Cristiano Ronaldo returns to protect his Manchester United legacy

Manchester United fans rejoiced yesterday as announcement came that five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was returning to the club despite having seemed certain to join bitter rivals Manchester City that very morning.

Manchester United fans rejoiced yesterday as announcement came that five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo was returning to the club despite having seemed certain to join bitter rivals Manchester City that very morning.

Yesterday was the epitome of a game of two halves.

As a Manchester United fan waking up there was a slight sense of dread. Will it really happen? Will he tarnish his status amongst United fans by moving to City? If so, how will it feel if he guides them to glory? Or even their first Champions League title?

All of it sent slight shivers down my spine. However, all I could do was put on a brave face and pretend he never mattered in the first place.

Cristiano Ronaldo? Nah, never heard of him. Played for United? Think you’ve got the wrong bloke, mate. Three Premier League titles and a Champions League? Pull the other one. Moving to City? Couldn’t give a toss.

By 6pm, with Ronaldo’s Manchester United return all but confirmed barring a medical, the mood had been turned upside down.

Cristiano Ronaldo? What a player. 117 goals during his first spell? 118 actually. Greatest of all time? Sure. 36-years-old going on 28? Can’t disagree. United legend? Most definitely.

The match at Wolves on Sunday will probably come too soon for his second debut, therefore the attention instantly turned to playing Newcastle at home in a fortnight.

I thought Ole has to start him, surely? Imagine the ovation when he walks out. The first legend since Paul Scholes to return having initially left. Will his second spell be Mark Hughes or George Best like I wonder? Running down the wing? More like poaching around the six-yard box.

Never mind, let’s just savour his return and sing Viva Ronaldo.

I got my first season ticket in time for the 2006/07 season. United had gone three seasons without a league title. Jose Mourinho had arrived and taken Chelsea to great heights. Arsene Wenger was still guiding Arsenal towards the latter stage of his peak. Rafa Benitez had the red-half of Liverpool under his spell.

Meanwhile question marks were being asked of Sir Alex, despite a League Cup win the previous season.

Ronaldo, Rooney and Saha spearheaded the side, anchored by Van Der Saar, Ferdinand and Vidic. Giggs and Scholes offered the winning pedigree, with Michael Carrick proving the final jigsaw by cleaning up and pinging passes from all angles. The squad had the taste of something special.

My first three years as a season ticket holder saw three league titles and the holy grail of a Champions League. Cristiano Ronaldo scored goals for fun. Then as soon as the Ronaldo/United dynasty began, it came to an end.

After reaching the pinnacle of European football by winning the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow, Ronaldo instantly set about an exit strategy. He wanted out straight away. Sir Alex reaped another year out of him which saw another league title and coming close to retaining the Champions League only to lose to Barcelona in Rome.

Ronaldo got his move in 2009. He joined Real Madrid for £90million. An absolute bargain when looking back and comparing to the figures seen since.

He achieved more than a goal a game at Real Madrid with 450 goals in 438 matches. Ronaldo amassed a further four Champions League titles and yet another four Ballon d’Or accolades.

Whilst his stint at Old Trafford was to be forever cherished, there was also a sense of what might have been had we managed another season or two out of him.

He then moved to Juventus and scored yet another 101 goals in 134 matches. Now at 36-years-old he returns to Manchester United. Certainly not in his pomp, but I think United’s most ardent rivals would agree this just isn’t your average footballer.

His dedication to the profession is second to none. From hiring chefs at a young age to having enough of an entourage to efficiently run The Lowry Hotel. Ronaldo has squeezed absolutely everything out of his talents and more.

He now returns to Old Trafford very much a different individual to the one who first walked through the doors in 2003.

Where once he walked the corridors as a spotty showboating teenager, he now walks as the revered winning-machine and arguably the greatest to have played the sport.

A three-nation league title winner, five time Champions League winner, five time Ballon d’Or winner and the only Portugal captain to lead his side to a major honour by lifting the 2016 European Championship.

How might the likes of Mason Greenwood look at him? Working with such an individual can only improve the young star’s game. Elsewhere in the squad, there will surely be a boost – it’s only natural. The Cristiano Ronaldo-type players of this world are very much rare. They naturally drag teammates up a level. They show strength in leadership when others fold.

A £20million figure for a 36-year-old might sound astounding. Yet it really does need reminding that this isn’t the average 36-year-old. Add to this the acquisitions of Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane and it makes even sweeter reading.

Some might wonder how the likes of United are able to spend such figures given the effects of Covid on everyone’s wallets. Though you really do need to bear in mind that United are among the most self-sustainable of clubs – this despite the £1billion+ taken out of the club’s coffers by the Glazers since they took charge.

On the Glazer point; whilst signing Ronaldo does make sense on the field and as a nostalgic moral booster too, surely they also thought back to the effect Tom Brady had on their NFL side Tampa Bay Buccaneers just last year? Upon joining from New England Patriots the veteran quarter-back guided them to the Super Bowl, might they hope for the same from Ronaldo’s return to United?

Nevertheless, all I can say as a United fan is his second debut will be extra special.

Having already witnessed his talents and lost my voice countless times singing his name during his first stint, his Old Trafford return will surely make many a grown man emotional – myself included.

Viva Ronaldo will ring around Old Trafford like never before and I’ll enjoy the ride whatever it may bring.

Though that 21st league title would be more than enough, Ronnie.

Featured imaged sourced off Wikimedia.

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?

The Strange Duality of Isco

“A certain bandy-legged bearded beauty who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.”

By Rohan Kaushik

If there is one thing that has come to characterise the Spanish National Team’s play over the last decade or so, it is ‘Style’. Winning may be important but doing it with panache and a style that’s easy on the eyes can elevate sport to a different level altogether. At Real Madrid, winning in an emphatic manner or with style so to speak is of prime importance. Over the years, legendary players and coaches who couldn’t fit into this spectacular brand of football at Real have been shown the door (Fabio Capello and Claude Makelele are prime examples). Yet for all the emphasis placed on style, there is a certain bandy-legged bearded beauty (Yes, Isco) who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for this lofty ideal; and at the same time looks out of place at Real Madrid.

Isco’s performances and fortunes at Real throughout his time at the club have been stop-start. There always seems to be an aura about him that suggests he could go on to become one of the legends of the game. Creative attacking midfielders however, require a certain freedom, continuity and a well-defined role in order to express themselves fully. For some reason though, this role seems to constantly elude Isco, at least on a consistent basis.

During the second half of the 2016-17 season, Isco played a starring role in helping Real retain the UEFA Champions League and win the league as well. He further asserted his rising star status at the club with stellar performances against Barcelona and Manchester United to help Real win the Spanish and UEFA Super Cups. The stage finally seemed set for the midfield maestro to stake his place among the world’s elite in club football. And yet…

To put all of this into further perspective, his fortunes with the national team couldn’t be more contrasting to those of his club. Under Julen Lopetegui, Isco has been nothing short of spectacular and has been one of the prime catalysts in the national team’s renaissance. So what’s up with him?

The Season So Far

Unfortunately for Real and more so for Isco, the first half of the season turned out to be one of Real’s worst in quite some time. It is quite interesting to note that this terrible run had come on the back of the team’s best season in the Champions League era. Whatever the reason for Real’s lacklustre showing in the first half be it the poor finishing of the forwards, a poor transition defence, an over reliance on crosses or general complacency; Isco’s stock certainly took a hit. While he may have been one of the team’s standout performers in the first 3 to 4 months along with Varane and Nacho, Real’s general gameplay looked stagnant and devoid of inspiration. In spite of the team’s poor form, the general consensus was that Isco was playing well on an individual level and his performances for Spain in the world cup qualifiers were terrific. Then came the match against Sevilla…

Zidane decided to rest Isco for this game and out of the blue, Los Blancos put in an imperious performance against the Andalusians and shipped 5 goals past them. Sevilla might have been in poor form at the time but the speed, incisiveness and direct nature of Real’s attack stood out. In particular, Asensio and Lucas Vazquez had a great game. It was around this time that a strong case started building up against Isco that he slows down play and doesn’t release the ball quick enough. Although such things have been pointed out about his style of play before, the evidence in favour of these aspects of his play suddenly seemed very strong.

To be fair to Isco, it wasn’t as if he was directly responsible for Real’s poor play. Even though Isco may not be lightning quick and his decision making in the final third can sometimes be sub-optimal; his general qualities are extremely favourable to the flow of the game. That said, his performances started fading and soon enough, he found himself on the bench. Despite this, it came as quite a surprise to many when he was benched for the El Clasico against Barcelona. Even though Real played well in the first half, they were convincingly beaten 3-0. It must be noted here that his absence here made no difference to the team’s gameplay. Soon after the turn of the year though, Real’s performances gradually picked up and they even managed to convincingly beat PSG in the Champions League against all odds.

As strange as Real’s disastrous first half was, their uptake in form in 2018 has been even stranger. Among the hall marks of this resurgence have been the dominant play of Asensio and Vazquez, Gareth Bale’s return from injury and Benzema & Ronaldo’s stunning return to form. Their play has been very clinical and direct. Put this in contrast to Isco and everything seems stacked against the midfielder.

In order to present a complete picture, however, his role within Zidane’s system must be examined more carefully.

Isco in Zidane’s Scheme

What Zidane has done for the team in his tenure so far has been nothing short of brilliant. No one expected him to be anything more than a short term interim appointment. It is then safe to say that he has blown everyone’s expectations away. In particular, his exemplary man management skills and ability to motivate players for the big occasion in the Champions League have stood out.

In the midst of all this, there is the curious case of Isco. Initially not a regular under Zidane, he won his place in the side on the back of some superb showings in La Liga. Many have often said that Isco possesses qualities similar to that of Zizou. In fact, Zidane has himself admitted this on a number of occasions. He has even gone on to state his admiration for the Spanish midfielder several times in the media. This mutual trust and relationship between the two has largely held true and it is quite likely that Zidane’s belief in Isco eventually translated to his great performances on the pitch. So what’s gone wrong or ‘appeared’ to have gone wrong for him?

Real Madrid diamond Formation

During Real Madrid’s unprecedented defence of their Champions League title, Zidane had innovated his own version of the ‘Diamond’ formation. This would involve Isco at the tip of the diamond just behind Ronaldo and Benzema while Modric, Kroos and Casemiro would form the remaining part of the diamond. In essence, Isco would roam all over the pitch creating positional overloads in different parts of the pitch, thus outnumbering the opposition at all times. At times, he would drop deep to act as a passing outlet when the defence was under pressure. Most importantly though, in the attacking third, his extra presence in midfield and in the forward line made him impossible to pick up. Therefore, the opposition never had a reference point and had a hard time marking Real’s attacking players. What made this system work so well though, was the fact that the defensive coverage for Isco’s roaming role was extremely good. As a result, whenever the opposition counter attacked Real Madrid, his presence in different parts of the pitch didn’t confuse the other players.

This season however has been a totally different story. Many teams in La Liga and even Tottenham Hotspurs in the Champions League seem to have done their homework on Zidane and his use of the diamond. A strategy that has often been employed by La Liga teams this season has been to sit back deep in their own half and absorb all the attacks from Real’s more possession based play with Isco. Due to this, Real Madrid often resorted to hitting in crosses (often of poor quality) to try and break down the opposition defence. Following this, the opposition would then slice open Real with a few vertical passes due to the lack of defensive and positional coverage for Isco’s unpredictable movements.

Zidane finally seems to have understood this and has switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 with the use of 2 wide midfielders that often seem to be either Asensio and Vazquez. This move has largely proved to be successful and Isco seems to have been relegated to the bench once again.

Julen Lopetegui and Isco

Spain plays a different style from that of Real Madrid. It has often been stated that Isco’s playing style is more compatible to that of FC Barcelona’s due to his more possession oriented game. Although Spain’s playing style has evolved and become a bit more direct under Lopetegui, it has largely remained true to its World Cup winning roots. Under Lopetegui, Isco often plays upfront as a part of a 3-man forward line. Most notably though, Spain doesn’t currently play with true forwards. Although the likes of Iago Aspas, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa are regularly part of the national set-up, only one of them is usually employed in a game. On other occasions though, none of them starts for La Furia Roja.

Strangely enough, Lopetegui uses Isco in a very similar role to his diamond at Real Madrid. He roams all over the pitch, creates positional overloads and helps Spain dominate possession. In a stark contrast to his general performances with Real this season, his play with Spain is always full of confidence and swagger. His goal creation rate of one in every 327 minutes with Real doesn’t make for great reading when compared to a goal every 75 minutes with Spain.

It might seem puzzling to the unacquainted but the difference between these two versions of Isco is not hard to understand on closer analysis. Lopetegui’s emphasis on using several supremely talented passers in midfield along with another 2 midfielders in the front-line makes it very hard for the opposition to mark these players. All these players keep roaming in midfield and are extremely good at interchanging positions. This style of play has been imbibed in these players through all the age group national teams in Spain. Hence, it is not difficult to see how Isco could confidently nutmeg Marco Veratti or score a hat-trick against Argentina.

The Low-Down and the Future

Upon completely viewing the whole picture, it is hard to fault either Zidane or Isco for this situation. As Zidane rightly points out, he greatly admires the midfielder’s abilities but at the same time he can only pick 11 players out of a 25-man squad. Also, despite a stop start 2018, Isco did have a fantastic game against PSG where he helped Real dominate possession against the deadly front-line of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe. At the same time, it might be time for Zidane to come up with another in-genius way of bringing out Isco’s best qualities to help Real win games. His other use of Isco as a pressing machine clearly isn’t helping his confidence.zidane-isco

Isco currently has many suitors including the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Coincidentally, 2018 also happens to be a World Cup year and Lopetegui sees Isco as integral to Spain’s chances of winning the title. While Isco and Zidane have both hinted that they would remain at Real Madrid, rumours have been circling around of a squad overhaul at Real. Whatever happens, it sure promises to be an interesting summer for Isco and company.

PSG can beat Real Madrid without Neymar

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilian’s absence will no doubt be felt when Cristiano Ronaldo and co. come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Unai Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

By Robbie Chalmers

3-1 down from the first leg, the Brazilians absence will no doubt be felt when Ronaldo and co come to town. However many of the players remaining have excelled on this stage before and Emery can find a formula to upset the odds.

The flood lights were gleaming, the rain was showering down from the heavens as if to add extra gloss to a victory that PSG were well on their way to in last months’ Le Classique against Marseille. The match was already at 3-0 to the Parisians and, as such is the gulf these days between them and the rest, they even dabbled in some exhibitionist football too. Flicks and tricks a plenty not only to show they’re the best but to hammer it home in ostentatious fashion. An experienced matador toying with a young bull that’s of no challenge him.

Then in a flash it happened: an injury. Neymar was clutching his leg after rolling over his ankle. He had been pushed and kicked throughout the match but how ironic is it that the cause of the injury was from his body forgetting to calculate its own movements for a split second instead of the wrath of a frustrated defender. As Neymar was taken off in tears the thought occurred to me that all the money in the world still provides no guarantees in football and that even the most innocuous of incidents can affect the trajectory of even PSG’s stratospheric project.

Despite all the negative headlines attacking Neymar’s attitude and vicarious lifestyle he has produced the goods for PSG on a regular basis this season with 19 goals and 13 assists in the league and 6 goals and 3 assists in Europe. However, he wasn’t bought for this, as Adrian Rabiot stated after the 3-1 first leg lost to Real. Neymar flitted in and out at the Bernabeu doing quite a lot without effecting that much. Sensational dribbles would lead to dead ends and superb individual skill was conducted in isolated areas. After all it demands a lot to guarantee performances at this level, just ask Ronaldo. Real’s star player touched the ball 30 times and scored twice. Ronaldo doesn’t produce Neymar’s star dust but he is an apex predator with an insatiable instinct for goals. So is Neymar’s absence that much of a loss in reality? Perhaps not.

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Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Real Madrid. Image: @JanS0L0

PSG will likely line up in a 4-3-3. Thiago Silva my return to the defence in place of Presnel Kimbempe, 21, who started in Madrid. Silva was on the pitch in last season’s 6-1 humiliation at Barcelona and, as a result, his big game mentality was questioned. However, in a game where they need to chase the result perhaps his influence can drive them from the back.

Thiago Motta may return to replace young Lo Celso as the sitting midfielder. His experience will be key to maintaining a balance. If the Italian is not fit in time Lassana Diarra, signed on a free agent in January, would prove a tenacious option in the middle as well. The Verratti-Rabiot partnership could be the difference against a side that may not have Modric or Kroos for Tuesday night.

Emery has a few options for his front three. Cavani is up top either way. On the left Julian Draxler can stake a claim in Neymar’s place or Kylian Mbappe could do after playing there for Monaco at times last season. The young Frenchman has competed with Angel Di Maria for the right wing spot all season and both can excel there against an out of sorts Marcelo. Let’s not forget it was a front three of Draxler, Cavani and Di Maria that beat a superior Barcelona team 4-0 at this stage last year. Any combination of the three could do real damage to Zidane’s side.

Edinson Cavani has a reputation for missing big chances at vital moments but the reality is very different. He has scored 26 goals in 43 appearances in the Champions League with 8 already this season. He scored crucial goals against Chelsea in their last two knockout ties, two against Barcelona in last season’s last 16 and slotted one past Bayern in this year’s group. He will be key against a Varane-Ramos centre back pairing that has fallen short many times of late.

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Much will depend on Edinson Cavani. Image: @BenSutherland

Julian Draxler scored in the 4-0 win over Barca last season and has caused havoc against Madrid before. He was man of the match when his Wolfsburg side beat Madrid 2-0 in the quarter final first leg in 2016. Driving in from the left he has similar attributes to Neymar. He dribbles with great speed, is fleet footed and is lethal from range with his passing and shooting. Dani Carvajal is out for the second leg so make shift centre back Nacho will fill the slot which will favour the German.

Kylian Mbappe can play both wings and is still the world’s most talented young player. His record in the last year has been superb. He scored in five of the six knock out matches last season against Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Juventus on Monaco’s run to the semi-final. He managed to get the better of excellent full back David Alaba in both matches against Bayern and he can repeat that again against Marcelo.

Former Real Madrid player Di Maria scored two in last year’s Barca victory including a brilliant free kick. The Argentine has replaced Mbappe since the turn of the year and can inflict the same level of damage tonight. More inclined to cut in on his left foot, he can take advantage of Casemiro’s shaky form and, given he is prone to a booking, can put the Brazilian under pressure.

Real Madrid themselves have picked up form despite an underwhelming season by their own lofty standards. The defending champions have suffered in big games this season against Tottenham and Barcelona. Even with positive results against Dortmund, Atletico and PSG they displayed a real lack of structure without the ball and a lack of cohesion in the attacking third. Zidane’s big decision is whether to play Isco behind a front two or stick with the BBC now that Gareth Bale is back. Given the return to form of the later in recent weeks, a 4-3-3 with the BBC up top will be likely. Kroos and Modric may both miss out and that will go a long way to determining who advances.

With a two goal cushion Madrid are still favourites. However, the issues they have could help PSG upset the odds. Emery can still line up a side with players who have done it at this stage before. They can do it without Neymar.

This piece was first published over at Football Diet.

El Clásico: More than a game

The El Clasico is a rivalry teeming with historic significance, from tempers flaring to moments of brilliance, Barcelona and Real Madrid have both produced the goods over the years. Here we take a look at the rivalry and how it developed.

By Gethin Boore

Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. The two biggest clubs in the world, and when they face each other, it usually means a battle. Today, football fans associate El Clasico as Messi v Ronaldo, Suarez v Benzema, Rakitic v Modric and so on, but in a true sense, these clubs represent completely different things. To begin with, they represent completely different nations…

Barcelona was the first to form out of the two in 1899 by a group of Swiss, English and Catalan footballers, whilst Real Madrid were formed as Madrid FC in 1902, but changed to Real Madrid in the 1920s after gaining the permission of King Alfonso XIII. The first ever meeting between the two was in 1902, the year Real Madrid was formed, in which Barcelona won 3-1 at the old Hipodromo de la Castellana stadium in Madrid. Barcelona won the first ever La Liga title in 1929, but it wasn’t until the year 1936 when the rivalry began for real.

1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and football was a big part of it all. Many people say that it was in 1936 the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona truly began. The man who was at the heart of it all was the dictator Francisco Franco. The reason football was a big part of the civil war was because Real Madrid was Franco’s team and the team of the right while the democrats and the team of the left was Barcelona. In 1936, Barcelona president Josep Sunyol was assassinated by Francoist troops just outside Madrid, which caused controversy between the left wing and the right wing. Franco hated Catalonia as well as the Basque country, and banned the Catalan flag from being flown and didn’t allow the Catalan language from being spoken.

The war finished in 1939, and in 1943, the most infamous game in the fixture’s history was played. 13th of June, the semi final of the Copa del Generalismo, the forerunner of the Copa Del Rey named after Franco, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 11-1. This had such a political feel to it.

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The famous scoreboard.

One member of that Barcelona team was still alive when he told Sid Lowe in his book “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” in 2013 what happened. He tells the story of a police officer coming into the Barcelona dressing room saying something bad must not happen. Not that they don’t have to lose but that nothing bad should happen. His name was Fernando Argila and he was Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper at the time, and it was after this game that the people of Barcelona considered Real Madrid as Franco’s team.

In 1947, Real Madrid moved from their old Charmatin stadium to a new stadium named after the man that was Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabéu. He was the president at the time, but also a former player and manager as well. He had an idea of transforming Real Madrid into a global attraction by signing the best players and being recognised by the world. The 1950s became Real Madrid’s golden era, and in 1953, the man that turned out to be Real Madrid’s greatest ever player arrived to the Spanish capital. His name was Alfredo Di Stefano.

Di Stefano was a player that impressed both Barcelona and Real Madrid in his time at Millonarios of Colombia, and Barça were the favourites to sign him. Both clubs claimed to have his signature, but Barcelona’s president resigned, forcing them to cancel the signing. This saw Di Stefano catching the train from Barcelona to Madrid and signing for Los Blancos.

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Di Stefano in Barcelona colours with Kubala

In 1955, the European Cup began, and Real won the first ever tournament in 1956. Incredibly, they won it five times in a row, and are considered the best ever to have played the game. They had incredible players who came and went between 1955-1960 such as Raymond Kopa, the rapid Paco Gento, Di Stefano of course and the outstanding Hungarian forward Ferenc Puskas. Real Madrid’s finest hour came in 1960 when they thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park. Di Stefano scored a hat trick while Puskas scored four and some experts say it’s the greatest final ever played.

Real were dominating Europe, but not so much in the league. During that period of dominating Europe, they won the league twice while Barcelona won it twice as well. The El Clasio remained tight, despite Real Madrid dominating Europe. However, Di Stefano once said that Real’s football rivals were their cross city rivals Atletico de Madrid. Barcelona were managed by ‘the magician’ Helenio Herrera. He was appointed as the manager of Barcelona in 1958, and won two league titles. The only thing that was missing was the European Cup, and he was sacked in 1960 after Real Madrid knocked Barcelona out of the competition they wanted to win the most.

Again in 1960, Barcelona and Real Madrid faced each other in the European Cup. This game is mostly remembered for two things. One, Real Madrid knocked were out of the European Cup for the first time in their history and two, the Eenlish referee Arthur Ellis. The Real players were furious with the all the decisions going against them and they also tried to beat him up after the game. The players knew that it was decided that Real Madrid couldn’t win another European Cup. Instead, it was their arch-rivals who came closest to winning it, reaching the final in Bern before losing to Benfica.

Barcelona hadn’t won the league since 1960 under Herrera. That was about to change. Step forward, the Dutchman, Johan Cruyff.

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Johan Cruyff as Barcelona captain

He joined Barcelona in 1973, and changed the club forever. A legend at Ajax, he moved to Barcelona in the middle of a pretty gloomy time at the Camp Nou. Franco was still alive at the time, and still, Catalonia was a country depressed. The only place that the Catalan language was spoken and a key place to express Catalanism was at the Camp Nou. Cruyff came to the Camp Nou and brought smiles to the faces of the Barcelona supporters. He carried Barca to their first league title in fourteen years, beating Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou along the way. Cruyff came into the 1974-75 season with a World Cup runners-up medal. At the ’74 World Cup, Holland were best remembered for the famous style of play ‘Total Football’ and Cruyff duly brought it with him to the Camp Nou.

As soon as Cruyff arrived in Catalonia, he was a fans favourite, and tried his best to fit into the Catalan culture. In 1974, he called his newly born son Jordi after Saint Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia, which put him in a bit of a mess. Under the dictatorship of Franco, newly born babies had to have a name in Castillan Spanish. A year after Cryuff’s arrival, Franco passed away at the age of 82.

The 1980’s proved to be a strange decade for both clubs in a successful and un-successful way. In 1980, Real Madrid won the league title, but for the next four years it stayed in the Basque Country when Real Sociedad won it in 1981 and 1982 before Athletic Club Bilbao won it in 1983 and 1984. It was an incredible few years in the Basque Country, but the next five years was memorable in Real Madrid’s case.

A team known as ‘Quinta del Buitre’ which translates to ‘The Vulture Squad’ included five players who came through the youth squad at Real Madrid. The five were Miguel Sanchis, Rafael Martin Vazquez. Michél, Miguel Pardeza and the main man and striker, Emilio Butrageño. They won five league titles in a row, yes, five. They were a great side, but like the Barça side in the late 50s, they’re not that well-known for winning one thing; the European Cup. The European Cup is a trophy that Real Madrid will forever want to win. It’s always their aim at the start of every season. It’s what signifies them as a club.

For Barça meanwhile, the end of the decade was turbulent. They won the league in 1985, and tragically lost the European cup final against Steaua Bucharest in Seville. They lost on penalties, and the Romanian keeper saved four penalties. It was a sour evening in Barcelona’s history, and it’s a game that most fans would like to forget. Also in that year, they lost to Real Zaragoza in the Copa Del Rey final, a change was needed, and in 1988, the man that changed the club as a whole, returned to the Camp Nou, Johan Cruyff.

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Johan Cruyff in the Barcelona dugout in 1988

When he arrived in 1988, Barcelona were a club in debt and crisis. They had just won the Copa Del Rey, but Cruyff brought in new players, and a brilliant team was starting to emerge. He signed Ronald Koeman and Michael Laudrup as well as giving local boy, Pep Guardiola a first team place. He started developing young players at Barcelona academy, La Masia.

In 1990, Cruyff brought in Bulgarian striker Hirsto Stoichkov, and a year later, Barça finally won the league title again. They won it again the next year, but in 1992, an even bigger thing was about to happen. A Champions League final at Wembley against Sampdoria.

It was huge. Barcelona just needed to win. After coming so close in 1986, this was a massive chance to forget about the heartbreak in Seville, and to finally put their name on the trophy. The game was 0-0 as it went into extra-time, but in the second half, Ronald Komean’s free-kick flew into the Sampdoria net, and it’s a picture that is still famous to this day. Finally, Barcelona were European champions, and it was down to Johan Cruyff. It was an incredible evening, up there as one of the special evenings in Barcelona history.

A controversial figure in El Clasico history is Luis Figo. After a successful period at his childhood club Sporting Lisbon, he moved to Catalonia in 1995. He was an instant hit, and the fans adored him. He was part of a terrific attacking partnership alongside Rivaldo at Barcelona. It was a strange period, Barcelona had a good team, but in 1998, Real Madrid were European Champions for the first time since 1966 as they defeated Juventus. They then won it again in 2000 after beating Valencia.

That team featured Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Steve McManaman and one of the greatest players to ever wear the famous white shirt, Raul, having signed from Atletico Madrid after they shut down their youth system. He joined in 1994 and is the all-time record appearance holder at the club with 741 games as well as the second highest scorer in the club’s history with 323 goals. Also in 2000, a new man took over the presidency of Real Madrid, and transformed the club into a global attraction. His name was Florentino Perez.

He had a vision of signing the best players in the world. He called them the ‘Galacticos’, and still to this day, the Galactico policy is ongoing. He said publicly that the first singing he will make will be from Barcelona, and that signing will be Luis Figo. Incredibly, he left for Real and the Barça fans were way more than angry, they were absolutely livid. When he returned to the Camp Nou on several occasions, he was taunted with abuse, and there missiles such as knifes, cigarette lighters and bottles were flying all over the place. In 2002, a pig’s head was thrown by a supporter onto the pitch, and still to today, it’s the most iconic image in the Clasico’s history. Even his old team mates were trying to hurt him, and the players had to be blocked by riot police. He was attacked outside his house 2004 by two members of the ultra group, Boixos Nois.

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Luis Figo taunted by Barcelona fans

With the Galactico policy, in 2001, Zinadine Zidane moved from Juventus to Real, and was followed by Ronaldo in 2002. In the same year, forty years on from the club’s finest moment in the 1960 European cup, they won it again against Bayer Leverkusen, at the same location, Hampden Park. What is best remembered from that game is Zidane’s superb volley into the top corner, and is arguably the greatest goal ever scored at a European final. They were still signing players from all over the world, as David Beckham left Manchester United for Madrid in 2003 and Michael Owen moved as well in 2004.

Meanwhile in Barcelona, they had their own policy. Although, they didn’t have to sign as much as they used their famous youth system, La Masia. They had a new president, Joan Laporta, who was the most politically driven president in Barcelona’s history. La Masia was used often, and many young talents came through such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Gerard Pique, Perdo, Victor Valdes, Carlos Puyol, Sergio Busquets and Csec Fabregas. Most of the players who came through were Catalan born and bred.

Though a certain Lionel Messi wasn’t Catalan, but whilst playing for Rosario, he impressed the Barcelona scouts and moved over when he was young. Messi was given his first team debut in 2004, and from then on, he is the greatest player to ever wear the Blaugranna shirt. An incredible team was being built, and in 2006 under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard along with the talent of Brazilian, Ronaldinho, Barcelona won the Champions League for the second time in their history.

The Spanish national team was developing brightly as well, and La Masia was a massive part of that. 2009 came around, and it was the greatest year in the history of the club. Managed by former player and La Masia graduate, Pep Guardiola, incredibly, they won six major trophies in a calendar year – a record. They won the Champions League again that year with a 2-0 win against Manchester United in Rome, as well as the league title, the Club World Cup, Spanish Super Sup, Uefa Super Sup and Copa Del Rey. It was an incredible achievement, and La Masia was the reason behind it.

The 2010-11 season was another season that will go down in the history of famous El Clasico fixtures. In November 2010, Barcelona thrashed Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou, in a first game out of many that featured fights between the players and the managers. The Real Madrid manager at the time was Jose Mourhino who had just won the Champions League at Inter Milan, as well as beating Barcelona in the semi-finals.

In April 2011, they faced each other four times in the space of 11 days, once in the league, once in the Copa Del Rey final and twice in the Champions League semi-finals. In all four games, many players were arguing with each other for various things and the managers were a big part of it.

A big incident occured in the Champions League semi-final first leg when Pepe was sent off for a challenge on Dani Alves. Some people say it is a red, some say it is not, and still, not really many people know if it’s a red or not. Barcelona won the two legs 3-1 on aggregate, and they faced Manchester United again, and at their hallow turf, Wembley. The Catalans won it again for the third time, and it’s up there as the greatest team performance ever seen at a European final. The Spanish national team were gaining success as well. When they won the World Cup in 2010 for the first time ever, seven players La Masia gradiuates started that game, six were Catalans. The only one that wasn’t Catalan was Iniesta, who is from Albececete, scored the winner in extra time.

El Clasico is a fixture that attracts the whole world. Billions of people watch it, and it’s always entertaining on and off the pitch, but, the history behind this fixture is amazing. Politics was a big part of the game, but it’s not all about thatt. For supporters and players, this is the game they want to win.

Football Protests: Do they work?

Here is Ed Wade with his summary of the most influential Football fan protests.

By Ed Wade.

It doesn’t take much to make fans voice their opinions when they get disgruntled, be it with the owners, manager or players. If something isn’t right, it’s not long before we see a march to the stadium, a banner outside the club, a written letter to the board of directors or even a stadium walk out.

We have most recently seen the likes of Liverpool have ticket prices lowered as a result of a stadium walkout, whereas Charlton Athletic will have to see if the weekend’s ‘Coffin’ protest against the club’s owners comes to any fruition. But how often does the protesting actually work?

  1. Liverpool fans reduce ticket price

With the growing amount of money in the Premier League including a new £5-billion-pound TV deal, fans across the UK are sick and tired of paying extortionate ticket prices. For Liverpool fans, £77 was the highest priced match day ticket and it was simply too much. The Kopites staged a mass walkout during their home game against Sunderland during the 77th minute and got their reward. The club Fenway sports group who are the club’s owners lowered the price to £59 and issued a statement of apology. Since then the Premier league has put a cap on prices for match day away tickets at £30. Score one for the fans.

  1. Seville protest the splitting of La Liga television money

The start of the 2016/17 season will see the television money of La Liga split fairly for the first time. With Spanish clubs negotiating their own deals in previous seasons, Real Madrid and Barcelona would take home the lions share, leaving the other La Liga clubs fighting over the scraps. In 2012 this became too much for Seville fans, who had a home match against Levante delayed, so that Spanish broadcasters could show a post ‘Clasico’ press conference. In protest of their treatment, Seville supporters bombarded the pitch with tennis balls. It has taken years to click but finally we will see a more even split of finances amongst Spanish clubs.

  1. Ajax fans wait until the 14th minute to enter stadium

During a champions league game in 2010/11 season, the famous Ajax VAK410 waited until the 14th minute (club legend Johan Cruyff’s number) before taking their seats against AC Milan. Supporters of the club were unhappy at having to fork out 80 euros for a ticket. Banners read ‘against modern football’ as the spectators expressed their views. Unfortunately, the protest didn’t work as UEFA fined Ajax for misconduct and prices remained just as high.

  1. Swedish fans stay silent over crowd rules

During a derby between Swedish giants AIK and Djurgarden in 2011, supporters of both clubs remained in total silence for the first 10 minutes of the game. The fans were protesting against the Swedish FA who had warned that attending football matches could be dangerous and wanted to prove just how much live games would miss the supporters. Such was the silence, you could hear conversations between players. The FA never a blind eye and didn’t really take any notice.

  1. Manchester United supporters try and get a new manager

It was always going to be a difficult job to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. David Moyes endured a torrid time at the club and was a dead man walking for much of the campaign. Fans were so unhappy with performances at the club, they flew a plane over Old Trafford during a game with Aston Villa, costing £840 with a banner reading ‘Wrong one – Moyes out.’ The Scot didn’t last till the end of the season and was sacked with three games remaining.

  1. A chicken goes wild at Ewood Park

During a relegation six pointer between Blackburn and Wigan in 2012. A 23-year old Rovers fan Anthony Taylor released a chicken with a Blackburn flag wrapped around it onto the pitch. It was a clever move as fans were unhappy with the club owners Venky group who, had made their money, you guessed it, by poultry. Things didn’t get better for the club as they lost the game and were relegated to the championship, with the same owners still there.

  1. Brazil protest its own World Cup

With Brazil set to host the 2014 World Cup, masses of public funding was used to build new and adequate stadiums. Brazilians were unhappy considering some of the more pending issues in the country such as housing and schooling, were often ignored. Brazilian authorities ended up firing tear gas during riots in Sao Paulo and Rio De Janeiro. There were continuous protests during the tournament, which also saw the ITV studio windows receive a battering. From a footballing perspective it was a massively successful tournament but the protests did very little in terms of funding change

  1. Luis Figo gets a head thrown at him

Luis Figo was labelled Judas after his transfer from Barcelona to Real Madrid in 2000. The Portuguese star had spent five years at the Nou Camp and was a firm fan favourite. That love turned to hatred during the Clasico in Barcelona, though, as amongst all the booing and missiles Figo received, he also had a pig’s head launched at him whilst taking a corner. Figo never complained about Barcelona fans afterwards and really kept his Poker face to remain cool. The Referee suspended the game for 13 minutes, fearing for the safety of the players.

 

Football supporters are such a key part of the game and make for the whole dynamic of how the game is played. With the game always changing it will be fascinating to see what else supporters have up their sleeve.

 

See also – https://footballfoyer.com/2016/02/18/politically-charged-footballers/ 

 

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