Having guaranteed a play-off place for the World Cup next year, the Boys in Green have no real easy way of getting there with out potential opponents being either Italy, Croatia, Switzerland or Denmark.
The two must win games at the weekend against Moldova and Wales will provide some inspiration for whoever we face in November in the play-offs. And hopefully with a full strength team. The two games weren’t the most attractive of games to watch, but six points were needed – and six points were earned.
Croatia and Italy are the two teams I would avoid if I could. I’d fancy us giving Switzerland a go. We beat them 1-0 in a friendly in March of last year, but that said, it was only a friendly. Denmark won’t be easy, but I would be of the opinion that we can overpower them over 180 minutes.
The draw for the ties will be held next Tuesday in Zurich. Fingers crossed.
As Scotland failed to take all three points from their game against Slovenia on Sunday night, it sets up things nicely for Ireland as we face Wales in Cardiff tonight. A win against Chris Coleman’s men will guarantee us a play-off place. If Serbia lose at home to Georgia – unlikely but possible – then we go through automatically.
If Ireland fail to win, then Martin O’Neill’s men will not be going to Russia next summer.
The big talking point from the Wales camp is that they are missing their world-class superstar Gareth Bale. And he will be missed. But that’s not to underestimate the Welsh team who can cause Ireland serious problems. But I believe so can we to them.
“I think our approach will be quite similar to the one we had against Italy in Lille,” Martin O’Neill said in a press conference in Cardiff yesterday. “Where we knew before the game that a win was the only thing that mattered for us.”
While James McCarthy is ruled out for the crucial game, Ireland will be grateful to see the return of Robbie Brady and James McClean who are both back from suspension.
“Whatever game-plan we have, we are going to try to utilise it as best we possibly can,” the Ireland boss said. “At the end of 90 minutes, we have got to find ourselves in front. I think we are capable of doing that.”
The nerves are kicking in for this writer, that’s for sure.
A talented member of Barcelona’s La Masia youth acedemy, Fran Mérida was at one point in the same position so many before him were – labelled as the “next big thing”. The young Catalan midfielder had more than just hype. It seemed the teenager could back it up and was labelled as another Cesc Fabregas.
When Mérida left Barcelona in 2005, it was the youngster’s parents, concerned about all the young players heading to La Masia and felt that he would have a better chance elsewhere. That elsewhere was ultimately Arsenal, despite initial interest from Real Madrid and AC Milan.
But the move turned out to be costly, when in October 2007, a Spanish court ruled that Mérida had infringed his contract with the La Liga club. “The ruling recognises the rights of the clubs that are educating and raising children,” then-Barcelona vice-president Ferran Soriano said at the time.
It was a rocky start off the pitch for the then-17-year-old. But his reputation about what he could do on the pitch was generating momentum. Up until the court case, Mérida only made one appearance for Arsenal, and that was in a League Cup match. Arsene Wenger even denied letting the Catalan go out on loan citing that he had “too much talent”.
But the following year, he did indeed send him out on loan, to Real Sociedad. He played in the first team for the entire year before going back to the Emirates.
“I had some opportunities,” he said many years later. “but the competition was high. Arsenal bought Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the first-team. Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Denilson were also in my position. It was difficult for me.”
Then in 2010, Mérida generated interest from Spanish giants Atlético Madrid – the club he supported as a boy. He started well in the Calderon but began to lose his confidence and played less and less as time went on. Atléti put him out on loan to Portuguese side Braga.
Mérida lasted four months in Portugal, playing a mere 132 minutes of football before returning to his native Spain and signed for Hercules on a four year contract. Citing a lack of confidence and internal issues at the Alicante-based club, in 2013 Mérida received interest from Brazilian top-flight side Atletico Parenese, an offer he accepted.
Missing the first ten games due to a work permit, Mérida broke into the first team and played well. The Curitiba team finished third in the Brasilian Serie A that season. Sadly when the club were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, the chairman told players that he was changing numerous things. His contract was not renewed and he returned to Spain in July 2014, but he would go the next four months unemployed.
Despite interest from Greek and Cypriot clubs, Mérida was keen to stay in Spain. He had to wait until January 2015 and then he signed for third-tier side Huesca. A club that he regained his confidence and excelled and, while clearly the most technically gifted player at the club at that time, he helped the club gain promotion to the Segunda.
He enjoyed living in the city too. A small city with a population of just 52,000, located around 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza, and a city where he could walk the streets without hindrance. He began to enjoy his football once more.
His excellent performances at Huesca caught the attention of top-tier side Osasuna, who snapped him up in July 2016 on a four year deal.
It must be worth pointing out that Fran Mérida was one the absolute bright talents in European football a decade ago. It was in the script that he was to be another Cesc Fabregas – a wonderkid from Barcelona’s youth academy with bags of talent and brought to the cold English league to ply his trade. Cesc went right to the top. Mérida, for a variety of reasons, didn’t go all the way. But, despite the whirlwind, he’s still playing top-level football, he’s happy, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Some very difficult fixtures in store for the group stages of the Champions League. Manchester United avoided some seriously tough opponents, but still have a difficult task as they will face FC Basel, Benfica and CSKA Moscow.
Celtic have been given a ruthless draw as they face German giants Bayern Munich, the Neymar-led PSG and Belgian big boys Anderlecht. Chelsea could have wished for easier opponents too as they face Atlético Madrid, Roma and Qarabag.
Most pundits will expect Man City to top their group ahead of Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli and Feyenoord, but only a fool would think that an away game against any of these clubs will be a walk in the park.
Liverpool can be thankful for missing out on some serious heavyweights such as Barcelona and Juventus, but they face Spartak Moscow, Sevilla and Maribor and no doubt Jurgen Klopp will be after the group’s top spot.
Finally Tottenham have been dealt heavyweights in Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. Along with APOEL, Mauricio Pochettino will face an uphill battle if they are to make it to the knock-out stages.
The groups in full:
Group A: Benfica, Manchester United, Basel, CSKA Moscow
Group B: Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, Anderlecht, Celtic
Group C: Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Roma, Qarabag
Group D: Juventus, Barcelona, Olympiakos, Sporting
Group E: Spartak Moscow, Sevilla, Liverpool, Maribor
Group F: Shakhtar Donetsk, Manchester City, Napoli, Feyenoord
Group G: Monaco, Porto, Besiktas, Leipzig
Group H: Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham, APOEL
With the recent news of Neymar’s world-record transfer to PSG, one would assume Barcelona would be in dire need of a winger to fill the gap that the Brazilian will no doubt leave. There is talks about Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho and Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé. But the Catalan giants did make a signing this week. And one that has many raising questions.
When Paulinho left White Hart Lane in 2015, nobody would have predicted – not even the player himself surely – that within two years and two months, he would earn a dream move to Barcelona. While he was undoubtedly a big name player for Chinese Super League side Guangzhou Evergrande, the €40 million Barça spent on the 29-year-old seems somewhat excessive.
To begin, Barcelona have players in his central midfield position. Lots of them. It would be unlikely that Sergi Busquets, Ivan Rakitic, Andres Iniesta, Andre Gomes or Arda Turan to name but a few, would be replaced by the former Spurs man. Barcelona have bought a player for a position they already have more than enough for.
But there’s also reports that the signing may not have been for sporting reasons. Reports suggest that Barça’s not-too-popular club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who is the CEO of a company called ADELTE Group (which is into designing, manufacturing, supplying and maintaining airports, seaports and road transport operations) and that that the group is expanding into China and bidding on projects like the Ocean Flower Island, which is being built by the Evergrande group – the same people who own Paulinho’s club Guangzhou. A bit far-fetched? Maybe. Would it be likely that this is the reason? It’s a possibility. But it’s a rumour at this point.
Conspiracy theories aside, Paulinho should be judged by what he does on the pitch.
It must be noted that Paulinho has not only excelled in the, admittedly lower standard, Chinese Super League, but he has returned to the Brazilian national team set-up. In World Cup qualification, the Seleção started their campaign with sub-par performances and results. However, they won all eight games after Paulinho’s return in the yellow jersey, even scoring a in a 4-1 away win against Uruguay.
Interesting times at Camp Nou. The signing of a certain fellow Brazilian who lives in Liverpool, will take the heat off Barcelona’s president. And indeed the fans who have yet to give Paulinho a chance.
Last year Barcelona slapped a €222 million buyout clause on Neymar. Buyout clauses are usually obscene figures to warn off potential clubs interested in availing of a player’s services. In the case of Neymar, astonishingly Paris Saint-Germain look set to spend exactly that to get the Brazilian superstar.
His reasons are both footballing and quite obviously financial.
Firstly the footballing reasons. While many will see a move from La Liga to France’s Ligue 1 as a step down, one must take into consideration the fact that Neymar will only grow so much when he’s playing in the same side as Leo Messi.
On the north-eastearn coast of Spain, Leo Messi is the frontman. The poster boy for the club, the marketing tool, and the focal point on the pitch. Neymar has always, and would always be in the Argentine’s shadow. Neymar wants to take centre stage. And where better than PSG, where players would have to adapt to his style of play, and not the other way around.
It’s an interesting move too in terms of accolades. The Ballon d’Or would be within grasping distance, but never in the palm of his hands. Messi and his Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo are realistically the only two players who have been battling for it for some time. Not now. Neymar gone solo will see the Brazilian step out of Messi’s shadow and lead PSG. Critics, pundits, fans and peers will take notice,
But make no mistake, another motivating factor is money. As is always the case in the beautiful business game.
Neymar will become the best paid player in the world, doubling his salary while in the Paris. PSG’s owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) have seemingly an endless stream of cash going straight from the middle east to the French capital. His father who acts as his agent will receive €36 million in commission. He’s earned almost €100 million at Barcelona. As I said, make no mistake – this is clearly another motivating factor.
It will be a loss for Barcelona. The attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (often called the MSN) formed a front three considered by many as the best in the history of the game. There will be a Neymar-shaped hole if he goes unreplaced, though not catastrophic – Barcelona have over the past decade had a plethora of talent on their bench alone. Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho has been frequently mentioned as a possible replacement. And other left-wingers such as Marco Reus or Eden Hazard could easily fit into the Barcelona’s system if Jurgen Klopp doesn’t budge.
Neymar’s move to PSG is all but confirmed at this stage with Barcelona putting out an official statement on the matter. The Parisians have even reportedly arranged an enormous welcoming ceremony on the streets of the French capital. All that’s left is the Brazilian’s signature. It’s up to Neymar now to deliver for his new club as he takes centre stage.
We all know about the big transfers that have occurred thus far into this summer such as Manchester City’s double acquisition of Bernardo Silva and Ederson for obscene money. Or Mohamed Salah’s big money move to Anfield, or even Man United getting Victor Lindelöf’s signature. No doubt there’ll be other huge money transfers between now and deadline day. But some interesting signings have taken place that may have flown under your radar.
AC Milan have been doing some great business of late with the signing of Porto’s Andre Silva and the criminally under-rated Wolfsburg left-back Ricardo Rodriguez. Speaking of left-backs, Real Madrid have signed the phenomenal Theo Hernandez from cross-city rivals Atlético Madrid. Hernandez is often regarded as one of the best teenagers on the planet, while in Belgium one of the most promising young players in world football, Youri Tielemans, was sold to Monaco from Anderlecht for €25 million. He’ll be worth three times that within two years – mark my words.
Bayern Munich will feel the loss since the retirement of club idol Philipp Lahm, as well as Xabi Alonso, but they made some interesting acquisitions in former-Arsenal man Serge Gnabry from Werder Bremen, Niklas Süle from Hoffenheim, as well as getting the supremely gifted French winger Kinglsey Coman on a permanent deal, having previously been on loan for the Bavarian club.
Cristian Tello, once hailed to be Barcelona’s future left winger if it wasn’t for the signature of a certain Neymar, left the Catalan club for Real Betis. He’d previously been on loan to Fiorentina. Speaking of Serie A, Argentine midfielder Ever Banega re-joined Sevilla from Inter Milan for €8 million – the Italian club got him for nothing a year ago. French midfielder Maxime Gonalons spent his entire career at Lyon, having joined as an 11-year-old in 2000 and became a club captain and idol for the fans. He left Ligue 1 for Serie A and joined Roma. A superb signing. And a curious one as they have numerous top players such as Daniele De Rossi and Radja Nainggolan who play in his position.
Some players have been moving about as free agents such as Klaas Jan Huntelaar returning to Ajax, Real Madrid’s Pepe has made Istanbul his new home having joined Besiktas. The man that overtook Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, Diego Lopez has returned to La Liga, having joined Espanyol from AC Milan for precisely €0.
Stay tuned, as I’ll be bringing you more signings – big, small or indifferent, between now and deadline day.
Occasionally some players with a big reputation will arrive at a certain club, and somebody – be it the club or the player himself – will have a swift change of heart. Here’s five players from recent years that didn’t last too long.
Sol Campbell (Notts County)
League Two side Notts County in signed the former Arsenal man August 2009 on an astonishing five-year deal. “I bought into a dream and I wanted to make that dream a reality,” Campbell later said. “It took me less than a month to realise that it was all heading to a different conclusion”. He played once for the club.
Dietmar Hamann (Bolton Wanderers)
Following seven successful years at Liverpool, German player Didi Hamann joined Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer. He has a change of heart and within 24 hours, bizarrely he became a Manchester City player. “I am the only manager to get £400,000 for a player who never kicked a ball for the club,” Bolton’s then-boss Sam Allardyce said back in 2006. “Didi Hamann is a history breaker. This is the best transfer deal I have ever done in my life.”
David Unsworth (Aston Villa)
One-cap-wonder David Unsworth left Everton for Aston Villa in the summer of 1998 for £3 million. He moved back to Merseyside just a few weeks later before the season began for exactly the same fee. The reason? The defender didn’t like the commute from the Midlands back to Liverpool as his wife flat out refused to move. “It’s quite clear that it’s David’s missus who wears the trousers in their house,” said Aston Villa manager John Gregory. “In my time as a player it used to be a case of ‘pack the china, love, I’m going to a new club somewhere else in the country’. But all that seems to have gone out of the window.”
Martin Demichelis (Atlético Madrid)
One that went under the radar was recently-retired Argentine defender Martin Demichelis’ tenure at Atléti. He moved to the Spanish capital in July 2013, but simply didn’t fancy it and opted to join former Malaga boss Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City for a reported £4.2 million salary. He was on the Spanish side’s books for a mere two months and didn’t turn out for them even once.
Dani Osvaldo (Boca Juniors)
The Argentine-born Italian international has been something of a journeyman throughout his career, despite his obvious talent. He has previously been on loan with South American giants Boca Juniors in 2015 where he quickly became a fan favourite. He has short stints for a number of clubs, but when he returned to Buenos Aires in 2016, his enthusiasm for the game soured upon arrival and he was sacked by coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto for smoking in Boca’s dressing room. He’d only been at club mere weeks. He retired at the age of 30 to focus on playing in a blues-rock band.
You’ve got to hand it to Lucas Fonseca. The Brazilian player has some incredible agility. On Sunday when Bahia faced Flamengo, Fonseca over-reacted in spectacular fashion to Flamengo striker Paolo Guerrero semi-air punch following a high challenge from the Bahia man.
Fonseca managed to be knocked to the ground Street Fighter-style despite the fact that Guerrero’s hand was a good three feet away. Watch the magic below.
The best dive of the year by some considerable distance.
Global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is alleged to be “outraged” at what he feels is unfair treatment by Spanish tax authorities and is now determined to quit Real Madrid and the country. Naturally this puts football’s elite clubs on high alert for one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
The 32-year-old Portuguese star is accused of defrauding the Spanish authorities of a staggering €14.7 million – compared to the €4.1 million that his rival Leo Messi was found guilty of and was subsequently given a sentence of 16 months (which is Spain means you don’t go into jail as it’s under two years).
Ronaldo has made no secret of his admiration for Manchester United – the club he left for the Bernebeu in 2009 – and the club would have the financial muscle that could land his signature (PSG being another obvious possible suitors). He has a €1 billion release clause in his current contract.
Would it be the end of the world if Madrid lost Cristiano? Well, no doubt the impact he has on any game for Madrid is more than noticeable. But, like Lionel Messi, his stock is going to fall sometime. Madrid may well get another five years of elite football out of him. It’s hard to know. But I wouldn’t count on him to be winning Ballon d’Ors at 37. Los Merengues could cash in – and cash in big – for him now.
Following these allegations, the four-time Ballon d’Or winner posted a picture of himself with his fingers to his lips on Instagram with the caption: “Sometimes the best answer it’s to be quiet.”
It is with great sadness that the blog learned of the passing of former Newcastle United player Cheick Tioté. The Ivorian collapsed while training with new club Beijing Enterprises and died a short time later.
Tioté spent seven season in the North-east of England where he was a fan favourite – especially after the screamer and his only goal for the Magpies that he scored in the 4-4 draw with Arsenal in 2011.
As players’ contracts are winding down at the end of this month, many will be moving on. But let’s have a look at the best eleven that will be available on a free transfer at the end of the month.
Iker Casillas. (GK)
The Spanish World Cup winning captain has been linked with a move to Liverpool, and would possibly be a starter ahead of Mignolet. What’s that saying…class is permanent?
Bacary Sagna. (RB)
He may be 34, but Sagna has always been a solid right-back for all the clubs he’s turned out for. Still Premier League quality, he would be a wonderful addition for any club.
Gonzalo Rodriguez (CB)
The Fiorentina captain will be coming to the end of his contract this month after five years with the Serie A side. One of the newly promoted sides of the Premier League for next season should really consider acquiring the services of the Argentine international.
I was going to include John Terry for this position, but the fiesty Portugese centre back has been a more consisent player in recent years. His final days at Real Madrid are upon us and, like his one-time team mate Casillas, he would fit into just about any team.
Gael Clichy (LB)
Another player the press has linked with a move to Liverpool, this French left-back who at 31 would still be considered a top acquisition by most teams at the highest level.
Jesus Navas (RM)
Predicted to return to his native Spain, the talented winger has long been wanted by managers over the years. Still only 31, with the right club, this is his last chance to impress to regain his place in the Spanish national team before his career begins slowing down.
Lucas Leiva (CM)
The Brazilian has been at Anfield for a decade and will leave this summer with Besiktas ready to take him on board. Not all players succeed in Turkey, but I’m sure Lucas will be surveying his options. There will be a lot of teams interested, no question.
Miguel Veloso (CM)
The 31-year-old has been a full international with Portugal for 10 years now, appearing at two World Cups and as many European Championships. Soon to be out of contract with Genoa, the midfielder should gather some interest with lots of clubs.
Valentin Eysseric (LM)
This 25-year-old is coming to the end of his contract at Nice and with plenty of clubs – especially in his native France – keeping an eye on him. A talented midfielder, the right move could be easily benefit both club and player.
Mario Balotelli (FW)
His excellent season with Nice last year will see Super Mario a wanted man once more. Heavily linked with a move to Napoli, no doubt his agent Mino Raiola will ensure the most lucrative offer possible. A great if sometimes difficult striker, he’s worth a punt.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (FW)
If Mourinho wants the Swede to stay at Old Trafford, he more than likely will get him to stay. But anything is possible. Ibra will only want to play at an elite level and make no mistake – elite clubs will be keeping tabs on him.
Nilmar, Rachid Ghezzal, John Terry, Seydou Keita, Marouane Chamakh.
Spanish giants Real Madrid have made headlines this week for forking out a staggering €46 million for 16-year-old promising player Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian has just one senior appearance for Flamengo, making his professional debut a mere 11 days ago.
“The player will remain at his current club until July 2019,” the La Liga champions said in a statement. “Although he will be able to play for Real Madrid before then if both clubs agree to it.”
Meu sonho, dos familiares e amigos EU CONSEGUI REALIZAR!! Desde de 10 anos no meu clube de coração, hoje fiz a minha estreia, com 16 anos. pic.twitter.com/47hENiOrKs
It raises eyebrows, I must say. It seems clubs like Real Madrid are keen to find the next teenage superstar or a phenomenon like Leo Messi, and they are willing to part with massive sums of money on promising players.
That said, it could go either way. He could go on to be a giant of the game, or he could go on to be a flop. But there will be considerable pressure on Vinicius. Vasts amount of money on a 16-year-old kid won’t go unnoticed by the fans, media and even team-mates. And when the time comes, and he pulls on the Madrid jersey, he will be expected to deliver the goods.
Other Brazilian players arrived in Europe amid huge hype and ultimately failed to live up to expectation. Alexandre Pato and Robinho are just two players in recent years who, after moving to Europe, were under pressure to deliver constant performances that a Balon d’Or winning player would. Ultimately neither came close.
But football is a funny game. Anything can happen and this kid could be a superstar.