Tag Archives: Barcelona

Upheaval in La Liga?

And why this just might be the year of Cholo…

Feature Image by FrodeCJ from Pixabay

Don’t look now, but there is something interesting happening in Spain.

It seems like every year we look at every league and think this could be the time for that outsider team to break through and win their title, but yet we end every season in disappointment as one of the teams we expect to win the league always does. We saw the start of the Premier League season and hope that the bright start for Everton or Leicester or Wolves could lead to us seeing a different champion come May. While that is probably a false dawn, the situation unfolding in Spain is certainly looking more promising.

It has been clear for all viewers that the quality of La Liga has declined from the peak it reached a decade ago, and Barcelona and Real Madrid are certainly shadows of their former selves. That did not stop those two from winning the last two league titles despite being in “crisis”, but now it seems like the issues going on at both clubs are beginning to seriously hold them back. A few years of papering over the cracks have come back to haunt both teams, and each of their poor starts to the season (especially Barcelona’s) implies more significant issues within the teams.

Barcelona’s almost-divorce with Lionel Messi this past summer was the boiling point of years of tension between players and board, as well as the poor sporting and development plan established by former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu. On the pitch, they have barely held it together, having embarrassingly fallen out of the Champions League against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in consecutive seasons. Off the pitch, the club fell into significant debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the club being unable to enact the significant on-pitch changes needed. They have sacked two managers in the last two years, having a very messy divorce with Ernesto Valverde and ditching his replacement, Quique Setién, for ex-Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman. This brings them to this season, where the departures of Nélson Semedo, Ivan Rakitic, Luis Suárez, and Arturo Vidal led to quite a shake-up in the first team. While this was good in giving chances to younger talent, including the prodigal Ansu Fati, it left them without a first choice striker, having to use Fati almost as a false nine. Their strong dependence on Messi over the last few seasons has caught up, as the exhausted Argentine has started this season quite poorly. Draws to Aláves and Sevilla and losses to Real Madrid and Getafe leave them in eighth, lacking much in the way of true cohesion as a team. It has not quite clicked for Koeman, being responsible for the worst league start for the Blaugrana in 25 years. This is not just growing pains under Koeman, this is the manifestation of years of mismanagement at all levels. It feels much more systemic, and it feels like something that is going to stop Barcelona from winning trophies this season, in what could be Messi’s final eight months in Catalonia.

And for Real Madrid, things are also not going well. No, there is not the massive structural issues plaguing the club as there is with Barcelona. They won the league last season with basically the exact same team. However, that team last season had quite a bit of issues, specifically in attack and chance creation, that have not been solved. Zinedine Zidane’s team won the league last season by simply not being as bad as Barcelona, able to use what was normally a strong defense to grind out enough results to finish top. In the post-Cristiano Ronaldo world in Madrid, the team has become significantly more defensive than in the past. Many times, if Karim Benzema did not score, there would not be many places where Zidane could find goals in his team. That worked last season, they were able to do what they had to do. They were great after the restart of the season, treating it as almost a knockout cup competition and grinding out results. This season, they have not been able to maintain that. It seems that the bounces, the calls, the luck that went Real Madrid’s way last season, and helped them grind out those close results, has stopped going their way. While they have not had as bad of a start to the league season as Barcelona, there are still signs that things are not right. A draw to Real Sociedad, a shock 1-0 loss to newly-promoted Cádiz, and their most recent 4-1 thumping against Valencia shows that the cracks that Zidane successfully papered over the last two seasons are still there. Bad European results also imply significant issues, as a team of Real Madrid’s pedigree should not be losing to a COVID-ravaged Shakhtar Donetsk team or needing to come from behind to scrape out a point against Borussia Mönchengladbach. I am not saying Real Madrid are in crisis or Zidane’s job is in as much peril as Koeman’s, and I do still think Real Madrid will definitely contend for the title this season, but it is clear this Los Blancos team is vulnerable.

And both sides have been vulnerable for the past few seasons. None of these issues are really new, but each team were able to just paper over the cracks the last few seasons and figure out what they had to do to win the league title. The team that won it would have been the team that was less bad between the two. Why is it not safe to assume that they will not do the same again this season?

Well, the last two seasons, there has not been a team good enough to challenge the Clasico duopoly. Atlético Madrid finished second and third the past two seasons, but they were significantly behind the league champion each time. It has been a bit of a struggle for the usual third horse in the title race the past few seasons. Valencia, Sevilla, and Real Sociedad have each presented themselves as teams that were talented enough to challenge for the title the past two seasons, but due to form, injuries, or some other reason, they were never able to be consistent enough throughout the season to break into that top three. There just has not been a team good enough to contend with the two struggling giants, but this season, it is a different story.

The subheading of this blog implies a potential “year of Cholo”, so you know which team I am going to talk about. But Atléti are not the only team in this equation. Real Sociedad, as of right now, are top of La Liga and are the league’s highest-scoring side. La Real were one of the most enjoyable teams to watch last season, but many thought the departure of Martin Ødegaard would make them worse. While Ødegaard was immensely important for that team, they have seemingly survived without him, largely in part due to the contributions of the newly-arrived David Silva, the ever-reliable Portu, a budding superstar in Mikel Oyarzabal, and an incredibly reliable crop of academy graduates that are growing into underrated role players in the team. Villarreal are currently second, and while they have some issues to iron out with new manager Unai Emery, they are still a very talented team that could hang around the top of the table throughout the season. Sevilla was a team described last season as being a goalscorer away from being league title contenders, and while they have not had the best start to this season, they are still a quite talented team. If Julen Lopetegui can turn around their form, they are a team that could be in the fight at the top of the table. There are several teams outside the Claisco duo that have gotten stronger this season, making it a more interesting fight.

But there is one standing above the rest of the challengers. I truly believe this could be the year for Atlético Madrid to return to the top of the league. The oft-maligned Diego Simeone has had a rough last few years in Madrid, and there was legitimate concern that he was facing the sack during the first half of last season, when Atléti were struggling and at risk of falling out of the European places. A long unbeaten run, started after the league restart last season and carried into this season, has Atlético Madrid looking like genuine title contenders and, interestingly, looking significantly different from a typical Atlético team. While they have the league’s best defensive record so far, which is typical for a Cholo Simeone team, they are also the league’s second-highest scorers, scoring 17 goals through seven matches. It is easy to credit this to the free transfer signing of Luis Suárez, and in a way, that is correct, but it does not tell the whole story. As a team, in structure, formation, and pattern of play, they are more fluid and more attacking than the typical Simeone teams that came before them, and that makes them terrifying.

It revolves around Suárez, but it is not all his doing. On paper, Suárez is easily an upgrade on the rapidly aging Diego Costa and good-but-inconsistent Álvaro Morata, but how the Uruguayan fits into this team is what forced Simeone to crank up the attacking ability of the team. Due to Suárez’s specific traits as a player, as well as his age and declining pace, Atléti cannot attack in the same way they would normally, and Simeone acknowledged this when Suárez was brought into the team. Normally, they are able to play in that famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) low block, forcing the ball onto the wings, pressing the ball when it gets to the wings, and using a long ball for a forward to chase down in order to launch a counterattack. They are not able to do that with Suárez, and, as Simeone has pointed out, Atléti need to start their attacks closer to the Uruguayan in order for him to be fully involved and able to use his best traits as a player. This has caused Simeone to rethink his line ups, choosing now to include multiple attacking players in order for Suárez to play off of several forwards when in attack. These players, usually two of João Félix, Marcos Llorente, Ángel Correa, Thomas Lemar, and Yannick Carrasco, are able to combine with Suárez in attacking moves, creating a more fluid and less predictable pattern of build-up play and causing significantly more issues for opposition defenses than past Simeone teams have done.

This has been big for Suárez’s ability to bed into this Atlético Madrid team quickly, but it has also been a massive step in the development of João Félix. Now constantly in positions where he is not isolated and able to be involved in attacks, we are seeing the prodigal player we all expected to see when the young Portuguese departed Benfica for the Spanish capital. With seven goals and three assists in all competitions so far this season, Félix has instantly become arguably Atléti‘s most important player not named Jan Oblak, a player that is playing with incredible amounts of confidence and is involved in nearly every attack. If Félix is able to play at a high level throughout the season, then it provides Simeone with the dynamic, game-changing player that can get you something from nothing or be the reason you win a match, a player they have lacked since Antoine Griezmann’s departure. And the amazing thing is they probably have three more of that level of player already in the team with Suárez, Llorente, and Oblak. Atlético Madrid are a team that has often been plagued with not being able to get the most out of the attacking talent they have in the team, as they are often trying to shoehorn talented footballers into a Cholismo system requiring more in grit than in goalscoring. If Simeone is able to strike the balance between having a defensively solid team and one that can score goals at a more accelerated rate, then he may have created the best team in Spain.

I will admit this could be a massive overreaction. It could just be a poor start to the season. However, the reason I am writing this about La Liga and not the Premier League is because it does feel genuinely like more than just a bad start. In England, we had teams like Leicester and Wolves get off to hot starts to the season, but there is no reason to seriously believe that Manchester City and Liverpool will not be the two main title contenders come the end of the season. I have no sizable reasons to be confident in Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the sole title contenders. The issues at both clubs are too significant and have lingered for too long to be written off as a poor start. With the quality teams surrounding them, especially Atlético Madrid, it feels like we are looking at the scenario many people have longed for: a major league where the “Super League” club did not win the title. While the Premier League, Bundesliga, and Ligue 1 feel predictable, La Liga feels wide open, and I am very excited to see how it all plays out.

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On the Arthur-Miralem Pjanić Swap Deal

And what it tells us about…well…a lot, really…

So a week or so ago, rumors started to come out around a very peculiar deal. Barcelona and Juventus were in discussions over a deal for Bosnian midfielder Miralem Pjanić, which is not necessarily old news. People had been covering Barcelona’s potential interest in Pjanić for a few weeks, if not a few months, now, but the terms of this arrangement were significantly more peculiar.

A few days ago, we got confirmation of those rumors. Two separate transfer deals were agreed, sending one Barcelona player to Turin and one Juventus player to Catalonia, almost like a faux swap deal. Pjanić would be making his way to the Catalan club for a €60 million + bonuses fee, while Barcelona midfielder Arthur Melo went the other way for a €72 million + bonuses fee. While they were two separate deals, the end result was the players swapped teams and Barcelona made €12 million. This deal seems very weird at face value, especially when looking at the fees for those players in a COVID-impacted market, but when digging deeper, the deal begins to make much more sense as long as you accept one reality:

The primary motivation behind this deal was financial, not sporting.

This motivation can be said for both teams, but very much so for Barcelona. Barcelona have been in a very serious financial strain for the last few years, but it was rapidly accelerated by the acquisition of Antoine Griezmann last summer. As a result, the club was put into a pinch to sell players and make that money back, and they have been actively trying to sell quite a few players in the team, mostly focusing on younger and fringe players. Samuel Umtiti, Jean-Clair Todibo, Ivan Rakitić, and Philippe Coutinho were among the names linked with moves away, and youngster Marc Cucurella recently made his loan to Getafe a permanent deal. However, there were no significant moves made, and they were in a pinch to make around €60-70 million in player sales before the end of the financial year on June 30th. Should that fundraising not happen, the Barcelona board of directors would be personally liable for a portion of the losses, in accordance to laws governing football clubs in Spain. I encourage you to read anything Sid Lowe has written on this for the Guardian or for ESPN to get the details, but long story short, Barcelona needed money and needed it quickly.

Along comes Juventus, a team that, if rumors are to be believed, are also not in the greatest of financial situations. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018 was a landmark moment for the club, but it was also a very expensive moment for the club. Ronaldo made the move to Turin for around €117 million, and when adding on the €31 million net wage that the Portuguese forward commands, the move has put significant pressure on the Juventus finances. I, personally, would argue that the move for Cristiano made the Juventus team around him weaker due to the lack of money Juve could spend in the transfer market (apart from one large Dutch outlier), which led to the increased struggle for the Scudetto this season, but that is for another day. The point is that they needed to lighten the financial strain. The situation is not as dire as the one in Catalonia, but if Juve wanted to bring in players to upgrade their team and challenge for the Champions League title they brought Ronaldo in to win, they needed to balance the books, and there were a few outlier players on high wages that the Bianconeri looked at moving on. One of them was Miralem Pjanić, a midfielder who was among the best in Serie A for several years, but age and changes in manager and system seemed to take him past his prime. Despite his reduced role in the team, especially this season under manager Maurizio Sarri, Pjanić still has the fourth highest net wage of any player in the club, ahead of several crucial players such as Paulo Dybala, Wojciech Szczęsny, and Rodrigo Bentancur. He was a player the club wanted to part ways with, especially in their goal to find another midfielder to upgrade the Achilles’ heel of their team. Barcelona have had at least mild interest in Pjanić for a significant amount of time now, so when the deal evolved into the final “swap” deal, it was hard for Juve sporting director Fabio Paratici to say no.

So this is where we are at. Two clubs came together to give each other a little bit of help balancing the books. I am almost convinced that this deal could have been a number of different players and still would have gone through. Despite this, there is at least still some form of sporting impact and reasoning for this deal, especially on Juventus’ side. Barcelona have long searched for the “next Xavi” in midfield, and initially thought that person would be Arthur. The board seemed to have given up on that dream, opting for the more experienced Pjanić to try and fill that void instead. Juventus have been searching for ways to upgrade their midfield, easily the weakest area of their team, in order to counteract the growing title challenges from Inter and Lazio. Their attempts to sign Paul Pogba and Houssem Aouar have so far failed due to financial restrictions, but the move for Arthur allowed them to get a solid, young midfielder who could develop into a great player, with the added bonus of moving Pjanić out of the team.

But that is not really the point, now is it? It is clear that this was not for sporting reasons, especially for Barcelona. While it does make sporting sense for Juventus, it shows that they are starting to get a bit nervous and desperate. They know the move for Ronaldo was massive, and they need to at least get to a Champions League Final before he leaves, but they have steadily declined as a team overall since his arrival. They now have two genuine challengers for a title, with Inter looking like the most formidable over the next few years. Arthur could genuinely become a great player, and they got him for basically a paltry €12 million, but their desire to move on from Pjanić for very little concrete monetary value is a sign of panic regarding their wage bill and desire to scrape money from anywhere to build a team around Ronaldo.

For Barcelona, it seems to confirm what many already know: there just is not a plan. Barcelona’s leadership act on whims, panics, and guesses, especially in the last few years. Let’s look at how they handled Arthur, because it is a microcosm of a larger issue. Arthur arrived in Catalonia in 2018 riding sky-high expectations following his shining three seasons at Grêmio. The Barcelona board considered him the Xavi’s rightful heir, a player who they never really fully and effectively replaced when he left the club in 2015. Two years later, Arthur showed flashes of what he could be but could never consistently reach at or near that level, which, naturally, should be expected for a player who is still only 23 and having only played two seasons in Europe. The Barcelona board however, to cover up for their other litany of financially irresponsible decisions, decided that this was not good enough, and they considered him excess to requirement, which is patently absurd. If you are comparing him to Xavi, you would not say that Xavi really “arrived” on the scene as a world-class midfielder until 2008, when he was named in the FIFPro World XI. He was 28 years old. Setting that level of expectation on Arthur is insane, but again, this is just Barcelona’s board seemingly mortgaging future assets to save from personal financial trouble. Neither manager Quique Setién nor his teammates wanted Arthur to leave, but the board needed to dig themselves out of a hole. This hole was accelerated by the departure of Neymar, a player they viewed as the one to take the mantle from Messi when he left. The quite expensive acquisitions of Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, and Antoine Griezmann were quite knee-jerk reactions to Neymar’s departure, and, so far, none of those players have found really any success in a Barcelona shirt. They have been actively searching for clubs to sign Dembélé and Coutinho and, if the rumors are to be believed, might be trying to move on from Griezmann after just one season.

The Neymar saga was really just the tip of the iceberg, though. Just think about the laundry list of players Barcelona has signed since 2015, and there are a lot of them. How many would you say were actually successful signings? Dembélé was not fully successful but could still come good, but outside of him? Maybe Arturo Vidal? Clément Lenglet? Nélson Semedo? Samuel Umtiti had his moments, but is he really a success? This is me clutching at straw here, because there are way more players on this list who were not successes. Remember Kevin-Prince Boateng’s loan move? They took on his very high wages for him to score no goals in four games. Remember Malcom? I remember his dazzling goals for Bordeaux, but I will not lie, I genuinely had to google him because I forgot he had ended up at Zenit. Barcelona paid €41 million for him to play maybe a little more than a dozen games. They paid combined fees upwards of €75 million to sign Lucas Digne and André Gomes, only for them to make about 70 combined appearances and both end up at Everton. There are so many more names, so many more embarrassing moves that chipped away at Barcelona’s bottom line. This has left them with this deeply flawed team, led by a manager with seemingly no sense of an attacking plan outside of let Messi do everything. They have yet to find a replacement for Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué, who are both rapidly approaching the end of their careers. They went through an embarrassing hunt for a back-up striker to fill the void of the injured and still rapidly-slowing Luis Suárez, having to use loopholes in league rules to get around the transfer window rules and sign Martin Braithwaite because their cheapskate plan to sign Rodrigo did not work. Their obsessive, panicked pursuit of a Neymar replacement left them really having to rely on Messi and 17-year-old Ansu Fati to be the dynamic attacking players in the team.

The end result is that the Barcelona board have seemingly wasted away most of Lionel Messi’s prime. Yes, they won their fair share of La Liga titles over the last few years, but their main prize, one more Champions League for Messi, has eluded them. Since winning the trophy in 2015, they have only reached the semifinal stage once, that one time being their infamous meltdown at Anfield last season. After each failure, there is no measured discussion over how to improve the team overall or improve the system, it is just panic and buy, and the panic seems to continually get worse while the team gets more flawed. With Messi’s contract expiring at the end of the 2020-21 season, it is very possible that Leo decides to get away from the madness in pursuit of that one last Champions League triumph.

Yeah, we covered quite a bit here, didn’t we? A simple swap deal between two players tells us everything wrong with the current Barcelona management. Sid Lowe said this deal would be a failure regardless of outcome because of the reasoning behind it, and he is exactly right. Barcelona have learned nothing in the last five years, and this deal is just a signal of them continuing to try and get out of their mess by digging themselves deeper into it. Juventus could have gotten a steal in bringing in Arthur, but this was really motivated in trying to fix their broken wage structure. Two clubs trying to fix financial messes agreed to help each other out. Voila! One of the weirdest swap deals in football was born.

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Another twist in the title race…

Welcome to La Liga Week in Review, where we review everything that happened in the top flight of Spanish football in the last week. We name our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned after a week of matches.

It was a significant week in Spain, with important results at the top and bottom of the table, so let us take a look.

Player of the Week

Jaime Mata, Getafe (1 goal in 1-1 draw against Real Valladolid, 2 goals in 2-1 win over Real Sociedad)

The veteran Spanish striker scored three goals this week, including two incredibly important goals against European place rival Sociedad, that secured important results for Getafe in their chase for a top six finish. Their draw against Valladolid was not great, but the last minute win over Real Sociedad was massive. His winning goal against Sociedad may be the highlight of his week, while exemplifying Mata’s qualities as a player and Getafe’s qualities as a team. He took advantage of a lull in focus from the Basque team when Getafe won a throw in, making a ghosting run past Sociedad center back Aritz Elustondo. His strike partner Jorge Molina noticed it, throwing the ball directly into the path of Mata’s run. He still had quite a bit to do, but he managed to use his strength to hold off Elustondo and get toward the goal, using his wit and finishing ability to sneak the ball between goalkeeper Álex Remiro and the post, scoring a massive game winning goal for his team. A scrappy goal from a tenacious player and a hard-working team, it paints a perfect picture of Mata as a player and Getafe as a team. If José Bordalás’ team wants to be in Europe next season, they will need more performances like this from Mata.

Honorable Mentions: Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid) Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)

Winners of the Week

1.) Villarreal

The Yellow Submarine continue their rise up the table. A 2-2 draw against a quite unlucky Sevilla team, paired with a more controlling and confident 2-0 win against Valencia, has put Villarreal sixth in the table, securely in the Europa League places, with a four point lead over Real Sociedad in seventh. Quite possibly being the team that has had the most success since the restart, Villarreal have profited off of the poor form of other teams in the top six race to move from the outside-looking-in position they started in to well within the European hunt. Their form is largely thanks to one small Spanish midfield wizard that we will talk more about later, but this is really a team that is clicking at the right time. With matches against Real Sociedad and Getafe remaining, Villarreal’s fate is seemingly in their own hands. If they keep this great run of form going, their remaining matches against Barcelona and Real Madrid also gives Javier Calleja’s team the chance to play kingmaker at the top of the table.

2.) Real Madrid

Real Madrid took care of their business and Barcelona did not, leaving los Blancos top of the league and in pole position in the title race. While their latest wins, 2-0 over Mallorca and 1-0 over Espanyol, were not pretty, they continue the Real Madrid trend from earlier in the season of gritty wins when they need to win. Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos have been nothing short of phenomenal since the restart of the season, but they are also finding production from elsewhere. Players like Eden Hazard, Vinícius, and Casemiro have also been major difference makers in the team. While they are clearly not at the level they were a few years ago, Zinedine Zidane has built a team that is effective and difficult to beat, and now that they have pole position in the title race, it will be hard to knock them off the podium.

And if you have not seen Benzema’s assist for Casemiro’s goal against Espanyol, go find it on YouTube or Twitter. Goodness. What a player…

3.) Atlético Madrid

I will not shy away from what I wrote previously: I was very nervous for Atlético Madrid when the league restarted. Atléti, without question, needed to qualify for the Champions League, and their form prior to the restart did not give me confidence that they would be able to do that. A drab 1-1 draw away to Athletic Bilbao in their first game back only heightened my worries, and with the quality of the teams around them, I was afraid that los Colchoneros would fail to make the Champions League, likely resulting in the sacking of manager Diego Simeone. Since that draw at San Mamés, Atléti are unbeaten and undrawn, and they go into their match against Barcelona coming off of their best performance since the season restarted, a strong 2-1 win over Alavés. While it is clear that Simeone is still experimenting to find the best combination of players in his team, especially in attack, he has been getting strong performances from some key players, and good enough performances as a team to string together wins. This, combined with the teams around them going through very rough runs of form, has allowed Atléti to cement their top four status, and I feel much more confident in their ability to secure Champions League football for next season. Marcos Llorente continues to be a revelation for Atléti, and the usage of him in an advanced position as a wide/central attacking midfielder was a stroke of genius from Simeone. Llorente was again the difference-maker in their wins against Levante and Alavés, and he will be crucial to his team for the remainder of the season.

Losers of the Week

1.) Valencia

Valencia are a team that, despite their size as a club and the talent and resources they have at their disposal, are prone to moments of insanity. This happened earlier this season, when the board basically refused to back then manager Marcelino, who was coming off of winning the Copa del Rey. Eventually, Marcelino was sacked, despite protestations from the players, and was replaced by Albert Celades. Celades somewhat steadied the ship, but Valencia still struggled for consistency. Their defeat to Atalanta in the Champions League, combined with winning just once since the league restarted, put significant pressure on Celades, and he began to lose favor with the players. The insanity was kicking in again. Following a dismal 2-0 defeat to Villarreal in the Derbi de la Comunitat, Celades was sacked. The extent to which he lost the dressing room came out after the loss, when it was revealed that he got into a bust-up in training with striker Maxi Gómez. Celades wanted to drop Gómez from the team, but significant pressure from the players, including from club captain Dani Parejo, led to him reversing his decision. This story comes after center back Mouctar Diakhaby had to deny reports that significant tension within the club has strained his mental health.

Long story short, none of this is good for Valencia. Celades was not a great manager, but this internal feuding is not good for the long-term health of the club, let alone their hopes of being in Europe next season. Two bad losses in the last week, the aforementioned derby loss and a 1-0 defeat to Eibar, has left los Che in a difficult position in the European race. They are still in it, and only one point behind Real Sociedad in the Europa League qualifiers spot, but Villarreal and Getafe are pulling further away from them in the top six. To make matters worse, they are set to lose key center back Ezequiel Garay on a free transfer, as he and the club did not agree to a new contract. Yeah, things are not going well.

2.) Barcelona

Things may not be as disastrous as in Valencia, but the title race has taken a quite sour turn for Barcelona. The Catalans looked poor in their 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, bailed out by a scrappy and lucky goal by Ivan Rakitić, but they could not secure the three points against Celta Vigo. A great free kick from Iago Aspas in the 90th minute snatched the points away from Barcelona, inflicting a major blow in their hopes for the title. As a result of that match and Real Madrid’s win against Espanyol, Barcelona have lost the top spot to los Blancos. With a two point gap to the top, and Real Madrid’s tiebreaker advantage over them, Barcelona cannot afford to mess up again. Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig continue to shine, but there is not enough production from senior players not named Lionel Messi. Suárez did score twice against Celta, but he has generally looked unfit and off the pace since the restart, possibly still suffering from his injury issues. The defense, outside of some solid performances from Clément Lenglet, has not been good enough, and the midfield lacks any dynamism or energy outside of Puig. Messi really has to do everything. While there is still definitely a title race, it feels pretty secure in Real Madrid’s hands. Barcelona have to hope that they slip up while remaining perfect through a difficult run of games. It is a tall order, but any team with Messi on it cannot be counted out.

3.) Espanyol

Espanyol have joined Valencia in the manager sacking party. Following a run of three straight losses and having only won once since the league resumed play, the Catalan club sacked manager Abelardo Fernández following their 1-0 loss to Real Betis. Taking his place is Francisco Rufete, their sporting director, becoming the fourth manager hired by Espanyol this season. Their poor form since the restart has found them in a very significant hole, still bottom of the table and ten points from safety. Espanyol spent over €40 million on transfers in the January window, and despite that investment, they have remained in the relegation zone, being stuck at or near the bottom of the table. With only six matches remaining, it looks like, barring an unforeseen miracle, Espanyol will be relegated this season.

What we Learned

1.) The title is officially Real Madrid’s to lose

With Barcelona’s dropped points against Sevilla and Celta Vigo, Real Madrid are now firmly in the driver’s seat in the title race. They have looked the more impressive side since the restart, and with only six matches remaining, they know that they are in the home stretch. With an easier run in of matches compared to their Clásico rivals, Zidane knows that his team can afford to not be completely perfect and still be in position to win the league title. Also as a benefit, Real Madrid hold the tiebreaker advantage over Barcelona. In Spain, ties in points in the league table are not decided by goal difference, but by a separate tiebreaker system, which prioritizes head-to-head results. Since the first Clásico was a draw and the second was won by Real Madrid, los Blancos own the tiebreaker, so in the event that both teams finish level on points, Real Madrid would win the league.

While I do not expect both teams to be perfect between now and the end of the season, that inherently still benefits Real Madrid. Barcelona must be perfect from now on, and if they slip up, then that will likely seal the title for Real Madrid. The race is clearly not over, and there are still matches for both teams that will be a test for their title hopes, Real Madrid are in pole position. It will take significant help from other teams for Barcelona to win the league now.

2.) Top Four is officially Atlético Madrid’s to lose

In a similar sense to Real Madrid, Atléti have taken advantage of the mistakes of teams around them to catapult themselves up the table, going from narrowly hanging onto the top six to third place since the resumption of the season. While they have been far from perfect, they have been able to scrape and claw their way to tight victories, in the traditional Atlético Madrid way, and have greatly benefitted from the teams around them struggling. They now find themselves with a six point gap between themselves and fifth, which, with six matches remaining, is starting to look more and more comfortable. They have an easy-ish run-in to finish the season, with matches against Getafe and Real Sociedad still sticking out, and while they have not pulled away from Sevilla, I feel confident in saying it looks like those are the two teams that will be in the Champions League next season, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid. There is still a chance for a slip up, but Atléti’s fast start to the resumed season has potentially saved their season and Diego Simeone’s job.

3.) In case you did not get the message before, Santi Cazorla has still got it…

Before you read on, go find a video of Cazorla’s assist for Gerard Moreno’s goal against Valencia.

Don’t worry, I’ll wait…

Watch it?

What a pass. What a touch. What a player. Taking a long kick from the goalkeeper in his stride, playing one calculated touch to control the ball and send it directly into the path of Moreno to fire into the goal. None of that is easy, and Santi made it look effortless.

This small moment is a microcosm of the joy of Cazorla’s revival. He has gone from being told that he may never play football again to being able to star for his boyhood club. Cazorla has been a massive influence in Villarreal’s success in the last two seasons and has been their best player this season, especially since the resumption of the league. Two assists in his last two games, including that wonderful pass to Moreno that you just watched, have helped to provide crucial wins for the Yellow Submarine in their hunt for European football. 12 goals and 9 assists in all competitions this season is remarkable, especially given his age and everything he went through. His contract with Villarreal is up at the end of the season, and there is no guarantee that he will not retire then, so we need to appreciate a player as technically gifted and wonderful as Cazorla while we still can.

4.) Relegation might already be decided

In my league resumption piece, I talked about the relegation race teetering on the edge of being already decided, but still having teams with enough quality to give a serious push for survival. Since then, the bottom three has remain basically unchanged, and those three clubs continue to dig themselves deeper into the hole, while clubs around the bottom three have begun to pull away. Espanyol’s transfer spending in January seemingly has not worked, and the sacking of manager Abelardo Fernández might be the nail in the coffin for them. Leganés continue to suffer from incredible bad luck and misfortune, really starting right around Martin Braithwaite’s departure to Barcelona, and it looks as though survival for them is almost impossible. Mallorca continue to show some fight, as a quite attacking team despite their small status, but they still find themselves with a significant gap between them and safety. With six matches remaining, it looks as though we have our three relegated teams already. I do not see things getting better for Espanyol and Leganés, and the gap is too big for Mallorca to reasonably overcome in that short amount of time.

La Liga Week in Review (6/15-6/21)

A twist in the title race…

Welcome to the week in review, where we cover what has happened in La Liga for the last week, covering Match Days 29 and 30. We share our player of the week, pick our winners and losers, and state what we learned from the last week.

Player of the Week

Karim Benzema, Real Madrid (2 goals in 3-0 win over Valencia, 1 goal in 2-1 win over Real Sociedad)

In this post-Ronaldo world, Real Madrid have seemingly only gone as far as Karim Benzema could carry them. While his teammates did definitely pick up the slack, Benzema has been at his usual best this past week, with three goals in two games, including one absolute worldy goal against Valencia. His goalscoring efforts have elevated him to fifth on Real Madrid’s all time goalscoring list, an incredible feat for a player who has often been underrated and overlooked throughout his time in the Spanish capital. His goals are not the only thing in discussion from this week, but his ability to combine with the front three, namely a now-fully-fit Eden Hazard, exemplifies his talents as a footballer and highlights how dangerous this Real Madrid team are looking at the moment. Yes, the performance against Sociedad was worse than against Valencia, but they are still two impressive wins, and Benzema was the star of the show in both.

Honorable Mentions: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Rafinha (Celta Vigo), Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)

Winners of the Week

1.) Real Madrid

With two important wins against very solid Valencia and Sociedad teams, and thanks to some help from Sevilla, Real Madrid are top of the league after match day 30. They looked very sharp against Valencia, especially Eden Hazard and Karim Benzema, and despite a worse performance against Sociedad, albeit while rotating some key starting players, they managed to pull out the victory thanks to some debatable VAR decisions. The title race will be defined by these teams’ ability to take advantage of each others’ mistakes, and Real Madrid struck first, taking advantage of Barcelona’s dropped points in Seville. With an easier run of games compared to their Catalonian adversaries, Real Madrid need to keep this hot streak going to cement their place at the top of the league.

2.) Atlético Madrid

I will not lie, I was concerned about Atléti. I did not think there was enough in that team to get into the Champions League, and I recognized the absolute dire straits they would be in should they not qualify for the Champions League, but they have so far proven me wrong. A 5-0 thrashing of Osasuna, a rarity for Diego Simeone’s Atletico, combined with a tense but good enough 1-0 win over Valladolid and teams around them dropping points, has lifted los Colchoneros into the top four, building a lead to feel secure in the Champions League places. Yes, it is safe to assume that five goal routes will not be commonplace for Atléti now, but there are signs of growing attacking prowess in this team. The attack mainly centers around midfielder Marcos Llorente, who has been turned into a dynamic, fast-paced attacking midfielder by Simeone. Joāo Félix has been much improved as well, namely against Osasuna. There are still issues with the strikers, as neither Álvaro Morata nor Diego Costa have been productive enough in front of goal, but I feel better about Atléti’s chances at making the Champions League next season.

3.) Villarreal

While teams around them stuttered, Villarreal steadily climbed. Another two wins added to their total, and the Yellow Submarine now find themselves firmly placed in the top six and in the frame for the Champions League hunt. This recent surge is thanks to the production of their strikers, with Gerard Moreno, Paco Alcacer, and Carlos Bacca all scoring goals at important times. Their upcoming fixtures are tough but very important in their chances at Europe next season, having to play Valencia, Getafe, and Real Sociedad in their next five matches. Key results in those matches could see a place in at least the Europa League well within their grasp.

Losers of the Week

1.) Barcelona

In the Wild West-style duel for the title, Barcelona were the ones to blink first. Their draw to Sevilla allowed Real Madrid to leapfrog them into first, meaning Barcelona must now hope for los Blancos to make a similar error. To make matters worse, the Catalans upcoming fixtures are more difficult, having to face Atlético Madrid and Villarreal in two of their next four matches. Also mixed in are difficult fixtures against Celta Vigo and Espanyol, which are not simple match ups in the slightest. It is an uphill battle for Barcelona to win the league this season, and after this slip up, they need to aim for perfection and hope for their rivals to mess up as well.

2.) Real Sociedad

It has not been a good week for la Real. A bad loss to Alavés, combined with a controversial but tough defeat to Real Madrid, leaves the Basque side on the edge of the European places and at risk of falling out. It has not been a good restart to the league season for Sociedad, who have not been in good form in the slightest since the return. Key players, namely Martin Ødegaard and Alexander Isak, have not been producing in the attacking third, which has allowed poorer opposition to stay in matches with them, forcing draws or, in the case of Alavés, winning the match. Sociedad know that they must play Getafe, Villarreal, Sevilla, and Atlético Madrid before the end of the season, so they can be reassured in knowing they have plenty of chances to make the gap up. However, if they do not reverse their fortunes and reignite their exciting and dynamic attack, they will likely not be playing in Europe next season.

3.) Real Mallorca

In a relegation picture that has stayed largely as-is, Mallorca get one of the losers spots for two bad missed opportunities. They had plenty of chances in their loss to Villarreal, probably being unlucky to not score, and they led in their match against Leganés until the 87th minute. The Leganés draw especially will sting, as they missed the opportunity to extend their gap with the rest of the relegation teams and claw toward safety, chasing after an Eibar team that also dropped points twice this week. Survival is possible for Mallorca, but it is becoming a harder gap to overcome, so they need to string some results together if they want to stay up.

What We Learned

1.) Atlético Madrid can turn it around, and can score goals while doing it?

Atléti scoring five goals in a match was seemingly a shock to quite a few people, and probably many of their fans. Before the season was suspended, Atléti looked like they were seriously struggling, and Champions League football next season was slowly becoming more and more of an impossible dream. Their triumph against Liverpool probably did a lot for their confidence, and they have seemingly been able to ride that momentum through the hiatus and into the restarted season. Despite a bad draw in their first match against Athletic Bilbao, they have managed to string together two important wins. Most importantly, they have started much better than the teams around them in the table, which has allowed them to skyrocket into the top four. As I said in every league returning piece, how a team starts will have a massive impact in how the rest of their season will go, and fast starts will be especially crucial for teams competing for Europe. Atléti have gotten the message.

2.) Eden Hazard has arrived

I am trying to not get ahead of myself, but man Hazard looked incredible against Valencia, like the Hazard we all remembered from Chelsea. His ability to combine with the midfield and attack, and especially with Benzema, and his ability to dribble and create are things that Real Madrid have missed this season. The difference in Real Madrid without him, as they were against Real Sociedad, was tangible, as they missed that dynamism and near-unguardable movement that Hazard provides in the final third. A healthy, hungry, and motivated Hazard could be the difference in the title race this season.

3.) In Ansu Fati, Messi has finally found a teammate that he does not hate

For a team with the incredible talent that Barcelona has, they can be very frustrating to watch. While they were very impressive against Mallorca, they were tepid at times against Leganés and seemingly overwhelmed against Sevilla. Messi did what he could, but he could not lift the world by himself. The difference against Leganés, however, came from teenage sensation Ansu Fati, who brings the traits into the team that Barcelona desperately needed. Fati is seemingly the only other player on that team that can provide the movement, dribbling ability, creativity, and finishing in a similar, but clearly not as good, way as what Messi can provide. Luis Suárez and Antoine Griezmann are both very talented, but Suárez’s mobility and movement have been hampered by age, and Griezmann does not possess that dynamic dribbling ability that Fati seemingly already has. While Fati is still clearly very young and definitely not ready to start in this Barcelona team, I do see him taking up a very important role as a super sub for this team, being the man to come on when they need a difference-maker or be rotated into the team when another player needs rest. Most importantly, he is seemingly the one teammate Messi has that does not make him endlessly frustrated more often than not.

La Liga Match Week Review (6/11-6/14)

The Match Week Reviews get a decidedly Spanish flair this week, as we add a new league into the mix…

Welcome to the Match Week Review, where we talk about the football we just watched, but for this edition, we discuss the first match week of the resumed La Liga season. We will name our player of the match week, three winners and losers, and discuss what we learned from the first match week in the resumed Spanish First Division.

So, what happened in Match Week 28 in La Liga? Here are your results:

6/11

Sevilla 2-0 Real Betis

6/12

Granada 2-1 Getafe

Valencia 1-1 Levante

6/13

Espanyol 2-0 Alavés

Celta Vigo 0-1 Villarreal

Leganés 1-2 Real Valladolid

Real Mallorca 0-4 Barcelona

6/14

Athletic Bilbao 1-1 Atlético Madrid

Real Madrid 3-1 Eibar

Real Sociedad 1-1 Osasuna

Player of the Match Week

Lionel Messi, Barcelona (1 goal and 2 assists in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Mallorca)

Lionel Messi officially emerged from quarantine looking better than the vast majority of people on this planet. The beard was shaven, the hair was much longer but still looked good on him, and he is still the best footballer in the world. He demonstrated to the footballing community that his insane talents stuck through the lockdown, putting on an attacking masterclass against poor Mallorca. Twitter seemed to be in awe of the Argentinian magician, as they usually are, but I think it was refreshing for all of us to experience this feeling after a long time away. His performance reinforced his already healthy lead as La Liga’s top scorer and top assister, which is absurd but seemingly expected at this point with Messi. He was sharp, the key cog in a fantastic Barcelona performance.

Honorable Mentions: Adri Embarba (Espanyol), Diego Carlos (Sevilla), Unai Simón (Athletic Bilbao)

Winners of the Match Week

1.) Sevilla

I said in the “La Liga is back” piece that a quick start for every team is important in not only the title race, but also the Champions League race and relegation race. Sevilla seemingly took that idea to heart, dispatching of derby-rivals Betis in a comfortable 2-0 victory. Their lack of a goal-scoring striker, which has been their issue all season, did not hinder them, as the regularly-great Lucas Ocampos found a goal, as well as a contribution from defensive midfielder Fernando. The defense and midfield, where Sevilla are the strongest, were just as strong as they were before the hiatus, and the center back pairing of Diego Carlos and Jules Koundé seems to be developing into a formidable partnership. 11 points out of first might be too steep of a deficit to call them dark horse title contenders, and I think the lack of a solid number nine and goalscoring threat will hold them back from finishing any higher than third, but if they beat Barcelona next weekend I will be willing to reconsider.

2.) Espanyol

One of these days, Espanyol will finally get themselves out of last place. They have genuinely been putting in some good performances since their spending spree in January, but never had the luck before the hiatus to change their overall fortunes. A 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Alavés might have changed that. Now, with a fast start to the restarted league season, they could find the form to overtake Leganés and Mallorca. Currently level on points with Leganés and two points behind Mallorca, Espanyol have a realistic chance at safety. If they continue this hot start, then their fortunes will only improve.

3.) Villarreal

The theme for this review is seemingly how teams can take advantage of fast starts. Villarreal were on the outside looking in when it comes to the European discussion, but Manu Trigueros’ last minute winner against Celta Vigo gave the Yellow Submarine three points that they did not realize the significance of at the time. With Valencia, Getafe, Atlético Madrid, and Real Sociedad all dropping points, Villarreal now find themselves suddenly within reach of the top six, and even the top four. Five points separate them from the Europa League places, while six points separate them from the Champions League places. There is still quite a bit more football to be played, but the possibility is there.

Losers of the Match Week

1.) Atlético Madrid

Atléti resumed the league season almost the same way they ended it previously: struggling to win away from home in the league. While they had their chances, namely one each from Yannick Carrasco and Santiago Arias that should have been goals, it was another largely tepid, not good enough performance from an Atléti team that is struggling for identity. Inability to consistently get points off of lower table teams has seemingly been a problem that has plagued Diego Simeone’s entire tenure, as his Cholismo style struggles against teams that also sit back and force Atléti to break them down. They have a few of those matches coming up, before a trip to face league-leaders Barcelona, so this is a dilemma that Simeone needs to figure out. Not only does Atléti now need to keep an eye on the teams above them in the table, but they also need to start looking over their shoulder. Dropped points from Sociedad and Getafe means that it is only a one point gap between Atléti and fourth, but Villarreal’s win puts los Colchoneros only five points ahead of them. The nightmare scenario of not qualifying for the Champions League is still very real, but now encroaching is a doomsday scenario of not playing European football of any kind next season. Simeone needs to right the ship, and he needs to do it quickly.

2.) Celta Vigo

I said in the league returning piece, and still stand by, that Celta are too good of a team to be in a relegation race, but here we are. Celta were very poor against Villarreal, but they had seemingly defended hard enough and done enough to get a point out of the match. Trigueros’ late winner, especially in the manner in how it was conceded, broke their spirits, and they dropped a valuable point in what could be an incredibly close relegation fight. They were bailed out by Leganés, Mallorca, and Eibar all losing, but they still only sit three points clear of last-placed Espanyol. Still, with plenty of matches left to be played, nothing is set in stone, but Celta are in a very desperate situation at the moment.

3.) Valencia

Valencia, like Atléti, stayed true to their form from before the hiatus upon the league’s return. Valencia entered the hiatus unable to consistently scored goals, and they continued that form into their 1-1 draw against derby-rivals Levante. Yes, I will say that they were incredibly unlucky. Carlos Soler hit the crossbar in the first half, squandering a great chance to open the scoring. Rodrigo’s goal was seemingly the winner, and you would expect in most scenarios that a 90th minute goal would be a match-winner. However, unfortunate circumstances and a VAR delay led to a 98th minute penalty, which was converted by Gonzalo Melero to level the score. It was unlucky, but it was also more or less deserved. Levante deserved at least a draw, being the better team for large spells of that match, and the penalty was the correct decision. Valencia continue to struggle with an inability to create goalscoring chances. They had a man advantage for the final 15 minutes of the match, and while they did score their goal in this time, it was seemingly their only clear chance. Valencia were aided by teams around them dropping points, so they are still in the Champions League picture, but they are also now only two points ahead of Villarreal and Granada. Quick starts are important with this restarted league season, and Valencia need to move past this disappointment and kickstart a run of good form in order to keep themselves in the European picture.

What We Learned

1.) Yep, there’s a title race, alright…

Barcelona and Real Madrid both came out of the hiatus with sharp, professional, and convincing performances in their first match back. Yes, they were playing teams near the bottom of the table, but it was more about how they went about their victory rather than putting up a high scoreline against an average side. Messi was great for Barcelona, but I would be more reassured by great performances from the supporting cast around him, namely Jordi Alba and Arturo Vidal. In a situation where many thought this Barcelona team would look sluggish or struggle, they put out a complete team performance, almost as if the hiatus never happened. The same logic applies for Real Madrid. Yes, the players you expected to play well, like Benzema and Kroos and Ramos, played well, but I would be very reassured by the confident and dynamic performance of Eden Hazard. Hazard has largely struggled to find his feet in Madrid, with a mix of poor performances, injury issues, and lack of confidence holding him back. Against Eibar, Hazard was very good, combining well with Benzema and Marcelo in attack and looking like the Hazard we all remember from his days at Chelsea. It was not a maestro performance, or one that matches the price tag that Real Madrid paid for the Belgian, but it is one that gives me confidence and hope. Both teams came out of the hiatus strong, and if they are able to keep this form, we will have a thrilling title race.

2.) Maybe the relegation places are not completely decided…

Espanyol are showing that, eventually, they will find their way out of the bottom place in the league table. Now only three points away from safety, Espanyol has moved from a likely relegation candidate to a team that has all of the ability and coaching needed to stay up. Leganés, due to the unfortunate situation with Martin Braithwaite, seem destined for relegation, but while Mallorca did not show much against Barcelona, they still clearly have the ability to overtake the also-struggling Celta Vigo and Eibar. The Leganés situation is very unfortunate, and I still think they will go down, but I am no longer confident in saying we have relegation teams decided already, especially when talking about Espanyol.

3.) Man, Valencia and Atléti love shooting themselves in the foot…

Apart from Sevilla’s win, the rest of the teams clearly in the Champions League picture dropped points, and this is an especially massive blown chance for Atlético Madrid and Valencia given that their results came largely due to their own mistakes. Atléti have shown this season how much they are missing the consistent goalscoring striker that they seemed to always have. From Fernando Torres to Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao and Diego Forlan to Antoine Griezmann, Atléti seemingly always got away with generating so few goalscoring chances because they always had strikers who could put away any chance that they got. Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata are not getting it done. The big chances in their match against Athletic Bilbao, which fell to Arias and Carrasco, were not converted. This has been an issue that has plagued Simeone’s team all season, and it has not gotten better. Valencia face a similar inability to score, but they had done enough through 90 minutes to get the win over Levante, but a silly mistake from Mouctar Diakhaby cost them all three points. You could really pinpoint the moment from each of these matches where Valencia and Atléti shot themselves in the foot: Diakhaby’s foul conceding the penalty and Arias’ missed big chance late in the match, respectively. Both of these teams, especially Valencia, now have to proceed knowing Villarreal and Granada are hovering just over their shoulders, ready to overtake if they keep slipping up.

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La Liga Has Returned!

The football world is very slowly returning to normal…

Feature Image by J. Ketelaars from Pixabay

Spanish football has returned! La Liga joins the Bundesliga among the top five leagues returning to action, but where did we leave off? What are the major stories to follow? What players should you look out for?

This article will be very similar to the “The Bundesliga Has Returned!” article that came out earlier, so the structure should be familiar.

La Liga had a gripping title race upon suspension of the league, and yes, it is between the two teams you think it is. Barcelona and Real Madrid are healthily ahead of the trailing pack, leaving a clear two horse race for the title. Barcelona will resume the league with a two point advantage, and while we look to be setting up a classic title race, it has not exactly been a year to remember for both teams.

Barcelona, outside of the always fantastic Lionel Messi and a strong year from Luis Suárez, have been average at best. The defense has struggled, and new signings Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann have also struggled to find their footing in Catalonia. Long-term injuries to Suarez and Ousmane Dembélé have left them weak in attack, even more reliant on Messi than usual. Struggles throughout the season eventually led to the sacking of then-manager Ernesto Valverde in January, and after a failed very public attempt to woo club legends Xavi and Ronald Koeman to return as manager, the Catalans turned to former Real Betis manager Quique Setién to right the ship. Setién took some time to settle in, but got his team into a groove, winning four straight league matches. A draw against Napoli in the Champions League and a loss to Real Madrid in the league was a massive hit to their confidence, but Real Madrid dropping points elsewhere means they retain a two point lead at the top of the table. Setién will have to hope that this extended layoff has given him enough time to impart his ideas and playing style into the team. The title is theirs to lose, so they have no room for errors.

Real Madrid have also had their struggles, and still have plenty of issues in their team. The start to their season was very inconsistent, with manager Zinedine Zidane seemingly just throwing ideas out there and seeing what stuck. They found some consistency in the goalscoring form of Karim Benzema, who has seemingly been their only consistent outlet for goals throughout this entire season, but other pieces in their attack have stuttered. It has not been a good start to life in Madrid for Eden Hazard, who struggled for form earlier in the season and has dealt with injury issues ever since. Luka Jović has also not adapted well to his move to Madrid, while Gareth Bale and James Rodríguez continue to find themselves in the fringes of the team. In midfield, Luka Modrić struggled for consistency at the beginning of the season, which opened up the chance for young Uruguayan midfielder Federico Valverde to have his breakout season for los Blancos. The young, energetic midfielder combines flair and skill with an incredible footballing IQ and work rate, injecting much needed life into Zidane’s midfield. In his first real full season with the first team, he earned a starting spot in the team over a Ballon d’Or winner, which is really quite impressive. While Real Madrid struggled to start the season, you could tell they were beginning to figure things out by the end of November, and by mid-December, they had become quite a formidable team. While they still struggled for goals, they became a defensive juggernaut, with the center back pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane becoming the most dominant in the league. A defining addition to that back line, however, was the introduction of new signing Ferland Mendy into the left back role over long-time stalwart Marcelo. The ex-Lyon fullback, while not being as talented as the legendary Brazilian going forward, has proven to be an immensely impressive defensive fullback, and his inclusion into the back line did make a tangible difference. Real Madrid went unbeaten in the league from the end of October to the end of February, a span that included wins over Atlético Madrid and Sevilla and a draw to Barcelona, and they would rocket up the league table and firmly into the top two. The “unbeaten” tag is a bit misleading, however, as they did have several disappointing draws, including against Athletic Bilbao, Real Betis, and Celta Vigo, which allowed Barcelona to hang around or be ahead of them, despite the Catalonians having issues of their own. This theme of imperfection and slipping up has seemingly defined this title race, and it was not better represented than in the final match weeks before the suspension of the league. Real Madrid’s final four matches before the suspension were the aforementioned draw to Celta Vigo, a loss to Levante, a win in El Clásico, and a loss to Real Betis. In that four match span, Real Madrid fell behind Barcelona, overtook them, and fell behind them again.

And that is what makes this title race so interesting. In the past, it always felt as if no team could afford to lose, knowing the other team was very likely to finish the season unbeaten if they slipped up. Here, it is seemingly the opposite. It is not just possible, but quite likely, that both teams could unnecessarily drop points between now and the end of the season. There will likely be more leapfrogging as the season comes to a conclusion, and while you could say Barcelona have the slightly easier run-in to finish the season, both sides are very likely to still drop points. It is almost as if the team that wins the title at the end will not be the best team of the two, but the least bad of the two. That about describes both teams this season, which one can be the least bad.

Image by juanmaalmazan from Pixabay

Okay, enough about the title race and about the El Clásico teams. There is quite a bit more to talk about when it comes to this league. The final spots in the top four, and resulting spots in the Champions League, are still far from decided, as there is only a two point gap between third and sixth, and a five point gap between third and seventh (if you wanted to include Valencia). As things stand, Sevilla and Real Sociedad occupy the two Champions League places, while Getafe and Atlético Madrid occupy the Europa League places and Valencia occupies the Europa League qualifying place. There is also the matter of the Copa del Rey final, which offers a European place and in which Real Sociedad will participate, but that is a different blog for a different day.

The main story of this group of teams has to center around Atlético Madrid and the disappointing season they have had. While this is admittedly a rebuilding season for los Colchoneros, failing to qualify for the Champions League would be disastrous financially, and with the pressure already mounting on Diego Simeone, they have no choice but to qualify. This season has brought another example of creative players failing to function with Atléti, as teenage sensation João Félix has not adapted well to his move to the Spanish capital, failing to fill the void of the departed Antoine Griezmann. He is not the only player in the team struggling to make up for departed players, as the defense has not filled the massive Diego Godín-sized gap at center back, and club captain Koke has not had the same influence in the middle of the park as the departed Gabi. They have had issues with scoring goals, more than usual, with both Diego Costa and Álvaro Morata struggling for form and fitness. There are some positives, as Saúl has enjoyed another fine season in a red and white shirt and Renan Lodi has proven to be a bargain of an acquisition at left back, but overall, this has been a very disappointing season. Prior to the hiatus, however, Atléti recorded a historic result in the Champions League, winning 3-2 at Anfield to knock out reigning European Champions Liverpool. If Simeone is able to harness the momentum from that historic victory and utilize that motivation to improve the team during the hiatus, Atléti should be in great position to finish the season well and qualify for the Champions League. The hiatus could have also stifled that momentum. Guess we have to watch and find out.

Paired with Atléti are quite possibly their ideological twin: Getafe. Manager José Bordalás has created a team that, in an even more extreme sense than Atléti, are just an absolute nightmare to play against. Not only are they a rugged defensive side that is deadly on the counter, similar to Atlético Madrid, but they are also the roughest team in the league, being at or near the top in fouls committed among all La Liga teams. They also do a fantastic job at breaking up the game and frustrating their opponents, with the most famous example coming against Ajax in the Europa League, where the ball was only in play for 42 minutes and 36 seconds of that entire 90-plus minute match. Their style of play may be what dominates conversation, but they have some talent to go along with it. Marc Cucurella is a budding star, Dakonam Djené has been a rock at the back, and the attacking options of Jorge Molina, Jaime Mata, and Ángel Rodríguez have combined to score a fair amount of goals. Bordalás has done an incredible job with this team, and they have found themselves in a great position to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Real Sociedad, in the opinion of myself and many others, are probably the most exciting team in Spain. The young talent that Imanol Alguacil has at his disposal is quite insane, led by the potential world-class ability of midfielder Martin Ødegaard. The young Norwegian midfielder has since found his feet since his disappointing cameo with Real Madrid, having starred with Vitesse Arnhem on loan prior to this loan to the Basque club. Having amassed seven goals and eight assists through 28 games this season, Ødegaard has demonstrated the talent that we all know he had when he arrived in Spain. The amazing thing about la Real, however, is that he is not the only budding talent. Mikel Oyarzabal, Alexander Isak, and Mikel Merino are fellow young players in the starting line up with world-class potential. Igor Zubeldia, Robin Le Normand, Álex Remiro, and Ander Barrenetxea are also youngsters who have put in solid performances this season. All of this young, vibrant talent, even paired with experienced players like Willian José, Asier Illarramendi, and Portu, makes an exciting team that is able to get results against big teams and challenge for the Champions League. Also, they have been able to reach the Copa del Rey Final, in a run that included a massive win away to Real Madrid, where they will play Basque rivals Athletic Bilbao for a potential Europa League place. La Real have not always been the most consistent teams, but when they are on, they are definitely a joy to watch.

Sevilla are such a curious case, so much so that they are probably more deserving of their own paragraph than any of these teams. You may remember their manager, Julen Lopetegui, who infamously was fired from his position as Spanish National Team manager on the eve of the 2018 World Cup for publicly courting and accepting a managerial job with Real Madrid. He then floundered as Real Madrid manager, losing his job in a matter of months. He then ended up with Sevilla, with Monchi arriving as sporting director from Roma. Monchi then brought in 13 (!!!!!!!!!!) players in the summer transfer window after losing Wissam Ben Yedder, Luis Muriel, Pablo Sarabia, and Quincy Promes. Rony Lopes, Jules Koundé, Lucas Ocampos, Diego Carlos, Fernando, Sergio Reguílon, and Joan Jordán were among the major signings, and each of them has seemingly worked out well. In the case of Ocampos and Carlos, they have worked out very well. This model of aggressive player acquisiton, combined with a very good managerial job from Lopetegui, has created a very solid Sevilla team that is strong in multiple areas. Diego Carlos has arguably been the best center back in the league this season, and a defense including him, Reguílon, and Jesús Navas has been formidable, while also being deadly in attack through the fullbacks. They have plenty of options in midfield, allowing them to combine the brute physical presence of Jordán and Fernando with the technical finesse of Éver Banega, Franco Vázquez, or Ólivier Torres. On the wings, Ocampos has been among the best attacking players in the league this season, and Munir has also done a very good job on the other side. The only issue is they lack a striker. Luuk de Jong and Munas Dabbur were signed to replace Ben Yedder, but neither have done enough to be effective in that position. Dabbur has since left the club for Hoffenheim, being replaced by Youssef En-Nesyri from Leganés, but they still have not found the goalscoring striker that is able to replace Ben Yedder, and it has been a massive issue this season. Despite this, Sevilla, following their win over Betis yesterday, sit in third and only eight points off the top of the league. I would dare say that, had they found the replacement for Ben Yedder they needed in the summer, this Sevilla team could be a title contender. With the unknowns that surround this restart of the season, the teams hunting the Champions League places needed a fast start to the season, and Sevilla got that with their dominant win over Betis. Depending on how things play out, Sevilla may still be able to creep into the title picture, but as of right now, they should be considered the favorite among the Champions League race.

The relegation discussion is also interesting, as there is only a nine point gap between 15th and 20th. Real Valladolid, Eibar, Celta Vigo, Mallorca, Leganés, and Espanyol all find themselves in this fight, and the need for a fast start applies here as much as it does in other fights higher up the table. Some of the circumstances in this relegation fight make it even more interesting. Celta Vigo are widely considered to be too good on paper to be in this discussion, but they have been struggling for the last few seasons despite the talent the team has. Perhaps an over-reliance on the heroics of Iago Aspas may come back to haunt them. Espanyol made the bold move of sacking manager Pablo Machín in December, bringing in new manager Abelardo Fernández and giving him money to spend in January. That money brought in several signings, most notably veteran La Liga striker Raúl de Tomás. Despite all of this, and despite notable improvements in the team performances, they remain glued to the bottom of the table. Leganés have been affected by matters outside of their control. La Liga ruling that Barcelona is able to make an emergency signing due to injury concerns led to the poaching of Lega‘s leading scorer Martin Braithwaite. Their other star striker Youssef En-Nesyri also departed the club in January, leaving for Sevilla, leaving Leganés without goal scorers and possibly already doomed to relegation. The story of Leganés might be the most notable, and the saddest, from this relegation scrap, as the loss of Braithwaite in a bogus situation they had no control over has significantly impacted their hopes of staying up. However, a quick start from them, or any of these teams, has the potential to change the league table significantly.

To quickly cover some players to keep an eye on, we will try and steer clear of Barcelona and Real Madrid, as people have a clear idea of the make-up of those teams. For players mentioned previously in this piece, Sevilla’s Lucas Ocampos and Diego Carlos are two to definitely keep an eye on. Ocampos has maybe been the signing of the season in Spain, and Carlos is much more than a player you hate to come up against on FIFA. He is genuinely quite talented and is arguably the best in his position in the league this season. Real Sociedad’s youngsters are all worthy of a watch, but Mikel Merino will get the shoutout, as it feels like he has gone a little under the radar due to the headline performances of Ødegaard and Isak. His dominant midfield performances demonstrate his versatility in the middle of the park, but his ability to incorporate into the system and, along with Zubeldia, provide a platform for Sociedad to attack is the ultimate demonstration of his ability and football IQ. With Atlético Madrid, everyone knows about Saúl, but Renan Lodi is also deserving of coverage, coming into the team and filling the void left by Filipe Luis so well. If you are willing to look past Getafe’s style of play, Marc Cucurella is a genuinely talented wide midfielder who is a joy to watch at times. Villarreal may be stuck in mid-table, but viewers familiar with Santi Cazorla’s time in England should see how the Spanish midfield maestro has rejuvenated his career for the Yellow Submarine. Real Betis may be somewhat forgettable at times as a team, but Nabil Fekir has shined for them in his first year in Spain, and if you did not get to see the Frenchman play for Lyon, it is worth seeing him with his new club.

So, what is going to happen? Depends on what you are asking about. With the title race, I really am not sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that Barcelona will eventually edge out Real Madrid for the title, but it is going to be very close. With the Champions League race, I think Sevilla have established themselves as favorites to finish in those two spots, and I still feel like Atléti will make it, but I am not very confident with them at the moment. With relegation, it feels as though Espanyol and Leganés are, more or less, already doomed, and it is the third spot that is still up in the air. Mallorca just feels like the natural third team to go down, but at this point it is too early and too close to call. The restart of the league can change all of these discussions dramatically. We saw how a crash from Schalke at the restart took them out of the European places race in Germany, so really how these teams play from the beginning will have a massive influence in how these races will finish. Regardless, I am very excited and happy that the football world is able to somewhat return to a form of normalcy.

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Where Next for Thiago Silva?

4th October 2011 will be a dark day that Jack Transou will remember for the rest of his life. On that fateful day, Qatari Sports Investment bought Paris Saint-Germain, and it marked a new era of Parisian dominance in French football. While Thiago Motta and Alex arrived in the Winter transfer window, it was the following summer when PSG flexed their financial muscle. Many big names were brought into the club for then-big fees: Ezequiel Lavezzi was brought in for €26.5 million from Napoli, Lucas Moura cost €45 million from Sao Paulo, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic was purchased for €20 million from Milan. Joining him from Milan was none other than Brazilian international Thiago Silva, whose transfer fee was rumoured to be €42 million.

Unlike the other big-name signings who have since left the club or retired, Silva has remained at PSG and, together with Marco Veratti, is the longest-serving player at the club since the Qatari takeover. Well, after spending almost a decade in Paris, it looks like Thiago Silva will finally move on to greener pastures elsewhere after it was announced that PSG were not going to renew his contract. Even though he turns 36 in September, that hasn’t stopped clubs and reportedly, a host of suitors are lining up to acquire his services. If he remains fit, whichever club that buys him would have gained a solid centre-back who not only still has at least 1 to 2 seasons in him, but also a real leader in the dressing room and a great mentor for young defenders.

The question then beckons, what is the next best destination for Thiago Silva?

Reconnecting with Ancelotti at Everton

Image by jorono from Pixabay

Carlo Ancelotti was the man who brought Silva to PSG from Milan, and signing the Brazilian rock at the back would undoubtedly be a real statement of intention for Everton. For several years now, Everton have been trying to break into the top 4 and are aiming to play Champions League football regularly. Yet despite spending loads in the transfer market, things haven’t always gelled well at the club. However, that may change under Ancelotti’s guidance, and he may finally transform the club into a real powerhouse in the Premier League.

This season, Everton have been really leaky at the back, and they lack a real physical presence in the team. Their poor defending was especially evident in their match against Newcastle, when ridiculous defending allowed the Magpies to score 2 goals in the 94th and 95th minute of stoppage time and draw the game, 2-2. Michael Keane had tons of promise when they first arrived at Goodison Park but he haven’t lived up to the hype. Yerry Mina is a decent option but he needs a good partner and that partner isn’t Keane.

Mason Holgate has shown that he has the potential to be an excellent centre-back in the future, but he needs a player who acts as both a reliable partner in defence and a mentor. None are as ideal as Thiago Silva. Just ask Marquinhos at PSG. Sure, the younger Brazilian was brimming with potential and was certainly a gifted footballer when PSG transferred him in. However, it was arguably spending time as Silva’s partner in the heart of defence that helped raise Marquinhos’s game to the next level.

With no transfer fee involved, Everton should be able to afford Silva’s staggering wages. Silva’s arrival could also be beneficial for Mina and Keane, who could benefit from Silva’s presence. More importantly, Silva would help Everton’s lack of depth in centre-backs. Mina, Keane, and Holgate are the only first-team centre-backs currently in the Everton squad, and Silva could provide more cover for that position. Thiago Silva also speaks Italian and he could help rein in Moise Kean.

Overall, a move to Everton would not only be beneficial to Everton but offer a similar kind of challenge for Thiago Silva to the one he had at PSG – helping to transform an above average team into a great one.

Becoming a Locker Room leader at United

Image by Jakub Mularski from Pixabay

For some time now, I have been saying that Manchester United lack experienced heads in the locker room. And I’m not talking about players who’ve racked up hundreds of games. I’m talking about consistent title-winners who know what it takes to win championships and cups regularly. Harry Maguire is a fitting captain for the club, but there still seems to be little locker room leaders at Old Trafford. Thiago Silva’s arrival would surely help plug that lack of leadership. After all, the Brazilian international has been captain for both club and country for several years now.

However, unlike Everton, United do have a wealth of defenders at their disposal. Even if the club does sell Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo, and Phil Jones, they would still have Victor Lindelöf, Eric Bailly, Axel Tuanzebe, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah. Would it be wise for United to sign Thiago Silva, who would probably play for two seasons max? Such a move would not only alienate either Bailly or Lindelöf but also potentially stunt the development of Tuanzebe.

Furthermore, Silva may not be starting every game for the club. Supposedly, there are plans to partner Tuanzebe and Maguire together. If Thiago Silva is content with being a rotation player at the club, then a move to United might make sense. However, I feel that it would be a shame if he did not start games. Unless the club decides to sell Bailly or Lindelöf, a move to United would not be the most ideal for all parties.

Solving Arsenal’s Defensive Crisis

Image by jorono from Pixabay

For the longest time, Arsenal have had a defender crisis at their hands. Sokratis and Mustafi have failed to convince that they deserve a spot in the starting line-up while David Luiz, Rob Holding, and Callum Chambers have all been mediocre at best. Arsenal have yet to effectively replace the defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. There is hope for the future, however, with William Saliba and Konstantinos Mavropanos set to return to the Gunners next season.

In particular, a centre-back partnership of Thiago Silva and William Saliba would sound tantalizing to Arsenal fans. As things stand, Arsenal fans are eagerly waiting to see their new man Saliba in action. Touted as an exciting prospect, he ushers in hope for Gooners, who mostly are fed up with the club’s regular poor defensive displays. Like with Holgate, Silva would be an ideal mentor to a young talented defender like Saliba. Under the Brazilian’s tutelage, he could definitely raise his game to the next level just like Marquinhos and Presnel Kimpembe.

If Arteta feels that Saliba needs to be eased into the Premier League instead, the Spaniard could revive the partnership of David Luiz and Thiago Silva instead. Having played together for PSG and the Brazil National team, both players can top on their shared chemistry and act as a short term fix for Arsenal’s defensive issues. At the same time, Saliba and Mavropanos are groomed to replace them.

Then there’s Pablo Marí who Arteta is looking to sign permanently. A partnership between Marí and Silva could be interesting as well and perhaps better than a pairing of Silva and Luiz. Hence, if Arsenal plan to acquire Silva, they need to clear out the deadwood. Mustafi and Sokratis need to be offloaded while either Chambers or Holding should be sent out on loan. If not, the defence would be cluttered with players.

Short-term Cover for Barcelona

Image by Iwan Bettschen from Pixabay

How has it gone wrong for Samuel Umtiti?

He was supposed to be Gerard Piqué’s successor but hasn’t delivered when it has mattered. Barcelona have reportedly slashed his asking price and it would seem that his days as a Barcelona player are drawing to a close.

If Umtiti does leave, and he probably will, Barcelona are only left with Gerrard Piqué and Clément Lenglet as experienced centre-backs. Yes, it is true that the Catalonians have Todibo next season, who will return from his loan at Schalke, and Barcelona B central defender Ronald Araújo, who has already featured once in the league this campaign. However, these players lack significant experience and are, quite truthfully, still not ready for consistent first-team football just yet. Even then, Barcelona are supposedly looking at selling the Todibo. If Araújo’s debut is anything to go by, he has a lot to learn. The Uruguayan debuted against Sevilla in October 2019, coming off the bench to replace Todibo in the 73rd minute only to be sent off 13 minutes later. The defender was all over Javier Hernandez, who was clear through goal. Even though it seems like Javier Hernandez made the most out of Araújo’s tugging, it is clear that the young Uruguayan does not possess enough experience yet. Hence, brining in a player like Silva makes a lot of sense.

In essence, Barcelona will replace Umtiti with Silva, albeit probably on a short term basis. Regardless of the length of his tenure at Camp Nou, the Brazilian’s arrival helps provide short-term depth in central defence. Besides gaining a mentor for the younger defenders, Silva’s arrival would give time for a young defender like Araújo to grow instead of rushing them into the first team. But Silva’s true purpose would be to buy Barcelona some time so that they can assess long-term options for central defenders instead of panic buying.

For years, Silva has faced Messi either on the cub level or internationally when Brazil and Argentina collide. To see both players on the same team though, now that would be interesting.

Reuniting with Zlatan and reviving Milan

Image by chatst2 from Pixabay

Zlatan and Thiago Silva were playing together in A.C. Milan before they were both poached by PSG in the 2012 Summer transfer window. They played together in Paris for 4 years before Zlatan made a move to Manchester United in the summer of 2016. It would be the dream of every footballing romanticist to witness the reunion of these two formidable players. Even though they are in their mid to late 30s, both footballers are going strong.

Besides the prospect of playing alongside Zlatan again, what better way to finish off his career than to return to Milan and help them get back to their glory days. Milan today are a real shadow of their past and perhaps Silva’s return could help reinvigorate the club to it’s glory days. A partnership between Thiago Silva and Alessio Romagnoli could see Silva symbolically passing the mantle to the Italian international. Silva’s arrival would be timely given how like other clubs in this list, Milan lack depth in central defence.

A New Challenge in Japan?

Image by Philavert from Pixabay

Instead of a move to the Chinese Super League, which arguably pays more, many stalwarts have looked to Japan as the final destination of their playing career. David Villa, Fernando Torres, and Lukas Podolski have all played in Japan towards the latter stages of their careers. Currently, Andreas Iniesta still plies his trade in Japan and the J1 League has long known to offer a unique challenge for European footballers. After years of domestic triumphs with PSG, Silva has never won a continental competition at the club level. Could he fulfil this dream by joining a J League side and help guide it to an AFC Champions League triumph? Or think about the exciting prospects of Thiago Silva, Andreas Iniesta, and Thomas Vermaelen playing in the same team if the Brazilian joined Vissel Kobe?

Where to then?

Personally, I feel that Silva should make a move to Everton and link up with Carlo Ancelotti once again. Everton have the resources to build a solid team and Silva would definitely improve the current lacklustre defence. Besides linking up with Ancelotti, Everton also offers Silva the chance of regular first-team football – something that other clubs may fail to provide. However, Silva is but one man and for Everton to excel, changes need to happen. Top of that list would be to offload Michael Keane and bring in a new defender. The Merseyside club is rumoured to be after Gabriel Magalhaes of Lille and that would be a fantastic signing. Under Silva’s guidance, perhaps Everton will have a reliable defence in the future with Holgate and Magalhaes at the heart of it.

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Champions League Round of 16 Preview Part 2 (2/25-2/26)

A quick preview for this week’s UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg matches…

Tuesday 2/25

Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich

A rematch of the 2012 Champions League Final is on the cards, and while quite a bit has changed for both teams since that famous night in Munich, this is still quite an interesting match up and will certainly be one that fans of both clubs have had circled on the fixture list for a while.

Chelsea were victors on that night eight years ago, but certainly look to be the team worse for wear going into this match. Despite a moral-boosting 2-1 victory over Tottenham in their last league match, they have won only four of their last 12 in the league, still suffering from key injuries that may make this tie quite difficult. In more positive news, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham both made the bench in the victory over Spurs, but neither will probably feature in this match, given Loftus-Cheek’s lack of game time and the current form of Olivier Giroud, respectively. Defensive issues have characterized Lampard’s team recently, but with Andreas Christensen returning to the fold, there are more options available to choose from. Lampard will likely stick with his 3-4-3 system, hoping a back three can provide more defensive security against a scary Bayern attack led by a perpetually in-form Robert Lewandowski. Chelsea will need a strong home performance to go through this tie, with the ideal scenario being holding a lead and stopping away goals for their return to Bavaria.

Bayern have, conversely, been in incredible league form, having only failed to win once in their last 11 in all competitions. Hansi Flick has found a formula that works, with Bayern scoring goals for fun and playing incredible football, coinciding with the ending of their injury crises. Robert Lewandowski has gotten all of the attention, and deservedly so, for his incredible goalscoring form this season, but coasting a bit under the radar is the renaissance of Thomas Müller during Flick’s tenure. Müller has returned to the best form of himself, roaming across midfield and the final third to find the spaces where he can cause the most damage. In a Chelsea midfield without N’Golo Kante, there could be quite a bit of space between the back three and the rest of the team, and Müller could be quite influential in this match if he is able to find those spaces. Also hoping to continue his brilliant form is Canadian left back Alphonso Davies, who has been a revelation for Bayern this season and has forced long-time left back David Alaba out of his preferred position. Alaba will continue at center back, where he has done an admirable job filling the void left by the injured Niklas Süle, and he will likely be joined by the now fully-fit Lucas Hernandez. Hernandez returning to the team will likely be the only change Flick will consider, because, as the old saying goes, why fix what is not broke?

Prediction: This is going to be quite difficult for Chelsea. Bayern are on fire at the moment, and Chelsea are sputtering following their strong start to the season. If Chelsea score first, they could possibly hold on to a slender lead to bring with them to Germany, but I do not believe they will score first. Bayern should control this match, and add in a few away goals to make the second leg an easier task.

Chelsea 1-3 Bayern Munich

Napoli vs. Barcelona

In a match filled with Messi-Maradona symbolism, a resurgent Napoli team hosts a Barcelona team still trying to figure things out under a new manager. Messi travels to the kingdom of the man he has been perpetually chasing, Diego Maradona. Oh, and Barca have the slight issue of a Clasico in a few days time. Poor timing, huh?

Gennaro Gattuso’s start to his life in Campania was nothing short of miserable. Having lost four of his first six matches in charge and watched his team plummet to mid-table mediocrity, many had begun to write their eulogies of this Napoli team, calling it an end of an era. However, they would turn it around, going on to win six of their next seven in all competitions, including a league win over Juventus and Coppa Italia wins over Lazio and Inter, turning around their fate completely and beginning a surge back toward the European places. They have largely been buoyed by match-winning moments from Fabian Ruiz, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens, but have also had contributions from the likes of Elif Elmas in midfield and Kostas Manolas in defense. While they have struggled to score in the first half, they have largely become a second half team, seeming to create big moments in the dying minutes of matches. Gattuso will demand a resoluteness from his team, hoping to limit the damage Messi and his teammates can inflict, and despite the continued absence of influential center back Kalidou Koulibaly, Gattuso will like his chances with the team he will send out, likely being unchanged from their win against Brescia.

Quique Setien’s start to his life in Catalonia was equally as troublesome as his counterpart’s start at his new job. Trying to implement a new style and new 3-5-2 system, Setien’s team suffered growing pains. Their “control possession to protect the defense” style ran into issues when opponents high pressed, leading to turnovers and counterattacks against an exposed back three. Following a loss away to Valencia, Barca won their next four league matches, with the only road bump being a loss away to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey. While they have not looked completely convincing in this new system, they were able to find goals from different areas of their team and allow the influence of Lionel Messi to carry them to victories. They are not short on injury issues, however. They remain without Luis Suarez, while Ousmane Dembele was recently announced to be missing the rest of the season. Their controversial “emergency signing” Martin Braithwaite is not eligible to feature for them in the Champions League, so Arturo Vidal will likely have to continue featuring as the team’s unorthodox “false nine” in attack. They will need a strong performance from their midfield and a usual strong performance from Messi to leave Naples with the advantage.

Prediction: An interesting match up between two good but flawed teams. I see this as a draw. Napoli are confident now and, despite the absence of Koulibaly, have the right players performing well at the moment. However, Barca has Messi, and that is always going to be a game-changing fact. If there is a winner, it is possibly a moment of magic from Messi, but I think it is a draw.

Napoli 1-1 Barcelona

Wednesday 2/26

Lyon vs. Juventus

Possibly the least fascinating of the match ups this week, Lyon match up against Juventus, a team they have never beaten, and enter the knockout stages as massive underdogs. But hey, sometimes underdogs pull it off, so you never know.

To say it has not been the best season for OL would be a dramatic understatement. Despite a surge in form at the turn of the year, they returned to their rut and find themselves stuck in mid-table, with the podium places lurching further and further out of sight. Many of their summer signings, including Thiago Mendes and Joachim Andersen, have flopped. Their Rudi Garcia experiment has unequivocally failed, and their positive results have only come from the individual quality of Houssem Aouar, Moussa Dembele, Jason Denayer, and some of the younger players. To make matters worse, the week began with renewed tensions between the club’s outspoken president Jean-Michel Aulas and Lyon ultras groups, escalating to the point where the club placed a net between the pitch and the Virage Nord and Virage Sud of the Parc OL, the primary home of the ultras groups, to prevent provocation. It is safe to say that Lyon enter this tie as massive underdogs, but them moving on is not completely out of the question. New signing Bruno Guimaraes put together a strong debut against Metz, and if a midfield three of him, Aouar, and Maxence Caqueret performs at a high level against Juve’s weakened midfield, it is possible that they could cause some serious problems for Maurizio Sarri’s team. Despite recent struggles, Moussa Dembele remains a budding superstar and winter signing Karl Toko-Ekambi has started fairly well in his return to France. Jason Denayer is having another strong season, and him and goalkeeper Anthony Lopes could realistically hold the defense together. It could also be the world-premiere moment for academy prodigy Rayan Cherki, who has already earned the plaudits of many in France. I recognize this is asking quite a bit, and it really requires everything to go in favor of les Gones for them to stand a chance at moving on. As Lloyd Christmas said, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

Juventus have not been as invincible as many thought they would be when Cristiano Ronaldo completed his transfer to the Turin giants. While Ronaldo has been near-unstoppable this season, equalling Gabriel Batistuta’s record for most consecutive Serie A games with a goal, the rest of the team has had its issues. They have lost twice in their last five games, which is normally quite good, but they were two bad losses to Napoli and Hellas Verona, and they have not looked entirely convincing in some of their wins. The midfield has been a massive issue all season, and the continued struggles of Aaron Ramsey, Blaise Matuidi, and Adrien Rabiot have not made things easy for manager Maurizio Sarri. Their defense has also had issues, but was strengthened with the recent return of Giorgio Chiellini. Paulo Dybala has continued to have a strong season, and the return of Gonzalo Higuain should help ease the burden off of Ronaldo, but it is clear that this is a vulnerable team. Lyon may not be good enough to take advantage of the Bianconeri‘s issues, but it is clear that this team cannot win the Champions League unless they shape up.

Prediction: Despite the issues between Lyon supporters and the club, I expect Juventus will be walking into a hostile Parc OL. Lyon will be up for this, similar to Barcelona’s trip to the Rhône last season, and this should be the closest of the two legs in this tie. Juve will probably go through quite easily overall, but they will have to work for this game. They should win, but it will be close and it will be tough.

Lyon 0-1 Juventus

Real Madrid vs. Manchester City

I will be honest again. I have no clue how this one is going to go. But hey, I am here to predict and predict I will.

Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe described Real Madrid earlier in the season as not a team that was incredible but a team “that feels invincible”, and, to be fair, that was very accurate at the time. They had just won the Spanish Super Cup, were the best defense in La Liga, and had leap-frogged over Barcelona to establish a solid lead at the top of the table. They looked to be the best team in Spain and, because of that defensive solidity and the impending return of Eden Hazard, a dark horse for the Champions League. Fast forward a bit, and that invincibility has seemingly worn off. They tumbled out of the Copa del Rey after a 4-3 loss to Real Sociedad and lost their lead at the top of the league to Barcelona following a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo and a 1-0 loss to Levante in their previous two games. Eden Hazard’s return lasted only 67 minutes, as he limped off against Levante having suffered another ankle injury that will keep him out for the remainder of the season. Their strong defensive form has waned, and they are not getting the goals from Karim Benzema that he was providing earlier in the season. Zidane’s team still has an issue of finding a reliable goalscorer outside of Benzema, and with Hazard out for the remainder of the season, their most likely option in that area is now gone. Zidane will now have to seriously weigh up a recall for outcast winger Gareth Bale, who could complete a redemption arc if he returns to the team and is influential in them winning a trophy. Much of Real Madrid’s success this season was built on the back of their defense and midfield, with the trio of Federico Valverde, Casemiro, and Toni Kroos having very good seasons in the middle of the park, while the pairing of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane has normally been very good at the back. Zidane has to consider the possibility of including Luka Modric or Isco in that midfield, as well as returning Ferland Mendy to the defensive line, in order to resist a Manchester City team driven by their midfield. While normally characterized by a 4-3-3, I would not be surprised to see Zidane, who has been quite open about changing systems this season and in previous seasons, move to a four man midfield for this match, with Benzema and likely Bale or Vinicius as the two forwards. Oh yeah, and they play Barcelona on Sunday in quite possibly the biggest Clasico in recent years and a match that could define the title race. Poor timing, huh? I doubt Zidane would consider using a purposely-weakened team for either of those games, so this is going to be a serious test of Real Madrid’s resolve and endurance.

Manchester City, conversely, have very little to focus on outside of this match up. It is nearly impossible for them to win the league, with Liverpool well out of sight at the top of the table. With the recent UEFA ruling, they will be banned from all European competitions for the next two seasons so, unless their appeal is quickly heard and decided by the Court for Arbitration for Sport, finishing in the top four really does not make a difference. Yes they are in an EFL Cup final and FA Cup Round of 16, but really those trophies do not matter to City at this point. All of Pep Guardiola’s eggs are in the Champions League basket. It is truly a now or never moment. If CAS does not rule in their favor, then their Champions League ban could lead to the departure of several key players and even Guardiola himself. City may never have another chance to win the Champions League. Their form was stuttering, with an unconvincing win over Sheffield United paired with a draw against Crystal Palace and a loss to Tottenham, but strong wins over West Ham and Leicester have gotten them back on track. They will be boosted by good injury news involving Aymeric Laporte, who should be good to go despite limping off against Leicester. Raheem Sterling could also make his return after missing City’s last two matches in a game that could be a Real Madrid audition for the Englishman. His return to the team, paired with the incredible form of Kevin De Bruyne, could ease some concerns about the City attack, who have struggled for goals in recent games. To win at the Bernabeu, they will need a return to form from Sergio Aguero as well as a strong performance from their midfield to help break down a normally resilient Madrid defense.

Prediction: It really feels this tie could help save the season of the victor and fully destroy the season of the loser. There is quite a bit on the line between both teams. Despite their recent struggles, Real Madrid are usually still a strong team at home, and the struggles of Sergio Aguero has me concerned about City going forward. Pep’s team will definitely still create chances, but I think it will be a strong game from the Madrid defense, with Ferland Mendy starring in a return to the team. Zidane’s team will return to Manchester for the second leg with the advantage.

Real Madrid 1-0 Manchester City