Category Archives: Europe

Real Madrid sign an unproven 16-year-old Brazilian for €46 million.

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.”

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.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Is Isco set to swap Madrid for Barcelona?

Twenty-four-old attacking midfielder Isco could be set to join a very select list of players by transferring from his current team Real Madrid to bitter rivals Barcelona.

The last player from the Los Merengues to join the Catalan giants directly was coincidentally current Barcelona boss Luis Enrique, back in 1996. There have been more players leaving the Camp Nou for the Bernebeu directly over the years such as Michael Laudrup, Javier Saviola and famously Luis Figo.

But it would be to Real Madrid’s loss I feel. Isco has struggled to break into Zinedine Zidane’s starting eleven, with Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema the preferred attacking choices in the 4-3-3 system.

One of the most popular players with Madridistas, the Spanish international may find more minutes with rivals Barcelona. While he wouldn’t be a starter ahead of Neymar, Suarez or Messi, he would fit into the Blaugrana’s middle three. Ahead of Iniesta, Busquets or Rakitic? Hard to say. Though almost 33, time isn’t on the gifted Iniesta’s side.

Some of the Spanish media have noted that there are better options for Barcelona. Marco Verratti of PSG is a name that has come up more than once. But Barcelona seem keen having reportedly offered €20 million to run down his contract in the capital and move to the Catalan capital on a free transfer.

If so, keep an eye out for pig’s heads being sold around Bernebeu on his return as a Barcelona player.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

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.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

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.”

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

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)

Dundalk dare to dream. And dream big!

By now you are probably aware of Dundalk’s amazing 3-0 victory over BATE Borisov which progresses the League of Ireland side to the Champions League play-off stages. It is, and I know I’m not alone here, probably one of the most remarkable achievements by a domestic club side in history.

The victory guarantees Stephen Kenny’s side with group-stage European football. A remarkable achievement in itself. But the victory against BATE, who have beaten Roma, Athletic Bilbao, Lille and a little-known club in Bayern Munich in the Champions League since 2012, is wonderful. The Lilywhites want to go that one step further.

“We’re not content with the Europa League,” said midfielder Robbie Benson. “We want to make the Champions League.”

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Whoever Dundalk’s opponents are at the next phase may not be that clued up on them. And that could make Stephen Kenny’s men dangerous – as BATE Borisov, a mainstay in the Champions League in recent years – found out first hand.

Money and the League of Ireland have never gone together. When the FAI announced that they were going to invest in all League of Ireland clubs, eyebrows were raised. The amount? €5,000. I could write plenty of posts about that and the FAI’s CEO, but I’ll resist.

They are guaranteed a figure of around €5.6m and qualification for the group stages of the Europa League – more should they do the impossible and get into the Champions League group stages. Invested properly and they could be a force to reckon with at both the domestic and European scene.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Join our EURO 2016 Fantasy Football.

Every two years, we football fans are treating to a summer festival of the beautiful game. Euro 2016 kicks off in a week from now, so here’s an opportunity for you to spend that week by carefully choosing your best eleven for the forthcoming tournament.

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Here’s how you do it:

  • Go to UEFA.com and head for the fantasy football section here: http://eurofantasy.uefa.com/en
  • Register (takes less than a minute), then select fantasy 16. Pick your team and join our league using this code: 03092LBZ

And that’s it really. If you’re looking for ideas, I recently wrote about five players to definitely keep an eye on during the competition. But I’ve been wrong before.

Best of luck.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The Neville brothers take over at Valencia.

When Nuno Espirito Santo announced his resignation last Sunday night, reports said that assistant manager Phil Neville would take over as the club’s manager in an interim role. It wasn’t to be. Instead, and surprisingly, it was his brother Gary to take over in a permanent role.

It comes as a surprise to many. But not a major surprise to some. The Neville brothers are business partners of Valencia’s owner, Peter Lim, who also owns half of Salford City alongside the Class of ’92.

Singaporean Lim obviously more than impressed with Neville’s approach to football. The former Manchester United right-back was a fiery and passionate individual with strong leadership skills. His knowledge on the game made him arguably Sky Sports’ most prominent pundit.

It all seems to fit so perfectly. But it is a major gamble from both parties.

There are obviously doubts about a man taking over a massive club in his first job, with no experience and halfway through a season in a foreign country. It is said David Moyes’ lack of learning the local language cost him the results, which led to his dismissal at Real Sociedad. British managers don’t always do well abroad. Phil would be well aware of this. There will be serious questions asked if results don’t go well. The 40-year old former England international would be forgiven if he rang his former boss Alex Ferguson for advice. In fact, it’s probably advised.

Phil Neville is facing a huge challenge. In a league where only Barcelona and Real Madrid largely dominate, it will take some doing to do what Diego Simeone achieved and get his side, Atlético Madrid, ahead of them. But there’s far bigger challenges than that. On and off the pitch. Neville will hope to take a leaf out of the late Bobby Robson’s book, as opposed to David Moyes.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Five talking points from Saturday’s football action

Saturday witnessed some interesting football across Europe with some interesting results to boot. Here’s five talking points from the day’s action.

  1. Leicester City are top of the Premier League. Really. And all the talk is about about striker Jamie Vardy, who scored in his 10th consecutive match. “I also had Gabriel Batistuta at Fiorentina score in 11 consecutive matches,” said boss Claudio Ranieri. “I hope Jamie can achieve this”.
  2. Luis Suarez and Neymar are a lethal combination. Barcelona used to perform differently when Messi was missing. Not so much anymore. They proved that they have absolutely lethal players when the Argentine genius isn’t starting following the 0-4 win in el Clásico. Surely they will be unstoppable when Messi is back to full fitness
  3. Sixteen years old, 6’5 and starting for Milan. Hailed by the Italian press as Gianluigi Buffon’s successor in Italian football, Gianluigi Donnarumma seems to be cementing his place as AC Milan’s starting goalkeeper – at just 16 years old. Despite losing to Juventus 1-0 last night, the Milan faithful are confident that Donnarumma is indeed the future.
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  4. Is Jurgen Klopp doing what all Liverpool fans hoped for? Man City were expected to beat Liverpool at home. If Brendan Rodgers was still in charge, most pundits and fans would predict a City win. But the Northern Irishman isn’t in charge anymore. Jurgen Klopp is. And City were thrashed 1-4 by the Reds. Things are changing at Anfield under “the normal one
  5. Keep your eye on Wolfsburg. Bayern are already running away with the Bundesliga. They are unbeaten and eight points clear of second placed Dortmund. But keep your eye on Wolfsburg. They boast a serious plethora of young talent such as Draxler, Kruse, and Ricardo Rodriguez – one of the best left-backs in Europe in my opinion. Wolfsburg, I reckon, would be the team that can upset the presumption that Bayern will win yet another Bundesliga title.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

End of the line for David Moyes’ reign in Spain

The Chosen One. That is what Manchester United fans called David Moyes as he was unveiled as the Red Devils’ manager back in July 2013. Fast forward almost a year-and-a-half, and the Scot is on the verge of getting the bullet from his second club in such time, Real Sociedad.

It has been argued that Moyes wasn’t given enough time at United, having been sacked in April 2014. And it’s probably fair enough. His performance as United manager wasn’t anywhere near the high standards of his predecessor, Alex Ferguson. He lost 15 times in 51 games. Not terrible, but pressure from the fans and upstairs following back-to back losses at Old Trafford, poor performances and questionable selections isn’t going to cut it. He became manager of Sociedad in summer 2014.

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Since taking over, the former Everton boss has been in charge for the San Sebastian side for 38 games. During that time they have picked up 46 points, with 11 wins, 13 draws and 13 defeats. Last season they finished 12th in La Liga, 11 points above the relegation zone. Now following a 2-0 defeat at second-bottom Las Palmas, only goal difference seperates Sociedad from the bottom three.

What went wrong for Moyes? At Everton, he was hailed by all his peers and fans. At United, he had the impossible task, but didn’t disgrace himself. At Sociedad, his sacking is all but confirmed (at the time of writing), following poor, poor performances and poorer results.

Well, there was a language problem. Crucial if you want to get your message – indeed any message – across. When Pep Guardiola was unveiled as Bayern Munich manager, he impressed the assembled media with a strong command of German. Moyes has only ever said three words publicly in Spain in their language – “two, three, four“.

Moyes will be welcomed back into the Premier League. If he can find a team that will suit him that is. I’m not sure if he suited to managing a club with a different culture and a different language.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The future is bleak for the once-mighty Parma

The 1994-95 season Parma‘s team consisted of names like Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Dino Baggio, Luigi Apolloni, Fernando Couto and Faustino Asprilla to name but a few. Their style of football, under manager Nevio Scala was exciting that year – arguably their greatest season in their history having finished in the top three in Serie A, finalists in the Coppa Italia and winners of the UEFA Cup, beating Juventus in the final.

But sadly their 90’s heyday are nothing more than a distant memory. The club are very much struggling both on and off the pitch. Currently planted firmly bottom of Serie A with just 16 points, the club has also been declared bankrupt with debts of €218.4 million.

In February, the club postponed their game against Udinese because they could not afford to pay players’ wages. Fans marched to the Stadio Tardini with a banner that read “Chiusi per furto” – “Closed because of a robbery”.

Last Saturday Parma beat league leaders Juventus 1-0 at the Tardini. A result that will make no difference to both teams’ outcomes this season. But it was a result that mattered to the players and staff who showed up to work everyday despite not being paid one cent since last summer. And it proved to the 15,000 heartbroken fans in attendance that the club, who are currently standing on the brink of oblivion, refuse to go out quietly.

Unless a new owner comes in between now and June, and pays the club’s football-related debts (wages and taxes etc.) of €74 million, then Parma FC will officially fold.

As Jim Morrison once sang “the future’s uncertain, the end if very near”. The future is bleak, but Roberto Donadoni’s men aren’t going without a fight. And with that there is hope for the Gialloblu.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ibra’s tattoos and Bayern fans’ Premier League boos

By now you are probably aware of the Premier League‘s colossal €6.9 billion billion television deal, which is for three seasons and begins in 2016. That’s around €12 million for each televised game.

To put this into perspective, the Bundesliga‘s television deal is worth €2.5 billion over four seasons. But it was fans of Bayern Munich who, during the Bavarians’ 8-0 demolishing of Hamburg, took a swipe at England’s top tier by brandishing a banner that read  ‘This ain’t no Premier League – No to the English model’.

English fans commented back via social media that Bayern are so powerful that they have made the Bundesliga a one-club-league, and the competition between England’s top teams and Germany’s top teams is very different. A fair point.

I know men of an older generation who would say that money has simultaneously improved and ruined football. Which is, when you think about it, also a very fair point.

PSG face Chelsea in the Champions League tonight. The Parisians at the weekend faced Caen at the Parc des Princes where the game finished 2-2. But in the 2nd minute, Zlatan Ibrahimovic opened the scoring, and removed his shirt in celebration where he revealed numerous temporary tattoes bearing the names of 15 people suffering from hunger due to his association with the United Nations’ World Food Program.

“If I could, I would write every single name on my body,” Ibrahimovic said. “But there are 805 million people suffering from hunger in the world.”

One person who wasn’t impressed was PSG coach Laurent Blanc. The Frenchman had said he was aware with the Swede’s commitment to the foundation, but that his antics ultimately cost him a yellow card.

Robbie Keane is in town next weekend as his LA Galaxy side take on Shamrock Rovers in a much anticipated pre-season friendly at Tallaght Stadium. The Galaxy are gearing up for a big season in which they’ll be joined by Steven Gerrard from July onwards. The MLS and League of Ireland seasons both start March 6th.

Finally, if you like Boca Juniors and music that sounds like The Ramones, then this is for you. I apologise in advance.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Messi makes history…but for how long?

Last weekend at the Camp Nou,  78,283 spectators watched Lionel Messi mark his name in history books as his hat-trick ensured he surpassed Athletic Bilbao legend Telmo Zarra as the all-time highest scoring player in La Liga.

The Argentine genius, regarded by some as the best in the world and by others as one of the best of all time, has ten years of La Liga games under his belt and in those 289 games he has scored a ridiculously impressive 253 goals. A remarkable achievement.

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But we live in an age where we have two absolute giants in world football. His nemesis is none other than Cristiano Ronaldo who, unless you’ve been living on the moon for some time, plays for rivals Real Madrid and, like Messi, likes to score goals by the bucketload.

Ronaldo’s goals-to-games ratio is currently 197 in 176 games. That’s around 1.13 goals per game. That is insane! He is only 56 goals behind equalling Messi’s current amount. I say only because, while 56 goals is an enormous amount, it’s certainly doable for Ronaldo. I mean he has scored twenty goals in eleven games this season already.

Messi has a five year head-start on Ronaldo, but the Portugese international isn’t too far behind him. Of course, Messi could just keep scoring goals to keep him back in the ranking. That’s, of course, Messi continues to play in La Liga.

Reports in Spain suggest that the 27-year-old could do the unthinkable and leave Spain altogether. But not for sporting reasons but because the tax authorities continue to persue him. Messi was accused of hiding €4.1m earned from image rights in companies in Uruguay and Belize but, despite making a €5m settlement, the authorities continue to hound him.

The reports in Spain say that Messi has paid upwards of €52m in income tax and fines and “that should be that” but as the authorities have continued to keep a close eye on him, “who knows where it will end”. There are naturally suggestions that the situation is something of an anti-Catalan conspiracy, with the rival Real Madrid players not facing anywhere near the same level of scrutiny.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, shows no sign of stopping. Only the English press continue to link him with a return to former club Manchester United. A rumour that is always stopped in it’s tracks from the Spanish capital.

Messi is deserving of such a prestigious honour. He is, for me personally, the greatest player I have ever watched in the flesh. But Ronaldo is a machine that simply won’t slow down and you can bet that he has his eye on stealing Messi’s crown. And he just might.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Is Wenger still the right man for Arsenal?

While some would argue that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has got a “job for life” for what he has achieved for the Gunners since becoming their manager in 1996, there are a significant amount that have taken to social media in recent times to vent their frustration and declare that the Frenchman has done all he can with the North London club.

Perhaps fresh blood is what’s needed at the Emirates. Yes, he won the FA Cup and Community Shield recently. But before that, there was a drought which left many an Arsenal fan asking questions.

But can you simply sack a man like Arsene Wenger? Here’s a man who won Arsenal three Premier League titles and five FA Cups. His Arsenal team in the 2003/04 season went unbeaten in the entire league and became known as “The Invincibles”. Not many managers have a CV like the 65-year-old.

But last night’s 3-3 draw with Anderlecht, having been 3-0 up, left more fans question why he is still in charge? Are things at Arsenal that bad? Some would say no. He’s bringing in massive talent such as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Some would say, well, yes: Arsenal aren’t capable of competing for the league title anymore. And they probably should be given the talent they have at their disposal.

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But when the day comes when he does leave Arsenal, the Arsene Wenger-shaped-hole in the Emirates dugout will be more than noticeable. And it’ll take a big character to fill it.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Is the end is nearing for Liverpool’s Balotelli?

When Mario Balotelli joined Liverpool last August from AC Milan, I read one memorable line in a newspaper to describe the deal. It said “when Balotelli joins a club there is celebrations. But there is bigger celebrations when he leaves”. Think about that for a minute.

I was in Milan last month and some Rossoneri fans told me that they certainly won’t miss Mario around the San Siro, (they had recently signed forwards Jeremy Menez and Fernando Torres), but they still love him. It’s safe to say that Brendan Rodgers knew what he was getting himself into when he signed the Italian international. But did he really think it could go so poorly so quickly?

Balotelli is a brilliant footballer. I’m just going to say that because it is a fact. He’s incredibly agile, full of pace, he has incredible strength and his technical ability is phenomenal. But it’s very frustrating for managers, team-mates and fans because he doesn’t always use these attributes to the best of his ability. And, at best, he’s currently giving 50% in the Liverpool shirt.
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When’s he on form, he is brilliant. When he is not on form, he is somewhat thoughtless, unprofessional and immature. This is a player who José Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli all gave up on. Brendan Rodgers’ biggest achievement this season could be getting through to the Italian and turning him around. That’s if he doesn’t ship him out of Anfield in January.

The thing is for Balotelli is that if he doesn’t start scoring or performing well, it’s highly likely that he will be sent elsewhere. Previously when managers signed him, they knew he was trouble, but he gets goals and results. He’s not doing either for Liverpool. There may not be a great deal of interested parties willing to take the chance Brendan Rodgers too in August.

For Liverpool’s sake, he needs to drill it into Balotelli to use his brain and his feet. Otherwise it will mark the end of another turbulent chapter in the life of Mario Balotelli.

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Follow Rob Smith on Twitter @robsmithireland