Why I Hope Barcelona’s 5-2 Win Over Real Betis is a Sign of Things to Come

Barcelona, like many of Europe’s elite, are a side I love to complain about. It’s primarily down to incompetence from the board, focusing on galactico signings instead of continuing on the path Cruyff set and Pep developed. Their work resulted in the most exceptional team in the Champions League era, mostly focused on La Masia graduates and some significant signings in Dani Alves, David Villa and Seydou Keita. It’s what made Pep’s 2011 side so magnificent. A majority of that starting XI was built with players who knew the Barcelona system. It’s why Pep has never been able to build a team as good as his treble-winning side. While his Bayern side had an idea of how Pep wanted to play through Louis Van Gaal, he had to start from scratch at Manchester City, which is why his first season in England was so underwhelming.
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The problem with Barcelona since Neymar’s signing is they’ve basically turned into Real Madrid. Losing the best manager of the modern game is going to have an effect on how much value you can get out of specific players. However, the change in style and player profile has been the most significant issue regarding Barcelona since Pep’s departure. Barcelona were never a tiki-taka side because they had so much purpose in possession. They would break teams down through counter-pressing, wingers stretching the defensive line and Messi being fantastic. Pep had all of his players actually work defensively, and it’s what made them so different to Real Madrid. They never allowed any player to have a completely free role.
I bring this up because Barcelona’s 5-2 win over Betis was the first time in a while, where I’ve seen Barcelona actually look like a team. They weren’t perfect, far from it, but they showed signs of showing that aggressive counter-press with actual wingers. While this will not continue when Messi and Suarez return, it’s good to see Barcelona play well without their star players. To make it very clear, I have not watched much of Barcelona in the past couple of years. With La Liga being a pain regarding its TV rights, I only managed to watch them in the Champions League. I also missed their defeat to Bilbao, where I heard they were awful.
Here’s how Barca set up for this game:

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A very different eleven to what we are used to seeing, but there was enough quality in the team to comfortably dispose of Betis, and they showed this for the first 10 minutes. De Jong and Roberto were drifting wide to stretch the midfield, allowing Griezmann to drop deeper to find space. This made the French forward a problem for the defenders. He was effectively creating space for his teammates to exploit.
In theory, that was supposed to happen, however, in the first half, Barcelona looked so stagnant in the attack. This was especially problematic in the wide areas. Carles Perez did look threatening when receiving the ball but was consistently left isolated. Semedo kept coming inside, instead of giving Perez an overlapping run. This wasn’t nearly problematic on the left, with Alba still being a menace when going forward. Rafinha was mostly ineffective through the first half, continually drifting inside. It’s difficult to blame him since he is a central midfielder and shouldn’t even be at the club, never mind playing on the wing.
The wide areas weren’t the only issue. When Griezmann dropped deeper to create space for his teammates, the midfielders were supposed to make runs into those gaps that were created through Griezmann. This just wasn’t happening, with Roberto and De Jong not taking advantage of the space. De Jong, especially, looked very uncomfortable moving further up the pitch. The Dutchman usually plays in Busquets’ position, where he can progress the ball through the midfield. During the start of the game, De Jong received the ball inside the box. Instead of shooting as most players would, he chose to pass, which resulted in losing possession. It perfectly represented how an attacking role just isn’t what De Jong should be doing. This forced Busquets to push forward to aid the forwards, which worries me if that has to happen more often. Busquets is increasingly becoming a liability as he ages. He has never had the legs to push forward, and it’s something he really shouldn’t be doing anymore and shows how ineffective the rest of the midfield were in the attack.
This became even worse after Fekir’s goal, which in itself was not a good look for Barca. Busquets played a very risky ball to Rafinha, who looked half asleep and Betis score just seconds later. It was their first shot on goal and their first real attack in the game. It caught Barcelona off guard and put them in a position they didn’t deserve to be in. Despite the issues previously mentioned, they were still the better side, but wrong decision making in the final third and static movement was holding them back.
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One area of their game that remained consistent throughout the game was their intensity. Betis have a handful of players who are excellent in possession, with Fekir, Tello, Canales and Carvalho all being able to cause a threat to Barca. Valverde ensured his side stopped this from happening, through the forward three and the midfield pressing high to force goalkeeper Daniel Martín to pump long balls into the channels. It allowed the home side to recover possession quickly and nullify their opponents. Betis only completed 78% of their passes, showing how they struggled to build-up play. They were pushed back throughout the game due to Barcelona pressing from the front. I wonder if the press would be just as effective with Messi in the side. Since Pep’s departure, his off the ball work has left a lot to be desired. It’s such a shame to see a player who was elite on and off the ball lose that skill down to managers giving him freedom or the precise control he has over the team.
Griezmann did manage to bring his side level right at the end of the half, but this game had to end with 3 points. After the defeat in Bilbao, they could not fall 6 points behind Atletico after only 2 games. Thankfully, all of my problems from the first half disappeared. Barcelona looked so much better and didn’t have the same nerves we saw in the first half. That Griezmann goal seemed to push them to start taking risks and use the full length of the pitch. At one stage, Rafinha and Griezmann switched positions, and they looked fantastic. While it was only for around 5 minutes, Rafinha held the ball well, which led to Griezmann’s second goal. The Brazilian held possession until Roberto arrived, who played the ball to the French forward, who scored with some style.
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Semedo began to give Perez as an option on the overlap. The Spaniard is very one-footed and made his constant cutting inside predictable and easy to deal with for Sidnei, the Betis central defender. Semedo finally began making those runs for support. It enabled them to be more varied in how they attacked Betis, which led to Semedo picking up an assist for Perez’s first goal for the club. For his first start, the young attacker had a very positive impact. He looked a threat when in possession, but his work off the ball does need improvement. Yet, there is a player here who could play a part in Barcelona winning their third successive title.
This win did show a lot of the better qualities of Barcelona. Their control over games, aggressive counter-pressing and quick interchanges made them a joy to watch throughout. However, I’ll hold my reservations on whether they remain good enough to win a Champions League. Having Messi will always give you a chance, but Valverde’s slightly negative tactics in the bigger games have shown them to be weak when facing opponents of a similar level. When Barcelona concede early, it shakes them, and they don’t seem to have the drive and desire to fight. They’ve collapsed twice in Champions League semi-final, after securing 3 goal leads in the first legs. I loved the approach for the game, with the forwards actually defending for once, but you expect them to beat the every non-top 4 sides in La Liga. I’ll come back to talk about Barcelona when they face an opponent of equal level, whether in the league or in Europe.

 

How are Lyon Looking Under Sylvinho?

When writing my massive preview for the season, Lyon were a team I spoke about. For years they have looked able to compete with Paris, but inconsistency has always been their problem. They were able to create plenty of chances through Depay, Fekir, Aouar and Ndombele, but struggled to convert those chances. Moussa Dembele’s arrival did bring that clinical edge to the side but had minor injury problems throughout the season.

A lot has changed at Lyon over the summer, with Bruno Genesio being the most significant change. The Frenchman struggled at times to find a place for all of that attacking talent, which meant the likes of Traore and Cornet struggled for consistent game time. Genesio never seemed like the guy to take that group of players to the next level. He did oversee his side pull off some magnificent performances, with a 2-1 win over PSG and beating Premier League champions Manchester City at the Etihad.
The Lyon hierarchy could have appointed a more experienced coach but opted to take a massive risk in selecting Sylvinho. The former Arsenal defender has had little experience in management, with his most recent job being assistant manager to Tite for the Brazil national team. No one knew what this Lyon side would look like with Sylvinho at the helm. Would they continue to be the free-flowing attacking side of the past, or sacrifice that entertainment for a more pragmatic approach? This will be the focus today, to see what Sylvinho has changed during his early days as the new Lyon manager. I cannot stress this enough, but these views are not final. These are just my first impression on what Sylvinho has implemented thus far, so all opinions are not final.

Before looking at their first game of the new Ligue 1 season, let’s review their summer window. Their sales, rather than their purchases, attracted all the attention. Les Gones sold some of their prizes assets in Tanguay Ndombele, Ferland Mendy and Nabil Fekir for a combined £115 million, a considerable profit on players purchased for less than £10 million. All three players added a lot to the side. Ndombele was an all-action midfielder who added strength, energy, composure and a large amount of ball progression in midfield. He was what every club wants from their midfielders, and he arguably left the most significant void in the team. Ferland Mendy was another excellent talent. The former La Havre defender was another perfect example of excelling in your position. Mendy was not only solid defensively, but was arguably one of the best dribblers in Ligue 1, from a defensive position. Nabil Fekir, while not gaining a similar profit as their other sales, was a massive player for Lyon. The club captain was arguably one of the best attackers in Europe back in 2017. However, due to injury problems, struggled last season and didn’t have the same impact as seen in previous years. Fekir had that element of unpredictability about him that made him such a threat. A fantastic dribbler and chance creator, it made him one of the most complete attackers in Europe.

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Lyon’s arrivals were one of plenty of discussions, starting with the midfield, which saw Thiago Mendes arrive from Lille for £18 million. Ndombele is a tough player to replace with a tiny group of playing possessing a similar skillset to the now Tottenham midfielder. It was a sensible move to pick up Mendes. While he didn’t have the same fantastic ball progression as Ndombele, he did add better defensive numbers and still possessed similar creativity.

With Ferland Mendy’s departure, it meant left-back was one of the most critical positions in terms of recruitment. His replacement was Youssouf Kone, another player signed from Lille. While not offering nearly the same attacking output as Mendy, he did provide some outstanding defensive work, putting in over 5 tackles and interceptions for Lille last season. It’s another move that seemed realistic for Lyon. Finding a full-back with equal qualities to Mendy is insanely difficult. Taking a punt on a relatively young full-back and hoping those low attacking numbers improve in a better side is a risk worth taking for £8 million.

Last but not least, let’s talk about their best signing of the window, Danish defender Joachim Andersen. He is the first signing at centre-back that I would consider promising after Marcelo and Morel are finally being phased out of the team. Andersen was an in-demand player throughout the summer, with Arsenal, rumoured to be heavily interested. Moving to Lyon makes a lot of sense. The loss of Ndombele cannot be understated, and bringing in a ball-playing centre back to add that extra bit of ball progression is vital. Anderson is a gifted passer who is very comfortable on the ball. The Danish defender completed 15 dribbles last season, the 4th highest out of centre backs in Serie A. What he can add in position is impossible to argue. Andersen isn’t great defensively. However, for £21 million and still being only 23, he has time to improve.

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The combination of Lyon’s sales and arrivals made me wonder how they were going to set up throughout the season. While seemingly putting faith in the talent currently at the club is understandable, there is a vast amount of pressure on some of these players to step up. Cornet and Traore have always looked great when given chances, but can they be relied on throughout the season? It begged the question if Lyon were being a bit too confident in terms of assessing their own talent. There is now more pressure on Aouar to continue with his excellent ball progression and improve now Ndombele has departed. The issue with this group of players is some of the players they are putting faith in. I like Dembele a lot, but his history of injuries is still concerning, even if he has been a monster to play against whenever he has stepped foot on the pitch. The full-backs also worry me. Full-back pairings have usually worked with one taking an attacking role, and the other taking a more reserved part. Last season, it was Mendy who excelled in attack, and Dubois who blossomed on the defensive side, but now I have my doubts. Kone and Dubois have never shown the ability to play in that attacking role, leaving the team with even more pressure on the wide players to create and carry the ball.

If going off their 3-0 win over Monaco, there are plenty of elements to be excited about. Defensively, Lyon remained on the front foot, consistently using Aouar and Mendes to press the opposition during buildup play. Depay and Traore would drop deeper to change the formation to a more solid 4-1-4-1. While both are consistent tactics used by many coaches across the continent, it worked well. It could be down to Monaco continuing their poor performances into the new season, but Sylvinho’s side does deserve some praise here. Lyon used Mendes and Aouar to press the opposition defenders and force the ball into the wide areas, with Les Gones having a numerical advantage in those areas. It also got the best out of their full-backs. As we’ve covered, Dubois and Kone are not the most attack-minded defenders but are fantastic defensively. Forcing Monaco to attack down that side made them easier to nullify. The 2017 Ligue 1 winners only managed a single shot on target, showing how much they struggled to break Lyon down. The early signs of Lyon improvements defensively are bright, but it’ll be interesting to see how they fare against some of the sides in the Champions League. The different attacking teams could be challenging to contain.

While the defensive improvements give reasons for optimism, it’s in the attack, and primarily buildup play, where I have early reservations. During the first game of the season, Lyon attempted to transition the ball through their centre-backs recycling the ball, waiting for a chance quickly switching the ball towards the wide players. They use their excellent dribbling to attack the opposition. This makes a lot of sense. Andersen and Denayer are some of the best distributors of the ball in France, so building the ball up using their strengths is advantageous. The problem at the moment is the lack of ball progression through the middle. It’s the biggest hole that Ndombele has left the club. Aouar is a fantastic dribbler and seemingly the only midfielder who can. It puts a lot of pressure on him to drop deep if the wide options weren’t available. This might be different from Adelaide’s arrival from Angers, but at the moment they have looked dependant on Aouar to carry the ball. The other issue that became apparent at times during their first game of the season was their poor shot locations. This is likely due to the red card given to Cesc Fabregas, which forced Monaco to sit much deeper. Their 6-0 win over Angers did show a much better attacking side, but Lyon did massively overperform during their first 2 games of the season. At the moment, this isn’t too much of a problem. It is still in the extremely early stages of Sylvinho’s reign.

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I do imagine a lot of those early problems will be resolved as the season continues. This side seems built to be more accustomed to tougher opponents, and the emphasis on playing out from the back and a smaller squad could be a sign of harmony among the players. There was a reason why Lyon were one of my teams to watch. A new manager, the apparent significance of the fringe players and a better defence make them a team that all must keep an eye on this season.

Why Barcelona Have Been Underwhelming – Lyon vs Barcelona -UEFA Champions League Preview

These previews have been some of the best posts I’ve put out, and judging by the views they are attracting, it seems others agree. With only 3 left, it seems we are finally so close to finishing them. Let’s look at one of the final previews, being Lyon’s huge game against La Liga leaders Barcelona. With both teams having game defining players, it could be a very memorable tie.

Let’s begin with Lyon, who are having a fine enough season so far, but I have had some problems with them. It just bothers me when they drop points against such poor opposition, and with Lille 4 points clear and Marseille and St Etienne not far behind them, it begs the question of why aren’t Lyon doing better? Well defence is a massive problem. While their full backs are actually pretty solid, with Mendy, Tete and Dubois all performing very well, it’s put more pressure on Lyon’s defenders. While I think Marcelo is a solid defender, I don’t think Denayer is not a good player in the slightest. Jeremy Morel is now 34, and is still getting plenty of game time. It worries me that a team with such a good attack, might be held down by a central defence that is old and easy to expose. But it doesn’t change the fact that I’m not the biggest fan of their manager, Bruno Genesio. I can give him sympathy for having deal with a club who aren’t willing to spend much on defenders, which is why Denayer is even at the club. He has also added some impressive flexibility to the side, with Lyon deploying 8 different formations this season. It has mostly worked, but it was more to get the most out of what he has, and he seems to be unsure on what his best team even is. He’s played Aouar, Depay, Fekir and Traore in so many different positions, because he doesn’t know where to fit them all in. He’s tried Fekir and Depay as a striker, mainly due to both lacking a great work rate. However while both have played a lot of games there and can work on the occasion, they are better behind the striker. Depay is an amazing creator, so having him on the left or behind the striker is much more effective. Fekir is similar. He loves to get on the ball and run at defenders, and his shot locations aren’t great, with half of his total shot coming from outside the box. He’s another who shouldn’t lead the line. While Genesio’s masterclass against Manchester City and PSG is very impressive, I just don’t think he has taken advantage of Marseille and Monaco falling off as much as they have, in the same way Lille have capitalised.

What cannot be denied about Lyon is they have some of the most desirable players in Europe, starting with Memphis Depay. The Dutch international is in the form of his life at the moment. It has actually surprised me why a club like Chelsea or Real Madrid have not even considered him. While I did say I do not like him as a sole number 9, he is still an absolutely amazing attacker. He is taking 2.9 shots a game, creating 3 chances and completing 1.7 dribbles. These are all signs of a complete forward. Since Lacazette’s departure, he has been the main man at Lyon. With Fekir having consistent injury problems, Depay has been so important for everything Lyon have been doing. With his versatility, arrogance and ability, he makes for a forward who could fix any attack. It’s just so good to see Depay finally reach that potential we all knew he had. Barcelona might truly struggle to deal with him, because he can just do so much. He is so unpredictable. While Fekir and Traore could all be huge threats in this game, Aouar deserves some praise here. With incredible XGBuildup numbers and a great dribbler, it’s just amazing he’s still only 20. He is one of the best young players in Europe and has continued his amazing form from last season into this one. What has made him more impressive is the drop off of his teammates. Tousart and Ndombele have both not been nearly has good as they were last season, so it’s made Aouar look even better. I just love how good he is on the ball, and how good he is when it comes to transition. Ndombele’s dribble numbers have dropped, so it’s helped massively that Aouar has actually improved. A lot of clubs have been looking at him too, and it’s so easy to see why. He is a guy with a bright future, and is vital to Lyon getting a result in this game.

Let’s look at Barcelona. I have titled this post why Barcelona have been underwhelming, and I’ll explain. This La Liga season has been very confusing. With Villarreal and Valencia all dropping off a cliff this season, one would assume that a team that brought in huge talents like Malcom, Lenglet, Arthur and Arturo Vidal, you’d think they would be so much further ahead than they are. Real Madrid are having their worst season in years, yet they’re only 6 points behind them. While they have been winning and mostly deservingly so, but there have been consistent problems, and it all comes back to Valverde. His time at Barcelona can only be seen as satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think he is a bad manager. He is a very good manager, but isn’t a Barcelona manager. Thanks to Cruyff and Pep, they have such a high standard for the football that is being played, that anything that isn’t at the level, isn’t good enough. He has had a mostly successful time in charge, but he has individual moments that have soured his relationship with the fans. Letting Messi leave early last season for a friendly, which lead to the club losing their unbeaten run on the last day of the season against Levante, losing 5-4 in humiliating fashion. While that was bad, losing a 3 goal advantage against Roma in a truly awful performance in the Italian capital. It’s these moments where the fans and neutrals get frustrated, because he just struggles on the big stage at times. While I can see this as his biggest fault, the biggest problem is definitely his player managment. I do think he has been given players he doesn’t neccessarily want (I’ll get to that) and he has nearly no idea how to use them, and has instead relied heavily on Suarez and Busquets, and playing them even if they are tired. Both are aging and need to be managed carefully. Rakitic is another who is loved by Valverde, but wants to play him so much, that the fans are becoming tired of him. These are all good players, but they are all becoming old, and shouldn’t be relied on as much as they are. He has massively struggled with dealing with some of the bigger signings, starting with Coutinho. His signing in the first place was strange, because there wasn’t neccessarily a place in the squad for him. He was seen as an Iniesta replacement, but I don’t think they are as similar as thought. He cannot play as an 8, because he isn’t good defensively as an 8 should be. He also isn’t and has never been a winger, but can play there. He is a 10, but Messi occupies that area so where does he fit? He is useful to have in the squad, but Valverde seems to have no idea what to do with the £142m player. Malcom is a much worse situation, because Coutinho at least plays. But that blame is more on Malcom that Valverde, because he should be at Roma, but decided to go to Barcelona, when there wasn’t even a place in the squad. Valeverde is struggling in some aspecs in one of the hardest manager job’s in the world.

Talking about Messi as a key player is pointless, because of course he is. He’s the best player in the history of the game, so he’s easily the biggest threat on the pitch. Let’s look at someone else instead, that being Ousmane Dembele. The Frenchman’s time in Barcelona has been mixed. Don’t get me wrong, he has been amazing whenever he has played, but because of his issues with Valverde, and the board seemingly not liking him, it’s taken a while for him to establish himself in the side, but he’s been great. His performances in the Champions League have been outstanding. His shot numbers, chance creation and dribbling went supernova. He scored 2 in the group stages, with only Messi scoring more. He adds that creativity from the wide areas and is one of the dribblers in Europe. He is still such a promising player, and it’s good to see him finally showing it for a side that don’t deserve him.

If Lyon wish to win the round, they must deal with Busquets. The Spaniard is the best defensive midfielder in history, but he is 29 now. He is such a smart player but if Lyon attempt to deal with him, it’ll make Barcelona so much easier to deal with. The other is to hope Sergi Roberto is playing. He is good offensively, but is so easy to expose. They have to attack fast and keep hold of the ball. If they fail to do that, Messi and co will punish them.

If Barcelona want to advance, they have to play 2 in the middle. Lyon advanced as one of the few unbeaten teams, but only managing a single win. Those defenders are old, so if they play Messi and Suarez together, it might put a lot of pressure on the players at the back. Denayer and Morel aren’t good defenders, and Barcelona should find it easy to break them down. They need to use their experience. This team still has plenty of the winners from their 2015 Champions League win, and need to beat a side full of young players. Show them how winning is done. It’s why I think they will win. While a shock could definitely happen, I think Barcelona just have so much going for them to lose in the same way as last season.

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.

2018 World Cup Debutants XI

The world cup is easily the biggest competition in the world, and on the big stage, it is a big chance for players to make a real impression. I will not be including players under the age of 23, because that will be saved for another list.

GK: Marc Andre Ter-Stegen

It’s actually quite incredible that this will be the first world cup for Ter Stegen. The Barcelona stopper has proven himself to be one of the stoppers around, making an already solid Barcelona defense into an absolute wall. With the big injury to Manuel Neuer, not only will he be on the plane, but he might also be starting.

RB: Dani Carvahal

This is by far the craziest addition, just because of the high level that Dani Carvahal has been playing at for the past 3 years. It is understandable why he wasn’t including. He only arrived back at Madrid half way through the season, after a successful loan spell at Bayer Leverkusen. The four time champions league winner is now one of the best right backs in the world, and now instantly starts for his team.

CB: Marquinhos

The next two players just about qualify for this, but still are eligible. While I don’t rate him as highly as he seems to be, I think he is still a very good defender. This Brazil team, defensively, seems to be going through a transitional period. Thiago Silva and Miranda are both near the ends of their long careers and Dani Alves seems to be finished for Brazil. Marquinhos is still only 24. He has a long career ahead of him in the middle of this strong Brazil team. He needs to be apart of this defense, to add some structure. He could be very valuable for Tito’s side.

CB: Samuel Umtiti

Another who just about qualifies for this XI. Samuel Umtiti has turned into one of the best defenders around. With a Gerard Pique who might be cultured on the ball, but lacks the positional play at times. Having someone so athletic and so confident in the tackle is so handy to have. If he is partnered alongside the equally brilliant Raphael Varane, France should have no issues in Russia.

LB: Danny Rose

While he hasn’t been at his best in recent months, it is still clear Rose is one of the best left backs in the Premier League. His solid athleticism and brilliant contribution in the final third has shown him to be a perfect modern left back. His place is for some reason, still up for debate, but if Gareth Southgate has a brain of any sorts, he is a must start.

CDM: Nemanja Matic

Since Serbia did not qualify for the 2014 world cup, it means this will be Matic’s first World Cup, and about time. The Serbian veteran has been a brilliant defensive midfielder over the years, and now will be his time to serve his country. He has such an excellent ability of reading the game, and most of all, composure. He is such a calm presence, and in a team full of young players, it will be a perfect addition, and a perfect addition in this team.

CM: N’golo Kante

With Kante’s relevance only appearing in 2015, there would have been no chance for him to be selected in the previous world cup. But after his terrific campaigns with Leicester and Chelsea, it is now time to add his brilliant aggression and tenacity to a France squad full of quality. What’s changed since the Euros is his improved quality on the ball. He has went from a very good destroyer, to a pretty good passer on the ball. With this clear improvement, it will add extra to an already well rounded defensive midfielder.

CM: Isco

Another player who was surprisingly left out of the last Spain squad. Even during that season, he was apart of the Madrid team that won La Decima. He has now transformed into one of the best attacking midfielders on the planet. His ability to find those small gaps, and use his close control ability to dribble past opposition players. He has been invaluable to Madrid in recent seasons. His contribution in front of goal had sky rocketed, and proved that staying and fighting for your place is the way to do it. When Verrati says that playing against Isco is harder than playing against Messi, that should tell you enough.

RW: Nabil Fekir

Another France player who didn’t have similar potential to other young players, Fekir has had the season of his life. Even with a horrific injury, he still was able to score 16 goals in the league. He is an absolutely powerful player who defines attacking at full speed. His place in the squad is completely deserved.

ST: Harry Kane

One of the best strikers in the world is going to his first world cup. Kane arrives as one of the most hotly anticipated players. With his future at Tottenham in slight doubt, clubs like Real Madrid might be watching this to see how he handles the big stage, to see if he is the Galactico they definetly need. Even though he didn’t get the golden boot, he still scored 30 goals, which puts him in the top 10 goalscorers in premier league history. He is leading the line for a very interesting England side. This could br his chance to show the world, just like Michael Owen.

LW: Mohammed Salah

Speaking of golden boots, Salah will be his countries hope in a competition they haven’t played in for 20 years. Salah is the talk of the world right now. With his record breaking season, and brilliant performances in Europe, everyone knows the name Mo Salah. He scored the winning penalty to send his country to Russia. He is able to handle the toughest of pressures. With him alone, they could go from scraping to get out the group, to getting to the quarterfinals.