Wednesday 29 January 2020

More League Cup Stories: Remembering Germany's Ligapokal

Having recently wrote about the demise of the Coupe de Ligue in France I thought it was worth looking at another League Cup competition that for a short while graced one of Europe's great footballing countries - the Ligapokal.

Introduced in 1997 to replace Germany's DFL-Supercup, the DFL-Ligapokal unlike league cup competitions elsewhere was played as pre-season tournament involving just six teams. The previous season's top five Bundesliga sides were joined by that season's DFB-Pokal (cup) winners with an extra place given to the sixth placed league side if the DFB-Pokal winners had finished in the top five. The competition was scrapped in 2009 after a one year hiatus and for the final season in 2007, the fifth placed Bundesliga side were replaced by the winners of the 2. Bundesliga.

For the first edition in 1997, four teams competed in a preliminary round before the two winners were joined by the league champions and the cup winners, this became the usual format for the competition. The very first match of the inaugural tournament saw Karlsruher SC defeat Bayer Leverkusen on penalties after a 2-2 draw in 90 minutes. Two days later Borussia Dortmund would join Karlsruher SC in the semi finals after defeating VfL Bochum 1-0. The semi finals saw DFB-Pokal holders VfB Stuttgart and reigning Bundesliga champions FC Bayern München both enter the competition. Stuttgart defeated Karlsruher 3-0 before losing the final 2-0 to FC Bayern in front of just over 15000 spectators at the Ulrich-Haberland-Stadion in Leverkusen after Bayern had defeated Borussia Dortmund 2-0 in their semi final. 

FC Bayern would, in fact, win the first four editions of the tournament defeating Stuttgart again in the following year's final before victories over Werder Bremen and Hertha BSC in the finals of the third and fourth instalments of the competition. Hertha BSC who lost the 2000 final 5-1 to FC Bayern would themselves win the following two finals defeating FC Schalke 04 4-1 on both occasions. There would be two further final victories for FC Bayern in the last five seasons of the tournament to take their tally to six - a tournament record ahead Hertha BSC and their two titles. Hamburger SV, Schalke, and Weder Bremen would also win the tournament.

When a Miroslav Klose goal saw FC Bayern beat Schalke 1-0 in the 2007 final, at what is now the Red Bull Arena in Leipzig, it signalled the end of the competition for good. No one would know this at the time, however. Due to expected fixture congestion after Euro 2008, the following year's edition was to be cancelled with initially the tournament supposed to return in 2009, something that ultimately never happened. After the 2008 cancellation came plans to restructure the competition as a much larger tournament more similar to the English League Cup or the Coupe de la Ligue in France. A survey at the time from Kicker magazine found that 18 of the 36 Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga clubs were in favour of an expanded tournament. The exact shape of this restructured competition was, however, unclear and the 2009 edition ended up being cancelled with discussions ongoing. In the end, however, nothing ever materialised and the competition never returned. 

With the Ligapokal no longer taking place, it's predecessor the DFL-Supercup was revived. The competition saw the Bundesliga champions face off against the DFB-Pokal winners in a one-off match just before the season started. Although in the absence of the Ligapokal in 2008 and 2009 the German football league (DFL) refused to sanction requests for a Supercup match to take place unofficial games were agreed and played between the relevant clubs. Once the Ligapokal had finally been scrapped for good, however, the DFL agreed to officially revive the event for the summer of 2010 and it has continued ever since.

Sitting alongside the DFL-Supercup since its reintroduction in 2010 has been an unofficial competition known as the Telekom Cup. Similar to the now defunct Ligapokal, the four team tournament gets its name due to a sponsorship deal with Deutsche Telekom. Teams are invited to take part based on league positions from the previous season and having originally consisted of matches that lasted for only 60 minutes it now consists of 45 minute games with no half-times all of which take place across one single day.

The DFL-Supercup continues as a season opener each year and as it stands there a no plans to revive the Ligapokal. Germany's pre-season league cup tournament is seemingly consigned to the history books for good.

Saturday 25 January 2020

On This Day 23 Years Ago: Two Cracking FA Cup Goals

One was a 23-year-old winger, the other was a well known former international, aged 36, coming towards the end of an illustrious career as an attacking midfielder. On this day 23 years ago, 1997, these two players both scored exceptional goals in fourth round FA Cup Ties.

A young Trevor Sinclair had joined Queen's Park Rangers for £600,000 in 1993 and in the 1996-97 season the club found themselves back in Nationwide League Division One having been relegated from the FA Carling Premiership the previous season. The club would finish that season five points outside the play-off places and lose to Premiership side Wimbledon in the fifth round of the FA Cup. The 2-1 defeat away in South London that knocked them out, however, is largely forgotten, but their fourth round tie at home to fellow Division One side Barnsley on 25 January is well remembered, specifically for one moment in particular. Enter Mr Sinclair. 

With QPR down to ten men and clinging onto a 2-1 lead Danny Maddix, out on the wing deep inside opposition territory, hit the ball back to John Spencer who fired the ball forward. The ball happened to fly towards Sinclair who with his back to goal leapt into action and hit an audacious overhead kick that looped into the net with the keeper nowhere near it. It was an absolutely stunning goal that was later voted Goal of the Season by Match of the Day. A rare piece of brilliance, the like of which only comes around once in a blue moon. A truly terrific goal, and all-time FA Cup classic. For the record, the match finished 3-2.
Just over 200 miles away at Goodison Park in Liverpool, Everton of the Premiership were playing Division One side Bradford City that same afternoon with Chris Waddle featuring for the visitors. Not getting any younger, Waddle's career had seen him reach a World Cup semi final and also feature in a European Cup final, before eventually finding himself in the second tier of English football. 

Two minutes after taking the lead on 49 minutes Bradford found themselves 2-0 up when Waddle scored an absolute screamer. Of course, overshadowed by Sinclair's astounding effort it was, nonetheless, a cracking goal in its own right. Running to pick up the ball 45yds out from goal Waddle then, seeing the goalkeeper off his line, promptly chipped the ball towards the goal over said keeper and into the net sending the travelling support into raptures. Like QPR, Bradford won the match 3-2 and like QPR they also lost in the next round.

That same day saw Premiership side and finalists that season Middlesbrough struggle to a 3-2 victory away at non-league Hednesford Town whilst the previous season's winners Manchester United could only manage a 1-1 draw at home to Wimbledon in a tie they would lose via a 1-0 replay defeat. The following day the BBC television cameras saw Liverpool 2-0 up within 21 minutes at Stamford Bridge only for home side Chelsea to fight back in the second half and win 4-2 in what was a fascinating cup tie. Chelsea went on to win the cup that year with Roberto Di Matteo's goal after just 45 seconds no longer the fastest ever cup final goal. The route to the final for opponents Middlesbrough had as well as a trip to Hednesford also included being taken to replay by Division Two side Chesterfield in the semi finals. Chesterfield captured the hearts of the nation by taking 2-0 lead against their Premiership opposition but after a 2-2 draw in 90 minutes had to come from behind in extra-time to force a replay which they, unfortunately, lost 3-0. 

This piece has been featured on Pundit Feed

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Winning the League by 0.04 of a Goal: Remembering When Kilmarnock Became Champions of Scotland

All the odds were stacked against Kilmarnock or so it seemed. To pip Heart of Midlothian to the Scottish Football League Division One title, they had beat their title rivals away from home by at least a 2-0 scoreline without conceding. This was thanks to the Edinburgh club's superior goal average as Hearts went into the final match of season two points ahead of them in an era when teams were awarded only two points for a win. For Hearts, what would be a third title in eight seasons seemed almost a given, for Kilmarnock, a first ever league title seemed improbable. But could the unlikely happen? Might the boys from Ayrshire actually make history?

Having been relegated in the first season of Scottish football when it resumed after the second world war, Kilmarnock Football Club spent the next seven seasons in the second division which until 1955 was known as Scottish League Division B. Although the club had spent most of their pre-war history in the top flight they had generally finished mid table or bottom half and two fifth placed finishes at the turn of the century were the highest they'd ever managed in the top division. Scottish Cup runners up in 1898, two semi finals, the last of which coming in 1907, were the closest they'd came to glory in all other seasons. Kilmarnock were not traditionally a big name club and certainly had never challenged the big two Old Firm sides in any meaningful way. As the 1960s dawned, however, things were beginning to look up for Killie. The clubs first season back in the top flight in 1954-55 had seen them finish 10th whilst finishes of 8th, 3rd, 5th, and then 8th again followed in what was those days an 18 team league, and that was just the beginning!

Kilmarnock's rise in the 1960s did not come through acquiring top names. Managed by Willie Waddell who took charge in 1957, Killie were a team of mostly Scottish born players and featured very few internationals with many of their squad one club players. Few went on to become big names at the larger clubs, with Tommy McLean who made his Killie debut, aged 17, in 1964 probably the only exception. McLean went on to win a host of titles and cups at Glasgow Rangers including the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1972 and a domestic treble in 1975-76. Players such as defenders Jackie McGrory and Andy King, however, never played for anyone else and both would play a vital role in the club's success without ever being snapped up by bigger name rivals. McGrory, an ever present in the team who between August 1962-December 1964 did not miss a single game, was by some considered the finest ever centre half to have played for the club whilst King would go on to play 21 times for Kilmarnock in European competitions to this day still a club record.

Despite the lack of big names Kilmarnock did, however, develop a solid defensive team who for much of the early to mid 60s were conceding on average barely more than a goal a game and several seasons conceded fewer than anyone else in the whole division. This strong defensive unit certainly paid dividends as the club started the decade with four second placed finishes in five seasons with the first of those seeing Killie finish one solitary point behind champions Rangers. Kilmarnock over this period could have easily been given the tag of nearly men and to emphasise this point over that same period they also lost 3 cup finals, one Scottish Cup final and two League Cup deciders. One can assume, then, that those involved with the club were rather keen to shake off the bridesmaid tag when the 1964-65 season got underway...

Kilmarnock started their 64-65 league campaign in tremendous style with six straight wins and, opening with a 3-1 home win over Third Lanark, Killie did not lose a league match until December 12 when they were beaten 5-1 away at Greenock Morton. Kilmarnock found themselves with only one league defeat to their name come Christmas with 12 wins and four draws from their opening 17 games. Once again defence had been the key - Kilmarnock had only conceded 14 goals in those opening 17 matches and five of them had come in one match. If they were going to finally swap the runners up position for a league championship then this season would surely have to be the one. 

Yes, McGrory, King, and Matt Watson were formidable in defence during that first half of the season but up front Ronnie Hamilton had also been a key player too scoring ten goals before Christmas. Jackie MacInally had also scored seven with others such as Jim McFadzean chipping in as well. Hamilton would never have as big a long term impact at the club as some of the others, and indeed he was sold part way through the following season, but his goals in the first half of 64-65 were priceless.

Kilmarnock, however, had not been the only team in fine form. Before losing 3-1 to Killie in their final match before Christmas, Hearts had actually led the table having been unbeaten all season so far. It was Killie, though, who would find themselves in pole position once the Christmas and New Year period were out the way. Boxing Day and New Year's Day saw Third Lanark and St Mirren both hammered 4-0 by Kilmarnock as they romped to the top of table and Hearts relinquished their lead in the title race.

Things were going swimmingly for Kilmarnock but it would not last as after New Year's Day the club lost four out of their next five league games and dreams of the title seemed to once again be slipping away. Killie then won three and lost one of their next four before two draws followed, and with Hearts beginning to drop points themselves a now inconsistent Kilmarnock were just about keeping their heads above water in the title race. All was not completely lost then. 

An astonishing 7-1 home defeat for Hearts against Dundee in February and the 1-0 defeat away at Motherwell that followed were supervened by five straight victories before a draw and a win took them into the final game of the season. For Kilmarnock, meanwhile, seven victories out of six preluded their final game meaning despite those post festive period setbacks they found themselves only two points behind a table topping Hearts side going into that final weekend of the season. In what is still to date the only season in the whole history of Scottish football where Celtic and Rangers finished outside the top four, it was either Ayrshire or the maroon half of Edinburgh where the title was heading.

Kilmarnock's opponents in that final game of the season? None other than Hearts themselves! A massive title decider was on the cards! A win for Killie away at their Edinburgh based opponents would see the pair level on points but Hearts' superior goal average, used at the time to separate teams level on points, meant Kilmarnock would need to win the game at least 2-0 and not concede to secure the title. Dividing goals scored by goals conceded in what was known as goal average meant a 3-1 or 4-2 win for Kilmarnock would see Hearts win the title but a 2-0 scoreline for the visitors would secure them the title for themselves. With the mathematics seemingly far more complicated than under the current widely used system of goal difference it made KIlmarnock's task arguably even harder than it would at first sight nowadays seem. For many, it looked like Kille had no chance at all!

28 April 1965 was Kilmarnock's day of destiny but the build up to the game was unusually low key. McLean who lived closer to Edinburgh than Kilmarnock was able to make his own way to the game and was told to arrive only one hour before kick-off - this for the arguably the biggest game in the clubs history! 

More than 36000 spectators were present at Hearts' Tynecastle home and Kilmarnock looking for those vital two goals found themselves ahead in the 26th minute to the dismay of most of those fans. McLean found Davie Sneddon at the far post and Sneddon was able to head the ball home. Boom, 1-0 Killie. 1-0 rather quickly became 2-0 and the visitors were in dreamland. Brian McIlroy received a pass from Bertie Black on the edge of the box, and despite Hearts appealing for offside, smashed a brilliant left footed drive into the far corner of the net.

2-0 was the half-time score and both teams were on the offensive in the second period, but Hearts only needed one goal and Killie could not afford to concede. Ronald Jenson hit the post for the home side early on and the tension was palpable. McLean came close to grabbing a third for Killie but it wasn't to be whilst for the home side an Alan Gordon miss is still talked about today. In truth, however, Bobby Ferguson in the Killie goal made a fantastic save. That Gordon effort was the last real chance of the game, Killie's defence held firm and the match finished 2-0, Kilmarnock had done it! The home side was despondent but the visitors were jubilant, Willie Waddell raced onto the pitch and was jumping for joy amongst his ecstatic players. Kilmarnock had won their first ever league title and managed it against all the odds - or in goal average terms by 0.04 of a goal!

Thousands of locals lined the streets of Kilmarnock as the team coach made it's way back to the club's Rugby Park ground and the town turned into one big party. The team had finally shaken off their runners up tag but having said that, a decade or so earlier fans of the small town club would probably have never imagined their team could finish runners up let alone win the title!

The following season Kilmarnock dropped down to third whilst a couple of seventh placed finishes followed, the team began to struggle and in 1972-73, some nine seasons after that title triumph, the team were relegated from the top flight having finished second bottom. The club has never come anywhere near the title since and after finishing third in 1965-66 did not finish that high again until last season when they finished third in the Premiership, albeit some 20 points behind champions Glasgow Celtic.

Despite never coming close to winning the league again, the 1960s did almost see one last moment of glory when the club reached the semi finals of a European competition in 1966-67. Having in 1964 famously beaten Eintracht Frankfurt 5-4 on aggregate in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup after a stunning 5-1 home win, the club were then defeated 6-1 on aggregate by Everton, whilst the following season Real Madrid knocked them out of the European Cup with a 7-3 aggregate scoreline. Their most successful European campaign, however, came a season later when they again participated in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Belgian side Royal Antwerp were hammered 7-1 at home in an 8-2 aggregate victory before fellow Belgians La Gantoise were beaten 3-1 on aggregate which was followed by a 2-1 aggregate victory over East German side Lokomotive Leipzig to see Kilmarnock reach the semi final stage. Leeds United would be the opposition. 24831 were in attendance for the second leg at Rugby Park but having lost the first leg 4-2 the resulting 0-0 draw was not enough to see them progress to the final. 

Those were the glory days for Kilmarnock Football Club but, as has been mentioned, they did not last long. On one triumphant Edinburgh afternoon in 1965, however, Killie became champions of that wee nation north of the border and boy did it feel good. Yes, it must be pointed out that if goal difference had have been used as opposed to goal average then Hearts would have won the crown instead, but we should not let that detract from what was a famous afternoon for Kilmarnock that gloriously brought to an end what was an incredible season. This a season the like of which Kilmarnock will more than likely never see again. 

Sunday 19 January 2020

The £5,500 Man: The Story of Warney Cresswell Once The World's Most Expensive Footballer

If you take what is currently the most expensive transfer of all-time, the current world record, and divide it by roughly 35,000 well that's what we are talking about. In more simple terms that is £5,500 and it might not seem a lot nowadays but in 1922 it was a world record transfer fee. For those of you, like me, born and raised in North East England you may also be fascinated to know that two of our local clubs were involved in the deal, what may surprise you, though, is that the selling club involved were the predecessors of current step three (seventh tier) non league side South Shields. 

Warneford 'Warney' Cresswell was born 5 November 1897 in the town of South Shields on the southern side of the mouth of the River Tyne. A talented schoolboy footballer, Cresswell started his senior career playing football north of the border in Scotland before joining the army and ending up in a prisoner of war camp during the Great War. Cresswell was repatriated at the end of the war and in 1919, aged 21, signed for his hometown club South Shields who had just joined the Second Division of the Football League. Shields had done well to sign the player in the face of stiff competition from local rivals Newcastle United of the First Division, and fellow second tier side Tottenham Hotspur for whom Cresswell had guested eleven times during the war.

Sometimes described as the 'Prince of Full Backs', Warney Cresswell was known for his skilful tackling and his ability to accurately clear the ball. Cresswell was also considered by many a gentleman and when he broke one player's leg after an accidental nasty challenge, he later turned up at the hospital with a packet of tobacco for his opponent, admirable behaviour that did not go unnoticed at the time. 

Cresswell played 104 league and cup games in defence for Shields over the course of three seasons and in his final season at the club, they finished just six points off promotion to the First Division. In March 1921, two days after featuring for a Football League XI against the Scottish League at Highbury, he made his international debut for England against Wales in Cardiff. He remains to this day the only player to have played for England whilst attached to any of the various incarnations of South Shields Football Club. In total over the course of his career he played seven times for his country with his final international match coming some eight and a half years after his first, this, it must be pointed out, in an era where national sides generally played fewer games than they nowadays do.

After almost three seasons at the club, Cresswell left Shields' Horsely Hill ground for the bright lights of Roker Park. The club had initially denied Cresswell was set to leave, as rumours of a £6,000 transfer to either Burnley or Everton circulated, but in March 1922 Cresswell did leave the club although not for Merseyside or Lancashire. Cresswell ended up five miles down the road at local First Division side Sunderland. The actual price paid by Sunderland's manager-secretary Bob Kyle was £5,500 and although slightly lower than earlier rumoured amounts it was nonetheless a massive fee for the time, so massive in fact that it was actually a world record! That record was not broken again until Bob Kelly joined him at Sunderland for £6,500 some three and a half years later. The Black Cats as they are known finished as First Division runners-up in 1922–23, six points behind champions Liverpool. Points wise they came closer to the title, in Wareny's second full season, in 1923–24 but actually finished third behind champions Huddersfield Town, and Cardiff City in second. The club then finished seventh, before consecutive third place finishes with the club ending those two seasons nine and then seven points behind champions Huddersfield and Newcastle respectively. During his time with the club, Cresswell played in eight Tyne/Wear derbies and found himself on the losing side only twice with some of his defensive displays in these games described as 'superb' and 'magnificent'.

In 1927 Cresswell was on the move again as he left the Sunderland to join Everton having made 190 appearances in all competitions during his time on Wearside. Now aged 30, his £7,000 move was this time not a world record. Alongside goal machine, Dixie Dean Cresswell helped Everton win the First Division title in his first season at the club. His second and third seasons were not so enjoyable, however, as Everton finished 18th and then rock bottom 20th which brought the ignominy of relegation. Two successive league titles followed as the club made a successful return to the First Division as Division Two champions at the first attempt before pipping Arsenal to the First Division title in the following 1931-32 season. The next season after that title winning one saw the club drop to eleventh but they did end that campaign by winning the FA Cup. Cresswell was said to be the best player on the pitch in the Wembley final and his performance was described by the Manchester Guardian as "an almost perfect display". Matt Busby playing for opponents Man City, however, claimed his team were so poor that a "Sunday School team" could have beaten them, he did though describe Cresswell as a "formidable" player. 14th and 8th placed league finishes followed before a 16th place finish in 1935-36 in what was Cresswell's final season as a professional footballer. Retiring aged 38 he had made 306 appearances for Everton and after his death was inducted into the clubs Hall of Fame.

Warney Cresswell's younger brother Frank also played professional football. Centre Forward Frank played briefly alongside his brother Warney at Sunderland before Warney left for Everton. In 1929 Frank Cresswell joined West Bromwich Albion having made 13 appearances in total for the Black Cats. Frank played 30 times for West Brom before two spells at Chester City with a brief sojourn at Notts County in between. Frank made in all 213 appearances for Chester and after his first season with the club, they were elected to the Football League having finished second in the Cheshire County League behind Port Vale Reserves. It was not just Warney Cresswell's brother who played football, either, his son did too. Although centre half Corbett Cresswell finished his career with only fourteen Football League appearances to his name, he was part of a Bishop Auckland side that won the FA Amateur Cup three seasons running during the 1950s.

After his playing career, Cresswell went into management, although his spells in charge of Port Vale, Northampton Town, and Dartford were all largely unsuccessful. In his life after football, he ended up managing a pub in Sunderland called the Sheet Anchor Inn. Warneford 'Warney' Cresswell died on 20 October 1973. 

Nowadays largely forgotten, Warney Cresswell was once upon a time one of the biggest names in British football and considered by many, not just one of England's star full backs but the 'Prince of Full Backs'. Not bad for the son of a marine engineer from South Shields.

Monday 13 January 2020

Getting Aktiv In Liechtenstein: The Curious Tale Of The Seven Clubs Who Kind Of Play Football In Two Separate Countries

FC Vaduz have qualified for the UEFA Europa League seven seasons running, not bad for a team who have spent four of those seven seasons playing second tier football. Despite playing league football in Switzerland, Vaduz actually hail from the principality of Liechtenstein and regularly qualify for Europe's secondary club competition thanks to winning Liechtenstein's domestic cup almost every year. What follows is the story of a rather strange arrangement.

Set amongst the snowy peaks of the Alps, the small principality of Liechtenstein has only seven football clubs within its borders so it's hardly surprising that they are the only UEFA member that don't have their own football league. The seven clubs of Liechtenstein evidently needing a proper league structure have all ended up playing across the border in the leagues of Switzerland. Four editions of a Liechtenstein Football Championship took place within the Swiss league system before World War II but post-war it was never revived and teams have since always played in the Swiss League system proper with the previous championship being replaced by a cup competition played alongside the Swiss league games. 

Clubs from Liechtenstein are given a special status whereby they are not fully Swiss, they are considered what are known as 'guest clubs'. Although they participate in the Swiss League system, clubs from the principality do not enter the Swiss Cup instead playing in their own cup competition through which they have been able to qualify for Europe since 1992. Winning the Aktiv-Cup, as it is known, earns teams place in the following seasons Europa League and this is because Liechtenstein's special status gives them a UEFA country coefficient and their own European spots separate to those of Switzerland. This does mean, however, that if a team from Liechtenstein were to ever win the Swiss Super League they would be denied one of Switzerland's Champions League spots. As their only route to Europe is a Europa League place through winning the Aktiv-Cup, as it stands, clubs from Liechtenstein can never qualify for the Champions League, not even for the earliest of the early qualifying rounds.

With such few teams in the tiny landlocked principality, Liechtenstein's Aktiv-Cup is hardly a large affair, but one interesting note is the inclusion of reserve sides. With most of the country's clubs fielding second and in some cases even third teams in the competition, it certainly increases the numbers. It more than doubled this year's participation to 15, for example. This is uncommon in many countries and in Liechtenstein's has lead to some unusual scenarios. In 2006-07, for example, FC Triesenberg saw their second team progress further in the competition than their first team whilst in 2009-10 USV Eschen/Mauren's first team actually faced their second string in the semi finals of the competition. Their first team won 6-2.

After that semi final victory in 2010, Eschen/Mauren lost to FC Vaduz in the final, teams in Liechtenstein are used to losing to Vaduz. FC Vaduz have won the cup a record 47 times and that actually stands as a world record. No team has won a domestic cup competition as many times as they have. They would have been aiming for a 23rd successive title this season if it were not for a penalty shoot-out defeat to Eschen/Mauren in the 2012 final. Eschen/Mauren have five cup final victories to their name ahead of FC Schaan with 3 but behind FC Triesen with 8 and FC Balzers on 11. Those 11 for Balzers put them a not so close second to Vaduz in terms of wins. Winning the cup for the next 36 seasons straight, however, would see them draw level with Vaduz, no biggie then.

Albeit a small time club themselves, as you can see Vaduz are by far the strongest of Liechtenstein's seven sides. They are also the only club from the principality to have played in the Swiss Super League. Vaduz were promoted to the Swiss top flight for the first time in 2008 and after an immediate relegation did not return until 2014 where they lasted for 3 seasons. Vaduz have remained in the second tier Challenge League in the years since. The rest of Liechtenstein's clubs play in the amateur or semi-professional regional leagues with Balzers and Eschen/Mauren who both play in the fourth tier currently the highest ranked of these. 

Despite gaining a place in Europe virtually every year Vaduz have had little success on the continental stage. The club have never before reached the group stages of Europa League always failing to progress through the qualifying rounds of which they currently need to navigate through four (out of five). Vaduz did, however, defeat Swiss giants FC Basel 2-1 at home in the second qualifying round in 2006, possibly their most famous European night to date. Sadly though they lost the tie on the away goals rule after a 1-0 second leg defeat. Going back further and before the Europa League and it's group stages Vaduz in 1996 did actually reach the first round of the old UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, albeit at that time only being required to navigate their way through one sole qualifying round to reach it. Vaduz were drawn against the famous name that is Paris Saint Germain in round one and sadly for them they lost 7-0 aggregate to the French side. 

As for other clubs from the principality playing in Europe, Balzers managed the same feat as Vaduz in the Cup Winners' Cup some three years before them when they lost 11-1 on aggregate to CSKA Sofia in a first round tie. Reaching the first round had seen Balzers become the first ever side from Liechtenstein to win a match in Europe. Their 3-1 home win over KS Albpetrol Patos of Albania is, however, to date the only time a club other than Vaduz has won a European match whilst representing the principality. When Eschen/Mauren entered the Europa League after winning the Aktiv-Cup in 2012 they lost to Icelandic side Fimleikafélag Hafnarfjarðar in the first qualifying round with 2-1 and 1-0 losses. Schaan in 1994-95 are the only other club from Liechtenstein to have played in Europe.

This season Vaduz saw their Europa League campaign end in the third qualifying round with a 6-0 aggregate defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt. They currently sit mid table in the Swiss Challenge League but have reached the semi finals of Aktiv-Cup which they will no doubt be expected to win again. The story of domestic football in Liechtenstein is a rather curious one, but for those used to it, results on the pitch this season suggest it may be a case of same old story once again with you know who dominating...

Saturday 4 January 2020

Saying Au Revoir to the Coupe de la Ligue

When the teams take the field in this coming week's Coupe de la Ligue quarter final matches they will be hoping to keep alive their chances of going down history as the last ever team to win France's League Cup. After 26 editions the tournament is coming to an end, the Coupe de la Ligue will be no more.

Having recently written about the uniqueness of the Coupe de France I thought I'd take a look at France's other major cup competition as it comes to an end for the final time. The Coupe de la Ligue takes place across the season and comprises of professional sides from France's top three divisions which currently means all forty sides from Ligue 1 and 2 plus four sides the Championnat National. Created in 1994, previous versions of the tournament were not recognised as a major trophy like the competition in its current format is. A Coupe de la Ligue was first played in the 1960s but only lasted for two editions whilst a pre-season tournament originally called the Coupe d'Été (Summer Cup) that came about in the early 1980s was later also renamed the Coupe de la Ligue. That competition was eventually replaced by the tournament in its current guise as the country's third major trophy.

But all is not well for the Coupe de la Ligue, in fact, it's worse than that, this season will be the competition's last. The Ligue de Football Professionel's (LFP) board of directors in September voted in favour of scrapping the competition. The LFP wanting to reduce fixture congestion combined with the fact they have reportedly not managed to sell broadcast rights for the next four years seems to have killed off the tournament. Plans to replace the current format with a new eight team version were also vetoed.

Modelled on the English League Cup, unlike the Coupe de France, the Coupe de la Ligue has never given automatic home advantage to lower league teams, something many top flight sides had often wanted to see scrapped from France's main knock-out competition. Aside from giving the big boys what they thought was a more level playing field, another reason for the introduction of the Coupe de la Ligue as a new major tournament in 1994 was to give professional sides more matches throughout the season, ironically something they now want to reverse.

Paris Saint-Germain, who are still in with a shout of winning this years competition, won the first edition of the tournament in 1995 by defeating Sporting Club Bastia 2-0 at the Parc des Princes. With eighth titles to their name, PSG are the most successful side in the competition's history, although last season they missed out of the chance to make it six Coupe de la Ligue triumphs in a row by losing to En Avant Guingamp in the quarter finals. Guingamp went on to lose to Racing Club de Strasbourg Alsace in the final.
The Coupe de la Ligue has never been famed for upsets in the way that the Coupe de France is and indeed it does not feature amateur or semi-professional sides, it has, however, still had the odd shock or two. Vannes Olympique Club, currently a fourth tier side, reached the final of the competition in 2009. Vannes, then a mid table Ligue 2 side, beat three Ligue 1 sides en route to the final, including a 2-0 home win over AJ Auxerre, before losing 4-0 to FC Girondins de Bordeaux in the final at the Stade de France. Nine years earlier, however, FC Gueugnon had gone one better by winning the whole thing. The fifth tier side were, at the time also plying their trade in Ligue 2 and beat Ligue 1's Strasbourg 2-0 en route to a final date with Paris Saint-Germain. Two second-half goals stunned the Ligue 1 giants as Gueugnon became the first and only side playing outside the top flight to win the competition.

All eight teams currently left in this year's competition ply their trade in the top flight so a major upset is not on the cards, but whatever happens, with eight titles already to their name Paris Saint-Germain will go down as the tournaments most successful side when it finally comes to an end. Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and Olympique de Marseille with three titles each won't come close to that record, and of those three only Strasbourg are still in with a chance of adding to their tallies whilst PSG will be hoping to increase theirs to nine.

This year's final on 4 April returns to the Stade de France for one last time after a three year absence. After the first three finals, which had been played at Parc des Princes, the Stade de France became the venue for all future finals. That was until 2016 after which the LFP announced Lyon, Bordeaux, and Lille would host the next three finals respectively, meaning for the first time it would not be played within the Paris region.

As it stands this will be the final ever edition of the competition. There is still talk of it being revived in some shape in the future but many, however, are sceptical. In its current format, though, this is most definitely the end. The Coupe de la Ligue will soon be no more.