Five-a-side TOTW: April 29th 2017

Picking an eleven is hard; picking just five is even harder.

We are almost over the line. This weeks five-a-side TOTW includes just the five matches. Chelsea maintained their four point lead over Tottenham with a 4-2 win over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal left it late and needed the help of a Robert Huth own goal in order to seal three important points against Leicester City. Christian Eriksen’s ‘golazo’ was the difference in Tottenham’s match against a resurgent Crystal Palace. Middlesbrough won for the first time 2017 to all but condemn Sunderland to Championship football next season. And on Thursday the Manchester derby ended goalless.

Goalkeeper – Brad Guzan

Very much seen as the back up to Victor Valdés, the ex-Aston Villa keeper has had to accept a bit-part role. In fact, Wednesday’s 1-0 win over fellow strugglers Sunderland was only the 10th time that the American had appeared in a Middlesbrough shirt this season. Guzan looked assured between the sticks, and made an impressive four saves. The win was Boro’s first since in 2017. They had not claimed a Premier League win since the 3-0 hammering of Swansea City way back mid-December. That miserable run has all but confirmed that they will be playing their football in the Championship next season.

The Stopper – Eric Bailly

Injuries have not helped the young Ivorian settle. After starting this season as first choice and appearing in 13 of United’s first 15 matches, it seemed as though United manager, José Mourinho, had found his rock at the back. Since injuring his knee in United’s 4-0 defeat against champions elect Chelsea in late October, the ex-Villareal man has only appeared in 19 out of a possible 42 matches. He has started in United’s last nine games, a run that has seen them keep five clean sheets and only concede four goals. In the 0-0 draw over Manchester rivals, City, Bailly was absolutely superb. His speed, strength and reading of the game really shone through. If he can remain fit and injury free, United will have a serious player on their hands.

The Midfielder – Cesc Fàbregas

He’s in, he’s out. Poor old Cesc Fàbregas. He just can’t seem to get a solid run of games together. It is is true that he is competing for places with the PFA Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté, and the vastly improved Nemanja Matic. Nonetheless, the ex-Arsenal man must be frustrated with his situation. If he was looking to make a point then his display in Chelsea’s entertaining 4-2 win over Southampton would not have done him any harm. Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, cannot have helped but been impressed with the Spaniards intelligent use of the ball. Time and time again he picked out teammates with perfectly threaded passes, even assisting Costa for his first. Rumours continue to circulate regarding AC Milan’s interest in taking the ex-Arsenal and Barcelona man over to Italy in the summer. Fàbregas turns 30 next week, and he will no doubt be keen to ensure that he is part of a team that picks him more regularly than every other game.

The Playmaker – Christian Eriksen

I must confess – I have never really been convinced by this guy. I have always felt that he has flattered to deceive. Yes, his set pieces are nearly always on the money, and yes, he scores the odd spectacular goal; however, I have always felt that there has been something lacking from his game. I was astonished to find out earlier this week that the Dane has covered more ground than anybody else in the Premier League this season. Furthermore, he is second only to Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne for Premier League assists, with an impressive 12 to his name. His brilliant match winning goal against Crystal Palace was his eighth of the season, and it kept Tottenham’s unlikely title charge on track. I am going to have to eat my words over the ex-Ajax man and admit that he has turned into a really fine player.

The Finisher – Diego Costa

His form blows as hot and cold as his temperament. He scored 15 goals in his first 19 Premier League games of the season. In the following 12 he has managed just four. Against Southampton the Brazilian born Spain international was back to his best. An assist and two goals ensured that Chelsea kept their distance over Tottenham. His second goal was absolutely brilliant. Exchanging one-twos with two of his Chelsea teammates; Eden hazard first, then Pedro second, before rifling in a low drive past Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal. A brilliant performance overall.

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Six reasons Juventus might not win Serie A this year

Serie A featured highly in this transfer window with Manchester United capturing Paul Pogba and Gonzalo Higuaín upsetting the entire population of Naples in a move north. Juventus start as overwhelming favourites for the new season. Their squad has tonnes of experience and a winning mentality to rival any side in Europe. Nevertheless, all good things come to an end and could the sale of Pogba disrupt the happy camp? Anything other than a sixth straight title will require a serious dip in form, or the likes of Napoli and Roma to overachieve and amass nearly 90 points. Here’s six reasons it might just happen.

1. Their desire for European success

Juventus have won five straight Serie A titles and have been the main Italian flag-bearers in elite European competition. They’ve not done badly either, making the Champions League final in 2015 and having a pair of wonderful games against Bayern Munich last time out. It’s easy to assume the likes of Gigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will never get bored of winning Scudettos but the squad seemed to suffer from a bout of the ‘lack-of-ambitions’ at the start of last season and were supposedly put back on track by the words of Buffon prior to the Derby della Mole. Napoli had waltzed to the top of the league and a sleeping Juve were rudely awoken. It’s not out of the realms of possibility that Juve will wobble again as they target a return to the latter stages of the Champions League.

2. Improvements lower down the league

One of the biggest factors in the Serie A title race will be the performance of the teams outside last year’s top three. When Napoli were chasing Juventus at the end of last season they found no favours from Inter, AC, Lazio and Fiorentina. In fact, against that quartet of Italian giants Juventus dropped just two points (a draw with Inter in October). Both Milan clubs made hard work of their seasons whilst Lazio were inconsistent and Fiorentina won just twice in the last three months. All four will be expecting better from 2017. Milan are in dire needed of a return to European football and will be hoping the talent packed into their squad can start performing on a regular basis. Lazio would love new man Ciro Immobile to get close to 20 goals having lost star player Antonio Candreva this summer. The Italian international will now ply his trade under new Inter manager Frank De Boer. Whilst none of these sides will likely surface as title challengers, stronger and longer patches of form will make for a tougher division and less chances for Juventus to disappear over the horizon.

3. Hell hath no fury like an ‘Ultra’ scorned

The first of two big summer stories involving Juventus saw last season’s record-breaking goalscorer Gonzalo Higuaín arrive for a staggering fee. The sometimes underrated Argentinian bagged 71 league goals in three seasons at Napoli and (surprise, surprise) scored on his league debut for Juventus. However, when the three-time La Liga winner was prized by league favourites Juventus he caused an uproar of Neapolitan proportions. The stories immediately began to fly out of Naples – a pizzeria offered free food the first time Higuaín gets injured and toilet paper was printed bearing his face. A coach arrived spelling out ‘core ‘ngrato’ (search it) and an exchange was set up for unwanted Higuaín shirts. The lethal finisher has the talent to respond to his haters but perhaps their unrelenting feeling of betrayal – combined with his lofty price tag – is enough to make him buckle.

4. Replacing Paul Pogba and Alvaro Morata

Regardless of whether or not Paul Pogba was worth the money dropped by Manchester United, he will be sorely missed in the Juventus midfield. There is nobody else in the squad – perhaps the world – that can make the same offering as Pogba; fast yet tall, skilful yet strong, equally as likely to rifle the ball home from 30 yards as he is to win possession and dispatch a pass across the pitch. This isn’t to say Juventus can’t replace the sometimes misfiring Frenchman, but their midfield will surely have a different feel. Juve sent another message to the south when pinching Miralem Pjanic from Roma, and the Bosnian looks the likely replacement in their starting XI. Real Madrid further proved Juventus’ transfer dominance is bounded by Italian borders when activating a clause to re-sign Alvaro Morata. The Spaniard settled better than ever away from his home club, striking strong friendships with a number of Italians in the squad. He was Juve’s most willing runner and had an eye for important goals. On the brightside, Juventus made over €100 million sending players back ‘home’.

5. Ridiculously high standards

After a rocky start to last season Juventus lost just one of their last 28 games. Frighteningly, they racked up 26 victories from October to May with a 15 match winning streak across the winter ended by a 0-0 draw against Bologna. Realistically, this form will not be replicated throughout the 2016-17 campaign. Games at the Juventus Stadium will continue to shower the home side with success, but no side has left with so much as a point since last September (respect to Frosinone) and I expect this to change before Christmas. Napoli, Roma and Sassuolo will be visiting Turin in the next few months and won’t want to leave empty handed.

6. Blooding new stars

The Juventus academy has seen plenty of graduates go on to have international careers – Alessandro Del Piero, Claudio Marchiso, Sebastian Giovinco – but ‘The Old Lady’ have often relied on signing established players from other clubs and nurturing them into the next champions of Turin. A prime example is Andrea Barzagli who, despite winning the World Cup in 2006, has seen his best year’s post-Wolfsburg and post-30. He is now 35, the same age as Patrice Evra and a handful of years older than Giorgio Chiellini. This season’s transfers have suggested more of the same with Dani Alves arriving at the age of 33 and €90 million being thrown behind the 28-year old Higuaín. There are a number of hot prospects in the squad but those brought into the first team will need time to adjust to the 3-5-2 formation established by Antonio Conte. Daniele Rugani is Juve’s centre-back heir apparent whilst Marco Pjaca arrives from Zagreb to offer some dynamism to the frontline. ‘Juventus’ translates to ‘youth’ in Latin and the club will hope the passing of the torch goes as smoothly as possible.


Mike Franchetti