Puel’s maiden season with Southampton continues to gather momentum


Euro 2016

Claude Puel’s managerial reign of Southampton did not commence particularly well.

After being appointed as Ronald Koeman’s successor, the 55-year-old Frenchman failed to win any of his first four English Premier League matches, as Southampton collected just two points from those games.

Since then however, they have embarked upon a five match unbeaten run, during which Charlie Austin has scored five goals, to prove that he is an ideal candidate to fulfil the void created by Graziano Pelle’s summer departure to Shandong Luneng.

Excellent start in the Europa League

Equally as impressive as Austin’s recent goal – scoring form, is Southampton’s defensive record, since following their 0-0 Europa League group stage draw with Hapoel Be’er Sheva, they have now kept five successive clean sheets, to coincide with their unbeaten run.

That began with a comprehensive 3-0 Europa League group stage win over Sparta Prague, as Austin became the first Southampton player to score twice in the competition, which was formerly the UEFA Cup, since Steve Moran in 1981, whilst Jay Rodriguez also found the net.

The confidence and belief that Southampton’s players withdrew from defeating Sparta to deliver Puel his victory as the club’s manager has subsequently been evident, given the dynamism, enterprise and freedom with which they have played.

Furthermore another positive characteristic of Southampton’s recent performances has been their unwavering togetherness and collective spirit.  By virtue of exercising such attributes, Puel’s team were able to earn a valuable away point against Hapoel Be’er Sheva to remain top of Europa League Group K.

Although the game was a largely uninspiring contest, Southampton produced a resolute display to frustrate the Israeli champions, who are now unbeaten in 23 games at their new Turner Stadium.

Southampton possess many fine attributes

As an indication of the quality of Southampton’s squad in terms of strength and depth, they earned their creditable point against Hapoel, despite Puel making seven changes to the team which beat West Ham 3-0 to climb to ninth in the English Premier League.

Therefore at present Puel is operating an intelligent squad rotation system, just as he did whilst managing various French Ligue 1 sides, to ensure that his team meet the demands of competing in both domestic and European competition.

The Saints vividly portrayed their ability to do that by brilliantly recovering from their exploits against Sparta Prague, to beat Swansea City 1-0 in their next league game.  In order to do so, they displayed a wealth of determination, drive and perseverance.

Those qualities also illuminated their performance against Hapoel.

Prosperous season awaits Puel’s Saints

By drawing that game to extend their unbeaten run to five matches, Southampton injected further momentum in to their season, which with Puel as manager possesses the potential to be as, if not more, successful than any of those that either of the Frenchman’s two predecessors, Maurico Pochettino and Ronald Koeman oversaw.

Puel will aspire to engineer a continuation of the fine work which he has undertaken in recent weeks by ensuring that his players are suitably prepared, in both a mental and physical sense, for Southampton’s next English Premier League game against Leicester City, following their 6,000 round mile trip to Be’er Sheva.

Ultimately that proved to be extremely worthwhile, as Southampton both, enhanced their prospects of reaching the Europa League knock-out stages for the first time and once again expressed that they are evolving into an excellent team under the guidance of Puel.

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Top seeded quartet aim to improve Europa League prospects

Euro 2016

A fortnight ago, several surprising results materialised from the first round of group stage games in this season’s Europa League.

Specifically four of the competition’s highest profile and top seeded teams were unable to win their opening match.

Whilst Atletico Bilbao, Internazionale and Manchester United all lost to sit bottom of their respective groups, Fiorentina were held to a goalless draw by PAOK Saloniki.

As such the four top seeded teams now face crucial second group stage fixtures, as the outcome of those will partially shape their prospects of reaching the knock-out stages.

Each of the assignments that the quartet have been set to enhance those prospects vary in difficulty.  That is the case since whereas Bilbao, Fiorentina and Manchester United are to play home games Inter will face Sparta Prague in the Czech Republic.

Internazionale travel to Prague

Whereas Inter suffered a 2-0 home defeat in their opening group stage game against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Zdenek Scasny’s team were also comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Southampton.

All but one member, the Zimbabwean defender Costa Nhamoinseu, of Scasny’s squad is Czech, with Tomas Rosicky having returned to the club, where his career began in 1999, after being released by Arsenal.

In contrast to the wealth of home based players available to Scasny, for his team’s Europa League encounter with Sparta Prague, Frank De Boer is able to select from 14 different nationalities, as the Dutchman aims to mastermind a maiden win in European competition as Inter manager.

Whilst I Nerazzuri have recovered well from the disappointment of losing to Hapoal Be’er Sheva by embarking upon a three-game unbeaten run in three Serie A, Sparta lost their most recent league game 2-0 at home to their fierce city rivals Slavia, in a game which bared similar hallmarks to the one that they played against Southampton.

As such although the current form of Inter and Sparta is markedly different, both teams share a need to inject some impetus and momentum into their Europa League campaigns.

Bilbao wounded due to Sassuolo defeat

So too do Atletico Bilbao, as Ernesto Valverde’s side lost their opening game of the competition 3-0 to Sassuolo, for whom Pol Lirola scored a wonderful solo goal at the Stadio Cittadel Tricolore.

Since that humbling defeat however, Bilbao have won three successive La Liga games, to climb to fifth position in the top flight of Spanish football, just two point behind leaders Real Madrid.

Subsequently Bilbao have responded positively to being dismantled by Sassuolo and will now aim to replicate one of their fine recent domestic performances against Rapid Vienna, so as enhance their prospects of building a prosperous Europa League campaign, similar to the one they staged last season, when they reached the quarter finals.

Influential in powering that progression was Aritz Aduriz, as the 35-year-old striker scored 10 goals in 13 Europa League appearances, along with Raul Garcia and Aymeric Laporte, whilst the trio remain key players for Bilbao, who on route to the 2011-2012 Europa League final, which they lost 3-0 to Atletico Madrid, beat Manchester United.

Improvement sought of United by Mourinho

The three-times European champions lost their first Europa League game since that tie against Bilbao 1-0 to Feyenoord, as Jose Mourinho’s side began this season’s competition with a lacklustre display in Rotterdam.

A dynamic and vibrant Feyenoord team, who have opened the Eredivise season with seven successive victories under the guidance of Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, displayed far greater desire and drive than United.

They were similarly outfought and outmanoeuvred in their next English Premier League game, which they lost 3-1 to Watford.

However after galvanising United’s players to produce a vastly improved performance to beat Leicester 4-1, as Paul Pogba scored his first goal for the club, Mourinho will aspire to motivate his players to build upon that result, by delivering a similarly accomplished display at home to Zorya Luhansk.

In five matches against the Ukrainian club for two of his former teams Metalurh Donetsk and Shakhtar Donetsk, United’s 27-year-old Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan scored four goals.  However Armenia’s international captain and all-time record goal scorer with 19, is yet to establish himself as a regular in Mourinho’s side, with the Portuguese preferring to start Juan Mata in Mkhirtaryan’s favoured playmaking role.

Fiorentina to take Azerbaijani test

Just as United lacked the craft and guile to unlock Feyenoord’s defence in their opening Europa League game, Fiorentina’s best efforts to score against PAOK Salonika were in vain.  Nevertheless Paulo Sousa’s side remained solid defensively to earn a 0-0 draw, in a relatively ill-tempered affair, which was littered with eight yellow cards.

So far this season in six competitive matches, Fiorentina have scored just five goals, although their defence, marshalled by captain Gonzalo Rodriguez and Romanian goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, has performed excellently well to help their team keep four clean sheets.

Subsequently they will aspire to ensure a continuation of that against Qarabag of Azerbaijan at their Stadio Artemio Franchi stadium, where Fiorentina have neither been beaten nor conceded a goal this season.

Despite that, only twice this season has Sousa’s side scored at home, with them failing to do so as they drew their last game 0-0 with AC Milan, after Josip Illicic missed a penalty for the first time in his Serie A career.

Whilst remaining key players for Fiorentina, the 28-year-old midfielder and winger Fernando Bernardeschi also played important roles for the club’s as they reached the 2014-2015 Europa League semi-finals before being beaten by Sevilla.

One of Fiorentina’s group stage opponents in that edition of the competition was once again PAOK Salonika.  Whilst victorious 1-0 in Greece, then managed by Vicenzo Montella, Fiorentina drew 1-1 with PAOK at home.

Prior to facing the Greeks again on 24 November, Fiorentina will play twice against Slovan Liberec after hosting Qarabag, against whom the Serie A side’s Croatian striker Nikola Kalanic scored twice to inspire his former club Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to a 2-1 win over the Azerbaijani champions during the group stages of the 2014-2015 Europa League.

Top seeded quartet up to the Europa League Challenge

The current edition of the competition is one within which Fiorentina possess the potential to progress far.

Ultimately so too do Atletico Bilbao, Internazionale and Manchester United.

Nevertheless in order to enhance their respective prospects of achieving that, it will be necessary for the quartet to overcome relatively strong, albeit markedly different opposition, in their second group stage games.

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Pescara out to earn ‘first’ Serie A win


“I try to get my players to play football,” Genoa President Enrico Preziosi snapped, “maybe [Pescara President Daniele] Sebastiani wants his to play volleyball.”

It’s fair to say it has been an eventful return to Serie A for Pescara. Their contest last weekend against Genoa was just the latest in a string of eye-catching matches and incidents involving the Delfini.

Ray Manaj’s late goal at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris earned Pescara a 1-1 draw. It came only after Francesco Zampano had cleared off the line with the use of his arm. It was not spotted by the officials. He avoided a red card and a penalty, although Genoa would later take the lead. By the time Pescara equalised, the home side had been reduced to nine men.

“How can you not see that handball on the line?” Preziosi raged afterwards. “If they want Pescara to stay in Serie A, just say so.”

Zampano, who supplied the cross for Manaj’s strike, was later banned on video evidence for two matches for unsporting behaviour. He maintains the handball was involuntary. Preziosi’s comments, meanwhile, earned the Grifoni a fine.

Days earlier, the Abruzzese club welcomed Torino to the Stadio Adriatico. That time it ended scoreless, but once again they ended the match playing against nine men, as Torino held on for a point.

In fact, Pescara are still seeking for their first win on the pitch this season. Their only triumph came thanks to League officials. Having lost to Sassuolo 2-1 in Round 2, it was discovered the Neroverdi fielded an ineligible player and so the result was reversed.

Yet aside from a 3-0 loss to Lazio the newly promoted club have been competitive. They took a two-goal lead against Napoli in the opening round and were largely the better side, before a second half Neapolitan recovery led to a 2-2 result. They also took the lead against Inter, only to fall to a last minute Mauro Icardi strike.

Massimo Oddo’s unfancied side have showed no fear upon moving up a division. His mantra is one of enterprising football. It’s a young squad, which aside from veterans Hugo Campagnaro, Alberto Aquilani and Simone Pepe, is lacking widespread top-flight experience. The latter duo was signed to add Serie A nous. But its real stars, the likes of Gianluca Caprari and Ledian Memushaj, were part of the squad which earned promotion.

Pescara host Chievo this weekend. On paper they will see it as a good opportunity to record that maiden on-field triumph, but they must be wary. The Veronese side are fourth after six matches and remain as stubborn as ever. It will be a good test for Oddo and his team, who will look to put recent events behind them.

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Ten of European footballs most in – form strikers


Euro 2016

There is a quartet of strikers in European football who invariably outshine all others.

Nevertheless aside from Barcelona’s attacking triumvirate of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, along with Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, there are currently many other in-form European based strikers, who play for clubs competing in the UEFA Champions League.

As well as showcasing their skills in European football’s elite club competition, the following list, which is far from exhaustive, profiles ten strikers performing extremely among the continent’s top leagues.

Sergio Aguero

Prolific is the only way to describe the 28-year-old Manchester City striker’s goal – scoring form this season, as in just six appearances, Aguero has scored 11 goals.

The first three of those arrived against Steaua Bucharest, as despite also missing two penalties, he inspired his team to a 5-0 victory over the Romanian side in the first leg of their Champions League Play-Off tie.

Subsequently Aguero scored a second Champions League hat – trick as Manchester City opened their group stage campaign with a 4-0 home win over Borrussia Monchengladbach.

Aguero has been able to replicate his razor sharp finishing on the continent in the English Premier League.  He most recently did so against Swansea City as he returned from serving a three-game domestic suspension, after being found guilty of violent misconduct for elbowing West Ham’s Winston Reid, to score twice against the Welsh side and continue his rich vein of form.

Islam Slimani

The 28-year-old Algerian internationalist striker has seamlessly settled into Leicester City’s side, since joining the current English Premier League Champions for £29m from Sporting Lisbon at the end of August.

In addition to scoring two headers to help Claudio Ranieri’s side to a 3-0 league victory over Burnley, Slimani further displayed his aerial prowess against Porto in the Champions League.

Specifically he guided a fine diving header beyond Iker Casillas to give Leicester a 1-0 win.

That goal was Slimani’s sixth in matches with Porto during 2016, since he scored five times in three appearances for his former club Sporting Lisbon against Dragoes, and earned him the title of becoming the first Algerian to score for more than one club in the Champions League.

Son Heung Min

In his last five appearances for Tottenham, the 24-year-old South Korean has scored five goals, including his first in the Champions League against CSKA Moscow.

That proved to be the winning goal, as Son collected a fine Erik Lamela pass to finish composedly, very similar to the way in which he did when scoring double in the English Premier League against Stoke and Middlesbrough.

In doing so the former Bayer Leverkusen striker has established himself top scorer for Spurs, with him enjoying an extended run in Mauricio’s Pochettino’s side.

Alexis Sanchez

A key member of Arsene Wenger’s ever improving Arsenal team, Sanchez is currently amidst a wonderful run of form, whereby he is vividly portraying his great awareness, electrifying pace and wealth of technical skill.

That was most recently in evidence during Arsenal’s 3-0 English Premier League victory over Chelsea, the diminutive Chilean was a vocal point of many of the Gunners best attacking moves.

In addition to his four league goals this season, three of which have arrived away from the Emirates Stadium Sanchez’s late equaliser against Paris Saint Germain earned his team a valuable point from their opening Champions League group stage game.

Arkadiusz Milik

The monumental challenge of replacing Gonzalo Higuain as Napoli’s leading striker is one that the 22-year-old Polish internationalist is currently embracing wonderfully well.

At present Milik is averaging a goal a game for Partenopei, having scored six times in six appearances for the Serie A club, whom he joined from Ajax.

In addition to scoring braces against AC Milan and Bologna, Milik also achieved that feat in the Champions League to inspire Napoli to an excellent 2-1 away victory over Dynamo Kiev

Edinson Cavani

Since the summer departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani has assumed the role of Paris Saint Germain’s leading striker, with the Uruguayan having scored five goals in three Ligue 1 appearances.

Furthermore the former Napoli player also put his team ahead in their opening Champions League group stage game against Arsenal, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

A week prior to that game, Cavani scored twice for Uruguay to help his country to a 4-0 win over Paraguay, as Los Charruas moved to the top of the 2018 World Cup Qualification’s South American section.

Javier Hernandez

Despite missing Bayer Leverkusen’s opening league match of the season due a broken hand, Chicarito has subsequently recovered from that injury to play an important role for Roger Schmidt’s team.

Hernandez has been particularly influential for Leverkusen in their last two matches.

Specifically whilst the former Manchester United and Real Madrid striker’s hat-trick powered Leverkusen to a 3-2 Bundesliga victory over Mainz 05, he earned his team a creditable 1-1 draw away to Monaco in the Champions League by scoring a late equalising goal.

Gonzalo Higuain

Since becoming the third most expensive player in the history of world football, after joining Juventus from Napoli for €90m, Higuain has made an extremely positive impression for the Turin giants.

On his debut for La Vecchia Signoro, Higuain scored the winning goal as the current Serie A champions beat Fiorentina 2-1.

Since then the former Real Madrid striker has found the net four times in seven appearances, as his partnership with fellow Argentinean Paulo Dybala continues to evolve.

Pierre Emerick Aubameyang

Borussia Dortmund’s top scorer for the past two seasons, Aubameyang has commenced the current campaign tremendously well, whereby the former St-Etienne player has scored seven goals in just six appearances.

In addition to scoring in both of his club’s Champions League group stage games, against Legia Warsaw and Real Madrid, Aubameyang, who despite beginning his career at AC Milan did not play a competitive game for I Rossoneri , has also exercised great predatory instinct to help Dortmund win four of their first five Bundesliga games.

The Gabonese international striker is currently enhancing his reputation as one of the finest all round strikers in European football, with his two Champions League goals this term, adding to the three he scored during Dortmund’s run to the last 16 of the 2014-2015 edition of the competition.

One striker to outscore Aubameyang in the aforementioned run was Ciro Immobile, with the 26-year-old’s four group stage goals, vital in helping Dortmund progress to a the knock-out stage.  However Immobile has since left the club and is currently Lazio’s top scorer in Serie A with two goals, albeit four behind the division’s leading marksman Mauro Icardi.

Antoine Greizmann

The Euro 2016 player of the tournament and golden boot winner is currently the joint top scorer in La Liga, alongside Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, with five goals.

The most recent of those was against Deportivo La Coruna, as a typically cool Greizmann finish gave Diego Simeone’s side a 1-0 victory and propelled them to third place in Spain’s top flight.

Given his excellent current form, Greizmann’s prospects of surpassing his best La Liga goals haul for a season of 22, appear extremely healthy.

Ultimately whilst each of the ten strikers profiled possess many different qualities, they share an innate ability to score goals and spearhead the attacks of their respective teams extremely well.

Pjanic stars as Juventus record big win


Juventus went to Zagreb for their second Champions League clash of the campaign against Dinamo knowing a win was vital. A scoreless home draw with Sevilla was not exactly how they planned to open Group H and with some suspect Serie A performances in between, the pressure was on the Bianconeri to deliver.

When they needed somebody to step up, Miralem Pjanic did just that. He played just 45 minutes, but made a match-winning impact. Taken off at the interval following a first half knock, the Bosnian had already left his mark on the contest. He opened the scoring and then provided an assist for Gonzalo Higuain’s strike. That sent Juve on the road to a comfortable 4-0 victory.

It was one of Pjanic’s best showings in a Black and White shirt. It also served to prove that going forward his best role is not that of a deep-lying midfielder, but alongside that player. He was tasked with sitting deepest in midfield against Inter and was hardly in the game. In truth, it was a poor performance all-round from Juventus. But it was not what they were expecting from the summer addition from Roma, who had minimal impact.

The goal against Dinamo was Pjanic’s second, having also netted against Sassuolo. In both games he was given licence to move further forward and the team reaped the rewards. Pjanic was inside the penalty area to pounce on a defensive error on Tuesday and slot home the opening goal. He then turned provider for Higuain, a sumptuous ball over the top which the Argentine controlled and finished.

Speaking after about his best position, Pjanic said: “People have been asking me that for five years. I put myself at the disposal of the Coach, as I already played in front of the defence at Roma and did well, it all depends on how the team plays and the movements. I also like being closer to the goal so I can set up the strikers.”

Paulo Dybala got off the mark for 2016-17 with a thunderbolt in the second half, before a deflected Dani Alves free kick rounded out the scoring in the final moments. It was Juve’s biggest away win in the competition for two decades and a marker laid down after some shaky performances. They top Group H on goal difference over Sevilla.

Juventus will be hoping to recover the Bosnian for their trip to Empoli this weekend, the last match before the international break. After his starring performance in Zagreb, we are starting to see the real Pjanic in Turin.

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Milan’s steady improvement in Serie A

Euro 2016

Three games without either being beaten or conceding a goal in Serie A, represents the assured and serene progress which AC Milan are currently making under the guidance of Vicenzo Montella.

Over recent weeks the 42-year-old manager has instilled both belief and confidence in his players, who have vividly exhibited that by producing a trio of collectively solid performances.

Each of those has yielded a positive result for I Rossoneri, as they have been rewarded for their current three-game unbeaten run by moving from 15th to 6th in the Serie A table.

Montella inspires upturn in Milan’s fortunes

Subsequently Milan’s response to losing successive matches to Napoli and Udinese, after a thrilling 3-2 opening day victory against Torino, has been extremely impressive and indicative that they are amidst a steady spell of improvement.

As the chief engineer of that improvement Montella is creating a defensively solid and resolute team that is not only industrious but also enterprising, with that proven to be the case by the positive manner in which Milan began their current unbeaten run with a 1-0 victory over Sampdoria.

Bacca-Niang partnership blossoms

Ironically that was the Rossoneri’s first away success in Serie A since beating the Genoese – based club, whom Montella left to join Milan, by the same score line in April, with the winning goal on both occasions being scored by Carlos Bacca.

At present, along with Napoli’s Jose Callejon, Andrea Belotti of Torino, the 30-year-old striker is the second joint top scorer in Serie A this season with five goals, just one behind Mauro Icardi.

Subsequently Bacca’s importance to Milan is incalculable, since he has scored five of his team’s eight Serie A goals, as the Columbian internationalist’s strike partnership with M’Baye Niang undergoes sustained development.

Whilst the pair was well contained by the defence of Fiorentina – who Montella managed for three years prior to his spell with Sampdoria – during the Rossoneri’s recent goalless draw against Paulo Sousa’s, both Bacca and Niang scored in Milan’s previous Serie A match, which ended in a 2-0 victory over Lazio at the San Siro.  The margin of that win had the potential to be far greater, since Niang was guilty of missing several excellent chances, although the 21-year-old kept his composure to score with a penalty kick to seal victory for Milan.

Throughout the game their Slovakian midfielder Juraj Kucka played with control, guile and poise, as he provided an assist for the goal scored by Bacca, whilst also providing excellent service to both the former Sevilla striker and Niang.

Youthful class and exuberance permeates Milan side

Ultimately Niang possess great potential to improve, whilst so too do a number of other young Italian players who have featured in Milan’s first team this season including goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma along with the defensive trio of Davide Calabria, Alessio Romagnoli, Matteo De Sciglio.

The youthful quartet and Gabriel Paletta have formed Milan’s defensive base, the average age of which has been 22, in the Rossoneri’s last two Serie A games, to help their team keep successive clean sheets.

Despite being fortunate not to concede against Fiorentina, since Josip Ilicic missed a penalty for the first team in his Serie A career, Milan nevertheless fought valiantly to earn an eventually deserved point.

Milan’s bright new outlook with Montella at the helm

In doing so I Rossoneri ensured a continuation of their steady progress which Montella has engineered since being subjected to witnessing his side produce a tepid performance to lose 1-0 to Udinese at the San Siro three Serie A games ago.

Since then both Milan’s results and performances have been consistently positive, with them creating a solid platform upon which they can potentially challenge to secure a top three finish in Serie A and therefore earn qualification to the Champions League for the first time since season 2013-2014.

Ultimately achieving that constitutes a difficult challenge for Milan but by no means an insurmountable one, particularly given the fine progress they’re making under Montella’s intelligent guidance.

Three points a must for Juventus


Juventus have no option but to win. That’s the opinion of Massimiliano Allegri, who leads his side into battle against Croatian outfit Dinamo Zagreb tonight. Having started the Champions League campaign with a home draw against Sevilla, pressure is rising on Juve: do they have what it takes to compete with Europe’s very best?

“We have to deal with tomorrow in the right way, and above all take home three points with our performance.” That is all, Allegri stresses, Juventus can do at this stage.

The Bianconeri came in for criticism for their goalless performance against Sevilla. They then proceeded to lose at Inter, which further added to the pressure. A convincing midweek win over Cagliari was followed on Saturday by a laborious triumph at Palermo.

Juventus saw big names depart in the summer – Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata – but spent a lot of money on reinforcing the squad. The introduction of Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic, plus additional signings aimed at bolstering squad talent and depth, placed the Bianconeri just behind Europe’s main three clubs in the Champions League reckoning.

Recent performances suggest a squad that is still under construction. “The team definitely didn’t have a good game [against Palermo], but I know that, we all know that, the guys first and foremost,” Allegri said on Monday.

What the coach did also state is that there are unnecessary expectations forming – while also reminding that his team does top Serie A despite the critics. Giorgio Chiellini said after the Sevilla game that Juventus are not Real Madrid and will not win every game with ease. Allegri went further in his pre-match Press conference. “We shouldn’t be distracted by this notion that we have to win every game 3-0, because anyone who thinks that is deluding themselves.”

Juve face a Dinamo outfit which last season defeated Arsenal at the Stadion Maksimir. It was their first victory in the group stage of the Champions League since 1999-2000. The Italian champions clearly come in as the favourites, even if they are dealing with injuries. Paulo Dybala will return to partner Higuain in attack, having been rested on Saturday. Marko Pjaca joined from Dinamo in the summer but is expected to begin on the bench.

The Turin giants have finished second in the group stage for the past two seasons and so know the result is vital. Facing the group’s fourth seeds, they have a chance to kick-start their European campaign.

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Lío sin Leo

Lionel Messi

Leo Messi se ha roto. La culpa la tiene el aductor derecho, que le mantendrá alejado de los terrenos de juego 3 o 4 semanas. Ya tuvo un aviso a principios de mes, pero Leo decidió seguir jugando y ahora necesita un reposo absoluto para recuperarse. En el Camp Nou han saltado las primeras alarmas y en Argentina critican tanto al club como al futbolista por no haber sabido evitar esta situación.

Con el Barça se perderá seguro 2 partidos de Liga (Sporting y Celta) y 1 de Champions (Mönchengladbach), mientras que con la Selección Argentina el clasificatorio para el Mundial de Rusia (Perú). Dependerá mucho de la evolución pero por ahora es duda para jugar frente al Leganés, aunque quizá se pruebe, porque el objetivo es el partido de Champions frente al Manchester City.

La pregunta es, ¿qué va a hacer el Barça sin Messi? Lucho ya prescindió de Leo el año pasado a estas alturas de temporada, y no le fueron mal las cosas. Lo que ocurre es que se han marchado los repuestos que había la campaña anterior. En cualquier caso, hay muchos cartuchos para acompañar en el ataque a Suárez y Ney, que son siempre una garantía de gol. Lo más probable es que Alcacer tenga sus minutos; es su gran oportunidad. No hay dudas de su nivel, pero debe demostrarlo sobre el césped.

O Lucho también puede cambiar el tridente para meter a Arda Turan un poco más retrasado, o bien dar las riendas a Rafinha, que juega poco pero lo que juega lo hace fenomenal. Opciones hay y está claro que todos tendrán sus minutos, Lucho sabe bien que la clave es rotar para que todos lleguen frescos a final de temporada; la prueba es que el Barça, hasta ahora, ha alineado a todos sus jugadores incluidos 3 porteros (salvo a Masip). La duda es saber quién será la pieza que resulte clave para ganar los partidos y, sobre todo, cuánto se echará de menos a Messi.

Greizmann and Payet make markedly different starts to the season

Euro 2016

Two players who played starring roles in France’s Euro 2016 campaign are currently experiencing markedly contrasting fortunes at club level.

Greizmann flourishes whilst Payet toils

Influential in their country’s progression to the final of Euro 2016, which the French lost 1-0 to Portugal, Antoine Greizmann and Dimitri Payet performed superbly well throughout the tournament.

Furthermore the pair’s fine summer exploits on the international stage followed them enjoying great club seasons.  Whilst Greizmann excelled at Atletico Madrid, a similar assessment can be attributed to Payet’s contribution for West Ham during the 2015-2016 campaign.

However at present whereas Greizmann continues to flourish in La Liga, Payet is enduring a difficult start to the English Premier League season, as the 29-year-old winger toils in a team on a dismal run of form.

Payet plagued by West Ham’s woes

Specifically Southampton consigned West Ham to a fourth successive league defeat by beating Slaven Bilic’s side 3-0 at the Olympic Stadium.  Furthermore that result marks the first time in West Ham’s history that they have lost five of their opening six games in a top-flight season.

Consquently they currently languish in 18th position, as Payet struggles to rediscover his wonderful form of last season, following his Euro 2016 exertions for France.  The toll which those exertions potentially took on Payet was sensitively recognised by Bilic.

As well as resting Payet for the Europa League qualifiers, the 48-year-old Croatian did not start the former Olympique Marseille player in any of his team’s first three league games of the season.

After appearing as a second half substitute as West Ham opened their league campaign with a 2-1 away defeat to Chelsea, Payet was then omitted from the Hammers squad’s which Bilic named to face Bournemouth and Manchester City.

Subsequently a refreshed Payet provided assists for both of West Ham’s goals, as he made his first start of the season in their 4-2 home loss to Watford. For the first half-an-hour of that game, Payet was magnificent, with the highlight of his performance arriving when he delivered a wonderful rabona cross that Michail Antonio headed home to give West Ham a 2-0 lead.  Thereafter however Payet was powerless to prevent West Ham surrendering their advantage as he became a peripheral figure in the game.

Whilst that was a source of great frustration for the Frenchman so too has been the limited influence he has had on West Ham’s two most recent performances as they have lost 4-2 and 3-0 to West Bromwich Albion and Southampton respectively.  It is neither a lack of desire nor effort that governs Payet’s current struggles since he continues to abundantly display those attributes.  Conversely although this season he showed glimpses of his class against Watford and scored a wonderful injury time free-kick to help West Ham to a 1-0 League Cup victory over Accrington Stanley, Payet is simply out-of-form among a team low on confidence.

That is not a problem with which Payet’s French teammate Antoine Greizemann currently requires to contend.

Atletico remain grateful for Greizmann

The former Real Sociedad forward, who won the Euro 2016 player of the tournament and golden boot awards, has scored five goals in five La Liga appearances this season, to help Atletico Madrid remain unbeaten in, and amass twelve points from, their opening six league games.  After not playing in the first of those, a 1-1 draw against Alaves, Greizmann has been an ever present in Diego Simeone’s side.

They climbed to third place in La Liga, following a 1-0 home victory over Deportivo La Coruna, as Greizmann scored the decisive goal with a calm side – footed finish from Kevin Gameiro’s precise cross.

For both of Atletico’s past two La Liga campaigns, since joining the club from Sociedad for €30m in July 2014, Greizmann has scored 22 goals, with great potential existing for him to surpass that total this season.  That is particularly the case given his current rich vein of form, which represents a healthy extension of that which he produced both for Atletico last season and France at Euro 2016.

In addition to being the joint top scorer in La Liga alongside Barcelona’s Luis Suarez, Greizmann is also one of the division’s most outstanding general performers, as the 25 year-old has brilliantly recuperated from inspiring France to reach the final of Euro 2016.

Subsequently Greizmann has responded superbly well to the disappointment of losing that game, by helping Atletico construct a strong platform upon which the can build a successful season.

French Euro 2016′s duo’s current plights in stark contrast

At present Los Rojiblancos prospects of achieving that appear healthy, as they will aspire to extend their unbeaten run in their next La Liga game at the Mestalla against Valencia, from whom Sofiane Feghouli joined Greizmann’s French team mate Payet at West Ham.

The East London club will host Middlesbrough in their English Premier League fixture, with their aim being to end a run of five humbling successive league defeats.

Therefore although Greizmann and Payet were both stars of France’s impressive but eventually unsuccessful Euro 2016 campaign, their current fortunes at club level are in stark contrast.

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