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Feature: Premier League youngsters face loan lottery

“Gaël Kakuta, a precociously skilful attacking midfielder, joined Chelsea from French club Lens at the age of 16 in 2007, sparking a row that momentarily saw the English side banned from signing players. After he made an eye-catching debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers in November 2009, then-coach Carlo Ancelotti was moved to declare: “At that age I have never seen a player with this talent.” However, with established players such as Joe Cole and Florent Malouda cemented in Chelsea’s starting XI, Kakuta found his route to the first team blocked. There followed a succession of underwhelming loan moves — to Fulham, Bolton Wanderers, French club Dijon, Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem, and Lazio — and at 23, his career is still awaiting take-off.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on the uncertain futures faced by young Premier League players who go out on loan, and you can read it here.

Report: Messi squanders chance to cement legacy

“Whereas Maradona seemed to grow with each match as Argentina surged to the title in 1986, scoring braces against England and Belgium in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, Messi appeared to shrink. After dazzling in the group phase with four goals, he made the winning goal for Ángel di María against Switzerland in the last 16, but in his own encounter with Belgium he flickered only sporadically, and in the semi-final against the Netherlands he was anonymous. Messi has now gone four games without scoring for the first time under the stewardship of coach Alejandro Sabella, misplacing his gift for making a difference at precisely the wrong time.”

My final report for AFP from the World Cup, on a disappointing end to the tournament for Lionel Messi, can be read here.

Feature: Messi one step from undisputed greatness

“In his 91 appearances, [Diego] Maradona played at four World Cups and carried Argentina to two finals, turning the 1986 tournament into his own one-man show. In contrast, Messi, as Holland coach Louis van Gaal observed, “hasn’t always pulled it off” at international level. So should he drift through the final, as he did the semi-final, but still end up a champion, can he be said to have matched Maradona? Judged against the lofty standards that Messi’s talent demands, the trophy alone may not suffice.”

Why Lionel Messi needs a signature performance in the World Cup final before he can be considered a true great. Piece here for AFP.

Feature: The 2005 Generation meets The Class of ’09

“When the 22 players representing Germany and Argentina step out onto the Maracanã pitch for Sunday’s World Cup final, roughly half will be fulfilling prophecies made in the previous decade. From Argentina captain Lionel Messi to Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the team-sheets will reflect the fact that glory for both teams has been in the pipeline for some time. The backbone of the Germany team who eviscerated hosts Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals was drawn from the Under-21 side that triumphed at the European Championship in 2009. The source of Argentina’s achievements in Brazil, meanwhile, can be traced back even further, to the World Youth Championship — later rechristened the Under-20 World Cup — in the Netherlands in 2005.”

My piece for AFP on the two gilded generations that will face off in Sunday’s World Cup final can be read here.

Report: Romero shootout saves send Argentina into final

“Sao Paulo (AFP) – Argentine goalkeeper Sergio Romero saved two penalties in a shootout with the Netherlands on Wednesday to take his country through to the World Cup final for the first time since 1990.”

My AFP match report on the ‘other’ 2014 World Cup semi-final can be read here.

Report: Higuaín fires Argentina into World Cup semi-finals

“Brasília (Brazil) (AFP) – Gonzalo Higuaín smashed home an early goal as Argentina dashed the World Cup dreams of much-fancied Belgium with a 1-0 win in the quarter-finals in Brasília on Saturday.”

My AFP match report from the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha can be read here.

Reaction: Angry Wilmots derides ‘ordinary’ Argentina
Analysis: Higuaín, the Valdano to Messi’s Maradona?
Analysis: Hazard flops, but hope springs for Belgium

Feature: From mini-leagues to Messi for Belgium’s gilded boys

“Eden Hazard, then a small, slender 11-year-old, was making a name for himself as a skilful winger with the junior sides of hometown club Royal Stade Brainois. Vincent Kompany, the current captain, was embarking on his youth career with Anderlecht, while Adnan Januzaj, the Manchester United winger, was only seven years old — but already a member of FC Brussels. In their homes and football club social rooms, they will have watched on television as a side led by pugnacious midfielder Marc Wilmots progressed from the group phase, only to lose to Brazil in the last 16. Twelve years later, in Brazil, they are the players carrying the hopes of their country, and Wilmots is the figure urging them on from the technical area.”

A piece for AFP on the genesis of Belgium’s’ golden generation’ can be read here.

Preview: Messi-dependent Argentina face Belgium test
Related link: Maradona’s other World Cup goal

Feature: Belgium tie sharpens Messi-Maradona focus

“Maradona was said to have carried Argentina to glory in Mexico, scoring five goals and laying on five assists as his country claimed their second title, and 28 years on, Messi is doing the same in Brazil. Having scored four goals in the group phase, Messi’s creative side came to the fore in Tuesday’s last-16 win over Switzerland in São Paulo. While his team-mates toiled around him, Messi was a ceaseless hub of invention, and with penalties looming, it was his burrowing run and pass that allowed Angel Di María to stroke home the 118th-minute winner. In total, Messi carved out eight chances against Switzerland, which is more than any Argentine player – Maradona included – has ever created in a single World Cup game.”

A piece for AFP, on the ghost that will stalk Lionel Messi in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Belgium, can be read here.

Report: Pogba opens door as France reach last eight

“Brasília (Brazil) (AFP) – A Paul Pogba header and a Joseph Yobo own goal saw France edge a hard-fought contest with Nigeria 2-0 in Brasilia on Monday to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.”

My AFP match report from the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha can be read here.

Reaction: Keshi blasts referee after Nigeria fall to France
Analysis: Pogba ready to shoulder French expectations

Report: Rodríguez rocket earns Colombia Brazil clash

“Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – James Rodríguez knocked Luis Suarez out of the headlines with an exquisite goal as Colombia beat Uruguay 2-0 on Saturday to set up a World Cup quarter-final against hosts Brazil.”

My AFP report on the night James Rodríguez electrified the Maracanã can be read here.

Reaction: Rodríguez ‘like Maradona’, says Uruguay coach Tabárez
Reaction: Tabárez says Suarez bite case not a distraction

Analysis: World Cup first round leaves Europe all at sea

“Europe’s World Cup difficulties may be part of an emerging trend. Whereas European teams filled 10 of the last-16 places in five of the first six tournaments after the round was introduced in 1986 (with nine getting there in 2002), only six made it in 2010 and this year. With tens of thousands of fans from neighbouring countries flooding into Brazil, the South American teams have clearly benefited from home advantage. Supporters from Argentina and Chile took over Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana when their sides played there in the group phase and France coach Didier Deschamps believes such mass support can make a difference. “We are in Brazil, so the South American teams certainly acclimatise better, and maybe the fact that they are playing so close to home and have so many supporters with them gives them added strength and energy,” he said on Wednesday.”

A piece I wrote for AFP looking at Europe’s struggles in the World Cup’s first round can be read here.

Analysis: Desperation, déjà vu as England crash again

“A raw squad and a low level of pre-tournament expectation means that [Roy] Hodgson has largely been spared the media savaging visited on some of his predecessors, but at present there are few other consolations. Despite preparations that Hodgson described as “excellent” and a squad packed with in-form players from the country’s biggest clubs, England were simply not good enough. Even more worryingly, for Hodgson, [Greg] Dyke, and everyone else with England’s interests close at heart, it is beginning to seem like the country’s elite players have a chronic inability — emotionally and tactically — to manage the demands of tournament football.”

My final thoughts on England’s sorry World Cup campaign can be read here.

Report: Drab draw leaves Costa Rica top, England last
Reaction: Costa Rica have proved worth – Pinto
Reaction: Hodgson grateful for England support

Analysis: Five things that went wrong for England

“England dominated possession against Uruguay and saw plenty of the ball against Italy, but too often technical deficiencies and unnecessary haste betrayed them. With a team geared exclusively towards attacking at pace, England lacked players capable of drawing the sting from the match by putting a foot on the ball and slowing the pace. At 1-1 against Uruguay, England’s inability to control the game’s tempo proved their undoing. “I just thought when we got the equaliser, we just needed to be a bit more clever, a bit more cute, and a bit more difficult to beat,” admitted Steven Gerrard. “Maybe we should have accepted that going for a point might have been the best option.””

My take for AFP on the reasons behind England’s chastening group-phase exit at the 2014 World Cup can be read here.

Related link: England exit leaves Gerrard heartbroken again

Analysis: Why have so many goals been scored at the World Cup?

“Spain’s tournament may have been ended by Chile on Wednesday, but the defending champions’ six-year reign as the world’s pre-eminent national team has had a profound impact on the way that teams play. The ‘tiki-taka’ passing style pioneered by Spain and Barcelona has been copied around the world, with proactive, attacking football and aggressive pressing now widespread. The example set by players such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta means that players have become accustomed to taking more risks in possession, which leads to more turnovers, and in turn, more goals.”

Some thoughts on the avalanche of goals that has marked the opening of the World Cup.

Analysis: Is Spain’s World Cup elimination the end for tiki-taka?

“Against such tactics, tiki-taka can seem naive in its steadfast commitment to conserving possession, but its impact already reaches so deep that it would prove impossible to fully uproot. It was Barcelona, with Lionel Messi, who first brought the ‘false nine’ tactic to a wider audience, while it is now commonplace to see goalkeepers methodically practising first-time passes during their pre-match warm-ups. The cult of possession has forced players in every position to sharpen up their technique and has made the scrutiny of passing completion statistics an early port of call in any after-match post-mortem.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on why tiki-taka will endure despite Spain’s early exit from the World Cup, and you can read it here.

Related link: Chile end Spain’s reign at World Cup

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