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Confederations Cup 2013: Team by Team Preview

The 2013 Confederations Cup kicks off in Brasilia on Saturday with a strong line up of teams competing in the World Cup dress rehearsal a year before the real thing takes place next summer. Most of them will expect to return for the 2014 World Cup – only Tahiti have been eliminated so far from the qualification process – so it’s a good chance for them to hone their preparations and get some valuable experience of the Brazilian conditions. Here’s our guide to the teams and how they will fare.

Team: Brazil
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Qualified as: Hosts

Last 5 results: Group A Fixtures:
Brazil 1-1 Russia (London, 25-03-2013, FR)
Bolivia 0-4 Brazil (Santa Cruz, 06-04-2013, FR)
Brazil 2-2 Chile (Belo Horizonte, 25-04-2013, FR)
Brazil 2-2 England (Rio de Janeiro, 02-06-2013, FR)
Brazil 3-0 France (Porto Alegre, 09-06-2013, FR)
Japan (Brasília, 15-06-2013)
Mexico (Fortaleza, 19-06-2013)
Italy (Salvador, 22-06-2013)

Star Player: Neymar. The Santos striker is the most exciting attacking talent in Brazilian football at the moment, but he still has a lot to prove, especially at international level. His goals record of 20 in 34 games for Brazil is impressive but, having made his debut just after the last World Cup, most of his national team experience has come in friendly matches. He did feature in the 2011 Copa America and 2012 Olympics, scoring in both tournaments, but wasn’t able to help his team to success on either occasion. It’s easy to forget that he’s still only 21 as he seems to have been in the headlines for years since he shot to prominence at a young age and led Santos to their Copa Libertadores triumph in 2011 and rarely a week has gone by in the past two years without rumours linking him with a big money move to Europe. New he’s finally heading to Barcelona to test himself in La Liga and he’ll want to leave his homeland on a high by impressing at the Confederations Cup before he starts his new adventure.

One to Watch: Oscar. The Chelsea midfielder has been playing an increasingly prominent role in the Brazil national team of late and now has seventeen caps and six goals to his name. Also only 21, he is coming into the tournament off the back of a successful first season in Europe where he excelled in the English Premier league and won the Europa league. His fleet footwork and incisive passing, not to mention his lethal shooting ability, make him an important supplier and scorer of goals and a successful Confedereations Cup campaign will go al long way towards staking his claim for a first team spot come next summer. Brazil could be building their team around him for years to come.

Prediction: We expect Brazil to rise to the occasion and put recent patchy form behind them by reaching the final of this event on their home soil. They have selected a strong and talented squad and will be treating the competition very seriously as it represents their only chance of competitive action in the build up to the World Cup finals. Home advantage should help them see off Japan and Mexico in their opening games and we expect them to win their group and reach the final, possibly against Spain, which would be a close encounter but they may just edge it.

Team: Japan
Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni
Qualified as: Asian Cup 2011 Winners

Last 5 results: Group A Fixtures:
Japan 2-1 Canada (Doha, 22-03-13, FR)
Jordan 2-1 Japan (Amman, 26-03-13, WCQ)
Japan 0-2 Bulgaria (Toyota, 30-05-13, FR)
Japan 1-1 Australia (Saitama, 04-06-13, WCQ)
Iraq 0-1 Japan (Doha, 11-06-13, WCQ)
Brazil (Brasilia, 15-06-2013)
Italy (Recife, 19-06-2013)
Mexico (Belo Horizonte, 22-06-2013)

Star Player: Shinji Kagawa. The Manchester United midfielder has now won league titles in each of his last three seasons in Europe and has an impressive scoring record for his country of 13 goals in 43 games. His versatility allows him to be deployed in a variety of positions out wide or just behind the strikers and his ability to drift into gaps between the lines makes him very hard for opposition defenders to pick up. He will be a key player for Japan in Brazil, both this summer and next, and he’s likely to be at the heart of most of their attacking moves.

One to Watch: Gotoku Sakai. The youngest player in the Japan squad at just 22, Sakai has enjoyed a promising first full season in the Bundesliga at VFB Stuttgart. The fullback made 27 league appearances and came on as a substitute in the German cup final although he was on the losing side against Bayern Munich. Born in New York, he grew up back in Japan and played for Albirex Niigata before he moved to Stuttgart, initially on loan, in January 2012.

Prediction: They lost a bit of momentum with surprise defeats against Jordan and Bulgaria earlier this year but recovered to seal their World Cup qualification and will present a strong challenge in Brazil. However, its a tough group and they’ll be up against it from the off as they face the hosts in the opening game. We think Japan will put on a good showing but just miss out on a semi final spot and finish third in the group.

Team: Mexico
Manager: José Manuel de la Torre
Qualified as: CONCACAF Gold Cup 2011 Winners

Last 5 results: Group A Fixtures:
Peru 0-0 Mexico (San Francisco, 18-04-2013, FR)
Mexico 2-2 Nigeria (Houston, 01-06-2013, FR)
Jamaica 0-1 Mexico (Kingston, 05-06-2013, WCQ)
Panama 0-0 Mexico (Panama City, 08-06-2013, WCQ)
Mexico 0-0 Costa Rica (Mexico City, 12-06-2013, WCQ)
Italy (Rio de Janeiro, 16-06-2013)
Brazil (Fortaleza, 19-06-2013)
Japan (Belo Horizonte, 22-06-2013)

Star Player: Javier Hernandez. 32 goals in 47 international appearances is a phenomenal scoring record confirming that the Manchester United striker is one of the most prolific marksmen around at the moment. His goals per minutes played record in the Premier League is exceptional and he is lethal poacher from anywhere in and around the six yard box, both with his head or either foot. However, Mexico have been struggling for goals of late, so the onus will be on him to perform in Brazil.

One to Watch: Javier Aquino. The 23 year old with 15 caps may not yet be a regular starter for his country but he is certainly a useful weapon to have on the bench to unlock a tight encounter. Having spent his early career with Cruz Azul, the winger moved to Villareal of Spain in the January transfer window this year and helped them gain promotion back to the to flight. His intelligent approach play could prove help end the Mexican goal drought.

Prediction: All depends on whether Mexico can find their touch in front of goal and whether or not they are tired after three intense World Cup qualification matches just before the tournament. If they don’t get off to a good start then it could all be over very soon as they face Brazil and Italy in their opening games. We suspect that their recent mediocre form is set to continue and they’re not going to make much impact on this competition, finishing bottom of the group.

Team: Italy
Manager: Cesare Prandelli
Qualified as: Euro 2012 Runners-Up

Last 5 results: Group A Fixtures:
Italy 2-2 Brazil (Geneva, 21-03-13, FR)
Malta 0-2 Italy (Ta’Qali, 26-03-13, WCQ)
Italy 4-0 San Marino (Bologna, 31-05-13, FR)
Czech Republic 0-0 Italy (Prague, 07-06-13, WCQ)
Italy 2-2 Haiti (Rio de Janeiro, 11-06-13, FR)
Mexico (Rio de Janeiro, 16-06-2013)
Japan (Recife, 19-06-2013)
Brazil (Salvador, 22-06-2013)

Star Player: Mario Balotelli. His strength, pace and power make the 22 year old a different type of forward to many of those used by the Azzurri in recent years and he has been a great success at the spearhead of the Italian attack during and since their Euro 2012 campaign. His tempestuous spell at Manchester City was brought to an end in January and he has prospered in his new surroundings at Milan where he’s beginning to find the consistency he lacked in England. He’s now the main man up front for the national team and opposing managers and defenders alike will be given a few headaches trying to figure out how to stifle his threat. On his day, he’s unplayable.

One to Watch: Stephan El Shaarawy. Balotelli’s Milan team mate is the youngest player in a generally fresh faced Italian squad and, at only 20 years of age, he has the chance to experience his first major tournament and stake a claim for a place in Brazil next summer should Italy qualify. With Egyptian family roots on his father’s side, El Shaarawy broke into the Milan team in the wake of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s move to PSG and did a good job of lessening the impact of his departure with some fine attacking performances. He can play out wide or as an orthodox striker and will be a good option on the bench this summer.

Prediction: Prandelli’s Italy are tough to beat and in Balotelli they possess a real match winner so we can see them progressing from Group A alongside Brazil. They may well come up against Spain in the semi finals and suffer a repeat of their Euro 2012 final defeat which would leave them in the third place play-off, where we predict they will lose to Uruguay.

Team: Spain
Manager: Vicente del Bosque
Qualified as: World Cup 2010 Winners

Last 5 results: Group B Fixtures:
Spain 3-1 Uruguay (Doha, 06-02-13, FR)
Spain 1-1 Finland (Gijon, 22-03-13, WCQ)
France 0-1 Spain (Paris, 26-03-13, WCQ)
Spain 2-1 Haiti (Miami, 08-06-13, FR)
Spain 2-0 Republic of Ireland (New York, 12-06-13, FR)
Uruguay (Recife, 16-06-2013)
Tahiti (Rio de Janeiro, 20-06-2013)
Nigeria (Fortaleza, 23-06-2013)

Star Player: Andres Iniesta. The Barcelona playmaker will once again be one of Spain’s most important players at a major tournament. At 29, he’s now in the prime of his career and should be the creative driving force for his country in Brazil as time begins to catch up with some of his erstwhile colleagues. Xabi Alonso is out injured and Xavi, at 33, looks tired after a long season, so the rest of the squad will be looking to Iniesta for inspiration as Spain try to win the one trophy missing from their collection.

One to Watch: Javi Martinez. With Sergio Busquets struggling for fitness and Xabi Alonso missing, this could be the perfect chance for Javi Martinez to finally nail down a regular spot in Spain’s midfield, where he has enjoyed so much success for all-conquering Bayern Munich this season. His versatility means he has often been shunted around between defence and midfield so far in his career, but his neat passing game, ball control and positional sense mean that he has all the attributes to become the mainstay of the midfield for years to come.

Prediction: It has been a long hard season for many of Spain’s players, but the motivation should be there to try and capture the Confederations Cup. They have all the tournament know-how and experience from their recent successes and the most talented squad of players in the world, so they are definitely going to be contenders. We think they will win their group and make the final where they could face the hosts. They will come close but tiredness could be the factor that denies them in the end.

Team: Uruguay
Manager: Óscar Washington Tabárez
Qualified as: Copa America 2011 Winners

Last 5 results: Group B Fixtures:
Spain 3-1 Uruguay (Doha, 06-02-13, FR)
Uruguay 1-1 Paraguay (Montevideo, 22-03-13, WCQ)
Chile 2-0 Uruguay (Santiago, 26-03-13, WCQ)
Uruguay 1-0 France (Montevideo, 05-06-13, FR)
Venezuela 0-1 Uruguay (Ciudad Guayana, 12-06-13, WCQ)
Spain (Recife, 16-06-2013)
Nigeria (Salvador, 20-06-2013)
Tahiti (Recife, 23-06-2013)

Star Player: Luis Suarez. The Liverpool striker will be fresh and raring to go due to his club suspension and his international goalscoring record of almost one in two is positively frightening. He has been at the spearhead of the Uruguay attack alongside Cavani and the ageing Forlan for several years now and they enjoyed much success at the last World Cup and Copa America, largely due to their attacking triumvirate. He has had another exceptional season in the English Premier League where his mazy penalty box runs make him a nightmare for defenders and regularly induce penalties. If Uruguay progress to the latter stages, he should be one of the stars of the tournament.

One to Watch: Edinson Cavani. The Napoli striker is a well-known figure these days following several highly successful seasons in Serie A but he’s been talking of a move away from the club in the press in recent weeks so the managers of some of the world’s biggest clubs will be watching him closely in Brazil as they weigh up whether or not to bid big bucks for his services. At 26, he should still have his best years ahead of him and could be headed for Chelsea or Real Madrid this summer so a good showing in the Confederations Cup might help seal the deal.

Prediction: Uruguay should have enough in their locker to overcome inexperienced Nigeria and Tahiti sides to make the latter stages of the tournament but they will probably come up against Brazil there and come unstuck. However, we predict them to bounce back and win the third place play off.

Team: Tahiti
Manager: Eddy Etaeta
Qualified as: OFC Nations Cup 2012 Winners

Last 5 results: Group B Fixtures:
New Caledonia 0-1 Tahiti (Franconville, 26-09-12, FR)
Tahiti 0-2 New Zealand (Papeete, 13-10-12, WCQ)
New Zealand 3-0 Tahiti (Christchurch, 16-10-12, WCQ)
Tahiti 2-0 Solomon Islands (Papeete, 23-03-13, WCQ)
New Caledonia 1-0 Tahiti (Noumea, 26-03-13, WCQ)
Nigeria (Belo Horizonte, 17-06-2013)
Spain (Rio de Janeiro, 20-06-2013)
Uruguay (Recife, 23-06-2013)

Star Player: Marama Vahirua. Tahiti’s most prominent player and the only one with really extensive top level experience in Europe. He was something of a teen sensation in France when he broke into the Nantes team in the late ninety’s and he scored some crucial goals in their 2000-01 championship season when his trademark canoeing celebration was a familiar sight on Frenchh TV screens. He also won the Coupe de France twice with Nantes  before a journeyman career path took him to Nice, Lorient, Nancy and Monaco. He spent the last season on loan at Panthrakikos in Greece. He earned U-21 caps for France but hasn’t played full international football and is joining the Tahiti squad for the first time at the age of 33. His experience and poise on the ball should be a valuable asset to an inexperienced squad.

One to Watch: Steevy Chong Hue. The 23 year old striker has an impressive international scoring record, averaging almost a goal every other game, and will be looking to impress in Brazil this summer in the hope of attracting the attention of European scouts. He was briefly on the books of a lower division Belgian club a couple of years ago but it didn’t work out. He scored the goal that won Tahiti the OFC Nations Cup (1-0 v New Caledonia) to seal their place in the Confederations Cup and he will be one of their main goal threats in Brazil.

Prediction: Just being here is a victory in itself for Tahiti and they won’t be expecting to gain anything other than experience from their trip to Brazil. Scoring a goal would be a good result, but we wouldn’t be too hopeful of even that happening and we fully expect them to lose all three matches.

Team: Nigeria
Manager: Stephen Keshi
Qualified as: Africa Cup of Nations 2013 Winners

Last 5 results: Group B Fixtures:
Nigeria 1-0 Burkina Faso (Johannesburg, 10/02/2013, ACN)
Nigeria 1-1 Kenya (Calabar, 23/03/2013, WCQ)
Mexico 2-2 Nigeria (Houston, 01/06/2013, FR)
Kenya 0-1 Nigeria (Nairobi, 05/06/2013, WCQ)
Namibia 1-1 Nigeria (Windhoek,12/06/2013, WCQ)
Tahiti (Belo Horizonte, 17-06-2013)
Uruguay (Salvador, 20-06-2013)
Spain (Fortaleza, 23-06-2013)

Star Player: John Obi Mikel. The Chelsea midfielder is by far the most capped outfield player in this inexperienced Nigeria squad and the rest of the players will be looking to him for leadership in Brazil. His all round game in the centre of the park makes him a vital part of the team, integral to all their defensive work and attacking moves. At only 26, he’s actually one of the oldest players in this squad that has been hit by some high profile injuries and withdrawals, and he should be approaching the prime of his career. Much will depend on how he performs.

One to Watch: Ahmed Musa. Almost any one of Nigeria’s young squad could be picked out as one to watch, but we’ve gone for the 20 year old CSKA Moscow winger-cum-forward who has already accumulated 26 caps in his short international career, with four goals to boot. He was a key part of the team that won the double in Russia this year, having begun his career in Europe with VVV Venlo in Holland back in 2010. He scored in Nigeria’s semi final win in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations and made a substitute appearance in the final.

Prediction: Nigeria’s squad is full of potential and will gain useful experience of playing in Brazil that will serve them well if they make it back for the World Cup finals next summer. However, this tournament might have come just too soon for them and they could struggle against Spain and Uruguay. We expect them to come third in the group with a victory over Tahiti.

The Final Stretch – European season reaches its climax

With most of the major European leagues now wrapped up, attention in most countries is turning towards the upcoming spate of cup finals across the continent. In England the FA Cup final is, of course, already done and dusted with Wigan Athletic having sensationally beaten Manchester City 1-0 at Wembley to win that venerable trophy for the first time in their history, and on Friday night in Madrid, Spain, Atletico stunned their neighbours Real Madrid in their own backyard at the Bernabeu to win the Copa del Rey. Atletico’s 2-1 extra time win was their first victory over Real in any competition for fourteen years.

The next ten days will see the cup winners decided in Scotland, Italy, Portugal, France and Germany, as well as the Champions League final and the English Championship Play-off final for a place in next season’s Premier League. This coming weekend is the big one, with five major finals over the extended Bank Holiday break (in the UK) for fans to enjoy and European club football’s showpiece event, the Champions League Final kicks it all off on Saturday night.

The Champions League Final – Saturday 25th May 2013, 19:45, Wembley Stadium, London

This year’s final is an all-German clash between Borussia Dortmund and strongly fancied Bayern Munich. Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern are the newly crowned Bundesliga champions, having dislodged Borussia from their perch, and have enjoyed perhaps the most spectacularly successful league season in their history. They won the Bundesliga at a canter by a massive twenty five points, scoring ninety eight goals in the process to end up with a staggering goal difference of plus eighty. They imperiously swept aside Barcelona in the semi finals 7-0 on aggregate to record the biggest semi final victory margin since 1960 and quite frankly they look unstoppable.

Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund have had an average season by their recent high standards and had to be content with a distant second spot having been champions two years running prior to this season. Their European form has been much better and they annihilated Real Madrid in the first leg of their semi final before holding on resolutely in the face at a late Real Madrid rally at the Bernabeu to book their spot at Wembley. Their success was dampened somewhat by the news that star man Mario Gotze will be jumping ship to Bayern this summer, putting a dent in their hopes of narrowing the gap next season, but they will be hopeful of a big performance on the night to create a small upset.

The two clubs have been regular opponents over the past twelve months with supremacy in head to head matches slowly shifting from Dortmund to the Bavarians. Dortmund had a crushing 5-2 win in the German Cup final last May but Bayern took their first chance for revenge in the Super Cup final in August, winning 2-1. The first league clash finished in a 1-1 stalemate in Munich in December but Bayern triumphed again, 1-0, in a cup quarter final in Munich in February and the return league fixture in Dortmund ended 1-1 earlier this month when the title was already sown up.

Scottish FA Cup Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 15:00, Hampden Park, Glasgow

Hibernian take on Celtic in this year’s Scottish Cup final with Hibernian already guaranteed a place in Europe next season as Celtic have retained their league title. It wasn’t a vintage season for Hibs as they failed to make the cut into the top half and eventually finished seventh, but they have shown that on their day they can pull off a decent result or two. They won their semi final 4-3 after extra time against Falkirk and Celtic matched them a day later beating Dundee United by the same score after extra time. Results between the two teams were fairly even this season with the first game ending in a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park before Hibs won 1-0 at home and then lost 0-3 away in the following fixtures.

Coppa Italia Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 17:00, Stadio Olimpico, Rome

It’s a Rome derby in Rome for this year’s Coppa Italia final as the two giants from the Italian capital compete for the cup. They were very evenly matched over the course of the season, with Roma finishing just one place and one point above their neighbours (6th versus 7th) but Lazio shaded the head to head encounters in Serie A this season, winning 3-2 in the first tie and drawing 1-1 last month. Lazio overcame Juventus in their two legged semi final and Roma saw off the challenge of Internazionale to set up the fixture known as the ‘eternal derby’. European qualification is also at stake as neither team qualified for continental competition via the league.

Taça de Portugal Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 17:15, Estádio Nacional, Oeiras

This year’s Portuguese cup final pits Benfica against Vitoria Guimaraes and Benfica will be desperate to salvage some pride after the disastrous end to their season so far. They suffered major heartbreak twice in a week as they first lost 2-1 in injury time away at FC Porto in their penultimate Primeira Liga game of the season to record their first defeat of the campaign and effectively hand the title to their northern rivals before repeating the trick in the Europa League final against Chelsea a few days later conceding another injury time winner to go down 2-1. The Taça de Portugal would be scant reward for their efforts and attractive football this season and the deflated squad may find it hard to raise themselves again for the occasion but they owe it to their fans and above all to themselves to see off Vitoria Guimaraes, who lost their last two league games to finish down in ninth spot.

Championship Play-off Final – Monday 27th May 2013, 15:00, Wembley Stadium, London

Is it the most valuable prize in football? It’s certainly often billed that way as at stake is a place in the Premier League which will guarantee the winners a multi-million pound pay day, this year more than ever with a new television rights deal coming into force. Therefore Gianfranco Zola’s Watford, who finished third, and Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace, who finished fifth, are facing one of the biggest and most life-changing matches in their history. Watford got the better of their encounters in the Championship regular season as they won 3-2 away at Selhurst Park and held the Eagles to a 2-2 draw back at Vicarage Road. Hopefully there will also be plenty of goals when they meet at Wembley and one man in particular will be keen more keen than most to get on the scoresheet – forward Wilfred Zaha, who plays his last game for Palace before his bug money summer move to Manchester United. He’ll be playing Premier League football next season whatever the outcome.

Coupe de France Final – Friday 31st May 2013, 20:00, Stade de France, Paris

Evian TG, in their first ever French Cup final and in quest of their first ever major honours, face Bordeaux, who are old hands at this sort of thing, having won the trophy three times and been in the final on six other occasions. However, they haven’t won it since 1987, so they will be determined to end the sixteen year wait. It was an average season for Bordeaux in Ligue 1, looking likely to finish just inside the top half with one game remaining, well below the European spots, so they need to win this final to qualify for the Europa League. Evian are fifteenth, three points above the relegation zone with one game left, so they could mathematically be relegated if results go against them on the final day of their second season in the top flight. Bordeaux won 3-2 away at Evian when the teams met back in August but the return league fixture has yet to be played – it is scheduled for the final round of matches this Sunday in Bordeaux as a dress rehearsal only five days before they meet in the final.

DFB Pokal Final – Saturday 1st June 2013, 19:00, Olympiastadion, Berlin

VFB Stuttgart face all-conquering Bayern Munich in the final final of our preview, but will they still be ‘all-conquering’ by then or will they have been defeated in the Champions League final? The result of that match could go a long way to determining the outcome of this fixture, although you will find few people willing to put much money on Stuttgart getting a result at the moment. If Bayern win the Champions League then the momentum will surely carry them through to a straightforward domestic cup win but should they lose at Wembley the depression of losing three Champions League finals in four years could leave them ripe for an upset. Stuttgart finished in the bottom half of the Bundesliga and had trouble finding the net regularly throughout the season including during their 0-2 home defeat to Bayern. At least they scored once on their visit to the Allianz-Arena but that wasn’t much consolation for the 6-1 defeat they suffered. This will be Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes’ last game in charge before Pep Guardiola takes over for next season.

FIFA World Cup 2010 Preview: Less than three weeks to go. The usual suspects rated and slated ahead of the tournament

Who will lift the 19th trophy?

The FIFA World Cup kicks off in less than three weeks. The excitement is palpable, penalties are getting an unusually high priority in training and after a four year wait and despite the pundits telling us we aren’t getting our hopes up about England’s chances, we are really. Africa’s first time hosting should be an incredible event, with some of the best players ever to play the game in the form of their lives. Here I take a look at some of the competition’s hopefuls.

The Front-runners (the Big 5 in South Africa):

Of the teams that strike me as better equipped than England to lift the Jules Rimmet trophy on July 11th, the obvious candidates are Spain. With more pound for pound world class talent than I can care to name, a spotless qualification record and a ball retention ability that sometimes makes it seem pointless that the opposition should even bother turning up, it would certainly be unwise to discount the planet’s form team and European champions. Their average team sheet reads like a who’s who of the world’s finest footballers, and it is scary to consider that (on paper at least) they have an even better squad than they did when they won Euro 2008. Since then, Barcelona’s Gerard Pique has developed into one of the continents leading centre backs, while players like Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas have only seen their stock rise. They also have new young talents, such as: Jesus Navas, Juan Mata and Pedro, somewhat unknown quantities outside Iberian borders, eager to dazzle in South Africa if given the opportunity.

While they are the unanimous favourites, things can yet go awry for Spain, as is often the case in quick succession knockout football. One bad game and it will all be over for four long years, and the pressure will surely be upon them, should a potential 2nd round tie against Group of Death members Portugal, Brazil or an Africa-backed Ivory Coast arise. They will have to overcome the moniker of serial World Cup bottlers, if they are to exorcise the ghosts of tournaments past and improve on their best ever finish of 4th place. The other salient point to put in the pile marked cons for the Spanish is that they will have no Marcos Senna in this tournament. The Villareal veteran was one one of the players of the tournament at the Euro 2008 and a key component in Spain’s game. It will be interesting to see how they cope without him. It is also worth noting that Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta and Fabregas (sublime trio that they are) all go into the competition off the back of injuries and may not be fully fit.

Five-time winners Brazil are ranked number one in the world, finished comfortable winners of the South America qualifying section and look as formidable as always, but perhaps more functional and less fluidly attacking than previously, under Dunga. The former World Cup winning captain has turned them into a solid (some might even say defensive) unit, less reliant on individual brilliance and star power. Having said that, as always, the Selecao have as many World Class individuals as anyone (except perhaps Spain and Argentina) to choose from. The likes of Maicon, Lucio, Julio Cesar and Dani Alves go into the cup following excellent club seasons while Luis Fabiano may be a good bet for the Golden boot, especially in a group containing unfancied North Korea and the notoriously error-prone African goalkeeping of Ivory Coast.

Despite their unmatched World Cup pedigree the current Brazil squad only has three remaining squad members from their last win in 2002 (Lucio, Kleberson and Gilberto Silva).  Dunga is often criticised (especially back in Brazil) for his side’s lack of flair ,and it is fair to say that this squad of players is not as good as the group that conquered in Japan and Korea eight years ago under Scolari. Key players such as Felipe Melo and former Ballon D’Or winner Kaka have had uninspiring club seasons, while it remains to be seen whether Gilberto Silva is still good enough for this level of football. The exclusions of AC Milan duo Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato from the 23 man squad could either go down astute judgements or costly errors by the manager.

Argentina and the Netherlands are unpredictable, often brilliant but never usually very harmonic. However, I’m backing them both to do well in South Africa. The Dutch had an impressive qualification record, two of the world’s form players in Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben and appear uncharacteristically united ahead of this summer’s games. A fit again Robin Van Persie will also do their chances no harm, while Rafael Van der Vaart may be using the tournament as an audition for possible suitors, as speculation continues to mount over whether he will still be a Real Madrid player next season.

Despite only conceding two goals in qualifying question marks have to be raised over the Netherland’s defensive options. The back four is an obvious weak link and they will be lacking the leadership and experience of Edwin Van der Sar for the first time. Pressure is another big factor for the nation yet to win a World Cup in nine attempts.

Not since 1986 have Argentina had such a gifted squad (fronted by current world player of the year Lionel Messi) yet they are led by such an untried and erratic coach in Diego Maradona, whose squad selections and results continue to baffle and amuse. The legend and architect of the last Argentinean triumph as a player has the squad (and popularity back home) to do well, yet his qualification record, tactical nous and ‘eccentric’ personality suggest things are just as likely to implode this June.

The omissions of Champions League winners Esteban Cambiassso and Javier Zanetti from the selected 23 can be made to prove the point of poor managerial decisions or an unparalleled pool of national talent to choose from. Tactical decisions such as playing with four centre backs and the over reliance of the ageing Juan Sebastian Veron in centre midfield have also raised some serious question marks. Maradona’s reasoning for his choices is allegedly to build a functional experienced team around star Messi - just as the winning 1986 team was built to suit Diego. Fair enough, but that seems to miss the trick of fully utilising Argentina’s other fantastic attacking outlets – Sergio Augero, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez and Angel Di Maria. Notably, even with the focus on Messi in his manager’s former role, Maradona is still to get the best out of the Barcelona man in blue and white stripes.

As Maradona (along with Dunga) seeks to become one of only three people to win the World Cup as a player and a manager, Maradona will live and die by his decisions but rest assured he will not go quietly. A recent away win against Germany suggests form has improved since Martin Palermo’s solitary goal against Uruguay guaranteed the last automatic South American qualification spot.

England do go into the tournament looking promising. World class manager? Check. World class striker, fit and in form? Check. Good qualification record? Check. The core of the team is (almost) as good as any other, and squad discipline and organisation seems at a 20 year high. The seemingly unstoppable Wayne Rooney along with key figures Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and James Milner go into the tournament following terrific club seasons. While Steven Gerrard and Rio Ferdinand might not have had the most memorable year domestically, they are both highly influential, world class players and former Champions League winners.

However, that said there are better squads out there and the much revered Fabio Capello still seems unsure over his best eleven or tactical system, as he has also been forced to deviate somewhat from his initial policy of only selecting those fit and in form. As with previous tournaments, the cracks in the foundations appear covered by St. George’s flags on occasions. The climate will definitely suit the English in South Africa but will the altitude – none more so than should they reach the dizzying heights of a semi-final, something not achieved by the Three Lions for 20 years, and it will be interesting to see how they deal with real pressure for the first time under the Italian regime. The prospect of actually winning the World Cup might just seem a step too far, especially considering England under Capello have already lost to Spain, France and Brazil (albeit in friendlies).

Potential to disappoint:

Italy, despite entering the tournament as World Champions, seem rank outsiders to retain their crown (as they did in 1938). They still have many talneted players but many of the protagonists of their success in Germany look a little past their sell by date and haven’t played particularly well domestically or internationally since 2006, yet are still relied on by Marcelo Lippi. The fact that they also have Brazil and Spain in their half of the draw means optimism is a little muted in some Italian quarters.

As for the best of rest, France and Portugal are not short on talent but don’t seem to equal the sum of their expensive parts. Both are guided by unpopular and unsuccessful coaches, while team spirit and form are lacking. A difficult run to the semis for Portugal means they are unlikely to equal their best ever finish of 4th place at a World Cup (yet Cristiano Ronaldo on song could still change all that).  Traditional slow-starters France’s easier run and a last tournament for boss Raymond Domenech could see them do better than expected – especially if Thierry Henry has a ‘hand’ in things.

The over-used clichés surrounding the German national team might not ring true this time around. While you can’t write anyone off, the squad isn’t as good as when they hosted the games four years ago, or even when they reached the final in 2002. They will also be Michael Ballack free this time around, and despite Bayern Munich reaching this season’s Champions League final, they often fielded a predominantly foreign team.

The surprisingly young team, does contain some potential stars though – none currently shining brighter than Werder Bremen’s Mesut Ozil, who could see his summer price tag sky-rocket if he has a few decent games in a playmaker role.

Possible Over-achievers:

Potential dark horses include Serbia who appear a lot stronger and better organised than when they lost 6-0 to Argentina in 2006. Although, it is unfair to give them total blame for that defeat as they did have Montenegro with them back then. As feasible 2nd round opponents for England, it will be interesting to see how the Serbians shape up in the early stages of a difficult group.

Chile qualified in style for the games and play attacking, free-flowing football under manager Marcelo Bielsa. They could be another nation to watch for entertainment, though they will most likely come undone, especially playing three at the back, should they reach the knockout stages.

USA impressed at the Confederations Cup and have been steadily improving over the tournaments (of which they have qualified for the last six). The likes of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have Premier League experience and they will be difficult first opponents for England on June 12th .

Pele once famously backed an African country to win the World Cup before the year 2000. An obviously fruitless prediction and (although this could be their best chance in some time) it seems the continent will have to wait a while longer for a realistic chance of success. None of the sides seem to have enough creativity, especially in midfield, and are often susceptible defensively. On top of that, surprisingly low ticket sales within the continent (due to pricing and reliance on the internet) mean there will perhaps not be the genuine crowd factor many people were expecting.

The likes of South Africa and Algeria would do well to progress from any group, but unfortunately for Africa’s strongest side – Ivory Coast, they have been landed in the harsh group of both Brazil and Portugal. The first match against Portugal (an attractive prospect of Didier Drogba versus Cristiano Ronaldo) will surely be key for the Elephants. Should they win that, they will fancy their chances of qualification even if they lose to Brazil, as their final game will be North Korea.

Cameroon have 2nd round (or even quarter-final) potential but could just as easily fall at the group stages. Manager Paul Le Guen did well to turn around the nation’s qualification bid but did poorly at the African cup of Nations in January. An over-reliance on three time Champions League winner Samuel Eto’o may be their downfall.

It is fun to speculate and predict but until the tournament actually starts everything said is just conjecture. So many factors come into quick succession knock-out football; key injuries, weather/altitude, squad fall-outs, freak results and penalty shoot-outs can throw up a tournament very few expected. The only guarantee is that you wouldn’t want to miss it!

Andrew’s Predictions:

Winner: Spain

England’s performance: No further than semis

Golden Boot: Luis Fabiano (Brazil)

Player(s) of the tournament: Gerard Pique, Xavi (Spain)/ Wayne Rooney (England)/Wesley Sneijder (Netherlands)

Young Player(s) of the tournament: Mesut Ozil (Germany)/Alexis Sanchez (Chile)/ Angel Di Maria (Argentina)/Yoann Gourcuff (France)

Group game to watch: Portugal vs Ivory Coast

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Liverpool Future Opponent Focus: Unirea Urziceni

 Liverpool face Romanian opposition in the form of unheralded Unirea Urziceni. assess the threat they pose in the Europa League.


Think of Romanian football and most English fans will think of the like of Steaua Bucharest and the other sides from the capital such as Rapid and Dinamo.  But times are changing in Romanian football and a provincial revolution led by the like of Cluj, Timisoara and Unirea Uriceni has shaken up the established order in Romanian football.

Following years as a provincial back-water in a town between Bucharest and the Black Sea coast, Unirea bumbled along seldom making a significant impact on even the local football scene, let alone a national one.  Promotion to the Romanian top-flight in 2005/06 changed all that and an impressive fifth place finish in their first season indicated they may be around for a while.

After a few more seasons of top-flight consolidation, Unirea claimed their first ever Romanian Championship in 2008/09 led by former Chelsea and Southampton defender Dan Petrescu after pipping Timisoara to the title by just three points and only finally assuming the top position of the league three-match days before the end of the season.

Season so far

That championship success granted entry into the Champions League for this season, and Unirea far from disgraced themselves claiming a more than respectable eight points in a group that contained Sevilla, VfB Stuttgart and Glasgow Rangers and finishing third overall. Home form was far stronger than away form, with a win coming against Sevilla and draws against the other two, but their best result was a 1-4 away win at Ibrox at the expense of Rangers.  That result gave them a chance of a surprise qualification for the knock-out stages in the final match against Stuttgart, but the Germans inspired by the arrival of new boss Christian Gross had a 3-0 lead in the first 11 minutes of the game, which they failed to relinquish.

Surprisingly Dan Petrescu has made way during the extended winter break in Romania, stepping down from the post to accept a managerial offer in Russia, and it remains to be seen what effect his departure will have on the squad.  Not only did Petrescu help Unirea to the best ever performance by a Romanian side at the Champions League group stage, but he left them joint top of the league with Cluj on 34 points after 17 matches.


The man to try and help fill the gap left by the former Romanian international, will be little known Israeli Ronny Levy.  The former Maccabi Haifa manager has an impressive record with one of Israel’s top sides leading them to three successive titles.  Credited with uncovering several top performers in the Israeli league as well as introducing advanced software-based coaching and training methods, Levy will have his work cut out replacing the most successful Unirea manager ever.

Players to watch

Top scorer for the club is Marius Ioan Bilasco, who opened the scoring at Ibrox with the equaliser for Unirea.  He has six goals overall for the season, in a side that generally shares the goals around pretty evenly.  Standing at just over 6’, Bilasco is decent in the air, and also good on the ground generally occupying a lone striking position under Petrescu in the Champions League.

Argentine left-back Pablo Brandan has been another strong performer for Unirea in their first ever Champions League campaign.  Equally comfortable coming forward as defending, Brandan arrived at Unirea after a spell in Spanish football with Alaves and Burgos.  The 26-year-old has three goals for the season and could present a threat down the left side of the pitch.


- A strong home record, undefeated in Europe and just one loss in the league

- Happy to let the opposition dominate the ball, so will force Liverpool to take the initiative in the tie

- A squad out to impress their new boss


 - Haven’t played since December in competitive football, so likely to be far from fully match fit

- Without inspirational manager Dan Petrescu, so will need to adapt to playing under a new manager

- Arguably only slightly stronger that Debrecen by comparison, so overall probably shouldn’t unduly trouble Liverpool over the course of the two-legs

Familiar faces

After the departure of Dan Petrescu, there are no other players or staff members that have any connections with English football

 Have we met before?

With such scant European history, this will be Unirea’s first meeting with any side from the English game.  Liverpool have played Romanian opposition on four occasions, the last time dating from the 2000/01 run to the UEFA Cup final when they overcame Rapid Bucharest 1-0 on aggregate.

Arsenal Future Opponent Focus: FC Porto

Portuguese giants FC Porto may be struggling in their domestic league, but could still prove dangerous opponents for Arsenal. takes a look at the challenge facing The Gunners in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.


FC Porto emerged from the shadow of the Lisbon-based giants Benfica and Sporting Lisbon during the course of the 1980’s powered by the ambitious Costa da Pinto, who was determined to wrest control of Portuguese football away from the capital to the Northern port of Oporto.  After claiming Europe’s premier trophy in 1987, the 1990’s were a story of near-misses on the European scene, as they continued to rack up the titles domestically. 

However, the arrival of enigmatic manager Jose Mourinho at the turn of the decade, then a little-known, but outspoken manager, once again propelled FC Porto into the big time claiming first the UEFA Cup in 2003 before following that up with the Champions League the following season. 

Mourinho’s departure along with several big-name players left an inevitable vacuum at the club, but current coach Jesualdo Ferreira has been able to finally help fill the chasm the current Inter Milan boss left behind. 

Whilst Porto haven’t looked like being able to consistently bridge the gap between themselves and the highest echelon of European football, they can still boast an impressive record of surviving Christmas in the continent’s premier club competition, even if the Round of 16 has been frequently as far as they have progressed in recent seasons.

Season so far

2008/09 gave a hint that the football landscape in Portugal might be on the verge of changing when Sporting pushed FC Porto hard for the title.  Heavy investment by Benfica over the summer combined with the loss of several key FC Porto players, such as Lucho Gonzalez and Lisandro Lopez, plus the emergence of provincial side Sporting Braga as credible and prolonged candidates for the title, has helped demote FC Porto yet further.

The sense of dissatisfaction amongst the supporters regarding the radical shift in the past few months back towards the capital has been further exacerbated, as FC Porto have exercised a policy of financial prudence in the transfer market, whilst their rivals have invested heavily in their squads.  Furthermore controversy following an incident involving two FC Porto players in the tunnel in the aftermath of the most recent meeting between themselves and Benfica has led to a lengthy domestic ban for Hulk and Cristian Sapunaru and forced many FC Porto fans to wonder if they are being made to pay for their recent dominance of the Portuguese league. 

A 0-0 draw against Leixoes at the weekend cost FC Porto further ground in the title race and they now find themselves nine points adrift of Benfica, and even eight off a place in next season’s Champions League qualifying rounds and thus facing the prospect of missing out on Europe’s cash rich competition next season.  Despite the wide-spread disappointment at the way 2009/10 has worked out, FC Porto still managed to come through a potentially tricky Champions League group ahead of the better fancied Atletico Madrid, are still in with a chance in all four competitions they entered and haven’t tasted defeat since before Christmas. 


Despite having a stint as coach at hated rivals Benfica on his CV, manager Jesualdo Ferreira is a well respected figure at FC Porto and seen as the first coach that has really been able to overcome the legacy/burden of the Mourinho-era.  The 63-year-old has seen it all, and has helped keep FC Porto within touching distance of the European top thanks to a canny transfer policy and making the best of his available resources.  Indeed Ferreira can in some respect claim to trump Mourinho, at least in the domestic arena, as he is the only coach to have won three consecutive Superliga titles, something the former Chelsea motor-mouth never achieved. 

Players to watch

Radamel Falcao in action against Chelsea earlier in the season (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Whilst much of the pre-match talk has been of supposed Manchester United target Hulk, the Brazilian’s suspension means that a lack of match fitness will almost certainly cost him his place in the starting XI.  Nevertheless FC Porto can still call on several excellent replacements including Colombian striker Radamel Falcao.  Believed to have been a target for Aston Villa during the winter transfer window, the Colombian forward only arrived in Europe with FC Porto over the summer after catching the eye in the Argentine league.  Falcao is good on the ball, with a turn of pace and also decent in the air, therefore combining all the necessary attributes to present a genuine threat to the Arsenal defence.

Uruguayan forward Cristian Benitez won many plaudits with two strong performances at this stage last season, as FC Porto succumbed to Manchester United.  After scoring at Old Trafford in the first leg, the left-sided midfielder was also linked with several prominent names around Europe.  Nevertheless the talented player nicknamed The Little Onion for his ability to drive opponents to tears with his range of tricks and jinking runs, remains in Portugal for the time being.  Playing from a left-sided attacking position, Benitez will look to exploit any space left in behind the Arsenal right-back.


- An ability to be able to exploit their underdog status in continental competition successfully transferring the perceived pressure onto their more illustrious opponents

- Excellent movement in the attacking-third, which will have to be closely watched by the Arsenal defence

- A good home record in the Champions League, especially against English teams, who have often struggled there (Manchester United winning at the Estadio Dragao was the first ever English victory at FC Porto)


- With Hulk unlikely to feature in the first leg from the start a lack of a genuine centre-forward to lead the line

- In Helton, a Brazilian goalkeeper in the mould of AC Milan’s Dida, a goalkeeper who is a good shot-stopper but liable to drop the occasional clanger

- Potentially brittle confidence after their failure to match Benfica in the domestic Championship this season making the first goal potentially of huge significance

Familiar faces

Surprisingly there are no ex-Premiership players currently in the FC Porto squad as transfer policy has focussed more on developing upcoming talent rather than picking up off-casts from other European sides, something that both Benfica and Sporting Lisbon have both actively engaged in this season. 

Have we met before?

It’s been just over 12 months since Arsenal and FC Porto last met, sharing a win a piece in the Group Stages of last season’s competition.  The Gunners ran out 4-0 winners at the Emirates Stadium proving far too strong for the Portuguese side with van Persie and Adebayor both helping themselves to a brace.  The pair then met in the final game with qualification secured for both, and FC Porto repaid the compliment with a 2-0 win.

The pair also met for the only other time in the group stages of the 2006/07 tournament, this time Arsenal coming out crucially on top with a win and a draw, which also helped them secure top-spot in the group at the expense of FC Porto after they both finished with 11 points.  Thierry Henry and Aliksandr Hleb were on target in the home leg in a 2-0 victory and a 0-0 draw, once again in the final group game, gave Arsenal the advantage on the head-to-head record. 

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