The Champions League final - a guts-and-glory game to decide who is the continent's greatest football team - is nigh, and this year's edition, to be played in Madrid's Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, has all the ingredients needed for a classic tussle.
In one corner, the blue and blacks of Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan side, champions of Italy and conquerors of reigning champions Barcelona. In the other corner, the read and whites of the newly crowned champions of Germany, Bayern Munich. Led by the dominating figure of Louis Van Gaal, the Bavarian giants boast an array of talents that have them back in the race for the continental crown for the first time in nine years.
Inter too have much to feel pleased about. Mourinho has never been backwards about coming forwards, especially when telling the world about his achievements, but the diminutive Portuguese coach has taken great pride in getting his side this far.
This is a man who - despite having never played at the top level - has turned three different clubs in three different countries into champions (Porto in Portugal, Chelsea in England and Inter Milan in Italy), not to mention capturing the UEFA Cup and the Champions League title.
Passionate and always provocative, the 47-year-old has become synonymous with success, so could the current form of his side see him once again crowned king of Europe?
The football played by his Inter side has not always displayed the aesthetic beauty or the artistry of the Barcelona team he helped to defeat. But Mourinho showed, as he did previously with Porto in 2004, that a team galvanized by strength of purpose and collective will can overcome even the awesome talents of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Inter triumphed in front of 95,000 baying fans at the Camp Nou, which for a man who once worked at the club under Van Gaal was a victory to be savored.
The scene is set then for a scintillating final come May 22, when Bayern will aim to clinch their fifth European title and Inter will look to win their first final for 38 years. Two teams with a rich array of talent will lock horns in a fight that will captivate fans around the world, the battle will also pitch two coaches of vast experience against one another.
In Louis Van Gaal, Bayern have a coach who admits to "arrogance," has great tactical insight and fears absolutely no-one. And why should he? His clinched both the domestic title and cup and proved more than well-equipped for the challenge posed by United in the quarterfinals.
Van Gaal too has a career rich in silverware. The 58-year-old is a multiple champion (having previously taken Ajax and AZ Alkmaar to the Eredivisie title in Holland before clinching titles with Barcelona in Spain), not to mention having won both the UEFA Cup and Champions League in the 1990s.
The Dutchman also has coached his national side and is familiar with the pressures of managing an aggressive press and big egos; Mourinho, while familiar with the latter, has yet to test his mettle at such level. Van Gaal has been there, seen it and done it - and more importantly, he wants to do it again.
The Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid is a stage befitting the magnitude of the 2010 final of the Champions League, but it is hard to call which colossus of the game will emerge victorious from the gladiatorial battle.
Felix Magath is now just two matches away from producing a second successive Bundesliga miracle.
Magath's Schalke side are battling it out with Champions League finalists Bayern Munich to see who will be crowned 2010 German champions.
It is a position that Bayern are accustomed to.
The most successful club in German football history are attempting to win their 22nd league title, as well as a fifth European Cup. Bayern are true European heavyweights.
Bayern should really lift the title again this season. Victories over Bochum and Hertha Berlin, two clubs who look poised for relegation, will see them crowned champions due to their vastly superior goal difference.
In contrast, Schalke have a tough match against third-placed Werder Bremen, before a final day visit to Mainz. Level on points with Bayern, Schalke need a shock to happen.
Ordinarily, I would say Schalke have no chance but their coach, Felix Magath, is no ordinary leader of men.
In two seasons he transformed unheralded Wolfsburg from also-rans to champions for the first time in their history.
A club previously famed for fighting relegation, Wolfsburg - under Magath - finished fifth in his first season, before stunning the elite to win the Bundesliga title last season.
You only have to look at Wolfsburg's league position this season to really appreciate the stunning nature of what he achieved.
This is the same Felix Magath who, in his first season as Bayern Munich coach, won the league and cup double in 2004-2005, unbelievably repeating that feat the following season, the only time in German history that a club has completed successive doubles.
Now the 56-year-old, who lifted the European Cup in 1983 when captain of Hamburg, stands on the verge of marking himself down as possibly the greatest coach in German football history.
Three times in the last decade Schalke finished as Bundesliga runners-up. In fact, the Gelsenkirchen side - who dominated German football to such an extent between 1933 and 1945 they lost only six league matches in 12 years - have not lifted the title for 52 years.
Can Magath end that unwanted statistic and win his fourth Bundesliga title in six years with his third different club?
I for one hope so. What a story that would be. What a story, what a coach, what a man.
The eruptions from Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull caused chaos in Europe this week, as airspace across the continent was placed in lock down by authorities keen to stop planes being damaged by the abrasive ash plume.
The knock-on effect of this was that, for football teams and players competing in continental competition, the normal luxurious manner of traveling in chartered jet aircraft was ditched in favor of the good, old-fashioned road trip.
Soccer players and fans from Lagos to London will be familiar with cramming into a car to get to "the match," but it was something of a spectacle to see multimillionaires such as Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Hugo Lloris doing the same to reach the venue of the semifinals of the most lucrative competition in world club football.
Reigning champions Barcelona chose to make the 600 mile, 9-hour journey from the shores of the Mediterranean in Catalonia to Italian giants Inter Milan in two coaches.
Like any long road trip, this entailed various stops at service stations along the route, giving opportunity for the stars of Barca to sign autographs and mingle with surprised motorists who had not countered on meeting some of the finest and most famous footballers on the planet when they stopped to fill up with petrol.
French side Lyon opted to tackle their 500 mile trip to German city Munich in nine minibuses, a strange choice for one of the nation's top sides, but maybe they felt the smaller, nimble vehicles would be better to negotiate the narrow lanes and by-ways of the Alps. Or maybe all the coaches had been booked?
Either way, both Barcelona and Lyon were both defeated (3-1 to Inter and and 1-0 to Bayern respectively) and now face the prospect of overhauling a deficit in the second leg of the semifinals. Barcelona's defeat was something of an upset for a team touted as the best in the world, with star players such as Messi and Xavi unusually quiet over the 90 minutes.
Lyon too were lackluster and struggled to threaten the Bayern goal as much as they would have liked. Had the volcano-initiated travel sapped their verve?
Jose Mourinho certainly seemed to think so, claiming that he "had a friend in the volcano" as it had helped his side, "I am responsible for that" said the seemingly now omnipotent Special One. Maybe he is right, that modern-day players have become so used to being wrapped in cotton wool that even a small move outside their comfort zone can hamper performance.
English clubs Liverpool and Fulham may add evidence to the theory that lengthy road hauls aren't the best way to prepare for top-class football matches if they lose to opponents Atletico Madrid and Hamburg respectively in the Europa League, only time will tell.
The funny thing is that Bayern had found a way to circumvent the need for arduous journeying, if the European lock down on flights had continued, that no other club across the continent had thought of - they planned to book a helicopter.
If the German giant's football reflects their clear-minded thinking maybe we could see Louis Van Gaal's team emerging as champions this year.
The clash between Italian title holders Inter Milan and Spanish champions Barcelona in the semifinals of the European Champions League has been a mouthwatering match up, as two giants of the world game vie over 180 minutes of football to earn the privilege of an appearance in the lucrative final.
On the face of it, reigning champions Barcelona were favorites to progress. Prior to the first-leg semi, the Catalans boasted a fifteen game unbeaten streak and in star player Lionel Messi, had one of the world's best players performing at the top of his game. The manner of the Spanish side's recent victories – bar a 0-0 draw with city rivals Espanyol – had been awesome in their attacking verve and domination of possession.
In Pep Guardiola, Barcelona also have a coach who is one of the brightest rising stars in soccer. In his debut season in charge the 39-year-old captured a grand total of six trophies, three of which completed an unprecedented treble for the Camp Nou based side, when the La Liga title, the Copa Del Rey and the European Champions League title were secured in the same campaign.
The former Barca midfielder has seemingly proved to be the perfect choice to lead one of the biggest clubs in the world, his tactical outlook matching the ethos of a side traditionally famed for its attacking and aesthetically-pleasing brand of football.
As well as proving tactically astute, adept in his dealings with the media and an able motivator of men, Guardiola has not shied away from making big decisions. The move to let leading goalscorer Samuel Eto'o leave his squad as a bargaining chip in the transfer of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter, baffled many around the world – why would you give the lethal Cameroonian to a potential rival?
But Guardiola's belief was that, to maintain the momentum of the glories of last season, the head of a major figure had to roll; a demonstration that no one player was too big to sacrifice for the cause of communal progress. So far he has not been proved wrong in his thinking.
Maybe fate then had a large part to play in Barca's 3-1 defeat in the Giuseppe Meazza stadium – with the fallout from the recent volcano eruption forcing the side to travel to northern Italy by energy-sapping road rather than air – or maybe it was something else, namely a vintage performance by the master coach Jose Mourinho.
Mourinho is the chalk to Guardiola's cheese. A former winner of the Champions League with Porto, the coach who guided Inter to the Serie A title last season has been no less successful, having previously guided English Premier League side Chelsea to back-to-back titles.
Where Guardiola is open with the press Mourinho is, at times, positively hostile and notoriously provocative, displaying a Machiavellian approach to gaining any psychological edge possible over his opponents. Pep has made his name with a pressing, goal-hungry style of football which promotes creative freedom; Jose prefers prosaic defending and organized authority first from his machine-like teams. Inter maybe Italy's top-scoring side but the foundations of the team are built on not conceding.
Before being drawn together in the semis of 2010, the sides had met four times previously in European competition. Inter – aiming to make their first European Cup final in 38 years – had never scored a goal against the Spaniards let alone won a game. Despite this Mourinho masterminded a superb 3-1 victory in front of the Nerazzurri home crowd.
The tie hangs in the balance with Inter having to defend a two-goal advantage against one of the best attacking sides there is – so who will prevail Guardiola the great or Mourinho the master? Either way, the mental chess game that will be played out by two of the most intriguing coaches in the game will prove fascinating.
Everyone can learn from an act of sportsmanship. And golfer Brian Davis gets the gold medal so far this year for his example.
Henry, you might remember, infamously and knowingly, handballed during a game against Ireland that possibly cost them a spot in the World Cup finals.
The ref missed it, Henry didn’t call it despite the Ireland team’s outcries and France went on to secure a spot.
The ref also missed Englishman Davis clipping a reed at the Verizon Heritage during his backswing in a play-off with Jim Furyk.
Without getting too technical the incident cost him a two stroke penalty and had he not called himself it more than likely would have gone unnoticed. Only slow motion television pictures picked up the foul.
It was an inspiring act of sportsmanship that upholds the core values of golf – honesty and integrity no matter what is at stake.
Henry suffered a huge backlash but Davis has been warmly embraced by his fellow pros for the sacrifice.
Davis’s act should be used as example for school children and aspiring athletes of what should be done and how those of you will react under such circumstances.
Then they should observe the Henry incident and take note too.
I have met Davis a few times before he headed to America and I am not surprised he called himself out as he is a genuine sportsman and gentleman.
It surprises me that he hasn’t won on the PGA Tour after six years of trying but with this act he has won massive credit for himself and the sport.
Sadly it’s a rare thing to see across all platforms these days.
I don’t want to say ‘ I told you so” but late last year I confidently blogged Phil Mickelson would be the main man when it comes to 2010.
All the hype at last week’s Masters predictably surrounded Tiger Woods and in my view that was just fine by Phil! As Woods struggled awkwardly and at times nervously in front of the world’s media, “Lefty” was able to quietly go about his business with little fuss and to quite devastating effect by week’s end!
With one major down and another three to go this year, I stand more than ever by my convictions.
As the personable Californian approaches his 40th birthday, I honestly feel he’s about to embark on what we could all one day look back on as his golden years.
I sense the next three to four years will be ones of huge opportunity for Mickelson and more pertinently, I’m certain he does too.
Woods is far from being a spent force of course and while his time will certainly come again, there’s no doubt in my view - for reasons well documented - he’s making hard work of surpassing the record feats of the game’s all-time leading player Jack Nicklaus.
There may well once have been a time when what Tiger did - or didn’t do - was of concern to Phil. Those days are long gone.
Come next April, Woods will be seeking his first green jacket in six barren years while his Ryder Cup team-mate will be going all out for his fourth since 2004.
Quite simply, Phil now knows he can stare down his compatriot face to face and emerge top dog. Just look at what’s happened the last three times they’ve both competed in the same field.
Mickelson blew Tiger away with ease in the final round at East Lake last year at the Tour Championship, romped to victory in China and was never seriously threatened by him at any point at Augusta.
The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach looms large on the horizon. In short, it’s an event Mickelson is desperate to win.
He has the most unwanted of records when it comes to the season’s second major with five runner-up finishes including last year at Bethpage but I really do feel the man with 38 PGA Tour successes to his name is primed to shatter that undesirable stat.
Woods fans will doubtless point to the fact their man was so dominant the last time the Open was played at Pebble Beach, when he won by 15 shots, but they should be reminded Phil is hardly a novice on that track having won on it no less than three times himself!
If “lefty” can take a first U.S. Open come June, may I be so bold as to ask what might the odds on a Mickel-slam be this season? On curent form, don’t rule it out!
As a Liverpool fan, it’s very easy to blame George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks for the current position of the club I love. But is it fair?
Gillett and Hicks have owned the club for just over three years. In that time, Liverpool have won nothing; success in the second-tier Europa League this season would represent the owners’ first trophy during their time in charge. Liverpool have been knocked out of the Champions League at an earlier stage each successive season under their ownership, and currently lie sixth in the English Premier League— well off the final Champions League spot, let alone the title race.
Soon after they took over, manager Rafael Benitez challenged them to spend big in order to catch up with Manchester United and Chelsea. That summer, they broke the club record to buy Fernando Torres. In all, they bought six players in three years for over $15 million:
That is not a bad record by any means. But those big buys stand in contrast to times where the manager has not been able to spend what he’d like.
After Benitez hinted in 2007 that he’d like them to open their wallets to spend in the January transfer window, Tom Hicks lashed out publicly at his manager, telling him to “quit talking about new players”.
And there are the times Benitez was told he had to sell before he could buy. The best example came in the summer of 2008: Benitez had to sell Xabi Alonso to fund the purchase of Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry. Alonso’s transfer to Juventus fell through — and Liverpool never met Villa’s asking price for Barry. By the time Alonso was finally sold to Real Madrid the next summer, Barry had already moved to Manchester City.
Was the manager given enough financial support by the owners? It’s hard to say. He’s certainly had money to spend on major players, but his record in the transfer market has been criticized — Alberto Aquilani hasn’t found a consistent place in the team, while Ryan Babel has endured a troubled few seasons at the club and Robbie Keane was sold just six months after his arrival. But the fact remains that Liverpool do still lag behind their rivals in the transfer market. As Benitez pointed out: United can even afford to have Zoran Tosic, a player worth $18 million, out on loan.
While it’s true Liverpool have gone backwards in Europe — from the final in 2007, to the semifinals in 2008, to the quarterfinals in 2009, to the group stage this season — until this season there has been progress in the Premiership. Liverpool were 21 points behind the champions in 2007. That gap was sliced to 11 the following season. And last season was Liverpool’s finest in the Premier League, pushing Manchester United right to the end of a title race that Liverpool actually led for most of the season.
It’s hard to blame this season’s poor performance on boardroom instability when frosty relations between Gillett and Hicks are scarcely any different to the last — and last season Liverpool finished second.
What it comes down to at the end of the day is the new stadium. Or to be precise, the lack of one. The stadium project has been revised and delayed so many times I can’t find a proper timeline listing all the twists and turns it has taken. Not that it matters: the bottom line is that the new stadium does not yet exist. We have no idea when it will be built and who will pay for it. In that sense we are no further towards a new stadium than we were when the Hicks and Gillett took over — and they took over on the promise of building a new stadium.
Don’t mistake me for an apologist for Hicks and Gillett. The bottom line is that Liverpool have not won anything under the two owners. Gillett and Hicks make a good scapegoat — but to blame them entirely would be unfair.
The tennis season is nearly four months old and little appears to have changed in the established order at the top of the men's game.
Roger Federer won the first grand slam of the season with a straight sets victory over Andy Murray, while Rafael Nadal is slowly working his way back to his best form and watch for him on the clay at Roland Garros.
But this was supposed to be the year when one of the young pretenders such as Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro and Novak Djokovic finally stepped up to the plate and ushered in a new era of dominance.
Murray's recent disastrous form is the most perplexing, crashing out in the quarters at Indian Wells, losing his Miami Masters crown, followed by a disastrous opening match defeat at the Monte Carlo Masters, three straight losses, his worst run since 2006.
The Scot, refreshingly honest, described his loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber as "rubbish" but instead of moving up the rankings he is going in the opposite direction.
While doubts remain over several aspects of Murray's game, noticeably his second serve, the same could be said about Djokovic, who told CNN's Open Court that he wanted to be world number one then promptly lost early at Indian Wells and Miami.
A successful defense of his Dubai Open crown is a slim return in 2010 to date and the popular Serbian has reacted by parting company with one of his coaches, Todd Martin, who was reportedly hired to remodel his service.
By a quirk of the rankings, Djokovic has risen to world number two, but has failed to add to his sole grand slam triumph at the Australian Open in 2008 after which he promised to sweep all before him.
To be fair to Del Potro, the lanky Argentine has been troubled by a wrist injury, but it could not be used as an excuse for his quarterfinal defeat to Marin Cilic at the Australian Open.
Having inflicted a rare grand slam final reverse on Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last September, the force appeared to be with him, but like all the challengers to the Swiss maestro, their efforts have petered out.
Even Nadal, who reduced Fed to tears of frustration on his way to a hat-trick of grand slams in 2008, has been halted in his tracks by nasty knee injuries which reduced him to a pale shadow of his former self.
Which leaves Federer, who now seems to care little about tournaments outside the grand slams, but reserves his best for when it really matters, like the semifinals and finals of this year's Australian Open.
With 16 grand slams and counting, he could afford to rest on his laurels, but while his challengers offer such an inconsistent threat the 28-year-old is making hay while the sun still shines.
It's just a pity that Murray and Djokovic in particular seem incapable of matching their incredible talent with grand slams while the likes of Andy Roddick have been scarred by too many defeats at the hands of super-Fed.
Investment is always something of a gamble, with profits and riches dependent on the fate and vicissitudes of an often volatile market.
The American investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet should know a thing or two about it, having accrued a personal wealth of $47 billion dollars (according to Forbes Magazine) through shrewd stock market shopping and selling.
"Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful," is Buffet's mantra; so will Stan Kroenke take his compatriot's advice by taking ownership of English Premier League side Arsenal?
There is good reason to be fearful. Fellow Americans Malcolm Glazer, George Gillett and Tom Hicks saw England's top division as a great area in which to expand their portfolio, as broadcasting money and global demand saw the league grow to one of the most lucrative in world sport.
But Glazer's ownership of Manchester United, and Hicks and Gillett's tenure at Liverpool has seen both parties struggle with copious debt and subsequent fan unrest. The global economic downturn has hit the league hard, exposing the problem of too many clubs who have borrowed too much money in the pursuit of success; crisis-hit Portsmouth being the prime example. The bubble built on boom has, to a degree, burst.
The league that was once so lucrative now looks less of a sound option for surplus, a fact that could see Kroenke - who as a 29.9 Arsenal stakeholder is just ten shares short of forcing a takeover of one of England's most successful sides - bulk at pushing through the move.
If he chose to be "greedy" he may swoop soon as Nina Bracewell-Smith, owner of a 15.9 percent stake in the London club, announced she is keen to sell this week. This could pave the way for the man known as "Silent Stan" to cash in when the price is relatively low.
Kroenke - who already owns the NBA's Denver Nuggets, the NHL's Colorado Avalanche and the MLS's Colorado Rapids - has pedigree in making money from sport franchises and could see Randy Lerner's popular acquisition of Aston Villa as a reason for optimism.
Arsenal, led by their prudent manager Arsene Wenger, have a a good record of dealings in the transfer market too, they consistently qualify for the cash-cow European Champions League and through their 60,000-seater home stadium have a bankable asset for making consistent profits at the turnstiles to reduce their debt.
So will Kroenke be tempted? The next few weeks could be crucial, but it's worth remembering the 62-year-old has been in prime position to buy for some time now. An intriguing development of Kroenke's attempt to take his holdings in the St Louis Rams American football team from 40 percent to 100 – an announcement that was also made earlier this week – is that NFL rules dictate he would have to sell his ownership of the Nuggets and the Avalanche.
If this rule is enforced, and it looks likely it will be, Kroenke would be cash-rich and looking for a place to spend ...
Come on. Admit it. When you saw Phil Mickelson embrace his cancer-suffering wife Amy after clinching a third Masters title, you had a tear in your eye didn’t you? Or at least a lump in your throat, surely?
After the endless stream of copy and airtime about Tiger Woods’ off-course “distractions”, here was a player who really had something other than golf to worry about.
Tiger’s performance, in his first tournament for five months, was erratic and impressive but it didn’t tell us anything new about him. We already knew he was a genius golfer. That’s why he’s the world number one.
But there is something even more compelling about the way Mickelson plays the game. Officially, his nickname is “Lefty,” but there are less flattering alternatives that paint the Californian as shallow and arrogant.
I don’t see that. I’ve only interviewed him once, many years ago, and I agree he’s sure of himself. He knows he has a special talent for the game and he’ll back himself against anyone, anytime, on any course.
Often in his career, he has fallen short of his own lofty expectations of himself. That’s why he was the “best-player-without-a-major” for so long but Mickelson bounced back – like a dog refusing to give up his favorite ball.
During the final round at Augusta, Phil looked like a man possessed, spraying the ball everywhere, lashing at every shot; a swash-buckling cavalier wielding his clubs like weapons.
Yet, when you look at his scorecard you’ll see he didn’t drop a single shot – truly astonishing. And the commentators are right to highlight Phil’s second to the par-5 13th. Down the years, this has been less a golf hole and more a graveyard for the hopes of prospective champions – their dreams drowned in Rae’s creek.
His ball was on pine needles. He was facing a narrow gap between the trees and the water in front of the green. But Mickelson still went for it. He always does.
And this time, his sheer joy for the game of golf didn’t hurt him. It rewarded him, with the joy of another major triumph. A joy that not only lifted his heart but also, for a short while, let the whole Mickelson family forget the other battles they are fighting.