Europe

What next for Man United as Moyes shown the door?

Some might say that David Moyes was not given enough time at Man United, some might say that it is simply the inevitable. At 8.30am this morning, the club released a short statement confirming the Scot’s departure.

It simply read: “Manchester United has announced that David Moyes has left the club. The club would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role.”

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Moyes is, in my view, a really decent manager, but he simply wasn’t the right fit for Manchester United. The team’s home record this season was well below par and they failed to qualify for the Champions League in almost two decades.

Some huge names in world football are already being linked with the job. The Netherlands’ national team coach, Louis van Gaal, is the bookies’ favourite. The Dutchman formerly managed Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it’s hard to see if he will be the right fit for Man United in the 2014/15 season.

Another one of the favourites is Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp. The German is currently one of Europe’s most in-demand managers. He is full of energy, personality and is tactically impressive. I feel Klopp would be a better fit for United than van Gaal or other names mentioned such as Diego Simeone, Frank de Boer or Carlo Ancelotti.

Dortmund head coach Juergen Klopp remove

In the meantime Ryan Giggs will take over the role as interim manager. It’s possible that Giggs, depending how he changes things for the better, could be installed as permanent manager for next season. But it’s early days yet.

David Moyes would be doing well to land a job at a top club like United any time soon, and the club themselves have a lot of work to do to get the right man to turn things around. But that’s modern football.

Interesting times ahead at Old Trafford.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Hang on…are Liverpool actually going to WIN the Premier League?

The full time whistle at Anfield yesterday sparked scenes of sheer celebration and emotion from everyone wearing red after Liverpool beat Man City 3-2 in a thrilling game.

It also sparked many fans who had, in weeks prior, written off Liverpool’s chances of their possible 19th top-flight league trophy, claiming that Chelsea and Man City were far too superior, to ask themselves “are Liverpool actually going to go ahead and WIN the Premier League?”

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At the start of the season nobody had predicted it. Not the fans, and probably not even Brendan Rodgers deep down. But here we are – mid-April and Liverpool are within touching distance of the Premier League trophy.

“There are still four big games,” said captain Steven Gerrard who appeared somewhat emotional at the full-time whistle. “People say that was the biggest one but I disagree, the biggest one is Norwich. Nothing is ours yet.”

Indeed, nothing is Liverpool’s yet. But Brendan Rodgers’ men have four games left: Norwich City away, a massive test against Chelsea at home, Crystal Palace away and finally Newcastle at Anfield on May 11th. None of those games are easy.

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Everyone is a pundit and I had people speaking to me mere days ago writing off Liverpool’s chances. But the truth is that the Reds have won their previous ten fixtures in a row. If they win the next four, they are guaranteed the title.

Are they going to actually win the title? My honest opinion: I believe they have the quality and the nerve to hold on to first place.

 

How do you think Liverpool will fare? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Trophies & transfer bans: What’s happening at Barça?

This week, FIFA announced that it had banned Barcelona from signing any players for the next two transfer windows for breaking the rules on signing international players under the age of 18. The Catalans have also been fined 450,000 Swiss francs (around €370,000) but have, perhaps unsurpringly, confirmed they will be appealing the ban.

The news stunned football fans, but more importantly to Barça, it shocked the club and their “more than a club” image has no doubt been somewhat damaged by this.

In my experience of going to the Catalan capital over the years, it seems that Sandro Rosell is something of a bad guy. Or at least he is somebody who the fans can blame. Rosell was President of the club from summer 2010 until last January when he resigned following investigations of alleged misappropriation of funds over the signing of the Brazilian player Neymar.

It was also Rosell who came to the agreement with Qatar Airways to allow the airline’s logo be carried on the Barça jersey in a deal worth around €30m per year. It was the first time a commerical logo has been allowed on the club’s shirt in their history. Previously Barça paid UNICEF to carry their logo. It strengthened their “more than a club” image and suggested that they were morally superior to their rivals – especially Real Madrid. The Qatari deal put an end to that in the eyes of many.

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“His obsession is money,” one fan told me at the Camp Nou last January, speaking about Rosell mere days before his resignation. “All he cares about it money. I have no pride with Qatar Airways on the blaugrana (Barcelona’s traditional colours)”. Many people, I must admit, seem to share that opinion.

The Madrid-based press are, naturally, very speedy in denouncing the club’s negative actions – such as that of the Neymar deal. While much, if not, all of the Catalan press, and indeed Spain’s Sports Minister Miguel Cardenal, have all stated that Barça are hardly as reprehensible a club as they are being portrayed by certain sections of the media.

Unlike many other clubs, FC Barcelona is owned by it’s 160,000 members. And their opinion matters. Current President and former engineer Josep Maria Bartomeu (who was previously Sandro Rosell’s second in command) could see his presidency come to an end quicker than he would like.

The series of off-field events are not ideal for the club’s reputation or their image. The transfer ban could make like incredibly hard on Barcelona. With Victor Valdés and captain Carles Puyol leaving at the end of the season, they won’t be able to find suitable replacements for the two World Cup-winning stars. The off-field problems are becoming on-field problems and that, as any Barcelona fan will tell you, is the biggest problem of all.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League

Champions League quarter-finals preview.

It’s April already and now we are down to just eight teams in Europe’s premier club competition. We’ll immediately turn our attention to tonight’s massive game at Old Trafford.

It’s difficult to remember the last time Manchester United hosted a game with so much pressure on the players and, especially, the manager.  David Moyes’ tactics will be put to the test at the highest level tonight and the players themselves must be up for it.United face German powerhouse club Bayern Munich led by one of the most decorared and sought-after managers in world football, Pep Guardiola.

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“The media and public opinion is that Manchester are not in good shape and that we’re going through to the semis,” said star player Arjen Robben. “But I don’t like that at all.”

The Bavarians, of course, are not often accused of underestimating opponents. If they were, they would not have wrapped up another Bundesliga title – this one without losing a game and also in record time.

Over two legs, it wouldn’t be exactly miraculous for United to make it through. They’re still Manchester United, despite their league form. But my gut feeling is that Guardiola’s men will be simply too strong for them.

Barcelona will tonight host fellow La Liga side Atlético Madrid. The two sides met in January and played out a goalless draw. They’ll meet next month also in the final game of the season in Spain. Tonight, one can’t help but feel, will be more tense.

Atlético go into the fixture after conceding four goals in the competition, fewer than any other quarter-finalist. But with star striker Diego Costa doubtful for the game in the Camp Nou, they’ll need to score goals to topple the mighty Barça.

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The Catalans last week suffered the news of Victor Valdes’ injury means he will likely miss the rest of the season (and his Barça career seems to have come to an end too). Eccentric substitute Pinto, who is now 38, will be faced with the task of keeping out La Liga leaders Atleti.

Barcelona will need the winning spirit they brought to the recent Clásico in Madrid. Without it, Atlético could be too powerful this time. But Barça have geniuses like Messi and Iniesta. It’ll be tight – but over two legs I reckon Barcelona will squeeze through to the semis.

PSG will tomorrow host the other English side in the competition, Chelsea, at the Parc des Princes. It will be a heated fixture with José “(Still) The Special One” Mourinho will be urging his men to bounce back after his team’s surprise defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend.

“Are PSG a good team? Yes. Do they possess some of the best players in the world? Yes again,” Jose said, cautious of the Parisians. “We are at a stage of the competition where the big teams can win but also lose. There aren’t any more weak sides at this stage. There are some who are better than others, but anything can happen.”

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Paris St-Germain have built an incredibly strong team, led by the undeniably brilliant Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored 41 goals in his last 36 appearances for both club and country. But there’s other names Chelsea will have to be wary of such as Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Lucas Moura all possess the skills to give The Special One a real Parisian nightmare.

Usually, I think Chelsea would run through this stage of the competition with relative ease. But PSG are increibly tough opponents and, if I’m honest, I can see Laurent Blanc’s men causing damage to get through to the semi-finals.

Finally, Real Madrid go into the quarter-finals for a fourth successive season with the difficult task of taking on Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. They meet tomorrow in the Bernebéu.

Klopp will have worries with suspensions as both Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl are both a booking away from a ban while star striker Robert Lewandowski is suspended for tomorrow’s fixture.

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Madrid go into the tie booming with confidence after they are one of two teams – along with city rivals Atlético Madrid – still unbeaten and are tournament top scorers with 29 goals. Madrid have even scored in a record 33 UEFA Champions League games in a row.

But they cannot underestimate the Germans. Die Schwarzgelben may not be enjoying a season quite like FC Bayern, but currently 2nd in the Bundesliga, they’ve scored 62 goals this season. Players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jakub Błaszczykowski will be out to cause serious problems.

Overall, I think Real Madrid will be too strong and will clinch the result to get through to the last four.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Bayern’s praise from Klopp and Victor Valdes’ last stand for Barça

“They are incredible,” Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp of his club’s league rivals Bayern Munich after the latter clinched the Bundesliga title on Tuesday night. “We truly need binoculars to see them. And I can even enjoy watching them at times because they’re playing fantastically well.”

The Bavarians became the first club to clinch the Bundesliga championship in March and with a record seven games to go. Pep Guardiola’s men ooze sheer strength, making them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They face Manchester United in the competition’s quarter finals first-leg next Tuesday at Old Trafford.

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Another club who have wrapped up a league title is Celtic. Their 27th victory in 31 matches was a 5-1 away win against Partick Thistle was enough to ensure the Bhoys’ reign in the SPL once more. Neil Lennon became the fourth Celtic manager to win three successive titles. The last two, it should be pointed out, have come without having to play bitter rivals Rangers.

While there’s celebrating in one half of Glasgow and most of Munich, there is some worried faces in Catalonia. Victor Valdes suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Celta Vigo last night and the goalkeeper was forced to be substituted off after 20 minutes.

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Valdes announced some months back that the current season would be his final one in Barcelona’s famous colours (he’s rumoured to be AS Monaco-bound while Borussia Monchengladbach’s 21-year-old ‘keeper Marc-André ter Stegen is Barça’s preferred replacement for Valdes). Now it seems that instead of going out in glory, 32-year-old Valdes has very likely played his final game for the Catalans. Barça now turn to eccentric substitute goalkeeper José Pinto to help keep them in the title race alongside bitter rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe, Footy thoughts

The times at Old Trafford are definitely a-changing

Time is most definitely not running out for David Moyes at Manchester United, the Scotsman himself will admit. He is insistent that he is under no pressure from the club, despite the poor performances, results and, most recently, the 3-0 hammering against bitter rivals Liverpool.

Had United failed to beat Olympiacos during the week, and exit the Champions League, there no doubt that there would have been fierce pressure on the Man United hierarchy to consider a solution to United’s woes – meaning a possible termination of David Moyes’ position.

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But Moyes’ side did overcome the Greek side thanks to a Robin van Persie hat-trick and Man United are into the competition’s last eight. He may be enduring a terrible domestic season, but the European dream is still alive.

But is that enough for Man United fans and, more importantly, the club itself?

Some would argue that it is. They would argue that the Scot needs time and it is a very fair argument. Moyes inherited a club that has, in the past twenty years alone, amassed an incredible amount of silverware. He would surely need time to put his own stamp on the squad – especially as he has the vocal backing of his predecessor, Sir Alex Ferguson.

Some however would argue that David Moyes is simply the wrong man for the job. Machester United seem to be a shadow of their former selves. Big name signings such as Fellaini and Juan Mata seem almost anonymous on the pitch when in the red jersey.

It’s an interesting time at Old Trafford – albeit a frustrating one for both club and fans. Especially as they look on at bitter rivals Liverpool aiming for the driving seat. The times, as somebody once sang, are a-changing.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Superstars

Rivaldo finally calls time on an amazing and illustrious career

Brazilian superstar Rivaldo called time on a wonderful career yesterday at the age of 41. Via social media, he told fans that it was “with tears in my eyes I’d like to give thanks to God, my family and for all the support I have received in 24 years as a player. Today I’m announcing to my fans around the world that my history as a player has reached its end.”

A Ballon D’Or winner in 1999 and a World Cup winner in 2002, Rivaldo’s most recent stint was being sparingly used for Brazilian third-tier side  Mogi Mirim (for whom he is also club president). Just last month he played a league game for the side, lining up alongside his son, Rivaldinho.

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The Brazilian genius enjoyed a lengthy career, making his professional debut in 1991 for Santa Cruz. He then went onto play for Mogi Mirim, Corinthians and Palmeiras before moving to Europe where he joined Deportivo La Coruña in Spain. His performances for the blue and whites earned him multi-million deal with Barcelona and it was at the Catalans where he became a global superstar.

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After the 2002 World Cup, he left Barça for another leading name in world football – AC Milan. A short loan stint back in his homeland with Cruzeiro was to follow before joining Olympiacos and then AEK Athens where he enjoyed considerable success, winning multiple Greek Super League titles.

After four years in Greece and considered well past his prime, Rivaldo signed a two-year contract worth €10.2 million with an ambitious side called Bunyodkor, based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. No, I hadn’t heard of them prior to this deal.

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After two years in Central Asia, Rivaldo departed for his homeland with stints at Mogi Mirim and then onto Brazilian giants Sao Paulo. But he made yet another unusual move in 2012 by signing for Angolan side Kabuscorp after being rejected by English League One side Charlton Athletic.

The past twelve witnessed him depart one last time for his native Brazil, turning out for São Caetano before finally rejoining Mogi Mirim.

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Rivaldo, multiple league winner, former world player of the year, World Cup winner, scorer of one of the best hat-tricks I have ever seen, and now president of a club where his son plays, will be 42 next month. He can finally put the feet up after one amazing and illustrious career.

And I salute him.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and check out the blog on Facebook.

Football's greatest moments

Late bloomers: from brick-laying to the World Cup

Southampton striker Rickie Lambert made his Premier League debut at the age of 30 against Man City at the beginning of the 2012/13 season. At the age of 31, he made his England debut and scored a goal with his first touch in the game.

Rickie Lambert celebrates scoring for England

Now, at the age of 32, and with season upon season of working tirelessly in the lower leagues of English football, Lambert looks likely to make his way into England’s world cup squad this summer.

But he’s not the only late bloomer to make a name for himself.

Luca Toni was considered a journeyman of Italy’s lower leagues for many seasons, having turned out for teams such as Empoli, Fiorenzuola, and Lodigiani. A move to a then-ambition Serie B side Palermo at the age of 26, Toni impressed the Italian media and indeed Italian fans with a total of 50 goals in 80 games plus promotion to Serie A.

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His unorthodox yet highly effective style of play earned him a call-up to the Italian national team, as well as big money moves to Fiorentina and Bayern Munich. A World Cup winner in 2006, he still plays top flight football in Italy today, aged 36, with Hellas Verona.

Toni’s former-Bayern Munich team-mate Miroslav Klose didn’t start off with the Bavarian giants. While playing at FC 08 Homburg in 1999 (in the 5th tier of German football), then in his twenties, Klose worked in the building trade to help pay the bills.

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In just three short years, and now a prominent FC Kaiserslautern player in the Bundesliga, Klose was in the German national team for the 2002 World Cup where he scored five goals (including one against Ireland). He is now the joint-second all time goalscorer in the World Cup alongside Gerd Müller and just behind Brazilian genius Ronaldo. Not bad for a one-time brick-layer.

John Aldridge played a significant part of his career in England’s lower leagues. He was called up to Jack Charlton’s Ireland squad in 1986 while still at Oxford United. He was in his third season Manor Ground then. Before joining Oxford, he spent five seasons at Newport County. But, by 1987, and at the age of 29, Aldridge was brought to Liverpool as a replacement for the Juventus-bound Ian Rush.

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Two successful seasons, a move to La Liga, before heading back to Merseyside to sign for Tranmere Rovers, Aldo has found his feet. He remained in Birkenhead for the rest of his career – a career that, in 889 appearances, he scored a record an astonishing 476 goals. The majority of them coming from England’s lower leagues.

So good luck to Rickie Lambert and his quest for a World Cup appearance. I hope it happens for him this summer and in truth it may just happen. At 32, he will be quite a late-bloomer at a time when top-level football in Blighty is importing the best young players that money can buy – which in my view definitely affects the quality of top homegrown players coming through their clubs’ ranks – but that’s a debate for another day.

Perhaps my own Ireland career isn’t dead just yet.

Footy thoughts, Superstars

In the name of the father…

“Leave him alone, this is all he needs. His name is hard to carry,” said France manager Didier Deschamps this week when asked about footballing legend Zinedine Zidane’s son, Real Madrid youth footballer and France under-19′s Enzo Fernandez. “Zizou lived his life, had his career. Enzo will have his own.”

Of course living up to your father’s name can be no easy task for a young footballer. Especially if your father is something of a legend. There will always be comparisons.

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“There are two types of football players,” former Barcelona and Manchester United player Jordi Cruyff once said. “The legends and the mortals. My father is a legend and I am a mortal”. Indeed, when your father is Johann Cruyff, one of the game’s finest in history, it can come with extraordinary pressure.

Jordi spent much of his youth career at Ajax and then Barcelona before working his way into the senior side – then managed by his father. His performances earned him a switch to Man United for a £1.4 million fee in 1996, becoming a regular in the side before injury caused him problems and he slipped out of favour with Fergie.

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But Cruyff played for Barcelona, Manchester United and Holland – he even scored for his country during Euro ’96. By any player’s standards, that’s pretty damn good. His performances didn’t live up to the name Cruyff in footballing world  (he even put his first name ‘Jordi’ on the back of jerseys instead of ‘Cruyff’ in a bid to stop the constant comparisons). In reality, Jordi Cruyff, despite his obscure later career turning out for clubs in Ukraine and Malta, was a fine player. But Jordi was a mere mortal in a business where his father was a legend.

But plenty of players do emulate their famous fathers.

Cesare Maldini was an AC Milan legend. He played for the Rossoneri for twelve years and represented Italy in the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. His son Paolo, who was also a defender, ignored the pressures that came with the surname and became possibly a bigger legend. I’m sure Cesare’s grandson, Daniel, who is currently in AC Milan’s youth teams, won’t be feeling any pressure then.

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But will the Maldinis become the new Forláns? You know the name, right? Sure they are just a family from Montevideo. But they led Uruguay to Copa America titles across three generations – Diego Forlán, his father, Pablo Forlán, and his grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazo.

So Enzo Fernandez may have chosen his mother’s name. But he’ll forever be linked with the name Zidane. And with that comes extraordinary pressure. But as the Maldinis and Forláns will tell you: that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and be sure to check out the blog on Facebook.

Internationals

10 legends that have never played in a World Cup

With major talents such as Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale and David Alaba missing out on this summer’s World Cup, they hope to some day showcase their talents of football’s greatest stage. Some of the game’s most legendary superstars, decorated at club level and adored by million have never actually made played in the competition. Let’s have a look at 10 of the best:

Eric Cantona – France.
The much-loved cult hero, nicknamed The King around Manchester since the mid-nineties, is a player who has had a turbulent relationship with the national team. Having been indefinitely banned international matches from 1988 after calling then-France manager Henri Michel a “bag of shit” on live TV. Recalled to the Les Bleus set up later by Michel Platini, the only international competition he featured in was Euro ’92.
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Alfredo di Stefano – Argentina and Spain.
The great Real Madrid legend has represented three countries in his life – his native Argentina, Colombia (though not recognized by FIFA) and Spain. Argentina refused to participate in the 1950 and 1954 tournaments. He acquired Spanish citizenship in 1956 – three years after joining Madrid – and was capped 31 times but Los Rojos failed to qualify for the 1958 tournament. Spain did qualify for the ’62 tournament but di Stefano didn’t feature due to injury. Argh!
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Ryan Giggs – Wales.
Still playing at the highest level and into his 40′s, Giggs has won an incredible amount of silverware for his sole club – Manchester United. He’s also highly decorated with individual awards going back as far as 1991. It is a shame that his international career is almost the polar opposite having never qualified for a major tournament – let alone the World Cup.
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George Weah – Liberia.
One of the greatest African players of all time, Weah came from a country that sadly has never qualified for the tournament. During qualifying for the 1994 tournament, Liberia, known as the Lone Stars, withdrew during the qualifiers. In truth, the footballing minnows, despite producing a world-class talent like Weah, has never even come close to a major tournament. A year later, he was FIFA World Player of the Year and joined giants AC Milan and stunned crowd with his talents. It’s a shame, he never came even close to doing the same on a big international stage.
Soccer - African Nations Cup Mali 2002 - Group A - Mali v Liberia

George Best – Northern Ireland.
“George Best was one of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final”. Those are the words of 1974 World Cup winning captain Franz Beckenbauer. That kind of sums up pretty much everyone’s opinion on Best’s international career. The playmaker only appeared for Northern Ireland 37 times, scoring nine goals. His well-documented lifestyle was the main reason behind so few caps in a 13-year international career. Best came close once to playing in the competition when he was considered by manager Billy Bingham for the 1982 competition but, at the age of 36, the genius’ skills had faded and his party lifestyle had taken it’s toll.
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Bernd Schuster – West Germany.
Schuster won only 22 caps for West Germany. He was part of the 1980 European Championship winning team and is one of the few players to play for both Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. His premature retirement from the national team was, according to Schuster, due to a major disagreement with the managements of both Barcelona and the German national team on either side of a friendly match against Brazil. When West Germany lifted the World Cup trophy in 1990, the 30-year old, a star in La Liga, could only watch on.
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Jari Litmanen – Finland.
His country’s greatest ever player, Jari Litmanen has enjoyed an illustrious career, turning out for the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool. Finland’s failure to qualify for a major tournament however prevented Litmanen from proving his talent at the highest level in international competition.
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Liam Brady – Republic of Ireland.
Having won 70 of his 72 caps starting for Ireland, Chippy enjoyed a long yet somewhat unsuccessful international career.  A Serie A winner with Juventus and a PFA Players’ Player of the Year with Arsenal, Brady had, by the time of the qualifiers of the 1990 World Cup came around, retired from international football. The Boys in Green secured a place in the 1990 competition in Italy (for the first time in our history) and Brady made himself available once again for selection. Boss Jack Charlton decided that those who played in the qualifier were the ones considered for the selection and Brady’s World Cup dreams, at the age of 34, came to a full stop for good.
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Matthew Le Tissier – England.
Le Tiss played the vast majority of his career for one club – Southampton. Throughout the mid-nineties, his dazzling skills made him one of the hottest talents in England and he resisted the urge to transfer to some major clubs that were swooping around at the time. Barcelona superstar Xavi still hails Le Tissier as his favourite player to this day. Bizarrely, he never really had the chance at international level and made only eight appearances and failed to score in any of them. Having failed to qualify for the 1994 tournament and being controversially overlooked by Glen Hoddle for the 1998 squad, Le Tiss’ international career never really took off.
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Ian Rush – Wales.
Rush had a wonderful eye for goal. His time at Liverpool throughout the 1980′s and 1990′s produced well over 200 league goals. His 16 year international career witnessed him score 28 goals – still a Welsh record – in 73 caps. But, and like many of his countrymen, a major tournament eluded him. I’m sure Wales’ current superstar, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, will be doing his best not to end up on a similar list in years to come.
LFC's star striker Ian Rush, representing Wales. February 1988

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Internationals, Republic of Ireland

Tough test ahead for Ireland’s Euro 2016 dream

The Boys In Green have been drawn with Germany, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and UEFA’s latest member Gibraltar in Group D.

On paper it seems very possible. Likely even. The reality is that Ireland will have to work hard if we are to qualify for Euro 2016. Martin O’Neill, more than anyone, will know this.

“I think it’s the toughest group but it’s an exciting one,” the Ireland boss told the press following the draw.

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Ireland fans will relish the trips to some of the countries anyway. I’d be lying if I said a trips to Scotland, Germany and Gibraltar don’t appeal to me.

England have been handed the easiest group in my opinion with San Marino, Estonia, Lithuania, Switzerland and Slovenia. Meanwhile our Northern Irish neighbours have a tough task in facing Greece, Romania, the Faroes, Finland and Romania.

The draw in full:

Group A: Holland, Kazakhstan, Iceland, Latvia, Turkey, Czech Republic

Group B: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Andorra, Wales, Israel, Belgium

Group C: Spain, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine

Group D: Germany, Gibraltar, Georgia, Scotland, Poland, Republic of Ireland

Group E: England, San Marino, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Switzerland

Group F: Greece, Faroe Islands, Northern Ireland, Finland, Romania, Hungary

Group G: Russia, Liechtenstein, Moldova, Montenegro, Austria, Sweden

Group H: Italy, Malta, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Norway, Croatia

Group I: Portugal, Albania, Armenia, Serbia, Denmark

 

What do you make of the draw? Is it doable? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy travels

Footy travels #10: Madrid

The Spanish capital is known for its great cultural and artistic heritage as well as it’s lively nightlife. But it’s also home to some of the biggest clubs in the history of the game.

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How do I get in?  Madrid Barajas airport is about 18 km north-east of the city centre. It is connected by both rail and bus which frequently run to the city. The obvious more expensive choice is a stress-free cab ride and should take no more than 20 minutes or so as it’s nearly all motorway for the entire journey in.

What teams can I watch?  Real Madrid are one of the leading names in the history of world football as well as one of the most supported teams in Spain. City rivals Atlético Madrid are enjoying a great rivals this season. Rayo Vallecano are also in La Liga, but don’t enjoy the successes of their neighbours. Finally, Getafe, also another La Liga team, are located about 13 km south of the city centre.

How do I get to the stadiums?  All four stadiums can be reached by the city’s underground metro service. Real’s Bernebéu is on line 10 and the stop has the same name as the stadium – that should be an easy one to find. Atlético’s Calderon is located on the banks of the River Manzanares and the closest metro stop is line 5′s Marques de Vadillo. Rayo Vallecano’s ground is a short walk from the Buenos Aires stop on line 1. Finally, two metros is required to get to Getafe, but once you get onto line 12, the stop for the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez is Los Aspartales.

How do I get tickets?  Apart from paying above the odds for in-demand fixtures outside the grounds on any given matchday, the best way is the web. Real Madrid sell their tickets online, although very rarely cheaply. As do Atlético – though their recent form has seen an increase in spectators. You can go to a Rayo Vallecano match for as little as a tenner (sometimes less) via their website, while tickets for Getafe is rarely a problem regardless of the opposition.

What else is there to do?  Visit any of the city’s iconic landmarks, from the Royal Palace to the Cibeles fountain. The city has plenty of markets and a great shopping district around Grand Via and Sol. But it also has no shortage of pubs and clubs – some of them don’t close until 7am (I can vouch for those ones personally).

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

North/South America

Toronto’s newbies are a sign of the MLS’ growing pulling power

MLS side Toronto FC have this week confirmed the signature of the brilliant QPR goalkeeper Júlio Cesar on a loan deal after the Brazilian international had fallen out of favour with Harry Redknapp. Before crossing the Atlantic, the 34-year old had been approached by a number of top European sides, including former club Inter Milan, where he was a Champions League winner under Jose Mourinho in 2010.

But it’s World Cup year, and Cesar will be actively seeking some first team football to ensure he’s part of Felipe Scolari’s plans for the competition (Big Phil luckily has always seemed to favour Cesar as Brazil’s no.1 – despite QPR’s relegation).

JulioCesartoronto

Toronto also secured the signature of Michael Bradley from Roma for €7.35 million. Bradley was a regular in the squad that are, this season, enjoying some of their best football in a number of years as well as currently lying in 2nd in Serie A.

It is a surprising move for Bradley, who is a class player and still only 26. But it shows the ambition of Toronto, whose third big recent signing was Tottenham striker Jermaine Defoe – a striker far from past his prime and with one of the sharpest eyes for goal to grace the Premier League over the past decade.

defoebradley

It’s a sign of the growing pulling power of the MLS. Yes, the league still needs to work a little more to reach the levels of the likes of the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga. But it’s definitely improving. And as their new signings prove, Toronto are one of the most ambitious clubs in it. They could, after all, have an active World Cup winning player in their squad after the summer. That would boost the club – and the league – further.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Internationals, Ones to watch, Superstars

Five players to watch out for during the World Cup

At this year’s World Cup, all eyes will be on the usual suspects in Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Suarez, Ribery etc. But here is a list of players that will feature in the competition this summer that may just shake things up a little.

Miralem Pjanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
While Edin Dzeko is the main man for Bosnia and Herzegovina for some, upon closer inspection it is twenty-three year old Miralem Pjanić that is the engine for the team. The Roma midfielder is a classic playmaker with a sharp eye for creating chances. In Bosnia and Herzegovina’s group is Argentina and it will be this man, Pjanić, that Argentine manager Alejandro Sabella should certainly not underestimate.
pjanic

Axel Witsel (Belgium)
Belgium have an incredible side for this summer’s competition: Hazard, Lukaku, Kompany, Fellaini, Benteke are just some of the big names in the side. Along with all of them is one Axel Witsel – a supremely talented player who can play all across midfield. It’s no wonder Zenit St Petersburg paid a staggering €40 million for his services to Benfica in 2012. One of the sharpest players in the Belgium squad, Witsel possesses all of the attributes to be one of the competitions biggest stars.
witsel

Fredy Guarín (Colombia)
Like Witsel, Fredy Guarín is an incredibly versatile player with, by the looks of things, no weak foot. Currently plying his trade for Inter Milan (after a decade of moving around clubs in Argentina, France, Portugal as well as his native Colombia), the 27-year old is a massive talent and when he’s in the same side as Radamel Falcao, it can only mean bad news for Colombia’s opponents.
Inter - Vaslui

Bernard (Brazil)
This 21-year old kid is probably the fastest player in the Brazil squad. In the highly likely event that he’ll make the cut into the final squad for the competition, the Shakhtar Donestsk winger will stun both players and fans as he doesn’t seem to have an off switch. Renowned Spanish newspaper El Pais named Bernard as one of the eleven best South American footballers of 2013.
bernard

Keisuke Honda (Japan)
A mainstay of the Japanese national team since his debut in 2008, Keisuke Honda is a growing talent. Signing from CSKA Moscow to AC Milan last month, the 27-year old is now at the perfect stage of his career to showcase his incredible abilities at the highest level. A technically gifted attacking midfielder, Honda will be at the heart of Japan’s engine – and he is not one bit easy to stop.
honda

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

North/South America

Beckham brings football to the heat of Miami

This week David Beckham has confirmed that he exercised his option to buy a MLS expansion team for $25 million, which he had received as part of the contract he signed with the LA Galaxy seven years ago. Becks promises to make the new franchise a magnet for the football world.

“Who wouldn’t want to play in Miami and live in Miami?” Beckham said of the players who are apparently already calling up the former-England captain seeking to be a part of the new franchise. “I know this city is ready for football.” But I wonder is it?

The city already have four major sports teams – the Miami Heat in basketball, the Miami Dolphins in American football, the Florida Panthers in the NHL, and the Miami Marlins in baseball. All of them are contsantly have a high number of empty seats – and they are the four major sports in the United States.

David Beckham

Football, or soccer as it’s called stateside, simply cannot compete with the other sports currently. It will take decades for it to catch up. Both the Miami Fusion and Miami Toros, now-defunct clubs that had great expectation, have both tried and failed.

Beckham is credit to the sport for trying to develop the game he loves for the American market. The Beckham brand will get the world’s media interested. And, more importantly, some big-name players and coaches, as well as the all-important investors to help the club survive.

The club are not expected to compete until 2016 or 2017 (the location for a stadium is being scouted as I type), but I would guess that if an ageing Frank Lampard and Rio Ferdinand want to get one last hurrah as well as a big pay-day, they’ll be calling up their former international team-mate. Or maybe Becks has other ideas and wants to bring in major talent at their peak? Time will tell.

Best of luck to Beckham. It’s a risky business.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)