My piece for The Boot Room on what the rest of the season holds after a fascinating first half of 2016/17
The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.
Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.
There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth’s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.
The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.
Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.
Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.
There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.
The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.
My piece for the Boot Room on which of Arsenal’s two superstars is more important.
Arsenal’s two superstars have been the subject of much debate as the Gunners continue their fine start to the 2016/17 season.
Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have been key to Arsenal’s recent revival and much of their good form this season. The duo arrived in consecutive summers when their former employers sought high-quality, and highly expensive, additions from two of their rivals. Arsenal were the benefactors from those moves and two FA Cups have since arrived to end the club’s trophy drought. Success in other competitions has been non-existent but the strong start this season has increased expectations.
A major cause for that is the ever-improving on-field relationship between the two stars. Sanchez’s deployment as a full-time striker for the Gunners has led to a partnership between him and Ozil reminiscent of the days of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
Arsene Wenger has received credit in some corners for a long overdue move to place the Chilean livewire at the head of Arsenal’s attack. That decision has led to an increase in productivity and quality from both stars, as they play closer together in the central of the park with skills that complement each other well.
Both players are well on their way to their best tallies for the club, with Ozil’s nine goals and five assists bettered by Sanchez’s 13 goals and eight assists in all competitions. Both have produced match-winning performances and moments so far and its no wonder Arsenal fans are biting their nails over any bit of negative news about the duo.
The Telegraph reported at the beginning of the season that the Gunners were set to enter contract talks with both players. There has been little sign of progression where those talks are concerned and time is of essence with Sanchez and Ozil’s contracts due to expire in 2018. If either side fail to reach an agreement, or if Arsenal fail to land a major trophy once the season ends, then the possibility of one or both players leaving becomes very real.
If Arsenal were to lose either player it would come as a massive blow to the club’s reputation and chance for further progression.
Sanchez and Ozil are both in their prime and are key players for club and country. While the German is arguably the best player in his position and Sanchez is still coming to terms with the regularity of his new role, Arsenal need Sanchez more.
When comparing the two and what they bring to the club, Sanchez hits more marks. The Chilean’s form so far this season suggests that Arsenal’s wait for a long-term heir to Thierry Henry has ended. Sanchez provides much of the same power, pace and drive as the Frenchman and has showcased his clinical touch as well. One could argue that Ozil’s presence behind him is why he has been so effective in this role but there’s nothing to compare unlike the differences between Sanchez and Olivier Giroud up front. Arsenal have a few players who could play in Ozil’s position while arguably providing similar statistics but none can match Sanchez’s talents. Ozil is standing in the way of a few players, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere among them, who could eventually move on if they find a better opportunity elsewhere.
A look at the statistics favour the Chilean as well.
In their time at the club, considering only games in the Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup, Sanchez has 53 goals and 30 assists in 109 games. Ozil has 29 goals and 47 goals in 137 games. Both players had their injury spells and runs of poor form but these statistics showcase two points. Sanchez is a much more productive player who has also spent the majority of his time behind the striker as Ozil has. The Chilean is also much more durable than his teammate, having played only 29 games less than his teammate, about half a season, despite joining a full year later. Ozil has shown signs of increased durability but Sanchez is already ahead in that game as shown by his quick return from injury during the November international break.
Neither player is bigger than the club, and if Wenger really wants to stick to his guns then both may leave. That would be a mistake.
In a perfect world both players would stay and do so in such a way that won’t upset the balance Wenger wants in his dressing room. Sanchez may not yet be considered a world-class striker like his teammate in attacking midfield but those strikers are hard to find, or are beyond Wenger’s taste as far as cost, while are many quality attacking midfielders around. His redeployment centrally has led to the increased dynamism in Arsenal’s attack. There certainly won’t be a replica of Ozil, but Arsenal can surely find a player of the requisite quality to replace the German.
If it comes down to a choice, then it is Sanchez who provides a much bigger need for the club in the short and long-term.
All statistics courtesy of ESPNFC
My piece for the Boot Room on Borussia Dortmund’s chances of challenging Bayern this season
Borussia Dortmund’s start to the 2016/17 season has been disappointing.
In a season in which Bayern Munich, regardless of their quality, are going through transition, the expectation was that Dortmund would provide a strong challenge for the Bavarian side.
One of those losses came at the hands of the Bundesliga’s surprise team so far this season, the newly promoted Red Bull Leizpig. Red Bull are currently Bayern’s sternest challengers, and are level on points with the champions, but have yet to face the juggernaut. The other teams above Dortmund include TSG Hoffenheim, who drew with Bayern at the weekend, and Hertha Berlin.
History suggests the cream usually rises to the top and these teams will eventually fall off but Red Bull in particular seem capable of pulling a Leicester, as it were. Dortmund, meanwhile, have their own issues to sort out.
The laundry list of outgoing and incoming changes at Signal Iduna Park makes the slow start somewhat understandable. Dortmund finished 10 points off the pace last season in second place but three key faces left during the summer. Any team would have found it difficult to replace the varied talents and experience of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Dortmund’s approach saw the club bring in players who have failed to live up to their full potential, like Mario Gotze and Marc Bartra, and wonder-kids like Ousmane Dembele. The effect has been mixed.
The stand-out performer so far from the new signings is Raphael Guerreiro, the Portuguese left back who has been extremely impressive in a midfield role. Both Dembele and fellow wonder-kid, Emre Mor, have shown flashes of their potential while Bartra put in some decent performances early on. Gotze and Andre Schurrle haven’t been hugely disappointing so far but more is expected from two well-established senior internationals. Marco Reus’ constant injury issues are further cause for frustration and one can envisage a much stronger side when all the senior players are fit and firing. In total, seven new players have been brought that have played a decent role so far.
Tuchel has tried to rotate things to keep players happy and that has played a part in the early form. Those decisions will help keep legs fresh towards the end of the season, but also means players like Shinji Kagawa have yet to find their best form. Consistency across the board has been a key issue for Dortmund so far this season.
There have been good signs from some players though, with Christian Pulisic continuing to progress well and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang retaining his prolific form. Aubameyang’s goals are the cherry on top of a league-leading 25 goals, to go along with 11 in the Champions League.
That attack hasn’t suffered too much after the departures but there is work needed in the defense. The 12 goals conceded in the Bundesliga is the worst among those currently in the top seven although it is keeping in line with the 34 goals conceded in 34 games last season. More time to adapt to Hummels’ departure and the new talents to adjust defensively should fix that issue.
The January transfer will be key for Dortmund, as Tuchel will need to streamline the squad without ridding it of too much depth or quality. A place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League has already been secured and a decent run will be expected in the German Cup. Bayern will also be fighting on three fronts and their focus on the Champions League might leave them vulnerable domestically.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side has only shown glimpses of the imperious form that was on display under Pep Guardiola. The Italian’s track record in league campaigns isn’t the greatest and that has shown in Bayern’s rocky start. The league leaders will visit Dortmund when league play resumes and that game will show how much work needs to be done. It is only 10 games into the season, 11 after the derby is complete, but if Bayern find a groove it will be hard to catch up.
There is a long road ahead and certainly no need for Dortmund to panic. This is a youthful squad shorn of a few leaders, both through transfer and injuries, so some growing pains can be expected. Dortmund has the talent to surpass those ahead of them not named Bayern Munich. If the likes of Gotze, Schurrle and Reus provide the quality they are capable of then the end of the Bundesliga season will be a lot closer than previous seasons. A win against Bayern in their first meeting would be a good way to start. Dortmund bought for the future over the summer but they can get something out of the present as well.
My piece for the Boot Room on a resurgent Milan.
AC Milan’s 1-0 win over Juventus last Saturday set them apart as one of the surprise teams so far this season. The Rossoneri followed that up with a loss to Genoa cool any over excitement following the big win. Milan now sit third in the Serie A table but there’s no telling where they’ll be when the season ends despite the promising start, and that’s just the question: how good can this Milan side be?
A resurgent Milan is definitely good for Serie A and football as a whole but cool heads need to prevail. The long talked about takeover by Chinese investors was finalized at the end of this summer transfer window. Before that, the club made what was a shrewd and intelligent decision in recruiting Vincenzo Montella to take charge of the squad. The former Fiorentina manager proved in the past he can create solid and stylish teams in a way that would please Silvio Berlusoni. He’s youthful enough be in charge for a long time to come and had the experience that many of the most recent candidates, bar Sinisa Mihajlovic, lacked.
Montella will get the credit for Milan’s start but the foundation was certainly laid out by his predecessor.
This Milan side has already beaten Juventus, Torino, Sassuolo Lazio and Fiorentina so far this season. A loss to Napoli is the only negative among the big games thus far. Montella’s team has showcased a mental fortitude that Mihajlovic began to forge in his reign and it would’ve been interesting to see how the team would have reacted had Juventus’ goal not been, incorrectly, ruled out. Montella has also continued to show faith in young players with M’Baye Niang, Alessio Romagnoli and, of course, Gianluigi Donnarumma playing key roles. Most eyes are now wandering to the newest of the bunch, 18-year-old Manuel Locatelli, after his second game-winning goal of the season. The future looks good with those talents as well as the likes of Davide Calabria and players in their prime like Giacomo Bonaventura. Make no mistake though, this is not a typical Montella side.
The new owners are expected to provide Montella with funds in the January transfer window. While a complete overhaul is unlikely in the middle of the season, a few changes should be expected. A lack of creativity in midfield beyond Bonaventura should see that area targeted first, and both the attack and defense lack quality depth beyond the starters. The likes of Keisuke Honda and Jose Sosa have been used sparingly in attack while the same goes for Leonel Vangioni in defense. If a quality player becomes available in any position then Milan would do well to look but half a season of good work won’t be enough to tempt the real difference-makers. Montella may just as well stick with what he has come to know, and worked with, so far this season but that may dependent on where the club stands at the winter break.
If Milan remains in the top three heading into the new year then expectations and excitement will rise.
Beating Juventus, however fortuitous, means Milan will be closely watched by their Serie A rivals. Montella will be keen to ensure his charges keep their feet on the ground for all the upcoming challenges. The loss to Genoa showed there is still lots of work to be done and might have solidified any idea Montella had of strengthening in January. Realistically, the best, and most likely, outcome for Milan is a return to Europe preferably the Champions League. Then the real work would begin.
Milan has shown signs of resurgence under Montella this season. The key will be performing well for the rest of the campaign and building on that both in January and the summer. It will take some time for Milan to really become the Milan of old but the Rossoneri have started moving in the right direction after seasons of disappointment. A return to Europe beckons if all goes well.
My Piece for The Boot Room on a possible Lacazette to Arsenal move.(I highly doubt it will happen but the primary source of an Arsenal fan’s sanity nowadays is hope so what the hell)
In the Arsene Wenger era, Arsenal and French forwards go hand in hand. Nicolas Anelka, Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and Olivier Giroud have been prominent in their compatriot’s plans since joining the club. It seems that this summer, they could be followed by another.
The Telegraph reports that Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette is a now on the Gunners’ radar after they missed out on Jamie Vardy. In truth, missing out on Vardy may actual be a blessing in disguise if a move for Lacazette comes to fruition.
Arsenal have been in need of a top-level forward for the last few seasons and have missed out on a few targets in that time. Gonzalo Higauin and Luis Suarez are the two names that stand out and; while not on their level yet, Lacazette would still be a fantastic signing, and has the potential to become one of Europe’s most feared hit-men.
The Lyon star is only 25 years of age and yet to reach his prime, so Arsenal can expect to pay a premium. The Frenchman has all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Wenger forward – able to boast fabulous pace, techinque, finishing, solid dribbling and mobility. Those are traits that every one of Wenger’s previous French forwards; Giroud aside, possessed. Lacazette has been consistent in front of goal over the last few seasons and possesses European experience as well.
Lacazette had 21 goals and three assists in 2013/14 followed by 31 goals and six assists in 2014/15, while the 2015/16 campaign saw him score 23 goals at the same time as adding 3 assists. He has done most of this as a part of an impressive but youthful Lyon side, and would certainly benefit from playing with the likes of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez.
Özil would thrive with another speedy target ahead of him, but it is the potential partnership with Sanchez that should excite Arsenal fans. Some of the Chilean’s best performances for The Gunners came when Danny Welbeck started up front for Arsenal. Lacazette would provide the Alexis with a similar partner who would be more productive in front of goal.
Sanchez has played his best when partnering another mobile forward, as he did with Antonio Di Natale for Udinese, and still does with Eduardo Vargas on the Chilean national team. If Wenger wants to get the best out one of the driving forces of his squad, then a move for Lacazette makes sense.
Lacazette has the versatility to play out wide as well if necessary, and that will aid the side when it comes to other line-ups. A starting front four of Lacazette, Sanchez, Özil, and one of Welbeck, Alex Iwobi or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have more than enough creativity, pace and goal-scoring punch for the Gunners. With the ability to select the likes of Giroud and Theo Walcott instead to suit the opponent or situation, Wenger would have no shortage of options.
Welbeck is; unfortunately, likely to be out half the season, and that makes signing someone like Lacazette even more important. He too can mirror the high-energy game that Sanchez employs and make Arsenal’s pressing game that little bit more dangerous.
With doubts surrounding the futures of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal need an injection of fresh blood. Targeting Vardy made sense, but Lacazette offers a better option for both the future and the present. The North London outfir will have to move quickly though, as interest in the Lyon forward is high. ESPNFC reported back in May that West Ham had a bid for the forward rejected and the same source presented rival club Spurs’ supposed interest in the Frenchman.
Arsene Wenger has made steps, slowly but surely, to fill the holes necessary to get his squad to the level required to win the Premier League. Petr Cech, the essential top-level goalkeeper, was required last summer and Granit Xhaka is soon to join up with the squad to control the midfield. A defender and a forward are still required. The longer Wenger waits to pull the trigger on a deal like this could come back to haunt the Gunners.
Lacazette is reminiscent of many of Wenger’s forwards during his best seasons at the club. His versatility, finishing and overall play would be beneficial for key players and the entire team. He may not fit the bill of a superstar just yet, but he is a top striker and one who can certainly help the club to win the Premier League title.
My piece for the Boot Room on Pellegrini’s rumoured move to AC Milan
The transfer rumour mill is in full effect this summer, and that includes news about various managers.
Manuel Pellegrini is one of a few big-name managers being mentioned this summer following his departure from Manchester City at the end of last season. In one of the more intriguing managerial rumours of the summer, the Mirror reports that the former City boss is a target for AC Milan.
The Italian club has been in transition for the last few summers, and part of that is down to a lack of managerial stability. Sinisa Mihajlovic was hired last summer in a move that was expected to end that trend but he was sacked near the end of the season. Christian Brocchi, then the youth team manager and a former Milan player, took over but has failed to convince as well. Milan hasn’t had a long-term A-list manager since the days of Carlo Ancelotti. Current Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri followed Ancelotti’s reign with for four partially successful seasons, but he did not have the reputation then that he does now.
Milan has disappointed since Allegri’s departure in 2014. Three of the four managers to take charge, Brocchi and Milan legends Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi, were first-timers. Mihajlovic was far too pragmatic for president Silvio Berlusconi’s taste. None of these men at the helm provided the requisite results or performances to last long at the San Siro. That is where Pellegrini comes in.
Berlusconi knows Milan would be getting a manager with a vast amount of European experience and a generally good track record, should Pellegrini join. The Chilean also managed at Villarreal, Malaga and Real Madrid before his stint at The Etihad. Pellegrini’s teams have always played in the fluid manner Bersculoni prefers and have been successful doing so too.
There might not be too much silverware to show for his efforts, but Pellegrini won the Premier League at the first time of asking and challenged the might of Barcelona and Real Madrid while at Villarreal. The former Malaga manager is also used to constant pressure that inevitably comes while in charge of a big club. His tenure at both Real Madrid and Manchester City made sure of that. Milan fans would certainly have cause to be optimistic upon hearing Pellegrini being linked to their historic club.
Milan has finished in eighth, tenth and seventh in the last three seasons, with a revolving door of players accompanying the managerial carousel. The Rossoneri are heading into a third straight campaign without European football with one big question still to be answered. According to ESPN FC, Berlusconi started new negotiations concerning the sale of the club to Chinese investors. That article states the sale would need to be done by 15th June for normal service,;meaning transfer activity and coaching changes etc, to occur. The sale has been delayed due to Berlusconi’s recent health issues and that further hinders the club’s chances of improving as needed on and of the pitch.
Should everything be resolved; new ownership or not, it is unlikely to be all smooth sailing with Pellegrini in charge. The Chilean manager would be facing arguably his biggest rebuilding task and likely with little help. A new ownership group would need time to make any decisions in the transfer market though that may arguably be better than Berlusconi and his right-hand man, Adriano Galliani, staying on to continue their underwhelming work of the last few seasons.
Manuel Pellegrini himself has been rather hit and miss in the market when provided with money to spend. The arrivals of Santi Cazorla, Isco, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne during his stints at Malaga, Real Madrid and Manchester City were effectively neutralized by the signings of Kaka, Raul Albiol, Wilfried Bony and Eliaquim Mangala, among others. It is fair to say that at Real Madrid in particular, some of the decisions may not have been Pellegrini’s and rather worryingly, he would face a similar situation should he join Milan.
The drop-off in talent would also be a big task for a manager who is in the same category as Carlo Ancelotti at this stage of his career – more caretaker than builder. One could argue that the talent Pellegrini had at Villarreal and Malaga was better than this current Milan crop and more balanced as well. Questions about his lack of tactical adroitness defensively came up during the latter part of his City reign and will surely pop up again in Serie A. He would have a young defence to work with and a midfield that lacks the inventiveness he would prefer. The shining light would be the solid Carlos Bacca spearheading the attack.
Pellegrini certainly wouldn’t flop at Milan if given the chance, but would find the task harder than expected given all the variables. The other big question that arose at the end of his City reign surrounded his motivational abilities. The Citizens’ performances during the two Champions League semi-finals spoke of a squad no longer listening to the manager though the situation was quite unique. Milan’s hierarchy would be wise to be wary about tasking Pellegrini with galvanizing a chopped and changed squad that has failed to live up to the very shirt they represented in the last few seasons.
As rumours go, Pellegrini to AC Milan is one that gets eyebrows raising. Anyone harbouring thoughts of a quick return to glory should be cautious as Pellegrini is by no means a sure thing.
My Piece for The Boot Room on the off-the-pitch importance of these summer tournaments. The Copa, Euro 2016 and Olympics. Hopefully some good football throughout.
Football fans will have no shortage of quality football to watch this summer with three tournaments on the way.
The Copa America Centenario kicks us off on June 3rd, followed by Euro 2016 on June 10 and the Olympics on August 3rd. Much like the World Cup two years ago, many of the world’s best players will be on display even though they won’t all face each other. The first two tournaments will likely draw more attention despite an overlap, as the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Lionel Messi and James Rodriguez face off in the Copa while Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba and Robert Lewandowski battle it out in Europe. The Olympics is mainly a tournament for U-23 players but Neymar’s appearance for Brazil highlights the possibility of a few well-known senior players mixing it with a number of talented youngsters.
With the talent on display, and hopefully a high level of football, these tournaments are sure to draw plenty of attention, something that doesn’t always seem to be the case with international football.
The seemingly continuous qualification process for these tournaments aren’t met with favorable reviews by fans. The main reason being the propensity to break up club football seasons at what is always the worst possible time. When the summer comes around the fans bemoan the end of the club season even if there is at least one tournament on the way. The World Cup, for obvious reasons, is never met with such disdain but the various confederation tournaments seem to receive varying levels of interest at the best of times.
There are a good number of reasons to watch the tournaments this summer, though.
This celebratory Copa America was close to being cancelled when FIFA’s scandal was at its zenith. At least, as ESPN FC reported, that possibility was put forward by one CONMEBOL executive last summer. The Guardian also took a closer look at how former CONCACAF President, Jeffrey Webb, played a part in setting up the tournament. All the problems were ironed out it seems, and here we are with the tournament about to get underway. The Copa provides a chance for CONMEBOL and CONCACAF to focus on football as restructuring and reform begins. It also highlights the ease with which the US can put on a major tournament at short notice, something that might help when a final decision is made on Qatar 2022.
The sporting side of things is no less interesting. We will wait to see how hosts, the USA, and CONCACAF in general perform. Chile will get a chance to add a second trophy in quick succession with their much-vaunted generation of players. Most of all, we may, surprisingly, be looking at the best chance for the world’s best footballer to win his one piece of senior international silverware. Lionel Messi will lead an Argentina side that are strong favourites. It is likely Chile will represent South America in next year’s Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup in Russia seems a tall task for a side where age will be a factor for key players.
Meanwhile, Euro 2016 may not have faced threat of cancellation but, as the Guardian reports, the possibility of playing behind closed doors surfaced before being ruled out.
As a nation, the French will be hoping that their host team featuring the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann can help relieve some of the stress as the 1998 World Cup winners did. That they will be facing the defending European champions, Spain, and the defending World Cup winners, Germany, makes for an interesting watch on the pitch. The inclusion and appearance of smaller nations like Iceland and Albania in an expanded tournament provides further intrigue. Like his rival Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo may also be facing his best chance to win an international trophy. If both fail in their attempts before their careers end the Argentinian can at least point to a FIFA U-20 World Cup and Olympic gold medal.
The latter achievement is something one of his club teammates will be looking to match as Neymar headlines the last tournament we’ll see this summer, the 2016 Olympics.
The Olympics is a tournament for U-23 players and the Brazilian’s participation adds plenty of excitement. He won’t be the only senior player likely to join any of the participating teams but it is important for a few reasons. Brazil will be hosting the Olympics and will look to the football team to provide one of their signature moments in the tournament. The organization of the tournament has come under much criticism not least because of the fear of athletes, fans or officials may encounter the Zika virus. A win for the football team will bring some joy to the Brazilians above all this and, more importantly, help erase the memories of the humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. Brazil have never won the tournament and doing so would further enhance their reputation in the world game.
On the Women’s side, the women’s teams will be hoping to build on the high level of interest from the 2015 World Cup. The US Women’s team stands out in this regard as they will want to follow-up their World Cup victory and repeat as Olympic champions. Another title would add further strength to their fight for equal pay, as the team filed a claim against US Soccer earlier this year according to ESPN W.
The chance for a summer filled with good football is one reason these tournaments are worth the watch. The underlying social and sporting aspects make it even more worth the while. Club football may take up the majority of a fan’s year but, as these summer tournaments show, international football matters just as much if not more.
My piece on Dortmund Continually Losing Their Best Players
Borussia Dortmund’s resurgence this season has been a positive for German football. It’s not all good news for the Ruhr valley club though.
Bayern Munich still clinched a fourth consecutive title with one game to play but were kept on their toes by Dortmund. As was the case after Dortmund’s back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12, Bayern has responded to the challenge by looking to weaken their title rivals.
The Guardian reported at the end of April that club captain, Mats Hummels, was interested in joining Bayern. The elegant central defender would be returning to his hometown and his previous club. Those are certainly logical reasons to want to leave Dortmund, in addition to Bayern’s status as perennial Champions League contenders. Hummels would become the next star to follow the not so recent trend of leaving the Ruhr for supposedly greener pastures if he joins the club. His former teammates, Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski, played a major role in Dortmund’s previous successes then left the club weakened upon joining Bayern.
The theme has continued with other stars such as Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus, Pierre Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan being linked to clubs across Europe, and Bayern, at various times in recent seasons. While none have shown similar intent as Hummels, the nature of today’s transfer market means anything is possible. According to the Daily Mail, Gundogan’s recent injury has put a potential move to Manchester City on hold.
All that transfer talk leads to one question. Why does Borussia Dortmund continue to lose players? Or even more ominously, why do players consider leaving Dortmund?
Bayern’s rule in the Bundesliga has long been documented but Dortmund has been the one club to really challenge that dominance in recent seasons. Jurgen Klopp’s arrival in 2008 saw the club ascend to the status of challengers, then winners and even Champions League finalists. The disappointing 2014/15 campaign aside, Dortmund is the club that the current iteration of Bayern fears the most domestically. A stumble in this season’s Europa League campaign, at the hands of a Klopp-led Liverpool side no less, was another disappointment but the chance for silverware remains with the German Cup final against Bayern.
Dortmund has always been a side with talented players. The likes of Jan Koller, Tomas Rosicky, Lars Ricken, Andreas Moller, Jens Lehmann, Dede, Christoph Metzelder and numerous others worn the yellow and black. There is a history of winning too, with a Champions League title in 1996/97 and eight Bundesliga titles overall. A side with this history is not a stop-gap for players seeking big moves.
Thomas Tuchel has built a flexible, cohesive side with a mixture of youth and experience that can challenge regularly if given the chance. The increased financial lure of the Premier League poses one problem. The call of Bayern, Barcelona and Real Madrid present another. One can’t put all the blame on the players though.
Lewandowski was somehow allowed to join Bayern without a transfer fee, and it took two seasons for Dortmund to replace him. Gotze was closer to the end of his contract than was beneficial and may have warranted a bigger transfer fee had his release clause been adjusted or removed altogether. Hummels could leave on a free transfer next season but it appears Dortmund will be looking to avoid that as ESPN FC reports that he may sign new deal.
That would be good news for Dortmund, and German football. Bayern flies the flag regularly on the European stage but the continued rise of Tuchel’s side will improve the nation’s chance on that front. The Bundesliga has long been called a one-club league and Dortmund can, again, prove that is not the case.
Claiming a title within the next few seasons would prove as much and Dortmund can’t do that if they continue to lose their best players.
There are certainly situations where the pros or cons of a transfer can be weighed. A monumental transfer fee for a star that can allow for strengthening the entire squad is one such instance. Hummels’ potential transfer doesn’t fall under that category. There are few world-class defenders in their prime, and certainly few with similar skills as the German. Losing Hummels would be a bigger blow than losing Gundogan.
Dortmund are on the rise again, and certainly have the talent in the squad to replicate the successes of the mid 90’s and 2010 onwards. The managers and board need to tie up key talents to avoid potentially damaging losses and the players themselves must assess whether the grass really is greener. Gotze provides a decent example that the answer isn’t always yes.
Ending the season with a trophy would cap a generally successful first season for Tuchel. He will be hoping that he will have little to worry about in the transfer market beyond strengthening his squad.
(I liked Villarreal back in the days of Manuel Pelligrini and Riquelme. Glad to see them doing well again) My Thoughts on The Matter Along With A Nice Piece from ESPN FC
Villarreal are one step closer to a European final after their 1-0 victory over Liverpool.
The Yellow Submarines have been on an upward trajectory ever since returning to La Liga in 2013/14. Long-time owner, Fernando Roig, has established a structure that allowed them to quickly bounce back from relegation and may soon reap the rewards.
Villarreal are now fourth in La Liga and have one foot in the Europa League final after the win against Liverpool. Either winning the Europa League or solidifying fourth place would result in a return to the Champions League. Achieving both would further cement the club’s remarkable resurgence.
The Yellow Submarine finished sixth in La Liga in 2013/14 and 2014/15, with a trip to the Copa del Rey semifinal’s and a Round of 16 exit also occurring last season. They’ve improved their fortunes in Europe this season while facing even tougher opposition. The road to the semifinals included ties against Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen, two sides who certainly have the quality to be in their position. Results have been equally if not more impressive domestically. Wins against Valencia and Atletico Madrid in the last few seasons were coupled with a fantastic 1-1 tie at the Bernabeu with arguably a second string side. This season has seen them add Sevilla and Real Madrid to the list of the vanquished while handing Atletico one of their few defeats. Only Barcelona continues to find a way to elude them. The days of relegation are long forgotten.
Manager, Marcelino Toral, has built an organized, resilient team capable of some good football.
It’s reminiscent of the early 2000’s with Manuel Pellegrini at the helm, though there’s less creativity in attack. The Argentinian manager called upon the likes of Riquelme, Diego Forlan, Marcos Senna, Joan Capdevila, Santi Cazorla and Cani, as well as a few others, during his time at the club. A 2005/06 Champions League semifinal was arguably the highlight but there’s no doubting getting second place in 2007/08 was up there as well.
Now the club has veterans like Roberto Soldado and Bruno Soriano to go with talents such as Jonathan Dos Santos, Mateo Musacchio, Eric Bailly, Denis Suarez and Cedric Bakambu. In Sergio Asenjo they have a goalkeeper that, were it not for injuries, would’ve battled David de Gea to replace Iker Casillas as Spain’s goalkeeper. The mixture of youth and experience has been a constant throughout Roig’s time in charge, and so has the approach on the field. This current crop may lack some of the incisive finishing and outright playmaking ability of Pellegrini’s side but the talent is there for all to see.
The tie against Liverpool wasn’t a perfect display but, in keeping the English side and smartly dealing what could be a killer blow at the end, the Yellow Submarines showed just what they are capable of.
The club’s ascendance may continue with the return to the Champions League but things can change quickly in football. Villarreal will never be able to compete financially with their more illustrious La Liga opponents, and the financial boom in the Premier League means anyone can fall prey to those teams. Holding unto key personnel, manager included, will be extremely important heading into next season.
With the first leg complete, Villarreal now turns its attention to what will be a tough battle against a renewed Valencia side. That game at the Mestalla will be vital not just for the three points at stake. Villarreal has suffered some of it’s worst defeats away from home, losing 3-0 to both Barcelona and Real Madrid along with a slightly embarrassing 2-0 loss to Getafe. Gaining a positive result against Los Che will give the players confidence they can get a similar result at Anfield a few days later. That would be another in a long list of impressive results.
The Yellow Submarine have risen from depths in the past and are on the rise again.
My piece for the Boot Room on the Champions League and Europa League semifinals. I don’t think there’s one clear winner for either. We are in for, hopefully, some really good football.
The Champions League and Europa League return this week and nothing is guaranteed. Manchester City play Real Madrid while Bayern Munich face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. The Europa League sees Liverpool take on Villarreal as Sevilla battle Shaktar Donetsk. Each tournament has its favourites but their competitors are just as likely to progress. Each tie has its own fascinating tactical battles and the story lines for each team to consider as well. Barcelona’s defeat at the hands of Atletico mean that Bayern are the favourites for the Champions League. It’s certainly ironic that they face the team best-placed to stop them short of that goal.
Bayern will expect to dominate any of these teams in possession but the level of defensive intensity they face against Atletico will be huge test – just ask Barcelona. Pep Guardiola certainly has the options to match Diego Simeone’s team physically but the Spaniard won’t want to deviate from his preferred method of play unless absolutely necessary. Atletico are one of the few sides that are well-prepared to give up possession as part of their game plan yet pose a dangerous threat in attack. If the likes of Antoine Griezmann or Fernando Torres make the most of their chances then Atletico could be headed for another upset. The worry for the Spaniards is that too much focus on defensive endeavours will leave them toothless in attack. Bayern may well have preferred to face Real Madrid or Manchester City despite their more potent attacking threats as both have had their defensive issues this season.
The tie between City and Real Madrid could be an open affair. City may be more comfortable with the ball in their possession, but their performances against Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round show just how potent they can be on the counter, especially with Kevin De Bruyne leading the way. Madrid have been in really good form since the victory over Barcelona in the most recent Clasico. A comeback victory against Wolfsburg in the recent round and domestically against Rayo Vallecano this past weekend means Zinedine Zidane’s side will be full of confidence. Madrid haven’t particularly impressed when favoured to win a tie, as their victories over Wolfsburg and Roma could well have ended up in defeat with better performances from their opponents, but City will like being the underdog. Throw in Manuel Pellegrini’s interest in getting one over the club that unceremoniously let him go, and they most certainly will not lack motivation.
The Europa League is Europe’s second tier competition but there was some quality play in the knock-out rounds. The four teams in the semi-finals were key to that quality and deserving of their current position. Sevilla will be favourites, they are looking for a third straight tournament victory after all, but there’s plenty to be excited about as the tournament comes to a close.
Sevilla face a winner of the predecessor of the Europa League; the UEFA Cup, in a Shakhtar side that had become much more accustomed to life in the Champions League. Their experience in that competition, generally reach the knockout rounds, has shown in their run to the semifinals. Attacking talents such as Taison, Wellington Nem and Bernard along with experienced heads such as Darijo Srna and Eduardo make them tough opposition. Sevilla will be well-prepared with Unai Emery at the helm but this has the looks of a very tight tie.
Nobody would have seen Liverpool and Villarreal as European semi-finalists at the beginning of the season. Jurgen Klopp has come in and transformed this Liverpool side, culminating in 4-3 second leg victory of Borussia Dortmund that vaulted them to this stage. Marcelino Toral’s Villarreal has progressed well in the last few seasons domestically, and are now reaping those rewards on the European stage. It will be the case of a well-organised, tactically sound Villarreal side against Liverpool’s ‘heavy metal’ football. Surely, it will be fun to watch and we are in for a feast of football.
All the semi-finalists are going through relatively good periods of form or recently picked up vital confidence-building results. Each team also has defining story-lines playing a part in their motivation.
Liverpool and City will feel the pressure of carrying the torch of the Premier League, having seen the league dramatically under-perform in recent seasons. A trip to the final would be a solid platform for a Liverpool resurgence while City will want to truly join the European elite. Shakhtar Donetsk have plenty of European experience but have ultimately failed to have success. Sevilla chase history while Bayern Munich look; hopefully, to repeat it and cement Guardiola’s legacy at the club. Atletico will want further vindication that their approach will work while Madrid can improve upon an astounding European legacy. Villarreal will see this as another step forward in their return to upper level of La Liga.
The final four of the Champions League and the Europa League will provide plenty of excitement. Despite supposed favourites, no team is a clear winner of their tie or the tournament. We’ve seen what happened to the teams previously in that category, Barcelona in the Champions League and Dortmund in the Europa League. European club football is considered the best in the world and the challengers in the continent’s two premier competitions have a chance to prove just that.