the most astute tactician. It must be destiny.

IMPORTANT THINGS TO NOTE

  • Since its a Winter world cup, the weather should favour Europeans. It won’t be cold, it won’t be scolding, but pretty warm, meaning memories of scorching days back in Mexico 86 won’t rear their ugly heads.
  • England, like many other teams, will play a game at high altitude. The game in Rustenberg against the US will be like playing on top of Ben Nevis. so Fabio has taken the lads to Austia for altitude training. Unfortunately several other teams have followed suit, meaning this shouldn’t be an advantage.
  • On paper this group looks easy. It isn’t. All teams are in the top 32 clubs in the world, according to FIFA Rankings. The U.S. have some good players in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. The Algerians made the African Cup of Nations final. The Slovenians might be a tight unit to break down. It won’t be a cakewalk that’s for sure.

ODDS OF LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 11/2

PREDICTION – Semi final tragedy. Again.

To hopefully inspire here is the best world cup advert this year and the best world cup song. Join me next time for a preview of the rest of Group C.