18 June 2013

You must be Joe Kinnear!

Joe Kinnear is the greatest manager in the history of association football. Says Joe.
Joe Kinnear's return to Newcastle United is already destined to end in tears, even though he's only officially been employed by them for a few hours.

Former Magpies boss Kinnear is back on Tyneside as the club's director of football.

That's right, lads. Newcastle have brought back a man who took charge of 26 games during the 2008/2009 season, winning five of them, and contributing largely to their relegation from the Premier League. Even Graeme Souness did a better job at St James's Park.

The 66-year-old Irishman announced his return to Newcastle on Sunday, in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News. He then held another 'exclusive' interview, this time with Talksport, on Monday. But it wasn't until Tuesday that Newcastle officially confirmed that he'd signed a three-year deal with them.

The first interview, with SSN w*nkerman David Garrido, smelt strongly of self-promotion. The following day's radio interview was even worse as he displayed arrogance and stupidity in equal measures.

Calling the managing director Derek 'Lambezi' or the star midfielder Yohan 'Kebab' was ignorant at best, though not completely unacceptable. Even the much-loved Sir Bobby Robson mistook Shola Ameobi for Carl Cort more than once. But the Toon Army members who revered Sir Bobby began to revile Car Crash Kinnear when he claimed to have "more intelligence" than those who criticised him.

Then, as John Bunnell would say on World's Wildest Police Videos, things went from bad... to worse. Kinnear committed a horrendous oral crime, as he suffered reverse amnesia and claimed to have brought goalkeeper Tim Krul to Newcastle. The Dutchman was actually signed by Souness in 2005, and thus predates Kinnear's first reign at St James' Park by three years.

Those are the three big talking points, but what other garbage did Joe the Eejit come up with in those two interviews?
  • JOE SAID: "Geordies are Geordies - they want locals in charge. Because I wasn’t a Geordie, that went against me." TDTR SAYS: Kevin Keegan was from Doncaster in south Yorkshire, but the Geordies didn't turn against him.
  • JOE SAID: "Just for the record, I’ve never been manager at a club that’s got relegated." TDTR SAYS: Apart from the time his Luton Town team were relegated to Division 3 in 2001.
  • JOE SAID: "I've never been sacked in my life." TDTR SAYS: Luton sacked him two years later.
  • JOE SAID: "Last year, I was at the [LMA] awards when Alan won it. I said, ‘Congratulations, but you have to get two more to catch me!" TDTR SAYS: Alan's already caught you, Joe. Messrs Pardew and Kinnear have each won just one LMA Manager of the Year award, with Joe's coming in 1994.
  • JOE SAID: that he played more than 400 times for the great Tottenham Hotspur side of the 1960s and 1970s when talking about how much experience he has. TDTR SAYS: He only played for them 258 times - a mere 142 shy of the quadruple-century.
It is incredible that a man with such an overrated opinion of himself, and such an average record when it comes to signing players, can be placed in charge of transfers, meaning that Newcastle's excellent scout Graham Carr and managerial mastermind Alan Pardew both have to answer to him. May I remind Kinnear that it was Carr who brought players like Yohan Cabaye and Papiss Cisse to United, and Pardew who turned those underrated players into bona fide Premier League stars.

Last season's very disappointing 16th-place finish was perhaps a sign that Newcastle needed to approach this coming campaign a bit differently, but it wasn't exactly a bright idea to bring back Kinnear, who in his earlier spell would have relegated the Magpies sooner had he not suffered a heart attack in February. That reminds me of another thing that Joe said in his Sky interview: "When I had my heart attack we were flying... we were 12th." No, they were 15th, and hadn't won for six matches.

Kinnear's appointment makes the decision early last season to give Alan Pardew a new eight-year contract look even more crazy. If the new director of football undermines his manager over new signings, I can't see Pardew staying in his job beyond 20 July, let alone 2020.

Hopefully, Newcastle will figure out exactly what Joe Kinnear is all about... before it's too late. Again.

Donald Trump called - he wants his ego and haircut back.

12 June 2013

World Cup 2014 qualifiers: How things stand

Rio, here we come! Japan are already preparing for the 2014 World Cup assault.
There is exactly a year left to go until the start of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and we're approaching the business end of the qualifying stages.

203 teams started out on the road to Rio de Janeiro (amongst other cities, of course), and as things stand, just one team - Japan - has booked their place in the finals, and 101 are still in qualifying contention. The next five months will decide which 30 teams join Brazil and Japan in next year's big dance.

With 365 days to go until it all kicks off in Sao Paulo, what is the current state of play? Today, TDTR looks at the runners and riders, along with some of the big-name fallers.

In Round 2, 40 teams are split into 10 groups of four. The winners of each round-robin group will advance to Round 3, where they will be put into five two-legged knockout ties, with the winners qualifying for the World Cup.

With only ten teams advancing to the final round of Africa's qualifiers, we are certain to see some big-name casualties, and we're also likely to see some unheralded nations rise up.

With two rounds to go, Tunisia, Ivory Coast and Egypt are in control of their respective groups, although neither of them is yet assured of a Round 3 place, while Congo are set to move a step closer to their first ever World Cup finals. Zambia are one point ahead of 2010 quarter finalists Ghana in Group D, while the hosts from three years ago - South Africa - trail Ethiopia in Group A.

Nigeria and Algeria are also leading their groups, but both sides are still under some pressure. Elsewhere, Groups I and J are exceedingly tight - in both groups, a mere two points separate the top and bottom teams! Libya and Senegal are the respective group leaders at the moment.

In Round 4, 10 teams are split into two groups of five. The top two of each group will automatically qualify for the World Cup. The third-placed teams will face off in a two-legged tie, where the winner will meet a South American team in another two-game play-off for one of the last remaining World Cup berths.

Next week's final round of matches will see three teams join Japan in booking their plane tickets for Brazil. The two victors from Group A are yet to be decided - South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan all remain in the running. The Koreans top the group and are almost there, barring a disaster, and Iran will also qualify unless they lose to the leaders and Uzbekistan beat Qatar. Were that to happen, the Uzbeks would be in a World Cup for the very first time.

Group B has already been won by Japan, who have completed their qualifying fixtures and can now relax. Australia can't, though, despite the fact that they are in 2nd place. Were they to slip up against the already-eliminated Iraq, they could open the door for either Oman or Jordan - who face one another - to qualify automatically, although Jordan would need to win by double figures to do so.

Holland are running like clockwork in the World Cup qualifiers.
53 teams are split into eight groups of six teams and a ninth group consisting of five teams. The group winners will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the eight best runners-up will play-off for the four remaining European places.

Group A is basically a straight fight between Belgium and Croatia. Belgium have the upper hand, holding a three-point lead with three games to go, although the two teams' meeting in Split on 11 October will be crucial in deciding who qualifies. From this group, Scotland became the first European team to be officially eliminated from the 2014 World Cup.

Group B is headed by Italy, although they are still looking behind their shoulder, as Bulgaria and Czech Republic aren't yet miles behind them. Armenia and Denmark are also in the running for a potential play-off spot.

With four matches left, Germany lead Group C by five points, and one feels that only a complete stromausfall would stop them from qualifying. The battle for that play-off place couldn't be any tighter, though. Austria, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland all have 11 points, and those three will fight to the finish.

Holland traditionally saunter through the qualifiers, and Group D is already theirs to lose. They are the only European team to have a 100% record in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, and have four games to repeat their perfect run in the 2010 preliminaries. What about the others? Hungary are second, but Romania are just one point behind them, and neither Turkey nor Estonia can be discounted at this stage.

Group E is very interesting. Switzerland are, unsurprisingly, the standout team in a competitive group and lead by four points from Albania. Third place is occupied by Iceland, who are one point behind their fellow World Cup virgins, and Norway are another point shy of Iceland. Slovenia, who qualified in 2010, are currently 5th but still retain some hope.

Portugal are the Group F leaders, but that's not to say that they are the favourites. They have 14 points with three matches to go... but Russia have 12 with five matches left, and Israel have 11 with four. What's more, Russia are still to have their two meetings with Luxembourg, so I'd put a sizeable chunk of money on Fabio Capello's side to qualify automatically.

Group G now, and the next four months could be the biggest in Bosnia & Herzegovina's footballing history. The Bosnians lead Greece by three points and have a massive advantage in goal difference, so they're the favourites to finish top and make their debut appearance in a World Cup. However, the Greeks still have to play little Liechtenstein twice, and the Bosnians must play third-placed Slovakia home and away. The Slovaks will be hoping to act as spoilers for Bosnia, while boosting their bid to qualify for successive WCs.

I couldn't possibly call Group H. Montenegro are on 14 points (three games left), England are on 13 (four games left) and Ukraine are on 11 (also four games left). Importantly, though, Montenegro and England have both slaughtered San Marino twice, while Ukraine are yet to play the minnows. Add six almost guaranteed points to their total, and you'd have to make Ukraine the oh-so-slight favourites.

Group I was always going to be dominated by Spain and France, and thus that is the case. With three games to go, Spain have a single-point advantage, and they don't have to play Les Bleus again. Three easy wins against the group's smaller fish will see the world champions home and dry, and France are almost certain to hold off Finland and Georgia to secure the play-off berth.

In Round 4, the six remaining teams will play one another home and away. The top three teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the fourth-placed team will meet Oceania's top side New Zealand in a two-legged play-off for the right to join them in the finals.

We're just over halfway in the final round of North America's qualifiers. It's currently advantage United States, but only just, while Costa Rica are also in a healthy postion. Mexico's hopeless home form (all of their home ties in this final stage have ended goalless so far) could prove to be the continental giants' downfall, with Honduras and Panama both primed to pounce. Jamaica have yet to register a win, and they have a mountain to climb if they're to reach Brazil.

Oceania's qualifiers were completed in March. As one would expect, New Zealand got through with a 100% record in the final round, so they go through to the inter-confederation play-offs. The Kiwis will meet North America's fourth-placed team in a two-legged tie, with the winners qualifying for the World Cup.

The nine teams will play one another home and away. The top four teams will automatically qualify for the World Cup, and the fifth-placed team will meet an Asian side in a two-legged play-off for one of the last remaining places in the finals.

Argentina haven't been at their very best, but they are guaranteed a top-five finish, and one more win will ensure that they will be in next year's finals. Colombia are second and can expect to go through as well, while Ecuador and Chile occupy the other automatic places. Copa America holders Uruguay are only in 5th place, though, and if they're not careful, one of my tips to win the 2014 World Cup won't even be there!

Venezuela have their best chance in decades to qualify for their maiden World Cup, and Peru still have an outside chance of a play-off spot. Bolivia are struggling, though, and Paraguay - who have qualified for each of the last four finals - are bottom, and odds-on to miss out in 2014.

Cheer up, Gonzalo Higuain! Argentina are almost qualified for Brazil 2014!

5 June 2013

2013 European Under-21 Championship preview

For the next two weeks, Israel is the place to be for the European Under-21 Championship.

Eight teams, featuring some of the best young players on the continent, will battle it out for the right to lift the trophy in Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium (which I am fairly sure is NOT named after Teddy Sheringham) on 18 June.

To be eligible for these championships, players must be born on or after 1 January 1990. That means we've got a few 23-year-olds in an Under-21s tournament, but them's the rules.

After winning promotion with Crystal Palace, will Wilf Zaha be triumphant again?
These will be Guy Luzon's last matches as Israel Under-21s boss before he heads off to Belgium to manage Standard Liege. A number of his players have featured for the senior national team, including captain Nir Biton, fellow midfielder Eyal Golasa, and defender Omri Ben Harush. But in such a difficult group, it's hard to see the hosts picking up points from more than one match.
Prediction: 4th in Group.
Stuart Pearce is managing England for a fourth European Championship, but can they go a step further than 2009, when they were runners-up? With the exciting attacking talent of Wilfried Zaha and an improved defence that includes centre-back Steven Caulker and keeper Jack Butland, anything's possible. There's no wow factor, though, and that - I think - is the difference between success and failure.
Prediction: Semi Finals.
I've got a feeling that, if Norway win their opening game against the hosts, they can be dark horses. A few of their players will be familiar to British fans, like Thomas Rogne and Joshua King, but one man that catches my eye is the Norwegian Iniesta - Harmeet Singh, a veteran of 35 Under-21s internationals. I don't think this team will be short on goals or ability.
Prediction: 3rd in Group.
Young coach Devis Mangia took charge in the closing stages of the qualifying campaign, and he has such a strong attacking force to work with. Ciro Immobile is anything but, and Mattia Destro is already an Italian senior international, as is their midfielder Marco 'Sinead O'Connor' Verratti. I'm a bit concerned, though, about a defence that has limited Serie A experience.
Prediction: Runners-Up.

Iker Muniain looks like a young Fernando Torres - can he score like him?
Julen Lopetegui has so much talent to choose from that the players he DIDN'T pick could have been a real force at this championship. Among those he did select are midfielder Thiago Alcantara, forward Iker Muniain, and Manchester United's David de Gea, who all won the 2011 tournament in Denmark and are back for one more time. Will La Furia Roja rule once again?
Prediction: CHAMPIONS.
At least one major giant is destined to be knocked out in this group, and sadly, it could be the Dutch. This team doesn't have the exceptional talents that the 2006 and 2007 winners boasted, even if their defence is slightly stronger thanks to Stefan de Vrij and Ricardo van Rhijn. AZ Alkmaar midfielder Adam Maher will be absolutely key in deciding their ultimate fate.
Prediction: 3rd in Group.
Russia have perhaps the oldest squad (just three players are also eligible for Euro 2015), and I think it's the weakest. They do have two players at big Iberian clubs, but neither striker Denis Cheryshev of Real Madrid nor Braga goalkeeper Stanislav Kritsyuk have pulled up any trees. Their one genuine star is Alan Dzagoev, who did so well in the big boys' Euros last summer.
Prediction: 4th in Group.
We all want to play like Germany right now, but can Rainer Adrion win the first of perhaps many trophies for the Mannschaft over the next few years? Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Lewis Holtby is the captain, and one of two squad members based outside Germany, the other being Everton alumni Shkodran Mustafi. I can't wait to see Bernd Leno, though - he's apparently yet another brilliant Kraut keeper.
Prediction: Semi Finals.

4 June 2013

First to qualify!

"We've done it!" Japan are the first team through to Brazil 2014!
BREAKING NEWS: Japan have become the first team to book their place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

Keisuke Honda's injury-time penalty against Australia gave the Japanese a 1-1 draw in Saitama, and earned them the one point they needed to secure their tickets to Brazil. 12 months from now, they will grace the biggest stage in world football once again!

2014 will be Japan's fifth consecutive World Cup, having not made a single appearance since the start of that unbroken run in 1998.

The Samurai Blue were not seen as one of Asian football's leading lights until the mid-1990s, when the J-League was formed, and football in the land of the rising sun became professional.

In 1993, the year that the new league launched, Japan agonisingly failed to qualify for the following year's World Cup when Iraq scored a late equaliser in a decisive qualifying match. Japanese fans still refer to that day as the 'Agony of Doha', after the neutral Qatari capital where the game was held.

Doha was the turning point. Four years later, Japan finally made it to world football's big dance, courtesy of a 3-2 golden-goal win over Iran in Malaysia. Had they lost that match, they would have faced an inter-confederation play-off against Australia to decide the final place at France 1998.

Japan lost all three group matches in their first ever World Cup finals, but did significantly better when they co-hosted the 2002 tournament with South Korea. They got all the way to Round 2, where home interest was ended by Turkey.

2006 saw a group stage exit for Japan, but four years later in South Africa, they were better than ever. An excellent 3-1 win over Denmark saw them advance from their group into a Round 2 showdown with Paraguay. The Asian giants were the better team in a dull 120-minute contest which ended goalless, but Yuichi Komano missed a crucial penalty in the resulting shoot-out, and Paraguay made him pay to go through 5-3.

Japanese football has come on leaps and bounds over the past two decades. Indeed, their women's team (nicknamed the Nadeshiko) are world champions, having defeated the United States 3-1 to lift the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup.

Nowadays, the Japanese men's team are a force to be reckoned with as well. They are coached by veteran Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni, and have a number of world-class players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda. Therefore, you can't rule out the possibility that the first team to book their place in Brazil will also be one of the last to leave the 2014 World Cup.

Scottish Premier Non-League

Paul Gascoigne: A Scottish Premier Division signing from the 1990s.
In the late 1980s and the best part of the 1990s, Rangers dominated Scottish football, winning nine Premier Division championships in a row.

How did they do it? With big name signings such as Mark Hateley, Duncan Ferguson and Paul Gascoigne. They even managed to persuade Danish great Brian Laudrup to swap the warmth of Fiorentina in Italy for the less sunnier climes of Glasgow.

Retrospectively speaking, Rangers spent way beyond their means, but they formed one of the greatest football teams ever to come out of Scotland. An even in those glory years, spent largely under the management of current Gers chairman Walter Smith, there were plenty of teams fighting for second place.

Aberdeen were briefly semi-competitive until 1995, when they nearly got relegated, while Heart of Midlothian and Motherwell both had a go of playing second fiddle to Rangers. Celtic missed out on the top two for an incredible seven consecutive seasons, and during that time, they brushed with bankruptcy, but they would come back with a vengeance soon afterwards.

When I was growing up in the early 2000s, the Old Firm were still reasonably competitive on the European stage, and they had some big-name players as well. Celtic had Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and UEFA Champions League winner Paul Lambert, while their rivals at Ibrox could boast Claudio Caniggia, Ronald de Boer and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Between 1997 and 1998, Rangers' squad included future FIFA World Cup winner Gennaro Gattuso.

Even back then, the other Scottish Premier League teams - Aberdeen, Dundee United, Hearts, et cetera - were recruiting a significant number of players from teams in the English Premier League or what was then known as Division 1. There were a few from the lower English leagues, but not that many.

And now I get to the reason why I wrote this article. Inverness Caledonian Thistle finished 4th in last season's Scottish Premier League. That means that they are, according to the league table at least, one of Scottish football's leading teams. Therefore, one would expect Inverness to show a bit of ambition, and try to recruit some players from the Championship or League One as they bid to break into the European places.

Yet when their manager, former England hardman Terry Butcher, looked south of the borders, he didn't sign players from League One, or even League Two.

In recent years, some SPL also-rans have signed the odd player from the English Conference. Striker Clayton Donaldson moved to Hibernian from York City in 2008, I recall. To sign one non-leaguer in these austere times is understandable, to sign two is worrying, but Caley Thistle have - in the last couple of days - snapped up THREE English midfielders from non-league football.

One of them is our old friend, Ben Greenhalgh, formerly of Inter Milan and other football luminaries such as Maidstone United and Welling United. The winner of Football's Next Star in 2010 has swapped the fifth tier of English soccer, where he most recently played for relegated Ebbsfleet United, for the first tier in Scotland.

Joing him at Inverness is James Vincent, whose Kidderminster Harriers side played against Greenhalgh's Ebbsfleet in last season's Conference Premier. To be fair to James, though, Kidderminister did at least reach the play-offs.

The third new boy at the Caledonian Stadium is Danny Williams, who took time out of singing "Moon River" and fighting Vitali Klitschko for the world heavyweight title to lead Chester to Conference North glory this season.

The 24-year-old left-winger was only on loan to Chester, though. To whom was he actually contracted before moving to the SPL? Kendal Town. In the Northern Premier League Premier Division. From which they were relegated this season in 21st place.

In other words, the 4th-best team in Scotland have signed a player from the joint 221st-best team in England! Is that how desperate the Scots have become? You couldn't imagine it the other way round! I certainly can't see Arsenal bringing in a new goalkeeper from the local pub team in Kincardine O'Neil!

Either Danny Williams is a MASSIVELY underrated footballer, or Scottish football is continuing to plumb to new depths.
Danny Williams: A Scottish Premier League signing from 2013.

27 May 2013

2013 Championship Play-Off Final preview

Will Wilfried Zaha's last Crystal Palace game be one to remember?
Around £120million, and a place in next season's Premier League, is up for grabs this afternoon in the Championship Play-Off Final. Will Crystal Palace or Watford reach the promised land?

Both teams have prior experience of winning Play-Off Finals to reach the top flight, but neither has graced the Premier League for several years. Whatever happens, one of this season's big success stories will have a fairytale ending at Wembley.

Crystal Palace are play-off veterans, having gone up to the top division via that route in 1989, 1997 and 2004. Since the formation of the Premier League, they've never stayed up for more than one season, but they only have to look at the last two Championship Play-Off Final winners - Swansea City and West Ham United - to see what is achievable.

Ian Holloway won the Play-Off Final as Blackpool manager in 2010, but three years on, doing the same with  the Eagles would be just as great an achievement. The charismatic Bristolian, whose Blackpool team lost last year's Final to West Ham, has taken a Crystal Palace team that Yours Truly tipped for relegation to a 5th-place finish, and to the very brink of promotion.

Holloway will again have to contend with the loss of the Championship's top goalscoer, Glenn Murray, who suffered a serious cruciate injury in the first leg of the Semi Final against Brighton & Hove Albion. Former Norwich City striker Aaron Wilbraham will take his place up front, but defender Jonathan Parr and captain Paddy McCarthy are also ruled out through injury.

39-year-old striker Kevin Phillips is on the bench today, and this could well be the final match of an eventful career. It will definitely be Wilfried Zaha's last match for Crystal Palace before the exciting young England international completes his £15million transfer to Manchester United.

Whoever edited Watford's Wikipedia page deserves a British Comedy Award.
Watford's season has been a remarkable one. They missed out on automatic promotion to Hull City on the final day of the regular season. Then, deep into injury-time in their Play-Off Semi Final second leg against Leicester City, with the aggregate scores level, they conceded a penalty. Manuel Almunia saved from Foxes midfielder Anthony Knockaert, and about half a minute later, Troy Deeney scored at the other end. Watford were on their way to Wembley!

They are now within 90 minutes of a return to the Premier League. Their previous two stints, in 1999/2000 and 2006/2007, were both earned by winning Play-Off Finals, but neither lasted more than one season.

Watford's rise up to 3rd place in the Championship has not been without controversy. Gianfranco Zola's Hornets have exploited a loophole in the loan system allowing them to bring in several players on loan from Udinese and Granada, who like the Vicarage Road club are owned by Giampaolo Pozzo. Without such players as Almen Abdi and Matej Vydra, it's unlikely that Watford would've finished in the top half, let alone the top three.

After taking his team to a training break in Marbella (which is not that far from Granada), Zola will today name an unchanged squad from that which started against Leicester. Deeney and Vydra will be up front, but Zola is still undecided on a couple of places, which means that Matt Briggs and Jonathan Hogg could potentially miss out to the benefit of two more Udinese rejects.

I really should be impartial about this game, but to be honest, I am anything but. Watford's journey to Wembley has come at the expense of their soul, and Vicarage Road is now no more than a finishing school/dumping ground for Udinese. Crystal Palace will have my full support this afternoon, and my head as well as my heart says that they will edge this one.

TDTR PREDICTS: Crystal Palace 2-1 Udinese 'B'

Troy Deeney is one of the few Watford players actually contracted to them.

25 May 2013

2013 UEFA Champions League Final preview

Will Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp still be smiling at full time?
The first ever all-German Final of the UEFA Champions League takes place tonight as Borussia Dortmund face Bayern Munich at Wembley Stadium in London.

When the Semi Final draw was made, many were expecting Real Madrid vs Barcelona in the Final, but this clash between the Bundesliga's big two is no less exciting, and at the end of it, we will see a team from Germany lift the famous trophy for the first time since 2001.

Borussia Dortmund's only previous European Cup Final to date was in 1997, when Lars Ricken scored the winner against Juventus and their team included the likes of Karl-Heinz Riedle and Paul Lambert. Today, their squad retains a very German core, with a string of youngsters making their mark on global footblal.

Borussia saw off Manchester City in the group stage and staged an incredible comeback against Malaga in the Quarter Final before doing enough to stop Real Madrid in the Semis.

Borussia, nicknamed Die Schwarzgelben (or the Black Yellows), are managed by Jurgen Klopp, a fairly young coach at 45 years old who led them to successive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. The bespectacled Klopp is charismatic and laid back, but his unusual look for a football manager disguises a tactical genius. In five seasons, he has guided BVB from the brink of bankruptcy to the edge of immortality.

Klopp is missing his main creative force in midfield, as Mario Gotze - who ironically will join Bayern in the summer - will miss this game with a hamstring injury. Defender Mats Hummels, who like Gotze is among several young German internationals in the Dortmund team, could also miss the game with an ankle injury. Polish right-back Lukasz Piszczek will play tonight, though, before having hip surgery.

Two other youthful Germans to look out for in Borussia's line-up are midfielder Ilkay Gundogan and forward Marco Reus. However, the big star of this team is a Poland international. Since moving to the Westfalenstadion from Lech Poznan in 2010, striker Robert Lewandowski has scored 75 goals in just 139 games. It is not inconceivable that Lewandowski could score the winner against Bayern Munich tonight and then join Bayern in the summer.

Thomas Muller has a famous Bayern surname - can he follow in Gerd's footsteps?

Bayern Munich are in their 10th European Cup Final and have previously been crowned champions four times. They won three successive titles during the Gerd Muller era between 1974 and 1976, and their last recent success was in a 2001 penalty shoot-out against Valencia.

This year, Bayern have taken the Bundesliga by storm, picking up 25 points more than 2nd-placed Borussia to be crowned champions again. In the Champions League, they suffered an early group stage loss to Belarus's BATE Borisov, but they won the group, saw off Arsenal and Juventus in the knockout stages, and then demolished Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate to reach Wembley.

This will be manager Jupp Heynckes' penultimate game as manager of Bayern (his last will be the DFB-Pokal Final against VfB Stuttgart next week). Once this season is over, 68-year-old Heynckes will hand over the reins to a certain Josep Guardiola and will almost certainly retire. How he would love to end his career with a second Champions League winners' medal to add to the one he picked up as Real Madrid boss in 1998.

As you would expect from a team nicknamed 'FC Hollywood', near enough all of the Bayern players are household names: any football fan would recognise the likes of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Thomas Muller and captain Philipp Lahm. I have said time and again that goalkeeper Manuel Neuer has been outstanding this season, although to be fair, he's hardly had anything to do!

There are no fresh injuries in the Bayern team, but they'll still be without defender Holger Badstuber, who last week ruptured his cruciate ligaments for a second time and will be out until the latter stages of next season.

Tonight, the Germans invade London, with massive yellow and red armies mobilising at Wembley. Who will be victorious when Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli blows the final whistle? Although I have to admit to having a soft spot for Borussia in recent years, I have to say that Bayern are the strong favourites.

This could potentially be a genuine classic, just like the last Champions League Final to take place under the arch two years ago.

TDTR PREDICTS: Borussia Dortmund 1-3 Bayern Munich

24 May 2013

2012/2013 Premier League: was I right?

Five days on from the end of the Premier League season, it's time to look back at The Daily Transfer Request's pre-season predictions to see where I went right... and where I went wrong.

In the days building up to the big kick-off, I looked at all 20 Premier League teams and predicted where they would end up on 19 May. To find out exactly what I said at the time, click on the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

I will now look at all of the teams once again, from top to bottom, and explain why I got certain predictions spot on and why some of the others were further off the mark than this.

Rio Ferdinand "merked" my belief that Manchester United's defence was leaky.
1. Manchester United (Predicted 1st, no change)
I said at the very start that Manchester United "are hungrier and show more togetherness than City", and I was right. While Roberto Mancini was losing the Eastlands dressing room, Sir Alex Ferguson was building a younger, more dangerous team.
My prediction that United would win the title was made before they rubber-stamped the signing of top scorer Robin van Persie, but his arrival from Arsenal only made me more confident that my prediction would come true. After all, I said, "One marquee signing can really make the difference", and van Persie WAS the difference maker.
My only doubts about the Red Devils was that their defence was rather leaky. To be fair, though, Rio Ferdinand has been excellent in the centre of defence since his early-season slump, and David de Gea has - as predicted - become a more dependable goalkeeper.

2. Manchester City (Predicted 2nd, no change)
Before the season began, I said that Manchester City had to show no mercy against other top teams if they were to have a good chance of retaining the Premier League. While the Citizens were unbeaten against teams like Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, they suffered damaging losses against Everton and Tottenham Hotspur late in the season, and their April win over United was merely payback for a more decisive reverse in December's derby.
Apparently, Sergio Aguero and David Silva were "unstoppable at their best". Well, in that case, they weren't unstoppable this season. Aguero's PL goal count dropped from 23 last season to 17 this, and Silva was arguably even more disappointing. The Spanish winger only managed eight assists this term, compared to the 15 he made to steer City to championship glory.
You can also forget my belief that "opposing teams dread going to the City of Manchester Stadium". Five teams took at least a point from City's home ground this season compared to just the one in the previous campaign - in fact, Manchester United and Norwich City both came away with all three points.

3. Chelsea (Predicted 3rd - no change)
Cracking Manchester's stranglehold was indeed a tough ask for Chelsea. They lost to both Manchester sides in the Premier League this season, and their victory at Old Trafford came when the trophy had already had '2012-13: Manchester United' engraved on it.
I was spot on with regards to Chelsea's strengths. Their solid defence was the third best in the PL, and they conceded four goals fewer than the champions. Winger Juan Mata had a brilliant season by all accounts, and Eden Hazard lived up to his £32million transfer fee. The Blues were, however, lacking in alternative centre-forward options to Fernando Torres, and although they were scoring enough goals from midfield, new arrival Demba Ba came in useful after joining from Newcastle United in January.
Roberto Di Matteo was not given much of a chance as Chelsea boss, but the Stamford Bridge did not - as feared - go off the rails with another change of manager. In fact, Rafael Benitez led them to 3rd place in the league, an FA Cup Semi Final, and glory in the UEFA Europa League. As far as interim managers go, Benitez did a pretty fine job. Fact.

4. Arsenal (Predicted 4th - no change)
"If the injury crisis of the last campaign does not repeat itself, the Gunners should continue their fine record of qualifying for 15 successive Champions Leagues." I said that in the second paragraph of my Arsenal preview, and in truth, the Gunners did not have another injury crisis, and they did qualify for a 16th successive UEFA Champions League. However, they didn't leave much room for manoeuvre.
Arsenal were rejuvenated by their summer signings - to some extent. Santi Cazorla was the driving force of his new team from the start, and although striker Lukas Podolski was at his most deadly during the middle of the season, the less expensive Olivier Giroud came good towards the end, and the Frenchman finished the campaign with one more goal than his German team-mate.

5. Tottenham Hotspur (Predicted 7th - 2 places better)
Who said that Tottenham Hotspur were at risk of going backwards under Andre Villas-Boas? Oh, wait, it was me. What a blooper that was. Villas-Boas came within one Newcastle United goal against Arsenal of delivering UEFA Champions League football to White Hart Lane, and the demanding Portuguese manager brought the best out of Gareth Bale rather than alienated him, like I thought he could have.
Here's another glaring error from Yours Truly: "And even if they lose Modric, they still have a deadly attacking midfielder in Rafael van der Vaart." That's the same Rafael van der Vaart who joined Luka Modric in leaving Tottenham early in the season. Villas-Boas made up for losing van der Vaart by adding Clint Dempsey to his squad, and Dempsey arguably made a bigger contribution to Spurs' attack than the Dutchman would've done had he stayed.

"Fuller said that I would be a failure at West Brom? Who's laughing now?"
6. Everton (Predicted 8th - 2 places better)
Ahead of the new season, I typed these words of Everton, "Toffees fans can expect another solid if unspectacular season under David Moyes's stewardship." Solid it was, but it was also quite spectacular in places. A blistering start, contrary to my prediction, saw Everton launch a surprise challenge for a UEFA Champions League place. In the end, they were unlucky not to qualify for Europe at all.
My description of Marouane Fellaini as a midfield lynchpin was never truer this season - he was absolutely the key reason behind Everton's impressive form. The brilliant Belgian will surely follow the Toffees' sought-after Scottish manager, as I described David Moyes, to Manchester United in the summer, and he will be greatly missed at Goodison Park.

7. Liverpool (Predicted 5th - 2 places worse)
Brendan Rodgers has, to some extent, "rejuvenated a Liverpool that looked stale under Kenny Dalglish at times". Youngsters like Raheem Sterling and Suso have been like a breath of fresh air for Liverpool, especially in the first half of the season. I said before kick-off that big things were expected of Sterling, although to be honest, I didn't expect him to be a senior England international by now!
However, it wasn't the happiest of first seasons for the Reds' new manager. A very poor start was not significantly improved upon - as far as I'm aware, Liverpool didn't break into the top six at all this season, let alone the top four. 7th was as high as they got. That proves correct my pre-season summary that Rodgers could not expect to finish in the top four at the first time of asking.

8. West Bromwich Albion (Predicfed 17th - 9 places worse)
Steve Clarke, I can only apologise. I severely doubted the Scot's managerial credentials until West Bromwich Albion made a sensational start to proceedings. Although the Baggies could not sustain that form, they did at least blow in the water my prediction that they would be relegation candidates without the stability that former manager Roy Hodgson gave them.
When I came to writing up my preview, I stated that Clarke was renowned for building strong defences. In fact, they conceded four more league goals than last season, but 59 is still a reasonably low number of goals to let in. West Brom didn't need improving at the back, but they certainly did up front, and Clarke addressed that by signing three strikers. Romelu Lukaku was fantastic, but Yassine El Ghanassy and Markus Rosenberg... were not.

9. Swansea City (Predicted 11th - 2 places better)
Hands up those of you who thought Swansea City were going to suffer second-season syndrome. A few of you, then. I don't wish to gloat, but I never thought Swansea were going back down to the Championship, because they had too much attacking quality to be relegated. They may have only scored as many goals as relegated Wigan Athletic, but the deadliness of Michu up front spurred them to a top-half finish.
Manager Michael Laudrup continued the free-flowing attacking game that predecessor Brendan Rodgers advocated, and in fact improved on it. Unlike last season, when Swansea's heads dropped as soon as they went a goal behind, they showed their fighting qualities more often, as plenty of late goals earned them crucial points, and they even fought back from conceding the first goal to beat Wigan Athletic 3-2 in April!

10. West Ham United (Predicted 13th - 3 places better)
West Ham United were always "the strongest of the three promoted sides", both on paper and in reality. Sam Allardyce's no-frills approach to management saw the Hammers finish well clear of the drop. As I said in the summary, "Big Sam doesn't do relegation battles."
I will always own up when I get things wrong, and in hindsight, the sentence "Their away form's good, but they really need to sort things out at home" couldn't be more inaccurate if I added that West Ham played their home games at Downton Abbey. The Hammers won nearly half of their matches at Upton Park, but on the road, they won just three times and scored a pathetic eleven goals. Their away form's actually far from good!
Allardyce was a little hit and miss with his bargain signings. Midfielder Mohamed Diame was a fantastic Bosman acquisition, but Modibo Maiga hasn't justified the £7million fee that Big Sam paid for him, nor did Alou Diarra for his £2million price. I thought very highly of defensive midfielder Diarra to begin with, but after three PL appearances for the Hammers, he ended the season on loan at Rennes.

Norwich finished comfortably in mid-table - no wonder Chris Hughton;

11. Norwich City (Predicted 15th - 4 places better)
Chris Hughton picked up where Norwich City's former manager Paul Lambert left off, and proved that he was just the man to ensure that they didn't get second-season syndrome. The Canaries may not have had as much breathing space as they did last season, but they did end up finishing one position higher.
Hughton's tactics weren't as pretty as Lambert's, and the stats prove that. Norwich didn't score as many goals as they did in 2011/2012, but the number of goals that they conceded was also markedly reduced. You couldn't exactly say that Hughton was getting his tactics wrong.
With their new, more pragmatic approach to the game and hardly any big stars in their team, Norwich have proved once again "that you don't need superstars to stay in the most glamorous league in football", like I said when predicting them to finish clear of the bottom three.

12. Fulham (Predicted 14th - 2 places better)
Yours Truly wrote at the start of his Fulham preview, "Fulham fans are anticipating another season in mid-table under the guidance of Martin Jol", and that prediction was right on the button. I also said, though, that if they kept hold of Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele, they could even challenge for a top-seven finish. They couldn't keep either midfielder, and in the end, the Cottagers had to settle for finishing just outside the top half.
I thought that Fulham's two new strikers, Mladen Petric and Hugo Rodallega, "could either be absolute bargains or unmitigated disasters". Petric scored just five goals, and Rodallega only three, with both being totally outstripped by fellow new signing Dimitar Berbatov. Therefore, they are more suited to the latter category, and Fulham need to sign a half-decent sidekick for Berbatov next season.

13. Stoke City (Predicted 13th - 3 places better)
Stoke City didn't stagnate like I feared pre-season, but a poor end to the season brought a sense that major change was perhaps needed ahead of the next campaign. That change came at the top, with Tony Pulis' departure coming after the manager led his team to yet another lower mid-table finish, well clear of relegation.
I wrote that Stoke were particularly effective at home. In truth, their performances at the Britannia Stadium were not bad but not great, although their home form was much better than their away form, which was pretty awful. Just two of their wins came from outside of the Potteries.
While the Potters had a meaner defence than Europa League qualifiers Tottenham Hotspur, their attack was about as deadly as Paul O'Grady tickling you with a feather duster. Last season, Stoke were the PL's worse team when it came to scoring goals, and this season, they would have repeated that feat had Queens Park Rangers not been even more impotent.

14. Southampton (Predicted 18th - 4 places better)
"If they start badly, it could set the tone." Those were my exact thoughts on Southampton before they started the season by losing six out of their first eight matches, conceding 24 goals in the process. I also said in my preview, "The St Mary's club are good when it comes to holding leads, although that will be tested this season." Indeed they were. They threw away leads against both Manchester clubs in August - in fact, they were 2-0 up on United before Robin van Persie decided to steal the show.
At that point, Southampton were looking odds-on for relegation, and the owners' love affair with happy-go-lucky Nigel Adkins died down. Mauricio Pochettino came in, but despite having as much grasp of the English language as I have of Spanish, he guided the Saints up the table. They lost just two of their final ten league matches, thus blowing to smithereens my pre-season fears.
In the Weaknesses section of the Saints preview, I wrote, "St Mary's is home to a number of talented kids like left-back Luke Shaw. However, you can't look at the squad and pick out a player that is bona-fide Premier League class." Nine months on, and you can pick out a few players of Premier League class in the Southampton squad. One of them is Luke Shaw, who before this campaign had made just one senior appearance in the FA Cup.

15. Aston Villa (Predicted 12th - 3 places worse)
Aston Villa came 16th last season, but I thought that they looked like a team that could "steadily work their way back up the table under an excellent young coach". Paul Lambert took them from 16th all the way up to 15th - a whole one-place improvement! That said, though, this season could've gone much, MUCH worse.
I genuinely feared for the Villans' long-term Premier League future at the early stages of the season, especially with goalkeeper Shay Given in such low spirits after his UEFA Euro 2012 horror show. However, there were some positives to come out of Villa Park this season. Brad Guzan proved a very worthy replacement for the declining Given, defender Matt Lowton's late rise up the English football echelons continued, and the arrival of Christian Benteke late in August gave Villa a talented goalscorer of the highest quality.
I should also point out that I expected bright things of Andreas Weimann, and the young Austrian was Aston Villa's third-highest goalscorer in the PL this season. I also put Gary Gardner in the same category, but sadly,  a cruciate ligament injury meant that he only played in the very first game and the very last game of the season.

QPR's Junior Hoilett was one of the best worst free signings of the season.
16. Newcastle United (Predicted 6th - 10 places worse)
"Can Newcastle boss Alan Pardew live up to increased expectations at St James' Park?" Our survey said... (BUZZER) Newcastle United, who came within a whisker of a potential Tuesday night trip to Barcelona last season, came within a whisker of a potential Tuesday night trip to Barnsley this season. I was one of many who just could not foresee Pardew's Black and White army getting into a relegation battle, especially not with their legion of French stars.
Perhaps, in hindsight, they bought too many French players too quickly. Full-back Mathieu Debuchy hasn't lived up to expectations, Gabriel Obertan looked like the polar opposite of a player signed by Manchester United years ago, and Massadio Haidara suffered a serious injury early on in his St James' Park career. I also said at the start of the season that "few Britons know about midfielder Romain Amalfitano"... and, er, that hasn't changed a bit.
"Were there to be a spate of injuries, Newcastle might have to depend on inexperienced youngsters" was another thing that I said when looking at the Magpies squad. Although there wasn't exactly an injury crisis on Tyneside, the Geordies did suffer some significant losses. I previously mentioned Haidara, but Dan Gosling was also a long-term absentee, and Ryan Taylor played just once before suffering not one but TWO cruciate knee injuries! Taylor's absence was another key reason for Newcastle's decline.

17. Sunderland (Predicted 9th - 8 places worse)
Having previously said that Sunderland were good for the top half under Martin O'Neill, the Ulsterman immediately proved me wrong by leaving them good for relegation when he was sacked in March. He was replaced by Paolo Di Canio, who quickly turned the Stadium of Light into a media circus but managed to keep the Mackems up due to Wigan Athletic's own failings.
Sunderland needed a prolific goalscorer before the start of the campaign, so O'Neill brought in Steven Fletcher. He started the season so strongly that he single-handedly carried the Black Cats through their first few matches, but after scoring five goals in September alone, he only found the net six times in subsequent months. With Fletcher's form going south, Sunderland clearly lacked another quality centre-forward, which is why I think the decision to sell Fraizer Campbell to Cardiff City in January was a bemusing one.

18. Wigan Athletic (Predicted 19th - 1 place better)
Far too often, Wigan Athletic have borrowed from Lady Luck, and now they have paid the price. Sooner or later, the Latics were going to be relegated, and the sale of Victor Moses to Chelsea robbed them of their talisman. Their goalscoring record did improve enough thanks to the excellent signing of Arouna Koné, but it still wasn't enough for the FA Cup winners to avoid dropping into the Championship.
In the previous campaign, Roberto Martinez kept the Latics' head above water after overseeing famous victories against Manchester United and Arsenal amongst others. Following their latest great escape, how many points did Wigan manage to pick up against the eventual top four this time around? ZERO. Yes, they may have taken four points off 5th-placed Tottenham Hotspur, but even the other two relegated teams did better against the big guns!
Ahead of this campaign, I said that goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi had greatly improved over the previous 12 months. Well, he undid his good work by contributing to the joint-worst defensive record in the PL, and he was replaced as number 1 midway through the season by Joel Robles.

19. Reading (Predicted 20th - 1 place better)
Nine months ago, I raved about how great a signing Pavel Pogrebnyak was for Reading, and how great a loss it was for Fulham. Well, just like the old Soviet liquidators, I must clean up the mess made by the prediction that blew up in my face. Pogrebnyak found the net just eight times - even Adam Le Fondre, in his very first season as a Premier League player no less, scored six more than the former VfB Stuttgart striker.
It isn't just the disappointing Pogrebnyak that should be blamed for Reading's failure to stay up. A defence which I called watertight ended up as the joint-worst in the division. It was never a good idea to have 30-something Ian Harte as one of their regular full-backs, especially when he had the pace of a superglued slug.

20. Queens Park Rangers (Predicted 10th - 10 places worse)
Oh dear, where do I start? "QPR... should finish considerably clear of danger" Erm, no. "Ex-Blackburn Rovers forward David 'Junior' Hoilett could be the best free transfer this summer." Wrong again. "The revolution under wealthy businessman Tony Fernandes is finally underway." And it's over in a flash.
Queens Park Rangers' squad had more changes than David Bowie's image, but only two of their 17 new arrivals could be considered to be heroes, namely Julio Cesar and Andros Townsend. One could also identify Loic Remy as a successful signing... if you were really going to push the definition of a successful signing.
In summary, QPR had a dreadful season. And on that note, I bid you adieu.

20 May 2013

Final weekend reflections

It's time to say goodbye as the Premier League season draws to a close. After yesterday's final day of action, we look at those big names making their final appearances, but first, there's a look at the contrasting emotions in North London.

Arsenal's English stars, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, celebrate.
Hooray, we finished fourth!
They always seem to find a way, do Arsenal. For the 16th season in a row, they have qualified for the UEFA Champions League.

Their 1-0 win over Newcastle United secured a 4th-place finish ahead of neighbours Tottenham Hotspur. It kept alive their proud record of having never failed to qualify for Europe's elite club competition since Arsene Wenger's first full season as manager.

The decisive goal came seven minutes into the second half. Theo Walcott's free kick was headed towards goal by Lukas Podolski, and the much-improved centre-back Laurent Koscielny swivelled to fire the ball in.

Walcott could have finished Newcastle off in injury-time, hitting the far post when it was easier to score. At that point, one goal at the other end would have shattered Arsenal's Champions League dream for another season, but the final whistle blew a few minutes later with the Gunners' win secured.

Wenger and his backroom staff celebrated as if they had won a trophy, but it was perhaps more out of relief than joy, because after eight trophyless seasons, failure to finish in the top four would surely have meant the end for the 'Professor' at the Emirates Stadium.

The Gunners didn't start this season particularly well. It wasn't as bad as last season, when they spend the early stages of the campaign dangerously near the relegation zone, but they were 10th after 15 games. Their form steadily improved, but as recently as 3 March, they were seven points behind Spurs in the standings.

Once again, though, a late Arsenal surge saw them get back into the top four. From 1 February onwards, Arsenal accrued 35 league points - five more than Tottenham, or indeed anyone else. 26 of those points came from their last ten matches, which consisted of eight wins and two draws.

That sort of form makes one wonder: why didn't Arsenal start the season like that? Also, why didn't Wenger spend big on players that can be outstanding now rather than four or five years down the line?

Well, apparently, that's going to change. Wenger has promised to splash more cash in a bid to finally end the Gunners' trophy drought, and with four of the top six clubs having a change of manager next season (possibly even five if Andre Villas-Boas decides to leave Tottenham for a bigger challenge), the 2013/2014 campaign represents a massive opportunity for the Frenchman and his players.

We Gooners all know that Arsenal are too good to go eight seasons without winning any silverware, but surely, SURELY, it'll be ninth time lucky.

Andre Villas-Boas gives his commiserations to his Tottenham team.
Not again!
Tottenham Hotspur fans must be waking up today thinking, "What have we done to deserve this?"

Last season, Spurs broke into the top four of the Premier League, but missed out on the UEFA Champions League after Chelsea won the Final of that competition on penalties. Yesterday, they beat Sunderland 1-0 to set a new club points record in the PL era of 72... but it still wasn't enough to get into the Champions League, as bitter rivals Arsenal edged out Newcastle United 1-0.

One Newcastle goal would've tripped up the Gunners and allowed Tottenham to finish fourth. In the end, though, they came fifth and must settle for a third successive season of ITV4 Thursdays in the UEFA Europa League.

Tottenham were practically camped in the Sunderland half throughout the match. They had 23 shots at goal (19 of them on target), 14 corners, and they played the final 16 minutes with an extra man after Sunderland's David Vaughan was dismissed. They could easily have won by a canter, although in this case, they just needed to win, no matter how narrow the winning margin.

The goal that they so desperately wanted came in the final minute of normal time. Gareth Bale, who had been so near to breaking the deadlock several times, jinked inside, and then curled a 25-yarder into the top corner of Simon Mignolet's net. It was a fabulous goal good enough to win any game, but because of events at St James' Park, it was meaningless.

Bale has had the best season of his career so far, and with Tottenham having to settle for the Europa League, you can't help but feel that it'll be his last at White Hart Lane. The Welshman has attracted the attention of several European giants, including Real Madrid, who last summer paid in excess of £25million for Spurs midfielder Luka Modric. How much is Bale worth, in that case?

Missing out on prestigious away games at the Nou Camp and the San Siro will also force manager Andre Villas-Boas to change his transfer plans. Established names like Gonzalo Higuain and David Villa are surely out of the question.

Villas-Boas will probably go down the old Tottenham route of buying young English talents who are just making their mark in the top flight. That raises the likelihood of Spurs bringing Southampton's exciting teenage left-back Luke Shaw to White Hart Lane.

Hmm, Southampton's exciting teenage left-back signing for Tottenham? Where have I heard that before?

Steve Harper: "Time to say goodbye, paesi che non ho mai..."
So long, farewell...
There has been a surprisingly high number of English footballing figures making their final bows this weekend.

On Saturday, David Beckham's floodgates opened after he captained Paris Saint-Germain to victory over Brest. Yesterday, we also saw Jamie Carragher make his last appearance for Liverpool, and it ended in typical fashion. No, Carragher didn't score an own goal, but he kept a clean sheet.

Then, there was the double goodbye to Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson and midfielder Paul Scholes. A remarkable game, which United led 3-0 and 5-2, ended with West Bromwich Albion levelling the scores at 5-5!

It was an incredible end to Ferguson's 1,506-game career at Old Trafford. Everyone else says that he managed United for exactly 1,500 games, but they don't seem to count intercontinental matches for some reason.

There was also Michael Owen's final game, but he couldn't end his brief Stoke City career with a goal against Southampton. Aside from those previously mentioned, there were two other long-serving Premier League figures saying goodbye yesterday, and I'd like to give them a mention.

Newcastle United gave their backup goalkeeper Steve Harper a rare start against Arsenal. It was his 199th and final match in the Newcastle goal after 20 years at St James' Park.

In the 37th minute, Newcastle fans applauded their number 37, and County Durham boy Harper was visibly moved by the cheers from his supporters. He is very much an unsung hero on Tyneside - whenever he is called upon, which is not very often, he always does his level best to keep the Magpies' opponents at bay.

Harper had a string of loan spells early in his career, and could easily have left Newcastle permanently in search for guaranteed first-team football. BBC commentator Steve Wilson summed up his loyalty to the Magpies, saying, "In an era in which players, only recently, have asked for transfers because they occasionally get substituted, he's stayed for 20 years at this football club without barely ever getting off the bench."

Now aged 38, he has plenty of career options. He could continue his playing career at another club, or he could become a pundit, a coach, a manager, or even a referee! Whatever he does next, good luck to him.

Good luck, also, to one of the Premier League's leading referees after his retirement. Mark Halsey's final game of his 14-year PL career was Norwich City's 3-2 victory at Manchester City.

The 51-year-old survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009, and his wife has also battled against cancer. He said after blowing his final whistle, "I have had three great years since I have come back from my illness and hopefully I have been an inspiration for all those men, women and children out there living with cancer, and it can show them we can beat this."

You most certainly have, Mark. Enjoy your retirement as well.

19 May 2013

2013 TDTR Awards winners

Last month, I published a list of nominees for the 2013 TDTR Awards. With the Premier League season now over, I am delighted to announce the winners and the losers of these awards, starting with my marquee award:

(Gareth Bale may have swept all before him in the official awards, but as far as I'm concerned, he's not the best player in the Premier League this season. For the second year in a row, it's Robin van Persie, who scored 35 goals in his debut campaign with Manchester United. The £24million striker really was the deciding factor in the title race, as Sir Alex Ferguson snatched him from under the noses of Manchester City just before the season began. van Persie has been prolific throughout the campaign, save for a short lean spell in late February and early March, fantastic hat-trick in the title-clinching victory over Aston Villa effectively ensured that he would deservedly win this award. Congratulations, Robin.)

(After surviving on the final day of last season, Queens Park Rangers went big with their signings. They brought a UEFA Champions League-winning full-back to Loftus Road on £65,000-a-week wages, so they would have expected a lot from Jose Bosingwa. What they got was a stroppy prima donna who refused to be a substitute against Fulham and was dropped for two months as a result. They also ended up with an undetermined player who showed his passion for QPR by laughing on the afternoon of their relegation. Rangers fans will be praying, not just hoping, that 'Boswinga' Bos-wings it to another club, and fans of other Premier League teams will be hoping that it's not to them.)

WINNER: Manchester United
(There is always a temptation to avoid the obvious choice, but Manchester United were the best team in the PL by a long chalk. They finished 11 points ahead of Manchester City, lost just five games in the league and have the dream combination of a fierce attack and a solid back line. With goalkeeper David de Gea [pictured] becoming more and more reliable, and youngsters Tom Cleverley and Javier Hernandez starting to realise their potential, this team could - on paper - dominate the league for some time. That said, next season could be difficult without a certain Scotsman in charge...)

(Who else could it be? The greatest manager in football history, Sir Alex Ferguson, has completed his final season as Manchester United boss in typical winning style, lifting his 13th Premier League championship. Ferguson's tactics and management style allowed United to keep their heads while City lost theirs, and ultimately led to them winning the title by such a big margin. Sir Alex will now step up into the boardroom, allowing David Moyes to come in and inherit one of the best ever teams to grace Old Trafford. Enjoy your retirement, Fergie, you deserve it.)

(Oscar came to Stamford Bridge this summer as a young midfielder from Sao Paulo looking to make his name at Chelsea. 65 games later, he has certainly done that. The 21-year-old has already established himself as a first-team regular, scoring ten goals, including a couple of stunners in the Champions League. He looks set to take over from Frank Lampard as the Blues' midfield dynamo when the England ace does leave. Liverpool's Raheem Sterling made more of an impact in the first half of the campaign, but because Oscar has shone throughout the campaign, the brilliant Brazilian gets this award.)

WINNER: Frank Lampard (CHELSEA)
(Oscar may be the new Frank Lampard, but the old one isn't looking like he'll be heading for the knacker's yard any time soon. An impressive season tally of 15 Premier League strikes took the Stamford Bridge stalwart onto 203 Chelsea goals, beating the club record previously held by Bobby Tambling. He also led the Blues to glory in the UEFA Europa League Final, after which he signed a new contract to stay put for at least another campaign. When Lampard, now aged 34, finally does depart, he will be regarded as a Chelsea legend - that's if he isn't already.)

(If a striker picks up ten yellow cards, they can be considered a bit dirty. If that striker deliberately uses his hand to help score a goal, you can also call him a cheat. And if that same player thrusts his teeth into the arm of an opposition defender, then he's a generally nasty piece of work. That striker's name is Luis Suarez, and no matter how brilliant the Liverpool man has been for his team, you cannot ignore his disgraceful antics on the pitch. A ten-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic is just what this very flawed genius deserves, but I'll also give him this award to put on his dinner pla... mantelpiece.)

(Last season, Glenn Murray - previously of Brighton & Hove Albion - scored seven goals for Crystal Palace. This term, he scored 31. His incredible return to form, especially since Ian Holloway took over at Selhurst Park, is one key reason why Palace have gone from being relegation possibilities at the start of season from being in the Championship Play-Off Final. Unfortunately, Murray suffered a serious knee injury in the Semi Final first leg against Brighton, so if the Eagles do reach the Premier League, we won't see him there for some time. Such a shame.)

WINNER: Bradford City reach League Cup Final
(Not since Rochdale in 1962 had a fourth-tier team reached the Final of the League Cup. Then came Phil Parkinson's Bradford City, who quietly made their way through the early rounds before winning tense penalty shoot-outs against top-flight sides Wigan Athletic and Arsenal. That was followed by a nail-biting Semi Final against Aston Villa, in which the Bantams did just enough to make history and book a date at Wembley. The Final against Swansea City didn't quite follow the Hollywood writer's script, but Bradford - now promoted to League One - will never forget this season just gone.)

WINNER: Reading 5-7 Arsenal (League Cup)
(Brian McDermott had never beaten his old club Arsenal as a manager, so when Reading went 4-0 up within 37 minutes, he could be forgiven for thinking he was in dreamland. Arsene Wenger [pictured] was stunned, and gave his Arsenal players the hairdryer treatment at half-time. The Gunners then turned a 4-1 deficit at the break into a 4-4 draw after normal time, thanks to Theo Walcott's leveller deep into injury time. After 30 minutes of extra time, it was still 5-5, but two dramatically late Arsenal goals completed one of the most extraordinary matches you are ever likely to see.)

WINNER: Cameron Jerome (STOKE CITY vs Southampton)
(Stoke City were trailing 3-2 to Southampton in the closing stages of their Premier League clash. Tony Pulis' men tried to carve out one last attack, but after Peter Crouch failed to control the ball cleanly, team-mate Cameron Jerome went for a hit-and-hope half-volley from distance. This was the result. I gave serious consideration to Robin van Persie's sublime second goal against Aston Villa, but Manchester United have won plenty of awards already, and the drama surrounding Jerome's stunner meant that I decided to give this accolade to him instead.)

WINNER: Stiliyan Petrov
(Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with leukaemia last year, and has missed the whole of this season as a result. Aston Villa fans paid tribute to their absent captain by chanting his name in the 19th minute of matches at Villa Park - they have nothing but respect for Stan, and the feeling is mutual. Sadly, Petrov will not be back on the football pitch again, having announced his retirement, but he is setting up a charity to help others with his illness. Because he is handling his cancer battle in such a dignified manner and is determined to save more lives from leukaemia, he has the utmost respect of myself and many others in the football family.)

WINNER: Viktor Fischer (AJAX & DENMARK)
(This has been 18-year-old Fischer's first season in the Ajax first-team, and the Danish winger has made a smooth transition from youth to senior football, scoring 12 times in 33 games. Fisher, who was the joint-top scorer in last season's NextGen Series, was very much an important figure as Ajax retained the Eredivisie title. He won his first cap for Denmark last year, and it's only a matter of time before he really makes his mark on the world stage. A lucrative move to the Premier League - perhaps to Manchester United or Chelsea - could come this summer.)

WINNER: Bayern Munich
(Bayern Munich walked the Bundesliga this season, losing just one game as they picked up 91 points and ended up with an incredible goal difference of +80. Typically of any German team, one of the key reasons behind their success is the solidity of the defence, which protects perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world right now - Manuel Neuer [pictured]. Bayern have also been devastating in the UEFA Champions League, as they tore Barcelona to shreds and booked a place in the Final against rivals Borussia Dortmund. If Bayern were to win next week, it could be the start of a period of dominance from the Munich side.)

(He may not have lifted the Champions League this year, but Lionel Messi is still the best player on planet football at the moment. The Argentine magician has scored 46 goals in La Liga this season for wire-to-wire champions Barcelona - just four short of his total from the previous campaign. He continues to score and create goals at an incredible rate, but the really scary thing is that he's still only 25 years of age! For the fifth year in a row, I have picked out Messi as the best footballer in the world, and if he carries his amazing form into the next 12 months, it's not impossible that he could break his own record for the most goals in a calendar year! I bet Cristiano Ronaldo is wetting himself!)

2013 League One Play-Off Final preview

Brentford's Marcello Trotta will be key - just don't get him to take a penalty!
A place in next season's Championship is up for grabs today as Brentford and Yeovil Town battle it out at Wembley in the League One Play-Off Final.

Brentford and Yeovil both had surprisingly impressive seasons, finishing 3rd and 4th respectively in the standings, and now two of League One's supposed lesser lights are just 90 minutes away from the second tier of English football.

Brentford could've clinched automatic promotion in the final minute of the final day, but Marcello Trotta missed a penalty before Doncaster Rovers launched a rapid counter-attack and scored at the other end to break the Bees' hearts. The Play-Off Semi Final also sent pulses racing, as the Londoners edged out Swindon Town on penalties.

This club has reached the play-offs six times, but they have never gone up via that route. In their last Final in 2002, they were beaten by Stoke City, who clinched promotion to Division 1 as a result.

If Uwe Rosler's men were to go a step further today, they would be in England's second tier for the first time since 1992/1993, when they went straight back down again. Since Rosler's arrival at the start of last season, the Griffin Park club has become more ambitious, and if they do reach the Championship, it could be the start of a golden period for them.

The German has no fresh injury concerns, although goalkeeper Richard Lee and left-back Scott Barron remain long-term absentees. Trotta is likely to keep his place up front alongside Harry Forrester, and they are just two of a number of promising youngsters on Brentford's books. Midfielder Adam Forshaw and defender Harlee Dean should also be watched closely.

Yeovil hotshot Paddy Madden, who cost £11,985,000 less than Fabio Borini.

Getting into the Championship would be a dream come true for Brentford, but even more so for Yeovil Town. The club from the West Country are hoping to complete just their 10th season as Football League members with promotion to the second division - a feat that seemed unimaginable when they were a Conference club renowned for causing FA Cup giant-killings.

Yeovil have actually come close before, in 2007, when they got all the way to the Final before falling prey to Blackpool. Until this season, that was their only experience of the play-offs.

Manager Gary Johnson, who led the Glovers into the Football League in 2003 and League One a couple of years later, returned in January and guided them to their best ever league finish.

Like his Bees counterpart, Johnson doesn't have to adjust his plans due to any new injuries. Defenders Dan Burn and Jamie McAllister have both struggled with injuries recently but should be fit. Yeovil will continue to look to the division's leading scorer - £15,000 bargain buy Paddy Madden - for goals, although it was actually midfielder Ed Upson who got them past Sheffield United in the Semi Final, and he'll be just as important.

This match will be a very tight affair, indeed I expect it to go into extra time at least, although Yeovil won both of the sides' league meetings this seasons and will fancy their chances a bit more. However, I've got a sneaky feeling that Brentford will make it third time lucky, and give Bees fan Natalie Sawyer even more to smile about tomorrow.

TDTR PREDICTS: Brentford 3-2 Yeovil Town (after extra time)