Top 5 Champions League Matches- #2

12 Jan

Sorry about the delay in new posts! The madness of Christmas and work took over slightly! We return to the 5 best Champions League matches series this week with #2

In 1995, Alan Hansen infamously stated that you can’t win anything with kids. Immediately setting himself up for a fall, but even the pessimistic Hansen couldn’t have expected Manchester United to embarrass that remark so much that we would still be talking about it over a decade later. United were the dominant force in English football in the late 90s. Blackburn Rovers briefly threatened but Jack Walker’s millions eventually ran out and Arsenal were still finding their feet under Arsene Wenger. In 1999, the culmination of Alex Ferguson’s hard work was there for all to see. His side were playing excellent football; flowing in attack and steely in defence, they were a complete team. A last day comeback against Tottenham saw them edge out Arsenal in a fierce title race. That game was the start of a 10 day period in which United won the three biggest trophies available to them. Six days after the end of the Premier League season, they were back in action in the F.A Cup Final against Newcastle, they won easily and were able to take off Paul Scholes and Andy Cole early to rest for the Champions League Final, 4 days later. They arrived in Barcelona with all the momentum but were up against a resurgent Bayern Munich. For much of the match it looked like Roy Keane’s absence was going to cost them dearly, but in the dying minutes a young Norwegian popped up to decide the greatest Champions League final of the Twentieth Century.

Number 2- Manchester United 2 v 1 Bayern Munich, Final 1998/99

utd bayern 99Roy Keane was United’s very own captain fantastic. He was the enforcer, leader and often creative force behind the first great dynasty of the Premier League. So how would Ferguson’s young team cope without the man who rescued them in the semi final as well as the visionary Paul Scholes? They started in retched fashion with Mario Basler firing home from 25 yards having caught Peter Schmeichel off guard from the set piece. However the young guns soon rallied and Dwight Yorke had their first chance of the game when a Jaap Stam header ricocheted into his path but the ball surprised him and he could only drag his shot wide of the post. Despite the early setback the game was United’s, although Bayern had sucker punched them, they hadn’t settled into the game and were having to defend furiously. David Beckham was delivering dangerously from every set piece, he deceived the Bayern defence and floated a ball to the far post where the aged Lothar Matthaus could only just head behind for a corner. Nevertheless, the Germans were holding strong and grew into the game. Content to sit back they broke down the majority of United’s attacks and broke forward, trying to release Alexander Zickler at every opportunity.

Half time came without incident, United had dominated possession but only crafted a few opportunities. The final one coming when Andy Cole scuffed a long ranch shot with others in good positions after 35 minutes. Few teams manage to hold on to an early lead for the entire game and this will have worried Ottmar Hitzfeld at half time. He would have to change his team’s set up for he knew that United’s pressure would increase tenfold after the break. And so it transpired. The second half started at a feverish pace with both teams seeking to score early on. United had the first chance after a dangerous Ryan Giggs corner found Ronny Johnsen unmarked in the box but the big Norwegian could only head over.

sheringham 99It was still all United but there was a moment of deja vu as Basler once again caught Schmeichel off guard from distance, this time however the ball shaved the crossbar and kept the Premier League champions in with a shot. Sensing that more was needed up front, it was Alex Ferguson who made the first change bringing the predatorial Teddy Sheringham on in place of the tiring Jesper Blomqvist. A tactical reorganisation saw Beckham move out the wing and Sheringham play straight through the middle. A matter of moments later and the Germans replicated the change, swapping the exhausted Zickler for Mehmet Scholl. It had been a frustrating 70 minutes for United as they still lacked a cut and thrust up front. Again Ferguson turned to the bench and made what is now seen as the most critical subsitution ever made by bringing on the ultimate super-sub, Ole Gunar Solskjaer. Solskjaer almost equalised immediatelym forcing a fine save from Oliver Kahn at his near post. However, the magical finish was not far away. As soon as the game entered stoppage time, United found their goal. Almost reacting to the 3 added minutes as if it were their last few minutes on Earth. Sheringham lived up to his reputation and scored with a perfectly timed shot whilst swivelling from eight yards. This turned the game on its head. Bayern had been the aggressors in the second half, peppering the woodwork from all angles but they went into a state of shock and retreated deep into their own half. It was all to no avail though as 2 minutes later, right at the death, Solskjaer delivered. A final David Beckham corner was flicked on at the near post by Sheringham leaving the entire defence flat footed and finding the predatory Solskjaer lingering at the back post with just enough space to rifle the ball into the roof of the net. Chaos followed, this was a stunning turnaround, the likes of which the newly reformatted Champions League had never seen. It was rightly regarded as the greatest final of the modern era at the time. It was one of those nights that football fans will never forget, and that United fans will take to their death beds.

utd 99

I hope everyone enjoyed this article and comes back next week to see the culmination in the Top 5 Champions League Matches series. Please follow the blog  on Twitter @FootballTop5s for all the latest updates.

Don’t forget to vote on the first poll of 2013, Who is the greatest player never to have won the Ballon D’Or? 

Top 5 Champions League Matches- #3

10 Dec

Every week until Christmas, I will be posting a new piece, working through the 5 best Champions League matches I’ve ever seen. We continue this week with #3.

Defending champions AC Milan were the bookies’ favourites to lift the European Cup again in 2004 but despite the squad staying together over the summer, they had a rocky time escaping from a closely contested group H. Going down to shock back to back home defeats against Club Brugge and early 2000s giant killers, Celta Vigo. They started the knock-out phase in similarly unconvincing fashion, lumbering to a 0-0 draw away at relative minnows Sparta Prague. However, they finally found their feet in the return tie. An Andriy Shevchenko brace seeing of the Czech side 4-1. Finally, with some momentum, Carlo Ancelotti’s Rossoneri marched on to the quarter finals and became part of one of the most remarkable cup ties ever witnessed.

Number 3- Deportivo La Coruña 4 v 0 AC Milan, Quarter Final 2nd Leg 2003/04

AC Milan v Depor

Milan had looked nervous at the start of the first leg, succumbing to an early Walter Pandiani header, with Deportivo looking every inch the team that had dismissed Juventus in the previous round; but a stunning eight minute spell at the start of the second half saw Milan demolish a stunned DeporAncelotti had made tactical changes at half time. Withdrawing Massimo Ambrosini in favour of the more creative Clarence Seedorf and utilising an adjusted 4-2-2-2 formation. The impact was instant. Cafu immediately set up Kaka after the half time break with a clever cut back. The Brazilian scored his second on 49 minutes in between beautifully worked goals from Shevchenko and Andrea Pirlo. 4-1, a devastating blow for the Spaniards who had started the game so brightly. The full time whistle rang out and they shuffled off the pitch, heads down, aghast at what had transpired. A fortnight and a what seemed like a lifetime later, Depor would have their revenge in devastating fashion and write themselves into the history books.

Milan arrived in Galicia on a wave of optimism, already looking beyond the quarter finals and who could blame them? The 21 year old Kaka was on top of his game and they had shown enough in the second half at the San Siro to worry any team left in the competition. However, the mischievous gods of Cup football had their gaze focused on the Estadio Riazor that night. The Spaniards had promised to go at the defending champions like a hurricane sweeping in from the Atlantic and they were as good as their word.Pandiani

Deportivo started brightly for the second game in succession and were rewarded even earlier this time. Again, the Uruguayan Pandiani was the benefactor. Swivelling on a left wing cross he brought the ball under control, turned the Milan captain Maldini and fired a clean strike through the legs of Dida in goal. The stadium burst into life, a possibly embarrassing tie had turned instantly into a possible classic. This electrifying start signalled 45 minutes of Spanish assault on the Milan goal with Nesta and Maldini made to look decidedly ordinary. Victor Sanchez had been incredible in the first half, at the centre of every Depor attack he dominated Gattuso and Pirlo, no mean feat.

They say that right before half time is the best time to score, but it’s even better if you score two and that’s exactly what Deportivo did. On 35 minutes, Albert Luque surged down the left and lofted a fairly tame cross towards the back post, but Dida, in a moment of madness, completely misjudged the weight of it. He came to collect but got horribly under it, leaving the unmarked Juan Carlos Valeron to nod in a rare header at the back post.depor

It was damage limitations for Milan, they had seen their 3 goal advantage almost evaporate in 35 minutes of scintillating football from Depor. They needed to see out the remaining mintues, regroup and then break out from their own half after the break. However, the Galician team had no intention of taking a 2 goal lead into half time and in the dying minutes, they struck a critical blow to the heart of Milan. Alessandro Nesta had looked shaky on his return to action, but it got a whole lot worse for the Italian on 44 mintues. A tangle in midfield saw the ball roll towards the Milan defence. Nesta came to collect, but just as his goalkeeper had done moments earlier, he got it horribly wrong; labouring getting to the ball, he allowed Luque to nip in and steal it. With the Milan defence horribly out of position, the Spaniard raced towards goal and crunched an unstoppable drive past Dida and into the corner. The impossible had happened. Records tumbled with Luque’s strike. No team had ever overturned a 3 goal deficit in a knock-out match but as the half-time whistle blew, Depor were going through on away goals. Milan emerged from the dugout for the second half with intent but only had one real chance of note. A young Andrea Pirlo dragging wide from a good position. However, the Rossoneri’s fate was sealed when a tiring Luque was replaced by the dynamic Fran. In the twilight of his career, the midfielder drew the curtain on an historic night in Galicia when he rifled a shot past Dida, with a little help from Cafu’s outstretched leg.

To this day, Deportivo La Coruna are the only team to overturn 3 goals from the first leg in the Champions League knock-out stage. Doing it against the reigning champions makes it all the more impressive. Depor would go on to narrowly lose to Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the next round but it was still an excellent campaign for a often underrated European side that saw them elimate both of the previous season’s finalists. They have been in decline ever since but I would imagine that Sanchez, Luque, Pandiani et al will stay in the record books for some time, thanks to a truly remarkable night in North Western Spain.

I hope everyone enjoyed this article and comes back next week to see which match claims the silver medal. Please follow the blog on Twitter @FootballTop5s for all the latest updates.

Also, don’t forget to vote in this month’s poll Who is the greatest Premier League signing ever? on the ‘Polls’ page.

A Footballing Tour Of North Holland

5 Dec A football signpost outside AZ Alkmaar's ground.

Recently, I had the good fortune of being able to visit my Dad in Holland. He and his girlfriend were staying in her brother’s house about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. The main peninsula of North Holland is one of the largest conurbations in Europe and as you would expect, is home to many football clubs, scaling the entire height of the Dutch professional and amateur game. Having always been entranced by football stadia and the history that surrounds them, my Dad and I always make an effort to seek out local football grounds whenever we’re on holiday, abroad or in Britain. He has a tremendous knack of being able to walk into stadiums during the middle of the week and find someone who will just open a door and let us wander round the ground. I’m not talking about Wembley or the San Siro here but he has talked our way into some notable clubs’ stadiums. Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Grenoble Foot, Plymouth Argyle being just a few. His talents once again helped us get into some of these grounds in Holland and as the holiday progressed we found ourselves in more and more illustrious stadiums. Here are the grounds we visited in Holland:

First- Kras Stadion, VolendamIMG_0767[1]

Resident team- FC Volendam

Capacity- 7,000

We were staying in a small village near to Volendam and on our way out of town after a day trip we saw the unmistakable shape of floodlights looming over an area of houses. A quick consultation with my Dad’s girlfriend ensued; but she gave the all clear and then we were off, in search of our first stadium of the holiday. Not knowing anything about a team from Volendam off the top of my head, I used valuable minutes of internet on my phone to try and pull together any information about a local team; we were still out of sight of the ground so the size of the club was a mystery. I finally found FC Volendam and was excited to learn that they were a respected second division club who had been in the Eridivisie as recently as the 08-09 season. I reasoned that with the Dutch league system only containing 2 professional divisions the Kras Stadion was probably going to be more along the lines of a middling League 1 ground and so it transpired. After finding the stadium amongst a throng of local schoolchildren, my Dad, my Uncle and I set about trying to get in. Not being a big enough ground to have a stadium tour, we weren’t hopeful. But, as we were peering through a fence trying to get any glimpse of the playing surface a smooth Dutch voice rose up behind us.

We turned round in unison to see what we immediately recognised as a professional footballer. Stepping out of a sports car in jogging pants and trainers with that classic Dutch, gelled back hairstyle we knew we’d struck gold if he was talking to us. Never having heard of FC Volendam before I had no idea who this man was, was he a keeper, striker, regular starter or a squad player? Whoever he was he was being extremely kind, he asked us if we wanted to have a look in the ground, to which we all calmly screamed “yes!”. He then walked us round to the players entrance, slipped us through the gate and sent us towards the pitch. He then departed as he was already late for training. Later on, when we had access to a computer we trawled through several team photos from previous seasons squinting to see who it was that had guided us into the ground. It turned out that this man was Jack Tuyp, the star striker and local hero who had a brief spell in the Eredivisie with FC Groningen in 2004 before returning home to North Holland. Jack Tuyp

Still reeling from our encounter with one of the players we spent the next half an hour wandering around the pitch marvelling at every inch of the ground. It was small and compact but it had that unmistakable aura that only football grounds have and I’m sure would have provided an excellent atmosphere when full. After filling our boots with pictures and self-conducted video tours, we departed through the entrance Tuyp had shown us and returned home. Knowing that our luck was in this holiday.

Second- AFAS Stadion, AlkmaarAFAS Stadion, Alkmaar

Resident team- AZ Alkmaar

Capacity- 17,000

This was actually the third stadium we visited but I’m ordering them on a scale of size. Having had a roaring success with the local side FC Volendam’s ground, we decided to plan a trip to the AFAS Stadion for the return journey after a day in Alkmaar. Situated in the middle of the Dutch equivalent of Spaghetti Junction, we were initially unimpressed, scathing of the colour scheme on the outside of the ground. However, we parked the car and once again set about trying to talk ourselves into the ground. This time though, we were at a big team’s ground, a team that regularly competed in Europe and who were Eredivisie champions within the last decade so we half expected there to be a tour on offer for curious tourists. But before we even contemplated going in through the proper entrance, we saw a gang of workmen emerge from a metal door that led in to one of the corners of the ground. My Dad darted for it and ran straight into the ground. My Uncle and I held back, never sure whether his tactics would continue to work but sure enough after a few seconds we heard voices. We peered round to see my Dad talking with a groundsman. Whenever my Dad gets talking to people likely to let us into grounds he immediately brings Liverpool into the conversation and more often than not it is greated with great affection, the “aaaah” noise that every person on the planet makes when trying to converse in a foreign language. Sure enough, it worked again, the man beckoned us in and took us beyond a works area and out onto the touchline. AFAS Stadion

Once we got a proper look at the inside of the ground our earlier trepidations vanished. This was an excellent stadium. Built in that classic bowl shape of most modern, European grounds, it was a magnificent sight. The man warned us not to touch the grass but anywhere other than that was fair game. So we wandered up into the stands where the view was even more impressive, it was one of those grounds where there isn’t a bad seat to be had. Now at the ground of a well known team we sat down and racked our brains trying to think of any notable matches AZ had been involved in. We came up short but our trip to the club shop moments later proved fruitful as they proudly had on the wall a programme from a 1981 European Cup encounter with Liverpool. I bought a pennant and some souvenirs and then we were off home after another very successful footballing outing.

Third- Amsterdam Arena, Amsterdamamsterdam arena

Resident team- Ajax

Capacity- 52,000

Thankfully we didn’t have to grease our way into the home of Ajax, my Uncle and I had already bought tickets to go and see a league game that was on whilst we were there. This was my second trip to the Amsterdam ArenA having visited it once before with my Uncle many years ago and I can categorically say it is the greatest ground I have ever been in. It is a magnificent stadium, spacious yet close in to the pitch. We had excellent seats for their league game against relegation candidates VVV Venlo but once again I got the suspicion that there were no bad seats in the ground. No restricted views and no seats crammed into small spaces for that extra profit. I adore Anfield for its intimacy and atmosphere but on purely aesthetic terms, Ajax’s home has it well beat. The facilities were fantastic; cinemas, shops and restaurants surrounded the ground giving fans an endless choice of pre and post-match activities. Inside the ground, the services were just as nice, a great selection of food and drink combined with the cleanliness of a hospital made it a magnificent experience. However, as kick-off approached I kept expecting the relaxed, nonchalant atmosphere to disappear and be replaced by the frenzy of anticipation regularly seen in England. The whistle blew and the game started but my Uncle and I stared at each other, dumbfounded that a football match in this great stadium could have such a timid atmosphere. We could talk to each other without having to shout which can only be described as strange in a football ground. Looking back I can only put this down to the laid back attitude of the Dutch in general.

Amsterdam ArenA

Nevertheless, going to see a match at one of Europe’s big grounds is something I’ve always wanted to do and Ajax did not disappoint. They beat VVV Venlo comfortably thanks to goals from Derk Boerrigter and Danny Hoesen, but the experience as a whole was what made it special and I would recommend it to anyone who ventures to a footballing city on the continent. Especially as in the likes of Germany and Holland, ticket prices are laughably cheap. I will always remember that night and I know that whenever I go on holiday again, I’ll look to see what games are on while I’m there.

Whenever I regale people with stories of my Dad getting us into grounds by just walking in, they always say “oh well that’s what it’s like in Europe, they’re far more relaxed”, but it’s not true. As long as you don’t look like a criminal or a terrorist many grounds’ staff here would be willing to let you in. At least I can testify for the staff in Inverness, Plymouth and Blackburn.

I hope everyone enjoyed this special article and found some useful tips for getting into medium sized grounds all over Europe! Please follow the blog on Twitter @FootballTop5s for the latest updates and check in next week for #3 in the Top 5 Champions League Matches series.

Also, don’t forget to vote in this month’s poll Who Is The Greatest Premier League Signing Ever? on the ‘Polls’ page.

Top 5 Champions League Matches- #4

4 Dec

Every week until Christmas, I will be posting a new piece, working through the 5 best Champions League matches I’ve ever seen. This week it’s #4.

It is a strong minded football fan that can truly put aside their bias when discussing matters of the game. I have tried to stay impartial but there is no way that this match wasn’t going to make it onto the list. I was present at this game and I am not even slightly ashamed to say it was one of the greatest nights of my life. I still get goosebumps watching the highlights of it on the internet. Finally, I am not a great fan of commentators at all, I hate that I have to hear their inane opinions for 90 minutes but the commentary at the climax of this match from a now disgraced former pundit takes me back to that night every time I hear his voice. No more clues! Here is #4.

 

Number 4- Liverpool 3 v 1 Olympiakos, Group Stage 2004/05

LFC v OLY

The 2004/05 season was the dawn of a new day for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez, only a few months into his reign, had already stamped his authority on a transitioning team. Defensively sound, this new look Liverpool’s only problem was their multitude of chronically inconsistent strikers. Milan Baros, Djibril Cisse, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor. Hardly the kind of players to be relied upon in times of crisis you would think. However, they all played crucial roles in Liverpool’s unlikeliest of European Cup successes that year. On a rainy night in December, with the help of an inspirational captain they helped drag Liverpool kicking and screaming into the last 16.

The situation was this. A closely contested group A had no star team in it. A new look Liverpool, the previous year’s surprise finalists AS Monaco, A Deportivo La Coruna side in decline and the aging Rivaldo’s Olympiakos. Deportivo were a shadow of the team they were the previous season and amassed a measly 2 points from 6 games, but the other teams were matching each other stride for stride. All 3 taking points off each other. Going into the final round of games it was Olympiakos leading the way on 10 points, Monaco close behind on 9 and Liverpool trailing in third with 7 points. A home draw against group fodder Deportivo looking costly for the Reds. Goal difference was going to be a factor, everyone knew it. With Monaco looking safe for the 3 points in A Coruna Liverpool would need to overturn their goal difference deficit to Olympiakos by beating them by two or more goals. Tricky but surely likely given the Anfield Factor. Predictably, Monaco thumped Deportivo 5-0 and cantered into the next round. Leaving a winner take all, tale of heartbreak waiting to be written at Anfield, and boy, did the footballing Gods ablige.

Rivaldo OLY

A tense opening eventually saw Liverpool start to dominate, first a Gerrard free kick darted through the box and skimmed the far post, then another long-range effort from Gerrard crept under Nikopolidis in the Olympiakos goal, only for play to be brought back for a questionable foul by Milan Baros. However, there were warning signs from the Greeks. Rivaldo, a shadow of the 1999 World Player of the Year he once was fizzed in a free-kick of his own from 30 yards that Chris Kirkland could only palm away. Then after 27 minutes, the Brazilian had another dead ball opportunity, this time from just outside the area. He lifted it just over the wall and, wrong footing Kirkland, it slammed into the net, inches from the keeper’s frame. Silence. I looked over towards the Anfield Road end, where the traveling Greek army were in ecstasy, in complete amazement. Liverpool saw out the rest of the first half without incident. Olympiakos already battening down the hatches knowing the Reds had to score three. A tactical change at half time saw Djimi Traore taken off and replaced by the young Sinama-Pongolle. A questionable move as the young Frenchman hadn’t made any impression on the Anfield faithful thus far in his career. That all changed exactly two minutes later when, without having touched the ball, Sinama-Pongolle found enough space in the box for Harry Kewell to find him with a cut back after a mazey run in from the left. 1-1. Instantly, everything was going to be alright, the missed chances and injustice from the first half would be put to bed within minutes. But they weren’t. The half started to stagnate. Olympiakos happy to sit back  and soak up anything that Liverpool could throw at them. The 50, 60 and 70 minute marks came and went without a sniff of goal for Liverpool.  Another change was needed but who? Benitez had the answer, Neil Mellor? “Who?” voices around me cried in unison. I had no idea, but any change was a good change at this point.

neil mellor

However, once again, the supersub worked. 2 minutes later as the game passed the 80 minute mark, a scramble in the box had Antonio Nunez’s header cleared off the line, only for it to fall to Mellor 5 yards out. He grabbed his moment and thumped the ball into the net. Game on. A manic Liverpool attacked relentlessly for the next 5 minutes as the Greeks retreated entirely into their own half not wanting to lose at this late stage. Cut cometh the hour, cometh the man and Liverpool’s captain arrived on the scene to send them hurling into the knock-out stages. Jamie Carrgher on the left wing (truly showing how far Olympiakos were camped inside their own half) dinked a ball into the box where supersub no. 2 Neil Mellor gently nodded back towards the D, knowing that Gerrard was lurking. He circled the oncoming ball and then ran at it, hitting as clean a strike as I’ve ever seen. It never got more than 2 yards off the ground and curled beautifully away from Nikopolidis into the corner. Mayhem. As the players darted off into the Kop, the man standing in front off me turned round and grabbed me, we jumped up and down for what felt like an eternity. Normality resumed eventually, and Liverpool saw out the remaining minutes in comfort, Olympiakos not able to wake from the self-imposed slumber.

That match hung over the Reds as they marched on towards Istanbul, a constant reminder that, in the words of Rocky Balboa, “It ain’t over til it’s over”.

No more summation is necessary, as Andy Gray said on the gantry that night “You don’t need me to explain it, just let the pictures tell you everything”.

Watch that truly epic final goal here

I hope everyone enjoyed this post and looks forward to #3 next week. Please follow the blog on twitter for the latest updates @FootballTop5s.

Also, remember to vote in this month’s poll Who is the greatest Premier League signing ever? on the ‘Polls’ page.

Top 5 Champions League Matches- #5

30 Nov barca winners

Every week until Christmas, I will be posting a new piece, working through the 5 best Champions League matches I’ve ever seen. Starting with #5.

I have to admit, the European Cup is my favourite football tournament  in the world. Having spent many great European nights inside Anfield during the last decade, my passion for continental football knows no bounds. I love nothing more than sitting down on a weeknight and watching two giants of European football slug it out under the lights of some of the world’s most famous stadia. Since the re-branding of the European Cup as the Champions League, it has become fairly commercialised, but for me, the 1970s mystique remains and it is the highest standard of football possible.

Number 5- Ajax 1 v 0 AC Milan, Final 1994/95

1995 CL finalFabio Capello’s AC Milan side had been the dominant force in Europe for almost a decade, reaching 4 of the previous 6 finals. Blessed with the likes of Maldini, Albertini, Costacurta, Baresi and Desailly, Milan were expected to brush aside Louis Van Gaal’s youthful Ajax side like they had crushed Barcelona 4-0 in the 1994 final. However, the dream team had no answers for Ajax’s youthful exuberance and went down to a solitary goal from Patrick Kluivert in the 85th minute. Although the Rossoneri were expected to win the final, Ajax had already given the defending champions hidings, home and away in the group stage. Scoring 4 goals and conceding none. Maybe these early blows gave Davids, Seedorf, Litmanen and co. a mental edge over the vastly experienced Milan side.

Predictably, Milan started the final on the front foot, wanting to banish their demons from group D. However, Ajax’s young legs worked tirelessly, allowing their own elder statesmen in defence (Danny Blind and former Milan favourite Frank Rijkaard) to keep the Italians at bay. As the game wore on Milan’s intensity gradually dropped, allowing the Dutch to move further and further up the pitch. Eventually, two tactical masterstrokes from Van Gaal, before and after the hour mark, tipped the match in Ajax’s favour. Van Gaal and KanuSwitching from a holding 4-3-3 to a more rigid 4-4-2, a young Seedorf and a tiring Jari Litmanen were replaced by Kluivert and Kanu. This change turned the game on its head. Now it was Ajax bombarding Seb Rossi in the Milan goal. The introduction of a classic ‘big man’ in the form of Kanu took up most of the attention of the Milan defence and allowed Patrick Kluivert to make a series of darting runs in behind. It looked as if the Italians would have to rely on their engrained defensive prowess but the aged squad was starting to crack and the gaps grew ever wider. Eventually, just as Capello was about to introduce Gianluigi Lentini and Stefano Aranio to sure up the Milan midfield, Ajax struck. On the left, Marc Overmars worked the ball to the edge of the box and Edgar Davids immediately slipped it through to Kluivert. He spun away from Maldini and showed great strength to then hold off Baresi. Kluivert advanced on goal but just as he was about to strike with his right foot he lost his balance under a challenge from Demi Albertini. Falling to the ground, Kluivert had to react quickly, and he did. He got his left foot to the ball and managed to poke it beyond the advancing Rossi, before hitting the deck. The Ajax players wheeled away in celebration, knowing they were on the cusp of a monumental upset. The frenzy died down, Van Gaal rallied his men and they battened down the hatches for the last 5 minutes. Capello finally got to make his substitutions but to no avail, Ajax held on for their fourth European Cup victory and pandemonium ensued.

Van Gaal’s wunderkind side would feel heartbreak the following year as they went down on penalties to Marcello Lippi’s Juventus. That proved to be the end for a fantastic homegrown side with many of the star players retiring or joining some of Europe’s other giants. Van Gaal went to Barcelona in 1997 but couldn’t repeat his feats there. Similar to Jock Stein’s Celtic in 1967, Van Gaal’s young, local heroes stunned Europe with one of the biggest upsets in the Champions League era and they will always be remembered for it.

Ajax 95

I hope everyone enjoyed this post and looks forward to #4 next week. Please follow the blog on twitter for the latest updates @FootballTop5s.

Also, remember to vote in this month’s poll Who is the greatest Premier League signing ever?

Top 5 Players Never To Have Been Capped By Their Country

29 Nov italy world cup

There are many strange quirks of football, particularly when it comes to the relationship between domestic and international sides. There are countless instances of truly great players barely getting a run in the national side throughout their careers. English managers have been particularly culpable for this over the years. For a startling example take this; Matt Le Tissier, Robbie Fowler, Andy Cole and Kevin Phillips together amassed over 1,000 goals in their careers, yet combined, they pulled on the 3 Lions shirt fewer times than Emile Heskey. All exceptional players, yet a series of England managers saw no place for any of them in their squads. This list will hopefully highlight some of the more extreme examples of players being left out in the cold.

1. Steve Bruce

The captain of the first legendary Manchester Utd team under Sir Alex Ferguson, Steve Bruce was arguably part of the best defensive pairing the Premier League has ever seen. Bought for £800,000 from Norwich in 1987, he and partner Gary Pallister formed the rigid backbone of a United side that ended a 26 year wait for the league title. Ever dependable and unmovable, they soaked up enormous pressure, which allowed the likes of Cantona, Giggs, Scholes and Beckham to work their magic further up field. Bruce went on to make over 400 appearances for the Red Devils and notched up an impressive 51 goals in that time. Yet, even as Pallister and the rest of that great United team were duly given their international call ups, the phone never rang for Bruce. Graham Taylor, Terry Venables and even fellow Tyneside legend Bobby Robson all left the post of England manager without having named the captain of Englands champions in a single squad. As classic an English centre half as you’re ever likely to see, it remains a mystery to this day why Steve Bruce never set foot in an England dressing room. Only those mangers and selectors know the answer and hopefully one day they’ll enlighten us.

2. Delio Onnis

Italian born Argtentine stiker, Delio Onnis has been the French League’s top scorer ever since he hung up his boots in 1986. Onnis amassed an incredible 299 goals in a 15 year career in France, playing for Stade Reims, Tours FC, SC Toulon and most notably AS Monaco between 1973 and 1980. His unbeaten haul in French football is made all the more impressive given (Monaco excluded) all his clubs were relegation candidates during his time with them. Even Monaco slipped into the second division in the 76/77 season. But 30 goals from their leading man propelled them back to the top division, a further 29 goals back in the first division helped Monaco to the title the following year and established Onnis’ legendary status in French football. Despite a host of golden boot awards in France, his excellence was never rewarded by a succession of national coaches. Somewhat understandable however, given the likes of Maradona and Kempes were in their prime. It must have been heartbreaking for Onnis never to receive that call up given he chose the country of his parents over the country of his birth. With all this in mind, we have to remember that this was a time in football were players were seldom given international caps unless they played in their own country’s league. Still, it’s extremely hard to see why the all-time leading goalscorer in one of the top 6 or 7 leagues in the world was never even named in a squad. It was a sad day for Ligue 1 when Onnis called it quits in 1986; however, I imagine it was even harder for Onnis to sit and watch a Diego Maradona inspired Argentina lift their second World Cup in 12 years, a few months later.

3. Ron Harris

795 times Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris turned out in the blue of Chelsea during the 60s and 70s, yet not once was he called upon by England. Feared as one of the hardest players in an era that included the likes of Tommy Smith and Norman Hunter. Ron Harris was the bedrock of a defence that oversaw Chelsea‘s first F.A. Cup, League Cup and Cup Winners Cup victories. Being only 22 at the time of the 1966 World Cup, Harris’ omission from that stellar tournament is no surprise, but England’s failure to qualify for four successive major tournaments in the 1970s really does beg the question why such a reliable performer domestically, was never given a chance for the national team. The pinnacle of this insanity for many Chelsea fans was in 1971 when Harris (captaining Chelsea at this point) led the Blues to their first European honour by beating Real Madrid, the giants of European football in the Cup Winners Cup Final. Chelsea fans of that period are probably right in their grievances against national selectors with some of their greatest ever players (Peter Bonetti, Peter Osgood, John Hollins) also barely getting a look in at international level. Harris was not the most elegant of footballers but you can bet that he would have sacrificed his body for the greater good in an England shirt and maybe that’s what was missing during that barren period for England.

4. Jimmy Case

Blessed with one of the fiercest shots ever seen in this country, local hero Jimmy Case was part of the first Liverpool side to dominate European football. An academy product, Case made his debut for the Reds in 1973 at the tail end of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool dynasty. Little did he know what lay in store for the team under the stewardship of Shankly’s assistant, Bob Paisley. A winner of 4 league titles and an exceptional 3 European Cups, Case remarkably, was never named in an England squad. Playing at a similar time to Ron Harris, Case can be similarly stunned that he was never capped given England’s barren spell at the time. Unfortunately Don Revie and Ron Greenwood are no longer with us to answer for the decade long exclusion of Case. It seems unfathomable to the average fan that any player who has appeared in 3 European Cup finals wouldn’t be given his chance at international level. Rightly regarded as a legend around Anfield, Jimmy Case joins an unfortunate list of players who were never called upon by the ailing England team of the 1970s.

5. Mikel Arteta

Is Mikel Arteta the unluckiest man in football? There are many moments in a player’s career that can alter their entire lives, sometimes they work out but other times they don’t and unfortunately for Mikel Arteta, they all seem to have gone against him. Born in San Sebastian, Arteta was childhood friends with Xabi Alonso and they both dreamed of playing together for Real Sociedad. However, at age 15, Arteta upped and left for Barcelona whilst Alonso stayed in the Basque country. 3 major tournament wins and 106 caps later, Alonso can rightly look back and wonder how it never happened for his close friend. It never worked our for Arteta at Barcelona and in 2000 he was loaned out to Paris Saint Germain. Although not setting the world alight at club level, Arteta was regularly being capped by Spain Under 16s all the way up to the Under 21s. Yet that final step up never materialised. Even now after 7 extremely successful years in England and regular Champions League football with Arsenal, there is no sign of that first cap for an extremely talented footballer. Once again it is a case of an above average player handed the misfortune of having to compete for spots with some of the greatest players his country has ever seen. Still only 30, there may yet be a call up for Arteta if his good form continues, but somehow I doubt it. Being capped now would surely be out of sentiment, not on form and that could be worse than not being capped at all. Unfortunately, that is the tale of Mikel Arteta, a great player in a top league for almost a decade, yet he has played no part in his nation’s complete and utter domination of International football. There are some things that even footballers’ wages cannot fix.

I hope everyone enjoyed the article. Please follow the blog and I’ll be able to get more content out as a result!

Also, please vote in this month’s poll on the greatest Premier League signing ever.

Top 6 Premier League Signings

27 Nov torres

The last few years have seen the top Premier League teams splashing out more and more cash for established stars. The patience to scout out bargains domestically and from abroad is no longer there, it is therefore no surprise that the players comprising this list all form part of the Premier League’s golden age. This list hopefully judges signings on: value for money, the impact that player had and in some cases the profit made from selling that player on.

1. Ashley Cole- Arsenal to Chelsea, 2006

Transfer Fee- £5 million & William Gallas

Widely regarded as one of, if not the, best left-backs of his generation, Ashley Cole has been the most solid of performers for club and country for the last decade. Unusually for a modern full-back,  Cole is extremely solid defensively but also willing to get forward. He may not have as many assists or goals as other more attack minded full-backs but he still takes part in his fair share of dangerous moves down the left. A testament to how highly regarded he is as a footballer is the fact that fans across the country rate him even though he is a hate figure in and out of the game for his indiscretions and general demeanour. Only 25 at the time of purchase, Chelsea pounced on a rift between Cole and the Arsenal hierarchy over wages and brought him to Stamford Bridge to become a linchpin in Jose Mourinho’s revolution. Now, as Cole is nearing the illustrious 100 cap milestone for England, he can look back on an extremely successful career with pleasure. His move to Chelsea couldn’t have turned out better for him, he has won every trophy possible with Chelsea and heads to Japan later this month to try and take the top prize in the game of being hailed ‘World Club Champions’. A stellar bit of business by Chelsea amidst their heavy spending, God only knows what Manchester City would pay for a 25 year old Ashley Cole in today’s market.

2. Eric Cantona- Leeds Utd to Manchester Utd, 1992

Transfer Fee- £1.2 million

A true icon of the Premier League era, Eric Cantona etched himself onto the hearts of fans up and down the country. Universally admired for his delightful style of football, Cantona made the switch to Old Trafford from Elland Road in November, 1992, and instantly stamped his authority on a Manchester Utd team destined for greatness. It had not been easy sailing for Utd up until that point in the season. They were falling behind big spenders Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers in the race for the first Premier League title. But the arrival of the mercurial Frenchman helped to end United’s 26 year wait for the title. Looking back, £1.2 million for a player of Cantona’s quality seems like pennies but this was still the age before the big money arrived in England and many clubs had looked at Cantona but were unsure over the price and the maverick reputation from his days in France. Eventually, Sir Alex Ferguson took the plunge and never looked back. This transfer has a good claim for the number 1 spot but I had to favour Ashley Cole for his longevity in the league. Cantona left an indelible mark on the new age of English football in his five years with Utd and will be remembered as its pioneering star for many years.

3. Cristiano Ronaldo- Sporting Lisbon to Manchester Utd, 2003

Transfer Fee- £12.2 million

The impossibly youthful 18 year old Ronaldo that arrived from Portugal in 2003 is unrecognisable from the giant of world football that he is today. Many were dubious about Ronaldo upon his arrival at Old Trafford,  with sources claiming he was ‘too flashy’ and ‘lacked end product’, but he set about dispelling those rumours in unstoppable fashion. Blessed with incredible acceleration and speed of feet, Ronaldo’s early years at Utd were spent dancing up and down the wings tormenting whoever happened to be at full-back that day. As the seasons went by you could him developing physically and becoming more of a presence on the pitch. He started to dominate games and the goals started to come as a result. This transformation into a complete footballer culminated with him scoring 42 goals in the 07-08 season. A modest 26 goals came the following year and soon after, he departed for his boyhood dream club, Real Madrid; leaving Utd with a £70 million profit and a host of trophies. It’s hard to imagine how Ronaldo’s time in England could have gone better.

4. Patrick Vieira- AC Milan to Arsenal, 1996

Transfer Fee- £3.5 million

Cited by many Premier League players as the most intimidating player they’ve ever played against, Patrick Vieira combined athleticism, strength and skill into one man almost perfectly designed for English football. Reportedly, Arsene Wenger requested that Arsenal get the ball rolling on Vieira’s transfer even before he’d taken the position as Arsenal boss such was his admiration for the Frenchman. An impossibly strong frame and long legs allowed Vieira to both break up play in the middle of the park and also stride away from players into the opposition third and link up the likes of Henry and Bergkamp. A series of bust ups with his United counterpart Roy Keane highlighted his passion for the game and endeared him to the Arsenal faithful even more. He will be forever remembered in England as being the captain and leader of the Arsenal ‘invincibles’ team that went undefeated for 47 league games but Vieira also garnered himself an exemplary international career; Winning the World Cup and European Championship with Les Bleus shortly after arriving at Higbury. This cemented Vieira’s position in the French midfield for over 10 years winning him 107 caps. Vieira came to epitomise the Arsenal style under Wenger which many fans would love to see return.

5. Alan Shearer- Southampton to Blackburn Rovers, 1992

Transfer Fee- £3.3 million

A massively loved and respected footballer, Alan Shearer’s sheer volume of goals set alight the first decade of the Premier League and enshrined that famous celebration in the minds of millions of fans up and down the country. The final transfer window before the new dawn of the Premier League saw Blackburn Rovers -awash wish Jack Walker’s millions- pay a hefty £3.3 million for the 22 year old Shearer, making him one of the most expensive Englishmen in history. However, they were soon rewarded when Shearer knocked in 16 goals in 21 league games in that inaugural PL season. Given a consistent starting berth from then on, Shearer went to on to score over 30 league goals in the next 3 seasons. A feat never since replicated. In the summer of 1996 a move to Old Trafford was given serious consideration by Shearer and he almost went; until his boyhood heroes, helmed by Kevin Keegan interfered. Once Newcastle United were involved there was nowhere else Shearer was going to end up, sealing a £15 million pound deal, breaking the British transfer record and netting Blackburn a £12 million profit, all in one fell swoop. The bubble burst soon after for Blackburn but for a while they were the top dogs in England and owed much to Alan Shearer. £3.3 million they forked out and were repaid with 130 goals in171 games (in all competitions). Not a bad bit of business by Kenny Dalglish.

6. Xabi Alonso- Real Sociedad to Liverpool, 2004

Transfer Fee- £10 million

The first and best of the wave of Spanish imports that followed Rafa Benitez’s arrival at Liverpool in 2004. Plucked from the Basque country almost as soon as Benitez arrived, it showed that the manager had been watching him for some time. One of the most majestic players I personally have ever laid eyes on, his impact at Anfield was instant. Forming an irresistible partnership in midfield with a Steven Gerrard at the peak of his power; it now becomes more clear how Liverpool managed to stun the world with their Champions League win in 2005. A starter in the Spain team that would go on to dominate 3 successive tournaments Alonso’s admirers were growing as each game passed but his affinity for the city kept any potential suitors at bay. He is still treasured by the fans today as part of that golden time under Benitez. However, after five years of dedication to the Liverpool cause, rumours of a growing tension between him and Benitez led to Alonso moving on. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool made a tasty £20 million profit on Alonso when he joined Spanish behemoths Real Madrid in 2009. Many reds fans now look back at the sale of Alonso with pain and anguish as it would transpire to be the end of a great period for the club and its manager. A player of such skill and quality, I argue that any team in the world would be lucky to have him.

I hope everyone enjoys this post. Please leave any comments regarding all matters. Especially possible future list topics!

Please vote for who you think is the greatest Premier League signing ever in this month’s poll, on the polls page >>>>

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