Feature: Bale, Hamšik draw swords for Euro 2016 duel

Distinctive haircut? Check. Multiple national player of the year awards? Check. Feared attacker with a vicious shot and the freedom to roam all over the pitch? Check, check, check. Gareth Bale and Marek Hamšik would be able to reflect upon the many things they have in common were they not lining up against each other for Wales and Slovakia in tomorrow’s Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux. The two players — topknot-sporting Bale, 26, and mohican-crested Hamsik, 28 — inspired their respective countries to qualify for a European Championship finals for the first time and the outcome of the match may boil down to which of the two players comes out on top.

A piece on Gareth Bale and Marek Hamšik, who face off in Bordeaux on Saturday. Read it here.

Related link: Wales fans’ journey reaches Euro 2016 destination

Feature: Walker finds light at end of England tunnel

Kyle Walker could not bring himself to watch England’s recent tournament appearances, but he is thrilled by the prospect of starting their Euro 2016 opener against Russia on Saturday. The 26-year-old Tottenham Hotspur player is sampling major international competition for the first time, having sat out Euro 2012 with a toe injury before missing the 2014 World Cup due to an abdominal problem. Named man of the match in last week’s 1-0 win over Portugal, the right-back is expected to start against Russia in Marseille. If he does, it will be the first England game at a big tournament that he has paid attention to for a while. “When I’m injured, I can’t watch it,” Walker said. “It’s too difficult for me.”

Kyle Walker talked to journalists at England’s Stade des Bourgognes training base on Tuesday. Read my piece here.

Betway Insider podcast: England, France and Euro 2016

I made my first appearance on the Betway Insider podcast this week to talk about Roy Hodgson’s tactical conundrums with England, France’s troubled preparations for Euro 2016 and my favourite memories from reporting on major tournaments. You can listen to it here.

Analysis: Mourinho and Man Utd go in search of Midas touch

Louis van Gaal, Mourinho’s sacked predecessor, ultimately paid the price for failing to secure Champions League qualification, but it was the pedestrian nature of the team’s football that provided a lightning rod for criticism during his two-year tenure. The European game’s arch pragmatist, Mourinho is not renowned for dashing football and his poor record of promoting young players — one area where Van Gaal enjoyed some success — has been held against him throughout his career. United’s two greatest managers, Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson, built their success on youth and the club’s fans are unlikely to react kindly if players like 18-year-old striking sensation Marcus Rashford or teenage full-backs Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson abruptly disappear from view.

Analysis: ‘Iron Tulip’ Van Gaal wilts in Man United spotlight

Having influenced both José Mourinho, the man due to succeed him, and Pep Guardiola, who is set to alight at cross-town rivals Manchester City, Van Gaal, a former PE teacher, was seen as one of the fathers of modern coaching. But his much-trumpeted “philosophy” was revealed to be an anachronism, his insistence on robotic ball circulation light years behind Guardiola’s turbo-charged attacking or the high-octane pressing game employed by Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp or Tottenham Hotspur’s Mauricio Pochettino. Under Alex Ferguson, the United fans’ chant of “Attack! Attack! Attack!” was the rallying cry for a team that never seemed to give up. Under Van Gaal, it became an exasperated lament for a team that never seemed to wake up.

His exit was unedifying and clumsily handled, but Louis van Gaal’s two-year tenure at Manchester United exposed him as a spent force. My piece on his Old Trafford reign can be found here.

Profile: Mocked Martial becomes Man United’s FA Cup charm

Analysis: Leicester change landscape as TV cash flood looms

While the feats of Jamie Vardy (£1 million), Riyad Mahrez (£400,000) and N’Golo Kanté (£5.6 million) demonstrated a new way of spending, Leicester’s football revealed a different way of winning. In an age when many teams continue to worship at the altar of tiki-taka, Claudio Ranieri’s well-drilled, hard-running side averaged 44.8 percent of possession — the third-lowest in the league — and had a pass completion rate of 70.5 percent — the league’s second-lowest. With Tottenham Hotspur, another high-intensity team, challenging for the title under the inspirational Mauricio Pochettino, Football Association chairman Greg Dyke was moved to exclaim: “The old order has broken.” The Professional Footballers’ Association Team of the Year told its own story, with Leicester and Tottenham contributing four players each. Excepting Harry Kane, the division’s 25-goal top scorer, who came through Tottenham’s youth system, all were signed for fees dwarfed by the £49 million that City spent on Raheem Sterling.

In my review of the Premier League season, I wrote about how Leicester City’s fairytale title triumph has moved the goalposts in English football. You can read it here.

Report: Morgan lifts trophy to complete Leicester fairytale

Analysis: Meek Man City cry out for Guardiola guidance

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.

Analysis: Rag-tag Leicester turn tables on English elite

There was only one real wobble — a run of one win in five matches immediately after Christmas — and to date they have been beaten just three times. Even when, no longer misdiagnosed as over-achieving minnows, Leicester found opposing teams massing themselves behind the ball, they ground out five 1-0 wins in six games to move to within sight of the title. Leicester’s triumph also owes a debt to the perfect storm that saw defending champions Chelsea collapse, Manchester United toil and Manchester City and Arsenal fail to last the course. But for an unheralded team composed of players with almost zero title-winning know-how, their success in leading from the front represents an astonishing feat of fortitude and sporting courage.

My piece for AFP on how Leicester City pulled off one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of professional sport can be read here.

Related link: Joy as Hazard brings Leicester historic title
Related link: Rough-cut Vardy embodies Leicester’s rise
Related link: Opportunity and uncertainty await for champions Leicester

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