A collection of my match reports and reaction pieces for AFP from the 2015-16 season:
Reaction: Man City ‘not afraid’ of Real Madrid – Pellegrini (Champions League)
Report: No Ronaldo, no goals as Man City, Real Madrid draw (Champions League)
Reaction: Ranieri hails Leicester’s unconquerable heart (Premier League)
Report: Understudy Ulloa propels Leicester eight points clear (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal refuses to look beyond FA Cup final (FA Cup final)
Report: Ice-cool Martial sends Man United to final (FA Cup)
Reaction: Unfair to single Arsenal out for criticism, says Wenger (Premier League)
Report: Sánchez sinks West Brom to settle Arsenal nerves (Premier League)
Reaction: Klopp invokes spirit of Istanbul in Liverpool comeback (Europa League)
Report: Last-gasp Lovren sinks Dortmund in Anfield thriller (Europa League)
Reaction: Van Gaal struck by rational Rashford (FA Cup)
Report: Dazzling Rashford brings Man United FA Cup cheer (FA Cup)
Reaction: Man City can win Champions League – Pellegrini (Champions League)
Report: De Bruyne downs PSG as Man City reach last four (Champions League)
Reaction: Man Utd ‘still ahead’ of Spurs, says Van Gaal (Premier League)
Report: Spurs stun Man Utd with six-minute blitz (Premier League)
Reaction: Ranieri keeps calm amid Leicester maelstrom (Premier League)
Report: Captain Morgan sends Leicester seven points clear (Premier League)
Reaction: Hodgson laments lost England momentum (friendly)
Report: Janssen, Narsingh bring England back to earth (friendly)
Report: Church converts penalty to thwart Northern Ireland (friendly)
Reaction: Man Utd derby win gives Van Gaal top-four belief (Premier League)
Report: Rashford ends Man City title bid as United rise again (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal wants derby response from Man Utd (Europa League)
Report: Classy Coutinho sends Man Utd out of Europe (Europa League)
Reaction: Pellegrini banks on Man City experience (Champions League)
Report: Injuries mar Manchester City’s history night (Champions League)
Reaction: Ranieri still in denial over Leicester title bid (Premier League)
Report: Okazaki upstages Benítez as Leicester march on (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal admits Man Utd blown away by Liverpool (Europa League)
Report: Sturridge and Firmino punish sorry Man United (Europa League)
Reaction: Ibrahimović silenced his doubters, says Blanc (Champions League)
Report: Avenging Ibrahimović fires PSG past Chelsea (Champions League)
Reaction: League Cup triumph vindicates me – Pellegrini (Capital One Cup)
Report: Caballero saves earn Man City glory (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Arsenal fightback gives Wenger title belief (Premier League)
Report: Welbeck late show breaks Leicester hearts (Premier League)
Reaction: Sun will shine for Liverpool youngsters – Klopp (FA Cup)
Report: Last-gasp Ogbonna header stuns Liverpool (FA Cup)
Report: Costa and Chelsea keep heat on Van Gaal (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal toasts win with wine from Woodward (FA Cup)
Report: Blind, Mata lift Van Gaal with win over Derby (FA Cup)
Reaction: Martinez ‘hurt’ by Everton’s League Cup exit (Capital One Cup)
Report: De Bruyne sends Man City to League Cup final (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Klopp pins hopes on all-Merseyside final (Capital One Cup)
Report: Mignolet save sends Liverpool to Wembley (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Arsenal don’t have Chelsea block, says Wenger (Premier League)
Report: Costa checks 10-man Arsenal’s title charge (Premier League)
Reaction: Anfield win will fire title belief, says Van Gaal (Premier League)
Report: Liverpool felled by Rooney sucker-punch (Premier League)
Report: Man Utd give Van Gaal respite in Chelsea draw (Premier League)
Reaction: Wenger lauds sick Özil’s amazing recovery (Premier League)
Report: Walcott wows as Arsenal steal march on Man City (Premier League)
Reaction: Defeat exposes ‘crazy’ Liverpool hype – Klopp (Premier League)
Report: Wijnaldum and Newcastle halt Liverpool surge (Premier League)
Reaction: Hat-trick star Origi has to learn – Klopp (Capital One Cup)
Report: Origi, Sturridge fire Liverpool into last four (Capital One Cup)
Reaction: Van Gaal worried by United’s attacking woes (Champions League)
Report: Man United made to wait after PSV stalemate (Champions League)
Reaction: Spurs title talk is premature, says Pochettino (Premier League)
Report: Kane brace sets Spurs on Arsenal’s tail (Premier League)
Reaction: Etihad win can be Liverpool base camp – Klopp (Premier League)
Report: Firmino and Liverpool punish sluggish Man City (Premier League)
Reaction: Blind hopes friendlies can fire idling Dutch (friendly)
Report: Robben sinks Wales as Holland bounce back (friendly)
Reaction: Wenger likes Giroud when he’s angry (Premier League)
Report: Gibbs thwarts Spurs in north London derby (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal relieved after Man Utd end goal drought (Champions League)
Report: Rooney ends Man Utd goal drought to down CSKA (Champions League)
Reaction: Mourinho unbowed as Chelsea crisis deepens (Premier League)
Report: Coutinho gives Mourinho Halloween horror show (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal shields Rooney after derby drudgery (Premier League)
Report: Man Utd and Man City misfire in shot-shy derby (Premier League)
Reaction: Klopp dismisses saviour tag after Rubin draw (Europa League)
Report: Klopp thwarted by 10-man Rubin on home bow (Europa League)
Reaction: Pellegrini purrs over ‘perfect’ De Bruyne (Champions League)
Report: Last-gasp De Bruyne shoots down Sevilla (Champions League)
Reaction: Klopp backs ‘fun’ Origi to fill Liverpool gaps (Premier League)
Report: Liverpool held by Spurs in Klopp’s first game (Premier League)
Reaction: Hodgson heartened by burgeoning Barkley (Euro 2016)
Report: Walcott and Sterling extend England’s winning run (Euro 2016)
Reaction: Beating Man Utd answers critics, says Wenger (Premier League)
Report: Arsenal bulldoze Man Utd to give Wenger solace (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal castigates Man United for carelessness (Champions League)
Report: Mata magic gets Man United up and running (Champions League)
Reaction: Mourinho and Wenger clash over bothersome Costa (Premier League)
Report: Zouma and Hazard punish nine-man Arsenal (Premier League)
Reaction: Pellegrini says Man City strikers must sharpen up (Champions League)
Report: Juventus stop rot with comeback win at Man City (Champions League)
Reaction: Van Gaal hopes Man Utd win is turning point (Premier League)
Report: Martial makes splash as Man Utd down Liverpool (Premier League)
Reaction: Hodgson sets record-breaker Rooney trophy goal (Euro 2016)
Report: Tearful Rooney nets record 50th England goal (Euro 2016)
Reaction: Coleman rues Wales’ missed opportunity (Euro 2016)
Report: Israel douse Welsh fires in Cardiff stalemate (Euro 2016)
Reaction: Record will soon be Rooney’s, says Hodgson (Euro 2016)
Report: History man Rooney sends England to Euro 2016 (Euro 2016)
Reaction: Van Gaal hails Man Utd hat-trick hero Rooney (Champions League)
Report: Rooney treble seals Champions League return for Man United (Champions League)
Reaction: Wenger rues offside call in Liverpool stalemate (Premier League)
Report: Arsenal and Liverpool share spoils in slugfest (Premier League)
Reaction: Van Gaal goes giddy for Man United match-winner Depay (Champions League)
Report: Depay double gives Man United play-off edge (Champions League)
Reaction: Benteke gives us new dimension, says Rodgers (Premier League)
Report: Disputed Benteke goal sinks Bournemouth (Premier League)
Reaction: Etihad derailment leaves Mourinho stewing (Premier League)
Report: Agüero leads way as Man City sharpen Chelsea’s pain (Premier League)
Reaction: Victorious Van Gaal wants more from Man United (Premier League)
Report: Januzaj tames Villa on Man United return (Premier League)
Report: Toothless Chelsea beaten by Fiorentina (International Champions Cup)
Reaction: Mourinho seethes as Arsenal land Wembley blow (Community Shield)
Report: Oxlade-Chamberlain ends Wenger’s Mourinho jinx (Community Shield)
Related link: Match reports and reaction 2014-15
A sweep of the press room before Leicester City’s recent victory over Swansea City confirmed the extent to which their pursuit of Premier League glory has captivated global audiences. Journalists from as far afield as Finland, Turkey, South Korea and Australia mingled in the queue for a pre-match meal, while a 10-strong Japanese contingent sat around a table discussing how Shinji Okazaki would fare in the absence of his suspended strike partner Jamie Vardy. The team that narrowly avoided relegation last season are now just three points from the league title and their Cinderella story has won them admirers in the most unlikely locations. “Last season, no-one really wrote about Leicester in the US and no-one really talked about them,” says Joe Prince-Wright, the lead soccer writer for American broadcasting giant NBC. “This season it’s been incredible — people like [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady and NFL players have been sending them messages. All of a sudden there’s this clamour to latch onto the underdog story.”
How the global media have gone giddy for the Foxes – read my AFP piece here.
The Champions League has at times been a steep learning curve for City, but playing against seasoned elite-level contenders has given Hart a chance to shine. Against eventual champions Barcelona last season, he pulled off 10 saves in a 1-0 second-leg defeat at Camp Nou, which moved Lionel Messi — whose penalty he had saved in the first leg — to brand him a “phenomenon”. “He saved everything,” said the awestruck Argentine, while Barcelona coach Luis Enrique described Hart’s display as “incredible”. When City lined up against Juventus, last season’s beaten finalists, in September, Buffon said “you won’t think of a better goalkeeper in the world”.
Ahead of Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, I’ve written something on Joe Hart, who often saves his best appearances for the competition. You can read it here.
The scrawny striker’s gritty back story, fiery temperament and hard-running playing style have turned him into something of an anti-hero for Leicester’s supporters, who have never seen their club win the title. “Jamie Vardy’s having a party, bring your vodka and your charlie!” is a regular chant at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. Meanwhile, an enigmatically aggressive Facebook post made by Vardy in October 2011 — “Chat shit get banged” — has become the go-to put-down among British youngsters on social media. But while Leicester’s fans revel in Vardy’s outlaw status, the West Ham incident suggested that the rough edges that once saw him convicted of assault during his non-league days have not been smoothed away.
Will Jamie Vardy’s angry dismissal against West Ham United cost Leicester City the title? My piece for AFP can be read here.
The sight of Klopp on the touchline — squawking at his players, pumping his fist in celebration of Divock Origi’s first-half goal — will have been immediately familiar to Dortmund’s fans, who granted him a touching send-off at the final whistle. So too the tactics employed by his team, whose aggressive, front-foot approach prevented the home side from settling into any kind of rhythm and whose counter-attacks kept the Dortmund rearguard on constant alert. While Dortmund have become more of a possession-based team under Klopp’s successor, Thomas Tuchel — the legacy of the new status his seven-year tenure left them with — Liverpool are exhibiting the same underdog mentality upon which he built his success in the Ruhr valley. Speaking earlier this season, former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson said the team’s best performances were “reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund at their best under Jürgen Klopp”.
Ahead of the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, here’s something I wrote on how Jürgen Klopp is using the tactics that took Dortmund to the summit of the European game in his rebuilding job at Anfield.
An urbane, understated figure, Pellegrini has already brought one Premier League title and two League Cups to the Etihad Stadium, but although it took the might of Barcelona to oust City from the Champions League in his first two seasons, he has been seen as something of a tactical ingenu. Pellegrini, it was said, was too closely wedded to attacking football to achieve success in Europe, but the manner of the triumph over PSG showed that City could play on the front foot in the Champions League, and prosper. City were sloppy defensively in the first leg, but scored opportunistic away goals through Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho, and their reward for refusing to sit on their advantage in Tuesday’s return leg was the 76th-minute De Bruyne strike that sealed a 3-2 aggregate win. That PSG were their last-eight victims was rich in symbolism — the other club buoyed by vast Middle Eastern wealth, already French champions and supposedly several developmental stages ahead of City, sent back to Paris with their tails between their legs.
A piece for AFP on a night of personal vindication for Manuel Pellegrini.
Handed United’s fabled number seven shirt after a club-record £59.7 million ($84.3 million, 74 million euros) transfer from Real Madrid, Di María could scarcely have arrived at Old Trafford amid greater fanfare. But despite a promising start, including a delicious lob at Leicester City, Manchester would not prove a happy home for the man nicknamed ‘Fideo’ (Noodle) on account of his skinny frame. Van Gaal continually changed his role, even fielding him as a lone striker at one stage, and a succession of injuries prevented him from finding any rhythm. The nadir arrived in late January last year when a group of burglars armed with scaffolding poles attempted to smash their way into Di María’s luxurious home while he, his wife and one-year-old daughter cowered inside.
I’ve written something on Ángel di María’s trip to the Etihad Stadium with Paris Saint-Germain, which gives him an opportunity to add a footnote to the chapter marked ‘Manchester’. You can read it here.
I caught up with the crew on Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast on Thursday to look back at the week’s Champions League quarter-final first legs. Our conversation took in the link between tiki-taka and Fernando’s moment of madness against Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s likely next move and Fernando Torres’s crazy sending-off against Barcelona. You can listen here.
Cruyff, who died from lung cancer aged 68 on Thursday, was a balletic, dazzlingly elegant player who came to embody the brilliant Ajax and Holland teams of the mid-1970s. Together with visionary coach Rinus Michels, he popularised the concept of ‘Total Football’ — a fluid playing system based on aggressive pressing, swarming attacks and positional interchanging that seemed to depend on an almost telepathic understanding between players. Cruyff, given licence to roam from his nominal position as centre-forward, was the on-pitch conductor, calculating angles, cajoling his team-mates into position and launching vertiginous dribbles into opposition territory with the ball at his feet.
My piece for AFP on Johann Cruyff’s role as a style icon and football innovator can be read here.
Hailing from the French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Payet was released by mainland club Le Havre at 16 and had to be persuaded not to abandon his dream of becoming a professional by his father, Alain. Offered a path back to Ligue 1 by Nantes, he acquired a reputation as a flamboyant but errant talent. At Nantes he clashed in training with former France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. At Saint-Étienne he headbutted team-mate Blaise Matuidi in the middle of a match. At Marseille he fell out with Florian Thauvin. It partly explains why Matuidi — now of Paris Saint-Germain — has 41 France caps to Payet’s 15, despite the two being born less than two weeks apart.
A piece on Dimitri Payet, once one of French football’s enfants terribles, now the last darling of the Boleyn Ground.
The FA is determined to arrest a slide in the number of England-eligible players playing in the Premier League, and has already introduced rules tightening up the visa application process for non-EU players. Wayne Harling, a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), believes that leaving Europe would smooth the development path for home-grown players such as 18-year-old Manchester United newcomer Marcus Rashford. “Rashford is only playing because of an injury crisis, but the problem with having so many EU players in the Premier League is that people like him usually wouldn’t be given a chance,” Harling told AFP. “The academies aren’t able to push players on to full-time contracts because they find it cheaper to recruit an established player from overseas.”
I’ve written a piece on how a British exit from the European Union might affect the Premier League – you can read it here.