Rafa Benitez In At Real As Carlo Exits?

Real Bound? - Rafa Benitez (Image from PA)After finishing the season without a trophy, it appears as though Carlo Ancelotti’s time as Real Madrid boss is about to end. Rumours are circulating that the Bernabeau is about to welcome a new manager with Napoli boss Rafa Benitez being lined up to replace the Italian. Ancelotti will lead his side out for their last game of the season against Getafe but it will almost certainly be his final game in charge. Real’s board is fuming that Ancelotti has failed to build upon their record breaking 10th Champions League title last year and are getting ready to make the change. Several reports indicate that discussions with Benitez representatives are in the latter stages despite only 7% of Real fans polled actually wanting the former Valencia, Liverpool and Chelsea boss as their next manager. Ancelotti, who is being linked with moves to Manchester City or a mouth watering return to AC Milan, has failed to win the La Liga title in the two years that he has been in charge which has been deemed unacceptable by the extremely demanding Madrid board.

Ancelotti lifts the Champions League title for Real Madrid  (Image from Getty)
Ancelotti lifts the Champions League title for Real Madrid
(Image from Getty)

Benitez contract with Napoli is due to expire at the end of the season with the Spaniard unwilling to sign a new deal. He has been linked to the West Ham job in recent months but has fallen short of stating his interest in the role, instead preferring to defer his answer to the end of the season in an attempt to keep his options open. That patience looks like it has paid off with Madrid now in the hot seat to land him. Benitez would arrive with a winning pedigree having won something at every club he has managed since taking over at Extremadura in July 1997, the highlight of which would probably be lifting the Champions League title with Liverpool in Istanbul in 2005. That final more than any defined Benetiz as one of the best managers in the game after inspiring his side to come back from 3-0 down at half time to win on penalties in an epic final ironically against Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan. However it’s his success in Spain during his time as Valencia manager that attracts the Real board more than anything else. Having won the La Liga title twice during his three years in charge of Los Murcielagos, the Real board is convinced that he can deliver the much desired league title back to Real Madrid for the first time in four years. With a talented squad at his disposal and a healthy budget to bring new faces in, the challenge for Benitez will simply be to make sure that Real are competitive against Barcelona and Atletico next season and ultimately deliver the title back to Real.

Benitez could be joined at Real by Manchester United stopper David De Gea with the Spanish international reportedly keen to move back to Spain for personal reasons. De Gea will not feature in United’s game this weekend against Hull after sustaining a hamstring injury in the 1-1 draw with Arsenal and will be replaced by Victor Valdes. There has been speculation that De Gea may leave at the end of the season for a while now but the biggest indication came in the game against Arsenal. As he trudged off the pitch, De Gea lifted his left hand and waved to the fans as if to say thank you one last time. After the match, Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal dodged a question asked by the BBC about whether De Gea would be leaving by saying that it would be up to De Gea whether he is to stay or not. He also indicated that the club is making plans for life without the Spaniard by telling the reporter that they have identified other options for the goalkeeper position.  Any potential move to Madrid will be subject to the two clubs agreeing a fee or constructing a deal that suits both parties.

De Gea waves to the United fans after picking up an injury against Arsenal  (Image from Getty)
De Gea waves to the United fans after picking up an injury against Arsenal
(Image from Getty)

Real Madrid have been quick to squash rumours of a potential swap deal involving Gareth Bale, insisting that the Welsh winger will be staying and is a key component of their long term plans. Bale has had a torrid second season in Spain with the Real Madrid fans and the press often singling him out for criticism when the team under performs. The world’s most expensive footballer has not reacted well to the abuse and is rumoured to be considering his options, which has alerted a host of English clubs including Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United. Benitez however will be keen to hold on to the player at all costs especially if he is to introduce his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation to Real next season.

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Sterling’s Liverpool Career In Jeopardy Thanks to Meddling Agent

Sterling wants to leave Liverpool this summer (Image from Getty)With the dust settling on the final Anfield run out of the legendary Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, Brendan Rodgers sat back in his chair and turned his focus towards the final game of the season. It’s not been quite the campaign that Rodgers expected having pushed Manchester City all the way last year with his own SOS strike force (Suarez and Sturridge) leading Liverpool’s impressive front line. Rumours of Suarez departure to pastures new had been growing since early January so when the call came in that Barcelona’s bid had been deemed acceptable, it will hardly have been devastating news to the Northern Irish coach. Rodgers had in fact been planning for this and would use the money to reinvest in his squad, not in one position but several. In came Lallana, Lambert, Can, Markovic and Balotelli to name a few to form a new look Liverpool side. The big money arrivals all came with pedigree or potential but would be outshone in the end by a player already at the club, a young winger by the name of Raheem Sterling.

The actions of Sterling's agent have put him on a collision course with the club  (Image from PA)
The actions of Sterling’s agent have put him on a collision course with the club
(Image from PA)

After a breakthrough season last year which saw the Jamaican born player cement his place in the starting line-up by offering the pace and creativity needed for Suarez and Sturridge to profit from, Sterling approached this season with renewed energy and with the manager’s full backing to shine. He would end this season with the club Young Player of the Year award after a solid season but at the award ceremony would be greeted by boos from the fans rather than cheers. The reason for this hostile reception was down to events that had happened earlier in the day when it was revealed that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool in the summer and would be turning down a lucrative contract. It was hardly the news that either the Liverpool fans or indeed their manager Brendan Rodgers wanted to hear, his Tuesday morning ruined by the actions not of his player but of the players key advisor – his agent.

Agents in football generally get a bad rap for being too heavily focused on what’s best for them and not for the player and what will earn them the biggest pay off.  In 99% of the times this is simply untrue with the agent instead acting as the mediator in negotiations between players and their respective clubs. Good agents work with the clubs to manage the player and his/her expectations around their futures both in the short term and the long term. If the player is deemed important, the agent will negotiate a better deal that keeps the player at the club and more importantly happy to do so. If the player is seen as expendable, then the agent will look for new opportunities for the player in order to get him into a club where he is valued and happy. However there are a small minority of agents, like Raheem Sterling’s chief negotiator who seem intent in disruption, preferring to look for a big pay day for themselves than looking out for the best interests of their client. On Tuesday morning, the Guardian broke the news that Sterling wanted to leave Liverpool. This is hardly unusual as it’s generally the norm that one paper gets the exclusive story. However within minutes of the news showing up on the Guardian, every media outlet across the UK had the story in length and was covering it. It was a whitewash, a carefully planned yet badly timed ploy by Sterling’s agent and support team to get the story out to as many people as possible in order to drum up interest in the player.

Sterling picked up the clubs Young Player of the Year award to a chorus of boos  (Image from Getty)
Sterling picked up the clubs Young Player of the Year award to a chorus of boos
(Image from Getty)

Not only was this done badly but the timing of it was just plain stupid. Why they decided to let the cat out of the bag publicly at that time makes no sense. The week before had been all about Steven Gerrard and his final game at Anfield. But this week would be a continuation of that with his last game in a Liverpool shirt on Sunday against Stoke. Sterling’s departure now hogs the limelight, not that it will matter to Gerrard but out of respect for the player and the club, could they not have waited until after Sunday’s game? In addition to that breaking the news on the same morning as the Liverpool team awards dinner put Sterling in a difficult position. He should have accepted his award to applause rather than a chorus of jeers. Sterling’s agent is clearly acting for himself and not thinking about his 20 year old client. If he was, he wouldn’t be leaking these statements, instead would be giving him the advice he needs to hear – stay at Liverpool for a couple of more years, hone your skills and then make the big money transfer move.

A move to Real Madrid could see Sterling playing alongside Martin Odegaard for Real's reserve team, Castilla rather than their first team  (Image from Getty)
A move to Madrid could see Sterling playing alongside Martin Odegaard for Real’s reserve team, Castilla rather than their first team
(Image from Getty)

Sterling is far from the finished article that he needs to be to command a starting spot at a Real Madrid or a Barcelona. Madrid may have publically stated that they are monitoring the player but the fact that it was Zidane rather than Ancelotti suggests they see Sterling as one for the future and any purchase would see him follow the same path as Norwegian protégée Martin Odegaard. Sterling could move to another Premiership side like Chelsea or Manchester United but is not guaranteed to get a regular run out in the first team as he is at Liverpool. Manchester City have stepped up their interest in recent weeks, with a new mandate to buy British but Sterling should heed the warnings left by Jack Rodwell, Adam Johnson and Scott Sinclair before him who all made big money moves to City only to see their careers go backwards. For the sake of his career, Sterling should stay put, commit Liverpool and above all else sack his agent for the poor selfish advice he is handing out.

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The Messy Abomination That Is The Argentine Primera Division

The new look Primera Division (Image from Getty)Two months in and so far no problems have arisen for the heavily restructured Argentinean Primera Division. The new colossal league which now has 30 teams competing in it, making it one of the largest leagues in the world, takes time and patience to fully understand but the logic behind it is still baffling. Unfortunately for all of us, that logic will never be known as it died with its creator Julio Grondona, the former President of the Argentine Football Association who passed away this past summer. Grondona had for a long time wanted to change the league structure away from its tired two Championship format – Apertura and Clausura (similar to most other Latin America leagues) to a super league system much like the European ones. When his original idea of creating a 42 team league was squashed, he returned to the drawing board to devise a plan that could not be denied as the right way to go. Unfortunately for Argentina, what he came up with was the baffling mess that they now have to live with. So what is wrong with the new format? Let us explain.

Mastermind - Julio Grondona  (Image from AFP)
Mastermind – Julio Grondona
(Image from AFP)

Poorer Quality of Football

One of the principle ideas behind expanding to a 30 team structure was to improve the quality of football in the league which has been declining steadily over the past decade. However with the addition of 10 teams from Primera B, the quality of football on show will hardly be improved. Unlike the English Championship where several of its teams could compete well in the Premiership, the standard between Argentina’s top two leagues is far greater mostly due to the lack of money being pumped into the second tier. With several poorer teams in the division, the race for the title will be likely determined by the games between the bigger clubs meaning that it will be harder for clubs like Banfield and Arsenal to win the league.

Banfield - Apertura Champions 2009  (Image from Getty)
Banfield – Apertura Champions 2009
(Image from Getty)

Lack of Money

Grondona’s main pitch to the clubs in order to secure the votes needed was that they would see more revenue coming in. The bulk of this would come from a principle betting sponsor and increased funds from the AFA. Unfortunately no sponsor was found and the season began with the clubs forced to split only the AFA funds of $140million per year. However with ten more teams in the league, each clubs share was dramatically reduced leaving many owners frustrated. With the government mandate of Football for All, every game is shown on TV for free meaning that TV revenues that help to largely fund most leagues across the world are nonexistent. Clubs will need to rely on revenue generated from ticket and merchandise sales as well as player sales to help bolster their coffers. However in the new league setup, transfers are restricted to the period between the start of the season up to the 1st July, with all transfers unable to buy or strengthen after this point.  With a majority of the clubs across Europe preferring to spend its cash in July and August, the Argentine league may have shot itself in the foot with this rule.

Football for All is a government run initiative that  means every match is free on TV (Image from Getty)
Football for All is a government run initiative that means every match is free on TV
(Image from Getty)

Unfair Advantage in Clumsy Fixture list

The standard fixture list across the world sees each team play all of their opponents at home and then away. This allows for home field advantage and makes the fixtures even. However in the Primera, the fixtures will be split, with each team playing half their opponents at home and the other half away. So if you are a minnow team looking to upset the apple cart by shocking Boca Juniors on your own turf you may not get the chance if that single fixture is due to be played at La Bombonera. There is no logic behind doing this except for the fact that if each team was to play both home and away, the league would be looking at a 58 game season, not including Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana fixtures. So each team will play 29 regular games instead with the final 30th match to be a special fixture which pits historic rivals against each other for a second time. This money grabbing move strangely doesn’t benefit clubs like Boca and River who will have to play each other but does work in favour of clubs like Arsenal and Velez Sarsfield whose rivals are much weaker than them.

Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera  (Image from Getty)
Intimidating atmosphere awaits at La Bombonera
(Image from Getty)

Relegation is a mess

Given the way that the fixture list was created, it’s hardly surprising that the relegation setup is designed to protect the larger clubs in the league. Based on an average system, which looks at a three season points average with the worst two relegated and the worst positioned team in that season also dropping down to the Primera B Nacional, the system helps to avoid the nightmare possibility of a club like River Plate or Boca Juniors ever being relegated. River were spectacularly relegated for the first time in their history back in 2011 despite Grondona’s desperate attempts to stop it from happening. Given the leagues stature across the world and the need for revenue to flow into it from foreign markets, it’s not hard to understand the effects of having one of Argentina’s biggest and most successful clubs not playing in it. But the average system is hardly fair on the smaller teams within the division. Teams could be relegated despite having a turnaround season which saw them finish well into the top half or even challenging for honours.

River Plate's relegation caused headaches for the AFA  (Image from Getty)
River Plate’s relegation caused headaches for the AFA
(Image from Getty)

Reduction back to 20

Finally in one of the most bizarre moves, the league will eventually revert back to a 20 team league thanks in part to another crazy rule. Over the next few years, three teams will be relegated with only one being promoted and so on until in 2019, the league will only have 20 teams in it.  So after four years of craziness with fixture chaos, poor quality football and bizarre relegation fights common sense will be restored with a new format. That is until the powers that be at the AFA decide to change it again.

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What Next For Falcao As He Heads Towards United Exit Door

What next for Falcao? (Image from Getty)

It’s all gone so wrong for Radamel Falcao. The Colombian striker joined Manchester United in the summer on a year long loan but has been unable to establish himself in Louis Van Gaal’s starting eleven. In truth, Falcao does not look like the player he once was and questions over the physical and psychological impact that his knee injury that rules him out of the game for over six months had are starting to surface. Now fit again, Falcao jumped at the chance in the summer to join Van Gaal’s United revolution and many expected him to be leading the goal scoring charts at this stage in the season. But with a return of only four goals in 22 appearances, his move is turning into a nightmare and the chances of him staying at Old Trafford beyond this season are dwindling by the day. United have the option to buy Falcao from French side Monaco for a pre-arranged fee rumoured to be north of £40 million but with the 29 year old failing to live up to his billing, it’s unlikely that they will follow through with it.

Falcao's Manchester United move has been a nightmare for the player  (Image from Getty)
Falcao’s Manchester United move has been a nightmare for the player
(Image from Getty)

So what has gone wrong for Falcao? The injury to his left knee, suffered due to a horrible tackle in the French Cup clash between Falcao’s Monaco and 4th division side Monts d’Or Azergues Foot in January 2014, meant that he missed last year’s World Cup in Brazil. It was a devastating blow for the player who up until that point was arguably the world’s most feared striker. Colombia too were distraught at the prospect of not having Falcao in their squad and gave him up until the very last minute to show he had recovered and take his place. However it was not meant to be and Falcao along with head coach Jose Pekerman informed the public at a press conference just weeks before the start of the tournament that he would not be available.

At United, Falcao has struggled to get to grips with both the speed difference between Ligue 1 and the Premiership as well as the more physical nature of the game played in England. He has looked off pace when in games and has lacked the cutting edge that made him so famous in the first place. Van Gaal has not helped the situation by constantly tinkering with his tactics and randomly dropping Falcao to the bench in place of the returning Robin Van Persie or even youngster James Wilson. This has resulted in a further loss of confidence for the mild natured Colombian, something his former agent calls as the primary reason behind Falcao’s lack of goals. There is a sense of trepidation in Falcao’s play as well with the player perhaps slightly more cautious of stretching for a ball or riding a challenge in fear of another lengthy spell on the sidelines. Knee injuries can and have wrecked careers with a good example being that of Michael Owen. The former England striker never really recovered from his knee injury in the 2006 World Cup and looked like half the player he once was in the remaining six seasons of his career. At 29, Falcao knows that he has perhaps five to six years left at the top before old age catches up with him but another lengthy injury could cut that down even further. Like Owen, Falcao has not lost his predatory instincts that helped him to hit the back of the net on a frequent basis but he has lost a yard of pace which means that he will need to adapt his game slightly to compensate. Recovering psychologically may be trickier for the player but as the old adage says the best way to recover from a fall is to get back on the horse. Falcao needs to play regularly, he needs to be involved in collisions with other players to show him that his knee will not give out but most importantly he needs to start scoring again. Goals for a striker are like a drug, they give them fuel and confidence which in turn leads to more goals, increased confidence and so on.

He need to play consistently and at United under Van Gaal he won’t unless something dramatic happens between now and the end of the season. Falcao has now accepted that his United stay will come to an end in June with the player’s agent now examining the options available to him. A return to France would suit his existing employers Monaco who have lacked a reliable goal scoring front man this season. However it’s unlikely that Falcao will want to head back to France, preferring to try his hand elsewhere at a new club. Italian champions Juventus could offer such an opportunity, whilst former club Atletico Madrid are also rumoured to be watching his situation very carefully. Staying in the Premiership is not also out of the question with Liverpool, Tottenham and even Manchester City willing to take a gamble on the once great striker. Rumours of a summer switch to Real Madrid were floating around before his injury but the Spanish giants went in a different direction last summer. However they may now return for Falcao as there are only one of a few teams who could afford his fee and his wages. Regardless of where he ends up, Falcao knows that his next move may be the most important one he makes. He can ill afford another season on the sidelines which damages his reputation as one of the game’s best strikers. Falcao used to equal goals and he still can if he can find a club willing to give him a fair go and help him rebuild the confidence in himself.

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The Difference Between Winning And Losing

Danny Rose seals the points for Spurs (Image from Paul Gilham/Getty)Hull City slide towards Championship football next season took a significant step on Saturday with yet another defeat. Goals from Nacer Chadli and Danny Rose handed Tottenham all three points, condemning Hull to its 19th loss of the campaign and leaving them in 18th place. Despite creating a similar amount of chances as their opponent, the lack of cutting edge upfront was ultimately Hull’s downfall. It has been the story of their season with several pundits pointing to their inefficiencies in front of goal as the key reason for their perilous position. A glance at Hull’s top marksmen paints an awful picture – Croat Nikica Jelavic’s return of only eight goals this season is enough to have him lead the way with fellow striker Dame N’Doye in second place on five goals. Hull’s lack of goals certainly indicates a problem but is it really the reason why they find themselves in the relegation places with one game left?

Nikica Jelavic is Hull's top goal scorer with eight goals  (Image from Getty)
Nikica Jelavic is Hull’s top goal scorer with eight goals
(Image from Getty)

With an average goal per game ratio of 0.89, Hull are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league but they are far from the worst. Unsurprisingly already relegated Burnley have the worst record of all (0.73 goals per game) but so do Aston Villa in 15th place (0.84 per game) and Sunderland in 16th place (0.83 per game). Despite a poor goal to game ratio, Aston Villa have secured their place in the Premiership mostly thanks to some impressive performances of late under new manager Tim Sherwood. Sunderland however aren’t quite out of the woods but only need a single point from their remaining two games to stay up. With away games against Arsenal and Chelsea left, it may not be that simply and could hand Hull the opportunity to escape. Newcastle could also be drawn into the mix after suffering another loss at the weekend, this time at bottom club QPR. Strangely Newcastle and QPR both have much better goals to game ratios than Hull (1.03 and 1.11 respectively) largely in thanks to their respective front men, Papiss Cisse and Charlie Austin but both clubs have had defensive frailties which have cost them dearly.

Hull's goal per game ratio against Newcastle and Sunderland  (Image from BBC)
Hull’s goal per game ratio against Newcastle and Sunderland
(Image from BBC)

Newcastle and QPR have the two worst defenses in the Premiership conceding 63 and 68 goals so far. Hull however have only let in 51 goals, a much better record than both (the 8th worst in the league) and even a better record than 6th placed Tottenham who have conceded two more goals this season than Hull. So with a better defense than six other sides in the league why are Hull in danger of the drop? For answers we need to look at their results. From the 19 defeats that Hull has suffered this season, they have lost seven of them by only 1-0 and ten in total by just a single goal. Added into this out of the ten draws that Hull have recorded, Hull took the lead in six of them before conceding the equalizer late on in the game. Their inability to both hold the lead and build upon it has really been their undoing this season.

Hull have the 8th worst defense in the league  (Image from Soccerway)
Hull have the 8th worst defense in the league
(Image from Soccerway)

It’s somewhat ironic that Steve Bruce has to face the club where he made his name as a player – Manchester United in the final game of the season, knowing anything but a win will condemn Hull to relegation. United under Van Gaal have had a difficult season but have achieved their objective of a top four finish. With little to play for in the final match, United’s Dutch coach may decide to field some of his fringe or youth players with a view to seeing what they can do. This could be the luck that Bruce needs. All he needs is one goal from his misfiring strikers. However taking the lead is one thing, defending it is another. It may be this that ultimately condemns Hull to the drop.

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FC Midtjylland Provide Blueprint For Club Success On A Budget

FC Midtjylland celebrate another victory as they close in on the title (Image from PA)Just under a month ago, Celtic won their fourth successive title in Scotland. Despite Aberdeen pushing them all the way, the Glasgow club managed to hold on and in doing so continued the old firm dominance of the Scottish game that stretches back thirty years to 1985; the last time a team outside of the Old Firm (Celtic and Rangers) won the league. The situation in Scotland however is not unique with several leagues across the world such as the Dutch, Portuguese and Uruguayan leagues being ruled by two or three clubs. In Denmark, those ruling clubs have traditionally been FC Copenhagen, Brondby and Aab Aalborg. Over the past fifteen years, the trio has won all fifteen titles between them. But now that domination looks under threat with a new challenger leading the way as the Danish season draws to a close.

Celtic continue the old firm dominance of Scottish football  (Image from AP)
Celtic continue the old firm dominance of Scottish football
(Image from AP)

FC Midtjylland’s early season good form may have been dismissed out of hand but it’s hard to argue that their current position on top of the Superliga is not warranted. After 28 games, Midtjylland are 9 points clear with 5 games left to play and are on course for their first ever title. Under the guidance of Glen Riddersholm, Midtjylland have been the team to watch this season with their unique brand of fast break football and clever set up play. Led by the highly experience Kristian Bak Nielsen, the team has played as one all season with no real superstars stealing the limelight. It is this unity and self belief in what the club is trying to achieve collectively that has pushed Midtjylland to the very top. They do still have crunch games against Copenhagen and Brondby to come but with a comfortable nine point cushion with 15 points remaining, it’s hard to see Midtjylland slip up at this point.

Glen Riddersholm has guided his side to the top of the league  (Image from Getty)
Glen Riddersholm has guided his side to the top of the league
(Image from Getty)

The secret to their success has been their business model and more importantly their willingness to adapt to modern day football. With the financial fair play rules coming into effect, clubs across Europe have been forced to have greater ownership of their finances and in a sense tow the corporate line drawn in the sand by UEFA. Whilst a handful of uber rich clubs like Real Madrid, Manchester City and PSG continue to follow the old tried and tested model of throwing cash at a problem to fix it, others are adapting their businesses to allow themselves to live within their financial means more comfortably. But for the smaller clubs across Europe like Midtjylland, the problem of overspending isn’t a real issue to begin with as they are already working within a tight financial structure. Instead they focused on other areas that can give them a competitive edge. Since last summer, the Midtjylland board has embraced the use of statistical analysis to highlight possible potential signings. They are not the first to use this approach but are one of a growing group of clubs who are looking closely at player statistics as part of their recruitment process. Based on the philosophies intorduced by baseball GM Billy Beane in early 2002,  Midtjylland have developed their own model which determines the viability of each player but admit that it is nowhere near perfect and still a work in progress. By example looking for a solid defender is harder than pinpointing a new striker as the metrics are based on events that have happened like shots on target etc. For defenders who stop events happening you have to look at different measurements including what the impact is if you were to remove them from the side. Much more of a perception than an exact science.

Also key to their success has been their willingness to place their trust in youth players from their academy. Whilst historically Brondby and Copenhagen have tied up Denmark’s most promising prospects with promises of riches, Midtjylland have instead promised nothing but opportunity. The opportunity to become a professional at the club and take part in the continuous development of the club. Most youth players have become smart to the false dawns at Brondby and Copenhagen and have placed their faith in clubs like Midtjylland where there is a greater chance of gaining valuable playing time. The players see it as a stepping stone to a larger club, a sentiment shared by the clubs themselves. They are not unrealistic in that sense, understanding that being able to nurture then sell emerging talent only has upsides for both parties as they can use the funds to reinvest in further new young players.

Simon Kjaer is a product of FC Midtylland's youth academy  (Image from AFP)
Simon Kjaer is a product of FC Midtylland’s youth academy
(Image from AFP)

In 2008, Simon Kjaer was sold to Palermo in Italy for €4million whilst Winston Reid left two years later for a similar amount to West Ham. Both players were products of the clubs youth development program which continues to bear fruits to this day. In fact three of the outstanding performers in the first team this year have come from the youth setup. Defender Erik Sviatchenko and midfielders Marco Larsen and Pione Sisto have all had superb seasons and will likely follow the same route as Kjaer and Reid in making big money moves this summer. Whilst it is a challenge to constantly keep rebuilding the squad, the sales of these players allows for the business to continue running at a profit, a model which other clubs are now studying with a view to replicating. Some clubs like Southampton and Lille have mastered this concept whilst others struggle to understand its benefits. This is good news to clubs who have adapted like FC Midtjylland who will continue to use this approach as long as its reaps the rewards.

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Record Breaking Stopper Friedel To Hang Up His Gloves

US goalkeeper Brad Friedel announces his retirement at the end of the season (Image from Getty)With two games left before the end of the season, Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel desire to play in one of these fixtures has intensified with the news that he will retire from the game at the end of the current campaign. If Mauricio Pochettino does select the US stopper to face either Hull or Everton, Friedel will become the oldest player in Premier League history beating the current record holder former Manchester City goalkeeper John Burridge. Friedel, who turns 44 on Monday has not featured this season for Spurs and has not played a competitive league match since November 2013.  Few would begrudge Friedel of that final swansong after a glittering career for club and country but sentimentality goes out of the window when sides are chasing places in Europe. Spurs currently sit in 6th place four points behind Liverpool, a point ahead of Southampton in 7th and two points ahead of Swansea in 8th. A win on Saturday may not be enough for Spurs to gamble throwing Friedel in to the mix for the final game against Everton, especially if Swansea and Southampton both win as well. Friedel will know the reality of the situation and will as always put the best interest of the club ahead of his own, even if that does mean missing out on that record.

Friedel makes an important stop for Villa against Spurs  (Image from AFP)
Friedel makes an important stop for Villa against Spurs
(Image from AFP)

Records are something that Friedel has been breaking his entire career that has spanned over 23 years, nine clubs and 668 appearances. He also managed to pick up 82 caps for the United States along the way too. He holds the record for most consecutive appearances in the Premiership (310 made between August 2004 and November 2012 and is only one of five goalkeepers to have ever scored in that league too (the others being Paul Robinson, Peter Schmeichel, Asmir Begovic and US teammate Tim Howard). He holds the record for number of appearances made by an American (450 to date) in the Premiership although that record could fall if the 36 year old Tim Howard continues his impressive run. Friedel also holds the record for most penalty saves during a World Cup group stage (two in the 2002 WC) that earned him the nicknamed of the human wall amongst the US supporters.

Brad Friedel has continue to play at the top level for longer than most in his position, which some believe was a direct results of him having to declare himself bankrupt in January 2011 after losing all his money in a failed soccer academy in Ohio. However as a goalkeeper Friedel had the luxury to do so as they do tend to play longer than their outfield colleagues by 3-4 years. That said few are still playing at the top level well into their forties with most dropping to the lower leagues in England or departing for other slightly slower global leagues.  But Friedel was still very much in demand for his services as his fortieth birthday approached. When Harry Redknapp took him to Tottenham in the summer of 2011, he was bought originally as a backup for Brazilian Heurelho Gomes but after he made several high profile errors and misjudgments, Friedel was handed the starting jersey and began the 2011-2012 season as Spurs No. 1. He would hold the jersey until the arrival of French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris finally displaced him.

Friedel was always destined to play in the Premiership. After making his name playing college soccer for the University of California, the then 23 year old Friedel began looking at clubs to start his professional career with. Moves to Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough and Newcastle under Kevin Keegan fell through due to work permit problems so instead Friedel joined Danish side FC Brondby on loan as back up for club legend Mogens Krogh. Despite not making a single appearance, Friedel did eventually seal a move to Europe with Galatasaray who were impressed with his performances for the US during the 1995 US Cup and Copa America campaigns. Bossed by Graeme Souness, Friedel made 30 appearances over the next season before returning to the US to play for Columbus Crew. He would be named Goalkeeper of the Year that season beating Jorge Campos, Tony Meola and Walter Zenga to that honour. That was enough to persuade Liverpool boss Roy Evans to part with £1.7 million to secure his services. Work Permit issues once again looked to torpedo the deal but they were overturned on appeal and Friedel was clear to make his debut against Aston Villa on February 28, 1998.  Despite finally making it to the Premiership, Friedel found playing time limited at Liverpool so when old boss Graeme Souness came calling in November 2000 with an offer to join Blackburn Rovers he jumped at it. Over the next eight years, Friedel would become one of the most consistent and best shot stoppers in the league, first helping Rovers to promotion then cementing their place in the league. By now competition for his signature had amplified and with Manchester City sniffing around, Aston Villa swooped in with a £2.5 million offer in order to get their man. He joined Villa during the summer of 2008 and would play for them for three seasons before eventually making the move over to Tottenham.

A young Brad Friedel during his Galatasaray days  (Image from Getty)
A young Brad Friedel during his Galatasaray days
(Image from Getty)

Friedel was selected for three US World Cup squads, playing in the 1998 and 2002 tournaments as No.1 and providing back up to Tony Meola during the 1994 World Cup. He is the fourth most capped goalkeeper in US history behind Tim Howard, Kasey Keller and Meola. He retired from international football in 2005 in an effort to prolong his playing career which appears to have worked. Regardless of whether Friedel gets on to the field for his final Premiership swansong or not, the US stopper will go down as one of the greatest players ever to grace English football.

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From World Cup Winner To Bit Part Player – What Has Gone Wrong For Mario Gotze

  With only ten minutes left of their crunch second leg game against Barcelona and trailing on aggregate by two goals, Pep looked at his bench. Sitting there was a player who could potentially turn the game, a baby faced assassin who seems to flourish in these big occasions. Mario Gotze knew his time had come so stripped off and prepared to enter the fray. Having the luxury to remove a player like Thomas Muller and replace him with Mario Gotze is a dream that only few coaches will ever experience. So deep is the pool of talent at Bayerns disposal that they can afford to leave out Gotze from the starting eleven is startling. But with the talent that Gotze has was it right of Guardiola to give him only four minutes or indeed leave him out of the starting line up all together? Whether or not Gotze starting the game would have had any effect on the overall outcome is unknown but arguably he offers slightly more to the side than others. But for one reason or another Pep has never really warmed to the little German.  

No love lost between Pep and Gotze (image from Getty)
 When Guardiola agreed to take over at Bayern he asked that they sign Neymar. Instead he got Gotze as the board felt he was as good and had the added advantage of being German. In the end, Neymar joined Pep’s former club Barcelona  whilst Gotze traveled across the country from Dortmund to Munich. It’s fair to assume that the relationship between the two has been on rocky ground for some time now. Gotze last year spoke publically about his frustration at the playing opportunities Guardiola had thrown his way that season. Gotze did manage to finish the season strongly and was selected for the Germany squad in a move that ended up securing them the World Cup thanks to his extra time goal. Returning to club football, Gotze must have believed that Guardiola would have been impressed by what he had achieved for his country but instead he found a manager who didn’t seem to care. Guardiola simply didn’t know what to do with Gotze. Talented yes but as a smaller player in a fairly tall squad where exactly would he fit?  In a 4-3-2-1 formation, dropping Muller or Ribery/Robben from wide positions was not an option, nor was the prospect of leaving the towering Robert Lewandowski out in favour of Gotze. Sacrificing one of his central midfield three appeared to be the best bet but that would mean leaving out Thiago, Schweinsteiger or Xavi Alonso. Thiago, who played for Guardiola at Barcelona was a player who the coach specifically wanted and who the board delivered, unlike Neymar. Schweinsteiger is a legend for both club and country and his work rate for both is unheralded. So that only leaves Alonso. At 34, Xavi Alonso appears to have lost none of his tactical awareness of the game with the way he reads it and dictates the play a joy to watch. In a midfield crammed full of talent, Alonso still stands out as the player Guardiola can ill afford to drop. He is their calm through stormy weathers, with a passage range that most great players would be proud off. To say that Alonso keeps getting better season after season is not far from the mark although he has notably slowed over the past decade as time caught up with him. Dropping Alonso for Gotze would mean a change in format and a switch to a more uncomfortable approach. Gotze would be condemned  once again to being  rotation player only for Bayern. 
Alonso continues to impress despite his advancing years (image from pa)
 To be fair to Pep he has played Gotze more times this season than last. Gotze has made thirty appearances in the league, fourteen of which came from the bench. Injuries to key players like Schweinsteiger, Ribery and Thiago have indirectly handed Gotze a few more starts than usual but as a result Guardiola had to adapt his formation to suit. His preference it would appear is to have Gotze come from the bench, something the player isn’t too happy about. Guardiola doesn’t necessary not like the player, he simply can’t fit him into his preferred system. In fact when Gotze was heavily criticized recently by German legend Franz Beckenbauer for being lazy, it was Pep who jumped to his defence stating that Gotze was one of the best professionals he had ever worked with. He fell short of saying that he was an important member of his squad however, something that would have perhaps made Gotze feel slightly better about his role at the club. 
Beckenbauer has been critical of Bayern and Gotze in particular in recent weeks (image from getty)
 Where to play Gotze is the puzzling question. Coming off the bench appears to suit Gotze style of play. He is an impact player who can grab the goal that wins the game. Given that a quarter of Bayern’s league goals this season were scored in the last fifteen minutes of the game, it’s not hard to work out why Pep prefers it this way too. Whether Gotze sees it this way is a different matter. With Pep confirming that he will be in charge next season, Gotze has two options – stay and fight for a spot or leave. If he does decide to leave the list of potential suitors will be a long one with clubs in England, Spain and Italy more than willing to add the German to their ranks. Gotze will have to decide if staying in his native Germany is more important at this stage in his career than regular games. He could bide his time and wait for Guardiola to depart at the end of next season when his contract expires but the risks with that strategy are great. Bayern are happy with what Guardiola has done so far albeit missing out on the Champions League final was not ideal. However if he can steer them to Europe’s top club prize next season, a new contract may be offered by the Bayern board if it hasn’t been offered before then.

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Swindon Books Final Place in Ten Goal Play Off Thriller

Swindon progress to Wembley after epic game (Image from Getty)With a place in the League One play off final at stake, Swindon Town entertained Sheffield United at the City Ground in the second league of their semi final clash. Swindon held a 2-1 advantage going into the match with manager Mark Cooper knowing that a draw would be enough for the Robins to confirm their place at the Wembley showcase. Sheffield United, who finished eight points behind Swindon in 5th place in the League knew that they would have to attack the game and score at least twice to win (there is no away goal rule in the playoffs). With the match balancing on a knife edge, the crowd made its way to their seats expecting a nervous clash between two evenly balanced sides. To their surprise what followed in the next ninety minutes was one of the most dramatic high scoring playoff matches of all time. As the referee blew his full time whistle, few could believe what they had just seen – a ten goal thriller that was high paced and full of action from the 1st minute to the last.

The game was on a knife edge heading into the second leg  (Image from Sky Sports
The game was on a knife edge heading into the second leg
(Image from Sky Sports

It was Swindon who came charging out of the blocks first using their five man midfield as a battering ram against Sheffield’s bewildered back line. The pressure paid off with Swindon taking the lead within four minutes. Some clever play down the right hand side resulted in Nathan Byrne whipping the ball into the box only for Craig Alcock to head it clear from inside his six yard box. Unfortunately for Alcock his header fell to the right boot of Ben Gladwin who rifled the ball into the net from 18 yards. The 22 year old midfielder, brought in two seasons ago from Hayes & Yeading in the Conference league has been in superb form this season and he added to his tally with his second goal of the game only six minutes later.  With Sheffield failing to clear their lines, Nathan Byrne capitalized by chasing down what looked to be a lost ball before crossing it across the face of the goal for the easiest tap in for Gladwin. Sheffield United were in disarray so when Swindon added a third on 18 minutes, the game looked all but over. Again it was that man Byrne on the right hand side causing the problems with another delightful cross into the box which the Sheffield defensive failed to clear properly once again. Picking up the loose ball, striker Michael Smith turned his marker before rifling his shot past Mark Howard in the United goal.

Nigel Cloughs side needed a miracle to turn this around. Now trailing 5-1 on aggregate, Sheffield needed a quick response if they were to stay in the game and they got it pretty much from the restart thanks to some good link up play down the right with two of the six Scottish players (Flynn and McNulty) in the Sheffield United starting lineup combining to set up the goal.  McNulty’s defense splitting pass was met by Jamie Murphy whose weak effort was bundled into the net thanks  to a deflection off Swindon defender Nathan Thompson. Sheffield were now on the attack and added a second just before the break with Robert Harris setting up Chris Basham to head home with a superb diving header. Both sides decide against making changes at the break but it would appear as though the half time team talks were the same; go out and kill this game off. The second half started with the same energy and drive as the first had ended. Sheffield with the bit between their teeth were pushing hard for an equalizer when the ball got turned over and caught them out of position. A long kick by Swindon goalkeeper Wesley Foderingham put Sheffield under extreme pressure with their defensive frailties showing again. First Smith was pulled over by Alcock as the pair chased the bouncing before Jermaine Hylton was bundled over in the box by Howard. Smith dusted himself off to covert the resulting penalty and put Swindon 4-2 ahead. Sheffield heads did not drop however and when left back Harris, who had been a constant threat with his crossing abilities picked up the ball and whipped in a beautifully curled cross towards substitute Steve Davies, there was only one outcome. His header gave Sheffield hope with 25 minutes left to play.

The superb Nathan Byrne battles with Ryan Flynn for the ball  (Image from AP)
The superb Nathan Byrne battles with Ryan Flynn for the ball
(Image from AP)

That hope however was eventually dashed as substitute Jonathan Obika sealed Swindon’s passage to the final with a delightful move. Breaking out of defence Swindon drove the ball up field with Australian Matt Luongo leading the charge. Sheffield, who had thrown everyone forward in hopes of getting the goals they needed were caught short once again at the back so when Luongo threaded a pass to Obika, the former Tottenham youth player only had Alcock and the keeper to beat. Bringing the ball back inside to beat Alcock, he coolly slotted past Howard sending the Swindon fans into hysteria. Sheffield needed three goals to send the game into extra time and they almost managed it, grabbing two late goals thanks to a Matt Done close range finish and a stunning solo effort by Che Adams but in the end they simply ran out of time. Swindon now travels to Wembley on the 24th May to face Preston N.E. with the winner earning a place in the Championship next season. For Sheffield it is another play off heartbreak making it their eighth successive playoff defeat and consigning them to yet another season in League One. However Nigel Clough’s men can be proud of the way that they rallied in the game after going behind and never gave up. That attitude and approach next season could end their Championship hiatus once and for all.

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QPR Plan For Future As Relegation Is Confirmed

Back to the drawing board for QPR (Image from Getty)A passionate and dedicated performance is hardly what you would have expected from the Premierships bottom club Burnley but that’s exactly what they gave on Saturday against Hull. Despite knowing that the chances of them staying in the division were slim to none (they needed to win all three of their remaining games and have other results go their way), the Burnley players marched onto the field with their heads held high and duly walked away with a well deserved three points thanks to Danny Ings 11th goal of the season.  It’s been a season of justs for Burnley – just unable to hold on for that draw against Crystal Palace in mid January, just unable to find the net against Leicester a few weeks ago etc. One thing they haven’t lacked is effort, competing for every ball from the first minute to the last, giving 100% to every match. Relegation back to the Championship is a harsh punishment for Sean Dyche’s men who have won over a lot of the skeptics with their brave approach this season. The same however cannot be said for Queens Park Rangers who too have been relegated after a miserable season. Sunday’s 6-0 mauling at the hands of Manchester City sealed their fate but in truth QPR were relegated before a ball was even kicked.

As the two sides lined up in the tunnel ahead of kick off, few gave QPR a chance at getting all three points. But if the side came out and gave a spirited performance, a point may be possible which would have gone a long way to appeasing their fans. Unfortunately the body language of the QPR players was all too evident. Defeat and relegation were to them inevitable so why try? Not exactly the response you want from your players going into a crunch match.  Within four minutes, Sergio Aguero had fired City into a 1-0 lead. Already the heads had dropped; a drubbing was on the way. When Kolarov stepped up to hit a 32nd minute free kick, QPR were in disarray.  Robert Green tried his hardest to organize a wall but no one appeared to know who was meant to be in the wall or where they were supposed to stand. The work that was surely done on the training pitch had been forgotten in yet another example of how badly organized QPR are. The blame however should not lie at the feet of manager Chris Ramsey, instead it should rest solely at the feet of his players – unable to follow simple marching orders or fall into some resemblance of structure.  Woeful defending let Aguero race through and add a third just after the break but by then the QPR players were already contemplating next season.  No doubt some were planning their moves away from the club but they failed to understand that any potential clubs would be watching how they performed in this game. The lack of desire and effort by the QPR players would hardly compel clubs to reach for their cheque books.

Kolarov curls one over a badly organized QPR wall  (Image from Getty
Kolarov curls one over a badly organized QPR wall
(Image from Getty

QPR’s owner Tony Fernandes needs to drastically overhaul his team starting by appointing a full time manager. Chris Ramsey has done a good job in what can only be described as horrific circumstances – a misshaped squad, lacking in self belief and conviction, all picking up astronomical wages that demand better performances and more effort. Handing him the reins full time and giving him the ability to rebuild the team in his vision may result in a rebound for QPR.  But in truth they shouldn’t be in this position to start with. QPR should not have gone back down given their financial resources and squad but unfortunately they failed to learn from their past mistakes. The signings brought in to the club were mostly aging pros, enticed by those high wages but all have failed to add any class to an already starved team. Captain Joey Barton talked openly after the game as he does about one of two bad eggs in the squad that were upsetting the balance of the team as a whole. Although he fell short of naming them, the fact that these bad eggs were allowed to cause problems highlights further issues at the club. In the past, QPR has been found guilty of throwing money at a problem but never really fixing it. Booting out these bad eggs mid season could have been all it took to save QPR from relegation but instead the club decided against doing that.

Will Chris Ramsey be in charge next year?  (Image from PA)
Will Chris Ramsey be in charge next year?
(Image from PA)

This summer will give them that opportunity with the entire squad needing a desperate revamp. The club has 9 players out of contract including Barton, Richard Dunne, Rio Ferdinand and Bobby Zamora all of which will be assessed carefully by Director of Football Les Ferdinand and the manager (whoever that should be) with a view to handing only a few of them a new deal. The four loan players at the club (Isla, Vargas, Zarate and Kranjcar) will all return to their clubs whilst key assets like Charlie Austin, Matt Phillips and Steven Caulker will all be sold. The remaining squad will see their wages sliced by at least half as the club looks to trim the fat that is strangling the club. QPR will look dramatically different next season as they prepare to mount a challenge for one of the promotion places.  There are worse ideas than turning to the clubs youth players for new additions to the squad, adopting the Southampton approach that has benefited them so well over the past five years. Whatever QPR are to do, the most important thing that they need is a plan – they need to sit down, learn from their mistakes and built a robust plan not for the next season but for the next five to ten seasons. Sticking to that plan however may be their biggest challenge.

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Leeds Fans Hoping For Summer Of Stability After Season Of Turmoil

A tough season for Leeds fans (Image from Getty)Life as a Leeds United fan is never easy. This season more than any has tested their loyalty to breaking point with several off field dramas blighting what looked to be a promising season. Pre season optimism fuelled by an exciting batch of new young players coming through led many fans to wonder if this would be the season that Leeds finally pushes for promotion. That enthusiasm however lasted only a few weeks after controversial owner Massimo Celino appointed the inexperienced Dave Hockaday in mid June to lead the team into the new campaign. The fans were naturally disappointed by the move as they believed it was a step back for the club and a ploy by Celino to save money (Hockaday was reportedly paid only 1/8th of what his predecessor Brian McDermott was on). Hockaday’s only previous managerial job was at Forest Green Rovers in the Conference League but was sacked by Rovers in October 2013 after a run of poor results. Hardly the pedigree manager that the Leeds fans were hoping for. Despite this, the fans backed the team and after an impressive series of wins in friendly games, the optimism returned to Elland Road once more, with many wondering whether they were wrong about their new boss.

The Inexperienced Hockaday with owner Celino  (Image from Leeds United)
The Inexperienced Hockaday with owner Celino
(Image from Leeds United)

After narrowly avoiding relegation the year before, Leeds needed to start the season well if they were to finish in the top six but within the first eight minutes of their opening game of the season against Millwall, it was clear that Hockaday hadn’t gotten the memo. Leeds lost that match as well as two of the next three matches leaving the club dangling near the bottom of the table. Despite a resurgence which saw Leeds beat Bolton, Bournemouth and Huddersfield, Hockaday was eventually sacked and replaced by the Strum Graz manager Darko Milanic. The former Slovenia defender’s appointment meant that he became the first non British or Irish manager in Leeds history. Just over a month later he picked up another first by becoming the first sacked foreign manager in Leeds history after failing to win any of his six games in charge. Celino reacted to the fans backlash of yet another failed manager by promoting from within bumping Academy boss Neil Redfearn to the hot seat. His appointment, along with a change in formation to a 4-2-3-1 approach revitalized Leeds season which by that point was in free fall. Granted it did take a few months for his new look side to embraced the formational adjustment but when it finally clicked against Bournemouth in late January, Leeds were flying. In the period between his appointment in November and the Bournemouth match on the 20th January, Leeds picked up only 10 points from 12 games with a win rate of 16%. Over the next twelve games, Leeds racked up an impressive 25 points with a win rate of 66%. Finally the Leeds fans had something to smile about as their team climbed to mid table safety.

But then things began to unravel. Redfearn’s assistant Steve Thompson was shockingly suspended by the club by Sporting Director Nicola Salerno due to an internal matter. No reason was given for the suspension and worst of all Redfearn had not been advised about the suspension prior to it happening. Redfearn, who specifically targeted Thompson for the assistant role when he took over as manager was furious and complained to the board stating he felt undermined and would have to consider his role at the club. Without Thompson to assist him, Leeds suffered a drop in form losing five of their remaining eight games of the season and picking up only a single win along the way. Leeds playoff chances were dead and along with it the confidence of the fans in the current regime. The return of Celino after a four month hiatus due to a suspension by the Football League for tax evasion in his native Italy, has hardly given them a renewed energy with many hoping that someone else will come in and buy the club. The situation is so dire that even rumours that Hollywood actor Russell Crowe could purchase the club were welcomed warmly by the Leeds faithful. Anyone is better than Celino at least in the eyes of the Leeds fans.

Self proclaimed Leeds fan Russell Crowe was rumoured to be considering buying the club  (Image from Reuters)
Self proclaimed Leeds fan Russell Crowe was rumoured to be considering buying the club
(Image from Reuters)

Once a dominant force of English football, Leeds recent demise due to poor management and unnecessary off field drama is a sad reflection on the game today. The club has so much to offer a potential purchaser – a long colourful history, an established and loyal fan base and an impressive stadium (albeit in need of some upgrading). The squad isn’t bad either – with a good mix of home grown players like Sam Bryam, Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt and experienced Championship players like Billy Sharp and Luke Murphy. Added into this an accomplished manager in Neil Redfearn who understands the club and its rich history, Leeds are a good purchase for any wannabe investor. Leeds fans will be hoping that this summer brings stability back to their club in one way or another and finally they can start to dream once more about a return to life in the Premiership where they belong.

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Extra Terrestrial Messi Ruins Guardiola’s Nou Camp Return

From Another Dimension - Messi (Image from AP)Advantage Barcelona in their Champions league semi final clash with Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola’s side arrived carrying several injuries to key players but optimistic of progressing to the final in Berlin on June 6th. For Pep it was a special night, returning to the club that he made his name as a player and then as a manager, the latter being a period of history recognized as one of Barcelona’s finest hours. But against the team that he worked so hard to build, with a few small additions from Geraldo Martino and now Luis Enrique, Barcelona proved too good for the visiting German Champions. The score line at the end of ninety thrilling minutes read 3-0 to Barcelona but in truth it could have been more. Barcelona were unstoppable with Leo Messi in particularly dazzling form. His two goals plus assist in Barcelona’s third goal of the night puts Barcelona in a commanding position heading into the return leg in Munich next week. Pep must be wondering how he can turn this around and more importantly stop the player who helped him to numerous titles during his time at the Nou Camp – Leo Messi.

The little Argentine probably had one of his best games in a Barcelona shirt for some time. He has been in fantastic form this season, combining well in a new look front three alongside Luis Suarez and Neymar. The trio have scored 111 goals between them in all competitions with Messi racking up fifty three of them so far. With three games left in the league, the Copa Del Rey final and potentially two more in the Champions League if Barcelona can reach the final, the chances of Messi beating his season best tally of 73 goals look fairly unlikely but that will matter not to the player. Having notched ten goals in the last nine games, Messi is lethal in front of goal at the moment which showed last night against Bayern. His first goal; a long range effort with his left foot that bounced perfectly in front of the diving Manuel Neuer was only a taste of what was to come. The follow up would be far better and would highlight just how good Messi really is. Collecting a threaded defense splitting pass from Ivan Rakitic, who himself had a great game Messi drove in on goal from the right hand side of the pitch. World Cup winning defender Jerome Boateng tracked his run and as the pair entered the box, it looked as though the former Manchester City centre back had nullified the threat. But Messi had different ideas, twisting his body one way then the other, the ball glued to his feet at all times eventually leaving Boateng laid out on the floor in such an embarrassing way that it spawned a million meme’s on social media. Now in the box with only the onrushing Neuer to beat, Messi simply lifted the ball over the diving keeper and into the net for Barca’s second. His angled pass to Neymar deep into injury time only added icing to the cake as the Brazilian raced into the box and shot under Neuer for Barcelona’s third of the night.

Some of the meme's created by users following Boateng's falling over due to Messi's trickery  (Image from Twitter)
Some of the meme’s created by users following Boateng’s falling over due to Messi’s trickery
(Image from Twitter)

In this sort of form, it’s hard to see how exactly Messi’s former boss Guardiola will stop him in the return league. His current manager Luis Enrique praised the Argentine striker saying that he was “a player from another dimension” and it’s hard to argue with that. Former Barca striker Patrick Kluivert back up Enrique’s praise by saying “He really is from a different planet, even if you are supporting another team you have to admit this” whilst former England striker Gary Lineker simply said that he was such a joy to watch. Even his own teammates were quick to praise his performance after the match with Gerard Pique insisting that when Messi is inspired, no one can stop him. Even Andreas Iniesta, who has had his fair share of magical performances over the years, was left speechless by the performance of Messi last night. As usual the man himself gave no comment after the game, instead deciding to focus on the challenges ahead. Reaching his fourth Champions League final and securing the La Liga title and Copa Del Rey title are the only things on Messi’s mind at the moment. Winning is the only option for the little Argentine maestro and few would be against him getting the trophies he wants this season based on the form he is currently in.

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Oscar Misses Out As Brazil Gears Up For Copa Run

Copa target - Brazil manager Dunga (Image from Getty)With the Copa America just over a month away, Brazil manager Dunga has decided to name his squad in preparation. There are few surprises in the squad that will likely be captained by Neymar. In a fairly balanced squad Dunga has named a majority of the players who have played under him over the past eight friendly matches. However there is a recall for former Manchester City striker Robinho after his impressive season for Santos this year. The 31 year old forward will be hoping he can inspire Brazil to yet another Copa America title much like he did back in 2007. Currently on loan from AC Milan, Robinho has racked up only five goals in 13 league appearances this past season but has contributed much more to Santos overall style of play that his return of goals give him credit for. Also in the squad is Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho who has been the shining light in what has been a difficult season for the Anfield club. Having lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury for a majority of the season, Liverpool have failed to build on last year’s 2nd place EPL finish. That said, Coutinho’s form especially in the last few months has propelled the club back into European contention and now sit in 5th place with three matches left to play.

There is no place however for the creative Oscar who has had a frustrating past few months with injuries, summed up perfectly by his knock out at The Emirates thanks to a wild challenge by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. The Chelsea midfielder was hoping that his recent injuries would be overlooked by Dunga and be able to claim a place by a call from Jose Mourinho soon sorted that out. The Portuguese coach, who spent last weekend celebrating his four Premiership title, placed a call to the Brazil manager to inform him about a thigh injury that Oscar had sustained in training. It’s a devastating blow for the 23 year old playmaker who is keen to build on his already impressive 45 appearances for his country including some standout performances at the last World Cup. Also missing out are the influential trio of Ramires, Dani Alves and Kaka with Dunga preferring to play favour with a group of players who fit more comfortably into his style of play. It may not be the style that most expect from Brazil, with attacking bias benched in favour of slower build up play with the midfield rather than the strikers playing a more significant role. This cautious approach is designed to avoid the pitfalls experience last summer.

Brazil as a nation is still reeling from the events of last summer and the Copa America, set to take place in Chile in mid June has been viewed by many in the country as the salvation. Since their 3-0 defeat to Holland in the third place playoff’s, there have been several personnel changes including the manager with Scolari replaced by Dunga. The changes have worked with Dunga’s new look Brazil side unbeaten so far in the eight friendly games they have played. They approach the Copa with confidence, with the country slowly coming back to support them in their droves. Dunga however is taking nothing for granted and knows that the memory of that 7-1 mauling at the hands of Germany in the World Cup semi final is still fresh in most Brazilians minds. The coach is always looking over his shoulder and for good reason. His first spell in charge was deemed a failure with his tactics especially in competitive matches questioned. Eight wins on the bounce is a great feat and goes a long way to mend the deep cuts inflicted by the Germans nearly a year ago. But failure to win the Copa, which is considered one of the more historic and important titles by many in South America, could result in Dunga leaving his job before the 2018 World Cup qualifiers begin in October. Reaching the final is a must, with even the semi’s not being enough to satisfy many. Dunga’s side will have to play six matches in four weeks if they are to reach the final so his team selection is designed specifically for this challenge. Instead of having a set eleven much like Scolari had at the World Cup, Dunga will use his full squad and rotate players depending on the opponent, with the only player likely to feature in all the matches being Neymar. He has strength in depth with several players in the squad able to play numerous positions which gives Dunga options in terms of tactical approach.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup  (Image from Getty)
Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup
(Image from Getty)

He has strengthen the backline, which looked shaky and unorganized last summer, with Atletcio’s Miranda coming in to break up the reliance of David Luiz and Thiago Silva at centre back. In goal, Julio Cesar has been sacrificed for  the more reliable, no nonsense Jefferson whilst Danilo and Fabinho have been drafted in to offer support from full back but perhaps not as much attacking threat as a Dani Alves. The addition of Everton Ribeiro and Diego Tardelli add attacking prowess and mark a first for Brazil by calling up players for the first time who play in the UAE and China respectively. Much rests on captain Neymar’s shoulders but perhaps not as much as in the World Cup. His absence in the semi final due to injury was a huge blow to Brazil’s attack minded approach with Fred the only real option. That over reliance cost Brazil dearly and is a mistake that Dunga is cautious to avoid making again. The Copa America offers the chance at redemption for one of the world’s best sides. How far they can go will depend on many aspects but one thing is certain – failure is not an option.

Brazil squad for Copa America

Goalkeepers: Jefferson (Botafogo), Diego Alves (Valencia), Marcelo Grohe (Gremio)

Defenders: Fabinho (Monaco), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Filipe Luis (Chelsea), Danilo (Porto), David Luiz (PSG), Marquinhos (PSG), Thiago Silva (PSG), Miranda (Atletico Madrid)

Midfielders: Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Elias (Corinthians), Casemiro (Porto)

Attackers: Everton Ribeiro (Al-Ahli), Douglas Costa (Shakhtar Donetsk), Willian (Chelsea), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool), Robinho (Santos), Neymar (Barcelona), Diego Tardelli (Shandong Luneng), Roberto Firmino (Hoffenheim)

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The New Generation Of Mexico Stars About To Take Over The World

After the failure to reach the 1974 World Cup and then the 1976 European Championships, the French Football Federation (FFF) decided to make swift and proactive changes to improve their chances of qualifying for upcoming tournaments and protect France’s long-term future. FFF President Fernand Sastre wanted to focus on youth and a build national centres of excellence to encourage the growth of the next generation of French players. The idea was the brain child of former France National team boss, Ștefan Kovács who had seen similar types of centres at home in his native Romania. But the coach knew he needed Satre’s help to get the idea off the ground. Within 6 years, centres like Clairefontaine were established to nurture new talent and rules had been passed onto all clubs within the league setup regarding  youth development and squad selections. The new rules passed made it mandatory that all clubs invest in youth schemes and feature youth players in their squads which encouraged their rapid developments.

Former FFF President Fernand Sastre  (Image from Getty)
Former FFF President Fernand Sastre
(Image from Getty)

Within 2 years, France started to see signs of early success and the national team, inspired and led by Michel Platini, lifted the European Championship in 1984. But it would be 14 years later at World Cup 1998, held ironically in France, that the new generation would finally step forward and lift the cup. Players like William Gallas, Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka all came through the youth setup at Clairefontaine, whilst Zidane, Pires, Thuram and David Trezeguet featured at other centres. The 1998 class would go on to win Euro 2000, which officially confirmed the 1976 restructuring as a success. Other nations like Belgium, Turkey and Germany are following suit, promoting youth development as one of their core requirements but none have been as successful as Mexico.

Home Grown – France win the World Cup 1998 on home soil

The catalyst of change for Mexico’s was their under 17’s triumph in the 2005 youth World Cup. They realised that they already had talented youngsters but were not exploiting them and were suffering as a consequence. Football in Mexico had been grinding along for several years before in 2005, the Mexican FA decided that radical reform was needed to solve the disconnect between it club sides to its youth set up. For years, Mexican youth football was not professionalized so a lot of the best young talent simply fell out of the system and sometimes out of football all together.

Gold in London for Mexico (Image from Getty)
Gold in London for Mexico (Image from Getty)

The first task of the newly created sports development committee, formed in 2005, was to solve this problem and introduce new policies that would prevent Mexican football from sliding backwards. What they did was radical – they instructed each club that they needed to field a player under 21 years of age, for at least 45 minutes at a time, in every game throughout the season. They didn’t stop there, introducing two new youth leagues at under 17 and under 20 level that again needed to be funded and run by the senior teams. What this did was forced the clubs to make youth development a priority and invest heavily, even create youth teams in some cases.

Jonathan Dos Santos, younger brother of Giovani, is one of many talented youngsters emerging

The results are now evident to see with talent youngsters like Marco Fabien, Jonathan Dos Santos, Carlos Fierro and Marco Bueno all emerging in recent years and attracting the attention of the world’s best teams. Success at international level has been astonishing as well as the team develops together as a unit. In the two years leading up to 2013, Mexico’s youth teams dominated tournaments winning 10 out of a possible 13, including their Under 23 Olympic Gold at London 2012. Their performance in the final, where they blew away an impressive Brazil side with ease didn’t go unnoticed and now Mexico is firmly on every scouts radar, if it wasn’t already. As this team grows together and improves, who knows what they will achieve.

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Carver Rant Plunges Newcastle To All Time Low

Out of his depth - John Carver (image from Getty)After yet another interesting week for Leicester boss Nigel Pearson which included a lecture from BBC journalist Pat Murphy about treating the media with respect, it was kind of Newcastle boss John Carver to help him out by taking the media’s spotlight away from Pearson and placing it on himself. After Newcastle’s capitulation against relegation threatened Leicester on Saturday, Carver decided to publicly name and shame his players in particular defender Mike Williamson who he suggested had deliberately got himself sent off. The centre back was dismissed for second bookable offence after a late challenge on Jamie Vardy with the ball and the player already over the sideline. The challenge was reckless and unnecessary with the ball running out of play for what was going to be Newcastle throw anyway. Williamson reacted quickly with a statement the next day denying the allegations and insisting there was no intent to get himself sent off. Williamson now faces a two match ban which means that he will only be available for selection for Newcastle’s final game of the season against West Ham. Many question whether or not he will play once more this season or indeed for Newcastle ever again with pundit Andy Townsend suggesting that he is struggling at this level. Williamson is joined on the sidelines by fellow defender Darryl Janmaat who too received his marching orders after two stupid challenges.

Williamson's reckless challenge could be his last action in a Newcastle shirt  (Image from Getty)
Williamson’s reckless challenge could be his last action in a Newcastle shirt
(Image from Getty)

The defeat marks Newcastle’s eighth straight loss and sees them slip to 15th in the table, two points above the relegation zone with one more game played than Hull in 16th and arch rivals Sunderland in 18th. Both sides face Arsenal in their additional match so three points is hardly a given but the situation for Newcastle could get a lot worse if they are to win and Newcastle can’t stop the rot. Nine points remain to secure their place in the Premiership next season but given their recent form it’s hard to see where they will pick any points up. In a sensational post match interview, manager John Carver blasted his players for their lack of effort saying that only Jack Colback displayed the commitment and desire needed to pull themselves out of this dogfight. It was a stunning statement but yet another example of how out of his depth Carver is. If he hadn’t lost the dressing room before the Leicester defeat he will certainly have now with Williamson and Janmaat fronting a queue that will be knocking on his door today for answers.

Newcastle’s tactics were wrong going into the game in particular at set pieces and that blame lies solely at the feet of the manager. Look at Leicester’s first goal after only 37 seconds of the match. A corner swung in from the left is met easily by Leo Ulloa who powers his header past Tim Krul in the Newcastle goal. Anyone watching the game would have spotted a series of major flaws in the way Newcastle was positioned in the run up to the corner being taking. To start with there was no one covering the front post, with only Jack Colback hovering at the back post. The penalty box was crowded with 6 Leicester players being marked by nine Newcastle players. With Janmaat man marking Cambassio at the back post and Guiterrez on Wasilewski at the front post, four Leicester players remained left to mark. Ryan Taylor quickly placed himself between Jamie Vardy and Tim Krul three yards off of the line whilst Paul Dummet picked up Morgan’s run towards the back post. That left Mike Williamson to track the run of Robert Huth whilst Riviere floated in the box. But the strangest decision was to leave Newcastle’s best header of the ball Coloccini as a spare in the 6 yard box whilst letting Sissoko man mark Leicester’s principle goal treat Ulloa. They paid the ultimate price as Ulloa leaped well above the French midfielder to head into the net. It was a similar story on Leicester’s second goal with Coloccini left spare rather than picking up a player. In the end it was an easy tap in for Morgan from the in swinging free kick by Albrighton.

Newcastle's positioning is all wrong for Leicester's first goal  (Image from Getty)
Newcastle’s positioning is all wrong for Leicester’s first goal
(Image from Getty)

Carver has on a too frequent basis said that his tactics were not at fault but instead the players ability to execute on them was but Saturday’s performance and in particular the way they lost the three goals – two from set plays and one from the penalty spot shows that he is as much to blame as the players. Yes the team looks stripped of confidence and lacks the desire to win but Carver is not helping the situation by setting his team up to fail from the off then heavily criticizing them after it. If Newcastle is to stay up they need to act now by sacking Carver in favour of someone who can pull the team back together and get the three to six points needed to ensure safety. With Derby missing out on a playoff berth, Newcastle could bring forward their plans to bring in Steve McLaren with the former England boss perhaps more than willing to come in now to ensure he is managing in the Premiership next season with Newcastle rather than the Championship. Failure to act by owner Mike Ashley will see Newcastle relegated especially if the drowning Carver continues to press the self destruct button.

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Where Next For Little Pea As Madrid’s Buying Deadline Passes

Where next for Little Pea? (Image from PA)It was meant to be his dream move but has slowly turned into a nightmare. Despite a recent burst in form that has seen him net four times in the last six appearances, Real Madrid will not be taking out their option to buy Javier Hernandez outright from Manchester United. Deemed surplus to requirements by new United manager Louis Van Gaal, Hernandez was offered to several clubs before Real Madrid swooped in with a season long loan to buy deal. Joining the likes of Bale, Ronaldo and Rodriguez at the Bernabeu was too good an opportunity for the diminutive Mexican striker, known in his homeland simply as Little Pea. But Hernandez has struggled to force his way into Ancelotti’s starting eleven on a regular basis especially with French striker Karim Benzema in superb early season form. But a recent knee injury followed by a sprained ankle has kept Benzema out of action over the past month handing Hernandez his chance. Despite taking it well and scoring some vital goals as Real Madrid continue to chase trophies both at home and abroad, Madrid have decided at this stage not to make a bid for Hernandez letting Manchester United’s imposed Thursday deadline for their option to buy Hernandez pass without action.

Hernandez signed for Manchester United in 2010 after impressing their scouts who watched him star for Guadalajara in Liga MX. He arrived at Old Trafford for a fee of € 7.5M and almost immediately became a fan favourite with his energy and enthusiasm for the game and more importantly his goals. His style of play and the tendency by Sir Alex Ferguson to use Hernandez from the bench sparked obvious comparisons to former United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But unlike the Norwegian, Hernandez did manage to force his way into the starting line up on a more regular basis as the goals flew in. But with the departure of his mentor Ferguson, Hernandez slipped down the pecking order and with the arrival of the likes of Robin Van Persie and this season Colombian hotshot Radamel Falcao, Hernandez knew his playing time would be limited at United. A loan move to Real was agreed with the belief that he could win a permanent move but that has not materialized as yet so Hernandez will likely have to reassess his career at the end of the season and decided where he wants to play next.

There won’t be a shortage of potential suitors with clubs in England, Italy, Spain and Germany expressing an interest in the Mexican international striker. He has already rejected a reported offer to move to MLS side Orlando City, preferring instead to stay in Europe. If he decides to return to England, several clubs like Newcastle, Southampton and West Ham are options with the trio heavily linked to the player. Serie A sides Lazio and AC Milan have also expressed an interest, whilst German side Wolfsburg are also rumoured to be monitoring the situation closely as they look to strengthen their squad after an impressive Bundesliga title push this year. His recent form in Spain has sparked interest from other sides in the Primera Division such as Seville and Atletico Madrid. He may end up remaining in Spain with his current suitors, Real Madrid who still have not formally closed the door on a full time move, despite not activating their first option as part of the loan agreement. They may however move for Colombian striker Radamel Falcao, currently on loan at Manchester United who like Hernandez has been unable to hold down a first team place.  If former Atletico Madrid striker Falcao is to move back to the Spanish capital with Real, the door could be reopened for Hernandez to have another chance at United however it looks like a slim chance given that Van Gaal is reportedly chasing PSV’s Memphis Depay and is considering transforming winger Adnan Januzaj into a striker.

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Interpol Steps Up Its Search For Freddy Rincon

Wanted man - Freddy Rincon (Image from Getty)Interpol has stepped up its pursuit of former Colombian international forward Freddy Rincon by issuing a red notice. The ex Napoli, Real Madrid, Palmeiras and Corinthians star is wanted for questioning in Panama over alleged money laundering charges. The International Criminal Police Organization (or Interpol for short) believes that Rincon served as a front man for a Panama based firm that was used by Colombian drug dealers to launder money. The issuing of this latest notice helps their process and allows them to seek the location and the arrest of wanted persons with a view to extradition or similar lawful actions. Rincon, who’s current location is unknown but is believed to be back living in Colombia has stated that he has not done anything wrong and he was surprised by this latest development from Interpol.

Interpol are looking for Rincon in relation to money laundering charges  (Image from Interpol)
Interpol are looking for Rincon in relation to money laundering charges
(Image from Interpol)

Rincon was held previously in Brazil for four months back in 2007 under similar accusations but was eventually released with the Brazilian government archiving the case. The former Colombian international striker who is remembered the role he played in his countrys 1990 World Cup campaign where Colombia were beaten in the round of 16 by Cameroon has told Colombian newspaper Semana that Panama has no evidence against him, much like Brazil. He continued by suggesting the case should be dropped by them as well as by his native Colombia. He has admitted however that he knows convicted drug baron Pablo Rayo Montano from when they were kids back in Buenaventura where they grew up but denied that he ever did business with him.  Don Pablo was Colombia’s biggest drug baron at the time of his arrest in 2006 and was the successor to the late Pablo Escobar. He had been on the run for decades before eventually being caught in Brazil during an unprecedented major international nine country raid that brought his reign of terror to an end. At the height of his powers, Rayo-Montano was dispatching submarines packed with drugs from three islands he owned off the Panama coast which were depositing around 15 tons of cocaine a month on the American and European markets.

Drugs in Rincon’s homeland of Colombia are a huge problem, with Colombia being one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine. Virtually all coca which is used to make the cocaine comes from three countries in South America – Bolivia, Colombia and Peru where conditions are perfect for the growth of the coca bush. These three countries produce billions of dollars worth of cocaine each year, leading to the explosion of vicious drug cartels in the region. These cartels will stop at nothing to continue their production and selling of cocaine and look regularly for new ways to launder the money abroad. Some cartels in Colombia are so big that they have now evolved into right wing paramilitary groups who have fought with government troops since the early 1960’s in what is known as the Colombian conflict. This war continues today with as many as a quarter of a million people having died since it began. In an effort to stop the flow of drugs into their country, the United States of America has started to wade into this conflict more and more over the past two decades with Colombia now its highest receiver of financial aid, money that is used to battle these cartels and destroy the coca plantations.

A Colombian soldier examines a coca plantation  (Image from Getty)
A Colombian soldier examines a coca plantation
(Image from Getty)

48 year old Rincon continues to deny his involvement in such illegal activities and has in the past suggested that the money he invested in the Panama based firm was his and not connected to any drug trafficking in any way. However Colombian media reports suggest that the business and property interests owned by Rincon in Panama are in fact co owned along with Montano. Interpol agrees with this assessment and has since added him to their wanted persons list. Currently the list contains 328 people worldwide, of that 160 being Colombian nationals mostly wanted for drug trafficking or smuggling offences. Rincon has no intentions of giving himself up so Interpol’s search continues. Whilst his whereabouts are unknown, Rincon has surfaced twice in the last few years firstly to sign for Colombian second division side America de Cali back in 2012 ten years after retiring from the game. He then was involved in a car accident in August 2013 in the Valle del Cauca region which required surgery at a local hospital. With both sightings happening in the same area of Colombia, Interpol’s search for Rincon is likely to be centered in this region. However Rincon could be anywhere in the world, possibly even in Argentina as his only son Sebastian plays for Buenos Aires side Club Atletico Tigre. The search continues for Rincon.

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Bayern’s Treble Dream Dashed By Penalty Shoot Out Heartache

Klopp and Guardiola embrace after Dortmund ruin Bayern's treble chance (Image from Getty)Having sealed the Bundesliga title at the weekend, Bayern approached last night’s German Cup semi final clash with Borussia Dortmund with the treble dream very much alive. But by the end of a pulsating match, manager Pep Guardiola was left wondering what had gone wrong as Jurgen Klopp’s side dumped Bayern out of the cup and marched to the final.  Bayern looked good for the win after former Borussia Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski beat the offside trap to score Bayern’s opener in the 29th minute, albeit at the second attempt. The German champions came close on several occasions to adding a second goal but the heroics of Dortmund goalkeeper Mitchell Langerak and the woodwork kept the score to 1-0 and the tie wide open. So when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang popped up at the back post to knock in Henrikh Mikhitaryan’s cross goal pass, it was game on for Dortmund with the momentum swinging wildly back in their favour. Both teams had chances to seal the victory in normal and extra time but in the end the match was to be decided by penalties.

With Manuel Neuer in goal, Bayern should have been favourites but the wet condition of the pitch aided Dortmund with both Philip Lahm and Xavi Alonso slipping in their run up to their penalties. Both players missed their attempts handing Dortmund the advantage. With their players converting for a 2-0 lead, up steps another former Dortmund player Mario Gotze who scored the late winner for Germany in the World Cup in the summer. Gotze was a fan favourite during his time at Signal Iduna Park but there is no love lost now between the player and the Dortmund fans after he joined Bayern two summers ago. It’s no surprise then when a large cheer erupted from the Borussia Dortmund fans when Gotze was denied by a fine save by Langerak putting Dortmund within inches of final. In the end Manuel Neuer’s penalty which rattled off the cross bar settled the tie and Dortmund progressed to the final.

For Klopp who is set to leave Dortmund at the end of the season after seven thrilling years at the club, it could be the perfect send off. A final appearance with the chance of one last piece of silverware for the club and fans who he has treasured so dearly for so long. The final will take place on the 30th May and will be against either Wolfsburg or this seasons surprise outfit in the cup, Arminia Bielefeld. The north Rhine-Westphalia club which plays in the third tier of German football have shocked many in the country with a stunning run that has seen them beat Hertha BSC, Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach on route to tonight’s semi final clash. They lie within 90 minutes of their debut appearance in the DFB Pokal final and a dream clash with Borussia Dortmund. Standing in their way however is one of Germany’s best teams this season Wolfsburg who are on course to finish second behind Bayern in the Bundesliga table. Under the guidance of Dieter Hecking, Wolfsburg have improved season over season building an impressive side along the way.  He has employed an exciting brand of attacking football with former Chelsea players Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle playing key roles. The pair, along with the lethal Bas Dost upfront and ever improving Max Arnold in midfield have propelled Wolfsburg up the table and turned the team into genuine title contenders once again. Having dispatches Heidenheim, RB Leipzig and Frieburg on route, their run to the semi finals has been fairly easy. Going into the match with Bielefeld they are strong favourites to progress and given their current form could upset Klopp’s farewell party with a much deserved win.

Manuel Junglas scores for Bielefeld against Borussia Monchengladbach  (Image from PA)
Manuel Junglas scores for Bielefeld against Borussia Monchengladbach
(Image from PA)

Bayern meanwhile will turn their attention to the Champions League semi final clash with Barcelona. Its a return to the Nou Camp for Guardiola; the place where he made his name and it will not be an easy game but for the mastermind Pep he will no doubt have several plans up his sleeve in order to leave victorious. Stopping the man who gave him much of that success, Lionel Messi will be the main problem so Guardiola may deploy the evergreen Philip Lahm in a new role to nullify the threat posed by the Argentine. Barcelona manager Luis Enrique is already turning up the heat on his long time friend Guardiola by suggesting that its not the best draw for Bayern who will face a tough task if they are to beat Barcelona. Enrique’s mind games will not have an effect on Guardiola, nor will his teams subsequent departure from the German Cup. The treble dram may be dead for this season but for Guardiola there is still a lot more to win, most notably the Champions League.

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Howe Out To Prove Doubters Wrong Once More With Cherries On The Brink Of Promotion

Manager of the Decade - Eddie Howe (Image from Getty)In February 2013, the BBC compiled a list of all the managers within the various English Divisions and ranked them according to performance. The study took into consideration a variety of factors including the number of points returned per game from each full time manager that season. Unsurprisingly Sir Alex Ferguson was top of the list due to his high flying Manchester United team. But the name in second place surprised many. Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe, at 35 years old was one of the countries youngest managers but had found success in management fairly easy to come by. A gifted player whose career was cruelly cut short at the age of 29 due to a knee injury, Howe’s passion for the game drove him into coaching and eventually management only two years later with the club where he had spent most of his playing days – Bournemouth. In doing so he became the youngest boss in the Football League but his appointment was met with skepticism with few believing that he had what it takes to be successful. Howe however had no doubts in his ability and set out to show his doubters how wrong they could be. Now having steered his beloved club from the brink of administration in the Football League Two to the promise lands of the Premiership, his doubters are scoffing humble pie and proclaiming Howe as a legend.

Howe’s success is unbelievable given the condition the club was in when he was appointed manager. Players of the fictitious manager simulation game Football Manager would struggle to match his success without deploying the save and reload approach when games and results haven’t gone their way. But Howe had no such quick fix approach and instead had to grind out victories in the early days of his tenure to ensure football league survival. The story could have been so different if club legend Steve Fletcher hadn’t scored his winning goal ten minutes from the end in the vital clash with fellow strugglers Grimsby in the second last match of the 2008-2009 season. That goal completed Bournemouth’s dramatic turnaround under Howe who managed to overhaul a 17 point deficit to keep them in the Football League. The momentum from that run continued into the next season with Bournemouth earning promotion to the Football League One against the odds despite having a squad of only 19 players all year.  By now Howe was on the radar of several clubs who acknowledged his talents for working under extreme conditions and still getting results. He would stay as boss of the Cherries until January 2011 at which time he was eventually tempted to jump ship and try his hand at the then Championship club Burnley. Despite posting good results during his time in charge, Howe never felt at home at the Lancashire club so he decided to quit and return to Bournemouth in October 2012 citing “personal reasons”. The move would be viewed as a failure by some in the media; that Howe couldn’t hack it in the Championship and perhaps his abilities as a manager were limited to the lower leagues. But Howe quickly set out in proving them wrong once again by steering Bournemouth into the Championship that very same year. Bournemouth seemed at ease in the Championship finishing 10th in their first season, only six points off of the play off places so when they exploded out of the blocks this year many wondered whether a fairytale was in the works.

Bournemouth’s promotion to the Premiership is all but secured with only one game remaining and a goal difference of 19 between the Cherries and Middlesbourgh in third. Only a total collapse against Charlton on the final day and an emphatic win by Aitor Karanka’s team against Brighton would see Bournemouth slip to third and Middlesbourgh automatically promoted. Howe is not likely to let that happen and will look to put the cherry on top of the cake with a win in their final game.  A favourite for Championship Manager of the Year this season, Howe has already picked up the title of Football Manager of the Decade for his stunning performances as boss of Bournemouth over the past seven years. Howe’s reputation is soaring with Gary Lineker proclaiming on Twitter that Howe could be England’s Special one, a reference derived from Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho who is the original self proclaimed Special one.  Based on Howe’s managerial career so far, it’s hard to argue with Lineker. The similarities between Howe and Mourinho are startling. Both started in management at a young age and found success with their home town clubs. Like Mourinho, Howe optimizes a new type of manager who has shed off the old school approach of coaching and has embraced the philosophy of player development and the use of modern technologies to give his team the edge in games. Like other modern day coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and to a lesser extent Brendan Rodgers, Howe is a meticulous planner who analyzes every aspect of the game from training ground routines and practices to formation strategies and player development. Howe has studied the game with a deeper level of awareness than most managers do and has reaped the benefits. Next season he will lead his team out for its debut game in the Premiership but already the doubters are surfacing once again by suggesting that Bournemouth will go straight back down. Howe, like always is out to prove them wrong.

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Newcastle Slide Continues As Fans Protest

Newcastle slumped to yet another defeat (Image from Getty)Having taken an early lead through a tap in from Ayoze Perez, Newcastle should have been in the driving seat to end their six game winless run. But once again defensive frailties and their lack of self belief shone through with visitors Swansea surging into a 3-1 lead. A late goal by the permanently injured Siem De Jong gave the team a glimmer of hope but by that point few fans were there to see it having exited the ground as early as the 75th minute. The Geordies have simply seen enough both from the team on the pitch and the board off it. Fan protests throughout the game highlighted the extent of Newcastle’s troubles, with the Newcastle faithful taking to their feet in the 34th minute to hold up banners calling for the exit of owner Mike Ashley. The significance of the time chosen was a reflection of the clubs financial woes but not in a bad way. In a report published early last week, Newcastle FC were reportedly sitting on a cash pile of £34 million as of the end of last year bringing in to question why that money has not been used to invest in the squad. Already down to its bare bones, Newcastle’s first team lacks depth and quality in several positions and has failed to plug the gaps left by notable departures. The lack of investment during the January transfer window is now starting to show with Newcastle’s season in freefall.

Mike's millions - Failure to spend may result in relegation  (Image from Getty)
Mike’s millions – Failure to spend may result in relegation
(Image from Getty)

Saturday’s collapse marks their seven straight defeat in a row; their worst run in over 40 years. The nature of the defeat to Swansea highlighted the extent of the problems facing temporary boss John Carver. Promoted to the role shortly after Alan Pardew jumped ship for Crystal Palace in January, Carver waxed lyrically about wanting the job full time in an almost desperate self run PR campaign. Unfortunately for the long serving coach he has done little to demonstrate his managerial credentials to the Newcastle hierarchy. Results on the pitch have been poor but not as bad as Carvers off it; several times unraveling in front of the media in recent weeks. He has blamed crowd protests, bad refereeing and injuries for the losses but hasn’t spoken once about the glaring problem – his lack of tactical know how and ability to turn things around. The players did initially back him early on in his tenure, speaking to the press about how good a coach he is. This is understandable given that footballers are generally only focusing on themselves and protecting what they have so backing the then manager regardless of who that may be is a must to ensure good favour and ultimately playing time. But those voices have fallen silent now as the chaos continues. Carver is a great coach but like many who try to make the switch from second in command to pole position, he has struggled. The pressure is starting to show on Carver’s face who faced up to several harsh words from a few angry fans during the Swansea match. He called later for the club to do something about it but the solution may not be to his liking with his stay at Newcastle almost certainly over. A new manager will be appointed with a mandate of making Newcastle competitive once more.

Not up to the challenge - John Carver  (Image from Getty)
Not up to the challenge – John Carver
(Image from Getty)

Which league that will be in will depend on how the remaining four fixtures of this regular season play out. Up first is Leicester City, who are on a mini revival as they fight for their own Premiership safety. Failure to beat Nigel Pearson’s team could edge Newcastle closer to the drop with the gap now only 5 points between themselves and arch rivals Sunderland in 18th.  Newcastle likely need 7 points from their remaining 12 to ensure survival but on their current form, no one would bet on them beating the drop. The only saving grace for the club may be that the opposition they face over those four games are in similar perilous situations. Wins over fellow strugglers QPR, West Brom and Leicester should secure survival before an end of season game against West Ham. Defeat however could spell the end for Newcastle’s Premiership story and spark further protests against owner Mike Ashley.

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The Falseness Of The False Nine

The False Nine  (Image from afp)

When David Villa suffered a broken leg months before the kick off of Euro 2012, the media went into speculation overdrive about who would lead the line for Spain. With strike partner Fernando Torres lacking form, candidates like Fernando Llorente and Álvaro Negredo were mentioned as obvious front runners for the position. When Vicente Del Bosque sent his team out for their first match of the tournament, shockwaves went round the stadium like a Mexican wave. Had Del Bosque made a mistake? Did the stadium announcer get it wrong when he read out the team? How could little Cesc Fabregas be leading the line? Del Bosque had simply revived a position forgotten in time, known as the false nine.

Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque  (Image from Getty)
Tactical Surprise from Del Bosque
(Image from Getty)

Sitting removed from a firm position, the false nine was an enigma and near impossible to mark. The problem with the false nine is the position itself. Not an outright striker, nor an attacking midfielder. Not even a trequartista . Floating around like a bee chasing pollen, the false nine moved from central to flank to outright front man all in the space of minutes. Central defenders are thrown into turmoil, trying to work out whether to track the player, pulling them dramatically out of position or leave him be and have him run at them at pace. The only solution for defending against this is to employ three centre backs or two centre backs with a holding midfielder, one of which is assigned to track the false nine wherever they go.

Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation  (Image from AFP)
Fabregas and Spain triumphed using the false nine formation
(Image from AFP)

So if it works so well, why don’t teams use it now as a tactic? Simply put you have to be Spain to make it work or at least a team like Spain featuring strong interchangeable passing players whose principle philosophy is pass and move. You also need a player like Fabregas who can operate in a variety of forward facing roles, spread passes with ease and find space where little exists. You need a player of considerable skill but one who also possess a “footballing brain”, able to exploit opponent’s weaknesses without instruction.

Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)
Messi inspired False Nine (Image from Sky)

Arsenal could potentially operate an effective false nine with Olivier Giroud dropping from the team and Jack Wilshere playing in the nine position. With the abilities of Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Carzola in support, the false nine role would take flight. But for Wenger it would be too far removed from the tactics he has used during his entire coaching career- a central figure who holds the ball up for attacking players to attack. Arguably he did test the formation a few years ago with Van Persie dropping from his central striker position into such a role but in that instance it was less about the position and more about the player who likes to explore all the space available in the final third.

Wilshere could operate as a false nine  (Image from Getty)
Wilshere could operate as a false nine
(Image from Getty)

Barcelona operates a semi false nine on occasions with Messi operating as such. But the Argentinean prefers to be at the heart of everything and likes to take on players making him more a complete or advanced forward rather than a nine. Roma successfully channeled the position in 2007 under manager Luciano Spalletti who used Francesco Totti in the role. However he abandoned the formation mid season after failing to score in five league games. This was despite starting well with 11 back to back victories. The only true team to have pulled off the false nine effectively (besides Spain) is the great Hungarian team of the 1950’s. The Mighty Magyars as they were known destroyed oppositions with ease during the period by operating a false nine with Nándor Hidegkuti operating in the role. Supported by the dynamic and potent trio of strikers Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and attacking half-back József Bozsik, Hungary dominated football in the 1950’s and should have won the 1954 World Cup but for adverse weather conditions and rumours of cheating by the Germans. Their false nine tactic worked spectacularly well against sides who at the time only operated either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation. With Hidegkuti dropping off and the centre backs following, it created acres of space for captain and Hungarian legend Puskas to exploit. During the five year period between 1950 and 1955, when the tactic was used to full effect, Puskas scored an incredible 50 goals in 51 games for Hungary.  

The legendary Puskas  (Image from PA)
The legendary Puskas
(Image from PA)

Arguably playing the role of the false nine is the toughest in football. You need to be a special type of player to pull it off effectively. It also requires a strong willed coach who won’t shy away from public criticism of anti football like Del Bosque was subjected to. Fans after all want to see goals and rely on a central figure (the striker) to provide them. The tactic lends itself to a short tournament like the European Championships, where time to alter tactics is not afforded to coaches and the risk of failure is heightened to the highest degree. Spain, under Del Bosque took a gamble during Euro 2012 that fortunately paid off in style. But we are left to wonder what the backlash would have been on Del Bosque and his tactical decisions if Spain hadn’t lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament.

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PSV Harness Youth Development For League Success

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

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

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

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

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

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Brazil Recovery On Track As Copa Approaches

All smiles again as Dunga and Neymar put Brazil back on track (Image from PA)The 2014 World Cup semi final still haunts Brazil. The humiliating defeat at the hands of eventual winners Germany was an eye opener for a team so confident of success in the tournament that they became blinded towards the truth. Despite having arguably one of the best players in the world in Neymar, the Brazil squad selected for the World Cup in their home land was less than inspiring. Luiz Filipe Scolari’s side were good on paper but lacked the creative spark or cutting edge of previous Brazil world cup teams. No Robinho or Ronaldinho to add an extra dimension to their play and no Romario or Ronaldo like striker to fire them to glory. All in all it was a side built for one purpose – to support Neymar. The talented 22 year old was given a free role, allowed to roam and create and basically do what he does best. With that freedom, Neymar shone picking up four goals on route to the quarter finals and placing himself in the running for player of the tournament. But a bad clumsy challenge by Colombia’s Juan Zuniga in the last few minutes of their clash in the quarters ruled Neymar out for the rest of the tournament. Heading into the semi’s Brazil were like a chicken with its head cut off. Unable to function and without Neymar to lead the way, Brazil were torn apart by a rampant Germany hungry for success. The 7-1 score line was flattering to Germany but in truth it could have been more. Their pride severely dented, Brazil’s national team was in tatters.

Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup  (Image from Getty)
Brazil were humiliated by Germany in the Semi Final or The World Cup
(Image from Getty)

Two months later a fresh looking Brazil side took to the field to play Colombia in a friendly. Led out by new manager Dunga returning for a second spell as national boss, Brazil looked nervous yet prepared to start to rewrite the wrongs that had happened months previously. Their ranks had been changed dramatically with several key players from the World Cup notably absent. Striker Fred, who suffered the most due to his poor showing at the World Cup, had retired from international football aged 30 whilst Julio Cesar, Jo, Hulk, Maxwell and Paulinho all were left out in favour of fresh blood. In came Diego Tardelli, Everton Ribeiro, Philippe Coutinho and a recall for Robinho to add options to Brazil’s approach. The inclusion of Atletico Madrid defender Miranda was also welcomed by the fans and Brazilian media, many of whom felt that he should have been part of the World Cup squad in the first place and not have been excluded. His addition helped to solidify a shaky looking defence, even if it meant breaking up the much hyped PSG duo of David Luiz and Thiago Silva.  The match against Colombia finished in a 1-0 win with newly appointed captain Neymar sealing the win with an 83rd minute free kick. That nervous win would kick start a run of friendly victories that has now stretched to eight in a row. Brazil are back so it would seem and with a bang. Or are they?

Yes they have played against some good sides (notably France, Chile, Argentina and Colombia) scoring 18 times and conceding just twice but in a majority of the games Brazil have labored away to get the win. This may be due to Dunga crafting the team in his vision – less flair, more workhorse like in their performances. Brazil is more disciplined than before preferring to play through teams on the deck rather than looking for adventurous but risky long balls. Neymar in his new role as captain has a more disciplined approach too, less free to roam the pitch and more focused on linking the play and inspiring the team with some quick setup work or a shot on goal. The results of this change have been evident with the Barcelona player scoring eight times in as many games, including a self demolition of Japan when he scored four goals. Unlike during the World Cup though, the pressure on Neymar as his country’s only real goal threat has been lifted with several new players drafted in to ease the burden. In particular, the emergence of Hoffenheim’s Roberto Firmino has been a massive boost to Brazil’s attacking options with the 23 year old playing a significant role as provider and finisher of some of Brazil’s best moves in recent games. Despite having only four caps to date, Firmino has scored two fantastic goals and looks set to cement his place in Dunga’s long term plans as long as his form continues for both club and country.

Brazil’s fresh start under Dunga has been impressive to date but the biggest challenges await with the Copa America the first of them. Due to be played in Chile in June, Dunga will know that only a strong performance and perhaps a win will be enough to mend the bridges with the Brazil fans that were so violently destroyed by that defeat by Germany. The Copa is far from an easy competition to win, arguably tougher than the World Cup so Brazil will need to be on their best form to be triumphant. Brazil face Peru, Colombia and Venezuela in the group stage starting June 14th with progression expected. Failure to progress is not an option open for Dunga especially with the heartache from the World Cup still fresh in Brazilian hearts and minds.

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FA Cup Heartbreak For Gerrard As Villa Seal Final Appearance

Heartbreak for Gerrard (Image from Getty)It was meant to be the fairytale send off for Steven Gerrard but Tim Sherwood had other ideas. Yesterday’s dramatic FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Aston Villa saw Sherwood’s side upset the apple cart and book their place at Wembley. For Gerrard, who is set to leave Liverpool at the end of the season it was heartbreaking. One last chance at silverware with his beloved Liverpool cruelly snatched away. Goals from Christian Benteke and Fabien Delph were enough to cancel out Phillippe Coutinho’s early strike and send Villa to their first FA final since 2000. Liverpool did have a Mario Balotelli goal wrongly ruled offside in the 88th minute but to be fair to Villa the result was what their performance deserved. Credit must be given to Tim Sherwood who has transformed this Aston Villa side since replacing Paul Lambert as manager only 11 games ago. His first game as manager was the nail biting 2-1 last 16 victory over Leicester in the FA Cup. Although not officially in charge for the game, Sherwood did give a rousing half time talk to the team with the game evenly balanced at 0-0. His words spurred them on to victory as they did again against West Brom in the quarters so yesterdays win seemed only fitting for the effort he has applied so far.

The defeat has heaped further pressure on Sherwood’s opposite number for the day, Brendan Rodgers who must be anxiously looking over his shoulder for the galloping Jurgen Klopp riding in to rescue the club. Rodgers had high hopes for this campaign after a close conclusion to last season which saw them finish second behind eventual winners Manchester City. But it has all gone terribly wrong for the Northern Irishman who has failed miserably in his attempts to replace Luis Suarez. Never an easy task, Rodgers fumbled in the transfer market like a kid in a candy store unsure what to spend his vast wealth on. A range of players arrived like Rickie Lambert, Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli and Adam Lallana but all have struggled to fit into Rodgers apparent system. To be fair, it is hard to adjust when the system used keeps changing, a notion that has perplexed the usually reliable Gerrard all season. Deployed as a Regista (a deep lying playmaker who sits just in front of the back four), Gerrard’s inability to remain in a withdrawn position and not venture forward was ultimately his downfall. Rodgers adapted the system to push Gerrard further forward but in doing so disrupted various other players including the highly effective Raheem Sterling who was operating in the hole behind the central striker. Gerrard’s form dipped, unsure of the role he was meant to play and was subsequently benched by Rodgers in a move that only frustrated the former England midfielder more. Their relationship has deteriorated over the past few months despite the pair denying the rumours. Gerrard it seems will leave the club under a cloud with five meaningless games left in the regular season with only Champions League qualification to play for. As for Rodgers, who became the first Liverpool manager since Phil Taylor (1956 to 1959) to go three seasons without lifting any silverware, he must wait to see how Chairman Tom Werner reacts to yet another disappointing Liverpool campaign, with Klopp waiting patiently in the wings.

Villa meanwhile go on to Wembley to face current holders Arsenal, who are looking to replicate their 2001 and 2002 successes by winning back to back FA cups. Arsene Wenger’s side progressed to the final thanks in part to a horrific error by Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici who fumbled a weak effort by Alexis Sanchez in extra time, only to see it squirm into the net. The Australian stopper who had played well up until that point was inconsolable at the end of the match with teammates and Reading staff quick to offer him support. It was a painful blow to manager Steve Clarke who watched his Championship side push Arsenal all the way into extra time. Struggling in the league, Reading have relied heavily on Federici to perform miracles and in several cases keep them in games. Without him in goal, Reading would be staring down the barrel of relegation. Instead seven points clear of the bottom three with four games left, Reading should survive hence why they could comfortably focus on Saturday’s FA Cup semi final. They gave it their all but in a cruel twist of fate, it was all snatched away from them. No one can really know how that feels except for perhaps one man – Steven Gerrard who is going through the same pain today after realizing that his Wembley dream fairytale was now officially over.

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Calls For Restructure Of SPL Grow As Fixture Chaos Sparks Protests

Bad month for Doncaster (Image from SNS)Neil Doncaster is having a bad month. The chief executive of the Scottish Professional Football Leagues has faced some fierce criticism after his proposed scheduling of this season final league matches and playoff games earned him an angry reaction from the clubs. Having suggested that the final day fixtures be played at different times, the idea was widely shot down as it presented an unfair advantage to the teams playing later in the day. He has since backed down in his decision and returned games to the same time but has now been caught up in a second row which has added to his problems. Doncaster proposed that the current league playoff fixtures be moved to the start of June in an effort to extend the existing season but his proposal has sparked further protest. Motherwell boss Ian Baraclough was the loudest of the protests claiming that his side would seek compensation from the league if forced to play in June. His reasoning was that a majority of his player’s contracts finish on May 31st so in order to play this important fixture the club would have to extend their contracts for an additional month, something that Motherwell had not budgeted for. No retort has been issued by Doncaster or the SPFL but it is yet another baffling call by the leagues governing body which already had several headaches when it comes to fixture planning in the various divisions.

Ian Baraclough faces a fight with the SPL over playoff scheduling  (Image from Getty)
Ian Baraclough faces a fight with the SPL over playoff scheduling
(Image from Getty)

The set up for the Scottish leagues was designed to be simple but is anything but that. With a top tier of 12 teams and three lower leagues of 10, the format is similar to various continental counterparts. But slight alterations made in a desperate attempt to maximize television revenues have turned the leagues into a baffling mess. Firstly in the SPL every team plays each of their opponents three times during the regular season before the league splits into a top six and a bottom six for the final five games. This split is meant to determine European and relegation places however it has various problems attached to it. Firstly the split can often result in teams playing an uneven number of games against others in the league. The SPFL has tried to mitigate this risk by predicting at the start of the season where each team will finish (known as seeding) and aligns the fixture list as such. Based on previous seasons final placing, this model can predict fairly accurately, with the exception of when a team who has generally finished in the top six has a poor season like Motherwell had this year, finishing in the bottom half. Due to this, their fixtures were heavily weight at the beginning of the campaign against the teams expected to finish in the bottom six. They will now face one extra game against these teams instead of the expected fixtures against the top six teams. This in a sense gives Motherwell a slight unfair advantage over its rivals in the bottom six. The other issue which is somewhat ignored by Doncaster is that often the team in sixth can finish the season on less points than the team in seventh. How this is permitted to happen is unknown but Doncaster just sees it merely as a slight hiccup in the split system. The split is seen by the SPFL as essential to avoid the teams having to play a 44 game season (each team home and away twice). But now there are fresh calls to review the format and scrap the split system all together.

Jackie McNamara is calling for a restructuring of the current league format (Image from PA)
Jackie McNamara is calling for a restructuring of the current league format (Image from PA)

Dundee United boss Jackie McNamara has spoken out at the failures of the current league structure and points to leagues across the world which operate on better models. His suggestion is that the SPL be expanded to a 16 or 18 team league which would effectively ditch the split model in favour of a straight league structure. He argues that there are no other leagues in the world operating this bizarre structure and he is almost correct (Malta operates a similar system). But McNamara’s point is valid given that his side has had to face champions elect Celtic six times this year so far (three in the cup) with a seventh game set for April 26th. A move to a larger top league and condensed lower league structure would simplify the fixture chaos that currently reigns over the leagues each season. McNamara is not alone in his thinking with other bosses in the various leagues echoing his thoughts. At present Neil Doncaster has refused to entertain a change to the format that has been in place since 2001 but as the pressure grows on him he may be forced to listen to the clubs and finally signal an end to the fixture chaos.

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Will Manchester City Adapt Its Crazy Transfer Approach?

City's transfer strategy may need a rethink (Image from PA)The uncertainty around the future of Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini has intensified in recent weeks due to bad on field performances and rumoured fall outs with key players. His stay at the City of Manchester Stadium could soon be over with a variety of names including the recently available Jurgen Klopp being bandied around the tabloids. City have not quite had the season that many expected and Pellegrini will pay the price for that although the full blame may not lie solely at his feet. It is the players who win the matches, not the manager so the current squad must take on some of that blame as well as the clubs executive management team who sanctioned their transfers in the first place.

Under Pressure - Pellegrini  (Image from PA)
Under Pressure – Pellegrini
(Image from PA)

City’s transfer policy in the past has been flawed. Given the vast financial resources available to the club, they have spent frivolously on players and most of the time paid over the odds in order to get their targets. Much of this happened in the early stages of their new ownership with the finger pointed firmly at former manager Mark Hughes however this is unfair as it was the City owners and management team that negotiated the fees not Hughes. The Welsh boss merely identified the players he wanted and the club pursued them with vigor and tenacity. The arrivals of Roque Santa Cruz for £18m, Jolean Lescott for £22m and Robinho for £32.5m are three examples where City has arguably paid over the odds for players. Although the latter was used as a way for the owners to show the fans their ambitions of  turning the club into genuine contenders both at home and abroad, the move ended in failure with the Brazilian sheepishly leaving for AC Milan three years after his arrival for less than half what he was bought for. Unfortunately for City, they did not learn their lesson and have continued their brazen approach to transfers with Javi Garcia (£15.8m), Stefan Savic (£6m), Eliaquim Mangala (£40m) all being brought in much on higher than expected transfer fees, much to the delight of the selling clubs.

Robinho's arrival marked the start of the crazy spending by City  (Image from PA)
Robinho’s arrival marked the start of the crazy spending by City
(Image from PA)

A new approach is needed focusing on the long term and for a good example of one in action City don’t need to look very far. Southampton’s recent success in the Premiership is a direct result of two fundamental changes they made to their transfer approach. The first was to look for emerging local youth talent from the surrounding areas and entice them into the club with the promise of personal development and first team exposure. Over the last six years since Southampton recovered from financial ruin and relegation to League One, the club has produced a host of talented youngsters like Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Adam Lallana who were eventually sold for large transfer fees. Even before this, the club was bringing through the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale who also moved on to greater things for significant fees. The money received in all these cases was split between funding the first team development and refinancing the existing youth programs. City do not need to be a selling club like Southampton but investments in youth development could save them millions in the future.

James Ward Prowse is the latest product of Southampton's youth initiative  (Image from Getty)
James Ward Prowse is the latest product of Southampton’s youth initiative
(Image from Getty)

Secondly Southampton has targeted up and coming talented players abroad who then became bigger stars at the club. Instead of purchasing readymade internationalists at a premium, they brought in players like Morgan Schneiderlin, Dusan Tadic and Dejan Lovren for low fees who have become more valuable over time. Lovren’s move last summer to Liverpool netted the club £20 million off of an initial investment of £8.5 million only a year before. These clever purchases have made Southampton both successful on the pitch as well as economically sound off of it. City has too often looked for the complete player rather than one that needs development. This works in the short term but in the long term is set to fail. Generally these “complete” players are older having plied their trade in a variety of different leagues, honing their skills along the way before City swooped to buy them for an elevated fee. By buying them sooner, they could have saved some of that fee and used it to develop the player themselves which in turn would add further value to the player and the team.

Southampton made a profit from selling Lovren  (Image from Getty)
Southampton made a profit from selling Lovren
(Image from Getty)

In order to balance the books and comply with the heavily enforced UEFA financial fair play rules, City needs to sell some of its existing aging squad, starting with the players on the highest wages. First up is Yaya Toure, who has been a mainstay in the City midfield since his arrival from Barcelona but in recent years has seen a drop in form and desire to play for the club. Inter Milan are rumoured to be watching his situation with interest but may baulk at his staggering £250k per week wage demands. Another player that City wants off their books is Jesus Navas with the Spanish winger failing to settle in the north east. In total there could be between 10 to 13 players that City choose to sell this summer as a major revamp of the squad is done. Much will be dependent on the new manager who will arrive with his own philosophies and approach.  Regardless City must address their approach to transfers if they are to transform the club this summer. They will likely spend big once again but the question remains if they adapt their signing style or continue to fall into the same pattern of paying over the odds for players they desperately want.

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Klopp Bombshell Puts European Clubs On Alert

Jurgen Klopp has decided to quit Borussia Dortmund after seven years in charge (Image from AFP)After a difficult season, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp is set to leave the club. The two time German manager of the year has watched his side struggle in matches in the Bundesliga that they really should be winning. Now after turning their season around and pulling Dortmund away from potential relegation, Jurgen Klopp has announced that enough is enough and that he intends on leaving the former German champions at the end of the season. His decision has shocked many only a year after committing himself to the club following rumours that Barcelona and Arsenal were interested in his services. However a year is a long time in football and for Klopp who has gone through his worst season as Dortmund manager in his seven years in charge, he now feels that he has taken the club as far as he can and that it deserves to be coached by someone who can give 100% to the club.

Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season  (Image from Bongarts/Getty)
Klopp announces his decision to quit Dortmund at the end of the season
(Image from Bongarts/Getty)

Speaking at a hastily arranged press conference and sitting next to Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and Sporting Director Michael Zorc who he has rumoured to have a strained relationship with, Klopp spoke with emotion yet authority as he told the gathered press why he was quitting. Klopp explained that his decision was not based on this seasons results or fatigue stating he feels 100% fine but instead that he was no longer the perfect coach for the club. He quickly shot down rumours that he had already engaged in discussions with other clubs and stopped short of saying which league he would like to manage in next but did confirm that he will not be taking a sabbatical from the game like Pep Guardiola did after leaving Barcelona and instead wants to get back into management straight away after leaving Dortmund.

Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times  (image from PA)
Watzke, Klopp and Zorc in better times
(image from PA)

This news will be welcomed by several clubs across Europe who will now have to fight it out for his services. Heavily linked to both top jobs in Spain last summer, he could be tempted move to either if the opportunity existed. However it is unlikely that they will given that Luis Enrique has finally found a winning formula at Barcelona and Ancelotti is highly regarded at Real Madrid. That opens the door to a handful of English clubs with Manchester City leading the pack. The Ethiad club has grown tired of current manager Manuel Pellegrini’s failure to build on the successes of last year and with the club out of Europe and struggling in the league; his job is far from secure. Whether Klopp wants that sort of challenge is unknown with a huge rebuilding job needed, starting with a dismantling of the current aging squad. He would be given a sizable war chest to acquire new faces and the flexibility to mould a new team around his style of playing. But with a large amount of investment comes high expectations from the clubs owners who will expect success both at home and abroad; pressure that the three previous coaches at City experienced. All three fell on their swords early into their agreed tenures which may not appeal to Klopp. He was given time at Dortmund to craft the team in his vision and it’s questionable whether City will allow him the same amount of time and buy into his long term approach.

Start again? - City's aging squad  (Image from Getty)
Start again? – City’s aging squad (Image from Getty)

If he doesn’t end up at City, a job at the Emirates may become available if the Arsenal board decides that it’s finally time for Arsene Wenger to vacate his chair. Klopp has been spotted at a few Arsenal games over the past few years fueling speculation about a gentleman’s agreement struck between himself and Wenger. If Arsene is to leave, he will want to help pick his successor, someone who will carry on his approach of developing youth players and turning them into world stars. Klopp fits that mould perfectly and with expectations on immediate success lower at the Emirates than at somewhere like City, it could be a perfect fit for the talented coach. There are other Premiership clubs in the market for a new manager like Newcastle and West Ham but neither is likely to appeal to Klopp. Liverpool however may spark his interest but it’s widely believed that despite a disappointing campaign this season, Brendan Rodgers has done enough in his time in charge to convince the Liverpool board to retain his services. Klopp could try his hand in Italy or France too but at present England looks to be his most likely destination. One thing that is for sure is that the Premiership would benefit hugely from the arrival of one of the world’s best managers regardless of which team he joins.

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Juventus Aiming For Champions League Success

Vialli lofts the Champions League trophy, but can Juventus do it again? (Image from Getty)It’s remarkably been ten years since Juventus last lifted the Champions League trophy, beating Ajax on penalties in the final. That Juventus side included club legends like Antonio Conte, Alessandro Del Piero and Ciro Ferrara to name a few but whilst the 2015 batch isn’t quite as star studded as its predecessor, they still have the talents of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Prilo and Paul Pogba to call on. As they enter the quarter finals stage of the Champions League and prepare to face Monaco, Juventus manager Massimilano Allegri knows he will need all of his star names on top form if he is to bring the trophy back to Turin.

The road to glory is paved with obstacles and given that some of Europe’s biggest hitters are still in the competition, reaching the final will be a challenge in itself. Allegri will have one eye on proceedings across Europe over the next few weeks with Bayern Munich taking on Porto, Barcelona clashing with PSG and a repeat of last year’s final with Atletico Madrid taking on current holders Real Madrid in the other quarter final matches. With the final played in Berlin, Pep Guardiola’s Bayern side will be looking to rid themselves of last year’s failed attempt by going one step further and reaching the final. Guardiola’s former side Barcelona are also looking to rewrite some wrongs after being knocked out at the quarter final stage last year by Atletico. In their way however is a hungry PSG side that needs Champions League success badly to justify the heavy investment made by its owners. Juventus’s challenge is a daunting one with some difficult matches lying ahead of them if they can progress.

Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection  (Image from Getty)
Pep Guardiola is looking to add another Champions League trophy to his collection
(Image from Getty)

But before they can think about any of these teams, Juventus needs to dispatch Monaco. The French side progressed by beating Arsenal in the last round with thanks to the away goal rule after a 3-1 victory in London was equaled by a 2-0 defeat in Monaco. Currently third in Ligue 1, Monaco appear to have found a winning formula in the league and remain unbeaten in their last eight games. However in Europe, their form has been patchy at best with convincing wins over Zenit and Bayern Leverkusen at home in the group stage followed by nervous performances on the road. They did however manage to finish top of a difficult group that also contained last year’s UEFA Cup runners up Benfica, setting up a return visit for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger who bossed the French club back in the late 80’s early 90’s. Unfortunately for Wenger his side severely underestimated Monaco ability to attack on the break and we convincingly beaten 3-1 on a cold night at the Emirates. The stars of that game were rising French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia and Portuguese playmaker Joao Moutinho who pulled the strings for Dimitar Berbatov and Anthony Martial up front. Berbatov in particular was in fine form, rolling back the years and remind us all what a great striker he was. However in the return leg, the Bulgarian was posted missing for most of the match as Arsenal finally stepped up a gear and looked to sink their French challengers. It wasn’t to be and Monaco progressed but their performance in the second leg as well as several other ones in the group stage will give Juventus hope.

Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal  (Image from Reuters)
Kondogbia blasts Monaco into the lead against Arsenal
(Image from Reuters)

Allegri will know that he needs to cut the snake off at his head and that means shutting down Moutinho. Usually he would have tasked the talented Pogba with the role but an injury against Borussia Dortmund in the last round has ruled him out of contention. Instead the duo of Arturo Vidal and Claudio Marchisio with one asked to close down the Portuguese star and the other to sweep behind if needed. If they can break up Monaco’s attacks then they can spring the counter attack with Roberto Pereyra used as the catalyst. His job will be simple – get the ball to Carlos Tevez or Alvaro Morata who between them can create space and drive in on goal. Tevez has been in sparkling form this year and will be looking to add to the Champions League winner’s medal he picked up whilst playing for Manchester United. The Argentine, who was surprisingly omitted from his country’s World Cup squad last year, has scored 25 times this season in all competitions from 36 appearances and leads the Serie A goal scoring charts. His form has been instrumental in Juventus recent success as they look on course to record their four straight Serie A title. Adding the Champions League crown to that would be the icing on the cake for Tevez and Juventus who are desperate to climb back up that mountain and once again be kings of Europe.

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All To Play For As Premiership Enters The Home Stretch

Vardy's strike handed Leicester a much needed 3 points (Image from Getty)Not since the shock 5-3 victory over Manchester United back in September has Jamie Vardy had such an impact. The Leicester City winger, who bagged a goal on that day in a pulsating game, had been notoriously quiet since then but popped up on Saturday against West Brom to remind everyone how good he can be. Picking up the ball at the half way line Vardy surged forward with the ball apparently stuck to his foot. Going past two players and into the box, the Leicester fans rose to their feet as Vardy unleashed his shot past Myhill in the West Brom goal. The importance of Vardy’s last minute strike is as yet unknown but it did hand his team the crucial three points it needed in their fight against relegation. Rooted to the bottom of the league, Leicester looked dead and buried going into the match but after a gritty performance and thanks to Vardy’s last minute heroics, Leicester’s survival push could be on. Now only three points behind safety with a game in hand, Leicester’s run in is favourable with winnable matches against Burnley, Sunderland and QPR but they will need players like Vardy to perform in every match if they are to avoid the drop.

The gap at the bottom is tight with only 10 points separating 7 places.  Any three of West Brom, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Hull, QPR, Burnley and Leicester could go down with even 13th place Newcastle still not mathematically safe. Defeats for Burnley, QPR, Hull and Sunderland this weekend have added to the tension with only Aston Villa managing to pick up points away to Spurs. Dick Advocaat’s Sunderland revival looked to be on after impressive derbies win over Newcastle last weekend, with Jermain Defoe adding the gloss on that occasion. But his new side was firmly brought back to down to earth with a bump by a rampant Crystal Palace side who continue to improve under Alan Pardew. A hat trick by Yannick Bolasie and a header by Glenn Murray sealed a 4-1 win and put pressure on Dutch coach Advocaat. With one of the worst run in of all the teams involved in the relegation dog fight, it doesn’t look good for Sunderland. They face Stoke next week before games against Southampton, Everton, Leicester, Arsenal and Chelsea in a series of must win fixtures.

At the other end of the table, Chelsea showed why they are likely to end this season as champions. A nerve jangling performance against QPR was not quite what Jose Mourinho had in mind so the relief on his face was hard to ignore when Cesc Fabregas popped up to score the winner. The Spanish midfielder, sporting a face mask to cover the broken nose he suffered last week in a clash with Charlie Adam, broke QPR hearts with a 88th minute shot that squirmed under Rob Green. Chelsea are now 7 points clear with seven games left, one more than the chasing pack. Arsenal continued their pursuit of their London rivals with a 1-0 win over Burnley thanks to an early strike by Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey. Manchester United also kept up their chase with a convincing 4-2 demolition of neighbours Manchester City, a result which heaps more pressure on manager Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean has been under fire after City crashed out of the Champions League and lost valuable ground in the race for the Premiership title. He will more than likely be asked to leave his position with the only question being when as some speculate that he may not get to finish the campaign as manager.

City will be desperate to hold on to 4th place to secure Champions League football once again but the face stiff competition from this year’s surprise outfit Southampton, Liverpool and Tottenham. Ronald Koeman’s Southampton were suspected to struggle this year after selling off half their squad by some clever signings and the addition of new energy into St Mary’s has seen Southampton defy their critics and mount a serious push for Europe. They continued their push with a 2-0 win over struggling Hull and will be bolstered by the news that 6th place Tottenham lost to Aston Villa. However Liverpool could leapfrog them tonight if they beat John Carver’s inept Newcastle side.

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Is Chelsea’s bid For Japanese Star Purely Commercial?

Yoshinori Muto is wanted by Chelsea but for what purpose? (Image from Getty)Chelsea has reportedly place a bid to sign Japanese striker Yoshinori Muto. The FC Tokyo front man is wanted by the Stamford Bridge side who are willing to part with £4million to secure his services. Questions however are being asked about the intent of this deal which comes only a few months after Chelsea secured a £200million sponsorship with Yokahama Rubber Company. The Japanese company has agreed a 5 year deal to become Chelsea’s official shirt sponsor in a move that will help bolster the clubs coffers. Whilst there is no visible link between Yokahama Rubber and Muto’s club FC Tokoyo, many are wondering if his transfer or the transfer of a Japanese player to Chelsea was included as a condition of the deal.

Manager Jose Mourinho has admitted that commercial agreements do come into consideration when purchasing players however he pulled short of stating that this bid for Muto fell into that category. Mourinho did state that he will never buy a player who isn’t up to Chelsea’s standard regardless of any commercial arrangement in place.  Muto is an up and coming talent and at 22 has his best years ahead of him. But he is unlikely to be a first team regular at Chelsea and could be immediately loaned out to Dutch side Vitesse so the move is somewhat baffling. Muto is hardly setting Japanese football alight although his is one of the better players in a poor FC Tokyo team. Perhaps Chelsea scouts were instructed to identify the best young player they could and that player was Muto.

Buying players to tap into lucrative foreign markets is not new in football with several clubs using this as an option to increase merchandise revenues. Manchester United’s signing of Japanese star Shinji Kagawa was seen as a clever move by the Old Trafford club to engage and grow its Japanese and Asian fan base. Kagawa is one of the most recognized players in the region and has legions of dedicated fans that follow his every move. Unfortunately his stay in England was short lived as he failed to secure a regular first team spot. He was eventually sold back to German side Borussia Dortmund, the same club that United purchased him from. Arguably Kagawa wasted two valuable years sitting on the bench at Old Trafford and has struggled to regain fitness and form since returning to Germany. His fans however have stayed loyal and now sport Dortmund jerseys on their backs once more.

Shinji Kagawa spent alot of time on the United bench  (Image from Getty)
Shinji Kagawa spent alot of time on the United bench
(Image from Getty)

It does raise a question about whether buying a player for a commercial purpose only is ethically fair? If we consider that players have become commodities to business focused clubs in recent years then buying to increase revenue streams make sense.  However with a players working career limited to less than 20 years (if they avoid injuries) is it fair to ask a player to give up two or three years of that just so the club can benefit from their commercial brand? Players should be bought in order to strengthen the clubs chances of success on the pitch and for no other reason but as modern day football evolves into a business like model, the opportunity to use players for multiple purposes is far more appealing. Already players are being contractually told that they must partake in chosen club activities that benefit sponsors including promotional tours, interviews and appearances. This usually is limited to 5-10% of their time in order to maintain their focus on their primary role of playing. However if the signing of players for commercial purposes rather than playing purposes becomes more common, will we see a dramatic shift in the players daily responsibilities? Will they effectively become promotional tools for the clubs and play more on a sporadic basis to maintain their image and connection to the club?  Will sponsors soon dictate to clubs which player they want them to buy? Let’s hope not, for the players and footballs sake.

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A Sideways Look At Football/Soccer Across The World

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