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.

 

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Lille fans turn on players as relegation looms

Lille fans turn on players as relegation looms

This season will certainly be one that will live long in the memory for supporters of LOSC Lille. The 2011/12 Ligue 1 Champions are fully embroiled in an all-encompassing relegation battle that is threatening to demote them to the second division for the first time in eighteen years. One of the most disturbing factors behind their current plight is that it is the off-pitch chaos that has exacerbated the evident footballing issues and may yet hammer the final nail in their top-flight coffin.

During their recent draw with Montpellier at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, hundreds of Lille supporters felt it was time to make their feelings felt by invading the pitch upon the final whistle.  Holding their European-chasing counterparts to a 1-1 draw would hardly be seen as a bad result in the context of their season- but anger has been brewing for some time in this region of Northern France and there was a feeling that things had reached boiling point. The moment the final whistle blew, fans behind Benjamin Lecomte’s goal began to stream onto the pitch in numbers and sprinted in the direction of their own players with menace. Thankfully, the club’s stewards ran from all directions to prevent deplorable scenes from deteriorating and fortunately, no players suffered any physical harm.

Friday’s 2-1 defeat at Monaco leaves Lille two points from a survival spot with eight games left to play. It is an ominous position but it epitomises a season that has been shredded in turmoil from the moment Gérard Lopez bought the club last year. Results on the pitch have reflected the rash approach to management from the top.

The renowned Marcelo Bielsa was hired as manager last May but was dismissed in December after winning only 5 of his 19 games in charge, with his signings having failed to make any impression. Bielsa is still contesting his sacking, seeking as much as 18 million euros for wrongful dismissal. His replacement, Christophe Galtier, has strived to bring stability and renewed hope to their precarious predicament, admittedly evident in hard-fought draws against Nantes and Lyon and in a vital narrow victory over fellow strugglers Strasbourg. However, late goals shipped to Angers and Nice have once again underlined Lille’s undeniable fragilities.

Off the pitch, the club’s financial state was not helped by Bielsa’s considerable net spend last summer and is currently deemed so unhealthy that the French footballing authorities have inflicted a transfer embargo- whilst there will unequivocally be further punishment to come from the violent fan protest ignominy.

Captain Ibrahim Amadou expressed his unhappiness at the events after the recent Montpellier game: “The fans reacted as if the Championship was over and we’ve already gone down. There are nine matches left”. Chelsea forward Eden Hazard also conveyed his sadness at his former club’s plight on his Twitter account: “This evening, I’m hurting for my Lille. Remember, stay united and together in the good times just as in the most difficult moments.”

Hazard’s directives are particularly relevant, with a vital home game to be played against fellow relegation strugglers Amiens on 1 April. Les Dogues must do all they possibly can on the pitch to sustain Ligue 1 survival hopes. Matters off the pitch will have to be forgotten- for the moment.

By Hal Walker (@HalWalker)

Toulouse struggling to address slide

Toulouse struggling to address slide

A 0-0 stalemate on Saturday evening at the Stade de la Licorne to fellow strugglers Amiens was damaging for Toulouse in the sense that they now sit just a solitary point above the relegation zone.  Despite playing against 10 men for the last quarter of the game, Toulouse were unable to muster any quality to earn a much-needed victory. The encounter was synonymous of their season as a whole thus far, as a rather ominous shadow hangs over the club from South West France.

Having sacked Pascal Dupraz a month ago, the club moved to appoint former player Mickaёl Debève as his successor. Despite narrow victories that were earned in somewhat fortuitous circumstances (against an injury-ravaged Nice and a 10-man Troyes side), an amalgam of negative tactics and a consistent penchant to select experience over youth in the first x11, is a direct concern for the supporters. Crashing out of the Coupe de France at the hands of Ligue 2 side Bourg-en-Bresse has certainly done nothing to improve the mood at the club.

The general consensus amongst the French media and the club’s supporters is that the management seem compelled to prefer established players, primarily due to a direct fear of relegation as a result of previous counterproductive transfer windows.

Since selling prized goal-scorers Martin Braithwaite and Wissam Ben Yedder in the summers of 2016 and 2017 respectively, the club have not re-invested in the forward line; instead signing established midfielders on substantial wages (for a club the size of Toulouse). Such recruits include the well-travelled Jimmy Durmaz, Yaya Sanogo, Ola Toivonen, Yannick Cahuzac, Giannelli Imbula and Max-Alain Gradel. Not only have the club failed to get the best out of their seasoned imports, but their transfer strategy has significantly stunted the growth of their promising youth products- midfield talents like Alexis Blin, Yann Bodiger and promising defenders Issa Diop and Kelvin Amian. Teenage goalkeeper Alban Lafont is a marked exception- recently displaying an outstanding performance against PSG in a 1-0 defeat.

Negligence in the transfer market is seemingly being exacerbated by an over-emphasis on negative tactics that is notably unsuited to numerous individuals in the side.  Debève’s arrival has come with a mindset to not concede rather than to score. Frequently deploying a 4-5-1 formation fails to make any use of attacking, pacey outlets like Gradel. That Toulouse are the second-lowest scorers in Ligue 1 reflects the predicament- in fact, only Caen have notched fewer goals this season.

A concurrent criticism of the club by large quarters of French media has been that the young talents within the side are not being allowed to grow or flourish in the current setup- particularly evident during the reign of Pascal Dupraz. After a miraculous escape from relegation in 2015/16, it was thought that highly touted players such as Diop, Blin, Bodiger, and Amian would develop with the club’s ambitions under such a fiery, driven manager. 18 months on and the individuals have not grown to the level that many had hoped or anticipated- hampered by inconsistent tactics and a concerning lack of discipline.

Immediate measures will be taken in the short-term by Debève to ensure Toulouse stay in Ligue 1 this season- an objective that should be attainable given the relative quality of the side. However, if the club’s youth prospects cannot be properly integrated into a structured and cohesive system that promotes their development- it will be a question of when, rather than, if, Toulouse drop out of Ligue 1.

Ligue 1- Battle for the Champions League places

Ligue 1- Battle for the Champions League places

Marseille hit Metz for 6

Marseille secured a huge three points over strugglers Metz on Friday evening, in a topsy-turvy encounter that produced nine goals and featured a hat-trick for the in-form Florian Thauvin.

The victory enabled Les Phocéens to move up to second in Ligue 1, overtaking Lyon in the process and currently sit eleven points behind imperious leaders PSG.

The tone was set for the evening in the first nine minutes, with Rudi Garcia’s side scoring two goals in quick succession to assume control of the game from the outset.

The first came courtesy of Morgan Sansom, who took advantage of some poor defending from Metz in the penalty area, giving the home side the lead in the sixth minute. Sansom was involved again just moments later, crossing to Thauvin- who was able to tuck away a tidy side-footed volley past Metz’s helpless goalkeeper, Eiji Kawashima.

The former Newcastle United winger has been directly involved in 18 goals of his last 19 appearances, scoring 10 and assisting 8. In such form, he was always likely to flourish in this encounter, duly notching his second just before half-time, despite Moussa Niakhate’s desperate attempts to clear.

The points were assured at the start of the second-half, Valere Germain delicately finishing via the post; and shortly after Thauvin completed his hat-trick (his second for the club), neatly converting a header from an exquisite Dimitri Payet cross, in a dominant spell for Marseille.

Defensive flaws were highlighted in the final quarter to slightly cloud a commanding Marseille display. Florent Mollett responded for Metz with a brace, either side of a sixth-goal from Kostas Mitroglou. Ibrahima Niane pulled a third back in stoppage-time to restore some respectability to the scoreline for Metz, who remain bottom and sit an ominous seven points away from a survival position.

Monaco complete unlikely comeback with 10-men

There was a thriller at the Stade Louis II between the other two clubs competing for Champions League places- Monaco and Lyon.

Bruno Génésio’s side made the perfect start in the South of France, acquiring a 2-0 lead within the first half-hour. The first from an audacious, deflected effort from Mariano Diaz, shortly followed by Bertrand Traoré’s close-range finish from Ferland Mendy’s cross.

Lyon held their lead for less than ten minutes. Keita Balde surged forward on a slaloming run and powered an unstoppable low drive past Anthony Lopes. Moments later, Mendy’s needless tug on Kamil Glik enabled Radamel Falcao to draw Monaco level from the penalty-spot, notching his 17th goal of the season in the process.

The Ligue 1 champions suffered another significant setback, as the goal-scorer Baldé was sent off shortly before half-time for a second bookable offence in the space of four minutes.

Leonardo Jardim’s side were not fazed by the numerical inferiority and completed a remarkable comeback in the 88th-minute. Stevan Jovetic combined with Rony Lopes, who fired in a rasping low shot past his namesake in the Lyon goal- moving the Champions into third position, one point behind Marseille.

PSG march on

It is 18 goals in 19 games for Neymar, who was on target at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in PSG’s commanding 3-0 win over Lille, to reassume their 11-point lead at the summit of Ligue 1.

The Brazilian scored with a superbly taken 77th-minute free-kick to seal all three points for Unai Emery’s title-charging side. This came after Yuri Berchiche had taken advantage of Lille’s failure to clear, netting a low shot on the stroke of half-time. Argentine Giovani La Celso delivered Les Parisiens’ coup de grâce, minutes from the end with a superb lob over Mike Maignan from the edge of the penalty area.

Ronaldo drought emblematic of Real’s problems this season

Ronaldo drought emblematic of Real’s problems this season

Beyond the halfway point in the La Liga season and one statistic has unsurprisingly remained consistent from the previous eight at the Santiago Bernabeau; Cristiano Ronaldo is Real Madrid’s top scorer in La Liga this campaign. This is where the constancy ends for Real this year and this stat alone, in fact, highlights the sheer, alarming chasm to Barcelona.

Ronaldo’s scoring tally for the season currently sits at 4 La Liga goals (in 14 starts) and his side’s home defeat last weekend to Villarreal confirmed Los Blancos are trailing league leaders Barcelona by an extraordinary 19 points; after Barcelona ensured 3 points with a 4-2 win at Real Sociedad, coming from two goals down at the Anoeta on Sunday evening.

Last Saturday’s home defeat to Villarreal was only symptomatic of Real’s ongoing issues that are facing Zinedine Zidane. As Pablo Fornais produced a floated lob over the helpless Keylor Navas in the 87th-minute, immediately following the Mexican’s point-blank stop from Enes Unal, Real were left to stew on repeated frustrations felt in their blunt attack.

“Anyone who says we played badly has no idea about football”, Toni Kroos insisted. The German midfielder’s frustration stemming from the fact that his side had produced 28 shots in this game alone. But only 7 of these had forced Villarreal goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo into saves. Two penalty appeals turned down and one Ronaldo shot that hit the bar further summarised the recurring theme.

Villarreal’s players celebrated wildly following their win at the home of the European Champions, as they had every right to. This was the first time they had won at the Bernabeu, at the 19th attempt. “We’re very happy- this is historic”, Javier Calleja, their coach said delightedly, after the game.

Zidane on the other side of the corridor bemoaned his side’s current crisis, “This is a hard, terrible blow. We did everything we could but the ball just didn’t want to go in. There’s no explanation”.

Many will point to last summer that has proved the downturn in their success. Real have clearly lost their chemistry and quality in depth since the 2017 summer window. Despite the recruitment of promising youngsters like Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos, the sales of influential squad players like James Rodriguez, Alvaro Morata and even Mariano Lopez have disrupted the first-team at the Bernabeau.

Ronaldo’s recent response to criticism was “Go look it up on Google…the numbers do not lie”, (in reference to his own goal-scoring record) can be aptly applied to his club’s predicament on the pitch, being as they are admittedly, damming for Zidane’s side. At the halfway point of this season, Real have already lost more games than in their entire 2016/17 title-winning campaign; 11 less points than after this weekend last year. Saturday’s home defeat to Villarreal was their second consecutive, and third in total, home loss this season- the last time they experienced back-to-back home losses in La Liga was eight years ago.

Truly remarkably, this is only the second time in their history they have been this far adrift domestically and in fact, sit closer, in terms of points, to the relegation zone than to the league leaders (16 points above Deportivo La Coruna in 18th).

10 points behind their city rivals Atletico and 8 behind Marcelinho’s Valencia, domestic Champions League qualification and the preservation of that prized European elite trophy must now be the necessities if Zidane is to save a disastrous campaign.

For their star Ronaldo, success will be determined by a talent he has always possessed in spades- the ability to produce and make the difference on the big occasion; and if the Portuguese number 7 is to net the winner to eliminate Paris Saint Germain from the Champions League last round of 16, just watch his plaudits re-convene in the ever so familiar fervent, devout narrative for the superstar once again.

5 European players who could be in line for a January move

5 European players who could be in line for a January move

As clubs over the continent plot the bolstering of squad quality and depth to enhance their domestic aspirations, players who may or may not be in favour at the respective clubs will be looking to the month ahead to secure that crucial move to enhance their own chances of appearing in the sport’s most esteemed international competition next summer; the World Cup.  The following five players are no doubt looking to earn a plane ticket to Russia by securing more first-team football and are highly tipped for a New Year move.

1- Sergej Milinkovic-Savic- Nicknamed “Sergente” in Italy; the 6ft 4in midfielder is an imposing figure for Lazio who, despite suffering from a recent poor run of form, have been reaping the benefits from the ever improving, box-to-box dynamism from the 22-year old Serbian; attracting the likes of Man Utd, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain. Savic is thought to have earmarked Old Trafford as his preferred destination, having described Jose Mourinho as “the best manager in the world…He’s intelligent and simply great”.

The young Serb has a better record than any Man Utd midfielder this season with 5 league goals to his name, with 3 having been converted outside of the 18-yard box. In fact, Kevin de Bruyne is the only midfielder in the Premier League with a superior record than Milinkovic-Savic for goals scored outside of the penalty are. His versatility and range of attributes to his game will be another factor that is appealing to so many of Europe’s top scouts, boasting the second-best passing and tackling rate at Lazio.

2-Javier Pastore- The 28-year old Argentine is thought to have played his last game for Paris Saint-Germain, having featured in less than half of his side’s domestic fixtures for the past 2 seasons. Pastore signed for PSG from Palermo in 2011 for a noteworthy €43m, following the club’s takeover by “Qatar Sports Investments”.

The player is said to be desperate to ensure the move goes ahead in January, to boost any chances he may have re-claiming a spot with the Argentina squad for Russia 2018. Whilst Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have shown firm interest, Pastore’s agent Marcelo Simonian has talked up the idea of a move to Inter Milan; “Bringing in Pastore would be a historic opportunity for the Nerazzurri to get back to their winning ways of the past”.

PSG are keen for a sale to be made in the New Year to ensure they can meet with the required UEFA Financial Fair Play regulations.

3- Javier Mascherano- The 33-year old Argentine defender has been out of favour at Barcelona this season, having fallen behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique in the pecking order at the club; “In Barcelona, it is clear that I am not playing at the frequency I played before…I’m in a team where every game I play is because I earn it in training, but it is clear there are many times you want to play more”.

A return to River Plate or Liverpool has been suggested by various international press associations, but reports in Spain have stated that a €10m agreement has been made with Hebei China Fortune (managed by Manuel Pellegrini), with the deal to be completed next month.

Barcelona may be keen to push the deal through as they target 23-year old Colombian defender Yerry Mina from Palmeiras.

4- Hatem Ben Arfa- The former Newcastle and Nice attacking midfielder has been frozen out of the first-team picture at PSG and is desperate for an escape route to resurrect his career, having not featured for Unai Emery’s side since mid-March. With only six months remaining on the 30-year old’s current deal; PSG may be willing to sell him for a cut-price fee in the January window.

Leicester City are understood to have expressed a firm interest, with Foxes boss Claude Puel having previous experience of working with Ben Arfa at Nice, “I have crossed paths with Hatem every now and then and each time we have spoken a bit,” Puel claimed earlier this month. “I appreciate the player but I also appreciate the person”.

West Ham United are also understood to have shown an interest.

5- Jack Wilshere- Out of contract in the summer and having featured in only 8 league games this season for Arsenal, the 25-year old attacking midfielder will be keen to do whatever is necessary to force his way into Gareth Southgate’s squad plans for Russia 2018 next summer. The England manager recently explained Wilshere’s current domestic situation was damaging his international prospects for first-team selection; “I don’t know how you get into an England squad without getting in the Arsenal team,” Southgate told reporters after his omission from the recent round of international friendlies.

As a home-grown player under UEFA rules, Wilshere would interest many Premier League clubs (particularly West Ham and Everton who are understood to have made enquiries), whilst he would be free to sign with a foreign club on January 1, but the player is reportedly keen to stay in England.

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

La Joya reaches first goalscoring milestone for Juventus

“At times he’s just unplayable. He’s turning into an extraordinary player”. These were the sentiments of Juventus boss Massimiliano Allegri on forward Paulo Dybala to the club’s official website after their 3-1 away win at Sassuolo on Sunday.

He had just witnessed his prized asset mark his 100th game for the club with a hat-trick at the Mapei Stadium to ensure “The Old Lady’s” return to the top of Serie A; albeit for a matter of hours until Napoli thrashed Benevento 6-0 in the later Sunday fixture.

This was not even Dybala’s first hat-trick of the campaign; having picked up the match ball in the 4-2 away win at Genoa last month and he is now the first Juventus player to score in each of the first four Serie A games of the season (eight goals in total).

It only took until the 16th minute for the Argentinian to register his account in the game and earn his 50th goal in the Black and White, curling a beautiful first-time shot from 25 yards that gave Sassuolo goalkeeper Andrea Consigli no chance.

La Joya doubled their lead four minutes after the break with a delicate, low, toe-punted effort from the edge of a crowded penalty area before Dybala wrapped up his hat-trick and the three points for Allegri’s side just after the hour mark with an exquisite curling free-kick.

Having witnessed their team been torn apart by such a devastating display of talent for 85 minutes, it was significant that the majority of Sassuolo supporters at the Mapei rose in unison to applaud Dybala when his substitution came with five minutes remaining.

During the summer, many Juventus fans and quarters of the Italian press had anticipated a possible move from Barcelona for Dybala post Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint Germain.

Although a formal bid was never forthcoming, the Juventus hierarchy took the correct steps to show their faith in their Argentine playmaker.  A new deal was presented to make him the highest paid player at the club and he was handed the No.10 shirt; formerly donned by the club and country national treasure, Alessandro Del Piero.

“I hope he goes on to do better,” remarked Del Piero.

Dybala’s own personal priority must be to take this imperious form into the big occasions.

Critics of the 24-year old have been intent to point out that younger stars like Kylian Mbappe (18) and Marco Asensio (21) have shown more composure and courage than Juve’s star man who came in for some notable criticism for a somewhat anonymous second-half display in the Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid in June.

Granted, “La Joya” was also outshone by his Argentine counterpart Lionel Messi in Barcelona’s recent 3-0 thrashing of Juventus in the Champions League at the Camp Nou. But Dybala is the first to admit he is not the next Messi: “Messi has his story; I have mine. We’re two different players.”

But this is a young man still maturing. He may not have been the teenage prodigal footballing genius that Messi was, but he is a supremely talented playmaker that is garnering a clinical scoring record.

It was his decisive penalty miss in the Italian Suppercoppa last year that paved the way for the “mask”- the celebration that we have seen so many times since that is a reference to “Gladiator;” one of his favourite films. “In life you have to get up and fight,” he maintains.

With this resolute attitude, we will no doubt be seeing plenty more of these exuberant celebrations and important goalscoring milestones.