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Interview: Pelé on Costa, Neymar and the goals that disappeared

“”People are talking about them until now because they were so good,” says Pelé — full name Edson Arantes do Nascimento — of the Fluminense and Juventus goals, neither of which was caught on film. “Of course I had other goals that were important to me, in a World Cup too. But these two goals were the ones people mentioned more. They were beautiful goals, but there were other important goals. For example, the 1,000th goal. It was a penalty kick. Everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s easy to score a goal with a penalty kick.’ But to me, in the Maracanã, I was shaking, I was so nervous. I said to myself, ‘My god, I cannot miss this moment.’ This 1,000th goal was very important to me too.””

I sat down for a chat with the legendary Pelé on Tuesday. You can read the interview here.

Feature: Europe resonates to Champions League anthem

“The swelling crescendo and rousing melody are the creations of Briton Tony Britten, who composed the anthem in 1992 at the request of UEFA’s marketing department to mark the competition’s re-branding. “Football had a pretty tawdry name back in the late 80s, early 90s,” Britten told AFP in a telephone interview. “There’d been Hillsborough, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot of terrible stuff going on — inadequately equipped stadia, appalling hooliganism. It was horrible. And UEFA, to their eternal credit, said that the Champions League needed to reflect all that was best in this wonderful game.””

Me and my colleague Yann Bernal have written a piece looking at the story behind the famous Champions League theme music – you can read it here.

Preview: Promised Land awaits for Wales in Israel clash

“Hughes’s exit was the catalyst for a slump that saw Wales plunge in the world ranking to a low of 117, only for a youthful side to reverse the trend under the clear-sighted management of popular former midfielder Gary Speed. Speed’s death in an apparent suicide in November 2011 left Welsh football in a state of shock and his former team-mate Coleman was not a universally popular choice to replace him. The gum-chewing, perma-tanned Coleman did little to endear himself to Welsh fans by losing his passport prior to a World Cup qualifier in Macedonia two years ago — forcing him to miss the pre-match training session — but he has since engineered a stunning surge that has seen Wales rise to ninth in the FIFA ranking, above England for the first time. Victory over Israel will lift Wales to the implausible heights of fourth in the world, and they could climb as high as second.”

Here’s a piece on the night of catharsis awaiting Wales against Israel on Sunday.

Analysis: Waning Rooney on brink of England history

“Obliged to lead the line alone in manager Louis van Gaal’s single-striker system, he has looked isolated and off the pace, his touch betraying him, his famous explosiveness diminished. It has brought to mind the words uttered last year by Paul Scholes, Rooney’s former United team-mate, who said that Rooney’s premature emergence as a teenager means he may have reached his peak some years ago. Rooney himself has dismissed suggestions that he is past his best and has pointed with justification to a historical record that shows his fallow periods are frequently followed by flurries of goals. And yet there is no escaping the fact that he is no longer the game-changing force of nature, the rampaging bull, that burst onto the scene with Everton at the age of 16, earning him the nickname ‘the White Pelé’.”

A piece on Wayne Rooney, and the gulf between the player he threatened to become and the player he actually is.

Analysis: Marked man Martial must find place at Man United

“Thierry Henry, with whom Martial is often compared, was similarly raw when he left Monaco for Juventus in 1999, but he was two years older, had twice as many games behind him and had already won a World Cup. Henry himself has described the deal as a “massive gamble”. Like Henry, Martial is a striker who started his senior career as a winger and he is similarly drawn to the left flank, from where he can cut inside onto his right foot and shoot at goal. The fact he has been handed the number nine shirt, coupled with Rooney’s early-season struggles as United’s lone striker, suggests he will be given a chance to play through the middle.”

I’ve written a piece on the challenges facing Anthony Martial at Manchester United and you can read it here.

Related link: English clubs impose Martial law in Europe

Analysis: English clubs impose Martial law in Europe

“While big-money arrivals at United, City and Chelsea have long been the norm, it is the sight of Yohan Cabaye in Crystal Palace’s colours or Xherdan Shaqiri lining up for Stoke City that hammer home England’s financial might. The structure of the Premier League’s TV deals means that money is shared evenly across the division and English clubs are also reaping the rewards of slick commercial operations. United’s new kit deal with German sportswear firm Adidas is worth £750 million, on top of several commercial contracts including a £330 million sponsorship agreement with American car giant Chevrolet. “We’ve seen in recent years tremendous commercial growth from the largest clubs and that’s helping fuel some of this transfer spending,” Alex Thorpe from Deloitte’s Sports Business Group told AFP.”

A piece on how English clubs have come to distort the European transfer market can be found here.

Bielsa’s whirlwind tenure leaves Marseille in a spin

Marcelo BielsaThe time stamps gave it away. Marseille’s players were bowled over by the attention to detail shown by their new coach in his extensive video analysis sessions at their Commanderie training base, but they couldn’t help but notice that many of the videos they were watching had last been edited by someone who had been up working until three or four o’clock in the morning. The Marcelo Bielsa era had begun, and it was to be like nothing the club had ever experienced before.

It was always likely to be a sulfurous combination – the singular, cerebral Bielsa, nicknamed El Loco, and France’s most volatile, combustible club – and so it proved, right up until the moment, minutes after Marseille’s 1-0 loss at home to Caen on Saturday, that the Argentine walked into the press conference room at Stade Vélodrome, sat down and stunned the assembled media by announcing his immediate departure. The Marseille president, Vincent Labrune, did not learn of Bielsa’s decision until the press conference was already under way. In the changing room, the players’ smartphones began to bleat and vibrate incessantly. They gleaned the news of the coach’s exit either from social media or via calls and text messages from family and friends.

Marseille were drifting to a disappointing sixth-place finish under interim coach José Anigo when Labrune announced Bielsa’s arrival in April 2014, electrifying France’s most football-mad city. He was acclaimed as a hero from the moment of his arrival and while his track record meant the locals were quickly seduced, he was not afraid to bare his teeth. In an early press conference he lambasted Labrune over the club’s recruitment of the Brazilian centre-back Dória, which he had not authorised, saying that the club “doesn’t have the structure necessary to evaluate the qualities of a player who doesn’t play in France”. Marseille’s press officer was photographed hiding her face behind her hand. Dória, an €8 million signing from Botafogo, had captained Brazil to victory in the Toulon tournament in 2013 and 2014. He did not play a single minute of the 2014-15 season.

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Analysis: Uneven Man United look for winning balance

“United, who finished fourth last season, deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation in pre-season, but Van Gaal has pledged to revert to the 4-3-3 system that belatedly brought the team success in the latter part of the 2014-15 campaign. It means that Schweinsteiger, Schneiderlin, Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini (who is suspended for the first three league games) will be competing for only three starting berths. With the exciting Memphis Depay, a £25 million acquisition from PSV Eindhoven, expected to start on one flank, Ashley Young, Juan Mata, Antonio Valencia and Adnan Januzaj — and potentially reported target Pedro Rodríguez — must vie for a place on the other side of the pitch.”

I’ve written something for AFP on how Manchester United are shaping up ahead of the new Premier League season. You can read it here.

Related link: Five youngsters eyeing Premier League stardom

Match reports and reaction 2015-16

A collection of my match reports and reaction pieces for AFP from the 2015-16 season:

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

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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