Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Football Round-Up

The first international break of the season provides an opportunity to recap on the football so far. Chelsea under Carlo Ancellotti have been looking impressive so far, much to my chagrin, and it looks likely that it will be they, Manchester United and Arsenal that dictate the pace of the season. While it's rather silly to write off Liverpool after two defeats in four games, their failure to find an adequate replacement for Xabi Alonso and their general lack of morale is beginning to stack things up against them. Then there's Spurs, Villa and Man City, three clubs with a sense of entitlement and high hopes for the season to come. Nothing would thrill me more than to see the Lilywhites nail down a Champions' League place but I don't expect them to have the stamina - or the robustness - to make their early-season form last. City have been solid so far and like Villa, should be in the running for Europa League places (and will then, no doubt, fail to take any interest in the competition should they qualify).

Richard Williams, among others, says the balance of power is shifting away from England, back towards either Italy and Spain. It's possible, as one-country dominance in Europe over the past fifteen years has been determined by the richness of a domestic league. But a raft of close-season glamour signings at the Bernabeù and an impressive performance by Inter in the Milan derby are not evidence enough of this as yet. Expect English dominance to continue for another twelve months, with two Champions Leauge semi-final places, though ties in the knock-out stages are likely to be more competitive than in past seasons. Having said that Inter under Mourinho do look good. Though it's a sad reflection of  Italian football these days that it has taken three league titles in a row (four, if you count the default victory of 2006) to be taken seriously abroad.

France looks like having a good open league this year; I am ready to eat humble pie at my writing Lyon off; they made two of the best signings of the summer, the solid, formidable Brazilian midfielder Michel Bastos from Lille and the Argentine Lisandtro Lopez from Porto. Both have been excellent so far and pocketed some superb goals. Bordeaux and Marseille at the very least should provide stiff domestic competition but Europe should be a bridge too far for the two of them having both been landed with tough Champion's League draws. Here's a taste of how good Bastos is:

Spain looks like being another two-horse race between Real and Barça. While I don't think the new Galacticos are going to have a seismic effect on the merengues, a Championship is not beyond them. I expect Barça to continue in the same dazzling vein as last season but I'm not convinced Zlatan is a great replacement for Eto'o, even if he did get on the scoresheet fairly promptly, against Sporting Gijon at the weekend. In Europe, only Barça can seriously expect to lift old Big Ears.

As for my own teams, it's not been a great season so far. Sligo Rovers struggle in the League of Ireland and risk relegation, and were unfortunate to exit the Europa League at the first hurdle against the Albanians of Vllaznia Skodra. But they host Bohemians in the Cup quarter-final on the 13th of September, beating the Gypsies in a dress rehearsal last night. Celtic were thoroughly outclassed by Arsenal in the Champions League preliminary round, Eduardo's cheating notwithstanding, and must now be content with the Europa League where a tricky draw against  Hamburg, Rapid Vienna and Hapoel Tel-Aviv awaits them. St-Etienne got off to a disastrous start, losing their first three games and another season of struggle awaits them. Ireland continue to harbour hopes of playing in South Africa next year, despite some very uneven form and we're now all resigned to Steven Ireland not being there. More on that later in the week.

And hopefully Celtic fans will be a bit better behaved than the last time we played Rapid, throwing away a win and allowing the Austrians to march on to the Cup-Winners' Cup final, where they lost to Howard Kendall's fine Everton side: