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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Mixed Fortunes as Messi spoils Pep’s night in the Champions League

Despite it being a cold Tuesday night in Paris, the recent clash between PSG and Man City provided a brilliant and entertaining game of football. Paris won the game 2-0 against the Premier League champions, Manchester City with Messi officially opening his goal scoring account for his new owners. Manchester City came into the game on the back of a bitter-sweet win against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. City have been in great form and scored five goals on their last outing in the Champions league so expectations were high going into the game.

The game started slowly with both teams testing the waters with initial tactical movements. About 8 minutes into the game, City let Mbappe free due to an error from Kyle Walker and the momentum of the game changed almost instantly with Mbappe attempting to find Neymar. The Brazilian scuffed his shot but, the ball fell into Gana Gueye. City’s defence managed to close the gap on a shot but Gueye managed to curl the ball beautifully into the top right corner. Ederson was planted to the spot, unable to react quickly enough to the unstoppable shot.    

Despite conceding an early goal, the game was still on as City maintained possession and were threatening PSG’s goal with several good chances. Mahrez and Sterling made attempts to cut inside and take shots, with the best chance falling to Sterling who hit the cross bar. Unfortunately Bernardo Silva could not redirect the rebound into an open net in what was tell tale sign of how the night was going to pan out for the Manchester club.

A minute later, Sterling had another shot blocked but Mahrez was on hand to catch the defence off guard and return the ball to Sterling who was unaware and the ball was eventually cleared by Herrera. This moment was the perfect encapsulation of City’s woes, a lack of an attacking mindset. On a day where De Bruyne had an off night, they did not possess anyone with the eye towards the goal. Had Sterling attempted to take a volley from Mahrez’s ball, the entire game could have been different but that wasnt to be.

In addition to De Bruyne, Grealish had a quiet game, playing out wide while Sterling was deployed more centrally. Grealish’s instincts throughout the game were to put crosses into the box or split the defence to open space but he tendency to pass the final ball rather than cut inside to take the shot himself was problematic for City. More is needed of him to justify the price tag if City are to establish themselves as European elites.

City’s best chances came in the first half but in the second half, Pochettino made several tactical changes that turned tge game in PSG’s favour. The French champions came out strong into the second half and started to close the gaps in their defence. Herrera, who had been lying in a deeper position started moving up the field more and Mbappe timed his runs making fewer offside calls. This all contributed to PSG making more chances as they searched for a second goal. Guardiola removed Grealish for Foden but, PSG at this point were in control of the game.

In the build up to the game, Messi had stated that he was desperate to score for PSG and he didnt have to wait long. City uncharacteristically let slip of the ball and Messi pounced on the chance dribbling the defence out wide before making a diagonal run to the box. He then sent the ball through Mbappe just outside the edge the box, who cleverly laid it back off to Messi who took the shot with the left foot. There was no stopping this goal. Even if City had man marked him tighter, Messi still possesses that natural ability to glide around the pitch and find the space where it doesnt exist. That goal galvanized PSG and perhaps has given them the confidence to go on and challenge for the Champions league title this season.

PSG are far from perfect but, this group stage win could set the cogs in motion for the knockout stages. On the other hand, City need a plan B for tight games, Guardiola needs a striker who can muscle him a victory. Mahrez should not be tracking back for defence, Sterling needs to always be thinking goalward. More importantly, they need Gundogan and Kevin de Bruyne back to their best if they are to turn things around.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Hammers on Fire Thanks to Astute Transfer Business

At the start of the season, no one would have put their money on West Ham fighting for a Champions League spot. Yet, here we are with two games left to play and they sit 7th on the table, 4 points behind Liverpool in 5th. The Hammers, who finished 16th last season, have done some smart business in the transfer market to turnaround their reality. They are notoriously famous for being too ambitious in the transfer market, for chasing glamorous players instead of the right ones. However, there has been a change of approach in signing players in the last couple of years at West Ham. David Sullivan, the club owner, has reduced his own influence on player recruitment and let manager David Moyes be the decisive man on that matter. Moyes has bought players desperate to prove themselves as well as found some hidden gems without breaking the bank in doing so. The impact of their recent signings is visible all over the pitch from defence to attack and has resulted in instant success.

The key signings

Tomáš Souček – Initially brought on loan in January 2020, and then signed permanently last summer from Slavia Prague for £15 million, Soucek is a prime candidate for signing of the season. Naturally a defensive midfielder, he has been deployed by Moyes more in a box-to-box role, making late runs in the box. He has given West Ham a real goal threat from midfield and is the co-highest goal scorer for West Ham this season along with Jesse Lingard and Michail Antonio, scoring 9 goals while also being a defensive pillar in midfield. The Czech hardly ever stops running when on the pitch, constantly providing his team defensive cover and getting involved in attacks. On average, he covers 12.2km per game, which is highest in the league alongside Brighton’s Pascal Gross. Soucek’s aerial prowess is another asset that stands out. Against a very physical Burnley side a couple of weeks ago, he set the record for most aerial duels won by a player in a match this season with 17. With Soucek no missing a single league games for the Hammers in 20/21, this might be the best £15 million West Ham has ever spent as the 26 year old is only going to grow in value with the numbers he is producing.

Soucek has proven to be a bargain for West Ham. After impressing on loan, West Ham parted with £15 million in one of the best pieces of transfer business this season.

Vladimír Coufal – Another great Soucek contribution for West Ham was telling Moyes about Coufal. This hidden gem was also signed from Salvia Prague for just £5.5 million in the summer and has been sensational down the right flank. The Czech has made the Hammers’ backline more solid and possesses amazing crossing ability, grabbing 6 assists in his first EPL season. His physical strength, high work rate and good tackling ability makes him a barricade for the opposition wingers. The right back is often deployed by Moyes as a wingback when playing with a three man backline, and contributes to attacks not just just through crosses but also linking up the play well and being efficient on the ball. The 28 year old has garnered praise from his manager for his attitude. Moyes claims that the two Czech internationals have brought a winning mentality to the squad, which is required when trying to keep up with the big dogs. Bought after Fredericks picked up an injury early in the season, Coufal has now made the position his own, starting 32 league games this season. West Ham fans could be assured that their right flank is in good hands under Coufal, who keeps the opposition attackers at bay while providing attacking impetus going forward.

Jesse Lingard – Signed on loan in January until the end of the season, Lingard came to West Ham on a mission to prove his doubters wrong. The England International has scored 9 and created 3 in just 14 appearances. He has already paid back the dividends plus extra for his £1.5 million loan fee having scored crucial goals in West Ham’s race for European football. With West Ham keen to sign on him on a permanent transfer, the only downfall regarding Lingard’s recent performances, is that it will likely add a few millions more to United’s asking price. Mostly used as a no.10, Lingard operates with great dynamism and flexibility, interchanging positions with the wingers. Even if his goal scoring slowed down, he would still have a lot to offer with great link-up play and an eye for a defence splitting pass. The 28 year old has already become a popular figure in the West Ham dressing room because of his charismatic personality and has a great relationship with Moyes. Making his move permanent would be on top of West Ham’s list, although his price tag and interest from bigger clubs will be an issue in that pursuit.

Craig Dawson – His impact goes often under the radar compared to other arrivals but he has been as influential as the other loan signing up front. Initially brought as a cover to Diop, Ogbonna and Balbuena, Dawson was given a chance after injuries in the back line and he grabbed it with both hands. Brought on loan in October, the experienced centre back has become integral to West Ham’s amazing season. As a part of his clause, West Ham will be making Dawson’s transfer from Watford permanent for just £2 million as he has made more than 15 league appearances this season. He has brought great leadership and organization to the Hammers defence for a very economical price. With a high tackle success rate of 78%, Dawson also has an eye for the occasional centre back goal having scored 4 this season in all competitions. In Dawson, Moyes has found someone to rely on and base his defence around for future seasons.

Dawson arrived quietly but has impressed hugely under Moyes with his move set to be made permanent this summer.

One signing that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations is Said Behnrama but there is still a sense of hope that he could come to fruition in the next season. The Algerian, signed from Brentford for £26 million has shown glimpses of his creative abilities and has managed to get 5 assists in 28 appearances but still has a lot to do to live up to his transfer fee. He did manage to open his goalscoring account for the Hammers at the weekend against Brighton with a beautiful curling shot from outside of the area which will have pleased Moyes and the player himself. There is no doubt about his talent and could be given a grace period as it’s only his first season in the English top flight.

The kind of signings West Ham would want to distance themselves from is of Sebastian Haller. Signing a big name player for a huge fee and then being forced to sell them for a loss after a period of underwhelming performances. Haller arrived with a lot of promise after being part of the Eintracht Frankfurt trio strike force of Haller, Rebic and Jovic. Whilst Rebic left for AC Milan and Jovic joined Real Madrid, Haller headed for London but under false pretences. Whoever scouted Haller clearly did a poor job and looked only at his goalscoring and assist numbers and his height (6ft 3in) instead of how he fitted into that Frankfurt frontline and how he scored most of his goals. He was labelled as a target man which he isn’t (he prefers to dribble more and drop deep to pick up the ball) and from then on never really fit with how West Ham wanted to play. Hardly his fault but an expensive lesson all the same for the Hammers.

Haller should not be considered a failure, more a mistake by the club who bought him to perform a role which wasn’t his strength

Trust in Moyes’ judgement should be carried on into this summer as they will look to build up on this season’s success. It would be impressive if they again pick up some right pieces from lower or lesser known leagues. West Ham’s main priority going into summer is signing a new striker. The Hammers are being linked to Tammy Abraham, who has struggled to get into Tuchel’s Chelsea team. Abraham’s style of play would suit Moyes’ system and he has also proved that he can shine in the Premier League. The other option is Ivan Toney who has been lighting up the Championship for Brentford. They could also improve between the posts with Fanianski now 36 and not as nibble as before. They have been linked to Sam Johnstone, who recently received an England call-up and would be looking to find a club in the Premier League as West Brom already relegated. West Ham will want to keep hold of Declan Rice as well but if a too hard to resist offer arrives from a big side, they could use that money to find a replacement and upgrade other positions. However it would be burdensome to find someone who can dictate passes and protect the backline the way Rice does.

If West Ham can continue doing their transfer business in the same vein to the last couple of windows they could surely become a familiar face at the top half of the table. A top 6 finish this season would not only attract quality players but also deepen West Ham’s pocket. It would be some achievement if Moyes can pull it off, given those who doubted that he still had what it took as a manager. Success for West Ham under Moyes looks possible especially if they keep making the right decisions on the pitch as well as in the transfer market.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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In Pep We Trust – How tactical tweaks turned around Man City’s season

Pep Guardiola’s men are approaching what could be a mesmerizing end to their season. Manchester City, cruising to their 5th Premier League title with 11 points clear on the top of the table, in the semi finals of the Champions league and the finals of the EFL Cup are in cruise control. However it was not this rosy from the start; fragilities in the back line and imbalance in attack led to a shambolic 5-2 home defeat to Leicester in only the second game of the season which was then followed by some cagey draws and less than convincing 1-0 wins. It wasn’t until after the 1-1 draw at the Etihad against West Brom on 15th December, that they turned things around and went on a sensational 21 games winning streak in all competitions that put themselves back in a position to contest for all four titles (EPL, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League). Their quadruple dreams may have broken by Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final but they still have a lot to play for.

Credit where its due goes to the players, namely a reborn John Stones, possible signing of the year, Ruben Dias, unlikely goal scoring hero Ilkay Gundogan, the creative forces of Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo to name a few. But, of course, the man most responsible for the remarkable season turnaround is Pep Guardiola. In an interview with BT Sports in March, Guardiola explained the changes that brought around this tranaformation in his team:

“It was the day after West Brom at home when we drew 1-1. We could have won but I went to myself, my staff and friends and said I don’t like the team, I don’t like the way we play. We ran too much, we were not in the position. We ran too much without knowing exactly what we have to do with the ball. Our strength is when we have the ball. And we just came back to the principles, that’s all. So the wingers high and wide, a lot of players in the middle and come back without the ball, run like animals and with the ball, be more calm, play more passes,”

Ilkay Gundogan has been in rich goalscoring form for Manchester City this season

One of the main tactical tweak Guardiola made was to have one of his full-backs play in a midfield position – either Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko. In the build up play, the full-back forms a double pivot with the holding midfielder; this gives defensive solidarity in the midfield and allowed Gundogan to operate higher up and make runs in the box. Once City are in the attacking third, the inverted full-back gets in advance positions to create chances by playing passes through the lines, over the defence and linking up play. It is mostly Joao Cancelo that was used in this role as he has exceptional quality with the ball at his feet. This change also helped City to press with more numbers higher up the pitch.

Early on in the season it looked like De Bruyne was given the whole responsibility of creating openings and opponents were able to deal with that, but later, a better balance was found which still allows him to be the most creative outlet. The benefits of the season defining change can also be seen in player stats; Gundogan is City’s highest goal scorer this season with 16 goals in all competition and Cancelo ranks no. 8 in the Premier League for key passes. Added into this, City has scored the most goals in the Premier League (69) to date but has done so without a recognized goalscorer like Spurs have with Harry Kane or Liverpool has in Mo Salah. Instead the goals are more evenly distributed throughout the team, more so than any other team in the league – Gundogan (12), Sterling (9), Mahrez (9), Jesus (8), Phil Foden (6), De Bruyne (5).

One factor affecting that is Guardiola deploying a false 9 on many occasions, especially against higher quality opponents. Mostly De Bruyne or Bernardo Silva have been used in that position but even then the attacking four operates very fluidly and interchange positions through the game. This causes havoc in the opposition defence and the City players score different types of goals from different positions.

Deploying a false 9 with Bernardo Silva in the role allows space to develop between the centre backs who are stuck between following Silva as he retreats back into midfield or tracking one of the four runners (Mahrez, Sterling, De Bruyne, Gundogan).

One more eye-catching stat is that Man City has only scored one goal from counter attack this season in EPL. Guardiola has regularly talked about his team being more calm and playing more passes which is the likely reason behind this stat. It’s true that most teams sit back deep when playing against City and avoid being caught on the break. But still there have been many instances where City could have hurt a team on the counter but they rather choose to wear the opposition down by playing more passes and dominating the position. Playing more passes is not just their way to attack but defend too. “We control and be organized through the passes, because what makes the team balanced is the ball,” said Guardiola in the post match conference after the UCL 2nd leg against Dortmund.

“It’s not three incredibly huge holding midfielders or physicality, what makes the team have good balance, compact, is what we do. With. The. Ball. Extra passes help everyone be in the right position and when you lose the ball always you are organized, and that is what we have done since day one we arrived but sometimes you need more time to get it.”

In defence, with one full back advancing to midfield, the other one stays back and the two centre backs spread to form a wide back three. This allowed City to play passes from the back, rotate sides and control the tempo of the game. The inverted full back and the defensive midfielder gave more passing options and also protected the back line. This compact organization has made City way less vulnerable to counter-attacks, which was the way to get at them earlier in the season and also large parts of last season. It has worked wonders as they possess the best defence in Europe this season;  City has conceded the least number of goals in EPL (24) and the Champions League (3), level with Chelsea.

The centre back partnership of Dias and Stones has been a revelation for City this season

The resurgence of John Stones and the new signing, Ruben Dias have been crucial for City’s defence, keeping the previously impressive Laporte restricted to only a handful of appearances. The centre back pairing of Stones and Dias have been Pep’s go to for the important games and even when the two players have been paired with someone else, they have performed brilliantly due to the way that they are set up.

One distinctive factor about City has been the heavy rotation. Pep Guardiola has made over 100 changes to his starting lineup in the league this season, well more than any other team. No places, other than Ederson’s and Rodri’s, can be taken for granted. In a press conference in December Pep said:

“It’s not about rest here,” It is about rest when a big clash like a UCL tie is looming but mostly it’s not. Every game I put in the best players, sometimes for the benefit of the team, sometimes because of injuries, but especially the players who play well. It’s not about the players who believe, ‘I deserve to start because I have been here for three or four years’.”

Sterling and Laporte have been the biggest victims of the regular overhauling, but that shows the performance and consistency Pep demands of his players. Rotation has sometimes not worked with the recent loss against Leeds attributed to too many changes. But rotation was necessary ahead of the Champions League 2nd leg game against Borussia Dortmund, the most important game of the season until now. For most of the season, changing the starting 11 has helped in coping with a hectic season and has not been a hindrance on getting the results needed, which is remarkable. It can be said that City possess a deep squad but it’s never easy to change half the starting 11 from the last fixture and keep the performance level high.

Post by Achyut Dixit, Contributor to BOTN. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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Top Predictions for 2020

If we all had crystal balls to see what the future holds, then it would be pretty pointless. The unpredictability of the future is what keeps life interesting and what keeps all of us football fans watching week in week out. The twists and turns within the beautiful game keep us on the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. But from time to time, the media likes to make predictions for what will happen in the future and the start of a new year always heralds their latest predictions. Not to be left out, here are our top predictions for this year ahead:

Bayern are finally toppled – It’s not been the ideal start for Bayern Munich in their search for their eighth Bundesliga title in a row. The Bavarian club find themselves in unusual waters sitting in third in the table as they headed into the winter break with RB Leipzig on top and Borussia Monchengladbach in second. Bayern have already dispensed with the services of manager Niko Kovac who couldn’t quite manage the inflated egos at Bayern both on and off the pitch. Bayern’s misfortune has been to the benefit of others who look to end their dominance and it looks as though this will be the year it happens. Not since 2011-2012 has another team (in that case Borussia Dortmund) threatened Bayern’s position as top dog but this season is different. RB Leipzig are flying high under the management of Julian Nagelsman whilst Monchengladbach are surprising many with their fast flowing attacking football. With a caretaker in place at Bayern and some further adjustments needed in the boardroom, Bayern are in transition and about to lose their crown.

Will this be the year that RB Leipzig pip Bayern to the title? (Image from Tumblr)

Will this be the year that RB Leipzig pip Bayern to the title? (Image from Tumblr)

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title – ok so this one is fairly safe to assume it will happen but still it’s worth pointing out that others have been in similar dominant positions before catastrophically collapsing as the season drew to a close (Newcastle had a ten point gap between themselves and Man United at Christmas in the 95/96 season only to throw it away in the new year). The difference is that Liverpool have amassed such a strong squad and are playing with such confidence and conviction that it’s hard to see exactly how they could not win the title. Indeed the Champions League winners are in such tremendous form that it’s hard to see which team will manage to take any points away from them. Man City, who were the early season favours have stuttered through whilst surprise outfit Leicester looked like genuine contenders before they were taught a harsh lesson by Jurgen Klopp’s side in the 4-0 mauling just a few weeks ago. Only a series of bad injuries to key players could derail this run to the finish line for the Anfield club who have waited so very patiently for their day to come.

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title (Image from Tumblr)

Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title (Image from Tumblr)

Juventus will win the Champions League this season – so often the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Turin side will finally get their time at footballs alter in Istanbul this June and will lift the trophy. The script has been written for it to happen with Cristiano Ronaldo upfront, a stellar cast behind him and the return of club legend Gigi Buffon for one last swan song. It looked like his chance had past when then Real Madrid striker Ronaldo popped up three years ago in Cardiff to score an incredible overhead kick past Buffon and break his heart. He left shortly afterwards for PSG but returned to the old Lady after only a season away. Could he now play a pivotal role in Juventus lifting the trophy?

There are some that could stand in their way. Real Madrid and Barcelona will both favour their chances as will PSG who have little to play for apart from the Champions league given how dominant they are in France. Man City will likely make a strong push but with defensive frailties, they could be exposed as the tournament progresses. And what about defending Champions Liverpool. It would be a fairytale story for them to return to Istanbul after all those years for yet another final but my sense is that Klopp will favour lifting the league title over another European one. Juventus who play Lyon in the round of 16 look like genuine contenders with manager Maurizio Sarri keen to show the world just how good a coach he is and how bad a mistake Chelsea made by letting him go.

One more chance for Buffon in the Champions League (Image from Tumblr)

One more chance for Buffon in the Champions League (Image from Tumblr)

ADO Den Haag will sack Alan Pardew before the end of the season – if you didn’t know that he had been appointed in the first place, it’s understandable. It happened just before Christmas and was a bit of a shock. Not since Steve McLaren’s infamous FC Twente move has the appointment of an Englishman in the Dutch league raised so many eyebrows. Pardew stated that the move was “just what he was looking for in his search for a new challenge” but what he meant was it was a job and finally someone was offering him one. Things haven’t started that well for Pardew at Den Haag who lie second bottom of the Eredivisie. He has had to deal with a senior player attacking one of the coaching staff and have a difficult conversation with the clubs Chinese owners over the lack of transfer funds available (the owners gave the past manager only £1m to spend). Pardew and Den Haag don’t play their first game together until January 19th so plenty of time to perfect his tactics and start learning Dutch. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take lessons from McLaren who have one of the funniest interviews ever recorded during his time in Holland. Regardless of the language issues, Den Haag hardly has a squad capable of getting themselves out of their existing mess so Pardew will need to rely on loan signings and freebies to change things. With a lack of money, a distant owner and major language and squad issues, Pardew’s stay in Holland should be a short one.

Alan Pardew took a gamble in moving to Holland, one that shouldn't pay off (Image from Tumblr)

Alan Pardew took a gamble in moving to Holland, one that shouldn’t pay off (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers pip Celtic to stop 9 in a row – When Steven Gerrard arrived at Ibrox last summer, the club made its intentions clear – they wanted to bridge the gap between themselves and Celtic and challenge again for honours. Behind close doors though, the message was somewhat more precise – stop Celtic from reaching nine titles in a row. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Scottish football, there have been two dominant teams since the great wars, Celtic and Rangers who collectively are known as The Old Firm. Between the two they have won a majority of the league titles with each having significant periods of domination, Celtic in the mid 60’s and Rangers in the late 80’s/early 90’s. But now Celtic are on top again having capitalized on Rangers recent financial crisis which saw them drop down to the lowest division in Scotland and start again. Without a notable challenger (Aberdeen were the closest to posing a threat), Celtic stretched the gap between themselves and their arch rivals winning title after title up until last season which made it eight in a row. Celtic are still firm favourites to win their ninth yet Rangers under Steven Gerrard have improved enough that perhaps for the first time in a long time, winning the title might not be as straightforward for Celtic as they would hope. Rangers victory in the last Old firm derby narrowed the gap at the top to only two points and with Gerrard’s side very much with the momentum, Rangers could pip Celtic to the title and stop nine in a row.

Rangers under Steven Gerrard have closed the gap on rivals Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

Rangers under Steven Gerrard have closed the gap on rivals Celtic (Image from Tumblr)

VAR has to change in the Premier Leagues or clubs will rebel – the grey lines of football, those narrow calls by a linesman or a referee for offside or obstruction that VAR was supposed to help with are getting less clear by the day. Since its implementation at the start of the season, the VAR system has wreaked havoc on the Premier League with several calls being questioned. When used well the system should provide the officials with confidence to make a tough call accurately but used too well, it ruins the fabric of the game that draws the fans in the first place. Indeed it’s the micro decision calls that are causing the most upset and leading for calls for a change. Using lines and axis to work out if a strikers little toe or pinky are in an offside position is not what was intended for VAR. But sadly that is what is happening. That, plus the 30-60 second delay whilst the referee consults with those in the VAR booth, are ruining football for everyone. UEFA is considering changing the definition of offside to counteract these problems but in fact it should be down to the officials to dial it back and stop this nonsense. VAR should be used only sparingly when the calls fall into that grey space. They shouldn’t be putting the entire game into that grey space which is what they are doing.

Jack Grealish's goal for Villa against Burnley was ruled out due to VAR intervention (Image from Tumblr)

Jack Grealish’s goal for Villa against Burnley was ruled out due to VAR intervention (Image from Tumblr)

And finally, Pep calls time on his stay at Man City – it’s been a difficult start to the season for the reigning English champions with injuries to Sane and Laporte plus poor performances derailing their title defence early on. Their manager Pep Guardiola has all but conceded the title saying that the gap is too big to claw back. He won’t give up trying of course but the realist inside of the Spaniard knows it will take a miracle for City to come out on top by the end of the season. The end of the season will also see Guardiola depart, less because City wants him too but more because Pep has taken them as far as he can. Winning the league title on two occasions plus numerous other trophies should be enough for the Man City hierarchy but the lofty ambition of winning the Champions League is what will drive Pep out. He knows it is hard to deliver this for them and still maintain an active challenge on all other fronts. The money that once flowed like water is now flowing like treacle with the clubs owners pulling back somewhat in recent years. Losing Sane and Laporte and not being able to replace them told Guardiola everything he needed to know. He is a winner through amen through (his average win percentage of 72.7% shows this) but even winners need some help once and a while. City have been lucky to have him and he has delivered as promised by turning them into not only a team to fear in England but also across the continent. Pep however has grown tired of his time in Manchester and will take his leave in the summer, taking a well earned break before deciding where he will go next. Wherever he goes, expect him to win because that is what he does best.

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Russian Premier Liga Review – will anyone stop Zenit?

After 19 weeks, it’s a good time to take a look at the situation in the Russian Premier Liga (formerly known as the Russian Premier League). Zenit keeps on taking the lead in the title race and it seems like there is no other club that can stop them. However, the situation among other teams is really getting interesting with four clubs are going nose to nose below them!

A lot can change after the resumption of the championship in early 2020 following the winter break. The capabilities of all the teams participating in the fight for top spot as well as the coveted Champions League places may change. First of all, fortunes could improve if one of the clubs in the fight has a successful winter transfer window. In addition, it’s likely that someone’s schedule will become easier due to the exiting out from a European competition. 

Can anyone stop Zenit from winning the league? (Image from Tumblr)

Theoretically, for the 11 remaining weeks, anything can happen. But in truth it’s unlikely that Zenit’s will lose its advanced position as leaders given their current form. Never in the history of the Russian Premier Liga has a leader lost such a spectacular margin over his pursuers. A gap of +10 points is surely a sign of champions elect.

Although the fact that both Kransnodar and CSKA (who are taking second and third position in the league respectively) are done with Champions League may affect the situation. It has always been a case in the Russian Premier League that international competitions require more strength and endurance, and it usually influences the final positions in the home championship.

Krasnodar started poorly in the Europa League group but have recovered to win their last three games (Image from Tumblr)

Taking a look into upcoming springs games, there are only three potentially dangerous games for Zenit – matches with CSKA, Rostov and Krasnodar. Even if they were to lose all these matches, Zenit should still remain at the top of the table. At the same time, the likelihood of such a failure seems extremely low. Obviously, Zenit exceeds above all the above teams in terms of sheer talent at its disposal, and over the winter transfer window the squad is unlikely to change significantly.

All these factors might sound extremely positive if you’re a Zenit fan, but for the football lovers it looks more like a disaster. For the second year in a row, intrigue is being killed long before the end of the championship. This means that on the grander scale that Russian league became weaker overall.

Post by Irina Kuzina. Follow her now on Instagram.

The Humble One

Cometh the hour, Cometh the man; Jose Mourinho is back in the Premier League. Whether you agree or not with the style or substance of Pochettino’s departure, Mourinho is now firmly in charge at Tottenham Hotspur. Less than twenty four hours after Poch left through the side door, Jose was standing in Spurs training ground holding up that famous white shirt.

Tottenham announce Mourinho's arrival at their training ground (Image from Tumblr)

Tottenham announce Mourinho’s arrival at their training ground (Image from Tumblr)

That image was hardly universally accepted as a good thing. The Tottenham fans are very much divided on the events of last week with some optimistic about the future and others more fearful of it. That terror is directly related to the new manager as Mourinho has become a somewhat divisive figure in recent years. His last job in charge of Manchester United left a bitter taste in the mouths of many onlooking football fans.

But should Spurs fans be judging Mourinho based on what happened at Manchester United and Chelsea before that? Arguably not. The truth is that the Jose Mourinho of Manchester United and second spell Chelsea is not the same Mourinho as the one that rose to prominence at Porto, brought cavalier style of football to Chelsea and steered Inter Milan to their first Champions League title. He had fundamental changed, broken by his experience in Madrid with Real. His stay at the Bernabeu was anything but pleasant with player dissent and meddling from above marring a three year stay. His escape back to England and his beloved Chelsea was supposed to restore his love of the game but instead he walked into some of the same issues that he had left in Spain. Mourinho managed to power through his first two seasons winning the title in the latter but by then the wheels had already started to come off. A very public bust up with club doctor Eva Carneiro on the opening day of the new season was the beginning of the end and eventually Mourinho was sacked following a string of poor performances. He moved to Manchester shortly after that but was never truly in the right mindset to manage in the cauldron that is Old Trafford.

The Unhappy One - Jose never really looked like he was happy to be in Manchester (Image from Tumblr)

The Unhappy One – Jose never really looked like he was happy to be in Manchester (Image from Tumblr)

There are lots of reasons why Mourinho and Manchester United never worked out. Despite delivering the UEFA Cup and the EFL Cup during his two and a half year stay, Mourinho was never happy at Old Trafford. Part of that was due to living away from his family in a hotel for most of the time which would take its toll on most of us. Another was the lack of structure above him with questions still being asked to this day about Ed Woodward’s suitability to his current role as Chief Executive. And finally the squad itself – ageing, ill balanced and full of pre-madonnas who believed they were better than they actually were. Mourinho was always going to fail there much as his predecessors did and successor has. Mourinho never could quite fit Sir Alex Ferguson’s shoes in the eyes of the fans but then nobody ever could.

In his press conference announcing his arrival at Spurs, Mourinho looked and sounded different than before; more rested, relaxed, better composed and with that famous grin back on his face. He was more like the Mourinho of old, the Inter Milan or first spell Chelsea Mourinho. The dark cloud that has hovered over his head since his days in Madrid appear to be gone much to the relief of those closest to him. He is happy once more but also apparently humble having taken stock of what went wrong before and how much of it was his fault. Indeed former Manchester United midfielder Darren Fletcher admitted that Mourinho had reached out to several people to get a true unfiltered opinion of himself post United.

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All Smiles – the now humble Mourinho during his first Spurs press conference (Image from Tumblr)

Mourinho has had issues at his past three clubs, some self engineered but most inherited. Those problems shouldn’t exist at Spurs which should make Jose’s life better. He will be back living with his family, working closely with a Chief Executive in Daniel Levy who is as good as they get and with a squad that most would be jealous of – balanced, internationals in every spot, guaranteed goals from Harry Kane, Son and Moura and a potential solid defence if Jose can get Toby Alderwerield and Jan Vertoghen firing again.

A 3-2 debut victory over a struggling West Ham side will have highlighted Spurs defensive issues but it will have also hardly appease those fans concerned about his appointment. That said Spurs lung busting comeback win in the Champions League against Olympiakos should. That game demonstrated what Mourinho does best – in particular his game management, tactical nous and ability to motivate players as the game plays out. Trailing 2-0 at home after only 20 minutes, Mourinho had seen enough and made changes, substituting Eric Dier for Christian Eriksen and switching to a more attack focused approach. That change along with some inspired words from the touch line and help from a ball boy drove Spurs to respond by upping a gear and taking the game to their Greek opponents. Eventually Spurs would win the game 4-2 which helped them qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Mourinho’s smile at the end said it all. The old Mourinho is back, like it or not.

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Three Battles That Will Decide The 2019 Champions League Final

At the end of one of the greatest Champions Leagues in recent years, there are 2 English teams still standing – Spurs and Liverpool. In the semis, both came back to triumph from a seemingly hopeless position. Here, we’ll look at some of the biggest matchups which will decide who gets to walk out with the Champions League Trophy in Madrid.

1. Harry Kane vs Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip:

Kane has declared himself fit for the Final, and if he truly is fit, he will most likely start at the Wanda Metropolitano. Kane has scored 5 goals in 8 starts in the Champions League this season, and the England talisman will want to lead his boyhood club to the greatest victory in the club’s history. He will come up against the formidable Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip. Van Dijk deservedly won the PFA Player of the Year award this season for a magnificent performance, and Matip is a very capable partner at the heart of Liverpool’s defence. Liverpool have the best league defensive record in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues this season, having conceded only 22 goals in the EPL. Furthermore, they concede the 3rd lowest shots per game in Europe, behind only Bayern and Manchester City. Kane and his teammates will go a long way towards lifting the cup if they can find a way to go past Liverpool’s miserly defense.

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2. Heung Min Son and Lucas Moura vs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson:

This might be the battle that decides the game on both sides of the field. Robertson and Arnold are the most potent attacking full-back partnership in Europe, with Arnold and Robertson contributing 12 and 11 assists each, only behind Joshua Kimmich’s 13 in all of Europe for fullbacks. Stopping them will be key as the marauding fullbacks are Liverpool’s biggest weapons to help break down a dogged defense. Spurs will need to be mindful to try and keep a lid on their offensive forays into the Spurs half – Son and Moura will have to put in a lot of defensive work to help their defense. Moura and Son will also need to be the creative force for their team, especially as Kane has only just returned from a serious injury. Moura has scored 5 goals in the UCL this season in 11 games, including the memorable hat-trick to come from behind against Ajax. Son has also been tremendous in the Champions League this season, with the highlight being a wonderful performance at the Etihad Stadium. Thus, these battles will pit quite possibly the most in-form players for each side against one another. The winner might just decide the Final itself.

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3. Sadio Mane vs Serge Aurier or Kieran Trippier:

This is where I feel Liverpool have their greatest edge. We all know about Liverpool’s much vaunted front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but Mane is the main man here considering Tottenham’s defensive deficiencies on the right side. Both Trippier and Aurier are defensively suspect and prone to lapses, and Mane has the capability to make this a Final to forget for both of them. Mane has had a breakout season and scored 26 goals in 48 appearances this season, including a brace at the Allianz Arena to take down Bayern. If Mane fires similarly at the Wanda, Liverpool might win their first UCL in more than a decade.

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Prediction:

Although it is said that most big games are won and lost in the midfield, I do not feel that would be the case here. Both teams, in particular Liverpool, are more reliant on their wings. Liverpool’s super combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the clear favourite for me. Liverpool’s superb combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the favourites for me. So, I predict a 3-1 win for Liverpool with goals from Salah and Mane and a consolation for the returning Kane

Post by Prithvi Pahwa, Analyst + Contributor

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The Grasshopper Who Lost Its Spring

In November 1996, Grasshopper Club Zurich flew to Scotland to take on Glasgow Rangers in the Champions’ League group stage, in a game that I watched from the stands. Led by Swiss icon Kubilay Turkyilmaz, Grasshoppers were looking for all three points as they attempted to qualify for the knockout stages of the tournament. Having hammered Rangers 3-0 a few months earlier, the team were confident that they could get the result but found themselves taking on a Rangers side with the bit between their teeth who were eager to forget what had been a terrible group stage (they had lost their first 4 games) and get a vital win on home soil. In a highly competitive match, Rangers ran out 2-1 winners with Ally McCoist scoring a brace whilst Andy Goram performed miracles in goal to deny Grasshoppers.  Despite the defeat, both sets of fans were impressed by the way Grasshoppers performed that night and would have been forgiven for thinking that they would be a regular competitor in the Champions League going forward.

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Kubilay Turkyilmaz attempts a shot against Rangers (Image from Tumblr)

Fast forward 23 years and Grasshoppers are at their lowest ebb following relegation from the Swiss Super League, ending their 68-year stay. Switzerland’s most successful club with 27 titles could no longer dream of electric Champions League nights against Europe’s elite. Instead they are facing up to an uncertain future, one that is less of a dream and more like a nightmare. Financial mismanagement since 2003 and a plethora of changes in the boardroom have contributed to Grasshoppers current situation, one that doesn’t look to be resolving any time soon. In the last 15 years, the Zurich club have had 13 coaches and 8 different presidents and have effectively been homeless after their Hardturm ground closed in 2007. After its demolition in 2008, the proposed plans for the new stadium got trapped in a never-ending tug of war between those politically motivated by visions of grandeur and those motivated by money. Finally, after a decade of frustration for the club and its fans, the city of Zurich approved the construction of the new ground.

Former home - The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

Former home – The Hardturm Stadium, demolished in December 2008 (Image from Wikipedia)

The lack of a place to call home has hurt Grasshoppers deeply. Forced to play at the Letzigrund athletics stadium, the home of rivals FC Zurich has been tough on the club in terms of trying to connect with their fans but more importantly financially with little revenue coming in because of the ground share at the smaller stadium. The construction of a new ground should solve those issues but it’s not as if that project will be easy to get done, despite it being green lit. Grasshoppers only just managed to get approvals to proceed winning a close 53.8% of the vote meaning that there is still plenty of local distain for the project that could derail it.

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

Stephan Rietiker, President of Grasshopper Club Zurich will be pushing for the construction of the new ground whilst helping to rebuild the squad (Image from Tumblr)

On the field, Grasshoppers have struggled too. Despite finishing 2nd in the league and winning the Swiss Cup in 2013, they have failed to pull together a consistent challenge leaving the fans to wonder if the club will ever return to its dominant position it once held in the 70’s and 80’s. Their last title 15 years ago seems like an eternity. A failure to unearth the next Kubilay or develop an effective youth progression program has resulted in a mediocre team on the pitch. Added into this a lack of funds to purchase new players and a ground to attract them in the first place, it was always going to be a difficult slog regardless of the manager. But with uncertainty in the boardroom also comes indecision about how the club should be run, its playing style and who should be enforcing that. That led to some baffling appointments as manager/head coach including the hiring of Tomislav Stipic in March of this year. Starring relegation in the face, Stipic was brought in to replace Thorsten Fink much to the disbelief of the fans as Stipic’s resume hardly screamed success. A lack of experience at a top flight team and two relegations at lower league sides in Germany left many wondering how this guy would save them. In the end he lasted only 6 games and was sacked after failing to win any of them. Uli Forte, who led the club in that 2013 season returned much to the protest of the fans who were still bitter about the nature of his departure six years before, but he couldn’t turn around the club’s fortunes with Grasshoppers eventually relegated in early May. He has agreed to stay on as the club looks to bounce back and gain immediate promotion.

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board  (Image from Tumblr)

The appointment of Tomislav Stipic was a baffling decision by Grasshoppers board (Image from Tumblr)

The demise of Grasshopper is a startling warning to all the other clubs in the Swiss Super League that even the mighty can fall. Other European leagues have witness similar iconic clubs fall from grace, most notably Glasgow Rangers who suffered a financial meltdown which led to administration and relegation to Scotland lowest tier and AEK Athens who dropped down in Greece following similar financial difficulties. Financial issues tend to be the leading cause of these demises and things may only get worse in the future as teams spend beyond their means with the hope of gaining quick successes both domestically and in Europe. UEFA’s introduction of their financial fair play rules was a vain effort to curb this overspending but has faced fierce criticism of late as Europe’s elite have found clever ways to bypass or take advantage of the federations inability to accurately track and enforce its rules. As a result, the gap between the elite and the chasing pack widens reducing the likeliness of one of them fielding a team capable of going all the way and lifting one of the major trophies like the Champions League. For Grasshoppers, the focus is not to playing in Europe’s most prestigious club competition again but simply to recover. The road to recovery can be a long and treacherous as Rangers and AEK can attest to, one filled with more than a few bumps. But it’s a necessary journey that the club must take if they are to regain what many see as their rightful position back in the Swiss Super League.

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One On One With: Howard Webb

In the world of professional refereeing, there are only a few who can claim to have officiated a World Cup Final. Indeed, it’s a select group of twenty men which includes three Englishman: William Ling, who refereed in 1954; Jack Taylor, who took charge in 1974; and our latest interviewee, Howard Webb, who officiated over the 2010 final. Whilst the final itself was one of his personal highlights, Webb’s career is full of memorable moments, including nearly 300 Premier League games, the 2009 FA Cup Final and the 2010 Champions League Final, making him the only referee to manage that final and the World Cup final in the same year.

Howard Webb books Robin Van Persie during the FIFA World Cup Final in 2010 (Image from Tumblr)

Now in charge of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO), which oversees all referees in the US and Canada, Howard is enjoying life in New York. We chatted with him recently about his career, which Scottish referee was his mentor, his thoughts on changing penalty kicks, and that Nigel De Jong challenge during the World Cup Final. Enjoy!

Our thanks to Howard for taking the time to talk with us. I hope you found it as interesting as we did.

Throughout May, Howard and his fellow PRO officials will once again be supporting Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA) drive to increase awareness of the fight against Huntington’s Disease. Your support could make a difference during #HuntingtonsDisease awareness month. Join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #LetsTalkAboutHD.

Additionally Howard’s book – Howard Webb: The Man in the Middle is available now online and at all good bookstores. You can also follow Howard on Twitter.

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Zidane, a Portrait revisited

“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all. When I retire I’ll miss the green of the field. ‘Le Carre Vert’.”

So said Zinedine Zidane a few years back, as his playing career wound down to that infamous final moment. The words appear in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a singular cinematic portrayal of one 2005 day at the office which seems as fine a place, at least to me, to go searching for meaning and echoes as the French superstar, recast in the unlikely role (at least to some) as an undefeated Champions League Final manager, goes for three in a row Saturday in Kiev.

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The idea of Zidane on the sideline now seems only slightly less strange than the moment 30 months ago when he was suddenly promoted from inexperienced reserve manager into the role of directing the world’s most successful club. It is no stranger, though, than having Portrait’s 17 cameras trained only on him, the biggest Galactico of all, with the rest of the Bernabeu – his teammates, Villarreal (including Diego Forlan at peak hair), the usual sellout house in Madrid – functioning as extras. And surely, in an age of specialty shots available at the asking on today’s big broadcasts, keeping a close eye on the superstar du jour is nothing new – there’s likely a Zidane-cam going this weekend, if you’re interested. But in this revisit, his command is not so much eye-opening – to me, Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp have always been the only two players (and very different ones) who I would wish to be teleported back to see again in their prime. And of the two, unlike the sometime-passenger Bergkamp, Zidane’s imperiousness rarely if ever flagged (although it would somewhat inevitably be doused in equally instinctive dollops of red mist).

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If you’re looking for something different for your pre-final party and haven’t already gone there, stop reading now and go find it (it’s on YouTube). The spoiler is that red mist, and the stray observations include the confirmation that as recently as 13 years ago, filthy-rich footballers remained capable of fouling or being fouled without turning into today’s flaming, disbelieving idiots rounding in how-dare-you fashion on the referee. Zidane himself stalks around, scratching his nose, hands on hips, the odd ‘hey!’ his only verbal, the camera going down and close to note the hole left by a stray spike in his left sock (by game’s end, there is a match on the other leg), panning up with his eyes to the Bernabeu’s uppermost lights, accompanied by the most subdued Mogwai soundtrack ever. Then he sees something and is off like a tiger bursting from the tall grass. As for the poor referee, he gets his, but sotto voce – “You should be embarrassed,” Zidane tells him under his breath after he awards Forlan a penalty.

Otherwise, Zidane offers the stoniest of looks, not even acknowledging Roberto Carlos’ “can you believe that?” look as Forlan lines up the spot kick. He’s the very model of the modern midfield general, a conservationist before his time. Much has been made of the man’s vision, including now, as he’s less the ruthless tactician and more the “manage by feel” type, it is said, and as loyal to his mates as the day is long. But that is all inferred here through the sweat, toil and handclaps. One of the more revealing quotes that appear below the action has him downplaying that part of his game:

“I remember playing in another place, at another time, when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score. It was the first and last time it ever happened.”

And:

“Maybe if things are going badly you become conscious of people’s reaction. When it’s not going well you feel less involved and more likely to hear the insults, the whistles. You start to have negative thoughts sometimes you want to forget. The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in ‘real time’. My memories of games, and events, are fragmented.”

It hasn’t been the best of domestic seasons for Zidane by multiple standards, including his own and the club he’s represented on and off since the turn of the century, and you wonder, hearing this from long ago, how much of this season has stayed with him, and fueled him. Real staggered through the year, finishing a vast 17 points off Barcelona in the La Liga table. But they found form, augmented by some luck (you make your own, right?) at Europe’s biggest, most important stage. For its polarity, it’s been remarkable. But then as now, he gives away nothing. Not for him the histrionics of his opposite this weekend, Jurgen Klopp a hyperactive, adenoidal teenager by comparison. Or the incandescent rage of Zidane the player best recalled in that infamous coupe de boule in his final game – or in the final moments of the movie, with Zidane’s predictable sending off accompanied by Mogwai in a shimmering ascendancy and acknowledged by a downcast grimace.

Economy. Elegance. Control. Vision. Power. Anger. ‘Le Carre Vert’. They’re all points on the Zidane scale, still. In this managerial guise we don’t see them all, with some kept well-holstered in a bespoke suit pocket. Perhaps Saturday, there will be a smile. But in even the most optimistic updated portrait, don’t count on it.

Post by Chris Young – @HighParkCy

The Race for the EPL Champions League Spots – which two teams will qualify?

With only a few games left in the season, the race for the coveted Champions League spots is heating up. Chelsea look set to be crowned EPL Champions with Tottenham second unless things go awry for them. They will take two of the four spots leaving two remaining spots to fight for. Currently Liverpool and Manchester City are in the driving seat in 3rd and 4th respectively. Manchester United, who could reach the Champions League through the back door by winning the Europa League this season and Arsenal are both in the hunt. But who will finish the season in the Champions League spots? That is the topic of this weeks poll:

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Who will win the Champions League this season?

This week marks the start of the semi finals of  the Champions League. Four teams remain – Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus and Monaco with the two Spanish sides facing off in one tie and Italian champions Juventus taking on a Falcao inspired Monaco side in the other. But which two teams will reach the final and lift the coveted trophy at the National Stadium of Wales in Cardiff on June 3rd.  Will Real Madrid win their 12th European Cup/Champions League trophy? Or will neighbours Atletico be able to finally lift the trophy at the third attempt? Can Juventus put the bad memories of two years ago aside when they lost to Barcelona and get their hands on the cup or will Monaco lift it for the first time in their history having suffered defeat at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Porto back in 2004?

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How doubt eventually brought Ranieri and Leicester to their knees

Last year can be defined quite simply as a fairytale season for Leicester City who lifted their first ever English Premier League title. But this year has been anything but that. Hovering dangerously above the relegation zone thanks largely to some awful league performances, Leicester’s owners have been forced into making one of the hardest decisions of their seven year reign. Stick with the manager who delivered an unprecedented title or twist, sacking the manager in favour of a fresh pair of hands who might just be able to guide them to safety. In the end, they chose the latter and yesterday said arrivedechi to Ranieri. The Italian leaves the club as an icon and will always remain as such despite the happenings on the pitch this season. So what went so wrong for Ranieri?

From Champions to relegation candidates in less than seven months so what went so wrong for Ranieri? (image from Tumblr)

The departure of chief talent scout Steve Walsh to Everton in the summer was a key factor but in truth problems arose before that happened. Last year’s remarkable title win should have had a positive effect on the club but instead planted the seed of doubt in a management team that showed little doubt the year before. To be fair, things had fundamentally changed for Ranieri. He was ridiculed when appointed as manager in the summer of 2015 but rather than letting it get to him, he basked in the low expectations placed on him by the media and fans. Last year’s target was survival not the title after all. Even after his side put together an impressive run that saw them top the table at Christmas, many still expected and called for Leicesters eventual fall. As the weeks and months went on, still no tumble and Ranieri grew more and more confident. He had comfortably shaken off his media nickname of the Tinkerman by sticking with a winning team and formula for a majority of the season. His mantra of when its not broken don’t fix it paid off. The title quickly became theirs to lose and eventually they would reach the finishing line in style with games to spare.

Captain Wes Morgan lifts the clubs first ever Premier League title (Image from Tumblr)

But after the extended celebrations ended and all the champagne had been drunk, the realization that Leicesters world (and the expectations that came with that) had shifted. Leicester were now the English champions and with it drew pressure back on to Ranieri. Few believed that they would compete again for the title but a top six or eight position plus a run in Europe was expected. Ranieri began to have doubts. Was the team he assembled good enough to compete again on multiple fronts? Would the reliable formation of last year still work? Would they be able to replicate the form they found in abundance last season? Those doubts ate away at him all summer. And it’s that doubt that ended up leading to his dismissal.

Winning the title brought doubt back into Ranieri’s thinking (Image from Tumblr)

Over a busy summer, Ranieri added to his squad with several new faces at a hefty cost. Ahmed Musa became the clubs record signing before that was broken a few days later with the capture of Islam Slimani. He also handed lucrative new deals to his heros of last season and also persuaded star striker Jamie Vardy to knock back the advances of Arsenal in favour of staying with the club. On the outside everything looked set for a promising title defence. But the cracks that began to appear in the final months of last season were beginning to reappear. Was aging captain Wes Morgan able to compete again at the highest level? Did Marhez and Vardy have their heads turned by potential summer moves? How would they cope with losing Kante to Chelsea?

N’Golo Kante’s departure to Chelsea left a huge hole in the Leicester City team (Image from Tumblr)

The latter was key as the diminutive midfielder had played a key role in their surge to the title. But he was just one of eleven in that team so replacing, although difficult should have been an achievable task. His replacement, Nampayls Mendy has not quite worked out mostly because the Leicester side have been unable to work out how to play without Kante in the team. This is primarily due to Ranieri reverting back to his old self and tinkering with the team formation – one week with three at the back, the next with a diamond in the middle. Confusion amongst the ranks has led to mistakes which cost Leicester dearly in too many games during this campaign. Doubt made Ranieri tinker with his winning formula and experiment mid season. His early season faith in his title winning side was a mistake and the decision to focus on the Champions League (with the belief that his side would rebound in the league after qualifying) a bigger one. Having achieved progression from the Champions League group stage by the end of November, Ranieri must have believed that his side would transform their European form into domestic form but that never materialized. Key defeats in December to Sunderland and Bournemouth and in January to Chelsea, Southampton and Burnley sent the reigning Champions spiralling down the table. In addition, a resurgence in form by the teams below them, most notably Hull and Swansea under new management must have given Leicesters board pause for thought but could they do the unthinkable?

Doubt brought back the return of The Tinkerman (Image from Tumblr)

In the end they could and had to. Football is very much a business nowadays and with it comes responsibility to protect that business when faced with significant financial implications. Dropping to the Championship may not have been the worse thing in the world for Leicester from a footballing prospective but the financial impact of not being in the Premier League would have been. Unfortunately despite all that he had achieved in one remarkable season, Ranieri had to go. Was it the right thing to do morally? No. Ranieri achieved the impossible last year so deserved to stay but to the owners sentimentality could play no part in their final decision.

Could Roberto Mancini be set to replace Ranieri at Leicester City? (Image from Tumblr)

Ranieri’s replacement will be appointed swiftly with a clear mandate of remaining in the Premier League. Further progression in the Champions League would be a bonus and with an away goal scored against Seville in their 2-1 first leg defeat that is still possible. But staying up is the most important thing for the club now. For Ranieri he will take time to reflect before making his next move. He will ponder what went so wrong and what he could have done to change things. Doubt about his abilities may also creep back in but for a coach who is now classified as a title winning one his stock has risen dramatically across Europe. Ranieri will be back in management before long but the big question will remain – will he be able to subdue his doubt and resist the temptation to once again become the Tinkerman.

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Back Of The Net Podcast – Pep Rips Hart Out Of City As Maradona Opens His

Welcome to the Back Of The Net podcast! This week we look at Pep’s decision to dispense with England stopper Joe Hart, Big Sam’s first England squad, Oliver Burke’s transfer to Germany, who the British clubs will face in the Champions League and Europa League and finally Diego Maradona’s scoring ability off the pitch!

Listen below, download via Soundcloud, ITunes, Stitcher, TuneIn or on all good podcast services!

https://soundcloud.com/user-303027057/my-opinion-podcast-1

As always, comments welcome. Let us know your thoughts and what you would like to hear on future pods. Enjoy!

PSG Turn Focus To Champions League After Securing League Title In Style

Needing only three points, Paris Saint Germain knew that winning their fourth league title was in their own hands. Up against bottom club Troyes, PSG were strong favourites for the win but few would have predicted how emphatically they would do so. Dominant from the off, Laurent Blanc’s side controlled the game with ease eventually running out 9-0 winners. Goals from Pastore, Rabiot and Ibrahimovic gave PSG a 3-0 lead going into the half time break. But rather than applying the breaks in order to coast to victory, the champions elect stepped up a gear and went for the jugular destroying Troyes in a frightening 45 minutes period. An own goal from Saunier, a brace from Cavani and a further three goals from Ibrahimovic wrapped up the result and the league title.

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Cavani and the rest of the PSG team celebrate winning their fourth consecutive title (image from afp)

The ease in which PSG wrapped up the title this year with eight games to spare is more a reflection of the growing gap between the champions and the chasing pack than anything else. Only one defeat in thirty games and a positive goal difference of 62 highlights the issue. Monaco did managed to mount a sizable challenge but too many draws ultimately led them to fall too far behind PSG. Surprise package Nice, led by the brillIance of former Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa and Lyon came close but in the end now one could keep up with Laurent Blanc’s side as they sped to the title. Lyon were the only side to beat PSG during the regular season but a series of early season defeats had by then already cost them a chance at the title. The key reason for this growing gap is the financial resources available to PSG. Their addition of Angel Di Maria in the summer for €63m was more than any other team in the league spent in total during the entire season. At this level of spending it is impossible for the chasing pack to compete, leading to a one sided title race in Ligue 1.

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PSG’s ability to spend big on players like Di maria is the difference between them and the others in Ligue 1 (Image from Getty)

With the league tied up, PSG can now focus on the one title that the clubs Qatari owners want the most – the Champions League. Having eliminated Chelsea in the last round, PSG advance to the quarter finals with the hopes of becoming only the second french side to lift the coveted title (after Marseille’s infamous victory in 1993). There are still some formidable sides left in the competition including Real Madrid, Manchester city and current holders Barcelona but all the remaining teams are still competing for their respective domestic titles giving PSG  major advantage. Blanc now has the luxury of resting his entire starting eleven ahead of the next set of Champions League fixtures with the remaining squad players and youngsters at the club taking over the league duties in their absence. Keeping his talented side fresh for this run may be a decisive factor in PSG eventually winning the trophy.  

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PSG are looking to emulate Marseille by winning the Champions League (Image from Getty)

Doing so may also be the only hope that the club has of holding on to the eccentric Zlatan Ibrahimovic how has indicated that he is likely to leave at the end of the season when his contract expires. At 34 years old, Ibrahimovic is well aware that his career is drawing quickly to a close so is considering his options after winning everything that is possible at PSG. Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi wants the iconic player to stay but all the sounds coming out of Ibrahimovic’s camp is that he has made his mind up, joking that the only way he will stay is if the city replaced the Eiffel Tower with a statue of him. Ibrahimovic has recently been linked with moves to Manchester United and Major League Soccer in the United States. If however PSG can lift the Champions league, it may persuade Ibrahimovic to stay at the club a while longer as they compete firstly for the Super cup and then in December for the Club World Cup. He has won both of these trophies before at Barcelona but to do it with PSG as the clubs talisman would be enough of an incentive for Ibrahimovic to consider staying for one further season.

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Will he stay or will he go? (Image from AFP)

Ibrahimovic’s four goals on Sunday included a 10-minute hat-trick, which took his league total to 27 in 24 games this season and increased his tally in the French top flight to 102. He may be aging but at present is showing no signs of slowing down and could quite easily continue to score crucial goals for PSG for some time to come especially given the ever widening gap between PSG and the other teams in the league. The next few months will be defining times for both PSG and Ibrahimovic and whether they will stay together or part as friends at the end of this specular season for the French champions.

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Europe’s Elite Gather to Discuss Escape Plan

Its been less than a week since Gianni Infantino won the FIFA presidential election but already he could face one of his biggest challenges. The man chosen to replace Sepp Blatter in last Friday’s vote could be staring down the barrel of his worst nightmare, with the top clubs in Europe looking set to change club football across the region. In a meeting held in London’s Dorchester hotel between England’s top five clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea) and American billionaire Stephen Ross, the resurrection of a once benched idea took place. The discussion centered around the creation of a breakaway league for Europe’s elite to be referred to as The European Super League.

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The Super League would mean the end of the Champions League (Image from getty)

If successful the league would invite Europe’s best clubs to participate and more worryingly leave their existing leagues. Top of their wish list are Spanish duo real Madrid and Barcelona who have both expressed an interest in forming a breakaway league in the past. These discussions poses a huge threat to the various leagues who could see their overall value and interest deteriorate rapidly if their top clubs were to exit. It would also be the end of the UEFA run Champions League which was ironically expanded after UEFA reacted to a plan by Italian company Media partners in 1998 about forming a breakaway Super League. By disbanding the Cup winners Cup and offering places to at least the top three sides in the five major leagues in Europe, UEFA managed to please the frustrated clubs who saw the Super League as a way to generate more revenue. Money unfortunately is at the heart of this move with both the clubs and Ross seeing this as a lucrative way to cash in on the growing global interest of Europe’s biggest clubs.

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Stephen Ross has big plans for Europe’s elite (image from Getty)

Ross, who is the majority owner of NFL side the Miami Dolphins was not actually present at the meeting but was represented by senior executives of his company Relevant Sports who have already made some moves to be involved in football by organizing money spinning pre and post season tournaments across the globe for Europe’s elite under the branded international Champions Cup. But now Ross sees a bigger opportunity to create a revenue stream that would last longer than just a few months a year and instead generate considerable returns all year round. Owners of clubs outside of this invitation only League have reacted badly to the idea with West Ham’s David Gold calling the idea “sad” and saying that the move would ” destroy football as we know it”. He may have a point.

West Ham co-owner David Gold watches on against Everton before t

David Gold has a stark warning for the clubs considering joining the Super League (Image from Getty)

For Infantino, the concern is how to tackle this. Whilst realistically it is a UEFA problem with the various clubs being mentioned all UEFA members, it is something that infantino will be keeping an incredibly close eye on as it could affect FIFA and football as a whole moving forward. The unknown is what scares him the most with several doomsday scenarios possible. For instance lets say the Super League goes ahead and europe’s elite clubs leave their respective leagues to join, what then becomes of the leagues they left? One scenario is that they prosper with more clubs in the running to become champions making it more attractive to watch. Consider La Liga without Barcelona and Real Madrid. That would mean that clubs like Valencia, Seville, Atletico Madrid and Villarreal would all be competing for the title. However the unknown is what the effect would be on crowds and more importantly tv and sponsor interest with the departure of the Real and Barca. It could result in a lack of interest in the league and a drop in money which then has a domino like effect on the quality on display. The other risk is that if all the best players in the world migrate towards the mega rich clubs in the Super League, the various domestic game suffer with the end result being a knock on effect on the national level which FIFA is keen to avoid.

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Imagine La Liga without Barcelona and Real Madrid (Image from Getty)

It is unknown at this stage what the outcome of that meeting was or what those clubs that did attend the meeting are thinking. What is for certain is that change is coming with the clubs becoming more powerful by the day. The existing Champions league format has become tiresome for Europe’s elite who want more money and more control over UEFA’s premier club tournament. Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu is pushing for  a wild card entry system to the champions league to guarantee that the top sides in Europe all make it into the tournament regardless of where they finish in the league. Whilst a radical view and deemed by many as unfair, it is being considered by UEFA along with several other options. They have little choice than to do so especially if they are to hold off those who want to breakaway to something better.

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Nightmare Scenario For Premier League As Italy Gets Set To Steal a Champions League Spot

 

With twelve games to go, the race for the Premier League title is heating up. Four clubs (Leicester, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City) have pulled out in front whilst Manchester United, Southampton, West Ham and Liverpool are leading the chasing pack. Whilst only one team can win the title, the desire to finish in the top four places is strong given that they all are rewarded with coveted Champions League spots. England has had four spaces in Europe’s premier tournament since 2001 but now that could be under threat as Italy close the gap on England in UEFA’s coefficient table. Introduced in 1979 as a way of statistically ranking and seeding teams in club and international UEFA competitions, the coefficient system has been widely criticized for favouring the stronger nations across Europe who compete more regularly in the various competitions. That said, without a viable alternative it is the only system that can be used fairly. Currently the club coefficient rankings are determined by the results of clubs within both the Champions League and the Europa League over the last five seasons added to the clubs association coefficient.

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England are at risk of slipping down the coefficient standings (Image from UEFA)

Whilst English clubs have consistently featured and reached the closing stages of the Champions League over the past five seasons, it is their failure to take the Europa League seriously that now puts their position in the coefficient standings at threat. In the past five years, only six teams have made it at least to the round of 32 with only Tottenham and Newcastle making it further (quarter finals) and Chelsea running out as winners in the 2012-2013 season. In comparison, Italy have consistently featured in the final stages of both competitions with Juventus making the final of the Champions League and both Fiorentina and Napoli making the semi finals of the Europa League last year. This has led to Italy closing the gap on England who now run a risk of losing one of their Champions League spots to their Italian counterparts starting from the 2017/2018 season.

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Juventus reached the Champions League Final last year helping Italy climb in the standings (Image from Getty)

With this, the Premier League has sprung into action and is contemplating offering its sides competing in the Europa League financial incentives to go as far in the competition as possible. Also on the table for discussion is the potential for better organization on cup competitions including only playing cup fixtures midweek, the removal of two legged semi finals in the League cup and replays. It’s a bold move by the Premier League as it desperately looks to hang on to that fourth Champions League spot. But why has it gotten to this stage and more importantly why have English clubs not taken the Europa League seriously until now? The truth is that English clubs see the Europa league and its current setup as a hindrance. Too many games, too much traveling with little reward has always been the principle complaints. A long Europa league campaign can have a major effect on a team’s league performance as Newcastle found out in the 2012/2013 season. With a small squad to play with, Newcastle struggled in the league due to injuries and fatigue picked up during their run to the quarterfinals that year. After being knocked out by Benfica, then boss Alan Pardew admitted that the European campaign had disrupted his side’s league form with Newcastle only picking up two wins in eighteen, slipping into the relegation zone in the process. Whilst they survived, the valuable lesson learned was that to compete at home and abroad you need to have a large group of talented players, something that few clubs outside of the top five have that their fingertips.

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Newcastle’s run to Europa League cost them form in the Premier League (image from Getty)

Both Italy and England have three sides remaining in this years competition which could ultimately have a major effect on the standings. With three teams each left in the competition, the results of their upcoming games on Thursday have added weight. Tottenham travel to Fiorentina in a rich vein of form and will be hoping to put one over their Italian opponents in the first league. But for manager Mauricio Pochettino the game presents another difficult decision. Sitting second in the Premier League, only two points behind leaders Leicester this could be his sides best chance of winning the title that he will get. So the question remains will he play a full strength side against Fiorentina and risk injuries that could affect his teams run in towards the title or will he sacrifice the Europa League to ensure Tottenham have their best shot? For the League it is difficult call to make – on the one hand they want Tottenham to challenge in the last few months of the season as it makes their product more attractive. But defeat and an early exit for Spurs could cost them in the long run with England losing one of its spots. Not an easy decision by any shape of the imagination.

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English Sides Slump As Champions League Kicks Off

 It wasn’t the best of starts for England’s Champions League contingent. Away defeats for Manchester United and Arsenal and a home loss for Manchester City in the opening week of fixtures was hardly the ideal start that they had all hoped for. Only current Premier League champions Chelsea could manage a win, putting their poor league start behind them by thumping Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv. Jose Mourinho made a series of changes to his starting line up including leaving captain John Terry, fellow defender Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and striker Diego Costa on the bench in a move designed to send a clear message who was boss. With only one win in their opening five matches in the Premier league, Chelsea needed to start strongly in the Champions League and they did exactly that. Goals from Willian, Oscar, Fabergas and substitute Diego Costa secured a well needed 4-0 win.

Not a happy sub – Ivanovic and Terry looked annoyed after being benched by Mourinho (image from Getty)

Out in Croatia, Arsenal were expected to win comfortably in their opening match against Dinamo Zagreb but in typical fashion exposed their lack of options upfront. Despite Theo Walcott’s current form, Arsene Wenger chose to leave the winger turned striker on the bench in favour of Frenchman Olivier Giroud in one of six changes to his starting line up. It proved to be the wrong decision as Arsenal fell behind early on thanks to a strange own goal by Alex Oxlade Chamberlain. Things went from bad to worse just before half time when Giroud saw red For two bookable offences. Now down to ten men, Arsenal were in the back foot going into the second half and soon fell two goals behind after Junior Fernandes connected with Paulo Machado’s pass to finish coolly. Lacking striking options from the bench, Wenger could only turn to Theo Walcott and the Emgland forward didn’t disappoint scoring just shortly after coming on. The goal however came too late as Zagreb held on for a famous victory.

Giroud sees red as Arsenal slump to defeat in Zagreb (image from Getty)

The previous night saw both Manchester clubs kick off their Champions League campaigns. Manchester United travelled to Louis Van Gaal’s homeland to take on PSV still on a high after their emphatic 3-1 win over Liverpool at the weekend. But on a cool night in Eindhoven, United couldn’t find their rhythm. Strikes from Hector Moreno and Luciano Narsingh cancelled out Memphis Depays 40th minute goal, handing PSV all three points. To be fair to United, they did start strongly with Depay in particular looking menacing on his return to Eindhoven. But a serious injury to full back Luke Shaw on 15minutes proved to be the defining moment that swung the game in favour of PSV. Shaw was brutally fouled by PSV defender Hector Moreno, breaking the players right leg in two places in doing so. It’s a harsh blow for the England full back who has only recently started to show just how important he could be for Can Gaal. The Dutchman had been fairly critical of Shaw last year when he took over citing Shaw was unfit and lacking in commitment. Rather than sulking Shaw has shown a fantastic attitude by working hard behind the scenes on both his fitness and overall play. After a stop start season riddled with niggling injuries last year, Shaw was back in the fold and had made the left back position his own with a series of impressive early season performances. But the leg break and the severity of it means that the player will now miss a minimum of six months and is in a race against time to get back playing ahead of England’s appearance at Euro 2016 next summer. After his injury which delayed play for ten minutes whilst he received treatment, the United players were clearly distracted thinking more about the injury than the game they were involved in. PSV took advantage of this drop in concentration and punished United accordingly.

Moreno’s horror challenge on Shaw resultes in a broken leg for Shaw (image from AFP)

The only positive to come that night for United fans was that arch rivals Manchester City lost as well. Manuel Pellegrini’s side entertained  Italian champions Juventus in their opening match but couldn’t replicate their early league form that has them unbeaten so far. Despite taking the lead in the second half through an own goal by Giorgio Chiellini, two goals from Mario Mandzukic and Alvaro Morata  late on were enough to see off City who lacked a quality finisher in the final third. Wilfred Bony and Raheem Sterling both had chances but failed to hit the back of the net. Growing more desperate by the minute, Pellegrini was forced to throw on a semi fit Sergio Aguero into the mix to no avail. City must now regroup for the visit of West Ham this weekend.

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Celtic Have More To Lose Than Just Money In Crunch CL Qualifier

Celtic take a narrow 1 goal lead to Baku (Image from SNS)After an eight and a half hour journey, Glasgow Celtic touched down in Azerbaijan tired but ready for the challenge ahead. Ronny Deila’s side will need to quickly shake off any jet lag they may be under as they prepare to face Azerbaijan champions  Qarabag in today’s crunch second league Champions League qualifier. With only a slender 1-0 lead from the first leg in Glasgow, Deila will be instructing his team to go out and find that crucial away goal that will surely send Celtic through. Concerns about the state of the pitch or the heat will need to be put to one side as the Scottish champions look to progress to the group stage. The pitch at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium has been badly damaged by a recent heat wave in the country and looks patchy in places with as much as 30% of it classified as unplayable but Qarabag manager Gurban Gurbanov is in no mood to be apologetic about it stating there is little the club can do at this stage.Whether he has a point is up for debate but the game will go ahead regardless.

The pitch will be problematic for both sides  (Image from Getty)

The pitch will be problematic for both sides
(Image from Getty)

Celtic  can not afford to sit back against a very technically strong Qarabag side. With pace to burn upfront  through the electric Brazilian Reynaldo and the dynamic link up play of Spanish midfielder Dani Quintana, Qarabag could be a threat straight from the kick off. They will be looking to snatch an early goal in the hopes that Celtic have a stuttering start to the game as their players adapt to the humidity. Qarabag have never qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, narrowly missing last year thanks to an away defeat against Salzburg. But Baku is not an easy place to come as many teams have found out in the past with Qarabag notching victories against Club Brugge, Wisla Krakow, Rosenborg and Salzburg in recent years. They will be looking to add Celtic’s scalp to their collection in what should be a frustrating night for the Scottish champions.

Reynaldo is a threat that Celtic need to be aware of  (Image from PA)

Reynaldo is a threat that Celtic need to be aware of
(Image from PA)

Celtic manager Ronny Deila will not say it but there is a lot resting on tonight’s game and in particular qualification to the group stages. Besides the obvious financial advantages to Celtic through playing regularly in Europe’s top club competition, there are other key reasons to want to compete like holding on to their best players. Winning the Scottish Premiership has become somewhat pedestrian with few teams able to put up a constant long-term fight for the title, especially as Rangers continues its exile. So Celtic rely on European football to keep its star players like Virgil Van Dijk interested. The dutch defender has been a revelation for the club since his £2.6m move from FC Groningen two years ago. Stunning displays and assured defending has led to several Premiership scouts taking notice. Rumours that Southampton are lining up a £7m bid for the player appear to be accurate as they ramp up their search for a new central defender.

Southampton are eyeing a move for Van Dijk  (Image from Getty)

Southampton are eyeing a move for Van Dijk
(Image from Getty)

Ronald Koeman was hoping to make the loan signing of Toby Alderweireld permanent but was beaten to his signature by Tottenham. That was followed by the long-term injury to Romanian defender Florin Gardos which has left Southampton drastically short in the centre back position. With money to spend, the Saints have identified the tall dutch defender as their number one target and are preparing a bid despite Celtic not wanting to sell the player. However failure to qualify for the Champions League could see Virgil request that the move be permitted as he strives to better himself as a footballer. Holding on to Van Dijk is not impossible for Celtic but it will be made harder if all they can offer him is football in Scotland. Victory today in Azerbaijan will go along way in securing the Dutchman for another season at least making the result in Baku that more important.

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Vidal Bayern Bound As He Joins Guardiola’s Champions League Chase

Bayern Bound - Arturo Vidal (Image from PA)Losing a World Cup winning midfielder just a month before the new season begins could have the potential to derail a clubs preparations and result in a sluggish start to the new campaign as they frantically try to adjust. However this won’t be the case for German champions Bayern Munich who let German icon and recent World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger leave for Manchester United last week. It is business as usual for Pep Guardiola’s side who are already filling the void left by Schweinsteiger by purchasing Juventus and Chile star Arturo Vidal. A fee of €40m has been agreed between the clubs for the tireless midfielder who will now travel to Germany for a medical and to finalize terms. It will be a welcomed return to German football for Vidal who left Bayer Leverkausen in 2011 to join The Old Lady in Turin.

A young Vidal playing for Bayer Leverkausen  (Image from Getty)

A young Vidal playing for Bayer Leverkausen
(Image from Getty)

Vidal has been a huge success in Italy, helping Juventus lift four consecutive Scudetto’s and reach the Champions League final last year. But that defeat to Barcelona now sees a break up of the existing squad with several key players either on their way out or having already departed. Carlos Tevez has returned to Argentina with Boca whilst creative maestro Andrea Pirlo departed for the MLS. Speculation has been constant around the futures of midfielder Paul Pogba, striker Fernando Llorente and Vidal with the Chilean now set to be next out of the door. Juventus have strengthen already in several positions as Massimiliano Allegri shuffles his pack but the loss of Vidal will hit them hard regardless. Alongside two of either Pogba, Pirlo and Marchisio, Vidal has been the driving force in the Juventus midfield for the past few years. Comfortable as a defensive midfielder or in a more central position, Vidal’s no nonsense approach to the game bears resemblance to former Italian star Rino Gattuso who acted like a bulldog in the heart of AC Milan’s midfield a few years earlier under Allegri. However unlike Gattuso who was more comfortable sitting back, protecting the back line whilst others created in front of him, Vidal is more of a box to box player creating as many opportunities for his strikers as he does preventing them at the other end. He has benefited hugely from playing alongside the highly experienced Pirlo who has shown Vidal how to read the game better, involved his teammates more and pinpoint attacking opportunities before they happen. This tutelage has made Vidal a better all round player and is now regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world.

Vidal is in the same mould as Gattuso but slightly more attack minded  (Image from AFP)

Vidal is in the same mould as Gattuso but slightly more attack minded
(Image from AFP)

The chase for his signature has been going on for months now with Arsenal and Manchester United making several enquiries only to be told by the polite Vidal that he wasn’t ready. The Chilean wanted to win the Champions League with Juventus and the Copa with Chile this summer before thinking about a move. He may have failed at the first objective but was instrumental as hosts Chile beat Argentina in the final to claim their first ever Copa title. Bayern boss Pep Guardiola has been a fan of Vidal for some time now with suggestions that he attempted to bring him to Barcelona before the Chilean moved to Juventus. But the Spaniard would not lose out this time and has swooped under the radar of all other clubs to sign the player. Along with fellow new arrival Douglas Costa, signed from Shakhtar Donetsk for €30m at the start of the month, Vidal will be part of a new look Bayern midfield as Guardiola looks to build on their domestic dominance in the Bundesliga success with similar success in Europe, namely the Champions League. Vidal will likely operate as part of a new look midfield trio with Costa and the never aging Xavi Alonso who Guardiola will look to as another Prilo like figure for Vidal.

One player who may not be part of that new look team is Mario Gotze. The forward, who scored Germany’s World Cup winning goal after coming off the bench is set for talks with Juventus about a move after falling out of favour with Guardiola. The former Borussia Dortmund star would move as a separate deal but the revenue generated from his sale would help to cover the outlay for Vidal. Both players offer something different and are not like for like replacements for each other so its hard to judge which side is getting the better end of this deal. For Gotze, it’s a chance to resurrect his career which has somewhat stalled since that dramatic night in Rio. For Vidal its a chance to show that he is one of the worlds best midfielders and that with Guardiola’s help he can finally lift the trophy he has been hoping for – the Champions League.

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Casillas Calls Time On Real Madrid Legacy

Living Legend - Iker Casillas (Image from AFP)Not many players can boast about a more successful career spent at one club than Iker Casillas has had. Over the past 25 years, Casillas has quite simply become a Real Madrid legend so news of his pending departure to FC Porto will come as a shock to many. Once considered the best goalkeeper in the world, Casillas has been found guilty on several occasions over the past few years of making critical mistakes which in turn brought his position as Real’s undisputed number No.1 into question. Last season for example he lost his place to Diego Lopez early on only to win it back once again in the second half of the campaign after the fans protested. It’s a familiar story of late that surfaces with Casillas who has been saved from the chop a few times due to reputation alone, primarily due to all that he has done for club and country over the past two and a half decades. And to be fair, they have a point. Casillas has won it all over that time including five La Liga times, three Champions Leagues and ten other trophies with Real Madrid as well as helping Spain to lift two European Championship titles and the country’s first ever World Cup in 2010. But the time has come for the legendary keeper to depart with Real keen to sign up Manchester United and Spain stopper David De Gea as his direct replacement.

Over a 25 year career, Casillas has won it all including the World Cup with Spain  (Image from EFE/Javier Lizón)

Over a 25 year career, Casillas has won it all including the World Cup with Spain
(Image from EFE/Javier Lizón)

Arguably Casillas departure strengthens the negotiation hand of Manchester United as they continue to hold out on letting David De Gea join Madrid. With Real now racing against the clock to secure a new goalkeeper, United will know that Madrid’s willingness to part with more cash to secure De Gea will now increase dramatically. Keeping De Gea would be the preferred option for manager Louis Van Gaal but that looks increasingly unlikely with the player making moves himself including putting his house up for sale to ensure the switch happens. With Victor Valdes at the club, United could afford to let him leave without really having to worry about who they could get to replace him. So it looks certain that De Gea will move on but when and for how much remain the key questions. United could also use Real’s desperation to leverage their move for Sergio Ramos with the defender keen on a switch to Old Trafford. However it’s believed that Real Madrid want to keep the two deals very much separate in an attempt to reach a more favourable financial conclusion for the Spanish side.

Madrid wants De Gea to replace Casillas  (Image from Getty)

Madrid wants De Gea to replace Casillas
(Image from Getty)

Part of the reason for Casillas departure was in fact De Gea who insisted that he wouldn’t join Real Madrid unless Casillas left. It’s understandable that the young Spanish keeper would not want to go to a club that has a goalkeeping legend still in its ranks. Despite De Gea’s confidence in his abilities and his growing stature in Spain, he could ill afford to play second fiddle to Casillas at this important crossroads in his career. Madrid have tried in vain to convince him that he will be their undisputed number one but De Gea will know from watching other goalkeepers coming in to Real int he past that it has been hard to displace Casillas. Despite his mistakes that have on occasions cost Madrid dearly, the fans still love Casillas and expect him to play in front of all others. With Casillas gone, De Gea can own the No.1 jersey and focus his efforts on winning over the fans rather than fighting to hold on to the shirt with Casillas waiting in the wings.

At 34, Casillas still has a few good years left in him and can be a success in Portugal in a continuously improving Porto side. He may not be the tallest goalkeeper in the world but his athleticism and positioning more than makes up for it. A natural-born shot stopper and a leader at heart, Casillas will strengthen the Porto back line as they look to win back the Primeira Liga and challenge in the Champions League. Regardless of whether Casillas is a success or not during his stay in Portugal, his legendary status as one of the world best ever goalkeepers is secure. Italian goalkeeping great Gigi Buffon called him simply the best goalkeeper that had ever lived and its hard to argue with that. Like all great players, age has an effect on form and the decline that follows can be brutal on a players reputation but for Casillas it will take a lot more than just bad form to damage his legacy. A capacity crowd will give Casillas the send off from the Bernabeau that he deserves after a lifetime spent at the club, giving his all for the club that he loves and has loved him back.

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Are There Cracks Appearing In PSG’s Dominance?

PSG have once again dominated French football but  are there cracks now appearing in the capital? (Image from Getty)Paris Saint Germain’s canter to their third successive title last season appeared to be tougher than first anticipated with Lyon, Monaco and Marseille all pushing to the very end. But in truth, PSG were far too strong for them all. Flush with riches beyond most teams wildest dreams and a squad of superstar players at their disposal, PSG should be ruling French football and they are. This past weekend they added another trophy to their cabinet, the French Cup making it their third domestic trophy this season and earning them a place in French folklore as the first team to win a domestic treble. Despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline, they dominated that match much like they had dominated most matches this season in France.

PSG sealed  hattrick of French titles this season with victory in the French Cup final  (Image from TVA)

PSG sealed hattrick of French titles this season with victory in the French Cup final
(Image from TVA)

Their record in Ligue 1 over the last three years demonstrates their dominance. Over three seasons and 114 games, PSG have won 76 times (66%) and have lost on only 11 occasions (9.6%). They have scored 236 goals, average just over two goals a game. Better still they have only conceded only 82 times in three seasons, or a goal every game and a half. But there are early signs, albeit manageable ones of problems arising at the club. This season saw PSG draw 11 times and more worryingly concede more goals (36) than either of the first two seasons (both 23). Added into this, Ligue 1 is finally becoming competitive again after several baron years with few teams able to mount a serious challenge. Whilst Monaco has bought its recent success with a series of high profile captures over the years including Rademel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Lucas Ocampos, Marsielle’s renaciance can be credited to the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa and the strong team work ethic he brought to the club. A strong start to the season raised hopes that this was the year for Marseille but their hard work was ultimately undone by two poor months in February and April where they only managed to pick up three points in eight vital games. Lyon however did push PSG to the very end but shock defeats to Caen and Nice would derail their chances as the season drew to a close.

PSG's performance in the last three years has been impressive but  signs of regression emerging?  (Image from Wiki)

PSG’s performance in the last three years has been impressive but signs of regression emerging?
(Image from Wiki)

PSG know that they will need to improve, despite winning this years title in the end by a comfortable eight points. Their overdependent on stirkers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani who between them scored 44% of PSG’s league goals this season. With speculation mounting that the pair could depart the club for new challenges, Blanc will need to address the situation sooner rather than later. As always, PSG’s owners are not afraid to flex their financial muscle to obtain their required targets but after being stung once before by UEFA’s financial fair play rules, they will be slightly more cautious this time.  They will invest their money more wisely with a focus on younger players who will provide longevity to what is an aging squad. Decisions will need to be made over the growing volume of stars now over 30 like Ibrahimovic, Zoumana Camara, Thiago Motta and Maxwell. The futures of Yohan Cabaye and Ezequiel Lavezzi will also be considered over the summer after the pair have failed to live up to the high standard they produced at their previous clubs that first brought the attention of PSG’s scouts to them.

New faces will arrive to bolster PSG roster of stars, all under the watchful eye of Blanc who is likely to remain in charge after securing the domestic treble. Blanc however will not be allowed to rest on his laurels with the board making it clear that success for them means only one thing – Champions League. PSG have certainly become more competitive in recent years in the competition but are still quite far away from winning it. They lack the hunger of Barcelona, the organization of Juventus and most importantly the flexibility of Bayern. Blanc’s over reliance in the same tired formation, the one that has worked so well in the league has been his downfall. He may have matched Chelsea ball for ball in the round of 16 but their luck ran out when facing a more dynamic Barcelona side in the quarters. Messi and co simply ran rings round their firm structure and highlighted Blanc’s key weakness – his lack of tactical surprise. This unfortunately is not something you can buy but instead must be learned. Blanc has the summer to address this or he will face the axe.

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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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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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Mourinho Moaning or Media Manipulation Masterclass?

Moany Mourinho or Masterclass Mourinho? (Image from Getty)Like him or loathe him, Jose Mourinho has a point. After Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Burnley, the Chelsea manager didn’t hold back on his opinions calling out four moments during the game where he felt that his side had decisions given against them by referee Martin Atkinson. Whilst the Portuguese coach bit his tongue in the post match interview for fear of being reprimanded for negative comments against the referee, he did reveal more on the Sky Sports Goals on Sunday programme about his frustration regarding the decisions being made against his team. Of the four incidents he called out, the high challenge by Ashley Barnes on Nemanja Matic in particular irked Mourinho saying that Barnes challenge should have been a red card. As it turned out, it was Matic who was dismissed after he reacted to the challenge by pushing Barnes to the floor. Looking at the footage however, you can understand why Matic reacted like he did as Barnes challenge was high and reckless which could have resulted in a leg break or worse for the Serbian midfielder.

Former Referee chief Keith Hackett has blasted Atkinson for an incompetent officiating performance and it’s hard to argue with him on that. Atkinson did not have his strongest game which could have been down to fatigue given his midweek excursion to Germany for the Champions League clash between Schalke and Real Madrid. Hackett believes that Atkinson should have been given more time to recover and as a result made some strange decisions during what could be for Chelsea an important match.  Like Mourinho, Hackett believes that Atkinson got the Matic decision wrong and that Barnes should have been sent off. In fact Barnes was lucky to even still be on the pitch when the incident happened given that the Burnley striker had been involved in several unsavory clashes during the match. His high challenge on Branislav Ivanovic in the first half could have been a red card but instead Atkinson chose to ignore it and let the game continue.

For Mourinho it is the latest example of how his team is being picked on and how he feels that crucial decisions in matches are going against Chelsea. Despite his side sitting top of the league, he believes the challenge of winning the league has been made harder by an ongoing campaign to undermine him and his team. Whilst few will agree with him on this, there was support given to the notion that Barnes should have walked after the Matic challenge with former Arsenal player Paul Merson saying that Matic’s reaction was natural given the disgraceful manner of the tackle. Former England winger Chris Waddle also called it a terrible tackle and a potential leg breaker saying that there is no place in the game for tackles like that. Chelsea are appealing the decision but Mourinho believes that it’s fruitless as Chelsea has never won an appeal as far as he can remember.

Matic pushes Barnes to the floor after reckless challenge  (Image from Marc Atkins Offside)

Matic pushes Barnes to the floor after reckless challenge
(Image from Marc Atkins Offside)

It’s not been a great week for the south London club who have been dealing with the aftermath of last Tuesday racism storm, where Chelsea fans in Paris travelling to their side’s Champions League clash with PSG racially abused a black Parisian man before preventing him from boarding a train. The incident took the shine off of a solid performance by Chelsea in the Parc des Princes who secured the away goal needed to hand them the advantage for the return leg.  The dropped points in the league however have allowed rivals Manchester City to close the gap at the top to five points after their stunning 5-0 demolition of Newcastle. Mourinho knows that the league is still in his hands and may be using the incidents in the Burnley game to his advantage. After all Mourinho is a king of manipulation and of mass media control often using them to his benefit by taking the pressure away from his team.

Them vs US mentality at Chelsea  (Image from Getty)

Them vs US mentality at Chelsea
(Image from Getty)

The story from Saturday should have been about Chelsea’s inability to find a way past a struggling Burnley side and win the game but instead the focus is switched firmly to the referee and four poor decisions made. It’s a clever tactic by the Portuguese boss who knows better than anyone else how to create a siege like mentality at his club. The us versus them approach worked well in previous campaigns with Chelsea rallying internally against the naysayers who Mourinho painted as being firmly against Chelsea winning the league.  On this occasion with 12 games remaining including crunch games against Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, Mourinho may be looking to gain the upper hand by making the referees more nervous during games they officiate involving Chelsea. Time will tell if he gets his wish and he starts to see those decisions going for rather than against him.

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Yet Another Black Mark In The Fight Against Racism In Football

Chelsea have been caught up in yet another racism incident (Image from Getty)Yesterday’s showcase game in Paris between hosts Paris Saint Germain and Chelsea should have been the poster boy for this round of the Champions League but instead the actions of a few travelling Blues supporters tarnished the night and with it Chelsea’s reputation. Reports coming out of Paris suggest that an incident happened on the Paris underground system between a group of rowdy Chelsea fans and a black Parisian man with the fans refusing him entry onto the train they were travelling on. To make matters worse, they then racially abused the man before shoving him back onto the platform. Footage of the event has emerged as a bystander Paul Nolan who shocked at what he was hearing and seeing pulled out his phone and recorded it. Chats of “We are Chelsea, We are racist and that’s the way we like it” can be heard clearly on the video. Nolan described the scene as  “ugly” and “very aggressive” also alluded to chants made by the Chelsea supporters on the train about World War Two and other grotesque topics. One fan has been quick to try to defend his fellow supporters suggesting they was simply no room on the train for the black Parisian man and the chants were coincidental and about John Terry not the man himself. Given the footage and the aggressive nature of how the fans acted towards the man in question, it hardly seems to be a misunderstanding as suggested by the fan.

Chelsea, the English FA, UEFA and FIFA have all come out united in their disgusted at what happened with the club in particular annoyed stating that racism plays no part at their club or in football in general and that they will assist the Metropolitan police in bringing those responsible to justice.  FIFA president Sepp Blatter took to twitter last night to condemn the actions of the fans stating simply “There is no place for racism in football”.  Both FIFA and UEFA are unable to enforce action onto Chelsea as the incident took place away from the stadium outside of their remit but have supported the club in their involvement with the police in tracking down the individuals responsible and handing down whatever punishment is needed.

 

Blatter is vocal about his opinions but FIFA has failed to act in recent years  (Image from Twitter - Sepp Blatter)

Blatter is vocal about his opinions but FIFA has failed to act in recent years
(Image from Twitter – Sepp Blatter)

FIFA and UEFA however will likely punish Chelsea after additional reports surfaced of crowd trouble at the stadium before the game that was so severe that French police were forced to use teargas to bring the situation into order. This is not the first time that an English club has clashed with French police with Everton fans involved only months ago in an altercation in the run up to their Europa league game against Ligue 1 side Lille. These two incidents come at a time where the fight against racism in football appears to be a losing battle with a return to the darker ages becoming a more realistic reality. The increase in racist and homophobic chants inside English stadiums as well as in other countries like Russia, Greece and Italy are in stark contrast to the messages surfacing from UEFA and FIFA that their campaign to say No to Racism is gaining valuable ground. In fact the opposite is true with the ten year fight now losing its impotence. Each anti racism message read out at football stadiums across Europe before the start of games is simply ignored or dismissed. UEFA’s campaign has gone stagnant and its failure to hand down severe penalties to players like Luis Suarez and Chelsea captain John Terry (who was caught on film racially abusing a fellow player, Anton Ferdinand) does little to help their cause. Swift reform and harsher punishments are needed. UEFA will ban a club from European competition for overspending but it refuses to hand down similar punishments for racist or homophobic acts by clubs fans, players or officials. Where is the logic in that?

Racism has long been a problem in football and not something that will be solved any time soon. Whilst UEFA can be commended for tackling the issue head on some ten years ago, they now need to desperately breathe new life into it before it spirals further out of control. As for Chelsea, who take a small advantage back to Stamford Bridge for the return leg thanks to a hard fought 1-1 draw,  action will need to be taken to address not only this story but a growing concern at the club that a racist element is resurfacing. John Terry’s actions and lack of punishment have not helped the situation but it is hard to point the finger fully at that given the amount of time that has now passed. But for a club that has its fair share of black players in its first team including the legendary figure of Didier Drogba, it must take a stance to eradicate this element before it grows and festers into something more sinister. How Drogba himself feels about the incident in Paris is unknown but it would be surprising if he was anything but appalled by what he saw from the fans who he has given his all for over the last ten years.  Chelsea may claim that this group of individuals is only a small minority and that a vast majority of the Chelsea support is against racism but until they can prove it and finally stamp it out of their club, few will believe them.

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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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Tough Challenges Ahead For British Teams Left In Europe

Tough draw for UK teams in Europe (Image from UEFA)This year’s draw for the knockout stages of both the Champions League and Europa league have not been kind to the remaining British sides taking part. In the Champions League, Manchester City faces a familiar foe in Barcelona in the last 16. The pair were drawn against each other last season with the Catalan giants coming out on top, winning 4-1 on aggregate. The task of slaying Luis Enrique’s side will be any easier this year as City reeling from the loss of inform striker Sergio Aguero struggle to find the correct gear both domestically and in Europe. One glimmer of hope is that Barcelona of late have been struggling in La Liga dropping seven points in their last seven games. Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Getafe left Barcelona four points off of leaders Real Madrid and allowed defending champions Atletico Madrid in third to close the gap to three points. However in Europe, Barcelona have been in good form, losing only once (a narrow 3-2 defeat to PSG) since being knocked out of last year’s tournament by Atletico.

Man City meet Barcelona again in the last 16  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Man City meet Barcelona again in the last 16
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

On route to dispatching Barcelona, Atletico knocked out Chelsea who were going through a transformation phase under returning manager, Jose Mourinho. Having successfully rebuilt his side and rediscovered the balls that he felt they lacked last year, Chelsea look like a far more capable side than last season. Currently topping the Premiership with new striker Diego Costa firing on all cylinders, Mourinho’s side will be looking to advance to the quarter finals when the tournament restarts in February. Standing in their way are PSG, with Brazilian defender David Luiz coming up against his former employers. Seen as unreliable in Mourinho’s eyes, Luiz was sold for £50 million during the summer and will be keen to prove his former boss wrong by stopping Chelsea in their tracks.

Former Chelsea defender David Luiz, now with PSG is out to prove a point  (Image from Getty)

Former Chelsea defender David Luiz, now with PSG is out to prove a point
(Image from Getty)

Meanwhile across London, Arsenal’s chances of progressing in the Champions League were given a boost by drawing French side Monaco. The club from the tiny principality has been out of sorts this season despite the wealth of riches at their disposal. Having strangely allowed star striker Falcao to leave for Manchester United on a season long loan, Monaco have struggled to score goals with 33 year old Dimitar Berbatov their only real goal scoring threat so far with five goals. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger will not fear a trip to Monaco and a ground he knows all too well having coached there in the past. The Frenchman spent seven seasons in the south of France in the late eighties before eventually winding up at Arsenal after a short stint in Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight. With Alexis Sanchez on form and Theo Walcott returning from injury in the next few weeks, Arsenal should have enough firepower to progress.

Berbatov is Monaco's top goal scorer on five  (Image from REUTERS/Robert Pratta)

Berbatov is Monaco’s top goal scorer on five
(Image from REUTERS/Robert Pratta)

In the Europa League, Celtic were hoping for an easier passage into the next round but instead got one of the worst draws possible in the shape of inform Inter Milan. Still unbeaten under new boss Roberto Mancini, the Italians will be formidable opponents for Ronny Delia’s team and it will take a special atmosphere inside Celtic Park to rattle them. Also up against Italian opposition are Tottenham who drew Fiorentina with Micah Richards in their ranks. The Manchester City player is spending the season on loan at the Serie A club but has only made a few select appearances so may have to make do with a spot on the bench. Spurs haven’t started the season as well as they would have hoped but will likely strengthen in the January transfer window in advance of the Fiorentina clash.

Homeward bound - Richards could feature against Spurs  (Image from EPA)

Homeward bound – Richards could feature against Spurs
(Image from EPA)

Liverpool are another team looking to strengthen in January after a very disappointing start to the new campaign. Out of the Champions League, Brendan Rodgers side now face Turkish side Besiktas sparking memories of the stunning 8-0 victory that they managed the last time the two sides met. The Europa League may be the only way for Liverpool to secure a Champions League place for next season so beating the current Super Lig leaders may be essential for Rodgers keeping his job. Across the city, Everton face Young Boys with manager Roberto Martinez confident of his side progressing having escaped out of a difficult group containing Lille, Wolfsburg and Krasnodar. However the Swiss side is unlikely to roll over easily and will prove a tricky test for Everton as they too look to cement their place in the last 16.

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Will Aguero’s Latest Injury Derail City’s Season?

A tearful Aguero leaves the field against Everton (Image from Matt West/BPI)With the pain visible in his face and the tears rolling down his cheeks, Sergio Aguero trudged off the pitch at the Ethiad Stadium on Saturday and straight onto Manchester City’s now heaving injury list. Scans have confirmed that the Argentine striker has a twisted medial ligament meaning he is likely to be out of action until early next year. The injury to arguably City best player this season is a bitter blow as they compete on multiple fronts for honours. It’s not quite been the start to the season that many expected from the current English champions. Slow out of the blocks in the league and struggling to find their footing in Europe, the pressure was building on Pellegrini as Aguero slowly returned from a hamstring problem that hindered his displays at this year’s World Cup. His reintroduction to the starting eleven has seen resurgence in form that has propelled City back up the table and back into contention, both at home and in Europe. Aguero has been in blistering form so far scoring 19 goals in 20 matches in all competitions. But this latest setback – his third knee injury in as many years could threaten to derail Manchester City’s season.

Aguero fell under the challenge of Everton's Muhamed Besic, injuring his knee  (Image from Getty)

Aguero fell under the challenge of Everton’s Muhamed Besic, injuring his knee
(Image from Getty)

With injuries to key personnel like David Silva and Vincent Kompany as well as a drop in form for several other instrumental players, the news that Aguero could be out for a considerable period of time is hardly what was needed. City face a make or break game against Roma in the Champions League tomorrow with no less than a win needed to secure their passage into the next round. Roma need a win to progress so it will be a winner takes all scenario. However there is a chance that both teams could be disappointed if CSKA Moscow can go to Germany and convincingly beat table toppers Bayern Munich meaning that they would progress. Whilst unlikely that the Germans would roll over, the chance to progress and eliminate both Roma and City in one go may tempt them to field a reserve side in this match. Failing to advance would be seen as a failure by City’s owners who after tasting success domestically now pine for similar success in Europe. The Europa League may offer a chance at redemption for Pellegrini if his side can finish third in the group but it’s certainly not the prize that the clubs wealthy owners had in mind.

City scraped a draw against Roma the last time that they met  (Image from Getty)

City scraped a draw against Roma the last time that they met
(Image from Getty)

Back home in the league, City are chasing down leaders Chelsea who stumbled to their first defeat of the season on Saturday against Newcastle. Pardew’s side are going through a positive spell as late that has seen them leap back up the table after spending a few hair raising weeks rooted to the bottom of it. The defeat helped to cut the gap at the top between City and Chelsea to three points with the pair set to meet at the end of January. Before then City have seven matches to play, all of which are very winnable against sides much further down the league. In stark contrast, Chelsea’s next seven games pit them against more formable opponents such as Stoke, Southampton, Tottenham and Newcastle so by the time the two meet, City could already be top and in a commanding position. However doing so without their talisman Aguero may make the task harder for Pellegrini’s men. The extent of his injury is still being assessed by generally this type of injury could rule a player out for up to three months, potentially longer if surgery is required. For City’s sake, they will be hoping that Aguero responds well to treatment and will come back sooner but rushing him back could have long term detrimental effects to the players knee, given that this is not the first time he has hurt it. If he is to be out for longer, dipping in to the January transfer window to buy or loan another striker may help Pellegrini in the long run. City has the funds to do so and with the owners demanding success, it may be the only course of action if City are to finish this season with silverware.

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