Champions League

Champions League matchday two preview

Matchday two is upon us and there lies some tasty fixtures over the next two evenings.

The early fixture today is Bayern Munich travel to the Russian capital to face CSKA Moscow. The bookies will say that it’s a routine win for Pep Guardiola’s men, but anything is possible in Moscow – as many clubs found out before.

Barcelona will face a number of former players at PSG including Maxwell, Thiago Motta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even coach Laurent Blanc. The French side will be looking for their first win of the group following their 1-1 draw with Ajax on matchday one.

mourinho

José “still the special one” Mourinho is back in Portugal as his Chelsea boys take on Sporting Lisbon, whose long unbeaten European home record is put to the test by the Blues who have won their last six games against Portugese teams.

Man City will be looking to bounce back from their loss against Bayern Munich on matchday one, when they host an AS Roma side with a notoriously poor record on English soil. The Giallorossi opened their group stage campaign with a 5-1 win against CSKA Moscow.

Galatasaray travel to North London to face Arsenal tomorrow. The Gunners’ 2-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund on matchday one was their first defeat in fifteen matches in all competitions.

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Italian giants Juventus travel to the Spanish capital where they will face Atlético MadridBeaten at Olympiacos on matchday one, Diego Simeone will be looking for more out of his men on Wednesday night at the Vicente Calderón.

Liverpool travel to the Switzerland to take on FC Basel. The latter will be eager to bounce back from their 5-1 opening loss at Real Madrid, while Liverpool’s unconvincing 2-1 win over Ludogorets on matchday one will be fresh in the memory of Brendan Rodgers. 

 

The fixtures in full:

 

30 September 2014 Group stage (Group E)
CSKA Moskva
17.00
FC Bayern
Referee: William Collum (SCO) – Stadium: Arena Khimki, Khimki (RUS)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group F)
PSG
19.45
FC Barcelona
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA) – Stadium: Parc des Princes, Paris (FRA)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group F)
APOEL
19.45
Ajax
Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB) – Stadium: GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group G)
Sporting
19.45
Chelsea
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP) – Stadium: José Alvalade, Lisbon (POR)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group G)
Schalke
19.45
Maribor
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP) – Stadium: Stadion Gelsenkirchen, Gelsenkirchen (GER)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group H)
Shakhtar Donetsk
19.45
FC Porto
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR) – Stadium: Arena Lviv, Lviv (UKR)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group H)
BATE
19.45
Athletic Bilbao
Referee: Stéphane Lannoy (FRA) – Stadium: Borisov Arena, Borisov (BLR)
30 September 2014 Group stage (Group E)
Man. City
19.45
Roma
Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED) – Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester (ENG)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group C)
Zenit
17.00
AS Monaco
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (ENG) – Stadium: Stadion Petrovski, St Petersburg (RUS)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group C)
Leverkusen
19.45
Benfica
Referee: Martin Atkinson (ENG) – Stadium: BayArena, Leverkusen (GER)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group D)
Arsenal
19.45
Galatasaray
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA) – Stadium: Arsenal Stadium, London (ENG)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group D)
Anderlecht
19.45
Bor Dortmund
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (ITA) – Stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels (BEL)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group A)
Malmö
19.45
Olympiacos
Referee: Sergei Karasev (RUS) – Stadium: Malmö New Stadium, Malmo (SWE)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group A)
Atlético
19.45
Juventus
Referee: Felix Brych (GER) – Stadium: Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid (ESP)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group B)
Basel
19.45
Liverpool
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE) – Stadium: St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)
1 October 2014 Group stage (Group B)
Ludogorets
19.45
Real Madrid
Referee: Craig Thomson (SCO) – Stadium: Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, Sofia (BUL)

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments

French referee’s struggle to send off a player

When Ligue 1 referree Philippe Kalt brandished a red card to Guingamp goalkeeper Mamadou Samassa in the 89th minute of a the club’s fixture against Montpellier, team-mate Benjamin Angoua stepped in to ensure the referee couldn’t physically do so. Who says there are no friends in football but only acquaintances.

Angoua, to be fair, was incredibly lucky not to be booked himself. Presuming he would allow the referee to do so that is.

Check this out

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy diary

Footy diary: a look inside a Serie A adventure

As previously blogged, the city of Milan is a fine city for culture, shopping, sightseeing and, as you can imagine, football. Last weekend I found myself in the city for a couple of days and taking place in the San Siro during a few spare hours I had was a fixture between two little-known teams that are AC Milan and Juventus.

Initially the match was supposed to be held on the Sunday – the day I was due to fly back to Dublin – but the powers that be in Serie A around ten days prior changed the fixture to the Saturday evening. I assume for the sole purpose so that I could attend.

Getting to the ground usually is hassle-free. But when league rivals Juventus come to town for a top-of-the-table clash, there’s significantly more interest in the tie.

Being sandwiched in an incredibly stuffy carriage on the city’s metro railway system along with dozens of Milan fans whilst slightly (OK, fairly) hungover isn’t a good start. But eventually I arrive at the metro stop nearest the San Siro where a shuttle bus takes the public, free of charge, near the stadium’s gates.

outsidesansiro

The streets outside the San Siro almost two hours before kick-off and it’s jam-packed. People are drinking beer, people are eating fast food and, more importantly for the club, people are spending big at the many merchandise stalls outside the ground. There’s a constant smell of tobacco smoke and burger vans present in the air all outside the ground. A bigger smell of cannabis and flares would await me inside.

It was at this point that I become aware I was seated in the south stand. Now for those familiar with Italian football fan culture, the south stand in the San Siro is the AC Milan ultras’ designated spot – the Curva Sud. But that didn’t bother me. I was captivated by the San Siro’s easily recognizable architecture.

sansiroarchitecture

The long climb up to the stadium’s third tier was met with an unforgettable view of one of the cathedrals of world football. The San Siro currently holds 80,000. Tonight there 78,681 in attendance including myself – that’s quite a number given how so many games are less than half full. Sitting on the third tier is frustrating as an enormous net is somewhat distracting for your view.

The game itself is quite normal. Juventus seem to be taking more of the chances in the first half with Milan looking slightly uninspired. Most of the noise comes from the Milan ultras, all of whom are standing in their seats, chanting songs with arms in the air, except one down near the front of the dozens upon dozens of ultras. Known as the “capo”, he’s facing his fellow fans and leading them on. It’s pretty intense to watch, but does liven up the atmosphere incredibly.

The game finishes 0-1 to Juventus thanks to a second half goal from Carlos Tevez. It was interesting to see Fernando Torres make his home debut for the Rossoneri. The fans chanted his name in sheer adoration. Yes, he’s a great striker, but a bit past his Atlético Madrid/Liverpool prime now?

I have been to many matches in my time. I have been to many stadia. But I say this hand on heart that the atmosphere in the San Siro made by AC Milan fans is probably one of the best I have ever experienced. There was something about it and it’s unforgettable, yet I can’t quite explain it.

But I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footballers' mad moments

Has there been longer penalty shootouts than last night’s epic one?

The answer, dear readers, is yes.

While last night’s shootout between Liverpool and Middlesbrough was indeed certainly epic (I don’t think I have ever seen 14-13 written on a scoreboard before), it wasn’t quite the longest. Indeed there were 27 of 30 penalty kicks converted in Anfield last night, but the 2008 Greek cup final was an astonishing one.

The final had no shortage of goals in 120 minutes as AEK Athens were held to a 4-4 against rivals Olympiacos (with two goals from Rotherham United striker Matt Derbyshire). It was indeed Olympiacos who won the cup on penalties by a score of 15-14 on penalties.

But wait. That wasn’t even the longest.

The 2005 Namibian cup final witnessed KK Palace play Civics where after 90 minutes the game finished with a 2-2 draw. No extra time was played, but the ensuing penalty shoot-out was incredibly epic as both teams took 24 penalties, for a grand total of 48 penalties taken. KK Palace ultimately won the shootout with a 17-16 win and lifted the cup. The penalty shoot-out is now listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Europe, Republic of Ireland

Dublin to co-host Euro 2020

There was much celebration when last week the Aviva Stadium was awarded as one of the stadia to host the 2020 European Championships. The competition itself will be held in thirteen different cities, including Dublin, as a one-off to mark the tournament’s 60th anniversary. The other cities are London, Amsterdam, Rome, Budapest, Copenhagen, Baku, St. Petersburg, Glasgow, Bilbao, Brussels, Munich and Bucharest.

It’s an exciting prospect with a major international competition coming to our shores and I for one absolutely welcome it. It will be great for the city, creating a buzz, as well as the jobs it will create and the money local businesses should make from it. The Aviva Stadium will host three group games, as well as one game in the round of 16.

It could be very costly for the average football fan though. Going to some group games in a city such as Copenhagen for example, before heading to a round of 16 tie in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku could be tough on some football fans’ pockets. 

Regardless it is utterly huge for the city, and for the country. Just a shame none of the thirteen host countries get automatic qualification. (Well, maybe that’s too much of an ask.)

The selected venues are:

  • Final and Semi-finals: London (England)
  • Quarter-finals and Group stage: Munich (Germany), Baku (Azerbaijan), Saint Petersburg (Russia), Rome (Italy)
  • Round of 16 and Group Stage: Copenhagen (Denmark),Bucharest (Romania), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Dublin (Ireland), Bilbao (Spain), Budapest (Hungary), Brussels (Belgium), Glasgow (Scotland)

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League

Champions League preview

Normal service resumes as the Champions League is tonight upon us once more. Clear your schedule for the next two evenings and take in sixteen fixtures that should keep us all glued to our television sets. Let’s have a look at all of the fixtures in detail for matchday one:

Runners-up last season, Atlético Madrid embark on the new campaign as they travel to Piraeus to face Olympiacos. The Greek side will be a tough test for Diego Simeone’s men at the Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis as Olympiacos last season won 16 out of 17 matches at home in the league last season.

Swedish champions Malmo travel to Turin to face Italian giants Juventus. It will be a tough test for Malmo who go into the fixture with some injury concerns while Juve’s Carlos Tevez will be out to prove a point. The Argentine has gone 14 matches without a goal in the competition since scoring in Man United’s 2-2 draw with FC Porto in April 2009.
Carlos-Tevez-Juventus

Liverpool are back in the Champions League after a five year absence. The Premier League runners-up welcome Ludogorets to Anfield – the first meeting between the Reds and a Bulgarian team since the 2005/06 campaign. Emre Can and Lazar Marković are both suspended for Liverpool on matchday one while Ludogorets are without goalkeepers Vladislav Stoyanov and Ivan Čvorović through suspension and injury respectively. 

Four months after they conquered ‘La Décima’ in Lisbon, Real Madrid will begin their title defence against FC Basel. The Swiss side travel to the Spanish capital with new coach Paulo Sousa, who has won six of his first eight Super League games. Los Blancos can boast some of the biggest names in world football, as well as new additions in James Rodriguez, Tony Kroos and Chicharito – all ready for tonight’s fixture.
JAMESrodriguezMadrid

Monaco are back in Europe after an eight year absence as they tonight host Bayer Leverkusen. The Ligue 1 side replaced coach Claudio Ranieri with Leonardo Jardim in the summer and lost star players such as James Rodriguez, Eric Abidal and Falcao without getting any substantial replacements. Leverkusen are in fine form having won five out of five this season before last Friday’s 3-3 draw with Werder Bremen.

Zenit St Petersburg travel to Lisbon as they face Benfica in their opening match of the campaign. The Russian side have a good record against Portugese teams in the past 12 months having beaten FC Paços and FC Porto in the qualifying games and group stages respectively.
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It’s new coach Cesare Prandelli’s first Champions League match tonight since taking charge of Galatasaray as they face Anderlecht in Istanbul. The Belgian side will be seeking to get their first win on Turkish soil in their history while Galatasaray will be more than aware that they have not won any of their last four opening-night fixtures.

No strangers to one another, Borussia Dortmund welcome Arsenal in their opening fixture. Jurgen Klopp will be hoping to reverse the home defeat they suffered to the Gunners 12 months ago while Arsene Wenger will be without defender Mathieu Debuchy, but will be keeping a close eye on star-signing Alexis Sanchez, who has scored in each of his last three appearances, to cause considerable damage to the Germans.

Ashley Cole is set to play in the Champions League for a third club as Roma tonight face CSKA Moscow in the Stadio Olimpico. The Italian side are without star players Daniele de Rossi and Kevin Strootman while the Russians are beaming with confidence coming off the back of four consecutive wins – their best since 2002.
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Yet again Man City and Bayern Munich meet in the group stages – the third time in four years – but it still makes for a tasty fixture. The last time managers Pep Guardiola and Manuel Pellegrini met as coaches was during El Clásico in 2009/10 Spanish season. City are tonight without Pablo Zabaleta but can take comfort in the recent form of both Stevan Jovetić and Sergio Agüero.  

The only Irishman in the Champions League Cillian Sheridan and his APOEL team-mates travel to the Camp Nou to try topple giants Barcelona despite having never won away from home in the competition as Luis Enrique makes his European coaching debut with the Catalans.
Neymar-Barcelona-1

Zlatan Ibrahimović returns to face his former club Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena with his Paris Saint-Germain team-mates. The Parisians are six games unbeaten in 2014/15 yet have won just one of their last seven away games. Ajax however started their season with two league wins before a 3-1 home defeat to PSV Eindhoven on 24 August cost them their first defeat in 25 league matches dating back to last November.

Chelsea welcome Schalke to Stamford Bridge once more having last faced the Germans a year ago. The Blues, and new star signing Diego Costa, are both in flying form have won four out of four in the Premier League this season while Schalke have failed to win any of their first four competitive games of a new season for the first time since 1968.
Costa-Chelsea-640x400

Slovenian side Maribor, regarded as minnows in the competition, play host to Sporting Lisbon for their first group stage campaign for 15 years. Sporting, under new coach Marco Silva, are in the group stage for the first time since 2008/09 but, as Maribor will be aware of, they have lost their last two opening-day fixtures in the competition.

FC Porto begin their 19th group stage campaign determined to put last year’s poor home results in the Champions League behind them and make ammends as they seek an opening-night win against BATE Borisov in what will be the Portugese side’s 200th European Cup fixture. BATE are no strangers to competition, but rarely make any impact and have lost their last three European away games.

Finally, tomorrow is Athletic Bilbao‘s first appearance in the Champions League group stage since 1998/99  as they face Shakhtar Donetsk in their brand new stadium at San Mamés. Despite political unrest in the Donestk region and forced to play their home games some 1,200 km away in Lviv, Shakhtar’s form is very good having won eight out of eight in all competitions in 2014/15, scoring 18 and conceding just once in the process.
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The fixture list in full:

16 September 2014
(Group A)
Olympiacos
19.45
Atlético
Referee: Pedro Proença (POR) – Stadium: Stadio Georgios Karaiskakis, Piraeus (GRE)
(Group A)
Juventus
19.45
Malmö
Referee: Szymon Marciniak (POL) – Stadium: Juventus Stadium, Turin (ITA)
(Group B)
Liverpool
19.45
Ludogorets
Referee: Matej Jug (SVN) – Stadium: Anfield, Liverpool (ENG)
(Group B)
Real Madrid
19.45
Basel
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN) – Stadium: Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)
(Group C)
Monaco
19.45
Leverkusen
(Group C)
Benfica
19.45
Zenit
Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen (NOR) – Stadium: Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)
(Group D)
Galatasaray
19.45
Anderlecht
Referee: István Vad (HUN) – Stadium: Ali Sami Yen Spor Kompleksi, Istanbul (TUR)
(Group D)
Dortmund
19.45
Arsenal
Referee: Olegário Benquerença (POR) – Stadium: BVB Stadion Dortmund, Dortmund (GER)
17 September 2014
(Group E)
Roma
19.45
CSKA Moskva
Referee: David Fernández Borbalán (ESP) – Stadium: Stadio Olimpico, Rome (ITA)
(Group E)
Bayern
19.45
Man. City
Referee: Alberto Undiano Mallenco (ESP) – Stadium: Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)
(Group F)
Barcelona
19.45
APOEL
Referee: Deniz Aytekin (GER) – Stadium: Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)
(Group F)
Ajax
19.45
Paris
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (GER) – Stadium: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam (NED)
(Group G)
Chelsea
19.45
Schalke
Referee: Ivan Bebek (CRO) – Stadium: Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)
(Group G)
Maribor
19.45
Sporting
Referee: Clément Turpin (FRA) – Stadium: Stadion Ljudski vrt, Maribor (SVN)
(Group H)
Porto
19.45
BATE
Referee: Bas Nijhuis (NED) – Stadium: Estádio do Dragão, Porto (POR)
(Group H)
Athletic
19.45
Shakhtar Donetsk
Referee: Tasos Sidiropoulos (GRE) – Stadium: Estadio de San Mamés, Bilbao (ESP)

The next blog will be coming to you directly from Italy, as I head to Milan to see what a big game in the San Siro is like as AC Milan take on Juventus – historically two of Serie A’s and Europe’s most famous and successful teams.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Ones to watch

Ones to watch #15: Sergi Samper

Barcelona born-and-bred Sergi Samper Montaña will be 20 years old next January but is one of the most talked about young players in Spain. 

A product of Barcelona’s famous youth academy, known as La Masia, Samper has impressed immensely since joining the academy at the age of six in 2001. He has been making a huge impact in recent times with Barcelona B and has attracted the attention of many managers around Spain and especially one London-based manager in Mr. Arsene Wenger.

Indeed the Arsenal boss wants to make Samper the new Fabregas and, according to the press in Spain, is prepared to meet the club’s €12 million buy out clause for the defensive midfielder. Barça boss Luis Enrique has other plans and fully intends on bringing the player into the senior squad later this season.

Technically gifted and hugely influential around the middle of the park, the player who is so very often called “the new Busquets” is set to make an impact regardless of the jersey he will wear.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Entertainment & media

One Night In Istanbul to hit the big screen

Liverpool FC have this week via their official You Tube channel released the trailer for One Night In Istanbul. The movie is based on Nicky Allt’s hugely popular play of the same name.

It follows four Liverpool fans on a trip to watch the Reds play AC Milan in the memorable and unpredictable 2005 Champions League Final in the Turkish capital.

Though it looks like only Liverpool fans would really enjoy it, it still appears to be some decent viewing. Check out the trailer below.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Republic of Ireland

Ireland’s journey for France 2016 begins today

The Boys In Green today launch their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Georgia in Tbilisi. It’s Martin O’Neill’s first competitive fixture since his appointment as Ireland manager ten months back.

Results haven’t gone O’Neill’s way so far. In fact he only picked up his first win as Ireland boss last Wednesday in the incredibly uninspiring 2-0 win against a poor Oman side in front of just 14,000 at the Aviva Stadium.

O’Neill could also be faced with the problem of seeing some real talent coming through as the campaign progresses. Though there is much debate in Jack Grealish and former England U-21 captain Mark Noble to both possibly declare their allegiance for the green jersey – the inclusion of latter has divided opinion throughout the country.

Regardless off all the talk before a ball is even kicked, there is still 10 competitive games for the Boys In Green to be played between today and October of next year. Each one of them is crucial.

I for one am getting a little bit bored of seeing my national team fail to qualify for major international tournaments. I’m sure you are too.

The atmosphere in Poland two summers ago will never be forgotten and two summers from now I want to re-live a similar atmosphere somewhere in France as I watch my beloved Boys In Green at Euro 2016.

The journey starts today…

7 September 2014
Georgia  v  Republic of Ireland
Germany  v  Scotland
Gibraltar  v  Poland

Georgia v Rep. of Ireland at the Dinamo Arena, Tsiblisi kicks off at 5pm.
Also in our group today is Germany v Scotland and Gibraltar v Poland.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Uncategorized

Superstar Ronaldinho to sign for non-league English side?

Brazilian football legend Ronaldinho currently finds himself without a club having last played with Atletico Mineiro. There hasn’t been the world’s elite queuing up to sign the former World Player of the Year. But there is an offer from one English club. No, it isn’t Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal, but non-league side Basingstoke Town have been in contact with the 34-year old’s agent.

Barcelona's Ronaldinho celebrates goal against Sevilla during Spanish first division match in Barcelona

“We’ve put an offer to his brother, who is his agent, and look forward hearing back from him,” Basingstoke marketing director Simon Hood has said. “We took a look at the transfer list to see which players were available. We were shocked to see that Ronaldinho was a free agent and thought what better way for him to get back into football than to play for Basingstoke Town.”

The 2005 Ballon d’Or winner, 2006 Champions League winner and 2002 World Cup winner has previously won 97 caps for his country and his time in Europe playing for PSG, Barcelona and AC Milan between 2001 and 2010 earned Ronaldinho worldwide acclaim.

Basingstoke aren’t the only club interested in signing ‘Dinho.  Chennai Titans, who play in India’s top tier, have also been in contact to bring the Brazilian to the Tamil Nadu region of India where he could join up with former PSG team-mate, and one-time Hull City right back, Bernard Mendy.

Publicity stunt from Basingstoke? Or legitimate attempt to lure on of the most famous faces in world football to England’s sixth tier?

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Internationals, Republic of Ireland

Given’s return is unfortunately a step backwards

After a two year absence from the international scene, Shay Given is back in the Ireland set-up after he was named in Martin O’Neill’s 27-man squad.

shay given

The Donegal man retired after an incredibly disappointing Euro 2012 and he subsequently lost his place in Aston Villa’s starting XI. His shock return to the Ireland set-up is being praised in some quarters, but the fact that the 38-year old could be, according to reports, about to leapfrog ahead of Keiran Westwood and David Forde and actually start against Georgia next week beggars belief.

Given was a great servant to his country and at one time was one of the best ‘keepers in the Premier League – possibly the best. But at this stage of his career where he is ultimately a substitute at club level, calling him into the Irish team is not only something of a backwards step, but it exposes the fact of the lack of talent available to Martin O’Neill.

Champions League

Champions League draw produces some tasty ties

The draw for the group stages of the Champions League took place yesterday afternoon.

Liverpool will be making their return to the competition with a glamour tie against current holders Real Madrid and will also face Swiss side FC Basel as well Ludogorets following their fairytale entry to the competition for the first time.

Brendan-Rodgers-Liverpool -v-Manchester-City

Arsenal have no easy task as they face Borussia Dortmund, Turkish side Galatasaray and Belgian champions Anderlecht.

Man City will face the task of trying to topple Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side. Manuel Pellegrini’s men also face CSKA Moscow which is never an easy tie and finally Roma, featuring Ashley Cole & co., will complete a difficult group for City.

Cillian Sheridan, currently the only Irish player competing in the competition, and his APOEL side have been dealt an incredibly tough group featuring Barcelona, PSG and Ajax. It’s big news as Zlatan will return the Camp Nou, but Sheridan will try to give the Parisians, Catalans and Amsterdammers a run for their money.

But for neutrals, Group C has some tasty fixtures, as Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen and Monaco all battle it out. There is not one easy tie for any club in that group and it’s one that I’ll be personally be keeping an close eye on.

The draw in full:

Group A
Atlético Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos, Malmo

Group B
Real Madrid, FC Basel, Liverpool, Ludogorets

Group C
Benfica, Zenit St. Petersburg, Bayer Leverkusen, AS Monaco

Group D
Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray, Anderlecht

Group E
FC Bayern Munich, Man City, CSKA Moscow, AS Roma

Group F
C FBarcelona, PSG, Ajax, Apoel Nicosia

Group G
Chelsea, Schalke 04, Sporting, Maribor

Group H
FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Bilbao, BATE

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

Di Maria is the real deal for United

Real Madrid’s loss is Manchester United’s gain: Louis van Gaal’s side have confirmed the signing of Angel di Maria this evening from the Spanish giants for a British record fee of £59.7 million.

With Carlo Ancelotti letting go of arguably one of his most crucial players of last season says a lot about the side, but it could easily prove to be a massive boost to van Gaal who is coming off the back of a loss and a draw in his opening fixtures.

There won’t be an Angel di Maria-shaped-hole in the Real Madrid side though – James Rodriguez, arguably one of the best young talents to emerge from South America since Lionel Messi, is already filling the gap which di Maria leaves in Ancelotti’s side. But will van Gaal use the 26-year-old efficiently enough to get the best out of him?

The Dutchman has said that di Maria “is a tremendously fast and incisive left-footed player who puts fear into the most accomplished defence. His dribbling skills and his ability to take on and beat opponents are a joy to watch.”

The Argentine, who scored the first ever goal in the new Aviva Stadium just a little over four years ago, is set to make his debut on Saturday against Burnley as United seek to earn their first three points of the season.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

Dundalk fined for Palestine flag, but what about Ajax?

By now you are probably aware of the fine Dundalk FC received from UEFA for a flag of Palestine being flown by fans during their Europa League qualifier against Hadjuk Split.

The club issued a statement, saying: “Dundalk FC can confirm that the club has been charged by the UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Committee.

“These charges relate to Article 16 (2) of the Disciplinary Rules (relating to flags that have been deemed by UEFA to be inappropriate) and Article 45 UEFA Stadium Infrastructure (relating to the prohibition of standing supporters). The total fine is €18,000 for these charges.”

I don’t believe I am alone in thinking this is utterly ridiculous. The main reason is that if Dundalk, a small club in a semi-professional league, can be fined €18,000, then surely big clubs such as Ajax can be fined also.

dundalkpalestineflag

To see the Israeli flag flown in the Amsterdam Arena is a very common occurance (and indeed in White Hart Lane occasionally too). In fact if you look at this image, it’s not like the Ajax fans are hiding it.

Do UEFA fine Ajax? No chance. Have Spurs ever get as much as a warning for their fans sporting the Israeli flag? Nope!

Fining clubs for fans’ racism or violence is supported and encouraged. For flying a flag of Palestine? I don’t think so. 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts, Mavericks

Could Rodgers get the best out of Balotelli?

The big transfer news this week, as most of you will be well aware of at this stage, is that the ever-eccentic Mario Balotelli is soon to become a Liverpool player. This was greeted with much delight from the red half of Merseyside. And understandably so. But the general feeling is that Mario’s behaviour may disrupt the harmony that Brendan Rodgers has kept at Anfield during his tenure there.

Of course it’s now three weeks that have passed since the Liverpool boss said “categorically” that he would not be signing the Italian striker. But, as ever, nothing in football is impossible.

balomilano

People took to social media to question if Rodgers could “get Balotelli to sort his head out”. Let’s be honest, nobody can change Super Mario’s personality. He doesn’t do the whole respect-for-authority thing. But maybe Rodgers can use him more efficiently than some previous managers.

Balotelli, when at his best, can be world-class. He is one of the best penalty takers I’ve seen in some time and has fierce ability. He is incredibly competitive – similar to that of Luis Suarez – but the Uruguayan had a never-give-up attitude. The Italian international tends to drift in and out of games if decisions seem to go against him.

There’s good and bad with purchasing Mario Balotelli: the bad is his attitude, professionalism and his eccentric behaviour off the pitch which attracts much press attention (see the video below about him discussing it with Noel Gallagher). The good is, as I said before, he can be world-class. It will be up to Brendan Rodgers and Mario himself to bring that out week in, week out.

One thing that’s guaranteed is that his time at Merseyside, good or bad, will not be dull.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)