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Monday, 26 January 2015

Are we headed for an all-French Champions Cup Final?

As the pool stages came to an end this weekend, the draws for the quarter and  semi finals of the Champions Cup were held and its looking increasingly likely that London will be hosting an all-French affair this May.

The quarter finals include three French Top14 sides, one Irish side and for the first time ever four English Premiership sides have made it out of the pool stages but unfortunately for all four of them they have been handed away draws.

Semi-Final draw
(Toulon v Wasps) v (Leinster v Bath)
(Clermont v Northampton) v (Racing Metro v Saracens)

The draw already looks set for a repeat of the 2012/13 final where Toulon overcame French rivals Clermont Auvergne 16-15 with both sides on different halves of the draw and both securing a home route to the final. As likely as this seems of course this is no certainty and there is still a lot of rugby to be played before we reach the final.

Toulon are the bookies favourites to retain their title and make it three in a row after following up their 12/13 win against Clermont with a relatively easy win over Saracens last season in the final year of the old structure Heineken Cup.  The French side were the only ones to get through pool 3 ahead of Leicester, Ulster and Scarlets, finishing with 22 points and five wins out of six, just losing one game. Their star studded side contains big names such as Halfpenny, Habana and Steffon Armitage and it will take a massive performance by any team to knock them out especially at home where they will play the quarter final and semi final should they make it.

Wasps are the team that were given the unfortunate task of playing Toulon in the quarters in Toulon and will be cursing their luck because if Goode had converted a last minute drop goal against Leinster on Sunday they would have topped their group and avoided the French giants but it was not to be. It’s hard to see Wasps beating Toulon especially away from home and you would expect the real test for Toulon will be in the semi-final.

The winner of Leinster and Bath will come up against the winner of that first quarter final and based on their pool form Leinster should come through this one. Leinster snuck into the top spot of the pool and with Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien set to be back for their knockout clashes they should be able to see-off Bath, who won their pool with fewer points than any other pool winners.

The probable semi-final would be Toulon hosting Leinster. Leinster’s experience in the competition should hold them in good stead and they seem the most likely side to go to France and knock out the reigning champions.

At the other side of the draw, Clermont Auvergne will welcome Northampton Saints and will be fully confident of coming through that tie. Clermont is arguably the hardest place to visit and despite Northampton scoring the most tries (25) in the pool stages the likes of George North will struggle to break through Clermont’s strong line.

Racing Metro are the third French side to get a home quarter-final as Jonny Sexton’s side welcome Saracens. Racing are the only unbeaten side in this seasons Champions Cup and with a home draw they are strong favourites to progress past Saracens. Their unbeaten status may be a bit misleading after coming through a relatively easy group that included both the Ospreys and Treviso with Northampton offering the only real threat.

Saracens made it to last years final only to be defeated by Toulon and it looks likely their campaign will be ended by a French side again this year. Englishmen Owen Farrell and Chris Ashton will have to be on top of their game if they are to cause an upset but even then it’s hard to look past the French side.

One would expect the semi-final will be a mammoth clash between French giants, Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro in Clermont. Home advantage would not be as important in this tie with both sides being French but Clermont’s exciting back line of Jonathan Davies, Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra amongst others should be too strong for their French counterparts.

Money talks in sport and as has been the trend the wealthy French sides look set to dominate once again in the latter stages of this seasons Champions Cup. Unless one of the English sides can cause an upset or Matt O’Connor’s Leinster pull something out of the bag, an all-French final looks almost inevitable.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Crazy weekend leaves FA Cup wide open

The magic of the FA Cup was well and truly on show this weekend as the top three of the Premier League were all knocked out in their fourth round ties leaving the FA Cup wide open this season.

Premier League leaders Chelsea were sensationally knocked out after throwing away a two goal lead at home to Bradford to lose 4-2 to the 2013 Capital One cup finalists. Mourinho said he was both “embarrassed” and “ashamed” by the manner of the defeat as he saw his sides chances of a quadruple this season come to an end.

Manuel Pellegrini’s side were also thrown out as Middlesbrough walked away from the Etihad with a momentous 2-0 victory. Third placed Southampton were another of the Premier League sides to lose out, losing at home to Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace side.

These were not the only shocks of the weekend however, Spurs and Swansea saw their FA Cup dreams come to an end at the hands of Leicester and Blackburn respectively while Liverpool and Manchester United were both forced to replays in their fourth round ties.

The absence of some of these big sides from the fifth round draw is sure to encourage a lot of teams who will now have realistic ambitions of challenging for the FA Cup and hopefully ending the season with a trophy.

Defending champions Arsenal were not to be the victims of another upset as they overcame Brighton by 3 goals to 2. Having won the trophy last season and with both City and Chelsea out it looks as if they will be favourites to regain their crown come May.

Should Manchester United and Liverpool make it through their replays they will also see this FA Cup as a big possibility of getting their hands on a trophy, especially for United who will see this as their only chance of glory this season with no European football and with Van Gaal’s side being well off the pace in the Premier League.

Sam Allardyce’s West Ham squad will be particularly happy with how this weekend has gone as they progressed to the next round after a hard fought win away to League one side Bristol City. The Hammers have been having a great season so far and will be optimistic of their chances of getting to the latter stages of the FA Cup.

Other Premier League sides such as West Brom and Aston Villa are still standing in the cup and should the weekend’s results be anything to go by every side will be full of confidence in the forthcoming rounds.

photo credit: bounder via photopin cc

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Suarez enduring predicted struggle

“I have complete confidence in my team and complete confidence in Suarez” the words of Barcelona manager Luis Enrique after yet another goalless game for the former Liverpool ace. Suarez missed a glorious chance in Barca’s 1-0 win over Atletico in the Copa Del Rey once again questioning Suarez’s form since joining the Spanish giants.

Since his £75 million pound move to the Catalan side, Suarez has managed to score 2 goals in ten league appearances a long way off the form that saw him awarded the golden boot in last seasons Premier League with a tally of 31 goals. In all competitions Suarez has featured in a total of fourteen games scoring 5 and assisting 6, not the numbers expected of the Uruguayan upon his arrival at Camp Nou.

Luckily for Barcelona they are not reliant on Suarez for goals with both Lionel Messi and Neymar in fine form. Messi has scored 25 goals in twenty five games this season with his Brazilian teammate Neymar scoring 17 goals in twenty one appearances in all competitions. It appears that Suarez may be struggling to come to terms with no longer being the main man in the team. At Liverpool Suarez was the key man, everything went through him and he thrived in the limelight, at Barcelona however he is just another of many stars and so far the 27 year old isn’t adjusting well.

Not only is the number of stars in the side a possible reason for Suarez’s poor form, his long absence because of the infamous biting incident at the World Cup saw him miss out on the start of the season, only making his debut in October. In an ideal world Suarez would have gotten time to settle in the first few games of the season but unfortunately because of his ill-discipline he didn’t get that time to settle and was instead expected to play a starring role from the start.

Unlike when playing for Liverpool, at Barcelona almost every side sets up very deep attempting to make them hard to beat and this limits the space for the forwards to operate. Suarez who was at times in the Premier League given space to destroy oppositions has not been afforded that space in La Liga and is finding it hard to open up defences as he once did.

Enrique’s comments are sure to be welcomed by a Suarez low on confidence and he will be hoping to repay the managers faith starting this Saturday when Barcelona pay a visit to Elche.

photo credit: L. F. Salas via photopin cc