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.
And another piece of mine on Atletico Madrid and Their Problems in Attack
Atletico Madrid fans will breathe sighs of relief upon seeing their club return to the Champions League quarterfinals once more. This is Atletico’s third consecutive season appearing in the quarterfinals, adding strength to their growing claim as one of Europe’s best teams.
It took more than three hours for Atletico to breach PSV Eindhoven in their Round of 16 clash. That moment came in the form of Antoine Griezmann‘s penalty in the penalty shootout. Atletico, the favorites to progress, never truly lived up to the billing in either leg.
Diego Simeone has, quite appropriately, been praised in many corners for revitalizing the Spanish club. Atletico did the unthinkable in winning La Liga two seasons ago while making it to the Champions League final. The 2014-15 season saw a bit of sophomore slump, but Los Rojiblancos are back again, keeping things somewhat competitive in La Liga and returning to the latter stages of club football’s elite competition.
Despite these successes, the fact remains that Atletico will never be truly elite unless their attacking style improves.
Simeone has built a team in his image. Hard-working, tenacious, passionate, team-oriented and with a never-say-die attitude. Atletico have quality footballers in every department, yet they are still better in the underdog role. Tasked as they were against PSV, with the aim of controlling both games, Simeone’s charges mainly failed to sparkle. There were chances aplenty, especially for golden boy Fernando Torres and new talisman Greizmann, but it never seemed that PSV were ever really threatened. The images of Simeone consistently active and flailing his arms on the sideline, waving the crowd on and yelling “vamos” suggested a manager who could think of little else to get past a well-organized opponent.
Passion, hard work and teamwork can get you so far, but a clinical edge or useful strategy in attack is needed to be truly elite. When the usual avenues, counter-attacks and set-pieces in this case are closed, then a team needs something more. Atletico are still missing that. They are one clinical striker away from being truly feared across Europe. Torres used to be that player, and Griezmann seems to be heading down that path so there is some hope. In the interim, Simeone needs to get his side to the point where controlling games comes as naturally as playing the underdog.
Atletico did not have full control in either leg, and the failure to score against 10-men in latter part of the first leg showcased their weakness. The Spanish side did create chances, but the failure to find the finishing touch almost came back to haunt them.
Simeone does have the tools at his disposal to produce a team that is dominant in both aspects. Griezmann and Torres are backed by the likes of Koke, Saul and Oliver Torres in midfield. All those players possess the unique blends of creativity, skill and vision necessary, and Gabi, too, possesses the ability to play in a more refined manner. Atletico need not alter their hardened mental attributes but further progress requires, well, progress.
It matters little now.
Atletico head into the quarterfinals likely to regain their underdog status given the teams they will face. The majority of teams remaining will prefer to control the ball. That means Atletico can get back to their best, harrying teams that prefer possession and delivering the killer blow when given the chance. Simeone will need to go back to the drawing board when the summer comes, though. Many thought this season would result in a change in style for the Argentine manager’s squad considering the recruits brought in. That didn’t occur, but these two games against PSV, and indeed last season’s tight Round of 16 clash with Bayer Leverkusen, means that process needs to happen sooner than later.
Simeone has gotten his charges to this point by harboring a mentality and style very much in the mold of Simeone the player. Having shared the pitch with the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Youri Djorkaeff, among others, he knows there is more his players can do. He will need to add that level of control and creativity to his squad if he is to really put Atletico among the elite.
And we’re back. Here’s my piece for the Boot Room on John Obi Mikel minus pictures.
Ten years have passed since one of the most dramatic transfer sagas in football.
John Obi Mikel, then an 18-year-old star in the making, was the main protagonist. Manchester United were reportedly set to sign the Nigerian youngster from Lyn Oslo in the summer of 2005. That began a year-long saga involving tales of agreements made without consent, rival clubs, Chelsea in this case, “kidnappings” and, finally, a year later, resolution. The inner details of the saga are quite intriguing and could even make for a small movie. That is of much less importance than where we are today in Mikel’s journey though.
Mikel, now 28, has played his entire senior career with Chelsea. Whether or not that was the right decision remains to be seen.
The Nigerian midfielder has a trophy haul that is surely the envy of many of his colleagues. Yet, some would venture to wonder how he even got such accolades at all. He has, after all, never been the standout player for any successful Chelsea side. He has been efficient and generally solid when called upon but never more than a squad man. Or maybe this is a common misconception given that in Jose Mourinho’s most recent stint in charge you almost forgot he played for the Blues.
Mikel has played for Chelsea over 350 times so he must have done something right. In his almost 10 years at the club he has become almost as much a part of the tapestry as the homegrown John Terry, and is the second longest-serving player in the side. He’ll have the number one spot when Terry leaves this summer. Third-string goalkeeper Jamal Blackman, also homegrown, has been around as long as Mikel but only ever entered the first-team setup in 2012.
Still, Mikel’s recent comments about life under second-time interim manager, Guus Hiddink, speaks volumes. He hasn’t felt part of the team in the last few seasons and being trusted by the Dutch manager has lifted his confidence. Indeed, it has been a surprise to see him constantly in the lineup nowadays. Which is strange considering his high number of appearances suggest he was, more often than not, a regular.
The numerous trophies garnered during his time at the club detracts from one important question, though. Would Mikel have been a different player, a better player, had he signed for Manchester United?
Before “Mikel-gate” he was regarded as an extremely talented attacking midfielder. Incisive passes, quality service from crossing and some nifty dribbling were in his arsenal. His level of play was such that he was acknowledged as the second best player at the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The first? A fellow named Lionel Messi. Fans of the Super Eagles were hopeful the nation found a new talisman to replace the departing Jay-Jay Okocha. The news that two big name clubs were interested in his services would only have heightened that optimism. If only. What we now see at Chelsea, in the moments he’s been on the pitch is a very bland defensive midfielder.
Mikel does the simple things well and has been used by Hiddink to add, as the Dutch coach says, some balance to the side. Simple passes are the norm, assists are rare, goals even rarer, tackles are crucial and positional discipline is essential. Mikel does produce more adventurous passing at times but that’s as creative as it gets for the Nigerian. He is capable of so much more.
The Chelsea squad he joined in 2006 already had attacking talents such as Frank Lampard and Joe Cole. The likes of Michael Ballack and Michael Essien could fill box-to-box roles. Who did Jose Mourinho decide was to be young Mikel’s mentor? Claude Makelele. The Frenchman was the world’s best defensive midfielder at the time and Mourinho presumably saw Mikel as his heir.
Though Mourinho left a season after, none of the seven managers to arrive since his departure saw fit to use Mikel elsewhere, including Hiddink. It seemed a different path would’ve been in store for Mikel at Manchester United.
The Red Devils were in need of, and arguably still need, a replacement for Paul Scholes. Mikel showcased the requisite attributes to fulfil that role. Michael Carrick had arrived in 2006 to replace Roy Keane in defensive midfield while Owen Hargreaves arrival in the next season. That meant Mikel would have been used elsewhere. The arrival of Brazilian boy wonder, Anderson, in 2007 may have prompted some competition but Mikel would have had a head start.
In hindsight, Mikel could very well have blossomed into Paul Pogba, before Paul Pogba. He had the physical tools and the necessary skill but never received the direction.
Nigerian fans are treated to glimpses of the creative Mikel when he plays for the Super Eagles. He is unshackled from his Chelsea duties and performs the role of creator-in-chief for his nation. His recent performances at the 2013, African Cup of Nations, 2013 Confederations Cup and 2014 World Cup provided further evidence of a talent mismanaged. His well-taken goal against Uruguay in the Confederations Cup both delights and saddens as it reveals just what Mikel could be capable of. His 73 caps show just how important he is to his country.
Only Mikel will know if regrets ending up in London.
Eleven trophies in almost 10 seasons represents great success. Manchester United picked up 14 in the same period. The 28-year-old defensive midfielder is now in his prime and at somewhat of a crossroads. He could wait and see what his role is with Chelsea’s new manager. Or, he could venture out and hopefully find a new lease on life with a chance to express himself fully.
It’s official. Arsenal are headed to the Europa League.
Okay, maybe that’s a premature conclusion. They are, after all, bottom of their Champions League table with a massive zero points. It seems more likely that there won’t be any Europe at all after December. Progress at it’s finest.
Still, it is more likely that the Gunners will at least make the Europa League spot at this stage.
Bayern Munich has the group wrapped up and should really make it six wins out of six even when Pep Guardiola decides to have Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer switch positions mid-game for the hell of it. Arsenal, because this is just simply how the Arsenal works, should get six points in their last two games. Just enough to make it seem like they may get second place. The hope will that be that one of Olympiakos or Dinamo Zagreb gets less than three points from here on out.
While those two exchange notes on how easy it was to beat Arsenal and, hopefully, take points off each other, the Gunners have to deal with Bayern Munich.
Grabbing a point off the German giants should be seen as victory and if all goes horribly wrong for the other two, draw their two games and lose to Bayern again, then second place is a possibility for Arsenal. That would leave the Gunners with seven points and those two with five presuming all the other results end up as previously stated. There’s little chance of that though. In this scenario, it would have been better had one of these first two losses come against the German giants. Now Arsenal has to face Bayern back-to-back in the two games they’ll be wanting to ensure qualification for the next round before cruising to first place in the next two.
Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich then Bayern vs. Arsenal. Sound familiar? Not in a good way for the Gunners. Arsenal fans, at least the more optimistic ones, will state the club still has a chance and shouldn’t give up so easily despite the consensus being otherwise. Sure, the Gunners shouldn’t give up but realistically the chances of progression are slim.
There’s no point talking about how the Gunners got to this point. Those issues have been beaten to death during the last few seasons. The recent losses to Dinamo Zagreb, Chelsea and now Olympiakos have only managed to highlight those weaknesses even more. There is
So, on to the Europa League and a new exciting adventure from the most enigmatic team in all of Europe.
Dare it be said that this side has the quality to go all the way. Not to mention they won’t have to suffer the ignominy, as far as English clubs are concerned, of those brutal group stages. Arsenal should make the most of a Europa League campaign if occurs. If being pretty close to when in this instance. A strong squad and good selections would make the Gunners big favorites. The Premier League is so topsy-turvy this season that a top four place is still very much on the cards so there’s no excuses in terms of selection. And no, the title was never a possibility. If disaster strikes domestically then a win in the Europa League assures a spot in the next season’s Champions League. It would be highly disappointing if the club doesn’t win it.
Arsenal will face no shortage of quality teams on such a journey should it occur. Their fellow Champions League failures and a host of solid sides already in the Europa League, oh hello Monaco, should make sure of that. Maybe, just maybe it may even entice Alexis Sanchez to stay. Maybe.
Oh, to be an Arsenal fan.