How a Chain Smoking Coach and Bad Milk Changed Barcelona’s Fortunes

I have watched a lot of football through the years and seen thousands of goals but for some strange reason one strike plays back time and time again. Ronald Koeman’s thunderous cup winning strike against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final wasn’t the prettiest but it was enough to engrain it forever in my memory as a great goal. Perhaps it wasn’t Koeman’s goal at all that I remember, instead the team he played in, one of the great Barcelona sides of the past thirty years. Laudrup, Stoichkov, Salinas, Giokoetxea, Zubizarreta and Guardiola all in the same team, as part of Barca’s first ever dream team.

Led by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff who revolutionized Spanish football by introducing the 3-4-3 formation focusing on technical ability and finesse more than stature and graft, Barca’s history would be forever changed. Cruyff’s decision to change the tactical direction of the club at all levels fundamentally paved the way from the product line of superstars that Barcelona now relies on. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago would never have been considered in the old approach where only players of 5ft 9in and above would make the cut, regardless of technical style and ability. Building from the back, Cruyff started to build a team of champions all with the mindset of scoring more than their opposition.  Cruyff argued that it did not make sense for a flat back four to defend against two strikers, whilst the same happened at the other end so his switch to three centre backs allowed more players to be pushed up field. Now with three forwards and two support wingers, Cruyff understood that opposition defenses would not be able to cope and Barcelona could create more chances to score. The chain smoking coach, who was often spotted on the sidelines during a game with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, placed emphasis on talented ball passers like Pep Guardiola and José Mari Bakero, employed in the centre of the park specifically to keep the ball moving and spread the ball wide to creative wide players like Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Ion Andoni Goikoetxea. Once in possession, the trio were able to run at defenses with pace and conviction creating chances for the strikers. His system worked to a degree but it wasn’t until the introduction of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov that his plan was complete. The temperamental Bulgarian who was known in the media as mala leche (Bad Milk in Spanish) transformed Barcelona’s attacking play and played a pivotal role in their success.

The dream team was officially born at Wembley as Cruyff’s Barcelona took on Sampdoria in the European Cup final in 1992. Koeman’s strike, deep into extra time gave Barcelona it’s first European Cup and paved the way for future Barcelona sides. As Koeman positioned the ball, just a few meters’ from the 18 yard line with Juan Carlos and Stoichkov hovering nearby, he paused briefly to examine the scene. In front of him was a five man wall, positioned perfectly by Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to cover his left hand post. Pagliuca moved over to the right hand post and took up his position, comfortable in the knowledge that he had all the angles covered. Or so he thought. Koeman’s short run up and thunderous strike flew past the diving Italian stopper and crashed into the net to give Barcelona the lead. As the Barcelona players celebrated, Cruyff (who had switched from smoking cigarettes to sucking on lollipops after undergoing double heart bypass surgery in 1991) rose from the bench and made his way towards the race track that surrounded the old Wembley to applaud his players but in a way also to bask in the glory as he knew that that strike would change the clubs fortunes forever and cement his place as an iconic manager.

During his eight year reign, Cruyff secured 11 trophies including four La Liga titles, one Copa Del Rey, three Supercopa de España, the Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and European Super Cup, making him one of Barcelona’s greatest ever coaches. Whilst his departure from the club was less than ceremonious, Cruyff remains a legend to many associated with Barcelona and the reason behind the clubs modern day successes. Spain too owes him its gratitude as his transformation of the Catalan club and its overall approach gave birth to the likes of Iniesta and Xavi who inspired Spain to three successive international titles (European Championships in 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010). Koeman’s goal in the 1992 final proved to be the turning point for Cruyff and will live in the memory of lots of football fans for many a year to come.

To see Koeman’s strike, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byjcAjwAjOg

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The Greedy 12 and the Super League

It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday until all hell broke loose. Embarrassing and greedy quickly started to trend on Twitter alongside the word “Super League” which told you everything you needed to know. The decision by 12 European clubs to announce a breakaway SuperLeague has been widely condemned by footballs governing bodies, its former and current players and most importantly the fans, who all see this move as financially motivated and without any consideration for them.

After months of secret, behind closed doors talks twelve clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signed on to be founder members of this new JP Morgan backed European Super League (ESL) which was announced late Sunday afternoon, one day before UEFA was due to announce a potentially expanded Champions League.

The “Big 6” in England have signed on to a European Super League much to the dismay of the FA, the Premier League and the British government.

FIFA have been quick to condemn the move whilst UEFA has threatened tough sanctions on the clubs involved and their players including banning them from all other league and cup competitions and even stopping players from potentially representing their national teams. Legal action could also be taken against each of the 12 clubs with UEFA seeking significant damages rumoured to be around £50-60billion. UEFA have also been supported by the three national federations and leagues that the 12 currently play in, stating that any move of such would result in their eviction from their domestic leagues and cup competitions. But it’s the reaction of the former players and the fans that tells the story. Both have been outraged by the news and have rejected the idea of a Super League being a good thing or indeed even for them. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called the move absolutely disgusting and a decision based solely on greed whilst former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher called it an “embarrassing decision for Liverpool and for those who have come before”. Hard to disagree.

In a statement released by the new ESL, the founding clubs had agreed to establish a “new midweek competition” with teams continuing to “compete in their respective national leagues”. Three further teams would join shortly to make 15 founding teams that would be secured in their places in the league (couldn’t be removed or relegated) and a further five would join based on performances elsewhere. The hope was that the new league could start as early as next year but the ESL has a lot to do before that becomes reality.

The statement went on to say that the global pandemic had “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model” and that conversations with UEFA had failed to answer concerns about the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.” The ESL will apparently help to put the game on a more sustainable footing in the long term.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has been named as the president of the European Super League and is one of its principle instigators

ESL vice chairman and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer was quoted in saying “By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.”

There is a lot to unpack there but underneath it all is the general sense that the owners of these 12 clubs are being motivated by one thing and one thing only – greed. The richest clubs in football simply want more money. Talk of fixing the European game, improving the quality for fans or providing a more financial support to the football pyramid is just smoke and mirrors for what this is really about. These 12 clubs feel entitled to more and because UEFA won’t buckle to their demands, they are trying to force their hand.

Whether all 12 believe this league will happen is one thing but what’s more important is that they have massively overestimated their own hand. Either foolishly or naively, the clubs believed that the fans would be excited about this league and more so that their own domestic leagues ( English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga) would be comfortable with this. Neither of which is true. What has happened is instead the greedy 12 have landed in a PR nightmare with no one for support and a general feeling from supporters that they don’t care about anything other than money. Now facing some difficult conversation, not only with FIFA and UEFA but as well with their national leagues, the European Club Association and the Players Football Association, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t quite go as planned.

Former players Rio Ferdinand, Francis Benali and Robbie Savage react to the news about the proposed European Super League.

The League may never happen due to a variety of reasons and as suggested earlier, it might never have needed to happen. It could all be a ruse to get UEFA to back down and agree to the changes these 12 clubs wanted as part of a new look Champions League – more power, preferential treatment such as annual participation regardless of performance and above all else more money. But now having overextended themselves and misread how much power they actually have at the wider footballing table, it might be a harder battle to win.

Regardless of how those discussions go or how things pan out over the next few weeks and months, the fans ultimately will have their say or the ability to voice their opinion at the least by turning their backs on the clubs in more than one way. For the instigators of this new league, it’s worth noting that it was supporters who helped to build these clubs up to where they are today and that they quite easily tear them apart as well – Super League or no Super League.

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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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Where next for Messi as he calls time on Barca

After 20 years at Barcelona, the club he joined as a 13 year old, Lionel Messi has decided it’s time to leave. Following an indifferent and difficult season, the Argentine has had enough and informed the club and its new manager Ronald Koeman that he wishes to activate an exit clause in his contract. That in itself is not exactly cut and dried as Barcelona are arguing the the clause needed to be activated by June 10th for Messi to walk for free and would demand a transfer fee if he were to go. Messi and his team are contesting this notion given the season was prolonged due to the pandemic but nevertheless it looks likely that there will be conscious uncoupling of the two sooner rather than later.

There isn’t a single club in the world that wouldn’t take Lionel Messi in a heartbeat. But there are only a few that could actually afford him. Since Messi announced to the world his intention to leave Barcelona, speculation over where he will end up has reached fever pitch. Europe’s elite have been linked with him through various sources all of which report to have insider knowledge that Messi’s agent has had “secret talks” with that specific club. Chelsea, Bayern, Tottenham, Inter and even Real Madrid are “actively interested” or whatever that means. But in truth, due to the players likely wage demands plus potentially a sizable transfer fee if Barca gets its way, only a small handful of clubs stand a chance of signing him. So who are they?

Man City

Its a well known secret that Messi considers Pep Guardiola as his greatest coach. When the now Manchester City boss was in charge at the Nou Camp, Messi was at his ultimate best. Not only was he preforming week in week out, scoring for fun and winning numerous trophies along the way but he was happy too. Guardiola built his team in and around Messi, preferring to play him in the position that Messi felt most comfortable then strategically placing the other pieces around him. It sounds like common sense and really it is. Take your best player, play them in a position that makes them the happiest and sit back and enjoy the show. Reuniting with Guardiola at Manchester City would ensure that Messi gets back to where he feels most comfortable. There are other draws of course to joining City including the opportunity to play in the English Premier League, something Messi has indicated in the past that he would like to do and the added bonus of joining a team that features his good friend and Argentina teammate Sergio Aguero.

Can Pep persuade Messi to join him at Man City?

PSG

You simply cannot rule out Messi moving to the French capital for a variety of factors. The Champions League finalists might still be licking their wounds after losing to Bayern last week but the appetite to go one step beyond their current state would require something extra special. With the league almost a cakewalk, the focus is on winning that Champions League trophy. Massive strides have been made this season, albeit under unusual circumstances but the need that X factor to secure their first major European trophy since the Cup Winners Cup back in 1996. (And no the 2001 Intertoto Cup doesn’t count). That could come in the form of Lionel Messi who would fit nicely into a PSG side brimming with talent. Talent like Kylian Mbappe, Angel Di Maria and of course Messi’s former teammate Neymar. The notion of linking up with the Brazilian once more may be enough to sway Messi towards PSG as he was a key driver in the push to bring Neymar back to Barcelona last summer. That move never happened much to the frustration of Messi. But now the pair could reconnect in France and push the club towards lifting that Champions League trophy.

Juventus

If Juventus fans were left drooling when Cristiano Ronaldo came to town, just imagine how they will react if they have Messi join them too. The prospect of linking up two of the greatest players to have ever played the game in the same team is too much to fathom. It’s not certain that Messi would entertain the idea of playing alongside Ronaldo nor if Ronaldo himself would like sharing the spotlight with the Argentine but Juventus have the ability to make it happen. The Old Lady is going through somewhat of a transition herself with a new young manager in the form of Andreas Pirlo ringing in the changes under his vision but given the chance, its hard to see him fighting the board against signing Messi. Would he fit into Pirlo’s envisaged 4-3-3 formation is hard to tell considering Ronaldo will likely want to play as the central figure in that attacking three. But it’s a formation that Messi has played in a lot at Barcelona and seems comfortable adapting his game to fit.

Messi and Ronaldo in the same team?

Man Utd

Not to completely upset the apple cart for Guardiola but his neighbours over the fence could nip in and grab Messi from under his nose. They did it once before, signing Alexis Sanchez when it looked like he was destined for the Etihad. Ok that didn’t quite work as planned but the ability to pay extravagant wages is there so breaking the bank to sign Messi is not off the cards which makes them a real threat to City’s hopes. Manager Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer is building a new look United squad that features a cast of exciting younger players which could be a draw for the experienced Messi. The only real drawback, apart from the language barrier is that the deal would need to be negotiated and signed by Ed Woodward who by all appearances struggles when is comes to transfer dealings. The Executive Vice Chairman has hardly covered himself in glory over the past eight years after missing out on several big name players and paying over the odds for others like Sanchez and the previously mentioned Di Maria (now at PSG).

Newell’s Old Boys

Since leaving the club at the age of 13, Messi has always proclaimed that he would love to return and play for Newell’s before his career comes to an end. Moving back to Argentina certainly has its draws, especially given that Messi and his wife Antonela both grew up in Rosario and have family back there. The club itself would welcome Messi back with loving arms but it’s unlikely the would be able to afford even a fraction of his current wage demands never mind the whole thing. If he did return it would be with the understanding that he would take a significant pay cut and would be effectively signalling his departure from elite football with the Argentine league unable to match the level that he has been playing at. Messi is only 33 and has probably still got another 3-5 years at the top left in him all being well so it seems like the move home might be a bit premature at this stage.

Messi has a decision to make.

Where Messi ends up will be revealed shortly as the new season quickly approaches. Its not 100% certain that he will leave Barcelona despite what he is saying right now. There are politics in play and Messi knows how much he is revered by the fans and how much clout he has in the future of Barcelona football club. His main gripe is really with the President, Josep Maria Bartomeu and the way that he is running the club. If Bartomeu was to succumb to the pressure from the angry fans and resign, it could be enough to see Messi make a dramatic turnaround and stay. His reason for leaving is not about money nor is it really about his desire to try a new league but instead about his happiness. His love and deep connection to the club is undeniable yet something has not been right at Barcelona for a while now and all fingers point upwards. Bartomeu is unlikely to walk himself but it’s hard to see how he can stay in charge if he lets an icon like Messi leave.

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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.

Follow Danielle on Instagram too.

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Always in the Shadows

You have to feel for Neymar. The Brazilian superstar just can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to his club. After making the breakthrough at Santos in his native Brazil, Neymar quickly became the player that everyone was talking about. Blessed with a natural ability that has elevated him to become one of the worlds best players, Neymar thrives as the focal point of the team. At Santos, surrounded by teammates of lesser quality Neymar was front and centre. For Brazil it is a similar story. Neymar was basking in the limelight but needed a bigger platform. In stepped Barcelona.

Front and Centre - where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

Front and Centre – where Neymar feels most comfortable (Image from Tumblr)

At first, the move to Barcelona made a lot of sense. Neymar, the latest emerging prodigy from South America moving to arguably the world’s biggest club. His name and talents would be elevated into the next stratosphere whilst Barcelona profited both on and off the pitch. At Barcelona he would be one of their brightest assets but not their biggest. That title has been held for over a decade by one Lionel Messi. The Argentine is a god amongst men in the world of football, an icon that regardless of how he is playing steals all of the limelight. Barcelona pitched a story to Neymar about coming in to play alongside Messi, learning from him day-to-day and eventually replacing him as the clubs focal point. It was an attractive proposition, one that almost guaranteed success for Neymar so he snapped it up without hesitation. Over the next four seasons, trophies would flow into Barcelona like water – two La Liga titles, three consecutive Copa del Reys, one Champions League and a Club World Cup should have left Neymar feeling on top of the football world. But despite this, all was not right with the Brazilian, something was clearly missing. The limelight.

 

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar and Messi should have been the dream ticket and for a while it was (Image from Tumblr)

Neymar was improving season over season. His first season started slowly with Neymar finding his rhythm part of the way through the campaign leading to 14 goals in all competitions. By the second, he was firing on all cylinders contributing 39 goals in 51 appearances. By the third season his tally decreased but his influence on how Barcelona attacked and in particular won games was evident. But regardless of what he did, Messi continued to shine brighter.  In Neymar’s second season at Barcelona, Messi racked up an incredible 58 goals in 57 appearances, 43 of which came in the league. The light was starting to blind Neymar who started to doubt the vision painted by Barcelona a few years before. Messi was not slowing down nor looked to be fading. Neymar knew that if he was to become the central figure, he was going to have to leave.

Living in Messi's shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

Living in Messi’s shadow grew tiresome for Neymar (Image from Twitter)

PSG had spent a lot of money on players before Neymar arrived capturing top talents like Angel Di Maria, Julian Draxler and Edison Cavani. But none came close to the impact that Neymar had on his arrival. On signing, PSG went from Ligue 1 title winners to possible Champions League contenders. His €222m transfer obliterated the record set previously by Real Madrid when they bought Gareth Bale. Neymar entered the club like Julius Caesar returning to Rome following the conquest of Gaul. With only Cavani in his way, Neymar brushed aside the Uruguayan to take his position as the focal point of PSG. All was well it seemed until the arrival of a teenage upstart called Kylian Mbappe.

Back in the Limelight - Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

Back in the Limelight – Neymar joined PSG to be the focal point (Image from Tumblr)

The 2018 World Cup in Russia was viewed by Brazil as a redemption opportunity; a way to final bury the memory of what happened four years previously back home at the hands of the Germans. Neymar, sidelined for that game took it as his personal mission to win the World Cup for Brazil this time around was a man possessed even if a bit dramatically. As always he was front and centre, controlling what Brazil did and scoring important goals when needed. A wry smile will have crept over his face as Messi and Argentina crashed out early on. Against Belgium in the quarter finals, Neymar’s dream crumbled as an injury time equalizer was agonizingly saved by Courtois. Brazil were out. Neymar was forced to watch as France, led by his newest teammate Mbappe swept to glory. It was a turning point in the career of Mbappe, once a promising talent now considered the real deal.

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar's disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Mbappe is slowly becoming the star at PSG much to Neymar’s disappointment (Image from Tumblr)

Back in Ligue 1, Neymar has been playing brilliantly with eight goals in eight league games to date.  A hat trick in the Champions League goes to show how much Neymar has the bit between his teeth. However its Mbappe that is stealing most of the headlines in France. Following his World Cup heroics, Mbappe has been elevated to saint status with his every touch fawned upon. Whilst his goals to games return has not been as good as Neymars’, a recent four goal haul against Lyon has the media once again eating out of his hand. Neymar is not handling it well and cuts a worried figure realizing that this youngster could eclipse him and eventually steal all of the limelight. He has a tough decision to make – stick it out and battle against Mbappe in a country that favours the Frenchman over him or cut his losses and move yet again. Real Madrid are rumoured to be monitoring the situation closely and hoping to get a SOS sign from Neymar. With the light switching over to Mbappe, Neymar needs to act fast or face further years in the shadows.

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One on One with: Boudewijn Zenden

There are very few players that have graced the game who were as universally loved by the clubs they played for and also by the clubs they faced. Boudewijn Zenden is one such player. The former international winger’s career took him from his native Holland to Spain, England & France. At each club he played for he became a fan favourite because of his natural abilities and his commitment to the team’s success. Zenden was a fundamental component off the pitch as well. His former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez called him “the glue that holds teams together, a fantastic professional who was always there between the players trying to keep them together”. Now in his career as a coach, Zenden is looking to transfer that same passion for the game to the next generation of stars coming through in Holland.

BackOfTheNet: Boudewijn, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

BOTN: Let’s start at the beginning. You signed for your hometown club, MVV Maastricht, before moving to PSV two years later. After six years in their youth team, you made your debut for the first team and over the next 4 years you became a fan favourite in Dick Advocaat’s side. How important were those formative years in your career and what influence did Advocaat and your first boss Aad de Mos have on them?

Boudewijn Zenden: Aad de Mos gave me the opportunity to start as a pro. He didn’t last long and then Advocaat took over. I had to work hard and fight to become a starter. I didn’t move to quick so I had time to become a favourite and it gave me the opportunity to work myself into the national team. I secured myself in the World Cup 1998 squad. Just before the World Cup I signed for Barca.

BOTN: As you mentioned, Barcelona came calling and you signed for them in that summer (’98). It was there that you started being deployed more as a wing back in order to accommodate you and Marc Overmars in the same team. You made your name as a winger, but having played in various positions on the left-hand side and in the middle of midfield, which one do you think is your best and most natural position?

BZ: I do believe that as I was a versatile player that I could do well in several positions. I always needed the freedom to go forward, as from a kid I loved to be involved in scoring or providing goals.

BOTN: How important is it for players to be adaptable?

BZ: If you are capable to adapt to different positions, clubs, competitions, countries you are more likely to have a good career.

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BOTN: After Spain you moved to England, first with Chelsea, but then later with Middlesbrough, Liverpool and eventually Sunderland. Several Dutch players over the years have commented on the similarities between life in Holland and England and how easy it is to adapt to the league. Did you find that it was easy, and was that why you stayed for so long? 

BZ: It is true that life in the UK and the Netherlands are similar but the league is so much different. The Premier league is physically harder. There are no easy games in the Premier League. I stayed long in the UK as I enjoyed the positiveness of the fans and the way the Premier League is handled and broadcasted. It arguably the best League in the world.

BOTN: You spent some time in the south of France with Marseille. Despite the surroundings, that move didn’t quite go to plan. What happened there?

BZ: I did enjoy my time in France. I played a big part as we finished 3rd and 2nd in the Ligue 1. Scoring against the biggest rival in Paris was a highlight. The OM fans are mad and are very tough supporters. I always enjoyed playing for them. Eventually I wished to go back to the UK as I missed the Premier League.

BOTN: Having played in the Eredivisie, La Liga, Premier League and Ligue 1, is there one of those leagues that you felt suited your style of play more than the rest?

BZ: I think I suited well in all competitions although they are different. In the Eredivisie you get a lot of time/space on the ball. La Liga is a tactical and technical high standard competition. The Premier League is a physically tough competition. In Ligue 1 I found the players physically tough but also many players played individually.

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BOTN: Your first ever goal for Holland came in the World Cup 3rd place play-off game against Croatia and it was spectacular – a dazzling run followed by a powerful swerving shot that eluded Ladic in goal. Was that your finest goal you scored in your career or do you have another favourite?

BZ: It’s true that it was a nice goal, especially because it was at a World Cup. I remember scoring a nice one for Middlesborough against Lazio. For Sunderland I scored a worldy against Tottenham, that one also comes to my mind.

BOTN: With Holland failing to qualify for the Euros and now the World Cup, many are looking towards its youth prospects for hope. Recently the Holland Under 17s side lifted the European Championship which will help. How do you view the next generation coming through? Are you excited about Holland’s future?

BZ: It’s true that at the moment the national team is not what it used to be. Not qualifying for two tournaments in a row is a big blow for Dutch football in general. There should always be hope. I guess that it’s a matter of time that the Dutch will be there again.

BOTN: Rafa Benitez gave you your first taste of life on the other side of the white chalk when he hired you as assistant manager at Chelsea. Since then you have taken a coaching role back at PSV. How important was it for you to remain in the game after you hung up your boots?

BZ: I got the opportunity to stay in the game. When you can help the new generation with your experience it’s a good feeling. But I also like working as an analyst for TV so I’m still very much involved in the game.

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BOTN: You played alongside Steven Gerrard at Liverpool who has now become the manager of Rangers in Scotland. How do you think he will get on and do you see yourself following that path eventually becoming a manager outright?

BZ: I’m sure Steven will do well at Rangers. As a manager you will learn along the way. I don’t know yet where my (managerial) path will take me.

BOTN: Finally, throughout your career you played with some fantastic players: Bergkamp, Lampard, Ronaldo at PSV, to name a few. But are there any players who you felt deserved more praise for their performances than they received? 

BZ: I think all of them deserved credits for what they did to make the game what it is today.

Thank you again Boudewijn.

 

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Also check out Bolo Zenden’s Design hotel in Maastricht : Zenden.nl. Stay and Sport in Style.

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Gigi Multescu – the most underperforming manager in the world?

When the news broke on twitter that Gheorghe (Gigi) Multescu was leaving his post as manager of Romanian side Universitatea Craiova after their most recent league defeat at the hands of FCSB sadly hardly anyone took notice. After all this wasn’t the first time that Multescu has left a managerial job one way or another. In fact the former Romania midfielder has had quite the managerial career that started back in 1990, has stretched over 37 years and a remarkable 34 jobs. Aside from four spells in charge of Sportul Studentesc, three spells in charge of Dinamo Bucuresti both in his native Romanian and two in charge of Samsunspor in Turkey, Multescu has not tied himself really to any club and has shared the love. Despite his journeyman approach to management, Gigi has proven fairly unsuccessful as a coach winning only one trophy – the Balkans Cup in 1993 with Samsunspor (ironically the last Balkans Cup before it was scrapped the following year.

The question this raises is this: Could Multescu be the most underperforming coach of all time? Who else has managed for a similar lengthy spell with little to no success? BOTNBLOG set out to find out.

Norway's head coach Egil Olsen looks on

Egil Olsen

The former Norway and Wimbledon boss (yep remember that?) spent a majority of his managerial career coaching teams in Norway or as the manager of the Norway mens national teams. He started in management in 1972 with Frigg Oslo FK (now in Norway’s second division) and since then bounced around the league before gradually taking up national appointments – first with the Under 21’s then the Under 23’s and eventually being promoted to the first team. He did venture out twice, once for that less than successful spell in south London and an even worse spell in charge of Iraq where he was sacked after only five months for not being strict enough. Whilst he might not have won anything during his 41 year career but he is still viewed as a highly respected coach globally.

Il bulgaro Hristo Stoitchkov. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

Hristo Stoichkov

As a player Hristo Stoichkov is often considered as one of the best ever. The same however cannot be said about his time as a manager. The Bulgarian legend, who was the star of his country’s 1994 World Cup and a crucial cog in Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” of the early 90’s, fell into management shortly after retiring in 2003. He started as a forwards coach at Barca before Bulgaria came calling after their poor exit from Euro 2004. during a fiery three years in charge, Stoichkov couldn’t quite get the team to play the way he wanted with his frustration boiling over on a to frequent basis. He left in April 2007 to join Celta Vigo but lasted only 17 games before being sacked after the club was relegated. Stints in South Africa (Mamelodi Sundowns) and back home in Bulgaria (Litex Lovech and CSKA Sofia) followed but Stoichkov never really got the whole management game. Despite prizes galore as a player, the best Hristo could manage was a Coach of the month award which was nice.

English Premiership  - Manchester City v Liverpool

Alan Ball

Winning the 1966 World Cup with England was definitely the highlight of Alan Ball’s playing career. Finishing runner-up in the Football League Trophy Southern Area with Exeter in 1993 was sadly his finest as a manager (although manager of the month with Man City in 1995 was a close second). The dynamic midfielder was loved by almost everyone but unfortunately he couldn’t quite find his stride on the sidelines. He started his managerial career at Blackpool as player boss in 1980 before being tempted to pull his boots back on full-time for one final swan song at Southampton. When he did eventually retire for good in 1984, he managed a host of English teams including Portsmouth (twice), Stoke, Exeter, Southampton and Manchester City. His last job in management was in 1999, eight years before he would tragically die following a heart attack in his home.

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Everton hand Barkley an ultimatum – sign or go

The future of Ross Barkley as an Everton player looks less obvious this week following revelations that the player has been handed an ultimatum by the clubs manager, Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman appears to have lost patience with the England midfielder and his reluctance to sign a new deal so has given him until next weekend to sign or he will be sold in the summer. Koeman indicated in a recent press conference that the club has been in conversation with Barkley and his representatives about a new deal for some time now but its believed that the player is stalling as he surveys his options. With Tottenham rumoured to be interested, Barkley perhaps doesn’t want to sign anything that could close that door permanently.

 

Barkley is already an England international (Image from Tumblr)

Barkley is already an England international (Image from Tumblr)

With a year left on his deal, Everton need to either have the player sign a new long term deal or sell him in the summer to avoid losing him for free the following year. At 23 years old, Barkley is a rising talent and with that has seen his potential transfer valuation rise considerably to around $20m. Whilst now backed by a wealthy new owner, Everton are set up to be profitable and would not look kindly on waving goodbye to that type of money if Barkley was to exit on a bosman. In addition to this Barkley is viewed by Koeman as a player of immense quality who could play a big part in his team going forward. The former Holland defender who has been at Goodison since last summer is slowly building a side capable of challenging for firstly domestic honours and has all but secured a 7th place finish for Everton this season.

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Koeman is building a new team that he wants Barkley to be part of (Image from Tumblr)

As part of his forward plans, Koeman has been securing some of his star players on longer term contracts including Seamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas who have signed new deals in recent weeks. in addition to this, Koeman has added a flurry of youth talents to his squad through either acquisition (Lookman, Holgate) or promotion from the clubs flourishing youth development system (Kenny, Davies, Calvert Lewin) which all bodes well for the future. In recent weeks he has also cemented his own future at the club despite rumours of interest from one of his former clubs, Barcelona who will be seeking a new manager in the summer with current boss Luis Enrique set to depart. Koeman acknowledged the rumour but distanced himself from the role stating that he had a job to finish at Everton.

Mason Holgate is one of several new young players in the Everton squad (image from Tumblr)

Mason Holgate is one of several new young players in the Everton squad (image from Tumblr)

As to what Barkley will decide to do is unknown but the player who came through the youth ranks at Everton is said to be happier now under Koeman than under previous boss Roberto Martinez. This is in part to Koeman giving Barkley more freedom to play his natural game and influence the direction of matches when he can. Not stuck to a specific position Barkley has regained his confidence and at times this season has demonstrated why many see him as a long term England star. Koeman has nurtured the player this year and at times has increased the pressure on him by openly criticizing his development to the media or dropping him for important games. To be fair it has been exactly what Barkley has needed in order to continue to grow as a player. But how Barkley himself has taken to the criticism and being dropped is uncertain. On one hand he may look at Koeman as someone who he can learn from and buy into the Dutchman’s vision of where he wants to take the club. But he could also see his expiring contract as an escape route to greener pastures and potential trophies which to date have eluded him at Everton. One thing is sure is that Barkley has a choice to make and he needs to make it quickly or Koeman and Everton may just make it for him.

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How a Chain Smoking Coach and Bad Milk Changed Barcelona’s Fortunes

I have watched a lot of football through the years and seen thousands of goals but for some strange reason one strike plays back time and time again. Ronald Koeman’s thunderous cup winning strike against Sampdoria in the 1992 European Cup final wasn’t the prettiest but it was enough to engrain it forever in my memory as a great goal. Perhaps it wasn’t Koeman’s goal at all that I remember, instead the team he played in, one of the great Barcelona sides of the past thirty years. Laudrup, Stoichkov, Salinas, Giokoetxea, Zubizarreta and Guardiola all in the same team, as part of Barca’s first ever dream team.

 

Koeman's strike changed the fortunes for Barca (Image from Getty)

Koeman’s strike changed the fortunes for Barca (Image from Tumblr)

Led by Dutch icon Johan Cruyff who revolutionized Spanish football by introducing the 3-4-3 formation focusing on technical ability and finesse more than stature and graft, Barca’s history would be forever changed. Cruyff’s decision to change the tactical direction of the club at all levels fundamentally paved the way from the product line of superstars that Barcelona now relies on. Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Thiago would never have been considered in the old approach where only players of 5ft 9in and above would make the cut, regardless of technical style and ability. Building from the back, Cruyff started to build a team of champions all with the mindset of scoring more than their opposition.  Cruyff argued that it did not make sense for a flat back four to defend against two strikers, whilst the same happened at the other end so his switch to three centre backs allowed more players to be pushed up field. Now with three forwards and two support wingers, Cruyff understood that opposition defenses would not be able to cope and Barcelona could create more chances to score. The chain smoking coach, who was often spotted on the sidelines during a game with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, placed emphasis on talented ball passers like Pep Guardiola and José Mari Bakero, employed in the centre of the park specifically to keep the ball moving and spread the ball wide to creative wide players like Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain and Ion Andoni Goikoetxea. Once in possession, the trio were able to run at defenses with pace and conviction creating chances for the strikers. His system worked to a degree but it wasn’t until the introduction of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov that his plan was complete. The temperamental Bulgarian who was known in the media as mala leche (Bad Milk in Spanish) transformed Barcelona’s attacking play and played a pivotal role in their success.

Barca players including Stoichkov celebrate their first European Cup (Image from Colorsport / Andrew Cowie)

Barca players including Stoichkov celebrate their first European Cup (Image from Tumblr)

The dream team was officially born at Wembley as Cruyff’s Barcelona took on Sampdoria in the European Cup final in 1992. Koeman’s strike, deep into extra time gave Barcelona it’s first European Cup and paved the way for future Barcelona sides. As Koeman positioned the ball, just a few meters’ from the 18 yard line with Juan Carlos and Stoichkov hovering nearby, he paused briefly to examine the scene. In front of him was a five man wall, positioned perfectly by Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca to cover his left hand post. Pagliuca moved over to the right hand post and took up his position, comfortable in the knowledge that he had all the angles covered. Or so he thought. Koeman’s short run up and thunderous strike flew past the diving Italian stopper and crashed into the net to give Barcelona the lead. As the Barcelona players celebrated, Cruyff (who had switched from smoking cigarettes to sucking on lollipops after undergoing double heart bypass surgery in 1991) rose from the bench and made his way towards the race track that surrounded the old Wembley to applaud his players but in a way also to bask in the glory as he knew that that strike would change the clubs fortunes forever and cement his place as an iconic manager.

 

The master and the apprentice - Cruyff and Guardiola (Image from Getty)

Master and apprentice – Cruyff and Guardiola (Image from Tumblr)

During his eight year reign, Cruyff secured 11 trophies including four La Liga titles, one Copa Del Rey, three Supercopa de España, the Cup Winners Cup, European Cup and European Super Cup, making him one of Barcelona’s greatest ever coaches. Whilst his departure from the club was less than ceremonious, Cruyff remains a legend to many associated with Barcelona and the reason behind the clubs modern day successes. Spain too owes him its gratitude as his transformation of the Catalan club and its overall approach gave birth to the likes of Iniesta and Xavi who inspired Spain to three successive international titles (European Championships in 2008 and 2012 plus World Cup 2010). Koeman’s goal in the 1992 final proved to be the turning point for Cruyff and will live in the memory of lots of football fans for many a year to come.

To see Koeman’s strike, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byjcAjwAjOg

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Total Football Mourns The Passing Of Johan Cruyff

In an era when genuine legends of the game are few and far between, the death of one of its best is a hard pill to swallow. Johan Cruyff was more than just a player, he was an iconic figure in the game whose influenced stretched further than most can imagine. His exploits on the pitch put him firmly into a unique club alongside Pele, Maradona and Beckenbauer as one of the greatest ever players to have ever laced up. His death at age 68 following a long fight with cancer has plunged the football world into mourning two days before his beloved Holland take on Euro 2016 hosts France in a friendly in Amsterdam.

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The legendary Johan Cruyff (Image from AFP)

Throughout his career, Cruyff became the synonymous of the playing style known as “Total Football’. It was a system created by former Ajax boss Jack Reynolds but redefined by Rinus Michels and demonstrated brilliantly by Cruyff during the 1970’s. Although employed technically a centre forward for both Ajax and Holland, Cruyff would wander all over the pitch exposing the space, which could ultimately hurt the opposition. This resulted in the need for his teammates to adapt themselves around his movements, which in turn created Total Football. Out went static positions and in its place became a more fluent system where players would look for space, following Cruyff’s lead. For coaches looking for a demonstration of this system its best, they simply need to watch the 1972 European Cup final between Ajax and Inter Milan. The Italian’s were the ambassadors at that time of a defensive tactic known as “The Chain” or “the Catenaccio” which focused on operating a rigid backline with the intention of nullifying opponents attacks and preventing goal scoring opportunities. It had proven successful in their run to the final as they dispatched Standard Liege and Celtic on route. But against a Cruyff inspired Ajax operating the Total Football system, the Italians looked lost at sea unable to stop wave after wave of free flowing football. Cruyff was quite simply unplayable, scoring twice to help Ajax lift the trophy.

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Inter Milan struggled to contain Cruyff during the 1972 European Cup Final (Image from Getty)

Two years later at the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff would demonstrate how the same system could be applied to international football. With Michels also now installed as the head coach, Holland found progression to the final a breeze as they dispatched Argentina, East Germany and Brazil to set up a final against West Germany. Cruyff as always was at the heart of everything that Holland did, even showcasing to the world a new move against Sweden in the group stage that became known as the Cruyff turn. But in the final, Cruyff found it difficult to find the space he needed as West Germany had deployed Berti Vogts to man mark him whilst Beckenbauer marshaled the midfield. Despite taking an early lead (Holland scored a penalty after Cruyff was fouled in the box by Hoeness), West Germany would surge back into the game and eventually win by 2-1 dashing Cruyff’s dreams in the process.

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The Cruyff Turn (Image from AP)

After retiring from the game, Cruyff took to management and quickly followed in Michels footsteps by employing Total football wherever he went. Stints at Ajax and Barcelona proved successful picking up 14 trophies in ten years including the European Cup with Barcelona in 1992. It was during those years in Spain that Cruyff first developed health issues (mostly caused by his obsessive chain smoking 20 cigarettes a day) which lead to the Dutchman undergoing open-heart surgery in 1991. After recovering from the surgery, Cruyff returned to the bench at the Nou Camp but this time instead of cigarettes, Cruyff took up sucking on lollipops when watching the game, which has now become an iconic image around the world. Sadly in 2015, Cruyff was diagnosed with lung cancer shocking the world in the process. Cruyff vowed then to fight the disease with the same commitment as he had shown on the pitch. In early February of this year, the Dutch legend spoke of how he felt that he was winning his battle, joking that he was 2-0 up on the cancer. Sadly this was a game that he would not win and the Dutch master passed away surrounded by family at his home in Barcelona. Those who played with him or for him but also by the fans who watched in amazement as he turned opponents inside out will remember Cruyff fondly. He will forever be a legend in the game, one of the greatest to have ever stepped foot on a football pitch, the father of the Cruyff turn and the guardian of Total Football.

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Defining Times Ahead For Gary Neville as Valencia Woes Continue

He called it one of the most painful nights of his life and he isn’t far wrong there. Valencia’s humiliating 7-0 defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the Copa del Rey semi final first leg has heaped further troubles on manager Gary Neville and now leaves his position at the club very much in peril. The former England and Manchester United defender took over the reigns at the Mestalia late last year in a move that shocked more than a few people. But his dream of being a football manager is now rapidly turning into a nightmare as Valencia struggle for form under their new boss. Winless in the league after eight attempts and now  with slim hopes of making the Copa del Rey final thanks to last nights capitulation in Barcelona, things have gone from bad to worse for Neville as the weeks progressed. Injuries, language difficulties and club politics have not helped during Neville’s first stint as a manager and at present he looks unable to cope and well out of his depth.

The question came shortly after the game – Will you quit and the answer was an empathic no. Neville is not a quitter such as the man he is however if results do not improve, he may not have the chance to leave on his own accord. Sitting 12th in the league, Valencia are not yet in danger of being caught in a relegation battle but they are sliding fast towards that. Five points from 24 is hardly the return that oner Peter Lim was expecting when he hired Gary to partner his brother Phil in the dugout at Valencia. So what has gone so terribly wrong?

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Tough Times for the Neville brothers (image from PA)

To be fair to Neville, one of the club’s biggest problems has been hitting the back of the net. With only three recognized strikers at the club – Negredo, Alcacer and youngster Santi Mina the club has a lack of options upfront. Added into this, Neville has had to survive without two of the three for a majority of his games in charge with Negredo and Alcacer struggling for fitness. That has influenced the way that Valencia have been set up with usually only one solitary striker upfront supported either by three attack minded midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 or occasionally with a five man midfield in a 4-5-1 formation. The issue with this is that it proves too defensive for La Liga with the more successful sides in the league operating high pressing games, taking the game to the opposition rather than defending from the back and breaking from there. The decision to play in this way may be down to several factors including Neville’s comfort in structuring from the back (as he did as a player) or his knowledge of the English Premier League which tends to lean more heavily towards defending deeply as a group and breaking on the counter attack. Teams like Crystal Palace, Leicester and West ham have used this tactic well which Neville highlighted during his time as a punditry on Sky television and which makes sense why he has tried it in La Liga. But unfortunately it hasn’t worked.

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Injured – Alcacer and Negredo have not started a match together under Neville due to injuries (Image from Getty)

Added into this is the problem of communication with Neville using either a translator or his brother Phil who speaks fluent Spanish as a mouth piece to get his messages across. Given time he will pick up the language but at present a lot is being lost in the translation. Several figures in the Valencia dressing room have suggested that morale is at an all time low and that Neville hasn’t won over the entire squad at this stage. With only a handful of the players willing to give their all for Neville and his approach, its not hard to see why Valencia are struggling for form. A lack of new arrivals in the January transfer window has not helped to solve this issue with a drastic overhaul of the squad probably needed. Making things worst is the legacy that Neville inherited and the unrealistic expectations of the Valencia fans. A passionate group that are nothing less than die hards for the club, Valencia fans have become somewhat delusional, strongly believing that they should be challenging for honours on a regular basis. Whilst they did lift the La Liga title in 2003-2004 under Rafa Benetiz, much has changed since then with the top two of Real Madrid and Barcelona stretching further out ahead of the rest of the chasing pack. The strengthening of other clubs like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla in recent years whilst Valencia stuttered has not helped but yet a releveling of expectations by the fans has not happened. This has made the challenge given to Neville an impossible one and is part of the reason why the club has had 13 bosses in 12 years since lifting the title.

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Valencia won La Liga under Rafa Benetiz (Image from getty)

So what next for Neville? There are some that believe that if Gary was to resign he could return to England with his reputation still in tact given the circumstances surrounding his time at Valencia. Others however believe that it is already too late and that his failure in Spain has forever tarnished his creditability as a coach beyond repair, much like David Moyes time in Spain has done. For Neville quitting is not an option and with Lim unlikely to sack his close friend, it can safely be assumed that Neville will continue on until the end of the season. That call is his and his alone but its some call to make. If he can correct the current slide that is happening by getting his players back on side and operating under new tactical instructions then finishing in the top half of the table could be viewed a a positive step toward Neville continuing in the long run. However failing to stop the slide and potentially seeing Valencia relegated for only the second time in their rich history could be disastrous for Neville’s long term chances  of being a manager either in La Liga or any other league for that matter. Either way, the next four months will be a defining time in the managerial career of Gary Neville.

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The Falseness Of The False Nine

 

When David Villa suffered a broken leg months before the kick off of Euro 2012, the media went into speculation overdrive about who would lead the line for Spain. With strike partner Fernando Torres lacking form, candidates like Fernando Llorente and Álvaro Negredo were mentioned as obvious front runners for the position. When Vicente Del Bosque sent his team out for their first match of the tournament, shockwaves went round the stadium like a Mexican wave. Had Del Bosque made a mistake? Did the stadium announcer get it wrong when he read out the team? How could little Cesc Fabregas be leading the line? Del Bosque had simply revived a position forgotten in time, known as the false nine.

Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque (Image from Getty)

Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque (Image from Getty)

Sitting removed from a firm position, the false nine was an enigma and near impossible to mark. The problem with the false nine is the position itself. Not an outright striker, nor an attacking midfielder. Not even a trequartista . Floating around like a bee chasing pollen, the false nine moved from central to flank to outright front man all in the space of minutes. Central defenders are thrown into turmoil, trying to work out whether to track the player, pulling them dramatically out of position or leave him be and have him run at them at pace. The only solution for defending against this is to employ three centre backs or two centre backs with a holding midfielder, one of which is assigned to track the false nine wherever they go.

Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation (Image from AFP)

Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation
(Image from AFP)

So if it works so well, why don’t teams use it now as a tactic? Simply put you have to be Spain to make it work or at least a team like Spain featuring strong interchangeable passing players whose principle philosophy is pass and move. You also need a player like Fabregas who can operate in a variety of forward facing roles, spread passes with ease and find space where little exists. You need a player of considerable skill but one who also possess a “footballing brain”, able to exploit opponent’s weaknesses without instruction.

Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)

Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)

Arsenal could potentially operate an effective false nine with Olivier Giroud dropping from the team and Jack Wilshere playing in the nine position. With the abilities of Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Carzola in support, the false nine role would take flight. But for Wenger it would be too far removed from the tactics he has used during his entire coaching career- a central figure who holds the ball up for attacking players to attack. Arguably he did test the formation a few years ago with Van Persie dropping from his central striker position into such a role but in that instance it was less about the position and more about the player who likes to explore all the space available in the final third.

Wilshere could operate as a false nine (Image from Getty)

Wilshere could operate as a false nine
(Image from Getty)

Barcelona operates a semi false nine on occasions with Messi operating as such. But the Argentinean prefers to be at the heart of everything and likes to take on players making him more a complete or advanced forward rather than a nine. Roma successfully channeled the position in 2007 under manager Luciano Spalletti who used Francesco Totti in the role. However he abandoned the formation mid season after failing to score in five league games. This was despite starting well with 11 back to back victories. The only true team to have pulled off the false nine effectively (besides Spain) is the great Hungarian team of the 1950’s. The Mighty Magyars as they were known destroyed oppositions with ease during the period by operating a false nine with Nándor Hidegkuti operating in the role. Supported by the dynamic and potent trio of strikers Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and attacking half-back József Bozsik, Hungary dominated football in the 1950’s and should have won the 1954 World Cup but for adverse weather conditions and rumours of cheating by the Germans. Their false nine tactic worked spectacularly well against sides who at the time only operated either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation. With Hidegkuti dropping off and the centre backs following, it created acres of space for captain and Hungarian legend Puskas to exploit. During the five year period between 1950 and 1955, when the tactic was used to full effect, Puskas scored an incredible 50 goals in 51 games for Hungary.  

The legendary Puskas (Image from PA)

The legendary Puskas
(Image from PA)

Arguably playing the role of the false nine is the toughest in football. You need to be a special type of player to pull it off effectively. It also requires a strong willed coach who won’t shy away from public criticism of anti football like Del Bosque was subjected to. Fans after all want to see goals and rely on a central figure (the striker) to provide them. The tactic lends itself to a short tournament like the European Championships, where time to alter tactics is not afforded to coaches and the risk of failure is heightened to the highest degree. Spain, under Del Bosque took a gamble during Euro 2012 that fortunately paid off in style. But we are left to wonder what the backlash would have been on Del Bosque and his tactical decisions if Spain hadn’t lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament.

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Iago Aspas Shines As Celta Stun Barcelona With Emphatic Win

Iago Aspas fires Celta into a 3-0 lead in their emphatic 4-1 win over Barcelona (Image from Getty)Only a few days after we called him a flop in a previous post, Iago Aspas popped up once more to prove us wrong. The former Liverpool striker who was signed by Brendan Rodgers for a fee estimated between £7-9 million and went on to play only eight games in two seasons scoring only once in the cup before being sold back to Spain for under £4 million, played a starring role as Celta Vigo ended Barcelona’s unbeaten start to the season with an emphatic 4-1 win. A brace from Aspas and solo efforts from Nolito and John Guidetti secured the win with Brazilian striker Neymar adding a consolation goal for Barcelona as Celta Vigo maintain their good start to the season. The win saw Celta temporarily leap-frog Barcelona to the top of La Liga, only to be displaced later that night after Real Madrid secured all three points in their match against Athletic Club Bilbao. Celta Vigo now occupy second spot in the league after four wins and a draw including impressive wins over Sevilla, Levante and now Barcelona.

Messi looks at the ground as Celta run riot  (Image from Getty)

Messi looks at the ground as Celta run riot
(Image from Getty)

Going into the match, Barcelona had won all four of their opening league fixtures including confidence building wins over Athletic Club Bilbao and rivals Atletico Madrid and looked to be hitting their stride. With Neymar, Messi and Suarez all back in form, Barcelona were clear favourites to win this match up but Celta Vigo had other plans. Despite having the lions share of the chances and possession, Barcelona struggled to break down the plucky side from Spain’s north west coast. Celta on the other hand managed to take their limited opportunities well and exploit Barcelona’s shaky defence time after time. From the off, it was clear that Celta believed that they could get a result and within 26 minutes they had the lead. After some clever interplay between the defence and midfield, the ball fell to right back Hugo Mallo on the flank who fired in a cross into the box for Aspas to attack. However his cross was too long and sailed over the striker, landing instead at the feet of Nolito on the edge of the area. The former Barcelona B player controlled the ball perfectly before curling a shot up and over Marc ter Stegen in the Barca goal to give Celta the lead.

Nolito started the rout with a curling effort that beat Marc ter Stegen in the Barca goal (Image from epa)

Nolito started the rout with a curling effort that beat Marc ter Stegen in the Barca goal
(Image from epa)

Celta’s second came only four minutes later thanks largely to some sloppy defending by Gerard Pique. The Spanish international failed to control a looping back pass at the half way line then had his follow-up clearance blocked by Nolito who headed the ball to Aspas sending him clear. Now in a straight race with Pique, Aspas bared down on goal and with ter Stegen rushing out coolly lifted the ball over the German goalkeeper to make it 2-0 as half time approached. In the second half, Barcelona looked to have been reinvigorated by Luis Enrique’s team talk and started brightly with Luis Suarez hitting the post after some good play by Iniesta. But it would be Celta and that man Aspas who would score next with a fantastic counter attacking move. Defending against a corner, Celta managed to clear their lines well pushing the ball out to Aspas on the right flank. With only Dani Alves to beat, Aspas lifted the ball over the Brazilian at the half way line and then raced onto goal before slotting past ter Stegen to make it 3-0.

With ten minutes left to play, Barcelona finally found a way through the Celta defence and past the impressive Sergio Alvarez in-goal. Messi’s perfectly placed ball over the top was latched onto by Neymar who controlled with his left foot, fired it across Alvarez and into the bottom corner for 3-1. But Barcelona’s revival didn’t last long with substitute John Guidetti, on for Aspas firing in Celta’s fourth goal from close range after some good wing work by Hugo Mallo. The former Manchester City, Celtic and Stoke striker who played a pivotal role in Sweden’s under 21 European Championship winning team during the summer only joined in July and has yet to start a game with Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo preferring to use him as an option form the bench. But now after scoring his first goal for the club, Guidetti will be pushing for a starting berth. Standing in his way however is Nolito and the in form Iago Aspas who is proving many of his doubters wrong with some superb performances this season.

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From World Cup Winner To Bit Part Player – What Has Gone Wrong For Mario Gotze

With only ten minutes left of their crunch second leg game against Barcelona and trailing on aggregate by two goals, Pep looked at his bench. Sitting there was a player who could potentially turn the game, a baby faced assassin who seems to flourish in these big occasions. Mario Gotze knew his time had come so stripped off and prepared to enter the fray. Having the luxury to remove a player like Thomas Muller and replace him with Mario Gotze is a dream that only few coaches will ever experience. So deep is the pool of talent at Bayerns disposal that they can afford to leave out Gotze from the starting eleven is startling. But with the talent that Gotze has was it right of Guardiola to give him only four minutes or indeed leave him out of the starting line up all together? Whether or not Gotze starting the game would have had any effect on the overall outcome is unknown but arguably he offers slightly more to the side than others. But for one reason or another Pep has never really warmed to the little German.

No love lost between Pep and Gotze (image from Getty)

When Guardiola agreed to take over at Bayern he asked that they sign Neymar. Instead he got Gotze as the board felt he was as good and had the added advantage of being German. In the end, Neymar joined Pep’s former club Barcelona  whilst Gotze traveled across the country from Dortmund to Munich. It’s fair to assume that the relationship between the two has been on rocky ground for some time now. Gotze last year spoke publically about his frustration at the playing opportunities Guardiola had thrown his way that season. Gotze did manage to finish the season strongly and was selected for the Germany squad in a move that ended up securing them the World Cup thanks to his extra time goal. Returning to club football, Gotze must have believed that Guardiola would have been impressed by what he had achieved for his country but instead he found a manager who didn’t seem to care. Guardiola simply didn’t know what to do with Gotze. Talented yes but as a smaller player in a fairly tall squad where exactly would he fit?  In a 4-3-2-1 formation, dropping Muller or Ribery/Robben from wide positions was not an option, nor was the prospect of leaving the towering Robert Lewandowski out in favour of Gotze. Sacrificing one of his central midfield three appeared to be the best bet but that would mean leaving out Thiago, Schweinsteiger or Xavi Alonso. Thiago, who played for Guardiola at Barcelona was a player who the coach specifically wanted and who the board delivered, unlike Neymar. Schweinsteiger is a legend for both club and country and his work rate for both is unheralded. So that only leaves Alonso. At 34, Xavi Alonso appears to have lost none of his tactical awareness of the game with the way he reads it and dictates the play a joy to watch. In a midfield crammed full of talent, Alonso still stands out as the player Guardiola can ill afford to drop. He is their calm through stormy weathers, with a passage range that most great players would be proud off. To say that Alonso keeps getting better season after season is not far from the mark although he has notably slowed over the past decade as time caught up with him. Dropping Alonso for Gotze would mean a change in format and a switch to a more uncomfortable approach. Gotze would be condemned  once again to being  rotation player only for Bayern.

Alonso continues to impress despite his advancing years (image from pa)

To be fair to Pep he has played Gotze more times this season than last. Gotze has made thirty appearances in the league, fourteen of which came from the bench. Injuries to key players like Schweinsteiger, Ribery and Thiago have indirectly handed Gotze a few more starts than usual but as a result Guardiola had to adapt his formation to suit. His preference it would appear is to have Gotze come from the bench, something the player isn’t too happy about. Guardiola doesn’t necessary not like the player, he simply can’t fit him into his preferred system. In fact when Gotze was heavily criticized recently by German legend Franz Beckenbauer for being lazy, it was Pep who jumped to his defence stating that Gotze was one of the best professionals he had ever worked with. He fell short of saying that he was an important member of his squad however, something that would have perhaps made Gotze feel slightly better about his role at the club.

Beckenbauer has been critical of Bayern and Gotze in particular in recent weeks (image from getty)

Where to play Gotze is the puzzling question. Coming off the bench appears to suit Gotze style of play. He is an impact player who can grab the goal that wins the game. Given that a quarter of Bayern’s league goals this season were scored in the last fifteen minutes of the game, it’s not hard to work out why Pep prefers it this way too. Whether Gotze sees it this way is a different matter. With Pep confirming that he will be in charge next season, Gotze has two options – stay and fight for a spot or leave. If he does decide to leave the list of potential suitors will be a long one with clubs in England, Spain and Italy more than willing to add the German to their ranks. Gotze will have to decide if staying in his native Germany is more important at this stage in his career than regular games. He could bide his time and wait for Guardiola to depart at the end of next season when his contract expires but the risks with that strategy are great. Bayern are happy with what Guardiola has done so far albeit missing out on the Champions League final was not ideal. However if he can steer them to Europe’s top club prize next season, a new contract may be offered by the Bayern board if it hasn’t been offered before then.

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Bilbao Shock Barca To Lift First Trophy in 31 Years

Athletic Bilbao lift the Super Cup for the first time in 31 years (Image from Getty)Revenge is a dish best served cold so on a scorching hot night in Spain, it just didn’t look like it was on the cards for Athletic Bilbao.  The Basque country club were still hurting after losing the Copa Del Rey final to Barcelona in May heading into this two legged Super Cup final against the same team. Barcelona, fresh from winning an historic treble were strong favourites to win with the local Spanish press already talking about the feasibility of this Barcelona side completing a clean sweep by winning every tournament that they entered this year. But Bilbao had other ideas heading into the first leg last Friday. Under the guidance of Ernesto Valverde, Bilbao lined up with the intent of stifling Barcelona’s impressive front line of Messi, Suarez and Pedro by deploying two deep lying midfielders in San Jose and Benat in front of the usual four man defence. Valverde knew that Barcelona would have a majority of the possession and that his side’s opportunities would come on the turnover which required his team to pass the ball quickly into offensive positions when they won it back and look to create a chance for lone striker Aritz Aduriz. Little did he know that his plan would work so well.

Valverde masterminded the two legged victory over Barcelona  (Image from AFP)

Valverde masterminded the two legged victory over Barcelona
(Image from AFP)

Straight from kick off, Barcelona were on the attack and controlled the game with some slick passing as they looked to unlock their opponents. Having convincingly beaten Bilbao by 3-1 in the Copa months earlier, Barcelona were confident of finding a way through but knew that like in that game the early goal could help to unravel Bilbao who would be forced to attack more in search of an equalizer. However it was Bilbao who took the early lead thanks to a stunning half way line strike from San Jose after a mistake by Ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal. The German keeper who models himself on compatriot Manuel Neuer in a sweeper keeper role came out of his area after only 12 minutes to head the ball clear only to watch it fall to the feet of San Jose who rifled it back 50 yards into the empty net. Barcelona were shocked but quickly regained their focus as they pushed for an equalizer before half time. However Valverde’s tactics worked perfectly as Benat and San Jose shut down attack after attack, sending Bilbao into the break with a 1-0 lead. The second half started much like the first with Barcelona on the attack with Messi in particular looking threatening. But it would be his opposite number Aduriz who would steal the show in the end and secure Bilbao a comfortable victory with a stunning second half hat-trick.

His first came from a header after some good setup work down the left flank by Sabin. The second goal would arrive only nine minutes later in similar fashion with Eraso whipping in a cross from the right hand side. This time however Aduriz failed to connect with the header but did pounce on the follow up after Barcelona’s defense failed to clear their lines. Now 3-0 up, the 34 year old Aduriz was searching for a hat trick and he would get that chance from the penalty spot when Alves bundled over Etxeita in the box with just over twenty minutes left. Aduriz confidently stepped up to slot home and in doing so placed one hand on the cup for Bilbao.

Aritz Aduriz scores his first of three against Barca in the first leg  (Image from PA)

Aritz Aduriz scores his first of three against Barca in the first leg
(Image from PA)

In the return leg last night at the Nou Camp, Valverde and his men knew that if they could shut down Barcelona once more, the cup was theirs. Operating with a five man midfield with Eraso deployed as a support midfielder for Aduriz upfront, Bilbao looked to contain their opponents until half time. For a long time it looked as though they had managed to do so but when Lionel Messi drove into the box to knock home a downward header from Luis Suarez, Bilbao’s dream of ending their 31 year hiatus without a trophy looked at risk. But during the half time interval Valverde reminded his side that they still held a sizable lead and that Barcelona needed three more goals to get back into the match. Refueled with optimism, Bilbao returned to the pitch with the objective of shutting their opponents down once and for all and did so magnificently limiting Barcelona to only a handful of chances in the second half. As the moments ticked on, Bilbao looked more and more likely to be the victors so when Gerard Pique received his marching orders with only 11 minutes of the second half played, it was a massive boost for Valverde’s side and their chances. They would take full advantage and secured a stunning victory in the 74th minute when some slack defending put Aduriz through on goal unchallenged. His first effort was saved by Ter Stegen but the German could do little to prevent his follow up effort from hitting the back of the net. As the full time whistle blew the Athletic Bilbao players and coaching staff celebrated a historic victory, ruining Barcelona’s chance of a clean sweep. Its their first trophy since 1984 when they picked up the same trophy by beating none other than Barcelona in the final.

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Sterling’s Liverpool Career In Jeopardy Thanks to Meddling Agent

Sterling wants to leave Liverpool this summer (Image from Getty)With the dust settling on the final Anfield run out of the legendary Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, Brendan Rodgers sat back in his chair and turned his focus towards the final game of the season. It’s not been quite the campaign that Rodgers expected having pushed Manchester City all the way last year with his own SOS strike force (Suarez and Sturridge) leading Liverpool’s impressive front line. Rumours of Suarez departure to pastures new had been growing since early January so when the call came in that Barcelona’s bid had been deemed acceptable, it will hardly have been devastating news to the Northern Irish coach. Rodgers had in fact been planning for this and would use the money to reinvest in his squad, not in one position but several. In came Lallana, Lambert, Can, Markovic and Balotelli to name a few to form a new look Liverpool side. The big money arrivals all came with pedigree or potential but would be outshone in the end by a player already at the club, a young winger by the name of Raheem Sterling.

The actions of Sterling's agent have put him on a collision course with the club  (Image from PA)

The actions of Sterling’s agent have put him on a collision course with the club
(Image from PA)

After a breakthrough season last year which saw the Jamaican born player cement his place in the starting line-up by offering the pace and creativity needed for Suarez and Sturridge to profit from, Sterling approached this season with renewed energy and with the manager’s full backing to shine. He would end this season with the club Young Player of the Year award after a solid season but at the award ceremony would be greeted by boos from the fans rather than cheers. The reason for this hostile reception was down to events that had happened earlier in the day when it was revealed that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool in the summer and would be turning down a lucrative contract. It was hardly the news that either the Liverpool fans or indeed their manager Brendan Rodgers wanted to hear, his Tuesday morning ruined by the actions not of his player but of the players key advisor – his agent.

Agents in football generally get a bad rap for being too heavily focused on what’s best for them and not for the player and what will earn them the biggest pay off.  In 99% of the times this is simply untrue with the agent instead acting as the mediator in negotiations between players and their respective clubs. Good agents work with the clubs to manage the player and his/her expectations around their futures both in the short term and the long term. If the player is deemed important, the agent will negotiate a better deal that keeps the player at the club and more importantly happy to do so. If the player is seen as expendable, then the agent will look for new opportunities for the player in order to get him into a club where he is valued and happy. However there are a small minority of agents, like Raheem Sterling’s chief negotiator who seem intent in disruption, preferring to look for a big pay day for themselves than looking out for the best interests of their client. On Tuesday morning, the Guardian broke the news that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool. This is hardly unusual as it’s generally the norm that one paper gets the exclusive story. However within minutes of the news showing up on the Guardian, every media outlet across the UK had the story in length and was covering it. It was a whitewash, a carefully planned yet badly timed ploy by Sterling’s agent and support team to get the story out to as many people as possible in order to drum up interest in the player.

Sterling picked up the clubs Young Player of the Year award to a chorus of boos  (Image from Getty)

Sterling picked up the clubs Young Player of the Year award to a chorus of boos
(Image from Getty)

Not only was this done badly but the timing of it was just plain stupid. Why they decided to let the cat out of the bag publicly at that time makes no sense. The week before had been all about Steven Gerrard and his final game at Anfield. But this week would be a continuation of that with his last game in a Liverpool shirt on Sunday against Stoke. Sterling’s departure now hogs the limelight, not that it will matter to Gerrard but out of respect for the player and the club, could they not have waited until after Sunday’s game? In addition to that breaking the news on the same morning as the Liverpool team awards dinner put Sterling in a difficult position. He should have accepted his award to applause rather than a chorus of jeers. Sterling’s agent is clearly acting for himself and not thinking about his 20 year old client. If he was, he wouldn’t be leaking these statements, instead would be giving him the advice he needs to hear – stay at Liverpool for a couple of more years, hone your skills and then make the big money transfer move.

A move to Real Madrid could see Sterling playing alongside Martin Odegaard for Real's reserve team, Castilla rather than their first team  (Image from Getty)

A move to Madrid could see Sterling playing alongside Martin Odegaard for Real’s reserve team, Castilla rather than their first team
(Image from Getty)

Sterling is far from the finished article that he needs to be to command a starting spot at a Real Madrid or a Barcelona. Madrid may have publically stated that they are monitoring the player but the fact that it was Zidane rather than Ancelotti suggests they see Sterling as one for the future and any purchase would see him follow the same path as Norwegian protégée Martin Odegaard. Sterling could move to another Premiership side like Chelsea or Manchester United but is not guaranteed to get a regular run out in the first team as he is at Liverpool. Manchester City have stepped up their interest in recent weeks, with a new mandate to buy British but Sterling should heed the warnings left by Jack Rodwell, Adam Johnson and Scott Sinclair before him who all made big money moves to City only to see their careers go backwards. For the sake of his career, Sterling should stay put, commit Liverpool and above all else sack his agent for the poor selfish advice he is handing out.

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Extra Terrestrial Messi Ruins Guardiola’s Nou Camp Return

From Another Dimension - Messi (Image from AP)Advantage Barcelona in their Champions league semi final clash with Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s side arrived carrying several injuries to key players but optimistic of progressing to the final in Berlin on June 6th. For Pep it was a special night, returning to the club that he made his name as a player and then as a manager, the latter being a period of history recognized as one of Barcelona’s finest hours. But against the team that he worked so hard to build, with a few small additions from Geraldo Martino and now Luis Enrique, Barcelona proved too good for the visiting German Champions. The score line at the end of ninety thrilling minutes read 3-0 to Barcelona but in truth it could have been more. Barcelona were unstoppable with Leo Messi in particularly dazzling form. His two goals plus assist in Barcelona’s third goal of the night puts Barcelona in a commanding position heading into the return leg in Munich next week. Pep must be wondering how he can turn this around and more importantly stop the player who helped him to numerous titles during his time at the Nou Camp – Leo Messi.

The little Argentine probably had one of his best games in a Barcelona shirt for some time. He has been in fantastic form this season, combining well in a new look front three alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar. The trio have scored 111 goals between them in all competitions with Messi racking up fifty three of them so far. With three games left in the league, the Copa Del Rey final and potentially two more in the Champions League if Barcelona can reach the final, the chances of Messi beating his season best tally of 73 goals look fairly unlikely but that will matter not to the player. Having notched ten goals in the last nine games, Messi is lethal in front of goal at the moment which showed last night against Bayern. His first goal; a long range effort with his left foot that bounced perfectly in front of the diving Manuel Neuer was only a taste of what was to come. The follow up would be far better and would highlight just how good Messi really is. Collecting a threaded defense splitting pass from Ivan Rakitic, who himself had a great game Messi drove in on goal from the right hand side of the pitch. World Cup winning defender Jerome Boateng tracked his run and as the pair entered the box, it looked as though the former Manchester City centre back had nullified the threat. But Messi had different ideas, twisting his body one way then the other, the ball glued to his feet at all times eventually leaving Boateng laid out on the floor in such an embarrassing way that it spawned a million meme’s on social media. Now in the box with only the onrushing Neuer to beat, Messi simply lifted the ball over the diving keeper and into the net for Barca’s second. His angled pass to Neymar deep into injury time only added icing to the cake as the Brazilian raced into the box and shot under Neuer for Barcelona’s third of the night.

Some of the meme's created by users following Boateng's falling over due to Messi's trickery  (Image from Twitter)

Some of the meme’s created by users following Boateng’s falling over due to Messi’s trickery
(Image from Twitter)

In this sort of form, it’s hard to see how exactly Messi’s former boss Guardiola will stop him in the return league. His current manager Luis Enrique praised the Argentine striker saying that he was “a player from another dimension” and it’s hard to argue with that. Former Barca striker Patrick Kluivert back up Enrique’s praise by saying “He really is from a different planet, even if you are supporting another team you have to admit this” whilst former England striker Gary Lineker simply said that he was such a joy to watch. Even his own teammates were quick to praise his performance after the match with Gerard Pique insisting that when Messi is inspired, no one can stop him. Even Andreas Iniesta, who has had his fair share of magical performances over the years, was left speechless by the performance of Messi last night. As usual the man himself gave no comment after the game, instead deciding to focus on the challenges ahead. Reaching his fourth Champions League final and securing the La Liga title and Copa Del Rey title are the only things on Messi’s mind at the moment. Winning is the only option for the little Argentine maestro and few would be against him getting the trophies he wants this season based on the form he is currently in.

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Bayern’s Treble Dream Dashed By Penalty Shoot Out Heartache

Having sealed the Bundesliga title at the weekend, Bayern approached last night’s German Cup semi final clash with Borussia Dortmund with the treble dream very much alive. But by the end of a pulsating match, manager Pep Guardiola was left wondering what had gone wrong as Jurgen Klopp’s side dumped Bayern out of the cup and marched to the final.  Bayern looked good for the win after former Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski beat the offside trap to score Bayern’s opener in the 29th minute, albeit at the second attempt. The German champions came close on several occasions to adding a second goal but the heroics of Dortmund goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak and the woodwork kept the score to 1-0 and the tie wide open. So when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang popped up at the back post to knock in Henrikh Mikhitaryan’s cross goal pass, it was game on for Dortmund with the momentum swinging wildly back in their favour. Both teams had chances to seal the victory in normal and extra time but in the end the match was to be decided by penalties.

With Manuel Neuer in goal, Bayern should have been favourites but the wet condition of the pitch aided Dortmund with both Philip Lahm and Xavi Alonso slipping in their run up to their penalties. Both players missed their attempts handing Dortmund the advantage. With their players converting for a 2-0 lead, up steps another former Dortmund player Mario Gotze who scored the late winner for Germany in the World Cup in the summer. Gotze was a fan favourite during his time at Signal Iduna Park but there is no love lost now between the player and the Dortmund fans after he joined Bayern two summers ago. It’s no surprise then when a large cheer erupted from the Borussia Dortmund fans when Gotze was denied by a fine save by Langerak putting Dortmund within inches of final. In the end Manuel Neuer’s penalty which rattled off the cross bar settled the tie and Dortmund progressed to the final.

For Klopp who is set to leave Dortmund at the end of the season after seven thrilling years at the club, it could be the perfect send off. A final appearance with the chance of one last piece of silverware for the club and fans who he has treasured so dearly for so long. The final will take place on the 30th May and will be against either Wolfsburg or this seasons surprise outfit in the cup, Arminia Bielefeld. The north Rhine-Westphalia club which plays in the third tier of German football have shocked many in the country with a stunning run that has seen them beat Hertha BSC, Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach on route to tonight’s semi final clash. They lie within 90 minutes of their debut appearance in the DFB Pokal final and a dream clash with Borussia Dortmund. Standing in their way however is one of Germany’s best teams this season Wolfsburg who are on course to finish second behind Bayern in the Bundesliga table. Under the guidance of Dieter Hecking, Wolfsburg have improved season over season building an impressive side along the way.  He has employed an exciting brand of attacking football with former Chelsea players Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle playing key roles. The pair, along with the lethal Bas Dost upfront and ever improving Max Arnold in midfield have propelled Wolfsburg up the table and turned the team into genuine title contenders once again. Having dispatches Heidenheim, RB Leipzig and Frieburg on route, their run to the semi finals has been fairly easy. Going into the match with Bielefeld they are strong favourites to progress and given their current form could upset Klopp’s farewell party with a much deserved win.

Manuel Junglas scores for Bielfeld against Borussia Monchengladbach (Image from PA)

Manuel Junglas scores for Bielefeld against Borussia Monchengladbach (Image from PA)

Bayern meanwhile will turn their attention to the Champions League semi final clash with Barcelona. Its a return to the Nou Camp for Guardiola; the place where he made his name and it will not be an easy game but for the mastermind Pep he will no doubt have several plans up his sleeve in order to leave victorious. Stopping the man who gave him much of that success, Lionel Messi will be the main problem so Guardiola may deploy the evergreen Philip Lahm in a new role to nullify the threat posed by the Argentine. Barcelona manager Luis Enrique is already turning up the heat on his long time friend Guardiola by suggesting that its not the best draw for Bayern who will face a tough task if they are to beat Barcelona. Enrique’s mind games will not have an effect on Guardiola, nor will his teams subsequent departure from the German Cup. The treble dram may be dead for this season but for Guardiola there is still a lot more to win, most notably the Champions League.

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Klopp Bombshell Puts European Clubs On Alert

After a difficult season, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp is set to leave the club. The two time German manager of the year has watched his side struggle in matches in the Bundesliga that they really should be winning. Now after turning their season around and pulling Dortmund away from potential relegation, Jurgen Klopp has announced that enough is enough and that he intends on leaving the former German champions at the end of the season. His decision has shocked many only a year after committing himself to the club following rumours that Barcelona and Arsenal were interested in his services. However a year is a long time in football and for Klopp who has gone through his worst season as Dortmund manager in his seven years in charge, he now feels that he has taken the club as far as he can and that it deserves to be coached by someone who can give 100% to the club.

Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season (Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference and sitting next to Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc who he has rumoured to have a strained relationship with, Klopp spoke with emotion yet authority as he told the gathered press why he was quitting. Klopp explained that his decision was not based on this seasons results or fatigue stating he feels 100% fine but instead that he was no longer the perfect coach for the club. He quickly shot down rumours that he had already engaged in discussions with other clubs and stopped short of saying which league he would like to manage in next but did confirm that he will not be taking a sabbatical from the game like Pep Guardiola did after leaving Barcelona and instead wants to get back into management straight away after leaving Dortmund.

Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times  (image from PA)

Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times
(image from PA)

This news will be welcomed by several clubs across Europe who will now have to fight it out for his services. Heavily linked to both top jobs in Spain last summer, he could be tempted move to either if the opportunity existed. However it is unlikely that they will given that Luis Enrique has finally found a winning formula at Barcelona and Ancelotti is highly regarded at Real Madrid. That opens the door to a handful of English clubs with Manchester City leading the pack. The Ethiad club has grown tired of current manager Manuel Pellegrini’s failure to build on the successes of last year and with the club out of Europe and struggling in the league; his job is far from secure. Whether Klopp wants that sort of challenge is unknown with a huge rebuilding job needed, starting with a dismantling of the current aging squad. He would be given a sizable war chest to acquire new faces and the flexibility to mould a new team around his style of playing. But with a large amount of investment comes high expectations from the clubs owners who will expect success both at home and abroad; pressure that the three previous coaches at City experienced. All three fell on their swords early into their agreed tenures which may not appeal to Klopp. He was given time at Dortmund to craft the team in his vision and it’s questionable whether City will allow him the same amount of time and buy into his long term approach.

Start again? - City's aging squad  (Image from Getty)

Start again? – City’s aging squad (Image from Getty)

If he doesn’t end up at City, a job at the Emirates may become available if the Arsenal board decides that it’s finally time for Arsene Wenger to vacate his chair. Klopp has been spotted at a few Arsenal games over the past few years fueling speculation about a gentleman’s agreement struck between himself and Wenger. If Arsene is to leave, he will want to help pick his successor, someone who will carry on his approach of developing youth players and turning them into world stars. Klopp fits that mould perfectly and with expectations on immediate success lower at the Emirates than at somewhere like City, it could be a perfect fit for the talented coach. There are other Premiership clubs in the market for a new manager like Newcastle and West Ham but neither is likely to appeal to Klopp. Liverpool however may spark his interest but it’s widely believed that despite a disappointing campaign this season, Brendan Rodgers has done enough in his time in charge to convince the Liverpool board to retain his services. Klopp could try his hand in Italy or France too but at present England looks to be his most likely destination. One thing that is for sure is that the Premiership would benefit hugely from the arrival of one of the world’s best managers regardless of which team he joins.

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Juventus Aiming For Champions League Success

Vialli lofts the Champions League trophy, but can Juventus do it again? (Image from Getty)It’s remarkably been ten years since Juventus last lifted the Champions League trophy, beating Ajax on penalties in the final. That Juventus side included club legends like Antonio Conte, Alessandro Del Piero and Ciro Ferrara to name a few but whilst the 2015 batch isn’t quite as star studded as its predecessor, they still have the talents of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Prilo and Paul Pogba to call on. As they enter the quarter finals stage of the Champions League and prepare to face Monaco, Juventus manager Massimilano Allegri knows he will need all of his star names on top form if he is to bring the trophy back to Turin.

The road to glory is paved with obstacles and given that some of Europe’s biggest hitters are still in the competition, reaching the final will be a challenge in itself. Allegri will have one eye on proceedings across Europe over the next few weeks with Bayern Munich taking on Porto, Barcelona clashing with PSG and a repeat of last year’s final with Atletico Madrid taking on current holders Real Madrid in the other quarter final matches. With the final played in Berlin, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side will be looking to rid themselves of last year’s failed attempt by going one step further and reaching the final. Guardiola’s former side Barcelona are also looking to rewrite some wrongs after being knocked out at the quarter final stage last year by Atletico. In their way however is a hungry PSG side that needs Champions League success badly to justify the heavy investment made by its owners. Juventus’s challenge is a daunting one with some difficult matches lying ahead of them if they can progress.

Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection  (Image from Getty)

Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection
(Image from Getty)

But before they can think about any of these teams, Juventus needs to dispatch Monaco. The French side progressed by beating Arsenal in the last round with thanks to the away goal rule after a 3-1 victory in London was equaled by a 2-0 defeat in Monaco. Currently third in Ligue 1, Monaco appear to have found a winning formula in the league and remain unbeaten in their last eight games. However in Europe, their form has been patchy at best with convincing wins over Zenit and Bayern Leverkusen at home in the group stage followed by nervous performances on the road. They did however manage to finish top of a difficult group that also contained last year’s UEFA Cup runners up Benfica, setting up a return visit for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who bossed the French club back in the late 80’s early 90’s. Unfortunately for Wenger his side severely underestimated Monaco ability to attack on the break and we convincingly beaten 3-1 on a cold night at the Emirates. The stars of that game were rising French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and Portuguese playmaker Joao Moutinho who pulled the strings for Dimitar Berbatov and Anthony Martial up front. Berbatov in particular was in fine form, rolling back the years and remind us all what a great striker he was. However in the return leg, the Bulgarian was posted missing for most of the match as Arsenal finally stepped up a gear and looked to sink their French challengers. It wasn’t to be and Monaco progressed but their performance in the second leg as well as several other ones in the group stage will give Juventus hope.

Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal  (Image from Reuters)

Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal
(Image from Reuters)

Allegri will know that he needs to cut the snake off at his head and that means shutting down Moutinho. Usually he would have tasked the talented Pogba with the role but an injury against Borussia Dortmund in the last round has ruled him out of contention. Instead the duo of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio with one asked to close down the Portuguese star and the other to sweep behind if needed. If they can break up Monaco’s attacks then they can spring the counter attack with Roberto Pereyra used as the catalyst. His job will be simple – get the ball to Carlos Tevez or Alvaro Morata who between them can create space and drive in on goal. Tevez has been in sparkling form this year and will be looking to add to the Champions League winner’s medal he picked up whilst playing for Manchester United. The Argentine, who was surprisingly omitted from his country’s World Cup squad last year, has scored 25 times this season in all competitions from 36 appearances and leads the Serie A goal scoring charts. His form has been instrumental in Juventus recent success as they look on course to record their four straight Serie A title. Adding the Champions League crown to that would be the icing on the cake for Tevez and Juventus who are desperate to climb back up that mountain and once again be kings of Europe.

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Bale Faces His Toughest Challenge Yet – Winning Over the Press

Love me again? Can Bale win over the Spanish media? (Image from Getty)

After becoming the world’s most expensive player following his record breaking move to Real Madrid, it’s not hard to understand why the media spotlight appears to be permanently fixed above Gareth Bale’s head. The welsh winger, who made the switch from Tottenham to Madrid in the summer of 2013, has embraced life in the Spanish capital and despite a rocky start that was plagued with injuries and language barriers problems, Bale has impressed with some breathtaking  performances.  Two in particular set him apart from everyone else, including his pragmatic teammate and World player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.  With the Portuguese superstar confined to the stands due to injury, it was to Bale that Madrid turned for inspiration during their Copa del Rey final against Barcelona last year. And he didn’t fail to impress scoring a wonder goal that is now one of the most viewed goals of all time.

Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real  (Image from Getty)

Bale and Ronaldo have had a rocky relationship at Real
(Image from Getty)

With only minutes left in the game, Bale picked up the ball on the left wing just inside his own half, nudged it past Barca right back Marc Barta and set off after it. With his path blocked he was forced to run into the manager’s technical area which handed Barta a five yard head start. It mattered little for Bale who outpaced Barta, collected the ball and coolly slotted past Pinto in the Barca goal to hand Real the trophy. A month later, he would be on hand again late in the game to head Real into the lead during a hard fought Champions League final against rivals Atletico Madrid. It would be the turning point in the game. With Atletico now broken, Real surged into a 4-1 lead and ultimately picked up their 10th Champions League title. Bale had secured legendary status and appeared to be loved by both the fans and the media.

The love hate relationship that exists between the press and players like Bale is born out of necessity with both parties with much to gain. But whilst Bale remains impartial to the local Spanish press, preferring to keep them at arm’s length by living a quieter, event free life in order to protect both his image and his family, keeping them onside is equally as important. After all they tend to be two faced and have the ability to pander your name to the masses which can make life more difficult. Bale is experiencing this first hand and as a result is suffering the consequences. Once loved and adored by the Spanish newspapers Marca and AS, who waxed lyrically about his match winning performances last season as Madrid marched to domestic and European trophies, they have started to turn on him slating his every move and criticizing his performances on the pitch for Madrid this season.  Whilst critical of the entire Real Madrid team following their 2-1 defeat to Barcelona on Sunday, Marca pinpointed Bale as the main culprit and even refused to rate him in their review of the game the next day.  AS did decide to rate him however gave him a 4.5 out of 10, indicating that he was by far the worst performer for Real on the night. Whilst Bale freely admits to a dip in form in the last few weeks, the stats still showcase that he is having a good season having scored 14 times in the league with countless assists for his teammates.

Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona  (Image from Marca)

Spanish paper Marca refused to score Bale following the defeat on Sunday to Barcelona
(Image from Marca)

But with the boos now ringing out from the Madrid faithful in the stands due to what they see as a series of under performances since the turn of the year, the focus of that anger is now starting to be concentrated on the teams more talented individuals. Bale in particular has received some harsh treatment from the Real fans, fuelled by the negativity being spewed out by the Spanish press. For the generally laid back Bale, the pressure is starting to show on the 25 year old. Two weeks ago, Bale ended his 829 minute goal drought with a double against Levante. He celebrated by covering his ears, indicating acknowledgement of the boos aimed at him that had been ringing out for several weeks before running to the corner flag and kicking it hard out of pure frustration.

The negativity is affecting Bale and the way that he plays with the skinny nervous welsh boy that used to exist now reappearing. To make matters worse, Bale’s car was attacked by some fans following the defeat to Barcelona on Sunday. He was not the only player but Bale must now be considering his own safety and that of his family. With the season nearing its end, it could be a summer of transition for Bale who may decide to quit La Liga in favour of a move back to the Premiership and an escape from the boo boys. Real will not want to see him depart, given that they view him as the long term successor to Ronaldo who at 30 years old and with a growing list of injuries will soon run out of steam. If Bale does stay, he will need to win over the fans and more importantly his toughest critics, the press. They once adored him so it is possible that Bale can charm them into loving him once more.

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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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Lookback Series – When Steaua Bucharest Ruled Europe

Champions of Europe 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Image from Getty)May 7th 1986 is a date engrained into the memories of one particular set of fans. On a warm May evening in Seville, Romanian side Steaua Bucharest etched their names into the history books by becoming Eastern Europe’s first ever European champions. In a thrilling final against the mighty Barcelona managed by Englishman Terry Venables, Steaua upset the odds to lift the European Cup high into the air and earn their way into football folklore.  Even now 30 years on, only Serbian side Red Star Belgrade in 1991 has been able to take the title back to Eastern Europe and give that region something to cheer about. It was a fantastic achievement for Steaua, one that would be hard to replicate now given the changes to the tournament and the growing financial disparity between the top five European leagues and the rest but one none the less that will not be forgotten.

Against all odds, Steaua beat Barcelona in the final  (Image from Getty)

Against all odds, Steaua beat Barcelona in the final
(Image from Getty)

Before the tournament changed to its current iteration – The Champions League, the European Cup was much more open with 32 teams competing over five rounds to see who would be crowned kings of Europe. It was a sombre start to the 1985-1986 tournament after the tragic scenes at the 1985 final in Brussels where 39 people were killed and 600 were injured after fans of Liverpool and Juventus clashed in the stands. As a result no English clubs were allowed to take part in the 1986 tournament as way of punishment but Juventus, as holders would take part as they were deemed to be the victim in this incident with most of the dead being from their fan base.  Along with Juventus, there were other European greats like Bayern Munich, Ajax, Anderlecht and of course Barcelona but the 32 also had some smaller teams who have since fallen by the wayside. Teams like Dynamo Berlin, Budapest Honved, Finnish side FC Kuusysi and Gothenburg have all struggled in their respective leagues with most falling to get back into Europe for some time now.

The deaths at the Heysel Stadium rocked football  (Image from Getty)

The deaths at the Heysel Stadium rocked football
(Image from Getty)

Steaua’s run to the final began with a first round ties against Danish champions Vejle Boldklub. After being held in Denmark in the first leg by a score of 1-1, Steaua welcomed Vejle to Bucharest two weeks later and showed them little mercy eventually thrashing Vejle 4-1 and 5-2 on aggregate. Up next was a formidable opponent in Hungarian side Budapest Honved. The Hungarian champions were going through a second golden age that saw them secure seven titles in thirteen glory filled years during the 80’s and early 90’s, featuring stars like Lajos Detari and Kalman Kovacs. Indeed it would be Detari who would scare Steaua in the first leg, snatching a 1-0 win in Budapest to set up a nerve jangling second leg back in Romania. But Steaua who had some star players of their own, namely Marius Lacatus, Victor Piturca and Helmut Duckadam would turn on the style once more at home and would surge into a four goal lead before Detari could find the net with what in the end turned out to be a mere consolation goal.  Into the quarter finals marched Steaua and at last some luck as they avoided more troublesome sides like Aberdeen, Juventus and Bayern by pulling FC Kuusysi out of the hat. However it wouldn’t be as easy as expected with Steaua only just managing to claw its way into the semi finals thanks to a solitary goal by Piturca in the second leg.  That strike was enough to set up a semi final against Belgian side Anderlecht and hand Steaua the realization that they were only 180 minutes away from their first European final.

Much like their run to the semis, Steaua started slowly losing the first leg 1-0 thanks to a goal from the legendary Enzo Scifo. With everything to play for Steaua appeared to step up a gear once again at home and thrashed their opponents by 3-0 in a stunning comeback. Steaua were Seville bound with only Barcelona now standing between them and glory. The final itself was a stunning affair with 70,000 fans packed into the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. Barcelona as strong favourites blew out of the blocks early but were unable to find a way past the sensational Duckadam in goal. The Romanian made multiple saves to keep his side in the match as the game stretched past the regular ninety minutes and deep into extra time. Despite chances for both teams, neither could find the breakthroughs which eventually lead to one of the most extraordinary penalty shoot out of all time.

Steaua would take the first penalty with midfielder Mihail Majearu to take it but he could not beat Urruti in the Barcelona goal from twelve yards. Barca captain Jose Ramon Alexanko stepped up next but he too found difficulty in scoring with Duckadam saving well to his right. The next two penalties by Steaua’s Laszlo Boloni and Barcelona’s Angel Pedraza would be saved by the respective goalkeepers meaning that the pressure was then on Lacatus to give Steaua the advantage. He did so with a thumping penalty high into the net that Urruti had no chance in stopping. When Duckadam saved Barcelona’s fourth penalty, Steaua knew that is Gavril Balint could convert his, they would be champions. He did so in emphatic fashion, sparking delirious scenes amongst the Steaua players and their travelling fans. Steaua Bucharest had made history, becoming Eastern Europe’s first team to lift the European Cup. That team is still remembered to this day as many wonder how long it will be before we see such an upset like this again on Europe’s biggest club stage.

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Nothing Fair About UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rule

Masterstroke or Mistake - Platini (Image from Getty)The inclusion of the word “fair” in UEFA financial fair play rules is somewhat ironic given that its intended purpose will be anything but fair. Introduced by UEFA president Michel Platini as his masterstroke idea of how to curb exuberant spending by clubs across Europe, its objective is to limit the spending capacity of clubs to their net gains. By net gains what we mean is the difference between what they spend each year in transfers and employee wages vs. what they make back from gate receipts, TV revenue, advertising, merchandising, sales of players and prize money. With a host of clubs now bankrolled by wealthy investors and owners, Platini is keen to stamp out overspending before it damages football in Europe beyond repair. But will the rules really prevent clubs from spending beyond their means or will it simply drive clubs to be more deceitful about its practices and how it generates revenue?

UEFA's Financial Fair Play Rule is designed to make things fairer but will it?  (Image from Photos8.com)

UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rule is designed to make things fairer but will it?
(Image from Photos8.com)

Breaking it down, it comes down to profit vs. loss and the difference between them. So if a club’s overall running costs (not including infrastructure, training facilities or youth development which is not factored in) are $2million per year whilst they make $6m, they are allowed to spend $4m in that year (give or take a 5% grace window). In theory the rule is sound and restricts clubs from spending astronomical amounts to bring in top talent, and widening the gap between those that have and those that have not. However in practice the rule is flawed and like most things full of grey holes and loopholes. For instance UEFA’s terminology for what they consider acceptable sources of revenue are questionable and without limitations. Advertising revenues generated mostly by corporate sponsorships are  an area that should be built within barriers but none exist to date which will lead to inside deals and US style advertising. Currently there is nothing to stop a club structuring a multimillion pound sponsorship around something as non essential as a training ground or their corner flags. Whilst the latter is idiotic (at the moment) the former is already been explored by clubs desperate to retain their financial clout and advantage. Barcelona recently announced a $25million deal with Intel, for a shirt sponsorship that would be inside the player’s shirts. The deal itself caught the headlines but for the wrong reasons as many looked at it as a unique and quirky ad campaign by Intel. A closer look exposes a potential risk of clubs having more than one shirt sponsor (similar to Formula one) with each piece of the shirt classified as advertising space. Multiple shirt sponsors mean that rule will be exploited as clubs rake in the cash.  If expenses total $2million but revenues, including such sponsorships equal $50m, surely that defeats the purpose of this rule?

Is the Intel deal a sign of things to come?  (Image from AFP)

Is the Intel deal a sign of things to come?
(Image from AFP)

In addition, TV revenues are factored into the profit margin which presents a further problem. The top five leagues in Europe have never been as popular on a global scale as they are right now on. Interest in the leagues continues to surge and as a result so do the various TV deals attached to it. BSkyB, BT, NBC and Al Jazeera have paid billions of dollars between them for the exclusive rights to showcase these leagues, with the money trickling back down eventually to the clubs. However in most Leagues the allocations of TV revenues are not shared evenly but instead the top clubs profit more than the rest. In Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid command the lion share of this allocation with the rest in La Liga getting a small fraction of the remainder. In the Premiership, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City all received bumper payouts last season based on their top half finish but all have wealthy owners backing them. It’s a similar story when talking about gate receipts and the ability to strike multimillion dollar deals. The top clubs can play host to larger crowds due to larger stadiums which in turn entices companies to invest in association advertising.  Barcelona’s deal with Intel is a good example as Intel see the value in working with the Catalan giants and their extended global reach. A deal with fellow La Liga teams Elche or Almeria would never have been structured by Intel as the value exchange does not exist. In essence the rich are getting richer whilst the poorer clubs struggle to compete. The gap will only widen unless clubs in the lower half of the divisions can compete but in order to do so, they need better players which cost more than they can afford.

NBC has invested heavily in US TV Premiership rights (Image from NBC)

NBC has invested heavily in US TV Premiership rights (Image from NBC)

These are just a few of the loopholes and grey areas within the Financial Fair Play rules but there are many more including 3rd party ownership of players (clubs only pay a fraction of a players wage, whilst an outside corporation picks up the remainder), multiple club ownership outside of Europe (Manchester City’s owners have acquired teams in USA, Mexico and Australia with a view to setting up a network that will see player and financial exchanges outside of these guidelines), varied country specific economical situations(some countries will have higher wage bills due to higher tax rates like France) and charity payments (not included in the calculation by UEFA but questions are being raised over using charities to invest in a clubs development). All in all the Fair play rules, set to begin in full next season, with clubs that fail to adhere to the new rules punished either in the form of a fine, deduction of points or exclusion from European competition.

Manchester City's owners expand their reach across the world  (Image from Getty)

Manchester City’s owners expand their reach across the world
(Image from Getty)

Clubs like Russsian side Anzhi Makhachkala are taking the new rules seriously and have made drastic cuts to their playing staff in order to fall in line with the new rules. Bankrolled by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov since 2011, Anzhi had grand ambitions to dominate European football and with Kerimov’s wealth in support embarked on a spending spree like no other, tempted some of football’s biggest players into moves to the Russian wilderness. Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Willian and Christopher Samba were paid astronomical wages by Anzhi as they looked to exploit the system and buy success. But the club has now cut its cloth accordingly, selling most of its star players and started to live within its means. Kerimov is an example of what Platini calls “fat cat owners” and the reason behind the introduction of this new rule but will others follow suit or will they instead look for ways to exploit the system and continue to operate as they have done over the past decade? Share your thoughts now on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog

Norwegian Wonder kid Odegaard Signs For Real Madrid

Norwegian wonderkid, Martin Odegaard (Image from Getty)Touted as one of the hottest prospects in the game, it was only a matter of time before he left his home in Norway for pastures new. After months of speculation, Stromsgodset prodigy Martin Odegaard has finally signed for Real Madrid for a reported fee of around 3m Euros.  A formal announcement and unveiling is expected today at the Bernabeau as the 16 year old is presented to the Spanish media. The Norwegian wonder kid has chosen to move to the European champions ahead of various other lucrative offers including ones from boyhood favourites Liverpool, Manchester United, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Madrid rivals Barcelona. But the draw of working with Carlo Ancelotti and being part of the new generation of Galatico’s was too good to refuse. Ancelotti has already spoken about his delight in getting the deal done proclaiming that Odegaard is a kid with exceptional talent and personality.

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year  (Image from Getty)

Martin with father Hans take in a Real Madrid match earlier this year
(Image from Getty)

Born in December 1998, Odegaard was always destined to be a footballer as his father was a huge influence on him in his early years. Hans Erik Odegaard, a former player himself, has nurtured his son throughout his childhood and instill a strong work ethic into him, regularly encouraging his son to train for a minimum of 20 hours per week, even as a small child. Many have criticized Hans for being a pushy parent but he insists that Martin always dreamed of becoming a footballer much like other boys his age so all he was doing was encouraging his development into one. And what a job he did. Martin’s endless hours spent practicing and perfecting his technique have made him into one of the most exciting players ever to emerge from Norway. Hans would also provide Martin with his first step into the game by landing him a trial at his old club Stromsgodset who quickly snapped up the youngster before any one else could. As the bigger teams across Europe started to get wind of this talented 12 year old, Stromsgodset with the help of his father pulled the player closer and encouraged him not to become distracted with their interest and to focus on his career in Norway which would start by breaking into the first team. His progression was quick with Martin joining first team training sessions aged 13 before eventually making it onto the subs bench two year later.

Odegaard became the youngest player ever to play in the Tippeligaen at aged 15 years and 117 days when he was handed his Norwegian league debut for Stromsgodset against Aaelsund. Then manager Ronny Delia, now head coach at Celtic in Scotland, saw something magical in the boy and decided it was time to let him shine. Appearing as a substitute in the 72nd minute of the game, Odegaard wasted little time in showcasing his natural ability by dancing round four players before playing an inch perfect pass to fellow substitute and teammate Thomas Sorum to score.  One month later he would score his first goal for the club in a 4-1 victory over Sarpsborg, making him the league’s youngest ever scorer, a record that had stood for over 100 years.  Two months later he would make his European debut in the Champion’s league second qualifying round defeat to Romanian side Steaua Bucuresti. By now speculation was mounting over how long it would be before the wonder kid was called up to the national team. Having starred in Norway’s Under 17 team in a tournament played in Scotland back in early 2014, it was expected that Odegaard would be made to wait and move slowly through the ranks before making his full debut. However with manager Per Mathias Hogmo under increasing pressure to freshen up his under performing squad ahead of the start of the European Championship qualifying stage, Hogmo accelerated Odegaard’s progress and handed him his full debut in a friendly against Saudi Arabia. A month later he became the youngster ever player to play in a European Championship qualifier as he rose from the bench to replace Mats Moller Daehli in the 2-1 win over Bulgaria.

Carrying the label of the next Lionel Messi is a heavy burden for someone so young but his father is confident that his son will be able to cope. Having spent hours working on his first and second touches plus running at pace with the ball, Hans believes his son has the tools to emulate his idol and become a player of similar stature. Fellow professionals agree calling him a phenomenon and a player with unbelievable talent, the best that Norway has ever produced. High praise for a player who is still only 16 and has a lot to prove in the game. But at Madrid, Odegaard will get the best coaching that money can buy and has the best chance of becoming the player that many hope he will. His father, who has protected his son well and kept him grounded, will be beside his son all the way on his journey after accepting a youth coaching role with Real Madrid as well. Both Odegaards are now looking forward to the next chapter in their lives with Hans determined to make their time in Spain a success. Success comes in various forms but for his son getting into the first team and playing for Madrid is the dream. With an already talented squad, it may be a harder and longer road for the young player but a journey he is prepared to take as he looks to become the next Lionel Messi.

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Robert Prosinecki Hired As Azerbaijan’s new Manager

New man in charge - Prosinecki (Image from PA)It might not be the most glamorous of jobs in international football but that matters little to Robert Prosinecki who has taken over as national manager of Azerbaijan. The former Croatia midfielder succeeds German Bert Vogts who quit in October after six years in charge. Vogts, who also had spells managing Germany, Scotland, Nigeria and Kuwait, left his position after Azerbaijan lost their opening three matches of the Euro 2016 qualifying. His last game in charge ironically was against Croatia who romped home to a 6-0 victory leaving their opponents firmly rooted to the bottom of their group. At the time AFFA President Rovnag Abdullayev offered Vogts another job within the organization but the German decided to end his affiliation with a clean break. Now Abdullayev has turned to Prosinecki in the hopes that he can inspire the team ranked 126th in the world in the official FIFA rankings to greater things.

New Challenge - The Azerbaijan national team  (Image from Getty)

New Challenge – The Azerbaijan national team
(Image from Getty)

This will be Prosinecki’s first taste of international management having only been the boss in club football previously at Red Star Belgrade and Turkish side Kayserispor. He did spend his formative years after retirement as assistant manager to Slaven Bilic during his spell in charge of Croatia but this challenge will be a harder one to handle.  He inherits a team who lack quality and belief that qualification could be possible. Since breaking away from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Republic of Azerbaijan which is sandwiched between Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and the Caspian Sea has struggled to grow as a footballing force in the region with its neighbours stealing most of the limelight. They have yet to reach a major international tournament and have only won a handful of their 100 qualifying games to date. With most of their squad playing either at home in the Azerbaijan Premier League or in the lower leagues in Turkey, it has been a hard for football in the region to develop. Vogts time in charge hardly helped to improve the situation but in fairness to the coach, he did manage to unearth and blood some new players who bring hope to the national team. Vogt’s followed in US national coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s footsteps by looking to Germany for new players and he was pleasantly surprised by what he found. Into the squad came the likes of Ufuk Budak, Tugrul Erat, and Cihan Ozkara, all of which were born in Germany but with Azerbaijani roots.

Cihan Özkara is one for the future  (Image from Getty)

Cihan Özkara is one for the future
(Image from Getty)

Prosinecki will likely follow suit scouring Europe for players eligible to play, those who have potentially been displaced by the separation from the Soviet Union in the early 90’s and the troubles that followed. He will be all too familiar with their plight having been born and raised in Germany after his Croatian father and Serbian mother fled Yugoslavia as conflict began. Football was his savour from an early age and it wasn’t long before the tough tackling no nonsense midfielder started to impress. After moving to Croatia aged 10, he was quickly snapped up by Dinamo Zagreb where he would go on to make his debut at 16 years old. Despite scoring a goal on his league debut, he was never given a full time contract and moved to Red Star Belgrade shortly after that. It was in Belgrade that he would start to make waves and before long Real Madrid came calling who paid well over €15 million for his services.

His time however at Madrid would be cut short after three years when they fell out with the player due to his poor attitude towards many of his lifestyle habits that were affecting his play. Prosinecki would leave in 1994 and become a journeyman player with spells at Barcelona, Sevilla, Dinamo Zagreb, Standard Liege and Portsmouth before retiring in 2004 back home in Croatia. Whilst his club career was less than successful, his international career was more colourful. Selected for both Yugoslavia and then Croatia after the breakup of the region, Prosinecki became a key figure for both countries. He played in three World Cups (one for Yugoslavia in 1990 and two for Croatia in 1998 and 2002) and one European Championships (Croatia- 1996) becoming the only player to have scored in a World Cup finals with two different nations. Prosinecki is remembered best for his grit and determination on the field, something he has shown in glimpses since becoming a manager. The task that now awaits him is daunting but given his fierce love of the game and strong self belief, Prosinecki could be the man to turn things around for Azerbaijan.

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Will Brendan Rodgers Summer Decisions Force Him Out?

Has Rodgers summer planning led to the problems Liverpool now face? (Image from Getty)Liverpool’s poor start to the season has many questioning why, with the Anfield club sitting in mid table in the Premiership and at danger of an early exit from Europe. Last year’s runners up have had a torrid start to the new campaign, securing only 14 points in their first 12 games, much to the disappointment of their fans who were hoping for a repeat showing of last years form. The players appear to lack confidence which has shown in a series of poor error prone performances so far but the root cause of this is unknown. It may be as a direct result of letting Luis Suarez depart in the summer and the clubs failure to replace his goal scoring prowess which has in turn heaped more pressure onto the shoulders of Liverpool’s midfield providers. It also may be that the squad is questioning whether Rodgers is the man to guide them out of this slump; after all it was his mistakes in the summer that have landed Liverpool in this predicament in the first place. Either way Rodgers job is in doubt with few giving him past Christmas if this poor form continues.

Suarez departed for Spain in early July (Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Suarez departed for Spain in early July (Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Rodgers has always appeared to be in full control of everything that happens at the club and is known for his planning but a series of mistakes made by the Northern Irish coach during his preparations for the new season may end up costing him his job. Over the summer, the Liverpool boss alongside chief executive Officer Ian Ayre oversaw the transformation of his squad with no less than nine new faces arriving between the start of June and the end of August. These signings were made possible by sanctioning the sale of star striker Luis Suarez to Barcelona for a massive fee of £75million. Controversial to many, the move was permitted after the player forced Liverpool’s hand by getting himself banned from playing once again for biting, this time at the World Cup in June. Cashing in on their troubled star now before the season began was a way to protect their season and allow Rodgers enough time to bring in the required reinforcements needed to mitigate the risk of losing such an influential component of Liverpool’s style of play. With Suarez sealing his move on July 11th, Rodgers had just over seven weeks to reinvest the money raised and immediately ramped up his spending spree as a result. In came Serbian Lazar Markovic, Belgian striker Divock Origi and Croatian defender Dejan Lovren all before the end of July, joining three players previously signed before Suarez departure – Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana and Emre Can. As August began, Liverpool had spent more than they had received for Suarez (£88.5million in total) but still had failed to buy an outright replacement for the Uruguayan.  The approach taken by Rodgers was similar to that of Tottenham’s last summer when they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for a world record £85.3 million. Faced with the dilemma of having to replace arguable the world’s most exciting winger, Chairman Daniel Levy along with then manager Andre Villas Boas embarked on a spending spree, bringing in seven new faces to strengthen the entire squad. Amongst them was the talented Erik Lamela whose arrival at the club was heralded as a masterstroke as he was seen as an out and out replacement for Bale. Possessing skill and pace in abundance, expectations on Lamela were high and after a difficult initial season he appears to be more settled in to life in the Premiership this season, and is working hard to repay his transfer fee.

Lamela has managed to fill the boots left by Bale  (Image from Getty)

Lamela has managed to fill the boots left by Bale
(Image from Getty)

The key difference between Tottenham’s approach last summer and Liverpool’s this past summer has been that whilst Spurs strengthen other positions throughout their squad, they resolved the notable gap left by Bale’s departure by signing a like for like replacement. Liverpool initially struggled to do this and as the remaining pounds from Suarez monster move were spent, the club still had not signed a suitable replacement. Yes strikers Rickie Lambert and Divock Origi were brought in but neither are in the same mould or caliber as Suarez was.  As a result, Rodgers was forced into trimming the fat off of his squad in order to raise some capital to purchase an outright striker. Out went youngsters Martin Kelly, Jack Robinson and Conor Coady whilst back up goalkeeper Pepe Reina and Danish defender Daniel Agger were also allowed to leave. In came Spanish defenders Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillio (on loan) along with former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli. The fiery Italian is an enigma in his own right – a troubled genius who at the best of times is one of the world’s great strikers but on a more than regular basis is a passenger in games, with trouble both on and off the pitch hindering his progression. Balotelli’s record in front of goal is hardly on par with Suarez (1.6 games per goal vs. 2.3 games per goal for Balotelli) but besides the goals, his all round game is different with Suarez a goal creator as much as a goal scorer. Balotelli likes to be the centre of attention and demands the ball whereas Suarez works for the ball and shares the limelight. It was a flawed judgment by Rodgers that made him believe that he could tame and craft Balotelli into the Suarez mould. But his biggest mistake was not making finding a replacement for Suarez his number one goal. He did bring in some good players in Lallana and Markovic in particular but his eagerness to do so in affect weakened his team.

Balotelli is not a like for like replacement for Suarez  (Image from Getty)

Balotelli is not a like for like replacement for Suarez
(Image from Getty)

Now Liverpool have real problems. With Sturridge injured and Suarez gone, Liverpool lack a potent threat up front whilst at the back Rodgers rashness in letting fringe players leave in order to buy Balotelli has lead to an unbalanced backline and lack of competitiveness for places. In goal Simon Mignolet was unstoppable last season but without a real competitor to his place after the departure of Reina, his form has dropped and is now more inconsistent than ever before. Even Steven Gerrard, once seen as the rock of Liverpool appears to be suffering in his new role as defensive midfielder, a necessity given Liverpool’s defensive frailties.  Rodgers errors in the summer have cost his team dearly and whilst the squad has the quality to turn it around, it may not be under Rodgers guidance. The Northern Irish coach is under increasing pressure and following Sunday’s 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace appears to be a broken man. Liverpool’s players are the only ones that can rescue him now; they need to up their game if the coach is to hang on to his job. Whether they want to is a different story. In the end it may be that decisions Rodgers made in the summer will act against him and force his departure from Anfield sooner rather than later.

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How Bureaucracy Almost Destroyed The Spanish Dream

Eibar take on champions Atletico Madrid in their first La Liga season (Image from AFP)To play in La Liga is every Spanish teams dream and for Eibar Fútbol Club reaching the promise land this year was an unforgettable journey to say the least. Having toiled away in the Spanish lower leagues for over 70 years, Eibar had done the impossible and finally won promotion to La Liga after a hard fought season that saw them top the Segunda Division for the first time in 26 attempts. So far, Eibar have managed to hold their own in one of Europe’s toughest leagues. Having lost only to reigning Champions Atletico Madrid and former champions Barcelona and Deportivo de la Coruna, Eibar has shown a never say die attitude in each game amassing 10 points from their first nine games. Comfortably sitting in mid table, Eibar have been one of Spain’s surprise teams and have been picking up admirers along the way due to their tenacious play. But it almost never happened for this tiny club after bureaucracy tried to destroy their dream before it began.

Eibar have been impressive so far in La Liga (Image from Getty)

Eibar have been impressive so far in La Liga
(Image from Getty)

A win over Deportivo Alaves and two draws including one with nearest rivals Deportivo de la Coruna at the end of the campaign was enough to secure promotion last season. Celebrations in the tiny city of Eibar, located deep in the heart of the Basque country in northern Spain went long into the night as its 27,000+ population flooded the streets to praise their team. But as the fans and players toasted a famous victory, the club’s chairman Alex Aranzabal was nowhere to be seen. Instead he was working overtime to make sure that promotion to La Liga became a reality and not a nightmare. Having started the season brightly and looking good for one of the automatic promotion places, Eibar were in planning mode for the future. That was until they learned that even if they managed to win the league, they may not be allowed to join La Liga and instead may be relegated back down to Spanish’s lowest tier. The reason was that Eibar was not a Sociedad Anonima Deportiva, which is a special type of public limited company in Spain. Introduced in 1999 to improve financial management and transparency in sports clubs, clubs are now required by law to transition into an S.A.D before competing in any of the Spanish leagues with all clubs starting to or now listed with S.A.D status. Despite being debt free and self sustaining, Eibar were ordered to comply which meant that they had to have a capital equal to 25% of the average expenses of all second tier sides (minus the two richest and poorest clubs). This meant that the club had to raise $2.15million or risk not being promoted.

Chairman Alex Aranzabal was instrumental in guiding Eibar to La Liga  (Image from PA)

Chairman Alex Aranzabal was instrumental in guiding Eibar to La Liga
(Image from PA)

Starting in March 2014, when promotion looked likely the club started its appeal process which was turned down leaving them with only one option; to raise the capital. In April, the club launched the “Defend Eibar” campaign which called on locals and the Spanish public to buy shares in the club at €50 each up to a maximum of €100k to ensure that the club remained for the people instead of in the hands of a single wealthy investor. Eventually the money started to pour in after former Eibar players, Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi threw their support behind the initiative. In July 2014, one month before their inaugural campaign in La Liga was due to kick off Eibar reached its capital goal and become Sociedad Deportiva Eibar, S.A.D. The dream was alive and kicking with the players, coaching staff, fans and everyone else now connected to the club now able to celebrate once again and look forward to the challenges ahead.

Former player Xabi Alonso supported the campaign  (Image from Getty)

Former player Xabi Alonso supported the campaign
(Image from Getty)

For a country that’s top two teams possess close to a $1billion in debt between them, enforcing financial responsibility on the other teams seems ironic and somewhat condescending. Real Madrid and Barcelona remaining outside of the mandated S.A.D regulations for historical reasons, along with Athletic Bilbao and Club Atlético Osasuna, in a move that baffles many. Why Spain’s two richest clubs can continue to cheat the system is unknown and grates against many in Spain, especially the country’s smaller clubs like Eibar. But whilst the process to become an S.A.D was tiresome and stressful at times, Chairman Alex Aranzabal would do it all over again if given the chance. Becoming La Liga’s smallest ever team meant that Eibar are now in the history books which holds special meaning but more so playing in Spain’s top division despite bureaucracy standing it their way will mean a lot more to Sociedad Deportiva Eibar, S.A.D, better known as Eibar FC.

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Henry lines Up Ligue 1 Swansong

Where next for Henry? (Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

The name of Thierry Henry is one of the most recognised in world football. The World Cup and European Championship winning striker is second only to Lillan Thuram as the most capped French footballer of all time with 123 caps for France and leads the ways in goals scored with 51 to his name, 10 ahead of French legend Michael Platini and 20 ahead of Just Fontaine. Whilst his time on the international stage has now come to an end following his retirement after the 2010 World Cup, Henry continues to play at club level and is now in his fourth season in the MLS with New York Red Bulls. But as Henry’s contract reaches its end, the former Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona frontman is surveying his options ahead of one final swansong. With a variety of offers including lucrative moves to the Middle East, China and India on the table, it would appear that Henry has his heart set on a switch back to his homeland, with champions Paris Saint Germain and Monaco leading a chasing pack.

Legend Status Secured for France - Henry  (Image by © Christian Liewig/Corbis)

Legend Status Secured for France – Henry
(Image by © Christian Liewig/Corbis)

At 37 questions will be asked about whether Henry can cope with life back in Frances top division but one man has no doubts that he can. Former Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier, now technical director at New York Red Bulls believes Henry still can compete with the best and at the highest level. He is desperate for Henry to stay with the MLS side but knows that his chances are slim given Henry’s desire for one final challenge. Returning to France would suit the former French internationalist rather than moving back to London with Arsenal where arguably Henry made his name. The news will come as a bitter blow to Arsenal fans who would love to see their former star return to the club for a third time. Henry became a legend in his first spell, scoring 174 goals in 256 games helping Arsenal to two Premiership titles along the way. Whilst he hasn’t ruled out a sensational return to the Emirates, Henry appears to be thinking more about another former club Monaco rather than Arsenal. It was in the south of France at the small principality club that Henry first emerged as a then speedy winger. The manager at that time was Arsene Wenger who would sell the player to Juventus before buying him back for Arsenal and converting him into one of the best strikers the game has ever seen. Henry spent eight years at Arsenal before being sold to Barcelona and then eventually to New York Red Bulls as a marquee signing.

Thierry Henry during his time at Monaco  (Image from AFP)

Thierry Henry during his time at Monaco
(Image from AFP)

Like David Beckham in Los Angeles, Henry’s arrival in the Big Apple was heralded as a momentous moment in the club and league’s history. He has since gone on to showcase to the US soccer fans how the beautiful game can be played with a series of dazzling performances making him one of the best players in the league. Contrary to popular belief, it was Henry’s move rather than Beckham’s that convinced many others like Robbie Keane and Tim Cahill  to move to the US by showing them that the league was a desirable place to play in their prime rather than simply in their retirement years. The league has benefited massively from Henry’s presence with crowds growing in both New York and in away grounds where Henry was playing. But with all good things, eventually this must come to an end with Henry departing to pastures new. A January transfer back to France is likely but to which club is yet to be decided. He may follow in Beckham’s footsteps by joining PSG and in turn getting one final chance at the Champions League but he may also opt to follow his heart back to his old club Monaco. That is unless his old mentor Arsene Wenger has a say and convinces Henry that his final season should be spent back in his other homeland with a return to Arsenal.

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Spanish lifeline Offers Moyes Redemption Opportunity

Spain bound? David Moyes (Image from Getty)Real Sociedad could be set to offer David Moyes a route back into football management after they sacked their coach Jagoba Arrasate at the weekend. Moyes, who has been out of work since his sacking by Manchester United in May has had several job offers over the past few months but none have appealed to the Scotsman. But a move to Spain with Sociedad could prove to be compelling enough for Moyes to end his forced sabbatical. With a young, talented yet raw squad Sociedad are a perfect fit for Moyes who will be able to craft them into a tough to beat side much like he did at Everton and Preston.

Upfront Mexican Carlos Vela leads the line  (Image from Getty)

Upfront Mexican Carlos Vela leads the line
(Image from Getty)

Moyes would be following in the footsteps of Horace “Harry” Lowe, John Toshack and Chris Coleman who both had spells in charge at the Anoeta Stadium. The Spanish clubs love affair with British coaches began back in the 1930’s when Lowe was appointed. The former Tottenham and Fulham centre half managed the club for five years before leaving to manage RCD Espanyol for a further campaign. It was 50 years later that John Toshack arrived for his first of three stints in charge. In total the former Wales boss held the top job at Real Sociedad for nine years and during that time led to their first Copa del Rey success in 75 years. After the club sacked Miguel Angel Lotina in June 2007, they turned once again to Toshack who rejected their advances but did recommend that they take a look at another British coach, fellow Welshman Chris Coleman. Having been sacked months earlier by Fulham, Coleman jumped at the chance to manage the then Segunda Division side and duly signed a contract with them on July 1st 2007. Coleman’s spell in charge, much to contrary belief was successful in Spain and his departure was only the result of the club electing a new president who wanted to return the club to its Spanish roots. Now managerless once again, Real Sociedad are eying up a return to the UK for their fourth British manager with Moyes identified as the man to take the club to the next level.

Toshack spent nine years at Sociedad over three spells  (Image from Getty)

Toshack spent nine years at Sociedad over three spells
(Image from Getty)

Despite struggling in La Liga this season, Sociedad have all the ingredients necessary to be successful. With an exciting mix of youthful exuberance and established seasoned professionals, Moyes would inherit a squad that requires little tinkering in terms of personnel but in desperate need of tactical guidance.  Funds will be available during January to strengthen the squad but the need for new faces is not so apparent when you look at their squad. In defence, Real Sociedad has one of Spain’s hottest prospects in Inigo Martinez. The 23 year old centre half has been on the cusps of greatness for a while now with a move to Barcelona on the cards before Gerardo Martino was dismissed. Now a full Spanish international, Martinez is one of many hot young prospects at the club. Midfielders Ruben Pardo and Pablo Hervias have impressed so far in what has been a difficult campaign whilst up front Iker Hernandez, who hasn’t played so far this season is itching to show exactly what he can do. Helping these youngsters mature into better players would be a key part of Moyes role but he would be supported well by defenders Carols Martinez and Dani Estrada and influential captain Xabi Preto. At 31, Preto is the heart and soul of the club having been at Sociedad for his entire career and is the perfect player to help Moyes craft the side if he gets the job. Upfront, Sociedad have the fire power to get them back up the league with former Arsenal striker Carlos Vela leading the line alongside Icelandic sensation Alfreo Finnbogason or Spaniard Imanol Agirretxe.

Inigo Martinez is one of Spain's best prospects  (Image from AFP)

Inigo Martinez is one of Spain’s best prospects
(Image from AFP)

Unlike the pressure he faced at United, there are little expectations on how Sociedad will perform this season. Currently sitting in 19th in La Liga, it looks like a grim challenge however the season is still fairly fresh and the gap between the bottom three and mid table remains realistic at only 6 points. That is not to say that the club has no ambitions and rightly believes that a Europa League place is well within their grasps. With a new manager installed and a new direction to their play, Real Sociedad will be expected to climb up the table and back to a more realistic place among Spain’s top clubs. The offer has yet to be made to Moyes but for the Scot, it could be the perfect position for him to ease back in to the game.

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Rodgers Puzzled By Liverpool’s Poor Start

More headaches for Brendan Rodgers (Image from AFP)The night started so well for Brendan Rodgers but ended much like most recent nights have with disappointment. The Liverpool manager appeared over the moon when he was spotted by Sky Sports cameras meeting with his opposite number at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti. Grinning from ear to ear the two managers embraced as if they were brothers with Rodgers playing the role of the much younger sibling , enamored by his older brother. It was an early indication of how Liverpool were viewing Real Madrid going into the game, with too much admiration than is healthy for a clash of this magnitude. Yes this is an extraordinary Real side, tipping its hat to the great Galaticos of previous years but Liverpool should have still been able to compete. Last year’s Premiership runners up have lost their talisman in Luis Suarez but have invested his over inflated transfer fee back into the club by bringing in 8 new players. Liverpool should be a stronger team in principle but in practice they look like a disjointed group of individuals unable to offer a challenge to the opponents in front of them.

Rodgers looks awestruck by Ancelotti in the tunnel before the match  (Image from Sky

Rodgers looks awestruck by Ancelotti in the tunnel before the match
(Image from Sky

Liverpool’s failure to pose any type of threat to the current European champions suggests more that can be told by the match report alone. Liverpool were poor in attack, offered very little and deserved to lose the match. 3-0 down at half time, Liverpool had it all to do going into the second half but whilst they managed to contain their Spanish counterparts for the remaining 45 minutes, they never really looked capable of pulling it back. Memories of that most famous of comebacks in Istanbul faded quickly as Liverpool gave up possession of the ball within the first two minutes of the restart. Real in honesty took their foot off of the gas somewhat in the second half, with Ronaldo departing on the 75th minute mark to a standing ovation. Another stellar performance from the Portuguese maestro, highlight by a fantastic goal 23 minutes into the game which showcased the gulf in class between the two sides. Madrid move on to a clash with Barcelona at the weekend whilst Rodgers attempts to rally his men for their next battle back in the Premiership against Hull.

Ronaldo scores yet another great goal  (Image from Getty)

Ronaldo scores yet another great goal
(Image from Getty)

To add to Rodgers problems, there is the issue of what to do with super Mario. It was yet another poor game for the once Manchester City striker and must cause further headaches for the Liverpool manager. Seen as an ideal replacement for the departing Luis Suarez, Balotelli has yet to live up to his promise and appears lackluster and distracted in games more often than not having to be carried by his teammates. Rodgers can ill afford to have passengers in his side especially given the increased pressure to build upon last season’s successes. Mario Balotelli’s mindset appeared to be focused more on swapping shirts than the game itself. The Italian, who has drastically failed to deliver since his arrival at Anfield used poor judgment in deciding to exchange the shirts with Pepe at half time. To be fair, he probably knew that he was going to be substituted by the now irate Rodgers given his inadequate first half showing but swapping shirts at this stage of the game hardly helped his case. The ritual of swapping jerseys at the end of the game has been around for a long time but swapping half way through the match to ensure that you obtain the jersey you want is ridiculous. Rodgers will take action, much like he did last season with Mamadou Sakho who swapped shirts at the same interval with Chelsea’s Samuel Eto’o, handing down a hefty fine to his disillusioned Italian striker. That will do little to repair a much growing rift between the two with many already speculating that Rodgers is at the end of his tether.

Is Mario's split from Fanny causing issues on the field?  (Image from Getty)

Is Mario’s split from Fanny causing issues on the field?
(Image from Getty)

So what now for Italy’s prodigal son, is there any way back now for Balotelli? Well yes of course there is. The season has only just started and whilst the player has been off the boil of late he still possesses unbridled talent that few can compare with. He has show in the past what he is capable of and it’s up to Rodgers to put his issues with the player to one side and try to encourage him to resuscitate his current form. Whether it is issues around settling into the team, formation or tactical concerns or personal dramas surrounding the breakup with fiancée Fanny Neguesha, Rodgers must resolve the problem and get Balotelli back on track. If he cannot, Balotelli will be sold in January and Liverpool will be on the hunt for another front man with their season lying in tatters. They have Daniel Sturridge returning to full fitness soon but the England front man will be marked closer this season than he was in the last campaign with many of the Premiership defenders now aware of his preferred moves.  Regardless of how Sturridge performs, Liverpool needs a second striker to cope with their heavy fixture schedule. Whether that player is Balotelli or not is still to be decided by Rodgers who has a lot to ponder after yet another miserable night that left the Liverpool boss with more questions than answers.

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