Monthly Archives: June 2016

  1. Henrikh Mkhitaryan - The Cerebral Assassin Heading to Manchester United

    29th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
    Henrikh Mkhitaryan, according to wide-spread media reports, is on the verge of a headline-grabbing switch to Manchester United. The Borussia Dortmund playmaker has one year remaining on his contract with the Bundesliga club and, via his agent Mino Raiola, has agitated for his "dream move" to the 20-time champions of England.

    For those who are not avid viewers of German football, the 59-cap Armenian international may be somewhat of an unknown quantity.

    But if Mkhitaryan does indeed make the switch to the Theatre of Dreams, he will soon become a household name albeit one that many will struggle to pronounce and fewer still will be able to spell.

    Mkhitaryan joined Dortmund from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013 for €27.5 million a club record fee. During his three year stay in Donetsk, Mkhitaryan had marked himself out as one the most gifted creative midfielders in Europe; he'd guided Shakhtar to domestic title wins in each of his three seasons with the club, was voted the Ukrainian Premier Division player of the year in 2012, and finished as the division's highest goal-scorer in the 2012-13 season.

    So, upon joining BVB for such a large fee, and considering his track-record in Ukraine, there were high hopes for Mkhitaryan among Yellow and Blacks supporters.

    Yet despite a respectable return on nine goals and 10 assists in his first season in Germany, there was a general feeling that Mkhitaryan had been rather underwhelming considering his hefty price-tag.

    And the 2014-15 season yielded just three Bundesliga goals from 28 appearances, as Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund endured a torrid campaign. BVB were languishing around the lower reaches of the table, before a late-season rally to finish in seventh place. But for a team who'd won back-to-back titles two years earlier, seventh was far from good enough.

    In an interview with FourFourTwo in March, Mkhitaryan admitted that the transfer fee Dor

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  2. Gerard Pique Defends On and Off the Football Field

    27th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann. 
    For almost a year now, Gerard Pique has been a heavily derided figure by many fans of the Spanish national team, with a section of supporters dedicating themselves to incessantly booing, jeering and whistling at him. This is, of course, due to their belief that the Barcelona stopper holds anti-Real Madrid and pro-Catalan independence views.

    Pique's outstanding performances against the Czech Republic and Turkey to start the tournament, with the highpoint being the dramatic late winner he scored against the Czechs, had, however, helped unite the fans and managed to stem the negative treatment directed towards him.

    When speaking prior to Spain's final group game with Croatia, Pique noted how pleased he was the situation had improved, saying: "I take that very happily. It is better to be applauded than whistled. The only way to turn the situation around is my performance on the pitch.

    "I had the good fortune to score an important goal and I am also in very good form at the moment. The fans have realised that this is football, not a patriotism contest."

    The harmony unfortunately wouldn't last long, for when Spain's anthem was blasting out in Bordeaux ahead of the Croatia game, many accused Pique of making a rude gesture as the camera rolled past. Yet another barrage of criticism came his way, but a frustrated Pique, doused the flames quickly by clarifying the scenario.

    "I am cracking my knuckles during the anthem. We should not look for controversies where there are none and try to win the Euros all together," he insisted.

    "These controversies bring us nowhere. It is a country in which things around Barca and Madrid divide a lot, but we must be together and united.

    "It is a stupid controversy."

    The match itself served as a rude awakening for the Spanish too, with Croatia winning an enthralling contest 2-1. While many of his colleagues performed below their best,

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  3. Andrés Iniesta: The silent leader and all-time great

    iniesta24th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
    He's not a shouter; he doesn't scream at his colleagues like Roy Keane used to. He's not a gesticulator; he doesn't point and orchestrate his team's positioning as the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger and John Terry do. But Andrés Iniesta is a leader.

    That might come across as an obvious statement, considering that Iniesta is captain of FC Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world. But the 32-year-old midfielder's leadership style is less than obvious it is subtle, yet ever-present.

    It would be an over-simplification to suggest that Iniesta merely leads by example, his influence on those around him stretches far beyond monkey-see-monkey-do. The Barça midfielder carries an aura which demands deference; he might as well be wearing his vast collection of medals around his neck every time he walks out onto the pitch.

    Yet he's unassuming shy, even. He doesn't bang his own drum loudly; he doesn't need to.

    The first signs of Iniesta the leader came during the 2006 Champions League final at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis. Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona were heavy favourites to brush aside Arsenal, and an early dismissal for the Gunners' goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, seemed to seal their fate.

    But Arsenal refused to follow the script and took the lead through a 37th minute Sol Campbell header. This was supposed to be the final that belonged to Ronaldinho. The reigning FIFA World Player of the Year had been in imperious form for the past two years, producing other-worldly displays of skill and invention.

    However, on this night, under the bright lights and with eyes of the world watching, the brilliant Brazilian played as though he had lead in his boots. Barça couldn't break Arsenal down.

    Rijkaard made three changes in the second-half, two of which have gone down in Champions League lore: Swedish veteran striker Henrik Larsson registered two assists, while full-back Juliano Belle

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  4. Switzerland's wildly gifted 19-year-old sensation, Breel Embolo

    22nd June 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
    After making a real impression off the bench in Switzerland's opening two fixtures, against Albania and Romania, Switzerland coach, Vladimir Petkovic, rightly rewarded Breel Embolo with a start against France.

    Replacing Haris Seferovic, who was underwhelming in those aforementioned matches, the 19-year-old sensation put in an admirable shift against the experienced, battle hardened French backline. While France's two centre-backs, Adil Rami and Laurent Koscielny, did their utmost to make life as difficult as possible for him, Embolo stuck to his task manfully and enjoyed plenty of promising moments himself.

    Testing himself against such elite players undoubtedly served as a brilliant yet challenging learning experience for Embolo. "It wasn't easy against the French defence," he said.

    "But we're at the top level of European football here. It will do me good. I'm 19 and I don't hide."

    While this was by no means a perfect display from the FC Basel attacker, with him enduring some issues executing his passes and his propensity to take the odd sloppy first touch occasionally rearing its ugly head. Importantly, there was, however, still many scintillating glimpses of his tremendous capabilities.

    The gifted yet incredibly raw starlet's blistering pace, agility and unpredictabe dribbling style regularly had an unsettling effect on Didier Deschamps' men. But undoubtedly the most impressive aspect of his showing came by way of his crafty movement and positioning.

    Despite varying his mode of attack nicely across the frontline, his desire to target Rami and slightly left of centre areas was undisputedly where he enjoyed the most success. This tactic had great intelligence attached to it, for he knew he could exploit the right sided central defender's lack of pace to embark on darting runs in behind, and into the channels, knowing he wouldn't be caught.

    Before making his runs down the left,

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  5. Holding Midfielder Eric Dier: A Vital Component of the England Squad

    20th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
    Heading into England's monumental contest with Wales, much of the talk centred around whether the Three Lions could stop Gareth Bale.

    Having scored or assisted 10 of the 13 goals scored by the Welsh in qualifying, England definitely needed to pay close attention to the Real Madrid star if they were to give themselves the best chance of winning. Keeping the most expensive player in history quiet is, however, something that's obviously easier said than done.

    Thankfully for England, though, courtesy in large part to their one and only holding midfielder, Eric Dier, they did a fantastic job of limiting Bale's impact.

    Dier followed on beautifully from his man of the match performance against Russia by putting in an utterly composed and assured shift from his post at the base of Roy Hodgson's midfield in their stirring 2-1 win.

    Whenever Bale ventured into his designated area of operation, Dier would be on hand to track the Welsh wizard. The 22-year-old made some brilliant interventions and physically imposed himself on his adversary, but his exemplary positioning was unquestionably the unheralded highlight of his job on Bale. In combination with his astute reading of the game, this saw him always occupy the right space to block off passing lanes and close off the vital central space to Bale.

    Moreover, in situations when England lost the ball in the attacking third, Dier would sharply press onto Bale to ensure he couldn't freely receive possession and drive at England on the counter. In addition, the way he dropped back into central defence upon immediately noticing Chris Smalling or Gary Cahill stepping out to undertake a marking assignment ensured the English backline remained secure.

    [caption id="attachment_13450" align="alignleft" width="300"] 607465739KT00149_England_v_[/caption]

    While Dier's contribution in stopping Bale undoubtedly played a huge role in England's ability

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  6. Nicolas Gaitan: An Inspiring Copa America Performance Ensures Summer Transfer Options.

    17th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
    Ahead of Argentina's mouthwatering Copa America opener with Chile, their manager, Gerardo Martino, was confronted with a crunch decision as to who should replace the injured Lionel Messi.

    His answer didn't require much thought, however, with Martino making the easy choice of selecting gifted Benfica star Nicolas Gaitan to fill in for the Barcelona magician.

    "I don't expect him to do anything like Leo," Martino explained.

    "I want him to be himself more than ever because he has a very good condition, and he can do it. He is fast, he passes the ball very well, he dribbles very well. He's a very complete player."

    Martino's words made perfect sense, for it's impossible to replace the inordinately talented Messi, so to let Gaitan play his own game was clearly the right decision. And it suitably paid off, as the 28-year-old put in a brilliant shift, without the expectations of replicating arguably the world's finest player burdening him.

    Gaitan had no issues coping with the occasion, in what was his first major tournament for his country, despite having received 13 previous caps. "I have never been in a competition with Argentina, not even in the Under-20s," he said prior to kick off.

    As predicted, Gaitan started the match out on the right wing, and within two minutes he'd already had an impact, powering a superbly timed header into the bar. From that solid starting base, he worked his way into the game nicely, using his delightful passing game, mazy dribbling style and tactical intelligence to go onto play a vital role in his side's stirring 2-1 triumph.

    After a promising first 23 minutes, he then switched flanks with Angel Di Maria. While he still influenced the game in a positive manner from the left, there was no question he looked better on the right,

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  7. Dani Alves a Pioneer of Right Side Defensive Football

    15th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
    Brazilian full-back Dani Alves will leave FC Barcelona this summer to join Juventus. After eight years at the Camp Nou, Alves will depart with the respect and appreciation of Barça fans. But do they, and indeed the wider footballing audience, really appreciate Alves for what he truly is, and has been? Alves should be recognised as the greatest full-back of the last two decades.

    The 2003 FIFA under-20 World Cup was held in the United Arab Emirates during winter. While England with a side that included James Milner, Steven Taylor and Michael Chopra -- finished bottom of their group without scoring a single goal, many of the established football nations fielded strong squads, packed with potential future stars.

    Andrés Iniesta turned out for Spain, along with future Atlético Madrid stars Juanfran and Gabi. There was River Plate striker Fernando Cavenaghi top-scoring for Argentina, with Javier Mascherano anchoring the midfield. Robert Huth lined up for Germany, Kevin Doyle led the line for the Republic of Ireland, and Clint Dempsey represented the USA.

    Of the 24 teams to enter, it was Brazil who triumphed, edging out Spain 1-0 in the final.

    Although the Golden Ball award for the tournament's best player was rather dubiously presented to the UAE's Ismail Matar, it was the Brazilian players who stood out. Nilmar, the nippy striker, looked a real prospect, and would go on to sign for Olympique Lyonnais; Dudu Carense earned plaudits as a goal-scoring midfielder and would later to play for Stade Rennais; and Daniel Carvalho looked a class act in the playmaker role, he would sign for CSKA Moscow.

    But there was one Brazilian in particular who caught the eye more than anyone else. The curly-haired flying wing-back, then known simply as Daniel, was a constant menace as he paraded up and down the right-touchline. Daniel's ceaseless energy and obvious passing and dribbling skills marked him out as the most

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  8. Mexico's multifaceted midfield dynamo, Hector Herrera

    13th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
    Mexico's multifaceted midfield dynamo, Hector Herrera, went into his side's colossal Copa America opener against Uruguay with rumours rife about his future at club level.

    If reports are to be believed, Liverpool, Napoli and Valencia have all recently shown a keen interest in FC Porto's prized asset, who the Dragoes value at a cool €20m million, with Liverpool apparently just ceding Napoli in the race for his signature.

    Judging on his exceptional performance in Mexico's entrancing victory over La Celeste, Herrera was clearly unaffected by all the talk surrounding him. Instead, he just went about his work in customarily tireless and robust fashion, in a performance where his technical gifts and goalscoring capacity also shone through brightly.

    Herrera got off to a flying start, with his surging run from deep and subsequent pressure on Alvaro Pereira providing the catalyst for the Uruguayan stalwart to head Andres Guardado's whipping cross into his own net to give Mexico the lead just four minutes in.

    And from there, Herrera worked himself into the game beautifully from what was ostensibly a central attacking midfield role. Within the confines of coach Juan Carlos Osorio's unconventional 3-4-3 (or 3-1-2-3-1 depending on perceptions), the 26-year-old's relentless work rate ensured he was a constant source of menace to the Uruguayans, with Egidio Arevalo Rios, his direct opponent, enduring a particularly difficult time marking him.

    By persistently buzzing laterally and vertically across the attacking third, the ultra fit former Pachuca starlet ensured his teammates always had a viable outlet to utilise. Herrera's immense running power and intelligence to find vacant space was a feature throughout, in a match where his incessant movement regularly pulled Rios out o

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  9. Marcus Rashford: The perfect Euro 2016 wildcard for England

    10th June 2016. By Ryan Baldi.
    In the build-up to a major international tournament, the impact of injuries is often felt, when it comes to squad preparation. This summer's European Championship in France has been no different, with high-profile names such as Germany's Marco Reus and Ilkay Gündo?an, and France's Raphaël Varane and Lassana Diarra, all ruled out through injury.

    And over the years, England too have been hampered by some of their top men being hurt. In 2002 the Three Lions lost Gary Neville to injury, while his Manchester United colleague David Beckham faced a race against time to overcome a fractured metatarsal. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Wayne Rooney's recovery from his own metatarsal break meant that he wasn't able to play from the start of a match until England's third group game against Sweden.

    The same injury had put paid to Rooney's breakout Euro 2004 campaign, exiting the quarter-final tie against Portugal early after having had his foot trodden on by Jorge Andrade. Who knows what would have happened had the then England boss, Sven-Göran Eriksson, not been forced to swap the flying 18-year-old for Darius Vassell after only 27 minutes; maybe England would've been able to overcome the host nation, instead of losing on penalties.

    But this time, as Roy Hodgson was piecing together his Euro 2016 squad, he could thank the injury gods for one small grace or maybe that should be two small graces.

    Two injuries, both of which were sustained in February, have had an enormous, if indirect, positive impact on England's chances of glory in France.

    The first was sustained by a player who was never in contention to make Hodgson's squad, the second by a young man who is completely ineligible for England and will in fact be lining up for the host nation.

    After Will Keane hobbled off the New Meadow pitch in the closing stages of Manchester United's FA Cup fifth-round match-up against Shrewsbury Town, the f

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  10. James Rodríguez A Key Cog in Columbia's Copa America Centenario Squad

    8th June 2016. By Edward Stratmann,
    While winning the Champions League with Real Madrid did go some way to papering over the cracks of James Rodriguez's torrid second season at the club, it did, however, provide the perfect segue for him to enter the Copa America on something resembling a high.

    As one of Colombia's undisputed stars in their quest to take out the 100th edition of the tournament, it was overwhelmingly positive for Los Cafeteros that he put in a shift full of upside to kickoff the campaign.

    Playing in his favoured no10 position, a luxury he was rarely afforded at Madrid due to their tactical setup predominantly excluding a playmaker, he was afforded the ideal platform to show off his superlative skillset. And although James wasn't at his all conquering best like he was at the 2014 World Cup, there was plenty of encouragement to be drawn from his side's 2-0 win over the USA.

    Aside from his exquisite ball control and crisp passing, the most influential aspect of the former FC Porto and Monaco sensation's outing was his outstanding movement and positioning. From his starting trequartista role, he persistently found space in which to operate in despite the close attention of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.

    Whether by exploiting spaces in between the lines, dropping deep to around half way to link the midfield and attack or performing subtle switches with Juan Cuadrado and Edwin Cardona on the flanks, James' intelligent variations and spatial recognition made him a hugely challenging proposition for the US to handle.

    There was always purpose to his movement, not just to create space for himself, but also his teammates. The best examples of this arose in situations where he was operating in central areas. With James' preference to occupy right of centre areas and Carlos Bacca's (Colombia's forward) desire to work in left of centre areas, their brilliant understanding meant they never impeded into each other's zones -

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