Footballers' mad moments

Parlez vous football?

With the World Cup just days away in Brazil, many fans will be flocking to indulge in some Brazilian culture, beers and weather. As pointed out to many unfortunate England fans on Twitter this week, bringing a Spanish phrasebook won’t do them much good in a country where 190,000,000 people speak Portugese.  Fans can be excused as it’s merely a holiday, but what about players plying their trade overseas?

With the English Premier League, there has been plenty over the years such as Fernando Torres, Pablo Zabaleta, Cesc Fabregas, Mario Balotelli and countless others that learned English well, some to even fluency. But the likes of Carlos Tevez, who spent years in England with West Ham, Man United and Man City, never mastered more than a few sentences. Running away to Argentina mid-season probably didn’t help.

Speaking of Man City, Noel Gallagher claims that while Sergio Aguero is a top bloke, he never really says anything more than “it’s OK, no?”. It’s a far cry from Jan Molby – the former Liverpool player, born and bred in Denmark, now even speaks with a Scouse accent. That’s dedication!

Real Madrid Versus Alavez in a Spanish La Liga Match

Did many people British or Irish master the language overseas? David Beckham spoke a little Spanish during his time at Madrid, but clear enough to be understood. As did his former team mate Jonathan Woodgate. Having been sidelined with injury when he first arrived, the defender embraced the culture and language fully. What else would he be doing?

Aiden McGeady spoke mostly in English during his time at Spartak Moscow. But towards the end of his spell with the club, he gave many interviews speaking Russian. Liam Brady is another Irish player who spoke plenty of Italian during his time in Italy. I wonder how David Connolly or Frank Stapleton got on with Dutch?

It’s crucial for managers to learn the local language if they want to get their point across. New Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino speaks a little English, but always uses a translator in press conferences. Irish fans are well used to that sight with former gaffer Giovanni Trapattoni was famously never seen without his former interpreter, Manuela, by his side. (We just won’t mention the time an emotional Trap got his German slightly mixed up during one famous press conference in Munich).

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

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Five talents to watch out for in the World Cup (part 2)

Less than a fortnight to go! Are you excited? We certainly are anyway. Last week, as you probably remember, I previewed five promising young talents who will be showcasing their skills on football’s biggest stage. As promised, I got five more for you.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Leo Messi, Hulk, Falcao, Andres Iniesta, Mario Balotelli, Wayne Rooney and Mario Götze are just some of the name expected to make all the headlines. But, and as with any major tournament, there’s always some young lads whose skills make you sit up and take notice. Here’s part two of my five talents to watch out for in the World Cup:

  • Raphaël Varane (France)
    It surprised some that Patrice Evra is on his way to Brazil as part of Didier Deschamps’ final France squad. But the Manchester United star isn’t guaranteed any playing time. Certainly not ahead of the much-praised Raphaël Varane. The defender, who turned 21 last month and recently won the Champions League with Real Madrid, is frequently named as an extremely promising player. He is very often praised by José Mourinho, so I wouldn’t be surprised if The Special One puts in a bid for Varane to replace the outgoing David Luiz. Varane will be tested in the World Cup. I reckon he’ll be superb for Les Bleus.
  • James Rodríguez (Colombia)
    If there’s one young player that has the ability to blow our minds in the same way Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo do on a regular basis, it’s 22-year-old James Rodríguez. The Monaco midfielder made headlines last year when he moved to the French side from FC Porto for a fee of €45 million. A versatile playmaker with speed and creativity anywhere within midfield, you expect him to supply Falcao with goals – if he’s not banging in one or two himself.
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  • Son Heung-min (South Korea)
    Fans of the Bundesliga will know this guy – 21-year-old Son Heung-min has been putting on fantastic displays in Germany’s top flight for the past couple of seasons now. The Bayer Leverkusen forward is a sharp and crafty player with a considerable eye for goal. He often plays as a second striker, but can be put anywhere in an attacking position to full effect. Son could be difference to help South Korea squeeze out of their group.
  • Héctor Herrera (Mexico)
    They have a hard group, but Mexico have no shortage of talent with names such as Chicharito, Guardado, dos Santos and Ochoa all on display. But they do have a very talented and feisty box-to-box midfielder in Héctor Herrera. The 24-year-old Olympic gold medalist signed for FC Porto for €8 million in 2013, and just two years ago he was being heavily scouted by both Liverpool and Manchester United. Keep your eye on El Zorrilo – he could cause the mighty Brazil some problems.
  • Miralem Pjanić (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
    When it comes to Bosnia and Herz., all eyes are usually on the brilliant Edin Džeko. But 24-year old Miralem Pjanić is one player that the rest of Group F could take for granted – at their peril. The Roma midfielder is a classic playmaker with two quick, strong feet with exceptional abilities with set pieces. Like with club, Pjanić has no trouble slotting in any midfield position for Bosnia and Herz. But at the World Cup expect to see him just behind Džeko, both hungry for goals.

These five plus last week’s lot are my 10 players to watch at the tournament. In fact I may be very well tempted to include a number of them in my World Cup fantasy football team which starts on June 8th. But I’ll remind you of that closer to the time.

Not long left now ’til kick off in Sao Paolo.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Footballers' mad moments, Footy thoughts

Yaya’s unhappy birthday

It was iconic Mancunian frontman Morrissey who once sang “I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday”. Indeed this week in another part of Manchester sits Yaya Touré on the occasion of his unhappy birthday.

Yes, it seems Yaya is a boy with a thorn in his side. According to his agent Dimitry Seluk, the midfielder was so upset with the good folk at Man City because “none of them shook his hand on his birthday” and that this had made the player consider leaving the Etihad Stadium.

Yes, seriously.

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The Ivorian international initially denied the claims via Twitter, only to confirm the shortly after. “Everything dimitry said is true,” Yaya tweeted. “He speaks for me. I will give an interview after world cup to explain”. Bigmouth strikes again!

Now it seems to me pretty clear what’s going on here, and it’s one of two things. Either Yaya’s agent is doing whatever it takes to try and get club and player to part ways (earning a nice signing fee in the process). He is one of, if not then, the best midfielders in the Premier League and wealthy clubs such as PSG or Monaco would sign him in an instant.

That is one possibility of what’s going on from where I’m sitting.

But if I was a betting man, I reckon it is actually Touré’s agent doing what he can to get the player an improved contract.

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Yes, it seems that Seluk makes similar comments when Touré is seeking an improved contract. “Touré has done all he can do at City and needs new motivations,” the agent had said back in 2012. “He would like a new challenge. He would not cost much.”

Touré got his improved contract just a few months later.

It would be quite laughable when grown men, in any profession, complain to their employer about the lack of acknowledgement of their birthday. But it does seem like the greedy work of the agent more so than the player. Personally, I think Touré is embarrassing himself allowing his agent to speak on his behalf like this. And also by not denying it.

Some contracts are bigger than others. Seems like the Yaya Touré camp want the biggest one they can get – be it in Manchester or elsewhere.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Internationals, Ones to watch

Five talents to watch out for in the World Cup (part 1)

Not long left now until football’s biggest festival is due to start. The World Cup will no doubt have some mouth-watering fixtures, some upsets, some moments of sheer brilliance and maybe the occasional blooper. But it should also introduce the world to some young talent who could be making big money moves after the competition should they fare well on football’s biggest stage.

Here are five players that I have picked to keep an eye on during the competition. The first five that is:

  • Georginio Wijnaldum (The Netherlands)
    Twenty-three year old Wijnaldum was a product of both Sparta Rotterdam and Feyenoord’s youth academies. An incredibly strong playmaker, the Dutchman moved to PSV Eindhoven in 2011 where within two season he would become club captain. He’s not a regular starter in Louis van Gaal’s side due to the sheer strength of Holland’s midfield, but given the chance at the World Cup he can impress everyone watching – including future Man United boss van Gaal.
  • Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
    “Xherdan Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland,” Thorsten Fink once said when he was manager of FC Basel. “After Granit Xhaka”. That is some praise given how Bayern Munich’s Shaqiri plays. Indeed Xhaka is quite the talent with critics comparing to one Bastian Schweinsteiger. He has been a mainstay in the Swiss national team since his debut in 2011 and in that time earned an €8.5 million transfer from Basel to Borussia Mönchengladbach where his dazzling displays in the Bundesliga has made people sit up and take notice.
  • Bernard (Brazil)
    There’s going to be at least one Brazilian who will whip the home crowds and viewers around the world into a frenzy. It may be the likes of Neymar, Hulk or Oscar. It may not. Don’t rule out the sheer brilliance of Bernard. The 21-year old winger, who currently plays for Shakhtar Donestsk, has the speed and energy to leave defenders stranded. He’s also not afraid of scoring the odd goal or two. He’s the full package and is exactly what the doctor ordered for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men.
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  • Steven Defour (Belgium)
    Belgium can boast an incredibly strong midfield with names such as Hazard, Mirallas, Witsel and Fellaini to name but a few. Twenty-six year old Steven Defour is one that would rank up there with them. The FC Porto midfielder should be a starter Marc Wilmots’ starting XI at the World Cup and will be one of the most impressive on the pitch. He was heavily linked with a move to Fulham last January. A fine performance or two during the competition should witness him being linked with some much bigger clubs.
  • Marco Verratti (Italy)
    Twenty-one year old Verratti is one of the craftiest young players around. The PSG star may have to compete with the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Alberto Aquilani to get into the starting XI, but I would have no doubt that he will. Verratti’s passing skills and ability to change the tempo of the game is something Cesare Prandelli will be looking for when the Azzurri line-up against England on June 14th. Verratti could be his man.

Stay tuned for five more next week. And do get in touch with which promising young stars you think will make a huge impact in the World Cup.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Europe

Wenger ends drought while Man Utd and Barcelona welcome new gaffers

Ryan Giggs has today confirmed that he has retired from playing at the age of 40. He will begin his new role at Manchester United as assistant manager to Louis van Gaal, who today signed a 3-year-deal with the club.

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Van Gaal was a popular choice among fans with an incredible CV. He had previously managed Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AZ. The current Dutch national team manager will join up with the team after this summer’s World Cup.

“This club has big ambitions; I too have big ambitions,” said van Gaal. “Together I am sure we will make history.”

Man United weren’t they only big club announcing a new manager today. Barcelona have confirmed that Luis Enrique as the new boss on a 2-year-deal. Enrique, a former Barça and Real Madrid player, will take over from the Argentine coach Tata Martino. The former Spanish international previously managed Barcelona B and Roma. He recently managed Celta Vigo (guiding Celta to an unlikely victory over Madrid just a fortnight ago).

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He arrives at the Catalan club at an interesting time with news of Leo Messi signing a contract extension, the signing of German goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen to replace the outgoing Victor Valdes as well as news of club captain Carles Puyol’s retirement.

Finally, one manager who today must be breathing a sigh of relief is of course Arsene Wenger. The French boss guided his beloved Arsenal side to their first trophy in nine years with the FA Cup win at the weekend. 

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Wenger is now expected to sign a new contract with the club worth a whopping £24 million. There may be still celebrations around the Emirates stadium after the cup win, but Wenger was heavily criticised by fans over the past couple of years. Is he still the man to lead Arsenal forward? Some fans wouldn’t think so.

Regardless, I’m sure Wenger is going to enjoy facing van Gaal’s Man United and possibly Luis Enrique’s new look Barcelona next season

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

City win EPL while La Liga set for showdown.

The English Premier League season ended yesterday pretty much as we guessed for the past week or so now with Man City finishing as champions. After the final whistle, Johnny Marr and Noel Gallagher were among those who celebrated on the pitch alongside Sergio Aguero and Vincente Kompany. Meanwhile over in Anfield, a deflated Steven Gerrard spoke about how proud he was with Liverpool this season.

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The red half of Merseyside enjoyed a hugely improved season from recent years. In fact, had Brendan Rodgers’ men not slipped up (sorry) against Chelsea two weeks ago and again against Crystal Palace last week, the reds easily could have brought home their first league title in almost two and a half decades.

It was a thoroughly entertaining season for all. Unlike some seasons previous, it had many twists on both ends of the table with Norwich also confirming relegation on the final day. But while it was a hugely entertaining, it’s not the last of club football yet. We have another week to go around Europe.

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Sure the Dutch Eredivisie, Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga have all been decided with another week to go. But as La Liga comes to it’s close next weekend, it does so with a true final day drama. The top two teams face each other and the winner takes it all.

Next Sunday is basically the La Liga final at the Camp Nou as second placed Barcelona, who have been playing far from their usual glorious selves, face current leaders Atlético Madrid, who in my opinion have been the best team in Spain this season.

Atléti have got one eye on the Champions League title as they face city rivals Real later this month. But under the guidance of the brilliant and passionate Diego Simeone, they will no doubt be giving it their all in the Camp Nou next Sunday and try to become the first side, other than “the big two“, to win La Liga since Valencia in the 2003/4 season.

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And it’s there for the taking. A draw will do Atléti. Barça’s off-field problems leaked into the on-field performances. Players like Victor Valdes and Carles Puyol missed much of it through injury and big name players such as the club’s big signing, Neymar, proved to be far from the Romario or Ronaldinho-esque superstar he was promising to be.

Poor performances and boardroom shambles aside, I wouldn’t write off the Catalans’ chances just yet. Footballing drama isn’t over just yet.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Footy travels

Footy travels #11: Buenos Aires

The blog is bringing you a travel guide from outside of Europe for the first time, and where better than one of South America’s most beautiful and cultural places. A real mecca for the beautiful game and home to some of the most passionate and extreme fans – this is a guide to the wonderful Buenos Aires.

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How do I get in? This is quite a trek, but the easiest way from Dublin is by using British Airways, who fly to Ezeiza Airport, one of the city’s two major airports located around 25 kilometres outside the city itself. It’s not the cheapest of journeys at around the €1, 500 mark, but it’s just one quick stopover in London. You can search the web for a cheaper alternative, but this usually means changing planes twice or even three times and travel time is usually doubled. Ezeiza Airport is well connected by bus and taxis usually have a prepaid fare into town.

What teams can I watch? Unsurprisingly there is no shortage here, dear readers. The big two is naturally Boca Juniors and River Plate. When the two meet, it is (as previously blogged) one of the most tense fixtures in world football. Aside from them, there is  HuracánVélez SarsfieldArgentinos JuniorsFerro Carril Oeste, as well as the Pope‘s beloved San Lorenzo lads.

How do I get to the stadiums? BA is an enormous city with 12 million inhabitants, so getting around can take some time, yet public transport is very good. The cheapest and most effective ways of moving around is by using the bus or the underground railway system called the tren subterráneo – or Subte for short. Walking is a nice way of seeing the city, but again the city is massive. Avoid taxis, as they traffic here can be chaotic.
Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera is located in La Boca. A famous barrio in the city. Bus nos 10, 29, 53 or 64 will take you here.
Rivals River Plate play in the national stadium, the Monumental which was also the setting for the 1978 World Cup Final. Again, buses from the centre of town is easiest, with nos 12, 29, 42, 107 or 130 bringing you within minutes of the ground.

Boca Juniors v River Plate  Ð Argentine Championship - Clausura

How do I get tickets? Regardless of the game, be cautious. There’ll be plenty of very good photocopied versions of tickets for sale outside some of these grounds. That said,  you shouldn’t obtain any trouble getting tickets from any of these clubs – except Boca Juniors that is. Tickets are not sold at the gate for any Boca fixture on matchday and it is well advisable to get a ticket package in advance from a tour group like this one. It’s more expensive – but at least it’s a guarantee.

What else is there to do? Do you like steak? Beer? Tango? Of course you do. And you’re in the capital for all three to all go together. Buenos Aires is an extremely cultural city, filled with museums, theatres, parks, pubs…you name it. It has a slight European feel to it, but is undoubtedly Argentine. The city boasts some of South America’s best nightlife, so you won’t find yourself at a loose end after the final whistle in Buenos Aires. Or even before kick off for that matter.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland

BASUNSHINE

Europe

Atléti become heavyweights under Simeone’s genius

You have to hand it to Diego Simeone. He has truly turned Atlético Madrid around since being unveiled as manager in December 2011. Aside from earning his first two European trophies within eight months of his appointment (the Europa League in May 2012, and the UEFA Super Cup beating Chelsea in August 2012), he has transformed Atléti from being almost mid-table obscurity to La Liga and European heavyweights.

The Champions League trophy is to return to Madrid this year. But under the guidance of David Beckham’s former nemesis, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the trophy ended up in the red, white and blue side of the Spanish capital. Rivals from across town Real are looking for European glory for a 10th time, and judging by their performance against Bayern in the semi-final, they won’t exactly be pushovers.

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It was reported this week that Atléti’s wage bill was just €66 million. Given what the club are achieving, with an eye on the La Liga and Champions League double, it is remarkable – especially when you compare it to QPR’s €95 million wage bill for their 2012-13 season in which they were relegated from the Premier League. They could have purchased one Gareth Bale for that!

Currently top of La Liga, Simeone’s inspiration makes Atléti, who are currently on 88 points with Barcelona trailing behind them on 84 points, the absolute favourites to bring the club their first La Liga title since 1996 (which Simeone won as a player with the club). If he achieves that and beats city rivals Real in the Champions League final, well, let’s just say he’ll never have to buy a bottle of Mahou around the Arganzuela district of Madrid again.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Footy thoughts

Tito Vilanova RIP

Former Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova has died today after losing his battle with cancer. He was just 45.

The Catalan guided Barcelona to the La Liga title in the 2012-13 but his health problems forced to step down as coach in July of last year, having being first diagnosed with the disease the previous November.

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Decansi en pau, Tito.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch

Ones to watch #14: Alen Halilović

I must introduce you to this guy. The son of former Valladolid midfielder and Bosnian international Sejad Halilović is also youngest ever goalscorer in Croatia’s top tier with his current club Dinamo Zgreb, and he is also the youngest debutant for the Croatian national side. Meet 17-year-old wonderkid Alen Halilović.

By the age of 14, Real Madrid spotted young Alen at a youth tournament and tried to immediately sign him. After holding talks with his father, it was his youth club Dinamo that had to fight hard to hold onto him, which they did.

Alen Halilovic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic

 

Within two years he made his senior debut for the club, aged 16 years and 102 days , and in the massive derby game no less – Dinamo Zagreb versus Hajduk Split.

By last year, he was a much-loved regular in the Dinamo senior squad and he became their youngest ever Champions League player when he featured against PSG.

Massive names such as Real Madrid, Man United and Man City were, for some time, at the head of a very lengthy queue to secure the young lad’s signature, but it was the lure of FC Barcelona that proved to be too irresistible for the 17-year-old.

He will move to the Catalan giants in the summer after a €2.2 million fee was agreed and the La Liga club’s recent transfer ban was suspended pending an appeals decision.

The kid who is hailed “as the next Luka Modric” has quite the future ahead of him. Especially now at one of the world’s biggest clubs.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

What next for Man United as Moyes shown the door?

Some might say that David Moyes was not given enough time at Man United, some might say that it is simply the inevitable. At 8.30am this morning, the club released a short statement confirming the Scot’s departure.

It simply read: “Manchester United has announced that David Moyes has left the club. The club would like to place on record its thanks for the hard work, honesty and integrity he brought to the role.”

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Moyes is, in my view, a really decent manager, but he simply wasn’t the right fit for Manchester United. The team’s home record this season was well below par and they failed to qualify for the Champions League in almost two decades.

Some huge names in world football are already being linked with the job. The Netherlands’ national team coach, Louis van Gaal, is the bookies’ favourite. The Dutchman formerly managed Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it’s hard to see if he will be the right fit for Man United in the 2014/15 season.

Another one of the favourites is Borussia Dortmund’s Jurgen Klopp. The German is currently one of Europe’s most in-demand managers. He is full of energy, personality and is tactically impressive. I feel Klopp would be a better fit for United than van Gaal or other names mentioned such as Diego Simeone, Frank de Boer or Carlo Ancelotti.

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In the meantime Ryan Giggs will take over the role as interim manager. It’s possible that Giggs, depending how he changes things for the better, could be installed as permanent manager for next season. But it’s early days yet.

David Moyes would be doing well to land a job at a top club like United any time soon, and the club themselves have a lot of work to do to get the right man to turn things around. But that’s modern football.

Interesting times ahead at Old Trafford.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Hang on…are Liverpool actually going to WIN the Premier League?

The full time whistle at Anfield yesterday sparked scenes of sheer celebration and emotion from everyone wearing red after Liverpool beat Man City 3-2 in a thrilling game.

It also sparked many fans who had, in weeks prior, written off Liverpool’s chances of their possible 19th top-flight league trophy, claiming that Chelsea and Man City were far too superior, to ask themselves “are Liverpool actually going to go ahead and WIN the Premier League?”

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At the start of the season nobody had predicted it. Not the fans, and probably not even Brendan Rodgers deep down. But here we are – mid-April and Liverpool are within touching distance of the Premier League trophy.

“There are still four big games,” said captain Steven Gerrard who appeared somewhat emotional at the full-time whistle. “People say that was the biggest one but I disagree, the biggest one is Norwich. Nothing is ours yet.”

Indeed, nothing is Liverpool’s yet. But Brendan Rodgers’ men have four games left: Norwich City away, a massive test against Chelsea at home, Crystal Palace away and finally Newcastle at Anfield on May 11th. None of those games are easy.

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Everyone is a pundit and I had people speaking to me mere days ago writing off Liverpool’s chances. But the truth is that the Reds have won their previous ten fixtures in a row. If they win the next four, they are guaranteed the title.

Are they going to actually win the title? My honest opinion: I believe they have the quality and the nerve to hold on to first place.

 

How do you think Liverpool will fare? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Trophies & transfer bans: What’s happening at Barça?

This week, FIFA announced that it had banned Barcelona from signing any players for the next two transfer windows for breaking the rules on signing international players under the age of 18. The Catalans have also been fined 450,000 Swiss francs (around €370,000) but have, perhaps unsurpringly, confirmed they will be appealing the ban.

The news stunned football fans, but more importantly to Barça, it shocked the club and their “more than a club” image has no doubt been somewhat damaged by this.

In my experience of going to the Catalan capital over the years, it seems that Sandro Rosell is something of a bad guy. Or at least he is somebody who the fans can blame. Rosell was President of the club from summer 2010 until last January when he resigned following investigations of alleged misappropriation of funds over the signing of the Brazilian player Neymar.

It was also Rosell who came to the agreement with Qatar Airways to allow the airline’s logo be carried on the Barça jersey in a deal worth around €30m per year. It was the first time a commerical logo has been allowed on the club’s shirt in their history. Previously Barça paid UNICEF to carry their logo. It strengthened their “more than a club” image and suggested that they were morally superior to their rivals – especially Real Madrid. The Qatari deal put an end to that in the eyes of many.

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“His obsession is money,” one fan told me at the Camp Nou last January, speaking about Rosell mere days before his resignation. “All he cares about it money. I have no pride with Qatar Airways on the blaugrana (Barcelona’s traditional colours)”. Many people, I must admit, seem to share that opinion.

The Madrid-based press are, naturally, very speedy in denouncing the club’s negative actions – such as that of the Neymar deal. While much, if not, all of the Catalan press, and indeed Spain’s Sports Minister Miguel Cardenal, have all stated that Barça are hardly as reprehensible a club as they are being portrayed by certain sections of the media.

Unlike many other clubs, FC Barcelona is owned by it’s 160,000 members. And their opinion matters. Current President and former engineer Josep Maria Bartomeu (who was previously Sandro Rosell’s second in command) could see his presidency come to an end quicker than he would like.

The series of off-field events are not ideal for the club’s reputation or their image. The transfer ban could make like incredibly hard on Barcelona. With Victor Valdés and captain Carles Puyol leaving at the end of the season, they won’t be able to find suitable replacements for the two World Cup-winning stars. The off-field problems are becoming on-field problems and that, as any Barcelona fan will tell you, is the biggest problem of all.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League

Champions League quarter-finals preview.

It’s April already and now we are down to just eight teams in Europe’s premier club competition. We’ll immediately turn our attention to tonight’s massive game at Old Trafford.

It’s difficult to remember the last time Manchester United hosted a game with so much pressure on the players and, especially, the manager.  David Moyes’ tactics will be put to the test at the highest level tonight and the players themselves must be up for it.United face German powerhouse club Bayern Munich led by one of the most decorared and sought-after managers in world football, Pep Guardiola.

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“The media and public opinion is that Manchester are not in good shape and that we’re going through to the semis,” said star player Arjen Robben. “But I don’t like that at all.”

The Bavarians, of course, are not often accused of underestimating opponents. If they were, they would not have wrapped up another Bundesliga title – this one without losing a game and also in record time.

Over two legs, it wouldn’t be exactly miraculous for United to make it through. They’re still Manchester United, despite their league form. But my gut feeling is that Guardiola’s men will be simply too strong for them.

Barcelona will tonight host fellow La Liga side Atlético Madrid. The two sides met in January and played out a goalless draw. They’ll meet next month also in the final game of the season in Spain. Tonight, one can’t help but feel, will be more tense.

Atlético go into the fixture after conceding four goals in the competition, fewer than any other quarter-finalist. But with star striker Diego Costa doubtful for the game in the Camp Nou, they’ll need to score goals to topple the mighty Barça.

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The Catalans last week suffered the news of Victor Valdes’ injury means he will likely miss the rest of the season (and his Barça career seems to have come to an end too). Eccentric substitute Pinto, who is now 38, will be faced with the task of keeping out La Liga leaders Atleti.

Barcelona will need the winning spirit they brought to the recent Clásico in Madrid. Without it, Atlético could be too powerful this time. But Barça have geniuses like Messi and Iniesta. It’ll be tight – but over two legs I reckon Barcelona will squeeze through to the semis.

PSG will tomorrow host the other English side in the competition, Chelsea, at the Parc des Princes. It will be a heated fixture with José “(Still) The Special One” Mourinho will be urging his men to bounce back after his team’s surprise defeat to Crystal Palace last weekend.

“Are PSG a good team? Yes. Do they possess some of the best players in the world? Yes again,” Jose said, cautious of the Parisians. “We are at a stage of the competition where the big teams can win but also lose. There aren’t any more weak sides at this stage. There are some who are better than others, but anything can happen.”

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Paris St-Germain have built an incredibly strong team, led by the undeniably brilliant Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede has scored 41 goals in his last 36 appearances for both club and country. But there’s other names Chelsea will have to be wary of such as Edinson Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi or Lucas Moura all possess the skills to give The Special One a real Parisian nightmare.

Usually, I think Chelsea would run through this stage of the competition with relative ease. But PSG are increibly tough opponents and, if I’m honest, I can see Laurent Blanc’s men causing damage to get through to the semi-finals.

Finally, Real Madrid go into the quarter-finals for a fourth successive season with the difficult task of taking on Jurgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund. They meet tomorrow in the Bernebéu.

Klopp will have worries with suspensions as both Sven Bender and Sebastian Kehl are both a booking away from a ban while star striker Robert Lewandowski is suspended for tomorrow’s fixture.

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Madrid go into the tie booming with confidence after they are one of two teams – along with city rivals Atlético Madrid – still unbeaten and are tournament top scorers with 29 goals. Madrid have even scored in a record 33 UEFA Champions League games in a row.

But they cannot underestimate the Germans. Die Schwarzgelben may not be enjoying a season quite like FC Bayern, but currently 2nd in the Bundesliga, they’ve scored 62 goals this season. Players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Jakub Błaszczykowski will be out to cause serious problems.

Overall, I think Real Madrid will be too strong and will clinch the result to get through to the last four.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Europe

Bayern’s praise from Klopp and Victor Valdes’ last stand for Barça

“They are incredible,” Borussia Dortmund manager Jürgen Klopp of his club’s league rivals Bayern Munich after the latter clinched the Bundesliga title on Tuesday night. “We truly need binoculars to see them. And I can even enjoy watching them at times because they’re playing fantastically well.”

The Bavarians became the first club to clinch the Bundesliga championship in March and with a record seven games to go. Pep Guardiola’s men ooze sheer strength, making them one of the favourites for the Champions League. They face Manchester United in the competition’s quarter finals first-leg next Tuesday at Old Trafford.

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Another club who have wrapped up a league title is Celtic. Their 27th victory in 31 matches was a 5-1 away win against Partick Thistle was enough to ensure the Bhoys’ reign in the SPL once more. Neil Lennon became the fourth Celtic manager to win three successive titles. The last two, it should be pointed out, have come without having to play bitter rivals Rangers.

While there’s celebrating in one half of Glasgow and most of Munich, there is some worried faces in Catalonia. Victor Valdes suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Barcelona’s 3-0 win over Celta Vigo last night and the goalkeeper was forced to be substituted off after 20 minutes.

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Valdes announced some months back that the current season would be his final one in Barcelona’s famous colours (he’s rumoured to be AS Monaco-bound while Borussia Monchengladbach’s 21-year-old ‘keeper Marc-André ter Stegen is Barça’s preferred replacement for Valdes). Now it seems that instead of going out in glory, 32-year-old Valdes has very likely played his final game for the Catalans. Barça now turn to eccentric substitute goalkeeper José Pinto to help keep them in the title race alongside bitter rivals Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)