The Banega Effect

Ever Banega has arguably been Sevilla’s most impressive player this season following his return from Inter last summer. A player who’s steadily improved since being sent off in his first league game since returning to the club.  The Argentina international played a vital role in Sevilla’s victory over Manchester United in the last round of the competition, he and Steven N’Zonzi dominated Jose Mourinho’s midfield in both legs. It was that very game against Manchester United where he picked up the suspension that ruled him out of the first leg versus Bayern Munich.

I spoke on this weeks podcast about how I thought Banega’s suspension proved a huge loss on Tuesday night. They lacked his creativity and incisiveness. Banega is a versatile midfielder capable of both playing off of the front man and dropping deep to collect the ball from the centre backs.

Sevilla missed his ability to link up play with the front men but moreover, his absence meant players such as Vidal (before the injury) were forced to play without Banega’s pressing and defensive awareness.  Unfortunately we are unlikely to see Sevila in the Champions League next season, which makes me wonder whether any clubs will turn the head of the 29 year old, particularly if he impresses at the world cup.

Words: Alavi_SSN

Twitter: @sofasportspod

Cristiano El Magnifico

The UEFA Champions League is without question the pinnacle of club competition and a playground for the world’s most talented footballers.  ‘Cristiano el magnifico’ has lifted the famous trophy four times thus far and you’d be foolish to bet against him getting his hands on a 5th in the Ukrainian capital come May.  His exquisite overhead kick in Turin last night left football fans right across the globe in awe and the Portuguese received a standing ovation from the Juventus supporters, an acknowledgement they’d just witnessed something remarkable from one of the greatest of all time.  The debate around who is currently the best player in world football continues and just when you think you’ve finally made your mind up be it Ronaldo or Messi the other one raises the bar with something even more spectacular.

Quite frankly, it’s a debate I’m sick to death of.  As football fans we are blessed to be able to watch these two artists simultaneously and in many ways they spur each other on to continuously deliver football of the highest quality.  Such is the intensity at which they battle for the Ballon D’or each year neither would dare allow their standard to drop from fear of being outshone by the other.  Thanks to advances in satellite TV and the fact the internet has made the world a much smaller place we never have to miss any of the magical moments and for that we should be grateful.  That’s something our parents/grandparents couldn’t say during the days of Pele, Maradona and Cruyff.  The consistency these two men display from one week to the next both in domestic and European competition is like nothing the world of football has ever seen.  The game has certainly advanced both tactically and physically since the days of the aforementioned players therefore its becoming increasingly difficult for the traditionalists to dismiss Ronaldo or indeed Messi when discussing the greatest of all time.

You’ve probably seen the replay of Ronaldo’s overhead kick multiple times by now and the likelihood is you’ll see it repeated in Champions League highlight reels for years to come.  The more I see it the more I’m impressed by his athleticism, the flawless technique and the audacity of the man, to try something as outrageous as that in a Champions League Quarter final requires an abundance of self-belief.  Despite going behind inside 3 minutes Juventus responded relatively well, having a couple of penalty appeals waved away and Gonzalo Higuain forced an instinctive save from Keylor Navas in the first half.  However, a goal of that caliber is enough to force even the most mentally resilient of sportsmen to throw in the towel and the Italian Champions fell apart.

Zizou’s reaction was priceless and with the tie effectively over the second leg will be nothing more than a formality.  Sergio Ramos and Paulo Dybala will miss out next week through suspension but as we saw last night its Cristiano that calls the shots.

Words: @HarrySymeou

Follow us on Twitter: @sofasportspod

Salah leads the way

At the start of the season myself and DDL promised the very dubious Harry Symeou that Mohamed Salah would have a fine season in a Liverpool shirt. However, my money was was on Sergio Aguero to finish as the Premier League’s top goal scorer, as it is every season which is compounded by the belief that I’m betting on the best striker in the league. Possibly the best player, which I firmly still have confidence in.

Nonetheless the race for the race for the 2017-18 Premier League Golden Boot is well and truly on, with Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah leading the way, closely followed by Sergio Aguero. Last season we saw Harry Kane score 29 goals in 30 appearances for Tottenham, whilst Romelu Lukaku a close (ish) second ended up with 25 in 37 games for Everton.

It looked as though history was going to repeat itself after the England striker scored consecutive hat-tricks against Burnley and Southampton, but an ankle injury to Harry Kane  meant Salah  had the chance to strike 4 times in a 5-0 rout of Watford therefore moving 4 goals clear of Harry Kane in the golden boot standings.  This week his vital goal led to another Liverpool victory, his 29th Premier League goal of the campaign and his 37th in all competitions. What impresses me most about Mohamed Salah is that he’s always first to react every time his team win the ball and break away.

The Egyptian is alert enough to pop in pockets of space whether starting from a central area or having cut inside from his natural wide position. He’s selfless too, as are Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero to be fair. He’s also quick to note the impact of “Bobby” Firmino, quoted recently as saying “He is doing everything. Running, fighting for every ball, giving the ball back, trying to get the ball in any position. He’s very good for us, and very important. He’s very, very smart

In some ways I hope the Egyptian wins the Golden Boot because he deserves it for having re-joined the EPL despite things not going his way the first time around but also for the quality of many of his goals.  As short as 1/8 with some bookies you wouldn’t bet against Mohamed Salah. Just for reference he was between 60/1 and 70/1 before a ball was kicked.  Well I at least won’t be making the same mistake twice in one season!

Who do you guys think will end up as this season’s Golden Boot winner?

Words: @Alavi_SSN

Follow us on Twitter: @sofasportspod


Podcast: Martin Tyler Interview

The voice of football Martin Tyler joins host @HarrySymeou for an insightful talk regarding his outstanding career, his journey from non-league football to the gantry, the FIFA video game, life at Sky Sports and shares his thoughts on the controversial VAR trials. Martin truly is a fountain of footballing knowledge and this is an episode you will not want to miss! Check it out!

If you are listening to the show via iTunes please don’t forget to rate us.   Thank you in advance.

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Twitter: @sofasportspod

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

AW told JW he could leave during the summer, but was he correct to?

With Jack Wilshere’s contract hovering dangerously close to its expiration date I’m sitting here wondering how on earth the Arsenal find themselves in this type of situation again.  The uncertainty around Jack’s future has been a talking point for quite some time but I’m almost certain most of us expected this latest contract issue to have been resolved by now one way or another.  Jack Wilshere has been quoted as saying Arsene Wenger told him he could leave over the summer as the club were unwilling to offer him a new deal – I for one am not surprised by that and neither should you be, so why the seismic reaction to Wenger’s alleged comments?

Granted, Jack Wilshere has been able to stay clear of injury during this past few months and has performed relatively well at times but let’s not forget the managers comments were made at a time the England midfielder was sidelined and yet to prove his fitness.  From the clubs point of view, Jack had failed to make any significant impact during his loan spell at Bournemouth, his body looked fragile and as has been the case throughout his career it was impossible to predict how many games you’d get out of him.

You’ll struggle to find an Arsenal fan out there who is against the idea of Jack signing an extension, after all his return to the team has been one of the few positives in what’s been a rather depressing season.  It’s widely reported that Wilshere has been offered a new deal but in order for both parties to be satisfied he’d need to accept a pay cut.  The club clearly still has doubts over his physical condition, that’s the only explanation because there is certainly no question over his ability.  The likes of Jack and Ramsey (both in the spotlight regarding their contract situations) have just witnessed Mesut Ozil delay committing his own future in order to obtain the deal he wanted so it’d be naïve to think these lads and their representatives won’t be trying the same thing.

In my view, the club should do whatever it takes to keep one of the few players who understands what it means to play for this great club.  Care will have to be taken in the way he is utilized and you’d hope the medical staff can find a way to limit his injuries.  Of course there is a financial risk involved, but me personally, I believe it is a chance worth taking and I’d be deeply upset if he was to be allowed to leave.

Criticize the club, the manager, the board all you like because this situation must be resolved sooner rather than later but just remember Wenger’s comments were made back in the summer when most of us would have been feeling the exact same way.

Words: @HarrySymeou 

Twitter: @chronicles_afc

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England’s Number One?

Most of the International sides travelling to Russia this summer know who their first choice goalkeeper will be, but nothing could be further from the truth in England’s case. Joe Hart, Jack Butland, Jordan Pickford and Nick Pope are all competing to see who should start at this summer’s World Cup. Against Lithuania we saw Jack Butland take up the position between the sticks despite Joe Hart having seemingly  cemented his position as the number one during the past 6 years.  The West Ham stopper having played 9 of England’s 10 World Cup Qualifiers.  I’ve decided to put myself in Gareth Southgate’s shoes and would like to know what you guys think too…

To some Joe Hart is still the obvious choice being England’s most experienced keeper (and by some distance). For others, the 33 goals he’s conceded in just 15 EPL games this season is, in fact, reason enough for Hart to miss out altogether. That’s far too many goals conceded in not nearly enough games. I personally rate Joe Hart as both a goalkeeper and a personality and believe that on his day he can be one of England’s key men.  Unfortunately, those kind of days I’m referring to seem nothing more than a distant memory.  Of course, experience counts for a lot, although playing consistently throughout a season counts for even more. It may sound contradictory that I would start both John Stones and Jack Wilshere, but that’s because ball playing centre backs and creative deep lying central midfielders are few and far between for England. The same cannot be said for the goalkeeper situation. That all being said I’d take Joe Hart to Russia and he’d be my substitute keeper.

Nick Pope has kept more clean sheets and conceded fewer EPL goals than any of the other 3 goalkeepers in Gareth Southgate’s latest squad. Looking at form alone it’s difficult to see past Pope considering he’s saved just over 80% of the shots on target he has faced in the league. The argument against him is a lack of experience having only made his EPL debut a few months ago, but I’d take him to Russia to get the feel of being around the squad. In my opinion this is one World Cup too soon for the Burnley man to be a considered a starter.

Of the 4 goalkeepers Jack Butland is the most capable of both producing outstanding saves but also the most intermittent in his form. There is just something I don’t trust about Jack Butland and that’s why I’d leave him out of the squad travelling to Russia. Last weekend he was culpable for both Everton’s goals, which supported my thinking that he would be the one to be watching England from home soil.

Jordan Pickford, for all intents and purposes, is still an inexperienced goalkeeper. Last season, while at Sunderland, Pickford made more saves than any other keeper in the EPL (118). That form hasn’t deserted him as he tops this season’s stats for Everton (95). Not just a shot-stopper, Pickford has by far the best distribution of the 4 men in contention. England, have to play counter-attacking football with speed due to the players at their disposal. In my opinion, that’s where you need a keeper with Pickford’s ability to distribute the ball effectively, to kick start (literally) the counter attack. Pep Guardiola swears by keeper’s that can play, which is good enough reason for me. When shot-stopping between the competitors is reasonably similar, the distribution factor is why I believe Jordan Pickford should start as England’s first choice goal-keeper.

Words: @Alavi_SSN

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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.”