“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.

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 Hung-over Champions Performance: My Thoughts on the FA Cup Final

Let me be the first to admit that Punditry is such a hard job when we all get it wrong; we are supposed to be experts and quite a number of people depend on our expert analysis to determine their mood going into a big game and in some circumstances place a stake on the game with the hope of making a quick buck or two.

Credit to Arsenal, Arsene Wenger and the fans who believed in their team before and during the match; not you, you know yourselves. Forget about the controversy of the first goal; it was a supremely fantastic Arsenal performance, the Gunners could have been up by four goals at halftime  with their exhilarating play of pace, quick movement and possession. Here are my thoughts from a great Arsenal FA Cup victory:

Chelsea seemed Hung-Over

Antonio Conte would take the blame for this lethargic Chelsea performance; it obviously looked like they had over celebrated their league win just seven days earlier. This takes me back to 1994 and 1999; when Manchester United were chasing a double and a Treble; I remember the words of Sir Alex; to the team and the Fans on the final day of the season; calming down the celebrations, ensuring it didn’t go over board as the team still had bigger fish to fry in the coming days. This Chelsea team didn’t look that; the whole John Terry send forth and general atmosphere at Stamford Bridge on final day; they had a party and seemed to celebrate all week; probably waving off the threat Arsenal were capable of been. The only other time Chelsea were probably this poor was on their trip to Old Trafford; they had no answer for Arsenal’s running on and off the ball, it was an electric performance from the Gunners.

Chelsea Midfield off the pace

I kept asking myself were is all this space coming from; it was like a huge gaping hole after an earthquake. Chelsea’s midfield was completely off the pace; that all that running, movement, quickness of the pacing, use of space; just gave N’golo Kante and Nemanja Matic just too much to keep up with. I felt Conte could have responded with a change earlier than he did; especially as Pedro and Hazard were having an off day.

Arsenal got behind the Chelsea in the wide areas, using the pace of Bellerin and Chamberlain in transitioning from defense to attack like a hot knife through butter. The Introduction of Fabregas for Matic; could have brought some much needed calm in the midfield with the Blues seizing possession and some energy and industry could have helped with the introduction of Willian for Pedro; both substitutions could have been done at Half time as Arsenal were having a field day controlling the midfield in the first half, but stepped off the gas in the second half for a counter attacking approach; it would have been a great reaction to the onslaught at the time.

Sanchez’s Goal shouldn’t have stood

I am not a referee; but i have watched the game long enough to know when a player is interfering with play; i am not even mentioning the hand ball leading to goal. Now, lets consider this; ball gets flicked into the box; Aaron Ramsey is in an offside position; doesn’t realize it; makes a move for the ball, turns to get the ball to take a shot a Courtois; but gets either a shout from Sanchez; who made a run from outside the box or just immediately realizes he was in an offside position earlier and shouldn’t touch or make a move for the ball; we have to realize that at this time Courtois is coming to terms with facing an Aaron Ramsey strike on goal only to see him move over for Sanchez to take a swipe at the ball. For me, Ramsey was offside every day of the week including Sundays and public holidays; goal shouldn’t have stood.

Mertesacker Holding Defense; No Problem.

Imagine the hysteria during the week; when it was apparent Arsenal would have to call on their semi retired club Captain to fill the defensive hole left open by injuries to Gabriel, Mustafi and Koscielny’s  suspension. It gave Arsenal absolutely no chance against a rampaging Chelsea forward line full of running and enthusiasm; little did we know that as the saying goes ”there’s no substitute for experience”.

What a performance by Per Mertesacker; a gem of a composed defensive performance; commanding, resolute and quite encouraging. Young Rob Holding would have learnt a ton from partnering with the veteran last night; the German showed all forms of leadership, exhibiting control, didn’t misplace a pass; calm in possession and in his tackling. Permit me to say this; we have had the Gerrard Final; this was the Mertesacker Final (I understand Martin Keown said the same thing too).

Eden Hazard: Not quite there yet

There’s been a lot of debate on how good Eden Hazard is and how he ranks or compares with the likes of Messi, Cristano, Neymar and Saurez. I have maintained that he still has a bit to go to be mentioned in the same category as the aforementioned individuals. For one his numbers have to take a huge nudge up; especially considering the amount of influence he has in the Chelsea team.

Lets make a quick comparison and look at the numbers; this season Hazard has scored 16 goals and 5 assists, probably his best goals return for Chelsea; if you take a look across the pond to the four guys I mentioned:

Lionel Messi – 37 goals; 9 assists

Luis Saurez – 29 goals; 13 assists

Cristano Ronaldo – 25 goals; 6 assists

Neymar Jnr – 13 goals; 11 assists

For a player that has that much influence and is integral to Chelsea’s play and success; he needs to up the ante; been involved in a total of 21 goals all season is probably not good enough in been ranked among the best in the world.

Also; if i were to take into consideration the effect two of these players had in their team’s cup final triumph as against Hazard’s performance in Chelsea’s disappointing Cup demise; it reflects on my entire analysis of how much Hazard can be mentioned in the conversation of best players in the world.

Eden Hazard was one of Chelsea’s poor performers in last night’s FA Cup final; he couldn’t galvanize the team and was largely anonymous; he needs to turn up in games of this nature in a more consistent manner to finally warrant or merit been considered one of the world’s elite players.

 

 

 

 

 

**Pictures courtesy SIPA/REX Shutterstock; Associated Press

The Stockholm Ambush: My Thoughts on the Europa League Final

Firstly, I must say was there a scarcity of confetti in Stockholm that the Manchester United celebrations got none to celebrate such an historic feat. I must say Kudos to the young, energetic and aggressive Ajax side who stood tall all through Ninety Minutes in trying to emulate other successful all conquering Ajax sides of many years past.

In most previews of this Europa League Finals; it was tagged a match pitting experience vs youth; well if memory serves me right the two times this has happened this season; experience has found a way to shine through; case in question Monaco’s two legged affair against the Old Lady of Turin. A careful analysis of the events on the pitch of the Friend’s Arena in Stockholm for me seemed more of like Manchester United laid an ambush for Ajax; you can play you free flowing, passing football, but you wouldn’t get a clear sight of goal all game.

Manchester United have now conveniently snuck  into the group stage of next season’s Champions League; more or less nullifying the old adage that says ”never put all your eggs in one basket”. Here are my thoughts generally on the Final match as a whole:

United avoided Pressing

You can say what you want about Jose Mourinho; positive or negative, the man knows how to win and drill a side to get a result from a one off game. Like it or not; defending remains an integral part of the game and it goes hand in hand with attacking. United knew that they didn’t have the legs to press this young Ajax team up top nor the energy to chase them all over the pitch; so whenever Ajax chose to build from the back, Mourinho’s side dropped into their half into two banks of four; more or less daring them to play through the well organized wall or is it a bus this days. At every instance; United ensured they had opportunities to double team Ajax’s better ball playing individuals; whilst nullifying the space to pass through them. It was quite frustrating as it restricted Ajax to just three shots on target with non troubling Romero in the United Goal.

Once United saw they had been able to force Ajax to play the way they wanted it was easy to leave Marcus Rashford  up top; to try to curtail the freedom and confidence Davinson Sanchez was growing into; as a ”ball playing center back”; the Red Devils were more comfortable with him trying to orchestrate things from the back as against the likes of Schone and Klaassen.

Chris Smalling: dropping down the pecking order

Over the course of the weekend and the week leading to the Europa League Final; many United fans prayed for Chris Smalling not to be included in the starting eleven; surprise, surprise; come match day he is listed to pair Daley Blind in Central Defense; when most believed Phil Jones will get the nod ahead of him. What was most shocking was that without Wayne Rooney and Micheal Carrick in the starting Line up; Smalling automatically  takes over the captain’s arm band; but for some strange reason; Antonio Valencia captained United to glory on the night. Is this a signal that Smalling as fallen down the pecking order? Is this Jose’s way of telling him, he isn’t that reliable anymore and cannot be trusted? Whatever, it may have been; Chris Smalling did put up a solid performance on the night; probably is best performance all season.

In Traore, Younes and Sanchez; I see the next Superstars

Yes; Bertrand Traore is a Chelsea player and after such a successful loan spell at Ajax; I am sure Antonio Conte would have been monitoring his progress; hoping to see how he may be able to add that extra to a title winning Chelsea side. Although, if he is to fit into Conte’s side; he will have to brush up on his tactical discipline; this is what makes the likes of Willian and Pedro; important in the Chelsea core. This is not to take anything away from his undoubted talent, but its simply stating there’s still work to be done.

Davinson Sanchez is a quick, strong and physical defender, raw on the edges with a lot of brushing up and refinement needed to make him the next big defensive superstar. He needs to stay at Ajax to develop his game; no need rushing out to some of Europe’s elite, who would not afford you the time to learn and refine your game; he can be massive over the next 2-3 years if he stays at Ajax.

Amin Younes  reminded me of former Ajax winger; Marc Overmars, with his pace and trickery; but his decision making needs to improve greatly if he would like to reach the heights of the former diminutive Dutch winger.

Marouane Fellaini: My Man of the Match

See as I am typing this I am having to check myself to be sure that I am actually doing this; but you have got to say that had to be his best performance ever in a Manchester United shirt; he was totally unplayable, Ajax couldn’t handle him.

I remember saying it this morning in the studio that this is the kind of game Mourinho would start Fellaini; social media went wild seeing him in the starting line up ahead of Micheal Carrick.

I never knew this day would come; I am sure my Late Dad would be turning in his grave now; but it has, Marouane Fellaini, Please take a bow.

Jose is still Special After all

Forget what the psychic cow predicted or what the nerds at whoscored.com said; love him or hate him; the man knows how to win. It has been a tough eighteen months or so for Jose Mourinho; from the unfortunate debacle and alleged mutiny at Chelsea; to his damaged reputation as an unyielding task master. His me/us against the world mentality always puts him and his team in the line of fire; issues with players fitness and commitment have largely swung in his favour in the long run and he has the trophies to show for it.

It is hard to pin-point where he ranks among the greats in world club football; but it has to be very high; Four European trophies with three different clubs must put him close to the top; series of league titles and cups; must gradually have him hitching towards the greats.

What’s past is past; a new chapter and potential legacy may just be upon us; Jose can kick on from this and build his own legacy along side Busby and Ferguson; its a long road ahead and it would be hard to bet against Jose not leaving a huge mark in the United trophy cabinet when his tenure ends.

Halftimeng Premier League Team of Week 36

Chelsea could be crowned Champions of England by as early as Friday this week; after a devastating performance at the Bridge against relegation bound Middlesborough and considering Tottenham Hotspurs dropped points in the London derby against West Ham earlier on Friday night; all eyes will be at the Hawthorns as the Champions elect proceed to their coronation event which includes a Ninety minutes confrontation with Tony Pulis’ West Brom.

In terms of stand out performances; the Etihad was the ideal location for probably the best display of attacking football you would see from a Pep Guardiola coached side. The Citizens were fluid, expressive and quite dynamic to the point that their two center backs chipped in with goals.

At the Emirates; Arsene Wenger finally got the better of Jose Mourinho in a competitive game and I must say it seems Alex 0xlade Chamberlain has developed a knack for finding his best form when faced with Manchester United.  At Anfield, the gift that keeps giving Liverpool continued their Robin Hood acts as Southampton got a well deserved nil-nil draw especially after the penalty save by Fraser Forster.

Here’s the compilation of my team of the week in a 4-4-2 formation:

 

How Maximillano Allegri has turned Old Lady to New Vixen

Following an utter dominance in the Serie A, Juventus took it a step further by spanking dark horses, AS Monaco 0-2 at the Stade Louis II in France courtesy of well taken goals by £76 million striker Gonzalo Higuain – a probable date with Real Madrid in Wales is on the horizon?

I will be taking a look at how the Italian gaffer, Max Allegri took Juventus from ‘local Champions’ to European elite in a short time.

July 16th, 2014, Juventus board and President Andrea Agnelli took a leap of faith in appointing Allegri after surprisingly thwarting relationship with Antonio Conte who has initially won a hat-trick of Scudetti, notched a Serie A high of 102 points but the frenzy coach (now in Chelsea) never really took Europe by storm only making the Quarter final in Champions League in 12/13 season and crashing out in the Europa League 12 months later. Agnelli wanted and needed to correct this, Allegri himself wasn’t a different bloke in Europe even though he had won a scudetto and Italian cup with the Rossoneri but the Old Lady saw something different which I thought Fabio Capello – which himself won the league in Italy rightly put out saying “Allegri’s ability to grind and adapt to opponents and injuries or even suspensions is on of his strongest points”. A vintage example was his quirky switch from a back four to a back three in the first leg against Barcelona to a back four in the second leg and back to a three yesterday against Monaco and still stopped this Antithesis who had previously scored 95 goals in 34 Ligue one games.

The cusp of it is how the players have endeared to his system game after game without flinching, building his team on defensive solidity and stability – a very rare happening.

If the Juve board is doing a perspicacious job of making shrewd businesses in the transfer window over periods when players like Andrea Pirlo, Hernanes, Paul Pogba, for a world record fee and losing Alvaro Morata to Manchester United and Real Madrid last summer ; they have successfully replaced them carefully and intelligently without being desultory – Allegri hasn’t moaned about the continuous exit of key players but in a faute de mieux attitude has continued to churn out the best from his team and has produced a cadence in the team over time. Diego Alves who came on a free has been a willing horse at RB / RWB for most part this season, not to forget his superb assists for Higuain’s brace – his ninth of the season and 31 goals in all competitions, Dybala consistently showing his wonder-kid qualities along.

Popular Football pundit, Biola Kazeem (@biolakazeem) took to Social Media in appraisal of how Juve has transitioned over time and still make something worthy off it. “Best teams in the world at squad building are Juventus and Bayern. They manage to build & maintain squads intelligently”. Can’t say it any better.

In our preview of the Serie A season here at Halftimeng.com; we were quite clear on what Juve’s focus would be this season asides from consolidating the domestic dominance Read Here

It is arguable that Allegri is no different from Conte (some Chelsea Fans have already predicted that their team will play like this next season) and even go as far as disparagement but it is important to aver and not adumbrate that the former has moved Juventus a step high.

Halftimeng Premier League Team of Week 35

I am not sure there as ever been a time where we have had a midfield in our selection that’s dominated by Defensive midfielders; is it a sign of the fact that the season is gradually coming to an end? Well; let me first and foremost apologize for  the late compilation of our weekly team; its been one hell of a start to the week.

If you are a punter; I am sure Saturday would have been one of your worst days betting on the Premier League; only four goals were scored on Saturday and fifteen goals in total if you add Sunday; even if you include Monday Night Football; a grand total of Sixteen goals were scored. That’s what happens when you have 2 scoreless draws; 3 one-nil scorelines; a one all draw and the excitement seemed to be reserved for the latter part of Sunday with four goals at the Riverside; Three at Goodisson and Two at White Hart Lane.

This week’s selection has a Nigerian make the list coming so many weeks after the likes of Victor Anichebe and Victor Moses made the cut. So with no further ado; here’s my selection in a 3-4-3 formation:

5 things we learned from the UCL Madrid Derby

A classic Ronaldo hat-trick put Atlético to the sword on Tuesday leaving Diego Simeone’s men needing a miracle to book a place in Cardiff. Here are the things we learned from the clash at the Santiago Bernabeu.

1. Subdued  Colcherenos

This absolutely shook for a fact, never seen a Simeone team so bereft of ideas and for most part of the game brought their hog to a fine market when a proper performance was needed.

Gameiro – Griezmann combo that has worked the treat for most part of the season was esoterically lost on the night – could only muster an attempt on target all game. Diego Simeone himself cut a nomadic figure on the touch line, stroking his chin for most part – straying in and around the technical area.

2. Rabid Ramos

It’s actually  noisome when you know that he’s received 22 red cards in his career – humongous but it is also worthy to note that the ex Sevilla defender has a high class of hegemonic qualities when in the mood and he did it really well on Tuesday – Tamed Atlético’s forward for the major part of the game.

The back-line generally had a good game but Sergio Ramos gave an impeccable performance.

3. Queasy Godin

The Uruguayan stalwart had a nightmarish experience which honestly, should be marked in a book somewhere as the eighth wonder of the world. He was delirious at tracking runners, notably, was too soft to on the challenge on Benzema just before Ronaldo’s second goal.

Don’t mean to sound schadenfreude but his coach will feel massively dis-chuffed at how one of his trusted players let him down. Diego Godin was poor to a wonder.

4. Zizou on the brink of Making History

It’s arguable that the French Legend has swapped excessive ‘voluptuous’ football to excessive counter attacking football Howbeit pragmatically. Not sure Florentino Perez is a fan but comprehensibly won’t complain. Los Merangues are on the verge of making it their third appearance in the UCL final in 4 years, go a step further and win it back to back – first time ever. Looks A tall order but definitely not impossible.

5. Ronaldo hitting critics hard.

Every other time he has been pushed to the wall, he has managed to get monkeys off his back, he’s never one with a bundle of nerves. Just when people have thrown persiflage at him following a rather ornery performance at the El Classico – he answered doubters with a hat-trick which will be enough to have them in the final. Cristiano Ronaldo has proven he is still the man that can inspire – who doesn’t rely on reputation alone but never yellow bellied.

FOOTBALL MID-WEEK REVIEW featuring the Manchester Derby

As the leagues in Europe begin to hit home stretch, we have been served with top and feisty matches across the top leagues, there is still a lot to fight for especially in Spain and England where the battle for the winners is not yet done and dusted, the DFB cup was in the forefront in Germany whilst France saw the clash of the best two teams in the land, here is a review of all that happened across Europe in the last few days alongside the preview of the Manchester Derby coming up tonight at the Etihad.

Barcelona and Madrid secure big wins: After the El Classico over the weekend which saw Barcelona edge Madrid at the top of the log on head to head basis, though Madrid still have a game in hand, both teams featured in mid week fixtures as they continue their chase for the La Liga title.  As expected, Barcelona thrashed visiting Osasuna by 7 goals to one confirming the team to relegation after just one year of returning to the elite division with the highlight of the game being Javier Mascherano’s first goal in his 319th appearance for Barcelona, Madrid however faced a tricky tie away at Deportivo La Coruna and when the team-list was released with the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema and Toni Kroos absent, many feared manager Zinedine Zidane may have taken the gamble a bit too far, but all that was erased barely a minute into the game as Morata opened the scoring in what turned out to be a easy 6- 2 win with Isco starring as the main man yet again. Granada suffered their third defeat with new manager Tony Adams whilst Leganes halted an 8 game streak without a win with a 3-0 victory over Las Palmas to boost their survival chances.

NFF and AITEO 2.5Bn deal: The NFF yesterday announced a 5 year partnership contract worth 500 million Naira per year with oil and Gas Company Aiteo as Official Optimum partner of the football body, the deal primarily ensures that payment of all national team coaches and technical partnership of the national teams are duly covered over the year.

Big results in Cup games: In Germany, something of an upset was witnessed as Borussia Dortmund stunned Bayern Munich by 3 goals to 2 to secure their place in the DFB Cup final for the fourth straight time, Bayern Munich had led by 2 goals to one at a certain stage but two goals in five minutes from Pierre- Emerick Aubameyang and teen sensation Ousmane Dembele ensured that the Bavarians will not be winning a double this season, Dortmund will now face Eintracht Frankfurt in the final. In France, Monaco featured a much changed team and were thoroughly routed by PSG as the boys from Paris scored 5 unreplied goals to secure a final berth with Angers.

The Premier League: Arsenal earned a hard fought 1 nil victory over defending champions Leicester City courtesy a late minute Robert Huth own goal to win back to back games for the first time since February and maintain their hunt for a champions league place, Christian Eriksen’s belter at Crystal Palace also ensured that the North Londoners remain just four points behind league leaders Chelsea who put up a commanding performance in their 4-2 victory over Southampton, Sunderland are all but confirmed for relegation after suffering yet another defeat in the hands of fellow strugglers Middlesbrough.

The Manchester Derby: All eyes will at the Etihad tonight as the two Manchester teams go head to head in a battle not for the title but for a top four place. A win for Manchester United will see them in the top four for the first time this year and they will be jointly tied on 66 points with Liverpool despite having played a game less, for Pep Guardiola, his first season has not exactly gone according to plans as the team will be finishing the season without a silverware and a top four position is paramount to his plans of restructuring the team come next season. Both sides have injury worries as Jose Mourinho has confirmed that 89M signing Paul Pogba will be missing after he picked up an injury in their last game, he joins Zlatan Ibrahimovic who has also been ruled out for the season and Marcos Rojo on the sidelines, for City, David Silva remains a doubt but Sergio Aguero is in contention alongside Gabriel Jesus to feature in tonight’s game. It’s Pep Guardiola against Jose Mourinho yet again, many will be curious to see how tactics are deployed in this game following how United approached their last big game against Chelsea, It’s a game that could be a decider to either teams fortunes as we hit the end of the season and whilst a draw may not be bad for both sides, the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal will be wishing that one of the sides, especially United drop all three points to enhance their Champions League place. The two sides have met twice already this season, City won the first leg of their Premier League fixture whilst United emerged victorious in the EFL cup, this is their third and final meeting of the season and whilst a top four place may be the ultimate prize, the bragging rights for who owns Manchester is also an appeal as two of the best managers in the world seek to make the most of what has been a below par season in comparison with the standards they have set in their careers.