Archive for April, 2012

Torquay United saw their automatic promotion hopes dashed by a late, late equaliser from Crewe’s Nick Powell in an end-to-end encounter at Plainmoor. The Gulls had looked to be holding out for a vital win –  made even more important by Crawley Town’s shock loss to struggling Hereford – but Crewe had clearly failed to read the script for the Gulls’ final home game of the season. Though galling for Gulls fans, this game had it all – a thunderbolt opener, a missed penalty, a last-minute equaliser and two disallowed goals.

Both teams were desperate for the three points: Torquay needed a win to overcome promotion rivals Crawley, while Crewe’s play-off hopes rested on them bettering Oxford’s result. The Railwaymen were certainly the form side: their previous two fixtures heralded wins against Cheltenham and a draw at relegation-battling Macclesfield. Torquay, meanwhile, seemed to have lost their way following a home stalemate at Southend and a disappointing 2-0 loss to AFC Wimbledon.

The teams walk out at an expectant Plainmoor

Heavy rain in the early hours of the morning had threatened to postpone this crucial fixture, but Torquay had announced otherwise via a statement on the club website. Just as well – the rain soon eased off and the action emphatically contradicted the bleak weather.

Crewe, roared on by a healthy away following, began the better of the sides. Alex’s line-up read like an amalgamation of the league’s best young attacking talent: winger Billy Bodin (familiar to Torquay fans after a loan spell at Plainmoor earlier in the season) was joined by Nick Powell, a player rumoured to interest Premier League clubs and 22-year-old AJ Leitch-Smith has netted 7 times in 29 starts this season. Crewe were certainly not lacking someone to finish their countless early waves of attacks.

However, Torquay slowly awoke t0 recover a foothold in the game and began to take control. Ian Morris twice fired in low shots from the right, causing Crewe custodian Steve Phillips to be called into meaningful action for the first time. Minutes later a Torquay free-kick lead to centre-back Mark Ellis ambitiously attempting an overhead kick. His effort flew comfortably over, but Torquay’s pressure was mounting. Before the half was out, Eunan O’Kane curled a cross beyond beyond the reach of Rene Howe and Kevin Nicholson tested Phillips with a powerful set-piece. Crewe were by no means on the rocks, though, and Powell impressed with an overhead kick that landed on top of Bobby Olejnik’s net before the half-time whistle punctuated a free-flowing first-half.

If fans were hoping for a more open second half as players began to tire, they were not to be disappointed. Just three minutes of the second 45 had elapsed when Morris sent a low drive Phillips’ way. The former Bristol City keeper looked to have it covered until an unseen divot flicked the ball up in front of him. Phillips could only parry the shot, with his save just evading Torquay skipper Lee Mansell as he slid in for a rebound.

Torquay continued to look more likely to break the deadlock, and minutes later they almost had the opener. A half-cleared set-piece found the head of the retreating Mark Ellis, who somehow managed to loop a header over Phillips from distance. Unfortunately, his effort also narrowly cleared the crossbar.

Danny Stevens fires in the opener

However, the Gulls didn’t have to wait long for the goal that seemed to be coming. Crewe defender Matthew Tootle’s clearance lacked height and fell to United winger Danny Stevens just outside the box. The former Tottenham Hotspur trainee sent a first-time effort crashing home to the delight of the 3,000-plus Torquay fans. With news of Crawley slipping up at home to Hereford spreading like wildfire on the terraces of Plainmoor, the home fans were buzzing at the thought of overtaking their promotion rivals with just one game left.

A lead established, United now set about defending their advantage, hoping to catch Crewe on the counter-attack. Torquay’s players would have been fairly confident of hanging on to the win – twelve 1-0 victories this season depict a miserly defence that is rarely breached. Indeed, Gulls goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, along with centre-backs Brian Saah and Ellis, were in fine form, repelling most attacks that came their way.

The action inevitably become more frantic as Crewe searched for a much-needed equaliser. Doing so, however, they left themselves exposed at the back, a point almost proven by Rene Howe on the hour mark. The targetman’s audacious lob almost left Phillips blushing, but the second goal so badly needed never materialised. Howe did find the net – again after a chased-down clearance rebounded to the frontman, leaving him one-on-one with Phillips – but it was disallowed for offside.

Powell always seemed to be Crewe’s biggest threat and it was the 18 year old’s free-kick soon afterwards that had Olejnik scrambling to push over his bar. Although ten minutes or so of relative calm followed, disaster soon struck as Torquay’s challenges became increasingly desperate in their eagerness to hold on. Brian Saah, not wanting to commit himself, backed off AJ Leitch-Smith, who given time and space, sent Powell through on goal from an acute angle. Ellis threw himself to ground, felling Powell with an outstretched leg, and few were surprised when ref Dean Whitestone pointed to the spot.

Bobby Olejnik cements his position as a crowd favourite by keeping out Powell's penalty

Although the points seemed to be slipping from Torquay’s grasp, the Plainmoor faithful was more hopeful than fans of most clubs would be in the same situation. The reason for this slight optimism was Olejnik’s penalty-saving prowess – the Austrian had recently stopped Izale McLeod’s spot-kick to preserve a vital clean sheet at Barnet, and as a youngster at Aston Villa, Olejnik saved two penalties and scored the winner himself in a Reserves League Cup final.

Sure enough, Olejnik guessed the right way and got a strong hand to Harry Davis’ well-placed effort, somehow keeping it out to huge cheers from two-thirds of the ground. Spirits among the home fans were now even higher, but they were to be cruelly shattered four minutes into injury time.

After a further scare as Powell headed against the bar from a corner, the Gulls had seemingly learned their lesson, tightening up defensively since conceding the penalty, and some fans had even begun to head for the exit when the ball broke to Powell inside the area. His powerful effort just about beat the despairing Olejnik to level the scores with just 15 seconds of injury time left on the clock. Cue complete shocked silence from the home fans – the jubilation shown by Crewe’s fans and players only made things worse.

A huge scramble in the final seconds of the game ends with the ball in the net - but the effort was disallowed

With Torquay supporters bracing themselves for the final whistle straight after the restart, United launched one last attack down the right. Inevitably, what seemed like every player barring Olejnik piled into the Crewe penalty area for the mother of all goalmouth scrambles. After a prolonged period of ping-pong, and with several players falling to the ground, the ball eventually ended up in Phillips’ net, but Dean Whitestone perhaps unsurprisingly saw reason to disallow the effort  – much to the chagrin of supporters in the Family Stand, who claimed that no fouls had occurred. The final whistle blew soon after, and it was clear that Alex were the more pleased with the draw. Their efforts had merited a share of the spoils, but two points dropped means that Torquay have to better Crawley’s result and equal Southend’s next weekend if automatic promotion is to be achieved.

Torquay: Olejnik, Oastler, Saah, Ellis, Nicholson, Stevens (Rowe-Turner 82), Mansell, Lathrope, O’Kane, Morris (Jarvis 85), Howe (Atieno 87). Subs not used: Rice, MacDonald.

Crewe: Phillips, Mellor, Davis, Dugdale, Tootle, Bodin (Clayton 66), Westwood, Murphy, Moore, Powell, Leitch-Smith. Subs not used: Martin, Bell, Miller, Brown.

Attendance: 3,802.

Club Focus: Dalian Shide

This north-eastern Chinese club was founded in 1983 to replace struggling second-tier side Dalian Dockyards. It’s a decision that has certainly paid off: with eight league titles, an Asian Champions League semi-final and three FA Cups to their name, Dalian Shide are the most successful Chinese club in history.

Dalian's current badge - their fourth design since 2000

In 1984, soon after their formation, the club won promotion to the Chinese top-flight after twice finishing as champions of the second division. Relegation in 1988 could have seen Dalian fall back into obscurity, but the side nickamed “Eight-Star Dalian” recovered to earn a Jia A-League place for the 1990 season. They finished in an impressive third place in their return to the big time, just five points shy of a  first A-League title. Top-flight stability over the next few years followed, before  Dalian won a first league title in the inaugural professional Chinese league in 1994, powered by the goals of local boy Wang Tao.

A third-placed finish in 1995 was succeeded by an incredible haul of six titles in seven years, a record only punctuated by a ninth-placed slot in 1999. The turn of the century saw the club’s name changed from Dalian Wanda FC (the result of sponsorship from the Dalian Wanda group in 1994) to the current moniker, Dalian Shide. The glory years of the 1990s also witnessed a change of stadium, with Dalian settling in the 31,000-capacity Jinzhou Stadium in 1997.

The first years of the new millennium saw more of the same: further league titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002 firmly cemented Dalian as China’s number one club, but the success gradually dried up as the decade progressed. The reincarnation of the top flight as the Chinese Super League in 2004 has coincided with a fall in fortunes for Dalian – a solitary league title in 2005 is their only Super League championship, and since then the club has failed to finish higher than fifth as other sides have improved. Indeed, Dalian only avoided relegation in 2008 by three points, a perilous position that could have seen them relegated had it not been for Wuhan Optics Valley’s withdrawal.

Mid-table mediocrity in recent years was coupled with the tragedy of losing midfielder Zhang Yalin to lymphoma in February 2010, following the player’s two-year battle  with the disease. A one-club man, Yalin’s loyalty to Dalian has been somewhat repaid with the club posthumously retiring the shirt number 26 in his honour.

Seven games into the current campaign, Dalian lie second-bottom with just one win to their name. The club will need to improve greatly over the coming months in order to survive the dreaded drop into the Chinese League One.

Although hamstrung in its appeal to European fans by the Super League’s limit on foreign players – 5 per team, including at least one Asian – Dalian’s squad still boasts some players that are vastly experienced at the highest level of both international and club football. Full-back Ricardo Esteves enjoyed first-team football at Benfica as a youngster, before moving on to Braga and Paços de Ferreira. In 2004, with his career seemingly going nowhere in his native Portugal, Esteves moved to Italy to join Serie A outfit Reggina. Relative success followed as Reggina, a traditionally second-tier club, finished mid-table, while Esteves netted his first league goal for six years. This rare goal proved to be significant: Esteves’ 32-minute leveller restricted Reggina’s opponent Bologna to one point instead of all three, and at the end of the season, Bologna were relegated on goal difference. Further spells in Italy, Portgual, Greece and South Korea followed before Dalian snapped up the 32-year-old from Marítimo last season.

Dalian have also looked to South America to fill their foreign player slots. Brazilian forward Adriano (not that one) has previously played in his homeland for Brazilian giants Fluminense and Palmeiras but looked to Asia to kick-start his career.  It’s certainly worked – four goals from just seven starts represents Adriano’s best goal return since a loan spell with Bahia in 2010.  Intriguingly, the player’s Wikipedia entry claims that he is “sometimes called by his nickname, ‘Adriano Michael Jackson'”.

Zambia international James Chamanga celebrates scoring against Sudan in the 2012 African Cup of Nations

Bulgarian frontman Martin Kumburov, signed in 2010, provides the regular goalscorer so important to a team that will be battling relegation this season. Dalian’s motives for signing Kumburov, capped 15 times by his country, are clear to see – 73 goals in 91 games for Lokomotiv Plovdiv and 33 in 44 for Lokomotiv Sofia show just how prolific the Svilengrad-born striker can be. Kumburov lived up to his billing in his first season at the club, netting 7 goals in 15 appearances. This season he has already earned Dalian three points just by himself – the Bulgarian nabbed both goals in a 2-1 victory over Qingdao Jonoon, including a late winner. Kumburov’s goals will be key in Dalian’s fight against the drop.

Completing a thoroughly global foreign roster is Zambian forward James Chamanga, a former goal-machine for Moroka Swallows in South Africa. Chamanga’s goalscoring exploits even include a scarcely believable four-minute hat-trick against Platinum Stars in 2007.  Unsurprisingly, the Zambian has become a regular at international level, racking up almost a half-century of caps and representing the Copper Bullets at African Nations Cups in 2006 and the victorious 2012 campaign. Chamanga joined Dalian in 2008, and although he hasn’t been as prolific in China as elsewhere, the African has chipped in with often invaluable strikes.

Shide’s current boss, Esteves’ countryman Nelo Vingada, boasts a lengthy and varied managerial career. Years of experience coaching at club level in Portugal, Egypt, Morroco and Iran are supplemented by spells managing his country and the national sides of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. On paper, at least, Dalian are in safe hands. That’s just as well – the club will need all the help it can get in its most testing season for many years.

The fates of Championship clubs Portsmouth and Coventry City have today been sealed as both sides’ failure to win their penultimate matches of the season resulted in their relegation from the second tier, while the rest of the division’s bottom-half clubs can breathe a collective sigh of relief at the confirmation of their safety, with all three relegated teams’ fate now rubber-stamped.

Portsmouth were doomed following their 2-1  defeat to mid-table Derby County at Fratton Park this afternoon, proving that games against clubs with “nothing to play for” are a dangerous proposition for any team. Derby had taken a first-half lead through Jake Buxton, but Luke Varney’s equaliser sixteen minutes from time looked likely to secure a draw for Pompey. However, just four minutes later a Steve Davies penalty condemned Michael Appleton’s men to League One football next season.

Rookie manager Michael Appleton has suffered relegation in his first full-time managerial role

The club’s supporters will be disappointed to have been relegated today but it will not come as a shock – Portsmouth’s survival had begun to look increasingly unlikely as the weeks progressed. Indeed, only a late, controversial 5-4 win at Doncaster Rovers last week kept the slim chances of survival alive – without the vital three points gleaned at the expense of Doncaster, who were relegated as a result of the loss, Pompey would have entertained Derby today with their fate already sealed.  A further 2-1 success against Crystal Palace in midweek may have had some optimists dreaming of the greatest “Great Escape” of all, but realistically these wins were simply delaying the inevitable.

With midfielder David Norris and defender Greg Halford the club’s top scorers this season, netting just eight and seven goals respectively, it is not hard to see why Portsmouth have been struggling. However, the club had actually been looking like staying up until mid-February, when a ten-point deduction for entering administration once more plunged Pompey from the relative comfort of 18th place to the midst of a relegation dogfight. Portsmouth’s financial troubles  had once again begun to overshadow events on the pitch, with Russian owner Vladimir Antonov being arrested in November for alleged asset stripping.

It is a far cry from the FA Cup final reached in 2010, when only a solitary strike from Didier Drogba handed the trophy to Chelsea. The Portsmouth team that day included such talents as David James, Aruna Dindane and Kevin-Prince Boateng – this season the club has relied on a host of free transfers and inexperienced academy products in an attempt to slash transfer fees and wage bills. Pompey’s plight shows just how fast a club can plummet from one end of the English league hierarchy  to the other.

Coventry City’s disappointing defeat to already-relegated Doncaster confirmed the Sky Blues’ exit from the league they have occupied since dropping out of the Premier League in 2001. Tellingly, today’s 2-0 loss barely mattered  – even a win against the demoralized Dons wouldn’t have saved Coventry’s bacon.

Coventy local lad Gary McSheffrey tries in vain to create a chance during his side's 2-0 loss to Doncaster

Unlike Portsmouth, the club’s relegation battle has lasted for the duration of the season. Just one win in Coventry’s first ten Championship fixtures made survival unlikely, and by mid-February the club was in 22nd place, six points adrift of safety. Supporters may point to a chaotic season in the boardroom as a reason for their team’s demise:  2011-12 has seen failed buy-outs, directors standing down and former chairman Ken Dulieu even resigning from a new role after just 18 days. This may well have distracted the players, but large winless streaks have done as much damage. Following the dismal start to the season, Coventry suffered eleven games without a win between October and December, and the club has so far failed to register a win in April.

Although fellow strugglers Bristol City, Nottingham Forest and Barnsley will all be relieved to have preserved their Championship status for another season, the truth is that the gap between them and the  three relegated clubs never looked likely to be breached. Seven points separate Barnsley and Portsmouth, neighbours in the table in 21st and 22nd respectively, while bottom club Doncaster are eleven points adrift of safety.

Rovers had overachieved to remain in the Championship for as long as they did – they only won promotion from the Conference in 2002-03,  but fans of Portsmouth and Coventry will feel that relegation to the third tier is a disaster for clubs of their stature. It could be years before they return.

After experiencing the delight of their first ever official win in November 2011, American Samoa must have entered the 2012 London Olympic qualifiers with high hopes and increased confidence. After a run of 30 consecutive defeats, the minnows had beaten Tonga and matched the Cook Islands in a 1-1 draw. The players could have been forgiven for thinking that their days of suffering the humiliation of double-figure thrashings and enduring four-year goal droughts were over.

Unfortunately not. Although American Samoa’s under-23 team, which would compete in the qualifiers, has enjoyed less success and practice than the senior side, American Samoans would still have been confident that progress would continue. Drawn in a group containing regional heavyweights Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, American Samoa had the chance to prove their development into a competitive nation in the Oceania confederation.

This optimism would have been lessened, but not eradicated, by the half-time score-line in the team’s opening game against Vanuatu. 4-0 down after just 23 minutes, American Samoa recovered to match their stronger opponents for the remainder of the half. Samoans would not have been shocked to find their team trailing heavily but would have hoped for a goalless second half that would have underlined the side’s progress.

Even the attentions of two defenders can’t prevent Vanuatu’s Sailas Namatak from claiming a hat-trick

American Samoa almost did just that – had the match only lasted 80 minutes rather than 90, 4-0 would have been the respectable result. However, the side tired and their resistance was emphatically ended with 4 goals in the last nine minutes. The result was disappointing but not unexpected. The Blues now needed to pick themselves up and fast – the next game, against Fiji, was scheduled in just two days time.

The Fiji match bore some similarities to their encounter with Vanuatu. Again, American Samoa conceded early on, but this time they held out until half-time for an incredible 1-0 score-line. A narrow defeat to arguably Oceania’s best country after New Zealand would have ranked among American Samoa’s best achievements on the world stage, but again, it was not to be. Six second-half Fiji goals, interrupted only by an Ailoa Tualaulelei consolation to bring it back to 5-1, again left the Samoans demoralized and defeated. Make no doubt about it, this Fiji team was talented – they would go on to reach the final, only losing 1-0 to clear favourites New Zealand.

So it was with low expectation and confidence that the Samoan players would have entered their final fixture, against the Solomon Islands on 21 March. However, they would probably have expected a closer game than their last two matches – Solomon Islands had also lost both of their games, albeit by only one or two goals as opposed to American Samoa’s six or eight. Both teams were already eliminated and optimistic Samoans may have hoped to encounter an unmotivated, low-on-belief Solomon team that was there for the taking.

American Samoa captain Jr Amisone tries in vain to stop New Zealand-based Jerry Donga

What followed was American Samoa’s worst result since August 2007. A return to the dark days of double-figure hammerings loomed large on the horizon as the minnows were blown away by a surprisingly determined Solomon team. Five minutes in, and one goal to the good thanks to Shalom Luani’s strike, Samoans were dreaming of what would have been the best result in their history. Eighty-five minutes later, they fully appreciated the reasoning behind their opponent’s nickname, the Blue Brazil. In the space of 77 minutes, American Samoan goalkeeper Satila Tupua saw 16 shots fly past him into the net as the Solomons equalised, took the lead, and then scored 14 more for measure.

Five days after the tournament began, American Samoa were eliminated and embarrassed. The progress shown in November had stagnated here and it was clear that the success enjoyed at senior level was not to be replicated in the country’s youth sides.

However, American Samoa can take some consolation from their five days of disaster. Their first-half performances against all three sides, as well as the fact that two goals were scored, showed that future victories are possible. They may have taken one step forward and two steps back, but don’t be surprised to hear another shock wave from Samoa when the side next takes to the field.

Victories for both of Torquay United’s automatic promotion rivals, Shrewsbury and Crawley, have left the Gulls unable to afford to slip up in their remaining three league matches if they are to finish in the top three.

The Shrews’ 1-0 win over Port Vale last night means that they are now four points clear of both Torquay and Crawley and Graham Turner’s men are on course for a second-place finish. The fact that Torquay would have to win two of their remaining three games and hope that Shrewsbury lose all three in order to finish above them leaves United realistically fighting it out with Crawley for the final automatic promotion place. It would take a major slip for Shrewsbury to career out of the top three at this late stage.

Shrewsbury fans will not be too anxious about their team’s run-in. On Saturday they travel to mid-table Accrington, a club that are safe from relegation but cannot mathematically reach the play-offs. Stanley have nothing to play for and, adding to Shrewsbury’s confidence, are currently in the midst of a defensive crisis that has seen striker Craig Lindfield forced to play as a right-back. On 28 April the Shrews face Dagenham & Redbridge, currently in 19th place in League Two. The Daggers are now mathematically safe from relegation, which could lead to John Still’s men relaxing for the final few fixtures safe in the knowledge that their league status is assured. Shrewsbury will certainly hope so.

The final day of the season sees Shrewsbury visiting AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow stadium. Like both Accrington and Dagenham, Wimbledon’s mid-table mediocrity means that their fans and players can see out the rest of the season in comfort. These end-of-season encounters, which leave mid-table clubs with little to play for, often see managers use the final games of the season to blood young, inexperienced reserves. This could also work in Shrewsbury’s favour.

Scott Neilson (fourth from left) celebrates his opening goal in Crawley's 3-1 win over Northampton

Crawley leapfrogged Torquay in the table following the 3-1 defeat of Aidy Boothroyd’s Northampton last night. The Red Devils have shrugged off manager Steve Evans’ departure to Rotherham and are determined to achieve a second consecutive promotion, following their Conference title in 2010-11. Crawley travel to Dagenham on Saturday and face Hereford, currently at the foot of the Football League, the week after. Hereford could well be relegated by then, making Crawley’s job significantly easier against demoralized opposition. If Hereford can still mathematically survive on 28 April, they will surely put up a fight to save their league status. Accrington host the Red Devils on the last day, and like Shrewsbury, Crawley will hope to be met with little resistance against a team with little to play for.

Torquay’s run-in is arguably the hardest of the three sides. United’s next match is away to Wimbledon, highlighting the similarities between their fixture list and that of their rivals. However, the Gulls’ penultimate game of the season sees them take on Crewe –  one of the hardest teams Martin Ling’s men could have come up against. Crewe currently sit on the fringes of the play-offs, trailing seventh-placed Oxford only on goal difference, and both sides desperately need the points to boost their promotion credentials. Like Crawley, Torquay will be hoping Richard O’Kelly’s Hereford are relegated by the time the Gulls visit on the last day. Doomed or not, Hereford will be eager to put on a show for what could be the last game of league football at Edgar Street for years to come.

Martin Ling will hope to be celebrating come the end of the season

The Gulls have enjoyed their best season for years under new manager Martin Ling, and it will be a great shame if the side was to miss out on promotion at this late stage, having been there or thereabouts for the majority of 2012. Torquay’s Achilles heel has been their lack of a natural goalscorer – despite the admirable efforts of captain Lee Mansell from midfield and the double-figures also reached by Rene Howe, the Gulls have often relied on a sturdy defence to hold on to 1-0 leads. The result is the lowest goal difference in the top five – even 15th placed Port Vale have outscored the goal-shy Gulls this season.

Back-to-back draws with fellow promotion hopefuls Southend and Oxford would have been considered good results under normal circumstances, but the increased number of points required for promotion this season mean that the stalemate against Southend has left Torquay trailing Shrewsbury and Crawley with little time to bounce back. The Gulls have already attained 80 points – a figure which would have secured automatic promotion in two of the previous three League Two campaigns.

After the disappointment of last season’s final-hurdle defeat to Stevenage at Old Trafford, Torquay fans are desperate to avoid the lottery of the play-offs this time around. 7 of the club’s current squad, including captain Mansell, featured against Stevenage, and they will be reminding the rest of the players of the importance of securing promotion automatically. Torquay will have the support of most neutrals in their battle against Crawley: Steve Evans’ antics have ensured that. The club will need all the help it can get in its search to overcome the limits of a small, tired squad against financially stronger opponents with more players to choose from. How Torquay fare in the final few games of 2011-12 will decide their fate not only for this season, but for years to come. Three wins and League One beckons, but a slip-up will leave United ruing the cost of a huge chance missed as star players start to think about leaving.

The first Merseyside Derby at Wembley since 1989 was always going to be a close affair. Everton entered the game as the form side, having thrashed Sunderland 4-0 at Goodison in their most recent league fixture, but, as many claimed, form counts for nothing in a derby match. Despite the Blues sitting  a point above their rivals in the Premier League, Liverpool had won both league meetings between the two. This game was impossible to call.

A packed Wembley generated a fantastic atmosphere for the season's third Merseyside derby

Each manager made a noteworthy omission from their starting line-ups: Everton’s Dutch winger Royston Drenthe failed to even make the bench amid rumours of late-night drinking the day before, while Anfield supremo Kenny Dalglish preferred Daniel Agger, more comfortable in the middle of the defence, at full-back instead of first-choice left-back Jose Enrique.

After a respectful one-minute silence to mark the 23rd anniversary of Hillsborough, the referee’s whistle was greeted with a cacophony of noise from both sets of fans. The action was end-to-end from the start – Leighton Baines curled a free-kick narrowly over before Martin Skrtel fired straight at Howard following a corner. The teams were doing a good job of cancelling each other out, making for compelling viewing.

Despite this, clear chances were few and far between, and it was a surprise when Everton took the lead after 24 minutes. After hesitation between Liverpool defenders Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, the latter’s low clearance rebounded off Tim Cahill and into the grateful path of in-form striker Nikica Jelavic. With the rest of Liverpool’s defence having turned their backs on the ball, expecting Carragher’s clearance to sail over their heads, Jelavic found himself one-on-one with Brad Jones. The Croat kept his nerve to slide the ball past the onrushing Aussie with a cool finish.

Nikica Jelavic celebrates his opener in front of the Liverpool end

Predictably, the goal caused pandemonium in the Everton end as the Toffees dreamt of an improbable run to the final. As if the defensive mishap leading to the goal wasn’t galling enough for Liverpool fans, the sight of Jelavic wheeling away in delight in front of the massed ranks of red must have hurt.

As Liverpool battled for an equaliser, the full-blooded challenges that began to rain in were inevitable in a derby of such importance to both teams. However, it was more than slightly ironic that, with local players Carragher, Gerrard, Baines and Osman all involved,  the most hotly-contested one-on-one battle in this Merseyside matchup was between a Uruguayan and a  Dutchman. Messrs Suarez and Heitinga took it in turns to bundle each other to the floor, each becoming increasingly incensed at the other’s perceived exaggeration of contact.

Thankfully, a combination of Howard Webb ignoring both of them and a word in the ear from their captains calmed the pair down. The remainder of the first half failed to produce such excitement, as Everton saw out the closing minutes of the opening 45 to protect their narrow lead until the interval.

The second half was always going to be more nerve-racking for the Everton fans, as Liverpool committed more men forward in their search for an equalizer. Just two minutes after the break they almost had it. Stewart Downing, whose mazy runs had looked threatening in the first half but often lacked a final product, whipped a deep cross to the back post where Andy Carroll headed wide despite being unmarked.

It was a wake-up call for Everton, and one that they took on board. The next fifteen minutes passed without incident as Liverpool struggled to break down a deep, determined defence. Everton weren’t creating chances, but as long as they kept Liverpool at bay, it didn’t matter.

Then, on 62 minutes, disaster struck for the Blues. Distin, a defensive rock all season, buckled under pressure from Suarez and gifted the Uruguayan a clear run at goal with a woefully under-hit back-pass. Despite Heitinga’s admirable effort to recover the situation, Suarez was already dispatching the ball beyond Tim Howard as the Dutchman desperately tried to slide in. Distin was clearly upset by his error, cruelly the first time he has put a foot wrong this season. His apology on Twitter hours later summed up his guilt: “I cost my team mates, the staff, the club and the fans a place in [the] FA Cup final. Nothing more to say but sorry all of you”. The big Frenchman bravely accepted responsibility for his side’s eventual defeat, despite his mistake only leading to Liverpool’s leveller.

With the game now finely poised at one apiece, Everton manager David Moyes had a tactical dilemna – push men forward in hope of retaking the lead, or hold on for extra-time against a Liverpool team growing in confidence and with the momentum now behind them?

The Scot seemingly chose the latter as his men remained firmly behind the ball, leaving goalscorer Jelavic an isolated figure. The introduction of Seamus Coleman for Distin’s tiring compatriot Magaye Gueye provided fresh legs, but the new man was forced into defensive duty almost immediately. His booking soon afterwards, for a challenge on the edge of the Everton area as his team-mates failed to clear, put the Irishman on a tightrope.

Liverpool continued to dominate with little reward, and as both sets of fans and players braced themselves for the prolonged agony of extra-time and penalties, Coleman upended Gerrard on the left. It was a clumsy tackle that was lucky to avoid a red card less than 20 minutes after the Everton winger’s arrival.

Liverpool's goalscorers - Suarez and Carroll - celebrate what would prove to be the winner

However, the cheap free-kick would prove to be vital in the outcome of the match. Substitute Craig Bellamy crossed, and for the first time in the match, Carroll hit the target with a back-header after outjumping Fellaini. The flick passed between Howard and Baines, stationed on the far post, and into the net. With just three minutes of normal time remaining, it was surely the winner. Carroll’s previous efforts in the game had brought little reward, causing even some Everton fans to feel sorry for the perpetually-misfiring £35 million misfit.

His previous lack of composure in front of goal was immediately forgotten as the Reds celebrated a new hero who had fired them to a second Cup final of the season. Despite Everton’s best attempts to push forward, with Moyes replacing defender Baines with frontman Victor Anichebe, Liverpool successfully wound down the clock.  They even went close to extending their lead, with Maxi Rodriguez, another substitute, hitting the post from close-range under heavy pressure.

The final whistle was met with jubilation by the scarf-branishing Kop, transplanted from Anfield, and their victorious players. Everton’s team crumpled to the turf, hurt by the realization that for some of them, this was the last chance for silverware before retirement. Captain Phil Neville is 35, Distin 34, Tim Cahill and Tim Howard both the wrong side of 30 – they may not experience another Wembley semi-final. The defeat will inevitably inspire pundits to debate whether or not David Moyes has taken the club as far as he can. The truth is that only the former Preston boss himself knows the answer.

Everton: Howard, Neville (C), Heitinga, Distin, Baines (Anichebe 88), Osman, Gibson, Fellaini, Gueye (Coleman 68), Cahill, Jelavic. Subs not used: Hahnemann, Hibbert, Jagielka, Stracqualursi, McFadden.

Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Henderson (Rodriguez 75), Gerrard, Spearing, Downing (Bellamy 84), Carroll, Suarez. Subs not used: Gulasci, Enrique, Kelly, Shelvey, Kuyt.

Attendance: 87, 231.

Recent events suggest that the Swiss Super League, the country’s highest division, is struggling to live up to its name. The league’s 2011-12 season has been plagued by financial crises as well as protests from both fans and clubs.

The biggest disaster, though, has been the bankruptcy of Neuchâtel Xamax, two-time Super League winners. As a result of the club’s consistent financial difficulties, the Swiss Football Association has expelled Xamax from the Super League mid-season, and demoted it to the 2. Liga – the Swiss fourth tier – for the 2012-13 season.

In the first half of the season, Xamax had amassed 26 points in 18 games and were in a comfortable fourth place in the ten-team league. However, Xamax had their license revoked on 18 January 2012 after failing to provide the necessary financial documents and guarantees. Just eight days later the club officially announced their bankruptcy amid claims from ESPN that Neuchâtel were “suspected of falsifying a bank document produced as a financial guarantee last year” – the apparently forged document was said to contain basic spelling and grammar mistakes as the club desparately tried to cover up their problems.

Bungling Bulat has reason to worry after being arrested for "financial mismanagement"

Xamax’s chairman, Russian businessman Bulat Chagaev, must be cursing his decision to take over the club in May. What followed has been the most turbulent 12 months in the club’s history, and Chagaev’s public humiliation doesn’t end there – shortly after Xamax’s bankruptcy was announced, he was arrested for “financial mismanagement” and is suspected to be responsible for a large part of the club’s debts of at least $8.7 million. Guilty or not, the Russian was clearly not cut out for football – he had already sacked four coaches in just nine months.

While Chagaev attempts to clear his name and avoid prosecution, the rest of the club has battled bravely on. A poll on Xamax’s official website asks “How are you willing to help rebuild Xamax?” – unfortunately for the willing volunteers, 10% of supporters say they don’t want to help at all. They have seen their club lurch from one disaster to the next, and even dedicated, loyal fans will eventually decide enough is enough.

It is a sad fall from grace for the Stade de la Maladière side, whose former players include the Senegalese pair of current West Ham midfielder Papa Bouba Diop and ex-Wigan striker Henri Camara, as well as Swiss defender Stephane Henchoz, who enjoyed a six-year spell at Liverpool between 1999 and 2005.

As if Xamax’s troubles weren’t enough, the Swiss FA has also had to deal with troublesome side FC Sion. The club have ignored a FIFA-sanctioned transfer embargo to sign six players this season, and have made no attempt to hide this, fielding ineligible players in no fewer than 12 matches this season.  The Swiss FA have responded with a huge 36 point deduction, leaving Sion bottom of the table with little hope of staying up. The scale of the points deduction is best highlighted by the fact that without the 36-point penalty, Sion would be second in the table, challenging for the title.

Even fans of teams at the top of the league still have reason to be unhappy. Second-placed Luzern have been troubled by fan protest over the club’s banning of flags in its Swissporarena ground. Luzern fans responded by remaining silent during home matches, creating an eerie atmosphere that forced the club to back-track on its decision and re-allow fans to wield flags during games. This isn’t the first time Luzern supporters have made their feelings felt – after a 2010 clash with Basel was rescheduled to avoid a clash with a Roger Federer match, both sets of fans threw thousands of tennis balls on to the pitch to delay the game and make sure the events overlapped anyway.

Xamax's gates will remain closed for the unforseeable future

Although this season has been particularly turbulent for the Swiss FA, the Super League has a history of issues, especially financial ones. Lausanne-Sport were relegated to the fourth division in 2003 after going bankrupt, and like Xamax, Servette dropped out of the Super League mid-season in 2005.

Despite returning to the top flight this season, Servette’s financial worries have reappeared: December 2011 reports suggested that the club was unable to pay players’ wages, and in February 2012 Servette filed for bankruptcy once more.

The Swiss FA’s punishments may look severe, but with FIFA threatening to expel the country’s clubs from European competitions unless action was taken, the Swiss governing body had little choice. As Sion said in a club statement following their points deduction: “This decision is an intolerable attack on fairness in sport but comes as no surprise to the club which did not expect any courage on the part of the ASF in the face of FIFA”.

For a league that has slipped down the FIFA coefficient rankings in recent years, resulting in the loss of its second Champions League place, the Super League could really have done without these problems. Until something changes, Swiss clubs will continue to break the rules and enter bankruptcy with alarming regularity. It is not a sustainable situation.

Watch the infamous tennis ball protest below:

Midfielder Jasmine Pereira scored four times as New Zealand helped themselves to a more than comfortable 13-1 victory over strugglers New Caledonia at the Women’s U-17 Championship in Auckland.

As predicted here, the Young Football Ferns had no problem reaching double figures against a demoralized New Caledonia side who understandably began to give up hope with each New Zealand strike. As well as Pereira’s four-goal haul, forward Martine Puketapu bagged a hat-trick,  with Emma Rolston also netting a brace.

New Caledonia goalkeeper Deborah Selefen anticipates Martine Puketapu's shot

The game couldn’t have begun much better for New Zealand: within a minute of kick-off, Emma Rolston’s inch-perfect through ball found Pereira, who finished from an acute angle. However, the expected avalanche of goals was interrupted by Noe Valefakaaga’s superb equaliser on eighteen minutes. The New Caledonia midfielder ran onto a through ball and was presented with a one-on-one opportunity thanks to Meikayla Moore’s untimely slip before side-footing a measured finish past the otherwise under-worked Lily Alfeld. New Caledonia celebrated wildly and may have begun to dream of a famous, unlikely result.

Unfortunately for Les Cagous, it was not to be. The New Caledonians enjoyed ten minutes of blissful stalemate before New Zealand regained the lead through Emma Rolston. From then on, the Young Football Ferns never looked likely to be caught, scoring twice more before half-time through goals from Pereira and Puketapu.

Nevertheless, New Zealand’s English coach Paul Temple must have demanded improvement at half-time – New Caledonia had given his side an almighty scare by drawing level and the need for more goals was clearly passed on to the players.

Just two minutes into the second half it was 5-1, and although New Caledonia reached the hour-mark with the score at a respectable 6-1, they fell apart in the final half-hour. Daisy Cleverly made it 7 with twenty minutes to play, before an incredible six goals in the last fifteen minutes added significant gloss to the scoreline. Pereira’s fourth of the game, a side-foot volley from Laura Merrin’s cross, was one of the best goals of the day, but Briar Palmer’s solo effort for the game’s final goal was even better – waltzing past three opposition defenders, Palmer planted the ball past beleaguered goalkeeper Deborah Selefen to end the game in style.

New Caledonia will have to pick themselves up for their final game, a clash with the Cook Islands on Friday. The Islands will be equally determined to finally get some points on the board, having lost both of their previous games.

Elsewhere, the Cook Islands ran Papua New Guinea close in a 3-2 loss, but the Reds probably deserved to win an entertaining encounter. Papua New Guinea opened the scoring on 21 minutes through Ramona Lorenz. Rumona Morris’ cross caused confusion as it evaded Cook Islands goalkeeper Moeroa Nootai, and Lorenz capitalized as defender Edna Teio failed to clear.

Papua New Guinea's Alexier Stephen feels the force of a fierce challenge

Lorenz doubled her team’s advantage with a close-range volley seven minutes later, but the Cook Islands replied ten minutes before half-time through Tepaeru Toka’s looping header. However, an equalizer looked unlikely and Papua New Guinea restored the two-goal gap on 52 minutes when Nootai failed to hold Georgina Kaitas’ shot. Although Tepaeru Toka gave her team hope with a well-taken goal with twenty minutes left, it was Papua New Guinea who looked more like scoring, with Lorenz firing an effort against the crossbar.

Having used all three substitutes, Thalitha Irakau’s injury ten minutes from the end meant that Papua New Guinea were a woman down for the closing moments, but they held out for a valuable win. Cook Islands coach Angela Valamaka said “Obviously we’re really disappointed – the girls played well, but the conditions and the physicality of the Papua New Guinea team was a bit too much for them today.”

Papua New Guinea’s tie with New Zealand on Friday will decide who represents Oceania at the U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan later this year, but the Reds will enter as huge underdogs. New Zealand’s huge win over New Caledonia will add even more confidence to an already assured side, and Papua New Guinea will need to be more clinical to have any chance of upsetting the odds.

Watch highlights of Papua New Guinea’s win over Cook Islands here:

Fans of League One and Two clubs could be forgiven for looking at the significant distance between their beloved team and the big-time Charlies of the Premier League and deciding their side is destined never to reach the top flight. Given the gap in finances and quality of players, it’s a reasonable assumption.

But history can provide comfort for those who continue to resolutely believe that Accrington Stanley will one day march to the Premier League title, leaving Man United City in their wake. Three successful seasons is “all” it takes for a club to reach the promised land from England’s basement professional division.

Stoke take on Valencia in this season's Europa League - a far cry from their days of battling Wrexham and Cambridge in the Third Division as recently as 2001-02

A cursory glance at the 1991-92 Division Three table would surprise many a fan, and rightly so. Current Premier League sides Fulham, Wigan Athletic, West Brom, Stoke City and Swansea were all languishing in the third tier exactly twenty years ago – in fact, Swansea only survived relegation to the fourth division that season by five points. Teams flying high in the Championship this season were also mired in  Division Three mid-table mediocrity in 1991-92 – Reading finished in twelfth place, behind the likes of Brentford and Stockport County.

For more recent examples, look no further than the 2002-03 league tables. Just eight seasons before they would win promotion to the Premier League, Swansea were still battling in England’s lower divisions and even faced relegation to the Conference in 2003, surviving by just one point at the expense of Exeter City. Swansea learned their lesson and look what they have achieved since.

Taking Exeter’s place in the Football League were current Championship side Doncaster Rovers, fresh from Conference play-off victory, while even further down the league pyramid current League Two clubs Accrington and Aldershot helped themselves to themselves to Northern Premier League and Isthmian league titles respectively.

Plymouth have swapped fixtures against the likes of Wolves for games at AFC Wimbledon and Macclesfield

Granted, this year’s League Two consists of fewer big clubs. In recent years, Plymouth Argyle and Bradford City have worked their way to the top before suffering a slide through the divisions – the opposite journey to the teams outlined above. As recently as May 2001 the people of Bradford were enjoying Premier League football, but this season the Bantams could even drop in to non-league football.

Plymouth never quite made it as high as the top-flight, but if you had told Argyle fans in 2007-08, when they finished 10th in the Championship – just six points shy of the play-offs – that they would be battling for League Two survival in five years time, you would have probably been laughed at. The club’s downfall has been astonishingly fast – they were still playing in the Championship in 2009-10. However, financial difficulties have robbed Plymouth of their chance to reach the Premier League, an opportunity that now seems a lifetime away.

So while your tiny lower-league team of small-time professionals may look more like reaching the Ryman League than the Premier League, don’t give up hope. Clubs can shoot through the leagues with impressive speed, but be warned – the fall from grace can be just as fast if you’re not careful.

New Zealand’s Young Football Ferns have thrashed the Cook Islands 7-0 in their first U-17 Championship match and already look set to qualify for the 2012 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Azerbaijian, which starts in September. 

Underdogs Cook Islands held out for 18 minutes before New Zealand’s Martine Puketapu opened the scoring, and three further goals in the next eleven minutes sealed the victory before half-time. The Cook Islands started the second half in more determined fashion, and it took their more illustrious opponents until the 65th minute to score their fifth goal. After that, the Islands’ brief revival was ended and the floodgates opened once more as New Zealand scored twice in the space of five minutes.

The 7-0 final scoreline suggests that, as expected, New Zealand are the tournament favourites. Their dominance in the Oceania region regularly sees their opponents on the end of humiliating defeats, with the  All Whites even handing out double-figure thrashings against some of the confederation’s weaker teams. 


Papua New Guinea's Georgina Kaikas (left) celebrates her winner

Elsewhere, Papua New Guinea’s U-17 ladies earned a deserved 1-0 win over New Caledonia thanks to Georgina Kaikas’ impressive 18th minute strike from a corner. A constant threat, Kaikas should have opened the scoring after just eight minutes – after dispossessing New Caledonia goalkeeper Deborah Selefen and holding off the attentions of defender Priscilla Gohoupe, she somehow managed to miss the gaping goal from inside the penalty area.

The dismissal of New Caledonia captain Wakalane Ngaiohni just eight minutes into the second half ended her side’s slim chances of rescuing a point, and the skipper will be suspended for their next game. New Caledonia coach Kamalie Fitialata will have a job on his hands if he is to mould his team into serious Championship contenders. 


But for wasteful finishing, including multiple one-on-one chances, Papua New Guinea would have won by a larger margin. New Caledonia’s poor performance will leave them fearing a hammering in their clash with New Zealand in Auckland tomorrow – don’t be surprised if the game ends with New Zealand having reached double figures.