The attacking players feeling the pressure as Athletic Bilbao aim to achieve La Liga improvement

We take a look which attacking players need to step it up in La Liga to see Athletic Club push on under Marcelino.

Athletic Bilbao came close to a major early season La Liga boost last weekend with only a late equaliser by Barcelona’s Memphis Depay having seen them denied victory in front of 9,394 fans at Estadio San Mamés.

Los Leones had initially gone ahead just after the restart when Inigo Martinez nestled a glancing header past Neto, thus ending a run of four matches without a goal for the hosts.

Their lack of luck in front of goal is no surprise given their lack of striker options.

Just as they did in the season opening stalemate against Elche, Athletic Club once again opted for a front two pairing iof Inaki Williams (initially a winger) and Oihan Sancet (a young central midfielder by trade). Both were supported by Iker Muniain and Alex Berenguer from the wings, whilst Unai Vencedor and Dani Garcia offered protection as the double pivot.

Veteran Raul Garcia at 35-years-old was the striker option called upon from the bench, however given his age it remains to be seen what significant part, if any, he will play this season. He has notched 204 league appearances and 56 goals since arriving from Atletico Madrid in 2015, although again it needs reminding that Garcia is also a central midfielder by trade.

Asier Villalibre is the only out-and-out striker in Athletic’s squad. He was called upon for the final 15mins against Elche on the opening day but ignored against Barcelona.

This first full season under Marcelino was always going to be a testing one for Athletic Club having scaled rather lofty heights last season by winning the Supercopa de España and finishing runners-up in the Copa del Rey. Nevertheless Marcelino himself is a very ambitious manager and he will most certainly expect a league improvement over the course of the 2021/22 campaign having seen them finish mid-table last season with a lowly total of 46 points.

Yet to see improvement over a 38-game La Liga season would require consistency in performance and an improvement on the 46 goals they accumulated last season.

Therefore which attacking players needs to step it up in to see Athletic Club push on in the league under Marcelino?

Inaki Williams

Williams has been heralded as Athletic Club’s next saviour since hitting the scene back in 2014/15. However, now at 27-years-old and having appeared in each and every La Liga match over the past five seasons, the time has come to push on and make a real name for himself.

Having scored 13 goals in 2018/19, he has since only notched six La Liga goals in each of the last two seasons. This total will require improvement if both himself and the club are to improve on last season.

Whether from the right, left or centrally, the onus is now very much on Inaki Williams to spearhead the club onto greater heights. He always had the scintillating pace and dribbling ability but now he also has the experience to match his talents. Can he push on with his beloved Los Leones in the league as he did in last season’s Supercopa de España?

Iker Muniain

Having burst on to the scene nearly a decade ago as the then young star of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic side who took Europe on an amazing ride, Muniain will certainly go down as one of the club’s all-time greats having since accumulated 351 appearances in La Liga.

However, having never reached double figures for goals and never assisted more than four goals in a league season – with only five goals and three assists coming last season – it does leave a slight taste of what might have been for Muniain’s Athletic career.

Injury issues have certainly hampered him at times but there is no denying the fact that a season best league total of seven goals is disappointing for a player with such clear talent.

Whilst occupying a wide-playmaker role under Marcelino he will need to seriously step-up both his goals and assists ratio if Athletic Club are to progress from mid-table underperformers to European challengers in La Liga.

Asier Villalibre

As previously mentioned, Villalibre is the only recognised striker in the Athletic Club squad. At 23-years-old he will expect to push on this season and attempt to tie down one of Marcelino’s two striker spots in his preferred 4-4-2.

Having progressed through the ranks, Villalibre’s scoring record has been sporadic at best with only seven La Liga goals since scoring an impressive 23 goals in 17 appearances for Bilbao Athletic in Segunda Division B – Grupo II in 2018/19.

A run of games in his favoured position would certainly help matters. That would go a long way to confirming whether he prefers to be Athletic’s in-house trumpet player or their heavily relied-upon goalscorer for the next decade.

One to watch: Nico Serrano

At 18-years-old Serrano has never competitively made it on to the pitch in an Athletic Club shirt. However, having made it into the matchday squad against both Elche and Barcelona it certainly won’t be long until he makes his debut for Los Leones.

Serrano is very highly-rated at Estadio San Mamés with much expected of him. He is known as a determined individual and prefers to operate off the left-wing whilst also being an adept finisher.

Whilst it is certainly too early to say whether they can shape him into the next Aduriz, Zarra, Pichichi or Llorente, his progress is certainly worth keeping an eye on this season.


The five stand-out stats of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona career

The surreal statistics behind Lionel Messi’s Barca career are well known. Here are our five stand-out figures.

Lionel Messi has officially left Barcelona following the end of his contract and the financial issues which left them unable to sign-off on an extended stay.

Having seen his previous deal expire on 30 June, news came out last week that a contract was provisionally agreed and only awaiting La Liga’s go ahead. However, Barca have now admitted defeat and made no effort to hide the fact that they’re blaming La Liga – as well as the previous calamitous leadership of Josep Bartomeu – and looking towards protecting the club’s future.

“I can’t make a decision that will affect the club for 50 years,” said president Joan Laporta.

“The club is over 100 years old and it’s above everyone and everything, even above the best player of the world. We will always thank him for everything he’s done for us.

“In order to have fair play, we need to do this or make an effort which would put the club at risk. We couldn’t keep going with this and we needed to make a decision, which we have.”

Whilst a massive hole remains in Barca’s finances, an even bigger one has just developed at the heart of the team. The surreal statistics behind Messi’s Barca career are well known. Here are five stand-out figures.


Lionel Messi has scored 672 goals in a Barcelona shirt across all competitive competitions. These have come in 778 matches – of which have also seen a remarkable 305 assists.


Messi has played a total of 42,142 minutes across all La Liga matches. The last of which came in a 2-1 home defeat to Celta Vigo on 16 May. Messi scored Barca’s only goal that day.


One red card. Lionel Messi received just the one dismissal across his Barca career. This came as they were beaten 3-2 by Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Super Cup final in January 2021.


Messi’s 35 trophy honours with Barcelona includes 10 league titles, four Champions League winners medals, seven Copas del Rey, three Club World Cups, three European Super Cups and eight Spanish Super Cups.


Lionel Messi has won six Ballon d’Or titles during his time at Barcelona. He is out on his own as the only player to have won it six times – leading Cristiano Ronaldo on five.

Here is our most memorable Messi match in a Barca shirt 👇 What’s yours? 👀

Image Courtesy: 2 TOP (, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic | Flickr

Jose Bordalas and Valencia enter the unknown

José Bordalás took Getafe to the promised land, yet tougher tasks and higher expectations lie await at Valencia.

When Valencia fell to a 3-2 defeat against Barcelona in early May it saw them drop to within six points of the La Liga relegation zone with four matches to play.

The result was quickly followed by the sacking of former Watford boss Javi Gracia having won just eight games all season. The six-time Spanish champions once again called on assistant manager Salvador Gonzalez ‘Voro’ to temporarily lead the first team.

Voro guided Valencia to two wins and a draw from the remaining four matches – with emphatic 3-0 and 4-1 home wins against Valladolid and Eibar helping ensure safety.

Five days after the season came to a close, Voro once again stepped into the shadows. The time had come for another permanent figure to lead the ship as Jose Bordalas was called upon.

José Bordalas had taken minnows Getafe to the promised land by scaling lofty heights and just missing out on Champions League qualification. All of which seemed unimaginable when he took over a team facing relegation from the Segunda.

As soon as Valencia’s interest became known, Bordalas asked Getafe’s president Angel Torres to terminate his contract with a year remaining so Valencia could avoid paying his release clause.

However, word got around that Torres felt a change could be best for all parties following an underwhelming final 2020/21 season which saw their side finish in the bottom half and post the league’s lowest goalscoring record.

All of which brought together the new marriage of Valencia and Bordalas.

Bordalas is known for his love of football’s dark arts. He prefers his sides to sit off teams, awaiting a mistake before hitting on the counter, opting for a 4-4-2 with combative midfielders and high-pressing strikers.

Like Diego Simeone, Bordalas is a rather conflicting character in a Spain which is revered throughout football for technical ability and on-the-ball talent. Though if their methods gains results, as Simeone did once again with Atletí last season, is there anyone who can really call against them?

Nevertheless the pressure and task awaiting Bordalas at Valencia is an entirely different beast.

When Marcelino triumphantly brought the Copa Del Rey back to the Mestalla in 2019, who would have thought he would be sacked from his role three months later? The events that have run course since has shocked the club to its core.

Marcelino was quickly replaced by Albert Celades, who was then sacked due to poor results, while sporting director César Sanchez resigned that same season. That made it six different managers and another six sporting directors by 2020 for Valencia’s erratic owner, Peter Lim.

Lim, the son of a fishmonger and a former stockbroker with links to third-party agreements in players, as well as a stake in Salford City FC, hasn’t made many friends in and around Valencia.

Lim appointed Javi Gracia for the 2020/21 season only to quickly tarnish whatever aspirations they held. Lim insisted on a fire sale of the first team squad – with Dani Parejo and Ferran Torres among the likes sold for less than half their official market values.

This close season the squad has seen only one newcomer, Omar Alderete on a loan from Hertha Berlin. Much pressure lies on the shoulders of the likes of Jose Gaya, Carlos Soler, Gabriel Paulista and Maxi Gomez as they approach the new season, whilst Kang-in Lee and Yunus Musah will hope to scale further heights.

Their long-awaited plans for Nou Mestalla remain on long-term hold. Having started on the building in the summer of 2007, construction was stopped two years later as funding ran out and the project was suspended. The stadium’s shell has now fallen into a state of disrepair with no maintenance in over a decade since.

Current state of Nou Mestalla. Ravave on WikiMedia.

“They’re trying to make sure we don’t sell the club to anyone other than them,” Peter Lim said recently in an interview with the Financial Times with comments then published by Marca.

“These people argue, ‘we’re Valencianos, we know the club’, but with the Valencianos they went bankrupt, right? I don’t want to belittle the club, it’s 102 years old. They’ve never won the Champions League and want to win it at all costs. They’ve got birds in their heads.”

Such comments will do nothing to adhere him to the Valencia faithful.

Whilst five wins from six pre-season matches offers some promise for Jose Bordalas and his Valencia tenure, he would be wise to remember that much tougher tests lie ahead once the season is officially underway – both on the field and in the boardroom.

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?

The unfulfilled promise of Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid and the ugly aftermath

Ever had that feeling in life when something is doomed from the start such as a business initiative or a relationship? Just ask Julen Lopetegui, Real Madrid’s recently sacked manager. How do you go from being the man tasked with heralding a new era of Spanish dominance to being fired from two of the most coveted coaching positions in world football in a span of 4 months? Once again, the answer to the question lies with Mr. Julen Lopetegui.

As cliched as it sounds, life has its ups and downs. If anything, the only constant is the transient nature of life. However, it surely takes some doing and some truly unique circumstances to have such a rapid downfall.

With the dust having settled at Real Madrid and interim manager Santiago Solari being given a permanent contract till 2021, it may finally be time to shed light on a coaching stint that had the makings of greatness and yet may have been doomed even before it began. What appears to be adding even more fuel to the fire is Solari’s uninspired and controversial stint thus far.

So, what happened earlier this season and what is really going on at Los Galacticos?

Julen Lopetegui’s Moment of Weakness

While being a gifted individual and having loads of ability is one thing, being able to sense the tide is another thing entirely. When Lopetegui was contacted by Florentino Perez about taking over the managerial reins at Real Madrid, following Zidane’s shock resignation; he should have thought twice. He should have guessed that something was amiss and that there may have been some thing deeper that caused Zidane to resign. After all Zidane had just come through a very difficult league campaign and somehow managed to pull off another miracle in the form of a third consecutive champions league.

Lopetegui on the other hand had just led Spain to the World Cup on the back of an unbeaten qualification campaign. More importantly, Spain had looked completely revitalised and emerged as possible contenders for the World Cup. So, what could cause a man potentially on the cusp of the greatest moment in his fledgling coaching career to throw it all away; even for one of the greatest football clubs in world history?

They say that one has to grab the opportunities thrown one’s way in life. While this is true, one should at times exercise caution in doing so. Perhaps Lopetegui took the saying too literally. When a coach who was considered as only the 5th or 6th choice in the pecking order was contacted; it should stand to reason that there must have been strong motivations behind other illustrious names not accepting the offer of head honcho at Real. Perhaps the glitz and glamour of coaching a club as big as Real clouded his decision making.

Decision making on the other hand is something that Zidane shares few equals with in the footballing world.

Real’s Inherent Problems

Real might have created history last season by winning an unprecedented third consecutive champions league title. Yet the plain truth is that the champions league victory merely papered over the cracks within the squad and the club. The 2017-18 season was supposed to be the season where Real finally did the treble and conquered all. While the season did start off with two extremely convincing super cup victories, the rest of the season was extremely disappointing.

It is highly possible that the success of previous seasons had resulted in some complacency within the squad. Hence, they were unable to sustain that level of performance throughout. Although Real limped over the finish line in the champions league, the entire campaign had taken its toll on Zidane. Zidane clearly realised that the squad was in need of some kind of shake-up and a new direction was needed in order to ensure continued success.

Owing to the low-profile nature of Zidane’s managerial style, it still isn’t really clear what kind of changes Zidane had in mind. After having seen the current season unfold, however, one begins to get an idea behind Zidane’s shock resignation.

Many of Real’s stars and veterans have put in largely underwhelming performances this season. Among these under-performers, the one whose name stands out the most is Luka Modric. His performances for the most part have looked very uninspiring and tired after a terrific performance last season and in the World Cup. To be fair, he has been looking like his old self in recent games. At the same time, it should be noted that he has been a regular starter throughout the entirety of the first half and that has had its effects.

Another of Real’s issues has been its goal production. When Ronaldo left, the board assumed that the trio of Bale, Benzema and Asensio would share goal scoring responsibilities. Hence, the board decided not to sign a high-profile striker or forward. The only notable summer signing was ex Castilla player Mariano Diaz from Lyon after a great last season. That said, Mariano Diaz was not expected to start and was primarily signed as a back-up to Benzema.

For all of Real’s talent up-front, the goals just haven’t been coming with the forward line being extremely profligate in front of goal. To make matters more interesting, there are some rumours that Zidane wanted Bale out of the club and planned to extend Ronaldo’s stay at the club. Club president Florentino Perez reportedly disagreed with Zidane as he wanted his prize asset to stay at the club; thus, causing Zidane to resign.

The Bright Start

Despite the controversial circumstances surrounding Lopetegui’s appointment as manager, it seemed like the perfect appointment on paper. A prominent feature of Zidane’s managerial stint was a clear lack of team identity or playing style. There were phases when it appeared as though the team was playing in a certain way, employing a certain formation or playing with certain personnel. Just when one thought he knew what to expect with Real, Zidane would entirely re-shuffle the team dynamic. During the first phase of his tenure, this kept things fresh by keeping the players on their toes and constantly taking the opposition by surprise. Later on, though, this seemed to confuse his own players.

Lopetegui seemed like just the man to take the team forward. His more updated take on tiki-taka with heavy emphasis on counter-pressing, a more fluid & direct style and heavy off-the-ball movement had all the ingredients for success. To set things up even better, the team had signed a lot of young Spanish talent in recent years and quite a few of them were familiar with his methods. Last but certainly not the least, the team had Isco Alarcon, his pet student from the Spanish youth and senior national teams. Of all the managers that have headed Real since Mourinho, no one understood Isco quite like Lopetegui. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a significant part of Spain’s successes at the youth and senior levels under Lopetegui were due to the brilliant technical abilities of Isco. So, it only seemed like the logical choice to build the new Real Madrid around the talented playmaker.

In spite of an early super cup loss to Atletico, the 2018-19 season started off in great style. Real rose to the top of the table after some very convincing performances in the league. The front three truly impressed with their off the ball movement and link up play. Benzema appeared to have broken the shackles and shades of his fearless old Lyon self were on display. Most notably, Real’s chance creation rate was on a far superior level than what had been seen in the previous season. Then came the game against Roma in the Champions League and the Merengue faithful bore witness to an absolute masterclass. A mediocre Roma side could get absolutely nowhere near Real’s dynamic movement and were decimated. At the heart of it all was Isco Alarcon; pulling the strings and dictating the tempo of the game. Lopetegui’s emphasis on the collective was paying dividends.

The Rapid Descent

Following the initial success, Lopetegui’s toughest month yet, awaited him. In a packed schedule, Real were due to face the likes of Sevilla, Atletico, Barcelona etc. Unfortunately for Lopetegui, his biggest master stroke would also prove to be his biggest mistake. Building the team around the talents of Isco was a terrific decision as he understood Lopetegui’s fluid possession and inter changing of positions like no other. At the same time, this would also prove to be the Achilles heel for Real. In his most difficult moment, Isco would be ruled out for a month due to Appendicitis. In the absence of Isco, Real appeared a confused side with no movement between the lines. As a result, there was a lot of stale possession but with no clear idea as to how to execute Lopetegui’s lofty footballing plans. It was very similar to Spain’s games in the world cup following Lopetegui’s sacking.

In the games where Real did create quality chances, the forwards started stuttering in front of goal. A string of losses and draws followed, creating a lot of pressure on Lopetegui. Additionally, despite solving Real’s chance creation problems from the previous season, he couldn’t effectively fix Real’s problems with defending in transition.

With his job on the line, Real were set to face Barcelona in the El Classico. In a desperate move, Lopetegui hurried Isco’s recovery following his surgery and he was immediately thrust into the starting line-up against Barcelona. Needless to say, all the negative momentum culminated in a disastrous 5-1 loss and Lopetegui was promptly fired.

The final verdict on Lopetegui appears to be a little harsh and unfair even if warranted. Under Lopetegui, Real’s chance creation rate was second only to Barcelona in the league. Also, in a situation rarely seen in super clubs today, many of the players felt bad that Lopetegui was sacked and openly expressed their gratitude towards him. There is a good possibility that Lopetegui might have been able to turn the situation around given more time especially considering that the players vocally supported him. However, in modern day football, especially at Real, results matter and that meant Lopetegui was out.

Enter Solari

Following the disastrous El Classico, Real appointed Castilla coach Santiago Solari as its interim coach. This appointment seemed strange to say the least. Santiago Solari, while a great player in his day, didn’t exactly have a stellar record with Real Madrid Castilla. More curiously, he hadn’t managed to extract the best out of young talents such as the promising Paraguayan forward Sergio Diaz who was constantly played out of position.

All this notwithstanding, Santiago Solari managed to get some very positive results in his first few games with the club and hence was rewarded with a long-term contract till 2021. While his initial results were positive, the way the team played appeared to be disjointed. If Real’s play last season appeared stale, then it started appearing to be even more disjointed under Solari. While Lopetegui and Zidane emphasised on a more fluid playing structure, Solari appeared to be extremely rigid with his team structure. The emphasis on pressing under Lopetegui also seemed to have disappeared with the team sitting back a little.

After the initial run of positive results, the team’s results have been mixed ever since. More than the team’s results however, what appears to be a cause for concern is the team’s lack of ideas going forward. Although Solari can be credited with making the team defensively more solid, there appears to be no cutting edge in attack. Real’s match against Betis is a case in point where one could be forgiven for thinking that Real was a relegation threatened team playing Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at its peak. It appears as though Solari favours a rigid team structure, defensive solidity and quick attacks with less possession. As a result, real’s most creative and fluid attackers, Isco and Marcelo, have found minutes hard to come by.

Even more bizarre is Solari’s on going cold war with Isco. It isn’t really clear what caused the tension between the two but its obvious that something is broken in their relationship. The constant transfer rumours and media questions surrounding Isco’s lack of starts haven’t helped team morale either. Under the present circumstances, it seems odd that the likes of Fede Valverde regularly start ahead of Isco given that Real is in dire need of creativity in the final third. Isco and Marcelo are the team’s most press resistant players and Real’s difficulty in getting out of a press under Solari has been exacerbated by their lack of minutes.

It must also be noted that ever since taking over, Solari has placed an emphasis on Castilla and former Castilla players. Allowing home-grown talent to blossom is not only a huge source of pride for clubs but can also enhance their brand value and reduce their spending on big name players. At the same time, his decision to give certain former Castilla players minutes over players who could make a difference is puzzling. A notable exception to this is Marcos Llorente, who has been nothing short of brilliant in his limited minutes as Casemiro’s replacement.

On the flip side to all of this strange decision making is the emergence of Vinicius Junior. It must be said that for all of Lopetegui’s great ideas, he didn’t seem to have enough trust in Vinicius at the time. Solari, on the other hand has given Vinicius complete freedom to fearlessly run at the opposition at every opportunity. Solari’s faith in Vinicius has been vindicated with the Brazilian youngster reciprocating in kind with some terrific performances. Although Vinicius is raw, his tireless running, dribbling, defensive tracking and runs off-the-ball have really caught the eye. At a time when Real Madrid appears completely out of ideas in attack, Vinicius often seems to be the lone bright spark making things happen and creating chances.

An Uncertain Future

Real’s form and results of late appear to be picking up. The midfield metronome Luka Modric is also starting to perform like his old self. With the business end of the season in sight, things are far from straightforward for Real. Even if Los Blancos do manage to win some silverware at the end of the season, greater questions lie.

Is Solari really the right person to take this club forward? What happens to the likes of Isco and Marcelo? Will Real finally sign some big-name players such as Eden Hazard and revert to their old Galactico ways?

Nothing is set in stone and the way things are presently heading, the road ahead for Los Blancos is a tricky one. Whatever happens, football fans can expect one hell of a rocky roller coaster ride!!

Atletico Madrid must tap into their inner underdog to topple rivals

Ahead of the derby with Real Madrid, would it not be wonderful to once again revel in Atletico Madrid’s counter-attacking, whole-hearted defending style under ‘el Cholo’, and bask in the glory of this underdog team?

Even for the likes of Atletico Madrid, the Nou Camp must be one of the most daunting football stadiums to play in. With seating of more than 99,000, relentless chants of “Messi, Messi, Messi”and thick Catalan air, its Colosseum-like structure embraces the FC Barcelona players and, more often than not, entraps hapless opponents sent to the slaughter house for a fixture that usually ends in a comfortable win for the home side.

In the last home fixture of the 2013-2014 season, Barcelona played host to Atletico Madrid. Three points separated the two, and a win for either would clinch the league title. There was no immense difference in the quality of the players, but there was a clear clash of identity; Atletico were plucky opponents, clad in mustard yellow and evening blue.

If their impressive showing at Stamford Bridge in their 3-1 win in the Champions League semi-final a few weeks before underpinned their pedigree as a thorn in the side of the top breeds of Europe, then their resilient showing amidst the electrifying atmosphere of the Barcelona crowd added another layer to an already solid skin.

The classic 4-4-2 model had served them well, and as Diego Simeone was lifted high in the sky by his team at the end of that pulsating 1-1 draw, it became clear that this team was not disappearing into the realms of nothingness anytime soon. The stranglehold of the top two in Spain had been broken, a nine-year exchange of power, in a season where Barcelona and Real Madrid had scored 100 and 104 goals respectively. Atletico scored 77, but more importantly, had conceded the least amount of goals with 26 in total.

Instead of a procession, Atletico had played a leading role in a fascinating and unexpected title race. When one thought of the word ‘underdog’, they had elevated themselves as the prime synonym. Taking from the rich, and giving to the poor, in pure Robin Hood fashion.

Since that title triumph, like a leopard embracing the shade of a marula tree in the blazing heat of the African sun, Atletico have been lying in wait, picking their moments to pounce and show us that they are still a title-winning outfit. In the period under Simeone, Atletico have entered the stratosphere of the European elite, and having been in two UEFA Champions League finals in the last five years, as well as capturing the Europa League and the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups, the La Liga crown could be a realistic prospect once again.

Atletico enter the Madrid derby this weekend in third place, two points behind their bitter, more illustrious rivals. Although Madrid have won three Champions League titles in a row, as well as a La Liga title in the 2016-2017 season, in this period of transition the playing field seems level. Los Blancos are still finding their feet under Julen Lopetegui, wounded from the calamitous performance against Sevilla, who showed that an ageing Madrid outfit are susceptible to an intense pressing style and once they found a way past Casemiro – the smoke screen to Madrid’s centre backs – then there was a soft underbelly that they ruthlessly exposed.

Barcelona also showed signs of fragility as they were handed a surprising defeat at the hands of Leganes, who had Gerard Pique to thank for one of those rare “let the ground open up and swallow me whole” moments that he would like to forget in a hurry. Although it is early on in the season, and many would say that these results are mere blips, there is nothing wrong with setting an early marker to give your rivals something to think about, which Atletico have already done in their 4-2 win against Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup.

Would it not be wonderful to once again revel in the counter-attacking, whole-hearted defending style of ‘el Cholo’ – as Simeone is fondly known as – and bask in the glory of the underdog team that elevated themselves from the shadows?

There is something beautiful in the ugly 1-0 wins and the tenacity that Atletico exhibit, working hard for every result, covering each blade of grass with an intensity that epitomises the energetic chaos of their master. Instruction from the sidelines, hassling and demanding, asking for more, more, more, pulling at his black tie, apologising to the referee for his antics, encouraging the crowd at the Wanda Metropolitano to lift the players when they need that extra push. How does he sleep at night?

The new stadium adds to the freshness that surrounds Atletico these days. Summer signings such as Thomas Lemar and Rodri have come in and added some much needed squad depth. Rodri, in particular, looks like a midfield commando in the ilk of Sergio Busquets: tall, dark and handsome, calm on the ball, and a good sense of positional awareness. With Gabi departing to Al Sadd SC in Qatar, a warrior in the truest sense of Simeone’s defensive midfield blueprint, Rodri has the task of filling the void left by his predecessor.

Gabi may be gone, but Diego Godin is still there. So are Filipe Luis and Koke. Arguably the best exponent of uncomplicated centre back marshalling in world football, Godin has aged like fine wine, leading from the back like a well-oiled machine. Diego Costa returned in January, still rugged in the edges of his face, still a pest for defenders in the mold of the old-school number nine. His partnership with Antoine Griezmann could be the glue that sticks everything together, and allows the Frenchman to roam free whilst Costa does his best impression of the pantomime villain.

Last year, Atletico failed to seize the moment when they lost limply to Barcelona in their bid to challenge for the title. It was not the sort of performance that reflected ‘Choloism’, especially against one of the big fish. This weekend affords the opportunity to lay some important groundwork for a season that has the same theme of years gone by: find success in an environment where few would expect them to.

This is the sort of narrative that Simeone thrives on. They may always be underdogs, and they may win ugly, but Atletico are always in and around the top positions, striving to achieve glory in ways that make you appreciate the hard work that goes in to becoming the team that continues to defy the odds, even with the quality that is at Simeone’s disposal.

That is just how he likes it. Madrid and Barcelona have been toppled before. Who says that they cannot be found wanting once again?

Is Lionel Messi being treated unfairly by UEFA?

Many fans, especially Barcelona fans, believe UEFA lost credibility by excluding Lionel Messi from the Ballon d’Or top three. Marco Gerges takes a look at the Argentine’s situation…

Lionel Messi is arguably the greatest footballer of all time. He has won a total of 33 trophies with FC Barcelona and has become the best ever to play in the blue and red stripes. Even though he is recognised as one of the best players in the world, he is also criticised, mostly because of his performances with his national team.

UEFA have decided to exclude him from the top three of their Best Player award. Some agree with the decision, whilst some think the decision was very wrong and disrespectful towards Messi. Many think the four-time Champions League winner is being treated unfairly by UEFA.

Although a great player, Messi has recently been falling short of rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who has tied the Argentine on Ballon Dor’s. This year’s UEFA Best Player award went to Luka Modric, and Messi wasn’t even included in the top three.

Many fans feel that UEFA is being unfair towards Messi, they could have a case. Let’s compare statistics. Mohamed Salah had the best season of his career, catching the eye of fans and clubs from all around the world. The Egyptian scored 32 goals and gave 11 assists in 36 Premier League appearances. Salah was nominated in the top three for the award.

Salah’s amazing season just fell short of one of Messi’s ordinary seasons. Leo scored 34 goals and gave 12 assists in 36 LaLiga appearances. He achieved top goalscorer status and most assists, he finished the season with the league title, domestic cup, and the Super Cup.

Even after a great season, why didn’t UEFA bat an eye? Many believe UEFA are trying to pick the winner of the Best Player award based on a player’s performance in the Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric won the competition, while Salah made it to the final and played very well. Modric had an advantage because of the World Cup, that’s why he won the prize.

Many fans, especially Barcelona fans think that UEFA lost their credibility after excluding Lionel Messi from the top three. The other candidates also had amazing seasons, but excluding the 5-time Ballon Dor winner from the top 3 wasn’t the correct decision.

The majority of the football community aren’t telling UEFA to give him the prize but to at least show respect to the player by ranking him in the top three for the prize. He had as good a season, or an even better season, than most of the players.

Messi has started the 2018/19 season on fire, scoring four goals and giving two assists in three LaLiga appearances. Now we have to wait until the new season ends to decide if UEFA have truly put Messi down, or if he will prove to them that they have made a mistake.

Málaga CF’s relegation again shows perils of poor ownership

Having once been promised the world, Málaga CF will start the 2018/19 season in the Segunda División. Robbie Chalmers takes a look at Abdullah El Thani’s rollercoaster reign as owner.

By Robbie Chalmers

Abdullah El Thani bought the south Spanish side in 2010 with the promise of a challenge for the title. Eight years later however, the club are relegated with the blame laid solely at the foot of the Sheikh’s door.

Malaga is one of Spain’s top tourist attractions with its beautiful vistas, vibrant night life and stylish seaside lifestyle. Standing aloft in the centre is La Rosaleda, an almost magisterial old Spanish ground next to the Guadelmedina River which runs to the city’s thriving harbour. It’s an idyllic location for those who enjoy the high life. One who certainly enjoys the high life is Abdullah El Thani. He’s a Qatari royal and chairman of the privately owned Nasir Bin Abdullah & Sons (NAS Group), one of Qatar’s largest companies. CNN once called him one of the Gulf’s richest men and the long held impression is that Al-Thani possesses incredible wealth. His time at Malaga, however, paints a different picture.

The club’s economic problems were huge in 2010 and the president at the time, Fernando Sanz, saught new financial support via Doha, Qatar which led to meetings with Sheikh Abdullah ben Nasser Al Thani. After some weeks of negotiations, Al Thani became the entity’s new owner in June 2010, being named president on 28th July at the members’ meeting.

At the time of Al-Thani’s takeover the Spanish top flight was dominated by two players and two teams. Ronaldo and Messi were just beginning their decade long rivalry and the two El Clasico sides were more dominant than ever. Pep Guardiola was in charge of one of football’s greatest ever club sides and Real Madrid launched a new Galactico project to counter the Catalans universal success. Despite all this, Al-Thani sounded the alarm and promised quite the vision.

“It will take time, but our objective is for Malaga to be one of the greatest teams in Spain,” Al-Thani also said he decided to buy Malaga rather than Liverpool (which was sold the same year to the Fenway Sports Group for about £300 million).

Al Thani at the La Rosaleda stadium

At first, steps were taken to establish Malaga as a stable La Liga team and players of a more international standard were brought in. Salomón Rondon was sought after by Valencia and Villarreal at a time when both were playing regular Champions League football. The Venezuelan saw a long term project and the chance to be a part of potential revolution and so joined Malaga for a then record £3.5 million pound. Portuguese winger Eliseu also joined the side. Jesualdo Ferreira was appointed as coach but after a poor run that saw them faltering in the relegation zone, they turned to a future Man City favourite; Manuel Pellegrini.

Although the Chilean was posted in the caretaker role this would be the job that gave him a new path back to elite football. Between 2004 and 2009 he guided Villarreal to Champions League football and led them to a semi-final place in 2006. A quarter final place and second place La Liga finish in 2009 got him the Real Madrid job where he was harshly dismissed for Jose Mourinho after one year in charge. Los Blancos always have a reputation for cruel dismissals so a new challenge at Malaga felt deserving of Manuel’s talents. In the January transfer window more players were moved on to make way for bigger names such as centre back Martín Demichelis and former Arsenal attacker Júlio Baptista. They finished the 2010–11 season in 11th place.

The wheels were in motion and the club were being taken more seriously. Their growing exposure helped them strike a deal with Nike as the supplier of the club’s kits and with UNESCO, which, in addition, became the principal sponsor of the club’s kit. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Jérémy Toulalan, Santi Cazorla, Isco, Joaquín and left back Nacho Monreal were all drafted in to help the club qualify for the Champions League in 2012 for the first time in their history after finishing fourth.

With over £80 million spent on players already and the boosted financial resources from European football, Málaga made it to the 2013 Champions League quarter finals. The project reached its peak against German champions Borussia Dortmund. With the first leg ending 0–0 Malaga had a real chance to progress although they were still huge underdogs. Joaquin and Baptista put Malaga 2-1 up with only stoppage time remaining. But football can be a cruel mistress. Two late offside goals by Marco Reus (90+1st minute) and Felipe Santana (90+3rd minute) turned the tables in favour of Jurgen Klopp’s men. Malaga were so disgusted with the officials they made an official complaint to UEFA, but it was eventually dismissed.

This became the pinnacle of Al Thani’s reign and things gradually began to turn for the worse.

Unbeknownst to the fans at the time Malaga were living in an artificial bubble that couldn’t be contained, it turned out they were paying players wages that they could not afford.

Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani stopped ploughing money into the club around this time. This is because his original plan was to buy Malaga as a strategy to purchase more land in the area. The idea was that he could build a sporting city around the football club and turn his investment into a property business as well as a sporting one. Malaga were just a pawn in a bigger scheme. His plan hit a snag as the authorities denied him any planning permission for this project and, after months of appeals, he decided to pull the plug.

Al Thani cut his vast investment into the clubs infrastructure and not only were they unable to bring in any more players but they were unable to keep the stars they had. Málaga have had to sell every year, and it just gets to a point where they couldn’t squeeze more money out of the team, soon there was no talent left. In the summer of 2013, Isco was sold to Real Madrid, Joaquín to Fiorentina and midfielder Jérémy Toulalan to Monaco. The managerial position also changed, with Bernd Schuster taking over from Manuel Pellegrini who left for Manchester City.

In August 2013, Málaga were banned by UEFA, along with other clubs for its debts, so the agency in a statement declared that the club will be excluded from the subsequent competition, for which it would otherwise qualify, in the next four seasons. The ban was, however, eventually downgraded to one season. But still the scars of that night in Dortmund were deeply felt and the mishandling of the clubs finances were coming back to haunt them.

Málaga’s decline continued and they finished lower down the league each season over the past five years. And on 19 April 2018, the Malaga supporter’s worst nightmare was realised. Away to Levante, they hoped to revive their slim survival bid. They were stranded in 20th, 14 points from safety. Málaga conceded a late goal. Emmanuel Boateng sealed their fate and the clubs 10-year stay in La Liga was over. Their dream was over.

In the last decade Málaga were fed an idea that they could become a major force in Spanish football. What’s worse is that Al Thani has pledged to stay on and help Málaga return to the top flight where he says they will “return to their core position”. Perhaps he still harbours plans for a Málaga sporting city project and staying at Málaga Football Club for a few more years may endear him to the powers that be. It may be enough to get his project the go ahead.

Either way, Málaga CF have become an example of how ownership can ruin a club when the football becomes secondary to personal gain. Now they may struggle to make it back to the league they once dreamt of winning.

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