Champions League Prospects for City, Arsenal, Leicester

 

The Premier League has the world wide reputation for being the “best league in the world”. It is by far the most widely covered and pulls in the highest television and media revenue. But year in and your out in the past five years, Premier League teams have consistently disappointed on the big stage of European football. This year, the usual four English teams have already been cut to three after Tottenham failed to qualify for the knockout round. This leaves Manchester City, Arsenal and reigning Premier League Champs Leicester City as the three remaining hopes among English clubs.

Manchester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Monaco

Sergio Aguero will look to lead Manchester City on a deep run in the Champions League

The Good:

City have been wildly inconsistent in all competitions in its first year under Pep Guardiola. However, they have shown they can beat anyone when playing well. They took down Barcelona 3-1 in the group stages. Guardiola is one of the most highly regarded managers in the world. It is difficult to imagine a Guardiola led side exiting Champions League in the Round of 16. City also have supreme talent on the pitch. Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero are two of the premier players on the planet. Raheem Sterling has had a bit of a resurgence under Guardiola.

The Bad:

The inconsistencies previously mentioned that have plagued City this season could very well be their downfall in the Champions League. One bad game and they could be in a hole that they cannot escape. Another concern for City is injuries. Particularly at the back where Captain Vincent Kompany is regularly injured and they have lost Ilkay Gundogan for the season. Monaco leads Ligue 1 in scoring by a large margin and will exploit any City holes at the back.

Arsenal: Rd of 16 match-up vs Bayern Munich

 

Mesut Ozil and Co. face a tough opponent in Bayern Munich.

The Good:

The Gunners have no shortage of talent. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are good enough to play anywhere. Petr Cech is still a top goalkeeper and Laurent Koscielny heads a strong back line. Like City, Arsenal clearly have upside and can have runs of brilliant play. In a brutally difficult Round of 16 match-up vs Bayern, they will need to be near perfect. But if Sanchez is finishing well and Ozil is given the ball in space, Arsenal could surprise.

The Bad:

Most of the bad for Arsenal comes from their opponent. For all of their talent, they are still severely outmatched by Bayern. It will very difficult for Arsenal to gain possession against the midfield prowess of Xabi Alonso, Arturo Vidal and Thiago. Arsenal will likely have to resort to striking off the counter attack. This is not something that possession minded manager Arsene Wenger likes to deal with. Wenger also does not have a great track record in knockout stages of the Champions League. Arsenal have been eliminated in the Round of 16 every year since 2010.

Leicester City: Rd of 16 match-up vs Sevilla

 

Riyad Mahrez will play a critical role in Leicester’s Champions League exploits.

The Good:

Well, the tale of two Leicester’s in this hangover season for the Foxes continues into the Champions League Round of 16. Claudio Ranieri’s side has looked anemic at times in its quest to defend its Premier League crown. However, in its first Champions League appearance ever, Leicester won their group to qualify for the knockout stage. Riyad Mahrez has looked significantly better in European competition and is the type of player who can single-handedly win you a game. Strikers Jamie Vardy and Islam Slimani also looked impressive in group stages. Leicester are also fortunate to not have drawn a tougher opponent in the Round of 16.

The Bad:

Quick, decisive counter attacking is the trademark style which the Foxes used to stun the world in 2016. However, in European competitions against top opponents, it can be difficult to win using such tactics. Sevilla is a very possession oriented side which will undoubtedly control the matches against Leicester. Can the Foxes find a way to strike swiftly when given a chance? It won’t be easy at this stage in the tournament.

 

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One Signing Each Premier League Contender Should Make in January

 

We are just past the halfway point in this Premier League season. As it stands, six teams are within ten points of the top. January is the final chance for these sides to polish their team as the final dash for the title is in sight.

Chelsea: Tiemoue Bakayoko, Monaco

Monaco’s Tiemoue Bakayoko could help stabilize Chelsea’s midfield.

The Blues have been tearing through the league this season. New manager Antonio Conte has instilled his 3-4-3 formation into the side and Chelsea has rocketed to the top of the league. The brilliant play of summer signing N’Golo Kante has been a large reason behind Chelsea’s turnaround season. The ability to win the ball in the midfield has allowed the Blues to feed their very talented attacking players. Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have each enjoyed bounce-back seasons.

If a side is going to run the 3-4-3 effectively, they need excellent defensive midfield play to make up for the one less defender at the back. While Kante and Nemanja Matic have done well thus far, Chelsea is still thin at the position. Bakayoko is just 22 years old and is enjoying a breakout season for Monaco. His dribbling ability through the middle would allow Hazard and Willian to play more wide. From there they can whip in crosses to Costa, one of the best in the air in all of England. Bakayoko’s youth is enticing as Matic is 28 and has been inconsistent at times this season. Although his playing time could be limited initially, Bakayoko will undoubtedly be a big part of the future at Stamford Bridge if Conte is able to acquire his services.

Liverpool: Quincy Promes, Spartak Moscow

Liverpool target Quincy Promes has helped Spartak Moscow to the top of the Russian Premier League

In Jurgen Klopp’s second season at Anfield, Liverpool have arisen as serious title contenders at this point in the season. Their plethora of attacking players, including Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, and Roberto Firmino have been very efficient in the attacking third.

However, Klopp will be without Mane for a large part of the next month. The Senegal international will be participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. The tournament comes at a critical time in Liverpool’s season with matches against Manchester United and Chelsea on there horizon. Promes has had a great season at Spartak. He has netted six goals and also has six assists in the Russian Premier League as Spartak have surprised by leading at this point in the season. It may be tough to coax Promes from Spartak, but Klopp should try. Promes will give Liverpool some width while Mane is away. He can play opposite Mane, which will benefit the Reds when Mane returns from international duty.

Tottenham: Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace

Wilfried Zaha would bring creativity on the wing to White Hart Lane

Once again, Mauricio Pochettino has put Spurs squarely in the title conversation. Tottenham sit third in the table at the turn of the calendar year. Young players have stepped up this season, including 20-year-old midfielder Dele Alli. Spurs are fighting off Real Madrid for his services.

However, Spurs could use an outside threat to compliment their plethora of middle attacking players. Alli, Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen have combined to score 25 goals in the league this season. All of those players are under the age of 25. 24-year-old Zaha could add to this “young core” that Pochettino has built at White Hart Lane. Zaha, who plays on the left wing at Crystal Palace, would compliment Kane, Eriksen, and Alli in the middle. Zaha is extremely skilled with the ball at his feet and has a tremendous ability to get crosses in from tough angles. Erik Lamela has been underwhelming again this season and Zaha could fill the void for Spurs.

Manchester City: Holger Badstuber, Bayern Munich

Holger Badstuber’s experience at the back could prove invaluable for Guardiola’s Manchester City.

Pep Guardiola’s highly anticipated first year at the Etihad has been up and down. A victory against Barcelona in the Champions League showed City’s potential under Pep. However, they have been very inconsistent at times domestically. Their inconsistency, especially at the back, is the primary reason why they find themselves seven points adrift at this juncture.

Man City payed quite a bit to sign promising young English center back John Stones from Everton over the summer. Stones, while very talented and promising, is still raw. There has been more than one occasion where he has looked lost this season. Captain Vincent Kompany’s injury woes have continued and it is difficult to rely on him for an extended period of time. Eliaquim Mangala consistently underperforms when given a chance in the starting XI. Badstuber is very experienced at just 27 years of age. He has 119 caps for Bayern and 31 for the German National Team. While a permanent deal is unlikely, Pep could explore a six-month loan deal for Badstuber. This would give City added security and depth at the center back for the remainder of the season while Stones continues to develop.

 

 

 

Arsenal: Ricardo Pereira, Porto (on loan at Nice)

Ricardo Pereira is a perfect solution to Arsenal’s right-back injury crisis.

Arsene Wenger is notorious for not making moves in the January transfer window, even when his team could really use them. Fifth place Arsenal have been by no means bad this season, but there is always room for improvement at the Emirates.

Promising young right back Hector Bellerin will be out for an extended period of time with an injury and his predecessor Mathieu Debuchy is rumored to be at odds with Wenger and on his way out of North London. This leaves the underwhelming Carl Jenkinson as the only right back on the Gunners’ roster. Ricardo, who is on loan at Ligue 1 leaders Nice from Porto has exploded this season. His 7.6 match rating on WhoScored.com has him placed in their Ligue XI team of the season. He provides sound defending and security at the back. Pereira is also a threat going forward, with a goal and three assists this season. He could be a perfect solution in the interim while Bellerin is injured. And his ability going forward could see him utilized as a wing-back or midfielder when the Spaniard returns.

Manchester United: Antoine Griezmann, Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann would be an expensive, but worthwhile signing for Manchester United.

After a disastrous start to the season, Jose Mourinho has begun to right the ship at Old Trafford. Despite being ten points back of Chelsea, things are looking up at Old Trafford. Manchester United have played well throughout the season, but have failed to convert the many chances they create. 31 goals in the League is significantly less than the other five “contenders”.

Griezmann is widely considered one of the best players in the world and would not come cheap. However is precision in the final third is exactly what United need. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a pure striker who doesn’t create, and while Paul Pogba is one of the most creative midfielders in the world, he is limited going forward to do the teams reliance on him from a defensive standpoint. Griezmann would fit right into Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 as an attacking midfielder. He played this role brilliantly for France in this summer’s European Championships where he scored a tournament-high six goals. It also doesn’t hurt that Griezmann is close friends with fellow Frenchman Pogba. The two could do lots of damage if they play together under Mourinho.

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Mourinho has United Rolling, and the Rest of the Prem Should Take Notice

Paul Pogba’s 86th minute header gave Man United a vital three points on New Years Day against a scrappy Middlesborough side.

Bumpy Beginnings

Manchester United entered the year full of optimism following a Summer Transfer Window which saw them bolster their squad. Marquee signings include star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, crafty midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and promising defender Eric Bailly. United also signed young superstar midfielder Paul Pogba for a whopping world record €105 million.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s thirteen league goals have been a major factor in United’s recent success. (Courtesy of, i.dailymail.co.uk)

In addition to on the field signings, the Red Devils were also able to lock down the services of former Chelsea, Inter, and Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. Mourinho has won the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga a combined six times. He also won the 09-10 Champions League with Inter.

For a club who have struggled mightily in recent years in comparison for the lofty standard set under the reign of the great Sir Alex Ferguson, Mourinho offered a ream of hope that Champions League football, and even possibly a Premier League title challenge were on the horizon.

Autumn was not kind to United, as the club dropped points against lowly opponents such as Burnley, Watford, and Stoke City on their way to dropping as low as eighth after ten match days. The side looked out of sync, Pogba was trying to do too much on his own and prove he was worth his massive transfer fee, and Mkhitaryan was not even making Mourinho’s Starting XI on most match days.

Jose Mourinho signed a three-year contract with the club in May 2016.

Hitting Their Stride

United has gained traction in recent weeks, now winners of six consecutive league matches dating back over a month. Mourinho’s famed 4-2-3-1 formation is clicking as Mkhitaryan and Pogba have been brilliant over the last month.

Pogba’s 8.3 average match rating on WhoScored.com was the highest in the Premier League for the month of December. Ibrahimovic’s 13 goals is only one off the pace set by Chelsea’s Diego Costa.

It took time, but Mourinho has begun to instill a winning culture in the dressing room at Old Trafford. Pogba won four consecutive league titles in Italy before returning to United. Ibrahimovic has won a title everywhere he has been. United are finding ways to win games that they were not winning earlier in the year or last year under Louis Van Gaal.

Take the New Years’ Eve match against Middlesborough for example. United dominated possession and momentum throughout the match and even had a questionable disallowed goal in the first half. This was before conceding to Middlesborough midway through the second half. But Mourinho’s men showed their grit. Anthony Martial equalized with five minutes to go off a great pass from Ibrahimovic. And a minute later, Pogba secured the three points for the Red Devils with an emphatic header into the back of the Middlesborough net.

They are still ten points behind league leaders Chelsea. But sixth-place United are hitting their stride at the right time. If they continue their current form, United are very much a threat for a top four finish, and possibly to challenge for the title if Chelsea continues to slip. A January 15 showdown with rivals Liverpool will give Mourinho and Co. a chance to really make some noise.

Real Madrid Takes Home the Champions League Trophy

Real Madrid won their 11th Champions League Trophy in dramatic fashion, scoring early in the match and converting all five of their penalties at the end of the match.

 

The game started off with a huge fifth minute save by Jan Oblak off a touch by Casemiro off a free kick from Gareth Bale.

 

Defender Sergio Ramos scored in the 15th minute off a Toni Kroos free kick flicked on by Bale. There was an offside shout from the Atletico players, but not called by the side judge.

 

Atletico put some pressure on around the 30th minute and earned a corner but were unable to put a chance on target.

 

Real keeper Keylor Navas had great save by off a volley from Antoine Griezmann in the 35th minute.

 

The final five minutes of first half Atletico had a long run of possession. The end of the first half could not have come at a worse time, they had solid build up play and got off a few shots.

Antoine Grezmann missed a crucial penalty for Atletico early in the second half. Photo courtesy goal.com.

Just off the second half kick Pepe fouled Fernando Torres in the box for a penalty. Greizmann missed the penalty off the bottom of the crossbar bouncing out past the box.

 

Daniel Carvajal was injured in a tackle and had to be subbed off for Danilo.

 

Atletico had a run of close chances right after the substitution putting three shots just off target.

 

Karim Benzema had a shot off a counter attack in the 70th minute, but was closed down well by Oblak. He was then taken off for Lucas Vázquez.

 

Real had a great run of shots drawing Oblak out of his goal but Bale couldn’t put the ball past any of the Atletico defenders in goal. On the ensuing possession Juanfran had a great cross to half-time substitute Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco to equalize at 1-1 in the 79th minute.

 

At the end of stoppage time Sergio Ramos took out Carrasco on a counter and earned a yellow. Gabi’s reaction to Ramos not getting a red card earned him a yellow. The ensuing Atletico free kick was cleared by Madrid ending regulation 1-1.

 

In extra time Real had a good chance off a corner that Ronaldo put into the ground and bounced harmlessly into the hands of Oblak. Then there were a few good chances for each team but no goals.

Ronaldo scored the last penalty to seal the win for Real Madrid. Photo courtesy businessinsider.com.

In penalties each team made their first three and Real made their fourth before Juanfran puts his off the post. Ronaldo put home the final penalty to win the trophy 5-3.

Arsène Wenger: Time for Change?

This weekend Arsène Wenger, the longtime Arsenal F.C. manager, was the subject of a protest from fans. In the 12′ and 78 minute Arsenal fans held up signs saying, “Time for Change”. While the majority of fans were not holding up signs, it was still enough to gain attention from the television cameras in the stadium. After going through a tough season, players have admittedly said they squandered the chance to win the league. The 5000:1 odds to win the league Leicester City clinched the title on Monday due to Arsenal’s fierce rival Tottenham’s draw with Chelsea. If Tottenham beats Arsenal in the final league standings it will be the first time in 21 years.

Arsène Wenger at his hiring. From theguardian.com.

Wenger was hired on October 1st, 1996 as the manager of Arsenal, and in the past 19 seasons has won three league titles and six F.A. Cups, winning both in the same season twice. His greatest achievement was going undefeated in the 2003-2004 season. Arsenal has been to the group stage of the Champion’s League, Europe’s most important soccer competition, since 1999. This is very impressive except for the fact that Arsenal has not won the competition under Wenger and only reached the final once, in 2006.

Arsène Wenger holding the F.A. Cup and Premier League trophies. From the premierleague.com

Some Arsenal fans want a new manager is because they pay the highest ticket prices in the Premier League and they have won nine trophies, but suffered a nine-year trophy drought that lasted from 2005-2014. Arsenal considers themselves a top club and top clubs win trophies. For example, Barcelona has won 15 trophies over the last 10 years. If a manager at a top club is not bringing in trophies there is no need to keep that manager. Other top clubs in the world rotate mangers if they aren’t winning. For instance in the premier league 53.8% of managers are replaced every season, or just over 10 a year.

For the record Wenger is not going anywhere, with majority owner Stan Kroenke giving him full backing. Kroenke has said that he trusts Wenger to the fullest and the club is self-sustainable and even turns a profit. This is a very financially focused sports owner who also owns the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams and the very average Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets. So finances will be at the forefront of most of his decision.

Emirates Stadium. From essma.eu.

The new Emirates Stadium that was built in 2006 cost of £470 million ($684 million) which gave Arsenal a capacity increase of over 20,000 over their old stadium, Highbury. This was not a cheap building and it would cost the club a significant portion of their transfer budget, leaving Wenger to create world-class players from the club’s youth academy versus buying world-class players. The new stadium is considered by one Arsenal minority owner to “have cost Wenger his best years at the club”.

So to be clear Wenger is not leaving Arsenal unless he wants too and it doesn’t seem like that is going to happen. So the current Arsenal fans will have to either love or hate him, but he will still be the manager.

Did Zinedine Zidane Forget the 2006 World Cup?

Real Madrid advanced to the Champions League semi-final with a 3-0 win in the second leg and 3-2 win on aggregate, which is Zinedine Zidane’s best accomplishment as manager. After the match Zidane responded to a question asking if he was nervous during match, where he answered, “I never lost my head as a player, will never do so as a coach”.

Apparently he forgot this moment during the 2006 World Cup Final against Italy:

Zidane headbutts Italy’s Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup Final. From http://www.whoateallthepies.tv

This moment has been ingrained in popular culture with people producing “memes”, games and even a statue in Qatar that was later removed.

From anildash.com

 

Headbutt statue in Qatar. From bbc.com

Leading up to the World Cup, Zidane had announced that he would retire after his contract ran out with Real Madrid at the end of the 2005-2006 season. This meant that his final match during the 2006 World Cup would be his last ever. Entering the World Cup Final, Zidane had an assist and two goals on his way to winning the Golden Ball, which is awarded to the tournament’s best player.

France matched up with Italy in the World Cup Final, for Zidane’s last game. During the match, Zidane scored on a penalty in the seventh minute, but the biggest moment of the match didn’t happen until the second half of extra time, 110 minutes into the game. Zidane and Materazzi, an Italian center back, started exchanging words in the box. The confrontation ended up continuing into the midfield where the infamous headbutt occurred. Zidane claimed that he headbutted Materazzi because he insulted is mother and sister. Materazzi has since admitted to making comments about Zidane’s sister, but not his mother. Zidane was sent off with a red card and Italy ended up winning the World Cup in a penalty shootout. In the immediate aftermath he stood by his actions due to being provoked.

Even as Zidane was beginning his coaching career in 2014 for the Real Madrid B team, he stated he would be “disappointed but, still support his player”, if a player on his team headbutted an opponent.

Maybe the next time Zidane decides to say he never lost his head, he should remember the final game of his career.  He is now known for headbutting his opponent in route to a loss on the largest stage of soccer.

Five Reasons why PSG will win the Champions League

The UEFA Champions League is the greatest club competition every year and pits the power-houses of Europe against each other. This season, the Champions League is stocked with the best teams in the world once again making it hard to pick a champion, but there is one team that stands out above the rest. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) will win the Champions League because of five reasons.

Angel Di Maria has had a great scoring and passing season for PSG. Picture courtesy espnfc.com.

  1. Their success in French Ligue 1.

PSG is ahead by an unprecedented 21 points in French Ligue 1. They have not lost a game and only have three draws in league play. The French League is by no means an easy league, so their ability to dominate shows that they are a threat to be reckoned with. Because they are already this far ahead in the league, it will allow them to rest players. The fresh players will be used to play in the Champions League, which will help them be at their best for their most important games.

PSG manager Laurent Blanc has led the team to one of the best seasons in recent history. Picture courtesy thesportsbank.net

2. Their draw in the round of 16.

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 was very favorable for PSG. They play Chelsea in the first leg, which is the best draw they could have had. Chelsea has struggled this whole season and is thirteenth in the English Premier League. Jose Mourinho was fired as the manager and the team hasn’t been clicking. PSG will take advantage of Chelsea not being great this season and get to the next leg.

Center-backs Thiago Silva and David Luiz have years of experience and chemistry playing together. Photo courtesy youtube.com.

3. Their Center-Backs.

In French Ligue 1 play PSG has allowed just ten goals in 22 games. Their back line is playing some of the best soccer in the world right now. Thiago Silva and David Luiz are two of the best center-backs in the world and they are paired together. They have experience playing with each other on Brazil’s National Team together as well as last season with PSG. Silva and Luiz have a good chemistry, which is something that is essential on elite back lines. With those two guys in the middle it almost doesn’t matter who they have defending on the outside.

Goalkeeper Kevin Trapp has had a great season for PSG. Photo courtesy bleacherreport.com.

4. Kevin Trapp and Goalkeeping.

PSG has found their goalie in Kevin Trapp. He has posted 12 clean sheets in French Ligue 1 play, which has been helped by the defensive play, but is nonetheless impressive. He is still young, at age 26, which means he can still improve. If Trapp would happen to get hurt or get out of form this season, PSG has Salvatore Sirigu to fill in. He is only 29 years old, but has had an impressive career already. He has lost his starting job to Trapp, but is one of the best backups a team could ask for.

Zlatan is a legend. Photo courtesy youtube.com.

5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Zlatan is one of the premier players in the world. He has 17 goals in French Ligue 1, which leads the league, and is always a threat to score. PSG has other offensive options, meaning opponents can’t key on him, making him even more dangerous. He also passes to these other players extremely well. Zlatan has six assists this season in league play, making him even harder to guard. With Zlatan on the pitch PSG is dangerous to break down any defense in the world.