The Half-Time Whistle

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Archive for the month “March, 2012”

Ahead in March, Celebrate in May

Manchester City entertain Sunderland on Saturday, knowing a win will take them back to the top of the table.  But will they still be there at the end of the season?

Let’s look back at the history of the Premier League to see if we can assess their chances.

This is the 20th season of the Premier League, and so far from the previous 19 there have only been 5 instances of a team leading at the end of March, and not winning the title in May.  Of those 5 occasions, it has happened to Manchester United just twice.  When you consider they have been top in March for 12 of those 19 seasons, being overtaken on just 2 occasions would suggest City’s chances are slim unless City can get to the top on Saturday.

However, of the 7 instances when United haven’t been top at the end of March, there has only been 2 occasions when they overhauled the leaders to win that title.  So if City can go top on Saturday, they may stand a chance of staying there, based on past seasons.

In 1993, the very first Premier League season, Norwich City lead the table at the end of March.  They were 1pt ahead of Aston Villa and 2pts ahead of United, both of whom had a game in hand.  Norwich had just beaten Aston Villa, 1-0 to replace them in 1st place.  But they were only able to win another 2 games from their final 7, which included a 1-3 defeat at home to United.  They picked up just 7pts after the end of March, whereas United earned 21pts from a possible 24 and finally won their first league title for 26 years.

In 2003, Arsenal lead the pack.  They had just beaten Everton, 2-1 and were 2pts clear of United with just 7 matches left.  They had lost just once in their previous 14 games.  Although they would only lose once more (2-3 at home to Leeds), they only won 3 of their last 7 matches, gaining just 12pts.  United picked up 19pts, only dropping points when they drew 2-2 at Highbury.

For United, this was payback for 1998 when they were top at the end of March, 2pts ahead of Arsenal, although they’d played 2 games more.  United picked up just 14pts from their final 6 matches, whereas Arsenal gained 18pts from their 8 games and beat United to the title by just 1pt.

Arsenal were also successful in 2002 when Liverpool lead at the end of March.  They were 1pt ahead of United and 2pts ahead of Arsenal.  But once again, Arsenal had games in hand.  Liverpool won 4 of their final 5 matches, but Arsenal won every one of their final 7 matches to win the title by 7pts.

The last instance of a side being top at the end of March and not winning the trophy was just 3 seasons ago when United lead Chelsea by 1pt.  Chelsea then beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford and with United then being held to a 0-0 draw at Blackburn, this put paid to their title attempt.  This meant Chelsea’s 1-2 defeat at Tottenham wasn’t enough to stop them picking up their 3rd title in 6 years.

There seems to be no doubt this is far from the best United side ever seen, however their points tally per game at this stage of the season has only been beaten on 4 occasions since 1993.  Chelsea’s total of 77pts from 30 matches in 2005 is still the record.  Closely followed by their tally of 77 from 30 the season after and then matched by United the season after that.  In 2004, Arsenal had amassed 74pts from 30 games.

If United win every game from now till the end of the season, they will overhaul Chelsea’s record total of 95pts set in 2005.  Possible?  Well, they’ve done it before.  In 2000 they won all their matches through April and May.  In fact, they won their last 11 matches to take the title by 18pts.
Obviously, past performance is not necessarily a guide to future prosperity.  The players will be different from previous seasons, they will meet different opponents, each of whom may have different end of season priorities.  Whether City can get past United and then stay there, remains to be seen.  If they do, it will be their first title for 44 years, since they won in 1968

Here was the top of the table at the end of March


Here was how things ended up.



Bulgarian A League – Update 27th March 2012

Game Day 17 saw 5 of the top 6 win.  The exception was 2nd placed, Chernomorets, who went down 0-2 at Lokomotiv Plovdiv.  The leaders, Ludogorets, continued their excellent form with a 5-0 win over relegation threatened, Vidima.

Into Game Day 18 and Ludogorets gained another 5-0 win as they beat bottom club, Svetkavitsa.  Although, the scoreline probably flattered them as they scored 4 of those goals in the final 10 minutes.  Chernomorets then dropped more points as they were held at home, 2-2, by Zagora.  Champions, Litex Lovech beat Slavia Sofia, 1-0Levski and CSKA Sofia both won, 2-0.

Wednesday 21st March saw Ludogorets run come to an end.  Four straight wins, 16 goals scored and none conceded, had seen them look as if there was no stopping them.  It seemed as if they’d carry this on when they went to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, but Venkov’s goal just into the second half, gave Plovdiv their 2nd win over a top 2 club, in recent weeks.

CSKA Sofia thumped Lokomotiv Sofia, 4-0, and Levski Sofia went to Slavia Sofia and came away with a 3-0 win.  Both CSKA and Levski have begun very well after the winter break.

Then Game Day 20, saw CSKA Sofia go to the top of the table.  A 3-0 win at Plovdiv, who’d just ended Ludogorets unbeaten run, put them 3pts clear.  Since the winter break, they lost their first match back, but have since won 4 straight, scoring 12 and conceding just 1.

Ludogorets suffered their 2nd successive defeat as they went  down 2-3 to Slavia Sofia.  Slavia scored first, but then Barthe and Aleksandrov put Ludogorets 2-1 up.  But Slavia came back to take all 3pts, to see Ludogorets knocked off the top of the table for the first time in months.  They are joined on 45pts by Levski Sofia, who themselves missed a chance as they were beaten at home 0-1 by Minior Pernik.  Chernomorets and Litex are just below the Europa League places as the season moves towards the final 3rd.


Austrian Bundesliga Update – 27th March 2012

As if to illustrate how tight this league is this year, SV Mattersburg (2nd from bottom) beat Austria Vienna (3rd from top), 2-0.  Back at the beginning of the month, Mattersburg had shocked the league leaders by winning 1-0 in Salzburg.

The defeat for Austria Vienna, allowed both of the clubs above them to open up a gap at the top.  Salzburg beat Wiener Neustadt, 2-1 and Rapid Vienna beat Kapfenburg, 3-0.  With 4th place, Ried beating Admira Wacker, 2-1, Austria Vienna had slipped to 4th themselves.

But then, just in case they got too far ahead of the rest of the league, the top three all dropped points this weekend.

Salzburg found themselves trailing, 1-2 to Admira, after scoring first, before their Swedish midfielder, Rasmus Lindgren equalised in the final 10 minutes.  It was his first goal of the season and grabbed an important point, as the game ended 2-2.  On Sunday, Rapid Vienna failed to take advantage as they found themselves 0-2 down inside the first 10 minutes.  They ended up losing 1-2 to Wacker Innsbruck.  Wacker were the only winners this weekend, as once again most of the teams couldn’t be separated.

Salzburg still lead with a 3pt advantage over Rapid.  Ried and Austria Vienna are separated by goal difference.  In the race for Europa League qualification (2nd and 3rd place), Admira, Sturm Graz and Wacker are certainly not out of it.


The big game this weekend sees the leaders, Salzburg travel to Austria Vienna.  The top three are all away from home as Rapid go to Admira, and Ried visit Sturm Graz.

Is This The Closest League in Europe?

Austrian Bundesliga


The Austrian Bundesliga is one of the smallest leagues in Europe, consisting of only 10 clubs, but this season is looking really close.  Already 2/3rds of the way through and many of the teams are still in with a shout of winning the title.

One reason so many teams are still in the hunt is that over 1/3rd of the matches have ended in stalemate.  Salzburg, the leaders, has already lost as many matches as Wacker Innsbruck, in 7th place.  The difference between the two sides is that Salzburg has won 4 more matches than Wacker.

If you look at the top six, they are very difficult to beat at home, and away wins could well be the ultimate factor which decides the destination of the trophy.  The champions, Sturm Graz, are in the surprising position of having played 12 matches away from home and yet to come away with a win.  Yet, they are just 8pts off the pace with a game in hand.

Leaders, Salzburg, are the most successful club in recent years winning three out of the last five titles.  Sturm Graz title last year was their first since their back-to-back wins in 1998 and 1999.  Rapid Wien is still the most successful club in Austrian football with 32 titles.

Just before today’s matches, the top three teams were all on 38pts, with Ried just 3pts behind.  But a 1-0 win for Salzburg at Kapfenburg Superfund, gave them a bit of breathing space at the top.  Today’s results seemed to sum up the season as the four matches contained just three goals with only one producing a winner.  Goals have been hard to come by with three sides yet to average a goal-per-game.  Top scorers, Salzburg, has only managed 38 goals in 25 matches.


The Austrian Bundesliga is much like the Scottish Premier League used to be in which ten teams play each other twice at home and twice away.  The champions go into the Second qualifying round of the Champions League, with the 2nd and 3rd placed teams into the Europa League.  The 2nd placed club enters one round later than the 3rd placed team.  The team who finishes bottom is relegated to the Austrian Football First League.

In a league with so few teams, one aspect that has contributed to a bunching of sides is that the bottom club, Kapfenburg Superfund, has performed so badly compared to the rest of the league, wining just 4 games and scoring only 16 goals in 25 matches.  They’re 10pts from safety and look doomed.

For Champions, Sturm Graz, they need to pull themselves out of their current slump.  They’re yet to win or score in their last 4 matches, although they’ve only lost one of those.  They’ve won just 2 of their last 8 games, although they beat 3rd place, Austria Wien 5-1 in one of those victories.

The Austrian Bundesliga began in 1911.  Of the 10 clubs currently competing in this season’s Bundesliga, Ried, Mattersburg, Wiener Neustadt and Kapfenburg have yet to win a title.

This current competition could go right down to the wire.


On This Day in History – 9th-11th March

9th,10th,11th March

This is a new series where, as a sort of preview for the weekend’s fixtures, we look back at events that happened on the same day, somewhere in the past.

10th March 1997

Lightning Strikes Twice

Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle

In 1996, Liverpool and  Newcastle played out one of the finest matches in Premier League history.  Many people have voted it as the greatest game of the Premier era.  The game ended 4-3 to Liverpool as Stan Collymore scored a dramatic late winner to put paid to Newcastle’s title challenge.

In 1997, the two met again at Anfield.  At the time, Liverpool were 3rd, 5pts behind Man Utd, with Newcastle a further 5pts behind Liverpool, in 4th.

Liverpool came out of the blocks the quicker and Steve McManaman put them in front after 29 minutes.  Patrick Berger then doubled the lead a minute later.  When Robbie Fowler put the home side 3-0 up just before half-time, Liverpool were expecting to ease towards victory and move above Arsenal into 2nd place.

Even with 20 minutes to go, the home side were comfortable.  Keith Gillespie grabbed a goal back for Newcastle, but they struggled to build on that.  That was until Newcastle’s mercurial Colombian, Faustino Asprilla, made it 2-3 with just 3 minutes to go.  Remarkably, Newcastle pushed forward again and Warren Barton was on hand to level for the visitors.  Liverpool had given up a 3-0 lead.  Barely 90 seconds later, Liverpool attacked, Bjornebye crossed from the left and there was Fowler to head the winner for Liverpool.  Another stunning result and what price would you have got for the same scoreline?

That Newcastle side was managed by Kenny Dalglish.  He had taken over from Kevin Keegan in January 1997.  On 10th March 2012, Dalglish is back as Liverpool manager taking his team back to the North East to meet Sunderland

March – A Time for The Sack

Talking of Kevin Keegan.  On this day in 2005 he was sacked as manager of Manchester City.  City appointed a caretaker manager, one Stuart Pearce.  Does that remind you of anything recently?

Another manager to lose his job on 10th March was Howard Wilkinson.  He was given the push from Sunderland, along with his Assistant, Steve Cotterill in 2003.  They were bottom of the Premier League with just 19pts from 29 matches.  His replacement?  Mick McCarthy.

Unfortunately, Mick couldn’t save The Black Cats, mainly due to the fact they lost every game from then to the end of the season, scoring just twice in 9 matches.

Liverpool Pay A Record Fee for a Striker Who Cannot Score


No, this isn’t about Andy Carroll or even David N’gog, but in 2000 they spent a record £11m for Emile Heskey.  Noted more for being a targetman rather than a goalscorer, Heskey kept up his career ratio of goals per game at Liverpool as his stats mirrored those from his Leicester days.

£11m seems quite tame now when you consider they paid Sunderland £16m for Jordan Henderson.  He doesn’t score either.


This time of year is often one for FA Cup matches and our last two items focus on that competition.  In 1997 the FA Cup had reached the Quarter-Final stage, and rather unusually contained a tie with two sides from League One (or the old Third Division).  Chesterfield met Wrexham at Saltergate and the game’s only goal came from Chesterfield’s Chris Beaumont, just before the hour mark.

Chesterfield went onto to almost reach the final as they met Premier League, Middlesbro, and finally succumbed in a replay, after a thrilling 3-3 draw at Old Trafford.

Luton Town

On Saturday, Luton Town are at home to Ebbsfleet in a Conference match.  They are currently 3rd in the table and in the play-off places, hoping for a return to the Football League after a 4 year absence.

Back in 1985 things were very different for the Bedfordshire club.  They were a First Division (now Premier League) club back then, and on 9th March they were looking forward to a clash with their nearest rivals, Watford in the FA Cup.  The two were drawn against each other in the Fifth Round.

Originally scheduled for February, this tie was one of four that didn’t get played until Monday 4th March.  Both sides had already played league fixtures on the previous Saturday, and they played out a 0-0 draw.  Such was the fixture pile-up, the replay was arranged for Wednesday 6th March.  At Vicarage Road the two sides couldn’t be separated and drew 2-2 after extra time.

With no penalties to decide games in those days, the two would have to have a Second Replay, and amazingly this was set for Saturday 9th March.  In fact, they were so late trying to reach a conclusion to this tie that two Quarter-Final ties were played that day too.

This time Luton’s Wayne Turner scored the only goal of the game and Luton progressed to meet Millwall in the next round.  That match was then played the following Wednesday, so Luton had played 4 FA Cup games in the space of 9 days.  They won that game 1-0 as well, but eventually fell to Everton, 1-2 in the Semi-Finals

Everton went on to win the league that season, but were beaten in the Cup Final by Man Utd.  Luton finished mid-table, something that would’ve seemed unachievable back in early March.  At the time of their battle with Watford, Luton were 2nd from bottom with just 25pts from 26 matches.  They then amassed a further 29pts from their remaining 16 matches to end the season in 13th place.

Unfortunately, their Sixth Round clash with Millwall will be remembered more for the riot which broke out in the ground, and resulted in Luton banning away fans for the next 4 years.

Don’t think they’re expecting much trouble from away supporters this Saturday.

New Kids on The Eastern Block

Ludogorets – Remember the name

These last couple of years a few clubs has seen the emergence of clubs from unfashionable parts of Europe, to start to shake things about.

BATE Borisov from Belarus and APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus, are just two examples of clubs who have exceeded expectations.  Could the next one be PFC Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria?

The club emerged from the ashes of Ludogorets who went bust in 2006.  They’d only ever managed to compete in Bulgaria’s top division on a couple of occasions since they were formed in 1945.  After the club was dissolved, the new club, PFC Ludogorets was installed in the Third tier of Bulgarian football, V Amateur Football Group (VAFG).

They took four years to get out of that division, but in 2010 a 2nd place finish meant they progressed to the B Professional Football Group (BPFG), Bulgaria’s 2nd Division.  Rather than take their time to find their feet, Ludogorets won the division by 8pts.  So now they were in Bulgaria’s Premier League, known as A Professional Football Group (APFG).

Bulgaria’s top division has been going for 88 years.  57 of those years, the title has been won by either CSKA Sofia (31) or Levski Sofia (26).  With Slavia Sofia also winning 7 titles and Lokomotiv Sofia, 4, clubs from Sofia have won 68 of the 88 league titles.  In the 10 seasons between 2000 and 2009, CSKA and Levski won every title between them, bar one when Lokomotiv Plovdiv won in 2004.

But things are changing in Bulgarian football.  It is now 3 years since a club from Sofia won the league championship, Levski in 2009.  CSKA last won the title in 2008.  The new kids on the block has been Litex Lovech.  Lovech is a town in north-central Bulgaria with a population of just over 36,000.  They won back-to-back titles in 1998 and 1999, but then the Sofia giants took over.

Razgrad is a city in North East Bulgaria, in an industrial centre, about 300km from Sofia.  For some leagues around Europe, any club from outside the capital city, would find it virtually impossible to break the stranglehold of the big clubs.  But Ludogorets and Litex seem to be giving it a good go.

In October 2010 a businessman, Kiril Domushiev bought the club with just one aim, which was to take them into the top division of Bulgarian football.  By May 2011 they had achieved that goal at their first attempt.  But it is what has happened since that has grabbed the headlines.

As things stand at the halfway stage of the season, Ludogorest sit 3pts clear at the top of the table.  They’re clear of three clubs, including Levski and CSKA.  Litex are back in 5th place, 8pts off the pace.  Ludogorets has lost just 1 match in the 16 they have played so far.

Ludogorets are coached by Ivaylo Petev, who won league championship medals with Litex in 1998 and 1999.  Petev has begun to build on last season’s success with players such as French defender, Alexandre Barthe, from Litex, centre-back Lubomir Guldan and experienced midfield player, Stanislav Genchev.  He has also signed Emil Gargorov, formerly a star at CSKA.  These players have fitted in straight away alongside the South American talent that helped them win promotion last season.  In a squad of 24 players, only 11 are from Bulgaria.  Brazilians, Guilerme Choco, Marcelinho Nascimento da Costa and Juninho Quixada play alongside three Slovakians, including Guldan.  Bulgarian striker, Ivan Stoyanov is also in the team.  He is the nephew of former Bulgarian international Yordan Letchkov, who was key member of the Bulgarian side that reached the Semi-Finals of USA ’94.

Ludogorets first match of the season was at home to Lokomotiv Plovdiv, who’d finished 5th last season and just missed out on a place in the Europa League on goal difference.  The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and many would’ve thought Ludogorets had done well to gain a point in their first match in the big time.  They went onto win the next 8!  This run of games included a 6-0 thrashing of Slavia Sofia, with Gargorov getting a hat-trick.  People really started to take notice when, in September, they took on Levski Sofia and goals from Ivanov and Gargorov gave them a 2-1 win.

This run came to an end when they travelled to Lovech to meet the champions.  Goals from Yanev and Milanov had the home side 2-0 up in 21 minutes.  Marcelinho then got a goal back for Ludogorets with his 4th of the season.  But the visitors couldn’t get the equaliser and Litex were satsifed they’d put the ‘young pups’ in their place.

Rather than knock them off their perch, that result seemed to strengthen Ludogorets resolve.  They were unbeaten in their next 4 matches, although they dropped 4pts during that period, but that was to teams in 2nd and 3rd place.  Whereas Litex have since lost to Lokomotiv Plovdiv and CSKA Sofia.

Bulgarian football is now back after its winter break and the chase is on to catch Ludogorets.  Of the 4 clubs immediately below them, only CSKA have already visited the Ludogorets Arena, and as Ludogorets are unbeaten at home, they would feel confident of holding off the challenge.

Whether Ludogorets has the ability to replicate APOEL or BATE remains to be seen, but it is another example of opportunities opening up parts of Europe once considered remote, in football terms.

Champions League – An Exclusive Club?

Champions League, An Exclusive Club

Have you noticed how some teams are always in the Champions League, year after year?  I decided to look a bit closer and a worrying trend has appeared over the past ten years.

In most European leagues only 2-3 clubs will ever win their domestic title.

Think about it.  In the England, only 4 clubs have ever won the Premier League title and the 4th club, Blackburn Rovers, only won it once, back in 1995.  Look around the other leagues in Europe and you will find a similar trend.

In England we have often sniggered at Scotland and how only Celtic or Rangers can win the SPL, but the rest of Europe seems to have caught up with this.  In France, Lyon won the title 7 years in a row.  In the Netherlands, PSV has won 7 of the past 12 titles and in Italy, Inter won Serie A 5 times in a row.  In Spain, either Barcelona and/or Real Madrid have finished in the top 2 every season for the past 10 years.

Possibly the worst example is Croatia.  It is 9 years since a club other than Dinamo Zagreb or Hajduk Split has won the title.  Only 3 clubs, other than those two, have managed to finish 2nd in the past 10 years and no club has managed that feat more than once.

Although, Scotland pushes them close, as Celtic and Rangers have won every one of the past 26 league titles. There has only been one occasion in the past 13 seasons where a club other than those two has finished as high as 2nd.

The reason for this?  Champions League money and tv revenue.

For example, in Spain the winner of La Liga receives prize money 19 times the amount of the lowest paid club.  In England, the difference is less than 2 times.  For example, in 2009/10 when Chelsea won the title they received 65m euros. Portsmouth (who finished bottom) earned an amount equivalent to 60% of that figure.  (Deloitte – Football Money League 2011)

In Italy, the difference between the tv revenue the champions receive and the bottom club gets is 10 times (source – GMG)

Michel Platini is concerned about the riches within English clubs, but he could do with looking a little closer to home.

In the French league, Lyon has finished in the top 3 in every one of the past 13 seasons.  Yet, before Champions League money, they were nowhere.  Even in places like Bulgaria where Levski Sofia has finished in the top 2 in every one of the past 10 seasons, you see examples of the top places being occupied by the same clubs each year.

Nearly every European League is dominated by just a couple of clubs.  If you’ve been following my ‘A Moment in Time’ series, you will gradually see how the top positions in English football keep changing.  I agree the period I’m covering is when Liverpool were the dominant club and won the majority of the titles, but they rarely had the same club challenging them season after season.

At the start of every season you didn’t really know who the top 4 teams would be, but if you had your last £10 and were asked to predict the top 2 for next season, would you really go for anyone other than the two Manchester clubs?

In England, between 1975 and 1992 10 different teams finished in 2nd place during those 17 seasons.  In 19 seasons of the Premiership, just 7 different clubs have finished 2nd, with just 4 different clubs managing that feat over the past 14 seasons.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe football was better back then.  Football, as an overall package, is such as vastly superior product these days than it was 20-30 years ago.  It’s better for the fans, the players and the clubs (even Portsmouth), in terms of playing conditions, wages, and the general spectator experience, either in the ground or on TV.

But if you’re a club other than the privileged few in Europe, then you have no hope of winning the title, unless you can find a rich Arab.  Let’s face it Manchester City would be nowhere near the top echelons of the Premier League without Sheikh Mansoor.

Is this something we all have to accept?  If we demand a product such as Champions League football, and are quite happy to watch it take over the domestic game, can we really be too surprised if players migrate towards the clubs who compete in that competition?

In England, you increasingly hear of supporters who would rather watch club football, especially Champions League, than the international game.  You could argue that games involving Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United or Inter Milan, will include more world class players than a World Cup Final between Spain and Netherlands.

In our endless pursuit of perfection, is this not an inevitable consequence?

One thing surely without dispute, is that the equality in TV revenue distribution in the Premier League provides more exciting matches between sides from the bottom half of the table than it would in Spain, France or Italy.

But then, if we didn’t have 92 league clubs to look after, maybe more money would go to the bigger clubs.  Have you ever watched a game from the Italian Third Division?

The following table covers the last 10 years. The last column shows the club who has won most titles during that period

Obviously, I am not suggesting the Bulgarian and Croatian leagues are on a par with Spain, Italy or England, they’re merely there by way of comparison.  But Spain, Italy and England would all claim to have more competitive leagues than either Bulgaria or Croatia, but maybe things are changing.  The German Bundesliga is in stark comparison with the other major European Leagues as more clubs seem to be in with a chance of winning the title, and a lot of the reason for that can be linked to their more equal financial distribution.

It’s difficult to be certain whether the Bulgarian league has been affected by Champions League money, although Litex Lovech, winners of the past 2 titles, has managed to break the domination of CSKA and Levski Sofia.  Champions League money each year is going to help them maintain that control.

But in Croatia, it looks almost impossible now to challenge Hadjuk Split or Dinamo Zagreb, as those clubs get richer every season, at the expense of the rest of the league.

Scotland is possibly the worst example in Europe. Celtic and Rangers have won every one of the past 26 league titles. There has only been one occasion in the past 13 seasons where a club other than those two has finished as high as 2nd.

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