The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

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Liverpool facing crucial run ahead of next big test


Liverpool have weathered the opening third of the season admirably, and following the frenetic recent Merseyside derby, Brendan Rodgers’ side now face a series of what their increasingly optimistic fans will perceive as winnable games.

Certainly, since Rodgers took charge at Anfield, his teams have been far more capable of dispatching the so-called smaller sides in the league – especially at home – with the ease one would expect from genuine title contenders.

However, unlike under his predecessors, Kenny Dalglish and Rafa Benitez, the Northern Irishman has struggled embolden his players with the self-belief to exert their dominance over the sides around them at the top of the table.  dThis inability to establish the required consistency has been Liverpool’s biggest problem ever since their last title challenge in the 2008-09 campaign, and with Tottenham, Manchester City and Chelsea lying in wait for the Reds over the festive period it is key that they pick up maximum points between then and now.

Liverpool now travel to Hull ahead of home fixtures against Norwich and West Ham, and will be wanting to add nine points to their tally before entertaining Andre Villas-Boas on December 15th in a game.

With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge showing such fine form in front of goal – both players currently being backed heavily by Betfair customers to finish the season as leading scorer – and the return of the mercurial Phillipe Coutinho to pull the strings behind them, Rodgers will be quietly confident of still being in the hunt for Champions League football by the time January rolls around.

Betfair.com offers a wide range of competitive odds for those that agree with that opinion, and with United and Spurs both struggling so far this season, this may finally be Liverpool’s year.

The going nowhere man


Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, has insisted he is not thinking about loaning out Fabio Borini this season, making it clear the club need to keep a strong squad during a long and tough season.

Borini arrived at Anfield last summer in a big-money switch from Roma, linking up with Rodgers for a second time – having previously enjoyed a successful loan spell at Swansea City in the Championship.

The Italian youngster struggled for form and fitness throughout 2012/13, though, missing a large chunk of the season and failing to gain the favour of betfair pundits.

However, there were glimpses of the ability that convinced Rodgers to shell out to bring him back to England, and Liverpool fans will know Borini could yet become a firm favourite on the terraces at Anfield if he can put strong run of performances together in the first team and help the club get back into the Champions League.

A busy summer in the transfer market by Rodgers suggested Borini may find it increasingly difficult to find regular first team football at Anfield this season. But any talk of loaning the 22-year old out has been quickly dismissed by Rodgers, insisting Borini was an important part of the squad this season.

“There would be a queue of clubs wanting to take him if he was available. But we want to keep a strong group – it’s a very long season for us. You’ve got Daniel (Sturridge), Fabio, (Iago) Aspas and Luis (Suarez) to come in a number of weeks.

“We want to make sure the competition in the group is there, especially at the top end of the field where if you have a goalscorer it’s always good to have. He’s eager and hungry when that chance comes to prove he can get goals,” revealed Rodgers.

Good old Sussex by the Sea


Danny Last may have put away the computer keyboard from European Football Weekends but that doesn’t mean he has also filed the old Polaroid in the bin too.  Yesterday he was part of the Sussex Army who descended on Anfield for the FA Cup 5th Round tie.  We all know the score but his outstanding pictures tell a different story.

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More pictures from the day can be found here.

Swansea come away from Anfield with a point and pride


Abi Davies was at Anfield on Saturday.  To say that she was elated by the result is an understatement.

Swansea City went into Saturday’s game at Anfield as mighty underdogs as a win for Liverpool would have seen them leapfrog Chelsea and Spurs into the top four, whilst victory for Swansea would have been their first 3 points away from home in the Premier League.

Brendan Rodgers made just one change to the side that claimed an annihilating victory over Bolton last weekend as Wayne Routledge made his 5th start of the campaign, replacing Scott Sinclair who had to settle for a place among the substitutes.

Despite many pundits and fans drawing on previous results between the two teams, I felt they were completely irrelevant given the fact that the sides last meeting came over 20 years ago. Continue reading

Reds can enjoy Wembley success


It’s been six seasons since Liverpool last got their hands on the FA Cup, but 2012 looks like it could be the Reds’ best chance of return to Wembley.

Kenny Dalglish has already set his stall out in this season’s Carling Cup, selecting strong starting line-ups when possible and the FA Cup is likely to be sitting second on his list of priorities, behind a top-four Premier League finish. Anyone following the online football betting should remember this.

With no European competition to deal with, Liverpool will pose a threat to any of their rivals, who are likely to rest key players in order to aid their chances in the Champions League.

Dalglish will be seeking an FA Cup hat-trick, having won the famous old trophy one two previous occasions – as player-manager in 1985-1986 and as just a manager in 1988-1989.

Liverpool are currently fourth in the list of FA Cup winners, with seven victories to their name – the last coming against West Ham in 2006. That final was the last final at the Millennium Stadium and the Reds fans will be desperate to enjoy a day out at Wembley for the first time since 1996. Betfair FA Cup odds suggest they have every chance of doing so.

The team just above Liverpool in the all-time list of winners – Tottenham – may well be their biggest rivals to lift the trophy. Harry Redknapp has made his thoughts clear on the Europa League schedule and with Spurs looking unlikely to go far in Europe, their strong squad also look to be a good bet for a good cup run.

Of course the luck of the draw will have a big impact, with Dalglish hoping to avoid the fate of last season – when his team were drawn away to rivals Manchester United in the third round

My first game – Ross Neumann


Liverpool 2 v 1 Aston Villa
League Division One
Anfield
1 September 1990 3:00pm
Attendance: 38,061

As a youth I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the ways of football at an early age. From Subbuteo (age four) to my first appearance for Linthurst First School (age seven and a debut brace) it was always there. However until the the age of seven my Saturdays were spent shopping in numerous horrible provincial towns with my Mum (I remember Manchester being particularly grim) whilst my Dad swanned off to watch a game of his choosing.

On this momentous day I remember the conversation in our Nissan as my parents discussed if I was ready to attend my first game. In these pre-Premiership days the main focus seemed to centre on whether I was likely to get maimed by Scousers and/or Brummies but eventually my Dad won out I was off to my first game. I think part of this was down to football’s increasing mainstream appeal after Italia 90 where it became socially acceptable for middle class people to watch football instead of whatever they had done before on a Saturday afternoon (no me neither).

The game itself I remember very little about. Beardsley scored early on before David Platt equalised for Villa with a semi bicycle kick. The game was decided by a late John Barnes top corner effort which sadly I have been unable to find on Youtube.

So for the next month and a half I have to admit to being a Liverpool fan. This would all change at Meadow Lane when a certain Steve Bull struck to equalise for Wolves and not for the first time in this First Game feature secure a young man’s loyalty to the Gold and Black. Mr Bull you have a lot to answer for.

Ross Neumann

Twitter.com/rossneu