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.

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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.

Have Barcelona finally solved their right-back crisis?

Have Barcelona finally solved their right-back crisis?

In a summer where many argue that new head coach Ernesto Valverde must spend big to return the Catalonian giants to former glories; some would point out that Barcelona have already ticked off the most essential and pragmatic of signings to repair the most obvious of last season’s squad faculties.

In the same week that PSG unveiled Dani Alves, Barcelona have identified their replacement for Alves, a year on from the Brazilian’s departure from the Camp Nou. Alves is the contemporary yardstick by which all future Barca right-backs are to be judged, such was his legacy in his 8-year period at the club.

The right side of defence was one of the key areas that was repeatedly exposed in an inconsistent season by Barcelona’s standards; with Alex Vidal falling out of favour with Luis Enrique and then being sidelined by a significant ankle injury; forcing Enrique to use Sergi Roberto as a makeshift right-back.

After many reports of a return for former Barcelona youth player Hector Bellerin, 23-year old Nelson Semedo has been acquired for €30m from Benfica.

Semedo fits the mould of a young Dani Alves, being a pacey, strong, attacking full-back with excellent defensive awareness. However, the young Brazilian’s career progression has been gradual and somewhat slow-burning rather than a rapid rise to stardom.

Having begun his career aged 17 at Sport Uniao Sintrense, the third division side based north west of Lisbon; Semedo earned himself a move to Portuguese giants Benfica only a year later in 2012, signing a five-year deal in the process.

After two years (with one season being spent on loan at Fatima), Semedo progressed to the first-team picture at the Estadio Da Luz by the age of 21 after Maxi Pereira’s move to Porto in the summer of 2015.

The young Brazilian has not looked back in the last two years, being an ever-present in the Benfica side of 2015/16 and receiving his first senior call-up to the Portugal team in October 2015 after a string of impressive early-season performances.

Helder Cristovao, who coached Semedo in Benfica’s B team, believes Semedo is the best long-term replacement for Dani Alves; “I think of all the players they were talking about, maybe Semedo is closest to Alves than the others…He is very fast and Barca play with a high structure and a very high defensive line…He’s very strong on the wing and he’s able to get good contributions with the players infield and on the outside”.

It must also be said that Semedo’s eye for goal is another understated quality in his game. His exceptional left-foot strike in Benifca’s away Champions League group-stage fixture at Besiktas last season is a perfect example of this.

Earning a move to the Camp Nou aged 23 years old is no mean feat for Semedo, but he must continue to develop his game at the pinnacle of the global football stage to ensure a problem area of the pitch is now one of stability, consistency and more for Ernesto Valverde and Barcelona.

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.

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.

Four candidates in the frame to replace Enrique at Barcelona

Four candidates in the frame to replace Enrique at Barcelona

On the evening after Barcelona’s 6-1 hammering of Sporting Gijon came the announcement that many quarters of the Spanish media were expecting to be made from the Catalan club (admittedly closer to the season end) that manager Luis Enrique would be leaving his post at the end of the season.

As unusual as it is to broadcast a decision of this nature after such a resounding victory, it must be said that after the 4-0 first-leg away reverse in the Champions League to PSG and continuous conflicts with the local Spanish press, many felt this announcement would only be a matter of time.

Despite this first-leg battering, Barcelona produced one of the most spectacular comebacks ever seen in European Cup history overturning the four goal deficit to beat PSG 6-1 in Catalonia with three goals scored in the last five minutes of the game in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Away from the CL, the season is far from over for Enrique’s men. Still in the title race (leading Real Madrid by one point who have a game in hand), with a Copa Del Rey final against Alaves to contend, the former Barcelona midfielder has a chance to end his managerial stint with the Catalonians with a treble.

Having pointed to one of the identical personal reasons for his departure as his predecessor Pep Guardiola citing weariness and mental fatigue after three seasons in the role, it is debated as to which personality that will have the stomach and endurance for this pressured managerial position. The following 4 names are being touted as the most likely replacements:

Ernesto Valverde

One of the early favourites for the job. Valverde has been in charge of Athletic Bilbao since 2013 and has since led them to Champions League qualification, a Spanish Super Cup victory over Barcelona and a Copa Del Rey final.

A diplomatic character who has played for Barcelona in his career for two seasons and who will not be afraid to make important squad decisions to reinvigorate an ageing Barcelona team.

In addition to his achievements at Bilbao, his side became known for an intense pressing game, much akin to that of Mauricio Pochettino’s current model at Tottenham Hotpsur. However, his record at the clubs he has coached (particularly Bilbao and Olympiakos) also implies he brings a stout defensive resoluteness to sides.   At Bilbao, a team that had conceded 65 goals in La Liga under previous coach Marcelo Bielsa, let in only 39 under Valverde – going from 12th to 4th in the process.

In Greece, Valverde delivered three titles at Olympiakos over three seasons, with an attacking possession-based philosophy that produced a 68% and 75% win rate in his two spells respectively, signifying the level of dominance Olympiakos enjoyed under Valverde.

A well-rounded, calm and collective individual whose excellent media-relationship skills makes him the typical “Barcelona fit” required to occupy the hot-seat and be the front-facing figure at a club surrounded by such complex internal politics within the hierarchy.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 8/10

Jorge Sampaoli

Since joining Sevilla last summer, Jorge Sampaoli has impressed with the 2016 Europa League Champions, particularly improving their domestic performance in La Liga, so much so that they are competing with La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona in a three-horse title-race (Sevilla currently sit 4 points off leaders Barcelona).

He made his name with the Chilean national team, famously claiming a Copa America title in 2015.

The frenetic, bold and attacking style seen at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan this season has won the hearts of many a football neutral this year and will no doubt result in many Barcelona fans calling for the Argentine to make the move across Spain to take their club forward to future glories.

The Barcelona tradition of appointing managers either from within their internal coaching structure or previous players may work against the possibility of an approach as the Sampaoli fits neither category, having had no previous association with the club in his career to date.

An outspoken and passionate individual, whether or not he will fit the mould of FC Barcelona can only be decided by the boardroom.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 7/10

Ronald Koeman

Having played for the club for over six years between 1989 and 1995 and with an impressive managerial CV, the Dutchman will inevitably be linked with a hot-seat vacancy at the Camp Nou.

Having managed at a host of renowned and esteemed European clubs in his seventeen-year managerial career including PSV, Ajax, Valencia and Benfica, the Dutchman would bring a wealth of experience to Barcelona.

Two successful spells at his first English Premier League club Southampton resulted in a 7th and 6th league table finish, both in campaigns where he had to contend with the sales of many of his star players from the club.

Having signed a three-year deal with Everton last summer, Barcelona would be forced to pay a substantial compensation package to the Merseyside club for Koeman.

Many feel however that it may prove too great a step up at this moment in time; particularly as many in Spain remember his unsuccessful spell at Valencia in a campaign where his side plummeted to 15th in La Liga and had finished bottom of their Champions League by the time the Dutchman was dismissed.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 5/10

Mauricio Pochettino

The current Tottenham Hotspur manager is a dark-horse in the running. Having transformed the North London club into a title-chasing outfit has been no mean feat.

With a strong ideology for an intense, high-pressing attacking style, many would argue that the Argentine would be an excellent fit at Barcelona.

However, repeated failures to progress to advanced rounds in European competitions has cast doubt over the psychological toughness of his side and one may feel this may be a jump too steep too early in Pochettino’s career.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 5/10