Footballmagic Player of the Year 2017: Cristiano Ronaldo

It is unquestionably common knowledge that in football, the game’s elite have, down the years, consistently stepped up to the plate in the most important matches. It is also common knowledge that Cristiano Ronaldo is no exception; goals in the 2008 and 2014 champions league finals, the winning goal in the Copa Del Rey in 2011 and countless other goals when his teams have needed him most.

In 2017, he took stepping up to the plate to a whole new level.

Zinedine Zidane had gone where no other manager could, and he had rested Ronaldo repeatedly throughout the season. It was a bold move; Ronaldo doesn’t like being on the bench, but it turned out to be genius. When in other seasons Cristiano had appeared to be unfit towards the latter stages, the Frenchman’s resting of his prize asset proved pivotal in their league and champions league double as a fully fit Ronaldo reaped the benefits of being frequently rested and tore it up in the big games.

He kicked off his astonishing run in April, where Real hosted Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League quarter finals. After falling behind to a first half Arturo Vidal goal, Ronaldo did what he does best and turned the game on its head with a brace.

In the second leg, he stepped up another gear – after his 76th minute equaliser look set to send Real through to the semis, a Sergio Ramos own goal meant extra time was on the horizon, and Ronaldo capitalised in style, adding two further goals to complete a hat-trick.

His goals had been responsible for leading Madrid through, and they didn’t stop there; in a crunch match of a semi-final against local rivals Atletico Madrid, a second hat-trick in a row all but ensured a place in the final, without the second leg even having been played.

He remained in fine form to score the goal that won Madrid la liga on the last day against Malaga, before they faced off against Juventus in the Champions League final.

The ‘Old Lady’ had kept Lionel Messi’s Barcelona at bay over two legs in the quarter finals, but while Messi was thwarted,  Ronaldo could not be contained.

His impressive finish in the 20th minute opened the scoring in the biggest game of them all, and mid-way through the second half his goal made it 3-1 to Real, sealing  the win.

His crucial goals in crucial games were a vital source of Real’s success in winning the league and Champions League, and his outstanding goal of the bench in the Spanish Supercopa against Barcelona contributed to success in that tie also, before his free-kick in the World Club cup final put the cherry on the cake after a truly unbelievable year.

Personally, I don’t think Ronaldo is the best player in the world. His powers are diminishing slowly, and a tough tie against PSG in the champions league and huge ground to make up in La Liga means that 2018 could be a struggle for him. Nevertheless, due to a combination of Zidane’s excellence and his own brilliance, 2017 was, undoubtedly, his year.

I am compelled to mention four of the other outstanding players of the year, as Lionel Messi, Isco, Neymar and Luka Modric were too good to not be talked about.

Messi was a close runner-up for this award, but after Barcelona were swept aside by Juventus it was almost out of the little genius’s hands as he was forced to watch on as Ronaldo scored goal after goal after goal.

Messi’s brace in El Clasico in May was something special, the first a goal that made Dani Carvajal ( who, may I mention is a terrific player) look like someone playing football for the first time, and the second a world-class team goal, rounded off by Messi with a sumptuous finish in added time to make the score 2-3 to Barcelona.

He also saved his country with a memorable hat-trick, three brilliant goals against Ecuador which sent Argentina narrowly through to this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.

Isco is also a player who must not be forgotten as he showed his quality in style towards the end of last season.

Often in Ronaldo’s absence, it was Isco who stepped up and made the difference putting in a string off class performances that sent Real on their way to the title.

Luka Modric was also consistent as ever throughout 2017, and as one of the world’s best players he was a vital cog in Zidane’s triumphant outfit.

Finally, we have Neymar. He stole the show in March when Barcelona needed three goals to knock PSG out of the Champions League with three minutes let of normal time. A truly brilliant free-kick, a cool penalty and an impressive assist later resulted in perhaps one of the most amazing comebacks football has ever seen.

But Neymar, rightly or wrongly, felt that he wasn’t shown enough love by the club for his performances, that one in particular, and in the summer, with a hint of irony, PSG themselves paid £200m to bring him to Paris, and he has started his career in the French capital impressively.

So, Modric, Neymar, Isco and Messi are not to be forgotten, but Ronaldo’s brilliance prevailed in a memorable year.

Premier League 2017/18 Preview

It’s been said many times before, but is this to be the Premier League’s most exciting season yet?

There are six, or possibly seven teams who can all lay claim to having a reasonable shot at the title this year, whilst at the other end of the table the league looks far stronger this year; there will be no Aston Villa or Sunderland type team that will almost volunteer to be relegated themselves. No, this year the battle to avoid the drop could be as close as the battle at the top, as the quality of teams appears to be at a higher standard than we’ve seen for quite a few years.

Now, my prediction of last season’s table was forgettable to say the least, but I’ll go again in the hope of better luck this time round. It is widely agreed that this year’s top seven is likely to be the same as last year’s: Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Everton. However, it is the order of those teams that will be so hard to predict.

This season I’ve gone with City for the title again. In 2016/17, perhaps not all at the club were entirely behind Pep Guardiola and his methods, but after a full season of Premier League experience under his belt accompanied with an even better squad than last time out, the blue half of Manchester look too good to not win the league.

Young Brazilian Gabriel Jesus impressed in his first few games in a City shirt last season before injury ruled him out until the last few weeks of the season where he came back and scored even more goals. On a couple of occasions Pep has selected Jesus over Sergio Aguero, and to do that again this season would be a bold move, but this does look like the breakthrough season for the youngster. Pep may also experiment with Jesus out wide, but I would like to see a system with both him and Aguero as a partnership up front, perhaps with Jesus just behind his Argentinian team-mate.

Pep also has decisions to make with regards to the selection of the rest of his team too, with Leroy Sane, David Silva, Raheem Stering, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne at his disposal for attacking midfield options.

From there, he also has to choose between Fernandinho, Yaya Toure and Ilkay Gundogan as deeper midfielders, and one would hope that the latter is given as much game time as possible after the German international was yet again plagued by injuries last year, despite looking impressive when playing.

He has spent £100m on Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy as upgrades to Aleksandr Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta in the full-back positions, whilst he will be praying that this is the year where John Stones fulfils his promise and become’s one of the league’s best centre backs.

In goal, a world record fee (for a goalkeeper) has been spent in order to bring Edinson in from Benfica, and Pep will hope that he fares better than Claudio Bravo after a poor season in Manchester for the Chilean.

Having so many good players to choose from is a problem most managers would love to have but leaving out top players could also create disharmony amongst the group.

He’ll have to play his cards wisely, but with the sqaud he has, I’m tipping Pep’s Manchester City for the title.

The rest of my top four are made up of Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham.

Last year one of Man United’s main problems was goals, and after effectively sacrificing their league position in order to win the Europa League and thus qualify for the Champions League, Mourinho’s men finished a measly sixth.

This season though, with the addition of £75m man Romelu Lukaku to bolster United’s strikeforce, a sqaud with potential could turn into a squad that performs.

Goals may have been hard to come by at times last year for United in comparison with other top sides, but with Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkitaryan and Anthony Martial as main goal threats, that could all change.

Players such as Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata will also make a difference, whilst Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba are threatening to become one of the world’s best midfield duos, and this could be their year.

Despite being villified by a number of opposition clubs, Ander Herrera has his best season in a United shirt yet in 2016/17 and should he continue that, he will only be counting on Pogba to do the business too.

After Man United spent £90m to bring him back to the club from Juventus, he went below the radar for much of the season in a campaign where he often failed to dazzle.

However, this time out it could be his time to shine, his undoubted class brought trophies at Juventus, now it’s time to bring trophies to United.

In third place, I’ve gone with last season’s champions, Chelsea.

The signing of Alvaro Morata looks a good one, although it is hard to see how the Spaniard can improve on Diego Costa’s performances.

Costa, who looks set to leave after being told he wasn’t part of Conte’s plans earlier this year, is Chelsea’s main departure from their title-winning team of last season, along with Nemanja Matic.

The sale of Matic, a star performer from last season, to title rivals Manchester United, almost looks like Chelsea have themselves in the foot.

Not only have they sold a key player in their team, but they’ve handed him to Jose Mourinho where he will line up alongside Ander Herrera and allow Paul Pogba to play further forward and cause havoc.

It is a strange decision to say the least, and one that could leave Chelsea on the back foot; United and City look far stronger this year.

I’m tipping Tottenham to finish in the final Champions League spot this season, and although they will have to overcome thier Wembley hoodoo, they are undoubtedly a fantastic side.

The sale of Kyle Walker to Manchester City was their only notable departure from last season’s side which were Chelsea’s closest challengers for the title, but Kieran Trippier, who will replace him at right-back, is arguably the better players anyway.

Oddly, Spurs have not made a single signing so far this summer, and although their first 11 is definitely capable of challenging for top spot, one would’ve expected them to bolster their ranks and add depth to their sqaud ahead of what is likely to be an extended Champions League campaign in comparison with last season.

Still, with Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli, and Toby Alderweireld providing the spine of the team, they should be in the mix for first place for most of the year, but in what could be the tightest season yet, I expect them to fall just short once again.

In fifth, I expect Arsene Wenger’s men to miss out on Champions Leaue football for the second year running.

Whilst they have a good team that are capable of challenging high in the league, they simply don’t look as strong as Spurs, Chelsea, City and United.

Still, the acquisition – at last – of a top striker in Alexandre Lacazette should bolster thier firepower as he’ll look to score at least 20 goals this season, and new left-back Sead Kolasinac, who impressed on his Arsenal debut in the community shield with the equalising goal, looks as shrewd a buy as you’ll see all summer.

The big question mark still remains though – will Alexis Sanchez stay?

There have been strong rumours that both Manchester City and PSG are interested in bringing the Chilean to the club, although the former probably wouldn’t need another attacker, and the latter have just signed Neymar, so a deal would be unlikely, but it still seems possible that Sanchez could be on his way out.

Should he stay, Arsenal are likely to be contending for a champions league place or even higher, should he go, they could struggle.

In sixth, it could be a backwards step for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

With strong interest from Barcelona, star man Phillipe Coutinho could be out of the door this summer, which would no doubt be a blow for their campaign.

However, new signing Mohamed Salah will get his second crack in the Premier League after struggling with Chelsea, but off the back of a fine season with Roma, the Egyptian could cause problems for Premier League defences with his pace and eye for goal, making him slot in perfectly on the opposite wing to Sadio Mane.

While Salah is a good buy, Liverpool still seem to be lacking a genuine centre-forward.

Daniel Sturridge’s career was summed up in a nutshell in a pre-season game against Bayern Munich, coming off the bench and scoring a delightful chip, but injuring himself in the process of taking the shot.

Once again he will be a doubt and will be unreliable for the rest of the season, while Roberto Firmino isn’t really an out and out striker.

In seventh place I’ve gone with Everton, where Wayne Rooney has returned to his boyhood club.

Despite the sale of Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United, Everton look prepared for what should be a good campaign.

In adding Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane, Davy Klaasen, Wayne Rooney and Sandro Ramirez, Ronald Koeman has created an impressive new spine for the team.

It remains to be seen whether former Barcelona man Sandro can score the goals that Lukaku did, but he shouldn’t lack in providers as Klaasen appears to be a class midfielder.

Idrissa Gana Gueye will do the dirty work once again, and he is the one that often makes the difference for Everton; you notice when he’s not playing.

All in all, like last season, these top seven teams look a cut above the rest, but the thirteen below will be of a much higher quality this time out.

In eighth, I’m expecting West Ham to do the unexpected.

Amongst all the drama involving the Dimitri Payet saga and the poor performances at their new London stadium, Slaven Bilic has consistently been under pressure, but while some may expect him to finally crack, it could be the opposite.

New signing Javier Hernandez could be one of the buys of the summer.

He had a decent spell with Manchester United back in the premier league a few years ago and he has scored goals pretty much everywhere he’s been, and might just be the answer to West Ham’s problems.

Their defence may still be shaky, but Hernandez’s goals combined with Manuel Lanzini’s class from midifeld could be a frightening prospect.

Following them closely are Southampton in ninth under another new manager in Mauricio Pellegrino.

Pellegrino guided newly promoted Alaves to a ninth place finish and a cup final in Spain last season, which caught the eye down south.

Whilst results are still imperative, Southampton fans are craving some entertainment after a dire end to Claude Puel’s rein, but if he can get Manolo Gabbiadini scoring again and Nathan Redmond and Sofiane Boufal rejuvenated, the goals should flow, but that will be no easy task.

The Saints broke their transfer record for the third consecutive window to bring Juventus midfielder Mario Lemina to the club, and he could also get the feel-good factor going again at St Mary’s.

In tenth place, I’ve gone with Frank De Boer’s Crystal Palace.

After Sam Allardyce saved them from relegation last season, he resigned and it is De Boer’s job to take the team back to where they should be, and with their sqaud they are more than capable of a top half finish.

They under-performed for much of last season but the likes of Christian Benteke, Wilfried Zaha, Andros Townsend and Yohan Cabaye make up a strong side, and if De Boer can get them playing effective football under his possession-based philosophy, there’s no reason why they can’t go far.

In 11th, 12th and 13th I have Bournemouth, West Brom and Leicester respectively.

Under Eddie Howe the Cherries finished an impressive ninth last term, but they haven’t rested on their laurels, moving quickly to bring in Asmir Begovic, Nathan Ake and Jermian Defoe to strengthen the sqaud.

West Brom will almost certainly avoid any kind of relegation battle again, but under Tony Pulis it seems as if that side has reached its peak.

Pulis will keep them safe every year, but will it ever get much better than mid-table mediocrity?

As for Leicester, the back to basics approach worked wonders under Craig Shakespeare after Claudio Ranier’s shock sacking, and now it’s time to take it up a notch with the signing of Kelechi Iheanacho showing they want to keep improving.

They could lose Riyad Mahrez to Roma, which would be a blow, but they stil have the majority of their title-winning team amongst their ranks, so they should avoid any relegation scraps this time round.

In 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th, I’ve chosen Newcastle, Stoke, Watford and Swansea, all of which could find themselves battling to avoid the drop.

Under Rafa Benitez, the Magpies look the safest of the four, and although their sqaud appears fairly basic, Benitez will get the best out of his men in a functional system, something that not many teams will be able to do.

As for Stoke, they appear to be on a decline.

The loss of Marko Arnautovic to West Ham is a blow, and they still need a striker; Peter Crouch being their top scorer last season tells its own story.

Wilfried Bony looks like deadwood and it remains to be seen if Saido Berahino can fulfil his promise, Stoke need to move quickly or they could be in trouble this season.

Despite Marco Silva’s best efforts, Hull still went down in 2016/17.

In his new job, Silva finds himself with a far better chance of survival at Vicarage Road with a Watford side crying out for a bit of stability.

The signing of Andre Gray from relegation rivals Burnley could be massive, but Marco Silva has a lot of work to do to keep the Hornets up.

At Swansea, it looks almost certain now that their star man, Gylfi Sigurdsson, is set to leave, and Nigel Clement has an uphill task to save them without their Icelandic star.

As with Silva at Watford, Clement will hope to provide some stability in Wales after the club had three different managers last season, so Swans fans will be hoping that the board put a little faith into Clement’s work.

Young Tammy Abraham will hope to make an impact, whilst fellow striker Fernando Llorente will attempt to defy Wilfried Bony and Michu in his efforts to not be a ‘one season wonder’.

It almost pains me to predict the immediate relegation of Brighton, who have a wonderful story behind their ascent to the Premier League.

Still, under Chris Hughton there is no doubt that they will fight all the way, and whilst you shouldn’t rule out survival, it seems an unlikely feat, even if Anthony Knockeart can continue his fine performances from last season.

The sale of Andre Gray to Watford will not help Burnley, and this could well be the year they go down again.

Last season it was their home form that kept them up when their away form was so poor, but Turf Moor is unlikely to be as much of a fortress as it was last season, and if their away form doesn’t improve, a dismal season could be ahead.

The loss of Michael Keane will also unsteady the ship at the back, but Sean Dyche’s men won’t go down without a fight.

In 20th are David Wagner’s Huddersfield, who clinched promotion after two penalty shoot-out wins in the play-offs.

Wagner, the Jurgen Klopp disciple, lovesa high press, but against the top teams adopting that tactic could be fatal, especially against the likes of Man City and Arsenal.

The permanent signing of Aaron Mooy will definitely help, but it looks like a long season is in store for them.

Those top seven teams realy do all have a shot at the title, but will it be Conte again, or will Pep ad Jose be battling it out until the death?

 

PSG smash world transfer record with £200m Neymar deal

You could buy around 792,000,000 freddos for £200m. You could also sign Riyad Mahrez 400 times, according to his price when signed by Leicester. Instead, PSG have splashed the cash on Brazlian superstar Neymar in an unlikely transfer.

He will cost significantly more than double the price of the world’s former most expensive player, Paul Pogba, and many are suggesting he left after growing tired of surrendering the spotlight at Barca to Lionel Messi.

Messi, who has been a Barcelona player since the age of 13, has had the adoration of Barca fans for his entire career, and with his status as arguably the best player in the world, he regularly grabs the headlines.

When Neymar first signed for Barcelona in 2013 he made it very clear that he understood his role as second to Messi, and appeared to acknowledge that the Argentinian would dominate everything at the Camp Nou.

Now, after four seasons in Catalonia, it seems that the  25-year old is in search of his own personal success. After all, he won every club competition that there was to win during his Barca career, but he is yet to win the Ballon D’Or, and possibly feels that in order to step out of Messi’s shadow he must move to the French capital.

It was against PSG themsleves that Neymar scored two late goals and provided an impressive assist in the dying moments as Barcelona completed an unforgettable 6-1 victory in order to progress to the next round of the champions league against all odds.

However, despite being undoubtedly man of the match and performing brilliantly to save his side, it was an iconic image of Messi celebrating in the stands with the Barca fans that made the back pages, even though Neymar had a far more effective game than his team-mate.

It has been suggested that this hurt Neymar, who felt that it was his turn to be idolised by the club’s fans, but again it was Messi who got the credit.

Now he is at the club that he tormented in last season’s astonishing comeback, and he will be the main star in a PSG side looking to finally crack Europe.

For years the owners of the club have craved success in Europe, but they have consistently fallen short. This year, with their £200m man, it could be very different.

Being the star man at the club, and the league for that matter, will not only mean that Neymar is more likely to get the attention of fans and pundits across the country, but he will also be able to stand out and be the main man, which could boost his Ballon D’Or chances.

In addition, whilst PSG chase European success, domestic success is also likely as Paris often dominate their league despite Monaco’s success last season, so the Brazilian will be able to add to his already magnificent trophy cabinet.

So what does all this mean for Barcelona?

Well, having £200m to spend will certainly help, and they are targeting the likes of Paulo Dybala, Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.

The latter pair seem the more likely, although Barca would have to pay a premium to prise Coutinho off Liverpool’s desperate hands.

Reds manager Jurgen Klopp insists that their star man is not for sale, but should Barca make an offer in excess of £90m, it would be hard for Liverpool to turn down.

He would make a shrewd addition to their midfield, but filling the void on the left wing, Ousmane Demebele could be the perfect fit.

Although he is arguably yet to fully prove his quality, the French youngster showed lots of potential in an impressive campaign at Borussia Dortmund last season, and his key attributes would probably fit the bill for the Catalans.

His pace can stretch opposition full backs, creating space for Barca to push up and dominate as they love to do, whislt his convenient ability to use both his left and his right foot effectively is ver useful for a winger.

So, the key questions for next season in Barcelona and Paris will be, who will Barca sign? Will they perform? And is Neymar the best player in the world?

 

 

Champions League final preview 2017/18

‘This one could go either way’ is a phrase often used by pundits as merely a get of jail card, upon being asked to predict the outcome of the match in question. Two evenly matched teams meet, the pundit doesn’t choose to predict, and therefore the encounter is labelled as a game that could go either way.

But not this one. The last two previews on this website have, in all honesty, been drastically inaccurate.

Still, after all, there is no man on this earth with a crystal ball, and predicting is almost a lottery when it comes to football at the highest level. So, in fairness, I concede that maybe I should have anticipated Leo Messi’s brilliance in El Clasico, but come on, who thought that a struggling, injury ridden Arsenal side with a manger whose future is in question would beat the classy, impressive Premier League champions, Chelsea?

Anyway, those two games, despite being won by the ‘underdogs’, seemed straightforward enough to choose a favourite for.

Tonight, however, offers a very different encounter.

The Galacticos, lead by a previous Galactico himself in the form of Zinedine Zidane, who are champions of Spain and overcame the likes of Napoli, Bayern and Atletico en route to the final, face the ‘Old Lady’, current champions of Italy who reached the final after comfortably dismantling Barcelona on their way, conceding only one goal in all of their knockout games.

Regarding the game’s tactics, full-backs, as they often are for Real Madrid, could prove key figures in deciding the outcome of today’s final.

Marcelo and Carvajal, who are both excellent players and offer a further dimension to Real’s attack, will need to be contained by Juve, and could prove a difficult task.

As Juventus play with three central defenders and wing-backs, leaving Alex Sandro and Dani Alves to contain Real’s threat out wide would probably not only leave them exposed to being overloaded by a winger and full-back, but it would also quash their own attacking threat, and Dani Alves and Alex Sandro are both impressive players when going forward themselves.

In order to prevent Marcelo and Carvajal from causing havoc, Juventus wingers Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic will need to force them back by pressing high, which would therefore see the game come through the middle more, leaving an interesting midfield battle, where Toni Kroos and Luka Modric will be likely to relish.

If Marcelo and Carvajal are given the freedom to roam however, it could prove tricky for even Juventus’ incredible defence to stop them from delivering balls into the box where Cristiano Ronaldo, who drifts in from wide areas in menacing fashion, is almost impossible to mark, and when he is presented with a free header, he doesn’t miss, such is his sensational ariel ability.

Still, if there were a team in the world who could keep Real Madrid at bay for ninety minutes, it would be Juventus, especially with the outstanidng Gianluigi Buffon in goal who is looking to complete his trophy collection by finally getting his hands on European football’s most coveted prize.

As for Juventus going forward, Gonzalo Higuian will be hoping to shake off his ‘flat track bully’ tag after many disappointing major finals in recent years accompanied by goal after goal after goal in domestic football against the so called ‘lesser teams’.

His fellow countryman and strike partner, Paulo Dybala, already has a glowing reputation in Italy, and will look to show the world just how good he is in tonight’s final after two impressive goals against Barcelona in the quarter final stage.

So, whilst predicting hasn’t really gone my way recently, I dare to use my crystal ball to guess tonight’s outcome in a game that truly could go either way: Real Madrid 1-2 Juventus AET.

FA Cup final 2016/17 preview

  • Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side have the chance to cap off a near perfect season in today’s FA cup final at Wembley, where they face Arsenal in what could be Arsene Wenger’s last ever game at the club after over 20 years as manager.

Much is at stake for the Frenchman today as there have been numerous calls for his head throughout the season, but if Arsenal can beat the Premier League champions today, he could go some way towards validating his reasons for staying in his job.

However, he may not last as manager whatever the result as he has not reassured the fans of his future yet and today’s game would seem like the perfect opportunity to bow out.

Still, after such glorious success in his early days in North London, he will doubtless be desperate to claim his third FA cup in four years, although this year’s champions Chelsea could prove too much for the Gunners to overcome.

After their appalling tenth place finish in 2015/16, the tactical nous of Antonio Conte and the return to form of a number of key players such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa has seen Chelsea storm to the league title.

Interestingly, it was against today’s opponents where their season really took a turn for the better, where Wenger’s men comfortably dismantled Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates.

Following that defeat, Conte switched back to the 3-5-2 formation he had previously used in Italy with Juventus, and that decision proved to be inspired as they went on a rampant run, winning 14 games in a row and effectively securing them the title.

Conte has a full strength sqaud at his disposal today, so the only real decision for him to make is whether he should play Pedro or Willian.

Both have impressed when played this season, and Willian grabbed the first two goals in the semi-final of this competition, but Pedro has usually been favoured over the Brazilian and could prove a technically shrewd choice.

And whilst Chelsea have no injury concerns, Arsenal are without a number of key players today, with Kieran Gibbs and Shkodran Mustafi being fitness doubts, Gabriel injured and arguably one of their most important players, Laurent Koscielny, suspended, after a brainless red card last week.

Due to these absences, a three at the back system for Arsenal themselves could prove the answer, as it has been fairly successful for Wenger when employed in recent weeks.

Their defence is likely to be shaky, especially up against the likes of Hazard and Costa, and N’golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are likely to dominate the midfield.

Still, with all the odds against them, Arsene Wenger could yet re-kindle some of his old magic and win today, because after all, with Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal are always likely to be a threat.

Ozil’s inconsistent displays can often cause discontent among the Arsenal faithful, but it is clear that when the German is at full-throttle, he is rarely contained, and Alexis Sanchez has been one of Arsenal’s few players to have enjoyeda a decent season, and after his 2015 cup final cracker against Aston Villa, he will be hoping history will repeat itself.

So, a team who failed to reach the top four this year with a manager in limbo against a team that cruised to the league title under an impressive manager and with some of the best players in the world.

An Arsenal win wouldn’t be a miracle, but it seems highly unlikely. But this is football we’re talking about.

 

Premier League to be expanded to 22 teams

For the first time since the 1994/95 season, the Premier League is set to feature 22 teams in a decision that has startled the entire world of football.

It was decided the ‘showpiece’ league should include more teams in order feature even more excitement, with this change commencing in time for the 2017/18 Premier League season.

Instead of the usual three teams being promoted, there will now be five teams going up from the Championship, with four automatic promotion spots and the usual  play-offs still in place.

The new format will involve the 1 team that win the league claiming a Champions League knockout stage place, whilst the following 4 teams will go into the usual group stage, and the 17 others missing out, although there will still be three Europa League places up for grabs.

This extreme decsion will of course cause controversy, and whilst the FA suggest that the move will benefit the quality of the league, it is difficult to see how, so it certainly seems as though there are a lack of pros with regards to the decision.

There are, however plenty of cons, beginning with the fact that the winners miss out on the group stage of the Champions League, where teams often take the opportunity to blood youngsters and give them vital game time.

Also, it will cause great confusion in the lower leagues, where teams may completely change their ambitions for the season, and teams that may have given up on a play-off place may have had a chance had they known that this bizarre chance would occur.

Overall, it seems like an absurd, out of the blue change which could be detrimental to English football for years to come.

Claudio Ranieri sacked as Leicester manager!

It was just nine months ago when a usual bubbly, cheerful and likeable Claudio Ranieri lifted the Premier League trophy high above his head after Leicester’s outstanding triumph.

He had, quite frankly, guided the Foxes to an impossible victory, beating 5000/1 odds in the process and swiftly overcoming immediate public scepticism with regards to his appointment.

Although the input of modern managers is often made out to be more important than it actually is, a number of key decisions made by Ranieri directly affected their incredible rise, such as when he replaced the more attacking full back of options of Richie De Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp with more solid defenders in Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs.

This lead to a significant increase in clean sheets and a generally far more stable back four which was key in their rise up the table.

Also, away from tactical decisions, the Italian instilled an unbreakable team spirit within the camp, and promising the entire squad with a pizza after their first clean sheet clearly helped improve self-esteem amongst his players.

Overall, it is clear to see that whilst their unbelievable feat included some moments of magic from his players and a little bit of luck, Claudio Ranieri did a remarkable job considering the aim was to avoid relegation.

So, with their goal for last season being to avoid relegation, a title win and qualification for the Champions League should surely have earned Ranieri extra leeway with regards to this season’s performances.

However, it has in reality been the exact opposite.

Due to his brilliant work in his first season, the standard was unfairly raised and he was expected to maintain Leicester’s new found ‘high-achieving club’ status despite the loss of the pivotal N’golo Kante, so although he guided them through the Champions League group stage with ease and has kept them outside the relegation zone, which was their goal before his heroics, the board have taken the appalling decision to relieve him of his duties.

Maybe they think that the club are doomed with Ranieri at the helm, but they haven’t really given him the chance to prove that he has what it takes to keep them up, and in reality, is there a manger they can bring in that can instantly change everything and do a better job than what Ranieri has done this season? It is very unlikely.

Even if the veteran is not the best man for the job looking into the future, it surely would have been a wise idea to at least wait until the end of the season to part ways with the most successful manager in their history.

So, we will have to wait and see if they can somehow bring in a new manager that can improve on their current form, but whatever happens, this harsh sacking has left everyone feeling the pain of Ranieri. Poor, poor Claudio.

Champions League Round of 16 Preview #2

You’d have thought we’d seen everything. From Zidane’s incredible volley to Messi’s El Clasico masterpiece, Manchester United’s comeback against Bayern, or even last week’s 4-0 thrashing by PSG at the hands of Barcelona. Yet, there may be a fairytale to top it all off, never seen before in this competition.

Leicester City.

It would seem impossible. A disastrous Premier League campaign sees them sat one point outside of the relegation zone and three points away from being bottom of the league altogether. Now more than ever, the odds seem stacked against them. But surely we’ve learnt our lesson by now; in 2014/15 we said they’d go down, in 2015/16 we said the same, and now we’re saying they can’t succeed in the Champions League.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not expect Leicester to overcome Sevilla over two legs. Nor do I expect them to get close to Jorge Sampaoli’s dazzling side. But never write Leicester off.

Vardy could yet spring back into life, along with Riyad Mahrez, and if they can regain their previous defensive solidarity, they have every chance of keeping the tie alive going into the second leg, although we’ve been saying they need to re-impose their mean defence all season, and it’s never happened, so whilst there is still part of me that has a small crumb of hope that they can still defy the bookies and the pundits, I expect them to be brushed aside by the reigning Europa League winners for the past three years running.

Sevilla, who currently sit third in La Liga, have at times been devastating going forward under new attack-minded coach Sampaoli.

The Argentine, who guided Chile to back to back Copa America titles against his home nation, has transformed Sevilla into a title-challenging outfit this term, and whilst they look unlikely to take the crown come May, they still sit above Atletico Madrid.

The other English side competing this week are Manchester City. Pep’s side began the season in rampant form but soon went off the boil and haven’t really regained impressive form since, but with the quality in their squad in the obvious tactical nous of Guardiola, a European dream is still alive.

In their way are Ligue 1 Monaco, who are serious title contenders after years of domination in France’s capital.

After topping their group in qualifying, accompanied by the fact that they have been so impressive domestically this campaign, this tie could really go either way, and although City have a far superior squad, I would argue that they’re not favourites for this one.

Bayer Leverkusen host Atletico Madrid in the third of the four matches, and with both sides performing relatively poorly in their leagues sitting eighth and fourth respectively,  this should make for an open and interesting tie, with progression to the quarter-finals vital for the campaign’s of both sides.

Still, Diego Simeone’s Atletico may have lost their cutting edge in La Liga, but they topped their group finishing ahead of Bayern and thus avoiding a tie with Arsenal, so there are reasons to be optimistic at the Vicente Calderon.

However, Bayer Leverkusen will see this is as a difficult tie that will yet be important to win, putting them in a difficult position.

Finally, Porto welcome Juventus in a type of encounter that would often be categorised as ‘predictable’.

Nevertheless, these types of games often catch you out, and just when it looks like Juventus should prove too strong for their Portuguese opponents, especially over two matches, all could not go to plan for Allegrini and co.

So, it appears that all games should be relatively straight-forward other than the intriguing match up of Manchester City against Monaco – but this is football; you can never be sure.

Champions League Round of 16 Preview

So, the Champions League is back, and this is where it gets serious, and the questions we ask every year come back around. How far can the English teams go? Will Bayern beat Arsenal again? Will Barca or Real get knocked out early? Will there be a surprise winner?

The round of 16 draw has thrown up a couple of crackers, and in the first week’s action we see Benfica take on Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint Germain host Barcelona, Bayern Munich welcome Arsenal (again, the predictable eye roll from your typical Arsenal fan,) and hosts Real Madrid face Napoli.

The first game will see an inconsistent Dortmund side look to regain their form outside of the domestic programme, with Thomas Tuchel’s side hoping for European refreshment at the Estadio de la Luz.

However, under Rui Vitoria, Benfica currently lead the way in Portugal despite the loss of Renato Sanches to Bayern in the summer, and they will be no pushover for the German favourites.

Still, with Brazilian striker Jonas appearing to be a doubt for the game, they could offer little attacking threat, although bright spark Goncalo Guedes, compared already to Cristiano Ronaldo, will definitely be one to watch when Benfica do look to get forward, although don’t be surprised to see Tuchel’s side dominate possession.

As for players to look out for in yellow, young Ousmane Dembele seems to be a real prospect and his skill and energy is aesthetically pleasing to watch, and he could prove the key in a game where his side are likely to dominate.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will as always be a difficult man to contain, and whilst the domestic form of both sides has contrasted so far this season, I expect Dortmund to have too much quality on the night, although it will be by no means straight-forward.

Also tomorrow night, Barcelona travel to Paris in what has become an increasingly common fixture in recent Champions League campaigns, although the Spanish giants have ran out as victors every time.

Furthermore, in a league which is so often a stroll for the French heavyweights, Unai Emery has struggled since switching from Sevilla in the summer with the club sitting in second place after 25 games gone, three points behind leaders Monaco.

The loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Manchester United has no doubt affected PSG but the form of Edinson Cavani has been encouraging.

Still, his normally impressive six group stage goals don’t come close to the ten goals of Lionel Messi, who only played five of the six games.

Messi, who is arguably playing the best football of his career, still poses the same question to opposing managers – who do you stop him?

And whilst he is occasionally contained, the likelihood of containing Luis Suarez and Neymar also could prove just as difficult, with both of the South American forwards terrorising PSG in recent seasons with stunning displays.

The usual meeting between Bayern Munich and Arsenal has been thrown up by the draw once again, and despite the fact that Arsenal finally topped their group this year, their luck rewarded them with the German champions, who they have lost to in each of the last three ties.

However, there is optimism to be had for Wenger and co. as the Gunners frequently beat Bayern and have come very very close to ousting them in recent years.

Arsenal will, as usual be praying for Alexis Sanchez to be on song, as when they are, they are rarely stopped, but it has scarcely happened so far this season and it again seems unlikely that they will be capable of pulling off the upset.

Don’t be surprised to see Wenger start Olivier Giroud who has proved a threat against Bayern in the past as he could be the key to winning the tie, but they’ll need more than just Giroud.

The final game sees reigning champions Real Madrid host Napoli, and despite Madrid’s relatively uninspiring group stage showing where they failed to top their group, they consistently make the semi-finals of this competition with ease, year after year, and setbacks rarely stop them – how many times have we seen them on the brink of being knocked out, only for a late moment of Ronaldo magic or a Sergio Ramos header to save them in the dying embers of games.

This will to win and never give in is what has helped them reach the latter stages so often, and is why they’ve won the Champions League twice in the last three years.

As for Napoli, Dries Mertens and Marek Hamsik could well catch Zidane’s side out and there is quality throughout the Italian side, so it will, like all of the other games, be fairly closely contested although this game also features a team considered favourites.

But then again, what is the point in labelling a team as ‘favourites’? Were Leicester favourites for the title? No. Were Portugal favourites for the Euros? Of course not. So really, whilst you can analyse players, form, tactics and everything else, it is always inevitably inspiringly unpredictable.