Chelsea’s Challengers

Chelsea’s Challengers

Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night confirmed that the Premier League race is very much still on going into the New Year. Antonio Conte’s side have recently found a level of consistency and momentum to win an extraordinary and record-equalling 13 straight league games in a run where a formation of 3-4-3 appeared to be tailor-made for Chelsea’s side.

Five points clear (1st with 49 points) of second-placed Liverpool, Chelsea are no doubt a rejuvenated side this season, with a manager who has succeeded in rediscovering the players thirst for glory at the club, crucially of those world-class individuals who were so out-of-form and criticised in Eden Hazard and Diego Costa under previous management. They are one of only two clubs not to have a single injury currently affecting the first-team squad and after failing to qualify for European football in last year’s treacherous campaign, they are benefitting so greatly from the lack of Cup distractions.

However, Tottenham’s dominance and superiority in the London Derby on the 4th January highlighted not only that Chelsea are by no means infallible, there are weaknesses in the team (lack of free-scoring, susceptible full-backs and possibly centre-backs too) but also that there are five other hungry teams in the hunt who boast too much quality to be ruled out of the race at this early stage; the sides are listed as follows:

Liverpool: 2nd with 44 points- Arguably one of the most impressive free-scoring sides in the league. Jurgen  Klopp’s side play with a high-intensity expansive freedom, averaging almost 2.5 goals per game.  Goals can come from any of their midfielders, wingers or forwards. The likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are enjoying the form of their careers. Jurgen Klopp’s tactical astuteness was revealed in the recent 1-0 victory at home to Man City where their usual open free-flowing style was sacrificed to absorb City possession in an impressive defensive performance; a trait they will be obliged to repeat in forthcoming big games this season.

Squad depth and injuries could well be the biggest potential hurdle to Liverpool’s title challenge as their most gifted player in Philippe Coutinho has been out injured since November (is nearing a first-team return). Their other major worry is the constant uncertainty between goalkeepers Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet; the majority of Liverpool’s fellow challengers have a world-class goalkeeper they can call upon. What Klopp would do to have this luxury.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

Tottenham: 3rd with 42 points- Not only have Tottenham just resoundingly beaten leaders and London rivals Chelsea,  they are in scintillating form; having won their least five games consecutively, blowing away both Southampton and Watford with 4-1 away wins. They boast one of the best goalkeepers and centre-backs respectively in Hugo Lloris and Toby Alderweireld, combined with the most attacking, buccaneering full-backs in the Premier League in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Dele Alli’s exuberance and ability is shining through after a poor European Championships and quiet start to the domestic season and Harry Kane’s goals and leadership show no signs of relenting. Tottenham look a side hungry for honours to illustrate their remarkable tutelage and progression under manager Mauricio Pochettino since his arrival in 2014.

Whether Tottenham can banish the memories of last year’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge, is another matter. They are due to restart their Europa League campaign again in February in the knockout-rounds and they do lack the experience and arguably squad-depth that other contenders can boast, but the ability and talent is there in abundance.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 8/10

Man City: 4th with 42 points- Despite boasting some of the world’s top talents and a manager who has claimed a title in six of his seven seasons in club management, defensive problems have been rife this season; resulting in City trailing leaders Chelsea by seven points, a shortfall that was not predicted by most upon Pep Guardiola’s arrival to the club. John Stones is still learning the game, Claudio Bravo has proved vulnerable, Vincent Kompany is frequently injured and Pablo Zabaleta and Alexsandar Kolarov are inconsistent at best. There is also a worrying discipline problem at the club, receiving seven red cards this season in all competitions; more than any other Premier League team.

However, on their day Man City are a formidable force and with their world-class trio of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, City pose a creative attacking outlet that can unlock the sternest of defences at any point in a game. City fans will look back to the 2013/14 season (when City overtook Liverpool on gameweek 37 to clinch the title after winning their final five games of the season) for title-marching inspiration. In their recent 5-0 win in the F.A Cup 3rd tie at the London Stadium, City displayed a cutting edge and an exhibition of ruthlessness that will give them momentum going forward.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

Arsenal: 5th with 41 points– The side that typically divide so many an opinion. Arsenal have endured an inconsistent campaign thus far that has offered many similarities to every previous season for the past ten years. Capable of a mesmerising creative style and devastating counter attacking-play on their day (displayed best in their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in September), but suffer from that soft underbelly, the lack of a commanding centre back (despite Shkodran Mustafi’s impressive arrival last summer) and a rousing leader.

An injury list that does not seem to relent, poor away form, the imminent Champions League knockout ties to nemesis Bayern Munich and the enduring worries regarding the expiring contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil does not favour their prospects of assembling enough impetus to challenge leaders Chelsea.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 6/10

Man United: 6th with 39 points-A team boasting an array of superstar footballers and ego’s  for any global club to envy. A fairly inconsistent first three months of the season consisted of a very disjointed looking United team, with various new signings and certainly their manager taking time to settle. Many dropped points this season have in fact come at Old Trafford in games they have completely dominated but have struggled to break down resolute, stubborn defences.  The demanding Thursday-Sunday schedule will recommence in February as they return to action in the Europa League.

However, it must be said that after seven straight wins (in all competitions), United are rightly in buoyant mood as they are experiencing a consistent run of form that will build significant momentum for a title charge if they can maintain their current run; despite being 10 points off leaders Chelsea at this halfway stage. United also have strength in depth, having the luxury of being able to call on the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the bench when chasing a game. Furthermore, there is certainly no shortage of winners or experienced heads in the squad, with eight of the current squad holding Premier League titles to their career honours history.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

 

Saul strike lifts recent gloom around the Vincente Calderon

Saul strike lifts recent gloom around the Vincente Calderon

After a winless run of three games for Diego Simeone’s men, a second-half strike from Saul Niguez ensured Atletico Madrid returned to winning ways with a 1-0 win at home to Las Palmas, but why do doubts remain over the Atleti side this year?

It has been an extraordinary year Los Colchoneros who despite finishing 2016 in 6th place (one point behind Villareal in 4th), reached the Champions League Final in May only to be beaten on penalties by their Madrid neighbours and have comfortably secured qualification to the last-32 in this year’s European campaign, qualifying as group winners.

However, Atletico’s form has been inconsistent at best this year and many pundits are already ruling Simeone’s side out of the title race; an honour they famously won in 2014 and have narrowly missed out on in the two campaigns since.

They have lost three of their last seven fixtures and looked particularly poor in their 3-0 defeat to Villareal at the El Madrigal on the 12th December, in a game that was compounded by goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s shoulder injury that could see the Slovenian stopper ruled out for up to four months.

A trademark that has been clearly missing is what has been so well instilled into them in recent seasons by Simeone in their energetic high pressing game; off-the-ball instructions to smother and stifle opponents high up the pitch, allowing the Atleti midfielders to win possession when the opponent is vulnerable deep in their own half.  Recent performances have been lethargic with no real intensity in the midfield or in attacking situations.

A particular concern may be that of the recent goal-drought suffered by French striker Antoine Griezmann who is without a goal since the 2nd October, his worst in his La Liga playing career. The striker, who was confirmed as third for the 2016 Ballon d’Or had notched 6 goals for the season before this period.

Simeone will look to the upcoming winter break in La Liga as a crucial point in their season as his side will look to revive their domestic form, but particularly to rediscover their freshness and high-octane pressing tactic that wears down opponents so effectively.

Despite stuttering results for Atleti domestically thus far this season, no faults or lack of confidence have been evident in their 2016/17 Champions League form, having beaten Bayern Munich to top their group table with relative ease. As last year’s beaten finalists, they may well fancy the competition as their best chance of silverware this season, in possibly Simeone’s last in the Spanish capital.

Despite them only being nine points behind La Liga leaders and city rivals Real Madrid, a title charge in the New Year will surely be too much to expect from Atleti in both sides’ current form, particularly with Simeone’s burgeoning desire to lift the Champions League as a manager in his career. However, if they can build on scrappy results like the 1-0 result at home to Las Palmas, keep developing the club’s young rising stars (Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco & Jose Jiménez) and make sensible signings to improve the first x11, confidence will build and 2017 could be Atletico Madrid’s year.

They simply have too much character, passion, talent and energy to fall away without a fight.

Frustration builds for Mourinho as his impact fails to improve results

Frustration builds for Mourinho as his impact fails to improve results

Leighton Baines’ 89th minute penalty for Everton consigned Manchester United to their poorest domestic start to a season after 14 games in 26 years.

The result was in fact United’s third 1-1 draw in a row (after Arsenal & West Ham respectively), in a game Jose Mourinho will rue his side’s lack of a cutting edge to put games of this nature to bed.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had put United ahead on 42 minutes to score his sixth goal in five games with a sublimely placed chip over the rash Maarten Stekelenburg, hitting both bar and post before crossing the line. The Dutch goalkeeper had made the instinctive and ultimately naive decision to rush out to the Swedish striker in an attempt to block any audacious effort from the uniquely unpredictable Ibrahimiovic.

Prior to this, a noteworthy early moment in the encounter ensued on 15 minutes when Marcus Rojo dived in wildly two-footed on Idrissa Gueye and could easily have been shown an immediate red.  Subsequently, referee Michael Oliver brandished the Argentine defender with just a yellow and United exploited their let-off as they took charge and dictated the majority of the first-half proceedings.

The second-half was a much tighter affair in which Everton began to offer far more of an attacking threat. Idrissa Gueye, Emner Valencia and Kevin Mirallas all forced David De Gea into action whilst at the other end Ander Herrera crashed a shot into the frame of the goal.

However, it was to be an ex-Everton talisman who was to decide the fate of the game after only being introduced on 85 minutes. Marouane Fellaini was the oncoming substitute who on his 100th appearance for the club was brought on to help United see the game out. Instead, his first noteworthy action was to commit a clumsy foul on Idrissa Gueye in the penalty box to throw away a vital three points that could well have kick-started United’s season.

Mourinho replaced Louis Van Gaal in the summer no doubt looking to re-establish his reputation as one of the world’s top managers after a damaging and sorry end to his association with his beloved Chelsea football club.  There can be no denying his recent record makes for worrying reading. He has won only nine of his past 30 Premier League games for both clubs – a 30% win ratio; making an average of 1.2 points per game. Compare that to his first spell at Chelsea between June 2004 and September 2007 and you notice an alarming difference- 136 wins in his first 196 games in the Barclays Premier League; averaging an extraordinary 2.29 points per game. To compare to other recent United managers who have experienced significant press and fan negativity at the club, Jose’s 21 points after 14 games at United is in fact worse than under David Moyes (22 points) and Louis van Gaal (25).

However, there are numerous other factors to bear in mind when you analyse United‘s poor domestic performance thus far this season. The club have suffered a remarkable fall from grace in the past three years under the contrasting and unstable guidance of David Moyes (2013/14) and Louis Van Gaal (2014/2016). Van Gaal’s regime was vilified by the majority of fans (particularly last season) with a brand of football played that was labelled as “risk averse” by sections of the media and “dull” by the majority of the Old Trafford faithful. Immediate transformation into the exhilarating, rampant and dominant United seen throughout the majority of the 90’s and 00’s under Ferguson was always going to be unrealistic.

It is believed that Mourinho will get time from the boardroom to further exert his influence on the side, and will again be fully backed in the upcoming transfer window. A major tactical issue has been the unbalanced and disordered style of play as the players re-adapt to a more direct style of play under Mourinho after two years of the possession-based philosophy of Van Gaal. For the past two seasons, Van Gaal’s influence on the team was to favour a slow build-up of possession with horizontal passes dictating proceedings in a bid to wear down opponents.

Mourinho’s beliefs are quite frankly the antithesis of the previous regime. Bombing full-backs overlapping winger’s with dynamic vertical passes are the primary style changes this season that have been welcomed by the club’s faithful, seen as the first’s significant steps to restoring the “beautiful football” tag at the Theatre of Dreams.

Combine this adaptation with the £150m spent in the summer transfer window and the three major new attacking talents (Ibrahimovic, Pogba & Mkhitaryan) still settling into life in Manchester and you understand why the boardroom recognise this is a side in transition that requires squad balance and managerial stability.

For the immediate present, Mourinho must focus on rectifying his side’s reoccurring downfall in the short-term and that is his side’s failure to finish games off from winning positions.

 

Champions League Week 5 Preview

Champions League Week 5 Preview

With two games remaining, all is to play for in groups A-H as a place in the last 16-knockout stage awaits those who finish in the top-two of their respective group tables. The qualification prize money amounting to as much as €5,500,000 may prove a significant cash prize to those clubs playing outside of Europe’s glamour leagues. For some high-flying outfits, qualification has already been secured; however the final placing outcome will very much affect the direction of the last-16 with the group-winners facing the runners-up from corresponding groups in a two-legged knockout tie.

Group A

Arsenal vs Paris Saint Germain-19.45 (Wed) – Both sides have already comfortably qualified for the knockout stages, with Arsenal topping the group on goal difference. The corresponding fixture in September resulted in a 1-1 draw thanks to Alexis Sanchez salvaging a 77th minute equaliser in a match the Gunners were largely outperformed in. Both sides sit in 3rd place in their own domestic leagues. However, PSG are the side currently facing the more negative press in a campaign that has seen new manager Unai Emery come under-fire for supposedly attempting to change PSG’s style of play too quickly and radically, from Laurent Blanc’s previous title-winning regime.

Ludogorets Razgrad vs FC Basel-19.45 (Wed)- Both clubs have endured emphatic losses to Arsenal & PSG and are subsequently sitting joint bottom with one point each (that point coming in the 1-1 corresponding draw from the fixture in Switzerland). The Bulgarian side currently occupy the 3rd place spot; sufficient for Europa League qualification, having scored two more goals than their Swiss counterparts. All to play for in Bulgaria on Tuesday night as both sides look to continue their European adventure outside of the Champions League.

Group B-

Besiktas vs Benfica –17.45 (Wed)- It’s 2nd vs 3rd on Wednesday evening at the Vodafone Arena in Istanbul. Only a point separates the two sides after four games in one of the tightest and most exciting groups of the competition.  Talisca, a player who was actually loaned out from Benfica to Besiktas, scored a last-gasp free-kick to rescue a point for the Turkish side in the corresponding game in Lisbon on the 13th September. Benfica were quarter-finalists last year whilst Besiktas have not progressed beyond the group stages since 1987.

Napoli vs Dynamo Kiev- 19.45 (Wed) – It’s 1st vs 4th at the Stadio San Paolo as Napoli still require a point to qualify and a win to ensure qualification as group winners. The Italians won 2-1 in September in Kiev thanks to a Arkadiusz Milik brace. Coach Maurizio Sauri will have to get used to playing without Milik for the majority of the season as the Polish striker has sustained a ruptured cruciate ligament. By contrast, Dynamo Kiev have experienced a miserable European campaign thus far, sitting on 1 solitary point and virtually require a miracle to even obtain 3rd place.

Group C-

Borussia Monchengladbach vs Man City- 19.45 (Wed)- Pep Guardiola’s men head to Borussia-Park looking for a repeat performance of their 4-0 victory in the corresponding game at the Etihad as they look to secure their qualification place into the next round. Conversely, Monchengladbach can go level with City if they win and take the qualification race to the last game on the 6th December where they play at the Nou Camp; whilst City host Celtic. Guardiola may have to be without captain Vincent Kompany in Germany, who picked up a concussion-related injury in their win at Crystal Palace on the weekend.

Celtic vs Barcelona-19.45 (Wed)- Brendan Rodgers’ side sit bottom of the qualification group on 2 points  but will still be in with a chance of qualification with if they can pull off the unlikely victory over Barcelona. The Hoops will be praying the Catalonians will again be without Lionel Messi who missed their goalless draw against Malaga at the weekend. Celtic famously beat Barcelona 2-1 at Celtic Park in 2012 with goals through Victor Wanyama and substitute Tony Watt.

Group D

FC Rostov vs Bayern Munich-17.00-(Wed)- FC Rostov sit bottom of the group on one point but level with PSV Eindhoven so will still have Europa League qualification in their sights. Bayern have already secured qualification as they sit 8 points above Eindhoven, but still trail leaders Atletico by three points. The 2013 Champions League holders Munich beat Rostov 5-0 in the corresponding fixture at the Allianz Arena.

Atletico Madrid vs PSV Eindhoven- 19.45-(Wed)-Diego Simeone’s side host Eindhoven having already qualified, looking to top Group D over Bayern Munich. Atletico have been experiencing somewhat of a downturn in form domestically in Spain as they currently sit 9 points adrift of La Liga leaders and city rivals Real Madrid. For Philip Cocu’s Eindhoven who have taken 1 point from 4 games, Champions League qualification is now beyond them. The Dutch side will be looking for a 3rd place finish to guarantee Europa football in the New Year.

Group E

CSKA Moscow vs Bayer 04 Leverkusen-17.00 (Tues) – The CSKA Arena will host a key tie in one of the competitions tightest and most unpredictable of groups. CSKA currently sit bottom with 2 points but with a win can go to within a point of their German rivals and will be in contention for a knockout birth in the final group stage match. The Russian side have not qualified beyond the Group Stages since 2012. Roger Schmidt’s side have impressed many thus far in this competition, no more so than in their disciplined 1-0 victory over Tottenham at Wembley in the last fixture. A win in Moscow could potentially put the Germans at the top of the group table, within touching distance of qualification.

Monaco vs Tottenham-19.45 (Tues) – All to play for at the Stade Louis II as Monaco will qualify with a win over Tottenham.  Spurs have struggled to reach the playing standards of their domestic form so far in this competition, losing both of their home games at Wembley in front of 85,000 sell-out crowds. A win for the North London side in the south of France will see them go within a point of Monaco and have a great chance of qualification in the final group fixture (another home tie at Wembley where they host CSKA).

Group F

Borussia Dortmund vs Legia Warsaw-19.45 (Tues) – Top versus bottom at the Westfalenstadion as already-qualified Dortmund look to win the group where they currently sit two points above second-placed Real Madrid. Legia Warsaw have taken a solitary point from their four games played in a campaign that will be more remembered for their shocking crowd disturbances, particularly in the corresponding tie at home to Dortmund, where the Germans embarrassed their Polish counterparts 6-0.

Sporting Lisbon vs Real Madrid- 19.45 (Tues)- Cristiano Ronaldo returns to his old club after his dominant, hat-trick hero performance in the Madrid derby on Saturday night which Real emerged from victorious by 3 goals to 0. Ronaldo scored a free-kick in the corresponding game at the Bernabeu in September. Sporting sit in third place, 5 points behind Madrid; looking a nigh on impossible task to overcome the world-class excellence of La Liga table-toppers Real in the group. However, stranger things have happened in this competition.

Group G

FC Copenhagen vs Porto-19.45 (Tues) – Porto face the tricky task of an away game at the Parken Stadium with an opportunity to secure qualification to the last-16 stage with a victory. However, this may be easier said than done as the youthful Portuguese side will be up against a club who are no pushovers in Europe, always strong at home in Denmark and with plenty of motivation in this fixture as a win for Stale Solbakken’s men will see them overtake Porto into second. This fixture could go either way.

Leicester City vs Club Brugge- 19.45 (Tues) – Claudio Ranieri’s men have already qualified to the last -16 and another win for the Foxes will see the go through as group-winners. This competition has been somewhat of a welcome escape for Leicester thus far as the Champions of England have been experiencing a turbulent domestic campaign. Club Brugge sit bottom of the table with 0 points, with virtually nothing to play for as they are five points off third place.

Group H

Dinamo Zagreb vs Lyon- 19.45 (Tues)- Lyon travel to Croatia needing two wins from their last two group stage fixtures to have a chance of qualifying to the last-16. They sit 4 points below Juventus in second and 4 points above Dinamo who like Club Brugge have not yet accumulated a single point and have proved to be the whipping boys of the tournament. Lyon won 3-0 in this fixture back in September at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.

Sevilla vs Juventus- 19.45 (Tues)- Group H has been largely dominated by these two sides who drew 0-0 in Turin in the corresponding fixture. The Europa League holders can progress tonight with a victory over the Italians. Massimiliano Allegri’s men will qualify with a victory themselves but will also open the group up to Lyon if they win in Spain and Lyon win their remaining two fixtures.

Frank De Boer sacked in the latest Inter Milan saga

Frank De Boer sacked in the latest Inter Milan saga

After a torrid 85 days in charge, with his side sitting in 12th position in the Serie A after a 1-0 loss at Sampdoria, head coach Frank De Boer’s time in charge has come to an end after being sacked on Tuesday the 1st November.

The sacking will by no means come across as a surprise to Inter fans, media or followers of Italian football. Seven defeats in 14 games (all competitions) was ultimately unacceptable for ambitious new Chinese owners “Suning” who had outlaid a net spend of almost €120 million in the summer.

After being hired barely two weeks prior to the beginning of the season, the former Ajax manager’s job to win over the expectant fans and media was made all the more difficult on the first day of the season; a shock 2-0 defeat at the hands of Chievo.

De Boer was unable to regard the Thursday night schedule of Europa League fixtures as any sort of welcome distraction as Inter suffered two humiliating losses in September at the hands of Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Sparta Prague respectively as calls for the Dutchman’s head were already being called for three weeks into the season.

The turbulent start to the campaign was made all the more problematic for De Boer by a series of negative occurrences that have amassed to a very unhappy Inter camp with a clear morale issue.

Eder’s refusal to shake hands with De Boer after his substitution in the Sampdoria defeat made clear for all to see this was not a team who were playing for the manager.  Gabriel Barbosa; the £29.5m signing from Santos has struggled to make any sort of impact and further negative publicity was gathered by his conspicuous absence in the Sampdoria fixture. This is a player who was billed as one of world football hottest young properties and the Nerazzuri had supposedly beaten off the likes of Man Utd, Barcelona and Juventus for his signature.  One of Inter’s most influential midfielders Marcelo Brozovic was frozen out of the squad by De Boer for indiscipline. If matters were not challenging enough for the Nerazzuri, captain Mauro Icardi created an aggressive public argument with the club’s Ultras after a chapter in his recent autobiography that entailed a threat to unleash 100 criminals from Argentina in relation to an argument with supporters after a defeat to Sassuolo in 2015. At the next San Siro fixture, a banner read in english from the Curva Nord “You are not a man. You are not a captain. Just a vile piece of s***”.

For De Boer, 46, who was heavily linked in the early part of the summer with the Premier League vacancies at Everton and Southampton, this will no doubt be a learning curve for an aspiring young manager. However, many will feel that the Inter experience may be nothing but a blight on his CV as it will be questioned whether he should have ever taken the job in the first place. Having being hired immediately after Mancini’s sacking; 12 days before the start of the season, the Dutchman was denied a full pre-season to work with his players.  This issue became so clear for all to see as the players appeared totally unfamiliar with his tactical methods from the first game of the season (particularly his unexpected 3-5-2 formation choice in the Chievo season opener).

The summer recruitment is an area that has been frankly completely mismanaged. Heavy investment was paid into star-quality attacking options seemingly without any comprehension in how to accommodate these individual talents into any strategic system to move the team forward domestically to challenge for the top 4 as a minimum. Joao Mario (£30m from Sporting Lisbon), Ever Banega, Antonio Candreva and 20-year old Gabigol (€25 million from Santos) have all been drafted in but have just not gelled and the defensive recruitment has been just as poor. Andrea Ranocchia and Jeison Murillo have proved error-prone and are not up to the standard the former 2010 Champions League holders should expect. Caner Erkin, a Turkish left back signed from Fernabache in June was sent on loan to Besiktas on the 30th August.

Youth team coach Stefano Vecchi took charge of Inter’s Europa League tie last night at St. Mary’s where they lost 2-1 at Southampton after leading through a Mauro Icardi opener.

The Nerazzuri now look for their ninth manager since Jose Mourinho’s departure in 2010.

Nice setting the early pace in France

Nice setting the early pace in France

While Ligue 1 champions Paris Saint-Germain are experiencing an uncomfortable start to the season under new coach Unai Emery, OGC Nice are startling many critics in this campaign with their table-topping form. Despite having lost many crucial players in the summer, individual replacements with points to prove and careers to rebuild are one of the many factors in the early-season success for the Côte d’Azur side.

Having lost manager Claude Puel to Southampton, former Borussia Monchengladbach manager Lucien Favre reportedly turned down approaches for fellow Ligue 1 title contenders Marseille, Lyon and Lille and was pulled to the club by Nice’s exciting youth prospects. One of Favre’s most telling influences to the squad to date is the style transformation; turning Nice from a possession-based side into a lethal counter-attacking team modelled on the Leicester City (Jamie Vardy inspired) of 2015/2016.

Is it that simple? He has also significantly stabilised the defence with the shrewd but modest signings of left back Dalbert (a measly £2m from Vitoria Guimaraes) and the experienced centre-back Dante from Wolfsburg. The sudden introduction of 17-year old centre-back Malang Sarr is by far the most extraordinary emergence under Favre’s leadership. The French youth product has played every one of his side’s games this season, displaying mature defensive qualities with his reading of the game proving faultless to date and in fact even scored on his debut. Consequently, Nice currently boast the best defensive record in the league.

The re-emergence of the much maligned Mario Balotelli is another key factor in Nice’s early season dominance. A signing that caught much publicity and was widely labelled as a huge risk for Claude Favre’s side, has proven a huge success with the French supporters privileged to support a reinvigorated, potent, hungrier and more focused Balotelli than the volatile “bad boy” many have witnessed in past seasons in Italy and England. Five goals in just three league appearances including braces against Marseille and Monaco has ensured the best possible start to his relationship with Les Aiglons supporters. They will be hoping that the remainder of the season will prove that Mario Balotelli is a fully matured character, a team player entering the peak of his career playing and scoring goals on a consistent basis.

Wylan Cyprien and Younes Belhanda are further examples of the club’s wise summer investments. Cyprien, a £5m signing from Lens; aged only 21 years old has been one of the unsung heroes of the first team, proving one of the standout performers in the 4-0 victory over Monaco in the Azurean Derby. The summer sale of Hatem Ben Arfa to PSG left a major creative outlet role which has been impressively snapped up by the lively Younes Belhanda, the Moroccan international midfielder on loan from Dynamo Kiev.

In recent years, Les Aiglons have become a club managed impeccably from the top down. If star players have expressed a desire to move to wealthier or grander clubs, Nice are not a club to stand in a player’s way. Their youth system and scouting network is that fruitful and self-sufficient.

With the stark comparison to the staggering £600-700 million it has cost to assemble the respective squads at wealthy outfits like PSG and Monaco, OGC Nice are a side surpassing all expectations topping Ligue 1 with a squad valued as low as £40m.

If Lucien Favre keeps his players focused, motivated and prevents any complacency sneaking into the ranks, Nice will be strong contenders for another top four finish as the very minimum expectation. Fearless youthful energy throughout the side, defensive organisation blended with experience and Mario Balotelli leading the forward-line charge (rebuilding his career and attempting to force his way back in the Italian national team)- just watch this space in Ligue 1.

Serie A round-up

Serie A round-up

Inter earn crucial victory

Three days after an embarrassing Europa League defeat to Israeli side Hapoel Beer’Sheva after which the Nerazzuri came under intense media scrutiny, Inter Milan overcame Maximo Allegri’s Juventus with a rousing 2-1 victory in the result of last weekend.

Frank De Boer’s position was certainly looking somewhat precarious on 65 minutes when Swiss international full-back Stephan Lichsteiner tapped home from an Alex Sandro cross to give the visitors the lead.

However, barely two minutes passed before Mauro Icardi powered a header past Gianluigi Buffon to clock his fourth goal of the season to level the derby d’italia. Full momentum was now with Inter who were being spurred on by a frenzied crowd. Icardi then showed perfect composure to deliver an inch-perfect cross with the outside of his boot for Ivan Perisic to nod in on 78 minutes.

Ever Banega was sent off in the final minute for a second booking but Inter held on for a crucial win that lifts the Nerazzuri to sixth and will buy Frank De Boer much needed time and patience at the helm.

Juventus were largely disappointing throughout the encounter and many will predictably question why the £75m summer signing Gonzalo Higuaín was left on the bench for the match; despite the Argentine smashing in two early goals past Sassuolo last week.

Fiorentina squeeze past Roma

Milan Badelj notched an 82nd minute winner against Roma with a low powerful strike that gave Paolo Sousa his second win of the season for the Viola.

Roma will be disappointed having boasted 54% possession and 14 attempts on target to Fiorentina’s 3; however it was the Tuscans who generated the clearer goal scoring opportunities.

Edin Dzeko wasted Roma’s best chance on 36 minutes, connecting to a wonderful Alessandro Florenzi pass over the top but blasted over the bar.

The second half grew into a more frenetic encounter as Diego Perotti’s volley was palmed out by Ciprian Tatarasanu whilst at the other end Nikola Kalinic found himself wide open in space only to nod his header into Wojiech Szczesny’s arms.

Roma’s creative threat was nullified for the most part of the game and Mohammed Salah, (who had been welcomed with a hostile reception on his return to the Artemio Franchi) was taken off after 67 minutes for Stephan El Shaarawy.

Francesco Totti was the next to enter the fray; replacing Diego Perotti with 13 minutes and provided an immediate threat to the Tuscans as he combined with Florenzi to setup Radja Nainggolan whose resultant piledriver was tipped onto the post by Tatarasanu.

Only a few minutes later, Milan Badelj struck the crucial strike to seal the points for Sousa’s men with a low, hard shot that was controversially dummied by Nikola Kalinic and found the net after the ball struck the inside of Szczesny’s post to send the Franchi wild.

Chievo snatch deserved late win at Udinese

Fabrizio Cacciatore scored a dramatic winner in the 5th minute of stoppage time for Chievo in a game they were trailing in until the 82nd minute at the Stadio Friuli.

Duván Zapata had given Udinese a 25th-minute lead after latching onto Emil Hallfredsson’s inch-perfect cross.

Chievo dominated proceedings from this point and pinned Udinese deep into their own half but took until eight minutes from the end of normal time to make a breakthrough. Perparim Hetemaj’s cross from the left was flicked on by Sergio Pellissier for Lucas Castro to bundle over the line at the back post off his knee.

Full momentum was with the side from Verona after their equaliser and there appeared only one possible winner. Castro turned provider for the second goal in injury time as his cross from the left fell to the unlikely full-back Cacciatore who turned in at the back stick for a rare goal.

Milan earn hard-fought late win at Sampdoria

Carlos Bacca came off the bench to prove the Rossoneri’s hero on Friday evening at the Stadio Luigi Ferrarris.

After a reported bust-up with head coach Vincenzo Montella, Bacca had been dropped to the bench but was introduced to proceedings in a game that appeared to be heading to a goalless stalemate until the Colombian forward latched onto the end of a through ball from midfielder Suso and gave the Sampdoria keeper Viviano no chance.

Montella’s men now sit in 3rd place only a point from table-toppers Napoli.

Elsewhere in Italy

-Napoli secured an impressive 3-1 victory at home to Bologna to jump to the top of the Serie A thanks to a Jose Callejon opener and a brace from Arek Milik.

-Genoa’s 100% record this campaign came crashing to an end at the Mapei Stadium as Sassuolo continued their impressive start to the season with a 2-0 victory thanks to goals from Matteo Politano and Gregoire Defrel.

-Joe Hart secured his first clean sheet with Torino as his side drew 0-0 at home to Empoli in an uneventful encounter.

-Goals from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Stefan Radu and Ciro Immobile secured a comfortable 3-0 for Lazio at home to newly-promoted Pescara.

Safe Standing terraces: Something for the future or past for British football?

Safe Standing terraces: Something for the future or past for British football?

West Ham United’s much publicised move to the Olympic Stadium has inadvertently carried the issue of safe-standing in modern domestic English football to the surface.

Three mixed home performances have not helped an uneasy and somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere in an arena that will certainly take time to feel like home for the Hammers.

The distance the fans are seated from the pitch is one major negative which fans will simply have to adapt to but many feel they are simply being alienated by the club’s hierarchy. Many have voiced concerns that the club are showing signs of losing their unique identity as Vice-Chairman Karen Brady has released a strict statement to supporters, warning them their season tickets may be revoked if they persistently stand and block the views of the elder and younger supporters.

It is enormously disappointing that a large number of children and elderly supporters had their enjoyment of these opening games affected by the decision of individuals in the rows in front of them to stand throughout the games. Therefore, those who stand persistently are at risk of having their Season Tickets permanently revoked. We are obviously reluctant to take any such action against loyal fans, and we hope that we will not be put in that position. So we urge all our supporters to play their part, stay seated so that everyone can see and enjoy the game, and join together in creating a new era in our club’s history.”

Specific to West Ham’s move, the problem lies in the fact that a blind eye was unofficially turned to standing in particular areas of Upton Park; namely the Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking Lower Stand. The season-ticket holders in these areas of the ground have since been re-located to the new West Stand Lower at the “London Stadium” and have maintained their match routine viewing habits.

It must be said that there is no debating that it is completely disrespectful and ill-mannered to stand up directly in front of children or fans who will be unable to see or stand the entire game.

However, it is becoming widely that viewed that English football is now at a stage in development where actions need to be made to introduce safe-standing sections in football stadia.

Only fourteen months ago, West Ham’s co-chairman David Gold voiced his support and congratulations on Twitter to Celtic’s introduction of a safe-standing section with rail seating in one corner of Celtic Park; “Congratulations Celtic for being the first club to introduce a safe standing area and I am confident this is just the beginning…Purpose built safe standing areas are considerably safer than the illegal and anti-social standing we have at present.”

The club, who now have a capacity for 2,900 fans to safely stand throughout games, have revealed that the proposed changes had taken five years to come to fruition after two initial application rejections from Glasgow City Council.

A new report published by the free-market think tank “The Adam Smith Institute” has called on the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch to repel the ban on standing areas in top-flight English football.  The report also strongly suggests that safe-standing would allow clubs to lower attendance prices with further campaigns like last year’s successful “Twenty’s Plenty” initiative that has successfully introduced a £30 cap on all Premier League away tickets from the start of the 2016/17 season.

The Premier League needs to look to its European counterparts to guarantee the correct form of passion remains in the stands and to ensure future generations will continue flooding through the British turnstiles for decades to come.

Matchday tickets in the German “Bundesliga” range from between £9-£22 with the average season ticket priced as low as £207.22. Many German clubs also provide free local rail and bus travel as complimentary, making the matchday experience all the more affordable. One could argue such prices are maintaining the sport in their homeland as “the working man’s game”; whereas the same cannot be said for the billion-dollar industry that is our revenue-fuelled Premier League.

The Bundesliga’s structure needs to be closely looked at by the FA and modelled as the future standard.

Affordable ticket pricing, reasonable food & drink rates inside the stadia and dedicated safe-standing areas are ensuring packed out terraces, resounding atmospheres, low rates of crowd violence and thriving attendances in addition to the increased football participation from the younger generations. The future of the game is healthy in the Bundesliga and no social classes are being priced out of following their football club.

This will not be a simple overnight transformation to make for the English Football Association but the reversal of the safe-standing ban will be the first significant step in the right direction.

Opening-day defeats signal tough season ahead for Villa and Newcastle

Opening-day defeats signal tough season ahead for Villa and Newcastle

Life in the Championship has begun with sobering defeats for relegated Aston Villa and Newcastle United.

Villa were beaten by a late Fernando Forestieri goal by Sheffield Wednesday in a tight affair at Hillsborough whilst the Magpies suffered a defeat by the same score-line at Craven Cottage on Friday night. These opening-days results are a clear indication that the season ahead will be demanding and not for the faint-hearted.

Both clubs have endured busy transfer windows with many ins and outs.

Villa’s squad was in desperate need of a shake-up after a disastrous, toothless relegation campaign last year. The club have since released Charles N’Zogbia and Kieran Richardson and have sold Brad Guzan, Idrissa Gueye and Ciaran Clark respectively. Two notable incomings are centre-back Tommy Elphick and the impressive £12m spend of Ross McCormack from Fulham.

New Villa boss Roberto Di Matteo has experience of League 1 and the Championship from his time in charge of MK Dons and West Bromwich Albion and this experience will stand the club in good stead for the season ahead. He will be aware of the discipline and battling qualities needed for the challenge facing them.

The Villa team in particular suffered a real disconnect with the fans last season and one of the biggest tasks Di Matteo will face will be to get the club’s fans back on side; to use their large home support at Villa Park to galvanise rather than revolt against Villa’s young side.

One of Newcastle’s remarkable acquisitions was the announcement of manager Rafa Benitez on a full-time basis after his short period at the helm towards the end of last season; an appointment made after 25,000 supporter signatures were signed in a petition by the Newcastle Chronicle asking the ex-Liverpool, Chelsea & Real Madrid manager to stay.

A host of other incomings have arrived at the club as they look to secure an immediate return to the Premier League. Former Bournemouth winger Matt Ritchie (undisclosed), Grant Hanley (undisclosed), Dwight Gayle (undisclosed), Jesus Gamez (undisclosed) and midfielder Mohammed Diame (£4.5m) have all been acquired.  The inconsistent Georginio Wijnaldum has astonishingly been sold to Liverpool for almost double the £14.5m Newcastle paid for the Dutchman a year ago and France’s Moussa Sissoko also looks set to depart (expectedly for a similar fee) as Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal have shown keen interest.

The defeats in last weekend’s fixtures will be a warning to both that this is a league not made for the egos, finesse and grace prominent in the Premier League but for consistency, battling, grit and physical endurance required in the arduous slog of a schedule that is the Championship.

The Football League calendar features regular Tuesday and Saturday fixtures and those teams with thinner squads and players out of form often suffer as a result. Furthermore, large fan-base clubs will face different challenges on away travels compared to in the Premier League. Clubs of the more modest size (Burton Albion or Barnsley for example) will treat games against a former Premier League big-boy like Villa and Newcastle as essentially a cup-final with all the more motivation to cause an upset.

Both need to get last weekend’s defeats out of their system as swiftly as possible and the first six weeks of the season will be a big indicator as to which of these relegated clubs will have the fire-power to mount a serious promotion challenge.

 

The 2016 Summer Transfer Window

The 2016 Summer Transfer Window

Euro 2016 has come to a close with Portugal emerging victorious, the Premiership clubs are off on their pre-season tours in various exotic foreign locations and transfer business is all set to liven up as we head for the opening day countdown.

The British media are rubbing their hands at the prospect of Europe’s highest profile and most sought-after managers being tempted by the Premier League’s thrills, spills and allurement to the country’s most iconic clubs in Manchester City and United as well as the Blue division of London in Chelsea.

Clubs are now at the stage in pre-season where flaws are identified in the first x11 and will attempt to move squad players on for additional funds to strengthen squad selection quality. Here’s a rundown on business conducted club-by-club (Barclays Premier League transfers of note) at this midway point in the summer break.

Arsenal-

IncomingsThe Gunners only incoming has been the signing of Switzerland midfielder Granit Xhaka from Borussia Monchengladbach for a fee thought to be around £35 million pounds on a long term contract. The 23-year old played in all four of Switzerland’s Euro 2016 games this summer in a tournament where he will unfortunately be remembered by many as the player who missed the crucial spot kick in the last 16 knockout penalty shootout against Poland. Xhaka will be filling the gap left by the departures of experienced midfielders released by the club; namely Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

What do they needA top-quality centre-back and a centre forward to compete with Olivier Giroud.

Bournemouth-

Incomings- After losing Matt Ritchie to Newcastle for the sum of £12 million, The Cherries have been quick to act with signings securing full-back Nathan Ake on a season-long loan from Chelsea, young England under-21 midfielder Lewis Cook from Leeds on a four-year deal and have just completed a club-record £15 million pounds signing of Liverpool winger Jordan Ibe.

What do they need- More squad depth in all areas as injuries last season prevented Eddie Howe’s men from making a push towards mid-table.

Burnley-

Incomings- Transfer movements have finally begun for the newly promoted Lancashire Clarets as a £3 million pound bid has been rejected by Derby County for promising midfielder Jeff Hendrick. The club have just announced the signing of Charlton winger Johann Gudmundsson (fee undisclosed) and are rumoured to be chasing Callum McManaman from West Brom.

What do they need-Further top-flight quality in all areas of the first team. Sean Dyche will have his work cut out to prevent a second relegation from the Premier League in two years.

Chelsea

Incomings-Former Juventus and Italy manager Antonio Conte is the man Roman Abramovich has entrusted to return the Blues to their title-chasing customs. He has acted by lavishing £33.5 million on highly-rated Belgian striker Michy Batshuayi from Marseille. The forward will surely bring further pace and goals to Chelsea’s front-line. The Blues have also confirmed the £32.5 million signing for arguably one of the players of the season last campaign in central midfield maestro N’Golo Kante.

What do they need-The back four endured a torrid season last year (Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill in particular) so Conte will surely be targeting a right-back and a central defender to stabilise.

Crystal Palace

Incomings-Alan Pardew has been one of the busiest managers in the league thus far already securing the signatures of winger Andros Townsend (£13m), French goalkeeper Steve Mandanda (undisclosed) and West Ham defender James Tomkins (£10m). After reaching the F.A Cup Final but suffering a domestic league slide in the second half of last season, Pardew will be determined to have the squad depth and quality to maintain top-half form for the entire campaign.

What do they need-Palace possess a terrific goal threat from midfield with the fantastic trickery of Wilfred Zaha and the pacey unpredictability of Yannick Bolasie but do lack a goal-scoring striker with Conor Wickham the top-scoring forward last season with a mere 5 league goals.

Everton

Incomings-A tough campaign last year on the Blue half of Merseyside that saw Roberto Martinez’s time in charge come to an end has meant former Southampton boss Ronald Koeman is the new number one at Goodison Park. Goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg has been the only notable signing as of yet but with additional funds to be made available by new majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, incomings are more than likely.

What do they need-A new goalkeeper to replace Tim Howard. If John Stones and Romelu Lukaku are sold on, finding quality replacements in those areas will be the club’s priority.

Hull City

Incomings-After internal talks over the past week, the club have announced Steve Bruce (who had interviewed for the England job) would be leaving the club. Supposedly, Bruce was deeply frustrated transfer targets he had outlined had not been secured. Whoever is unveiled as his replacement will do well to prevent the club’s third relegation in a decade and banish the club’s recently attributed “yo-yo” label.

What do they need-A forward to compete with Abel Hernandez and a creative midfielder/winger would be high on Bruce’s shopping list.

Leicester City

Incomings-After achieving the unthinkable last season by winning the championship, Leicester City’s owners now face the challenge of keeping as many of their title winning stars as possible. The sale of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea is already a massive blow to Claudio Ranieri who will be wary of bringing in too many fresh faces to upset the team harmony from last campaign. Spanish defender Luis Hernandez, Nice midfielder Nampalys Mendy and CSKA Moscow forward Ahmed Musa (£16m) have all been secured.

What do they need-To keep the unity and chemistry of their record-breaking championship winning x11.

Liverpool

Incomings- Jurgen Klopp is preparing for his first full season in the Premier League in charge of the Reds having made three signings so far this summer; defender Joel Matip from Schalke on a free, Newcastle forward Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m) and the exciting transfer of Southampton forward Sadio Mane (£34m). Martin Skrtel and Jordan Ibe have been sold on with Mario Balotelli to be expected to soon follow suit.

What do they need-Multiple areas of the first team need strengthening to reach a level of quality sufficient to maintain a top-four push next season. A goalkeeper, centre-back, right-back and a first-class central midfielder to sit behind Philipe Coutinho are the emergency areas to address. If Mario Balotelli and Christian Benteke are to be moved on, a goal-scoring centre forward to compete with Daniel Sturridge will also be a must.

Manchester City

Incomings-City’s new reign under Pep Guardiola has begun with two signings that he will hope will help bring the Premiership title back to Eastlands. German midfielder Ilkay Gundogan has been signed on a four year deal; an intelligent and versatile midfielder who may prove a long-term replacement for Yaya Toure. Nolito has also been brought in from Celta Viga on a three-year deal; a versatile winger who has played for Guardiola at Barcelona (though he spent much of this period playing for the Catalan B side between 2008-2011).

What do they need-Defensive instabilities have been a constant source of dropped points in recent seasons and Pep will no doubt be aware of this. Targets to assist Vincent Kompany are sure to be on the list. Joe Hart’s role as number 1 goalkeeper is also rumoured to be under threat.

Man Utd

Incomings- Mourinho’s renaissance at United has begun with three marquee signings that he hopes will be instrumental in returning the club to their former title-chasing days under Sir Alex Ferguson. 22-year old Ivory Coast centre-back Eric Baily has been signed from Villareal on a four-year contract and highly rated Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan has joined from Borussia Dortmund (fees undisclosed). The final signing is a personality that will fit the mould of previous United legends (namely Eric Cantona and Cristiano Ronaldo); none other than world superstar Zlatan Ibrahimović. At 34 years old, the striker is expected to be used sparingly but will possess world-class quality that the Red Devils have been starved of in recent seasons. Young French Juventus midfielder (and former United youth player) Paul Pogba is also on the verge of a world-record transfer move to OT.

What do they need- Another central defender is likely to be Mourinho’s priority before August the 31st as at times last season the United defence were being forced to play defensive midfielders Daley Blind or Michael Carrick as a centre-back.

Middlesbrough

Incomings-Aitor Karanka has guided the Teesiders to their first campaign in the top flight of English football since 2009 and will be determined to build them into an established Premier League side with his open brand of attacking football inspired from his three-year stint as assistant manager at Real Madrid.  He has been one of the most active in the market with young Dutch talent Viktor Fischer from Ajax, experienced goalkeeper Victor Valdes (free transfer), defensive midfielder Marten De Roon (£12m from Atalanta) and Valencia defender Antonio Barragan all secured already.

What do they need-A top quality striker to compliment their creative midfield prowess; Alvaro Negredo is said to be on the verge of joining Boro on a season-long-loan from Valencia.

Southampton

Incomings-The summer of 2016 has been one of turmoil at St. Mary’s. The Saints have lost their impressive Dutch manager Ronald Koeman to Everton as well as selling first team stars Victor Wanyama (£11m to Tottenham), Sadio Mane (£34m to Liverpool) and Graziano Pelle (£12m to Shandong Luneng). Former Nice manager Claude Pulle has been appointed as Koeman’s replacement and will be boosted at least by the signing of pacey winger Nathan Redmond from Norwich City.

What do they need-Replacements for the quality sold on this summer. Southampton have developed a pattern in recent years of importing promising young European talents and selling on for large profits; many would point this out to be an extraordinarily successful business model for a club of their size. However, a striker is a must.

Stoke City

Incomings-A solid finish of 9th last season has seen the Potters arrive at this period in the summer break having not made any signings. The squad experienced many injury problems last campaign though so tweaks to the first team will be expected before the 31st August.

What do they need-Another side desperately in need of a no 9 centre-forward. Attacking quality is widespread in the midfield boasting the power and shooting ability of Marko Arnautovic and the skills and creativity of Bojan, Ibrahim Affelay and Xherdan Shaqiri but a goal-poacher and clinical finisher is lacking.

Sunderland

Incomings-Worries are building on Wearside as a lack of transfer activity (after a relegation dogfight last season) and Sam Allardyce’s  appointment as the new England manager as to their direction next season.  David Moyes has swiftly been announced as Sam’s replacement; a personality who should possess the managerial qualities that are so crucial to build on or at least maintain the stability that Sam instilled at the club last year; but the Black Cats are 5/2 to be relegated next year.

What do they need-Another striker to relieve the burden on Jermain Defoe as well as two younger centre-backs and a winger.

Swansea

Incomings-The Swans only notable incoming is the permanent signing of midfielder Leroy Fer who had been only loan at the Liberty Stadium last year. Further transfer activity may well be on the cards as an American consortium has just completed a takeover of the club. A bid is rumoured to have been made for former Swansea midfielder Joe Allen.

What do they need- A new striker to ensure goals and a midfielder with some creative presence is also required to ease the pressure on Sigurdsson.

Tottenham

Incomings-A season that so nearly became glorious for Tottenham ended fruitless as they collected only two points from the final three games, finishing the season in 3rd place after hunting champions Leicester so vigilantly all season. Mauricio Pochettino appears more determined than ever to keep improving his side, having completed the signings of Victor Wanyama (£11m) and Dutch striker Vincent Janssen from AZ Alkmaar (£17m).

What do they need-To keep the current squad together primarily. Pochettino may possibly target another central midfielder with the possible rumoured departures of Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb.

Watford

Incomings-Another summer signals another managerial change at Vicarage Road as former Inter Milan boss Walter Mazzarri replaces former head coach Quique Sanchez Flores. Notable signings include highly-rated forward Isaac Success snapped up from Granada along with the season-long-loan capture of attacking Colombian full-back Juan Camilo Zuniga from Napoli.

What do they need-Watford must keep Deeney and Ighalo at the club as their prolific partnership was a major factor in last season’s success. Another goalkeeper would not go amiss as Heurelho Gomes can be frequently erratic.

West Brom

Incomings-Another season of relatively comfortable survival for the Baggies has seen a quiet summer of transfers thus far with Matty Philips the only incoming to the squad.

What do they need-Despite many fans seeming unhappy at the style of play and lack of ambition shown by manager Tony Pulis, the club seem intent on sticking by their man. With the departure of Stephane Sessegnon (out of contract) and the expected sale of Saido Berhaino, flair and creativity will be needed. A striker, attacking midfielder and another winger will be high on the fans wish-list.

West Ham

Incomings-Slaven Bilic experienced a terrific first season last year finishing 7th in the league and bringing flair and excitement back to the Boleyn which many fans felt had been lacking under the previous managerial regime. Exciting Algerian winger Sofiane Feghouli has been brought in (free transfer), along with defensive midfielder Havard Nordtveit from Borussia Monchengladbach and Turkish winger Gokhan Tore who has played for Bilic previously at Besiktas (season-long-loan).

What do they need-David Sullivan has publicly stated the club are looking for a big-money striker. Bids have so far failed for Alexandre Lacazette and Carlos Bacca. A right-back would also be on Bilic’s wish list to compete with young Sam Byram.