Monday, December 30, 2013

New Year, New Faces?

Written by Ashwin Raja.

The end of the year always brings with it a feeling of joy and optimism. After all, it's the season of hope and merriment. It's no different for the footballing world either. The teams that are riding on a high will hope to see their form continue, and bear fruit as silverware at the end of the season. On the other hand, those at the deep end of things will be praying for a re-invigoration of spirit; a fresh lease on life so to speak.

The footballing community have not just the opening of the transfer window to look forward to, but also the beginning of a World Cup year. The January window can be an incredibly trying, but also a promising time for clubs and players alike. For clubs, their relative activity or inactivity can make a world of difference whether they are in a title scrap or relegation dog-fight. For players, the choice of club can either make or break them. Take for instance, Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres who both made big money moves in January that proved to be ill-fated. However don't let the stories of Carroll and Torres fool you, there have always been a few diamonds in the rough. Edin Dzeko, Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, are just a few.

 Here are eight of the top names that could swap clubs:

1. Iker Casillas (Real Madrid):

Saint Iker, as he is affectionately known by the Madridistas continues to find himself on the bench even after the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti. Such has been the form of Diego Lopez, that he has hardly been able to force his way back into the starting eleven, with the exception of the Champions League matches. With the re-emergence of Victor Valdes, his spot in the Spanish national team that has for a long time been set in stone is now under threat. Nothing but regular playing time can allay his fears.Though he has made public his desire to stay and help Madrid achieve La Decima, he has embraced that a move away would be his best option. Though a permanent move may not be on the cards, a loan is certainly a possibility.

2. Leighton Baines (Everton):

After holding on to their star left back in the summer, Everton's resolve will once again be put to the test as David Moyes will look to infuse some quality into a lack-lustre Manchester United team. Despite Baines being nowhere near his best so far, Everton boast the strongest defense in the Premier League alongside leaders Arsenal and are sitting pretty in 4th spot. Seamus Coleman has been a revelation this season and if Baines does go to United, they can be content knowing they may potentially have a player of his ilk already coming up.

3. Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid):

If there is one constant in football's ever changing landscape, it has to be Atletico Madrid having a world class striker. Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, Radamel Falcao and now Diego Costa. The powerful Brazilian has been in scintillating form hitting the 20 goal mark in no time at all. Granted that Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been hampered by injuries, it still takes something speical to be topping the goal scoring charts half way through the season, and it will not have gone unnoticed by the top clubs in Europe.

4. Koke (Atletico Madrid):

It is rather poetic that Koke, who also goes by his birth-name of Jorge Resurrección Merodio, could be the man that completes the mid-season resurrection of Manchester United. After a horrendous start to the season that many attributed to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, the glue that has bonded the United dressing room for as long as memory can serve, they have staged a commendable recovery. In the absence of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney has certainly come to the fore. Nonetheless, David Moyes will have noted the appalling lack of creativity in midfield and Koke could be the answer.

5. Dimitar Berbatov (Fulham):

Despite having a below par season the previous year, it came as a bit of a surprise when Manchester United let Berbatov go in the summer of 2012. United's record signing since joining Fulham hasn't set the goal scoring charts ablaze, but has shown flashes of brilliance, albeit too sporadically. His astute awareness, finishing and aerial ability do not seemed to have deserted him however. With Fulham struggling to avoid relegation, Berbatov will certainly be weighing up his options and a move to Arsenal is not unfathomable. With an abundance of flair and creativity in the Gunners' midfield he will not be left wanting of service and at the same time solve their problem of sparse attacking options besides Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, who prefers a wide role rather than the number nine role of late.

6. Adam Lallana (Southampton):

It has been a stellar year for Adam Lallana, having won his first England call up and spear heading Southampton's charge for a top 7 finish. Ever since, Maurecio Pochettino arrived on the south coast, Southampton have been playing some vibrant, attacking football, and none have benefited from that more than Adam Lallana. His natural drive and vision go hand in glove with Pochettino's style of play and he has been a regular goal scorer and creator. His age (25) is also a big point in his favor as he continues to notch up admirers that include Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and David Moyes. It may be a long shot, but if not now, the top clubs will definitely come calling in the summer.

7. Daniel Agger (Liverpool):

Napoli have strongly been linked the Danish center back and could take advantage of his lack of game time at Liverpool. Following a freak gym injury, Agger has had a hard time to break back into the starting eleven as Brendan Rodgers continues to persist with Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel in the center of defense. His allegiance to Liverpool is unquestionable, but a reunion with Rafa Benitez could be tempting as he looks for some game time ahead of the World Cup.

8. Mohamed Salah (FC Basel):

Dubbed the 'Egyptian Messi' in following with the customary tradition these days of likening any up and coming talent with the Argentinian, Mohamed Salah has impressed with a series of consistent, if not spectacular performances for Basel in both the domestic league as well as the Champions League. His performance against Chelsea caught the eye as he tormented the Blues' defense with some real pace and trickery and scored in both legs. Liverpool are believed to firm favorites to snap him up as they look to offset their lack of wide options.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Round of 16 Champions League Draw 2013/14

UEFA recently held their ceremonial drawing of the Champions League round of 16 stage, and there's a variety of enticing draws especially for Arsenal and Manchester City. Here's the results of the draw below:

Manchester City FC v FC Barcelona
Olympiacos FC v Manchester United FC
AC Milan v Club Atlético de Madrid
Bayer 04 Leverkusen v Paris Saint-Germain
Galatasaray AŞ v Chelsea FC
FC Schalke 04 v Real Madrid CF
FC Zenit v Borussia Dortmund
Arsenal FC v FC Bayern München

Although there's a definite excitement about the Arsenal v Bayern and Manchester City v Barcelona, I'm really looking forward to see AC Milan v Atletico Madrid. A stern test for Diego Simeone's team to really start the knockout phase of the competition on a strong foot, and to prove that Atletico Madrid can contend for a variety of silverware. There's also something to be said about Drogba getting a chance to return to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea hasn't quite managed to truly find its groove, but Mourinho will have a chance to show if he can conquer Europe again like he did back with Inter Milan and Porto.

What are your favourite ties? Share your thoughts and predictions in the comments.

Friday, December 6, 2013

2014 FIFA World Cup Groups Drawn... and Possibly Fixed

Is this the toughest group of the 2014 World Cup?
The final draw of the 2014 World Cup groups has been made, and there's a definite certainty for some big nations to face early elimination as a variety of "Groups of death" have been formed. Here are the groups below:

Group A - Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon
Group B - Spain, Netherlands, Chile, Australia
Group C - Colombia, Greece, Côte d’Ivoire, Japan 
Group D - Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy 
Group E - Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras
Group F - Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria 
Group G - Germany, Portugal, Ghana, USA
Group H - Belgium, Algeria, Russia, Korea Republic

It's fairly difficult to properly identify which of these groups is truly the "Group of death", groups B, D, and G will be attracting the majority of attention with some big clashes like Spain - Netherlands, Italy - England, and Germany - Portugal. One must consider that various "dark horse" teams like Belgium, Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, and the Ivory Coast are in strong positions to make it out of the group stages, and with the possibility of a few top nations being knocked out early in the groups of death, these groups could lead to one of the most surprising and entertaining World Cups yet.

If all of this isn't enough to get you mildly interested in FIFA's big tournament, perhaps the possibility of this whole draw being fixed (as this Twitter account suggests) will manage to grab your attention. This account tweeted the World Cup groups before the draw, even predicting details like Italy's move from the fourth pot to the second pot. There are some who suggest the account might have tweeted every possible group possibility, and then deleted the incorrect ones, however for now nobody is sure.

With the groups as exciting as they are, what are your early predictions on which teams will make it into the second stage? What are your opinions on the possibility of the draw being fixed? Share your comments below!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

FIFA 14 Xbox 360/PS3 Review: Revolution in Progress

A quick heads up before you begin reading, this is a very long review, feel free to read it all or you can take a look at the sections which interest you (the review is split up into chunks, each with a bolded title). At the end, I have a final "overall" section where I sum everything up if you're not interested in reading all the sections.

FIFA 14 has come around at a strange time in the videogame industry. While it was still released in the usual early fall, with this release there's the looming presence of next-gen consoles, something which has undoubtedly played a large role in the decisions EA has made with the newest edition of FIFA. The brand-new "Ignite" engine will be powering the next-generation version of FIFA, and the advancements on the current older engine sometimes seem like they're waiting for the next-gen step up in horsepower. However don't be scared, FIFA 14 on the current generation has made significant changes which have definitely improved the game. Having said this, it will be very interesting to see the difference between FIFA 14 on the current-generation systems, and what the next-generation looks like when it's powered by "Ignite".

Undoubtedly, many will wonder about how much the new engine will truly matter. After all, EA isn't boasting about any grandiose new features coming on the next-gen version, but rather seems to be emphasizing how much more noticeable a lot of  FIFA 14's current-gen improvements will be when running on the Playstation 4 or Xbox One. Crowds will be rendered even better (you'll see home and away sections of the crowd cheering when their side scores), headers will now consist of multiple players jostling and jumping (a prospect which could make corners much more realistic), and it seems like there's a general tighter feel when it comes to player momentum which on the current gen can sometimes seem unrealistic in the slowness of certain animations. Looking at the next-gen version, it's hard not to feel that perhaps many of FIFA 14's changes simply don't have the same impact without "Ignite" powering them. Having said this, the changes that EA have brought to the current generation of FIFA are very much appreciated, and are a significant step closer to achieving a more robust and realistic soccer/football experience.

First Impression

Over the past few years, picking up to play a brand new FIFA game has always required a bit of adaptive versatility, but never too much. We gamers have had to change our way of playing as EA has made changes to the game, but so many fundamental mechanics of FIFA are ingrained in every new edition. This year has been been the biggest test of our adaptability, as the changes made have forced a re-learning of FIFA and the way we play it.

Just about everyone's first impressions of FIFA 14 were quick to highlight that the game has become "slower". The days of sprinting through the midfield are definitively over, as the new first-touch system along with the larger roles that momentum and physicality play now have forced players to approach the game in a much more controlled way. It's not that FIFA 14 is too slow, it's that FIFA 13 was too fast. Last year's edition was dominated by speedy wingers which could shred through just about any defence when counter-attacking. Constantly knocking the ball out wide, to then sprint through the opposing back four wasn't a proper reflection of how actual soccer/football is played.

Now on FIFA 14, one of the first things you'll notice is that when the ball is knocked forward by your player, this immediately opens the opportunity for a defender to muscle their way in front of you. While when playing FIFA 13 my right trigger (the "run fast" button) was just about permanently depressed, FIFA 14 has become about lifting your right index finger off that trigger, and instead keeping tight close control of the ball. Shielding is paramount to keeping possession now, as is ensuring a clean first-touch when receiving passes.

A lot of FIFA players (including me) found their first attempts with FIFA 14 slightly jarring, and I had to lower the difficulty settings, take a deep breath, and consciously pay attention and learn how to use the new gameplay mechanics to their best.


The folks at EA tend to do a pretty good job when it comes to presentation. Menus have been revamped making for an easier to navigate (and stylish) experience, but it seems like at certain points there's some problems with the speed and responsiveness. Sadly, this happens also when managing your team which can be fairly frustrating.

While the new menus are snazzy, there are occasional moments of framerate dips when managing your team.
As for things like matchday presentation, EA maintains their top quality from FIFA 13, but doesn't add too much to the formula. Stadiums have a better feel than FIFA 13 (which isn't hard now that the crowd looks a bit less like paper cutouts), and a lot of the top players are incredibly realistic, from their body type to the details on their face. However there's an immediate distinction between the immaculate crafting of top-level players and the players who haven't had the same attention placed upon them. You'll probably start to notice the same few facial models appearing on players, which can be a bit annoying depending on how much you see of the well-known players which EA could have invested a bit more time in.

If you have any worries about presentation, it seems like the next-gen versions are where EA have truly stepped it up when it comes to creating that elusive full stadium and match-day feel. The current-gen does its best with the usual solid commentary which while satisfies the basic needs, never strives to impress. Although in Career mode there's an attempt to have the pre-game talk be dynamic about how your team and players are doing in the season, after a few matches you can begin to anticipate what you're going to hear.


FIFA 14 has managed to really stir up the core gameplay elements in this release, and ultimately it's all for the better. The changes to first touch make changes of possession more frequent and realistic, and the slightly improved AI of your teammates provides more options when going forward. However with their increased attacking runs, your teammates sometimes get in the way of your goalbound shots, and can take up offside positions sometimes too early leading to some fairly frustrating moments.

Putting some frustrations aside, the improved and varied shooting types are interesting, yet you're never fully in control to decide what type of a shot you want to unleash. It's not quite "hit and hope", as you're often able to coax the game into shooting a specific way, although be prepared for moments when your player's shot isn't quite what you were expecting it to be. Dribbling is much harder considering that the days of sprinting past defenders are over, and because of this successful dribbling is much more satisfying. Maintaining tight control, shielding the ball from defenders, and making sure not to hold onto the ball too much are now the key mechanics which reign supreme. While they're definitely a lot to learn and perfect, they truly raise the level of similarity to real football/soccer while deepening the systems behind maintaining possession.

The passing sadly lags behind, as it doesn't see similar improvements and can often be difficult to fully manipulate as you intend. A large part of this seems to be affected by the first-touch system, which depends very much on the pace and angle of the pass coming towards the player. Although one can bump most of the settings to assisted and deal less with this unimproved (yet core) mechanic, when playing on semi-assisted or manual there are certain puzzling moments in which a pass is incredibly imprecise or underpowered.

Yet for all the annoyances, the gameplay has surely changed for the better. When playing in career mode and other single player modes, the new gameplay mechanics make for a well balanced and varied football/soccer simulation. Players have more freedom in the way they construct their attacks, there isn't a "right way" to go about playing the game, and this ultimately forces creativity in the way players breaking down defences.

Final thoughts/Overall

It's difficult to truly understand the changes made to FIFA 14 until you've actually played it. In terms of gameplay mechanics, EA has pushed its players to adapt as the switch to the next-generation looms. Although there are some changes to Career Mode which give things like scouting and searching for new transfer targets a fresh feel (for a while), there are many areas in which FIFA 14 is obviously waiting for the hardware power to catch up.

However don't let this dissuade you too much from FIFA 14 on the current generation of consoles. There are many improvements, refinements, and a lot of well-thought changes which make this the best version of FIFA available right now. If you're not going to be adopting the next-generation consoles anytime soon, then FIFA 14 will undoubtedly satisfy the cravings you have for a soccer/football gaming experience. Yet keep in mind that FIFA 14 will shine at its brightest on the next-gen consoles with the Ignite engine powering better presentation, more animations, and stronger mechanics.

I'll be reviewing the next-gen version of FIFA 14 as soon as I get a chance to pick up a new console and a copy of the game. Until then, I'll be more than happy to continue playing FIFA 14 on the current-generation.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

France, Portugal, and more Qualify for 2014 World Cup

It's fair to say that France's national team has been one of the most entertaining sides when it comes to their off-field antics in the past few years, but after their 3-0 home victory there seems to be a possibility of some on-field entertainment as well. After hearing the statistics of Ukraine's sturdy defence, and knowing that never before had a team overcome a 2-0 deficit to qualify for the World Cup, the uncertainty around France's chances were genuine. However with a variety of tap-ins and own goals, Deschamps has been given a lifeline. Just enough of a lifeline to reach the same tragic end as Raymond Domenech did in 2010.

While we'll be looking at the French team for tales of tragic fall in 2014, for the present Zlatan Ibrahimovic's exclusion from the tournament will have to suffice. In a battle between two of the biggest egos around, we were finally given a fitting spectacle as Portugal sealed their qualification winning 3-2. The only names on the scoresheet were those of Zlatan and Cristiano, and although the big Swede shall be missed in Brazil, it seemed impossible not to have Ronaldo there. Now having knocked Ibrahimovic out of the World Cup, and with Messi sidelined due to his hamstring (although he did pick up his 3rd golden boot recently), Ronaldo is really pushing to be the top name for this year's Ballon d'Or.

The teams that have managed to qualify along with France and Portugal are Greece and Croatia, the latter with a defender stirring up controversy. After having received three yellows in 2006, Simunic is raising his levels of troublemaking from Tom and Jerry-esque fooling of Graham Poll to pro-nazi chants in celebration of his nation's qualification. When asked about them, he didn't seem to show any remorse or awareness of the rather heightened level of discomfort he could be propagating with his chants, and instead felt that people should study their history better.

There's the general hope that FIFA will awaken from their usual dull daze to address this issue, because honestly, it would be great to have a World Cup without Nazism. However that might all have to wait for a while, as Sepp seems to be worrying about work condition issues surrounding Qatar and the 2022 World Cup. Perhaps our constant criticism of the one man able to keep the sanctity (or the little that remains) of the World Cup intact should be directed to those that exploit workers and start pro-Nazi chants, although, it seems that Sepp's workload (and the criticism he receives) will not be lightening anytime soon.

Monday, October 28, 2013

FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013 Shortlist Revealed

FIFA have recently revealed the 23 man shortlist for the 2013 Ballon d'Or award, along with the ten nominees for the FIFA World Coach of the year award. The final winners will be revealed January 13th 2014, along with the FIFA FIFPro World XI, FIFA Puskás Award (most beautiful goal of the year), FIFA Presidential Award, and FIFA Fair Play Award.

Listed below are the 23 players with the chance to claim the 2013 Ballon d'Or:

Gareth Bale (Wales)
Edinson Cavani (Uruguay)
Radamel Falcao (Colombia)
Eden Hazard (Belgium)
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Sweden)
Andrés Iniesta (Spain)
Philipp Lahm (Germany)
Robert Lewandowski (Poland)
Lionel Messi (Argentina)
Thomas Müller (Germany)
Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Neymar (Brazil)
Mesut Özil (Germany)
Andrea Pirlo (Italy)
Franck Ribéry (France)
Arjen Robben (Netherlands)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany)
Luis Suárez (Uruguay)
Thiago Silva (Brazil)
Yaya Touré (Côte d’Ivoire)
Robin Van Persie (Netherlands)
Xavi (Spain)

And here are the ten coaches nominated for FIFA World Coach of the year:

Carlo Ancelotti (Italy/Paris Saint-Germain FC/Real Madrid CF)
Rafael Benítez (Spain/Chelsea FC/SSC Napoli)
Antonio Conte (Italy/Juventus)
Vicente Del Bosque (Spain/Spain national team)
Sir Alex Ferguson (Scotland/Manchester United FC former coach)
Jupp Heynckes (Germany/FC Bayern München former coach)
Jürgen Klopp (Germany/Borussia Dortmund)
José Mourinho (Portugal/Real Madrid CF/Chelsea FC)
Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazil/Brazil national team)
Arsène Wenger (France/Arsenal FC).

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Ballon d'Or list is the absence of Wayne Rooney among the nominees. With Messi and Ronaldo probably amongst the top names, is there the possibility of a new name cracking through to claim the prestigious reward? While I'm definitely rooting for Zlatan, if Neymar continues to dazzle like he did in the recent Clasico then perhaps the decision could be much more difficult than it has been in past years. As for the coaches, while it would definitely be nice to see Sir Alex Ferguson get the award as a final recognition after his retirement, it's very difficult to look past Jupp Heynckes. After claiming the treble last season with Bayern Munich, Heynckes seems to be the favorite for the coaching award.

What are your thoughts about the shortlists? Is anyone being left out? Who do you think will claim the 2013 FIFA Ballon d'Or and FIFA World Coach of the year? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Barcelona Claim El Clasico in Tight 2-1 Victory

The first Clasico of La Liga has come at an incredibly interesting time of the season. With second placed Atletico Madrid the main underdog success story of La Liga and Zlatan Ibrahimovic conquering Europe’s attention in the midweek, Barcelona and Real Madrid (along with Messi and Ronaldo) had a lot to prove in this upcoming Clasico. Barcelona have come out ahead in the Camp Nou with a 2-1 victory which featured fantastic performances from so many individual players.

As the first half began with a tentative and defensive Real Madrid keeping Messi away from the play, Barcelona continuously poked at the holes in the Madrid defence. It was Iniesta who eventually slipped Neymar a through ball which the Brazilian finished past Diego Lopez. Neymar’s increasingly confident and dominating performance was in stark contrast with the world’s most expensive player Gareth Bale, who just wasn’t able to integrate himself into Real Madrid’s play during their sparse moments of possession.

Real Madrid’s reaction came about laboriously with extreme caution. Ancelotti was always certain to leave a few fellows behind for Messi who was kept fairly quiet on the right flank, leaving Iniesta, Neymar, and Fabregas plenty of space to combine and entertain. While Modric did his best to tighten up his side’s possession when possible, the lack of Ozil’s presence was incredibly apparent in the difficulty Real had knitting together the midfield and attack. Although Los Blancos eventually forced a tough save from Valdes when Ronaldo crossed to Khedira for stretched shot, the first half scoreline of 1-0 a rightful reflection of the Blaugrana superiority.

The proper reaction came from Real Madrid in the second half, with much more aggressive and attacking play. Ten minutes into the half Ancelotti decides to substitute already booked Sergio Ramos for Illarramendi, and the match opened itself up to an amazing display from both teams. Barcelona were always looking to punish Real with Neymar who woke Diego Lopez up with a powerful close range volley which the keeper parried away. Bale was taken off ten minutes later (an incredibly quiet performance from the world’s most expensive player), replaced by Benzema while Gerardo Martino put in Alexis Sanchez for Fabregas towards the 70th. Just a couple of minutes later the Frenchman blasted the bottom the crossbar with a long range shot which seemed destined for the top corner.

As both sides continued to play with an intoxicating attacking vigour, the coaches fought their tactical battle: Ancelotti replacing Di Maria with Jese Rodriguez and Martino taking off Iniesta for Alexandre Song. It was the substitutes which began to dominate the game as Alexis Sanchez doubled Barcelona’s lead with an exquisite long range chip. Both sides continued to attack, and Real Madrid finally got a deserved goal with Jese Rodriguez finishing past Valdes after being fed a fantastic assist from Cristiano Ronaldo in the 91st minute to make it 2-1 just at the end of the match.

This was a Clasico to remember with the best performances not just being Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s, it was Neymar who left his mark on the game, scoring the first assisting Sanchez for the second. The Brazilian boy from Santos has integrated himself seamlessly into Barcelona’s system, dismantling the Real defence and proving to be the true signing of the summer thus far in La Liga. Real Madrid’s performance (especially in the second half) deserves definite praise, Ancelotti probably feeling fairly unlucky that Ronaldo wasn’t given a penalty when he was bumped by last man Mascherano in the box. However it was Barcelona who claimed the three points of this pivotal clash, now six points ahead of Real Madrid and just four ahead of Atletico Madrid who have a game in hand tomorrow against Real Betis.

What were your thoughts on Barcelona's victory? Which player impressed you the most? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ibrahimovic Delights as 2014 World Cup Approaches

Paris Saint Germain's forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic can now be truly classified as an unstoppable goalscoring force, especially as he has been propelling PSG to the top of the Ligue 1 and their Champions League group with increasingly stunning performances. Last weekend in Ligue Un he brought back his kung-fu goalscoring style to produce a stunning backheel goal to open the scoring in his side's 4-0 weekend win over Bastia (he finished that match off with a brace). Ibra has now followed up with four fantastic goals in PSG's 5-0 victory over Anderlecht in Belgium (Cavani tucked one away as well with a lovely finish). While the debate regarding Messi and Ronaldo as this generation's best soccer/football player seems ever present, it seems about right to eye big Zlatan as a potential challenger after his latest performances.

With the upcoming summer World Cup in Brazil a chance for every top player to imprint his name in history, Ibrahimovic will have a direct chance to assert himself as the name to remember in the next international break's upcoming FIFA World Cup Qualifier match when Sweden and Portugal face off. At 32 years old this might be Ibra's last possible World Cup, making this upcoming summer the perfect time to see the big Swede in his prime. If the Swedish striker can conjure up a decisive goal for his side to knock Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo's out of the upcoming World Cup, it would difficult not to consider him one of the top names of the upcoming Ballon d'Or list.

There's still plenty of time to assess how those top names will rank, especially with this weekend's upcoming Clasico in La Liga when Barcelona host Real Madrid. Meanwhile Zlatan's PSG side will be travelling to face Saint-Etienne, giving the forward a chance to score a few against a side which has only gotten four points from a possible 15 in their last five fixtures. With 45 goals in his 61 games for PSG (in all competitions) I'm expecting to see Zlatan's name on the scoresheet probably alongside Cavani's. Whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic will earn his spot at the top of the Ballon d'Or list, there is no doubt that Ibrahimovic is conquering France along with Europe with his increasingly amazing goals.

Do you think Ibrahimovic is worthy of the Ballon d'Or? What will it take for him to be worthy? And what about El Clasico? Share your thoughts and predictions below!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

England Secure Spot in Brazil with 2-0 Win Over Poland

There are very few nations which pile the pressure upon their own team the way England does. There was undoubtedly an immense amount of anxiety within Wembley at the start of this final match of World Cup qualifying between England and Poland. Both sides started with a high and frantic tempo, charging at each other constantly trying to establish dominance.

England's start was fairly shaky with poor marking forcing the defenders to correct their mistakes with last-second dramatic tackles, perhaps a secret tactic by Roy Hodgson to fire up the Wembley crowd with some good old fashioned English physicality. If it was a secret tactic it was a risky one, as Lewandowski put one of the best chances of the match wide, almost giving the lead to Poland. Lewandowski and Błaszczykowski were the primary sources of danger for Poland, both of them using their speed to counter-attack whenever England got too comfortable.

As for England, it was Andros Townsend providing England with its biggest opportunities. His incessant running on the right side provided the forwards some great chances from his crosses. After earning England a multitude of corners, Towsnsend curled a swooping shot onto the crossbar with Szczęsny stopping Sturridge's shot which followed. The other England player playing with the same hunger and vivacity as Townsend was on the other flank, Baines was constantly slipping in behind the Polish right side eventually providing Rooney a perfectly placed cross to head in for the lead.

England reached their apex of their performance in the second part of the first half, steadying their defence by maintaining better possession and then bursting forward with incredible vigour. Hodgson's team had created a multitude of chances in the first half, only to be thwarted by poor finishing or Szczęsny's gloves. With Baines constantly surging forward on the left hand side, this allowed Welbeck to drift into the box, forcing Poland to keep track of the two Manchester United forwards along with Daniel Sturridge. While the Polish central defenders gave Rooney acres of space to score at the end of the first half, it was a deserved lead for an impressive England side.

As the second half commenced England never managed to find the intensity they had in the first half. Roy Hodgson tried to solve this problem by replacing the fairly inert Carrick with Frank Lampard, yet his side still couldn't quite achieve a smooth attacking flow. Sturridge was taken off with about ten minutes left, giving Jack Wilshere a chance to knit together the midfield alongside the final substitute of James Milner who replaced a tired Townsend a few minutes later. As the minutes ticked away to the end of the game, in the 88th minute Steven Gerrard secured England's place in the 2014 World Cup with a direct run through the heart of the polish defence, poking the ball into the back of the net for the final result of 2-0.

There was a lot of nervous negativity before these two crucial matches for England, but Hodgson has shown that his England side can play with a surprising amount of attacking fluidity. While there are some possible worries regarding some of the defending, there's still plenty of time until England have to travel to Brazil.

What did you think of England's performance against Poland? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Manchester United's Weighty Hopes for Young Adnan Januzaj

The sound that's being sneezed out of just about everyone's mouths these days is that of "Adnan Januzaj". What before was just a blending of vowels and soft sounding consonants has now become the prodigal son which Manchester United have already hurled their hopes and dreams upon for the season. While Januzaj's second goal could be considered "one-of-a-kind", I can't help but feel some mystical sense of déjà vu as this Manchester United youngster has burst into the side with a fantastic performance. That feeling was present throughout the match, during his gliding runs, winning goals, along with his now forgotten dive. Moyes will be glad that now he too has a speedy, diving, goal-scoring phenomenon to take care of, just like the many his predecessor Ferguson had.

And speaking of the red-nosed retired manager, the young Belgian/Kosovan/Albanian was basically a parting gift from Old Saint Ferguson, and now it's up to Moyes to use him properly. There's been a fair share of Fergie-bred players which have left their mark on the world of football, the notable ones being: David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet it's all too easy to remember the youngsters which had the weighty label of superstar flung on a bit too hastily and ended up tripping on it: Federico Macheda, Bebe, and Obertan being a few of the recent cases. Right now, Januzaj is profiting due to the fact that he's the latest Manchester United winger who's able to score right now. While he's shown some definite talent in his goal-scoring, it's remarkable how good Januzaj's been playing when compared to the dismal performances Ashley Young has been putting in.

So while the desperate outcries of an England future are already being contemplated by Roy Hodgson (with Jack Wilshere sparking up his own thoughts on the matter), perhaps the most important thing to remember about Januzaj is that he's earned David Moyes three important points. For now he'll be training, eyeing how England (and Wilshere) face the international break's final two tests of hosting Montenegro and Poland. Januzaj will have his chance to show his consistency when the Premier League returns and United host Southampton, and there will be plenty of time to judge how well the 18 year-old deals with the high expectations being pencilled into his future.

What are your thoughts on Januzaj's performance? What do you expect from the upcoming international break? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Lessons from the Midweek's Champions League Action

As the Champions League group stage continues to unravel, so do plenty of the teams in the competition. It has been a rough awakening for a few sides as they begin to understand that this year's group stage is no joke. Every team is prepared to make their statement, and as the "underdogs" continue to pull out big results, some age-old titans aren't quite yet ready to concede their positions as the top dogs of Europe (although there are some which begin to quaver). There's an incredible amount of things to cover, so we might as well begin with these three lessons from the Champions League:

1. Italian clubs continue to struggle 

After Napoli's dreamy victory over Borussia Dortmund, everyone had practically forgotten about Italy's inefficiency when it comes to European competition these past few years. Well fear not, all three Italian sides in the Champions League managed to underachieve in one way or another. Perhaps most at fault are Juventus who hosted Galatasaraay at home, the match finishing a 2-2 draw. After Bonucci gifted Drogba the opener, Juve clawed their way back to a 2-1 lead thanks to Quagliarella's 87th minute header. Only one minute later Juventus's atrocious defending allowed unmarked Bulut to equalize, nabbing an important point for the Turkish side.

AC Milan and Napoli didn't do too well either. The rossoneri could only manage a 1-1 draw at Ajax thanks to a late and non-existent penalty by Balotelli, and Napoli crumbled against the fantastic display that Arsenal put on at the Emirates. Of course there will be plenty of excuses (No Higuain for Napoli, Milan's extensive injury list, and who knows what else), Italian sides are staying consistent with their inability to put on a proper display in Europe. 

2. Bayern Munich (current European champions) are only getting stronger.

There was a lot of uncertainty at the start of the season with Pep Guardiola's appointment as Bayern Munich coach, and after their mere 1-0 victory in the weekend over Wolfsburg there were grumblings about whether the new coach was actually improving the side. It's fair to say that after their latest display, Guardiola will get a bit more breathing room (only for a while though). A dominant 3-1 away victory over Manchester City showed that combining last year's Champions League winning squad with Guardiola's tactics and philosophy of play was undoubtedly the right move for Bayern. 

While Joe Hart gave the Germans a helping hand with a poor display, nothing can be taken away from Bayern as they out-pressured, out-passed, and out-played Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City. While City was looking to perhaps insert itself amongst the highest-echelon of European clubs, Bayern and Pep showed them that they've still got a long way to go. Now we can only wonder what heights this Bayern Munich side can reach, and whether they'll be the first team to retain the Champions League trophy.

3. Atletico Madrid show no signs of slowing down.

La Liga has always been an extremely difficult league for clubs (that aren't Real Madrid and Barcelona) to properly establish themselves within, and if you have dreams of aiming for the top, then tough luck. Yet if there's a team that is looking to make a dent in the big two's perfect record of domination, it's Atletico Madrid. After having defeated Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu over the weekend, the midweek trip to Portugal to face Porto seemed a daunting task. Yet Diego Simeone's men maintained their undefeated start to the season in another impressive away victory.

While this time Diego Costa wasn't amongst the goalscorers, after having conceded early in the first half Atleti fought to come back with two second half goals, Arda Turan scoring the 86th minute winner from a sneaky free kick. It's been quite the season thus far for Atletico Madrid fans, their team currently undefeated, top of their Champions League group, and second in La Liga only by goal difference to Barcelona. If Diego Simeone can keep his side concentrated, then perhaps a new contender for La Liga's title (and perhaps even the European title) will emerge. 

Lastly, I want to leave you with an interesting infographic about the Champions League. Take a look below and share your thoughts and predictions regarding the Champions League in the comments!

You can find out more about the infographic and spread betting at Spreadex.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

BBC's Match of the Day Consistently Delivers What is Needed

BBC Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker
I was never very familiar with BBC's well-known soccer/football show. You see, I grew up with the Serie A and its intensely passionate highlight shows which consistently feature an immense variety of journalists, ex-players, coaches, tacticians, and even comedians all together with a live-studio audience.

The well known Italian show "La Domenica Sportiva" (which literally translates to, "The Sunday of Sport") was host to a variety of strange methods which, because it had been the only soccer/football television program which accompanied my upbringing, all seemed incredibly normal to me. Chaotic live post-game interviews with the studio's voices overlapping each other as the player hurriedly fumbles with the microphone and earpiece flung towards him, as he attempts to decipher the barrage of questions, often with wet hair still steaming from the post-game shower.

In the past I'd never really bothered with Match of the Day, I watched Premier League matches live, or found stuttering, eight-pixel highlights on some eastern-european website. But now, every since my first watching, Match of the Day has become a regular part of my soccer/football watching life. In my eyes (especially in the early days when I had just discovered it), MotD was practically a work of art. Fantastic clarity in its presentation, thorough match highlights, snazzy music... what more could I ask for?

Everything is prepared, timed, and professional. While I'm not getting the tactical analysis/breakdown by Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, when MotD offers any humble insights they're always accompanied by dynamic graphics with slowed down replays, making sure I see any sometimes simple but fundamentally important tactical observations I might have missed in my viewing of the highlights.

While I still watch "La Domenica Sportiva" frequently, MotD in comparison is free of extended verbal debates between an ex-player and a journalist as they argue incessantly over the weekend's most recent penalty decision (along with any other managerial, tactical, and refeering decisions which can be scrutinized from a full weekend of league action). MotD is where ultimately the core programming of soccer/football lies. It provides a professional and often insightful review of the Premier League's action to those who aren't able to watch the matches live. If I want deeper tactical analysis I'll go read up on Michael Cox's fantastic tactics blog, or if I want in-depth discussion and reflection I'll listen to The Guardian's Football Weekly podcast (and I can't forget The Football Ramble), but before I can truly appreciate any of these others, I need to have at least seen the goals of the weekend, and MotD delivers exactly that.

As I laud all this praise upon MotD, it's important to keep one key point in mind, these merits do not extend to MotD 2 in my eyes. MotD 2 provides the bare necessity of programming, goals I've yet to see, and then I'm out of there. On the most recent MotD I had the great pleasure of hearing analysis by Everton's incredibly charming and astute manager Roberto Martinez (along Danny Murphy), discussing situations arising from the variety of the weekend's interesting scores with Gary Lineker.

Now while I've mentioned Gary Lineker; compared to the many different lifeless and vapid Italian program conductors, the former player steers the show with definite timing often raising excellent points and questions upon which his guests can easily muse or build upon. I say all this because after watching the latest MotD 2, it just didn't manage to quite reach the levels of Lineker and Martinez's discussions regarding this weekend's matches which begin to put some definite pressures on certain managers of the Premier League (Martin Jol, perhaps even David Moyes...?).

While there are definitely those who will make the case that perhaps MotD lacks consistent "top quality" opinion and analysis (like that of BT Sport's Gary Neville), the overall presentation in the well-timed and well-led BBC show still definitely satisfies. And of course, while I always enjoy the window "La Domenica Sportiva" offers looking into the passionately chaotic world of Italian programming, there's an extremely pleasing sense of polish and professionalism with which BBC's Match of the Day consistently delivers.

What are your thoughts on BBC's Match of the Day? What is your program of choice for your football highlights and analysis? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Weekend in Links - Mourinho and Mata, Ribery the Hero and More

After what has been an interesting pre-Champions League matchday weekend, there are a lot of victories, stories, and players to keep track of. Starting directly from the Premier League, the big clash between Tottenham and Chelsea at White Hart Lane ended 1-1. While some will be pondering whether the result affirms Tottenham as a definite title contender, others will have kept their eye on Jose Mourinho and his half-time substitution which featured Juan Mata. Henry Winter writes about the substitution, and Mourinho's effect on the final result of the match.

While Mourinho could be raising doubts with a few unfavourable results among his Chelsea fans, Franck Ribery remains a definite fan favorite at Bayern Munich says Raphael Honigstein. His article in the Guardian reflects on the Frenchman's career, and his fine form which has continued into this new season under new manager Guardiola. FC Bayern currently share the top of the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund after their latest 1-0 home win over Wolfsburg.

Another manager making a considerable impact at his new club is Rudi Garcia at Roma, who leads the Serie A with six victories in six played. In an article I wrote for World Soccer Talk, I break down the giallorossi's latest 5-0 victory over Bologna, and how they've thrived so well under this new manager. With two big matches coming up against Inter Milan and Napoli, Roma will have a lot to prove on whether they can truly contend for the scudetto.

Returning to England, tactical expert Michael Cox analyzes Liverpool's 3-1 away victory against Sunderland, and in preparation for the FIFA 14 review I'm writing up, In Bed With Maradona has taken a look at the top fives of FIFA 14.

What were your thoughts on this weekend's action? Comment your thoughts on this weekend, and your predictions for the upcoming midweek Champions League matchday below!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Premier League's Excitement Returns

Written by Ashwin Raja.

I am happy to say, after this week’s round of matches, that the Premier League the world knows and loves for its unparalleled unpredictability, excitement and drama, is well and truly back. I must say, that I in concordance with many a seasoned football fan was disappointed with the way the season kicked off. Lots of drab and low-scoring affairs littered the first few weeks of the season. It was a coup of sorts for the Premier League, which has always been known to get stuck right in from the off.

The level of intensity and excitement in the past week’s matches were certainly what the doctor ordered and Manchester City’s humbling of the old enemy United, certainly was the earth-shattering result the Premier League kicks up every now and then, and the one that fans were so eager to see. A few interesting patterns seemed to emerge at the conclusion of this gameweek, if not having merely confirmed passing observations. Liverpool, demonstrating again, the inconsistency that has dogged them in their pursuit of the Champions League in seasons past. Chelsea, though managing to beat Fulham, looked well below par and are perhaps victims of the Mourinho factor that they crave so much. Arsenal, on the other hand are continuing their rich vein of form, thanks in no small part to the mercurial Mesut Ozil and the hot streak that Aaron Ramsey is currently in. With their immediate rivals going through a transition of sorts with new managers and the ensuing playing styles, the title is definitely there for the taking as far as Arsenal are concerned.

Liverpool - Southampton

Following an exciting draw in midweek at the Liberty Stadium, Liverpool looked to make amends and reaffirm their standing as league leaders on Saturday as they hosted Southampton at Anfield. From the very off, it was clear that Liverpool would struggle to find that creative spark in the center of the park, especially in the absence of Philippe Coutinho, who has been nothing short of spectacular since his 8.5 million pound move from Inter Milan in January.

Steven Gerrard came close on a couple of occasions with well-placed free kicks, but Artur Boruc was alive to the danger. New boy Victor Moses, making his Anfield debut had a rather subdued game, and despite making a few decent runs in behind the Saints’ defense, could not make it count when he needed to. The other former Chelsea man in Liverpool’s ranks, Daniel Sturridge was looking to make it 5 goals in 5 games, and in all honesty, simply lacked the service and the guile on the day to do that. He will however feel that Liverpool should have gotten more on the day, considering they had a valid penalty claim turned down.

The Southampton goal came off of a set-piece, and one that should have been dealt with especially with Brendan Rodgers fielding 4 center backs in defense. That decision in itself showed an inherent flaw in Rodgers’ mentality, namely, fixing something that isn’t broke. With Martin Kelly, Jose Enrique and Andre Wisdom all available for selection, it was a perplexing decision. Despite having given his reasons, it was definitely a sign that he is not afraid to experiment with the resources at his disposal and for a club that aims to be in the top 4 come next May, the experimentation must be kept to a minimum.

Chelsea - Fulham

Jose Mourinho’s second coming at Stamford Bridge has hardly been perfect and Chelsea’s play, hardly characteristic of Mourinho teams. What was characteristic about Chelsea’s performance on Saturday, however, was their ability to grind out the result even when not at their best. Despite scoring two goals, Chelsea truly flattered to deceive. Similar to previous games, they were not as solid at the back and look vulnerable every now and then. Luckily enough, Fulham did not live up to their attacking potential and Chelsea were saved of any potential blushes. This represents a shift away from Mourinho’s style of shutting up shop once his team has asserted a certain level of control on the game.

Another notable point was Juan Mata’s continuing absence. Rather sardonically, it was his ‘successor’, Oscar, in the eyes of Mourinho who grabbed the first goal. Whether Mata, who was Chelsea’s player of the year last season will be another hapless victim of Mourinho’s whims and fantasies just like Iker Casillas at Real Madrid, remains to be seen. Personally, I think it would be a real shame if that were to happen. He is that one spark of creativity that can help Chelsea unlock the opposition’s defence and no disrespect to Kevin de Bruyne, Andre Schurrle, Frank Lampard and the horde of other attacking mids that Chelsea have, he is head and shoulders above the competition. Being left out of the starting eleven cannot help his chances of securing a ticket to Spain’s defence of the World Cup at Brazil in little under a year’s time, especially when the competition for that number 10 position has not been more fierce.

Manchester Derby

Leading up to the Manchester derby, much was made of how different the Manchester clubs, both under the stewardship of new managers were this season. David Moyes, certainly feeling the pressure after defeat to Liverpool and and a draw at Chelsea would have been eager to set things right. It would, on the other hand be Manuel Pellegrini’s first big test so to speak as Manchester City boss. The general consensus before kick-off was that the game would be a close one, perhaps decided as such games so often are, by a bit of individual brilliance or a refereeing decision going one team’s way.

Sergio Aguero ensured that all pre-match predictions were out the window with a superb close quarters finish early on in the first half. After that, the proverbial dam was released, and it was all City. Yaya Toure put in another terrific performance at the heart of the Blues’ midfield and his return to such kind of form that was instrumental in them lifting the title 2 seasons ago, can only bode well. Alvaro Negredo who got the nod ahead of Edin Dzeko put in a fine performance and impressed with his workmanlike attitude that fetched him a couple of assists and almost a goal. The fact that they put up such a dominant display without David Silva will surely be a menacing sight to the other title contenders.

Take the case of the Reds. Apart from Wayne Rooney, who got a late consolation with a superb freekick to beat a diving Joe Hart, not a single player influenced the game in a way that a Manchester United player is expected to. Robin van Persie was a big miss, and there was a gaping hole in the final third. It just goes to reinforce the point that Manchester United’s fate is closely, if not entirely dependent on his form. New acquisition Marouanne Fellaini had a quiet game to say the least, and Moyes’ detractors will be quick to point that out. Such was his state of relative dormancy, it warrants the question as to whether Fellaini is even the kind of player really needed. At Everton, he made his name giving hell to defenders on set pieces, chipping in with a few goals now and then, and putting in a tackle or two, in addition to racking up the yellow cards and the hair on the top of his head. Some were bold enough as to liken him to Yaya Toure. Based on Sunday’s evidence, it is foolish to even suggest comparison.

On paper, United have never had the strongest squad or even starting eleven in the last few seasons, including the ones they won the league in. Sure, they did and do have some big, big names in Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, but what made the difference was the ‘Fergie factor’. The winning mentality that was instilled at the very core of the team by the wily old Scot was what gave them that identity and the confidence to go out and win. Each and every player believed he was a Champion, and that is what is currently missing. Moyes, undoubtedly is a terrific man manager and his ten years of Everton would never suggest otherwise, but the fact is, he’s no Sir Alex Ferguson.

The United of old would rarely have been outclassed so much, but if they did, they would have dusted themselves and would have rearing to go immediately. That resilience is something they must hold on to if they are to aim for any sort of success this season. While those questions are slightly stifled from United's 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the Capital One Cup, the horizon is still very hazy for Manchester United fans.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Week of the Neopolitans

It has been quite the week in European soccer/football, and as the season progresses there's finally a huge sense of excitement from the results of the round of Champions League group stages which will inevitably bleed over into a weekend of derbys and possibly season-defining matches. The result which dominated the headlines of recent Italian press was Napoli's 2-1 victory over Borussia Dortmund, a match which saw a club lift itself to new heights while another gradually self-imploded, all in 90 minutes. Napoli, currently sharing the top of the Serie A (with Roma) has continued to maintain an impeccable record to the season in what was a fantastic Champions League debut victory over last years runners-up. Now, the excitement around Napoli continues to rise as they prepare for a visit to the San Siro to take on AC Milan this Sunday, and if the Neopolitans continue their victorious run, a new title-contender could be firmly established in the Serie A.

The midweek events at the San Paolo were the first part of an incredibly defining week for Napoli fans. A 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund was the best way possible for Benitez to debut with his new club in the Champions League. Although he'll have to acknowledge that something in the Borussia Dortmund's system collapsed in that match, and that something was the man that is Jurgen Klopp. The man, the pillar of the club which pushed them to the top of German football with a beautiful style of play. In the 29th minute as Subotic was coming back on after being patched up for a nasty gash near the eyebrow, Napoli took their corner, the central defender was sprinting towards his box hoping to reach his man he needed to mark. While he did get there in time, it was too late as the Dortmund defence had already been shaken by the confusion and the unforgiving Higuain headed Napoli into the lead.

Klopp collapsed, rage overcame him and his facial muscles as he menacingly advanced and protested to the closest official near him. But his release of anger and frustration did not amuse or impress anyone, and he was quickly dismissed for his vehement protests. It wasn't much later that the colossal central defender Mats Hummels began touching his hamstring and had to be replaced by Aubameyang near the end of the first half. The first half also featured Borussia's keeper Weidenfeller receive a straight red card when he charged out of the box towards Higuain on the break and instinctually stopped the mid-air ball with his hands.

Napoli closed off the match without much trouble after that against a shattered 10-man Borussia Dortmund, largely thanks to a beautifully looped free kick by true hometown Neopolitan Lorenzo Insigne. While Borussia managed to squeeze out an own goal courtesy of Zuniga's attempt to clear the ball out of the box with his heel, the story of the night had already been written, as a crushed Borussia Dortmund fell to the imposing Italian opponents.

While the task accomplished by Benitez's men was definitely formidable, there's a very stark sense that with the proper focus this Napoli side could very easily continue their victorious run into the weekend away against AC Milan. The rossoneri have been barely scraping points, from the late midweek victory over Celtic to the even later 2-2 draw against Torino equalized by a 96th minute penalty by Balotelli. This is the chance for Napoli to possibly take charge of the Serie A, as Roma host their cousins Lazio for the city derby in what could be a tricky match for the giallorossi.

Compared to the immense optimism around Napoli, it seems like Milan are bracing themselves for what many have already said is a fundamental match. While Mexes is coming out saying that he'd always pick Balotelli over Higuain and that Milan is still at the start of their campaign, with the injuries of supposed key-signing Kaka to Poli, Montolivo, El Sharaawy, along with just about half the defence, Milan is looking very shaky even if they'll be playing at home.

It feels like while there could be an interesting tactical battle between how Benitez would break down Allegri's AC Milan side, right now it seems like Allegri has just about 11 players to work with compared to Benitez's fit and inspired squad. If this match is won by Napoli, it could be the beginning of a completely new era for the Serie A, which could possibly even extend to a strong Champions League run. While it's also important to acknowledge that the season is long and many surprises await us, from the way this week could go, it could very well become the season of the Neopolitans.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Big Names, Big Money

As the summer transfer window has finally drawn to a close, there is definitely plenty to talk about. While the ludicrously spending Premier League was definitely the center of attention as the transfer market neared its closing, there were plenty of very intriguing exchanges all across Europe. There's is a ton of dealings to talk about, so it's best to get started with the biggest of names.

The deal which everyone awaited with trepidation was that of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid. It took 95 million Euros from the Galacticos to secure the left winger, who will be giving Ancelotti a few things to think about tactically. While the most obvious solution to the coach's problems would be to put Bale on the left wing and push Ronaldo to the center, what remains of Benzema? Does the Frenchman become your supersub? And that's without considering Modric and Di Maria, both left footed players which will be forced to adapt after the arrival of the latest Galactico.

While the price tag on Bale could be considered a little exaggerated, Tottenham have spent just about every penny reinforcing their squad in just about every way possible. Roberto Soldado and Roma's Argentine wonderkid Erik Lamela were the priciest of Tottenham's additions, both costing 30 million Euros each. Behind them are Paulinho, Eriksen, Capoue, Chiriches, and Chadli; all of which are exceptional additions to a side which is looking to reinvent itself after losing its most influential player. Yet there's a few important questions Spurs should be asking themselves, whether the new players can mesh together quickly enough, and whether amongst all of these additions perhaps just one defender (Chiriches) might not be enough? Only time will tell, but if Tottenham manage to seal any possible defensive worries then perhaps there's a side ready to compete for a place in the top three.

As Arsenal fans eyed their cousins full of envy throughout the window, in the final day Wenger finally found a player worth signing. None other than Mesut Ozil, the former Real Madrid man left the Bernabeu for around 50 million Euros, becoming both the most expensive German and Arsenal's most expensive signing yet. A truly fantastic signing for a side which has been searching for some stability. While the recent victory over Tottenham shows signs of recovery, with the insertion of Ozil into the team Arsenal should find even more ways to pick apart defences with their entrancing style of play. Yet the question looms, does this new signing solve Arsenal's problems? I can't say that it will, but if anything it's a definite distraction from them. An uplifting end to what seemed to be a dismal summer for Arsenal fans.

And if we're going to talk about big names, it seems nearly impossible not to mention Kaka's fabled return to AC Milan. The Rossoneri were able to nab the Brazilian for free, and it's being reported that the player took a fairly hefty cut to his wages just to return to the club with which he found the most success. While returning AC Milan legends haven't always been as successful as fans might have hoped (Shevchenko being the most obvious example), it seems like Kaka's return will give exactly what the side needs to prosper in this upcoming season. After having sold Kevin Prince Boateng to Schalke 04 for 12 million Euros, Milan needed a midfielder with creativity to support the young Balotelli and El Sharaawy. Who better than Kaka?

Are you convinced by these transfers? Have these clubs properly strengthened their squads, or are they too focussed on flashy attacking players? What was your favorite transfer of this summer? Share your thoughts on the transfer window below!

Friday, August 30, 2013

Guardiola Conquers UEFA Super Cup With Bayern

As the bustling transfer window nears its closing, the first European clash of titans has entertained and ended in favor of Josep Guardiola's Bayern Munich. A deserved victory for the Bavarian side which beat Chelsea on penalties after extra time had finished 2-2. While there were two brilliant sets of players on either side the entire match seemed to revolve around the two coaches, both with weighty expectations on their shoulders for the upcoming season. 

From the start of the match it was evident that the two teams had the very distinctive marks of their coach. Bayern were spreading themselves out, keeping possession, and attacking with a speed and beauty that Guardiola's tactics are defined by. On the other hand, Chelsea were always compact, defending tightly while waiting for the chance to punish with the lightning quick transition typical of Jose Mourinho's teams. It was in fact one of those quick counterattacks led by Hazard, the Frenchman distributed the ball to Schurrle who crossed for Torres to cleanly finish in the 8th minute. It was everything you'd expect from Mourinho's side: clinical play using their first chance to score, but they were also helped by the poor marking ("poor" as in the general lack of marking) on Torres.

From there it was Bayern who with continuous possession attempted to slip through the Chelsea defence. It took until the start of the second half, when Ribery rifled a shot past Cech (who probably could have done better) and then sprinted off towards Guardiola to celebrate with his Spanish coach. Bayern definitely deserved the equalizer as did Ribery, who had been the most dangerous Bayern player for the German side.

As Chelsea were forced to attack, the match became much more open with plenty of chances for either side. The most notable was caused by Dante's slip, giving the ball away to Schurrle who fed it to Oscar clean in front of Neuer, but the young Brazilian wasn't able to capitalize as Neuer swatted his effort away. Guardiola decided to change things up putting in Javi Martinez for Rafinha, which pushed the makeshift midfielder Lahm back to his more natural position of right back. Gotze replaced Muller, and it was the young substitute who in the 85th helped turn the tides of the match, Ramires crashed into him (after getting the ball) and earned his second yellow of the match. 

But Chelsea would not give up, and in the first minutes of extra time Eden Hazard squirmed through Bayern's defence to fire a low shot underneath Neuer. As Bayern continued to pressure, Chelsea continued to hold, until an injury time equalizer by Javi Martinez. The very substitute who almost left the field in the second half because of a nasty ankle twist, Guardiola's fellow Spaniard had extended the match to penalties. From there, the German side was as clinical as history has defined them to be, and Chelsea substitute Romelu Lukaku had his poor effort saved. 

While Mourinho complains about a UEFA conspiracy against him, Guardiola celebrates. Two different coaches both extremely successful in their own style crafted the spectacle that was the UEFA Super Cup with their tactics. Both sides played a fantastic match, which ended with the more deserving team victorious. Considering this first European clash is a taste of the action to come this season, I absolutely cannot wait for the Champions League to get rolling.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Return of SWU

After having spending quite a bit of time in which I didn't update SWU or write about soccer/football anywhere, I've decided to start back up again. As you can see, I've lightened things up a bit removing a lot of general clutter from the blog's template, and I'll begin writing my opinions and analysis about the beautiful game at least once a week.

I apologize to everyone about the long break, especially all of those who emailed me (I'm slowly working my way through all of them and replying to everyone). Hopefully, in time I'll be able to get this blog going again, and I can't wait to see all the surprises this new season has in store for us!


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