Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Home loss to Girona cues the inevitable sacking of Pepe Mel

Pepe Mel’s reign at Deportivo La Coruna ended last week after their 2-1 home loss to Girona proved to be the final straw for the Galician strugglers.

Club president Tino Fernandez reportedly broke the news to Mel via a phone call Tuesday (the morning after the Girona loss), before the club released a statement confirming the news.

Mel becomes the fourth La Liga Coach of the season to lose his job following the dismissals of Luis Zubeldia at Alaves and Fran Escriba at Villarreal, while Manolo Marquez resigned at Las Palmas.

The dismissal is Mel’s third in the space of four seasons (not including the short-term contract that ended by mutual consent at West Brom) and comes as no shock considering his record at Depor- 6 wins in his 24-match spell with only 2 coming in the 10 fixtures in this campaign (a run which included 5 defeats).

The fact that his spell across these last three clubs lasted only 95 matches combined only makes for more telling reading.

Of those 95 matches since the start of 2014, he has guided his teams to only 30 wins and 16 of those were in the 2014/15 season when he earned promotion from the Segunda Division in his second spell with his hometown club, Real Betis.

Mel began his post at Depor on the 28th February and inherited a squad significantly low on confidence and quality- sitting on the brink of the bottom three with only 4 wins from 23 games; having lost the previous 4 consecutive fixtures.

Their lowly position was not entirely unforeseen in Spain as the club had failed to replace attacking talents who had moved on from A Coruna- Lucas Perez  was sold in the summer of 2015 and Ryan Babel’s contract had expired on the 31st December.

The impact felt on the pitch from Mel’s arrival was immediate, rousing Depor to a four-game unbeaten run which included a shock 2-1 home win over title-chasing Barcelona and a crucial win at relegation rivals Sporting Gijon.

Safety was duly secured, but the early “honeymoon period” momentum soon faded as Depor only won twice from their final eleven games in 2016/17.

Mel’s short-term contract was extended in the summer along with a selection of pragmatic signings including the loan signatures of promising young midfielder Fede Valverde from Real Madrid and the return of Lucas Perez from Arsenal to compliment the permanent signings of Costel Pantilimon and Swiss defender Fabian Schar.

However, Depor’s form has continued to worry, earning only 2 wins from the 10 league games this campaign in a run that has included six of these games being played against fellow sides in the lower reaches of La Liga. With a far tougher set of fixtures on the horizon, the Depor hierarchy have decided now is the time to act, confirming that Mel’s position will be taken by B-team boss Cristobal Parallo until the end of the season.

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Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

Sampaoli must decide which forward to entrust for vital qualifiers

The World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign has been a turbulent one for Argentina. A year after losing the Copa America and Lionel Messi briefly announcing his international retirement, the Albiceleste sit outside the automatic qualification spots in 5th place, having made two significant managerial changes that has made for a wholly unstable influence on the team’s performances in the past year.

Edgardo Bauza, the former Sao Paulo and San Lorenzo manager who had been brought into to replace Gerado Martino in August 2016; was sacked after just 8 games into the campaign (3 wins, 2 draws & 3 losses) on the 11th April 2017.

Bauza was swiftly replaced by the much-adorned former Chile and Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli. His first two qualifiers in the recent September international break have produced two frustrating draws; a 0-0 stalemate away in Uruguay and a 1-1 draw with Venezuela at River Plate’s El Monumental stadium. Both encounters illustrated a rather sterile looking Argentine attack (as incredible as that may be in a forward-line that boasts the likes of Lionel Messi, Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala), that has resulted in the national media very much debating the centre-forward selection for the upcoming crucial fixtures.

Mauro Icardi of Inter Milan has thus far been Sampaoli’s chosen one since his appointment, but is yet to score in any of his 3 caps.

Many pundits and fans from the capital city are calling for introduction of another forward who has recently been awarded his first international call-up; Dario Benedetto of Boca Juniors. 26 goals in 29 games since his move to Boca Juniors in the summer of 2016, Benedetto was rated as the “MVP” that lead Boca to their 32nd national title last campaign. Furthermore, the fact that Argentina’s next tie is a home game against 4th placed Peru and is to be played at “La Bombonera”, the stadium of Boca Juniors, may well lead to convince Sampaoli that he will be worth the gamble.

The other option that Sampaoli has is to recall Sergio Aguero. An individual who (like Messi) has experienced the more unhappy moments of his career appearing for his country and has yet to score in the five appearances he made this in qualification campaign (3 being from the bench). Notably, he faced some stinging criticism from national media last October following his penalty miss in the 1-0 defeat to Paraguay in Cordoba.

However, Aguero is to this day, one of the top Premier League strikers and even by his standards, has enjoyed a wonderfully prolific start to the domestic campaign where he has forged an impressive partnership with the exciting Gabriel Jesus. It was only a saved penalty in Man City’s 2-0 win over Shakhtar Donestsk on Tuesday night that prevented him becoming their all-time top scorer.

His recent tournament performances have been somewhat mixed; having enjoyed a productive 2015 Copa America tournament (beaten in the final by Chile) but a poor 2014 World Cup tournament that ended goalless for him. Nonetheless, his goal record (34) for Argentina certainly cannot be ignored as he is only surpassed by Hernan Crespo, Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi.

With the imperative need for three points from the fixture at “La Bombonera” against Peru on Thursday the 5th October, Aguero’s guile, potency and big-match experience may well make him the best candidate for the encounter; although Sampaoli could be risking a fan backlash and his managerial honeymoon period will almost be over if anything but a win transpires.

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.

What next for Leganes in second top-flight season

What next for Leganes in second top-flight season

Leganes are one of La Liga’s more modest sized football clubs, based in the south western suburb of Madrid at the Estadio Municipal Butarque; a compact multi-use stadium that holds just under 11,000 spectators.

Last season was their first ever in Spain’s top division where they secured their top-flight status in the penultimate fixture of 2016/17 after earning a 1-1 draw at Athletic Bilbao courtesy of a second-half strike from midfielder Alexander Szymanowski. The result exemplified their strong end to the season with Asier Garitano’s side earning seven points from their last four fixtures; the highlight being a 4-0 home thrashing of Real Betis on the 8th May.

Fans of Leganes will no doubt have to pinch themselves. Their recent rise has been nothing short of meteoric. Only three years ago, the club were playing in Spain’s third tier (Segunda Division B) and even in their 2015/16 promotion campaign from the Segunda Division, the club had one of the most modest budgets in the second tier.

Consolidation and stability are the priorities now for Garitano’s side as they look to invest in their squad whilst dealing with identity barriers associated to a football club lacking a certain allure for potential transfer targets moving to the Municipal Butarque.

One such attempt from the club’s hierarchy to enhance the club’s marketability was to incorporate “Madrid” into the official club name and was swiftly scraped following an internal consultation with fans. The idea was put forward by club sponsors that the name change would help raise the profile of the club onto a global scale. However, representatives of the Leganes fan base successfully negotiated their case to maintain the traditional club name as “Club Deportivo Leganes”.

The club must now work to secure their transfer targets as they strive for another season of survival. They have expressed a firm interest in Sporting Gijon goalkeeper Ivan Cuellar (33) and Watford’s Venezuelan Under-20 star Adalberto Penaranda (who has had loan spells at Granada and Malaga) whilst they have secured a further season-loan for defensive midfielder Ruben Perez who had made over 30 appearances for the club last season.

Swedish evolution developing post-Zlatan

Swedish evolution developing post-Zlatan

Hugo Lloris’ inexplicable error in the final moments of France’s Group A qualifier in Stockholm did not only hand Ola Toivonen a last-minute winner to fire Sweden to the top of their group but it also served as a confirmation that the Swedish football team’s transition is coming further into fruition; a year on from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s international retirement.

The win has put Janne Andersson’s side on course for automatic Russia 2018 qualification (albeit via a slightly superior goal difference over 2nd placed France) and the electric atmonsphere at the Friends Arena in the home fixture against France reflected the Swedes buoyant mood.

Sweden have significantly underachieved in recent times during Zlatan’s final years; having been eliminated from the group stages of Euro 2016 and bearing the shame of missing out on qualification for the Brazil 2014 World Cup. Morale has been low and the general feeling amongst the Swedish press and fans is that they should be building for the future.

After the Stockholm hysteria post-beating France, Ibrahimovic (who is currently without a domestic club) posted a somewhat cryptic video onto Instagram that fuelled widespread speculation in his home country over the possibility of an international comeback. However, in an online poll for newspaper “Aftonbladet”, 65 per cent of voted responses were in fact not in favour of a return to the national side for their all-time leading goalscorer.

Zlatan was the star of the national side and many critics felt that on too many occasions Sweden collapsed in important qualification or tournaments games under his captaincy. The result of Aftonbladet’s poll confirm that Swedish fans believe now is the time to be looking to the forwards; to unearth the future stars of the national side.

Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig is one such player who has enjoyed a fruitful campaign. The former Malmo midfielder was instrumental to Leipzig’s success last season; notching 8 league goals in 2016/17 and topping the Bundesliga assist table with 20 to his name.

23-year old centre-back Victor Lindelof’s excellent form for Benfica has been attracting widespread transfer attention throughout Europe for the past year and only last week completed a £31m move to Man Utd. Jose Mourinho has stated on Lindelof “Victor has a great future ahead of him here at Old Trafford”.

Manager Janne Andersson was appointed as manager of the national side in the wake of their Euro 2016 exit and has been since praised for creating an environment where even the more seasoned and less high-profile players thrive in response to the team’s positive synergy.

Ola Toivonen (30) is an excellent case in point as he has been largely out of favour at Toulouse this season but continues to provide a potent outlet for Andersson’s side and displayed this with the timely accurate strike to capitalise on Lloris’ error at the Friends Arena.

Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

Bilic position to be in question after lacklustre second season

It has been a testing season for the fans of West Ham United. After bidding farewell to their beloved Upton Park in a campaign where the Hammers almost earned a Champions League qualification berth, their fans have this year had to become accustomed to new, contrasting and somewhat alien surroundings at their new home at The London Stadium.

Whilst that was never going to be an easy transition, the fruition of their football played in Slaven Bilic’s second season has become the more alarming agenda in East London in recent months. Questionable tactical decisions, an alarming rate of losing games from winning positions, lack of attacking outlets in the team and a very disjointed look to West Ham’s first x11 has resulted in this season proving every bit as uninspiring and anticlimactic as last year’s was exhilarating.

Sitting in 15th place in the Premier League on 39 points, the Hammers appear to have just about secured safety for next year, any other outcome would simply have been a financial calamity with serious implications for the club to ponder in the new stadium. However, one win in the last eleven games doesn’t signify progress for a side that were riding the crest of a wave last year and claimed the scalps of Man Utd, Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool (the last three away from home).

There is a considerable degree of sympathy to be had for Bilic in this difficult season of transition; particularly the 2016 summer transfer window which significantly highlighted the somewhat haphazard recruitment policy at the club. 9 incomings were signed last summer (to improve the squad size in preparation for the Europa League); from 5 different European leagues with only Andre Ayew and a 34-year old Alvaro Arbeloa boasting any Premier League experience. Not only have the majority of the recruits failed to settle, the squad chemistry and unity has been affected, so much so that last season’s star-man Dimitri Payet saw fit to demand a transfer back to his previous club Marseille; a mutiny which the club could only make way for, receiving £25m in January for Payet in the process.

Another cause for bemusement among West Ham fans is the tactical choices in most of Bilic’s squad selections; frequently opting to play experienced players out of position such as the likes of Havard Nordtveid and Jonathan Calleri rather than playing younger squad members like Sam Byram and Ashley Fletcher in their natural positions. Only last Saturday in their 0-0 away stalemate at Stoke, West Ham’s main attacking threat Andre Ayew was withdrawn on 69 minutes with no signs whatsoever of any injury for Mark Noble. Ayew’s clear bemusement at the substitution was evident for all to see.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t the first time a Slaven Bilic side has waned in the final furlong of a season. In 2014/15 at Istanbul club Besiktas, the Black Eagles had spent much of the campaign at the top of the table, but flagged badly in the final third of the season and eventually finished third (eight points behind the eventual champions Galatasaray). Besiktas have in fact gone from strength-to-strength since his exit, currently on course for a second straight Super Lig title in Turkey.

West Ham have three ominous looking fixtures before the owners will review Bilic’s position at the end of season; Tottenham and Liverpool to visit the London Stadium on the 5th and 14th May respectively along with a tough final-day away fixture at Turf Moor. Three fixtures that despite not being so domestically crucial given West Ham’s virtually assured safety, will do so much to shape their future and direction from the dugout. Much to ponder for Messrs Gold & Sullivan.

La Liga round-up

La Liga round-up

Madrid show resoluteness with another late winner

A 90th-minute winner from Isco rescued the three points for Real Madrid at Sporting Gijon on Saturday afternoon after twice coming from behind at the Estadio El Molinon.

Zinedine Zidane’s side have shown on repeatable occasions that they have the character and willpower in their ranks to snatch vital points at the death of games. They have notched an incredible 13 goals after the 90th minute this season, indicative of their mental strength and indomitable spirit.

Gijon took the lead in the 13th minute when Mikel Vesga’s sublime chip bamboozled Real’s centre-backs and Duje Cop slotted home with a well-placed volley past Kiko Casilla. However, just three minutes later, Isco showed superb feet in Gijon’s box, dancing around challenges before curling a masterful finish into the far corner to level the game.

Vesga (the Athletic Bilbao loanee) was again at the forefront of the action at the start of the second-half when he looped in a header over the out-of-position Casilla to restore Gijon’s lead over the leaders.

This time, Gijon just about made their lead last 9 minutes as Danilo’s pinpoint cross found Alvaro Morata who made no mistake finding the net with a clinical header to level the game once again.

Real turned up the pressure in the final quarter and at the moment the fourth official was preparing the electronic display for injury time, Isco was turning on the edge of Gijon’s box to rifle a shot into the left-hand corner to snatch victory and maintain their title-charge momentum.

Nery Barcelona limp to victory to keep pace

A brace from Lionel Messi and a Paco Alcacer goal in an entertaining first-half ensured Barcelona laboured to an unconvincing victory over in-form Real Sociedad to keep pace with Real Madrid in the Saturday evening fixture.

On 17 minutes, a smooth combination between Paco Alcacer and Luis Suarez set up Lionel Messi who smashed a left-footed pile driver into the bottom corner.

Twenty minutes later, Messi was on-target again with a scuffed tap-in that despite being far from the level of quality his repertoire of magic normally produces; it was just as significant as it meant the Argentine is just two goals short of the 500 milestone.

Inigo Martinez then showed great improvisation for Sociedad in Barcelona’s box firing a shot across the goal past Marc-Andre ter Stegen which ricocheted off Samuel Umtiti to bring them back into the game.

A high-tempo end to the first-half ensued as Paco Alcacer was slipped in by Lionel Messi to restore his side’s two-goal cushion before Barcelona’s recent defensive woes were again highlighted as barely a minute later, Xabi Prieto ghosted in behind the back four and met a square ball over the top with a cool side-footed volleyed finish.

The three points keeps Barcelona 3 points behind leaders Real but such an unconvincing display is far from the ideal on the eve of their biggest week of the campaign; they host Juventus on Tuesday evening (where they will need to overturn a 3-0 deficit) and face the El Classico next Sunday; a domestic make or break encounter for Luis Enrique’s men.

Atletico dispatch Osasuna to strengthen grip on 3rd

Yannick Carrasco scored twice as Atletico Madrid comfortably beat rock-bottom Osasuna 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon in a game that also saw two missed penalties for Diego Simeone’s men.

As star-man Antoine Griezmann had been left on the bench by Simeone in preparation for the Champions League tie in midweek at Leicester, it was Carrasco who took centre stage as he drove home a powerful shot from the edge of the box on 29 minutes.

The Belgian midfielder was again on the scoresheet at the start of the second half, heading in Nicolas Gaitan’s cross to notch his 10th of the season.

On the hour mark, Filipe Luis confirmed the points for Los Colchoneros and notched his third goal in four La Liga matches curling a close-range opportunity around Osasuna goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu with his weaker right foot.

After Angel Correa was felled in the 88th minute, Carrasco wasted the chance to score a hat-trick from the penalty spot, before Thomas Partey also saw an attempt saved just seconds later with an impressive save from the Italian goalkeeper.

 

Elsewhere in Spain

-Sevilla were unable to close the gap on 3rd-place as they were held to a 0-0 draw at Valencia, keeping them three points adrift of Atletico Madrid.

 

-A second-string Celta Vigo warmed up for their Europa League quarter-final return leg tie at Genk with a dazzling 3-0 win away at Granada to hand new boss Tony Adams a sobering defeat in his first match in charge. Jozabed, Marcelo Diaz and Claudio Beauvue with the goals for Eduardo Berrizo’s men. Granada are currently seven points adrift of safety.