OPINION: The EFL are wrong to interfere with team selections

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This week, The EFL have investigated both Huddersfield Town and Bradford City. This comes after each club made a number of changes in the weekend’s fixtures. Huddersfield travelled to Birmingham, losing 2-0 after 8 first team changes, whilst Bradford drew at Rochdale with 9 alternate players.

Both teams have been confirmed in the Play Offs for the Championship and League One respectively. This was confirmed before the fixtures played at the weekend when the offences were apparently committed.

My issue with this charge is the inconsistency of the EFL regulations in regards to the charge.

It must be pointed out that section 24 of the EFL regulations clearly states the following:

‘Each Club shall play its full strength in all Matches played under the auspices of The League unless some satisfactory reason is given. In the event of the explanation not being deemed satisfactory the Board shall refer the matter to a Disciplinary Commission which has the power to impose such penalties as it shall think fit.’

There are two things I find wrong with this rule in regards to the above charges. First of all, how can the EFL force a team to play its strongest team? What constitutes a full strength team? Does this mean that younger players are unable to get a chance over ‘stronger’ ability players? Surely they wouldn’t be able to, unless of course they give a ‘satisfactory explanation’. I would assume that the EFL don’t investigate every team’s line-up every single week, or maybe I’m incorrect.

Secondly, the EFL reserve the right to ‘impose such penalties as it shall think fit’. Which is perfectly fine, but this is when the explanation is not ‘deemed satisfactory’ by the board. Bradford and Huddersfield made the changes to rest their key players for the Play Off campaign. For Huddersfield, it is the most important period in the clubs recent history. Bradford meanwhile are aiming to keep up their rise up the divisions. They were last in the top flight in 2001, but a series of relegations found them in League 2 in 2008.

The EFL have stated that they must protect the integrity of the competition, and thus must investigate the line-up changes from either party. It must be acknowledged that there is no allegations of any form of match fixing, but because of the amount of changes, suspicion will always be made. However, there was no fuss made when Town fielded a near-identical side against Manchester City in the FA Cup (who drew 1-1 with them).

Huddersfield lined up against struggling Championship outfit Birmingham City, who have recently hired Harry Redknapp in a last-ditch bid to remain in the Championship. The teams around them, Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forrest, also have a chance of being relegated to League One, and so the fate of the three clubs will come down to the final day. There has been fan uproar online from the fans of each club over Huddersfield’s selection, and this is brought back to the EFL’s idea of the integrity of the league.

However, It is not Huddersfield’s fault that Birmingham, Nottingham Forrest or Blackburn are in the precarious position that they’re in. Their fans shouldn’t be complaining that they were unfairly treated in the 45th game of the season, but more why the previous 44 games had gone so poorly that they are in their current situation.

Bradford’s tale is rather different. They faced a Rochdale side with an outside shot of the playoffs, and held them to a 1-1 draw. Results elsewhere kept them out of the playoffs, so in effect, nothing was altered by Stuart McCall’s team selection.

But the point still stands, regardless of the circumstances in which the games were played, neither team should be penalised for making use of their squad. They are permitted to use a large squad for a reason, and so there is no issue in resting a number of players for a more important fixture.

 

 

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Kylian Mbappe: Les Bleus Rising Star

Written by Lewis Redmond

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There is a teenager currently taking Europe by storm. Step forward: 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé Lottin; the football world’s hottest new prodigy. The rise of AS Monaco’s teenage sensation; dubbed “the next Thierry Henry” by experts across the continent, has been sudden and has had a devastating impact on defences in French Ligue 1 and teams in the UEFA Champions League.

And still at the tender age of just 18, many believe the young Frenchman must have something about him in order for such comparisons to be drawn.

Well, the stats definitely do not lie. As of May 4th 2017, the young hitman has netted a staggering 24 goals in just 39 games so far this season, whilst also racking up 11 assists for the French outfit, with five of his Champions League goals coming in the first four games of the knockout proceedings. Now in the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious and elite club competition, it was Mbappé’s goals that inspired Monaco to a double-legged victory over German Borussia Dortmund in the quarters; the wonderkid’s brace helping to clinch the first leg 3-2 in the Westfalenstadion before he opened the scoring after just three minutes in the return leg to send Monaco on their way to the last four, the part he played in a 3-1 second leg triumph earning him the UEFA Champions League Player of the Week Award.

And with 16 goals in 16 games since the start of February, it is no wonder that Mbappé is being compared to the likes of Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking on his French compatriot, the Arsenal legend light-heartedly told Canal Plus: “My word, he is good. Ooh la la, I really like watching him play.” This it would seem shows us that the forward already has the Henry seal of approval, and this was further boosted in March when he became the youngest French international for over 60 years, making his bow for the national side as a substitute against Luxembourg aged 18 years and 95 days, placing him only behind Maryan Wisniewski when he debuted against Sweden in 1955 aged 18 years and 61 days old. And Henry isn’t the only one that is heaping approval on the rising star. Monaco’s Croatian goalkeeper Danijel Subašic has also been singing Mbappé’s praises, telling 24 Sata: “No wonder everyone is crazy about him, he is amazing, plays great and is only 18,” adding “He runs like he’s riding a motorbike! He has no respect! Which is good, but at the same time in our locker room he is very calm and polite, (he) never pushes himself in the front row.”, showing just how grounded Mbappé seems keen on remaining, before finishing: “The guy is great, normal, not flying high. Everyone talks about hundreds of millions of euros that are waiting for him somewhere and still his mother or the club’s driver takes him to training every day!” No wonder he comes across so humble!

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Such is the forward’s blistering form; he has also guided his club side to the very summit of the French Ligue 1. Outside favourites for the title at the beginning of the season behind reigning champions Paris Saint Germain, Monaco have scored an impressive 90 goals so far this campaign with eight games still left to play, leaving them top in front of PSG with a goal difference almost 20 to the good, and still with a game in hand over their Parisian rivals. This huge goal scoring record is no coincidence either, with Mbappé’s 12 goals in 12 league starts combining well with other strikers at the club such as Valère Germain and the illustrious Radamel Falcao to place Monaco as firm favourites for the title, with some saying a place in next season’s Champions League group stage is almost already guaranteed.

As well as the incredible goal scoring stats, the teenager has also broken multiple records already in his short but exciting playing career. By scoring in the last four Champions League matches as formerly mentioned, Mbappé set a new record of becoming the only player to score in the first four knockout games of the competition after goals against Dortmund added to goals in both legs of the last 16 tie against Manchester City, a record made even more commendable when considering we live in the era of players like Lionel Messi and Mbappé’s childhood hero, Cristiano Ronaldo. On top of this the young talent is the second youngest player to score in the quarter finals of the Champions League while only Spanish legend Raúl has managed to score more Champions League goals before his 19th birthday than Mbappé, again incredible when considering the youngster has five in his last four in the competition and still has the semi-finals and potentially the final of this year’s competition to play, before still having the chance to score more goals in next season’s group stages before he turns 19 on 20th December this year.

Many would say it appears Kylian Mbappé Lottin has his feet firmly on the ground but, with the goal scoring stats he has racked up and the deadly form and reputation he has established for himself, it is natural that he is attracting heavy attention from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Both halves of Manchester are said to be keeping tabs on him, while Barcelona and Real Madrid are also set to engage in a mass bidding war for the teen once the Summer transfer window opens; the latter’s captain, Sergio Ramos already doing his bit by telling Sky Sports that the Real Madrid gates are very much open for the youngster. It is almost impossible to decipher the next stage of Mbappé’s career. Will his eyes light up as he chases a lucrative big-money move? Or will he contradict us all and stay loyal to the club which will always be linked to the explosive start of his career?

One thing is for sure, he is a player with the world at his feet and, if what we have seen from him this season is anything to go by, he could be destined for a career at the very top level of club and international football.

RB Leipzig: The Unrelenting Force

Written by Lewis Redmond

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For the first time since 2009 there is a club from the east side of Germany in the Bundesliga. Having been in existence for little over eight years, RasenBallsport Leipzig have defied all odds to rise from non-league obscurity to the very summit of the German game. However, it is not all a cause for celebration; the commercial background behind their establishment and consequential success has infuriated many a football fan from Berlin to Bonn, from Bremen to Bavaria.

On 19th May 2009, energy drink giant Red Bull managed to purchase the playing license of SSV Markranstädt, a modest fifth-tier club based just eight miles west of Leipzig. While many fans objected to the takeover of the club, with all the seven founding members either employees or members of the Red Bull firm, Red Bull went ahead and have, just over seven years down the line, formed a footballing force to be reckoned with and a team sitting currently second in the German top flight, just 10 points behind German champions Bayern Munich.

Owner of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz, a friend of German legend and World Champion Franz Beckenbauer, had the dream of adding a German club to his already impressive roster of football clubs worldwide (namely Red Bull Salzburg, New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Brasil). However, unlike these clubs, German ruling forbid Leipzig from having a sponsor in their name, hence “RasenBallsport”, translating in English as “Lawn Ball Sport” while still incorporating the spinal company initials of “RB” within the name.

Clever.

This coupled with another cunning idea of pumping up the cost of a club membership to €800 (more than 10 times what you would be required to pay for the same luxury at Bayern Munich) meant that RB could weave around the issue of fan control, a condition in Germany where almost every club must abide by the ‘50+1’ rule, giving all members a fair balance of power when it came to the election of board members at the club. RB’s solution for this was to hike up the membership prices to ensure that, to date, there are only 17 members at the club with the power to vote for board elections, freeing up the room for the Red Bull businessmen to run the club as they wish.

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And it is these kinds of tricks being implemented by club hierarchy that are making ‘Die Rotten Bullen’ (The Red Bulls) the most incensing of establishments in the modern game, not least to fellow teams populating the German top flight. One Hertha Berlin fan told BBC World Service: “RB Leipzig is just a marketing construction, just a company. Hertha is a traditional football club” when the two teams crossed paths at the Red Bull Arena (renamed after originally being built for the 2006 World Cup) in December, with a 2-0 win for Leipzig subsequently moving them to the top of the Bundesliga at that time, leap frogging the reigning Bavarian champions to summarise the steep soar in success they had endured. As well as this remark from the Hertha fan, other fans have also let their feelings be known about the club, with it seeming like many believe they were just established in a bid to try and sell more soft drinks. As well as these opinionated words, clubs have refused to play pre-season friendlies against RB, with opposing fans boycotting games, while more active demonstrations against the club include the severed head of a bull being thrown on to the pitch by one set of opposing fans along with the FC Köln faithful blocking the streets so the team bus could not get through when the clubs met at the start of the season.

And it does not stop there either. In August 2015 when hosting RB, the producers of the Union Berlin match day programme took the page out which is usually dedicated to the visiting team, and instead published a 700-word article on the history of bull farming, while the reception from another club earlier in the campaign was so aggressive that the RB players had to make for the team bus as soon as the final whistle had sounded, not even having time for a shower or team talk in the dressing room after the conclusion of the match.

However, despite all this hate and, to an extent, threat from opposition teams, RB Leipzig just keep on producing. In their first season in the Bundesliga, the east German outfit still currently remain second in the league, with high profile signings including the recruitment of 21-year-old German starlet Timo Werner from VfB Stuttgart in the Summer, accounting for 14 of their goals so far this season. This certainly proves a stark contrast to their inaugural season in existence where, playing in the German fifth-tier in the 2009/10 season, RB were seeing attendance gates of just over 2000 fans.

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Speaking again to BBC World Service from the club’s new state-of-the-art $37 million training complex, club director Ralf Ragnick said of all the hatred of his team: “I think that when a new club like ours is founded people immediately see us as a rival and a threat”. Speaking on the commercial intention of the club Ragnick simply added: “The number of cans (of Red Bull) we sell doesn’t matter to us.”

With the formation of the franchise the sole aim was for the club to have reached the top-flight of German football within eight years, with the idea of finding and recruiting young players at the start of their careers to hopefully trigger more success for the club with these players being hungrier to taste it; the average age of the first team squad is staggeringly, at just a little over 23 years old. However, having already reached this goal in a reduced time, owner Mateschitz claimed “I don’t want to be 80 by the time we win our first Bundesliga title. No pressure then.

Well in fact there isn’t that much pressure at all.

With RB still occupying the position of the second-best team in Germany, they have secured a place in next season’s Champions League group stage. And with Mateschitz’s plea, they still have another eight years to develop and improve enough to win the title, before the owner reaches 80 years old.

Hate them or not, there is no halting RB Leipzig’s rapid ascension to the elite level of German football and, given another few years, we could may well be looking at a team capable of dethroning the formidable Bayern Munich. RasenBallsport Leipzig are here to stay.

Patience and Persistence pays off for Moses

Written by Lewis Redmond

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At the start of the 2015/16 Premier League season, it seemed that Victor Moses’ short and anti-climactic stint as a Chelsea player would at last be coming to an end. He had been loaned out by manager Jose Mourinho for the third successive season and it looked as though this may be the last loan spell before he finally departed Stamford Bridge for good.

Fast forward little over a season and a half and Moses is loving life under new boss Antonio Conte, with him playing an essential role in the Italian tactician’s new 3-4-3 system; taking the Premier League by storm playing in a supposedly unfamiliar right wing-back role and earning himself a new long-term contract with The Blues in the meantime.

The deal signed by Moses on March 1st 2017 was a two-year extension on to the end of his current deal in West London and will keep him with the current league leaders through until 2021, paving the way for future development and success in what is looking like a revolutionary first season in the Premier League for Conte, with Chelsea looking like runaway league champions while also still in the reckoning for FA Cup success.

Upon signing for Chelsea in August 2012 from Wigan Athletic for a rumoured fee of £9 million after heavy interest and 5 previously rejected bids, a 21-year-old Moses enjoyed a highly successful and developmental first campaign with the then Champions League holders. In the 2012/13 season Moses scored 10 goals in 43 appearances in all competitions, with this return being made even more commendable when considering his age and the fact he was competing for starts with players such as the likes of Oscar, Juan Mata and the mercurial Eden Hazard. In his first season at Chelsea under Roberto Di Matteo and the interim manager Rafael Benitez once the former had been sacked, Moses was rated extremely highly by pundits and analysts up and down the country, with his performances being closely monitored and widely tipped for further success at Chelsea in years to come, being a hugely important member of the team and playing an essential role in the club’s Europa League triumph come the end of the campaign.

However, the start of the 2013/14 season saw the return of cult hero and fan favourite Jose Mourinho to Chelsea, with the Portuguese manager deeming Moses surplus to requirements with regards to the upcoming first season of his return to SW6 and sending him out on loan to eventual title rivals Liverpool. And the next two seasons after this followed suit for Moses, with his season long loan at Liverpool being followed by spells at Stoke City, where Chelsea won the league and League Cup domestic double and West Ham in the 2015/16 season, where Chelsea made a mess of defending their crown as English champions leading to Mourinho becoming the latest victim of the Stamford Bridge revolving managers’ exit door. Some believed that Mourinho’s exit would possibly give Moses a second chance at Chelsea, with the door opening for a new manager to come in and include him in his plans. However, the majority simply thought that it was too late for Moses and, even should a new manager come in and choose not to send him out on loan, the sheer mediocrity of his performances while on loan and precious years already wasted as a Chelsea player showed us that it may be the harsh reality that Victor Moses just isn’t cut out to be a successful Chelsea player and it would be best for him to move on and start a new career at another club where he would be given more of an opportunity to prove himself.

This turned out not to be the case however as, in Moses’ first season playing his football for Chelsea since 2012/13, he has been a sheer revelation. The season may not have got off to the best start for Moses personally, with Antonio Conte mainly leaving him out of the starting line up with him mainly having to make an impact from the substitutes’ bench in a 4-2-3-1 formation hugely familiar to the modern-day English top flight. However, losses against fellow title challengers Liverpool and Arsenal in the month of September in addition to a 2-2 draw away to Swansea led to claims Chelsea’s season was falling apart before it had even got properly going, prompting Conte to switch to his preferred but more unfamiliar formation of 3-4-3, with Moses and Summer signing Marcos Alonso being drafted into the starting 11 and being deployed as wing-backs flanking the 3 defenders and 2 central midfielders in Chelsea’s new system. Although being deemed as a huge risk and drastic action by Conte, it worked a treat for Chelsea and for Moses, with him starting every game for The Blues in the league since starting with a 2-0 win away to Hull on October 1st, a victory which kick-started a remarkable run of 13 consecutive wins over the course of over 3 months, earning Conte 3 successive Premier League Manager of the Month awards (the first manager in Premier League history to achieve such a feat) and players such as Victor Moses receiving huge acclaim for his performances from experts all over Britain.

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Since the run has ended Chelsea, despite dropping a further 5 points to date have continued the strong foundations built by Conte in the form of the winning run and switch to the 3-4-3 system, remaining 10 points clear of their nearest rivals at the top of the Premier league table at present, with each game they play solidifying how much of a transformation they and Moses have undergone since last season and, even more recently, the start of the 2016/17 campaign. Moses has been fantastic throughout this run and has demonstrated a perfect show of patience and persistence along with confidence that he would have always received another chance at Chelsea, and when he did he grabbed it with both hands, becoming an integral part of The Blues’ pursuit for silverware this season and more than establishing himself as a regular in the starting 11, not least being one of the first names on the team sheet.

Although formerly known as an attacking wide player prior to the start of this season, it is the muscle and power in Moses’ game that has come out as one of his main assets in the wing-back role, with his impeccable physical condition allowing him to continue to perform as well in the first minute as he can in the last, with him being incredibly effective when Chelsea are attacking, and just as important for the team when quickly tracking back and defending to help shut goals out as well.

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This is proven in statistics taken from Chelsea’s 13 game winning run where, in these 13 games, Chelsea only conceded a stunning 4 goals while scoring an impressive 32 at the other end, much of this down to Moses’ ability to chip in with goals and assists when attacking while also defending heroically to stop goals from going in, shown in the 2-0 win at St. Mary’s against Southampton at the end of October where the Nigerian tracked back over 30 yards to keep the ball in play and help the defence, before evading 2 Southampton attackers and mounting a counter attack of his own, with this coming just minutes after coming to aid at the other end of the field to set up a goal scoring opportunity for team mate Diego Costa. This has shown just how effective Moses has been for Chelsea in both an attacking and defensive sense, with his defensive work coming to the rescue to save Chelsea on many an occasion while his attacking prowess has also guided them to success this season, with notable goals against Leicester, Burnley and at home to bitter London rivals Tottenham Hotspur where he scored the winning goal to earn him the Man of the Match award. And these performances have also been reflected in statistics on the whole team where, with Moses starting in the league for Chelsea this term up until the 1st March, The Blues have won 85% of their games (17 wins from 20), however in the 6 games where Moses hasn’t been in the starting line-up, Chelsea have only won half of these games showing the starts more than support Antonio Conte’s decision to keep Moses in the starting 11.

And still at only 26 years of age, many would suggest that Victor Moses still has many years left in him at the top level of the game. Whether he has the natural technical ability and willpower to stay here and succeed remains to be seen. However, one thing is for sure, maintain the same level of tenacity, patience, persistence and hard work that has got him to where he is at present, then a career at the top some would say is destined.

The Professor’s time may well be up, but he has earned the right to a little respect

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Arsenal were representative of everything that was right with modern football. The likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira made for an unrivalled blend of class and power, desire and guile. At the head of it all sat Le Professeur, Arsène Wenger, manager of the first unbeaten league champions in 115 years and the man largely responsible for revolutionising the British game. David Dein, Arsenal’s former co-chairman, called Wenger a “miracle worker” and said that he had brought “football from another planet” to the club. He is, by any measure, one of the greatest managers football has seen.Embed from Getty Images

But the picture over the last ten years or so has not been quite so rosy. The move from Highbury to the swanky, modern confines of the Emirates coincided with a nine-year wait for a major trophy, ended with two successive FA Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2015. Arsenal presently occupy their customary 4th place, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea, and barring the most improbable sequence of events will have gone 13 years without a Premier League title.

Wenger and the club place a great deal of importance in qualifying for the Champions League, which they have done in every season since 2000 – a remarkable achievement in itself. Incredibly, this season marked the 14th in a row in which Arsenal have qualified for the knockout stage of the competition. But to count this as a success, given the resources available to the club, would be disingenuous and optimistic in the extreme. Wednesday’s 5-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich – the same scoreline when the teams met in Germany in November 2015 – made almost certain that Wenger’s side will be falling at the round of sixteen for the seventh consecutive season. His consistent failure on European football’s biggest stage is perhaps the single greatest blemish on his record.

Just as disappointing as Arsenal’s impending exit was the manner of the defeat. For all their grace and undoubted ability, there is still a persistent, fatal fragility about the team. The club’s net spend over the past five seasons is bettered only by the two Manchester clubs, but what do Arsenal have to show for it? The signing of Mesut Özil in 2013 promised to transform the Gunners into serious challengers once more, but in truth the German infuriates as often as he dazzles. Wenger has been typecast as a shrewd spender, but too much money has been thrown at mediocrity in recent times. For a time, the move to the Emirates presented a valid excuse for a lack of spending, but this marks the tenth season since the transition and the reigns have been loosened. Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, who cost almost £70m combined in the summer, looked utterly lost at the Allianz Arena. The continuing presences of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin are symbolic of the club’s continuing acceptance of relative mediocrity, and the reliance on Alexis Sánchez and Laurent Koscielny is bordering on embarrassing.Embed from Getty Images

It seems increasingly certain that this will be Wenger’s last season in the job, though a contract offer remains on the table and no decision will be made until the summer. The Frenchman’s stubbornness has in the past been one of his most endearing qualities, a steadfast refusal to compromise his principles. But as Arsenal have stagnated, cracks have appeared in his composed, wise demeanour – spats with managers, kicking water bottles and altercations with officials are simply not becoming of one with his experience.

It is difficult yet important to remain objective when discussing Wenger’s legacy – it remains well intact, having amassed 23 major trophies in his time at the club. But all good things must come to an end, and in hanging on much further he risks leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the Arsenal faithful, many of whom have long since turned against him. The defeat to Bayern was greeted with the sound of knives being sharpened up and down the country, a sad turn of events for one of the game’s most distinguished and successful figures. A calm, mutual exit in the summer would do much to preserve Wenger’s slowly diminishing reserves of dignity and allow Arsenal to begin anew as serious competitors once more.

His departure is, ultimately, in the best interests of the club. The grass may not always be greener but Arsenal’s is in dire need of revitalisation. Quite aside from that, Wenger has surely done enough to earn himself a noble exit over his 20 years at the club – he deserves better than to be vilified and hounded out.Embed from Getty Images

What’s gone wrong at Leicester City?

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Leicester City, it’s fair to say, are not the most remarkable of football clubs. Their 133 year history is littered mostly with mediocrity, with the odd play-off triumph and a handful of League Cups thrown in for good measure. I myself am a lifelong supporter of the club, but can’t claim to have especially good memories of Matt Gillies’ double-chasing “Ice Kings” of ’62-’63, nor of Gary Lineker’s top-flight 24 goal haul in ’84-’85 – I’m only 20, so get off my back for heaven’s sake.

Instead, you will have to trust in me when I say that Leicester, historically, have been a bit of a yo-yo club, like the Hulls and the Burnleys of the modern world. They share Manchester City’s record of second division titles, which essentially proves the point. Reliably excellent in the second tier, but not quite up to scratch at the highest level – if David Nugent were a football club, he would be Leicester City.
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Martin O’Neill’s arrival in 1995 sparked a period of success for the club, including two League Cup wins and a couple of brief flirtations with European football. But O’Neill, whose Wikipedia page reliably informs me that he is an avid fan of criminology, left for Celtic in 2000. His replacement, Peter Taylor, is perhaps best known for being the first manager to hand David Beckham the England captaincy. Unfortunately, his other notable achievements include spending £5m on Ade Akinbiyi and leaving Leicester well and truly up shit creek without even so much as a hint of a paddle.

What followed in the next decade was, for the most part, utterly soul-destroying. The arrivals of such esteemed football giants as Milan Mandaric, Gary Megson and Barry Hayles brought about a downwards spiral, culminating in Ian Holloway masterminding the club’s first ever relegation to the third tier. Then things started to get a little more interesting.

Enter Nigel Graham Pearson; former Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough captain, owner of several spectacular military buzzcuts, scourge of ostriches and taker of absolutely no shit. A 96-point romp to the League One title was followed by an agonising play-off penalty exit to Cardiff, best remembered as the time Yann Kermorgant went for a dink and ended up looking a dick.

Pearson left for Hull. His replacements, rejected Armani model Paulo Sousa and bespectacled lothario Sven-Göran Eriksson, succeeded only in making an almighty and expensive cock-up of things. Pearson came back, and after another demoralising episode involving a penalty and a  Frenchman – this time everybody’s favourite heartthrob Anthony Knockaert – the Foxes finally made their way back to the Premier League.
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It’s a reasonable assumption that you will be familiar with the two seasons that followed – an improbable escape from relegation, followed by the single greatest sporting achievement of all time. Leicester City, Premier League champions. Where next?

Where next indeed. Today, Leicester sit 16th in the table, one point clear of the dreaded drop zone. Four straight league defeats, yet to score a league goal in 2017. It is, to put it lightly, an omnishambles. Jamie Vardy, record-breaker and scorer of 24 goals last season, has netted in one of his last 24 games for Leicester. His fellow Ballon d’Or nominee, PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez, has scored just three league goals, all from the penalty spot. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth look to have aged 20 years each over the summer. Danny Drinkwater passes the ball about as effectively as the constipated pass solids. The team are in disarray, with energy and performance levels dropping by the week. Rumours have begun to circulate of a dressing room revolt against Manager of the Year and World’s Nicest Man Claudio Ranieri. What the blazes is going on? How exactly have the Premier League champions managed to squander such a unique and promising opportunity to take their club to the next level?

In truth, it began in the months following the title win. The club’s participation in the International Champions Cup, essentially a sightseeing tour of Europe and the USA with the occasional game of football thrown in for good measure, may have been something of a money spinner and a fantastic commercial opportunity but was a far cry from the low-key but effective pre-seasons of old. Hammerings to PSG and Barcelona in the baking hot sun could not have been beneficial for morale nor for fitness, and the team looked desperately short of both in the opening weeks of the campaign.

The club’s transfer business also deserves a mention. The departure of N’Golo Kanté, last season’s surprise package, was almost inevitable due to a release clause in his contract but came as a bitter blow nonetheless. So too did scouting wizard Steve Walsh’s move to Everton in order to take up the position of director of football. Leicester’s current incumbent in that position is Jon Rudkin, a man with no experience in the role and whose ability to perform it effectively is doubtful at best.
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None of Leicester’s summer signings have fully convinced: record signing Islam Slimani has looked capable when given service but injuries and the Africa Cup of Nations have limited his opportunities. Nampalys Mendy has similarly struggled for fitness and barely featured Ahmed Musa still looks to be coming to terms with the physicality of English football. Ron-Robert Zieler has looked decent if rather underwhelming in his appearances, whilst young Polish talent Bartosz Kapustka had to wait until February to make his full debut against Derby in the FA Cup.

After a thoroughly awful first half to the season, the club had an opportunity to solve its glaring issues with regards to defensive and creative deficiencies in January. Instead, Luis Hernández, the only defender signed by the club this season, returned to Spain. Wilfred Ndidi arrived from Genk and in fairness has looked promising thus far, but the loan signing of 4th choice Udinese centre back Molla Wague did little to instil confidence in the Foxes faithful.

But ultimately, it is neither transfers nor a lack of preparedness that has brought about Leicester’s almighty downfall. Instead, it is a fundamental issue with the mentality of these players, and perhaps also with the staff. They have, essentially, achieved the impossible. They have done something in their careers they never conceived they could have done. Journeymen like Morgan, Vardy and Drinkwater have risen from relative obscurity to global fame. They have earned their shot at continental football and written themselves into folklore. Claudio Ranieri’s tactics and methods have increasingly come under question this season, allegedly from his own players and staff too, but he is not the man responsible for this almightiest of downfalls.
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Sadly, those in the Leicester squad are not serial winners in the way that the likes of Roy Keane and John Terry have been, and do not have the belief or desire necessary to do it all again. An unnamed member of the squad commented that “winning the title was like climbing Mount Everest. Then you get back down, receive a pat on the back and you’re told to climb up it all over again.”

Now, Leicester have a different sort of mountain to climb, and it is one of their own making.

Wayne Rooney, criminally underrated or unfulfilled potential?

CONTRIBUTIONS BY AIDAN JONES AND ADAM CLAPHAM

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Wayne Rooney’s last minute free-kick against Stoke rescued a point for Manchester United, maintaining their pursuit for Champions League football. However, the strike represented much more than that. Rooney had just become the all-time leading goal scorer for Manchester United, surpassing Sir Bobby Charlton’s 43 year record of 249 goals.

Rooney is one of the biggest names in modern football. The England captain also holds the goal-scoring record for his country, after gaining his 50th international goal against Switzerland at Wembley back in September 2015.

Despite the stats suggesting greatness, the last few years have coloured a seemingly bright career. Disputes about his physical condition, questions as to whether he can still continue as lone centre forward. We’ve seen, since David Moyes’ introduction at Old Trafford, Rooney has moved gradually further backwards, and often appeared in the heart of the midfield alongside Michael Carrick and Ander Herrera last year under Louis Van Gaal.

Perhaps Rooney is an easy target. His life is well documented in the press, which has led recently to further questions over the integrity of media. The Sun, to name one of a few organisations, led the way in shaming Rooney for his ‘drunken antics’ when visiting a wedding whilst on England duty.  However, Liverpool duo Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana had reportedly visited a strip club on the same night, getting back to the team hotel in the early hours of the morning. Rooney was forced to apologise for his actions. Henderson and Lallana did not.

Rooney splits the opinions of football fans, none more so than those of his own club. In thirteen years, 250 goals later, Rooney should have established himself as a true United great. Yet, Rooney has twice tried to force a move away from the club. He’s twice had his head turned by Chelsea, with Carlo Ancelloti in 2010 and current United boss Jose Mourniho in 2013. There was even speculation of a move to Manchester rivals City, following Carlos Tevez.

We hear the ‘United Trinity’ of George Best, Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton. All three of these players are regarded much higher than Rooney by United fans because of his attempts to move on. Manchester United is arguably the biggest club in the world, and when you are representing a club of this stature, nothing should tempt you to leave.

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Many criticise his ability, which is unfair. Yes, he isn’t at the level, both physically and technically, that he once was. However, his mentality and temperament have allowed him to maintain his status at the top by adapting his game accordingly. Whilst not necessarily being the first name on the team sheet anymore, he is a key player for both club and country.

Ultimately the stats don’t lie, so to say he hasn’t lived up to his potential is unfair. Five league title and one Champions League trophy puts him amongst the greats of the English game. Recent talk has linked him to the riches of the far east, with the rising financial power of the Chinese Super League said to have clouded his judgment once again. This is a different situation than what he had previously been faced with. With only a year left of his contract, and now in his early thirties, he may need to put his personal interests ahead of his football. With a supposed £1million a week contract on the table, you cannot blame him for considering the offer.

The Spaniard that keeps on delivering

 

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Like the Spanish Conquistadors that set out on ventures new, looking for treasure and gold. Lucas Perez did the same, setting off for the eerie shores of England and landed at Arsenal.

The Spaniard came with what seemed like a bargain price of £17.1 million and after last week’s performance in the FA Cup, he showed what smart spending is all about.

The 28-year old displayed an outstanding performance against Premier League side Southampton. With the ability to string passes together with the striker. Even having the qualities to forge a partnership with a non-starter in Kieran Gibbs, showing the versatility to work with anyone down that left side.

The former Deportivo La Coruña forward possesses the composure and finesse that you expect from the Spanish. As well having the key eye for a goal and the precision to deliver the ball in the back of the net, he makes any football enthusiast gleam with joy.

His only goal for Arsenal in the league was in their 3-3 draw vs Bournemouth. Despite his tally not looking as impressive as one would hope, the Spaniard’s desire to set up play and be on the end of enticing passes gives the possibility of goals, assists and points to come.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has recently been using Arsenal’s new Spaniard in a different number of positions, but after a string of great performances, Perez has seen his place come on the left-wing. Lucas has shown his willingness to adapt with having the ability and desire to thrive under any position giving to him.

Although Perez may have tallied 16 points so far this season, Arsenal have a few games coming up which Lucas could sneak some points on for your team.

Trips to the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, may seem scary for a person wanting to put him in the team. However, his recent performances have shown that if given the chance he can create opportunities and create chances for points.

A potential big game for Lucas to establish himself in the Arsenal team and in your Fantasy squads is the home trip coming up against Hull City. The PL side sitting at the bottom of the table could allow Lucas the freedom and promise to deliver the points needed for The Gunners.

The resurgence in forwards at Arsenal has become a big upside for The Gunners and Lucas falls in that category. With the likes of Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi putting in a string of performances, Lucas Perez has shown that ‘the wheat rises from the chafe’.

Frank Lampard – The Premier League’s Most Underrated Legend?

Getty Images - Ullstein Bild

Getty Images – Ullstein Bild

Frank Lampard called time on an illustrious 21-year career, and with it comes the end of an era.

With the likes of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard – often compared to Lampard throughout his long career – already retired, the golden age of hope for English football has now disappeared once and for all. Whilst that England team might not have won anything, or even come remotely close for that matter, seeing those three in competition with each other battling week in, week out in the Premier League, was something of beauty.

There’s a lot of debate, but frankly the arguments are futile. All three deserve massive credit for their own achievements, without comparison to their counterparts. Lampard’s record in particular is quite honestly staggering, though, so it’s strange to think that he never quite got the recognition his efforts and achievements deserved. The stats are there for all to see.

He’s Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer with 211 in total for the Blues, whilst only three players sit above him and his 177 goals in the all-time Premier League standings. The fact that they’re all strikers sums up his achievements from the midfield. What’s more, he’s second, only to Ryan Giggs, in the all-time Premier League assists standings.

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A runner-up in the Ballon D’or, something seldom seen for a home nation talent. Three Premier League titles. Both the Europa League and the Champions League, conquered. Four FA Cups. Two League Cups. He really has done it all. Consider that, then factor in his England record for the Senior team, returning 29 goals with over a century of international caps (106), and you’re left with what can only be described as a legend.

It could be argued that the move to Manchester City took the gloss off his Chelsea ‘club legend’ status somewhat, but fans were unperturbed for the most part given how well he served them for so long. It was during this stint that he made his landmark 600th Premier League appearance, demonstrating even further his remarkable longevity and class.

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He never really fulfilled his potential in an England shirt in truth, but there’s a long list of players who the same could be said for. Perhaps the moments that stick at the front of our minds aren’t the ones that should for such a loyal servant, but it’s difficult to look past his penalty shoot-out miss in England’s World Cup quarter final against Portugal in 2006. Through no fault of his own, because it would have been an excellent goal, the other memory that sticks in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many other England fans, is the controversial goal-line decision against Germany. It’s okay to still be bitter about that. Who knows what might have happened if the correct decision had been given.

Early on in his career, Lampard was never seen as anything special. In fact, the idea that he could go on to become a club legend and such a presence in the Premier League would have sounded ridiculous. He was good, but not great. He didn’t possess that flair that others did. He was simple in his methods and technique, but it worked, and some. Combine that with his sheer determination, the will to want to win, and his admirable work ethic that made him into such a success, and you’re left with a near perfect player.

He served Chelsea admirably as a model professional – a true gentleman – throughout his career. He was ever present under whichever manager was at the helm, during what can only be described as a ‘tricky’ period at times. And, for a man who was often so selfless and team orientated, dedicating his life to the club, it’s nice to think back and reflect on the few moments he had in the spotlight. It was fitting that it was Lampard himself, who scored a brace as Chelsea secured their first Premier League title against Bolton in 2005. Leading Chelsea to that famous Champions League triumph on penalties over Bayern, with John Terry suspended, must also come under that bracket.

It might sound like an obvious thing to say, but when he sits back and looks back at all that he’s achieved, he must feel immensely proud. Who knows how soon we’ll see him on the touchline?

 

The media’s obsession with Raheem Sterling is bizarre and unfair

In the aftermath of England’s dismal Euro 2016 campaign, very few emerged with any semblance of credibility or dignity. Roy Hodgson, architect of one of the nation’s dullest and most inept showings in living memory, resigned after the excruciating last-16 defeat to minnows Iceland. Joe Hart came under renewed and justified criticism after his second major error of the tournament played a large role in England’s exit. Harry Kane’s corner taking, aptly described as “special” by international colleague Jack Wilshere, really needs no further discussion.

But the recipient of much of the most scathing criticism was Raheem Sterling. Still only 22, Sterling has never been the most popular of footballers in this country for a variety of reasons. Since his debut for Liverpool aged 17 in 2012, he has developed a reputation as a tricky, fleet-footed winger but also, rightly or wrongly, as something of a “bad egg”. First came his mid-season holiday to Jamaica, which was supported by the club and manager Brendan Rodgers but drew the disapproval of supporters and ex-players alike. Then, a well-publicised contract dispute with Liverpool that led the youngster to give an unsanctioned and ill-advised interview with the BBC in which he protested that he was “not a money-grabbing 20-year-old” and insisted a hunger for trophies rather than wealth was behind his desire for a move.Embed from Getty Images

Shortly before his eventual £44m move to Manchester City, Sterling drew further ire from the Liverpool faithful when he asked to be left out of Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the Far East and missed training after phoning in sick. Particularly unimpressed was Reds icon Steven Gerrard, who questioned the professionalism of his former team-mate and professed himself to be “very disappointed” with the conduct of Sterling and his representatives.

The winger’s heinous crimes have not been restricted to the footballing world, either. The Sun, always keen to take the moral high ground and with a history of responsible reporting where Liverpool matters are concerned, published front-page images of Sterling inhaling nitrous oxide shortly after the beginning of the contract debacle in April 2015. Not the most sensible of actions for a young footballer, certainly, but hardly as irresponsible or dangerous as the tabloid sensationalism and the term “hippy crack” might have you believe. Nor is Sterling alone in indulging himself in this manager – fellow youngsters Jack Grealish and Demarai Gray have also been caught on camera inhaling the gas. Overlooking this incident would be irresponsible in itself, and it is certainly the sort of thing from which you might hope young players will learn, but it is hardly the atrocity that a front-page spread might suggest.

So far, then, Sterling has lived the life of a typical young footballer. Impatience for success and the occasional misdemeanour are to be expected, especially when one so young is thrust into the spotlight so quickly. Now 22, a year younger than Harry Kane and two years senior to Dele Alli, Sterling is a regular fixture at City under new manager Pep Guardiola. He impressed alongside fellow youngsters Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus in their 4-0 demolition of West Ham recently, prompting Guardiola to declare the three “the future” of the club. Why, then, does Sterling still find himself the centre of fervent tabloid gossip about his private life? Embed from Getty Images

It seems that barely a week passes without an article appearing highlighting his snacking habits, the state of his car or the way he chooses to decorate his house. The Daily Star are the most prolific with regards to publishing such non-stories, but even heavyweights like the Sun and the Mail could not resist the opportunity to mock young Sterling’s shopping tastes – using a picture taken in 2014.

Ignoring the glaring vacuum of logic necessary to criticise a player for both buying expensive houses and shopping at Poundworld, it is hard to escape the feeling that there is something a little more sinister behind the incessant hysteria pumped out by these publications. As Daniel Harris noted in his excellent piece for the New Statesman, there is an undercurrent of racism beneath the criticism, the speculation and the jeers which still follow Sterling up and down the country, whether in the stands or in the media industry which is still largely devoid of minorities.

Raheem Sterling is not yet the finished article as a footballer, nor is he the paragon of virtue that we for some reason expect our young players to be. He is, however, an exceptional talent with a bright future ahead of him and, more importantly, a human being deserving of far more respect than he is currently afforded.