Die Mannschaft at the double

I have to start by first thanking those that continue to support Halftimeng in more ways than i can even mention. Over the last few weeks or so, I have been having doubts about writing because of some feed back that I got which kind of discouraged me, but I must thank the people that form the core of what I would call my ”appraisal committee”. It made me realize that the pursuit of perfection is a continuous journey that takes tonnes of effort, sacrifice and practice. I guess it is safe to compare my pursuit to what the Germans have achieved over the last three years, where they have conquered the world of football, holding the two primary world titles at senior level.

The Germans did not arrive at this position overnight, there was a clear concerted effort to dominate World Football at every level. This can be traced back to one of their biggest and worst defeats in their history as a strong footballing nation. The loss to a Croatian side at its peak in the quarter finals of France ’98 definitely had to be the turning point; I remember the outcry in the media, how could the then European Champions be so easily humiliated on the grand stage of the World Cup. This was a German team filled with stars in every department, it could compare favourably with many other German sides that had come before it,  but they were bereft of ideas and seemed to have been out of their depth once the knockout rounds started; a smooth group stage peppered the cracks. Things unraveled when Klinsmann and Bierhoff bailed the team out in the final fifteen minutes of the second round match against Mexico, it was one stage too far when Croatia came calling in Lyon.

The problem was believed to be managerial, Berti Vogts was relieved of his duties for Erich Ribbeck to be recalled from retirement to take over the National team,twenty years late. It culminated in Germany’s worst period in International football; a group stage exit at Euro 2000 was the last straw and eventually the Germans decided to rip it all up and start afresh with a new direction. A younger manager was appointed in Rudi Voller, a concerted effort at reducing the number of over 30s from the previous squad was achieved, along came a World Cup Final loss to a Ronaldo led Brazil to validate these changes. In came Jurgen Klinsmann, another from the 1990 World Cup winning team or better yet the Franz Beckenbauer school of graduates to guide the Germans through their hosting of the 2006 World Cup. It led to the introduction of many innovations, Sports science, changes in training methods, relaxation of Nationalization regulations. This 2006 team had 18 players under age 30, an improvement from the 2002 squad, this team lost in the Semi Finals on penalties to Italy.

Of note from the 2006 squad was the presence of Joachim Low as Assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann, Oliver Bierhoff and Andreas Kopke also part of the set up; these three have remained in the German set up eleven years after, ensuring continuity of ideals, ideas and vision. Lets fast forward to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa; Germany were fresh from defeating England the previous year 4-0 at the finals of the 2009 European U-21 Championships with a team that showcased the new Germany; twelve of their twenty-three man squad to that tournament had players with links to other countries as far reaching as Nigeria (Chinedu Ede played for Germany in that tournament). The Germans had opened their borders and relaxed the Nationalization policies to absolve and accommodate Nationals of other countries; German embraced the World. Like it or not; this is what England are doing currently and it has started yielding results; just take a look at their squads to the U-21 World Cup and European Championships, they is a lovely mix of nationalities.

For Germany, it just wasn’t about relaxing its immigration restrictions, but getting the best out of these policies. You have to give it to Joachim Low for being bold to include the likes of Ozil, Khedira, Boateng etc in his 2010 Squad. Interestingly, the squad in 2010 had 20 players under the age of Thirty; of the three players over 30, Miroslav Klose was the only one you could consider a regular in that Squad; Germany were preparing with precision and efficiency that only comes with been Germans. By the time 2014 came calling these ”young men” were four years older, more experienced and exposed; they were ready to take over the world and this they did in emphatic fashion (remember the 7-1 bashing of Brazil).

Here we are in 2017 and we can comment on another successful conquest by the Germans, not just on one front but in two within a space of 24 hours; that has to be a record of some sorts. In order not to be accused of been anti women; you can also see some of these strides in the women’s game, both at National and Club level. A decision to be open minded, embracing other cultures and nationalities, identifying the best out of them for use ”for the greater good” is now reaping huge dividends. A proper Youth development program dedicated to ensuring that the best young players get their chance at National (senior) level is what has positioned Germany for dominance over the next few years. For crying out loud; this German senior side at the Confederations Cup was characterized by yours truly as inexperienced, young and naive; but these crop of players have shown that what you need is just to seize the opportunity and have a football public and media that believe in the work of the management team. Yes, Low has earned the right to tinker with the side to almost reckless proportions, but that only became possible because there exist a plan, set up to enhance the talent pool, whilst giving the coach the time to achieve his objectives.

If i may bring the German success back home and chronicle it with our last success at Senior level which is easily the Nations Cup win in 2013, how many coaches has Nigeria had since that victory? Well correct me if I am wrong, we have had five coaches in that space of time; lets not bother to go as far back as 2006 when Low took full control of Die Mannschaft. A clear cut youth development policy geared at embracing world best practices, devoid of federation interference, selection of coaches and players on merit, instilling a football playing & administrative philosophy/policies at all levels (club and national team levels), eliminating without fear or favour instances or incidences of age cheating and corruption are a few ways Nigeria can emulate and replicate the success of the Germans.

Congratulations Germany; World and Confederations Cup Champions & European U-21 Champions.

 

*** Pictures courtesy Reuters, Daily Mail and Sky Sports

CONFEDERATIONS CUP: DAY 2 PREVIEW (PART 1)

Hostilities at the 10th edition of the Confederations cup resumes with the second round of fixtures in both groups holding on the 21st and 22nd of June. Thus far, the VARs have been the men of the match at almost every game played and we can only hope that the process is improved and faster time for key decisions are achieved as the tournament progresses, here is our preview of what to expect in the  games scheduled to take place today.

Group A:

Russia VS Portugal (4pm):  The Hosts began the tournament in fine form with a comfortable two goal victory over New Zealand and they go into this knowing that a win will all but secure their semi-final place in the tournament. With constant speculation over the choice of Russia as the hosts of the next World Cup, doing well on the pitch will go a long way in bringing some form of assurance and excitement to the home fans. They are up against fellow debutants and European Champions Portugal who despite being tipped as favorites before the start of the competition and parading the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo were unable to get maximum points from their opening fixture as they were held to a 2-2 draw by Mexico courtesy of a late Hector Moreno equalizer. The Portuguese have abundant of talents going forward and Fernando Santos will be keen to unleash some of these on the Russians which may include starting young and exciting forward Andre Silva who changed the pace of the game in the few minutes he featured. For Portugal, even though a win is vital, a draw will not be too bad a result knowing they go into the last game against the weakest side in the group and also considering how they struggled in the group stages before emerging Champions of the Euro nations cup. It should be a thrilling one as the Russians are unbeaten in their last three home meetings against the Portuguese.

Prediction: Russia 1 Portugal 2

Mexico VS New Zealand (7 pm): Coming off the back of a 2-2 draw in their Group A opener against Portugal, Mexico know that anything short of a win in this game for the CONCACAF Champions will put their chance of progression at a risk. The Mexicans proved in the first game that their attacking talents of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Carlos Vela can be a force to reckon with but the major headache for their manager Juan Carlos Osorio will be at the back where they were in disarray for major spells of their game though against a more impressive attacking force. New Zealand are the underdogs and the weakest side going into the competition and the Kiwis deployed a 3-5-2 formation in their opening fixture but still struggled to match the Russians. Mexico is expected to win this game and win by a healthy margin but an upset will be a thing of delight for the neutrals

Prediction: Mexico 3 New Zealand 0

CONFEDERATION CUP 2017: PREVIEW

The 10th edition of the FIFA Confederation Cup 2017 kicks off in Russia this Saturday, the 17th of June. The tournament which was first held in 1992 in Saudi Arabia, then known as the King Fahd Cup is usually designed to serve as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup holding the following year. The aim of the tournament is to help the host nation test facilities and run logistics whilst creating awareness and giving the fans a taste of what to expect when the big tourney begins and 32 nations come to town the following year.

The tournament usually features 8 teams with the 7 top teams across the continents alongside the host nation and this year’s edition sees teams like Russia (Hosts of the 2018 FIFA World Cup), Germany (2014 World Cup Winners), Australia (Asian Cup Winners), Chile (Copa America Winners), Mexico from CONCACAF, New Zealand (Oceania Nations Cup Winners), Portugal as Euro 2016 Winners and Cameroon who are African Champions all vying to be crowned champions of the confederation. The tournament also gives the host nation who didn’t go through any form of qualifiers an opportunity to experience some high level form of competition just before the World cup begins and it is pertinent to know that no team has ever won the Confederation cup and gone ahead to emerge as World Champions the following year.

The tournament which will feature 8 teams in two groups will kick off with the host nation Russia taking on Oceania Champions New Zealand and the games will be hosted across four venues which are a selected few from the twelve venues scheduled to be used during the World Cup. Russia, Chile and Portugal are debutants at this year’s edition.

GROUP A: Russia, New Zealand, Portugal and Mexico

GROUP B: Cameroon, Chile, Australia and Germany.

Brazil are defending Champions of the tournament and have won the competition a record four times including the last three editions but would be missing at this year’s tournament and European Champions Portugal with World footballer of the year, Cristiano Ronaldo leading their lines are favorites alongside Chile and Germany who have suffered some form of slump after their World Cup win to win this year’s edition.

The World Football Governing body, FIFA has introduced new measures with the most pivotal being the three step procedure given to match officials in handling any form of racism chants during matches empowering them with the ability to call for a game to be stopped and abandoned after warnings have been issued, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) will also feature during this tournament. It promises to be an exciting two weeks of football action as the best of the best go up against each other in National colours.

A Liverpool Fan’s Transfer Wishlist

With the release of the fixtures for the 2017/18 on June 14, 2017, the season has officially commenced. As a Kop, the permutation for next season regarding the expected points per month has commenced. However, the club has not been active on the transfer market where the required tools are expected to be procured for the new season. While other clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United, and even Arsenal have commenced signing of players for next season, Liverpool can only boast of Dominic Solanke, a free buy from Chelsea. From the reports in the newspaper, players have shown their preference in signing, but there is something still missing from the deals being concluded.

A review of the club performances last season revealed that there was a need for a Top 4 finish. A section of the fans are of the opinion that the club should have ended in a better position than the fourth position if Jurgen Klopp, the club manager had recruited from the January transfer window and there are clear facts to back this position. As at Dec 31, 2016, Liverpool was sitting in the second place with only 6 points away from leaders and eventually winner Chelsea. These set of fans including this writer believed that the coach should have beefed up the squad for the league challenge during the January window, but the manager thought otherwise. The consequence was the collapse of the title challenge as the club amassed only 6 points for the next six games between Dec 2016 and Feb 2017. By Feb 28, 2017, the club occupied the 5th position on the log with a massive 11 points from Chelsea, the table leader. The remaining weeks till May was used for the fourth-place struggle which was achieved by one point above Arsenal in fifth position.

Because of the above issues, the fans believe the club should have learned its lessons and as such have concrete plans for the summer transfer market. The fans are optimistic of a busy transfer more so after Jurgen Klopp’s comment after Middlesbrough’s game that the club has completed the preliminary discussions with the identified targets. Based on the current happenings as of today, this assertion by Klopp appears untrue, or maybe there are circumstances beyond the manager’s control. One of such circumstances is the ridiculous issue surrounding the Virgil van Dijk (VVD) approach and the subsequent apology from the club to Southampton. This incident not only embarrassed the club and its fans but has extinguished the faint hope of this writer in any major transfer coup considering Klopp’s known approach in the transfer market. From previously bookmarking sites for the latest information regarding the club activities in the market to adopting a siddon-look approach after the VVD transfer issues.

As the official transfer market opens on the first day of July, the fans including this writer hope and pray that the club pursues the transfer targets mentioned below. The club needs urgent reinforcement in some key areas, and there is a need for the right players to be signed at the right time as preseason is expected to commence early July. The names linked with the club were reviewed based on the current situation of things in the club.  As shown from last season performance, the club needs depth in the squad, and this should include quality signings, not average players that have donned the color of the club in recent years. Below is this fan’s wishlist from the transfer market:

GOALKEEPING: Last season, the club struggled in this department until February when there was some improvement from Mignolet and Karius. Also, Danny Ward, a loanee to Huddersfield Town continued to demonstrate his potential over the years, helping the club to the Premier League. However, his future is yet to be decided as at the time of this article.

Joe Hart and Jordan Pickford were named earlier as been linked to the club, but with the current situation regarding Pickford (agreed terms with Everton) only Hart remains in the hat. Taking into consideration his performance at Hampden Park last weekend, one would prefer status quo than the addition of ‘calamity Joe.’

DEFENSE:  There is no club with the ambition of winning titles that can do so with the current defensive set up in Liverpool. The club conceded 42 goals last season, and as such, there is a need for reinforcement. The requirement includes a left full back and two central defenders if Mamadou Sakho is sold as its being speculated. The club realized this fact, and this can be one of the reason for their desperation for VVD signature. With VVD out of the equation as stated in the apology tendered by the club (though there are rumour that the player is still insisting on leaving Southampton for Liverpool), other names mentioned include Stefan De Vrij of Lazio, Faouzi Ghoulam (Napoli), Andy Robertson (Hull City), Ben Gibson (Middlesbrough), Michael Keane (Burnley), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Ryan Bertrand (Southampton) and Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham). As a Kop, one would expect the club to review the VVD issue and pursue it if there is any meaningful lead. Starting with the left full-back, Ryan Sessegnon is a good prospect for the position. He has the age on his side, and there is no need for him to adapt to the language and culture of the country as he currently plies his trade with Fulham in the lower division. Though the club appears to have cooled off their interest due to Spurs pursuit of the same player but happenings in recent days indicates that there is a need for a renewed approach for the player. The second option for the left fullback position should be the Algerian Faouzi Ghoulam. As for the central defenders, VVD remain the number one option while Kalidou Koulibaly and Stefan De Vrij appear decent alternatives. For a club of Liverpool’s ambition for next season and with due respect to these players, Micheal Keane, Andy Robertson, Ryan Bertrand and Steve Gibson are average players that cannot fit into the requirements at this level.

MIDFIELD:  Currently, the club has enough players in this department but would require depth as the club campaign in all fronts next season including the Champions League. Also, the event of Jan/Feb 2017 has shown that most of the players in this department are prone to injuries. According to transfer rumors, the club is still dilly dallying with AS Roma for the purchase of Mohammed Salah. For me, Salah would fit perfectly into Klopp plans and we, the fans are looking forward to the prospect of having Salah and Mane operating in wide areas; William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon), Sergej Milinkovic (SS Lazio), Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Demarai Garay (Leicester City) and Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon) can be considered as alternative additions for central midfield and the wings as well. From these lots, the club needs two players, and this includes a defensive midfielder (if the contract issue with Emre Can remains unsolved).

For the defensive midfield role, the club should pursue Willam Carvalho if and only if we lose both Emre Can and Lucas Leiva. If the club loses Lucas Leiva as its being speculated, a younger player from the youth team can be promoted, e.g., Kevin Stewart or Pedro Chirivella The second option in this regard should be Sergej Milinkovic. As for the other midfielder/winger, Salah appears 80% done, but if we are unable to get him (with Liverpool in the transfer market anything can happen)

ATTACK: Dominic Solanke is confirmed as a Liverpool player for next season, and with his exploits at the FIFA U20 World Cup, expectations are high from the fans. However, if the club is serious about its ambition next season, then Solanke cannot deliver the goals. For me, Solanke is a younger version of Divork Origi. As a fan, the club should resolve the Daniel Sturridge situation in time, however, with or without Sturridge, the club needs two quality strikers with proven records. Lacazette and Keita fit this description perfectly. To be frank, this is the department that the club needs to break the bank to match their ambition

As a fan, Alexander Lacazette perfectly fits this role. Though I would have preferred Pierre Aubameyang but with PSG in the picture for his signature, realistically it would be a mountain too much to climb with these American owners. The same applies to the rumor linking us with Kylian Mbappe. As a fan, this would be a perfect signing for us but with Real Madrid and Manchester City as part of his suitors, the same verdict as that of Aubameyang as far as this writer is concerned. If these transfers happen as I pray so, it would be a major coup. Maybe, we can erase some of the embarrassment caused by the VVD saga.

Of all the names linked with the club which include Dusan Tadic (Southampton, our ‘feeder team’), Marco Asensio (Real Madrid) and Keita Balde (SS Lazio), I would prefer Alexander Lacazette and Keita Balde. These players are within our reach, and as a serious club that we should be, we have to go for them with all seriousness. For me, Tadic is too average while Asensio won’t leave Real Madrid as he already stated in one of his recent interviews leaving only Lacazette and Keita. Lacazette first choice is Atletico Madrid but the FIFA transfer ban makes that unlikely; we should then compete with Arsenal for the player. Arsenal playing in the Europa League should be an advantage for us if we can put our act together. As for Keita, Sadio Mane influence can be exploited, marched with proper negotiations by the Liverpool team.

Finally, it is important to note that next season should be tagged the season of reckoning for Jurgen Klopp and as such he needs to get his acts together. As stated during his presentation ceremony after signing for the club in October 2016, Jurgen Klopp promised to deliver the long awaited EPL title within three years and next season would be a season close to the promised date. As a fan, I am of the opinion that the club especially the newly appointed CEO Peter Moore should use the remainder of this transfer window to atone for the VVD sin. The club needs to make a major statement in the transfer market only then can we hope for a title push next season.

 

DREAM TEAM FOR NEXT SEASON:

Goalkeeper:                  Mignolet / Karius

Right Full Back:          Clyne / Trent / (Joe Gomez)

Left Full Back:             Sessagnon** / Moreno (Milner)/ Joe Gomez

Central Defence:        Matip / VVD** Sakho (Koulibaly**)/Lovren

Defensive Midfield:   Emre Can / William Carvalho** / Lucas Leiva / Pedro Chrivaella

Central Midfield:       Henderson / Wijnaldum / Milner) / Stewart / Milinkovic**

Attacking Midfield/Wingers: Mane /Coutinho/Firmino/Sallah**

Strikers/Centre Forward:   Lacazette**/ Keita**/ Strurridge / Solanke / Origi / Ings

** players on the wishlist

 

 

“Ligue 1 – coming of age.”

An eventful 2016/17 season of the French Championnat was concluded a few weeks back with this season witnessing a departure from the perceived and almost acceptable norm. A new champion crowned for the first time in five years as young Monaco team capitalized on an unsettled Unai Emery tutored PSG to lift their first Ligue 1 title since 2000 ironically Paris Saint Germain finished second as well that year.

The French elite division is growing in leaps and bounds with the ability of some of the elite teams been able to compete favourably on the European scene and also for some of Europe’s top talents. It is no surprise that this season; Ligue 1 had a team each at the Semi Finals stage of the Champions League and the Europa League for the first time since 2004 when Marseille and Monaco made it to the Semi finals of the Old UEFA Cup and the Champions League respectively.

To appreciate the strides made in the French game is to view it from four varying perspectives; which include:

Investments:

Over the last six to seven years; Ligue 1 has proven to be an ideal destination for core investors in Football; comparing favourably with similar investments in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A. The main catalyst had to be the take over of Paris Saint Germain by the Oryx Qatari Sports Investment as well as the investment of Dmitry Rybolovlev in the principality club Monaco; which positioned both clubs as aiming for a duopoly of some sorts.

However; the league has been able to attract further investments into Lyon from the Chinese as well as the take over of Marseille by American investors. Now what’s encouraging about all these is that the investments have also been spread around to include development and building of new stadia (Bordeaux and Lyon opened new stadia); which invariably increases the clubs match day revenues.

Ligue 1 clubs are able to make big statements in the transfer market in acquiring new players due to this new injection of funds; take for example Nice been able to sign Mario Balotelli from Liverpool or Marseille and Lyon sealing winter transfer window deals for Patrice Evra, Dmitri Payet and Memphis Depay respectively; coupled with the attraction of top rated coaches such as Unai Emery at PSG; Marcelo Bielsa making a return at Lille and Rudi Garcia taking over at Marseille.

All these positives is aided by the continued investment in youth development across all the big teams; showing that despite their renewed financial muscle; the clubs have not departed from their time honoured tradition of grooming and blooding the best young talents in Europe. Just take for example the number of kids who had their breakthrough years this season; from Mbappe to Kimpembe to Blin; just to name a few; the future continues to be bright for the French game.

Style of Play

En-route to winning their first title in 17 years; Monaco played some thrilling attacking football, leading to a total 107 goals scored for the principality side; second only to Barcelona when you consider the Top Six leagues in Europe.

Goals scored across seasons have been on the up in absolute terms as well as in percentages. For instance, a total of 991 goals was scored this past season as against 960 the season before; 947 in 2014/15 and 931 in 2013/14 with the penalties scored also increasing from 66 in 2015/16 to 98 in 2016/17; there by leading to an increase in the average goals scored with improved from 2.53 to 2.61 goals per game in the last two season.

The improved attacking style of play is further buttressed by four of the top ten Top goals scorers in Ligue 1 finishing with 20 or more goals  for the first time in ages and there are another four scoring fifteen goals. With this improved goals scoring haul; the games become a lot more attractive and open, hence drawing more attention and greater fan apathy.

Youth Development

Ligue 1 has to be one of the biggest exporters of young, vibrant and refreshing football talent; with each passing year; observers as well as scouts and some of Europe’s elite clubs cast an eye to this conveyor belt for the next superstar from the land of the Eiffel Tower. Just like clock work the French do not disappoint; this season it has been all about Kylian Mbappe and Monaco’s new breed of youngsters.

However, Monaco are not the only ones getting all the attention; Lyon have Maxwel Cornet, alongside the versatile Corentin Tolisso (who I believe is ready for the next step up); Toulouse have Alban Lafont; the Young Goalie has turned a lot of heads this past season along with Alexis Blin; at Bordeaux, Adam Ounas has lit up the new stadium with his trickery and he is destined for great things.

Just imagine; one of Europe’s elite clubs summoning up enough courage to couch out a potential £150 Million to sign Kylian Mbappe as he is the next big thing coming out of France and the young man has not been ruffled by all the attention he has been getting; a huge windfall is obviously heading Monaco’s way with the sale of Bernando Silva and the potential sale of Benjamin Mendy to Manchester City as well.

Improved European Performances

This season probably showcased the best Ligue 1 performance on the European scene since Monaco and Marseille made it to the finals of Europe’s elite club competitions in 2004. This year, it was Lyon and Monaco leading the charge for the French; both teams suffered at the hands of a young Ajax side and a highly experienced Juventus respectively.

Like it or not; Paris Saint Germain were just a few minutes of defensive madness aware from getting past Barcelona after probably the single most dominant performance you would ever see against any kind of Barcelona side in the first leg. It was sad to see; PSG crack under the pressure; but that first leg performance showed how far French football has come and how much ground a team like PSG have made in closing the gap on a number Europe’s elite clubs.

This past season’s performances demonstrates; how far Ligue 1 teams have come and how much more they need to be taken seriously by the whole of Europe. I make bold to say that within the next five years or so, we may be crowning a French European Champion.

TRANSFER SEASON: A MANCHESTER UNITED FAN WISHLIST

Although not officially open, the transfer window is in full swing with teams across Europe already splashing the cash in preparation for the upcoming season. The Premier League resumes in two months, but teams like Manchester City have already spent big on players like Bernardo Silva from Monaco and Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson in a World record fee with Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker still on their wish-list. For the Champions Chelsea, it is expected that they will bring in a new striker after Diego Costa revealed he had been informed by the manager Antonio Conte that he was no longer in his plans for the coming season. Arsenal have secured the signing of Schalke’s promising defender Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer whilst keeping hold of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil remains Wenger’s major task going into the new season. A lot of activities will still take place till the very last day when we experience the usual deadline day rush but from a Manchester United fan’s perspective, which players will you like to see unveiled as the team makes a four pronged title approach next season.

MANCHESTER UNITED: United have already secured a deal to sign Swedish International and former Benfica Player Victor Lindelof subject to medicals and work permit, this looks like a good deal as United struggled to cope with injuries and loss of form in the defense with only new signing Eric Bailey covering himself in some form of glory, but outside Lindelof, the team needs more and with names like Gareth Bale, Donnarumma, James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata and many more linked to United, who else should be on Jose’s four man wish list given to Ed Woodward and which positions should the team be looking to strengthen?

Gareth Bale/ Douglas Costa: Jose Mourinho usually fancies a lone striker and with the likes of Martial, Rashford and Lingard failing to contribute as much goals to support Ibrahimovic’s numbers, the team fell short when Zlatan wasn’t scoring. That is one area that needs to change and Gareth Bale would be an obvious fit at United. Despite injuries limiting his performances at Madrid in the just ended season, Bale running at any defender with his shooting prowess and aerial strength will be a valuable asset to any top team. Aside also being a statement of real intent, he has always been linked with a return to England with United top of the list. Out of favor at Bayern Munich, Douglas Costa is my second option if we don’t get Bale as United will present him a chance to revive his career and with his pace and skills, the Premier League may just suit his style well.

Alvaro Morata: If the rumor mill is to be believed, Morata to United will be a done deal in the coming days, it’s no secret that following the release of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, United needs at least one top striker to lead the lines next season and initially the talk was on Antoinne Griezmann joining the team but following Atletico’s transfer ban, he has decided to stay with the team for at least one more season, so attention has now been shifted to Spain forward Alvaro Morata who despite scoring a total of 22 goals for Madrid in a double winning season, he is still second place to Benzema and has been quoted as seeking more regular playing time even if he has to leave Madrid again after only one season. At 24, he is quite experienced and is even yet to fully hit his prime which he may achieve at United.

Fabinho/ Any good DM: Last season, Jose allowed Bastian and Schneiderlin leave, which he later admitted regretting, the team ended up with Tuanzebe drafted into the midfield role towards the end of the season, Michael Carrick who recently had his testimonial and got rewarded with a new contract will be 36 next season, United fans have never fancied Fellaini leaving Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba as the only dependable midfielders going into the new season, United needs a holding midfielder who can give Pogba the freedom to bloom like Carrick did, Fabinho did this pretty well combining with Bakayoko at Monaco and will be interesting to see if he can replicate a similar partnership with Herrera.

A left Back: Left back is also one area where United struggled all through the last season with Matteo Darmian who is a right back playing in that position at crucial stages of the season, Luke Shaw has well-documented injury concerns and may not just be able to hit the levels he once did at Southampton, Daley Blind is quite useful to the team for his versatility but his lack of pace has seen him struggle at the left back role, clearly Marcos Rojo is a better option at Center back and despite improvising decently when called upon, Darmian is not a left back, it is quite a difficult role to fill but it is one that Jose needs to pay attention to. Someone in the likes of Danny Rose maybe.

 

IN THE ABUNDANCE OF CASH, THE GAME PERISHES

The major leagues are over, and the clubs are taking stock of their performances in the just concluded season. For me as a fan, it has been a tumultuous season for me. Liverpool’s qualification for the UEFA Champions League playoffs is like scoring 50% on the final day of the test. It’s nothing exceptional while it’s slightly lower or equal to average. To discuss the review of the past season, I picked the phone and dialed my friend, Reed in Birmingham. A South African based in the UK, Reed works as a scout for some club sides in Europe. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, we discussed all topics around football with specific reference to last season. Some of the issues addressed include the falling standard of refereeing in Europe especially in the Champions League, impact of Brexit on transfer dealings of British club sides as the realities of Brexit become clearer, the unusual scenario in the blue side of Manchester where a particular magician ended the season without winning a trophy, the impact of video technology in the current FIFA U-20 World Cup, the lackadaisical attitude of the Italian authorities to the issue of racism with specific mention of the Sulley Muntari incident, the reemergence of AS Monaco as a powerhouse in the French Championnat and the sustainability of the new approach to the cup; the monopoly of Juventus in Serie A, the surprise package of Antoine Conte etc. The list was extensive as this was the first time we would be discussing in detail after our last meeting in Dallas in the summer of 2016. At the tail end of the 32 minutes conversation, we started talking about the issue of massive cash injected into the game on a continual basis. This was brought about while discussing the new ownership in AC Milan and the early transfer deals by Manchester City. As we rounded up the discussion, it became clearer to me that the huge cash injected into the game would continue to create some monsters within the game. It became more apparent that the football family needs to tackle the negative impact of huge finances pumped into the game especially as it relates to its adverse effect on the game.

At this juncture, it is important to state that this writer has nothing against the funds being injected into the game. However, the excesses that come with these investments and the negative impact on the game are the issues of concern to me. Money in football is a good thing, however, the regulatory aspect of the game needs to be strengthened and monitored to curb the negative impact of huge finances in the game. In all sincerity, the game is thriving regarding finance, and the Europeans are expectedly leading the chase. It’s  a no brainier that the game in Europe represents the image of global football without discrediting the contribution from the other regions of the world. A recent UEFA report confirmed this assertion with European clubs making an aggregate profit of €1.5billion.

With this significant income comes the issue of poor administration characterized mainly by corruption and other associated vices. This affects the ethics and standard of the game. Amid plenty monies, the administrators put up careless attitude towards ethics of the game and rather single out the successes leading us to the words of the famous philanthropist, Bills Gates who says “Success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose”. The administrators are turning a blind eye to the problems, and rather than taking a decision to rectify the issues; they are busy dancing to the success tunes. For example, the recent decision of FIFA to increase the world cup slots to 48, as per this writer’s opinion, is purely based on the commercialization of the game. The game is swimming in cash, but there are a lot of sharks in the “cash water” as well.

Whenever adverse impacts of money in the game is being brought up before the handlers of the game, they handle them with kid gloves. Little wonder that the world was treated to a lot of revelations and drama during the FIFA-Gate saga that started on May 27, 2015, at the Baur Au Lac Hotel, Zurich. The movers and shakers of football then were consumed by the tsunami that swept across football’s capital cities. Names such as Nicolas Leoz, Julio Grondona, Jack Warner, Sepp Blatter, Mohammed Bin Hammam, Amos Adamu, Richard Lai, Chuck Blazer, Michel Platini and much more were suspended, banned or prosecuted for their corrupt activities within FIFA and their confederations. The aftermath of the FIFA-Gate clearly shows to all of us that the reasons for the kid gloves from the administrators of the games towards the issue of huge finances in the game and its negative impact on the game.

In the past, the essence of the game includes entertainment and recreation, and this takes precedence above any commercial reasons. The likes of former CAF boss, Ethiopian Ydnetchekhew Tessema fought the battle all their life, saving the essence of the game from the commercial benefits. They reserved the essence of the game and never allowed commercial reasons to prevail above the game’s interest. Then, players are committed to national team cause, and there is pride in wearing their national team jerseys. Today, the reverse is the game. Moneybags now dictate the game. From the Sheikhs of Manchester City and PSG; the Russian oligarchs of Chelsea, AS Monaco, FC Neuchatel Xamax, and Reading, the Yankee Capitalist in Manchester United, Liverpool and AS Roma, etc., the game is now in the hands of the financial capitalist that runs the economies of the world. The entertainment value of the game has been slaughtered at the slab of cash. Teams were bought and resold for commercial reasons, and the essence of entertainment and recreation has been destroyed. Several reports of the top leagues in about 17 leagues in Europe in 2015/16 season showed the declining nature of fan attendance at the stadium across Europe. Many club sides, especially in East Europe, are struggling to bring the fans to the stadium as TV rights and the associated revenues have taken the shine off fan attendances at these stadia. For example, league games in Armenia were being shifted to accommodate TV schedules to raise income, and this has led to the reduced attendance in some of the league venues in the country.

The reality in the game today is that there is a huge gap between the have and have-nots in the game and UEFA acknowledged this much. In their annual club football report for the 2015/16 season, UEFA mentioned the huge financial gap between a “widening financial gap between the global superpowers and other large clubs” and some countries are increasingly being left behind as interest in the club game dwindles.
Look at the world, and you will undoubtedly agree with me that the dominant teams in each league are the ones with the bucks. In England, the home of the “Good is Greed League” (apology to Brian Glanville), there was a traditional four with huge cash to spend, but now, the moneybags from the Persian Gulf now rule with their blue half of Manchester. Then there are Spurs from North London that are also splashing the cash. If you doubt why Manchester United won three trophies last season, check how much they spent on their major signings during last summer including their wages. In Spain, it’s a two-horse way fight between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Last season, it was a 12-point difference between them and the third-placed team, Atletico Madrid and I can tell you that this can be translated to over 210million pounds, the difference in their bank accounts. In Scotland, it has always been Celtic and the rest. The massive budget figures between Celtic and the other teams can only confirm the reason for one league winner since 2011. In Portugal, it’s a fight between Benfica and Porto. Sporting Lisbon can’t put up any fight for the title recently because their bank account can’t buy the players required though their academy is giving them some glimpse of hope. In Germany, it’s Bayern Munich and the rest. Though Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg won the league recently while RB Leipzig put up a good fight this season, their finances can’t be compared to Bayern Munich. Check the Bundesliga table and see this difference. In France, it used to be Olympique Lyon for the better part of the last decade. The reason is that of the cash from Jean Aulas. As soon as he closed his purse, the title stopped. Today, PSG usually claimed all four trophies on offer in the country until AS Monaco with their youngsters blew some life to the competition this season by winning the league. Their ability to sustain the challenge next season is yet to be seen.

There seems no problem for these clubs to be sold to the moneybags. On the surface, there is no issue, after all, it would empower the clubs to challenge for honors and titles in areas that their fans would have never imagine. An example is Manchester City that won two league titles in the last six seasons. These are dreams that Man City fans were not envisaging some seven years ago. However, the coming of the investors brought about significant issues that are affecting the game’s interest. As in many cases, most of these investors did not have any connection with the club history and at the time, nothing with the game at all. Then, one needs to ask the question, what is their primary objective of buying these clubs? Is it for commercial purposes or what? This is a million-dollar question that requires instant answers. Another problem is the sincerity of their investment and their ability to sustain the euphoria that their purchase usually brought to the club history. To buttress this point, let’s recalled the issue with Real Betis, Rangers FC, Neuchatel Xamax and even Manchester City under the former Prime Minister; Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand. These investors came to these clubs without a clear plan, and after some time they left these clubs in a worse state than they met. Except for Manchester City that was rescued by the Oil Sheikhs, others are currently facing serious financial issues that can lead to these clubs going to extinction.

Another problem that comes with these investments from “strangers” in these clubs is that dearth of young talents from these clubs. Coming with these investments is the quest for quick success. The search creates pressure on the coaches and leads them to purchase “ready-made” players. Though, some of these investors come with the usual solemn of “developing homegrown talents,” the realities differ. Young talents are not given enough chance, and rather they are sent on loan to clubs where they must adapt to a different style. In most cases, they come out worse, and the rest would be history. For example, Scott Sinclair was one of the bright lights in Swansea some few years back but had forgotten his experiences as one of the many loanees in Chelsea; he decided to join Manchester City. After struggling for game time and was sent on loans, as usual, he was rescued by Celtic recently. Other youngsters with such experiences with Manchester City include John Guidetti (currently with Celta Vigo); Jack Rodwell (relegated with Sunderland), Adam Johnson (currently in jail after joining Sunderland from City). These numbers are expected to increase this season with the rumors of the club trying to sell Kelechi Ihenacho and Engel Ural, two of the brightest youngsters on the fringes of the first team. Today, Chelsea FC currently has over 30 youngsters on loans, and these include Bernard Traore (AFC Ajax), Christen Andreasen (Borussia Monchengladbach), etc. The future for these youngsters in the main squad appears slim as the manager needs to deliver the success unless their sugar daddies would fire them.

For every club, the fan is an integral part of their existence. But with the coming of these new owners, nothing of such has been accorded these fans. The owners treat them like any other tool that can be used in making money. With the coming to these owners, comes an astronomical increase in ticket price. Fans pay dearly to watch their team to allow the investors to recoup their investment in record time. To believe this, you need to ask a loyal Manchester United fan the difference between their season ticket price in 2001 pre-Glazier era and now. On a final note, the introduction of the financial fair play brought some sanity into the finances of these clubs. The idea was brilliant at the initial stage, and the implementation of the rule brought some respite to the game until these clubs “understood” the interpretation of the rules. The implication of this is that these clubs created mechanisms to circumvent the law with a different model such as the parent company having different clubs across the globe or some “sponsorship” deals that undermined the objectives of the law.

The governing bodies of the game need to review these issues and regulate the impact of these huge funds introduced to football. Cash is good no doubt, but too much cash can be dangerous to the game. New legislation and regulations should be adopted to address the dynamic nature of the game and help bring back some sanity to the game. We, the fans are tired of hearing the names Bayern, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus, etc. dominating the transfer markets with the huge sum paid for players worthless while the smaller clubs struggle for the crumbs. There is a need for competition in the game, and until the financial ground is made level or being seen to be level, we might not witness such any time soon. This is important at all levels of the game so that the founding fathers of the game such as Ydnetchekhew Tessema can look back and smile in their grave.

My Champions League Final Review

Last night we were treated to the best Champions League final in recent times. The defending champions were aiming to be the first club to successfully defend club football’s most prestigious trophy since AC Milan 3 decades ago. If that is not incentive enough, the all time record holders were attempting to increase their haul to 12.

It was a beauty vs the beast contest, Juventus the serial champions of Serie A vs the recently crowned La Liga winners. The Old Lady of Turin made it to their second final in 3 seasons on the back of typically solid Italian defense and a spring of solid tactical masterclasses notably against Barcelona in the quarter finals. Their miserly defense conceded only 3 goals leading up to the final.  The Los Blancos on the other hand blazed their way to the final scoring goals for fun. Their talisman forward Cristiano Ronaldo and world footballer of the year became the first player to score 100 goals in the champions league.

Juventus made a strong start to the game as they took the game to Madrid taking some promising pot shots on goal. The champions gradually got a foot hold in midfield and they took the lead in a sweeping move started and finished off by the imperious Ronaldo. This was the way the neutrals wanted it, now the ultra tactical Italians must come out to play.

If the Old Lady was stunned, it did not shake her off her stride. Mario Mandzukic scored a spectacular equalizer when he chested the ball and volleyed over his head into to the top corner beyond the despairing dive of Navas. It was a beauty, the commentators compared it Zidane’s goal against Bayer Leverkusen for Real Madrid in 2002. The match was very open and made for a great spectacle as we went to halftime level at 1 all.

If the first half was a 50 – 50 affair, the second half was all about Real Madrid. They went into beast mode and completely blew Juventus away. The midfield trio of Casemiro (my new favourite footballer), Modric and the Rolls Royce of a player that is Toni Kroos took total control of the game. Juventus simply had no answer and it was no surprise when Casemiro scored. In keeping with the standard of the game it was a golazo. A long range belter from all of 30 yards went in via a deflection. Just as Juventus were about to rally Cristiano Ronaldo confirmed his Ballon D’Or 2017 and Real Madrid’s 12th Champions League title with another goal. You could almost see tears rolling down the cheeks of Buffon as he watched the ball go in.

Real Madrid was not troubled for the remainder of the game. Their captain even had time to dive and get Cuadrado sent off in the most disgraceful act of the entire season. Asensio came on to score off some wonderful work by the excellent Marcelo in the dying minutes of the game. The night rightfully belonged to Champions.

One cannot but feel sorry for the Old Lady and their Captain the legendary Buffon. They have lost 2 finals in the last 3 years with Buffon’s bad luck stretching back to their 2003 loss to AC Milan on penalties. In what may well be his last finals every neutral was rooting for him as he winds down his illustrious career in which the champions league is the only missing honour. He is truly one of football’s good guys.

Juventus have been serial underachievers in the Champions League given their total dominance of the Italian game. They have only won it 2 times compared to 7 titles won by Milan. They have lost the finals more than any other club and they must be wondering what they have to do to win it now. I personally feel that apart from Dybala they lack flair in the team. Once Real Madrid isolated him there was nobody else. Higuain is a deadly striker in the box, not very useful outside it. Despite all his hard-work, Mandzukic is a Center Forward and playing on the left side of a front 3 robs the team both going forward and defending. He is not fast enough to go past people and dribbling is not his forte. They need technicians and magicians like Nedved. Dare I say, Juventus need a player like Alexis upfront if they are to take the final step of winning the champions league.

To a man every Real Madrid stepped up to the plate. They functioned like a well oiled machine everywhere on the pitch. They were solid in defense, creative in midfield and deadly in attack. With a relatively young team entering their prime and arguably the best player in the world in CR7, they look set to dominate this competition for another season. For a club that lives for the Champions League, these are the best days to be a Madrista.

What can one say about Zizou the Manager? Two Champions League titles in 18 months of management and the Spanish league! His legendary status is already secured even if he decides to retire tomorrow. He was as a player, a pillar of the Galactico era which won the clubs 9th Champions League title and the Assistant to Carlo Ancelloti when the famous La Decima was won. He bested his master on the way to winning this season and has proven that he is not a one season wonder like Di Matteo. He has blended youth and superstars to get his winning formula avoiding the fatal error of the Galactico era of making a place for every superstar despite the negative effects on team structure and morale. The man is a proven winner and the dynasty he is building in Madrid will take some beating. I will not be surprised if he leads Real to a hat-trick of titles next year.
I enjoyed the game even though I wanted Juventus to win. I join everyone in hailing the Champions #HALA MADRID. My prayers go out to the victims of the evil attack in London. We need peace in the world and we must condemn such barbarism.

One more road to cross, but a Bridge too Far: My UCL Final Review

What a game; let me be the first to say this about last night’s final; it was the first final I was left utterly disappointed by the performance of the team I learnt my support too since the 2011 final between Manchester United and Barcelona. Juventus were disappointing; however after writing that I feel I have disrespected the work and ethos that went into that victory for Real Madrid last night. For the first time in the Champions League Era; a club retains Old Big Ears; the last team to win it back to back in the Old era were, the second most successful team in the Champions League; so how fitting that the most successful team put up a performance that sets them a world apart from the rest; kudos to Zinedane Zidane and his team.

On this platform; we ran a predict and win competition for the Champions league courtesy IT Cyber Security giants; Digital Encode, interestingly no one saw a 1-4 scoreline in favour of Real Madrid coming; the closest we had were 1-3 and 2-4. What happened to the solid an resolute Juventus defense? What happened to the entire team; was it a case of stage fright? Here are my thoughts:

Gonzalo Higuain: Anonymous again

What is it with Gonzalo Higuain and finals? A quick check in my Webster dictionary shows Gonzalo Higuian as a synonym to anonymous.  Every single final I have watched him play; he ends up been a complete shadow of himself. Like it or not; agree or disagree; Juventus coughed out 90 Million Euros for the Argentine striker to aid them win the Champions League; but on the night the stars were meant to align; he was found wanting and had a really poor game. Juventus settled well early into the game; creating the first real chance of the game; you can say Real scored against the run of play; but Higuain was not assertive enough; I was more impressed with Dybala and Mandzukic presence and influence in Juve’s attack line.

Another disappointing end to an otherwise glorious season for the Old Lady and it’s Argentine forward; with this performance a lot of doubt would have snuck into his mind now and its safe to say he has the unwanted reputation of failing at finals, when he is needed the most.

Isco: Simply Magical

On the subject of Isco; a lot of credit must go to Zizou for finding a way to accommodate him in his starting eleven without tampering with his team’s balance. En-route to the  Final in Cardiff; many managers would have been under pressure to start Gareth Bale because of his ties to the city of Cardiff; thankfully Zidane was not consumed by the occassion.

In the last few months; Isco has been nothing short of magical in every aspect of the game; his inclusion gives Real some added level of reassurance and flexibility as Toni Kroos can join Casemiro to form part of a double pivot; or free up Modric to achieve greater penetration. With Isco in the side; the Real Madrid midfield can switch to different types of formations depending on the positioning of the midfield quartet; this ensures the likes of Ronaldo and Benzema have no reason to worry about defensive duties. This flexibility allowed Real to be able to stifle Juventus play in midfield; thereby rendering their main creative forces in Pjanic and Dybala completely ineffective.

In the summer; Isco can now sit down with Zidane and Perez to get a bumper step up in his current deal because he won’t be short of suitors in the transfer market.

The Stifling of Dybala and Pjanic

If there was on aspect of Juventus play that Real Madrid focused on it had to be the deceptive play of the Argentine youngster; Paulo Dybala. In a functioning Juventus team, the combination of imagination and trickery of Dybala and Pjanic make the Old Lady tick; once you stifle them and ensure their outlets in wide areas are blocked off; you have a great chance. You have got to commend the work of Casemiro and Toni Kroos in this regard; both ensure that those spaces Dybala would normally find and drop into to cause havoc were almost non existent. Every time the little Argentine dropped into the midfield space to create attacking outlets; you would find the Los Blancos midfield swarm on him like bees; it got more and more frustrating for the young man that he had to be taken off after receiving a yellow card.

Zidane’s midfield flexibility stood firm and adjusted to every situation as the progressed to attack and retreated to defend; ensuring that the Juventus wing backs didn’t get much of the ball or forced them to come in narrow; hence allowing their own full backs in Carvajal and Marcelo; time and space to join up the attack; a brilliant tactical master stroke from the great Frenchman.

A typical smash and grab

There’s this saying in football that goes ” you are more vulnerable to concede a goal immediately after you have just scored at the other end”. Well let me add a little twist to the saying as follows ”you are more likely to score another goal just after you just scored” and that was the case for Real Madrid. As Casemiro put his team ahead have a ridiculous deflection; Ronaldo ended all chances of Juve finding their way back into the game with a third goal three minutes later.

It was a proper Spanish job and upgrade on the Italian job; hit them whilst they are trying to come to terms with been behind; you set then even further behind the more; a proper smash and grab.

Zizou: Creating his own Legacy

Let us all enjoy this moment and not start bothering ourselves with what the future holds for one of the greatest footballers to grace this earth and now making a name for himself as a managerial great. Today, Zizou wakes up as the first back to back ”Champions League” winner; his stock is obviously rising; a lot of things would running through his mind now on what’s next. Good enough he has the full support of the fans and the club’s hierarchy; he has been given a free pass, plus some preferential treatment  as it involves tactics and we do know other managers took stick for doing some of what he did with this team.

Now, I am happy for Zizou because he has been able to freshen up this team from within; the transfer ban was a blessing in disguise. It allowed him take a chance on the likes of Asensio and Lucas Vazquez to very good effect. It will be interesting to see how Zidane navigates the transfer market; would his approach be a departure from the Galaticos system or would he embrace it.

A number of skeptics will tell you this is not his team and that he needs to prove his mettle in the transfer market; he can ignore all of them and just focus on continue to ensure this team is successful, whilst preparing a succession plan for the retirement of a player like Cristano Ronaldo. Like it or not; it is something that must be address over the next three years; even if Zizou is no longer on the Bernabeu hot seat.

Big Congratulations to Zizou has he continues to put up a fight for footballing geniuses as Managers; look at Maradona and Pele, nothing on the managerial landscape; for some Zidane is number three in that all time equation; he is pushing the envelope further and making a name for himself as a manager.

Gianluigi Buffon: What’s Next?

For the romantics and sensationalist; it was all about Buffon finally lifting Old Big ears; but as they say in life, you cannot win all the time and you cannot win it all. Yes some players were fortunate to lift every trophy available; some didn’t even come close to winning anything. Truth is Gianluigi Buffon has lifted more than most; we do not know if this is his swan song on the highest stage in club football, however one thing is for sure his legacy as an all time great remains intact and indelible for all to see and hear about for many a generations.

If Buffon’s legend was ever in doubt, just check how long it has taken to break his transfer record for a goal keeper from Parma to Juventus. Gianluigi Buffon; an all time leader, footballing and goal keeping legend; take a bow.

 

 

*** Pictures courtesy Squawka.com; goal.com; firstpost.com

A UCL night in the Lands of the Red Dragons

An assuaging night Awaits us at the National Stadium in Cardiff, well, not until hostilities replaces it at kick off where the Old Lady looks to outwit the classy Los Blancos from Spain.

Real Madrid are looking to complete a double for the first time since 1958 while Juventus are on the verge of sealing a treble for the first time in their history after winning the Coppa Italia and the Scudetto for a 6th consecutive time.

Juve, the Patsy

Nine times they have made it to the European Cup / Champions League final but won it twice. This says a lot about toothless the Old Lady have been when the grand price is at stake – losing to Real in 1998 even though they were the better side that night, the heartbreak at Old Trafford five years later in hands of AC Milan and two years ago when Messi and Co daubed them in Berlin are fresh highlights to how Juventus seems to suffer from a mental block when it duly matters. Real Madrid are a complete contrast to Juve’s morbid phobia to finals – they have won all the last 5 finals they played in.

That said, Juventus are going to be an extremely hard nut to crack due to a largely dependable basement in the defence. Allegri’s tactics clearly states a ‘if you don’t concede, you always stand a chance’ mantra and his players follow it to the letter.

Real Deal

It’s astonishing what Zinedine Zidane has done with this Madrid team and this is not blandishment, it’s due to how he has managed to get each member know their roles in the team – over 20 players have a thousand or more minutes in the La Liga; a clear indication that there is no fatigue of any kind in the team.

Real Madrid occasionally this season has subtly evolved from that expansive 4 – 3 – 3 to 4 – 4 – 2, arguably because of the injury to Gareth Bale which has made Isco line up in the midfield in proximity to Ronaldo and Benzema.

Team News

Dani Carvajal recently indicated that he’s ‘200% ready’ for the final in Cardiff after recovering from a muscle injury and looks like he will start ahead of Danilo. That can’t be said about Gareth Bale on his return to his native land, the Welshman has recovered from his ankle injury but I want to think Zidane will pick Isco’s nifty footwork and tunnel – visioned passes over Bale’s athleticism

Sami Khedira who looked like he will miss the showdown has recovered in time to face his former employers, which suggests that Cuadrado and Marchisio are going to start from the bench. It also means that Massimilliano Allegri has his first XI intact for the final however, the way he approaches the game is of huge interest. I suspect Allegri is going to field a 3 – 4 – 3 formation to stretch Zidane’s narrow 4-4-2.

Predicted XI

Verdict

On paper, both teams cancel each other out and it’s going to be an impasse for most part of the game but the bench will be pivotal to the outcome. Where Real Madrid can call on Marco Asensio, Alvaro Morata, Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Lucas Vasquez when things go ‘moribund’, Juventus have Cuadrado, Marchisio, Lemina and Pjaca. Real Madrid don’t generally have it all in their grasp, they could be defensively inept at times. I go for a 2 – 1 Madrid win.