Sergio Agüero threatens to be the Premier League’s best goal-scoring foreign import

When all is said and done, there may be very few who would argue that Sergio Agüero has not done enough to be the very best from outside of England.

Football over the years has always created debate among frenetic followers who believe that their opinion is correct, that the statistics always back up the argument and there’s no other way to compare. That’s why when the best players have their names cast on the debate table, there’s usually no definitive answer.

It’s also why sitting here typing this, it was difficult to ignore the sheer numbers that give Sergio Agüero a worthwhile mention. The Argentine is continually leaving his mark on a league that can’t seem to wrap its head around how he can be stopped, or where he sits in the conversation of the best players to have graced the Premier League.

Such has been Agüero’s rise from his debut against Swansea in 2011 that the numbers are hard to look away from. In Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Arsenal at the Eithad Stadium, Aguero scored his 155th, 156th 157th Premier League goals in only his 227th appearance. He now has 14 goals this season, and also registered his 10th league hat-trick, now only second to Alan Shearer who ended on 11, and sits 8th on the all-time goal scorers’ list.

All hail King Kun, arguably the best goal-scoring foreign import the Premier League has ever seen, and the best piece of business under the trophy-laden City juggernaut that launched over a decade ago. He has been a model of consistency for such a long time, it’s difficult to see how he hasn’t found himself donning the white of Real Madrid or the stripes of FC Barcelona.

But that’s just it – he hasn’t had to make such moves to prove he is the real deal. City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.

That figure seems so miniscule in the current inflated market, as of to say his was a bargain of some sorts, the kind of money you spend to get a Lamborghini Gallardo at a cut price.

And as he found himself in similar positions for his three-goal haul against Arsenal, the flickering memories began to roll in the mind – that chest and volley from Thierry Henry against Manchester United, or Luis Suarez’s mesmerizing performance against Norwich City, or Cristiano Ronaldo’s free kick against Portsmouth.

“City have had the pleasure of seeing his supreme qualities since that  £38-million move from Atletico Madrid.”

Because these are the caliber of players that Agüero is threatening at the very top, if not surpassing year by year, goal by goal, in his quest to become the outright best.

Under three different managers in Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola, Agüero has shown us, time and time again, that he is the real deal. All have won titles with him as their main man, and may not have won the rave reviews they’ve had if he wasn’t around.

And to the betterment of City’s journey to becoming an all-round European elite, it’s also been good for the league to have such world class talent in its ranks, to boast and brim with joy at the quality of a player who hasn’t lost his step, even when injuries threaten to derail him.

This is where it gets tricky. In as much as he has been able to work towards being the supreme centre forward of his time in Manchester, how can we ignore the exploits of aforementioned Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo?

All brought something to the table – Suarez’s all-round forward play, Henry’s world-class finishing and Ronaldo’s invention. In as much as statistics can point you in one direction, there are also those glittering moments of magic that leave you wanting more.

So, what we see is just as important as what we can put in numbers. Agüero will not sit at 8th forever, and his goal scoring won’t, presumably, suddenly vanish. But how many of his appearances really take your breath away and make you sit up to attention?

This is probably where Suarez, Henry and Ronaldo flourish  The numbers are there for them, too. Agüero would definitely fit in a “Top Five Best Foreign Players” list somewhere, but when will be confident enough to say that he, indeed, is the very best the league has seen?

At 30 years of age, he won’t be around forever, but when all is said and done, who could argue that he wasn’t the outstanding foreign import to have laid those Puma boots on the slick grass of the Etihad, or any other ground for that matter, in the entirety of the league’s existence?

He’ll continue on his merry way with an way trip to Everton, and then a decisive home tie against Chelsea, and then 11 games after that. With a bit of silver in his hair, Agüero will leave a trail of destruction until its time to say goodbye.

Maybe then, we’ll close the book on this, never needing to debate it again as we speak with pride of his undeniable pedigree as the one who stands above them all.


The Cristiano Ronaldo complex and how his success became Madrid’s poisoned chalice

For a Real Madrid team that has had so much success, the over-reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo has left them in a tricky situation thus far in 2018/19.

In the build-up to the UEFA Champions League Final of 2017, many had already decided that Juventus, arguably the best all-round team at the time, were firm favourites to conquer the then-holders, Real Madrid.

The belief was that Massimiliano Allegri’s men were hardened Italian steel, devoid of any flaws, and ready to topple Europe’s greatest team. With the likes of Paulo Dybala, Giorgio Chiellini and Gigi Buffon, this would have felt like their best chance.

In Cristiano Ronaldo’s world, this was never the case. From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals. What had become a genuine threat to their supremacy quickly became a mere afterthought.

This was Madrid under Ronaldo’s wing, unnerved by any challenge before them. They knew that with him on their side, victory was much more certain, the motivation being Ronaldo’s relentless winning attitude.

“From the onset, he set up his stall to shake up Juventus’ cage and rattle their nerves, a central figure in their 4-1 demolition job in Cardiff with two goals.”

At the moment, Madrid are not very good. Lying in third place, ten points behind Barcelona and struggling to find their spark, it is only a matter of time before the entire hierarchy is put into question. This version of Madrid is not an exciting one to be a part of.

The 4-2 win at Espanyol in their latest fixture reminded us that Karim Benzema has all the qualities that a top centre forward should have, scoring twice – the second goal was particularly pleasing – and that Gareth Bale still plays football.

Here, seven of the players that started in that final in 2017 were present from the beginning. Six of them started the Champions League final of 2016. Has familiarity bred an unwanted knack of complacency amongst this golden generation?

There seems to be a rock firmly wedged in those usually smooth Los Blancos grooves that is stopping them from moving forward.

The over-reliance on one man has been put into sharp focus in their matches so far. Julen Lopetegui had the first shot at a Ronaldo-less team, with a mixed bag of results from the worrying defeat to Sevilla, to the humbling – and ultimately fatal – embarrassment at the Nou Camp. Santiago Solari started with four wins, but was brought firmly back down to earth with a smack from Eibar’s 3-0 whipping.

The wider point here lies in Madrid’s inability to move on from Ronaldo’s brilliance, as if to admit that his success was their success.

Two La Liga and Copa del Rey triumphs, as well as the four Champions League successes in his nine years point to a seemingly successful period in Madrid’s long-standing history, but too much of it may have been down to one man.

Like a poisoned chalice, Ronaldo’s success has left an eerie, ghostly mark on Madrid’s usually commanding style.

He has been a key figure in Juventus’ stranglehold of Serie A this season, scoring 15 goals in 21 appearances so far as they raced to an 11-point lead after their win at Lazio.

You can sense that Juventus understand how important he could be to their season, but have incorporated him in a way that doesn’t seem over-reliant.

Madrid’s situation has become a complex web of mixed signals and uncertain times ahead, and good players made to look far from their best in an environment that has not helped their cause.

Those that had a keen eye for Madrid’s operation would know that in the grand scheme of things, Ronaldo was the central figure. Many times, Zinedine Zidane set up the team to support his qualities.

Benzema played as an apprentice to the Cristiano juggernaut, and now has the job of being the central figure for goals – a man who has scored 14 goals in his last 52 league matches. Bale’s injuries have hampered his progress to the next level, and is 30 years old in July.

Florentino Pérez’s fixation with his Galactico model has seen the club being linked with players such as Neymar Jr. and Eden Hazard, at a time when all is not right at the Santiago Bernabéu.

The atmosphere is one of bated breath and inquisitive minds, waiting for Zidane to come back and save their blushes – it must have been confusing to see him leave in the first place at the peak of his powers. This should have been one of the more worrying signs.

Where do Madrid go from here? The league title seems to have escaped their grasp yet again. The saving grace of winning the Champions League will not be as easy to lean on as before with the quality of the other teams in the Round of 16.

It is imperative that Madrid find their focus for the period to come. Ronaldo has found his feet at Juventus, Madrid’s starry but dimming lights firmly in the distance, and seems to have taken the the change of scenery quite well. When will Madrid also follow suit?

Old heads Fernandinho and Kompany rise to save Manchester City’s title challenge

Both Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho put on a splendid show of men that have been here before, bringing Liverpool to their knees in the face of City’s determined performance.

Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany. With time, you may have thought that these two would have been slowly lost in Pep Guardiola’s masterplan, quietly removed from the equation as they find their reserved spots at the old age home on the Manchester City bench.

Then, you see the way they operate in matches such as the one against Liverpool, and remember that football is all about ability and thought, to be able to conduct the manager’s instructions to the book, and execute them without fault, regardless of age.

And although Kompany’s own performance wasn’t faultless, his leadership on the field of play at the Etihad Stadium cemented an important 2-1 victory against the league leaders, emboldened by their own narratives of unbeaten seasons and bravery, but brought firmly back down to earth by the excellence of City’s display.

In the middle of the park, space was hard to find, but Fernandinho escaped those harsh conditions to deliver a midfield masterclass of sheer determination and love for the more robust side of Guardiola’s thoughts. Without him, City have been the nervous, brittle wreck of Guardiola’s Fernandinho-less team that lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, still learning how to play when he’s not around.

Here, the Brazilian was the lead orchestrator for the likes of David and Bernardo Silva, Sergio Agüero and Leroy Sané to go and park themselves in the opposition’s half, to cause havoc in those uncomfortable areas where opposing Liverpool defenders didn’t want to be. Without him, this win may not have been possible. He goes about his job with no fuss or sparkle, his twinkling demolition acts sometimes going unnoticed.

This spectacle had it all – fine margins, technical brilliance and robust booting of the ball into the stands in the final minutes. It may have all been so different had Sadio Mané converted his early chance in the first half, but such is the concept of the game that the top teams need, maybe even summon, Lady Luck more often than not – John Stones and Ederson knowing her better than most.

Without that goal-line clearance, Agüero wouldn’t have put City in the lead. He showed his unquestionable brilliance with a close-range finish of devilish precision, this his 37th goal against the other self-proclaimed ‘Big Six’ sides since 2011/2012. He, like Kompany and Fernandinho, has been around for the glowing years of City’s rise, a title-winning centre forward seemingly unnerved by any doubts that may follow him.

And when Liverpool seemed to wrestle the initiative back in their favour with Roberto Firmino’s not so “no-look” header in the 64th minute, the sense of a shift in power was clear – City had hardly been switched on after the break, and Jurgen Klopp’s move to bring on Fabinho for James Milner had stifled City’s job.

Before this, Kompany had performed a double clearing act, first with his head and then with a heaving swing of his left foot, being in the right place at the right time like he so often is, this 32-year-old Belgian brute of a man, unerring in his utterances towards Mohamed Salah when he had lunged to bring the Egyptian to his haunches.

And as Elisabeth Elliot once said: “Maturity starts with the willingness to give oneself”, the kind of unselfish acts of nature that allow the rest of the team to flourish. This is where Kompany and Fernandinho excel, the former a handyman of those first days in 2008 when City were still dreaming, and the latter an added piece of protection for the younger ones, the Johns and Aymerics of the world.

These are the fruits of old age, the nous that comes from hard graft and selflessness, successful title triumphs and faltering title challenges. Fernandinho contorted his body in ways that brought cheers from the City fans and thumbs-up from Guardiola. He started moves and stifled others, never missing a beat.

He is no Jorginho or N’Golo Kanté – indeed, these seem to be the variations of the modern-day defensive linchpin – but his longevity and willingness to learn and improve at the ripe old age of 33 make him arguably one of the best in his position.

And although he didn’t provide the assist for Sané’s winning strike – a finish that made you wonder what would’ve have happened if we still had rectangular goal posts – his name should be stitched into a banner and hung up alongside Kompany’s. “Fernandinho and Kompany: the men behind the scenes”, it should read.

For Liverpool, this can only be taken as a learning curve as they come to grips with their own dizzying reality. They are the league leaders, and with it comes great pressure from those chasing them down. There are those that seem to enjoy their long suffering and wait for a Premier League title, the first to remind us of those Lovren comments or Virgil van Dijk comparisons.

It’s telling that Agüero’s goal came from Lovren’s side, and for all of Liverpool’s defensive improvement with Van Dijk in the team, there’s still a weakness with Lovren there, a little switched off when all his senses should have been in overdrive with Agüero around.

Such were the margins, those microseconds that turn out to be the most important. For City, the gap has been reduced, and in times like these, the so-called “fossils” stand up and bring that experience to the table.

Kompany and Fernandinho will be long gone in a few years, but for now, their chiseled old nature is just what Guardiola will need for the months ahead.

Raheem Sterling stands tall when all seems forgotten

The Manchester City winger was the alleged victim of racial abuse from a set of Chelsea supporters over the weekend, a theme that has gone on unresolved even after his performances at the World Cup.

In this year’s FIFA World Cup, Raheem Sterling was donning the white of England as they progressed to the semi-finals to play Croatia. And amidst the glum of England’s recent performances in past tournaments, this was a grand achievement created on the backdrop of Gareth Southgate’s mantras of progression and evolution, becoming a real international threat to the superpowers of Brazil, France, Germany.

In the tournament, Sterling didn’t score, had one assist – he set up Jesse Lingard for England’s third goal in their 6-1 triumph against Panama –  but played the supporting role to Harry Kane’s goal scoring spree like a director behind the scenes of the bigger picture: Kane receiving the accolades, Sterling quietly going about his day-to-day job, a darling of the team. To the fans that sang songs of praise to Southgate’s men, Sterling was just a part of the greater spectacle, a man of importance in England’s quest for meaning on the international scene.

When Sterling was playing for Manchester City in their 2-0 loss to Chelsea this past weekend, football’s not-so-endearing side reared its head in the shape of a few supporters who seemed to have forgotten which country he had represented in the summer. For a moment, it wasn’t Sterling the English player who went to retrieve the ball to the jeers of the home fans in the corner. This was Sterling, the mischievous player of colour who had a gun tattoo on his leg, who was known for walking to the shops with a harmful pair of car keys in his pocket.

Indeed, there seems to be two versions here: Sterling, the starlet for England, and Sterling the bad boy for City – the same person, but two different people, like a shape shifter who can be in two places at the same time.

As Sterling pointed out in his latest Instagram post, reactions such as the ones seen at Stamford Bridge are fueled by media outlets that allow stories to be published which paint an unwanted picture on players of colour that follow a series of stereotypes – expensive tastes in material possessions, quizzical haircuts and hard-to-control temperament.

Malcolm X may have been onto something when he said, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Being a Zimbabwean of colour myself, who was given the privilege to attend one of the more affluent secondary schools in the country, I have experienced what it’s like to be in an environment where you want to feel like you belong, but having the same itchy feeling that in some alternate universe, this isn’t where you were supposed to be. It’s the reality that a number of people like Sterling have to face more often than they may like, more often than should be allowed.

It makes you wonder, even writing this piece, whether or not a potential employer or casual reader would create their opinions of my writing based on the colour of my skin, or the quality. What about the aspiring doctor or accountant or coach? Sol Campbell became the 8th black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) manager of the 92 teams in the Football League when he was appointed by Macclesfield Town. Where do we put this in the wider picture?

The opportunities for betterment and a chance to become more than just a statistic or questionable headline are there on paper, but the reality on the ground tells its own narrative.

And for all the narratives that are created in the life of Sterling, this season he has contributed eight goals and six assists so far, a handy return for a player who was written off before Pep Guardiola had his chance to sprinkle his magic dust and wave his wand. The touch has improved, the dribbling has more of a punch and the finishing and appreciation for players around him portrays a man feeling at home in Guardiola’s immediate plans at the Etihad Stadium.

For him, this is all that matters. His life has meaning, direction, a sense of purpose to become the best version of himself at a time when others may want to portray his worst.

Sterling’s reaction to the alleged abuse was something of a kick in the teeth for those that turn a blind eye to what matters most – a cheeky, glistening smile of fortitude rather than fear, a reaction many of colour would have appreciated or empathized with in the face of adversities and prejudice. Would the media twist this against him, too?

Because for those that strive to look beyond what’s in front of them, they realize that the energetic pre-Guardiola Raheem has worked hard to fine tune his game to become one of the very best that the Premier League, and England, has to offer at the moment. The same Raheem whose step-overs in the corner against Manchester United may not have received the same reaction if he was someone else.

And, here’s something to think about: if he or any other player of colour scores the winning goal or penalty kick that gifts England that yearned-for crowning instant in front of the watching world, at a World Cup or European Championship, then what? Do the English fans revel in his success, or forget that he is one of their own?

Determined Neymar and PSG leave us wanting more

The Brazilian superstar was in mesmerising form, showing the qualities that may embody what Paris Saint-Germain may be all about from now on.

For all of Neymar’s theatrics and ridiculed “rolling down the river” impressions, this was the sort of performance that made you realise something – this guy is actually really good.

Here, not only did Neymar create and take responsibility on the ball, he hustled and harried off it, tracking back and helping – yes, helping – in the elements of the game that he ideally doesn’t like to involve himself in, showing an opposite side to his flair that we didn’t think existed. He was kicked here and there, but that won’t matter to him – it’s all part of the Neymar Show, a world class mixture of the good and the bad that has him, no matter what people may think of his willy-nilly antics, close to the very top of the football pyramid. To suggest otherwise would be sinful.

Yes, he can be frustrating to watch sometimes when he becomes disconnected from the football, like a boy disobeying his father. Yet he also has a knack of leaving you wanting more and more – more nutmegs and faints; more bursts of pace and slaloming runs; just… more. 

The Jordan-donning Parisien fashionistas, strutting their stuff on the Parc des Princes green carpet in what was a statement of intent against last year’s finalists, began as they mean to go on, a refreshingly dominant performance that shied away from the “inept” or “typical” PSG we’ve come to be accustomed to. 

And there must’ve been something in the chilly Paris air that consumed the entirety of everyone associated with the Paris Saint-Germain brigade in their 2-1 win, because from the first whistle right down to the last, Neymar and PSG were up for this in ways that Liverpool simply couldn’t match.

Liverpool were red in the face, Virgil van Dijk wasn’t looking so world class anymore – that mantle fell to the hysterical Thiago Silva – and the midfield three were being taught a lesson by Marco Verratti – tenacious and driven, the sort of quality that sets the high tempo in games like this, all calm and controlled. He was the only recognisable central midfielder in the PSG team, yet he outclassed Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner for most of the game. 

His driving run led to PSG’s opener in the 13th minute, scored by left back Juan Bernat with a swing of his right foot, a well deserved lead in an opening half full of attitude and desire.

Then came that devilish front three break in the 36th minute, a swift give and go between Kylian Mbappe and Neymar leading a Nike-sponsored counter attack, featuring Mbappe’s lightning stride and Neymar’s perfect weight of pass. Edinson Cavani missed the initial chance, but Neymar was there to save the day, his 31st Champions League goal, the highest for a Brazilian. 

What may have also been impressive about this victory was that Cavani didn’t have to do much, if anything, before he was taken off in the 65th minute – such was the buccaneering attitude of Thomas Tuchel’s men, almost glued onto the idea that this was an opportunity to stand tall and be noticed. 

Not to say that Cavani wasn’t involved – he was much more effective in his link-up play with Neymar and Mbappe compared to Liverpool’s ghost front three – but it showed how good PSG were as an overall unit, the whole more effective than just the sum of their parts. It was all so fun to watch, you’d forgotten about the recent nonsense about super leagues and dubious Middle East investment. There was even time for rainbow flicks in the corner, just the way Neymar likes it. 

PS: although Neymar may hog the limelight, credit must fall onto Silva and Marquinhos’ shoulders for a defensive showing of great interest and motivation. They wanted to defend, their heart and soul encapsulated in every celebratory moment when Liverpool simply couldn’t get through. Magnifique.

Jurgen Klopp, however, wouldn’t have liked this one bit. It was a match that showed him where Henderson and Milner are when it comes to the best central midfielders in the world, and the ineffective abilities of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah should be a cause for concern for a team that isn’t in transition anymore, and were a side piece to the real show for much of the night.Gone are the days of lovely hugs and giddy relationships with the press: Klopp is under pressure to deliver. He would give away an arm and a leg and a Dejan Lovren for as fluid a trio as his German counterpart has. That home tie against Napoli was always going to be an important element of this group, but now the stakes are much higher.

And for all of Neymar’s frustrating roll-arounds and tumble downs from the World Cup et. al, this was a very good example of what PSG can do when the right notes are hit. Maybe Tuchel is the kick in the back side that he needed, the realisation that for him to bag those elusive individual accolades, Ballon d’or and all, he will have to give in to the team collective and make peace with his individuality.

Because with Tuchel, Neymar defends; Bernat scores; Silva and Marquinhos bump chests like Brazilian tag team wrestling champions. If Tuchel can produce this more often, then expect PSG to push their Champions League campaign further than they’ve ever done before.

Amidst change at BVB, Marco Reus’ resilience still shines

“It is wonderful to see that his loyalty and perseverance from injury after injury is being duly rewarded with a consistent run in the side, culminating in a recent call-up to the German national team.”

What a beautiful sight, isn’t it? The Yellow Wall in the Signal Iduna Park is awash with supporters in brilliant black and yellow harmony, belting out chorus after chorus to the songs of “Heja Heja BvB” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, with little thought about the consequences of consistent tampering of the vocal chords.

Against Bayern Munich, it is easy to lose yourself within the euphoria of Der Klassiker, but never easy to cheer in the midst of total destruction, to challenge when the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels depart for greener pastures, and to win – just to have the bragging rights on their side – when all you are used to is constant disappointment. An inferiority complex had surely been created in this derby, but for once, Borussia Dortmund weren’t the team at the receiving end of a Munich shellacking.

It is usually Bayern supporters rubbing it in the faces of their opponents, but this time around, Dortmund’s young guns – featuring a few familiar faces – shot a lethal bullet wound through the thick flesh of a Bayern side struggling to be their dominant self under Nico Kovac.

Dortmund’s 3-2 success in a pulsating encounter was their first win over Bayern in their last four meetings, which included a 6-0 hammering at the Allianz Arena last season. Only three players that started that game started here – Łukasz Piszczek, Mario Götze and Manuel Akanji.

Marco Reus didn’t play, recovering from another frustrating injury, but here he was back to his very best, captaining a young, vibrant adolescent side that’s leading the chasing Bundesliga pack, a picture of familiarity in an ever-changing outfit.

Two goals in this game, and eight in the league so far, reminds us of the better days when “Rolls Reus” was an exhilarating well-oiled machine – here, there and everywhere, his finishing of the highest quality and acclaim in Jurgen Klopp’s hyper-pressing side that finished second in the league and reached the Champions League final in 2013.

It is wonderful to see that his loyalty and perseverance from injury after injury is being duly rewarded with a consistent run in the side, culminating in a recent call-up to the German national team. In an interview with GQ magazine, Reus once said, “I would give away all the money to be healthy again, to be able to do my job. To do what I love: to play football.”

A tear in your eye? There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Because for Reus, there have been many tears. Playing football is all he has ever wanted to do, this technically gifted, Puma-donning creative hub who has shown us that hard work will always outweigh talent. Adversity, in his eyes, is only a stumbling block, not a lifetime curse: Reus, the Renaissance Man, always re-inventing and reinvigorating a career that has been stop-start.

He missed out on the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016. He was substituted at halftime in the 2017 DFB Pokal Final. One of the most talented individuals of his generation, yet unable to produce on that talent, injuries stealing from him like a thief at night.

Against Bayern, though, he was the one stealing the headlines. He punished Manuel Neuer for his hesitancy in leaving his goal line with a cheekily won – and well-taken – penalty. He drifted into space and attacked Piszczek’s low delivery with a confidently struck right-footed finish.

He raised his arms in celebration, and tracked back, and ran forward, and encouraged the crowd. All of this with a number of players that had never played in this fixture before, this fun-filled nerve-wracking jingle of a team, rock n’ roll fußball at its naively best. They could’ve folded and reined themselves in as Bayern tried to dictate the tempo, scoring twice through Lewandowski who was bullish against Akanji and Dan-Axel Zagadou. 

But they played, pressed, made mistakes, learning on the job. Axel Witsel, like his afro, was a sight to behold and had Thomas Müller firmly in his pocket. Piszczek, Achraf Hakimi and Jadon Sancho were fearless and relentless in the face of an experienced Bayern.

Speaking of renaissances, it is brilliant to see Paco Alcácer continue his great escape from Barcelona mediocrity, his eighth league goal sealing all three precious points. And to see the Reus-Götze combination, although the latter was playing in a false false-nine position before Alcácer came on, was a sign of the familiarity that has been stolen from Dortmund’s supporters for far too long.

Can Reus somehow lead Lucien Favre’s side to a league title? Early days indeed, but Dortmund have always needed him to be their Steven Gerrard, or Paul Scholes, or Philipp Lahm: the local boy who worked through the system to then shepherd his people to the promised land. Wouldn’t that be befitting for a player who has only one professional title to his name?

Franck Ribery’s haircut was significant: the number “7” engraved in his head, 7 points behind Dortmund. Reus would like it to stay that way, too. For him, this result may mean more to him than just the team collective.

An old head, resilient and productive, shining in amongst the bright future at Favre’s disposal.

Derby della Madonnina reminds us of Mauro Icardi’s undeniable importance

In a game that promised much but provided so little, Mauro Icardi, the Inter Milan captain, showed us why Luciano Spalletti depends on him.

A 92nd-minute winner in the Derby della Madonnina to seal all three points for your side? Who are you going to call?

There was only one man you could have placed in the penalty area to read the flight of  Matias Vecino’s right-footed cross from the right-hand side. There was only one man who could have used his power of mind control to persuade Gianluigi Donnarumma to vacate the safety of his goal line to enter the unwanted corridor of uncertainty, no-man’s land.

It seems to always be one man.

He was ready for this game. “Derby is coming”, his caption read on one of his Instagram posts. “I’m Ready.” His wife’s name was inscribed into his blue boots.

“WANDA 10.”

So were the names of his step-sons.



Comments are disabled for all of his posts, and with good reason. Controversial as he may be, revelling in the role of pantomime villain but orchestrator of all that is good for Luciano Spalletti, he does all of his talking on the pitch.

“Mauro Icardi touched the ball 15 times in 90+ minutes,” Paolo Baldini tweeted, “But it only takes one.” Alessio Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio tried to mark him, tried to keep their eyes on the one man you cannot take your eyes off for one second. You have to look constantly at every move he makes because his movement is to die for.


With the signature cusping of the ears as if to taunt the Inter ultras or the untucked white T-shirt that is worn under the blue and black vertical stripes, Icardi is one of those centre-forwards that you cannot mistake. His job is simple, and Spalletti, who once described him as the “perfect striker” when it comes to finishing, must have a shrine that pays homage to a man that steps up for the Italian when he needs him the most.

It sometimes may not even matter how Spalletti sets up. He could have a team of nine defenders, but one good ball into the area and the game could be decided because of this special talent.

AC Milan were blunt going forward, and unfortunately could not get their own weapon of striking destruction, Gonzalo Higuain, firing. Inter were more pro-active and were able to find their man when it mattered the most. This derby was always going to be the story of one of these elite foxes in the box, two of Argentina’s very best in one of the signature games of the Serie A season. They only need one chance. Higuain was the spectator; Icardi was the match-winner.

Sometimes, it is hard to believe that Icardi is not somewhere else, earning half a million Pounds or Euros, playing for Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Paris-Saint Germain – anywhere else, but Inter. It is also hard to believe that for long periods, controversy aside, he was behind Higuain in the Argentine pecking order.

Yet here he is, beginning his sixth season with the Nerazzurri, the captain who is more of an anti-hero like Deadpool or Venom, but continues to be a source of great gratitude and relief in a team that could so easily be labelled, “The Mauro Icardi team.”

Why do we not read of him more often? YouTube is filled with videos of his incredible prowess in front of goal. There was one that really caught the eye and caused the brain to shut down for a moment in this fixture that ended 3-2 in favour of Inter last season. From a low Ivan Perisic cross, Icardi contorts his body to somehow strike a well-timed sliced volley with his wand of a right foot, jumping off the ground with his left foot, eyes firmly fixed on the ball. The Italian commentator exclaims, “Mama mia!” 


There are some elements of football that you cannot coach, elements that need to come naturally from within, especially finishing. Icardi exhibits the qualities of a well-rounded centre-forward at the age of 25, especially the ability to keep one’s chin up and shoulders upright at all times even when it looks like the ball will not find you where you want it the most.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Then strike. In a team like Spalletti’s Inter, Icardi is the perfect fit: efficient as he is effective.

His ability to create something out of nothing, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of the hat, is his signature. He rarely finds himself in the nitty-gritty of the build-up play and focuses on being between the width of the penalty area, the hunting ground for a man with keen predatory instincts. The Champions League game against Tottenham Hotspur was a prime example of why Spalletti needs him. If he could marry him, he probably would, although Wanda Nara may be the first one to oppose of such a union.

With the ball dropping from Kwadwo Asamoah’s cross, Icardi swung his majestic wand, striking the upgraded blue and silver Champions League ball with a whip and a swerve that saw it leave his boot like a shooting star. It sparked delirious celebrations, only ever seen when he scores it seems, such is his popularity with the Inter supporters even after his off-field antics of the past.

That all seems to be behind him – did it ever bother him in the first place? – and now, he is making headlines for the right reasons. As humans, we are prone to making mistakes and can be found on the wrong side of the moral high ground, but Icardi has not let this affect his performances in any way. Since joining Inter in 2013, he has amassed 104 league goals in 166 appearances and has shown us that beyond the controversial tabloids and bad boy persona, there is no controversy in his natural centre-forward play that cannot be ignored for much longer.

My admiration for him has not gone unnoticed but how can one not be in awe of his supreme magnificence?

I may have pushed my admiration a bit too far there.

Either way, he is not perfect, not the best role model, but he is perfect enough for Spalletti, for Inter. His values may be questionable, but his value is undeniable. Unapologetically himself, long may he ignore the “haters”, long may he ignore the outside noise.

Long may the predator in the box continue to execute his football God-given capabilities.


Eddie Howe and Bournemouth: A true love affair

After a season away from Bournemouth, Eddie Howe returned to impart his own ambitious touch that has led to steady growth over the years.

Eddie Howe looked into AFC Bournemouth’s eyes with a little sadness. His own playing career had come to a cruel and abrupt end, injury hampering his progress, so he was not ready to lose someone else to the cruel perils of football.

Bournemouth lay there, almost on borrowed time, a sense of uncertainty in the air. Howe could not let go; he could not just stand there and watch. He had to do something. “I’m not letting you give up on me that easily,” he said, clutching at Bournemouth’s right hand. “We’ll get you back on your feet, don’t you worry about that.”

It was January of 2009. Bournemouth had been forced into administration, with an accumulation of debt hovering around £4 million, starting the League Two season on -17 points. At the age of 31, Howe was the youngest manager in the Football League. He was Bournemouth through and through, having joined them at the age of 10, and it would have been heartbreaking to be the man who took the club to the Conference Division.

In their final home game of the season, to save their Football League existence, Bournemouth secured their survival by beating Grimsby Town 2-1 through a Steve Fletcher goal ten minutes from time. Sheer delirium and wild celebrations greeted the players as fans raced onto the pitch like a swarm of bees. It was the beginning of a brimming romance between Bournemouth and Howe, the sort of story that had you wondering how far this could last.

“Thank you, Eddie,” Bournemouth whispered, laying its head on Howe’s shoulder. “Without you, I don’t know where I’d be.”

They enjoyed a wonderful two-year period together, achieving promotion to League One in 2010 when many thought that stability would suffice. Nothing could stop them now. But, one night, something did not seem right. Howe seemed distant. “Is everything alright, Eddie?” There was no twinkle in his eyes, no endearing smile; just a plain face. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” he began, “but I have decided to join Burnley.”


This was not a bad dream, or a bad joke. This was true. Howe was unveiled as the new Burnley manager in January 2011, an unexpected end to a flourishing relationship. But, even with the promise of a Burnley team moulded in the image of Howe, something just did not feel real. It was not what Howe wanted. He sat in his office a year on, a picture of Bournemouth in his hands. A tear fell from his face. He had to go back.

Howe Burnley
Eddie Howe during his short stint with Burnley.

They rekindled their spark after Howe left Burnley in 2011 amidst a feeling of emptiness. Bournemouth embraced Howe, scars still fresh but willing to give him another chance to prove his worth. Hard work, perseverance and most importantly, trust allowed Bournemouth to find themselves where they are today. “Pinch me,” Howe said, looking around the Vitality Stadium for their first game in the Premier League in 2015, “because this can’t be real.”

They lost the game 1-0 to Aston Villa, but that does not seem to matter anymore. It must still feel like a dream that many Bournemouth supporters would rather not wake up from.

The dismantling of Watford last weekend was their fifth win of the season so far. Their first goal, coming from a quick counter attack from deep within their own half, showed a level of attacking intent that embodies Howe’s philosophy to a tee: a fast breakaway, like a jet ripping through the baby blue sky, disturbing the peace and parting the clouds. Callum Wilson should have scored after a lung-busting run. David Brooks saved his blushes.

Bournemouth are now becoming an established Premier League side. Currently sitting in sixth place on the log, it is has been an extraordinary romantic drama filled with ebbs and flows, and the Howe-Bournemouth relationship now looks like a match made in heaven.

They have been well worth their lofty position so far, and under the guidance of a man who once said, “I wouldn’t want to be a manager if I changed what I believe in”, how ambitious are Bournemouth willing to be? After Burnley’s exploits last season in qualifying for the Europa League playoffs, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to see Howe lead his team to a level of success that may not have been realistic a decade ago.

He leads the way for the new generation of English coaches trying to establish themselves in an environment that needs fresh ideas. Teams tend to look abroad for managerial quality, be it Spanish flair, Italian steel or German efficiency, when the solutions could be closer to home. It seems to be a risk to appoint someone from the pool of English coaches available, yet their philosophies may be as effective as the ones being brought in by their foreign counterparts.

When the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp decide to call it a night on their duties, where will the top teams look? With every appointment, success is not guaranteed. The idea that a manager needs trophies in his curriculum vitae to ensure progress is outdated thinking.

Looking over the town, on a warm spring night, Howe points out a shooting star. “Make a wish,” he pushes Bournemouth, a nervous smile evident as the star leaves a light trail. Could they not just stay in this moment forever?

Howe will not be getting carried away anytime soon, his sights firmly set on constantly improving. Time will tell if an elite club will be able to make the brave decision to appoint him, but for now, the honeymoon period on the south coast seems to be ongoing, and, in Bournemouth’s eyes, long may it continue.

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