World Football: 10 Biggest Surprises from This Season
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Before the 2012-13 season ends there are bound to be more than a few surprises in store.
Club teams are vying to avoid relegation and qualify for Europe, though several league champions are either close to or have already been crowned. Immediately following the end of the campaign, international fixtures are on the agenda.
The best part of a season's football has already been played though, and amongst those hundreds of matches there have been a few surprises that we're sure to be talking about for a while.
Let's look back at 10 of the biggest surprises from world football last year.
Burkina Faso Reach the Final of the African Cup of Nations
Burkina Faso celebrate reaching the final after beating Ghana on penalties.
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After Zambia's surprise heroics in the 2012 edition, it was Burkina Faso who proved the surprise package of this year's African Cup of Nations.
Having topped their group, the Stallions continued progress was all the more of an achievement after injury robbed them of top scorer Alain Traore for the tournament's remainder.
Burkina Faso beat Togo in extra-time in the quarterfinal stage and were then forced the distance by Ghana in the semis, eventually prevailing on penalties.
The final saw Burkina Faso take on Nigeria, who they had finished above in Group C. A 1-1 draw had been the result weeks previously, but this time the Super Eagles won thanks to a fine goal shortly before the interval.
Nigeria's own success was not entirely expected following years in the doldrums of African football, though it was thoroughly deserved. Burkina Faso's run was undoubtedly the underdog story of the competition.
Holders Chelsea Fail to Reach Champions League Knockout Stage
Chelsea exited the Champions League group stage on goal difference despite thrashing Nordsjaelland 6-1 in their final game.
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The triumph of Munich seven months earlier gave way to a surprising ignominy for Chelsea before 2012 was out.
Winners the previous season, the Blues became the first holders of the Champions League era to fail to progress past the group stage.
Getting out of a Group E also consisting of Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk was never going to be easy. Still, it was thought that the transitional West Londoners still retained the quality and know-how to reach the knockout rounds as they sought to defend their trophy.
A superb double by new arrival Oscar saw Chelsea go 2-0 up against Juve in their opening game. Rather than push on, Roberto Di Matteo's side were pegged back to 2-2, dropping valuable home points.
Away losses to Shakhtar and the Bianconeri meant Chelsea were narrowly pipped to second place, and the champions were heading for the Europa League.
Real Sociedad Closing in on Champions League Qualification
Carlos Vela leading the way in Real Sociedad's hunt for Champions League qualification.
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A surprise in progress, Real Sociedad are proving to be one of the best of the rest outside of Spain's big two in 2012-13.
Sunday night saw them beat Valencia 4-2, establishing a five-point gap ahead of their closest rival for a Champions League spot. The Basque outfit's remaining five games look entirely manageable too, with Real Madrid's visit to their Anoeta ground the toughest fixture remaining.
Should Real Sociedad seal a top-four finish, it will complete a remarkable turnaround for the club.
Having spent three seasons in the Segunda Division, they were promoted back to La Liga for the 2010-11 campaign. Two years of consolidation have now led to Real Sociedad on the verge of a return to Europe's premier club competition too.
Valencia and Malaga's financial woes may have had an adverse effect on their own respective hunts for a top-four finish, but Real Socidedad's win over Los Che has shown they are well deserving of their current placing.
Uruguay Struggling to Qualify for 2014 World Cup
Edinson Cavani of Uruguay.
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South America's World Cup qualifying group is undoubtedly one of the toughest to navigate for countries aspiring to make the tournament. Even without the formidable presence of 2014 hosts Brazil, taking one of the four automatic spots (or one playoff place) in this marathon of a qualification is as challenging as it gets.
With five of their 16 games left, heading into June's next phase of fixtures, Uruguay are struggling to get out of the group.
Sitting in sixth place, their next match is against Venezuela, who are two points ahead of them. Concluding La Celeste's campaign are three games against Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina—all three of whom Uruguay have not beaten in this cycle, with all ahead of them in the table.
This is a massive comedown for a country who finished fourth at the last World Cup, and is in keeping with a rough year all in all.
Having headed into last summer's Olympic Games as one of the tournament's favorites, a side boasting two of football's best forwards in Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez failed to advance past the group stage.
That malaise has carried over into World Cup qualifying, with the Oscar Tabarez-coached team in big trouble of not making next year's competition.
Bradford Upset Three Premier League Sides on Way to Carling Cup Final
Bradford celebrate beating Aston Villa, sealing a trip to Wembley Stadium.
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League Two Bradford City's penalty shootout win over Premier League side Wigan Athletic in the Fourth Round of the Carling Cup was an impressive enough scalp.
That the Bantams then followed it up by beating two more top-flight sides to reach the final was all the more outstanding.
Bradford needed penalties to get past Arsenal in the quarterfinal too, but only after a late Thomas Vermaelen goal had denied them a victory in normal time.
That this was a cup-run made on merit, rather than luck, was further emphasized by the way they dispatched Aston Villa in the semifinals. The 3-1 first-leg home win was fully deserved, while the job they did at Villa Park in sealing a 4-3 aggregate win was commendably professional.
The final at Wembley proved one game too far for Bradford, as they were thrashed 5-0 by a classy Swansea City.
Nonetheless, the fourth-tier side's heroics rekindled memories of the highs of their brief stay in the Premier League over a decade ago. Despite a brief blip in form, Bradford rallied post-final to secure a League Two playoff place.
Bayern Triggers Gotze's Release Clause
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That Bayern Munich signed Borussia Dortmund's highly-rated young international Mario Gotze was not entirely unexpected, considering the Bavarian giant's penchant for hoovering up some of the Bundesliga's best talent.
What was more surprising was the timing of the €37 million deal in a week when both clubs were preparing for Champions League semifinals.
Dortmund commendably rose above the storm caused by Bayern triggering Gotze's release clause, hammering Real Madrid 4-1 to leave the Germans with a good chance of making May's final.
Should both Borussia and Bayern reach Wembley, Gotze's impending move to the latter is sure to add spice to what will be a hotly-contested encounter.
If the German clubs seal their final places this week, their victories over Real Madrid and Barcelona would certainly count as a couple of the season's biggest surprises too. Not so much for the wins themselves, but for the comprehensive nature with which Spain's big two could be dispatched.
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro Among Europe's Surprise Front-Runners
Montenegro prior to taking on England.
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Among the usual big names leading the pack in Europe's nine World Cup qualifying groups there are a smattering of nations providing a somewhat unfamiliar look.
Chief among those is Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Group G is probably the weakest of the bunch, with only Greece possessing any real tournament pedigree. But having never previously qualified for a major competition as an independent nation, Bosnia's topping of the group at the halfway point has them in position to complete a historic achievement.
Also in first place at this stage are Group H's Montenegro. The recently-formed country are not only two points ahead of England, but also Ukraine and Poland sides that are boasting some considerable, tournament-experienced talent of their own.
In addition to these table-toppers, several countries who have either never played at a World Cup, or have not for a long time, are still in contention to qualify (or at least contest a playoff place).
Keep an eye on Bulgaria, Hungary, Iceland, Albania and Israel in the coming months.
Vitesse Arnhem Breaking into Holland's Elite
Vitesse captain Guram Kashia.
The top of the Dutch Eredivisie usually features familiar names like Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord. After that there is usually one club who will sneak into contention and have their say—something FC Twente and AZ Alkmaar have done with considerable success in recent years.
Vitesse Arnhem are generally a mid-table proposition who, at best, you might find knocking on the door for European qualification. With two games remaining this season, they could still finish second in the league, which would be their first runners-up position since 1914-15.
Managed by Fred Rutten, Vitesse are enjoying an extraordinary season that has seen them do the double over current Eredivisie leaders and champions elect Ajax.
Wins along the way over all of Dutch football's traditional powers (bar AZ) have ensured that they are well deserving of their current fourth position. With a Champions League qualifying position still a real prospect, 2012-13 could turn into a campaign for the ages for Vitesse.
Southampton's Decision to Sack Nigel Adkins
Mauricio Pochettino and Nigel Adkins—Saints managers present and past.
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Managers of newly promoted clubs are often not long for the top-flight world, found out by the greater demands of increased focus and tougher competition.
Southampton's sacking of Nigel Adkins in January was surprising because he was taking to life at the top pretty well, following the two successive promotions.
The Saints were sitting three points clear of the drop zone with 22 games played. While far from safe, they were looking as good as could be hoped for a team new to the league.
Chairman Nicola Cortese's decision has been largely vindicated, with replacement Mauricio Pochettino close to guiding Southampton to safety.
Still, it was an unfortunate turn of events for Adkins after the great job he had done in getting the club back into the Premier League. It will serve as a warning that almost no manager is truly safe in the job, even those doing relatively well.
Zenit St Petersburg's Failure to Push Onwards
Zenit St. Petersburg's Hulk in disbelief.
Zenit St. Petersburg made a notable statement of intent last September when they spent £64 million to sign Hulk and Axel Witsel from Porto and Benfica, respectively.
Last year's Russian Premier League success had them back at the top of the domestic game. The plan was to capture two of the Portuguese league's star names who would not only only strengthen them at home, but also for a tilt at the Champions League.
Things have not gone quite as well as Luciano Spalletti and his team might have hoped. At home CSKA Moscow are leading in a title race that is sure to go down to the wire.
Zenit were most underwhelming in their Champions League excursions, finishing behind Malaga and AC Milan and rarely looking like making an impact. Though they would then dispatch Liverpool in the Europa League, they gave up without much of a challenge against FC Basel.
Money alone does not make a great team, but the money Russia's second city flag-bearers spent in 2012 should maybe have produced more immediate results.
Maybe it will with time, but for a club with aspirations of becoming a genuine force on the European stage, Zenit have been disappointingly and surprisingly weak.