It was supposed to be a quiet Sunday until all hell broke loose. Embarrassing and greedy quickly started to trend on Twitter alongside the word “Super League” which told you everything you needed to know. The decision by 12 European clubs to announce a breakaway SuperLeague has been widely condemned by footballs governing bodies, its former and current players and most importantly the fans, who all see this move as financially motivated and without any consideration for them.
After months of secret, behind closed doors talks twelve clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have signed on to be founder members of this new JP Morgan backed European Super League (ESL) which was announced late Sunday afternoon, one day before UEFA was due to announce a potentially expanded Champions League.
FIFA have been quick to condemn the move whilst UEFA has threatened tough sanctions on the clubs involved and their players including banning them from all other league and cup competitions and even stopping players from potentially representing their national teams. Legal action could also be taken against each of the 12 clubs with UEFA seeking significant damages rumoured to be around £50-60billion. UEFA have also been supported by the three national federations and leagues that the 12 currently play in, stating that any move of such would result in their eviction from their domestic leagues and cup competitions. But it’s the reaction of the former players and the fans that tells the story. Both have been outraged by the news and have rejected the idea of a Super League being a good thing or indeed even for them. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville called the move absolutely disgusting and a decision based solely on greed whilst former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher called it an “embarrassing decision for Liverpool and for those who have come before”. Hard to disagree.
In a statement released by the new ESL, the founding clubs had agreed to establish a “new midweek competition” with teams continuing to “compete in their respective national leagues”. Three further teams would join shortly to make 15 founding teams that would be secured in their places in the league (couldn’t be removed or relegated) and a further five would join based on performances elsewhere. The hope was that the new league could start as early as next year but the ESL has a lot to do before that becomes reality.
The statement went on to say that the global pandemic had “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model” and that conversations with UEFA had failed to answer concerns about the need to provide higher-quality matches and additional financial resources for the overall football pyramid.” The ESL will apparently help to put the game on a more sustainable footing in the long term.
ESL vice chairman and Manchester United owner Joel Glazer was quoted in saying “By bringing together the world’s greatest clubs and players to play each other throughout the season, the Super League will open a new chapter for European football, ensuring world-class competition and facilities, and increased financial support for the wider football pyramid.”
There is a lot to unpack there but underneath it all is the general sense that the owners of these 12 clubs are being motivated by one thing and one thing only – greed. The richest clubs in football simply want more money. Talk of fixing the European game, improving the quality for fans or providing a more financial support to the football pyramid is just smoke and mirrors for what this is really about. These 12 clubs feel entitled to more and because UEFA won’t buckle to their demands, they are trying to force their hand.
Whether all 12 believe this league will happen is one thing but what’s more important is that they have massively overestimated their own hand. Either foolishly or naively, the clubs believed that the fans would be excited about this league and more so that their own domestic leagues ( English Premier League, Serie A and La Liga) would be comfortable with this. Neither of which is true. What has happened is instead the greedy 12 have landed in a PR nightmare with no one for support and a general feeling from supporters that they don’t care about anything other than money. Now facing some difficult conversation, not only with FIFA and UEFA but as well with their national leagues, the European Club Association and the Players Football Association, it’s fair to say that the announcement didn’t quite go as planned.
The League may never happen due to a variety of reasons and as suggested earlier, it might never have needed to happen. It could all be a ruse to get UEFA to back down and agree to the changes these 12 clubs wanted as part of a new look Champions League – more power, preferential treatment such as annual participation regardless of performance and above all else more money. But now having overextended themselves and misread how much power they actually have at the wider footballing table, it might be a harder battle to win.
Regardless of how those discussions go or how things pan out over the next few weeks and months, the fans ultimately will have their say or the ability to voice their opinion at the least by turning their backs on the clubs in more than one way. For the instigators of this new league, it’s worth noting that it was supporters who helped to build these clubs up to where they are today and that they quite easily tear them apart as well – Super League or no Super League.
After a Pandemic that has crippled several clubs financially, many big-name players made unthinkable moves. The Premier League has seen a shift of fortunes in Europe in recent seasons after several years of poor performances in European competitions. With more amassment of talent, this season offers more excitement than ever before. Romelu Lukaku’s return back to London as the prodigal son has transformed Chelsea into genuine title contenders and he has looked dominant on his first few games back. On the other side, Harry Kane’s decision to stay in the capital appears to affected the player but not the club who was interested in buying him, Manchester City . Liverpool got back their captain and their entire squad looks more confident as a result but, the biggest shock has been the return of the Cristiano Ronaldo back to Manchester United after more than a decade. With the closure of the transfer window, we can have a breakdown of the favourites for the title and the top four.
Last season finish: 4th
New Arrivals: Romelu Lukaku, Saul Niguez, Trevor Chalobah
Notable Exits: Tammy Abraham, Olivier Giroud, Kurt Zouma, Fikayo Tomori
Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel have made significant strides and have now started to taken a transform into a legitimate much to the delight of the board who backed them by investing over £200 million in signings last year. After a hot pursuit of Erling Haaland fell through due to increased wage demands and agent fees, the board finally decided to sign for bring back their former prodigy, Romelu Lukaku. The Belgian has started the season in great form scoring 4 goals in five games so far. Chelsea possess phenomenal squad depth made up of a mix of young and experienced players. Jorginho has been instrument in the middle clearing build-up plays and stopping momentum with clever foul baiting tactics much like his performance for Italy at the Euros. The game against Liverpool at the beginning of the season showed just how well coached this team is under Tuchel. Despite giving away a penalty and losing a defender, the team managed to secure a draw and still managed to threaten a handful of chances in the second half. Chelsea have also managed to secure the signing of Saul Niguez from Atletico Madrid, a deep lying midfielder to provide cover for Kante who has had his fair share of injuries of late.
Prediction: Presently as constructed, Chelsea are the favourites for the season given their squad depth, tactically soundness and the presence of Lukaku up front. Tuchel’s biggest failure at PSG was his inability to control the ego of the big players but, he has the perfect opportunity of success at Chelsea with a hungry squad and a chance to correct on his mistakes.
Last season: 1st
New Arrivals: Jack Grealish
Notable Exits: Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia
The defending champions have improved their squad with the addition of Jack Grealish but, failed to acquire a striker to replace Sergio Aguero who left for greener pastures in Spain. The Harry Kane deal fell through due to extreme demands from Tottenham as did their quiet pursuit of Erling Haaland whilst, Cristiano Ronaldo chose to return to his former home. The Sky Blues have started the season in great fashion with Jesus and Ferran Torres showing they can rise up to the task. Despite losing their first match to Tottenham, Man city went on to thump Norwich and Arsenal 5-0 on consecutive weekends highlighting their overall strength. With several options to choose from and a superior confidence in the squad, Man City should be challenging for honours on all fronts this season. However Guardiola still needs a top striker who can rise up during close games and big games as evidenced from the opening game against Tottenham. Manchester City possess a lot of talent to provide an entertaining season and will likely return for Kane or make a more aggressive approach for Haaland next year as Pep eyes the one piece of silverware that has eluded him so far at Man City – The Champions League trophy.
Liverpool had a very quiet transfer window making only on real signing, bringing in centre back Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig most likely to avoid the issues of last season. A central midfielder was also under consideration following the departure of Wijnaldum to PSG but the emergance of Harvey Elliot perhaps gave Klopp food for thought. After a season of misfortune last year losing van Dijk and Gomez to injury and a lack of cohesion in their front three of Salah, Firmino and Mane, Liverpool somehow made it into the top four due to Leicester’s late slip up. This season however is different with Virgil van Dijk back and in great form looking like he was never injured. Firmino still looks off but, Salah and Mane are looking clinical with Jota adding an extra dimension. With cover in the back for van Dijk, Liverpool will bank on their forwards to carry them to a trophy. Their midfield however does looks old and slow and they need an aggressive attacking midfielder to press higher up the field if they are to properly challenge for the title.
Prediction: 4th place edging past Tottenham and well clear of West Ham at 6
Last season: 2nd
New Arrivals: Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Varane, Jadon Sancho
Notable Exits: Daniel James
What a transformational window United have had this season! First they captured the young talented Jadon Sancho whom they have vetted extensively over the past year. They then added a proven winner in Raphael Varane from Madrid for only 50 million Euros which should ensure that the defensive is much tighter than last year. And then to top it all they got Cristiano Ronaldo. The former United man comes back a more experienced player than the one who left a decade ago. Despite the wear and tear, Ronaldo is still a genuine threat and a clinical finisher whose years in Juventus have created another threat in his game to shot creation. If not for the poor finishing in Turin, Ronaldo would have more assists to his name last season. Ole Gunnar Solskaer knows has a genuine title contender in this squad in Ronaldo and must use him wisely. United’s faith in Ole is beginning to pay off and they now have a squad with enough quality to attract even more top talents. Ole will require time to figure out his best squad including how to play the impression Edison Cavani, who let go of the number 7 shirt to Cristiano, with the returning Portuguese icon. Gary Neville has already said that this United squad may not win the league but will be challengers especially now with Ronaldo on board. They will set their sights on the European trophy with a veteran squad but, a trophy at the end of the season is a must for Ole after splashing cash on proven winners.
Prediction: 3rd Place
As Tottenham are in rebuild phase with a new coach and with no significant arrivals, they do not possess the squad depth of the Top 4 mentioned above to play throughout the season. Leicester and West Ham will provide tough competition as well as probably one other surprise team but this season will all be about the above four teams and that race for the title.
It is fairly recent news that famed football manager Mauricio Pochettino has taken the helm as the head coach of Paris Saint-Germain, also known as PSG. Although there are many questions surrounding this appointment, the key question to be asked is whether Pochettino’s high press, teamwork and unit based tactics be a good fit with this PSG side or will its main players such as Mbappe and Neymar struggle to adapt into his playing style? With only 12 days since his appointment, its too early to answer this question but early indications are promising with PSG have played 3 games drawing the first against Saint-Étienne in a somewhat lacklustre performance, a somewhat more appealing 3-0 win against Brest who sit in a mid-table 11th and Pochettino’s first trophy in charge lifting the Trophee des Champions by beating Marseille 2-1 yesterday.
While Pochettino’s first game may have seemed like a poor result and performance from the outside looking in, if you look into the game analytically and especially through video analysis you can see signs of Mauricio’s plan coming into place. You can see this through the transition from a 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation to the 3-1-5-1 formation that brings in a diamond shape at the back with the defensive midfielder key in allowing a quick build-up and counter-attacking phase of play to take place. Even though this may have not worked in the first game, it was a promising sign of things to come. In his second game in charge against Brest, there was more proof that it does work and that there may be a bright future ahead for PSG. This should allow them to continue their recent dominance of the French football league system and maybe even beyond this with success in European competitions a priority.
Key to Pochettino long term success at the club is that has to develop the already brilliant and deep PSG squad that he has at his disposal, as well as to make additions that will be able to fit into his tactics and ethos. This should ensure that he has a hard working, high-pressing well-oiled machine that will be able to use his tactics as well as their individual flair to become the dominant team in any given match. Not just domestically in France but also continentally within Europe. It is well known that ‘Poch’ as he is affectionately known by many football fans, is a successful, versatile and technical manager with one of his greater achievements being Tottenham’s 2018-2019 UEFA Champions League’s run to the final in which they were runners up to fellow Premier League giants Liverpool FC.
“I am really happy and honored to become the new coach of Paris Saint-Germain. I would like to thank the Club’s management for the trust they have placed in me. As you know, this club has always held a special place in my heart. I have wonderful memories, especially of the unique atmosphere of the Parc des Princes. This team has fantastic potential and my staff and I will do everything we can to get the best for PSG in all competitions. “
Mauricio Pochettino on becoming head coach of PSG, Jan 2021.
It seems that Mauricio has a plan for PSG and as an ex-player and a person highly respected by everyone involved within PSG (whether its a player, coach or fan), he is sure to be given the best chance execute against his plan. It is extremely likely that all the players will be listening and following his orders with a laser focus and that this will be a project and something for everyone to believe in. This could make an already brilliant and dominant club become an even bigger, and by the sounds of Pochettino’s plan; powerhouse of European football and an extraordinary dominant side for many, many years to come.
But for now we will just have to wait and see how the partnership of PSG and their new coach Mauricio Pochettino works. It will be very interesting to see; and all football fans will be sure to keep a keen eye on his work and success with the club. Especially fans of Tottenham, many who were and still are of the belief that he is a brilliant manager and should have been more time at the club primarily due to the improvements and forward strides he made while manager. PSG are a completely different club though, and due to this they are a very tough club to manage because of their focus on success, both nationally and domestically. They aim to be a world class side at all times and anything less than that is unacceptable. We will see if Mauricio has what it takes or if he falls foul to the early axe and the tough life of a manager into today’s football industry. It will also be interesting to see what signings are going to be made for the club under new management. With the start of the January transfer window, this will be a good opportunity to gain insight into Pochettino’s intent and we are hoping to see some exciting and unexpected signings for PSG before February 1st 2021 when the window closes.
Post by Samuel Cox, Back Of The Net contributor. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.
This is the second part of our in depth discussion with former Scotland boss, Craig Brown. Enjoy!
BOTN: Let’s move on to something that has puzzled me for a while. As a Scot, I have fond memories of various qualification campaigns as well as a few major tournaments including Euro ‘96 and France ’98. But the disappointments also linger in my mind and in particular what seemed to be a worrying trend with Scotland losing late goals in crucial matches that would lead to our failure to progress. Poland’s late equalizer in 2015, Italy’s stoppage time winner in 2008 and of course against Serbia recently which luckily didn’t cost Scotland in the end. Tiredness plays a part, but it comes down to a lack of concentration and an awareness of how to see the game out. As a manager, how much can you work with the players to remain fully focused right up until the final whistle?
CB: There has been the suggestion that the Scotland team over the years has been susceptible to losing late goals. I feel that although it happened against Italy in 2008, Poland in 2015, England in 2017 and Serbia 2020, is an unfair allegation if levelled against my time with the national team. Tiredness, lack of concentration, and poor game management have been suggested as reasons for the perceived late in the game failure. My contention is that, when it occurred it has been primarily coincidental. The recent late goal in Belgrade by Serbia in the Euro ‘20 play-off adds fuel to those who are determined to be critical but to surely two decisive wins at the shoot-out stage should put paid to that assertion.
BOTN: Noting Scotland’s recent accomplishment, qualifying for next summer’s European Championships, how pleased are you to see Scotland qualify again and how do you rate the job that Steve Clarke and his team have done there?
CB: Having been involved in 4 successful qualifications, 2 as Assistant to Andy Roxburgh (Italy ‘90 and Sweden ‘92) and 2 as manager in my own right (England ‘96 and France ‘98), I believe that Steve Clarke’s achievement, because of the prevailing negative perception, was even more meritorious. The recent outpouring of emotion is not something I recall. In my 12-year period (86 – 98) to qualify for a major tournament was expected and greeted with quiet satisfaction in the changing room. Failure was deemed a disgrace.
Recently, at the start of Steve’s tenure, there continued to be negative vibes and extremely pessimistic attitudes. That made it even more difficult to change the mentality, not only of the players but also of the supporters and the media. This he has done marvellously well and that, among other things, is very much to his credit. The ignominy of failure and the heartache of near misses can now be consigned to history. For ever, I trust!
BOTN: Do you think that this is the turning point for Scotland now in terms of qualifying regularly for tournaments? Or is there further work needed in creating a succession line for young talent in Scotland?
CB: Without doubt this is a turning point for Scottish football. I’m a believer in the self-fulfilling prophecy so if we feel we’ll succeed we are even more likely to succeed. We have a proliferation now of young talented players and a tremendous work ethic. The excitement of the achievement in Serbia will live long in the memory of all Scotland fans as it signalled the countdown to return to join the elite of International football. The lure of involvement at this level will provide motivation enough to inspire the players to strive for regular participation in European and World Competition Finals.
BOTN: Scotland will play England during Euro 2020 at Wembley Stadium much like they did during Euro ’96 when you were on the sidelines as manager. That was really an incredible game despite the result, with Paul Gascoigne producing a moment of genius to break Scottish hearts. Watching that game then and now, I still feel that if Gary McAllister’s penalty had gone in, Scotland would have won that game and we would have qualified for the knock-out round. What are your memories of the games against England?
CB: As a Tartan Army supporter, I had been to many matches between the Auld Enemy as the importance of this fixture cannot be overestimated north of the border. However, my first direct experience as a member of staff was on 5th May 1988 at Wembley. One relatively minor incident in this encounter confirmed just how significant the occasion is for everyone, players included. It happened in the 74th minute when the then manager, Andy Roxburgh asked me to get Tommy Burns warmed up to replace Neil Simpson – an attacking midfield player for a sitting, defensive one as we were a goal behind. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the wonderful attitude of the late Tommy Burns as his grateful attitude not only exemplified his exemplary character but reinforced the impact a game against England always has.
Before exchanging the mandatory handshake with his replaced colleague Tommy went over to the manager, put his two hands on Andy’s shoulder, looked into his eyes, and said, “Thank you Gaffer. You have given me my lifetime ambition – to play for my country against England at Wembley!” Such gratitude is not always the case as often players are more disposed to complain about non selection, but it did confirm, as if I didn’t know it, the importance attached to the England fixture.
BOTN: Am I right I saying that you managed Scotland against England on a few occasions?
It was my privilege to be in charge of the Scotland team on three more occasions against ‘Them’ as many Scots rather unkindly refer to when meaning England. I’ve already mentioned the ‘Gazza match’ as I call it, in Euro ‘96. The other two games were the play-off matches for Euro 2000, the first being in Glasgow at Hampden. The desire for tickets was incredible for both matches and the hype was incredible. There is an erroneous perception that players and staff get unlimited supplies of free match tickets. To ensure that our players were happy and in no way were made to feel inferior I asked Colin Hendry to speak to his team colleague, Alan Shearer, at Blackburn Rovers to establish the England ticket allocation. When dealing with the squad request for complimentaries and tickets to buy the SFA thoughtfully acceded to my suggestion that we get a more generous allocation than our opponents. Psychologically I felt this dispelled any suggestion of inferiority.
Unlike Scotland’s 2020 play-off this was a two-legged affair, with the first game at a packed Hampden Park. Had the Scottish Football League agreed to my request to postpone and reschedule the Rangers v Celtic match the week before because so many of our players were involved, the facial, broken jawbone, injury suffered by Paul Lambert in a strong challenge from Jorg Albertz wouldn’t have ruled out one of our best players, the one in fact who would have been designated to mark Paul Scholes, the scorer of both England goals. Because of his Champions League winning experience with Borussia Dortmund and his familiarity with the 3-5-2 system we employed he would have been invaluable had he been fit.
BOTN: I remember that Old firm game but i think it was more the other way. around with Lambert sliding in on Albertz and giving away the penalty. Irregardless perhaps if Lambert was playing, he would have been able to nullify the threat of Scholes like you said.
CB: Adhering to my old adage well known to the players that if you’re fighting the Indians you kill their chief, I asked Paul Ritchie to do ‘a close attention job’ on David Beckham. This he did very well but we were less successful with Scholes! Unsurprisingly, after a defeat there are calls for the manager’s head. I recall that this was the case when Kevin Keegan resigned between double-header matches. I respect Kevin greatly and know he must have had his own reasons, but the thought of resigning never crossed my mind because I am a fighter and, particularly in adversity, gain strength to do what I think is right.
There was one particularly resourceful, but hurtful, piece of journalism and it came from Sky TV’s Pete Barraclough. Our team was staying overnight in the Marine Hotel, Troon and he asked me if I’d oblige with a one-to-one outside to give a different environment for the interview. I declined and said that it would create a precedent and that he would have to speak to me during the allotted time in the hotel where I’d be seated in front of the sponsors’ backdrop.
It was not often that I got the opportunity to see the result of my interviews in the evening but on this occasion, I saw Pete introduce his piece from the street just outside our hotel. He finished by saying, “And if Scotland don’t do much better at Wembley on Wednesday, it will be the end of the road for Craig.” At this juncture the camera left his head and shoulders shot and panned down to reveal that the name of the street was CRAIGEND ROAD. I must say I’m glad I didn’t accept the offer to conduct the interview in the street.
BOTN: You did get some redemption in the return leg though, winning it 1-0 thanks to Don Hutchison’s header.
We flew to London the next day and checked into our hotel on St Albans not far from the Arsenal Training Ground where, courtesy of Arsene Wenger, we were welcomed with open arms for our light training sessions. Manager Kevin, 2 goals up, announced his team in advance, something I never did because I always felt that “knowledge is power” and the least information available to the opponents the better. Kevin Gallacher’s injury and an earlier helpful piece of information from a manager colleague in Scotland prompted me to make a surprise selection up front.
The late, great, Tommy Burns, was that man. I had asked Tommy, then manager of Kilmarnock, to take charge of Scotland ‘B’ team for a friendly game against Wales and afterwards requested advice on any player whom I should consider. That’s why I played midfielder Don up front and, as he had done earlier in Germany where he scored the winning goal. The youngest player afield, Barry Ferguson, was outstanding in midfield and only a wonderful David Seaman save prevented Christian Dailly’s header taking us to extra time. Nevertheless, I have to admit that to beat both Germany (84m population) in Bremen and England (56m) at Wembley I consider my two best results in 50 unbeaten games of the 70 I was in charge of Scotland (5.5m).
BOTN: You have had spells as both a club manager as well as a national manager. It is often said that managing a national team is harder due to the limited time you have to work with the players in the run up to games. I would also assume that as a club manager you are constantly busy day in day out but as an international manager you will have periods of solitude between international games. Do you agree with this notion?
CB: Few would disagree that to manage one’s country is the pinnacle of any footballing career. I’m honoured to be the longest serving Scotland manager with the national team and also have taken charge of more U21 matches than anyone else. In addition, I assisted Sir Alex Ferguson at the Mexico ‘86 World Cup and Andy Roxburgh in his 61 matches in charge of the senior national team. My 15-year stint with the Scottish FA also saw me take youth teams on occasion, the highlights being the FIFA World Cup Final in 1989 with the U16 team and the 1/4 Final of the FIFA U20 World Championship in 1987 in Chile and the semi-finals of the European Championship in 1992.
To have managed four excellent senior clubs has also been a great privilege……two league Championships in nine years with Clyde F C, two mid table Championship finishes with Preston North End F C, UEFA play-off round with Motherwell FC and relegation staved off, three cup semi-finals and two 13 game unbeaten runs with Aberdeen FC. In addition, I’ve served Fulham FC as International Representative and Derby County FC as football consultant.
BOTN: After leaving Scotland, as you just said you had spells at Preston North End, Motherwell and Aberdeen before retiring from management in 2013 and becoming a non-executive Director at Aberdeen. That spell at Motherwell in particular was interesting as it was a return for you having been assistant there in the 70’s. You won back-to-back manager of the month awards and steered Motherwell to a top six finish yet only stayed a year before joining Aberdeen. What happened there and was there extra factors that persuaded you to leave and join Aberdeen?
CB: I have always had a great affection for neighbouring Lanarkshire Clubs, Hamilton and Motherwell but the fact that I was brought up in Hamilton meant that my early allegiance was to the Accies. However twice Motherwell have asked me to work for them in a coaching/ managerial capacity and on each occasion, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. On the first occasion in the mid ‘70s the league structure changed, and Willie McLean was the manager who offered me the job as assistant. From bottom of the 18-team league at Christmas we went on a fine run and got into the new top SPL in tenth position. Thereafter the Steelmen have consistently been a fine top team Club.
It was with considerable reluctance that the first time I left Motherwell where I was Number 2 was to become Manager at Clyde FC. The part-time role was more suitable there with part-time players, but I left the ‘Well with a heavy heart.
There came the surprise, emergency call 32 years later by which time I had finally, I thought, retired after my spell as Football Consultant at Derby County FC. The request to help out temporarily at Fir Park was irresistible and my colleague, Archie Knox, was equally pleased to join the club languishing a little in the lower echelons of the SPL. We reintroduced some of the deposed senior players and propelled the team into Europe where, the following season, we reached the play-off stage.
When we went to Pittodrie and comfortably won 3-0 an Aberdeen Director, Hugh Little, with whom I was friendly, asked in conversation, if I had signed a contract at Motherwell. I said that we had been offered a contract but had declined to commit and, in all honesty, it was absolutely nothing to do with the salary. There was a reference in the arrangement which clearly stated that I was to be in charge of the football operation with the exception of the U20 team, which was the sole responsibility of the youth coach, admittedly a superb exponent, Gordon Young. Anyone in the game would agree that my reluctance to agree to that was fully understandable. No revised document was forthcoming. Had there been one with the desired minor alteration, my loyalty is such that I’d never have considered an Aberdeen approach.
BOTN: What convinced you to make the switch?
My initial, impulsive, response to Aberdeen was to decline their approach but a ‘phone call from Sir Alex and another from Stewart Milne convinced me to meet the Aberdeen representatives, including Willie Miller, Director of Football, whom I knew. Archie Knox, too, extolled the virtues of AFC and my gut feeling, later to be confirmed, was that Stewart Milne was a great Chairman. I hadn’t too much of a decision to make because there was no renewed Motherwell attempt to make the minor alteration which would have made my contract offer suitably acceptable. So, having initially refused the invitation to meet, I soon had all the necessary arrangements made to accept the privilege of joining such a reputable Club with a tremendous support.
The remit at Pittodrie was to save the Dons from relegation because they were anchored at the bottom of the league with 10 points from 16 games including a 0-9 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-5 at Tynecastle. This was accomplished and consolidation achieved but in spite of having impressive unbeaten runs and three semi-final appearances further progress proved difficult with the departure of five players to provide much needed income. The sale of Aluko, Maguire, Fyvie, Foster and Fraser and long-term injuries to Considine, Jack and Robertson didn’t help the cause but still in November of my second season we were one point behind league leaders, Celtic. I’m afraid that without income to enhance the playing staff mediocrity ensued, although when Archie and I retired we left a much-improved squad for the excellent incoming management team of Derek McInnes and Tony Docherty.
BOTN: Finally, some fan questions. What game that you were involved in stands out in your mind as a player and as a manager?
CB: The highest profile game in Scotland’s football history was generally acknowledged to be the opening game of the 1998 FIFA World Cup in Paris against the world champions, Brazil. I’ve already confirmed that my involvement as manager then was arguably the highlight of my protracted career. Incidentally, I feel that the eligibility rules for staff should be the same as that for players and that ‘foreigners’ shouldn’t be permitted in a back-room capacity. Having said that I contend that my successor with the Scotland team, Berti Vogts, was an inspired appointment. Any man who has won the World Cup as a player and the European Championship as a manager surely has an impeccable CV. It didn’t quite work out for Berti but the players at his disposal were, in my opinion, less good than their predecessors. Two other games in the memorable category are the victories in Germany and a England which I’ve already described.
As a youth player my standard was very good but at the top level, following a succession of knee injuries, the word indifferent would be appropriate. The season when Dundee FC were champions of Scotland, I had a few ‘not bad’ performances. One of my better ones was in March 1962 at Celtic Park in Bobby Lennox’s first game when Billy McNeill was Celtic FC Man of the Match and I got the same accolade for Dundee FC. In the same game I made the mistake of talking to a fan who was berating me and complaining that it was a terrible game. When I said to him, “You’re the mug. You paid to get in.” Quick as a flash he retorted, “But you’ll be payin’ next season!” The guy was nearly a prophet!!
BOTN: Which player gave you the most trouble as a manager?
CB: I’m fortunate I never had any serious problems with players. I that regard it’s easier with the international team as if there’s a disciplinary problem you leave the offending player out of the squad. At club level if he’s on contract you have to operate differently. I can’t remember fining a player for other than lateness and the fine income was halved between local charity and the Christmas night out.
Another interesting fact is that the big-name player is easier to control. Over the years people have said to me these millionaires must be hard to handle. My experience is the opposite. The bigger the star, the easier he is to deal with and there is no way you can please everyone so set, and insist on, the standards you want. I always remember the old Chinese proverb ……
If everyone thinks we’ll of you
It surely would be wise
To examine each facet of your life
And weed out compromise!
BOTN: If you could manage any team from the past, which team would it be and why?
CB: Without doubt the team I think any Scotsman would love to have managed is the first British team to win the European Cup. In 1967 Celtic beat Inter Milan in the final in Portugal resulting in the team affectionately being called the Lisbon Lions. I played in that era, so I knew every one of the winning team – Simpson, Craig & Gemmill; Murdoch, McNeill & Clark; Johnstone, Wallace, Chalmers, Auld Lennox. Four extra players were in the squad – Gallagher, Hughes, McBride & O’Neill. There was only a goalkeeping substitute permitted so John Fallon was on the bench.
Why the desire to manage that group? Not only was every individual a player of quality who would have fitted into any ‘game plan’, each of the Lions was a really good person. A look at the ability of each player would confirm that they could be moulded into any desired tactical formation, indeed into a variety if required within the same game. There were no prima donnas, and everyone knows that the legendary Manager, Jock Stein, wouldn’t have tolerated anyone who was inclined to get above his station. Each and every one of that illustrious group had an unassuming manner and an inbuilt humility.
An interesting fact is that all but one of the team, played in a grade of football in Scotland called Junior Football. This was a tough environment containing many men who had been reinstated from the senior level. Indeed, the man who scored the winning goal in the European final, Steve Chalmers, was aged 23 when he was signed by Celtic from Ashfield Juniors.
Another big attraction for me would be the lack of foreign players with their cultural and temperamental nuances. The entire Celtic team then, all on the same wage, incidentally, was from a 30-mile radius of Glasgow thus eliminating any translation issues and ensuring that the local humour was appropriate. Socially the players were friendly, and it’s well known that if that is the case they play better together as a team. In short, knowing the favourable attitude of the receptive and modest group it would have been a privilege to work with the legendary Lisbon Lions.
BOTN: And which team currently?
CB: At the risk of being accused of contradicting myself I’ll admit that, hypothetically, the current team I’d love to manage is in complete contrast to the Lisbon Lions. It is full of expensive foreign signings. In the past Liverpool’s foreigners were from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Not now! Yes, there is Scotland Captain, Andy Robertson, a throwback to the Steve Nicol era, but almost the entire remainder of the squad comes from out with the UK. I confess, though, that such is the talent available, it would be a dream job to be in the shoes of Herr Jürgen Klopp!
It has been 7 years since Sir Alex Ferguson won his last English Premier League trophy and gave his farewell speech at Old Trafford. In the years proceeding, Manchester City have won the league three times, Chelsea have done so twice, Liverpool broke their 30-year drought to win it last season and Leicester City had a fairytale run to become champions in 2016. Manchester United however have only come close once which can be deemed as an overstatement considering they finished in second place that season 19 points behind local rivals and eventual Champions Manchester City. In theory they were close but in reality they were so so far from it.
Manchester United have hired four new managers since Ferguson retired and have shelled out over a billion pounds on new signings with nothing really major to show for it. Given the investment, its hard to understand the real reason behind this but what we do know is that the one constant during these years has been the Glazer Family. According to the global market research agency Kantar, Manchester United is the most popular sports club in the world, boasting a worldwide fan and follower base of 1.1billion, an increase of over 400 million since a similar survey was conducted in 2012. It is undoubtedly the clubs rich history of winning that has drawn such a large global following. However it seems somewhat ironic then that the current strategy at Manchester United sees them moving away from the winning identity that put them in the position and has them adopting one which only sees a need to invest in the club when necessary so as to protect the value of the brand or to get Champions League football. Once achieved however the club appears to take that investment away until it struggles again, then it invests and the cycle repeats itself.
This was once a club that had Premier League winning ambitions every season but now appears happy with a top 4 finish so as it suits their current strategy. For outsiders looking in, the amount of money spent over the past seven years shouldn’t be a cause for complain but when put into context, you can see how misleading this outlay of money actually is. Firstly, none of it has come out of the Glazers’ finances. They had cleverly leveraged their debt unto the club during the acquisition using a leverage buyout plan in 2005. A LBP is a means of buying an asset by borrowing money against said future asset. This means that the Glazers have not invested a single dime of their own money into the club. Instead, the money the club has made over the period of time they have been owners has been used while also helping paying off their debt at the same time. If you take a look at the two graphics below from Transfermarket.com, it breaks United’s total spend into 3 sections which show United only being outspent by newly Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea in the eight years before the Glazers bought the club. In the next graphic we can see Man Utd being completely outspent by Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs once the Glazers takeover happened and with Sir Alex Ferguson still at the helm. The final graphic shows the state or play post Ferguson which sees Man Utd being dominated by Man City and Chelsea during these past 7 years.
In my opinion, Manchester United’s spending has been irresponsible and has been carried out by people unfit for the job as they still lack a Director of Sports at the helm. Breaking it down season by season, it has been a cycle of the same thing over the span of 7 seasons with the club hiring a new manager, backing him enough to gain entry to the Champions League, then pulling back investment and sacking the manager when Champions League is not then achieved.
Going back to the 2013/2014 season post Ferguson, David Moyes signed only Marouane Fellaini in the summer after publicly chasing a host of unattainable targets and added only Juan Mata in January with the team languishing below the Champions League places. With the fans beginning to turn on Moyes due to the boring football Manchester United were playing, he was eventually sacked. Man Utd finished 7th that year and missed out on the Champions League, change was needed and a new coach was hired in the form of Louis Van Gaal to transform its fortunes. The club backed this move with some real investment put in as the pattern will show. The club signed seven players in total, costing close to £176 million outspending everyone with Angel Di Maria being the marquee signing. The season was a success according to this model as Man Utd finished 4th and got back into the Champions League. The following summer saw a large amount of players signed but at the same time there were some players who were questionably sold including Angel Di Maria which was a key signing the season before. It was like taking one step forward and two steps back which ended up having a negative effect on the team. They finished the season as FA Cup winners but the season was deemed to be a disappointment with boring football and a lack of Champions League qualification earning Louis Van Gaal the sack immediately the FA cup final whistle was blown.
Once again a new face needed to be brought in to helm the next phase of this Manchester united evolution and the team went big by signing the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba at a world transfer fee while also bringing in Jose Mourinho as the manager to steer this ship to the right course. And to their credit, this almost worked to a tee. The team had its most successful period to date during this 2016/2017 season as they won the Community Shield, EFL Cup and the Europa League whilst also managing to qualify for the Champions League. This season is the only one where there is a break in the pattern which has been established for the past four years as Mourinho was backed again with acquisitions of Lukaku, Matic, Lindelof and Alexis Sanchez which ultimately led United to their highest finish post Ferguson. But unfortunately they weren’t good enough as they lost out on the league to Manchester City in the league which Mourinho labelled his “Greatest Achievement Ever” and ultimately lost to Chelsea in the FA cup. It was a good season on a holistic view and the board should have backed the manager once again which could have yielded a very fruitful outcome. Sadly, the club resorted back into their old ways and failed Mourinho in the transfer market with the manager coming out publicly to criticize the lack of investment that following summer. United were the 10th biggest spenders in league which set a toxic atmosphere in the locker room which led to a doomed season under their bitter coach.
Mourinho was eventually sacked and replaced by United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and although he ended up missing out on the top four, hope was once again brought into the Theatre of Dreams, with substantial investment being put in the following season. Ole was able to get United back into the Champions League and getting them to three cup semi finals really made it look like there was a bright future ahead of them. However the recent showings in the transfer market currently does not bode well for the current manager as his top target Jadon Sancho was not signed after being courted all summer. It seems like United have reverted back into their old ways once more and are having to make last minute signings to bolster their squad. The season may end up going better than expected but from their previous history and recent pattern it is more likely United are going to continue to fail to invest when needed. It suits their model to do so and although it might keep them ahead financial wise, the club as a football powerhouse will remain in the desolate wasteland it has come to inhabit over the past seven years. All the fans can do is hope and pray that structurally something changes to ensure their league drought doesn’t last as long as their greatest rival Liverpool once did.
Another season, another disappointment for the Toon Army. After 13 years under the bewildering ownership of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle fans began to believe that the end was nigh as a consortium from Saudi Arabia jumped through Ashley’s hoops in order to try to secure the club. All that stood between them and ownership of the North East club was a fit and proper ownership test by the Premier League.
For a club known for its black and white, this failed takeover was anything but that. Indeed the failure of the takeover has left the fans with more questions that answers – why did it take 17 weeks for the Premier League to respond, why was the World Trade Organization involved and who else played a role in the bids demise? The clouds over Newcastle are a dark grey colour now as these questions lie unanswered. So what happened? Why did the Premier League take so long to respond. And what else can we read into this deal falling through.
First in was Amnesty International who took the unusual step of writing to Premier League Chief Richard Masters urging it to consider Saudi Arabia’s human rights record before signing off on the takeover of Newcastle United. These are genuine concerns but the question is more about why Amnesty decided that this takeover over all others was the one that they had to weigh in on. In 2017, Amnesty identified human rights violations in 159 countries which included Saudi Arabia. But also in that list was the USA, Russia and China, all of which have had companies that have bought Premier League clubs in the last twenty years. Indeed Sheffield United are owned by Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad who won control of the club just last year. Also included was Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who have state owned ownership of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City respectively. The decision by Amnesty to act now and oppose this takeover rather than the others appears to be motivated by factors outside of the common good.
That was followed by BeIn Sports who challenged the Premier League to block the deal on the grounds that Saudi Arabia had been involved in piracy and should be held accountable for operating a pirate network that was illegally streaming EPL games. The Qatar based company’s staunch opposition to the deal made little sense as the two elements (piracy in Saudi Arabia and ownership of Newcastle) have little in common. It could be argued that like the Amnesty International objective, third parties could have been operating in the background in an effort to derail any deal. Ironically BeIn’s chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi is also the current president of Paris Saint Germain; a club who would not react well to another English based club gaining the same financial muscle as they currently have.
Shortly after, the World Trade Organization issued a report which found representatives of the Saudi state had facilitated the activity of the pirate network BeoutQ, which illegally broadcast a host of sporting events including Premier League matches. Why this report was produced and released is unknown nor what the WTO, whose mandate is around the regulations of international trade between nations, is doing looking into broadcast rights in the first place is a bigger question. In addition the timing of this release is suspicious given how close the Premier League were to making its decision. The release of the report only added a new layer to navigate and delayed the decision even further.
Finally there was pressure from the UK government to not allow the deal citing the need for Saudi Arabia to reform its justice system and release all political prisoners and the attempt to ‘whitewash’ them with the takeover. Eight MPs in total wrote to Richard Masters led by John Nicolson, SNP spokesperson and a member of the House of Commons on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He stated on Twitter shortly after the deal collapsed that “the Premier League must now revise its Owners and Directors Test to ensure this fiasco isn’t repeated”. He continued “Heads of States with gruesome human rights records should never be allowed to launder their reputations through sport”. Ironically Nicholson had no objection to Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad’s takeover at Sheffield United despite his father being the brother of the current ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Also worth noting that the position of Nicholson was not exactly backed by the Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston who distanced himself from talk of Newcastle United’s takeover saga. Huddleston swung the spotlight firmly on to the Premier League to make the decision. When asked about the government’s stance, Huddleston said: “I’m very uncomfortable with the level of expectation of involvement on government with things that are very clearly decisions for football. There is obviously the fit and proper persons test to go through with any acquisitions of this nature and I think that is absolutely appropriate. It’s something that I’m keeping an eye on but it is a decision for those involved. It would be inappropriate for me to interfere at that kind of level.” Why his understudy felt it important to push the matter without Huddleston’s blessing is unknown yet the same theory could be applied in that he was influenced to do so.
All of this along with the Premier League’s irregular delay in making a decision about whether the prospective owners passed their owners and directors test suggests that the events that led up to the PIF withdrawing its bid in frustration, were not as black and white as we are made to believe. It’s natural to assume that all these events were planned and orchestrated to derail the proceedings. When one failed, the next stepped up sometimes only days later. Amanda Staveley who was fronting the bid spoke shortly after the collapse of the deal and implied that fellow Premier League clubs, Tottenham and Liverpool had made their objections to the deal going through clear to the Premier League but its likely others were involved as well. Several clubs across Europe had a lot to lose of this deal went through primarily as it would put Newcastle at a financial advantage and provide them a better chance of challenging for silverware both at home and abroad. Whatever is the truth, this deal didn’t happen due to due diligence or because of delays at the Premier League. It never stood a chance of succeeding as others orchestrated moves to undermine it and protect their own interests.
If we all had crystal balls to see what the future holds, then it would be pretty pointless. The unpredictability of the future is what keeps life interesting and what keeps all of us football fans watching week in week out. The twists and turns within the beautiful game keep us on the edges of our seats, wondering what will happen next. But from time to time, the media likes to make predictions for what will happen in the future and the start of a new year always heralds their latest predictions. Not to be left out, here are our top predictions for this year ahead:
Bayern are finally toppled – It’s not been the ideal start for Bayern Munich in their search for their eighth Bundesliga title in a row. The Bavarian club find themselves in unusual waters sitting in third in the table as they headed into the winter break with RB Leipzig on top and Borussia Monchengladbach in second. Bayern have already dispensed with the services of manager Niko Kovac who couldn’t quite manage the inflated egos at Bayern both on and off the pitch. Bayern’s misfortune has been to the benefit of others who look to end their dominance and it looks as though this will be the year it happens. Not since 2011-2012 has another team (in that case Borussia Dortmund) threatened Bayern’s position as top dog but this season is different. RB Leipzig are flying high under the management of Julian Nagelsman whilst Monchengladbach are surprising many with their fast flowing attacking football. With a caretaker in place at Bayern and some further adjustments needed in the boardroom, Bayern are in transition and about to lose their crown.
Will this be the year that RB Leipzig pip Bayern to the title? (Image from Tumblr)
Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title – ok so this one is fairly safe to assume it will happen but still it’s worth pointing out that others have been in similar dominant positions before catastrophically collapsing as the season drew to a close (Newcastle had a ten point gap between themselves and Man United at Christmas in the 95/96 season only to throw it away in the new year). The difference is that Liverpool have amassed such a strong squad and are playing with such confidence and conviction that it’s hard to see exactly how they could not win the title. Indeed the Champions League winners are in such tremendous form that it’s hard to see which team will manage to take any points away from them. Man City, who were the early season favours have stuttered through whilst surprise outfit Leicester looked like genuine contenders before they were taught a harsh lesson by Jurgen Klopp’s side in the 4-0 mauling just a few weeks ago. Only a series of bad injuries to key players could derail this run to the finish line for the Anfield club who have waited so very patiently for their day to come.
Liverpool will end their 30 year wait for a title (Image from Tumblr)
Juventus will win the Champions League this season – so often the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Turin side will finally get their time at footballs alter in Istanbul this June and will lift the trophy. The script has been written for it to happen with Cristiano Ronaldo upfront, a stellar cast behind him and the return of club legend Gigi Buffon for one last swan song. It looked like his chance had past when then Real Madrid striker Ronaldo popped up three years ago in Cardiff to score an incredible overhead kick past Buffon and break his heart. He left shortly afterwards for PSG but returned to the old Lady after only a season away. Could he now play a pivotal role in Juventus lifting the trophy?
There are some that could stand in their way. Real Madrid and Barcelona will both favour their chances as will PSG who have little to play for apart from the Champions league given how dominant they are in France. Man City will likely make a strong push but with defensive frailties, they could be exposed as the tournament progresses. And what about defending Champions Liverpool. It would be a fairytale story for them to return to Istanbul after all those years for yet another final but my sense is that Klopp will favour lifting the league title over another European one. Juventus who play Lyon in the round of 16 look like genuine contenders with manager Maurizio Sarri keen to show the world just how good a coach he is and how bad a mistake Chelsea made by letting him go.
One more chance for Buffon in the Champions League (Image from Tumblr)
ADO Den Haag will sack Alan Pardew before the end of the season – if you didn’t know that he had been appointed in the first place, it’s understandable. It happened just before Christmas and was a bit of a shock. Not since Steve McLaren’s infamous FC Twente move has the appointment of an Englishman in the Dutch league raised so many eyebrows. Pardew stated that the move was “just what he was looking for in his search for a new challenge” but what he meant was it was a job and finally someone was offering him one. Things haven’t started that well for Pardew at Den Haag who lie second bottom of the Eredivisie. He has had to deal with a senior player attacking one of the coaching staff and have a difficult conversation with the clubs Chinese owners over the lack of transfer funds available (the owners gave the past manager only £1m to spend). Pardew and Den Haag don’t play their first game together until January 19th so plenty of time to perfect his tactics and start learning Dutch. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take lessons from McLaren who have one of the funniest interviews ever recorded during his time in Holland. Regardless of the language issues, Den Haag hardly has a squad capable of getting themselves out of their existing mess so Pardew will need to rely on loan signings and freebies to change things. With a lack of money, a distant owner and major language and squad issues, Pardew’s stay in Holland should be a short one.
Alan Pardew took a gamble in moving to Holland, one that shouldn’t pay off (Image from Tumblr)
Rangers pip Celtic to stop 9 in a row – When Steven Gerrard arrived at Ibrox last summer, the club made its intentions clear – they wanted to bridge the gap between themselves and Celtic and challenge again for honours. Behind close doors though, the message was somewhat more precise – stop Celtic from reaching nine titles in a row. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Scottish football, there have been two dominant teams since the great wars, Celtic and Rangers who collectively are known as The Old Firm. Between the two they have won a majority of the league titles with each having significant periods of domination, Celtic in the mid 60’s and Rangers in the late 80’s/early 90’s. But now Celtic are on top again having capitalized on Rangers recent financial crisis which saw them drop down to the lowest division in Scotland and start again. Without a notable challenger (Aberdeen were the closest to posing a threat), Celtic stretched the gap between themselves and their arch rivals winning title after title up until last season which made it eight in a row. Celtic are still firm favourites to win their ninth yet Rangers under Steven Gerrard have improved enough that perhaps for the first time in a long time, winning the title might not be as straightforward for Celtic as they would hope. Rangers victory in the last Old firm derby narrowed the gap at the top to only two points and with Gerrard’s side very much with the momentum, Rangers could pip Celtic to the title and stop nine in a row.
Rangers under Steven Gerrard have closed the gap on rivals Celtic (Image from Tumblr)
VAR has to change in the Premier Leagues or clubs will rebel – the grey lines of football, those narrow calls by a linesman or a referee for offside or obstruction that VAR was supposed to help with are getting less clear by the day. Since its implementation at the start of the season, the VAR system has wreaked havoc on the Premier League with several calls being questioned. When used well the system should provide the officials with confidence to make a tough call accurately but used too well, it ruins the fabric of the game that draws the fans in the first place. Indeed it’s the micro decision calls that are causing the most upset and leading for calls for a change. Using lines and axis to work out if a strikers little toe or pinky are in an offside position is not what was intended for VAR. But sadly that is what is happening. That, plus the 30-60 second delay whilst the referee consults with those in the VAR booth, are ruining football for everyone. UEFA is considering changing the definition of offside to counteract these problems but in fact it should be down to the officials to dial it back and stop this nonsense. VAR should be used only sparingly when the calls fall into that grey space. They shouldn’t be putting the entire game into that grey space which is what they are doing.
Jack Grealish’s goal for Villa against Burnley was ruled out due to VAR intervention (Image from Tumblr)
And finally, Pep calls time on his stay at Man City – it’s been a difficult start to the season for the reigning English champions with injuries to Sane and Laporte plus poor performances derailing their title defence early on. Their manager Pep Guardiola has all but conceded the title saying that the gap is too big to claw back. He won’t give up trying of course but the realist inside of the Spaniard knows it will take a miracle for City to come out on top by the end of the season. The end of the season will also see Guardiola depart, less because City wants him too but more because Pep has taken them as far as he can. Winning the league title on two occasions plus numerous other trophies should be enough for the Man City hierarchy but the lofty ambition of winning the Champions League is what will drive Pep out. He knows it is hard to deliver this for them and still maintain an active challenge on all other fronts. The money that once flowed like water is now flowing like treacle with the clubs owners pulling back somewhat in recent years. Losing Sane and Laporte and not being able to replace them told Guardiola everything he needed to know. He is a winner through amen through (his average win percentage of 72.7% shows this) but even winners need some help once and a while. City have been lucky to have him and he has delivered as promised by turning them into not only a team to fear in England but also across the continent. Pep however has grown tired of his time in Manchester and will take his leave in the summer, taking a well earned break before deciding where he will go next. Wherever he goes, expect him to win because that is what he does best.
At the end of one of the greatest Champions Leagues in recent years, there are 2 English teams still standing – Spurs and Liverpool. In the semis, both came back to triumph from a seemingly hopeless position. Here, we’ll look at some of the biggest matchups which will decide who gets to walk out with the Champions League Trophy in Madrid.
1. Harry Kane vs Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip:
Kane has declared himself fit for the Final, and if he truly is fit, he will most likely start at the Wanda Metropolitano. Kane has scored 5 goals in 8 starts in the Champions League this season, and the England talisman will want to lead his boyhood club to the greatest victory in the club’s history. He will come up against the formidable Virgil Van Dijk and Joel Matip. Van Dijk deservedly won the PFA Player of the Year award this season for a magnificent performance, and Matip is a very capable partner at the heart of Liverpool’s defence. Liverpool have the best league defensive record in all of Europe’s top 5 leagues this season, having conceded only 22 goals in the EPL. Furthermore, they concede the 3rd lowest shots per game in Europe, behind only Bayern and Manchester City. Kane and his teammates will go a long way towards lifting the cup if they can find a way to go past Liverpool’s miserly defense.
2. Heung Min Son and Lucas Moura vs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson:
This might be the battle that decides the game on both sides of the field. Robertson and Arnold are the most potent attacking full-back partnership in Europe, with Arnold and Robertson contributing 12 and 11 assists each, only behind Joshua Kimmich’s 13 in all of Europe for fullbacks. Stopping them will be key as the marauding fullbacks are Liverpool’s biggest weapons to help break down a dogged defense. Spurs will need to be mindful to try and keep a lid on their offensive forays into the Spurs half – Son and Moura will have to put in a lot of defensive work to help their defense. Moura and Son will also need to be the creative force for their team, especially as Kane has only just returned from a serious injury. Moura has scored 5 goals in the UCL this season in 11 games, including the memorable hat-trick to come from behind against Ajax. Son has also been tremendous in the Champions League this season, with the highlight being a wonderful performance at the Etihad Stadium. Thus, these battles will pit quite possibly the most in-form players for each side against one another. The winner might just decide the Final itself.
3. Sadio Mane vs Serge Aurier or Kieran Trippier:
This is where I feel Liverpool have their greatest edge. We all know about Liverpool’s much vaunted front three of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, but Mane is the main man here considering Tottenham’s defensive deficiencies on the right side. Both Trippier and Aurier are defensively suspect and prone to lapses, and Mane has the capability to make this a Final to forget for both of them. Mane has had a breakout season and scored 26 goals in 48 appearances this season, including a brace at the Allianz Arena to take down Bayern. If Mane fires similarly at the Wanda, Liverpool might win their first UCL in more than a decade.
Although it is said that most big games are won and lost in the midfield, I do not feel that would be the case here. Both teams, in particular Liverpool, are more reliant on their wings. Liverpool’s super combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the clear favourite for me. Liverpool’s superb combination of fullbacks as well as wingers make them the favourites for me. So, I predict a 3-1 win for Liverpool with goals from Salah and Mane and a consolation for the returning Kane
In the wake of some troubling times at his old club and the uncertainty surrounding current coach Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard’s name started to be linked more often with a Chelsea return. Perceived as one of two potential candidates being evaluated by Chelsea (the other being Zinedine Zidane), it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back at the Bridge anytime soon. Which in itself is remarkable given that less than 18 months ago, Lampard was a million miles away from becoming their next boss. But an impressive start to his managerial career at Derby and the need to return to something familiar has provided food for thought within Chelsea’s hierarchy. Lampard gained most of his reputation playing for the club as a star midfielder who provided guile but also goals to boot.
Lampard scored 147 goals for Chelsea during a 13 year stay (Image from Tumblr)
Remarkably he is one of several former star midfielders who are making their transition into management with the world watching on intrigued by how they will fare on the other side of the white line. Many expected Lampard not to make the transition well and to flop at Derby but his level headed yet tactical approach appears to have rubbed off as the Rams push eagerly for one of three lucrative promotional places to the Premier League. Derby sit 7th in the Championship with another 45 points still up for grabs so anything is possible between now and the end of the season. The fans will be hoping that Chelsea don’t come calling anytime soon and that Lampard can finish what he has started by getting Derby promoted.
New Rangers boss, Steven Gerrard (Image from Tumblr)
Just under 300 miles north of Derby in Glasgow, Lampard’s central midfield partner for England is also proving that rookie managers aren’t to be afraid of. Steven Gerrard may have switched the Merseyside derby for the Old Firm one when he took over at Rangers but so far he hasn’t looked out of place. The former Liverpool legend has galvanized the former Scottish champions and has help transform them from the shambolic mess he inherited from Pedro Caixinha to potential title challengers in his first full season in the job. Gerrard, who appears destined to manage Liverpool one day, has taken management in his stride and is flourishing in the cauldron that is Scottish football. Having is former manager, Brendan Rodgers across the city at rivals Celtic will have helped not only with his transition but to give him added motivation to “get one over his former boss”. Whilst Celtic maintain a healthy lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership, Rangers are closing the gap slowly but surely. That might accelerate now that Rodgers has departed for Leicester but only time will tell.
Scholes and Brazilian legend Pele at Old Trafford (Image from Tumblr)
Whilst Oldham may not have had the recent success of Rangers or Derby, the League Two side still had its rich history to drawn on when it went looking for their latest manager. In the end they turned to another great midfielder, Paul Scholes who jumped at the chance only a few weeks ago. The former Manchester United and England star grew up supporting the Latics so starting his managerial career there was a no brainer for both parties. Regarded as one of the best midfielders of his generation, Scholes tenacity and eye for a killer pass made him one of the most respected and all rounded players of that era. Now Scholes is applying that same approach to management but success will take more time as Scholes is finding out. One win, one draw and two defeats so far will not have dampened his spirits but it will have demonstrated to him the gap in quality between what he is used to and what he has to work with. The test will be if Scholes can take what he learned during his days at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson and apply it to Oldham.
Fulham handed Parker the managers job after sacking Ranieri (Image from Tumblr)
Scott Parker didn’t expect to be managing in the Premier League this season but when the axe fell on Claudio Ranieri earlier this week, it was Parker that Fulham turned to to step up into the fray. Parker has no managerial experience at this point however he has been operating as a coach for a couple of years first, at Spurs in the Under 18’s then at Fulham as a first team coach. Like Lampard, Gerrard and Scholes, Parker will lean heavily on his experiences during his playing career which spans over twenty years and 600 professional games. He takes over at Fulham with the Cottagers in a precarious position, ten points adrift of safety and staring relegation in the face. But perhaps with ten games to go, this is the best time for Parker to take control. With nothing to lose, Parker cannot fail. If he is unable to improve performances then Fulham will go down as many currently expect they will. If he manages to turn things around and can save them, then his stock as a manager will soar and will likely result in him getting the job on a longer term basis. As a player, Parker was a formidable force in the centre of the park, a no nonsense battling midfielder who lead by example often under the role of captain. He will be looking to get a reaction from his new team immediately both on and off the pitch as Fulham fight it out over their remaining ten games.
Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes and Parker (Image from Tumblr)
All four managers have something to prove. All four were exceptional central midfielders both for club and country and gained reputations to match that. As they transition into managerial roles, will they be able to transfer their natural ability on the field to their coaching off it? Time will tell.
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?
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.
“Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all. When I retire I’ll miss the green of the field. ‘Le Carre Vert’.”
So said Zinedine Zidane a few years back, as his playing career wound down to that infamous final moment. The words appear in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, a singular cinematic portrayal of one 2005 day at the office which seems as fine a place, at least to me, to go searching for meaning and echoes as the French superstar, recast in the unlikely role (at least to some) as an undefeated Champions League Final manager, goes for three in a row Saturday in Kiev.
The idea of Zidane on the sideline now seems only slightly less strange than the moment 30 months ago when he was suddenly promoted from inexperienced reserve manager into the role of directing the world’s most successful club. It is no stranger, though, than having Portrait’s 17 cameras trained only on him, the biggest Galactico of all, with the rest of the Bernabeu – his teammates, Villarreal (including Diego Forlan at peak hair), the usual sellout house in Madrid – functioning as extras. And surely, in an age of specialty shots available at the asking on today’s big broadcasts, keeping a close eye on the superstar du jour is nothing new – there’s likely a Zidane-cam going this weekend, if you’re interested. But in this revisit, his command is not so much eye-opening – to me, Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp have always been the only two players (and very different ones) who I would wish to be teleported back to see again in their prime. And of the two, unlike the sometime-passenger Bergkamp, Zidane’s imperiousness rarely if ever flagged (although it would somewhat inevitably be doused in equally instinctive dollops of red mist).
If you’re looking for something different for your pre-final party and haven’t already gone there, stop reading now and go find it (it’s on YouTube). The spoiler is that red mist, and the stray observations include the confirmation that as recently as 13 years ago, filthy-rich footballers remained capable of fouling or being fouled without turning into today’s flaming, disbelieving idiots rounding in how-dare-you fashion on the referee. Zidane himself stalks around, scratching his nose, hands on hips, the odd ‘hey!’ his only verbal, the camera going down and close to note the hole left by a stray spike in his left sock (by game’s end, there is a match on the other leg), panning up with his eyes to the Bernabeu’s uppermost lights, accompanied by the most subdued Mogwai soundtrack ever. Then he sees something and is off like a tiger bursting from the tall grass. As for the poor referee, he gets his, but sotto voce – “You should be embarrassed,” Zidane tells him under his breath after he awards Forlan a penalty.
Otherwise, Zidane offers the stoniest of looks, not even acknowledging Roberto Carlos’ “can you believe that?” look as Forlan lines up the spot kick. He’s the very model of the modern midfield general, a conservationist before his time. Much has been made of the man’s vision, including now, as he’s less the ruthless tactician and more the “manage by feel” type, it is said, and as loyal to his mates as the day is long. But that is all inferred here through the sweat, toil and handclaps. One of the more revealing quotes that appear below the action has him downplaying that part of his game:
“I remember playing in another place, at another time, when something amazing happened. Someone passed the ball to me and before even touching it, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew I was going to score. It was the first and last time it ever happened.”
“Maybe if things are going badly you become conscious of people’s reaction. When it’s not going well you feel less involved and more likely to hear the insults, the whistles. You start to have negative thoughts sometimes you want to forget. The game, the event, is not necessarily experienced or remembered in ‘real time’. My memories of games, and events, are fragmented.”
It hasn’t been the best of domestic seasons for Zidane by multiple standards, including his own and the club he’s represented on and off since the turn of the century, and you wonder, hearing this from long ago, how much of this season has stayed with him, and fueled him. Real staggered through the year, finishing a vast 17 points off Barcelona in the La Liga table. But they found form, augmented by some luck (you make your own, right?) at Europe’s biggest, most important stage. For its polarity, it’s been remarkable. But then as now, he gives away nothing. Not for him the histrionics of his opposite this weekend, Jurgen Klopp a hyperactive, adenoidal teenager by comparison. Or the incandescent rage of Zidane the player best recalled in that infamous coupe de boule in his final game – or in the final moments of the movie, with Zidane’s predictable sending off accompanied by Mogwai in a shimmering ascendancy and acknowledged by a downcast grimace.
Economy. Elegance. Control. Vision. Power. Anger. ‘Le Carre Vert’. They’re all points on the Zidane scale, still. In this managerial guise we don’t see them all, with some kept well-holstered in a bespoke suit pocket. Perhaps Saturday, there will be a smile. But in even the most optimistic updated portrait, don’t count on it.
After yet another tempestuous campaign for Glasgow Rangers, South Africa based owner Dave King has decided to make another change in order to course correct. The dismissal of Graeme Murty as manager was to be expected given recent disappointing results including a 5-0 hammering by rivals Celtic. Murty, who was given the job until the end of the season following Pedro Caixinha’s sacking in October, knew that it was coming after doubt started to surface about his ability to manage the club long term. The need for a more experienced manager to come in and sort the club out appeared to be the most logical next step. Thats why the appointment of Steven Gerrard, the untested former Liverpool and England midfielder as the new Rangers manager raised more than a few eyebrows.
Steven Gerrard has been appointed as Rangers new manager (Image from Tumblr)
Gerrard becomes Rangers 18th manager in its history and arguably its most inexperienced yet the failures of Mark Warburton, Caixinha and to a lesser extent Murty before him, should mean that the former Liverpool midfielder will be given much more leniency. He doesn’t officially start until June 1st but the size of the challenge that lies ahead of him (and assistant Gary McAllister) will mean that Gerrard will sleep little between now and then. His lack of experience was pinpointed by the media as his potential downfall but the same can be said about the squad he is about to inherit. Few of that squad know what it’s like to win a title or in some cases even taste cup success so turning them into believers may be Gerrard’s biggest challenge. Before he can fix the squad spiritually he must remove the deadwood. And there is a lot of it. Not only does it feature poor signings from his predecessors eras including Carlos Pena, Fabio Cardozo and Eduardo Herrera but it also features a lot of players who should have moved on along time ago. Captain Lee Wallace is one such figure who splits the Ibrox faithful when it comes to his future. There are those who believe Wallace is a symbol of a fallen period, someone who when times got tough stuck it out with the club and should be held in prestige because of that. But there are others who feel that Wallace has been a passenger for several seasons now and it’s only been the clubs turmoil off the pitch that has saved him from the axe. Wallace’s card may already be marked even before Gerrard gets his say following a club dispute that neither side is willing to go into detail publicly to clarify. His departure in the summer along with his co accused teammate Kenny Miller who happens to be out of contract soon will signal the changing of the guard and hopefully wipe the slate clean for Gerrard to build upon.
Changing of the guard as Miller and Wallace prepare for departures (Image from Tumblr)
The job however is not as easy as it seems. Yes money will be made available and to date no announcement has been made on exactly how much but he will have some to strengthen. If he needs more then he will have to find buyers for those surplus to demands which will be a task in itself. Many expect Gerrard to call in favours both at his old clubs, Liverpool and LA Galaxy but also with his numerous friends and connections in the game including former managers like Rafa Benitez at Newcastle. One person he won’t be calling to get players is Brendan Rodgers who is now in charge of Rangers arch rivals Celtic. Rodgers who is looking to complete an unprecedented back to back treble has yet to reach out formally to Gerrard to offer his congratulations however has been vocal in the press about the maturity and influence Gerrard will have on the Rangers squad. That doesn’t mean he is convinced Gerrard will be a success or even be able to stimulate his side enough to effectively challenge Celtic next season but it’s a nice gesture all the same. In honesty, Rodgers is probably delighted that Rangers have hired a novice manager rather than going for a more experienced head like Neil Warnock or even Frank De Boer. It could be argued that both have a better tactical knowledge than Gerrard having managed and won several trophies in their careers.
Gerrard will face former boss Brendan Rodgers next season (Image from Tumblr)
Time will tell if his lack of managerial experience has any bearing on where the title ends up next season. Those close to Scottish football will tell Gerrard that the most important games to win will be the ones against Celtic. Historically this was purely down to pride and bragging rights for the week following the game but now in a league with teams that have struggled to take any points off of Celtic, the Old Firm derbies are where the title destination is ultimately decided. And before the Aberdeen, Hibernian and Kilmarnock fans start writing hate mail about that last line, it’s worth noting a few things. Yes those clubs have “challenged” in recent seasons but to win the league you actually have to beat Celtic regularly, not just once or twice every five years or so. The other consideration is on resources and in particular the money that can be invested into new players. Only Rangers have the finances to compete with the budget of Celtic (and even then it’s still sizeably smaller) so it’s no wonder that Rangers are time and time again viewed as the only viable challenger.
Celtic’s 5-0 demolition of Rangers in the last Old Firm was Murty’s last game in charge (Image from Tumblr)
Gerrard arrives knowing the history of Rangers and will have been informed in no uncertain terms about the importance of stopping Celtic reaching ten consecutive titles in a row. That is the holy grail and to outsiders may seem insignificant but to both sets of supporters it’s often perceived as more important than life itself. Since Rangers ran to nine in a row back in the late 90’s, Celtic fans have stewed and pined for the day when they can get revenge. It comes down to nothing but bragging rights but in a city divided into green and blue, that all that matters. It’s here that Gerrard might actually make sense as an appointment. Having grown up in a similarly passionate city divided into red and blue (Liverpool) he will understand the desire on both sides to gain the upper hand and silence the other half of the city. Passion was what fuelled Gerrard as a player and spurned him on to become the leader he was. He will need to be the embodiment of passion and find players that complement this if he is to be a success. The four year contract handed to him suggests that the board will given him time to course correct the club but if the gap between the two clubs continues to widen and Celtic close in on ten in a row, Gerrard may find himself out of a job.
With only a few games left in the season, the race for the coveted Champions League spots is heating up. Chelsea look set to be crowned EPL Champions with Tottenham second unless things go awry for them. They will take two of the four spots leaving two remaining spots to fight for. Currently Liverpool and Manchester City are in the driving seat in 3rd and 4th respectively. Manchester United, who could reach the Champions League through the back door by winning the Europa League this season and Arsenal are both in the hunt. But who will finish the season in the Champions League spots? That is the topic of this weeks poll:
The appointment of Jurgen Klopp, the enthusiastic, charming, charismatic yet humble German symbolized better things to come at a suffering Anfield after a year of bitter disappointment and failure. The pragmatic German took the helm of a faltering, heartbroken team, haunted by their failures and separated from their Uruguayan Dream. His six-year contract symbolized the beginning of a long-term project – unlike other managers in the league, he looked to secure the club’s future by being conservative and dedicated.
Fast forward one year, and his talented squad are already reaping the benefits of his experience, tactics and unique transfer game. Liverpool have all of the qualities to challenge for a top four position, or even mount a title challenge. Everything points in their favour, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Gengenpressing in The First Season – Adapting to The German’s Game
Klopp’s long tenure at Dortmund saw him create an unbelievable machine which won its games by focusing around the game of intense pressing. Dubbed as “gengenpressing”, it has become his signature tactic. Over the course of his managerial career, his sublime combination of fast paced yet intelligent pressure has become a staple and recognizable part of his game, much like Pep Guardiola’s possession play, Arsene Wenger’s fast – paced football, or Mourinho’s counterattacking.
Gengenpressing is an intense and intelligent tactic, which draws its success from the focus that it places on pressing the opponent after they win the ball back. Its roots lie in the German playing style – in a league where teams can set up counter attacks in the blink of an eye, rationing the amount of time that they have on the ball can work wonders. Gengenpressing allowed Dortmund to enjoy a number of efficacious seasons.
It has essentially become Klopp’s right-hand man, and it wasn’t extremely difficult to predict that he would carry this style over to the Premier League and imbue it in his players. However, Klopp’s tactics have been tweaked to allow him to get the best out of his squad. There are some subtle changes, and some extremely large ones – that have allowed him to fully harness the power of his squad, allowing them to play electrifying football.
The foundations of his tactic were hastily laid by Klopp during his first season – simple triggers like opponents having their back to goal, or playing the ball backwards caused the team to start pressurizing their opponents. Klopp’s teams always looked to force their opponents out on the wing – this reduces their options, restricting them to one-dimensional play, thus, making it easier for them to win the ball back.
Liverpool’s pressing in the first season was successful, but only to some extent. The squad players were exposed to a high-intensity tactic that required them to be on their feet at all times, which raised concerns for fitness issues. Furthermore, while the players were adept at winning the ball back, they were unaware of what they could do once they did – causing the team to lose out on key attacking chances. Furthermore, when the team engaged in intense presses, they lost their structural integrity, making their defence extremely porous and vulnerable. The likes of Alberto Moreno, who prefer to position themselves in the opponent’s defensive area, didn’t really help Liverpool’s cause. It was clear, after a slightly disappointing first season, that Jurgen’s players needed more time.
It’s quite difficult to summarize Liverpool’s first season under the “Normal One” – a fitting comparison would be to look at Pep Guardiola’s first game in charge for Barcelona, where his world class team were humiliated by the minnows of Numancia. The quality was there (let’s not forget, the Anfield faithful were still blessed by the presence of the Welsh Xavi at that point of time), but the results couldn’t back it up. At the end of a bang average first season, it was back to the drawing board.
Liverpool were the “Special Ones” during the transfer window. They were calm while doing their business, and they only looked at affordable players, while their companions splashed hundreds of millions of pounds on world class players sanctioned by their manager. I believe that their dealings were extremely well played during the window. While other teams opted for high stakes and high rewards, the Anfield board looked to be conservative, which, in my opinion, does have its own benefits.
The one move that makes me marvel at the success of their strategy is Sadio Mane’s move to Anfield. After enjoying a breakthrough season at Southampton, the speedy Senegalese was hired by Klopp to be his jack of all trades. His blistering pace, finishing prowess and ability to find his teammates makes him incredibly versatile and hence playable on most positions in the final third. He mimics the Suarez playing style, taking over games with his complete ability on and off the ball. A 30 million price tag sounds suitable for a player who has proven himself in the Premier League – and also is a bargain for a team who needed a striker to help them in their domestic endeavours.
Mane was the first of many well placed transfers. Over the course of two months, we witnessed the slow influx of young, talented players into Anfield. The likes of Matip and Wijnaldum, in essence, symbolized Klopp’s long term strategy – a long term, conservative project. I like to dub this the “Anti – Suarez effect” – Klopp saw the problems that occurred when the Uruguayan linchpin moved to Barcelona, therefore, he decided to make sure that he had plenty of options to prevent that situation from popping up and blighting him again
New Season, New Stand, New Play
Liverpool have been playing brilliantly during the entirety of this season. The probability of them ending up in the top four come May is extremely high, especially if one takes into account the fact that they are playing all of their games in England – giving them an advantage that is only shared by Chelsea. So, the odds are in their favour – what has he done?
Blending the tactic of relentless pressing with creative flair, that’s what he’s done. Liverpool’s team is an intermingling of an abstract South American flair, from the likes of Coutinho and Firminho, which allows them to create a new dimension during their attacking efforts. Mane aids them with his superb athleticism, which allows him to catalyze Liverpool’s moves in their attacking third. Meanwhile, in the midfield, Henderson, who’s finally matured, has found the position that suits him and is finally beginning to grow into the role of the captain’s armband.
On the other hand, Klopp has finally fully instilled his German pedigree into his team. They now combine positional interchange with high pressure – allowing him to play with no real striker up top. Intelligent and clear systems with near perfect spacing allowing him to reduce the space between his lines, reducing the risk of his teams being caught up and overrun. His efforts have been rewarded with a string of brilliant results. They definitely look capable of mounting a title challenge. The mission to make Liverpool great again has begun.
So the first weekend of the new Premier League season has been and gone. Today I’m going to run through my predictions for the coming season and to preview what i think will happen. So here goes:
Champions – Manchester United
This might be a controversial choice but i feel that Utd have a manager in Mourinho who has done it all before. He has the experience and knowledge about the league and knows what it takes to win the title. Along with the signings he has made in Pogba, Ibrahimovic, Mkhitarayan and Bailly, these players will add that bit of quality to a promising side. Won’t be an easy ride but think they will win the league. Just.
Top 4 – Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea
Guardiolawill just miss out on glory in his first season in the English game. Yes his signings have been impressive but i feel they won’t be enough to take this team to a title win. Guardiola will need time to adjust to the league as well and given the injury problems to key men Aguero and Kompany it won’t be an easy ride for the boy’s in blue. Liverpool under Klopp will be a force this season. After having a full pre season with his players i think it’s now time for them to push on. Showed signs of promise last year and i feel they will do well this season. Chelsea with Conte is a hard one. I feel if they can replicate the way they were playing come the end of last season and take Conte’s style of play under their belts then they could be in with a shout of a Champions League finish. If they don’t it could be a long hard season for the team.
Liverpool beat Arsenal in the opening weekend but can they beat them to a top four finish? (Image from Tumblr)
Relegated – Hull, Burnley and West Brom
All three of these teams have just not made enough quality signings to give themselves a chance of staying in the league. Simple as that. Hull has brought in no new players, no permanent manager and a owner who has caused problems since day one with the club. This only means one thing. Goodbye Hull. I like Burnley. I like their manager in Sean Dyche but i feel they just don’t have enough quality on the field to get enough wins which ultimately grants survival in this league. Andre Gray is the only chance they have of staying up. If he is scoring, well they could have a fight on their hands. West Brom is a choice i couldn’t decide on. The thing is Pulis usually guarantees you survival and has shown that in his history in the league but something just tells me that with the ongoing Saido Berahino saga dragging on and with no real moves being made to get new players in, it could be a long season for the team.
Surprise team of the season – Everton
It was either going to be West Ham or Everton that was my choice here but i have went for the Merseyside team. With Ronald Koeman coming in to replace Martinez as manager, the club has made a big statement of where they are looking to go this coming year. Giving the new owners at the club and the sale of John Stones it means there is money to spend at Everton. If Koeman continues to spend the cash well and can get Lukaku, Barkley and Deulofeu playing again, i predict good things for the club with a top eight finish and a cup run.
Can Koeman revitalize Everton this season? (Image from Tumblr)
Player of the Year – Paul Pogba
Yes this might of been expected but i feel this guy is going to tear the league up. Once he finds his feet and starts to get to know his new teammates i think they will be no stopping this man. As i have said previously this guy has it all and with Mourinho at the helm big things will be expected.
Young Player of the Year – Alex Iwobi
The young Arsenal forward is going to make a name for himself this year after showing glimpses of what he could do last season. With 13 appearances and 2 goals last year in the league and an outing at the Nou Camp in the Champions League , this boy can only get better this coming year. I expect the 20 year old to improve and show what he can do when given the chance and to cement his place in the starting 11.
Rising star – Alex Iwobi (Image from Tumblr)
Top Scorer – Romelu Lukaku
Lukaku is going to one of the hottest strikers on the planet next year. In a poor Everton side he scored 17 goals which was a club best return in the Premier League era. I expect him to easily get past the 20 goal target and to get the Golden boot.
So there it is my short post about who i feel will do well come the end of the season. Let me know what you think and what your predictions are. Let’s see how if they are correct at the end of the year.
Liverpool’s European quest continues tonight as they face Borussia Dortmund in their Europa league quarterfinal first leg clash. The game marks a return to the Signal Iduna Park for former boss Jurgen Klopp, now in charge at Liverpool. For seven years, this stadium deep in the heart of the north Rhine Westphalia was his domain that he ruled with a great deal of purpose and self belief. During those years, Klopp infatuated everyone connected to Dortmund primarily because of the change in fortunes he brought to the club. After several disappointing seasons under Thomas Doll, Klopp’s arrival from Mainz in 2008 signaled the beginning of a trophy filled era that included two Bundesliga titles, one DFB Cup and one Supercup. He even came close to delivering the coveted champions League trophy only to be pipped by arch rivals Bayern Munich in an exhilarating Wembley final. But now Klopp has moved on to a new challenge – restoring Liverpool to their former glory.
Klopp returns to Dortmund tonight for the first time since leaving in the summer (Image from Getty)
Dortmund to their credit have moved on as well. The appointment of Thomas Tuchel may have not been the most exciting but it was certainly the right move. Tuchel has transformed Dormund this season who staggered through Klopp’s final season in somewhat of a haze. Only a post Christmas revival stopped it from being a catastrophe and ending Klopp’s time on a low note. Tuchel, like Klopp is part of a new breed of managers that are slowly breaking through. Frank De Boer and Mauricio Pochettino are also good examples. They all possess similar qualities – good understanding and knowledge of the game but thirsty to learn more to the point that any moment away from the pitch is spent absorbing more data or watching countless dvd’s of games. They embrace rather than fight against new advances in the game from the use of analytics to improve performance to new medical techniques introduced to help players recover quickly. Gone are the philosophies that the game should be played in some certain style or formation with more fluent football being favoured and adaptation based on the opponent. But most of all, all of these managers are personable and approachable with a willingness to understand each player for who they are and what they need rather than adopting a cookie cutter approach. The results of this approach speak for themselves with attractive entertaining football often on show and at the helm a manager who is willing to pivot on his decisions if the game is not panning out as planned.
Pochettino (above), Klopp and Tuchel are part of a new breed of managers in the game today (image from PA)
The battle tonight between two of the competitions remaining favourites will be entertaining both on and off the pitch. Whilst the players contest for the ball on it, Klopp and Tuchel will embark in a battle of their own – one focused solely on wits and tactical approach. Klopp’s reception at Dortmund will be warm and heartfelt with the crowd not ready to forget what the man did for their club. But come the start of the match, the atmosphere will change with the Dortmund fans knowing that they must act as the twelfth man if they are to get one over their former master. The game itself will be incredible to watch with two equally capable sides dueling it out. Dortmund are in a rich vein of form right now and are unbeaten in their last twenty games, scoring 42 goals in the process. Up front striker has evolved into one of the world’s best strikers and recently pipped Yaya Toure to the African Player of the year trophy much to the Manchester City midfielders disgust. Supporting the Gabon front man is the duo of Marco Reus and Henrikh Mikhitaryan in a three-prong attack that has spearheaded Dortmund’s push for silverware on several fronts. Even at the back Dortmund look more solid than ever before with Tuchel taking extra time in the early part of this season to help Mats Hummel eradicate the mistakes he was making too frequently in previous campaigns.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will be the main threat that Klopp will have to plan for (Image from Getty)
Tuchel will be aware that Liverpool are a very different beast than before under Rodgers and are now starting to click under Klopp. Whilst recent form has been patchy to say the least, there have been signs of rapid improvement in the approach that Liverpool have to games. Klopp, like Tuchel is getting the best out of several players who were underperforming before his arrival. Players like French defender Mamadou Sahko who has found a new lease of life and a greater sense of belief under Klopp’s guidance. The revival of Joe Allen and Adam Lallana has also helped Liverpool whilst work on improving the overall game of the promising Christian Benteke continues. Tonight’s clash is likely to be settled by a single goal if that with the decider coming next week at Anfield. The winner of this quarterfinal clash will proceed to the final where they will in all likeliness face Europa league masters and defending champions Sevilla. For Tuchel and Klopp winning the Europa League will be a huge step forward for both of their clubs and one they will use to build upon for the years ahead.
It may have taken slightly longer than most fans had hoped for but eventually Newcastle got their man. Rafa Benitez arrival in the North East as the new manager of Newcastle United Football Club ends what has been a disasterous last nine months under Steve McClaren. Like falling pregnant only to give birth to a ginger baby, McClaren has been a huge disappointed to everyone involved and it’s probably for the best that his time as head coach has finally come to an end. The bumbling former England manager clearly left his tactical knowledge behind in the Derby changing room last summer but did manage to find a copy of 101 best excuses ranging from “we were unlucky” to “we didn’t get the bounce of the ball” to his personal favourite “Judge me after ten games…Actually make that twenty…did i say twenty, I meant thirty”. 28 games played, only six wins and in real threat of relegation something had to give at St James Park so McClaren makes his exit out the back door, brolly under his arm as Rafa waltzes in the front on his white steed.
McClaren out after nine problematic months (Image from Getty)
Calling him the messiah is fairly premature as he could in theory turn out to be yet another managerial mistake with Newcastle being relegated at the end of the season. But a coup he is given the past chorus line of abject failures to have sat in the so called managers chair. McClaren, Carver, Kinnear and Shearer all spring to mind although it’s hard to slate the latter given that he is club royality thanks to his exploits on the pitch rather than on the side of it. Rafa though arrives with a formidable reputation. Afterall only six months ago he was the boss of the second biggest team in Spain, the mighty Real Madrid. Sunderland fans will be quick to point out that he was sacked from that job after only six months in charge but to be fair to the guy, most smart people in football know that he was made a scapegoat for president Florentino Perez who simply wanted to make his creepy infatuation of Zinedine Zidane public.
So you are saying there is no chance of me returning as manager Mr Ashley? (Image from Getty)
Rafa’s reputation is that of a winner – titles with Valencia and European/World Club trophies with Liverpool, Inter and Chelsea all point to such. But Newcastle could be his biggest challenge to date. Can he become the man who finally awakes the sleeping giant of English football. Sleeping in the sense of Snow White, more out cold than merely dozing. Not since Kevin Keegan in 1995 and later under Sir Bobby in 2001 have Newcastle looked like genuine competitors in the league. Yes once under Alan Pardew as well but given that his current Crystal Palace side are now in free fall after a stellar start to his reign there it appears as though a pattern is developing, one that rises then falls spectacularly as talk of him as the next England boss feeds his ego. Benitez will know about the challenges Newcastle face having managed against them previously for Liverpool then Chelsea but can he correct this seasons mess and save them from relegation?
Can Rafa replicate the runs of sir Bobby and King Kev? (Image from Getty)
First and foremost he needs to quickly install confidence and belief into a side so drained of it that most of the players on the pitch look like extras from the Walking Dead. Bizarrely Newcastle have a semi decent squad especially compared to the ones around them. There isn’t anyone at the club tweeting pictures of expensive cars after heavy defeats or spending their spare time researching the UK age of consent before ignoring it. Collectively they are a good group, just badly managed for some time now. Secondly he needs to sort out the defence or at least construct a formation that protects Newcastle’s below par back line. He will have to show his players that there is another formation other than 4-2-3-1 (see jab at McClaren earlier) and that teamwork not individual brilliance will get them out of this mess. Finally he needs to inspire his better players like Wijnaldum, Colback and Sissoko to make themselves more prominent in games. Wijnaldum has been good since his arrival in the summer but fans are beginning to wonder what happens when he plays in away games given his influence on the play drops dramatically. As for Sissoko, Benitez has one job – instruct him that he has nine games left to play for the club and if he gives them his all then he will get the transfer he has pined for over the past two seasons. The truth is Sissoko is a great player, arguably the clubs best but he has no desire to be in the North East anymore and perhaps should have been sold years ago when the original interest in him peaked. Up front Benitez will look to find a way to get goals out of Mitrovic, Perez and Doumbia whilst hoping that the midfield can chip in their fair share as well. Not an easy task but necessity if they are to survive.
Rafa needs to get Newcastle firing again and scoring goals if they are to stay up (Image from pa)
There is just one real measurement of success needed to gauge how the Spaniard gets on. Surviving relegation is the only thing that matters. If he can do that, he can reshape the squad all he likes in the summer (within limitations of course as this is Newcastle after all) and plan for a better campaign next year. Failure however will likely trigger a release in his contract and send Newcastle into a downward spiral of depression and anti anxiety medicines as they face up to life once again in the Championship. Expect McClaren to resurface at that point and try to convince the media that it wasn’t his fault. Owner Mike Ashley will likely retort by trying to win over the fans with another promise of silverware before hiring his next manager from the pages of his 1992 Panini Premier League sticker book (the return of Mike Walker to management perhaps?). The biggest concern should be that relegation this season doesn’t necessarily mean a return the following year. The Championship has moved on since Newcastle were last there with any of the 24 teams capable of gaining promotion in any given season. Ok maybe not Charlton or Bolton but still you get the point. Without Benitez and with Ashley selling the clubs best players like one of his dodgy Sports Direct Velcro lined track suits, Newcastle could spend several years in the lower league wilderness. The only plus side perhaps is that Aston Villa will be there to keep them company season after season. Relegation would be disastrous for Newcastle right now which is why Rafa needs to get it right. He doesn’t have to be the messiah as long as he isn’t just another naughty boy.
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With the shadow of Pep Guardiola hanging over him, there appears to be very little that Manuel Pellegrini can do. The Chilean manager is widely expected to be replaced by Guardiola as Manchester City boss at the end of the season but to all watching it would appear as thought Pellegrini is not planning on going down without a fight and is looking to win the four tournaments City remain in to make his point. His first chance of reaching a final came last night with the second league of the League Cup semi final against Everton. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, City approached the game with caution knowing that Everton have the ability to hit on the break. For Roberto Martinez, it was important for his side to burst out of the blocks and take control of the game, which is exactly what they did. Everton controlled the first half, taking the game to City and eventually finding the breakthrough thanks to sensational run and shot by Ross Barkley. Fernandinho did snatch a goal back moments later but it was very much against the play with Everton more likely to press on and win the match.
Ross Barkley looks to have set Everton on their way with a wonderful solo goal (Image by Martin Rickett/PA Wire)
But in the second half, it was City who was very much in control. Credit where it’s due must go to Manuel Pellegrini. The Manchester City manager made two tactical changes at half time that swung the tie back in favour of his side. One of the two changes made – to push Sterling out wide leaving Aguero up front on his own with Navas coming on for Delph widened City’s play and stretched Everton to their fullest. Eventually City’s new-found width paid off with Sterling in particular causing havoc on the left flank which lead to City taking the lead in somewhat controversial circumstances. Picking up the ball wide on the left, Sterling raced towards the byline with Stones in pursuit only to reach the ball and pull it back for the waiting Kevin De Bruyne to slam home. However replies show that the ball was over the line when Sterling cut it back so the goal should not have stood.
De Bruyne pokes home Sterling’s cross (Image from Getty)
It mattered little as less than six minutes later, City made the result clear with their third goal. A mistake by John Stones, who strangely was playing at right back ahead of Seamus Coleman, let Sergio Aguero ghost into the box to head home a perfect cross by De Bruyne. It would be one of the Belgian’s final contributions with the midfielder brutally brought down in the closing minutes by Funes Mori and now in danger of missing the remainder of the season with suspected cruciate damage. City will be hoping to have him fit in time for the final, which will be against Liverpool after Jurgen Klopp side squeezed through on penalties against Stoke. Leading 1-0 from the first leg, Liverpool looked to keep things tight at the back but with a host of first team players out injured, the task was not an easy one against a rapidly improving Stoke. Mark Hughes side pushed Liverpool back from the start and controlled the first half well eventually taking the lead at the end of the first half thanks to a beautifully crafted team goal converted by Austrian Marko Arnautovic.
Stoke looked the better side in the first half and took the lead through Arnautovic (pictured) – Image by Getty
Starting from the centre spot, a quick interchange of passing put Bojan clear through on the right. He beat his market Moreno before delivering a beautifully place cross for Arnautovic to power home. With the momentum now very much in their favour, Stoke pushed for a second goal to kill off the game. But the Potters found it hard to break down Liverpool’s defence with Sahko in particular in spectacular form. Despite chances for both sides, the match ended in a stalemate and would be settled by a penalty shootout. Both sides scored their first penalties before Peter Crouch missed his and Emre Can saw his effort hit the post. The remaining penalties found the back of the net before Mignolet saved Marc Muniesa’s weak penalty and Joe Allen converted his effort to send Liverpool to Wembley.
Allen scores the winning penalty to send Liverpool to Wembley (Image from getty)
A jubilant Jurgen Klopp ran on to the pitch to congratulate his players sad Allen’s penalty flew into the back of the net. A trip to Wembley is now on the cards for Klopp only four months since taking over at Liverpool. City may be favourites based on current form however they have already lost heavily to Liverpool under Klopp this season which will give the German hope that his side have a chance come February 28th.
Once the linchpin of the Manchester United setup, the clubs youth academy has seen better days and is in much need of a revamp. Having gained recognition for bringing through the class of ’92 which included both Neville brothers, Gary and Phil, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, United are now failing to produce the stars of tomorrow and the youth setup is getting the blame. Since ’92, only a handful of players have emerged (Darren Fletcher, Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck, Jesse Lingard being the most recognizable) leading to calls to completely revamp the setup. Making matters worse is that several other clubs in the surrounding areas are now jumping ahead of United to sign up the best young talent in the region. Liverpool and Everton have both established promising connections with local youth sides in Manchester and are attracting players to join their youth setups with the promise of a quicker route to first team football. In addition, arch rivals Manchester City have also stepping up their youth development program with significant investment in their infrastructure, which is going along way in impressing kids to pick them ahead of United.
Manchester City’s new state of the Art $200million Academy (Image from Getty)
The writing unfortunately has been on the wall for some time now. Early indications that something was amiss came towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign when then current players Darren Fletcher, Phil Neville and Robin van Persie chose to place their kids in Manchester City’s youth development scheme rather into United’s. But now the situation has worsened with key staff members and former players voicing their concerns about the failing state of the clubs academy. Reports surfacing from the club suggest that Derek Langley, the clubs head of youth development will quit the club at the end of the season after becoming disillusioned by going-ons at the Manchester United. Langely, who has been part of the United backroom team for the last 16 years has clashed on several occasions with club secretary John Alexander and Academy chief John Murtagh since they arrived in the summer, replacing Brian McClair. One of the key concerns Langley has is that the club has placed restrictions on him when it comes to youth recruitment making his job even harder. Added into this, the club’s decision to open the check book and buy from abroad rather than promote from within has meant that Langley’s job has become some what redundant.
Youth Development Chief Derek Langley, here with another United hopeful, has become disillusioned and is set to leave after 16 years at the club (Image from Getty)
For a club with a rich history of blooding youngsters into their first team, it’s a troubling time for all concerned. Over the past five years there have been some promotions from the youth teams into the first team (Tom Cleverly, James Wilson, Tyler Blackett etc.) but all have either been sold or shipped out on loan after finding it too tough to break into the starting eleven. However the volume of players coming through is low in comparison to some other Premier League sides like Everton, Tottenham or West Ham. United are falling behind badly and unless changes are made quickly to the approach and the philosophy, the club could face an uncertain future where the only recourse they have would be to buy new players for the first team. At the heart of the problem is chief executive Ed Woodward who has taken little interest in youth development, preferring instead to focus on marquee signings and raising his own profile at the club. It is this neglect that is leading to a crumbling of the academy’s foundations to a point were its has fallen into disrepair and a complete restart may be needed.
Youth prospects like Tyler Blackett are being farmed out rather than given a chance at the first team (Image from PA)
If United are to change it focus, they will need to do it fast. As mentioned before, their nearest rivals have already stolen a march and are operating far superior training facilities and youth development academies than United is. It will take a serious investment by the clubs owners to bring it up to par again and more importantly the long-term vision to see it through. The benefits however could outweigh the original outlay especially if they can bring through another class of 92. Those close to the club are hoping this is the case and that they will be heard but as yet their pleads have fallen on deaf ears. Only time will tell if united will correct its ways and once again reinvest in the youth development that has worked so well for them in the past.
Oh to be Jose Mourinho. The Chelsea manager’s torrid start to the new season continued on Saturday with a 3-1 home defeat to Liverpool, despite his side taking a fourth minute lead. Two strikes from Philippe Coutinho and a solo drive from Christian Benteke handed new manager Jurgen Klopp his first Premiership victory and heaped more pressure on his opposite number. Chelsea have now lost six of their first eleven games in an unexpected twist to this new season. What exactly has gone wrong is hard to say but many believe it’s a variety of factors all rolled into one that have caused this dip in form. Everything from player fitness, match tactics, lack of new signings and off field drama have been blamed but the one person who is receiving most of the criticism rightly or wrongly is manager Jose Mourinho. His behaviour since the start of the new campaign has been baffling, with the usually pragmatic Jose looking more sullen than before. The ailing health of his father during the summer may be a factor in this, which would also explain Chelsea’s late start to pre-season and the problems that have arisen from that which snowballed into a start that Mourinho would rather forget.
Mourinho and his staff held a meeting on the pitch after the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool (Image from PA)
Due to this, the media hounding of Mourinho is not unexpected but the pace in which they have changed their opinion of the self-proclaimed Special One is startling. For a man who guided Chelsea to a convincing title win last season to be now be seen as a bad manager in this one is inconceivable yet the British press have been quick to doubt his capabilities and handling of Chelsea. Speculative stories have been printed about Mourinho’s future as early as the start of September only five games into the new season. That followed the 3-1 defeat to Everton, Chelsea’s third defeat of the new campaign, marking Chelsea’s worst start in the Premiership. Rumours of unrest between players and Mourinho surfaced quicker than Chelsea, the players and their manager could deny them. Then Mourinho’s impending sacking by owner Roman Abramovich lead to speculation over who will replace him. The manager reacted in typical style but the drain of constant media pressure seems to be getting to him; refusing on occasion to speak with them or when he does, like this past weekend, resorting to one or two-word answers.
In stark comparison, defending Italian champions Juventus have experienced little media pressure despite their poor start to the new season. Massimilano Allegri’s men sit in tenth place after eleven games played with only four wins to their name, three of which came in their last five matches. Whilst the start has not been ideal, the Italian press have been kind to the Juventus manager understanding that the season is still in its infancy and Allegri has time to turn things around especially given the circumstances. With several key players leaving in the summer, new recruits arriving and injuries to first team players, Allegri has understandably been unable to build on last years success which included a Champions League final spot. Allegri is under pressure but from the board rather than the media which appears to have given him more room for movement than his counterpart at Chelsea.
Juventus start to the season has been less than impressive yet Allegri is not under the microscope like Mourinho (Image from ANSA/MATTEO BAZZI)
So what now for Chelsea? Abramovich would be crazy to fire Mourinho at this stage in the season. Unless the owner has Pep Guardiola lined up and ready to take over now, then sacking Mourinho would make little sense. Besides Pep, there are few managers in the world game as good as Mourinho or possessing the talent to turn things around. Mourinho needs time to figure out what is going wrong and stop the slide. With the struggling trio of Stoke, Norwich and Bournemouth to come in the next four fixtures, Chelsea’s revival could start as early as next Saturday. Nine points from these three games could propel Chelsea back up in the top half of the season and potentially close the now 14 point gap between them and early leaders Manchester City. Winning the title is likely beyond Chelsea now unless others slip up badly so a place in Europe will be the new target. Results will come with Mourinho in charge but only if he has the full backing of the board and of Abramovich especially in January’s transfer window. Only then will the British media leave Mourinho alone to do what he does best – build winning football teams.
Tomorrow sees Jurgen Klopp take his new team, Liverpool to White Hart Lane to face Tottenham. The German who took over last week following the sacking of Brendan Rodgers will be hoping for a strong start to his new tenure but his preparations have already been hindered by the news that striker Danny Ings has been ruled out for the rest of the season with an injury. Ings, signed from Burnley in the summer fell awkwardly during his first training session with the new manager and will now miss the rest of the campaign after suffering an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury. It’s a bitter blow for both the player and the club who are already hurting after young defender Joe Gomez was also ruled out for the season with the exact same injury. Gomez, who arrived in the summer from Charlton picked up his injury playing for England’s under 21 team midweek against Kazakhstan. The young centre back had started his Liverpool career brightly playing in five of their eight league games so far as a makeshift left back under former boss Rodgers. But like Ings, he now faces a lengthy spell on the sidelines and will start his long road to recovery in the next few weeks.
Gomez suffers an ACL tear playing for England Under 21’s (Image from EFA)
Strangely the injuries to Ings and Gomez are the latest in a series of cruciate ligament injuries that are ravaging Premiership clubs. In total six players have fallen foul of this injury in as many weeks, with the Liverpool duo joining Bournemouth trio Max Gradel, Callum Wilson and Tyrone Mings on the sidelines. Newcastle stopper Tim Krul is the sixth player to suffer the same injury after pulling up whilst playing for Holland in their European Championship qualifying match against Kazakhstan. An ACL injury is the over-stretching or tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee. A tear may be partial or complete. The severity of the injury usually dictates how long the player will be out for and what treatment is needed. Like Ings and Gomez, Krul and Mings are expected to be out for the rest of the season whilst Gradel and Wilson hope to be back playing within six months. Some will require surgery to repair the damage whilst others will be able to avoid this. But all six players will need months of physical therapy to help improve joint motion and leg strength as they look to get back as quickly as possible to playing.
Blow for Newcastle as goalkeeper Tim Krul is ruled out for the season (Image from EPA)
Why these injuries have happened to the six players is unknown with many in the game looking for a common thread to connect them all. One newspaper has loosely connected the dots and shown that all six players were wearing Nike boots at the time of their respective injuries, suggesting that the new style of boots could have played a part. Four of the six were wearing Nike’s Magista boots, while Ings and Gradel were both in Nike’s Mercurial Vapor X. But experts have shot down this link claiming that the boots that the players wear has nothing to do with it and that it was merely a strange coincidence. Nike has also denied that there is an issue with their boots highlighting that all six injuries happened under different circumstances and in different pitch conditions which could have also played a part. Indeed this type of injury is extremely common in the sporting world with football players in particular vulnerable to it. An ACL injury can occur due to a hard hit to the side of the knee, such as during a tackle or when the knee is overextended due to clearing or kicking the ball. But its most likely to happen when a player quickly stops moving and changes direction whilst running, jumping or turning.
An anterior cruciate ligament injury is the over-stretching or tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee (Image from A.D.A.M)
This is exactly what happened to former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Newcastle striker Michael Owen during England’s 2006 World Cup group game against Sweden. Owen suffered a rupture of his ACL after turning quickly to lay off a pass to his teammate, falling awkwardly in the process. It ruled Owen out for the rest of the tournament and for a large part of the following season. After rebounding from the injury, Owen would play for seven more seasons but was never quite the same player as he was before his ACL injury. This is the risk that most players face with this type of injury. The road to recovering from the injury itself is a long and painful one but the long-term damage to a player can be more devastating. As many former players will testify, once you suffer from a bad knee injury, you can never quite reach the same heights as you once did. Four of the six players are young enough that they may recover and still have lengthy careers but for Krul and Gradel who are both 27, the injury may take more out of them than first feared. Both players will be hoping to return to action in time for pre season next year but the lingering fear of a re-occurance may be a psychological barrier that they can never really recover from.
On a wall on route to the Anfield tunnel is a plaque almost as famous as the club it represents. Leaving the Liverpool changing room, the players walk down a flight of stairs directly underneath the plaque which instantly became a symbol of the club on the day it was hung there. Reading “This is Anfield – Liverpool Football Club”, it has become a ritual for Liverpool players and fans of the club to touch it as they walk down those few steps. As Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers was one of those who has touched that plaque more than once but in recent months it has been a different set of writing on the wall that has had Rodgers worried. He knew that he was in danger of being sacked and probably believed he had more time but after a dismal start to this season, Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Everton would turn out to be his last in charge of Liverpool.
Liverpool’s search for a new manager is one as Rodgers is sacked (Image from Getty)
In the end the result at Goodison mattered little as the club’s owners had already made up their minds. Rodgers was informed shortly after the match by managing director, Ian Ayre. Whilst expected, the news will still have hurt as Rodgers strongly believed that he had what it took to turn Liverpool around. But for Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s principle owners enough was enough and a change needed to be made. They had grown tired of Rodgers excuses of why despite repeatedly spending vast amounts in the transfer market, he had little to show for it. In three years, Rodgers has delivered nothing – no cups, no European success and certainly no title. The latter is what FSG wanted the most having already tasted success on several occasions with their baseball team, Boston Red Sox. But in the footballing world, their sizable investment under Rodgers failed to bear any fruits. One season of nearly clinching the title does not quite count and for Rodgers the writing was starting to be etched on the wall as early as last Christmas.
Liverpool co owner John Henry lost patience with Rodgers and has acted (Image from Getty)
Whilst former AC Milan, Chelsea and Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti has been linked heavily with the job along with current Ajax boss Frank De Boer, there is only one man who Liverpool should be turning to in their time of need. Jurgen Klopp is that man and if the FSG has any sense they will appoint him quickly. This is the perfect time for a change with the international break now upon us, it will give Klopp longer than usual to settle in and start to formulate the clubs revival. The former Borussia Dortmund boss has been out of work since this summer after calling time on his spell with the former Bundesliga champions. At his exit press conference, emotions were running high with a Dortmund board inconsolable about losing their prodigal son. It was Klopp’s decision to leave, stating that he could no longer offer them everything he had. Dortmund’s loss could well be Liverpool’s gain as they close in on their preferred candidate.
Hard not to like him – Jurgen Klopp (Image from Getty)
But why Klopp? Critics will argue that the appointment of a more highly experienced manager like Ancelotti would make more sense, and give greater stability to the club than they had under Rodgers. Ancelotti has been there and done that during a glittering 20 year managerial career and any club would be fortunate to have him. But Liverpool are looking for something different, someone with charisma and charm that can be a driving force on the pitch as much as off it. Klopp fits what they need. Anyone who has ever met the guy has loved him and fallen head over heals for his smooth talking German charm. His inviting smile and friendly demure make him seem highly approachable, almost to the point that you could believe that he would be quite happy to have a pint with you and talk for hours about the beautiful game. But underneath all of this is a superb footballing brain, one that sees beyond what is in front of it and is already planning the next five moves. There are only a few coaches like this in the game today – Guardiola and Mourinho being the best examples so for Liverpool to secure one would be a massive coup.
Klopp touches the Anfield sign last year (Image from Getty)
Whilst he may not have the years of managerial experience across multiple countries as Ancelotti has, Klopp has shown in the teams he has managed that he can build teams not only for now but for the future. He focuses heavily on youth players both through transfers and promotion from the youth team and building a squad capable of challenging for years to come. This is exactly what Liverpool needs at this junction, a manager who will take average players and make them into great ones and build a side that can challenge on all fronts going forward. Klopp has been open in his admiration for the club in the past speaking about its rich history and unfilled potential. He might be just what Liverpool need now as they look to reclaim the glory years of yesteryear. Time will tell if the German can do just that and give the fans another piece of history to hold on to.
Only a few days after we called him a flop in a previous post, Iago Aspas popped up once more to prove us wrong. The former Liverpool striker who was signed by Brendan Rodgers for a fee estimated between £7-9 million and went on to play only eight games in two seasons scoring only once in the cup before being sold back to Spain for under £4 million, played a starring role as Celta Vigo ended Barcelona’s unbeaten start to the season with an emphatic 4-1 win. A brace from Aspas and solo efforts from Nolito and John Guidetti secured the win with Brazilian striker Neymar adding a consolation goal for Barcelona as Celta Vigo maintain their good start to the season. The win saw Celta temporarily leap-frog Barcelona to the top of La Liga, only to be displaced later that night after Real Madrid secured all three points in their match against Athletic Club Bilbao. Celta Vigo now occupy second spot in the league after four wins and a draw including impressive wins over Sevilla, Levante and now Barcelona.
Messi looks at the ground as Celta run riot (Image from Getty)
Going into the match, Barcelona had won all four of their opening league fixtures including confidence building wins over Athletic Club Bilbao and rivals Atletico Madrid and looked to be hitting their stride. With Neymar, Messi and Suarez all back in form, Barcelona were clear favourites to win this match up but Celta Vigo had other plans. Despite having the lions share of the chances and possession, Barcelona struggled to break down the plucky side from Spain’s north west coast. Celta on the other hand managed to take their limited opportunities well and exploit Barcelona’s shaky defence time after time. From the off, it was clear that Celta believed that they could get a result and within 26 minutes they had the lead. After some clever interplay between the defence and midfield, the ball fell to right back Hugo Mallo on the flank who fired in a cross into the box for Aspas to attack. However his cross was too long and sailed over the striker, landing instead at the feet of Nolito on the edge of the area. The former Barcelona B player controlled the ball perfectly before curling a shot up and over Marc ter Stegen in the Barca goal to give Celta the lead.
Nolito started the rout with a curling effort that beat Marc ter Stegen in the Barca goal (Image from epa)
Celta’s second came only four minutes later thanks largely to some sloppy defending by Gerard Pique. The Spanish international failed to control a looping back pass at the half way line then had his follow-up clearance blocked by Nolito who headed the ball to Aspas sending him clear. Now in a straight race with Pique, Aspas bared down on goal and with ter Stegen rushing out coolly lifted the ball over the German goalkeeper to make it 2-0 as half time approached. In the second half, Barcelona looked to have been reinvigorated by Luis Enrique’s team talk and started brightly with Luis Suarez hitting the post after some good play by Iniesta. But it would be Celta and that man Aspas who would score next with a fantastic counter attacking move. Defending against a corner, Celta managed to clear their lines well pushing the ball out to Aspas on the right flank. With only Dani Alves to beat, Aspas lifted the ball over the Brazilian at the half way line and then raced onto goal before slotting past ter Stegen to make it 3-0.
With ten minutes left to play, Barcelona finally found a way through the Celta defence and past the impressive Sergio Alvarez in-goal. Messi’s perfectly placed ball over the top was latched onto by Neymar who controlled with his left foot, fired it across Alvarez and into the bottom corner for 3-1. But Barcelona’s revival didn’t last long with substitute John Guidetti, on for Aspas firing in Celta’s fourth goal from close range after some good wing work by Hugo Mallo. The former Manchester City, Celtic and Stoke striker who played a pivotal role in Sweden’s under 21 European Championship winning team during the summer only joined in July and has yet to start a game with Celta coach Eduardo Berizzo preferring to use him as an option form the bench. But now after scoring his first goal for the club, Guidetti will be pushing for a starting berth. Standing in his way however is Nolito and the in form Iago Aspas who is proving many of his doubters wrong with some superb performances this season.
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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year” sang Andy Williams in 1963 and he wasn’t far wrong. To millions of people across the world, Christmas is the time for celebration, spending moments with those closest to you and reflecting on what has been a joyful year. Each year around this time, the countdown to Christmas begins with most hoping that it would come sooner rather than later. But for Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers the opposite is true with the Northern Irish boss wanting to delay the onslaught of Christmas as he battles to save his job. After a mixed start to the new season Rodgers is living in fear that he may be out of a job as the holiday season draws in. Saturday’s 1-1 disappointing draw with Norwich highlighted some of the issues that Rodgers faces. Without a win in the last five games, Liverpool’s season is on the rocks and their manager fearing what is to come. Like Scrooge, Rodgers has three ghosts that haunt him – the past, the present and the future.
A wonderful time of the year for Andy Williams, perhaps not for Brendan Rodgers (Image from Getty)
During his time at Liverpool, Rodgers has been haunted by what could have been. Large outlays of money have been spent building squad after squad for regret to be its only reward. Failed signings like Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas, Fabio Borini and Mario Balotelli have shown Rodgers scattergun approach in the transfer market, often buying players on impulse rather than with a view to how he will include them in his starting line up. Season after season players arrive to much fanfare only to eventually be absorbed into the budging Liverpool squad never to be seen again. Of the 31 players he has brought in for an average fee of £9 million, arguably only six (Joe Allen, Phillipe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Emre Can, Christian Benteke and Nathaniel Clyne) have proven to be valuable additions so far. Recent arrivals like James Milner, Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino need to be given a grace period and could prove to be good acquisitions as the season progresses but regardless that still means that 60% of all of Rodgers signings have been a disaster. That is a lot of money with little to show for it.
Iago Aspas – One of Rodgers flop signings (Image from Getty)
Liverpool did come close to winning the league two seasons ago when the talents of Luis Suarez and an in form Daniel Sturridge almost fired them to glory. Rodgers received a lot of praise based on that campaign but questions have been raised about how much he actually did in that year or more importantly how much he didn’t do. Liverpool played with the same formation for a majority of the season and it worked in the most however when they fell behind in games or in the case of Crystal Palace when leading 3-0, Rodgers failure to change his approach when Palace changed theirs cost Liverpool dearly. Three second half goals cost Liverpool a valuable 2 points which went along way to costing them the title.
Liverpool’s collapse against Palace was down to Rodgers tactical failures (Image from PA)
The present isn’t any better. Having sold Sterling in the summer, Rodgers failed to heed the warnings from his past and once again splashed the cash. In came James Milner, Christian Benteke, Nathaniel Clyne, Roberto Firmino, Danny Ings and Joe Gomez but few have been a success so far. How they exactly fit into a new look Liverpool line up is still be understood as Rodgers continues to baffle pundits and fans alike who are trying hard to decipher it. Six games in to the new campaign, Liverpool occupy 13th place in the table following two wins, two draws and two defeats so far. But it’s there performances that have caused the most concern. Defensive against Norwich and gung-ho against Manchester United, Rodgers alters his style but not his formation which is the fundamental issue. The problem is that Rodgers tactical knowledge is severely lacking and his players are paying the penalty. Instead of working a formation with the players he has, Rodgers is putting square pegs in round holes as he tries to play his formation. The result has Ings on the left-wing, Joe Gomez covering at left back and Roberto Firmino running around like a headless chicken often glancing towards the bench for guidance. Liverpool’s next five games in the league – Aston Villa, Everton, Spurs, Southampton and Chelsea all pose different threats and will not make Rodgers next month easy, heaping more pressure on the under fire boss.
One eye on the Liverpool job – Jurgen Klopp Image from Getty)
So what about the future? It doesn’t look good for Rodgers unless he can turn it around and quickly. Jurgen Klopp sits quietly watching as Rodgers desperately tries to make up for his past misgivings and current misfortunes. Having survived the cull in the summer, preferring instead to throw his assistants Mike Marsh and Colin Pascoe under the bus, Rodgers is on borrowed time. Another action packed summer of signings took his spend as Liverpool boss to biblical proportions. In three years as Liverpool boss, Rodgers has spent just under £300 million revamping his squad season after season. Take in to consideration that amount versus the amount Arsenal has spent in 19 years under Wenger (£515 million) or Sir Alex Ferguson spend at United in his 27 years (£563 million). Both men built sides that won leagues and cups yet Rodgers is yet to deliver a single piece of silverware. He may be looking to build a similar dynasty as Wenger and Ferguson but has little to show for it at this point. Unfortunately for Rodgers time is not something that is on his side. The clubs US owners are growing tired of his failure to deliver and may be forced to make a change sooner rather than later. With a majority of Liverpool fans supporting a change, Christmas may come early for them if the club decides to finally end the madness and sack Rodgers in the next few weeks.
After months of speculation, Raheem Sterling will finally leave Anfield this week after sealing a £49million transfer to Manchester City. The England winger leaves Liverpool under a dark cloud after doing much over the past few months to annoy both the staff and the fans of the club. Greed and bad judgement had clouded the youngsters vision well before City sparked an interest, with Sterling’s controversial agent Aidy Ward acting much like Grima Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings fame taking a lead role in manipulating the England star. After Ward told Liverpool publicly that Sterling would refuse any contract they gave him, even a £900k a week one, it was clear that the Jamaica born star would be leaving the club with the fans having firmly turned against him. This paved the way for Manchester City to swoop, much to the delight of Ward who saw a large pay-day coming his way.
Ward has acted like Grima Wormtongue influencing Sterlings thoughts much like the LOTR’s character did with King Theoden (Image from New Line Cinema)
Manchester City have agreed to pay Liverpool £44million up front and an additional £5million in bonuses depending on appearances making Sterling the third most expensive signing for a British club. The player has agreed a five-year, £160k a week contract taking the total spent on this transfer by Manchester City over the £100 million mark. Sterling’s arrival will help City in it’s quest to meet their required home-grown quota but questions remain about whether or not they have they taken a huge gamble on a player who could be poisonous to their squad. City’s move for the twenty year old is based on potential rather than firm knowledge with Sterling having proved little at either club or international level to date. Bursting onto the scene in 2012, Sterling wasted little time in highlighting his talents using his pace and superb dribbling skills to his advantage, forcing everyone at Anfield to their feet. Over the next three years he would force his way into the starting eleven and in the 2013-2014 season play a key role as Liverpool pushed Manchester City all the way in the race for the Premiership. By now he was part of the England team and viewed by many as a star for the future.
Sterling is now a full England international (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
But since that season, something has changed. Sterling the boy became Sterling the man and with it came a false sense of entitlement. Out went his apparent passion for the sport, where every game he played was for the love of it rather than the money. That change coincided with agent Aidy Ward’s decision to depart Impact Sports Management and go it alone, taking two of the firms brightest prospects, Sterling and Saido Berahino with him. Now under Ward’s full control, Sterling’s demeanor started to change and not for the better. Rodgers attempted to bring the player back on side with an improved £35k a week contract which Sterling signed but by then Ward was already eyeing a bigger prize – a lucrative move for Sterling away from Anfield. Ward however was less successful in influencing West Brom’s Berahino who decided last week to break ties with the agent after becoming disillusioned with his advice and overall handling of the Sterling situation.
Saido Berahino has left agent Aidy Ward due to the way he handled the Sterling situation (Image from Getty)
Sterling will join up with his new teammates later this week after completing the obligatory medical on Wednesday. City manager Manuel Pellegrini will be aware of problems the winger caused Brendan Rodgers in recent weeks including calling in sick twice for training and refusing to go on Liverpool’s pre-season tour in order to force his own agenda. The Chilean will be hoping that now that Sterling has achieved his objective he will settle down and focus on his football which he should do. However problems could arise over the course of his contract if Sterling is left on the substitute bench too often, a realistic possibility given City’s vast array of talent at their disposal. City could be faced with another Carlos Tevez situation who famously refused to come on as a sub against Bayern Munich during Roberto Mancini’s reign as he protested his exclusion from the starting eleven. With Ward likely already eyeing up Sterling’s next move in order to secure his next payday, City could be faced with a problem of their own doing. This time, it may not be that easy to find a buyer for the troubled star.
City are keen to avoid another Tevez situation with Sterling (Image from Getty)
Whilst reluctant to admit it, Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers will be delighted to have removed the headache that has been hounding him for the past six months. Having accepted early on that one of his prize assets was departing, Rodgers and the club stood firm on their valuation safe in the knowledge that they could with the player under contract until 2017. City was always the likely destination with few other clubs willing to meet Liverpool’s £50million valuation. That money has already been sensibly reinvested in the squad with the signatures of Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne. The removal of the disruptor Sterling from his squad should restore the balance and allow Rodgers to switch to a narrower 4-2-3-1 formation with Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana operating behind a central striker. Sterling’s departure could also open the door to young Jordan Ibe, who has impressed in the club’s youth system over the past few years. As a replica of Sterling, the young winger could be introduced into first team football slowly over the course of the next season as an option from the bench. Rodgers will watch his progress carefully and will be on hand to advise the youngster about every key decision he makes, including the selection of his agent. Sterling may be gone but the club moves on and will learn from their past mistakes hoping that they will never happen again.
Liverpool have completed the £29 million signing of Hoffenheim star Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian, who is currently with the Brazil squad playing at the Copa America in Chile has penned a five-year deal worth a reported £100k per week. He becomes Liverpool’s second biggest transfer of all time, behind Andy Carroll and will likely operate as a solo striker in a new look 4-2-3-1 formation for Liverpool next season. He is Liverpool’s fifth signing so far this summer with manager Brendan Rodgers masterminding a complete revamp of the squad that failed miserably last season. With Raheem Sterling edging his way towards the exit, Firmino’s arrival pending a work permit will be a welcome boost to the bewildered Anfield crowd who must have been wondering how Rodgers would reshape the squad and how much money would be spent in doing so. The signing is a show of good faith by the clubs owners, Fenway Sports Group who continue to invest in the club and its infrastructure. That said whilst they have sanctioned the move for Firmino, it is in no way an indication that they are completely bought in to the player being a success and will be watching with interest on how he pans out.
A gamble? Rodgers needs Firmino to be a success (Image from Getty)
At only 23, Firmino is a viewed as a long-term investment but a potential high risk. His transfer fee maybe second only to the amount Liverpool paid Newcastle for Andy Carroll but his potential sell on value will be much higher especially if he performs. Liverpool have taken calculated gambles like this in the past to varied results. They bought Luiz Suarez from Ajax for £22.8 million, only to sell him four years later to Barcelona for £75 million. Similarly Fernando Torres arrived in the summer of 2007 for just over £20 million before departing three and a half years later to Chelsea for £50 million. There have however been epic failures as well. Last season Mario Balotelli was brought back to England for £16 million but has struggled to live up to the expectations that followed him. Liverpool are now desperate to cut their losses and rid themselves of the misfiring Italian. Balotelli’s signing however was only a fraction of what Andy Carroll cost. At £35 million, he is Liverpool’s most expensive signing to date and their most spectacular flop. Forty-four appearances over an ill-fated two-year stint saw a return of only six goals for the England striker. Liverpool eventually shipped him out on loan to West Ham for an initial £2 million loan fee before selling him permanently to the Hammers for £15 million a year later.
Andy Carroll is Liverpool’s record signing and their worst flop (Image from Getty)
Brendan Rodgers knows hat he cannot afford for Firmino to be a flop as his neck is edging closer to the guillotine. With Jurgen Klopp waiting in the wings to take over, Rodgers probably only has to Christmas to prove to the board that he should remain in charge. With Daniel Sturridge out until October at least and his other striking options, Balotelli, Borini and Lambert all heading for the exit, the pressure is on Rodgers to make Firmino a success. The stats however do not bode well. Despite finishing the 2013-2014 season with Hoffenheim on sixteen league goals, it’s the only time the attacking midfielder turn striker has ever finished in double figures in a league campaign. Much of his success in that season can be attributed to the players around him, like the talented Kevin Volland. The 22-year-old German international had a stand out season that year netting nine times and laying on eight assists, half of which were for Firmino. More concerning is that in that season, Firmino was averaging only two goals a month, hardly a strike rate to write home about. Last season, Firmino only netted seven times despite making the same number of appearances as the 2013-2014 campaign. To be fair, he did operate more as an attacking midfielder in those campaigns than as an out-and-out striker. Which begs the question of why Rodgers would gamble so much on a player who isn’t really a centre forward by trade?
Firmino no doubt has talent and is playing a starring role for Brazil in the Copa in the absence of the now suspended Neymar. But the question still remains on whether he is the right man to lead Liverpool’s front line next season. Firmino started his playing career as a defensive midfielder but has slowly been pushed further forward by the coaches he has worked for as they exploited his talents. For both Brazil and Hoffenheim, Firmino has operated as an attacking midfielder and as a striker but its fair to say that his most comfortable position is the former. From there he can dictate the play, create chances and roam free. As a striker, especially a solo one that ability to roam is curtailed and his role is dramatically changed from provider to finisher. Arguably he can be dropped back into that attacking three for Liverpool when Sturridge regains his fitness but that wont be for some time. Until then Firmino will have to play in that central striker role with Rodgers hoping he is more of a Suarez or Torres than a Carroll or Balotelli. If Firmino succeeds, Rodgers will be hailed as a genius for spotting his potential. But if he fails, the manager could quite easily be regretting this gamble as he packs up his desk and makes way for Klopp.
With the dust settling on the final Anfield run out of the legendary Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, Brendan Rodgers sat back in his chair and turned his focus towards the final game of the season. It’s not been quite the campaign that Rodgers expected having pushed Manchester City all the way last year with his own SOS strike force (Suarez and Sturridge) leading Liverpool’s impressive front line. Rumours of Suarez departure to pastures new had been growing since early January so when the call came in that Barcelona’s bid had been deemed acceptable, it will hardly have been devastating news to the Northern Irish coach. Rodgers had in fact been planning for this and would use the money to reinvest in his squad, not in one position but several. In came Lallana, Lambert, Can, Markovic and Balotelli to name a few to form a new look Liverpool side. The big money arrivals all came with pedigree or potential but would be outshone in the end by a player already at the club, a young winger by the name of Raheem Sterling.
The actions of Sterling’s agent have put him on a collision course with the club (Image from PA)
After a breakthrough season last year which saw the Jamaican born player cement his place in the starting line-up by offering the pace and creativity needed for Suarez and Sturridge to profit from, Sterling approached this season with renewed energy and with the manager’s full backing to shine. He would end this season with the club Young Player of the Year award after a solid season but at the award ceremony would be greeted by boos from the fans rather than cheers. The reason for this hostile reception was down to events that had happened earlier in the day when it was revealed that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool in the summer and would be turning down a lucrative contract. It was hardly the news that either the Liverpool fans or indeed their manager Brendan Rodgers wanted to hear, his Tuesday morning ruined by the actions not of his player but of the players key advisor – his agent.
Agents in football generally get a bad rap for being too heavily focused on what’s best for them and not for the player and what will earn them the biggest pay off. In 99% of the times this is simply untrue with the agent instead acting as the mediator in negotiations between players and their respective clubs. Good agents work with the clubs to manage the player and his/her expectations around their futures both in the short term and the long term. If the player is deemed important, the agent will negotiate a better deal that keeps the player at the club and more importantly happy to do so. If the player is seen as expendable, then the agent will look for new opportunities for the player in order to get him into a club where he is valued and happy. However there are a small minority of agents, like Raheem Sterling’s chief negotiator who seem intent in disruption, preferring to look for a big pay day for themselves than looking out for the best interests of their client. On Tuesday morning, the Guardian broke the news that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool. This is hardly unusual as it’s generally the norm that one paper gets the exclusive story. However within minutes of the news showing up on the Guardian, every media outlet across the UK had the story in length and was covering it. It was a whitewash, a carefully planned yet badly timed ploy by Sterling’s agent and support team to get the story out to as many people as possible in order to drum up interest in the player.
Sterling picked up the clubs Young Player of the Year award to a chorus of boos (Image from Getty)
Not only was this done badly but the timing of it was just plain stupid. Why they decided to let the cat out of the bag publicly at that time makes no sense. The week before had been all about Steven Gerrard and his final game at Anfield. But this week would be a continuation of that with his last game in a Liverpool shirt on Sunday against Stoke. Sterling’s departure now hogs the limelight, not that it will matter to Gerrard but out of respect for the player and the club, could they not have waited until after Sunday’s game? In addition to that breaking the news on the same morning as the Liverpool team awards dinner put Sterling in a difficult position. He should have accepted his award to applause rather than a chorus of jeers. Sterling’s agent is clearly acting for himself and not thinking about his 20 year old client. If he was, he wouldn’t be leaking these statements, instead would be giving him the advice he needs to hear – stay at Liverpool for a couple of more years, hone your skills and then make the big money transfer move.
A move to Madrid could see Sterling playing alongside Martin Odegaard for Real’s reserve team, Castilla rather than their first team (Image from Getty)
Sterling is far from the finished article that he needs to be to command a starting spot at a Real Madrid or a Barcelona. Madrid may have publically stated that they are monitoring the player but the fact that it was Zidane rather than Ancelotti suggests they see Sterling as one for the future and any purchase would see him follow the same path as Norwegian protégée Martin Odegaard. Sterling could move to another Premiership side like Chelsea or Manchester United but is not guaranteed to get a regular run out in the first team as he is at Liverpool. Manchester City have stepped up their interest in recent weeks, with a new mandate to buy British but Sterling should heed the warnings left by Jack Rodwell, Adam Johnson and Scott Sinclair before him who all made big money moves to City only to see their careers go backwards. For the sake of his career, Sterling should stay put, commit Liverpool and above all else sack his agent for the poor selfish advice he is handing out.
With two games left before the end of the season, Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel desire to play in one of these fixtures has intensified with the news that he will retire from the game at the end of the current campaign. If Mauricio Pochettino does select the US stopper to face either Hull or Everton, Friedel will become the oldest player in Premier League history beating the current record holder former Manchester City goalkeeper John Burridge. Friedel, who turns 44 on Monday has not featured this season for Spurs and has not played a competitive league match since November 2013. Few would begrudge Friedel of that final swansong after a glittering career for club and country but sentimentality goes out of the window when sides are chasing places in Europe. Spurs currently sit in 6th place four points behind Liverpool, a point ahead of Southampton in 7th and two points ahead of Swansea in 8th. A win on Saturday may not be enough for Spurs to gamble throwing Friedel in to the mix for the final game against Everton, especially if Swansea and Southampton both win as well. Friedel will know the reality of the situation and will as always put the best interest of the club ahead of his own, even if that does mean missing out on that record.
Friedel makes an important stop for Villa against Spurs (Image from AFP)
Records are something that Friedel has been breaking his entire career that has spanned over 23 years, nine clubs and 668 appearances. He also managed to pick up 82 caps for the United States along the way too. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances in the Premiership (310 made between August 2004 and November 2012 and is only one of five goalkeepers to have ever scored in that league too (the others being Paul Robinson, Peter Schmeichel, Asmir Begovic and US teammate Tim Howard). He holds the record for number of appearances made by an American (450 to date) in the Premiership although that record could fall if the 36 year old Tim Howard continues his impressive run. Friedel also holds the record for most penalty saves during a World Cup group stage (two in the 2002 WC) that earned him the nicknamed of the human wall amongst the US supporters.
Brad Friedel has continue to play at the top level for longer than most in his position, which some believe was a direct results of him having to declare himself bankrupt in January 2011 after losing all his money in a failed soccer academy in Ohio. However as a goalkeeper Friedel had the luxury to do so as they do tend to play longer than their outfield colleagues by 3-4 years. That said few are still playing at the top level well into their forties with most dropping to the lower leagues in England or departing for other slightly slower global leagues. But Friedel was still very much in demand for his services as his fortieth birthday approached. When Harry Redknapp took him to Tottenham in the summer of 2011, he was bought originally as a backup for Brazilian Heurelho Gomes but after he made several high profile errors and misjudgments, Friedel was handed the starting jersey and began the 2011-2012 season as Spurs No. 1. He would hold the jersey until the arrival of French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris finally displaced him.
Friedel was always destined to play in the Premiership. After making his name playing college soccer for the University of California, the then 23 year old Friedel began looking at clubs to start his professional career with. Moves to Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Newcastle under Kevin Keegan fell through due to work permit problems so instead Friedel joined Danish side FC Brondby on loan as back up for club legend Mogens Krogh. Despite not making a single appearance, Friedel did eventually seal a move to Europe with Galatasaray who were impressed with his performances for the US during the 1995 US Cup and Copa America campaigns. Bossed by Graeme Souness, Friedel made 30 appearances over the next season before returning to the US to play for Columbus Crew. He would be named Goalkeeper of the Year that season beating Jorge Campos, Tony Meola and Walter Zenga to that honour. That was enough to persuade Liverpool boss Roy Evans to part with £1.7 million to secure his services. Work Permit issues once again looked to torpedo the deal but they were overturned on appeal and Friedel was clear to make his debut against Aston Villa on February 28, 1998. Despite finally making it to the Premiership, Friedel found playing time limited at Liverpool so when old boss Graeme Souness came calling in November 2000 with an offer to join Blackburn Rovers he jumped at it. Over the next eight years, Friedel would become one of the most consistent and best shot stoppers in the league, first helping Rovers to promotion then cementing their place in the league. By now competition for his signature had amplified and with Manchester City sniffing around, Aston Villa swooped in with a £2.5 million offer in order to get their man. He joined Villa during the summer of 2008 and would play for them for three seasons before eventually making the move over to Tottenham.
A young Brad Friedel during his Galatasaray days (Image from Getty)
Friedel was selected for three US World Cup squads, playing in the 1998 and 2002 tournaments as No.1 and providing back up to Tony Meola during the 1994 World Cup. He is the fourth most capped goalkeeper in US history behind Tim Howard, Kasey Keller and Meola. He retired from international football in 2005 in an effort to prolong his playing career which appears to have worked. Regardless of whether Friedel gets on to the field for his final Premiership swansong or not, the US stopper will go down as one of the greatest players ever to grace English football.
It was meant to be the fairytale send off for Steven Gerrard but Tim Sherwood had other ideas. Yesterday’s dramatic FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Aston Villa saw Sherwood’s side upset the apple cart and book their place at Wembley. For Gerrard, who is set to leave Liverpool at the end of the season it was heartbreaking. One last chance at silverware with his beloved Liverpool cruelly snatched away. Goals from Christian Benteke and Fabien Delph were enough to cancel out Phillippe Coutinho’s early strike and send Villa to their first FA final since 2000. Liverpool did have a Mario Balotelli goal wrongly ruled offside in the 88th minute but to be fair to Villa the result was what their performance deserved. Credit must be given to Tim Sherwood who has transformed this Aston Villa side since replacing Paul Lambert as manager only 11 games ago. His first game as manager was the nail biting 2-1 last 16 victory over Leicester in the FA Cup. Although not officially in charge for the game, Sherwood did give a rousing half time talk to the team with the game evenly balanced at 0-0. His words spurred them on to victory as they did again against West Brom in the quarters so yesterdays win seemed only fitting for the effort he has applied so far.
The defeat has heaped further pressure on Sherwood’s opposite number for the day, Brendan Rodgers who must be anxiously looking over his shoulder for the galloping Jurgen Klopp riding in to rescue the club. Rodgers had high hopes for this campaign after a close conclusion to last season which saw them finish second behind eventual winners Manchester City. But it has all gone terribly wrong for the Northern Irishman who has failed miserably in his attempts to replace Luis Suarez. Never an easy task, Rodgers fumbled in the transfer market like a kid in a candy store unsure what to spend his vast wealth on. A range of players arrived like Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli and Adam Lallana but all have struggled to fit into Rodgers apparent system. To be fair, it is hard to adjust when the system used keeps changing, a notion that has perplexed the usually reliable Gerrard all season. Deployed as a Regista (a deep lying playmaker who sits just in front of the back four), Gerrard’s inability to remain in a withdrawn position and not venture forward was ultimately his downfall. Rodgers adapted the system to push Gerrard further forward but in doing so disrupted various other players including the highly effective Raheem Sterling who was operating in the hole behind the central striker. Gerrard’s form dipped, unsure of the role he was meant to play and was subsequently benched by Rodgers in a move that only frustrated the former England midfielder more. Their relationship has deteriorated over the past few months despite the pair denying the rumours. Gerrard it seems will leave the club under a cloud with five meaningless games left in the regular season with only Champions League qualification to play for. As for Rodgers, who became the first Liverpool manager since Phil Taylor (1956 to 1959) to go three seasons without lifting any silverware, he must wait to see how Chairman Tom Werner reacts to yet another disappointing Liverpool campaign, with Klopp waiting patiently in the wings.
Villa meanwhile go on to Wembley to face current holders Arsenal, who are looking to replicate their 2001 and 2002 successes by winning back to back FA cups. Arsene Wenger’s side progressed to the final thanks in part to a horrific error by Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici who fumbled a weak effort by Alexis Sanchez in extra time, only to see it squirm into the net. The Australian stopper who had played well up until that point was inconsolable at the end of the match with teammates and Reading staff quick to offer him support. It was a painful blow to manager Steve Clarke who watched his Championship side push Arsenal all the way into extra time. Struggling in the league, Reading have relied heavily on Federici to perform miracles and in several cases keep them in games. Without him in goal, Reading would be staring down the barrel of relegation. Instead seven points clear of the bottom three with four games left, Reading should survive hence why they could comfortably focus on Saturday’s FA Cup semi final. They gave it their all but in a cruel twist of fate, it was all snatched away from them. No one can really know how that feels except for perhaps one man – Steven Gerrard who is going through the same pain today after realizing that his Wembley dream fairytale was now officially over.
After a difficult season, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp is set to leave the club. The two time German manager of the year has watched his side struggle in matches in the Bundesliga that they really should be winning. Now after turning their season around and pulling Dortmund away from potential relegation, Jurgen Klopp has announced that enough is enough and that he intends on leaving the former German champions at the end of the season. His decision has shocked many only a year after committing himself to the club following rumours that Barcelona and Arsenal were interested in his services. However a year is a long time in football and for Klopp who has gone through his worst season as Dortmund manager in his seven years in charge, he now feels that he has taken the club as far as he can and that it deserves to be coached by someone who can give 100% to the club.
Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season (Image from Bongarts/Getty)
Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference and sitting next to Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc who he has rumoured to have a strained relationship with, Klopp spoke with emotion yet authority as he told the gathered press why he was quitting. Klopp explained that his decision was not based on this seasons results or fatigue stating he feels 100% fine but instead that he was no longer the perfect coach for the club. He quickly shot down rumours that he had already engaged in discussions with other clubs and stopped short of saying which league he would like to manage in next but did confirm that he will not be taking a sabbatical from the game like Pep Guardiola did after leaving Barcelona and instead wants to get back into management straight away after leaving Dortmund.
Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times (image from PA)
This news will be welcomed by several clubs across Europe who will now have to fight it out for his services. Heavily linked to both top jobs in Spain last summer, he could be tempted move to either if the opportunity existed. However it is unlikely that they will given that Luis Enrique has finally found a winning formula at Barcelona and Ancelotti is highly regarded at Real Madrid. That opens the door to a handful of English clubs with Manchester City leading the pack. The Ethiad club has grown tired of current manager Manuel Pellegrini’s failure to build on the successes of last year and with the club out of Europe and struggling in the league; his job is far from secure. Whether Klopp wants that sort of challenge is unknown with a huge rebuilding job needed, starting with a dismantling of the current aging squad. He would be given a sizable war chest to acquire new faces and the flexibility to mould a new team around his style of playing. But with a large amount of investment comes high expectations from the clubs owners who will expect success both at home and abroad; pressure that the three previous coaches at City experienced. All three fell on their swords early into their agreed tenures which may not appeal to Klopp. He was given time at Dortmund to craft the team in his vision and it’s questionable whether City will allow him the same amount of time and buy into his long term approach.
Start again? – City’s aging squad (Image from Getty)
If he doesn’t end up at City, a job at the Emirates may become available if the Arsenal board decides that it’s finally time for Arsene Wenger to vacate his chair. Klopp has been spotted at a few Arsenal games over the past few years fueling speculation about a gentleman’s agreement struck between himself and Wenger. If Arsene is to leave, he will want to help pick his successor, someone who will carry on his approach of developing youth players and turning them into world stars. Klopp fits that mould perfectly and with expectations on immediate success lower at the Emirates than at somewhere like City, it could be a perfect fit for the talented coach. There are other Premiership clubs in the market for a new manager like Newcastle and West Ham but neither is likely to appeal to Klopp. Liverpool however may spark his interest but it’s widely believed that despite a disappointing campaign this season, Brendan Rodgers has done enough in his time in charge to convince the Liverpool board to retain his services. Klopp could try his hand in Italy or France too but at present England looks to be his most likely destination. One thing that is for sure is that the Premiership would benefit hugely from the arrival of one of the world’s best managers regardless of which team he joins.
Not since the shock 5-3 victory over Manchester United back in September has Jamie Vardy had such an impact. The Leicester City winger, who bagged a goal on that day in a pulsating game, had been notoriously quiet since then but popped up on Saturday against West Brom to remind everyone how good he can be. Picking up the ball at the half way line Vardy surged forward with the ball apparently stuck to his foot. Going past two players and into the box, the Leicester fans rose to their feet as Vardy unleashed his shot past Myhill in the West Brom goal. The importance of Vardy’s last minute strike is as yet unknown but it did hand his team the crucial three points it needed in their fight against relegation. Rooted to the bottom of the league, Leicester looked dead and buried going into the match but after a gritty performance and thanks to Vardy’s last minute heroics, Leicester’s survival push could be on. Now only three points behind safety with a game in hand, Leicester’s run in is favourable with winnable matches against Burnley, Sunderland and QPR but they will need players like Vardy to perform in every match if they are to avoid the drop.
The gap at the bottom is tight with only 10 points separating 7 places. Any three of West Brom, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Hull, QPR, Burnley and Leicester could go down with even 13th place Newcastle still not mathematically safe. Defeats for Burnley, QPR, Hull and Sunderland this weekend have added to the tension with only Aston Villa managing to pick up points away to Spurs. Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland revival looked to be on after impressive derbies win over Newcastle last weekend, with Jermain Defoe adding the gloss on that occasion. But his new side was firmly brought back to down to earth with a bump by a rampant Crystal Palace side who continue to improve under Alan Pardew. A hat trick by Yannick Bolasie and a header by Glenn Murray sealed a 4-1 win and put pressure on Dutch coach Advocaat. With one of the worst run in of all the teams involved in the relegation dog fight, it doesn’t look good for Sunderland. They face Stoke next week before games against Southampton, Everton, Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea in a series of must win fixtures.
At the other end of the table, Chelsea showed why they are likely to end this season as champions. A nerve jangling performance against QPR was not quite what Jose Mourinho had in mind so the relief on his face was hard to ignore when Cesc Fabregas popped up to score the winner. The Spanish midfielder, sporting a face mask to cover the broken nose he suffered last week in a clash with Charlie Adam, broke QPR hearts with a 88th minute shot that squirmed under Rob Green. Chelsea are now 7 points clear with seven games left, one more than the chasing pack. Arsenal continued their pursuit of their London rivals with a 1-0 win over Burnley thanks to an early strike by Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Manchester United also kept up their chase with a convincing 4-2 demolition of neighbours Manchester City, a result which heaps more pressure on manager Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has been under fire after City crashed out of the Champions League and lost valuable ground in the race for the Premiership title. He will more than likely be asked to leave his position with the only question being when as some speculate that he may not get to finish the campaign as manager.
City will be desperate to hold on to 4th place to secure Champions League football once again but the face stiff competition from this year’s surprise outfit Southampton, Liverpool and Tottenham. Ronald Koeman’s Southampton were suspected to struggle this year after selling off half their squad by some clever signings and the addition of new energy into St Mary’s has seen Southampton defy their critics and mount a serious push for Europe. They continued their push with a 2-0 win over struggling Hull and will be bolstered by the news that 6th place Tottenham lost to Aston Villa. However Liverpool could leapfrog them tonight if they beat John Carver’s inept Newcastle side.
Once considered the poorer little brother to the Champions League, the Europa League appears to be on a quest to show just how good a tournament it can be. With the stakes raised this season (with the winner given an automatic slot in the Champions League), teams appear to be taking the tournament more seriously than ever before with several top sides still in contention. It has been a thrilling tournament to date with a plethora of goals to keep the fans entertaining. After a goal filled group stage (379 goals over 144 games, an average of 2.6 goals per game), the knockout stage had much to live up to and did not disappoint. Russian sides Dinamo Moscow, Zenit St Petersburg and Dnipro join Ajax, Dynamo Kiev, Sevilla and Villarreal in the last 16 after a series of strong performances and once again a barrage of goals. From the 32 matches played, a total of 88 goals were scored or an average of 2.75 goals per game which bodes well for the tournament as it enters the last 16 stage.
British participation however will be limited to only Everton after Liverpool, Tottenham and Celtic all crashed out last night. Everton will now play Dynamo Kiev after dispatching Young Boys 7-2 on aggregate. It’s not an ideal draw for Roberto Martinez’s team with the first leg due to be played in Kiev in mid march. Across the city, Steven Gerrard’s dream of leaving Liverpool after lifting the Europa League Cup were dashed after a 1-0 score line after ninety minutes in Turkey against Besiktas sent the game to penalties with defender Dejan Lovren missing the decisive one. Manager Brendan Rodgers defended his team saying that they had played well throughout but in truth Liverpool lacked the cutting edge to make it past an ineffective Besitkas side. Also poor in front of goal was Tottenham who rested the inform Harry Kane for Sunday’s League Cup Final against Chelsea and replaced him with Roberto Soldado. To say that Soldado has been a flop since his arrival from Valencia two seasons ago is an understatement and after another confidence sapped performance from the once prominent striker, you have to wonder how long he has left at White Hart Lane. Two goals from Mario Gomez and Mohamed Salah were enough for Fiorentina to secure a 3-1 aggregate win over their Premiership competitors.
Fiorentina are joined in the last 16 by four other Italian sides – Rafa Benetiz’s Napoli, Roma, Torino and Celtic slayers Inter Milan. Inter’s nervy 1-0 win at the San Siro proved to be enough after a hard fought game that swung in the Italian side’s favour after the dismissal of Celtic’s influential centre back Virgil van Dijk. Making up the three places are Club Brugge, Besiktas and Wolfsburg, who secured passage through by knocking out Aalborg, Liverpool and Sporting Lisbon respectively. The draw, made earlier today, has thrown up some interesting matches with an all Spanish clash as Villarreal take on Seville and an all Italian clash with Fiorentina taking on Roma. Elsewhere Inter travel to Germany to face Wolfsburg whilst Brugge entertain Besiktas and Ajax make the long trek to Dnipro. Zenit vs. Torino, Napoli vs. Dinamo Moscow and Everton’s trip to Kiev completed the draw with the first leg to be played on March 12th and returns seven days later.
The draw for the last 16 has thrown up some interesting clashes (Image from UEFA)
Given that the tournaments highest goal scorers Villarreal (20 so far in the group and knockout stages), Everton (17). Napoli, Wolfsburg, Brugge and Kiev (all 16) are still in contention again bodes well for the fans who are likely to see even more goals. Predicting a winner at this stage is almost impossible with all 16 remaining sides in with a chance. Current holder Sevilla will be hoping to become the most successful team in the competition by winning their fourth title. If they can secure back to back title, they will also become the first team to do so since the tournament was renamed from the UEFA cup to the Europa League. They will face stiff competition with five other former winners still left in the competition. With the final set to be played in Warsaw on May 27th, the race for Poland is now on and what a race it is set to be.