Ajax miss their chance to go top of the Eredivisie

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Ajax will have gone into their winter break focused on the time they’d get a chance to overtake PSV Eindhoven. Sitting two points behind the league leaders with a superior goal difference, they were in the perfect position to take advantage of any mishaps by Mark van Bommel’s men.

They won’t have expected that opportunity to come as early as the first weekend back. However, the door was opened for them as an injury time equaliser from FC Emmen’s Nicklas Pedersen made the score 2-2 against the champions. Ajax went into their match against Heerenveen at the Johan Cruijff Arena knowing that a win would take them top of the Eredivisie.

They didn’t seem phased by the challenge in the early stages, as they took the lead just 13 minutes into the match. Schone played a short corner before getting the ball back and crossing it into the box. Dusan Tadic found himself completely unmarked just outside the six yard box and side footed the ball first time, sending it beyond goalkeeper Warner Hahn.

This was just the beginning of a whirlwind four minutes, as Heerenveen equalised within a minute. Sam Lammers –who himself is on loan from PSV- received the ball and turned. He managed to force his way past Daley Blind and hit it into the bottom corner to equalise.

Ajax were ahead again just two minutes later. Blind played a cross field pass to Tadic, who played a one-two with Hakim Ziyech. Upon receiving the return pass he got into the box and dinked the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, restoring his side’s lead.

The score was made 3-1 before the half an hour mark due to calamitous defending from Heerenveen. Schone delivered the ball into the box from a free kick. It wasn’t particularly threatening until Stijn Schaars smashed his clearance up into the air, rather than up the pitch. Hahn came out of his goal in an attempt to retrieve the ball, but he completely misjudged it and took himself out of the game. As the ball dropped it landed on the head of Matthijs de Ligt and went into the goal via a deflection off Pelle van Amersfoort.

The home side were offered a chance to all-but secure the win in the last moments of the first half. They were awarded a penalty when Lucas Woudenberg was caught holding onto Donny van de Beek’s shirt. Tadic, who’d put in a faultless performance up until this point, stepped up to take the penalty, with a hat trick on offer. He hit the ball towards the centre of the goal, close enough to the goalkeeper for him to claw it away with his feet after diving. The half time whistle followed shortly, with Ajax in the driving seat but disappointed to not have put the game to bed.

That feeling of disappointment turned into worry just six minutes into the second period. Lammers was allowed to run forward with the ball and worked his way to the edge of the box. Once there he let off a strike which made its way into the bottom corner.

The scores were made level five minutes later. Ajax were caught over committing bodies, with both centre backs up the opposite end of the pitch. Heerenveen hit them with a counter attack and Mitchell van Bergen was able isolate Daley Sinkgraven. He twisted and turned away from the makeshift left back before firing home to make it 3-3.

Ajax came close to making a quick reply, with Kasper Dolberg having a header saved well and Ziyech hitting the post with a free kick. Heerenveen were almost given an opportunity of their own as a penalty decision was taken to VAR after Konstantinos Lamprou had collided with Lammers while attempting to punch the ball away, but the penalty wasn’t given.

It was Ajax who scored next, regaining their lead in the 83rd minute. Tadic had the ball on the left hand side and managed to work enough space to get a cross into the box. He hit it towards the back post where Klaas Jan Huntelaar –who’d only been on the pitch for four minutes- pulled away from Kik Pieri. Once the ball reached the substitute he stopped it dead with his first touch before firing it in off the post with his second. As it stood Ajax were 4-3 up and destined for top spot.

It seemed as though that story would remain, though that changed in the first minute of added time. A corner was sent into the box and Pieri made up for letting Huntelaar evade him by losing his man and flicking the ball past the goalkeeper.

Ajax almost got themselves back into the lead in the 94th minute, but luck wasn’t on their side as Schone’s shot bounced off the goalkeeper, onto a defender and back into his arms. As the final whistle blew, setting the 4-4 scoreline in stone, Ajax’s warn out men dropped to the floor in disappointment with the knowledge they’d missed their chance to go top.

They’ll have a chance to get revenge over Heerenveen, as they face them again on Thursday, this time in the KNVB Beker quarter final.

The curious case of Manchester United’s Eric Bailly

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When Manchester United completed the signing of centre-back, Eric Bailly, in the summer of 2016, it had seemed like the club’s diabolical presence of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in the backline had come to an end. Having left Villarreal and La Liga at such a young age, the Ivory Coast international moved to England as an unknown player who cost the biggest club in England a fee of £30million.

The player himself moved to a new country and a new league with very little expectations, given that he wasn’t seen as one of the best rising and upcoming centre-backs within Europe. However, the instant mentions about his athleticism, composure on the ball and his mentality of intercepting and tackling every ball, made it feel like a defender was coming in to fix the side’s ongoing issues.

Looking back at Bailly’s first season in the Premier League, it can be easily stated that he exceeded all opinions and predictions of how he would do, as he formed a really consistent and dominant partnership with the likes of Jones and Marcos Rojo throughout the campaign. In that very moment, the centre-back seemed like the perfect individual for the manager to form his defence around.

Although the main focus was on Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who arrived in the same window as Bailly did, it was the latter that instantly became a fans favourite and was seen as one of the signings of the season. Not only that, he came out on top when facing the likes of Harry Kane, Jamie Vardy and Sergio Aguero in his first campaign within English football.

Though, the unfortunate issues began in the following season with an unknown injury in October 2017, which kept him out on the sidelines until the first week of December as he missed five games altogether. At first, it was regarded as a minor setback that would keep him away from the side for four to six weeks, but he returned to training and a week later, he suffered a major ankle problem that would see him face his longest spell so far in his professional career as an injured player.

Within the period from October 2017 till February 2018, Bailly missed 26 important games and it could very well be the reason to why he has fallen down the pecking order over the last couple of months. Also, the defence has been mentioned as a department that is filled with flaws and weaknesses, so it’s not actually a surprise to see the backline being changed week in and out.

Also, the 26 games he missed should be seen as three quarters of a season that the 24-year-old spent on the sidelines, which has simply stagnated his development and has prevented himself from proving that he is one of the best centre-backs within England and Europe. If the long-term injury had not occurred, he would have potentially had another 15 to 20 league games of experience under his belt and he would now be playing alongside Victor Lindelof at the heart of defence on a regular basis.

On the other hand, Eric Bailly still has a lot to learn given that he has a tendency to lose focus in the matter of seconds and can frustratingly be seen as a red card waiting to happen. If the former manager, Jose Mourinho, who has a history when it comes to improving young and upcoming defenders, cannot help take the centre-back to the next level, the question has to be seriously asked on what needs to be done, in order to make the individual become consistent and defensively dominant again.

Overall, the majority of Manchester United supporters and the Old Trafford faithful know how brutal and talented Eric Bailly is, someone who is not afraid of putting his head where most would not even confidently put their feet into the challenge. And in the end, all he may need is more game time alongside Lindelof under a manager that has an actual footballing system, or a defensive coach that can kind-heartedly assist him on and off the pitch to become a more complete and perfect centre-back.

Manchester United 2-1 Brighton & Hove Albion: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winning streak continues

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As the Manchester United supporters and the Old Trafford faithful enjoy the rollercoaster of a ride they are currently experiencing under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the side’s next league game was against Brighton & Hove Albion at home, a team that have picked up more points at home than away so far this season. With Arsenal and Chelsea facing one another in the evening fixture, it was more than crucial that the Red Devils picked up the much need three points and also in a comfortable manner.

Overall, United had a perfect first half performance, where they managed to take a healthy lead into the half-time break with the important goals coming from Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba. Though, the last 30 minutes of the game should be seen as a reality check for the manager and the players, as the visitors pulled back a goal through Pascal Gross and a couple of chances to get the equaliser too.

Here are the three factors we learnt from Manchester United’s latest league game…

Marcus Rashford comes up with the goods again

Since the arrival of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has been one of the few players within the squad that has benefitted from the 45-year-old Norwegian international’s presence as the club’s caretaker manager. The instant progress has been more than obvious over the last couple of weeks, where the forward has managed to become more clinical and proactive in the final third of the pitch.

Rashford is currently on five goals and one assist in his last six league appearances, and he has more or less been the main reason to why Romelu Lukaku has been experiencing a lot of time on the bench. If the rising star from Wythenshawe continues to develop and improve to a consistent level, he could potentially become the 20-goal-a-season striker that the current United side badly needs.

Ander Herrera came up with a Man of the Match performance

Ander Herrera is one of those types of midfielders that gets the job done without any complaints or any excuses at all. From intercepting play and tackling the opposition to moving the ball at a quick level, he produced another top notch performance on both sides of the pitch. With how he is playing at the moment, there is no chance that he will be leaving the club in the summer on a free transfer.

Focusing back onto the last 30 minutes of the game, Herrera’s role quickly became into a defensive and safe minded one, which allowed the team to survive some tough moments in their own half until the final whistle. Time and time again, the dominant displays that the former Athletic Club player produces must make one truly think he has been playing in England for his whole life.

The second half was a huge lesson for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer personally

Although the hosts dominated possession and created a couple of chances in the second half, they did not do enough in taking their shots and it led the visitors to grown in more confidence as they began to have more space and time on the ball. In the 72nd minute, Brighton created a chance out of nothing, which was calmly taken Pascal Gross, who placed it perfectly into the top corner of the net.

On top of that, the Seagulls had a chance or two in the final moments to seize a crucial point away from home, but the end product was not there when it was needed the most. With how relieved the Manchester United players and the manager himself were once the game to an end, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be looking to improve his in-game management as well as his ability to quickly react to the ever so growing and rising threat that is offered by the opposition in the late stages of the game.

Time for Barcelona’s kids in the Copa del Rey

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The draw for the Copa del Rey quarter finals has thrown up an interesting conundrum for Barcelona.

The Catalans have been paired with Sevilla for the two-legged tie, the Andalusians being one of, if not the toughest opponent they could’ve faced.

It will see a quick return to the Camp Nou for Munir El Haddadi, recently signed by Pablo Machin, and how he would love to put a spoke in the aspirations of his former side. Continue reading

Is Sergi Roberto in danger of losing his place at Barcelona?

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It took Sergi Roberto an age to break through at Barcelona, but thanks to his persistence and utter belief in what he had to offer, eventually all of his hard work paid off.

For a few years now, Roberto has been a member of the first-team squad, and because of his versatility, he’s rarely left out of the starting XI when Ernesto Valverde is putting his team together.

Steeped in Blaugrana, and the last La Masia graduate to truly make an impact in the senior side, Sergi has become something of a standard bearer for all subsequent academy players at the club. Continue reading

Can Cesc Fabregas save Monaco from Ligue 2 football?

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Cesc Fabregas left Chelsea and the Premier League after many successful seasons to join Monaco, and the Ligue 1 club really need his services- but can the ex Barcelona and Arsenal star save Monaco from relegation?

Monaco have been languishing near the bottom of the league for most of the season and started 2019 in 19th place. Just before Fabregas joined Monaco enjoyed a very narrow 1-0 win in the Coupe de France against non league Canet Rousillon FC which just underlined how far the 2017 Ligue 1 champions have fallen. But with Fabregas in the ranks and Franck Passi now as Thierry Henry’s assistant the future might be bright for the side.

This as evident when Monaco travelled to the Stade Velodrome at the weekend to play Marseille- a game that everybody was expecting Marseille to win. The match finished 1-1 and Monaco came back from a goal down. It was a fantastic team effort and one wonders if the club buoyed on by the signing of Fabregas can now turn a corner?

Fabregas had a great game as he was drafted straight into the squad and manager Henry had this to say about the Spaniard. “Cesc Fabregas got better as the minutes ticked by. He managed to take the match in his grasp and read between the lines. We could have finished certain moves off better, but we’re on the right track.”

What was evident was how Fabregas teamed up so well with the Belgian midfielder Youri Tielemans who ended up getting the equaliser for the team. But of course there has to be some degree of caution and Monaco clearly are not out of the woods yet.

Even though they got a great result at Marseille the club are still in 19th position and are 4 points from safety. The good news is that they have reached only the halfway stage of the campaign and they have plenty of time to escape from the bottom three. You’d have to think now with the capture of Fabregas and Passi in the wings that as long as the player stays fit and there is calm at the club that Monaco should have enough to stay up.

On Wednesday we will find out more about the club in the second half of the season as they face Nice in the derby at home. Nice already have double the points of Monaco and are good form having lost just one game from their past five, so this match will be a great indicator if things are going to change for them.

For now getting Fabregas on a 3 year deal could be a lifesaver.

Barcelona shouldn’t make Munir an outcast

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If, as has been rumoured, Munir El Haddadi’s agent has demanded vast sums to ensure his client will sign a new deal at Barcelona, one can perhaps understand the club’s ire at being held to ransom.

Frankly, agents are the bane of the modern game, but for many players, they are a necessary evil when it comes to the business side of their employment. Continue reading

Where does Coutinho fit in at Barcelona now?

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Against Getafe on Sunday night, Barcelona’s record signing, Phillipe Coutinho, was again left on the bench.

That’s right, €160 million worth of talent being given a cursory eight-minute cameo at the end of the match.

Predictably it wasn’t enough time for the Brazilian to really make an impact, and that is becoming a consistent theme for him of late. Continue reading

Mario Balotelli’s romance with Ligue 1 football is coming to an end

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The very talented and often misunderstood though egomaniac Mario Balotelli is set to leave Nice after spending almost 3 seasons with the club. It seems that there may have been a confrontation with new manager this season Patrick Vieira, although that has not been confirmed.

What we do know is that this season will very likely be Balotelli’s last in France and certainly last with Nice. The club are understood to want to sell the Italian player this month to cash in on him for small fee. Otherwise he will be free to leave in the summer for nothing.

Balotelli finally seemed to settle down in France where he had become a cult figure with Nice. The club had not only improved since his arrival in 2016 but he also scored goals. On his debut season in the league he scored 15 from just 23 games. In all competitions he has played 76 games and scored 43 goals which anyway you look at it is a terrific return. Balotelli proved that in Ligue 1 at least he still had the magic despite the usual baggage that comes with him.

Vieira and Nice have frozen the player out for much of this season where he has played just 10 games and has yet to score. Has there been a coming together between player and coach? One thing is for certain and that is the summer fiasco that Balotelli was involved in. Before the season started it looked like Marseille would buy Balotelli and he deal came very close but in the end never happened. The problem though was that as a result Balotelli missed most of pre season and training and did not come in fresh, this could be another reason that Vieira has been indifferent to the player.

So if Balotelli is to leave Nice and possibly France what could be next for a player who is 28 and still has a good 4-5 seasons ahead of him? A return to Italy could be out of the question, every time he has played their he has been sadly subjected to racist chants.

Perhaps he will come back to the Premier League He has divided a few fans since he has played for both Manchester City and Liverpool and getting a chance to play with some of the bigger teams will probably not be an option.

However a team near the bottom of the league could well do with Balotelli- as long as the coach strikes up a friendship with him, then Balotelli has proven that he can be a deadly striker and he could end up saving a team from relegation. If so a move could happen in the next few days. For now though it looks like au revoir to Balotelli’s career in France, which is slightly sad given that it seemed the French air and regime had indeed calmed the player down.

Why Christian Pulisic Could Flop at Chelsea

On paper it is among the most ambitious, eye-catching signings in Chelsea’s recent history and yet there is something oddly unsettling about Christian Pulisic’s £58 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund. Chelsea don’t tend to nurture the young footballers that pass through Stamford Bridge, and Pulisic – the slight frame, the hesitant form – already looks like an ex-Chelsea graduate: the kind of player who stumbles from loan move to loan move before skulking away from the club, only to be signed by a Premier League rival for an eight-figure fee a year later.

Continue reading