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.

 

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.

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.