The Ongoing Dilemma of Barcelona’s Center-Back Situation

BarcelonaUpon Pep Guardiola’s appointment as Barcelona manager in 2008, the club embarked on a new challenge, and history was written in the four years that followed. Guardiola became the most decorated manager in the history of his beloved club, obliterating opponents week in week out, breaking records that stood for years, and playing a scintillating style of football that left spectators worldwide in awe.

At the end of the 2012-13 season Guardiola stepped down, and his trustworthy assistant Tito Vilanova was chosen to take charge of his dynasty. Lately, Tito had to unwillingly resign due to a cancer relapse, leaving behind a team made up of some of the most talented players in recent years. Between Guardiola and Tito, Barcelona’s football defined an era. Their style of play was labeled Tiki-Taka by some, and a modern version of “total football” by others. But regardless of the name, no one can argue against the fact that Barcelona managed to capture the hearts of cules all over the world.

In his four seasons in charge, Guardiola implemented a high pressure system that enabled his team to win the ball back in the opposition’s area, thus rendering the rival team’s attacking threat to a minimal level. In addition to that, Pep emphasized on having superior ball possession in order to limit and control the opponents’ influence. By doing so, his team managed to only concede 55, 39, 36, and 48 in the seasons between 2008-09 and 2011-12 respectively.

When Guardiola took his much-debated sabbatical, Rosell’s decision to appoint Vilanova stemmed from the thought of keeping the same philosophy going, and the majestically played football flowing, since Tito was his predecessor’s effective right hand man. It’s only normal to assume that he would have grasped every bit of his methods, but unfortunately, this did not seem to be the case.

Tito’s Barcelona managed to scandalously concede a sum of 66 goals in 60 games. This 1.1 goal/game rate is much larger the 0.88, 0.66, 0.60, and 0.75 rates achieved under Guardiola’s guidance, which simply implies that things have not been running as smoothly as they should be. A thorough analysis of some of Barcelona’s games shows that the previously implemented defensive strategies were completely missing as of late: no intense pressing, no versatility or effective ball possession.

The result was a team susceptible to counter attacks and dead ball situations. Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Mallorca, Malaga, Real Madrid, Deportivo, and PSG managed to score two or more goals against Barcelona, while Bayern completely demolished them, exposing a defense that has been suffering for too long. As a result, Tito and his sporting director Zubizareta promised club supporters a world-class center back to solve the team’s defensive shortcomings and deputize for the aging Carles Puyol. So what has happened since then?

Upon the conclusion of European competitions, transfer rumors started to surface, and almost every top defender was linked to Barcelona. Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen, Daniel Agger, Mattheus Doria, Inigo Martinez, Raphael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala, Mats Hummels, Jeremy Mathieu, Branislav Ivanovic, Adil Rami, and recently Santiago Vergini were some of the names associated with plugging the gap at Barcelona’s defense.

BarcelonaOf all the mentioned names, only few were realistic targets; players that have the capability to function in a not-so-easy Barcelona system and that are practically followed by the Catalan club. Thiago Silva was deemed “untransferable,” PSG’s president even went as far as threatening to hijack Lionel Messi if Barcelona continue to pursue his Brazilian defender.

Marquinhos was labeled an “interesting talent” by Zubizareta, but Barcelona was not given a chance to negotiate his transfer as he was snapped up by PSG. David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic were automatically retained and declared fundamental to team’s plan by Mourinho. Hummels was seen as a similar type of player to Pique. Where does this leave Barcelona in their hunt?

Before delving into names, the manager (now Gerardo Martino) will have to address the functionality of the team in terms of pressing, a more balanced structure, and turning possession into creativity and goals, as was the case under Guardiola’s management. Then the issue of who will be insignificant. Pep’s team managed to dominate several games with a makeshift defense, some of which were finals (Champions League to be particular), simply because the team functioned in a certain way that capitalizes on its qualities while covering up its deficiencies.

Last season in particular, Barcelona were susceptible to defensive exposure because they failed to come up with any new tactics, always playing the same way, and teams can sit down and work out exactly how they can prepare their team to beat them. Jupp Heynckes stated before the semi final game against this team that he knew exactly what each of the Barcelona players would do, and he worked out exactly how to neutralize the threat.

Mourinho also had the luxury of trial and error games to sort out his tactics. In the end, he sacrificed his midfield, crowded his defense, and left a couple of his very fast players upfront to inflict menace on Barcelona’s defense. Whomever the defender, be it Puyol, Pique, Mascherano or any other world class player that will be signed, if the team functionality is not set up in a way to protect the team’s defense, then the Catalan club will suffer like they did last season.

Now Fontas joined Celta Vigo, Abidal  and Muniesa were released, and Puyol is not getting any younger, so Barcelona have to sign a player to compete with Mascherano, Pique, and Bartra for a center back position. But what should be noted is that the issue of the name is not as important as the team strategy as a whole.

There is absolutely no need to splash the cash just to cover up administrative and technical blunders. Papers worldwide scramble daily to fill the pages, and while some stories are clearly garbage, others are based on some inside information, so Barcelona should avoid dipping in an inflated market just for the sake of spending. After all, Rosell claims that the sole focus of his board is to reduce the financial dampening that Laporta put his club in.

Written by Hassan Chakroun

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Barcelona Manager Tito Vilanova Resigns Due to Cancer Relapse

Tito VilanovaBill Shankly, Liverpool’s legendary manager, half-jokingly once said:

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Die hard football fans might agree with the much revered Shankly, and if twitter was active back in the 1960s, a lot of people would’ve retweeted, favorited, and commented on his strong statement. But when it comes to one’s health, which is the real life and death issue, football and everything else becomes secondary.

No doubt it has been a tough summer for Barcelona fans all over the world. Guardiola’s public spat with Tito Vilanova and Sandro Rosell, along with Thiago’s detrimental departure and the controversial fee paid for Neymar have surely taken a toll on all cules. And now, Tito’s cancer relapse devastatingly left us thinking about everything but football. In one season Vilanova managed to achieve a club record of 100 League points, in addition to the best start in the history of La Liga; 14 wins and 1 draw in the first 15 games. A lot of people might argue about his tactical awareness, or his ability to fill the big void left by his friend, Pep Guardiola.

But no one can ever doubt his love for football, his club, and it’s players, and now unwillingly he has to stop doing what he loves and take a step away from whom he loves and concentrate on his treatment. Coaching at the highest level and cancer treatment do not go along. Football demands a lot, demands that might consume all his resources, and resources that are needed by his body to win this monumental battle. Speaking to the press yesterday, and after announcing Tito’s imminent departure, club president Sandro Rosell said:

“Life goes on. Obviously this is a hard blow to take, but Barca has suffered many blows in our history and we have always come through. This will be no different. I am asking you all for understanding. Think first about the people involved and then the club. I want to ask you for maximum respect for him and his family.”

Tito VilanovaA brief and meaningful message, not only for the media, but to the whole world of football. Respect and solidarity should be shown to a man who is only 44 years of age, but with the burden of fighting a malignant cancer on his shoulders. Messages of support arrived from all over the world. Abidal, Messi, Muniesa, Thiago, Pau Gasol, Llorente, Negredo, Falcao, Mata, Deulofeu, Gary Lineker, Reina, Blatter, Cazorla, and Morata all sent their best wishes for our courageous manager. Even clubs such as Milan, Bilbao, Real Madrid, and Chelsea offered unity with what Tito is about to face.

One thing is certain now, Tito will be replaced as head coach of Barcelona. Many names have been circulating in the media since Rosell’s unwelcome announcement yesterday, but nothing formal has been announced. Whomever is announced as Barca coach should be gifted the support, confidence, and belief of all Barcelona supporters in order for the club to move forward and overcome this emotional shock, at least for the time being.

Many cules will cry, but there should be a great deal of resolve and calmness to accompany Tito in his ongoing battle. Let’s think of him as a winner, a fighter, a down-to-earth individual who will conquer this fight. Sorrow and despair are demoralizing, but not everlasting.

Written by Hassan Chakroun

Zinedine Zidane Focused on Building Future for Real Madrid by Signing Young Talents

Raphaël VaraneThe term “Galacticos” became widely known in the early 2000s, but the origins of the term date back to the 1950s. Santiago Bernabeu, then president of Real Madrid, started a trend of signing superstars. Di Stefano, Puskas, Kopa, Santamaria, and Gento were signed, and an era of Real Madrid dominance began. Quinta Del Buitre followed in the 1980s, but with a slight difference in that the 5 superstars where all homegrown players.

Then came one of the most recognized periods in Real Madrid’s modern history, Florentino Perez’s Galactico. Figo, Zidane, Ronaldo, and Beckham were signed in successive from 2000 until 2003, achieving initial success in the first three seasons but failing to win any trophy for the next three years, resulting in the resignation of the Galactico’s engineer, Florentino Perez. After a brief Ramon Calderon tenure, Perez returned to build a new Galactico. Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Benzema, Khedira, Alonso, Ozil, and Di Maria made up the second Galactico, but the club only achieved 1 La Liga title, 1 Copa Del Rey, and 1 Spanish Super Cup in 4 seasons.

In his autobiography, Steve Mcmanaman, a former Real Madrid player, described his club’s transfer policy as the “Disneyfication of Real Madrid,” a clear indication that signings were made based on reputation and marketing potential rather then quality. A club director clearly stated that David Beckham was a goldmine, while Ronaldinho was too ugly to play for Madrid. Carvajal was resigned from Leverkusen, Isco was stolen from Man City in the last seconds, Illaramendi joined for an astronomical sum, Jese Rodriguez, Morata, and Casemiro will be promoted. Are Florentino’s Galacticos getting replaced by Zidane’s young talents?

Since the beginning of May, names such as Bale, Suarez, Lewandowski, and Cavani were circulated in the press as targets for the Merengues, but 3 relatively unknown young talents joined instead. A new mentality is obviously taking over the Spanish capital, a mentality that emphasizes building for the future through attracting soon-to-be superstars. What is clear is that Zidane stands behind this major change. Once a close adviser for the president, Zidane was officially put in charge of all transfers this season, in addition to his role as Ancelotti’s second assistant. According to Marca, the French legend personally phoned Isco and Illaramendi to convince them of joining his project.

IscoAfter bringing Varane last year, then Carvajal, Isco, and Illaramendi this year, add to them Nacho, Jese, Morata, Casemiro and the experienced but still young Ozil and Benzema, subtract Higuain, Di Maria, Kaka, Coentrao, Pepe, and Alonso who are either leaving this year or the next, you will get a success formula, which is that Real Madrid surely have a team for the future.

So the future looks bright for Los Blancos. No more impossible negotiations, no more last minute deals, no more paying exorbitant figures in vein. Having been a victim of Perez’s former mind games, Zidane seems to have made a shift in how new deals will be conducted, and whom to target from now on. Before Florentino Perez’s first arrival in 2000, a club legend by the name of Raul Gonzalez said:

“The dressing room is a cesspit of lies, treachery and whispers. I feel sorry for new players coming into the club. If they think they are coming to one of the world’s top clubs then they have made a big mistake.”

This was the mood at Madrid before the first Galacticos Era, and the signing of big names proved to be a short term solution, as the club endured a trophy drought for 3 consecutive seasons. The second Galacticos Era, led by the Portuguese Ronaldo, did not prove to be much better, as it was dominated by Barcelona’s second “Dream Team” and only managed to win 3 titles in as many seasons. Now the mood seems to be different, and things are being run in a different manner. Faithful supporters are brimming with confidence, positive about a future with a young, coherent squad lead by the legendary Zinedine Zidane.

It remains to be seen if the current crop of youngsters will gel together and achieve what is required of them. After all Perez is a man known for his impatience, and a club of Madrid’s stature doesn’t offer the luxury of taking time to slowly but steadily build a team for the future. What is certain is that either Zidane’s vision, or Perez’s planning will be proven wrong.

Written by Hassan Chakroun

Why Arsenal Need to Win a Trophy in the 2013/14 Season

ArsenalWhenever I used to hear the name Arsenal Football Club, I used to think titles, trophies, and competitors. But that has all changed. They are without a trophy in the last 8 seasons, and with the players manager Arsene Wenger has had at his disposal, you just wonder, how? It is difficult to give a definitive reason as to why this has happened. The expectation levels at this club are very high, and some fans have, in recent years, grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of silverware at the Emirates.

They have also lost some of their star players because of this, most notably, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Robin van Persie. They have all since gone on to win league titles with their respective clubs. They have also had to face not being able to play Jack Wilshere due to his injuries. They had their “Golden Age” when they had the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira etc, but these are players haven’t really been replaced by Wenger and it is one of the reasons they have struggled in each competition in terms of their own competitiveness and flair.

They have always been near the top of the Premier League table, or thereabouts in terms of a title challenge, but in recent years, they have fallen at the final few hurdles and have had to settle for either a 3rd or 4th place finish. This, in my eyes, is not good enough for a team that has won the Premier League title 3 times. They may have been competing with the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea, but there are really no excuses for a title challenge only lasting for 3/4 of a season.

In terms of a good Champions League run, this is something which may need extra investment in to be real contenders for this trophy. Let’s be truthful, the draw may not have been too kind to them at times, but it is the “luck of the draw.” Depending on whether you finish 1st or 2nd in your group can have a huge impact on who you face in the last 16.

Some of their players haven’t got the extra bit of Champions League experience under their belts, which has hindered their progress at times, but it is also something I feel Wenger needs to look at and have a re-think about his transfer targets. Meanwhile, the League and FA Cups have fizzled out too early for Arsenal. They haven’t had any real chance to lay down a marker to their rivals by putting in brilliant and consistent performances.

ArsenalPicture yourself as an Arsenal fan, knowing that your club hasn’t won a single piece of silverware in the last 8 years, consider Arsene Wenger’s options as well in that time, would you be happy? I certainly wouldn’t be. Arsenal are one of the biggest clubs in Europe, and a club that size should always be competing for the top trophies on offer to them.

But in fairness, they have declined as a club. It is a totally new-look Arsenal to what it was 2-3 years ago. They have the likes of Santi Cazorla, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere etc. all making an impact of some sort. These players are very experienced, whether that be in Europe or in England, they are experienced. They need to stand up and be counted now though, since they need a consistent run in a cup and a very good season in the league in which they are genuine title contenders. Even if they don’t win a trophy, it will certainly ease some of the mounting pressure on the players to be successful. It will be a sign that the club is going in the right direction and is progressing instead of declining.

When you look at who Arsenal are interested in - Suarez, Rooney and Higuain - it is certainly a sign of intent from Arsenal, but you have to think, would those players really join a club like Arsenal? But what necessary signings do they really need? Well, when you look in the current transfer market, who is out there for Arsenal? They do definitely need another striker to bolster their attack. Higuain is very much affordable, and he does actually seem interested in a move to the Emirates. He is a player that would improve the Arsenal squad and possibly make them a more threatening side once again.

They don’t really need that much tweaking, but whatever tweaking does happen, it will be for the better. It should improve the squad. With that, I see no reason why Arsenal cannot challenge for the title this season, and if all goes well, the Gunners may be in for exciting times ahead for their future.

Written by OneFutbol

PSG Look to Dominate Europe as they Sign Edinson Cavani from Napoli for Record Fee

Edinson CavaniSince Qatari Sports Investments bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, they have rapidly transformed from perennial under-achievers to the dominant force in French football and real contenders for the Champions League.

They followed the example of Manchester City by blowing other clubs out of the water in the transfer market, signing Javier Pastore, Lucas Moura, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, and now Edinson Cavani for an eye-watering total of almost £200million. The quality in their ranks is obvious, but with the nouveau-riche AS Monaco hot on their heels in the transfer market, can PSG become a new world superpower?

In truth, Paris is not a football city. Marseille is considered the true footballing capital of the country, and PSG’s Parc des Princes is located on the edge of the city, in the suburbs. Paris’ other clubs have either gone out of business or languish in the lower divisions, giving PSG a unique advantage over its rivals because it has no competition, with no first or second division clubs within 100km.

Whereas Real Madrid have to compete with Atletico, Manchester United with noisy neighbors City, Inter with AC Milan, and Bayern Munich to an extent with lowly 1860, PSG have no competition for fans and the best young players of the region. This being the case, there was always potential for PSG to become a big force in Europe, but the club didn’t experience their true heyday until the 1990′s, when they were bought by TV giants Canal+.

Football stars such as George Weah, Rai, Jay-Jay Okocha, and Ronaldinho passed through the club, and despite early successes, they slumped down the table and were almost relegated in 2008. Since Nasser Al-Khelaifi and the QSI completed their takeover in 2012 however, their rise has been meteoric and so far unchallenged. Al-Khelaifi bought the club for less than the infamous Venkys paid for Blackburn Rovers, and has since referred to PSG as a “project.” Other fans use this as a derogatory term, saying that PSG no longer exists and has been replaced by ‘the project’.

Giants such as Carlo Ancelotti and Leonardo were brought in to manage the club and did so successfully, winning Ligue 1 in 2012 and enjoying a successful Champions League campaign; they only bowed out on away goals after draws with Barcelona.

PSGAlthough Zlatan Ibrahimovic led the line in the league with 30 goals, he played a more withdrawn role in Europe, holding the ball up and creating goals with strong center-forward play. He scored three and assisted five in the Champions League, with goals shared round the team; Ezequiel Lavezzi was the top scorer with five in nine European appearances.

Despite these impressive figures, it was not all smooth sailing for the journeyman Swede, as he was sent off in the 92nd minute of the first leg victory over Valencia for a cynical foul on Mexican winger Andres Guardado, leaving his team without their star striker for the crucial second leg. They survived it and went through to play Barcelona in the quarter-finals.

The standout performer across both legs was their influential captain, Brazilian defender Thiago Silva. Silva was calm and composed during the 2-2 draw in the first leg, always there when it mattered to win the ball from Messi, Villa, Iniesta and co. After putting in such a stoic performance, he was visibly exasperated by his teammates when a penalty was conceded, and converted, in the 90th minute, but was as jubilant as anyone when Blaise Matuidi humiliated Victor Valdes four minutes later with the last kick of the match. PSG led for 20 minutes of the second leg and were only put under pressure with the introduction of Lionel Messi, and although they hung on for a draw they were unable to find the goal to take them through.

Carlo Ancelotti has left to manage Real Madrid and Leonardo has stepped down from his position, so new manager Laurent Blanc needed to make a statement upon his arrival. He already had possibly the best center-forward and the best center-half in the world, a Brazilian superstar forward and a dependable defense and midfield, so what could he possibly do? Bring in one of Ibra’s rivals to challenge for the “best center-forward in the world” title, that’s what.

Edinson Cavani arrived for a gigantic £55million fee after scoring 38 goals in 43 goals for Napoli last season, giving PSG one of the most potent forward lines in recent history. Some have said that the signing was made as a show of power, especially to new rivals Monaco, who signed Falcao for a similar fee, but also to the rest of the footballing world.

Edinson CavaniChelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid were also looking to capture the Uruguayan’s signature, but he was lured away from established superpowers to the relatively small world of French football. Others feel his arrival signals the end of Ibra’s stay in France, with rumors he is unhappy about the appointment of new manager Blanc. Having now played in France, Italy, Spain, Holland, and Sweden, Germany or England seem the most likely destinations for a man who has never spent more than four years at one club. English fans, just imagine: a duo of Ibrahimovic and Mourinho taking the Premier League by storm, mouth-watering stuff.

The main question seems to be whether PSG can maintain their current strength. The biggest names want to be in the biggest leagues, and the draw of Qatari dollars only lasts so long. In this respect, Monaco’s rise could even be a good thing for PSG. Last season was less than competitive with Les Parisiens finishing 12 points clear of Marseille in second.

With the two richest clubs almost guaranteed the top two spots, it may even encourage other clubs to splash the cash to stay competitive, and the success of the two clubs may encourage other wealthy people to invest in the country’s football. For now, however, it seems that the only way is up for Paris Saint-Germain, and as the locals sing, “Allez les Parisiens!”

Written by Sam France

Steven Gerrard Signs Two-Year Contract Extension with Liverpool

Steven GerrardLiverpool made their biggest signing of the summer this week when Steven Gerrard put pen to paper on a contract extension. Forget about the signings of Aspas, Mignolet, Alberto, and Toure, Gerrard’s signing is the most important one yet.

Gerrard has been a figure head for the club for as long as most Liverpool fans care to remember, and his contract extension will probably tie him to the club for the rest of his playing career. Gerrard is an important player for Liverpool, being the captain of the club as well as England. His ability is renowned across the globe, but it isn’t just his ability that is admired, but his leadership and inspiration to galvanize Liverpool when they are looking beat.

He has inspired Liverpool to many amazing comebacks over the years, including an amazing goal against Olympiakos in the Champions League, the FA Cup Final against West Ham in which he produced 2 stunning goals, and the first goal in Istanbul to start the unforgettable comeback that won them the Champions League in 2005.

Gerrard may be aging a bit now and is in the twilight of his career, but his importance is still unparalleled by any other squad member. Last season, Gerrard played in nearly every Premier League match for the Reds and proved that there is plenty miles left in the tank. With the loss of Carragher through his retirement from football, Gerrard’s experience and importance has never been more needed, and his contract extension hopefully sets an example to others that he is still as determined as ever to help his beloved Liverpool.

His loyalty to the club will influence other players who might be thinking of leaving, and could also encourage new players to sign who might have been undecided on coming to Anfield. The rest of the summer will prove if Liverpool can attract more new players, but if they do, then I’m sure Gerrard will be a big influence in tempting them.

Liverpool have many youngsters breaking into the first team, and Gerrard has helped them along the way by setting an example in training. Now, he can help continue their development into the first team as the likes of Sterling, Morgan, Wisdom, and Ibe, to name a few, are being inspired by Gerrard’s attitude and his dedication.

Gerrard’s role in the team has changed slightly in a deeper midfield role, but he seems to be thriving on it with more space than by playing further up the park. The return of Lucas from injury has been a major help for Gerrard as his industry frees Gerrard up to play the “American Quarterback” role, where he can spray passes all over the park and influence games with willing runners upfield.

Gerrard’s delivery at dead ball situations are lethal and provide so many goals and create so many chances for Liverpool, and his calmness at taking penalties highlights his responsibility of being captain of Liverpool. Now it is time to see what the rest of the summer brings, but I’m sure you will agree that Gerrard’s signing is the best Liverpool signing of the summer.

Written by Jamie Mclaughlin

Éric Abidal Returns to Ligue 1 Side AS Monaco Following Barcelona Exit

Éric AbidalEric Abidal recently signed for AS Monaco after months of speculation about his future. The former Barcelona defender wasn’t offered a renewal in the Catalan club, which met strongly split opinions among Barcelona’s fans and left Abidal to search for a new destination. Even now when the dust has settled a bit, Abidal’s situation remains very interesting as he is set for a new season in the club where he once started his career.

Abidal’s previous health issues are well known and the Frenchman was only able to return to action in the very end of last season. His talks with Barcelona went on for several weeks but in the end the Catalans only offered him a job off the field, which didn’t satisfy the player, who still had the desire to continue his playing career.

Many people in Barcelona were left frustrated, even infuriated by the decision. The Frenchman’s value couldn’t be measured in performances (or the amount of them) alone and many felt that he was treated unfairly and that he’d still have had more to offer, even if the decision might have valid sporting reasons that some could agree with.

In Abidal, Barcelona most certainly lost a solid, experienced, and incredibly smart defender whose endless passion and desire strongly suggest that he still has a lot to offer in the world of football. Perhaps,however, the risk of his health issues renewing was something Barca didn’t want to take. Whether there ever was a concrete risk or not remains to be seen, but the risk wasn’t great enough to stop AS Monaco from signing the player.

Monaco investing in what Barcelona saw as a risk might cast Barcelona in a negative light, but either way, what remains most important is that the player gets to continue his career as he wished. Barcelona will surely continue to offer him a job in the club off the field whenever the player decides to hang up his boots, and until then, Abidal will have the opportunity to finish his career in the club where it originally started.

Éric AbidalAS Monaco was indeed the first club of Abidal’s professional career. Having come a long way since then and played all around Europe, he now gets to symbolically finish the circle of his playing career. In Monaco, Abidal could be mainly used as a center back as he might no longer have the pace required to play on the wing. For a club like Monaco, who are making huge investments and building for the future, a player like Abidal might be incredibly valuable, not only because of his quality as a player.

Abidal has won several domestic titles as well as two Champions Leagues; in other words, he knows what it takes to win. He was a part of Barcelona when their climb towards the top of Europe began and such experience could prove to be crucial to Monaco, who ultimately aims to do the same thing, although with a bit of a different strategy.

As a moral decision, Barcelona will find it hard to defend their policy with Abidal, but it’s only the player’s performances with Monaco that will fully determine whether it was a smart sporting decision or not. Surely, all football fans all over the globe will wish the best for Abidal, who is respected and admired by rival fans as well, and hope for his health issues to finally be in the past.

The signing of Abidal remains at least a tiny bit of a risk, but at this point, it might well be a risk worth taking for AS Monaco, who surely don’t seem to lack the funds to invest in a player and make sure he gets the best kind of treatment if needed. His value as a natural leader on and off the field could be something incredibly valuable for Monaco, as it may have been for Barcelona too had they held on to the player.

Written by Jen Evelyn

AS Monaco: Rising Superpower or Flash in the Pan?

AS MonacoDespite all of the events occurring in London, Manchester, Madrid and elsewhere, since this transfer season began, the eyes of the footballing world have been firmly fixed on one of the world’s most glamorous locations: Monaco. Based at the Stade Louis II on the iconic Monte Carlo seafront, AS Monaco are one of France’s most successful clubs with numerous domestic successes and Champions League Finals to their name.

But the club have underachieved in recent years; they were relegated to Ligue Deux in 2011 and spent two seasons in the second tier, but were promoted as champions under former Chelsea boss Claudio Ranieri in the season just finished. Their owner, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, has signaled his ambition with a show of spending power rivaling that of Real Madrid and their French opponents Paris Saint-Germain, with the signings of Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez from Porto and the world’s best out-and-out striker Radamel Falcao from Atlético Madrid.

The question must be asked - as it was when PSG splashed the cash on the likes of Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimović - whether we are seeing a new world superpower in its infancy or whether Monaco will be just another flash in the pan. While the quality of the players they have bought can’t be questioned, everyone knows it takes more than good players to make a good team - think how long it took Manchester City to start properly challenging for titles after they started their spending spree with Robinho.

Some have questioned whether the likes of Falcao, who could have gone to literally any club in the world, is doing the best thing for his career by joining a club who won’t even be in Europe next season, but this could be a good thing for the squad as a whole. Without the pressures of European games to worry about, the players may stand a better chance of gelling as a team rather than a group of players, and they won’t be as closely scrutinized by the world’s media.

Claudio RanieriIt also gives them a better chance of winning silverware; although the Coupe de France is not as loved in France as the FA Cup is in England, nothing brings a team closer together than winning silverware. Again, think how brilliantly Manchester City began the next season after they won the FA Cup in 2011. That said, Monaco did win the cup in 2010, their last season before relegation to the second division.

A team is nothing without a manager, and Monaco certainly have a good one in the experienced Ranieri. Last season was his fourth promotion as a manager, and the wily Italian has won trophies at Cagliari, Fiorentina, and Valencia in a career spanning 25 years. These clubs show that he has form in winning honors with smaller clubs in countries with perennial trophy-winners at the top, but will he be able to cope with the heightened expectation in Ligue Un, where six different clubs have won in the last six years, and where Monaco were once one of the established winners in the sixties, seventies and eighties? Rybolovlev certainly seems to have faith in him, given the financial backing he has offered.

When all is said and done, though, it is the players on the pitch who win and lose games. One could be forgiven for not recognizing the names of any of the current squad, but the numerous superstars heading towards Monte Carlo would improve many of the world’s top sides.

Tottenham Hotspur target João Moutinho has been a fan favorite at every club he has been at due to his dynamism and determination, coupled with his overall skill on the ball. One of the standout performers at Euro 2012, Moutinho has amassed 57 caps for his native Portugal despite still being only 26 years old, and has the talent to become one of Portugal’s greats. He switched from boyhood club Sporting Lisbon to Porto in 2010 and won eight trophies in his time at the Estádio de Dragão, including the 2012-13 league title in stunning fashion, overtaking rivals Benfica with a stoppage time winner in the penultimate game of the season (see video below).

James Rodriguez & Joao MoutinhoMoutinho is known as an excellent passer of the ball as well as a tenacious ball-winner, although his scoring rate has fallen since his move to Porto. His relationship with James Rodríguez, who also makes the move from Portugal to France, should help the team to gel more quickly, as they already have a good understanding with each other.

Rodriguez is said to be one of the most exciting young prospects football has to offer right now, and already has 12 caps for Colombia at the tender age of 21. Many in South America have declared him the successor of icon Carlos Valderrama, and his speed, creativity, and shooting have led some to liken him to a South American Cristiano Ronaldo. He has a fantastic scoring record for a winger, and his exhilarating talent has already seen him rank in The Guardian’s top 60 players in the world. As such, his transfer was reportedly worth €45million of the double-deal with Moutinho. Although he still has to fulfill his promise, his £60million compatriot needs no introduction.

Radamel Falcao García Zárate is widely accepted to be the best striker in the world outside of Messi and Ronaldo, and his goal tally confirms this. Since he moved to Europe (another ex-Porto star) in 2009, Falcao has plundered 142 goals in 177 games, won six domestic titles, and three European honors. He helped Atlético to third place in La Liga behind the big two, and a surprise Copa Del Rey Final win against neighbors and hated rivals Real.

Atlético MadridDespite not being especially tall, he is incredibly strong and a superb header of the ball, and is one of very few people to have scored five goals in a La Liga match: against Deportivo earlier this season. With Moutinho supplying him and Rodriguez providing support, he should find scoring goals no problem against weaker French teams, and he should seek to emulate Ibrahimović’s 35-goal season last term. That in itself creates an interesting match-up, not only between the two big spending clubs of French football but also between its two biggest superstar strikers.

More signings have been promised by the club, with Victor Valdés and Ricardo Carvalho the most likely next arrivals, adding defensive steel to the already-imported attacking flair. Ranieri has been clever in his signings; three of them have played together before, and all speak the same language having played in Spain and/or Portugal at some point in their careers.

It seems unlikely that players of this caliber can do anything other than challenge for titles, domestic and European, but it remains to be seen how long such players will stay around if no silverware is forthcoming. There are already rumors that Falcao could be using Monaco as a stepping-stone to a bigger club such as Real Madrid, but the project of helping to rebuild a formerly great club may excite the players to enough of an extent to keep them in France for a few seasons at least.

With a less challenging league to compete in, Monaco should be guaranteed a Champions League place next season, but after that, nothing is certain. Will they crash out in the group stages like Manchester City, or challenge one of the greats like PSG? Literally millions of pounds are at stake, but whatever happens, with players such as Rodríguez, Moutinho, and Falcao around, there will certainly be excitement, and lots of goals.

Written by Sam France

Fenerbahçe 1-0 Benfica: Turkish Side Take the Lead on Aggregate After Home Win

Fenerbahce SK vs. SL Benfica

Fenerbahçe SK 1-0 SL BenficaTo get to the semi-finals of this season’s Europa League, SK Fenerbahce had managed to eliminate Lazio, Viktoria Plzen, and BATE Borisov before themselves. In the same manner, Benfica had managed to eliminate Newcastle United, Girdondins de Bordeaux, and Bayer Leverkusen in previous Europa League match-ups. Fenerbahce had been in the competition longer than Benfica, however, and so they had played a few more teams than their opponents on the night. The Turkish side had emerged top in Group C and were, therefore, no underdogs to the Portuguese giants, who were thought to be the stronger team by the majority. Benfica hadn’t lost a single match in their Europa League campaign before this match. Despite having been goalless for a whole 72 minutes, this one turned out to be quite a match!

The game would have started so well for the Portuguese visitors had it not been for a smart save by Volkan Demirel on the 5th minute. Salvio had a decent chance, but it wasn’t meant to be. Aimar then had another chance to put his side ahead just 8 minutes from Salvio’s attempt, but just missed the target. Fenerbahce were able to dominate from then on, coming close more than once and even hitting the woodwork once. Fenerbahce were awarded a good chance to take a well-deserved lead on the brink of half-time when they were awarded a penalty from a foul by John on Gokhan Gonul inside the area. Cristian took the penalty but, once again, just hit the woodwork despite defeating Artur. The home players were frustrated for having missed a chance like this as the half-time whistle was blown. Benfica were, more than anything, relieved that they have survived the threat of the Turks as they went into their dressing room at half-time.

At half-time, Fenerbahce looked more like the team to win, as Benfica had been clearly outplayed. Fenerbahce started on a high, with their fans cheering even louder as the game got more intense. A good attempt in the early minutes of the second half inspired the Turkish side even more as they looked to break the deadlock. Unfortunately, however, Dirk Kuyt’s shot hit the woodwork once again! How very frustrating for the Turks! Benfica were gifted a good chance just 9 minutes into the second 45 as well but, just as their opponents had done thrice already, they hit the woodwork. Benfica were just unlucky, as a goal would have certainly changed their game.

The woodwork had been Fenerbahce’s biggest enemy on the night but, as it turned out to be, the woodwork was instrumental in what would be the only goal of the game. After a goalless 71 minutes on the pitch, Egemen Korkmaz finally managed to break the deadlock with a header just off the post and into the net from a Cristian corner, a well-deserved goal for the home side.

The last 20 or so minutes were intense, but Fenerbahce managed to prevent their visitors from getting an equalizer, and it ended 1-0 to the home side after what had been a very, very frustratingly long search for the goal that would separate the sides ahead of their second-leg clash.

  • Fenerbahçe SK 1-0 SL BenficaFenerbahce had 2 more attempts (9) over Benfica (5)
  • Fenerbahce were 66.66% on target and enjoyed a whole 62% of the possession, while Benfica were 40% on target and had the remaining 38% possession
  • Fenerbahce were awarded 19 free-kicks on the night, while Benfica got 16
  • 25 fouls were committed between the two teams on the night; Fenerbahce committed 32% of those fouls (8 fouls), while Benfica committed the remaining 68% (17 fouls).
  • Fenerbahce got 8 corners, while Benfica only received 4
  • Volkan Demirel made 2 saves compared to Artur’s 4
  • Fenerbahce hit the woodwork 3 times, while Benfica did so once
  • 6 substitutions (3-a-side) were made during this match; Aycut Kocaman and Jorge Jesus replaced two midfielders and one striker each.
  • 7 yellow cards (3 to Fenerbahce and 4 to Benfica) were issued by referee on the night, Milorad Mazic
  • No players were sent off during this game

Aycut Kocaman and Jorge Jesus lined up the following squads:

Fenerbahce Starting XI

Demirel, Korkmaz, Yobo, Ziegler, Gonul, Topal, Meireles, Cristian, Sow, Kuyt, Webo

Subs: Gunok, Irtegun, Sahin, Krasic, Topuz, Ucan, and Senturk

Benfica Starting XI

Artur, Pereira, Garay, Jardel, Melgarejo, Matic, Gomes, Aimar, John, Salvio, Cardozo

Subs: Lopes, Roderick, Martins, Gaitan, Urreta, Lima, and Rodrigo

Final Score: Fenerbahce SK 1-0 SL Benfica

Korkmaz 72′

Goals and Assists
  • Egemen Korkmaz’s goal was a header on the 71st minute, assisted by a Cristian corner via a little deflection and off the woodwork; this goal was Egemen’s 2nd in the competition

Written by Ange Marline

Analyzing the Future of the North London Showdown: Part 2

One of the Fiercest North London Rivalries in Years: Where Will It Lead To?

Now, I am not the genie in the lamp who predicts the future of the world. Nor am I the highly experienced sports journalist who knows everything about these two sides. However, I do have my views; so what are they? Here you go:

Arsenal vs Tottenham: Last 4 Results
  • Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur03/03/13: Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal
  • 17/11/12: Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur
  • 26/02/12: Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham Hotspur
  • 02/10/11: Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Arsenal

Looking back at those results, it does not look like Tottenham are the better side, which they definitely have been this season. What shows they are the better side is their smart purchases, their nice sensible attacking football, and other things like the fact they’re higher in the league. Will that all be there next season?

One thing for that is almost certain is that Andre Villas-Boas will be at the Lane next season. But will all his players stay as well? Gareth Bale has been linked to quite a few clubs, mainly Real Madrid and Manchester United, but other names such as Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and more have been linked with the Welsh superstar.

He has already said his ambition to play in the Champions League regularly, season in, and season out. And if I’m honest, Tottenham don’t look the side they were two months back. They look like the side that got Harry Redknapp sacked after their poor finish to the season got them in the Europa League instead of the Champions League.

Will he move if this happens again? Probably, yes. But he has been warned that he will become one of White Hart Lane’s greatest legend should he stay there and prosper for his whole career.

My opinion, he will move to Real Madrid. It will be best for him to link up with great players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil, and his attacking flair suits their style of play. Without him Tottenham will not be half the club they are now. Don’t get me wrong, most of their team is good enough to wear the white shirt, but it will not be the same should he go.

If chooses to stay for a season longer or even the rest of his life, this is the future I see for the North London derby:

Tottenham Bridge the Gap and Take Over

Tottenham HotspurAs you can see by the title, Tottenham would go on and best the Arsenal side of today. More players will be attracted to AVB’s side should they grab that Champions League spot and fewer players will move to the other side of North London, to Arsenal, because the situation to a foreign player would be described as a falling wreck.

In this particular situation I would not see Tottenham winning the title anytime in the near future. However, FA Cups and Capital One Cups could fill their trophy cabinet, trophies that Chairman Daniel Levy would love at his club.

As for Arsenal, they would slowly maintain a fifth spot in the Premier League. A disappointment for sure. Players would not come through the ranks like Thierry Henry or Denis Bergkamp, young players do not want small wages at a club not progressing well. Older more experienced players would not join, they would believe Arsenal were the new Liverpool.

Not all of this could happen should Tottenham keep Gareth Bale. Arsenal could fight back and we could see another hugely fierce Premier League derby, much like the old Man United-Liverpool or Man United-Man City ones. The top four could be:

  1. Manchester United/Manchester City
  2. Manchester United/Manchester City
  3. Arsenal/Tottenham Hotspur
  4. Arsenal/Tottenham Hotspur

Now, what happens should Bale leave?

Arsenal are Back, Tottenham Back Down

ArsenalNow, Gareth Bale will have left to one big club for one big sum of money. Arsenal will have invested well after the recent fans complaints. Arsene Wenger will have shushed the crowd and guided his new freshly bought side to third place. No Champions League qualification round worry.

He will have new players, bought to strengthen positions where the weaker players were. He will also have a bigger deeper squad. Making some quiet small money signings as Wenger always has done.

Meanwhile, over the road. Spurs would be without Champions league football after a dismal end to season coinciding with a poor run of form from Gareth Bale, the Welshman said he lost belief and felt he had to leave. He is no longer here, no big signings for Spurs now. Bids being accepted by players staying put.

No inspiring leader to score for them every game. No player who you know can always produce magic goals. Goals, that is where they would struggle. Jermaine Defoe and Adebayor not netting for their side. It would be expected after last season they relied on Bale for the goals.

Which do you think will happen? Not just to do with Gareth Bale, what do you think is the future for the two North London clubs? Tweet me or comment in the box below.

Click here to view Part 1 of this article.

Written by Harry Robinson