Sousa’s purple reign

Italy Soccer Serie A

A week is a long time in football, especially in the chaotic world of calcio. Just ask Fiorentina. After falling to Basel in the Europa League opener last Thursday grumblings which festered all summer rose to the surface. It was another battle for new boss Paulo Sousa to overcome, who has had to dispel the doubters since his arrival.

A two-year spell with Juventus from 1994-96 threatened to rock Sousa’s Fiorentina boat before it even left the port. A section of the support could not forgive him for this. Another was angry with the club at how the sacking of Vincenzo Montella played out, plus the Mohamed Salah debacle.

The season started well enough with a win over Milan. However, defeat against Torino and later to Basel intensified the resentment. The manner of each defeat was galling. Fiorentina twice led inside 10 minutes only to collect no points.

But La Viola have responded. Sandwiched between the losses was a Serie A victory over Genoa – amid fan protests. Since Basel have been further League wins, over Carpi and Bologna. It hasn’t always been thrilling and the goals have not flowed – the latter victory saw two strikes inside the final 20 minutes – but Fiorentina are sitting pretty in second spot.

And sporting director Daniele Prade says the Portuguese tactician has had a big part to play in that. “Sousa has a strong winning mentality, we won’t rule anything out in our head and we’ll keep doing what we’re doing.”

For his part, Sousa does not want to put a ceiling on his side, even if acknowledges the chasing pack is particularly strong this term. “I believe in our capabilities, but am also a realistic person. I always said we could compete with everyone and we will compete… There are clubs out there who invested a great deal to win the Scudetto, but at the same time I never said we should just give up.”

La Viola have conceded just three goals this term – all against Torino – to sit three points behind leaders and perfect starters Inter. They travel to Milan this weekend.

It’s a top of the table clash which can reveal much about this Fiorentina side. It’s a good test for Sousa and his players, who have already responded well to much of the criticism levelled their way.

Is Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema deserving of more credit?


Cristiano Ronaldo’s wait for a landmark 500th career goal continued in Real Madrid‘s 2-1 win away to Athletic Bilbao, but teammate Karim Benzema stole the headlines with a brace either side of half-time to send Los Blancos top of the Spanish La Liga.  The 27-year-old now has five league goals in four games, and tops the scoring charts in the division as result. Benzema is now one goal shy of 140 in a Real Madrid shirt, and he’s picking up where he left off last season.

The former Olympique Lyonnais striker, who was linked with Arsenal in the summer, is often in the shadows to the likes of Gareth Bale and Ronaldo in the Real Madrid side. Athletic Bilbao have been a bogey team for Real in the past, especially when playing at the San Mamés Stadium, but their number nine was to thank for a priceless victory that sees them go one point clear at the summit. His manager Rafael Benitez was full of praise.

“He is not your run-of-the-mill number 9, he is a number 9 with great quality. His movement wreaks havoc amongst the opposition’s defence,” said the Real Madrid coach. Benitez singled out the striker upon his arrival at the club too, saying back in the summer: “Benzema is a great player. And one of my ideas this year is that he exceeds the barrier of 20-25 goals. In that, I have put a lot of confidence. There are not many players better than the ones that we have.”

A consistent goalscorer every season he’s been at the Santiago Bernabeu with a 1-in-2 goals-per-games record, Benzema is one of the best number 9s in the world without getting any real recognition. Signed from Lyon for around £25M in 2009, not many players have lasted as long at Real Madrid as Benzema has, nor have they remained so consistent each season in Spain. But still the likes of Luis Suarez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Sergio Aguero are held in higher regard.

Karim Benzema’s place among the best strikers is rarely debated, but this is a player who has successfully fought off competition in attack to keep his place as Real Madrid first-choice front man. His form is the reason the Spaniards haven’t sought out a new expensive centre-forward in years, and the reason why the likes of Gonzalo Higuain was eventually sold.

He tops the scoring charts early this season, and could be on course for a prolific campaign if he can continue his prolific run in front of goal. So does Karim Benzema deserve more credit for his Real Madrid antics?

Barcelona’s lack of goals cause of concern for Luis Enrique


Barcelona lost 4-1 to Celta Vigo in the Spanish La Liga on Wednesday night, and it’s yet another game that has seen them short of goals. The Spanish giants have relinquished their place at the summit following the shock defeat, but manager Luis Enrique will be more concerned at his side’s failure to deliver.

The Catalans have struggled in all competitions this season, with the Catalans having scored two or less goals in five of their last six games. Despite having an attack featuring the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, Luis Enrique’s men have been winning games by just a single goal.

They were held to a 1-1 draw against Italian Serie A side AS Roma in the Champions League, and had averaged just 1.3 goals per game in their first three La Liga outings. A lack of creativity from their chief playmakers could be to blame for the low goal tally, with midfielder Ivan Rakitic having failed to make an assist in the division so far.

Xavi Hernandez left the club in the summer, and his absence is proving costly. Andres Iniesta is another midfielder who hasn’t created a goal in the league this season, and Enrique will be asking for more from his creative players. It’s certainly not common to see Barcelona scoring just one goal per game more often than anything else, and they’re five goals shy of leaders Real after five games.

Rafinha, Sergio Busquets and Sergio Roberto have all been given a lot of game time this season, but have created just nine chances between them by last weekend. 2014/15 saw Barcelona scoring 110 league goals in 38 games (2.9 per game), but they haven’t come close to matching such antics this time round, and things certainly need to change.

There’s still plenty of the campaign to go for the Catalans to reach their fluid best in attack, but it’s clear they are having issues in the final third. Chances aren’t being converted into goals on a regular basis this campaign despite having a world-class attacking trio who last season contributed 122 goals in all competitions.

The creative influence has to come from the likes of Rakitic, Busquets and Iniesta in the middle of the park, and Barcelona’s forwards certainly need to be more ruthless in front of goal. Despite not rippling the back of the net as often as in 2014/15, the Catalans are still top of the table early into the new campaign.

La lotta salvezza: una storia gia’ scritta?


C’era un tempo in cui la lotta per la retrocessione era piu’ emozionante di quella Scudetto. 18 squadre in lizza e 4 condannate alla discesa negli inferi della Serie B. Dal  2004-05, con l’allargamento dell’organico a 20 squadre si e’ passato contro ogni logica alla retrocessione di sole 3 squadre, svilendo non poco la corsa per la lotta alla salvezza.

Anche quest’anno, la battaglia per non retrocedere si preannuncia poco affascinante, con le due matricole Carpi e Frosinone che sembrano condannate ad una rapido ritorno nella serie cadetta.

Le due formazioni sono state promosse a sorpesa in serie A, ma non potendo disporre di un budget elevato, non hanno potuto attrezzare adeguatamente le loro rose per il massimo campionato italiano. E l’inizio non pu’ dirsi certo entusiasmante: entrambe le neopromosse occupano infatti l’ultima posizione in classifica, frutto delle sconfitte subite nelle primedue giornate di campionato. Anche i bookmakeer credono poco nel proseguo della loro favola, visto cheil ritorno in seconda divisione del Frosinone è quotato appena 1.30 e quello del Carpi a 1.50.  Per salvarsi, serve un miracolo: Il Carpi si aggrappa ai goal di Marco Borriello, il Frosinone a quelli di Daniel Ciofani. Difficilmente basteranno.

Il discorso si fa interessante per quanto riguarda la terz’ultima piazza.  Tra i maggiori indiziati il Bologna, altra neopromossa che tuttavia e’ stata protagonista di una buona campagna acquisti con gli arrivi di Mattia Destro dalla Roma e di Emanuele Giaccherini dal Sunderland. A rischiare molto e’ l’Empoli, che dopo la sorprendente stagione dello scorso hanno ha smobilitato: via il tecnico Sarri, via il regista Valdifiori e il terzino Hysaj, tutti e tre approdati al Napoli; via il pilastro della difesa Rugani, tornato alla Jventus.

Tra le altre squadre Verona, Chievo ed Atalanta, sembrano un gradino sopra le formazioni finora menzionate, ma non possono permettersi distrazioni.  Sassuolo, Palermo e Udinese hanno una rosa con piu’ qualita’ e dovrebbero dormire sonni tranquilli.

CR y Messi están de vuelta, si es que alguna vez se fueron


Las criticas que han recibido tanto el portugués como el argentino en los primeros compases de Liga han sido desmesuradas. ¿Que ninguno marca? ¿Sequía goleadora? ¿Baja en la calidad del juego? ¿Empiezan a pesar los años? Muchos medios no veían normal que se pasasen dos jornadas a cero y, tanto uno como el otro, han acallado esas bocas como mejor saben hacerlo: a base de goles.

Dos jornadas sin anotar parece demasiado para aquellos capaces de conquistar el trofeo Pichichi con la friolera de 40 o 50 goles. Una cifra totalmente desmesurada y que implica un lado oscuro: cuando no se responde manteniendo una media goleadora tan alta, algo comprensible, llueve un chaparrón de críticas. No parece justo.

A Cristiano Ronaldo le han dicho que su inicio liguero no solo era nefasto, sino que además la mala pretemporada y los compromisos con la selección lusa le han lastrado a la desesperación. Los goles se marcan con la moral y cuando no llega el primero parece que se gafa otro partido más. Pero cuando se logra marcar uno las cosas cambian por completo, a partir de ese momento ya entra todo. La prueba evidente ha sido el partido contra el Espanyol. El Madrid ganó 0-6 con 5 goles de CR. Ronaldo ha recuperado la moral y vuelve a sacar las garras.

El astro argentino también ha soportado muchas críticas. Que si ya no corre como antes, que si se permite el lujo de fallar penaltis en Liga, que si erra lo imposible ante los cancerberos… En el trascendental partido contra el Atlético, Lucho sorprendió a todos dejando a Messi en el banquillo alegando cansancio. Pero «la pulga» salió 30 minutos y revolucionó el partido con buen juego y el gol de la victoria. ¿Qué más se le puede pedir? Leo muerde de nuevo con el balón en los pies.

Aquellos que critican lo incriticable deben darse cuenta de la realidad. Las fieras quizá estén amansadas en algún partido, pero siguen siendo fieras. Cuando rugen lo hacen de verdad y pueden marcar más goles que los que son capaces de contar con los dedos de una mano.


Fernando Torres enjoying his return to Atletico Madrid


Fernando Torres has been in fine scoring form with Atletico Madrid so far this season, scoring two goals in as many league starts. The former Liverpool striker, 31, showcased his clinical finishing with strikers against Barcelona and Eibar in recent weeks, and could well be in for a prolific campaign if he can continue his purple patch in front of goal.

Competing with new-boy Jackson Martinez for a place up front, manager Diego Simeone believes the duo’s fine form will see them partnering each other in attack this season. “Of course they can (play together), why not? They are compatible players. Jackson and Fernando are different types of players, one is left-footed, one right-footed, and they could be compatible. We want to have competition for places. We always look to put out the players who can win us the game,” he said.

Against Barcelona, the Spanish international latched onto a through ball in the middle of the park, and coolly finished under pressure past Marc-Andre ter Stegen with his first touch. He was a threat against the Catalans, having six chances on goal while winning five aerial duels, before being brought off on the hour mark.

Signed from AC Milan in January, Fernando Torres took his time to find his feet on his return, but performances did enough to impress his manager. Goals dried up a number of years ago with former clubs, but he’s currently enjoying his best run in the Spanish La Liga. Not turning 32 until March, the fleet-footed striker seems much happier with supporters who idolised him in his first stint.

His Eibar goal was more instinctive, and saw Torres freeing himself from his marker to collect a through ball, before chipping over goalkeeper Asier Riesgo. Coming on as a second-half substitute, the striker scored and created a goal, while doing his defensive work too. Despite a lot of competition for a starting place, Torres’ form sees him getting regular action under Diego Simeone in 2015.

The last time he hit double figures for goals was all the way back in 2009/10, with subsequent seasons at Liverpool, Chelsea and Atletico Madrid yielding pitiful tallies in the Premier League and La Liga respectively. He bagged over 90 goals in his first spell with Atleti, and an emotional return to his boyhood club is finally reaping the rewards.

Enjoying his second stint at the Vicente Calderon, the experienced hitman has four goals from his last eight games stretching back to the end of previous season, and is looking worth the gamble on an 18-month loan spell. He’s already one goal shy of match last season’s tally in the division, and will be hopeful of hitting double figures come May.

O primeiro derby de André André


Vitória do FC Porto no primeiro clássico desta edição da Liga, num desafio intenso, apaixonado mas excessivamente tático que redundou num resultado justo face ao que se passou no relvado. Apesar da derrota o Benfica conseguiu dar boa réplica e o empate não chocaria nenhum adepto; pelo contrário, os visitantes obrigaram Casillas a realizar as melhores paradas do desafio. No entanto venceu a equipa mais consistente e ofensiva, sendo que para dramatizar ainda mais o tento do FC Porto surgiu apenas nos minutos finais e por intermédio de um jogador que Rui Vitória lançou e refinou na primeira liga: André André foi o nome da noite.

Rui Vitória surpreendeu com a estreia de André Almeida a meio-campo, com o camisola 34 a responder à altura e a ser essencial na inesperada superioridade encarnada durante o primeiro tempo. Durante esse período o irrepreensível posicionamento tático benfiquista foi suficiente para domar os azuis e brancos, enquanto a elasticidade de Gaitán e de Jonas (muito recuado) confundiam as marcações portistas e conquistavam bolas paradas. Seria principalmente através deste tipo de lances que os encarnados conseguiriam causar perigo, fazendo valer a maior experiência dos seus elementos para fugir às marcações e alvejar a baliza, especialmente por intermédio de Mitroglou que ameaçou aos 9′, 12′ e 27′. O FC Porto por seu turno foi-se aguentando até equilibrar a partida, mas até ao intervalo praticamente não se viu junto da baliza de Júlio César – a excepção foi num lance que nasce num erro crasso de Eliseu e que acaba anulado por fora de jogo.

Com o tribunal portista a pressionar nas bancadas, a segunda parte trouxe uma equipa azul e branca ainda mais pressionante e determinada, com Rúben Neves ao comando a empurrar os visitantes para mais perto da sua área. André André, que já tinha sido um dos destaques pela positiva nos primeiros 45′, abriu o livro logo aos 51′ com um cruzamento perfeito que Aboubakar desviou espetacularmente para o poste. Estava dado o mote: o Benfica mantinha a luta intensa na intermediária mas já não conseguia esticar-se até perto de Casillas, e com o jogo a desenrolar-se nas imediações da baliza encarnada era uma questão de tempo até as oportunidades surgirem. Brahimi apareceu um par de vezes sem marcação pelo lado esquerdo e não conseguiu daí retirar nada, enquanto Aboubakar só foi batido pela elasticidade de Júlio César quando enfrentou o keeper brasileiro no um contra um. Finalmente, quando ambos os técnicos queimavam os últimos cartuchos na procura da vitória mas os jogadores já acusavam em demasia o desgaste de uma partida intensa, André André construiu e finalizou o 1-0 com a preciosa colaboração de Varela.

O FC Porto descola assim do eterno rival e pode isolar-se no primeiro posto caso o Sporting não derrote o Nacional da Madeira, ganhando uma injecção de moral para as próximas partidas. O Benfica recolheu indicadores positivos e pode orgulhar-se do que fez no Dragão, mas os 4 pontos de atraso para a liderança não sendo irrecuperáveis começam a deixar pouca margem para mais deslizes.


Torino’s bullish heart beating strong

Calcio: Serie A; Torino-Sampdoria

Fabio Quagliarella restricted his emotion out of respect, but inside he must have been brimming with joy. The striker netted twice against his former club Sampdoria on Sunday to fire Torino up to second spot after four matches.

Like Quagliarella, the club is displaying outward restraint. “We just have to keep going our own way, trying to build our form match by match,” President Urbano Cairo stated on Monday. Torino will on the surface be reserved, but can be proud of their start to the season.

As they should. Torino are only two points behind leaders Inter, one of four remaining unbeaten sides.

Opening with dual comeback victories against Frosinone and Fiorentina, the winning run was halted at Verona, where they twice fought back to secure a draw. The ‘Cuore Granata’ had propelled Toro through the opening rounds of the new campaign.

But sometimes heart is not enough. They couldn’t always be expected to overturn deficits. And so Sunday’s 2-0 Stadio Olimpico success was a welcome result for Giampiero Ventura’s side. Compared to previous outings it was straightforward. Quagliarella broke the deadlock with a towering header after 17 minutes. Seven minutes later he tapped in the second. It’s Torino’s best start since 1993-94. The bull’s wings have not been clipped.

Credit goes to Ventura for shaping the group and Cairo for displaying faith. The fiery patron had a habit of hasty sackings. But he and Ventura have been together since 2011 and that relationship shows no signs of dissipating. He has allowed wily Ventura to go about his work in the face of big-money moves for Immobile and Alessio Cerci – summer 2014 – and this past August, Matteo Darmian.

Astute arrivals meant the Granata could carry on despite the departures. Quagliarella replaced Immobile. The £12.9m fee paid by Manchester United for Darmian was reinvested in fullback Davide Zappacosta and midfielder Daniele Baselli. The latter has flourished and already bagged four goals – Sunday was his first goalless game. Then there’s captain Kamil Glik, an exemplary leader at the back.

After progressing to the Europa League Round of 16 last season, Toro would love another crack at the continent. Given the summer investments of some bigger clubs that could be tough to achieve. However, Torino have finished seventh and ninth in the past two terms so don’t put it past them to challenge. Especially with that famous Cuore Granata.





Tottenham’s Heung-Min Son enjoying a bright start to life in the Premier League

Tottenham Son

Tottenham forward Heung-Min Son scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win against Crystal Palace on the weekend, and his impressive effort has capped a bright start to his debut season. Son, 23, set Spurs back around £22M this summer from German Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen, and has taken little time to wow his new supporters.

The South Korean international has only made three appearances in all competitions for Tottenham, but has scored three goals in just 209 minutes of football. He bagged himself a brace in Spurs’ Europa League victory against FK Karabakh, and followed it up with a solo goal in the Palace triumph.

A pacey winger who is also capable of playing up front, Son is a tricky player to come up against. The 23-year-old has bags of experience from his time in the Bundesliga – making over 160 appearances for former sides Hamburg and Leverkusen – and has vowed to continue improving in the Premier League.

“I haven’t adapted to the Premier League yet. I want to do much better and prepare as well as I can. I understand what the club invested in me. I’m getting a lot of help from my team-mates and coaches, and that’s why I want to do even better. I want to prepare well and do well,” he said.

Operating as one of the three attacking-midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 system, Son is expert at dribbling at pace with the ball at his feet, and has a creative touch too. The forward isn’t afraid to be greedy at times, and his industrious nature makes him a brilliant player to press the opposition high up the pitch.

He still has a long way to go before becoming a fans’ favourite in the Tottenham side, but if he can score more solo goals like he did against Palace Son’s reputation will rise dramatically. Comfortable in possession, and committing defenders with his penchant to run at his opposite marker, the South Korean is just what Spurs have needed.

The likes of Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli and Erik Lamela have been impotent in attack this year, and have struggled to create chances for their teammates. Son is playing with no fear, and he’s happy to do the dirty work defensively too. With striker Harry Kane short for goals this season, Spurs have needed somebody to step up to the plate and take the scoring burden. Son’s three goals in as many games is proving he could be the answer to their problems in attack this season.