Robins Fans Should Not Worry

After over half a year unbeaten in the league the boys in red have been bought back down to earth with a bang. Two defeats in a row to our nearest rivals for promotion have blown the league one title race wide open. Where we were once eight points in front of second place we now stand just two points clear of Preston in third.

Crucially though, we are still top. Though results haven’t been impressive the performances have not been bad. Wade Elliott was very unlucky to be sent off in the first minute against Swindon and despite playing 89 minutes with ten men, City only went down 1-0. There were chances in that game for both Kieran Agard and Aaron Wilbraham, yet they were fluffed. It was the exact same at home to Preston, where four gilt edged chances were missed. City’s profligacy in front of goal allowed the game to slip from their grasp.

With Agard and Wilbraham failing to find the net, now is the time to give Jay Emanuel-Thomas a good run out. In the first half of last season he was the single shining light for the reds, scoring goals almost single handedly. Sadly for JET, it appears Steve Cotterill is not his biggest fan.

It would appear the time to sign a like for like replacement for Sam Baldock has arrived. Wilbraham and Agard should not be blamed for the current lack of goals, having been relied upon all season. It would almost be churlish not to sign another striker to take some of the weight off their shoulders.

Judging from his summer signings Cotterill likes a tried and tested British player. Why not then, go for someone like Jonathan Forte or Eion Doyle in January? Both are scoring goals at league one level and their respective clubs are not in the best financial state. I’m sure a six figure bid would be sufficient to tempt one of the two away.

There has already been some transfer business, conducted on the quiet last week. Chelsea full back Todd Kane was signed on loan and made his first appearance at right back on saturday, when coming on as a substitute for Mark Little. Kane can play in several defensive positions, which will be vital during the Christmas run of games when injuries and suspension will take their toll.

Despite the two losses in a row faith in Cotterill should be retained. In the space of one year he’s took us from the bottom four to top of the table. By signing Kane forethought in the transfer market is being shown. I’m sure there’s more to follow. As it stands, the squad needs just one or two top class league one players. Secure them and I’m sure we’ll be celebrating promotion come May.

Corrupt to the Core

Fifa hit the headlines last week as a series of extraordinary events unfolded. First, a statement was released clearing Qatar and Russia of any wrongdoing whilst simultaneously implicating England and Australia as the only two nations that violated the bidding rules.

Then the chief investigator Michael Garcia, the man responsible for the report, released a statement accusing Fifa’s head judge, Hans-Joachim Eckert, of misrepresenting his report. Garcia is thought to be furious that Eckert’s 42 page summary of the 430 page report he submitted in September failed to include the most withering criticism from his findings; that of the Fifa executive committee which took part in the original 2010 ballot which decided the World Cup would go to Russia and then Qatar.

Naturally, there has been outrage in the English press and from the FA themselves. Chairman Greg Dyke branded the report “a joke,” continuing to say that things were looking “pretty ugly for Fifa.”

Delve a little further into the past however and you can see that the English aren’t as squeaky clean as they claim to be. It’s a sad fact but corruption and bad ethics have been at the heart of Fifa for a long time, far before Sepp Blatter became President. This may also in part explain why the English FA are getting so little support from other countries.

‘FIFA is a healthy, clean and transparent organisation with nothing to hide. There is huge public interest in FIFA, therefore we have to be as transparent as possible. We will try to communicate in a more open way so the world can believe us and be proud of their federation’ – Urs Linsi, ex Fifa General Secretary, 2003

Englishman Sir Stanley Rous was Fifa president from 1961 to 1974. During his time at the helm favour was heavily skewed towards the European countries. Of the 32 games at the 1966 World Cup 25 were refereed by Europeans, who have the likes of Pele little protection thereby alienating the South Americans.

This came to head during the draw for the quarter finals. Delegates of Argentina, Uruguay and the old Soviet Union were summoned to London for the drawing of referees for that round. When they arrived, Rous was there waiting to tell them the draw had already been made and referees had been assigned. The delegates were told that the draw had been witnessed by Rous, a West German delegate, a South African delegate and a Spanish delegate. It was allegedly later revealed the Spanish delegate was in transit at the time of the draw.

Relations with Africa were also strained. Firstly, because Rous was reluctant to give them automatic World Cup qualification. His argument was that they were not to the required standard. As we can see from today’s game the only way they will reach a higher standard is by competing regularly with the better teams. African teams have improved tenfold in the past forty years, in part because of increased access to the biggest stage on earth.

Secondly, and this is rather more shady, Rous was in favour of apartheid in South Africa. At the time he was questioned for this view and it looks all the worse in hindsight.

Rous managed to alienate more nations when authorising the World Cup play-off match between Chile and the Soviet Union in Santiago’s National Stadium in 1973.

At the time, Augusto Pinochet was dictator of the country. The National Stadium was used as a concentration camp for political purposes. A few weeks before the game prisoners were transferred and bloodstains were removed. Rightly, the Soviet’s refused to play at such a location. Rous awarded the tie to Chile.

England’s problems with Fifa certainly stem from Rous’s time in charge. There are some old heads on Fifa’s executive committee, Blatter among them, that have very long memories.

Though Rous can not be held up as paradigm of virtue, his successor Joao Havelange was arguably worse. Appointed in 1974, Havelange was the man who globalised the game, welcoming sponsors in order to finance his own campaign and future World Cups.

Arguably, the globalisation of football has played a huge part in the increase in corruption within Fifa. Whereby before the powerbase was in Europe and to an extent South America, now almost every country in the world would have a say. Under Havelange and Blatter a plethora of new federations have been established in poorer countries. These countries recieve grants from Fifa to encourage grass roots interest in the game. However, there is no strict control over how these grants are used. New federations have the same number of votes – 1 – as large established footballing countries like England or Holland. These countries don’t have the best image of England due to Rous’s time at Fifa, so they are far more likely to vote to keep the likes of Blatter in power.

‘I am deputy chairman of the finance committee of FIFA. I oversee a budget of US$2 billion and I have never seen one iota of corruption’ – Jack Warner, 2004

Bribery under Havelange wasn’t restricted to positions of power though. International Sport and Leisure was formed in 1982 by French businessman Andre Guelfi, Adidas manager Horst Dassler and Japanese advertising firm Dentsu. The firm would help market the rights for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Dassler was close to Havelange as the Brazilian had enlisted Adidas as primary sponsors of Fifa tournaments, alongside Coca-Cola.

Following Dassler’s death in 1987 ISL began overpaying for sports rights in the 1990s. They were declared bankrupt in 2001. In a twelve year period leading up to that date ISL had paid 185 million Swiss francs in “personal commissions” to sports officials. A fraud trial arose in 2008 following the collapse of the company, with the judge referring to the commissions as schmiergeld. In English: Bribery.

Andrew Jennings wrote in his book Foul! The Secret World of Fifa that Havelange was involved in the collapse of ISL. Then in 2011, Jennings stood in front of the Brazilian senate to allege that Havelange may have amassed $50 million or more in bribes through a front company called Sicuretta.

In July 2012 after protracted court proceedings Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira (previously on Fifa’s Executive committee) were named as beneficiaries of bribes from ISL. The prosecutor revealed the duo were paid 41 million Swiss francs by ISL.

Havelange had left office in 1998, to be replaced by Sepp Blatter, our ignominious friend. By now corruption had begun to take a foothold in Fifa. Where there is money to be made it generally will. Under Blatter’s watch things began to get really messy.

His victory in the 1998 election was dogged by controversy, as was his 2002 candidacy. Rumours of financial irregularities and backroom dealings were abound and culminated in direct accusations of bribery by Farra Ado, vice-president of the Confederation of African Football. He claimed to have been offered $100,000 to vote for Blatter in 1998.

‘Neither FIFA nor its President have anything to hide, nor do they wish to’ – Blatter, 2003

Bribery scandals have been a recurring theme at Fifa under Blatter. Mohammed Bin Hammam was found in Garcia’s report to have influenced the 2010 ballot in his country’s favour. In total he gave disgraced ex-Fifa vice president Jack Warner just over £1 million in bribes. £760,000 of this was for the Qatari’s doomed bid to oust Sepp Blatter. The rest is unaccounted for.

Nine of the twenty-two ExCo officials who made the decision to give Russia and Qatar the World Cup have since stood down, some because of the bribe allegations directed towards them. None have been charged.

Perhaps the biggest scandal is one that has not been widely reported. Andrew Jennings has written that Blatter has given himself the authority to sign cheques without the approval of his staff or colleagues. Below is an extract from Jenning’s article written in November 2011.

“Documents at the Zurich Commercial Register reveal that Blatter has had sole signatory powers for nearly two decades.

João Havelange, his predecessor as FIFA president, currently under investigation by the IOC for bribe-taking, had this power but as he lived in Rio, he allowed his then general secretary Sepp Blatter also to have sole rights. 

As corruption allegations swirl around President Blatter he could, if he wanted, write himself a cheque for the $1.6 billion in FIFA’s bank account, take his empty suitcases to FIFA’s bankers UBS on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, speed on to the airport, take his last trip on a FIFA-funded jet (he never flies scheduled airlines) and abscond to safe haven in countries like Burma, Russia, Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe where he has been given warm welcomes in the last year. 

When Blatter took the presidency in 1998 he kept this power of sole signatory for himself but has denied it to his three successive general secretaries – including incumbent Jérôme Valcke. Even Julio Grondona, the chairman of FIFA’s Finance Committee, does not have this power.

Mr Grondona is currently under investigation by police in Buenos Aires following the revelation two weeks ago that he and his family and close aides control bank accounts in Switzerland containing more than $70 million. Although the accounts have featured prominently in the Swiss media, Blatter has declined to refer Grondona to FIFA’s Ethics Committee. Police in Buenos Aires are on the case.

This reporter has been banned from FIFA press conferences since 2003 after he published a documented story disclosing that Blatter pays himself a secret six-figure annual bonus for ‘loyalty.’ Blatter announced the story was ‘fiction’ and promised to sue. He didn’t. Blatter refuses to reveal what he pays himself in salary, bonuses, expenses and other perks. And what he takes in cash.”

This all seemingly points to corruption on a large scale within the organisation. Garcia’s reaction to Eckert’s statement only serves to back up the perception that Fifa is an organisation run by crooks, for the crooks. Which leads us back to the question posed so vociferously by the English press (though other nations do slowly seem to be joining the cause) yesterday.

   From the above evidence it can be said that Fifa is governed by money. Stop their income stream and they will have to react. The FBI announced yesterday that they will be stepping up their investigation into Fifa’s practices. This is crucial as they have the power to subpoena, which Garcia did not. As well as this they also have Chuck Blazer on board as a whistleblower. Blazer was previously on the Executive Committee and is the subject of an ongoing investigation for tax fraud. .

One theory doing the round is that specific sponsors have put pressure on the FBI to investigate Fifa, not wanting their brands to be tainted. This may seem outlandish but this has happened before in the past. Mastercard successfully took action against them in 2006, with their lawyer, Adam C. Silverstein, stating after the case that “lying and deception and bad faith are standard operating procedure at Fifa.”

Some have rubbished the idea of the English FA pulling out of Fifa, though this would do more damage than many believe. The Premier League’s home is England and it’s well known that it has the biggest revenue streams in world football. Fifa would miss that, as would the sponsors. Were one league to go others may well follow, with much of Europe, Asia and North America now discontented with Blatter and Fifa in some form or another. At this moment in time that doesn’t look like an option, despite the rumours emanating from Germany.

Today Dyke joined the chorus of high profile figures urging Fifa to make the report public. If enough pressure from the bigger nations is applied then that wish may well soon be acquiesced.

It’s far more likely that major action won’t be taken until 2015. That is the year of the next presidential election. If Sepp Blatter wins again, which is 99% sure, we may well see the bigger European leagues flexing their muscles.

City Strikers Leading Title Charge

Wilbraham & Agard
Wilbraham & Agard

Previous Bristol City manager Gary Johnson once said the season is split up into blocks of ten games. Well, were ten games into this season and sitting pretty atop the league, with seven wins and three draws. This is all the more impressive considering we have beaten pre-season favourites Sheffield United and giant killers MK Dons along the way. Key to our lightning start has been Aaron Wilbraham, who has already scored eight goals in nine appearances – his best ever start to a season.

Wilbraham’s splendid start to the season has meant last seasons top scorer Sam Baldock has not been missed in the slightest. When first looking at the striker he appears to be your standard big target man, but upon closer inspection he offers so much more. Adept with the ball at his feet and even better at holding the ball up and bringing others into play Wilbraham has been one of the reasons we have such a good scoring record this season.

However, when Wilbraham is having an off day or failing to score, we now have another striker we can turn to. Kieran Agard, a £750,000 signing from Rotherham, has began to hit form in the last few games, and is the perfect little man to Wilbraham’s big. I was very surprised the ex-Everton man was willing to drop back down a division after winning promotion to the Championship last year, but it just goes to show how big a draw our club, and in particular our manager are. In the game against Fleetwood the two scored all three goals between them, with Agard setting Wilbraham up for the second with a neat header.

Following up his brace against Fleetwood Agard scored another double on saturday against MK Dons, taking his tally to five in six games. For the first time in a long while City now have a striking partnership that is up there with the best, if not the best, in the league.

While Baldock has not been missed since his departure that is down to the duo’s good form, as well as the lack of injuries the squad has had this year. Last season’s outstanding player Jay Emmanuel-Thomas has yet to really take to the field, but is a more than adequate back up to the two currently holding the starting berth. Of course, he is a completely different type of forward to Agard and Wilbraham and it remains to be seen how he would play with the duo.

Next up is seventeenth place Walsall away, never an easy place to visit. Though with Wilbraham and Agard leading the line i’m fully confident we can come away with another three points and extend our lead at the top of the table.

The Champions League is back, but who impressed?

The Champions League is back, and back with aplomb with some memorable performances from both European giants and minnows. Here I take a look at four players who excelled in the first round of fixtures, alongside a little bit of background information.

Yacine Brahimi in action for FC Porto
Yacine Brahimi in action for FC Porto

Yacine Brahimi

   Porto’s attacking midfielder cum winger became the seventh player to score a hatrick on his Champions League debut on Wednesday, as he led Porto to a 6-0 win over Belarusian minnows Bate Borisov. His first came courtesy of an awful mistake by goalkeeper Sergei Chernik, as he rolled the ball to Brahimi when under no pressure whatsoever. The Algerian responded by firing the ball into the roof of the net from a tight angle. His second came after a superb run down the left flank as he beat two defenders, before firing in his third directly from a free kick in the 57th minute.

Brahimi appeared in three games for Algeria at this summer’s World Cup, scoring once against South Korea. Tottenham, Everton and Roma were said to be interested in signing him after his good form in the tournament, but the Portuguese giants beat them to it by snapping him up for 6.5 million, which now looks a bargain.

Gervinho

   Much to the aghast of Arsenal fans, the Ivorian is enjoying a renaissance in Rome. After struggling with the Gunners for two seasons his previous manager at Lille, Rudi Garcia, swooped to bring him to Rome. Since signing he’s been a revelation, providing an attacking outlet down the left that few defenders have coped with. He played a big part in Roma’s return to the Champions League after three seasons away, scoring nine teams last season as Roma finished second only to Juventus.

This was no more evident than in Tuesday’s 5-1 massacre of CSKA Moscow. La Giallorossi overran the Russians and were 4-0 up after half hour. Gervinho was key to this electric start, scoring twice. His first contribution though came in the sixth minute, when he slipped a ball through to new signing Juan Manuel Iturbe, who dispatched confidently past Igor Akinfeev. Iturbe, who was to go off injured at half time also impressed, as he repaid the favour to Gervinho when setting him up for his first. Then in the 31st minute, Roma legend Francesco Totti set the Ivorian free to cut inside his marker, before firing home. There was a slight let up after the frenetic opening 30, but Roma ran out 5-1 winners to a backdrop of crowd trouble in the Olimpico.

Joe Hart

Manchester City keeper Joe Hart gave an outstanding performance in Germany as his club slipped to a late 1-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, courtesy of ex City defender Jerome Boateng’s lashed volley. Hart stood no chance with the shot, which took a slight deflection off of Mario Gotze. England’s number one had played brilliantly throughout, and without him Bayern would surely have been five or six to the good. He made three or four top class saves in the first half alone, though his handling at crosses did leave a little to be desired at times.

After being at fault for Stoke’s winning goal a couple of weeks ago Hart’s form has picked up. This can in part be attributed to Manuel Pellegrini’s decision to sign Willy Caballero as genuine competition for the role between the sticks. Caballero came from Malaga with a big reputation, and will provide sterner competition than Costel Pantillimon and Stuart Taylor ever did. However, if Hart continues to play as he did against Bayern, he will have little trouble holding on to the number one position.

Joe Hart pulls of another save against Bayern
Joe Hart pulls of another save against Bayern

Carlos Tevez

   Carlos Tevez and Juventus earnt a welcome 2-0 win at home to Swedish team Malmo on Tuesday. Tevez scored both goals – after going the previous five years (and over 1000 minutes) without finding the net in the Champions League. The Argentine’s troubles in Europe are reflective of his club, Juventus, who crashed out at the group stage last season after several miserable displays. Similar to Juventus Tevez has excelled in Serie A, scoring 19 times last season as the Old Lady marched to a third consecutive title. Yet only now is he transferring that form onto the European stage.

Under new manager Massimiliano Allegri the Bianconeri had made the familiar slow start to European games, only truly taking control of the game when impressive forward Marcus Rosenberg (who flopped at West Bromwich Albion) left the pitch in the 53rd minute. With the Swedish forward no longer haranguing the Juve defence they were able to push forward, and when Tevez played a one two with Kwadwo Asamoah he was through on goal, drilling past Robin Olsen. His second came courtesy of an exquisite free kick from just outside the box. Tevez was withdrawn late on amid a standing ovation from the fans. Next up for Juve is Atletico away, and they’re going to need Tevez firing on all cylinders again.

Summer Signings Lead the Way for Robins

After seven games of the season City are sitting pretty atop the League 1 table, unbeaten and with the best goal difference in the division. On Saturday recently relegated Doncaster were swept aside 3-0 in what was one of the better performances since Steve Cotterill has taken charge. Donnie were much fancied at the start of the season but could not cope with City’s play, and mustered just one shot on target the entire game.

Cotterill was well backed by owner Steve Lansdown in the summer and bought in eight players, the majority of whom have played a massive part in the club’s rise to the summit. City will be well aware of the risks of bedding in a large amount of players – as evidenced by Spur’s struggles last year and Liverpool to an extent this year. However, seven of the eight new signings started the victory over Doncaster, and the signs are that they are beginning to click.

City conceded 67 times last season, far too often for a team that is looking for promotion. That has been rectified this season, with just four goals let in. This can be attributed to two factors – the formation change and the new defensive signings. Cotterill has been playing 3-5-2 this year (as he did towards the tail end of last season), a system which suits the three centre backs currently playing. Derrick Williams and new signing Luke Ayling have slotted in alongside Aden Flint seamlessly, and the latter’s performances this season have been a far cry from the shambolic centre back we saw at times last year. Right wing back Mark Little was signed from Peterborough, and has been a revelation, providing both attacking flair and defensive nous.

Big summer signing Luke Freeman is yet to hit top form, but looks like he will be a great player. Korey Smith is the signing that has impressed me the most. He’s slipped under the radar but his assured performances in midfield have played a key part in The Robins good start to the season.

The signing who has had the biggest impact is Aaron Wilbraham – almost bought in by chance when Cotterill bumped into him on holiday. He’s scored several vital goals this season already and is well on the way to forming a successful big man/little man partnership up top with Kieran Agard, who scored his first goal for the club on Saturday.

Cotterill was clever in that two of his summer signings were here on loan last season, in Karleigh Osbourne and Wade Elliott. Osbourne has been sidelined with an injury since arriving, but Wade Elliott has been the beating heart of the team. Taking over the captaincy after Sam Baldock departed for Brighton, he has displayed a maturity and calmness that our midfield has not seen since the days of Paul Hartley.

What Cotterill has done is add experience and know-how to the squad. Elliott and Osbourne have been there and done it, whilst the rest of his signings have played at a higher level, or have the ability to do so. Proven performers at League 1 have been bought in, and it looks to be paying off.

Euro Qualifying Sees Upsets Galore

The international break rolled round last weekend to the lament of many football fans around the country. Gone was the twists and thrills of the Premier League, to be replaced by the same old big nations beating the same old small countries. Or so we thought. In the last few years the bigger footballing countries have tended to canter through qualifying without breaking a sweat. The only ‘traditional’ European footballing heavyweight (this term is used loosely) that has failed to qualify for a major tournament in the past ten years has been England – shock horror.

However, the first round of fixtures of the European Championships Qualifiers got off to a surprising start this week, with several smaller nations pulling off shocks. With 24 places to play for rather than the traditional 16 there are far more meaningful games than in previous qualifiers, where teams were well aware there was no chance of them getting through before a ball had even been kicked. Take Wales for example, who have been placed in a group with World Cup qualifiers Belgium and Bosnia, as well as Israel, Cyprus and Andorra. If just two teams were going through we all know who we would put our money on, but with a third qualifying place available teams like Wales, Israel and Cyprus know they’ll probably never have a better chance to advance to a major tournament. Gareth Bale even donned the Wales jersey against a minor nation, which has become increasingly rare since his move to Real Madrid.

Wales may have only managed to beat Andorra courtesy of a Bale double, but Cyprus pulled of a shock in the other Group B game. Ranked 140th in the world, below footballing luminaries such as Guatemala and Tajikistan, the Cypriots beat Bosnia 2-1. The Balkan nation are ranked 19th and had just played in their first ever World Cup, so hopes were high for their team. Edin Dzeko captained the Bosnians and they seemed to be cruising courtesy of a Vedad Ibisevic goal, as the home team dominated in front of a passionate crowd in Zenica. They missed several good chances for a second and were punished when striker Dimitris Cristofi equalised on the stroke of half time. This filled Cyrpus with hope and Cristofi went on to score a second in the second half. Bosnia golden boy Miralem Pjanic missed a penalty late on to compound their misery but the coach, Safet Susic took it reasonably well, saying that ‘we can only congratulate Cyprus.’

Albania celebrate victory against Portugal
Albania celebrate victory against Portugal

Elsewhere, bigger fish than Bosnia were being fried, with Albania beating Portugal in their own back yard. After a group stage departure at the World Cup Portugal were hoping for a good start to their campaign, but were beaten by a sensational Bekim Balaj volley. Without Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal looked toothless, and his absence laid bare the lack of quality in Portugal football at the moment. Gone are the days when Pauleta, Figo, Ronaldo and Rui Costa would spearhead the Selecção attack. The lack of depth the national team has is being attributed to the big clubs, namely Benfica and Porto, buying foreign players at the expense of home grown talent. Sound familiar?

To be fair to the Albanians they have had a very good defensive record over the last couple of years, and are a far cry from the team England laboured to a victory over back in 2011. Their victory on Sunday heralded the end of Paulo Bento’s time in charge of his national team. After a good start – he led them to the last 4 of Euro 2012 – things went downhill, and they only got through to the World Cup courtesy of Ronaldo, who pulled them past Sweden in the play offs.

Speaking of the World Cup, semi-finalists Holland also went down to a defeat this week, against the unfancied Czechs. This means Guus Hiddink is the first Holland manager to lose his opening two games since … Guus Hiddink back in 1995. Daryl Janmaat is already learning how to defend like a real Newcastle player, as he made a mistake to gift Vaclav Pilar the winning goal near the end of the game. Holland had actually looked the better of the two sides in the second half, but Robin van Persie looked off the pace throughout. The win was Czech coach Pavel Vrba’s first, and puts his team in a commanding position in Group A.

Fast improving Iceland pulled off one of the shocks of the week as they beat Turkey 3-0. The Turkish keeper had looked shaky throughout and it was his mistake that allowed Iceland to score the first goal. Defender Omer Toprak was then sent off, making things even tougher for the Turks. Galatasaray striker Burak Yilmaz then missed a gilt edged chance to equalise and was made to pay as Iceland went on to score twice more. The Turkish team are something of a conundrum on the national stage as with the players they posses they should be performing better than they are. Experienced ex-AC Milan coach Fatih Terim is in charge though and he should have the nous to lead his team to at least third place in the group.

Iceland are a team to watch. They very nearly qualified for the World Cup, losing to Croatia at the play off stage. They have improved remarkably in the last two and a half years, leaping from 141st in the Fifa rankings to 46th. This rise has very much been based on a team ethic and organisation, and they are in with a very real chance of reaching the Euro finals.

There were several other shocks around the continent, with Slovenia beating Ukraine, Northern Ireland claiming their first away win in 4 years in Hungary, and Serbia gaining a creditable draw in France.

Although Michel Platini’s decision to increase the amount of teams in the European Championship has drawn criticism, it has given teams with little hope of reaching previous finals the inclination to get out there and attack teams. To put it bluntly; something worth playing for. This has certainly contributed to the unusual amount of upsets in the first round of fixtures, and has breathed a little bit of life back into international football.

European Championship 2016 Qualifiers Draw
European Championship 2016 Qualifying Draw

Perez Repeats Same Old Mistakes

Real signed Rodriguez off the back of a successful World Cup
Real signed Rodriguez off the back of a successful World Cup

It’s the summer of 2003. David Beckham has just arrived at Real Madrid for £25 million from Manchester United. The latest in a long line of Florentino Perez’s Galacticos, Beckham would have to start. This meant breaking up a successful squad. Claude Makelele was allowed to leave for Chelsea for £16.8 million, while popular winger Steve McManaman also departed on a free for Manchester City. As if that wasn’t enough, forward Fernando Morientes also departed, for a loan spell at Monaco.

Sound familiar? Swap James Rodriguez for David Beckham and the outgoing players for Xabi Alonso, Angel di Maria and Alvaro Morata and you have a description of this summer’s transfer dealings by the club.

On Friday, Perez was happily announcing that ‘for the third consecutive year, Forbes considers us the most valuable club in the world.’ This is an impressive feat, and Perez has played a massive part in making Madrid the money making giant that it is today. The Los Blancos president is a man who is driven by commercial success, but as he was announcing these financial results to the public he seemed completely oblivious to the fact they have come at the expense of the team.

As it was back in 2003, Real have been significantly weakened by their summer’s transfer business – despite large investment. Rodriguez and Toni Kroos would be welcomed into almost any team in the world, but were there signings really necessary? Madrid only started performing well last season when Isco was dropped and the team reverted to a 4-3-3, rather than the 4-2-3-1 with the young Spaniard behind Benzema. This gave Ronaldo and Bale extra space to exploit, as well as allowing them to come inside on their favoured foot. Rodriguez plays in the same position as Isco, and judging from Real’s first few games of the season, brings the same conundrum as his Spanish counterpart.

Di Maria’s departure came against both the player and manager Carlo Ancelotti’s wish. The Argentine was deemed expendable by Perez, despite his man of the match performance in the Champions League final. His departure was necessary in order to cover the Rodriguez and Kroos transfers, but the way Perez handled his exit rankles. Accusing the player of leaving the club for money, and falsely claiming he had offered di Maria a bumper contract, has seen the normal introverted Argentine brand his old president’s words ‘lies.’ Perez has form for doing this to players (more on that later).

One thing di Maria’s departure has done is cause players to speak out against the Galactico project, in a similiar way Zinedine Zidane did in 2003. When Perez took the decision to sell Makelele and buy Beckham, Zidane commented that ‘why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?’ Perez had criticised Makelele heavily when he left Madrid, leaving Makelele to say that ‘he (Perez) was not interested in me because I was not going to help sell any club shirts.’ It would seem he hit the nail on the head.

Perez and the original Galacticos
Perez and the original Galacticos

It was another Ballon d’or winner’s turn to question Perez this season, with Ronaldo saying that ‘I have strong opinions but I can’t always say what I think. But if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have done so.’ Ronaldo was venting his frustrations at di Maria and Alonso’s departures. Interestingly, Alonso was going to stay at Madrid until Perez took the decision to sell di Maria. Only then, did he ask for a transfer to Bayern Munich. Alonso is an intelligent footballer, and clearly saw what effect Perez’s meddling on the team was having.

One common theme at Madrid under Perez’s stewardship has been that players are sacrificed for the commercial benefits. In effect, the ‘less attractive’ players, such as defensive midfielder Makelele, are sacrificed for players deemed commercially attractive – the Rodriguezs, Beckhams and Ronaldos of this world. This attitude towards transfers has left Ancelotti with a lopsided squad for the forthcoming season. His forward line is arguably weaker than last season, with Karim Benzema and Javier Hernandez his sole options. Hernandez is not an upgrade on Morata, and the fact Morata came through the academy means he will be missed by Real fans. To give him his dues, Perez was wiley enough to insert a buy back clause in his deal.

There is also a distinct lack of centre midfielders. Alonso was replaced by Kroos, a good signing, but the Spaniard’s experience and willingness to lead on the field will be greatly missed. Modric, Khedira and Illarramendi are the other options, meaning there’s a distinct lack of a top class holding midfielder. This may be corrected in January with rumours that Real are interested in Christoph Kramer, but by then the Primera and Champions League may be out of sight.

The rest of the squad seems fairly well balanced, aside from Isco and Rodriguez. Here Real have two players for one attacking midfield role – a role that when used does not allow Bale and Ronaldo to flourish. It seems Real have sold the wrong players, as well as investing in the wrong areas of the team. It will be all too familiar to those who saw the same situation unfold in 2003.

In that season Real had probably one of the best midfields in history – Zidane, Figo, Beckham, Solari and Cambiasso. But when that midfield is playing in front of a centre back pairing of Ivan Helguera and Francisco Pavon you are in trouble. That year Los Blancos finished 4th, and exited the Champions League in the quarter finals.

Perez has repeated the same mistakes he made in his first tenure at the club, namely that of placing commercial interests above sporting ones. Until that attitude changes Real will never enjoyed a sustained period of success as they did in the 1950s, or as their arch rivals Barcelona have in the past decade. If they are to win anything at all this year it will be down to Carlo Ancelotti’s managerial nous, rather than anything Perez has done. Either way, he’ll probably sack the Italian anyway.

Brendan Rodgers – Man Manager Extraordinaire

   Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson uttered those famous words; “my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch,” the Anfield club have gone through numerous managers. However, little success has followed, aside from that night in Istanbul and a few cups. Some have been more successful than others (see Rafa Benitez) but none has embodied the true spirit of the club, or managed in a style like Brendan Rodgers has.

   Since taking charge in 2012 the Northern Irishman has revolutionized the club, taking them from 8th in the Premier League to the cusp of winning the league last season – all done with a scintillating style of attacking football reminiscent of those great teams of the 80s.

   Rodger’s ability to man manage his players has played a key part in Liverpool’s rise, and is arguably vital to managing a football team in the modern game. Gone are the days managers would tear into their players for every wayward pass. With the vast amounts of money flowing into the game priorities are now different. Ferguson himself has admitted he had to modify his approach in his latter years. Gone was the infamous hairdryer, with an arm around the shoulder and some encouraging words his new approach. Rodgers has done this – and more.

   When Luis Suarez attempted to push through a move to Arsenal last summer Rodgers refused to budge, saying at the time that “there will never be any player or person bigger than the club.” Commendable, but it is what he did with Suarez after that deserves the plaudits. He took a player that was disillusioned with life at Liverpool and made him feel part of the team. Initially made to train on his own, he then welcomed him back into the fold. A balance was found between caring for both the forward’s and the club’s needs – Suarez could go, but he would have to play out one more year with Liverpool before he did. This worked perfectly as Suarez led the charge towards the top of the league, before being sold for a massive profit to Barcelona. The money gained from this transfer allowed Rodgers to flesh out a squad that was severely lacking in numbers last season.

   Club captain and legend Steven Gerrard has nothing but positive words to say about his manager, telling BBC Sport in March that “his one-on-one management is the best I’ve known.” This from a man who has played under managers as successful as Kenny Dalglish, Fabio Capello and Sven Goran Eriksson. Rodgers has added at least another two years on Gerrard’s career after converting him into a deep-lying midfielder, where the emphasis is on careful passing rather than running around the pitch.

   Gerrard also says that when playing under Rodgers “you go out feeling full of confidence and belief,” and this is no more evident than with Daniel Sturridge. When he arrived at Liverpool Sturridge was bereft of confidence, having been pushed out to the wings at Chelsea. Rodger’s showed faith in Sturridge as soon as he arrived, putting him up front and literally telling him to “do his thing.” It worked, and Sturridge has more than paid off his manager’s faith in him. 

   His work with Raheem Sterling has also been very effective. Sterling was getting into a fair bit of trouble at a young age but when he arrived at the club Rodgers pulled him aside, telling him he had talent and not to waste it. He put a lot of belief in the young man but did not hesitate to drop him towards the end of his first season in charge, fearing the over exposure was affecting him adversely. This proved to be an astute move, as Sterling formed a deadly trio with Suarez and Sturridge the following season that resulted in him going to the World Cup. When Sterling scored against Norwich in April the first thing he did was run to celebrate with his manager – a show of the bond he has struck up with him. This is not exclusive to Sterling, with several other players choosing to celebrate with Rodgers after scoring. By showing faith in his players they have returned it by actually playing for their manager, rather than just their wages.

   Rodger’s biggest task yet is that of maverick Italian Mario Balotelli. He had been on the market all summer yet no manager was willing to take him on, which is the reason Liverpool got him for a positive snip at £16 million. Rodgers makes a point of instilling work ethic and focus into his players, and Balotelli is no different. During his first week of training Rodgers wanted his new striker to help out at the back on set-pieces. Balotelli replied to him that that was not something he did. Rodgers told him that he would now. Explaining his rationale in an interview the Liverpool manager said he wished to “treat him like an adult, with responsibility.” Players tend to respond to that. This is the polar opposite to the approach Roberto Mancini took with Balotelli, where he was treated like a child, and frequently told to grow up. The result? He was shipped off to Milan halfway through an underwhelming season, after nearly setting his house on fire.

   There’s more to Rodgers than just his man management skills though. He displays flexibility in his tactics, as well as a willingness to embrace new ideas – his use of psychiatrist Steve Peters last season was credited by his players as a masterstroke. Almost every player in Liverpool’s squad this season has improved in some way under Rodgers, be it mentally, tactically or physically, and if the team continues to progress at the rate it has been Liverpool will be a team to be feared.

   He is a manager that remembers the simple things, like remembering your name and greeting people with a smile. Liverpool were going through troubled times until his appointment – in the boardroom and on the pitch – yet he steadied the ship and has helped to unite the club. His approach should be congratulated, as no one exemplifies modern management quite like Brendan Rogers.

Baldock’s Departure can be a Positive

The fans are understandably upset at Sam Baldock’s departure to Brighton last week, but is it all that bad? City made an almighty effort to keep hold of him – rejecting six bids before finally accepting a £2 million offer. That doesn’t strike me as a club treading water, and the fact he was in the last year of his contract means we’ve actually got a pretty decent fee for him.

Don’t get me wrong, Baldock was a key part of our squad having top scored last season, but we do have ready made replacements. New signing Aaron Wilbraham has impressed since joining in the summer, scoring three times already (including the opener in our victory against league favourites Sheffield United). Kieran Agard was also signed from Championship Rotherham for £750,000, in what was a massive coup for the club considering he only scored 3 less goals than Baldock last season. Then we still have fan favourite Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, one of the few shining lights of last season’s dreadful opening six months. He’s had a distinct lack of game time this year which will hopefully change now.

Summer arrival Luke Freeman also has the capability to play up front, and it is hoped that he will now be given the game time to make his mark at the club. Freeman’s a player you can’t help but get excited about. Having gone through the Arsenal academy he’s comfortable on the ball with a penchant for the spectacular. Steve Cotterill has said he wants to play him just off the front two, which should see him flourish.

Financial fair play now plays a huge part in any club’s transfer dealings, and manager Cotterill has said City were in no position to match the wages offered to Baldock by Brighton. Not a surprise when you consider they’re pushing for promotion to the Premier League. The fee received was double what we paid for him, plus Baldock was one of the higher earners at the club. This means more money saved, and we’ve actually made a profit this transfer window whilst at the same time massively improving the squad.

However, there is room for one more striker. Cotterill has said several times he wants four out and out forwards, so who is likely to come in? Ideally we would look to the youth team, but at the moment there’s not an outstanding candidate. It’s probably too late in the window to get a player in permanently, and Cotterill has shown to be astute when it comes to using the loan market (think Karleigh Osbourne and Wade Elliott last season). Our best bet would be to get a young hungry striker in temporarily until January. If he impresses, great, if not, we can then get someone in permanently.

So do not fear Robins fans, despite Baldock leaving we still have one of the most competitive teams in the league, and more importantly one of the better managers. I’m still backing us for promotion this year, as the experience in the squad should see us through.

Champions League: 4 Teams to Watch

   The Champions League groups have been drawn, with some tasty looking match ups – think Liverpool v Real Madrid and Barcelona v Paris Saint Germain. But every year we see a team make an unexpected run deep into the competition. Atletico Madrid did it last season, as did Schalke a couple of years before them. Looking further back Monaco, Porto and Lyon have all made at least the semis. With the quality of the competition increasing year on year it’s getting harder for so called smaller clubs to spring a surprise, but here I look at 4 teams that have the potential to do so – if luck is on their side and they hit a good run of form.

Athletic Bilbao

   Athletic qualified for this years tournament by impressively defeating Champions League expert Rafa Benitez’s Napoli, 4-2 on aggregate. Much of the team that played in that game featured in their victory over Manchester United in the Europa League a few seasons ago, when they played Sir Alex Ferguson’s side off the park. Since then, there has been a change of manager, with Ernesto Valverde replacing Chilean Marcelo Bielsa at the beginning of last season. Valverde impressed massively in his first season in charge, leading Athletic to fourth place in La Liga despite arguably his best player, Fernando Llorente, leaving for Juventus on a free. Luckily for the Basque club, rumours that Barcelona wanted him as their new manager never came to fruition.

   The team is based around impressive midfielders Benat and Iturraspe (more on him later), who like many Spaniards are comfortable on the ball with an eye for a pass. French centre back Aymeric Laporte enjoyed a breakout season last year and forms a partnership at the back with former Liverpool player Mikel San Jose, who has just been called up to the Spanish squad. Muniain provides width on the left and has regularly been linked with a move to a bigger club, having impressed for several seasons now. What makes Athletic’s achievement in qualifying for the Champions League all the more impressive is the fact they have done so on a shoestring budget, with players of only Basque origin. 

   Group H will hold little fear for the club, with FC Porto not the force they once were, and BATE Borisov minnows of the European game. Ukrainians Shakhtar Donetsk will be more of a challenge, but even they have been hit by an exodus of players due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. After Los Leones early displays this season, they will be a team to be avoided if they make it through their group. No club will relish visiting their impressive San Mames stadium, where the fans are almost on top of the pitch.

Iturraspe in action against Ronaldo last season
Iturraspe in action against Ronaldo last season

Player to Watch: Ander Iturraspe

Athletic’s number 8 was recently the subject of interest from Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich – that’s how highly he’s rated. Iturraspe has just been called up to the Spain squad and looks to have a big future in Vicente del Bosque’s new look team. With a buy out clause of €40 million and a long contract Valverde will look to build his young team around his star midfielder.

AS Roma

   Roma are one of the few Italian teams able to spend money at the moment, and this is due to their wealthy American owner James Pallotta. They’ve invested well this summer in preparation for the Champions League, bringing in players with European experience such as Ashley Cole and Seydou Keita. Along with Daniele de Rossi and Francesco Totti, this gives the team much needed big match experience. 

   The club also has some promising youngsters coming through, with Mattia Destro and big summer signing Juan Manuel Iturbe showing a lot of promise. 

   Roma’s haul of 85 points in Serie A last season would have seen them win the league in 9 out of the last 10 seasons, and it was only Juve’s phenomenal season that prevented them from doing so. Since coming into the club Rudi Garcia has revolutionalised the way the team plays, and has even managed to make Gervinho perform – something Arsenal fans will be astounded at.

   They’ve been given a tough draw – facing Bayern Munich and Manchester City – probably two of the best teams in the world. After several seasons out of Europe’s elite competition the club will relish testing themselves against the big guns, where they rightly feel they belong now. Watch out for the reception given to Mehdi Benatia on his return to the Olimpico with Bayern – it could be fiery. 

Fancy a hug?
Fancy a hug?

Player to Watch: Mattia Destro

Recently the subject of interest from Chelsea Destro enjoyed a breakout year for Roma last year, scoring 13 goals to finish as the team’s top scorer. That’s an impressive feat for a man that is essentially a supersub, but he’s not likely to replace Totti as the club’s first choice striker any time soon. He’s been called up to the Italy squad and at just 23 still has time to develop his already formidable finishing skills.

Bayer Leverkusen

   Leverkusen enter this campaign under new manager Roger Schmidt, looking altogether more solid than they did under Sami Hyypia. Since reaching the Champions League final in 2002 they’ve not really made a mark on the tournament, but that could change this year. A young team has been handed a competitive group, with Benfica, Zenit and Monaco their opponents. However, all these teams are beatable. Monaco’s quality has been greatly diminished with the departures of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao, as has Benfica’s  with Lazar Markovic, Rodrigo and Jan Oblak leaving in the summer. 

   Schmidt masterminded a 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund on the opening day of the Bundesliga season – no mean feat, and they have several players capable of making their mark in Europe. Steffen Kiessling has been desperately unlucky not to have got more Germany caps, and Swiss forward Josip Drmic looks like a great signing from Nurnberg. Winger Son Heung-Min is a direct runner that has attracted interest from Manchester United in the past, with Emir Spahic and Omer Toprak forming a dependable partnership at the back. 

   If Leverkusen can avoid injuries they can realistically aim for the quarter finals, and from there anything can happen.

Calhanoglu upon signing for Bayer Leverkusen
Calhanoglu upon signing for Bayer Leverkusen

Player to Watch: Hakan Calhanoglu

The man bought from Hamburg for €14.5 this summer looks to have a big future in the game. Scorer of several spectacular goals last season, Calhanoglu likes to play off the front men and has a wicked shot on him. Expect the young Turkish international to be at a big club in 2 or 3 seasons time.

FC Basle

   Basle are perennial over achievers in the Champions League, and have made a habit of upsetting English teams in the competition. They became just the second team to inflict a home defeat on Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea last season, beating them 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in the group stages, and went on to beat them 1-0 in the return leg. They’ve also troubled Manchester United and Liverpool in recent years so have pedigree in the competition.

   Manager Paulo Sousa will be familiar to fans of the Championship, having managed QPR, Swansea and Leicester to varying degrees of success. In his playing days he was a fearsome defensive midfielder, and won back to back Champions League titles with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.

   Basle’s squad is solid if not spectacular, but the club pulled of a massive coup pre-season with the signing of Argentine international Walter Samuel, who will partner Fabian Schar in central defence. Veteran striker Marco Streller still leads the Basle attack, having made his debut for the club 14 years ago now. The midfield is made up of journeymen and promising youngsters, with late bloomer and Ivory Coast international Serey Die playing the enforcer role in front of the defence.

Schar in action against Chelsea two years ago
Schar in action against Chelsea two years ago

Player to Watch: Fabian Schar

Schar was signed from FC Wil 2012 for just £440,000, and has a phenomenal goal scoring record for a centre back. He played a key role in Basle’s run to the Europa League semi-finals in 2012-2013 and it’s surprising he’s not been picked up by a bigger club. He made his debut for Switzerland last year, and has gone on to score 3 goals in 8 games for his country.