City show defensive frailties once more as Liverpool emerge as early favourites to retain their crown

City showing worrying signs already

‘For me, they were lucky. We did a lot of good things to win the game. A team like Leicester comes here and plays with 11 guys behind the ball. It’s not the way I like to play.’ That is what Manchester City midfielder Rodri had to say to BBC Radio 5 live after his side’s 2-5 defeat to Leicester on Sunday.

It is certainly an interesting perception from a man who arrived at City last season from Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, a team well-known for often putting 11 men behind the ball. Whether or not Leicester did get lucky, there is no doubt that City were the architects of their own downfall.

Three needless penalties were given away, all by defenders, all correct decisions. Maybe that was a one off. So too, could James Maddison’s incredible strike have been. Yet City simply shouldn’t be coming away from games like this losing by a three goal deficit, and Vardy’s second goal was inexcusable from a Manchester City point of view.

After full back Timothy Castagne’s run was untracked, he was able to receive the ball with time and produce a low cross into the box towards Jamie Vardy. Eric Garcia was in a relatively acceptable position to deal with the pass, yet he seemed to allow Vardy far too much space to produce a cheeky flick over Ederson and into the net. Without doubting Garcia’s footballing abilities, in his short Manchester City career so far, his mistakes have epitomised one of City’s main problems – specific defensive errors.

For all of John Stones’s ability, the £50m spent on his services has proved hugely unsuccessful due to his error prone performances, and the similar amounts of money paid for Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy also appeared to have been spent on defenders who simply aren’t good enough at defending, despite what they may bring going forward – after all, both were culpable for mindless penalties given away at the weekend.

City appeared to have the chance to sign Virgil Van Dijk a few seasons ago but considered him too highly valued as he was only going to be a backup for Stones and Otamendi at the time – a clearly fatal error.

Van Dijk could have been what Jerome Boateng was to Pep’s Bayern or Gerard Pique was to Pep’s Barca – but better. Who knows what City would have won if they had signed him; not only would he drastically improve their biggest weakness, runaway champions Liverpool would have been without their best defender, and don’t forget that Liverpool had plenty of defensive troubles themselves before Van Dijk’s signing.

It remains to be seen whether City’s expensive signing of Ruben Dias from Benfica for a fee in the region of £63m can turn around their defensive woes but it seems as though they have already missed out on Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli. Unfortunately for the ‘Cityzens,’ a lot needs to change if Man City are to deliver the success that is expected of them.

Kane shows why he is still underrated whilst Bale makes shock Spurs return

Tottenham’s Harry Kane was widely regarded as one of Europe’s best strikers a few years ago. In 2017, he bagged an incredible 56 goals in 52 appearances for Spurs and England. Perhaps it has been his injuries or fatigue, but Kane’s stock has fallen recently, and he deserves far more credit than he gets. His goalscoring rate may have fallen slightly, but 18 Premier League goals in 29 games last season is still a relatively impressive return. 

However, it has been his unselfish playmaking contributions catching the eye recently. Kane has always had more to his game than just being a poacher but recently he has shown his creative qualities more than ever, highlighted by his incredible performance against Southampton where he assisted all four of Heung-min Son’s goals (whilst adding another for himself and having two more goals disallowed). 

As superb as Son’s running and finishing was, none of his goals would’ve been possible without Kane’s superb vision and perfectly weighted passes, and as these two are showing just how strong their on-field connection is, the prospect of former hero Gareth Bale joining the attacking line is mouth-watering. 

Bale’s recent antics, whilst not being included in Zinedine Zidane’s plans at Real Madrid, have been nothing short of comical, but as funny as it was to see him pretending to sleep in the stands and lifting up a flag reading ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order,’ his lack of playing time and questionable attitude could be worrying for Spurs fans.

Slow start for new look Chelsea 

It was always clear that with so many new signings, it would take the Chelsea squad time to gel effectively and become the side they are capable of being. However, being 3-0 down to West Brom after 27 minutes probably wasn’t in the script. 

Of course, it is far too early to judge Frank Lampard and his side’s performance so far – Christian Pulisic, Ben Chilwell and Hakim Ziyech are all still yet to feature. But is it fair to already rule them out of the title race? 

After Man City and Liverpool’s exploits in recent seasons, it seems almost certain that at least 90 points will be required to lift the Premier League crown. Dropping 5 points in their first 3 games is already worrying and it took a remarkable turnaround to rescue a point to West Brown, not to mention that Reece James’s long-range wonder goal and Kurt Zouma’s deflected strike against Brighton in their only win of the season so far perhaps didn’t merit all 3 points against a Brighton side that would have felt that they deserved at least a point. 

There are also still many questions for Frank Lampard with regards to his system – will Werner always play out wide with Abraham or Giroud central, even when Pulisic and Ziyech return? Will Lampard choose Mason Mount or Kai Havertz to play in the number 10 role? Which pairing will start out of Kante, Jorginho and Kovakic? 

The quality of Chelsea’s squad this season is unquestionably exceptional, but their defensive issues may still be a problem and Lampard has many key decisions to make in order to get the best out of the attacking talent at his disposal.

Brighton’s Lamptey shines amid rumours of Bayern move 

After making his debut for Chelsea last season in a 2-1 victory over Arsenal, Tariq Lamptey, recently turned 20 years old, is now drawing attention from clubs like Bayern Munich while he stars as Brighton’s right back. 

At Chelsea since the age of 8, he was given his first opportunity with the first team by manager Frank Lampard, known for giving young players a chance despite his relative inexperience as a manager. However, Lamptey appeared to be behind Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta in the pecking order to be Chelsea’s starting right back and thus made the move down south to Brighton on the winter transfer deadline day. 

Since then he has essentially shown Chelsea that they have made a big mistake, most notably by putting in a superb performance against his former club in a 1-3 defeat on the opening day of this season. Ironically, it was current Chelsea right back Reece James that stole the headlines with his long-range stunner and subsequent man of the match, but Lamptey’s performance was arguably more deserving of the accolade. 

In the two games since, Lamptey has continued to demonstrate his blistering pace and skill down the right flank, so much so that his very few performances in the Premier League have already attracted the attention of current Champions League winners Bayern Munich. 

Unfortunately for Lamptey, England currently boast an array of impressive options and right back, but if he continues in his current form and ends up making the move to Germany, his hat could well be thrown into the ring for the rescheduled Euro 2020 this summer.

Bizarre handball decisions ruining football

Upon being asked if he would instruct his players on how to not fall foul of the new handball interpretations, Aston Villa manager Dean Smith responded, ‘No not at all because I don’t know how to not fall foul of it.’ 

Perhaps the most controversial penalty that has been given so far this season was when Andy Carrol headed onto the arm of Eric Dier, ultimately giving Callum Wilson the chance to equalise from the spot, meaning that Spurs dropped two points. After a similar incident between the same two players just minutes before went unpunished, Carrol again headed the ball onto Dier’s outstretched arm. Dier was facing the opposite way and was no more than two yards away from Carrol. Many would agree that Dier’s arms were not in an unnatural position; he needed to have them outstretched in order to jump high enough. 

The rule states that it is an offence if the ball touches the hand or arm of a player who has their arm outstretched beyond their shoulder, and the rule also includes the fact that it is still an offence if the ball touches the player’s hand or arm directly from the head or body of another player that is close. 

On this evidence, the decision was correct. However, common sense must be applied to the handball law as it is applied to the rest of the refereeing decisions. Everyone knows that Eric Dier did nothing wrong and handball should not have been given. Football laws are often ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways, so it would be refreshing to see common sense being applied in these situations, although you can hardly blame the referee making the decision in this instance; the laws need to change. 

Slightly less well documented was the handball decision recently given against Matt Doherty against Southampton – as Spurs ran out 2-5 winners it wasn’t talked about too much as it didn’t influence the outcome of the game, but a penalty was awarded after the ball flicked off the foot of Harry Winks onto the arm of Matt Doherty, who was less than a yard away and already had his arm in the position that it ended in before the ball hit it. This is another clear example of where common sense will tell anyone who understands football that it clearly should not have been a penalty. 

Another big problem with the handball law in my opinion is the relatively recent law that says that it is an offence if a player scores a goal or creates a chance immediately after the ball has touched their or a team-mate’s arm even if it was accidental. This has improved from last season where the law was that if the ball had touched the arm of a player at any point in the build up of the goal then the goal should be disallowed. 

It seemed bizarre that when the ball brushed the arm of Phil Foden (who was unaware as he was lying on the ground) before Riyad Mahrez dribbled past two more players to score against Liverpool last season, the goal was disallowed, or when the ball came into miniscule contact with LIonel Messi’s arm before his disallowed second goal against Napoli last season. This is a clear situation of where common sense should have been applied: although the law states that both goals should have been disallowed because the ball touched a player’s arm, did they affect the outcome of the situation and were they obvious enough to waste minutes of the game analysing? Would the opposition have complained if the goal had been given? 

As aforementioned, the rule has now been changed so that the goal will only be ruled out if the goal or chance occurs immediately after the ball touches the hand, but this still does not seem right. Why should Messi’s goal against Napoli have been ruled out at all? It did not assist him when controlling the ball, it did not even contribute anything to the goal, yet not only was time wasted in forensically analysing whether it had made contact with the arm or not, Barcelona had a perfectly good goal ruled out. 

Furthermore, why should this law only apply to if a goal is scored or a chance is created? Why is a handball only a handball in certain situations? With this logic, the ball could brush a defender’s arm in the area and nothing would be given, and it could then immediately brush an attacker’s arm in the area in exactly the same foul and it automatically becomes an offence. 

Overall, I believe that it should only be handball if the defender deliberately touches the ball with their arm or hand, unless the ball hits their arm or hand to give them a significant advantage. For example, if a player tries to set up his team-mate with a dangerous through ball and it is blocked by an opponent’s arm, whether it was intentional or not, handball should be given. 

In light of the recent incidents involving Eric Dier, Victor Lindelof, Joel Ward and Matt Doherty, there has been lots of media attention with regards to these bizarre handball decisions. Surely, surely this means we will soon see change.

Key questions for the 2020/21 season

After probably the strangest season we have ever seen in world football, the Covid-19 pandemic is set to cause further complications for the sport. There are still no fans and we’re starting late, whilst clubs have not had a full pre-season to prepare and the transfer window will remain open until early October. Despite all that, optimism remains high and there are many important questions to ponder about what will happen in a season that is set to be as unpredictable as ever – in more ways than one.

Will the season’s schedule be interrupted again? 

Many stars such as Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba, Riyad Mahrez and Neymar have all tested positive for the coronavirus in the last few weeks, begging the inevitable question of can football go ahead with so many players contracting the virus? Until now there has been no suggestion of games being suspended but the recent rise of Covid-19 cases in England, coupled with the return of schools across the country, could force a second lockdown. To continue football amongst these conditions would be almost impossible: in cricket we have seen teams playing in ‘bubbles’, where they only come into contact with their team-mates and cannot meet with anyone outside of the bubble, but this has meant that the players have gone without seeing their families for extended periods of time, and the schedule in place for European football with players playing virtually all year round makes this idea seem far from feasible.

How will Chelsea’s new signings fare?

After their transfer ban created a welcome opportunity for Frank Lampard to blood youngsters such as Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham last season, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has flexed his financial muscle with an incredible summer shopping spree. Defensively, former Brazil captain Thiago Silva comes in from PSG after reaching last season’s Champions League final, whilst £50m was paid to Leicester for left-back Ben Chilwell. After the departures of Pedro and Willian, highly rated Hakim Ziyech has been brought in from Ajax followed by the impressive coup of 21 year-old Kai Havertz, considered to be one of Germany’s brightest young stars. Perhaps most important of all their signings is the arrival of striker Timo Werner from RB Leipzig after his haul of 28 goals in last season’s Bundesliga season – after Tammy Abraham’s form appeared to drop off as last season went and despite his ability Olivier Giroud probably still can’t be called a world-class striker, Werner’s goals could take Chelsea to the next level. Albeit still with much to improve in his game, the 24 year-old has come on leaps and bounds over the last few seasons and under the right management could get even better – so is Chelsea the right place for Werner and the rest of Chelsea’s many new purchases? 

After securing Champions League football with a 4th place finish last season, they will have the opportunity to compete at the highest level (which rarely harms the development of young players) and the increased number of games they will be playing will allow for healthy rotation, especially with their new-found abundance of quality attacking options. This should help avoid burnout in the squad whilst also giving enough players the game time that they want. Furthermore, Lampard’s love for the club will mean that however long he stays in charge, he will always have Chelsea’s best interest in his heart, meaning that he will undoubtedly do everything in his power to progress the development of the new youngsters. However, it is rare that you see a team buy so many top players in one window and in such a unique situation Frank Lampard will have a tough job to help the team gel quickly enough if they wish to mount a serious title challenge.

Can Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds impress in the Premier League?

Following their near-miss at promotion in 2018/19, some may have begun to doubt Marcelo Bielsa, or as he’s nicknamed ‘El Loco’s’ magic. But there is a reason why managers such as Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino consider him the best coach in the world. Last season, they swept the Championship away with their positional play and attacking football, and after 15 seasons away, Leeds United are finally back in the Premier League. But will they cope with the step up? 

New signing Rodrigo has been brought in following some superb seasons with Valencia that have made him arguably Spain’s first choice striker, but as impressive as this signing is for a newly promoted team, some think that current striker Patrick Bamford’s movement and link up play is too integral to Bielsa’s system for him to be dropped, despite his lack of goals. 

We’ve recently seen Wolves be promoted to the Premier League and instantly look at home in the top half of the table, but it would be fair to say that Wolves relied quite heavily on heavy financial backing (and essentially signing half of the Portuguese national team). 

Although he is still considered by many as the best coach there is, El Loco has failed to ever achieve as much as one would expect, and recent stints at Lille, Lazio and Marseille have all failed. At Leeds, he is adored by the huge fan base of what is a huge club that has been out of the big time for too long, so after delivering promotion in style last season, watching Bielsa attempt to secure Leeds’ position as a Premier League team could be one of the most intriguing things we see all season.

How will Liverpool cope with their title defence?

After winning the Premier League for the first time since its creation, Liverpool fans can finally be happy. Jurgen Klopp has taken them from a Europa League side that pushes for top four to Champions League and Premier League winners. But as we know, defending the Premier League crown is easier said than done. In 2019, Manchester City became the first team to do so since Manchester United in 2009, and as strong as their squad was last season, they ultimately fell well short, finishing 18 points behind Liverpool. 

As good as Liverpool were last season, the fact that few of their important players suffered severe injuries was pivotal, as injuries can make or break a season. City suffered losses to key names such as Aymeric Laporte, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero, whilst Marcus Rashford’s injury could have unravelled Man United’s season if it weren’t for the lockdown break allowing him to return fully fit when the season began. 

Whilst City, with Pep still in charge, will be hungry for revenge, it is also probably fair to say that this is the strongest ‘top six’ we have seen in the Premier League in years. Chelsea now have a squad that could rival anyone in Europe whilst Man United’s post-lockdown form following Bruno Fernandes’ arrival from Sporting in January make them title contenders too. Arteta has already improved Arsenal in the short time that he’s been there and Spurs have Jose Mourinho at the helm so trophies could finally beckon for them, but the North London clubs are unlikely to mount a serious title challenge.

Messi asks Barcelona to leave

Following on from FC Barcelona’s third successive embarrassing exit from the Champions League in the form of an 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich, the unthinkable has happened. Lionel Messi, the club’s all time top scorer and greatest ever player, has told the club that he wishes to leave this summer.

He has now reached two decades at the club after signing for them at the age of 13, but after many years of trophy-laden glory, Barcelona’s boardroom nightmare and miserable decline have taken their toll on their talisman as he looks for pastures new.

Barcelona have in truth been on a downwards trend ever since their treble winning season in 2014/15 with Messi, Neymar and Suarez all guns blazing, and it has in fact been mainly just because of the presence of Messi in the side that they have managed to sweep many of their underlying issues under the carpet.

And whilst Messi has regularly bailed his side out of trouble, consistent mismanagement by the board of directors and club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has put Barcelona in their worst position in years; they have lost their identity and consistent high-profile, expensive signings have failed. Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann all cost Barcelona significantly more than 100 million euros each and none have even justified a guaranteed place in the starting 11 – Coutinho has even been loaned out and ironically came off the bench for Bayern Munich to score the 7th and 8th goals in their recent humiliation of his parent club, before going on to win the entire tournament, costing Barcelona even more money due to a clause in his contract implicating that Barcelona must pay Liverpool around £5m if Coutinho goes on to win the Champions League.

However, Messi’s request to leave is only the first step in him actually finding a new club. In his contract, Messi is allowed to leave Barcelona for free at the end of every season, but it is officially written in his contract that he was only allowed to leave by June 10th. Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we know that the season in fact finished two months later, so Messi will hope that this means he is still able to leave Barcelona for free. On the contrary, Barcelona will claim that the date by which he was able to leave on a free has passed, meaning that his astonishing buy out clause of 700 million euros would stand. If this was a case, surely no club in the world could afford him.

Still, Messi has made it clear that he wants out of the club, especially after his influential team mate and close friend Luis Suarez was recently told he was surplus to requirements. As a result, it is possible that a legal battle could ensue between club and player and the case could be taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but this seems unlikely as both parties will want this issue to be resolved quickly and easily. Furthermore, one would think that after his 20 years of outstanding service to the club Messi should be somewhat rewarded for his loyalty – he has had many opportunities to leave in the past.

In fact, according to well-respected Spanish journalist Guillem Balague, Messi decided that he wanted to join Manchester City back in 2016, only to then make a u-turn after his first training session back with Barcelona after the off-season. After flirting with a move to England back then, could now be his time to finally prove himself abroad?

At 33, Messi is approaching the twilight of his career, and over the past couple of seasons he has shown signs that he is already well past his peak. However, it’s easy to forget just how good Messi was at his peak and he is still one of the world’s best, as evidenced by the fact that he finished the league season with the most goals (25) and assists (21).

A common criticism of the Argentinian has been that he has never proved himself in another league, whereas his ‘arch nemesis’ Cristiano Ronaldo has excelled in 3 of the top 5 leagues in Europe. Many also say that he wouldn’t be able to perform as well in the Premier League as he does in La Liga, but it is worth noting that Messi has more goals against the Premier League ‘big 6’ than Ronaldo – and we all know which one played Premier League football for six years.

Moreover, whilst he could still light up the Premier League should he join City, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that he would’ve been a guaranteed success in England three years ago as suggestions that he wouldn’t be able to handle the style/physicality of the Premier League are nonsense, but if he joins City now we will not be seeing Lionel Messi in his prime and we should therefore judge his performances accordingly.

There have been reports that Messi has contacted his former manager Pep Guardiola (current Manchester City manager) with regards to a move to the Etihad but nothing has been confirmed. The other realistic possible destinations would be a return to his homeland in Argentina or a move to Italy to play for Internazionale.

In the past Messi has said that he wants to return to the club of his childhood, Newell’s Old Boys, before the end of his career, but the more likely outcome appears to be a move to Inter Milan, a club who feel that they are one step away from overthrowing Juventus’ incredible streak of winning the league 9 times in a row. Signing the best player in the world shouldn’t do their hopes any harm, and the fact that he would save money on tax in Italy could also mean a move to Inter are even more likely as it would be difficult for any club to afford his wages and an Italian club would not have to pay him as much as a club from another country would in order to match his current wages.

Should Messi end up at Inter, we could witness a renewed rivalry between him and Ronaldo as Inter and Juventus go head to head for the Serie A title next season.

Barcelona sporting director Ramon Planes recently insisted that they are trying to convince Messi to stay and that they are aiming to build next season’s team around him, but after embarrassing second leg defeats to Roma and Liverpool followed by their humiliating defeat by Bayern, on top of his falling out with the board, his incredible story with Barcelona is surely about to come to an end.

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?