Author: Benjamin Wills

I am a third-year Sport Journalism student at the University of Brighton who was nominated as the Best Young Football Blogger of the Year at the Football Blogging Awards in 2014. Since I started writing about sport at the age of 16 I have gained knowledge of many different aspects of journalism via work experience at websites such as FLIC Wiltshire as well as in radio at Swindon 105.5 FM. Currently my work can be seen on the website of the Offside Rule Podcast where I contribute a Premier League Team of the Week feature and I am also a World Football writer at From The Stands. In the past I have been a Chelsea writer for Shoot Magazine's website and in addition I was formerly a Sports Analyst at American-based sport website H4Entertainment. "BenjaminWillsBlog is a really well constructed and interesting blog that doesn't fall into the trap a lot does these days, of confusing length with depth." - Rory Smith, Football Writer at the Times. To contact me, email at Benjamin19.wills@gmail.com, tweet me at @_BenWills or check out my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BenjaminWillsWork/

Diego Costa and his tainted Chelsea legacy

It seems every transfer these days ends ugly. It is a rare occasion that a player departs a club in 2017 without a flurry of snake emojis being sent to both his personal social media accounts and those of the two clubs involved.

Diego Costa’s transfer to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea has been a personification of the striker involved. Nasty, snarling, and brutal. Fran Guillen’s biography of the forward is titled ‘The Art of War’ for a reason,

Three seasons, that garnered two Premier League titles and a League Cup, summed up in a two-line club statement.

“Chelsea Football Club has today agreed terms with Atletico Madrid for the transfer of Diego Costa.

“The transfer will be subject to the agreement of personal terms and a medical.”

A club statement that says so little but says so much. Chelsea got sick of one of its favourite sons by the end.

Chelsea fans adored their star striker as one of them, or ‘Proper Chels’ as the saying around the fanbase goes. We love him because the opposition hate him. He scored goals, lots of them, which helped and his confrontational gamesmanship got under the skin of anybody and everybody he played against. ‘Diego Costa. The Guv’nor’ read his banner.

Two successful seasons out of three, in which Costa scored 52 goals in 89 league games had him rightly lauded by the Stamford Bridge faithful, even when he was not so. Diego, Diego, Diego was sung despite his public request to quit west London.

It is reported that, on Antonio Conte’s first day at Chelsea, Costa told the Italian that he wanted to return to Spain. Conte decided to stick with Costa as his talisman, to great effect. To Costa’s credit, he carried on as normal and was the Blues’ top scorer last term. His petulance held off, with a wobble in January when China came calling.

It was the summer though when the patience ran out. Chelsea resigned themselves to losing Costa and splashed out a club-record fee for Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata, who has started brilliantly and already has three goals to his name. They had no choice when Costa went to his native Brazil and never returned.

The relationship between manager and player officially entered petulant teenage level when Conte dumped Costa by text and the absolute final straw was Costa claiming Conte treated him like a criminal.

“They want me there training with the reserves,” Costa told the Daily Mail. “I wouldn’t be allowed access to the first-team dressing room and I would have no contact with the guys. I am not a criminal.

“I don’t think that is fair after all I have done to be treated like that.

“You know the manager doesn’t want me. I am waiting for Chelsea to set me free. I didn’t want to leave. I was happy.”

Conte laughed that off, literally, in his next press conference and had one final snip at his striker: “I can tell you that everyone who works in Chelsea knows what happened’.

In January, Costa will be reunited with Diego Simeone who has christened him his Bestia meaning ‘Beast’.

There was certainly no beauty to be had here.

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Does Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s imminent transfer suit anyone? At all?

After six years, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is set to say his goodbyes to Arsenal in the next few days as the 2017 summer transfer window draws to a close, but who is this move good for, if anyone?

It is remarkable to think that, given he had two years of professional football at then-League One Southampton behind him before signing for the Gunners, that Oxlade-Chamberlain is still only 24 years of age.

Although he will understandably be a bit miffed that Arsene Wenger’s side will be in Europe’s second-tier competition for the first time in 20 years and therefore wants to be back in the Champions League, but at what potential cost for a player, it is fair to say, still in development?

It would appear that Oxlade-Chamberlain now has two options at his disposal after Manchester City’s interest looks to have faded into oblivion, leaving Arsenal’s London rivals Chelsea, and Liverpool.

What is in doubt though, whichever club he chooses, is who is supposed to benefit from ‘The Ox’ signing on the dotted line.

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte changed the face of English football last season when his 3-4-3 system blew away everyone before it and, as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, with seemingly every manager in the Premier League now adopting the formation.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s current manager, Wenger is no exception, and he has used the original winger as his right wing-back to little success, which most recently culminated in a 4-0 humiliation at Liverpool and the latest calls for the Frenchman’s head.

Regardless, that has not deterred Conte who presumably sees Oxlade-Chamberlain as competition for Victor Moses, but with Moses adapting so surprisingly well to the role compared to his potential rival, will the new man get the football he requires?

It will be even less likely if instead he is considered in the wing-forward/number ten role where Willian, Pedro and Eden Hazard provide a stern enough battle as it is.

Alternatively, Anfield is Oxlade-Chamberlain’s destination. It will mean he will be back in his favoured winger role, but again the amount of options at Liverpool’s disposal will end up in Oxlade-Chamberlain on the fringes, with Moh Salah and Sadio Mane two of the first names on the Reds’ team sheet and Adam Lallana in first reserve.

Granted, none of this may matter to Oxlade-Chamberlain if he gets the Champions League football he so desperately craves in a rotational fashion, however he also has to consider that this is a World Cup year and, even though the Three Lions do not have a wealth of options available, they are still unlikely to take a squad player to Russia next summer.

Maybe he would be better off staying at Arsenal, ironically maybe the only ‘winners’ here, given they will get a reasonable fee for a man out of contract at the end of the season, but that contract stand-off looks to have burned all of his bridges at the Emirates.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has spent his summer trying to get out of a club in crisis, but in doing so he has created one of his own.

Stop the transfer train because I want to get off

In the early hours of Wednesday morning I tuned into the ‘Premier League Asia Trophy Preview’ while whittling my way through a packed Sky+ planner.

Said programme was an interview hosted by Sky Sports presenter David Jones, who spoke to four managers: Frank de Boer, Tony Pulis, Craig Shakespeare and Jurgen Klopp, as the title suggests, previewing the forthcoming pre-season tournament, the Asia Trophy.

Maybe watching such a show at the barbaric hour of 3am had the effect, but it seemed like I was in a world where all control had been lost, or maybe this was just an all-too-accurate reflection of Planet Transfer Market once the activity of Crystal Palace, West Brom, Leicester City and Liverpool was discussed.

Unlike in the eyes of most others though, the main issue is not necessarily people like Kyle Walker commanding circa £50 million fees – that is just the price you pay for mega-bucks television deals and English players, especially half-decent ones, being so few and far between.

No. What the real problem is, is the tremendous titillation of it all.

Presenter Jones, who emphasised the word ‘transfers’ in his introduction to the segment with so much vigour that it seemed Tourette-like, was, to be fair to him, just doing his job as the Sky Sports mouthpiece to what has long-been the entertainment within the entertainment.

In what is a ‘Chicken and Egg’ scenario, there is an issue football has now where the amount of people interested in the 90 minutes is decreasing while the hullabaloo before and after it seems to be sky-rocketing. Any print media journalist asked the difference in readership figures between the match report and the ‘Player X linked to Club Y’ story will tell you that.

How could you not be excited when, in the words of Jones, “all managers are battling the transfer spending, which is hitting new levels”?

The managers themselves are not getting caught up in it though. Pulis labelled it “ridiculous”, de Boer “crazy” and Shakespeare admitted he “doesn’t really like it, but you have to accept it.”

Klopp, who previously quipped Germany is still normal with players still moving clubs for fees such as £5 million and £7 million, put it better than anybody else, however.

When asked if he was planning any more incomings for the Liverpool fans with “baited breath” (again, a phrase fired from Jones’ mouth like a bullet out of a gun), he responded: “Look. There’s nothing I could say that could help.

“We are interested in a lot of players around the world, but at the moment I’m working with the squad I have. With all respect, that’s my job in the first place.

“If I go into training and think: Oh my God, still them? That’s not okay, but that’s the first part of the job – nobody thinks about improvement and development of the players you have.”

The crux of the matter though is why is nobody thinking about improvement and development? Is it all just too dull?

There is no flashy ‘totaliser’ for every player a manager improves instead of buying, there is no bold yellow strap at the bottom of a screen when an 18-year-old gets his first start and there is certainly no all-day event that some joke should be a national holiday quite like the perpetual damp squib that is Transfer Deadline Day.

Maybe it is time to get off the transfer train, maybe we missed our stop a long time ago, and, if so, maybe we are approaching the end of the line, we just need to hope we are not going completely off the rails.

 

 

Charlie Colkett: How a move to Holland may be the making of the Chelsea midfielder

A Chelsea youth product signing a season-long loan deal at feeder club Vitesse Arnhem is nothing new, but the Dutch club being the making of one of those players just might be.

The love-in between the current Premier League champions and Vitesse of Holland has always been a contentious one, not least because it practically never leads to Chelsea promoting any of the loaned-out kids to the first-team fold.

What Vitesse have managed to do, however, is be the first step, at least, to a more successful career, more often than not, away from Stamford Bridge.

Nemanja Matic, who was one of the first to move to Arnhem in 2010 when the link was first born, is the most, and arguably only notable success of those that remain in west London, but even he was sold to Benfica, and then bought back a few years later.

Patrick van Aanholt have all gone on to establish decent career for himself at the likes of Sunderland and Crystal Palace while Christian Atsu and Bertrand Traore have departed this summer after different successful loan spells at Newcastle and Ajax.

Even Dominic Solanke, who had a decent spell at Vitesse two seasons ago (scoring seven goals in 25 games) got sick of being patient and declined a new contract at Chelsea to move to Premier League rivals Liverpool for a fee pending tribunal.

He wasted no time in showing Chelsea what they might end up missing, as he was named the best player at this summer’s Under-20 World Cup, which England won.

Meanwhile, Charlie Colkett, who captained Chelsea to back-to-back UEFA Youth Leagues (the under-19 Champions League) and back-to-back FA Youth Cups, is already in the process of having to rebuild his career somewhat, at the tender age of 20, after two loan spells in England’s third tier that left an awful lot to be desired.

A loan move to Bristol Rovers did not go quite as planned, with Colkett struggling to really set fire to the Gas, who Colkett admits never suited his playing style anyway. So much so that Chelsea recalled him in January and immediately sent him back out on loan, to West Country rivals Swindon.

Swindon over the past few seasons have garnered a reputation for a passing style of play, or a “footballing background” which Colkett says attracted him to the Robins, but with Town in a perilous position, easing their way down into League Two, Colkett was on a hiding to nothing through little fault of his own.

Irate fans are not going to take easily to a Fancy Dan trickster while getting out-fought and out-thought by Scunthorpe.

However, with Vitesse being a good standard of side – they qualified for the Europa League last season, it should give Colkett more freedom to be, Charlie Colkett.

Off the pitch, in interviews at least, Colkett is painfully shy and rarely answers a question with more than one sentence, but when on grass, all that fades away and, to use a well-worn cliche, he lets his football do the talking.

Even when not having the best of times at Bristol Rovers and Swindon that was more than apparent, with a couple of flicks against MK Dons and Coventry soon lashed into ‘Best Skills’ compilation videos.

In a league such as the Eredivisie, which has always favoured the flashy and the flamboyant, a player such as Colkett should thrive, much like fellow English midfielder Lewis Baker did last season, as he netted 15 goals in all competitions, which made him their second-top scorer last campaign.

Realistically, Colkett will never make the grade at Chelsea but if and when he is sold on for a healthy profit like so many more before him, he could well be looking back at his year in the Netherlands more favourably than the English lower tiers.

Tim Sherwood and Swindon Town: ‘One of the Biggest Miscalculations the club has ever made’

November 10, 2016. A huddle of journalists are gathered at the ‘Imagine Cruising suite’ – the room where Swindon Town make their significant statements to the press, as opposed to the more ‘cosy’ area for the post-match evaluation.

All they have been told is at that half-past one Swindon will be making a ‘major announcement’. The press officer is eluded to what is about to happen just 10 minutes before the big moment of Tim Sherwood being named as the club’s director of football.

It was not immediately clear then that that would not only be the first time Sherwood addressed the media in person, but the last as well.

Swindon Town are the sort of club you would describe as ‘modest’, if you were trying to appear respectful, but mindful of causing offence to its loyal, but now disenchanted fan base.

Its finest hour came almost 50 years ago, with the 1969 League Cup win over Arsenal, and it has graced the Premier League only once, over two decades ago. They conceded over 100 goals, finished bottom (then 22nd), and got relegated again the season after.

Ever since, they have been trying to get back, without success. This season they got relegated back down to League Two, after escaping it in the spring of 2012.

Like many clubs of its stature, it predominantly prides itself not on league titles, or cup victories (minus 1969 of course), or, nowadays, even derby wins, but on the ‘we made him’ sort of badge of honour you get when a player achieves great things not at your club, but because of said club.

Those, too, are fading now. Even Charlie Austin, the true 21st-Century Swindon Town poster boy, poached from Poole Town in 2009, has had just one call-up to the England squad. He didn’t play.

Managers though are a different kettle of fish. Glenn Hoddle cut his managerial teeth in the West Country, guided the Robins to the Premier League, and went on to manage England, with a stint at Chelsea in the middle.

In 1989, Ossie Ardiles was in the dugout of the County Ground in a red tracksuit winning promotion to the first division with an Argentine blend of tiki-taka, 11 years post-World Cup ticker tape. The promotion shortly became a demotion due to financial irregularities, but as the memories of that sting, the on-the-pitch triumphs do not get forgotten.

Nor do the accolades of other ‘big names’ Lou Macari, Steve McMahon, a certain Paolo Di Canio or the coaching team of Dennis Wise and Gus Poyet, who sowed the seeds of a Swindon League Two promotion-winning campaign in 2007, before they upped sticks to Leeds and Paul Sturrock carried on from where they left off.

It was therefore a bold claim when now-chairman Lee Power described the appointment of Sherwood as: “One of the biggest appointments the club has ever made,” which was preceded by him being labelled “one of the top, young English managers.” Not modest statements for this modest club.

Two days after the unveiling, Swindon thrashed Charlton Athletic 3-0 to much fanfare, in front of the Sky Sports cameras. The assorted media stuck around for this post-match press conference at least, but their questions were answered by still-head coach Luke Williams, instead of the man recently given full control of “all football-related matters”, which consists of “transfers, tactics, and training,” as well, it would turn out, team talks.

The wins dried up, Sherwood never turned up, the non-local media stopped coming and Williams was answering press questions and facing fan forum backlash for a team that was no longer his.

If there was one manager you could say is no stranger to the cult following social media brings, Sherwood might be it. His Jack-the-Lad persona that saw him reach Vine ‘fame’ for throwing his trademark Gilet and kicking door-opening buttons was only exacerbated when the ‘Director of Football’ began an FA Cup first-round replay against Eastleigh in the stands and ended it in the dugout. The first, and only, time he did so.

The BBC pondered: “Does Tim Sherwood manage the Robins or not?” while JOE declared that: “Tim Sherwood has gone full Football Manager at Swindon Town.” The second jibe became remarkably literal in February.

Not managing actual football teams of course.

With Swindon hovering just above the relegation zone, reeling from a 1-0 loss at local rivals Bristol Rovers and in the middle of what would turn out to be a five-match losing streak, Sherwood appeared – doing a Q&A, not for the media, but for Squawka in a promotion for the computer game, Football Manager.

Four days later Swindon had, and lost, another derby – against Oxford. Sherwood was absent. Power told TalkSPORT on Valentine’s Day, no less, that firstly Sherwood’s hiring was “one million per cent an old pals act” and then revealed that Sherwood was not at the Oxford match as he was doing some “football business for that club” that could only be done on that day.

That was after Town fans had twigged that Sherwood’s birthday was the day after the Oxford game.

Williams was put back in charge of on-pitch activity but Sherwood was back in the stands for the trip to Bury the week after. That was until half-time, when Sherwood launched into a tirade at the referee, calling him a f****** mug for awarding the Shakers a penalty.

On February 23, he was slapped with a two-game stadium ban for his comments. Swindon won both of those games. The first time they achieved back-to-back victories in over a year.

He was back for the home game against Chesterfield. Swindon lost. The Robins didn’t win again until a home match against Millwall, 1-0. Sherwood stayed away from that one. Maybe if he stayed away every week Swindon would have survived.

Alas, they were relegated, which confined Swindon’s to next season’s League Two and, on June 14, just over seven months after arriving, Sherwood’s departure was confirmed.

“Tim’s gone.” Those were the cold words of Power on a hot summer’s day in Swindon at the introductory press conference for the club’s new manager, David Flitcroft. No clouds were in sight that day, not even the biggest one in the club’s recent history.

 

 

Anyone picking Joe in goal is now going with their Hart instead of their Head

An opinion piece questioning Joe Hart’s goalkeeping, just a day after England dropped points against its oldest enemy may attract accusations of being reactionary, if only that was the case.

The reality is that the last year and a bit has included one problem after another for the previously undisputed Manchester City and England number one.

Pep Guardiola being announced as the forthcoming City manager, on February 1, got the ball rolling, and the momentum has got faster as time has gone on, most recently culminating in the 30-year-old letting two really quite saveable free-kicks past him in as many minutes in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Scotland.

Euro 2016 was the first real on-pitch indication that the Hart was starting to break with England unceremoniously dumped out of the competition in France as early as the Round of 16 stage, against Iceland.

Not all the blame can be aimed at the goalkeeper, of course, but the Three Lions did concede four goals in their four matches against Russia, Wales, Slovakia and Iceland and a case could be made that Hart was at fault for all of them.

A looping header caught him off guard in the Russia draw, Gareth Bale’s free-kick from miles out squirmed under him and then a long throw-in that caught Hart out followed by another tame shot that seemed to go through him led to Iceland eliminating England.

Regardless of his Euro 2016 showing, Hart was probably departing City anyway, given Guardiola’s insistence on a ball-playing keeper, and Hart was duly loaned to Serie A outfit Torino. In his own words, to Soccer AM: “The management didn’t want me, so I had to go somewhere else.

“Obviously he (Guardiola) had different ideas. The manager who came in came in with a lot of experience, an awful lot of medals and I know the club worked really hard to have him in charge of the football club.

“Unfortunately, football is a game of opinions. His opinions weren’t too great on me, I kind of smelled that when I came in. That’s life, that’s football.”

Hart’s replacement at City, Claudio Bravo, had a disastrous campaign of his own but he was only ever a temporary option for Pep and his side, given that Barcelona’s other keeper, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, was the one he really wanted with Manuel Neuer, who he coached at Bayern Munich, never a realistic option.

Given Bravo’s below-par bedding in period, City fans and neutral pundits alike were calling for the return of the ousted Hart, but only by those that were not watching his performances in Turin.

Life in Italy was tough, and gaffe-ridden for Hart who dropped, in some cases literally, clangers against the likes of Inter Milan, Atalanta and Crotone.

Judging goalkeepers by statistic is difficult in the nicest terms, and downright inaccurate in the worst. Torino having the second-worst defence in the Italian top flight is not a direct correlation to Hart’s form, or lack thereof, and nor, really, is a poor shot-to-save ratio.

Hart’s inclusion in the Serie A ‘Flop of the Season’ XI is a damning indictment though and established Italian football writer James Horncastle quipping: “Torino couldn’t believe they had landed England’s number one. Over the course of the season, they realised why”, sums it up better than most.

Once done with England duty, Hart will return to Manchester, but if he even gets to the stage of taking his coat off and hanging it up on his dressing room peg, he can call that a victory as City’s £35 million signing of Benfica’s Ederson kicks him through the door that was already more than ajar.

While his time at his club comes to an end, Hart is also at risk of a bypass at international level. Jack Butland may have missed the majority of the 2016-17 season through injury but in his games since recovery he seems back on track while Jordan Pickford was widely considered to be the best goalkeeper in the country last season, despite Sunderland’s abject relegation campaign.

“We didn’t expect so many mistakes from an England international”, was the departing shot from Torino president Urbano Cairo but currently it looks increasingly more likely that a good moment for Hart would be more surprising.

 

In Profile: Jadon Sancho

England got their Under-17 European Championship campaign off to the perfect start: with a 3-1 win over Norway. Liverpool striker Rhian Brewster netted two of the goals for the Three Lions, but he was not the man that enticed those that tuned in on Thursday afternoon.

Manchester City winger Jadon Sancho ran the show, quite literally, in Velika Gorica, Croatia.

Things looked bleak for England when they went 1-0 down as early as the eighth minute, but 17-year-old Sancho showed the character of someone well beyond his tender age, by assisting the first of Brewster’s brace just two minutes later.

Sancho did not play a direct part in the second goal, but an intuitive piece of skill got the move going that started the move that completed England’s turnaround.

Norway quickly cottoned onto the fact that Sancho was trouble, and doubled-up on the flamboyant winger, with little success, as the right-hand side of the Norwegian’s flank was under consistent scrutiny for the entire 80 minutes.

Sancho’s key attribute is obvious from the outset. Type his name into YouTube and you are inundated with ‘Amazing Skills and Dribbling’ compilation videos – the first sign that a Millennial footballer has arrived, one video even describes him as “The Future.” Maybe with good reason.

Manchester City certainly know what they have got, as three weeks before his 17th birthday, and two years after they paid Watford £500,000 for him, Sancho was offered a three-year deal to remain in Manchester following talk he missed his hometown of Kenington in south London. Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham were all ready to pounce, but had no luck.

Talk of homesickness seems strange, though, given that he describes his 2015 move to City as him “getting out of the hood” and that “bad influences were happening” around him. “If I moved, it would be better for me, to stay out of trouble”, he told the club’s YouTube channel.

“After school, it was just football, football. Other people were a bad influence on me, doing bad stuff and I just didn’t want to be around that, so there was the opportunity to come to Manchester and I’m really happy,” he continued.

Sancho wasted no time in showing his gratitude to his new club. On his debut start for the Citizens he scored two in a 6-1 demolition of Newcastle and, during the same season, he was part of a City under-16 side that went unbeaten during the 2015-16 season. While with the under-18 team Sancho scored a further five goals and ended the campaign with seven goals in four starts for Jason Wilcox’s side.

Progression has not slowed down for the tricky winger, as this season he has been training with the first-team under Pep Guardiola, in what was the latest indication on what City, and England, have got brewing.

“When I saw Pep, I just couldn’t stop smiling. When I walked on the training pitch I was very nervous, but I just remembered what my Dad said: no pressure.

“I just kept my head low and then Pep came over to me, I shook his hand, he put my arm around me and gave me great advice.

“He’s seen what I can do, he wants me to improve in certain parts, he doesn’t care if I lose the ball 1,000 times, he knows what I’m capable of.”

Guardiola is not the only one who knows what Sancho is capable of. At 16, Sancho was already heavily involved in City’s UEFA Youth League campaign, the Champions League for under-21s, playing six out of the seven games City played, and scored two goals – against Borussia Monchengladbach and Celtic in the group stages.

City were eliminated in the play-off round, against eventual winners Red Bull Salzburg on penalties, but Sancho was one of the three men in blue to bury his spot-kick.

Sancho did reach one final this season, as him and the rest of the Manchester City EDS (Elite Development Squad) got all the way FA Youth Cup final, but lost 6-2 on aggregate to Chelsea, although there is clear signs of positive work on display in the City set up.

“I think our group is so special, because we have great chemistry on and off the pitch. When on the training pitch, we take it proper seriously, like it’s a game day, that’s how all of us work so hard and get results on match days.”

Sancho is getting results on match days, and if he continues in this vein he will certainly be getting results in his career.

 

 

 

 

AS Monaco: How the Principality prevailed over the Parisians

It was a nasty Sunday night at Nice for Paris Saint Germain, as they probably lost their title, and they definitely lost their heads in the 3-1 defeat, with Thiago Motta and Angel Di Maria both shown straight red cards either side of Anastasios Donis’ killer third goal.

To demonstrate how much of a meltdown it was for Unai Emery’s side: it was the first time PSG had more than one player dismissed in a match since three were given their marching orders in a meeting with Evian, way back in 2013.

Nice, who have performed above all expectations this season and have already secured Champions League football next season, were just a sideshow however, in what will probably go down as the night Monaco became champions.

Leonardo Jardim’s side lead PSG by three points with four games of the Ligue 1 season to go, but Monaco have a game in hand over the holders for the last four seasons, who have just three matches left. It will be Monaco’s first league title since 2000.

It was a big night for Monaco, probably best demonstrated by the club Twitter account posting: “Belle victorie Nice” (nice victory, Nice) with the speak-no-evil monkey Emoji at full-time, swiftly followed by the league table.

The two-and-a-half thousand people that retweeted “Belle victorie” know that Monaco have more than one hand on the trophy, and so do Monaco themselves. But how have the Principality prevailed over the Parisians? By being the most exciting team in Europe, that’s how.

A 3-1 win over Toulouse at the weekend took Monaco up to 95 league goals for the season, more than anyone else in the continent but, despite their gung-ho nature being open, they have only conceded 29 in the league, which has their defence as the third best in Ligue 1, behind PSG and Nice. A goal difference of 66 is the highest by some distance.

The biggest contributor to Monaco’s goals is a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao, who has 18, and ‘El Tigre’ finally has his bite back after two disappointing loan spells in England, with Manchester United and Chelsea, that threatened to permanently end his reputation as being one of the best strikers on the planet.

Firing Falcao is not the man who the footballing world is talking about most though. No, that honour goes to the frighteningly-talented Kylian Mbappe, who has 13 goals in 13 starts in the league, and 23 goals in 37 games in all competitions, including five in eight in the Champions League, which Monaco are in the semi finals of for the first time since 2004, when they reached the final. Mbappe only turned 18 five days before last Christmas.

It is not unfair to say that Monaco are not the sort of club that draw admirers easily. A 2014 ‘WealthInsight’ and ‘Spears’ study found that just over 29% of its citizens is a millionaire, a higher percentage than any other city in the world. For some time the football club reflected that, with big-money fees paid for the likes of Falcao, James Rodriguez (now at Real Madrid) and Joao Moutinho.

Financial Fair Play has restricted them, however, and they now field a young side. Given that Monaco has an estimated population of just over 37,000 (2015 estimation) and their stadium, Stade Louis II, holds only 18,523, spending millions on players was unsustainable. They had to change.

Benjamin Mendy (22), Jemerson (24), Djibril Sidibe (24), Bernardo Silva (22), Fabinho (23), Tiemoue Bakayoko (22), Thomas Lemar (21) and Mbappe (18) are all starters, and that is not forgetting that Manchester United poached Anthony Martial (21) from them last summer. Their youth team got to the last 16 of the UEFA Youth League this season too, before they lost to Real Madrid.

The senior team, meanwhile are competing on all fronts – they are two games, against Juventus, away from their first Champions League final in over a decade, while they also got to the final of the French Cup, but PSG got the upper hand that time, winning 4-1.

There is something special happening in the Principality though and they could well be the next side to dominate Ligue 1, following Lyon winning it seven times on the trot from 2002 to 2008 and then PSG’s four titles in the last four seasons.

Equally as likely though, is Monaco falling away again, if Europe’s more elite clubs break this generation up over the course of this summer’s transfer window.

Should the latter happen, do not be surprised to see Les Monégasques make another comeback. All the foundations are there.

Pep Guardiola is new, different, and fresh. Get used to it.

Manchester City’s appointment and unveiling of Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola was neither normal nor run-of-the-mill, but then Guardiola is not a normal or run-of-the-mill kind of guy, or manager.

We are approaching February of 2017. This time last year – February 1, to be precise, was the day in which the Citizens announced to the world, mid-way through the season, that ‘Charming Man’ Manuel Pellegrini, nicknamed after the renowned Manchester-based band ‘The Smiths’, was to depart the Etihad Stadium in June to be replaced by ‘Enigmatic Man’ Guardiola.

That in itself was bold and some suggested less-than-charming to the Chilean, Pellegrini, but there was more to come, in the shape of a fan parade. Tickets sold out in a matter of hours, demand exceeded supply, and over 20,000 people attended the event. The title of David Conn’s excellent book suggests Manchester City are richer than God, you could be forgiven for thinking they had just hired him as well. Maybe they had.

In his first 10 competitive matches in charge, City won all 10. The critics that said the King of Catalonia was going to struggle in a ‘more competitive’ league following title wins in Spain and Germany, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, looked like fools.

City were four points clear at the top of the Premier League, eight points ahead of current clear leaders Chelsea, and they had taken Europe by storm as well, winning their two qualifiers before demolishing Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in their opening group stage match. God. Call the sport off in September. We’re done for the year.

This had all been done with Claudio Bravo in goal too, who had been signed as part of the rebuilding process being done on the blue half of Manchester, as England number one Joe Hart, who had a disappointing European Championship with his country, was ousted and joined Italian outfit Torino on a season-long loan. Things then started to get interesting.

On September 28, Manchester City drew 3-3 in a frantic Champions League night at Celtic Park and a matter of days later Tottenham got a 2-0 win against them at White Hart Lane before City drew three of their next four games 1-1 – against Everton, Southampton, and Middlesbrough. Then you add in the fact that in that ten-match winning streak, City kept just three clean sheets and suddenly you have a scapegoat. Bravo.

Football, more often than one might think, reflects society. Wherever you look in the world of politics at the moment, people are scared of the new and the never-seen-before.

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union – this is uncharted territory as they are the only full member state to do so –  and America has elected climate change-denier, sexual assault-accused and disabled reporter-mocker Donald Trump as their President. These are scary times for those that don’t like change. Pep Guardiola is a man, albeit in a more trivial sense, that wants to change things but, regardless, people are scared.

A man that wants to play a goalkeeper that can’t keep goal, (Bravo has faced 59 shots this season and conceded 25 goals), because he wants his keeper to be his first attacker is one that opens himself up to ridicule from sections of both fans and the media. Being worshipped as the best thing to grace the Earth by those same sets of people does this as well, as does being prickly to those journalists that oh so adored you last weekend when you won 4-0 and those that don’t think you’ve proved yourself yet cannot wait for you to fail.

Initially, Guardiola was staunch of his philosophy. Bravo should be the first attacker, just like Victor Valdes was at arguably the greatest club side to grace the game, and just like Manuel Neuer was at his Bayern side and John Stones – a defender that, let’s face it, can’t really defend, should also be, and will become, the ultimate ball-playing centre back that gets City going.

In October he told journalists: “I think about that (changing), yeah but in the end the solution is not better than what I believe, so I cannot. In seven years I won 21 titles…I’m not going to change…if it’s not going well in the future I will go home.” By January, he was stating that “maybe (he) is not good enough for (his) players.”

Maybe Guardiola isn’t God after all, maybe for now he’ll have to settle for being Jesus. Establishing mega-rich Manchester City into the European elite is no miracle, but his second coming might not be too far away once his disciples and those who watch them, have understood his gospels.

Game Review: Pokemon Go

Since its launch, Pokemon Go has, as expected, taken the world by storm and it could be a genuine revolution in gaming.

The view of gamers still remains one of sceptisism. They stay in their darkly-lit bedrooms and develop square eyes whittling away hours in front of screens as Zubats fly around the room – but Pokemon Go forces the user to go out, have a walk, and enjoy the scenery of their town, and have genuine fun at the same time.

It is not the first time Nintendo have tried to get their audience active. They tried it with the Wii console, but once people figured out that instead of exercising you could just shake the remote to get equal results, the effect wore off, Pokemon Go does not seem to have been plagued with the same problem.

Nostalgia is the buzzword with Pokemon Go, and with good reason, this game is clearly more targeted at the ‘older’ player. Only Generation One seems to feature, so the 20-somethings who grew up on Pikachu, Charmander and Pidgey in their developing years have not been turned off by having to hunt a Popplio, or a Lunalu, or a Rockruff, whatever the hell they are.

Elements of traditional Pokemon has been lost, however, which will hurt fans. Perhaps the biggest change in this sense has been the loss of the battle aspect these games have become iconic for.

Training your little animated buddy has completely changed, the painstaking task of knocking out Rattata after Rattata you stumble on in the grass has evaporated. Now you rely on ‘Stardust’, which is gained after every Pokemon you catch and to evolve you need the candy of the desired Pokemon you wish to evolve, which yes, does mean you have to catch about 50 Bellsprouts if you want a Weepinbell.

Gym battles, also, have been radicalised. Instead of the strategic meetings, it is a spam-off with your competitor as you ram the screen as hard as your fingers will let you – tactics are a thing of the past, but overall, the magic still exists. Especially if you have managed to catch a Kadabra.

Overall though, this app is a force for good. It allows the teenager that has not quite grown up to re-live their childhood while also introducing the 21st Century infant to an existence they understand, in an age where everyone seems to have a phone.

Already the game has had positive impacts. Mental health is getting tackled by depression sufferers taking the nice walk outside in the sunshine that they so desperately craved while simultaneously escaping into their own world, away from the real one full of darkness and despair.  Friendships, somewhat ironically, are getting made too, and not just with the cute animated ‘mons’ you catch. A pastime that gets people glued to their phones has got budding trainers together in both the virtual and real surroundings.

More and more Pokemon Go is becoming a social network and an exercise regime, not bad for a game.

Ranking: 4/5