Tag Archives: barcelona

Neymar heads to Paris to step out of Messi’s shadow.

Last year Barcelona slapped a €222 million buyout clause on Neymar. Buyout clauses are usually obscene figures to warn off potential clubs interested in availing of a player’s services. In the case of Neymar, astonishingly Paris Saint-Germain look set to spend exactly that to get the Brazilian superstar.

His reasons are both footballing and quite obviously financial.

Firstly the footballing reasons. While many will see a move from La Liga to France’s Ligue 1 as a step down, one must take into consideration the fact that Neymar will only grow so much when he’s playing in the same side as Leo Messi.

On the north-eastearn coast of Spain, Leo Messi is the frontman. The poster boy for the club, the marketing tool, and the focal point on the pitch. Neymar has always, and would always be in the Argentine’s shadow. Neymar wants to take centre stage. And where better than PSG, where players would have to adapt to his style of play, and not the other way around.

It’s an interesting move too in terms of accolades. The Ballon d’Or would be within grasping distance, but never in the palm of his hands. Messi and his Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo are realistically the only two players who have been battling for it for some time. Not now. Neymar gone solo will see the Brazilian step out of Messi’s shadow and lead PSG. Critics, pundits, fans and peers will take notice,

But make no mistake, another motivating factor is money. As is always the case in the beautiful business game.

Neymar will become the best paid player in the world, doubling his salary while in the Paris. PSG’s owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSi) have seemingly an endless stream of cash going straight from the middle east to the French capital. His father who acts as his agent will receive €36 million in commission. He’s earned almost €100 million at Barcelona. As I said, make no mistake – this is clearly another motivating factor.

It will be a loss for Barcelona. The attacking trio of Messi, Suarez and Neymar (often called the MSN) formed a front three considered by many as the best in the history of the game. There will be a Neymar-shaped hole if he goes unreplaced, though not catastrophic – Barcelona have over the past decade had a plethora of talent on their bench alone. Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho has been frequently mentioned as a possible replacement. And other left-wingers such as Marco Reus or Eden Hazard could easily fit into the Barcelona’s system if Jurgen Klopp doesn’t budge.

Neymar’s move to PSG is all but confirmed at this stage with Barcelona putting out an official statement on the matter. The Parisians have even reportedly arranged an enormous welcoming ceremony on the streets of the French capital. All that’s left is the Brazilian’s signature. It’s up to Neymar now to deliver for his new club as he takes centre stage.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Lionel Messi retires from international football.

When headlines should have been about Chile’s triumph in the Copa America final, it was instead all about the world’s greatest player calling time on his national team.

Lionel Messi, who turned 29 just three days ago, won’t be wearing the Argentine shirt again after missing in a penalty shootout as La Albiceleste lost a fourth major final in nine years.

“For me, the national team is over,” he said after his 113th and final appearance for his country. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.”

There may be more to it than that.

The blog was in Buenos Aires recently (making a pilgrimage to Boca’s La Bombonera), and the opinion of Leo Messi is a lot lower than it is in Europe. Here, we adore him. There, the general opinion is that he is a great player who doesn’t love Argentina.

While in the Argentine capital, I was speaking with many locals about the Barcelona star who they told me that they don’t really consider him on of their own. That’s a bit strange? Indeed Messi has been living in Catalonia on a full time basis since February 2001 and spent no time playing in Argentina’s league beyond a youth career with Newell’s Old Boys.

Yet the Barcelona fans also certainly don’t consider Messi as truly theirs. Catalans are very proud people, as patriotic about the autonomous commuinity as the Argentines are about their country. If you were to say to a Catalan that Messi is “on of your own”, they’d certainly laugh at you. It simply doesn’t work like that. Poor Leo is in limbo.

_90123441_messi_sitting_afp

He’s also fed up of the Argentine FA (AFA), who a Buenos Aires taxi driver told me “is run by absolute crooks and gangsters”. Leo even posted an Instagram photo of himself (looking less than pleased) and Sergio Aguero sitting on a plane with the caption “Once again waiting on a plane to leave for our destination. What a disaster AFA are, my God!!!!”

But it’s also worth considering that it’s exactly the national pride Argentines feel that may cause Messi to reverse his decision. To try and win the 2018 World Cup and the Copa America in Brazil a year later could be preferable as opposed to regretting it years later in retirement. At club level, he has won all there is to be won. At international level, far from it.

One of the most decorated players in the game, Messi’s only international honour is a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. Let’s hope he changes his mind and gives us one more World Cup. It could be the one.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HLgmHCIuZ3I

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)

Ten years of Messi

It’s ten years tonight since a young Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona. The game was against city rivals Espanyol in the Olympic Stadium at Montjuic, a short walk where the young Argentine was residing with his father before he became a global superstar. Did anybody have any idea what kind of a genius Barcelona had then? Board member Charly Rexach did anyway. Rexach famously signed Messi on a napkin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnjJ2JhMFRM

In December 2000, Charly Rexach, a then-board member who had played for the club for many years and, at one point, even managed them, had met with the young Lionel and his father Jorge at the Pompeia tennis club in Montjuic, and knowing he couldn’t let the boy wonder escape to another club, he signed him there and then with the only available item to snap up his signature was on a serviette.

The rest, as they say, is history…

image1

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League matchday two preview

Matchday two is upon us and there lies some tasty fixtures over the next two evenings.

The early fixture today is Bayern Munich travel to the Russian capital to face CSKA Moscow. The bookies will say that it’s a routine win for Pep Guardiola’s men, but anything is possible in Moscow – as many clubs found out before.

Barcelona will face a number of former players at PSG including Maxwell, Thiago Motta, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and even coach Laurent Blanc. The French side will be looking for their first win of the group following their 1-1 draw with Ajax on matchday one.

mourinho

José “still the special one” Mourinho is back in Portugal as his Chelsea boys take on Sporting Lisbon, whose long unbeaten European home record is put to the test by the Blues who have won their last six games against Portugese teams.

Man City will be looking to bounce back from their loss against Bayern Munich on matchday one, when they host an AS Roma side with a notoriously poor record on English soil. The Giallorossi opened their group stage campaign with a 5-1 win against CSKA Moscow.

Galatasaray travel to North London to face Arsenal tomorrow. The Gunners’ 2-0 loss at Borussia Dortmund on matchday one was their first defeat in fifteen matches in all competitions.

gun__1382517792_giroud_dortmund2

Italian giants Juventus travel to the Spanish capital where they will face Atlético MadridBeaten at Olympiacos on matchday one, Diego Simeone will be looking for more out of his men on Wednesday night at the Vicente Calderón.

Liverpool travel to the Switzerland to take on FC Basel. The latter will be eager to bounce back from their 5-1 opening loss at Real Madrid, while Liverpool’s unconvincing 2-1 win over Ludogorets on matchday one will be fresh in the memory of Brendan Rodgers. 

 

The fixtures in full:

 

30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
CSKA Moskva
17.00
FC Bayern
Referee: William Collum (SCO) – Stadium: Arena Khimki, Khimki (RUS)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
PSG
19.45
FC Barcelona
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (ITA) – Stadium: Parc des Princes, Paris (FRA)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group F)
APOEL
19.45
Ajax
Referee: Milorad Mažić (SRB) – Stadium: GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Sporting
19.45
Chelsea
Referee: Antonio Mateu Lahoz (ESP) – Stadium: José Alvalade, Lisbon (POR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group G)
Schalke
19.45
Maribor
Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo (ESP) – Stadium: Stadion Gelsenkirchen, Gelsenkirchen (GER)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
Shakhtar Donetsk
19.45
FC Porto
Referee: Cüneyt Çakır (TUR) – Stadium: Arena Lviv, Lviv (UKR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group H)
BATE
19.45
Athletic Bilbao
Referee: Stéphane Lannoy (FRA) – Stadium: Borisov Arena, Borisov (BLR)
30 September 2014 – Group stage (Group E)
Man. City
19.45
Roma
Referee: Björn Kuipers (NED) – Stadium: City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester (ENG)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
Zenit
17.00
AS Monaco
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (ENG) – Stadium: Stadion Petrovski, St Petersburg (RUS)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group C)
Leverkusen
19.45
Benfica
Referee: Martin Atkinson (ENG) – Stadium: BayArena, Leverkusen (GER)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Arsenal
19.45
Galatasaray
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (ITA) – Stadium: Arsenal Stadium, London (ENG)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group D)
Anderlecht
19.45
Bor Dortmund
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (ITA) – Stadium: Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Brussels (BEL)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Malmö
19.45
Olympiacos
Referee: Sergei Karasev (RUS) – Stadium: Malmö New Stadium, Malmo (SWE)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group A)
Atlético
19.45
Juventus
Referee: Felix Brych (GER) – Stadium: Estadio Vicente Calderón, Madrid (ESP)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Basel
19.45
Liverpool
Referee: Jonas Eriksson (SWE) – Stadium: St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)
1 October 2014 – Group stage (Group B)
Ludogorets
19.45
Real Madrid
Referee: Craig Thomson (SCO) – Stadium: Natsionalen Stadion Vasil Levski, Sofia (BUL)

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ones to watch #15: Sergi Samper

Barcelona born-and-bred Sergi Samper Montaña will be 20 years old next January but is one of the most talked about young players in Spain. 

A product of Barcelona’s famous youth academy, known as La Masia, Samper has impressed immensely since joining the academy at the age of six in 2001. He has been making a huge impact in recent times with Barcelona B and has attracted the attention of many managers around Spain and especially one London-based manager in Mr. Arsene Wenger.

Indeed the Arsenal boss wants to make Samper the new Fabregas and, according to the press in Spain, is prepared to meet the club’s €12 million buy out clause for the defensive midfielder. Barça boss Luis Enrique has other plans and fully intends on bringing the player into the senior squad later this season.

Technically gifted and hugely influential around the middle of the park, the player who is so very often called “the new Busquets” is set to make an impact regardless of the jersey he will wear.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

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.

louisvg

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).

luise

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. 

Arsène-Wenger-FA-Cup-parade

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)

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.

rosellqatar

“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 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.

fcbayern

“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.

fcbatlm

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.”

Zlatan-Ibrahimovic-PSG

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.

borussia dortmund 4

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)

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.

bayern-640-celebrate-bundesliga

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.

vvinjured

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)

In the name of the father…

“Leave him alone, this is all he needs. His name is hard to carry,” said France manager Didier Deschamps this week when asked about footballing legend Zinedine Zidane’s son, Real Madrid youth footballer and France under-19’s Enzo Fernandez. “Zizou lived his life, had his career. Enzo will have his own.”

Of course living up to your father’s name can be no easy task for a young footballer. Especially if your father is something of a legend. There will always be comparisons.

zidaneenzo

“There are two types of football players,” former Barcelona and Manchester United player Jordi Cruyff once said. “The legends and the mortals. My father is a legend and I am a mortal”. Indeed, when your father is Johann Cruyff, one of the game’s finest in history, it can come with extraordinary pressure.

Jordi spent much of his youth career at Ajax and then Barcelona before working his way into the senior side – then managed by his father. His performances earned him a switch to Man United for a £1.4 million fee in 1996, becoming a regular in the side before injury caused him problems and he slipped out of favour with Fergie.

cruyffjohanjordi

But Cruyff played for Barcelona, Manchester United and Holland – he even scored for his country during Euro ’96. By any player’s standards, that’s pretty damn good. His performances didn’t live up to the name Cruyff in footballing world  (he even put his first name ‘Jordi’ on the back of jerseys instead of ‘Cruyff’ in a bid to stop the constant comparisons). In reality, Jordi Cruyff, despite his obscure later career turning out for clubs in Ukraine and Malta, was a fine player. But Jordi was a mere mortal in a business where his father was a legend.

But plenty of players do emulate their famous fathers.

Cesare Maldini was an AC Milan legend. He played for the Rossoneri for twelve years and represented Italy in the 1962 and 1966 World Cups. His son Paolo, who was also a defender, ignored the pressures that came with the surname and became possibly a bigger legend. I’m sure Cesare’s grandson, Daniel, who is currently in AC Milan’s youth teams, won’t be feeling any pressure then.

paolo-and-cesare-maldini

But will the Maldinis become the new Forláns? You know the name, right? Sure they are just a family from Montevideo. But they led Uruguay to Copa America titles across three generations – Diego Forlán, his father, Pablo Forlán, and his grandfather, Juan Carlos Corazo.

So Enzo Fernandez may have chosen his mother’s name. But he’ll forever be linked with the name Zidane. And with that comes extraordinary pressure. But as the Maldinis and Forláns will tell you: that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland) and be sure to check out the blog on Facebook.

Champions League matchday 6 preview

The final bunch of group fixtures are among us. Some teams have already qualified. Some will be battling for second place. Some could finish third and enter the Europa League. Some, like Celtic, will already be destined to finish last and subsequently eliminated from all European competitions.

Yes, it’s bad news for Neil Lennon’s men. They travel to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona – a club they’ve met in this competition plenty of times over the years. While the Catalans will be looking to guarantee their place at Group H‘s top spot, Celtic have nothing to lose and will be trying to boost their confidence with a difficult win. The only Scottish side to win at the Camp Nou were Dundee United in the ’86/87 UEFA Cup quarter-finals against a Terry Venables-led Barça side.

The much sought after second place is between Ajax and AC Milan. They meet at the San Siro tomorrow night and it’ll be tight. Ajax came close to beating Milan in Amsterdam on matchday 2. Stefano Denswil’s 90th minute lead was met with Mario Balotelli equalising penalty in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

celticbarcelona20122013

FC Porto visit Group G winners Atlético Madrid needing a dramatic change of fortune if they are to avoid an early exit from the competition. The Spaniards have been running away with the group thus far while Zenit St. Petersburg visit Austria Wien seeking a victory to guarantee qualification for the knockout stage for only the second time. In the previous fixture, Luciano Spalletti’s men could only manage a 0-0 draw at home against the Austrians.

Rafa Benitez’s Napoli and Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal meet with both qualifying places still to be decided in Group F. Separated by just three points, they are both firmly in the qualifying equation as the group reaches its conclusion, although Borussia Dortmund‘s fixture at Marseille will also be closely followed by supporters in Naples. In the reverse fixtures back in October, Dortmund thrashed the French side by 3-0 while a Mesut Ozil-inspired Arsenal side comfortably beat Napoli by 2-0.

FC Basel and Schalke meet in Gelsenkirchen with Group E‘s second place on the line, while the Swiss side are looking to overtake Chelsea who are currently in first place. Jose “The Special One” Mourinho’s men host Steaua Bucharest and will be seeking a repeat of their 3-0 win in the reverse fixture to ensure they progress as Group E winners. Should Chelsea lose they will finish second while a draw would leave them top so long as FC Basel fail to beat Schalke.

Bayern Munich are looking to seal their first place position in Group D when they host a Man City side who need a massive win in Bavaria to leapfrog the reigning champions though both teams are already through. With this in mind, the third spot is up for grabs and Viktoria Plzeň host Russian opposition for the first time in CSKA Moscow and both will be seeking for a Europa League spot. The Czech side are still to earn a single point and a big win against CSKA would be needed.

Pep Guardiola conducts first training session at Bayern Munich - video

Benfica take on Group C winners Paris Saint-Germain in Lisbon knowing their qualification is out of their hands. The Portuguese side are currently in third place, level with Olympiacos on seven points, but behind on goal difference. The Greeks will go through if they defeat bottom side Anderlecht at home. Benfica must better whatever result Olympiacos manage in Athens to qualify. Back in October, PSG bettered Benfica by 3-0 while Olimpiacos achieved the same scoreline against Anderlecht.

A draw is all Juventus need to earn the second place in Group B. They travel to Istanbul to face Roberto Mancini’s Galatasaray and while only a win will allow the home team to overtake their opponents, a draw would be enough for the Italian side. Meanwhile Real Madrid have assured themselves of finishing as group winners and will now be looking to complete their fixtures with a flourish at eliminated FC Copenhagen. The Danish side are in last place but can qualify for the Europa League with victory. Though a draw would also secure third place should Galatasaray lose at home to Juve.

Finally, Man United will be looking to seal first place in Group A when they host a Shakhtar Donetsk side needing a victory to guarantee they will join their opponents in the last sixteen. While Bayer Leverkusen will be looking to spoil it for the Ukrainians if possible, they travel to face Real Sociedad. The Spaniards have only earned one point in the competition and victory for Man United and Leverkusen will ensure their progression at the cost of Shakhtar.

 

What are your predictions? Tell Rob Smith on Twitter: (@robsmithireland)

 

 

Deulofeu: future superstar and current heartbreaker for Arsenal fans

Back in 2003, when a nine-year-old boy named Gerard Deulofeu turned up at the FC Barcelona offices, an hour south from his tiny village of Riudarenes, he arrived as a kid with great promise. Like many in Barça’s youth academy, known as La Masia, the club were taking on a great talent. As the years passed, Deulofeu was constantly making a name for himself more and more and in 2011, he was called up the Barcelona’s B team.

Usually the Catalan sports press are Barça-mad, with very little written about their B side. However, like Messi and Pedro before him, Deulofeu’s name would be creeping into the likes of newspaper Sport frequently. “Who is this kid? Is he any good?”. The answer was an unmistakable yes!

As well as playing as a striker, Deulofeu caused opposition serious damage when fielded as a right-winger. Plenty could see the similarities between himself and World Cup winner and former-Barça B star Pedro (or Pedrito – little Pedro – as he was known in those days.)

Having played with Spain’s youth teams since 2009, Deulofeu was drafted into the squad for the under-19’s European Championship in July 2012. A competition they won. And guess who got player of the tournament? Correct!

Of course, that wasn’t his first honour. He won the same tournament the year before again with the under-19’s ( including scoring against Ireland in a 5-0 thrashing en route to the final).

Having made two senior appearances for Barcelona, his 2012-13 was incredible for the reserve side and many had predicted him to progress into Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s side permanently. However, with the purchase of Brazilian superstar Neymar as well as more established youth players in the senior side such as Isaac Cuenca and the hugely talented Cristian Tello, it was decided that, rather than just selling him and cashing in, a loan-move would be best for Deulofeu.

Everton snapped him up.

After his wonderful goal for Everton against Arsenal at the Emirates, the 19-year old will become the talk of Monday morning’s back pages. As Stuart Clark of this parish commented on Twitter: “We’re seeing the emergence of a world class player”. Indeed. It’s very hard not to agree. Sunday evening’s performance was merely the tip of the iceberg for what this kid can be capable of.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Champions League is back! Gameweek 1 preview.

Champions League is back. Is anyone else excited? Oh, everyone is? Ok then. Let’s waste no more time and have a look what’s to come over the next couple of days in Europe’s biggest club competition.

In Group A, it’s an unbelievably massive fixture for David Moyes as he leads his Manchester United side against Bayer Leverkusen at Old Trafford. Usually, I’d say “ah, it’s business as usual” if Fergie was in charge. But it’s a new era and, to be honest, I don’t know it’s going to fare. United will have to keep the criminally under-rated Stefan Kießling quiet, that I do know.
The people of San Sebastian will be treated to a night of Champions League football as Real Sociedad take on Shakhtar Donetsk at Anoeta. It’s been ten whole years since the Basque side played in Europe. Shakhtar, on the other hand, are at this point veterans of the Champions League and will be looking to spoil the party.

Group B sees Turkish giants Galatasaray take on Real Madrid. Will Gareth Bale feature? Carlo Ancelotti may give the Welshman a run out following his debut where he scored for Madrid. Start as you mean to go on as they say. Gala aren’t pushovers though, with big names such as Sneijder and Drogba in the squad, not to mention that ferocious home support, it’ll be tough for CR7 & co.

Current champions Bayern Munich entertain CSKA Moscow. This is Pep Guardiola’s big return to the competition, having last won the cup in 2011, beating Man United at Wembley in the final. CSKA will prove to be good opponents as they are unbeaten in the Russian Premier League, which began in July.

Chelsea take on FC Basel at Stamford Bridge. The Swiss outfit will be fresh in the misery of English clubs as they look to build on eliminating Manchester United from two seasons ago. Chelsea however, along with new names such as Samuel Eto’o, Andre Schurrle and Willian won’t let anyone get the better of them on their own turf – not on José’s watch.

Group F contains four excellent teams and is, in my view anyway, one of the most intriguing groups. Arsenal, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund and Napoli will all battle it out. Anyone could end up in first – or last place. Arsenal travel to the south of France to face Marseille first as Rafa Benitez’s Napoli will take on Borussia Dortmund.

Finally, the media dubbed Group H as “the group of death”. For Celtic, that is certainly true. They travel to Italy to face AC Milan. And despite the return of the prodigal son Kaká from Real Madrid, I truly think Celtic have caught Milan at a good time. The time is now. Then again, the San Siro is an incredibly hard place to win for anyone.
Barcelona entertain Ajax – a club who the Catalans historically model themselves on. On paper, the Dutch side have no chance. But Barça’s new coach Tata Martino will be put to the test in his first ever European job. No pressure then.

 

What are your predictions? Let Rob Smith know on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The past week in football: from German blushes to the Special One's return

What a week it’s been in the world of football. I suppose the biggest news is that José Mourinho has gone back to Ch…oh you’ve heard. Well, it’s big news for English football and, possibly more so, for English journalists. The Special One has been known to give a good interview or three (something the Spanish press didn’t appreciate).

Mourinho will have his work cut out for him in my honest opinion. Yes – he is a winner. Yes – his record speaks for itself. Yes – he is loved by Chelsea fans. But the pressure will be on him to deliver as he did the first time around. It’s a different team he’s inheriting in 2013 as opposed to the one he managed when he left six years ago.

Over in Germany, the unstoppable Bayern Munich won the DFB-Pokal, becoming the first German team to win a continental treble, defeating Stuttgart 3-2 in Berlin. A nice way for Jupp Heynckes to bow out. It also leaves new coach Pep Guardiola in the knowledge that the only way is down.

With Man City already agreed to purchase Spanish winger Jesus Navas, Liverpool could also be busy in the forthcoming transfer window as Brendan Rodgers rumoured to be eyeing up Greek defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos from Schalke, and Shakhtar Donestk’s brilliant Armenian playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Of course, they will likely be looking for a replacement striker for Luis Suarez who confirmed last week that he wants out of Anfield. Many publications have named some potential strikers for the number 7 shirt, with out-of-favour Barcelona star David Villa’s name coming up more than once.

While we’re taling about the Catalans, sixty thousand fans packed into the Camp Nou to see Neymar‘s presentation as a Barcelona player on Monday. It came just hours after the Brazilian had a fairly quiet game in the 2-2 draw against England in Rio de Janeiro. On the same day, Ireland hosted Georgia at the Aviva stadium.

It’s the first Ireland game I’ve missed in some years (I was at Forbidden Fruit instead), and of course, with my luck I missed a goal-fest as we managed an impressive 4-0 win.

Speaking of friendlies, Germany faced the USA at the RFK stadium in Washington DC. The Americans managed a surprise 4-3 victory, but the game will be remembered for this bizarre own goal. Well done, ‘keeper.

Well that was the past week in a nutshell (less than 500 words is a nutshell in this sport). More transfer rumours, movers, shakers, and clichés to come. Ok, maybe not the last one.

 

Be sure to send your comments, questions or even footie gossip to Rob Smith via Twitter (@robsmithireland).