Praise for Ballo whilst Icardi & Dybala miss out

Argentina Head Coach Jorge Sampaoli told the press on Thursday “I’d like to have Mario Balotelli as my player” after the Nice forward was left out of the Italian squad to face Argentina and England. Despite the strikers impressive form Luigi Di Biagio decided against his inclusion and one can only suspect with the Azzuri not going to the World Cup he’s focused on providing the likes of Simone Verdi and Patrick Cutrone with some valuable experience.

Sampaoli went on to say “We’re talking about a great player, with skill and passion for the game. Those are the reasons I admire him.” But perhaps the Casilda born coach ought to worry about his own selection troubles and his bizarre decision to overlook Inter captain Mauro Icardi who scored four goals as recently as last weekend and Juventus starlet Paulo Dybala.

The Albiceleste as per usual have an array of attacking talent to choose from and so it was never going to be an easy decision but I’d question whether Diego Perotti (Roma) or Joaoquin Correa (Sevilla) would deserve to go to Russia ahead of the two aforementioned forwards. When speaking about Dybala he had this to say “We thought Dybala was one of the top in the national team, but with the passage of time maybe he hasn’t been able to adapt to our ideas. He’s struggling to fit in. He generates a lot of points for his club as an anarchist footballer, and that’s made him a big name in world football. Either we didn’t understand where to use him or he couldn’t adapt to our ideas, which are totally different to his club. We have to evaluate whether there are those who are better than him, or if we have to strengthen Paulo.”

He did however; refuse to shut the door on Mauro Icardi clearly stating “I’m not ruling him out”. Make of that what you will but it’s becoming increasingly evident that the 2015 Copa America winner simply doesn’t fancy the pair, perhaps it’s a tactical thing, it has to be.

Those participating this summer will use the upcoming friendly fixtures as an opportunity to evaluate their options and experiment whereas in Italy the general feeling is that with no World Cup to look forward to it’s about giving the youngsters a chance to shine and grooming them ahead of the Euro 2020 qualification campaign.

Words: @HarrySymeou

Twitter: @sofasportspod

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.”



International’s aren’t that bad are they?

This weeks panel includes Kristan Heneage – football writer @FourFourTwo, ITVFootball and the @Guardian & Sports Journalist/Broadcaster Andy Wilson. The guys discuss the big stories from the World Cup 2018 Qualifiers & assess England’s chances in Russia next summer!

England come from behind

England 2-1 Slovakia

A mediocre England performance was enough to pretty much seal their place in next summers world cup finals.  Last night’s opponents Slovakia trail group F leaders England by five points with just two games remaining and so one more victory would see England qualify. Another qualification group navigated with relative ease.

Gareth Southgate’s side failed to inspire in front of  the Wembley crowd and feared qualification would be out of their own hands for the 34 minutes Slovakia led the match.

Lobotka fired the Slovakian’s in front after just three minutes and the away side looked in control until Eric Dier’s smart finish levelled things just before half time.

Marcus Rashford’s impressive strike just short of the hour mark gave England all three points but the post match discussion will be dominated by the antics of Spurs’ midfielder Delle Alli.

Having felt he was fouled by Martin Skrtel, the Spurs man appeared to raise his middle finger towards the referee Clement Turpin.  Alli was quick to set the record straight after the game and claimed it was aimed at his ‘good friend’ Kyle Walker.

Should he face any retrospective punishment for his actions?

Let us know what you think…





Belgium qualify for Russia 2018

Belgium became the first European nation to seal qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Roberto Martinez’s side traveled to the Giorgos Karaiskakis stadium in Piraeus to take on the 2004 European champions knowing a victory would seal their place in next years world cup finals.

Spurs defender Jan Vertonghen opened the scoring on 70 minutes but the lead only lasted 3 minutes before the hosts leveled through Zeca.

Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku took center stage just a minute later to guide his header past the helpless Orestis Karnezis.  The Watford goalkeeper couldn’t believe the Belgian striker was allowed that kind of space just moments after the home side drew level!

Belgium posses one of the most talented squads in Europe so there is certainly no shame in losing to them but the context of this defeat could prove to be something of a ‘Greek Tragedy’.

Bosnia-Herzegovina took advantage of the result and with their 4-0 victory over Gibraltar moved into the play-off spot leaving the Greek’s in a spot of bother.

Bosnia-Herzegovina host Belgium next whilst Greece travel to their old friends Cyprus and so the race for the play-off spot remains wide open.  Group H promises an exciting conclusion and is certainly one to keep your eye on.




AFCON – Preview

The Africa Cup of Nations kicked off this weekend and for the next few weeks will provide some entertaining alternative football viewing.

The tournament has grown massively in European exposure in recent years as well as quality, but it’s still hard to believe this edition of the tournament marks the 60th anniversary.

There has always been quality footballers coming out of Africa, from George Weah and Roger Miller, to Tony Yeboah & Samuel Eto’o, but the quantity of top players plying the trade in the European Leagues, like Drogba, Toure, Essien, Song; along with increase television coverage have seen the tournament go from strength to strength, such that Oil giants Total now provide sponsorship to the tournament which will see an initial increase in prize money and the renaming of the tournament to the TOTAL African Cup Of Nations.

The political unrest in Libya means they were unable to host and so were replaced by Gabon which gives viewers the privilege of seeing Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang join the carnival of football, who is probably the best player at the tournament.


Dortmund will certainly miss their star man for as long as he keep his 108th ranked team in the tournament but this year is no different to last decade in terms of causing problems to some premier league squads.

There will be 23 players from the EPL featuring in Gabon.
The biggest losers in the relegation scrap are Crystal Palace & Leicester.

The only positive for Crystal Palace during the miserable season has been the contributions of Wilfred Zaha, and his recent switch of aliegances to the Black Elephants of Ivory Coast means they’ll be missing him over the next crucial period of their fight for survival.

Leicester are also going to feel the struggle become even more uphill, they’ll be missing star man FA player of the year Riyad Mahrez as well as record signing Islam Slimani to the Algerian squad.

Amongst the title contenders, Manchester United will certainly miss the presence of Eric Bailly who has been their most consistent new signing this season and has been integral to their solid defence during the recent run of wins.
Chelsea are having most things going their way this season and will benefit for Nigeria surprisingly failing to qualify and so retain the services of Victor Moses who has been crucial to the success of the formation switch that has propelled them to the top of the table.

Spurs keep Victor Wanyama as a result of Kenya’s failure to qualify.

City and Arsenal lose just Eleneny between them so no real harm done.

The biggest sufferers could well be Liverpool who have dazzled this season with the pace at which they attack. They move the ball fast, but the quickest player at the top of the attack is Saido Mane. He’s been brilliant this season and chipped with goals too, He’ll be a huge miss for Liverpool as he joins up with Senegal and could miss up to nine games including cup competitions and the semi final 2nd leg of the EFL cup. Some big league fixtures in that period too against title contenders, his absence could have a big impact.

Final word should go to the tournament itself, and it promises to be an entertaining enjoyable spectacle as ever. Ivory Coast, current holders, go in as tournament favourites, but with their side missing some stalwarts of previous years like Drogba and Toure it may be worth looking elsewhere for the eventual winner.

Senegal had a 100% record in qualifying and may be worth a punt to to carry that on to victory with Mane leading their most exciting team since their famous World Cup run in 2002, despite a tough group containing Algeria. The AFCON does have a habit of throwing up outsiders who have runs to the title or close, and it would be worth keeping an eye on Democratic Republic of Congo’s progression at 20/1 who could surprise with star man Cedric Bakambu (Villarreal) and along with Egypt (9/1) in their first finals for 4 tournaments, spearheaded by Mohamed Salah. Both could make a surprise run to the semi finals or beyond.
Full List of Premier League Africa Cup of Nations absentees:
Mohamed Elneny, Egypt

Max Gradel, Ivory Coast

Bakary Sako, Mali
Wilfried Zaha, Ivory Coast

Idrissa Gueye, Senegal

Ahmed Elmohamady, Egypt
Dieumerci Mbokani, DR Congo

Daniel Amartey, Ghana
Riyad Mahrez, Algeria
Islam Slimani, Algeria

Sadio Mane, Senegal

Eric Bailly, Ivory Coast

Sofiane Boufal, Morocco

Wilfried Bony, Ivory Coast
Mame Biram Diouf, Senegal
Ramadan Sobhi, Egypt

Wahbi Khazri, Tunisia
Lamine Kone, Ivory Coast
Didier Ndong, Gabon

Nordin Amrabat, Morocco
Adlene Guedioura, Algeria

Andre Ayew, Ghana
Cheikhou Kouyate, Senegal

Dan De Luca

Northern Ireland fall to heavy defeat at the hands of Croatia.

Northern Ireland 0-3 Croatia

Northern Ireland fell to a heavy defeat against Croatia in their final match of 2016 at Windsor Park on Tuesday.  Croatia ranked sixteenth in the World started the brighter as Tin Jedvaj played an angled pass into Marko Rog who’s shot was saved by Alan Mannus .

Michael O’Neil was experimenting with his team making significant changes from Friday nights victory over Azerbaijan including Liam Boyce as the front man .

Croatia however took the lead on nine minutes thanks to Juventus forward Mario Mandzukic as he poked home after Mannus had initially parried a Duje Cop strike from an acute angle. 

Boyce did have the next chance on twelve minutes as Oliver Norwood played him through but Croatian keeper Lovre Kalinic was quick to react to clear . 

Northern Ireland were struggling to find a way back into the game but did have a half chance on thirty four minutes as Gareth McAuley got on the end of Norwoods free-kick but his header across the face of goal couldn’t be turned in. 

A minute later the visitors had their second when Cop flicked in after some static Northern Irish defending from a corner as he was left unmarked .

Ante Cacics side nearly went in Three-Nil ahead at the break when Mandzukic got on the end of Domagoj Vida long ball but shot into the side netting . 

O’Neil made a trio of changes at Half-Time including the introduction of captain Steven Davis to try and bring his side to life.

However it was Croatia who created another opening when Cop played in Andrej Krameric once a record signing of Premier League champions Leicester City but he fired over.

Boyce had a perfect chance to pull a goal back on sixty four minutes as he met a Paddy McNair low cross but he shot into the arms of Kalinic. 

McNair then had a good opportunity of his own shortly afterwards as he cannoned a volley wide from just outside the penalty area. 

Croatia had their third on sixty seven minutes through Krameric who took his goal extremely well volleying high into the top corner of the net leaving Mannus with little chance of saving . 

 A disappointing defeat for the home side their first defeat at Windsor Park in three years .


 By Josh Bunting