Barcelona fail with £85m Richarlison bid

With just two days of the January transfer window remaining, Barcelona launched an unexpected £85m bid for Everton’s Richarlison. Perhaps just as surprisingly, Everton turned the offer down, and there were reports that Barcelona then targeted Willian, but by the end of January they had yet to acquire a forward who could help fill the void of the injured Luis Suarez.

If this seemed like a desperate late attempt to boost their squad with little thought or care, it’s because it was. In fact, Barcelona appear to have had little or no transfer strategy for years now.

Barcelona used to pride themselves on the players they produced from their famous ‘La Masia’ academy; the likes of Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were all products of the Catalans’ youth programme. However, in recent years, the production line has not presented similar talent.

Sergi Roberto remains the only player to have graduated from their academy and become a regular starter in recent years; players like Cristian Tello, Isaac Cuenca, Martin Montoya, Marc Bartra, Adama Traore and Gerard Deulofeu all failed to establish themselves in the first team, and Barca have had to rely on the transfer market.

The signings of Neymar and Luis Suarez, who were both already world-class talents, both worked out, but in more recent times Barca have signed the likes of Phillippe Coutinho (£140m), Ousmane Dembele (£130m) and Antoine Griezmann (£113m), and with Coutinho on loan at Bayern Munich, Dembele yet to prove himself even worthy of a starting spot (may I reiterate, £130m for someone who isn’t even guaranteed to start) and Griezmann not fitting well with the system, these extortionate price tags are proving to be colossal wastes of money; there are even rumours that Griezmann was signed merely to prevent rivals Real Madrid from landing him.

Despite their poor transfer strategy, the sensational partnership of Messi and Suarez has helped them to keep on winning trophies, masking the club’s inadequacies.

However, Suarez now finds himself injured for possibly the rest of the season, and Barcelona spent the month frantically trying to sign a replacement.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Lionel Messi accompanied by two forwards who costed a combined £243m would be enough, but clearly this money was not spent wisely as Barcelona felt it necessary to replace Suarez rather than trust in World Cup winners Dembele and Griezmann.

After courting Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in a bizarre attempt at a loan move that rather unsurprisingly failed to materialise, Barca then made a last-ditch attempt to hijack Inter’s deal Christian Eriksen. This also failed, and Barca were desperate, and that was when they offered £85m for Richarlison.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Richarlison is a good player. But £85m? Everton paid £40m for the then 20 year-old who had managed just 5 goals in 41 appearances for Watford, and although he has now scored 25 goals in 65 appearances for Everton, it is still up for debate as to whether he has even justified his £40m price tag from two years ago.

A half-decent Premier League player was clearly identified as the man to solve their problems with just two days left of the transfer window, and Barca threw a lot of money at him. But to no avail.

They then moved for Chelsea’s Willian, who they had previously failed to sign a couple of years ago. The out of form winger has struggled to nail down a starting spot in an average Chelsea side for the last couple of seasons, and they couldn’t even sign him.

The window has now closed, and no forwards were brought in. The 17 year-old Ansu Fati has been a bright spark in an underwhelming first half of the season, but despite his two goals against Levante last night, it seems unlikely that the teenager is really ready to perform at the highest level.

Furthermore, Suarez’s influence on the team cannot be understated. His near-telepathic combination play with Messi has created goal after goal for Barcelona for the past 5 years, and without Suarez’s intelligent movement to create space for Messi, not to mention his outstanding finishing himself, Barcelona are half the team they would be.

Messi’s late goal in their 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid earlier this season demonstrated their partnership perfectly; a one-two played at devastating speed on the edge of the box before Messi slotted the ball into the far corner.

With Suarez injured and no replacements brought in, Barcelona are finally being made to pay for years of an almost non-existent transfer strategy.

It remains to be seen whether or not new manager Quique Setien can instil his Cruyff-like philosophy in time to turn their fortunes around this season, and with Messi and Suarez creeping towards their mid-thirties, Barcelona’s future could be bleak. Spending all your money on Richarlison is not the answer.

Footballmagic player of the year 2019: Virgil Van Dijk

When Liverpool shelled out £75m for Virgil Van Dijk in January 2018, it would be fair to say that the price tag raised a few eyebrows. However, when he received the award for UEFA’s men’s player of the year 2018/19, it was hardly a major shock.

Van Dijk’s rise has been nothing short of astonishing. A mere five years ago, aged 23, the Dutchman was plying his trade in Scottish football with Celtic. Now a Champions League winner, he looks set to be part of Liverpool’s first ever Premier League title triumph this season, and he is arguably the Red’s most important player.

Jurgen Klopp made an immediate impression when taking over on Merseyside; his high-tempo gegenpressing style of play winning over many fans as the club narrowly missed out in the finals of the League Cup and the Europa League. It was clear that Liverpool were on the up, but a complete lack of defensive organisation was costing them dearly.

Van Dijk, who’s performances for Southampton were earning rave reviews from local fans but were perhaps going slightly under the radar in the bigger picture, was the solution to all of their problems.

After a dream debut where his late header beat local rivals Everton in an FA Cup tie, he has barely put a foot wrong in his two years at the club so far, and his presence almost immediately transformed Liverpool from a defensively shaky side into an impressively solid unit.

The, after an unlucky defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Van Dijk’s debut season, their points total of 97 in the league last season, whilst being the third highest in Premier League history, was not enough to land them the title.

However, 2018/19 saw their sensational comeback against Barcelona that set them up for Champions League victory in the Wanda Metropolitano against Tottenham, and their rampant start to 2019/20 has all but guaranteed them that elusive first Premier League title already – and they won the Club World Cup last month.

To say that Van Dijk has been an indispensable member of the side would be an understatement, and what sets him apart from second placed Lionel Messi in my opinion was THAT second leg of the Champions League semi-final.

Messi had stolen the show with a ridiculous free kick in the first leg, but he was simply no match for Van Dijk at Anfield, who marshalled the defence and provided the perfect backbone for braces from Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum to secure one of the greatest comebacks the competition has ever seen.

Van Dijk possesses an almost Zidane-like guile and elegance with an outstanding footballing brain – it was well documented that he went nearly a year without being dribbled past by a single opponent. Not only can he read the game, he is physically incredibly strong and can even lay claim to being one of the Premier League’s fastest players after he beat Wolves speed merchant Adama Traore in a footrace last season despite giving the Spaniard a significant head start.

He has only been truly recognised as a world-class player over the last couple of years but Arsenal legend Martin Keown has hailed him the greatest defender in Premier League history – high praise from a defender who was part of Arsenal famous Invincibles team of 2004.

And speaking of going a season unbeaten, Liverpool have currently played 20 league games this season and are still yet to lose. It would be foolish to say that they will definitely do it, but the opportunity for Van Dijk to go from legend to immortal seems painstakingly apparent this season.

The Champions League is coming to England

It has now been 11 years since the last all-English champions league final, contested between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008 which saw United run out winners via a penalty shoot-out. 

Liverpool had won the competition three years prior to this, before Arsenal finished runners-up in 2006 and Liverpool finished runners-up in 2007, with United suffering the same fate in 2009 and 2011. 

Against the odds, Chelsea undid their penalty heartbreak of 2008 by overcoming Bayern Munich in the final in 2012 in the same fashion, but despite being the first English champions since 2008, English football was already clearly in decline. 

7 years on from Chelsea’s triumph, we have seen a Spain-dominated competition: 1 win for Barcelona, 4 wins for Real Madrid and 2 final appearances from Atletico Madrid.

The likes of Bayern, Juventus, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona have dominated European football and English teams have been nowhere to be seen. 

However, in the last couple of years many of the top English sides have made vast improvements; Manchester City and Liverpool would now easily be considered two of the best teams on the planet.

Led by Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp respectively, both sides have been playing dazzling football all year and they achieved a staggering combined total of 195 points in this season’s Premier League, blowing away almost every team in their path.

Under Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham have also made impressive improvements – no longer competing for a top 4 spot every year, Spurs have considered themselves reasonable title challengers every season since 2016. 

English football has now more than just matched the standard of Europe’s heavyweights, going by this season, it has surpassed it. 

The Europa League final featured two London sides, Chelsea and Arsenal, whilst tonight’s Champions League final will feature Tottenham and Liverpool, who both fought back from seemingly irreversible deficits in their first legs of their semi-final ties. Liverpool overturned their 3-0 first leg defeat to Barcelona by winning 4-0 in astonishing fashion in the second leg at Anfield, whilst Tottenham were left needing 3 goals without reply in the second half of their second leg with Ajax, the third goal coming in the 96th minute. 

The fact that England’s strongest side, back to back Premier League champions Manchester City, failed to make it to the final, shows just how strong England’s elite sides now are. 

A painfully trophy-barren spell for Tottenham means they will be more than desperate for glory in Madrid, but Liverpool themselves have gone far too long without a trophy and despite it being clear that Jurgen Klopp has done an outstanding job on Merseyside so far, his lack of silverware puts Liverpool under an immense amount of pressure in this final. 

Klopp himself has lost his last 7 finals, the most recent being last season’s Champions League final in Kiev where they lost in incredible circumstances to Real Madrid, a game that saw two shocking errors from Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius and an iconic overhead kick from Gareth Bale. 

However, Klopp’s sides have often gone into finals as the underdogs – this season Liverpool are certainly favourites to win. 

All the pressure is on Liverpool, and although Tottenham will be feeling far from relaxed, whatever the outcome of tonight’s match may be, Mauricio Pochettino has done an excellent job in charge this season.

Daniel Levy’s insistence on not paying the players as much as other players of similar qualities at football’s elite level could easily create unrest amongst the group, but Pochettino has maintained a formidable team spirit amongst his men.

This wage policy has also made it hard for Spurs to bring in new players as potential signings have not been willing to take a pay cut in order to join. This resulted in not a single signing being made in last summer’s transfer window for Tottenham, another reason why Pochettino has done such a good job.

Furthermore, there has been plenty of drama surrounding the extended delay of the opening of Tottenham’s new stadium, which they didn’t play in until well into the second half of the season even though they were supposed to play there as early as August, and this has been a constant distraction for the side throughout the season. 

Add to this confusion injuries to a number of top players such as Harry Winks, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, it seems an almost impossible task for Pochettino and Spurs, yet here they are in their first ever Champions League final. 

With regards to the game itself, the main talking point is whether or not Tottenham’s top scorer, Harry Kane, will be fit to start.

The England international striker suffered an injury during the first leg of their quarter final victory over Man City in this competition and has not played since, but he has declared himself fully fit in the lead up to the game.

Whether or not Pochettino elects to start him is a different matter altogether. Tottenham have an abundance of attacking options in the likes of Lucas Moura, Fernando Llorente and Heung Min Son who can all play through the middle and have all been key in their run to the final, but Kane is truly a world-class talent and would always be a useful presence on the pitch for any side, 100% match fit or not.

Tottenham are likely to be responding to Liverpool who will look to dictate the game in the opening stages, and Liverpool’s main source of chances could well come from wide positions through their full backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, as they so often have done this season.

This could mean that Tottenham employ a defensive-midfield pairing of Moussa Sissoko and Victor Wanyama in order to provide extra protection in wide areas, but stopping Liverpool from doing damage from crosses is easier said than done. 

However, Liverpool’s strength could become their downfall if Tottenham exploit it effectively; if Dele Alli and Heung Min Son occupy the areas vacated by the Liverpool full-backs when they push forward, they will have plenty of space to cause Liverpool problems on the counter attack, a method which could be very effective due to the pace of Lucas Moura and Heung Min Son. 

Hope for Tottenham will also come in the form of Lucas Moura stretching Liverpool through his pace. This could provide Spurs with plenty of chances as Lucas can create room between the Liverpool midfield and defence, giving creator in chief Christian Eriksen extra space to operate and create chances. 

The introduction off the bench of Fernando Llorente, as has happened frequently throughout the season, could also be a ray of hope for Spurs who would then have the option of playing a more direct game, looking for Llorente with longer balls rather than having to break Liverpool down through short passes through the thirds. 

This method worked perfectly for Lucas’s decisive hat-trick goal in the semi-final, where a ball was aimed to Llorente who headed to Dele Alli who found Lucas before the Brazilian fired Spurs into the final.

Still, whilst there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for Tottenham fans, Liverpool remain strong favourites.

In both Premier League encounters between the two teams this season, Liverpool finished 2-1 winners. 

Their front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino have rarely been stopped and to consider they brushed Barcelona aside 4-0 without Firmino and Salah shows just how dangerous they can be.

A win tonight for Liverpool would arguably put Virgil Van Dijk in pole position to win the 2019 Ballon D’Or, although Sadio Mane could certainly lay claim to having a reasonable shot at winning the prestigious award, especially if he gets his name on the scoresheet in Madrid.

So will Tottenham finally win a trophy? Will Klopp end his cup final hoodoo? Whatever happens, the Champions League is coming to England. 

Do Barcelona have what it takes to be European champions again?

After progressing to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 2015, Barcelona, as the competition’s only remaining current league champions, appear to be strong contenders to take their crown back after three years of domination from their rivals, Real Madrid.

After Madrid crashed out early to the impressive Ajax and strong contenders Juventus and Manchester City were eliminated in the following round, Barcelona will fancy their chances of knocking Liverpool out and going on to claim the trophy – but does their current team have what it takes to match the successes of 2009, 2011 and 2015?

Naturally, a lot will depend on Messi, but even with him and Suarez fit and firing up front, Barcelona’s potential defensive frailties could expose them, especially against what is an extremely dangerous Liverpool side with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah leading the line.

Many Barça fans claim that this season has been 32 year-old Gerard Piqué’s best for the club, and despite Samuel Umtiti’s long term injury, they have coped extremely well with summer signing Clement Lenglet filling the void to very good effect.

However, as a defensive unit Barcelona have struggled at times this season, notably in a 4-4 draw with Villarreal where Barça were constantly carved apart by a side who are struggling near the bottom of the league – against Liverpool, a defensive performance like that would be disastrous.

That game featured a rare 90 minutes for Umtiti, a man who has enjoyed a very impressive Barcelona career to date, but who looked extremely off the pace on his return to the team, so it is likely that Lenglet will retain his place as their first choice for the semis.

As a defensive pairing, Piqué and Lenglet have dealt very well with relatively weak opposition attackers all season, and despite some clean sheets against notable sides such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Manchester United this season, it could be argued that they haven’t yet been tested to the extent that they will be when faced with Liverpool’s classy front three.

All of Barcelona’s defenders are undoubtedly good players, but the fact that they rarely need to defend as Barça are always attacking and they haven’t faced many top quality forwards this season, they could be facing some problems when they meet Jurgen Klopp’s men.

As a result, Ernesto Valverde may deploy Arturo Vidal in midfield in order to stop their attacks at source and constantly regain possession for Barça, as his performances have been extremely impressive throughout the season, his tenacious defensive play-style proving very useful for Barcelona’s flair players as they can relax knowing that Vidal will soon win the ball back and find them again.

Still, Liverpool create many of their chances from moves involving their wide full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, which may tempt the Barça boss to try a four-man midfield as opposed to their usual 4-3-3 system, something that he used fairly regularly upon arriving at the club in 2017.

Keeping Arthur and Sergio Busquets comfortable in their usual central positions, Vidal and Ivan Rakitic could be pushed wide to cope with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, and when possession is regained they will always out-number Liverpool’s three man midfield, allowing them to keep the ball and build more attacks.

The system’s main drawback would be the inevitable absence of attackers Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele which would definitely be a controversial move, but it may be a necessary move for Ernesto Valverde if his Barça side are to cope with Liverpool’s threat.

Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto or Nelson Semedo will still provide an important attacking threat leaving Messi and Suarez far from isolated, whilst Rakitic and perhaps Vidal or Arthur could also push up when Barcelona have the ball, and Dembele and Coutinho will remain possible outlets to be used from the bench if needed.

They are certainly more than capable of winning the semi-final, but Liverpool are likely to be their toughest remaining test; if Barça reach the final, a face-off with Tottenham or Ajax seems more appealing.

They have already swept Tottenham aside at Wembley in the group stage this season, whilst Ajax play similarly to Barcelona yet they don’t have Messi, Suarez, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, making Barça clear favourites despite Ajax’s abundance of young talent.

They certainly have what it takes to finally regain the trophy, but Liverpool will be a tough old test for Ernesto Valverde’s men.

Football is in desperate need of the ‘sin bin rule’

The tactical foul, where a player is advancing dangerously and the opposition feel the only way to stop him is to illegally bring him down, needs to be eradicated.

It is all too easy for a player to ‘take one for the team’, accepting the mere punishment of a yellow card in exchange for a free-kick to the opposition in a non-threatening area, rather than a potentially lethal counter-attack.

So, with all the discussion and innovation taking place in modern football at the moment, why has a sin-bin not been introduced for these tactical fouls?

It is clear that a yellow card is not enough of a punishment, especially when it seems likely that the opposition would have scored, so a sin-bin, meaning that the offender would spend 10 minutes off the pitch, would surely benefit the team that suffered the foul, and hopefully, entirely get rid of such fouls from the game altogether.

Two years ago, the Santiago Bernabeu hosted a huge clash between arch rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona in a game that was likely to have a big effect on who would go on to clinch the La Liga title that year – the stakes were high.

In the 92nd minute, the game was 2-2 and Sergi Roberto received the ball deep in his own half before advancing up the pitch in tremendous fashion, dodging multiple challenges from the Real Madrid players who were hoping to disposess him.

An outstanding move ended up with a crucial goal from Lionel Messi to win Barcelona the game; a potentially season changing goal.

However, after the game, it emerged that in the immediate aftermath of Messi’s winning goal, Cristiano Ronaldo could be heard lamenting the fact that his team-mates didn’t foul Sergi Roberto whilst he was on his crucial run to set up the goal.

By fouling him they would have stopped the goal and their only punishment would have been a yellow card, which, at such a late stage in the game, would have not helped Barcelona at all, so looking at the situation in the unethical manner that Ronaldo did, the right option was clearly to foul the player – Barcelona would not have won the match if he had been brought down.

Although he was not fouled, the fact that such a memorable and important goal could’ve been stopped is a horrible thought.

If the sin-bin rule is brought in, soon enough players will stop doing these fouls at all and it will not be a natural instinct for them to do this.

This rule would not be a necessary punishment for all yellow card offences, but it could also be used to help rid the game of certain other things that don’t warrant red cards, such as persistent fouling perhaps.

Football has recently learned from rugby by introducing VAR just like rugby uses the TMO, and it could certainly take another leaf out of the same book and use the sin-bin rule that rugby already has.

For the good of the game, football needs to wake up and stop these tactical fouls with this easy solution.

Footballmagic Top 3 Players of the year 2018

After a rather questionable 2018 Ballon D’Or ceremony where the winner of ‘goalkeeper of the year’ was left out of the team of the year, the Premier League’s second best goal of November 2017 was voted as the world’s best goal of 2018 and the world’s best player was told that there were four mere human beings better than him, it seems fair to suggest that other opinions on the year of 2018 in football would be more than welcome.

This year, the first time a player other than Messi or Ronaldo was crowned the winner of the Ballon D’Or since 2007, outstanding performances from others leave me compelled to choose a top 3 players, rather than just selecting my player of the year as I have done in the past.

3. Kylian Mbappe

Not much more than 5 years ago, a very young Kylian Mbappe sat in his bedroom with posters of his hero, Cristiano Ronaldo, covering almost every inch of his walls. Whilst it would be far-fetched to say that at 19 years-old Mbappe had already eclipsed his idol, with every available domestic trophy in France to his name along with a World Cup winner’s medal, the ‘ninja turtle’ is certainly no longer looking up to the 5-time Ballon D’Or winner.

With a reputation already established as a possible heir to the Messi-Ronaldo throne coming into 2018, his feats over the past twelve months have been nothing short of outstanding. Despite his age, Mbappe played a pivotal role in PSG’s domestic treble last season, and he has shone this year too as the champions have raced to the top of the table into a seemingly unassailable lead.

His four goals in just 13 minutes against Lyon in October demonstrate that he doesn’t just have an eye for goal – he is deadly, and it’s not just his goal-scoring exploits that have pundits purring – his searing pace and bewildering trickery have been leaving defenders dumbfounded across Europe ever since he made his professional bow.

Against Argentina in a hugely important World Cup round of 16 clash, it was that searing pace that won France a penalty which Antoine Griezmann converted, before two impressive goals from Mbappe himself sealed France’s qualification to the quarter finals. If he hadn’t already done so, that game was when he proved that he really has what it takes to be the best player in the world in the post-Messi and Ronaldo era.

Some outrageous skill almost set up Olivier Giroud for a goal in the semi-finals, and on the undisputed biggest stage of them all, in the World Cup final, Mbappe smashed home France’s fourth goal from outside the box to become the youngest scorer in a World Cup final since a certain
Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pele, as he is better known.

What is also incredible is that he did all this before his twentieth birthday, which came in late December.

After scoring the winning goal in the 2014 World Cup final, Mario Gotze’s career has sadly gone drastically downhill, but the prodigy that is Mbappe is unlikely to suffer from too much success too early.

Paul Pogba, another scorer in the final, says of Mbappe: “Kylian has much more talent than I have. Do you see what he is doing at his age? No, I never had his talent.”

He also received a rave review from Arsene Wenger, who compared Mbappe to French legend Thierry Henry – high praise indeed from a man who achieved the fabled invincible season as Arsenal boss with Henry himself his star man.

It seems likely that Mbappe’s astonishingly rapid rise to the top won’t show any signs of slowing down soon, but whatever happens, 2018 was a year that Kylian Mbappe will never forget.

2. Lionel Messi

Ok, let’s just get one thing straight – this guy is the best player in the world. Enough superlatives and hyperbole have been written about him already that for me to make any attempt to explain his qualities would be incredibly foolish. Still, despite his undeniable genius, he’ll have to settle for second place this year.

Whilst Messi’s 50 goals and 26 assists in 53 games in 2018 may be classed as a mediocre year by some, (Ballon D’Or voters, I’m looking at you,) it was simply the fact that he failed to perform to his absolute best during the World Cup that means he narrowly misses out on first place.

A fifth place finish in the most prestigious individual award in football should be taken with more than a pinch of salt considering the choice of goal of the year, so why was Messi so overlooked?

It could genuinely be down to boredom.

Messi and Ronaldo have consistently been head and shoulders above the rest of the planet for almost a decade; and this has been recognised. As a result, as soon as Messi has a year where he perhaps doesn’t quite reach the levels expected of him, everyone is quick to pounce.

His goal and assist record speaks for itself, but it wasn’t just the figures that show how underrated he was in 2018 – as his game has evolved with age, he has become not only Barcelona’s talisman but now their playmaker. Along with his famous mazy dribbles he has an incredible passing ability that was used to great effect for Barcelona throughout the 12 months; he truly is the heartbeat of the team.

What let him down was Barcelona’s early exit in the champions league in a shock early exit on away goals to Roma and Argentina’s average showing in Russia.

Playing in a national side with little or no recognisable strategy along with an abundance of attacking talent but a lack of balance, the odds were always against the Flea, and although his world-class goal against Nigeria helped send them through to the knockout stages, his two assists against eventual winners France weren’t enough to keep them in the competition.

As for the champions league exit, his anonymous performance in the second leg effectively destroyed his entire season, and if it weren’t for that game, it is fair to say that Barcelona would have been strong contenders to win ‘Old Big Ears’ for a sixth time.

These two defeats aside, he had a sensational year, and claims that he fails to perform in big games are frankly nonsense.

Goals in the Copa del Rey final against Sevilla and in important Champions League ties with Spurs and Chelsea prove this point, whilst his late equaliser against Sevilla in La Liga kept their hopes of completely an ‘invincible’ season alive, an achievement that they missed out on due to a shock 4-5 defeat to Levante in just the second last game of the season. Funnily enough, Messi wasn’t included in Barcelona’s squad for that match.

Overall, Messi had a brilliant year, but with the World Cup playing a massive part in this decision as it is the biggest stage of them all, there is one man who’s 2018 was even more impressive.

  1. Luka Modric

What a year for this man. Perhaps growing up with training sessions frequently interrupted by dashes to air raid shelters for safety amid mortar and grenade attacks made every obstacle in Luka Modric’s footballing path seem like light work.

Born in September 1985, Modric entered the world just six years before the beginning of the brutal Yugoslavian civil war of independence, and his area was in the firing line.

Children of such a young age are often unaware of the seriousness of horrific events like these; after all, they know no different.

However, the death of Luka’s grandfather, whom he looked up to with great fondness, hit the young boy hard, and amid that tragedy, having to flee his home and living constantly under threat, football was the easiest distraction.

So you can imagine the pain of rejection by his favourite club Hadjuk Split for merely being too small – a nonsense suggestion nowadays that appears to have been almost entirely eridicated after Spain and Lionel Messi’s success, but back then an all too common reason for heartbreak among aspring footballers.

After being convinced not to quit football by Tomislav Basic, his outstanding mentor and coach at his youth academy in Zadar, Modric was pretty much made for success.

He’d always had the ability to make it to the top, there was no doubting that, but many players with an abundance of talent fail to make the grade, so his war and pain-filled childhood game him the perfect platform to conquer all the obstacles and demons that professional football has offer.

Before 2018, his career had been nothing short of exceptional. He had won every trophy available with Real Madrid and dazzled in Tottenham Hotspur’s midfield prior to that, and has for a few years now been widely considered to be one of the best midfielders in the world.

Since his heroics in 2018, his status has elevated beyond belief, and with good reason.

In a Real Madrid side that struggled all season, the little genius performed consistently well whilst also stepping up to the plate in the big games as the Galacticos won their third successive Champios League title, with Modric at the heart of it all.

Furthermore, he won the player of the tournament award on the biggest stage of them all – the World Cup.

Part of an unfancied Croatia side, Modric’s genius played a pivotal role as they upset the odds to reach the final, and Modric performed brilliantly along the way, perhaps most notably in crunch games against Argentina and England.

In the former, his outstanding long range curler made the score 2-0 and put his country in the box seat to top the group as he and Croatia tore Argentina apart. In the latter, in the World Cup semi-final no less, his brilliantly composed performance was key as they came back from behind to knock England out in extra time.

After all of this, he capped off his year in style with a goal in the Club World Cup final as Madrid became champions of the world for a third successive year. Not bad, eh?

Will Man City dominate English football?

The return of our beloved Premier League is now just a day away and the question on every football fan’s mind is this: can Man City do it again?

They swept away all that was in their path last season in stunning fashion, dazzling their way to the title whilst becoming the first team to reach 100 points in English top-flight history, as well as winning the league cup.

Are they the best Premier League team ever? Possibly. Pep Guardiola has moulded an outstanding team of pace and quality with strength in depth too, and after winning last season’s title at a canter, finishing 19 points ahead of rivals Manchester United in second place, they can surely do it again. But it may not be as straight-forward as it seems.

Although United have endured a tough pre-season and haven’t made many big signings, Jose Mourinho, Pogba, Alexis Sanchez and co shouldn’t be written off, whilst Chelsea and Arsenal could pose different threats under new bosses Maurizio Sarri and Unai Emery respectively. Mauricio Pochettino has been building a strong side at Tottenham for a while now and they still have Harry Kane, but probably City’s biggest danger to the defence of their crown is Jurgen Klopp’s Champions League finalists, Liverpool.

Salah, Firmino and Mane were all brilliant last season, and the addition of Xherdan Shaqiri provides quality strength in depth.

Large sums of money have been paid to bring midfielders Fabinho and Naby Keita to the club and drastically improve the core of the team, and the impressive Alisson Becker has been brought in from Roma after Loris Karius’ Champions League final nightmare.

Klopp’s men beat City three times in all competitions last season, and those signings should really improve the team, so if anyone is likely to stop Manchester City, it’s Liverpool – but consistency will be key; the Reds never showed enough of it in 2017/18 and neither did any club but City, and it was their relentless winning that brought them the title comfortably last season. Sure, Liverpool can beat anyone on their day, but they’ll have to improve to match Man City’s incredible winning consistency.

Pep’s sides haven’t let up in previous years, not being content with just their first title, so he’ll hope to keep the hunger in his players and the addition of club record £60m Riyad Mahrez should remind the likes of Sterling, Sane and Bernardo Silva that they will have to work for their place.

Two brilliant Sergio Aguero goals saw them ease past Chelsea in the community shield last week, a game that demonstrated their superiority as the 2-0 scoreline really didn’t do their dominance justice, and also a game where 18 year-old Phil Foden showed his talent throughout, most notably with an assist for Aguero’s first goal.

If Foden can break into the first team and get some games under his belt this season, which will be easier said than done with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva occupying his main position, Pep will have gone some of the way to bringing through young English talent, one of his City tenure’s main criticisms as people suggest that he and City have ‘bought’ success.

But doing what Guardiola has done is not easy, and Man City aren’t the only team in England with pots and pots of money – look at Manchester United last season: on paper, De Gea, Pogba, Lukaku, Martial, Mikhitaryan and Matic could easily have been the core of a title-winning team, but as we know, Jose Mourinho still finished 19 points behind the champions.

Although we have seen some impressive English sides in recent years, it has been a decade since any club managed to win back to back titles – but no one has been as good as Manchester City in that time.

Still with an exceptional squad filled with world-class talent, City will have very high hopes of Champions League success this time out, and should they win the Premier League again, will we be seeing the start of an era of unprecedented domination?

Is it really coming home?

Over the last few weeks, a song released in 1996, social media, and football have combined to give the nation of England the kind of belief that no one would have dreamt of a mere month ago.

The phrase, ‘It’s coming home’, taken from the Lightning Seeds’ ‘Three Lions’, has fast become the most popular phrase in the country, and the Three Lions song, which was first released 22 years ago, has played a massive part in the new found connection between the England first team and their fans.

Jokes and laughs over social media often involving the phrase has helped the nation grow in confidence and togetherness; everyone is behind Gareth Southgate’s men, which seems crazy as it was just two years ago that England suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Iceland in Euro 2016, a time where the side were undoubtedly a laughing stock. But not anymore.

A deserved late win over Tunisia in the opening match put England on the right track, but it was the impressive 6-1 win over Panama that first established the feel-good factor that has encompassed the nation.

The 1-0 defeat to Belgium did little to dampen the mood as it put England in arguably the easier side of the draw, a side that became even more interesting when both Germany and Spain were knocked out early on.

It was probably the penalty shoot-out win over Colombia that the country first really seemed to believe that football was in with a chance of coming home, and Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Sweden put England into just their third World Cup semi final ever.

Without doubt, the tournament has already been a success, but with Croatia the only thing standing between England and the final, the belief that Southgate’s men could go all the way has never been stronger.

Although Croatia are a very good side, with the likes of Luka Modric, Ivan Perisic and Ivan Rakitic amongst their ranks, England have shown enough so far to suggest that they are in with more than a reasonable chance.

Encouragingly, 8 of England’s 11 goals in the tournament have come from set pieces, which means that they will always be a threat, even if playing badly, one free-kick or corner could give them the edge, especially with the likes of John Stones, Harry Maguire and Harry Kane lurking.

Also, whilst much of his work has gone unnoticed and he has been one of the few players to be subjected to criticism in the tournament, Raheem Sterling has caused problems for defences throughout the entire campaign, and although he is yet to be clinical in front of goal, his time could well be soon.

Another key aspect of England’s World Cup campaign to mention is Gareth Southgate, the man who has kept things simple, worked hard, and won the nation’s hearts.

He has clearly paid particular attention to set pieces, which has paid dividends so far, and he’s managed to avoid any major problems or controversy at all, a feat that should not be taken lightly.

It’s hard to choose between Croatia and England, a semi-final that really could go either way, and the winner will meet France on Sunday in Moscow. Is it really coming home?

 

Germany crash out of World Cup!

The thrilling first stage of the 2018 World Cup ended with Japan qualifying due to having fewer yellow cards than Senegal, Lionel Messi finally arriving in Russia, and Germany’s shock exit in their 2-0 defeat to South Korea.

Surprisingly, many teams who won the World Cup failed to get out of the group stage four years later in recent times such as Spain and Italy, and Germany have now joined this unexpected list.

They were, perhaps, the least likely of these teams to fall in the group stage four years on as the core of their 2014 winning side remains in the squad today, with players such as Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller still key men for the team.

However, between two poor defeats, a narrow last-gasp victory over Sweden was not enough for the Germans, who ended up finishing bottom of their group in Russia.

Whilst their backline, which includes Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in front of Manuel Neuer, seemed extremely strong on paper, they failed to keep a single clean sheet and looked disjointed throughout.

In addition, Timo Werner of RB Leipzig was trusted as Germany’s number 9 after a very impressive season in the Bundesliga, but the young striker never seemed goal hungry and his movement played into the defence’s hands as he failed to score in all three games.

This incredibly poor campaign could have knock-on effects too; the generation of youngsters who missed the success of 2014 may lack inspiration, and the Bundesliga could also suffer a hangover as a result of Germany’s disastrous tournament.

Elsewhere in the tournament, Argentina turned their campaign around with a hard-fought win over Nigeria that saw them scrape through.

After a very poor start to the tournament where they were outclassed by Croatia and Lionel Messi failed to spark, it was Messi’s unbelievable goal that broke the deadlock against the Nigerians, but they needed a late winner from Marcos Rojo to qualify for the knockout stage after Victor Moses had levelled from the spot.

It was Ever Banega’s first start of the competition that appeared to be the key to unlocking Messi, as Banega consistently found Messi and other forwards with direct passes, something that Argentina had lacked in their opening two games where they had repeatedly passed the ball sideways. Banega’s brilliant pass set up Messi, who pretended to come short for the ball before darting in behind the defence and controlling the ball at top speed before blasting the ball into the top corner.

Finishing second in the group has punished them with a round of 16 against France, although Les Bleus, who may have topped their group, have failed to dazzle so far in Russia.

On paper, France’s squad is far stronger than Argentina’s and they should be favourites, but it could depend on whether or not Messi is unleashed as he was against Nigeria or if he is contained like in their games against Iceland and Croatia.

So far in the competition, no teams have been outstanding, as Spain rode their luck on their way to reaching the knockout stage and France, as we know, did not impress.

However, the three most promising teams so far have probably been Brazil, Belgium and England, yes, England.

After a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in their opening game, Brazil won their remaining two games to top the group and they appear to have been improving throughout their campaign.

Phillipe Coutinho has been their star man so far, whilst Neymar has threatened to light up the tournament at times.

Tite’s side sailed through qualification for this year’s finals and at the moment they have given enough evidence to suggest that they are one of the most likely teams to come out on top on July 15th.

As for Belgium, they won all three of their games in the group stage, overcoming Panama and Tunisia with ease before beating England 1-0 to top the group.

It has been common knowledge for a while now that Belgium have some top players in their squad but just need to perform well as a team, so this start has been extremely promising.

England also impressed in the group stage, especially in the 6-1 victory over Panama, but it is still difficult to tell if they will be a strong contender for the trophy.

Gareth Southgate’s men face Colombia in the round of 16 in what is possibly the hardest game of the round to predict.

Both sides managed 6 points in the group stage, and both have showed a relatively secure defence and a threatening attack, so Tuesday’s match at the Otkrytie Arena could be special.

Another team that must be mentioned is Croatia, who dazzled on the way to winning all three of their games, most notably in their 3-0 destruction of Argentina.

As we expected Luka Modric has been outstanding so far, whilst the likes of Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic and Ivan Rakitic have showed that Croatia are a force to be reckoned with, and potentially a dark horse at this tournament.

World Cup Matchday 1 review: Why Spain can win

6 days, 16 matches and 38 goals since Russia kicked off the 2018 World Cup in Moscow last Thursday, and this edition’s festival of fun has got off to an extremely promising start.

Not many would have foreseen the host nation’s exhilarating start at the Luzhniki stadium last week, and albeit against relatively weak opposition in the form of Saudi Arabia, their impressive 5-0 victory was a pleasant surprise for many neutrals who may have expected a cagey, tense opener.

Notching two goals and an assist, CSKA Moscow’s Aleksandr Golovin was a constant thorn in Saudi Arabia’s side as he provided two pinpoint crosses for Russia’s first and third goals before adding a delightful free-kick in the 94th minute to crown an excellent performance.

The 22 year-old is the subject of interest from numerous Premier League clubs this summer, but for now he will hope to steal the headlines and guide his country through their group.

Another star of the opening game was Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev. Following Alan Dzagoev’s injury, Cheryshev was introduced as a first half substitute, and his pace immediately caused Saudi Arabia problems down the left-hand side.

Just before half time, his audacious flick to evade two defenders before lashing the ball into the top corner gave Russia breathing space, and his outside of the foot curler in the closing stages was another beautiful goal.

Whilst Dzagoev was no doubt an important player for the Russians, his injury may prove to be a blessing in disguise as Cheryshev’s pace and skill make them far more threatening when going forward.

A day later, two dramatic late goals gave Uruguay and Iran wins over Egypt and Morocco respectively before the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi hosted the most intriguing fixture that the group stage draw produced.

Euro 2016 winners Portugal faced Spain in an encounter that many hoped would be a thriller – and it didn’t disappoint. That game had it all.

A hat-trick from one of the world’s best in Cristiano Ronaldo, a goal of the tournament contender from Nacho, late drama, controversy, and overall, exciting football.

Spain had sacked their manager, Julen Lopetegui, just two days before their campaign began, after Lopetegui joined Real Madrid without consulting the national side.

Whilst it may seem ridiculous that Lopetegui didn’t notify his current employers of the fact that he would be taking on a new job, it was even more ridiculous that the decision was taken to sack him so soon before the World Cup, especially as key players such as Sergio Ramos and Andres Iniesta pleaded with the Spain president to keep Lopetegui in his job.

Nevertheless, former Real Madrid centre-back Fernando Hierro has taken the reigns, and after two days of pure chaos, their tournament couldn’t have begun any worse when Cristiano Ronaldo was tripped in the penalty area and struck home to give Portugal the lead inside just four minutes.

The impressive Diego Costa then struck back for Spain, before a shock error from the usually outstanding David De Gea gifted Portugal the lead again when he allowed Ronaldo’s shot to slip through his fingers.

Costa fired them level once more in the second half before Nacho’s outrageous strike put them 3-2 ahead, but in the 88th minute, that man Cristiano Ronaldo confirmed his hat-trick with a stunning free-kick.

Whilst a draw in their opening game was not what the Spaniards would have hoped for, their performance was more than promising.

Defensively, the three goals they conceded did not point to any ongoing problems that could potentially resurface; a penalty was needlessly given away, their goalkeeper uncharacteristically made a huge mistake and they conceded a stunning free-kick. These are not long term problems, and assuming that De Gea is back to his best for the remainder of the tournament, with Ramos and Pique in front of him, Spain’s defence should not be a worry. And neither should their attack be.

In Diego Costa, they have a man who provides them with a different way of scoring goals.

Usually, Spain rely on beautiful passing moves to carve chances open, but Costa gives the side another dimension, as demonstrated with his first goal, a goal that Spain would never have scored before he was in the team.

Sergio Busquets picked the ball up midway inside his own half and immediately got his head up and looked for Costa over the top. The striker shrugged off Pepe before bullying the other Portugal defenders and typically lashing the ball into the corner. Classic Costa.

Add this to the brilliance of Isco, Iniesta and David Silva, who can pick almost any defence apart with their skill and vision, along with the pace of Iago Aspas and the threat of Marco Asensio from the bench, and Spain look capable of scoring freely at this tournament.

Despite their managerial mayhem prior to the tournament, Lopetegui has laid the foundations of a potential winning side, so there’s no reason why they can’t go all the way.

And, even though they only picked up a point, Spain arguably looked the most impressive side in the competition thus far – other big names such as France, Germany, Argentina and Brazil all struggled, and despite their undoubted quality, none of those sides seemed to gel in their openers.

France relied on a strange own-goal to overcome Australia in a 2-1 victory, and it remains to be seen whether or not Didier Deschamps can get the best out of his talented squad, especially when it comes to players like Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele, who both have unquestionable talent but both endured a season of inconsistent performances for their clubs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Germany’s 1-0 defeat to Mexico as the world champions couldn’t find a way past a good-looking Mexican side.

Hirving Lozano, who looks a real talent, gave Mexico the lead in the first half, and the often cool and collected Germans were unable to claw it back and ended up slumping to a loss.

The Germans should still be a strong force this year though; they always are – but is this one tournament too many for Joachim Low?

Lionel Messi and co. were also extremely underwhelming as Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw with a resolute Iceland side that successfully nullified the threat of the little number 10.

Tightly marked for 90 minutes, Messi struggled to find space at all and was unable to weave his magic.

He had a shot from just outside the area which curled narrowly wide, but his clearest chance came from the spot as he was gifted the opportunity to put his team 2-1 in front.

Messi’s penalty record has been poor in recent years and his penalty on the day was even poorer as the Icelandic goalkeeper Halldorsson comfortably pushed it away.

Argentina face Croatia on Thursday facing problems that have stayed with them throughout Messi’s entire international career – how do you get the best out of him?

For now, it seems unlikely that they ever will, but it will be intriguing to see if he can pull a rabbit out of the hat and turn Argentina into contenders – at the moment, they are far from challenging for the trophy.

Brazil were the final ‘big’ team that failed to perform. They were by no means awful in their 1-1 draw with Switzerland, but they lacked a cutting edge. Still, with Willian, Jesus, Coutinho and Neymar about this should not be a problem, and they are still among the favourites.

Finally, regarding England, Gareth Southgate’s side deservedly claimed a 2-1 win over Tunisia courtesy of a brace from Harry Kane, and although they had to wait until stoppage time to get the winning goal, Southgate’s men were the superior side.

Not only should England have been awarded two clear penalties, they spurned countless opportunities through Jesse Lingard and John Stones.

Defensively, England weren’t really tested and only gave away a goal because of Kyle Walker’s careless foul, so it is still unknown as to whether or not their new-look defence can keep out the top teams, but going forward, England show promise.

As we know, Harry Kane is a hugely important player for the team and his goals could prove pivotal if England are to go deep into the tournament, whilst pace will not be an issue with Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford in the squad.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s cameo appearance was also promising, so going forward England could be a threatening team.

Each team has only played one game so far and it is extremely hard to tell who will be lifiting the trophy in Moscow on the 15th July, but Spain could be the real deal – or will football be coming home?