Serie A Preview: Week 25

Napoli vs Spal

After a disappointing result in the Europa League Maurizio Sarri’s attention turns back to the race for the Serie A crown.  Despite suffering defeat at the San Paolo courtesy of German side RB Leipzig I doubt the Partenopei will have lost any sleep over the result.  The team selection and attitude during the game was further evidence of the clubs obsession with wrapping up their first Scudetto since 1990 and complete disregard for a European competition seen by many as second rate.

In many ways, Napoli’s imminent exit from the Europa League could be helpful in their quest for the title considering they don’t possess anywhere near the strength in depth rivals Juventus have at their disposal.  This weekend’s opponents Spal currently sit in 18th place and have only registered three wins this season; if I were a betting man I certainly wouldn’t be backing them to register a fourth this weekend with the hosts being the overwhelming favorites.

Napoli are at full strength and Sarri will be hoping they can race to an early lead giving him the opportunity to rest some key players going into a crucial part of the season.  In just a couple of weeks time the Partenopei take on Roma whilst Juventus will travel to Lazio so neither side will want to drop any points going into week 27.

Torino vs Juventus

The Derby della Mole takes place early Sunday between Turin’s two most prominent football clubs.  Juventus will be bitterly disappointed they surrendered a two goal lead to Spurs midweek and now face an uphill task to qualify for the quarter finals.  However, there is no time to dwell on the result and they must ensure they stay in touch with the league leaders.

A trip to the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino is never an easy one, especially for their bitter rivals Juventus who face a Toro side full of confidence having beaten Udinese 2-0 just last weekend.  Walter Mazzari is an experienced coach and despite having underachieved so far this season in many people’s eyes, to write him and his team off would be foolish.

How much will that midweek UEFA Champions League tie have affected Juventus?  That remains to be seen but what I will say is this, an away fixture at Torino is far from ideal given their current injury list and I wouldn’t be surprised if Juventus were to drop points here.

Genoa vs Inter

Inter have been in poor form of late and Luciano Spalletti’s side only ended their terrible run of draws as recently as last weekend with a victory over Bologna.  Genoa on the other hand are starting to click and will be relishing the chance to inflict further misery on the Nerazzurri at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris.

The Rossoblu have conceded just four goals in their last ten games and look a far more organized unit since Davide Ballardini took the reins back in November.  Inter have struggled to score in recent weeks, with the exception of Mauro Icardi the team overall have failed to find the net with the regularity required to sustain a title challenge.  Despite the fact their season has fizzled out disappointingly we should not forget they remain unbeaten this year and have only lost twice all season, hardly disastrous.

With strugglers Benevento up next for Inter this is a great opportunity to get a result and build some momentum ahead of the Milan Derby in a couple of week’s time.  Prediction: 1-1.

Other Fixtures:

Atalanta vs Fiorentina, Benevento vs Crotone, Bologna vs Sassuolo, Chievo vs Cagliari, Lazio vs Verona, Milan vs Sampdoria, Udinese vs Roma

Serie A Preview: Week 20

Fiorentina vs Inter

The Nerazzuri’s recent form has been a real concern for coach Luciano Spalletti but despite their recent struggles there is no doubt they’ve improved significantly under the former Roma boss.  Recent defeats at the hands of Udinese, Sassuolo and their arch rivals Milan in the cup have all contributed to a disappointing few weeks.

Borja Valero returns to his former club this weekend, the club he once said he wanted to retire at and all eyes will be on him given his unsavory departure.  The feeling among Fiorentina supporters is that he was miss-treated by the club and so it will be interesting to see what sort of reception he will receive upon his return to the Stadio Artemio Franchi.

The last five meetings between the two sides have produced no less than 26 goals and so you can expect an entertaining encounter.  Inter face a difficult fixture versus Roma in week 21 so picking up all 3 points on Friday night is imperative for Spalletti’s men.

Napoli vs Verona

The league leaders were eliminated from the Coppa Italia by Atalanta during the week but it’s fair to say Serie A was always their priority.  Long term absentee Faouzi Ghoulam remains sidelined and Mario Rui’s fitness is now in question.  Elseid Hysaj could move to the left hand side of the defense and that would see Christian Maggio slotting in at right back.

Verona, like their opponents are desperate for league points all be it to serve a totally different purpose.  They’ve won just 3 matches this season but given the abysmal form of some of their closest competitors they still have a real chance of survival.  Their recent performances have been encouraging and having defeated Milan and performed relatively well against the mighty Juventus they’ve not given up hope just yet.

Napoli in theory should register a comfortable home win and will look to talisman Marek Hamsik who will be raring to go having broken Diego Maradona’s goal scoring record for the club recently.

Cagliari vs Juventus

Juventus have recovered from their early season stutter and are turning up the heat on league leaders Napoli.  The Italian media have been full of praise for defender Medhi Benatia who has settled in extremely well and replaced the once indispensable Leonardo Bonucci.

Miralem Pjanic has also been instrumental in their significant improvement of late and the Old Lady are the firm favorites to leave the capital of Sardinia with maximum points.  Allegri’s side will be without Gigi Buffon, Juan Cuadrado, Mattia De Sciglio and Benedikt Howedes but we expect Gonzalo Higuain, Andrea Barzagli and Alex Sandro to return having been rested in the cup.

Juventus undoubtedly have the greatest strength in depth and the luxury of being able to rotate when necessary.  That is indeed why many still regard them as title favorites despite them having been chasing Napoli for the most part of the season.

Cagliari sit 5 points clear of the drop zone going into this fixture but unless they begin picking up points fast they could easily slip into the relegation dog fight, one of the tightest we’ve seen in years.

Roma vs Atalanta

Roma have won just 2 of their last 6 Serie A games and are now 9 points from the top.  It’s important to note they have a game in hand but nonetheless they will be disappointed with how things have gone of late.  This week’s opponents Atalanta find themselves in the semi finals of the Coppa Italia having disposed of league leaders Napoli but in the league their away form has been somewhat problematic.

Roma’s defense is the most stubborn Serie A has to offer having conceded just 12 goals thus far but Atalanta forward Papu Gomez will provide a stern test for the Roma rearguard.

My instincts point to a draw but given the gap that is starting to develop between the top 2 and 3rd place Roma you have to believe they will go out there desperate to claim all three points and stay in contention.  If the Giallorossi were to drop further points this weekend we could start to see the top 2 disappearing off into the distance.

Other fixtures:

Benevento vs Sampdoria, Chievo vs Udinese, Genoa vs Sassuolo, Milan vs Crotone, Spal vs Lazio & Torino vs Bologna.

A Volatile December for Valencia

The scene was set for Valencia in the first week of December . Lionel Messi had scored his 1st goal in 6 matches as Barcelona were held to an entertaining 2-2 draw against Celta Vigo at the Nou Camp. Real Madrid had missed the chance to cut the gap on Barcelona at the top of La Liga as Athletic Bilbao held the champions to a goalless draw at San Mames. Throw in Atletico Madrid’s comeback win against Real Sociedad on Saturday, all eyes were on Valencia, but as ever in football nothing is guaranteed.

Sunday 3rd December: Getafe 1 Valencia 0

Instead, Markel Bergara fired 10-man Getafe to a shock victory over 2nd placed Valencia to leave Barcelona 5 points clear at the top of the Liga table. Very rarely do these opportunities happen in La Liga which makes Valencia’s 1st  loss in 16 games all the more exasperating.  Even against 10 men they just couldn’t create enough noteworthy chances. Admittedly the shot came off former Arsenal defender Gabriel Paulista and sailed over goalkeeper Neto and into the net. The key for me in this game was Valencia missing decisive winger  Guedes and defenders Garay and Murillo through injury and coach Marcelino was serving a touchline ban. Guedes, in particular, is electrifying to watch. Fast and forceful he embodies everything Marcelino is known for as a coach with regards to the youth system, a player capped by Portugal when he was 18 years old is a testament to that conviction

My favourite Valencia player, Parejo criticised the poor playing surface “They took the 3 points but if you want to see great football then you can’t play on a pitch like this,” Parejo told reporters. Undoubtedly, the pitch didn’t look great, but other teams can adjust and dig in when it matters late in the game. We have seen this with Manchester City recently.  Marcelino eschews the slow build-up of other teams in La Liga and in its place is a very classic view of the game:  4-4-2 and counter as quickly as possible catching the opposition when they’re least prepared.  I’ve also heard stories of Marcelino obsessing over the diet of his players and has a reputation of putting a strain on his relationship with his players by being so neurotic. It remains to be seen if his obsessive characteristics can remain a positive influence on the team. If and when it all goes pear-shaped, as ever in Spain he’ll be the first in the firing line.

Saturday 9th December: Valencia 2 Celta Vigo 1

Valencia captain Dani Parejo stepped up to score a late penalty, sealing a 2-1 win over Celta Vigo and moved Marcelino’s men within 2 points of LaLiga leaders Barcelona. The hope remained! Los Che suffered their 1st league loss of the season last week (above), going down 1-0 at Getafe, but they responded with a hard-fought win back on home turf. Simone Zaza was again the man to deliver taking his tally for the season to 10 in the 28th minute when he stole in at the near post to flick Parejo’s corner past a helpless Ruben Blanco. Signs of what was to come next week were still apparent nonetheless when Valencia lost focus and conceded a disjointed equaliser only a minute after the restart. Valencia coach Marcelino, who was back in the dugout following a two-game touchline ban, said: ‘It was a really exciting game. The result is fair because we scored two legal goals but Celta played very well and if they’d drawn we wouldn’t have been able to complain.”

Saturday 16th December: Eibar 2 Valencia 1

The short and unlikely title bid is now all but over. An 8 point gap has developed behind leaders Barcelona with Valencia sitting now in 3rd place following the away defeat at the hands of Eibar. Japanese international Takashi Inui put Eibar ahead in the 49th minute following some calamitous defending by the away side. Again the missing players for Valencia were key, and perhaps a lack of a strong squad is truly why they cannot compete with the big boys. Top scorer Zaza was away through suspension while winger Carlos Soler was injured. Eibar had more than twice as many shots as the visitors did but managed to hit the target only 3 times, and Valencia coach Marcelino felt his side had been hard done by. “The last 2 away games have been tough for us but today I think we played well in the 1st half and didn’t have too many problems in the 2nd half either. What is happening is our opponents have few chances but they are taking them,” he told reporters.

The opponents have indeed taken their chances, albeit few, very well. And with that they’ve taken Valencia’s title hopes.


Twitter: @Alavi_SSN

United left feeling black and blue

Let’s face the facts, Manchester United have simply fallen short in meeting the standards set by the league leaders in this campaigns title race. Striving for a top three finish seems a more realistic target, and I am of the opinion that not a single competitor behind us is any closer to demonstrating the standard of football we’re witnessing from Manchester City so far this season. Having just watched my team being dominated for 90 minutes at Old Trafford, I have to say I’m at a loss in trying to piece together the reasons behind our failure. Having to surrender the championship midway through a season is a big ask for any Manchester United fan, but if I can be honest with myself, that is where I’m at. This article will touch on my take on why we’re so far behind our city rivals, and my theory behind how the evolution of the number 10 role is the main cause.

Pep Guardiola has guided his team to a remarkable 11 point gap, but is their squad that much better than ours I ask? They have a goalkeeper, once upon a time deployed as a left back, ticking that ‘ball playing ability’ box Guardiola craved so much so that he saw it necessary to push out a fans favourite and England’s number one goalkeeper, Joe Hart. A defence that again regularly focus on playing their way out of trouble. Attacking threats in Sterling, Sane, Jesus, and not to mention arguably the best striker in the game for the past few years Aguero – can’t complain there. With all this at their disposal I would still claim that above all else, their performances this season are elevated due to an excelling midfield. In them a group of world class players reaching the heights once displayed by a Barcelona of old.

I don’t have to remind you that this Barcelona team, led by Pep, entered an era of unfathomable superiority, during a period Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and of course Messi pulled all the strings. Pep evidently has a unique style of playing, and with it a habit of leaving his competitors behind. Could we be witnessing the beginning of a similar era of dominance with Manchester City now?

If we shift our attention to the United squad, we possess a keeper in De Gea of whom I consider the best in the world (if not the best then not many could argue at the very least in the top three). A defence that features promise in the shape of Bailly and Lindelof, and an erratic Rojo to always call upon should you want to concede a last minute penalty. Correct me if I’m wrong but we statistically enjoy the best defence record in the league so far this season, and with it boasting an unbeaten run of 40 games at Old Trafford, which until the heart breaking derby result, denied us of a record breaking milestone of 41.

Attacking force in the shape of Rashford, Martial, Lukaku and Ibrahimovic, we’re not doing too badly ourselves at this end of the pitch either. Call me bias, but when compared to City’s front line I would personally only favour their number 9 for ours – albeit an absolute world of difference between Lukaku and Aguero. Touching on the Lukaku signing, the Belgian striker finds himself under constant scrutiny of late, and if you ask me, rightfully so. Lukaku has so far this season been a shadow of his expectation. I want to see fearless hunger, regularly displayed by the likes of Rashford and Martial (and even Lingard!). A desire to charge at defenders with intent on beating a man. His struggles are no doubt a consequence of the pressure formed around his price tag, and we can only hope he turns it around soon.

At present our ‘in favour’ midfield selection features Pogba, Matic and somehow, Lingard. This compared with City’s chosen three, Fernandinho, David Silva and De Bruyne. I would certainly agree that we have strength in Matic, and a world class rising star in Pogba. Considering the absence of Pogba, we used Herrera with Lingard – is it any wonder that we fell short on Sunday.

Label me deluded, or overly optimistic if you will, but I believe we’re much closer to matching our rivals than what the league table would suggest. Mata and Mkhitaryan, considered by many as highly effective number 10 players, find themselves out of favour with Mourinho and I believe I’ve figured out why. My theory is that the number 10 role has become extinct and the position has now evolved into something bigger. I remind you that Mourinho once sold the likes of Mata, labelling the playmaker as a ‘luxury player’.

When deploying a Coutinho sort of player, often neglectful of his tracking back responsibilities, you loose something in the teams balance. This perhaps influenced Klopp’s decision when choosing to leave the talented Brazilian star on the bench for the Merseyside derby. Our balance was lost the moment we tasked a frightened Herrera to the job of man-marking De Bruyne, and unwilling to join in any attack. I watched City’s two midfield stars run the show, cleverly alternating in their roles between the number 10 and the tireless central midfielder. Herrera was left confused and uselessly dragged all over the pitch, leaving holes at every end of the field. This imbalance left an incapable Lingard with too much to do, and an out of confidence Lukaku, alone, isolated and as ineffective as ever. We were doomed.

Manchester City are demonstrating this alternating of positioning in midfield regularly, and the results of it are clear. Every time Silva bursts forward in his intimidating fashion, I notice De Bruyne drop that little bit more to offer stability. They are chopping and changing their roles, and between them claim 21 assists, and 8 goals already this season. Statistically, with Pogba featuring in our starting 11 we create and score a lot more goals and ultimately have a better win ratio. It is also noted that we concede far more goals with his involvement too.

As Pogba pushes forward driving our team, eager to create chances for the front three, he naturally neglects his role as a central midfielder for that attacking phase. It is during this phase that you must envision a player tasked to alternate, such as De Bruyne doing so for Silva in the example above. By dropping in behind, he takes on the role of controlling the middle and thus the balance is restored. This necessary alteration of roles provides a stability to a team that I believe we lack at present and City posses in abundance. I call this role a number 8 and a half, and there aren’t many out there. Probably because I just made it up.

There is it, my verdict on the derby and the miles between the two Manchester clubs could quite possibly be the difference of just a single player in an evolved, more advanced position. Now let’s go out and find one in January! In the meantime, Manchester United are left black and blue, and how very blue it feels right now.

Andy Andreas

Twitter: @sofasportspod

Facebook: Sofa Sports News – The Football Fan Network

Serie A Preview: Week 15

Napoli vs Juventus

It’s the clash we’ve all been waiting for, the league leaders take on the current champions at the Stadio San Paolo.   Despite the fact that Inter currently occupy 2nd position in the table many see this as Napoli’s biggest test of the season.  So far, Maurizio Sarri’s side have passed several tests proving their credentials and with the league being as competitive as it has been this season it never seems to be long before another huge game comes around.

It looks as though we could see one of the tightest Scudetto races in history and so three points would be huge for either side.  The big games require nerves of steel and thats so often where Juventus have had the upper hand in recent seasons.  Allegri’s side have a real opportunity to stamp their authority on this title race whilst Napoli will be looking to open up a greater lead over whom they will consider as their closest rivals for the Scudetto.

Juve’s record going into this doesn’t read well, they’ve only managed one victory in their last 13 competitive visits to the San Paolo.  Add to that the fact Mario Mandzukic, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Benedikt Howedes have not made the trip and Gonzalo Higuain’s participation is in doubt Napoli will be feeling rather confident.

The hosts welcome back Mario Rui and Raul Albiol back into the squad and that means Elseid Hysaj can return to his natural position of right back.  Defeat for either side could derail their title charge and I expect to see a cagey affair and despite what they say neither will be too disappointed with a solitary point.

Inter vs Chievo

Inter have a golden opportunity to take advantage of the fact Napoli entertain Juve this weekend.  They remain unbeaten but Spalletti will be forced to make several changes this weekend.  Many have put their success thus far down to the fact the boss has been able to name pretty much the same XI week after week, theres no question the consistency in his selections has been key.

Miranda and Gagliardini are both suspended and Vecino is injured forcing Spalletti’s hand.  Chievo got back to winning ways last weekend having beaten Spal but it remains to be seen how they will recover from their midweek cup exit at the hands of rivals Hellas Verona.  Chievo will be without Ivan Radovanovic and Lucas Castro for their trip to the San Siro this weekend.

Perhaps unsurprisingly Inter are the overwhelming favourites given that Chievo have only won at the San Siro once in their last 15 league visits.

Sampdoria vs Lazio

Sampdoria have had a great campaign so far despite having suffered defeat last week at the hands of Bologna.  Their away form has been rather hit and miss this season and so last weeks defeat wasn’t a huge surprise but nonetheless having beaten Juventus the week before many would have backed the Blucerchiati to kick on.

Lazio themselves appear to have lost their way slightly and will be keen to get a big result and silence their critics although they will be without Felipe Anderson, Nani and Davide De Gennaro who are all missing through injury whilst Sampdoria will be without Ivan Strinic who pulled up early on last week.

Sampdoria up until now have a 100% home record but Lazio boast the second best away record in the division so this will be a difficult fixture to call.  Given the strengths of the two sides you can expect goals at Marassi this weekend.

Benevento vs Milan

Gennaro Gattuso’s takes the reigns after the sacking of Vincenzo Montella and will lead his side out against struggling Benevento.  The home side are yet to register a point this season and will be desperate for any sort of result, unfortunately for them there is no sign of things getting any easier.  Milan arrive with a point to prove and will be keen to try and salvage something from whats been a dismal season so far given their aspirations at the start of the campaign were to qualify for the Champions League.  The top four looks along way away at this stage but theres no reason why they can’t go on a run and chase down the aforementioned Sampdoria in 6th place.

Benevento will be without Pietro Iemmello and star man Amato Ciciretti, as if the task wasn’t daunting enough.  However, Milan have injury concerns of their own, Calhanoglu, Borini, Conti, Abate and Calabria are all doubts but Lucas Biglia returns having recovered from a flu.

As previously mentioned the hosts are yet to register a victory this season and I think its safe to say they’ll still be waiting after this weekend.

Other Fixtures:  Bologna vs Cagliari, Crotone vs Udinese, Fiorentina vs Sassuolo, Roma vs Spal, Torino vs Atalanta and Verona vs Genoa.

Serie A Preview: Week 14

Udinese vs Napoli

Massimo Oddo couldn’t have asked for a tougher start to his managerial reign at Udinese.  The league leaders are coming to town and will be full of confidence having beaten AC Milan and Shakhtar Donetsk in the space of a week.  Udinese have struggled this season and Gigi Del Neri’s sacking after last week’s home defeat at the hands of Cagliari was no surprise to anybody.  Udinese face the real possibility of being sucked into the relegation fight and the Friulani will hope Oddo’s appointment can provide the spark they’ve been missing thus far.  Napoli will be the overwhelming favorites ahead of this fixture but you can never underestimate the impact a new manager can have.  Veteran goalkeeper Albano Bizzari is suspended for the home side but other than that neither boss has any new injury concerns.

Cagliari vs Inter

Having overtaken Juventus last week Inter could temporarily go top of the table with a victory at Cagliari.  The home side have found a bit of form recently under Diego Lopez winning 3 of their last 5.  The Rossoblu have a full squad of players to select from with the exception of midfielder Alessandro Deiola who is facing a late fitness test.  Luciano Spalleti has a fully fit squad to choose from and his side pretty much picks itself as it has done all season.  Mauro Icardi will be the one to watch, undoubtedly one of the leagues deadliest forwards, Cagliari will have to be watertight defensively if they are to keep the Argentine at bay.

Juventus vs Crotone

The champions have come under heavy criticism of late and they’ll be looking to get back on track with a victory over 15th placed Crotone.  Having suffered defeat at Sampdoria last weekend boss Max Allegri is expected to recall Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Barzagli and Paulo Dybala to the starting XI.  The two Italians were left out due to their fragile mental state having failed to qualify for the world cup with the Azzuri just a few days prior, make of that what you will.  Juventus’ draw versus Barcelona midweek didn’t go down too well with their supporters and their chances of progressing to the knockout stages of the Champions league took a huge blow.  Crotone are yet to beat Juventus throughout their entire history and it’s not likely that will change this weekend.  The Old lady will be keen to get back to winning ways ASAP and I expect them too, especially with a trip to Naples around the corner.

Genoa vs Roma

The Giallorossi go into this encounter having won 5 on the bounce including a victory over local rivals Lazio.  A huge confidence boostno doubt but their midweek defeat at the hands of Atletico Madrid may have halted their momentum temporarily.  The question is can Genoa take advantage?  Having won just twice this season it’s a tough ask but you cannot deny they possess the talent amongst their ranks to hurt even the division’s top sides.  The likes of Goran Pandev and Adel Taraabt are expected to spearhead the Genoa attack but you’d be a brave person to bet against Roma.  The hosts will be without Bulgarian international Andrey Galabinov and Roma are missing Patrick Schick, Emerson Palmieri and long term absentee Rick Karsdorp.

Lazio vs Fiorentina

Lazio will be keen to put their derby woes behind them and traditionally the visit of Fiorentina has been a difficult fixture.  The Viola have picked up two wins and a draw from their last five visits.  Lazio’s injury worries continue with Wallace, Di Gennaro, Felipe Anderson, Caicedo and Nani all unavailable this weekend.  Fiorentina are not without injury problems of their own and will be missing influential playmaker Milan Badelj.  Given Fiorentina’s uninspiring away record so far Lazio will be the favorites but it’ll be interesting to see how they respond to last weekend’s setback.  Could we see an upset here?  Perhaps, Stefano Pioli’s side are due a big result and now is as good a time as ever to meet the Romans.

Milan vs Torino

We’ve been saying it for weeks but a defeat could cost Vincenzo Montella his job.  The Rossoneri sit in 7th place a huge 7 points behind 6th placed Sampdoria who also have a game in hand.  Milan’s hopes of securing a European place continue to fade and for a club of their stature and taking into consideration the summer investment the position they find themselves in is simply not acceptable.  This weekend’s opponents Torino are just a point behind Milan and will be looking to leapfrog their opponents whilst inflicting further pressure on Montella and his players.  The boss’ methods have come under fire with many feeling his team selections make no sense and are bemused by the fact he has persisted with Nikola Kalinic as the lone striker in domestic competition.  Torino have plenty of quality amongst their own ranks with Andrea Belotti, Adem Ljajic and Iago Falque are expected to lead the line and that can bring problems as Inter found out just a few weeks ago.  In my opinion, this one could go either way and if it was to go against Milan it could have seismic repercussions.

Other Fixtures:

Atalanta vs Benevento, Bologna vs Sampdoria, Chievo vs Spal & Sassuolo vs Verona.

Antonios Nikopolidis Interview

Antonios Nikopolidis won the European Championships with Greece back in 2004.  A national hero and one of the most iconic figures of a squad that stunned the footballing world.  He made over 400 appearances for Greece’s two biggest clubs Panathinaikos and Olympiacos and is his nations most capped goalkeeper of all time.  He has 11 domestic titles, countless Champions League campaigns behind him and a European Championship winners medal to show for a truly outstanding career and I had the pleasure of talking to him for Sofa Sports News.

Antonios, you had a fantastic career, you and the rest of the Euro 2004 squad.  The Greek people will no doubt always regard you as heroes.  However, in the lead up to the tournament did you believe that Greece as a nation had a realistic chance of going all the way to the final?

“We were always confident that we had a strong group, a group that managed to qualify for the championships in Portugal perhaps against the odds.  But if I am being totally honest we didn’t believe at that stage we were capable of winning the competition.  Every time we won a game we gained greater belief and so step by step we managed to achieve what we achieved.  But we never in our wildest dreams believed we would return from Portugal with the European crown.”

At what point in the tournament did you start to think ‘hang on a minute, we can actually win this’.

“I cannot speak for the others but I personally started to believe after we defeated France in the quarter finals.  Although we had already beaten the hosts Portugal and earned a draw against Spain in the group stages, it was that particular victory over France that sparked the belief within the camp.  I remember watching the game back the next day and I said to my team mates we can go all the way and win this thing expecting to be laughed at, but everybody agreed.  When you make it into the semi finals you have to believe you can win the competition and as I mentioned earlier with every victory the confidence within the squad grew.  Of course football is about ability and talent but it’s truly amazing what you can achieve with a bit of belief and the right approach.”

Having won the final against host nation Portugal you returned to Greece where you were welcomed by the Greek people, there were over 100,000 people around the Panathinaikos Stadium, fans lined the streets and you and the squad received a real heroes welcome.  Can you describe how you felt and the atmosphere in Athens that day?

“It was emotional, to see so many of your compatriots lining the streets to celebrate was moving and you could really feel how much this meant to the nation as a whole.  I felt proud and thankful that we were able to make Hellenic communities right around the world so happy and we could share this achievement with all of those people rather than just those who had made the trip to Portugal.”

The head coach at the time was the German Otto Rehhagel, there is no doubt he was an outstanding tactician but he was unable to speak the language.  Did you face any difficulties in terms of communication and how did the squad overcome this obstacle?

“We had a translator with us the whole time, Yiannis Balidis.  He had spent a great deal of time in Germany, spoke both languages excellently and fortunately for us he was able to get the managers points across concisely.  My concern was that the small details may be lost in translation and sometimes when you are working through a translator the feeling and passion of what is said can disappear.  Thankfully Yiannis Balidis was fantastic at his job and he was able to convey the feelings and every detail of Otto’s instructions.  For me, Balidis was just as vital to our success as any player that stepped out onto the pitch.” 

Greece were unable to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, unfortunately they were eliminated by Croatia in the play-off stage.  What did you feel went wrong?

“It was a difficult draw and unfortunately Greek football is not at its strongest right now.  Croatia were most people’s favorites to progress and that is because of the quality of players they have to pick from.  Rakitic, Modric, Perisic, just to name a few. However, going into the tie I felt Greece’s chances of progression were 50:50.  Unfortunately for us, the damage was done in the first leg and it gave us an almost impossible task to overcome in Athens.  Defensive errors cost us dearly and at this level, against opponents like Croatia you cannot afford to make these type of mistakes.  It’s as simple as that really.”

Going back to your career now, before the European Championships in 2004 you were playing your club football for Panathinaikos however after the tournament you signed for their fierce rivals Olympiacos.  How difficult was it making a move between the two rival clubs?

“Tough.  Moving clubs is always a challenge but to move from the Green side of Athens to the Red is a different thing all together.  I thought long and hard about it, I knew what I wanted and my mind was made up.  I made the choice I felt best for my career and for my personal life.  You have to learn quickly how to deal with the abuse and the threats that come your way but I believe all of that made me a stronger person and a better footballer.

I was already playing for a side capable of challenging for Greek titles but I felt a move to Olympiacos would allow me to reach the highest levels of the game.  By participating year in year out in the Champions League I was able to play at the highest level and that played a huge part in my decision to make the move.”

Throughout your career who would you say was your toughest opponent?

“I played against some fantastic teams, the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United for example.  I faced some of the very best the game had to offer but the ones that stand out for me would be Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo – don’t ask me to choose one of them because it’s impossible!”

Who would you say was the best head coach/manager you played under?

“Again, that’s another tough question but I would probably say Ernesto Valverde.  Then you have Michel too, these guys improved me as a player as a person and brought new training methods and ideas to the club.  For me, they are two of the worlds very best.”

I know that the English Premier League is widely followed in Greece, who are your favorite English team and why?

“Manchester United.  Because they are great football club who suffered some very difficult times before becoming the powerhouse they are now.  They were in Liverpool’s shadow for a very long time and emerged from the darkness to dominate the English game.  Their history and the way they picked themselves up after the Munich air disaster inspired me as a young kid and I instantly became a fan.”

Since your retirement from the game, what have you been up to?

“I am currently the coach of the Greece U21’s, I have been in this position for a couple of years now and I am really enjoying it.  It is a great opportunity to earn my stripes as a coach and give back to the nation that’s given me so much.  Prior to that I was Leonardo Jardim’s assistant coach at Olympiacos for two years,  Michel’s assistant coach after that and I learnt a great deal from the both of them, fantastic managers.  Coaching is the next stage of my career and I hope to give it my best shot and perhaps one day get the chance to manage Olympiacos.”

Antonios, here in the UK many people say you are a spitting image of Hollywood actor George Clooney.  Is this something you’ve heard before and what do you think?

“Lots of people tell me that!  Especially during the time I was playing in the Champions league and on the television it was something I used to hear often.  I get it, we have the same grey hair and I suppose I should take it as a compliment, perhaps George will have something different to say about that !   It’s one of those things we have always laughed about with my family and if it brings laughter I am all for it.”



Premier League Review & The Managerial Merry-Go-Round

Host @HarrySymeou is joined by regular panelists @DDL_SSN and @Alavi_SSN to discuss the latest action from the English Premier League, the managerial merry-go-round and the latest stories from beautiful game!

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Sander Westerveld Interview

Host @HarrySymeou had the pleasure of talking to former Liverpool, Real Sociedad and Netherlands goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. We spoke about Sander’s fantastic playing career, his League Cup, FA Cup and Europa League victories. Sander also shared his thoughts on the current crop at Anfield and where things may have gone wrong for the Dutch national side of late.
A huge thanks to Sander Westerveld, a true gentleman and we are thrilled to have had him on the show. Enjoy 🙂

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*Also available on iTunes, Acast, FNX Network, Stitcher and Tune In Radio*

Sander Westerveld Interview

Jose Bourinho?

I was listening to BBC Radio 5 Live on the way back from Anfield at the weekend. If ever proof was needed to support the phrase; “a game of two halves” then Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Huddersfield was it. A real Jekyll and Hyde performance from the reds and the less said about the first half, the better.

On the show, there was an in-depth debate regarding Manchester Utd and the way they have been playing this season with Jose Mourinho in particular coming under scrutiny.

They had just beaten Tottenham at home and some callers were phoning in stating their displeasure at the style of football being played and the boring nature of the games involving their beloved Red Devils this season. This all seemed very odd to me. Bar the Huddersfield result, Manchester Utd have been unbeaten and sit second in the league. I found it really surprising that some Utd fans were actually complaining.

One caller stated that Manchester United must play in a particular way purely because they are Manchester United and made reference to the great teams managed by Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. Whilst these teams were obviously very formidable and did produce some dominant scorelines (Fergie’s teams beating Roma 7-0 and Arsenal 8-2 being stand out examples). I’ve lost count of the number of times under Ferguson, that Utd scored a goal in the last 10 minutes to win a game 1-0.

What’s the difference between those 1-0’s and the 1-0’s under Jose?

As a Liverpool fan, I would 100% take consistent 1-0 wins over the odd 4-0 rout subsequently followed by draws and defeats any day of the week. A prime example is earlier in the season when Liverpool thrashed Arsenal 4-0 and then lost 5-0 to Man City, drew at home to Sevilla and Burnley and then lost again, this time, away to Leicester. During the same period, Manchester Utd won 3 and drew once scoring 11 goals.

Mourinho is no idiot. He knows what he is doing. He’s won things everywhere he’s been because he knows how to get results when it really matters. He knows that United, at the moment, would not have been able to outplay Liverpool at Anfield so he set up the team to get a point and that’s exactly what he got. It was the same against Spurs at Old Trafford. Even without star striker Harry Kane, Tottenham are more of an attacking threat than Utd and so Jose again set up his team defensively. The only difference being that on this occasion, Utd won the game 1-0.

Mourinho masterminding results is nothing new. He’s been doing it for years.  Another point made on 5 Live was regarding the Liverpool v Chelsea game back in 2014. Liverpool needed only a draw to keep themselves in the title race but ended up losing the game. The caller was placing the blame on the then Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers saying he should have changed his tactics for that game to be more defensive in their approach.

Whilst I can certainly see where he was coming from, I for one am inclined to disagree. Why risk changing a winning formula that had won the previous 11 games?  During those 11 games, Liverpool had beaten Arsenal 5-1, Everton 4-0, Manchester Utd 3-0, Tottenham 4-0, and Man City 3-2 playing this way. So why shouldn’t they have believed that they could have done the same against a weakened Chelsea team (Chelsea had a Champions League Semi Final against Atletico in their next game).

The reason for the loss in that game was the unfortunate slip by Steven Gerrard. Not Liverpool’s tactics. I still believe that had that slip not happened, Chelsea would never have scored in that game. This, added to the antics both on the touchline by Mourinho, and his players on the pitch, ultimately made it an impossible task.

Winning a game ugly is still winning  and I don’t think any other manager in the league would have been able to set a team up to get a result, away at Anfield during that run of results, other than Jose Mourinho.

A big reason why this topic has become so dominant in football discussions this season may well be due to the fact that there is another club in Manchester that have also been winning games whilst at the same time, scoring for fun and this has been used, in my opinion, as an unfair comparison.

Manchester City have some of the best attacking players in the league as well as strength in numbers in these attacking areas. So much so that £43.6m summer signing Bernardo Silva, who was so instrumental in Monaco’s title winning team of last season, has made only a handful of appearances this season and even fewer starts.

Manchester City have Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Kevin De Bryune  to name but a few of their attacking options. Compare that to Man Utd who, bar Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford can only really call upon Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard.

However, that being said, football fans have short memories. Manchester United have not been playing this so called “boring football” every game this season. More so only in the games in which Mourinho knows Utd won’t be able to run away with. It’s called game management.

At the start of the season Manchester United beat West Ham, Swansea, Everton and Crystal Palace 4-0 and currently find themselves second in both the league table and the table of most goals scored this season sitting behind Manchester City in both.

Hardly boring is it?

At the end of the day, Manchester United have played Liverpool at Anfield and Tottenham at home in recent weeks, arguably their two toughest league fixtures so far, and have come away with four points. Who cares that it wasn’t edge of your seat football? Football by its very nature is a results business and the score line at the end of the game is more important than number of shots or how much possession you had.

Those four points could be huge come the end of the campaign. Results win you trophies (United won 3 in Mourinho’s first season at the club) and that’s what football is all about.

Manchester United’s next Premier League fixture is away at Chelsea and I wonder what United fans would prefer to happen. Another uninspiring game where they hold on to a draw (maybe even nick a win like the Spurs game) or that United open up and play the expansive football their fans seem to crave which would likely play into Chelsea’s hands and end in a defeat?

I know which scenario I’d pick.

Dan James

Comparing Pep

When you think of a manager, you automatically think of someone who can manage people. I see the technical side of the game, formation and tactics etc as the coaches responsibility. Ferguson, Ancellotti, Sacchi, Mourinho and Clough have all built teams full of charisma. They wouldn’t always be considered fantastic coaches, although Mourinho being the first notable exception. The Portuguese manager has built his reputation by displaying his ability to assemble a winning mentality into every team he manages,

Which leads me onto another debate….Jose vs Pep.

People rightfully argue that Mourinho is purely a results oriented manager, organising his teams to get the desired result.  I am not doubting that Pep is definitely a good coach. A fantastic coach in fact. But he’s also always had a great team to work with.  The Barcelona team was the best club team I’ve ever seen so the distinction between “coach” and “manager” remains as interesting as it does blurred.

Pep owes a great deal of his accomplishments to the supremacy of the players available but should be hugely credited with the way he instills his artistic philosophy of playing the game into his teams, which for me counts heaps. Pep sets out his team to play with a certain philosophy and with results being a consequence of that style,  however, he hasn’t built a team. He hasn’t won the champions league with Porto, or indeed Inter Milan. He hasn’t taken on the task of managing a small club like Benfica or Uniao de Leiria.  I’m not saying he couldn’t, but I believe that to be held in the regard of some of the other men aforementioned in this article, he has to take on a team that doesn’t automatically have the best squad in the league.

Each manager is sometimes a victim of being painted with or tarred with the same brush as their history would suggest. There is no doubt that the Barcelona team were immeasurably talented, but a lot of them would never have become top class players without Pep, though undeniably Barcelona have been and always will be one of the big dogs in Europe regardless of which man is at the helm.

Despite the pressure to win trophies, Pep trusts youth and does not alter his philosophy. It’s a tough task to think of a group of youth players that Mourinho has moulded but let’s also not forget that Real Madrid averaged 2.5 goals under him. Not too much bus parking there…..

Pep innovation secures him the reputation as one of the world’s finest coaches but let’s see him relocate that vision to another context and test his managerial ability. A context that doesn’t come with a squad of world class players and hundreds of millions to spend on full backs alone. I believe if you gave everyone the same team in the world then Jose would come out victorious. In essence that makes him the best manager. Conversely, Pep plays the best football in the world, which is a unparalleled and consummate skill in itself… he edges it for me.


Carabao fix the draw but not the glitch

The draw for the Carabao Cup quarter final descended into farce and chaos yesterday as the organizers bungled the most simple task in football – pulling 8 numbered balls out of a hat.

Well at least that’s how we used to do it. Not Carabao. Having already had draws in Thailand, China at 4am, experienced issues including drawing the same team twice and confusing the home and away teams 4 separate times with the help of John Salako, Carabao and the EFL decided that this draw would take place live on twitter.


Well, we can come back to that.

What I was envisaging was at 4pm logging on to twitter and being presented with a link that some one had pre-shared to a video of people (hopefully not John Salako) undertaking a draw live for all to see. Novel, if unnecessary.

What happened? 4pm nothing. 4:10 nothing 4:15, 4:30, 4:40 and so on… What did happen though were some announcements. 4 to be exact. My favourite – ‘…..a twitter engineer continues to work on the problem’ A twitter engineer!! What is one of those?

The draw took place at 5:45 pm? Or did it….? Fans and neutral onlookers were provided with a pre-recorded video of the draw, and the torment was over. What time did the pre-recording take place? Nobody knows. Phil Tufnell and Matt Dawson charged with the important part – football affiliation zero. A draw for the next series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ amateur/professional pairings I’d suggest would be a better place for them to be.

Back to the question of why?

For why, you need to look back at the whole pie and ask yourself how? How can drawing numbers be so difficult?

Here is how I would do it?

But How have the EFL and Carabao managed to mess up so many things in just a few draws?

After the fiasco had ended Carabao issued this tweeted statement “……apologies for technical difficulties…..blah blah blah”

I divert your attention to the previous photograph, nothing needs to be technical, unless…

Here is the result of that draw that no one saw happen:

Chelsea vs Bournemouth

Arsenal vs West Ham

Leicester vs Manchester City

Bristol City vs Manchester United.

The biggest 4 teams in the draw avoided each other, which for the number cruncher’s had just a 23% chance of happening. What has a great chance of happening now is the virtual certainty that there will be 2 big sides in the Final.

That technical glitch has proved to be very convenient in that bad press is better than no press, and Carabao were dominating the trends on social media yesterday afternoon. The good press will be covered at a packed Wembley with two huge teams and Carabao billboards all around the parameters. At least there won’t have to be a draw for the Final, but I wouldn’t rule out both teams being assigned the same dressing room with rival fans sitting on each others laps!

So why? Marketing, coverage, exposure and ….fix? You decide. But the only thing we’re certain wasn’t fixed are the ‘technical’ problems that plague these draws.

How? The over complication of a process to get a desired result?

Maybe next year we can go back to basics. Yellow balls of paper and a glass. If so, I’d certainly drink to that.


SSN Legends: Pavel Nedved

There’s been a lot of  heated debate across our social media platforms in recent weeks- who is world class? What defines world class? How entertaining is Serie A as a competition?

Discussing these topics prompted me to recall one of my favorite ever players. Pavel Nedved. Someone I’d rate in the same class as the great Argentinian Juan Roman Riquelme. Someone I had the pleasure of watching live at the 2006 World Cup when the Czech Republic took on Italy.

I was amazed a footballer could be that good. The former Juve player says he was blown away by the passion shown by Celtic and Lubo Moravcik on the night the Hoops humbled Juventus 4-3 in the Champions League back in 2001. I guess I felt the same way, with the only difference being I was a spectator watching Nedved, whilst the Czech legend was playing against Lubo

A FIFA Ballon d’Or winner (2003), the most successful Czech footballer of all time and a legend of European football, Pavel Nedved remains beloved by fans of the game the world over. Nicknamed Furia Ceca (“The Czech Fury”), Nedved won Serie A four times across his 19-year career but was arguably at his best in Europe where he inspired brilliant UEFA Super Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup triumphs with Lazio before dazzling in the Champions League with Juventus, driving them to a 2003 final full of drama and spectacle.

On the international circuit he was no less impressive, playing with flair and penache at the heart of the newly formed Czech Republic team at the 1996 Euros, where they ended runners-up. He now continues to be a guiding force for Juventus, albeit off the pitch – as a board member, he oversees many of the club’s transfer deals and has been a key figure in engineering the team’s resurgence in recent years. Nedved was appointed vice president of his former club in October 2015

Last month he came out of retirement at the age of 45 in his homeland. Signing for amateur side FK Skalna is undoubtedly interrelated to his son (Pavel Jr) being on the books of Skalna and the chance of lining up together at some point this season. Czech Republic legend Pavel Nedved revealed the biggest regret he had during his career was not playing for Manchester United. European footballer of the year in 2003, instead enjoying highly successful spells with Lazio and Juventus.  The midfielder was once a target for Chelsea, a move which he turned down and when asked by a Czech news outlet what he rues the most from his playing days he said: ‘That I never played for Manchester United, I’d have liked that.”

If I were Nedved I wouldn’t have any regrets.  Seria A WAS great back in those days. Nedved was truly WORLD CLASS.

Serie A Preview: Week 11

Whilst those in England had to make do with an underwhelming round of Carabao Cup action, Italian football fans were treated to a midweek installment of Serie A.

Mauro Icardi and Inter continued their fine form on Tuesday night with a 3-2 victory over Sampdoria at the San Siro which saw them temporarily climb to the summit.  Napoli saw to it that Inter’s reign at the top lasted less than 24 hours when they leapfrogged the Nerrazzuri having won 2-3 at Genoa. Juventus, Roma and Lazio also registered victories midweek and the battle for the Scudetto and the Champions League positions continues to heat up.

Looking ahead to match day 11 the standout fixture comes from Milan.  Juventus travel to Italy’s second city in a bid to chase down league leaders Napoli and simultaneously inflict further pain on under fire Milan boss Vincenzo Montella.  The former Fiorentina manager must feel as though the walls are closing in on him.  Having spent a vast amount of money during the summer the minimum expectation was for Milan to secure a Champions League place.  Given the way Napoli, Lazio, Roma, Inter and Juventus have started the campaign that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Juventus go into this one in a far richer vein of form, despite their recent defeat at the hands of Lazio they were able to bounce back instantly with convincing victories in Udine and then at home against SPAL.  Hardly the kind of opponent Montella would have wanted to face given his precarious situation.  Dybala, Higuain and co will be confident of leaving the San Siro with maximum points and you wouldn’t be surprised if this was to be Montella’s final game in charge.

With Carlo Ancelotti hovering in the background, unemployed and in search of pastures new could we see the Milan hierarchy turn to their former boss for inspiration?  Some food for thought.

Elsewhere Napoli entertain Sassuolo, Lazio travel to relegation threatened Benevento, Roma welcome Bologna to the Olimpico, Inter head to Verona and SPAL take on Genoa in an early season six pointer.

Remaining fixtures:

Crotone vs Fiorentina, Sampdoria vs Chievo, Torino vs Cagliari and Udinese vs Atalanta.

Another action packed weekend of Serie A football coming your way!



Arsenal 2-1 Norwich – Nketiah steals the show

Edward Nketiah was the name on everyone’s lips last night when he came off of the bench to rescue Arsenal in the Carabao cup against Norwich.

Arsenal had made 11 changes to their win over Everton on Sunday and the bench, with the exception of Chuba Akpom, had players known only to the staunchest Arsenal fans.

Norwich had led through Josh Murphy’s fine finish and had every right to feel aggrieved when Eleneny only saw yellow for pulling down Oliviera early in the 2nd Half.

Arsenal began to push late on though and Wenger’s faith in his young guns proved its worth when young Nketiah equalised with 5 minutes left. He did so just 15 seconds after coming on the field as a substitute, and became the first player born after Wenger’s appointment to score for the Gunners.

Arsenal’s foothold was not to be given up as they dominated extra time, and that man Edward Nketiah rose highest from a corner to head the gunners into the quarter final draw. A night to remember for him and a player to watch out for in the future.

Dan De Luca