Next up in Lee Garrity‘s excellent journey around the European lower leagues is Spain.

La Liga will have added spice in the form of more derby games next season as Real Betis & Rayo Vallecano claimed the 2 automatic spots in Liga Adelante in a season packed with highs and lows for some of the biggest teams in the Spanish 2nd tier. In Madrid, Rayo Vallecano became the 4th side from the capital to make it to the top flight as they finished in 2nd spot 3 points behind Betis but the majority of the drama was off the pitch, with rotating sponsorships, strikes, unpaid wages & Stadium name change rows topping the bill at the controversially named Teresa Rivero somewhat taking the shine off events on the pitch.

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An absolutely mouth-watering clash in the Stade Gerland this evening as the Galactico’s of Real Madrid take on the team that got the better of them last season Olympique Lyon. Martin Michelot writer for Ligue 1 Talk is confident of the home sides chances.

At the moment of the draw, Lyon fans wanted to avoid two teams: Barcelona and Real Madrid. The former for all the obvious reasons, and the latter because Real Madrid bears a sense of déjà-vu for Lyon fans. The two teams have played each other 6 times in the past 5 years; Lyon has the bragging rights as Les Gones have never lost against the Madridistas, and dealt the Casa Blanca a serious blow last season by eliminating them at the same stage of the competition. Lyon would eventually exit to the hands of Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.

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A meeting between two of the best footballing sides in the world, a mouthwatering match-up so let our guest writers talk you through it. In the red corner is award winning writer Sian Ranscombe her blog “From a girl who loves the Gunners” is superb. And she hopes her team can follow in her trophy winning ways.

Up until a few weeks ago, I think both neutrals and fans were largely assuming this tie would be a one-way battle won easily by Barcelona. Arsenal have been inconsistent this season and if they can drop points to West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United, and let leads slip as easily as they have done, what chance do they stand against the mighty Barcelona?

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Another huge match this evening as two teams that on their day can either excite or frustrate. Schalke have put their league form to one side and impressed in the Champions League group stage Kevin McCauley from World Soccer Reader looks at their chances against Valencia.

As most people know, Schalke 04 have been two different sides between the Bundesliga and European competition. Though they have climbed out of the basement domestically, Schalke are still in a mid-table position in Bundesliga when they were believed to be a title contender in the preseason. Meanwhile, they skated through the Champions League group stages, easily qualifying for the knockout round, where they drew Valencia.

However, this is not exactly the same Schalke side that qualified for the Round of 16. Two of the team’s key pieces are gone. One through contract issues, and one through personal issues. Ivan Rakitic has moved on to Sevilla in La Liga after being sold in the January transfer window. The attacking midfielder’s contract was up in January, and Schalke were keen to get some sort of compensation as opposed to letting him walk for free.

Under completely different circumstances, defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones has gone to Blackburn Rovers on a loan with an option to buy after falling out with Felix Magath. These players have been replaced with Iranian attacking midfielder Ali Karimi and Ghanaian defensive midfielder Anthony Annan. It remains to be seen what kind of an impact they’ll make, but Annan was very good in his first outing for the club in the Revierderby against Borussia Dortmund.

However, Anthony Annan will have to wait to play in the Champions leage for Schalke, as he is cup tied. Young Cameroonian international Joel Matip came in for Annan as a substitute in Schalke’s win over Freiburg, and I like him to start the first leg. Valencia could play with a 4-4-2 formation, starting both Aritz Aduriz and Roberto Soldado up top, which would lessen Annan’s responsibilities. However, it seems much more likely that Valencia will line up in a 4-2-3-1 shape with three of Juan Mata, Pablo, Vicente, Joaquin, and Jordi Alba making up that band of three.

Felix Magath will probably be hoping that Unai Emery opts to go with two strikers instead. Or, Magath could throw a wrench in things by starting someone else in that spot, but in the event that Valencia go 4-2-3-1, With Annan unavailable, Matip is the best man for the job of breaking up Valencia’s attacks.

On the other end of the pitch, the matchup between Schalke’s attacking players and Valencia’s back line seems like a favorable one for Die Königsblauen. It took a while for Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Raul to settle in with the club, but they’ve turned into a dangerous pair. Additionally, with Ivan Rakitic gone, Jefferson Farfan is now almost certainly Schalke’s most dangerous player and he seems the most likely man to wreak havoc on Valencia’s defense.
Talent-wise, the gap between these two teams doesn’t seem that large, so it might come down to luck and tactics. In the luck department, Valencia are certainly kicking Schalke’s tails this season. In the tactics department, it’s tough to separate Magath and Emery.

For now, I like Valencia to win the tie on away goals or penalty kicks, but I could easily see it swinging either way. To me, it seems too close to call.

Faced with the thankless task of trying to catch Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga, Valencia will be looking forward to the oppurtunity of a run in this competition. David Cartlidge from Spanishfootball.info fills us in on their chances.

Valencia come into the game on a fantastic run of form, having won six of their last eight games and are sitting pretty in 3rd place in La Liga. Many however, would say that form and placing doesn’t tell the full story.

A good amount of the victories have come in the very last moments in games, and they’ve also benefited from some fortuitous officiating as well as poor lapses in judgement by the opposition at crucial times – though it could be argued they’ve been proficient enough to capitalize on such errors.

The thing with Valencia has been their inability to blow opponents away as such, and they’ve never really looked in control throughout any game. There is always a decent period within the 90 minutes that they’ll switch and off give away 4 or 5 very decent chances to the opposition, purely down to the fact they like to coast all too often.

There are many factors to this, one being Unai Emery’s fascinating, albeit frustrating pragmatism when it comes to setting up his side. Emery likes to tinker with his formations and personnel, and while many acknowledge his obvious talents as a manager there are some questionable features of his management style.

Valencia at one time or another has played with at least five different formations this season, though Emery perhaps favours his 4-2-3-1 over any of the others due to its stability at the back while at the same time focusing on the side’s main strength – wide play.

In midfield Los Che contain a lot more depth, and the most impressive player this campaign has been Tino Costa. The Argentinean signed from Montpellier in the summer and hit the ground running, becoming an integral part of any system which Emery employs, operating well in midfield by showing good ball retention as well as distributing it to more advanced players as he sits deep in the central areas ‘pulling the strings’.

Costa’s job is one seemingly vacated by Ever Banega, who was the star of last season but he’s failed to shine this season, perhaps finding unease with constant chopping and changing of systems as well as having ongoing off the field problems with Emery.

Juan Mata looks set to miss out the first leg through an injury, and this is of great benefit to Schalke as Mata has become the star of the team since David Silva and David Villa both departed for new pastures. Despite playing through of his career so far predominantly as a left-sided winger, Mata has found a new lease of life in an almost free-role operating all across the front line and has supported the lone striker well when in the team.

In a nutshell I’d say Valencia are a team who are vulnerable at the back and whom can be opened up when put under pressure, but must be watched incredibly closely on the counter attack when taking into account the quality they have in wide areas. The central hub of Costa and Banega is also a key facet, to let them keep the ball and dictate would be mistake of the German side’s part – and could be the difference between qualification and having their European trip cut short.

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The countdown has begun! Only five days now till El Clasico hits our TV screens.

I’m as excited as Robbie Savage when his monthly subscription to HAIR MONTHLY pops through the door. I don’t plan on writing any kind of lengthy build up, your not going to find any sort of tactical preview, anything that I write would not do the game justice. Can you tell I’m excited.

I had toyed with the idea of writing some sort of homage to Lionel Messi such is his greatness, like his old teammate Ronaldinho, Messi’s love of the game and cheeky smile as he dances past each defender is a joy to behold.

Hours could pass, many cups of tea could be drunk and I would write 1,000 words depicting the greatness of the man, the goals, the skills and so on and so on, it still wouldn’t come across how I wanted, so what better way to show my love for little Leo, and to get everyone as excited as I am for this Monday’s game, sit back, relax and watch a master at work.

I hope that has got you suitably in the mood for Monday’s game, maybe I should post a Ronaldo video beforehand, so I don’t look biased towards Barca.

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*All stats are correct as of Friday 19th November

Many questions were raised when Jay Bothroyd received a call up to England’s National team for the friendly against France. Isn’t there someone else playing in the Premier League that would be more worthy of a call-up? Is a player playing in the second tier good enough for an International team as highly ranked as England?

There are many blogs that have gone into the positives and negatives of Bothroyd’s call up, that is not the question I wanted to look at. Fabio Capello has himself questioned the number of English players playing at the highest level, limiting the pool of players he can pick his squad from. Does Capello have a point? If not who are the strikers playing in the Premier League that Capello could call on and are other countries suffering the same fate?

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This is the article I wrote for STV Sport before the match between Rangers and Valencia

After the dust settled on Rangers 4-1 win over Motherwell on Saturday, thoughts would have turned to this week’s opponents and early La Liga pace setters Valencia. A few hours after the full time whistle at Ibrox, Valencia were in action with the small task of taking on Catalan giants Barcelona in the Nou Camp and any fans who tuned in to cast their eye over their midweek opponents would have witnessed what truly was a “game of two halves”.

In a first half that consisted of Los Che taking the game to Pep Guardiola’s star studded side, dominating the play and deserving their half-time lead, Unai Emery’s team could have easily been held more than the slim one goal advantage. The second half was a much different story.

Pep Guardiola’s team talk worked a treat, with Barcelona pinning Valencia back in their own half for much of the half. A superb team goal finished by Iniesta gave them their equaliser, mimicking the movements of Kyle Lafferty and Steven Naismith earlier that day. Xavi’s pass sliced through four defenders and Iniesta applied the finish, making it 1-1 and later Carles Puyol left his defensive post unguarded to crash a powerful header into the net and give Barca a crucial home win.

The heroics of Cesar Sanchez in the Valencia net kept this game close, denying Villa and Messi countless times, but the defeat dropped Valencia down to third in the league after a bright start to the league campaign. There was, however, enough in the first half to show any Rangers fans watching that this is a team to be respected.

For many observers, this was supposed to be the season where Valencia fell away, the pressure to sell key players finally telling and seeing Valencia living in reduced circumstances, with results to match. David Villa and David Silva were the most notable departures from the Mestalla but Valencia also said goodbye to Nikola Zigic, Carlos Marchena, Alexis and Ruben Baraja. All six were regular starters last season, forcing Emery to utilise his squad to cover the gaps.

Predicting Valencia’s line-ups this season have been a job impossible for even Mystic Meg. In the league alone an astonishing 22 players have been used. Having two players in each position is a situation most clubs dream of, and for Emery to go on and use each player is a method seldom used in football these days.

In La Liga the manager has set his team up for the majority of games in a 4-4-1-1 formation, deviating slightly to 4-2-3-1 against Barcelona. It seems very likely he will use one of these formations for the trip to Ibrox.

Cesar Sanchez has been the only ever present so far. After spells at Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza, and the ill fated time at Tottenham Hotspur, the goalkeeper moved back to Spain at the tender age of 38 to make the number one jersey his own. Still playing at a very high level his performances have boosted the performances of the back four.

With Portuguese international Miguel out injured, Bruno will start at right back. He’s a tough tackling no frills full back, more defensive minded than Miguel although he sometimes gets caught out of position.

In the centre should be the pairing of David Navarro and Ricardo Costa. Navarro is more famous for the seven month ban he received after the much documented fight against Inter Milan, but he remains a no-nonsense, solid defender who is very strong and good in the air. His partner Ricardo Costa is one of Emery’s six new signings.

He spent half of last season on loan at Lille in France where he played at centre back and left back and has the ability to play anywhere along the back four. This positional knowledge helps out the defence no end, able to fill gaps left by the full backs he then has the pace to track attackers down the wing.

The choice of left-back on Wednesday could help determine not only how Valencia attack, but also could show a weakness that Rangers could exploit. Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba have been fighting for the position so far this season. On Saturday against Barcelona both were picked to link up down the left hand side and though the original team sheet showed Mathieu at left back with Alba slightly further forward, throughout the game both swapped positions taking it in turns to defend and attack.

Emery’s decision to leave out Juan Mata made this selection possible but with Mata’s return on Wednesday almost guaranteed this leaves the kind of selection headache managers dream about.

Whether playing as a defender or a midfielder Mathieu is not scared to go forward and join the attack. Against Malaga and Bursaspor he was used in a defensive role but very often when the team on the attack it is no surprise to find him in line with Valencia’s forwards.

With only 11 minutes of the game gone against Barcelona, Mathieu (red) had already decided to break forward. Nearly on the shoulder of the last defender, with Alba (yellow) pushing up trying to release Mathieu down the wing, there is acres of space behind the full back which forwards and midfielders could easily use against them. In these situations the alertness of Ricardo Costa is hugely important.

Against Bursaspor, Mathieu did a fantastic job of controlling playmaker Volkan Sen though. Whenever the ball was played into his feet Mathieu was touch tight and he frustrated the Turkish international giving him very little time on the ball. When Valencia pushed forward looking for more goals though, Sen started to exploit the space Mathieu vacated.

A simple ball over the top caught Mathieu (red) out of position in one instance. Costa (yellow) had to come across quickly to close down Sen (blue) and stop the attack. In this situation Bursaspor didn’t do a good job in supporting the attack, as a darting run from any of the midfielders could have exploited the space left by Costa and easily have led to a great chance. Rangers’ midfielders will need to be alert when Costa covers Mathieu’s position, Steven Davis is wonderful at breaking from the midfield and as his thunderous shot against Motherwell proved he is also good enough to take advantage of any space given.

Unai Emery might decide to play Jordi Alba on Wednesday to keep things tight. Not picking Mathieu does however mean Valencia are without a player who has great aerial presence and is a very technically sound defender. The team would also miss his ability on the ball, his pacy breaks from the back and his aptitude for turning defence into attack very quickly.

Alba too has these abilities, although not to the extent of Mathieu. The young full back was extremely impressive while marking Lionel Messi on Saturday, showing he has the speed and the strength to keep up with one of the world’s best. His size could be his downfall though. Up against Lafferty, Broadfoot or Whittaker, Rangers would win the aerial battle giving them an effective out-ball. Mathieu at 6 foot 3 wouldn’t be as easily beaten.

Defensively, the full back area is one that Rangers could punish if worked properly, Valencia’s midfield worked very hard to close down Barcelona and win the ball back, with four midfielders (yellow) closely chasing the ball, and the defenders’ attention also trained on the ball.

This led to Bruno (pink), being caught in a central area, unaware of David Villa (red) pushing down the flank followed closely by Maxwell (blue). The majestic skills of Iniesta (green) beat the midfield and he was able to find Villa in acres of space supplying him with a chance to shoot on goal.

With Steven Naismith in good form recently, it is important he is wise to Bruno’s positioning and tries to use this to his and Rangers advantage. It is obvious Rangers don’t have the quality in midfield that Barcelona do, but the space is there to be exploited.

One of Valencia’s great strengths this season has been the pressure the midfield puts on the ball, turning this into countless fast break situations. Emery will likely play with a four in midfield, favouring a creative player to support the front man rather than playing forwards Aduriz and Soldado up front together. The latter, now fully fit after missing the start of the season will lead the line, the five players picked to play behind him will be the result of hours and hours of discussion and deliberation.

Nine players have occupied these positions so far this season, each bringing their own attributes to Valencia’s style and success on the counter attack. One of the first names on the team sheet will likely be Juan Mata, who was rested against Barca with the trip to Ibrox in mind.

Mata was let go by Real Madrid and signed for Valencia on a free in 2008 and for two years he has quietly been making a name for himself. Now out of the shadows of Villa and Silva this could be Mata’s breakout year. Undoubtedly talented on the ball, he has the ability to play off the front man in a creative role but seems to be more effective starting from the left and breaking into the box.

His excellent finishing abilities have led to 26 goals for the club so far and at only 22 it will not be long before the big club vultures are back at the Mestalla waving their chequebooks. Right now he is a Valencia player and one to be very wary of.

Whoever Emery picks to support Soldado and Mata, be it Pablo Hernandez, Manuel Fernandes, Ever Banega or Tino Costa, Rangers must not give the ball needlessly away in midfield or up front as many of Valencia’s goals this season have come from breathtaking fast breaks.

 

When Valencia go forward, regardless of their formation, there are always players in support. Against Malaga when it was 4-4-1-1 four players broke forward providing options left and right of the man in possession. Then, against Barcelona, while playing 4-2-3-1 a very similar break saw four players bombing forward giving the man on the ball choices and leading to the opening goal, Right midfielder Pablo (red) cut in from the right to get on the end of Mathieu’s cutback, Soldado’s run (blue) to the back post caught the attention of Puyol and Maxwell gave Pablo the space needed to apply the finish.

Another great example of Valencia’s strength in attack was the fourth goal against Bursaspor. With 14 minutes to go and already three goals to the good, Valencia won the ball back next to their own bye-line (red). Three passes and 10 seconds later, Soldado (yellow) found himself one on one with the goalkeeper and had an easy job to make it 4-0. It was a fine example of the counter-attacking style the Spanish team have shown so often this season.

Undoubtedly Wednesday night will be a very tough test for Walter Smith’s team, and if Rangers are to have a genuine hope of advancing from the Group Stage some kind of result will be needed. At home, the Rangers fans will want a victory and this pressure to go forward could fall straight into Valencia’s style and strengths. Rangers can’t afford to sit back and defend but caution must be taken when attacking in numbers.

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With less than 24 hours now until the transfer window closes agent and managers phones will be ringing off the hook as teams try and complete their squad before the clock reaches zero.

Tomorrow we can look for endless rumours of players in taxi’s and in airports, rumours of the world’s best moving teams only for Stoke’s 3rd choice keeper to move on loan to a team that won’t challenge, however we all love the Transfer Deadline Day and wouldn’t have it any other way.

I have picked five players that are likely to either move or just spend the whole day being linked with various teams, by coincidence most of them have moved on deadline day in the past so they know what it’s all about.

EIDUR GUDJOHSEN – AS MONACO

Teams Linked – Stoke City, Tottenham, Liverpool

Unable to find a place in Monaco’s starting line-up again the Icelandic striker is looking for a move away from the principality, last year he move on loan to Spurs scoring 2 goals in 13 games, since his move away from Chelsea he has played for 3 clubs most successfully at Barcelona.

Questions remain over the quality the Bolton legend still has left in his legs, he has only managed 11 games for Monaco, Prince Albert’s team don’t exactly have a wealth of striking talent so for Eidur not being able to force his way in, might explain the ability he has left.

Would he fit into Stoke’s physical style, Roy Hodgson might see his versatility as an asset and an adequate substitute for Fernando Torres, or maybe Harry Redknapp will come back in and take him back to White Heart Lane.

CHANCE OF A MOVE 8/10

SHAY GIVEN – MANCHESTER CITY

Team Interested – Arsenal, Fulham, Celtic

Shay came out today and announced he would stay and fight for his place at City, Joe Hart’s form means Shay is poised to spend most of the season on the bench unless Hart drops a clanger or gets injured.

Man City have said that they would not sell to their rivals so Arsenal might be out of the running however do they really see Fulham as a rival, the addition of Given would not make them top 4 contenders, so a move to Fulham could be a very viable option, whether this would suit Shay or not is another question, with Stockdale out injured and Schwarzer looking likely to move on, a bid for Shay could be right up Mark Hughes street.

The other option on the table could be a return to his boyhood club Celtic, City would be keen meaning Shay would not return to haunt them in the Premier League and Shay would be guaranteed first team football, however the SPL is a drop in class, and without European football this season would he really enjoy life back in Glasgow.

CHANCE OF A MOVE 6/10

ROBINHO – MANCHESTER CITY

Teams Interested – AC Milan, Barcelona, Fenerbahce

Not in Mancini’s plans Robinho is allowed to leave City, however they need to find a club with the money available to prize the once marquee signing away from Eastlands.

Last week AC Milan had no money and needed Genoa to buy Kevin-Prince Boateng for them, now they have completed a deal for Zlatan Ibrahimovich, a player in a similar situation to Robinho, the Swede had moved on loan, Milan agreed to pay 24 million Euros next season, maybe a similar deal could be made with City, would new coach Allegri really want Ibra, Robinho, Ronaldinho and Pato in the same team.

Rumours have surfaced again that Barcelona may be interested in a cut price deal, but with the recent documented money problems and the togetherness of the squad Robinho could disrupt the harmony at the Nou Camp.

Fenerbahce made an offer it, sources say it was accepted however Robinho refused the deal, maybe he is holding out for something bigger, as the deadline approaches if no deals are forthcoming would he settle for life in Istanbul

CHANCES OF A MOVE 7/10

ROBBIE KEANE – TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR

Teams Interested – Celtic, West Ham, Newcastle

Robbie moved to Celtic on the last deadline day in January money is on him moving again this deadline day, it seems his move is all down to if Redknapp brings in a striker, then Keane would be allowed to move.

Newcastle and West Ham would be head of the queue, both give different options, West Ham would mean he would stay in London where he is based, a move to the North East would make him an instant Geordie hero, and of course it’s another one of Keane’s boyhood clubs, whether either team has the money to buy Keane is another question.

Celtic would love to have Keane back, Lennon is thought to be on the lookout for a striker, a fee and medical done for Hibs Anthony Stokes, and surely he wouldn’t pass down the chance again to have Robbie Keane lead the line.

CHANCES OF A MOVE 5/10

KLAAS JAN HUNTELAAR – AC MILAN

Teams Interested – Schalke, Tottenham

At Ajax he had the World at his feet, with 76 goals in his 4 years at the Amsterdam club, since leaving them he has played to two of the giants in football, Real Madrid and AC Milan, it has not worked at either, with a decent scoring record at both clubs, it seems he is just not the big name signing both sets of fans ever wanted, and with that Klaas has found himself on the bench more often that not.

Felix Magath has been searching for a striker all summer, and finally looks to have found his man, however with Luis Fabiano signing a new deal with Sevilla today, Redknapp’s targets have shifted and could be in line to try and steal the Dutchman from the Germans.

Both clubs would be ideal for Huntelaar now at 27 he needs to pick the right move, the wrong club again could be disastrous for his career.

CHANCE OF A MOVE 9/10

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Thought I’d post my thoughts on the big name teams trying to win the World Cup.

SPAIN - Most people’s favourites no doubt influenced by winning Euro 2008, very strong team, Villa and Torres upfront, Silva, Xavi, Iniesta in the middle, surprised that Marcos Senna wasn’t picked; he gave that defensive solidity to the midfield. The problem Spain could face is if players get suspended or injured, but they are surely a lock on for the Semi-Finals.

 

PLAYER TO WATCH: Although he won’t start I feel if JESUS NAVAS gets a chance he could terrify defences in South Africa, really good player, great impact player.

 

BRAZIL - “too defensive” “weak squad” I’ve heard those quotes load in the last week, sometimes from myself, although I don’t agree with Dunga’s selections or tactics, he is getting the job done. Robinho has been a better player for Brazil than club, Solid midfield, problem seems to be if his 4-4-2 doesn’t work there’s no Plan B, and the substitute strikers don’t strike fear the way Ronaldo does. They will advance through the Group Stage but Quarter Finals may be the furthest they will go.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Not a natural defender but MICHEL BASTOS seems to be Dunga’s pick for Brazil’s left back, superb for Lille in France last season, then moved to Lyon, played well in the League and Champions League, amazing left foot, very powerful shot, good crosser, could be a surprise in store for some teams.

 

ARGENTINA - All the talent to win the world cup but the management casts doubts over their chances, with players of Messi, Tevez, Higuain, Milito and Aguero, Argentina boost probably the most talented forward that will be in South Africa, Maradona has struggled to bring the best out of probably the best player in the world just now in Leo Messi, maybe the big stage will magnify his greatness, how do keep 5 talented forwards happy.

PLAYER TO WATCH: Everyone will concentrate on the forwards but I will be interested to see how NICOLAS OTAMENDI will perform in SA, great for Estudiantes can play at Right Back but more comfortable in the centre, capable of providing the defensive cover to help Argentina attack freely.

FRANCE - Never a team to underestimate, I will be very interested to see how they line up in their first match, Will Ribery be fit, surely Henry can’t start, Gignac has underperformed, maybe Cisse, he is the striker on form. Rumours that for the first time Domenech won’t play with 2 Defensive mids, Interesting reading, I can’t make a call on them, my thoughts are they will be great or rubbish, Quarter-Finals at least, if Ribery can perform like he does for Bayern they could do some damage.

PLAYER TO WATCH: I am not sure how well know YOAN GOURCUFF is outside of people who follow French football, he has played in the Champions League so people will know the name, but this guy is a superb football, He has magic in those boots, passing, dribbling, and he can score, probably the closest France will have to a Zidane, Yoan has the ability to pick teams apart, quality player.

 

GERMANY - As everyone always says, “never count out the Germans” I however think they will struggle this time, the top strikers aren’t as good as they used to be, the form strikers are Cacau and Muller and they are untested, no Ballack and other midfield injuries weakens them, I don’t think they will get past the Quarter-Finals, watch them win it all now.

PLAYER TO WATCH: With Ballack out the squad the responsibility will be on SAMI KHEDIRA to boss the midfield for Germany, a player with great potential who has come through the ranks of Stuttgart and shown leadership qualities for his club, a name people won’t know but come the end of the 2010 World Cup I would hope more people will.

 

ITALY - There has been very little talk of the Holders retaining their title, I don’t think one person I have asked/spoke to/read about, has picked the Italians, Solid midfield and defence, my question is Who is going to step up and put the ball in the net, Di Natale not proven at this level although a fantastic record for Udinese, Pazzini could be a star, Goals will be the problem

PLAYER TO WATCH: Very underrated in the UK but loved in Italy DANIELE DE ROSSI is a midfield powerhouse, can do everything, works tirelessly for his club and country, and he could be the force that drives Italy to the Semi Finals

 

HOLLAND – Always good to watch and will of course entertain, such a great attacking side, how do you fit – Van Persie, Kuyt, Robben, Sneijder, and van der Vaart in the same team, solid midfield anchors in de Jong and van Bommel, the one thing for me that will be their downfall is the defence, not up to the same standard as the front line, van der Wiel is exciting but untested at this level, and van Bronckhorst isn’t getting any older.

PLAYER TO WATCH: One player I really am excited to see is GREGORY VAN DER WIEL very talented Ajax right back, started at CB but van Basten changed him to a full back, has suspect behaviour issues, but he is one of the brightest talents in Dutch football

 

ENGLAND – Always hard for me to give an unbiased view being Scottish, I will try though, if Capello can get the best players playing at their potential, England could go all the way, however there is issues e.g.: can Gerrard and Lampard play effectively together, Glen Johnson is weak defensively, how can anyone justify a starting spot for Emile Heskey apart from that Rooney likes him, personally 4-5-1 suits them better, with Gerrard off Rooney, on their day they can beat anyone, once past the group stages they need 4 of those days, minimum will be the Semi-Finals

PLAYER TO WATCH: Although the left side has always been a problem for England the right-side has not, AARON LENNON is one of the most talented wingers in the EPL, superb pace, final ball is improving and with Rooney’s new found ability to head the ball, and this could cause endless problems to England’s opponents.

There we go 8 teams that will make up the majority of everyone’s favourites, I would be shocked if the winner was not one of those team, there will be a few shocks here and there as there always is, but surely one of the minnows can’t go all the way…..can they!

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Going to start a series of posts today all mapping out my thoughts on the finales to most of the big european leagues around, Starting with La Liga.

Most people unless they have been living under a rock will know that this years title race is between the “El Super Classico” teams of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Manuel Pellegrini trying to save Madrid blushes and win a league title before he gets sacked, however Pep Guardiola is trying for the “Double Double” can he win the league and Champions League 2 years running in only his 2nd year in management.

Saturday saw Barcelona roll into the Bernabeu armed with the Greatest Players playing today in Leo Messi and walked away with all 3 points, this seasons sensationl players Messi and Pedro with the goals, and put Barca in the driving seat, still 7 games left and a lot of time for both teams to gain more points, with a 3 point lead this is there run in.

14th Apr – Deportivo (H)
17th Apr – Espanyol (A)
25th April – Xerez (H)
 2nd May – Villarreal (A)
 5th May – Tenerife (H)
9th May – Sevilla (A)
16th May – Valladolid (H)

A very interesting few games left, at home I would put a substantial amount of money on Barca winning all 4 games without complication, it’s the away games that make things interesting, a Catalan Derby, trips to El Madrigal and the Sanchez Pizjuan could easily turn into 3 defeats, especially with Sevilla and Villarreal in the tussle for European places. Real Madrids run in on paper looks the easier of the two, only Valencia and Mallorca at the top half to play, however Malaga away on the last day could be a match to decide the title and relegation battles. If Barcelona slip up, Madrid have a run of games where they should pick up points, Valencia’s away record has been very poor, Almeria, Zaragoza an Osasuna could have nothing to play for.

15th April – Almeria (A)
18th April – Valencia (H)
25th April – Zaragoza (A)
2nd May – Osasuna (H)
5th May – Mallorca (A)
9th May – Athletic Bilbao (H)
16th May – Malaga (A)

You also need to factor in that Barcelona have 2 more Champions League games to play and will be tough games against Mourinho’s Inter Milan, Barcelona have always been “my team” when choosing between them or Madrid, but I can see Real sneaking in to take the title, however with Lionel Messi playing the way he is, it would be hard to bet against him scoring the goals to lift Barcelona to that 20th Spanish League title.

The third automatic Champions League place see’s Valencia in the drivers seat 5 points ahead of Sevilla and Mallorca all 3 teams still have to face one of the Big Two, they don’t have to face each other again however they do come up against teams also fighting for the Europa League places, Valencia have Athletic Bilbao at Home and Villarreal Away, Sevilla have to travel to Getafe and Mallorca will go to the San Mames in Bilbao tough games against Bilbao for those team but also tough for Bilbao in their chase for a Europa League spot, with 5th and 6th place going into the Europa League Getafe and Villarreal find themselves 2 and 4 points respectively off that 6th spot.

Villarreal have the toughes run in, big game against Getafe then home stands against Barcelona and Valencia, Getafe have Sevilla visiting them, nearly impossible to predict, I will have a try.

Looking at the remaining fixtures and trying to work out how each game will go (if I could predict this I’d be rich) this is how I think the table will finish, and unfortunately for Villarreal and Getafe it’s how you are for the 6 teams involved

3. Valencia 38 games 69 points – Champions League
4.Sevilla 38 games 64 points – Champions League Qual.
5.Mallorca 38 games 62 points – Europa League Playoff
6. Athletic Bilbao 38 games 59 points – Europa League 3rd round
———————————————-
7.Villarreal 38 games 58 points
8.Getafe 38 games 58 points

So If (Big if) I’m correct Villarreal and Getafe will be close but no cigar, Valencia and Sevilla will be in the Champions League, and I might put a cheeky bet on Real Madrid winning the title.

Next…………Serie A

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