Europa League Preview: Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham in a confusing European adventure

The draw for the group stages of this season’s Europa League has thrown up a number of difficult and interesting challenges for England’s representatives, with qualification through to the knock-out stages far from assured. This term it will be up to Tottenham, Fulham, Stoke and Birmingham to do the nation proud, and test their wits against some cultured European opposition.

Tottenham were drawn in Group A, and have been given one opponent on their doorstep, and two on the other side of the continent. Shamrock Rovers, Rubin Kazan and PAOK FC will look to further frustrate Spurs fans after their slow start to the campaign, and will have taken comfort in Harry Redknapp’s men being outplayed and beaten by both Manchester clubs in the space of six days.

The Russians will provide the most difficult opponent, and were unlucky not to make the Champions League; Kurban Berdyev’s side lost out narrowly to Lyon in the qualifiers. The Tsentrainyi Stadion is a hostile environment to enter, and a host of Russian internationals and familiar face Obafemi Martins will make the away tie in particular increasingly difficult. PAOK are not the force of past decades, but, like the Russians will make the away leg uncomfortable. The Irish champions will be sure to put up a fight in the emerald isle, but may find similar treatment to that distributed to Hearts in the qualifying round forthcoming at White Hart Lane.

Stoke have arguably got the most difficult task in front of them, with travels to the far-fetched lands of Israel, Turkey and Ukraine; Maccabi Tel Aviv, Besiktas and Dinamo Kiev lie in wait. Tony Pulis will be happy he has Wilson Palacios and Peter Crouch at his disposal, in what should be a tricky campaign. The Turks have European calibre and experience, and will look to capitalise on the English outfit’s lack of past action in the continent. Stoke’s direct style of play will be countered by a technically gifted midfield trio of ex-Real Madrid playmaker Guti and Portugal international duo Ricardo Quaresma and Simao Sabrosa.

Kiev are top of the Ukranian Premier League currently have attacking options that could be the downfall of the side from the Britannia, with Andriy Shevchenko and international team-mate Andriy Yarmolenko sure to cause Ryan Shawcross and company problems. Tel Aviv meanwhile will be the least threatening member of the trio, but the distance to the away leg will ensure a win is not guaranteed.

Fulham have a mixed group comprising Twente, OB Odense and Wisla Krakow. The Dutch side crashed out of the Champions League qualifiers at the hands of Benfica, but have a strong team; despite this a deadline day move saw Bryan Ruiz swap De Grolsch Veste for Craven Cottage, which could be the difference between the sides. OB were unlucky not to make the group stage of the top tournament, as they were eliminated by Spaniards Villarreal, despite winning the first leg. Krakow offer up an unpredictable element, but should not be underestimated as they are Poland’s current champions.

Birmingham may find the going tough especially with a squad depleted after relegation and will most likely focus on their domestic fixtures in an attempt to make it back to the English top flight, rather than a European adventure. Club Brugge and last year’s defeated finalists Braga should be too strong for The Championship side, who will target the fixtures against Slovenian outfit Maribor as winnable games.

The English sides will travel to the four corners of the continent in this year’s group stage, have drawn difficult opponents, and will have to be at the top of their game if they are to progress.

Published – http://soccerlens.com/europa-league-preview-tottenham-fulham-stoke-and-birmingham-in-a-confusing-european-adventure/78376/

Football’s Great Chokes

Football is a funny old game. One minute your team looks like they have a match or a league title in the bag, the next it can escape their grasp. The term ‘choke’ is synonymous in sporting circles with people or teams that are in a commanding position but suffer a meltdown mentally, losing their composure and consequently the match or competition. With the United States choke against Panama in the Gold Cup fresh in the memory, I have decided to look at some of the famous footballing chokes over the years.

AC Milan, Champions League Final 2005
The Champions League final is the biggest stage in world club football and AC Milan and Liverpool contested the 2005 final in Istanbul, Turkey. The game was a story of two choking sides, firstly Liverpool were the team to freeze up as they were overawed by the occasion and let in a soft goal in the first minute to veteran Italian defender Paolo Maldini. From there Rafa Benitez’s team conceded two more in the first half, with Kaka the architect and Argentine striker Hernan Crespo the executioner. Half time; Liverpool 0 Milan 3, it looked like it could get embarrassing for the English side. However choking can be infectious and the Rossoneri caught the bug in the second half, as Steven Gerrard inspired his side to fight back and the Italian side capitulated under the pressure of being 45 minutes away from European glory. Goals from Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso saw the match finish 3-3, go to penalties and it was Milan’s darling Andriy Shevchenko who eventually crumbled under the pressure and missed the decisive penalty, giving Liverpool the Champions League title.

Bayern Munich, Champions League Final 1999
Manchester United and Bayern Munich contested the 1999 Champions League final in the Nou Camp, Barcelona, in what would be a prime example of the footballing choke. In an end to end match the German side started the brighter, and deservedly took the lead through a Mario Basler effort after only six minutes. United attacked well but the German side had key chances to win the game by getting the decisive second goal; firstly Mehmet Scholl hit the post and then Carsten Jancker struck the crossbar with an overhead kick. With time almost up, Die Roten started to defend and retreat, looking to protect their precious goal advantage. Enter substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In injury time Peter Schmeichel came forward to attack a United corner, and in a me-lay in the German box Sheringham managed to convert a poor clearance and give The Reds parity. However the best was yet to come as less than thirty seconds later Solskjaer toe poked home the winner following a Sheringham headed effort. Totally capitulation and a great football choke achieved by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team in three minutes of injury time.

Tottenham, vs Manchester United, September 2001 and April 2009
Tottenham took on English Champions Manchester United at White Hart Lane on Saturday September 29th 2001, with much anticipation around the London club. In a barnstorming first half performance by the home side, goals from Dean Richards, Les Ferdinand and Christian Ziege gave Spurs a 3-0 lead at the break. North London was full of energy. This could be the start of something big for Glenn Hoddle’s men. Sir Alex Ferguson and United had other ideas as five second half goals from Andy Cole, Laurent Blanc, Ruud van Nistlerooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and David Beckham broke Spurs hearts and the game ended 5-3.

Almost eight years later and Harry Redknapp took his talented Tottenham side to Old Trafford to lock horns with The Reds, and in an attacking performance in the first half the London club found themselves 2-0 up at half time with goals from Darren Bent and Luka Modric. Redknapp will have urged his team not to solely sit back and defend, to have belief in themselves and to go and win the game in his half time teamtalk, but instead his team choked and again conceded five second half goals to Cristiano Ronaldo (2), Wayne Rooney (2) and ex-striker Dimitar Berbatov, with the game finishing 5-2 to United.

Chelsea, vs Arsenal, October 1999
Fourth placed Chelsea hosted second placed Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in a highly charged match on 23rd October 1999, with local bragging rights and the Premiership title up for grabs. Arsene Wenger had started to mould the Gunners team into his own, an had signed Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu from Inter Milan in February 1999. In the match Chelsea took the lead through Norwegian striker Tore Andre Flo on 39 minutes and Dan Petrescu gave The Blues a 2-0 advantage on 51 minutes. The chant of “we want five” rang around The Bridge from a euphoric Chelsea support. In a wet and windy day, Kanu stepped up and got one back for Arsenal on 75 minutes, slotting home a miscued Marc Overmars shot, and the home side, and their fans, became slightly edgy. Kanu shocked the home faithful with seven minutes remaining as he drove home an Overmars cross, but the African striker still had more to come. In the last minute of the game, Kanu closed down a clearance and found himself close to the cornerflag, confronted by home keeper Ed de Goey, who had rushed out of his goal. The lanky striker avoided de Goey’s sliding tackle and converted from the tightest and most impossible angle to give the Gunners the match 3-2, with Chelsea in despair.
Real Madrid, 2003-2004 La Liga Season
In the 2003-04 La Liga season, Real Madrid had a star studded team full of world beaters, were champions from the previous season and followers at the Bernabeu had Ronaldo, Beckham, Figo, Roberto Carlos and Zidane to surely lead them to a second consecutive title. This looked very likely, as by the end of February Los Blancos were eight points ahead at the top of the standings and looking for the treble. However a four month choke by Carlos Quieroz’s side saw them lose the Copa del Rey final to Real Zaragoza, get kicked out of Europe at the hands of Monaco and lose their grip on the domestic title. A loss in El Classico and a 4-1 home defeat to Real Sociedad on the last day of the season saw Valenica lift the title, and the Galacticos finish fourth behind Barcelona and Deportivo La Coruna.

Newcastle United, 1995-96 Premier League Season
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side of 1995-96 were labelled ‘The Entertainers’, as the Toon amassed a quality side with the likes of Les Ferdinand and David Ginola in their ranks. Keegan’s men dispatched all in front of them and rushed into a 12 point lead at the top of the Premier League. The Geordies had finished second a couple of years earlier, but for the St James Park faithful this would be the season of glory. However Keegan’s men fell victim to a run of inconsistent form and perennial strong finishers Manchester United caught Newcastle up, and won the league from under their noses. Newcastle have fallen from grace since, and the choke of 1996 has significantly impacted upon the team’s fortunes.

The old cliches of ‘it’s not over til it’s over’ and ‘it’s a game of two halves’ spring to mind when reminiscing about some of the great footballing chokes, and it shows that a team must be mentally prepared as well as physically and tactically to succeed at the highest level.

Published – http://www.footballfancast.com/2011/06/football-blogs/footballs-great-chokers-part-one

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