Demolition Derby

27 Aug

This article originally appeared in Just Football as part of their ‘Your Boys Took One Hell of a Beating’ series.

While Martin O’Neill’s appointment as Celtic manager was warmly welcomed by the club’s fans in July 2000, the general consensus was that he would have a huge task on his hands to build a successful side.  Although the Irishman was handed a sizeable transfer budget, it was thought that he and his new club may have to play second fiddle to their great rivals.

Rangers had won 11 of the previous 12 league titles, including the last two under Dick Advocaat.  With David Murray’s millions funding the Ibrox club, they were expected to continue their domination of the Scottish game.  One ‘expert’ in the media believed it would take Celtic as long as five years to challenge again for the league title.

The first Old Firm contest of that season took place at Celtic Park on 27/8/00.  Although the home side had opened their league campaign with four straight wins, even a point against their old foes would have been a step in the right direction – a sign that this time, Celtic weren’t going to meekly roll over.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, could have foreseen what was about to unfold.  Ten years of failure and submission had led to Celtic holding an inferiority complex as big as their 60,000 seat stadium. However, the balance of power between Scotland’s big two effectively shifted in just over ten minutes.  It went something like this:

1 min

A great start.  An early corner for Celtic, and Henrik Larsson’s mis-hit shot is turned into the net by Old Firm debutant Chris Sutton. 1-0

8 mins

Another corner and another goal – this time a header by Stilian Petrov, as he rises above a stunned Rangers defence. 2-0.

11 mins

If the first two goals produced wild celebrations amongst the home support, the third prompted complete and utter bedlam.  Pocket genius Lubo Moravcik twists and turns on the byeline, before his cutback is met by Paul Lambert, who calmly guides the ball into the far corner, past former Borussia Dortmund team-mate, Stefan Klos. 3-0.

15 mins

If the match wasn’t already over, it should have been at this point.  Larsson, through one-on-one with Klos, tries to go round the keeper instead of picking his spot.  The German gratefully smothers the ball.

21 mins

Fernando Ricksen’s first Old Firm game comes to a premature end as the Rangers defender is replaced by Tugay.  Playing at right-back, the Dutchman has been torn to shreds by his fellow countryman, Bobby Petta.  Ricksen’s next visit to Celtic Park later in the season isn’t any more successful as he receives a red card before half-time.

40 mins

A lifeline for the visitors.  Claudio Reyna’s header appears to have been saved by Jonathan Gould but the ball is ruled to have crossed the line. 3-1.

50 mins

Any hopes Rangers have of a second-half fightback appear to be snuffed out as Larsson scores one of the finest goals ever seen in an Old Firm match.  After receiving a chested pass from Sutton around 30 yards out, the Swede skips past Bert Konterman, nudging the ball through the Dutchman’s legs.  As he heads in on goal, Larsson opens up his body as if ready to curl a shot inside Stefan Klos’ left-hand post.  The German keeper tries to anticipate the strike but seconds later he’s grounded and can only admire Larsson’s glorious chip which sails towards the opposite side of the goal.  Larsson wheels away in celebration as the ball drops under the crossbar and into the net. 4-1.

53 mins

A Billy Dodds penalty narrows the deficit as the visitors hang on in there. 4-2.

62 mins

The goal that finally ends the match as a contest.  Petta’s free-kick from the right is met by Larsson, whose glancing header leaves Klos rooted to the spot. 5-2.

80 mins

Already on a yellow card, Barry Ferguson receives his marching orders after deliberately handling the ball and subsequently throwing it away.  Unfortunately for Ferguson, it’s not his only Old Firm battle that day – he is later involved in a street brawl with Celtic fans.

90 mins

The cherry on top of the icing on the cake.  Petta’s ball down the left wing is collected by Stephane Mahe and the Frenchman’s low cross is met at the far post by the outstretched foot of Sutton.  The striker ends the match as he started it – putting the ball in the opposition net and thus, in one game, scoring more goals than he had in all of the previous season at Chelsea. 6-2.

The importance of this result, and the manner of the victory, cannot be underestimated.  A narrow win could have been attributed to good fortune or home advantage, but this was different – Celtic had swept aside their biggest rivals with a breathtaking display of power and pace.

This was no plucky, hard-fought win – more a signal of intent.  During much of that season, O’Neill would describe Rangers as the “benchmark”, but he was fooling no-one.  Despite losing 5-1 at Ibrox in the next meeting of the sides, Celtic were comfortable league champions as they completed their first domestic treble since 1969.

During his time in Scotland, Martin O’Neill won three SPL titles, three Scottish Cups, a League Cup and reached the 2003 UEFA Cup final.  This match was the catalyst for that success, as Celtic didn’t just overcome a psychological barrier, they smashed it to pieces.

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Fighting Back: The Return of Real Betis

15 Aug

As Deportivo La Coruna slip out of the Primera Division following their relegation at the end of last season, another famous name returns to the top-tier of Spanish football.

Real Betis ended their 2 year hiatus from La Liga by clinching the Segunda title.  Pepe Mel’s side finished 4 points clear of nearest challengers, Rayo Vallecano, and made up for the disappointment of the previous season’s fourth place – the Verdiblancos completed 2009/10 level on points with Hercules and Levante, but missed out on promotion by virtue of having an inferior head-to-head record when compared to their two rivals.

The club from Seville have been league champions once, Spanish Cup winners twice and are said to be the sixth best supported team in their homeland.  However, to suggest that Betis have had a turbulent recent history would be something of an understatement.  As recently as 2005, they were Copa del Rey winners and in the same season came fourth in La Liga, thus qualifying for the Champions League.  Their first appearance in Europe’s premier competition resulted in a respectable third place finish in their group, including a victory over Chelsea.

However in domestic terms, it was all downhill from there.  A succession of finishes in the bottom-half of the table culminated in relegation at the end of 2008/09, sending Betis to second division football for the first time since 2001.

When they failed to achieve an instant return, Mel was appointed.  As well as having spells in charge of Tenerife (where he succeeded Rafa Benitez) and Rayo Vallecano, Mel played for Betis’ promotion winning side of 1990, scoring 22 times.  He has now repeated the feat as a boss, aided by the likes of 27-goal striker Ruben Castro and midfielder Salva Sevilla.

Any dramas on the pitch however, pale into insignificance when held up against the off-field turmoil which has engulfed the club.  By the time of Betis’ relegation in 2009, fans and other observers had became more than a tad concerned by Manuel Ruiz De Lopera’s handling of the club’s affairs.  Owner since 1992, De Lopera presided over the some of the most notable triumphs in Betis’ history, but has also overseen two relegations, the then world record signing of Brazilian flop Denilson and even had the temerity to rename the club’s stadium after himself.

Supporters frustrations came to a head on 15 June 2009 or ’15-J’ as it became known – it was estimated that up to 65,000 ‘Beticos’ took to the streets, marching to call for the end of De Lopera’s reign.  It took another year, but it looked as if finally the fans wishes were granted when first, De Lopera was charged with fraud, and then he agreed to sell most of his shares to a consortium headed by businessman Luis Oliver.  However, Oliver had hardly covered himself in glory previously having taken two other clubs (Xerez and Cartagena) to the brink of bankruptcy and it then transpired that De Lopera was merely looking to ‘park’ his shares with Oliver and will still intent on remaining very much in charge.

Step forward Mercedes Alaya, the Spanish judge who had brought those charges against De Lopera.  She froze his assets before any transaction could be completed and appointed a three-man committee to administer his shares in Betis.  One member of this committee was Rafael Gordillo.  While Gordillo is probably best known as an excellent left-sided defender and midfielder for Real Madrid and Spain in the 1980’s, he spent the first nine years of his career at Betis and was later to return for another spell – he was also at the forefront of the ’15-J’ protests.

While Gordillo has now handed over the reins to new president Miguel Guillen, his return and the departure of De Lopera led to a period of relative stability – and the stadium returning to it’s previous name of Estadio Benito Villamarin. Betis however, are by no means out of the woods – they remain in the Spanish version of administration with reported debts of around 84 million Euros.

Betis fans will aim to relegate financial and boardroom concerns to the backs of their minds in the coming season as they resume hostilities with Barcelona, Real Madrid and, most importantly, their cross-town rivals.  In terms of intensity and animosity, the Seville derbi is arguably only surpassed in Spain by El Clasico itself.  However, as satisfying as victory over Sevilla would be, in the short-term the biggest battles for Real Betis will be fought away from the field of play.

 

 

SPL Preview 2011/12

1 Aug

A recent piece for Just Football. 

The whole of Europe is eagerly awaiting the new SPL season which kicks-off on 23rd July – well no, actually they’re not.  Not surprising really, given that the last campaign turned out to be a truly horrible affair for so many reasons.  Hopefully this year will be more about players, teams and results, rather than referees, politics and death threats.  Here’s a look ahead to 2010/11:

Some Old Favourites Return

Were the SPL to adopt a Champions League-style theme tune, then ‘Welcome Home’ would be apt.  Hibernian have brought back Garry O’Connor and Ivan Sproule, Willo Flood has signed on again at Dundee United, and Callum Davidson has returned to his first club, St Johnstone.  Chris Clark meanwhile is back at Aberdeen and at the time of writing, Rangers are trying to agree a deal for Carlos Cuellar and may yet move for Kenny Miller.

McCoist v Lennon

That’s as rival managers, not squaring up to each other on the touchline as they did at the end of the Scottish Cup replay in March.  As Ally McCoist embarks on his first season in charge at Rangers, he has money to spend now that Craig Whyte’s takeover is finally complete.  However, he is learning the same lesson as Neil Lennon did last summer – the top two are not as big a draw as they once were, with Rangers’ signing targets Craig Conway, Neil Danns and Tomer Hemed all choosing other clubs.  McCoist has brought in Spanish midfielder Juan Manuel Ortiz and others should follow.

Celtic have brought in Kelvin Wilson to strengthen a defence which, although statistically was the best in the league, conceded too many cheap goals in too many important matches.  Kenyan Victor Wanyama provides options in midfield or at the back.  Lennon is on record as saying that it’s “imperative” that Celtic win the league – he’s not wrong.  Four years in a row without the title hasn’t happened since the dark days of the early 1990’s and if it does, then Lennon’s own future will be in doubt.

Heart of Midlothian

There’s rarely a dull moment at Tynecastle, particularly with club owner Vladimir Romanov around…or even when he’s back in Lithuania.  His most recent act was a bizarre statement via the club’s website which included:

“Every year Hearts fights to be in the top three, but even last season in the last 12 games of the season it was almost like someone replaced the team with a different one. Whose fault is that? Players? Manager’s? Or it is mafia?”

This is the same Romanov who previously suggested that Celtic and Rangers were “buying” officials and has had run-ins with numerous managers and players during his time in charge.

The latest controversy to hit the club is defender Craig Thomson’s conviction for lewd, libidinous and indecent behaviour involving two under-age females.  Hearts had originally allowed Thomson to continue his career as if nothing had happened.  However, they then suspended him after public condemnation from fans, sponsors and Edinburgh City Council – even First Minister (and Hearts fan) Alex Salmond had his say.  Hearts have now announced Thomson will leave the club, though there has been speculation that he will move to one of Romanov’s other clubs in Eastern Europe.

Despite the flak they’ve been receiving, it’s looking rather promising on the field.  Excellent in the first-half of last season, the squad has been bolstered with experienced SPL campaigners John Sutton, Danny Grainger, Jamie Hamill and Mehdi Taouil.  They won’t win the title but are clear favourites to repeat last season’s third-place finish.  Don’t be surprised if they land a domestic cup either.

The Top Six

Dundee United should be Hearts’ main challengers for third place, but will have to cope without the departing Conway and David Goodwillie.  Motherwell should also finish comfortably within the top-half – Stuart McCall has made a positive start to his time in charge at Fir Park, including last season’s Scottish Cup final appearance.  Much will depend on new signing Michael Higdon following the loss of Sutton.

Inverness Caley Thistle will look to finish in the top six after being there for much of last season but they too have lost a striker, with the impressive Adam Rooney heading to Birmingham City.  If low-scoring St Johnstone are able to find the net more often (only 23 goals in 2010/11) they may surprise a few people.

The Rest

Kilmarnock will find it tougher this time round without so many of their key men from last year, including Paatelainen, Bryson, Eremenko and Sammon. Craig Brown, meanwhile, will continue his rebuilding job at Aberdeen and any kind of finish above seventh will be a decent return.

Like the Dons, Hibernian need to make a good start or risk being dragged towards the bottom.  Hibs’ preparation has been hampered by speculation surrounding the future of manager Colin Calderwood, who is wanted by Birmingham and Nottingham Forest as an assistant.  Clearly, the timing of such a departure would be far from ideal, but it wouldn’t be a disaster: there has been little evidence during his tenure to suggest that Calderwood is the man to take the club forward, and some of his statements to the media indicate that he wouldn’t be too disappointed to leave either.

For St Mirren and Dunfermline, it could prove to be a difficult season.  The Paisley side were 10th and 11th in the last two seasons and will hope to avoid continuing on that downward trend.  The Pars meanwhile, will take heart from the likes of St Johnstone and Hamilton, who in recent years have both survived in the top flight after promotion.

Off The Field

Scottish football seemed to appear on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers almost as often as the back pages last season.  The threats to Neil Lennon’s life and the touchline attack at Tynecastle showed the world what the Celtic manager has to contend with in order to live and work in Scotland.  Then of course, there was the Dougie McDonald decision-changing fiasco which led to industrial action by referees.  As if that wasn’t enough drama, Celtic and Rangers met seven times during the course of the season, with that explosive cup-tie in March resulting in high-level meetings between the clubs, Scottish Government and the Police.  Anti-sectarian legislation is expected to follow later in the year.

So, expect another quiet season in Scotland.

Overrated Players Of Our Time – Madjid Bougherra

8 Jul

The Scottish media have come up with some great transfer stories in recent years.  Steven Fletcher to Real Madrid was good, Kenny Miller and Scott Brown being linked with the Milan clubs even better.  However, possibly the best of the lot was the suggestion that Madjid Bougherra could be on his way to Barcelona.

There have been plenty of Old Firm players who didn’t deserve the hype that surrounded them, and Bougherra appears to be the latest.  By SPL standards, he’s a decent defender, possibly his biggest asset being his ability to bring to break from a back.  However, he simply doesn’t have the temperament to be a top-class centre back.

During his time at Rangers, Bougherra has regularly made numerous unnecessary tackles and challenges to the detriment of his team.  The Scottish Cup replay at Celtic Park in March was a prime example – a needless stamp on Gary Hooper’s leg halfway up the pitch could have been a straight red itself.  It was then followed up with the childish reaction where he grabbed at Calum Murray’s arms, in an attempt to stop the referee sending him off.

Bougherra may well move on before the end of the transfer window, but the chances of his next stop being one of Europe’s top clubs are slim.

SPL Team Of The Year 2010/11

27 Jun

Originally published at Just Football

With the SPL season over, it’s time to have a look back at the players who have made their mark during the campaign.  When selecting a team of the year it’s hard to avoid Celtic and Rangers, but thankfully there are those from outside the big two who have done enough to earn their place.

 

GK: Darren Randolph (Motherwell)

When John Ruddy left Fir Park at the end of 2009/10, Motherwell were always going to have a job trying to find a suitable replacement.  Fortunately, they’ve done just that with Randolph, who has not only set a new club record for clean-sheets in one season (overtaking Ruddy in the process) but has also forced his way into the Republic of Ireland squad.

RB: Steven Whittaker (Rangers)

Whittaker is finally producing the form which made him such a prospect at Hibs.  Sound defensively and not bad going forward either, with 7 goals in all competitions.

CB: Sean Dillon (Dundee United)

Not a household name, but Dillon’s ability to read the game has led to a consistently high level of performance and United’s fans voting the Irishman as their player of the year, ahead of David Goodwillie (more about him later).  Previously a recognised right-back, Dillon has played across United’s back-four this season with his best displays coming at centre-back.

CB: Marius Zaliukas (Hearts)

Powerful and commanding, but given the off-field nonsense Zaliukas has had to deal with this season, his contribution to his side is even more impressive.  Stalling on a new contract earlier in the season, Hearts’ supremo Vladimir Romanov decided that Zaliukas should be left out of the side.  Although he returned before Christmas, Zaliukas missed the recent loss to Rangers at the behest of the Edinburgh side’s dictatorial owner, apparently departing the team bus just before it left for Glasgow.

LB: Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic)

Winner of both Player of the Year awards and proving to be an absolute bargain buy, Celtic watched Izaguirre play for Honduras at the World Cup.  A marauding full-back who links up superbly with team-mates, he also defends well and is very composed when playing himself out of trouble.  His final ball still needs a bit of work, but he has enormous potential.

RM: Steven Naismith (Rangers)

Naismith seems to have finally overcome the injury problems which hampered his early Ibrox career, and is a vital link between midfield and attack.  He has also chipped in with 11 league goals.

CM: Beram Kayal (Celtic)

Good passer of the ball, strong in the tackle, dictates the tempo of the game…and still only 23.  The Israeli international has already been linked with Manchester United and when he adds goals to his repertoire, he’ll be the complete midfielder.

AM: Alexei Eremenko (Kilmarnock)

The Finn is one of the main reasons behind Kilmarnock’s impressive campaign – very much a flair player, with great touch and vision.  Currently on loan at Rugby Park from Ukranian side Metalist Kharkiv, Eremenko has been linked with both Celtic and Rangers.

LM: David Templeton (Hearts)

The 22 year old is a throwback to the days when Scotland produced an abundance of small and tricky attacking players.  Templeton was outstanding in the opening months of the season, as demonstrated by his stunning solo effort against Hibernian.

STR: David Goodwillie (Dundee United)

Double Young Player of the Year after turning the potential he has shown in previous seasons into goals.  Linked with Rangers in January and will leave Tannadice in the summer.

STR: Gary Hooper (Celtic)

Hooper has had an outstanding first season in the SPL following his move from Scunthorpe United.  A superb first touch, the ability to dribble in tight spaces and 20 league goals suggest that when Hooper does eventually return south, it will be for a healthy profit on his £2.4 million transfer fee.

 

A mention also for some other players who either just missed out, or only played in the SPL for part of the season: Marian Kello, Mark Wilson, Kyle Bartley, Chris Humphrey, Craig Bryson, Craig Conway, Connor Sammon, Kenny Miller, Nikica Jelavic and Adam Rooney.

Review Of Predictions 2010/11 – Europe

11 Jun

Let’s get this over with.  The second part of my predictions for the season:

 

La Liga: Barcelona

Serie A: Roma

Bundesliga: Werder Bremen

Ligue Un: Lyon

Eredivisie: Ajax

Liga Sagres: Benfica

Champions League: Barcelona

Europa League: Liverpool

 

Well I did tip Barcelona for the title and the Champions League.  No, I don’t think I was the only one.  At least Ajax provided some consolation.  As for Serie A and the Bundesliga, let’s move on.

Safe to say I will be keeping my predictions for next season to myself.

Review Of Predictions 2010/11 – UK

6 Jun

At the start of the season I foolishly set up a page showing my predictions of how league titles, cups and European competitions would be won in the Scotland, England and Europe.  While the page disappeared some months ago, I suppose I had better review how many I got right.  First up are those from the UK:

SPL

1. Celtic

2. Rangers

3. Dundee United

4. Hibernian

5. Motherwell

6. Hearts

7. Hamilton Accies

8. St Johnstone

9. Aberdeen

10. Inverness CT

11. St Mirren

12. Kilmarnock

Scottish Cup: Rangers

League Cup: Rangers

Div 1: Dunfermline

 

I failed to pick the SPL title winners and once again, to their credit, Kilmarnock proved me wrong.  I’m been expecting them to go down for a few years now but they more than survived this time around. I also managed to jinx Hamilton Accies.  At least I went for Dunfermline in the First Division.

 

English Premier League

1. Chelsea

2. Manchester United

3. Arsenal

4. Manchester City

5. Tottenham

6. Liverpool

7. Everton

8. Aston Villa

9. Sunderland

10. Fulham

11. Birmingham City

12. West Ham United

13. Blackburn Rovers

14. Bolton

15. Newcastle United

16. Wigan

17. Stoke City

18. Wolves

19. West Brom

20. Blackpool

FA Cup: Tottenham

League Cup: Manchester City

Championship: Nottingham Forest

 

Sadly, I was right about Blackpool going down, though they made a much bigger fight of it than I, and many others, predicted.  Going for Chelsea to win the title looked a smart move in the opening months of the season but it wasn’t to be.  I was also very wrong about tipping West Ham and Birmingham to finish mid-table.  At least I said Manchester City would win a trophy.

 

You think these are bad? Wait till you see my European predictions.