“By asking for the number 10 shirt, Neymar gave a clear sign that he believes he is now ready to live up to the expectations that have awaited him ever since his fledgling steps for Santos as a prodigious 17-year-old. He has played down the switch, insisting the number has “no importance”, but he will know, like any Brazilian, that it symbolises the heritage of the pastime by which the entire nation defines itself.”
After Neymar put Japan to the sword in Brazil’s Confederations Cup opener on Saturday, I looked at how he measures up against the great Brazilian number 10s of yesteryear. You can read my piece for AFP here.
The closing weeks of the 2012-13 season represented one of the most seismic epochs in the recent history of English football: Sir Alex Ferguson sensationally retired as Manchester United manager, bowing out after an astonishing 5-5 draw at West Bromwich Albion; David Beckham called time on his perpetually headline-grabbing career; Wigan Athletic stunned Manchester City in the FA Cup final; Chelsea claimed a last-gasp victory over Benfica in the Europa League final; Arjen Robben netted a dramatic late winner for Bayern Munich to s6ettle a pulsating Champions League final at Wembley. And then shy, retiring José Mourinho returned to Chelsea.
I was privileged to report on all of it, and below are links to some of the pieces I produced for AFP as the season reached its crescendo:
Sir Alex Ferguson
Profile: Alex Ferguson, the man who rebuilt United
Analysis: Following Ferguson, United’s impossible job
Report: Ferguson bows out as United share 10-goal epic
Reaction: United look forward after Ferguson says goodbye
Analysis: Late-season retirements hint at Premier League flux
Report: Wigan stun Man City in FA Cup final upset
Europa League final
Report: Chelsea claim last-gasp Europa League triumph
Report: Beckham calls time on stellar career
Champions League final
Report: Redemption as Robben gives Bayern fifth European crown
“LONDON — Chelsea reached the Europa League final for the first time in their history after surviving a first-half scare to defeat Swiss champions FC Basel 3-1 in the second leg of their semi-final on Thursday.”
My AFP match report from Stamford Bridge can be read here.
“Villa threatened to spoil things when Christian Benteke side-footed over from Andreas Weimann’s pass, only for Robin van Persie to double United’s lead with a strike to rival any goal scored in Europe this season. Wayne Rooney floated a 40-yard pass behind the Villa defence and van Persie met the ball first-time with a technically immaculate volley from outside the box that rocketed past goalkeeper Brad Guzan and into the net.”
My AFP match report from Old Trafford on the 3-0 victory over Aston Villa that gave Manchester United their 20th league title can be read here.
“LONDON — Manchester City withstood a valiant fightback from Chelsea to win a gripping FA Cup semi-final 2-1 at Wembley Stadium on Sunday and knock the holders out of the competition.”
“Laid next to United’s results, City’s goal-shy tendencies are telling. Both sides have only lost four games this season but whereas United have only drawn twice, City have found themselves just a solitary goal from victory on eight separate occasions. Had only half those draws been turned into wins, the gap between the clubs would now be just four points, rather than the chasm it actually is.”
I wrote a piece for AFP on the factors that have derailed Manchester City’s Premier League title defence, and you can read it here.
“Saturday’s 1-0 win at Sunderland was Manchester United’s 15th victory by a one-goal margin in the league this season, one game short of the record they set en route to the Premier League title in 2009. For all the goals they have scored, United have rarely been ruthless, and they are on course to finish the league season without having put five goals past an opposing team for the first time since 2006.”
My piece for AFP on the curiously unfulfilling end to the season awaiting Manchester United following their FA Cup exit at the hands of Chelsea can be read here.
You can also read my match report on the game here.
The French may not have a direct equivalent to the word ‘teenager’ (there being no numerical suffix akin to ‘-teen’ in the language of Molière), but that doesn’t stop them remarking on the novelty when a player under the age of 20 is called up by the national team.
It happened twice earlier this month, when 19-year-olds Raphaël Varane and Paul Pogba were both included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Spain. Pogba rather spoilt the symmetry by turning 20 the following day, but it was such a rarity that L’Équipe marked the occasion with a photographic slideshow of the players to have graced the blue jersey while still awaiting the end of their second decade.
Varane and Pogba are exceptions. The expectation, in France, is that players will earn their spurs in the junior versions of the national team before eventually graduating to the senior side. France’s under-21 squad – known as les Espoirs (literally, ‘the hopes’) – brims with exciting players such as Milan striker M’Baye Niang and the Lyon pair of Clément Grenier and Alexandre Lacazette, but although they play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, there is no clamour for them to be promoted to the senior squad before they are ready. That is partly down to the depth of talent already at Deschamps’ disposal, but it is also, partly, cultural.
Exceptional indeed is the player who is excused an apprenticeship in France’s representative youth teams. Despite Pogba’s widely acclaimed performances for Juventus this season, Deschamps has admitted to reluctance about allowing him to stroll straight into the first-team set-up. As recently as January, the former Marseille manager said the midfielder still needed “some carrot and stick” before he could be considered for selection. Both Pogba and Varane impressed on their debuts against Georgia on Friday, but afterwards the word on Deschamps’ lips was “potential”.
“LONDON: When Michael Owen comes to reflect on his career, he may have cause to remember New Year’s Eve 2005 with particular regret. After an underwhelming season at Real Madrid, Owen was back in England with Newcastle United. He had missed the start of the season with a thigh injury, but since making his debut in September, he had scored seven goals in nine league games, including a hat-trick at West Ham United a week before Christmas. Aged 26, he still looked like the lean, livewire striker who had scored 158 goals in 297 games for Liverpool, but in first-half injury time of a league game at White Hart Lane, disaster struck.”
My AFP profile of Michael Owen, who announced his retirement from football on Tuesday, can be read here.
“MANCHESTER, United Kingdom — Holders Chelsea stormed back from two goals down to draw 2-2 against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday and take their FA Cup quarter-final to a replay.”
My AFP match report on Chelsea’s cup fightback at Manchester United can be read here.
“LONDON — Gareth Bale resumed his torment of Internazionale by scoring one goal and creating another as Tottenham Hotspur won 3-0 at White Hart Lane on Thursday to place one foot in the Europa League quarter-finals.”
My AFP match report on Tottenham’s superb victory over Internazionale can be read here.
“MANCHESTER — Cristiano Ronaldo scored the decisive goal as Real Madrid controversially came from behind to win 2-1 at Manchester United on Tuesday and reach the Champions League quarter-finals.”
“LONDON — Swansea City ended Bradford City’s League Cup fairytale with a record-breaking 5-0 victory in the final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday to crown the club’s centenary year with a first major trophy.”
My AFP match report on Swansea’s one-sided League Cup final victory over Bradford City can be read here.
“LONDON — England beat Brazil 2-1 on Wednesday to end a 23-year wait for victory over the five-time world champions and consign Luiz Felipe Scolari to defeat in the first game of his second spell as Brazil coach.”
My match report on England’s unexpectedly assured victory over Brazil at Wembley can be read here. There’s also a reaction piece here: Hodgson encouraged by England’s young lions.
“In 2011-12 van Persie averaged a goal every 111.1 minutes in the Premier League, according to statisticians Opta, but this season, that figure has improved to a goal every 103 minutes. It might appear that he is simply benefitting from being the spearhead of the league’s most attacking side, but in fact, van Persie’s attempts at goal have become less frequent. Last season he shot at goal, on average, 3.7 times per game. This season, that figure is 3.1, and yet he is scoring more regularly. The apparent paradox can be explained by a sharper focus purely on scoring goals and an increased ruthlessness in his shooting.”
Ahead of Manchester United’s trip to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, I’ve written a piece for AFP looking at how Robin van Persie has become an even more clinical striker since leaving Arsenal for Old Trafford. You can read it here.