Defoe breaks record as Spurs progress

Jermain Defoe scored his 23rd European goal for Spurs to break Martin Chivers’ record in a 2-1 win against Sheriff Tiraspol at White Hart Lane that saw them progress to the next round of the Europa League.

A drab match was enlivened by an encouraging performance from Spurs’ record-signing Erik Lamela, who opened the scoring on the hour with a simple finish before a superb run earned a penalty, which Defoe scored with aplomb.

Sheriff midfielder Ismail Isa grabbed an acrobatic consolation from close range to prevent Spurs recording a fourth consecutive clean sheet, but the North Londoners were thereafter untroubled and comfortably held on for the win.

Spurs, who rested Hugo Lloris and welcomed back Etienne Capoue from injury, dominated the early exchanges and forced the first save of the game when Mousa Dembele’s powerful shot was pushed clear by Sheriff goalkeeper Vjekoslav Tomic.

The visitors, who were playing without any away support, suddenly burst into life after a timid start when Ricardinho led a swift counter-attack before finding Ismail Isa, whose deflected shot hit the post with Brad Friedel stranded.

Moments later, a wayward pass from Christian Eriksen presented Ricardinho with a good opportunity 20 yards out, but the Brazilian could only hook his shot wide of goal.

Spurs, who had barely threatened Sheriff’s well-organised defence, then went close two minutes before the break when the lively Lamela’s cutback was deflected onto the base of Tomic’s near post.

After a dour opening to the second half, Spurs were unlucky not to take the lead when Eriksen’s well-struck drive was superbly tipped over the bar by a flying Tomic.

It was a moment that clicked Spurs into gear, and they took the lead soon afterwards when Eriksen’s scooped pass deflected perfectly into the path of Lamela, who scored with ease from twelve yards.

The Argentine forward, who has endured a tough start to his Spurs career after a £25m summer move from current Serie A leaders Roma, then turned provider when a dazzling run drew a rash challenge inside the area, leaving referee Kenn Hansen with no alternative but to point to the spot.

Lamela’s good work was rewarded when Jermain Defoe slammed home the penalty to score his fifth Europa League goal of the season, breaking Chivers’ long-standing record in the process.

At this stage, Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas might have been expecting an uneventful finish to the game, but his team handed Sheriff a lifeline five minutes later when Friedel could only parry Cadu’s long-range shot to the feet of Isa, who tucked the ball home from a tight angle.

Drawn forward in search of an unlikely equaliser, Sheriff were always in danger of conceding a third and it almost came via Lewis Holtby, whose follow-up effort was saved by Tomic after the Croatian could only fumble a drive from substitute Harry Kane.

There was late tension in amongst the home fans when Kyle Naughton conceded a free-kick in stoppage time, but Spurs held firm and took the win which booked their place in the next round.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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The lowdown on BT Sport’s free weekend

As battles go, this was as one-sided as they come.

BT Sport certainly picked a good weekend to open up their channels to everyone in what they billed as their ‘free weekend’.

By comparison, their archrivals Sky Sports, the other protagonists in this war of the sport broadcasters, had a meek splattering of goods on offer for their customers – who at £60 per month are being stripped of £720 per year. That sum would be sufficient to buy a season ticket at most Premier League grounds.

Even so, for at least a decade Sky have held the throne as the Kings of all things sport in the UK, but this season the tide looks to be turning.

BT Sport have them worried, and why not?

They’re offering free viewing to all customers with BT Broadband and, for those without the broadband deal, a fee of just £12 per month to view 38 first-pick Premier League games, an array of top Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 matches, plus comprehensive coverage of the Aviva Premiership.

That’s just for starters. If you’re a self-confessed sport addict then BT Sport could prove to be the perfect place for you.

Allied to the sport mentioned above, there’s football action from the MLS, A-League and Brazilian top flight plus other bits and bobs such as tennis, UFC, Major League Baseball and a generous helping of some innovative, interactive and engaging panel shows – the best of which is fronted by Tim Lovejoy and Matt Dawson on a Saturday morning.

On Saturday, BT Sport trumped Sky with their coverage of Crystal Palace against Arsenal. They also delighted in showing Inter Milan’s entertaining 4-2 win over Verona, while there was also a very watchable 3-0 victory for Wolfsburg against Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga.

If Sky can’t match the variety of BT Sport, then they can certainly pack a big punch of their own with the most anticipated fixture in La Liga – El Clasico.

It was rather unfortunate for Sky then, that the match was under-par by El Clasico standards – a 2-1 win for Barcelona failed, judging by various social media outbursts, to get the pulse racing.

Gareth Bale was largely anonymous and Lionel Messi was overshadowed by Neymar. That said, the goals scored by Barcelona were of high quality, particularly Neymar’s opener in which he embarrassed two Real Madrid defenders before finding the net.

The fact that the match disappointed wasn’t Sky’s fault, but what is evident is that if you put all your eggs in one basket – as Sky have done with their lack of variety – then the occasional anti-climax will inevitably happen.

But Sky’s tonic to that frustration is their Formula One coverage, which this weekend encompassed Sebastian Vettel’s title-clinching victory in the Indian Grand Prix.

Sky also screened the fifth one day international between India vs. Australia – or would have done had play not been abandoned because of rain.

Aside from that, Sky had very little to offer last weekend. Various repeats were screened and events like the CIMB Classic golf tournament from Kuala Lumpur did little to wrestle the attention away from BT Sport.

Sunday was slightly better for Sky, with the Tyne and Wear derby preceding the clash between Chelsea and Manchester City – once again their ability to show the top football matches in the Premier League proved the main draw to their coverage.

The second NFL London game between the Jaguars and the 49ers was also available to Sky customers, but they lost out on millions of spectators as it was also on offer to terrestrial viewers over on Channel 4, who have maintained their growing grasp on the sport in this country.

It was, at this point on Sunday teatime, as if BT Sport had their opponents on the ropes. It wasn’t long before they delivered a final blow.

France’s two cash-rich clubs, Monaco and PSG, kicked off one after the other – enabling viewers to gorge themselves on Ligue 1 action that is quickly being elevated to a higher level thanks to players such as Monaco’s Radamel Falcao and PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

If that wasn’t enough, then a brilliant panel show featuring top football journalists from France, Italy and Germany, presented by the insuperable James Richardson, gave viewers a comprehensive and informative round-up of the best Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 action.

In critical terms, Sky’s service to sport fans has been bettered by BT Sport – and by some way.

The diehard Premier League fans will always flock to Sky, but BT Sport are slowly cranking up the pressure in that department as they bid to show more and more games per season.

Then there is the issue of costing. Would you pay £60 per month for Sky or £12 per month for BT Sport? True, Sky will have autumn international rugby Tests and the Ashes coming up soon, but when they’re all done and the viewers are sat down in February, what else is there to watch?

BT Sport will always be there with a good variety of sport, and it’s a strategy which is intrinsic to their quest to surpass Sky as the country’s leading sports broadcaster.

On the evidence of the last weekend at least, BT Sport have won the battle. Give them a few more years and they may well have won the broadcasting war.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

Who are the best and worst football presenters?

The pundits and commentators have had their turn and now, in the last instalment of this three-part blog, the presenters are now in the spotlight.

Arguably the most important part of any live or recorded transmission of a football match, the presenters come under the most scrutiny, so it will be interesting to see whether you agree with my top five best and worst.

As always, I’ll begin with the best:

5. Gary Lineker, BBC

Lineker is perhaps the most prominent presenter on our screens as host of the long-running Match of the Day. He has an affable demeanour on screen and is one of just a handful of ex-players to have successfully made the transition from the pitch to the studio. Lineker rarely makes errors and delivers unbiased judgements on controversial topics – unlike some of his impulsive (and repulsive) colleagues.

4. Ray Stubbs, ESPN

A veteran of football broadcasting, ‘Stubbsy’ is well-known for his calm and engaging presenting style. His on-screen manner is such that he allows the pundits to do their work – rather than cut them off with barbed and empty opinions. Stubbs is almost flawless in his delivery and maintains a time-honoured professionalism throughout his broadcasts, making him a highly-respected football presenter.

3. Mark Pougatch, BBC 5live

It’s perhaps a shame that Pougatch is largely restricted to the airwaves (with an occasional appearance on MOTD2), because he is one of the finest presenters around. At home covering either live matches or phone-ins, Pougatch has a crisp and listenable style that has earned him plaudits from many 5live fans. The BBC would do well to promote him into the MOTD2 slot on a regular basis after Colin Murray’s departure.

2. Jeff Stelling, Sky Sports

Who doesn’t like Jeff? Animated, humorous and always worth a watch, he is the star presenter of Sky’s football coverage. He’s forged a reputation of almost legendary proportions on the hugely popular ‘Gillette Soccer Saturday’, and is also responsible for presenting live league cup games. While it’s a little mysterious that he isn’t given Premier League games on Monday Night Football, he will continue to shine on a Saturday afternoon with Messrs Merson, Thompson and Kamara.

1. James Richardson, BBC & ESPN

Something of an enigma these days, Richardson can be found presenting BBC South’s Late Kick-Off show, with seamless class. Always interesting to watch and with a unique presenting style, Richardson carved his lofty status as presenter of Channel 4’s popular Gazzetta Football Italia where he often seen filming at an Italian cafe gazing at a Gazzetta Dello Sport with an ice cream sundae. These days, his presenting of Italian football extends only to ESPN’s Serie A coverage, but he would be more than capable of presenting on Match of the Day or at other high-profile jobs.

The bad:

5. Dan Walker, BBC

Like BBC commentator Steve Bower, Walker is being groomed for the top by the Beeb. Many viewers will wonder why, when Walker has barely earned praise for his plain and naive presenting style. Currently presenting Football Focus, Walker is also heard on 5live irritating listeners with an over-friendly and boyish approach. Has the potential to be a top presenter, but his sudden rise has raised a few eyebrows – perhaps he’s seen as a natural replacement for Jake Humphrey?

4. Colin Murray, BBC

Too chummy with fellow colleagues, possessor of an annoying voice and user of tumbleweed gags – just a few reasons why Colin Murray should take his rightful place on the list of bad presenters. It seems the BBC agrees, with Murray being demoted from the hot seat on Match of the Day 2 to his everyday radio commitments from the 2013/14 season onwards.

3. Matt Smith, ITV

Matt…Smith…has…a…very…distinct…style. If you hadn’t already guessed from my sarcasm, Smith has a strong and irritating fondness for the artistic pause. In fact, his pausing is so obvious you can pretty much predict what he’s going to say before he’s even said it. Despite this, his presenting is largely undramatic and mostly error-free, although many critics have pointed out that his knowledge of the game is lacking in some departments. If he were to iron out the pauses he wouldn’t be on this list.

2. Mark Chapman, BBC

There’s not much that Mark Chapman cannot do when it comes to annoying football fans. Blessed with a voice more akin to that of the Milkybar kid than a front-line football presenter, he is guilty of a series of uninspiring presenting displays. Some elements of Chapman’s presenting are fine – including his thorough knowledge of the game – but he lets himself down with some glaring errors and, like Murray, is often too chummy with pundits on-screen – notably Robbie Savage. With Chapman at the helm, it’s not difficult to see why Final Score looks amateurish in comparison to Soccer Saturday.

1. Adrian Chiles, ITV

Don’t get me wrong, I find Chiles’ sense of humour fairly inoffensive having been brought up by and spent time with several Midlanders in my life, but for the majority of football fans he infuriates rather than delights. Twitter is always a hazardous place for football presenters, but the horrific abuse Chiles gets from fans on the social networking site is sometimes unbelievable. That said, criticisms are not without justice, mainly due to his proneness to big gaffes and his dour, dead-pan style. His most recent error, and perhaps the most amusing, was when he left his backpack on the ITV sofa during the half-time break of the Brazil vs England game. When ITV came back on air, his backpack was in full view. While this is mainly his fault, the ITV producers should also be criticised for not noticing. ITV really could, and should, do better.

Will England miss out on World Cup 2014 qualification?

Nestling beneath the predictable hyper-positive build-up to England’s forthcoming fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro is an important caveat which continues to be overlooked.

The prospect of England not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer would have been largely unthinkable when they thumped Moldova 5-0 in their first qualifying match last September.

Since then, Roy Hodgson’s men have only recorded one more win in three games – a 5-0 drubbing of lowly San Marino – which was sandwiched in between disappointing 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland.

Despite being two points off leaders Montenegro in Group H, England know that defeat to the Montenegrins on Tuesday would put them five points adrift of automatic qualification (assuming they beat San Marino tomorrow), and provided Montenegro also sweep aside minnows Moldova.

A five point gap, with four games remaining, could be insurmountable as the Three Lions would still face a tricky fixture away to Ukraine and a crucial match at home to Montenegro, who have already proven they can frustrate England – they recorded two creditable draws against them in qualification for Euro 2012.

If England were to miss out on automatic qualification, they could face a play-off against the likes of Spain or France in a worst-case scenario.

Dangerous teams such as Portugal, Sweden and Croatia are also play-off prospects after average starts to their respective qualifying campaigns.

This means that victory for England in Podgorica on Tuesday is absolutely essential, yet it doesn’t seem clear cut at all.

England’s defenders have deserted them. John Terry has retired from international football, the recalled Rio Ferdinand’s intricate pre-match preparations were deemed sufficient for him to withdraw from the squad, while Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones are all injured.

This means that England’s centre-back partnership will most likely hinge upon Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, despite neither player being regular choices for Manchester City or United respectively.

Lack of match-practice and a relative level of inexperience when compared to other players means that Montenegro’s in-form strike partnership of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic – both prolific scorers for Fiorentina and Juventus in Serie A – will be licking their lips on Tuesday.

It’s a hazardous situation for England, but one which they can overcome.

A draw would not be the worst result for them, but it could potentially allow Poland to move level on points with them when they inevitably thrash San Marino the same day.

Defeat would move a play-off position ever closer, and the probability of coming through a two-legged tie against difficult opposition is no better than evens.

So, amongst all the world-beating headlines that will stick to the England team throughout the next few days, the gory sub-plot of failing to qualify for the World Cup remains an all too realistic shadow – and one which will intensify over Hodgson’s head should the unthinkable materialise.