Assuncao confident for Porto trip

Atletico Madrid midfielder Paulo Assuncao is confident his side can put their poor start to the season aside and return from Wednesday night’s Champions League clash against his former club Porto with all three points.

Atletico made the short trip to Portugal under increasing pressure after taking just three points from their opening five Primera Division matches, which has left the team in the bottom three.

The Rojiblancos have not had much reason for cheer in Europe either, and they were booed off the pitch by their own fans after being held to a goalless draw by minnows Apoel Nicosia in their opening Group D game.

That was a potentially costly setback for Atletico, especially considering the other team in the group is Chelsea, but Assuncao does not feel that result has jeopardised their chances of progressing to the knockout stages.

Instead he believes they will get back on track against the Portuguese champions.

“Porto have a good team and it won’t be easy to beat them, although we also have a great squad and I think that we can defeat them and come back to Madrid with the three points,” said Assuncao, who played for Porto in the 2000/01 season and then again from 2005-08 before making the switch to Atletico.

“Not getting through to the next round isn’t something that we are thinking about. I’m sure we’ll get past the group stage.”

Abel Resino’s men go into the match having had contrasting experiences in their last two league matches, both of which finished in 2-2 draws.

Last week they were denied a first win of the campaign by a last-minute Almeria equaliser, and then on Sunday they were saved from defeat by an injury-time leveller of their own against Valencia.

“We’re going to fight just as hard (against Porto) as we did in the Valencia match. We’re really looking forward to trying to get the win,” added Assuncao.

Atletico already know from bitter recent experience just how hard it is to win at the Estadio do Dragao, though.

In last season’s competition Atletico travelled to Portugal needing to score at least once to have a chance of progressing through to the quarter-finals of the Champions League after being held 2-2 at home by Porto.

However, they were unable to find the breakthrough in a goalless draw and Porto, having dominated the first leg and been unlucky not to record a convincing victory at the Vicente Calderon, deservedly went through to the last eight.

Porto could get no further though as they were subsequently knocked out by defending champions Manchester United.

This season Jesualdo Ferreira’s side suffered a losing start to their group campaign against another English side, going down 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

They have had a much better time of it domestically than Atletico, though, winning four of their opening six games, including a 1-0 triumph over Sporting Lisbon at the weekend.

Ferreira will be without the suspended Fernando, while Atletico boss Resino has added Ruben Perez and Sergio Rodriguez to his squad for the trip west, with the non-registered Koke and the injured Juan Valera dropping out from the group that faced Valencia.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Kaka calls for real calm

Recent Champions League winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka have sought to temper the growing anticipation that this is going to be Real Madrid’s year in Europe as their side prepare to host Marseille.

Madrid have failed to get beyond the first knockout stage of the Champions League in any of the last five seasons, but few believe it will be a similar story this time around following a record-breaking summer spending spree and a flying start to the new campaign.

Buoyed by the arrival of superstars such as Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso, Madrid have won all six of their competitive games so far, scoring 21 goals and conceding just four in the process.

That has increased expectations that Madrid can seriously challenge last season’s treble winners Barcelona this term, and it is the Champions League that is attracting most interest.

Madrid have long been hunting for a record 10th European Cup crown, and with this year’s final being held at their Bernabeu home, that quest has taken on extra significance.

However, speaking ahead of the new-look Madrid’s first European home match of the season, Kaka has attempted to inject some realism into the situation, saying: “It’s not easy to win the European Cup, everyone is talking about it a lot and it seems as though Real Madrid are already in the final – the team still has to grow and improve on many things.

“We are thinking about winning and making history with Real Madrid, but we have to have a little calm,” added the Brazilian, who won the competition with AC Milan in 2007.

Ronaldo, who also has a Champions League winner’s medal after helping Manchester United to glory in 2008, echoed those thoughts, adding on his club’s website: “The fans are understandably excited about this new project, but as Kaka has said well we have to take it step by step, thinking about things game by game.

“The Champions League is a very difficult competition. We want to win it, but success doesn’t happen overnight.”

Madrid, who yesterday announced the renewal of their sponsorship deal with bwin, which has been extended until 2013, will be looking to make it two wins out of two in Group C having beaten FC Zurich 5-2 away in their opening match.

France midfielder Lassana Diarra, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Christoph Metzelder and Alvaro Arbeloa all miss out for Manuel Pellegrini’s side due to injuries.

The Spanish giants could come up against a couple of familiar faces in the Marseille squad, with Fernando Morientes and Gabriel Heinze both now at the French club and included in Didier Deschamps’ 20-man travelling squad.

Spaniard Morientes won three Champions League medals in eight years at Madrid, while Argentinian Heinze spent two years at the Bernabeu before moving to Marseille this summer.

Morientes told www.om.net: “This will be a special moment, very special. I’m going to play against Real Madrid, a club where I spent nine years, but I prepared like any other match.

“To get motivated against teams like Real or Milan is easy.”

Marseille lost their opening Group C match 2-1 at home to AC Milan but Morientes believes a win at the Bernabeu is possible if they can hit Madrid on the break.

He said: “I think their weakness is, especially at home, when they attack, because they attack with four or five players and it is precisely then that the opposing team can find the space to score.

“I think we can hurt them like that.

“This will be terribly difficult, but I have complete confidence in what we can do.”

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Reds owners dismiss selling talks

Liverpool’s co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks have issued a joint statement rubbishing reports that either party are preparing to sell their stake in the club.

The American billionaires, who each own 50% of the Anfield outfit, have however reiterated their desire to bring in fresh investment.

Reports gathered pace after Prince Faisal bin Fahad bin Abdulla of Saudi Arabia expressed a desire to buy a 50% stake.

The club have been involved in negotiations with Prince Faisal – and on Monday it was announced academies would be established in conjunction with his sports investment company F6 – but Gillett and Hicks say suggestions of a buy-out are wide of the mark.

The statement read: “The owners have jointly retained Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Rothschild to evaluate the possibility of new investors injecting equity into LFC.

“However, the process is at an early stage, there is no agreement with any party and reports to the contrary are wholly inaccurate.”

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Benitez furious over Liverpool performance

Rafael Benitez condemned his Liverpool side’s approach to their shattering 2-0 Champions League defeat by Fiorentina.

The Spaniard seemed to suggest it was the worst European performance under his Anfield management.

Two first-half goals from teenage striker Stevan Jovetic stunned Liverpool, and even with an improved display after break, the damage had already been done.

Benitez said: “In that first-half we did not play well, there were too many mistakes and problems. We did improve, but it was not enough.

“Our mentality in that opening period was just not right, we were bad all over the pitch and I cannot really recall a performance like that.

“They were on top of us all the time, we played badly and they were just better than us.”

Liverpool went behind when Jovetic broke the offside trap with Adrian Mutu deemed not to be interfering with play.

“It is the new law, and another mistake by us,” Benitez said.

“If a player is in such a position he is offside, and it makes it difficult for defenders who are distracted by him. But the law says the other player coming from deep is fine, he can go through. Just another error by us.”

Jovetic took advantage of poor defending on the near post to claim his second, and Benitez was also critical of the tackling and pressing from his team.

He said: “I was not only disappointed with the challenging in midfield but all over the pitch.

“But they did not produce anything we did not expect. We had watched them, we knew about Jovetic, there was nothing new out there that surprised us. But we still played badly.

“We now have Chelsea away at the weekend in an important Premier League game. I believe you will see a different Liverpool in that match, a totally different performance with a different mentality.

“Then we have Lyon home and away in this group, they are the leaders and it means we have to now win them both.

“We certainly will not be as bad again. If you make too many mistakes against such sides, you will be punished. It is very simple.

“Mentally we will have better days than this. We did improve, but we needed to score early in the second-half. We had the chances but we failed to take them.”

Fiorentina coach Cesare Prandelli was delighted with his own team.

The former Juventus player said: “We were fantastic, that is the best performance I have seen by a Fiorentina side in the four years I have been in charge.

“Liverpool did not play well, but that was because of the performance of my team. We were outstanding.

“Especially in that first-half when we were just fantastic. The pressure we put Liverpool under all over the pitch was wonderful to watch.

“But although we played well, I believe we can still improve, and we will have to if we are to qualify from this group.

“To have beaten such a great team with such brilliant players was an achievement, but we must not waste this and we now need to keep winning in this group.

“I will now rotate my squad for the weekend, this team is not just 11 players, but a real squad. Everyone has to play their part.

“I was delighted with Jovetic. I have always said he has great talent, but last season maybe he did not play for the team, now is working for everyone else and he is gaining his rewards.”

Wed 30 September, 2009
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FIFA have gone totally mad

lrg-209-red_cardIt is officially true, FIFA have gone totally mad. The FIFA medical chief, Michael D’Hooghe, has said Referees should show more red cards to help curb violent play.

Riches

He also went on to make a link between violent play and the financial riches on offer to players. He produced a DVD of some of football’s worst tackles in recent years to show the delegates at the FIFA medical congress.

“We see more violent fouls over the whole world, as games gain in financial importance. Some of the fouls send shivers down your spine. We see more violent fouls over the whole world. The referees have the key. They are the only ones who can impose an immediate sanction. They do not do it often enough and there is a lack of uniformity.”

He also criticised the actions of managers and coaches, who he believes may be ’hyping’ the players up too much.

“The stakes are so high I question the role of some coaches. In what frame of mind do they send out their players?”

The type of cases that D’Hooghe is talking about are thankfully fairly rare. In the 2002 World Cup twelve players received facial injuries as a result of use of the elbow. FIFA instructed referees to clamp down on it and they did. If a player deliberately uses his elbow, he is sent-off.

Injuries

It is within the domestic leagues that the most high-profile injuries occur due to foul play. In August, Standard Liege’s Axel Witsel broke both bones in the right leg of Polish international defender Marcin Wasilewski in a match against Anderlecht in Belgium.

Wasilewski has begun legal proceedings for damages, while Witsel was banned until late November.

If you have seen that tackle, you will know what an absolute horror show it was. However, the player had been banned for a lengthy spell and legal proceedings are going on, so the matter has been dealt with.

Notorious

In England, the most notorious case was in February 2008, when Birmingham’s Martin Taylor fouled Arsenal’s Eduardo causing a broken leg and ankle dislocation. Taylor was red carded and banned for three games. The matter was dealt with.

D’Hooghe has written to Fifa’s referees committee chief, Angel Villar, to express his concerns.

Of course D’Hooghe is right to condemn violent play but he is surely over-reacting to what is anly a minor problem. Anyone who is old enough to remember football from the 1970s will know that the game is a million times less violent now than it was then. There is simply no comparison.

Tackles

In those days there were fist fights on and off the ball, head butts, and some truly dreadful career threatening tackles, particularly from behind. All of those things were rarely punished by more than a telling off from the referee. It was a different game and to suggest that the modern day game is too violent is to ignore the history of the game and the excellent progress that has been made.

As long as referees continue to award red cards for violent play and the authorities back the referee with appropriate bans, then I see absolutely no problem within our game.

Thank you for your observations Mr D’Hooghe but you have exaggerated a problem that largely doesn’t exist. Not very helpful.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Juve win is the goal, insists Bayern´s van Gaal

Bayern Munich coach Louis van Gaal insists his goal is to win all five of the Germans’ remaining Champions League group stage matches – starting with main Group A rivals Juventus on Wednesday.

Bayern missed out on the chance to claim top spot in the Bundesliga on Saturday when they were beaten 1-0 at Hamburg, but while the German league defeat left van Gaal in a bad mood, a win over Juventus would keep his side top of their Champions League group.

“My work continues, my task is to win this game and every group stage match,” said the Dutchman.

The Italians warmed up for their trip to Bavaria with a 1-1 draw against Bologna in Serie A at the weekend, but there are genuine concerns in the Munich defence.

Van Gaal has an embarrassment of riches in attack with Germany forwards Mario Gomez and Miroslav Klose competing with Croatia’s Ivica Olic for the lone striker position flanked by wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.

But things are not so solid in defence, particularly at right and left back.

In Hamburg, Brazil’s Breno was used on the right with Philipp Lahm used on the left, but without success.

So far, new signings Daniel Pranjic and Edson Braafheid have not fulfilled expectations and only centre-back Daniel van Buyten is producing consistent good form while Bayern are missing Brazil’s Lucio who was sold to Inter Milan in the summer.

The Germans will have their hands full containing Juventus’ attack including Vicenzo Iaquinta, David Trezeguet and former Werder Bremen play-maker Diego in what will be the acid test of Munich’s credentials as Group A winners.

The sides experienced mixed fortunes in their opening games, Bayern winning 3-0 at Maccabi Haifa FC while Juve drew 1-1 at home against Bordeaux.

With goalkeeper Michael Rensing dropped in favour of veteran Hans-Joerg Butt, Bayern at least have stability between the posts.

Butt is still sporting a prominent black eye, the result of a collision with Gomez in training prior to the Hamburg defeat.

“Nothing?s broken,” the keeper reported, although he had to have seven stitches to a cut, received treatment right up until kick-off, and slept on his side to avoid further swelling.

Despite the shiner, Butt turned in a fine display against the league leaders and saved his side from going behind on 31 minutes with two world-class saves, but the 35-year-old was powerless to prevent Mladen Petric? late winner.

Another stern test awaits Butt and his defenders on Wednesday and Butt insists concentration will be the key.

“When top teams meet, you?re punished for the smallest error,” he said with Bayern seventh in the Bundesliga while Juventus are only second to leaders Sampdoria in Serie A.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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United, Chelsea bid to build on winning start

Manchester United and Chelsea, who faced off in the 2008 Champions League final, can put a collective foot in the second phase of this season’s edition on Wednesday if they add to opening day group wins.

But the English Premiership giants take on Germany’s Wolfsburg and Cypriots Apoel Nicosia respectively after highly contrasting weekend fortunes.

Whereas United won at Stoke to cement their good run of form since a shock loss at Burnley, Chelsea lost the chance to go three points clear after losing at Wigan, a reverse which infuriated Blues skipper John Terry.

“The least we expect from every player is that we work hard and fight and we did not do that,” Terry admitted to The Sun newspaper Monday.

Carlo Ancelotti, twice a European Cup winner as player and then also coach with AC Milan before answering the challenge to land Chelsea their first, now must rouse the team to ensure three points are brought home from Cyprus against nominally the weakest side in Group D.

“We lost one game,” said Ancelotti assessing the damage of the Wigan result which left his side behind United on goal difference in the league.

“It’s important we have a good reaction against Apoel and also Liverpool” next weekend.

Chelsea already have three points under their belts after edging Porto, who Wednesday host Atletico Madrid, 1-0 at Stamford Bridge.

United were all business in swatting Stoke to continue their largely seamless adjustment in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo era.

While the Portuguese flyer chases down a win at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium against Marseille in Group C, which also contains AC Milan, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side can build on their 1-0 success at Turkey’s Besiktas.

That win was achieved courtesy of Paul Scholes but it was fellow veteran Ryan Giggs who had Ferguson waxing lyrical after setting up both goals at Stoke.

Fergie keeps the 35-year-old with 11 Premiership and two European crowns in reserve for the most part these days – yet his impact from the bench remains significant.

“Ryan is just so important to us as a player and he is so intelligent,” Ferguson said. “I thought it was best to have him on the substitutes bench, but he just gives us something else when he is in the team.”

Wolfsburg are making their debuts on the European game’s biggest stage but in dangerous spearheads Edin Dzeko of Bosnia and Brazilian Grafite they have strikers who scored a combined 54 league goals, a Bundesliga record, on their surprise march to the title last season.

And the side from the home of Volkswagen are looking to motor through to the second phase after a Grafite hat-trick saw them power past CSKA Moscow in their first match in Germany.

“It’s every player’s dream to play at Old Trafford against Manchester United. We’re really looking forward to it,” Dzeko told UEFA.com, insisting the team will not be overawed.

CSKA will now host Besiktas as the opening match losers try not to get left behind.

After his summer switch to Real, Ronaldo will be expecting to add to his league goals tally of five against a Marseille side who lost ground in the French league title race with a surprise weekend loss at Valenciennes that left them five points adrift of Bordeaux and three behind Lyon.

The only French side to lift the European Cup shipped four goals on their last visit to the Bernabeu six years ago.

Ronaldo will be fired up after greeting his subsitution in a weekend stroll against Tenerife with a little fit of pique.

The starlet kicked out at a stray ball and did not acknowledge coach Manuel Pellegrini after leaving the fray. Pellegrini shrugged off the topic.

“I don’t see any problem. No player likes being substituted. I do what is best for the team and the result was safe,” he stressed.

Real started off their campaign for a tenth title – but first since 2002 – with a 5-2 win in Zurich.

But the pressure is on with Milan set to pick up a home success over the Swiss.

As Pellegrini admits, the Spaniards must achieve something concrete this year with the final at their own stadium.

“It has been too long since Madrid had a proper run in the Champions League,” he told UEFA.com.

“For Madrid to win the cup for a tenth time and at our own stadium is a great challenge, and we are all optimistic.”

Group A completes Wednesday’s action with four-times champions Bayern Munich hosting two-times winners Juventus and French pacesetters Bordeaux going up against Maccabi Haifa of Israel.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Evans on verge of United breakthrough

Sir Alex Ferguson believes Jonny Evans is close to breaking up his first-choice defensive partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.

Northern Ireland defender Evans, 21, was regularly involved last season after spending the previous campaign on loan at Sunderland.

The centre back covered in Ferdinand’s regular injury-enforced absences and made a total of 32 appearances as United retained the Premier League and reached the Champions League final.

He played a key role in the goalless draw at Inter Milan in the last 16, as well as playing against Porto and Arsenal in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively.

Ferdinand has again struggled with injury problems at the start of the current campaign and Evans has been a reliable deputy.

Ferguson admits Evans’ fine form means that one day he will start key matches — even when both Ferdinand and Vidic are available.

He said: “It is very difficult for me at the moment and I said to him last week that I don?t know if I am doing the right thing by him by leaving him out because his performance level has been so high that at times I have been unfair to him.

“The one thing that justifies me leaving him out at times is the performance levels of the other centre-backs and their experience. Jonny is still young and has a great future ahead of him.

“The time time will come. The one thing about football is that young players in particular they come back from one summer and they are a different player with a different physique and they tell you by their performance that it is time to go in.

“It has happened at this club on numerous occasions and I would always think that that is the great worry for an experienced player that one of their own from their own academy or reserves is going to take their place.”

Evans, who has now established himself as a regular in Nigel Worthington?s Northern Ireland team, admits that last term was a breakthrough campaign for him.

And the defender, whose brother Corry, 19, is making a name for himself in the reserves at United, thinks that each high-profile match that passed made him feel more and more at home in Ferguson?s team.

“You have your ups and downs in a season but as the season moved on I got more confident in my own ability and settled in quickly I think,” he said.

Evans rejects the suggestion that United are now a more close-knit squad following Cristiano Ronaldo?s 80-million-pound move to Real Madrid.

But he feels that the Portuguese?s departure has meant that United?s players have had to step up to make up for the absence of Ronaldo?s regular goals.

“I just think that we have to spread the goals a bit and we have been doing that. Goals have been coming all over the pitch but the lads have always had the ability to do that.

“But I think because Ronaldo was such a good player he used to take all the penalties and free-kicks and that is why his name was on the score-sheet a lot.”

Owen Hargreaves, meanwhile, is back at United?s Carrington training ground full-time after several months in America working to recover from a long-standing knee problem.

Ferguson feels the England midfielder has settled well with his team-mates and hopes he will be involved in the first team within a month.

The United manager said: “He is doing very well and I am very pleased. He is delighted to be back obviously, it has been a long time for the kid but he is back and I think we will get him back to training in 10 days time.

“I think depending on how well he does in training he should be back at the beginning of November.”

Wed 30 September, 2009
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FIFA says Honduras is safe to host US in Cup qualifier

Chaos in Honduras has not created such safety risks as to force the movement of a scheduled World Cup qualifying match against the United States, FIFA officials said here Tuesday.

Hours after Honduran officials protested any notion of moving their October 10 home qualifier against the US squad, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said the crisis would not force relocation of the crucial match.

FIFA does reserve the right to revisit the issue should conditions change.

The issue became a concern after Mexican side Toluca announced Monday it would not travel to Honduras for a CONCACAF Champions League match, citing safety concerns in the wake of riots and military crackdowns.

But Toluca made a reversal on Tuesday and said it would travel to San Pedro Sula for the weekend match against Marathon.

With two matches remaining in the hunt for three North American berths at the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the Americans top the table on 16 points, one ahead of Mexico and three better than Honduras with Costa Rica on 12.

The fourth place team will face South America’s fifth-place team in a playoff to determine another trip to South Africa.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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Ghana crush England to advance at World Youth Championship

Ghana are through to the second round of the World Youth Championship following an impressive 4-0 win over England, who in turn have very little chance of surviving the group phase.

Dominic Adiyiah put Ghana in the lead after 38 minutes in the city of Ismaïlia, and Andre Ayew doubled the gap three minutes before the hour.

A goal from Ransford Osei ended all English hope in minute 82 and 19-year-old striker Adiyiah added another, six minutes later.

Ghana and Uruguay are now certain of a spot in the next round, and get to battle for first place when the two meet each other on Friday. Uzbekistan and England face for third place in Group D.

Wed 30 September, 2009
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