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Nov 26, 2007

Of Black Sheep and Goats

Ah, don't you just love a soundbite? Barcelona's oft-injured midfielder José Edmilson gave the newspaper subbers an easier week than usual with his declaration on Wednesday to a Spanish TV station that there were 'black sheep' chewing on the pastures of the Camp Nou, and that some of them had fallen prey to the temptations of drink, fast cars and women, oh bless my soul!

May they be struck down by bolts of heavenly lightning, but then see the way back to salvation - preferably by scoring hat-tricks and allowing José himself to get back into the team.

Since Edmilson doesn't get much chance these days to talk with his feet, it seems he decided to open his mouth again, as he did last January when talking about the fact that the changing-rooms at the Bernabéu 'smelt of alcohol', although it still remains unclear as to whether he was being literal or figurative in his declarations.

The wise ones among us often use metaphors for the illumination of those lesser beings who do not understand. Ah, and do not forget my friends. An alcohol-free Real Madrid saw the error of their ways and went on to win the title at Barça's expense. 'D'oh!' shouts Homer Edmilson. Will it have the same effect on Barça?

It wouldn't matter so much, but now black sheep have been raining down from the Spanish press all week like unwanted woolly manna. Marca's headline on Sunday, after Real Madrid's poor showing in a 1-1 draw at Murcia reminded the reader that the leaders were now only 'two points ahead of the black sheep'.

Apparently, Edmilson was reminded of the phrase only because at the time of the interview, conducted in the Camp Nou, his eyes had strayed across to a billboard advertising the chain of restaurants called, you guessed it, 'The Black Sheep'. There's one in Barcelona just near to Las Ramblas, and of course they've been very happy about the free publicity.

Some have seen a conspiracy here, and suggested that Edmilson was giving them a back-hander, others were more concerned as to what it might have come out as had the midfielder's eyes strayed to an alternative billboard. Michelin tyres? Decaffeinated coffee? Escalivada? The mind boggles.

Edmilson, of course, was right to point the finger if his motives were indeed to improve the moral standing of the house of Barça, and set it on a less wobbly path than has been the case of late. But the problem is that he belongs, as do several other high-profile Brazilian players, to the 'Athletes of Christ', a religious organisation that specialises in saving people from the streets (usually South American ones) and then turning them into evangelists.

Kaká is a famous recruit, although he was hardly a child of the favelas. Well, there's nothing wrong with being a Christian, and nor is it a crime to preach against the undoubted evils of alcoholism - especially when like Edmilson, you were close to falling a victim to it in your youth.

But the organisation is openly evangelistic, and exhorts its members (especially the more famous ones) to get into the world's changing-rooms, flick the towel of the Lord and spread the word - to get more recruits.

No problem there either, except that as Christian organisations go, the Athletes of Christ would seem to be somewhat right of centre, if, for example, their views on homosexuality are anything to go by. And so when someone like Edmilson starts spouting to the press and pointing an implicit finger at his (erstwhile?) friend Ronaldinho, you begin to wonder what exactly is going on. Is it to help the club's cause, or to up the profile of another cause?

The Catalans, in general, are a fairly liberal lot, so perhaps Edmilson has been feeling the heat recently. Whatever the truth, the controversy that bubbled up in his wake seemed to galvanise his team mates, at least in the second half of their game against lowly Recreativo, at the end of which Barça ran out eventual 3-0 winners.

Ronaldinho was, as widely predicted, conspicuous by his absence, but the explanation was that he was being 'saved' (no pun intended) for the Champions League game this week. Anyway, with young bucks such as Bojan Krkic coming through the ranks and scoring goals of the quality of Saturday night's, who needs Ronaldinho anyway?

Another black sheep at the weekend was Guti, who kept faith with his tradition of getting himself sent off when things haven't gone entirely his own way. Murcia were a little bit rough during phases of the game, but it was nothing that Guti hasn't experienced before. The sight of him walking off with that grin on his face which says 'The ref's a prat but I'm most definitely not' just doesn't wash anymore.

If Guti had gone in for a lobotomy a few years back, he would be presently leading the Spanish side in their quest for European glory in the summer. As it stands, Spain's most talented left-sided player will be watching the tournament on telly, presumably with his mate Raúl.

As you'll now know, Spain eased into the EURO 2008 finals with a couple of wins last week against Sweden (3-0) and Northern Ireland (1-0) and will go to the Austro-Swiss tournament with their spirits much higher than they were during the early stages of the qualifiers, when they lost calamitously away to Northern Ireland and the press were calling for Luis Aragonés' head.

Now they're not sure what to write, since they still hate him, but have been reluctantly forced to accept that in the end, Spain qualified well. And they did it without Raúl... for whom the Bernabéu (against Sweden) brought along posters and sundry messages exhorting Luis to bring their hero back to the national fold. No chance, said Luis' simian but firm expression.

'Tina' Aragonés (there is no alternative) was not for turning, and Spain look pretty good to me. They'll make the quarter-finals and then come home, meaning that Vicente Del Bosque can take over, since no-one under sixty would be mad enough to take on the job. Look at Fabio Capello (61), being touted as England's next leader. Then again, my personal view on the issue is that Rafa Bénitez fancies the post and is trying to get his owners to sack him so that he can be made available. Watch this space.

And whilst the black sheep were doing their omnivorous thing, the yellow submarine got vertigo. Villarreal's game on Sunday at home to Almería seemed the perfect opportunity for them to go top of the table for the first time in their history, I believe I'm right in saying. They finished 3rd two seasons ago, and climbed as high as second, but I don't recall them ever leading the pack.

It would have been a nice symbolic moment, or perhaps even a real warning that they meant more business than just hanging around the top spots for a bit of temporary fun. But they allowed Almería to equalise the on-form Nihat's opener, and missed out on a golden opportunity to stare down on the chasing pack for the first time since 1923.

Elsewhere, Sevilla continued to feel the loss of their own particular black sheep - the one who strayed to Tottenham. Losing 1-2 at home to much-improved Mallorca was hardly the recipe for preparing themselves for Tuesday's crunch visit of in-form Arsenal. Sevilla seem so far off the top league spots now that the Champions League offers some hope of salvation this season.

A draw would probably see them through to the next round, but a defeat would set the alarm bells ringing. The same can be said of Barcelona who face a potentially tricky visit to Lyon - tricky if only because the Catalans haven't travelled too well this season, whereas Valencia have been poor at home. If they beat Schalke on Wednesday, however, they could kick-start their campaign and still make it through.

As in the next few weeks in La Liga, the Christmas period in the Champions League begins to sort the sheep from the goats... D'oh!


• Phil's revised and updated book White Storm: The Story of Real Madrid, including a whole new chapter, is available to buy and charts the history of the great club from its foundation to the modern era.

• Also still available are Morbo, Phil's splendid story of Spanish football, and An Englishman Abroad, Beckham's Spanish Adventure.

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