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30 stats for Messi's 30th birthday


18 Seconds

According to several green websites urging us to change from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs, it takes an average of eighteen seconds to change an energy-guzzling light-bulb and thus save the world. There's also a novel (by George Shuman) called 'Eighteen seconds', and the male of the Alpine cricket species, Anonconotus Alpinus to you, is apparently capable of mating every 18 seconds - which is highly impressive.

Ok, let's not overdo things. As you may know by now, this penultimate weekend of La Liga has joined the exclusive 18-Second Club, and in so doing etched itself onto the canvas of some of Spain's greatest footballing weekends - as long as you're not from Barcelona, of course.

In the 89th minute of the key Zaragoza v Real Madrid game, Van Nistlerooy scrambled the ball over the line to equalise (2-2) and reduce Barcelona's new lead by a point - given that last season's champions were winning, as expected, 2-1 at home to neighbours Espanyol.

As the Madrid players jogged back to the centre-spot, their travelling supporters - who had just begun to settle after celebrating the equaliser, suddenly pumped up the volume again as incredibly, Tamudo had equalised in the Camp Nou.

It had taken eighteen seconds from Van Nistlerooy's goal to Tamudo's, and the destiny of this season's title, and possibly the future of Barça's present squad, was changed over this nano-period. After all the events of a strange and often disappointing season, this last Saturday was heart-stopping stuff.

Indeed, as the semi-rich and semi-famous were wheeled out by the Madrid press to give their thumbs-up endorsement to the weekend's events, the actor and comedian José Corbacho came up with the immortal phrase 'El fútbol está claro que es de infarto, pero cómo mola!' which is the kind of statement that sounds less interesting when translated; 'Football really is enough to give you a heart-attack, but hey, isn't it great!' but which shows nicely how the Spanish live their 'jornadas' with a sense of drama and history that always anticipates the epic, and which often brings it on.

There were various ironies and sub-plots underlying both the title and relegation spots this weekend gone, a breathless set of matches which have set up the perfect final-day climax with only one issue resolved - that of the relegation of Nastic.

But we knew about Nastic three weeks ago. It's surprising that nothing else has been subsequently resolved, but it hasn't half made for good theatre. The fact is that now, fortune is smiling on Real Madrid, and it looks as if Beckham will not leave empty-handed after all. All that is now required of the capital club is that they defeat mid-table Mallorca at home next week - a feat that should hardly be beyond them. They need to win it, however, since Barcelona are away at the aforementioned Nastic, who, in the words of that unfortunate Spanish phrase, 'have nothing to play for'.

Well, as regular readers of this column will know, it's never quite as simple as that.

Nastic hail from Tarragona, the next big population centre as you drive south from Barcelona along the Costa Dorada. They have no axe to grind against their more illustrious cousins, but some were saying the same about Espanyol. Others knew better of course, and whether Espanyol had received some'suitcases' from the Bernabéu or not, the Catalan club have always been regarded as pro-Madrid and anti-Barça.

It's a complex issue, and the man who scored the two goals which now threaten to dethrone Barça - Raúl Tamudo - is Barcelona born and bred. More crucially perhaps, the man who set up his first goal, Ivan De La Peña, looked better then anything in the Barça midfield - a rich irony given the turbulent history of an enigmatic genius who turned his back on the club who bred him, or vice-versa, as some would have it. The Camp Nou once loved him, but are now unsure of whether to admire or loathe him.

Whatever they feel, it must have been with excessive discomfort that they watched him cut through the centre of the park, appear to pass the ball to the right then suddenly brake, check and move left, leaving Carles Puyol in a twisted heap. The simplicity of the pass he then rolled to Tamudo belied the brilliance of the conceit, having sent the entire Barça defence on a wild goose-chase. Tamudo smacked the ball into the roof of the net and it was clear that the 2007 throne might be up for grabs.

Mallorca, on the other hand, are less anti-Barça than Espanyol, and for this reason alone may put up something of a fight in the Bernabéu. That's the way it works here.

Funnily enough, when Rafa Nadal (who is of course from Mallorca) clambered up over the seats in Paris on Sunday to hug his dad after defeating Federer in the French Open final, he encountered several well-known figures on the way whom he was probably not expecting to see, one of them being Ramón Calderón, President of Real Madrid and up in Paris on a freebie after celebrating the draw in Zaragoza the night before with his players.

Nadal, who had interested the Real Mallorca scouts before he finally opted for tennis when he was 14, is of course a Barça fan, his uncle Miguel Angel having been an important member of the Dream Team. Nadal, on finishing his clinch with his dad, turned awkwardly to find himself face-to-face with Calderón. The half-handshake half-embrace that followed will make some juicy soundbites for this week's press, especially when Calderón admits that he went there to support Federer.

And whilst we're on the subject of Calderón, now a smiling happy chappy after his club's unexpected turn-around, the rumours now abound that he has said that Beckham could stay after all, should the fancy take him. Now there's a beauty. Back in January, when Beckham signed for LA Galaxy, Calderón was moved to announce in a press conference that the Englishman would be nothing but a'Hollywood B Actor', thus justifying Capello's mystifying decision to drop him from the squad. Funny how people can change their tune.

Whatever - if Barça and Real Madrid contrive to lose, Sevilla can of course still make it, but they were in Mallorca on Saturday, and failed to beat them. Had they done better than the 0-0 draw, then La Liga would have been a witness to an even more amazing finish, with the top three sides level on points at the end of the penultimate weekend. If Barça lose and Madrid draw they can still do it, but that's asking a bit much.

The speculation regarding the possible signing of Juande Ramos as manager of Man City appeared to unsettle the club in midweek, and nerves got the better of them on Saturday. But it's been a great season for them, and they still have the King's Cup Final against Getafe to look forward to on the 23rd.

Down in the nether regions things were equally spectacular. Betis, a shadow of the side who competed in the Champions League last season, lost 0-5 at home to Osasuna, a bizarre result considering that they are still mathematically unsafe, and indeed, next week's game at Racing de Santander could see them go down if Celta and Athletic Bilbao both win - as seems quite likely.

Betis' famously loyal supporters rioted in the streets afterwards, insulted the players as they left the ground, and even made a short pilgrimage to ex-President Lopera's house to make their feelings known. In the light of dawn, manager Luis Fernandez' head was handed to them on a silver platter, and they will have to play their final game under the caretaker Paco Chaparro.

The Osasuna win was interesting for various reasons, the main one being that Valencia's Albelda had accused the Basque teams a fortnight earlier of making pacts to keep each other in the top flight. Osasuna's manager, Cuco Ziganda, had replied by sending out his side to beat Real Sociedad - thus condemning them to another week of sweating, but then handing them the favour a week later with this win.

Albelda got short shrift from Ziganda, to whom he sent the message 'Let's see how professional you are then' in the game that Valencia were to play at Levante - their neighbours who were also in need of a point for safety. Levante won 4-2, and the only argument in Valencia's professional favour was that three of their players were sent off, presumably because they were trying to win. Albelda stayed on, and will play next week in the home game against Real Sociedad, who can still stay up if they win and the other strugglers lose.

Their job is facilitated somewhat by the fact that Valencia will be weakened by the red-card absentees, and have 'nothing to play for', but Real Sociedad shot themselves in the foot for the umpteenth time this season by missing a last-minute penalty at home to Racing Santander. Had they won, next week's mathematics would have looked less cruel, but they now seem condemned to taste the Second Division for the first time since 1967.

Levante are now safe, but travel to Bilbao next week in a game that the locals must win to preserve their all-time top-flight status. At the top and at the bottom, it's all heart-attack stuff, and it's going down to the wire. Pero cómo mola!

  • Phil is a published author of some repute and we're very lucky to have him here on Soccernet. If you want to own a real-life Phil Ball book, you can purchase either on that bloke with the ever-changing hairstyle, White Storm, Phil's book on the history and culture of Real Madrid and his splendid and acclaimed story of Spanish football, Morbo.

  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk