With the pressure on the host nation, England entered Saturday’s quarter final match with Canada with optimism. Manager Mark Sampson had been surprisingly vocal about Canada’s physicality in advance of the match with the hope that referee Claudia Umpierrez of Uruguay would take note. Canada’s English born manager John Herdman refused to be drawn into playing mind games with Sampson, instead dismissing his comments and insisting that the players on the pitch would decide the match not comments before it. In the end, the pressure on the host nation in front of a sold out 54,000 Vancouver crowd was too much with England progressing to the next round.
England took a shock 2-0 lead against the run of play inside fifteen minutes of the start after exposing Canada’s early nerves. But when captain Christine Sinclair rallied her troops with an impromptu huddle just shortly after the second England goal, Canada regained its composure and went up the field on the attack. England tried in vain to hold on until half time but when Sinclair pounced on a Bardsley fumble, there was only going to be one outcome. Canada were firmly back in the match. The second half started with the same tenacity as the first ended, with Canada firmly on the attack once more. But England stood firm, defending as a unit and in turn crushing Canada’s dream. As the seconds ticked away, Canada threatened to find the equalizer they needed to send the game into extra time but it wouldn’t be as they crash out of the World Cup. Up next for England is the semi-final match against Japan on Wednesday which is ironically Canada day. The defending champions are looking to replicate Germany by becoming only the second team in history to win back to back World Cups. England have never progressed to this stage before so the experienced Japanese side should be clear favourites to win the match.
If they can reach the final, they will face either Germany or the USA who take to the field tonight in the other semi-final. For the two teams ranked 1st and 2nd in the world, it’s the match that most hoped would be the final but will now be played out at the semi-final stage. Germany’s progression through the tournament has been nothing short of routine, hammering the Ivory Coast 10-0 in their opening match, drawing with Norway and then resuming their domination of the group with a 4-0 thumping of Thailand. They routed Sweden 4-1 in the round of 16 whilst relied on penalties to dispatch a tough French side in the quarter finals to set up the mouth-watering clash with the US. The Yanks route to the semi-final has been similarly easy with wins over Australia and Nigeria sandwiched between a draw with Sweden in the group stages. They faced a difficult challenge in the last 16 against Colombia but rose to the occasion knocking the South American’s out by 2-0. Up next were China who put in a gallant performance that was only undone by a fine goal from Carli Lloyd who has been one of the US most consistent performers in the tournament so far.
It should be a fantastic match with the World Cups top scoring team going up against the tournament’s best performing goalkeeper, Hope Solo. The US no.1 has been in stunning form making eleven key saves and conceding only one in five games. The pin up star was a controversial selection for US head coach Jill Ellis after Solo’s arrest last year for domestic assault. Despite some calls for her to be omitted, leaving the world’s best goalkeeper out of their squad would have been a defining decision for Ellis and one that she was unwilling to make. The truth is that Solo is fundamental to a US World Cup win and without her in goal, the US is a much weaker side. They will need her experience and skills if they are to stop a rampant Germany side from cruising to the final on July 5th.
Outclassed, outplayed and outscored was the story of the Under 21 European Championship semi-final match between Germany and Portugal. A 5-0 win enough to seal passage to the final. But somewhat surprisingly were the victors, Portugal who sent the tournament favourites Germany back to Bavaria for a rethink. Despite having a World Cup winning defender at the heart of their defence and a Champions League winning goalkeeper behind him, Germany simply could not contain a rampant and free flowing Portuguese side that appears to grow more in stature as the tournament progressed. They now face one final challenge, a repeat match with Sweden tomorrow to see who will lift the coveted trophy. The last time these two met in the group stage the game was tied 1-1 in the end but in the final only one team can leave victorious.
Germany will be watching that final with disappointment after failing to live up to their promise. The German squad was one of the strongest in a long time. In a week when English FA elite Director Dan Ashworth claimed that they couldn’t possibly ask full established internationals like Sterling, Barkley and Shaw to drop back down to Under 21 level, it was refreshing to see that other nations don’t seem to have the same hang ups. Germany called up Matthias Ginter who was part of the senior teams triumph in Brazil last year as well as goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen fresh of his heroic’s for Barcelona in the Champions League cup final win over Juventus last month. In fact out of the squad of 23 players, six have represented Germany at senior level and have had no issues dropping back down to play in this tournament. That number could have been greater if not for injuries and lack of form towards the end of the Bundesliga season had not ruled out a few other players. Their passage to the semi-final was not exactly to plan with two draws and a win in the group condemning them to a second place finish behind Denmark. That put them up against Portugal rather than Sweden with the ‘Esperanças’ knocking them out.
Portugal have been a revelation in this tournament with several players playing key roles in their success. It’s a talented batch that Rui Jorge has arranged with pace, skill and vision throughout. At the heart of his team is captain Sergio Oliveira. The central midfielder who plays for FC Porto is highly regarded in his homeland as well as throughout Europe with several clubs scrambling for his signature. Technically gifted with incredible close control and a good range of passing, Oliveira has been exceptional in the tournament so far with an 85% average passing accuracy that highlights this. Alongside Oliveira is another highly rated youngster, William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon defensive midfielder is wanted by numerous bigger clubs and his performances in this tournament will not have done his chances of securing a move any harm. A regular for the full senior team, Carvalho like some of his German counterparts had no issue spending his summer competing for the Under 21 Euro title and that dedication could now pay off. Portugal will be considered strong favourites after their stunning win over Germany on Saturday. Sporting Lisbon pair Ricardo and Joao Mario helped themselves to a goal each as did Benfica striker Ivan Cavalerio, Monaco’s Bernardo Silva and Malaga’s Ricardo Horta as Portugal ran riot. Silva in particular was instrumental in the win with the dazzling attacking midfielder proving why many in the game are comparing him to Portugal greats Rui Costa and Luis Figo.
Winning the final is the end goal but in their way is Sweden who progressed to the final with a convincing 4-1 win over Denmark. Goals from John Guidetti, Simon Tibbling, Robin Quaison and Oscar Hiljemark cancelled out Uffe Bech’s strike for the Danes. Both Guidetti and Tibbling go into the final looking to score in order to seal the top goal scorer award. Currently both players sit on two goals with Czech midfielder Jan Kilment leading the way on three goals. But scoring against Portugal will not be easy, given that they have only conceded one goal so far in the tournament. That goal however was scored by Tibbling in their 1-1 draw in the group stage which will offer the Swedes hope. The final should be a spectacular end to what has been a fantastic European championship with two talented teams battling it out for the trophy.
The antics of Chilean defender Gonzalo Jara during Wednesday’s crunch quarter-final Copa America clash with Uruguay were despicable. The centre back played a hand literally in the sending off of PSG striker Edison Cavani in the 63rd minute of the match that ultimately swung the balance of the game in favour of Chile. Cavani received a second yellow after appearing to lash out at the defender, striking him in the face. However on closer inspection from a different angle, the reason for Cavani’s actions can be better understood. In footage capture from behind the two players, Jara is seen approaching Cavani at the half way line and sticking his finger into Cavani’s backside. The striker, who was doubtful for the match after his father was arrested for killing a man in a car accident, reacted as most would by pushing Jara away. The act itself was not worthy of a card but the referee was fooled by Jara who fell to the ground in theatrical fashion.
With Uruguay reduced to ten men, Chile went on to win the game thanks to an 81st minute strike from right back Mauricio Isla and progress to face Peru in the semi finals on Monday. Uruguay, quite rightly so were incensed by the actions of Jara and protested saying that he had deliberately done it to get Cavani sent off. Those protests may have fallen on deaf ears with the Copa organisers Conmebal but they have been heard loud and clear by Jara’s club, German Bundesliga side Mainz 05. The side’s Sporting Director Christian Heidel has revealed that the club is appalled by Jara’s actions and is ready to take their own actions by selling the player this summer. Heidel told German newspaper Bild that Jara knows he will be sold if the club receives a reasonable offer. He went on to state that the club will not tolerate that sort of behaviour from a player who represents their club. His disgust is less about Jara’s wandering hand but more so about the theatrical spill he took in order to ensure Cavani was dismissed.
Jara has as yet failed to make a statement in response but it’s believed that relations between Mainz and himself have rapidly deteriorated. It is however not the first time that this has happened with the Chilean defender well-known for his lack of discipline and hot streak. His career, which has taken him from his native Chile to Germany via a five-year stay in England with West Brom, Brighton and Nottingham Forest, is littered with disciplinary action so it’s hardly surprising that his current club is having similar issues. That said, it is unusual for a club to react in such a manner based on an incident at international level. When Luis Suaraz famously bit Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup last summer, his then club Liverpool decided to once again to support their player despite several fan protests. It was only after they received a substantial offer from Barcelona that they decided to sell their prize striker but if this had not materialized he would still be at the club today. Mainz decision to sell Jara based on his actions for Chile is a radical step but one that can be rationalized if you consider players as an extension of the clubs brand. Mainz at its heart is a family club, who actively promote games to the next generation of fans with attractive family ticket packages. Having a player like Jara associated to the club could potentially send out the wrong message and damage their brand in the long run. Ridding themselves of the player now appears to be a sensible approach, with any fee a bonus given that he was signed last summer as free agent.
Jara and his agent will have a busy next few weeks as they start to look for yet another club for the troubled Chilean. There is an argument that the pressure placed on the Chile squad to reach the final is immense which could have resulted in Jara taking such drastic actions to gain the competitive edge in a match which they were in danger of losing. Winning the Copa at home for the very first time would mean a lot to the Chile players including Jara who have developed as a team over the past five years. For the next couple of games, Jara will give his all for Chile in the hopes of lifting the trophy and perhaps also putting himself in the shop window for a potential new club.That is as long as he keeps himself out of mischief which is still to be seen.
Most England fans will remember or at least have heard about the events of July 30th 1966 when Bobby Moore famously led England to its first and so far only World Cup triumph. However few England fans will be able to recall what happened almost thirty years later on July 25th 1993. That was the last time that an England side at either under 18, under 19, under 21 or senior level won an international tournament. That day, with a squad that contained the likes of Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler, England beat Turkey by a single goal (a penalty by Darren Caskey) to lift the UEFA European Under 18 Championship trophy. Twenty two years later, England are still looking for their next trophy after being dumped out of this years Under 21’s European Championships at the group stage. Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of their group after two defeats and a win in yet another disappointing tournament for English fans.
England entered the tournament as a strong contender with a talented squad at their disposal. With Tottenham’s 30 goal a season striker Harry Kane leading the line, Southampton’s James Ward Prowse in midfielder and Everton’s John Stones solidifying the defence in front of the ever reliable Jack Butland in-goal, England should have at least progressed beyond the group to the knockout stage. But defeat in their opening game to Portugal left Southgate’s side with a mountain to climb. They appeared to be back on track with a nervy 1-0 win over Sweden, with substitute Jesse Lingard striking with five minutes to go but going into the final game against Italy, England looked disheveled and unorganized. What followed was a mauling at the hands of a less than convincing Italy side despite England having the majority of possession and a greater volume of shots. A brace from Torino’s Marco Benassi and one from Andrea Belotti had already sealed the win before Nathan Redmond grabbed a late consolation goal. The result in the end was good for no one with neither side progressing to the knockout stages after Portugal and Sweden drew in their final match and both advanced. Southgate almost immediately sprung to the defense of his team insisting that despite the team being knocked out, there was still a lot of positives in terms of the individual progress of certain players. Hardly what the England fans want to hear from one of their national managers.
There will be an inquest into what went wrong with several influential figures in English football like Harry Redknapp, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville all calling for rapid changes across the board. The first question raised is a valid one and is around selection. Whilst Southgate did select a talented group of players for this tournament, he chose to ignore other more experienced players like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshire. The make up of his squad was primarily Championship players and fringe Premiership players with the except of Stones, Kane and his strike partner Danny Ings. For comparison, Italy fielded a squad that had between them played over 270 games in Serie A last season whilst England could only boast 130 appearances in their squad with a vast majority of them being in the Championship or below. When questioned before the tournament about his selection, Southgate spoke about being fair and loyal to the group of players that had gotten them to the Championships through qualifying. It’s a fair point but one that should be addressed by the FA with a major rethink into priorities.
If England does want to win a tournament like this one, then they should be giving themselves the greatest chance of doing so. They need to select the best squad possible with the likes of Sterling, Barkley, Chamberlain, Shaw and Wilshire going in place of others. These players should have been part of this squad from the very start, creating a nucleus that lasted not only for this tournament but beyond. The team needs to grow together and more importantly progress together through the various international stages. In 2009, Germany beat England in the final of the Under 21 Euro Championships with a squad that would largely make up the team that would lift the World Cup at senior level five years later. England needs to adopt a similar approach if its is to build a team that is capable of winning the World Cup or European Championships in the future. Winning breeds confidence and giving a team the chance to be successful at one tournament only benefits them when it comes to their next one.
There also needs to be a tactical adjustment. England through all levels up to the senior team are being instructed by FA Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation but without creative midfielders in the squad, this formation simply does not work. At the under 21 level, Southgate has used this formation repeatedly forcing players like Danny Ings or Tom Carroll to operate out of position in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar attacking midfield role. This role should have been played by Rosss Barkley or Jack Wilshire, both of which are comfortable in the role and can create chances. Similarly the inclusion of a player like Raheem Sterling could have offered more width to England and presented Harry Kane up front with more chances, something he was sadly starved off during the whole tournament in the Czech Republic. Southgate’s lack of backbone and willingness to go against the FA’s wishes will no doubt cost him his job. But its far from his fault. The FA should shoulder some of the blame for appointing him in the first place instead of a more progressive manager. Their desire to appoint a yes man to the role has led to failure once again and yet another set back for England. Strangely Southgate still believes that England can win the 2022 World Cup given the quality of players coming through but in order to do so the country’s FA needs to make a fundamental decision into how much they want to win a tournament and what changes will be needed to make that happen.
Liverpool have completed the £29 million signing of Hoffenheim star Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian, who is currently with the Brazil squad playing at the Copa America in Chile has penned a five-year deal worth a reported £100k per week. He becomes Liverpool’s second biggest transfer of all time, behind Andy Carroll and will likely operate as a solo striker in a new look 4-2-3-1 formation for Liverpool next season. He is Liverpool’s fifth signing so far this summer with manager Brendan Rodgers masterminding a complete revamp of the squad that failed miserably last season. With Raheem Sterling edging his way towards the exit, Firmino’s arrival pending a work permit will be a welcome boost to the bewildered Anfield crowd who must have been wondering how Rodgers would reshape the squad and how much money would be spent in doing so. The signing is a show of good faith by the clubs owners, Fenway Sports Group who continue to invest in the club and its infrastructure. That said whilst they have sanctioned the move for Firmino, it is in no way an indication that they are completely bought in to the player being a success and will be watching with interest on how he pans out.
At only 23, Firmino is a viewed as a long-term investment but a potential high risk. His transfer fee maybe second only to the amount Liverpool paid Newcastle for Andy Carroll but his potential sell on value will be much higher especially if he performs. Liverpool have taken calculated gambles like this in the past to varied results. They bought Luiz Suarez from Ajax for £22.8 million, only to sell him four years later to Barcelona for £75 million. Similarly Fernando Torres arrived in the summer of 2007 for just over £20 million before departing three and a half years later to Chelsea for £50 million. There have however been epic failures as well. Last season Mario Balotelli was brought back to England for £16 million but has struggled to live up to the expectations that followed him. Liverpool are now desperate to cut their losses and rid themselves of the misfiring Italian. Balotelli’s signing however was only a fraction of what Andy Carroll cost. At £35 million, he is Liverpool’s most expensive signing to date and their most spectacular flop. Forty-four appearances over an ill-fated two-year stint saw a return of only six goals for the England striker. Liverpool eventually shipped him out on loan to West Ham for an initial £2 million loan fee before selling him permanently to the Hammers for £15 million a year later.
Brendan Rodgers knows hat he cannot afford for Firmino to be a flop as his neck is edging closer to the guillotine. With Jurgen Klopp waiting in the wings to take over, Rodgers probably only has to Christmas to prove to the board that he should remain in charge. With Daniel Sturridge out until October at least and his other striking options, Balotelli, Borini and Lambert all heading for the exit, the pressure is on Rodgers to make Firmino a success. The stats however do not bode well. Despite finishing the 2013-2014 season with Hoffenheim on sixteen league goals, it’s the only time the attacking midfielder turn striker has ever finished in double figures in a league campaign. Much of his success in that season can be attributed to the players around him, like the talented Kevin Volland. The 22-year-old German international had a stand out season that year netting nine times and laying on eight assists, half of which were for Firmino. More concerning is that in that season, Firmino was averaging only two goals a month, hardly a strike rate to write home about. Last season, Firmino only netted seven times despite making the same number of appearances as the 2013-2014 campaign. To be fair, he did operate more as an attacking midfielder in those campaigns than as an out-and-out striker. Which begs the question of why Rodgers would gamble so much on a player who isn’t really a centre forward by trade?
Firmino no doubt has talent and is playing a starring role for Brazil in the Copa in the absence of the now suspended Neymar. But the question still remains on whether he is the right man to lead Liverpool’s front line next season. Firmino started his playing career as a defensive midfielder but has slowly been pushed further forward by the coaches he has worked for as they exploited his talents. For both Brazil and Hoffenheim, Firmino has operated as an attacking midfielder and as a striker but its fair to say that his most comfortable position is the former. From there he can dictate the play, create chances and roam free. As a striker, especially a solo one that ability to roam is curtailed and his role is dramatically changed from provider to finisher. Arguably he can be dropped back into that attacking three for Liverpool when Sturridge regains his fitness but that wont be for some time. Until then Firmino will have to play in that central striker role with Rodgers hoping he is more of a Suarez or Torres than a Carroll or Balotelli. If Firmino succeeds, Rodgers will be hailed as a genius for spotting his potential. But if he fails, the manager could quite easily be regretting this gamble as he packs up his desk and makes way for Klopp.
After a thrilling World Cup which saw Germany steal Brazil’s thunder, the domestic seasons across the world return with higher expectations than normal. And they didn’t disappoint with too many moments to mention. In order to capture as many of them as possible, we have pulled together an A-Z list of the season that was, highlighting those great achievements, the miserable moments and sometimes the downright bizarre. Enjoy!
A – A is for Aberdeen who pushed Celtic all the way in the title race in the Scottish Premiership; and for Auckland City who won the OFC Champions League for the fifth time in a row.
B – B is for Bournemouth, Bristol Rovers, Burton Albion and Bury who all secured promotions from various English leagues and for Bolivar who won their 24th title in Bolivia. Its also B for Blatter and more importantly Chuck Blazer whose testimony could end up bringing FIFA’s corruption to an end.
C – C is for former Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro who faces jail for breaking in to his own house to go for a dip in the pool and for Chelsea who won their fourth Premier League title with an eight point margin over second place Manchester City.
D – D is for Dost and De Bruyne who inspired Wolfsburg to second place in the Bundesliga and ruined Jurgen Klopp’s leaving do by beating his side in the DFB Cup final. Its also for FC Dila Gori who shocked Georgian football on route to their first ever title and for Memphis Depay who inspired PSV to glory in the Eredivisie before departing for Manchester United.
E – E is for Eibar, the little club from the Basque country who have managed to stay in La Liga for another season despite finishing third from bottom after 13th placed Elche were relegated due to unpaid taxes.
F – F is for the FBI who finally brought FIFA to its knees with a series of arrests and a mountain of confessions and for Luis Figo who gave everyone the briefest of hopes by running for FIFA president before eventually dropping out in disgust.
G – G is for Germany, who not only embarrassed the World Cup hosts Brazil on their own backyard but won the trophy in dramatic fashion and for Girona who won promotion to La Liga for the first time in their history. G is also for Gibraltar who began their first ever journey towards a international tournament by competing in the European Championship qualifiers and for Steven Gerrard who played his last game for Liverpool before joining LA Galaxy.
H – H is for Hearts who went unbeaten until January on route to the Scottish Championship title, ahead of arch rivals Hibs and favourites Rangers. H is also for Hamburg who after a torrid season managed to save their place in the Bundesliga next season with a late strike against Karlsruher in the playoff final.
I – I is for the Ivory Coast who finally ended a twenty three year wait to lift the African Cup of Nations and for Inverness Caley Thistle who won their first ever Scottish Cup and with it secured a place in Europe next season. I is also for FC Ingolstadt who will play their first ever Bundesliga season next year after securing promotion.
J – J is for Juventus, the Italian champions for the four consecutive year as well as the Coppa Italia and a place in the champions league final. J is also for Jorge Jesus, the new manager of Sporting Lisbon after sensationally leaving arch rivals Benfica to join them, the first manager ever to cross the divide.
K – K is for Harry Kane, the Tottenham and England striker who has been a revelation this season for club and country and is also for Kasier Chiefs, not the band but the Johannesburg side who regained the South Africa title with a record breaking 21 wins in 30 games.
L – L is for Luiz Adriano who was on fire in the Champions League scoring nine goals in seven appearances and for Leicester who despite being bottom of the Premiership at Christmas managed to survive with thanks to their pragmatic manager (see P). L is also for Lens who crashed out of Ligue 1 primarily due to a court order forced them down.
M – M is for Mourinho, the Chelsea coach who steered his side to yet another title and one more for his growing collection. M is also for FC Metalist who managed to lose all six of their Europa League group games and for FC Midtjlland who proved that the moneyball theory can work in football as they breezed to the Danish title for the first time.
N – N is for Norwich and their inspirational manager Alex Neill who guided them back in the Premiership despite having only taken over five months previously. N is also for Newcastle who imploded after the departure of Alan Pardew and almost got relegated before a last game of the season win saw them saved.
O – O is for Michael O’Neill, the Northern Irish manager who has transformed the once whipping boys of European football into a real force that stands a strong chance of qualifying for France 2016. O is also for Olympique Marseille who pushed PSG all the way in Ligue 1 for most of the season before faltering at the last hurdle.
P – P is for Nigel Pearson, Leicester media friendly manager who turn around the fortunes of his side by creating a siege mentality and for PSG who won the domestic treble whilst PSV snatched the Eredivisie title away from Ajax. It is also for Parma who were declared bankrupt by the Italian courts and fell out of Serie A for the first time in their history.
Q – Q is for Qarabag, the Azerbaijani champions who shocked Europa League finalist Dnipro in the group stage with a 1-0 win whilst holding Inter Milan and Saint Etienne to a draw. Q is also for Queens Park Rangers who dropped back out of the Premiership only a season after winning promotion to it from the Championship.
R – R is for Ronaldo who scored an amazing 48 goals this season in La Liga, 5 more than Lionel Messi and for River Plate who won the Copa Sudamerica this season only four years after being relegated from the Primera Division
S – S is for Sevilla who beat Dnipro in the Europa League final to secure back to back cups and for Stjarnan FC, the new Icelandic champions for the first time in their history. Finally S is for Sassuolo who continue to impress in Serie A, this time finishing 12th despite many tipping them early on for relegation.
T – T is for Luca Toni who at 38 has showed that he is still a lethal striker by finishing the Serie A season as joint top goal scorer with 22 goals and for Thomas Tuchel, the man chosen by Borussia Dortmund to fill Jurgen Klopps shoes.
U – U is for Peruvian side Universidad Cesar Vallejo who came from behind to beat Alizana Lima and win the final of the Copa Inca.
V – V is for Andre Villas Boas, the former Tottenham and Chelsea boss who has finally hit his stride again by winning the Russian title with Zenit. V is also for Videoton who retained the Hungarian title after a four year absence. V is also for Jamie Vardy, the one-time non-league player who now finds himself in the England squad after an impressive season at Leicester City.
W – W is for Watford for gaining promotion back to the Premiership and for Western Sydney Wanders who won the AFC Champions League title by beating Al Halil in the final.
X – X is for Xavier Alonso who has rolled back the years, becoming a key player for Bayern Munich this season and also for Spanish midfield maestro Xavi Hernandez who called time on his Barcelona career after 24 years at the club.
Y – Y is for Ashley Young, the once forgotten man at Manchester United who has been a revelation this season as a utility player under Van Gaal.
Z – Z is for Zenit St Petersburg who under Villas Boas secured the Russian title and for Zidane who continues to lie in wait for his chance at the Real Madrid managers job.
With the majority of media coverage focused on the Copa America, Women’s World Cup and Under 21 European Championships, its understandable that few people really knew that the Under 20 World Cup was happening this month in New Zealand. In what had been a fairly unremarkable tournament, the final between surprise side Serbia and Brazil was anything but. In a thrilling encounter, Serbia secured a memorable late win over their South American rivals etching a new chapter in their short but colorful history. Serbia who were debutants to the tournament performed like champions in front of the sold out 25,000 seater North Harbour Stadium in Auckland. The Balkan peninsula took a 70th minute lead through striker Stanisa Mandic who brushed home a Nemanja Maksimovic cross from four yards out. Brazil who had dominated the game stepped up a gear and piled more pressure on Serbia but were unable to find a way through. It was going to take a moment of brilliance from one of their players and that is exactly what they got. Manchester United midfielder Andreas Pereira had only been on the pitch less than seven minutes when he picked up the ball wide on the left. After evading the challenges of Zivkovic and Maksimovic, Pereira surged into the box with right back Milan Gajic in pursuit. Pulling the ball back inside, he lost Gajic before drilling a low shot past Predrag Rajkovic to tie the game.
But it would be Serbia who had the last laugh when deep into extra time Maksimovic ran on to a through pass from Zivkovic which split the Brazilian defence wide open. With two defenders racing on to him, Maksimovic only had time to take a few touches before looking up and coolly slotting the ball past the diving Jean in the Brazil goal. Chaotic scenes followed with the Serbia bench running onto the pitch to celebrate whilst the Brazilian team sank to its collective knees. After the match, Serbia’s head coach Veljko Paunovic spoke warmly about his giant killers by insisting that the team unity was the key reason behind their success in the tournament.
“Were we lucky? Yes, we were lucky. But you have to deserve your luck and we worked extremely hard. We are a team that plays as one and, in the end, I think the team that wanted most to win this trophy has won it, It will give us confidence for the future but we must continue building, and rebuilding, our football and our society.”
Paunovic was right. His Serbian team had entered the tournament as rank underdogs but emerged as champions by playing together. There are no pre Madonnas in this team, only grafters who were willing to fight tooth and nail for each other. After defeat in their first group match to Uruguay, Serbia could have crumbled but instead they rallied to beat surprise outfit Mali (who finished third overall after beating Senegal in the third place playoff match earlier in the day) in their second match. A convincing 2-0 win over Mexico propelled them into the knockout stage and a match against Hungary. Again that never say die attitude that epitomised this Serbia team rang true. Despite being a goal behind going into the closing moments of the match, Serbia once again pulled themselves level through a strike from substitute Ivan Saponjic. Seconds later they would be reduced to ten men with the dismissal of Gajic but that would not deter Serbia who dominated in extra time, finally making the break through with two minutes to go sending them into the quarter finals. In their next match, they faced a tricky game against an ever improving USA who had dispatched Colombia in the last round. The match would be a stalemate and eventually be settled by penalties with Serbia goalkeeper and captain Predrag Rajkovic saving the decisive penalty.
Serbia did expect to meet Germany in the semi finals but Mali had different ideas by knocking out one of the tournament favourites on penalties. Like in the round of 16 and the Quarter finals, the semi final between Serbia and Mali would go all the way into extra time after Youssouf Kone’s strike cancelled out Zivkovic’s fourth minute drive. Once again it was the substitutions and tactical alterations by Paunovic that changed the game in Serbia’s favour. Ivan Saponjic netted a memorable goal that was enough to win the match and send Serbia into the final against favourites Brazil. The rest they say is history.
Speak to anyone who knows Clint Dempsey and they will tell you that the US forward is a quiet player who keeps his emotions in check both on and off the field. Which is why his actions during Tuesday night’s US open cup match are so strange. The former Tottenham and Fulham front man who is now playing for Seattle Sounders reacted badly to teammate Michael Aziri receiving a red card against Portland Timbers by grabbing the referees note-book and ripping it up. The incident happened deep into extra time during in a heated and tempestuous match with Seattle trailing by 2-1, referee Daniel Radford produced a straight red for Arizi following what appeared to be merely a coming together of two players. Seattle at this point were already down to nine men after midfielder Brad Evans was sent off by Radford earlier in the match and having lost striker Obefemi Martins to injury after Seattle had used all its three substitutes. Enraged at seeing his clubs chances of a potential comeback taking a further hit, Dempsey raced to the referee to protest the dismissal. What followed was a heated exchange between the two before Dempsey turned and walked away in disgust.
However moments later he returned to the referee, grabbed his notebook and threw it to the ground before going over to pick it up and rip it in half. Left with little choice, Radford produced first a yellow card to Dempsey and then a red card as the player had already been cautioned earlier in the match. This enraged Dempsey further who tried to square up to the referee only to be dragged away by his teammates before the situation got further out of hand. Dempsey’s sending off, along with Arizi’s meant that Seattle would finish with only seven men on the pitch. Portland took advantage of this by sealing the victory with a third goal four minutes from time thanks to a strike from Maximiliano Urruti. The defeat sees the defending US Cup champions Seattle crash out of the tournament with the ramifications of Tuesday nights apparent lack of discipline still to be felt. Whilst Evans and Arizi will likely face one or two match bans, the punishment for Dempsey could be a lot more with US Soccer ready to make an example of the 32-year-old. Due to different interpretations of the rule book, Dempsey’s actions could either be considered a gross misconduct or worse assault on a referee which carries a three-month ban from all soccer related activities. Section 531-9 of the US Soccer policy manual states the following:
The person committing the referee assault must be suspended as follows:
for a minor or slight touching of the referee or the referee’s uniform or personal property, at least 3 months from the time of the assault
The referees note-book could be considered part of his uniform or even his personal property so if US soccer follows the rule of the law, then Dempsey could be in a lot of trouble. However handing Dempsey a ban of this length could ultimately hurt US Soccer as the ban would apply to all soccer including the US men’s international team. With the Gold Cup fast approaching, the loss of their influential captain could be devastating for their chances of success which is much needed as they gear up for qualification to the Confederation Cup in 2017 and the World Cup in 2018. Doubters only have to look at last years World Cup for proof of Dempsey’s importance to the US team as he single handedly pulled them into the round of 16 with several stunning performances in the group stage. If they were to ban him, Dempsey could react badly and end his international career all together which would hurt the US further. But taking no action may have a similar effect and would make a mockery of the rules themselves which are set in such to govern football in the US.
Questions will be doubly asked about the referees performance during the match with several ex players saying that the way he called the game was highly unprofessional. But regardless of how bad the referee performed in this match, it is no excuse for the child like antics of Dempsey. The mild-mannered yet passionate forward simply lost his head and will likely need to face up to that in the coming weeks and months ahead. He will need to issue an apology, beg for leniency and hope that US Soccer decides not to make an example of the country’s captain.
After months of speculation concerning the future of manager Manuel Pellegrini, it would appear as though the Manchester City board has decided to stick with the Chilean, even if it is just a stop gap solution until Pep Guardiola becomes available. Whilst the speculated arrival of the Spaniard next season would mark the start of a transformation of the existing squad, Manchester City are not about to rest on their laurels and will invest heavily once again in their squad this summer. However their approach to the market may be slightly different than in previous years with a focus on home grown players. In the last five seasons, only five out of 26 summer arrivals have been British and of that five only one, Richard Wright remains at the club. In addition to Frank Lampard’s departure back to New York City FC, City has allowed another three home grown players to leave since the end of the season. James Milner joined Liverpool after his contract expired, Dedryck Boyota joined Celtic and Micah Richards who spent last season on loan at Fiorentina was released.
The importance of having home grown players in your squad cannot be understated. In 2010 the Premier League introduced new rules which mandated all clubs in the league to have a minimum of eight home grown players in their squad of 25. The definition of a home grown player is somewhat up for interpretation with any player regardless of their nationality or age considered home grown who has been registered with the club for a continuous period of three years prior to their 21st birthday. This means that City could technically claim that Spanish youth striker Jose Angel Pozo is home grown as the player was signed in early 2012 and has now spent three years at the club. There are other youth players in the Manchester City academy that can help bolster the number of home grown players however this would mean that they would have to be allocated one of the 25 spots in the Manchester City first team roster. With the pressure mounting on Pellegrini to deliver success both at home and in Europe next season, he cannot afford to take a risk on youth players so will enter the summer transfer market with a new objective – to sign home grown players. With only three home grown players at present in their first team – goalkeepers Joe Hart, Richard Wright and French defender Gael Clichy, City need to find five new players to meet the required number.
To be fair they have wasted little time in their pursuit of home grown talent and have been linked with a variety of players over the past few weeks; none more so than Raheem Sterling. The Liverpool winger has, primarily through his agent, insisted that he wants to leave the Anfield club in order to win trophies; something that City can offer him a good chance of doing. To date Liverpool have stuck to their guns rejecting bid after bid from the Manchester club and are rumoured to be holding out for a reported £50m. It looks certain that Sterling will leave Liverpool this summer but for how much exactly is still to be seen. Another player very much on City’s radar is Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshire. The England international who scored a two wonderful screamers against Slovenia last weekend in the 3-2 win has had a difficult past two years in north London with injuries hampering his progression. He is still widely regarded as a talented player who can offer much to any side so City’s interest is not unwarranted. They have yet to formally bid for the player with any move likely to fail given Arsene Wenger’s reluctance to sell. A cheaper and more likely option could be Aston Villa’s Fabian Delph who had a terrific season at the East midlands club despite the turmoil that surrounded their season. His performances earned him an England call up earlier this year and could help him secure his passage to a bigger club with City favourites to land the tireless central midfielder.
Buying talented youth players may also be an option open to Pellegrini. Patrick Roberts is not exactly a name that is widely known but he soon will be. The 19 year old Fulham striker/winger has impressed last season in the Championship, catching the eye of many Premiership scouts along the way. Despite not getting on the score sheet in any of the 20 appearances he made last season, he is viewed as one for the future and is likely to leave Fulham after their failure to escape England’s second tier. Pellegrini is a huge fan of the player and is willing to bid up to £5m for the England under 19 star however Fulham will hold out for double that. He could face a challenge from Liverpool who are also reportedly interested and with Roberts being an avid fan of the Merseyside club, he may face an uphill struggle to convince Roberts to play in blue rather than red next season.
City’s desperation to buy British is starting to show but with cash to burn they should be able to land their targets eventually. Unfortunately the price they will have to pay is likely to be over inflated as most clubs in England are aware of City’s home grown dilemma and the vast financial resources at their disposal. City is seen by many as a cash cow to clubs who will milk them for as much money as possible before releasing their best home grown players to them. City face a race against time to bring in the required additional five home grown players before the end of the summer transfer window or will face heavy sanctions from the Premier League. This will be a pricey summer for City but one that they only have themselves to blame for after five seasons of buying foreign imports instead of home grown players.
In the broadest sense of the word, change is the act or instance of making or becoming different. In the English language, Change has many meanings but when it comes to football, it usually refers to the need for dramatic switch of direction. It usually occurs after a low point much like AC Milan’s worst league performance in over 17 years. The eighteen times Serie A champions finished in 12th place this past season, sparking calls for a change at the club that will hopefully see them rebound and challenge for honours once more. With Juventus sealing their forth league title in a row and the gap widening between the top three the chasing pack, AC Milan need to introduce change quickly before they become irrelevant. But change is not easy to implement, it has to be systemic across the entire club. The issue with this and with AC Milan in particular is that the key problems lie in the boardroom level where several legacy directors still rule the roost and are unable to see that they are a major factor in Milan’s recent downturn in fortunes.
From the negative press associated to owner Silivio Berlusconi after hours activities to the archaic thinking of long time vice president Adriano Galliani, AC Milan’s board is rotten to the core and in desperate need of change. But now several green shoots are starting to appear that give hope to Milan’s bewildered fans. After Berlusconi’s troubled private life became the centre of much media and political debate in 2011, he wisely decided to step back from his role with the club and leave it in the hands of his daughter, Barbara Berlusconi. The 30 year old former socialite and philosophy graduate may not have seemed like the revolutionary figure that Milan needed but over the past three years she has proved to be exactly that. With a good business eye and ability to seek out and develop strong commercial relationships, Barbara is slowly bringing AC Milan into the modern game where commercial sponsorship’s and marketing initiatives help to fund the progress of a club rather than a wealthy owner. She has worked tirelessly to increase the awareness of the AC brand around the world in hopes of generating further interest and last month persuaded her father to sell 48% of the club to Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol for a reported €470 million. This sale comes with a promise of investment back into the playing squad with as much as €150 million being touted around the media as the figure Taechaubol is willing to plow into the club. The money will help to complete construction of a new stadium for the club in Portello which will finally see them move away from the now crumbling San Siro.
But more importantly that money will be used to refresh the squad which is in a dire state. AC Milan’s current mix of over rated foreigners and under performing home grown players is simply not working and a drastic change is needed if they are to compete again. That change is already underway with the confirmation that Porto striker Jackson Martinez will be arriving shortly. He could be followed closely by Monaco’s talented defensive midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia with both clubs acknowledging that discussions are taking place. They have also been linked with Dortmund’s Mats Hummels, Marseille’s Giannelli Imbula and Manchester City’s Aleksandar Kolarov in recent weeks as the rebuilding process picks up steam. This new look squad will however be somewhat surprisingly managed by ex Inter and Serbia boss Sinisa Mihajlovic who took over from Filippo Inzaghi on Monday. Former AC Milan and Italy striker Inzaghi had only been promoted to the first team manager position from his role as youth team manager at the start of the season following a disastrous spell under another former great, Clarence Seedorf. After an impressive spell at the Under 19 level, the hiring of Inzaghi made a lot of sense but he couldn’t transform the fortunes of the first team last season winning only 35% of the games he played.
His failure sparked conversations about the need for change at the club with the board reacting quickly to try an persuade former manager Carlo Ancelotti to return for a second spell in charge. But Ancelotti rejected the offer stating that he was suffering from burnout after a pressure filled two years at Real Madrid and had decided to take a much needed rest. His refusal put AC Milan into panic mode especially given that Inzaghi was still technically their manager at the time of the approach. Their appointment of Mihajlovic is a bizarre move given his connection with their arch rivals and his previous comments made that he would never work for AC Milan. He did managed to lead a struggling Sampdoria side to 7th place last year after inheriting a side entrenched in a relegation scrap the previous year. But there are those who doubt his success at Sampdoria with journalist Mina Rzouki suggesting that in fact tactical coach Emilio De Leo that was principally responsible for Sampdoria’s turn in fortunes by improving their set piece play and movement off the ball with Mihajlovic playing more of the manager role. AC Milan have yet to confirm who from Sampdoria’s backroom staff will follow Mihajlovic to the San Siro but there is unlikely to be any room for former AC Milan legends to return to the club in a coaching capacity. This is something that the club needs desperately if it is to change for the better. Whilst it is good to let go of the past to move forward, you still need to be able to reflect on where you have comes from and former players like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi can provide this nostalgic reference to previous Milan successes.
Change is coming to AC Milan but its slow and steady with much work still needing to be done. If they are to be competitive once more they need to change not only the team but the entire club up to the board room level starting with the removal of Adriano Galliani who continues to wreak a foul stench on the club. Mihajlovic may not be the right appointment for the future of the club but he is a good fit for now and should be able to steady the ship and help reform happen. AC Milan will unlikely challenge for honours next season but it wont be long before they are once again especially if they fully embrace change.
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.
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.
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.
After the dust had settled on a disappointing season that saw Rangers failing to get out of the Championship at the first attempt, focus has swiftly turned towards next season and with it comes the news of a new managerial team hand picked to bring glory back to the troubled Ibrox outfit. Former Brentford boss Mark Warburton and his trusty assistant David Weir will be trooped out in front of the waiting media today as Rangers new board takes its first steps towards rebuilding the club. Warburton arrives to a mixed reaction from the Rangers faithful who were still largely enamored by stand in boss and former player Stuart McCall.
However after being parachuted in by the board to steady the ship and seal promotion, McCall only managed to get this sinking ship over the line, falling at the last hurdle to Motherwell in a rather pointless relegation/promotion showdown double episode. That defeat convinced many at Ibrox that major surgery was needed on both the playing staff and the coaching setup with perhaps for the first time in the clubs history a need to distance itself from its past tendencies to appoint former legends like McCall to save the day. He will have known at the time that defeat in the playoffs against his former side Motherwell would seal his fate however in typical McCall style he came out fighting and made a valid pitch for the job full time. That pitch was convincing and will have likely sparked debate at the boardroom level. But the sentiment towards McCall as a player for the club may have been his downfall with a fresh approach much needed. In Warburton, Rangers can get that freshness whilst maintaining a link to the clubs past through his assistant, David Weir. Like McCall, Weir is an Ibrox legend, a captain fantastic who surprised many in Scottish and world football by playing well into his forties with the same tenacity and spirit that he possessed as a kid some twenty years before. At Rangers Weir was the most respected man on and off the pitch at the club for a long time and many tout him as a future manager but for now they will settle for him as the assistant to Warburton. The new manager will need Weir’s insider knowledge of both Rangers and Scottish football if he is to settle in quickly and have the best chance of success.
However the challenge that awaits Warburton and Weir is nothing less than daunting. They inherit a skeleton playing staff that lacks both in numbers and quality. Many of the faces from last years disaster campaign have gone – Boyd, Moshni, Foster, Daly and McCulloch with a few others eyeing the exit door with enthusiasm. There will be cash available to invest in players but it won’t be the amount that Rangers fans are used to seeing. The days of frivolous spending that saw Rangers wasted vast sums of money on the likes of Tore Andre Flo and Michael Ball are long gone. The focus will be on building for the future, investing in players who can not only compete in the Championship but also in the Scottish Premiership in the foreseeable future. Youth players will play a pivotal role in the clubs forward success especially given Warburton’s background in nurturing talent. Unfortunately for him that talent will not be coming out of the clubs youth system at Murray Park for a while as that well has all but dried up by now. The last prodigal son to come through that system was Lewis McLeod who ironically was sold to Brentford just as he began to stamp his authority on the Ibrox turf. Others have emerged since then like Tom Walsh and Ryan Hardie but have yet to really establish themselves as indispensable components of the Rangers machine. Warburton will have to look beyond Murray Park in search of young talent and again unfortunately will hit a snag. With no scouting network in operation at Rangers, the work will fall on Warburton, Weir and his coaching staff initially until a chief scout can be identified and brought in to help.
Building a squad capable of challenging is one thing but building one that can do so in under four weeks is another. Rangers pre-season training kicks off in earnest in early July with their first Championship match due on August 8th. Warburton will start the rebuild immediately but it will be time that will be his biggest opponent as he battles to get Rangers ready for the new season. The pressure on Warburton and Weir will be immense but the duo who led Brentford to the English Championship play offs only 18 months after taking charge should be able to handle it. Only time will tell whether Warburton can steer Rangers back to the Scottish Premiership and back challenging for the top Scottish honours once more.
Once considered as a future England captain, Micah Richards career has gone stuttered to a stop in recent years. After falling down the pecking order at Manchester City, Richards jumped at a loan move last season to Serie A side Fiorentina with the view to impressing and securing a long term move. But his switch to Italy didn’t go to plan with playing time limited to just a few substitute appearances. Now Richards is searching for his next club after Manchester City decided against offering him a new contract and instead chose to release him this month.
The move by City was revealed after the club along with the other 19 teams in the Premiership submitted their retain and release lists to the Premier League. Implemented as a way of tracking player movements and club intentions, this annual event that happens only a few weeks after the season ends details those players deemed as no longer required by the clubs. A majority of the players formally released are youth players who have failed to make the required grade to be awarded a contract. Whilst most will look towards the lower leagues for their next adventure, there are some youngsters who could be picked up by Championship or even Premiership clubs as the have shown enough flashes of the talent they have to convince a club to take a punt on them. Two such players are midfielders George Green and John Lundstram who were both released by Everton this week. Green, who arrived at Everton four years ago from Bradford City as a raw yet talented 15 year old touted as the next Paul Gascoigne but has failed to convince Roberto Martinez that he can fulfill his potential at the club. At 19, Green still has time to become the player many believed he would be and being released by Everton could be the catalyst he needs to do so.
Whilst the list is primarily fairly unknown youngsters, there are some more familiar names on the list including several experienced pros like Richards. Former England players Darren Bent, Wes Brown, Matthew Upson and Glen Johnson are all looking for their next club after being released by their respective clubs. They are joined by the likes of Dutch defender Ron Vlaar, towering Norweigan centre back Brede Hangeland and Swedish striker John Guidetti ho had a successful loan spell at Scottish champions Celtic this past season. Out of all of the clubs in the Premiership, its hardly surprising that two of the three sides relegated this year, Hull and QPR were the sides who released the most players (13 and 11 respectively). Among them were seasoned pros like Joey Barton, Karl Henry, Paul McShane and Steve Harper as the pair tried to trim down their wage bills ahead of a season in the Championship next year. Fellow strugglers Newcastle and Sunderland who narrowly avoided relegation after a nail biting finish to the season also released a handful of players including Athony Reveillere, Wes Brown, Ryan Taylor and Jonas Guiterrez. The story around the two Newcastle players release (Taylor and Gutierrez) summed up perfectly how badly managed the club was at the end of the season. It was up to stand in manager John Carver to break the news by telephone to Taylor about the clubs decision not to renew his contract but what followed was a complete lack of class from the North East club. After breaking the news to Taylor, Carver asked if he could simply hand the phone over to cancer survivor Gutierrez who was with Taylor on a coaching course in Northern Ireland. Taylor obliged only for Carver to relay the same termination decision to Gutierrez. Both players are iconic figures at the club and fan favourites so the way that their departure was handled was nothing less than awful.
This summer will be filled with anxiety, long tiresome training sessions and the occasional trials for all those players released by the clubs. In total 154 players were release, some of whom will retire all together from the game (Rio Ferdinand, Brad Freidel) and others will move on to pre-arranged destinations (Frank Lampard, Steve Gerrard). For the rest the next five weeks will be a nervous time as they look for their next job in football. For many the new season will be about new opportunities at a new club but for others the new season will mark the moment when some serious decisions need to be made – stay in the game they love or look beyond its borders for their next career move.
The evolution of technology within football over the past decade has dramatically changed the game arguably for the better. Whilst goal line technology is still in its infancy, other hi-tech advancements especially in the treatment and conditioning of players are more broadly accepted and are being incorporated into clubs across the world. But one area that had for a long time been untouched and against change is now undergoing a much needed makeover. The sourcing and scouting of players has traditionally been a simple affair – with a manager identifying the player(s) he wants and clubs scouting network travelling to games to watch them. But with every match being recorded in one shape or form, the need for bums on seats in the stands is become less important. Of course there is no substitute for seeing the player first hand and the scouts in particular will tell you that there is no other way to see or catch a player’s weakness than to see him or her in the flesh. But the process of finding and scouting players can be altered thanks to new technologies and with it the data that it brings.
Using data to judge players suitability is a fairly new concept but one that more and more clubs are turning to. Companies set up specifically around data collection, processing and display such as OPTA, Stats Inc and Prozone are revolutionizing the way that players are viewed. The data can show things that potentially the scout couldn’t detect by seeing the player on the field such as an underling problem in their game or a long term injury. With more knowledge about each individual player than ever before, clubs can make smarter selections in order to enhance their team and performances. The idea of using data in such a fashion may be slow in the adoption by soccer teams but in baseball in the US, clubs regularly use stats to their benefit. Highlighted in the book turned movie “Moneyball” where Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his team use data to put together a winning baseball team on a budget with great success, the use of data to analyze all aspects of a players game has now become common practice. Soccer has been reluctant to date and slow to adopt insisting that data can be inaccurate and is secondary to experience and knowledge of the game. But slowly clubs across various leagues are realizing that instead of data being a threat to the way they run their club, it can hand them a huge advantage over the teams who are not.
Brentford, in the English Championship are not exactly the first team you would think of when it comes to this approach but are very much a club in transition. Under the ownership of forward thinker Matthew Benham, Brentford are paving a new path for themselves by embracing the data available and using it in an effort to uncover gems across Europe. Benham, who made his money by running a sports betting and football stats business, has taken the brave step of giving successful manager Mark Warburton his notice as he attempts to switch the clubs direction to this new model. Warburton, who is considered one of the best managers in the lower leagues, has guided the Bees into the Championship and has them on course for a potential shot at promotion to the Premiership for the very first time. But regardless of what happens Warburton will part ways with the club in the summer after agreeing to terminate his contract due to a difference in philosophy with Benham. Far from being opposed to using data in the scouting process, Warburton feels that as a manager he would still like to own the decision of who to buy and who would work well in his squad, something Benham and the club disagrees with. Benham will spend the next few months identifying a new head coach rather than manager who will work alongside Director of Football Frank McParland as part of a new setup. It may be seen by many as a risky move but Benham believes it is the right thing to do for the future of Brentford FC.
This move follows a dramatic shift in the mindset of some owners in England from the conventional British approach where the manager owns and controls the team to a European approach where a Director of Football or Sporting Director takes care of transfers, scouting and youth development leaving a head coach to coach. Recently QPR appointed Les Ferdinand into a Director role with Chris Ramsey as Head coach and although Ramsey is only in place temporarily until the summer, QPR will likely maintain this structure going forward regardless of whom they choose. It’s a similar situation at Newcastle where Managing Director Lee Charnley and Chief Scout Graham Carr are tasked with the buying a selling of players whilst temporary manager John Carver manages training and the team. They too will likely hire a full time head coach during the summer with several names already being touted for the job.
Adjusting to this new approach will not be easy, especially for managers, coaches and scouts who have been in the game for considerable amounts of time but the evolution of technology will continue with or without them. Data, like in baseball will start to play a more significant role in how teams operate both on and away from the pitch. Mangers who cannot adapt will be pushed to the sidelines and replaced by new coaches who can. It is an evolution of football that has been coming for some time now but only in recent years has picked up enough steam to push its way through to the end.
To see more on how OPTA is helping the data revolution, click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bCp0pHuHqQ
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. 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. 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. 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.
Ask any fan across the world the same question and you will likely get the same answer. The question – would you be OK with your manager leaving to join your arch rivals? The answer is likely to be a firm no. But for fans of Portuguese side Benfica this scenario is playing itself out in real life after their manager for the past six years, Jorge Jesus announced his departure from the club to join arch rivals Sporting Lisbon. It’s fair to say that the Benfica fans are in a state of disbelief, not over why their faithful coach who has delivered three league titles and seven trophies to the club during his tenure has decided to leave but instead why he has chosen to go to Sporting of all clubs. The rivalry between the two clubs who both play in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon is a fierce one with few players daring to make the switch. So for their manager to do so has sparked a furious reaction from the fans and calls of “judas”.
Jorge has decided to make the move to Sporting after letting his existing contract with Benfica end this summer. He refused to sign a new contract earlier this year so the Benfica board were anticipating his departure for pastures new after six wonderful years including two Europa League cup final appearances along the way. With several clubs across Europe interested in the 60-year-old a move to Italy, Germany or England looked on the cards. At least that is what the Benfica board believed so the news that Jorge has all but agreed a £4.4million a year deal with Sporting and will be staying in the capital will come as a bitter blow to the club. The feelings are understandable as it would be the same if the Celtic manager Ronny Deila left to fill the current vacancy at Rangers or United boss Louis Van Gaal replaced Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City.
Jorge Jesus is not the first manager though to have made the switch to a rival club although he is one of only a handful of brave men to do so. Alex McLeish took over at Aston Villa after resigning from arch rivals Birmingham following their relegation from the Premiership in 2011. Further back than that, Terry Neill switched North London allegiances by moving from Tottenham to Arsenal whilst Ron Saunders managed three rival clubs – Aston Villa, Birmingham and West Brom during a busy 13 year managerial spell. There are numerous managers who have bossed both sides of a city rivalry but have managed other clubs in-between. Arsenal managerial legend George Graham stunned his old club when he signed on as Tottenham manager, after leaving Arsenal and spending a two-year spell at Leeds United. Alberto Zaccheroni took over at rivals Inter only a year and a half after leaving AC Milan, whilst Brian Clough famously bossed both Derby County and Nottingham Forest during his career.
Benfica fans will be urged to remember that they took a former Sporting Lisbon manager as their own in 2006 with the appointment of Fernando Santos so these moves do happen. But the direct switch will still hurt Benfica, even though they will understand that as a free agent Jorge Jesus is within his rights to do so. The question however is how he intends to stay in the capital after making the switch and expects the Benfica fans to forget. Like most things connected to rivals, they never forget and will be sure to give Jorge Jesus and his new Sporting Lisbon team a rousing welcome when they come to the Estadio da Luz for the first time next season.
After a week of controversy at FIFA, the return of competitive football will be a welcomed distraction to the outgoing president. Despite announcing his departure on Tuesday, Sepp Blatter has confirmed that he is still set on attending the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off tomorrow in Canada. The tournament runs for just under a month and features 24 teams playing across six Canadian cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. Somewhat surprisingly no games will be played in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto but this is largely due to the fact that they will be playing host to this years Pan American Games which starts around the same time. FIFA’s decision to hand Canada the Women’s World Cup is another show of good faith towards the country, who have previously hosted other FIFA tournaments including the Under 16’s and Under 20’s men’s World Cups and the Under 19’s and Under 20’s Womens World Cup. However it is the magnitude and prestige of this tournament that has the Canadian Soccer Association so excited as they see it as a perfect way to demonstrate their capabilities to FIFA with a view to a potential bid for the men’s tournament in 2026 or 2030.
That said, Canada has not belittled the Women’s World Cup in the slightest and is rapidly turning up the heat on what is set to be a compelling competition. Current holders Japan are out to win back to back titles after winning the 2011 World Cup in Germany, beating the US in the final via a nerve jangling penalty shootout. The star of Japan’s victory four years ago was their inspiration captain Homare Sawa. At 36, Sawa is Japan’s most capped female player of all time with 197 caps and is the country’s top goalscorer with 82 goals to date. Her five goals in the 2011 World Cup bagged her the Golden Boot award and a place in women’s football growing history. She will now look to add to that legendary status with a record breaking sixth World Cup appearance and a chance for one last final swansong. Japan are in group C alongside an impressive looking Switzerland and the fairly unknown commodities that are Cameroon and Ecuador. Progression is expected at which point the real defense of their title should begin.
Unlike Germany four years ago or China four years before that, the number of competitive teams able to win the tournament has increased dramatically. Besides Japan, any one of Germany, China, Brazil, USA, England, France, Sweden or hosts Canada could lift the World Cup trophy in Vancouver on July 5th. A victory for Canada on home turf would mean more to the side than can ever be expressed and would be as a career high for captain Christine Sinclair are her teammates. Qualifying from their group however may be tricky with China, Holland and New Zealand making the foursome. Germany and Brazil should reach the knock out stages fairly easily after being placed in substandard groups. England and France will battle it out with Colombia and Mexico in Group F but its Group D that has everyone talking of a group of death. As one of the clear favourites for the tournament, the news that the US had been grouped with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria was not welcomed widely.
With arguably the strongest and most experienced squad in the tournament, the US should be good enough to make it through at the expense of Australia and Sweden but its the challenge of Nigeria that potentially poses the biggest threat. Whilst the Nigerian team is fairly unknown with a majority of their players still playing their league football back home, it is their comfort on artificial pitches that has the US worried. In controversial circumstances and blaming the weather conditions in Canada, FIFA decided in its wisdom to play this World Cup on all artificial pitches. The decision sparked protests from the players who claimed the move was an act of discrimination against the women’s game and that FIFA would never make the men’s game play on artificial surfaces during their World Cup. They are of course right as the risk to serious injuries on these synthetic surfaces is greater than on grass. Despite calls for a change back to grass, the tournament will go ahead on artificial pitches which could hand those teams who play regularly on the surface a huge advantage. Nigeria are one such nation who play 100% of their games back home on fake pitches. Their knowledge of how the ball performs on this surface and the fact that they have spent years working with it could give them a slight competitive edge.
Paris Saint Germain’s canter to their third successive title appeared to be tougher than first anticipated with Lyon, Monaco and Marseille all pushing to the very end. But in truth, PSG were far too strong for them all. Flush with riches beyond most teams wildest dreams and a squad of superstar players at their disposal, PSG should be ruling French football and they are. This past weekend they added another trophy to their cabinet, the French Cup making it their third domestic trophy this season and earning them a place in French folklore as the first team to win a domestic treble. Despite the narrow 1-0 scoreline, they dominated that match much like they had dominated most matches this season in France.
Their record in Ligue 1 over the last three years demonstrates their dominance. Over three seasons and 114 games, PSG have won 76 times (66%) and have lost on only 11 occasions (9.6%). They have scored 236 goals, average just over two goals a game. Better still they have only conceded only 82 times in three seasons, or a goal every game and a half. But there are early signs, albeit manageable ones of problems arising at the club. This season saw PSG draw 11 times and more worryingly concede more goals (36) than either of the first two seasons (both 23). Added into this, Ligue 1 is finally becoming competitive again after several baron years with few teams able to mount a serious challenge. Whilst Monaco has bought its recent success with a series of high profile captures over the years including Rademel Falcao, Joao Moutinho and Lucas Ocampos, Marsielle’s renaciance can be credited to the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa and the strong team work ethic he brought to the club. A strong start to the season raised hopes that this was the year for Marseille but their hard work was ultimately undone by two poor months in February and April where they only managed to pick up three points in eight vital games. Lyon however did push PSG to the very end but shock defeats to Caen and Nice would derail their chances as the season drew to a close.
PSG know that they will need to improve, despite winning this years title in the end by a comfortable eight points. Their overdependent on stirkers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani who between them scored 44% of PSG’s league goals this season. With speculation mounting that the pair could depart the club for new challenges, Blanc will need to address the situation sooner rather than later. As always, PSG’s owners are not afraid to flex their financial muscle to obtain their required targets but after being stung once before by UEFA’s financial fair play rules, they will be slightly more cautious this time. They will invest their money more wisely with a focus on younger players who will provide longevity to what is an aging squad. Decisions will need to be made over the growing volume of stars now over 30 like Ibrahimovic, Zoumana Camara, Thiago Motta and Maxwell. The futures of Yohan Cabaye and Ezequiel Lavezzi will also be considered over the summer after the pair have failed to live up to the high standard they produced at their previous clubs that first brought the attention of PSG’s scouts to them.
New faces will arrive to bolster PSG roster of stars, all under the watchful eye of Blanc who is likely to remain in charge after securing the domestic treble. Blanc however will not be allowed to rest on his laurels with the board making it clear that success for them means only one thing – Champions League. PSG have certainly become more competitive in recent years in the competition but are still quite far away from winning it. They lack the hunger of Barcelona, the organization of Juventus and most importantly the flexibility of Bayern. Blanc’s over reliance in the same tired formation, the one that has worked so well in the league has been his downfall. He may have matched Chelsea ball for ball in the round of 16 but their luck ran out when facing a more dynamic Barcelona side in the quarters. Messi and co simply ran rings round their firm structure and highlighted Blanc’s key weakness – his lack of tactical surprise. This unfortunately is not something you can buy but instead must be learned. Blanc has the summer to address this or he will face the axe.
In a surreal press conference attended by only a handful of journalists who had hung on after the completion of last Friday’s FIFA presidential election, Sepp Blatter finally gave up. In front of stunned faces, FIFA president Blatter announced that he is stepping down from his role and that an extraordinary meeting will be held to appoint a new president. The sudden change of heart by Blatter is puzzling but today’s revelation of an US led investigation focused on his involvements into the current FIFA corruption scandal could have been the deciding factor. Added into that, rumours that the testimony of former FIFA member turned FBI informant Chuck Blazer could be unclassified in the next few days and released into the public domain could have influenced Blatter into making this decision.
His decision to go now only four days after sealing re-election gained a mixed reaction from the international footballing community. Many were delighted at the news of his imminent departure, with the realistic notion that now changes could now be made to FIFA for the betterment of football. Others especially in Blatter friendly countries across Asia and Africa reacted with sadness, claiming that conspiracies and a witch hunt had forced Blatter out. The sad truth though is that Blatter saw the end coming well before the election result was called last Friday. He firmly believed rightly or wrongly that by winning the election he would reunited the memberships of FIFA once more behind him, but after the arrests of last week the chances of that happening disappeared out the door. Blatter is at heart an egotistical man, who savoured the victory over Ali with the same pizzazz as Mayweather did over Pacquiao in their heavyweight boxing match last month. But with the US noose tightening around his neck, Blatter knew he had to quit before he was forcibly dragged from his position. By quitting on his own terms, he could build on the idea that he was a good man, resigning for the sake of world football and the sport he has cherished for over forty years.
Blatter however is anything but a good man. Having turned a blind eye for decades to the corruption and illegal activities happening under his watch at FIFA, he is simply put a criminal. Whilst the Swiss authorities are reluctant to go after Blatter, the US authorities are not; preferring to use a series of plead bargain deals with lower level executives to eventually get their man. The FBI is continuing its investigation with the hope of finding enough evidence to strike FIFA at its jugular and arrest Blatter. This process however will take time, time that Blatter will use to reform FIFA by implementing new guidelines and practices in an attempt to correct years of misgivings. Many speculate that this is a deliberate ploy by Blatter to cover up a lot of the connections he had to the illegal activities across FIFA and destroy any evidence that could be used against him in an investigation.
Blatter’s resignation however does raise a new question of who will replace him. In his resignation speech, Blatter called for FIFA not to unnecessarily delay the election until the next FIFA congress in Mexico next May, instead calling for an extraordinary congress to find his successor. It is expected that this will happen between December 2015 and March 2016, with Blatter remaining in charge until that point. There are several candidates who could potentially replace Blatter and more adding their names to the list by the day. Former footballers David Ginola, Zico, Luis Figo and UEFA president Michel Platini are all likely to run, along with establish political figures in football like Prince Ali, Jerome Champagne, Michael Van Praag and Issa Hayatou. Former Manchester United chief executive David Gill has also been touted as a possibility. Gill was elected to FIFA’s executive committee earlier this year, only to reject the post after Blatter’s re-election last Friday. With Blatter now leaving, Gill has dramatically changed his mind and will take up his new post but several well-known faces in football are now encouraging him to up the ante and run instead for the presidents job. FIFA will vet all the candidates over the next few months with a final list eventually presented to the FIFA members in advance of the election. Regardless of who the final candidates will be, each one will need to present a unified manifesto to the delegates that will help swing their votes. Not an easy challenge considering how divided the football world is at this time.
Take into consideration Africa, a continent that commands 54 of the 209 votes and one that has been faithfully loyal to Blatter for over 20 years. Their loyalty was not necessarily bought using bribe money but instead by promises made by Blatter to invest in football in Africa, promises that he has faithfully kept. He helped develop grassroots football in impoverished countries as well as bring the continent its first World Cup, held in South Africa in 2010. Reports from journalists inside Ghana have reported that the African delegates are keen to vote in someone who shares the same philosophies and ideals as Blatter to ensure that Africa does not get left behind as it has been in the past. Rightly they want to ensure that the FIFA monies continue to flow into Africa so that development can continue. Any potential successor would be wise to build his or her manifesto with this in mind as the African votes could be a major decider in who is to follow Blatter in the presidents chair.
Replacing Blatter and putting FIFA back on the right tracks will not be an easy task. Like a foul odour that has ingrained itself into the furniture, ridding FIFA of Blatter’s legacy will be a tough challenge. It will take years, not months to fully get FIFA back on the straight and narrow and potentially longer to reinstall faith in the troubled organization. The arrests made last week were merely the tip of a very large iceberg with further arrests likely in the coming weeks and months. To date the investigation stretches back to the early nineties but could go back further to the early seventies when Blatter’s predecessor Joao Havelange was in power. Blatter learned much from the Brazilian during his early years at FIFA and was influenced heavily by him. It’s not hard to assume that some of FIFA’s illegal practices were already in place when Blatter took control so he may not be fully responsible for this. However as president for the last 17 years, it was Blatter who was ultimately responsible for the continuation and development of these illegal practices. His resignation may spell an end to them or it may just be the beginning of a new chapter in FIFA’s long lasting corruption story.
Singapore has followed many countries in setting up academies and centres of excellence, which are churning out young players for the local and regional teams. Unfortunately, very few make it into the top teams in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and even fewer make it beyond the region’s borders. However, this may just be starting to change.
This last month has seen the first Singaporean player ever to move to an Australian A-League team with 23-year-old Safuwan Baharudin signing on loan for Melbourne City. The versatile defender impressed the City Football Group team during a couple of friendly matches in the UAE and after completing the move has gone on to make 3 appearances scoring 1 goal in his first month. Young Singaporeans are also looking further afield for their footballing education. Adam Swandi spent 2 years in France with FC Metz (more of him later) and Mahathir Azeman has just returned from Brazil to Singapore to serve his National Service (NS). Azeman, 19, was signed from the National Football Academy (NFA) by Boavista Sport Club at the end of 2013 and has been a first team regular in the club’s reserves (U-21) side. He will play locally this season before heading back to Brazil with Boavista once his NS is complete.
Following this trend are the 2 eldest sons of (arguably) Singapore’s greatest player, Fandi Ahmad – the first Singaporean footballer to play in Europe – have huge shoes to fill. From a young age both have shown plenty of potential and have already been picked up the Chilean club CD Universidad Católica’s academy, without either having played a Singaporean league game. Irfan is a forward with good vision and touch, excellent speed and accurate passing. Ikshan is an attacking midfielder noted for his ability to dribble at defenders and beat them with individual skill. At 17 and 15 respectively, they have time to develop but it is already hoped that they will be key players for the national team for the next 15 years. (Oh, and they also have an 11 year old younger brother, Ilhan, who is rattling in the goals for his school team). Perhaps this growing trend of the best young players leaving Singapore to maximize their development will be the key to the country improving the national team’s FIFA Ranking and maybe even improve Singaporean football on the whole. However, it makes my task of identifying 5 of the best U20 prospects in the country a little harder.
So here goes, these are my 5 top players under the age of 20 that Singapore currently has:
Position: Attacking Midfield
Club: Courts Young Lions
Like some of the young starlets mentioned above, Swandi burst on to the scene with captivating displays for the NFA teams. A 2-year stint with FC Metz in France followed, although he has returned to Singapore this year to serve his NS and play locally. An intelligent playmaker with great control and one-touch passing, who plays with a very similar style and physique to that of Philippe Coutinho.
Recommended Future Club: Like many Singaporean players Swandi has good technical skills but lacks strength. Given a strict conditioning program to improve his physicality then he could certainly provide a playmaking role to a team that plays with a number 10 behind the forward line. A team like West Ham could do wonders for his development as they have a proven youth history, have an experienced manager renowned for getting the best out of unknown players and make good use of playmakers.
Position: Central Midfielder
Club: Courts Young Lions
Kumar is a strong midfield general who has grown to dominate the Courts Young Lions’ boiler room. His presence inspires those around him, strong in the tackle, great vision and finds his teammates on most occasions. The national team has called him up regularly over the last 18 months and so we should see him playing regularly at international level.
Recommended Future Club: Kumar’s potential is crying out to be tested at a higher level. With his skills similar to those of a young Clarence Seedorf then AFC Ajax would be an ideal place for him to develop and hopefully follow in their tradition of producing world-class players.
Adam Hakeem and Amer Hakeem
Age: 17 and 16
Position: Both defenders
Club: NFS U-17 and U-16
Standing at 1.92m, Adam Hakeem, son of Singapore football legend Nazri Nasir, is a looming presence that reinforces the backbone of the defence. His ability to get up in the air coupled with his towering height makes him a dominating player at both ends of the field. Younger brother Amer has impressed scouts and already impressed scouts and earned himself a training stint at the prestigious Ajax Academy in Holland. His humility, willingness to learn and effervescent leadership ability are certainly qualities of a star in the making.
Recommended Future Club: As these brothers are still so young I would keep them together and let them follow the example of Mahathir Azeman by going to Brazil with Boavista SC. The Brazilian training and league produces strong defenders without sacrificing any focus on skills and creativity.
Position: Central defender/midfielder
Club: Courts Young Lions
A versatile player, Adli, has been brought through the NFA system and established himself quickly in the Young Lions last season. A composed player who makes good use of the ball, he provides defensive cover to more attacking teammates. Made his international debut last year and should see more playing time in upcoming matches.
Recommended Future Club: With respect to Adli, his potential path to glory is unlikely to be as meteoric as others on this list. His solid style is perfect for development in the A-League with the Brisbane Roar. The 3 time champions have an experienced management team, good youth team structure and in Matt Mackay they have an international defensive midfielder for Adli to learn from.
In between the over spilling cocktails and the highly inappropriate dancing girls, an election of sorts took place. The result was expected but more than ever was met with a general feeling of disdain. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter may have secured a fifth term as FIFA president but the fall out of this decision will be felt for the months and years ahead. There is little faith that Blatter is the man to stop the rot within FIFA, mostly because few believe that he hasn’t been involved or indeed orchestrating the corruption from the start. Despite this lack of faith, few of the 206 delegates attending the election in Zurich were willing to go out on a limb in opposition of Blatter, probably in fear of what will happen. Only the European delegates under the protective banner of UEFA stood tall but in the end it matter little. In a two horse race between a heavyweight hitter and a featherweight, there was only going to be one winner.
Prince Ali was never likely to win. Lacking the charisma of Portuguese footballing legend Luis Figo and the experience of former Dutch FA head Michael Van Praag, Ali was nothing more than a lame duck. But despite this many believes that last weeks arrests and as a result the negative view point towards Blatter and FIFA, Prince Ali stood a strong chance of an upset. However the timing of the arrests may have worked ultimately in Blatter’s favour. FIFA denied calls to delay the election, stating that it simply couldn’t. But in truth forcing the election to go ahead only two days after news of the latest scandal broke meant little time for lobbying by parties connected to Prince Ali’s campaign. Few were turned in those 48 hours resulting in an alarmingly sizeable victory for Blatter. Prince Ali’s concession speech said it all. He thanks those few who “were brave enough” to support his campaign but in the end it wasn’t enough. With only 67 votes from a possible 206, Blatter secured 64% of the vote and with it a fifth term. He won thanks primarily to the delegates from Africa and Asia who are loyal to the FIFA president. They claim their loyalty is tied to FIFA’s assistance in growing the game in their continent but the sad truth is that financial compensation over decades helped to soften their resolve and secure their favour. Like a sugar daddy, Blatter used his position of power and the draw of riches beyond their wildest dreams to entice the highly impressionable delegates into doing exactly what he wanted. FIFA will deny all allegations of such rewards but the truth always has a habit of eventually revealing itself one way or another.
Universal reform at FIFA is needed but unlikely to materialize. Blatter talked passionately about changing FIFA starting tomorrow but like a drug addict or an alcoholic, his promises of being better in the future will hold little water with those who know him well. Protests against his reappointment will happen as well as calls for boycotting of FIFA organized events like the World Cup but again this is unlikely to happen. Blatter is set for another four year term at least unless health or criminal charges halt him in his tracks. At 78 years young and with the FBI breathing heavily down his neck, both scenarios are possible. The only other likely scenarios would come from either a huge advertiser walk out that would cripple the FIFA machine or the total collapse of the organization itself by federations leaving to set up a new brand. UEFA delegates have refused to rule this out stating that they will consider all options when they meet next week to discuss the aftermath of this election. UEFA president Michel Platini has played the whole situation very well, protecting not only his constituents that make up UEFA but also his relationship with Blatter by speaking to him “as a friend” when he asked him to step down. But if changes are to be made, Platini will need to make a difficult decision and side with only one of them going forward.
This has always been Platini’s fight but he has chosen to remain on the sidelines for one reason or another. He is the obvious candidate to run against Blatter in the race for FIFA highest position but he has been reluctant to do so perhaps because he doesnt believe he would win. He may be right about that which is worrying for the world of football. If Platini cannot beat Blatter in a race then who can? The hopes of the world rest now on the FBI investigation and the potential for Blatter to be forcefully removed from his position as leader of the world most corrupt organization.
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.
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.
For the briefest of periods, It looked like an upset was on the cards but in truth Seville were always in control. Despite falling behind to a seventh minute header by Nikola Kalinic, Seville dominated their Ukrainian opponents, FC Dnipro Dinpropetrovsk from the first minute to the last during last night’s pulsating Europa League final. As current holders, Seville entered the match as clear favourites with the single objective of winning a record fourth Europa League title. In almost every area Seville were the stronger team winning the game with over 62% of the possession, forcing more corners and subsequent chances and in the end scoring more goals than their opponent. As always it was Colombian striker Carlos Bacca who settled the tie with his second and Seville’s third of the game as the match ended 3-2. After falling behind to Kalinic’s strike, Seville stepped up a gear and within twenty minutes were 2-1 up and cruising. Dnipro did manage to peg them back to 2-2 with a fantastic free kick from Ruslan Rotan but Bacca would have the last word after Dnipro failed to clear their lines properly.
Credit where it is due for Dnipro who shocked many with their spectacular run to the final. Led by the highly experienced Myron Markevych, Dnipro’s Europa League run started back in September with a difficult playoff match against Croatian side Hajduk Split. A 2-1 aggregate win was enough for Dnipro to secure passage into the Group stages where they would be paired with Inter Milan, Saint Etienne and Azerbaijan Qarabag. Dnipro would struggle in the group losing three of its six fixtures including a shock 1-0 defeat to Qarabag at home. As Inter romped home with the group’s top position, Dnipro squeezed through in second with only seven points. They were handed a somewhat unexpected hand in doing so by the totally inept performances by Saint Etienne throughout the entire group stage as the French side failed to win a single game. This appeared to be the kick in the backside that Dnipro needed as Markevych’s side stepped up a gear in the knock out rounds. They dispatched Olympiakos with ease in the round of 32, and then scrapped by on away goals in the round of 16 against a resilient Ajax. Club Brugge followed suit in the quarter finals before they beat Napoli in the semi’s to advance to the final against Seville.
What makes their run so special is the makeup of their squad, with no real star players but instead a talented group of players who play for each other. In their squad of 31 players, twenty of them were born and raised in the Ukraine. Their captain Rotan and vice captain Yavhen Konoplyanka are both seasoned Ukrainian internationals along with several other members of their team. Whilst their run to the final was anything but pretty, and brings back memories of a similar run by Glasgow Rangers in 2008, the squad played each game with an intensity that cannot be criticized. They gave it their all in every match and for that alone deserved their spot in the final. For many of these players this will be their greatest moment and for others like Rotan, Konoplyanka and Valeriy Fedorchuk it could be the stepping stone to their next big move. Reaching a European cup final, regardless of how you got there needs to be commended but on the night it proved a step too far for Dnipro who gave it their all but were undone by a masterful Seville side.
It’s the perfect end to the season for Seville who faltered in La Liga midway through the year despite a strong start which saw them lose only once in their first nine games of the season. Manager Unai Emery has built a powerful squad with a strong backbone of Sergio Rico, Timothee Kolodziejczak, Ever Banega and the irreplaceable Carlos Bacca. The win gives Seville back to back Europa League trophies, the first team to do so twice having won back to back titles in 2005 and 2006 as well. The win in Warsaw hands them an automatic place in next year’s Champions League but for many it will have been their final appearance for Seville as several clubs across Europe eying big money moves for them. Top of the list is Bacca who has been in blistering form for Seville this season and has proved his ability to handle the pressure at a higher level after his move three years ago from Club Brugge. Rookie keeper Sergio Rico is also attracting interest after his stellar performances in the second half of the season. The young Spaniard profited from injuries to both Beto and Mariano Barbosa in early September and did enough in the next few games to give Emery food for thought. He eventually promoted Rico to the backup goalkeeper position in December ahead of Barbosa and then later ahead of Beto. Emery, who himself could leave the club if the right opportunity presented itself, is keen to hold on to Rico for next season but after the player received his first call up to the Spanish national team, his chances of doing so have decreased significantly.
With only days to go before the next FIFA presidential election and opponents dropping like flies, it appeared to be an easy week for Sepp Blatter. The current president faces a straight race with Prince Ali bin al-Hussein in Friday’s crucial election as he seeks a fifth term as FIFA’s ruler. However his preparations have been rocked by the breaking news of yet another scandal that threatens to blow FIFA apart. During dawn raids carried out by Swiss authorities and back by the US government, seven current or former FIFA executives were arrested in Zurich as part of the FBI’s ongoing three year investigation into bribery and corruption. Those arrested include current FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb, former Brazil Football Federation president Jose Maria Marin and the current presidents of the Costa Rican, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan football federations. All seven men face extradition to the US where they will be joined by two other disgraced former FIFA executives Nicolas Leoz and Jack Warner as well as six other officials associated to FIFA with all fifteen facing charges. The arrests are in connection with suspected bribes given to or received by these delegates totally more than $100m. The bribes were primarily for votes for major tournaments stretching back as for as the early 1990’s.
As part of a calculated raid of not only the hotel where the executives were staying but also FIFA headquarters in Zurich and the CONCACAF head office in Miami, the FBI and US department of Justice has seized assets and electronic data that they believe will help their investigation. The charges that the FBI intends to lay upon these 15 officials associated to FIFA threaten to blow the lid off an alleged scheme of corruption, illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes that has haunted the FIFA corridors for over three decades. The scheme primarily involved corruption over media and marketing rights to matches and tournaments organized by FIFA including its prized asset, the World Cup. To date, Sepp Blatter has not been arrested nor faces any charges but the FBI is continuing its investigation into the organization to see exactly how far up the chain the scheme was known.
In a separate move, Swiss authorities have opened criminal proceedings against FIFA over the awarding of the controversial 2018 and 2022 World Cups, due to be held in Russia and Qatar respectively. Swiss police plan to question up to ten FIFA executive committee members who took part in the voting process back in December 2010. For a long time now, many have suspected wrong doing when it came to the result, especially with the announcement of the tiny but oil rich nation of Qatar being awarded. Qatar, who has an appalling human rights record and could boast no football stadiums during the time of their bid beat out the US and Australia for the rights, sparking a much heated debate around bribery by several FIFA executives that continued for months afterwards. FIFA attempted to defuse the situation by appointing an independent adjudicator in the form of Michael Garcia to investigate the allegations of bribery over the awarding of these two world cups, with the results to be made public. Garcia did manage to produce a 430 page report despite several key figures and countries refusing outright to participate in his investigation. His report was then handed to a FIFA appointed German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert for summarization. The result of this summary cleared FIFA and the two winning bids of any illegal activities, a move that was slammed by Garcia who quit in protest claiming that the summary was materially incomplete and an erroneous representation of the facts and conclusions.
FIFA have been quick to pounce on the breaking news about the two investigates claiming through their spokesperson that the moves were a good thing for FIFA and that they welcomed the involvement of the US and Swiss authorities in the struggle to root out any wrongdoing in football. This calculated reaction is further proof of how corrupt and rotten to the core FIFA has become under not just under Sepp Blatter’s watch but before that under former president Joao Havelange. The investigations are unfortunately unlikely to have a detrimental effect on Blatter’s chances of retaining the presidents chair post Friday but it could seriously damage his reputation in the long run. Blatter is by no means out of the woods after the arrests today with both investigations continuing and likely to uncover further scandals. Even if they are unable to find clear proof that Blatter was involved directly in the corruption and bribery, the arrest of key current FIFA committee members under his watch as FIFA president means that the buck stops at his door.
After two years in charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world, Carlo Ancelotti has been sacked by Real Madrid. Despite winning the clubs 10th European title last season, Ancelotti has failed to deliver La Liga on two occasions, something that Real president Florentino Perez has deemed as unacceptable. During a press conference on Monday, Perez announced Ancelotti’s departure with immediate effect stating that they need a manager who can take them to the next level. That man looks likely to be Rafa Benitez with the former Liverpool and Valencia manager due to leave Napoli after Sunday’s final Serie A game against Lazio. Benitez has an established pedigree in La Liga having won it twice during his spell as Valencia boss and has shown that he can win trophies regardless of what team he manages. The appointment will not be universally welcomed with several players and fan groups disappointed with Ancelotti’s sacking. They see the removal of Ancelotti as a mistake as the Italian still had a lot to offer to the club. Real’s loss could however be Derby gain as they hunt for their new manager. However the East Midlands club is not interested in Ancelotti, but instead his faithful assistant at Real Madrid, Paul Clement.
Clement is not a name that was widely known three years ago when he was hired by Ancelotti to be part of his backroom staff at Paris Saint Germain. Having worked with the Englishman at Chelsea, the Italian has forged a strong bond with Clement and has entrusted him with key roles at both PSG and Real Madrid which has helped pull Clement into the media spotlight. The Derby job is available after the Rams fired Steve McLaren as their manager after a dismal end to the season. It looked a certainty that Derby would gain promotion back to the Premiership after a seven year absence with the club sitting top of the Championship at the end of February. However in the last 13 games of the season, Derby only won twice sliding down the table and out of the promotion places. Many believed that McLaren head had been turned by persistent rumours about interest from Newcastle for his services. McLarens failure to come out publically when the rumours first started and commit himself to Derby long term has ultimately led to his downfall. McLaren was sacked by the Derby board after the final game of the season, yet another defeat this time to Reading.
After McLaren rejected Mike Ashley’s SOS call last month when Newcastle were in real danger of relegation, the owner has now decided to look elsewhere leaving McLaren in managerial limbo. It will be a bitter blow for McLaren who saw his stock on the rise again after difficult spells at Wolfsburg and Nottingham Forest. Newcastle has been linked with several managers and head coaches over the past six months since Alan Pardew left for Crystal Palace. With the bumbling John Carver due to leave the club, Newcastle are exploring their options with Ajax’s Frank De Boer, Lyon’s Remi Garde and Lekhwiya’s Michael Laudrup as the front runners. However the availability of Roberto Di Matteo, who quit Schalke today will throw a spanner in the works for Newcastle’s hiring committee with the Italian’s reputation and past success in the Premiership perhaps making him a safer option.
Di Matteo’s seven and a half month spell in Germany did not quite go as planned. Picking up where Jens Keller left off, Di Matteo inherited one of the Bundesliga’s brightest squads with the talented young trio of Julian Draxler, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka leading the way. Despite a promising start which saw Schalke climb up the table into third, results have not gone Di Matteo’s way in recent weeks with the club sliding back down the table and away from the Champions League places. This summer was meant to be a transitional period for the club with Di Matteo looking to strengthen his side with several new faces. However a disagreement over the forward vision of the club between Di Matteo and the clubs sporting director, Horst Heldt has led to the former Chelsea and West Brom boss handing in his resignation. The relationship between the two has not been great over his time at Schalke with rumours persisting that Di Matteo was never the first choice. He is said to have landed the Schalke job back in October 2014 after the club had an approach for the out of work Thomas Tuchel turned down by the 41 year old. Tuchel, who left Mainz in April 2014 decided against joining Schalke at that stage in the season, instead deciding to hold out until the new season to see what other options presented themselves. That approach has worked wonderfully for Tuchel as he has now been appointed as Jürgen Klopp’s successor at Borussia Dortmund.
Liverpool has not had the best of seasons, failing to emulate the success they found last year when they finished second in the Premiership. Manager Brendan Rodgers has faced a lot of criticism in recent months with several pundits claiming that Liverpool have gone backwards this season with Rodgers being one of the key reasons. The club’s owner, Fenway Sports Group have to dated backed their under fire boss but with several high profile managers available this summer, Rodgers position is anything but safe. Top of that list is the charismatic Klopp who is available after a seven year spell in charge of Dortmund. One of the most highly rated coaches in the game today; Klopp is in high demand but will be looking for a club that can offer him regular champion’s league football. Despite finishing 6th this season, Liverpool has the squad and the potential to offer this to him unlike other English sides like Newcastle, West Ham or Brentford with the latter already making an audacious approach to land the German. Brentford, who sacked their manager Mark Warbutton despite finishing in the Championship playoff spots, made the approach early last week only to be turned down. The ambitious club has not been deterred and news that another top coach has been released from his contract was greeted with enthusiasm by The Bees. Whether or not Ancelotti will trade the Bernabeau for Griffin Park is yet to be seen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.