Leicester part company with Ranieri.

Nine months after lifting the Premier League trophy in what was a fairytale season, a season that would inspire underdogs across all sports at all levels, Leicester have sacked manager Claudio Ranieri.

“This has been the most difficult decision we have had to make in nearly seven years since King Power took ownership of Leicester City,” a statement read. “But we are duty-bound to put the Club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be.”

Something has without a doubt changed since their triumphant season. But what? Unprecedented pressure to recapture the magic like the previous season? Players lost their hunger? The absence of N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea? Who knows. But the only person who felt the bullet was ultimately Ranieri.

He was sacked at an interesting time. It was only six weeks since Ranieri was named as Fifa’s coach of the year. But Leicester’s decline which currently sees them only one place above the relegation zone. It is interesting to note that in his last game, the 2-1 loss to Porto in the Champions League, Foxes fans were chanting the Italian’s name at the full time whistle. It is incredibly sad that Leicester owners did not afford Ranieri the time to fight for the club’s safety.

Football is a results business, yes. But it is also a ruthless business at times. Modern football can be extremely ruthless and owners and chairmen are only interested in what the manager is doing now, regardless of his accomplishments in the past. I believe that we will never, ever see another manager in top flight football with the longevity of the likes of Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson.

 

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What’s happening with Barça lately?

The 4-0 massacre by Paris St. Germain on Valentine’s Day was not only a serious blow to Barcelona’s chances of progressing to the Champions League’s next round, it was also a serious blow to their reputation and the person who will feel it most ultimately will be Luis Enrique.

Aside from the result, the style of football was damaging in itself. Lacklustre performances across the field from Messi & co. that night in Paris caused local football newspaper Sport to declare on it’s front page “This is not Barça”.

Some would argue that the Catalans felt a similar dent before (against Bayern Munich when they lost 3-0 and 4-0 home and away respectively), but it cannot disguise the fact that there are a number of flaws from the boardroom upstairs to the coaches and players.

Further questions were asked today following Barça’s lucky escape after narrowly beating CD Leganés at home. Leganés, who are currently sitting in 17th in their debut season in La Liga, were playing in Spain’s third tier three years ago, and their home ground holds approximately the same amount of tourists that turn up for a match in the Camp Nou each week. There was a time when scraping three points off them was unthinkable.

During the Guardiola era, Barcelona were almost untouchable. They would run through teams by a considerable scoreline, but they often recruited great players and used them intelligently. Plus Barça’s world-famous La Masia academy was used during that era to phenomenal effect, kick starting the careers of players such as Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Bojan and Sergi Roberto.

Barça aren’t quite at those levels right now. Ex-players are criticizing the board members, players are being played out of position at times (Sergi Roberto has been deployed as a right-back – a position they never filled after Dani Alves left for Juventus), new signing are being used incorrectly or simply not much at all. Their style of football and some of the decisions Luis Enrique has been making has been questionable – by their own standards of course. And make no mistake, Barça have enormously high standards.

Barcelona usually turn to Messi in times of crisis on the field and, to his credit, does more-often-than-not deliver. But not even the great Argentine (in the final year of his contract, a new deal still unsigned) can save them everytime.

Luis Enrique needs to turn things around to keep the ship afloat. She’s heading towards rocky waters.

 

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Five players in South America to watch out for.

There are a number of players plying their trade south of Donald Trump’s United States that have been catching the eye of many European scouts in, fans and this writer. Let’s have a look at some of the best players in Latin America today.

Marcos Acuña (Racing Club)
Acuña may not be too well known with fans outside of Argentina, but the 25-year-old’s style of play and recent form makes him a hot prospect for many clubs. Having been compared to compatriot Angel di Maria, Acuña made his debut for Argentina recently against Colombia. Keep an eye on this guy. He won’t be at Racing forever.

Javier Aquino (Tigres)
This 26-year-old did have a short spell in Europe with Villareal and Rayo Vallecano – albeit luckless. The pacy winger’s performances for Mexican side Tigres (where he plays alongside French striker Andre-Pierre Gignac) has been making scouts have a second look. He was at one point mentioned with Dutch giants Ajax. Keep an eye on this one.

Zeca (Santos)
Players like Neymar and Pele are often associated with Brazilian side Santos. Something tells me that 22-year-old Zeca could be another. Held in high regard in his native Brazil, Zeca is a brilliant left-back. And with an Olympic gold medal now in his trophy cabinet alongside his domestic honours with Santos, he is surely one player destined to go right to the very top.

Rodrigo Bentancur (Boca Juniors)
The Uruguyan midfielder has long been regarded by the blue and yellow side of Buenos Aires as a phenomenon. The added blessing of course being Boca legend Juan Roman Riquelme hailing the 19-year-old as his personal favourite from the team. Real Madrid were rumoured to be close to signing him at one point, but Juventus now look likely to get the Uruguayan playmaker’s signature.

Romel Quiñónez (Bolivar)
It is my personal opinion that only for the fact that the Bolivian Liga gets little or no airtime in Europe, Quiñónez would already be playing on this continent. Only 24, Quiñónez is in his seventh season with Bolivia’s most succesful club Bolivar. At the last Copa America, he introduced himself to the world by providing numerous incredible saves and was a stand out player for a limited Bolivia side by some considerable distance. If one of Latin America’s biggest teams don’t sign him, a European club will.

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Fan protesting works as Rayo force out player following ideology controversy.

Rayo Vallecano made headlines this week by signing Ukrainian Roman Zozulya from Real Betis. Signing a player on loan is not usually newsworthy, but Rayo’s fans are notoriously left-wing and were outraged with the signing of the former Dnipro striker due to his ties with the far-right in his native Ukraine.

His arrival at parent club Betis also caused a stir as Zozulya has made no secret of his support for his national army and has been photographed several times in paramilitary clothing. He denied any links to far-right ideologies in an open letter to Rayo’s fans, but their supporters’ group ADRV claimed that the club’s decision to sign Zozulya was “ridiculous” and an “affront to our history and values.”

ADRV had staged various protests against the signing of the Ukrainian international before, during and after his first training session with the club. Fans brandished banners alluding to the player’s alleged neo-Nazi ideology and confronted him and his agent at the club’s offices.

And with that, fan power has won the day.

Real Betis sporting director Miguel Torrecilla has confirmed that Zozulya has returned to the club following the backlash.

“He will come back to Seville for now,” Torrecilla said following the collapse of the loan deal. “We were informed that he was having problems with radical groups. We have spoken to Rayo and we agreed that for the benefit of our player, who is an asset, he should return to Seville.”

 

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The Great Haul to China

So by now you are probably aware of many players jumping ship and heading off to China. The reason, as you can guess, is obviously for financial rather than sporting reasons.

This has me torn.

On one hand, I question the ambition of players in their prime like 25-year-old Brazilian international Oscar, who left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG for a reported fee of €70 million, where he will earn almost €24 million annually.

Does he really want to win the Chinese Super League? A league that has only been in existence since 2004. I doubt it was his dream growing up in the streets of Americana in Sao Paulo. But for €24 million each year, he can play like it was.

That’s where I am torn. I would do the exact same. Any sane person would I guess. Football is a short career and you are much longer retired than you are playing (unless your name is Francesco Totti). And the only real loyalty in football is fan loyalty. There are exceptions of course – such as true one-club-men for example (see Francesco Totti).

In the last couple of years, a plethora of talent has flocked to the far east. Players such as Robinho, Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka have all been and gone. But even more recently, the massive sums of money are luring even more prominent players and managers.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, Andre Villas Boas, Gus Poyet, Felix Magath, Manuel Pellegrini and Fabio Cannavaro are among the name who made China their home. And probably not for the scenery.

But it’s the players who are earning ridiculous money. Aside from Oscar, here’s a list of the annual salaries of some of the league’s most prominent players:

  • Hulk, 30, (Brazil) Shanghai SIPG. €20 million.
  • Ezequiel Lavezzi, 30, (Argentina) Hebei China Fortune. €20 million.
  • Graziano Pelle, 31, (Italy) Shandong Luneng. €16 million.
  • Ramires, 28, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €14 million.
  • Jackson Martinez, 29, (Colombia) Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. €13.4 million.
  • Alex Teixeira, 26, (Brazil) Jiangsu Suning. €11 million.
  • Gervinho (Ivory Coast), 29 Hebei China Fortune. €9.27 million.
  • Fredy Guarin, 29, (Colombia) Shanghai Shenhua. €7.65 million.
  • Demba Ba, 30, (Senegal) Shanghai Shenhua. €6.4 million.
  • Paulinho, 27, (Brazil) Guangzhou Evergrande. €6 million.

But the biggest earner will be Carlos Tevez, who turns 33 next week, will be earning a reported €38 million annually with Shanghai Shenua. An obscene amount. What would they have to pay to get Messi or Ronaldo to play in China?

While Super League clubs are restricted to four foreign players per team, and only four can be on the field at one time, including one from a different Asian Football Confederation (AFC) country. That said, the massive wave of talent to China shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

 

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Graham Taylor R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of former England manager Graham Taylor, following a suspected heart attack. He was 72.

“With the greatest sadness, we have to announce that Graham passed away at his home early this morning of a suspected heart attack,” read a family statement. “The family are devastated by this sudden and totally unexpected loss.”

Taylor’s playing career took him to Grimsby Town and Lincoln City, managed England during a difficult time as they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. He also had two spells in charge at Aston Villa, Watford as well as Wolves (where he signed a 14-year-old Dubliner called Robbie Keane).

Elton John, Paul McGrath and various clubs and sportsmen led the tributes to Taylor, a true footballing man.

 

January transfer window opens: let the action begin!

On Sunday morning, as party revellers were celebrating the new year, many agents were preparing to get busy as the January transfer window opens. Love it or loathe it, the system has actually been used in many European leagues before being made compulsory by FIFA during the 2002–03 season. For the past fourteen years, it has been a source of great entertainment with some memorable and forgettable buys.

This transfer window is already full of rumours. There has already been reports of Liverpool being linked with Arsenal’s Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk. Benfica owe Swedish minnows Vasteras €250,000 from purchasing Victor Lindelof back in 2012 but the Lisbon could be cashing in to the tune of more than 200 times that figure next month as Manchester United are eyeing up the Swede.

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James Rodriguez was one of the stars of the 2014 World Cup. His tenure at Real Madrid has been somewhat inconsistent because of a combination of injuries and lack of form. That said, the 25-year-old is still a huge player. Inter Milan have had their eyes firmly on the Colombian international. As has Antonio Conte who is reportedly keen on bringing James to Stamford Bridge.

Because of the increasing strength of Barcelona over the past 10 years, the club always seem to buy decent players who will rarely get a look in (see Ibrahim Affelay,  Martín Cáceres, Alex Hleb, Alex Song). Right-back Aleix Vidal has become one such player, with currently-in-crisis Swansea looking to see if they can snap up the Spaniard.

There’s countless other players linked with countless other clubs. On 1st February, just stay peeled to drama in the Sky Sports News studio.

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Football around the world mourns with Chapecoense.

When the news broke on Tuesday morning of the plane crash that carried the Brazilian side Chapecoense to Colombia to play what was arguably their biggest game in their history – the final of the Copa Sudamericana (the South American equivalent of the Europa League) – I, like everyone else, was in utter shock.

The Santa Catarina-based side were enjoying their biggest season in their history. In 2009, they were playing in Serie D, before being promoted to Serie C, where they played for three years. They were promoted to Serie B in 2012 and, after only one season, the club who only formed in 1973 as a result of a merger of two amateur clubs, were playing in Brazil’s top tier of football.

But this season was arguably the club’s biggest. They drew inspiration and similarities from the current Premier League champions.

“Our team really reminds me of Leicester, a team from an unfancied city that was able to win an important title,” the late manager Caio Júnior said after a league win over giants Fluminense. “I want to make a mark this season with this club, this group of players.”

Indeed it was on the continental scale where Chape really made headlines. In the Copa Sudamericana, they surpassed even their own fans’ expectations and made it to the final, beating teams like Argentine giants Independiente and San Lorenzo on the way.

But then unimaginable tragedy struck.

Seventy one people died on that flight as it approached Medellin, including 21 journalists and almost the entire first team and managerial staff. The surviving players were defenders Alan Ruschel and Neto. Goalkeeper Jakson Follmann also survived but had to have one of his legs amputated, according to reports.  Goalkeeper Danilo initially survived the crash, but later died in hospital from his injuries.

It’s an enormous loss. But I’m sure friends, families and supporters can take some comfort with the support the club has been receiving from the footballing community around the globe.

Força Chapecoense!

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Things turn ugly for Swedish hero Larsson.

Henrik Larsson is regarded by many in his native Sweden as a footballing hero. And rightly so. But the former Celtic striker was at the centre of some unsavoury scenes at the end of Helsingborgs’ 2-1 defeat to Halmstad last week.

Helsingborgs’ defeat meant that the club would be relegated for the first time in 23 years. Naturally this was catastrophic for fans of The Reds. But it turned ugly after the final whistle when supporters ran on to the pitch, most of whom had their faces covered by scarves and balaclavas, attempted to pull the jersey off Larsson’s son and HIF striker Jordan Larsson.

The 45-year-old Helsingborg manager then proceeded towards the supporters, appearing to be ready to defend himself if things turned a bit violent, which looked like something of an inevitability.

“I didn’t see that they attacked Jordan but if I had, I would have gone in there towards him,” the former Barcelona and Swedish international said afterwards. “I was not going to run from there. If they turn on me, they turn on me.”

Larsson left his position as manager a few days ago. His son is still with the club, but it rumoured to be moving to another Allsvenskan club.

 

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Is this the worst miss in the history of football?

I’ve seen some bad misses in my time. But, ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to watch is quite possibly the worst miss in the history of the beautiful game.

The culprit was Djuricic, a striker for Serbian side Lokomotiva who somehow managed to miss an open goal against Turbina in Belgrade, when he was mere inches from the goal line.

Wow.

 

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Three points difficult, but definitely doable for Boys In Green.

It’s been quite the extraordinary week. With the news of new President-elect of the United States, the loss of the beloved Leonard Cohen, as well as the historic UFC event taking place in New York this weekend dominating the sports headlines, it’s easy to forget that the Boys In Green face Austria is a huge World Cup qualifying match tomorrow.

What should never be forgotten is the inclusion of Dundalk’s Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan. The duo have impressed Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane – and rightly so. Dundalk have been performing fearlessly both domestically and, impressively, on the European stage.

Defender John O’Shea and midfielder James McClean had been doubts for the tie in Vienna because of hamstring and back injuries respectively, however both were able to depart with the squad this morning. Only one player, Leeds midfielder Eunan O’Kane, has been forced to return to his club with a groin injury.

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Something that bothered me last week was the reports Eamon Dunphy gave that Ireland, if we play well, can earn a point at the Ernst Happel Stadion tomorrow. Content with a draw, it’s a wonder why Dunphy never went into football management. It reminds me of the time former Ireland goalkeeper coach Alan Kelly said that “two points out of six” wouldn’t be too bad for two similar qualifying games for Euro 2012. He was relieved of those duties in 2013.

A point would be the bare minimum we should leave Vienna with. Also despite our lack of attacking available tomorrow, and Austria’s world-class players like, most notably, David Alaba, the boys in green have absolutely nothing to fear. Determination and heart has always been Ireland’s strong point. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable.

The squad is:

Goalkeepers: Darren Randolph (West Ham United), Keiren Westwood (Sheffield Wednesday), Colin Doyle (Bradford City)

Defenders: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Richard Keogh, Alex Pearce (Derby County), John O’Shea (Sunderland), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Paul McShane (Reading), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), Andy Boyle (Dundalk)

Midfielders: Aiden McGeady (Preston North End), James McClean (West Bromwich Albion), Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Glenn Whelan (Stoke City), Harry Arter (Bournemouth), David Meyler (Hull City), Stephen Gleeson (Birmingham City), Robbie Brady, Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), Jonathan Hayes (Aberdeen), Daryl Horgan (Dundalk)

Forwards: Jonathan Walters (Stoke City), Adam Rooney (Aberdeen), Kevin Doyle (Colorado Rapids), David McGoldrick (Ipswich Town)

 

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Five of the best under-21s in the world today.

As Francesco Totti recently celebrated his 40th birthday and 24th year in Roma’s senior side, it got me thinking how there are some supremely gifted up-and-coming players that are half his age – or in some cases, even younger.

Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
A sublime midfielder, the 19-year-old Belgian is already into his fourth season with the Brussels side. Having made his debut in summer 2013, Tielemans became the youngest ever Belgian to play in the Champions League in October 2013. All the big clubs around Europe have been keeping an eye on him – he definitely won’t be at Anderlecht forever.

 

Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan)
When Diego Maradona famously said that he watched his “successor in Argentine football” in Leo Messi, I do wonder if Gigi Buffon thought the same of Donnarumma. The 17-year-old is a phenomenon to put it frankly. His athleticism for his 6 foot 5 frame is phenomenal, and he possesses the agility and footwork of any world-class ‘keeper today. He will become the world’s best between the posts, mark my words.

 

Carles Aleña (FC Barcelona)
Many Catalan-based journalists have for some time praised Sergi Samper as the heir to Xavi’s throne in the centre of the pitch. An intelligent holding midfielder with a eye for glorious key passes. The truth is, the most complete young player Barcelona have in that position for the next generation is 18-year-old Carles Aleña. Irish fans had a glimpse of the midfielder as he made his debut against Celtic here at the Aviva Stadium. He will without question be a big player for the Blaugrana.

 

Viktor Kovalenko (Shakhtar Donetsk)
The 20-year-old has with ease filled the void left by China-bound Alex Teixeira at the beginning of 2016, and has wowed crowds at most grounds he plays in. Widely regarded as one of the top young promising players, fans, critics and former pros rate the Ukrainian to go as far as Shevchenko did and even better it. A top player who will play for a huge club no doubt about it.

 

Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich)
The French winger is, of all the people on this list, possibly the most complete and uniquely gifted players. Currently with Bayern on loan from Juventus, 20-year-old possesses all the attributes and more to become one of the world’s best. His pace, skills, touch, and vision, combined with his diversity to play on either wing or, if needed, as a centre forward. A phenomenon with a massive future.

 

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Carlos Alberto R.I.P.

The blog is very saddened to learn of the passing of Brazilian legend Carlos Alberto. The 72-year-old died today after suffering a heart attack in Rio de Janiero.

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Alberto was captain of the Brazil side in the 1970 World Cup and led them to victory. He scored the forth goal in the final in the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. The goal is often considered one of the greatest goals in the history of the tournament.

He enjoyed a twenty year playing career. In Brazil, he had two spells for Fluminense, but it was at Santos where the defender made his name as a world-class player. He spent a number of years playing in the United States playing most notably for the New York Cosmos.

He will be remembered as an incredibly gifted right back, and a leader of arguably one of the greatest teams of all time.

 

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New UEFA president open to move Champions League final stateside.

“What I know is that I’m a team player, a man of conviction, a passionate man and a man of his word. I am not a showman and I’m not a man of unrealistic promises.”

The words of the new president of UEFA Aleksander Čeferin. Indeed the Slovenian Football Association chief’s rise from relative obscurity to landing the most powerful role in European football in six months is a great story in itself.

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When the 49-year-old faced the world’s media following his 42-13 triumph over the far more experienced Dutch FA president, Michael van Praag, both he and the media knew the work he had ahead of him and the changes he would need to make.

At the time of his appointment, Čeferin vowed his first priority will be to review the controversial recent deal to give more Champions League revenue to the continent’s bigger clubs.

Today the new UEFA president has said that he would be open to having the Champions League final played outside of Europe.

“I think it might be an idea in future but we have to speak about it,” the Slovenian said. “To go from Portugal to Azerbaijan for example is almost the same or the same as if you go to New York. For the fans it’s no problem but we should see. It’s a European competition so let’s think about it.”

Personally I think the idea of that is as ridiculous as staging an All-Ireland final in Düsseldorf.

But Čeferin did also today say he was preparing the first open bidding process for the right to host the Champions League final. Up to now there is no public process for UEFA to award the the finals to football associations or cities. It all seems to be done in secret. Dodgy? Probably. For Wembley to be awarded it twice in three years under Platini’s tenure is something worth mentioning.

“The bidding process should be very clear because if you get the Champions League finals or Europa league finals as a political favour then it’s not OK,” he said. “With a clear bidding procedure I will protect also the administration and myself because whoever tries to call us, to push us, to ask us for such a favour we will have a clear answer, ‘Sorry there are clear rules we cannot do it.’”

I long for a Champions League final at the Aviva Stadium someday. Definitely not in Yankee Stadium.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)