Petr Cech takes centre stage as Arsenal return to Wembley

Petr Chech in Arsenal uniformThe sight of Petr Cech in an Arsenal goalkeeper’s top is one that will take some getting used to this season. The man is a Chelsea icon and was a core component of the Roman Abramovich era, having helped to drive the club to an unprecedented decade of high-level success. His move to North London genuinely feels like a watershed moment for Arsenal, who haven’t had a world class goalkeeper since Jens Lehmann. How fitting then, that Cech’s debut will take place against his former club at Wembley this Sunday.

As is the toxic combination of football’s tribalism and social media’s instantaneousness, Cech inevitably received some abuse for his transfer over Twitter. However, the majority of rational Chelsea supporters were sympathetic to his departure – the least he deserved after so many years of fine service to the club. In terms of squad selection, Jose Mourinho was left with a catch 22; Cech is simply too good a goalkeeper to sit on the bench but Thibaut Courtois had proved that he was more than ready to step up to Premier League football. Ultimately it was a stroke of good grace from Abramovich that enabled Cech to leave on his own terms and it was out of the manager’s hands.

Cech’s brief time at Arsenal so far has already been eventful. The club have won two pre-seasons trophies – the Barclays Asia Trophy and last weekend’s Emirates Cup. Wojciech Szczesny has gone on loan to AS Roma, leaving no doubt (if there ever was any) that Cech will be Arsenal’s number one this season. It looks like Colombian International David Ospina will now stay on as a second choice and could well take on the role of ‘cup keeper’. Arsenal’s summer so far though has mainly been a case of fine-tuning, with Cech the sole first team addition.

Of course there is only so much to be learnt from the Community Shield, the new season’s traditional curtain-raiser. Back in April, I wrote that beating Mourinho’s Chelsea would cap off a season of improvement for Arsenal. While that game finished 0-0, it is fair to say that the proposition remains the same. Losing the Community Shield would hardly be catastrophic for Arsene Wenger but he has a chance to lay down the gauntlet not just to Chelsea but the other top sides. There was a marked improvement in Arsenal’s performances in big games last season and that must carry forward this year if they are to be considered title contenders.

Elsewhere in the squad, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – two players who Mourinho was keen to squeeze into a deal involving Cech – have had excellent pre-seasons. While both suffered unfortunate injuries last campaign, there have been some justified calls that both players need to step up and contribute more goals. With compatriot Danny Welbeck still out injured and Alexis Sanchez recovering from a busy summer at the Copa America, there will be early opportunities for Walcott and Chamberlain to stake their claims this seasons. Scoring at Wembley would certainly lay down a marker.

As for Chelsea, their transfer activity has been uncharacteristically low-key, mainly because there is little room for improvement. Asmir Begovic is a solid replacement for Cech as a back-up keeper to Courtois, while Radamel Falcao arrives in place of Didier Drogba and as something of a vanity project for Mourinho – if he can’t fix him, who can? The pursuit of John Stones continues, with the England youngster tipped as a long-term successor to John Terry. However, starting the campaign with Terry alongside Gary Cahill wouldn’t be a disaster for Chelsea; the centre-back pairing were immense last season and played a crucial role in claiming the Title.

With Chelsea remaining so strong, it puts Cech’s ambition and Arsenal’s vision into perspective. With a little help from Cech’s compatriot Tomas Rosicky, Wenger has sold that dream to his new keeper. He sees him as his new Lehmann – the man who turned Arsenal from contenders into “Invincibles” in 2003/04. Cech will relish that mantle. Mourinho’s side are the biggest obstacle between Wenger and the Premier League trophy, so this Sunday’s clash is sure to be an entertaining game as well as a good indicator of where exactly the two clubs are at the moment.

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Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Lionel Messi set to pose Max Allegri an unsolvable problem

lionel-messi-01It was just last summer that Luis Enrique and Max Allegri came to be. A couple of months separated their arrivals at Barcelona and Juventus, but they drew familiarity in the immediate questions surrounding their promotions. While the Asturian was scrutinised in his ability to manage a top European club, Allegri was deemed a step down from the departing Antonio Conte; even ridiculed at times. And yet one year on, both men stand on the precipice of an historic treble.

Time has healed the apprehension surrounding the pair, while a triumph for either on Saturday night would take them to once unimaginable heights. Even the most diehard of detractors would have a job on then, though the fashion in which the game is won and lost will perhaps leave the biggest imprint.

With Barcelona heading into the contest as favourites, a dispatch of Juve akin to that of the Bayern and Paris St-Germain games would see the Catalans archived as another of Europe’s greatest ever teams, while Luis Enrique would converge the path of Pep Guardiola’s historic reign some years before. Though the front three of Messi, Neymar and Suárez will hog the billboards for as long as they are together, their coach and his associates are special talents too (as much as it continually appears taboo to say).

The sheer fitness, intensity and hunger displayed by Barcelona this year puts pay to the feelings that the coach doesn’t have a grip on his team. More than that, they are a renewed beast; boasting more tools than possibly ever before. Their transformation in terms of set pieces at the hands of Juan Carlos Unzué, perhaps a leading example of that.

The task for Max Allegri on Saturday night is a different one entirely though. For the Italian, preparing the most meticulous, ingenious game plan ever seen in a European final, could still see his team leave empty handed at this rate. For unlike his opposite number, Allegri can only hope that his team are spared in the German capital. “It’s practically impossible,” the Juventus manager said on Monday.

He was referring to the potential man-marking of Lionel Messi; a decision which he will have soon retracted had he been thinking of it before last weekend’s Copa del Rey final when the Argentine obliterated his Basque opposition. It’s not that Juventus don’t have potential match winners too, it’s just that they’re not Messi.

Juventus stalwart Gianluigi Buffon has since echoed Allegri’s sentiments too. “Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans,” the captain said on Tuesday. “The only hope is that this Saturday he will be from earth, like the rest of us.”

It’s pertinent that Juventus’ inspiration, as well as the man who will be his team’s last port of call for stopping the little man, feels that way. But it only serves to reinforce the cyclone that the ‘Old Lady’ could be preparing to enter at 7.45 on Saturday night.

2015 has simply produced a monster in Messi; thanks to a changing of diet, a tinkering in his role, and a new-found measure in his work. He is far removed from the long-haired wild man who came to prominence almost a decade ago. Nowadays, he plays with the aura of realised genius and can kill you from anywhere, seemingly whenever he chooses at the moment.

Last weekend at the Camp Nou, he chose slaloming past four Athletic Bilbao defenders and hammering past Iago Herrerín with a run that began from a static position on the halfway line. Until then, Ernesto Valverde’s team were coping perfectly. After Messi had done, they were never the same.

For the weeks of preparation that both managers and teams will have undergone by the time the ball rolls in Berlin, the end result can be shaped by one man alone. And therein lies the difference for Luis Enrique and Max Allegri.

While both have proved themselves to be excellent organisers and tactically astute operators throughout the tournament, the Catalans hold the pawn. Allegri is capable of matching Luis Enrique stride-for-stride, except the one area; the one where Messi goes.

Television graphics tell you that’s on the right wing, but it’s not. There is no tracking his trail. It spreads like a raging wildfire, before there becomes too many flames to extinguish. If it’s not the man himself putting the ball away, he will supplement the equally insatiable appetite of those around him.

Of course, Messi is not solely responsible for Barcelona standing ninety minutes away from a treble. Nor are his partners in crime, Neymar and Suárez. The longevity and consistency of the team’s success could only have been born of an outstanding collective effort; one that has emanated from Luis Enrique and his associates, and gradually immersed within their ultra-talented squad. But when it comes down to ninety minutes, these are the ones who make the difference. Messi has done so in every Champions League final he’s been fortunate enough to feature.

In the German capital, Juventus will present themselves as the underdogs, though they would be unwise to think heart and desire will bridge the discrepancy in quality. Gifted beyond measure Luis Enrique’s team may be; uncompetitive they are not. Barcelona will not wilt, whatever the Italians throw at them. And that is an asset that can be directly credited to the young manager’s regime.

They will need to call on those qualities one more time this season, where the prize is bigger than ever. If Barcelona get their approach as accurate as they have done for pretty much the entirety of 2015, it is their game to lose. The work has been done, the criticism has evaporated, and the Catalans could not be in a better place on the eve of the final.

One more effort is required from Luis Enrique and his team, and there’s little evidence to suggest it won’t be forthcoming. If it’s business as usual for the Blaugrana in a collective sense, Juventus have problems. If it’s business as usual for Messi too, they have an unsolvable problem.

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 JAMIE KEMPjamie k avatar is a freelance football writer focusing on the Spanish game in particular. Follow Jamie on Twitter.

Matchbook on the ball with charity football tournament

Right_To_Play_MatchbookMatchbook, the leading sports betting exchange, is supporting a corporate charity football tournament this Wednesday, June 3, at Stamford Bridge – the west London home of newly crowned Premier League champions Chelsea FC.

Matchbook is sponsoring the Plate Trophy at the Right To Play World Cup – an event that raises money for sports and play activities that teach youngsters from around the world essential life skills to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict and disease.

The tournament will feature 24 teams of up to 12 players each competing in five-a-side and then seven-a-side group games before an 11-a-side final takes place on the famous pitch.

Matchbook’s senior campaign manager, Danielle Desroches, said: “Through our sponsorship, we are supporting 1,000 extra children taking part in Right To Play programmes twice a week for a whole year.”

Desroches said that the sponsorship of the good cause tallies with Matchbook’s core values – namely to deliver the purest betting experience to the customer, with low commission rates, attractive odds and high volume liquidity.

“Every day at Matchbook we strive to deliver the best betting experience to our community of sports lovers, by committing to our goal of giving you more,” Desroches added. “On June 3, through our support of the Right To Play World Cup, we want to give more to those who need it most.

“As an organisation that experiences the importance that sports can play in everyone’s lives, we have a responsibility to ensure everyone can experience those joys.”

Members of the public, as well as the families of those competing, are invited to attend the event.

Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere give Arsenal late selection headache

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

Theo Walcott, Arsenal

With the top four already sewn up, the final game of the season against West Brom offered Arsene Wenger a chance to experiment with his starting lineup ahead of the FA Cup final. Out came Olivier Giroud, who had not scored in seven games, to be replaced by Theo Walcott up front. Fellow Englishmen Jack Wilshere and Kieron Gibbs also started, in place of Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal respectively.

Jack Wilshere Arsenal

Jack Wilshere, Arsenal

With West Brom already ‘on the beach’, Walcott excelled and took full advantage of his starting birth by scoring a 33-minute hat-trick. The first goal in particular – an emphatic top corner finish – was a reminder of what he is capable of. It’s often overlooked that Walcott has 75 career goals for Arsenal, many of them coming the wing rather than his preferred position as striker. Giroud’s role as more of a traditional target man has made him a focal point for the team’s style but Walcott did not look out of place on Sunday and laid down the best case possible for a start in the Final, with his rampant first half performance.

 

Yet herein lies the conundrum with Walcott; it is really only against mediocrity that he is unplayable. More than most, he is guilty of going missing in the big games but he can turn it on when playing the lesser sides. One game springs to mind, a 7-3 thrashing of Newcastle in December 2012. Amid contract speculation, Walcott ran riot, scoring a hat-trick and providing two assists. That evening was the perfect opportunity for him to record an individual display that would see him “sign da ting” the following month. Even with Giroud’s recent goal drought, he remains the safer option for the big occasion having scored against both Manchester clubs and Liverpool this season.

Jack Wilshere also enjoyed an impressive performance against West Brom, scoring a spectacular half-volley that became a late winner of Match of the Day’s “Goal of the Season” with a little help from the Arsenal Twitterati. Like Walcott though, Wilshere has returned from injury at a difficult time when the Arsenal line-up is fairly entrenched following their ten game unbeaten run in the League, since losing to Tottenham in February.

Wilshere is unlikely to usurp Francis Coquelin or Santi Cazorla in the deeper midfield positions, or the fluid attacking trio Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey. Although he started the season well, looking particularly effective alongside Ramsey in September’s 2-2 draw against Man City. Wilshere was also one of England’s stand-out players in their run of games last year, playing at the base of Roy Hodgson’s diamond and drew praise from his former critic Paul Scholes.

However, as so often has been the case so far in Wilshere’s career, a promising period in the team was cut short by injury. Since returning to fitness, his best games have come from the bench and played in the right of midfield. Here, Wilshere has shown the verve and creativity fans have come to expect from him but it is not the central position he prefers to operate in.

Arsenal made a big PR stunt of their ‘British core’ in 2012, as Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all signed new contracts together. However, two and a half years on, the picture looks rather different. While Ramsey is one name who continues to be a pivotal figure for the club, the others have struggled with injuries and with consistency and it seems he may be the only Brit in Arsenal’s starting line-up on Saturday, despite the promising returns of Walcott and Wilshere.

 

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Hugo avatarHUGO GREENHALGH is co-founder and editor of The False Nine and a contributor to Eurosport and When Saturday Comes. He can be found following his favourite clubs: Arsenal and Dulwich Hamlet. Follow Hugo on Twitter.

Newcastle United cannot claim Premier League relegation would be undeserved

 

If there’s any justice in the world’, crooned British neo-soul sensation Lemar in his 2004 chart smash, ‘Louis van Gaal would recognise that his greatness doesn’t deserve to prevail over John Carver’s atrociousness, accordingly throw Manchester United’s game against Hull, and thus condemn Newcastle to the most well earned relegation of the Premier League era.’

 

For once, the post-1993 qualifier is not so arbitrary. Newcastle’s current incarnation is as Premier League as Premier League can be, existing – just about – not to serve its city, its community, nor even its matchgoing fans. Newcastle’s current incarnation exists – just about – solely to serve the interests of the rapacious mega-capitalist who bought a club in 2008 and who owns a 50,000-seater Sports Direct billboard in 2015. Newcastle’s current incarnation is Michael James Wallace ‘Mike’ Ashley.

All of which explains the (not so) curious absence of, well, everything in the run-up to their final-day ‘decider’ with West Ham. Newcastle go into the match in need of something they won’t have achieved in 85 days, or more than 2,000 hours, by kick off on Sunday. They need a win. Don’t get it, and Hull take three points against the more or less settled in fourth Man United, and at least another year in the Championship beckons. Beyond a loss of prestige, however, Newcastle have little to lose by relegation: what difference, ultimately, between a top-tier and a second-tier season of dirge, without even a tilt at cup competitions? At least with the latter, some fans hopefully contend, their owner might be more tempted to cut and run.

 

Newcastle United v West Ham United Betting Odds:

Newcastle win 7/10

West Ham win 333/100

Draw 57/20

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Carver will plead that Newcastle treat their ‘clash’ with West Ham like any other game. The reality is that it is just another game, part 38 (to be generous) of a black-and-white meander into mediocrity. There are no ‘high stakes’; there aren’t even stakes. A match isn’t ‘do or die’ if the home side already contains 11 zombies, 7 replacement zombies, a Geordie zombie in a ‘technical area’ whose name his very presence undermines, and HRH, The UK’s #1, King Zombie of Sports Retail and Zero-Hours Employment.

Newcastle’s relegation rivals, of course, have their own rapacious mega-capitalists to be dealing with. Assem Allam, the Labour Party donor who hates Ed Miliband’s ‘communism’ and is by his support for a Hull City-to-Hull ‘Tigers’ rebrand pledging to water down another great working class institution, will be hoping that Steve Bruce can end a 17-year hoodoo against his old club. This looks a tall order, not because it’s fated, not because of any off-field ‘revelations’ – but because Hull are proper, proper rubbish. Not quite Newcastle’s clogged, Shawshank-river-of-sh*t, unfiltered sewage, but rubbish all the same. And yet, should Ahmed Elmohamady continue to inexplicably do Good Things (or, as is more likely, should Van Gaal’s men just genuinely not give a toss with their end-of-season awards already been and gone), anything is possible.

 

Sunderland are predatory in their own way, their longstanding tradition of profiting from the unskilled labour of others time and again mischaracterised as ‘Great Escapes’. Thanks to a battling 0-0 draw with Arsenal and another few admittedly decent scalps, they’ve done it again this year. So too Aston Villa, who despite their tanking at Southampton are safe, and with the added consolation that Tim Sherwood is no longer the most laughable coach in the English top flight. That leaves a straight shootout between a team so bad that John Carver is in the dugout, and a team so bad that they were beaten by a team with John Carver in the dugout.

 

There are other mini-battles set to take place on Sunday. Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton will compete for a Europa League spot that none really want. Arsenal will be hoping to avoid an eight-goal swing that would see them drop out of third place. And Alan Pardew will look to consolidate Crystal Palace’s place in mid-table, mostly so he can look down on, and gleefully mock, his former employers. Best wishes to them.

All eyes, however, will be on that bottom three – and For Football’s Sake, it ought to be Newcastle joining Burnley and Queen’s Park Rangers at the season’s end. Come friendly MK Dons, and fall on Town; they aren’t even fit for Pulis now…

 

Betting Instinct tip Hull to beat Manchester United, putting the pressure on Carver’s side, is 43/20 with Intertops.eu

 

Kieran avatar KIERAN DODDS  is a masters student and writer. He has written about sport, politics and current affairs for the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Africa is a Country, When Saturday Comes, IBWM and others. Follow Kieran on Twitter.

Juventus v Real Madrid a very different prospect 12 years on from last Champions League semi-final meeting

This week sees Juventus and Real Madrid go head-to-head for a place in the Champions League final, with the tie delicately poised after the Italian champions held on for a 2-1 first-leg win in Turin.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side is looking to become the first ever to retain European football’s top trophy, following last year’s extra-time victory over Atletico Madrid, but if they want another shot at glory they will need to get past the side which ended their hopes of back-to-back victories in this competition 12 years ago.

 

UEFA Champions League – Outright Betting Odds:

Barcelona 53/100

Real Madrid 3/1

Juventus 11/2

Bayern Munich 33/1

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

Back in 2003, Vicente Del Bosque’s Real Madrid were locked in an unlikely title fight with a Real Sociedad side inspired by Darko Kovacevic and a young midfielder by the name of Xabi Alonso. Del Bosque had added just one player to the squad which edged past Bayer Leverkusen to win the previous year’s Champions League, but what a player – Ronaldo returned to Spain fresh from securing Golden Boot honours at the previous summer’s World Cup in Japan and South Korea.

While the Spanish title race would go right to the wire, Juventus had already secured the Serie A title by the time the two sides met at the Stadio Delle Alpi for the second leg of their semi-final. It may have been that lack of domestic pressure which allowed Marcello Lippi’s side to play without fear.

 

The first leg in May 2003 produced a comparable outcome to the equivalent tie this year, with a 2-1 home win keeping Real Madrid’s dream of La Decima well and truly alive. Indeed Graham Hunter suggested the winner from Roberto Carlos left the Spanish club “on course for their fourth Champions League final in six seasons.

However the gulf in quality and spending power between the Spanish and Italian leagues was nothing like it is now: the Bianconeri could boast such talents as David Trezeguet, Lilian Thuram and Pavel Nedved, while the likes of Alessandro Del Piero and Gigi Buffon were approaching their respective peaks.

 

Indeed Lippi’s side would go on to meet AC Milan in an all-Italian final after playing what Del Piero described as “the perfect match” in the return leg. Trezeguet, who had scored an important away goal at the Bernabeu, put Juve ahead within the first 15 minutes. Madrid sorely missed Ronaldo, only fit enough for the bench on his return from injury, and Del Piero doubled the lead before half-time.

Del Bosque’s side still had plenty of their other Galacticos on show, and Ronaldo – introduced early in the second half – gave Luis Figo the chance to level things up on aggregate when he was brought down in the area by Paolo Montero. However Figo saw his spot-kick saved by Buffon and the Portuguese was made to pay not long after when Nedved added Juventus’ third. A late strike from Zinedine Zidane against his former club would not be enough to keep the Spaniards’ dream alive.

 

The game – and the season – would prove momentous for both clubs. Juve lost on penalties to Milan in the final and went a decade without getting as far as the semi-finals again, losing their Serie A status in the Calciopoli scandal in the intervening period.

Madrid, meanwhile, parted ways with Del Bosque and midfield anchor Claude Makelele that summer, leading to a sustained run of underperformance in Europe. They would not reach the semi-finals again until 2011, while they had to wait until last year for La Decima.

 

This week both clubs enter the game with the awareness that the winner will likely go into the final as an underdog against a Barcelona team which brushed aside Bayern Munich in their first leg, however that ought not to matter too much.

Madrid enter as reigning champions of Europe and as such are expected to progress, while Juve – without any high-quality competition domestically – have done well even to make it this far. Their goalscorers in the first leg, Carlos Tevez and former Real Madrid youngster Alvaro Morata, while both undoubtedly talented, are only in Italy because richer clubs decided they were surplus to requirements.

In contrast, their opponents parted with more than €100m last summer, bringing in the likes of James Rodriguez, Toni Kroos and Lucas Silva. They cruised through their group with six wins from six and after edging past local rivals Atletico in the quarter-finals they will feel like this is a tie they should win.

 

For Juventus it is a chance to return to the glory days of the early 2000s, while Real have the chance to exact revenge for a painful defeat. But in truth this game is only comparable to that famous 2003 meeting on a superficial level.

 

Betting Instinct tip Real Madrid to win by two goals is 7/2 with Intertops.eu

 

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 TOM VICTOR (editor) is the editor and co-founder of Betting Instinct. He has written for a variety of sports sites in the past, including JustFootball, Footy Matters and BeNeFoot. You can follow him  on Twitter.

Champions Chelsea can punish complacent Liverpool

A week is a long time in politics. By the time Chelsea and Liverpool take to the field on Sunday there could well be a new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Or, as is more likely, the political parties will remain locked in darkened rooms, thrashing out deals and compromises to form another coalition government. As for the two football clubs, you could hardly drive a larger political wedge between them, with Chelsea sitting in the Conservative safe seat of Kensington – the only Tory club in the Premier League – and Liverpool a notorious Labour heartland.

 

Chelsea v Liverpool Betting Odds:

Chelsea win 21/20

Liverpool win 5/2

Draw 9/4

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

If a week is a long time in the political world, then a year in football is an eternity. These two faced each other with three games remaining last season in what is now a well run story; Steven Gerrard slipped, Demba Ba scored, Liverpool capitulated and Manchester City won the title. The Reds sold Luis Suarez and recruited poorly, the Blues sold David Luiz and recruited well.

With three games to go in 2014-15 Chelsea have already wrapped up the title and with nine points left to play for sit 13 ahead of second placed Man City, with Brendan Rodgers’ side a further 22 points back. The momentum that his side took into this fixture in April last year has well and truly evaporated after a chastening year, and defeat at Stamford Bridge would represent their 11th of the season, well and truly extinguishing their slim hopes of retaining their Champions League status for a second campaign.

 

Chelsea will be overwhelming favourites in a fixture that has so much less riding on it than would have been predictable even a month ago. Jose Mourinho’s team have strolled to the league title, barely breaking sweat in the second half of the season and undefeated since a 5-3 reverse at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day, while three defeats in Liverpool’s last six have cost them hugely in their unlikely bid to make the top four.

While some managers would see the visit of the Reds as a chance to put down a marker, to emphasise your superiority in this league, for Mourinho only victory matters as their 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace showed last Sunday. After taking the lead on half time, every substitution was designed to make sure of victory and deny the opposition a way back; John Obi Mikel for Juan Cuadrado, Kurt Zouma for Willian and Filipe Luis for Eden Hazard. “Boring” it may be to some, but no one can deny the effectiveness of Mourinho’s tactics this year.

So entrenched in negativity have been perceptions of Mourinho’s side since the new year that many have overlooked their stellar start to the year, when they attacked with verve and dynamism, spearheaded by summer signings Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. Their second, and so far final, league defeat of the season came in that loss to Tottenham in January. It was viewed then as a sign of complacency creeping into their game, of defensive frailties and vulnerabilities that other sides had failed to pick up on.

 

Conversely it was the best thing to happen to them. It has led to the pragmatic approach, the defensive lockdown that has been behind their title victory. Only Hull have scored more than once against them in the past four months. The Blues may have the best eleven in the league, but they have a manager who saw the problems and addressed them, where others may have ignored them. It is as much Mourinho’s win as Eden Hazard’s, Diego Costa’s or John Terry’s.

Pragmatic has become a dirty word in footballing circles, its connotations with negative, defensive football too readily assumed. Instead it is the mark of doing what it takes to win, it is perhaps the ultimate skill set a manager can learn. It is what separates the best from the rest. While Mourinho has it in spades, his opposite number and former apprentice Brendan Rodgers, is still learning it. It would be lazy to accuse the Liverpool manager of being too idealistic for he is more pragmatic now than when he took over the Reds in June 2012.

 

The move to the three at the back midway through this season, the use of the midfield diamond last season, all manoeuvres that point to a coach who can be pragmatic. However that’s not to say he couldn’t have been more pragmatic. The 3-4-2-1 could have been hooked earlier, the 4-3-2-1 of the autumn should have been abandoned almost immediately, while the need to prioritise goals over defensive solidity has not been properly addressed.

As we enter the denouement of the 2014-15 season, the sense of regret and a missed opportunity abounds on Merseyside. Liverpool took their foot off the gas after a dire FA Cup semi-final showing against Aston Villa, taking just one point off West Brom and Hull City. Victories would see them sitting in fourth now, given the three consecutive defeats suffered by Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United; instead complacency crept in.

 

Brendan Rodgers has a poor record against top four sides this season, with only a home win against a disinterested Manchester City to shout about. But this isn’t where Liverpool have fallen short this year, it’s in failing to beat the bottom ten teams home and away; they’ve only done that over Burnley and QPR, the weakest two sides in the division.

Liverpool do not deserve to finish in the top four, and they will lose at Stamford Bridge on Sunday because fear has replaced bravado at Anfield, ever since Steven Gerrard slipped over and Demba Ba scored that goal.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Liverpool not to score is 31/20 with Intertops.eu

 

JamesDutton JAMES DUTTON is a freelance journalist who has written for The Mirror, The Guardian and The Times. James helps to  run The False Nine football website, contributes to The Anfield Wrap and is a columnist for uMAXit Football. Follow him on Twitter.

Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich to see Guardiola turn pragmatist

Pep Guardiola returns to the Camp Nou. There’s little else to be said that will inflate the sense of event. Four ultra-successful years he spent managing his boyhood club, and now he’s back. Back in attempt to silence the Colosseum that he had always dreamed of igniting.

 

He still loves Catalunya and misses it from his Munich base, but his intended legacy requires that Bayern approach this tie with no sentiment whatsoever. With stars in the form of Arjen Robben, David Alaba and Franck Ribery all missing for tomorrow night’s game, a positive result will irrevocably take pride over place. Though he may be renowned as a serial perfectionist, he is a serial winner who will do whatever it takes to progress at this point.

The 44-year-old failed by his own admittance last year. Real Madrid blitzed Bayern in the semi-final, in a game he later describe as the ‘biggest mistake’ of his career. For his German escapade to have been worthwhile to this date, he can’t afford to not leave his mark on the Champions League for a successive season. It’s an almost incomprehensible reality for him. Barcelona must be stopped.

 

Champions League Outright Betting Odds:

Barcelona 7/4

Real Madrid 2/1

Bayern Munich 5/2

Juventus 15/2

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

On Monday, Sport newspaper headlined ‘Obsesionado con Messi’. It was in reference to Guardiola’s on-going plans to stop the Argentine, which have no doubt occupied his mind ever since Bayern’s ball was pulled out of the hat in Nyon. He has seen Messi trample on teams at this stage of the tournament before, more often than not from the Camp Nou touchline. Guardiola stood slack-jawed like the rest of us when Messi demolished Bayern back in 2009.

Reports from the city suggest that his initial plan to combat him would have been a man-marking job done by David Alaba; a player he considers athletic and intelligent enough to have put the brakes on Messi. With the Austrian unavailable for selection through injury, however, it’s now anyone’s guess as to how they will go about it.

And as much as he knows the damage Messi can cause, he will also know that Barcelona still have the ability to serve him up a taste of his own medicine. Despite the front three of Neymar, Suárez and Messi taking the plaudits in 2015, Luis Enrique’s midfield area in particular have demonstrated a renewed ability to control and alter the tempo of games in their favour. In fact, many have said the current team is the closest model to Guardiola’s that we’ve seen since he left in 2012. “This Barça presses more, defends better and now they have Suárez too,” Javi Martínez said earlier in the week.

 

The Catalans have been in superb form over the past few months. Their preparation could hardly have gone better. They remain in the ascendency in La Liga, their strike trio are undoubtedly the finest in Europe at present, and unlike their rivals, their team doctor might have one of the easiest jobs in the city.

Elsewhere, Bayern may have already wrapped up the Bundesliga title, but they come into the game on the back of two consecutive losses. A defeat in the German Cup semi-final against Borussia Dortmund has been followed by a 2-0 slip against Bayer Leverkusen; a game which ex-midfielder Owen Hargreaves described as ‘the worst you will see [Bayern] play’. It may only be two games, but momentum shouldn’t be taken for granted when the stakes are so high.

 

With the Germans’ injury record, it appears to be advantage Barcelona ahead of tomorrow night. The timing of the meeting is undoubtedly favouring the first leg hosts but they should be wary. Guardiola failed last year and is back again – sharper, hungrier and desperate to right his wrongs. His affinity for Barcelona will not stand in his way of stepping on them. And regardless of that, his legacy demands that he does. But be sure in the fact that Luis Enrique is equally hungry to chop down his friend in the name of building his own.

 

Betting Instinct tip – Barcelona to win the first leg with both teams to score is 2.89 with Intertops.eu

jamie k avatar JAMIE KEMP is a Freelance Football Writer and the Senior Editor at Inside La Liga. Follow Jamie on Twitter.

Things We’ll Learn In Football This Month – May

 

This is the end, beautiful friend, this is the end, my only friend, the end.

 

Yes that’s right one of the most underwhelming Premier League seasons we’ve ever had to endure is spluttering its way toward some sort of unsatisfactory conclusion. The Champions League places are all but concluded with Chelsea impressively but unmemorably coming top of the pile, there is a bit of a scuffle to avoid the Europa League and in fairness to the dregs at the bottom of the league there is still a bit of a question mark as to who will drop down into the Championship. But in the overall scheme of things this has been a poor season in terms of quality, drama and laugh out loud incompetence.

 

The first weekend of the month has no interesting games, none, not one. It’s utter dross. Do some work in the garden or something, or maybe go swimming? It’s been ages since you’ve been at the pool and you always enjoy it when you go. Whatever you do don’t watch the football, especially Spurs (49/20 with Intertops.eu) vs Man City (19/20) which looks deceptively like a game that might be good but in reality both sides gave up weeks ago.

 

The second weekend starts terribly with the inexplicable decision to televise Everton vs Sunderland and doesn’t get much better after that. Hull vs Burnley is a big one down at the bottom of the table but the soul crushing inevitability of Burnley’s relegation and the fact that no one in the world cares about Hull mean that I’m going to stop writing about it now. There is a ‘Super Sunday’ of sorts, with Chelsea vs Liverpool, which if nothing else will be a nice ‘have a look at what you could have won’ moment for Steven Gerrard.

 

Stop press we’ve got a game that might be alright! Weekend number three is mostly awful meaningless nonsense but finishes with Manchester United hosting Arsenal. Louis van Gaal will be looking to overcome the handicap of his weird hair to exact revenge over Arsene Wenger for their FA Cup defeat. For the last 4 months Arsenal have looked like a side who can challenge for the title, there is a new found pragmatism to sit alongside the flair. Of course this could be (and probably is) just Arsenal being Arsenal and they’ll regress to the mean with a spectacular explosion of incompetence before we know it, however a fixture against a rejuvenated but still not all that good Manchester United might give us a better idea.

 

I care so little that I can’t even be bothered looking at the last day, so in an effort to end on a mildly entertaining note I’m going to abandon the formula and go rogue by paying tribute to those who for one reason or another won’t be with us next season.

 

Steven Gerrard – Heading for MLS. Either one of the greatest players of his generation or the worst human of all time, depending on who you ask, Stevie is a man that splits opinion. One thing you can’t deny though is he has very consistent hair.

 

Frank Lampard – Heading for MLS. Got called fat a lot even though he wasn’t fat (but is still a bit fat for a footballer). Scored loads of goals, rumours that he’s a Tory.

 

Manuel Pellegrini – Will probably get sacked. City want Pep so big Manuel is probably done for sooner or later. Got called a “f**kin old c**t” by Alan Pardew and once wore a hoodie like he was nipping to the shop for milk rather than managing one of the richest clubs in the world.

 

Sam Allardyce – West Ham will probably let his contract run out. There are few finer sights in football than the big man after he’s ‘out tacticed’ one of the league’s elite. If there was an instrument to measure smugness then he’d break it.

 

Radamel Falcao – Heading to the glue factory. Knee injuries and advancing years (some say they’ve advanced more than his passport is letting on) mean that the Colombian’s stay in England has been a massive anti-climax. Another name to add to the lost of South Americans who haven’t quite cut it at Old Trafford.

 

John Carver – Heading for the record books. In years to come when they talk of the worst managers in history, big John and his staggeringly bad stint at Newcastle will be right up there. Great stuff.

 

I’m sure there are others but we all have things to do so let’s wrap it up. Some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the FA Cup but I’ve just found out I’m at a wedding that day so I’m pretending it isn’t happening.

 

Betting Instinct tip – defy Ally by betting on the very real FA Cup Final. Arsenal to win and both teams to score is 2.98 with Intertops.eu

 

Ally avatar ALLY MONCRIEFF is a freelance football writer and editor of All or Nothing magazine. Sometimes even he can’t  tell if he’s being serious or not. Follow Ally on Twitter and maybe he’ll be your friend.

 

 

Where will Juventus star Paul Pogba be next season?

 

Very few players command attention and interest across the globe consistently. We live in a world where Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo take turns in setting the bar higher and higher. This makes other footballers seem mortal, in comparison. But, one player who is keeping up with the best consistently is Paul Pogba. With an array of skills that can put any footballer in his shade, Pogba is making his own mark on the global arena.

 

At 22 years, Pogba is already a special player. The potential was always there and even the confrontations between clubs. When he joined Manchester United from Le Havre, there were accusations that United approached the player illegally. And when he left United to join Juventus in 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson went to the extent of alleging that Pogba had a contract with Juventus ‘a long time ago’. The underlying circumstances may have been different but the pain of losing a talented player was apparent.

Lack of game time was one of the reasons why Pogba left United for Juventus. Even before he kicked a ball for Juventus, everyone knew that the club was successful in grabbing the big prize. Over the last two years, he established himself as the lynchpin of the Juventus midfield. His agent Mino Raiola always maintained that Pogba is on par with the best in the world and is a future Ballon d’Or winner.

 

Torino v Juventus Betting Odds:

Torino win 31/10

Juventus win 10/11

Draw 11/5

(All odds provided by AllYouBet.ag are accurate as of today and subject to change)

 

The exploits of this talented playmaker haven’t gone unnoticed. Top European clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and Manchester City monitor his situation continuously and vie for his signature. It has even been suggested that his old club Manchester United is keen to get him back; and price is not a problem for any of these top sides. Pogba could spur any team to the heights of European glory and none of these teams would want to miss out.

 

Where does this leave Juventus? Surely, the club knows what it has and treasures the value of the player on its books. But, it is an open secret that it may not be long before they get a huge offer and Pogba leaves. Everyone remembers what happened with Zinedine Zidane when he was sold at the peak of his prowess by Juventus to Real Madrid.

Pogba may follow the footsteps of his idol and join the current Champions League holders, and the chances of him ending at Madrid will only increase if Zidane becomes the manager of the first team. However bitter rivals Barcelona are not willing to admit defeat and, if reports are to be believed, will offer huge money to Juventus once their transfer ban is over.

 

Whatever comes next, Pogba will continue to grab attention of every club and fan across the globe, and Raiola could be pardoned for continuously singing the praises of his player. The clubs could be forgiven for waiting with bated breath on what could be his next step. But, what is sure is that Pogba will be a global phenomenon for the next few years at least.

There may still be some naysayers who argue that Pogba is not yet at the level of Messi or Ronaldo. Truth be told, he is not at the same level; not yet! He has all the tools to challenge the game’s elite. It is just a matter of time.

 

Betting Instinct tip Juventus to win to nil in the Derby di Torino is 4.01 with Intertops.eu

sridhar_avatar SRIDHAR BHAMIDI is an avid football follower and follows most of the leagues. He is an experienced freelance writer  covering match reviews, reports, transfer news and betting articles. Follow him on Twitter.