Five players to watch at the World Cup

Written by Chris Winterburn

Every international tournament springs surprises. We’ve seen it all from the Czech pair of Patrick Berger and Karel Poborsky lighting up Euro 96 before earning moves to English giants Liverpool and Manchester United respectively, El Hadji Diouf’s exciting displays in the 2002 World Cup earning him a move to Liverpool and even Mesut Ozil’s creative masterclass in South Africa four years ago just prior to signing for Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid.

Lorenzo Insigne could be Italy's creative spark this summer.

Lorenzo Insigne could be Italy’s creative spark this summer.

With this in mind we are likely to see players having similar breakout tournaments in Brazil this summer. Here are five players to watch throughout the World Cup who could take the tournament by storm:

1, Lorenzo Insigne – Winger – 22 – Italy

Italy have come a long way since the hugely disappointing World Cup campaign in 2010. After having failed to progress past the Group Stage, Italy turned to Cesare Prandelli, a coach renowned for his methodical approach to balancing squad morale with discipline, and the results have been fantastic.

Italy have integrated young talent into the team whilst keeping a core of experienced players in key positions and success on the pitch has followed. Italy are the only team to have figured out a repeatedly successful manner of playing against Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side whilst remaining a threat on the attack at the same time. This has been possible through the use of exciting individual players such as Mario Balotelli and Emanuele Giaccherini.

Giaccherini however has fallen slightly out of favour following a difficult year at Sunderland and considering Lorenzo Insigne’s outstanding displays for Napoli it has become impossible for Prandelli to hold him back. Insigne has impressed a domestic Italian audience for the last two seasons now. Usually situated on the left wing but with the ability to play either on the right or as a shadow striker, Insigne has really taken his game to the next level this season.

He is quick and exciting on the ball. Whilst impossible to predict just what he will do next you can be sure Insigne is one or two moves ahead of his opponent. His footwork is remarkably similar to that of Arjen Robben, as is his low centre of gravity which allows him to escape challenges and find space when cutting inside from the flanks. The conditions in Brazil will see players tire more quickly and this serves as a further advantage to Insigne.

With Ciro Immobile and Mario Balotelli likely to be battling to be Italy’s first choice striker for the tournament it is likely Insigne will slip under the radar. That is until the tournament starts. The winger who will be twenty three by the time Italy take on England on June 14th is only going to get better and on his first experience of the international stage, you can fully expect him to be a shining creative spark throughout the tournament.

2, Son Heung-min – Winger – 21 – South Korea

Son Heung-min is another exciting young winger heading to Brazil this summer. Having made his breakthrough in Europe with Hamburg it became clear last summer that he had outgrown the struggling club. A move to German giants Bayer Leverkusen has simply served as the catalyst for a huge improvement in consistent displays of quality.

It seemed that whilst it was clear the talent Son had at his disposal, playing with a better team was all that was needed to truly unlock his full potential. The South Korean winger who doubles up as a second striker has enjoyed a fantastic debut campaign with Leverkusen scoring twelve goals in all competitions whilst contributing seven assists.

One of Son’s best attributes is his ability to play with both feet. In the past you have seen wingers excel on one particular flank but have flattered to deceive when shown onto their weaker side. Heung-Min is not such a player. It is believed he is naturally right footed although if you have seen much of his season with Leverkusen you would be forgiven for not being one hundred percent sure. It is this versatility that allows him to be so effective when playing just off a long frontman, almost as a second striker.

Son can pick the ball up in pockets of space and truly dictate how Leverkusen attack. With Leverkusen boasting Sidney Sam as the first choice wide player this term it has been difficult for Son to play in his natural position. However the decision to move him into the secondary striker’s role has been a masterstroke.

For South Korea Son is now very much the main man. Having taken the mantle from the recently retired Park Ji Sung it is Son who carries the hopes of the nation on his shoulders this summer. It is likely Son will return to his preferred position on the wing for the national team this summer and will be a real danger when in possession of the ball because of the option to either play a reverse pass in behind, cut in and shoot or even carry on down the flank before putting a cross in, such is the variety in Son’s game.

The current crop of South Korean footballers is in fairness not at the high level of years gone by and the team may well struggle in Brazil but with Son Heung-min in the team there is real potential for attacking quality.

3, Carlos Bacca – Striker – 27 – Colombia

At twenty seven years old this is perhaps a surprise inclusion however Carlos Bacca’s performances at Sevilla this season had propelled him into the limelight and the battering ram of a centre forward could play a huge part in Colombia’s plans at the World Cup.

Having played in Colombia for most of his career, Bacca finally made the risky move to Europe at the half way point of the 2011-2012 campaign when the Colombian forward signed for Club Brugge of Belgium. What came next was thirty one goals in all competitions over the next season and half however it must be noticed twenty nine of them came in the 2012-2013 campaign once Bacca had found his feet on the continent.

This form earned him a move to Sevilla. Admittedly the club’s interested stemmed from the fact they didn’t have much money to play with, despite the sales of Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo. Neither the club nor Bacca has looked back since. Bacca has been a revelation with the powerful striker netting fourteen La Liga goals and five Europa League goals en route to winning the competition.

Standing at just under six foot Bacca is the archetypal hard working striker. Think Carlos Tevez but with the technical ability to match. One of the most surprising revelations as the season progressed was just how talented a footballer Carlos Bacca is. His hardworking on pitch persona combined with physical stature often meant the clever touches and off the ball runs went unnoticed. However this wasn’t the case in the second half of the season with the eyes of Europe admiring as Sevilla reached another European final.

Bacca was key, not only in his goalscoring but in his overall linkup play and the hole left by Alvaro Negredo lessened each week. Bacca was always an option for Ivan Rakitic to play the ball into with the Croatian safe in the knowledge his teammate would hold the ball up and allow for the wide players to catch up to the move hence why Sevilla were such an attractive attacking force this term.

Bacca, in terms of the national team, has struggled simply due to the fact there is a certain Radamel Falcao in front of him. However with Falcao still fighting to make the World Cup after an Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury suffered in January there is a real chance Bacca will play a starring role for Los Cafeteros.

4, Ricardo Rodríguez – Full-Back – 21 – Switzerland

Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to impress at the World Cup. He is part of an exciting crop of Swiss youngsters.

Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to impress at the World Cup. He is part of an exciting crop of Swiss youngsters.

At a time when top quality full-backs are a rarity Switzerland’s Ricardo Rodríguez has the potential to truly catch the eye in Brazil this summer. Having joined Wolfsburg in January 2012 the former FC Zurich defender has been a revelation.

The Swiss international is a well rounded full-back. Not only is he fantastic at going forward and supplementing attacking moves but the defensive side of his game has not suffered as a result. Rodríguez’s tackling is noted as a particular strong point amongst Wolfsburg supporters.

Physically Ricardo Rodríguez is also a handful. Standing just under six foot he is incredibly difficult to dispossess when on the ball. The closest player I can liken him to physically is Liverpool’s Jose Enrique. This is what makes him such a rounded player. He excels defensively through this use of his physical stature and innate tackling ability whilst able to retain possession when going on one of his frequent marauding runs down the left flank.

Rodríguez does have the ability to switch flanks and play on the right if needs be but seldom does this happen both for club and country.

For a full-back Ricardo Rodríguez’s numbers for the 2013-2014 campaign are tremendous. In thirty four Bundesliga matches the Swiss full-back scored five goals and added nine assists with ‘WhoScored‘ giving him an average rating of 8.02 for the season.

At just twenty one his potential for further development is exciting. The World Cup is the grand stage a player can use to really catch the eye and whilst being a defender is not usually a position which grabs headlines, Ricardo Rodríguez is an exception to the rule.

Switzerland are fortunate that arguably their finest crop of young players for generations is being guided by the vastly experienced Ottmar Hitzfeld. The Swiss team heading to Brazil, whilst very young, is also equally as exciting and Ricardo Rodríguez is just one of the players who could really catch the eye in Group E.

5, William Carvalho – Defensive Midfielder – 22 – Portugal

Arguably the most interesting name on this list for Manchester United supporters is Portugal’s twenty two year old midfielder William Carvalho. Although speculation linking the Sporting Lisbon player to Old Trafford has cooled significantly since David Moyes’ departure there is still interest in the player’s performances from supporters, even if just to see in effect what they could have had.

Carvalho is one of the more physically domineering members of Paulo Bento’s squad headed to the World Cup, standing at 6.1 feet tall Carvalho has the energy to really emphasise his physical advantage over many opponents.

One of the key components of Carvalho’s game is breaking up opposition attacks. Being such a physically domineering player that is not too difficult for him to do however it is his ability to cover ground quickly which is so impressive. Of course he is not at say for example the speed of Arjen Robben but by holding midfielder standards it is a trait which sets him apart from other players.

Manchester United have been searching for a central midfielder who can break up play since the departure of Roy Keane. Owen Hargreaves did provide significant rest bite on that front but his struggles with injuries meant the club never had the stability on the defensive side of midfield. Even if the move is probably not likely to happen this summer you do feel as though Carvalho would add a lot to United’s ailing midfield.

Carvalho has been the standout performer of Sporting Lisbon’s excellent season which has seen the club return to the Champions League once more. It has been said that Carvalho needs to move to a more competitive league to truly show his ability however whilst that is not the case, the World Cup in Brazil is highest stage of them all.

Portugal have been placed in Group G along with Germany, Ghana and the United States. These are all teams which boast quick attacking players. The counter attack is a threat Portugal have been susceptible to in the past, and will come up against this summer. However with Carvalho in place as a holding midfielder the extra protection for the back four is there. Whilst it might not be the clearest position to impress in, the holding midfield role is vitally important in a game where speed is such an advantage. Carvalho might not take the limelight like Cristiano Ronaldo will this summer but Portugal’s chance of success does rest heavily on the twenty two year old.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Real Madrid stars look ahead to European Cup Final

Written by Chris Winterburn

Ahead of Saturday’s European Cup final between newly crowned La Liga Champions Atletico Madrid and fierce rivals Real Madrid a number of Carlo Ancelotti’s players have been speaking about the honour of finally playing in a European Cup final and just what it would mean to be able to complete Real’s pursuit of La Decima with a victory over their most unloved of adversaries.

Lisbon and Adidas prepares for Saturday's UEFA Champions League final. Photograph courtesy of Adidas.

Lisbon and Adidas prepares for Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final. (Photograph courtesy of Adidas)

Angel di Maria has really enjoyed a breakthrough season at the Bernabeu under Carlo Ancelotti. After reportedly being one of two names the former Milan boss had to choose from to be sold last summer, di Maria earned a stay of execution through Cristiano Ronaldo who reportedly asked for the Argentine not to be sold and the former Benfica winger has certainly delivered.

There was absolutely no question about his talent however during the Jose Mourinho era at Madrid it appeared as though di Maria struggled to play with a team ethos and often that contributed to rather unbalanced Real Madrid teams, particularly in the UEFA Champions League. This term however it has been a completely different story.

The arrival of Gareth Bale was expected to spell the end for di Maria however the Argentine has thrived. His overall game has improved and a willingness to work across the line to support either Marcelo or Fabio Coentrao and this has earned him a key place in Ancelotti’s team. The crowning moment was the display in the most recent La Liga Clasico in late March. Di Maria was arguably the best player on the pitch and was a key element in Madrid’s three goals.

Di Maria’s performances in Europe have been equally impressive and it is expected he will play a key part in Saturday’s Lisbon showpiece with the former Benfica suggesting it to be a dream to play in a European Cup final,

“The truth is that to be in the Champions League final is a dream come true. There have been a lot of seasons where I have only reached the semi-finals, and missing the opportunity of reaching the final. It’s a real joy to be part of this final.”

Angel di Maria is an adidas ambassador and wears the Predator Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Asier Illarramendi has found first team opportunities rather limited since his £32million move to the Bernabeu last summer however the clever midfielder may well find himself thrust into action on Saturday evening courtesy of Xabi Alonso’s suspension.

Illarramendi was touted as the long-term successor to Xabi Alonso in the Real Madrid team although it appears this season has been rather more of a tool to get Illarramendi acclimatised to life with Los Blancos. When he has played he has impressed with a neat range of passing complementing the midfield tempo nicely and it is expected he will be more of a regular feature next season as Xabi Alonso enters his thirty third year

“We are fine. I think that during the season we have been up and down but now we are fine. We have the desire, the hope and above all the commitment to win it. Atletico will be a really difficult rival. This year they had an incredible season. But we are excited, motivated and we must win.”

A key point to pull out from that quote is the significance of the final three words, ‘we must win’. Defeat is not an option for Real Madrid on Saturday. After waiting twelve long years to reach another European Cup final since their triumph in Glasgow the club is finally in a position to complete La Decima, which according to former player Fernando Hierro has become ‘an obsession’.

Asier Illarramendi is an adidas ambassador and wears the Nitrocharge Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Angel di Maria has enjoyed a phenomenal season under Ancelotti and claims it is a 'dream' to take part in a Champions League Final.

Angel di Maria has enjoyed a phenomenal season under Ancelotti and claims it is a ‘dream’ to take part in a Champions League Final. (Photograph courtesy of Adidas)

Twenty one year old centre forward Alvaro Morata has been another bright point to come out of Real Madrid’s campaign. Whilst he isn’t playing as much as perhaps he would at other clubs due to the performances of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, Morata has still contributed a healthy nine goals in all competitions and the home-grown talent is eagerly anticipating Saturday’s final and the positivity it will bring to Spanish football,

“I think it’s a tremendous joy for Spanish football and for the city of Madrid. I’m very proud. I was born here in Madrid and the truth is that this is something really great. It will be a hotly disputed final, two teams which have had a very good season, especially with this trophy. The best team will win, and we hope to win.”

Alvaro Morata is an adidas ambassador and wears the Adizero F50 Battlepack boots. For more information visit www.adidas.co.uk/worldcup or to join the conversation visit @adidasUK #allin or nothing

Much has been made of the impact Carlo Ancelotti has made at Real Madrid. After going through ten coaches since the 2002 final it finally appears as if the club has found the man to guide the team in Europe.

He is a coach who can keep control of the squad without being too divisive. Ancelotti’s experience as this level is well documented and both Alvaro Morata and Asier Illarramendi are keen to publicise the impact he has had on a team who finally looks to be reaching its undoubted potential,

AI: “He [Ancelotti] is a man that generates confidence. He is a quiet man and all the football players feel comfortable with him. He is helpful and the coaching staff in general is very good.”

AM: “The coach brought maturity most importantly he was a football player. He knows the players’ way of thinking, their behaviour and that’s important. If a player is not ok or needs help from the coaching staff, the coach knows it: he has been in the same situation as a football player.”

Alvaro Morata, Angel di Maria and Asier Illarramendi have all been speaking to Adidas this week in order to promote the newly released ‘World Cup Battle Pack’ boot range.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Scout Report-Alberto Moreno, 21, Left-Back, Sevilla

Alberto Moreno making a hugely important challenge on Benfica's Lima during the Europa League final.

Alberto Moreno making a hugely important challenge on Benfica’s Lima during the Europa League final.

Written by Chris Winterburn

If way back in August Sevilla’s Alberto Moreno would have dreamt of how he wanted his upcoming season to play out then I doubt it would have differed too much to what reality had in store for the Seville born full-back.

Making twenty eight La Liga starts, playing a key role in winning the Europa League and to top it all off being named in Vicente del Bosque’s provisional 30-man Spain squad for the upcoming World Cup finals in Brazil were just three of the main positives to come out of Alberto Moreno’s twenty first year.

Moreno’s outstanding performances over the last eighteen months have not gone unnoticed further afield that Spain however with Premier League giants Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool all harbouring an interest in prising the young full-back away from his childhood club.

Alberto Moreno Perez as he is known officially will not be an easy transfer target for a whole host of England’s top flight due to the fact the full-back signed a significant new contract as recently as October 2013 which was set to keep him at the club until at least 2018. However as we have seen with even more regularity over recent seasons signing a new contract often just means your transfer fee will be a few million higher.

Moreno has caught the eye through his enthusiastic way of playing the full-back position. All the instances of marauding forward and impressive technical ability that saw the continent stand up and take notice of Jordi Alba not too long ago are prominent in Moreno’s game too. Moreno is perhaps more suited to playing a defensive position than Alba and his crossing is a lot better too however he lacks the explosiveness which made Alba Barcelona’s main transfer target when it became apparent Eric Abidal’s career with the Catalan giants was coming to an end.

In order to evaluate just how far Alberto Moreno has progressed this past season we must go back to last summer when Moreno first caught the wider European eye. Whilst the Spanish national team were away in Brazil competing for the Confederations Cup the Under-21 team were in Israel competing for the European Championship.

Much of the press attention was on Thiago Alcantara who captained the side. It was widely expected at that time that Thiago was going to the first of many new signings of the post Alex Ferguson era at Manchester United, this was not to be the case. As a result Moreno escaped attention, Alvaro Morata took the majority of the headlines with his goals whilst David de Gea was outstanding in goal.

What did become clear however is that Alberto Moreno missed just one game throughout the entire tournament. Spain won every match they played and Moreno was a sizable part of that success.

His marauding forward runs ably supported the likes of Isco, Morata and Thiago in attack, he often beat the right sided full-back for pure speed and was able to produce a quality delivery into the penalty area when asked.

He may not have been the media’s star of the tournament but the people that mattered could see his progress.

Although he had been fully promoted to the Sevilla first team the previous February it was his performances in Israel which convinced the Sevilla management to utilise him as first choice at left-back for the 2013-2014 campaign. Moreno went onto impress during Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial at Old Trafford with a confident defensive display down the left.

Fast forward nine months and we see a completely different Sevilla and completely different Alberto Moreno.

After a summer of financial woes placated only by the sale of the club’s two prized assets, Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo, Sevilla looked set for a season in the wilderness. Then came the reprieve. Due to financial issues at Malaga resulting in a UEFA suspension, Sevilla qualified for the Europa League. Unai Emery’s side had a challenge to aim for as well as a much needed financial boost to get the necessary talent in to move forward.

Moreno despite being just twenty one, has had to mature quickly. The pressures of regular first-team football are huge and Moreno has dealt with them very well indeed. The full-back has handled the press attention which comes with being the next star in the Seville crown whilst maintaining the levels of performance which earned him recognition in the first place.

From a footballing perspective Moreno is everything you would want in a full-back. He is quick, although not blisteringly so like a Gael Clichy or a Jordi Alba but quick enough to ghost past an opponent nonetheless however he is also strong.

On countless occasions this term Moreno has been forced to cut infield whilst in possession in order to play a clever slide rule pass in behind to either Bacca or Gameiro. When doing this Moreno has been faced with physically stronger central midfielders and defenders but he has an uncanny ability of being able to shake them off.

The styles of Moreno and Luke Shaw are eerily similar in that regard. Playing regular La Liga football from such a young age like Shaw, Moreno has been able to develop physically in a way which allows him to more than match adversaries, he can keep control of the ball when dribbling forward through his ability to come out the better of shoulder to shoulder challenges and the like.

With Liverpool looking for a better quality, long-term replacement for Jose Enrique this is a trait Brendan Rodgers is bound to view as positive. Continuing along the Liverpool centric line of argument, Moreno is also a clever footballer in that he knows when to use his pace to get into position to receive the ball.

A map of Alberto Moreno's typical movements within Unai Emery's system. Moreno looks to venture down the left hand side and reach the byline before putting in a cross to Bacca however he can cut inside on an overlapping run with Reyes and then place a short pass into Bacca's feet.

A map of Alberto Moreno’s typical movements within Unai Emery’s system. Moreno looks to venture down the left hand side and reach the byline before putting in a cross to Bacca however he can cut inside on an overlapping run with Reyes and then place a short pass into Bacca’s feet.

With Liverpool’s passing game being based around short, quick tempo passes the opportunities for one two’s are significant. Moreno has shown an ability to initiate a one two pass with a teammate and then get into a position far ahead of the defender as a result of his speed before receiving the ball in a better attacking position. This would also pique the interest of Manuel Pellegrini whose Manchester City side too looks to kick start passing moves in a similar vein.

The attacking side of Moreno’s game was perfectly highlighted in Sevilla’s 2-0 victory over Real Betis in the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final in which Moreno recorded assists for both goals with exquisite, indefensible crosses into the penalty area.

Football wise Moreno is all but there, his talents are clear for all to see, as are his physical attributes and he is only going to get better. What is a worry however is whether or not a move to Liverpool or Manchester City will be a summer too soon for him.

The biggest game of Sevilla’s season was Wednesday’s Europa League final. The Andalusian club were victorious in a penalty shoot-out but rode their luck in normal time with Benfica under the spell of the Guttmann curse wasting numerous gilt-edged opportunities in front of goal.

Moreno struggled. Despite showing an innate ability to defend under pressure with a goal saving tackle on Lima early in the second-half the young full-back was in real trouble all evening long.

Admittedly he received little help from Jose Antonio Reyes just in front of him but Moreno’s positioning was inconsistent and at times wild. Early on in the second half it looked as if Moreno was trying to make too big an impact on the match and he ended up almost on the right side of midfield for one Benfica attack with the left midfield area left completely unguarded.

Several heavy touches and slips later and it looked as if the occasion was all too much for the highly rated Spaniard with it only through good fortune and the performance of Beto in goal that Moreno wasn’t punished for one of his errors.

This could very well have been a one-off but these are the slight measures upon which club’s make final decisions on purchasing a player. In Sevilla’s biggest match of the season, on the grandest stage available to the club, Moreno struggled. Of course he is young and it shouldn’t be a surprise but with both Manchester City and Liverpool looking at immediate first choice left-backs it is something to bear in mind from their perspective.

With the hype around Luke Shaw due to both his nationality and the price tag Manchester United appear willing to pay for him it is likely Alberto Moreno will not be the standout transfer of the summer should a move to England materialise however you would expect clubs to see the outstanding footballing ability Moreno possesses and how he has managed to hone his craft in such a short space of time.

With all this in mind it wouldn’t at all be a surprise to see Moreno move to pastures new this summer and with Liverpool and Manchester City believed to be assessing other targets it would take a brave individual to bet against Real Madrid attempting to secure solidity at left-back for the next decade with a late move for Moreno.

Scout’s Rating- 7/10

Follow Chris Winterburn on Twitter @Chriswin4

On the eve of another semi-final Jose Mourinho laments Chelsea’s past European misfortune

Written by Chris Winterburn

Ahead of tonight’s UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg against Diego Simeone’s outstanding Atletico Madrid team, Jose Mourinho has spoken of his bemusement at Chelsea’s misfortune in European competition over recent years.

The Portuguese coach is looking once more to become the first coach to win Europe’s top prize with three different teams however despite all his previous successes Mourinho has never been able to guide Chelsea to the final with the club falling at the semi-final stage in two of Mourinho’s three full seasons in charge at Stamford Bridge.

Jose Mourinho has spoken of Chelsea's misfortune in Europe, particularly in semi-finals and feels Chelsea deserved to finally win the competition in 2012. (Photograph courtesy of AP)

Jose Mourinho has spoken of Chelsea’s misfortune in Europe, particularly in semi-finals and feels Chelsea deserved to finally win the competition in 2012. (Photograph courtesy of AP)

Mourinho will be hoping Chelsea’s bad luck in semi-finals does not strike again this evening with the Europa League holders holding a slender advantage over Atletico due to the fact the deciding fixture is played at Stamford Bridge. With the aggregate score at 0-0 there is no away goal for Chelsea to defend or indeed rely on so should Atletico score tonight the complexion of the tie will be completely different for Mourinho’s men.

Speaking to adidas to promote Gamedayplus, Jose Mourinho suggested that when Chelsea finally did win the Champions League in 2012 it was justice following all the disappointments of the previous decade,

“I think Chelsea winning the Champions League was like bringing justice to a team that was a very strong team in the Champions League for about a decade. Chelsea has had everything in the Champions League, we lost that semi final against Liverpool with a goal that was not a goal and the next year we lose the semi-final on penalties.”

It is a well known fact that is was Roman Abramovich’s great desire to see his Chelsea lift the European Cup. After years of lavish spending without continental success the Russian oligarch turned to the youthful Andre Villas-Boas, fresh off Europa League success with FC Porto, to guide Chelsea to the holy grail of the Champions League title.

Villas-Boas and Chelsea simply did not work, issues with individual players and confusing tactics left the club facing an ignominious exit for the Champions League at the hands of Napoli. Roman Abramovich dismissed Villas-Boas and brought in trusted first-team coach Roberto Di Matteo to guide the club at the very least until the end of the season. Di Matteo had the backing of the players and somehow through fantastically focused performances and a degree of luck guided Chelsea to the Munich showpiece.

Mourinho in the same interview goes onto state how it was destined to be dramatic when Chelsea did finally reach their goal of lifting Europe’s top prize,

“Finally Chelsea won the Champions League so I think it was to bring justice to a group of players that were there fighting season after season and reaching semis and reaching finals and being stopped to do more and finally Chelsea did it also in a dramatic way also with extra time and penalties.”

Chelsea’s victory in the final over Bayern Munich seemed to have given Roman Abramovich a new lease of life in terms of controlling Chelsea. It had appeared that the years of European disappointment and bad luck had seen the Russian’s desire to spend significant money on players wane however since Didier Drogba’s decisive spot kick in Munich, Chelsea have gone from strength to strength and are well placed to reach a third European Cup final.

Chelsea will need both Liverpool and Manchester City to drop points between now and the end of the season if Jose Mourinho’s team are to win the Premier League once more and it does seem as though the Champions League is the club’s best chance of silverware this season. After a defensive masterclass at Anfield on Sunday Chelsea are facing a similarly strong defensive unit in Atletico Madrid which could make for yet another, shall we say unappealing match for the neutrals.

Jose Mourinho won’t care, nor should he. His main goal is to reach the Champions League final and then win it. Whilst he recognises how Chelsea deserved their success in 2012, there is absolutely no doubt that the ‘Special One’ would love nothing more than to guide Chelsea to the trophy. It has been his ambition since he left Porto in the summer of 2004 and for one reason or another he was never able to achieve it.

With there little more than six hours before kick-off in tonight’s clash it is certain that European Cup semi-finals involving Chelsea rarely pass without drama and we can expect as such this evening.

“José Mourinho was speaking to promote adidas Gamedayplus, bringing together the best of the UEFA Champions League in one place. To find out more visit adidas.com/gamedayplus or join the twitter conversation @adidasfootball”

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Eriksen shines once more as Fulham miss opportunity to escape trouble

Younes Kaboul celebrates his goal which put Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 to the good this afternoon. (Photograph by GETTY IMAGES)

Younes Kaboul celebrates his goal which put Tottenham Hotspur 3-1 to the good this afternoon. (Photograph by GETTY IMAGES)

Written by Chris Winterburn

In the week where Tottenham Hotspur boss Tim Sherwood declared the club has lacked a world class player since the departure of Gareth Bale in August, Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen once again put in an eye catching performance which once again proved it won’t be too long before Spurs can once again claim they have a world class footballer on their books.

In what was an archetypal match of two contrast halves, Tottenham took the spoils in a 3-1 victory whilst a win for visiting Fulham would have taken the Cottagers out of the relegation zone for the first time since late January.

If Felix Magath was worried that his side’s poor performances in getting positive results in the last two Premier League outings against Aston Villa and Norwich would catch up with them at White Hart Lane, it certainly didn’t show with the German coach once again choosing to go with a back five system which incorporated wing-backs on either flank. The result was a significantly fluid, mobile system which Tottenham struggled to break down throughout the opening forty five minutes of play.

Eriksen was given the freedom to drift from his left sided starting position due to the lack of Fulham bodies on the right hand flank with Alexander Kacaniklic, a winger by trade, being utilised as a wing-back. It was rather surprising Spurs didn’t try and target that area more directly as the half progressed.

With Eriksen drifting into his coveted role as a number ten it was interesting to see Harry Kane sacrifice a chance of scoring a goal by moving across the line and try to exploit a bit of space on the left flank and this made for a very easy on the eye, chess like battle for the opening exchanges between the two sides this afternoon.

With Felix Magath having attributed luck to his team’s victory against Norwich last weekend it was expected that the team would have had it drilled into them during the week that a higher level of performance was needed and that is exactly what Fulham gave. With Kacaniklic becoming more and more adventurous as a wing-back as the first half wore on it was interested to see Johnny Heitinga shuffle across to the right hand side of defence and hold a position there whilst holding midfielder William Kvist dropping in at centre half.

It was almost identical to the system utilised by Jorge Jesus’ Benfica side at White Hart Lane in the Europa League not too long ago and once again Spurs struggled to break down an incredibly mobile defensive line. At the back Fulham were like a spring such was their mobility through the wing-back system. When the situation required it they could be compact and stop any moves at all breaking through the middle whilst at other times they could expand, move into wider areas as Heitinga looked to do and restrict the wide threat from Eriksen, Kane and Lennon. As Adebayor became increasingly isolated it looked as if Spurs were set for another poor result as happened against the Portuguese giants.

However the first glimpse of Christian Eriksen brilliance saw Spurs take the lead. A devilishly whipped in free-kick across the face of goal from the right hand side took both the Fulham defence and goalkeeper out of the game and Paulinho had a simple finish on the line into an open goal. It was no surprise that Spurs’ opening goal came through a set-piece with the hosts having struggled to break down Fulham’s defences in open play for the previous thirty four minutes.

There was widespread shock just two minutes later as Fulham were level. If ever a side epitomised the danger of not concentrating after having just scored then it was Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham in the thirty sixth minute. Not one Spurs player bothered to close down a fairly slow paced Steve Sidwell run towards the penalty area and when Hugo Rodallega managed to hold the ball up and flick it into the path of Sidwell the inexperience of defensive partnership of Kaboul and Fryers was highlighted as the two ran into each other giving Sidwell a one on one against Hugo Lloris.

The game was poised at half-time with another forty five minutes of Spurs attempting to break Fulham down expected, however Tottenham gave Fulham no time to work back into the earlier defensive rhythm with a headed goal from Harry Kane two minutes after the restart. It was a fairly simple goal with Fulham having not reached full concentration after the break and Aaron Lennon took full advantage by putting in an impressive cross which landed right on the head of Kane in the middle of the penalty area.

The game settled into a steady ebb and flow until the hour mark when Fulham’s frailties with regards defending set-pieces were highlighted once again. Another Eriksen delivery across the face of goal rendered Fulham helpless with Younes Kaboul on hand to knee the ball into an open goal from mere yards out.

This goal realistically killed the game off with Spurs now in control and not having to search for another goal whilst Fulham didn’t look to have either the stomach or the quality to mount an inspired fightback. A surprise penalty was awarded in Fulham’s favour fifteen minutes from time which could have given the Cottagers hope only for Steve Sidwell to fire the ball straight at the as ever, impressive Hugo Lloris.

Defeat is by no means a disaster for Fulham when you look at Norwich’s remaining four fixtures however you do feel as if today was a massive opportunity to build a bit of belief by climbing out of the relegation zone. Still Fulham were so impressive defensively today and the work of Hugo Rodallega up front showed the club do have an outlet for attack with the season approaching a climax and next weeks’ match at home to Hull City could be another chance for Fulham to pull off the great escape.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Defeat to Everton all but seals Sunderland’s fate

Written by Chris Winterburn

Sunderland’s display at home to Everton this afternoon showed a great deal of character if not the necessary quality to overcome an in-form side challenging for Champions League football next season.

Gus Poyet’s men knew prior to kick-off that anything other than a victory would most likely not be enough to give the Black Cats a fighting chance of avoiding the financially perilous drop into the Championship. Poyet abandoned his recently favoured five at the back system with Santiago Vergini dropping out of the starting eleven with the experienced partnership of John O’Shea and Wes Brown preferred.

There was a tense feel around the ground from the start which was only made worse as news filtered through from around other grounds that goals were going in for Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and latterly Cardiff City which made Sunderland’s task even more challenging. It was clear that the midfield three of Cattermole, Ki and Colback would have to be incredibly mobile to avoid being overrun by Everton’s quartet of attacking talents, a fate suffered by Arsenal just six days earlier.

Whilst it wasn’t the attractive football Poyet had promised when he first took the Wearside job the first half display was effective. Sunderland’s high pressing and concentrated area of challenges around the centre circle restricted Everton’s movements going forward and Roberto Martinez’s side had the look of a frustrated team as they found it harder and harder to break into Sunderland’s defensive area.

Gerard Deulofeu, given yet another start by Martinez, was the only bright spark in what was in truth a dismal opening forty five minutes as the quick footed winger tested his fellow countryman Marcos Alonso on the right hand side with great regularity. Alonso simply had no answer to Deulofeu’s speed and quick feet, often being left in an awkward position with Deulofeu at least five yards further up the touchline. Had Deulofeu’s decision making been less selfish Everton could have been a goal to the good before half-time with Sunderland leaving gaps at the back following a corner kick.

Sunderland’s defensive line was guilty of dropping deeper and deeper near the climax of the first period and whilst this was effective in crowding out Everton attacks in and around Vito Mannone’s penalty area it made counter attacks very difficult with Fabio Borini finding himself charging up the field with the ball with absolutely no support on a handful of occasions. The best chance of the game came just before the break when Borini took the ball round Tim Howard and placed a shot that was goal bound only for John Stones to clear the ball off the line in what was a hugely solid performance from the teenager.

Connor Wickham has been asked to do a very difficult job since his return from a loan spell at Elland Road. In fairness the former Ipswich Town striker looks low on both fitness and confidence and being isolated at the top of the pitch did him no favours as Sunderland’s defensive solidity came first. With Fabio Borini’s energy in effect just behind Wickham you feel as though Steven Fletcher’s eye for a run in behind was a real miss today.

Everton themselves did not click as well as in previous fixtures this afternoon with the free flowing and at times frantic attacking football that tore Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal to pieces last weekend just not there this afternoon. Ross Barkley’s introduction just prior to the hour mark was supposed to rectify this however it was Deulofeu who would make the difference late on.

Despite the Spaniard having drifted out of the match not long into the second half, Deulofeu picked up the ball on the right hand flank, beat Marcos Alonso yet again and fired the ball across the face of Sunderland’s goal only for Wes Brown to clip the ball into his own net past the wrong footed Mannone.

You always felt as though Sunderland would have to score first this afternoon if they were to earn all three points and when Everton took the lead the mood around the Stadium of Light became one of considerable concern. The crowd did their best to urge Gus Poyet’s side on and the hosts did have a number of chances in the remaining twenty minutes but none which truly tested Tim Howard in the Everton goal. Worryingly for Sunderland, whilst throwing men forward in attack they left the back door wide open and Everton could have scored at least two further goals had there been more composure within the Toffees’ forward line.

At this point Sunderland sit rock bottom of the Premier League on twenty five points whilst Cardiff City and Fulham have both moved onto twenty nine and thirty points respectively courtesy of victories this afternoon. Although Sunderland do still have a game in hand you do feel as though there is no too much to do for Gus Poyet and his side and a rebuilding job with a year in the Championship may well be close on the horizon.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4

Porto fall glaringly short as Sevilla march on into the semi-final

Sevilla celebrate their early goal which levelled the tie and set the Spanish side on their way to the semi-final stage of the competition. (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

Sevilla celebrate their early goal which levelled the tie and set the Spanish side on their way to the semi-final stage of the competition. (Photograph courtesy of Getty Images)

Written by Chris Winterburn

FC Porto headed to Andalusia this evening holding a slender 1-0 lead from last week’s first leg in Portugal however with the important duo of holding midfielder Fernando and top scorer Jackson Martinez both missing through suspension it was always going to be a difficult evening for Luis Castro’s side.

Right from the off Sevilla flew out of the traps. Unai Emery’s side looked hungry and pressed high up the pitch using Ivan Rakitic as a reference point in the middle of midfield, every single player knew where they should be in relation to the Croatian and it made for a very fluid opening half hour performance from the hosts. Porto looked weak through the middle without Fernando and despite the best efforts of Steven Defour the Belgian is simply not as effective a holding midfielder. Without Fernando, Sevilla were able to flood the middle of the pitch and were rewarded for their efforts with a penalty inside four minutes.

Carlos Bacca went down rather easily, even a couple of steps after the initial challenge from Danilo however the former Santos defender’s challenge was clumsy and gave the Colombian an opportunity to go to ground. Ivan Rakitic converted the penalty with ease and the Sanchez Pizjuan was set for a historic European evening.

Eliaquim Mangala is reportedly moving closer and closer to a summer switch to Manchester City however the French defender didn’t cover himself in glory with his display this evening. In fairness Mangala is given a lot of work to do, he is playing in what is probably the weakest Porto side since early this millennium and it shows. This evening however, particularly in the first half Mangala was given the work of two defenders courtesy of Alex Sandro’s incredibly short sighted approach to the match. The Brazilian full-back looked to go forward at every given opportunity but was so slow in tracking back to his position that Mangala had to then cover the left-back position as well as his own area through the centre.

It seemed as if Benfica’s performance at White Hart Lane was the model for Porto this evening with the fluidity in movement between defensive positions essential the Jorge Jesus’ team’s success in London. The two full-backs surged forward whilst Garay and Luisao the two central defenders moved into wider positions to cover the space, holding midfielder Fejsa then filled in at centre half. For Porto it was an incredibly poor imitation with a lack of balance and discipline. Mangala moved to the left to cover Alex Sandro whilst right sided full-back Danilo didn’t go forward which left fellow defender Diego Reyes rather unsure of his position. Had Fernando been in the side to offer a bit more protection ahead of the defence then perhaps Sevilla wouldn’t have been able to take such advantage of Porto’s defensive lapses.

Sevilla after taking a 3-0 lead into the half-time break were given a setback when right sided full-back Coke was needlessly sent off for a second yellow card after a clumsy challenge on Ricardo Quaresma. What was most disappointing about Coke’s dismissal was just how the Spaniard picked up his initial yellow card in the midst of a melee in the first half. This red card changed the game, giving Porto a lot more time on the ball and a spare man to always pass to however the Portuguese side just didn’t have enough up front without Jackson Martinez.

Quaresma looked the most likely to make something happen however the former Chelsea and Barcelona winger was far too inconsistent in his decisions when on the ball which has been an unfortunate theme of his entire career. With Sevilla down to ten men and Porto without a manager after Luis Castro was sent to the stands early in the second half, it was certainly a gamble to throw on Juan Fernando Quintero, the starlet of Pescara’s Serie A campaign last term. Heralded as the next big thing, Quintero was sizably hugely disappointing this evening with the Colombian barely looking interested.

On too many occasions Quintero received the ball then played a pass only to not bother making a run to look for the return ball, it made Porto’s late attacking moves look rather laboured and ineffective with Sevilla seeing the final stages of the tie out with ease despite Quaresma’s late consolation strike.

As Chelsea did at times last year, FC Porto looked like a team with an ‘interim’ first team manager in that there was no direction about their play. The lack of defensive stability in the first half followed by Ricardo Quaresma’s all too common willingness to try and play the game on his own showed Porto in a really poor light without the discipline of Fernando.

Ivan Rakitic did his market value absolutely no harm this evening with the Croatian captain putting on a masterclass from the middle of midfield. When you look at teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool who are perhaps lacking a driving force in the middle of midfield Ivan Rakitic would fit the bill perfectly. The Croatian was always willing to receive the ball in the middle of the pitch and then turn and look to run at Porto’s midfield before playing in either Bacca or one of Sevilla’s wide players. He was constantly involved in the match and really drove his team on from the start, he was also a calming influence following Coke’s dismissal when the tie looked to be swinging in the favour of Porto.

The Europa League semi-final draw takes place tomorrow and it is a very Iberian dominated affair with Benfica and Valencia joining Sevilla and Juventus in the hat. Sevilla would welcome domestic rivals Valencia whilst all teams would hope to avoid the outright favourites for the competition Juventus. Whilst Sevilla fully deserved their victory tonight the lack of quality within Porto’s squad was highlighted and it will take a significant rebuilding job to take the Portuguese giants back to Europe’s top table any time soon.

Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4