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)

 

Footy thoughts

PSV fans say no to Wi-Fi in their stadium

The new Sky Sports 5 showed it’s first Dutch Eredivisie live game of the season between PSV and NAC Breda last Saturday afternoon in which the Eindhoven club won 6-1. But throughout the match, behind one of the goals in the infamous  T and U sections, PSV supporters began to protest against the introduction of Wi-Fi at their stadium.

The supporters were angered that the club are encouraging supporters to use the internet on their phones during a match, instead of watching the match and supporting the team instead.

While Wi-Fi would surely be welcomed by football fans from outside The Netherlands attending matches in the Philips Stadion (such as yours truly), it is according to supporters groups the latest in a series of decisions intended to gentrify the crowd at home matches.

“F**k wifi. Support the team” one large banner read among the chants from the PSV faithful (see video below).

While I understand where the supporters are coming from, I feel Wi-Fi is something that should be welcomed into stadia. Aside from fans from overseas coming to matches as I’ve said before, but it would surely be handy – or in some cases even essential – to check the scores from other important league or cup matches being played simultaneously. I don’t think somebody checking the scores on their phone or even sending a live tweet during the match isn’t supporting the club any less.

What do you think?

Let Rob Smith know your thoughts via Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch

Four players in the EPL to keep an eye on this season

There has been some big money moved to the English Premier League so far. Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas to Chelsea and Ander Herrera to Man United all stick out. But, and as with every year, there will be a few players with a smaller profile that will stick out for their clubs. Let’s have a look at some hot prospects for the forthcoming season:

Bojan – Stoke City
When Bojan was the darling of Barcelona and the envy of opposing managers, plenty were heard saying if the Catalan player could do it on a rainy Wednesday night in Stoke. Well now we will see the answers. Bojan is actually a versatile player with two powerful feet. He’s not a goalscorer as such, but he has fantastic pace and agility. Something both Pep Guardiola and Frank Rijkaard have said about him. He’s been wandering around since leaving Barcelona at clubs such as Roma, Milan and Ajax. I think he may well find his suited club with The Potters.

Leonardo Ulloa – Leicester City
Ulloa has been enjoying a great pre-season with The Foxes. Add to that the great season he had at Brighton last year, he could actually be quite the player for Leicester as they enjoy Premier League football for the first time since the 2004-04 season. The £8 million man seems to have found his feet playing in England after a slow few years in Spain and Argentina. Could he be the perfect fit for The Foxes?

Jack Rodwell – Sunderland
Rodwell joined Man City from Everton is 2012 with a reputation as being one of the hottest prospects in England following some wonderful displays while with The Toffees. But effectively he sat on the bench for two years and his career lost some momentum. Now at Sunderland, the 23 year old still has time on his side as well as a superb manager in Gus Poyet. I feel he could be just the man to make Man City furious he was sold.

Daryl Janmaat – Newcastle
The Toon managed to get themselves a superb defender in Daryl Janmaat. The 25-year-old Dutchman enjoyed two great seasons at Feyenoord recently before being selected by Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands side for the recent World Cup (where he performed well and even managed an assist in the famous 5-1 win over Spain). Alan Pardew’s replacement for the Arsenal-bound Mathieu Debuchy is, in my opinion, a superb bit of business from Newcastle. Keep your eye on this guy.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Entertainment & media

Join the official Hot Press fantasy football league

It’s August and normal service will be resuming very shortly and that means so will the fantasy football. Excited? We are.

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For those who were in the league last season, all you have to do is pick your team and once it’s confirmed, you will automatically re-join the Official Hot Press fantasy football league.

For those who weren’t in the competition last year, but want to join us then here is what you must do:

  1. Go here to the official website of the Barclays Premier League.
  2. Register with the site (it takes around a minute).
  3. Pick your players and once satisfied with your selection click on ‘confirm team’.
  4. Go to ‘join leagues’. We’re in a private league, so enter the code 1005834-239916 when prompted.
  5. Let battle commence.

Once more the good folk at Hot Press HQ will be dishing out some lovely prizes for the best managers in the league, so stay tuned for more info on that.

So any idea who you’re going to pick?

105559

Alexis Sanchez is causing a stir around North London. At £10.5 million, he’s pricey. But he’s guaranteed points surely? What about Chelsea new boy Cesc Fabregas. At £9 million that’s a steal for the former-Barcelona man. Though he’s got some stiff competition in the Blues’ midfield. Sergio Aguero is a hefty £12 million. But he’ll guarantee you points. Or will he? Seamus Coleman played out of his skin and earned a total score of 180 points last season. He’s £7 million. Can he repeat it?

Let’s find out.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland

 

Footballers' mad moments

Is Wenger onto something questioning City’s motives for Lamps loan?

“It is a surprise,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said at the weekend when asked about Manchester City and Frank Lampard. “I’ve heard they (Man City) want to buy five clubs all around the world. The players will register in the clubs where they will put them and they can get out on loan. Is it a way to get around the (financial) fair play? I don’t know.”

Of course, it is something of a surprise for Frank Lampard to agree to join Man City, even if that is on loan from New York City FC, the newly formed club bought by the same owners as the sky blue half of Manchester. The former Chelsea and England midfielder had previously stated that he could never join another Premier League team due to his respect for the Blues. That will change when the 36-year-old will join up with his City teammates on Wednesday.

But perhaps Wenger is onto something? In an era when financial fair play is tightening, it might be the perfect (if a little elaborate and audacious) loop hole in which the wealthy Abu Dhabi United Group, the company that owns City, can avoid the fair play. 

We live in an era where people don’t bat an eyelid when a €30 million fee for a player transfer occurs. What’s an entire new club to one of the wealthiest on the planet? Stranger things have happened. Watch this space.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe, Footy thoughts

French minnows Luzenac too small for Ligue 2?

AP Luzenac, a small club from a tiny village with a population of just 650 in the Pyrenees, will find out on Thursday whether they will be allowed to play in Ligue 2. Or will their dreams be crushed because in fact they are just too small.

The club were competing at amateur level in regional French leagues until 2009. That was until when they gained promotion to the Championnat de France National – the country’s third tier league. Competitive football wasn’t the easiest of transitions for them – barely surviving relegation twice in a row along with financial pressures threatened to dissolve the club. Until wealthy businessman Jérôme Ducros lend a hand of support.

Ducros brought in former Man United and France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez as managing director. Barthez, from neighbouring village Lavelanet, like the rest of France, had taken a shine to Luzenac and accepted the role. The World Cup winner proved to be a shrewd operator, luring talented players which ultimately witnessed the club finishing in second.

The club are already by far the smallest club ever to play in the French third division, but their deserved status of being the same in the second division is under threat.

With promotion secured, Luzenac began preparing for the next step – the primary concern was finding somewhere suitable to play. Their own ground, the Stade Paul Fédou, has only one stand and 400 seats and worthy of only amateur football in France. This is why they played last season at a ground in nearby Foix – but that only has a capacity of 3,000, far fewer than is required to meet Ligue 2 standards.

Ducros, at the time of writing, was hatching a plan to bring Luzenac 80 km away to Toulouse for Ligue 2 football as well as luring in some top talent both on the pitch and the sidelines.

This Thursday, the club will make their voices heard for the last time when the case is heard by a Toulouse court whose verdict will be final. Should Luzenac lose, they will have to accept getting no reward for last season’s heroics and the future will look somewhat uncertain. Barthez and Ducros fear the club could go the way of AS Valence, who were repeatedly denied entry to Ligue 2 in 2004 and soon ceased to exist.

However if they win, Ligue 2 will have to be expanded to feature 21 teams rather than 20 next season and organisers will have to devise a new fixture list accordingly – just two days before the campaign kicks off. It will be the fairytale ending they are waiting for. You never know – they may even get Cristiano Ronaldo someday.

 

UPDATE: It’s official – Luzenac are in Ligue 2

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Mavericks, Superstars

What next for Ronaldinho?

Living legend Ronaldinho and Atlético Mineiro have parted company this week after agreeing to terminate the Brazilian playmaker’s contract with immediate effect.

A decade ago, Ronaldinho was one of the most talked about players on the planet, in the same way the football-loving public rave about Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronnie won the Libertadores Cup with Alético Mineiro – the first time he or the club lifted the continent’s most biggest club prize.

The Brazilian international wowed audiences for his magical displays for PSG, Barcelona and Milan, the three clubs he turned out for when widely considered to be at his peak. Ronaldinho done things with the ball most of us could only dream of.

His agent, who is also his brother, Roberto de Assis has stated that the former Ballon d’Or winner wishes to play until he is 42 (similar to compatriot and fellow genius Rivaldo) and that his new club will be revealed this week. 

It was suggested that Ronnie would be the ideal replacement for Juan Roman Riquelme, who left Boca Juniors for city rivals Argentinos Juniors. Though there is much speculation that some MLS teams are also interested with all eyes on New York City FC for any potential news.

Either way, Ronaldinho may be 34, but the man is a sheer genius. Yes, his partying lifestyle may have led to the decline of his brilliance, but he can still do things with a ball that you and I dream of. Lucky will be the club that lands ‘Dinho’s signature. 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Mavericks, Superstars

Five great players who are currently free agents (part 1)

We’re right in the thick of the summer transfer window and some big signings are taking place. But there’s some players, decent players too, that won’t cost a penny.

Samuel Eto’o
The Cameroon international may be reaching the final few seasons of his career, but he remains a world-class striker. The former Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Chelsea striker can still, at the age of 33, find the back of the net no problem and would be an ideal addition to many squads. At the time of writing ‘Arry Redknapp is lining up a move to bring the star to QPR.

Victor Valdes
The former Barcelona goalkeeper left the Camp Nou nineteen years after first joining the club’s academy at the age of 13. The Spanish international was originally supposed to sign for Monaco, but failed a medical having not fully recovered from an injury that left Valdes out for the second half of last season. The World Cup winner has previously said that he would be interested in a move to Italy or England.

Georgios Samaras
The Greek international has been something of a fans favourite at Celtic Park for the past number of seasons. Still only 29, Samaras, who scored in the World Cup against Ivory Coast, helped Greece reach the final 16 of the tournament. Having previously tuned out for Man City and Heerenveen, he would be likely to be snapped up by a decent team thought it’s rumoured that Ronny Deila is open to re-signing Samaras for the Bhoys.

Guillermo Ochoa
I first came across the Mexican ‘keeper when he turned out for Club America some years ago and featured him in my ‘Ones To Watch’ section some four years ago. Last month the entire world witnessed Ochoa turn out some phenomenal performances in the World Cup. Ochoa recently played for Ajaccio in Ligue 1, and judging by how he performed recently, he shouldn’t have any trouble finding a new club. Lucky the club that can land his signature.

Nicklas Bendtner
The Danish international has something of a bad-boy image, but is still a very decent forward and is fantastic in the air. Bendtner’s nine years at Arsenal is now at an end, but has enjoyed loan spells at Birmingham and Sunderland as well as a disappointing time at Juventus where he failed to score a single goal in Serie A. Regardless, still at the age of just 26, Bendtner has a lot to offer any club. And I do mean a lot! (So long as he keeps his head down that is.)

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments, Superstars

Luis Suarez: not the first gifted bad-boy at Barcelona

The words “flawed genius” is thrown about a lot. In the case of Luis Suarez, this certainly seems to be justified. His performances for Liverpool last year alone stunned audiences and, let’s be honest, his fellow professionals.

Barcelona’s President Josep Maria Bartomeu, director of football Andoni Zubizarreta and new manager Luis Enrique know exactly what the Uruguayan is like – both good and bad. His arrival at the club is one without an official presentation and also a ban that won’t see him turn out for the Catalans until well into October. 

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He is a player very reminiscent of Hristo Stoitchkov, who was  part of Johan Cruyff‘s ‘Dream Team’, and helped Barcelona to one of the most successful eras of the club in the early 1990′s.

Playing in El Clásico in 1990, the referee was concerned about Stoitchkov’s aggression against the Madrid players. The referee said to Cruyff to “tell the bull to cool down or I will send him to the cattle-pen,” and Stoichkov duly responded by stamping on the referee’s foot. That moment of madness led to a two-month ban.

The Bulgarian was remembered for his moments of genius on the pitch, but his place in Catalan folklore is assured by his frequent anti-Madrid statements such as  “I will always hate Madrid. There’s just something about them that gets up my nose. Speaking about them makes me want to vomit. I would rather the ground opened up and swallowed me than accept a job with them”.

Luis Suarez has had way more than his fair share of moments of madness already. Some say he’s a genius with a ball, which he is, while others say there’s something not quite right to make him lash out at opponents, which is also true.

But all Barça fans think that he could well do something outrageous again. They know that Suarez has the capabilities to be a game changer and a match winner. Barcelona are getting an incredible talent. If he bites an opponent yet again, he’ll face huge sanctions. If he scores the winner in the Bernebéu, he’ll earn his place in Barça folklore. 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)