La Liga: Aspas return sparks Celta’s survival hopes

La Liga: Aspas return sparks Celta’s survival hopes

The Offside Rule

With Celta Vigo in the relegation zone in La Liga, Hal Walker looks at the impact of Iago Aspas’ return to the team.

There was a tangible sense of déjà vu by the end of the helter-skelter relegation encounter between Celta Vigo and visitors Villarreal at Balaídos last Saturday evening.

Nearly 10 years ago, a 21-year-old Iago Aspas scored two goals – including a dramatic 94th-minute winner – in the final 10 minutes at home to Alaves to prevent his beloved Celta dropping to the Segunda División B. It was the moment that the Balaídos crowd found a new local hero – a welcome inspiration who could not only provide goals but a character who they would identify with: gutsy, raw and committed; as if he had been plucked straight from the stands and thrown a Celta shirt.

Saturday’s climax evoked such memories in the sense that not only it…

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Disciplined Bayern performance tilts Liverpool tie in their favour, but long-term concerns linger

Disciplined Bayern performance tilts Liverpool tie in their favour, but long-term concerns linger

After Tuesday’s final whistle blew on Merseyside to curtail a 0-0 draw from the first leg of the Champions League round of 16, Bayern Munich head coach Niko Kovac could reflect on a job well done, for the moment.

His side had delivered a dogged and resolute defensive performance in riposte to an anticipated Anfield onslaught, and despite the failure to claw an away goal to cherish, the 47-year-old was proud of the disciplined and stout nature his team carried out his game-plan and held their own in a widely adorned – arguably to mythical levels – arena.

The second leg – scheduled to be played at the Allianz Arena on 13 March – will be an encounter of higher stakes and will be unrecognisable from Tuesday on a tactical level, but it will require far more creative nous and offensive impetus from this Bayern side, and this is where doubts begin.

The fact that Bayern are seeking their seventh consecutive league title tells you everything you need to know about the Bundesliga power struggle, but this is a squad whose clock is visibly ticking and on a domestic front has been paying the price for the club’s reluctance to freshen ranks in the summer.

Irrespective of what happens on the pitch from now until May, this season will be final hurrah for a number of key players in their post-2012 hegemony. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribèry are set to depart and fans have been long calling for the replacements of their esteemed over 30’s; namely Robert Lewandowski, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels.

Change was called for across all sectors of Bayern’s support last summer and the club’s hierarchical triumvirate – Uli Hoeness, Club President, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Chief Executive and the sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic – succumbed to inertia, resulting in the Bavarians’ sluggish start that saw them drop as low as 6th at one point pre-Christmas.

Their form has picked up since the Christmas break, though, and following a run of 9 victories from their last ten league fixtures, the nine-point gap that appeared seismic following their topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf on 24 November has now been cut to just three.

One theory behind Tuesday’s unyielding display of spirit and togetherness was that this was arguably Bayern’s first encounter where they have been seen as genuine underdogs – against a Liverpool side challenging for the Premier League title and who delivered a number of scintillating performances in reaching the Champions League Final last year – since Niko Kovac’s arrival.

The Croatian’s values, whose former Eintracht Frankfurt side were renowned in Germany for their fighting qualities against wealthier opposition, were for the first time evident in the faultless and workmanlike performances from the likes of Javi Martinez, James Rodriguez, Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman.

Such traits will be a prerequisite back at the Allianz for Liverpool’s return visit, as well as matching the composure and control shown on Merseyside, but with the onus on the Germans to attack, one would expect that they will need to summon the incisive spark and a glimmer of the offensive flamboyancy that has seen them at least reach the Semi-Final stages in the Champions League in all but two seasons this decade.

 

Sarabia and Ben Yedder spearheading Sevilla’s revival

Sarabia and Ben Yedder spearheading Sevilla’s revival

There has been an understated renaissance at the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán and, at this midway point in the La Liga campaign, Sevilla currently looms five points behind league leaders and title holders Barcelona, offering the merest hint of a genuine title “race”.

Most notable is that Sevilla’s excellent form this term under new manager Pablo Machin has been fronted by two players who were unfancied and expected to move on before the end of the summer transfer window.

Wissam Ben Yedder, more recently known on British shores for scoring the brace at Old Trafford that eliminated Manchester United from the Champions League last season, was deemed unfit and unsuitable for Machin’s system in the early weeks of August and did not make his first appearance until the fifth game of the season in Sevilla’s 2-0 home defeat to Getafe.

After a gradual return to favour, the 28-year-old French forward has played a starring role in Los Rojiblancos’ rise, scoring 13 times in 17 starts.

Paolo Sarabia, the immensely talented former Real Madrid trainee, was also expected to depart in the summer with a move to Real Sociedad in the offing. After the player decided against making the move, few reckoned on the attacking midfielder to enjoy such a fruitful season under the new manager.

Think again. Repositioned from the left flank to play the free role as a No 10 behind the strikers – typically Ben Yedder, who is the top assist maker for Sarabia this season, and the rejuvenated Andre Silva, with Mudo Vazquez and Ever Banega sat behind – the 26-year-old is in the form of his life, with 13 goals in 21 starts.

Ignored by Luis Enrique in the Spanish national setup – admittedly due to the plethora of Spanish attacking talent from midfield – Sarabia’s all-action style of play and his propensity to summon game-changing moments will surely deem international consideration before long.

A player who clearly has a genuine love for the ball at his feet, providing chances and goals with either foot and bewitching opposing teams with such dynamic movement – be it simply showing for the ball, making darting runs into the penalty box or cutting in off the wing.

Sevilla’s impressive form seems somewhat incongruous with the organisational turmoil that has engulfed the club in recent years, worsened by the 2017 departure of their long-serving director of football, “Monchi”, to Roma.

Remarkably, since Unai Emery swapped his Seville surroundings for Paris Saint-Germain, then Arsenal – after Sevilla’s last Europa League conquest in 2016 – five head coaches have been and gone at the club.

Unbeaten since a 4-2 loss at the Camp Nou on 20 October, there is clearly a calm and rational feeling of hope, in this part of Southern Spain, that this purple patch will continue into the New Year.

Whether Pablo Machin’s side have anything like the defence, depth or willpower to do so in a La Liga season that is repeatedly throwing up the most bizarre and unexpected results remains to be seen. For the moment, Ben Yedder, Sarabia and co are certainly doing their bit to make put an Andalusian twist on the race and, from a neutral standpoint, long may it continue.

 

 

 

 

Inter Milan face challenging season after mixed start to campaign

Inter Milan face challenging season after mixed start to campaign

The Offside Rule

The sight of this summer’s marquee signing Radja Nainggolan notching his first goal for the Nerazzurri, complemented by goals from midfielders Antonio Candreva and Ivan Perišić, sealed Inter Milan’s first domestic victory of the season in a 3-0 win at Bologna.

The win will surely have come as a huge relief to manager Luciano Spalletti, who, before Saturday’s encounter at the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara, had endured something of an underwhelming start to the Serie A campaign, collecting just the solitary point from their opening two fixtures. 

Spalletti was given particular gratification by the debut performance of his new Belgian midfield star. 

Nainggolan had been unfortunate enough to pick up an injury in pre-season- ruling the 30-year-old out of Inter’s first two league games against Sassuolo and Torino- but the tenacious and combative midfielder did not disappoint in his competitive bow here. 

The former AS Roma player was…

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The emergence of Houssem Aouar and why, at the age of 19, he is already a pivotal first team figure at Lyon

The emergence of Houssem Aouar and why, at the age of 19, he is already a pivotal first team figure at Lyon

Every summer Lyon will normally have at least one youth academy player ready in the wings to make his breakthrough in the first team the following campaign.

Having been given a brief taster of first team action in the 2016/17 season- 35 minutes in an eventually abandoned Ligue 1 fixture in Bastia and two Europa League ties against AZ Alkmaar- Houssem Aouar has certainly flourished in his debut season, frequently subjecting experienced players such as Jordan Ferri and Memphis Depay, to a place on the bench.

When the Lyon academy graduate trio of Corentin Tolisso, Maxime Gonalons and Rachid Ghezzal left the club in the summer of 2017, a midfield rebuilding task was the requisite for Genesio.

Aouar was given his first start at home to Dijon in September, lining up in the No. 8 shirt famously worn by Brazilian club legend Juninho, alongside Lucas Tousart and Tanguy Ndombele- a loan signing from Amiens- in a new-look younger Lyon midfield.

Played on the left side of the attacking trio behind Mariano Diaz in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Aouar’s impressive debut at the Groupama Stadium was consummated with an important goal to restore parity in the game at 2-2. The young midfielder displayed exemplary offensive awareness to break from his left-wing position to the centre of the penalty area to convert from Kenny Tete’s low cross.

The 19-year-old has since started 25 of his 30 appearances this campaign, playing a crucial role in his side’s quest to finish in a Champions League spot, a pursuit achieved by Lyon’s final-day 3-2 victory over Nice.

Aouar ends his first full professional season with 7 goals and 6 assists- notably; also, he recorded an 85% passing accuracy and remarkably, has made more tackles than any other teenager in Europe’s top five leagues this season.

One his key attributes that can expose opposition defences is his predatory movement off the ball, making himself a difficulty entity to man-mark by frequently gliding past his opposition in an instant and offering himself as an available outlet in attack around the penalty area.

Despite having been played in numerous positions in his breakthrough season- indeed- he has played off the left wing, as a No. 10 and as a box-to-box midfielder, his attributes are not restricted in any of these positions and Aouar does not mind where he is positioned.

He told L’Equippe in November: “I’ve always played in the middle, so the role of the hard-working midfielder is the one that I like most- but I like the left wing, too. It allows me to work and to develop other skills. I’ll adapt to anything. It doesn’t matter where I play, I know it’s my chance and I’ll play anywhere to take it!”

His markedly innate ability to pick a defence-splitting pass has often been an ideal component for the pacey options further up the park including Bertrand Traore, Memphis Depay and Mariano Diaz. Indeed, his ease in either attacking on the counter with imposing bursts into the box or in playing within tight-knit spaces in oppositions’ box- frequently with Nabil Fekir- gives Lyon variation in their attack that served them well for the majority of the season.

Aouar’s excellent decision making on the point of receiving the ball on the counter attack is one of the 19-year old’s most mature formidable qualities, consistently the correct incisive forward pass, frequently precipitating a Lyon chance.

His wide array of imposing playing qualities at such a young age will not only make Aouar a crucial part of Lyon’s plans in 2018/19, but will prompt the club’s hierarchy to do what is necessary to ensure the young prodigy is with them for the foreseeable future. We are undeniably talking about a player who is the epitome of the modern day midfielder.

He remains grounded and strongly retains an emotional bond with his hometown city. “I give a lot of importance to my family and the city of Lyon, and I’m happy I decided to stay”. Aouar also stresses the importance of his family around him in this breakout period of his career, “I still live with my mum- She’s done everything for me and I feel great at her place. She brings me equilibrium. Playing in big matches and having cameras trained on, afterwards to go back to her place, it allows me to keep on my feet on the ground- that’s important”.

World Cup 2018: Denmark’s re-defined style sure to offer difficulties to Group C opposition

World Cup 2018: Denmark’s re-defined style sure to offer difficulties to Group C opposition

For many going into Russia 2018, some will struggle, at least initially, to comprehend a World Cup without traditional leading European football nations like Italy and the Netherlands.

Those with such reservations will take consolation from the fact that Denmark, a country amongst this pantheon of established countries, has successfully negotiated their way to the tournament for the first time since 2010.

The halcyon period for the national team was known as “The Danish Dynamite” era, a chapter in the history of the Danish side from Euro 84 to the World Cup of 1986 where the country could enjoy the presence of true footballing mavericks in Michael Laudrup and a certain Preben Elkjaer.

Despite a scintillating group stage performance in Mexico, winning all three games against West Germany, Uruguay and Scotland- scoring nine goals in the process- they crashed out of the tournament in the second round as they were thrashed 5-1 by Spain.

In a more recent 15-year period, Denmark had enjoyed mixed success under former Ajax coach Morten Olsen, with a devout belief of playing possession football according to the adhered Dutch principle.

However, following consecutive failures to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 respectively, Olsen was sacked.

In came new manager Age Hareide, the Norwegian who in his last domestic role had won the Allsvenskan title with Malmo, earning Champions League qualification in the process.

The first half of their World Cup qualifying campaign naturally became somewhat transitional for a developing team under Hareide, who sought to swiftly implement a more direct style onto his team. Indeed, a 4-0 demolition of group-leaders Poland in September caught the attention of many and was indicative of the momentum the Danes were gathering towards the closing quarter of the qualifiers.

Hareide’s men saw out 2017 unbeaten, a run which included a 5-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland in the qualification playoff, inspired by their outstanding playmaker, Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, who had notched a hat-trick in the rout at the Aviva Stadium.

Not only possessing the gift for a defence-splitting pass, Eriksen is a threatening presence from dead-ball situations with consistent world-class execution. Aside from his technical qualities, his biggest asset is his prolificacy. 11 goals in the qualifying stages was a tally remarkably only bettered by Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo in Europe.

Whilst Eriksen is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the team and whose influence will very much underpin whether Denmark will be able to qualify ahead of group stage opponents including France, Peru and Australia, he is complemented by an altogether well-balanced spine of a side tailored to Hareide’s playing style.

In front of the commanding Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland and Sevilla’s experienced Simon Kjaer form a reliable centre-back pairing with Andrea Christensen a ready-made alternate choice.

Alongside Eriksen in the centre of midfield, Werder Bremen’s Thomas Delaney will be hoping to impress on the world stage this summer to build on his impressive Bundesliga season and to potentially show his worth to high-profile suitors. A natural box-to-box midfielder, he was Denmark’s highest scorer in qualifying after Eriksen with four goals.

Up front, the quality of RB Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen and Martin Braithwaite- who recently returned to form during a loan spell at Bordeaux- should mean the Danes need not rely on the seasoned forward Nicklas Bendtner- currently plying his trade at Norwegian club Rosenborg- for a supply of goals.

Wolfsburg stuttering nervously to survival

Wolfsburg stuttering nervously to survival

When Bruno Labbadia was announced as the new manager of Wolfsburg two months ago, supporters of the struggling Bundesliga club were under no illusions as to the reasons behind such as appointment: imperative survival. His arrival was announced less than 24 hours after Martin Schmidt’s resignation, with the club perched just a point above the relegation play-off spot. Labbadia, a coach that comes with a certain label attached- that of relegation-battle specialist, earning this tag from successful battles against the drop at Stuttgart and Hamburg respectively.

Six weeks later, and Wolfsburg remain in a parlous position after their 0-0 stalemate at home to Augsburg on Friday evening, an uninspiring encounter that resulted in a player sent off for either side in the second half.

It was the fourth time in five matches that Die Wölfe failed to score; but, more immediately, was seen as a golden opportunity missed to put daylight between themselves and Mainz in the relegation play-off position. Events on Monday evening proved just so- between the meeting of the two clubs directly below, Mainz and Freiburg. The former emerged victorious- be it in the midst of sheer VAR pandemonium, subsequently leapfrogging their opposition. The relegation play-off scenario is now tighter than ever with all three clubs’ sitting disconcertingly on 30 points- Freiburg currently occupy the play-off spot due to their most inferior goal difference.

Labbadia’s arrival in February failed to yield any instant upturn in fortunes or any sign of a “new manager bounce”, earning just one point from his first four games in charge, signifying the club’s decline and reaffirming the urgent need for an antidote.

Their 2-0 victory at Freiburg on 7 April was crucial, and tellingly, the triumph was the first time they had scored two goals in a game in 2018. There was, however, a distinct imbalance and lack of ideas to their play against Augsburg, despite an increased sense of purpose in the second period. But such a dearth in confidence and profligacy has been synonymous of the last two, turbulent campaigns at the Volkswagen Arena.

Their current stagnation feels light years away from the stable partnership enjoyed under sporting director Klaus Allofs and head coach Dieter Hecking- those heady heights of a Bundesliga runners-up spot, a DfB Pokal trophy and Champions League football. Both departed in the final quarter of 2016, precipitating a change in the club’s fortunes and, remarkably, since then, four head coaches have been and gone.

Aside from a concerning managerial turnover rate, Wolfsburg’s pratfalls from this season and last can also be attributed to an unconvincing use of the transfer market rather than lack of investment. Signings that include the highly-rated Spanish midfielder Ignacio Camacho, the £15m defender John Brooks- a record fee for an American footballer, Divock Origi and the January signing from Leverkusen- Admir Mehmedi, are all yet to make any kind of significant, consistent impact.

An ominous final quartet of fixtures lies ahead. Daunting away trips to Borussia Monchengladbach and European-chasing RB Lepzig will require much of the defensive qualities shown to achieve a hat-trick of clean sheets from recent encounters; whilst home games to Hamburg and Koln, both sides helplessly marooned at the foot of the Bundesliga, may well have seismic implications for Wolfsburg.