20 Reasons to be Excited for the 19/20 Seasons #4

Los Blancos’ Return 

We’ll keep this one nice and short since I’ve discussed Real Madrid on multiple occasions. After arguably their worst season in the current century, Real Madrid were left in desperate need for surgery in crucial areas. Perez failed to replace Ronaldo adequately and left the side without the 40 goals that Ronaldo was giving the side every season. Entrusting Bale and Benzema to double their goal tally at their age is unrealistic. They were embarrassed by Ajax in the Champions League and were left so far from their closest rivals, signalling the time for a rebuild.

Madrid were insanely quick in acting upon their need for players. Eder Militao was signed back in March for over £50 million. The Brazilian was fantastic for Porto, comfortably playing at both full-back and centre half. He is one of the most promising defenders in Europe, and his signing makes perfect sense with Ramos and Nacho getting old. He wasn’t the only defensive signing, with Ferland Mendy arriving for £47 million. Mendy is an excellent full-back and can give a similar attacking output as Marcelo while not being nearly as error-prone as his new Brazilian teammate. Madrid’s defence now looks in much better shape. Ramos and Varane are still fantastic and now with Eder and Mendy, have long term replacement for their ageing stars.

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Eden Hazard was by far the biggest signing of the summer. The Belgian has wanted to leave Chelsea for a long time and has finally achieved his dream move to the Spanish capital. While he is far from value for money, Madrid are getting a player who has come off the back of his best season in his career. Hazard was the best player at the 2018 World Cup, and he finally showed how well he could perform under an attacking coach. Chelsea had their problems under Sarri, but Hazard’s form was by far the most significant strength from his time in London. Hazard will be fantastic for Zidane, but I doubt he will reach a similar goal tally as Ronaldo. He will be much more creative than Ronaldo ever was under Zidane, and should contribute to at least 30 goals.

The icing on top of the attacking cake is Serbian striker Luka Jovic, who was one of the breakout stars of last season. Jovic is a forward who can score all types of goals, who relishes constant chances in the box to pounce. He is two-footed and can score headed goals. It’s what made him stand out for Frankfurt; his elite finishing and getting into excellent scoring positions. His shot map last season was a pleasure to see. The former Benfica striker is a lethal finisher and is the goal threat that Madrid were craving for last season. Benzema, while scoring a lot of goals for Madrid last season, is far past his best and shouldn’t be relied on as the primary goal threat anymore. Jovic couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive.

All of these signings and the current experience they possess, have instantly made them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They have fixed their most prominent issues in both defence and attack. The only issue that remains is the midfield. The midfield trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro is not a midfield you can play consistently anymore. Modric is very old now, and Kroos has never been a mobile player. What makes it so worrying is the sales of Llorente, Kovacic and potentially Ceballos. All offer more defensive work off the ball than Kroos and Modric and give the midfield some energy to help Madrid in tougher games. I fear that midfield will lack the energy against sides like Liverpool or Tottenham. If Madrid can bring in one of Pogba or Eriksen, there wouldn’t be an issue, but it is looking improbable.

Valencia’s Fortune Coming Back

Valencia had a bizarre 18/19 season, having a miserable start to the season but managing to finish in the top 4 deservedly. Marcelino is one of the best defensive managers in Europe and managed to turn Valencia into a tough side to face. He gave stability to the club after barely surviving relegation in 2016. After a very positive 17/18 season which saw all of their strikers run hot all year, it got them back into the top 4 and allowed them to return to Europe’s elite once again. He managed to get a lot out of players who failed at their previous clubs, with Garay, Gabriel, Kondogbia and Neto all standing out in their debut season.

Their disastrous start to last season is one of the strangest occurrences I’ve witnessed since following football. They only managed a single victory up until the middle of November. At first glance that looks bad, but when looking at the numbers, they should never have been in such a drought. What’s even more baffling about this is they only managed one defeat before November, meaning they drew all but 2 games. The defence remained solid as ever, but it was in attack where they couldn’t catch a break. I mentioned before that their strikers were all running incredibly hot in terms of form. What made this so unfortunate was Mina and Rodrigo both hit a dry patch at the same time. It meant many games at the beginning of the season ended in draws due poor finishing. Marcelino faced a dilemma, and while he did manage to rally his players in the second half of the season, taking advantage of Sevilla dropping off a cliff, it still painted a very mixed season. Valencia’s top scorer that season was midfielder Dani Parejo with 9. It’s easy to see where Valencia needed to improve.

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They acted in sorting their issue with the signing of Maxi Gomez from Celta Vigo in an odd deal which saw both Santi Mina leave permanently and young defender Saenz on loan. They have brought in a player, while I think he lacks in finding good shot locations, he is one of the best aerial forwards in La Liga and could help bring more goals out of both Guedes and Rodrigo. Let’s hope that they do not begin next season with the same bad luck.

Atalanta Finally Reach the Champions League

It has been a long time coming, but Atalanta have finally reached the Champions League after a couple of years of getting close. La Dea have been a club producing talent for clubs ranging from Juventus down to clubs in Serie C. Chelsea are a club who garnered a reputation for having an obscene number of players out on loan, but Atalanta takes that to another level, with 76 players out on last season. Context is important here, with players like Petagna and Kessie virtually signing for their new clubs, but the fee not being paid till this summer. They have been a selling club for Italy’s biggest clubs for years with a youth system unlike no other.

Their success last season came down to getting every ounce of talent out of a trio of ageing forwards in Josep Illicic, Papu Gomez and Duvan Zapata. With Gomez already captaining the side, Illicic and Zapata arrived for a combined £17 million and all have flourished. They are on the older side, with the trio all over 28 but Serie A has blossomed thanks to its reputation for allowing older players to play slower-paced league. Gomez has been one of my favourite players in Europe for the last couple of years. He’s caused so many defenders issues with his elite dribbling and can carry the attack on his own. Both Gomez and Illicic have practically been given free roles under Gasperini in terms of positioning, looking to create for Zapata. He has been the centrepiece for the side, scoring more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Dries Mertens last season. It’s his highest goal return since playing in Serie A and has excelled due to the high chance creation in the side. His shot map shows a player taking shots in fantastic positions. He’s been blessed with a team full of creation throughout the side. Out of his 118 shots in Serie A last season, 89% were taking from inside the penalty area. The Colombian is a poacher at heart and feeds off chances. It’s been similar to all of the top scorers in Serie A and while Quagliarella scoring over 25 goals in his late thirties is impressive, getting 23 goals out of a journeyman like Zapata has been nothing short of genius from Gasperini.

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It’s strange to see a club rooted with youth success having a squad full of older players, but the model is working. Atalanta have even added another Serie A veteran in Luis Muriel to their ranks, to add to that incredible frontline. The Nerazzurri are one of my teams to watch in the Champions League next season. They’ve managed to reach the biggest competition in Europe with a squad full of players who weren’t good enough for the usual big sides. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them cause a massive upset next season.

Barca’s Ageing Squad

Most clubs discussed so far have all been making positive moves and showing long term thinking, but Barcelona are far from that. The La Liga champions were underwhelming for the whole of last season. They managed to make by far the most comfortable title win their recent history look more complicated than it needed to be. It makes the consistently disappointing performances in the Champions League, more concerning with the way the squad is going. They have spent an insane amount of money on a host of attacking talent but have failed to address some of their critical areas in the squad, primarily left-back and centre-back. They are seemingly desperate to sign even more attacking talent and are failing even to consider finding long term replacements in defence.

Let’s start with left-back. I disliked Jordi Alba for years, and while he was an excellent attacking option, he was such a liability in defence that I thought he was an area that needed addressing for a long time. However, Valverde’s pragmatic system did finally manage to get the best out of the Spaniard. He has been fantastic for Barca over the last couple of seasons, but the club’s laziness in not signing another left-back left them in such an awkward position. It forced them to give Alba a high earning, long term contract because he was fully aware of how desperate they were to keep him. Alba is turning 31 next season and as we’ve recently seen with Tottenham, is usually far past the expiry date of a modern-day full-back. If Alba begins to drop off similarly to Marcelo or suffers a long term injury, it could derail Barcelona’s whole season and what makes it even worse is Barcelona aren’t linked to anyone in that position. Their whole seasons rests on the form of Alba staying healthy.

The centre-back problem is almost as clear as the same issues as left-back. As soon as Frenkie De Jong signed for the club, it seemed apparent to see De Ligt play alongside his teammate at the Nou Camp. However, it didn’t happen. Valverde has issues with Umtiti and Pique’s age is becoming more noticeable per season. Pique’s success has been quite fascinating. A player who has lacked pace throughout his career being able to play a high line successfully is to his credit, but we’ve seen in the past how when certain players age (Steven Gerrard and Diego Godin), their awareness seems to diminish. Pique has mostly been fantastic under Valverde but has had moments where you have to question if he is the same player he once was. What is becoming more worrying for Pique is the likely departure of Umtiti. While the Frenchman has struggled with injury, his ability to rush out of defence made him an ideal partner for someone incapable of doing that successfully.  If Pique is forced to play over 30 games in the league once again, it could make his decline extremely painful to watch.

I cannot stress this enough, but I can’t stand the signing of Antoine Griezmann and the potential return of Neymar. Barcelona have just spent over £100 million on an ageing forward who isn’t even guaranteed to start. I love Griezmann as a player, but anyone who signed him was going to suffer. Spending that much money on a player who wasn’t essential is just baffling. Real Madrid signing Hazard made sense because they were desperate for a player who could fire them right back to the top and fill in a position they were in desperate need for since the departure of Ronaldo. Griezmann doesn’t possess that same urgency that Hazard did, making his signing stink of panic. Real Madrid acted swiftly in bringing in Jovic, another player who seemed destined to sign for the Blaugrana. Barca didn’t have a plan B and have waited too long to bring in Griezmann. The Frenchman feels like an expensive stop-gap in their future pursuit of Kylian Mbappe, which isn’t worth the money for a club who are already full of financial difficulties.

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Neymar’s rumoured return might be even worse than Griezmann’s signing. The Brazilian has been a massive failure, and while his performances on the pitch have been the second-best in the Paris side, he has missed many games through injury, most notably both round of 16 clashes with Manchester United. The reason why Paris signed Neymar was to make their chances of winning the Champions League increase dramatically. He has failed to do so and with his awful attitude off the pitch, it makes it extremely difficult in justifying keeping the forward any longer. Barcelona made a strange yet enticing offer of £90 million and 2 players. I understand why PSG want the money they paid back, but taking two of Dembele, Malcolm, Coutinho, Umtiti, Rakitic or Semedo would help fix some significant issues in the squad and makes them a much better team without their Brazilian superstar. Barcelona’s constant search for more attacking talent baffles me. They have the best player ever to play the game and continues to carry that side more than ever. If you have Messi, your attack is going to function well. They need to focus on fixing the defence and adding some younger talent.

Wolfsburg Taking a Risk

Let’s end this list where we began, with the Bundesliga. The effects Austrian football has had on the Bundesliga in recent years has been vital in its development into becoming the breeding ground for young coaches. When discussing this effect, the Red Bull clubs are usually the first link that comes to mind. It was Salzburg who have been responsible for the rise of Marco Rose, Ralph Hassenhuttl, Roger Schmidt and Adi Hutter. It’s not only coaches too, with Naby Keita, Amadou Haidara, Marcel Sabitzer and most recently Stefan Lainer. The Austrian Bundesliga contains a pool of talent that Germany takes full advantage of and it seems other leagues are finally seeing the perks of looking at a historical footballing nation for players.

However, in this case, we are not looking at a manager who has had previous relations with the Red Bull machine. Oliver Glasner arrives after a very successful 4-year spell at former club, LASK Linz. He took them from fighting for promotion the Austrian top flight, to qualifying for the Europa League. This success is primarily down to Glasner, who’s fascinating system got the best out of players at his disposal. While I’m not an avid viewer of the Austrian Bundesliga, but from what I can gather, Glasner is a forward-thinking coach who follows in the footsteps of Rose and Hassenhuttl in creating a physically demanding pressing system. It’s an appointment that makes much sense for Wolfsburg. After suffering from the Bundesliga drop off, nearly facing relegation in 2016/17, they managed to bring themselves back into the conversation at the top of the table, with a direct style of football revolving around star striker Weghorst, an aerial-dominant forward who became the focal point of his side. Wolfsburg began looking for players they could acquire for less money than their evaluation. Signings like Jerome Roussillon and now Kevin Mbabu for a combined £10 million is the kind of genius business that have turned Wolfsburg from that struggling side to one of the best teams in the division.

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Glasner’s appointment shows ambition from the club, to establish a style that will allow them to get back into the Champions League spots. Wolfsburg’s positive appointment is another reason why the Bundesliga is the league to watch next season. The clubs are not obsessed with big stars in a similar fashion to the Premier League and La Liga. They do not get nearly the same amount of money as those leagues and need to stand out. It’s why these clubs are run so well and can sign players for so much less money than you expect them to be. I suggested Arsenal should sign Marcus Thuram, expecting his valuation to be around the £15 million mark, yet Borussia Monchengladbach have just picked up the Frenchman for £8 million. The Bundesliga is a league I have such respect for, and I hope it reaches the high bar I have set the sides this season.

 

Portugal vs Switzerland – UEFA Nations League 2019 Semi-Final Preview

With my focus recently being on improving teams throughout Europe and bringing attention to players who have had stand out seasons, it can be easy to forget that the UEFA Nations League games were taking place this week. I have been a massive advocate for the idea of the Nations League. they have brought purpose to those pesky international breaks that would stop the flow of the club football, at a time where looking away from your television was impossible. UEFA seemed to introduce this new competition to give hope to smaller nations in qualifying for Euro 2020 and future tournaments. I’ve spoken to many fans regarding the Nations League, and a majority are very supportive of it. While slightly confusing, it has added a reason to care about these breaks. The standards of the games have increased because these teams are playing for something, instead of just preparation. We’ll be previewing the two big semi-final games and the final, to see which team will come out with the trophy, starting with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and a solid Switzerland side.

Starting with Portugal, who will go into this tie as the favourites. Their World Cup outing wasn’t as impressive as many hoped. While they progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten, they only managed to win a single game. They were beaten by a poor Uruguay side thanks to a brilliant performance by Edinson Cavani but it was a tournament that ended with more questions than answers for Portugal. They’ve had to continuously rely on their older players in defence with the lack of defensive prospects coming through their youth set-up. While that is an issue that Fernando Santos cannot do much about, it is his team selection in attack where my issues begin to surface. He was playing players in the wrong positions throughout the tournament. Bruno Fernandes, one of the best young attacking midfielders around, was forced out onto the left side. After one game, in which he was poor, he went on to not start a game for Portugal in Russia again. Gonzalo Guedes was another to suffer thanks to Santos. He had a fantastic season prior to the World Cup, playing on the left of a 4-4-2. However, he was playing up front with Ronaldo for his national team. I can understand why he was playing there. He was there to do the off the ball work that Ronaldo has never done throughout his career. He had to sacrifice his own game for the sake of the team, and he suffered for it.

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In the end, Portugal’s issues always seem to come back to their biggest strength, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’ve seen the sacrifices Juventus have had to make to accommodate one of the best talents of his generation. Dybala looks to be leaving the club after Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus have generally looked worse this season. When you have Ronaldo, all of your chance creation is solely for him. You begin crossing the ball more and playing a less attractive, but more effective style of football. Portugal needs to start thinking about the future of this side once their greatest ever player retires.

They have already briefly shown what life could be like without Ronaldo. In their 3-2 victory over Poland earlier in the season, they played a 4-1-4-1, with Andre Silva leading the line. They generally played with a lot of speed, with a lot of quick exchanges between players. They had a lot of pace in players like Rafa Silva and Cancelo while having technically superb players in Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves to keep possession while under pressure. A team should never rely on individuals, and it’s a stage Portugal need to move past. However, with the inclusion of Sousa from Braga, replacing Andre Silva in the squad, it paints a picture of a side who are looking more at the short term, instead of choosing players who will have a future for the national side.

Portugal’s biggest threat in the game, excluding Ronaldo, has to be Bernardo Silva. While the race for the PFA player of the year was primarily between Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk, Bernardo Silva was the best player in the Premier League. He went from a good winger into a fantastic central midfielder. He filled that De Bruyne-shaped gap that was left while adding more defensive work and a player who leads the press for his side. While I think he great on the ball, it’s his engine that is most impressive. During their title-defining 2-1 victory over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva was everywhere. He covered 13.7 kilometres, at that point a record for most distance covered by a player last season. He was halting Liverpool constantly, through interceptions and smartly placed fouls. Bernardo is one of my favourite players in the league. A midfielder who possess such intelligence and ability, yet is comfortable in doing all the off the ball work that one of the most demanding systems require. His chance creation for Portugal has been key. He ranks top of the team for key passes with 2.3 in the Nations League. Portugal will constantly get him on the ball. Silva is fantastic at retaining the ball and helps them transition the ball. He has even been showing the same work rate and defensive work he offers for his club. Silva is third in the side for tackles per game with 1.7. While Portugal are most likely include Ronaldo in these games, Bernardo will remain vital for his side in defence and attack.

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Their opponents, however, are no walk in the park. Switzerland is a nation who have surfaced as one of the best teams in Europe throughout the decade. They rank 8th in the FIFA world rankings and looking at the talent in their squad, are likely to improve. Their showing in the World Cup was solid, but nothing exceptional. They finished 2nd in a difficult group containing Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. While they weren’t the best to watch, they were solid in defence and were efficient in attack. Their defeat to Sweden in the round of 16, however, showed their weaknesses. They lack many players with pace and relied heavily upon Shaqiri. Since he was playing out on the right wing, he was left isolated throughout their defeat. While he did create 4 chances, he failed to get a single shot on target. Petkovic regularly deployed Behrami and Xhaka together. Both lack energy and drive in midfield. While Xhaka is an elite passer and Behrami puts in a lot of defensive work, they cannot play together without someone who can play that box to box role.

While they did struggle to reach their potential in Russia, their Nations League qualifying campaign was a massive success. They scored 14 goals in 4 games, 9 more than they managed at the World Cup. There are a handful of reasons for why they saw such an improvement. Starting with their midfield, Behrami was replaced by Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria. The young midfielder still gave that defensive presence in the midfielder, as his former teammate did, while adding that little bit extra in the final third. He was creating 1.3 chances per game, while also taking 1.8 shots. He was making those runs into the box, to help give his teammates extra options. Xhaka still remains to be the player who keeps things ticking in midfield, completing 90 passes per game, but he has been given a partner who is able to cover the distance in midfield while also aiding in attack.

The Shaqiri problem was also resolved, simply by moving him into attacking midfield. This fixed two major problems. Shaqiri wasn’t left so isolated anymore and neither was Seferovic. He’s now taking more shots, creating more chances and is getting on the ball more than he has ever been before for his country. It also makes Switzerland less predictable. Shaqiri will drift across the pitch to involve himself in the game, and it has made his side more difficult to deal with. Shaqiri has taken his game to another level and will key in this semi-final.

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Their midfield and attack have both improved, but their defence also deserves a mention. Petkovic has changed his personnel, with Lichsteiner and Djourou being replaced by the likes of Elvedi and Mbabu. They still remain solid at the back. Akanji and Elvedi are great passers, while Mbabu and Rodriguez are full backs who are able to cover large areas of the pitch, while also helping their team on the attacking front. While their defenders aren’t on the same level as the likes of France or Netherlands, they could form a very good defensive unit with time on their side.

While Shaqiri and Xhaka have already been mentioned when looking at key players for the side, Haris Seferovic will be important. The forward has struggled to establish himself at the top level, playing for Fiorentina, Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt and now Benfica, where he has arguably been the most successful. In 29 appearances in Liga NOS, he has scored 23 goals and assisted 5. In a season in which has seen Jonas struggle for minutes, Seferovic stepped up for Benfica. While he did impress at club level, it was during the Nations League group stages where he arguably put in his best performances. He scored 5 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. He’s good at finding space in the box, which was perfect against a Belgium side which aren’t exactly organised. He links up with Shaqiri well and he’s taking 3.5 shots per game, a solid number for a striker. He excels when the team are using him as the focal point. Petkovic has gotten the best out of the striker and will need him if Switzerland hopes to progress to the final.

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If Portugal wish to reach the final, they will need to take advantage of two things. The first being Granit Xhaka. He is a great passer of the ball but lacks the mobility to be an effective central midfielder. He is poor defensively, with teams throughout the Premier League noticing how bad he is at tracking runners. I’d personally deploy Bernardo Silva in midfield to deal with Xhaka. He can keep pressure on him, while his intelligent movement will help him find space behind the Arsenal midfielder.

If Switzerland want to progress to the final, they will need to target the centre backs. Shaqiri and Seferovic need to be smart and look to drag the defenders in areas they will feel most uncomfortable. One of Pepe or Fonte will play, who are both over 33. Diego Costa had a fantastic game against Portugal last summer, with Pepe unable to deal with him. Seferovic needs to look at what Costa was doing, and try and replicate the damage the Spaniard was causing.

It’ll be a close game, but I think Switzerland will progress. While Portugal have a lot of talented players, their reliance on Ronaldo and their weakness at the back can leave them to be both predictable and vulnerable. The Swiss have balance throughout the side, and Petkovic has taken the steps in the right direction for transitioning this side to its next generation. This could be the tournament where the rest of Europe sees this.

 

 

The Underdogs of the Tournament? Borussia Dortmund vs Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Preview

Another tie that is strangely hard to decide, let’s look at two teams that overperforming in their leagues, Spurs and Dortmund. Let’s start with Borussia Dortmund, who are having arguably their best season since their last final in this competition. The German league leaders have been very good this season. After the mess that was Borussia Dortmund last season, with Peter Bosz’s incredible start to last season overshadowed by a poor showing the Champions League and failing to continue on that good start. It left Dortmund wanting to pick a safer choice and go for Lucien Favre, also known as the man who breaks the expected goals metric. Mike Goodman from StatsBomb (a website I highly recommend thanks to their great articles and podcasts) said “The magic of Favre is that his teams muddy up games, and press aggressively in midfield, but also manage to have cover at the back in a manner that seems to trick expected goal models.” This was said at the beginning of the season, and Favre has continued the season with his witchcraft. If you just look at xPTS (expected points), Bayern should be the team that are top of the Bundesliga by 8 points, yet it’s the other way round. So how has Favre done it this time? What helped was Dortmund having an amazing summer window. With Hakimi, Akanji and Diallo arriving to fix the defence on the long term, and Witsel and Delaney adding some needed steel to the midfield, Favre had a team with all of its leaks covered. I could not be more wrong about Witsel and Delaney. I never understood in the summer who these two were signed, but now I get it. Their strength, aggression, pressing ability and overall stature has made this side way less sustainabe to being as open they were last season. Witsel is great at keeping hold of the ball, and just adds a real aerial threat to the side, as shown by the Belgian’s 3 goals this season. They look less like half a Pep side, and now look like a team with a plan.

By far their biggest threat in this tie is their captain, Marco Reus. The German has arguably been one of the most unluckiest players in history. He has missed multiple international competitions and a lot of games for Dortmund. However after having a stellar end the season, and finally going to a World Cup for the first time, he is finally back to his best. With Dortmund having a slight striker problem, Reus has been reliable in carrying the team’s goals, scoring 13 and assisting 6, more goal contributions than any other Dortmund player. While his dribbling has declined, it’s because of how central he is playing now. 23 out of his 29 starts have been been rather in attacking midfield or even as a striker. He doesn’t need to beat players anymore because he’s the one on the end of chances. He’s arguably in the form of his career. The other massive threat are the full backs. Andrek Hakimi and Lukasz Piszczek have been a great blend of experience and youth. Piszczek has been making more than 4 tackles and interceptions a game. While he has barely been contributing in attack, his crazy defensive work does make up with it. Hakimi has been sensational during his 2 year loan spell. In the Champions League, only Marco Reus has created more chances than the Moroccan. They balance each other out and make them a good threat in attack.

Tottenham are in a similar place as Dortmund. They are also performing way better than they arguably should be. The North London side are currently sitting comfortably in 3rd, and have actually not drawn a game yet, which might just be the longest run where team has done that. While Tottenham are in a good position, statistically they have gotten worse. This is understandable. They have dealt with multiple injury problems all over the pitch. Whether it’s being forced to play an inexperienced Foyth, having to play Winks for nearly every game or playing Son when he clearly shouldn’t be. They are doing very well considering the situation they’re in. This does bring it back, as it was bound to do, to their summer dealings, or lack of them. It’s now been more than a year since Tottenham have signed a player, being Lucas Moura in late January. This wasn’t like a situation where they’re team was good enough, because it wasn’t. Their midfield desperately needed fixing, with Dembélé dropping off, Dier and Sissoko being average and Winks still not good enough, it left Spurs with a void to fill. If they just splashed a lot of money on one player in the prime of their career, like Thiago Alcantara or Brozovic, it would have shown some desire and at least a show of wanting to compete. There seemed to be a conflict regarding what players needed to be signed. Pochettino only wanted players who could improve the first team, while Levy only wanted squad players. It’s a problem that this team needs to address. I heard Alex Scott on Sky Sports say that this side is still a very young side, which just isn’t true anymore. Lloris, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Trippier, Sissoko, Rose and Llorente are all over 28. They need to be looking at replacing those players in the next year while some still have value. Even Kane, Eriksen and Son are in their prime years. This was a young side, who seemed to have hit their ceiling.

This is arguably the worst spurs side since that first season under Pochettino, but there are still threats in this side. I am still unsure if Alli and Kane are going to be back, so they won’t be discussed. Let’s begin with one of their most important players, Christian Eriksen. The Danish international has been one of the best number 10’s for a long time now. He has the technical ability that can rival any creator, but adds the important addition of defensive work. The number 10 has became a position that is slowly falling out of trend at the moment. A lot of top teams are struggling to find places for these types of players, with James, Coutinho and Isco all arguably having their worsts seasons in terms of game time. A lot of managers do not want to sacrifice a central midfielder due to their better work rate and discipline. The ones that are succeeding are the less creative types of midfielders. Lingard, Alli and Canales are all players who are more attacking midfielders, yet have a skillset that enables them to play as an 8, making them way more favourable to certain managers. Eriksen also fits in this category. This season has arguably been his worst in a Spurs’s since Pochettino’s arrival. His xG and xA are at their lowest since 2014/15. It isn’t all his fault though. With Spurs’s having a weak midfield, he has had to come deep to receive the ball to add an element of creativity. He has still been good this season, but he is much better when he has a player like Dembélé behind him. With Winks and Dier both being quite average players, it’s forced Eriksen to play as more of an 8 than a 10. He will still be a massive threat to Dortmund though. One player must be addressed too, and that is Heung-Min Son. The South Korean international has been the most important player for his side this side. After returning from the World Cup, going to the U23 Asian games and going the Asian games in January, he has had to work himself tirelessly for both club and country, and he hasn’t even shown any signs of complaining. He has been the driving force of an attack that is missing it’s two best players. Tottenham have Son to thank for all of the goals he has scored, to keep Spurs competitive in the league. His pace, ability to stretch defends and beat players in one on ones, makes him a player Dortmund have to be careful of.

If Dortmund wish to advance to the next round, they must take advantage of the weak links I mentioned, starting with the midfield. With the likeliness of Pochettino starting Sissoko and Winks, it leaves plenty of areas to take advantage of. Winks’s defensively is probably the worst player in the side. While he is a very good on the ball, his reading of the game and defensive workrate is just not there, and it’s a problem. It’s why Eriksen has been having to come so deep, to just add an extra number in the middle of the park to add some superiority. Reus is key in this area. He just needs to finds those areas between the midfield and defence and make life incredibly hard for the midfield pair. The wingers are also key. While all of Tottenham’s full backs are decent players, they all of defensive problems in some way. Rose can advance far too much up the pitch, making him easy to catch out. Trippier and Davies are all way too slow and are so easy to beat on the counter attack. Aurier, while physically great, has a massive error in him. Whether it’s Sancho, Pulisic or Bruun Larsen, they have to take advantage of a position that other teams have exposed. Look at how Manchester United beat them at Wembley. They used Martial and Rashford to cause the full backs so much problems, creating the blueprint for how beat this side.

There is one thing that Tottenham must do if they want to book their place, and that is the air. To clarify, countless times Dortmund have shown how easily they can be beaten by a simple ball in the air. During their crazy game against Hoffenheim, they gave away 3 goals due to 3 crosses. While Hoffenheim are one of the best teams in Europe for playing in your face, with strength and speed to frustrate their opponents. Tottenham need to replicate this. It’s a massive shame that Dele Alli is missing this game, because he would have been so important in this game. However since he is missing due to injury, it’s up to Llorente to impose himself in this tie. If Tottenham just use his size and experience to get past that inexperienced back line, it could work. He can be frustrating, but they need a vocal point. It’s why I brought up Eriksen as an important player because of his set piece delivery. They need to play this dirty if they want to advance to the next round.

I am backing Tottenham to advance to the quarter finals. Dortmund must put their league form as a priority, and while the game at the Westfalenstadion will most likely go in Dortmund’s favour, Tottenhem will come out of this tie as the victors. I’m still unsure about whether Favre is an elite manager, but I know for a fact that Pochettino is.

Will Roma Replicate Last Year’s Success? Roma vs Porto – UEFA Champions League Preview

 

Let’s begin with by far the least interesting fixture of the round. This isn’t to say there is nothing to say about this tie, but the other games are by far more interesting. Let’s start with Roma. I was originally going to disucss why Roma are struggling so much in Serie A, and it can quickly be summarized by key players leaving and not being replaced by players of the same level. The giallorossi sold two of their starting midfielders, and brought in an aging Seven N’Zonzi and a very average Bryan Cristante. The positives for them this season is some of their younger talent truly shining and the future does look bright. Monchi seems to be looking in Italy and other less known leagues for reasonably priced talent and it seems to be working to an extent. I am still very unsure on whether Di Francesco is the man to bring this side success. He is managing the side in a very difficult period, with many of the side’s star players beginning to age out. He is still seemingly unsure what is best eleven truly is, and it’s resulted in players constantly in and out of the side. El Shaarrawy and Pellegrini have been two of the best players for Roma this season, yet they have only started a combined 25 games. He’s relying heavily on the older players in the side, and talents like Schick and Kluivert just don’t seem to be flourishing in the same way we all hoped. They are struggling and there isn’t any signs to say they should be higher than where they are.

While they have been very up and down this season, they have actually been very good in the Champions League. It did help that their group was relatively easy, with a struggling Madrid, a Moscow side they comfortably beaten twice and a Plzeñ side they managed to put 5 past. While Edin Dzeko has struggled in the league (he has arguably been very unlucky though), he has been fantastic in the Champions League. In the 4 games he started, he scored 5 and managed 2 assists. He’s had more goal involvements than any other Roma player, and only Messi and Lewandowski have scored more than the Bosnian. He has had some injury problems, but he will be available for this game, which is a huge boost. I mentioned before that Lorenzo Pellegrini has been good, but he’s been even better than he has been in Italy. He has 3 assists to his name in Europe, with only Mbappe, Depay and Mahrez getting more. He has been a creative hub for his side in his 3 starts, with only Toni Kroos making more key passes than his 3.5. He has to play if Roma want anything out of this game. Their wingers, Justin Kluivert and Cengiz Ünder, have both been great whenever they’ve played. Kluivert’s time in Rome has been limited, but he’s still only 19 and has put up solid numbers in the Champions League. Under and Kluivert have completed the most dribbles for Roma in the Champions League, and only Pellegrini is creating more chances the Dutchman. I like Under a lot and think he does have a very promising future, but it’ll only be positive if his shot numbers improve. Kluivert takes a more shots in the box than his turkish teammate, and considering he is also creating more chances too, it is worrying. Under just takes too many shots outside the box and seems to have Coutinho syndrome (a condition where all your positives can be outweighed by awful shot locations. Suso also has this awful condition). He’s still only 21 so this is definitely an area will improve on with time.

Let’s move on to Porto, who have been very good since Sérgio Conceição arrived at the club. Porto won the Liga Nos title last season by scoring the most goals and conceding the least. They only conceded 18 goals too, bettering every other side in the league. They have continued this into the current season, only conceding 11 goals so far this season. It does help that the competition in Portugal, Benfica and Sporting, have droppped off massively in the past couple of years. Benfica have sold a lot of talent in the past few years, with the likes of Lindelof, Ederson, Mitroglou and Semedo all leaving the club for better things. Sporting have had a similar problem but with completely different circumstances. There were claims that the club president sent fans to attack the players, with key figures of the team like Gelson Martins, Rui Patricio, William Carvalho and Piccini all leaving the club because of the dangerous enviroment. They were allowed to leave for low figures too, which meant it was hard to find good replacements. I bring this up because Porto have not had these problems. While selling Ricardo Pereira and Diogo Dalot, leaving 34 year old Maxi Pereira as their only first choice right back, but it seems to not be a problem, thanks to Eder Militão. The Brazilian arrived from his native league for a bargain £3.6 million, and it could be seen as one of the signings of the continent. He has been playing as both a right back and a centre back. and is seemingly unable to put a foot wrong. Porto haven’t had the same transitional period as their rivals, which has allowed them to have an easy running in the league. While I do think they have had more talented squads in the past, but it cannot be argued that the manager is getting the best out of what they have. While they were unbeaten in the group, some of the scorelines have painted the image of a side that is performing well, when in reality, that isn’t the case. Their wins away at Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow were games where they were outshot do show they have been lucky to even finish the groups unbeaten (they scored 3 goals with 3 shots on target against Galatasaray). They were in fact one of only two teams  to have a negative expected goals difference at the end of the group stages. They also scored the most penalties. This isn’t to discredit them, but to show that while what they have done so far is imprsssive, they are a side that have rode their luck.

I discusssed how well Dzeko has done for Roma in the Champions League, so it only seems right to credit Porto’s own striker, Moussa Marega. The Mali forward has been stand out for his side in the competition. He has scored the most goals with his side with 5. While Dzeko was a shot machine Marega was not. He was only taking 2 shots a game, but 1.8 of those were coming in the penalty area. Marega is not a great player in the slightest, but to his credit he does very well in this system. He gives the most fouls away in the side, and that for striker can be seen as a good thing. It’s a sign of a player who knows how to press effectively. Players like Firmino and Lewandowski are great at pressing and usually give away a lot of fouls in an attempt to regain the ball in an aggressive manner. Marega does this in a similar fashion. He leads the line very well for his side, and excels in the 4-3-3 system they have deployed. Another reason why Marega has done so well is because of his teammate, Yacine Brahimi. The Algerian has been insansely good for the past few years, mainly because of his dribbling. In 5 games, he managed 2 assists and is completing 3.6 dribbles per game, double of the player behind him. He is so important for Porto’s attack, and helps massively in transision and can give full backs an absolute nightmare. In a majority of Porto’s attacks, the ball will always go through the Algerian. If he manages to bring his A game, Roma will have a horrid time.

If Roma want to earn their place in the final 8, they will need to take advantage of their home leg. While it is very simple, it seems Serie A might have to take priority. Before their game in Portugal, they have the Rome derby against their biggest rivals, Lazio. Roma haven’t been great in big games this season, losing to Juventus, drawing twice to Atalanta, failing to beat the Milan clubs. Their only win would be against Lazio back in September. If they have any chance of getting top four, they need to beat their closest rivals. Porto are a defensively solid side and are very aggressive. But as mentioned, their right back is a massive weakness. If El Shaarawy or Kluivert can take advantage of a very weak right side, there could be a chance create chances for Dzeko and Under. Under can not be wasteful. It’s something you expect from the wide man, but this side do not give up goals. It’ll be difficult to score against them, but as seen against Galatasaray and Lokomotiv Moscow, their away record is not great and have to hope they aren’t as lucky as they have been.

If Porto have any chance of getting by the giallorossi, they must deal with that weak midfield. When I say weak, I do not mean in lacking ability, I mean in physicality. Danilo Pereira and Hector Herrera are two players who are defensively solid and need to bring their aggressive side. Porto are great at winning the ball higher up the pitch, and with midfield consisting of a slow De Rossi and N’Zonzi and defenisvely poor Pellegrini and Cristante. These are players you can truly get at and it’s so vital to not let them play their game.

With all this considered, I’d put my money on Porto advancing through this stage of the compeition. Di Francesco’s job is truly on the line, and Porto are just in much more comfortable place. Dzeko isn’t firing in the same way as he was last season, and the loss of Strootman and Nainggolan have add a real fragility and lack of leaders in the side. This is arguably the worst side in Roma’s recent history, and this just isn’t the year for Roma to be focusing on Europe, when Champions League qualification is on the line.

 

Spurs To Drop Out? Champions League Heroes and Zeroes

My new series, where I look at 5 players/managers who have had a good or bad week in the champions league. Let’s go!

Hero – Paul Pogba

The Frenchman has been under constant scrutiny through out his time at United, for dancing, too much social media use, and not performing well enough in the bigger games. I am a huge Paul Pogba defender. I think he has been United’s most consistent outfield player since his arrival. He as just been unfortunate in both of his season. He had an Ibrahimovic who just couldn’t finish the great chances he was giving him, and he missed a lot of games last season. Last season, the injuries began on that first Champions League night, so finishing the game as captain was a huge deal. He did that, while also scoring 2 and assisting Anthony Martial. He was fabulous on the night and was the driving force for United on the pitch. He made 3 key passes and had a 92.6% pass accuracy. Another great performance from the Frenchman. His first goal was also brilliant

Zero – Mauricio Pochettino

The Tottenham manager was asked so many questions regarding his decision to not take both Trippier and Alderweireld to Milan. He defended his choice and said the places he took would be enough. While I think Aurier did make more sense to play, because Perisic can be a handful to deal with, it’s Alderweireld where I have an issue. In that first half, Spurs were so sloppy on the ball, giving away the ball so cheaply and allowing Inter to press them, knowing they seemed so threatened on the night. Alderweireld is an excellent distributor, and would have definitely made a difference on the night. Spurs having a lead, and losing it thanks to a moment of magic from Icardi, and a moment from madness from the backline, was the last thing Poch needed. It put further inspection onto his decisions on the night. The post match press conference was not pretty. It was as if I was watching Mourinho after the Spurs defeat. A man who couldn’t protect his players except from pulling attention away from them. Not a good night for the coach.

Hero – Lionel Messi

Praising Messi is a normal occurrence for everyone in football, but just because he gets love for being the best, doesn’t mean she should stop receiving it. Messi was the star as Barcelona dispatched of PSV Eindhoven 4-0. Messi ended the game with a delightful hat trick, with two of the goals just showing his excellent ability at scoring goals under any circumstance. This is a big year for Barcelona, and Messi. After their collapse in Rome last season, they need to put that behind them and push for the big prize. Messi needs to remind Ronaldo who the real winner is. Ronaldo’s record in the competition is frankly ridiculous, and Messi has fallen behind in recent years, because of Barcelona’s inconsistent form. With Ronaldo now suspended (we’ll get to that), it gives Messi a chance to close the gap on the all time scorer. It’ll be a big season for the football legend.

Zero – Cristiano Ronaldo

What a terrible way to start the new Champions League season. Ronaldo received a red card for his actions towards Murillo. It could have been the hair pull or the push, but it’s unsure what exactly he was sent off for. But no matter what it was, getting sent off is the last thing that Ronaldo wanted. Ronaldo is a serial winner. He wants to score the most goals in every competition, and now with him having the chance of being suspended for 3 games, it gives him less time to score goals. Ronaldo has been the top scorer now for the last 3 years, and he wants to keep that going until his retirement. Juventus still managed to win the game, thanks to penalties taken by Pjanic. Ronaldo needs to now focus on the league, until his eventual suspension is over. Juventus will still be fine. That team will always find a way to carve out a good result.

Hero – Nabil Fekir

The Frenchman was the driving force behind their surprise win over Pep’s Manchester City. I mentioned in my preview for their group that Lyon have been so frustrating and it’s impossible to tell which Lyon would turn up. The best one turned up today. Fekir was the stand out player for the French side. His qualities are seriously underestimated. He is just an incredibly versatile forward, being a great at getting goal scoring chances, creating, and he is a great dribbler. He is Lyon’s most important player because he is that player who can win them a game. He was at his best today. He managed 3 shots, 3 key passes and completed 2 dribbles. He was fouled 5 times in this game, showing how much of a threat he was in this game. Lyon set up in a 4-4-1-1, to help defend against a strong city side, and player more on a counter attacking way, using the pace of Cornet, Depay and Fekir to hurt them when they had the chance. The whole team put in a great defensive show, and Fekir highlights this. He put in 3 tackles in the game. Fekir is a player who usually does not do defensive work, but in this game it was all hands on deck to defend the narrow lead they had. An excellent performance and let’s hope they continue on these performances in the league.

Zero – Napoli

Carlos Ancelotti’s side failed to make the most of their easiest opponent in their group. They drew 0-0 against Red Star Belgrade, meaning they now have to play Liverpool and Paris without a win under their belts. The worst part for Napoli is they had the chances to seal the game, yet didn’t put the ball away. Callejon had a half chances that could have easily been a goal. The worst one by was Mertens, who miss hit the ball from a few yards out. Napoli had 73% possession, and had 20 shots, yet just couldn’t find a way through. Even though Napoli did dominate the game, and outshot their opponent, they still didn’t threaten Red Star enough. The majority of the game was spent in the middle third of the pitch, with 50% of the game being spent there. 34% was spent in Red Star’s third of the pitch. Napoli just didn’t do enough on the day. Mertens was the only one with the clear chance in the game, which isn’t good enough. It leaves Napoli in a bad place. As seen from my preview, Napoli are not a stronger side than Paris or Liverpool, and now having to play both of them could mean their elimination is decided early. They needed to capitalise on having the easier side to start, to get the momentum for their next fixtures. It’ll make getting out of this group even harder now.

Hero – Jürgen Klopp

Liverpool (as predicted) are now in the driving seat for group C. They beat Paris Saint-Germain 3-2, with Roberto Firmino scoring the late winner off the bench. Klopp is the winner here for carrying his league form into Europe’s elite competition. One of the criticism of teams who play with a high intensity is their inability to play that same way multiple times in the same week. They were very good against Paris. They exploited their weak and imbalanced midfield by playing a very workman like midfield, of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum. They made the Ligue 1 champions look average at best. A performance that makes Liverpool a threat on both ends this season.

Zero – Thomas Tuchel

I do have some sympathy for Tuchel. He said before the window ended that the full backs were not good enough. And that they were desperate for a number 6, and only brought in Juan Bernat. It left him in a position of weakness, because he couldn’t use the squad to its full potential. He was forced to play a midfield three of Di Maria, Marquinhos and Rabiot. None of them managed a key pass between them. They were largely ineffective and couldn’t control the game. It is clear that Paris are missing Veratti, but it doesn’t excuse Lo Celso joining Betis. He would have done a better job than Marquinhos in that role. Juan Bernat also didn’t cover himself well in the spotlight, with the Spaniard giving the penalty for Liverpool. It was a needless challenge to make, because Wijnaldum was not a threat. Tuchel is at a disadvantage, not having the players he wanted, but this team has some incredible talent, and he needs to do better against Red Star and Napoli.

Hazard to WIN Player of the Year? Top 5 Talking Points From The Top 5 Leagues

Bundesliga – Leipzig’s 5 goal thriller. Mönchengladbach Keep Pushing

Leipzig have not been so great this season. They began their season with a defeat to Dortmund, and then drew against newly promoted side Fortuna, a team they should be beating. But they finally got their first win, with a 3-2 victory over Hannover, thanks to goals from Werner and Poulsen. Leipzig went for a more defensive set up here, starting 3 in midfield, with Kampl being the only real attacking threat from it. It worked in a way, with Leipzig winning more tackles and aerial duels. It didn’t stop Hannover’s threat however, with the away side getting more shots and dominating possession, with 68% in their favour. It was a scrappy game for Leipzig, but having a clinical striker like Werner is what gets you through tough games like this, when you are not at your best. Werner was particularly good in this game. He only touched the ball 34 times, but still managed 6 shots. It shows how he was getting in good areas when taking shots, because of the lack of build up play he was involved in. Hannover will feel hard done by here. They should have won the game based on how much of the ball they had, but just failed to capitalise. Asano had 6 shots, yet only got 1 on target and failed to score. It’s the difference between the two sides. Leipzig seem to be missing Keita. His ability to cover the defence and advance the player, just isn’t seen in the current side. It is a big season for Leipzig, so let’s see where they go from here.

Mönchengladbach have started the season very well so far. Their 2-1 win over Schalke keeps them unbeaten, and puts them at 5th in the Bundesliga. It was a very equal in most ways. The possession was split evenly in half, and both sides had similar shot numbers. The difference in this game was that Mönchengladbach took their chances. Ginter wasn’t marked for the first goal and was given a chance, and he took it. Schalke just didn’t do the same. While Ginter did score the opening goal, one player who had an excellent game was Alassane Plea. The Frenchman was key in linking the attack, with his 4 key passes being the highest for the home side. He also completed 2 dribbles. While his shot numbers weren’t the highest, only managing a single one goal, he was instrumental in keeping their attack ticking. As for Schalke, it seems they will get out of this rot soon. Their forwards just haven’t been performing, resulting in their only goal in this game being their third this season. Mark Uth did manage to get 3 shots on target, but didn’t manage to score. Eventually the ball will start to hit the back of the net, and when it does, they will finally start fighting for the top 4. What makes it even more difficult for Schalke now is they have Bayern next, and judging by not only their form, they also have a Champions League game, which could not help in their hope to stay competitive in the Bundesliga.

La Liga – Girona Win in Style

It wasn’t exactly an eventful week in La Liga. I’ve already spoken enough on Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. With Madrid dropping points, Atletico continuing their awful start, and Barca winning again, there just isn’t much to add. So I thought let’s take about the most exciting game of the weekend, being Girona’s win over Celta Vigo, which ended with Girona beating their opponents by 3 goals to 2. It was definitely a deserved win as well. While Celta did control the game, it was a great counter attacking lesson from Girona. They only managed 11 shots compared to Celta’s 20, but they made their chances count. Christian Stuani in particular was excellent. The Uruguayan only managed 3 shots on target, but still scored a brace. He has been excellent for Girona since his arrival from Middlesbrough. He scored 17 last season and seems to be continuing where he left off. Girona’s defending in this game was very balls to the wall. What sums that up is Stuani’s contribution. He managed 3 tackles from an attacking position, showing how much of a team effort it was. However when talking about defensive work, one cannot leave out Álex Granell. The Spanish veteran managed a frankly ridiculous 12 tackles and interceptions in this game, while also making 3 key passes, the most in the side. On a side note, the 2nd goal from Stuani was excellent showing of a counter attack done right. They moved so fast and made quick short passes to move the play up. Girona are a good side, and it’s good to see them win games like this, by playing a very straight to the point way of football. As for Celta, on another day they would have won this, but they were exposed. Girona noticed that they were weak on set pieces and in the air in general. They exploited this through crosses. The first two goals came from the full backs advancing far up the pitch and just putting in a ball in the box. Celta tried a similar way, to take advantage of Maxi Gomez’s superior aerial ability, but didn’t work. Hugo Mallo, the Celta Vigo captain, attempted the most crosses for them, yet out of the 7 crosses he managed, only 1 caused significant danger. Like I said, on another day, it could have went their way. But it cannot be argued that Girona deserved the victory.

Ligue 1 – Lille’s Great Start. A Payet Inspired Win

With PSG cruising the league as usual, let’s put some focus on a side who have started excellently, being Lille. The 2011 Ligue 1 champions have started the season in great fashion, already getting 3 wins this season. While their wins haven’t came against tough opponents, they are scoring goals and doing well defensively. They beat Amiens 3-2, with Pepe getting all three goals. He was absolutely great in this game. He managed 5 shots on target, made 3 key passes, and completed 2 of his dribbles. He played in the game more as a striker than a winger. He was constantly getting in central positions, which explains why he was able to get so many shots on. He also won the penalties he converted. He is now on 4 goals in 5 games, and his opposite winger, Bamba, is on 3. Both are performing well for their new side, and look to help push Lille back to their successful period when the likes of Hazard, Cabaye and Gervinho were performing in that side.

Marseille had another good week. They followed their dramatic win over Monaco, by beating Guingamp 4-0. It was definitely a deserved win, They had much more possession, allowed their opponent zero chances to attack, and completed 86% of their passes, compared to the away side’s 75%. This is Marseille’s third win of the season, leaving them on equal points with Lille, and 5 behind Paris. While they are not in a good place to challenge for a title, it will leave with an advantage in the fight for top 4. Back to the game, Marseille actually didn’t score until the second half of the game, and for a reason. They failed to capitalise on the many chances they were creating in that first half. Mitroglou notably missed a header from a couple of yards away, which perfectly summed up Marseille in that first half. However in the second half, they just came out with a a bang. Marseille took their chances against a Guingamp side that just couldn’t keep up with them. The midfield partnership of Strootman and Sanson performed very well, with the pair completing a combined 15 tackles and interceptions. They did a great job in shielding the back four. Their captain, Dimitri Payet, was another who performed excellently. He was at his creative best with the Frenchman making 5 key passes. His goal was by his highlight. It was easily the best goal scored this season. It was as if it was a cross more than a shot, but yet still got it in the goal. What a great talent, who will always be remembered as the player who should have been at a higher level. While Payet was fantastic, Thauvin was the man of the match. The world cup winner scored two and had a great game. He was a constant threat on that right side, and was key to Marseille getting over the line. He has been their best performer in their recent resurgence. In this game he showed that, by completing 3 dribbles, and making 3 key passes. It just shows how much of a complete winger he is, being able to score, dribble and create. He is the whole package. Marseille have a big season ahead of them, and they have started it in great fashion.

Premier League – Hero Hazard. Villain Vorm

Chelsea have been very good at the start of the season. Sarri was able to fix a majority of the issues that Chelsea had at the time. He brought in a very good goalkeeper to replace the unhappy Courtois, one of the best game controllers in Jorginho, and a guy I’ve been wanting to see move for so long in Kovacic. However while all three have been good in their first season, one cannot compliment Chelsea without discussing Eden Hazard. The Belgian has been on fire since the World Cup (where he should have won the player of the tournament) and has continued his form into the new season. In his previous four, where he only made brief cameos in the first two games, he has contributed to four goals. He has been in the form of his life so far. In this game he more than doubled his tally, scoring his first hat trick in 4 years (and getting me plenty of points in fantasy football). It was the icing on the cake for his recent form. He was so involved in this game, getting on the ball 97 times, more than midfield star Jorginho. Hazard has always been key in driving the attack, but this is just insane. He is now carrying the attack on a new level. He completed 3 dribbles, scored all of his shots on target, and had an 89% pass accuracy, the third highest on the pitch. It was a perfect performance from Chelsea’s key man. With the way he’s playing, he could end the season as the player of the season.

While Hazard was the hero, Michel Vorm was far from that. The Spurs number 2 was at fault for the first goal and had an overall poor game as Liverpool won at Wembley, flattering Spurs with a 2-1 victory. Spurs continued to struggle against the top four, as again, they seemed to not know what they are doing. The full backs were travelling too far up the pitch, leaving Salah and Mane all the space in the world to press the centre backs, giving them no options to move the ball. However the biggest talking point by far is the continual poor form of Harry Kane. The golden boot winner has been absolutely dreadful at the start of the season. He just looks doesn’t look sharp, with the forward failing to get into good positions in the final third and seems to pass the game by. He reminds of Wayne Rooney in his later years at Manchester United. He lost his pace as the years went on, and just couldn’t lead the line in the same way. I am not saying that Kane has lost his ability, but he just isn’t playing as a traditional number 9 this season. He is dropping far too deep, instead of leading the line. Compare him to Icardi. The Inter captain has been compared to Kane over the years, because both started scoring an insane amount of goals at roughly the same time. However the difference is Icardi does not get too involved in build up play, and instead waits in the box and looks for space to exploit. Kane had a 16% conversion rate last season, and Icardi had over 25%. It proves that Icardi takes better shots than the Englishman. Kane needs to start playing as more traditional number 9, and allow the build up play to be done by the more creative players. A bad day for spurs, but a worse day for Kane.

Serie A – Ronaldo Finally Scores. The Sampdoria Show

By far the biggest talking point is Cristiano Ronaldo finally scored his first 2 goals for Juventus. The Portuguese forward scored a simple tap in to start, but then ended a good counter attack with an excellent side finish. He was a threat throughout the game as well. He has his usual incredible amount of shots, with the forward taking 9 shots. Which was more than half of Juventus’s total shots (14). This could be the boost he needs. Many expected Ronaldo to hit the ground running. While it has taken longer than expected for him to begin his scoring account, it will now push him to continue to score more, and break even more records. On another note, Douglas Costa was the opposite of a professional on the pitch. Never should a player hit or most of all spit at an opposing player. He should have been banned for more than 4 games, but a punishment is still a punishment. It will hopefully prevent players from doing these unacceptable actions no longer.

Sampdoria followed their absolute beating of Napoli, by beating Frosinone by 5 goals. They were better than their opponent in every department. Sampdoria had more possession, more shots, completed more tackles and had a better pass accuracy. The stand out performers again were their forward two. Quagliarella and Defrel have created one deadly partnership so far this season. Defrel bagged a brace, while his partner in crime scored and assisted. Both of Defrel’s goals were excellent. The first was a well taken volley, while the second was a great individual effort. While his goals have been impressive, what’s surprised me the most about the striker has been his work rate. Any player who starts alongside Quagliarella has to cover more yards, simply because the Italian has not got many years left in him, and needs to safe his energy. Defrel did this job to best of his ability, while contributing in an attacking sense. He made 4 tackles in the game, the second highest in the game. He is just the perfect partner for Quagliarella. Sampdoria’s run now is a difficult one. They have Fiorentina at home, and then Inter Milan. Getting points against these two could show us all where Sampdoria are heading this season.

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group H

And last but not least, the final group. One of the toughest groups here, it contains Scutdetto winners Juventus, 2x winners Manchester United, Marcelino’s Valencia side and last but not least, Swiss champions Young Boys. It’s going to be an interesting group.

Juventus

Let’s start with Juventus. The Old Lady to into this tournament as one of the favourites, based on 2 words, Cristiano Ronaldo. The five time Balon d’Or winner is by far the best player in the history of the tournament. Juventus have signed the top scorer in the Champions League, who has been the main reason why Real Madrid were able to win three champions leagues in a row. Their other signings were also very good. João Cancelo was great for Inter Milan last season, and will give them a real attacking addition. Mattia Perin has performed well for Genoa over the past few years, and will give competition to Wojciech Szczęsny. They have a very good squad, but the only issue is their midfield. It just isn’t as strong as the other sides, like Barcelona, Madrid and Man City. I like Pjanic, but Matuidi and Khedira are just not as good as they used to be. If they just invested more in that area, they would be definite be main challengers. They will top the group, because of their solidarity at the back, and their attack.

Manchester United

Just the perfect draw I wanted my team to get. United go into this tournament a slight mess. The loss to Sevilla is still fresh in the minds of the supporters. After a summer of disappointment in the transfer market, it has left the manager in a tough place. Mourinho is one of the few managers in the world that can only succeed if he is fully backed. There is no point having Mourinho if you are not going to give him what he wants. The squad is full of players who are not good enough, and players who seem unhappy. There have been a few positives this season. Luke Shaw has been excellent in every he has played, Lukaku has already got 4 in 5, De Gea is at his best, and United have finally started putting some wins together. United have some excellent individuals, and are able to punish any team on their day. But the problem is holding onto those leads, and making the changes count. Lukaku needs a lot of chances to score, and United struggle defensively in every sense of the word. I think they’re better than Valencia and Young Boys, and could challenge Juventus at home. They will finish second, but that might be me being biased.

Valencia

Valencia started last season like a rocket. They had Zaza, Guedes and Rodrigo in great form, but by the new year, their form started to slip. Now they have started the new season quite poorly. Besides a good point against Atletico, they have lost against Espanyol, and draws against Betis and Levante. They just haven’t hit the ground yet and need a win desperately. They have some very good players that can damage any team. Geoffrey Kondogbia was great last season at recovering the ball and driving the ball forward and Santi Mina was excellent in the second half of the season. The signings of Gameiro and Batshuayi give them extra options up front. Batshuayi is great addition. His form for Dortmund was excellent and hopes he can do the same for Valencia. Marcelino is amazing at setting up a defense, as seen by Gabriel actually being good. But it’s the other end of the pitch they have been struggling with. They have only managed 3 goals so far, and have only been managing 3.8 shots on target per game. Valencia will always make it hard for other teams, but because of their lack of goals, they will not be getting to the round of 16.

Young Boys

Besides the strange name for the team, Young Boys are in the competition after winning their domestic title for the first time in 30 years. However even after losing their manager, they still look great. They have won every single game this season, with their three top scorers, Fassnacht, Hoarau and Ngamaleu, have contributed to 14 goals in 6 games. They are in excellent form right now and are ready to bring it into Europe’s elite competition. However, while I think they could shock a side (my money would be on United), Juventus and United have the pedigree and the quality to compete. But I do think they will still come out of this competition with their pride in tact.

Final Table

1. Juventus

2. Manchester United

3. Young Boys

4. Valencia

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group G

Just 2 more groups left now. This group isn’t exactly a stand out compared to other groups, but there is still things to talk about. So let’s just get right to it.

CSKA Moscow

Starting with another regular of the Champions League, Moscow come into this year’s competition after a summer of a few key departures. They lost World Cup star Aleksandr Golovin to Monaco for €30m, and Vitinho went back to Brazil. Some of their older players have also retired. They were still involved in the first team, so a lot of replacing was needed. Some of their notable bits of business (and there is a lot) are Abel Hernandez signed on a free, Magnusson was signed from Bristol City, and Nikola Vlasic joined the club on loan from Everton. They have began the season is a solid 3-5-2. It brings the most out of the players they have, with Mario Fernandez being a very attacking full back. Vlasic is a very energetic player and can help drive the play forward. One of their key players so far has been their young forward Fedor Chalov. The world cup quarter finalist has started the season on fire, scoring 6 in 7 already. Hernandez also has started well for his new side. Scoring and getting 2 assists. As previously mentioned, Fernandez has excelled in this system. He’s been so good, that he has already got 3 assists as a wing back. They have a solid set up, a goalscorer and form. But it will not be enough for them to get out of the group. Both Roma and Madrid are better sides, but they will be getting Europa League football.

Real Madrid

One of the favourites for the tournament, talking about the qualities of Madrid is already getting tiresome. So let’s quickly go over what has changed since Ronaldo and Zidane’s departures. Madrid have looked much more balanced since their record scorers big transfer to Juventus. When playing under Zidane, their main approach to games was to create as many chances for Ronaldo as possible. It was why the full backs were so advanced and why Benzema didn’t contribute much, because he sacrificed a lot of his game for the Portuguese star. But he already has 4 goals. In the entirety of last season, he only managed 5 goals. His shot numbers are higher, he’s winning more aerial duels. He is also getting fouled more, showing his involvement in dangerous areas. Asensio has so far been the ‘replacement’ (I use that term lightly because they have different roles) for Ronaldo. He has started on that left side, helping Bale and Benzema through his great dribbling and creative abilities. He is completing 2.3 dribbles per 90 so far, and is putting in 2.8 shots per game. He has given balance that forward 3, and allowed the other forwards to focus on getting in goal scoring areas. Madrid do not have the same goal scoring machine, but they still look like a real threat. We’ll have to wait to see how they do against the bigger sides, but they will win this group.

Roma

The Giallorossi have not been great so far this season. A late winner against Torino, a draw against Atalanta, a defeat against an average Milan side, and then a giving away a 2 goal lead against Chievo, means Roma go into this game with only a single win. By now I thought Di Francesco would have his team playing better and stopping that over reliance on Dzeko. But yet they still lack good wide talent, and struggle when Dzeko isn’t on his day. Defensively they just set up poorly. They seem unable to play a high line, yet still continue to. However I think they will get out of the group. Moscow are tough to beat, but Roma just have a better side. It could be close but Roma will finish 2nd. However not signing Malcolm could be the biggest regret of the season.

Plzen

Another team I know very little about, FC Viktoria Plzen are back in the Champions League for the first time since 2013, where they failed to get out of the group. The same will happen here too. While they haven’t lost a game since their defeat to Sporting in March, they are still not near the level of Real Madrid, and cannot compete with Roma and CSKA. It’s fortunate that they are drawn in a difficult group. They have started their domestic campaign very well, with their main forward Krmencik scoring 7 in 8 games. They are currently second in their table and look on course to compete for the title in their league. My knowledge of the Czech top flight is extremely limited, but it wouldn’t make a difference. The sides are simply better.

Final Table

1. Real Madrid

2. Roma

3. CSKA Moscow

4. FC Viktoria Plzen

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group F

While Group B and C are seen as the groups of death, this group comes incredibly close. 3 teams in this group are similar, yet so different and it will be interesting

Hoffenheim

Hoffenheim are a side that have been getting weaker by the season. But because of an extremely talented coach, have somehow stayed competitive. Even after losing some great players, like Gnabry, Uth, Sule, Rudy and Wagner. Hoffenheim play a brand of football that works to their strengths. They tend to not dominate games and use the little possession they have to quickly counter. Just by the way they play, it means they will able to challenge any team. But one of their issues (as mentioned before when discussing their game against Bayern Munich) is the way they set up leaves them weak on the flanks. Their full backs, usually Schulz and Kaderabek, go very far forward to press. The problem, as seen against Bayern, was the wingers were able to exploit the space that was left, which pulled the centre halves away and left them weak. When their press works, it works so well, but against teams which great wide players, it is difficult. They will do fine against Shaktar, but will struggle against the other sides. They also are suffering from a severe injury crisis. Two of their creators, Demibray and Amiri, are currently on the sidelines, as well as three of their central defenders. It will be difficult to get through with their current injury crisis, so I think they will finish bottom of the group.

Manchester City

The Premier League champions are probably facing and even tougher challenge than last season. They have to try and retain the title, while also trying to compete in the Champions League. City have started the season very well, with only a draw against newly promoted Wolves (a game that the referees ruined) stopping their perfect run. They haven’t been as good as they were last season however. They are seriously missing Kevin De Bruyne in some moments this season. His ability to pick out that killer pass has been seriously missed. While Gundogan is a good footballer, he is just not at the same level as De Bruyne. While City will still cruise through some of the easier games, it’s the games against teams who are similar to their level, like Paris or Barcelona, they will struggle to break them down. But one area they will never struggle in is their wide talent. Both Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane are coming off good games against Fulham. They are excellent wingers for a Pep side. Both are incredibly fast, great at stretching the play and always put in good shot numbers. They will both cause the opposition so much problems. City just have a great squad of players, and players all over the pitch to challenge for places. Pep has built a great team, and will definitely get out of the group.

Lyon

As seen from my Top 5 Talking Points From the Top 5 Leagues, Lyon have been quite frustrating so far. They have shown moments of their best, but then go on to lose games they should probably be winning. They just haven’t been putting teams away. Depay, Fekir and Dembele just haven’t been clinical enough in front of goal. They’ve been averaging around 20 shots a game, yet are only managing 1.6 goals per game. They’re dominating games so comfortably, yet just fail to punish teams. This is team is just so talented and young as well. Their midfield of Tousart, Aouar and Ndombele are some of the most promising midfielders in Europe. Ferland Mendy has started the season in excellent form. He’s already got a goal and assist, and while his defensive numbers are low, he counters that with excellent attacking output. It could be argued that their manager, Bruno Génésio, isn’t exactly the best. While I do not think they set up their defense in a great way, they attack so fluently and quick that he almost makes up for it. I just do not think Lyon are getting out of this group. With their league form so inconsistent, they should be focusing on that, but they still have the quality to get out of it.

Shaktar Donetsk

A regular in this competition in the modern game, the Ukrainian side are back again. While they have lost two good players in Fred and Bernard, they have brought in replacements in the same way they always do. They signed Maycon from Corinthians and Fernando from Palmeiras. Both are under 21 and are currently getting bedded into the squad slowly. Shaktar’s knowledge of the Brazilian league is already known to be deep. They have brought so many Brazilians, like Willian, Fernandinho, Texeira and Fred into the European spotlight. Even with both of those young coming through, they still have their experience. Taison and Marlos both offer flair and cause full backs plenty of problems. Another one of their new signings, Moraes, has hit the ground running. The Brazilian was signed on a free from rivals Dynamo Kyiv, and has already scored 7 in 8. It would make more sense to predict Lyon or Hoffenheim to finish second, but Shaktar Donetsk are in this competition all the time. They have the experience and the talent to beat all teams in this group. They even got out of a group containing Napoli and Man City last season, and even beat the Premier League champions. They will get out of this group, but I could most definitely be wrong.

Final Table

1. Manchester City

2. Shaktar Donetsk

3. Lyon

4. Hoffenheim

UEFA Champions League 18/19 Preview – Group E

Now past the halfway point, let’s look at a group that might have one clear winner, but still has much to talk about.

AEK Athens

Beginning with the unknown, AEK Athens reach the competition through a long play off campaign, with the Greek side famously beating a very over confident Celtic side to knock them out on their way to qualifiation. They have started the season extremely well, with Athens not conceding a goal yet this season, while winning every game. They will need to bring in this great form against the historic teams in this group. Two stand out players so far for Athens have been Ezequiel Ponce. The Argentine has already scored 2 in his first 3 games. His partner in crime, Viktor Klonaridis, who came off the bench in their last game to score a brace. Both are in red hot form and could seriously threaten the bigger teams, however I don’t think there. Not much is known about them outside of their home country. I can only go on what their competition is, and they do not possess better quality than the other teams here. It’ll be a bottom place finish for the current leaders in the Greek Super League.

Ajax

Moving onto a team I have a bit more knowledge about. Ajax have really improved over the past couple of years. After their Europa League final, they seem to have got even better. Players like De Jong, Tagliafico and Neres have been huge upgrades on Traore, Klassen and Sinkgraven. These team just has a bit of everything. It has some real experience in Huntelaar (who has been on fire since his return to Holland), a great reader of the game and passer in Daily Blind. He is a very positive signing because he adds an experienced champions league player into a young side. Dusan Tadic is a fine enough signing, while his consistency can be question, and I do, he is still talented. For a few players to watch, the first is easily Hakim Ziyech. The Moroccan has been a great creator since his arrival from Twente. In his first six games he already has 2 goals and 3 assists. His numbers have been astounding. Making 3.4 key passes, 2.8 tackles and putting in 5.2 shots on target. He is by far one of the most in from players going into this tournament. Another stand out player has been Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar. The ex Madrid forward has already scored 6 in only 4 starts. Both of these players are going into their first game against Athens in red hot form. Because of the great way they’ve started and the good balance in their squad, I really do think they will come out of this group, and will finish second.

Bayern Munich

I’ve spoken so much already about Bayern at the start of the season, but let’s go over what is already known and what is expected of them in this group. Bayern have not looked any less super human under Nico Kovac. They are unbeaten in the Bundesliga, as expected, with Hoffenheim being their closest scare on the opening day. but thanks to goals from Thomas Muller, the threat was avoided. They have then went on to beat Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen, scoring 9 goals in all three games, and only conceding 2. The advantage that Bayern have over every team in Europe (maybe excluding Juventus) is their winning nature. They have won so many titles and have so much experience, that winning is in their blood. Players like Ribery, Robben, Hummels and Neuer are winners through and through and even as they grow old, can still add something to their side. They still have some players that are there for the future in Gnabry and Coman. While they aren’t as good as Robben and Ribery, they can still do a good job. Bayern are easily the favourites in this group, and because of their superior quality, they will definitely top the group.

Benfica

The historic Portuguese side go into the his tournament at debatably their weakest. While they are the top of the table at the moment, alongside Sporting, their business practise of buying young players and selling them at high prices has started to hurt them. While they have kept hold of key players like Pizzi, Jonas and Luisao, the constant sales of very talented players, like Ederson and Semedo, does hurt them when they are unable to replace them properly. They still have a good side however. Some of the current players in the team like Grimaldo and Zivkovic look like really talents. When talking about their stand out players, one has to look at Pizzi. The Portuguese international has started the season so well for the Eagles. He has already contributed to 6 goals in 4 games. While his goal scoring has been impressive, he has always been a good creator. He has been incredible so far in that aspect. He has been averaging 3 key passes, 8.8 long balls and 2.5 crosses (even though crosses are a hard thing to measure). He will be key to supplying Benfica with any hope. Their biggest issue is the injury to goal scorer Jonas. The Brazilian has been a machine for them since his arrival from Valencia. While I like Benfica as a club, they just do not have enough to get out of this group. Bayern are obviously better, and I just think Ajax have a solid side this year. While they could get through, I just think they’ll finish third. But it will definitely be close.

Final Table

1. Bayern Munich

2. Ajax

3. Benfica

4. AEK Athens