Tag Archives: Juventus

The Juventus-Ronaldo Project Has Failed

And it is time to acknowledge how far Juventus have fallen…

So Juventus are out of the Champions League. In the Round of 16 stage. Again.

Juve’s extra time away goals loss to FC Porto is the second time in as many years that the Bianconeri were eliminated at the first knockout hurdle in the Champions League, and it is also only the third time that a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo has failed to advance past the Champions League Round of 16 since the Portuguese signed with Real Madrid in 2009. Juventus have not advanced past the Quarterfinals stage since 2017, when they made it to the Final, and on all three occasions they have lost to teams (Ajax, Olympique Lyonnais, FC Porto) that, at least on paper, they should be beating quite easily. And every year, the defeats seem to be getting worse and more embarrassing.

Away from the Champions League, Juventus now finds themselves 10 points behind league leaders Inter after making hard work of winning the title last season. Their dominance of the Scudetto in Italy looks like it is coming to an end. While they are in the Final of the Coppa Italia, they have failed to win the competition, a competition that Juventus have dominated since 2014, the last two seasons, losing in the Final to Napoli last season and in the Quarterfinals to Atalanta in 2018-19.

It is quite simple; Juventus have fallen behind over the last three years, and the rest of Italy’s traditional powers have begun to catch up and overtake the Old Lady. It is incredibly damning to say that a club that signed Cristiano Ronaldo has gotten worse since his arrival, but this is where we are at with Juventus. They signed Ronaldo in 2018 to finally win the Champions League, but not only have they gotten further away from their ultimate goal, but their decade-long dominance of domestic Italian football is also seemingly coming to an end.

The Ronaldo project has colossally failed. And Juventus has no one but themselves to blame for its failure.

Now this failure is not directly because of Ronaldo’s performances. Ronaldo has been scoring goals at a hilariously absurd rate since moving to Turin. Despite having yet to win the Capocannoniere, awarded to the league’s top scorer, since moving to Juve, he has still scored an incredible 92 goals in 121 total appearances in all competitions, which is absurd for a player who is 36 with the amount of miles on the proverbial odometer as Ronaldo has. He is still incredibly good, and in there lies a problem.

You might be looking at me like I am insane right now. Ronaldo being too good is the problem? Sort of. Ronaldo’s talent is clear, but it has created a scenario where Juventus have become over-reliant on the Portuguese to save them. He is responsible for nearly half of his team’s league goals this season. He is the only one that can really do anything when a big moment is needed, and when teams effectively deal with the threat he provides, as Napoli did in the Coppa Italia Final last season, for example, then Juventus quite often struggle to score. They have runs where other players in the team can pick up some slack, with Paulo Dybala and Federico Chiesa probably being their main non-Ronaldo attacking threats, but quite often it is clear that Juventus has invested so heavily into Ronaldo that they are forcing him to carry the club on his back. None of this is Ronaldo’s fault, obviously, but it shows how Juventus have fallen as a team, and it shows the level of complacency the club has reached when it comes to investing in talent to bring into the team.

On that thread of investment, we are beginning to see the most serious problem with building a team around someone like Ronaldo and generally beginning to see the issues with Juventus’ investment over the last few years. Ronaldo was a very serious financial investment, as his €88 million transfer fee is piled on top of his alleged €31 million yearly net wage (net wage means that is his wage after taxes, so Juventus are actually paying him more than that). In the age of Financial Fair Play, that is an insane amount of money to put into just one player. Juve’s annual revenue pales in comparison to the Manchester City’s or PSG’s or Manchester United’s of the world, only being listed as the 10th richest club in the world in Deloitte’s 2021 Money League table, narrowly ahead of Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund, and Atlético Madrid. When you do not have colossal revenue and invest so much of that money into one player, it is hard to build a capable team and stay within FFP regulations.

That is not to say they have not tried, and it is worth critiquing their efforts to build around their newly-acquired superstar. They did make some good moves, with Matthijs de Ligt, Dejan Kulusevski, and Weston McKennie looking like future stars, but there are so many poor decisions that have only made an already bad financial situation even worse. The club was weighed down by several very costly contracts, and Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey remain as the peak examples of players costing the club significant wages while not consistently producing at the level they need to be. They needed to cut their losses in order to get Sami Khedira, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Blaise Matuidi off of the wage bill, letting all three players leave the club for free so they can stop paying their exuberant wages. They were unable to make major permanent moves in this last summer window due to this financial difficulty, as well as the financial difficulty caused by the COVID Pandemic. They were only able to bring in Álvaro Morata, Weston McKennie, and Federico Chiesa on loan deals, and they failed to bring in their main transfer target, Lyon’s Houssem Aouar, when they could not convince OL to accept a loan for the midfielder. They had to manufacture some wild swap deal with equally desperate Barcelona just to get Miralem Pjanić’s wages off of the books. Yes, this mainly reflects poorly on the sporting staff at Juventus and the poor long-term planning that has taken place since signing Ronaldo, but they are clearly hamstrung by the financial investment that Ronaldo requires, and it seems to be nearly impossible to effectively build a team around a colossal superstar of Ronaldo’s level in the era of Financial Fair Play.

So where does the buck stop? You cannot blame the managers. The three Champions League failures came under three different managers, with Max Allegri losing to Ajax, Maurizio Sarri losing to Lyon, and now Andrea Pirlo losing to Porto. You cannot really blame Ronaldo because, despite his wage clearly holding Juventus back to a certain extent, he is still performing at an incredibly high level. Is this Juventus team good enough to meet the standard that Juventus should be held to? No, but that is not on the players, it should be on the people who brought them to the club. Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli and Chief Football Officer Fabio Paratici took a team that made the Champions League Final twice and were regular Italian champions and made them worse, seemingly out of complacency and arrogance rather than anything else. Signing Ronaldo was an incredible statement showing how far Juventus have come since Calciopoli, but they failed to put the team around him needed to win the Champions League. After Pirlo, Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio left the club, it was clear Juventus needed a massive investment into their midfield. Not only were the players that were brought in not good enough to fill that void, but they were signed on egregious wages that made them difficult to move on. Matthijs de Ligt is a phenomenal player, but there is a very clear difference in the Bianconeri defense when he is not in the team, as was the case against Porto. They have assembled a team that seemingly struggles to create chances at times, all looking to Ronaldo to save them.

The way the club handled the managerial situation is even more perplexing. Sacking Max Allegri is a fair enough decision. Allegri’s practicality has been a backbone of Juve’s recent success, but I understand a desire to bring in a more attacking manager with the team’s acquisition of a talent like Ronaldo. Sarri was a logical choice, but only giving him a year? What in the world did they think Sarri could do in just one season with a squad that was clearly very flawed? Yes, losing to Lyon was embarrassing, but did Agnelli and Paratici really expect Juve to go much further in the competition? Why would that not dictate a need for Sarri to be given more time to fully implement his vision on the team? Ok, maybe things were going wrong behind the scenes, maybe a change was necessary. There were a few names on the market for managers that would be a very good fit for Juventus, Mauricio Pochettino being the main one. Sacking Sarri was a little perplexing, but they could finally get it right with this next move.

But Andrea Pirlo? Really? Are you actually serious?

Pirlo is probably a wonderful person. He was a phenomenal player and he is undoubtedly a great football mind, but the man has zero years of managerial experience. He was hired as Juve’s U-23 coach, his first job in football management, in late July of 2020 and then hired as their first team manager nine days later. He literally earned his UEFA Pro License two months into the job. You did not have to do this, Juve. There is no reason in my mind that justifies this unless every single remotely qualified candidate turned them down, which would be baffling to me. Were they waiting to see if Pep Guardiola left Manchester City? Why? What is the point of throwing away a year of Ronaldo on the off chance someone leaves their job? None of this makes sense to me.

I also refuse to believe that Pirlo would have been considered for this position if his name was not Andrea Pirlo, if his name did not carry the incredible weight that it does within Juventus and throughout Italian football. Do not get me wrong, Pirlo could still become a great manager, but it is painfully clear that he was not ready for this. The whole movement of clubs hiring former players as managers has always been a bit ridiculous to me, but this is easily the most ridiculous of all of them. Just because they were a great player does not mean they will be a great manager. Pirlo is a brilliant football mind, but there is so much more that is required to be a top level manager than just being a good football mind, and these are skills that will not be met by just hiring a former player with very little experience. He has not shown the necessary game management and squad management skills needed to be successful at the highest level, and he is getting less out of this team than either Sarri or Allegri did. Juventus should also not be the place for a new guy to learn on the job. If Juventus needed a manager that was going to help them win now, as demonstrated by how short of a leash they gave Sarri, then hiring Pirlo is unbelievably insane and irresponsible. You are not only throwing a green manager into the deep end for no reason, but you are ruining his legacy with one of his former clubs for no reason.

Agnelli and Paratici had the golden opportunity of having Cristiano Ronaldo in their team and ruined it with their illogical decisions with player recruitment and managerial hiring. Juventus have not only gotten further away from their goal of winning the Champions League, but their grip on Italian football is now weakening. Yes, the financial implications of building a team around a player like Ronaldo is significant and likely makes the job much harder, but the arrogance of Juventus’ board and staff after years of dominance over Serie A has caused them to slip up at the most crucial moment. They could still end up winning the Scudetto this season, and they are still one of the best teams in Italy, but it is clear that Juventus have gotten worse over the last few years while the other major Italian powers, as well as the big teams around Europe, have gotten better. Juventus’ incredible business sense allowed them to sign a Ferrari-level player, but their complacency led to them putting that Ferrari engine in the body of a 40 year old Ford truck and still expecting it to run perfectly.

Ronaldo’s contract runs out at the end of next season. If things continue on this trajectory, what motivation does he have to stay? Why would he not leave on a free transfer and move to a club where he can win the Champions League again?

Why would he not try to leave the club this summer? What reason does he have to give this failing project one more season?

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Bienvenue, Maxence Caqueret

Remember the name. You will be hearing it a lot more very soon…

Lyon’s Champions League Round of 16 triumph over Juventus took the football world by surprise. Very few people gave them any chance of moving on, and it seemed that the second leg was poised for another Cristiano Ronaldo heroic hat trick to send the Bianconero through. However, Lyon moved on by the skin of their teeth, through grit, fight, team defensive solidity, and a little bit of luck. This tenacity and fight seemed to be epitomized by one player, a kid making his European debut for his boyhood club.

Welcome to the big time, Maxence Caqueret. We welcome another in a long line of Lyon academy graduates to the spotlights of European football.

Born in Vénissieux, a suburb of Lyon, Caqueret came through Les Gones‘ famous academy, emerging very early on as a promising young talent. His insane work rate, ability in the tackle, and fighting desire, despite his small frame, helped elevate him to being among the brightest stars in the academy teams. He also demonstrated leadership qualities at an early age, eventually becoming the captain of many Lyon youth teams. It seemed to be a question of when, not if, the youngster would make his break in the first team.

Despite some barriers to entry and some controversial management of the youth team promotions, Caqueret finally got his chance in the first team this season. Despite limited chances, he shone as a bright light of a disappointing season for OL. The tenacity, fight, and tackling ability he was known for in the youth teams came through, winning tackles and intercepting passes at a rate higher than almost any midfielder in Ligue 1 during his brief run in the first team. He also demonstrated a fantastic range of passing and attacking intelligence, able to act as a bridge between defense and attack and fill multiple roles in the midfield, not just being a ball-winner. Consistent time in the first team seemed to be blocked by other players, however, as Lucas Tousart and Thiago Mendes still featured heavily, and the addition of Bruno Guimarães seemed to present another roadblock. Despite this, it was clear that Lyon had another academy gem on their hands, a secret really only known within France.

Then, the season was ended early due to the COVID pandemic. Tousart left the club for Hertha Berlin shortly after. Lyon still had to prepare for their Champions League match against Juventus, but the look of the midfield was unclear. Tousart had scored in the first leg against Juventus, so his absence would be an interesting twist in the tie. Garcia decided to take a risk, opting for the 20-year-old Caqueret to make his European debut, playing in a midfield alongside Guimarães and Houssem Aouar. The more experienced pairing of Thiago Mendes and Jeff Reine-Adélaïde were left on the bench, and it was a gamble that paid off.

Caqueret shone in the heart of the Lyon midfield, arguably being one of the team’s best performers. He was relentless defensively, hounding Pjanić and Rabiot in midfield and winning the ball back repeatedly. He was often going against the larger Rabiot, but his fearlessness shone through. Notably, late in the match, he would rise higher than Rabiot to win a header and draw a foul, showing a lack of fear in going body-to-body with the 6’4″ Rabiot. His technical ability was also on full display, using his passing and dribbling ability to get out of trouble and relieve the pressure on the Lyon defense. There were multiple moments where he had the composure to dribble around an opposing player or quickly change direction with a Juventus player bearing down on him to win the ball back. The most notable example of this was an instance in the second half when he received the ball at the top of the box with three Juventus players going after him. He quickly took a touch and made a move to beat all three players, finding himself in the space needed to take a shot at goal, which was deflected. This is a kid who is 20 years old and has played a little more than a dozen professional matches playing with the composure, maturity, and mental understanding of a veteran player with years of professional and European experience.

He was all over the pitch, contributing up front and defensively. It was a mind-blowing performance, one that launches the career of a young player into the stratosphere. He was technically brilliant, tactically on point the whole match, and physically gave his all for his boyhood club. He was so good that he stayed on for the whole match, with Aouar being the midfielder Rudi Garcia chose to withdraw. He was the embodiment of that Lyon performance in Turin, where they fought and clawed their way to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. He was my man of the match from that game, and clearly he was a player who caught the eye of several media members and other football fans watching to see what Ronaldo might do.

Football world, meet Maxence Caqueret. Learn his name now, because I guarantee this will not be the last time you read or hear it.

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Serie A Week In Review

Do we have a presumptive champion already?

Welcome to the Serie A Week in Review. It’s been a little while since we have had one of these, but we are back. Here, we will be naming our player of the week, our three winners and losers, and discussing what we learned from another week (or so) of action in Italy.

Player of the Week

Zlatan Ibrahimović, AC Milan

The big man himself was crucial for Milan in the last week, scoring in assisting in their shock wins over Lazio and Juventus. While age has begun to catch up to the Swede, Ibra still has the ability to be influential on matches because of his ability to play as a target man and draw the attention of defenders, as well as a maintained technical ability that may never go away. Two goals and two assists in two colossal wins for the Rossoneri, games that may be significant in their race for European football next season. And at the center of it is the legend himself.

Winners of the Week

1.) AC Milan

In the last about week and a half, Milan have beaten Roma, Lazio, and Juventus. These are three massive scalps for Stefano Pioli’s team, and these three wins put them firmly in the race for a Europa League place. There is starting to be some serious chemistry forming in the team, especially at the back, where Alessio Romagnoli has formed a strong partnership with on-loan center back Simon Kjær. Theo Hernández, Ismaël Bennacer, and Zlatan remain stars of the show in their respective positions, but they are boosted by strong performances from Ante Rebić and Hakan Çalhanoglu, as well as some surprise production from youngster Alexis Saelemaekers and veteran Giacomo Bonaventura. Pioli is stringing together some fantastic results, finally reaping the benefits of the work he has put in as manager. Should this be his final season in the San Siro dugout, as rumors indicate, Pioli seems to want to make the most of this remaining time. Getting Milan back into Europe would be quite a way to go out as manager.

2.) Napoli

The most in-form team in Italy not named Atalanta is, surprisingly, Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli. Following some struggles earlier in his tenure, Gattuso has begun to get a tune out of his team, guiding them to a Coppa Italia title and only one loss in their last seven league matches, dating back to before the hiatus. Yes, their loss to Atalanta did sting, but they responded well and got all three points in a must-win match against Roma a few days later. Napoli have always been a talented team, but it is a combination of that talent and the underrated managing of Gattuso that has made this Napoli we are now seeing. This was characterized perfectly in the Roma match, with the first goal being a near-Sarriball level of team combination and off-ball runs leading to José Callejón getting on the end of a perfect cross, while the second goal was a piece of individual brilliance from Lorenzo Insigne. While the 15 point gap between the Partenopei and the Champions League is not completely insurmountable with eight games left, it is still safe to say that they will be front-runners for the Europa League place. Gattuso deserves credit for the job he has done in Naples.

3.) Juventus

Juventus accomplished quite a bit in the last week without really doing much themselves. Despite not looking that strong all season, and despite their recent loss to Milan, they look well on their way to another league title. It will come down to Juve restarting the season well and Lazio stumbling when it mattered the most. Questions still loom around the future of Maurizio Sarri, and while a seven point lead with seven games left is not fully safe, especially still having to face Lazio, Atalanta, and Roma, I feel at least somewhat comfortable in saying that the Bianconeri will be champions. Should this be Sarri’s only year in Turin, going out with a Scudetto would not be terrible.

Losers of the Week

1.) Lazio

This past week has been a massive slip up for Lazio, and I mean massive. Simone Inzaghi’s team seemed to recover somewhat well from their capitulation against Atalanta, but a loss to Milan paired with their shock loss to Lecce yesterday sees them falling away from Juventus in the Scudetto race. With Juventus also losing yesterday, the loss to Lecce is a serious missed opportunity to make up ground, especially knowing they still must travel to Turin to face the reigning champions at the end of the month. The dramatic loss in Bergamo may have been what ended the Lazio title challenge, but if Atalanta beat Juve this weekend, they may have the chance to redeem themselves when they go to Turin.

2.) Inter

Pazza Inter is a phrase that you run into quite a bit when reading Italian football coverage. It is synonymous with a fan-written song, “Pazza Inter Amala”, that used to be played at the San Siro before matches, but it is also synonymous with a “crazy” Inter. Pazza Inter refers to an Inter team that finds a way to play worse than the sum of its parts, to lose matches that it should be winning easily, to grab defeat from the jaws of victory. Antonio Conte’s arrival was thought to be a signal of the end of the pazza days for Inter, but, low and behold, we are back. Their 3-3 draw against Sassuolo was as crazy as the reputation says, but they seemed to shape up with a very lucky 2-1 win over Parma and a 6-0 demolition of Brescia. Their most recent match, a 2-1 loss to Bologna, was a return to this pazza mentality. Inter had the chances in the first half to be 4-0 up at halftime, but a rather drab second half from the Nerazzurri allowed Bologna to score twice. An incredibly disappointing second half of the season has seen Conte’s team fumble out of the title race, only a point ahead of Atalanta in fourth. If they are not careful, they may be fighting with Napoli to stay in the top four altogether.

3.) Roma

Roma were once comfortably in the driver’s seat in the race for the Europa League place, but losses to Milan, Udinese, and Napoli have seen them begin to crumble. They did not play as poorly against Napoli as they did in the previous two matches, but the goals have seemed to dry up. Paulo Fonseca’s three at the back experiment has not shown the results he may have wanted, as well, and it seems that Roma are seemingly lacking any momentum. In one bit of positive news, young star Nicolò Zaniolo made his return to the team following a cruciate ligament injury in January, coming on as a substitute in the 66th minute against Napoli. It is unclear how much of a role Zaniolo will play in the team, but if they are able to get near the level of quality that the young Italian has shown previously, then Roma could get back on track for the rest of the season. It may not be all doom and gloom for the capitol club.

What we Learned

1.) This might be the worst Juventus team to win the title in a while

The gaping flaws of this Juventus team have been laid out for the world to see over the last 12 months. They are a team that lacks any real quality in midfield, are prone to collapse in defense largely due to the ineffectiveness of the midfield, and are seemingly too reliant on Ronaldo going forward, despite the incredible amount of attacking talent in the team. When the attack can click, as they did against Genoa, they are a very good side with plenty of individual skill, but so many times this season, Juventus have been exposed. Their failure in the Coppa Italia, where a loss on penalties to Napoli after a pitiful display in normal time restarted their season with a whimper, further highlights the existence of those issues. However, thanks to the struggles and ineptitudes of Lazio and Inter, it looks like Juventus will win the Scudetto for a ninth consecutive year. However, this year seemed to really be the year where Juve wins the title not because of their individual quality, but because of the failings of their title rivals. If Juventus do not do something in the transfer window to fix their flaws, then next season might be the one where their title streak ends.

2.) Are Milan back?

No. Of course not. That’s a ridiculous question. A club of the stature of AC Milan cannot be considered to be “back” until they reach the level of a team that is contending for Scudetti and is competing regularly in the Champions League.

But there is optimism. There is a view that there are things finally going right on the Rossonero side of Milan. The wins over Roma, Lazio, and Juventus put them in a great position to qualify for the Europa League next season, which should alleviate some of the financial issues the club continues to face. They have found a solid and consistent back four, with Simon Kjær and Andrea Conti providing some stability to partner established stars Alessio Romagnoli, Theo Hernández, and Gigio Donnarumma. Zlatan continues to be Zlatan, and while they cannot rely on the big Swede for that much longer, he will at least get the job done now. Ismaël Bennacer continues to be the breakout star of the season in Serie A, providing incredible performances from midfield on a weekly basis. And they are able to tie this all together through the management of Stefano Pioli. The Italian has not done a great job at the helm of Milan, especially earlier in the season, but he is finally seeing some fruit from his labor. The impending arrival of Ralf Rangnick to replace Pioli has put the Italian manager in an awful situation, but he is at least able to use it to so far inspire a strong run to the end of the season from his team. The financial boost from qualifying for the Europa League would allow Rangnick, should he be the next manager, to begin his Milan rebuild in a good position financially and on the pitch.

3.) Gattuso’s new Napoli is going to be interesting to watch next season…

I will continue to insist that Gattuso is not getting the credit he deserves for the job he has done at Napoli so far. Yes, it did not start that well, but he is really starting to get production out of a team that, let’s not forget, literally mutinied against their ownership and former manager Carlo Ancelotti earlier in the season. The individual talent at Napoli, especially in attack, is now coming to the fore, but it is not just down to talent. Gattuso has put together several masterful game plans to get results for the Partenopei, the most effective being his masterful tactics in the Coppa Italia Final against Juve. With Hellas Verona center back Amir Rrahmani arriving in the summer, as well as the club’s outward courting of Lille striker Victor Osimhen, the foundations are being laid for the evolution of this team next season, but with most of the core of this team likely staying, Gattuso has himself a talented team that also works hard and fights through adversity. That might sound like a cheesy pairing of key words, but it is really true. No, this Napoli team does not have the gloss of the Sarriball teams, and it may not be as good, at least not right now, as those teams, but Gattuso is building a team that should be back into the Champions League places very soon. For now, look for Napoli to be the favorite to finish at least fifth, and possibly, when the Champions League returns, stand a decent chance of knocking out Barcelona.

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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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Serie A is back!

And this is slightly late cus they had a cup final a few days ago…

Feature Image by Marco Pomella from Pixabay

Serie A has returned, and with it, the four of the top five leagues with plans to return this season have all followed through. Italian football really returned last week, as the semifinals and final of the Coppa Italia were finished, but the league will resume this weekend. So, you know the usual questions at this point. Where did we leave off? What do you need to watch for? What players should you pay attention to?

First, a quick recap of the Coppa Italia. Italy’s premier cup competition resumed last week with the second legs of the semifinals. Juventus drew 0-0 with Milan but advanced on away goals after a 1-1 aggregate, while Napoli beat Inter 1-0 to advance 2-1 on aggregate. In the final, Napoli beat their arch rivals on penalties to win their sixth Coppa Italia and first trophy since 2014. Dries Mertens’ goal against Inter in the semifinal made him Napoli’s all-time leading goal scorer, surpassing former teammate Marek Hamšík. These two games offered some deserved vindication to Napoli manager Gennaro Gattuso, who seemed to not put a single foot wrong for either game. His line up and tactical decisions in the final were a significant reason for the Partenopei success, with the structure of the team in defense designed to force Juventus out wide and into crosses that would be easily dealt with by the center backs. This should be a significant momentum boost for Napoli, a team with an outside chance of finishing in the top four this season, and it is a way to start the season with momentum that no other team will have.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

So, we left off with a title race, but is it a two horse race or a three horse race? Really, I am not quite sure. We left off with Juventus in first while Lazio and Inter are one and nine points behind them, respectively. While nine points is a significant gap for Inter, they do have a game in hand on the other two, so that deficit could be knocked down to six points with a win. Even with a six point lead, Inter are seemingly on the outside looking in when it comes to this title race. They are still in it, but they need quite a bit of help. However, we also return to a Juventus team in crisis. They did not play well in either the Milan or Napoli matches, and they seem to be more reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo than ever. When Ronaldo does not deliver, as he did not in the Coppa Italia Final, there seems to be not much more this Juventus team can do. Their midfield, especially, is still massively struggling outside of the usually great Rodrigo Bentancur. The defense is still solid, with Matthijs de Ligt finding his feet and becoming a key player in the team, but when they are not scoring enough, they will struggle to keep stringing together 1-0s and 1-1s. Lazio sit in perfect position, waiting for Juventus to mess up. Simone Inzaghi’s team have been the surprise package of the Serie A season, with quality players littered across the team. Ciro Immobile has been in incredible goalscoring form, and the midfield trio of Luis Alberto, Sergej Milinković-Savić, and Lucas Leiva have been nothing short of outstanding. Francesco Acerbi has been a rock at the back, as well. The spine of this Lazio team is fantastic, fully deserving of being in the position they are in. They also know that they still have to play Juventus, which gives them the opportunity to make up any ground they need to on the Bianconeri.

Below the top three, there is Atalanta in fourth, Roma in fifth, and Napoli in sixth. Those teams are the major contenders for the final Champions League place, with Atalanta and Roma being the main two teams in that fight. With Napoli’s Coppa Italia momentum, they definitely cannot be ruled out, but they have much more ground to make up. Atalanta are the top scorers in the league, assembling an incredibly entertaining and talented team that is able to compete for another season in the Champions League. Roma have been inconsistent under new manager Paulo Fonseca, but if they get young budding superstar Nicolò Zaniolo back healthy, they could be in with a good chance of finishing in the top four. Napoli have had a difficult season, sacking manager Carlo Ancelotti in December and replacing him with former Milan manager Gennaro Gattuso. It has not been smooth sailing for the Rossoneri legend in Campania, but with their triumph in the Coppa Italia, it seems that things are finally starting to turn around. If you wanted to expand this European discussion, there is a nine point gap between Napoli in sixth and Fiorentina in 13th. Sixth and seventh, currently occupied by Hellas Verona, are both Europa League qualifier places. It is a difficult path into Europe, but it would be a massive deal for some teams. One of those teams is Milan, currently in eighth. The ever-struggling Rossoneri are desperate for European football to alleviate some of the issues of Financial Fair Play and keep some of their key players at the club. Due to Napoli’s interesting position, they are able to challenge for the top four or drop out of the top six, and they need to maintain their momentum from winning the cup to finish the season well.

At the bottom of the table, two of the relegation places seem more or less decided. Brescia and SPAL seem destined for Serie B, being seven and six points away from safety, respectively. The real race is for the last spot, currently occupied by Lecce, who are only behind Genoa on away goals. There is a seven point gap between 18th and 11th, so theoretically all of those teams are at risk of relegation at this moment. Lecce, Genoa, Sampdoria, Torino, Udinese, Fiorentina, Cagliari, and Sassuolo all find themselves, more or less, within the wide frame of the relegation fight. The real race is including Udinese, Torino, Sampdoria, Genoa, and Lecce. Udinese, in 14th, and Lecce are only separated by three points. There is genuine talent in some of these teams, especially Udinese, Torino, and Sampdoria, but the race will likely be tight until the end of the season.

So who are the main names you should keep an eye on? You probably know the main ones: Ronaldo, Dybala, Immobile, Mertens, Insigne, Lukaku, Lautaro Martinez, Skriniar. There are definitely others, however, and, as usual, I will point them out here. Despite his struggles to adapt earlier in the season, it is worth giving another look to Matthijs de Ligt, who is showing the level of quality we all remember seeing when he was in Amsterdam. Milinkovic-Savić gets the most attention from outside Italy when discussing Lazio’s midfield, but Luis Alberto is a brilliant creative midfielder and currently the league’s assist leader. He is not just the Liverpool flop that many English fans remember him as being. Milan may continue to struggle, but left back Theo Hernández and midfielder Ismaël Bennacer have been stars this season, likely putting on great auditions for moves to other teams when the transfer window opens. Speaking of “audition for moves away”, surprise package Hellas Verona have two eye-catching Slavic center backs that have been stars this season. Kosovoan Amir Rrahmani and Albanian Marash Kumbulla have been fantastic all season and have attracted significant interest from other teams, the 20-year-old Kumbulla especially. Rrahmani seems to be going to Napoli, but Kumbulla has a long list of suitors within and outside of Italy vying for his signature. His defensive intelligence, ability on the ball, and maturity despite his young age makes him one of the best center back prospects on the continent. I am not going to select a single Atalanta player, but I am going to encourage you to watch them. Your player to watch for Atalanta is all of their players. Genuinely, they are such a fun team, playing such an intense attacking style and scoring plenty of goals. Their front three of Josip Iličić, Duván Zapata, and Alejandro “Papu” Gómez are the stars of the show, but there is so much that makes that team work. Further down the table there are plenty of great attacking players, such as Andrea Belotti at Torino, Federico Chiesa at Fiorentina, and the aging-like-fine-wine Fabio Quagliarella at Sampdoria. There are also a good set of brilliant box-to-box midfielders, including Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli, Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul, and the much-discussed Brescia wunderkind Sandro Tonali.

So, what is going to happen? Well, at the top, I do genuinely think this is the year that Juve’s hegemony ends. This seems to be a Juventus team in crisis, a team that has spent so much money on financing Ronaldo’s move that they have been unable to really upgrade the rest of the team. Their main competition, Lazio, seems to be an incredibly complete team that has many fewer weaknesses than Maurizio Sarri’s team. Sarri has seemingly reached a crisis point following their Coppa Italia failure, as there is a real possibility that the Bianconeri end the season without any trophies. Should that happen, it would likely lead to Sarri’s departure. Inter’s struggles have likely taken them out of the title race, but I believe they will comfortably finish third, with Atalanta rounding out the top four. Napoli will make a run, but not enough to catch Atalanta, finishing fifth, while Roma finishes sixth. I think Hellas Verona will narrowly hang on to seventh over Milan and Parma, but Milan, especially with a healthy Ibrahimović, could finish in that sixth spot. At the bottom, I think Brescia and SPAL both go down, with Lecce being the team to join them. Lecce are in a race for survival, but I think they are the least talented of the relegation fighting teams, and with the restart allowing some of the other more talented teams to get some much needed rest, Lecce will suffer the most.

Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

The return of Serie A still feels weird. Italy was the hardest hit European country by COVID, and the impact of the disease will be felt in Italian society for decades to come, especially in the north of the country. Lombardian clubs Inter, AC Milan, Brescia, and Atalanta return to play in the region hardest hit by the virus. While things seem to be returning to “normal”, there is a sense that nothing will be what is was before and that the definition of “normal” has been forever changed. In a way, this can be said about every country in the world, not just Italy. I just hope that the return of football can bring some much needed joy back into people’s lives, put smiles on the faces of people who have been, and continue to be, impacted by this virus.

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