Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Goalkeeper With Magic


"I was ready to celebrate, but then this man Banks appeared in my sight like a kind of blue phantom."

Even Pele was stopped in his tracks by Gordon Banks, the world's best goalkeeper in his day, who has died aged 81.

A World Cup winner with England in 1966, he is perhaps best remembered for his wonder save from Pele four years later in Mexico, a stop often dubbed the greatest in football history.

Almost half a century later, Banks' diving flip to deny the world's best player is still astonishing in its athleticism, snatching victory from certain defeat, an almost extra-terrestrial action on the football field.

A Goalkeeper With Magic

His nonchalant trot back head down across his goalmouth to defend the ensuing corner shows the other side of his character - a decent, modest yeoman warrior not given to blowing his own trumpet loudly.

In both tournaments Banks was in imperious form and might have won a second Jules Rimet trophy had he not mysteriously gone down with food poisoning on the eve of England's quarter-final against West Germany.

The fact he was the only player to fall ill, from a suspected contaminated beer, and he was England's mighty guardian, was very suspicious.

"Of all the players to lose, we had to lose him," rued manager Alf Ramsey.

To this day no proof of foul play has come forth but rumours abound that the CIA wanted England out so that Brazil would win the World Cup and in its elation the country would not fall to the communists.

Banks was the unlucky hero whose beer was duly poisoned as part of a political game, so the theory goes, but other bizarre events accompanied England in that tournament, which give weight to the conspiracy theorists.

The fourth of England's 1966 side to die, following Bobby Moore, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, Banks was along with Moore and Bobby Charlton, one of the three players in the side who was genuinely world class.

The boys of '66 have attained a sacred status in England because the Three Lions have failed to win anything before or since so the loss of another of that heavenly eleven is the shining light of a star going out for good.

So the tributes have been pouring in from the likes of fellow custodians like Peter Shilton, who followed Banks path to England and the World Cup via Leicester and Stoke.

"I'm devastated," said Shilton. "Today I've lost my hero."

"One of my inspiration, a winner and a true gentleman," opined Peter Schmeichel.

"I am one of the many who built their dreams on your perfect save!" tweeted Gianluigi Buffon.

"Definitely England's greatest goalkeeper," said Ray Clemence.

Growing up I was taught England made the best goalkeepers and that tradition surely started with Gordon Banks' tenure between the sticks.

Goalkeeping demands a range of skills -  agility, elasticity, anticipation, presence, strength, communication, handling and distribution for starters.

But Banks' letter to journalist Lee Marlow, much shared on the web today, shows the Sheffield-born shot-stopper knew his craft like an old master.

"Always know where you are in the goal," he wrote, "narrow the angles down and make it as hard as possible for the striker to score...the more you play your eyes will get better at spotting the angles. You will begin to know where the ball will go..the eyes pick up the direction of the ball, how it floats through the air and send messages to your brain and then to your games like table tennis. That will sharpen your with a smaller have to be brave to come out for crosses or dive at the feet of a centre-forward...and be brave too if you lose or make a mistake."

Shilton noted that Banks put in extra training to hone his art when it was standard practice to go home at lunchtime.

Banks played a total of 558 league matches - 23 for Chesterfield, 293 for Leicester, 194 for Stoke as well as 73 for England.

In 1972 he had a head-on collision in his Ford Consul with an Austin A60 van and lost the sight in his right eye. He never played again in England but five years later turned out for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the USA and was voted goalkeeper of the NASL season to boot.

If Lev Yashin was the world's best custodian in '66 and Dino Zoff was in 1974, for that period in between until 1972 it was the mild-mannered Yorkshireman who never played for a big club who was the best in the world at his job.

When he went back to football having lost an eye he became truly heroic.

What everyone agrees on beyond his goalkeeping prowess was how pleasant a man Banks was off-field, an immediately likeable and trustworthy chap.

"A fierce opponent and a good man. Rest in peace Gordon Banks", tweeted the German Football Association today.

The last words go to Pele, who was denied a famous goal by magic hands which instead made a famous save, the best-known in football's long history:

"He was a kind and warm man who gave so much to people," the Brazilian legend wrote on his Facebook page today.

"So I am glad he saved my header - because the act was the start of a friendship between us that I will always treasure...Yes you were a goalkeeper with magic. But you were also so much more. You were a fine human being."

Gordon Banks 1937-2019.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Wednesday, February 6, 2019



Ramon Vega will not be challenging Gianni Infantino for the FIFA Presidency this summer.

The former Celtic and Tottenham player failed to collect the minimum five nominations required from member nations by midnight last night, leaving his three-year campaign dead in the water and his Swiss compatriot free to carry on as the most powerful man in football after June's FIFA Congress.

Anti-Fifa Graffiti in Portugal
While any change had been welcome following Sepp Blatter's scandal-strewn reign, complaints are increasing about Infantino, particularly his authoritarian style of management and distribution of TV rights.

His desire to expand the already bloated World Cup to a colossal 48 teams as early as 2022 in Qatar shows he has lost little of his predecessor's megalomania.

In Switzerland, an investigation has been launched into FIFA hospitality offered by Infantino to Swiss prosecutors and other local bigwigs, confirming there has not been a completely new broom at FIFA HQ.

I wished Vega luck but could not help wondering why yet the only alternative choice for the head of world football after Blatter was another Swiss man, a monied banker to boot.

For some time I have been wishing FIFA to leave its snowy eyrie for pastures new.

Despite starting off in Paris in 1904, FIFA chose the Alpine nation for its HQ around a century ago when a number of international sporting bodies followed the lead of the League of Nations, which had set up shop in Geneva in 1920.

The International Olympic Committee and Court for Arbitration in Sport established themselves in Lausanne for instance while UEFA built a base in Basel.

Switzerland is a beautiful country which enjoys a high standard of living and quality of life of course and is perfectly sited between the three major continental nations of France, Germany and Italy.

Fifa HQ
Fifa HQ in Zurich, Switzerland
But crucially it is a neutral country which has a laissez-faire attitude to international money and no interest in flexing its political muscles on the world stage.

It asks few questions and imposes fewer laws, hence the proliferation of foreign financial institutions, which has given the phrase 'Swiss bank account' a shadowy connotation.

Bodies based within Swiss borders can effectively do what they want as there is no requirement for their accounts to be registered and scrutinized by the state for any illegality.

European Union membership it is needless to say has never been on the agenda for Switzerland.

This was perfect for FIFA as the millions accrued in sponsorship and TV rights poured in and the fat cats on the Executive Committee helped themselves to the cream.

The tsunami of corruption which drenched the reigns of Joao Havelange and Blatter tainted the FIFA brand, possibly forever but at least Blatter and his cronies - Grondona, Leoz and Jack 'Pirate of the Caribbean' Warner, have been turfed out.

Along with a major change of personnel, FIFA really needs a change of venue too. The Swiss location is too closely aligned with a whiff of malfeasance or at least having something to hide. With a lack of government oversight, the temptation to mishandle the money will always be there.

Fifa HQ Interior
Fifa HQ Interior

A move to a new and transparent country would send all the right messages.

So where could they move? A relocation to a big football nation like Germany might smack of bias to that country, but then again FIFA began in Paris and staying in France would not have been problematic.

Really FIFA should be based in London as that is the game's homeland but England missed its chance in the early 1900's to govern the game on a global basis, allowing the French and others to step in.

Luxembourg or Belgium, already home to multinational institutions like the EU and NATO, well connected and with a recent history of humility on the world stage, might best replicate the Swiss model.

But the chances of any truly radical change at FIFA are always remote and frankly wishful thinking.

How bizarre that such an insular and private little country indirectly wields so much power and that its citizens have been in charge of such a global concern for over twenty years now, or even longer if you count Blatter's ascendance to the role of General Secretary in 1981.

Isn't it time for FIFA to quit Switzerland?

From The Archives

Independent Ethics Committee bans Joseph S. Blatter and Michel Platini

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sala is lost but never gone


Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala
Gofundme page for Emiliano Sala ©

"Like looking for a needle in a haystack, when you don't even know where the haystack is."

The words of the former harbour master of Guernsey regarding the task of finding Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala were stark.

"I've been in football management now for 40 years and it's by far the most difficult week in my career by an absolute mile," stuttered the wizened and normally pugnacious Neil Warnock, the Bluebirds' manager.

The vanishing of the Argentine striker en route from Nantes to Cardiff a week ago, somewhere near the Channel Island of Guernsey, has transcended a mundane tale of a crashed light aircraft and turned into something of huge spiritual importance to the global football family.

For despite the manifest hopelessness, hope is refusing to quit. Against all logic, the search for Sala goes on, buoyed by a social media campaign which has yielded €300,000 in donations, including some from famous players like Kylian Mbappe, enough to procure the use of a submarine and surface vessels.

The quest for the missing footballer has become an affirmation of shared faith from a sport sometimes dismissed by outsiders as lacking profundity. Maybe it usually does, but the reaction to Sala's disappearance makes perfect sense to those in the know.

"Deep down in the bottom of my heart I know that Emiliano - who is a fighter - is still alive," said his sister Romina at a press conference four days ago, having jetted hastily and tearfully to Britain.

As long as we believe Sala is out there somewhere in the Channel we will keep looking for him because he was one of us and we look after each other in times like these. Ask anyone who has been in the military - you leave no man behind.

As children we all dreamed of being goalscorers like him, players with the privilege of pressing the ecstasy button of hitting the ball into the net. This tragedy has tapped into something from our childhoods, put simply the love of football.

His family has faith in finding him and faith matters to fans. As long as we have faith we will keep on going to watch losing teams, which most are. What unites us is not a belief in the cold and rational truth but a deeper human instinct:

To belong together.

The need to feel tribal is innate and intrinsic to this sport's following.  Win or lose we all take the same journey. Take that drug away and football folk will seek it elsewhere; it is a fire which cannot be dowsed.

Romina's determination to keep the flame burning therefore makes perfect sense.

Sala's unexpected vanishing struck a sudden chord across the soccer world. Radamel Falcao, Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and the Argentine President Mauricio Macri amongst others tweeted pleas for divine intervention or a renewed search of the English Channel.

In a supposedly secular age, Twitter resembled a book of prayer intentions with the hashtag #NoDejenDeBuscar  - Don't stop searching.

In Nantes, the city Sala had departed after four happy years, Place Royale became a shrine overnight to the lost hero of Les Canaris, full of candlelit vigils.

Outside the Cardiff City stadium too, fans who had never seen Sala play and never will draped votive offerings of scarves, flags and daffodils to their eternal Bluebird. Football as religion? It sure looked like it.

The French and Welsh cities are twinned anyway through a shared Celtic heritage. It is hoped that Sala will bring their football teams closer together in future, perhaps through a regular charity match and fan association, the human symbol of their fraternity.

And as for the man at the centre of this devotion, will he ever know his fame, the cult his mysterious disappearance has engendered? One minute he was a footnote in the January transfer window en route to a relegation-threatened struggler, the next he was of the world's best-known players.

No black armbands were worn at the weekend despite the probability to the contrary so in challenging the laws of physics, the missing plane has assumed a Bermuda Triangles-esque character, open to magical interpretation.

Tonight at Arsenal, Cardiff City's team sheet included Sala's name at the bottom of its list of substitutes, a spirit player no plane crash could stop.

Gunners skipper Laurent Koscielny duly kept the faith in his programme notes:

"I am very happy that the searches are now continuing," he wrote.

It is still a deeply sad story, but tragedies bring out the best of humanity in those who react with love and solidarity.

What a strange and infathomable thing fate is and what an emotional and sacred thing football can be.

No Dejen de Buscar.

Emiliano Sala forever.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Monday, January 21, 2019



'Spygate' has for my money been the biggest story so far this season in England and it has not been in the Premier League.

Marcelo Bielsa has been one of the most renowned coaches in the world for some years so there was some excitement last summer when it was announced that the Argentine was coming to England, albeit to the second flight, his seventh national workplace if you include his two crazy days at Lazio.

Leeds FC

So far so good as Leeds United are top of the league, but if the media throng around the Premier League had only glimpsed Bielsa out of the corner of their eye, the news that one of his staff had been stopped by police with a pair of binoculars watching rivals Derby County's training session from an adjacent hill certainly woke everyone in English football up.

As the mist has cleared, more people are realising there is a canny cat out there amongst the staid old pigeons. With a little research it would have been clear Bielsa is probably the most meticulous manager in the game, a fanatic football man who at 63 is not about to slow down.

In Argentina he drove around 9,000Km in his car to scout signings for Newell's Old Boys and embraces player analysis like an eager addict, spending hours and hours analysing, categorising and classifying his opponents down to each player. No wonder he has built a bedroom extension to his office.

Former players of his such as Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone as well as coaches like Jorge Sampaoli sing his praises while Pep Guardiola no less has called him the best in the world.

Gabriel Batistuta's testimony is priceless, saying it was Bielsa "who taught me how to train on rainy days." He is certainly one of the first names on our lips when we talk about influential coaches. His alumni have become disciples.

But has Bielsa erred in not studying England's football culture and traditions? Some feathers were ruffled by the revelation of covert surveillance of Derby training. According to Bielsa, when Derby manager Frank Lampard spoke to him about the event, "He told me I didn't respect the fair play rules."

Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown has called for a points deduction from Leeds for instance.

"It's the wrong thing to do. Poking around and skulking around a training ground is not part of the game," he told the BBC.

While apparently unsportsmanlike, there is unlikely to be any sanction as no rule appears to have been broken.

The idea that Leeds, who won the resulting match between the sides, would have gained some killer advantage by watching the Rams in training beforehand, is also hard to believe given the treasury of information available to all clubs in 2019 through advanced computer programs like Opta, Prozone and Wyscout.

These performance analysis apps tell you everything you need to know about a side's behaviour and style of play and their players' abilities, leaving no surprises when it comes to match day.

You can easily focus on a particular player and bring up videos of all the headers he has made that season for instance. Statistics will inform you what phases of the 90 minutes teams tend to score, attack and defend etc so it is hard to see what having spies in situ can do.

As the furore died down, Bielsa to his credit defended his actions, inviting journalists into Elland Road last week for a Powerpoint presentation on his analytical methods, which are common practice in the professional game, albeit largely invisible to the watching public.

"We observed all the rivals we played against and watched all the training sessions of the opponents before we played against them," he confirmed, revealing the spying was routine. "I've been using this kind of practice since the World Cup qualifiers with Argentina."

He went on that he watched opponents because "it is not illegal" and "even if it is not useful it gives me peace of mind."

He then said they watched every game their forthcoming opponent played the previous season (using aforementioned software programs) and that each match analysis took four hours. For Derby last season that entailed Leeds doing 204 hours of study, covering 51 different games.

What a far cry from Brian Clough's "Let them worry about us" mantra.

It worked in the sense that Leeds beat Derby and top the Championship. If all clubs are using the same computer analysis it makes sense to keep up with the Jones but was watching training necessary? Surely all the hours of matchday evidence is enough to form one's plan of attack.

On the other hand, Leeds have lost four of their last five games, three in the league and one F.A. Cup tie, so how useful has the spying and statistics really been?

After 200 hours' work of video analysis, watching your side then lose to a lesser opponent must be galling.

Leeds might have observed Derby practising a particular set piece routine for which they could have prepared countermeasures, but the possible advantage was surely a slim one. Maybe they were rather trying to spot which players were not training i.e. who was resting or carrying injuries.

Clubs can often give out false information about the fitness status of players in the run up to big games to throw their opponents onto a false trail so there is an argument that advantages, however slim, can be gained by surveillance. Whether it is cricket or not is another question, one harder to answer.

It seems Bielsa was genuine when he says he never expected this furore. Pep Guardiola concurred.

"In other countries everyone does it," the Manchester City manager said. "In other countries they (training grounds) are open. In Munich there were people with cameras watching what we do."

Pochettino also backed his old boss:

"Here maybe it is a little bit weird," he said, "but...that happened 30 years ago in is not a big issue or a big deal."

Some years ago I was living in Italy and would watch one of the best sides in Europe at the time, Parma - Gianfranco Zola, Tomas Brolin, Faustino Asprilla et al, training openly in the city's Cittadella park once a week before signing autographs for fans.

That season Arsenal went on to beat them in the European Cup-Winners Cup Final in Copenhagen. Master tactician George Graham probably did not need my insider knowledge anyway.

Liverpool's Melwood training ground is famously so open that Colombian university student Juan Carlos Osorio rented a room in an adjoining house to observe their methods. The same man went on to coach Mexico at last summer's World Cup where they beat holders Germany and is now manager of Paraguay.

Jurgen Klopp however said the last two training sessions before a match should be kept private.

"You change a lot of things, you train on the set-pieces, you use the players available for the weekend, it's not for anybody else" he said, sentiments echoed by Crystal Palace's Roy Hodgson.

Swansea coach Graham Potter on the other hand disagreed. "I have no problem with it," he admitted "It's not something I am too bothered about."

"Watching teams on the sly is nothing new in football," agreed Alan Shearer, who said he deliberately placed penalties in the wrong places while training before overseas away fixtures in the host stadium because he was sure someone was watching him.

The Newcastle legend however drew a distinction between accessible training sessions and deliberately breaching or looking over erected privacy barriers, as happened at Derby.

Yet the revelation of Bielsa's practices does shine a little torchlight upon the hidden face of the sport, one of many practices which go on in the shadows and are not discussed in public. For that reason the reaction from those inside the game, ex-players and managers, has not been one of hysterical condemnation or demands for punishment.

The general consensus is that a man with binoculars on a hill was not quite within the spirit of the game and that someone should have a quiet word with Bielsa. At at the same time we ruefully acknowledge as Hull manager Nigel Adkins said, that "You can't keep secrets in football anymore."

From the tapping up of players to top stars sitting out cup games or mysteriously withdrawing from international duty, agents enticing managers to field their men, clubs tipping off loyal journalists in order to fulfil their ghastly media strategies or worst of all players accepting money from betting syndicates to influence outcomes, there are many things which happen in the shadows that the public simply does not witness.

For that reason alone, Spygate is the story of the season, a reminder that the game we think we know inside and out is not all that it appears to be.

Bielsa must be believed when he admits he is shocked by the reaction to his methods.

He should be commended for his honesty, although perhaps not his cultural sensitivity. Since the Derby revelation, 11 sides in the Championship have complained about spying by Leeds.

If we are all to accept this as part of the English game, there remains some convincing to be done, even if as universally accepted, no law has been transgressed.

If Leeds are playing Premier League football next season, the precious clubs of England's top division will doubtless be on the lookout for Bielsa's men and already heightening their walls, creating no-fly zones and planning to spike the Argentinian's covert operations with their own special forces.

Breaching the defences surrounding Manchester United's Carrington training complex will be like an attack on the Death Star, but be sure that Bielsa, like the young Luke Skywalker, will be up for the challenge.

In this age of cellphones, drones and the internet it is hard to believe there are any big secrets clubs can conceal in closed training sessions anyway. As Guardiola confirmed,

"Everyone is spying on everyone, on the personal lives of this man or woman. Everywhere is like this."

I actually do not live too far from Chelsea's training ground, and know the environs as I once did a junior coaching course there while it still belonged to the Surrey F.A.

If the weather is nice maybe I will pop down tomorrow with my bird-watching binoculars and see if I can figure out why Maurizio Sarri is playing Eden Hazard out of position and cannot motivate his team.

Bielsa has led the way again.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Five Leagues and a World Apart


Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

My home town team Woking were the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup but we could not manage to beat the odds and make it to the fourth round, losing 2-0 at home to Watford yesterday.

Woking and Watford are similar towns in size and distance from the capital and their football clubs are of similar age, but today they play five divisions apart.

This salient fact makes the scoreline complement the Cardinals of the sixth-tier National League South, who pluckily took on a crack Premier League outfit. In reality we never threatened an upset, forcing Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes into only one save and missing one half-chance to score in the second half.

Watford meanwhile forged a string of occasions to score in the first half, only thwarted by last-ditch lunges and Woking goalie Craig Ross.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Their goals came in cruise control.

Will Hughes, slippery as an eel, had the luxury of no markers so could meet a corner kick first time to whip his shot into the far corner in the 13th minute.

Troy Deeney, who was playing with a smile on his face as if in a charity match, had an easy tap-in from close range an hour later after Woking's defence let a cross shockingly slip past them. "Sloppy mistakes", the Cards boss Alan Dowson rued later.

Watford boss Javi Gracia might have made 11 changes from their previous match but could still field ten nationalities including current or ex-internationals of Brazil, England, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Venezuela and former players of Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid.

Woking's players were all English with the exception of Jamar Loza, who has made three friendly appearances for Jamaica, and none earned more than £400 per week as the club is only semi-professional.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Against these odds, Jake Hyde's determined forward runs and substitute Armani Little's dogged attacking were worthy of medals for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

Woking's manager had spoken of an imminent cricket score beforehand, deliberately dowsing any euphoria or inebriated optimism.

The Cards motored away, thrusting at a superior foe who always seemed to have two or three players to close down our runners. We tried yet never came close to the prize, a universal truth recognised by the sustained applause at the final whistle, which was more like that of a classical concert, the managers' embrace and the relaxed player handshakes.

An annual narrative is how the F.A. Cup is not what it was, but for clubs like Woking it is still our only sip of ambrosia, a fleeting and infrequent moment in the limelight and a chance to slay Goliaths.

Woking v Watford in the FA Cup 2019

Giant-slaying is getting harder despite the fielding of B-teams by the big boys. Fitness levels and tactical preparation have advanced in the professional game and without the money, the Davids cannot keep up.

Gaps between divisions have widened so how on earth could anyone expect a club five divisions beneath the Premier League to have won through?

Our previous exploits against Everton, Coventry, Millwall, Brighton and Swindon are jewels in our crown, peaks we conquered or almost reached. The Koh-I-Noor for us will always be our 4-2 win at West Bromwich Albion in the 3rd Round in 1991, a day so blissful for our little team and town.

We will always have the Hawthorns. We just hope it was not our last moment in the sun.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Real Crisis


With almost half the season gone in La Liga, it is fair to say Real Madrid are in crisis.

That word is routinely abused by the Spanish press who band it about every week, normally on a Monday in the aftermath of a defeat or draw for Los Merengues, yet this time they might have a point.

A Real Crisis
Change is needed at the Bernabeu

Today the World Club Cup holders lost 0-2 at home to lowly Real Sociedad, despite fielding nine of those who won the Champions League against Liverpool in Kiev last May.

Europe's top side for the last three seasons now sit a woeful fifth after 18 matches, a full ten points behind eternal rivals Barcelona and even trailing Deportivo Alaves, one point outside the qualification spots for the Champions League, the competition they have won four out of the last five seasons.

On Wednesday Real host Leganes in the first leg of their last 16 Copa del Rey tie. Even though the competition is minor, only a win will do for a beleaguered club and its unexpected manager Santiago Solari, who was handed the reins on a temporary basis in the wake of the Julen Lopetegui mess.

Real's brazen capture of Lopetegui from the Spanish Football Federation saw the national team sack their coach on the eve of the World Cup in Russia amid a climate of insanity. Lopetegui was fired himself by Real three and a half months later and the club have still to find stability this season.

Second spot in La Primera is never enough for the insatiable Real directors, supporters and Real-obsessed Spanish football dailies AS and Marca, but European success makes up for a lot. The fact Real have won the last three Champions League in a row has handed the club precious bragging rights over the more stable Barca.

Florentino Perez, the man behind the badge, is holding out for a new leader in the summer. After raiding White Hart Lane for Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, he is keen to haul Mauricio Pocchetino and Christian Eriksen to Madrid as well.

If Solari is fired in the summer as is probable in favour of a big-name coach, he can at least point to his capture of the FIFA World Club Cup in December.

The Argentine was a logical choice given he had been coaching behind the scenes at youth and reserve level at the Bernabeu since 2013.

His insider connection should keep him in place until the end of the season, but if a resurgent Ajax should humiliate his side in next month's Champions League and qualification for next season be thrown into doubt by domestic stumbling, expect Perez to appoint his third coach since Zinedine Zidane called it a day in May last year.

Zidane had cited a "need for change" at the club when he surprisingly resigned, interpreted as foreseeing with foreboding the rocky road of rebuilding the spine of the side beyond the BBC attack and thirty-somethings Marcelo, Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos.

The Cristiano Ronaldo era ended soon afterwards too, bookending nine amazing years in Madrid but leaving a hole in an eleven devoted to maximising his forward thrusts and a void in the club's identity.

Youth team talents hailed as future stars have not filtered into the first team while recent signings such as Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior (both €45 million), Alvaro Odriozola (€30 million) and Mariano Diaz (€21 million) have not won starting spots.

The long-mooted plan to redevelop the Bernabeu has also been put on the back burner again given the on-field chaos.

After half a year of chaos, the Frenchman's swift exit looks increasingly to have been a stroke of genius as change at the Bernabeu stays beyond the horizon.

Necessary reconstruction of the world's biggest club is no small-scale engineering project but nobody is ready to push the painful start button.

In the meantime, Real fans are thinking of 2020 already.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Liverpool's to Lose


"Football is an unpredictable game" is one of those mind-numbing cliches trotted out whenever there is an upset of sorts.

The thing is the yearly cycle of hopes and dreams alternately built up, fulfilled or smashed that is the football season lends itself so readily to repeated quips of interpretation. It's a marathon not a sprint, trip up in the home straight etc are perfectly adequate ways to describe what we know by hand now.

Of course it is a fairly predictable sport or else the betting industry would not survive, basing its business model on the laws of probability.

Liverpool FC

Leicester City's capture of the Premier League in 2016 is the frustrating spanner in the works of any accusations that money has captured the game and given birth to an unassailable hegemony of the top clubs.

Likewise the many Christmas twists in this season's Premier League race have drawn some into thinking it really is an open competition where David can kill Goliath on any given Saturday.

This is nonsense of course.

Liverpool might have found themselves in an unexpected seven-point lead at the top of the tree as we enter 2019 and Manchester City have just as surprisingly lost two on the trot but the top six are still the usual suspects at this halfway stage.

That said, it would be healthy if a club which has not won the title since the end of the 1980's could capture it in 2018, even if they have the spending power to be there or thereabouts (sorry for the cliche) every season.

The gap between the top five and the rest is substantial. Wolves, despite a rejuvenating and most unexpected 3-1 win at Wembley yesterday over the hitherto lauded Tottenham Hotspur, are still 25 points behind the leaders.

Was Spurs' recent cavalcade a false dawn? And what about Arsenal, who despite all the talk of a rebirth under Unai Emery, have still only won one point more than they had this time last season.

The Gunners were a country mile behind a rampant and ravenous Liverpool at Anfield in their 5-1 demolition so they can put their Champions League plans on hold.

Oh and then there is Manchester United who have won three on the bounce since Jose Mourinho was handed his P45. Undoubtedly the timing of the Special One's firing was timed to coincide with a run of manageable fixtures: Cardiff, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Newcastle, plus Reading in the FA Cup.

Spurs away on the 13th of January should bring the Baby-Faced Assassin's explosive arrival to an end, but that is followed by home matches with Brighton and Burnley, further smoothing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's path.

So far so good, but honeymoons always end. At this stage it still seems hard to see United making the Champions League with an eight-point deficit to fourth place to conquer plus the staying power of Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester City to counter.

Solskjaer should probably remain boss given his popularity with fans and players, but missing out on the Champions League could see United on the managerial merry-go-round yet again.

As for Liverpool, the elephantine 27-year wait for the title for England's traditionally strongest club could be set to end in 2019, but there is a long way to go and some stiff competition to see off first.

I can hear another cliche coming on.

Many of us would like to see Liverpool win as a tonic to Man City's recent dominance, a reward for Jurgen Klopp's enthusiasm and a fond reminder of the Red Machine of our childhoods.

It might also help gnarled old curmudgeons like me accept there is still a sense of competition left in England's top flight.

Klopp himself of course is doing his best to dowse the fires of expectation but he cannot alone stop the media, fans, players and himself starting to get goosepimples as we pass the halfway mark.

Pep Guardiola has clearly been studying Alex Ferguson's mind games, calling Liverpool "the best team in Europe" this week as the glint of the title trophy starts to tantalise.

So no pressure there then. May the best team win.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile