Pound for Pound are Real Betis the best team in La Liga this season?

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It’s been very routine for clubs such as Real Betis to have a few good games and then fade away, but this season the team from the south seem to have more staying power and have made a real impact on La Liga this season.

La Liga has been very exciting this season, mostly because Barcelona and Real Madrid have not had it all their own way. While Barcelona do lead the league they only do so by 3 points over Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid have had their own problems with the sacking of Julen Lopetegui after a nightmare start to the season. Santiago Solari was drafted in but the team don’t feel like classic, solid and reliable Madrid the team we have come to know over the past five years. That is because Zinedine Zidane left the club last summer and so did Cristiano Ronaldo. Real are in 4th place and there is a chance that they could miss out on automatic qualification for next seasons Champions League, that is unless they win the competition for an historic 4th time in a row.

But back to Betis who are in 6th place and just three points behind Madrid and while a title challenge is beyond them the club will be trying to reach a European place finish. Currently they are already there and set for Europa League football next season but if they could finish in the top 4 that would be good enough for Champions League football and they are just one win from achieving that. Of course there is a long time to go and we are not even at the halfway stage yet in Spain but this season Betis seem like a different beast from last.

Before the Christmas break Betis stunned Barcelona by becoming the first team to beat them in the league at the Nou Camp for 2 years and they are currently on a 4 game unbeaten streak with 3 of those matches being wins. To understand why Betis have changed for the better this season we must look at their coach Quique Setien.

Setien joined the club last season and has won 31 of his 65 games in charge so far to give him a 47.6% win rate. Whilst it is true that Setien has never won any managerial honours in his 17 years as a boss he has also never had the opportunities mostly coaching teams in La Liga 2.

One wonders how far he can take Betis, a European finish which is currently on and a deep run in the Copa del Rey would be a successful season for the club who usually fade away in the second half of the season, this is something that Setien will be determined to change in 2019.

Awards forgotten man Lionel Messi receives Europe’s golden boot

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It has been a rather odd year for Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. Despite winning another Spanish league, scoring fantastic goals and winning the domestic double, Messi surely still the worlds best football player was overlooked for all the major awards this year. This culminated in the Ballon d’Or award where he placed only 5th, in what had to be seen as quite laughable.

Still some things were put right for the Argentinian play maker who picked up his 5th golden shoe this week, in celebration for his 34 goals in La Liga last season. He fended off Liverpool’s Mohamad Salah who scored just 2 less last season in the Premier League.

In winning the award Messi had this to say: “I love football, but when I started I didn’t expect all this. My dream was to be a professional player. This is thanks to the hard work and effort I have put in, and above all to my teammates. I have the best players in the world at their positions playing beside me.” Messi again was evidently very humble in receiving the award and of course it didn’t go unnoticed that he has now pulled one clear of golden boots from Cristiano Ronaldo who is now plying his trade at Juventus.

This award would have been a satisfying conclusion to 2018 where Messi was disregarded for awards over other players such as Luka Modric who won every gong going. It is true that Modric won the Champions League and reached the World Cup final with Croatia where Messi failed in both competitions. And whilst nobody is saying that Messi should have been accepted as the world’s best player it still felt odd not even recognising his greatness with a top 3 spot.

It should be noted that after yet another hattrick at the weekend Messi now has 14 goals in 14 games and in all competitions he has already scored 20 goals. It seems that Messi wants the very best awards in 2019 and he is certainly going about it the right way. Barcelona look on course to win the league where they have sprinted 5 points clear of great rival Real Madrid, as Messi looks to win his 10th Spanish title. He has also voiced his opinion over the Champions League and will be looking to win that competition for the 5th time in his career after wins in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015.

What should be for sure is that if Messi continues at this rate no awards will be able to shun his greatness next year.

 

Umtiti’s selfishness could cost Barca

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Samuel Umtiti is going to have ‘conservative’ treatment on his persistent knee problems in a bid to cure them, rather than resorting to surgery.

The Barcelona centre-back has clearly been short of his best this season, and one can deduce that it’s due in no small part to those ongoing issues.

To that end, it’s surprising that the French World Cup winner, when the problem first became apparent, didn’t immediately go under the knife and ensure the problem was resolved once and for all. Continue reading

Looking back to how Cristiano Ronaldo emerged as a centre-forward at Real Madrid

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On the 4th January of 2016, a new era began at the Santiago Bernabeu, where Zinedine Zidane was announced as the new manager of Real Madrid on a two-and-a-half-year deal. The departure of Rafa Benitez was simply inevitable, as his short and unconvincing time at the club had to come to an end.

At the time of the announcement, there were a lot of mixed thoughts on the decision made by Los Blancos, with the majority being filled with excitement as the Frenchman aimed to extend his legacy at the club by bringing in success as a manager. However, the rest of the footballing world felt the appointment was a huge risk, with Zidane lacking managerial experience and tactical knowledge.

During his time as the coach of Real Madrid, Zidane went on to one La Liga title, three Champions League trophies and one Spanish Super Cup as well as a number of individual awards. The European dominance along with winning the club’s 33rd league title in 2017 would not have been possible had the coach kept Cristiano Ronaldo on the left flank instead of moving him up top as a lone forward.

Focusing more on Ronaldo, he first started to acknowledge this new role under Benitez, when Karim Benzema was suffering from a few injury issues. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner faced a number of problems whilst playing in this position, with the main one being the side was not built around him, and Benitez’s defensive style of play did not work well with Real Madrid’s free-flowing system.

On the other hand, once Zidane was introduced into the managerial picture, Ronaldo became the perfect number nine in Europe due to his movement on and off the ball and his pure instincts. The best example to show that he adjusted to a new approach and style is the 3-0 victory over rivals Atletico Madrid in November 2016, when his hat-trick summed up his growth as a centre forward.

The 4-4-2 diamond formation got the best out of both strikers in Benzema and Ronaldo, with the former playing as the deep-lying forward who would combine with the midfielders, whilst the latter would remain in the final third of the pitch and come up with the goods for when his side needed him the most. Overall, the improvements became evident as the trophies started to come in.

Ronaldo’s transition from being a dazzling winger to a dominant and ruthless forward became much easier, when Portugal coach Fernando Santos started playing him up front alongside either Ricardo Quaresma or Luis Nani. Playing in the same role as well as a similar formation at both club and international level has allowed the Madeira-born star to adapt and thrive within this new change.

It’s definitely not easy to pick out an international game that proved Portugal were on top of their game and the opposition. Though, the most recent and memorable competitive fixture that comes to mind is the World Cup match between Portugal and Spain, where Ronaldo’s incredible hat-trick allowed his team to pick up a vital point early in the tournament as they went past the group stages.

Throughout the closely-watched game, Portugal were defensively sound and composed to a certain level whilst Ronaldo’s influence on the pitch gave Santos’ men some hope that they would get something out of this match. In the end, the test of patience pulled through as Portugal earned themselves an invaluable point and Ronaldo went on to steal the headlines for the next few days.

Overall, it is fair to say that two to three managers have helped Ronaldo to become the centre-forward he is today. Although he is playing as a left-winger for Juventus at this moment of time, the Italian side will be relying on his individual brilliance in strike as the Serie A and Champions League campaign goes on, especially given that they are aiming to complete the treble this season.

Just 6 points separate Sevilla in 1st place from Girona in 7th in exciting season for La Liga

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What a season it has been so far in the Spanish La Liga title race. Instead of, as in recent seasons Barcelona or Real Madrid taking off and not being seen for dust, both teams have had their struggles in recent weeks and the league remains wide open as we approach December- when is the last time we could say that?

Indeed take away Atletico Madrid’s superb title win in 2014 and there hasn’t been a different winner of the league apart from Barca and Real since the 2003-04 season when Valencia won it. What is also interesting is since then Barcelona has only failed to finish in the top 2 places in one season. In the last 14 years, 11 have finished with either Barca or Real Madrid taking the first two spots.

Of course the quality of football has been superb- even spellbinding at times and no one can argue against that. But for competitive games the Spanish league sure has come up short and we have been left with the same old song and dance of the majority of teams not just being able to challenge for the league but being so far from the top and the league title having that sinking feeling that it is virtually over by Christmas. Not so this season.

The first surprise is seeing Sevilla top of the league, not because they are a poor team but just the fact that it isn’t either Barca or Real sitting there. It is to put it mildly a revelation. Of course Barcelona are right there in 2nd place just a point behind but then again they have Atletico Madrid and Alaves breathing down their necks. And then there is the curious case of Real Madrid, Ronaldo less and showing it in 6th place. The team that have won an incredible 3 Champions League’s in a row won’t be in next seasons competition if the league was to end now.

It’s incredible to think how the league has simply opened up but then again some of the other teams namely Sevilla and Atletico Madrid have plugged away, bought well in the summer and made their threat real. But there has also been change at the super clubs. Andres Iniesta leaving Barcelona was certainly a big deal. Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Juventus was a big change for Madrid who had become so reliant on him for the past decade. But also Real have suffered the departure of Zinedine Zidane, brought in Julen Lopetegui, sacked him and replaced him with Santiago Solari- for them it is the mid 2000′s all over again.

Realistically some of the teams will fall away and both Barcelona and Real Madrid should be able to find the form to mount a reasonable title challenge. But the likes of Atletico and Sevilla look like they will be sticking around for a while yet and could cause between them a major shock this season in Spain which nobody would have saw coming before the beginning of the season.

Antoine Griezmann needs to leave Atletico Madrid if he wants the Ballon d’Or

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Antoine Griezmann has won no individual awards this year which strikes one as being rather odd. Here he is a player that is playmaker for Atletico Madrid who have won the Europa League this year and beat Real Madrid to win the UEFA Super Cup. On top of that he led France in winning the World Cup, but to the voters he bizarrely isn’t even good enough to make the top 3 best in the world.

Griezmann has publicly bemoaned these decisions and it ends up being a fine line for him. For if he keeps on speaking about he will look like a petulant child who didn’t get his rewards, and yet if he keeps quiet he will rightfully feel that he has missed an opportunity to speak out. But why is it then that Griezmann who continues to win trophies, play well, make goals and score them is being ignored when it comes down to winning individual awards?

Let’s go back to last summer when Barcelona entered talks to buy Griezmann from Atletico, Barca being the only realistic club in Spain that could get him, given that he was never going to consider joining Atletico’s rivals Real Madrid. Griezmann at Barcelona, would have been a sight to behold but talks broke down and it is only now that Griezmann has come out and told us why.

The reason was that he didn’t want to be Messi’s lieutenant and play second fiddle to the Argentine great. Griezmann told Canal+, “was it hard to refuse Barca? It was very difficult. You have Barca who wants you, who calls you, who sends messages. But then there is the club where you are, where you are an important player and where they build a project around you, subconsciously, being Messi’s lieutenant may have played a part.But my team-mates and people at the club did everything, they came to talk to me, they increased my salary. They did everything to show that it was my home and that I shouldn’t leave. It was really complicated times, especially for my wife where I woke her up at 3am to talk about it.”

In some ways Griezmann should be applauded for not making the jump to a bigger club where inevitably more trophies would follow. At the same time Atletico are successful in their own right and will always be able to challenge for trophies at least as long as Diego Simeone is in charge of the club.

The problem for Griezmann though is it seems not only do you have to play in Spain to win the big awards but you also have to be either playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. This is evidenced in the fact that the best players awards have gone only to these two teams since 2008. The last time a player won the trophy from outside of Spain was in 2007 when Kaka won with AC Milan.

So what can Griezmann do, because winning the World Cup wasn’t good enough to be recognised as the best. If not playing for Barca or Real Madrid it seems that his one option is to lead Atletico to another Champions League final, this time winning it. For now Griezmann’s loyalty may have just cost him the best player in the world tag.

 

Florentino Perez listens to players and appoints Santiago Solari as Real Madrid coach

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Santiago Solari was named as the new Real Madrid manager this week, and the news will be a relief for the players.Solari has signed a 3 year contract with his former club and has also fought off stiff competition to land the job. Both Antonio Conte and Roberto Martinez were in the running to take over from the sacked Julen Lopetegui but Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has given the chance to Solari. So what gives and why did Perez not go for more experience?

The truth is that the players especially Sergio Ramos had voiced their disagreement in landing Conte as manager. His quote earlier this month that you have to earn respect to achieve it in regards of Conte being drafted in didn’t sit too well. Ramos and other influential players didn’t like the thought of Conte taking over the hot seat, and yes player power is evident once again. But whilst in the past Perez would have brushed off such antics, he listened and talks broke down.

There was also talk of bringing in former Everton manager Roberto Martinez, who would not have got a look in if still at the Premier League side. But his reputation has mostly been built on this summers World Cup, where his Belgian side reached the semi finals before losing narrowly against France who would eventually go on to win the trophy. There was a feeling that the players were more happier to receive Martinez than Perez was. However with Conte out of the picture, both Perez and the players broke even and Martinez was also ruled out. This left Solari who had been moved up from youth coach as a temporary figure head until the club could find someone.

However sometimes the answer or in Madrid’s case remedy is staring you in the face and Solari an ex player who has the respect of the current squad was given the job full time. With new managerial talks hitting a dead end, Perez also had the laws of the Spanish FA bearing down on him, given that clubs cannot have a caretaker manager for more than two weeks. In one way Solari has the job through default but in another perhaps he has earned it.

Since taking over from the ill fated Lopetegui, Solari has presided over 4 games and the club have won all 4. In his youth management Solari only managed a win rate of 37%, but he has got off to the best possible start with Madrid. The one important factor is that the players are their happiest they have been all season, that as Solari knows only to well can go a long way.

Real Madrid are still recovering from the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo, and this season was always going to be a transitiona one. But perhaps Solari can add the reignited spark that Los Blanco’s so ever need.

Courtois no replacement for Navas based on recent form at Real Madrid

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All eyes are on Real Madrid who have imploded since the beginning of the season. Strange for a club who of course are current European champions and have won that competition for the past 3 years. This was another season that was supposed to go smoothly but it hasn’t been that way at all.

For no other reason than to bring in another star, Real Madrid president sanctioned the deal to bring Thibaut Courtois to the club from Chelsea in the summer. It was no secret that Madrid had been after the former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper for the past couple of seasons. Chelsea understandably would not budge, which financially ended up working in Madrid’s favour as they got him for a cut price deal. Make no mistake Courtois is a top 10 goalkeeper in the world. However his start to the season where he has played 7 of the first 9 games has not suggested so.

This past weekend Real Madrid lost again in the league, this time at home to Levante and Courtois looked to blame for at least one of the goals. Whilst it is easy to point the finger at Courtois, one needs to be reminded that he has been one of the best and most consistent goal keepers of the past few years. He will get better at the club and grow stronger because the reality is that the whole team are not performing as they should and he is just one cog in the machine. But the attention has been focused on the keeper and boos could be heard from the infamous difficult fans towards him.

Of course they have a soft spot for Keylar Navas the man behind the sticks who led Madrid to so many European titles. To be fair Navas has done very little wrong at the club and his only wrongdoing seems to be that he is five years older than Courtois. One senses that there could be a rift between the two goalkeepers, where Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui has opted to drop Navas from the league games but play him in the Champions League.

This is a massive week for Real Madrid who should beat Viktoria Plzen at home in the Champions League, but it is a result they need to win after losing in Russia last time out. And then following that is the Barcelona match away from home. Which goalkeeper will be ruling the roost then? And you have to wonder if Courtois felt happier in the confines of Stamford Bridge rather than Santiago Bernabeu, where the circus seems to be just beginning.

Eden Hazard’s move to Real Madrid could become very complicated

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In the past few weeks the major transfer talk has been of Chelsea star Eden Hazard possibly moving to Real Madrid. On the face of it the deal could make perfect sense for both clubs. But the transfer could end up becoming a saga with many complications involved.

Let’s begin with Hazard himself who is becoming a club legend at Chelsea and at 27 has played 7 seasons with the west London club. There is the option for Hazard to simply remain with the Blues something that he is assured of for at least the next four seasons. He will win trophies with Chelsea, but he clearly wants to win silverware with the likes of the great Real Madrid and add the team to his resume.

The question remains when will Hazard join Real Madrid? On the face of it January looks out of the question as Chelsea will be challenging for major honours including the league. Hazard himself has ruled out a January move. And yet he may have very little say on the decision. The problem is that Hazard’s contract with Chelsea runs out in 18 months time and as the time ticks down so will his transfer fee.

For example Chelsea could demand £100m for the player in January but wait until the summer and that fee could be around the £80m mark. There is also the complication of Real Madrid’s finances at the moment which are not good. For example 300m euros is still owed in debt and the club want to invest up to 500m euros to upgrade their stadium, which when done will look like a spaceship.

Real Madrid face the question of should they dive in for Hazard in January or wait? Their problem is that the team are simply not performing at this time and this season could well be a write off after the big time departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane. The fans are clearly crying out for a big name signing, something that oddly deserted them this summer, which just goes to show Madrid’s financial state at the present time.

Hazard has been linked to Real Madrid as far back as 2010 when Zinedine Zidane commented that he would take Hazard to Madrid with his eyes closed- he was that good. It’s been a long time coming and it looks almost guaranteed that 2019 will finally be the year that Hazard becomes a Real Madrid player.

 

Julen Lopetegui should never have taken vacant job at Real Madrid

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Real Madrid’s latest defeat against Deportivo Alaves at the weekend means that the club have not won a game or scored a goal for 4 matches and the pressure is now on new coach Julen Lopetegui. Whilst that may seem unfair at this early stage of the season, it feels that Lopetegui has put this pressure on himself, because he should never have taken the job in the first place.

Let’s rewind back to the summer and Lopetegui was about to take the national side, Spain to the World Cup finals in Russia. With Spain, Lopetegui had remained unbeaten after 20 games with 14 wins and 6 draws. A few months before the World Cup he had watched his team dismantle Argentina 6-1 in a friendly. Talk switched from Spain were clearly past it to Spain must be one of the favourites for the competition. Lopetegui had come in fresh, dazzled some spice on the tika taka and for the first time in 6 years the national side had a belief in themselves once more.

And then on the eve of the World Cup Lopetegui was announced as new coach for Real Madrid. His thinking was that he would coach Spain at the World Cup and take over at Madrid immediately after. Of course that never happened and the Spanish FA sacked him on the spot for disrespecting the national sides duty and brought in Fernando Hierro on a temporary basis, he has been replaced by Luis Enrique now.

Getting an offer from Madrid may seem as if you can’t turn it down but the timing was wrong not just for the Spanish national side but also for Lopetegui’s career. Why would you coach a team that has reached the highest peak? The only way is down and this has been witnessed in recent years.

Take Jose Mourinho’s time at Inter Milan, where we won numerous titles and then in his last season won the treble including the teams first European Cup since 1965. He quits soon after and Roberto Mancini comes in only to see his new team collapse because they couldn’t keep the same intensity up with a new coach. Sir Alex Ferguson retired at exactly the right time, only for David Moyes to be the scapegoat and on a hiding to nothing. In short taking over from a great means starting a new era and perhaps Lopetegui should have left that to someone else and stayed with the national side.

Real Madrid have not only lost Ronaldo this season but also lost Zinedine Zidane and so this was always going to be a struggle. In short if Real don’t win another Champions League, then they have gone backwards and the only thing that could save Lopetegui’s job would be a league title. But Real have had the wind taken from them, and haven’t spent sufficiently in the summer. Lopetegui and Real Madrid were the perfect match but not in 2018, and it rather feels that Lopetegui has left his wife for a more beautiful woman only to be left standing on his own with no place to go.