Spain Under-21 success show huge potential

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Spain’s Under-21 side deservedly lifted the European Championships trophy this summer. They defeated their German counterparts 2-1 in the final and thus extracted revenge for their loss to the same opponents in the showpiece two years prior. Following an opening day loss to Italy, La Rojita excelled throughout and once again illustrated the bright future of the Spain national team.

Whereas in 2017 the player of the tournament was midfielder Dani Ceballos – who was once again starred this time out – it was his former Real Betis teammate Fabian Ruiz, now at Napoli, who took the main plaudits. His outings were a tour de force and showed why he is developing into what can be described as a ‘complete midfielder’ in the south of Italy. Continue reading

Iker Casillas is a legend who has nothing else left to prove and should retire after heart scare

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It only feels like yesterday when Iker Casillas replaced Cesar Sanchez in goal for Real Madrid in the final absorbing minutes of the 2002 Champions League final. Real were leading the game 2-1 against Germans Bayer Leverkusen but had a poor second half where Leverkusen created wave after waves of attacking football, the game seemed destined to end 2-2. But Casillas pulled off a string of fantastic saves and although he had made a cameo part in the final he emerged as a hero, saving the day for the club who went onto win their 9th European Cup.

From that day forward Casillas established himself as Real Madrid’s No.1. goalkeeper and would keep the job between the sticks for the next 13 years. In that time he won everything a player possibly could. As Madrid’s first choice he was also naturally Spain’s too, and was part of the most successful Spanish side in history.

Casillas has spent the last four seasons at Porto after his surprise move there took place in 2015, but it felt like the right time for him to be moving on. Recently though it came as shock news to learn that Casillas had suffered a heart attack, even if mild on the training pitch. It is not something which one fathoms about happening to a 37 year old elite athlete.

Casillas is fine, he is good and that is all that really matters at this stage. But he must be incredibly shaken up and also ask why this has happened to him? He has put on a brave face in front of the media but there is no doubt that tears have been shed and part of this isn’t because he has survived and is thankful. It is also a realisation that his football career is over. Of course nothing has been made official and if Casillas can continue all good to him. But he must be fearful in some respects and he must also have the ability to protect himself and his health. Yes his career is ending perhaps 3-4 years before he would have ideally liked, but at the same time doesn’t it make sense to hang up his boots?

What does Casillas have left to prove, he has literally won every trophy one could ask for. This includes 19 trophies for Real Madrid, 5 league titles and 2 Champions Leagues. He won the league in Portugal with Porto last season. There could yet be another title this season as Porto are just 2 points behind Benfica with 2 games left to play in what should be a thrilling end to the season.

And then there is the glory with Spain. Two European Championships and a World Cup, in an extraordinary four year period.

Perhaps Casillas needs to reflect on the utterly amazing career he has had, this dreadful attack did not happen when he was 27, but at 37, he has had a 95% career in football. Simply for his health and well being he should be dropping the football gloves for the microphone of punditry and saying goodbye to his playing days- remaining a legend in any football fans eyes.

Euro Fantasy League Podcast – #31 – March Roundup – International & Domestic

EuroFantasyPodCover700x300Jamie and Dave are back with March’s edition of the Euro Fantasy League Podcast! We take a look at England, Italy and Spain’s international campaigns thus far and discuss the goings on in the respective domestic leagues, and Dave gets a little bit blinded.

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Four reasons behind Deportivo Alaves’ remarkable rise so far this campaign

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Abelardo Fernandez’s Deportivo Alaves are going through one hell of a ride this season, as they sit in sixth place within La Liga and have only lost three games since the start of the New Year. Currently one point off fourth-place Sevilla, it is no secret that the likes of Athletic Club, Celta Vigo and Villarreal are having a below par campaign, allowing the mid-table clubs to have their own special breakthrough.

Having a quick look at La Liga as a whole, the competition for the final spot for the Champions League and the Europa League spots has been quite entertaining and thrilling for the neutrals. With how high the standards are and how consistent the beautiful style of play is within the country, it is no longer a surprise that the top-tier of Spanish football is considered as the best league in Europe.

For sure, with 14 league games remaining, there will be a lot of huge upsets and magical victories before the final game of the campaign arrives. But in the mean time, the 98-year-old Basque club will look to continue to play with how they are playing, and will be hoping to get back to winning ways quickly in order for them to show how badly they want to play in the Europa League next season.

So the main question now is; what are the key factors behind Alaves’ incredible season so far?

No pushovers at home

Despite their unconvincing results away from home, El Glorioso have been able to turn Estadio de Mendizorroza into a really difficult place for the opposition to come and play football at. In 11 games of the 24 games that have been played at home this season, the side have only lost on one occasion and have conceded seven goals, showing how hard they really work on and especially off the ball.

As the team continue to carry out their duties on both sides of the pitch, Alaves have won six out of their 11 games at home, scoring a goal on 13 occasions and also having a positive goal difference of six goals. Furthermore, only the top three clubs within the league have picked up more victories than Fernandez’s men so far this season, something that the supporters will be really proud to know of.

Set-piece kings of Spain

Following the side’s recent victory and stalemate against Levant and Real Betis, it has become well known that just under 50% of Alaves’ goals this term have now been from set-pieces, which should not be a surprise if you go over the amount of physical and aerially dominant players that they possess within the squad. Due to this, they have become vastly superior at free kicks and penalties.

Considering the fact that the lack of goals was a key issue for Alaves in the last season, managing only 40 league goals throughout the campaign, the problem has kindly been solved during the summer transfer window and now the club are starting to be recognised as the set-piece kings of Spain. The six  crucial goals scored this term between Jonathan Calleri, Manu Garcia and Victor Laguardia have all been headers, three individuals who are really athletic and powerful in the air.

Old school football still works

Although, he might be seen as a narrow minded coach or an old school type of manager, Abelardo Fernandez is doing a top notch of a job at Deportivo Alaves and is close to taking the club to their highest ever La Liga points total. The style of play is not the same as Barcelona’s or Real Madrid’s, but the crucial and monumental results is why they are currently sitting in the top half of the table.

Abelardo took over an Alaves side that were once at the bottom of the league to now in the Europa League spots with a small squad in the space of 15 months. This should surely be seen as a fantastic achievement, whether the La Liga experts see him as a defensive coach or not. He gets the most out of the limited resources and funds that is provided from the board, which leads to the matter of a potential contract extension being reviewed as a key priority over the next couple of months or so.

Jony is proving to be one hell of a signing

He may only be a loan player from Malaga at the moment, but it’s no secret that Jony Rodriguez has been one of the club’s best players of the season as well as maybe one of best La Liga signings of the campaign. Since his debut for El Glorioso in August 2018, he has gone on to notch four goal and six assists in 20 league appearances, with important goals at home to Levante, Sevilla and Villarreal.

Compared to the rest of the players within the squad, he has completed the most dribbles (36), the most key passes (43) and the third most amount of shots (32). It is no wonder that he is the side’s most effective player in the final third of the pitch, an area where he links up really well with his team-mates whilst he has the invaluable instincts of when to shoot and when not to. With how important he is proving to the club and the manager, Jony signing on a permanent basis once the season comes to an end would be the most ideal outcome for all parties in the long run.

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.

Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt – The Ajax duo who are wanted at the Camp Nou

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Barcelona have spent most of the La Liga 2018/19 season sitting confidently and dominantly in first place, though, they are only one or two points ahead of the likes of Deportivo Alaves and Sevilla.

Enersto Valverde’s side beat Real Madrid on the weekend in quite some fashion, as the main man in Luis Suarez stepped up Lionel Messi’s absence and notched up a hat-trick as the Blaugrana beat Los Blancos 5-1 at home. The hosts were a couple of steps ahead of the visitors from the start of the match till the end, which also led Real Madrid’s hierarchy with no choice but to sack Julen Lopetegui.

However, the side still seem to be out of their depth and unconvincing when their key individuals are either injured or suspended. Due to this, Barcelona are not able to effectively flex their ability or strength around the pitch like they have been doing so over the last decade in Europe and in Spain.

With the main talks being on the lack of depth in defence and midfield, Barcelona are reportedly aiming for reinforcements in both areas during the January transfer window, with the latest reports stating that they are targeting a certain duo from AFC Ajax in Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt.

According to the local and reliable reports in Spain, they believe that Enersto Valverde and the Barcelona board have been keeping tabs on both De Jong and De Ligt since the start of the season.

With no further ado, it’s time to look at the duo who play for the same club and country…

Frenkie De Jong

Regarded as one of the most impressive and talented central midfielders in Europe right now, Frenkie De Jong is proving himself as an individual that is calm, cool and collected no matter which position he plays in. He has revealed his ability and composure to be able to play as a defensive midfielder and even as a centre-back, showing that he is certainly ready to play at the highest level.

Thriving from his intelligent reading of the game and the types of passes he can produce, he has a huge influence on Ajax’s aesthetically pleasing style of play and is one of the many reasons to why the Netherlands international team are expected to return to the position where they belong.

Looking at his game as a whole, De Jong has successfully completed 430 out of the 467 passes he has attempted so far this season, clearly implying that his technical ability is top notch and he has the tranquility to pass with both feet. The youngster is always positive when he is in possession of the ball, especially when he has the rock solid confidence to pick out a short or long pass when needed.

Alongside his number of abilities, the only concerning weakness is that he is a vital individual towards the way his side plays and it does come with a risk of being caught out of a defensive position, unless a teammate can step into his role if necessary. However, game after game, De Jong’s experience and understanding of the game will allow him to be at the right place at the right time.

Having produced 16 interceptions and 13 tackles in eight league appearances, the Arkel-born central midfielder is certainly managing his way of influencing the game on and off the ball. The 21-year-old has also shown the ability to lead the line in his own way, making him a player that is potentially worthy of becoming a captain in the future, whether that is at Ajax or at another club in Europe.

The Eredivise side are not expected to sell the midfielder during the January transfer window, as a deal of sorts could cause some harmony issues within the dressing room whilst it would take the Dutch club a number of weeks to a month to find the perfect replacement for Frenkie De Jong.

Matthijs De Ligt

When looking at the defenders Barcelona’s squad, both Gerard Pique and Thomas Vermaelen are coming towards their final years of their footballing career whilst Clement Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti are regarded as the two individuals the club can rely on in the long run. On the other hand, the La Liga giants would have a complete backline if they are able to bring in centre-back Matthijs De Ligt.

Pique and Umtiti are the regular starters at the heart of defence for Valverde’s men, however, the potential arrival of De Ligt would allow the team to be much more composed and dominant in possession of the ball. His burst of pace would also be helpful on both sides of the pitch, from being able to intercept or tackle as the last man defender to being utilised as a ball-playing centre-back.

The 19-year-old has already been linked with the likes of Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Real Madrid and many other well-known European clubs, clearly showing that he has the potential to be one of the best players within his position one day. Though, it will be up to the player himself to personally decide for when he is ready to make the big move to one of the best clubs in Europe.

De Ligt’s breakthrough season at Ajax came during the 2016/17 campaign, where he was producing remarkable displays as well as becoming a key member for the club that went on to reaching the UEFA Europa League finals. He finished that season with an impressive figure of over 20 appearances in all competition, which was a total dream come true for someone who was only 17 at the time.

Since then, the rising youngster from Leiderdorp has become a popular person as he is regularly watched by a large number of European football supporters. Furthermore, his incredible intelligence mentally and tactically is simply one of a kind, something that cannot be easily said for majority of the defenders that play in Europe, making him a generational talent as a complete centre-back.

Given that Matthijs De Ligt has all the tools he needs in order to thrive in La Liga, a move from Ajax to Barcelona during the January transfer window should not be ruled out all. With President Josep Maria Bartomeu and the rest of the board looking to constantly be ahead of the other European clubs on and off the pitch, they could surely aim to make a statement signing in two months time.

Should Rafa Benitez be given a second chance at Real Madrid?

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Julen Lopetegui’s job isn’t just on the line at Real Madrid, it’s basically over it after he saw his team destroyed in El Clasico by Barcelona 5-1. This has left the European champions in 9th place, so bad is this position for the club that you almost have to glance twice at the tables.

Real have now lost 40% of their games and are 7 points behind leaders Barcelona who won 5-1 without Lionel Messi who is injured. The pressure was already under Lopetegui before the game and this result will surely end his job. Club president Florentino Perez has continued to take no prisoners when he sees his team hit a bad run of form, and Madrid’s display only underlined why Zinedine Zidane decided to leave in the summer, it was absolutely perfect timing.

As for Lopetegui, if he does, as expected, get the chop he’s in no mans land. In charge of the national team, Spain he went over 20 games unbeaten but after his ill timed move to Real Madrid before the World Cup, it has all gone wrong for him, and the gamble has massively backfired. In truth Lopetegui is a good manager, but he won’t be given the time to change things around for the club.

Rumours have already surfaced that assistant coach and former player Santiago Solari will take over, but that could just be in a temporary role. Real Madrid will be looking in earnest for a new permanent manager, but who should that be?

One name that comes to mind is Rafa Benitez. Benitez of course was given the job a few seasons ago and lasted just 7 months in the hot seat. He had lost just 3 games but Perez fired Benitez for three reasons: The first was that the defeats had become significant against their title rivals. The second was that he didn’t have a grip of the dressing room and the third led to a huge error where Madrid were ejected from the Copa del Rey after they played an ineligible player. It was, to put it mildly a bit of a circus.

But some credit needs to go to Benitez- a very decent manager. He took over at Championship side Newcastle United, then got them promoted to the Premier League and then received no backing from the chairman. Newcastle look destined for a relegation dog fight this season and if Madrid come knocking for Benitez surely he would go.

Benitez loves the club and his career has swarmed in and around Real. He has tons of experience in Spain, notably with Valencia. He could be the calm that the team need in the heat of Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure which has surely rocked the club. Other coaches will be amongst the favourites to be the next Madrid manager, but perhaps the right choice is staring Perez in the face.

 

 

Marcus Rashford should be happy to be at Manchester United

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Marcus Rashford is making the headlines again after scoring for England this week in their famous 3-2 victory over Spain in Seville. The goal mixed with the win has put some media into hyper drive about the 20 year old, that he is the next best player to emerge from England, but is that so?

Rashford does have a lot to be thankful for and most of that praise has to be lauded onto Louis van Gaal, the previous Manchester United coach. It was van Gaal that saw potential in the youngster and promoted him to the first team and played him. Perhaps van Gaal was reminded of a young Patrick Kluivert and his youthful Ajax team who stunned European football with a superb Champions League win in 1995.

If it wasn’t for van Gaal, Rashford may be playing in the English Championship because Jose Mourinho the current coach of United surely would not have spotted him in the youth set up. Mourinho has a habit of only catching the worlds superstars and rarely goes for youth, tending to loan these players out.

Rashford has proved over the last 3 seasons with United to be a good player but not a great one. Although we must take into account his age we could also look over to France and see that Kylian Mbappe is a year younger and has scored many more goals and won more trophies including the World Cup this summer. Mbappe is a special player and already being touted as a great. Of course we shouldn’t put too much pressure on Rashford but pundits suggesting that the player is a great one is wide of the mark and they are only repeating history and hyping up players to world class level when in reality they are not.

Rashford has never scored more than 7 Premier League goals in a season and this was from 35 games. His total for United is 33 goals from 130 games. If he was in his mid 20s this would be a poor record. But he should get a pass given his age.

No one is suggesting that Rashford is a poor player but the truth is Rashford should be happy that he is playing for a top 4 side in one of the strongest leagues in the world. As for Jose Mourinho he has worked with some of the best forwards in the game and though he can’t publicly say it he will feel that Rashford is not up to the level for his age just yet. Of course there is room for improvement, and for the advancement of Rashford’s career, let’s hope he is given the time to go and prove it before being hyped before his time.

Will the UEFA Nations League survive in the long run?

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There has, of course, been no domestic football around Europe in the top leagues now for the past 9 days and that will stretch to two weeks because the UEFA Nations League has taken over the football calendar, but is the new competition really good for football in general, and will it be able to survive?

On the face of it the Nations League seems like a great idea, instead of meaningless friendlies which were always about box office receipts why not have international teams play each other and it means something? And that’s what the Nations League is in a nutshell, come next June one nation will be holding aloft a trophy.

However with UEFA there is always a catch, and this one is that only the best teams can win the trophy. Rankings are in place which means the likes of Scotland or Sweden can’t actually win the tournament. They are in different leagues and the best they can do is be promoted from said league and try to work their way up to league A in order to have a chance to win.

But is the Nations League that important and relevant? In general international teams are putting out strong squads but Portugal have still rested Cristiano Ronaldo, something that would never happen if a major tournament was taking place. And let’s not forget the introduction of the Nations League hasn’t killed the friendly game which is still taking place.

Qualification for major tournaments has now been pushed back, so instead of matches to qualify for Euro 2020 taking place in September those games do now not start until next March. It seems that the Nations League is simply adding another unwanted competition to the list of games and players are looking all the more fatigued for it.

And what of the winners of the competition? If for example England were to win it, but what it matter? It would be their first trophy since winning the World Cup in 1966, but it isn’t the World Cup and it isn’t the European Championships. In short it feels like the Intertoto Cup of the International arena.

Perhaps the best solution would have been for the Nations League to never have materialised and still have a greater number of friendlies reduced, because international matches and becoming like adverts between a major movie. It is becoming harder and harder to get engrossed with the major leagues, every time the drama reaches fever pitch, the Nations League and friendlies kick which has the ability to bring us all down.

It would be no surprise, if in 10 or 15 years time the Nations League is something consigned to history, many other minor international cup competitions have fallen on their own sword and the introduction of the event seems like a money grab.

Suso sweetens the International break for AC Milan fans

The International break is normally not something that fans look forward to, but at least this time Milan fans have been given a bit more entertainment thus far, despite the fact that the likes of Cutrone, Higuain and Romagnoli stayed at home. Suso, however, was rightfully called into action. 

After a fantastic start to the season, this was the Spaniard’s chance to prove that his brilliant displays are not only limited to AC Milan and Serie A. Playing from start in Spain’s friendly against Wales, the winger had a hand in all four goals, getting the assist on two of them. In addition to this, he hit the bar with a great curling effort, cutting in on his lethal left foot. Continue reading