Who are the Favourites to Win the Premier League?

After a Pandemic that has crippled several clubs financially, many big-name players made unthinkable moves. The Premier League has seen a shift of fortunes in Europe in recent seasons after several years of poor performances in European competitions. With more amassment of talent, this season offers more excitement than ever before. Romelu Lukaku’s return back to London as the prodigal son has transformed Chelsea into genuine title contenders and he has looked dominant on his first few games back. On the other side, Harry Kane’s decision to stay in the capital appears to affected the player but not the club who was interested in buying him, Manchester City . Liverpool got back their captain and their entire squad looks more confident as a result but, the biggest shock has been the return of the Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United after more than a decade.  With the closure of the transfer window, we can have a breakdown of the favourites for the title and the top four.

Clinical – Chelsea lacked a cutting edge last year but not this season with Romelu Lukaku returning


Last season finish: 4th

New Arrivals: Romelu Lukaku, Saul Niguez, Trevor Chalobah

Notable Exits: Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori

Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel have made significant strides and have now started to taken a transform into a legitimate much to the delight of the board who backed them by investing over  £200 million in signings last year. After a hot pursuit of Erling Haaland fell through due to increased wage demands and agent fees, the board finally decided to sign for bring back their former prodigy, Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has started the season in great form scoring 4 goals in five games so far. Chelsea possess phenomenal squad depth made up of a mix of young and experienced players. Jorginho has been instrument in the middle clearing build-up plays and stopping momentum with clever foul baiting tactics much like his performance for Italy at the Euros. The game against Liverpool at the beginning of the season showed just how well coached this team is under Tuchel. Despite giving away a penalty and losing a defender, the team managed to secure a draw and still managed to threaten a handful of chances in the second half. Chelsea have also managed to secure the signing of Saul Niguez from Atletico Madrid, a deep lying midfielder to provide cover for Kante who has had his fair share of injuries of late.

Prediction: Presently as constructed, Chelsea are the favourites for the season given their squad depth, tactically soundness and the presence of Lukaku up front. Tuchel’s biggest failure at PSG was his inability to control the ego of the big players but, he has the perfect opportunity of success at Chelsea with a hungry squad and a chance to correct on his mistakes.

In Pep they Trust -Pep has added only Jack Grealish to his squad yet still Man City look menacing.

Manchester City

Last season: 1st

New Arrivals: Jack Grealish

Notable Exits: Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia

The defending champions have improved their squad with the addition of Jack Grealish but, failed to acquire a striker to replace Sergio Aguero who left for greener pastures in Spain. The Harry Kane deal fell through due to extreme demands from Tottenham as did their quiet pursuit of Erling Haaland whilst, Cristiano Ronaldo chose to return to his former home. The Sky Blues have started the season in great fashion with Jesus and Ferran Torres showing they can rise up to the task. Despite losing their first match to Tottenham, Man city went on to thump Norwich and Arsenal 5-0 on consecutive weekends highlighting their overall strength. With several options to choose from and a superior confidence in the squad, Man City should be challenging for honours on all fronts this season. However Guardiola still needs a top striker who can rise up during close games and big games as evidenced from the opening game against Tottenham. Manchester City possess a lot of talent to provide an entertaining season and will likely return for Kane or make a more aggressive approach for Haaland next year as Pep eyes the one piece of silverware that has eluded him so far at Man City – The Champions League trophy.

Prediction: 2nd Place

All Smiles – With Van Dijk back at the heart of the defence, Liverpool look more settled this year and happier after a troublesome campaign last year.


Last season: 3rd

New Arrivals: Ibrahima Konate

Notable Exits: Xherdan Shaqiri, Georginio Wijnaldum

Liverpool had a very quiet transfer window making only on real signing, bringing in centre back Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig most likely to avoid the issues of last season. A central midfielder was also under consideration following the departure of Wijnaldum to PSG but the emergance of Harvey Elliot perhaps gave Klopp food for thought. After a season of misfortune last year losing van Dijk and Gomez to injury and a lack of cohesion in their front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane, Liverpool somehow made it into the top four due to Leicester’s late slip up. This season however is different with Virgil van Dijk back and in great form looking like he was never injured. Firmino still looks off but, Salah and Mane are looking clinical with Jota adding an extra dimension. With cover in the back for van Dijk, Liverpool will bank on their forwards to carry them to a trophy. Their midfield however does looks old and slow and they need an aggressive attacking midfielder to press higher up the field if they are to properly challenge for the title.

Prediction: 4th place edging past Tottenham and well clear of West Ham at 6

The King Returns – Can Ronaldo inspire a new look Manchester United side to glory at home and abroad?

Manchester United

Last season: 2nd

New Arrivals: Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Varane, Jadon Sancho

Notable Exits: Daniel James

What a transformational window United have had this season! First they captured the young talented Jadon Sancho whom they have vetted extensively over the past year. They then added a proven winner in Raphael Varane from Madrid for only 50 million Euros which should ensure that the defensive is much tighter than last year. And then to top it all they got Cristiano Ronaldo. The former United man comes back a more experienced player than the one who left a decade ago. Despite the wear and tear, Ronaldo is still a genuine threat and a clinical finisher whose years in Juventus have created another threat in his game to shot creation. If not for the poor finishing in Turin, Ronaldo would have more assists to his name last season. Ole Gunnar Solskaer knows has a genuine title contender in this squad in Ronaldo and must use him wisely. United’s faith in Ole is beginning to pay off and they now have a squad with enough quality to attract even more top talents. Ole will require time to figure out his best squad including how to play the impression Edison Cavani, who let go of the number 7 shirt to Cristiano, with the returning Portuguese icon. Gary Neville has already said that this United squad may not win the league but will be challengers especially now with Ronaldo on board. They will set their sights on the European trophy with a veteran squad but, a trophy at the end of the season is a must for Ole after splashing cash on proven winners.

Prediction: 3rd Place

As Tottenham are in rebuild phase with a new coach and with no significant arrivals, they do not possess the squad depth of the Top 4 mentioned above to play throughout the season. Leicester and West Ham will provide tough competition as well as probably one other surprise team but this season will all be about the above four teams and that race for the title.

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

The Rebirth of Serie A

The end of Juventus’ reign at the top was a vital moment for the Italian Serie A towards becoming entertaining again. With the league finally disassociated from a sense of winner predetermination caused by Juve’s nine consecutive Scudettos, there is a general feeling that its anyones game now and competition has returned. There is no guarantee that the 20/21 season wasn’t just a blip in Juventus’s era of domestic dominance but with rivals clubs growing in stature over the past few years and narrowing the gap on the I Bianconeri, many are touting a new dawn in Italian football and the rebirth of Serie A.

Juventus’s failure went hand-in-hand with the reignition of Inter Milan, which can only increase the interest towards Serie A long term. Antonio Conte, who ironically began Juve’s streak of Scudettos in 2011-12, came as close as one point to win the league with Inter in 19/20 before comfortably running away with it in the latter stages of last season. He may have now departed from his role as head coach of Inter but his legacy is secure having stopped the Juventus dominance of the league.

Another good sign for Serie A was that it was AC Milan who gave their local rivals the most competition for the first spot on the table. One of the biggest derbies in world football, the Derby di Milano which had lost some of it’s magic until last season, was played with high stakes and simmering tensions. The occasions were encapsulated in a heated moment between the self proclaimed king and god of Milan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Inter’s Romelu Lukaku which was later turned into a beautiful mural in Milan. The reemergence of this derby works as a crown jewel for Serie A which has been searching for a way to reinsert itself into the mindset of fans across the globe. By finishing second I Rossoneri, the second most successful club in Champions league history, booked a return to the top echelon of club competition after seven years of absence which in turn will help to boost Serie A’s relevance worldwide.

Last season, there was also a nail biting race for the top four until the dying stages which could have left Juventus without Champions League football for the first time in a decade. So in light of the Old Lady’s fourth place finish there is a fact to be remembered that Serie A is a league with a precious mixture of big and exciting clubs. Apart from the already mentioned three, Napoli, Roma and Lazio are clubs with respected pedigrees and good potential. In Atalanta, the league has someone who can win the heart of neutrals through their attractive football, underdog nature and capability of beating anyone on their day. Arguably, Serie A has a ‘big 7’.

There have been more positive signs in the off-season for Serie A. Apart from Italy winning the Euro 2020 which would bring some more light to the domestic league, the players from the Italian league combined to score 37 goals at the European Championship, at least nine more than players from any other league. Juventus players scored 12 goals, the most by players of any club with star player Cristiano Ronaldo winning the Golden Boot. However, these are more like fun facts than any statements of weighted benefit for the league. It’s the will shown by some Italian clubs to keep their national stars in the league that would be making the Serie A executives excited. Juventus rejected Chelsea’s €100 million bid for Federico Chiesa, declaring him “untouchable”, the same term has been used by Inter for Nicolo Barella amid interest from Premier League clubs.

Federico Chiesa is staying in Serie A after impressing at Euro 2020

A host of other top players have stated their loyalty to the league. Manuel Locatelli, another star for the future, prefers to stay in Italy and play for Juventus next season over a move to Arsenal. Lukaku has declared he wants to stay at Inter despite being on the wanted list of a host of top EPL clubs. With Ronaldo also likely to stay, these are all favourable signals for Serie A, which hosted the biggest football names in the 1990’s. However with the departures of Hakimi and Dunorumma to PSG demonstrate, there are still plenty of obstacles for Serie A to overcome and fierce competition from other leagues for their star players.

Financial woes led to complications between Antonio Conte and Inter and Serie A losing one of the best managers in the world. Conte ambitiously wanted to strengthen the team after disastrously finishing bottom of the Champions League group but that didn’t align with Inter’s need to raise funds. For a league to shine it needs it’s clubs to do well in Europe and it’s been more than 10 years since an Italian club won the UCL trophy. There also might be a couple of worrying signs for Serie A in Juve’s reappointment of Allegri. Arguably one of the key reasons behind Juventus’ previous dominance, the return of their former coach could signal another long spell of dominance for Juventus which would not be good news for the league as a whole. Whether Juventus leadership has changed its stance on Allegri since his last spell is yet to be determined. After all they sacked the manager who brought them numerous league titles and got them to two European finals for failing to win the Champions League.

Serie A, which has an image of being a slow and technical league, has to compete with other big leagues for top tier footballers as well as the eyes of global fans. English Premier League has greater commercial and financial value, more entertaining football and arguably the best managers. Long-term and consistent investment is needed in diverse sectors to compete with them as well as La Liga and Bundesliga who continue to jostle for dominance. So, there remain plenty of hurdles to be tackled but the Italian league is moving in the right trajectory and away from it’s dull self of the past several years.

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

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Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where next for Messi as he calls time on Barca

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

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

Man City

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

Can Pep persuade Messi to join him at Man City?


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


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

Messi and Ronaldo in the same team?

Man Utd

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

Newell’s Old Boys

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

Messi has a decision to make.

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

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Karim Benzema – A Misunderstood Genius

Karim Mostafa Benzema is arguably one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, I’d even go as far as to say he’s been a top ten talent of the past decade but it doesn’t go without saying he’s had a few challenges on the way and can be viewed as a divisive figure especially in his home nation of France.

The Lyon born striker made his debut in the 2004-05 season which led to sporadic appearances in his next two seasons as Lyon won 3 major titles within that period of time. It wasn’t until the 2007-08 season in which Benzema got the chance to become a starter, having a breakthrough campaign scoring 30 goals in all competitions and leading Lyon to their seventh straight title. He was awarded the golden boot as the leagues top scorer, named Ligue 1 player of the year and listed in the organization’s team of the year. After one more successful season Real Madrid finally came calling and he made a switch to the Spanish capital on a six year contract worth a transfer fee of over $50 million.

Life in Madrid did not get off to the best start as he had to play second fiddle to Gonzalo Higuain who was preferred to start up front by both Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho respectively. Added to this, there were a lot of questions asked of him such as his discipline issues and his lack of commitment to fitness regimes. It was not until a meeting between Benzema and Mourinho ahead of the 2011-12 season occurred that a mutual respect was formed between both. Jose noted that Benzema worked on his game and physique during the off season which ultimately secured him the nod ahead of Higuain, a move that yielded tremendous results as Benzema scored a total of 32 goals; his most prolific year in a Real Madrid shirt to date.


Fast forward to the present day and Benzema still commands that first team striker role  for Real Madrid seeing of all his would be challengers. Gonzalo Higuain, Alvaro Morata, Emmanuel Adebayor and Javier Hernandez, as well as several academy prospects have gotten the short end of the stick due to under performances or just being unable to raise their game to a level adequate enough to displace the Frenchman from his number 9 birth. It’s a testament to his immense ability that he was able to keep such talents at bay but what makes it more impressive is the fact that he has done so over a span of five different managers; all whom have had very different philosophies and tactics.

His ability to link up play, drop into a number ten role to drag defenders out leaving space for wide players to run into and the killer instincts of a lethal finisher sets him apart from most strikers in the world as of this moment. This is what made his combination with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale so devastating. The trio literally had defenders quaking in their boots. The famous BBC put teams in the Champions League to the sword on a regular basis and Benzema was frequently the man doing what needed to be done to make this front three tick. All this helped Real Madrid to an amazing fourteen major trophy wins (including four Champions League titles) in five short years.


Although blessed with all the brilliance and ability, there does seems to be a mischievous side to him as well. Whether it’s making questionable comments in regards to the national team on different occasions or sex related scandals, Benzema seems to be caught out on more than a few occasions. As early as 2006, he drew criticism when he cited the reasons why he selected France was purely sporting and that his true heart lay with his parents native country of Algeria. On top of this, the fact that he never sang the national anthem before any France international matches hardly did anything to win him support especially with the often critical media. Worse still was the 2010 sex scandal involving an underaged prostitute and three other national team players (Franck Ribéry, Sidney Govou and Hatem Ben Arfa). He was questioned by Paris police and indicted on the charge of “solicitation of a minor prostitute”. The case did go to trail with the first hearing held in June 2013, however the charges against him were dropped in January 2014 due to lack of sufficient evidence that he knew the prostitute was underaged.

You would think going through this ordeal would discourage Benzema from being in the headlines for the wrong reasons but no. Unfortunately his next one would subsequently cost him a chance to win a World Cup medal as he was suspended provisionally from the French national team in 2015 due to his alleged involvement in the blackmailing of fellow french international player Mathieu Valbuena. It’s only fair to mention that he was acquitted of all charges and although he’s had a problematic relationship with the national team, it’s a completely different story for Los Blancos. Benzema is a leader both on and off the pitch, also he’s one of only three players who were in the 2010 squad that still remains at the club ten years later.


Where there’s been drama and scandal with the national team there’s been goals, assists and trophies galore for Benzema and Real Madrid. He’s has had dips in form, particularly a certain 2 year period plagued with injuries which affected his goal scoring resulting in the nickname “Donezema” but he has always been backed fully by both his coach Zinedine Zidane and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. And Benzema has rewarded their faith in kind especially following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo; Benzema has been a man reborn.

Even amidst all the big money transfers Benzema is still the player the team turns to for goals. His resurgence is why the Los Blancos are en route to yet another title, toppling King Leo’s side to the league title. He may be head strong, disappointing at times and reckless, but for all who have seen him play one thing that can never be denied is that Karim Benzema on the field is a true maestro.

Post by Ani Chukwuebuka. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram

The Evolution of Cristiano Ronaldo

Cristiano Ronaldo has been a household name for the best part of 15 years. Introducing himself as a slender winger with a penchant for the unexpected. Raw pace, step overs and flicks were his trademark along with his patented ‘Ronaldo Chop’. We still get flashes from time to time, but not the same frequency. This has been the key to his longevity. Over the years, he has adapted his game in order to stay effective and decisive at the right time. I will detail those changes and the reason, in my opinion, why they were made.

The first real evolution we saw in Ronaldo came after the 2006 World Cup. He came back from a very public falling out with Wayne Rooney. He began adding goals to his game. 17 league goals and 15 assists and 23 goals and 20 assists in all competitions was a massive increase on the previous season (12 goals and 9 assists all comps). The next season was a sign of things to come. His first 40+ goal season and first 30+ league goal season, at 23 years old. Rene Meulensteen, then United coach, instilled into him the idea that a goal was a goal, no matter how it looked. His desire to score the ‘perfect’ or ‘beautiful’ goal diminished and the more cliche ‘number 9’ goal became instinctive. This advice would follow Ronaldo and serve him well later in his career.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Manchester United v Bolton Wanderers - Old Trafford

After earning a deserved move to Real Madrid, the progression of his playmaking and goal scoring culminated in what was, what I believe, peak Cristiano Ronaldo in the 11/12 season. In his first two seasons he recorded 33 goals and 12 assists in 35 games and then a career-high 53 goals and 18 assists in 54 games. All that built up to 11/12 where Ronaldo was virtually unstoppable. Lighting pace, ridiculous long shots, otherworldly aerial ability as well as the ability to create for team mates. He was the complete attacker. 60 goals and 15 assists in 55 games on the way to a league title as well as the goal which practically sealed it at the Nou Camp. A truly monstrous season. His first three seasons at Los Blancos brought 146 goals and 45 assists in 144 games.

After 11/12 I feel Ronaldo physically peaked. The two seasons after were slightly less dynamic in terms of lung-busting runs down the left wing, thought still there, he started to focus his area of influence closer to the goal. Wear and tear on his body as well as reoccurring knee issues meant he had to manage his bursts. His productivity didn’t suffer though, 55 goals and 13 assists in 55 games in 12/13 and 51 goals and 17 assists in 47 games in 13/14 including a new record 17 champions league goals in a season. Slightly down on 11/12, but that made it 4 consecutive 50+ goal seasons in a row – a feat not even Messi could manage.


This brings me nicely onto his final evolution. One I like to call, Second Striker Cristiano. This evolution began in Ancelotti’s first season as he experimented with an asymmetrical 433 formation where, out of possession, Ronaldo would stay up with Benzema to make a front 2 and Bale would drop to make a 4 across midfield with Di Maria/Isco on the left. This took the defensive responsibility from Ronaldo keeping him high to save energy as he aged, but most importantly, finish moves. 14/15 was the real catalyst of this and proved to be his most productive season of his career (61 goals and 22 assists in 54 games) – a lot of them being one touch finishes in the box. Clever movement and deadly precision honed after years of scoring goals made the transition seamless and birthed a new animal at the age of 30. One who lived and breathed goals and clutch moments.

The subsequent seasons, like previously, were used for adaptation. Despite Benitez’s best efforts and knee injuries Ronaldo still managed 51 goals and 15 assists in 48 matches and a second Champions League in three years in 15/16. Although performance wise it was and still remains his worst season, to me. However, it did set the precedent for the level of violation the champions league and those in it were about to receive.


Zidane’s last two seasons of his first Madrid spell were considered a huge success. A league title and retaining the Champions League in the first and repeating the feat the season after was down to three factors, managing egos, luck and Cristiano. By now Zidane favoured variations of a 442 (either flat or in a diamond) focusing on getting the ball wide to full backs to cross into the box for Ronaldo to finish. The now 32 year old scored was a penalty box bully. Headers, penalties and one touch finishes were his weapon of choice and defences were terrified. 42 goals and 11 assists in 48 games in the first, along with a record 10 knock out stage goals and back to back hat-tricks against Bayern and Atletico. Not bad for an old man. The next season was a mixture of spectacular and disappointment. 44 goals and 8 assists in 44 games as well as the records of scoring in every single champions league group game, most consecutive champions league games scored in (11) and a run of 22 goals in 12 games from January to March in all comps, was enough for Ronaldo to bow out of Real Madrid a legend, in my opinion, their best ever player and their all time scorer with 450 goals and 131 assists in 438 games.

Ronaldo adapted to the demands of his team and later body in a bid to maintain the levels he and his team expected of him. Over 600 club goals later and countless honours and he is still going at the age of 34. Surely he can’t do it again?

Written by David Ngono. Follow him now on Twitter and Instagram

Why Real Madrid has lost its head

It is said that when you cut the head off of a chicken, its body continues to move aimlessly around for some time afterwards. Indeed in one specific case, that of a chicken called Miracle Mike, his body continued to “live” for another eighteen months after decapitation. Eventually all headless chickens drop down, unable to cope without its head, unable to process what has happened. Sometimes the same principle applies to football especially when a club loses a top player like its goalscorer. The effects can be problematic until a replacement can be found or to use the same analogy the head is “reattached”. But when the player in question contributes over 50 goals a season and has been the figurehead of the club for almost a decade, it is almost impossible to do.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Losing Ronaldo in the summer has been a turning point in fortunes for Real Madrid (Image from Tumblr)

Real Madrid didn’t necessarily cut the head off of their “chicken” but instead let it detach itself and move to Italy. Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus was always going to be painful for the Madrid side but without a natural replacement nor a plausible plan to cope with the separation, Real now find themselves running around like a headless chicken.

When they hired Julen Lopetegui as their manager in the summer, the former Spain manager wept with joy. Having been brutally axed by the national side only days before the World Cup began, Lopetegui was already quite emotional but joining Real, which to him was seen as the highlight of his managerial career, pushed him over the edge. Four months later, he was gone, sacked due to poor results on the pitch and rising dressing room tempers off it. The abilities of the coach have never been questioned but many are wondering how things went so wrong for Lopetegui so quickly. The truth is that he inherited a club in chaos, one that according to its previous manager Zinedine Zidane was “rotting from the inside”. It was an impossible task that was made harder by the lack of support and faith from above. As journalist Sid Lowe said “Lopetegui never had the faith of club president Florentino Perez but in truth no manager really does at Real Madrid”. Lopetegui was doomed to fail not because of his tactics or inability to get the best out of the players he had but instead that lack of support from above, starting early on with their failure to  replace the departed Ronaldo.


An emotional Lopetegui at his announcement as Real’s new boss (Image from Tumblr)

Former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte became a front-runner for the job early on but his reluctance to join says a lot about the current problems at the club. Reports suggest that Michael Laudrup, a legend at Real Madrid was also approached but turned it down stating that it wasnt the right time which for an unemployed coach says more than the words used. It’s a bizarre situation that the club finds itself in – once the job that everyone wanted but now seemingly a poisoned chalice. Perhaps it’s the perception that Real have achieved all that they can in terms of club success and the job of squeezing more out of an already squeezed lemon seems impossible. Or perhaps it’s the reluctance of coaches to work in a place where they would not feel supported from above. With an ever shortening list of candidates, its not certain who will be the next boss at the Bernabeu. Conte could still be appointed although it wouldn’t necessarily be a welcome one according to several key players at the club. If its not Conte, Real will turn to someone else, perhaps Arsene Wenger, Roberto Martinez or as some reports suggest Jose Mourinho with the Manchester United boss still a favourite of Perez’s.

New boss Santiago Solari

Can Solari do enough in two weeks to convince Perez to give him the job full time? (Image from Tumblr)

In the meantime, Santiago Solari has stepped up as caretaker from the reserves following in the path of Zinedine Zidane. He knows he has the job temporarily (Real have 14 days based on league rules to either appoint a new manager or give the job to Solari full-time) but that hasn’t stopped him from making some statement changes. Solari, a former Madrid player himself, has made Courtois the permanent No. 1, favouring him over Keylar Navas. It’s a decision that Lopetegui avoided making preferring to rotate the two goalkeepers as the season evolved. Solari has also brought back Vinicius Junior from the sidelines. Lopetegui had banished the Brazilian youngster to the reserves stating he was too raw and needed to develop more before gaining a first team place. But again Solari saw an opportunity to change that and has pulled the striker back into the fold. The coach knows he had limited time to make his case to stay on full time and so far has won a lot of plaudits with one of his changes (Vinicius) playing a star role in their midweek cup win over lowly Melilla. He might not be considered to be the favourite but he is doing his chances no harm as Real tries frantically to reattached the chicken’s head and save their season.

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Ballon d’Or Shock Nominees Deserve Praise, Not Judgement On Inclusion

Last year's winner Cristiano Ronaldo is looking to make it three in a row at this years event (Photo by Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)The leaked list of this year’s Ballon d’Or nominations has yet again thrown up some surprise inclusions. The 59 man long list for the 2015 award will be eventually whittled down to a shortlist of 23 names of which the winner and two runners-up will be chosen. There are the standard names of world football on the list including last years winner Cristiano Ronaldo, four-time winner Lionel Messi plus regular nominees Manuel Neuer, Robert Lewandowski, Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Eden Hazard but its the inclusion of other names that has many scratching their heads. However all of the names on the list deserve to be there based not only on current form but on past performances throughout this season and last including both domestic and international appearances. We look at three of the “surprise” names below and examine exact why deserve to be included in the list.

Christian Atsu

Christian who is what most people will be asking but the Chelsea winger who is currently on loan at Bournemouth arguably deserves his spot based on his performances at the African Cup of Nations in January. Atsu may be only 23 but is already a fundamental part of the Ghana squad. With 30 caps already since his debut in 2011, Atsu’s impressive wing play and dynamic running inspired Ghana as they marched to the final. Despite losing to the Ivory Coast, Atsu won the player of the tournament prize scoring twice including the goal of the tournament against Guinea. Yet to play a single minute for Chelsea since his move from Porto in 2013, Atsu has become yet another loanee in the Chelsea machine spending time at Vitesse in Holland and Everton last season. Now at Bournemouth under Eddie Howe, Atsu is keen to impress and potentially secure a permanent move. With Max Gradel ruled out for six months, Atsu may get that opportunity to dazzle Howe and in addition show Jose Mourinho exactly what he is missing.

Massimo Luongo

A year ago, Massimo Luongo was toiling away in the third tier of English football with Swindon but 2015 has proven to be a defining year for the 23-year-old. The former Tottenham reject was already impressing visiting scouts to the Country Ground when he received the call up to be part of Australia’s Asian Cup team in a move that would help him secure not only his next transfer but the Ballon d’Or nomination as well. Like Atsu, Luongo was in spectacular form as Australia stormed to their first ever Asian Cup title in front of a packed home crowd in Sydney. Luongo’s exploits at the heart of the Australian midfield earned him the Most Valuable player award after scoring two vital goals and playing a key role in several others along the way. Back in England, his form continued as he help Swindon to a play off final appearance only to suffer heartache when beaten by Preston. That heartache wouldn’t last long as Luongo secured a move to newly relegated QPR in the Championship. With lofty ambitions to return to the Premiership quickly, we may just see Luongo back in England’s top division sooner rather than later. Likely nominated by former Australian international Harry Kewell who is now part of the selection committee for the Ballon D’or, Luongo may have been given the nod for his exploits for the Aussies but in truth his performances through last season with Swindon also helped merit his inclusion.

David Ospina

Arsenal fans are still annoyed by David Ospina inclusions in their opening two Champions League fixtures this season ahead of new signing Peter Cech. After two defeats, with Ospina partly responsible for errors in both games, Arsenal now have a mountain to climb if they are to get out of the group stage. So news that Ospina has been included in the Ballon d’Or list will be a major shock to the Gunners faithful. Beating Gigi Buffon, who not only won the treble in Italy but also help Juventus to the Champions League final may be questionable but Ospina has done well int he past few years at both club and international level. He has cemented himself as Colombia’s first choice goalkeeper with a series of fine performances including helping them to quarter-final appearances at both the World Cup last year and this years Copa America. At club level, Ospina had dethroned Polish number 1 Wojciech Szczęsny as Arsenal’s first choice goalkeeper and looked too have cemented that spot before the arrival of Peter Cech this summer. Ospina helped Arsenal to cup wins in both the Community shield and FA Cup last season as well as guiding Arsenal to a third place finish. But with all goalkeepers, Ospina is judged on his last performance and if the team loses especially to lesser opposition, questions are always asked about how the goalkeeper played.

Ospina made several key saves for Arsenal last season  (Image from Mitchell Gunn/JMP/REX)

Ospina made several key saves for Arsenal last season
(Image from Mitchell Gunn/JMP/REX)

For the three players above, being recognised on this list is an accomplishment especially considering some of the names of players who missed out. Spare a thought for Manchester City duo Joe Hart and David Silva or for that note Bayern Munich captain Philipp Lahm. Fellow German Marco Reus and new Bayern teammate Douglas Costa also missed out as did Arda Turan, Sergio Busquets and many others who could quite have easily have made the list. For each of the 59 names mentioned on the list, the next few months will be about receiving the adulation from your fellow professionals until the list is cut down in December. Even if they don’t win, the players on this list including the three above should all be proud of their accomplishments and revel in the fact that they have been recognized by the world of football as one of the best players in the game today.

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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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Scotland’s Mini Messi Destined For Greater Things

Gauld arrives at Sporting Lisbon (Image from AFP)Once in a lifetime is how 18 year old Ryan Gauld described the opportunity to move to Sporting Lisbon. After completing his £3million move from Dundee United, the dazzling midfielder spoke to reporters at Edinburgh airport about his dream to play in Europe and how he couldn’t turn down this chance. Gauld is not fazed by the move nor feels under pressure to live up to expectations which bode well for his future career in Portugal. Sporting who beat several top clubs across Europe for his signature, are so confident in his ability that they slapped a €60 million release clause into his contract to warn off any future interested parties. Having lost Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United in 2003 for only €15 million, it’s understandable why they want to protect their investment in a player who has demonstrated on several occasions how talented he actually is.

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough  (Image from Getty)

Gauld has terrorized Scottish defenses since his breakthrough
(Image from Getty)

Gauld’s transfer comes at a time when Scottish football appears to be turning the corner, with several new young players bursting onto the scene. Dundee United has been the epicenter for most of this talent, with Gauld joining Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, John Souttar and Andy Robertson in the first team recently having all come through the youth ranks. All of this is welcomed news for Scotland manager Gordon Strachan who is rebuilding the national team after years of disappointment and heartbreak. With MacKay Steven already a full international and the likes of Jordan Rhodes continuing to improve at national level, the future looks bright for Scotland. Gauld has not yet won a full senior cap, restricted to Under 19 and 21 appearances only but his move to Sporting may expedite the situation especially given Scotland’s lack of creative influencers. In Gauld, Strachan may have a player who can become Scotland’s outlet of creativity for the next decade.

Moves like Messi  (Image from Getty)

Moves like Messi
(Image from Getty)

Gauld has lit up the Scottish Premier League for the past two seasons with his mesmerizing ball control and unique ability to drift away from defenders with ease. Watching fans may be inclined to compare him to the late Davie Cooper which is a fair tribute to the youngster given Cooper’s legacy. But Gauld is much more than just an imitation of Cooper, he is the real deal. For someone so young, Gauld possess amazing vision and can read a game like no other. At only 5ft 6in, his small stature gives him incredible close control and speed on the ball which is a nightmare for opposition defences, whilst his ability to interchange his finishing either with power or a side footed pass illustrates his range. Gauld is destined for greater things, with the dreams of a nation resting on his shoulders. Hardly surprising he has been dubbed Mini Messi. Like Messi, the pressure will be on Gauld to live up to those lofty expectations and not end up as another British failure abroad. Few Scots have succeeded abroad (John Collins at Monaco, Paul Lambert at Borussia Dortmund, Steve Archibald at Barcelona) but the rest have failed miserably. Given his personality and grounded approach, Gauld will be keen to prove his worth and pay back the faith shown by Sporting by giving his all from day one. His break into the first team will come and it will be up to him to seize it with both hands or face returning to Scotland as another flop. However anyone who has watch Gauld so far will know that this is unlikely to happen and Gauld will use this move to his advantage as he looks to build upon his career in Portugal. Share your thoughts below or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BackOfTheNetBlog or Twitter: https://twitter.com/BOTNBlog. You can now follow us on Tumblr and Instagram as well!

Portugal Defeat Spells Trouble For Bento


After a disastrous World Cup campaign where Portugal failed to get out of first gear, many questioned were asked whether Paulo Bento should remain in charge. The former Sporting Lisbon coach has only been in charge since September 2010 but his time has been less than spectacular. Despite a positive start to his international managerial career, which saw him lead Portugal to the Euro 2012 semi finals only to be knocked out by eventual winners Spain, Portugal under Bento have struggled of late with the coach coming under some heavy criticism for his lack of imagination or formation flexibility. A dismal World Cup qualifying campaign which saw Portugal sneak into the tournament via the playoffs was followed by three underwhelming performances in Brazil. A 4-0 hammering by Germany, a nerve jangling 2-2 draw with the USA that relied on a late Varela header to steal a point and a weak 2-1 win over an even poorer Ghana side meant that Portugal crashed out of the group stages for the first time since 2002. Yesterdays shock 1-0 defeat to Albania in the first Euro 2016 qualifying campaign match could be the last straw for Bento and his tenure as Portuguese national coach.

Portugal failed to break down Albania (Image from AFP)

Portugal failed to break down Albania
(Image from AFP)

Despite Portugal’s talisman and World player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo missing out, Portugal should have had enough to dispatch an average Albanian side but in the end struggled to break them down. A volley by Slavia Prague striker Bekim Balaj in the 52 minute was enough to give Albania all three points and victory over Portugal for the first time in six attempts. Already in a tough group that features Denmark and Serbia, Portugal needed to get off to a strong start ahead of next month’s crunch game against the Danes but now Portugal face an uphill struggle to get back on track. Albania to their credit stuck to a game plan, to frustrate Portugal on the ball and break through Roshi and Lenjani when possible. The tactics work for the side ranked 70th in the world, giving them a memorable victory and setting themselves up nicely for their next Euro qualifying group match ironically against Denmark, three days before the Danes face Portugal.

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring (Image from getty)

Balaj (centre) celebrates after scoring
(Image from getty)

Whether Bento will be in charge for that match is still to be confirmed. The media has already been quick to hand down a death sentence to Bento but is it really his fault or are the problems that Portugal are going through out with his control? The biggest problem Bento has is a lack of depth in his squad. In years gone past Portugal had a wealth of talent they could call on – Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Pauleta and Joao Pinto to name but a few. However this recent batch of players lacks the flair and skill of previous batches. Yes Portugal’s starting eleven does feature Joao Moutinho, Pepe and of course Cristiano Ronaldo but beyond that the talent pool has dried up. Portugal is struggling to produce the same young talent as before, a direct result of the financial problems that the Portuguese Primeira League is facing. Dropping attendances and global interest in the league has lead to a reduction in the money coming into it and the ability for clubs to properly invest in the future. There are some that still do such as Sporting Lisbon and Benfica who are producing players for the national side but not to the same standard as before. For proof, we only have to look at the results of the Portugal’s Under 21 team who have failed to qualify for the Under 21 European Championships at the last four attempts. Even when they did qualify in 2006 and 2007, they struggled to make it out of the group stages. The last squad to progress and actually managed to finish in third place in 2004 featured the likes of Bruno Alves, Raul Meireles, Hugo Almeida and Jose Bosingwa. But the failures of the Under 21 sides since then are now showing in the full national team with a lack of talent for Bento to call on.

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

Lack of talent like Luis Figo coming through (Image from PA)

The good news for Portuguese fans is that the current Under 21 side, managed by Rui Jorge looks set to make it to the 2015 Under 21 European championships, giving hope that a new generation of players is just around the corner. However for Bento it may come too little too late as he tries to cling on to his job. The result against Albania was poor with several star players like Nani and Joao Moutinho simply failing to show up on the day. Too often his ailing side has leaned on the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo to save them from themselves so when he is not in attendance; Portugal’s other star players don’t appear to know what to do. Bento as manager needs to take a firmer stance with the players he has at his disposal and whip them into shape. He needs to develop a plan B, one that doesn’t include Ronaldo in a starring role and develop it quickly. The cavalry is coming but until then Bento will have to manage with what he has, pull up his sleeves and push his team onwards towards qualification for Euro 2016. That is if he still has the job.

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Can Anyone Stop Real Madrid?

Real Madrid clinched the first trophy of the season (Image from Getty)

Sevilla’s run to the Europa League title last year was anything but pretty but a combination of perseverance and teamwork got them over the line in the end. They claimed the trophy with a penalty shoot out win over Portuguese side Benfica to earn their third Europa league title in 8 years making them one of the most successful teams in the tournaments history. Going into yesterday’s European Super Cup Final game in Cardiff, Sevilla were optimistic about adding another piece of European silverware to their trophy cabinet. However standing in their way was an all star cast in the form of Real Madrid. The current European champions have strengthened their already impressive lineup this summer with World Cup stars Toni Kroos, Keylar Navas and James Rodriguez arriving at the club. With Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric and Gareth Bale also in their ranks, manager Carlo Ancelotti is building what will be a team that will strike fear into many. Few column inches have been spared as journalists wax lyrically about the new Galacticos and what could well be a new era of domination for Real Madrid.

Ronaldo celebrates with Rodriguez after giving Real the lead  (Image from Getty)

Ronaldo celebrates with Rodriguez after giving Real the lead
(Image from Getty)

Yesterday Sevilla became the first team to experience this new look Madrid side on a competitive level and the world watched on with interest too. The question on everyone’s lips was simple: Could Real live up to the hype and dominate European football like they did in the late 90’s/early 2000’s? On the basis of the final yesterday, the answer looks to be yes with the star studded line up playing fast paced flowing football. With Cristanio Ronaldo and local boy Gareth Bale, returning to Wales with Real for the first time since his world record £85.3million move from Tottenham last summer, running the wings and controlling the play, Madrid took control of the game early on. New boy Toni Kroos looked comfortable in central midfield alongside Croat Luka Modric and helped with the tempo of the game, spreading the ball wide to Madrid’s two wingers and giving supply to fellow arrival James Rodriguez. The Colombian youngster, who picked up the golden boot at the World Cup, operated in an attacking midfield role just behind lone striker Karim Benzema and offered flashes of what we can expect to see from him this season. It’s hard to imagine Madrid improving but if they finally land Radamel Falcao from Monaco after a long hard summer of chasing the Colombian striker, Madrid will have the final piece to their puzzle in their quest to build the new Galacticos.

Ronaldo and Bale enjoy the fruits of their labor  (Image from Getty)

Ronaldo and Bale enjoy the fruits of their labor
(Image from Getty)

In the end two strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo settled the game and put Real Madrid on the path towards a potential haul of six trophies. There is a long way to go and Real will face several bumps along the way however with a squad like this, it’s hard to see anyone beating Madrid this season in any competition. Sevilla proving a solid test for Madrid and came close on a few occasions to snatching victory in the face of defeat but were unable to convert their chances. Sevilla have enough about them to challenge next season but in a league that has seen both Real Madrid and Barcelona spend over £100 million in transfers this summer, their chances will be limited.

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

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

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

Unstoppable - Di Stefano and Puskas  (Image from Getty)

Unstoppable – Di Stefano and Puskas
(Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crunch Time For The US As Their World Cup Fate Lies In Their Own Hands

Dempsey has led the charge for the US (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Two games in, four points gained. Not a bad start for a team expected to struggle in a supposed group of death but for US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann it’s the start he expected and he is now looking forward to today’s game against Germany. The job is far from done as mathematically Ghana or Portugal could overtake the US into second spot, knocking them out of the World Cup. Only a point is needed to secure passage although a defeat may still work as long as the goal difference tally remains positive and other results go their way. An electric win against Ghana set them on their way and for a brief moment victory for the second time and secured passage to the knockout rounds was on the cards against Portugal before Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up in the 95th minute of the game to provide a killer cross for Varela to bullet home a header. It was a bitter blow for the US to handle who had taken the game to Portugal from the first kick of the ball. Despite falling behind to a Nani shot in the 5th minute, the US rallied and through Jermaine Jones found the equalizer. When Clint Dempsey drifted into the box in the 81st minute to knock the ball into the net using his stomach, the US bench erupted knowing that they were only 9 minutes away from adding another famous scalp to their repertoire. But any team with Ronaldo in its ranks cannot be discounted and the US paid for a single moment of slack marking that ultimately cost them two valuable points.

Leaving Donovan behind was seen as a strange move  (Image from Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Leaving Donovan behind was seen as a strange move
(Image from Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Going into the tournament, the focus of all discussions was around Klinsmann’s surprise omission of US legend Landon Donovan from his final 23 man squad. Doubters called it the end of the US World Cup campaign before it began but in truth Klinsmann’s side have looked like they hardly miss the LA Galaxy striker. In goal, Tim Howard has shown why he is consistently one of the best goalkeepers in the English Premier League, whilst midfielder Michael Bradley has demonstrated why Toronto shelled out over $10 million for his services. Up front captain Clint Dempsey has rolled back the years with two heart on the sleeve performances and two highly important goals. Added into this the emergence of new stars like Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi have made the US tough to break down and tougher to beat. It really has been a group effort from front to back with all members of the squad playing their part but today’s game will require an extra special push as they face one of the favourites for the tournament. Recent history is on their side with the US beating Germany in a friendly in June of last year by 4 goals to 3. However it would be wise not to be fooled by this result as the German side that Low fielded that day was primarily second string and experimental at best. Today’s team will be tougher, stronger and more technically gifted.

Old Friends - Klinsmann and Low  (Image from Getty)

Old Friends – Klinsmann and Low
(Image from Getty)

Questions have been asked about Germany’s conviction going into the match and whether Germany manager Joachim Low and Klinsmann will have made a deal to draw the game, a result good enough for both countries to progress regardless of the other result. The pair have history, with Klinsmann appointing Low as his assistant manager when he took over as Germany manager in 2004. When Klinsmann quit after the 2006 World Cup, it was he who recommended to the German FA that Low was ready to take over, ultimately handing the baton straight to his number two. But as much as a deal would suit both teams, it is not in either’s nature to agree to such a thing. Klinsmann is keen to prove that his US side is in the knockout stages on merit, not due to a side deal whilst Low, confident of his team’s progression will be aware that mathematically Germany could still be knocked out if results go against them. Having been beaten finalists at Euro 2008 and beaten semi finalists four years ago in South Africa, Low is desperate to pull Germany over the line and hand them their first World Cup in over 24 years. For Klinsmann reaching the knockout stages is a must and a chance to show his critics exactly how good a coach he is. Remember it was Klinsmann who started the Germany revolution back in 2004 by embracing the country’s youth players like Philip Lahm, Bastian Schweinstegier and Lukas Podolski who have been core to the German push in the last 10 years. Klinsmann will be hoping for a positive result today that sees the US progressing to the knock out rounds and hopefully acts as the springboard for the US national team’s progression over the next ten years.

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Real Madrid To Rebuild Los Galacticos With Summer Move For Falcao

Falcao looks set to move to Real Madrid (Image from Getty)

It’s been nearly ten years since the breakup of Los Galacticos, Real Madrid’s star studded team but now President Florentino Perez wants to rebuild it with a haul of impressive summer signings. The current Champions League winners already boast the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas but Perez now has his sights firmly set on Colombian power striker, Radamel Falcao. Discussions between Falcao’s current club Monaco and Real Madrid have already begun according to reports surfacing from Spanish paper AS last weekend. It is believed that a fee for the player has been agreed with Falcao due to meet with Madrid officials soon to discuss personal terms. The Colombian striker missed out on this year’s World Cup after failing to recover from a cruciate ligament injury sustained in January but has been in Brazil at each of his country’s games cheering them on.

Rebuilding Los Galacticos?  (Image from Real Madrid)

Rebuilding Los Galacticos?
(Image from Real Madrid)

The move to Madrid may surprise a few people especially in Monaco as it is only been a year since his €60 million transfer to the French club from Atletico Madrid. But the truth is that Falcao has failed to settle in the tiny principality and has been eyeing a move since late December. Falcao’s next move was anticipated to be towards England with Chelsea and Manchester City both keen on the 28 year old but the pull of a return to Madrid, albeit with the white half of the city, is proving too strong for Falcao to ignore. How exactly his old club, Atletico will react to the news of their former star player joining their biggest rivals will go down is hard to say. Falcao, like Torres before him, achieved hero status at Los Rojiblancos during his time there, so for the fans of the new La Liga Champions the move would be seen as a slap in the face. Atletico will likely join the race and try to persuade Falcao to return to them instead but will be unable to compete against the financial muscle of Real.

Suarez Scored Twice To Knock England Out Of The World Cup  (Image from Getty)

Suarez Scored Twice To Knock England Out Of The World Cup
(Image from Getty)

What the move means for current Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema is unknown with the French striker still in contract negotiations heading into the World Cup. He could be allowed to leave with the English Premiership his most likely destination although several other clubs, including Monaco may attempt to sign him. Benzema’s stay at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way but under new coach Carlo Ancelotti, Benzema has found consistency and has been in good form. He helped Real Madrid win its 10th European title in May with a 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in the Champions league Final. This good form has continued into the World Cup with the front man already picking up three goals in the group stages. The race for his signature will heat up if he is shown the door at Real Madrid. Doubts too about what this means for a supposed summer transfer move for Liverpool and Uruguay striker Luis Suarez. The man who put England to the sword during Uruguay’s 2-1 victory has been vocal in saying that he is happy at Liverpool but several sources are now reporting that he has told close friends and colleagues about his desire to move to Spain, to either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Real appeared to be the favourite but the move for Falcao may put Barcelona in the driving seat unless Ancelotti believes he can make space in his team for both Falcao and Suarez. If he can, Madrid’s front line of Falcao, Suarez, Bale and Ronaldo will be one of the most terrifying in the game. But Barcelona are unlikely to let this happen with Suarez elevated to No.1 target in new manager Luis Enrique’s plans. Either way, La Liga looks to benefit this summer if these transfers go through.

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Atletico La Liga Victory Parade On Hold Due To Travel Issues

Atletico celebrate their first title in 18 years (Image from AP)Imagine waiting a long time for something and then not being able to do it due to bad planning. Well that’s exactly what Atletico Madrid are going through right now. The new la Liga champions, who secured their first title in 18 years, are being forced to wait until the start of next season to get their hands on the trophy because Spanish football president Angel Maria Vilar was travelling. Some would say its bad timing given the significance of Sunday’s title decider. But others may feel that it’s a deliberate snub by a man who is rumoured to have grown up as a Real Madrid fan. In any case, it is a black mark against the 64 year old who has been Spanish President since 1988. After one of the most exciting La Liga seasons in the past 20 years, for Vilar not be present at a match of this significance to Spanish football is baffling. Why Vilar did not cancel his travel plans to ensure he would be at the Nou Camp to present the winner with the trophy is unknown. At best he should have appointed someone else to the role to ensure that the season ended on a high. Now trophyless, Atletico are unable to do a well deserved victory parade.

Vilar was on hand last season to present the trophy to Barcelona  (Image from AFP)

Vilar was on hand last season to present the trophy to Barcelona
(Image from AFP)

Not that Diego Simeone will mind as he now switches his focus to this Saturday’s Champions League final against city rivals Real. Injuries to star striker Diego Costa and Turkish midfielder Arda Turan are legitimate concerns for Simone as they look to win their first ever Champions League trophy and end the season with a famous double. Real too have injury worries with Cristiano Ronaldo struggling to shake off a thigh strain. However with Gareth Bale on form and Karin Benzema firing on all cylinders again, Real Madrid are a formidable force with or without Ronaldo. Atletico will know that they need to be at full strength if they are to repeat their win from last year’s Copa del Rey final and will need Costa and Turan fit to do so. Costa limped off after 14 minutes against Barcelona with a tweak of his hamstring that has been troubling him for a few months now. Turan followed seven minutes later after landing heavily and awkwardly on his back following a strong challenge by Cesc Fabregas. The Turkish midfielder is so often the creator of opportunities for Atletico so his absence will be a bitter blow. His chances of making Saturday’s showcase in Lisbon is rated as slim however Costa is more likely to recover and be ready to face Real.

Sweating over Costa and Turan  (Image from Getty)

Sweating over Costa and Turan
(Image from Getty)

Celebrations have been cut short by Simeone who needs his players to remain focused and ready for the challenge ahead. One final effort to round off a dream season for Atletico. Victory parade or not, Atletico will be prepared to face Real Madrid and its star studded lineup. Angel Maria Vilar is expected to be in the crowd presumably cheering on both sides but the responsibility of handing out the trophy will fall to UEFA president Michel Platini who is unlikely to miss such a momentous occasion. If Atletico do win the match, then Simeone and his players may just get the victory parade that they deserve.

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Portugal Mourns The Death of The King, Eusebio

Farewell to Eusebio (Image from Getty)The story of the 1966 World Cup in England was all about the home teams first ever triumph and the famous final that was full of controversy and iconic commentary. But undoubtedly the player of the tournament was Portuguese legend, Eusebio who sadly passed away this past weekend. Eusebio da Silva Ferreira scored nine goals during the 1966 World Cup, driving Portugal to a third place finish, narrowly missing out on a spot in the final after a 2-1 defeat to eventually winners England. For the 24 year old, it would be his defining moment for the Portuguese national team and would act as catalyst that would lead to Eusebio becoming a legend in the game. To be mentioned in the same group as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Puskas and Di Stefano shows how great Eusebio was as a player.  

Eusebio hit 9 goals in the 1966 World Cup  (Image from Getty)

Eusebio hit 9 goals in the 1966 World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Most of his success came during his 15 spell with Benfica where he scored 317 goals in 302 games, guiding them to what they now refer to as their Golden era. During this time Benfica and Eusebio secured 10 Primeira Liga titles, 5 Portuguese Cups and two consecutive European Champions Cups in 1961 and 1962.  The latter was even more remarkable considering Real Madrid dominated the tournament during the late 50’s and early 60’s with Puskas and Di Stefanio terrifying teams across Europe during this time. But in the 1962 Final, when Benfica met Real Madrid in the Olympisch Stadion in Amsterdam, it was Eusebio’s performance that got everyone talking.  In a thrilling encounter that finished 5-3 to Benfica and saw Hungarian legend Fernec Puskas hit a first half hat trick, Eusebio would prove to be unstoppable inspiring the Benfica comeback before sealing the victory with two goals late on in the second half, the first from the penalty spot after he has hacked down in the box by Luis del Sol and the second a fine strike from a laid off free kick just outside the 18 yard box.

Benfica legend Eusebio in action  (Image from Getty)

Benfica legend Eusebio in action
(Image from Getty)

Born in Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique), Eusebio spent a majority of his childhood with a ball at his feet, often skipping school to go and play. Growing up in poverty, Eusebio learned how to play the game with bare feet, kicking around a ball made from old socks and newspapers, dreaming of one day moving to his favourite team, Benfica. After joining one of their feeder teams he eventually moved to Benfica in 1960, despite interest from Juventus in Italy and Sao Paulo in Brazil, as a young 18 year old. He made his first team debut the following season and never looked back. Now European champions, Benfica had a talented squad already before Eusebio came into the picture but it wasn’t long before manager Béla Guttmann realized the potential star in the making that he had. Eusebio quickly established himself as an irreplaceable member of the first team and went on to become a club legend.  After 15 years at the club and now aged 33, he left Benfica and played for a variety of clubs including NASL clubs Boston Minutemen, Toronto Metros –Croatia and Las Vegs Quicksilver, winning the 1976 NASL title with Toronto. Spells at Monterrey, Beira Mar, Uniao de Tomas and New Jersey Americans followed before he retired at aged 37 in 1979.

World Greats - Pele and Eusebio  (Image from Getty)

World Greats – Pele and Eusebio
(Image from Getty)

As a permanent fixture of the Portuguese national team during the 60’s and early 70’s, Eusebio won 64 caps scoring a then record 41 goals  that he held until 2004 when Pauleta and then Cristiano Ronaldo overtook him.  Still considered the best Portuguese player of all time, Eusebio’s legacy will live on for years to come. His death on Sunday aged 71 came after a long battle with heart and respiratory problems but still was a shock to many in his homeland. Portugal has declared three days of national mourning for the player, with his funeral taking place yesterday in the capital Lisbon. Thousand turned out to pay their own personal tributes to the player affectionately known as the Black Panther, with his coffin draped in a Benfica flag. Fellow Portuguese footballers led the tribute to Eusebio with Luis Figo declaring him as the king and the greatest whilst Cristano Ronaldo declared that Eusebio was always eternal and a great man. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho led a more touching tribute to the fallen star speaking to the media about the legacy he has left behind:

Eusebio is one of the greatest footballers in the history of football. He’s at this level – Eusebio, Charlton, Pele. For Portugal he means more than that. No colour, no clubs, no political sides. For Portuguese people Eusebio is Eusebio and for sure you will get some images over the next couple of days and I think you will understand what Eusebio means for our country. I think he is immortal. We all know what he meant for football and especially for Portuguese football.”

An Audience with The King - Figo and Eusebio watch Portugal play in Euro 2012  (Image from AP Photo/Armando Franca)

An Audience with The King – Figo and Eusebio watch Portugal play in Euro 2012
(Image from AP Photo/Armando Franca)

The footballing world joins Portugal in mourning the passing of world of the game’s greatest players. Eusebio created a legacy for all us to remember and will live on in our memories as an entertainer and as a true legend of football. As Luis Figo said he was the King of Portuguese football – the king is dead, long live the King!

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AC Milan Seeks Special Approval To Field New Messi

Messi at World CupWhether you agree or disagree with the statement that Lionel Messi is the best player in the world at the moment, you can not help but appreciate the Argentine’s natural-born talent. Like only a select few that have gone before him, Messi is in a small band of players who have grabbed the imagination at an early age and have not disappointed ever since. Gifted with incredible close control, vision and technique that they instantly stand out from all the other boys on the park. Scouts know what to look for and are on the look out for the next Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Zinedine Zidane.

There was something about 14-year-old Hachim Mastour that stood out to AC Milan scouts from day one. Mastour, born in Italy to Moroccan parents, has italian football buzzing at the moment and is being touted as Italy’s own Lionel Messi. Mastour started playing football for his local team before being picked up by Reggiana at age 10. Inter Milan were rumoured to be interested at the time and have continued to monitor his progress through the years. Mastour stood out in most of the youth tournaments he played in often picking up the player of the tournament award, and eventually attracted scouts from across Europe including Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester City.

Hachim Mastour
(Imgae: alakadarnya.net)

For the boy from Reggio Emilia, the attention was overpowering so his agent Dario Paolillo took centre stage in order to protect the talented youngster. Inter Milan were desperate to sign the player from Reggiana from an early age but due to federal laws they were unable to do so until the kid turned 14. Madrid and City also weighted in the wings for Mastour’s 14th birthday to come around but it was AC Milan, under the guidance of former manager Arrigo Sacchi and Head of the Rossonerri  youth setup, Mauro Bianchessi and a special intervention by Milan CEO Adriano Galliani that managed to snatch the youngster from under the noses of the competition and in particular their city rivals, Inter. A fee of $5000,000 was agreed and paid for Mastour who signed on at AC Milan in July of last year.

Whilst the fee is large for a teenager, Mastour’s natural talent and technical ability have impressed the Milan coaching staff, so much so that whilst he plays with the Allevi Nazionali under the careful watch of head coach and former Milan star Filippio Inzaghi, he also trains with the Primavera as well. Milan are keen to accelerate his development as quickly as they can and have even appealed to the Italian FA to make an exception to the rules and allow Mastour to make his first team debut before his 16th birthday.

Mastour, under the guidance of Inzaghi

Mastour, under the guidance of Inzaghi
(Image: Getty)

Anyone in doubt over whether Mastour could cope with the demands of first team football in Serie A need only look at the various clips on YouTube of the starlet juggling an orange plus a ping-pong ball or of his recent Italy Under 15’s debut where he scored a 20 yard screamer and dominated the game with his skills. With close control like Messi, lightning pace like Cristiano Ronaldo and the vision of Zinedine Zidane, Mastour is indeed an exciting prospect for both Milan and Italy. The football world will be keeping a close eye on this talented starlet over the next few years and see if he is destined to become one of the worlds greatest players.

Hachim Mastour shows his juggling skills

Hachim Mastour shows his juggling skills
(Image from screengrab)

To see Mastour score on his Under 15’s debut for Italy, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7H03kQ4ds9M

To see Mastour display some of his skills with an orange and ping-pong ball, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKF5d76leB0

De Gea Out To Impress More Than Just Fergsuon

Sir Alex Ferguson praised goalkeeper David De Gea for last nights stunning performance against Real Madrid in the first leg of the knock out rounds of this years Champions League. De Gea was the stand out in a vintage match at the Bernabeu that ended in a 1-1. Home side Madrid were on the attack from the first minute onwards but its was United that took the lead with a well executed goal from Danny Welbeck. Madrid took 10 minutes to reply, through their usual source of goals, ex united star Cristiano Ronaldo but it was De Gea’s saves throughout the match that swung the balance of the game in United’s favour. In the post match interview, Ferguson was obviously delighted with his keepers form in the game and hailed the youngster from his attitude and approach as well as the string of fine saves he made to keep United in the tie. De Gea will have been happy with the way he played and that he impressed his manager but more so he will be happy that other potential suitors were watching.

De Gea improvises to keep Madrid at bay (Image from Getty)

De Gea improvises to keep Madrid at bay (Image from Getty)

At 22 years old, De Gea is now starting to blossom into the player many believed he would become. Signed from Atlético Madrid in 2011 as the ideal replacement for the retiring Edwin Van Der Saar, De Gea arrived at United with a reputation as one of the worlds hottest goalkeeping prospects. Having made his debut at age 18 at Madrid, De Gea went on to make the jersey his own after a dip in form from first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo and never looked back. During a two-year spell with the club, he made 57 appearances, many of which were match winning performances. It was enough to convince Ferguson that he was worth the investment of nearly £17 million. But United and Ferguson weren’t the only parties that were interested in the youngster with Spain’s big two monitoring the situation as well. With Casillas and Valdes approaching the later part of their careers, both Real Madrid and Barcelona have looked at De Gea as a possible replacement but neither managed to out in a bid before Ferguson swooped in. Despite losing out, both clubs are still keen on the player especially now that he is starting to grow into a world-class goalkeeper.

Barca and Vilanova watching De Gea with interest (Image from Getty)

Barca and Vilanova watching De Gea with interest
(Image from Getty)

The Spanish goalkeeper, who has been capped at all levels for his country except for the full national team, has had a rocky start to life in the English Premiership. It took the player a while to adapt, which was noticeable in the early part of his United career. De Gea has talent which is plain to see but still lacks the maturity needed to be consistently reliable like Van Der Saar was for the Old Trafford team. His erratic nature has meant that his form has been more Jekyll and Hyde than Ferguson would have liked, often performing heroics one week only to undo all that work by making a series of blunders the following week. Part of the reason for this is that De Gea had difficulty in focusing in a match, caused by an identified imperfection in his right eye. The condition, know as hyperopia, was found by doctors in January of last year, with De Gea going under the surgeons knife in the summer of the same year. This seems to have corrected the problem, but extra work with goalkeeping coach Eric Steele has also helped the player to work on his focus during matches too. Recently De Gea’s form has improved dramatically and for the first time United are seeing consistency from their young goalkeeper, as he plays a lead role in helping United to close in on their potential record twentieth league title.

Ferguson will want to hold on to De Gea (Image from PA)

Ferguson will want to hold on to De Gea
(Image from PA)

With form comes renewed interest, especially from his native Spain. Barcelona in particular are on the look out for a new goalkeeper after current no. 1, Victor Valdes shocked the club by announcing his intentions to leave the Nou Camp this summer for pastures new.  With a tendency to buy young and favouring home-grown players, De Gea is seen as an ideal replacement so Barcelona will likely put together a package to try to tempt him back to Spain. Ferguson is unlikely to want to sell, but like his rival at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger, may have little say in the matter if the player sets his heart on joining Barcelona. The Spanish club may offer cash plus Valdes in a part exchange which will soften the blow for United especially if they managed to pick up a goalkeeper of Valdes quality but Ferguson is starting to grow fond of his young shot stopper. The aging United manager has a history of rebuilding teams and blooding youngsters into his squads before making them into champions. De Gea is very much part of his plans for a new look United featuring the likes of Smalling, Jones, Cleverly, Powell and Welbeck so will be reluctant to change his plans. But never the sentimentalist, Ferguson will do what is right for the club and for the player. If De Gea is to leave, he will go with Ferguson’s blessing, safe in the knowledge that he was part of a small piece of United history.

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Carlos Bacca Shows Off His Talent With Wonder Goal

Carlos Bacca of Club Brugge (Image from Virginie Lefour/EuroFootball/Getty Images)Some players are born with natural ability that most of us would love to have. They make playing the game look so simple as the move across the pitch they were born to play on. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are placed on a god like pedestal by the fans and media alike for their play and  in particular the careless like way that they do it. It appears too easy for these two great players, who can lose a player with the drop of their shoulder and turn of pace or score a wonder goal with some neat touches and a cool effortless finish. Whilst these two are the pinnacle of their profession and are deemed the world’s best, there are still players out there who possess similar qualities to Messi and Ronaldo but don’t show it on as frequent basis.

Carols during his Junior days ( Image from elespectador.com)

Carols during his Junior days ( Image from elespectador.com)

But when they do, like in the case of Carlos Bacca, the results are superb. Bacca, Club Brugge’s prolific Colombian striker, just showed the world what he can do in a Saturday’s mid-season friendly 2-1 win against Dutch side Feyenoord. Early in the first half with the score still standing at 0-0, Bacca took control of a long forward pass by controlling it with his thigh. With his back to goal and some 40 yards out, the skillful striker flicked the ball up and round before volleying it over the Feyenoord keeper and into the back of an empty net. Brugge celebrated as the Feyenoord team tried to work out what had just happened and how they were now trailing the game 1-0.

Carlos Bacca spin and volley for Club Brugge (Image taken from Video)

Carlos Bacca spin and volley for Club Brugge (Image taken from Video)

For 26-year-old Bacca, hitting the back of the net has become a regular occurence for most of his career. The player started out with Atlético Junior in 2007 but found first team football hard to come by. Successful loan spells at Barranquilla and Minervén where he scored an average of 1 goal every 2.5 games, convinced his parent club Atletico to recall him and start him as their main striker at the beginning of the 2009 season. Over the next three years, Bacca scored 50 goals for Junior in 97 appearances and gathered enough praise that he was awarded with his first international cap. In January 2012, Club Brugge paid 1.5million euros to take the player to Belgium which many saw as a risk considering the player still had a lot to prove. Despite needing a few months to adapt, Bacca finished last season with three goals in ten games but this season he has been on blistering form, scoring 20 times out of 26 appearances in all competitions.

To see Carlos stunning goal, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VZndhmxpW6Q

Mourinho Mistake Won’t Cost Him His Job, Even Casillas Knows That

Tactical Master Jose MourinhoJose  Mourinho is anything but daft. The Special One is one of the most revered coaches of all time having won the domestic league trophies in four separate countries and the Champions League title twice with two different teams. His decision-making skills, club management style and tactical awareness have made him the coach he is today. So how could he make such a costly mistake on Saturday by benching club captain and Spanish legendary goalkeeper Iker Casillas for the important league fixture against 4th placed Malaga? It’s quite simple. It was all part of his grand plan.

It’s not been the easiest start to the season for Jose. A rejuvenated Barcelona have returned to knock Real off the La Liga perch. Arch rivals Altetico have started strongly too and sit in 2nd place in the league with Real close behind in 3rd. Qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League has been achieved but without the finesse or style of previous campaigns. And with a difficult two-legged fight with Manchester United coming up in the competition, Real are starting to look vulnerable once more. Added into this rumblings of a player revolts and even prize asset Cristiano Ronaldo revealing to friends , and then the world only days ago that he is planning on returning to Old Trafford in the summer, Jose faces an uphill struggle to get his team’s season back on track.

The Special One, Jose Mourinho

The Special One, Jose Mourinho

So why when your team is influx and the press are talking about dressing room disharmony would you drop your star goalkeeper for his hardly used deputy Adan Garrido in an act deemed by Mourinho as “technical decision based on better form”. The quick answer is to send a message to his players that he is in control. Whether Adan was in fact in better form on the training ground than Casillas was is a side story, Mourinho wanted to send a clear-cut message to his grumbling players that he is in control of the team and he isn’t afraid to bench anyone, even his top performing consistent goalkeeper. Granted Mourinho may have picked the wrong game to make such a statement, with Malaga eventually running out 3-2 winners but the point was made loud and clear, even if the players don’t realise it.

“It surprised us, Iker is our captain,” Madrid defender Sergio Ramos said.

Iker Casillas can barely watch against Malaga

Iker Casillas can barely watch against Malaga

A surprise indeed but one Mourinho felt confident would work. Benching Casillas said more than any team talk could. The result is somewhat irrelevant if the squad now picks its self up and gets back on the game trail. Too much in house politics and rumour milling has threatened to sink Real’s season this year before it has eve really started so Mourinho acted quickly and bravely to sort the problem before it escalated beyond even his control. The Portuguese coach thinks his job is safe after delivering the League last season and the Champions League the season before last. But perhaps that is where he is wrong. Mourinho isn’t as untouchable as it may seem. Madrid know that they must continue to improve over the seasons and unlike a lot of other clubs in Spain, Real’s more experienced players hold more weight than Mourinho can fathom. If a collective agreement is struck between the players that enough is enough, Mourinho may be out on his ear, before he realises what is actually happening. Added into this the Special Ones continuous stream to the media about job possibilities in England and his desire to one day return, the board will grow tired sooner than Mourinho will. Speculation in the press has Arsene Wenger’s name linked with Madrid once more, whether that be in an effort to get Mourinho to crack or decide to leave is still to be seen but to date they are only rumours.

Old Trafford Return? - Cristiano Ronaldo

Old Trafford Return? – Cristiano Ronaldo

For now Mourinho is relatively safe for the time being. Casillas will be returned to the starting line up for the next match against Real Sociedad on the 6th January 2013 and order will be restored. If Mourinho’s gamble has paid off, he will see signs of his more disgruntled players returning to normal and falling back into line with Mourinho’s grander plans. If not, perhaps Mourinho could have a larger fire on his hands that he will struggle to put out, knowing at the back of his mind that this could have all been avoided. But for those that know Mourinho, the backlash he has seen from the players, media and fans over the past few days will be exactly what he wants and needs for his team. He will know that this one calculated act could prove the spark he needs to reignite his domestic and European charge, just in time for the start of 2013.

The Race For Wembley Starts Now

Champions League TrophyWhen the European Cup changed over to The Champions League in 1992, it  was initially a straight knockout competition open only to the champion club of each. But since then, the tournament has evolved and is now Europe’s premiere club event with 76 teams contesting initially at the start for 32 places within the group stages. The teams are made up of champions of the individual countries across Europe and in some select larger leagues like England, Italy and Spain, the teams finishing in 2nd, 3rd and 4th. The tournament, which runs from July to May, with the group stages usually beginning in September, has become a huge money earner for UEFA as brands and TV stations fight for exclusive branding and broadcast rights. This new-found cash has allowed UEFA to increase the prize money to €10,500,000 for the winner and smaller amounts to the rest of the 31 teams who manage to reach the group stages. By doing this, UEFA has made the tournament a must for some clubs as they view the potential cash injection as a way to grow their club and further their dominance of their respective domestic leagues.

Who will follow in Chelsea's footsteps this year?

Who will follow in Chelsea’s footsteps this year?

In the past 20 years, there have been hundreds of memorable moments and games including Manchester United’s last-minute win against Bayern Munich in 1999, when the Reds scored twice in injury time to snatch the title away from the already celebrating germans. Or the Liverpool turn around of 2005 when trailing 3-0 to AC Milan at half time, manager Rafa Benetiz managed to rally his troops for the second half, and then watched as Liverpool, led by captain Stevie Gerrard fought back to 3-3 and then eventually won the game on a penalty shoot out. Or the fairytale story of Ajax in 1995 who won the tournament with home-grown talent and a team whose average age was only 23, proving once again that Alan Hansen’s famous quote of ” You can’t win anything with kids” is wildly off the mark. We could continue to talk about other amazing moments like Zidane’s volley in the 2002 final, Porto’s surprise win in 2004 under the guidance of then coach Jose Mourinho or the Lionel Messi show when he put 5 goals past Bayer Leverkusen in 2011 but we could go on forever.

Zidane's  volley from the edge of the area against Bayer Leverkusen

Zidane’s volley from the edge of the area against Bayer Leverkusen

This year’s draw for the last 16 has highlighted how exciting the tournament can be with some mouth-watering games. There is a return to Old Trafford for Cristiano Ronaldo as Real Madrid visit Manchester United, 3 times winners AC Milan entertain a fragile Barcelona side who will be hoping that manager Titi Vilanova has returned by the time the first leg rolls around in February. Scottish champions Celtic entertain Antonio Conte’s Juventus, praying for a repeat of the 2001 home leg game between the two clubs which ended in a thrilling 4-3 victory for Celtic. And Arsene Wenger will be secretly hoping he is still in a job come February so that he can lead his Arsenal team out against german runners-up Bayern Munich.

Celtic players celebrate scoring in the 4-3 win over Juventus

Celtic players celebrate scoring in the 4-3 win over Juventus

Added in to this Galatasaray v FC Schalke, Shakhtar Donetsk v Borussia Dortmund, Valencia v Paris St Germain and FC Porto v Malaga, it all adds up to a fascinating last 16 of the tournament. At this stage it is hard to predict who will triumph at Wembley Stadium next May. Early favourites are the two Spanish giants – Barcelona and Real Madrid but if history is anything to go by, this tournament is impossible to call.

To watch some great Champions League Group Stage moments from this year, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb88HF67PgE

To watch some great Champions League goals, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdCmGfL4aZc