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In Spain, the sports papers refer to the exodus of players during international weeks as the ‘FIFA virus’ and it will be interesting to see if Spanish Liverpool can cope with its effects this weekend.
To recap, Liverpool were in spectacular form before the latest interruption to the domestic season, banging in 13 goals in three games against Real Madrid in the Champions League and Manchester United and Aston Villa in the Premier League.
The international break could not have come at a worse time for coach Rafa Benitez. Sure, there was more good news on Friday as the club announced captain Steven Gerrard had signed a contract extension that will tie him to the club until 2013 but the euphoric mood will be punctured if they do not win away at Fulham on Saturday.
Victory in that game would put them top for at last one night as United, who hold a one-point lead with a game in hand, are not in action until they host Villa on Sunday.
Liverpool reopened the Premier League title race with a 5-0 win over Aston Villa that must have thrilled Anfield, while leaving fans wondering why they haven’t seen similar displays all season.
This was exactly the sort of performance the occasion cried out for. Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat at Fulham, following on from the Old Trafford debacle, had left the door ajar, and Liverpool duly barged it open with another display of absolute self-belief.
So, here we go again. For the fifth successive season, Liverpool will face Chelsea in the Champions League.
Villarreal v Arsenal
Manchester United v Porto
Liverpool v Chelsea
Barcelona v Bayern Munich
Manchester United or Porto v Villarreal or Arsenal
Barcelona or Bayern Munich v Liverpool or Chelsea
Liverpool will perhaps be marginal favourites in the all-English quarter-final after knocking Chelsea out at the semi-final stage in 2005 and 2007 but their fans will need no reminding that last season, when Chelsea got to play the second leg at home, it was the Londoners who came through.
Comments by UEFA officials that the body’s president Michel Platini is “dead set” against a European Super League must come as a huge relief to a vast majority of Europe’s clubs.
“People should not mix up philosophy and reality. As far as the president is concerned, such a proposal is a non-starter,” a senior official close to Platini told Reuters.
My colleague Patrick Johnston has been wondering aloud about the effect a 4-1 defeat by Liverpool is going to have on Manchester United. He’s in good company, because Guus Hiddink also believes the door is open a little bit.
The match must have been enjoyable for Liverpool fans but it’s not going to have an effect on the title race.
During a typical football discussion at a Milan pub recently, a friend made a comment which really stayed with me.
“Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the closest there is to Van Basten.”
After thinking about it, I realised he was probably right. Ibrahimovic’s touch for a big man and his ability to score wonderful goals really do mark him out as special. It is right to talk of him in the same breath as one of Holland’s finest.
Please don’t try and tell me that a 4-1 defeat at home to your arch-rivals does not affect you — it must do.
At lunchtime on Saturday Manchester United knew they could probably afford to lose against Liverpool and still claim another Premier League title but does the manner of their capitulation offer hope to the chasing pack?
The sight of Serie A sides flopping in the Champions League has become a familiar one and although the three teams eliminated this week were a little unlucky, a mental block against English opposition is developing.
Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho, who won the trophy with Porto in 2004, was hired in June largely to boost their hopes of challenging Europe’s elite after years of failure.
Speaking as someone who once sat in a brick-built outhouse at the bottom of the garden for five years writing a book about the FA Cup, I have rather a soft spot for the old pot.And so, it seems, after all these years, do Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and many other managers, some of whom have not always treated the competition with the respect I still think it deserves.It seems almost every year at about this time, the same stories are run about how the FA Cup has lost its magic and the competition is now a mere end-of pier show compared to the Champions League and Premier League.The doomsayers point to dwindling attendances at grounds and dipping TV viewing figures to prove the FA Cup is not what it was.Last season the jump-on-a-bandwagon team proclaimed the cup “was back” because of all the upsets along the way that meant that just one Premier League team — Portsmouth — reached the semi-finals. Portsmouth v Cardiff was an “old-fashioned” final, a throwback to the 1920s and 1930s.This season the same voices are proclaiming the cup is dead again because Manchester United, Chelsea and Everton are all in the last four with Arsenal set to join them, although Hull City are still involved, and can still of course win it for the first time in their history.But the critics can’t have it both ways. Some years there are upsets, some years there aren’t — and irrespective of the outcome, an FA Cup match does have a different atmosphere, a different tempo and a different level of excitement to a league match, even if both teams are in the same division and regularly play each other.I was at Fulham v Manchester United on Saturday and saw a magical performance from Michael Carrick, Carlos Tevez and their team mates as United crushed the home side 4-0.Despite modern improvements there is still a timeless feel about watching matches at Craven Cottage next to the River Thames, just as there is still a timeless feel about the FA Cup.Sometimes it ebbs, sometimes it flows. I still believe that for most fans, nurtured on just a little history who still appreciate the romance of the game, you can’t miss it for a moment.PHOTO: Everton’s Marouane Fellaini (R) challenges Middlesbrough’s Justin Hoyte during their FA Cup quarter-final at Goodison Park, March 8, 2009. REUTERS/Phil Noble
As Dimitar Berbatov sluggishly rolled in Manchester United’s winner at Newcastle United on Wednesday it suddenly occurred to me that the Premier League season that threatened a different story is heading for a very familiar ending.
At the top, the midweek matches saw United record their 11th consecutive league win and strengthen their grasp on the title, while Chelsea and Liverpool consolidated Champions League spots and Arsenal made up ground on an Aston Villa side which might just be running out of steam.