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.

Football Magic Player of the Year 2016: Lionel Messi

There is no doubt, this was not the most straight-forward decision. For obvious reasons, this will cause controversy – but it’s time to explain why Lionel Messi is the 2016 Football Magic player of the year.

Firstly, I would like to stress that whilst the Ballon D’Or has very specific criteria, this award will be entirely based on performance over the course of the year, and nothing else.

Lionel Messi, is a class above. It’s simple. When deployed as a false nine under Pep Guardiola before the arrivals of Neymar and Luis Suarez, he scored goal after goal after goal. More than anyone else in the world by far.

And although times have changed, as he is now accompanied by two other certain South American forwards, he has become a different player – and arguably, even better.

He begins on the right, but has freedom to go where he likes, finding different pockets of space all over the pitch, appearing deep, on the left or sometimes even as a central striker.

Whilst Luis Suarez has arrived and is now scoring more goals than ever before, it is clear that whilst it doesn’t seem like Messi will ever hit the goal scoring heights of his incredible 91 goal year in 2012, he has not lost his ability in front of goal at all, as now, in a different position, with slightly less chances, he has still scored an outstanding 51 goals in 51 games for Barcelona, with a further 8 in the colours of his country.

In addition to that incredible feat, the link established with Neymar and Suarez has seen him showcase his fantastic ability to consistently set up for his team-mates, with 32 assists this year.

Still, despite all that, some may still argue that Ronaldo or Suarez have still been better.

After all, the Portuguese did completely turn a 0-2 deficit on its head in the Champions League with a hat-trick against Wolfsburg, and at times he has looked unstoppable this year, especially with his sensational four goal haul against Celta Vigo last March.

As for Suarez, an incredible run of form at the end of 2015/16 wrapped up the title and the cup for Barcelona, with 14 goals in just 4 games at one stage, and countless important goals and assists.

However, no matter how deep you look into goals, assists and trophies, all too often people miss the performances.

By looking at the stats, Messi scored one goal and made no assists in last weekends 4-1 win over Espanyol.

But, analysing the match fully, Messi quite simply did things that weren’t human in that game.

After impressive work from Iniesta to feed the ball into Messi 25 yards from goal, a classy nutmeg in a tight area followed by the dismantling of the Espanyol defence, taking a further four defenders out of the equation with insane balance, dribbling and control, a quick toe-poke forced the goalkeeper into parrying the ball into the path of Luis Suarez, who slotted home.

Immediately after this, he received the ball 25 yards from goal once again, this time showing unbelievable acceleration and terrific skill to blast through three defenders, with the ball eventually falling to Jordi Alba who smashed the ball into the corner after Messi had weaved his way through another maze.

Later on in the game, a swift counter attack, where the Argentinian once again lead the charge, saw Messi find Suarez before continuing his run into the area. Suarez then demonstrated their near telepathic link with an inch perfect chipped ball into Messi’s path allowing him to finish coolly and make it 4-1.

So, by looking at the stats, the fact that for his first mazy run the ball came off the goalkeeper before Suarez scored, and for his second the ball flicked off the defender’s knee before falling for Jordi Alba, he only scored one goal, and officially, no assists.

But, by analysing the performance, we can tell that the skill he portrayed in that game was second to none.

But wait, you might say, you can’t say he’s been the best player in 2016 because of one match.

And that’s true. But it hasn’t just been one match.

There were similar dribbles against Celta Vigo last season that defied any law, and in that same game, where Barca triumphed 6-1, his audacious pass to Suarez from the penalty spot showed not only how un-selfish he is, as had he taken and converted the spot-kick he would have scored 300 La Liga goals, but it also showed what a unique talent he is.

More jaw-dropping moments this year include his out-standing free-kicks against Colombia and USA, or an impossible, perfectly waited long-range pass for Luis Suarez against Real Betis, as well as two brilliant goals against the same opposition on the first day of this season.

Whether it’s his dribbling, passing, finishing, free-kicks, balance, composure or just all round brilliance, in my opinion there is no doubt that he is the best player in the world, and in 2016, he’s been no different.




16/17 Round up #2

Another week of Premier League football, and plenty more talking points to address in our latest round up.

Beginning with the game at the newly named Bet365 stadium, Pep Guardiola registered his second victory as Manchester City boss, with a 1-4 win away at Stoke, although the scoreline was somewhat flattering in a game that, whilst it never looked like Stoke would draw level, City were never fully comfortable.

Sergio Aguero, who had missed two penalties in midweek against Steaua Bucharest (whilst also notching an impressive hat-trick) was given the chance to redeem himself when, for the first time under the new laws, we saw a penalty given for grappling inside the box.

This can only be a good thing, as corners will no longer be about deceiving the referee with sneaky shirt-pulling to gain an advantage as refs, like Mike Dean was, will be on high alert to stop these incidents.

Previously, corners had been pretty much about how much you were holding the opposition player’s shirt, thus allowing the offending player to easily get to 50-50 balls first, but now defenders will have to be far more careful, as Ryan Shawcross was penalized when Dean caught him in the act.

This could mean that we will say an increase in headed goals, and the chance of scoring from set-pieces like corners will be far more threatening.

Hopefully this enforcement will allow more skill to be involved in headed goals, where timing of the run and leap power will play a much bigger part.

Aguero, despite his previous misses, tucked away the penalty with ease, making Shawcross and Stoke pay for their error, and the Argentinian striker, who I said in last week’s round will be top scorer if kept fit, bagged a brace with a clever header later on the first half.

Remarkably in the second half, despite the earlier penalty being given, City conceded a spot-kick of their own when Raheem Sterling was caught holding Shawcross from a corner, and Bojan tucked away the resulting opportunity.

Still, even though Sterling didn’t learn, it will certainly be just a matter of time before players realise that shirt-pulling will no longer be tolerated – I’m looking at you, Chris Smalling.

The game was set for a tense finish in the final minutes with the score 1-2, but a late double from substitute Nolito put the game out of sight for Pep and City.

Elsewhere, Burnley took a leaf out of Leicester’s book and showed Liverpool that possession isn’t everything. In a game where Jurgen Klopp’s side had 81% of the ball, they still failed to score, whilst Burnley scored twice, and therefore won 2-0.

Whilst being without the distraction of European football this season, and the fact that Klopp has now got a full pre-season under his belt, the German needs his side to find consistency – one week they can be dazzling, the next awful – highlighted no better than by their 3-4 win away at Arsenal followed by their 2-0 loss at Burnley.

As for Sean Dyche’s side, it could be third time lucky for Burnley, after their last two promotions to the top division have seen them be relegated both times.

This time, Sean Dyche has a season of Premier League experience, aswell as a balanced and organised squad that do the basics to perfection.

Meanwhile, other 3 o’clock kick-offs saw Chelsea turn it around to win 1-2 at Watford, Everton turn it around to win 1-2 at West Brom, Tottenham nick a late winner against Crystal Palace, and Hull record a second successive win away to Swansea.

The Tigers, with an extremely limited squad due to a mixture of departures and injuries, are upsetting the odds, but whilst Mike Phelan has got the place organised, the lack of certainty regarding his future is concerning, but at the moment they will aim to just take each game as it comes.

As for Spurs, they left it late with a goal from Victor Wanyama stealing the win against Pardew’s Palace who have now signed Christian Benteke. The Belgian, who failed to deliver in his first and ultimately only season at Liverpool last time out, could be the answer to Palace’s goal-scoring problems, but the Eagles may well rely on him heavily in order to steer clear of a relegation battle this season.

The late kick-off saw Leicester entertain Arsenal, and after the first 0-0 draw of the season, we are left wondering – why have Arsenal not bought a new centre-back and a new centre-forward – well, in the form of Shkodran Mustafi and Lukas Perez, it looks like they will – although we are still left scratching our heads as to why it is so overdue – is it Wenger’s reluctancy to spend, or is it Stan Kroenke’s decision, or is it the fault of chief executive Ivan Gazidis? We would all love to know.

Sunday saw Middlesbrough beat Sunderland 2-1, and it looks as if Aitor Karanka’s solid Premier League squad could survive, whilst West Ham played their first Premier League game at their new Olympic stadium – although it was an awful game, with the only real things of note being the red card of Harry Arter and the winner from Michail Antonio.

Finally, we saw the birth of Friday night football on sky, as Manchester United welcomed Southampton to Old Trafford on Paul Pogba’s debut, but despite the £89million man’s impressive performance, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who stole the headlines again with a brace that secured a 2-0 win for Mourinho’s Red Devils.

Zlatan, who turns 35 in October, will continue to score goals despite his age – the creativity of Pogba, Rooney, Mkhitaryan and Martial will create chances for him, and his clever positioning will see him carry on finding the net.

Gary Neville announced as interim boss of Leicester as Ranieri walks out!

It was two months ago that Gary Neville’s poor start to life as Valencia boss started looking like serious trouble. A 0-1 defeat at the hands of Sporting Gijon meant that Neville’s side were still to win a league game since he took charge, and despite an encouraging Copa Del Rey victory three days before against Las Palmas, it was not looking good.

However, a few weeks later a 0-4 win against Rapid Vienna put Valencia into the last 16 of the Europa League, and it felt as if Neville’s reign was just getting going. But more poor results followed and after they went crashing out of Europe on away goals to Athletic Bilbao, they were left with only one thing to focus on – a relegation battle.

Of course, whilst they still may stay up, their 0-2 defeat to Celta Vigo proved to be Gary’s final chance, as he was sacked by dear friend Peter Lim. Neville’s first managerial roll of the dice had failed.

But, whilst everyone pointed to the vacancy at Aston Villa as a possible next destination, no one expected Claudio Ranieri, undoubtedly manager of the season, to walk out of the club following a bust up with a number of key players including Jamie Vardy, Danny Drinkwater and Wes Morgan, leaving a vacancy at Leicester of all teams!

Both Ranieri and Leicester are yet to release a statement, although numerous Leicester players were overheard complaining about training methods, and while this may seem weird, the fact that Gary Neville has already been appointed without hesitation this morning is even weirder.

Neville will be the interim manager, according to our sources, as Leicester look to line up the possible candidates for the job next season after Neville’s reign.

These candidates could include Remi Garde, David Moyes or Manuel Pellegrini, but the largely unknown Elcitra Ekaf is considered a possibility, along with Etad eht ta Kool, both managers currently managing in Saudi Arabia.

For now, what’s in store for the next few months at Leicester City remains to be seen, but for now, we’ve got a lot to look forward to!

Manchester United v Liverpool Rivalry #2

On the 17th January this month, English football’s most famous fixture will take centre stage at Anfield once again, and although the two most successful teams in the history of the English game might not be the forces they once were, the Manchester United v Liverpool derby has never lost it’s sensational thrill.

Although being located fairly close to each other, this game is so much bigger than a local derby. A rivalry built on success, it takes precedence over the respective derbies against Manchester City and Everton, and that takes some doing as there’s much more than three points at steak in those games.

As Ander Herrera said before United’s meeting with local rivals Man City earlier this season “This game is huge, but I know that for the fans, the game against Liverpool is bigger”.

In 1977, the two sides renewed rivalries in the FA Cup final, with title winners and European Cup finalists Liverpool going in as favourites, but, as we all know in the FA Cup, anything can happen, and it was Manchester United who prevailed 2-1 winners. Stuart Pearson put them ahead with a powerful near post finish, but that was cancelled out by Jimmy Case who showed terrific skill, agility and finishing as he made the score 1-1. The winning goal came due to a huge slice of luck as Lou Macari’s shot was deflected in by his own team-mate, Jimmy Greenhoff.

11 years later, United the underdogs again, clawed their way back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 after a last gasp equaliser from Gordon Strachan rescued an important point for the Red Devils. United skipper Bryan Robson had opened the scoring early on as he rounded off a well worked move, before Liverpool turned things around either side of the break, starting with a superb team goal scored by Peter Beardsley followed by goals from Gary Gillespie and Steve McMahon, the latter being a stunning strike from almost 30 yards out. But, United rallied in the form of a deflected Bryan Robson strike before Strachan finished with composure for the late equaliser.

More recently in 2009, the two sides were the two best teams in the English game, and despite an early penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo, goals from Fernando Torres and Andrea Dossena aswell as a Steven Gerrard penalty and a Fabio Aurelio free-kick turned the game on it’s head as Liverpool completed a shock 1-4 win at Old Trafford.

Two seasons later, despite a brace from Steven Gerrard, Dimitar Berbatov stole the headlines with a stunning hat-trick. His first was a clever header, before a sensational over-head kick was followed by another good header.

The most recent meeting was also a classic, as all eyes were on Manchester United’s new signing, Anthony Martial, the world’s most expensive teenager, costing around £36m. The Frenchman started on the bench, and watched his new side take a two nil lead after a well worked Daley Blind goal and a terrific penalty from Ander Herrera. Then Liverpool’s Cristian Benteke gave them a life-line with a superb over-head kick to make the score 2-1. Step up Anthony Martial. Just minutes into his debut, the 19 year- old waltzed around the Liverpool defence before slotting the ball into the far corner, displaying great skill and composure in the process.

No doubt in the calibre of Real Madrid vs Barcelona and Boca Juniors vs River Plate, Liverpool vs Manchester United rarely disappoints.