Nail biting Round of 16 stuns Euros which now goes down to Final 8.

The knockouts of the Euro 2020 have started in full swing with exhilarating games and several significant upsets. After four days of knockout games, the bracket for the quarter finals has taken shape with several notable nations bowing out after tough competitions. Let’s take a look at a breakdown of the games and our predictions for the quarterfinals.

Day 1: A poor showing and a nail-biting thriller

Denmark vs Wales: 4 – 0

Key players: Gareth Bale (Wales); Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark)

The Danes dismantled an unorganized and unprepared Welsh side with ease in this game. The Euro 2016 semi-finalists who narrowly clinched the runner up spot of group A, went down a goal in the first half and were thoroughly outclassed by an inspired Danish side who have played heroically since losing star player Christian Eriksen in their very first game of the tournament. Welsh frustrations were only highlighted by the stoppage time red card to Harry Wilson, which looked soft to be fair. The Danes go through to the next round thanks to an inspirational performance and a newly confident forward in Kasper Dolberg who bagged a brace in this game.

Italy vs Austria: 2 – 1

Key Players: Lorenzo Insigne (Italy), L. Spinazzola, David Alaba (Austria)

Italy came into the tournament not having lost in 15 games in a row and cleared the group without any loss. Considered a darkhorse, they faced a very organized Austrian side led by Real Madrid new boy David Alaba. Italy was tested throughout the game which was goalless for 90 minutes. They then scored two goals in the first half of extra time, once again involved on the goal was the AS Roma man, Spinazzola. The left back has taken the Euros by a storm with his speed and deep penetrating runs. Austrian side put up a great fight until the end having scoring a last-minute goal and creating chaos for the last 8 mins of extra time but, the Italians held on to progress to the next round. If there were any cause for concern for the Italian side, it would be the poor showing of Domenico Berardi who despite some significant key defensive contributions failed to convert key chances to close the game.

Day 2: Passion and Pride

Netherlands vs Czech Republic: 0 – 2

Key Players: Patrik Schick (Czech Republic), Memphis Depay (Netherlands), Gini Wijnaldum (Netherlands)

The Dutch took an early exit after a poor showing against the surprise outfit of the Czech Republic. After losing their defensive leader Matthijs de Ligt early on (sent off for a deliberate handball), the Dutch lost all composure and fell under the pressure from a passionate and organized Czech performance. Patrik Schick was once again the man in the limelight who created the pressure for De Ligt’s send off and scored a fine goal to cap off a brilliant performance.  Now the only question that remains is how far can these underdogs go at the Euros.

Belgium vs Portugal: 0 – 1

Key Players: Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium), Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Belgium go through to the Quarter finals after a decent showing against Portugal. Portugal took a very conservative approach against a star-studded Belgium side, attempting to restrict any gaps. Both sides were very composed throughout the game, with Belgium capitalizing on an early chance with a goal towards the end of the first half. Kevin de Bruyne played his usual game and was constant threat throughout the game often suffering heavy tackles from Portugal’s frustrated defensive line. Belgium manager Roberto Martinez was quick to remove Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard after the early goal and held on to win the game as they prepare to face tougher competition on their expected road to the Final.

Day 3: Two classic games of passionate football that will be remember for years to come

Spain – Croatia: 5 – 3 (AET)

Key Players: Alvaro Morata (Spain), Luka Modric (Croatia) 

Spain came into the knockouts with two questionable performances and a final day 5-0 victory over Slovakia. Many questions were raised against Alvaro Morata’s form and Luis Enrique’s tactics at the Euros. Morata did not score in the win over Slovakia but showed signs of improvement from his first two performances. Spain started the game poorly with keeper Unai Simon missing a straightforward back pass from Pedro that ended up in the back of their own net.  But they quickly took control of the game and went up 3-1 shortly after. They looked all set to advance before Luka Modric who took control of the game in the last 15 minutes and Croatia scored twice to levelled the game in stoppage time with notable contributions from Atalanta man, Mario Pasalic. It looked like the momentum was completely on Croatia’s hands in extra time but, the fatigue of the game finally caught up to Croatian side. But the Spaniards were more clinical in extra time and put the game well beyond reach with two well taken goals to advance to the quarter finals. Heartbreak for Croatia but all in all it was an entertaining game for the fans and neutrals.

Take home: Spain showed grit to come back in extra time, they capitalized on the chances and closed down the game. Morata and Ferran Torres look confident but, defensive issues still persist.

France: Switzerland: 3 – 3 (AET) [4-5 Pens]

Key Players: Paul Pogba (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Granit Xhaka (Switzerland), Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

The Euro 2016 finalists and 2018 World Cup winners were heavy favourites to win the tournament and looked likely to dispatch the Swiss and advance. With the recall of exiled striker Karim Benzema, France was meant to be an even better team. After an indifferent showing in the group stage, France still managed to clear as top seed of a very tough group. Flashes of brilliance were seen but, poor form of Mbappe and Benzema and lack of chemistry were signs of concern. Karim Benzema came alive in the last group stage draw against Portugal but, the dominance exhibited in previous tournaments was not apparent.  The game again the Swiss exhibited parallels with the earlier game between Spain and Croatia. France went down a goal due to poor positioning in the box and Swiss capitalized on the chance. France abandoned the back three by subbing out Clement Lenglet for Kingsley Coman and moved Rabiot and Pavard to the full backs. But things only got worse when Swiss were awarded a penalty in box. A huge save by the French captain Hugo Lloris led to change of winds followed by a genius first touch by Karim Benzema for a French equalizer. Then, France immediately took the momentum away and scored another goal. Paul Pogba introduced further damage with a worldie from outside the box.

The Swiss made changes to bring on some much needed energy and try to break France’s momentum. France failed to capitalize on several breakaway passes from Pogba and the Swiss pulled one back through another header from Haris Seferovic. A brilliant pass from Swiss captain Granit Xhaka setup the equalizing goal for Gavranovic to force the game into extra time. France then lost their Joker who shifted the momentum after Coman and Benzema exited due to injuries. The Swiss held on through extra time with a composed performance from Xhaka who broke several key passes. The game was settled in a nerve-wracking penalty shootout, the first four penalties were beautifully executed by both teams. The final penalty for the Swiss was taken by veteran Mehmedi who stepped up with a blank expression. He took his time and executed his kick to perfection. The last kick fell onto a superstar Mbappe who had an abysmal tournament, missed several key chances and clearly lacked the confidence but, this could have been his turning point in the tournament. But the penalty was saved by Sommer who waited a few seconds to get the all clear from the referee and celebrated a well-deserved Swiss victory.

Take home: A scar in Mbappe’s career but, a valuable lesson for the 22-year-old. Pogba and Kante both shined in the game with the former creating several key chances. France still possesses a world of talent with the World Cup just around the corner.

Day 4: Redemption and Rejoice

England vs Germany: 0 – 2

England and Germany both possess very young, talented squads with immense potential for years to come. After the initial loss to France, Germany showed a strong performance against Portugal but, drew with a “never say die” Hungary side. Similarly, England also played with the line-ups but, could not bring the best out their talisman Kane.  The two sides faced on in a slow and tactical approach in the first half. A stealthy finish by Sterling gave England the lead late in the second half but, Germany could not capitalize on the mistake by Sterling with Thomas Muller’s shot moving ever so wide of the goal post. Jack Grealish’s introduction opened up the goal for Harry Kane to score for England and they would hold on to a 2-0 lead. Germany’s attacks were unimaginative at this point only sending long balls to the box in hopes of a half chance at goal. England held on to finish a historic win in over 50 years against the former world champions.

Take Home: Grealish may the key to unlocking Kane for England. Germany can rejoice the successful tenure of Joachim Low and look forward to new mastermind in Flick. The German team has plenty of potential and Hansi-Flick with his success at Bayern and his understanding of the next generation may be the key to create another dynasty.

Sweden vs Ukraine: 1 – 2 (AET)

Key Players: Emil Forsberg (Sweden); Andriy Yarmolenko (Ukraine)

Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine created history with a gritty performance and survived a dogged Swedish performance. Sweden missing talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who committed to return to national side for the tournament only to get injured) were still an emboldened team who put forward a strong group stage performance. A war of attrition between two sides who scored early first half goals was at a standstill and looking to be heading into penalties till Ukraine found some reserve energy to put the game to bed.

Predictions for the Quarter-Finals:

Belgium vs Italy:

Considered by many as the match that may provide the winner of the Euros, Belgium and Italy have shown some great football. Belgium will need their talisman Kevin de Bruyne, who took a knock in the Portugal game, in good form if they are to have any chance of winning against Italy. We saw Belgium completely lose their creativity after de Bruyne left the game against Portugal as did Man City in the Champions League final. They will need his dribbles to break through Jorginho and Verratti. Italy on the other hand have looked strong throughout this tournament but, needed extra time to put the game to bed against Austria. A tough game to call but a heavy tackle on de Bruyne might be all it takes to edge this for Italy.

Prediction: 1 – 2 (Italy Win)

Switzerland vs Spain:

Switzerland made headlines with a huge upset knocking out favourites France. Spain played a similar game but, managed to pull through in extra time against Croatia. Morata looks motivated and will be the key to help Spain go thorough to the semis.

Prediction: 0 – 2 (Spain Win)

England vs Ukraine:

England played a good game but, are still trying to figure out their best line-up to support Kane. Sterling has been phenomenal in this tournament and Mason Mount may feature in the next game after his stint in quarantine. Ukraine have done well to get as far as they have but will face a tough test in England who are desperate to get to the final this time around.

Prediction: 2 – 0 (England win)

Czech Republic vs Denmark:

After losing their first two games, the Danes bounced back valiantly with win over Russia and demolished Wales in the round of 16 with Kasper Dolberg rising up to the occasion at the perfect time. The Czechs have also shown resilience restricting the Dutch to a few chances and capitalizing on a mistake. They also have a star in Patrik Schick. This game a bit difficult to predict as Denmark possess a wealth of talent and a world class goal stopper in Kasper Schmeichel but, one cannot rule out the Czechs who are also playing with superior confidence.

Prediction: 1 – 0 (Czech win)

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

What’s next for Ajax After Breathtaking Season?

Now that their historic season is over, it is time to look at what is next for AFC Ajax. After completing the domestic double, and their heartbreaking last-second loss in the semi-final of the Champions League, the whole world is once again talking about the Dutch giants. With this increased chatter comes change both on and off the pitch. Frenkie de Jong has already made a transfer to FC Barcelona for the staggering sum of €75 million, which could reach to €86 million if certain bonus targets are met. And he is not the only player that could be set to depart this summer. Centre back Matthijs de Ligt is being chased by top clubs from all over Europe, and the rumoured amounts with which they want to buy him reportedly over between €60-€80 million. In addition, Hakim Ziyech, David Neres, and Donny van de Beek are also very popular transfer targets with clubs preparing bids. So, it is safe to say that a lot of changes are on the way and the team could look very different next season.

Ajax however has been preparing for just that. They have already brought in four young players to fill in the possible gaps either next season or in the future. They have signed 23-year old Romanian central midfielder Razvan Marin from Belgian club Standard Liége, 18-year old Kik Pierie who is a Dutch-American defender from sc Heerenveen, 19-year old Dutch goalkeeper from FC Emmen Kjell Scherpen, and 21 year old Argentine defender Lisandro Martinez from Defensa y Justicia for a combined €24.5 million. They are also reportedly interested in PSV winger Steven Bergwijn and Martin Odegaard, currently out on loan at Vitesse from Real Madrid, among others.

Lisandro Martinez will join Ajax in the summer (Image from Tumblr)

Lisandro Martinez will join Ajax in the summer (Image from Tumblr)

Head coach Erik ten Hag has also been the topic of some rumours himself, but management is eager to extend his contract, which runs until 2020. His assistant Alfred Schreuder will depart however to fill in the vacant head coaching job at Hoffenheim in the German Bundesliga. It’s a huge blow to the team with multiple players already saying how sorry they are about that and that he is one of the most important people in the first team staff. Michael Reiziger, who together with Winston Bogarde is currently the head coach of Jong Ajax, will fill in Schreuder’s spot, and that means that more changes within the staff will have to be made. Clubs have also been eyeing up moves for director of football Marc Overmars and general manager Edwin van der Sar. Overmars has already confirmed that he is staying and feels like his mission isn’t done yet. Van der Sar has been linked heavily with his former club, Manchester United but as yet neither party has made moves to indicate that this will happen.

It is unrealistic to think Ajax will repeat their performances of the 18/19 season next year. For the first time since the 1990’s they reached the semi-finals of the biggest European club competition, while being seconds away from the final in Madrid. And whilst they are the richest team in the Netherlands, they can not compete with the type of money Europe’s elite teams earn. The amount of money they earned from this season’s Champions League campaign exceeded their yearly budget. And even though they won the Eredivisie title, their first one since 2014, that doesn’t mean they automatically qualify for next year’s group stage. For that to happen they will have to beat 2 opponents in the qualification rounds. People from within the club have therefore said that reaching the group stage is the goal for next season. But even if that didn’t happen and they would be playing in the Europa League, a deep run in this competition would also be a successful performance.

Marc Overmars and Edwin Van der Sar have both attracted interest from other clubs following Ajax's success (Image from reddit)

Marc Overmars and Edwin Van der Sar have both attracted interest from other clubs following Ajax’s success (Image from reddit)

It is useful to mention that recently changes were announced in the Eredivisie. Some of them, that will be applicable to Ajax, are important to mention. This past season there was a lot of controversy about the fact that the KNVB (Dutch FA) rescheduled a lot of match weeks to accommodate Ajax in their journey. Now an agreement has been reached about this. This means that there will be more flexibility with the schedule, so they are actively working at giving Dutch clubs the best chance possible to improve performances in Europe.

Domestically the goal is and will always be to win the championship. The race between PSV and Ajax was tight, and for a long time it looked like PSV were even going to win the league with a lead of multiple points, but the gap to the rest of the teams in the Eredivisie was a ridiculous 18 points between Feyenoord in 3rd place and PSV, who of course finished 2nd just behind Ajax. This means that in the league they won’t have that much to worry about, as long as they keep their sights on PSV. Ajax won their first domestic double since 2002, and the squad should still be strong enough to repeat these accomplishments. They had the joint top scorer of the league in Dusan Tadic who is expected to stay, while André Onana and Nico Tagliafico have both committed to at least one more year in Amsterdam. If they succeed in keeping some of their other key players, and the new players coming in are able to adjust and are up to the required level, they will still have the strongest squad in the league. And the transfer market doesn’t close for a long time, so who knows what kind of surprises they can come up with to strengthen the team.

Tadic has been in blistering form this season following his move from Southampton (Image from Tumblr)

Tadic has been in blistering form this season following his move from Southampton (Image from Tumblr)

The KNVB Beker is often used by Ajax as a competition to test out formations and to give some bench players and youngsters more playing time. The focus is often not on winning the competition, but if they do get into the latter rounds the focus will be amped up and more of the main group will be playing to try to win it. Speaking of youngsters, it is well known that Ajax prides itself on their youth academy. And it is very possible that some of those youngsters will get called up to the first squad to fill up some of the gaps that will be left behind by outgoing transfers. Players like Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, Ryan Gravenberch (both midfielders, the former 19 years old, the latter 17 years old), Noa Lang (winger/offensive midfielder, 19 years old) and Lassina Traoré, an 18 year old striker who was brought over from partner club Ajax Cape town, have all made their first team debuts in the 2018/19 season, and other players have shown tremendous talent, and so they might get some opportunities as well next season.

Switching to tactics now, this season Ajax played in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but Ten Hag has already stated that that might chance next season, depending on what works best with the available players. This is a big chance in tradition for Ajax, as they are known for predominantly using the 4-3-3 formation, and then fitting in players to work within that formation. But this is also very exciting. Often Ajax – and Dutch teams in general – get accused of not having a ‘Plan B’ when things don’t go as planned, so this might be a good step in the right direction. It could possibly give Ajax some more weapons to drag matches over the line when they are facing tough opponents. Regardless of what happens this summer, next season is shaping up to be very interesting. There are some question marks here and there, but also a lot of opportunities on the horizon. Even though the season might not be as historic as this previous season, Ajax fans will still have a lot to be excited about.

Article by Jordy Lont. Follow him on Twitter.

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One On One With: Howard Webb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ajax relaxed as they look to hold onto prize assets; for the time being.

There is a general feeling of relaxation about Ajax manager Erik ten Hag as he watches the first training session back after the international break. His team sit second in the Eredivisie behind leaders and current champions PSV but with a lot of football still to be played and with an exciting and youthful sides in the league at his disposal, ten Hag looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world. The same however cannot be said for Edwin van der Sar who as the club’s general director is now batting down the hatches as he prepares to ride out a very big storm approaching.

Dutch Eredivisie"Ajax v Go Ahead Eagles"

van der Sar knows a storm is coming (image from Tumblr)

Ajax and van der Sar have every reason to be nervous as clubs across Europe prepare to test their resilience by making moves for three of their emerging starlets. Scouts from the elite clubs have been arriving steadily and leaving hastily, almost giddy at the prospect of telling their owners what they have just found. Ajax has built a stellar reputation on developing young players and selling them on for vast profit with the likes of Kluivert (Patrick and son Justin), Wesley Sneijder, Dennis Bergkamp, both De Boers and van der Sar himself all having coming from the clubs youth ranks. But this latest crop is something special. In almost every position, Ajax have produced a quality player that now occupies space in their first team.


The Ajax youth production line never stops (Image from Ajax)

From Andre Onana in goal to Donny van de Beek and Carel Eiting in midfield and Vaclav Cerny in attack, this team screams youthful exuberance and talent. But there are three stars that are standing out more than the rest and shinning the brightest – centre back Matthijis de Ligt, midfielder Frenkie De Jong and striker Kasper Dolberg. Despite being still young (De Jong and Dolberg are 21, de Ligt only 19), all three are capped at full international level for their respective countries (De Jong, de Ligt for Holland and Dolberg for Denmark) and all three are destined to become global superstars.

de Ligt and Dolberg (Image from Tumblr)

de Ligt and Dolberg (Image from Tumblr)

de Ligt has all the markers of being a total defender – strong with both feet, commanding in the air as he is on the ground, with a strong range of passing and viable leadership qualities to boot. Indeed his teammate often talks about how de Ligt takes centre stage in the locker room and rallies the players before they head out. Dolberg on the other hand is quiet and reserved around his teammates but explodes with energy and pace on the field. Despite a difficult year last season that was blighted by injuries, the blonde striker is back and firing on all cylinders this campaign. Finally de Jong who has been likened to Franz Beckenbeur, Xavi and Frank Rijkaard at one time or another is a predominately deep lying midfielder whose versatility and football orientated brain lets him control games with ease. Although he never actually came through the youth system at Ajax (he was bought from Willem II), he plays as if he has spend a decade learning at the academy. With precision passing and a good eye for goal too, he is the complete midfielder who will only get better as he gets older.


Frenkie de Jong has been a revelation since making his breakthrough (Image from Tumblr)

Now positioned as a selling club, Ajax know that holding on to these three in particular will be almost impossible so ensuring the biggest payout possible will be the main goal. That should not be an issue given the interest levels reported in various European newspapers. de Ligt is attracting interest from Juventus and Barcelona whilst Dolberg has Napoli and Tottenham drooling beyond control. But its Frenkie de Jong who could secure the club the biggest pay out with Pep Guardiola such a big fan that he is asking Manchester City to sanction a pre-agreement with the player valued at €70 million now in order to hold off interest from his former club Barcelona. Frenkie, who was named by his parents after Frankie Goes to Hollywood is seen as an ideal replacement for the aging Fernandinho and could become Guardiola’s centrepiece as he looks to build the next iteration of his Manchester City team.


Frankie Goes To Hollywood hit song “Relax” (Image from Tumblr)

Ajax Technical Director Marc Overmars has hinted that the club is already preparing to lose the trio but is hopeful that they can remain in Holland until at least the summer. For ten Hag, keeping all three will give him a better chance of clawing back and overtaking Mark van Bommel’s PSV side in the race for the championship. Losing them in the winter transfer window would not be preferable but would arm him with a substantial war chest of funds which could be used to bring in more players. Either way, Ajax is set to benefit from the trio in more than one way. In all of this, Overmars does not seem stressed and like ten Hag is relaxed about the prospect knowing that he only has to look over his shoulder to see who’s next coming off the Ajax youth production line.

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One on One with: Jos Hooiveld

The road to success is never an easy one. It’s a path that many travel, but few reach the end. Many give up along the way when road bumps or blockages stop their path. Others persevere with the belief that one day they will make it. Jos Hooiveld is one such player. Early setbacks and false dawns could have stopped the 6ft 4in Dutch centre half in his tracks, but instead he pushed through. He found success at Finnish side Inter Turku, then in Sweden at AIK winning team and personal accolades. A move to Glasgow Celtic followed and although that didn’t go quite to plan, it would turn out to be a small bump along the way, as his next move to Southampton would eventually turn him into a cult figure. A highly likeable guy off the field, but a solid no nonsense defender on it. We caught up with Jos recently as he starts his latest challenge in Los Angeles with Orange County.

BackOfTheNet: Jos, thanks for sitting down with us.

BackOfTheNet: You were born in a very small village in Holland called Zeijen which is close to Groningen. From there you played for a few youth teams in the neighbouring towns of Assen and Emmen before settling in Heerenveen. What was it like growing up in Holland, and was your family supportive of your dreams to become a footballer?

Jos Hooiveld: They were very supportive. My family is football mad and so is the whole of Holland actually. There was no problem haha!

BOTN: They must have been proud when you represented Holland at under 19 level. How did that feel pulling on the famous Oranje jersey?

JH: Yes, I was really proud of that, unfortunately it was only with the under 19s. But representing your country is something else.


image from Jos Hooiveld

BOTN: After a few seasons at Heerenveen you made the move to the Austrian Bundesliga with Kapfenberger. That move didn’t quite go to plan. What happened there?

JH: I went there at the wrong time. There was a change of coach and if I’m honest we didn’t have a great connection going there.

BOTN: You eventually escaped to Finland with a move to Inter Turku, which gave you your first taste of success: lifting the Finnish League Cup and Veikkausliiga title as well as securing personal success with back to back Defender of the Year awards. Did you feel that, finally, your efforts were paying off?

JH: Yes, I always refer back to that period on which my career started. Things fell into place there and I set my base for confidence.


image from Jos Hooiveld

BOTN: Before long, AIK came calling and you helped them to their first title in eleven years, then the cup, giving them their first ever domestic double. That led to a money spinning move to Scotland with Celtic. Talk us through those few years. In your opinion, why did the move to Celtic not pan out as hoped?

JH: When I came to Celtic the season in Sweden was already finished for two months. I came and needed a proper pre-season which I didn’t get. After 3 games in 6 days I got injured and it lasted a good three months before I came back fit. In the beginning of that following season I played my first games without rhythm and without confidence. In a club like Celtic that means move on… haha.

BOTN: Eventually you moved to England with Southampton following a successful loan move, and played under Nigel Adkins, as they secured promotion back to the Premier League. You were part of the squad when Adkins was sacked and replaced on the same day by Mauricio Pochettino. How did the team react on that day? How did you feel about how the club handled that situation?

JH: It’s always a sad day when you as a team can’t keep a good manager and good person in his seat. But his replacement took us to the next level at that moment, so considering that, we didn’t complain about it and moved on. As anyone does in football.


image from Jos Hooiveld

BOTN: You seemed to have really enjoyed your time at Southampton. What was it about that club that helped you flourish as a player?

JH: We had a squad that was very close and helped each other develop instead of criticizing each other. The coach and the chairman were also very helpful which benefited the team as a whole.

BOTN: Subsequent moves back to AIK then home to Holland with FC Twente followed. Did you feel that you were returning home to Holland having proven something and made a name for yourself?

JH: Well football isn’t really much about names and proven things in my opinion. It’s more taking everything out of it as long as you can. Because life after football is way longer than life inside of football, that name won’t bring you anything then. Football never owes you anything after.

BOTN: So, what’s next for you? We see you have moved to the US with Orange County. What made you move to LA?

JH: A new adventure and to experience the sports culture here.


image from Jos Hooiveld

BOTN: Finally, some quick hits if we can. Toughest opponent?

JH: (Romelu) Lukaku.

BOTN: Best stadium you played in?

JH: Emirates stadium.

BOTN: Closest friend in football?

JH: I have a few and won’t want to sell anyone short.

BOTN: Thanks again, Jos. and all the best for the rest of the season.

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One on One with: Boudewijn Zenden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thank you again Boudewijn.


Follow Boudewijn on Instagram: boudewijn_zenden

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

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Total Football Mourns The Passing Of Johan Cruyff

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


The legendary Johan Cruyff (Image from AFP)

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

Ajax Inter 1972

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

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


The Cruyff Turn (Image from AP)

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

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Hasselbaink Arrives At QPR With Much To Do

Burton Albion new manager, Jimmy Floyd HasselbainkAfter a difficult start to the new season, Queens Park Rangers are hoping to get back on track with the appointment of former Holland and Chelsea striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as their new manager. The 43 year old joins the club after an impressive year at Burton Albion during which he steered the brewers to promotion from League Two at the first attempt. Hasselbaink was confirmed as the Hoops new boss earlier today  and replaces Chris Ramsey who was sacked by the club a month ago. Since then Neil Warnock has been in interim charge  whilst Director of Football Les Ferdinand identified and interviewed potential candidates. Several big names were touted as potential replacements for Ramsey but in Ferdinand’s mind there was only ever one candidate.


Hasselbaink as a player for Chelsea (Image from PA)

Unlike most former high profile players who fall into management due to circumstance (like Alan Sherear), Hasselbaink’s route to QPR has been progressive, choosing to start from the bottom and work his way up. His first job was at Royal Antwerp in the Belgian Second Division. To suggest that it was a steep learning curve is an understatement. Despite his lack of experience, much was expected of Hasselbaink by the club who had just been relegated to the division the year previously. The target was an ambitious one – bounce back into Belgium’s top league at the first attempt. Hasselbaink however saw the project differently as a two to three year rebuilding exercise changing the philosophy of the club from the ground up by introducing free flowing attacking football with younger players on a reduced budget. With a difference in objectives, the project was always likely to fail and in his debut season he finished in seventh place. The owners however by that point were coming around and offered Hasselbaink a new deal but the Dutchman rejected it fearing that what they were saying was different than what they actually wanted.


Hasselbaink’s arrival at Burton saw a change in fortunes for the club (Image from Getty)

A move to England seemed like a logical step but again Hasselbaink wanted to start small and build his reputation from there. Joining Burton may have seemed a step to far down the ladder but the former striker saw stability and a willingness to adapt to new ideas and signed on immediately. It proved to be the right decision with Burton earning promotion in their first season under Hasselbaink, playing some attractive football along the way. With the League Two title now in the trophy cabinet, realistic expectations were to fight for survival this season in League One but Hasselbaink wanted more. When QPR came calling, Burton were sitting top of the division two points clear of Coventry. What amazes most people who look at what Hasselbaink did at the club was his ability to get the defence to play well. Many assumed that as a striker by trade, Hasselbaink’s teams would attack  with the philosophy of scoring at least one more than they conceded but his work on his back line has been superb with Burton possessing the tightest defence in the league to date.

Austin Ben Queensborough

Can he keep Austin at QPR? (Image from Ben Queensborough)

This will come as good news to QPR fans who have suffered through too many edgy games this season. Out of nineteen fixtures to date, ten games have been won or lost by a single goal. Whilst this is a reflection of the competitiveness of the league, its also a worrying trend that many points have been dropped thanks to a momentary lapse in concentration. Indeed out of the seven defeats and five draws so far, four have been effectively lost by goals in the dying few minutes of games. This will be something that Hasselbaink will be keen to resolve quickly. With the defence sorted, he will turn to his front line and that’s where he faces potentially his biggest problem. Charlie Austin is a man in demand with several clubs in the Premier League ready to swoop for him in the January transfer window. With eight goals from 14 appearances, he is QPR’s leading marksman and indeed one of only two strikers at the club to have found the back of the net (Junior Holliett being the other one). Hasselbaink has one month to persuade Austen to stick with QPR and be the catalyst for their promotion push. The difficulty will be that in a season that ends in the European Championships in France, Austin may be tempted to jump ship in order to push his way into the England squad. At present he is behind the likes of Harry Kane, Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy and many others so his chances are limited. But the player will know that they are more limited playing in a division below his rivals. It will be interesting to see what Hasselbaink does with Austen, whether he lets him leave in order to reinvest in other players for the squad or attempts to retain him at least until the summer. It could be a defining decision for the former Holland frontman and for QPR as the push for promotion back to the Premier League.

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PSV Harness Youth Development For League Success

PSV champions once more (Image from Getty)After a long seven year stretch, PSV are back on top of the Dutch Eredivisie after sealing the title this past weekend with a 4-1 win over Heerenveen. For the past four years, Ajax of Amsterdam under the tutelage of Frank De Boer have ruled the roost in Holland with PSV more often than not having to settle for second fiddle. But now with their own club legend in charge in the form of Phillip Cocu, the Eindhoven based club has knocked them off their perch with three games left to play in the season. With PSV winning on Saturday, Ajax needed to beat NAC Breda at home to stay in the race. Despite a valiant effort, it proved a step too far and the dream of a fifth consecutive title faded with the blowing of the final whistle. A point was all that they earned in that match which left them 12 points behind PSV with only nine points remaining. Celebrations across Eindhoven went long into the night as PSV picked up their 19th Eredivisie title, 22 Dutch titles in total. Cocu, who spent six years as a player with PSV during two three year spells sandwiching his time in Spain with Barcelona, only took over as manager in 2013 after a successful spell in charge of the clubs Under 19 setup. His mantra was clear from the beginning that youth should be given its chance and less than two years later, Cocu’s decision has been vindicated with several home grown talents playing key roles in their latest title success.

Always looking forward - PSV manager Phillip Cocu  (Image from Getty)

Always looking forward – PSV manager Phillip Cocu
(Image from Getty)

Players like Jeroen Zoet in goal, Jetro Willems in defence and Jurgen Locadia upfront have all played significant roles in handing PSV their first title in seven years. The trio are part of a young PSV squad whose average age is only 23 that is bursting with talent and enthusiasm; so contagious it’s hard to not want them to win. Cocu managed to constructed a squad on a shoe string budget for the long term using young home grown talent alongside smart purchases but will now face his toughest challenge yet as he tries to hold on to them all during the summer break. Already several keys figures in his team have been linked with moves away from the club, with visiting scouts at every game a testament to the accuracy of these stories. Top of most people’s wish lists are the trio of Adam Maher, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay. All three are Dutch internationalists with the latter two of Wijnaldum and Depay earning spots in Louis Van Gaal’s 2014 World Cup squad. Club captain Wijnaldum found the net against Brazil in the third place playoff match whilst Depay scored against Chile in the final group stage to become the youngest Dutchman to score a goal at the World Cup, aged only 20 years and four months. The trio are tipped for greater things and PSV knows that it will have a fight on their hands to keep them all at the club.

It’s no secret that Manchester United boss Van Gaal is a fan of Depay having waxed lyrically about his talents in Brazil. A move for the winger turned striker was touted as early as last summer but with PSV reluctant to let him leave at that stage, Van Gaal was forced to look elsewhere. Now a year on, Depay is back on his radar with the player himself now keen on the move, it should become a formality in the weeks and months ahead. He could be joined in England by Maher with Arsenal keen on the elegant yet graceful central midfielder. Similar in style to Cesc Fabregas, Maher is comfortable on the ball as he is off it. With a good passing range and pace to boot, Maher’s arrival could finally end Jack Wilshire’s injury hit time at the club. Wijnaldum’s next move is less certain but he hardly suffers from a lack of options. Teams in Italy, Germany, Spain and England have all expressed their interest in the attacking midfielder who became one of PSV’s youngest ever captains when he was picked to take over the arm band following the departures of Mark Van Bommel and Kevin Strootman. With strong technique and close control which allows him to change the direction of the ball with ease at high speed, he could become one of the world’s best playmakers if he could perfect his shot. Despite this apparent weakness, Wijnaldum is three goals shy of his best ever return in a PSV shirt with 12 goals so far. He still has three matches left to find those goals and leave the club on an all time high.

All three players would command large fees, money that will be quickly used to reinforce the squad. But Cocu won’t spend all of it on new players, instead favouring the approach of pushing some of the money back into the clubs youth development programs in order to protect its long term future. The money will be used to develop the likes of Steven Bergwijn, Jordy de Wijs and Clint Leemans all of which have flirted with the first team at some point or another during this season. They are the next batch of talented youngsters to emerge, with Cocu keen to put his faith in them just as he did with Maher, Depay and Wijnaldum.

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YouTube Star Roche Makes FIFA Goal Of The Year List

Goal of the Year contender - Stephanie Roche (Image from Getty)There are a couple of familiar names on this year’s FIFA Puskas Award for goal of the year and one not so familiar. Irish striker Stephanie Roche is hardly a household name like the other two other contenders on the list – Manchester United and Holland striker Robin Van Persie and Real Madrid and Colombia midfielder James Rodriquez but her place on this year’s list is as much deserved as theirs. The former Peamount United striker has earned her way onto the shortlist with a stunning goal against Wexford Youths in October. Receiving the ball on the edge of the opposition area from a cross from teammate Wendy McGlone, Roche neatly controls the ball with her right before dinking it over her marker with her left and spinning round to hit an unstoppable volley past the helpless Wexford Youths goalkeeper Mary Rose Kelly.

The strike, which was luckily captured on film by someone in the 95 person strong crowd, has become a YouTube sensation capturing thousands of views only weeks after it was initially posted. The buzz created by the video has worked in Roche’s favour who has now been given a professional contract by French side ASPTT Albi as a result. Pundits and former players have also been quick to praise the strike and in particular the technique applied by Roche in executing the volley. Former Republic of Ireland defender Paul McGrath, ex England striker Matt Le Tissier and former player turned pundit Gary Linekar have all taken to social media to wax lyrically about the strike. Roche herself is over the moon by the attention the strike is getting and by her subsequent nomination stating on BBC Radio 5 in the UK that she has been overwhelmed by the messages of support and encouragement and is generally happy that her goal is getting recognized, not just for herself but for women’s football in general.

Roche’s goal was one of ten to make an initial shortlist before it was eventually whittled down to just these three. Now it is up to users of and to decide which one of the three goals wins the award. Roche though faces tough competition as both goals by Robin Van Persie and James Rodriguez, which happened during this past summers World Cup have enough merit to win the award themselves. Real Madrid ace Rodriguez was undoubtedly the star player at the tournament, scoring six goals as he helped Colombia march into the quarter finals only to be eventually beaten by a Neymar inspired Brazil. But it was his volley in the round of 16 match against Uruguay that earned him a place in this year’s list. With his back to goal some 25 yards out, Rodriguez controlled a headed pass on his chest before swiveling round to unleash a venomous dipping volley which crashed into the net off the crossbar. Perhaps seen as less spectacular that Roche’s or Rodriguez’s volleys, Van Persie’s elegant swan like diving header goal for Holland against Spain in their World Cup group opening match was equally as impressive. The goal which showed great vision and technique by the Dutch striker who carefully watched the ball before leaping well to head the ball over Iker Casillas in the Spanish goal, setting Holland on its way towards a shock 5-1 victory which effectively ended Spain’s defence of their title before it even began.

The award named after Hungarian and Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas, who scored his own fair share of spectacular and impressive goals during his career, will be presented in Zurich on January 12th 2015 at a star studded event. Roche will be present, along with Van Persie and Rodriguez for the announcement of the winner and if Roche’s name is called she will become the first ever female winner of the award.

You can view all three strikes again and vote for your favourite here:

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High Flying Southampton Singing To Koeman’s Song Now

Now in Control - Ronald Koeman (Image from AFP)Having sold half their squad and lost their manager during the summer, few expected Southampton to do much this season. But after eight matches under new head coach Ronald Koeman, Southampton are sitting pretty in third spot in the Premiership with 16 points to their name. It’s a testament to the work done by the former Dutch international who joined the club in June following the departure of Mauricio Pochettino to Tottenham. Having lost a wealth of stars including Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren to name a few, Koeman has managed to successfully pick up the remaining pieces and rebuild a squad capable of challenging in one of Europe’s toughest leagues. The stunning 8-0 thrashing of Sunderland demonstrated how far Koeman’s new look side have come in such a short space in time. Out played and out classed, Sunderland looked shell shocked by how effective Southampton were at going forward and how proficient they were at the back. At times, Southampton looked to have had an extra man or two on the field, gently stroking the ball around the pitch with the ease and precision expected of a championship winning side. Sunderland were poor but few will argue that even a well organized side would have struggled to contain Southampton in the form they are in.

All Smiles - Southampton fans cheer as their side destroys Sunderland 8-0  (Image from AFP)

All Smiles – Southampton fans cheer as their side destroys Sunderland 8-0
(Image from AFP)

It’s a remarkable turnaround in fortunes given the amount of inward and outward traffic through the doors at St Mary’s this summer. Koeman’s job from day one was to make a decision about his new squad and its want away stars like Lallana and Lovren. He had two options – fight tooth and nail to get them to stay or let them leave and rebuild. He took the latter option knowing that an unhappy player would be harder to work with and could upset the balance of his team. So in the first two weeks of Koeman’s rein he witnessed £90million worth of talent depart and the breakup of Pochettini’s well crafted squad. The fans were outraged, angry with the board and Koeman for letting their stars leave. But unbeknownst to them, Koeman had a plan and knew how he wanted to spend the war chest of fund snow at his disposal. In came Serbian winger Dusan Tadic and Italian striker Graziano Pelle to add pace and precision finishing to his new look side. Ryan Bertand was signed on a season loan long from Chelsea as a direct replacement for Luke Shaw whilst accomplished Belgian defender Toby Alderwiereld arrived from Atletico Madrid to shore up the back line. He also quickly replaced Artur Boric in goal with Celtic’s Frazer Forster as he saw Boric as a problematic figure who he could ill afford to rely on. Finally Romanian defender Florin Gardos, Irish striker Shane Long and Senegalese winger Sadio Mane were signed to strengthen the squad in general and provide much needed options to Koeman. In all Koeman’s spent just over £60million leaving Southampton with a healthy profit and further funds to be spent in the January transfer window if needed.

Pelle and Tadic have been in superb form since arriving  (Image from Getty)

Pelle and Tadic have been in superb form since arriving
(Image from Getty)

All of Koeman’s signings (with the exception of a loan move for Saphir Taider which ended abruptly after only three weeks) has worked out perfectly, with the squad gelling together in record time. Pelle has settled well and has already hit six goals so far including a brace against Sunderland whilst Tadic has quickly become one of the best wingers in the league, leading the way in assists alongside Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas. Koeman has worked hard to integrate his new players into the squad but has also spent time assuring the players that remained from last season that he has a vision for the club and what role they play in that.  He convinced Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez to stay for one more season whilst encouraging youngsters like Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama and James Ward Prowse to stamp their authority on the squad and earn their place in the team. Added into this influential players like Steven Davis, Jose Fonte and Jack Cork have been encouraged to lead the way with their performances, something that the trio has done so with a renewed sense of conviction and vigour.

Imposing Figure - Southampton goalkeeper Frazer Forster   (Image from Getty)

Imposing Figure – Southampton goalkeeper Frazer Forster
(Image from Getty)

Koeman’s has his team buzzing and for that has been rewarded with wins. In total 5 wins from his first 8 league matches including impressive victories over West Ham, Newcastle and Sunderland. Koeman bagged the manager of the month reward for September alongside his striker Pelle who picked up the best player award. It was the first real recognition of Koeman success since joining and will likely not be the last as long as his side continues to perform as they have been. It seems like a long time ago that the Southampton fans were worried for the clubs future following the departure of its top stars and manager. But now Koeman has them singing again this time to his tune, one which he hopes they will be singing all the way to the end of the Premiership season next May.

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World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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Deconstructing Brazil – What Went Wrong

Down and Out - Brazil crashed out of the World Cup in stunning fashion (Image from AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)With the dust now settled on what was a stunning World Cup, the inquest into what went wrong for Brazil can now begin. Whilst other teams like England, Spain and Italy exited earlier than expected and before Brazil, it was the nature of the home teams implosion in the semi finals against eventual champions Germany and their failure to recover for the irrelevant third place playoff game that has many talking. Expectations were high going into the tournament off the back of winning the World Cup warm up event, the Confederations Cup. A spectacular demolition of Spain in the final by 3-0 lifted the hopes of a nation and set about creating a false dawn ahead of the World Cup. How could they not win? With Neymar playing well, the defence solid as a rock and Fred finishing top goal scorer, Brazil fans started to plan the victory parade before the World Cup had even began. After a group stage that taught us little except for Neymar’s brilliance, Brazil went into the knock out stages with more belief that ever before. But after crashing out in the semi finals to Germany by a score of 7-1 and then throwing away the third place playoff against Holland, many are wondering exactly what went wrong?

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

World Cup winners, Germany

Over reliance on Neymar

Neymar’s brilliance was on show from day one but so was Brazil’s apparent over reliance of their boy genius. Even from the first kick of the ball against Croatia, it appeared as though the tactic was simply give the ball to Neymar. The Barcelona star was at the heart of every play that Brazil made and in the beginning it was mesmerizing to watch. But as the tournament progressed, it gradually turned into predictable. Oscar, the creator of many of Brazil’s best moves cried out for the ball but his teammates instead chose to pass the ball to the heavily marked Neymar. The once unpredictable Brazil had become routine and beating them became obvious – nullify the threat of Neymar and the game is there for the taking. Brazil had little else in the locker – no Kaka to turn to for inspiration, no Robinho to add some flair or Ronaldinho for that matter to provide some brilliance. They may have breezed through the group stage but in the knock out rounds, Brazil dangled too close to the edge for comfort. Both Chile and Colombia tried to shut down Neymar and managed fairly successfully though tight marking although the latter took that too literally. A late and high challenge by Juan Zuniga ended Neymar’s World Cup and with it Brazil’s Plan A. Unfortunately a Plan B was not in the bank for them to turn to meaning defeat against Germany was inevitable.

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly  (Image from Getty)

An over reliance on Neymar cost Brazil dearly
(Image from Getty)

The £50million mistake?

As a centre back, David Luiz is vulnerable. Against Germany his defending was laughable, his positioning more so. Against the Dutch his attitude to amend for previous mistakes was commendable but again his positioning let him down. Why a centre back was on the left wing with his team trailing by two goals was anyone’s guess. Too often Luiz was anywhere but at centre back leaving Thiago Silva stranded. Its easy to blame Luiz for all seven goals against Germany and that would be unfair as the entire team minus Oscar were culpable but against Holland the argument is vindicated. For the first goal, Luiz was found wandering at the half way line when the ball was played to Robben who was then dragged back by Thiago Silva for a penalty which Van Persie duly converted. Holland’s second came directly from Luiz who chose to clear the ball with his head into the middle of the pitch and onto Daley Blind’s left toe rather than head it out of towards the side line. And to cap off his bumbling display, he was again found out of position for Holland’s third stranded at left back which forced Fernandinho into defending against Janmaat’s cross. Unfortunately Scolari’s decision to place his faith in David Luiz as a centre back failed miserably and the player looked out of his depth and badly out of position. Luiz secured his dream transfer to Paris Saint-Germain for a record fee of £50 million just days before the tournament began with the view to him partnering Thiago Silva at the back next season but surely now even they must be having second thoughts?

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position  (Image from PA)

Luiz looked lost against Germany and too often out of position
(Image from PA)

Lack of options upfront

When naming his squad, Scolari chose to name only two out and out strikers – Fred and Jo out of a possible five. The other three positions went to winger Bernard, the all-rounder Neymar and forward turn winger Hulk. Playing with one upfront and Neymar in a floating role, Brazil and Scolari put a lot of faith in one striker in particular, Fred. The 30 year old Fluminense front man was rightly picked as his starting number nine after an impressive season with his club and an even more impressive Confederations Cup which helped to silence many of his critics. But unfortunately for Brazil and Scolari, on the world’s biggest stage Fred was posted missing. Ineffective in the group stages, misfiring in the knockout rounds Fred at times looked more like a liability than a goal threat. Foolishly Scolari kept faith but to no avail as Fred finished the tournament with only a single goal to his name. Why Scolari stuck through him is up for debate but looking at the other options available to him may give the answer. Substitute Jo may be effective in the National Championship but against tough tackling defenders, he became the player who badly failed at Manchester City all those years ago. Bernard, for all his tricks on the ball, is not an out and out striker but yet was thrown into the mix against a rampant Germany with the hopes of scoring a goals or two. As for Hulk, the player who gained his name from his formidable physique and love of the green skinned monster, was more timid than ferocious during the World Cup leading to many questioning if his nickname was indeed appropriate.

Fred's ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Fred’s ineffective performances up front cost Brazil (Image from AFP)

Failed to learn lessons of the past

Brazil’s rich history in the World Cup is nothing to scoff at with a record five World Cups already in their locker. Learning how to win from them is one thing but learning from the mistakes of past failed Brazil teams is another. Scolari knew how to win the World Cup having won it before in 2006 but the fear of losing it never crossed his mind. He should have looked at past teams like that of the 1982 Brazil World Cup squad that went to Spain and learned from their mistakes. After all the similarities are painfully obvious. Clear favourites leading up to the tournament, they feared no one and rightly so as they were arguably one of the best Brazil sides never to win the World Cup. With a squad that included the ever talented Zico alongside the likes of Socrates, Eder, Serginho and Junior, Brazil ran through their group stage with ease which excited the Brazilian people into believing that this would be their year. But like the 2014 squad, Brazil crumbled in the knock out rounds with some startling similarities. Like Neymar, Zico was Brazils star player and the one who they looked to when they needed inspiration. He too was targeted by opposition numbers for rough treatment and almost missed the crucial tie against Italy after a horrendous challenge against Argentina threated to end his World Cup. But Zico managed to play against Italy but could do little to prevent Brazil from crashing out. Upfront Serginho, who had been in superb form for Sao Paulo in the Brazilian Championship in the run up to the tournament was misfiring and with no real option on the bench, Brazil were struggling in front of goal. Added into that Italy exposed Brazil’s defensive frailties on a too frequent basis for the game to end in their favour. Paolo Rossi ran riot with Italy eventually winning 3-2 and knocking Brazil out of the World Cup.  The harsh lessons that head coach Tele Santana learned from this experience should have been glaring warning signs for Scolari but for whatever reason he chose to ignore them.

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy  (Image from Getty)

Scolari could have learned something from the Brazil 1982 team who lost to eventual winners Italy
(Image from Getty)

Why he picked a squad with so few options upfront and little to no support characters like Kaka or Ronaldinho that could shoulder some of the burden from Neymar is unknown. Or why indeed he placed so much faith in David Luiz at centre back despite having a more than reliable alternative in Dante is even more baffling. Ultimately it was Scolari’s decision and one that has cost him his job with the CBF terminating his employment last week along with his coaching staff. Former Brazil manager Dunga and Corinthians manager Tite are rumoured to be the favourites to take over and regardless of which coach gets the job, both will look towards younger players like Oscar as they rebuild the Brazil squad. One man he wont be able to call upon is Fred who decided to retire from international football after being made into a proverbial scapegoat by many in the Brazilian media.  After the collapse in 1982, Brazilian football took a long time to recover focusing more on getting a result rather than playing attractive flowing football, the Brazilian way. For the sake of the world game and for the watching public, many will hope that history does not repeat itself and that Brazil can bounce back from this and show the world once more that they are a team to be feared in international football.

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Adidas Beats Nike In This Years Brand World Cup

Adidas and Nike are fierce rivals (Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Van Gaal Masterstroke Sends Holland Into The Semi’s

Late switch sends Krul on (Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shock and Awe In Group Stage But What Moment Stood Out The Most?

Hero to Villan - Suarez bites again (Image from Getty)This has certainly been one of he most exciting and interesting World Cups in recent memory. Controversal moments, Jaw dropping goals and the ocassional shock result have left many praying that the tournament somehow gets extended by another two weeks! The group stage along threw up a host of surprises, none more so than Costa Rica’s surprise romp of group D. The tiny central America republic was expected to be the whipping boys of the group heading in the tournament, especially given that they were placed with three former World Champions – Uruguay, Italy and England. But being the underdogs suited Costa Rica who shocked the world with a 3-1 victory over Uruguay in their first group match. They followed up quickly with a 1-0 victory over Italy and concluded the group with a 0-0 draw with England. With seven points Costa Rica won the group and set up a knock out round tie against Greece.

Bryan Ruiz celebrates scoring against Italy  (Image from Getty)

Bryan Ruiz celebrates scoring against Italy
(Image from Getty)

Speaking of shocks, few could have foreseen Luis Suarez being banned for biting again but yet he was. This time his bite on Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini earned him a four month worldwide football ban, effectively ruling him out for the rest of the World Cup and the first three months of the new season. Stupidity once again from a talented player. Another player to fall from grace was Iker Casillas whose performances for Spain during this World Cup aided Spain’s early departure. Losing 5-1 in their opening game against Holland was bad but a further slip by Casillas against Chile led to another three points slipping through his grasp. Questions will be raised over his future and whether at 33, he will decide to retire from international football or come back to prove he still has the skills that made him a previous World Cup winner.

These are only three moments that made the group stages interesting but which one shocked you the most? Tell us now in the monthly poll below:


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Van Gaal Tinkers With United Squad Ahead Of His Arrival

Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy - Van Gaal (Image from Getty)

Holland’s progress in the World Cup appears to not have halted Louis Van Gaal’s revolution from happening at Manchester United. Last week, the Red Devils announced the signing of Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao and England left back Luke Shaw from Southampton. The two signings, at a combined cost of £60.5million, signal Van Gaal’s intent to reshape the former English Champions this summer, with further new faces expected before the start of the new season. At 24, Herrera has been on United’s radar for some time now and was even a target for previous boss, David Moyes during his brief spell at the club. At that time Bilbao rejected United’s advances but after they returned this summer to match the players transfer escape clause fee, there was little they could do to prevent him from leaving Spain. The baby faced central midfielder is hardly the enforcer that United so desperately lacked last year but will offer Van Gaal another attacking option alongside fellow countryman Juan Mata. Not yet capped for Spain at full international level (he has won caps for the Under 20 to Under 23’s to date), Herrera or Ander as he prefers to be called is one of the next generation of Spanish players who will forge a new Spanish national team, replacing the one that so badly failed in Brazil. A winner as part of the Spain under 21 team at the 2011under 21’s Championship, Ander has a bright future ahead of him in the game and will likely flourish under the encouragement of Van Gaal.

Herrera was welcomed at Manchester United by Sir Bobby Charlton  (Image from AFP)

Herrera was welcomed at Manchester United by Sir Bobby Charlton
(Image from AFP)

Also likely to benefit from Van Gaal’s experience is Luke Shaw. The England left back is considered as one of the brightest prospects in the game and a guaranteed successor for his country to Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. The 18 year old piped Cole to a place in Roy Hodgson’s England World Cup squad and made his WC debut against Costa Rica in the final group game. His performance and enthusiasm for attacking the left flank was a breath of fresh air to an England team that had looked tired and out of ideas from the start, begging the question of why he wasn’t selected sooner. But for all that Shaw has skill and pace in abundance, he is still a raw talent that needs nurturing, something that Van Gaal knows exactly how to do. Guaranteed a starting spot at United ahead of the aging Patrice Evra, Shaw’s development will be rapid with many expecting him to become one of the best left backs’ in the world before too long.

Done Deal - Luke Shaw  (Image from Getty)

Done Deal – Luke Shaw
(Image from Getty)

Van Gaal may not have been present to welcome his two new signings but United fans can be assured that he was pulling all the strings behind the scenes and will continue to do so. He will not fall into the same trap as Moyes, who sat back whilst Ed Woodward bumbled his way through last summer’s transfer window. It was Van Gaal who approved both transfers and it is he who will pinpoint the next few players to arrive as well. Rumours surrounding Juventus and Chilean enforcer Arturo Vidal and Roma’s injured Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman continue with both players likely to favour a move to the north of England. Memphis Depay’s World Cup performances will also have given Van Gaal food for thought as have that of Ghana’s Andre Ayew. The arrival of Belgian centre half Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal has only been temporarily delayed due to United wanting to wait on seeing how bad the injury he picked up during the tournament is. Their arrivals will be swiftly followed by several players exiting the club with the futures of Nani, Javier Hernandez, Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher still unknown. Regardless of who comes in or who exits, there is one thing that is for sure – Van Gaal will have his squad ready in time for the kick off of the new season.

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Five World Cup Stars Looking To Move Up In The World

Memphis Depay set up and score a goal in Holland's 3-2 win over Australia (Image from Getty)

With the first week of the World Cup now completed and the tournament now entering the second round of the group stage, fans across the globe have now had a chance to see their teams in action. After some spectacular matches including Holland’s 5-1 hammering of Spain, Costa Rica’s surprise 3-1 victory over Uruguay and a dominant 4-0 victory for Germany over Portugal, several players have stood out already leading to the much anticipated transfer speculation. There is no better platform for a player to showcase what he has to offer than the World Cup and a good performance can often lead to a high value transfer. Clubs too want their players to be successful as it drives up the value of them, potentially leading to an evaluated fee after the tournament has ended. Whilst several players will move as a result of this year’s World Cup, we now look at five surprise packages who after some good displays already could have earned themselves a dream move.

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar  (Image from AFP)

Wonder save by Ochoa to deny Neymar
(Image from AFP)

Matt Besler – Sporting Kansas City

For the first 45 minutes of the USA vs. Ghana match until an injury stopped him, Matt Besler was one of the best players on the park. The Sporting Kansas City defender was instrumental in organizing the US defense and stopping Ghana from posing a real threat. Besler’s rise to international status comes on the back of his growing reputation in the MLS. A permanent fixture for Kansas, Besler has now established himself as US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s preferred option at centre back too. He will be praying that Besler is fit to face Portugal on Sunday knowing that any positive result may help their chances of progression. Having spent his entire career in the MLS, it may be time for the 27 year old Besler to depart for pastures new with England or Holland likely destination. Besler previously turned down trials with English clubs Portsmouth, QPR and Birmingham but if he continues to perform he may have a tougher challenge of turning down some of the bigger clubs across Europe.

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks  (Image from Getty)

Besler (5) stops Ghana in their tracks
(Image from Getty)

Guillermo Ochoa – Free agent

“Simply Stunning” was how one broadcaster described Guillermo Ochoa’s performance against host Brazil and it’s hard to argue. The Mexican goalkeeper produced a heroic display that prevented Neymar and friends from stealing all three points. Mexico put in a shift against Brazil and deserved their point, if not more but would not have managed it without Ochoa making three tremendous saves during the game. One in particular, a Gordon Banks esque save, when Ochoa got down low to spoon away a Neymar header that was destined to be a goal, will live in the memory of Mexican fans for years to come. He followed up with a stunning point blank save from Thiago Silva and a late save from a left foot drive by that man again, Neymar. After the game, Ochoa’s image was shown on fan Instagram accounts and Tumblr pages depicted as Superman and even received a marriage proposal from Mexican singer Thulia based solely on his performance. A free agent after leaving French side AC Ajaccio, Ochoa is now being linked heavily with Liverpool and Arsenal, both of whom need a safe pair of hands for next season. But the two English clubs are unlikely to be Ochoa’s only option with various French, Italian and Spanish clubs now in the hunt for the Mexican Superman.

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media  (Image from Instagram)

Ochoa has been made into Superman on social media
(Image from Instagram)

Dries Mertens – Napoli

His impact in the 2-1 turnaround victory for Belgium over Algeria was clear to see. Coming off the bench, Mertens added pace to what had been a lackluster Belgian side in the first half. The Napoli star has had an impressive season in Italy last season and has already attracted a few admirers but his performance and winning goal against Algeria will only add more clubs to that list. Napoli will be unwilling to sell given his contribution (1 goal for every three games) last year but may be forced to part with him given a substantial offer from Spain or England. The dynamic winger, who’s career goal tally is impressive to say the least, is likely to start Belgium’s next match against Russia in place of Nacer Chadli and will be looking to add to his World Cup goal tally. Luis Enrique is thought to be a fan of his as is Arsene Wenger so Mertens may have a decision to make come the end of Belgium’s World Cup journey.

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria  (Image from PA)

Mertens celebrates after scoring the winner against Algeria
(Image from PA)

Ricardo Rodriguez – Wolfsburg

Rodriquez made history against Ecuador by becoming the first player to assist two goals in a single World Cup match for Switzerland since 1966. The left back, who currently plays for Wolfsburg in Germany put in a stellar performance and is credited as one of the players who helped Switzerland turn around a 1-0 deficeit after Ecuador took the lead. The 21 year old has only been in the Swiss national setup for less than three years but has quickly established himself under Ottmar Hitzfeld as the team’s most reliable defender. Comfortable in attack as his is in defending, Rodriguez is one of Switzerland’s several Immigrant players. Born in Zurich to a Spanish father and Chilean mother, Ricardo could have played for either of these World Cup teams but chose the country of his birth much to Switzerland’s relief. A constant in the Wolfsburg team, Rodriguez’s performances for club and country, especially at this World Cup will likely lead to a transfer away from the Wolves to a bigger club, with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund two favourites already for his signature.

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador  (Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Rodriguez set up two goals for Switzerland as they pegged back Ecuador
(Image from ALAIN GROSCLAUDE/AFP/Getty Images)

Memphis Depay – PSV

Sometimes a substitute appearance is all you need to impress and for Memphis Delay, that appearance happened during Wednesday’s game against Australia. The PSV youngster came on as a second half substitute and made a valuable contribution by setting up Holland’s equalizer and then scoring his first ever international goal – a 30 yard screamer that won the game. A fairly new addition to the full national side, having played at all levels for Holland from Under 15’s and upwards, Depay became the youngest Dutchman to score at a World Cup with his strike against Australia.  The 20 year old winger has been one of the revelations in the Dutch league this past couple of seasons and is destined for greater things., with PSV unlikely to hold on to one of their prized assets for much longer. Fans of Football manager will know that Depay often joins Barcelona in the game but fiction may become reality soon given Luis Enrique’s interest in the player. However he will face competition from Depay’s current boss at international level, Louis Van Gaal who is interested in taking the player to Manchester United as he starts his revolution there at the end of the tournament.

Depay's strike impressed the watching Van Gaal  (Image from Getty)

Depay’s strike impressed the watching Van Gaal
(Image from Getty)

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End Of An Era as Ineffective Spain Crashes Out

Sergio Ramos cna barely watch as Spain crash out (Image from Getty)

This was meant to be their fairytale send off, a chance for a group of genuine legends in the game to make history once more by becoming the first team to win four major international tournaments in a row. But instead Spain looked their age and crashed out of the World Cup thanks to a spirited and lively Chile. The beautiful passing game that has characterized Spain’s playing style was officially posted missing against Chile. Tiki Taka was replaced by misplaced and misjudged passes from an uncharacteristic Spanish team as Del Bosque’s team became only the second team (behind Australia) to be eliminated. It’s the end of an era, one in which Spain dominated the international game and entertained the masses with some of the slickest and most effective football we have ever seen.

Questions will be asked about Del Bosque's tactical decisions  (Image from EMPics Sport)

Questions will be asked about Del Bosque’s tactical decisions
(Image from EMPics Sport)

Now the inquest will begin as to why Spain has made an early exit. Strange tactical decisions made by Vicente Del Bosque heading into the game will be questions. Deciding to drop Barcelona duo Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez from the starting lineup that was shocked by Holland in the first game was unusual, but more so was to keep faith in Diego Costa upfront. The Chelsea bound striker has looked less like the formidable front man that he has become at Atletico and more like a lost boy, unsure of exactly what he is supposed to be doing. Ineffective against Holland and dithering in the first half against Chile, Costa was replaced on both occasions by Fernando Torres, who himself hasn’t had the best few years for club or country. Tactical adjustments made in the two games will also be under the microscope as Del Bosque failed to make full use of the talent at his disposal. Two games played and still no game time for David Villa and Juan Mata. The latter has had a difficult season at Manchester United but possess the vision and talent to pull any team out of a death slide. But the shun of Villa is the one that makes the least sense. The 32 year old had a fantastic season with La Liga winner Atletico, partnering Costa up front so many anticipated that Del Bosque may deploy the duo together for Spain as well. It would have made perfect sense given that Costa operates better as part of a strike force rather than as a lone striker. But Del Bosque resisted and Spain suffered. Trailing 2-0 to Chile at half time, Villa would have appeared to have been the obvious choice with Spain switching to a 4-4-2 formation but again Del Bosque resisted. Preventing Spain’s all time record goal scorer from coming onto the pitch, not even for 20 minutes was criminal by Del Bosque and cost Spain their chance of retaining the World Cup.

The backlash on Casillas from the media has been unwarranted given what he has done for Spain over the past 10 years  (Image from Getty)

The backlash on Casillas from the media has been unwarranted given what he has done for Spain over the past 10 years
(Image from Getty)

The international careers of Fernando Torres, David Silva, Xavi, Iniesta, Xavi Alonso and Iker Casillas are surely over given their disastrous exit. Questions too about Del Bosque, who despite signing a two year extension before the tournament started will be under the spotlight after Spain became the first ever defending champions to lose their first two games. Despite Spain’s glorious history under his reign, which included 1 World Cup and 1 European Championship, the humiliation of exiting this early from a tournament they were one of the favourites to win may result in his exit. Spain need a fresh start, a rethink of their formation and style of play and Del Bosque may believe he isn’t the right man to do that. Chile to be fair were superb. Fast, innovative, creative and effective to the end, Chile has shown the world that they are to be feared in this competition. Hammering Australia was expected but the way that they played against the current world champions with confidence from the start was breathtaking. They now face Holland to see who tops the group and it will be difficult for anyone to call that one. But for Spain, they must pull themselves together for a meaningless game against Australia, competing for only pride before boarding a plane home. It’s not the exit that this legendary team neither wanted nor expected but ultimately it’s the one they deserved for the way that they played in their first two games. Spain will recover, regroup and as a new revamped team take on the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign with a renewed passion as if they have to prove something. For true football fans however, Spain have nothing to prove, for they will always be the team that show the world through tiki taka exactly how the game should be played and how to win with style.

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Can Koeman Convince Southampton Starlets To Stay?

Koeman faces an uphill struggle to keep his stars (Image from Getty)Ronald Koeman faces an uphill challenge from day one in his new job as Southampton manager. The Dutch legend, who signed a three year deal on Monday, must spend the summer trying to convince key members of his new squad to stay. Luke Shaw, Dejan Lovren, Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez and Calum Chambers have all been linked with moves away from the club following the departure of former coach Mauricio Pochettino last month to Tottenham. It now falls to Koeman to convince them not to follow their former coach out of the exit door and that he can fulfill their ambitions by growing the club into European contenders. Koeman, who will be assisted at the club by his brother Edwin and long time friend Jan Kluitenberg, will seek talks with the quintet as soon as possible in order to secure them for next season.

Koeman signs on at Southampton  (Image from PA)

Koeman signs on at Southampton
(Image from PA)

However Croatian defender Dejan Lovren has already requested a formal transfer so persuading him to change his mind may be beyond Koemans’ powers. Adam Lallana has been heavily linked with Liverpool who raided Southampton earlier this summer for England striker Rickie Lambert. Lambert and Lallana are currently in Brazil as part of Roy Hodgson’s England World Cup team and will be talking about the prospect of linking up again at Anfield next season. Lamberts former striker partner Jay Rodriguez was also due to be in Brazil but injury ruled him out which strangely may work in Koeman’s favour. If he can get to Rodriguez early before he has recovered, he may be able to convince his that his future lies at St Mary’s rather than elsewhere. Koeman should also be able to talk Calum Chambers into staying another year, that is unless Arsene Wenger finally puts money behind his admiration for the player and places a bid for him. Arsenal have already lost Bacary Sagna to Manchester City so need a replacement right back before too long with Chambers one of several options under consideration by Wenger. Koeman will want to hold on to the talented right back who is destined to be a full England international within the next few years. The chances of him doing so are high given the players love of the club and strong sense of loyality.

Lambert will be trying to persuade Lallana to join him at Liverpool  (Image from Getty)

Lambert will be trying to persuade Lallana to join him at Liverpool
(Image from Getty)

The same unfortunately cannot be said about left back Luke Shaw who will likely be leaving for a substantial fee this summer. After a stunning season last year, Shaw stock has risen considerably and is now seen as one of the brightest prospects in European football. With a sweet left foot and stunning pace, Shaw was picked ahead of Ashley Cole to be the support act for Leighton Baines in the England squad. Until recently Chelsea and Manchester United were fighting it out for his signature but it appears that Chelsea have now turned their attentions elsewhere clearing the path for Shaw to move to old Trafford. Koeman will not give up hope of retaining him and will use his fame as former PSV, Barcelona and Holland defender to persuade Shaw that he can learn a lot from Koeman by hanging around.

United bound? - Luke Shaw  (Image from AFP)

United bound? – Luke Shaw
(Image from AFP)

The other option to Koeman would be to cash in on all five players which would likely net Southampton somewhere in the region of £70-80million to then rebuild but the risks evolved plus the backlash from the fans makes this a last resort. Keeping all five would be the best scenario for Koeman and building his new team around them for his first assault on the Premiership. Success for Koeman is building upon the work that Pochettino started and helping Southampton to grow beyond that. Failure would likely start by letting all five players follow Pochettino out of the exit door.

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Messi Shines As Spain Implodes

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

Balotelli breaks English Hearts  (Image from pa)

Balotelli breaks English Hearts
(Image from pa)

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

Safe Hands - Romero  (Image from AFP)

Safe Hands – Romero
(Image from AFP)

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

Casillas concedes his performance was unacceptable  (Image from Getty)

Casillas concedes his performance was unacceptable
(Image from Getty)

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

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

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

Prove him wrong - De Bruyne  (Image from PA)

Prove him wrong – De Bruyne
(Image from PA)

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

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

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

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

Argentina – Angel Di Maria

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

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

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

Brazil – Fred

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

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

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

Germany – Julian Draxler

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

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

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

Holland – Jordy Clasie

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

Insigne is a free kick specialist  (Image from AFP)

Insigne is a free kick specialist
(Image from AFP)

Italy – Lorenzo Insigne

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

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

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

Mexico – Carlos Pena

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

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

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

Colombia – Carlos Bacca

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

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European Squad Announcements Shock Few – Part 2

Dzeko will lead the line for Bosnia (Image from PA)Fresh from helping Manchester City secure their second Premier League title in three years, Edin Dzeko’s will now turn his focus towards leading the line for Bosnia in their first ever World Cup appearance. Head Coach Safet Sušić has put his faith in the squad that got them to Brazil naming few changes to his provisional 30 man squad. Bosnia will look towards Roma’s Miralem Pjanic for inspiration from midfield whilst will relay on Dzeko and strike partner Vedad Ibisevic to score the goals needed to advance past the fellow Group F competitors Argentina, Nigeria and Iran. At the back, Stoke’s Asmir Begovic will play in goal whilst Emir Spahic and Sead Kolasinac, who both play in the Bundesliga, will be in place to protect him. The former Yugoslav Republic, who joined FIFA in 1996, qualified top of Group G in the European qualifying stages at the expense of Greece who were forced into the play off’s. They eventually did progress at the expense of Romania and will look to build upon the success they found ten years ago at Euro 2004, when they shocked the world by beating Portugal in the final. Manager Fernando Santos, who will step down after the tournament, has named a familiar looking squad as he finalized his 23 for Brazil. Fulham’s Konstantinos Mitroglou will compete with Celtic’s Giorgios Samaras, PAOK’s Dimitris Salpingidis and Greek legend Theofanis Gekas for the starting striker position after Santos axed three other competitors. Forwards Dimitris Papadopoulos, Nikos Karelis and Stefanos Athanasiadis all miss out as do Olympiacos defender Avraam Papadopoulos and more surprisingly PAOK midfielder Sotiris Ninis. The never aging Giorgos Karagounis will captain the team as part of a highly experienced squad.

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece  (Image from Getty)

Konstantinos Mitroglou is one of four options for Greece
(Image from Getty)

Also favouring experience is Portugal coach Paulo Bento who sliced his provisional squad down to 23 on Monday much to the disappointment of Ricardo Quaresma and Inter’s Rolando who miss out. Cristiano Ronaldo unsurprisingly makes the cut despite struggling for fitness as does Monaco’s Joao Moutinho and Manchester United’s Nani. Only one Benfica player (Rúben Amorim) makes the cut despite a fantastic season that saw them regain the Portuguese title and end up as runner’s up in yet another Europa League final. Andre Gomes and Ruben Rafael in particular were worth spot in the team but both have time on their sides so playing for Portugal at a major international tournament is likely to happen for them in the future. The same can’t be said for Josip Šimunić who misses out on one last World Cup campaign for Croatia after making a neo Nazi salute after the conclusion of his country’s nail biting playoff victory over Iceland. He was suspended for 10 games by FIFA, meaning he misses out on his last chance of a final swansong. His international career is now surely over which will be a huge blow to the 36 year old. Also missing out in new Barcelona signing Alen Halilovic who was expected to be the wildcard selection in Niko Kovac’s squad. But the head coach has gone for experience over flair and selected the likes of Niko Kranjcar, Ognjen Vukojevic and Luka Modric instead. Whilst he hasn’t cut his provisional squad of 30 down yet, there were some interesting inclusions such as 19 year old Hajduk Splits midfielder Mario Pasalic and Fiorentina’s 20 year old striker Ante Rebic. Both youngsters are part of an exciting new breed of talent (including Halilovic) that is emerging from Croatia, partly due to most teams in the region having to downsize and focus more on youth players to survive the financial crisis. This tournament comes too soon for them but expect to see a more dominant Croatia side in forthcoming international events.

Disappointed to miss out - Alen Halilovic  (Image from Getty)

Disappointed to miss out – Alen Halilovic
(Image from Getty)

Also nurturing youth is Switzerland who have named an interesting team for the World Cup. Alongside the experienced figures of Valon Berhami and captain Gokhan Inler are fresh faces like Wolsbergs Ricardo Rodriguez, Basel’s Fabian Schar, Grasshopper’s Michael Lang and Numberg’s striking sensation Jospi Drmic who finished this season with 17 goals to his name. Speaking of Germany, manager Joachim Low has always been an advocate of developing young talent and Germany have that in abundance. Low named 27 players in his provisional squad including youngsters Julian Draxler, Matthias Ginter and Kevin Volland alongside now permanent fixtures like Mario Gotze and Mezut Ozil. Lazio striker Miroslav Klose is looking to play in his fourth world cup and will lead the line unless Chelsea’s Andre Schurrle can convince Low that he is the better option.

Germany's Young Gun - Julian Draxler  (Image from AFP)

Germany’s Young Gun – Julian Draxler
(Image from AFP)

Striking decisions are also affecting Cesare Prandelli in the Italy dressing room but for all the right reasons. He has a wealth of options to choose from in his provisional list including the experienced trio of Giuseppe Rossi, Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano. But a host of young pretenders like Mattia Destro, Lorenzo Insigne and Ciro Immobile are all competing for a final spot in the team. At the back, the shock exclusion of Domenico Criscito and Davide Astori still has many wondering why whilst Alberto Gilardino and Pablo Osvaldo’s exclusions are more to do with character rather than talent. New Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal has no such problems as he already knows that Robin Van Persie and Klaas Jan Huntelaar will lead the line for Holland in his final tournament in charge. The disappointment of losing Kevin Strootman to long term injury has forced the Dutch coach into a change of tactics with him now preferring a 5-3-2 formation. That means that the likes of Jean-Paul Boëtius, Quincy Promes and Jonathan de Guzmán all run the risk of being cut from the squad as Van Gaal names his 23. Manchester City defender Karim Rekik, who has been on loan at PSV this season, was a surprise call up into the provisional squad but is likely to be axed as well as Holland gear up for the World Cup.

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Seedorf Takes On Milan Challenge Thanks To Guardiola

New man in Charge, Seedorf (Image from PA)Former Holland midfielder Clarence Seedorf is poised to take over as manager at A.C. Milan following the sacking of Massimiliano Allegri but will have to thank Pep Guardia for making it happen. The Bayern Munich boss paved the way for this type of appointment when Barcelona chose him over a variety of more experienced candidates.  Up until that point, Europe’s biggest clubs had been reluctant to place their faith and future of the club in the hands of an untried and untested manager. Pep, who had only coached at B team level before being trusted into the limelight, was a revelation leading Barcelona to its most successful period in the clubs history. He opened the door to the thinking that appointing a former player who already knows the club intimately and has fresh prospective and new ideas could be a masterstroke move by any chairman or owner. Pep brought passion back to the club as well as a new approach- one that focused on data and analysis in preparation for matches. His approach was not new but has been widely embraced as the future of football management.

Guardiola has led the way  (Image from Getty)

Guardiola has led the way
(Image from Getty)

Man’s appointment of Seedorf ahead of Filippo Inzaghi may surprise a few but no one bar the legendary Paolo Maldini has bled more for the club in the last ten years than he has. For 10 years between 2002 and 2012, Seedorf bossed the Milan midfield and become a legend in the process.  During that time, he help Milan to two Serie A titles, one Coppa Italia, two Supercoppa Italia, two Champions League titles, a Super Cup and a World Club Cup. An impressive haul for a player who has had the type of career that most players dream of.  Success at Milan followed on from similar successful spells at Ajax, Real Madrid and Inter Milan with Seedorf deep at the heart of everything.  He holds the record of being the only player in history to win the Champions League with three different clubs (Ajax, Madrid and Milan) and is now Milan’s record holder for appearances by a foreign player. When he finally departed for a new challenge in Brazil with Botafogo, Milan’s club CEO Adriano Galliani spoke of Seedorf in the highest regard, stating “When Milan played well, which happened often, each and every time it occurred Seedorf played an amazing match. He is a world class player”. Praise indeed.

Seedorf finished his career this week at Botafogo so he can take the Milan job  (Image from Getty)

Seedorf finished his career this week at Botafogo so he can take the Milan job
(Image from Getty)

Milan are rebuilding their crumbling dynasty one block at a time and wants to replicate the approach that Barca adopted. Appointing Seedorf is the short term plan but they will be looking to Inzaghi in the youth team to eventually step up and hopefully continue the legacy that Seedorf intends to build. Like Guardiola, Seedorf benefits from knowing the club and its players inside out so should be able to hit the ground running at a fair pace. He will use his experiences in Holland, Spain, Italy and Brazil to instill a new way of playing – the Seedorf way.

The Heart and Soul of Milan returns  (Image from PA)

The Heart and Soul of Milan returns
(Image from PA)

To say that Seedorf was a just another player for Milan is widely incorrect; he was its heart and soul during his playing days there. Returning now as manager, Milan are hoping his picks up where he left of and can restart the failing heart of this once great club. With Milan sitting in 11th place and out of the Coppa Italia, success this season for Seedorf lies in what he can achieve in the Champions League. Milan travel to Spain to face a rampant Altetico Madrid next month in what will be a difficult task for Seedorf to overcome. But if there is one man who can inspire Milan back to greatest, it is him.

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Ricksen’s Plight Reminds Us All That It Is Just A Game

Fernando-Ricksen (Image from Getty)The plight facing Fernando Ricksen has reminded us all that football is merely a game. The former Rangers and Holland star choked back tears last week as he revealed on a live Dutch news show that he has been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND), a terminal illness that kills the nerve cells that send messages to the muscles so the body can move. The disease has horrific symptoms with the patient eventually being entirely paralyzed – unable to move, talk, swallow or breathe, but still able to see, hear and feel. Life expectancy is usually six months to five years and the only licensed treatment is the drug Riluzole, which can slow the progression of the disease, but only for up to six months. The news has rocked football and all those who know Fernando.

Ricksen announces that he has MND  (Image from Dutch TV)

Ricksen announces that he has MND
(Image from Dutch TV)

Among those shocked by the news are Ricksen’s former managers and teammates. Alex McLeish, who managed the player at Rangers and made him the club captain during the 2005 championship winning season, told how he broke down in tears after hearing about Fernando’s predicament. McLeish told the Daily Record that seeing the video of Ricksen’s interview was harrowing to watch and he could tell from it the pain that his former player is going through.

“We all like to think of ourselves as hard men in this game but that doesn’t stop your eyes welling up when you see something like this. Fernando was a big part of my career. He helped me to progress, to win trophies. He helped me learn to manage people. Fernando was probably sent to test guys like me but it was a pleasure working with him and right now it’s difficult to find the words to explain how awful this is”

McLeish managed Ricksen for five years at Rangers  (Image from AFP)

McLeish managed Ricksen for five years at Rangers
(Image from AFP)

Fellow Dutchman Dick Advocaat, who managed Ricksen on three separate occasions (Rangers, Zenit St Petersburg and Holland) was shocked and sadden when told. The now AZ Alkmaar coach spoke warmly about Ricksens tenacity and determination that made him such a strong figure both on and off the pitch.

“The terrible news that Fernando suffers from motor neurone disease has deeply touched me. I have always worked extremely well with Fernando. Of course the stories about his escapades are known to many but he has always been a good professional under me. I had him at both Glasgow Rangers and Zenit St Petersburg and the Dutch national team and successfully worked with him. ‘Even at AZ it has hit us hard. He was here in Alkmaar for three successful years; the club has good memories of him. On behalf of myself and AZ I want to wish Fernando and those around him much strength in the near future”

Former teammate Ally McCoist, now manager at Rangers, spoke about how Ricksen’s plight has put everything into perspective and that he and the club will do everything possible to support their former star. Ricksen was a colourful character during his time at Ibrox with his antics both on and off the field giving him a reputation as a bad boy. Despite this, he was one of the most liked players in the dressing room and when the time called for leadership, it was Ricksen who would step up and rally his teammates. McCoist and Rangers are now looking into organizing a benefit match for Ricksen, potentially against his first ever club, Fortuna Sittard.

McCoist and Rangers want to help Ricksen in whatever way they can  (Image from Getty)

McCoist and Rangers want to help Ricksen in whatever way they can
(Image from Getty)

Even Rangers arch rivals Celtic put their differences aside to support the fallen star. Neil Lennon, now Celtics manager was part of the Hoops central midfield that went toe to toe on several occasions with Ricksen whilst he was at Rangers. But after being “knocked for six” after hearing the news, Lennon spoke articulately about his memories of coming up against Ricksen:

“My memories of facing Fernando are that he was a very good athlete, technically good too and the longer he was here the better he played. At first I think he found it hard, like most people do, to adjust to the pressure cooker in Glasgow. When you’re young you think its magic and you love the limelight but after a couple of years he matured into a really good player. He was versatile, I think he played midfield for one season and he and John Hartson ended up getting jointly awarded Player of the Year. That showed the calibre of player he was.”

Lennon and Ricksen do battle  (Image from PA)

Lennon and Ricksen do battle
(Image from PA)

Support has been pouring in across social media for Ricksen since the news broke. Former players like John Hartson, Alan Stubbs, Craig Moore and Stiliyan Petrov who have had their own health battles have come out in support of Ricksen in this his hour of need. The news has also hit fans of Ricksens old clubs hard. Ahead of kick-off against Airdeironians this past weekend, Abba hit ‘Fernando’ was played in tribute to former Ibrox player with the Rangers fans then carrying out a one minute applause for the player on the second minute of the game. The significance of the second minute was in tribute to the player’s shirt number (two) that he wore with pride for six years. Ricksens first and last club Fortuna Sittard also held a similar tribute for the player this weekend.

Ricksen returned to Fortuna last season  (Image from Getty)

Ricksen returned to Fortuna last season
(Image from Getty)

Ricksen was due to see doctors this week to find out what his prognosis is and how long he has. The disease is a killer with four of its five strands deadly. Everyone who knows Fernando and even those who don’t will be praying that Ricksen has that fifth strand and has a chance of recovery, if not for the player alone but for his family as well. It’s at times like these that we are reminded that football is just a game and only a small part of life itself.  Ricksen’s life is in the hands of his doctors now and everyone will be praying for him at this is time of need.

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Vitesse – A New Force in Dutch Football?

Vitesse, champions 2013-2014? (Image from PA)Vitesse have never been one of the super powers in Dutch football but they are a real threat for the title this year despite losing their two prolific strikers in the summer. Based in Arnhem, in the centre of the Netherlands, Vitesse are team that have traditionally been satisfied with challenging for one of the Europa League places but over the past two years the yellow and black stripes have upped the ante and are now fighting for their first title. Last year the side finished fourth, their highest ever finish, thanks to the work of Wilfred Bony and Marco van Ginkel who now play in the Premier League, with Swansea and Chelsea respectively. After their departures many thought that they would be unable to battle at the top but they currently sit two points ahead of favourites Ajax after 14 games.

Wilfred Bony left Vitesse in the summer for Swansea  (Image from Getty)

Wilfred Bony left Vitesse in the summer for Swansea
(Image from Getty)

The side has won eight of their fourteen matches, with goals not being a problem (they sit fourth in overall goals) and last weekend recorded a comprehensive 3-0 victory away at the Go Ahead Eagles. They have lost just two of their last eight matches and their run into Christmas looks relatively comfortable if you consider PSV Eindhoven’s current form in the mix of that. The club is a feeder team for Chelsea and has worked closely together over the past two seasons. The deal was initiated by Vitesse chairman, Merab Jordania, and Blues owner, Roman Abramovich, who are close friends and have forged a strong link between the two teams that is benefiting Vitesse greatly. In the summer, Chelsea agreed to loan a host of youngsters to Vitesse with Gael Kakuta, Christian Atsu, Sam Hutchinson, Patrick van Aanholt, Cristián Cuevas and Lucas Piazon all making the move across to Holland. With the exception of Cuevas and Hutchinson, they have all been influential for the team with the Brazilian Piazon in particular, commanding a starting place in the centre of midfield, scoring seven goals in his last twelve appearances.

Chelsea loan star Patrick van Aanholt  (Image from Getty)

Chelsea loan star Patrick van Aanholt
(Image from Getty)

 When he arrived at Chelsea he was touted as the next Kaka and many fans were excited by this prospect but unfortunately he didn’t get the game time that he wanted. Moving across Europe, Piazon has been able to put his mark on the Eredivisie, working at the heart of Vitesse’s attacking engine. Having spent the tail end of last season on loan to Malaga in La Liga, Vitesse recognized his potential and head coach Peter Bosz was a key driver in securing the talented Brazilian on a season long loan. His brace in last Sunday’s 3-0 win over Go Ahead Eagles was his third of what is turning out to be a successful season for the player. Playing alongside Piazon is Ecuadorian winger Alex Renato Ibarra who is another young player who has stepped up his game this season with the Gelredome outfit. The 22 year old winger signed from Ecuador side CD El Nacional in the summer of 2011 and played a major part in the clubs success last season, making him a key fixture in Peter Bosz’s side. Keeping tight to the by-line, the South American has the ability to whip in a curved ball from the wing and create opportunities. Vitesse have scored 33% of all their goals in the last 15 minutes of the game which is testament to players like Piazon and Ibarra who run constantly until the final whistle has blown. There is a genuine belief in the team, driven by Bosz and enforced by captain Guram Kashia that Vitesse can go above and beyond expectations this season and shock Dutch football. 

Revelation - Lucas Piazon  (Image from PA)

Revelation – Lucas Piazon
(Image from PA)

Although the side had a premature exit from this year’s Europa League, the domestic season is going well and after beating Ajax at the start of the month, courteously of a 90th minute goal from substitute Valeri Qazaishvili,  Vitesse have little to fear.  The face competition for Dick Advocaat’s AZ Alkmaar, who were the league’s early leaders and aren’t far off top spot. However AZ are well engaged in their European campaign with qualification from their Europa League group almost secured, they find themselves battling on several fronts. Similarly fellow challengers Ajax have secured European football beyond Christmas after their crucial win over Barcelona which kept their dreams of making it to the knockout stages of the Champions league alive. A winner takes all match between Ajax and Milan next month will determine who continues in the Champions League and who drops into the Europa league knockout rounds.  With Vitesse no longer competing in Europe, could they take advantage, defy the odds and become Eredivisie champions for the first time in their history?

Written by Richard Waterhouse

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Young Players Learn From Goals And Gaffs

Beckham scores his famous goal against Wimbledon (Image from Getty)The easiest way for you to make a name for yourself in football is to do something incredible on the pitch. Scoring a spectacular goal, doing some fancy dribbling or worst case scoring a horror own goal can all bring the media attention firmly to your door. It’s likely that both Wayne Rooney, Neymar and David Beckham would have eventually grabbed the spotlight soon after making their competitive debuts but scoring a wonder goal or a howler in their first few matches certainly helped to speed up the process.

Wayne Rooney made an impact by scoring a wonder goal for Everton against Arsenal  (image from PA)

Wayne Rooney made an impact by scoring a wonder goal for Everton against Arsenal
(image from PA)

The latest players to attract the media glare, for opposite reasons are Esbjerg’s Youssef Toutouh and Utrecht’s Mike van der Hoorn. Both hit the headlines after hitting the back of the net this past week but for Van der Hoorn he is wishing he hadn’t. The powerful young centre back has been in fine form this season and has attracted the interest of some other teams both at home in Holland and abroad. But in the game against AZ Alkmaar at the weekend, Van der Hoorn scored a comical own goal that has made him a media sensation. Trailing 3-0, with only injury time left in the first half, Ulrecht’s left back Dave Bulthuis failed to clear a nothing cross and was disposed on the edge of the 6 yard line by AZ winger Roy Beerens. Beerens brought the ball under control before unleashing a hard shot from an acute angle at Jeroen Verhoeven in the Utrecht goal. The former Ajax stopper managed to get a hand to the ball and pushed it away from goal into the path of Van Der Hoorn. With no one near by and the ball dead at his feet, Van Der Hoorn tried to adjust his feet and clear the ball out of danger but instead swiped the ball into the empty net to give AZ a 4-0 lead. Consoled by opposition players and the referee, the player looked devastated by what he had just done before quietly walking in at the half time whistle.

Van Der Hoorn looks for the ground to open up after his goal  (Image from Getty)

Van Der Hoorn looks for the ground to open up after his goal
(Image from Getty)

Over in Denmark, Esbjerg took on a high-flying Randers team, needing a win to keep their push for the top half alive. Within 33 minutes, Esbjerg had the lead and in some fashion. Twenty year old Youssef Toutouh was only making his 17th start for the club following his loan move from Copenhagen earlier this year. The young winger, who scored his first goal for the club (ironically also on the 33rd minute) last month in the 1-1 draw with Brondby, took up possession of a bouncing ball some 25 yards from the Randers goal. With his back to goal, he cleverly flicked the ball up and over his head, leaving Randers defender Johnny Thomsen routed to the spot. As he swiveled round, he connected perfectly with the ball firing it over the head of goalkeeper David Ousted and into the net. A stunning goal made and executed by a rising star in Danish football. TouTouh’s goal set the pace for the game and Esbjerg went on to win the match comfortably by 4-0, continuing their recent good run.

Toutouh and his teammates celebrate his wonder strike  (Image from Getty)

Toutouh and his teammates celebrate his wonder strike
(Image from Getty)

Whilst Toutouh will take confidence from his strike, the unfortunate goal that Van Der Hoorn scored may affect his, resulting in a dip in form. It is his managers responsibility and his more senior teammates duty to help pick him up from this and explain to him that everyone had a bad day in the office that day (Utrecht lost 6-0 in the end) and to move on. Similarly teammates and the management of Esbjerg need to make sure that Toutouh does not become too over-confident and remind him to continue playing his natural game and not live on past glories. Van der Hoorn and Toutouh are talented youngsters who are just beginning their footballing careers so need to be nurtured appropriately through these situations by their respective managers. Both players can learn a lot from these experiences that will make them better players and hopefully one day turn them into stars like Beckham, Neymar and Rooney have become.

To see Van Der Hoorn’s howler, click here:

To see Toutouh’s goal, click here:

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Too Soon For Turkish Delight For Sneijder?

Going, Going, Gone! Sold by Inter (Image from AFP)Wesley Sneijder completed his move to Galatasary yesterday, to the surprise of many in the game. The talented Dutch playmaker has been linked with a variety of clubs over the past six months since the wheels fell of his italian adventure. But a move to Turkey was surely never on the cards for Sneijder and his management team, until they realised that moving to Galatasaray was the only option. Stalling for a big move to the English Premiership with either United or City never materialised so the Dutch star, keen to escape from his Inter contract, with the Italian club delighted to move him on, finds himself moving to the current Super Lig leaders. The reception awaiting Sneijder whilst impressive will do little to dispel the disappointment that the player will be feeling that more clubs didn’t come in for him with a firm offer.

Gala fans greet Sneijder (Image from Sky Sports)

Gala fans greet Sneijder
(Image from Sky Sports)

At only £8.3 million, Sneijder looks like a coup and could be the signing of the January transfer window as Galatasaray push ahead into the second half of the season both in the league and Champions League. Sneijder will be cup tied for the Champions League ties against Schalke but that will matter little to manager Fatih Terim who has already managed to mastermind qualification from Group H without Sneijder assistance. But with the player available and fit for league duties, Terim has increased his options by adding the creative midfielder to his squad. At only 28 years old, Sneijder still has some of the best years ahead of him, which makes his signing by Galatasaray and lack of interest from others, even more confusing. Granted  as the biggest club in Turkey and one of the biggest in Europe, moving to Galatasaray still keeps the player in the public eye but having spent the best part of the last 3 months evangelising the Premiership, it appeared as though it would be only a matter of time before Sneijder ended up there.

Please with his new signing -  Fatih Terim (Image from CP)

Please with his new signing – Fatih Terim (Image from CP)

Having come through the famous Ajax youth setup in 2002, it didn’t take long for Sneijder to cement his place in the first team and start to grow his reputation outside of Holland. Five years later and unable to resist tempting offers, Sneijder was sold to Real Madrid for £27 million, making him the second most expensive Dutchman behind Ruud van Nistelrooy. He become an instant legend at the club after scoring the winner on his debut against local rivals Atletico. It was also during this time that Sneijder finally made the midfield slot his own for Holland at Euro 2008, helping his country to a quarter-final appearance and winning a slot in the team of the tournament at the same time. In August 2009, Inter Milan came calling and offered Real €15 million for the player which was accepted. A new chapter began for Sneijder as he moved to Italy to play under Jose Mourinho as he engineered a domestic and european double, winning Serie A and the Champions League in Sneijder’s second year at the club. But when Mourinho departed to go to Real Madrid later that summer, Sneijder’s stock at Inter began to fall as he ran into a dispute about his contract. With the club demanding Sneijder take a pay cut in a new contract and with the player reluctant to do so, the path was set for the Dutch midfielder to exit the club. His agents have been hawking his name to Europe’s elite for some time now and has interested many but it appears to have been all talk now.

Dutch master Sneijder (Image from AP)

Dutch master Sneijder (Image from AP)

His advisors have likely told him to move to Turkey to keep his career on track, regain some form and then in a year or so, an offer may come from one of the top teams in England, Germany or Spain as hoped. It’s a risky plan but with no other option, the likely only one available. So Sneijder will move to Turkey and start the next chapter of his impressive career there with the slim hope that his agents are right. If they are not, his turkish delight could turn into a turkish nightmare.

Transfer Window Could Prevent Rodgers From Getting The Sack

Liverpool Boss Brendan RodgersSaturday’s 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, who have their own set of striker problems, only told half the story. Their defensive frailties showed against an impressively powerful Christian Benteke, as the young Belgian striker terrified a weak back four including winger Stewart Downing operating as a left back, and reminded the Kop faithful of one of their own former players, Emile Heskey. But it was the lack of finishing up front that will have shocked Rodgers the most. Luis Suarez has been in blistering form this season, despite the lack of support from a fellow striker, but was woeful against a team that has struggled this season. With 26 shots on goal in the match, Liverpool could only hit the back of the net once (late on effort by Stevie Gerrard), which highlights their inefficiencies. Whilst Suarez has shown in the past, especially in Holland that he can lead the line, he is not an out-and-out goalscorer in the same ilk as a Kevin Phillips or Michael Owen. Suarez likes to have time on the ball and work his way into the box, rather than hang about the 6 yard line to snap up opportunities as they arrive. With Liverpool’s wing quality in Downing and Henderson, they really should be focusing on pushing the ball wide and whipping the ball into the danger area for a striker, or unfortunate defender to stab the ball home. But it’s not quite in line with the passing game that Rodgers wants Liverpool to adapt. He dreams of them emulating Barcelona and waltzing the ball into the net with finesse and style. Unfortunately for Rodgers, Barcelona had 10 years to get this right, a talented youth system and a slower paced league to perfect this.

Pass masters - Barcelona

Pass masters – Barcelona

Rodgers does have a series of quality young players coming through and so far he hasn’t shown any fear in throwing them to the proverbial wolves. Indeed Raheem Sterling has been one of the brightest points of this somewhat forgettable first half of the season, as the 17-year-old excited the Liverpool fans with his wing play, eventually enough that Roy Hodgson and England took noticed and the player was capped. Along side him summer signing Joe Allen, who arrived with Rodgers from Swansea has also shone but the pair look fatigued already as they are asked to play one too many games. The lack of depth to the squad, especially up front is taking its toll on its younger players who are working twice as hard to gain the vital three points than they would be if Liverpool actually had a target man who they could pass some of the burden off too. With Liverpool sitting in 12th spot in the league with only 22 points after 17 games ( and more alarming a zero goal difference), Rodgers knows he needs to buy or at least bring in a striker on loan for the rest of the season. His passing game will eventually pay off but without points on the board and the Reds slipping further away from the coveted Champions League slots, he may not get the time to see his ideas come to reality.

Bright spark - Raheem Sterling

Bright spark – Raheem Sterling

Rodgers needs at least one, if not two front men and the media is already speculating who they might be. Ironically, Aston Villa’s Darren Bent, who failed to feature again in the 3-1 victory over Liverpool, may be the perfect option. With a habit of turning up in the right spot at the right time, he has a proven record for goalscoring in the league. Villa manager Paul Lambert obviously dislikes Bent, or at least his attitude or professionalism enough not to select him, favouring the younger pairing of Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann ahead of the England player. So it looks as though Bent has no choice but to leave so Liverpool may be the right choice for him. However the likely stumbling block will be the fee, with Villa keen to recoup most of the £24 million they paid Sunderland for Bent’s services in 2011.

More a goalscorer than a bench warmer - Darren Bent

More a goalscorer than a bench warmer – Darren Bent

If Bent is off the table, they could look towards Europe and in particular Holland once more, raiding Heerenveen for Serbian striker Filip Djuricic. The 20-year-old has impressed this season in Holland with 3 goals in 17 games and breaking into his national team recently has only elevated his growing stature across Europe but the player is still very young and unproven so could be a costly risk to Rodgers. The northern irish boss knows that whoever he buys will have no bedding in time but instead will need to hit the ground running and get on the score sheet as Liverpool look to climb the league.  Djuricic would struggle with the language at first and the pace of the game which is much faster than in Holland. An option closer to home is Charlie Austin. The Burley striker has been on fire this season with 20 goals in 18 games so far and would fit nicely into Rodgers passing philosophy. At 23 years old, he has come through the lower divisions in style, smashing goals in regardless of where he has played so is likely to continue that at Liverpool with much improved service. The only question that lies with Austin would be his ability to take the next step up in his career. In the Championship, Austin gets the space he needs to turn and shoot but in the Premiership, he will be afforded no such luxury. The years are riddled with examples of players who have scored for fun in the lower leagues but struggled to make any impact in England’s top division.

Home grown option - Burley's Charlie Austin

Home grown option – Burley’s Charlie Austin

Then there is Andy Carroll. Liverpool’s most expensive signing of all time at a mere £35 million, Carroll was shipped off out on loan to West Ham on the last day of the transfer window, even as Rodgers failed to secure another striker. The decision to dismiss the tall England striker has confused many but quite simply Carroll doesn’t quite fit into the passing style that Rodgers sees as the future. The former Newcastle front man, prefers the more direct route where he can head the ball down or get on the end of a long ball with a volley or shin. Whilst he doesn’t fit into the existing style however, he could still do a job from the bench as Liverpool search for an equalizer late in the game. When all else fails, he would be there to play the more direct game and cause defenders a problem or too. But Rodgers knows he is not the answer to his striking problems. Carroll, for all that he scored for Newcastle in the Championship, has struggled to get goals in the Premiership. Having only scored 6 goals for Liverpool in 44 games, he left to go to Upton Park but hasn’t had much success there either – 1 goal in 10 games. He is not a Michael Owen or an Ally McCosit who hovered around that 6 yard line like a bee on honey.

Nicklas Helenius could solve Liverpool's striking problems

Nicklas Helenius could solve Liverpool’s striking problems

The answer is not fully clear on who Rodgers should turn too but what is clear is that he needs to act fast to save Liverpool’s season and his job. He knows that if Suarez and  to a lesser extent Gerrard get injured over the last 6 months of the season, that goal difference could quite easily tur into a negative. How much money he will have to spend with effect who he signs, with rumours suggesting £10 million may be the most he gets for squad improvements. If that’s the case, he may have to take a leaf out of Harry Redknapp’s book and look for bargains across Europe or in the free transfer market. The likes of Nicklas Helenius of Aalborg BK may prove to be the type of player he needs, and at a bargain price. Similarly Dario Cvitanich of Nice in France, who played with Suarez at Ajax may be worth a look. Either way he needs to invest quickly and sensibly to avoid further defeats. With Newcastle Jets recently announcing they have been issued a winding up order, former Kop hero Emile Heskey may be looking for a club once more. Rodgers knows he needs to considered all options to stop the rot.

Chivas End Cruyff Experiment

Johan Cruyff's mexican stay has endedJohan Cruyff’s hiring in February of this year as special consultant to FC Chivas de Guadalajara in the Mexican league was seen by many as a pr stunt. His job was never quite articulated so many wondered what the former dutch internationalist would be doing day-to-day and with little to no connection to Chivas before the appointment, why he was going in the first place. Cruyff was not lacking opportunities with both Liverpool and Tottenham apparently keen on hiring him as director of football. Neither did in the end, but Cruyff’s next role, at the age of 65 was more likely to be closer to his homes in Spain and Holland than across the Atlantic in Mexico. Nevertheless, the legendary figure accepted his new role in February 2012 from owner Jorge Vergara, in an apparent response to the clubs poor run of form that season.

Chivas for those who aren’t aware are the most successful club in Mexico, having won 11 league titles and numerous cups since its foundation in 1906. It’s current first team contains some of Mexico’s brightest prospects like midfielder Marco Fabián and striker Erick Torres, both of whom are being watched carefully by a host of European clubs following Mexico’s surprise victory in the London Olympics this summer. Despite the positive feelings about the club and its booming youth setup, Chivas has its fair share of problems. Since Jorge Vergara took over at the club in 2002, he has not been far away from controversy. In 2003, whilst attending an MLS conference, he publicly announced that the league would have a Chivas expansion team in it – Chivas USA, which indeed happened the following year. Whether that was as planned by the MLS or more forced upon them is anyone’s guess. Chivas USA has done well in the league since its inception, embracing the US style of play, growing its fan base and even introducing its own cheerleaders, the Chiva Girls. Vergara has other expansion plans and has been proactively looking for further ways to extend the Chivas brand to anyone who listens but so far has been unsuccessful.

The Chiva Girls take centre stage during half time

The Chiva Girls take centre stage during half time

Meanwhile back in Mexico, Vergara’s patience for managers is well-known to be minimum. Chivas has churned through its fair share of managers in his time in charge, growing similarities to a well-known British club with a russian billionaire of the same ilk. When Cruyff was brought in earlier this year, his first job was to find a new manager so the legend turned to fellow Dutchman John van ‘t Schip as the man he wanted. Hired in April, his task was simple – to win but so far the Dutchman has had limited success which may have ultimately led to his countryman’s dismissal earlier this week.

On Monday the club released a press statement stating that Cruyff no longer had a position at Chivas and had his contract terminated with immediate effect:

“The club has decided to terminate the services and consultancy with the company of Mr Johan Cruyff. This is because of not meeting the outcomes and objectives that have been established since the beginning of the contractual relationship. The coaching Staff will not be affected, therefore technical director, trainer and technical assistants will continue to work with the club. The club thank Mr Johan Cruyff for the support and collaboration he has provided.”

This was news to Cruyff who found out of his sacking by various news sources and social media sites. He hasn’t been able to speak to the club to confirm it, but the release by Chivas leaves little grey areas around what they are trying to say. Cruyff is understandably confused and upset by the recent events and spoke to a dutch newspaper yesterday about his apparent dismissal:

“I don’t know anything about it, I’m finding out about it now. I’m trying to find out what’s going on”

Chivas owner Jorge Vergara sacked Cruyff

Chivas owner Jorge Vergara sacked Cruyff

Whether Chivas were right to terminate Cruyff’s contract will be in the hands of his lawyers and no doubt FIFA but from the clubs prospective, they felt they brought him in to do a job which he had failed at. Chivas are not ready to get rid of their manager and are keeping faith with John van ‘t Schip, for the time being at least. However if Jorge Vergara’s record is anything to go by, Van ‘t Schip may be following Cruyff out of the revolving door at Chivas shortly.

End Of An Era For Dutch Master

When we think about the greatest managers in the world today, Guus Hiddink’s name is often mentioned. The likeable Dutchman has spent the last 20 years of his life building a successful managerial career, off of the back of a somewhat unsuccessful playing career. Over the past 2 decades, Hiddink has managed club sides like PSV, Real Madrid, Valencia and Chelsea as well as international teams like South Korea, Australia, Russia and of course Holland. Yesterday Hiddink, 66, announced that was all going to come to an end when he finally retired from management next summer. The current head coach of Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian League, has decided to move more into an advisory role, although has not confirmed if that is with Anzhi or another club just yet. Either way, Anzhi will have a task on their hands this coming summer to replace the Dutch master.

Hiddink started his playing career with his hometown youth team, SC Varsseveld before signing his first professional contract with De Graafschap in 1967.  After spending two unsuccessful years at PSV, the young midfield grafter finally became a regular starter at De Graafschap and favourite of manager Piet de Visser in 1972, who forged a strong bond with the player which has stayed with them over the years. Hiddink played 130 times for the club and helped them to gain promotion back to the Eredivisie, Holland’s top league and to this day is still a firm fans favourite. In 1977, Guus was transferred to N.E.C. Nijmegen, where he spent the next 4 years of his life. His spell at N.E.C was never as fruitful as his time at De Graafschap and saw Hiddink twice go out on loan to US clubs, firstly with Washington Diplomats and then with San Jose Earthquakes, but the draw of De Graafschap still lingered with him. So when the opportunity arose, Hiddink jumped at the chance and rejoined for on final swan song year. He retired in 1982 from playing and almost immediately became assistant manager at the club to manager Huib Ruijgrok. This would be Hiddink’s first taste of management but it wasn’t long before he got his first full-time job as manager.

Hiddink and Piet de Visser remember where they started

In 1984, PSV manager Jan Reker noticed Hiddink and remembered watching him play for De Graafschap so persuaded the then 38-year-old to leave his team and join him at PSV. The move to Eindhoven proved invaluable as Hiddink, Reker and PSV own the league title that year. He would remain as assistant until the sacking of Reker’s replacement, Hans Kraay allowed an opening for Hiddink to get his shot. He officially took over in March 1987 and led the team to the title that year which open the door to Hiddink’s first European adventure the following year. And what a year that would be. With a squad that contained the likes of Ronald Koeman, Eric Gerets, Søren Lerby and Wim Kieft, Hiddink led PSV to the treble, picking up the title, Dutch Cup and the clubs first ever European Cup beating Benfica in the final on penalties. Hiddink continued his success with PSV into the next season winning his third league title before deciding to leave to firstly manage Fenerbache then later Valencia but his biggest challenge was yet to come in the shape of the Dutch National Team.

Taking over the top job in 1995, Hiddink knew he had a squad of great individual players but not a team. Feuds between black and white dutch players were frequent and his no-nonsense approach to this was to take action, sending Edgar Davids home just weeks before Euro 1996.  After surviving a group that contained England, Scotland and Switzerland, Holland would eventually be knocked out of Euro 1996 by France in the quarter finals on penalties. Hiddink would keep the job and lead them to World Cup 1998 in France where he would go one better and reach the semi finals before being knocked out by Brazil. Hiddink left after the tournament to move to Real Madrid but was sacked from there after making some off the cuff remarks about the clubs finances. A short spell at Real Betis followed before Hiddink’s next international experience.

Edgar Davids and Hiddink didn’t always see eye to eye

South Korea were a team in development when Hiddink took charge. As joint hosts of the 2002 World Cup with Japan, the hosts were never considered to have a chance. But under the guidance of Hiddink, South Korea were the surprise team of the tournament, qualifying top of their group and knocking Portugal and Poland out in the process. A march to the semi finals, beating Italy then Spain along the way, was only halted by an impressive Germany but left South Korea fans with a sense of pride and football scouts from across Europe scrambling to grab their stars. After the tournament, Hiddink returned to PSV as manager, winning 3 titles and 2 cups in the next 4 years. Whilst in his final year at PSV, Hiddink announced that he would also be taking on the job of the Australian national team where he would become an ever increasingly popular figure with fans and players alike.

He led Australia into World Cup 2006 and after being knocked out by Italy, in dubious circumstances, Hiddink left for his next adventure, to manage the Russian national team. It was here, through old friend Piet de Visser that Hiddink would meet a wealthy billionaire called Roman Abramovich. A friendship started that would eventually led Abramovich to appoint Hiddink as head coach of his own team, Chelsea. Hiddink managed the team briefly after the sacking of Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari in February 2009 and led them for the next four months, winning the FA Cup in the process. Strangely Hiddink decided not to remain at Stamford Bridge but honour an older agreement with the Turkish FA to take over the national team so in June 2010, he left Chelsea to do just that. But Russian money was never far away from Hiddink and he was eventually tempted away from his role in February 2012 by a new Russian billionaire, Suleyman Kerimov and his team, FC Anzhi Makhachkala. With a star-studded team including Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o and millions to spend in the transfer market, Hiddink saw a chance to create something and took the challenge where he has remained ever since.

Eye on the Prize – Hiddink wants to win the Europa League before he goes

As the summer approaches, Hiddink gets closer to securing the Russian title to add to his collection. And with Anzhi still in the last 32 of the Europa League, he must be eyeing that trophy as well. Regardless if he wins it or not, Hiddink will go down as one of the most respected and loved coaches of all time. Many clubs and countries have benefited from his leadership skills over the years, some more than others. But what they all have in common is that they will look back at Hiddink’s contribution and mark it a defining moment in their football history.