Tonight Greek champions Olympiacos will play one of the most important matches in their history. Their fate is partially in their hands. Only a win against Malmö at their stadium which is named after Greek Independence War hero Giorgios Karaiskakis gives them any chance of progressing to the knock-out stage of the Championʼs League. But they need a favour.
While any win will do, it will count for nothing unless last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid beat Juventus. The irony of a former Real Madrid great needing a favour from his cross town rivals is surely not lost on Olympiacosʼ coach Michel (José Miguel González Martín del Campo). But the Greeks can only take care of their end, beating the Swedish team and hope that Juve lose.
“I think everything is always difficult for any team, because we never know about the challenges”, said the World Cup winning French midfielder Christian Karembeu. “We never know about it – the favourites may not play well, so all expectations always with favourites, but we never know about the challenges”.
The Greeks had an interesting draw and will take some confidence from having beaten both favourites for Group A. “I think that for my part with Olympiacos, for us itʼs a great honour to play against Juve, to play against Atlético Madrid who were finalists in the last Championʼs League tournament”, Karembeu said. “So far we are very happy”.
Olympicos know that a win or draw tonight will guarantee third place and barring something unforeseeable a berth in the Europa League. While the financial benefits of that competition are not comparable to the Championʼs League, they are not to be sniffed at, especially in economically ravaged Greece and in the era of Financial Fair Play (FFP).
Olympiacos can always compete on the national stage, but Europe is another matter, especially now. FFP limits their room to manoeuvre. Karembeu is thoughtful on the initiative. “I think that everyone should think about it”ʼ he says. “Everyone should talk about it, discuss it and try to find a really great solution, knowing that itʼs a really good initiative to try to make balance to any of the teams”.
But does it achieve that or lock the door shut after teams that have done their spending in advance, or adjusted their revenue-making options to fit the new fiscal requirements? Karembeu is aware of the pitfalls, but broadly speaking he supports the initiative. “I know”, he says, “thatʼs why I say everybody should discuss [it], everybody: owners, investors and UEFA. They should work together and discuss why this matters”.
While it lacks the prestige and resources of the Championʼs League, the Europa League can expect to be taken seriously this season, even in England. The winner of the competition will play in the Championʼs League next season. Will that make it more competitive? Karembeu adopts a wait and see perspective. “We will see”, he says. “Now itʼs an idea. We will see if itʼs going to be competitive or not and thatʼs when we will see. This is like how you say like a reason. We will see what will happen”.
Bulgarian first-timers to the Championʼs League, Ludogorets, were handed a plush group of fixtures as defending champions Real Mardid – ten times winners were paired with five times European champions Liverpool, returning to the top flight of European football in the post Suárez era. FC Basel 1893, who defeated Chelsea home and away last season before losing their the Pharaohsʼ prize asset Mohammed Salah to the west-Londoners, make up Group B.
Manchester City, yet to excel in Europe, have another tough ask. Pep Guardiolaʼs FC Bayern München are the class of Group D, but CSKA Moskva (Moscow) and AS Roma will provide tough opposition. Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, Arsène Wengerʼs marquee signing for this season will hope to guide his new team past former winner Borussia Dortmund. SC Galatasaray and RSC Anderlecht complete Group D.
2012 champions Chelsea, boasting the return of the legendary Ivorian striker Didier Drogba, face Kevin-Prince Boatengʼs Schalke 04 along with Sporting Club de Portugal. Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor complete Group G. The victory of the Slovenians in the last round of qualifiers avoided the embarrassment of an undeserving Celtic finding a way into the Championʼs League group stage despite by thoroughly outclassed by Polandʼs Legia Warsaw.
Celtic were fortunate to be given a reprieve despite being thrashed by 6-1 on aggregate by Legia, due to the Poles fielding an ineligible player for a couple of minutes of a dead return fixture. A bureaucratic error to be sure, but a classic case of the punishment exceeding the offence. The Scottish champions failed to benefit from their good fortune. Celtic were defeated at home by Sloveniaʼs NK Maribor who took their place in Group G.
The beaten finalists in the last two Europa League finals, Benfica begin their latest effort to defeat the Curse of their legendary coach Béla Guttmann in Group C in a tough group against and AS Monaco, recently shorn of the Golden Boot winning Colombian maestro James Rodríguez, but still boasting the services of fellow Colombian Radamel Falcao, whose efforts to join Real Madrid seem plagued by Guttmann at his malevolent prime.
Falcaoʼs former club and last yearʼs beaten finalists Atlético de Madrid will face competition from Juventus, Olympiacos and Malmö, as they bid to make club history with a first triumph in Europeʼs top competition. They have a tough group to negotaite, especially after selling prized striker Diego Costa to Chelsea along with defender Filipe Luís Kasmirski. Coach Diego Simeone faces a tough test from teams whose radar are set to ensure Atlético will not evade it.
Fresh from evading the consequences of the serial breach of the rules on transfers of youngsters from foreign nations Barçelona by splurging in the transfer market ahead of the inevitable and fully deserved ban – they knew they were serially breaching that rule – the Catalan giants crammed a couple of years worth of transfer activity into this window. Paris Saint-Germainʼs Zlatan Ibrahimović will play against two former clubs – the Catalan giants and Ajax as well as rank outsiders Apoel of Cyprus in Group F. Porto are the top ranked team of Group H. Ukraineʼs Shakhtar Donetsk will provide the stiffest competition for the Portuguese according to UEFAʼs ranking system. Bilabaoʼs Athletic Club and Belarusʼ Bate Borisov complete the Group.
For the first time ever the Womenʼs Best Player in Europe Award was presented along with the menʼs. Last yearʼs inaugural award was won by Germanyʼs goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. The repeating champions VfL Wolfsburg provided all the three nominees. Swedenʼs Nilla Fischer and Martina Müller lost to the clubʼs captain Nadine Kessler.
Bayern Münchenʼs flying Dutchman Arjen Robben was nominated along with his team-mate Germanyʼs World Cup-winning sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. They were beaten by record-breaking marksman Cristiano Ronaldo, who paid tribute to his team-mates at Real Madrid. The former Manchester United star couldnʼt resist a swipe at Liverpool. Ronaldo pointed out that when Liverppol beat Real 5-0 on aggregate, it was different as he wasnʼt playing for Real then.
A magnificent performance by Borussia Dortmundʼs returning Mats Hummels propelled Germany into a record fourth World Cup semi-final in a row. Hummels was immense at both ends, scoring the only goal of the match and reading the game incredibly in defence, including an exceptional block from Karim Benzemaʼs shot from 8 yards out.
After 12 minutes Juventusʼ Paul Pogba committed a seemingly innocuous foul on Toni Kroos. The Bayern München midfielder launched it into the area. Hummels out-muscled Real Madridʼs Raphael Varane to head past Hugo Llorisʼ off the crossbar. One behind France waited – perhaps too long – before deciding that the match was there for the taking. Germany await the winners of hosts Brasil against the entertaining Colombians in the semi-final.
Hummels commanded the defence, leading by example. There was only ever one contender for Man of the Match. Just ten minutes into the match Mathieu Valbuenaʼs pass was intercepted by Hummels with Real Madridʼs Karim Benzema poised to shoot. It soon became a pattern. With just over half an hour played Antoine Griezman crossed from the right wing to Valbuena on the left of the area.
Valbuenaʼs shot was saved by Bayern Münchenʼs sweeper/keeper Manuel Neuer. The rebound fell to Benzema. He shot from close range. It hit Hummelsʼ thigh and ballooned over the bar with Benzema wondering what he had to do to score. Less than five minutes before half time Blaise Matuidi crossed for Benzema. His header hit Hummelsʼ midriff, but the French optimistically claimed a penalty that quite rightly was not given.
France pressed more in the second half. With 15 minutes of normal time remaining Benzema was poised to level. He shot from close range, but Hummels – who else could it be? – slid in to block. Meanwhile, Neuer summed up Benzemaʼs match by nonchalantly slapping his shot away with one hand.
Germany created chances too. A lovely move on the right resulted in Philipp Lahm – back in defence – crossing for Miroslav Klose, who went down too easily, although Mathieu Debuchy was grabbing his shirt. Substitute André Schürrle really should have scored, but was denied by Lloris. It didnʼt matter as Germany progressed to the semi-final.
With just over ten minutes remaining a tight match turned decisively in Franceʼs favour. Lilleʼs Vincent Enyeama flapped at Mathieu Valbuenaʼs corner and palmed it to Paul Pogba. Juventusʼ midfielder nodded it in to give Didier Deschampsʼ team the lead. It was a pity that the last keeper to concede a goal in the first round and jointly led keepers throughout Europe in clean sheets and made important saves in this match made the mistake that cost the Africans champions dear.
Two minutes into injury a different corner routine also involving Valbuena led to the second. A short corner to the Marseille midfielder caught the Nigerian defence out. Valbuena squared it for substitute Antoine Griezman. Enyeama was beaten by a deflection off Super-Eagles captain Joseph Yobo. Shortly after the Fenerbahçe defenderʼs error, Deschamps allowed Valbuena to receive a well earned ovation from French fans and waste a bit of time.
On the balance of play France deserved to continue Nigeriaʼs last sixteen jinx and put the horrors of their wretched campaign four years ago firmly behind them. Deschamps chose to deploy Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema on the left and Arsenalʼs Oliver Giroud in the striker role. Both proved ineffective. The introduction of Griezman proved to be the turning point.
Nigeria had been the better side in the first half. After 18 minutes CSKA Moscowʼs Ahmed Musa – the first and so far only Nigerian to score two goals in a match at the World Cup Finals – crossed for the much touted, but so far ineffective Emmanuel Emenike to score his first goal with a deft flick past Tottenham Hotspurʼs Hugo Lloris. Sadly for Stephen Keshi and his assistant Daniel Amokachi it was ruled offside and it was – just.
A mistimed but reckless tackle by Paris Saint-Germainʼs Blaise Matuidi ended Lazioʼs Ogenyi Onaziʼs afternoon. Matuidi was shown a yellow card by American referee Mark Geiger. Matuidi was genuinely apologetic to Onazi, but the midfielder was stretchered off. He would not return.
Enyeama made a couple of important saves, but could do nothing when former Newcastle United favourite Yohan Cabaye picked up the pieces of John Mikel Obiʼs clearance and shot from outside the area. He was very unlucky that it beat Enyeama, but struck the crossbar.
Midway through the first half Pogba surged through the centre, playing a neat one-two with Valbuena before volleying. Enyeama denied him. With just over twenty minutes remaining Benzema and Griezman combined on the left to create a golden opportunity for Benzema. Enyeama took the pace off it and Victor Moses scrambled back to clear.
Eventually the pressure told. France got the goals to take then through to the quarter-final and a tie against either Algeria or Germany.
Cristiano Ronaldo scored his solitary goal in the World Cup Finals to beat Ghana 2-1 after a dreadful error by Ghanaʼs goal-keeper Fatau Dauda gifted the World Player of the Year the winner. Earlier John Boye sliced Miguel Velosoʼs cross into his own net to give Portugal a fortuitous lead – fortuitous as the Bahranian referee Nawaf Shukralla broke up a Ghanaian attack.
The referee intercepted André Ayewʼs pass to Christian Atsu with the Chelsea winger – he spent the last season on loan to Vitesse Arnhem. Ayew was incensed, but Shukralla allowed play to continue. Eventually it reached Veloso on the left flank and his cross was sliced horribly into his own net by Boye.
Shorn of the talents of Kevin-Prince Boateng and Sulley Muntari – sent home in disgrace – Ghana faced an uphill struggle, but The remaining players seemed up for the fight. Just over ten minutes into the second half Ayew broke forward before finding Juventusʼ Kwadmo Asamoah on the left wing. Asamoahʼs cross, delivered with the outside of his left foot was a sumptuous one that begged a finish and Asamoah Gyan did not disappoint.
Gyan broke another of Roger Millaʼs records. Earlier this week Colombian goal-keeper Faryd Mondragón Ali became the oldest man to play in the World Cup, breaking Roger Millaʼs 24 year-old record. And today, Gyan eased past Milla in the scoring stakes, becoming the most prolific African marksman in World Cup history with 6.
Ronaldo opened his account to get the winner as Mensah and Dauda got in each otherʼs way. Dauda patted it out straight to Ronaldo who scored easily, but the win was hollow. The thrashing that Portugal took at the hands of Germany in their first match cost them dear as despite losing to Germany the USA went through on goal difference.
The Cult Hero
Ronaldo signalled his intent in 5 minutes. Out on the right wing Ronaldo shot from 40 yards out. It beat Dauda convincingly, but rebounded off the crossbar. Over ten minutes later João Pereira crossed from the left and Ronaldo headed powerfully at goal. Dauda produced a fantastic reflex save and celebrated wildly.
At the other end Gyan turned and shot, producing an instinctive save with his feet from Portuguese goal-keeper Beto. Gyan had a header saved too before turning provider on the left after an hour. His cross should have been headed in by Majeed Waris, but Spartak Moscowʼs on loan striker headed wide.
Ronaldo failed to add to his tally twice more in injury time. He flicked Naniʼs cross over and shortly after was denied by Daudaʼs feet. Portugal clung on for the win, but not even Ronaldo could drag Portugal through to the next round. Germany and the USA reached the last sixteen.
Portugal were eliminated by the eventual winners Spain in the last 16 four years ago and Ghana were a handball away from the semi-finals. But both have regressed badly. The Black Stars prop the group up. Can James Kwesi Appiah hold on to his job?
France could not find a way to breach Ecuador’s defense even though the South Americans played with only ten men since the 50th minute after their captain Antonio Valencia was sent off in this intensely contested match which did not produce a winner – it was a 0-0 draw, but could have easily ended in a French victory or even an Ecuadorian triumph, as both teams had good chances to score. The result saw France advance as group winners and Ecuador was eliminated.
Prior to this encounter Didier Deschampsʼ French team was viewed by some as serious contenders in this exciting World Cup – already considered by most to be the best tournament ever – after destroying Honduras (3-0) and Switzerland (5-2) in their first two matches.
In the sixth minute French defender Mamadou Sakho was extremely fortunate not to be sent off by the Ivorian referee Noumandiez Doué after delivering an elbow to the face of Ecuador’s midfielder Oswaldo Minda. The tens of thousands of Ecuadorian fans who packed the Estádio do Maracanã felt aggrieved and showed their disgust and disapproval by jeering the referee who did not even book the offender.
The game was evenly matched with France enjoying a little more possession. In the 37th minute les Bleus had their best chance when Morgan Schneiderlin’s excellent cross resulted in Juventusʼ midfielder Paul Pogbaʼs header which was heading for the opening goal, but a spectacular save from ʻman of the matchʼ Ecuadorian goal-keeper Alexander Domínguez. Three minutes later it was his French counterpart Hugo Lloris’ turn to save a point blank header from Enner Valencia.
Almost immediately at the start of the second half, Antonio Valencia saw red for a studs- showing tackle on Paris Saint-Germainʼs Lucas Digne, who laid on the pitch injured and received medical treatment. It was a well-deserved red card that the Ecuadorian captain could not protest in the least bit.
Following the sending-off, France saw most of the ball and came close to scoring a few times through Blaise Matuidi, Karim Benzema, Pogba and Oilivier Giroud, but Domínguez’s spectacular play in goal kept his team in the game. Ecuador also enjoyed a few chances to score, but Enner Valencia, Renato Ibarra and Michael Arroyo’s shots were well rebuffed by Lloris.
Ecuador kept defending heroically and counter-attacking at every chance, looking for the goal and the victory which could give them a spot in the next round. The game opened up with chances galore for both teams, but both keepers were superb. However, in a bizarre move, in the 82nd minute, Ecuador’s manager, the Colombian Reinaldo Rueda, removed forward Michael Arroyo and brought in defender Gabriel Achilier.
It seemed a bizarre decision as if he thought Ecuador would progress to the next round by hanging on to the 0-0 draw. Seven minutes later and almost into stoppage time, Rueda brought in striker Felipe Caicedo, who had been a starter until today’s match, but it proved too late.
An intense and exciting 0-0 draw meant Ecuador had once again failed to reach the last sixteen. The result means that France as group winners will be joined by Switzerland –who crushed Honduras 3-0- as the two teams from Group E that advance to the Round of 16 where they will meet Nigeria and Argentina respectively.
Atlético de Madridʼs Diego Godínʼs 81st minute winner put Uruguay into the last 16, almost certainly to face fellow South Americans Colombia. The story should have been about their performance, but it wonʼt be. FIFA will examine footage of an incident two minutes earlier as Liverpoolʼs Luis Suárez and Juventusʼ Giorgio Chiellini clashed.
Both should have been dismissed, but the fall-out is likely to be far more serious as Suárez appeared to bite Chiellini. If the footage confirms it it will be the third time Suárez has bitten a fellow player and will surely lead to a very lengthy ban. Chiellini certainly believed that Suárez had bitten him and tried to show the officials his shoulder.
“It was ridiculous not to send Suárez off for biting me”, Chiellini said to RAI TV, but the Méxican referee Marco Rodríguez Moreno was unmoved by Chielliniʼs attempt to show him the bite marks.
FIFA will investigate further. If confirmed as seems likely Suárez will miss the rest of the World Cup and face further sanction. FIFAʼs Disciplinary Code allows it to be reviewed and its maximum sanctions are 24 matches or a 2 year ban, even though the harshest punishment imposed in a World Cup was the disgraceful elbow in the face of Spainʼs Luis Enrique by Italyʼs Mauro Tassotti in 1994.
It would be the third time that Suárez has bitten a player. In 2010, while playing for Ajax he was banned for seven matches for biting PSV Eindhovenʼs Otman Bakkal. Last year the FA banned Suárez for 10 matches for biting Chelseaʼs Branislav Ivanović. He missed the start of the season and then played so well that he became the Player of the Year and deservedly so.
Italy began the match needing just a draw to progress to the last 16. Despite rough treatment of Mario Balotelli – he was withdrawn at half time – Italy were inn pole position until just before the hour mark. Claudio Marchisio was shown a straight red card for a studs up challenge that connected with Edigio Árevalo Ríos shin. Italians protested vociferously, but it made no difference.
They held on until two minutes after the bite Gastón Ramírez Pereyra crossed for Godín to powerfully head across Gianluigi Buffon – advantage Uruguay. They held on to set up a last 16 clash against the winners of Group C. Italyʼs second consecutive elimination in the first round proved too much for coach Cesare Prandelli. He resigned immediately after the match.