Tag Archives: 2021

Hearing From The Interviewees – Thoughts On the New Season

The 2021 Singapore Premier League Season is going to kick off in less than 24 hours, and while it’s a real shame that fans are unable to attend the matches in person, there is a lot of hype for this campaign. Several clubs have made high profile signings, and it’ll be interesting to see how these stalwarts fare this season in Singapore. Besides that, the return of the Singapore Cup and continental football means that there is a lot to look out for this season.

Yet, I wanted to ask some players how they felt regarding the new season and so I reached out to some players I interviewed. Here is what they had to say:

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Tajeli Salamat

Tajeli had a fantastic season with Lion City Sailors last season and even featured in the 2020 SPL Team of the Year. While hoping to continue his fine form, the Sailors’ defensive dynamo does admit that he is feeling a little nervous because “with the new season, there comes new goals.” That being said, Taj is excited and hungry for the league to kick off.

“After the delay of the league start date, I have been really looking forward to the start, and now that it’s already March, I can’t wait to play.”

“Regarding changes from last season, I think we have improved together as a team both physically and mentally. The bonds between us are also getting stronger each day. It’s important that we remain as one unit. As the saying goes, together we stand, divided we fall.”

“I really put in the hard work last season, and featuring in the team of the year really meant a lot to me. This year is going to be no different. I will continue to work hard and I hope to achieve more for the team and individually. Oh, and of course, going far in the AFC! End of the day, whatever I am doing, I am working hard for my family – my wife, my newborn son and my parents – cause I am a family guy now. I am doing this for them.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Delwinder Singh

Like the rest of Tanjong Pagar, Delwinder had a season to forget in the 2020 campaign, where the Jagauars finished in last place. That being said, the club has done some serious business in the window and they are looking to make a statement this year.

“Definitely feeling great and excited about the start of a brand new league! We didn’t do well or rather of what we thought we could be able to do. Hence, I’d say it’s redemption time and to get things straight from the start starting with this Sunday’s game. We as a team believe in our philosophy and hence, it’s about continuing and believing in it with our football and showcasing it.”

“We’ve brought in experienced heads who can help in terms of pushing us to our limits and even beyond! Apart from that, it is some minor changes in terms of our football philosophy and to be honest, we’re raring to get this going and to put all our hard work at test. On a personal note, apart from club training, I’ve started working with Rory from Edge of the Box Mentoring, and the sessions has been excellent in terms of getting me physically and mentally ready for the challenges ahead, so I hope I can use it efficiently to help me deal with the various challenges that I’ll face.”

“As a team, I’d say at least qualifying for the AFC would be a good stepping stone. This will only lead to greater things in the future. On a more personal note, firstly would be to do my upmost best to help the team by restricting the opponents. By doing well, hopefully it opens the door back into the national team again as there’s AFF Suzuki Cup to look forward to.”

Photo Credits: Singapore Premier League

Anders Aplin

COVID-19 prematurely ended Hougang’s maiden AFC Cup voyage, and after tasting it once, they are probably hungry for it again. Hougang coach Clement Teo may have stated that Hougang are “not looking at the title as of now”, but with their recent transfers, the Cheetahs are a serious threat to any opponent. At the heart of their defence is Anders Aplin, the self-declared Offensive CB.

Anders briefly mentioned how he’s “really looking forward to the start of the season. It’s been a long and tough pre-season so we’re definitely eager to get going.”

“I’ll take each game at a time. Collectively, I suppose AFC would be something we want to qualify for.”

Photo Credits: Tampines Rovers FC

Gavin Lee

Despite narrowly missing out on the title, Gavin can surely be proud of what the Stags accomplished last season. This season offers a new opportunity – the AFC Champions League.

“The team and I are very excited for tomorrow’s first game. We have prepared well and the boys have applied themselves well throughout the pre-season. I think besides some new faces in the team, not a lot has changed. We are still the same motivated group and we want to achieve what we missed out on last year. Plus we continue to believe in our playing principles as it forms a big part of our processes, as well as continue to develop strong brains required for a successful season.”

“The goals for a club like Tampines remains constant every year. It is our duty to do our very best to achieve them. We like our big games but every game in the league poses different challenges. We enjoy playing against the various opposing strategies and we are ready for this new season!”

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Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess […]

Taking Roads Less Traveled: The Anders Aplin Story

Anders Aplin’s footballing story is an interesting one. In 2018, he made headlines when he became the first Singaporean player to sign with a Japanese team. Even though it was a loan move to Matsumoto Yamaga F.C, the deal caught my attention primarily because Anders Aplin was not a household name. 2 years earlier, Singapore’s […]

Re-evaluating the Under-23 Rule of the Singapore Premier League

I think change is mostly good. When an organization makes changes, it should be commended for actively making some positive change or at least intending to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made after some time. In this light, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) needs to assess whether the current Under-23 ruling for local Singapore Premier League teams has indeed yielded substantial merits.

The Under-23 rule was first implemented in 2018 when the S.League was rebranded into the SPL. Two new and major rules were implemented that year. Firstly, each team could register no more than 6 players over the age of 30 in the squad. Secondly, and more importantly, each team had to sign a minimum of 6 under-23 players and start 3 of them in the first eleven for every fixture. That year also marked the end of the Prime League [the U-23 league]. Therefore, the U-23 ruling was intended to ensure that younger players had a chance to play for first-team football and develop their game.

This new rule was not some random effort by the FAS to shake up the league, but an initiative to tackle the ineffective youth system that plagued Singaporean football. In many regards, it was seen as an immediate response to the abysmal displays by the Singapore U-15, U-17, and U-22 teams in 2017. I remember how the National Under-15 team got thumped by Japan 11-0, and changes were definitely required. Yet, I don’t know if the solution to youth development lies in the new Under-23 rule. Even though the ruling has yielded some merits, they pale in comparison to the disadvantages it brings.

There have been merits to the implementation of the rule for sure. For one, we have seen the emergence of real hot prospects due to the U-23 rule that we may not have seen had it not been implemented. Saifullah Akbar, Arshad Shamim (both Lion City Sailors), Farhan Zulkifl (Hougang United), Shah Shahiran (Tampines Rovers), and Harith Kanadi (Geylang International) are examples of some of the hot prospects that have featured regularly.

Project 2034 can be a truly realistic goal for Singapore if there are changes to the current youth footballing set-up. The U-23 rule could be seen to help with this goal, since it would equip the youth footballers today who would probably become the core of the national team in 13 years. Still, I don’t think it is practical making it mandatory that three U-23 players start each fixture.

While many young stalwarts have shown that they can hold their own against the senior players, not every U-23 player is ready for weekly senior team football. The U-23 rule essentially rushes players into a bigger stage. Not every youth player is Khairin Nadim or Iman Hakim, and often players bloom later on in their careers. The return of the Prime League would help in this regard, or perhaps integration of U-23 teams into the National Football League Divisions is the solution so that younger players can play against more physical and older footballers.

The current U-23 measures are also rather impractical. For example, the under-23 ruling ridiculously requires that at least 3 players below the age of 23 be fielded in the first-half. The rules state that “if any Under-23 Player is substituted in the first half of the match, such player shall be replaced by another Under-23 Player, except in the case of an Under-23 player who is ordered off the field of play in the first half.” This particular rule gained attention during the 2020 Season restart, when Tanjong Pagar got penalized for their match against Geylang International when Syabil Hisham, a U-23 player, suffered an injury and was replaced by thirty-year-old Brazilian forward Luiz Junior in the 45th minute of the first half. Geylang had won the match 1-0, but the infringement by Tanjong Pagar meant that the Eagles were awarded a 3-0 victory instead. Like I said earlier, the rule makes little sense.

Most importantly, the U-23 rule forces senior players to prematurely end their careers. Many SPL teams sign more than the minimum 6 players, since they need to start 3 each match and to ensure that there are enough players were there to be any injuries. With 4 foreign players probably starting each game and three U-23 players, only 4 local players above the age of 23 are fielded. Besides limited opportunities to play, there are so few spots on teams because clubs stack their teams with Under-23 players. A number of professional footballers are currently unable to find a club largely because of the ruling. Some high-profile names include Ignatius Ang, R Aaravin, Zulkifli Hashim, Suria Prakash, Yeo Hao Ngee, and Zulfadhmi Suzliman are just a few of those experienced players without a club at the moment largely because of the U-23 rule. It is also worrying because clubs may simply release their current under-23 players when they reach 24, which would make the rule a significant hinderance to Singapore football’s development down the line.

So, what then? Do we remove the Under-23 rule? I don’t think scrapping it entirely is the best move forward, but instead of 3 Under-23 players starting each match, having only 1 Under-23 player makes sense. Ensuring that a minimum number of Under-23 players are registered for the senior-team is important, but keeping 4 players instead of 6 makes more sense if only one player needs to start. The FAS needs to overhaul its current COE League and create a better system to tackle the issue of declining youth standards. If there is one department that the FAS needs to invest in it, it is certainly in youth coaching and youth training facilities for clubs. Where can the FAS obtain this money? A number of sources are available, but the most practical one would probably be the Tote Board.

The FAS nonetheless should be commended for trying something new. They have the right intention with the implementation of the U-23 rule. I do not think attacking them for it is fair. Still, it is important that stakeholders provide constructive criticism. For football in Singapore to grow, all stakeholders – the fans, the clubs, the players, the FAS, the media, and the sponsors – must come together and help the sport grow collectively. As fans, we should offer constructive criticism and offer support wherever we can. Hopefully, we see some changes made to the U-23 rule soon.

This is probably the start of a number of posts I aim to write to address certain issues that are setting football in Singapore back. Stay tuned for more in the upcoming weeks.

Featured Image Credits: Singapore Premier League

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Why the Singapore Premier League should adopt a Franchise mode

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Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance… AC Milan Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto? I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may […]

Looking to 2021 Part 4: Stories to Watch

The stories that will develop this year that you need to keep an eye on…

Welcome back to the final part of our 2021 preview series. In this part, we will be looking at the big, overarching stories that look to dictate conversation in the football world this year. These are the things you need to look out for.

Actual, real, legitimate title races

After an incredibly boring 2019-20 season with only one of the “top five” leagues being remotely competitive, we go into 2021 with three of those leagues having new teams at the top, with Lyon topping Ligue 1, AC Milan topping Serie A, and Atlético Madrid topping La Liga. Every league also has a competitive points margin. Four points separate first place Liverpool and fourth place Everton in the Premier League. Six points separate first place Atlético Madrid and third place Real Sociedad in La Liga. Five points separate first place Lyon and fourth place Rennes in Ligue 1. Two points separate first place Bayern and third place Leipzig in the Bundesliga. A bit more lengthy seven points separate first place Milan and third place Roma in Serie A. But still, these leagues are close, and with several teams having games in hand over the teams around them, it looks like it can get even closer. There is seemingly no one dominant team in any of the top five leagues, so there is no real clear title favorite in any of them, and the teams that have dominated these leagues over the last few years look to have a serious fight on their hands against the teams around them.

We still have quite a bit of football left to play, and the slog of late league seasons and cup competitions could take their toll on some teams, especially if the COVID Pandemic requires league matches, or even whole seasons, to be delayed, but it is still looking good for us to have some serious competition in the major European leagues in the second half of this season.

Euro 2020, but in 2021

I will admit, international football is not everyone’s cup of tea, and I know I probably enjoy it a bit more than most fans around the world. International competitions still attract plenty of interest, however, and this European Championship looked to be the biggest spectacle the competition has seen in recent years, with the competition being spread out over the entirety of the continent. However, due to COVID, it does not look like that will happen, or at least happen with fans in attendance. While that is a real shame and does take away some of what could have made this Euros great, it still looks set to be a great competition because, just like the domestic leagues, there does not seem to be one clear favorite.

Sure, France are the reigning world champions and probably the most talented team in the competition, but with some of the performances they put up in qualifying and some of their friendly performances in 2020, I am not so sure they should be favorites. While they are still very talented on paper, some of the key players from the World Cup team, including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, Samuel Umtiti, and Antoine Griezmann, are not in good form. France has plenty of talent, but football is not a sport where you can just throw talent on the pitch and they will win. It also seems unclear whether manager Didier Deschamps is willing to trust that young talent, or even if he knows what formation and system suits his team the best. Belgium is another interesting case, with most of their “Golden Generation” beginning to either hit their peak or start to age out. They still have one of the best players in the world in Kevin De Bruyne, and they will be boosted by a more in-form Romelu Lukaku, but they do seem to be questionable defensively. Roberto Martínez has also not necessarily shown he has the managerial nous to get Belgium over the hump and finally win a major tournament.

Meanwhile, some of the “other” teams look pretty dang good. Italy seem to have quietly built one of the most balanced teams on the continent, England still have plenty of attacking talent even with questions around manager Gareth Southgate, and Spain look to be ushering in a promising young generation spearheaded by Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres. Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark all have talent needed to at least make some noise at the tournament, if not win the whole thing. It is a very interesting tournament, and it is very possible that we have a champion that is not expected.

A real shame that there will not be fans, though. I would have enjoyed watching England play Scotland at Wembley. That would have been some spectacle.

A potential summer transfer upheaval

This upcoming summer transfer window looks to be a very interesting one. The obvious story is the future of Lionel Messi, but there are a few big pieces that will be at play this summer.

Firstly, Real Madrid did not save all of that money from last summer for no reason. Los Blancos look to be major players in this transfer window, especially if they do not end up winning the title this season, as they need to usher out the previous generation and bring in new talent. Kylian Mbappé has long been a name connected with Real Madrid, and there is genuine momentum around Real Madrid making a move for the French phenom this summer. But has recent events at the club changed his mind about wanting a move away? With Mauricio Pochettino’s arrival in Paris, PSG have seemingly never had a better chance at winning the Champions League. Would Mbappé want to stay in the capital and see that opportunity out? Or does his dream of playing for Real Madrid still remain? Beyond Mbappé, are there other moves that Real Madrid will make? Who leaves the club? Club captain Sergio Ramos is a notable player whose contract expires at the end of the season, and it does not look like a renewal agreement will be reached at this moment. Can the club afford to lose such a valuable player? Where does Ramos go? Who does Real Madrid bring in to replace him if he does leave? Mbappé is the most interesting moving part connected with Los Blancos, but he certainly is not the only one. It will be a busy summer for Real Madrid.

Moving from Mbappé to France in general, the recent catastrophically failed Téléfoot TV deal means French clubs are going to be losing a whole lot of money this year. With many French clubs, including major powers Lille and Marseille, already facing financial difficulty, this could mean an exodus of talent from Ligue 1 to other leagues. With Lyon and Lille in particular having quite talented teams, it is very possible those teams get picked apart in the summer as the talent moves to leagues across Europe. Ligue 1 could prove to be a fertile farming ground especially for mid-level clubs lacking the pull and finances of the top echelon of clubs in Europe, with the league boasting plenty of talented young players, outside of just the big name players, that will be available for reasonable prices. It is not just the Houssem Aouar’s or Renato Sanches’ or Eduardo Camavinga’s of the world, but players like Sven Botman, Youcef Atal, Mohamed Simakan, and Denis Bouanga will be names you hear connected with moves across the continent and could be the most successful moves from Ligue 1.

This window is also very interesting because there seems to be more key teams involved. With the leagues having more balance and parity this season, there will be teams going into the market this summer to maintain their high level or push beyond that to become true contenders. This is especially the case in England, where Liverpool and Manchester City will look to the market to maintain their high level, while Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, and Leicester will go into the market to continue closing the ever-closing gap between them and the top of the league. Atlético Madrid and Borussia Dortmund will also likely be very active, as will basically the entire top six or seven teams in Serie A. It will be very busy for everyone, as we are seemingly now in a world where the gap between the top and the chasers is nearly nonexistent.

Lionel Messi’s Future

Yeah, we will inevitably get to a decision point. Lionel Messi’s Barcelona contract, as you may know, runs out at the end of this season. In the summer of 2021, Lionel Messi will be a free agent. Will he stay, or will he go? Messi is free to negotiate with new clubs starting now, but he has said he has no plans to negotiate with other clubs until the end of the season out of respect for Barcelona. So we will really be waiting until the very end to find out the answer.

Does he stay? After all, he is Mr. Barcelona. He is their greatest ever player. He is so connected to that football club that it is hard to imagine one without the other. He is also their most important player right now, and while they are even struggling with Messi on the pitch this season, it is not impossible that things will only get worse should he leave Catalonia in the summer. With Barcelona presidential elections coming up in a few months, it is very possible that a new club president comes in and reverses much of the poor decision making and leadership that characterized Josep Bartomeu’s reign. Will Messi see the manager he wants? Potentially Xavi returning to the Camp Nou as manager? Can Barcelona get their finances right to be able to make the moves in the transfer window they need to make? Messi still has a few years left in him, enough time for one more run at the Champions League, time to exorcise the ghosts of Rome and Liverpool. He can still cap off his career as a winner with the club he has spent almost his whole adult life at.

Or does he go? Realistically, are Barcelona going to get themselves out of this mess in a few years? Will anything change in leadership at the top? Is keeping Messi even still in their best interests? The legend is getting older, it is possible it may be in all parties best interest to part ways, allowing Barcelona to build for the future around Ansu Fati and Pedri. Ronald Koeman’s tenure as manager has not gone well, but with Guardiola and Pochettino off the market, is there really a good alternative? Would Xavi even be a good choice? And there are plenty of options for Messi, plenty of clubs where he can make a run at the Champions League one last time. Manchester City and PSG are likely the two favorites to sign him should he leave, and both clubs would be Champions League contenders, or even favorites, instantly with the addition of Messi. He could also leave European football behind, returning to Newell’s Old Boys with the goal of helping them win the Copa Libertadores. He could go to MLS, or Japan, or somewhere else, somewhere less stressful and less burdensome and less of a wreck than Barcelona at the moment.

Where is Messi going to end up? I truly have no idea, but we do not have to wait long to find out.

There you have it. These are the major stories in the football world in 2021. These will be the ones that dominate the headlines over the next 12 months. And this concludes our 2021 preview. Thank you for your readership, and look out for more articles and content coming from us this year!

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Looking to 2021 Part 3: Teams to Watch This Season

In this part, we look at the sides that you need to watch when you have the chance…

AC Milan

Are AC Milan back? Will they win the Scudetto?

I have no idea, but they are certainly a team to keep an eye on. They are a fun team to watch, and while they may not be the most stylistically pleasing to watch in Italy, they can still score some goals, and their team spirit makes them an easy team to root for. Plus, they are full of talent. Zlatan is the obvious one, but they really have talent in every position. Ante Rebić, Alessio Romagnoli, Gigio Dommarumma, Ismaël Bennacer, Sandro Tonali, Franck Kessié, Jens Petter Hauge, the list goes on. They are definitely talented enough to win the Scudetto, especially in midfield, and Stefano Pioli deserves more attention and praise for the job he is doing. Plus, Milan look to be fairly active in the January window, with Strasbourg youngster Mohamed Simakan at the top of their list. An already talented team could be adding more young, promising talent, forming a team that could be contenders in Serie A for years to come. Milan are on their way back.

Manchester United

In a similar theme to Milan, are Manchester United back? Are they going to win the Premier League title this season?

Again, I have no idea, but I am interested to see what happens. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been under pressure as a manager, but he has now seemingly figured out how to get the most out of the talent at his disposal. United are clearly very talented, revolving around the talismanic Bruno Fernandes in midfield. Their other stars have had good seasons, with Marcus Rashford in particular impressing on and off the pitch. They have also gotten good performances out of role players, including the likes of Scott McTominay and Eric Bailly. Right now, their entire team is seemingly playing with confidence and are in good form, helping them start 2021 joint-top of the table. My one caveat with this team is their great run of form has come against mid-to-lower-mid table teams, not truly being tested in the league outside of forgettable draws against Man City and Chelsea. Their European form was also questionable, losing to PSG and RB Leipzig to get knocked out of the Champions League. Things can change quickly in football, though, and the match at Anfield in two weeks will be a great barometer to see where this United team are at. With Liverpool’s current slip ups, that match at Anfield becomes the biggest of the season so far, with United being fully in the thick of the title race alongside Liverpool and Manchester City should they leave Merseyside with all three points.

Even if they do not win the league this season, I do feel this United team are a right winger, defensive midfielder, and center back away from being serious contenders on the domestic and European stage. They will likely be busy this summer, and they will be a team to keep tabs on for the 2021-2022 season. Like I said before with Milan, Manchester United are on the right track.

Everton

We have just finished year one of the Carlo Ancelotti project at Everton, and despite some inconsistencies in form, as well as a rather dismal loss to West Ham on New Year’s Day, the Toffees still find themselves within reach of the top four after an incredibly hectic festive fixtures run and being without several major players. Ancelotti has done incredible work in just one year on Merseyside, but they are still not a team that will shatter the world this season. It is entirely possible that Everton finish in the top four this season, but I do not believe it will happen. Top six is likely, but that is not the reason why they should have your attention.

Especially if they get European football for next season, they will likely be active in the summer transfer window. Given how successful they were in the last window, attracting talents such as James Rodríguez, Abdoulaye Doucouré, and Allan Marques to the club, it is going to be interesting to see who else Ancelotti and Marcel Brands, the club’s sporting director, are able to bring in. I imagine they will be one of the teams that are able to take advantage of the potential talent exodus from Ligue 1, mentioned previously in this series when discussing players such as Sven Botman and Renato Sanches. Brands is known for being able to make smart, financially sound moves for hidden gem talents, so this window could be the perfect opportunity to put that reputation to the test. It is apparent that Everton have the man at the helm needed to lead their project, and as he gets more time and more windows to build his team, it is possible that Everton could improve and truly become the team that gatecrashes into the “Big Six”. It is very possible that the Toffees could look a bit different, and a whole lot better, just 365 days from now.

Southampton

Here is your feel good story for this year.

Fresh off of their 1-0 win at Anfield yesterday, I think it is safe to say that Saints have earned themselves some admirers this season. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s redemption arc at Southampton, and in his managerial career in general, is something quite remarkable. His reaction at the full time whistle against Liverpool says quite a bit. Unable to hold back the tears, he likely remembered his early struggles with Unterhaching and VfR Aalen, the rocky and rather cutthroat end to his time in Leipzig, the fears of losing his job on the South Coast after the infamous 9-0 game against Leicester, all of the struggles he overcame to reach the point where he can stand on the Anfield turf, having been victorious over a man he was often compared to. And he can look at his players, a group that bought into his philosophy and coaching despite the struggles and fears of relegation or his firing. Truly a heartwarming moment.

Hasenhüttl has demonstrated that he is one of the most, if not the most, underrated managers in the Premier League. The job he has done at Southampton is nothing short of remarkable. And the team he has assembled is not half bad either. It is a group of veteran players, many who were often overlooked or discarded at bigger sides but managed to find form and confidence under the management of the Austrian. Alex McCarthy, Ryan Bertrand, Stuart Armstrong, Danny Ings, Oriol Romeu, and Theo Walcott are just among the names that have found a second life at Southampton. There is even a solid set of younger, promising players in this team as well, including the likes of Che Adams, Kyle Walker-Peters, Moussa Djenepo, Ibrahima Diallo, and Jan Bednarek. Saints are still flying high, technically only four points off the top but, in more realistic aims, well within reach of a European place. On paper, you do not fancy this team’s chances of finishing in the top six places.

But they could. They really could. And if they did, that would be one of the best stories of the year.

Paris Saint-Germain

The Mauricio Pochettino era is about to begin in Paris. Having just been announced and made official, the ex-Tottenham manager looks to be returning to the club he once captained to become their next manager. This instantly becomes possibly the most interesting project in European football. He inherits an obviously talented team, one including two of the best players in the world, but one that has had a rocky season and currently is in the midst of a serious title race, something the club has not been accustomed to over the last few years.

In the short term, Pochettino’s project will be repairing the obvious deficiencies in this team in order to get them back on track and retaining their league title. They might do so by making some moves in January, with the club being linked with two of Poch’s former players in Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen. The club has also made it clear that new contracts for Kylian Mbappé and Neymar are also major priorities. Obviously, though, he was brought in with the long-term aim of winning the Champions League. They made the final last season, coming within touching distance of the trophy they have long desired, but there is still work to be done to make PSG a true consistent European contender. Managerial expertise and ability to handle big situations has been something PSG has lacked on the European stage, with last season’s Final disappointment joining a long list of PSG failures in Europe under Thomas Tuchel, Unai Emery, and Laurent Blanc. Pochettino is a manager who, while he has very little in the way of silverware to his name, has managed in the big moments before, famously guiding Tottenham to the Champions League Final two years ago. It is this expertise and reputation that brought him to Paris.

In the meantime, he has some interesting decisions to make. How do they fix this midfield? Will he buck previous trends and trust their youth team? Do they make Moise Kean’s loan deal permanent? What happens with Neymar? With Mbappé? With Di María? With Icardi? Can they actually bring Lionel Messi to the club? Plenty of interesting possibilities are on the table, and it will be interesting to see what Poch is able to do with this team.

Italy

You have heard it here first: Italy have quietly assembled one of the most balanced national teams in Europe. They should be considered a dark horse contender for the Euros this summer, and I would not be surprised if they go far in the tournament.

People seem to have forgotten all about the Azzurri, though to be fair, failing to qualify for a World Cup does have that effect. After the disaster in 2018, the national team began their rebuilding process under new manager Roberto Mancini. While not the most famed and alluring coaching candidate, and with many wanting the return of Antonio Conte, Mancini has done a great job instilling a sense of discipline and team spirit back into the team, two things that was vacated under the fairly negative and somewhat toxic management of Gian Pieo Ventura. He also got the team attacking and scoring goals again, something that was also lacking under Ventura. Mancini’s time in charge also coincided with the rise of a new generation of Italian stars, one that makes up a substantial part of this team. And man, some of these players are quite exciting.

This is what brings this team balance. Not only do they have a great blend of youth and experience, but it is spread throughout the team and not just concentrated in a few positions. Leonardo Bonucci, Francesco Acerbi, and Alessandro Florenzi are veteran players in the heart of defense joined by the younger and potentially-future Italy captain Alessio Romagnoli. The delayed Euros could allow prodigal winger Nicolò Zaniolo to return fit in time for the competition, joining what could be a terrifying attacking front three with Ciro Immobile and Lorenzo Insigne. Should he not be fit for the competition, then no problem. Domenico Berardi, Federico Chiesa, and Vincenzo Grifo can fill in. Their midfield is probably the most remarkable part of their entire team. Marco Verratti has been a fixture in the Azzurri midfield for years now, and Jorginho has joined recently and has stuck. Verratti is having a fine season, but Jorginho is struggling for form. Who could they bring in to join Verratti if Jorginho cannot go? Well, they could use Inter’s Nicolò Barella, or Roma’s Lorenzo Pelligrini, or Milan’s Sandro Tonali, or Sassuolo’s Manuel Locatelli, or Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, or Udinese’s Rolando Mandragora. The options in depth is remarkable, especially in an area of the pitch that is so crucial in winning the slower, more methodical style of match played on the international stage. And they go into the Euros with the added bonus that most of their crucial players are in good form. Immobile is scoring goals for fun, Insigne is back at his dynamic best. Romagnoli and Donnarumma have been solid. There are a number of very good midfielders they can use who are in great form. Even players once on the fringe of the national team, including Moise Kean, Davide Calabria, Mattia Zaccagni, and Leonardo Spinazzola, are in fine form, offering even more options for Mancini.

I am telling you, Italy are dangerous. I would not be shocked at all if they went far in the Euros, and even if they do not succeed this summer, keep them in mind for the World Cup next year.

Bayer Leverkusen

Home to Florian Wirtz, the main future star talent we highlighted a few days ago, Bayer Leverkusen have assembled a high-octane attacking team that, when they are at their best, are a joy to watch.

Leverkusen are seemingly the “other” team that has found themselves in the middle of Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig’s title fight. Sitting currently in third and only five points off first, they are most definitely in the hunt. While they are not the favorite, they are a dangerous team that could have their say in who brings home the title this season. They are the joint-second highest scorers in the Bundesliga through 14 matches, and they have the young talent needed to possibly not be weighed down by pressure and expectation when it comes to chasing down Bayern. They also find themselves in the Round of 32 in the Europa League, and with the talent in this team, I would not be surprised to see them go deeper into the competition.

And what about that talent? Well, there is a lot of it, a nice mix of youth and experience. Leverkusen manager Peter Bosz is not short of experience in working with younger players, coming from his time at Ajax and Dortmund, and this team is no different. We talked about Wirtz earlier in this series, but the rest of their attack includes the 21-year-old Moussa Diaby, 23 year old Jamaican forward Leon Bailey, and 24 year old Czech striker Patrik Schick. They are young talents to watch elsewhere in the team, including 22 year old midfielder Exequiel Palacios and 21 year old center back Edmond Tapsoba. Combining this with the experience from the likes of Lukáš Hrádecky, Charles Aránguiz, and Lucas Alario, and you find a very balanced and exciting team, with the youthful dynamism to be dangerous and the experience to be composed in big situations. Definitely fun to watch for the style of play and goals, but worth sticking around to see if they make some noise near the end of the season.

Real Sociedad

And finally, another team to watch purely because they are fun. Like Leverkusen, Real Sociedad are one to watch for those who want to see goals.

La Real started the year off in scintillating form, climbing to the top of the La Liga table while being the league’s top scoring team. Their form has tailed off recently, but they still go into 2021 in third place and only eight points off the top of the table. It is possible they can still contend for the title this season, but I do not believe they will. This does not mean they are not a team to watch, however, as they are, like Leverkusen, an incredibly entertaining side with plenty of young talent to keep an eye on. Imanol Alguacil has a team with a good blend of experience and youth, but they are a team that is fully committed to attacking and scoring goals. Despite losing Martin Ødegaard after last season, David Silva has arrived from Manchester City and showed that there is still magic in his left foot, taking up the role vacated by the Norwegian and performing very well. Mikel Oyarzabal is continuing to show why he is one of the top rising stars in La Liga, on pace to put together arguably his best year as a professional and captaining his boyhood club. In midfield, Mikel Merino and Igor Zubeldia form a strong partnership, with Merino in particular being one of the more impressive midfielders in the league over the last year. Alexander Isak has put his struggles at Dortmund behind him and is showing why he is such a special talent, and the emergence of young winger Ander Barrenetxea has given Sociedad another young, dynamic danger man to call on.

They may not win the league, and while they will likely win the Copa Del Rey Final against Athletic Bilbao (which was supposed to be last season but will likely be played sometime in 2021), they may not win anything else of note this season. However, still watch them. They are just such a fun team. Everyone needs to keep a tab of a few teams to watch just to see goals and attacking football. In the past, it has been Pep’s Barcelona or Klopp’s Dortmund and Liverpool or Sarri’s Napoli. Now, I am telling you, it is Real Sociedad and Bayer Leverkusen this season. Keep an eye on them this year.

Those are just a few teams to keep an eye on this year among the major domestic leagues and the Euros this summer. In the final part of this series, we will talk about some of the biggest stories and sagas that will develop over the year that you should keep an eye on. Who knows, maybe it will be something that seriously impacts the team you support?

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Looking to 2021 Part 2: The Big Names to Watch

Looking at the big names that could take up the headlines this year…

Welcome back to Part 2 of our 2021 preview series! Today, we are looking at the players who will likely be the center of attention this year for a variety of reasons. Most, if not all, of these players will be more mainstream names, as compared to Part 1’s emerging talents. These are all players that are must-watches in 2021 because of their scintillating form, budding superstardom, transfer interest, or any other reason. These already established stars are poised to have big years.

João Félix, Atlético Madrid/Portugal

After a rather mediocre first season, it looks like we are finally seeing the João Félix we were all promised when he made his mega-money move to the Spanish capital. The Portuguese wunderkind can have a genuine claim at being the best player in La Liga for the first half of the season, amassing eight goals and four assists in 20 games in all competitions, as well as adding a league player of the month award to his list of accolades, as he helped Atlético Madrid end 2020 top of the league.

As the best attacking player in the team, Félix usually plays up front in the traditional Simeone 4-4-2, but his positioning can vary, usually allowed to roam around in the attack as more of a center forward rather than an out-and-out number nine. In this role, he can use his incredible ability on the ball to beat opponents on the dribble and combine with his teammates. He has likely benefitted the most with Atléti’s signing of Luis Suárez, and the two have combined well to be a deadly duo for Simeone’s team. It is his dynamic ability on the ball that has allowed Atléti’s attack to be much more potent than in years past, and it is part of the reason why they are serious contenders for silverware this season. If Félix continues this form, Atléti could very well be champions of Spain at the end of the season, and Portugal will be getting a very in-form attacking player for their run at defending their Euros crown. Félix’s continued growth makes him one of the main players to watch this year, as he grows into a superstar right in front of our eyes.

Mikel Oyarzabal, Real Sociedad/Spain

The other main superstar of La Liga outside of the El Clásico teams, Mikel Oyarzabal has been one of the best attacking players for arguably the most entertaining team in Spain at the moment. The Basque winger and captain of the club was receiving serious attention from Manchester City last summer, being identified as a potential replacement for Leroy Sané, and will likely be one of the next big stars on the move.

Oyarzabal has the ability to play on either wing or as a number ten behind a striker, but has primarily played on the left wing for La Real. He is not the typical inverted winger, as he is a primarily left footed player playing on the left. He is a very good dribbler, able to beat defensive players with simplicity rather than serious amounts of flair. His positioning is still similar to an inverted winger, though, as he often comes inside and operates between the defense and midfielders to combine with the rest of the Sociedad attack and primary creative midfielder, last season being Martin Ødegaard and this season being David Silva. It is here where that dribbling ability comes into play, as he is able to move inside and beat defenders, creating opportunities for key passes or shots. He has managed seven goals and four assists through 18 games in all competitions, helping guide La Real to third in the league and the Round of 32 in the Europa League. He has also become a constant in the Spain team, especially due to his flexibility in Luis Enrique’s system. He will likely feature at the Euros, and if he follows up a strong season with La Real with a strong performance at the Euros, I imagine there will be a list of big teams wanting to sign him.

Olivier Giroud, Chelsea/France

2021 could be the year that Olivier Giroud becomes France’s all-time leading goalscorer. Bit mad, right?

Giroud has always been a fairly underrated player throughout his career, but even while he is no longer a consistent starter for Chelsea, he retains the admiration of France manager Didier Deschamps. The towering striker was a constant in the World Cup-winning team in 2018 despite not scoring in the competition, and he appears to remain the top choice for starting striker going into the Euros this summer. Deschamps has expressed his displeasure in how little Giroud plays for Chelsea, however, and has said he wants the player to leave the club in January in order to be ready for the Euros. A few teams throughout the continent have registered interest, including the likes of Inter and Juventus, and it will be interesting to see if Giroud can find a club where he can play regularly and remind us all of how good he can be. Should he make the move that allows him to retain his spot with Les Bleus, Giroud only needs eight goals to surpass Thierry Henry’s 51 goal record to be France’s all-time leading scorer. It would be a remarkable achievement for a player that has been the target of criticism throughout his career, who often did the thankless work needed to make attacks work for club and country, and who has often been the unintended target of animosity when discussions around Karim Benzema’s absence from the national team surface. I hope he breaks the record; it is an accolade he deserves. Keep an eye on him this year to potentially see history.

Dayot Upamecano, RB Leipzig/France

The French brick wall, who starred last season in Leipzig’s run to the Champions League semifinal, Dayot Upamecano will be a name that gets mentioned quite a bit this season for two main reasons: the Euros and his release clause.

Upamecano was always known as a strong and rapid center back, able to use his recovery pace and sheer force to defend well and win tackles. The reason he really catapulted as high as he did last year, however, is how much he has grown as a positional defender and with the ball, no longer being reliant on his physicality to defend. His football IQ has grown by leaps and bounds, and his ability to read the game and be in the right positions, skills that top tier center backs need, is what has turned him into a budding world-class talent. This was best shown during Leipzig’s 0-0 draw against Bayern last season, where he helped to nullify the incendiary Bavarian attack. Having grown this much as only a 22-year-old, he has become one of the best young talents, let alone young center backs, in the world. He has continued at a high level this season as part of a Leipzig defense that is the best in the Bundesliga in terms of goals conceded. If Leipzig are to overcome Bayern and win the league, it will be because of Upamecano and their defense, rather than their attack.

This is also an interesting year, as Upamecano recently made his debut with the French national team. While he looked visibly nervous, he was alright, and it is not crazy to think that he has a shot of making the Euros team for Les Bleus, which would make his transfer situation even more interesting than it already is. With a relatively cheap release clause in his new contract, it looks like this will be his last season in Leipzig. It was fairly assumed he would be moving to Bayern, with a rumored move falling through last summer, but should he perform well this season and in the Euros, there could be some more competition for his signature. He is one to keep an eye on. He is a promising talent that will likely be a part of one of the biggest transfer tug of wars this summer.

Jules Koundé, Sevilla/France

Yes, another French center back.

Jules Koundé burst onto the scene last season, following his move to Sevilla from Bordeaux. The diminutive afro’d Frenchman was a rock at the back for Julen Lopetegui’s team, forming arguably the best center back partnership in La Liga last season alongside Diego Carlos and being a large reason why Sevilla ended the season with a Europa League title. While Carlos was impressive for his own reasons, Koundé was the true gem of the team. Despite being only 5’10”, he is a very fearless player, and he makes up for lack of strength with very strong positional awareness and ability to win the ball back. He is also great on the ball, being the more composed passer between him and Carlos. Apart from his height, he demonstrated all the tools needed to succeed as a modern center back.

His success with Sevilla last season attracted plenty of attention, with the club reportedly having turned down a large money offer from Manchester City. He is currently continuing his strong run of form, playing very well for a Sevilla team in the hunt for European places in La Liga and in the Round of 16 in the Champions League. Despite likely not being in the running to go to the Euros with France, he will still attract plenty of interest in the transfer window. Center backs, especially young ones that possess world-class potential, are a rare commodity in this market, so a player of Koundé’s caliber and potential will be coveted by clubs across the continent. Sevilla are renowned as a club that has a good eye for talent while also not being afraid to sell important players, knowing they have the infrastructure needed to replace them. I imagine that, should Koundé’s form continue, there will be clubs wanting to sign him this summer. He may not be the first name brought up in the center back transfer discussion, as that should be Upamecano, but I would not be surprised if he played well enough to earn a move.

Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal/England

So, he is a big name at the moment. Sure, he is technically a breakout star, worthy of inclusion in yesterday’s article, but I did sort of forget to put him in. His recent performances have still made him worthy of discussion and definitely one to watch this season.

Emile Smith Rowe is one of the new crop of youth team graduates from Arsenal’s Hale End Academy. He struggled for consistent first team chances, only really featuring in cup matches and Europa League games before going out on loan to Huddersfield last year. This season, Mikel Arteta had been looking for solutions to solve the Gunners’ run of woeful form, so he made the move to bring in some of the younger players, including Smith Rowe, starting for their match against Chelsea. And well, it worked like a charm. Smith Rowe has starred in Arsenal’s last three matches, racking up two assists and arguably being the best player on the pitch in all three. He offers Arteta something that no other creative player had previously: a desire and confidence to take on players and play risky forward passes. His passing and movement actually helps to create genuine goal scoring chances, something that no other Arsenal player had been able to offer this season. With most of Arsenal’s previous goals coming from dead ball situations, and with lengthy scoreless runs in the league under their belt, Smith Rowe appears to be a heaven-sent gift for Gunners fans. With all the rumors surrounding a loan move for Isco or a pricey permanent deal for Julian Brandt, it appears Arsenal have no real reason to search the market for a creative midfielder. Smith Rowe is exactly who they need, and he will likely be a fixture in the team for the rest of the season. Despite how poor Arsenal have been over the last few months, they are only six points off of fourth place. Smith Rowe could be the key to Arteta and Arsenal turning things around. Trust the kid, Mikel. You have nothing to lose.

Renato Sanches, LOSC Lille/Portugal

We could be on the verge of seeing Renato Sanches’ redemption arc be completed, as the Portuguese midfielder has overcome some early career struggles to become one of the more coveted talents in Europe.

After failing at Bayern Munich and Swansea, he found his confidence and form playing for Lille the last season and a half, showing his ability to dictate the tempo of a match and be a strong presence defensively. In that short time, he has become one of the best central midfielders in Ligue 1, showing off all of the traits that made him such a coveted talent when he was at Benfica. He is still only 23, after all, he still has so much more room to improve and grow, and finding a good situation to get his career back on track means he is still able to fulfill his sky-high potential. Young players can often get unfair treatment in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of football, so it is good to see that the naysayers calling Sanches a flop a few years ago might be proven wrong very soon.

With the Téléfoot deal in France failing, Lille have been thrusted into a position where they need to sell players to alleviate their serious debt issues, despite their strong season and serious potential of getting back into the Champions League and, potentially, winning the Ligue 1 title. Sanches will be one of the most coveted players in this team, with some rumors saying Liverpool are interested in bringing him in to replace Georginio Wijnaldum in January. Should he leave in January, expect him to be a serious contributor immediately at whatever club makes a move for him. Should he stay past January, I would expect this to be his last season for Les Dogues, but he could be important in Lille winning their first league title since 2011. Keep an eye on him, this is not the same Renato Sanches many of you may have seen with Bayern and Swansea.

Memphis Depay, Olympique Lyonnais/Netherlands

Speaking of redemption arcs, quite a bit has happened since Memphis Depay’s failed stint with Manchester United.

The petulant child has grown into a mature and confident player, captaining Olympique Lyonnais to the Champions League semifinals last season and to being top of Ligue 1 this season while coming off a major cruciate ligament injury. Eight goals and four assists through 17 games this season playing as the “false nine” in Lyon’s attack puts Depay on pace for one of the best statistical seasons he has had in France, and his performance and role in the team will be crucial for Lyon’s title chances. Only problem? His contract is up at the end of the season, and it does not seem like he wants to sign an extension to stay in the Rhône. He almost left this past summer, having a deal already agreed with Barcelona falling through due to their inability to sell a player and open up room for the Dutchman’s arrival. Lyon sporting director Juninho has said they have no intention of selling key players in January, but press speculation has indicated they could be willing to sell Depay at an incredibly cut rate fee to get something of value for him instead of him leaving on a free transfer in the summer. January will likely be a stressful window for Les Gones, but if they make it through without selling Depay, he should continue his strong form in what could be a “Player of the Season” level campaign, potentially being the reason Lyon win the league. Should he leave, then he would be an incredibly shrewd signing for a club desperate for a creative, dangerous, and tactically flexible forward. Like Renato Sanches, look for him to potentially be a big mover in January, and even if he does not leave in January, this is most likely his final season in Lyon. He will be on the move in the summer at the latest, whether it to be Barcelona or somewhere else.

Manuel Locatelli, Sassuolo/Italy

Manuel Locatelli might be a name you recognize but have not seen in a few years. Locatelli shot into the spotlight in 2016 when he scored a thunderbolt of a winning goal for Milan against Juventus. Only 18 at the time, Locatelli was viewed as the bright young prodigy that could help rescue Milan from their growing issues. He then seemingly fell off the face of the Earth, falling victim to the madness and failure that plagued Milan in the mid-2010s. His lack of trust in club leadership led to him demanding a transfer, eventually going to Sassuolo in 2019.

Well, I am here to tell you that he is still only 22 and he is definitely still a promising young star. He is arguably the brightest young gem in a Sassuolo team that unbelievably found themselves fourth in the league at the end of 2020. Playing as the regista, or deep-lying playmaker role (think Andrea Pirlo), he is able to dictate the game and keep possession ticking over in midfield, setting a platform for a team to attack from. He is also a good enough defensive player to be the deepest lying midfielder. He is an incredibly polished player, growing by leaps and bounds in the short time since he left Milan. He has been so impressive that Sassuolo have valued the player at between €40-50 million, a skyrocket in valuation for a player that moved to the Neroverdi for a quarter of that value. He will be a name that you hear quite a bit this summer, with Juventus especially being one of the teams that will go after his signature. Expect some Premier League teams to join that hunt, however, especially if he plays well for Italy at the Euros. He could be one of the players that benefits the most from the spotlight that the Euros will give him, and given that players like Jorginho and Sandro Tonali are having poor seasons, Locatelli might be given his chance to shine on the biggest stage for his country.

Alejandro Gómez, Atalanta/Argentina

Papu Gómez could be on the move this month. The star of everyone’s favorite underdog team last season, Atalanta’s Alejandro Gómez has been one of the best attacking players in Italy over the last few seasons, being the most important player for La Dea in a team that has truly punched above its weight class. However, he has had a disagreement with manager Gian Piero Gasperini that has only gotten worse, forming a serious rift between the two. Because of this, Gómez has expressed his desire to leave the Bergamasque club in the January window, with no shortage of suitors lining up for his signature. He reportedly wants to stay fairly close, which means the two Milan clubs are likely the favorites, being geographically very close and two teams that could very much use a player of Papu’s talents. There has also been some rumors about him leaving Italy altogether and going to MLS, which would be very interesting, but I imagine the two favorites to sign him are the Milan clubs.

It is a potential move that has generated discussion. While AC Milan and Inter are both very good teams and could use a player like Gómez, it is very possible that moving away from Atalanta would be the worst thing for the player to do. Gómez is a very good player, but he is a star in part because he fits the Atalanta system perfectly, and leaving that system might expose his weaknesses as a player. It is definitely a massive risk, especially if he stays in Italy. He could be a massive piece for a Scudetto-winning Milan or Inter team, but it could also be a massive failure that hurts his legacy within Serie A. Either way, he is for sure a player to keep an eye on this year.

There you have it, the ten stars you poised for big years or big moves that you should keep an eye on. In the next part, we will look at the teams you should be watching in 2021.

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