Premier League return: Manchester City need to make a statement whilst Arsenal have not given up on Europe

The Premier League will return on June 17th with two fixtures and both look like being mouth watering matches despite the fact that games are having to be played behind closed doors.

Aston Villa will take on Sheffield United in what will be the first Premier League game to take place in 99 days since the Coronavirus pandemic halted football. The evening game sees current champions Manchester City play Arsenal at the Etihad.

Aston Villa are in desperate need of all three points when their campaign restarts given that they are in 19th place, although a win would take them out of the relegation zone. Sheffield United are having a terrific season so far and could go into 5th place with a win. Both teams have a game in hand over the teams around them and that is why this is such an important game for them.

All eyes though will be in Manchester. How will Pep Guardiola’s team react after such a long break? If we look at the Bundesliga in Germany and for example compare City to current German champions Bayern Munich then they should be just fine. Bayern have been in incredible form not only winning games but scoring by the bucket load.

However with no fans it has also been proven in Germany that the home win rate has nosedived. From 46% to just 18%. Whilst City will be raring to go and have the better players they will also find it rather odd to be playing this way.

Arsenal are currently in 9th place and a visit to the Etihad would in normal circumstances have been a daunting trip. Now a team who have really felt the pressure from their own fans may just be able to throw off the shackles and possibly play better and more confident football behind closed doors.

The game will have added spice given that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta is returning back to City, of course he was Guardiola’s assistant for a few years before making the switch to Arsenal earlier in the season.

The omens do not look good for Arsenal who have lost five games in a row to City, who also find the back of the net rather too easily. Arsenal’s play usually suits City’s attacking although it will be fascinating to see if Arteta who knows City so well can out do Guardiola.

If Arsenal win then all eyes will be on Liverpool who could then wrap up the league title on Sunday. That would be unique in itself given that they are playing the derby against Everton.

As for Arsenal they have had a poor season by their standards so far and are in 9th place, though they were showing good form before the season had to be stopped. There has certainly been an improvement since Arteta replaced Unai Emery.

For City whilst they do have a game in hand over 3rd placed Leicester- this is the match and they are just 4 points in front of Brendan Rodgers team and would like to pull away from them. This season there is no catching Liverpool but at the end of the day if City were to finish 3rd for example it would really underline a forgettable season for the club.

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Fan Zone: Kartik on City’s Sterling, Bernardo & David Silva as well as Fernandinho & more

A special guest for the latest Q&A is Kartik Krishnaiyer- heavily involved in soccer and politics in the state of Florida- and the author of Blue with Envy: My American Journey with Manchester City.

Instead of starting with how it all began for Kartik, the focus in this part of the Q&A is mostly on current Manchester City topics, in particular the key players. We discuss current stars such as David Silva, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero as well as some of the club’s key figures in the past such as Vincent Kompany, the former captain who left last summer, and of course Francis Henry Lee.

Kartik’s wealth and depth in information when it comes to discussing the Citizens is even more evident when you cover not just the club’s current era but the history of Man City. You can reach Kartik and Rami Soufi on their social media accounts and feel free to discuss further any of the points raised in the Q&A below.

1)  Choose 2 players from David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez for your team. Explain why?

I am going with Sterling and Bernardo Silva though at one point it would have been Sterling and David Silva. Sterling’s off-the-ball runs are among the best in world football, something England fans and many in the British press didn’t quite understand in the World Cup in 2018.

Sterling didn’t score so they couldn’t understand why Gareth Southgate kept picking him then came the Colombia game. Sterling was replaced by Jamie Vardy and that absolutely gutted England’s play going forward. It was then that people started to notice Sterling’s role and significance. Bernardo Silva has a different game than peak David Silva did. Bernardo has more bite to his play without the ball but he is not as creative a player in the final third. They aren’t like for like, but both complement Sterling very well.

2) Choose one from Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho, and explain why?

Fernandinho is the heart and soul of Manchester City. An outstanding two-way player, he’s a master of keeping the ball moving, winning the ball and if needed cynically breaking up play. Also, he is a leader on and off the pitch.

3) Who is in your opinion the best player to ever wear the City shirt, and why?

So this is a difficult conversation because it’s probably Franny Lee – who also later as Club Chairman presided over the worst era in the club’s history largely due to his decision making. Don’t get me wrong he inherited a really bad situation from Peter Swales but he had no idea how to fix it. The most lamentable era in City’s history coincided with his tenure.

Still, as a player he was brilliant. A forward who could score and link play and seemed to reserve his best for the biggest occasions – cup finals, Manchester derbies and other key matches. His partnership with Colin Bell was off the charts.

4) What are City’s weaknesses? Is it the full-backs or the central defensive pair looking shaky? Did losing Kompany hurt City’s title defense?

It is the central defense for sure. Losing Kompany has taken away an important dressing room figure and deprived the Starting XI of the glue that keeps together the team’s core defensively. This has continued to be an issue with City’s transfer failures in the center-back position go back to selling Matija Nastasic to Schalke and buying Eliaquim  Mangala as a replacement. The miscalculations in the market have finally caught up with City.

5) I know you follow Bundesliga closely so you’ve seen Erling Haaland & Achraf Hakimi play. Would you rather sign Haaland or Hakimi? 

Hakimi fits Pep Guardiola’s style of an advanced fullback working a lot in terms of crossing and tucking into midfield. Cancelo was a bad experiment and will likely be moved. Hakimi can be explosive going forward, but I am not in love with his defending.

6) City built a reputation playing the possession game. Do you think this focus on possession at the expense of being more pragmatic has hurt City’s quest to defend the Premier League title?

Yes, and even hurt City’s chances in Europe to be honest even more since counter-attacking wins trophies, particularly in critical and tight games. Frankly, same thing happened to Pep at Bayern Munich. His Bayern teams kept the ball all day long but whenever faced with the counter-attacking ability of the Spanish opponents they played in the semi-finals, the Spanish clubs tended to counter them to death.

7) What do you make of Gabriel Jesus? His stats are great despite being mostly used as a substitute. Would you keep Jesus or go for someone like Harry Kane?

Jesus is a better all-around No. 9 for the modern game than almost anyone we could sign. It’s the stuff he does off the ball and his ability to adapt tactically (as seen in Madrid) that make him suitable for Pep.

Sergio Aguero scores a ton of goals and he’s tough to drop but I would argue Jesus is a better overall footballer at this stage of their careers. At the same time Kane is a wonderful player who doesn’t have to be a No. 9. He can play deeper and already understands Sterling’s game from England duty where the two of them lead the line.

Fan Zone: Jason on Barcelona legends Cruyff & Messi, El Clasico and more!

Jason Pettigrove is a well established author and sports journalist as well as a content editor at FC Barcelona. Jason’s love affair with Barcelona goes back several decades and covers the tough, the good and the great eras of the Catalan club.

In the first part of the Q&A which is published below, Jason touches upon the connection he built with the club as well as his favorite Barca players and matches. Feel free to discuss the main points from the Q&A and to connect with Jason and Rami Soufi via their Twitter profiles.

1) You’ve been a Barcelona fan for quite some time. What made you support Barca?

I’ll try and shorten a long story! I went on holiday to Lloret de Mar in the mid 1970s with my parents, and the Barça shirt was the first one I bought. I saw the Camp Nou and also brought home some posters of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Sotil to put up on my wall, as well as a Barça pennant.

When I was old enough to go to watch football, West Ham were my local team so I followed them for many years. My eldest son, who is now 25, played at the West Ham academy from the ages of 8-12, but he was bullied incessantly by his coach. It got to the point where I had to complain to the Premier League, and was astounded by the club’s attitude.

The week after he walked off of the pitch in disgust at his treatment, leaving football behind in the process, I was in Barcelona to see my first match at the Camp Nou – the 2007 El Clásico where Lionel Messi scored his first hat-trick. Barça were always my first love, but that was the point when I began to properly support them.

2) Who are your 3 all-time favorite Barca players and why? 

Lionel Messi – A player who can do it all and still be better than anyone else while do it all on the attacking front. Goals, assists, dribbling, passing, etc you name it and Messi can do it! Biggest point is we should remember that to be at the very top for as long as he has is astonishing as well.

Johan Cruyff – The Dutchman was perhaps the master. As a player he took the Blaugranes on a long journey which he would later complete as a coach when he guided them to their first European Cup while creating what was referred to as the Dream Team.

Pep Guardiola – From ball-boy to record breaking coach is probably the best way to describe Guardiola’s incredible journey with Barca. An imperious captain and a member of the Cruyff teams in the 1990s. Pep would later prove to be a managerial genius as shown by the titles won under his guidance between 2008 and 2012.

3) Name your favorite Barca player by position. One each from DEF/MID/ATT.

DEF – Gerard Pique – Once regarded as a bit of an afterthought next to club skipper Carles Puyol, Pique has matured into the consummate central defender. As big a part of the success over the last decade, his absence often corresponded with a drop in form defensively and exposed Barca’s back four.

MID – Arthur Melo – Although I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Arthur yet, he gives the team balance and purpose. The ‘new Xavi’ moniker is probably a little unfair, but the team looks so much more in control in the middle of the park with Arthur on the pitch.

Attack – Messi – The phrase ‘Messi-dependence’ is a little overused in my opinion, but
there’s little doubt he is the conduit through which all good things come. He is not just the team’s attacking spark and a football genius, but he is also the glue that holds the team together.

4) Most important Barca victory in your lifetime? Why?

That’s a very tough one as there have been a few important wins and for a number of different reasons. I think I will go with the 1992 Champions League win at Wembley. Simply put, for a world class club with world class players, it had taken them until then to reach the pinnacle in Europe.

Winning the cup got a huge monkey off of the club’s back, and though they probably
should’ve won more than they have since, that victory was a huge turning point.

5) Your all-time favorite Barca match? Why?

I’ll give you two. First, the 3-3 draw in El Clásico that I mentioned earlier. It happens to be my first live Barça match and also Messi’s first hat-trick not to mention the atmosphere that was as good as I’ve ever known.

Second, the 2011 Champions League final. I was lucky enough to be there, and it remains the best 90 minutes of football I think I’ve seen, or will ever see. Pep’s Barça at their absolute peak, and there was nothing Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man United could do about it.

6) Pick two from Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele, and Antoine Griezmann for your team, and why?

For the short term, it would have to be Suarez and Dembele. Although El Pistolero is getting on a bit, he still knows where the goal is, and a lack of pace hasn’t dimmed his excellence in sticking the ball in the back of the net.

Dembele has had his critics, and I’ve been one of them, but there’s little doubt that he is a top player when he’s free of injury. I’m looking forward to seeing how he gets on
when he returns.

7) Pick two from Arthur, Frankie de Jong, Busquets, Rakitic and Arturo Vidal, and why?

Easy one here- Arthur and Frenkie de Jong. The future of Barça’s midfield. Rakitic has been a fine servant and doesn’t deserve the heat he’s getting at the moment, but the time has come for him to move. Vidal is a breath of fresh air, but if the club can get some decent money for him, his sale is a no brainer. Busi only doesn’t get in because he’s coming to the end of his career and, sadly, isn’t quite the player he once was.

8) What are Barca’s weaknesses? Some single out the full-back positions while many point to the central defensive pair being shaky with Pique slowing down. Some mention Neymar’s departure. Others refer to over dependence on Messi. Thoughts?

I think what makes Barça great is also their weakness. Full-backs pushing too far up and being susceptible and getting caught on the break, a willingness to always look for Messi when often there will be better options available, possession for possession’s sake which, though incredibly pleasing on the eye, needs to have more of a purpose sometimes.

9) Who is in your opinion the best player to ever wear the Barca shirt?

As with other questions here, it has to be Messi for me. Whatever he is asked to do, he does it better than all others. His goal-scoring exploits and his magical assists will stand the test of time, and his passing ability is beyond comparison. There hasn’t been another player in the history of football that ‘had it all.’

Facts are facts Manchester City have been poor this season

Manchester City lost to rivals Manchester United 2-0 yesterday in the infamous Manchester derby as they came up short once again this season.

For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the Manchester United manager has seen his side knocked out of the Carabao Cup against City, although they did win the second leg, but he has now done the league double over Pep Guardiola and the current champions.

For bragging rights between the two teams, that will reside in the red half of Manchester and whilst Solskjaer and United will be praised for their upturn in performance and form can the same be said for City?

City’s season really seemed to collapse around November when everyone was admitting and seeing that Liverpool were going to win the league, the Reds after the disappointment of last season had more hunger, passion and commitment, the gulf between them and any other club but including even City was huge, there was always going to be just one winner, and everyone knew it even if some tried to pretend that the title race was still on, it really wasn’t.

What came to light was quick and that was after conquering the league and winning it two times in a row Guardiola set in motion the objective for the team to win the Champions League, which would be the clubs first ever win, and with time running out on his contract Guardiola knows it could be this season or never. It’s why City went to the Bernabeu and put in such a professional performance to come out of the game leading 2-1 going into the 2nd leg at home. City had just beaten a team who had won the competition four times in the last decade including three in a row, this was a huge statement. Could you think of an equal huge statement City have made in the Premier League this season?

Liverpool have blown everyone away domestically and let’s not pretend that even if City were much stronger Liverpool would be winning the league. But seeing a gap of 25 points, which could be 22 if City win their game in hand is simply embarrassing. City as champions, with the money they have spent on players, their infrastructure and having one of the best managers in the world should not be almost a quarter of 100 points behind Liverpool, and we’re not even at the end of the season.

Of course City are in 2nd place where they will most likely finish and have just won the Carabao Cup, for almost any other team this is a huge success and would be amongst their best ever seasons. When you’re City winning the 2nd domestic cup and being so far behind in the league isn’t going to cut it, no matter how harsh that sounds, it simply isn’t.

City have gone backwards this season, and even if they won every game from now on they would finish with 87 points, last season it was 98 and the season before it was 100. Indeed City are on a par to finish with the same points as they did (78) in Guardiola’s first season with the club. This all confirms that the Citizens have gone 1 step forward this season but two back.

City have lost 7 games this season and that’s more than they lost in the previous two seasons combined. There is no question that this season up until now has been disappointing for the club. You can finish 2nd and lose, but this has been a major step down for them. It is obvious that only seeing the sight of the Champions League trophy gleaming back towards them when they lift it aloft will be the only redemption for the club this season.

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Champions League: Manchester City prepare for Real Madrid

Manchester City face Real Madrid on Wednesday in the Champions League Round of 16 with Pep Guardiola eager to make an impression following the news that the Premier League club are banned from European competitions for the next two seasons.

Sergio Aguero returns to Madrid – Atletico being the team where he made a name for himself – whilst the Argentina international will be hungry to make up for his poor performance against Leicester City in the Premier League on Saturday. Continue reading

Manchester City’s reaction to Champions League ban has been breathtaking

It would have been easy for Manchester City to have given up on this season after UEFA banned the club for what, in their opinion breached and broke the FFP rules, but the club will not lie down and a lot of that credit has to go to Pep Guardiola.

City who are in 2nd place have played two games since the ban was announced and have both won of them. They have scored 3 goals in those matches, and they haven’t been their greatest wins ever but they have shown the ultimate response, that this team will not give up and that this team are going nowhere.

The clubs first game since the ban was against West Ham in 18th place and had City put in a lacklustre performance after just receiving the news it may have been understandable. The game was always going to be difficult with Hammers boss David Moyes predictably setting up five at the back and trying to park the bus. But City managed to score 2 goals and get the win and they showed the fight, despite the threat that all of their efforts this season could be in vain with no Champions League qualification.

The exact same mind set went into their more difficult tie, at King Power Stadium at the weekend away to 3rd placed Leicester who have had a magnificent season so far. The game was very entertaining and at tImes City needed to ride the storm but they came out 1-0 winners. That was only Leicester’s 3rd home loss of the season and City had had attempts on goal.

It never looked like, not even in one minute of the game that City didn’t care about playing in the league anymore. That is why they have a very good manager in Guardiola, a man who never gives up the chase and even if he has been fortunate to coach teams with open chequebooks at the end of the day his man management skills are some of the best in the world.

It’s very clear that City are on a mission and that is to try and win every other game they will play this season. It won’t be enough to overhaul Liverpool, but one of those games they must play them and if they can beat them that would feel like a mini trophy in itself.

Guardiola has said it himself, does it feel like we don’t care, and it certainly doesn’t. He has now installed an us v them mentality and the club could actually be stronger and more focused after UEFA’s decision. He has also hinted at staying at the club, maybe even beyond 2021, personally that should be taken with a pinch of salt as Guardiola rarely stays at clubs for too long. Also if City do lose the appeal, a few players could leave and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pep go too.

For now though City have reacted like champions should and they should be applauded.

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The fallout from Manchester City’s 2 year Champions League ban

There was more controversy in the Premier League with VAR, namely in the Chelsea-Manchester United game where it seemed clear as daylight Harry Maguire should have seen a red card. But nothing was even looked into, and the inconsistencies of VAR really need to be looked at.

However VAR seems to dominate the pages when it comes to controversial moments but off the pitch the story that could change English football’s greatest superpower was doing the rounds and that is Manchester City being banned by UEFA for 2 years in the Champions League.

There is no proof of course that City have done any wrong doing, and we can’t say they have because the club have appealed UEFA’s decision. But after a thorough investigation UEFA seem fairly confident that they have a case against City, and together with the ban they have fined the club £25m. City can deal with the fine, even though that is huge compared to say, the fines that UEFA dish out for racism, but that is for another day and another story. But City can’t deal with not being in the Champions League.

The FFP is one of contention too- so City may have overspent and UEFA do not like how clubs can be run. At the same time the flip side to that argument would be how were City ever going to be able to catch up to Manchester United their eternal rivals? How were they going to be a force in Europe? FFP seems to target clubs who want to make investments and challenge the bigger teams. Are UEFA trying to stifle the progress of new clubs and just keep the Real Madrid’s, Barcelona’s and Bayern Munich’s happy?

Of course in an ideal world the FFP rules would make sense. But ideal and football doesn’t go together, at least in the top tier’s, it really doesn’t. When TV deals are being negoitated in one country to show live football for upwards of £3 billion over a 3 year period, that is off the ball in itself and makes no sense the money being talked about so TV can show a games of football. For this UEFA look out of their depth even if their initial plans was to make football fairer, it actually is doing the opposite. Maybe that is why we are seeing the same teams win the Champions League?

But City may not have a leg to stand on if they have done wrong and it is proven. Even if you don’t agree with the FFP rules surely every club had to sign up for it? City must have and if those rules have been broken, then what would be the excuse? Still there is so much power in football and City will certainly fight their case, one thing is sure we will learn just how much power and influence UEFA have in today’s game, and if City win the appeal it would seem that they would have fairly little.

There’s quite a fall out to be had too. Have UEFA shot themselves in the foot for example? If Europe’s most powerful clubs feel stifled by their budgets and spending, could they be banned in the future? Will the clubs simply form a breakaway from UEFA or create a Super League which has been touted for years? Do the big clubs need UEFA if they don’t like their rules?

Also for City if they are banned surely that will mean the end for Pep Guardiola. He has hinted he would stay, but really would he, when he is going to leave in the summer of 2021 anyway? Some of their stars could leave too, and whilst City would still remain a quality team and powerful one, if the appeal loses one suspects it could knock the club back a few good years.

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Three players Manchester City should target in the summer

Currently 22 points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool, it’s clear that Manchester City must strengthen in the summer or risk falling further behind Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side.

Whilst Manchester City haven’t exactly been terrible this season, the points gap to the league leaders is astronomical. But that just goes to show just how strong Liverpool are this campaign, with a slip up looking extremely unlikely. Continue reading

Was Guardiola right to say he would be seen as a failure with no Champions League win?

This past weekend Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said that people would see him as a failure if Manchester City did not win the Champions League under him, but was he right, or just being very hard on himself?

Under Guardiola City are playing their best football in the history of the club and they have won 2 league titles from the four possible to him. In his first season he had to see, Chelsea win the league, then City won two in a row amassing an incredible 198 points, an unbelievable total. This season Liverpool are surely going to win it and might break every record along the way.

But trophy wise Guardiola has won 7 with City in his 3 seasons so far. We can’t count this season given that the club are in the final of the Carabao Cup, there is also the FA Cup and Champions League to look at too, even if the league looks gone.

This is all well and good and being dominating especially in the Carabao Cup has been excellent, but then again it is England’s second cup. To suggest Guardiola has not done a good job at City is plain silly of course. It is not just what the club have achieved on the pitch. It is also the mentality which he has installed in his players. His one to one chats, the fact that he can understand problems at the club before they happen, he is an absolute master of this and the run his players had to achieve to fend off Liverpool last season was simply incredible. Remember as champions all of the pressure was on them.

But it is true there is that lingering feeling that City have not won the Champions League and it comes about very naturally when you see all of the money the club have spent. And of course they have Guardiola who won 2 Champions Leagues with Barcelona in the space of 3 years.

Guardiola was so successful at Barcelona he has become a victim of his own success. He has not won the Champions League since 2011 and what is happening with City happened at Bayern Munich- all dominant in the league but in Europe they kept falling short under Guardiola. But does anyone seriously think he failed in Germany? Surely not.

City will have to conquer Real Madrid in the knock out rounds when the competition resumes this month. This isn’t the same Madrid from a couple of years ago but then again City have looked fragile too, having lost 6 games this season in the league. Of note a Guardiola led team has never lost more than six games in a single season.

So failure seems the wrong word if Pep does not achieve European glory. Could have done better would be the teachers report though, only because of the money spent and the bar that Guardiola has raised from football.

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A Premier League winter break? Not really as the brand can never rest

When a Premier League winter break was announced to begin this season football fans in England took that as the gospel truth, but like the use of VAR, in England everything gets tweaked.

Germany is most famous for its winter breaks which can last 5 weeks, although this season it was shorter. In Spain, Italy and France football stops for Christmas and players get roughly two weeks off from playing games. In England of course it has always been different with up to 4 games played over the Christmas period. For fans it has always been very exciting mixing up the holiday season with a bit of football.

Starting with Arsene Wenger’s arrival in the Premier League, a whole host of the best talent has come from the continent to manage teams and there has been mutterings about having the same breaks as the other major leagues. Only a few years ago it seemed that the Premier League could lose its Christmas games, before the most influential managers like Pep Guardiola stepped down from that idea realising that thete were interfering too much in a tradition. But it was agreed by everyone that a break was needed. Why would other major leagues get it and not England?

So this season the FA have listened and the break has been scheduled to start next weekend, that is great, except there are 4 Premier League games next weekend. What gives?

The answer is obvious. The Premier League brand which is the most recognisable in world football was never really going to shut down for two weeks. Instead teams at different times will get their two weeks off this month but it will be spread out, a little bit like how the FA Cup is marketed now and UEFA has done the same with the Champions League.

It’s all about marketing and keeping that product’s vital organs pumping. One can understand that but at the same time, please do not call this a winter break that would be insulting every football fan of the Premier League.

So just to be sure the following teams will be playing next weekend that is, Everton, Crystal Palace, Brighton, Watford, Sheffield United, Bournemouth, Manchester City and West Ham. It is also interesting to note that just one of the ‘big six’ teams will be playing.

The system in place is not terrible but it is typical that the break is being staggered so the money generated from games on TV keeps rolling in and so does the interest, of course.

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