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An Intriguing Champions League Draw For English Teams

An Intriguing Champions League Draw For English Teams

 

The draw for the Champions League first knockout round was made on Monday morning and with it brought mixed fortunes for the English clubs left in the competition: Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.

Image Courtesy of patoborrego, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of patoborrego, flickr.com

PSG vs Chelsea
As a Chelsea fan, I’m relatively happy with the draw. For the second successive year (albeit a round earlier), Chelsea meet French champions PSG. Chelsea’s reward for winning the group means that they travel to Paris for the first leg, with the return leg three weeks later at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea have a far stronger squad this season and, without sounding too confident, I can’t see them making the same mistakes as they did last season when they lost the first leg 3-1 in Paris. The first leg will be a tighter affair this time around and I think that a score draw will be enough for Chelsea to then win the tie at Stamford Bridge in front of their own fans. It will be a close game whatever happens but I think Chelsea will have what it takes to secure their place in the quarter-final.

The way Chelsea have performed this season, both in Europe and in the Premier League, has, at times, been breathtaking. Jose Mourinho has once again instilled a swagger of confidence and belief amongst the players and the team look relentless in their pursuit of glory. That being said, a great team can’t be judged on half a season and only time will tell if this Mourinho team can be considered one of the greatest. Despite everything that the Portuguese manager has achieved in the game there is one thing missing from his decorated CV, Champions League glory with Chelsea.

If Chelsea are to go on and win the Champions League this season, they will have to navigate their way past the French Champions PSG and summer signings Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa could prove the difference. Costa’s battle against former Chelsea defender David Luiz will be intriguing and although PSG have the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani in their ranks, both have failed to impress on previous visits to Stamford Bridge.

Image Courtesy of Christian Del Aguila, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Christian Del Aguila, flickr.com

Verdict: I’m predicting a tight game but Chelsea’s Champions League experience will prevail and the tie will be won in the second leg at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea sealing their place in the Quarter Finals.

 

Arsenal v Monaco
Arsenal, for once, will be very happy with their draw for the Champions League knockout stages. They will play against a Monaco side that only scored 4 goals in six games to qualify. For that reason, Arsenal must be confident of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time since 2008. Arsene Wenger will return to his former club and, on paper, you could argue that finishing second in the group has given Arsenal an easier draw than London rivals Chelsea, who finished first. In recent weeks Arsene Wenger’s future at the club has been called into question but by avoiding the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Wenger will have a chance to silence his critics.

There is a long way to go of course but Arsenal will be confident of reaching the Quarterfinals and then, who knows far they can go? With the first leg at the Emirates stadium, it will be important for Arsenal to start well and they will be looking to take at least a two-goal lead with them to France, to help protect them in the second leg. Arsenal have real quality going forward this season and Alexis Sanchez will relish the opportunity to play against an ageing Monaco defence.

Verdict: If Arsenal can reproduce anything like the performance they did against Galatasaray in Matchday Six against Monaco then there will only be one outcome in this tie. Arsenal will comfortably progress to the next round.

 

Image Courtesy of Wonker, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Wonker, flickr.com

Man City vs Barcelona
It’s a case of deja vu for Manchester City fans, as they prepare for another Champions League meeting with Barcelona. Last time Barcelona won 2-0 at the Etihad, and then 2-1 in the Nou Camp. However, with another years’ experience under their belts, can Manchester City make it through to the Quarter Finals for the first time?

There is something about Man City and the Champions League, which conjures up the feeling that it’s just not meant to be. For 10 years I had the same feeling – Chelsea came so close to winning the Champions League but always seemed to fall at the final hurdle. But then, when they did finally win it, it was in the most dramatic of circumstances.

I’m not saying that Manchester City are going to win the Champions League this season or even beat Barcelona but the manner in which they beat Bayern Munich and Roma to make it this far in the first place must give them hope that, even when the odds are stacked against them, they can beat the best teams in Europe. Whether Manchester City prevail and knockout Messi, Suarez, Neymar and co will depend to a great extent on the fitness of Sergio Aguero. The Argentine striker is currently out with a knee injury and is expected to be fit with time to spare before the two games against Barcelona, but without him, City lack that cutting edge. The likes of Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and David Silva, all playing at the top of their games give City hope but I just can’t see them beating Barcelona in the Nou Camp where the second leg will be played.

Verdict: Manchester City will be buoyed by the way they beat Bayern Munich and Roma to qualify for the knockout stages. But Barcelona have a wealth of attacking talent, arguably the best front three in the world and whilst it will be closer than last year’s tie, Barcelona will be Manchester City’s Champions League nemesis once again.

Image Courtesy of Football DirectNews, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Football DirectNews, flickr.com

Chelsea vs PSG- Can Mourinho mastermind Chelsea’s Champions League comeback ahead of PSG clash?

 

Excitement is building ahead of tonight’s Champions League second leg tie between Chelsea and PSG. On paper, it’s a mouth-watering match, as Chelsea look to overturn a two-goal deficit and advance to the semi-finals.

Image Courtesy of ahli webao, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of ahli webao, flickr.com

Not many people place Chelsea as favourites going into the game but there is something about Champions League knockout games at Stamford Bridge which, as a Chelsea fan, gives me hope that we can progress to the semi-finals.

Against Barcelona, in 2005 Chelsea overturned a two-goal deficit. Against Liverpool, in 2008 the tie ebbed and flowed across the two legs and eventually, Chelsea won. And against Napoli in 2012, Chelsea found themselves in the same situation, losing 3-1 after the first leg and still progressed on to win the trophy. What the experience of those games gives Chelsea fans more than anything is the belief that we can go and do the same again tonight.

Just six days ago in the Parc des Princes, individual errors gifted PSG two goals and the third goal deep into injury time made tonight’s task that little bit harder. Despite conceding three goals (more than we had conceded in our previous seven Champions League matches), PSG created very little in the first leg and for long periods of the game, we looked comfortable.

So how are Chelsea going to win the game tonight?
The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge will be electric before kick- off. We need to take belief from the recent victories at home over Arsenal, Tottenham and Galatasaray; results which, should we repeat tonight, would be enough to see us advance to the semi-finals.

 

Image Courtesy of Todd, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Todd, flickr.com

Chelsea’s defensive solidarity and togetherness, which was uncharacteristically lacking in the first leg in Paris, will be key if they are to stop PSG scoring tonight. Boosted by the news that talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be missing through injury, if Chelsea can keep another clean sheet and nullify the threat posed by Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, then they have half a chance.

In midfield Chelsea will miss the energy and enthusiasm of Ramires who is suspended and the ineligible Nemanja Matic. But in club stalwart Frank Lampard and David Luiz Chelsea have more than enough experience to cause PSG problems. Out wide Mourniho had the luxury of resting Hazard and Oscar at the weekend and Chelsea will look to both players, along with Willian, to make the difference tonight.

It’s upfront though that will go a long way to deciding Chelsea’s fate and much will depend on the fitness of Samuel Eto’o who missed the first leg with a hamstring injury. He has been Chelsea’s most prolific striker this season with all 11 of his goals coming at Stamford Bridge. Is playing him a gamble? Yes. But on a night when risks need to be taken, this could be another master stroke from Mourinho come the end of full time if he plays and scores the winning goal.

On the other hand, if he isn’t fit then Mourniho is likely to hand a start to under fire striker Fernando Torres ahead of Andre Schurle, who started in the first leg, and the relatively inexperienced Demba Ba. Despite not scoring a goal in the league since January, Torres’ record in the Champions league this season has been much better – three goals in three games. (If only his overall record for Chelsea followed a similar pattern, then he might be challenging Cristiano Ronaldo for the European golden boot).

 

Mourinho thrives on being the underdog and, in my view, Chelsea are actually under less pressure going into the game than they would have been had they been leading. PSG might have a two goal advantage but Chelsea have nothing to lose and can play with freedom.

Image Courtesy of In Mou We Trust, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of In Mou We Trust, flickr.com

People often forget the simple mathematics of football; something echoed by Mourinho in his pre match press conference….“If we score a minimum of two goals we go through; it’s basic mathematics”

Indeed it’s easier to set up a team to win rather than to set up a team not to lose because it’s not natural to play like this. Mourinho tried the latter in the first leg and failed to get a positive result and so tonight I think we will see a different Chelsea; a Chelsea with belief, a Chelsea with no fear.

Mourinho believes, the players believe and most importantly the fans believe.

Verdict: Chelsea 2-0 PSG.

Chelsea vs PSG- Can Mourinho mastermind Chelsea's Champions League comeback ahead of PSG clash?

 

Excitement is building ahead of tonight’s Champions League second leg tie between Chelsea and PSG. On paper it’s a mouth-watering match, as Chelsea look to overturn a two goal deficit and advance to the semi-finals.

Image Courtesy of ahli webao, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of ahli webao, flickr.com

Not many people place Chelsea as favourites going into the game but there is something about Champions League knockout games at Stamford Bridge which, as a Chelsea fan, gives me hope that we can progress to the semi-finals.

Against Barcelona in 2005 Chelsea overturned a two goal deficit. Against Liverpool in 2008 the tie ebbed and flowed across the two legs and eventually Chelsea won. And against Napoli in 2012 Chelsea found themselves in the same situation, losing 3-1 after the first leg and still progressed on to win the trophy. What the experience of those games gives Chelsea fans more than anything is the belief that we can go and do the same again tonight.

Just six days ago in the Parc de Princes, individual errors gifted PSG two goals and the third goal deep into injury time made tonight’s task that little bit harder. Despite conceding three goals (more than we had conceded in our previous seven Champions League matches), PSG created very little in the first leg and for long periods of the game we looked comfortable.

So how are Chelsea going to win the game tonight?
The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge will be electric before kick- off. We need to take belief from the recent victories at home over Arsenal, Tottenham and Galatasaray; results which, should we repeat tonight, would be enough to see us advance to the semi-finals.

 

Image Courtesy of Todd, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Todd, flickr.com

Chelsea’s defensive solidarity and togetherness, which was uncharacteristically lacking in the first leg in Paris, will be key if they are to stop PSG scoring tonight. Boosted by the news that talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be missing through injury, if Chelsea can keep another clean sheet and nullify the threat posed by Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, then they have half a chance.

In midfield Chelsea will miss the energy and enthusiasm of Ramires who is suspended and the ineligible Nemanja Matic. But in club stalwart Frank Lampard and David Luiz Chelsea have more than enough experience to cause PSG problems. Out wide Mourniho had the luxury of resting Hazard and Oscar at the weekend and Chelsea will look to both players, along with Willian, to make the difference tonight.

It’s upfront though that will go a long way to deciding Chelsea’s fate and much will depend on the fitness of Samuel Eto’o who missed the first leg with a hamstring injury. He has been Chelsea’s most prolific striker this season with all 11 of his goals coming at Stamford Bridge. Is playing him a gamble? Yes. But on a night when risks need to be taken, this could be another master stroke from Mourinho come the end of full time if he plays and scores the winning goal.

On the other hand, if he isn’t fit then Mourniho is likely to hand a start to under fire striker Fernando Torres ahead of Andre Schurle, who started in the first leg, and the relatively inexperienced Demba Ba. Despite not scoring a goal in the league since January, Torres’ record in the Champions league this season has been much better – three goals in three games. (If only his overall record for Chelsea followed a similar pattern, then he might be challenging Cristiano Ronaldo for the European golden boot).

 

Mourinho thrives on being the underdog and, in my view, Chelsea are actually under less pressure going into the game than they would have been had they been leading. PSG might have a two goal advantage but Chelsea have nothing to lose and can play with freedom.

Image Courtesy of In Mou We Trust, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of In Mou We Trust, flickr.com

People often forget the simple mathematics of football; something echoed by Mourinho in his pre match press conference….“If we score a minimum of two goals we go through; it’s basic mathematics”

Indeed it’s easier to set up a team to win rather than to set up a team not to lose because it’s not natural to play like this. Mourinho tried the latter in the first leg and failed to get a positive result and so tonight I think we will see a different Chelsea; a Chelsea with belief, a Chelsea with no fear.

Mourinho believes, the players believe and most importantly the fans believe.

Verdict: Chelsea 2-0 PSG.

Confessions of a Championship football fan

 

Image Courtesy of Gruppo Manfrotto, flickr.com

Image Courtesy of Gruppo Manfrotto, flickr.com

The SkyBet Championship is the strongest second-tier league in world football and in my opinion, it offers entertainment on a par with, if not better than, the Premier League and top-tier leagues across the world.

I realise that the latter is a bold statement. It could be said that my enthusiasm for the Championship stems from the cumulative effect of having to accept, season after season, that my beloved Ipswich Town will be spending yet another season as the longest-serving Championship club. 12 years and counting we’ve been there, dating back to when the league was still named Division 1. But regardless, these have actually been a thoroughly enjoyable 12 years, (albeit slightly frustrating at the same time).

And by ‘entertainment’, I don’t mean to compare the quality of football in the Championship with that of the Premier League; to do so would be to spark unnecessary debate with the Chelsea fan to my right and the two Spurs fans I live with every day. But what I do emphasize is the fact that there are more components to Championship football than many Premier League fans will realise: capricious results, passionate fans and tactical innovation to name just a few.

Saying that, Championship football is unpredictable. It has arguably become a bit of a cliché and has actually been challenged by the consistent results of Nottingham Forest, QPR, Blackpool and Leicester, who many punters currently back as a safe bet on their weekend accumulators. But who can say that they predicted Burnley to be sitting pretty at the top of the table after 12 games?

I’m not saying that the Premier League is too predictable, for the nature of this year’s season has so far blown that theory out of the water. When Championship fans turn up on match day, however, they do so without any preconception as to the final outcome. A couple of back to back wins can see a team climb from 19th to 9th, just as a team leading the pack ten games in can end up in a relegation fight 30 games later.

We could further credit the Championship by saying the reason for the fluctuating results in this season’s Premier League is partly down to the endeavours of two of last season’s promoted sides; Cardiff and Hull. Apologies, Palace fans. The Championship certainly teaches players to work hard and play honest football, which can pay dividends in the long run.

A great example of this are Swansea City, who have become the go-to example of how the game should be played since emerging from the humble roots of the Championship in 2011. They have not looked back since. In contrast, I find it thoroughly enjoyable to see a team like Bolton, who overstayed their welcome in the Premier League until 2012, now struggling to stay afloat in the Championship.

Matchday is every football fan’s highlight of the week. But if I was to give someone their first taste of English football, it would be at a Championship match. While I wouldn’t say no to 90 minutes in a padded leather seat at the Emirates, I would rather spend that time on my feet in the Bobby Robson Stand at Portman Road, where non-stop chanting and obscenities are the norm.

The great thing about a Championship game is that you are surrounded by highly-knowledgeable, passionate fans, who have followed their team up and down the Football League all their lives. They are quick to comment and brilliantly critical. Of course, honest and passionate fans exist in their thousands in the Premier League, but when comparing my Premier League and Championship match day experiences the latter comes out on top. And that’s not just for the price of the pies.

Once the fans of the 22 Championship clubs have accepted the fact that they will not be achieving automatic promotion to the Premier League, usually around Christmas time, the fun part starts; the race for the playoffs. This battle for 3rd-6th place in the table, in my opinion, generates far greater competition and passion than the race for 5th place in the Premier League, which to be honest is a bit of a damp squib in comparison. There is more at stake in the race for the playoffs. The glamour and financial benefits of the Premier League await the lucky team to go up. (And let’s be honest, there is a certain amount of luck involved).

At the start of the season, every team is aiming for automatic promotion to avoid the lottery of the playoffs at all costs. Come May, however, you would be crazy to not want to be involved. Even for a neutral observer, the playoffs are as exciting as an FA Cup final, with an atmosphere to match the final of the Champions League. But, as Crystal Palace have so far shown in the Premier League this season, sometimes the experience of getting there is better than actually being there.

Premier League fans may believe that tactical innovation is a phrase reserved for managers such as Pellegrini, Mourinho and Wenger, but, as a spectator in the Championship, you’d be unlucky to witness three successive games in which the manager didn’t shuffle the formation or style of play. The pace of the Premier League actually lessens the scope for these sorts of changes, yet the sufficient quality of Championship players combined with a slightly reduced game speed and wide range of teams, allows for managers to switch things around almost weekly to cater for the demands of each match, at a much lesser risk than would be the case in the Premier League.

It is also great to see Championship clubs embrace the domestic talent which they have coming through their respective academies. A promising 17-year old English striker from the academy will generate just as much excitement amongst Championship fans as a world-record signing would do in the Premier League, and often these home-grown talents go on to become some of the most successful players in the league. With so much talk about the importance of domestic talent in the media at the moment, we should look at the Championship as a positive example (except for perhaps, Watford).

For all I have said, it remains my dream to see Ipswich return to the top flight, even if for just one season. Come on you Blues!

The end of an era; the start of a new beginning. Are Bayern Munich about to dominate European football?

Are Bayern Munich about to dominate European football?

Barcelona’s humiliating defeat in the Champions League semi-final a few weeks ago to Bayern Munich, coupled with Real Madrid’s exit to Bourissa Dortmund, told us a lot about the future of European football and what we can expect to see over the next few years. The golden era of Spanish football, which Barcelona created, looks like it could be coming to an end and with it, Europe is on the verge of a change of power. Step forward German football.

Not since Bayern Munich won the trophy in 2001 (and before that, Dortmund in 1997) has a German side tasted success in Europe’s premier competition. On 25th May at Wembley stadium, the long wait for a German winner will come to an end and a new champion will be crowned under the famous arch.

Bayern Munich will go into the game as slight favourites, given their recent form in both the Champions League and in the Bundesliga, where they have already wrapped up the title and hold a massive lead over second-placed Dortmund. The two teams drew 1-1 at the weekend to give little away ahead of the showpiece final in two weeks’ time.

They have been runners-up in two of the last three years of the Champions League, underlining just how competitive they remain and this year I expect them to finally get their hands on the Champions League trophy…(not that I was disappointed last year being a Chelsea fan!)

So where does this leave Spanish football?

Barcelona were completely outplayed and outclassed over the two legs against Bayern Munich and without Messi, they looked void of ideas. Xaxi, Iniesta and Villa were largely ineffective and without a recognised number nine they struggled to create a clear-cut chance in 180 minutes of football. Tito Vilanova has been absent through illness and without him they have consistently lacked identity, something that Bayern Munich are set to gain in abundance with the arrival of former Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola (and something you have to think was on the minds of some of the Barca players over the course of the two legs).

I’m not saying it’s the end for Barcelona or the tiki-taka football we have become accustomed to watching over the last few years but the way Barcelona play requires tempo, energy and enthusiasm. Now the team is starting to age, with the likes of Xavi, Puyol and Alves becoming less effective. Against a younger, more efficient team like Bayern who know how to attack but also defend with masterful authority and leadership… I’m afraid there was only ever going to be one winner.

There is no getting away from the fact that German football is increasingly on the rise, both in the standard of play and in the support it is receiving all over the world. But write Barcelona off at your peril. They are still a world class team and will have the capacity to attract big name players in the summer in their quest to become the greatest again.

Bayern are on the crest of a wave at the moment and their superiority should shine through against Dortmund and see them triumph to finally become the champions of Europe again.

 

Premier League enters final sprint

As we head into the start of March, there is everything still to play for in the Barclays Premier League.

calendario-premier-league

Race for the Title

It might seem to many that Manchester United have already got one hand on the Premier League title but for anyone who follows football, we all know that could all change in a matter of games. Manchester City, you will remember, were eight points behind with just six games to go last season and still managed to snatch the title in the most dramatic circumstances, so anything can happen.  12 points might seem like a lot but with Manchester United focused on the Champions League tie with Real Madrid in two weeks’ time, City’s early exit from the competition could work in their favour as they look to close the gap at the top.  Injuries will be key but if United can keep Van Persie and Rooney fit, it’s difficult to see them losing four games from now until the end of the season. For the neutral, though we hope for the drama and excitement of last season, but as Sky Sports pundit Martin Tyler so famously said at the time “I promise you will never see anything like it again”….I’m afraid I tend to agree.

Verdict: United will get their hands on their 20th league trophy.

Champions League Qualification

The battle for 4th is set to go to the wire as we eagerly await the North London derby this weekend. Gareth Bale’s blistering form has catapulted Spurs into 3rd place in the Barclays Premier League ahead of their London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal.

The Welsh international scored two wonder goals in Spurs’ stunning 3-2 win over West Ham this week to continue his outstanding form in front of goal. The man who flitted in and out of the Tottenham side for two years, following his arrival from Southampton, in 2007 has now become one of Europe’s premier performers. The Tottenham winger has scored 23 goals in an incredible season, with 9 goals in the last 7 games. He is the only midfielder on the continent to have had more than 100 shots this season and he alone has earned Tottenham 15 points this season.

However, with Bale’s outstanding performances single-handily carrying the team at the moment, the fans are beginning to question the performance of the other players around him. For their sake, they will be hoping the injury jinx doesn’t stand in the way of qualifying for the Champions League and that Bale will remain fit for the rest of the season. Indeed if you take away the goals Bale has scored this season, Tottenham would occupy 9th place in the table. A win for Tottenham will open up a seven-point gap over Arsenal and for me should see them seal one of the two remaining places leaving it down to Arsenal and Chelsea to battle over 4th place.

Talking of Chelsea, Rafael Benitez’s spectacular outburst after Chelsea’s midweek cup win at the Riverside was evidence that he has finally cracked under the pressure of the disgruntled Chelsea fans. As a Chelsea fan myself it’s ridiculous that we don’t get behind him and support the team because, as he quite rightly said in his post-match press conference, he will be gone at the end of the season and we will be left to lick our wounds as we face the prospect of another Thursday night Europa League campaign.  If the minority of fans don’t end their campaign to “Get Rafa Out” unfortunately this will turn nightmare into reality. Whatever happens at Stamford Bridge, come what May… Chelsea will be looking for their 10th manager in as many years.

Verdict: Europa League for Arsenal… I hope!

The Race for Europe

Swansea will fly the Welsh flag in Europe next season for the first time after their Capital One Cup success last weekend at the hands of Bradford. The biggest ever winning margin in the competitions’ 100 year plus history, leaving the two Merseyside clubs and West Brom to battle it out for the remaining places. Everton’s inconsistent form since the turn of the year has seen them disappear from Champions League contenders to be Europa League certainties and Liverpool have been inconsistent all season to say the least. In Suarez and Gerrard, Liverpool have two of best players in the league and they should have more points than they have. The Rodgers Revolution is a fascinating project but hasn’t reached top gear yet.

Verdict: Everton should have enough to hold on to 6th place but might be distracted by a possible FA Cup semi-final at Wembley should they beat Wigan. All eyes on the Merseyside derby at the start of May as Liverpool look to close the three-point gap. West Brom will fall just short but it must be said what a fantastic season for Steve Clarke and the Baggies.

Mid Table Mediocrity

The likes of Stoke, Sunderland, West Ham, Fulham, Norwich and Newcastle you would think are just about safe if they secure a couple more wins and will compete against each other to finish as high up in the table as possible.

Relegation

QPR are in desperate trouble at the bottom of the table; seven points from safety and you have to wonder how they will cope both on and off the pitch should they fail to avoid relegation to the Championship. Huge transfer fees and a frightening wage bill don’t bode well for the West London club.

Harry’s magic hasn’t really worked its wonders yet. Despite a freak 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge in January, the team never kicked on. It’s now or never for QPR and this is where Harry Redknapp should come into his own. If anyone can oversee the great escape then he can but if they don’t start winning then I’m afraid they will be plying their trade in England’s second tier next season.

Reading, Aston Villa, Southampton and Wigan are all locked in a battle to survive but with Ricky Lambert scoring goals for Southampton on a regular basis and Wigan seasoned campaigners at avoiding the drop against all odds, I think they will survive leaving Villa – one of only six teams to appear in every Premier League season – and Reading heading through the trap door with QPR.

All in all, a fascinating climax to the end of another fantastic season of Barclays Premier League football.

 

Words by Dan Apostolos