Wenger to leave Arsenal.

Arsenal Wenger announced today that he will be stepping down from the managers position at Arsenal, a role he held for 22 years.

In a statement on Arsenal’s website, the 68-year-old said “After  careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season.

”I managed the club with full commitment and integrity“

Many fans were calling for the Frenchman to end his tenure with the club for some time, with Wenger Out banners often appearing inside and outside the Emirates Stadium.

The club have been enduring a rocky time of late and many fans will welcome the news. However, most fans must always remember just exactly what he did for Arsenal.

Aside from the trophies he won, he built sides that were hard to beat and would make Highbury or the Emirates an incredibly difficult place to go get any points.

He also brought in a plethora of talent and created bona fide world-class superstars such as Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera.

Who will take the reigns after him? Hard to say at this point but no doubt the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Leonardo Jardim, Luis Enrique or even Patrick Viera will be mentioned.

Wenger is approaching the final hurdle and deserves the respect for what he’s done to get there.

Liverpool draw Roma, but don’t underestimate the Italians.

Many Liverpool fans were no doubt breathing a sigh of relief as The Reds managed to dodge giants Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final, as they drew Roma.

The Italian side would have been, for the majority of fans, the preferred choice. But that’s not to say that they should be underestimated. In fact, under manager Eusebio Di Francesco, they are certainly a team that has all the attributes to go all the way in the competition.

In Serie A, the Giallorossi lie in 4th place, in the comfort of the automatic qualification to the Champions League. But they are only a point ahead of Inter. Their up-and down season domestically (at one point they didn’t win a game after their win against Cagliari on 16th December, until their victory against Hellas Verona on 4th February) can easily be distracted by their success in Europe.

Roma finished top of their Champions League group and, as no doubt Jurgen Klopp will be aware, beat the mighty Chelsea 3-0 at the Stadio Olimpico last October. Then they beat Shakhtar Donetsk on away goals in the knockout phase before making a comeback against Barcelona that won’t be forgotten any time soon.

 

 

The plethora of talent at Di Francesco’s disposal should be noted also. Edin Dzeko’s form with the Serie A side witnesses him banging in the goals all the time. And he’s not the only player who scores for the Giallorossi. Wingers Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy are more than capable of cutting in and firing them home also.

In midfield, they boast the powerhouse that is Daniele De Rossi. Their captain, who like Francesco Totti before him, is a local lad who spent his entire career with Roma. De Rossi, who turns 35 in July, shows no signs of slowing down, and has all the attributes to cause the Liverpool midfield some problems. Alongside him will be Radja Nainggolan, a long-time target for some of Europe’s biggest clubs. The 29 year-old is regarded as one of the most complete and versatile midfielders in the game.

Roma are superb at the back, too, where Aleksandar Kolarov has proved a superb signing and the wonderful Alessandro Florenzi, another player high-in-demand with Europe’s elite clubs including Man United and Barcelona. Greek defender Kostas Manolas has proved to be a colossus at centre half.

Should Liverpool get past Roma, they would face either Bayern or Real Madrid in the final. Not impossible – but extremely difficult. But they have to get past Roma first. And that will be no easy task.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Roma president donates €230k to fix city fountain he celebrated in.

The celebrations around the city of Rome were to be expected after the Serie A side’s enormous comeback against Barcelona to go through to the semi-finals of the Champions League.

One fan who celebrated was none other than American billionaire business man, entrepreneur and Roma president James Pallotta who celebrated with fans of the Giallorossi long into the night last night, which included a dip into one of the city’s famous fountains.

“I got caught up in the excitement, it was a great night for all of us in Rome,” Pallotta said. “But I also don’t want to encourage other people to jump into fountains, except if they want to fix one.”

Pallotta was fined €450 by the city of Rome, but went one further by donating almost a quarter of a million euros to fix the fountain.

“I think it would be a great personal gesture to fix the fountain in front of the pantheon, and so I’m going to donate €230,000 to it.”

Roma join Liverpool in the semi-finals of the Champions League. Tonight both clubs will be joined by Bayern Munich or Seville, with the former ahead from the first leg by 2-1, and either Real Madrid or Juventus, the former in that tie are 3-0 up from the first leg.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Don’t believe all you read on social media.

The blog was extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Fiorentina’s captain, Davide Astori,  who had been found dead in his hotel room, while his side were preparing for a Serie A game against Udinese. He was just 31 years old.

The tragic news of the Italian international, came just weeks after the news of the death of our own Liam Miller. It was made public just last November that the Corkman was receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Both players, taken tragically years before their time, had another thing in common. And it’s the rumours that surrounded them on social media.

In the weeks before Miller’s death, I would often see “news” that the midfielder has passed away. Tweets with the hashtag #RIPLiamMiller would go viral, despite nobody checking the sources. Not very pleasant for the former Ireland international’s family I’m sure, and no doubt deeply upsetting for his three children as they watch their father literally fight for his life.

It was the same with Davide Astori. 

The Italian defender had passed away less than 24 hours, when tweets emerged that Fiorentina were going to provide a posthumous contract for life, with the Astori family the benefactors. Serie A representative Giovanni Malagò even “confirmed” the story. Which wasn’t true. 

Social media can really be a cesspit of humanity with regards the beautiful game. There are things said and shared that shouldn’t be fit for human consumption. False rumours are just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t believe everything you read. On social media, that is.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

January transfer window round up.

There was some impressive moves in the January transfer window which, at time of writing, has a little under five hours remaining.

Liverpool were involved with two massive transfers with Philippe Coutinho exited Anfield for Barcelona, while Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk made his way to the red half of Merseyside. The astonishingly brilliant French midfielder left Athletic Bilbao for Manchester City after six years at the Basque region – he’s still only 23, too.

https://twitter.com/FCBarcelona/status/956213952110891009

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang left Borussia Dortmund for Arsenal while Olivier Giroud moved across London from Arsenal to rivals Chelsea (the latter had Andy Carroll and, bizarrely, Peter Crouch linked with them in the press. Another player who left Arsenal was Theo Walcott who, after 270 league appearances in 12 years with the Gunners, has joined Everton. Ross Barkley left Everton having joined the Toffees in 2005 as a youth team player – he now will ply his trade in the familiar blue colours of Chelsea. Another massive signing in this window in the Premier League is the acquisition of Alexis Sanchez for Manchester United in a deal which saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other way to Arsenal.

https://twitter.com/ManUtd/status/955500480582500353

Outside England’s top tier, Barcelona were busy. Aside from acquiring Coutinho, they brought in Yerry Mina from Palmerias, often regarded as the most exciting defender in South America. Exiting the Camp Nou was Javier Mascherano to Hebei China Fortune, Arda Turan to Basaksehir on a two year loan, Gerard Deulofeu to Watford and Sergio Gomez to Dortmund. Their rivals Real Madrid were very quiet having made no changes whatsoever in this window.

https://twitter.com/ibfk2014/status/958082716632743939

With Laporte to Arsenal, Athletic Bilbao signed the hugely talented defender Iñigo Martínez from Real Sociedad which keeps in line with their famous Basque-only players policy. The rest of La Liga seemed surprisingly quiet for big signings.

https://twitter.com/Athletic_en/status/958426459231739904

In the Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund singed the highly rated Swiss defender Manuel Akanji from FC Basel. He replaces Spanish international Marc Barta, who’s moved to Real Betis. Dortmund also brought in Michy Batshuayi from Chelsea while Neven Subotic leaves Dortmund after a decade and has made St. Etienne his new home. Rivals Bayern Munich only added one addition in this window in Sandro Wagner from Hoffenheim. The 30-year-old raised some eyebrows in joining Bayern as he’s played for seven clubs in the past decade or so, but his goalscoring is all they need him for. And he scored his first Bayern goal against his former team Hoffenheim.

https://twitter.com/BVB/status/958764073180516353

There’s still a few hours left. Let’s sit back and see if there’s any Andy Carroll-esque panic buys. If so, check back on this blog for updates.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Remembering Ronaldinho: the Brazilian genius.

“He has stopped, it is ended,” confirmed Roberto Assis, the brother of Ronaldinho on Tuesday. The Brazilian superstar has not played for a professional team since leaving Fluminense in 2015. But now with confirmation that he won’t be on the pitch in a professional manner leaves one feeling nostalgic with memories of exactly how gifted the 37-year-old was.

A magician who would make you smile. Adored by millions, he would consistently perform tricks, turns and touches that would almost defy physics. His career was stunning with Ballon d’Or and World Cup winners medals along his plethora of silverware that he won during his career.

Starting his career at Gremio in his native Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, it was very clear from an early age that the skinny youngster had buckets of talent. His move to PSG in 2001 and subsequent performances didn’t go unnoticed by the world’s biggest clubs including Manchester United. But in 2003, he arrived at Barcelona and it was at the Catalan club that Ronaldinho became a global superstar.

There was a change at that time at Barcelona. Along with the Brazilian’s arrival, saw new club president in Joan Laporta and a new manager in Frank Rijkaard. The falling attendances and questionable football turned around quickly during that new era for Barça as they bounced back to become a successful club.

Ronaldinho played a colossal role on the pitch then. He was a team player and his influence was infectious. But he did it with such style and his dazzling displays absolutely floored those watching in the ground or on television.

And he was humble too. He had every right to be arrogant, but it wasn’t in his nature. “The best in the world?” the Brazilian said. “I’m not even the best at Barça”. He was referring to an 18-year-old Argentinian kid in the squad.

Never forget that in the height of his career with Barcelona, this is a player that got a standing ovation from Real Madrid supporters following a superb goal scored against Los Blancos. Think about that for a minute.

His star didn’t shine for as long as one hoped and by 2008, club president Joan Laporta stated that Ronaldinho “needed a new challenge”. He has developed a taste for Barcelona’s nightlife which saw his dedication to his physical condition decline slowly. He signed for AC Milan in July 2008.

After a good start, he struggled with fitness at the Rossoneri. “The decline of Ronaldinho hasn’t surprised me,” said manager Carlo Ancelotti. “His physical condition has always been very precarious. His talent though has never been in question.”

His final season at Milan during the 2009-2010 season, it became very clear that his star wasn’t shining anywhere nearly a brightly as it once did during his Barcelona years. But he finished that season as a winner of Serie A as well as the league’s leader of assists.

He returned to his native Brazil in January 2011 and signed for Flamengo before joining Atlético Mineiro a little over a year later. It was at the latter where Ronaldinho seemed to be enjoying his football again. He won the Bola de Ouro – the Brazilian league’s player of the year – in 2012. The following year he helped his club then win the Campeonato Mineiro as well the Copa Libertadores. He was then voted as the 2013 South America Player of the Year.

He moved to Mexico and joined Querétaro in September 2014. He only played for one season and turned out for the side 29 times, scoring eight goals in the process. But it was during a game in April 2015 against Liga MX leaders Club América scored two of them and was given a standing ovation by the entire crowd (which was almost all opposing supporters) inside the enormous Azteca Stadium. 

Most players will never get a standing ovation from opposing supporters. Ronaldinho got it twice.

His final club was back in his native Brazil and with Fluminense. But he only turned out nine times over a two month period for the Rio de Janeiro-based club. It had become clear that he simply wasn’t the player he once was and was heavily criticized by fans of the club and left the side by mutual agreement in September 2015. He would never play professionally again.

These days kids (and indeed adults) argue about who is better – Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Some would argue that Ronaldinho in his prime was better than both of them.

“Ronaldinho was far more gifted than Leo or Cristiano,” former Barcelona and Portugal midfielder Deco said in 2016. “He was a natural with special ability. Whenever we gave the ball to him, the moves and goals were from a different world.”

He certainly was from a different world indeed.

This video sums the man up. The players and staff from Raja Casablanca, his peers, stand around him in awe. Completely star struck and try touch the man to ensure he’s real and not a godlike invention that exists only on tv.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Life after Coutinho won’t leave Liverpool rudderless.

Liverpool fans have every right of being miffed, having lost arguably their best player in Philippe Countinho to the might that is Barcelona for a reported inital €120 million transfer fee plus €40 million in variables. But it is a deal that was somewhat inevitable with the Catalans having registered their interest in the Brazilian international during the summer to replace the PSG-bound Neymar.

But what next for Liverpool? They spend an enormous amount on acquiring Virgil van Dijk from Southampton (a player the were keen on during last summer also). But Jurgen Klopp will be more than aware that he would need to strengthen his goalkeeping situation. I feel that Loris Karius is a decent goalkeeper, but not at a sublime level needed to keep out the plethora of strikers itching for goals in the level of the Premier League. As for Simon Mignolet, personally I feel his time at the Merseyside club is done.

Their midfield may need strengthening too. Jordan Henderson is a decent leader for the Reds and I can’t see him going anywhere anytime soon. Georginio Wijnaldum is superb too. But with Emre Can agreed a pre-contract with Juventus for next summer, don’t be surprised if Klopp tries to acquire the services of the frankly brilliant Leon Goretzka or outrageously gifted Max Meyer, both from Schalke, and both players’ contracts run out this summer. As does a certain Mr Wilshire from a certain north London club.

I think it’s an interesting time to be a Liverpool fan. The club face FC Porto in the round of 16 in the Champions League. A betting man could be forgiven for expecting them to go through. They currently lie 4th in the Premier League and are still in the FA Cup. They may have lost a Brazilian magician to Barcelona, but they have been doing well thus far and life there won’t be much of a Coutinho-shaped hole in Liverpool as you’d expect.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The top 20 footballers of 2017 (part two).

Part one of my top 20 footballers of the year weren’t met without both criticism and praise on social media. But that’s what football is – opinions. Hopefully part two here and now will cause equal debate. Here’s my top 10 for 2017:

10. Gareth Bale (Real Madrid & Wales)

A true phenomenon. The Welsh winger possesses all the attributes required of a bona fide world-class star. His strength and speed has been dazzling the crowds across all stadia in La Liga. A key player for Real Madrid and at just 27, he clearly has more to give at the highest level.

9. Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid & France)

While many would argue that 2016 was a better year than 2017 for the striker, few would expect a slump in form for 2018. A gifted striker, Griezmann has an eye for goal that most strikers can envy. His off-the-ball positioning makes him a lethal opponent for any defender. It’s no wonder all of the major clubs want the 26-year-old’s signature.

8. Eden Hazard (Chelsea & Belgium)

At his peak, Hazard is pretty much an unstoppable force. But his peak isn’t consistent enough to earn him a place in my top 5. That said, he is a dazzling and multi-talented star who would fit into just about any elite team worldwide. He will be 27 next week – is the best yet to come?

7. Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid & Slovenia)

In the Diego Simeone era of Atléti, the one consistent powerhouse of their success is Oblak. He stands over 6’2 and has a knack of making his goal seem frustratingly small for his opponents. His footwork, distrubution and agility, coupled with his clean sheets record, make him the envy of many a striker. Only 24, the Slovenian is surely destined to be one of the great goalkeepers of his era.

6. Sergio Agüero (Man City & Argentina)

As of right now, Agüero has scored 134 goals in 195 games. This makes him lethal. He’s always been lethal. In fact, he doesn’t often have an off day. A dead cert starter for club and country, he’s will be 30 next summer – approaching the end of his prime. But make no mistake, by next summer, he will be in a prime position to help his club win another Premier League trophy, and country to possibly another World Cup final?

5. Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich & Poland)

The 29-year-old has always been a top goalscorer. Since arriving in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund in 2010 from Lech Poznan, Lewandowski has been scoring time after time in Germany’s highest tier. He’s now is his eighth season in Germany, but he’s already the second-highest foreign scorer in Bundesliga history and 11th in the all-time scoring charts with 164 goals in 240 matches. An elite number 9.

4. Neymar (PSG & Brazil)

It’s no surprise that PSG had to break the record transfer fee for the Brazilian and splash out an obscene €222 million for the 25-year-old. At Barcelona, he was always living in the shadow of Leo Messi. At PSG, he has become the centre point of focus and, in turn, he has made them more exciting and watchable and will be a driving force in helping the French side go one step closer of reaching their ultimate goal of a Champions League victory. A star on and off the pitch and improving on and off the pitch.

3. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City and Belgium)

The Belgian attacking midfielder has probably got the best vision of any player on the planet right now. His passing skills are a phenomenon in their own right. His other attributes such as his technique and long range strikes make him one of the deadliest players right now. If he carries on with the same form his displayed in 2017, he could easily become the world’s greatest player in no time.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid & Portugal)

When Cristiano signed for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009, I didn’t think that at almost 33, he would be a consistent elite level player, capable of single handedly changing games. I firmly believe that he will probably put most players to shame when he will be 40, should he stay active that long. A five-time Ballon d’Or winner and multiple other individual and team titles, Ronaldo has always been nothing short of remarkable. His status as one of the best in the history of the sport is already cemented.

1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona & Real Madrid)

Messi is, in my opinion, the greatest footballer to ever play the sport. I know people will argue about Maradona, Pele, Cruyff, Ronaldo, Di Stefano, Beckenbauer and Baresi. But Messi has had something else. It’s almost as if he was put on this planet to play the sport. Head and shoulders above everyone else, the only person who even comes close is number two on this list. He has been the sole reason why Barcelona keep winning. I don’t mean since the summer. I mean since he first put on the Blaugrana shirt.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

Kaka retires from football, aged 35.

The blog is a little saddened that the beautiful game loses one if it’s finest players of our era today, as Kaka has announced his retirement from football aged 35.

One of the finest playmakers of his time, the Brazilian started his career in his native country with São Paulo before AC Milan captured his signature in 2003. His style of play at the San Siro saw Kaka become one of the world’s elite players.

Despite a collapsed move to the then-newly rich Manchester City, it was Real Madrid who lured Kaka away from the club where once said he wanted “to grow old”. His move to the Bernebeu in 2009 however could be best described as luckless. He joined for a transfer fee of €67 million. At the time, this was the second highest transfer fee ever, behind only the €77.5 million fee for Zinedine Zidane. However, in the same transfer window Real Madrid broke the world record by signing Cristiano Ronaldo. (Whatever became of him?)

His four seasons in the Spanish capital were ravaged by injury, before returning to Milan in 2013 for one season, before finishing up his career Stateside with the newly formed Orlando City.

Kaka will be remembered as being one of the elite Brazilian players that wowed the crowds and his list of silverware – both team and indvidual (including the Ballon d’Or) will strengthen that argument.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

The top 20 footballers of 2017 (part one).

Over the past twelve months, we’ve witnessed some incredible football, some great games and some phenomenal players do what they do best. Here is the first half of my top 20 footballers of 2017.

20. Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool & Brazil)

The frequent brilliance that the 25=year-old produces left nobody surprised when Barcelona came knocking to try lure Coutinho to the Camp Nou as a replacement for Neymar. Has buckets more of brilliance to give.

19. Isco (Real Madrid & Spain)

From an uncertain future and being linked with doezens of other clubs to being virtually undroppable by Zinedine Zidane, Isco has become one of the heavyweight players in a star-studded Real Madrid team. Will do even better in 2018 I reckon.

18. Harry Kane (Tottenham & England)

A traditional English centre forward who is a goal scoring machine, Kane’s has an eye for goal that most strikers around the globe would envy. Tottenham would be doing well to hold on to him over the next year or two – it’s only a matter of time before the big guns come will be calling.

17. Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid & Spain)

The solid centre-half is one of – if not the – best players of his position in world football. Ramos has proved that, at 31, he can take on whatever is thrown in front of him. Expect nothing but more brilliance from the Spaniard over the next 12 months too.

16. Edinson Cavani (PSG & Uruguay)

The 30-year-old has been a colossal figure for every club he’s turned out for. He lived somewhat in Ibrahimovic’s shadow during the Swede’s tenure in the French capital, but since his move to England, Cavani has become a one of Ligue 1’s biggest stars with goalscoring stats that most manager’s would kill for.

15. Mauro Icardi (Inter Milan & Argentina)

The 24-year-old Inter captain makes just as much headlines off the pitch as he does on it, there’s no denying his phenomenal performances in Serie A. His form for the Nerezzurri has earned him his place back in the Argentina set-up after a three year absence. He won’t be at Inter forever and giants Real Madrid have reportedly taken notice.

14. Luis Suarez (Barcelona & Uruguay)

Maybe twelve months ago, Suarez would have slotted into this list’s top five and with considerable ease, but his brilliance, despite a slightly inconsistent 2017 for his usual high standards, earns him into the top 20. When on full form, he is probably one of the deadliest strikers on the planet. He has it in him, and will be willing to show it again at next summer’s World Cup – make no mistake.

13. Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus & Italy)

The word legend is thrown around a lot in modern football, but this man epitomizes it’s very definition. Having recently retired from his national team, Buffon, who will be 40 next month, is still consistently one of the best goalkeepers – and indeed one of the best players – in the world. Enjoyed his 10th Scudetto with Juve last May.

12. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund & Gabon)

If anybody was going to overtake the great Robert Lewandowski at the top of the goalscoring charts in the Bundesliga, it’s Aubameyang. And he achieved just that last season. Something of a late-bloomer, the Gabonese striker is now 28 and over the next 12 months will be a favourite to improve his records and statistics even more – if Dortmund can hold onto him.

11. N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea & France)

The 26-year-old midfielder is the first player to win back-to-back titles with two different clubs since his fellow countryman Eric Cantona achieved this feat back in 1992 and 1993. At Leicester, he was instrumental in their unbelievable and historic Premier League win. Since moving to Chelsea, he has been exhibiting the technical class that most of his peers can only dream of.

Keep an eye out for the part two of this list, where I’ll be giving my top 10 players of the past twelve months.

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Is Gennaro Gattuso really the man to fix AC Milan?

Gennaro “Rino” Gattuso was a very good player. He played 468 times for AC Milan across all competitions over a 13 year period. Today the Serie A side named the 2006 World Cup winner as their manager.

Despite spending €200 million plus during the summer and bringing in a plethora of talent such as the world class defender Leonardo Bonucci, Turkish playmaker Hakan Çalhanoğlu, Portuguese wonderkid Andre Silva to name but a few, Vincenzo Montella’s approach was simply not working.

Gattuso may embody everything a fan of the Rossoneri loves about their club – a passionate Italian leader with a no nonsense approach. And he certainly was that on the pitch. It’s his managerial credentials that I question. Is Rino really the answer to the problems for the red and black half at the San Siro?

Having joined Swiss side FC Sion in the summer of 2012, he was made player-manager in February 2013. In his twelve games in charge, he only won three times, he lost five and drew the rest before being sacked in summer 2013.

He was then appointed manager of Palermo in June 2013 during a turbulent time at the club both on and off the pitch. Eight games, three wins, and four losses later, he was relieved of his duties at the Stadio la Favorita. To be fair, the club went through a ridiculous twelve managers between summer 2011 and winter 2015. Talk about a lack of stability.

His next job was with Greek side OFI Crete, whom he joined in June 2014. He lasted just seventeen games with the club, losing a staggering nine times and only winning five games. He resigned from the club in December 2014. He actually resigned twice, having previously gave in his notice the previous October, only to change his mind.

He then applied for the job at SPL side Hamilton Academical in January 2015 but to no avail.

He did find work with Lega Pro side Pisa in August 2015. The following June, he led the side to Serie B via the play-offs, but then left the club mere weeks later, citing “serious, constant and unacceptable” problems at the club. He left with a 32% win ratio.

Is he really the man to fix the issues at Milan? He certainly knows the club inside out, and has previously been training the stars of tomorrow with the Rossoneri’s youth system.

His managerial credentials would make me think that there’s some sentimental figures in Milan’s boardroom that like the idea of a club legend taking them to great heights. But not everyone can do a Pep Guardiola or Zinedine Zidane. Some might do a David Unsworth.

 

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

 

A La Liga without Barcelona would be everyone’s loss.

With the recent political events in Spain, many fans, pundits and even players have taken a few moments to ask what exactly would happen if Catalonia was to get it’s independence. What would it mean in terms of Barcelona? And what would it mean for La Liga?

The truth is that it’s a very, very complicated situation in Catalonia politically. At the moment it doesn’t look likely, but if Catalonia was to break away from Spain, there would have to be amendments to the country’s sporting laws.

Article 32 of Spanish sporting law states that any club that wants to participate in any “Official competitive sporting activities at state level has to to be integrated within the corresponding Spanish sporting federations.”

All clubs in Catalonia would have to leave La Liga. This wouldn’t really do anyone any favours.

El Clásico, the heated rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona gets an estimated television audience of 650 million people worldwide whenever the two sides meet. If that was to disappear overnight, that would create a sporting and financial hole for the La Liga bosses.

Apart from Barcelona, a Catalan league would consist of teams such as Espanyol, Girona, Tarragona, Reus, Sabadell and Barcelona’s and Espanyol’s reserves. This wouldn’t make it the most exciting or competitive league with the power FC Barcelona have in the region.

“I cannot imagine the Spanish Liga without Barcelona,” Real boss Zinedine Zidane even said. “I just can’t see it as a fan of football and of sport in general.”

The situation here in Catalonia is tense and that will have to be resolved – despite many pro-independence supporters dispute Spanish ownership on what they consider non-Spanish soil.

It might be some time before that cools down – and for some it never will until Catalonia becomes an official republic.

All eyes will be on the next El Clásico on December 23rd.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

No easy route to Russia next summer for the Boys In Green

Having guaranteed a play-off place for the World Cup next year, the Boys in Green have no real easy way of getting there with out potential opponents being either Italy, Croatia, Switzerland or Denmark.

The two must win games at the weekend against Moldova and Wales will provide some inspiration for whoever we face in November in the play-offs. And hopefully with a full strength team. The two games weren’t the most attractive of games to watch, but six points were needed – and six points were earned.

https://twitter.com/FAIreland/status/918178283488989189

Croatia and Italy are the two teams I would avoid if I could. I’d fancy us giving Switzerland a go. We beat them 1-0 in a friendly in March of last year, but that said, it was only a friendly. Denmark won’t be easy, but I would be of the opinion that we can overpower them over 180 minutes.

The draw for the ties will be held next Tuesday in Zurich. Fingers crossed.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Ireland’s World Cup summer is now within touching distance.

As Scotland failed to take all three points from their game against Slovenia on Sunday night, it sets up things nicely for Ireland as we face Wales in Cardiff tonight. A win against Chris Coleman’s men will guarantee us a play-off place. If Serbia lose at home to Georgia – unlikely but possible – then we go through automatically.

If Ireland fail to win, then Martin O’Neill’s men will not be going to Russia next summer.

The big talking point from the Wales camp is that they are missing their world-class superstar Gareth Bale. And he will be missed. But that’s not to underestimate the Welsh team who can cause Ireland serious problems. But I believe so can we to them.

“I think our approach will be quite similar to the one we had against Italy in Lille,” Martin O’Neill said in a press conference in Cardiff yesterday. “Where we knew before the game that a win was the only thing that mattered for us.”

While James McCarthy is ruled out for the crucial game, Ireland will be grateful to see the return of Robbie Brady and James McClean who are both back from suspension.

“Whatever game-plan we have, we are going to try to utilise it as best we possibly can,” the Ireland boss said. “At the end of 90 minutes, we have got to find ourselves in front. I think we are capable of doing that.”

The nerves are kicking in for this writer, that’s for sure.

 

Follow Rob Smith on Twitter (@robsmithireland)

Whatever happened to wonderkid Fran Mérida?

A talented member of Barcelona’s La Masia youth acedemy, Fran Mérida was at one point in the same position so many before him were – labelled as the “next big thing”. The young Catalan midfielder had more than just hype. It seemed the teenager could back it up and was labelled as another Cesc Fabregas.

When Mérida left Barcelona in 2005, it was the youngster’s parents, concerned about all the young players heading to La Masia and felt that he would have a better chance elsewhere. That elsewhere was ultimately Arsenal, despite initial interest from Real Madrid and AC Milan.

But the move turned out to be costly, when in October 2007, a Spanish court ruled that Mérida had infringed his contract with the La Liga club. “The ruling recognises the rights of the clubs that are educating and raising children,” then-Barcelona vice-president Ferran Soriano said at the time.

It was a rocky start off the pitch for the then-17-year-old. But his reputation about what he could do on the pitch was generating momentum. Up until the court case, Mérida only made one appearance for Arsenal, and that was in a League Cup match. Arsene Wenger even denied letting the Catalan go out on loan citing that he had “too much talent”.

But the following year, he did indeed send him out on loan, to Real Sociedad. He played in the first team for the entire year before going back to the Emirates.

“I had some opportunities,” he said many years later. “but the competition was high. Arsenal bought Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the first-team. Nasri, Fabregas, Rosicky and Denilson were also in my position. It was difficult for me.”

Then in 2010, Mérida generated interest from Spanish giants Atlético Madrid – the club he supported as a boy. He started well in the Calderon but began to lose his confidence and played less and less as time went on. Atléti put him out on loan to Portuguese side Braga.

Mérida lasted four months in Portugal, playing a mere 132 minutes of football before returning to his native Spain and signed for Hercules on a four year contract. Citing a lack of confidence and internal issues at the Alicante-based club, in 2013 Mérida received interest from Brazilian top-flight side Atletico Parenese, an offer he accepted.

Missing the first ten games due to a work permit, Mérida broke into the first team and played well. The Curitiba team finished third in the Brasilian Serie A that season. Sadly when the club were knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, the chairman told players that he was changing numerous things. His contract was not renewed and he returned to Spain in July 2014, but he would go the next four months unemployed.

Despite interest from Greek and Cypriot clubs, Mérida was keen to stay in Spain. He had to wait until January 2015 and then he signed for third-tier side Huesca. A club that he regained his confidence and excelled and, while clearly the most technically gifted player at the club at that time, he helped the club gain promotion to the Segunda.

He enjoyed living in the city too. A small city with a population of just 52,000, located around 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza, and a city where he could walk the streets without hindrance. He began to enjoy his football once more.

His excellent performances at Huesca caught the attention of top-tier side Osasuna, who snapped him up in July 2016 on a four year deal.

 

 

It must be worth pointing out that Fran Mérida was one the absolute bright talents in European football a decade ago. It was in the script that he was to be another Cesc Fabregas – a wonderkid from Barcelona’s youth academy with bags of talent and brought to the cold English league to ply his trade. Cesc went right to the top. Mérida, for a variety of reasons, didn’t go all the way. But, despite the whirlwind, he’s still playing top-level football, he’s happy, and you can’t ask for more than that.