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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post by Subhash Narasimhan, Contributor to BOTN

Diego Maradona – The Greatest of All Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Talking Heads – Discussing the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on football

With the world crippled by the COVID 19 pandemic, global football has come to a grinding halt as countries focus on trying to contain the disease. To date, 39,000 people have lost their lives and just over 800,000 have been affected by the virus; with those numbers unfortunately growing by the day. The hope is that with government driven measures being introduced at a country by country level, the spread of the disease can be slowed enough to give the health care workers on the front line enough time to support those who are currently sick and the medical community time to find a viable treatment.

Like most industries, the football world is feeling the effects of the global shutdown. Clubs who have stopped operating for now have had to make drastic cuts to stay afloat with many laying off ground and administrative staff in the process. At some of the larger clubs like Bayern Munich, Juventus and Barcelona, players have accepted temporary pay cuts in an attempt to help the club staff not on the pitch. But for other players who play in the lower divisions and operate on a pay check to pay check basis, its a more worrisome time with a very uncertain future ahead of them.

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Rhys McCabe and Maurice Ross answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

Former Scotland internationals Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe answered our questions on the pandemic and its effects on football

To get a better sense of how the situation is affecting the football world, we spoke to Steven Caldwell, Maurice Ross and Rhys McCabe. Caldwell is a former Scotland international defender who is the president of League1 Ontario club Oakville Blue Devils FC, as well as an assistant coach of the Canadian national team. Fellow internationalist Ross is working as first team coach at Motherwell in Scotland whilst former Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday and Scotland Under 21 midfielder Rhys McCabe currently plays for Brechin City in the Scottish League Two. We spoke to them about the current situation, how it’s affecting football and what the future holds.

BOTN: Let’s go to Rhys first. Tell is about the current situation regarding your existing contract and what the league suspension means for you.

McCabe: My current situation is that my short term contract is meant to finish at the end of May, start of June. But I can’t think about that for now. The (league) suspension I feel is right as 100% of the focus must be on the health and wellbeing of everyone. Until we get this pandemic under control, nothing else matters.

There are a lot of uncertainties at the moment. Are they finishing this season? Will delays mean more games and more into next season? Will there be a new league structure?. There are lots of components which will play a role. Already its been three weeks without sport and people are in a pickle with what to do. Sport is a huge part of our society and without that people feel lost.

BOTN: Maurice, as first team coach at SPL side Motherwell, how are you feeling about the current situation and the suspension of the league?

Ross: Like all football people we like to be outdoors and competing. This of course is not the case due to the virus. I’m so bored. Plenty long walks and lying in bed a bit longer is no substitute for getting up and going to work! I miss that so much! Planning sessions, correcting movements of players and just that feeling of achieving something each day. Sooner this is resolved the better.

BOTN: Is the club concerned about the uncertainty of the suspension and the financial implications?

Ross: The club are doing all the planning possible to forecast what the future looks like depending on when/if we get back to playing. We are lucky we are in a relatively good position financially just now but we know there will be challenges ahead, so we will rely on our fans to help us through joining the Well Society or buying season tickets soon.

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

What will be the financial implications of the COVID 19 pandemic?

BOTN: Steven, there are still a lot of unknowns in terms of what will happen to the existing league and cup campaigns in the various different countries. How would you resolve the league situations?

Caldwell: The leagues have to be finished in my opinion. There is no way you can start a new season until the previous one has been concluded. The knock on affect might be a modified 2020/21 season but it’s my belief the previous one has to be brought to a conclusion whenever that may be.

Ross: From our (Motherwell) prospective, we will follow the advice and decisions of government and football authorities. Obviously we are third and in a European position so we would want the season to be played to a completion if there was any way at all possible, but we will accept whatever people say because this is bigger than football – it’s people’s health!

BOTN: What impact do you think this enforced break will have on the players mentally and physically? If the league is to restart at a point in the future, will players be able to pick up from where they left off with ease?

Caldwell: I don’t think they will be able to pick up with ease. There is no doubt it will have an affect. Normally at this time of the season teams are in their peak and rhythm is at its optimal point. I think it may have a pre season feel when it resumes. The players will be affected mentally and physically however I don’t see this being a great problem when the season continues.

McCabe: This pandemic is and will have a huge impact on players as its almost like an off season schedule. To then come back into things fully committed and ready when your body on a normal basis would have a 5 week period to do a pre season and prepare for the demands of a season. The risk of injury will be higher and no matter how much you train and keep fit during this time there is nothing that compares to match sharpness. Nothing in a training format can replicate this . That’s just a fact.

On the mental side, I feel it will have an impact on players but not just players; society as a whole. For over 30+ years there has been a culture of “football Saturday” where people look forward to and live for the weekend of football, wherever that may be home or away or a simple match on the tv. It’s become more social every season with the media and Sky broadcasting live matches.

This all has a knock on effect as people will be lost with nothing to do or look forward to. Trying to fill that void will be very hard but the priority 100% is the health and safety and trying to get this under control.

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Footballer like Lionel Messi and Marcelo have been keeping themselves busy in home isolation by juggling toilet rolls

BOTN: The financial implications of this pandemic will be felt throughout all levels of football with several reports suggesting clubs could go bust as a result. Do you think this will happen or is it up to FIFA or local governing bodies to stop this?

Caldwell: There is an enormous money in the game of football. Now it’s up to those that have to provide that assistance to make sure all forms of the game are protected. I sincerely hope that this happens and this unprecedented crisis creates an understanding of what truly makes this game beautiful.

BOTN: Let’s focus on the players for a moment. There will be a lot of players who are looking towards this summer with much trepidation due to the need to move clubs or indeed find a new one if their contracts run out. Do you anticipate that players will be expected to make personal sacrifices as football gets back on its feet following this pandemic?

Caldwell: Yes I think players will make personal sacrifices. They will have to. The intricacies and knock on effect of this is wide reaching and it will certainly have an impact on those who are becoming a free agent in the summer. It’s hard to tell at this moment however I think it will have a detrimental impact financially for such players.

BOTN: Rhys, your contract is up at the end of the season. How concerned are you about this summer when your contract concludes especially as it’s still unknown when the football season will resume?

McCabe: Concerned may be the word for a lot of people out of contract with Bill’s to pay and no job to do so, but for me it’s more about the love for it and when it will actually commence and what exactly the structure and format is going to be?

ContractLaw

With many players out of contract, the fast approaching summer brings further uncertainty.

BOTN: Has your club (Brechin City) been one touch with you about renewing your contract or given you any reassurances?

McCabe: With what’s going on, it hasn’t been spoken about as I would imagine the list of to dos at the club are through the roof. I’m only contracted until the end of May regardless so I will see what my options are then.

BOTN: Maurice, Are Motherwell making contingency plans for the various different scenarios and what will happen to players and staff out of contract in the summer?

Ross: I can’t comment on the final question as I am not privy to the ins and outs of all contracts. However this football club always behaves in an ethical and professional manner so I’m sure whatever happens Motherwell will act accordingly.

BOTN: There is clearly a lot of unknowns about what will happen and what decisions will come as a result. This leads us to the question around communications. Let’s start with you Rhys. Have you had any communications from the PFA Scotland about what’s happening long term?

McCabe: The PFA Scotland have been updating the players on a regular basis with knowledge, advice, help and updates they hear through the governing body. Again it’s hard at the moment because there is no definite answer on how to treat this and until the government have a plan in place we have to wait. But they have been great with regular updates and support.

BOTN: Finally Steven do you think FIFA and UEFA have been vocal enough during this pandemic or do you think they are leaving the decisions primarily to the local federations?

Caldwell: I think there is so much uncertainty that Uefa and FIFA don’t know what to say at the moment. I think they are concerned about giving definitive details and then having to go back on them. By mid to late April we will have a better understanding of how long this realistically is going to take and that’s when both organizations have to step up and be decisive with their actions.

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Always in the Shadows

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Messi Inspire Argentina one more time?

Argentina enter todays crunch match with Nigeria with their World Cup hopes hanging in the balance. A draw in their opening fixture against Iceland and a punishing defeat by Croatia in their second game has left Argentina needing a win and for other results to go their way. It’s hardly the start that Lionel Messi and co expected nor did many others. Argentina were widely considered one of the favourites to lift the trophy but two abysmal performances have left them looking more like shock exits. Every World cup has one, a favourite that exits in the group stage – in 2010 it was France and Italy whilst four years ago in Brazil it was Spain, Italy and England. Argentina qualified with ease winning all three group matches before a run to the final when ended in heartbreak as Mario Gotze poked home the ball deep into extra time.

Gotze wins it for Germany (Image from AFP)

Still hurting – Argentina came so close in Brazil only to fall at the last hurdle (Image from Tumblr)

Qualification from the group is not mathematically impossible but given their recent form, it looks doubtful. A win against a high-flying Nigeria who are fresh off the back of an impressive 2-0 win over Iceland would give them hope although they need a favour from current group leaders Croatia who face the rank outsiders Iceland earlier on. The fact that the Croatia vs Iceland game is scheduled to be played before the Argentina vs Nigeria match is peculiar given that all the other final group matches happen simultaneously but thats for FIFA to explain why. That means that as Argentina kicks off, they will know if their fate has already been sealed or still lies in their own hands. A win for Iceland will put them on four points so only a win for Argentina and a significant goal difference will sneak them through in second place. A draw or defeat to Nigeria will see them on the first plane home.

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Defeat to Croatia has left Argentina needing to win against Nigeria to qualify (Image from Tumblr)

Much is pinned on the shoulders of their superstar Lionel Messi. The Barcelona forward is widely considered the greatest player of his generation but comparisons to former greats like Pele and more notably Argentine icon Diego Maradona are a constant hinderance. Whilst Messi has outgunned his compatriot on club level and has won far more trophies to show for it, a lack of silverware  (or more appropriately golden-ware) for Argentina continues to be the divide. Maradona has won the World Cup with Argentina back in 1986 and as a result is forever held up as a god back home whilst Messi despite his brilliance is viewed somewhat less favourably. Only by winning the World Cup will Messi win them all over. That in itself is a huge ask. Four years ago, Messi inspired Argentina on that run to the final, more than a few times acting as superman as he single handily dragged his team through games. But four years on, Messi looks tired and less enthusiastic about this challenge which is likely his last.

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Maradona wins the World Cup with Argentina in 1986 (Image from Tumblr)

His chances look vastly decreased too given those playing around him. Argentina are littered with talent up front but look less convincing the further back you go. Indeed the three goalkeepers they have in the squad have little international experience with 11 caps between them. Caballero should have been a safe pair of hands yet the Chelsea back up goalie’s howler in the game against Croatia will forever haunt him. Added into this, Argentina have a coach (Jorge Sampaoli) who is at best a one trick pony. That trick is to play a high possession, high pressing game closing down quickly further up the pitch. Whilst that has worked in his previous roles, Argentina lack the players to make this possible. Plan A therefore becomes obsolete. The issue with that is that there is no plan B. Sampaoli has no back up so continues with the same approach despite a lack of end product which makes Argentina’s chances of qualifying even slimmer.

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Sampaoli needs a Plan B and quickly (image from Tumblr)

The glimmer of hope is that if Argentina has goals in them – starting Aguero, Dybala and Messi should give them enough firepower to test a suspect Nigerian defence with the introduction of Higuian and Di Maria late as Nigerian legs waiver. The midfield with Mascherano as a holding midfielder will be crucial if they are to stem the amount of opportunities handed to Musa upfront. With exceptional pace and a keen eye for goal, Musa has shown that he is Nigeria’s dangerman so stopping him from getting the ball is the best option rather than trying to stop him in full flight. Rojo and Otamendi must start together in a revised 4-4-2 formation after failures using 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 in their previous two matches.

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Scotland’s Mini Messi Destined For Greater Things

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

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

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

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

Moves like Messi  (Image from Getty)

Moves like Messi
(Image from Getty)

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

La Masia Legend Krkic Signs On At Stoke

Krkic owns the record for all time leading goalscorer at La Masia (Image from Icon/Maddenfoot)As far as summer transfers go, the decision by Bojan Krkic to move from La Liga to the English Premiership is hardly unexpected. But what is surprising is his choice of club to move to. Stoke City announced yesterday that the 23 year old has completed his move to the Britannia Stadium for an undisclosed fee on a four year deal. Krkic finalized his switch to The Potteries on Tuesday afternoon after passing a medical and speaking in length with manager Mark Hughes. The transfer will be viewed as somewhat of a coup for Stoke given Krkic’s reputation and past career history.

Mark Huges is revamping his Stoke squad ahead of the new season  (Image from Getty)

Mark Huges is revamping his Stoke squad ahead of the new season
(Image from Getty)

Born in Spain to Serbian father (former Red Star Belgrade midfielder Bojan Krkic Snr) and Spanish mother, Bojan Jnr joined Barcelona’s famed La Masia youth system aged eight and quickly went on to establish himself as one of the most exciting prospects to ever come through their ranks. With notable dribbling skills and lighting quick pace, Krkic became a goal scoring phenomenon and the all time highest scorer in La Masia history, scoring more than 400 times for the various youth teams. He eventually made his first team debut at 17, breaking yet another record becoming the youngest Barcelona player to feature in a La Liga match. Over the next four years he made 104 appearances for Barca scoring on 26 occasions earning him a call up to the Spanish national team. But despite his promise, he was unable to hold down a permanent spot in the first team, leading to his eventual departure to Italian side, Roma. The sale was agreed by Barcelona on the provision that a buy back clause be inserted into the deal, which they would active two years later. In the meantime Krkic grew his reputation in Italy with a fine debut season for Roma followed by a yearlong loan deal at AC Milan. His return to the Nou Camp was welcomed by the fans who still remembered the player with fondness from his first time at the club. However under new boss Gerardo Martino, Krkic was unable to displace the inform trio of Neymar, Pedro and Messi leading to another loan move, this time to Ajax. Under the management of Frank De Boer, Krkic played his role in helping the Ajax secure a domestic double in the form of the League and Super Cup.

Krkic moved to Italy with Roma  (Image from Getty)

Krkic moved to Italy with Roma
(Image from Getty)

With his stock rising and still aged only 23, Krkic returned to Barcelona this summer for talks with new boss Luis Enrique about his future only to be told that he was unable to give Krkic a starting spot. Having acquired Luis Suarez from Liverpool, Krkic knew his time was up at Barcelona and his agent started work in an attempt to engineer his move away from the Nou Camp. Krkic’s decision to join Stoke is an indication of his desire to play in England and get regular first team football. With Hughes revamping his squad, Krkic will be given this chance as a key component of his new look squad. Having lost his way slightly over the past few years, Krkic will have a chance to resurrect his career and show Barcelona the error of their ways. This time however Barcelona have not inserted a buy back clause meaning that if they are to regret letting Krkic go, they will likely face paying a hefty fee to get him back. Krkic however has no thoughts about returning to Spain right now and is focused on making his move to England successful. If he can recapture the form he showed during his time at La Masia, Stoke may have snapped up the bargain of the season.

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Adidas Beats Nike In This Years Brand World Cup

Adidas and Nike are fierce rivals (Image from Getty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Games That Could Define The World Cup

With the World Cup now on our door step, fan excitement is growing around the drooling line up of games ahead. Whilst matches like Spain vs. Holland, Germany vs. Portugal and England vs. Italy are grabbing the headlines, they may not be the games that truly define how the tournament finishes. Looking down the fixtures, there are five matches that given a variety of factors from timing, location and preparation could end up deciding the eventual winners of the groups and the World Cup as a whole.

Ghana vs. Portugal

Whilst Germany vs. Portugal will kick off the group, the match between Ghana and Portugal may end up defining it. If the US are as many suspect the whipping boys in the group with Germany running away with the top spot, the battle for second will be between a Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Portugal and a spirited Ghana side out to prove much. Ghana has every right to fancy their chances in this match given the various circumstances that will lead up to this game. The fitness of Ronaldo is a concern for Portugal who relies too much on the Real Madrid player to pull them out of difficult situations. Niggling injuries and searing heat may take its toll on the World Player of the Year. Fatigue may be an issue for Portugal going into this match given that a 4,500 round trip to Manaus to play the US is required before they play Ghana four days later. The Black stars on the other hand will be well rested having only travelled just under 900 miles and will have an extra day before they travel to Brasilia to face Portugal. Ghana is looking to build upon their quarter final appearance from four years ago and could prove to be the thorn in Ronaldo’s side that sees his team crash out of the tournament.

Ronaldo enters the World Cup with several niggling injuries (Image from PA)

Ronaldo enters the World Cup with several niggling injuries
(Image from PA)

England vs. Costa Rica

Roy Hodgson’s will be focusing on their matches against Italy and Uruguay, with little thought to Costa Rica. But that could be their biggest mistake with the South Americans explosive when under rated. Whilst not expected to qualify, Costa Rica could provide a stumbling block for England especially if their first two matches don’t go to plan. If England are heading into this match with no points on the board, they will be looking to score several goals against a side regarded as much weaker in order to give themselves a comfortable cushion if the group qualification was to come down to goal difference. But England will need to be wary of throwing too many men forward as this could open them up perfectly for Costa Rica’s counter attacking threat. Whilst ineffective at the back, Costa Rica has the pace of their forward line to fall back on, and against a now tired England side it may be the South American underdogs who snatch a goal and break English hearts.

Costa Rica will relish the underdog tag (Image from AFP)

Costa Rica will relish the underdog tag
(Image from AFP)

Brazil vs. Mexico

For the hosts, there is no bigger game in the group stage than their second match against Mexico. Having likely swept past a weak Croatian side, Scolari and his men will now come up against an all different threat, one they know too well. Mexico, who start against Cameroon will be looking to show Brazil that they are no pushovers and will want to bring their rivals down with a bump. Mexico’s decision to pick Santos as their base camp for the tournament may prove to be the wrong one with three long haul trios to the north of the country in the group stage likely taking their toll. That said, by the second match Mexico should still be fairly fresh and with Brazil making the exact same journey, it will be a contest of skill rather than mental endurance. Brazil will be favourites going into the match much like they were at the Olympics Final in 2012 which will suit Mexico especially if they can provide an upset once again and shatter Brazil’s dreams. Both teams should qualify from the group, but this match will demonstrate to many just how far they can both go.

Mexico shocked Brazil in the Olympics' Final in 2012 (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Mexico shocked Brazil in the Olympics’ Final in 2012
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Spain vs. Chile

A repeat of the 2010 final between Spain and Holland in the opening match has many fans licking their lips but it may be Spain second match against Chile that provides the real fireworks. The South American outfit is one of the favourites to provide a shock with a wealth of riches throughout their squad including Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez and Juventus star Arturo Vidal. This young energetic squad will likely stretch an aging Spanish side to its limits and an upset might be on the cards here. Chile are no pushovers with a strong physical backline being supported by Vidal and fellow central midfielder Marcelo Diaz. Both men will cause problems for Spanish duo Xavi and Iniesta, who prefer time on the ball which they will not be afforded against this tough tackling Chilean midfield.

 

Chile are a tough tackling side as England found out recently (Image from PA)

Chile are a tough tackling side as England found out recently
(Image from PA)

 

Argentina vs. Bosnia

For two time winner Argentina, the prospect of facing world cup newcomers Bosnia in their first match will not fill them with much pleasure. Historically slow out of the blocks, Argentina would have preferred to face Iran in their opener but now must plan for a physical battle with a team keen to give their entire nation back home something to smile about. Many believe that this could be Argentina’s year and will expect the forward line of Messi, Higuian and Aguero to start strongly with a handful of goals in their first match but breaking down the Bosnian backline will be a harder proposition that they expect. Bosnia are a strong attacking team too having scored 30 goals in qualifying but whilst marking Edin Dzeko may restrict the number of scoring chances they have, Bosnia could still sneak a goal and potentially a point from their first match.

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

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

Prove him wrong - De Bruyne  (Image from PA)

Prove him wrong – De Bruyne
(Image from PA)

Belgium – Kevin De Bruyne

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

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

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

Argentina – Angel Di Maria

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

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

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

Brazil – Fred

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

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

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

Germany – Julian Draxler

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

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

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

Holland – Jordy Clasie

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

Insigne is a free kick specialist  (Image from AFP)

Insigne is a free kick specialist
(Image from AFP)

Italy – Lorenzo Insigne

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

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

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

Mexico – Carlos Pena

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

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

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

Colombia – Carlos Bacca

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

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Bale Shines As Barcelona Consider Transformational Summer

Bale celebrates scoring his wondergoal (Iamge from Getty)With Cristiano Ronaldo injured, the spotlight was turned to Lionel Messi to take centre stage and shine during yesterday’s Copa Del Rey final between Messi’s Barcelona and Real Madrid. Little did Messi know that the spotlight would be snatched away from him so superbly by a flying Welshman in the form of Gareth Bale. The former Tottenham winger stole the show with a stunning performance and a wonder goal in the last few minutes of the game, handing Madrid the cup. Picking up the ball just inside his own half, Bale knocked the ball past Marc Barta and the chase was on. Despite Barta manhandling and pushing him off the pitch into the technical area, the sheer pace of Bale was all it took to ensure he regained the ball. Driving into the box, the Barcelona team could only watch in agony as he composed himself and drilled the ball past Jose Manuel Pinto for one of the best goals of his career. The entire move only took 7.2 seconds but confirmed Bale as one of the world’s best players.

Bale's wonder goal  (Image from DailyMail)

Bale’s wonder goal
(Image from DailyMail)

For Barcelona, it’s another bitter blow in what looks likely to turn out to be a disappointing season. Out of the Champions League to Atletico Madrid and trailing in the league to the same team, the Copa Del Rey offered manager Gerardo Martino the opportunity to show that appointing him wasn’t a mistake. But as Bale broke down the left wing on the 84th minute, heading at full pace towards goal, Martino must have known that his time was up as head coach. This summer will be one of transformation for Barca, with a likely overhaul of the playing and coaching staff. Not an easy thing to do given the recent FIFA imposed transfer ban but Barcelona need to evolve and shake off what has been a miserable season. Martino stated after the defeat to Real Madrid that his job is safe; a foolish statement given Barcelona’s past history of success and hunger to continue to build on this. Martino will exit with Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp or Athletic Bilbao’s Ernesto Valverde appointed in his place. Both men offer something different and will appeal to Barcelona’s two guiding principle themes – excitement and stability. Klopp has transformed Dortmund from Bundesliga underachievers to Champions League finalist, building a fast paced, high pressing team in the process. He has achieved a lot but with Pep Guardiola now working his magic on Bayern, the time for Klopp to test his skills in a different league may have come. His willingness to move will alert Premiership clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United who themselves need a fresh start, but the draw of Barcelona and the potential to win the Champions League will make the decision to move to Spain an easy one.

New Challenge for Klopp?  (Image from PA)

New Challenge for Klopp?
(Image from PA)

That is if the Barcelona board goes for Klopp as some suggest that they are leaning more towards former player Ernesto Valverde who could offer a return to stability for the club. The Bilbabo manager has impressed this season, guiding his team to 4th place in the league despite limited transfer funds. Valverde has bought wisely but also relied heavily on youth players coming through the ranks with Erik Moran, Iker Muniain and Aymeric Laporte playing pivotal roles for his team this season. His ability to operate under these conditions and utilize the youth system will appeal to Barcelona who find themselves unable to expand the squad through traditional transfers for the next two windows. As a former Barcelona player and a seasoned La Liga manager, he already has a deep understanding of the club and what role it plays in the league, something that Martino has struggled with since his arrival.

Stability may be key which is what Valverde offers (Image from getty)

Stability may be key which is what Valverde offers (Image from getty)

Both men are strong options but they will face the same issues unless Barcelona can overturn their transfer ban. They will enter the Nou Camp knowing that they are picking up an aging squad, with low morale and too many stars playing either below par or out of position. Getting the best out of Neymar and Messi, similar to how Carlo Ancelotti is doing with Bale and Ronaldo at Real, will be key as well as replacing fundamental members of the first team squad who are departing at the end of the season. Carlos Puyol and Victor Valdes will leave gaping holes at the back whilst rumours about Xavi’s potential exit still exist. The trio will be hard to replace, even harder with the ban still in place. Looking toward the clubs famed La Masia academy for replacements may be the only option with Sergi Gomez, Adrian Ortola and Denis Suarez promoted to first team duties quicker than expected. It will be a difficult summer for Barcelona, transition is never easy but it’s a necessity after a disastrous season for the Catalan club.

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England Hold Their Breath As The World Cup Draw Nears

Getting ready for the draw (Image from FIFA)With the World Cup draw happening tomorrow, nerves in the England camp are at an all time high.  England’s fate will be decided at 5pm (GMT) in Bahia, Brazil so in advance BOTN explores what could be England’s worst group.  Using the existing pools (England are in pot 4) and based on the various rules and regulations attached to the draw itself, here is the “Group of Death” for England. It features Spain from Pot 1, Chile from Pot 2 and Mexico form Pot 3 with England filling the final place from Pot 4.

Current World Cup holders, Spain  (Image from Getty)

Current World Cup holders, Spain
(Image from Getty)

The current World and European champions are amongst those in pot one that could pose a real threat to England’s chances. In fact all eight teams, with the possible exception of Switzerland will be a serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. Spain have talent in abundance and are incredibly hard to break down due to their intense passing game. Xavi and Iniesta are likely to dominate the play with Fabergas and Mata as support options. At the back, they have a solid backline with centre back pairing Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos causing problems for opposition strikers, roaming just in front of Casillas, Reina or Valdes in goal. Upfront Spain’s rich talent pool continues with the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa, Fernando Llorente and  Roberto Soldado to name a few offering options. Adding to this mix is newly converted Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa who has been in blistering form so far this season. The Brazilian born striker, who recently pledged his allegiance to Spain instead of his homeland, has forged a successful partnership with David Villa for Atletico. This surely gives Spanish head coach Vicente del Bosque food for thought on whether he should unleash the pair for Spain during next summer’s tournament.

Diego Costa and David Villa  (Image from AFP Getty Images)

Diego Costa and David Villa
(Image from AFP Getty Images)

Chile tested England in their last trip to Wembley just under a month ago as Alexis Sanchez backed up his talking off the pitch with a sublime performance. The Barcelona striker made a sly remark about England’s pathway system for future footballers stating how it was too easy for youngsters to join academies and automatically play for a club in the future. In Chile the academy system is nowhere near as advanced as it is in England but appears to be producing the goods. At Wembley they convincingly beat England 2-0, throwing Roy Hodgson’s plans into disarray. Although England chose to field an altered side for the match allowing them to test some new faces, it was a huge win for the South American’s who have shown with the emergence of star players like Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Felipe Gutiérrez and Gary Medal that they are a future force in world football.  Pot 3 may be considered to be the weakest pot but within them lies the stinging tail of Mexico who could relinquish all hope for England. With a squad made up of established stars and Olympic winning youthful exuberance, Mexico are considered to be one of the tournaments dark horses. Despite taking a rocky path in qualifying, Mexico’s strength is their desire to succeed which makes them a dangerous opponent.  Upfront, Mexico can call upon Manchester United’s  Javier Hernandez, Valencia’s Giovani Dos Santos or Santos Laguna’s Oribe Peralta to score the goals needed to progress.  In midfield, head coach Miguel Herrera mixes experience in the form of Andres Guardado (who is one game off his century for his country) with up and coming stars like Porto’s Héctor Herrera with some success. He could also spring a few surprises with his final squad selection if Erick Torres or Marco Fabian make the cut. Both players are good examples of the rich talent that Mexico is producing and that England needs to be aware of if they draw them in the World Cup.  

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England  (Image from PA)

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England
(Image from PA)

In the World Cup, there is no such thing as an easy team as England have found out in the past. There are various other teams who pose a threat to England’s chances of progression, most noticeably host’s Brazil, a Messi inspired Argentina and arch rivals, Germany. But some of the dark horses could also cause problems such as the Ivory Coast or Ecuador. Ivory Coast has plenty of talent including Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Roma’s Gervinho and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia. They will be no pushovers, nor will Ecuador who are an improving side and will be a lot tougher than the last time England played them in 2006. Antonio Valencia and Vitesse’s Renato Ibarra are two talented wingers with lots of pace to burn plus with Felipe Caicedo up front, Ecuador could be a real threat. The country is still hurting from the death of legend Christian Benetiz so will be approaching the World Cup with a desire to do well for his memory. The USA are also amongst the group of teams who could be a potential danger as England found out in 2010 in South Africa. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has spent the past few years experimenting with different players but now has established a nucleus of talent like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley that he is building his team around. Added into this the emergence of Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd and Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann has a strong group that is ready and prepared for the World Cup next year.

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw  (Image from Getty)

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw
(Image from Getty)

Hodgson and England will be hoping to avoid such a nightmare by drawing a generous group such as Switzerland, Algeria and Iran. Based on previous draws, England has had luck on their side but can it hold for Brazil? Interestingly one team in pot 4 will be moved into pot 2 just before the draw starts. This is to allow for 4 groups of eight and a somewhat easier drawing process. That said, it is still quite confusing as FIFA will not allow a group to have more than two European teams in it so adjustments will need to be made, ruling out the three European teams in Pot 1 being pulled.  If England were chosen for Pot 2, it could play in their favour or perhaps not. Either way, Hodgson is unlikely to get any sleep tonight as he worries about who his team will face next summer.

Blog by Richard Waterhouse

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Careful What You Wish For As Celtic End Up In The Group Of Death

Forrest strike sends Celtic into the Champions League (Image from TheSun.co.uk)It took a late James Forrest goal to rescue Celtic against Shakhter Karagandy and secure their spot in this year’s Champions’ League group stage but as the draw was made yesterday, some would be forgiven for wondering if all that effort was in vain. Drawn in the same group as Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, Celtic are anything but favourites to progress to the knockout stages.  A trip to the San Siro to face AC Milan will kick off proceedings for Neil Lennon’s men before they play host to the Spanish champions, Barcelona and then the Dutch champions Ajax at Celtic Park all before the end of October. November doesn’t get any easier with a trip to the Amsterdam Arena first followed by AC Milan at home in Glasgow and then a final easy match at the Nou Camp against Barcelona.

Tony Watt scores the winner against Barcelona last year (Image from Getty)

Tony Watt scores the winner against Barcelona last year (Image from Getty)

With a somewhat weaker squad than last season, following the departures of influential trio Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson, Lennon is scouring the transfer market, looking for quality players to bring in to strengthen his squad.  Steven Mouyokolo and Virgil van Dijk have arrived to bulk up Lennon’s defence options, whilst Israeli youngster Nir Biton signed on this week to add an extra dimension to the midfield. But it is upfront that is the biggest concern for the manager who is desperate to find a suitable replacement for Gary Hooper, who left for Norwich in the summer. Hooper had three successful years in Glasgow scoring 82 goals in 138 appearances so filling the void left by the Englishman will be difficult. Lennon has Greek striker Georgios Samaras and Irish forward Anthony Stokes to call on but neither look like 20 goals a season strikers so the search is on to find a player who can. Lennon is hoping that 22 year old Guinea striker Amido Balde, bought during the summer from Portuguese side, Vitoria Guimaraes can be that player but it’s still too early to tell. The 6ft 4in forward hit 9 goals in 27 games last season during his debut season for Victoria and gives Celtic another option upfront. With a few days left in the transfer window and a majority of the £20 million received from the departures of Kelvin, Hooper and Wanyama, you cannot rule out the possibility of Lennon dipping into the transfer market once more, especially if the right striker came along.

Double trouble - Messi and Neymar will face Celtic in the group stages (Image from Getty)

Double trouble – Messi and Neymar will face Celtic in the group stages (Image from Getty)

Celtic may have found themselves drawn in the Group of Death but they wouldn’t have it any other way. That after all is what the Champions League is all about; to be the best you have to beat the best. Celtic will give it their all and may surprise a few people along the way just like they did last year against Barcelona.  Neil Lennon’s men recorded a famous 2-1 victory over the Catalan giants in the group stages and will be hoping that history repeats itself. Barcelona are classified as a team in tradition, with new coach Gerardo Martino still trying to find his feet but with the addition of Brazilian Neymar to their ranks, Lennon now must figure out a way to contain both him and Argentinean maestro Leo Messi if his team are to come out on top.

Celtic’s Group H fixtures:

AC Milan v Celtic – Wednesday 18 September

Celtic v Barcelona – Tuesday 1 October

Celtic v Ajax – Tuesday 22 October

Ajax v Celtic – Wednesday 6 November

Celtic v AC Milan – Tuesday 26 November

Barcelona v Celtic – Wednesday 11 December

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Careful What You Wish For As Celtic End Up In The Group Of Death

Forrest strike sends Celtic into the Champions League (Image from TheSun.co.uk)It took a late James Forrest goal to rescue Celtic against Shakhter Karagandy and secure their spot in this year’s Champions’ League group stage but as the draw was made yesterday, some would be forgiven for wondering if all that effort was in vain. Drawn in the same group as Barcelona, AC Milan and Ajax, Celtic are anything but favourites to progress to the knockout stages.  A trip to the San Siro to face AC Milan will kick off proceedings for Neil Lennon’s men before they play host to the Spanish champions, Barcelona and then the Dutch champions Ajax at Celtic Park all before the end of October. November doesn’t get any easier with a trip to the Amsterdam Arena first followed by AC Milan at home in Glasgow and then a final easy match at the Nou Camp against Barcelona.

Tony Watt scores the winner against Barcelona last year (Image from Getty)

Tony Watt scores the winner against Barcelona last year (Image from Getty)

With a somewhat weaker squad than last season, following the departures of influential trio Gary Hooper, Victor Wanyama and Kelvin Wilson, Lennon is scouring the transfer market, looking for quality players to bring in to strengthen his squad.  Steven Mouyokolo and Virgil van Dijk have arrived to bulk up Lennon’s defence options, whilst Israeli youngster Nir Biton signed on this week to add an extra dimension to the midfield. But it is upfront that is the biggest concern for the manager who is desperate to find a suitable replacement for Gary Hooper, who left for Norwich in the summer. Hooper had three successful years in Glasgow scoring 82 goals in 138 appearances so filling the void left by the Englishman will be difficult. Lennon has Greek striker Georgios Samaras and Irish forward Anthony Stokes to call on but neither look like 20 goals a season strikers so the search is on to find a player who can. Lennon is hoping that 22 year old Guinea striker Amido Balde, bought during the summer from Portuguese side, Vitoria Guimaraes can be that player but it’s still too early to tell. The 6ft 4in forward hit 9 goals in 27 games last season during his debut season for Victoria and gives Celtic another option upfront. With a few days left in the transfer window and a majority of the £20 million received from the departures of Kelvin, Hooper and Wanyama, you cannot rule out the possibility of Lennon dipping into the transfer market once more, especially if the right striker came along.

Double trouble - Messi and Neymar will face Celtic in the group stages (Image from Getty)

Double trouble – Messi and Neymar will face Celtic in the group stages (Image from Getty)

Celtic may have found themselves drawn in the Group of Death but they wouldn’t have it any other way. That after all is what the Champions League is all about; to be the best you have to beat the best. Celtic will give it their all and may surprise a few people along the way just like they did last year against Barcelona.  Neil Lennon’s men recorded a famous 2-1 victory over the Catalan giants in the group stages and will be hoping that history repeats itself. Barcelona are classified as a team in tradition, with new coach Gerardo Martino still trying to find his feet but with the addition of Brazilian Neymar to their ranks, Lennon now must figure out a way to contain both him and Argentinean maestro Leo Messi if his team are to come out on top.

Celtic’s Group H fixtures:

AC Milan v Celtic – Wednesday 18 September

Celtic v Barcelona – Tuesday 1 October

Celtic v Ajax – Tuesday 22 October

Ajax v Celtic – Wednesday 6 November

Celtic v AC Milan – Tuesday 26 November

Barcelona v Celtic – Wednesday 11 December

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Guardiola Grabs Gotze As His Revolution Picks Up The Pace

Bayern Bound - Gotze (Image from MIS Sweden Germany )Jupp Heynckes might still be in the hot seat but the Pep Guardiola revolution at Bayern Munich has already started with the Spanish coach making his first move in the transfer market by splashing out a new record German fee for Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Gotze. The pacey winger has been a revelation for his team over the past three seasons after Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp promoted him from the club’s youth setup but will join Bayern when the current season ends. Bayern have agreed to pay a record breaking £31.5m to sign the Germany international in a move which formally kicks off a new era at the club following the appointment of their first ever Spanish coach.

On the Move - Mario Gotze  (Image from Reuters)

On the Move – Mario Gotze
(Image from Reuters)

Gotze joins the club at a time of transition with Guardiola likely to adjust the team to his liking. Suspected departures include the aging trio of Daniel Van Buyten, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk and Claudio Pizzarro and the second string pairing of Luiz Gustavo and Rafinha in favour of some fresh young blood, in a similar mold of Gotze. Bayer Leverkusen may be bracing themselves for a double bid from Guardiola for Andre Schürrle and Lars Bender whilst Borussia might not have seen the last of them as they circle back for prolific striker Robert Lewandowski and defender Mats Hummel. Similarly the form of Freiburg defender Oliver Sorg, Eintracht Frankfurt duo defender Sebastian Jung and midfielder Sebastien Rode as well as Bochum’s rising star Leon Goretzka will not have gone unnoticed to the Spaniard who will look to bring in exciting German talent into his already impressive squad. Guardiola will also look to other shores to strengthen with likely candidates being the controversial biter Luis Suarez, Barcelona’s Thiago and Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote whilst also looking to promote exciting youngsters from the youth setup into his first team.

Rising Star - Leon Goretzka  (Image from Getty)

Rising Star – Leon Goretzka
(Image from Getty)

But Gotze is and will be the glamour signing and what a signing they have made. Comfortable on both wing and possessing breathtaking speed and close control, Gotze is one of the most exciting young players in the game today. Over three seasons, the twenty year old has scored twenty two goals from wide positions and created countless more on route to back to back domestic league titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Seen as one of the best products of the Borussia youth setup for decades, Gotze is now one of the first names on Klopp’s team sheet and a fully fledged member of Joachim Low’s national squad too. The news of Gotze’s decision to leave and Bayern’s purchase (having activated a release clause in his contract) has upset the talented Klopp but the Dortmund boss holds no animosity towards his star player, despite his somewhat sarcastic response to the media when questioned over the transfer:

Gotze was the player Guardiola wished to sign. So if it’s anyone’s fault it’s mine. I cannot make myself 15cm smaller and learn Spanish. Gotze wants to work with this extraordinary coach that is Guardiola. I cannot preach football of quick transitions and now start playing Tiki Taka. Mario knows he owes a lot to the club, but I know he gave a lot back as well”

Not Happy - Klopp (Image from PA)

Not Happy – Klopp (Image from PA)

Klopp knows he has lost one of his best players to the clubs biggest rivals which will hurt for some time but he will start the rebuilding process in earnest as he looks to re-strength his squad ahead of the new season and a new title challenge. He will also be looking forward to testing his skills against one of the best coaches in the world in Guardiola. Munich will be stronger than this season and Dortmund know they will need to be up to the task if they are to peg them back. Munich have been in dazzling form this season, losing only once to Bayer Leverkusen (an 87th minute strike by Sidney Sam ruined their chances of an unbeaten season) and conceding only 14 goals. Guardiola could not have dreamed for a better time to take charge of a new club, especially one that is flying so high this year.

Let the Games Begin - Guardiola makes his first move  (Image form Getty)

Let the Games Begin – Guardiola makes his first move
(Image form Getty)

As Heynckes prepares to vacate his position, the legacy that he leaves to Guardiola may well include a Champions league title after a convincing 4-0 victory at home to Pep’s old team, Barcelona in the first leg of the semi finals of that competition put them in a commanding place. But that will matter little to Guardiola, who has won the same event twice as a coach already and is looking more towards the future of the club and its next metamorphism. No transition can start without the initial spark and it appears as though Gotze is that spark. Guardiola’s Bayern revolution is firmly underway, even before he arrives in Germany. The fans will demand success and Guardiola will want to deliver it, that is with the help of his new Messi, Mario Gotze.

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Scotland Boss Ponders How To Stop Bale Ahead Of Wales Clash

Much to Ponder - Strachan (Image from Getty)Later this afternoon, Gordon Strachan will embark on the next phase of his managerial career as he leads out Scotland for his first competitive match in charge against Wales. Strachan faces an uphill struggle as he tries desperately to revitalise Scotland’s world cup qualifying chances which so far have flatlined with no wins in the first four matches. The diminutive Scot was brought in to replace Craig Levein who did very little to improve his own managerial reputation during his time as the top man but fortunately for Strachan has set the bar so low that a single win in qualifying will look better on paper than Levein’s efforts. But getting that elusive win in the forthcoming double-header will not be easy as Scotland have to travel to Serbia next Tuesday after entertaining Wales at Hampden today. When the draw was made for the groups, Wales appeared to be the easiest team but few had remembered about Wales secret weapon – Gareth Bale.

Mission Impossible - How to stop Bale (mage from PA)

Mission Impossible – How to stop Bale
(mage from PA)

The Welsh winger is having the best season of his career. His performances have been so dazzling, that most would put him in 3rd spot, behind Messi and Ronaldo, as the best player in the world at the moment. He is impossible to contain, moving from one flank to the other after been given more freedom by his respective managers at Tottenham and Wales, and with electric pace and the ability to finish with both feet and his head, Bale is on fire. Going into todays game, Strachan will know that to beat Wales, he will need to come up with an effective plan to stop Bale. Easier said than done and only Strachan really knows how he is planning to do it but he certainly has a few options that he can use.

Scotland prepare midweek for today's game (Image from Guardian.co.uk)

Scotland prepare midweek for today’s game
(Image from Guardian.co.uk)

For one he can man mark Bale. By putting a player tight onto the winger and having him follow him wherever he goes, it should restrict the time he has to control, turn and size up the space.  This can be highly effective with the right player chosen to perform the duty. If Strachan and Scotland go down this route, he will effectively sacrifice a player to contain another. That player will have no position other than the one Bale occupies at that time and his job will be simple – to follow Bale and stick as close as humanely possible. Scotland have used this tactic before with either Scott Brown or Gary Caldwell acting as the marker but with Brown out and Caldwell likely to start at centre half, it may fall to the likes of Steven Whitaker to do this role. The only issue with this tactic is Bale’s awareness and pace. He has become accustom to having someone man mark him this season and is aware that very few people possess the pace that he does so Scotland will need to be careful that he doesn’t spin his mark and start running as no one in the team will be able to keep up with him.

Spain's Alonso man marked by a croatian defender (Image from Getty)

Spain’s Alonso man marked by a croatian defender
(Image from Getty)

Another possible option open to Strachan is the double team. Less tight marking but instead when Bale gets on the ball, he instantly has two markers tracking is every move, working together to deposes him. On the right flank Alan Hutton and Steven Whitaker again could be asked to do this (Hutton has already proved he can as he marked Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game when Mallorca met Real earlier this month), but as Bales often floats between the wings, Scotland will need to be careful that Bale doesn’t pull two players out of position leaving a gap for others to exploit. Generally with extremely skillful players or ones with pace, the double team is highly effective and is the most likely option that Strachan will adopt but he will have to decide who those two players are depending on where on the pitch Bale is at that time.

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter (Image from PA)

Ronaldo is double teamed against Inter
(Image from PA)

The third solution harks back to a by gone age when footballers were real men and literally kicked lumps out of each other. Stories about former Scotland defender Billy Bremner are legendary but one story stands the testament of time and is still used as a tactic today by several teams. Bremner’s approach, when faced with a powerful or creative striker (or in this case Bale) he would simply make them aware of his presence within the first few minutes of the game by either dragging his studs down the back of the strikers leg or by stamping on his heel. The philosophy was simple – either it injures the player enough that he has to be substituted and the problem disappears or that he is rattled and mental scarred for the rest of the game, worrying that every time he gets the ball, he will get the same treatment from Bremner as he got in the first few minutes. Highly effective yet highly risky as one bad challenge early on may result in an injury but could also result in a dismissal for the defender which is something Strachan will definitely not want – facing up to Bale and Co with just ten men.

A typical Bremner challenge (Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

A typical Bremner challenge
(Image from Weallloveleeds.co.uk)

Regardless of what Strachan chooses to do or what tactic he employs, stopping Bale from playing will be a key objective if his side are to get the three points. His problem may not actually be a problem as Bale struggles to shake off an ankle knock he sustained at the weekend for Tottenham. But Wales coach Chris Coleman cannot afford to play the game without Bale, having already lost Joe Allen and David Vaughan to injury. The Welsh medical staff have been resting Bale from training sessions in an effort to have him ready for today’s game but he may not be 100% which will come as good news to Strachan. The Scotland boss will be planning for their trip to Serbia as well and analyzing the risks that they present but for today only,the focus is on Bale and Wales and those valuable three points.

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The Race For Wembley Starts Now

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

Who will follow in Chelsea's footsteps this year?

Who will follow in Chelsea’s footsteps this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckham’s MLS Dream Almost Over

The sun is almost set on David Beckham’s USA dream. The player announced yesterday that his intentions are to leave the league at the end of this season and take on a new challenge elsewhere. The 37-year-old former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England star has spent the past five years at LA Galaxy, transforming the focus on the league from a fresh upstart to a now global brand. Beckham’s influence on US soccer cannot be taken lightly, despite what the player thinks. He has never thought about the effect his own brand would have on the 5th sport of the United States, even down playing it when he arrived:

“I’m coming there not to be a superstar. I’m coming there to be part of the team, to work hard and to hopefully win things. With me, it’s about football. I’m coming there to make a difference. I’m coming there to play football … I’m not saying me coming over to the States is going to make soccer the biggest sport in America. That would be difficult to achieve. Baseball, basketball, American football, they’ve been around. But I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”

But the news grabbed the headlines across the globe and with it, brought attention to the US soccer for the first time since Pele graced the same shores some 20 years previously. The league has blossomed since Beckham’s arrival and whilst he was not the core reason, he played a huge part on where it is now. It expanded across borders to Canada, firstly with the Toronto FC franchise and now more recently with teams in Montreal and Vancouver. Big names also arrived, following Beckham into the league – first a host of US internationalists like Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride returned home to finish off their careers then later foreigners like Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez and Robbie Keane made the transition to the USA as well. TV companies in the US, Canada and across Europe have started to take note and now show a majority of the league and cup games to an ever-growing audience. Brands have started to add commercial dollars to a sport once viewed as an after thought. Fans are growing in all 19 franchsies (teams) with crowds at home matches climbing at a steady pace, with further franchises planned. The league can be thankful it has had the benefit of the Beckham effect, even if they haven’t seen the best of Beckham himself.

The former England captain has never quite stunned the league with the skills and flair he showed at Manchester United and Real Madrid. Yes; there have been flashes of brilliance from his trademark free kicks, precision crosses and selection of goals, one scored direct from a corner none the less. But Beckham is older now, slightly slower and sometimes disinterested, or so it may seem to the press who cover his games. They argue that for the money he is being paid by LA, reportedly US$32.5 million in total over 5 years or $6.5 million per year, they expected more. A god perhaps that could turn games around with the drop of the shoulder and a perfectly weighted cross or shot. But Beckham is not Messi nor is he Cristiano Ronaldo. Nor has he ever been that. Beckham is a guy who worked for hours after hours perfecting his free kicks, working on his technique and staying as fit as he can so he could play football for as long as he could at the highest level. And he certainly did.

Many people dislike David Beckham, not because of the player he is, but the person they think he is. A celebrity football playing dad who is over paid and over hyped but Beckham has a right to look back on his career with pride. Not many people can boast a career that has spanned 20 years across some of the greatest clubs in the world – Manchester United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, LA Galaxy and Preston NE (the last one Beckham went on loan for 5 games in his early Manchester United days). Not many players have won 115 caps for their country, 59 as captain. Not many players have a global brand that has spawned computer games, movies, clothes, perfume, books, soccer schools and much more. The Beckham brand is now as instantly recognisable across the globe as Nike and Pepsi are.

As Beckham bids a fond farewell to the US and embarks on his next challenge, whether that be in Australia or China as the press are speculating right now or if Snopp Dogg gets his wish at Glasgow Celtic, he can look back fondly over his time spent in LA. He may not have played the best or won as many titles as he had hoped, but his legacy that he leaves behind is more than he could have imagined. He will leave the MLS in a stronger position than it was it 5 years ago, safe in the knowledge that the league will continue to grow and flourish even without David Beckham in it.

Even Great Players Can Miss Penalties

The most memorable moment of the USA 1994 World Cup final, and some say the only one in what was a boring final itself, was Roberto Baggio’s penalty miss in the shootout. Baggio, who had been Italy’s star player throughout the tournament, conjuring two goals in the last 16, one in the quarter and two again in the semi finals to send Italy through to face favourites Brazil in the final. The Brazilian’s powered through to the finals mostly due to the goals of strikers Bebeto and Romario, keeping a young 17-year-old Ronaldo on the bench for the entire tournament. In the final, the two sides played out a drab match with few chances falling to either side, leading eventually to the dreaded penalty shoot out.

Under the baking hot sun in the Rose Bowl Arena in Pasadena, California, AC Milan legend Franco Baresi  stepped up to take the first penalty for Italy. He missed, giving Márcio Santos the chance to put Brazil ahead but he too caved under the pressure and miss his strike. The next two penalties from either side were scored, tieing the game at 2-2 after three penalties taken each.  Italy striker Daniele Massaro then missed his penalty and watched helplessly as Brazil captain, Dunga put his away. It was now down to Roberto Baggio to score the fifth and final penalty for Italy and keep them in the game. He placed the ball down, took a look at Cláudio Taffarel in the Brazil goal, steady himself for a long run up before skying the ball over the crossbar to hand the 1994 World Cup to Brazil. The divine ponytail, as Baggio was known at the time due to his chosen hairstyle, could only look at the ground in disgust. Camera replays show the ball moving slightly which could have led to the striker blasting over but there was nothing he could do but watch Brazil celebrate.

The Baggio miss is one of many penalty misses from football greats. Looking back through history, players like Van Basten, Muller, Platini, Cruyff and Puskas all missed penalties at some stage in their careers, granted not all of them as important as Baggio’s one. Even new stars like Messi and Neymar have missed penalties in their time. Only two days ago, in a friendly between Brazil and Colombia, Neymar replicated the Baggio miss in the last few minutes of the game. Although it was only a friendly, pride was at stake between these two countries coming into the match. Neymar had managed to equalise for Brazil after they fell behind to Colombia, courtesy of a Juan Cuadrado strike just before half time. But when Brazil were awarded a penalty in the 78th minute following a foul inside the area, Neymar, unopposed, confidently picked the ball up and placed it on the spot. Similar to Baggio, he took a long run, glanced at the keeper and then sent the ball some 15 yards over the cross-bar in an amazing miss. Neymar looked in disgust at the ground, but it may have been the slight hesitation he had in his run up that led to the miss. Either way, this miss cost Brazil the win, with the game finishing at 1-1.

Neymar was dismissive after the game, blaming the state of the pitch:

“The penalty was horrible but you probably noticed the state the pitch was in, it didn’t have any stability. I tried to take it slowly but it didn’t work out. These things happen.”

To be fair to Neymar, the surface at the East Rutherford Stadium, more suited to NFL than international football, was not in the best of conditions. The ball may have bobbled or rolled on the pitch resulting in him lifting it skywards and into the crowds. Neymar will no doubt want to correct his mistake in the next game for Brazil but this time he may have a few others looking to take over the penalty taking duties from him.

To see Neymar’s miss, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILqIS39fca8

To see Roberto’s miss in the 1994 final, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRpmm2GucK4

Move over Ferguson and Mourinho, there are new players in town

Every so often in football, a new manager comes along with a fresh approach and different opinions on how the game should be played, captivating players and fans alike. Rinus Michels led the way with his total football approach which changed the way the game was played. Out went the long ball in favour of a slick passing game that gave players the flexibility to show their talents. The strategy was to foster team coherence and individual imagination – with all players possessing the skills to play in any part of the pitch. Since then, others have followed suit. Alex Ferguson focused on building a youth team that would eventually lead his Manchester United team to trophy after trophy. Arsene Wenger’s approach to the transfer market – buying young, nurturing and selling for inflated prices bore success at Arsenal. Mourinho’s approach was to introduce charisma and bravado, unseen in management, by proclaiming he was ” The Special One” and Pep Guardiola fell heavily on analysis and player improvements to help win his haul of 14 cups in 4 years.

But now a new batch of talented managers has appeared, all of a similar mould. Responsible for four of the biggest clubs in Europe, these men come from the same school of thinking – to win, you have to outsmart your opponent and be better than them in everything that you do. Their tactical awareness, player insight and new coaching techniques are helping their players become the stars of tomorrow.  Interestingly all four had limited playing careers and entered coaching at an early age. They are all young, hungry and with a point to prove.

Jurgen Klopp

Leading the new pretenders is German Jurgen Klopp, manager of reigning champions Borussia Dortmund. An average player in his day, starting first as a striker then reverting to a centre back, he spent his entire professional career at Mainz. It was here in 2001, that he got his break into club management, taking over from the former Canada manager, Eckhard Krautzun who had been sacked in January. Already considered a legend at the club, Klopp started to rebuild the fortunes of Mainz and during a seven-year spell as boss, he took the lowly german side back into the Bundesliga and into Europe for the first time in their history. His style of attacking football, supported by a strong back line gave his team the competitive edge that did not go unnoticed by Germany’s top clubs. After a unsucessful period under Thomas Doll, Borussia Dortmund came calling for Klopp’s services (now unemployed after resigning from Mainz).

In his first year at Dortmund, Klopp stabilised the club and lead them to victory in the DFL Supercup in his first season, beating champions Bayern Munich in the final. Over the next few years he would improve the squad with clever signings from across the world like Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, bought from Cerezo Osaka for €350,000, Paraguay striker Lucas Barrios, bought from Colo Colo for €4.2 million and Serbian defender Neven Subotić, bought from Klopp’s old club Mainz for a nominal fee. He blended them with a talented bunch of younger players coming through their youth squad (Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Sebastian Kehl and Nuri Şahin) to create a pulsating team that swept through the Bundesliga to back to back titles.

Leaning on his experiences at Mainz, Klopp’s success is down to three factors – Tactics, intelligence and hunger. Tactically he realised to compete in the league on a regular basis against the best teams, you need to build from the back and counter attack with pace and skill. In came a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the two defensive midfielders not only offering cover to the back four but the key holders to turning defense into counter attack. He spent hours looking at footage of other teams as well as his to identify areas of weakness and development, focusing on the latter in training sessions. Employing young and hungry players, looking to make a name in football, he found that they were willing to give everything to win and would fight for every ball and more importantly for their teammates.

Despite losing some talented players over the years (Sahin to Real Madrid, Kagawa to Manchester United) he has retained the nucleus of his team and continues to build the squad with the goal of achieving more success and hopefully a third Bundesliga title.

Andrea Stramaccioni

Claudio Ranieri’s time in charge at Inter was largely disappointing so when he was sacked in March of this year, the world of football anticipated that an established manager would be hired to turn the team around. However club owner Massimo Moratti had other ideas and instead turned to the club’s youth coach, 36-year-old Andrea Stramaccioni and handed him the top job. Hired initially as caretaker until the end of the season, Moratti saw enough to give Stramaccioni a permanent deal to become the youngest head coach in Serie A.

Stramaccoini had a limited playing career with Bologna that was cruelly cut short at the age of 19 due to a serious knee injury. After retiring from the game he loved, he looked towards coaching and worked with a variety of amateur and youth teams before being noticed by Roma who appointed him to their youth team coaching staff in 2005. At Roma, he learned from two of Italy’s greatest coaches, Arrigo Sacchi and current Italy manager Cesare Prandelli, watching their every move like an obsessed child, studying how they managed and worked with the players. It was during his time at Roma that Stramaccioni took his UEFA A licence which led to him meeting Roberto Samaden, Inter youth academy director who would hire him at Inter 2 years later, giving him the manager’s job at F.C. Internazionale Milano Primavera, Inter’s under 19’s team.

Inter’s youth team has produced a host of top stars over the years such as Giuseppe Bergomi, Walter Zenga, Goran Pandev and recently Mario Balotelli and is seen as the future of the club. Stramaccioni’s had some success with the team including leading them to victory in the 2011-2012 NextGen Series beating Ajax in the final (picture above). But now the young manager is working his form of magic on the first team, rebuilding after a torrid time under Raneiri, focusing on what he knows best – youth. The new look Inter Milan squad boasts a string of young players like 17-year-old Ibrahim Mbaye, 21-year-old Joel Obi and 18-year-old Luca Garritano. But it’s the revitalisation of key players like Wesley Sneijder and club captain, Javier Zanetti that has been the turning point for the club. A tireless worker, Stramaccioni can spend hours on getting his tactics right, especially when it comes to set pieces, be they defensive or offensive. He hates a fixed formation, focusing on one common thought – provide the players with the best tactics and formation for them to excel. Despite his age, Stramaccioni respects his players and wants them to succeed as much as he does:

“I used to admire them from the other side of the hedge at the youth team’s training pitch, and now they’re part of my team. Asking such players to ‘learn’ things would be a bad mistake. I simply have to provide them with the best possible conditions for them to exhibit their talents,”

André Villas-Boas

After a unsucessful time at Chelsea, where Villas Boas was sacked by owner Roman Abramovich some say unfairly after only 8 months in the job, André Villas Boas has found a path back into the Premiership with Tottenham. The former Porto coach, who led his unfancied team to UEFA Cup success in his first season in charge, never played professionally but from a young age was obsessed with football. As a Porto fan aged only 16, André Villas-Boas sent a letter to then manager and England legend Bobby Robson criticising his team selection and asking for reasonings behind leaving on form Portuguese striker Domingos on the bench behind Russian striker Sergei Yuran. Robson invited Villas-Boas to the next training session and was so impressed with the youngsters knowledge that he hired him to work in the Porto observation department and helped him gain his UEFA ‘C’ coaching badge in Largs, Scotland, despite him technically being ineligible as he was aged 17. Villas Boas learnt a lot from Robson and formed a close relationship with his interpreter at Porto, Jose Mourinho. After leaving Porto in 1998 to go become the national boss of the British Virgin Islands at aged 21, it wasn’t long before he rejoined Porto as assistant manager under new boss Mourinho. The bond between the two grew and where Mourinho went, Villas Boas followed, first to Chelsea then on to Inter Milan.

His first step into club management came back home with Académica, who until his appointment had been the whipping boys in the Portuguese league. Lying bottom without a win when he took over, Villas Boas introduced a fresh attacking style which helped propel them up the league into 11th place and into the semi finals of the Portuguese cup, narrowly losing to a late Porto goal in the end. His achievements at the club caught the attentions of Sporting Lisbon but it was Porto that managed to hire him, which ultimately led them to the League title, Portuguese Cup and Europa League Cup in his first and only season in charge. Roman Abramovich watched in interest and that summer paid Porto €15 million to secure his services as the Chelsea boss.

The statistical and analytical work that Villas Boas carried out under Robson paved the way for the development of his coaching style. Not a fan of egotistical players, he relies heavily on the facts, selecting his team based on work rate in training, data from the previous matches and conditioning reports from his medical and fitness teams. Some players enjoyed working with him like former Chelsea striker Salomon Kalou:

“We enjoyed training. He was focused, meticulous and he was driven. He showed us  videos of the opposition, outlining their strengths and weaknesses — most  managers didn’t use that information. But we would sit in the dressing room, taking off our training kit and start  whispering to each other,’ he recalled. How long before he’s sacked? ‘One game? “Maybe”.You think so? “He can’t lose”. No chance, The boss (Roman Abramovich) won’t let it happen”

Unfortunately this is what led to his dismissal at Chelsea who are controlled not by the manager but by egos like Terry, Anelka and Ashley Cole who resented the coaches methods and complained to the person who they saw as The Boss, owner Roman Abramovich that something had to be done. Chelsea’s loss is Tottenham’s gain as the snapped up the young coach in the summer.

Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova

To take over from the most successful Barcelona coach of all time, Pep Guardiola, in a year when winning La Liga back from arch rivals Real Madrid is of utmost importance, some people would be forgiven for thinking that Francescito Vilanova was crazy. But the former assistant, known as Tito who has now become the boss after his promotion in the summer, looks at things differently. He perceives it as continuing the work that he and Guardiola had done the previous four years. For the new coach, this is his first real test as manager. Growing up in Spain, he started as a player at Barcelona in the B team striking up a friendship with a powerful midfielder called Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola then after 2 years moved on seeking first team football. After a less than successful career around a host of Spanish clubs – Mallorca, Celta de Vigo and Lleida to name a few, he ended up back at Barcelona in a coaching capacity. Beginning work as Pep’s right hand man began in 2007 with the Barcelona B team who at the time were in the Spanish 4th division. His work with Guardiola helped to turn around the fortunes of the reserve squad and engineering promotion to the 3rd division with two years. After Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard’s dismissal from the managers role with the main team, Guardiola was the surprise choice to take over and took Tito along for the ride. What happened next saw Barcelona transformed into quite possibly the best team in the world, winning 14 titles in 4 glorious years for the club.

But the threads started to show at the end of last year and the strain finally took its toll on both men. Tito in particular had a difficult last season. In late 2011, Vilanova underwent an operation to remove a life-threatening tumour found on his parotid gland, the largest of the salivary glands keeping him out for some time. Guardiola was feeling the pressure too and announced that he would quit at the end of the season and go on a year-long sabbatical as he felt completely drained. Before he did so, he told the Barcelona chairman, Sandro Rosell to look no further than his assistant for his replacement. Citing Tito’s intelligence and tactical knowledge, he felt he was the ideal man to keep Barcelona on track for future success. For Tito, the work began in July when he officially took over the reigns but early signs are showing that he is up for the task and is improving them team left to him by his good friend Guardiola.

The relationship he has with his players goes back across not only the last four years but all the years he has spent at Barcelona. He gave a first start to a then 13 year old Lionel Messi in the Barca B team and was instrumental in persauding Guardiola to promote him from his role as a winger to an out and out striker.

“Tito was the first person to put me in the team. Until then I was a sub or didn’t play at all.” said Messi of his new boss.

He also blooded a host of other youngsters during his time in the B team that now play under him as manager now of the first team – Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fábregas, Pedro and Sergio Busquets all started out under Vilanova. Messi however is in no doubt that Tito is the right manto replace Guardiola

“They have different personalities,” Messi says, “but the work is the same. The training sessions have not changed.”

This should work in the short term but if Vilanova is to become his own boss and have the same level of sucess as his friend,  he will need to come out from under Guardiola’s shadow and change the team, tactics and training and stamp his own trademark on them. With a squad as talented as the Barcelona team, whatever system he adopts, Tito will have some of the best players in the world to execute against it but if he is unable to get them to play to his way, then trophies may be lacking under Vilavona which will surely cost him his job.

Mirror Mirrror on the wall, who’s the highest paid player of all?

Cristiano Ronaldo has started this season in a sulk. He is expected to be angry with UEFA over their recent award of European Player of the Year to Andreas Inestia, despite the Portuguese star having his best season to date scoring 60 goals in all competitions. The 27-year-old was caught on camera at the award ceremony (left) looking frustrated as Inestia was declared the winner, shaking his head and tutting. But perhaps it has nothing to do with UEFA but in fact a recent article published by Spanish newspaper Marca on the topic of the World’s best paid players that has Ronaldo in a fuss.

The article drew comparisons between the worlds best players and ranked them by their annual wages. Ronaldo, considered by some to be the greatest current player, didn’t even make the top 5, barely scraping into the top 10 in last place with an annual salary of €10million:

The list is topped by Cameroon international striker, Samuel Eto’o who currently picks up a yearly wage of €20million, double that of Cristiano, at Russian club Anzhi Makhackala. Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimović is in 2nd position on €14.5million after his recent move to mega rich PSG in France, with Cristiano’s former Manchester United teammate, Wayne Rooney completing the top three on €13.8million.  The inclusion of Manchester City players Yaya Toure (4th) and Sergio Aguero (5th) alongside Chelsea’s Fernando Torres (7th) may give Ronaldo food for thought as he ponders a potential return to the English Premiership. If he is to leave Real Madrid in order to increase his wealth, England or France would make the most sense from a financial and footballing prospective even if wealthier teams in Russia and China could offer him considerably more. But the table above only tells half of the story.

Marca’s article only looks at annual wage and not total salary so strips out merchandise rights, image fees and sponsorship deals. In fact, in 9th place, Lionel Messi appears to be missing out by staying at current club, Barcelona. However, when you look at this year’s total earnings, Lionel Messi is the world’s richest player on €33 million yearly. David Beckham lies in second on €31.5 million with Cristiano Ronaldo completing the top three on €29.2 million.

The remaining list: Samuel Eto’o (€23.3 million), Wayne Rooney (€20.6 million), Sergio Augero (€18.8 million), Yaya Toure (€17.6 million), Fernando Torres (€16.7 million), Kaka (€15.5 million) and Philip Lahm (€16.7 million) is a definitive who’s who of world soccer. Added together, the top ten make a staggering €222.9 million yearly, the same amount as the combined annual wage bills of Everton, Newcastle and Fulham! As more and more clubs look to get creative with player salaries to fit in with UEFA Financial fair play rules, adding in bonus payments and merchandise rights to make up for lower wages, players like Cristiano Ronaldo will need to see the bigger picture when it comes to their club valuation of them and realise that sulking won’t get them a bump in their wages.