Hull City back in the Premier League; playoffs set after last day of England’s Championship

1 Comment

Hull City may be one of the least-impressive teams to earn automatic promotion, but they have the summer to correct those problems, because after today’s draws at the KC Stadium and Vicarage Road, the Tigers are back in the Premier League, joining league-winners Cardiff City as automatic promotees from England’s Football Championship.

But Steve Bruce’s side practically volunteered to be pulled into a playoff. Hosting the already-promoted Bluebirds on the season’s last day, Hull went down early in the second half before goals from Nick Proschwitz and Paul McShane looked to have the Tigers promoted. One point up on third-place Watford ahead of today’s 12 simultaneous kick offs, Hull knew three points would send them up.

Yet in the 93rd minute, a handball by defender Abdoulaye Faye sent Nicky Maynard to the spot, a state that brought Hull’s horrible form back into perspective. In mid-April, the Tigers looked sure bets to join Cardiff in the Premiership, but one point in three games ahead of the Bluebirds’ visit brought Watford back into play. And when Maynard beat David Stockdale in the 95th minute, the Hornets had fate in their hands.

Unfortunately, Gianfranco Zola’s team couldn’t find the late goal that would have snatched automatic promotion. While a visit from Leeds United should have meant three points, the Whites were able to take a 1-1 draw from Vicarage Road, sending Watford into a four-team playoff for the last promotion spot. The result also allowed Hull to back into the Premier League.

The Tigers’ ability to get the league’s second-most points from a 46-match season is an obvious argument to their quality, one that precludes any claim (possibly inadvertently hinted here) they’re undeserving of their spot. Yet powered by a midseason, post-Bruce-hiring run, Hull bares a vague resemblance to last year’s Reading – a team with Championship mid-table talent that found a mid-season rhythm and rode it into the Premier League. Add in a pedestrian +7 goal difference, there’s more than one reason to think this is the beginning of another Hull yo-yo, even if there’s a shade of poor taste in bringing this up moments after the club’s secured promotion.

Hull were last in the Premier League in 2009-10, the end of a two-year run that began when a sixth-placed team went through the Championship playoff and into England’s top division. They were saved on the last day in 2008-09 before finishing 19th in 2009-10.

Now they’re back, and with the cash injection provided by Premier League broadcast rights, they’ll have the same shot given to every other promoted club. If they spend wisely and manage their season well (neither of which Reading did), they can stay up, their Championship run-in be damned.

source: Getty ImagesPlayoffs set

With their home draw, Watford’s route to the Premier League now does through Wembley. They’ll face Leicester City in one half of the bracket, while Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion meet on the other.

That makes Bolton the day’s big loser. The Trotters came into the day in sixth place and needed only a win over visiting, mid-table Blackpool to secure a playoff spot. But like Hull and Watford, they left their destiny in others’ hands, giving up two early goals to spot the Seasiders a lead they never gave up. With the 2-2 draw, the turnaround Doughie Freedman engineered after Owen Coyle’s dismissal fell short. A 91st minute goal by Leicester City’s Antony Knockaertat rival Nottingham Forest allowed the Foxes to secure the league’s last playoff spot.

Brighton and Palace both got home wins against relegated sides, confirming relegation for Peterborough United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. For Wolves, it was their second successive relegation. Bistol City, 10 points adrift of 23rd place Wolverhampton, join the duo in League One.

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

chicagofire.com
Leave a comment

Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Leave a comment

They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.