Five-a-side TOTW: April 11th 2017

We’re well into April signalling the start of the “business end” of the season. While no business is actually taking place, teams are beginning to make their final push before the season ends. This weekend saw Sunderland crushed 3-0 at home to Manchester United, a result that all but ended any hopes of another great escape. Leaders Chelsea overcame a tricky looking visit to Bournemouth. Marcos Alonso scored the pick of the goals in a 3-1 victory. Crystal Palace won again at home as they comfortably beat Arsenal 3-0. Tottenham strolled to a 4-0 home win over Watford with Dele Alli adding a couple more million to his name with a delightful curled effort. Southampton recorded an impressive victory at West Brom, while Simon Mignolet excelled in Liverpool’s 2-1 win at Stoke. But who made it into our team?

Goalkeeper – Fraser Forster

Not many teams win at The Hawthorns. In fact before Southampton’s visit only 4 others had come away with all three points this season. The South coast club owed a lot to their man between the sticks as the ex-Celtic stopper made six saves and caught 100% of his crosses. The Saints have had to field a makeshift defence for much of this season following the sale of José Fonte and the injury to Virgil Van Dijk. The defence, and Forster in particular, have had to step up to the plate on numerous occasions throughout the campaign. Something which they did again on Saturday afternoon.

The Stopper – Mamadou Sakho

Him again. Listen, I promise it’s not bias – he just is in brilliant form. Once again the Liverpool loanee was an absolute monster at the heart of the Palace defence. He won tackles, made blocks and was frighteningly strong in the air throughout the 90 minutes. His future remains in doubt, but there is no chance that the Frenchmen will be playing at Selhurst Park next season. A return to Liverpool remains unlikely unless he and Klopp are able to resolve their differences. Whatever happens, he most definitely won’t be short of suitors.

The Anchor – Yohan Cabaye

He’s not really imposed himself at all this season. In and out of the team and questions regarding his attitude have hardly helped his cause. Nonetheless the ex-PSG man turned in a first class performance against The Gunners on Monday night. His goal was absolutely brilliant and proved to be the defining moment in the clash. Cabaye will hope to carry his good form into the remaining 7 games of the season and look to ensure that Palace consolidate their Premier League status.

The Playmaker – Philippe Coutinho

He only played the second half but the little maestro changed the whole game. Jürgen Klopp’s experiment had failed in the first half of Liverpool’s visit to Stoke. Trailing 1-0 the German decided to bring on Coutinho and his compatriot Roberto Firmino at half time and the introduction of the two Brazilians completely changed the match. Coutinho’s 70th minute goal sparked Liverpool’s revival. His first time shot was lazor guided into the back of Lee Grant’s net. Two minutes later it was Firmino’s turn, as he expertly guided a powerful strike into the Stoke City goal. The reds held on and in turn moved nine points clear of Arsenal in fifth place.

The Finisher – Son Heung-min

The South Korean has 11 Premier League goals this season. A fantastic return for a player who is still not always a regular in the side. His two goals against a very poor Watford team at White Hart Lane ensured that Spurs maintained their unlikely title challenge. Son has been a revelation this year. For much of last season he flattered to deceive and there were rumours that he would not be a Tottenham player for much longer. Yet the ex-Hamburg and Leverkusen player has turned it all around and established himself as one of the Premier League’s most underrated players.

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Five-a-side TOTW: March 5th 2017

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

Another round of Premier League fixtures – another five-a-side team of the week. Chelsea kept their 10 point lead at the top of the table with a hard-fought win at West Ham. Harry Kane outdid Romelu Lukaku in the battle of the leagues top scorers as Spurs won 3-2 against Everton. Liverpool beat top-four rivals Arsenal at Anfield, while, in a tasty clash, Manchester United could only draw at home to Bournemouth. Swansea scored a last minute winner at home to Burnley, and Leicester won for the second time in a row under caretaker boss Craig Shakespeare.

Goalkeeper – Artur Boruc

It’s not often that an opposition goalkeeper goes to Old Trafford and wins the man of the match award. However, that is exactly what the big Pole did this weekend. He was absolutely fantastic as he repelled numerous efforts on his goal. His fine all round performance was rounded off by an excellent save from Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s penalty. Boruc has found himself heavily criticised at points this season. Having conceded an average of nearly three goals a game in 2017, Boruc and his teammates will have been relieved with this highly spirited defensive performance.

The Stopper – Mamadou Sakho

I actually cannot believe that this man is playing at Crystal Palace. When he was coming through the ranks at PSG he was tipped to be the next mega superstar centre back. His move to Liverpool has been disrupted by injuries, poor form, allegedly inappropriate behaviour and poor attitude. In my opinion he remains Liverpool’s best centre back – what he is doing playing for a team fighting for Premier League survival I will never know.  Manager Sam Allardyce has decided to pair the French defender with summer signing James Tomkins in recent weeks. It certainly looks like the partnership could provide the foundations for Palace to move away from the drop zone. The 2-0 away win against West Brom was the first time that Palace had recored consecutive clean sheets this season.

The Runner – Georginio Wijnaldum

The Dutch international was in absolutely brilliant form during Liverpool’s dominant 3-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday evening. With captain Jordan Henderson injured, the responsibility fell on Wijnaldum and Emre Can to marshall the Liverpool midfield. Both played very well, yet the Dutchman really was the stand out performer. He absolutely ran the midfield – winning tackles, linking the play, and even managing to get on the scoresheet when finishing off an excellent team move. Having now grabbed goals against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, the former Feyenord and Newcastle player is proving that he is the man for the big occasion.

Free Role – Andros Townsend

After initially seeming out of favour under new boss Sam Allardyce, the former Tottenham and Newcastle winger has really started to establish himself at the South-London club. His goal against West Brom was as good as it was important. It sealed a valuable three points for The Eagles and ensured that they moved further away from the relegation places. It would be nice to see Townsend go on a real run between now and the end of the season. He deserves the chance to establish himself in the Premier League after frustrating spells at both Spurs and Newcastle. If he continues his recent good performances there is no reason why he can’t become one of the best wide-men in the league. With England’s game against Germany coming up in just two weeks, there is further incentive for him to keep turning in the performances.

The Finisher – Harry Kane

I love this guy. I saw something in Kane on Saturday that made me think that he really has reached the elite level. With the scores at 0-0, both teams struggling to make an impact on the game, the Tottenham striker dropped deep to receive the ball. Thirty yards out and with his back to goal, Kane swiveled, and moved the ball onto his favoured right foot. From there the Tottenham no.10 did exactly what he does best – thumping the ball into the back of the net. The goal was brilliant and provided the turning point in the game. Grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck is really the sort of thing that the best players in the world do. In my opinion, Kane has now reached that level. For someone who has scored nearly 80 goals in the last three seasons, he has an unusually large number of critics. I would love nothing more than for the England man to top the scoring charts once again at the end of the season.

Six players who really should’ve been on the Ballon d’Or shortlist

So the Ballon d’Or list was announced with a fair few notable names missing. Here we look at six players who can count themselves a little unlucky to have missed out.

Claudio Bravo

People may be surprised to see him on this list, especially because I’ve been scathing about his performances since he signed for Manchester City in the summer. But the Chilean international certainly does deserve some recognition for his achievements in recent years. Having captained his national team to consecutive Copa América titles, and winning back-to-back La Liga titles with Barcelona, there can be no doubting his pedigree. Whether he will enjoy the same success in the Premier League is a different issue altogether.

José Fonte

This is a left field choice and one that will no doubt cause a bit of bewilderment. Nevertheless, the Southampton centre half has been in imperious form over the last twelve months. It is easy to forget that he was playing League One football just five years ago. Having captained Southampton to their best ever Premier League finish and winning Euro 2016 with Portugal, he more than merits some acknowledgement for his achievements. There are only three other defenders on the original list of 30, including his international centre back partner, Pepe. Fonte had to bide his time initially, having been overlooked in favour of veteran defender Ricardo Carvalho. However, after a 3-3 draw with Hungary, the result that sealed Portugal’s passage through to the knockout stages, he came into the team and formed a formidable partnership with Pepe. When playing alongside each other Portugal conceded only one goal in their remaining four matches.

Marcelo

Whilst there will always be question marks regarding his defensive ability, there can be no doubt that the Brazilian is the best attacking left back in the world. Quick, strong, and technically gifted, the former Fluminese man really does have it all. He is so important to the way that Real Madrid play, offering them that extra width when the wingers choose to come inside. It can be difficult to get the acclaim you deserve when Bale, Benzema, and particularly Ronaldo are your team mates, yet Marcelo quietly and efficiently goes about his business. Despite only being 28, it feels like the Rio de Janeiro native has been around for years. Now in his eleventh season at Real, he will no doubt be looking to help retain the Champions League this season.

N’Golo Kanté

It’s absolutely farcical that this guy isn’t on the list. Quite frankly he was the standout midfielder in Europe last season as Leicester claimed the unlikeliest of Premier League titles. His omission really does go some way to devaluing the whole award. Last season he demonstrated his exceptional energy levels and reading of the game whilst forming a formidable midfield partnership with Danny Drinkwater. His tactical discipline and unselfish work rate enabled flare players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to excel further up the field. Kanté carried his form into Euro 2016, and has started this season with Chelsea in equally excellent form.

Blaise Matuidi

His absence from the list is also baffling. This is a guy who has won eight trophies with PSG in the previous two seasons. Like Kanté, he featured extensively for Les Bleus as they finished runners up to Portugal at Euro 2016. However, many still choose to devalue the achievements of Matuidi and his PSG side, decrying the alleged weakness of Ligue 1. This perception somewhat overlooks the fact that Matuidi himself has been in excellent form for an awfully long time now. Having joined PSG in 2011 shortly after the club had been purchased by Qatari investors, Matuidi remains the only player from that first wave of signings to still be at the club. He, like PSG, has grown, developed, and improved and consequently now really should be considered amongst the world elite.

Harry Kane

He may have endured a miserable Euro 2016, but there can be no devaluing his achievements in the Premier League last season. Kane was simply sensational, scoring 25 league goals as Tottenham recorded their highest league finish in over 25 years. His finishing and link up play is up there with the best in the world; in a Spurs shirt he really does seem to have the Midas touch. Whilst his performances for England have often been below par, there can be no doubting that he has all the credentials to be one of the all time great English centre forwards. Having scored more league goals than Karim Benzema, Paulo Dybala, and Sergio Agüero (all nominated for the award) last season, his omission from the list was certainly surprising. If he continues the form that he has shown during the previous two seasons then he will almost certainly begin to receive the acclaim he so rightly deserves.

PSG: What’s gone wrong?

With PSG losing again in the league and signings failing to make an impact, Simmo looks at what’s gone wrong for the French champions. Has the quest for European success come at a domestic cost? Is Unai Emery already on borrowed time?

 

PSG have lost two of their opening seven league fixtures. On its own that statement isn’t completely shocking, lots of big teams have already lost games this season. Of the recognised title challengers across Europe’s top leagues, only Bayern Munich and Manchester City still hold a 100% record.

Yet for PSG this start is unacceptable. Last season they lost only two league games all season. Throughout the whole of Laurent Blanc’s three-year tenure, they only lost eight. During the same period Barcelona lost thirteen, Juventus ten, and Bayern Munich nine. In recent years, no club has dominated their own domestic competitions as much as PSG.

Yet there are those who will still maintain that PSG’s achievements have not been all that great. There are those who choose to dismiss Ligue 1 as merely a ‘Mickey Mouse’ league.

That sort of talk is unfair and utterly dismissive of the good work Blanc did whilst at the club. Under his stewardship PSG were lethal. Their supremacy was not accidental, nor was it because the league was exceptionally weak. No, PSG were just a very good team.

They blew teams away, scored goals for fun, and were a solid defensive unit. They accumulated a +191 goal difference during Blanc’s reign. No other team came close to matching them.

The debate will rage on about whether their success was artificial. Yes, it is true that their triumphs were largely built on Qatari oil. However, both Manchester City and Chelsea have all spent vast sums of money after being bought by foreign owners. Neither have come close to matching the complete domestic dominance that PSG has enjoyed.

Despite domestic success, the Qatari owners still craved one elusive trophy; the Champions League. For Roman Abramovich at Chelsea the Champions League had become an almost unhealthy obsession. Whilst he clearly enjoyed league titles and FA Cup victories, they only went so far. The hierarchy at PSG clearly have a similar view. Two successive trebles (Ligue 1, Coupe de France & Coupe de la Ligue) in the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons had reaffirmed PSG’s position as the Kings of French football. Yet this success was spoiled by the seeming lack of progress in Europe.

Blanc’s Champions League record was good, just not good enough to save his job. In each of his three seasons in charge PSG reached the quarter-finals but no further. PSG’s inability to make any clear progress in Europe no doubt prompted the powers that be to terminate Blanc’s contract in June. This was despite him signing an extension as early as February. It seemed therefore, that PSG were measuring Blanc solely on his team’s performance in Europe.

Blanc’s replacement was chosen entirely for his record in European competitions. Unai Emery had won the three previous Europa League titles with Sevilla. His La Liga record was solid if not spectacular. Successive fifth placed finishes during the 2013/14 and 2014/15 season was followed up by a disappointing seventh last season.

For Emery the challenge was clear; maintain PSG’s monopoly in Ligue 1 whilst also mounting a serious European challenge. It was perceived by many that PSG’s domestic dominance would continue regardless. Nobody countenanced European success at the expense of continued domestic control.

Emery’s difficult start has shocked many from the outside looking in. Internally though it’s not been completely unexpected.

When Emery arrived his first task would have been to replace talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. His four years at the Parc des Princes had yielded a staggering 113 league goals in a mere 122 games. Only Lionel Messi and Cristiano scored more goals over the same period.

The loss of Ibrahimovic was always going to be difficult to deal with, however, nobody suspected it would have such dire consequences. After all, PSG had French footballs record signing, Edinson Cavani, waiting in the wings. The Uruguayan was a much heralded €64 million signing from Napoli back in 2013. In reality though his time in the French capital has been underwhelming. Cavani had to accept that whilst Ibrahimovic was still at the club he would be playing second fiddle. Either shipped out to the wing or having to settle for a place on the bench, Cavani was not often given a chance in his favoured strikers role. When he was he often flattered to deceive.

Emery was quick to identify the strikers position as one that needed to be strengthened. Although he came out in support of Cavani, there was always a suspicion that he did not fully trust the former Napoli man.

Kevin Gameiro, who Emery had managed at Sevilla, was linked with a return to the club he left in 2013. Gonzalo Higuain was spoken of before Juventus paid a whopping €90 million for his services. Others were mentioned, but PSG did eventually sign two attacking players to compete with Cavani.

Jesé Rodriguez, a €25 million signing from Real Madrid, was seen as a surprising choice. Hatem Ben Arfa less so, a free signing after his contract at Nice expired. With both players fairly unproven in a central role, there was a sense, particularly with 23-year-old Jesé, that neither was first choice.

This perception has only been reinforced by Emery’s selections. Having only started one of the opening six league games, it would seem that Jesé has fallen behind young Frenchman Jean-Kévin Augustin in the pecking order. Ben Arfa’s omission is even more puzzling. Despite scoring on debut in the 4-1 Trophée des Champions victory over Lyon, the France international has not played for three weeks and not even been included in the previous four match day squads.

On the pitch, the struggles at one end have been mirrored at the other. Salvatore Sirigu’s place as PSG’s No.1 had always been a bone of contention. A team littered with world class players, Sirigu’s name stood out for being one of the few that wasn’t.

His departure in the summer, oddly to Sevilla, was hardly unexpected. Kevin Trapp had been first choice the previous season and looked destined to remain so for the coming year. However, the German’s unconvincing displays, mixed with the emergence of Alphonse Areola, has seen him be displaced. Areola is a fine prospect, yet his promotion is perhaps indicative of Emery’s inability to find the winning formula.

In midfield there have also been issues. Under Blanc there was an established midfield trio. Thiago Motta, Marco Verratti and Blaise Matuidi were Blanc’s favoured options. They were humbly supported by Adrien Rabiot and Javier Pastore on occasion.

To supplement them Emery added Grzegorz Krychowiak for €30 million from (surprise surprise) Sevilla. The Pole’s place in the team seemed likely to be at the expense of the ageing Motta. Yet, like Jesé and Ben Arfa, Krychowiak has failed to make any great impact.

Additionally, problems have occurred where previously none existed. Defensively last season PSG were immense, conceding only 32 goals in 58 games across all competitions. The usually reliable Thiago Silva has made a less than impressive start to the season and there are still reservations about the level of defensive cover.

With David Luiz leaving to re-join Chelsea, Presnel Kimpembe has been thrust into the first team. Whilst the young Frenchmen will be back up to Silva and fellow Brazilian Marquinhos, the lack of depth will no doubt remain a concern.

Add Serge Aurier to the mix and there would seem to be all the ingredients for a defensive crisis.  The volatile and often toxic Ivorian felt the wrath of Blanc last season with several ill-advised comments. His sending off against Toulouse on Friday night cost PSG the game, and whilst he no doubt has talent, his temperament does seem to persistently let him down.

Questions remain unanswered. Whilst its still very early into Emery-era his shaky start has certainly failed to live up to expectation. Whether this affects his immediate future remains to be seen.

It would seem that entangled within this obsession with the Champions League there is a stark reality. As Abramovich found out, chasing a Champions League can come at a cost. He went through 8 managers before eventually winning his most treasured prize. The owners at PSG have been less inclined to to wield the axe, yet they showed with Blanc that they can be ruthless.

We can at least be certain about one thing. Anything less than continued domestic dominance and a marked improvement in Europe will constitute a failure in the eyes of the owners. Emery will have to hope that he can halt this mini-crisis.