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To the victors, go the spoils….

With 3 games to go, the champions of England have been decided, and their coronation awaits on the final game of the season. Chelsea have been the stand out team all season, and have cruised to the title with relative ease. Manchester City were level with the Blues at the turn of the year, but stuttering performances from the current champions lead to a commanding Chelsea run.

Chelsea may not have finished the season with great conviction, but their sensational early season run had given them much room to work with. Summer signings Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas were instrumental in their early season charge, helping the team win 10 of their first 12 league games. Their first league defeat not occurring until December. While rivals City, United and Arsenal were struggling to find their best form, and Liverpool suffering from the departure of Luis Suarez, Chelsea were the only team showing championship credentials.

The team has lost only 2 games so far this season, away to Newcastle, and a stunning 5-3 defeat at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day. They have been unbeaten ever since.  Arsenal, with 6 defeats were 2nd in terms of games lost. Showing the winning mentality that Mourinho has embedded into the team, and the gulf in class to the chasing pack. Chelsea have not always been convincing in the last few months, scraping late wins, and benefiting from several goalkeeping errors to bag the 3 points. The team may have been labelled with the ”Boring Boring Chelsea” tag, but that won’t bother them much, as they will now cruise to the finish line, and lift the grand prize later this month.

Eden Hazard has been the stand out performer of the season, while Fabregas’s stunning early season form dropped considerably after Christmas, and Costa suffering from several injuries stalling his season, it has been the Belgian ace who has electrified the Bridge. He has been the key play maker all year, and was voted the Player of the Year by his fellow professionals. The best team, with the best player. The perfect end to the season for the Blues. While captain John Terry has had one of his finest seasons, after several underwhelming years in the team.

While it has been Chelsea who emerge triumphant, the standard of the rest of the league has not been so great. Arsenal had a moderate start, and only a run 8 straight wins in Spring has elevated them up to a potential 2nd place finish. If they started the season as they are ending it, the race may the title may have been a bit more thrilling. Manchester City, who for most of the season were looking like the biggest challengers to Chelsea, had a shocking 2015, losing 5 games. From being challengers, level on points with Chelsea, they dropped back, and are now fighting for 2nd. United also suffered a shocking start, and only run of wins in the last few months had taken them up into the top 4, though with 3 consecutive defeats, a scrap for 4th is still on the cards.

But take nothing away from Chelsea, while the rest have been struggling to hit find top gear, Chelsea have been top all season, and as boring as they may be at times, they have achieved their goal, and the rest must step up for next season, otherwise it may be back to back titles next season.

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Brazil v Chile @ The Emirates

Brazil took on Chile in a rematch of last summers World Cup knock-out game between the two South American neighbours at a sold out Emirates Stadium this last Sunday..Although it was a friendly, there were still plenty of stars on show, and both Neymar and Alexis played the entire 90 minutes, the two superstars on the pitch. Brazil edged a tight match 1-0, with a goal from Firmino. Harsh on Chile, who probably deserved at least a point from a messy game. The loudest cheer of the day was the substitution of Robinho, who’s announcement seemed to stun most of the crowd, who probably haven’t heard much about him since his time at Manchester City!Enjoy the pictures!

Real Madrid v Atletico de Madrid - UEFA Champions League Final

16 becomes 8

All the English clubs hit the canvas in the round of 16, but the show moves on! Without any representatives from the Premier League, the media hype was somewhat subdued for the draw on Friday for the Quarter Finals. Regardless, we still got some mighty intriguing ties.

PSG v Barcelona

After their sensational result at Stamford Bridge, PSG will finally have some serious belief that they can actually go on and win the big one. Not many would have bet that the Parisian club had it in them to overcome a hurdle which included a red card, and falling behind twice on enemy turf! Their belief will be tested to the limit with a tie against current La Liga leaders, Barcelona. The Catalans comfortably dealt with Manchester City, and without the display of Joe Hart in the Nou Camp, the victory would have been resounding. Both clubs were in the same group for the group phase, each winning their respective home tie. Not much separated the two clubs back in Winter, but Barcelona have found some great form, and have surged in front in Spain. Barcelona will be favourites to proceed here.

Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid

It’s a repeat of last years final, and current La Liga champions would dearly love to get some revenge for their defeat in May. Atletico were within seconds of winning the Champions League, before a late equaliser took the game into extra time. Although Real Madrid are the holders, their form of late has not been as devastating as it was earlier in the season.  Atletico haven’t been great either, slipping down to 4th with their patchy form, but they seem to have somewhat of an Indian sign over Real as of late. Atletico have not lost in their last 6 encounters to their glamorous neighbours, and their last match ended in a resounding 4-0 win for Simone’s men. If Atletico can get something from their home leg, they could knock out the holders come the return at the Bernabeu!

Bayern v Porto

Both teams progressed with comfort in their return home leg. Bayern destroyed a shell-shocked Shakhtar 7-0 in the Allianz Arena. The German team showing that they will be a force to contend with, and a sigh of intent to regain the title they lost to Madrid last May. Porto progressed with a 4-0 victory over Basel, after a tight first leg which ended 1-1. The Quarter Finals may be a step to far for the Portuguese side, Munich simply look too strong, and barring any great upset, not many can see Porto winning over 2 legs against the 2013 champions.

Monaco v Juventus

Dortmund and Arsenal shared the same group, and both shared the same fate, going out in the final 16 to the participants of this tie. While Juventus beating Dortmund was a result that many would have expected, considering Dortmund’s underwhelming league form. Monaco shocked everyone by knocking out an in form Arsenal team, their first leg heroics sealing the tie, despite a loss in the return leg. Juventus are flying in Serie A, 14 points clear at the top. With the league pretty much wrapped up, they can give the Champions League a good push. The injury to Paul Pogba may have come at a bad time, but the Italians are still packed with talent. Monaco have done well to get this far, but Juventus will not be as charitable with their defence as Arsenal were in the last round.

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Vitality North London Half Marathon

Next week, I will be taking part in the Vitality North London Half Marathon. A challenging 13.1 route, which will incorporate a pitch-side run through Wembley stadium at the half way point! This will be my second half marathon, having completed the Adidas Half Marathon around Silverstone Circuit a few years back.

I’ll be raising money The Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which raises funds to provide financial and practical support to more than 150 projects which use the power of sport to provide coaching and education to young people in some of the most challenging or deprived environments around the world.

If readers would like to drop in  kind donation, please visit the link below :)

https://www.justgiving.com/AbuTeamLaureus

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The FA need to step up

The news that Burnley striker Ashley Barnes would face no punishment for his tackle on Nemanja Matic this weekend comes as no surprise to fans.  The officiating this season has been at times shocking, and the failure of the Football Association to take any action if the officials saw the incident has become a joke of a rule that the FA tend to hide behind.. Officials seem to be making several high profile mistakes, and the FA seems to not discipline their staff for poor performances, and even if the officials have missed something, the FA tend to not do anything to amend the mistakes that are made. Several incidents have taken place this season where officials have gotten things severely wrong.

  • In the FA Cup tie between Arsenal and Middlesborough, Mike Dean booked Olivier Giroud after he had the goalkeeper had kicked the ball at him while he was running back. The referee may have thought the striker had blocked the ball, but the linesmen could have easily told him that was not the case. Had the referee just assumed that Giroud had blocked the keeper? If so, you can’t simply assume things if you did not see it. So the Frenchmen picked up one of the most bizarre bookings of the season.
  • Liverpool beat Swansea convincingly at home back in December, but one of the main talking points was the actions of Raheem Sterling by the corner flag. After a coming together with Swans player Fernandez, the player raised his arms into the face of Fernandez, right in front of the linesmen. Although no malice was intended, by the laws of the game, raising your hands is a straight red. Nothing happened, which raised eyebrows across the land. The linesmen saw it happen right in front of him, so either he somehow missed it, or suddenly it’s not a red card. The FA took no action saying the officials saw it. Which begs the question, if they did, why was there no red card? Rather than leaving it to the refs to sort out the mess, the FA should have intervened.
  • Wayne Routledge suffered a similar fate as Matic on New Years Day, in the match between Swansea and QPR. Karl Henry lunged into the Swansea attacker with a dangerous tackle. Routledge reacted angrily to the challenge and saw red. With Henry getting nothing. Although it is harsh to get sent off for a natural reaction, its the fact the referee failed to spot the wreckless challenge and punish the player for it.  If players are getting away with dangerous tackles, and in turn, know if they get a reaction out of the opponent, it will mean trouble for them, it only encourages things.

These are just some of the awful officiating decisions made in a season where standards have dropped dramatically. It has gotten to a point where former referee’s head Kieth Hackett has publicly slammed the levels of the officials. At the end of the day, referee’s are only human, and mistakes can be made. It’s up to FA to shake things up. If a mistake is made by officials, the FA should take responsibility to correct it. If a ref has missed something, help them, retrospective action will not reduce the importance of officials, but improve any injustices that have somehow been created. Until the FA start taking the blame for poor officiating, it looks like the levels will not improve any time soon.

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Luis Figo : President of FIFA?

Luis Figo has won several trophies during his illustrious playing career. The Spanish & Italian league wins with Real Madrid, Barcelona & Inter Milan. The Champions League with Real Madrid in 2002. Not to mention the several lavish individual accolades such as the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year. But now he has a challenge which probably looks more imposing than what he has won in the past, trying to end the 17 year reign of Sepp Blatter for the biggest job in World Football.

Sepp Blatter took office way back in 1998, and has since won 3 consecutive elections in that time. He may not be the most popular choice with fans, but in the world of politics, he knows how to win. The troubles with FIFA have been long documented, and for some, the main source of the ongoing troubles in the man at the top of the mountain. At the age of 78, is he really the best long term option for the future of the sport? The other candidates include Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the current Vice President of FIFA, Michael van Praag, who is the president of the Dutch Football Association. But it is Figo, the final candidate which most fans will recognise.

The manifest for Figo’s presidency was launched this week, among it was several proposals. Such as going back to the ‘old’ offside rule, before the introduction of ‘active or inactive’, the possible inclusion of ‘Sin Bins’ for indiscipline on the pitch, and a larger financial contribution to the grassroots , and potentially increasing the number of teams for future World Cups.

The real question is could he actually win it? He may have the appeal with the fans, seen as a young, modern representative in what has becomes somewhat of a gentlemen’s club in the offices of FIFA in Zurich. But Blatter was won 4 successful terms in office, and at the end of the day, politics is a totally different world. It is not the fans who vote, but the members of the FIFA committee. Who most have a loyal relationship with the leader. There is a reason why he has been so successful, regardless of all the ill judged decisions and gaffes. The people want to see a change, be it Figo, van Praag or Bin Al Hussein. What we will most likely see is a 5th term for the Swiss.

Tottenham Hotspur v Arsenal - Premier League

The North London Derby

Its the Merseyside Derby this week, as Everton host Liverpool. But that’s not the only derby taking place, North London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham resume their ongoing battle, and it usually delivers loads of enthralling action. One thing that you can be sure of, is that there will be goals. Games between the two are the highest scoring fixture in the Premier League. There have been several memorable games over the last decade, Arsenal winning a ridiculous 5-4 game at White Heart Lane. Tottenham with their late show to pull back a 4-2 deficit in the dying embers at the Emirates. Not forgetting the back to back 5-2 wins for Arsenal in 2012. Be it a combination of flat out attack, and shambolic defending, as a neutral, these games mostly deliver!

Arsenal’s season has finally got going, and have recorded 3 wins in a row for the first time this campaign. A stuttering start had seen them drop points at home to Hull, away at Leicester, and collapses like the defeat at Swansea. Injuries have as always taken their toll on the Gunners. Only the majestic Alexis Sanchez has really dragged them through a rough period. But with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott finally back,  and players such as Giroud and Santi Cazorla hitting form. The demolition of Aston Villa last week showed what the team can be capable off.  The sluggish start had put them off the pace for the chase for Champions League, but they now find themselves level on points with 4th place Southampton. If they can replicate the disciplined performance at the Etihad, Arsenal could well find themselves in the top 4, and go 5 clear of Spurs.

Tottenham have also recovered from a tepid opening to the season, with disappointing results like the home defeats to Stoke and West Brom. Manager Mauricio Pochettino has done an excellent job at steadying the ship, and taking the club to where they are.  Harry Kane has stolen most of the headlines, the young English striker has taken his chance after some impressive displays in the Europa League earlier in the year, having already scored 20 goals for the team this season. But its another player that Arsenal will need to watch out for, Christian Eriksen has been in awe inspiring form, the mercurial Dane has popped up on several occasions this season scoring late on in matches to give Tottenham the win.  Hull, Sunderland and Swansea have all suffered last minute goals to lose the game. Spurs have proved how devastating they can be at home, after taking apart Chelsea 5-3 on New Years Day. They would love to add this particular scalp to their list of wins.

With only 2 points separating the teams as of now, Saturday will go a long way to show if Spurs can finally step up. Arsenal would be slight favourites to win, and a draw would not be the worst of results for them. For Tottenham, a win will prove they may just be ready to finally finish above their eternal rivals.

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City Rue Missed Opportunity

Following 2 consecutive home defeats for Manchester City, the biggest game of the season so far awaited the Champions in West London. The gap between City, and leaders Chelsea was an impressive 5 points, by the end of the day, that could have been cut to 2, or extended to 8. What we got, was an intriguing stalemate, leaving things as it was.

Chelsea for the first time this season, did not have their 2 summer signings in their deck of cards. Diego Costa has been suspended for his foolish actions in the heated League Cup semi final against Liverpool. Whereas Cesc Fabregas had picked up an injury in the same game. It would be interesting to see how the leaders managed to cope with this loss. Aguero spurned the best chance to open the scoring, after being put through clean through on goal, the Argentinian sliced the show wide, chances he usually puts away with relative ease. As it looked like we would head into the interval at 0-0, the intensity picked up. Loic Remy, who has been resigned to the bench, following the impressive performances of Costa, finally had his chance to show what he can bring to the table. He was on the end of a delightful cross from Eden Hazard to tuck home from close range. Mourinho would have rued the fact they could not hold on to the lead for a few more minutes. As City struck back almost immediately. A cross from Sagna wasn’t cleared and fell to Aguero on the edge of the box, he powerful shot was directed into the net by David Silva. Who showed great reactions to divert the shot in. City would have felt aggrieved to go in behind. But it was all to play for in the second half.

It was City who went out for the kill, maybe Chelsea felt like they could play for the draw, or they did not feel they could go for the win without their star players missing. The champions had all the chances, and moments in a second half in which they could not breach the Blue wall. Even throwing on Frank Lampard, for what news-writers would have hoped to be a headline moment, could not unlock a stubborn Chelsea team. City certainly miss the destruction that Yaya Toure brings to the team, who has a tendency to pop up in the final third to score in situations like these. As the final whistle blew, Chelsea would be the more satisfied by the point. They avoided defeat, and maintain their buffer to the chasing pack. Chelsea interestingly did not manage a single shot on goal after Remy’s strike, and only fired 3 attempts at Joe Hart. Their opponents managed 10. Though as we know, stats do not win games, and Chelsea will sleep well. Pellegrini was left annoyed, and rightfully so, City created more, but failed to take advantage of the situation . The title race is no way finished, 5 points is easily surmountable, but this showed there is very little to separate the teams, both games this season between the two have ended in draws.

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Well that was unexpected!

The 3rd round of the FA Cup was fairly routine, in which most of the big teams sailed through, and very little fairy dust sprinkled over for the back pages. The 4th round draw looked straight-forward on paper, but suddenly, the FA Cup has roared back into life!

The stand out result, and probably one of the biggest upsets of all, in the history of the FA Cup, was the 2nd half capitulation of Premier League leaders Chelsea. After going 2-0 up against League 1 Bradford City, a rout looked to be incoming. But a goal from John Stead just before half time did make things slightly interesting. No one would have foreseen what the second half was to have in store, 3 goals from Bradford without response stunned Stamford Bridge, even the likes of Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas were thrown on to save the tie. Bradford made a memorable run to the League Cup final a few years ago, taking out Arsenal on route. But beating the current league leaders, away from home, from 2-0 down will surely go down in Bradford City lore!

That was not the only major shock of the day, as Bradford scored their 4th goal at Chelsea, virtually at the same time, Middlesbrough were scoring their second goal, and dumping the Premier League champions out of the competition.  Middlesbrough currently languishing in mid-table in the Championship would not have been given a chance away at the Champions of England. But following their defeat to Arsenal last week, its now 2 losses in a row at the Etihad for Pellegrini.  The void of Yaya Toure looks to be getting more serious as time goes by.  Take nothing away from Middlesbrough, who deserved their win, and spurned several other chances to add further misery to City.

The tone for the day was set up in the early game of the day. Swansea were at Championship Blackburn. Two reds cards for the Swans saw them collapse to a 3-1 defeat at Ewood Park, having had to play most of the match with 10 men. High flying Southampton were given a shock after losing 3-2 at home to Crystal Palace, after taking the lead twice. Tottenham also managed to lose at home, a last minute winner for Leicester taking them through at the expense of Spurs.

Manchester United have been taken to a replay after failing to score past a resilient Cambridge side, and Liverpool will be taken the distance with another 90 minutes at Bolton. With Arsenal still yet to play, it could be a dark weekend for the big boys of the Premier League!

Manchester City v Arsenal - Premier League

Arsenal Finally Deliver

6-3 was the result last season at the Etihad between City and Arsenal. A foolish Arsenal side were ruthlessly taken apart by Yaya Toure & Co. in the start of a sequence of away day collapses at their major rivals.  Manchester itself has not been kind to the Gunners. Their last 7 visits in the league to the city had resulted in 6 defeats and 1 draw (including the infamous 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford). The big game mentality of Arsenal was once again under the spotlight this Sunday, and many were expecting another familiar tale of ‘Same old Arsenal’.

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1 point from 21……..

Though what we got was a major surprise, not just to Arsenal fans, but to most neutral fans as well! Taking a note from the Jose Mourinho game plan, Arsenal played with extreme discipline, reducing City to very little clear cut chances, and stealing two goals on set pieces. This was a performance that many thought Arsenal could not pull off, especially under the guidance of Arsene Wenger. Last season, the North London squad were regularly exposed, getting hit on the counter time after time, and generally falling apart before the half time bell! Manchester City may have been missing their star man , Yaya Toure away on International Duty in Africa. But the returning Sergio Aguero, and the magical David Silva were always going to pose a serious threat if left unattended. It seems that the penny has finally dropped, the game was billed as Alexis v Aguero, but it was a collective team performance by Arsenal that stood put. Man for man, every squad player in the 11 played their part.

Alexis Sanchez has been the saviour for Arsenal this season, but it was the other maestro, Santi Cazorla that stole the show. making runs and dribbles the Chilean has been associated with. Monreal, much maligned by his own fans, had an excellent game, winning the penalty, and putting in a real shift. Young Bellarin on the opposite side did not look overawed by the occasion either. The entire defence played as a unit, reducing the champions to having little look at taking the lead. There was no breaking runs from midfield, no wide gaps left to counter in. With the pace of Alexis and Chamberlain up top, Arsenal could afford to give up possession and play on the counter. As Arsenal went in at half time with a deserved lead, surely City would pile on the pressure, Arsenal could not surely last the 90 minutes with a clean sheet?

That was the case for the opening 10 minutes of so, City came out firing, but the goal just would not come, and on 70 minutes, a cheap free kick given away by Jovetic lead to the cherry on the cake. Its usually Arsenal going to sleep on set pieces, but  this time, it was the Champions not paying attention. Some slack marking lead to Giroud heading home the second. if he had not got there, the onrushing Koscielny would have surely put it away. Even with 20 minutes left, Arsenal fans never breathe easy, a quick response from City could have seen a typical Arsenal collapse. City tried to pull it back, as Chelsea appeared to pull out a possible 5 point lead over them before the FA Cup break. It never came, Arsenal had only 35% possession, the lowest since stats were collected some 10 years ago! Francis Coquelin, playing for Charlton a few months ago put in an excellent shielding performance,providing protection to that back 4, and making sure Silva never got away.

So Arsenal finally get that much valued ‘W’ at a Top 4 club, this has shown that Arsenal can play with a Plan B, when taking on a superior team head on would not be the wisest of options. But this cannot be a one off, the club must make this a regular occurrence if they are to be taken seriously any time soon. White Hart Lane and Old Trafford still remain, if they take 6 points from those 2, a change in tide may be closer than we may have thought.