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.

Liverpool vs Southampton EFL Cup semi-final match report

After penalty heartbreak in last year’s final, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool had been determined to make amends as they faced Southampton in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final a fortnight ago, but a poor performance saw the Reds outplayed in a 0-1 defeat, which could, and almost certainly should have been more, with a number of chances going begging for the Saints.

It is always difficult when a clean sheet is required at Anfield, especially with Liverpool being the Premier League’s top scorers so far this season, but Claude Puel’s men executed a difficult game plan to perfection.

The absence of an early goal unsettled Liverpool as they struggled to break down a resolute Southampton defence, and whilst they’re focus was on getting the first goal, they looked shaky when being hit on the counter.

Nathan Redmond, very impressive on the night, lead two threatening bursts forward as Saints created the two most dangerous chances of the half, with the first being a pull back to Dusan Tadic who, 8 yards from goal, could only be denied by Liverpool  keeper Karius.

The second saw another positive run from Redmond as he drove at the heart of the Red’s defence at pace, and this time he pulled the ball back for Steven Davis who failed to latch onto the first ball, and panicked at the second bite of the cherry, skewing the half volley chance high over the bar.

Despite 0-0 suggesting that it had been a successful half for the South Coast side, the missed opportunities allowed nerves to creep in, but it had been a very encouraging 45 minutes of football.

Southampton have often been criticized for lacking tempo in the final third, counter attacking without pace or conviction and passing backwards too often this season, but that changed tonight as they soaked up the Liverpool pressure whilst remaining effective on the break.

However, Jay Rodriguez hadn’t looked too sharp leading the line, and the pace of Shane Long offered a far more dangerous option.

The half time team talk seemed to have rejuvenated Liverpool to an extent, and it seemed as if they had woken up at last, but in the final quarter of the tie, it always seemed like it would be too little too late.

With a bit more creativity, Daniel Sturridge was presented with two clear cut opportunities, but the first was a close range acrobatic effort that flew over, and the second also cleared Fraser Forster’s goal.

Forster, who looked to have made a catastrophic error with what looked to be a routine save, made an incredible leap to claw the ball away from the goal and tip it round the far post in what was a miraculous clearance, and at that point, it just seemed to be Southampton’s night.

Despite the chances created, take nothing away from the colossal performances in the Southampton back line, with Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida the makeshift centre-back partnership.

The pair were both out of favour merely a month ago, but with the sale of Jose Fonte to West Ham and the injury to the superb Virgil Van Dijk, the two relatively inexperienced defenders were placed under immense pressure.

Stephens, called up for the biggest game of his career so far, had a flawless game, whilst Yoshida continued his recent good form with another top match.

So, after Southampton had put in a defensive master-class and had kept Liverpool at bay for ninety minutes, their moment going forward finally came, with two substitutes combining.

Josh Sims carried the ball at pace from his own penalty area in a brilliant run, and after cutting across Georginio Wijnaldum, he slid the ball through to that man Shane Long, who caressed the ball into his path before keeping his composure and belting the ball past Karius in goal and sending Saints to Wembley.

Southampton’s last major cup success came in the FA Cup of 1976 against Manchester United, and should the Red Devils overcome Hull in their return leg, history could repeat itself.

The biggest concern is that Virgil Van Dijk will remain a doubt for the final itself, but should their new found partnership at the back continue to flourish, they will remain serious contenders for League cup glory.

In what has been a relatively poor season for them in reality, cup success would make it a far more memorable one, so Saints fans – keep February 26th free in your diary.


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.

Southampton worries pile up amid Van Dijk rumours

Year after year, impressive recruitment allows Southampton to remain a top half Premier League side, often pushing for Europe.

Despite losing the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Morgan Schniederlin, Nathaniel Clyne and many more over the past few seasons, they have consistently improved upon their league position each season.

However, this time, their luck seems to have run out.

After losing Graziano Pelle, Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and boss Ronald Koeman in the summer, the Saints have found goals hard to come by this season.

In 2015/16, the form of Shane Long throughout, added to a few goals from Pelle and an impressive late flourish from Mane saw Saints finish as one of the higher scoring clubs in the league, but with the lack of goals from the former and the departures of the latter, the goals have dried up.

Charlie Austin has had a unspectacular start to the season and has now been side-lined through injury, and new-signing Nathan Redmond has been inconsistent, whilst Jay Rodriguez, finally back from injury, has hardly set the league alight with three goals.

What has kept Southampton tenth in the table up until now has been their solid back four of Cedric, Jose Fonte, Virgil Van Dijk and Ryan Bertrand, but with Fonte rumoured to be on his way to Manchester United and Van Dijk also subject of interest from a number of top clubs, their main assets in the squad could depart, leaving them without much hope.

Van Dijk, who signed from Celtic in 2015 for a fee of around £13 million, is being courted by the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, and it’s easy to see why.

The Dutch defender, who won Southampton’s player of the season award in 2016 is a calm and composed defender, possessing elegance similar to players such as John Stones and Gerard Pique.

His repertoire features his impressive range of passing, his excellent reading of the game, and his aerial ability which is second to none, coming handy in both defence and attack.

Going forward, he has scored three goals this season, the same as striker Nathan Redmond, and more than Shane Long, and whilst he has played as a centre-back for his whole career so far, his understanding of the game and his technical ability suggests that he could play in a role further forward, possibly as a holding midfielder.

The only reason to suggest that he isn’t a world-class defender already is the fact that we are yet to see how he adapts to a variety of tactical instructions, and maybe a move to the Etihad to play under Pep Guardiola would suit him.

He also seems ready-made to be a Barcelona player, with his ability on the ball appearing to be a perfect fit for the Catalan champions, whilst a move to title favourites Chelsea could also help his development, although he could struggle for game time.

Whether he stays or goes, Southampton aren’t in a healthy situation, but fans at St Mary’s will be praying that he stays nevertheless – and with good reason.