A collection of my match reports and reaction pieces for AFP from the 2016-17 season:
Report: Liverpool pricked by Rose thorn in draw at Spurs (Premier League)
Reaction: Guardiola stands by unpopular Hart decision (Champions League)
Report: Fans hail Hart as Man City reach group phase (Champions League)
Reaction: Wenger rails at Arsenal transfer focus (Premier League)
Report: Stalemate keeps Leicester and Arsenal grounded (Premier League)
Reaction: I’ll give Pogba Man Utd freedom, vows Mourinho (Premier League)
Report: Ibrahimović slays Saints as Pogba makes Man Utd return (Premier League)
Reaction: Conte defends Chelsea match-winner Conte (Premier League)
Report: Costa late show gets Conte’s Chelsea off the mark (Premier League)
Reaction: ‘We’re not ready,’ says Wenger after opening loss (Premier League)
Report: Coutinho fires Liverpool to thrilling Arsenal win (Premier League)
Reaction: Guardiola gives Hart and Touré Man City hope (Premier League)
Report: McNair gifts Guardiola opening Man City win (Premier League)
Reaction: Mourinho ‘proud’ of record-breaking Pogba move (Community Shield)
Report: Ibrahimović fires Man Utd to Community Shield win (Community Shield)
Report: Mané sparkles as Liverpool crush Barcelona (friendly)
Report: West Ham at home already, Europa woe for Éder (Europa League)
But at least in Agüero, De Bruyne, Sterling and the injured David Silva, Guardiola possesses the nimbleness of thought and foot in attack upon which he has built success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. City have been the top-scoring Premier League team in all three of Pellegrini’s seasons at the helm, but although he loudly espouses attacking football, victories often owe more to flashes of individual brilliance than a cohesive, identifiable attacking strategy. There is also work for Guardiola to do in defence, particularly as captain Vincent Kompany’s physical vulnerability — he succumbed to the 33rd injury of his eight-year City tenure in Madrid — is becoming a serious concern. Neither Nicolás Otamendi nor Eliaquim Mangala, both acquired at lavish expense, have convinced, but Guardiola’s work with Javi Martínez — a holding midfielder turned centre-back — at Bayern shows that he has the patience for defensive grunt work on the training ground.
Following Manchester City’s tame Champions League semi-final defeat by Real Madrid, some thoughts on the task awaiting Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium.
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.
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.
Celebrity fan Piers Morgan, the newspaper editor turned chat-show host, continues to fire up the #WengerOUT campaign on social media, while a banner held aloft during the recent FA Cup win at Hull City read: “ARSENE, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BUT IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE.” The banner was condemned by Arsenal players past and present — as well as David Beckham — but it illustrated the deep discontent felt by certain fans, as glimpsed in the scuffles that broke out outside the Emirates following Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Watford. Arsenal are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the 20th season running, but after six successive last-16 exits they have become the competition’s perennial wallflowers — always at the party, but never on the dance-floor.
Loath to cite Piers Morgan, but here is a piece on where Champions League elimination leaves Arsenal and Arsène Wenger.
Having started just two of Chelsea’s final 16 Premier League games under José Mourinho, Mikel has started nine of 12 under Hiddink in the only notable non-enforced personnel change that the Dutchman has made to the starting XI. As well as being unbeaten in their 12 league games to date under Hiddink, Chelsea’s average number of goals conceded per game has dropped from 1.625 to 1, and Mikel’s defensive nous has been an important factor. “He’s the ideal player to bring balance to the team,” Hiddink said earlier this year. “He knows where the strength of the opponent is and he knows exactly how to cope with that. He doesn’t do it in a very brutal way — he’s very, very elegant. What I like to see very much is not just a quality player, but a player who can defend so smoothly. It’s beautiful to see.”
A piece for AFP on the role that John Mikel Obi has played in Chelsea’s return to form.
A run of five straight wins, including a ruthless 3-0 defeat of Manchester United, has left Arsenal level on 25 points with leaders Manchester City after 11 games. With Chelsea flatlining and United enduring a chronic goal shortage, Arsenal are widely seen as City’s most credible rivals, but it is often a case of one step forward, two steps back. Arsenal can outclass United and beat Bayern 2-0, in the reverse fixture, but also lose to Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb and crash out of the League Cup after a 3-0 defeat at second-tier Sheffield Wednesday. It is a paradox that means that, in spite of their nascent title ambitions, they have now lost six times at this stage of the season, across all competitions, for the first time since 1991.
I wrote a piece for AFP on how Arsenal’s drubbing by Bayern Munich underlined vulnerabilities that threaten to become fatal flaws. You can read it here.
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.”