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Les Bleus red hot favourites with squad selection

Former champions; France, have named their 23-man squad that will don the royal blue this summer in Russia. There were notable absentees including the injury-plagued Laurent Koscielny and Dimitri Payet; and Anthony Martial of  Manchester United and Alexandre Lacazette of Arsenal. 

The French roster has been renowned for their depth especially in recent years. As such the 1998 World Cup winners have been touted as favourites to replicate that success 20 years later. With keeper and captain Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspurs) accompanied by fellow custodians Steve Mandanda (Marseille) and Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint Germain) their goal would be sufficiently protected.

In front of them will be defenders: Raphaël Varane, who has a Champions League final with Real Madrid coming up;  Samuel Umtiti fresh off a double winning season with Barcelona; veteran Adil Rami of Marseille – who lost this season’s Europa League final; and youngster Presnel Kimpembe who replaces the injured Koscielny. The full-back positions are occupied by youngsters Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart) and Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid); and Djibril Sidibé of Monaco and former club teammate Benjamin Mendy  now at Manchester City has returned form a cruciate ligament injury just in time.

In midfield, the star studded squad has, in Paul Pogba (Manchester United), arguably the biggest of them. Formerly the world’s most expensive player, Pogba’s propensity to get forward will be balanced by the likes of Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich),  Steven Nzonzi (Sevilla) – who has enjoyed a rich vein of form over two seasons in Spain; and the ubiquitous N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) will pick up any slack.

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this French team is the attack. Almost Olympic pace is matched by trickery and guile. The soon-to-be second most expensive player in history, Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Florian Thauvin (Marseille), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Nabil Fekir (Lyon) and possibly the best player in the world not name Messi or Ronaldo – Antoine Griezmann will hope to follow up Europa League success with World Cup glory. Meanwhile the less mobile Olivier Giroud is a tower of strength up front.

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Given this squad, its hard not fantasize about the mouthwatering possibilities for the starting XI. What would be safe to assume is: captain Hugo Lloris in goal, a defensive pairing of Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti with Djibril Sidibé and Benjamin Mendy  as full backs. A midfield three of N’Golo Kanté, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba – given lisecene to roam from either the left side or a more advance position. Ahead of them, will likely be Olivier Giroud as a central focal point in attack; challenging for crosses from Antoine Griezmann and one of Kylian Mbappe or Ousmane Dembele. The latter is more of a penetrative runner and creative force, Mbappe would more likely partner up front with Giroud, depending on tactics.

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France would still be hurting following their shock defeat at the hands of Portugal in Euro 2016 on home soil. They will feel obligated and so too will the French public require recompense for that tragic lost. They will likely face stern opposition from reigning World Champs Germany; but they can take confidence in the fact that they beat Germany fairly comprehensively in that (ultimately) disappointing Euros campaign. On the other hand, former champions Brazil and Spain will look to throw their hats in the ring. The French however, despite being a top-heavy side that relies primarily on attack, much like Brazil; have a greater defensive solidity and a better balance in their ranks. Spain meanwhile can beat any team on their day; but are, in truth, possibly only the fourth best team in Russia. They by no means should be taken lightly, nor should any of the other two be, but this France squad suggests they would stand their best possible chance.

Fun Fact: Peru has the peculiar distinction of facing the future FIFA World Cup champions in each of their previous 4 appearances. Being drawn in Group C with France the fates may be on the side of France!

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Click the link above to see my World Cup Magazine. Also be sure to check out my last post Road to Russia 2018 for more reading.

 

Russia-2018

Road to Russia 2018

En route to the world cup finals in Russia we’ve seen some spectacular crashes. From Italy’s hit and run with Sweden; to Holland’s skid and barrel roll; to Chile’s flat tire right at the last; the road to Russia has claimed a few casualties. Those who are still spinning their wheels aim to be the best in show when teams get off to the races on June 14. FIFA’s latest top ten begin in the pole positions on the starting grid. As Chile (#10) rusts in the garage this summer, Russia completes this list as host nation.

 

Germany:

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Germany looks like a well-oiled machine. Not too dissimilar to one of their industry leading automotive brands, Audi; Die Mannschaft looks as businesslike as they do exciting. They can just as easily blast down the Autobahn at 150+ miles an hour – and rip apart a team 7-1; as they can comfortably wade through bumper to bumper traffic – grinding out a 1-0 victory in sensible fashion. Going in as the reigning World champs, they might be the first team to retain the Cup since Brazil in ’58 & ’62, and only third team to have ever done so. [Brazil was the second, Italy won the second and​ third World Cups in 1934 & ’38.] That in itself would be a feat, but added to that, they would also break the omen of the confed cup. Seemingly, once you win the Confederations’ Cup, you relinquish hopes of winning the world cup the following year. Either way, any team that does win the World Cup will need German efficiency to do so.

 

Brazil:

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The Seleção is a flamboyant, expensively assembled showpiece. In contrast to the German squad and their more rounded design, the Brazilians are more Ferrari than Audi. Take away the trademark stallion badge, or the almost obligatory red paint, and the supercharged turbo engine; and you’re left with a shell of a car. Not quite as visually stunning in black or white or much of anything without the engine. It’s not even a Ferrari without the badge! In the same vein, take away the flair, the star power or the samba and it’s not really Brazil. That said, 2014’s Brazil was the Ferrari 458 to 2018 Brazil’s Ferrari la Ferrari. Not so much new, but improved. Just as the eponymous Ferrari la Ferrari made a point about reminding us who it is, Brazil seeks to do the same in Russia.

 

Portugal:

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Now this is a strange one. Portugal and Argentina are in a similar boat. Both are home to aliens masquerading as footballers. Such is their star power that they aren’t so much a proverbial car since that would imply some kind of equivalency. Instead they are more like a NASCAR driver and his pit crew in Ronaldo and Portugal’s case. Though that may seem harsh, it’s worth noting that NASCAR teams can have different drivers but the crew is invaluable to the cause. Point in case, Ronaldo went down injured in the 2016 European championship final and substituted before the half, still Portugal soldiered on and won the game 1-0. A competitive pitstop in NASCAR currently is about 10 seconds, Portugal would need to emulate that kind of precision so that their driver can get out and do his thing.

 

Argentina:

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As mentioned before Argentina has an otherworldly maestro in their midst. One that can win a game by himself, or so the adage goes. But in truth, if he was winning a title by himself, then we’d be talking about tennis. In fact, we’re talking about football and an Argentina team that is akin to a F1 team. Different from the raw power and of NASCAR; F1 is no less impressive but more technical and elegant. The point here though​ is; if Argentina intends to do well, last tournament’s​ beaten finalists need to get that last corner just right this time.

 

Belgium:

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Ever seen a Corvette? Any Corvette. The C5, C7, Grand Sport, or maybe the Z06? All phenomenal looking cars, even if the European counterparts to this American gem shine a little brighter. Belgium and its interestingly amalgamated team of household names is like the Corvette. Not in the non-European sense mind you; with the diverse German, Dutch and French cultural background of Belgium, they couldn’t be more European. But certainly, they do pale in pedigree to the others. Still, there’s something to be said about this Golden generation of Belgian football. A Corvette may cost hundreds of thousands less, and may not roll off the tongue like Ferrari, but they’re no less spectacular and can post a lap time to rival the best. Belgium is the same; we can expect them to look stunning and make a good noise.

 

Poland:

 

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A Volkswagen may not seem like much in grandeur. After all, when you think Volkswagen – VW – you’d think first of either a Volkswagen beetle or one of those 70’s hipster-type VW vans with said two letters making up its nose. Probably used by tree hugging hippies or would-be rock stars. The Polish team can be seen as these vintage rockers. The Pols do have talent among their ranks – supreme talent in some cases, but they don’t excite the way others do. Volkswagen as a brand owns; Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini Bentley, Bugatti, et al. So, by that standard they can take pride in themselves and in fact should relish in their relative anonymity. They can use that to their advantage this summer because surely​ any team to underestimate their worth, shall surely​ pay the price.

 

Spain:

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The same thing that makes the Spanish team stand out is the same thing that makes them so familiar. In the same way, if you’ve seen one Porsche you’ve seen them all. Tiki taka looks the same no matter who’s in the Spanish squad or whichever level. You get the impression that when the bosses at Porsche ask for a new car to put on sale, they take the old model out and go “well, design’s done…what’s next?” But credit to the German car makers and the Spanish FA, they’ve found a formula and bothered not to change too much. And it works. So, come this summer, don’t expect anything vastly new from Spain. Fortunately for them, that also means expect the same level of quality. And because it’s certainly not broke, there’s no repairs necessary.

 

Switzerland:

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Far from the supercar class of the other entries on this list, Switzerland can take pride in their familiarity. The Swiss have featured in 11 of the 20 world cups they entered qualifiers for. And while they’ve had a tougher time at European championships (4 of the 16) it’s worth noting that those competitions traditionally had a small number of participants. That being said, the Swiss aren’t exactly a powerhouse team. After a good qualifying campaign and friendlies, they find themselves in FIFA’s most recent top ten. And while Toyota have their subsidiary brand, Lexus, to churn out a few fancier-than-usual models; the Japanese brand have made their fortune in practical people-carriers and family saloons. Expect Switzerland to be as pragmatic, and playing to their strengths in Russia.

 

France:

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Lamborghinis tend to have a generational feel to them. Every few years they put out a car that transcends time and forges a lasting impression on us. France is much the same. Whereas the Italian company has the Murciélago and the Aventador being produced in the same century, just a decade apart; the last endearing French team is from 1998. An argument can be made for the 2006 team but even then, they are 2 years overdue for such a team. As hosts of Euro 2016, France were nearly-men. With the embarrassment of riches at their disposal, they stand squarely at the crossroads​ of history and destiny.

 

Russia:

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AvtoVaz is a name that probably wouldn’t start too many conversations, but neither would the Russian national team. AvtoVaz is the name of the most popular car manufacturer in the Russia; a subsidiary of the Renault-Nissan partnership. And​ much like their respective football team, they generate most of their buzz within their borders. This summer the hosts will have lofty dreams of dominating like the Lada Priora does the Russian car market for AvtoVaz. That would be unlikely but they’d surely like to get out of the group at least. One thing’s for sure though, they will have the lion’s share of fans come June.

 

It remains to be seen which team has the (horse)power to drive all the way to the final on July 15. It’s curious too to see which team will overheat, who’ll push it to the redline or who’ll get stuck in 1st gear, who’ll run out of gas, and ultimately; which team will cross the checkered flag first and pick up the Borg-Warner – er rather – the World Cup Trophy!

Moneyball

“How can you not be romantic about football – er – baseball?”, sorry Billy Beane. Baseball may be the USA’s favourite past time but even Americans can’t resist the growing lure of (association) football. And if the beauty of the game doesn’t win them over, capitalism works just fine. Social commentary aside, North America is only following the trend set by the European big wigs; that is, to just throw money at their problems.

 

Perhaps my obscure reference to a baseball movie went over a few heads, even if the movie and this piece have the same name. So, let’s try again with something more readily recognized; “money money money/ always sunny/ in a rich man’s world”. Certainly, that one got the message across. Moneyball did pretty well at the box office, but more people probably know that line from ABBA’s hit song “Money Money Money”. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that the chairpeople at clubs like Manchester City, PSG and Real Madrid sing that song in the shower before work; such is the absurdity of their spending. “All things I could do/ if I had a little money/ it’s a rich man’s world” – they hum that part in the car, and it’s likely plastered on the walls of the accounting department.

Back to the aforementioned romance; football (and sports as a whole) is one of the universal languages. The game knows no boundaries and can thrive in the most adverse conditions, making it accessible. You get so wrapped up in the emotion of it all, you lose all sense of time, your problems beyond the realm of football just drift away for 90 minutes or longer. Just as you’re entranced by playing the game for yourself, you’re spellbound by watching your favourite players and teams play. It’s even more beautiful when one of your favourite players plays for your favourite team. You wish them nothing but joy and happiness and knowing that their success brings you complete satisfaction, you almost obsessively fascinate on their goings-on. If they get injured, you read the latest news on their recovery. When things don’t click on the field for them, you wonder if everything is alright off it. You smile a little too hard when they share a joke or seem to be enjoying themselves. All while you’re wearing the team jersey with their name in the back. If you have a significant other, they probably hope for that kind of attention every once in a while. But then you wake up one day and ESPN is reporting that some homewrecker wants to pay copious amounts of money to break your heart and buy your favourite player away.

In today’s football climate, much like yearly global temperatures, conditions are escalating to inconceivable heights. Football is often thought of as poetic, in keeping with the theme of romance and beauty of the game; but anthropogenic is certainly a new one. I may be overstating it a bit, but you can’t help but compare how as the transfer market spirals out of control the global temperatures also rise. Never mind global warming, the money being flaunted around in football is the real reason the ice caps are melting. (It isn’t really, please recycle.) In truth, we have had ridiculous price stamps and release clauses on the game’s best for years, it was only a matter of time before someone actually paid these prices.

Barcelona has been a team synonymous with best in the world and has been home to some of the legends of the game. Greats like Johan Cruyff and Rivaldo as well as modern icons like Xavi Hernandez and Ronaldinho have all donned the Blaugrana and none the least arguably the greatest player in history Lionel Messi. Without doubt, from Barca, one can only move backwards, or at best; laterally. Neymar Jr. may only be 25 but he is (or was) already primed to be a part of the “greatest ever” conversation when it comes up in a decade or so. Personally, I’m not as awestruck by statistics as most, but they will look a little less compelling in Ligue 1 with PSG than they would have if he stayed in La Liga with Barca.

Of course, football is serious business; globally, it’s nothing short of a billion-dollar industry. It would stand to reason then that elite clubs would pay top dollar for the best players. In the above supposititious scenario, the ludicracy of the money being thrown around trounces romance, but in reality, it borders on insanity. With revenue generated from all things football related in recent times, it is to be expected that there would be some rippling effects. But ripples have become tidal waves. If I were to trace this phenomenon back to a single point (a single transfer); it would be Real Madrid’s acquisition of Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspurs back in 2013. Before Bale, the most expensive player in the world was already at Madrid, in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo who cost them 80 million euros from Manchester United. Of course, at the time that figure was, while justifiable in truth, an outrageous fee. Now though, 80M seems to be the going price for world stars (on black Friday). But Tottenham differed from United when Madrid came calling, they wanted to keep hold of a player who was ready and willing to move on. Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United as whole, chose not to stand in the way of Ronaldo’s eventual legacy, instead they just wanted the right price for such a precious asset. Spurs however are notoriously difficult hagglers, Madrid however, didn’t need a price check, they knew they could afford it. So, Madrid got their man, that much we all knew, but at what cost? Proof to how preposterous the transfer fee was, the details remained shrouded in mystery for months. That is until the Spanish tax man asked ‘politely’. He cost €100.8 million (£85.1 million)! There have been plenty of high profile and expensive transfers before then and since, few however, have broken the 100 million-mark, with Philippe Coutinho being the latest (Neymar cost in excess of 200 million). Thus, began the age of “Moneyball”.

Once upon a time professional football was little more than a glorified weekend activity for some above averagely fit guys, paid moderate wages (at best) and the main driving force for the players was love of the game. These days though, the game is unrecognizable from those times. For the most part, this is a positive criticism; players are fitter, the game is more exciting and the game has become a more global commodity. While the injection of money via the business side of the game has allowed for these developments, it has somewhat shrouded the actual football element at times. In this way, some teams play a different game altogether, they play “moneyball” as opposed to football. The movie Moneyball is an underdog story of the change in fortunes of a certain baseball team. What I’m referring to is not as heartwarming.

All teams would have their mantras and go about their businesses in their own way. You have organizations that pride themselves as developers of young talent, there are others that have particular mandates. For example, in Italy Internazionale (Inter) traditionally sought out global talent to bring into the Italian league and as such usually have more foreign players than Italians in their first team. Across the border there’s Athletic Bilbao of Spain. Their policy was to only use players who hail from the Basque Country – the region of Spain Bilbao is from. A new aged policy, given the cashflow some clubs now have, is to just buy any and everything they need. That’s the ‘moneyball’ I’m referring to. Clubs like Paris san Germain (PSG) of France and Manchester City of England represent two of the worst perpetrators of this contamination. City have spent in excess of £200 million last summer alone. Manager, Pep Guardiola identified defence as problem last season, notably fullback positions. Simple solution, go out and spend nearly £130 million on fullbacks. That should fix it. No coaching required, don’t promote a prospective talent from the youth academy or anything; just buy whoever happens to be the flavour of the month (or season) and problem solved.

Still, clubs are trying to win silverware, and you’re more likely to win if you have the best players, so there’s at least some method to the madness. The clubs and their officials get a pass for their ambitions, in essence they appeal to players with lavish pay cheques (and a chance at winning trophies). The players then are just as much culpable as the clubs. It would be pointless spouting the “no loyalty” and “players are mercenaries” talk as that’s just sentimental prattle. That being said, it does leave a bad taste in the mouth when the best players can literally be bought out so simply. When a young promising player leaves their hometown team to move to the best team in the country for an extravagant fee, it’s not as offensive to the senses. The likes of Kylian Mbappe for example, recently moved to Paris Saint Germain on loan before making it permanent come summer for £180 million. But when an experienced campaigner falls victim to the global greed of football these days; it makes for an upsetting spectacle.

The justification aside, and they do exist; the romance is gone. The game has changed in every sense of the word. The beautiful game of football in all its vibrancy, full of colour; has become merely varying shades of green, no longer football, but ‘moneyball’.

Week in Review: Matchweek 3

A weekly roundup of the games in the Premier League from Matchweek 1 – 38.

The third round of games got underway this weekend at the home of AFC Bournemouth as they hosted Manchester City in the early game on Saturday. The hosts still looking for their first point started well with a change in formation proving effective at nullifying City’s attack, at the other their own attack was working over City’s defence. The pressure was telling as The Cherries took the lead in the 13th minute in spectacular fashion. Midfielder Charlie Daniels rifled home Vincent Kompany’s headed clearance on the short hop, from an acute angle outside the box. Failing to double the lead through Jermaine Defoe, Ederson’s reflective save proved vital as Gabriel Jesus (21’) put City back on level terms. Jesus started the attack with a quick free kick before David Silva slid through his teammate from him to slot home despite being under pressure. Bournemouth had been in the game in an impressive showing and seemed set for a point until Raheem Sterling’s dagger in the 97th minute. The England international hit a deflected shot that looped into the net to steal 3 points from an unlucky Bournemouth side.

Two more teams looking for a first win, Crystal Palace and Swansea City squared off at Selhurst Park. Visitors, Swansea came away with 2 unanswered goals and 3 points as Palace continues the search for goals and points. Tammy Abraham (44’) and Jordan Ayew (48’) secured the points for The Swans, meanwhile The Eagles, under new manager, Frank de Boer are struggling to implement the Dutchman’s philosophy, with 3 defeats in 3.

Huddersfield Town’s start to life continues to be a positive for the newcomers. Playing host to Southampton who, like Town, are unbeaten; the home side would be happier of the two to come away with a point. The game ended 0-0 but not for a lack of trying. The Saints had an early chance when Nathan Redmond’s try for the far post rolled wide when he really should have scored. They also had late chance to grab the 3 points but for a clearance off the line. Ryan Betrand’s header was cleared off the line in stoppage time. Huddersfield had a plethora of chances that they failed to convert either via their own inability or excellent defending. Points shared in the end.

Watford and Brighton &Hove Albion played out a goalless draw as well in their game. The main talking point coming in the 24th minute when Miguel Britos was sent off for a dangerous challenge on Anthony Knockaert. The Seagulls couldn’t turn the man advantage into 3 points however. They managed to hit the post twice, once through Knockaert. Watford moved to 5 points from while Albion picked up their first Premier League points.

Under pressure bosses Rafa Benitez, of Newcastle United, and West Ham United’s Slaven Bilic went into Saturday’s game on 0 points from 2 games. That run continued for the visitors as Newcastle won 3-0 against a West Ham side lacking any driving force. Joselu marked first start with a goal in the 36th minute; after tenacious work from Matt Ritchie winning back the ball before crossing to Ciaran Clark to power his header home. Controversy as Aleksandar Mitrovic got the third after rounding Joe Hart to score into an open net; Mitrovic left an elbow on Manuel Lanzini minutes earlier – a red card offense that wasn’t given.

In the late game on Saturday Manchester United looked to maintain a perfect start to the campaign as they welcomed Leicester City. United were off to the races from the first whistle and began brightly. Leicester weren’t to be bested, at least until 70th minute. It should have been earlier though, as Juan Mata’s goal following a rebound from Kasper Schmeichel was ruled out for offside. Replies showed the Spaniard was level when Romelu Lukaku’s shot was fumbled by Schmeichel. The Dane was finally beaten, with a few excellent saves in between, by substitute Marcus Rashford. His industry won the corner, swung in by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, that found Rashford unmarked in the box and he directed a shot at goal from close range to break the deadlock. Then in the 82nd minute the other two subs linked up for the second. Jesse Lingard, making a first appearance for the season, set up Marouane Fellaini to steer the ball into the goal from about 3 yards to seal the victory.

Reigning champions Chelsea looked comfortable all through their game against Everton. The Toffees looked like a team that played 3 games in 6 days as Chelsea romped to a 2-0 lead before the half. Strikes from Cesc Fàbregas (27’) and Álvaro Morata (40’) and effectively ended the game as contest. Fàbregas played a quick 1, 2 with Morata be stabbing home for the first. Morata then headed home a superb cross from César Azpilicueta as Spaniards once again linked up for The Blues. Shrugging off a late flurry by Everton Chelsea breezed to their first home victory this season, now 6 points from 2 games, seemingly back on the right track.

Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion shared the spoils as their game at the Bet365 Stadium ended 1-1. The best of the action before the break came from a Kurt Zouma shot that deflected off Gareth Barry and was appearing to loop into the net; keeper, Ben Foster back-peddled enough to tip it over. The goals came in the second half from Jay Rodriguez (West Brom) in the 61st and Peter Crouch (Stoke) in the 77th following a defensive gifting veteran the simplest of finishes. West Brom missed the chance for 9 points from 3 but remain unbeaten so far.

Tottenham Hotspur were primed for some fortuity as Burnley came to town; potential just the team Spurs would hope for as they looked to break their Wembley hoodoo. The Clarets were resolute against a Tottenham side that one expected to dominate. If a record of 1 win in 11 games as Wembley wasn’t bad enough, there was also Harry Kane’s apparent ineptitude in the month of August. The Englishman was typically industrious at the weekend, but to no avail. The breakthrough came after the half from compatriot Dele Ali, who need two bites of the cherry before finally scoring. You would have been forgiven for thinking that was that, but with just seconds to go; an inexplicable lapse in concentration defensively let Chris Wood in. The New Zealander powered home from close range under pressure to rescue a point for Burnley in the death. Spurs were unbeaten at home last season, they are now 0 for 2.

Finally, in the marquee match of the weekend; Arsenal travelled to Liverpool in a game that promises excitement. There was plenty of that; but only one time was enjoying in. After The Reds supporters finished their obligatory rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, you get the sense Arsenal players were looking for the songbook to try and learn the song; because the certainly didn’t look interested in playing football. When Roberto Firmino headed home a Joe Gomez cross in the 17th minute Arsenal still looked likely to nick a goal despite a sub-par performance for most of the half. When Sadio Mané scored 5 mins from the interval, there already seemed no way back. Goals from Mohamed Salah, 57’ (rather comically) and Daniel Sturridge, 77’, ensured the victory. Meanwhile Arsenal hadn’t mustered a shot on target all game in yet another abject performance from the Gunners, now with 2 straight losses. Liverpool on the other hand are going well and look to maintain their currently level to come somewhere near the top by season’s end.

 

We’re eager to see what the next match day brings and how teams respond to the events of the preceding week.

Week in Review: Matchweek 2

A weekly roundup of the games in the Premier League from Matchweek 1 – 38.

After a frantic opening weekend, clubs lined up for the second round of action which kicked off in Wales with Swansea City playing hosts to Manchester United. The game started well for the hosts, but for a Phil Jones header that hit the crossbar following a Juan Mata free kick, Swansea managed to repel most of United’s attacks. The Red Devils got the breakthrough just before the half. A corner met by Paul Pogba’s header was saved before the rebound was stabbed home by Eric Baily. After the break the game followed a similar pattern and not much quarter was given by either side until the 80th minute. Substitute Anthony Martial dribbled past a few before the ball reached Henrikh Mkhitaryan who played in Romelu Lukaku for a simple finish. Mkhitaryan then played provider again as he slipped Pogba in about 2 minutes later. Pogba started the move, intercepting a pass and continued his run, to finish with a neat dink over the keeper. Martial wrapped up proceedings with a 4th in 4 minutes for United as the Frenchman coolly finished after beating two players.

Watford travelled to AFC Bournemouth and it was the visitors who left the happier. In a closely contested match Watford managed to carve out more meaningful chances that had to had been taken eventually. That came in the second half as new signing Richarlison poked home after his initial shot was saved but not gathered. While still on the ground the Brazilian managed to fling a leg at it and gave the Hornets the lead in the 73rd minute. This was followed by superb strike by substitute Étienne Capoue (86’). One of the goals of the season, so far; Capoue collected the clearance following a corner 25 yards out, before hitting it on the half volley finding the bottom left corner.

A new look Burnley dominated in possession and created some decent chances against an as ever defensive West Bromwich Albion side. The game was ultimately decided by a lively 20-minute cameo by Welshman Hal Robson-Kanu. Having come off the bench Robson-Kanu made West Brom appear more threatening and latched onto a flick on quicker than his marker, he then shrugged on his defender and finished emphatically in the 71st. He was then sent off 12 minutes later for what was deemed a flailing elbow.

Premier League newcomers Brighton &Hove Albion continued their tough start to life. The Seagulls lost 2-0 to title favourites Manchester City and again this weekend to Leicester City. Riyad Mahrez’s 1st minute shot could have been dealt with better by Albion keeper Mat Ryan; Shinji Okazaki made no mistake putting in the rebound. In an easy win for the Foxes, Harry Maguire rose highest to head home a Mahrez corner (54’), putting last week’s 4-3 loss to Arsenal behind them.

In an admittedly forgettable game, Liverpool bounced back from their 3-3 draw at Vicarage Road last week to win 1-0 against Crystal Palace. Palace have a decent record at Anfield in recent years and hoped for a favourable result after a shock 3-0 defeat to Huddersfield at home last week. Both teams were guilty of wasting opportunities but it was Liverpool through a Sadio Mané goal that proved the difference. Mane kept moving and was rewarded for his industry with a fumbled ball rolling through for him and he rightly prodded in the ball in 73rd minute.

By stark contrast a dramatic game at St. Mary’s Stadium saw hosts Southampton win 3-2 over West Ham United. The Saints hadn’t scored a goal at home in 6 games and finally did so when Manolo Gabbiadini slotted past Joe Hart in goal in the 11th minute. They followed that up with a Dusan Tadic penalty in the 38th minute; the ball actually hit Hart and ricocheted high into the net. A double from new boy Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, first in the 45th then again the 74th brought the Hammers level, despite a red card for record signing Marko Arnautovic in the 33rd. The game seemed destined for a stalemate but a last-minute penalty conceded by Pablo Zabeltta (another new recruit) was converted by Charlie Austin leaving West Ham and their manager Slaven Bilić feeling hard done by.

In Saturday’s late game Arsenal faced a difficult trip to Stoke City’s Bet365 Stadium. Stoke fended off a relentless Arsenal attack to snatch a 1-0 win. Jesé Rodriguez may be late to the party but joined the debutant scorer club as he finished smartly in the 47th. Arsenal bombarded Stoke’s goal with shot after shot. Despite an overwhelming dominance, there was an air of futility about their attempts. Ultimately, a disallowed goal (rightly called but amazingly so) was the closest they came to an equalizer.

In a fairly even encounter Huddersfield looked more convincing and came away deserving winners in their first home game. The goal by James Mooy was good enough to win any game but especially one lacking quality. Mooy produced a neat curling strike from the edge of the box with the time he was afforded. Two wins in two for the newcomers in contrast to 2 losses in 2 for Newcastle who the Championship last season to be promoted.

The standout fixture this weekend saw champions Chelsea face off against their closest rivals last season, Tottenham Hotspurs. Added significance was the venue; Wembley Stadium. In the first Premier League game to be played in the English national stadium, Chelsea ran out 2-1 victors. Going ahead in the 24th minute via an exquisite Marcos Alonso free kick, Chelsea were then pinned down for majority of the game until substitute Michy Batshuayi put the ball into his own net just 3 minutes after coming on. An unyielding Tottenham side finally got some reward for their efforts and seemed set for draw. But their keeper Hugo Lloris attempted an ill-advised throw to Victor Wanyama who did no better. Having won back the ball Alonso made a lung-busting final charge and fire a shot at Lloris who couldn’t sort his feet and let the ball through. Alonso’s second proved the winner and Spurs’ Wembley hoodoo continues.

In the first Monday game of the season Manchester City and Everton squared off. City’s attack seemed irresistible for most of the game and it was all the Toffees could do to keep them at bay. At the other end, Dominic Calvert-Lewin had the lonely role of being the out ball for Everton. It worked a treat though as he set up Wayne Rooney in the 35th against the run of play. With a simple placement, Rooney becomes only the second player to score 200 Premier League goals second only to Alan Shearer. The game was far from over however. Kyle Walker was sent off for a second bookable challenge, adjudged to have elbowed Calvert-Lewin in the 44th. The second half, even with a man less, City looked dangerous throughout and finally penetrated when an attempted headed clearance set up Raheem Sterling to one time a volley into the net. To consummate the equality of the teams, Morgan Schneiderlin got his second booking of the game and sent was off 2 minutes from time. In the end, the points were shared after a breathless game.

 

We’re eager to see what the next match day brings and how teams respond to the events of the preceding week.

Changing Tides

As the major European leagues return a common thread among them is the sense that times are a changing. Conventional wisdom suggests that preseason is never a clear indicator of things to come; so as competitive football returns we’ll be able to tell whether the general consensus is an uneducated hunch or prophetic assumptions.

 

France:

Beginning with Ligue 1, we start with the what’s less of a wave and more of a ripple. Last season AS Monaco stormed to a first Ligue 1 title in 17 years. Les Rouges et Blancs (The Red and Whites) steam rolled most teams who came before them including having the biggest home and away wins that season beating Nancy and Metz 6-0 and 7-0 respectively. Their team, comprised of young exciting talent were the surprise package of the French league as they also made it to semi-final stage of the Champions League. Monaco had usurped Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) as the most dominant French team that season. But with much of the key players from that sided either already departed or seemingly on their way out, plus PSG’s acquisition of Neymar from Barcelona; the Parisians can expect to reclaim top spot this season.

Germany:

There has been more of a splash in Germany than France, but it remains to be seen how big a splash and the subsequent waves are. Bayern Munich has reign mostly unopposed in the Bundesliga for years and have dominated since the turn of the decade; only 4 other teams have won the league since the 1999/2000 season. Borussia Dortmund won the league 3 times in that time including back-to-back in 2010/11 and 2011/12. Dortmund have posed the biggest threat to Bayern’s monopoly in that time. The two still stand apart from the chasing pack; but the pack has changed (the splash). Traditional powerhouses have fallen by the wayside. Werder Bremen, VfB Stuttgart and VfL Wolfsburg are the other teams to have won the league since 2000. Stuttgart spent last season in Bundesliga 2 after being relegated. Wolfsburg for two years running had to play in the relegation playoffs – a two-legged playoff between 3rd bottom in Bundesliga and 3rd place from Bundesliga 2 for a spot in the Bundesliga. The new chasers are Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig. The latter had a Leicester City-esque season finishing in second coming from near-obscurity the season before. Hoffenheim however, seem likely to sustain their presence, a debut European campaign this season will aid them to that end. Intriguingly both Dortmund and Bayern appear waning forces, in this period of (apparent) vulnerability will gap be further reduced?

Italy:

When Juventus win 6 consecutive Serie A titles it’s hard to say there’s any significant change in the dynamic. Juve lost defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves but the well has hardly run dry. The change instead comes from the surge of challengers; not too dissimilar to Germany. Admittedly, the battle for second would probably be hotter than the one for the title, as not much evidence suggests that the Bianconeri will struggle too much. Still, with the likes of AS Roma, Napoli, Lazio and the resurgence of the Milan clubs; the unprecedented free reign Juventus have enjoyed may come to an end soon. Roma finished second last season and continue to grow from strength to strength. Lazio beat Juventus in the Supercoppa Italiana on Sunday (August 13,2017) and finished 5th in the league for straight passage to the Europa League. Napoli have flirted with the top 3 for several years and maintain a presence a in European competition. But perhaps the strongest currents can be found at the San Siro this season. Internazionale and A.C. Milan and have both had new money invested in the clubs. Milan, more recent of the two, have begun their rebirth (something I’ve already addressed.) Inter began their rebuilding the preceding season and now need to consolidate to make a run for European places; and like the others, eventually knock Juventus off their perch.

Spain:

La Liga has always been something of a duopoly with Real Madrid and Barcelona maintaining an iron grip on the top two spots in Spain; except for a year of Diego Simone magic that saw Atletico Madrid steal the title away from them both. Nothing is particular strange about one or the other taking the ascendency every now and then. As it is, we’ve waded through the rapids of Madrid’s rise already, now we’re floating in the Real distributaries. The significance of Madrid taking over from Barca however is, the Catalan club appears to have begun sinking. They recently begrudgingly sold Neymar to PSG (for a world record fee at least); but they retain the services of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi as part of that “MSN” front three. Meanwhile, Madrid have kept their fabled “BBC”. Both Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were thought to be on the way out once; but seems unlikely now, and Karim Benzema continues to be relevant at the Bernabéu. The problem Barca face goes beyond Neymar’s departure. The once infallible ensemble they had have left or are fading and a backup plan obviously had never been discussed. Madrid by stark contrast have a team for the present and the future, and the perfect manager to lead them both. Barca may not be shipwrecked just yet, but the hull has been reached and they’re taking on water rapidly.

England:

The Premier League is widely thought of as the best league in the world because its competitivity. Several clubs are touted as title challengers in England, certainly if Leicester can do it, everyone has a fair shot. Now with the money rolling in from TV rights, the top clubs are swimming in cash and can use this monetary foundation to level the playing field. Once upon a time there was talk of the “big four” – conversations have become the “top six” or even seven now. All of Manchester(s) City and United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool believe they’re in with a shout for the title this season. The fight for European places have become a secondary battle that is just as enthralling. Even relegation is not beyond the realm of reality if you’re not sitting in those places. Last season as many as 10 teams were trying to avoid the drop. Soon 40 points won’t be the magic number for survival, or conversely, it could become even harder to achieve. When Leicester won the league, the giants were sleeping and they slipped in like sly Foxes and took the title. This season by contrast, the giants have reawakened and they are to fight each other for supremacy. Similarly, about 4 teams are vying for the final European spot, Everton look the favourites, but that would be just as hotly contested.

 

It’s been a long time, a long time coming, but I knew a change was gonna come. As in everything; all good things must come to an end, football is no exception. Constant ebbs and flows is what makes the game so interesting and as we witness the changing tides we wait to see who gets stranded at sea and who can stay on solid ground.

Week in Review: Matchweek 1

A weekly roundup of the games in the Premier League from Match Day 1 – 38.

The Premier League returned last weekend to bring back some meaning to our weekends. This season, the 26th season of the Premier League, kicked off on a Friday for the first time in its history. To mark the occasion Arsenal welcomed Leicester City at their Emirates Stadium home. In an exhilarating game that served as a harbinger of things to come, a topsy-turvy game ended 4-3 in the Gunners’ favour. New boy Alexandre Lacazette marked his Premier League debut with a goal in the 2nd minute with a snap header from an innocuous ball into the box. The Foxes replied in short order through Shinji Okazaki before Jamie Vardy gave them the lead. Danny Welbeck equalised before the half. Vardy with a second made it 3-2 and Leicester seemed in control despite mounting pressure from Arsenal. Substitutes Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud scored in the 83rd and 85th minute respectively to seal the win.

The floodgates still ajar, Liverpool and Watford kicked off Saturday’s activities at Vicarge Road with a 3-3 draw. Watford’s new manager Marco Silva, who impressed with relegated Hull City last season, couldn’t ask much more from his new charges. Despite leading twice through strikes from Stefano Okaka (8’) and Abdoulaye Doucouré (32’) separated by a Sadio Mané goal (29’); The Hornets performed admirably. Liverpool on the other hand will feel disappointed, as hopefuls for top 4 should be beating a Watford side that would (at best) be lumbering midtable come May. The Reds had the better of second half as Roberto Firmino converted a 55th minute penalty after Watford keep Heurelho Gomes felled Mohamed Salah. The latter, making his debut, gave his new team the lead in two minutes. Miguel Britos secured a point for Watford in added time after a scramble in the box following a set piece saw Britos head home from point-blank range. The Uruguayan was in an offside position though, but the goal stood as the officials were likely blindsided by the confusion in the box leading to the goal.

The goals kept coming in as newly promoted Huddersfield Town beat Crystal Palace 3-0 at Palace’s Selhurst Park. Palace shot themselves in the foot in the 23rd as Joel Ward turned in a poor cross into his own net. Steve Mounié joined the goal scoring debutants with a brace of his own. First a thumping header (26’) and then slotting home in the 78th minute on the counter killed off The Eagles.

Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion squeaked past AFC Bouremouth at home. Egyptian Ahmed Hegazi’s 31st minute was the only goal of the game, another to score on his debut but he’s the only defender among the bunch.

Elsewhere at Goodison Park, in a debut of sorts, Wayne Rooney brought a housewarming gift with him back to his old stomping ground. The Englishman put his trade mark on the match by heading home neatly to ease Everton past Stoke City. Rooney started the move before bursting into a vacant area in the box to meet an excellent cross from youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

In the standout game of the weekend, champions Chelsea were beaten at home 3-2 by Burnley. Sean Dyche’s side were given assistance by Blues captain Gary Cahill who went flying in, studs up, and received his marching orders in the 14th minute. Down a man, Chelsea were down a goal ten minutes later as Sam Vokes’ scuffed shot crept pass Thibaut Courtois in goal. The impetus now with The Clarets, they kept applying pressure to a reeling Chelsea defence as something of a set piece routine saw left wing-back Stephen Ward play his way into the box before unleashing a superb strike from the left side of the box and bulge the net. Now 2-0 down Chelsea shipped a 3rd as yet another short free kick was taken before a cross was swung in from deep finding the unmarked Vokes again, this time for a purer connection (with his head). Chelsea boss Antonio Conte rallied his troops and they came out swinging. Alvaro Morata came off the bench to score his first goal for his new side. Before the comeback could really get going, Cesc Fabregas picked up a second yellow and was sent off. Now down to 9 men Burnley sat back as Chelsea piled on the pressure. Ultimately a ruled-out goal by Morata (who was offside) and a David Luiz goal, assisted by Morata was all they could muster.

In the late kick on Saturday title favourites Manchester City overcame a resilient Bright & Hove Albion to win 2-0 away. But for a few slick passing moves, the game didn’t feature much of the flair we expect from the Citizens, but a Sergio Agüero goal and a Lewis Dunk own goal saw them through. Despite a relatively dour performance they still managed to pick up 3 points, the hallmark of potential champions.

Sunday began with Tottenham Hotspurs trip to St. James’ Park to face Newcastle United who made a quick return to the league, spending just one season in the championship. Spurs, like City have lofty ambitions and like City, were being pegged back by lesser opposition. The breakthrough came through a stupid red card for Newcastle captain Jonjo Shelvey, paving the way to Spurs’ 2-0 victory. A goal from Dele Ali and Ben Davies saw the visitors get 3 points in a difficult away game.

Another title hopeful, Manchester United wrapped things up this weekend; doing so in style, sending a signal of intent to their rivals. Not to be upstaged by the other debutants this weekend Romelu Lukaku put two past West Ham United’s Joe Hart, on loan from Manchester City. His first, assisted by Marcus Rashford was fine finish from a tough angle. Set through, Lukaku raced onto the ball and hit a hard shot that hit the inside of the post and went in. His and United’s second came from a free kick delivered by Henrikh Mkhitaryan as the big Belgian nodded home. United fans had more to cheer as Anthony Martial came on to score United’s 3rd with a tidy finish to the far post before assisting Paul Pogba for the 4th. In a dominant home performance by the Red Devils, Slaven Bilić’s West Ham were never in it and United look a force to be reckoned with this season.

 

We’re eager to see what the next matchweek brings and how teams respond to the events of the preceding week.  

One Last Bolt: Forever

When a player or athlete breaks onto the scene and does something unprecedented, the sporting world takes notice (particularly of that of their respective discipline). When that player or athlete is consistent, their nation pays attention. When that player or athlete breaks a record, and does something no one else has before, they make their nation proud. When that player or athlete consistently breaks records; the world doesn’t want it to end. Throughout sporting history, there have been great competitors. Athletes who push the boundaries of their sport and suspend our sense of belief. They do things seemingly beyond the realm of possibility and for their fans and those whose depend on them, they can do no wrong. Not often do we find ourselves in the presence of such great sportsmen that evolve their respective trade. In an era featuring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, LeBron James, Mohamed (Mo) Farah, Chris Gayle, Kumar Sangakkara and company; it takes something special outshine these sporting superstars. Nothing short of a force of nature can compare to their influence on the world. But, if we’re talking about a blinding light, that also happen to be a force of nature, certainly lightning qualifies. How fitting then that the greatest athlete of our generation is named Usain Bolt.

It’s also fitting that seemingly as quick as Usain emerged, he’s gone again like a flash of – well you get the idea. There’s no great need for a narrative of how great he has been, to his country, the sport and individually for what he has achieved. Instead, let’s celebrate his swansong performance. By no means a stellar Bolt showing but, as other sporting legends who have come and gone before him can tell you, the curtains do come down eventually and sometimes they do so unceremoniously.

Since the 16th IAAF World Championships began, it has been talked up as the final hurrah for Usain Bolt, part of the most elaborate victory lap in history; One Last Bolt. Nowhere near his peak, admittedly, his performances were far from vintage. But a solitary bronze medal isn’t the worse way for a legend to bow out. A comparison constantly floated around during the competition was Bolt’s similarity (in reputation) to the late great Muhamed Ali. But even Ali had a poor end to his fantastic career. If Bolt’s inability to finish his last race was tragic, Ali’s end was catastrophic. In a back and forth will he won’t he saga re his retirement, Ali entered more than a few ill-advised fights, biting off more than he can chew. In the aftermath of one particularly ugly fight against Larry Holmes, Boxing writer Richie Giachetti said of the fight “awful … the worst sports event I ever had to cover”. It was a one-sided bout that inevitably ended in Holmes’ favour. To add insult to injury, the pummeling The Champ (Ali) took was said to have contributed to his Parkinson’s syndrome. At least for Bolt it was a hamstring strain (apparently), now, I’m no doctor but I don’t think a pulled hamstring is linked to terminal injuries last I checked.

As a phenomenal an athlete; as he was, doing the unthinkable, it was hard (for some) to grasp the concept that he was a natural specimen. With doping issues cropping up in the sport intermittently, Bolt faced his doubters who assumed he must be doing “something”. In truth, it’s actually a little ridiculous when you think about it. How can a man run 100 meters in nine and a half seconds? I dare you to get into a crouching start and dash like a bat out hell for 10 seconds. I guarantee you wouldn’t get further than 65 metres. It’s something to marvel at really. But I read somewhere that Caribbean people through their genes and their anatomy are built for running. I harp back to my glaring lack of the letters ‘MD’ behind my name; but I certainly buy into that based on the article I read, and my own observations subsequently. Back on topic now; another sporting legend once vehemently defended his name countless times, saying very clearly, he was not a drug cheat. Unfortunately, he was lying the whole time; I’m talking about Lance Armstrong – the guy who “confessed” to doping years after he won a record 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions. The American (former) cyclist said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013, he didn’t think he was cheating. Since the denotative meaning of the word is “to gain an unfair advantage” in his mind he figured “well, if everyone’s else doing it, it’s fine”. His mother must have been so disappointed. His legacy and reputation has since been tarnished and many of his awards have been rescinded and all his achievements since 1998 have been made null and void. Bolt can rest assured that his legacy will be intact because he is certifiably a clean (if unbelievably so) athlete.

As my final reference to sporting legends of old I reach way back into the archives. Australian Don Bradman is largely considered as the greatest batsman in cricket history. Without getting into a cricket lesson for the uninformed, Bradman is considered the most prolific batsman ever with a batting average of 99.94 upon retiring. To put that into perspective; I mentioned Chris Gayle among great sportsmen of this generation, both he and Bradman share the record for the most triple centuries (300+ runs) in test cricket. Gayle has a batting average of 42.18; less than half of Bradman’s. In his last match, The Don (as he was called) needed just 4 runs for an even batting average of 100. Simple enough for someone who scored 6996 runs, averaging about 100 every time he steps out. He was bowled the second ball he faced, he didn’t bother to trouble the scorers. That wasn’t according to the script. But if Bolt fears we will forget what he’s done just because his last innings was a duck, he’s in for a pleasant surprise. “He reminded Australians that they were capable of great things in their own right. “He was the greatest, nobody will be anywhere near him. He was a hero to me as a young child and he remained a hero to me all of my life.” That’s the former Australian Prime Minister John Howard speaking about Bradman. You replace “Australians” with “Jamaicans” and that echoes the exact sentiment of the whole of Jamaica who grew up watching his legend unfold and indeed that of the athletes who raced beside him in the World Champs this year.

 

I’ve rambled on long enough, I’ll give his name a rest. He’s certainly earned some r & r, but knowing him, it won’t be long before he’s on the beach somewhere in Portland hosting a party with his friends, laughing and dancing. For reference, please his CV. Truly, there’s no need for poetic, fairytale goodbyes. He is simply, and will always be a legend no matter what had happened. #OneLastBolt forever.

Everton: 2017/18 Preview

Predicted Finish: 7th

The Toffees have been trying to make strides in the league in recent years, strides that would take them into European competition. Last season (not for the first time) they achieved this objective; with new manager Ronald Koeman leading Everton to a 7th place finish; good enough for a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds. For a project still very much in the developmental stages, a 7th place finish is a favourable outcome especially given they appeared less than convincing in some key games and dropped point they probably should have claimed.

Ronald Koeman joined Everton in June of last year, after a respectable stint at Southampton. The Dutchman was brought in to steer the ship as the Merseyside club sets sail into this new era. With the money from the lucrative TV rights deal for Premier League clubs plus their own new investor, things look to be on the up at Goodison Park. In fact, especially if results go their way in Europe, Everton faithfuls can feasibly expect stadium renovations in the near future. Before then acquiring players would be the order of the day for any progressive club, Everton have certainly followed that pattern. Not just the number, but the quality of players coming is promising; to create a blend of promising young talent and experienced campaigners. The list includes: future England no.1 Jordan Pickford (23); Manchester United youth product Michael Keane (24); last season’s captain of an impressive Ajax side, Davy Klassen (24); and starting forward in Spain’s runners-up performance in the 2017 U-21 European Championship, Sandro Ramírez (22). Another ‘new’ recruit coming in this transfer window is Wayne Rooney. After ascending to the apex of football with United, Rooney returned to his hometown club to help usher his beloved Everton into this age. For proliferating clubs, just as important as bringing new players on board, is lightening the load. The offloading process began when Koeman came in last season and continued this year. Last season players like Leon Osman were released, this season players like Aroune Koné were released and the likes of Tom Cleverly and Aiden McGeady were sold

For more than a few reasons there are high expectations at Goodison this season and for the future. In a few years, the Toffees hope to be in among the conversation of the best in the league, and at least make their appearance in continental competition a more regular occurrence. Until then, cracking the top 4 would be best they can hope for. If you were a betting person, not being odds on favourites with an outside chance, the good money is in believing in their potential. But more it’s probable that they will finish in one of the European spots, even finishing 7th again wouldn’t be stagnation as the competition for these spots is sure to heat up. The likes of Southampton and West Ham will be sure keep the pressure on, all season.