Saturday 30 April 2011

Too Stark for Andy Townsend

Wolfgang Stark

Andy Townsend was eating with ITV colleague Adrian Chiles when he ran into Madrid fans, angry after seeing their side lose 2-0 to Barcelona and Pepe and Jose Mourinho controversially sent off.

"I went into a restaurant and was eating when I noticed people looking at me," said Townsend "Some of them started taking pictures and then someone came and gave me a pot plant, saying, 'This is for you' with a funny look on his face.

"There were 10 of us around the table thinking, ‘'What is going on here?’ When I stood up I got booed and when I went to the loo I got followed there and back. A waiter escorted me to my seat. I didn’t know why.

"Then people came up to me, talking aggressively in Spanish and there was a man shouting at me from the other side of the restaurant. It was all getting out of control.

"Then it dawned on me. Because I still had my UEFA accreditation around my neck they thought I was the referee. To them I was Wolfgang Stark, so I had to turn around and tell them I was from English television."

Townsend, a former Chelsea and Aston Villa player, blamed Jose Mourinho for stirring up Madrid fans to the point of frenzy. "There’s a sinister edge to it," he said.

"The crowd were baying for the referee’s blood. They totally saw the referee as the villain of the piece.

"As ITV were going off air there was actually a fight going on in front of me in the stadium — two men were exchanging blows. And these were the decent seats.

"I witnessed first-hand the effect Mourinho has on fans. I wouldn’t want to see him back in England."

Friday 29 April 2011

Mourinho's Dark Influence on Madrid

The Special One will need a miracle in the return leg of the Champions League fixture with Barcelona and trailing by two away goals a trip to the Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia cathedral just down the road from Camp Nou may not be enough – unless Real Madrid can produce a miracle. Despite an impressive record in the Champions League in recent years following wins with Porto and Inter Milan, and laying the groundwork for Chelsea to reach the final in 2008, Jose Mourinho may have been undone on Wednesday night at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu by his own mind games and obstinate self belief. 

The Real team of this season does not enjoy the same skilled back four that helped Inter win the trophy last season where the experience of Lucio, athleticism of Maicon, doggedness of Milito and Cambiasso established the platform for the Mourinho Method. Although Madrid possess midfielders in abundance and attacking flair, the success of all Mourinho teams has been a rock solid defense, all at the sacrifice of style and beauty when needed. It is an element that undid Celtic in the Cup winner's cup final in Sevilla some years ago, was the feature of the Double winning Chelsea team in 2005 where John Terry directed operations, and of his Italian side last year that beat Bayern in the final – and Barcelona in the semi-final with Messi nullified completely. 

Albeit it the team also benefited from the skills, dead ball wizardry and sheer industry of Wesley Sneijder who has a work rate that few can match. 

Despite a season of records at Real Madrid with lengthy unbeaten runs in la Liga and the lowest goals conceded in the Champions League Mourinho has failed to shore up the back four at the Bernabeu with the combination of Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Carvalho and Marcelo being the most consistent. However, in many a game the slowing Ricardo Carvalho has been found wanting, the galloping runs of Ramos come at a price of red cards and free kicks as he too often has to race back into position, with Pepe always too eager to commit and falling to stay on his feet, and Marcelo relying on his speed to overcome some of his defensive frailties. Against Barcelona the proven formation saw two changes as Carvalho was suspended and Pepe was pushed forward to crowd out the midfield and watch out for Lionel Messi when he made his moves on the edge of the box. 

In the end the tactic failed as two moments of individual magic from the diminutive Argentina Maestro, Lionel Messi, were enough to give the visiting Barcelona a two goal cushion as Madrid were unable to deliver service to their strike force, even when Adebayor replaced Oezil in the second-half. 

Indeed for the most of the game Cristiano Ronaldo was too deep for the ball as Real found it increasingly difficult to reclaim possession from Barcelona, and when they did so the natural pressing game of Pep Guardiola’s charges was successfully delivered through Pedro, Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Keita making it very arduous for the Madrid playmakers to establish any offensive rhythm. As the game wore it soon looked like the home side were in red and blue, with the visitors in all white strip desperately seeking a draw. Unused during the ninety minutes were the strike force of Karim Benzema, Kaka and Gonzalo Higuain. Begging the question as to what was Mourinho’s master plan? 

In a niggly match filled with superfluous simulation, badly judged tackles and much ill-will, Mourinho set another record as for the third time in four encounters this season with Barcelona his team finished the game with only ten men. Last November in the first of the seasons’ “El Clasico’s” it was Sergio Ramos who took the early shower in the Camp Nou, the La Liga encounter last week it was Albiol and then Pepe in the Champions League first leg this week. Whatever the measure of this Real Madrid team, trying to beat Barcelona with ten men is nigh on impossible as the results clearly show, as the La Liga was a scrambled draw at home, they were hammered 5-0 in the first Clasico away and then lost by two goals in the Champions League on home soil. 

In the Copa del Rey final however, a week before the match this week, with eleven players on the field, Madrid managed to beat Barcelona 1-0, thanks to a header from Ronaldo. 

Although Mourinho claimed, tongue in cheek, in one pre-match press conferences that the Real Madrid team train as ten men ahead of each Barcelona fixture, it is clear that it is not a formula for success. Nor does it offer an attractive sporting spectacle. Indeed, the legacy of this Champions League semi final first leg will not be a good one and for different reasons to the one sided affair on Tuesday night at the Veltins Arena when Schalke-04 surrendered meekly to the power of Manchester United. 

As with all his pre-match mind games, Jose Mourinho inevitably over indulges prior to all his big games and this time he may have just over cooked things. Not only for Guardiola, who clearly took exception to some of the build up, but also for Real Madrid who played on the night with a sense of restriction and burden that did not suit the players it appeared – particularly Ronaldo. The fact it did not bring the right result either will now reignite the doubts whether the Mourinho Method fits with the heritage of Real Madrid as this season looks set to finish with only the Copa del Rey in the trophy cabinet – albeit after a 17 year wait 

The omens were not good prior to that final anyway with Alfredo di Stefano letting lose a broadside as to the style of play adopted by The Special One ahead of the match in Valencia, and the win may have only silenced the critics momentarily. When the trophy was squashed under the bus during the victory parade in Madrid in the early hours of Thursday morning the signs did not look any better either. Nor did the images of Mourinho ejected from the side line in the semi-final on Wednesday night at the Bernabeu, help his support amongst his detractors within the club. 

No doubt the marketing guru’s at Real Madrid will now have worries too over the coming days as they try to keep sponsors and faced with another season in which Barcelona will win La Liga – and could also very well reclaim the Champions League at Wembley in May, which they last won in 2009. On the footballing side, Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid General Manager, will no doubt resurrect his concerns about Mourinho with club President Florentino Perez, only adding to the sense of isolation for the manager – an environment in which he consistently seems to revel wherever he works. 

In the short term though there is a La Liga fixture at the weekend, followed by Tuesday’s visit to Camp Nou for the second leg, with Guardiola expecting the return of a number of players and Mourinho fielding a side without Sergio Ramos, for a second yellow card and Pepe for the red card. Having lost to Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side last year at the same stage - beaten over two legs - Guardiola will be keen to settle the score on the field of play. The feigned animosity so cultivated by Mourinho may be drowned out on the larger Barcelona pitch, which allows for the football style so embedded by Johan Cruyff over the decades at the club, with the return of Andres Iniesta surely adding further to Guardiola’s armoury. 

In contrast Mourinho returns to a stadium where he worked for a short time under the late Sir Bobby Robson and a place he has courted much controversy over the years in the Champions League. Not least during the reign of Frank Rijkaard when he arrived with Chelsea in match that ended rather nastily after Mourinho accused Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard of going into referee Anders Frisk's room at half-time during the Champions League clash in 2005, in which Didier Drogba was controversially sent off. At the time his remarks earned him a two-match touchline ban. Frisk, meanwhile, was hounded into an early retirement. 

One would hope that the enforced post match media silence imposed by UEFA after the first leg will be a salutary reminder to all that the primary interest should be football and the on field behaviour. What passed in the first leg over the ninety minutes seemed to lose sight of that fact and Mourinho needs to remember that priority if e is to have any chance at Camp Nou on Tuesday. So he must unleash his team to play football. 

If he is any doubt all he needs to do is remember the deft touches of Lionel Messi at the Bernabeu that proved Real Madrid’s undoing and offered two memorable moments in an otherwise turgid a Champions League semi-final as there has ever been. 

Thanks Lionel for those two beautiful moments! 

Optimum Sports ©

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Luis Figo Expects Mixed Emotions

Luis Figo

The UEFA Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid CF and FC Barcelona is set to capture the imagination of the footballing world, yet for one man this mouthwatering tie will provoke a unique range of emotions.

Luís Figo is one of those few players who excelled for both clubs during his glittering playing career, winning a pair of Liga titles and a European trophy with each. His switch from Barcelona to the Santiago Bernabéu in 2000 remains one of the most talked-about transfers in history, arousing a combination of disbelief in Catalonia and joy in the capital. Including the pulsating UEFA Champions League semi-final contest in 2001/02, the former Portugal captain has been involved in more than his share of memorable Clásicos.

Nobody therefore is better placed to evoke the modern-day rivalry than the 38-year-old. With the first leg taking place in Madrid on Wednesday, Figo told why he expects the latest heavyweight bout to be every bit as intense as the ones he featured in. "These are matches that will always be remembered," he said.

"They take place every year but they're remembered due to the history behind the fixture. There's a great rivalry between these clubs for football and also social reasons. That's why the rivalry is so big, but it's important to stress that it's only a football match and people need to look at it in that sense. The stronger team on the day will win."

But who is that team? Might Barcelona reproduce the dazzling football that sealed a 5-0 league win against José Mourinho's team in November, or has Madrid's victory in the recent Copa del Rey final given them the edge? "I don't think the past games will have an impact," Figo reflected.

"You can't think back to what happened in previous matches, you have to think about the next one. They are both coming into this semi-final very strongly. I think they're the two best teams in the world at the moment. That's why this UEFA Champions League semi-final will go down in the history of football."

When Figo's Madrid triumphed over Barcelona at the same stage nine years ago, they went on to claim European club football's most coveted prize for a record ninth time, defeating Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the final. Back then, Vicente del Bosque's team were regarded as the most glamorous team around with such talents as Figo, Ronaldo, Zinédine Zidane and Roberto Carlos. Times have changed, however. Josep Guardiola's tyros have won the last two Spanish titles and they are now the ones attracting plaudits worldwide for their attractive, passing style.

Figo, who retired in 2009 after four seasons with FC Internazionale Milano, expressed admiration for the current Barça side and admitted Madrid's route to Wembley is an extremely difficult one. "I think Barcelona play the better football at the moment," the 2000 Ballon d'Or winner said. "They have a very well defined philosophy, all the players have impressive skill and they know how to play together.

"Football always goes in cycles. We had some years with Madrid when we won everything. Now it seems Barcelona are doing that. It depends on the different generations. Right now, Barça have players who play fantastically well together and who know how to fit into the system. That makes them very hard to beat."

Not that Figo is leaning one way or another. He refused to offer a prediction, insisting that "making forecasts is not a good idea", but nevertheless implied that the presence of his compatriot in the Madrid dugout could swing the tie in favour of the Merengues. "José Mourinho has been very successful," explained Figo, who won two Serie A titles with Mourinho at Inter.

"His teams do well because of the way he gets them to play so I think his presence definitely will help Madrid. He's achieved a lot of victories playing in a certain way, so there is always a possibility he can continue to be successful and to win more."

Rangnick Ready for Visit of Sir Alex

Ralf Rangnick

FC Schalke 04 coach Ralf Rangnick has described his team's semi-final against Manchester United FC as the biggest game of his, and many of his players' careers. By contrast Sir Alex Ferguson pointed to his squad's experience of this stage as a cause for confidence, along with their freshness, but admitted there was always apprehension with the final just one step away.

Ralf Rangnick, Schalke coach
"Nothing will be decided tomorrow. We know Manchester are much better organised than Inter, so it will not be as easy for us to score. We have to try to be compact as well. A close result will leave everything open for the return leg in Manchester.

We know United have lots of attacking players at their disposal, especially on the wings; there will be at least five attacking players in their lineup, six if you count [Patrice] Evra. We have to find a good balance between defence and attack.

Who knows how many of these players will play in a match like this in the coming years? The same goes for me. This is my biggest game so far judging by the attention it is getting in general and from the media. Surely, over the course of these two games, Manchester have more to lose than us. We have to stay focused but also enjoy this.

Sir Alex Ferguson has won more games and titles at this level, but United will have a very experienced team, much as Inter did. Our team is a bit younger and hopefully hungrier to make up for their lack of experience. Our passion and discipline has helped us against Inter and I hope it will do so again against United."

Sir Alex Ferguson, United manager
"Wayne Rooney's form has been fantastic these last two months but the most important thing for us is the freshness has come into the team in the last few weeks with players coming back like [Antonio] Valencia, [Rio] Ferdinand, Anderson and Park Ji-Sung.

In terms of the quality of the team, you saw it on Saturday again that this is a team that will not give in, there is absolutely no chance this team will ever give in and that's a great quality.

I think the present group have enough experience now in Europe, it is where we should be. The expectation from my point of view has always been high as regards the European scene, because you do get envious of other clubs' record in Europe and we are trying to come to parity with that – in other words, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Liverpool, and we need to progress quickly to get to that level again.

You always get apprehensive at this stage of the competition. We've had this situation over the years. [When] we played Barcelona away from home in the first leg [in 2008] and got the result we wanted, in the second leg the last two minutes were absolute agony. Semi-finals are never easy.

[On seeing Schalke against Inter] The first thing is they never looked like losing the game, and that is quite a credit to them given the experience of Inter. There was never any stage where I thought they were going to lose that match, most of the time they were in complete control and even in the good moments Inter had they dealt with it easily. It was a good impression."

For Schalke Benedikt Höwedes is struggling to be fit after sitting out much of Monday training with a stomach strain, though Rangnick is hopeful Kyriakos Papadopoulos (calf) and Peer Kluge (abdominal muscle strain) will be fit. Mario Gavranović (ankle) has missed recent games while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (knee), Christoph Moritz (knee) and Christian Pander (toe, cold) are longer-term absentees.

United have confirmed that striker Dimitar Berbatov will not feature on Tuesday having failed to recover from the groin problem that meant the Bulgarian sat out his side's last two Premier League games. Midfielders Darren Fletcher and Owen Hargreaves are also missing, along with Bébé and reserve goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, prompting a call-up for Sam Johnstone, 18, as third-choice keeper. John O'Shea also made the flight to Germany despite carrying a knock.

Contempomi Stade Francais Bound

Felipe Contepomi

Felipe Contepomi of Toulon and Argetina will be reunited with coach Michael Cheika at Stade Francais next season, according to reports in France.

Contepomi, who joined Toulon in 2009, is believed to have agreed a deal to head to Paris to rejoin former Leinster coach Cheika, under whom he won the Heineken Cup in the same year.

Capable at both fly-half and inside centre, Contepomi is the ideal replacement for Stade Francais fly-half Lionel Beauxis, who is leaving for Toulouse.

The deal is thought to be part of a swap with France centre Mathieu Bastareaud, who still has two years left on his contract with Stade Francais.

With Matt Giteau heading to Toulon and Jonny Wilkinson still on top of his game, Contepomi's role at the club has been largely limited, as was expected.

Rumours in the French press have also linked Toulon's Paul Sackey with a move to the French capital as the former England winger's contract will not be renewed at the end of the season.

How Do United Replace Van der Sar ?

Edwin Van der Sar

Sir Alex Ferguson jokingly replied "I don't know" in his best German when asked by a local journalist about his reported interest in signing FC Schalke 04 goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, yet behind the smiles lay a more serious question: namely, how the Scot will replace Edwin van der Sar this summer?

Manchester United FC's UEFA Champions League challenge this term has been founded on a strong defence with the Premier League leaders yet to concede on their travels and Van der Sar, as assured as ever at the age of 40, has been key to that effort.

The Dutch keeper, who will retire at the season's end, belied his years once more on Saturday during United's 1-0 home win against Everton FC, pulling off a fingertip save to deny visiting midfielder Jack Rodwell with the game goalless. That stop helped United secure a success that leaves them on the cusp of another domestic title, one that would mean Van der Sar bowing out with a fourth Premier League winner's medal to add to the same number won with AFC Ajax.

And he might yet end his final season in the UEFA Champions League as he did his first in the competition back in 1994/95 – by holding the club game's most cherished trophy aloft. It is an enticing prospect for Van der Sar but, ahead of his seventh UEFA Champions League semi-final, he showed a down-to-earth attitude befitting a native of the Low Countries as he reflected on the final straight of his long sporting journey.

Playing down the suggestion he might be tempted to reconsider his decision to retire, he said: "I don't know, I am just enjoying it. It is always nice when you are involved in a winning team, and that's what we've done a lot lately. Hopefully we can keep on doing that these last couple of game we have to play this season. I've had a reasonable career so far and let's hope we can finish if off nicely."

Saying Van der Sar, United's 2008 final shoot-out hero, has had a "reasonable career" is like suggesting Raúl González is a half-decent striker and the meeting of these two golden oldies – greats of the modern UEFA Champions League era – could provide an intriguing subplot to tomorrow's action.

Raúl González has scored 71 UEFA Champions League goals, but he has never put the ball past Van der Sar in the competition. The pair met back in autumn 1995 when the keeper kept a pair of clean sheets for Ajax in two group stage victories against the Real Madrid CF of an 18-year-old Raúl.

Sixteen years on, the pair will face off again and Van der Sar hailed his contemporary when he warned United's defenders would have to be at their vigilant best to contain the threat of the 33-year-old, whose five goals have helped propel Schalke to their first semi-final.

"What I think about Raúl is he's quite an amazing player of course," said Van der Sar, who has 53 UEFA Champions League shut-outs to his name. "He played so many years at Real Madrid at a high level and he scored all those goals in the league for them and of course is the top scorer in the Champions League. He is not someone you can take your eye off because he is so dangerous and only needs a little chance to score a goal, our defence will have to be on their toes when they play against him."

Raul Has Good Record Against United


Raúl scored four UEFA Champions League goals in three games against United for Real Madrid. He appeared in both matches of Madrid's quarter-final win in 1999/2000, striking twice in the 3-2 second-leg success in Manchester that secured an identical aggregate victory. 

Raúl hit two more when Madrid beat United 3-1 at the Santiago Bernabéu in a quarter-final first leg in 2002/03. Giggs and Paul Scholes lined up against Raúl in both of those seasons, while Wes Brown and Rio Ferdinand faced the Spaniard in 2003/03. 

Both times Raúl went on to earn a winners' medal.

Monday 25 April 2011

Neuer Ready For Manchester United

Manuel Neuer

A ball boy in the 2004 final in Gelsenkirchen, FC Schalke 04's Manuel Neuer is relishing the chance to face a Manchester United FC side in which "the team is the star" on Tuesday.

The last time Gelsenkirchen hosted such an important UEFA Champions League match, Manuel Neuer was a wide-eyed ball boy soaking up the atmosphere as FC Porto triumphed over AS Monaco FC in the 2004 final.

The Germany No1 will take centre stage on Tuesday, however, when FC Schalke 04 entertain Manchester United FC in the first leg of their semi-final tie.

So much has happened to Neuer in the last seven years, it would be understandable if the 25-year-old struggled to recall the details of Porto's big night in the Ruhr region, but the experience remain etched in his mind. "I was standing right on the pitch," Neuer told "Back then it was a dream for me to be able to be at that match. Now it's a dream for me to be playing in the semi-finals."

Inspiring your hometown club to a place in the last four for the first time is indeed the stuff of fairy tales. Yet there was nothing tender about the ruthless manner in which Schalke eliminated holders FC Internazionale Milano in the quarter-finals, winning 5-2 away before securing a 2-1 home victory.

"It was certainly surprising, especially after we fell behind after only 20 seconds and then later went 2-1 down," reflected Neuer, who debuted in 2006 and has made more than 150 league appearances for Schalke. "Nobody thought we could score five at San Siro. Our fans had faith in us but I don't think they believed we'd go through in the way we did."

Despite their heroics in Milan, Ralf Rangnick's charges are still seen by most as outsiders in a formidable semi-final lineup. Neuer, however, is not worried about their underdog status – "we enjoyed playing that role against Inter" – and is relishing the opportunity to measure himself against the likes of Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández.

"I have respect for those players but I'm not afraid of them," said the international, capped 20 times by Germany. "I've already played against Rooney once, in the [2010 FIFA] World Cup [round of 16], and it ended positively for Germany. I hope it'll be similar against Manchester United."

Neuer is nevertheless wary of the three-time European champions. He feels collective strength, rather than individual flair, is the English club's biggest weapon. "They have many good players," he explained. "There is the experience of Ryan Giggs and Edwin van der Sar. I was a big fan of Van der Sar when I was growing up, but you can't just pick out one player. The team is the star at Manchester United. I have to say I really like the way they play."

While United bank on the experience of Giggs and Van der Sar, the Bundesliga outfit will turn to their own iconic figure. Raúl González has rolled back the years this season and, according to Neuer, the predatory striker has been an inspiration in their European campaign.

"He has so much experience and he's very important for us in these games," he said of the 33-year-old Spaniard. "Raúl has great statistics in the Champions League. He scores a goal every two games – so he'll definitely score against Manchester United."

David O'Leary Finished at Al-Ahli

Al-Ahli Football Club have this week sacked manager David O'Leary only eight months into his tenure in Dubai, after the former Leeds and Aston Villa boss only managed to win six of his 15 league games in charge.

The futy two year old O'Leary joined Al-Ahli last August as the UAE league side aimed to increase their profile and attract larger crowds.

The Dubai club also secured a massive coup when they signed Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning captain Fabio Cannavaro, but they have been unable to mount a title challenge.

O'Leary had become increasingly unpopular among the club's fans after suffering back-to-back losses against rivals Al-Wasl in February.

The former Arsenal and Ireland defender leaves Al-Ahli seventh in the league table and the club have named former Al-Ain manager Abdul Hamid Al Mistaki as caretaker coach.

"We have decided to sack David O'Leary and his assistant Roy Aitken and now Ahmad Al Mistaki who was coaching Al Ain will take over until the season finishes, after that we will decide on how to take things forward," Al-Ahli media officer Fekry Ibrahim said.

"It wasn't going too well with O'Leary and the board took a decision to end his contract. Ahmad has been at training and knows the boys, so the club is looking forward to working with him now."

Though he has struggled himself with Al-Ain, who have been battling at the foot of the table despite finishing third last season, Al Mistaki insistsed he is confident of doing a good job for his new employers.

"I'm not a stranger to Al-Ahli club and neither I am a stranger to the players. I have known many of them because of my previous job with the academy. Ahli is a club I have followed for long. I have big ambitions for Al Ahli until the end of the year. We want to go higher in the league and get to a better position and we have a clear vision.

"I have a team that is talented and the ball now is in the players' court. We have to change our results and work together to achieve victories. We have a few good players in the side and we need to focus. Ahli have worked hard, but if we concentrate over the next few games, it will be good for us."

UCD Travel to Hunky Dory Park Monday

UCD AFC travel to Hunky Dory Park on Monday night to face off against Drogheda United in what is the first of two fixtures in seven days. 

Monday night’s game is a second round EA Cup fixture with both sides desperately looking to build momentum. The two sides may be struggling in the league, only two places and three points separating them, but a win tonight would be a massive confidence booster for next weeks league meeting between the two sides in the Belfield Bowl, a potential relegation six pointer. 

UCD have enjoyed the most recent success in the EA Sports cup reaching the final twice in the last ten years, most recently in 2005 when they lost 2-1 to Derry City. Drogheda United went a step further in 1984 when in their solitary final they beat Athlone Town 3-1. 

Sean Russell will be included in an otherwise unchanged UCD squad that took on Shamrock Rovers on Friday night, Cillian Morrison remains out with an ankle problem. 

When asked about the game Martin Russell said: “It’s a good competition, and we will be looking to go as far as we can. We will continue to try and play our football, as we did against Shamrock Rovers. We will be looking to play some decent football and hopefully that will take us into the last eight."

Saturday 23 April 2011

Ireland XV U-18 to play France

Rory Scholes of Ireland [Courtesy IRFU]

The Ireland Under-18 Schools team, sponsored by PwC, to play England in the final of the FIRA-AER Under-18 European Championship in Tarbes on Saturday has been named.

Ireland head coach Terry McMaster has made five changes to the team that won through the final by beating hosts France 19-17 at the semi-final stage last weekend. There are four changes in personnel and one positional switch.

Donagh Lawler moves from the second row into the back row in place ofMark Best, with Gavin Thornbury taking up the vacancy left by Lawler at lock.

Stuart Olding comes into the team at out-half in place of Rory Scannell, who has been included among the replacements.

Mark Roche has been promoted from the bench to take the left wing berth, with Cian O'Halloran losing out. The final change sees Rory Scholes named at full-back in place ofJack Fitzpatrick.

Commenting on the game, McMaster said: "The result last weekend was really down to the level of effort that the boys put in and we were delighted to edge a tight game, but we also feel that there is still another level that we can move to and improve.

"It will take exactly that if we are to be successful against what is a good England side. They were strong in the contact area and in the set piece in their game against Wales and prepared to run as well, so it's a challenge across the park.

"We have made a few changes to the side and it is more a reflection of the strength of the panel and also freshening things up for the particular challenge that England will bring.

"The change in the second row is probably to give us a little bit more aerial capability as England were particularly strong there.

"The boys coming into the backs have all been training well and contributing as part of the squad, so I thought it was a good opportunity to bring them in and it certainly won't change the level of quality we need to bring against England.

"There has been great support from the locals and also the travelling parents, but it also great that people back home will be able to see the game as it is going to be live on television."

Saturday's Championship decider will be broadcast live on Eurosport 2. Coverage begins at 5.30pm.

IRELAND UNDER-18 SCHOOLS Team & Replacements (v England Under-18s, FIRA-AER U-18 European Championship final, Stade Maurice Trelut, Tarbes, Saturday, April 23, kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time):

15 - Rory Scholes (Campbell College)
14 - Conor McEllin (Blackrock College)
13 - Robert Henshaw (Marist College, Athlone)
12 - Chris Farrell (Campbell College)
11 - Mark Roche (Blackrock College)
10 - Stuart Olding (Belfast Royal Academy)
9 - Luke McGrath (St. Michael's College) (capt)
1 - Gordon Frayne (Clongowes Wood College)
2 - Bryan Byrne (Clongowes Wood College)
3 - Edward Byrne (Clongowes Wood College)
4 - Jerry Sexton (St. Mary's College)
5 - Gavin Thornbury (Blackrock College)
6 - Donagh Lawler (St. Michael’s College)
7 - Dan Leavy (St. Michael’s College)
8 - Ryan Murphy (Presentation Brothers College, Cork)

16 - Andrew Murphy (St. Michael’s College)
17 - Thomas Ferrari (Sligo Grammar School)
18 - Chris Taylor (Wallace High School)
19 - Luke Satchwell (The King’s Hospital)
20 - Mark Best (Campbell College)
21 - Jack O’Neill (Castleknock College)
22 - David Shanahan (Belvedere College)
23 - Rory Scannell (Presentation Brothers College, Cork)
24 - Jack Fitzpatrick (Gonzaga College)
25 - Cian O'Halloran (Christian Brothers College, Cork)
26 - Seamus Glynn (Presentation Brothers College, Cork)

Ireland U-18 Schools Management Team:
Terry McMaster - Head Coach
Kenny Hooks - Assistant Coach
Paul Barr - Assistant Coach
Lorcan Balfe - Team Manager
Chris Shields - Strength & Conditioning Coach
Ozzie Fogarty - Team Doctor
David Lyons - Team Physio
Vinny Hammond - Team Analyst
Jessica O'Brien - Team Co-ordinator

Blokhin Back as Ukraine Boss

Oleh Blokhin 

Oleh Blokhin will take charge of Ukraine's national team for a second time after being unveiled as the UEFA EURO 2012 co-hosts' new coach.

Blokhin, who enjoyed a successful first spell in the post between 2003 and 2007, beat off stiff competition for the role, including prospective candidates Yuriy Kalitvintsev, the caretaker coach, and the man at the helm of the Ukrainian Under-21 side, Pavlo Yakovenko.

The 58-year-old former Ballon d'Or winner, who won 18 from a possible 27 votes in the election held by the Football Federation of Ukraine (FFU) executive committee, guided Ukraine to the 2006 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals – their highest achievement – before stepping down after failing to qualify for UEFA EURO 2008.

"We thank Yuriy Kalitvintsev for his good work and hope Oleh Blokhin can surpass the achievements of his first spell in charge of Ukraine," said FFU president Grygoriy Surkis

"We have limited time and the players need to prove they deserve to play for the national team in every game," said former USSR and FC Dynamo Kyiv forward Blokhin. "Our job is to win the EURO but we should remember that there will be at least ten other very strong contenders. Apart from Brazil and Argentina, the strongest national teams in world football are all in Europe, which is why we should first focus on our basic task of qualifying from the group."

The ex-PAOK FC, AEK Athens FC, Olympiacos FC and FC Moskva coach added: "We have many talented players, but the youngsters often lack consistency at the top level. I think we need a balanced team with a proper mix of young and experienced players."

Blokhin's first assignment will be his side's forthcoming friendly against Uzbekistan in Kiev on 1 June, with France their next opponents at the Donbass Arena in Donetsk five days later.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Alan Lewis Announces Retirement

Alan Lewis has announced his intention to retire from refereeing at the end of this season. With 45 major international Test matches to his credit, including a Rugby World Cup quarter-final and games across the RBS 6 Nations Championship and Tri Nations, Lewis is one of the longest serving IRFU international referees.

ShareAlan Lewis also holds the record for matches in European competition with an incredible 83 matches, 71 of which were Heineken Cup games including three semi-finals and the Heineken Cup final in 2007.

Talking about his decision to retire, Lewis said: "Now just feels like the right time to finish up. It's a natural progression and one I have been discussing with my family and Owen Doyle in the IRFU over the past few months.

"I feel very privileged and honoured to have been involved at this level for so long. I have enjoyed every minute hugely."

Commenting on the recent Rugby World Cup referees panel selection, he added: "Of course there's a twinge of disappointment (at not being selected for the World Cup), I wouldn't be human if there wasn't.

"The main thing now is to wish all match officials great enjoyment and success in New Zealand."

Owen Doyle, IRFU Director of Referees, said: "What an extraordinary and successful career Alan has had and his record speaks for itself. He has always brought so much to the game, both on and off the pitch.

"His dedication and his enthusiasm have been unsurpassed. I am really now looking forward to continuing to work with him, albeit in another capacity.

"His expertise and communication skills will help enormously in developing the next generation of elite referees."

IRFU President Caleb Powell commented on hearing the news, saying: "Alan has made an immense contribution to our game, both domestically and on the world stage.

"His commitment and ability serve as a real example to all those aspiring to referee at the highest level."

Shanklin Forced to Call it a Day

Cardiff Blues centre Tom Shanklin's career is over after failing to recover from a knee injury.

The 2005 and 2008 Wales Grand Slam winner underwent surgery in January, having suffered previous knee problems.

But the 2005 British and Irish Lion in New Zealand has been forced to admit defeat in his battle for fitness.

Shanklin, 31, had hoped to return, but concedes: "I had an operation in January to see if we could fix the problem and it hasn't worked."

He played throughout the 2010 autumn series for Wales, but his season came to a sudden halt in early January after pulling up in a Magners League match against Aironi.

Scans revealed the severity of the injury, forcing Shanklin, whose career has been blighted by knee problems, to go under the surgeon's knife once again.

Shanklin, who missed the 2009 Lions tour to world champions South Africa because of a shoulder injury, scored 20 tries in his 70 Wales caps since his international debut in Japan in 2001.

He joined the Blues from English side Saracens in 2003 and claimed 28 touchdowns in 114 appearances for the Welsh region.

Shanklin added: "My knee isn't too bad, it's ok to walk and cycle and to do everyday things, but with regards to playing rugby: accelerating, changing direction, weight lifting, it's not too good.

It isn't a shock, and I've come to terms that I'll never play again Tom Shanklin

"I had an operation in January to see if we could fix the problem and it hasn't worked.

"It's bone on bone on my knee which has restricted me from doing a lot of things and I'm going to have to retire from the game.

"The advice from Rhys Williams the surgeon was to retire. Rhys knows the inside of my knee pretty well having done three or four operations on it.

"It was down to me to decide if I can continue or not, but I can't go on, as it's too sore and it's a pretty black and white situation.

"I can't fully function with it and I need to start taking account of my body and start listening to it.

"I'd like to thank not only Rhys for all his work, but all the Blues medical team who have been excellent in all they have done to keep me on the field for this long.

"I've had a history with a bad knee, but since 2005 it hasn't really troubled me. I've managed to carry on and continue until I injured it again January. I was aware at the time that it could end my career.

"A lot of the decision on whether I would retire was down to how my knee would recover and how I felt.

"I've now had time to take it on board, so it isn't a shock, and I've come to terms that I'll never play again.

"This summer I will be definitely spending more time at home with the family and enjoying my weekends.

"I'll still be watching the Blues and Wales but I'll be able to relax and maybe have a beer or two and watch some games with my mates.

"After that I'll be looking to get a job in the real world, which is a little bit daunting, but happens to all rugby players after they finish."

RFU investigate GPS

The preliminary findings of a pioneering study using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to investigate the demands on players in elite rugby are unveiled today.

Researchers from the University of Chester collected 304 sets of data from 54 Aviva Premiership Rugby matches involving eight top flight clubs in the season to March 27.

Bath Rugby, Exeter Chiefs, Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, London Irish, London Wasps, Northampton Saints and Sale Sharks players have worn GPS units to provide a range of information for a PhD study. The study, entitled ‘The Demands of Training and Playing in Elite Rugby Union’, was commissioned by the Rugby Football Union on the recommendation of the Professional Game Board and part-sponsored by the English Institute of Sport.

The first results from the three-year study are highlighted by Dr Paul Worsfold, Senior Lecturer in Sports and Exercise Sciences, and PhD student Nicola Cahill at today's Annual Professional Rugby Conference at Twickenham Stadium.

They show significant differences between six positional groups (based on rugby positions on the pitch) in terms of time on pitch, total distance covered, distance covered at low speed run and high speed run, maximum speed and average speed.

Average time on pitch ranges from 75.63mins for front row to 91.63mins for inside backs
Average distance covered ranges from 4.45km (front row) to 6.84km (scrum half)
Average distance at Low Speed Run1 ranges from 3.15km (front row) to 4.53km (scrum half)
Average distance at High Speed Run2 ranges from 0.15km (front row) to 0.61km (outside backs)
Maximum speed for the positional groups varies from an average of 23.7kmh (front row) to 30.7kmh (outside backs)

The top individual speed recorded in the 54 matches was 36.7kmh (22.8mph) and the greatest distance covered in one match was 8.2km (5 miles).

Dr Worsfold said: "In the past five years GPS technology has had a significant impact on performance analysis in elite sport. We can now accurately evaluate the training loads and activity profiles of players in competitive situations on the field.

"The aims of the study are to focus on the use of GPS in training and game performance to establish positional demands, to identify potential injury risk, and to monitor relationships between training, competition and fatigue.

UCD Travel To Tallaght Stadium

UCD travel to Tallaght Stadium on Friday night to take on league leaders Shamrock Rovers. The students will be buoyant mood after Graham Rusk last minute equaliser against St. Patrick's Athletic last Friday. Despite struggling for form at home this season the students have only lost one away game this season and a win on Friday could see them move to eight place in the league. 

UCD currently have five points from seven games and are level on points with Galway United. The student however enjoy a superior goal difference and sit eight in the league, three points clear of bottom placed side Drogheda United. 

Martin Russell received some good news during the week when Sean Harding was declared fit however Cillian Morrison has suffered a reoccurrence of the ankle injury that has kept him out for the last few weeks. 

Looking a head to the game Martin said: "We got a little boost from the Pat's result, with was a deserved point. Everyone wants to play in these games; against Shamrock Rovers in Tallaght Stadium. We are aware that it's a tough challenge but we look forward to these challenges."

Real Add King's Cup With Mourinho

Real Madrid celebrate Copa del Rey victory

Jose Mourinho claimed another cup on Wednesday night when Real Madrid took the Copa del Rey by one goal to nil in Valencia, against rivals Barcelona.

For it was his first trophy at Real Madrid boss in a match which saw his side edging out the Catalan club thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s header in the 102nd minute of extra-time.

Angel di Maria, who set up the goal for the Portuguese, was later sent off but Madrid managed to hold on.

“I am thrilled to win the Copa del Rey — it is something special,” Mourinho said after the game. “It’s a fantastic triumph against a great team like Barcelona — and we deserved it.”

With two games played in the past seven days Mourinho is now preparing for the two Champions League encounter in the coming two weeks, with the first leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu next Wednesday.

“We can take them on over two games; we have just done that,” he said. “There is no reason we can’t beat them in the Champions League because we have just drawn once against them and then beaten them.”

The former Chelsea and Inter Milan coach says the Copa del Rey is just the beginning for this Madrid side.

“I came here to do a job and change the mentality of the club,” he said. “We have started to do that and it’s satisfying — but it’s just the start.”

Ronaldo, the match winner said he knew the first goal would prove crucial.

“We knew that whoever scored first would win it — and so it proved,” he said. “Mourinho has given us a winning spirit and this is a really important trophy for us — it was an objective we had for this season and we have achieved it.”

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola was philosophical in defeat after losing his first final as coach of the Catalan club.

“It’s always better to win than to lose,” Guardiola said after the game. “But life is like that — you can’t always win.”

For Jose Mourinho it is the fourth Cup of his career having won similar titles in his home country, the FA Cup in England and the Coppa Italia in Italy with Inter Milan and becomes first Real Madrid coach to win titles in four different countries. Other Real Madrid coaches have only won Cup titles in three different countries; Vujadin Boskov (Spain, Italy, Netherlands) and John Toshack (Spain, Wales, Turkey).

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Dublin Arena Awaits Europa League Final

The city of Dublin is now in possession of the UEFA Europa League trophy after UEFA President Michel Platini handed the silverware over to the host city for this season's final.

Wednesday 18 May is the date when the final comes to the Dublin Arena with a month-long build-up to the big game following the handover at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

"Five years ago we began this journey when we met the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Prime Minister and it is a very good idea for the UEFA Europa League to come to Dublin," said Mr Platini as he passed the trophy on to Dublin's lord mayor, Gerry Breen.

Mr Breen said that his city of 1.5 million people would be offering a huge welcome to the UEFA Europa League. "Irish football fans have travelled the world supporting the Republic of Ireland but this is the first time that an event like this has come to our shores and this will be a major occasion for the city," he said. "Dublin holds big sporting events all the time but this has a truly international aspect, and that will add to the flavour of it all."

During the run-up to the final, the Irish public will also be able to see the trophy on show at various venues across the capital. "The trophy itself is now in the hands of Dublin and it will go on display in a number of sites around the city, from the new terminal at Dublin airport to the General Post Office in the city," Mr Breen added.

Club Atlético de Madrid, winners of last season's inaugural UEFA Europa League final in Hamburg, were represented in Dublin by the Spanish club's defender Álvaro Domínguez. Although the holders' grip on the trophy was loosened conclusively in the group stage this term, Domínguez will be watching with interest as the campaign reaches a climax over the next four weeks. "There are four very good teams left in the competition [SL Benfica, SC Braga, FC Porto and Villarreal CF]," Domínguez said.

Former Republic of Ireland and Liverpool FC player Ronnie Whelan, meanwhile, was present as UEFA Europa League final ambassador and said he was delighted to see the trophy come to his home town.

"This is something that will mean so much to the young kids who are starting to play football now. When I was growing up here in Dublin in the 1960s, you would never have dreamed about something like a European final coming to the city, and now we have that opportunity."

With an estimated 24,000 travelling supporters expected for the final, plus a television audience in the tens of million, the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) hopes the event will be a showcase for Ireland.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for Dublin but also a chance to leave a legacy for the next generation of footballers," said FAI chief executive John Delaney.

Trent Johnston Welcomes ICC Review

Trent Johnston in action

Trent Johnston, Ireland cricketer and 2007 World Cup captain, has urged the International Cricket Council's executive board to reopen the 2015 World Cup to non Test-playing nations or risk alienating a generation of players.

It was announced yesterday that, having received representations on behalf of the 95 associate and affiliate member countries, ICC president Sharad Pawar has asked the board to reconsider their decision to restrict the next World Cup to the 10 full members.

Whether or not the likes of Ireland, Holland and Canada will have genuine cause for cheer will not be known until the next official board meeting in Hong Kong next month.

The 10 chief executives who ratified the initial decision will again be the ones debating the issue but the unexpected depth of feeling created by the announcement earlier this month may force a change of heart.

Johnston, who was one of the most vocal critics of the decision, believes Pawar has given an important opportunity to right a wrong.

'If they're having a look at the decision again, that is a very positive thing for Ireland and the other associates and affiliates, we're obviously hoping something comes of this,' he said.

'I don't think we would have sat back and taken that decision because we found it unfair. We never thought we should automatically qualify but a qualifying tournament was all we were looking for, a fair chance. Now, with this turnaround, we hope that will be the case.

'If they do reverse their decision, then fantastic. That's what Cricket Ireland and 94 other countries want.'

Johnston, who was a key figure in Ireland's impressive showings in the 2007 and 2011 tournaments, including historic victories over Pakistan and England, fears for the sport if the door is not reopened to the so-called 'minnows'.

'It's a massive deal, it's massive for the sponsorship and revenue we need to develop the game and also massive to keep kids interested in the game,' he said.

'It's about the next generation, not just about 2015. We're building to 2019, 2023 even. If we don't have a World Cup to offer kids - the 15, 16-year-olds - are they still going to want to play cricket?

'If we have a World Cup to aspire to that can only attract more kids and the profile can only be raised.

'The memories we have had of the last two World Cups are unbelievable and to not give that chance to young Irish cricketers, young Canadian cricketers, young Dutch cricketers would be a disgrace.'

The ICC announced the issue would be reopened yesterday, with a statement from Pawar.

It read: 'I have given this matter further serious thought and will request the board to consider this topic once more. I can understand the views of the associates and affiliates and ICC will seek to deal with this issue in the best way possible.'