Barca must not be underestimated by Europa League contenders


Historically Barcelona weren't exactly one of the heavyweights of European football. Where old foes Real Madrid had been serial winners of the European Cup, Barca schlepped about in the continent's second tier competitions without really threatening to take the greatest prize. Indeed, the blaugrana had won three Cup Winners Cups by the time they eventually secured their first Champions League in 1992. Since then – despite having one of the most dominant sides in football – their tika-taka team only won the crown three times (the other came in 2005/06). Compare that with Real, who have lifted the trophy so many times, they've even gave their tenth victory a title. Not content with La Decima, they have since added an 11th, 12th and 13th to dwarf their bitter rivals' achievements.

Nevertheless, Barca's presence in the Europa League latter stages has a curious, almost surreal feel to it such has been their unbroken run in the knockout phase of the Champions League. What's more, despite their status as favourites to win the Europa League, this is a diminished Barca and if they were to lose to Eintracht Frankfurt in the quarter-finals it would hardly send shockwaves through the competition.

That said, there is something stirring in Catalonia and in the unlikely event that Rangers were to navigate their way past Braga in the last eight and either Lyon or RB Leipzig in the semi-finals Barca would surely provide an insurmountable obstacle to the Ibrox side's hopes of lifting the trophy. A productive January transfer window at Camp Nou – during which Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang, Adama Traore and Ferran Torres arrived – and the appointment of club legend Xavi as head coach have breathed renewed life into even before last night's comprehensive 4-0 El Clasico win against Real Madrid.

A first Europa League triumph will be viewed as a rich reward for a season that promised so little but that has been infused with real vigour since Xavi's return.

Steve Clarke can do what he wants

There were the usual queries pertaining to Steve Clarke's selection for Scotland's friendly against Poland on Thursday night.

Ryan Fraser has been overlooked despite some superb form during Newcastle United's revival due to his reluctance to make himself available for squads at a time when Scotland needed him more than now. Meanwhile, Aaron Hickey has been included despite his recalcitrance when it came to turning up for Scotland Under-21 duty. There were those, too, who believed Ross Stewart deserved a chance to stake his claim, too, after a prolific season for Sunderland – especially since this is a match without anything at stake.

But there is a harmony about this Scotland squad – and Clarke has so much credit in the bank that he has earned the right whatever call he wants when it comes to naming his squad.

Speaking of selection controversies, quite why Frank Lampard keeps giving Seamus Coleman keeps the nod over Nathan Patterson at right back for Everton, is guesswork. The Republic of Ireland defender has been superb for the Goodison Park outfit for years – but he is well past his best these days, while Patterson . . .

Another year, another failure for Scotland

Where do Scotland go from here and more specifically where does Gregor Townsend go from here after another Six Nations in which they flattered to deceive?

Scotland came into the tournament with optimism high – much as they have done every year for the last two decades. The main difference in recent seasons, however, has been that Scotland are a significantly stronger proposition than they were back at the start of the century.

They were further emboldened by a win over Australia and the fact that the squad contained eight British and Irish Lions, the highest number of playing representatives since 1998. But many of the old failings were on show in this tournament – not least the indiscipline that led to six players going out on the town in the aftermath of a less-than convincing victory over Italy last weekend and with Covid numbers on the rise in Scotland.

As for those old failings – count defeat in Cardiff among their number. The most damning statistic of the Six Nations: Wales's solitary victory in the championship came against Scotland.

Wednesday at Cheltenham was a shambles

It's hard to believe that months, in some instances a year, of preparation could be undone by the error and inexperience of an overzealous official.

Jon Pullin, officiating at his first Festival, ordered the course to be watered on Tuesday – with rain forecast. That drew major criticism from Paul Nicholls, the trainer of Bravemansgame, the leading contender for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

In his defence Pullin said: “There has been nothing consistent about this forecast all week.”

But that prompted Nicholls to say: “From Sunday on the forecast said it was going to be a very wet day — why water when you’ve got a wet day forecast? I actually rang [fellow trainer] Dan Skelton and said “I hope they’re not going to do too much watering, we’re going to be wet on Wednesday.”

Spare a thought for David Ojabo

The Michigan Wolverines star defensive end tore his Achilles at his college pro day – a time when scouts get to take a closer look at potential prospects – on Friday thus torpedoeing his chances of being selected in the first round of next month's NFL draft.

Ojabo was coming off the back of an impressive combine when he showcased his speed as a pass rusher by eclipsing the 40-yard dash times of Joey and Nick Bosa, two superstars of the position in the NFL. The Nigerian-born Scot had been projected to go as high as 13th overall, a position that would have netted him a base salary of £3.5m rising to more than £6m by the time 2025 comes around.

Ojabo put a brave face on the setback “God got me!! ima be back stronger than ever – all part of my story,” he wrote on Twitter.

Precedent shows an approximate six-month rehabilitation period for the injury. Cam Akers, the Los Angeles Rams running back, returned in less than that time to play a part in his side's Super Bowl winning season.