by Chris Boothroyd

I watched a recent instalment of Sky’s Super Sunday in a pub a few weeks ago. The games in question were Liverpool versus Manchester United followed by Arsenal against Manchester City. I, as a Leeds fan, was joined with my friend who, hailing from Northern Scotland, is an Aberdeen fan. We were, for that day, two neutrals enjoying the football with a few beers. Surrounding us were an army of people wearing red.

A swirling mess of beer fuelled, obscenity shouting - but all around quite well behaved - took over the pub and then swiftly left after the Liverpool/Manchester game and before anybody could mutter the first jibe about £62 tickets.

Under any normal circumstance you might question why I have decided to point out the colour of the replica shirts in the pub. It was the best, and the worst, of the ever expanding reach of football in this country.

The Yorkshire town where I was that afternoon had been celebrating an unlikely cup run in the weeks prior. Sixth tier side Harrogate Town negotiated the qualifying rounds of the FA Cup to claim their place in the First Round proper and a trip to the South Coast to face Torquay. At Plainmoor, Chibuzor Chilaka’s twentieth minute goal made Harrogate history as they reached the Second Round for the first time in the club’s existence. While Town fell on their next trip down South  in a penalty shootout to Hastings  the side’s exploits were, rightly, making print. Harrogate, not a town noted for its sporting heritage, had something to be happy about, something to boast about and discuss with pride. Or so I thought.

Standing in the pub that Sunday afternoon it was evident from the replica shirts on display that while Harrogate is a two team town (Harrogate Town and Harrogate Railway), it is two clubs separated by a 50 minute journey along the M62 that hold’s the settlement’s affection. To me, that’s a sad indictment of the power of the Sky Sports machine.

My friend, who writes for a local newspaper, mentioned to me that during the FA Cup run, many inhabitants were clueless about Town’s achievements. There’s a strong argument to be made about poor advertising at a local level, but when the side plays semi-professionally then that train of thought gets eroded away. But when the cogs of Sky’s marketing department gets into full force, nothing can slow it down. “Premier League football is all that matters!” “Barcelona and Real Madrid are worth watching!” “The Champions League is the holy grail of football! Lower league stuff, pah, get out of here!”

The sad thing is, even the Premier League steamrolls over domestic football in other countries. I’ve seen it first-hand where people are more bothered about watching their stars play in the foreign, exotic and better land of English football. Blinkered arguments have been levelled against me when I’ve talked against this, highlighted the issue and debated how teams would transfer from one country to another. Football is a global game, but it solely inclusive in terms of the supporter base, not the countries in which could produce content. 
I was brought up a Leeds fan. I am not ashamed to admit that. I was born there and still live there. They’re my side, part of my city but that local pride is being lost as the game expands. Kids are seemingly more bothered about playing in virtual reality with the superstars they see weekly on the television and formulate links that way. Not in the good old-fashioned hearty way of forging local ties. Why should people bother searching out your local side, especially when they aren’t given the global spotlight, when you can simply grab the remote and watch a game in the league marketed as the ‘best in world!’? 

One beauty of football is that it can be played anywhere at any time. I just worry that with the ever expanding reach that the league gets, in this country and abroad, that the rest of football will be forgotten. On that day, Harrogate’s FA Cup heroes, their history makers, had been passed up for the glitzy Sky presentation of Manchester United’s latest tussle with Liverpool. That’s a shame. On one hand, yes of course Sky (and other broadcasters as well) need to be commended for improving the English game with large television contracts. However there does seem to be a real lack of desire and understanding for those clubs in the shadow of the Premier League. There’s the old adage that football only began in 1991, soon we may be remarking that football only exists with the top eighteen clubs in England and a few abroad.

Chris Boothroyd is the man behind The Czech Up and this is his second contribution to this site.

04/08/12: CSKA Moscow 1-3 Zenit
05/08/12: Vasco da Gama 0-0 Corinthians
09/08/12: Liverpool 3-0 Gomel
11/08/12: Zenit 5-0 Spartak Moscow
11/08/12: Paris SG 2-2 Lorient
12/08/12: Hibernian 1-1 Hearts
12/08/12: Chelsea 2-3 Manchester City
17/08/12: Cardiff City 1-0 Huddersfield Town
18/08/12: Leeds United 1-0 Wolves
18/08/12: Newcastle United 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
18/08/12: Mallorca 2-1 Espanyol
19/08/12: Wigan Athletic 0-2 Chelsea
19/08/12: Bordeaux 1-0 Rennes
19/08/12: Manchester City 3-2 Southampton
20/08/12: Everton 1-0 Manchester United
21/08/12: Spartak Moscow 2-1 Fenerbahce
22/08/12: Braga 1-1 Udinese
22/08/12: Malaga 2-0 Panathinaikos
24/08/12: Bolton Wanderers 2-2 Nottingham Forest
24/08/12: Dortmund 2-1 Werder Bremen
25/08/12: Swansea City 2-0 West Ham United
25/08/12: Chelsea 2-0 Newcastle United
25/08/12: Juventus 2-0 Parma
26/08/12: Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal
26/08/12: Liverpool 2-2 Manchester City
26/08/12: Milan 0-1 Sampdoria
26/08/12: Getafe 2-1 Real Madrid
27/08/12: Atletico Madrid 4-0 Athletic Bilbao
28/08/12: Maribor 0-1 Dinamo Zagreb
01/09/12: West Ham United 3-0 Fulham
02/09/12: Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal
02/09/12: Inter 1-3 Roma
07/09/12: Russia 2-0 Northern Ireland
07/09/12: Wales 0-2 Belgium
08/09/12: Scotland 0-0 Serbia
11/09/12: England 1-1 Ukraine
13/09/12: Leyton Orient 1-0 Brentford
14/09/12: Charlton Athletic 0-1 Crystal Palace
15/09/12: Norwich City 0-0 West Ham United
15/09/12: Sunderland 1-1 Liverpool
15/09/12: Milan 0-1 Atalanta
15/09/12: Sevilla 1-0 Real Madrid
16/09/12: Chievo 1-3 Lazio
16/09/12: Wolves 2-1 Leicester City
16/09/12: Reading 1-3 Tottenham Hotspur
17/09/12: Everton 2-2 Newcastle United
19/09/12: Celtic 0-0 Benfica
19/09/12: Chelsea 2-2 Juventus
20/09/12: Inter 2-2 Rubin Kazan
23/09/12: Liverpool 1-2 Manchester United
23/09/12: Manchester City 1-1 Arsenal
23/09/12: Lille 1-1 Lyon
26/09/12: Pescara 1-0 Palermo
26/09/12: Napoli 3-0 Lazio
27/09/12: Siena 1-0 Bologna
29/09/12: Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea
29/09/12: Manchester United 2-3 Tottenham Hotspur
30/09/12: Nottingham Forest 0-1 Derby County
30/09/12: Aston Villa 1-1 West Bromwich Albion
01/10/12: Queens Park Rangers 1-2 West Ham United
02/10/12: Spartak Moscow 2-3 Celtic
03/10/12: Zenit 2-3 Milan
03/10/12: Manchester City 1-1 Dortmund
04/10/12: Panathinaikos 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
04/10/12: Rosenborg 0-1 Bayer Leverkusen
07/10/12: Southampton 2-2 Fulham
07/10/12: Newcastle United 0-3 Manchester United
07/10/12: Hannover 1-1 Dortmund
07/10/12: Barcelona 2-2 Real Madrid
07/10/12: Milan 0-1 Inter
12/10/12: Republic of Ireland 1-6 Germany
14/10/12: Preston North End 0-0 Milton Keynes Dons
14/10/12: Shrewsbury Town 1-0 Walsall
15/10/12: Port Vale 3-0 Oxford United
16/10/12: Belgium 2-0 Scotland
17/10/12: Poland 1-1 England
19/10/12: Bordeaux 1-1 Lille
19/10/12: Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Leeds United
20/10/12: Tottenham Hotspur 2-4 Chelsea
20/10/12: Valencia 3-2 Athletic Bilbao
21/10/12: Sunderland 1-1 Newcastle United
21/10/12: Queens Park Rangers 1-1 Everton
21/10/12: Osasuna 0-0 Real Betis
23/10/12: Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Chelsea
24/10/12: Dortmund 2-1 Real Madrid
25/10/12: Maribor 1-1 Tottenham Hotspur
28/10/12: Everton 2-2 Liverpool
28/10/12: Chelsea 2-3 Manchester United
28/10/12: Bayern Munich 1-2 Leverkusen
03/11/12: Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal
03/11/12: Bolton Wanderers 2-1 Cardiff City
04/11/12: Liverpool 1-1 Newcastle United
04/11/12: Granada 1-2 Athletic Bilbao
05/11/12: West Bromwich Albion 2-0 Southampton
06/11/12: Schalke 04 2-2 Arsenal
09/11/12: Middlesbrough 3-1 Sheffield Wednesday
10/11/12: Leicester City 2-2 Nottingham Forest
11/11/12: Lazio 3-2 Roma
11/11/12: Manchester City 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur
11/11/12: Chelsea 1-1 Liverpool
11/11/12: Montpellier 1-1 Paris SG
14/11/12: Northern Ireland 1-1 Azerbaijan
17/11/12: Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur
17/11/12: Peterborough 1-4 Blackburn Rovers
18/11/12: Millwall 1-0 Leeds United
18/11/12: Fulham 1-3 Sunderland
18/11/12: Hoffenheim 1-3 Wolfsburg
19/11/12: West Ham United 1-1 Stoke City
20/11/12: Spartak Moscow 0-3 Barcelona
21/11/12: Manchester City 1-1 Real Madrid
23/11/12: Fortuna Dusseldorf 2-0 Hamburg
24/11/12: Derby County 3-2 Birmingham City
24/11/12: Palermo 3-1 Catania
25/11/12: Swansea City 0-0 Liverpool
25/11/12: Chelsea 0-0 Manchester City
25/11/12: Milan 1-0 Juventus
27/11/12: Aston Villa 1-0 Reading
28/11/12: Wigan Athletic 0-2 Manchester City
02/12/12: Norwich City 2-1 Sunderland
Swansea City= White
Liverpool= Red
‘Welcome to the lion’s den’ is a familiar lyric to those of the Blue persuasion of West London. Blared loudly before home games, it is the words from Chelsea-supporting Madness frontman Suggs and it couldn’t be more fitting for the Blues’ newest managerial appointment, Rafael Benitez. 

The much maligned Spaniard has had a sojourn from management after his wretched brief experience in Italy, picking up the shards of Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side. After a poor league campaign before the Christmas break, Benitez was relieved of his duties by Massimo Moratti after demanding that the president should deliver on his failed promises. Since then, Benitez has continually reiterated that only the right project with a vision will entice him out of his cosy suburban home in Merseyside. Linked with several posts across Europe, Benitez has shied away
claiming they failed to match his expectation. Indeed, once the Liverpool post was available, the current owners failed to acknowledge another ghost of their past.  

The question to many has been as to why hasn’t Benitez had a job, if he was ‘that’ good? Two La Liga titles, one UEFA Cup, one Champions League, one FA Cup and several other cups suggest his CV is slightly better than Harry Redknapp’s. Understandably, there is a clamour over Pep Guardiola after his marvellous work in creating a masterful team with Barcelona but that door remains firmly shut until the summer seemingly. Which other managers with that pedigree are available? 

Of course the dismissal of Roberto Di Matteo is questionable, and somewhat laughable, especially the timing of it. So early in the season, and certainly having won the elusive Champions League and FA Cup, would surely have meant Di Matteo would have been given the opportunity to deliver on Roman Abramovich’s mandate. Europe’s elite competition is lucrative and Chelsea’s failure to progress would be disastrous to their books so close to the implementation of Financial Fair Play. 
If Abramovich wants a European football specialist, there is no better available than Benitez. Many a time the Madrileno had his back against the wall needing a win in the competition and pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Liverpool’s Champions League campaign in season 2007-08 started poorly with a draw against Porto and defeats against Marseille and Besiktas. With pressure building to see Liverpool not be knocked out of the competition after a summer of huge spending bringing in Fernando Torres among others, Benitez managed to turn round the team’s fortunes by winning the remaining three games, scoring 16 and conceding one. Unfortunately for Benitez and Liverpool, they fell at the semi-final stage to Avram Grant’s Chelsea following a dramatic extra time winner from Didier Drogba. But it demonstrates what Benitez is capable of doing with a team which has far less talent and ability to what the current Chelsea team possesses. Needless to say, what he managed to do with the Liverpool team in Istanbul, a squad which contained Josemi, Djimi Traore, Vladimir Smicer among so many others. 

Benitez’s Liverpool managed to reach two Champions League finals (beating Chelsea both times en route to the final) and one semi final. In his time conquering not only an incredibly wealthy Chelsea, but also Real Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan and Arsenal highlights his meticulous mind in preparing his side to achieve progression over two legs against strong opposition. 

Indeed, his league performance over four of his seasons at Liverpool highlighted improvement and showing his understanding of the league. Runners-up to Manchester United in 2009 wasn’t followed up the season after in which he was handed his P45. For that failing, Benitez cites the boards lack of foresight and being handcuffed as the club were forced to asset strip as the club were paying high interest rates on the debt loaded on the club -a problem which he won’t have to face with Abramovich at the helm. 

There are doubts over Benitez’s personality and whether he is the right fit for a club with huge personalities and even bigger voices. There is huge scope for improvement on a talented team boasting of flair and elegance but lacking the ruthless aggression which Benitez demands of his sides, especially in the middle of the field. Benitez’s biggest challenge will be how strong his voice will be when demanding players in January, but perhaps the test is rejuvenating a certain Mr Torres. The prized £50m asset has failed to deliver on the huge investment placed on him however much like Benitez, perhaps it’s too early to right him off.  

Suhail Seedat is a podcaster and book reviewer for Lovely Left Foot.
Chelsea= Blue
Liverpool= Red
Liverpool= Red
Newcastle United= Black
Everton= Blue
Liverpool= Red
Liverpool= Red
Manchester United= White
While the Europa League has been the source of much joy with the quality of football and also the emergence of fresher faces into the competitive European mix, the format appears to detract much from the tournament’s value.
The group phase has been labelled excessive and even if you took away UEFA’s dramatisation of the draw, the group phase draw was quite an arduous process. The groups drawn are interesting in their own ways and make up a competition that is much more competitive and cosmopolitan than its more prestigious sister. Despite the difference in lustre, there is plenty to look forward to over the coming months from the Europa League as noted below.


Young Boys        
Anzhi Makhachkala

This is one of the tightest groups in this year’s draw. Brendan Rodgers’ project at Liverpool has not started well and this will be a real test of his side. Udinese continue to be a selling club so improvement continues to reduce in margin but with Antonio Di Natale still lurking around, they’ll not be an easy prospect. Young Boys are not a team to belittle and will pose plenty of problems while Anzhi Makhachkala will probably looking to win the group with the world’s highest paid player Samuel Eto’o likely to be high up the scoring chart.

Sales Point: Eto’o and Guus Hiddink are back in Europe as part of an Anzhi team that will be looking towards the knockout rounds. With Udinese, Liverpool and Young Boys to contest, this group should be highly entertaining.

If just for one game…: Anzhi Makhachkala - Liverpool (a rather horrid trip that will test Rodgers' ability)


Atletico Madrid                
Hapoel Tel-Aviv              
Viktoria Plzen               

The holders couldn’t have an easier group really. The intrigue lies in just how open the contest will be to follow Atletico through to the next phase. Viktoria Plzen would appear most likely but their Israeli and Portuguese
counterparts will not have a better chance to go into 2013 still in European competition.

Sales Point: How many goals will Falcao get in this group?

If just for one game…: Atletico Madrid - Academica (if Falcao plays, netting any less than twice would be a disappointment)


AEL Limassol

Two former Champions League regulars, with a good third side complete with likely whipping boys. Monchengladbach were excellent last season and while their biggest stars have moved on, the reinforcements mean that they will provide a genuine threat to the bigger seeds. Marseille and Fenerbahce should have enough to progress but this group is one of the most likely to see a big seed miss out on progressing.

Sales Point:  Monchengladbach’s presence in European competition adds the ideal cherry to the cake providded by the established names of Marseille and Fenerbahce.

If just for one game…: Fenerbahce - Marseille (fairly obvious reasoning behind this)


Club Brugge                       
Newcastle United           

Newcastle will be confident of progressing from this group. While Bordeaux look good, Club Brugge have seen much better days as have Maritimo (remember their games with Leeds some years back?). Of course Newcastle need to actually want to progress which thanks to recent English efforts in the Europa League is always a question mark. You’d like to think Alan Pardew will show European competition of any kind the upmost respect.

Sales Point:  The Toon Army are back on tour and have landed some pleasant and not greatly daunting destinations in the group phase. 
If just for one game…: Bordeaux - Newcastle United (great test of Newcastle’s European credentials)


VfB Stuttgart                     
FC Copenhagen                               
Steaua Bucharest            

It’s a group that will be ignored by a lot of people. People might even skip the spiel on this group. However, those European Football Experts won’t. There are plenty of stories in this group. Steaua provide entertainment in whatever situation thanks to Gig Becali’s ownership. Stuttgart and Copenhagen are good enough to target the top spot in the group. As for Molde, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s flirtation with Aston Villa came to nothing and they just might pose a threat for second place in the group. The games would appear all to be fairly close contests.

Sales Point: You could at least make half decent arguments for each team for progress. That in itself is quite something for a group in European competition.

If just for one game…: FC Copenhagen - VfB Stuttgart (the second seed hosting the top seed: the default option)



The top two seeds should provide some enjoyable matches and Juande Ramos’ Dnipro will be there to capitalise on any slip-ups from them. With the greatest of respects to AIK, it would be quite something if they managed to grab a point from this group. After watching them in the qualifying stages, it’s fair to say against opposition like this they will struggle.

Sales Point: Napoli and PSV are good to watch. Dnipro and AIK might be more cautious but there’s some genuine entertainment value in this group.

If just for one game...: Napoli - PSV (sorry, another default but looking at the two teams, this should be one of the most entertaining games of the group phase)



The composition of this group is very likeable. Basel and Genk competed in the Champions League last season and Basel in particular impressed in progressing to the knockout rounds. Big players have left the Swiss club but you’d bet on their conveyor belt to produce more talent to keep them in European contention. Sporting looked better under Sa Pinto’s tutelage and it is difficult to look past them progressing although equalling last season’s semi-final exit might be a stage beyond them. They need to show improvement on the national stage more and it’s this that creates an opening in the group that Genk and also Videoton will like to exploit. The sight of Paulo Sousa gracing a touchline in Europe is good enough reason to think Videoton to do well. Isn’t it?

Sales Point: The aforementioned likeable group composition and the openness it exudes.

If just for one game…: Sporting - Videoton (Paulo Sousa back in Portugal is enticing enough)


Rubin Kazan                      
Partizan Belgrade            

Inter’s reconstruction seems to be demonstrating optimism for the future despite the present being rather poor. Them not being in the UCL evokes memories of Moratti’s experiments prior to Mourinho and the public unveiling of Calciopoli. The trips they will be making will probably be uncomfortable for the likes of say Wesley Sneijder but you’d expect them to possess enough ability to go further in the competition. Rubin Kazan remain good enough to keep the Italian side on their toes while Partizan Belgrade are Partizan Belgrade. An honourable mention goes to Neftci from Azerbaijan. Neutrals would do well to cheer on a team nicknamed the Oil Workers.

Sales Point: Watching Massimo Moratti squirm in Belgrade, Kazan and Baku. Granted he’s been to Kazan before but that had the comforting site of Champions League livery. Now with the colours of Europa League adorning stadia, he'll be hoping it's a brief detour before returning to the shades of blue they're more accustomed to.
If just for one game…: Neftci - Inter (playing in Azerbaijan will not have been a preferred scenario for the Nerazzurri plus these fixtures illustrate the contrast that will exist no matter how more inclusive qualification is made to be)


Athletic Club                     
Sparta Prague                   
Hapoel Shmona

Lyon shouldn’t be here. Those were the words etched on the face of Jean-Michel Aulas throughout the draw. If they want to, they could go quite far here. Aulas’ expression might differ slightly but it’ll still maintain the same message. As for their fellow contestants, Athletic Club (Bilbao to most) remain the hipsters choice with Marcelo Bielsa staying albeit the signs are showing that the relationship might not last a whole lot longer. Want-away striker Fernando Llorente, the sale of Javi Martinez plus a reported altercation with ground staff seem to have knocked back the idea that the Basque club will be able to muscle in on the top four in Spain. They still possess enough to cause Lyon a few difficulties and should go through. Sparta Prague don’t inspire many words in the argument for their chances of further progress although they could at least stifle the bigger seeds enough to cause some entertainment. As for Hapoel Shmona, for the casual observer you’re more likely to think of The Knack's only hit record.

Sales Point: The names involved sell this fairly easily.

If just for one game…: Athletic Club - Lyon (San Mames’ last season in use and the welcoming of a team who will soon be moving into their very own “Land” offer two rather different perspectives on the game slowly getting a little closer)



This looks quite good for Spurs. Under Harry Redknapp, this would be horrific. The press would laugh along with him as he struggled with the pronunciation of opposition players. He would also treat the whole thing with great disdain. Now under Villas-Boas, Spurs will make more of an effort and for that, Spurs supporters should thank Daniel Levy. They possess more than enough talent to navigate this group and coupled with Maribor’s inadequacy and Panathinaikos’ financial predicament having an increasing negative effective on the team’s efforts, they should do it without too many problems. Lazio will hopefully not cast aside their chances for a league preference and judging by their impressive start to the season, there is plenty of positivity for them to jump above the stumbling Greek giants.

Sales Point: Andre Villas-Boas. Imagine him reading out the Panathinaikos team. 

If just for one game…: Lazio - Tottenham (If both teams go for it, this will be a good game to watch)


Bayer Leverkusen           
Metalist Kharkiv              
Rapid Vienna

There are too many groups aren’t there? Bayer Leverkusen will be expecting to get through this group unscathed but the contest between the other three teams will be close. Metalist Kharkiv did well last season and for that they will be expected to go through. Rosenborg are looking better, not at the level they used to be at but they will certainly rate their chances as will Rapid Vienna. How many ultimately empty statements do you want?

Sales Point: Leverkusen are managed by co-managers and that’s not a regular thing in the professional game. 

If just for one game…: Metalist Kharkiv - Bayer Leverkusen (good old default)


Hannover 96                     

Hannover 96 and Twente seem to be getting cosy in this. Levante will be delighted and revelling in their first ever European campaign. The Dutch and German teams might just be getting a little too cosy and the Spaniards just
might get through at the expense of one of them. Helsingborgs might get a few points, perhaps three when they host Levante but going further looks just beyond them given who they need to beat to get there.

Sales Point: So few people will bother with this group that you can be interested in it and look cool. Maybe. Probably not but it will bolster your European football expertise.

If just for one game…: Levante - Twente (it’s not the most glamorous of games for the Frogs faithful but they’ll be enjoying the experience because that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?)  
Sunderland= Red
Liverpool= Black