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.

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?

 

 

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.

Will Gabriel Jesus be a success in the Premier League?

You’d be forgiven for thinking that throwing Gabriel Jesus in at the deep end immediately after his signing from Palmeiras was the wrong option.

Besides, Pep Guardiola already has a world-class striker at his disposal in Sergio Aguero, so Jesus should be eased in from the bench, given short bursts of game time in order to show what he can do and prove himself.

Yet Pep doesn’t do safe or simple. Pep takes risks. And whilst this season has not been ideal so far, the decision to drop Aguero for Jesus has instantly paid off, with three goals in his first three games in English football.

Still at the tender age of 19, Jesus is unlikely to fire City to a surprise comeback title, however, the Brazilian wonderkid appears to possess all the attributes to make it at the top level.

He was impressive in Brazil’s triumphant Olympic campaign in the summer, and he has shown signs already of being a genuine top quality player, linking up to great effect with the likes of Neymar and Phillipe Coutinho in first-team action in World Cup qualifiers.

He is an intelligent and skilful false number 9, who can effectively drop in the hole and look to create, or get in the box to finish of moves, both of which are ideal for City.

He has great skill and ability on the ball, able to run at speed, pick passes and beat players in one-on-one situations, and after scoring 28 goals in Brazil with Palmeiras, it seems that he could potentially develop into a very accomplished finisher.

His first goal in the 2-1 win against Swansea was a clever finish, and not only can he round off moves but he shows a classy striker’s instinct, frequently getting into the right positions when his team are getting forward.

All three of his goals in England so far have demonstrated his clever positioning, and his early form has already seen him clinch Aguero’s place in Pep Guardiola’s first eleven, with the Argentinian being dropped to the bench against Swansea.

Whilst this first team joy may not last for Jesus, he will certainly be another exciting attacking option for Guardiola at his disposal; he has the talent to become a special player.

No, he won’t drastically change things for a struggling Manchester City team, but his pace, dribbling and attacking qualities could prove pivotal in their pursuit of a top four finish.

The revival of Eden Hazard

2014/15 was the season where Eden Hazard put himself out there, showed that he wasn’t merely a skilful player with a lot of potential, but a very good player, perhaps even a world-class one.

His outstanding technical ability was a key factor in Chelsea’s title resounding title win that year, and it was clear that he was a huge talent and an exciting prospect who could become one of the world’s very best.

Following his excellent year where his goals, assists, and all round brilliance fired Chelsea to the title, he made it clear that he wanted to take his game up a notch, and he said on numerous occasions that he wanted to ‘score the amount of goals that Messi and Ronaldo do’, and that was the area of his game that he was focusing on.

However, 2015/16 was, in short, a disaster.

It is hard to see exactly where things went wrong for Hazard and Chelsea, whether it was a lack of hunger, or maybe just that the players fell out with Mourinho.

What we do know is that by the end of his rein he had certainly lost the dressing room, and surrounded by an out of form team, Hazard found himself out of form too, and there were suggestions made that he was one of the players who had been involved in a major fall out with Mourinho.

So, playing under a manager he didn’t like in an underperforming team, the Belgian struggled; he didn’t get into advanced positions as often, he wasn’t running directly at players which he does best and he failed to score Premier League goal in the entire first half of the season.

Still, when Jose was sacked on December 17th 2015, and replaced by Guus Hiddink for the remainder of the campaign, Chelsea’s form slowly began to recover, and as results improved, the latter stages of the season saw Hazard offer glimpses of his former self.

His two goals away at Bournemouth were his first of the season, and he followed that up with an outstanding goal to hand the title to underdogs Leicester, a year after scoring the title-winning goal for Chelsea.

Another spark of utter brilliance was displayed against Liverpool with a special solo goal, and that late end of season form saw him go into Euro 2016 with Belgium with a fresh optimism.

His displays were satisfactory in France, with a number  of solid but unspectacular games along with an impressive performance and trademark goal against Hungary, but whilst he played to a decent level himself, his country were sent packing by Wales in the quarter-finals, giving him the chance to return to Chelsea under new manager Antonio Conte and look ahead to a new season.

So, after Hiddink revived the spirit at the club and put them in a stable situation, Conte drilled Hazard and the rest of the squad and has quickly got them playing his way in his three at the back system.

He has taken what is and always has been a very good squad, but has turned them from mere solidarity to the team favourites for the title, and with Hazard now fully behind the ideas of his new boss, he has been able to thrive again, especially with the return to form of his team-mate Diego Costa.

In a slightly different role where the Belgian is a little bit further forward and closer to Costa, their simply ridiculous near telepathic link has been the reason for goal after goal after goal for the Blues this season.

His new found confidence has seen him run at defenders again and get into dangerous and goal-scoring positions, and a number of wonderful creative displays has seen him fire the team to the top of the table.

Now that the team is thriving, it is the perfect situation for him, but he must ensure that he doesn’t always play to the level of the rest of the side, and that he is capable of still performing whilst others may not be in form.

He is the main spark of creativity and genius in Conte’s scintillating side, and for now, it looks as if he has re-discovered his magic touch.

FIFA expand World Cup to 48 teams

Could this be the latest move by Gianni Infantino to further liken himself to former corrupt FIFA President Sepp Blatter? It seems likely.

From 2026 onwards, the World Cup will now feature an expanded version of the tournament featuring 48 teams rather than the previous 32, and whilst there are positives to take out of this move, there are far more negatives.

We’ll start with the glass half empty. We get to watch more football, which is what we love. The knockout stages, which now begin with a round of 32, are commonly more exciting than the group stages, and with more knockout games, there is a case for suggesting more late drama and more entertainment.

Also, with more countries around the world participating in the competition, the profile of football will be raised amongst those areas, which can surely only be a good thing.

However, this is a clever move from Infantino.

By choosing to include more teams in the tournament, there will be more fixtures, meaning there will be more TV money, resulting in more money for FIFA.

Infantino has clearly opted for this expansion for financial gain, but it will also play into his hands as this change will allow more countries to qualify, and those countries will be more likely to vote for him as a result, increasing his chances of being re-elected.

Whilst he has tried to make a case for the change by saying the quality of the football will improve, it clearly didn’t work at Euro 2016, which was not a success.

After expanding the tournament from 16 teams to 24, we saw a drop in entertainment, and despite the fairytale stories of Iceland and Wales, they are mere consolations to what was, in reality, a failure of a tournament, where we saw a team that lacked  in talented players (Ronaldo aside of course) set up with an extremely defensive style, grinding out results with football which really wasn’t good to watch.

Yes, we may be more likely to see teams thrive like Iceland and Wales did, but with more teams, those fairytales will seem slightly forced as they are more likely to happen, and they risk not being quite as magical as they would be in a 32 team competition.

Further cons include the fact that three team groups could incentivise smaller teams to play for 0-0 score-lines in order to progress.

The three team format could also see teams be mutually beneficial to one another, as it is likely that there will be a situation where two sides would both qualify if a certain result occurred, and if that score-line is reached, two teams not trying would hardly make for interesting football.

Away from the World Cup finals themselves, teams like USA and Mexico will find qualification almost a given and far too easy with the expanded format, and there will be a lack of competition in their qualifying campaigns, adding to the suggestions that the club game is succeeding the international game with ease – be honest, does anyone look forward to an international break anymore?

Overall, this appears to be a change that will bring financial gain to FIFA and will give Blatter a better chance of re-election, and as for the football, there’s not much hope.