Sergio Ramos: Real Madrid hardman reaches the century mark with the La Furja Roja

Spanish central defender Sergio Ramos was a proud man as he prepared to win his 100th cap for his country in tonight’s World Cup qualifier against Finland.

“Let’s hope everything goes off well and I can reach the 100 mark. Entering Spanish football history is not simple and I would be extremely proud,” said the Real Madrid star, World Cup winner and European champion.

Spain hope to see off the Finland before taking on France in Paris on Tuesday, having already dropped points against the latter in their previous group meeting.

Assuming he starts against the Finns at El Molinon in Gijon, Ramos will join clubmates Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso, as well as Barcelona pair Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol and Chelsea’s Fernando Torres in reaching a century of international appearances.

“I’m still young, and at a fundamental stage of my career. I only hope that everything goes well so that I can celebrate the achievement with a victory. All these victories and personal achievements are also very important for footballers.

I have been with the squad for many years now and it makes me very proud. I hope that down the line I won’t just be able to say that I played 100 games, but many more,” said Ramos, who joined Real in 2005 from Sevilla, the same year he made his international debut.

He will only turn 27 on March 30, and will be wearing special boots for the occasion with SR15 and 100 Partidos written on them.

Ramos still isn’t focusing on France and wants to think about Finland first.

“First of all we have a game to play, then we can focus on France. You need to respect all your opponents and make sure you don’t underestimate anyone.These two games are decisive for our World Cup qualification hopes.”

Spain are currently joint top of Group I with France with seven points from three games, three clear of Georgia who will play against France tonight, while Finland are bottom with just one point.


Written by Mihir Upadhye

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Morgan Schneiderlin: Southampton’s Tenacious Bull-Terrier

It has been a long way from the depths of League One for Morgan Schneiderlin, a Southampton player since 2008 who has been with the Saints every step of their journey from the third tier back to the Premier League.

This year, they have lost their manager and have played some exciting football as they battle with relegation back to the Football League. At the heart beat of it all has been the 23 year old centre-midfielder, who has remained rather unheralded.



Born in the commune of Zellwiller in the region of Alsace, located in the north-east of France, he joined local side RC Strasbourg as an eight year old where he spent a decade in the youth-set up before making his debut against FC Gueugnon in a Ligue 2 fixture. He only made 2 appearances in that season as Strasbourg earned promotion and only 3 more appearances followed in the following season, but Southampton scouts saw enough to lure the midfielder across the channel to St. Mary’s.

£1.2 million in fact, was the fee Southampton were forced to fork out for the then 18 year old talent, ahead of an offer from neighbours Portsmouth and rumoured interest from Manchester United and Chelsea. The size of the fee considering he only had 5 professional games under his belt and identity of teams interested in his services were suggestive of his burgeoning ability as he developed into his 20s.

It was Alan Pardew, who is now making a habit of unearthing young French talent at Newcastle, who was in charge of Southampton when Schneiderlin arrived, though after being relegated in 2009, he was replaced by Nigel Adkins. After gaining his place in the first team the season before, he was immediately given a permanent role by Adkins as he made 37 appearances in League One before making a further 27 in their promotion year.

Becoming an integral part of Adkins’s promising squad, the Frenchman signed a new four year deal in August 2011, just before embarking on a successful campaign in which the Saints gained promotion back to the top tier after a 7 year absence. Schneiderlin played 42 times as the club finished runners-up in the Championship.

Since starting against Manchester City on the opening day of the season, the midfielder has missed just one of Southampton’s 30 games so far, providing the back-bone to a side that has confounded expectation to lie four points clear of the relegation zone with eight games remaining. His previous boss Adkins was removed in January in controversial circumstances but Schneiderlin has remained in the plans of his successor, Mauricio Pochettino.

It is his performances, in which he has registered 5 goals, that have seen mentions of a possible call-up to the recent French national team. Though that has come to early for him, it is not to take away from a player who has impressed beyond expectation in his debut year at the top.

Whilst Didier Deschamps is yet to pick Schneiderlin, he is very much on the radar of the national team having represented France at every youth level up to the under-21s. With Paul Pogba, Maxime Gonalons, Jeremy Toulalan and Yohann Cabaye all available to Deschamps, France are very strong in the central-midfield area, but such has been the standard of the 23 year old’s performances this year that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was mentioned in such esteemed company.


Style, strengths and weaknesses

Schneiderlin is mostly deployed as a centre-midfielder alongside Jack Cork, providing a defensive shield to a back-four that has improved over the course of the season. In doing so, the Frenchman has made more tackles than any other player in the Premier League with 121, 20 more than Steve Sidwell in second-place on the list. He also has the most interceptions, 112 indicative of a spectacular reading of the game far in advance of his age.

His enthusiastic tackling, he has won 58% of his challenges in total and averages 4.1 tackles per game, is vital to Pochettino’s philosophy of intense pressing in midfield and moving the ball quickly after winning it back. His high tackle rate also inevitably attracts a lot of fouls, averaging 1.8 per game, though as suggested by just 7 yellow cards, he has managed to keep his play clean.

Standing at just under 6 ft, Schneiderlin isn’t particularly big physically, but his tenacity and willingness to battle away like a bull-terrier in midfield is vital to Pochettino’s Bielsa-like values of high-press and high energy off the ball. His determination is summed up by his success rate in aerial challenges, winning 42 out of 82 despite not being particularly big, it is this will to win, hunger and drive that casts the French youngster as one of the main players in Southampton’s survival hopes.

His passing accuracy also fits perfectly into the system, registering the highest total at the club with 1470 with a success percentage of 84.5%, bettered only by Steven Davis at the newly promoted club. As well as passing from deep, the Frenchman can also be a threat with the ball in attacking areas, creating 25 chances in total this season.

A stringent 4-4-2 was used under Adkins, utilising Schneiderlin’s ability to move the ball forward quickly as they hit on the counter attack. His willingness to drive into the opponent’s half has been a huge advantage, registering 852 of his passes in the attacking half, as well as scoring 5 goals, more than his previous four years at the club, and something the player himself puts down to fitness;

“Fitness is something I have worked on a lot. When I was in League One I could not finish a game without blowing or after 60 minutes feeling tired on the pitch, so Ive tried to make sure I eat the right things and look after my body better. When I was 18 I thought if I ate a pizza and a lot of takeaways at nights it wouldnt affect you but it did. Now I eat only healthy French food.

It has helped me score goals before, I couldnt make those forward runs because I wasnt fit enough to get back in position.”

His leadership skills have also been a huge asset at the heart of Southampton’s midfield, being trusted with the captaincy as he led the Saints back from 2 goals down to draw at Chelsea.

His performances have been key in the fight for survival down on the south coast and he will hope his future, after signing another new deal in February which expanded his contract to 2017, will lie in the Premier League. He certainly deserves it.


Written by Adam Gray

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Russian Premier League: The Second Half Commences

Following on from what actually felt like quite a short winter break, the Russian Premier League has returned. And with now another 9 rounds to go, the table is now just starting to sort itself out once and for all.

Atop the pile sit CSKA Moscow, who hold a solid seven point lead over second placed Anzhi, while reigning champions Zenit sit 8 points adrift in 3rd. Right at the other end of the table, Alania and Mordovia, both stuck on just 12 points each, are just starting to be cut adrift.

But the first two rounds of the championship played this year have been nothing less than engrossing. Mordovia themselves managed to provide the biggest sensation of the season so far, beating high flying Anzhi 2-0 in Saransk in a result that shocked Europe let alone Russia.

CSKA are extending their lead at the top with every passing week, but Anzhi and Zenit aren’t done yet. With Russian clubs struggling in Europe as whole this season, you could be forgiven for assuming the level of football in Russia has taken a dip, but the football in the first two rounds this year in the Premier League have proven otherwise, in what is shaping up to be a climax to the season that is going to be thoroughly intriguing.

Talk that CSKA can already call themselves champions however, may yet be a bit early. After what has so far been almost a perfect season, the Muscovites find themselves closing in on a first league title since way back in 2006. Despite being without star striker Seydou Doumbia for most of the campaign, the Army men have powered their way into first place and show no sign of letting their grasp on the title slip.

Already having won an impressive 77% of their matches, they win just about every week without fail, and have started this year off in good fashion, finishing up on the winning side against both Krylya Sovetov and Krasnodar. One of their main men so far this season has been Swedish midfielder Rasmus Elm.

The 25 year old made his name with Dutch outfit AZ Alkmaar before making the move to Moscow, and in his debut season, his passing in midfield has made CSKA more coherent in the attacking third. He has also weighed in with a few goals also, with 5 to his name, which included a crucial equalising goal away to Zenit at the end of last year.

Elm.... impressive for the league leaders.

Elm…. impressive for the league leaders.

At the other end of the field they are proving themselves to be a force as well, conceding just 17 goals so far, the best record in the league, and to many it’s come as a bit of a surprise. A defence which consists of the Berezutskiy brothers, Alexey and Vasiliy, and Sergey Ignashevich hasn’t always had the best of reputations, but this term they have most certainly proven their worth, and Swedish full back Pontus Wernbloom has added muscle and strength into the back line.

The reasons for CSKA’s success so far in this season though could be quite simple, and it could have nothing to do with just how good the Muscovites are. Since August, when AIK Solna from Sweden somehow managed to knock out the Russian giants from European football until the next season, CSKA have been able to focus all their attention on to just domestic matters.

The same can’t be said for closest challengers Anzhi and Zenit though, who have both had to juggle their eggs between two baskets up until last week, when they both got beaten in the last 16 round of the Europa League. Anzhi have been in European action incredibly since last July, and recently, it’s been looking like it has finally taken its toil on their weary players.

Positioning themselves in second place and ready to pounce on any mistake that CSKA would make, and qualifying for the knockout stages of the Europa League, Anzhi made 2012 a year to remember. But they have started this year just how they wouldn’t have wanted. Tumbling out of Europe to a last minute goal against Newcastle in the last 16 stage was bad enough, but losing to minnows Mordovia and only getting a 1-1 draw at home to Krylya Sovetov in domestic affairs has already almost ruled out any change of silverware this season.

It’s not only Anzhi who have had a rough start to 2013. Current Russian champions Zenit Saint Petersburg haven’t quite had the start to the year that everyone dreamed of, just like Anzhi their European adventure has already come to an end at the last 16 stage. The defeat to Rubin in the first game in Russia this year has prompted many to already fully rule out Zenit from the title race, but a vital 1-0 home win against Mordovia last weekend has kept hope alive among the Saint Petersburg faithful at least.

Zenit still have to sort out internal affairs though if they want to have a realistic shot at defending their crown. Roman Shirokov publically criticised much maligned team mate Hulk after Shirokov himself missed a crucial penalty in the match against Basel, and such problems have been present in the team ever since Hulk and talented Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel joined in big money signings last summer, two transfers which were meant to enforce Zenit’s chances of glory even more, but have proven to do quite the opposite.

Anzhi and Zenit have to be looking over the shoulders as well though. The chasing pack which consists of Spartak, Kuban, Rubin and Dynamo are just starting to close in, in a race for the European places that looks set to go all the way down to the wire. Rubin are in particular looking in good shape.

A European quarter final against Chelsea in the Europa League is looming on the horizon, and it isn’t just in Europe that they have made a good start in this year. A 1-0 victory against Zenit and then a goalless draw against Terek in Grozny have helped bring Rubin within striking distance of the Saint Petersburg club and on the verge of clinching a definite European slot.

Rubin..... definite European place looks set and locked in.

Rubin….. definite European place looks set and locked in.

Looking downwards, and the action doesn’t get any more dire.  Mordovia and Alania are stuck down at the bottom and are looking more and more certain to go down, despite Alania’s headline winter acquisitions of ex Real Madrid man Royston Drenthe and BATE Borisov star Renan Bressan.

Above them though is the battle to avoid the relegation playoffs, which will be played against the 3rd and 4th placed team from the First Division, and the battle is heating up. Any two of four teams could be sucked into fighting for their Premier League lives in a playoff later on this season, with Volga and Krylya Sovetov currently occupying these unwanted slots but Amkar and Rostov have no reason to sit comfortably, with just 5 points separating 14th placed Krylya with Amkar.

A thrilling last couple of months are upon us, and make any firm predictions at your peril. CSKA may be sitting pretty but chances for Zenit and Anzhi will come, especially when the Army club have 3 challenging games in a row, against Dynamo, Spartak and Rubin. A series of games in which it is almost certain they will drop valuable points.

The Muscovites may have it all in their own hands, but that is just when life starts to become more dangerous.


Written by Shaun Nicolaides

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Tottenham: Can Spurs maintain their top four place come the end of the season?

Last season, Tottenham were very close to securing a Champions League spot after they were 13 points ahead of arch-rivals Arsenal at one point. You could sense the white side of North London hungry for a place in the UEFA Champions League. The 10 points gap between Tottenham and Arsenal increased after the high-flying Spurs trashed Newcastle 5-0 and from Harry Redknapp’s post-match conference, his side were all but ready to secure a Champions League spot.

Come February 26, 2022 and a dream North London derby win would’ve seen Tottenham stretch their 13 points gap to 16 points. The dream was alive when Louis Saha and Adebayor put Spurs 2-0 ahead at the Emirates in less than 20 minutes. However, an inspired Arsenal side came from behind to win the game 5-2.

From then on Spurs were doomed and were left licking their wounds after losing their healthy 13 points lead to Arsenal, missing out on Champions League qualification in the process. In my opinion it was totally unacceptable, especially when manager Harry Redknapp was fully confident of finishing above Arsenal and also winning the title at some point.

End of season and Harry Redknapp was replaced by former Chelsea boss Villas-Boas. It didn’t take long for him to make his mark with a historic victory against the mighty Manchester United at Old Trafford.

Come January and Gareth Bale was turning into some Ronaldo- type player, scoring goals from all angles and dragging Spurs out of the mud. The signing of Moussa Dembele also added some creativity and guile to the Spurs’ side, ably replacing Madrid-bound Lukas Modric.

That form sparked Spurs to secure a 4 point gap ahead of Arsenal, and a win against Arsenal in White Hart Lane would extend the points to 7. Goals from Lennon and the red-hot Gareth Bale was enough to secure that victory. A similar come back goal from big man Mertesacker proved useless for Arsenal, and Spurs were now 7 points ahead of Arsenal.

Bale and Dembele.... crucial to Spurs' top four chances.

Bale and Dembele…. crucial to Spurs’ top four chances.

A win against Fulham at home and Spurs would extend the gap to 10 points, while Arsenal had to play a difficult and organized Swansea side at home. Well, that was never to be the case as a drilled Arsenal side beat Swansea 2-0 courtesy of goals from Nacho Monreal and the Ivorian Gervinho.

It was all left to Tottenham to beat Fulham and maintain a healthy gap ahead of their North London rivals. In the twinkle of an eye, a second half goal from Berbatov was enough as Fulham sunk Spurs 1-0 to reduce the gap to four points. In the most abhorrent manner, AVB eyes grew like wild fire during the closing stages of the game. His post conference talk after the game was a bit shocking especially in the manner Spurs lost.  He said something about his “big stars being tired” and that he isn’t “too concerned (worried) about the loss to Fulham. ”

Giving away 13 points last season was horrendous and with the same event likely to happen again this season, especially with AVB clearly stating that he isn’t too concerned about the loss is worrying to say the least in the final weeks of the season.

With 9 games to go and 27 points to play for, I won’t write them off too early. They have had a fantastic season. It is never easy  to gain maximum points at Old Trafford and to beat Arsenal in the North London derby was encouraging as well so you can’t possibly take anything away from Spurs. They have worked very hard this season and they need to start getting back to winning ways as soon as possible.

A win in their next game after the international break should be a tricky test for Tottenham’s top four ambition, especially with an in-form Arsenal looking ready and loaded to rip apart a struggling Reading side next, along with a game in hand in mind as well.

If Tottenham fail to secure a Champions League spot, it could be disastrous one for the club. AVB might actually lose his job and their big stars, especially Bale, might opt to leave for bigger clubs with the promise of trophies and Champions League football.

A top 4 place is a must for Spurs. Anything less would be a major disappointment. They have all the ability and personnel to do so, but they must regain their rhythm before it’s too late.


Written by @femi4arsenal

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