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Freed from Lyon torment, fragile Gourcuff seeks fresh start

Yoann GourcuffLyon are 1-0 up at home to Metz and labouring when a lofted pass from Nabil Fekir finds Yoann Gourcuff in space on the left-hand edge of the penalty area. He deftly brings the ball down and throws a step-over to unbalance Metz defender Jonathan Rivierez, only for a posse of four opponents to force him towards the corner flag. The opening appears to have closed up, but Gourcuff holds off Rivierez and manages to drill a low pass to Corentin Tolisso, who steadies himself before shooting into the bottom-left corner from 25 yards.

At first glance, the goal seems all Tolisso’s own work, but it is the pace of Gourcuff’s pass that creates the opportunity. Tolisso is too far from goal to shoot first-time, but Gourcuff knows that by fizzing the ball into his feet at speed, Metz’s defence will be caught off-guard and the young midfielder, an accomplished striker of the ball, will have time to pick his spot.

Though incidental, the assist bore all Gourcuff’s hallmarks, showcasing as it did his sensitivity to the precise technical requirements of each on-pitch situation. Every action he performs seems delicately calibrated, from the deliberate way he paces backwards before taking set-pieces to his habit of bobbing on his toes at the start of his run-up and the exaggerated follow-through when he strikes the ball. Sadly for Gourcuff, and for Lyon, he is also uniquely sensitive to the condition of his body.

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Analysis: Wilshere finds England voice with Ljubljana recital

“In August it will be five years since Wilshere made his England debut, aged 18, as a late replacement for Steven Gerrard in a friendly against Hungary, but with injuries having limited his involvement, it has taken him time to find his voice as an international footballer. It took him 26 caps to register his first assist — a raking, 40-yard pass that was headed in by his Arsenal team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain during November’s 3-1 friendly win over Scotland in Glasgow — and his goals in the qualifier against Slovenia came at the 28th time of asking. He is not prolific with Arsenal either, having scored only 12 goals in 153 first-team appearances, but when he does find the net, it tends to be in memorable fashion.”

I’ve written a piece on Jack Wilshere’s international coming of age with England and you can read it here.

Football: Heysel and the death of English hooliganism

“At Thatcher’s behest, the Football Association suspended English clubs from European competition for a year. European governing body UEFA went further still, announcing a five-year ban on English clubs and an indefinite suspension for Liverpool that would last until 1991. An inquiry into what had happened at Bradford and Heysel — as well as a riot at Birmingham City’s St Andrews stadium in which a 15-year-old boy died — led by leading judge Oliver Popplewell resulted in new, wide-ranging public order powers for police. Recorded incidents of hooliganism sloped off, while attendances in the English Football League the following season slumped to a post-war low of 16.5 million.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on the Heysel stadium disaster and the role it played in the eradication of mass hooliganism in English football. You can read it here.

Interview: Ballack urges Guardiola to unshackle Bayern

“Of course he likes to keep the ball, to have possession as much as possible. Sometimes I miss the up and down, an open football game like you have in England. This kind of football that he played in Barcelona, it’s different, it’s more tiki-taka, but if you play against teams that are really defence-orientated, it turns into a boring football game sometimes. It’s not nice to watch from a football perspective, if one team plays around the box, passing the ball and having 70 or 80 percent of ball possession, but not many chances. It’s about finding a balance between having the ball and targeting the offensive.”

I sat down for a chat with Michael Ballack on Monday and you can read his thoughts on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelonification of Bayern Munich and Mario Götze’s post-World Cup problems here.

Related link: Ballack tips Juventus to beat ‘vulnerable’ Barcelona

Feature: Blackpool and the curious case of the missing statue

“A bronze statue that went missing and then reappeared has become the symbol of the steady and unedifying decline of former Premier League football club Blackpool. Depicting club legend Stan Mortensen, scorer of a hat-trick against Bolton Wanderers in the 1953 FA Cup final, the statue had stood on a plinth outside Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road home in northwest England since August 2005. Last week it vanished, after fans earmarked it as a rallying point for a protest against the club’s owners, the Oyston family, prior to the final game of the season against Huddersfield Town. Although it reappeared on Wednesday, the club’s fans are furious, with the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust describing what happened as “beyond contempt”.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on the peculiar goings-on at Blackpool and you can read it here.

Analysis: Champions Chelsea unloved but unstoppable

“The Premier League title beckoned for Chelsea from the moment André Schürrle put them ahead after 20 minutes and 45 seconds of their opening fixture at Burnley on August 18. Diego Costa’s first Chelsea goal cancelled out Scott Arfield’s opener and four minutes later Schürrle converted a sumptuous, half-volleyed pass from Cesc Fàbregas at the culmination of a superb 25-pass move. Branislav Ivanović’s 34th-minute goal completed a 3-1 win that took Jose Mourinho’s side above defending champions Manchester City on goals scored at the top of the table, and they have been there largely ever since. “They’ve definitely been the best team in the league,” admits Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey. “They’ve only lost twice this season. Their consistency has been the best and that’s what you need.””

I wrote a piece for AFP on how Chelsea won the Premier League title and you can read it here.

Gary Neville is wrong – winning isn’t everything

Rochdale fansWe need to talk about winning. Because although winning matters, in one way it doesn’t matter at all. And the bit about it not mattering matters a great deal.

We have listened to professional footballers talk glibly about the importance of “winning things” and watched pundits pore over win/loss ratios and trophy tallies for so long that some of us might have started to think that we watch football for the same reasons. But although everyone obviously likes to see their team win something every once in a while, that’s not what keeps us coming back.

The British expatriates who carried football around the world in the latter years of the 19th century, alighting on quaysides in Andalusia, Buenos Aires or São Paulo with a football under their arm and a pair of rudimentary boots in their luggage, didn’t become globe-trotting evangelists for the sport because they were obsessed by winning. The fans who turned out week after week after week after week to watch Rochdale during the 36 years they spent in the English fourth tier without once being promoted or relegated weren’t in it for the glory. And when generations and generations of children have rushed into the street or onto the playing fields to replicate the feats they have seen their heroes perform in the stadium or on television, they have seldom simulated the act of raising a trophy.

Co-commentating for Sky Sports on Chelsea’s 3-1 win at Leicester City on Wednesday night, Gary Neville opined that “no-one remembers” Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United ‘Entertainers’ because they didn’t win anything. It was a throwaway remark, but as a quick glance at the reaction to what he said on Twitter demonstrated, he was wrong. For all their shortcomings, many people do remember the ‘Entertainers’, and fondly, just as people remember the magnificent Hungary team beaten by West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final or the bewitching Holland side that fell to the same opposition at the conclusion of the 1974 tournament.

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Analysis: Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool to-do list

“With Luis Suárez having left for Barcelona and injuries restricting Daniel Sturridge to only seven starts, Liverpool have struggled for goals badly, averaging 1.38 per game compared to 2.66 in 2013-14. Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, brought in to soften the blow of Suárez’s departure, have failed, and Liverpool’s four recognised strikers (Sturridge, Balotelli, Lambert and Fabio Borini) have mustered only eight league goals between them. Promising Belgian striker Divock Origi is due to arrive during the summer, having been loaned back to Lille after being signed last July, but Liverpool also need to find a proven goal-scorer (or goal-scorers) if they are to recapture the heights of last season. “You can’t hide the fact we’ve lost over 50 goals,” Rodgers said after Tuesday’s defeat at Hull. “We have to look to improve the squad. It’s always great if you can get marquee players to come in and help you. The owners will support that.””

I’ve written a piece on the five issues Brendan Rodgers needs to address in order to get Liverpool back on track and you can read it here.

Analysis: Man City déjà vu leaves Pellegrini exposed

“Having snatched the crown from Manchester United’s grasp on the final day of the 2011-12 campaign, City stagnated and finished the following season 11 points adrift of their derby rivals in second place. Manager Roberto Mancini paid the price with his job, sacked two days after a shock defeat by Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final, and a similar fate may lie in store for Pellegrini. Heralded as the antithesis to the spiky and combative Mancini, the urbane Chilean steered the club to a league and League Cup double in his first season. But Pellegrini’s position now appears under serious threat, with British bookmakers offering odds of 2/7 that he will no longer be at the helm on the opening day of next season.”

Who is to blame for Manchester City’s failure to defend the Premier League title? Some thoughts in this piece for AFP.

Analysis: Why have English teams flopped in Europe?

“Any evaluation of the English teams’ woes in this season’s Champions League must, however, also take into account the major club-specific failings that led to each side’s elimination. Chelsea showed complacency by electing not to press home their advantage following the dismissal of PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimović in the second leg of their last 16 tie, enabling the French champions to claim a 2-2 draw that sent them through on away goals. Arsenal paid the price for kamikaze attacking — a habitual failing — in their 3-1 first-leg loss to Monaco, while in setting City out in a porous 4-4-2 formation, Pellegrini allowed Barcelona to take control of their tie with a 2-1 first-leg win.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP analysing why England’s Champions League representatives came unstuck in this season’s competition. You can read it here.

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