Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

There is an unsettled debate between football fans regarding Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and who should be considered the “G.O.A.T.” or greatest of all time. Both men have had incredible careers and are without doubt the two best players of their generation. But when you talk about being the greatest of all time, neither can hold a candle to Diego Armando Maradona who sadly passed on the 25th November, 2020 aged 60.

Maradona grew up in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires but rose to become a cultural icon and a football god. Over a career that spanned over five decades including time as a player and later as a manager, Diego carved out a special place in the history of football. Despite an often-turbulent life off the pitch, it’s what he did on it that created his legacy. Not only was he an outstanding player but he was a colourful character as well often showing off his immense talents by juggling a golf ball on his thighs, playing keepie uppies with a pair of socks or simply doing things with a football that defied gravity.  His genius with a ball appeared to have no limits. Messi is talented no doubt but Maradona was unique.

The regular comparisons between Messi and Maradona are understandable – both Argentines, both diminutive in stature, both possessing sublime left foots yet the key difference was that Messi is playable in that defenders could get close to him on occasions, rough him up from time to time and if lucky knock him off his stride. Maradona on the other hand was unplayable. There was no way to mark him. You couldn’t assign a marker as a man marker because he would simply turn him to easily and be gone. Playing zonally against him didn’t work either as England found out at the ’86 World Cup. That goal, more than any other showcased how remarkable a player he actually was. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, facing his own goal, he pirouettes beautifully to avoid not one, but two English challenges from Beardsley and Reid and is off running. Gliding over the halfway line, he glances up to see a sea of white England shirts ahead of him and two runners on his backheel. He takes a composing touch to bring the ball close before evading a lunge from Terry Butcher by side stepping inside him. Approaching the 18-yard box, he accelerates past Terry Fenwick and on towards Peter Shilton in goal. With the goalkeeper rushing out to meet him, he feints left before pulling the ball to his right leaving Shilton on the ground embarrassed. Finally, he holds of a last-ditch challenge from the new recovered Terry Butcher to cool slot the ball home and seal the win for Argentina. From start to finish was less than 10 seconds long but it is now one of the most iconic goals of all time.

What is often forgotten about that time was that Maradona was performing on pitches and surfaces less than ideal for a normal game of football, never mind the sublime trickery that he up his sleeve. The pitches during the height of Maradona’s career were not the perfectly groomed and maintained surfaces that Messi and Ronaldo nearly always play on. Quite the contrary. Indeed Gary Lineker, who played against Maradona in the 1986 World Cup quarter final described the pitch at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico as “awful” and “like newly relaid turf that hadn’t stitched together yet so would slip away under your feet as you ran”.  So, to be able to play like he did and score that goal is amazing in itself.

Maradona simply infuriated opposition players due to his brilliance and their inability to stop him so much so that the only way to do so was to kick him and kick him hard as we saw in the ’82 World Cup and during his time at Barcelona including that infamous match against Atletico Bilbao in 1983 when Andoni Goikoetxea’s brutal late tackle broke Maradona’s ankle. But despite this rough treatment, Maradona inspired the teams he played for and pushed them towards glory winning countless trophies at the clubs he graced with his brilliance – a Primeria Division title with Boca Juniors in ’81, a cup treble with Barca in ’83 and two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, one UEFA Cup and a Super Cup with Napoli where he is held in icon status to this day, officially retiring the number 10 jersey after his departure.

But it’s his contributions to the Argentina national team that converted him from a legend to a god back in his homeland with his crowning moment of glory being the 1986 World cup where he single handedly won them the World Cup. Some may argue that this sounds over exaggerated, but the truth is that it’s not. Argentina would not have won that World Cup if it wasn’t for Maradona who produced one of the greatest individual tournament performances in World Cup history. He would have probably repeated the same feat four years later at Italia ‘90 if it wasn’t for a troublesome ankle injury but he still managed to guide Argentina to the final despite this. This, plus the raw passion he showed every time he pulled on that famous blue and white striped shirt sets him apart and placed him on that pedestal in the eyes of the Argentine fans. Messi may be revered but he has yet to deliver like Diego did on the international and until that happens, he will remain below Maradona in their eyes.

Maradona will be remembered for a lot of things including his off-field antics which included drug and alcohol issues and for that infamous “Hand of God” goal which the English press seems unable to get over. But luckily, he will also be remembered for the amazing player that he was and the passion he had for the game. He was the ultimately playmaker and free kick specialist, with immense skill and vision that could turn a game on its head within seconds. He was simply unplayable and will be missed by the world of football.

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Is Lautaro Martinez Barca Bound?

As everyone knows we’re slowly getting football back and with that comes transfer news and updates. This can be said of 22 year old Inter striker Larturo Martinez. He signed for Inter back in 2018 from Racing Club where he had scored 22 goals in 48 appearances. He might have signed a five year contract for a fee of €22.7 million euros but just a few years later looks likely to leave for a much larger fee. So far at Inter he has done a phenomenal job as one of the clubs top goal scorers this season. So far he has played in 49 matches with 17 goals. He has developed into one of the key pieces Inter desperately needed. As a quick and agile player, he  pairs well with the more physical and direct Romelu Lukaku. But unlike Lukaku, Martinez is a player who is able to show up in big matches whereas Lukaku tends to struggle. Martinez is only two years into his contract with Inter and he is already being linked with an exit from the club.

With the upcoming retirement of one of the  greatest strikers of this era and in my opinion the greatest of all time Lionel Messi; Barcelona are in need of the next big thing. They are looking at replacing him with Martinez who appeared on their radar in their match against Inter in 2019 in their 2-1 loss in the Champions League when he scored their only goal. So they’ve been interested in him for a few months now. Barcelona are willing to pay his buyout clause of €111 million euros. So far Barcelona have offered €50 million euros and two players for him which has been since rejected by Inter sending Barcelona back to the drawing board to create a new offer. But no matter how much it takes, more than likely they will reach a deal and Martinez will be leaving the club which will be a huge problem for Inter as leaves a crucial opening in the attack. When he leaves this will have Inter scrambling to find a replacement.

Inter have a few options; some I agree with, other I don’t. The first name that’s been thrown around is Antoine Griezmann. This wouldn’t be a bad choice in my opinion as he is a solid goal scorer and a threat inside the box.  Olivier Giroud is another name thrown around but he has already signed a contract extension at Chelsea with 49 goals and only seven goals so he is likely now out of the equation unless Interv are willing to pay for him. Moise Kean was another name that was in the pot but he is already close to signing a deal with Roma. At this point Inter have limited options as the names continue to dwindle. The only other player that they can go after and is seeming to be the best solution for now is PSG striker Edison Cavani with midfielder Paul Pogba brought in to supply him with the ammunition. If Inter offload players such as Veccino and Valero, Pogba in the midfield would give them some much needed depth. Whilst Cavani who has played over 200 matches and scored 138 goals for PSG would be seen as a good signing, he is older than the club would prefer (the same can be said about Giroud) so he is a short term solution at short term only.  Either way nothing will replace the amazing job Martinez as done for the club. This will definitely be a loss for sure but if they find the right players to fill in the voids Inter should be just fine.

Post by Danielle Luhrsen, writer for The Galleria of Internazionale Milano.

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Can Messi Inspire Argentina one more time?

Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

Still hurting – Argentina came so close in Brazil only to fall at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware  (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.

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Maradona wins the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 (Image from Tumblr)

His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.

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Sampaoli needs a Plan B and quickly (image from Tumblr)

The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.

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World Cup 2018 – Group by Group Predictions

The wait is over; it’s finally here. After months of anticipation, the 2018 World Cup kicks off today. Hosts Russia play Saudi Arabia in the first match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow in front of a massive crowd which will likely also feature Russian President Vladimir Putin. Robbie Williams will be on hand to “entertain” the crowd (and Mr Putin) in what will be one of the most eagerly anticipated yet controversial World Cups to date. Concerns about Russian hooliganism and the continue threat of terrorist activity plight the tournament before it begins. Questions are being asked about how Russia will cope as a host and what kind of World Cup this will be. On field questions are yet still to be answered too.  Can Germany lift back to back World Cups or will Brazil get their revenge for what happened four years ago. Can Iceland upset the odds again like they did at Euro 2016 and reach the quarter finals. Will Ronaldo add to his growing collection of trophies or will Lionel Messi finally put the ghost of Maradona to bed by lifting his own golden trophy? We try to answer all of these questions and more now.

Group A:

Russia enter this group with a heavy heart knowing that little is going in their favour. History suggests that Russia won’t get out of the group as has been the fate of several other host nations. Added into that an aging squad and a lack of creativity, Russia will likely struggle. However the thought of spending their years wasting away in a Siberian prison which is where Putin will likely send them all if they embarrass him, may be enough to spark some sort of Russian resurgence. Golovin will be crucial if they are to progress. What does work in their favour is the presence of Saudi Arabia in their group who have more chance of collectively being elected US president in 2020 than escaping the group. Uruguay should dominate with ease especially if Suarez and Cavani have anything to do with it but they will need to be on top form to beat a Salah inspired Egypt. The Egyptians sneaked in the back door in qualifying with a late surge by the Liverpool man to get them to Russia but their over reliance on him should be their downfall.

Qualifiers: Uruguay, Russia

Group B:

Without doubt the easiest group to predict in terms of top 1&2, the question is less about who but in what order. Spain and Portugal will be far too good for Iran and Morocco but don’t expect either to roll over without a fight. Spain, whose manager was sensationally sacked yesterday after agreeing to take charge at Real Madrid without informing the Spanish FA have so much strength throughout that they could afford to leave the Chelsea trio of Alonso, Fabregas and Morata behind. The 2010 World Champions are only taking two recognized strikers which sounds baffling until you look at their midfield. Regardless of who is in charge (Hierro looks to be in at present but that could change), Spain should have enough to get out of the group but maybe not much more given the turmoil. Portugal on the other hand will again turn to Ronaldo for inspiration and this time unlike at Euro 2016, the Real Madrid striker is rested and in peak condition. Not that necessarily they need him to be as was shown at the Euros where they shocked more than a few by triumphing. Morocco could challenge both of the Iberian sides especially if flair players like Younes Belhanda show up but the same can’t be said about Iran who will be literally bootless after Nike stuck the boot in just days before the tournament started by pulling out of its agreement to supply boots to the team following new US sanctions.

Qualifiers: Spain, Portugal

Questions over how Spain are coping following their managers sacking will be answered against Portugal (Image from tumblr)

Group C:

Australia arrive at the World Cup with 38-year-old Tim Cahill still very much part of their plans. But there is a freshness about this Aussie squad that arguably hasn’t been seen for a while. Celtics Tom Rogic is in fine form coming into the tournament and will be looked towards to provide forward momentum. However a lack of potent goal threat (Cahill aside) may be the difference between Australia progressing and exiting stage right. Peru on the other hand will be delighted just to be there. Issues surrounding captain Guerrero have been cleaned up with the 34-year-old cleared to play despite being found guilty of doping. It’s a huge relief for the country as without him, Peru offers very little. Three good performances with a chance of an upset in one of them is the best they can hope for. Denmark and France should be competing for the two qualifying spots and it may come down to that match to decide it. Denmark are youthful and pacey with Sisto and Dolberg two to watch. France led by Deschamps for now (Zidane hovers in the shadows) go into the World Cup with one of the most complete squads; such is their wealth that several key players have been left out (Lacazette, Martial and Coman). Much will be expected of Mbappe and Griezmann whilst Pogba will be hoping to leave his Manchester United troubles behind and play a starring role for his country. The issue with France is not about qualifying for the group or likely a round of 16 tie against Croatia but later in the quarters and semis where they will look to the bench for tactical influence and inspiration. Unfortunately Deschamps will be sitting there so the lack of a plan B could be their undoing. Zidane will ready if that happens.

Qualifiers: France, Denmark

Group D:

Much like Group C, this group will be decided by two teams although perhaps not as cut and dry as the other. Croatia have improved vastly in recent years and look more like a collective team rather than individuals running around aimlessly. Modric and Mandzukic will be key but look out for Kramaric to also shine. Defensively solid, Croatia might not score a lot but don’t let many in too so should progress. Argentina on the other hand are clearly coming in with the same mindset as the Real Madrid “Galaticio” era – it doesn’t matter how many we concede as long as we score one more. With a front line of Messi, Aguero, Higuian, and Dybala it’s not hard to understand why many are tipping Argentina to go one further than in 2014 and finally deliver the World Cup that Messi so desperately wants. The biggest disappointment of this front line is who was excluded including Mauro Icardi and the highly impressive Lautaro Martinez but it may be a tournament too soon for the youngster who is destined to shine at future World Cups.

Dybala, Higuian, Messi, Aguero – Argentina certainly aren’t short of firepower up front (image from Tumblr)

Nigeria will pose a threat especially with the pace of Ahmed Musa and Kelechi Iheanacho upfront. A majority of the squad is based on the UK or Turkey meaning that as a unit they are used to seeing and competing against each other regularly. The issue will be that some key players like the aforementioned pair have struggled for playing time at Leicester this season with Musa eventually engineering a loan move in January back to Moscow in order to protect his selection for the Super Eagles. Making up the group is Iceland, the smallest ever nation to qualify for the World Cup. Two years ago they lit up Euro 2016 with some remarkable performances none more so than against an arrogant England who thought they would breeze past Iceland into the quarter finals. Iceland’s journey in that tournament, which also introduced the world to the thunder-clap cemented their place in the hearts of all football fans and that love affair is likely to extend now to the World Cup where they will be the de facto side to support for all nations who didn’t qualify (USA, Holland, Italy – looking at you). However Iceland find themselves in the so-called group of death and this time they will rightly be treated with respect rather than contentment which should make the challenge of qualifying harder. What goes for them is that Iceland has team spirit in abundance and if they can channel that plus the form they showed in qualifying (where they knocked out Holland and Turkey) they could again have hearts fluttering as they race into the knock out rounds.

Qualifiers: Argentina, Croatia

The Thunder Clap will be out on display at the World Cup regardless of how Iceland perform (Image from Tumblr)

Group E:

With the humiliation of four years ago still fresh in the memory of most Brazilians, their team comes to Russia with a point to make. Winning the World Cup is the only definition of success for Neymar and his teammates and this might be the year that it happens. Manager Tite has created a well balance yet exciting Brazil that usually sets up in a fluid 4-3-3 formation with Neymar, Coutinho and Firmino as the front three. But it’s the midfield that drives the team. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Fred are fairly interchangeable but the setup is not – dropping back to offer cover for the defence when the opposition presses then turning over with slick passing and forward momentum. Brazil you can say have learned their lessons and look better for it. A run to the final should be on the cards unless a team can exploit a weakness (space behind the adventurous left back Marcelo perhaps) and send Brazil home again to rethink. Serbia come into the World Cup as a dark horse with few really knowing which side will show up. On their day, Serbia are a solid outfit who defend well and attack with flair and pace. But more often than not they are found wanting or sometimes not at the races at all. Their midfield is key to any success with Matic often sitting whilst the likes of Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic poke holes in opposition defences. Upfront they are a little light with Newcastle’s Mitrovic their main battering ram whilst Luka Jovic provides the flair. Qualifying is not out of the picture; that is if they turn up.

One of the shocks of Brazil 2014 besides the Brazil team were Costa Rica who knocked out Italy in the group stage before eventually falling to Holland on penalties (Tim Krul’s appearance as sub goalie was the killer). Four years on and having qualified again, Costa Rica are older and wiser than before; with the key word there being older. If it weren’t for the inclusion of relative youngsters Ian Smith and Ronald Matarrita, the squads average age would be north of thirty rather than just south of it. Bryan Ruiz captains the side yet again and is likely their key goal threat although Joel Campbell does offers a different option. Qualifying will be tough but wins against Serbia and/or Switzerland and the adventure could be on again. The Swiss are often known for being impartial, never ready to rock the boat. However at the World Cup they may have other plans. Having qualified through the playoffs dispatching Northern Ireland with the thanks of a dodgy penalty call, Switzerland will be hoping that they can show exactly what they have to offer. Stoke midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri may not have had the best season in the Premier League but the little midfielder is still dangerous to play against especially as he comes inside on his left foot. Watch out for Breel Embolo too who is likely to want to stamp his name on the tournament.

Qualifiers: Brazil, Serbia

Group F:

Current World Champions Germany kick off Group F with a match against Mexico on Fathers Day and it’s likely to be one of the most interesting of the tournament as it will be an early indication of how far Germany can go. Germany are on a quest to become the first team to win back to back World Cups since Brazil achieved that feat back in ’58 and then in ’62 (Italy also did it in the 30’s). With a squad riddled with talent it’s hard to look past them but this time the challenge will be much harder. Whilst there is no Miroslav Klose to fire in the goals and Mario Gotze to pop off the bench to snatch the winner, Germany do have a ready replacement in Timo Werner. Although not a carbon copy of either he has traits that suggest that Germany manufactured him in a lab using both players DNA. Quick on the ball, skillful with it at his feet and an eye for goal, Werner will be needed if Germany are to lift the trophy. Which puts a lot of pressure on such young shoulders. That however seems to be a running issue in a team of superstars; the lack of an old wise head who can burden the responsibility of German expectations for the entire team like Lahm did four years ago. Indeed despite having Kroos, Muller, Hummels and Ozil to call upon, Germany lack a Schweinsteiger or Per Mertesacker who can rally the troops when needed. It may instead take a moment of brilliance to get the team excited and that could come from Julian Brandt who’s blistering runs will be sure to have bums everywhere lifting from their seats. Qualification from the group should be a formality but progress to the final could be stopped if Germany falls silent on the pitch.

No Gotze or Klose but they have Werner (Image from Tumblr)

Their opponents on opening day are Mexico who too should be looking at escaping the group. There are a lot of familiar faces in the Mexico squad including the Dos Santos brothers, Javier Hernandez and for a record fifth time Rafael Marquez at the tender age of 39. But it’s some of the not so familiar faces that could excite the masses. Marco Fabian and Hirving Lozano are two such players that given the right tools could have an influence on Mexico’s progression. El Tri have never not managed to get past the round of 16 in their last six attempts so that has to be the goal this time around. If they can do that, then who knows what kind of party they will throw for their returning players. If their ill advised World Cup leaving party was anything to go by (30 prostitutes plus a lot of alcohol are not a good combo), then it could be one hell of a night. Standing in Mexico’s way are potential party poopers Sweden who have resisted the temptation of recalling Zlatan to the squad and are focusing on the task in hand. Unlike Swedish teams of old that had standout goal scorers like Ibrahomivic, Larsson and to a lesser extent Dahlin this current crop looks a little lightweight upfront which could be a problem. The pressure will then be placed on the midfield to create including Emil Forsberg who is coming off a tremendous season with RB Leipzig. Seb Larssen who has just returned to play in Sweden after a career stay in England with various clubs will also be needed if Sweden stands any chance of qualifying. That is of course unless Zlatan just turns up because despite FIFA rules around naming squads, Zlatan plays when Zlatan wants to play.

Rounding out the group is South Korea who are another side that rely too heavily on one player. Spurs Son Heung-min has had his best season ever in England and will be looking to transfer that form into the World Cup. South Korea favour a counter attacking style of play which suits Heung-min perfectly but unlike Spurs who have a solid defence in order to do so, South Korea do not. Added into this, South Koreas manager still flutters between a back four and a back three repeatedly making their chances of progression limited at best.

Qualifiers: Germany, Mexico

Group G:

Arguably next to France and Germany, Belgium have the most complete squad at this years tournament boasting star names in almost every position. Solid at the back with Courtois, Vertoghen, Alderwerield and Kompany, Belgium have a strong foundation in which to build a World Cup winning campaign. Going forward they aren’t sloppy either with Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi feeding off opportunities created by Dries Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco and Hazard. All in all Belgium should be considered as dark horses to win. Except for the fact that their manager is Roberto Martinez who doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. The former Wigan and Everton boss has had a mixed spell in charge of Belgium. Like his predecessor, Martinez lacks the tactical ability needed to switch a game when it’s not going well. In a league you can get away with it but in knock out international football, every minute counts. If Belgium are to win it will likely be in spite of Martinez rather than due to him.

To Listen or Ignore – the dilemma for Hazard and his teammates (Image from Tumblr)

England are their toughest group opponents and under Gareth Southgate pose a viable threat to their chances. Southgate’s squad contains a good mix of youth and experience centred along a solid spine with Harry Kane as its focal point. Options are a plenty which is a good thing but can also work against you especially as consistency usually helps to win this tournament. In almost every position with the exception of striker as previously stated, Southgate could go for one of several options – Pickford or Butland, Maguire or Stones, Rose or Young, Alli or Lingard etc. This does place unnecessary pressure on the team regardless of how prepared and relaxed you are. Pressure is not something England cope with well and a majority of it comes from an over excited media who still reflect back to 1966 and England’s only World Cup triumph. In a way, that win has been a curse for the teams that followed with the media elevating expectations repeatedly higher than they should be. The team Southgate has is certainly good enough to win the World Cup but removing the pressure and finding consistency may be too big of a headache for the England boss.

Panama make their World Cup debut after watching the US fail to qualify. Few of the names in the Panama squad will be familiar to the watching fans but what they will see is an extremely passionate team who play for each other like a brotherhood. What Panama lacks in technique they make up for in grit and determination which in itself can be an extremely powerful tool. Traditionally defensive in style, Panama won’t be the most exciting to watch although Gabriel Torres may just have something different to say on that. Three good performances are likely the best they can hope for. Finally Tunisia rounds out the group. They come into the World Cup looking to build upon and improve on their last three appearances where they have failed to get out of the group stages. Unfortunately this side doesn’t look up to the task. Short on pace and lacking a real star, Tunisia will hope like Panama to compete well and hopefully spring an upset. Whabi Kazhri leads the line but it’s midfielder Ellyes Shkiri that could make the difference and in doing so put himself in the shop window. A talented 22 midfielder, Shkiri has a strong passing range and reads the game well but the lack of a supporting cast might mean his efforts are in vain.

Qualifiers: Belgium, England

Group H:

Finally group H sees Poland face Colombia, Japan and Senegal. Possibly the hardest group to call for a variety of reasons with many tipping Colombia and Poland to advance but others naming Senegal in the mix too. Japan is the side that no one really fancies in terms of proceeding and for good reason. Japan’s run up to the World Cup has been dramatic to say the least; sacking head coach Vahid Halilhodzic ten weeks before the tournament started and replacing him with the guy that sacked him, Akira Nishino is hardly the best preparation. Nishino is well liked by the older players in the squad and has a lot of coaching experience however the move has created friction in the Japan ranks which may not have died down before they kick a ball in Russia. Squad wise Japan are not the strongest. Shinji Kagawa and Keishu Honda are remnants of the Japan of old yet still pull the strings in the team. At the back Southampton’s Yoshida organizes best he can around a shaky looking defense. Qualifying would be nice but unlikely.

Halilhodzic departs as Nishino watches on (Image from Tumblr)

Colombia on the other hand should progress and could go as far as the quarters or semis given the right draw. James Rodriguez is their creator and chief architect so expect everything to go through him whilst the return of Radamel Falcao to form has been a welcome boost. At the back Mina and Sanchez are youthful additions but sometimes lack the discipline needed to perform well at international level. Goals however have been an issue of late despite Falcao’s return. The introduction of Miguel Borja might be enough to solve this but it’s unlikely. Beating Poland and finishing top would set up a clash with England in a game very difficult to call. Senegal could alter that plan. Led by former midfield enforcer Aliou Cisse, Senegal have a strong squad with Napoli’s Kalibou Koulibaly at the heart of the defence and Liverpool’s Sadio Mane leading the line. Often criticized for being too conservative in his approach, Cisse focuses on soaking up the pressure with slow painful passing movements and then releasing Mane to run at defences at pace; a strategy that has proven to work in the past. That however was against African opponents so may not work against the likes of Poland or Colombia who press with vigour.

Poland make up the group and are as always ever reliant on their striker Robert Lewandowski. The Bayern hitman is the principle reason why they are at the World Cup but to be fair he had a lot of support in the process. Piotr Zielinski has proven to be an exciting prospect who can create opportunities for Lewandowski up front. Milik and Grosicki too have stepped up with goals and assists. However the concern for Poland is not going forward but it’s at the back. Defensively Poland have been poor, so much so that the manager has switched tactics more times in the last two years than he has had hot dinners. Finally he looks to be sticking with three at the back with Glik, Pazdan and one other occupying those spots. Poland expect qualification from the group but little else which is more realistic than most nations are being.

Qualifiers: Colombia, Poland

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Messi walks free as FIFA chooses money over integrity 

In a recent match between Argentina and Chile, television cameras captured the moment that Lionel Messi verbally abused a linesman for flagging a foul committed by Messi on an opponent. Whilst not listed in the referees match report, the incident was reported later to officials at FIFA who took retroactive action to discipline the 29 year old forward; banning him from Argentina’s next four international games and fining him CHF 10,000 ($10,000 USD). The FIFA disciplinary committee who’s sole purpose is to enforce the FIFA disciplinary code globally handed down the ban citing that Messi had broken article 57 of the code around abusive language or acts towards match officials. They proceeded to back up the severity of the ban citing that the punishment was in line with several other cases handed out by the Committee over the years.

Messi argues with the linesman following a late call (Image from Tumblr)

Messi argues with the linesman following a late call (Image from Tumblr)

However in a startling turn of events, that ruling has now been overturned by FIFA’s appeals committee who have lifted the ban permitting Messi to play in all forthcoming games for Argentina. At  the hearing in Zurich, the Appeals Committee approved the appeal lodged by the Argentine Football Association along with Messi’s lawyers citing insufficient evidence to support the ban. However in a baffling statement they did appear to acknowledge that Messi had indeed directed foul language towards the linesman by calling his behaviour reproachable. Messi himself was not at the hearing ‘for personal reasons’ but is said to be happy with the outcome.

FIFA appears to be a loggerheads over this incident (Image from Tumblr)

FIFA appears to be a loggerheads over this incident (Image from Tumblr)

As of course are the Argentine Football Association who are now able to field Messi in their next three games which all coincidentally are crucial 2018 World Cup qualifying matches. This news could not have come at a better time with Argentina struggling in the South American qualifying group. Sitting fifth on 22 points after 14 games, Argentina need to put points on the board if they are to stand a chance of qualify for Russia. With only the top four going through automatically and the fifth placed team playing in a two legged qualifier match with the winner of the Oceania region, Argentina needed their star player back and on the field. Having lost him already for the game against Bolivia at the end of March (which they lost 2-0), Argentina were at real risk of slipping further down the table without him. Messi will now be back in the team (injuries permitting) to face Uruguay, Venezuela and Peru as Argentina look to prevent the worst from happening – failing to qualify.

Without Messi, Argentina have struggled (Image from Tumblr)

Without Messi, Argentina have struggled (Image from Tumblr)

That in itself would be disastrous for Argentina who reached the 2014 final and for Messi himself who is desperate to win the World Cup and finally put to bed the argument that Diego Maradona is better than him simply because he lifted the coveted golden trophy. But it would have also been a disaster for FIFA too if Argentina and more importantly Lionel Messi weren’t at the World Cup next year in Russia. In a constant fight with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for the title of the current best player in the world; Messi is an iconic player who drives not only fan interest on a global scale but significant advertising revenues as well. A World Cup without Messi would be like the NBA finals without LeBron James. It would still function and take place just perhaps not as great as it could have been with him there. Sponsors certainly wouldn’t be as happy taking on a tournament with no Messi included.

Messi missing the World Cup is like LeBron missing the NBA playoffs (Image from Tumblr)

Messi missing the World Cup is like LeBron missing the NBA Finals (Image from Tumblr)

So whilst to many it would appear that the Appeals Committee simply overruled the disciplinary committee, perhaps what in fact happened was that both were overruled by FIFA’s underlining desire to line its financial coffers more than its desire to protect the integrity of the game. I wonder if the situation had been exactly the same but the player had been a lesser known figure in the squad; would the appeals committee been as eager to throw out the ruling made by their brothers over in disciplinary? Or indeed would they have backed the decision made by them and upheld the ban? What is certain is that FIFA as a whole would have cared less about the ruling and its effect on qualifying; that was unless said players absence had a direct knock on effect to Argentina’s chances of qualify. Then perhaps they would have stepped in once again to influence proceedings and protect its bottom line.

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A River Runs Through It – How Relegation Reignited River Plate’s Fire

The date of June 27th 2011 is firmly etched into the memories of all River Plate fans but for the wrong reason. On that day, River Plate who are widely considered as one of South America’s greatest clubs faced its darkest hour – riddled with debt, facing and uncertain future and now relegated from the Argentine Primera Division for the first time in their history. The disappointment of that day was apparent as fans burst onto the pitch and rioted. The players distraught at their epic failure scrambled into the safety of the dressing room as the chaos outside escalated. The manager responsible for the drop immediately resigned whilst his team which included a young Erik Lamela faced an uncertain future in the lower tiers of Argentinean football.

River-Plate-relegated

Lamela sinks to the ground after River are relegated (Image from AFP)

That summer River regrouped under new manager and former player Matias Almeyda who immediately set about putting the heart back into River Plate. He knew that to restore River to its rightful place in the Prmieria Division, he needed to bring in players who would do anything for the club. In came the experienced trio of Fernando Cavenaghi, Alejandro Dominguez and David Trezeguet. All three players are die hard River Plate fans so agreed to come and play for the club in their darkest hour for whatever wages the club could afford. The end result was that River bounced back immediately after only one season in the Argentine second tier – B Nacional. But there was a noticeable difference in the team – gone was the swagger that Rover had adopted in the years before relegation when they believed that they were too good to go down. That season in the lower leagues had restarted the River fire and made them a stronger team who battled for every point. Over the next two seasons, River would continue to grow and improve until they were eventually rewarded with a stunning cup treble including the league title and Sudamerica Cup in 2014 and the Copa Liberatordes in 2015.

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River Plate lift the Copa Libertadores in 2015 (Image from EPA)

By this time Almeyda was long gone, having only managed River for that fateful season in the lower leagues. His replacement was Ramon Diaz who continued what Almeyda had started over the next two seasons before eventually being replaced by Marcelo Gallardo. It was under the River Plate and Argentine legend Gallardo that success began to come back to the club. With the help of Reserve team boss and fellow legend Ariel Ortega and new Sporting Director Enzo Francescoli, Gallardo built a side capable of challenging on all fronts, beautifully mixing a growing crop of talented youngsters with a handful of experienced heads. The current batch boasts some of the worlds most highly promising youngsters including the ever impressive centre backs Eder Alvarez Balanta and Emanuel Mammana (touted as the next Javier Mascherano), towering stopper Augusto Batalla, midfielder Augusto Solari (the cousin of Santi Solari who once played along side Gallardo for Argentina) and striker Sebastian Driussi. This youthful exuberance was pitted alongside Leonardo Ponzio, Jonathan Maidana and Teo Gutierrez  as River regained their title and cleaned up on route to winning the Copa last year and now this season next to Javier Saviola, Nicolas Bertolo and Lucho Gonzalez.

eder-alvarez-balanta_672553

One to Watch – Eder Alvarez Balanta (Image from Getty)

That victory has earned them a place in last years Club World Championship in Japan. Whilst not considered an important tournament in Europe, the prestige of playing in the tournament for South America teams cannot be understated with River viewing it as a must win event. Whilst the did reach the final, Barcelona proved too strong and brushed them aside to lift the cup. To win the tournament would have been a great way indication of exactly how far River have come in less than four years. There is still along way to go, with River still in debt believed to be in the region of $27.5m. They are paying that debt off by selling some of their highly rated players including recent sales of Gutierrez to Sporting Lisbon, Funes Mores to Everton and Matias Kranevitter to Atletico Madrid but there is still along way to go. River are on the right path though and have made incredible strides in recent years considering how far they fell. They may have missed out on winning the league this past year to Boca Juniors but the positive signs are there that River will be a force once again in Argentine football for the years ahead.

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The Messy Abomination That Is The Argentine Primera Division

The new look Primera Division (Image from Getty)Two months in and so far no problems have arisen for the heavily restructured Argentinean Primera Division. The new colossal league which now has 30 teams competing in it, making it one of the largest leagues in the world, takes time and patience to fully understand but the logic behind it is still baffling. Unfortunately for all of us, that logic will never be known as it died with its creator Julio Grondona, the former President of the Argentine Football Association who passed away this past summer. Grondona had for a long time wanted to change the league structure away from its tired two Championship format – Apertura and Clausura (similar to most other Latin America leagues) to a super league system much like the European ones. When his original idea of creating a 42 team league was squashed, he returned to the drawing board to devise a plan that could not be denied as the right way to go. Unfortunately for Argentina, what he came up with was the baffling mess that they now have to live with. So what is wrong with the new format? Let us explain.

Mastermind - Julio Grondona  (Image from AFP)

Mastermind – Julio Grondona
(Image from AFP)

Poorer Quality of Football

One of the principle ideas behind expanding to a 30 team structure was to improve the quality of football in the league which has been declining steadily over the past decade. However with the addition of 10 teams from Primera B, the quality of football on show will hardly be improved. Unlike the English Championship where several of its teams could compete well in the Premiership, the standard between Argentina’s top two leagues is far greater mostly due to the lack of money being pumped into the second tier. With several poorer teams in the division, the race for the title will be likely determined by the games between the bigger clubs meaning that it will be harder for clubs like Banfield and Arsenal to win the league.

Banfield - Apertura Champions 2009  (Image from Getty)

Banfield – Apertura Champions 2009
(Image from Getty)

Lack of Money

Grondona’s main pitch to the clubs in order to secure the votes needed was that they would see more revenue coming in. The bulk of this would come from a principle betting sponsor and increased funds from the AFA. Unfortunately no sponsor was found and the season began with the clubs forced to split only the AFA funds of $140million per year. However with ten more teams in the league, each clubs share was dramatically reduced leaving many owners frustrated. With the government mandate of Football for All, every game is shown on TV for free meaning that TV revenues that help to largely fund most leagues across the world are nonexistent. Clubs will need to rely on revenue generated from ticket and merchandise sales as well as player sales to help bolster their coffers. However in the new league setup, transfers are restricted to the period between the start of the season up to the 1st July, with all transfers unable to buy or strengthen after this point.  With a majority of the clubs across Europe preferring to spend its cash in July and August, the Argentine league may have shot itself in the foot with this rule.

Football for All is a government run initiative that  means every match is free on TV (Image from Getty)

Football for All is a government run initiative that means every match is free on TV
(Image from Getty)

Unfair Advantage in Clumsy Fixture list

The standard fixture list across the world sees each team play all of their opponents at home and then away. This allows for home field advantage and makes the fixtures even. However in the Primera, the fixtures will be split, with each team playing half their opponents at home and the other half away. So if you are a minnow team looking to upset the apple cart by shocking Boca Juniors on your own turf you may not get the chance if that single fixture is due to be played at La Bombonera. There is no logic behind doing this except for the fact that if each team was to play both home and away, the league would be looking at a 58 game season, not including Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana fixtures. So each team will play 29 regular games instead with the final 30th match to be a special fixture which pits historic rivals against each other for a second time. This money grabbing move strangely doesn’t benefit clubs like Boca and River who will have to play each other but does work in favour of clubs like Arsenal and Velez Sarsfield whose rivals are much weaker than them.

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera  (Image from Getty)

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera
(Image from Getty)

Relegation is a mess

Given the way that the fixture list was created, it’s hardly surprising that the relegation setup is designed to protect the larger clubs in the league. Based on an average system, which looks at a three season points average with the worst two relegated and the worst positioned team in that season also dropping down to the Primera B Nacional, the system helps to avoid the nightmare possibility of a club like River Plate or Boca Juniors ever being relegated. River were spectacularly relegated for the first time in their history back in 2011 despite Grondona’s desperate attempts to stop it from happening. Given the leagues stature across the world and the need for revenue to flow into it from foreign markets, it’s not hard to understand the effects of having one of Argentina’s biggest and most successful clubs not playing in it. But the average system is hardly fair on the smaller teams within the division. Teams could be relegated despite having a turnaround season which saw them finish well into the top half or even challenging for honours.

River Plate's relegation caused headaches for the AFA  (Image from Getty)

River Plate’s relegation caused headaches for the AFA
(Image from Getty)

Reduction back to 20

Finally in one of the most bizarre moves, the league will eventually revert back to a 20 team league thanks in part to another crazy rule. Over the next few years, three teams will be relegated with only one being promoted and so on until in 2019, the league will only have 20 teams in it.  So after four years of craziness with fixture chaos, poor quality football and bizarre relegation fights common sense will be restored with a new format. That is until the powers that be at the AFA decide to change it again.

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Juan Roman Riquelme – The Last True Playmaker?

Juan Roman Riquelme - the last true playmaker? (Image from Getty)In terms of great examples of illustrious attacking playmakers, there is no one better that Juan Roman Riquelme. The sublime Argentine is one of the finest players to grace the position and is considered by many as one of the most talented Argentine players ever produced. At 36 years old, after a memorable career Riquelme has decided to call it a day and ride off into the sunset. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness him in action will testify about his genuine talent and flair for the game. Sharp on the ball, with incredible vision, neat touches and precision passing, Riquelme was a formidable opponent who wreaked havoc over opposition defenses for nearly 20 years.  The four time winner of Argentine Footballer of the year including back to back wins in 2000 and 2001 was capped over 51 times for his country and will be remember as one of the last true number 10’s and one of the world’s greatest playmakers.

Riquelme played over 51 times for Argentina including at the 2006 World Cup  (Image from Getty)

Riquelme played over 51 times for Argentina including at the 2006 World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Growing up in rural Argentina, Juan Roman dreamt about one day becoming a professional footballer and representing his favourite team, Boca Juniors. Little did he know that he was destined to become an icon at the club he adored. His journey with Boca started in 1995 when he was signed along with several other promising youngsters from Argentinos Juniors, a club well known for producing some of Argentina’s greatest players including the likes of Jose Pekerman, Fernando Redondo and Diego Maradona.  Aged 18, Riquelme wasted little time in impressing his new employers and before long was taking to the field for his debut against Union de Santa Fe. He would soon establish himself in the first team but it wasn’t until the arrival of Carlos Bianchi in 1998 that transformed Riquelme from a good player into a great one. That season Boca marched to the Primera Division championship in style losing only once in 38 matches with Riquelme now operating in the role he would later define – the attacking midfield playmaker. Positioned just behind the front two of Martin Palermo and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Riquelme was tasked with pulling the strings and making the team tick, a role which he played perfectly notching 10 goals himself on route to winning the league. His talent would soon attract attention from Europe and in particular Barcelona who were desperate to add him to their ranks in 2002 having just let Brazilian playmaker Rivaldo leave to join AC Milan that summer. A fee was quickly agreed and Riquelme would join the Spanish giants but his stay at the Nou Camp would not go quite to plan. Issues with then manager Louis Van Gaal who preferred to play Riquelme as a winger and the signing of Ronaldinho the following year meaning that the club was over its foreign player allocation eventually led to Riquelme being shipped off to Villarreal on loan. It was there under the guidance of Benito Floro and later Manuel Pellegrini that Riquelme would rediscover his form and show the world why he was considered one of the best players at that time.

Impressed with his performances, Pellegrini made his loan move permanent and set upon building a new side around him alongside striker Diego Forlan. With Riquelme pulling the strings once again, Villarreal became a contender for the title over the next few years and had saw success in Europe too. In 2006, Villarreal reached the last four of the Champions League, knocking out favourites Manchester United along the way but found it hard to break down Arsenal who progressed to the final thanks to penalties. Unfortunately it would be a tipping point for Riquelme and his time in Spain. Shortly after the start of the new season, Riquelme would fall out with Pellegrini and after things became irreparable, he agreed to a loan move back to his beloved Boca which would eventually turn into a permanent one. His return would mark a continuation of his early success at the club and would in the end turn him into a legend. Playing in his favoured position, Riquelme became an irreplaceable component of how Boca played over the next six years as he helped them to the Copa Libertadores title in 2007, a Recopa Sudamericana in 2008, a Copa Argentina in 2011, and two Apertura titles in 2008 and 2011. The legend was born.

With age catching up on him, Riquelme took the tough decision to quit Boca citing a lack of energy left after giving all he had to the club over the past six years.  Despite interest from abroad, there was only one place that Riquelme wanted to finish his career and that was where it started – back at Argentinos Juniors. He would play for them for half a season before eventually calling time on his career early this week. For all the clubs that Riquelme touched and the players he played with, his legacy will remain.  An Argentine legend and the true definition of a traditional number ten, Riquelme will go down in history as one of the greatest attacking play makers to have ever graced a football field.

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There’s Only Two Claudio Caniggias

Wait a second? Even the mascot didnt believe it was Caniggia as Cordone tries to pull a fast one (Image from Reuters)The unmistakable figure of Claudio Caniggia stood motionless in the tunnel, waiting for the call to take the field for Sunday’s friendly veteran’s game between Argentina and Brazil. The match in Natal, Brazil was billed as a clash of the greats with 1986 World Cup winning Argentina centre-back Oscar Ruggeri, Argentine midfielder Ariel Ortega and Brazilian duo Junior Baiano and Adilio all on show. But arguably one of the star attractions was Caniggia, a pacey winger turned striker that in his day excited crowds wherever he played. As the teams took to the field, Caniggia’s name was read out over the loud speaker and his photo flashed on the big screen to a barrage of applause and cheers. Wearing the number 7 shirt, Caniggia looked good for his 47 years with his famous long blond locks blowing in the wind. But in closer inspection, something just wasn’t right. Caniggia appeared to have gotten a tattoo on his right forearm, which did not look like a recent addition. Added into this, his style of play was slightly different and his passing somewhat off. As the game began fans began to wonder if the player on the field was in fact Claudio or instead an imposter?

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year  (Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

Caniggia and Maradona embrace during another veterans match in Georgia earlier this year
(Image from REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

They were right to question this as it was in fact not Caniggia but instead former Newcastle and Velez Sarsfield striker Daniel Cordone who was on the pitch. The former Magpie striker was pretending to be Caniggia who it was later revealed had missed his flight. Cordone, who was deemed a flop on Tyneside played the full ninety minutes before quickly scurrying off the field into the dressing room ignoring the waiting media. This caused suspicions to arise in the press core as Caniggia was usually more than willing to speak to reporters, especially given his status in Argentina as a legend. Unlike Cordone who never represented his country, Caniggia appeared over 50 times, scoring 16 goals during a 15 year international career. He played in two World Cups (selected for three but didn’t take the field during the 2002 World Cup) helping Argentina to the final in 1990 but his finest hour was leading Argentina to Copa America success in 1991. His dynamic play and gritted determination to own the ball during that tournament steered Argentina to its first Copa win in over 30 years. Caniggia is also fondly remembered for his club career and the many teams that he turned out for. After starting his career in Argentina with River Plate, he moved to Italy where he would play for Verona, Atalanta and Roma before moving to Portugal with Benfica. After a single season, he returned to Argentina with Boca Juniors before being persuaded three years later to return to Atalanta for a final swansong. Caniggia was happy to escape his homeland after a troubled three years which including losing his mother who commited suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of her apartment building. The event affected Caniggia deeply who considered retiring after spending almost a year out of the game in mourning but when the offer from Atalanta came in, he decided to give it one last shot. It was a move that would eventually see him move to Britain but strangely not to one of England’s big clubs who had been chasing him his entire career but instead to Dundee in the Scottish Premiership. In Scotland he regained his passion for the game and after a fantastic debut season, he secured a lucrative move to Glasgow giants Rangers where he would gain cult status with the fans over a two year stay. He would eventually leave Scotland for a single season in the money laden Qatar league but in truth Caniggia had by then called it a day. Now retired from the game and in an effort to maintain his fitness, he takes part in exhibition matches like this one, but for reasons unconfirmed was not in Natal come Sunday.

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby  (Image from PA)

Caniggia became a cult hero at Rangers thanks to a goal in the Old Firm derby
(Image from PA)

An investigation has been launched into why the organizers would allow Cordone to play in place of Caniggia and more importantly lie to the fans about it. The event organizers, Phoenix Sports insisted when questioned that there was nothing to hide and that it was Caniggia who took to the field on Sunday. ‘This is the Caniggia, the real Caniggia. There is no other Caniggia,’ insisted Andre de Paula, promoter of Phoenix Sports after the game.  But he quickly retracted this remark later on and admitted that Caniggia had failed to turn up so they were forced to field Cordone.  In the end the result of the match was not important, with it finishing in a 3-3 draw. But for the fans it was a bitterly disappointing day as some had paid good money to come and see Caniggia play in particular. Several fans left in disgust before the match had finished after working out that it wasn’t Caniggia on the field, with many more feeling angry about being lied to. There has been no word yet about whether further action will be taken against the promoter or against Cordone himself for his part in this fraud. Caniggia has yet to reveal his side of the story and has remained silent as the controversy over why this happened continues.

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Newcastle’s Jonas Gutierrez Recieving Treatment After Being Diagnosed With Testicular Cancer

Get Well Soon - Jonas Gutierrez (Image from PA)Since his arrival on Tyneside, Argentine Jonas Gutierrez has established himself as a fan favourite at Newcastle. So it will come as a shock to them that Gutierrez is taking some time off from playing for the club to battle against testicular cancer. Diagnosed several months ago, the winger has already undergone surgery in his native Argentina to remove his left testicle and the cancerous tumour and is now undergoing intense chemotherapy treatment. Gutierrez decided to tell his story during a televised interview with the country’s leading sports channel, TyC in an effort to raise awareness about the disease. Missing his trademark flowing locks that have fallen out due to the chemotherapy, Gutierrez spoke passionately about his journey from finding out that he had cancer and the emotions he felt to his surgery and now early stages of recovery. Dressed casually with a baseball cap covering his head, Gutierrez revealed that his world was turned upside down with the diagnosis of cancer and that it took a heavy toll on him:

“When I confirmed that I had cancer I went home crying. This was the most difficult game I had to play. I detected a tumour in a testicle. I came here (back to Argentina) and I assumed the costs, despite having a contract with Newcastle. Money is not important. What is important is health and I had to start chemotherapy. Fighting cancer makes the rest of the problems insignificant. I decided to tell my story because maybe this will help people who have cancer”

Gutierrez speaks to TyC about his battle with cancer  (Image from TyC)

Gutierrez speaks to TyC about his battle with cancer
(Image from TyC)

For Gutierrez, football became secondary to his battle with the disease and seeking medical help as soon as possible has likely given him the best chance of survival. Testicular cancer does has one of the highest cure rates of all cancers with an average five year survival rate of 95%. However in some cases, if the cancer has spread outside of the testicle it can be life threatening to the patient. Earlier this year, West Ham’s promising Australian forward Dylan Tombides died from the disease after a three year battle. After receiving treatment, Tombides was given the all clear but the cancer returned and on the 18th April 2014, the 20 year old passed away with his family by his bedside. Tombides death did help raise awareness of the disease across all sports with several campaigns kicking off supported by pro footballers and rugby stars. The campaign was backed by former Welsh striker John Hartson who too was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent treatment after it spread to his brain and lungs. Luckily Hartson’s treatment was a success and the former Arsenal, West Ham and Celtic striker has since made a full recovery. He joined former Millwall striker Neil Harris, Northampton goalkeeper Matt Duke, ex Birmingham frontman Geoff Horsfield and ex-Tottenham and Chelsea defender Jason Cundy as survivors from this terrible disease.

Dylan Tombides who died following his battle with testicular cancer  (Image from Getty)

Dylan Tombides who died following his battle with testicular cancer
(Image from Getty)

Messages of support have flooded in to Gutierrez across social media with best wishes from fellow players like Adam Campbell and Joey Barton joining that of fans and fellow cancer patients. Gutierrez took to Twitter yesterday to thank them all for their well wishes and tell them that he is looking forward. The winger is not ready to give up and will fight this disease all the way until he is given the all clear to resume playing. This will come as good news to the legions of Newcastle fans who will be counting down the days until they see Gutierrez pulling on the famous black and white stripes and take his place back on the pitch where he belongs.

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Argentina Gets World Cup Revenge With A Little Help From An Angel

 

Less than two months after Germany snatched the World Cup away from Argentina in extra time, the two sides met again in a friendly in Dusseldorf last night with the result somewhat of a surprise. This time it was Argentina who took the plaudits with a stunning 4-2 win that saw Manchester United’s Angel Di Maria take centre stage. The electric winger was on fire in the North Rhine-Westphalia capital, setting up three goals and scoring a sublime fourth as Argentina raced into a four goal lead within the first fifty minutes of the match. Germany did manage to reply twice, first through Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle and then through Bayern’s Mario Gotze, who scored the extra time winner in the final some 52 days prior. But it was too little too late as Argentina dominated the world champions and got the revenge that they were looking for.

Germany won the World Cup by beating Argentina 1-0 (Image from Getty)

Germany won the World Cup by beating Argentina 1-0
(Image from Getty)

Critics will point to the fact that Germany made dramatic changes from the side that took the field in Rio and that statement would be true, with the likes of Muller, Ozil and Hummels consigned to the bench whilst players like Mario Gomez, Marco Reus and Julian Draxler were given a run out. But in truth Argentina were the better side and more importantly the more clinical side. Both teams had 7 shots on target with Argentina converting four of them to Germany’s two. Upfront the returning Mario Gomez, who missed the World Cup due to injury, looked ineffective in comparison to his young predecessor Thomas Muller who was a star at the World Cup. Gomez failed to convert a series of chances and was booed by the German fans as half time approached. He would start the second half but would only play 12 minutes before being hauled off for Gotze to a round of sarcastic applause from the home fans. Support for Gomez and Gotze came in the form of offensive trio Schurrle, Draxler and Reus but they too failed to break down a tough and organized Argentinian back line. In comparison the front three of Argentina – Tottenham’s Erik Lamela, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and United’s Di Maria were exceptional, often switching positions and causing severe headaches to a new look German back four. The addition of Lamela to the Argentina squad after nearly a year away showcases how far the player has come in such a short space in time. Noted for his brilliance and trickery on the ball, Lamela had fallen out of the national side after his switch to Tottenham had not gone quite to plan. Lamela struggled with form and many believed he was a dud headed for the exit door but the arrival of new Spurs manager and fellow countryman Mauricio Pochettino has seen a revival in the players’ fortunes and this season he has been a constant thorn in the oppositions side. Sergio Aguero on the other hand did make it into the World Cup squad but due to an early injury in training, he was restricted to brief appearances from the bench and was unable to have the impact that many expected he would. Now well on his way back to full fitness, Aguero is showing Argentina and the rest of the world what the missed in Brazil and how good a striker he actually is.

Di Maria set up three goals and scored the fourth (Image from PA)

Di Maria set up three goals and scored the fourth
(Image from PA)

But it was the performance of Di Maria in last night’s game that has everyone talking. The player who missed the World Cup final because of an injury sustained in the semi final was unmarkable and controlled the game completely up until he was substituted in the 86th minute. It was his vision that created the first goal of the game for Aguero, after Di Maria picked up the ball just outside the 18 yard and curled the ball between four German players with the outside of his left foot right into the path of Aguero who tapped the ball home from 6 yards. Twenty minutes later he was at it again, this time setting up Lamela for Argentina’s second goal. Collecting a pass from Zabaleta just behind Matthias Ginter, Di Maria controlled the ball on the byline, looked up and planted a perfect cross onto Lamela’s boot for the Spurs man to volley home. Argentina’s third came in the second half and again the assist was from Di Maria, this time with a beautiful curling free kick that was headed home by defender Federico Fernandez. But the pièce de résistance came three minutes later with Di Maria finally putting himself on the score sheet. The move started at the half way line with Di Maria, Aguero and Zabaleta playing a neat interchange of passes before Manchester City defender Zabaleta played a long ball in behind the German defence for Di Maria to chase. Beating Benedikt Howedes for pace, Di Maria collected the pass, composed himself and at chipped the ball past an oncoming Roman Weidenfeller for Argentina’s fourth.

Di Maria celebrates after scoring Argentina's fourth goal (Image from AFP)

Di Maria celebrates after scoring Argentina’s fourth goal
(Image from AFP)

It was a truly fantastic performance from the former Real Madrid player and highlighted his flexibility and appetite as he covered almost every blade of grass on the pitch. His manager at United, Louis Van Gaal would do well to have noticed that Di Maria was the most effective when he was given a free role and license to roam. With Falcao now in the side and a support cast of Mata, Rooney and Van Persie, Di Maria should flourish given the freedom and opportunity as United attempt to kick start their stuttering season. If he can, United will be a totally different proposition than the one that has failed to spark so far this season.

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German Engineering Proves Too Strong For Messi and Argentina

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

It may have taken 112 minutes to come but Germany’s World Cup winning goal was 24 years in the making. For a country known for producing quality automobiles refined over generations it should be no surprise that they applied the same logic to its national football team. For the key engineer behind the project Joachim Low, it is vindication for all those nearly runs whilst he was tweaking and adjusting the balance of his machine. Nine years ago he started, picking up from Jurgen Klinsmann who had managed Germany for only two years prior with Low at his side as assistant manager. Klinsmann had started the overhaul, stripping the aging team down to its bare components and starting again after a disappointing Euro 2004. He managed a semi final berth at the 2006 World Cup on home soil in Germany but decided to step down after the tournament and let Low take on the challenge. It would be a masterful decision as Low would take Germany that one stage further eight yesrs later in Brazil. On the way they would reach the semi finals of the 2010 World Cup and earn a semi final spot at Euro 2012 but it was all in preparation for the ultimate goal, World Cup final success.

The Engineer, Joachim Loew  (Image from Getty)

The Engineer, Joachim Loew
(Image from Getty)

Mario Gotze 112th minute strike will go down in the record books as the one that helped lift the World Cup for Germany but this truly was a team effort. In goal, Manuel Neuer looked calm and relaxed throughout the tournament, quietly confident that they would win in the end. Neuer had more touches outside of his box in the tournament than inside of it, as he played the role of sweeper keeper to perfection. His assured performances shone brightly, helping him to the Golden Glove award and to World Cup glory. Captain Phillipp Lahm proved irreplaceable in the team, operating either as a defensive midfielder or in his natural right back berth. The Bayern Munich star inspired his team to victory through his tenacity and self drive that has made him a winner in almost every competition he has entered. His defensive partners  – Benedikt Höwedes, Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boatengand Per Mertesacker ensure that Neuer was rarely tested and redefined German defending for years to come.  Hummels in particular stood out, showing why Manchester United are so keen to sign him and why Borussia Dortmund are trying desperately to hold on to him.

Unbeatable - Manuel Neuer  (Image from Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Unbeatable – Manuel Neuer
(Image from Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

Bastian Schweinsteiger proved once again that he is one of the world’s best midfielders, battling from the start in a style not seen since Michael Ballack departed for retirement. Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil shone bright whilst Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle proved invaluable from the bench. Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira anchored the side in midfield providing the inspiration when needed to get them through some difficult matches. Up front Thomas Muller continued his Wolrd Cup tradition with yet another 5 goals including a stunning hat trick, the first international one of his career, against Portugal whilst the never aging Miroslav Klose ensured that history would not forget him as he became the all time leading goalscorer in a World Cup with the two strikes needed to take him to 16. Each to a man, Germany excelled, their passing game a joy to behold. As the game ticked into its 60th minute, Germany had already racked up 400+ passes to Argentina’s 176. Possession of the ball stood at 60/40 in Germany’s favour and they had already struck the post once. Whilst Higuian had the ball in the back of the net from a offside position once, Argentina had rarely troubled Germany in the first hour of the match. The second hour, which included the 30 minutes of extra time saw the same story with Germany only giving up on its total possession by 7% mostly due to growing fatigue. Argentina simply didn’t have the spark that many thought they would have going into the match.

World Cup winners, Germany  (Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

World Cup winners, Germany
(Image from PEDRO UGARTEPEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images)

Much will be talked about the ineffectiveness of Lionel Messi on this the grandest stage of all but to be fair the odds were always against him. Comparisons to Maradona and his achievements in 1986 were predictable but without a support team of genuine world-class players, it was never going to be Messi’s night. They will refer to how Maradona single handily dragged Argentina over the finish line in the final to win the World Cup and how Messi, arguably one of the games greatest ever players should have done the same. But the bitter truth is that the Argentina squad of 1986 was collectively a far stronger and star-studded team than that which took to the field yesterday. Jorge Valdano, Daniel Passarella, Jorge Burruchaga  and Oscar Ruggeri all played vital roles in Argentina’s success alongside Maradona in Mexico 1986 as they beat West Germany in the final 3-2. Maradona was a genius whose creativity, vision and determination had got them there but he never scored in the final. The winning goal would come from Burruchaga after West Germany fought back from 2-0 down to tie the match with ten minutes to go. Messi had played a similar role in getting his team to this years final, scoring four goals along the way and earning four consecutive man of the match awards. But without a fully fit Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero plus the stuttering form of Gonzalo Higuian, it was always going to be a step too far for the Barcelona striker.

Maradona lifts the 1986 World Cup  (Image from Action Images / Sporting Pictures / Tony Marshall)

Maradona lifts the 1986 World Cup
(Image from Action Images / Sporting Pictures / Tony Marshall)

For Germany, the Low built machine rolls on to qualification for Euro 2016 in France. Like Spain who dominated for six years during 2008 and 2014, Germany will be considered favourites to win before even one ball has been kicked and rightly so. The current crop still has plenty left in the tank and Low will be keen to build on his legacy. He will refine and tweak his team adding newer parts like Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Marco Reus into the fold, rebuilding the machine that he has put together. Germany were deserved winners of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and will use that as a springboard for future success. The scariest thing for other nations to observe is Germany can get better and with Low behind the driver’s seat, this well oiled machine could dominate world football for the foreseeable future.

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Adidas Beats Nike In This Years Brand World Cup

Adidas and Nike are fierce rivals (Image from Getty)

When David Beckham was 15 years old, he was viewed as a talented kid with a bright future in football. After being spotted by an Adidas rep, they signed him up to a 2 year deal then fundamentally forgot about him. Two years later when Beckham started to break into the Manchester United first team and into the headlines, Adidas biggest rivals Nike started to chase Beckham, keen to sign him. Adidas, desperate not to lose their new star persuaded the young United midfielder to meet with them with a view to discussing a new contract. Beckham agreed and arrived in a brand new BMW, bought that week after an improved deal by Manchester United. At the meeting, the Adidas team were quick to offer him an improved 2 year deal to prevent Nike from stealing him, but Beckham was hesitant based on his past experience with the company. Sensing his reluctance, one sharp eyed Adidas representative spotted Beckham’s new car and engaged him in conversation about it. He quickly realised that Beckham couldn’t afford the insurance on his new car and was disappointedly going to have to sell the car based on this. Looking at this kid the rep saw his potential and offered to pay his insurance as well. This act showed Beckham more about Adidas than he had seen in the past two years and he agreed to sign a new improved five year contract. This contract sealed his loyalty to the brand for life and when Beckham went on to become a superstar over the next decade; he repaid Adidas back by being their main brand icon.

Adidas branded Germany Beat the Nike branded USA in the group stage  (Image from PA)

Adidas branded Germany Beat the Nike branded USA in the group stage
(Image from PA)

Brand association is key to Adidas and no more so than at the World Cup. Despite being an official FIFA sponsor, Adidas still faces a daily battle with its key rival, Nike who are keen to capitalize on the world’s most watched tournament. Adidas have spent around £50m on advertising around the tournament but it’s the branding seen on players shirts, boots and the official tournament ball that benefits them the most. Stars like Lionel Messi, James Rodriguez and Arjen Robben have lit up the tournament dressed in Adidas branded kits which in turn helps sales as kids across the globe rush out to buy the strips of their heroes. Nike has had a somewhat disappointing Word Cup with England and Portugal crashing out early but rallied behind home nation Brazil and the USA for addition shirt sales. It’s a competitive battle but Adidas are slightly edging during this World Cup with more sponsors remaining in the tournament than their rivals. Out of the last eight teams in the tournament, Adidas had kit sponsorships with four teams (Argentina, Colombia, Belgium and Germany) whilst Nike only had three (Brazil, France and Holland). This year’s surprise team Costa Rica’s shirts are made by Italian sports brand Lotto. With Brazil’s shock 7-1 defeat by Germany and Argentina’s penalty shoot out win over Holland, it will be an all Adidas final for the first time since 1990 (ironically between Germany and Argentina as well), much to Nike’s disappointment.

The Adidas Story is told in Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit  (Image from Amazon)

The Adidas Story is told in Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit
(Image from Amazon)

As far as organizations go, there are few bigger than Adidas and Nike. Between them they control the sports apparel and footwear market and have a majority of the world sport stars signed up on their books. Competition between the two is fierce and a variety of tactics have been employed by both companies over the years to gain the upper hand. The story of Adidas is a fascinating one and is brilliantly captured in the book Sneaker Wars by Barbara Smit. It tells the tale of two brothers, Adi and Rudi Dassler who started a shoe business in rural Germany shortly after World War 1 with almost instant success. Troubles soon surfaced as the pair disagreed on how the company should be run, which created a divide that would eventually lead them to follow separate paths. Those paths created history with the brothers establishing rival companies, Adidas and Puma. The astonishing story is of their long running feud and how the sports market evolved over the next sixty years, with branding association becoming more prevalent with the creation of global sports stars. The introduction of Nike in 1971 added an extra competition to the market and over time Nike grew to become the biggest rival to Adidas Empire. After basketball success in the 80s and 90’s, Nike turned its focus to Adidas core business, Football. Ever since that moment, the pair have been embroiled in a battle for dominance. Sunday’s all Adidas final will hand the German company this battle but their war with Nike to see who controls the sports market continues.

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Football Mourns The Passing Of The Blond Arrow – Alfredo Di Stefano

Cheers to one of the games greatest players (Image from AP)

Spanish and Argentinian football were plunged into mourning yesterday with the death of the legendary Alfredo Di Stefano. The 88 year old former River Plate and Real Madrid front man suffered a heart attack at home on Saturday, one day after his birthday and never recovered. Di Stefano is widely regarded as one of the greatest players to have ever graced the game and will be sorely missed. Di Stefano was a fundamental part of the Real Madrid team that dominated European football during the mid to late 50’s. His partnership with Hungarian Ferenc Puskás struck fear into opposing defences who were unsure how to handle the deadly duo. Described by many as the most complete footballer in the history of the game, Di Stefano forged a reputation as a winner of the course of his career, guiding Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup victories, a feat that has never been matched again to this day. His prowess in front of goal, especially in Europe 49 goals in 58 matches ensured that his place in football folklore was secured.

Unstoppable - Di Stefano and Puskas  (Image from Getty)

Unstoppable – Di Stefano and Puskas
(Image from Getty)

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1926, the young Argentine began life with a ball at his feet and it wasn’t long before he joined is home club of River Plate, aged 17. Over the next four years, D Stefano scored goals for fun, hitting 49 in 66 appearances as River Plate won 2 Primera División titles, before a strike in Argentina forced him to move to Colombia with Millonarios. Success followed him as Millionarios dominated Colombian football for the next four years, winning three titles along the way. It was Di Stefano’s continued form in front of goal for Millonarios (100 goals in 112 matches) that attracted suitors from Spain in the form or Barcelona. Whilst Di Stefano would eventually transfer to Real Madrid where he became an icon, things could have been very different if his proposed transfer to Barcelona had been recognized by the Spanish FA. They argued that the deal struck between Millonarios and Barcelona was invalid as River Plate needed to consent to the transfer, given they still had part ownership of the player. That mistake gave Real Madrid the window they needed who swooped in to steal Di Stefano away from their bitter rivals. It would turn out to be one of the best deals ever made by Real Madrid with Di Stefano going on to become the all time record goalscorer for the club, with 216 goals in 284 games. He would hold this record until 2003 when Raul finally overtook him. The Blond Arrow as he was affectionately known would lead Madrid to 8 Primeria Division titles as well as the European successes before departing from the club in 1964 for Espanyol.

Di Stefano with the five European Cups  (Image from Getty)

Di Stefano with the five European Cups
(Image from Getty)

Remarkably Di Stefano played for three different countries during his career – 6 times for Argentina, scoring 6 goals along the way, 2 appearances for Colombia that were never recognized by Fifa and 31 times for Spain, scoring 23 goals. Even more remarkable was that the world never managed to see Di Stefano at a World Cup. He missed out in 1950 and 1954 with Argentina who failed to participate and again in 1958 with Spain who despite a good qualifying campaign slipped up at the end and failed to make it. After retiring from playing in 1966, Di Stefano made the seamless switch into coaching taking the reins of a variety of clubs over the next twenty five years including three spells as manager of Valencia, two stints at Boca Juniors and returns to his beloved River Plate and Real Madrid. His time in Madrid was not quite as planned with his teams finishing runner up in every competition they entered, including a European Cup Winners Cup final defeat at the hands of Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. After bowing out of the job of manager, he became Real Madrid’s Honorary President, a role he held up until his death.

Ronaldo spent a lot of time with Di Stefano at Madrid  (Image from PA)

Ronaldo spent a lot of time with Di Stefano at Madrid
(Image from PA)

Tributes have poured in from across the footballing world with many expressing their deep emotional regret at his passing. Current Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo proclaimed that legends never die and that the maestro, Don Alfredo will never be forgotten. Barcelona and Argentina star Lionel Messi echoed those words and added “Until forever, Don Alfredo. A legend and a great both on and off the pitch”. Sir Bobby Charlton, who played against Di Stefano, called him one of the best players he ever came across and an extremely intelligent footballer whilst Sir Alex Ferguson remembers being in awe watching Di Stefano single handedly rip apart Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden during the 1960 European Cup final. He stood in the terraces and watched as Di Stefano hit 5 goals in the 7-3 victory before embarking on a lap of honour. Brazilian legend Pele summed up what many were feeling with a poignant tweet:

“He was a trailblazer, and most of all, he was a legend of the game. God rest his soul”

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Van Gaal Masterstroke Sends Holland Into The Semi’s

Late switch sends Krul on (Image from Getty)

It was a bold move, one that could have easily backfired but in the end proved inspirational. Holland manager Louis Van Gaal’s decision to replace goalkeeper Jesper Cillessen with Tim Krul a minute before their Quarter final penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica seemed strange at the time but proved to be decisive as Krul stepped up to save two of the Costa Rican penalties, sending Holland into the semi-finals. The Newcastle stopper has only made 6 appearances for his country before this so when he was seen warming up deep into extra time, many were left confused. But Van Gaal knew exactly what he was doing and threw Krul on to become the hero. He knew that this was a bold move that would throw his opposite numbers well placed plans into disarray and it worked. Jorge Luis Pinto had no time to react, he simply had to rip up his pre match analysis of Jesper Cillessen and move on. It rattled Costa Rica to the core and in the end was the key reason why Holland progressed and Costa Rica didn’t.

Last few words of encouragement from Van Gaal  (Image from EPA)

Last few words of encouragement from Van Gaal
(Image from EPA)

Holland to be fair deserved the victory overall having created more chances but were unable to break down a well organised Costa Rica side. Led by Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica have been the surprise outfit of the tournament and were looking to become the first Concacaf nation to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup since the US in 1930. From kick-off, their strategy was clear – contain the Dutch, limit their chances and if possible hit them on the break. If they could hold them until full time, the objective switched to time wasting to get them to the dreaded penalty shout out and a lottery chance of progression. They played admirably throughout the first half, much like they had done against Greece in the round before, and attacked more in the second half with the hopes of snatching a goal. But the Dutch are a different proposition that the misfiring Greeks and with Robben and Van Perise on the pitch, Costa Rica could ill afford to be slack at tracking back. Joel Campbell ran his heart out before being replaced with twenty minutes of normal time left by Marcos Ureña who assumed the same role for the remainder of the match.

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through  (Image from AFP)

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through
(Image from AFP)

One upfront with Bryan Ruiz sitting between striker and midfield, it was hardly attacking football at its best. But they stuck to their plan and pushed Holland into extra time and then into penalties, thanks in part to some astute defending and further heroics from goalkeeper, Keylor Navas who surely must be a candidate for player of the tournament. In this game however there could be only one hero and that honour lay with Krul. It was obvious from the moment Krul confidently stepped onto the pitch that this move was rehearsed and that nothing had been left to chance. Krul knew the players he would face in the shoot-out, their favoured direction and more importantly how to rattle them. He smack talked the Costa Rican players one by one as they came up to take their kicks, trying desperately to put them off their game and boy did it work. The first penalty Ceslo Borges just dipped under Krul’s outstretched left hand as it eased its way into the bottom right corner. But after that Krul was in control. He saved the next one from Bryan Ruiz and more importantly Costa Rica’s five kick from Michael Umaña which put Holland into the semi-finals to play Argentina.

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through  (Image from AFP)

Krul saves from Umana to send Holland through
(Image from AFP)

Krul’s teammates did their bit with Holland ruthless with their penalties, accurately thundering everyone into the corner of the net, far away from Navas diving hand. From their first kick to the last, Holland were determined not to repeat history and become the first Dutch team to ever win a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup. But the biggest role of the day fell to Krul to save at least one of Costa Rica’s spot kicks. He did better than that and now goes down in Dutch folklore as the man who single handily put Holland into the semi-finals of World Cup 2014. Spare a thought for Jesper Cillessen who played well in the match before being tactically substituted but even that will not take away from Krul’s two moments of history and Van Gaal’s moment of genius.

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Messi Shines As Spain Implodes

Messi strikes to put Argentina in the driving seat (Image from AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)It was always going to be an explosive start but no one could have predicted this. In the opening 11 matches, we have seen 37 goals, 2 red cards, one use of the goal line technology and several uses of the new disappearing foam at free kicks. Added into this, the world’s best players have shown up with Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Arjen Robben, Mario Balotelli and Karim Benzema all getting on the score sheets in spectacular fashion. At present Brazil, Holland, France and Colombia all look like potential candidates for eventual winner but following yesterdays games they have a new threat to be worried about.

Balotelli breaks English Hearts  (Image from pa)

Balotelli breaks English Hearts
(Image from pa)

Argentina made their case for being considered as serious contenders with a 2-1 win over world cup newbie’s Bosnia. With the weight of an entire nation resting on the shoulders of Barcelona star Lionel Messi, the diminutive forward finally started to live up to expectations by scoring a quite stunning solo effort. Picking the ball up at the half way line, Messi drove forward with pace before playing a slick one two with Gonzalo Higuain. After retrieving the ball, Messi stepped up a gear leaving his shadow of the day Muhamed Besic and defender Ermin Bicakcic in his wake before cooling curling the ball past Amir Begovic in goal and in to the net off of the post. Although Argentina did concede a late goal, they never looked like letting Bosnia back into the match. Messi looks ready to finally show the world that he is the greatest player to have ever played the game by doing the one thing that has escaped him to date- lifting the World Cup. This is probably Messi’s best chance of winning it given the team he is playing in and the way they played against Bosnia. On the wing, Angel Di Maria looked unmarkable whilst upfront Sergio Aguero and Gonazlo Higuain were unlucky not to end up on the score sheet. Even at the back, an area identified as a potential problem by many, Argentina looked strong with Sergio Romero impressing despite limited playing time this season for Monaco. Argentina could go all the way and finally give Messi that last trophy that he has been craving.

Safe Hands - Romero  (Image from AFP)

Safe Hands – Romero
(Image from AFP)

Spain on the other hand looked less like champions and more like early exiters after a humiliating 5-1 thrashing by Holland in their opening game. In the repeat of the 2010 World Cup final game, Spain started strongly earning a penalty that was converted by Xavi Alonso with ease. But after Robin Van Persie scored a quite spectacular diving header equalizer and Arjen Robben scored with a cool finish to put Holland into the lead, Spain’s confidence disappeared. Their lack of confidence stemmed from the ineffectual performance of Iker Casillas in goal. Once the rock in which the Spanish side was built on, Casillas lack of game time this season for Real Madrid started to show as he helplessly flapped at crosses and punched rather than grabbed shots. His performance was so bad that head coach Del Bosque was considering dropping him for their next game against Chile until replacement David De Gea pulled out with a leg injury. He could still be dropped with third choice Pepe Reina an option. Either way Casillas will know that he needs to improve and will not be able to live on past glories any longer. Spain now faces a rampant Chile side who many are calling the underdogs of this tournament. Defeat would spell an early exit for Spain and surely end the international career of Casillas.

Casillas concedes his performance was unacceptable  (Image from Getty)

Casillas concedes his performance was unacceptable
(Image from Getty)

Another team fearful of an early exit is England who suffered a 2-1 defeat on Saturday at the hands of Italy. The Andrea Pirlo inspired Italian side took the lead through a wonderful 25 yard strike by Claudio Marchisio before Raheem Sterling and Wayne Rooney combined to set up Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge for a well executed equalizer. England erupted in celebration with the bench jumping from its seats to join in only for head physio Gary Lewen to comically slip on a water bottle and dislocate his right ankle and is now been forced out of the World Cup. But five minutes after the restart, Antonio Candreva doubled back on a run against Leighton Baines to deliver a perfect cross for Mario Balotelli to head Italy back into the lead. England looked shell-shocked and despite throwing on several creative players like Jack Wilshire, Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana, they were unable to get back into the game and now face Uruguay in a must win game. There were several positives from England’s performance such as Raheem Sterling but once again Wayne Rooney looked out of sorts, something that manager Roy Hodgson needs to correct if they are to stay in the competition. If he can’t then England’s World Cup campaign will go the same way as Lewen’s – over before it began.

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Spotlight On The Eight Players Who Could Provide That World Cup Spark

Hagi was the star in 94 but who will spark this time? (Image from Getty)In any World Cup, there are star players who are expected to shine. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Andrea Prilo and Robin Van Persie will all be looked at to provide the spark needed that ignites the tournament. But more often than not, the world’s biggest football competition throws up a few other names and stars are born. Brazil will be no different with several players providing talking points for discussion around the water cooler the next morning. But which players will create that spark that has fans talking about them for the months ahead? Remember Gheorghe Hagi’s performances at USA 94 or perhaps Oleg Salenko’s five goal brace at the same tournament? Or maybe it was Paolo Rossi in the 1982 World Cup when he inspired Italy to victory despite only returning to the national side after a three year ban? BOTN looks at eight potential players who could take away the limelight from Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar and write their own World Cup chapter.

Prove him wrong - De Bruyne  (Image from PA)

Prove him wrong – De Bruyne
(Image from PA)

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

Regret is not something often expressed by managers but Jose Mourinho could be about to regret letting Kevin De Bruyne leave Chelsea earlier this season. The pacey Belgian winger left Stamford Bridge to join Wolfsburg after Mourinho found him surplus to his plans. But since his move, De Bruyne has done nothing but impress both for club and country. Now a regular fixture in Marc Wilmot’s team, De Bruyne was sensational during qualifying finishing as his country’s top goal scorer with four goals. As part of an exciting Belgian side now going to the World Cup, the quick feet and lighting pace of De Bruyne is all set to show his old coach exactly what he is missing.

Di Maria has been in superb form for Real Madrid  (Image from PA)

Di Maria has been in superb form for Real Madrid
(Image from PA)

Argentina – Angel Di Maria

Whilst the focus will be on Lionel Messi to inspire Argentina to success, it may actually be Angel Di Maria that steps up to the job. The Real Madrid winger was instrumental in his side’s recent Champions League victory and will carry his good form into the World Cup. With a high work rate, combined with unbelievable pace and close control, Di Maria is a nightmare for opposing defenders and will exploit any weakness he can find in them over and over again. In the past, he has been found guilty of not tracking back but this appears to be something that he is working hard on correcting with a majority of his runs now starting within his own half. Di Maria could be the key to Argentina’s success, especially in the latter rounds, which in turn should relax and more importantly release Messi to inspire the team to glory.

Fred will be the main goal threat for Brazil  (Image from Getty)

Fred will be the main goal threat for Brazil
(Image from Getty)

Brazil – Fred

Like Pele in 1970, the pressure of winning the World Cup in 2014 for Brazil will lie firmly on one player’s shoulders – Neymar. But like Argentina, the player to watch may not be the dazzling light from Barcelona; instead Brazil’s chances of retaining the World Cup on home soil may lie at the feet of Fluminense’s 30 year old striker Fred. The tall, yet technically gifted front man has established himself as Brazil’s preferred number nine and has only looked under threat of losing his place once from Diego Costa before he switched his allegiance to Spain. Sensational in the Confederation Cup run last year, Fred’s ability to hold up the ball upfront and invite Brazil’s quick and dynamic midfield to attack is his biggest asset. His finishing skills are not quite on the same level as legend’s Romario or Ronaldo but like Bebeto in 1994, Fred could play a pivotal role if Brazil are to go all the way.

Draxler will likely be used from the bench by Low  (Image from Getty)

Draxler will likely be used from the bench by Low
(Image from Getty)

Germany – Julian Draxler

Over recent years Germany has produced a host of fantastically gifted youngsters and their production line of talent continues with the introduction of Julian Draxler. The pacey Schalke winger may have surprised many with his inclusion in the squad but anyone who has watched him this past season in the Bundesliga will be more surprised that his inclusion was ever up for debate. As direct as they come and with a turning circle of a London cab with the ball locked firmly at his feet, Draxler is set for bigger things with several of Europe’s big boys already hovering nearby. Draxler is not likely to start given Germany’s wealth of talent, but is a certainty from the bench especially if manager Joachim Low spots opposition defenders tiring and on the back foot. Having only selected one out and out striker in Miroslav Klose, Low will be focusing heavily on how his midfielders can inspire and drive his team on. Draxler, along with Gotze and Ozil will be favoured candidates to take up that challenge.

Claise is hoping to get a starting spot now for Holland  (Image from PA)

Claise is hoping to get a starting spot now for Holland
(Image from PA)

Holland – Jordy Clasie

Through disaster comes opportunity and for Jordy Clasie, a unique opportunity has been presented to him due to two untimely injuries. After the early departure of Kevin Strootman due to a knee injury and with the recent withdrawal of Rafael Van Der Vaart with a calf tear, Clasie now faces up to the prospect of playing a starring role for Holland at the World Cup. Having missed out on Euro 2012 at aged 20, the now matured 22 year old Clasie now will get his chance even if it was at the expense of two of his colleagues. The Feyenoord midfielder has become a club favourite due to his never say die attitude and tenacity which he should bring to a young looking Dutch side. Comfortable on the ball, Clasie has been labeled the Dutch Xavi which in turn has attracted the interest of several EPL and Serie A teams. Expected to leave after the tournament, Clasie will want to give the Feyenoord fans one last thing to shout about – as he stars for Holland at the World Cup.

Insigne is a free kick specialist  (Image from AFP)

Insigne is a free kick specialist
(Image from AFP)

Italy – Lorenzo Insigne

Brought into the squad at the expense of Giuseppe Rossi, Lorenzo Insigne may be one of the surprises of the tournament. A diminutive figure who stands at only 5ft 4in, what Insigne lacks in height he makes up for two fold with his on field play. As a free kick specialist, that has memories of Alessandro Del Piero flooding back, Insigne offers Prandelli another option from set plays (that is if he can get the ball from the clutches of Andrea Pirlo) as well as a speedy winger out of the blocks. Comfortable on the wing or as a central striker, Insigne should see more playing time after a broken leg ruled out his starting rival, Ricardo Montolivo. Expect fireworks.

Pena wants to help Mexico past the round of 16  (Image from LEOPOLDO SMITH MURILLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Pena wants to help Mexico past the round of 16
(Image from LEOPOLDO SMITH MURILLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico – Carlos Pena

The last time Mexico managed to progress further than the last 16 was at home in the 1986 World Cup. Manager Miguel Herrera knows how important it is for Mexican football to continue its development, considering little has been done since their Olympic triumph in 2012. Goals are what help progression and in Carlos Pena, Mexico has a player who knows how to score important goals when needed. The 24 year old Leon player has taken the Mexican league by storm this season with comparisons to Ruud Guillit being made on more than one occasion, not only because of his long hair but also due to the physical nature of his play on the pitch. Old before his days, Pena possess the brain of a seasoned professional but the stamina and enthusiasm of a kid. Speedy with the ball at his feet, he will look to supply the passes for Peralta and Hernandez up front that will help Mexico to qualify to the latter rounds.

Can Bacca fill Falcao's shoes?  (Image from AFP)

Can Bacca fill Falcao’s shoes?
(Image from AFP)

Colombia – Carlos Bacca

With Falcao now ruled out, Colombia will turn to Sevilla’s Carlos Bacca for goals. The powerful hit man, who started his career at Atletico Junior before success at Club Brugge, has been in great form this past season firing new club Seville to UEFA Europa league final victory over Benfica. Voted the best signing in La Liga last season, Bacca is already attracting interest from afar but expect his stock to rise even more over the course of the tournament as the goals fly in. Powerful with his back to goal but quick on the turn, Bacca poses a real threat to opposing defences especially those who mistake his apparent lack of enthusiasm for how the game is developing as a sign of weakness. In truth, Bacca is filled with confidence in his own abilities and knows that given half a chance he will put the ball into the back of the net.

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England Hold Their Breath As The World Cup Draw Nears

Getting ready for the draw (Image from FIFA)With the World Cup draw happening tomorrow, nerves in the England camp are at an all time high.  England’s fate will be decided at 5pm (GMT) in Bahia, Brazil so in advance BOTN explores what could be England’s worst group.  Using the existing pools (England are in pot 4) and based on the various rules and regulations attached to the draw itself, here is the “Group of Death” for England. It features Spain from Pot 1, Chile from Pot 2 and Mexico form Pot 3 with England filling the final place from Pot 4.

Current World Cup holders, Spain  (Image from Getty)

Current World Cup holders, Spain
(Image from Getty)

The current World and European champions are amongst those in pot one that could pose a real threat to England’s chances. In fact all eight teams, with the possible exception of Switzerland will be a serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. Spain have talent in abundance and are incredibly hard to break down due to their intense passing game. Xavi and Iniesta are likely to dominate the play with Fabergas and Mata as support options. At the back, they have a solid backline with centre back pairing Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos causing problems for opposition strikers, roaming just in front of Casillas, Reina or Valdes in goal. Upfront Spain’s rich talent pool continues with the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa, Fernando Llorente and  Roberto Soldado to name a few offering options. Adding to this mix is newly converted Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa who has been in blistering form so far this season. The Brazilian born striker, who recently pledged his allegiance to Spain instead of his homeland, has forged a successful partnership with David Villa for Atletico. This surely gives Spanish head coach Vicente del Bosque food for thought on whether he should unleash the pair for Spain during next summer’s tournament.

Diego Costa and David Villa  (Image from AFP Getty Images)

Diego Costa and David Villa
(Image from AFP Getty Images)

Chile tested England in their last trip to Wembley just under a month ago as Alexis Sanchez backed up his talking off the pitch with a sublime performance. The Barcelona striker made a sly remark about England’s pathway system for future footballers stating how it was too easy for youngsters to join academies and automatically play for a club in the future. In Chile the academy system is nowhere near as advanced as it is in England but appears to be producing the goods. At Wembley they convincingly beat England 2-0, throwing Roy Hodgson’s plans into disarray. Although England chose to field an altered side for the match allowing them to test some new faces, it was a huge win for the South American’s who have shown with the emergence of star players like Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Felipe Gutiérrez and Gary Medal that they are a future force in world football.  Pot 3 may be considered to be the weakest pot but within them lies the stinging tail of Mexico who could relinquish all hope for England. With a squad made up of established stars and Olympic winning youthful exuberance, Mexico are considered to be one of the tournaments dark horses. Despite taking a rocky path in qualifying, Mexico’s strength is their desire to succeed which makes them a dangerous opponent.  Upfront, Mexico can call upon Manchester United’s  Javier Hernandez, Valencia’s Giovani Dos Santos or Santos Laguna’s Oribe Peralta to score the goals needed to progress.  In midfield, head coach Miguel Herrera mixes experience in the form of Andres Guardado (who is one game off his century for his country) with up and coming stars like Porto’s Héctor Herrera with some success. He could also spring a few surprises with his final squad selection if Erick Torres or Marco Fabian make the cut. Both players are good examples of the rich talent that Mexico is producing and that England needs to be aware of if they draw them in the World Cup.  

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England  (Image from PA)

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England
(Image from PA)

In the World Cup, there is no such thing as an easy team as England have found out in the past. There are various other teams who pose a threat to England’s chances of progression, most noticeably host’s Brazil, a Messi inspired Argentina and arch rivals, Germany. But some of the dark horses could also cause problems such as the Ivory Coast or Ecuador. Ivory Coast has plenty of talent including Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Roma’s Gervinho and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia. They will be no pushovers, nor will Ecuador who are an improving side and will be a lot tougher than the last time England played them in 2006. Antonio Valencia and Vitesse’s Renato Ibarra are two talented wingers with lots of pace to burn plus with Felipe Caicedo up front, Ecuador could be a real threat. The country is still hurting from the death of legend Christian Benetiz so will be approaching the World Cup with a desire to do well for his memory. The USA are also amongst the group of teams who could be a potential danger as England found out in 2010 in South Africa. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has spent the past few years experimenting with different players but now has established a nucleus of talent like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley that he is building his team around. Added into this the emergence of Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd and Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann has a strong group that is ready and prepared for the World Cup next year.

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw  (Image from Getty)

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw
(Image from Getty)

Hodgson and England will be hoping to avoid such a nightmare by drawing a generous group such as Switzerland, Algeria and Iran. Based on previous draws, England has had luck on their side but can it hold for Brazil? Interestingly one team in pot 4 will be moved into pot 2 just before the draw starts. This is to allow for 4 groups of eight and a somewhat easier drawing process. That said, it is still quite confusing as FIFA will not allow a group to have more than two European teams in it so adjustments will need to be made, ruling out the three European teams in Pot 1 being pulled.  If England were chosen for Pot 2, it could play in their favour or perhaps not. Either way, Hodgson is unlikely to get any sleep tonight as he worries about who his team will face next summer.

Blog by Richard Waterhouse

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Owen Announces Retirement At End Of Season, But Suprises Few

Michael Owen announces retirement (Image from PA)Michael Owen’s announcement yesterday about his end of season retirement will come as a surprise to some but for most they believe the player may have already been in retirement for sometime. The 33-year-old former England striker has taken the decision based on the realisation that the better part of his career is behind him and that with injuries happening on a more regular basis, his body is unable to cope any longer with the rigorous of the modern game. Owen has had quite the career since breaking onto the scene with Liverpool as an exciting 17-year-old with electric pace. His eye for goal, rapid footwork and quality finishing ability made him one of the most exciting prospects England’s famous school of excellence, Lilleshall has ever produced.

Owen scores for England in 2007 (Image from PA)

Owen scores for England in 2007
(Image from PA)

From a young age, Owen was breaking goal scoring records. At age 10, he scored an incredible 97 goals in one season for Deeside Area Primary School’s Under-11 team, smashing the former holder’ record by 25 goals. It was at that point that Liverpool knew they needed to pay close attention to him as the record he broke belonged to one of their greatest strikers, Ian Rush. Before long Owen had signed youth forms with the Anfield club and began his England career firstly with England Under 15’s then Under 16’s, again smashing goal scoring feats along the way. He hit 28 goals in 20 games, a striking record that still holds today. It wasn’t long after then that Owen made his Liverpool debut, first at youth levels and then finally handed a first team slot by then manager Roy Evans. He made his first team debut against Wimbledon, and in Owen fashion finished the day on the score sheet. After then, he never looked back and over the next eight years went on to score another 117 goals in 216 appearances.

Owen marks his Liverpool debut with a goal (Image from Getty)

Owen marks his Liverpool debut with a goal
(Image from Getty)

Two years after his first team debut at Liverpool, a then prolific Owen was handed his full England start under manager Glenn Hoddle. His performances for both club and country before the 1998 World Cup in France, made it almost impossible for Hoddle not to include him in his squad but it didn’t make him an automatic starter. During the tournament, he sat out the first two games but a goal against Romania in the final game, persuaded Hoddle to give him a starting berth against Argentina in the next round. His faith was repaid as Owen scored most likely the best goal of his career with a dazzling run, before beating two players and slotting past the goalkeeper. Despite England crashing out of the tournament after that game, Owen went on to make the no.9 slot his own and represented England a total of 89 times in a ten-year period, scoring 40 goals.

Owen outmuscles Ayala on route to goal at France 1998 (Image from Getty)

Owen outmuscles Ayala on route to goal at France 1998
(Image from Getty)

It was at the high of his career, aged 25, Real Madrid came calling and Owen made the move to Spain, in what some see start of Owen’s downfall. After a somewhat successful season with the Madrid club, Owen was on his way back to England in a £16.8 million move to Newcastle. Controversy surrounded his move as Owen was openly admitting that he wanted to move back to Liverpool but with the Anfield club unwilling to match Real’s validation and Owen’s place now in Madrid unsecure, he reluctantly took the move to the north of England in an effort to resurrect his England career. It was a move that would end in failure as Owen suffered injury after injury at the club over the next four years. On a hefty pay packet, Newcastle stood by their striker as the fans prayed that he could get back his fitness and start scoring for the club like the Owen of old. Unfortunately only disappointment came as Owen’s contract ran out and he decided to leave the club. What angered the fans the most was that Owen then decided to sign for Manchester United, making him a hated figure in the North. But Owen’s move to United did not pan out as planned and his playing time was limited due to stronger strikers ahead of him and a lack of fitness. Eventually Owen left United to move to Stoke where he has played for the past two season, again limited due to fitness issues.

Injury ravaged - Owen spent a lot of time on the Stoke bench (Image from PA)

Injury ravaged – Owen spent a lot of time on the Stoke bench
(Image from PA)

His decision to call it a day comes after almost seven years of injury problems where Owen has spent more time on the racetrack than the football pitch. His distractions away from football as well as his lack of playing time have led to many speculating that Owen gave up mentality some years ago and his retirement from the game was inevitable. Owen will argue that his passion for the game has never dwindled and that only injuries have prevented him adding to his England haul of caps and goals but the sad truth is somewhere in the middle. If Owen had remained at Liverpool instead of moving to Spain with Real, he may have managed to join the likes of Beckham and Shilton in the 100+ cap club for England. Owen will still go down as one of the countries greatest ever strikers but perhaps he could have been even better if he had decided against the move. Fellow strikers like Gary Linekar and Alan Shearer have already taken to Twitter to proclaim how good Owen was and pay tribute to the player. Owen deserves the accolades he receives for his career up to the age of 26 but after that, injuries prevented the game from seeing what else this England great could have achieved. He leaves the game as a winner, having won cups and league titles at the various clubs he has played at but one will wonder if he will look back on his whole career with the same enthusiasm as he had in the early part of it when he burst onto the world scene with that goal on 30 June in St. Étienne, France at the 1998 World Cup.

To see his amazing goal against Argentina, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPC6Yv3BPVY

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Remy Ready To Rescue Newcastle’s Season

Loïc Rémy  (Image from Goolhaye.com)Newcastle United appear to have finally gotten their man, adding to their growing french legion at St James Park. Rémy is due in Newcastle today for a medical ahead of signing for the club, following his £8 million move from Marseille. The French international striker, who joins compatriots Johann Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Debuchy at Newcastle, has been tracked by Alan Pardew’s scouting team, led by Graham Carr for almost a year and have fought of the challenge of fellow Premiership club, Queens Park Rangers to land the 17 time capped forward. Marseille president Jean-Claude Dassier confirmed the club had received an acceptable bid from Newcastle at the weekend and allowed the player’s agent to start negotiations, with the player likely to join after undergoing medical checks.

Remy's medical report will be examined carefully (Image of Rafael Van Der Vaart from TheOffside.com)

Remy’s medical report will be examined carefully (Image of Rafael Van Der Vaart from TheOffside.com)

The medical may not be as straight forward as many suspect. Rémy has a heart defect that was identified during his medical when signing for Marseille that had previously been missed when the player moved from Lyon to Nice. The defect was flagged by Marseille who investigated further and sought cardiac specialists advice before clearing the player to join the club. Newcastle will undoubtably want to look into this further with their own people, well aware that they would want to protect themselves from a possible horror situation of the player collapsing or having to retire because of the defect. If they do go ahead, it won’t be the first time they have taken a risk with a player after signing Demba Ba from West Ham two summers ago. The Senegalese striker, who has just left the club to join Chelsea for £7.5 million, has a troublesome right knee that has blighted him during his career. Whilst at Hoffenheim, Stoke attempted to buy the powerful striker, agreeing a fee with the german club, only for the player to fail his medical due to his weak knee. Both West Ham and Newcastle both identified the weakness as well but pushed the signing through as they deemed the risk to be minimal. Rémy’s problem is more concerning but Newcastle are again likely to weight up the risks versus the advantages of signing the talented striker.

Rémy is a natural replacement for Ba (Image from AP)

Rémy is a natural replacement for Ba
(Image from AP)

As a French internationalist, Rémy knows how to score which will delight the Newcastle faithful. Despite a poor start to this season with Marseille, where Rémy has scored only one strike in fourteen outings, the player has a history of goals to his name. With an average of 11 goals per season since the player started his career and four goals in 17 appearances for France, Rémy is a natural goalscorer and should act as a good strike partner for Papiss Cissé. Rémy is a tall but quick striker, who is as comfortable on the wing as he is as a central striker, but Pardew will likely learn from his mistakes with Ba and limit his new signings time on the flanks as much as possible. Former Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton, currently on loan at Marseille from QPR, has gone public on Twitter with his approval of the deal:

‘Good luck to Loïc in Newcastle. Don’t  worry I’ve told him what to expect.  Great guy. Perfect club for him”

French International Loïc Rémy  (Image from Reuters)

French International Loïc Rémy
(Image from Reuters)

If the player does pass his medical and signs for Newcastle in the next couple of days, it will come as a huge relief to Pardew who is desperate to bring in some new faces to turn around Newcastle’s season. With right back Debuchy onboard and Rémy expected to add options to his front line, Pardew will turn his attention to other areas of tha park, most notably central defence. A weak area at present, Newcastle have been rocked by the news that captain ­Fabricio Coloccini wants to leave during this January transfer window and return to his native Argentina for personal reasons. It is believed that ­Coloccini’s wife has become unsettled in the north of England and has left with the couple’s son to go back to Argentina and ­Fabricio needs to move to rejoin them. It’s unlikely that any club there will be any club in Argentina able to afford his wages or the transfer fee so Pardew will have a dilemma on his hands as he tries to hold on to his star player. Successful or not, he will still need to bring in additional centre backs with James Tomkins arrival from West Ham likely. But further additions will be needed, such as left back cover and an attacking midfielder to add options to the team sitting in 17th place in the league. If they can shore up their defence and Rémy can hit the ground running with goals, Newcastle will surely climb the league and challenge again for a place in Europe next season.

Referee Joins In With The Celebration

SS Devoto play in the Argentine lower leaguesAs we have seen on several occasions on this blog, a wonderful piece of individual skill or brilliance is all it takes to win a game. A drop of the shoulder, a slight touch and a powerful shot into the back of the net can turn the hardest of players into soppy messes as the celebrate the genius that they have just witnessed. Gaining the admiration of your teammates is one of the highs of being a footballer and part of a team. But it’s not very often that your have been congratulated by the man in black with the whistle as well?

Referees have a front row seat to some of the most spectacular moments in footballing history but they are taught to control their emotions and never show appreciation for what they have just witnessed. That was the general rule but for the referee in charge of a recent match between Sociedad Sportiva Devoto v Almafuerte of the Torneo Argentino C league, Argentina’s 5th division, he couldn’t help but congratulate one of the SS Devoto team for scoring. Rather than being shunned by his fellow officials, referee Mariano Gonzalez has received plaudits in Argentina after congratulating Sociedad Sportiva Devoto forward Nicolas Barbero on a wonder goal against Almafuerte.

Barbero lobs the keeper

Barbero lobs the keeper

Barbero has a reputation within the team for spectacular goals but this one in particular was impressive. After watching Barbero twist and turn on the edge of the area before gently lobbing the stranded goalkeeper in a wonderful example of close control and technique, Gonzalez walked calmly towards Barbero and his celebrating teammates and extended his hand in appreciation of the strikers goal.  The two then strolled back to the centre circle, talking briefly about the goal.

Gonzalez congratulates Barbero on a fine strike

You are unlikely to see this happen in the English Premiership or German Bundesliga, where referees distance themselves from the players as much as possible to avoid complicating proceedings or hearing calls of bias for one team over another but in the lower leagues in Argentina, Gonzalez knew he would face no punishment for his actions. After all, the only thing he did was recognise a brilliant passage of play and a fantastic goal in the manner that you or i would as well. Afterall, referees are only human, well most of the time.

To see the goal that deserved a handshake, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uovevTwuGzM