Top Five Flops Of The Euros So Far

The Group Stage of Euro 2016 has now been and gone, so BenjaminWillsBlog has taken a look at five players who have as yet failed to live up to the pre-tournament hype.

1) Antoine Griezmann – France

When Antoine Griezmann came off the bench to head France into a last-gasp lead against Albania it seemed like the Euros was about to burst into life for one of the continent’s top talents, however it has not yet been the case.

Atletico Madrid’s main man suffered a frustrating 90 minutes on opening night as Olivier Giroud and Dmitri Payet were needed to rescue the hosts and Griezmann was promptly dropped for the Albania game.

His goal got him back in the line-up against Switzerland, but again the Frenchman was ineffective as he has yet to get a proper foothold on this tournament which is underwhelming from a man many backed to win the Golden Boot.

2) Harry Kane – England

Harry Kane has been the top English goalscorer for each of the past two seasons, the current Three Lions squad is attacking and exciting, so, put the two together and you have a perfect blend, right? It would appear not.

At his club, Tottenham Hotspur, boy wonder Kane is used to being the main man, he plays on his own up front for Spurs, but with his country he finds himself deployed as part of a three-man attack and has so far struggled to find his scoring boots due to lack of service and perhaps is not suited to others doing the dirty work for him.

After unexpectedly failing to win Group B England find themselves on the harder half of the tournament table, and Kane will need to remember where the back of the net is if the Three Lions want to make a serious impression on this year’s Euros.

3) Paul Pogba – France

Since 1996, the Player of the Tournament at the European Championships has had two things in common: they were centre midfielders, and their country were crowned champions.

Paul Pogba and France were both tipped for glory this summer, both still might get their crowning glory, but neither have been entirely convincing as yet. The Juventus man has shown flashes of brilliance, in the first-half of France’s 2-1 win over Romania and during the 0-0 draw with Switzerland, but for a man touted as one of the best in the world and expected to command a fee of £70 million, the mercurial midfielder has not quite been firing on all cylinders.

Pogba will need to kick it up a notch if he wants to emulate his childhood hero Zinedine Zidane, who was the best player as France won Euro 2000.

4) Thomas Muller – Germany

The Germans. Ruthless, clinical, efficient, and any other cliche you want to use, none apply to Thomas Muller this summer.

He may only be 26-years-old, but Muller is as experienced as they come. The forward has 32 international goals in 74 caps, and a World Cup winners’ medal, but despite this he has never scored in a Euros, and that stat does not look like being wiped out any time soon.

Muller’s role is that of a Raumdeuter – a ‘space investigator’ in real terms – Mario Gotze as a false nine is supposed to create space for the supporting Muller, but so far the mean defences of Poland, and especially Northern Ireland, have managed to snuff out the Bayern Munich man out, leaving him ineffective.

5) Robert Lewandowski – Poland

This is new territory for Robert Lewandowski. Since his first season as a professional in the Polish second division with Znicz Pruszkow in 2006-07 he has scored fewer than 15 goals in a campaign only twice, but now when representing his country his magic touch seems to have worn a bit thin.

Lewandowski scored 30 goals in 32 matches for his club, Bayern in the Bundesliga last season and went into the Euros in hot form but after four games in France he has scored no goals and had just the one shot on target.

Despite one of the world’s hottest strikers blowing cold Poland have made it to the quarter-finals, getting on the scoresheet a grand total of three times in the process, but they need their star man to show up sooner rather than later, otherwise a great opportunity for history may go up in smoke.

Euro 2016 Team of the Group Stage

Goalkeeper: Michael McGovern (Northern Ireland)

International tournaments are a great way for lesser-known players to advertise themselves on the big stage and no-one has made the most of this quite like Michael McGovern.

McGovern is currently a free agent after leaving Scottish Premiership outfit Hamilton when his contract expired and should have no problem finding a new club due to his outing at the Euros.

Northern Ireland’s goalkeeper has made the second highest amount of saves (16) in the three games he has played and half of them (eight) came in the Germany game where impressively the Green and White Army only succumbed to a 1-0 loss, thanks to McGovern.

Right-back: Elseid Hysaj (Albania)

The 24-team Euros has allowed players from unfashionable European nations to shine, it is a shame we will see no more of Albania and their right-back Elseid Hysaj who has been a shining light in an average team.

Albania finished as one of the six third-placed teams but their goal difference of minus two led to them being one of the unfortunate pair, alongside Turkey, who did not do enough to secure a place in the last 16 of the competition.

Hysaj, who plays his club football in Serie A for Napoli, came into his own though, he defended well and was key for Albania going forward too. In the 1-0 loss to Switzerland he played a sensational through ball to Armando Siduku who fired straight at the keeper and similar occurred just over a week later when Ermir Lenjani blasted over the bar from point-blank range when picked out by Hysaj.

Centre back: Leonardo Bonucci (Italy)

Isn’t it great when a team lives up to the stereotype? Italy, the ‘tournament team you should never write off’ that are ‘built on solid defences’, have been, well, the typically efficient side that have been built on a solid defence that punish teams on the counter-attack.

Leonardo Bonucci, who is a serious target for Chelsea – the team Italy boss Antonio Conte will manage at the end of the Euros, has been the true rock and leader of the traditional sturdy Azzurri.

Bonucci even played a part in one of the goals of the championship to this point as well. A sensational directed ball landed at the feet of Emanuele Giaccherini with the most pinpoint precision and the ex-Sunderland winger was left with the simple task of tucking home past Thibaut Courtois.

Centre back: Jerome Boateng (Germany)

It takes a special defender to prevent a near-certain goal from going in but that is exactly what Jerome Boateng did, but that is what Jerome Boateng is.

Germany had taken an early lead in their Group C opener against Ukraine but looked certain to concede when the Bayern Munich deflected a cross towards his own goal but somehow the 27-year-old adjusted his body and cleared the ball away from danger.

Boateng did not put a foot wrong in the 0-0 draw with Poland or the 1-0 win over Northern Ireland either. Germany are one of only two teams to have not conceded a goal yet at Euro 2016.

Left-back: Jordi Alba (Spain)

Jordi Alba truly burst onto the scene with his dazzling displays at the last Euros and if he carries on in this vain, he will be among the nominees for the top player prize again without a doubt.

Alba’s best showing so far included a wonderful assist that lead Spain’s second goal that meant they had got into an unassailable lead against Turkey.

Centre midfielder: Andres Iniesta (Spain)

At Euro 2012, Spain won their third trophy in a row and Andres Iniesta was crowned the Player of the Tournament, four years later, he is at it again.

It took La Roja 87 minutes to break down the Czech Republic but the defensive tactic of the Czechs allowed Iniesta to caress the Stadium Municipal in Toulouse, and it was indeed him that finally unlocked the opposition defence with a floated delivery that Gerard Pique converted to get the Spanish out of jail.

The Turkey game four days later was even easier for Iniesta and it was the Barcelona playmaker the provided perhaps the highlight of the match, a defence-splitting pass that set club and country colleague Jordi Alba on his way to square in a cross for Alvaro Morata to convert.

Centre midfielder: Toni Kroos (Germany)

Toni Kroos was one of, if not the, best German performers two years ago as Die Mannschaft became the world champions and the midfield maestro has not let up this summer.

In Germany’s opening encounter, Kroos made 112 passes, five more than Ukraine’s top three passers combined and set up Shkodran Mustafi’s header from a free-kick in what was a real sight to behold – one of the world’s best having a stroll in the park.

Bayern Munich must rue the day they let him go to Real Madrid for just £20 million.

Centre midfielder: Luka Modric (Croatia)

Kroos has not been the only Real Madrid centre midfielder to shine at these Euros, Luka Modric has made a serious impression as well.

Modric originally made an impact on the Euros when his dipping volley beat Turkish goalkeeper Volkan Babacan all ends up and during that game he also made more passes and had more touches than any other man on the pitch.

Croatia are normally considered ‘dark horses’ , but thanks to the likes of Modric they won Group D ahead of Spain and now, thanks to being on a kinder half of the tournament table, they may well go all the way.

Right forward: Dmitri Payet (France)

Dmitri Payet may have scored the goal of the tournament on the night it all kicked off and it was justified after a really bright evening for the West Ham man.

France were understandably cagey in their first game, but Payet made things happen. Olivier Giroud scored a trademark header as a result of a superb cross from him and then the free-kick master proved he was just as good in normal play as he smacked a bending shot past a despairing Ciprian Tatarusanu as the game entered the 90th minute to give the hosts an opening day win.

Payet then sealed a 2-0 victory against Albania, scoring again in second-half stoppage time. The winger was only used as a substitute in the 0-0 draw with fellow Group A qualifiers Switzerland but hit the bar with a rasping effort just moments after coming on.

Striker: Alvaro Morata (Spain)

It took a long while for the Euros to start seeing plenty of goals, especially from strikers, but after a poor first game against the Czech Republic, Morata remembered where the back of the net was.

Morata, who recently re-joined Real Madrid after they activated his buy-back clause from Juventus, was the first player to score more than once in a match when he netted a brace in Spain’s dominant 3-0 win over Turkey.

Croatia felt the brunt of him too in the final round of group games when he tapped in the opener. Morata is currently the joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2016.

Left forward: Ivan Perisic (Croatia)

Initially, Ivan Perisic got people talking for being a winger who was unorthodoxly sporting the number four for Croatia, but now his football is the sole focus, and with good reason.

After just two games, he has a pair of goals and one assist to his name as Croatia somewhat unexpectedly topped Group C ahead of one of the pre-tournament favourites, Spain.

Perisic exploded onto the tournament with an accurate effort into Petr Cech’s far post after a cheeky step-over in Croatia’s 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic and then he was the star of the show against Spain. Nikola Kalinic’s goal came about as a result of a Perisic cross and then the Inter Milan forward put himself on the back pages with an 87th-minute winner.

 

The 24-team Euros will breathe new life into the tournament

UEFA’s decision to expand the European Championship by eight teams to a total of 24 for the first time was originally met with sceptisism, but it will become apparent in the coming weeks that this will bring a breath of fresh air to the competition.

To some extent, it has taken shape in that sense already. Romania, Albania, Wales and Northern Ireland, (who between them had qualified for just four Euros before this summer – all of them by Romania), have been involved in entertaining contests in their opening games and the likes of Iceland and Hungary are still to come. It is in the latter stages though where the true positive nature of the re-birth will take shape.

Back in the days of yore, a 16-team Euros led to its fair share of dead rubbers, however with four of the six third-placed teams now getting a spot in round two, practically every match has something going for it. This is perhaps best illustrated this year by Group A.

Group A is occupied by two teams that could definitely be considered stronger than the other pair – France and Switzerland have significantly more successful histories and better squads on paper than their Romanian and Albanian counterparts. In matchday one France beat Romania while the Swiss saw off Albania and in the second set of games the hosts face Albania while Switzerland take on Romania.

Football is far from a slave to bookies’ odds, however, if the favourites both triumph this would leave France and Switzerland on six points each with Romania and Albania on zero going into the final round of games.

Pre-2016, that would lead to a fascinating winner-takes-all clash between France and Switzerland, but Romania v Albania would be practically unwatchable. Not anymore. Three points and a positive goal difference should be enough to make it through to the last 16 so one win for the lesser nation could be all it takes to make history.

And that is what we, the fans, want. Football, and sport, attracts us with its unpredictable nature and the potential of a person or team triumphing against the odds.

The only problem the inclusivity this Euros brings is the difficulty of picking which crucial last group game to watch.

 

Five Young Talents You Should Be Looking Out For At Euro 2016

Summer tournaments are generally considered to be the biggest shop window for players looking for their next destination, and no-one can exploit this more than the potential stars of the future. Here are the top five that could light up Euro 2016.

Hjortur Hermannsson (Centre Back: Iceland and PSV)

Whatever happens in the next month Iceland will make history and cherish every minute at a major tournament. This is the first time the country, which has an estimated population of just over 330,000, has had June and July booked with competitive international football and anyone could be a hero.

Being an underdog for every game they play in France will give their defenders more opportunity to impress than most and 21-year-old Hjortur Hermansson may just fit that bill.

Hermannsson has also shown somewhat of a talent for finding the back of the net in his showings for the Icelandic development teams so could also be a threat from set-pieces which could be vital in Iceland’s attempts to upset the apple cart in Group F.

(Hermannsson can be seen here scoring Iceland’s Under-21 side second goal in a 3-2 win over France)

Ante Coric (Centre Attacking Midfielder: Croatia and Dinamo Zagreb)

Croatia are not exactly short of midfield talent. Options such as Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric of Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively will be the envy of most sides at the Euros and Ante Coric is the latest play maker off the seemingly never-ending Croatian conveyor belt.

Coric has been around the national side since Under-15 level, and earned himself a spot in Croatia’s final 23-man squad based on his domestic and development performances alone.

The 19-year-old was handed his first senior cap in the 1-0 warm-up match against Moldova and he was in action again during the 10-0 victory over minnows San Marino.

For his club, Dinamo Zagreb, the diminutive centre attacking midfielder has 10 goals in his 67 matches for the Croatian champions.

Leroy Sane (Winger: Germany and Schalke)

Germany’s failure at Euro 2000, where they went out at the group stages without winning a match, led to a complete overhaul of how the country looked at football both domestically and internationally and it is now rare to see a tournament squad without some real gems of young talent.

The class of World Cup 2010 are now matured, experienced and, in some cases, world champions and it is now down a new batch of stars with Leroy Sane perhaps being the biggest hope.

Sane has already played over 50 times for Schalke just two years after making his debut for the Gelsenkirchen club and is a big transfer target for mega-rich Manchester City as they look to rebuild under the incoming Pep Guardiola.

It will not be easy for Sane to get into the starting 11 ahead of the likes of Andre Schurrle, Thomas Muller and Mesut Ozil but if he is given the opportunity that youngsters before have then Germany may join the likes of France and Spain in winning the World Cup and then the Euros back-to-back.

Arkadiusz Milik (Striker: Poland and AFC Ajax) 

Poland possess one of Europe’s leading strikers going into the tournament in Robert Lewandowski and keeping him quiet will be difficult enough, but that might just open the door for an under-the-radar Arkadiusz Milik.

Milik, 22, is the latest in a long line of forwards to flourish in the open and expansive Eredivisie which regularly compliments strikers and the prolific Pole is currently up there with the best of the lot.

Ajax’s main man bagged 21 goals for the Dutch runners up last season and has been just as fruitful in-front of goal for his country with 10 strikes to his name in 24 matches.

In 2015 he was let go by Bayer Leverkusen for just 2.8 million Euros after failing to make a major impact in Germany, if he can do better in France then Leverkusen may rue dismissing him for such a paltry fee.

Breel Embolo (Striker: Switzerland and FC Basel)

He may be from Cameroon by birth, but Breel Embolo will be strutting his stuff for Switzerland in France thanks to being part of the set-up at the country’s top club, FC Basel, for the last six years.

Embolo made his professional debut at the tender age of 17 in March of 2014 and was already a first-team regular by the following season as he netted 10 goals in the 27 league games in which he featured for RotBlau. It made him the 10th top goalscorer in the Swiss Super League before he could legally buy a beer.

He was awarded his first Switzerland call-up just a year after being introduced to the nation, and to date has one international goal from seven caps

RB’s Leipzig looked to have secured Embolo’s signature for next season until about a week ago but now Manchester United look like a more likely destination for the 19-year-old. An impressive Euros though could provide further competition for his services.

Jamie Vardy in many ways is the modern day Paul Gascoigne

For the first time in years England fans up and down the country exploded in joy over a goal that was scored in a friendly. Jamie Vardy’s flick at the near post past the best goalkeeper in the world Manuel Neuer was very much the kind of goal Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne would have scored, and in many ways, the two are remarkably similar.

In other ways they are nothing alike, Gascoigne was one of the best players of his generation and perhaps the most gifted to ever wear the shirt of the Three Lions while Vardy, although a remarkable success story, will never be remembered as a world class player. We will leave that to Dele Alli.

Where they do draw comparison though is the way both have them have captured a nation.

Gascoigne put smiles on football fans’ faces at a time when the sport was in the doldrums. The Geordie made his first-team debut for boyhood club Newcastle United in 1985 – the same year of the Heysel disaster, the same year as the Bradford fire disaster and four years before Hillsborough. Football in England around that time was also a period where pitch invasions were commonplace all over for reasons of violence and not those of celebration more typically seen in 2016.

Gazza’s brilliance helped provide the sort of distraction that only sport can from such dark times he also made a big contribution to the transformation of football with his dazzling displays at Italia ’90. Those tears in the semi-final against west Germany put football in a good light again and would lead to the formation of the Premier League two years later which has led to a more commercialised game but also a safer one that more traditionally welcomes families as opposed to just dads and sons.

The tears that captivated a nation: Gazza cries at Italia 90

The tears that captivated a nation: Gazza cries at Italia 90

And this is where Vardy comes in. Due to the amount of money in the Premier League the so-called ‘top’ teams dominate. Chelsea and Manchester City, who 20 years ago were not typically challenging for titles, have been crowned champions three of the last four years thanks to Russian and Abu Dhabi billionaires respectively.

This year, however, some new kids are in town: Leicester City, and Vardy is the poster boy.

While football is thankfully no longer trapped in the unmitigated horror that is constant tragedies and a fear of going to matches, the modern fan is so disillusioned with the game due to ever-increasing ticket prices and football players being multi- millionaires that the beauty has been in danger of being lost but Vardy is bringing it back.

Just over a decade ago, Vardy was playing non-league football with Stocksbridge Park Steels after being released from his beloved Sheffield Wednesday. In 2012, as England were preparing for their last European Championships, Vardy was still in the Conference with Fleetwood Town and now he is one of the top scorers in the country’s top division and will probably be on the plane to France in the summer.

People enjoy Vardy because the Leicester striker could be one of them. The man playing with mates in a park and ten years later stepping foot in the Premier League in true cliché ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff. Gascoigne is much the same, the local lad who supported and played for local club and, it would not be unfair to say, did not possess the most athletic stature, but this again endears him to the people who watched him. That could be me.

Although, to both Vardy and Gascoigne, there is a darker side.

Gascoigne has had a very troubling and very public battle with alcoholism and has admitted to being violent to now ex-wife Sheryl during their marriage whereas Vardy has been filmed being racist to a Japanese man in a casino but we don’t like to remember these events, perhaps wrongly, but such is sport. It gives us great memories and we don’t want them tarnished.

If England do the impossible and win Euro 2016 Vardy will have gone one better than Gascoigne and done the thing Gazza always dreamed of – leading England to a major tournament win.

Is The Special One’s Football Dull? No way, Jose

“Ironic cry of boring, boring Chelsea as RAMIRES CLINCHES THE POINTS! The title is almost theirs!” That was the line of commentary when the Brazilian box-to-box midfielder rifled home the third in a 3-1 win over Leic that secured the Blues’ 24th win of the 2014-15 season from just 34 league matches and simultaneously left Jose Mourinho’s side just one win away from clinching the Premier League title for the fourth time.

Chelsea fans have had to put up with their beloved club being labelled boring over the last decade or so which offends the older generation of supporter who grew up in the swinging sixties with the west Londoners being the great entertainers of attacking flair in the age of the football maverick when Tommy Docherty’s men were dubbed ‘the Kings of King’s Road.’

Back then they boasted the names of Ron “Chopper” Harris, Peter “the Cat” Bonetti and the King of Stamford Bridge that was Peter “Ossie” Osgood and a later breed of Chelsea fan were captivated by such names as Roberto Di Matteo, Ruud Gullit as well as a certain Italian who goes by the name of Gianfranco Zola.

When Roman Abravomich invested his Russian billions into Chelsea though Mourinho soon followed off the back of the biggest shock in European football since Louis van Gaal guided a once-in-a-lifetime group of players that made Ajax European champions for the first time in 22 years.

Mourinho’s plucky Porto will never be remembered for being easy-on-the-eye either but it is forgotten that this team of then unknowns got a draw at Santiago Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid who had won ‘Ol Big Ears’ just tournaments previously, and featured the footballing artist Zinedine Zidane as well as Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo and Ronaldo among others. It was not down to sheer defensive solidity either, Porto matched them for goals and outdid the Spanish giants for total shots 8-11.

The Round of 16 would introduce Mourinho to the world. First the Portuguese would guide his domestic champions to a 2-1 home win against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and the friendliest of rivalries was born. In the second-leg the Blue and Whites snatched aggregate victory with a last-gasp away goal after again dominating one of the world’s best teams. United had three shots to Porto’s nine and the game ended with the first iconic Mourinho image – the touchline run.

Lyon and Deportivo La Coruna were dispatched in the quarter and semi-final respectively and although they may sound easy on paper Lyon were the French champions who had Juninho and Karim Benzema while Deportivo had earlier eliminated holders AC Milan 5-4 on aggregate after losing 4-1 at the San Siro in the first-leg. Porto would then dismantle an AS Monaco side that had knocked-out Real Madrid and Chelsea. Winning a Champions League final 3-0 is only boring to those who want some sort of contest, but viewers got that too as Porto only went 2-0 up in minute 71 and four minutes later it was three. Porto also won the Primeira Liga and scored 63 goals, more than any other side.

Chelsea was next and the ‘boring’ jibes truly began. Mourinho batted the accusation away like only he can.

“Tell me”, he started, musing on a public put down as his famous long-standing feud with Arsene Wenger started to take shape. “In England, which team plays better than Chelsea? Arsenal?”

ITV reporter Gabriel Clarke, already hesitant under the brunt of the enigmatic, brash, arrogant but assured Mourinho hesitantly came back with: “They might get more critical acclaim sometimes.”

Mourinho interrupted: “Better than us, yeah? Yeah. Ten points behind. Ten points behind.”

Chelsea were dominant over Arsenal and every other English club that year by quite a distance, winning the league by 12 points, but contrary to many’s belief it was by style as well as substance. Yes, Chelsea was built on a rock-solid defence of Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, John Terry and William Gallas with Claude Makelele in the holding role as well as one of the world’s best goalkeepers Petr Cech behind them and they only conceded 15 league goals all season but on the attack they were fierce, deadly and never hesitated in wiping out the opposition.

They had Frank Lampard in his peak who was joint fourth top scorer in the Premier League with 13 goals from midfield, they had lightning quick wingers in Arjen Robben, Damien Duff and Joe Cole who would kill teams on the counter attack and they had Eidur Gudjohnsen and Didier Drogba who scored 12 and ten goals respectively. Chelsea scored 72 Premier League goals in 2004-05, one more than the ‘Great Entertainers’ that were the Arsenal Invincibles team of the previous season and just seven fewer than the equally famous treble winning Manchester United side that had one of the best striking duos in footballing history – Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.

The Champions League was no different. Ask any Chelsea, or football fan, if they were bored when the Blues raced into a 20-minute 3-0 lead against Barcelona, a Barcelona even back then with Carlos Puyol and Andres Iniesta as well as Samuel Eto’o, a developing Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho the year he won his solitary Ballon d’Or – Chelsea would end up winning 4-2.

Bayern Munich were on the wrong end of the same score at the same ground in the next round, the quarter-finals, and Mourinho’s men were just as rampant domestically.

After five of Chelsea’s first six league wins were decided by one-goal Blackburn Rovers and West Brom were both hit for four in consecutive weeks as were Fulham a fortnight later, and Charlton a further two weeks after, and Newcastle the following Saturday and Norwich were a further two games in the future. 2005-06 was not much different; you only need to watch the game that wrapped up a second title on the bounce – a 3-0 win over Manchester United who finished second that season, eight points behind the champions.

Both of his two years at Inter Milan, which ended with Scudettos, they were top scorers in Serie A and I Nerazurri scored three or more goals on eight occasions during the 2008-09 campaign and the following year, in a treble winning season, Internazionale netted at least three in seven of their 38 league matches as well as triumphing 3-1 over Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Real Madrid’s debut season with Mourinho would end with them losing out on the title to their fierce rivals Barcelona but the all-whites out-scored the Catalan giants, finding the back of the net 102 times compared to the latter’s 95.

Madrid would regain their status as Spain’s top club a year later but what would remain the same is that the modern Galacticos would score more goals than Guardiola’s Barca. Mourinho’s men scored a whopping 121 goals in the 2011-12 season – it remains a La Liga record.

Mourinho at Madrid where they broke a La Liga record for most team goals scored in a season. It still stands today.

Mourinho at Madrid where they broke a La Liga record for most team goals scored in a season. It still stands today.

The Special One’s much-awaited return to Chelsea did not bring about it many goals, but the team who would end up as champions for the first time in five years were back to being incredibly tough to beat. Although, when they did play in an attacking style it always seemed like they were never too far away from being punished.

This was most evident in the barnstorming 5-3 loss to a Harry Kane-inspired Tottenham Hotspur, but there was pre-warning to this before when the Blues, playing in yellow that day, conceded three to the Toffees, unfortunately for the home side however, Chelsea scored double the amount.

Because of his marmite-like qualities of a human being Jose Mourinho may not be remembered for being a man who entertained the neutral fanbases but he may be the man who defines how important it is to be well-rounded as a football manager. The builder of teams who are defensively strong and yes, when needed, dynamic in attack and superb to watch. Boring, boring Mourinho indeed.

 

The Big Chinese Takeaway Should Be Taken Seriously

The latest English transfer window may have closed, but where one door, or window, closes another one opens, and the Chinese Super League is making one hell of an impact in Europe.

Eyebrows have been raised by the big-name additions of Ramires from Chelsea, Alex Teixeira from Shakhtar Donetsk who was a target for Liverpool and Atletico Madrid’s Jackson Martinez who all left for China for £25 million, £38 million and £31 million respectively.

Another Chelsea man, Oscar, was also subject of a whopping £75 million bid from Jiangsu Suning who are the team that lured Ramires and Teixeira to the Super League as well as Manchester City flop Jo for a more modest £8 million.

Fredy Guarin, who was touted for big things while at Porto but struggled to make much of an impact at Inter Milan, completed a switch to Shanghai for $11 million (around £7.5 million) and Shenhua can also boast Demba Ba and Tim Cahill as members of their squad.

Other big names include ex-Arsenal man Gervinho who is now at Hebei CFFC along with Stephane Mbia who will be remembered by fans of QPR, although probably not fondly, and former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho now plys his trade at Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande along with Martinez.

It is not just players that have made the move to Asia though. World Cup winner with Brazil in 2002 Luiz Felipe Scolari is the manager at Evergrande, journeyman Sven Goran Eriksson is the man at the helm of Shanghai, Chelsea legend Dan Petrescu is boss of the mega rich Jiangsu and one of the few Chinese players known to English fans, Li Tie, has been in charge of Hebei since August of last year. Guus Hiddink announced he had offers from China and even Jose Mourinho’s name has been banded about as a possible arrival.

Super signing: Ramires at Jiangsu

Super signing: Ramires at Jiangsu

So why is the Super League now…well, the super league?

Xi Jinping, President of China no less, happens to be a big football fan and is sick of watching his nation fall behind in the football world and has demanded the clubs spend big to attract the globe’s top talent.

The Guardian report the riches are coming from business men who are using the sport to improve their political relations and Jinping was in the UK as part of a state visit in October last year and paid a visit to Manchester City, despite being a fan of their rivals Manchester United.

Are the Chinese actually interested in the league though?

Damn right they are. From this season onwards clubs in the Super League are set to receive around $200 million (£134 million) a year as part of a five-season television deal package worth around $1.25 billion. In the 2015 season the clubs were awarded just $9 million which signals the rapid growth. To put that into some sort of context the Premier League’s three-year television deal is worth £5.14 billion which dwarfs the Super League in many respects, but the Premier League is 24 years old, the Super League has not even reached puberty yet, being just 12.

Why is the Super League different to MLS or Qatar?

Well, squad restriction is the best place to start..and China is more relaxed. American squad rules are complicated to say the least, but the headline is that MLS clubs are only allowed three “Designated” players which would be your high profile ones of Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry and the like. In China you are allowed five non-Chinese players but at least one still needs to be Asian – South Korean, for example. Three plus the non-Chinese Asian are allowed in a match day squad. The Qatari league allows four foreign players with at least one being Asian.

MLS players also have a wage cap whereas Super League teams can spend whatever the hell they want and it is not unfair to say that they have been.

The national team front would also be a major difference. The Chinese FA has launched a campaign to get the national side to where they believe it belongs and in January 2015 they reached the quarter-finals of the Asia Cup – their best performance in a decade. They won all their group games but lost to hosts and eventual winners Australia.

China is planning a bid to host the 2023 Asia Cup, and Xinping has ordered that football be more prevalent in schools…and when you are a country with a population of an estimated 1.357 billion surely some of them could and will be top footballers if brought up with the sport from a young age.

Qatar already have the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, for now at least, but their approach of moving young players from African countries to Qatar so that they can citizenship before 2022 is not exactly the traditional method of grassroots.

Soccer is growing in the U.S slowly but surely, although it is still seen as a women’s game in the States due to the apparent ‘no contact’ nature of the sport – and this is highlighted by 26.7 million Americans watching the Women’s World Cup Final (won by the USA), but only 17.3 million watched the men’s team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Is the Chinese model sustainable?

Looks like it. When you have got big business men along with the fifth richest man in the world involved, you always have a chance.

Do not be surprised if this time in the next few years, maybe even next year, you are sat in-front of your television set glued to Guangzhou Evergrande vs Jiangsu Suning and watching the players your club were after in the summer.

 

Gary Neville’s Managerial Career is Fascinating for the Neutral

Ears were pricked in England when footballer-turned-pundit Gary Neville was announced as the new manager of Valencia in early December and the ex-Manchester United right-back has certainly got people talking – although not particularly in a good way.

The appointment of Neville by the Spanish giants was an intriguing one considering the reputation Neville had earned for his analysis on Sky Sports’ flagship Monday Night Football show in which he dissected the weekend’s football with on-the-pitch adversary but off-the-pitch friend Jamie Carragher. Could he live up to the hype? Had Sky Sports produced the next big thing in management? Had a future England manager been found?

So far, the answer is an unequivocal ‘no’. The current England coach has guided his first club to a grand total of zero wins from his first eight league games, suffered defeat at home to Lyon which resulted in Los Che exiting the Champions League at the group stages and in his most recent game, Barcelona annihilated the 2004 La Liga champions 7-0 at the Nou Camp in the Copa del Rey semi-final first-leg.

Twitter was awash with criticism for Neville, citing that punditry is a lot easier than being a manager, which alluded to a Jose Mourinho quote when Neville was initially unveiled as the Valencia boss.

“On the bench, you cannot stop the video, touch the screen and make movements happen.”

Neville’s standing as a pundit is expected to take a hit as a result of his poor start to life in management with the fickle nature of the football fan quick to jump on his failings, but the reality is that Neville was and is the finest footballing mind that we have had on T.V for a long while, possibly ever.

Having only retired in 2011, Neville’s inputs are fresh and genuinely insightful and this should not be forgotten purely because he has as yet failed to practice what he preaches. Film reviewer Mark Kermode cannot act and X Factor judge Simon Cowell cannot sing. Neville could play and pundit, and his managerial career is still young.

What is fascinating about Neville currently though is his press conferences as he is still behaving like the man of Monday night.

"On the bench, you cannot stop the video, touch the screen and make movements happen."

“On the bench, you cannot stop the video, touch the screen and make movements happen.”

This is incredibly refreshing to the fans and to the media who are so accustomed to tired cliches and empty statements, but Neville is genuine box office, even if it is due to unfortunate circumstances.

Following Wednesday’s walloping at the hands of Barcelona, Neville was seething at his squad and commenting like he was pointing at a tactics board as opposed to being sat at a desk while being peppered by the world’s press.

“I won’t sleep well tonight, I didn’t like what I saw, the Valencia fans didn’t deserve that tonight and we’ve got to recover incredibly quickly,” Neville said

“I wish the (Real) Betis game started in ten minutes, it’s going to be a painful three or four days. I know that. (This is) one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in football, they happen, I had some as a player, and now I’m experiencing some as a manager, but belief in myself is fine, I’ve got no problems with that.”

When asked whether he was considering resigning, a flat “no” was the response as the chewing gum in his mouth seemed to be masticated a little bit more intensely and the stare started to glare much like the only club manager he ever worked for – a certain Sir Alex Ferguson.

He was also quizzed on what he would have made of the result had he been a pundit, and, after a minor display of annoyance doubting the originality of the journalist’s question he responded:

“I would have been critical. I sit here as a coach and I won’t go into detail like I would if I was a pundit, but that was a really poor performance from us tonight. Forget the scoreline. Tonight for some reason we went back a step, a big step.”

It is now up to Neville that his next step is a forward one with a much-needed win against Betis on Sunday, otherwise the step after that could be one back into the Sky Sports studio with Carragher.

John Terry: A Tribute to Mr.Chelsea

Chelsea’s 5-1 win over MK Dons in the FA Cup on Sunday was instantly forgotten about by anyone that has a connection with the team from west London as and when their club captain John Terry announced that he will leave Stamford Bridge at the end of the 2015-16 season.

MK Dons were not even in existence when Terry made his senior professional debut as a late substitute in a League Cup match against Aston Villa at the tender age of 17 in 1997. Six years later he would be appointed captain of his beloved Blues, four years after a brief loan spell at first division side Nottingham Forest.

Terry had benefited from years of tutoring from 1998 World Cup winners Marcel Desailly and Frank Lebouef who both, like Terry, were tough, combative, no-nonsense centre halves who it is evident provided the iconic defender with many of the qualities that endeared him to the Chelsea faithful.

He first wore the armband in 2001 when he was only 21 years old – showing maturity and leadership well beyond his years.

It was Desailly that Terry took over the role as captain on a permanent basis from in 2003 following the Frenchman’s retirement and the decision to name Terry as skipper was the first of many seismic impacts Jose Mourinho made at Chelsea during his first stint as manager.

Immediate success followed as Mourinho’s men won a League Cup and Premier League double with Terry leading a team that fought the league crown off Arsenal who the year before had gone through an entire season unbeaten. It was Chelsea’s first top division title in 50 years and ‘JT’ won a number of personal awards too – he was named the PFA Player of the Year, the Champions League Defender of the Year and he also earned a spot in the FIFA World Team of the Year. His finest moment on a personal point though would perhaps be his dramatic header in the topsy-turvy 4-2 Champions League win over Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League which, prior to 2012, was probably the finest European night in Chelsea’s history. Prior to Terry’s header Chelsea had raced into a 3-0 lead inside 20 minutes but conceded two via the enigmatic Ronaldinho and were heading out – but the skipper’s winner from a corner with just 15 minutes remaining booked a quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich.

barca

Bolt from the Blue: John Terry’s late header wins it for Chelsea

Domestic trophies would continue to pile up. Back-to-back league titles were secured in the 2005-06 season and, despite not being able to retain the championship for a third year, Chelsea did win the 2007 League Cup and the first FA Cup final at the newly-built Wembley Stadium with a 2-1 win over Manchester United.

Silverware eluded him in the 2007-08 campaign but his determination for more medals never wavered. In December 2007 Terry suffered three broken bones in his foot and was expected to be ruled out for three months – he captained his club in the League Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur two months later, demonstrating his commitment to any cause Chelsea were a part of as well as his own desire to win every match and trophy possible.

Another FA Cup would follow in 2008-09 and his third Premier League medal would be hung around his neck in Carlo Ancelotti’s first year in charge at Stamford Bridge, as did FA Cup number four a year later. During the summer of 2009 Terry was constantly linked with a move to Manchester City, who had recently been taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group, and his loyalty ‘was tested, as was the nerves of his fans, but a new deal was eventually signed, much to the relief of anyone who supported the team who dons the darker shade of blue and the legendary status of the captain and leader was only increased.

Ancelotti would be sacked just 12 months later after a trophy less campaign, but the finest accolade of Terry’s career was just around the corner.

Andre Villas-Boas’ tenure at Chelsea would be a turbulent one – and one that Terry received criticism for apparently leading a revolt against the inexperienced Portuguese coach, but the sacking of ‘AVB’ led to the hiring of Roberto di Matteo and the first ever Champions League win in Chelsea’s history, although their captain missed the final due to kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the lower back in the semi-final second-leg at the Nou Camp. That did not stop Terry donning full kit and lifting ‘Ol Big Ears’ with vice-captain Frank Lampard. Also, you guessed it; the Blues would also win another FA Cup.

Although Terry missed the Munich final, his leadership throughout the campaign was pivotal. Chelsea could have gone out in the group stages if they lost their last game against Valencia, but a win secured top spot in the group and then dramatic wins were needed in the last 16 against Napoli, Benfica and Barcelona, with Terry being a rock at the back in a tireless performance in defence in a 1-0 win over the Catalan giants in the first leg in the English capital.

The Rafa Benitez interim era was a tough one for at Chelsea. The fans hated a man who in the past had taken digs at the club for waving plastic flags at Champions League matches and John Terry especially never warmed to the Spaniard as the ex-Liverpool boss was sceptical he could play twice a week.

Someone would end up being proved wrong though, and it was not Terry. Mourinho’s return to SW6 would not end with a trophy in his first year back, but it did see the rejuvenate of Terry to the first-team fold as the captain played in 47 games and 34 out of a possible 38 of these in the Premier League.

It would be the season after though that Terry would really show Benitez what he was missing.

Chelsea romped to the Premier League title; clear of nearest rivals Manchester City by eight points, and lost only three matches and Terry played every single minute of every single game. Two games a week? Easy.

Winner: Terry's fourth and final Premier League trophy.

Winner: Terry’s fourth and final Premier League trophy.

This season has been a difficult one. Mourinho has been sacked, fans have booed their team off and the Premier League champions at the time of writing sit in 13th, making them the worst holders in recent memory, but there has been one constant in all of this – the never-say-die attitude of one John George Terry.

Terry’s goodbye at the end of the season will be a heartfelt one and one that many fans will struggle to get over. The club has lacked leadership following the departures in recent years – the likes of Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba, and Terry’s contract not being renewed signals the last of the ‘old guard’ leaving.

Terry said in his leaving statement that: “The club will move on. No player is ever bigger than the club. Ideally I would have loved to stay, but the club is moving in a different direction” – maybe not a direction a lot of fans will like.

 

Manchester United fans will think fondly of Louis van Gaal…in about five years time

 

Manchester United’s 1-0 home humbling at the hands of Southampton was the latest in a long line of disappointments for the club that were once so dominant in England and it could lead to the departure of Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman has sewn some seeds for future successes.

Since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 United have been a shadow of the sort of teams that had seen them win 13 of the previous 21 possible Premier League titles under the stewardship of the Scotsman. David Moyes’ appointment on the recommendation of Ferguson turned out to be an unmitigated disaster and on-the-pitch van Gaal has not been streaks ahead much to the bemusement and downright annoyance of the fans.

As a result of Saturday’s slip against the Saints at Old Trafford, United sit in fifth with 37 points from 23 games. After 23 matches in the Moyes season the Red Devils were seventh but had three more points.

Despite results though it is not as doom and gloom around Greater Manchester as it times it may seem – there are some reasons to think the grass is greener on the other side at the very least.

Van Gaal has rightly been on the end of vitriol for his patient and frankly boring football that has seen the club score a measly 12 home goals in the league all season and has in the past led to British record signing Angel di Maria leave England just one year after joining due to being restricted under the ex-Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s rigid system that had the Argentine playing like he was on shackles just a matter of months after he helped guide Argentina to a World Cup final.

Said system though has led to an improvement in the team’s defence.

Accidentally calling Chris Smalling “Mike” in a press conference was not the only change of identity van Gaal instilled in the centre back as the 26-year-old has been transformed into one of the finest centre halves in the league and one of the leaders of the squad.

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

Best of Friends: Chris Smalling is one of few to improve under van Gaal

In addition to this, ‘LvG’ has signed a whole host of young talent that, while needs nurturing, could make United a real force in the space of the next five years.

Luke Shaw, Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial have all signed on the dotted line from Southampton, PSV Eindhoven and AS Monaco respectively over the last two years and have all been tipped to be real stars of the not too distant future. Shaw in particular already looked like the real deal before he suffered a sickening leg break in the Champions League clash at PSV that still keeps him sidelined while Martial was given the 2015 Golden Boy award for the hottest young prospect in Europe.

Another signing in Daley Blind has shown that he could be the man that can be the deep-lying playmaker they have craved since the gradual decline of Michael Carrick and at 25 he still has plenty of years left in him, as does Morgan Schneiderlin who has enjoyed a few successful years in the Premier League already.

It has been youth that has always been at the forefront of van Gaal’s sometimes infamous philosophy though. Jesse Lingard, Paddy McNair, Michael Keane, Tom Thorpe, Tyler Blackett, Andreas Pereira and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have all been given their senior debuts during the two-year tenure.

James Wilson has been sent  out on-loan to Championship outfit Brighton and Hove Albion and he is blossoming on the South Coast as he continues his development while Adnan Januzaj, who endured a disappointing time away at Dortmund, was recalled from his loan to the Bundesliga in early January and was introduced into the first-team fold again straight away against Southampton, albeit as a second-half substitute.

If results do not rapidly improve then van Gaal’s time at Manchester United will surely be up, if it is not already, and his sacking would be justified, but if past glories return to the Theatre of Dreams in the next few years then supporters will do well to remember where some it all began.