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Five players to keep an eye on during Euro 2016.

Not long to go now until kick-off for the first game for Euro 2016. This competition, much like the World Cup, are where stars are born. If a promising player has a good tournament, then all the big clubs are keen to sign him.

However, this tournament will, as I’m sure you well know, be contested by 24 teams, having been expanded from the 16-team format. There will be a plethora of talent on display throughout. But here’s my list of some fine stars and hot prospects to firmly keep an eye on.

Mateo Kovačić (Croatia)

I’ve previously featured Kovačić in my One To Watch section a little over three years ago just as he signed to Inter Milan. He excelled at the Milanese club, and was signed by giants Real Madrid last August. With the talent at Zidane’s disposal, chances have been limited, but performances have been great. Kovačić is set to shine alongside Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric for Croatia.

Julian Draxler (Germany)

The 22-year-old midfielder has got some serious competition to make it into the German starting XI. They are, after all, world champions (not that that fact would phase Shane Long…). But Draxler has the sheer talent, speed and determination to be exactly what Joachim Löw needs. This is a player you should definitely keep an eye on, whether he’s in a Germany or a Wolfsburg shirt.

julian-draxler

Grzegorz Krychowiak (Poland)

Ireland fans may remember Krychowiak. He scored the first Polish goal against the Boys in Green in Warsaw last October. In truth, the Sevilla midfielder is actually a very clever player in an improving Polish team. The 26-year-old has been linked with a number of clubs, including Arsenal. A good tournament here and many more heads, other than Arsene Wenger, will definitely be turning.

Koke (Spain)

If you have been watching La Liga, you will be more than familar with this 24-year-old. Atlético Madrid’s Koke is absolutely brilliant. I believe that the current Spanish side’s midfield, which usually contains the likes of Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas and David Silva, can only be complimented by his presence. Spain are one of the favourites to go far – keep your eye on him in this.

Antoine Griezmann (France)

Koke’s Atletico Madrid team-mate, Antoine Griezmann is, on a good day, pretty unstoppable. His hunger to win and his form (he scored 32 goals across all competitions for Atléti this season) would mean that the 25-year-old just may well get in Didier Deschamps’ starting XI ahead of the likes of Giroud, Gignac or Martial. With no Benzema around, it could well be his time to shine.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments, Mavericks

Ibra could be the gift that will keep giving for the English press

As we all know by know, Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic is on his way out of PSG. This week he was rumoured to be linked with Manchester United. He hasn’t announced where his next club will be, but the talk of him coming to the Premier League after Euro 2016 is carrying more and more weight,

The 34-year-old has won titles with every club he has been with. He has been a sheer success everywhere (though his one season with Barcelona is probably considered otherwise due to his spat with Pep Guardiola, despite winning five trophies during his time in Catalonia).

Clearly a phenomenal player, it’s his character that could make him every reporter’s dream. I’ll just leave this video here to illustrate my point.

Wherever Ibra goes, it won’t be a chilled atmosphere – on or off the pitch.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

The unlikely Kings of England

“I don’t think it’s a miracle,” said Real Madrid manager and France footballing legend Zinedine Zidane. “They had a fantastic season”. Indeed, Zizou may be on his own, because when a club like Leicester, who were famously 5,000/1 to win the Premier League, actually go ahead and do just that, many would believe that indeed a miracle of football has occurred.

Miracle is a word being used a lot. Claudio Ranieri used it himself to describe the Foxes following their  “great escape” last season, when former boss Nigel Pearson led the side to win seven of their last nine matches to fight their way from the bottom of the table up to 14th place. A year later, would he – or indeed anyone – have expected this?

Of course Zidane is right. They did have a fantastic season. Claudio Ranieri has done fantastic. No, actually he had done phenomenally. In fact, I’m not sure if there’s a word yet invented to describe just how well he has done.

Nine months after Gary Lineker famously tweeted  ‘Claudio Ranieri? Really?’ following the Italian’s appointment, there are now calls for a statue of the 64-year-old boss at the King Power Stadium. He’ll probably get one too. Think about that.

But it was the drama in how they won that was enjoyable for the neutral. But I think that most football fans wanted to see Leicester City become Premier League champions. No disrespect to Tottenham, they are a marvellous club with an exciting, young squad, but would it have had the same effect had they had won the league this season? Not even remotely.

It’s interesting to note some of Leicester’s statistics. The game is becoming more and more obsessed with stats. Top flight managers have bought players solely because of their stats. Yet, interestingly, the percentages show that Ranieri’s team are in the bottom three for possession (only one club, West Brom, have a lower pass completion rate). Their spirit and determination was utterly admirable. Statistics aside, the only one that matters is the league table. Ranieri got that spot on.

It’s probably one of the biggest shocks in not only footballing history, but sporting history. And it simply goes shows that, yes, in sport: anything can happen.

Other clubs must look at Claudio Ranieri and Leicester and think, “hang on a second, if they can do that, then why can’t we?”. And it’s great. You don’t need Russian billionaires or a royal family from the Middle East throwing buckets of cash at a club to bring in huge names. Leicester City are the proof.

And good luck to the Foxes in the future. I can’t wait to see them in the Champions League next season. As for Gary Lineker’s underpants?  Not so much!

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts

Burnley promoted while Leicester within touching distance of history

There were incredible scenes at Turf Moor this evening following Burnley’s 1-0 victory over QPR. Sean Dyche’s men came into the fixture with the knowledge that a victory would guarantee them a top two finish in the Championship.

Sam Vokes’ 61st minute goal was enough for the Clarets, which prompted jubilant scenes and an old school pitch invasion following the referees whistle. Images of Joey Barton being mobbed like a Beatle circa 1964, was a far cry from the comments from Burnley fans who were unsure, to say the least, of the Liverpudlian’s inclusion in the squad months ago. It just goes to show.

Meanwhile eyes will be firmly fixed on events at Stamford Bridge where Chelsea face Tottenham. Anything other than a victory against the Blues for Mauricio Pochettino’s men, and Leicester will be crowned Premier League champions – something they were famously 5000/1 to do at the start of the season.

Personally, I hope to see Leicester do it. I think everyone does. Except Spurs fans that is. Will history be made at the Bridge tonight? We’ll find out tonight.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footballers' mad moments

When Souey caused Turkish delight (and drama).

One of the most memorable moments from the Istanbul Derby (known locally as the Kıtalararası Derbi), happened twenty years ago this week.

In April ’96, Graeme Souness made headlines when he planted a massive Galatasaray flag into the centre circle of the pitch of fierce arch-rivals Fenerbahçe after his Galatasaray side had beaten them in the Turkish Cup final.

Needless to say, the Istanbul Derby is one of the most tense fixtures in world sport. The mustachioed Scotsman near caused a riot that night, yet his actions made him a hero among the Galatsaray faithful, who compared him to national hero Ulibati Hasan, who was killed as he planted the Ottoman flag during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

The Galatasaray fans haven’t forgotten him.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Football's greatest moments

Blitzkrieg Klopp

It was the stuff of dreams. For the neutral, it was utterly thrilling. For the Liverpool supporters, it was sheer ecstacy. Liverpool’s Europa Cup quarter final second-leg tie against Borussia Dortmund was one of those nights that had everything. It was like Istanbul of the Klopp era.

Initially 2-0 down after nine minutes, then it was 2-1. But when the great Marco Reus put Dortmund into a 3-1 lead on the night, which left Liverpool needing three goals to progress, there was a silence over Anfield, and the keyboard warriors of Twitter and Facebook descended into a verbal crusade against the Reds. It was a mountain to climb.

But somehow Klopp’s men pulled it back against his former side. A goal from Phillippe Coutinho on 66 minutes, followed by another from defender Mamadou Sakho twelve minutes later brought the two sides even on the night, before leaving it to the very last minute when defender Dejan Lovren won the game with towering header.

“We might have got a little bit lucky,” said Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp after the match. “But we never stopped trying”. And that, dear readers, is what makes football great. The Klopp effect is in full swing.

 

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Footballers' mad moments

Great players don’t always make great managers.

As full time rang out in the Volkswagen Arena, Zinedine Zidane walked into the tunnel knowing that he has to lead his Real Madrid side back from a two goal deficit against a Wolfsburg side that they were supposed to be favourites against.

Things haven’t been going to well for Zizou. Along with the Champions League loss, the derby defeat to Atléti is a big no-no for the former World Cup winner’s coaching CV for the Real Madrid faithful. While Zidane likely won’t be sacked immediately, a swift exit from the Champions League, and Florentino Perez may not stick with the Frenchman after the season’s end.

zidane1

But other high profile players have also had a go of management. Some have done enormously well at both sides of the beautiful game – think Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Fabio Capello, Diego Simeone or Giovanni Trapattoni. But some less so.

One of the greatest players of all time Diego Maradona. A genius on the ball, his managerial record hasn’t set the world on fire. The Argentine, with one-time team mate Carlos Fren, led Mandiyú of Corrientes (1994) and Racing Club (1995) in management, but with little success. Years later, el Diego became manager of the national team for two controversy-filled years, before deciding to take up the role of boss of Dubai-based club Al Wasl in the UAE Pro-League. He was sacked after a year.

DiegoMaradona

Bobby Charlton is one of the greatest Englishmen to ever play. They’ve recently named a stand after him at Old Trafford. When Charlton became the manager of Preston North End in 1973, he signed his former United and England team-mate Nobby Stiles as player-coach. His first season ended in relegation.

Arguably the greatest Bulgarian to ever kick a ball is the great Hristo Stoichkov. His management skills left a lot to be desired, having once claimed that he “doesn’t believe in tactics”. The former Barcelona star failed to guide Bulgaria to the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 followed by a disastrous short stint at Celta Vigo which saw the club relegated.

Let’s hope Zizou doesn’t end up in that kind of a bracket.

 

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Footballers' mad moments, Footy thoughts

Cantona, van Basten and other players whose career was cut short.

Dean Ashton scored a beaut of a bicycle kick Monday during his former team-mate Mark Noble’s testimonial match at Upton Park. It brought back memories. In his prime, Ashton had everything it took to succeed as a player at the highest level. Sadly in late-2009, the former Norwich striker was forced to retire after failing to recover from a long-term ankle injury sustained during international duty with England a year previous.

But he is not the only player who has cut a great career in football short.

Eric Cantona famously quit football at the age of 30. But not due to injury. Age 30 is when some players are at the peak of their powers and the Frenchman was certainly a prominent player in the English game. Some Premier League players will remember Espen Baardsen, the former Tottenham goalkeeper, who hung up his boots (and gloves) in 2003 at the age of 25 having claimed to have simply lost interest in the game.

cantonafrance

 

David Bentley was once described by former England manager Steve McClaren as “the next David Beckham”. The player had buckets of talent. He retired in 2014 at the age of 29 – and he had been without a club for year previous to that. But it could be worse – he now owns a restaurant in Marbella in Spain.

Many will remember Fabrice Muamba, who, at the age of 24, suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Spurs in 2012, from which he recovered despite his heart having stopped for an astonishing 78 minutes.

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And of course, and possibly the greatest player to not play a lengthy career is the great Marco van Basten. The Dutch superstar played his last game in 1993 at the age of 28 due to an injury that forced his retirement two years later. The three-time Ballon d’Or winner. managed to enjoy a decent career in the game as a manager, having been boss of the Netherlands, Ajax, Heerenveen and AZ. He’s currently the assistant manager for the Netherlands.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footy thoughts

RIP Johan Cruyff

Football had improved because of his existence. The sport and the world is worse off because of his departure. One of the very finest there ever was. Rest in peace.

 

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Entertainment & media

So you like football songs…?

I can only apologise for the shamelessness, but I am only about half sorry. Today I have released a record called “Bostero“, aimed at my Argentine audience – Boca Juniors fans to be precise.

No, it’s no World In Motion, nor is it ever going to be a Put ‘Em Under Pressure, but it is what it is. And before you say it, yes, I know it sounds a lot like The Clash. But that’s a good thing surely?

Listen to it (or if you feel compelled to purchase it), go here. Normal service for this blog resumes shortly.

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Footballers' mad moments

The eastern promise of Vladivostock

If you support Cork City and ever made an away trip to Finn Harps’ Finn Park in Ballybofey, that journey one-way is around five and a half hours by car and I’m sure it’s not much fun. But that is absolutely nothing when you compare to Russian side FC Luch-Energiya Vladivostock.

Being located in far eastern Russia, the city is not far from the borders of China and North Korea. This presents problems to the club where travelling to away games take a financial toll. A trip to Moscow, where many of the country’s teams are based, is a seven hour flight. In fact, a fixture against Baltika Kaliningrad, in a Russian enclave squeezed in between Lithuania and Poland, sees a round trip of over 9,000 miles. That would be like Bohemians having to travel to Dallas, Texas for a league match.

nDbwK

“It’s not as bad for other teams because they only need to travel this distance once a year,” said former-defender Matija Kristić in 2008. “We have to do it for all away matches”. But that still doesn’t satisfy CSKA Moscow and Russian international goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev who, following a 4-0 loss to the side, said said that “they should play in the Japanese League”.

With the club operating on an approximate €4 million budget per season, the club is operating on a shoestring budget when you take in salaries and, most crucially, the cost of flying the entire team, coaches and staff a whopping 125,000 miles per season.

Sadly, the air travel is necessary. The only other real option is by rail. And Moscow to Vladivostock on the world-famous Trans-Siberian Railway takes six days. Not exactly ideal.

here has been much controversy about whether the Russian league should be split into Western and Eastern leagues, much like in the MLS. This has yet to happen, and until then Luch-Energiya Vladivostock will have to keep on trekking. Literally.

 

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Uncategorized

International Champions Cup comes to Dublin

The 2016 edition of the International Champions Cup was announced today. This will be the tournament’s forth installment and is set to be played in the last week of July and first week of August. Heads have been turned though on these shores though, as Barcelona have been confirmed to take on Celtic at the Aviva Stadium on July 30th.

This is obviously of big interest with the vast numbers of Celtic fans in this country, as well as the colossal worldwide interest that Barcelona bring. All of the online publications screamed that Messi and Neymar are coming to Dublin this afternoon. I would be surprised if Barcelona’s full starting XI feature. I’d be surprised if even Messi, Neymar or Suarez will at all feature. I’d put money on that you’re more likely to see Rafinha, Munir and Sergi Roberto as opposed to MSN. I could be wrong, and hope I am for football fans’ sake in this country. I doubt it however.

Neymar-Barcelona-1

The fixture list in full:

Saturday, 23 July
Celtic v Leicester City, Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland

Sunday, 24 July
Paris Saint-Germain v Inter Milan, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon

Wednesday, 27 July
Real Madrid v Paris Saint-Germain, Ohio Stadium, Columbus, Ohio
Bayern Munich v AC Milan, Soldier Field,  Chicago, Illinois
Liverpool v Chelsea, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

Saturday, 30 July
Celtic v Barcelona, Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland
Chelsea v Real Madrid, TBA, USA venue
Bayern Munich v Inter Milan, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Liverpool v AC Milan, Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, California
Paris Saint-Germain v Leicester City, Los Angeles, California. TBA venue

Wednesday, 3 August
Barcelona v Leicester City, Friends Arena, Stockholm, Sweden
Bayern Munich v Real Madrid, MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey
Chelsea v AC Milan, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Saturday, 6 August
Liverpool v Barcelona, TBA European venue (reports suggest that it will be Aviva Stadium)

Saturday, 13 August
Celtic v Inter Milan, TBA European venue

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy thoughts

The Camp Nou is set to get even bigger

Barcelona announced on Tuesday that the club are set to expand their world famous stadium, the Camp Nou, to an 105,000 capacity deluxe stadium. A four year project, the upgrade is expected to be completed in time for the start of the 2021/22 season.

The stadium is without question long overdue something of a facelift. It’s bare concrete exterior which covers three quarters of the ground today is the same one that fans would see when it was built in 1957.

Of course, it’s not the first time that plans were made to upgrade the stadium –  world-renowned British architect Normal Foster was given the task of presenting the stadium with an entire new look as part of an upgrade in 2007. The plans were made by then-club President Joan Laporta, only to be scrapped by his successor (and rival) Sandro Rosell.

But the stadium, despite it’s uneven shape, has character. It’s instantly recognizable because of it’s shape, size and layout. There’s a lot of new stadia being built that seem a bit generic for my liking. Football grounds are supposed to be unique. From Goodison Park to La Bombonera, or from the Vélodrome to the San Siro, for me grounds are supposed to have character.

mosaic_camp_nou

For Barcelona, upgrading the stadium is probably essential. It is old. The club attracts around 10,000 tourists to each home game, and have been doing so for a few years now. Yet games, aside from crucial Champions League matches and el Clásico, are very rarely sold out. Increasing the numbers will unquestionably baffle some.

“Excited about the project that we’ve chosen for the Camp Nou of the future,” tweeted current club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. “Good news for Barça fans everywhere”. And yes, a change is exciting. I just fear that another great stadium will lose a bit of it’s character. I hope I’m wrong.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Footy thoughts

I love Barça, but the club is far from perfect.

I do love FC Barcelona. I have done for years. Since when current manager Luis Enrique was playing and captaining the squad. But there’s a few things at Barça that have been disappointing me as the years go on.

Back when I first started supporting Barcelona, it was a pre-Messi and even pre-Ronaldinho time, and the club had no sponsor on the shirt. That’s long gone. Barça actually started wearing the UNICEF logo on their jersey in 2006, in a deal which they actually paid the organisation money to do so. That was until Qatar Airways came in with €25 million per season and the only Catalans that rejoiced were in the board room at Camp Nou.

Speaking of the Camp Nou, it’s constantly rated as one of the stadium that one must visit before they die. And I agree. But it has never, ever lived up to the hype for me. I’ve seen El Clásico, Champions League games, and all kinds of strong and not-so-strong opposition take to the field and the atmosphere is pretty dead. There’s always empty seats, and the tickets are enormously overpriced.

mosaic_camp_nou

For example, the cheapest seat in the grandstand of the Camp Nou for Barça’s encounter against Sevilla this coming Sunday will set you back €121. That’s fairly ridiculous. But there are always tourists ready to spend. In fact, the club receive around 10,000 tourists to each match.

I once paid €20 to see Barça play Inter Milan there. How much would that ticket be worth now?

Més que un club is Barça’s famous motto, which translates to more than a club. But it should read more than a corporation. The club sold it’s soul long ago, even if things on the pitch are beautiful to watch.

 

 

Footballers' mad moments, Mavericks

The Messi/Suarez penalty wasn’t disrespectful…it was entertaining and fun.

You’ve probably heard that Leo Messi and Luis Suarez successfully performed something of an audacious penalty in Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Celta Vigo at the weekend.

If not, welcome back to planet Earth, and here it is:

What amazed me – and others – is how many people considered the penalty to be disrespectful to the opposition. This is 100% not a view that I share.

Barcelona were 3-1 up at the time of the penalty. It was audacious, yes. But it was glorious, entertaining and fun. Isn’t that what the beautiful game is supposed to be?

When a player nutmegs another player, that can be very humiliating for the opposing player. Yet nobody considers that to be disrespectful. But why this?

Eamon Dunphy had a strong opinion about it. “I thought it lacked class,” the 70-year-old said on 2FM. “You have to respect your opponents and you have to respect the history of the game. None of the great players of the past would have ever dreamt of doing anything like that.”

Of course, Eamon must have forgotten the great Johann Cruyff who scored an identical penalty with a little help from Jepser Olsen while playing for Ajax in December 1982. He also said in the same interview that Messi “was way out of order, he should apologise and if he doesn’t, he loses a little in my eyes.”

Eamon isn’t alone. People went bezerk on Twitter. Yet, I fail to see how it is disrespecting the opponents. I thought it was entertaining, cheeky, and most importantly, fun – much like a nutmeg. Besides, isn’t the object of the game is to score as many goals as possible in order to win?

But I haven’t heard a strong argument as to how it is disrespectful. What did you think?

 

Let Rob know your thoughts via Twitter (@robsmithireland)