AS Roma: A Strong start to the Season, but a Stuttering finish

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October 5 2014, Juventus beat Roma 3-2. This is what Roma manager Rudi Garcia said after the match;

“This game made me realise who will win the Scudetto. We are stronger than Juventus, Because we are stronger, we have to win tomorrow (versus Chievo), because we have to talk about results.”

That was a huge statement to make after just seven matches played, but you could appreciate Rudi Garcia’s confidence, his team won all their matches in Italy prior to that loss to Juve, conceding just the once.  Let’s not forget that they also held the reigning Premier League champions Manchester City to a draw in the Champions League before they travelled up to Turin. Roma were playing some exhilarating football at the time.

Over 5 months on, the gap between Juventus and Roma is an enormous 14 points, meaning that Juventus are strolling towards a fourth consecutive Scudetto.  So, what went wrong?

Before the Christmas break, Roma were just 3 points behind Juventus, so since the turn of the year, Roma have declined significantly. The side have won just three times in the league since January, as well as being eliminated in the Europa League to rivals Fiorentina.  That form meant that Roma have to look behind them with Lazio, Sampdoria, Napoli and Fiorentina all looking to clinch second place. Lazio have won four of their last five games, which puts them just a point behind Roma.

Rudi Garcia’s men have drawn an awful lot this year, 10 draws since the turn of the year. With that many stalemates, you simply can’t brush it off as a one off, there are deeper problem which need rectifying.

There is no balance in the team, the passing has been poor, as well as the finishing. Many of their ‘top’ players who were crucial last year often failed to turn up, which include the likes of Daniele De Rossi, Maicon and Iturbe.

I think there needs to be a sense of realism, Rudi Garcia’s statement about winning the Scudetto may have conveyed false hopes to the fans.  Some could argue that the Roma team is weaker than last season.

The side sold one of the best defenders in the league, Medhi Benatia to Bayern Munich last summer. Dutch midfielder Kevin Strootman played a vital role, he made 25 appearances and was a fundamental player last season. Unfortunately, he’s been injured for the majority of this season.

Mattia Destro was their top goal scorer last season with 13 goals to his name. Although not suited to Rudi Garcia’s style of play, he often came up with the goods when the side weren’t playing well. Consequently, the young Italian was sold to Milan in January.

Last year Roma finished second, 17 points behind Juventus. So arguably, the side are weaker – which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a large gap is still evident.


Written by Serie A Writer

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Stoke City: The Potters trying to finish as high as possible to get due recognition for Mark Hughes

Stoke City manager Mark Hughes had to be insistent, after seeing his side lose 1-2 at home to Crystal Palace on Saturday, that his team’s season would not peter out”. It is indeed in danger of that happening, with defeats in their last 2 games before they head to Chelsea in a fortnight’s time. Their position in the top 10 is insulated by 6 points over Palace but Hughes said it was “important that we finish strongly”, refusing to let any complacency give a bittersweet ending to what has been another impressive season for Hughes and the Potters.

With 8 games left Hughes is 9 points away from bettering last season’s tally of 50 which was their highest in the Premier League since returning in 2008. So far Hughes has eclipsed former manager Tony Pulis’s league performance and is again on course to surpass his predecessor’s best points total of 47, achieved in 2009-10.

It has been a season which has seen the often overlooked Stoke record wins at Tottenham and Manchester City, do the double over Everton and, as seems to be the usual in this modern day Premier League, beat Arsenal at home. It is easy to see why Hughes is desperate to see his team end the campaign on a high note as they involve themselves in a three-way tussle with Swansea City and West Ham United for 8th place which would be the highest the club has ever finished.

Their previous best was the ninth place that Hughes led them to last year in his debut season as a manager who among certain sections of the Stoke support wasn’t the most popular choice to follow Pulis. The Welshman, appointed on a C.V that included impressive spells with Blackburn and Fulham but tarnished with failures with blank chequebooks at Manchester City and QPR, had the jury very much out and the pressure on as he inherited a side that had probably ran its course under the regimental guise of Pulis.

“I got the job because there was a feeling that the team was starting to fail”, was Hughes’s recent verdict, “the way we have progressed since has been quite exceptional.” On the second point it is hard to argue. In Pulis’s 5 years in the top tier at the Britannia his team only once managed above 38 goals (the 46 they managed in 2010-11), but this season they already have 34 goals and gone is the perception that they are over-reliant on an overly physical threat from corners and free-kicks. This term, only Liverpool and Swansea have scored less from set-pieces than Stoke’s five.

Although they remain typically stout defensively, their total of 37 goals shipped is bettered only by the current top 6, Hughes has encouraged more fluid and aesthetic football with a greater emphasis on short, crisp passing. That has stemmed originally from the back with the arrival of Marc Muniesa, forged in Barcelona’s technical breeding ground of La Masia, and Erik Pieters, good enough to earn 18 caps for the Netherlands during his time with PSV Eindhoven.

Ryan Shawcross meanwhile has continued his excellent form as club captain but Robert Huth, a symbol of the imposing physicality synonymous with Pulis, found himself immediately out of favour with Hughes and has since been shipped out on loan to Leicester City. Phil Bardsley has been brought in to provide energetic forward runs from right-back and together with left-back Pieters, they have combined to create a total of 31 chances.

A back four that utilises attacking full-backs and passing out from the centre-halves was perceived as anathema to Pulis but under Hughes, it has become natural.

The signings of Muniesa and Bardsley, both for free, and the £3 million acquisition of Pieters gives further detail to the quality of Hughes’s job at the Britannia, now having to make do with a restricted budget in contrast to the heady days of Pulis who, backed by chairman Peter Coates, oversaw a transfer policy that recorded a net spend of nearly £80 million in five years.

Last summer however Stoke spent the least amount on transfers out of the 20 Premier League clubs and with austerity ushered in at the Britannia, Hughes has had to revert to a management style geared more to getting the best out of cut-price dealings rather than paying big fees and having to manage the big egos that invariably come with the high wages. To make notable progression despite spending just £6.2 million across four transfer windows, especially in English football’s current climate of gargantuan spending, has deserved the highest of praise.

As well as Muniesa and Bardsley, Mame Biram Diouf, whose 8 goals puts him as Stoke’s top scorer, was also a free transfer while Steve Sidwell also came for nothing from Fulham to add his experience and steel to the midfield. The loan market has been used effectively for Victor Moses, who has brought his vibrant wing-play from Chelsea to be rated as Stoke’s best player from 18 league appearances, in the same way as Hughes did last year for Liverpool’s Oussama Assaidi.

Phillip Wollscheid has also been taken on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and the 26 year old centre-half, who has the option to make the move permanent in the summer, has made a quick impact as he looks to rebuild his career in England.

Perhaps most impressively though, the cut-price signings of Marko Arnautovic, for £2.4 million, and Bojan Krkic, for £1.5 million, have been huge successes for Hughes despite initially appearing as gambles. Once likened to a child by Jose Mourinho and happily wished goodbye by Werder Bremen after a string of controversies, the Austrian has been tamed by Hughes and turned into an effective squad option while Bojan, with his confidence shattered after failures with AC Milan, Roma and Ajax, produced some remarkable form for Stoke before knee injury cruelly curtailed his season in January. Hughes’s man-management expertise has shone through in both of them.

The Pulis era still remains prevalent throughout the team with Steven N’Zonzi and Glenn Whelan forming a midfield partnership that combines craft, energy and combativeness while John Walters provides his tireless work-rate on the right of the attack. He has 7 goals together with Peter Crouch who continues to lead the attacking line with a scoring touch and an underrated intelligence on the ball.

The 34 year old still tends to deceive with his gangly 6ft 7 inch frame, possessing quick, clever feet and good vision which makes him effective at holding the ball up and linking-play, something that Hughes’s philosophy of neat, attractive build-up play, has used more of.

Therefore the manager is probably right when he claims that he put the groundwork in place for Hughes to build on but there is undoubted progress, both in playing style and results, under the new regime. The focus will now go on trying to gain another record finish but even if they fall short, there can be no taking away from the superb job Hughes is doing with Stoke.


Written by Adam Gray

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Neymar: Brazilian star pivotal to Barcelona’s pursuit of silverware

Being a part of the most lethal attacking trio in European football must be thrilling. At the age of 23, Neymar is lining up alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez for Barcelona every week and is thriving on his opportunity. Well into his second season at the Catalan giants, the Brazilian has settled and at the same time slipped almost seamlessly into one of the continent’s best teams.

Despite his relatively young age, Neymar has represented Brazil a staggering 60 times already. The move to Barcelona was always going to be pivotal for Neymar’s progression, but there were few concerns regarding his playing ability. It was his potential to adapt to Messi’s game that worried some.

A huge part of Barcelona’s game is based around the Argentine and ensuring he is at his most effective is integral to their entire plan. Accepting this is one thing and normally something that has not proved too trickier sell to potential signings, but the longevity of it is something different. David Villa for instance happily adapted his game to the team initially, but after a while began to resent it and eventually left.

It is not that Messi is demanding or difficult to play with, it is simply that being so good the tactic to use him effectively becomes essential for success. What has been so impressive about Neymar’s performances throughout his time playing alongside him is that it has improved him as a player. He appreciates his team mate and instead of resenting him he has used it to spur him on. Clearly a very good technician from the beginning, but his use of the ball has improved dramatically in 18 months.

When he first played for the club he was too individualistic. He would try and beat players when there was a pass to play and just generally seemed a little away from the club’s style.

What eased his transition though was the absence of another; during his first few games in the Primera, Messi was not playing which allowed Neymar to be more of a focal point. He enjoyed a successful start at his new club which allowed the confidence to flow. Once Messi returned and the Brazilian was moved away from a central position he adapted perfectly. A relationship both on and off the pitch developed quickly and has flourished.

As the season went along, despite some set backs, the understanding of what was required of him begun to sink in. With a World Cup looming in his home country, along with the added pressure of being the star player, his form dropped off a little towards the end of the season.

However, with all of the varied problems the club was enduring both on and off the field this was to be expected. Following injury, he was unable to help Brazil in their pursuit of the World Cup and he returned to Spain hungry for success.

With the addition of Suarez at Barcelona, the club possess three of the best half dozen attacking players in world football at this moment. The English press always talks of how good players sometimes just don’t seem to click together, but this certainly hasn’t happened this time. Good players can usually always play together, but sometimes it requires some tweaks to find the correct way. With Messi now playing on the right hand side, the extra space freed up by covering him has resulted in more room for the other two.

Now that the emphasis has drifted away from the middle of the pitch space is once again opening up. With the opposition keen to avoid leaving Messi in one on one situations with the full back, the space afforded to Neymar on the right hand side has been instrumental in his form. His link up play has improved immeasurably since his arrival, but this freedom now allows his to display his full repertoire.

He torments the opposing left back with his agility, speed and technique and with Messi and Suarez alongside him they now sit four points clear at the top of la Primera, are through to the last eight of the Champions League and are through to the final of the Copa del Rey.

There were few real doubts regarding Neymar’s ability to adapt to life at Barcelona and it now seems even foolish to think that there were any. He is a phenomenal talent and developing alongside better players will only improve his all round game.

The potential is there as is the stage and so far Neymar has failed to disappoint.


Written by Andy Hunter

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Lionel Messi: Luis Enrique reaps the priceless help of a rejuvenated genius

It was this time last year when Marca ran the headline “Messi’s lowest ebb” just before Barcelona faced Manchester City in the second leg of their meeting in the last 16 of the Champions League. History has repeated itself for both clubs 12 months on with the Catalans again knocking out City at the same stage, but for Messi the accusations that he has lost his energy and enthusiasm have long since dropped away and the Argentine is back to his sensational self.

It is indeed a different Messi, not only from the one that saw his talents stifled somewhat by the more direct approach of Gerardo Martino but from the one that became peerless under the domineering era of Josep Guardiola. He is no longer the false nine but a player of imperious industry that is allowed licence to roam by Luis Enrique, starting to the right of a front 3 on paper but in reality moving to wherever his genius takes him.

The introduction of Luis Suarez to a frightening attacking triumvirate that already included Messi and Neymar led to Enrique having to discover a more creative role for the 27 year old and such a shift wasn’t without its issues. Back in January reports emerged of a training ground argument between Messi and Enrique which the club had to be quick to keep a lid on among boardroom upheaval and the possible sacking of the coach.

Rumours circulated over a potential move away from the Nou Camp for Messi as he was benched for the 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad and the club were plunged into crisis, with the unthinkable exit of its brightest star now a stark possibility for the very first time.

On a personal level Messi had to witness Cristiano Ronaldo romp to a crushing victory in the 2015 Ballon d’Or for the second year in a row but as so often in football the narrative can turn at such a nauseating speed. What has followed is a scintillating run of form that has yielded 20 goals in the 17 games since that woeful night in Sen Sebastien as Barcelona now sit top of La Liga, in the quarter finals of the Champions League and poised to compete in the Copa Del Rey final.

Meanwhile Ronaldo, while still scoring, seems to be the unhappy, frustrated spearhead of a Real Madrid mired in stuttering form, calling for a media blackout as a result of the intense scrutiny he received for his over-zealous birthday celebrations.

In contrast Messi seems content, revelling in the role and form he is currently in. He failed to score in Wednesday’s victory over City but he claimed a beautiful assist for Ivan Rakitic’s winner and enjoyed making a mockery of the hapless James Milner and Fernandinho, much to the amusement of the on-watching Guardiola.

The nutmegs would take the headlines but the poise, grace and vision to reel City’s defenders over to his side of the pitch before finding Rakitic with a sumptuous cross-field ball was what mattered. Guardiola would return to Munich aware that Messi in this current form presents a huge threat to his Bayern team and their chances of winning back the Champions League title in Berlin in May.

As the Croatian found the net over the sprawling Joe Hart Messi got his 17th assist of the season to go with a 43 goals he has scored in all competitions. They are another round of extraordinary statistics that has seen records continue to be shattered. Currently out in front as Barcelona’s highest ever scorer with 397 at the relatively young age of 27, it is dismaying to imagine the numbers he could yet produce and the accolades he could yet achieve.

This season he has surpassed Telmo Zarra’s La Liga scoring record, Raul’s Champions League scoring record and the Spanish football hat-trick record all in a wonderful, emphatic riposte to last year’s accusations that his heart was no longer in the game and that his passion had deserted him. In the 35 matches he has played for Barcelona this term, he has been rated as man of the match for 26 of them, if any bad feeling has lingered between the attacker and his manager then it certainly hasn’t affected the gold standard of his performances.

It is clear that Barcelona’s post-Sociedad soul searching was a huge watershed in their campaign, with both Andoni Zubizaretta and Carles Puyol exiting the club’s boardroom. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced into calling an early election for this summer to alleviate some of the tension surrounding the club and that, many believe, is key to Messi’s upturn in form and mood, the likely prospect of a summer break-up of the board he has recently grown disillusioned with.

To refer back to the tie with Manchester City and it would have been possible that, back in January, Manuel Pellegrini and co. would have been looking forward to the tie with Barcelona as clear opportunity to overcome their nemesis of last year. However Barca were to rediscover their vigour and City would leave Spain amidst talk of a significant summer upheaval with Sheikh Mansour’s billions once again ready to fund another recruitment drive with the emphasis on youth.

How much would they wish they could prise away their Nou Camp tormenter in chief who remains Barcelona’s prized possession, whom money simply can’t buy?


Written by Adam Gray

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Top 10 British Sporting Cities

Britain truly is the home of organised sport, and her sporting influence is felt across the globe. Whether you’re a South American footballer, a North American golfer, an Indian cricketer, an Australasian Rugby star, or a Chinese snooker player, you owe it all to the sporting heritage of the UK.

This article aims to tap into the lucrative market of British sporting tourism. The ten featured cities range from the metropolis of London, to smaller destinations such as Preston and St. Andrews.



London is easily the UK’s largest city, so it not surprising that some of the nation’s most famous sporting venues are found here. The north London skyline is dominated by the newly refurbished Wembley Stadium, which plays host to international matches, and domestic cup finals, such as the F.A. Cup. In addition to the national arena, there are also a dozen league clubs to be found in and around London.

The English Rugby Union side also play their home games in North London, at the majestic Twickenham Stadium, with its 80,000 capacity. Tennis enthusiasts flock to the lawns of Wimbledon for a fortnight each summer, to view the oldest Grand Slam tournament.

Whilst the spiritual home of World Cricket is also to found in London, at Lord’s Cricket Ground. Finally, from 2012 onwards the sporting tourist will have the chance to visit the Olympic Stadium in the East End of the capital.



Whereas Aintree in Lancashire claims the Grand National, the town of Cheltenham holds the three-day racing festival that offers the tourist the best atmosphere of any Horse Racing event in the world.

This is due in part to the pleasant Cotswold Hills that overlook the Race Course, and the high standard of equestrianism, but above all the wave of Irish punters who flock annually to this elegant corner of England.

Every March the usually sleepy town is transformed into a home from home for thousands of Irish racing enthusiasts, even when there isn’t an Irish trained winner, the Guinness is sure to flow long into the night.



Rugby Union was invented in an English Public School almost two hundred years ago, but the spiritual home of British rugby is undoubtedly in South Wales. There are many proud ‘Rugger’ towns in the vicinity, but Cardiff is the site of the Millennium Stadium, with its retractable roof.

Built as a replacement for Cardiff Arms Park, the most hallowed of twentieth century rugby grounds, the Millennium Stadium represents not only the pastime of Wales, but also the regeneration of the Welsh capital.

The Millennium Stadium also hosted the English F.A. Cup between 2001 and 2007, during the renovation of Wembley Stadium.



The East Midlands city of Nottingham is the smallest English city with two football teams, Notts. County and Nottingham Forest, the latter having twice won the European Cup. The riverside stadium of Trent Bridge is a scenic venue for Test Match cricket.

In addition, the National Water Sports Centre is one of the most impressive leisure facilities in Britain. The fast-flowing artificially created rapids challenge Britain’s elite canoeists, kayakers, and white water rafters.

Whilst the two kilometre long Regatta Lake caters for the needs of Britain’s hugely successful Olympic rowing team.



Both Sheffield football teams, Wednesday and United have been crowned English champions, but perhaps the hilly Yorkshire city’s most famous sporting association is with snooker.

The Snooker World Championship is held every spring in Sheffield, in what is literally the most dramatic setting for any high profile sporting event, the Crucible Theatre.



Yorkshire is perhaps the proudest of all English cricketing counties, and there are few venues in the world that can match Headingly for nostalgia, and passionate support. Cricket is a way of life in Yorkshire, and until very recently only those born within the Four Ridings of Yorkshire could qualify for the county team.

The cricketing ground is next door to the home of Leeds Rhinos Rugby League Club, who have enjoyed recent successes that Leeds Football Club can only dream of.

However, despite its tenants falling on hard times, the footballing stadium of Elland Road still makes an impact on the visitor.



There’s more to Manchester than Old Trafford, though the home of Man. United does attract fans from around the World. Local rivals Manchester City also boast an impressive stadium, which was originally constructed for the Commonwealth Games of 2002.

In addition to the two large stadia that between them can hold 125,000 spectators, the city also hosts the Manchester Velodrome, one of the World’s premier cycling venues.

For fans of the oval ball, the rugby league towns of Salford, Wigan, and St. Helens are a just a short hop away.



The small Lancashire city of Preston has one major claim to fame, namely being the Mecca of world club football. Preston’s unparalleled footballing heritage, centres around the recently refurbished Deepdale stadium, home of the famous Preston North End Football Club.

Deepdale is the oldest professional football ground anywhere on Earth (football was first played here in 1880), and consequently the English F.A. chose as the site for the National History Museum, a must-see for football fanatics of any allegiance.

The Museum has an extensive collection of artefacts from the nineteenth century to the present day. There are also many interactive amusements for children, and the opportunity to view the hallowed turf of Deepdale itself.

Preston has excellent transport links due to it’s proximity to the M6, and the West Coast railway that connects the Midlands to Scotland.



Glasgow, not Edinburgh, is the footballing capital of Scotland, as testified by the majestic sight of Hampden Park. Hampden is the headquarters of the SFA, the second oldest football association in the World, and it also holds the Scottish Football Museum.

The rivalry between the two main Glaswegian teams, Celtic and Rangers is perhaps the fiercest in Europe. Rangers have won the Scottish League more times, but Celtic was the first British team to lift the European Cup back in 1967.

Both grounds are worth a visit; Celtic Park (Parkhead to traditionalists) is the bigger of the two, and holds over 60,000 supporters, however it lacks the red-bricked elegance of Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium.

In fact, Glasgow is the only European city that can claim three football venues with a capacity of over 50,000. However in the summer of 2014, football will for once take a back seat, as Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games.


St. Andrews

Scotland’s association with golf goes back many centuries, in fact it is said that Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed the game. Though the Fife town has a population of little more than 15,000, it is home to the world’s most famous golf club, the Royal and Ancient (founded in 1754), plus a dozen pristine golf courses in the vicinity of this historical university town.

The advantage of a trip to this seaside location, is that any party members who are not interested in golf, can enjoy the beach, or the rustic charm of St. Andrew’s many old buildings.


Written by Brian Heller

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Franco Vazquez: This season’s Serie A revelation

Franco Vazquez has been something of a revelation in Serie A this season. The 26-year old Argentine attacking midfielder is contributing to a fine season for his club Palermo, the Sicilian outfit sit tenth in the table – after achieving promotion from Serie B just last season.

He was bought to Sicily in 2011 to replace Javier Pastore, who was sold to PSG for approximately €23m that summer. While succeeding his fellow countryman was not an easy task, Vazquez is finally proving that he has the abilities and talent to take over the reigns.

Vasquez and attacking team mate Paulo Dybala have formed an outstanding partnership up front. To put it into perspective, Palermo have scored 38 league goals so far this season — these two players have been responsible for 35 of them.

Dybala has received most of the praise for Palermo’s terrific season thus far, but for me, Vasquez is equally as important to Giuseppe Iachini’s side.

Franco has notched up 7 goals and 9 assists so far this season.  When you compare those statistics to other top performers (in his position) in the league, it’s rather impressive. See the graphic below:

A wonderful performance against Napoli demonstrated what a talented young man Vasquez really is. He was unstoppable in that league game last month - he struck a superb goal and created another in their 3-1 victory over the Champions League chasing Napoli. Below are the highlights from that performance, in which Vazquez labelled himself as ‘the perfect performance’.

Still yet to represent Argentina, there is talk that Italy head coach Antonio Conte may call him up. Vasquez qualifies to represent Italy because his mother is from Padua (North East of Italy).  Franco is more than open to the idea;

“My mum would be delighted. But she always told me to do what I felt was best for me. She didn’t have to do any convincing. I’ve always said that I feel half Italian. My mum is from Padua and I’ve got lots of relatives there. It would be an honour.”

He then added,

“For me, he’s (Conte) one of the best coaches in the world. You don’t win three scudettos in a row by fluke. He emits such a motivational air, just like our club coach [Giuseppe Iachini]. If Conte asked, I would even play in midfield — I’ve done it at Palermo so of course I’d do it for the national team.”

Vazquez may get to do it in March when Italy face Bulgaria in a Euro 2016 qualifier. If his performances continue, Franco could find himself at a big club come next season.


Written by Serie A Writer

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Lazio: The Biancocelesti could be on their way back to the glory days under Stefano Pioli

Stefano Pioli spoke excitedly after witnessing his team negotiate a difficult trip to Torino and come away with a 0-2 win. “I think we’ve gained a winning mentality, built thanks to positive results which gave us confidence” said Lazio’s coach and if winning mentality is a phrase a little overused among the buzzwords of modern football, it is definitely true in the case of the Biancocelesti. Torino had lost just once at home since September but Pioli’s Lazio would record their fifth win in a row to move 3 points clear of Napoli in the race for the third Champions League qualifying spot.

Lazio would be without the suspended Antonio Candreva who with 37 chances produced and 7 assists is their most creative outlet, but attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson would step into the void with 2 goals.

The Brazilian now has 8 goals, making him the club’s joint top-scorer with Stefano Mauri and Miroslav Klose, and 6 assists, leaving him one short of Candreva. After struggling in his first year in Italy following an €8 million move from Santos in June 2013, few have been left with doubts over the ability of the 21 year old who continues to enjoy a remarkable second season.Felipe Anderson has enormous potential,” Pioli said, “He can become a player who will be unstoppable for his opponents.”

Shorn also of long-term injury absentee Filip Djordjevic, the main centre-forward who had scored 7 goals before fracturing his ankle against AC Milan in January, Pioli has relied on experience to take-over the goal-scoring mantle left behind by the Serbian and hasn’t been let down, with 35 year old Mauri and 36 year old Klose still producing the goods at a ripe old age.

The versatile Candreva meanwhile, nicknamed “The Moped” for his reliability and work-rate, has continued his excellent form on the right side of the front 3, making a mockery of the £4.5 million it took for the Rome club to sign the 28 year old from Udinese in 2012.

Recent performances have included that thrashing of Milan as well as handsome victories over Sassuolo and far more impressively Fiorentina, fellow challengers to the Serie A’s top 3 places and Champions League qualification. Pioli has also guided them into the semi-finals of the Coppa Italia, where they are poised 1-1 with Napoli ahead of the second leg in Naples.

The season has marked a breakthrough for Pioli who has previously failed to make his mark in Serie A despite some relative successes down the Italian football pyramid. A 3 year spell at Bologna was undermined by budget restrictions and poor form which culminated in the relegation campaign of last season and he was set free to replace Edoardo Reja at the Stadio Olimpico last June.

Though met with initial disillusionment by Lazio supporters he was cited as the antidote to Reja’s inflexibility and overriding caution, a low-cost manager with a reputation for entertaining football and developing young talent.

The football has undoubtedly been entertaining, only league leaders Juventus have scored more than Lazio’s 49 goals and nobody has netted more times on the road than the Biancocelesti. “Lazio are playing with pace, intensity and an overwhelming dominance which make it very enjoyable to watch. I have not seen such exciting matches in Serie A for some time” is the verdict of former coach Dino Zoff, who says this current Lazio team is the best since the Sergio Cragnotti-funded Scudetto winning side of 1999-2000 under Sven Goran Eriksson.

Pioli has stuck invariably to a 4-3-3 which operates with a high defensive line designed to force opposing teams back and to put pressure and establish possession in the opponent’s half. A driving force behind that is Marco Parolo who has made his £4.8 million summer move from Parma look a bargain with his energetic displays and attacking runs which have got him 6 goals. The midfielder has featured the most under Pioli, missing just 2 of Lazio’s 27 league games so far.

Alongside him Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia has missed only 6 games and provides his competitive edge and experience in the engine room while fellow 29 year old Senad Lulic provides an option on the left of a midfield three, another who possesses stamina, energy and dynamism, traits that are so appealing to Pioli’s philosophy. Meanwhile veterans Lorik Cana and Christian Ledesma remain indispensable squad options on hand to provide their wealth of know-how should it be required.

Pioli’s style also preaches adventurous full-backs so it is perhaps no surprise that first choice pairing Dusan Basta and Stefan Radu have combined to create a total of 26 chances while cover options Luis Pedro Cavanda and Edson Braafhied have got forward to make 7 and 12 chances respectively. That can leave them vulnerable on the counter attack but when they have time to get in shape Pioli’s men stay extremely well organised and resilient, their rate of 20.7 tackles and 19 interceptions per game are league highs in the respective columns.

Only the top 2 of Juventus and Roma have conceded less than Lazio’s 27 and this recent 5 game winning run has been geared by a stingy defence that has shipped just 1 goal in that period. Pioli’s most expensive signing last summer, the £5 million Dutch centre-half Stefan De Vrij, has been a huge success in his first year in Italy and the 23 year old has plenty of time to improve even further while Mauricio, loaned in from Sporting Lisbon in January with the option to make it permanent in the summer, has settled in well alongside him.

It has all made for a successful mix that has given Pioli cause to set his sights not only a return to the Champions League for the first time in 8 seasons but on overcoming city rivals Roma and finishing in the top 2. “What exactly is our target? To win every game and get back into Europe. Is second place a taboo?” asked Pioli. “No, it’s not. If we win all our games, then we’ll finish high up the standings.”

With the dazzling youthful qualities of De Vrij, Felipe Anderson and the highly-rated 20 year old Keita Badle Diao mixing with the imperious experience of Klose, Mauri, Cana and Ledesma, then glossed with the skills of Parolo and Candreva, there should be no limit to the ambitions Lazio harbour under Pioli.

In the white and blue half of Rome, the glory days may be coming back again.


Written by Adam Gray

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Juan Quintero: Jury still out on the Colombian Messi

Bought by FC Porto in the summer of 2013, Juan Fernando Quintero’s performances in pre-season friendlies, notably in the prestigious Emirates Cup tournament in London, and then early in the 2013/14 campaign, appeared to indicate the northerners had struck gold again.

An exhilarating dribbler, powerful shooter – usually with his magical left foot – and an eye for a killer pass, the Colombian seemed set to spread the gold dust at the Estádio do Dragão as a direct replacement for his compatriot James Rodriguez, who left for Monaco in the same transfer window.

The two have been friends since their childhood days, and Rodriguez had no doubt that his international team-mate would prove a success at Porto, confidently predicting: “Quintero’s going to shine brightly. He’s a great player and can only grow at a club like FC Porto. It’s only a question of time before he makes his mark there.”

Few disagreed after Quintero’s first outings in a Porto shirt. Within a minute of coming on as a substitute in Porto’s first league match of the season against Vitória Setúbal he scored a thunderous long-distance left-footer, and his zippy and unshackled style of play quickly made him popular among the fans and critics alike, so much so that coach Paulo Fonseca was faced with a barrage of questions as to why he started so few matches. “Quintero’s quality means he’ll soon force me to make him a starter,” responded Fonseca.

But the early promise proved a false dawn. Quintero failed to hold down a place in the side and was powerless to invert a disastrous 2013/14 for Porto. The Dragons completely rebuilt their squad in the close season, but the diminutive forward avoided the clear-out and the club made it abundantly clear they continued to believe in him.

Unfortunately, this year Quintero has again found it difficult to impose himself, spending more time on the bench than on the pitch. He continues to show flashes of brilliance in his sporadic appearances, the clinically taken winner against Braga with that trusty left foot a good example. But Quintero’s growing frustration at lack of opportunities has gone hand in hand with Porto losing patience with his lack of development.

As is often the case, what is notionally an advantage for a player, flexibility, is actually part of the problem. Quintero has chopped and changed from a winger to a No10, showing undoubted ability but extreme inconsistency in both roles. He lacks positional discipline and his decision making is questionable, to put it kindly.

The fact little progress has been made to eradicate these failings in almost two seasons at Porto – under three different coaches – raises questions about his football brain, or lack thereof.

In Quintero’s defence, for one reason or another, occasional injury setbacks included, he has never been given a prolonged stint as a regular in the side. Having only recently turned 22, should a manager at Porto or elsewhere smoothen out the rough edges and fully harness his obvious talent, Quintero is still in time to enjoy a highly successful career.


Written by Tom Kundert

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Arthur Wharton: Britain’s first black professional footballer

In the late nineteenth century, Arthur Wharton (1865-1930) was an athlete of legendary proportions, competing at the top level in many sports including cycling, rugby, cricket athletics and football.  It was previously believed that Wharton was the first ever black football player; however new evidence has recently come to light that shows this distinction goes to Andrew Watson, who played in Scotland in the 1870s.

Despite this, Wharton was a pioneer in the sporting world, competing in arenas almost universally occupied by white people. He was a well-liked, well respected competitor but unfortunately, his life story did not have a happy ending.

In 1875 Wharton and his father, the Rev Henry Wharton, moved from the West Indies to England.  He attended Dr Cheyne’s school in London from 1875 and in 1882, he began training as a missionary teacher at Shoal Hill College and two years later at Cleveland College in London.

In 1886, at the age of 20 Wharton entered the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) Championships at Stamford Bridge.  As well as becoming the first black athlete to win an AAA championship, he also set a new world record at the event becoming the first man ever to run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat.

Later that year, Wharton signed a professional contract with Preston North End football club, one the top teams in the world at that time.  Ironically, despite being the fastest man on earth, he was to become a highly respected goalkeeper.

Wharton had a reputation as a hard man on the field and when he unleashed his trademark ‘prodigious punch’, it was said that he always connected with ether the ball, or an opponents head!  In those days a goalie could handle the ball anywhere in his own half and players could barge him whether he was on or off the ball, which explains the logic of having a fast, powerful goalkeeper.

Wharton seems to have relished the more physical side of the game and like many goalkeepers, he seems to have had an eccentric streak.  In a letter to the Sheffield Telegraph and Independent (January 12, 2022), T. H. Smith wrote;

“In a match between Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday at Olive Grove I saw Wharton jump, take hold of the cross bar, catch the ball between his legs, and cause three onrushing forwards - Billy Ingham, Clinks Mumford and Mickey Bennett - to fall into the net.  I have never seen a similar save since and I have been watching football for over fifty years”.

Wharton stayed at Preston North End for three years before signing for Rotherham United in 1889.  Five years later he moved to Sheffield United were he spent a miserable year, finding it difficult to hold a regular first team place.  In 1895 he went back to Rotherham United, where he played in only fifteen league games in six years.

During his time at Rotherham, Wharton was also a pub landlord, running the Albert Tavern and later the Plough Inn in Rotherham then the Sportsman Cottage pub in Sheffield.  During this period, he developed a drinking problem, causing his career to nose dive and eventually forcing him to retire from football in 1902.

He spent the rest of his life as a colliery haulage worker and by the time he died, on the 12th of December 1930, of epithelioma and syphilis, he had fallen into obscurity and was a penniless alcoholic.

In recent years, Wharton’s name has been brought out of obscurity and, while he is by no means a household name, a number of articles and a few books have been written about him.

A colourful and well respected all round sportsman, Wharton was a trailblazer for black sportsmen throughout the Western world and deserves his place in history as one of the greatest athletes of his day.

In 1886, Arthur Wharton became the fastest man on earth when he ran 100 yards in 10 seconds flat.  Soon after, he became only the second black man to play top level football.

Despite his blistering pace, Wharton had a successful career as a goalkeeper and left a mark on the beautiful game.


Written by Auron Renius

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Danny Ings: England cap not just yet in the offing, but the Burnley striker shows the talent to go far

Burnley’s 1-0 victory over Manchester City on Saturday evening gave the Lancashire outfit a real chance of staying in the Premier League against the odds in what would be an extraordinary achievement for Sean Dyche and his shoe-string assembled squad. A season that has seen them take points off Chelsea, Manchester United, Southampton and now the current title-holders has already made it a sensational campaign for the Clarets who may be about to see one of their players earn a cap for England for the first time since Martin Dobson in 1974.

Danny Ings faces solid competition from the likes of Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Charlie Austin to be the new star in Roy Hodgson’s attack for the matches with Lithuania and Italy at the end of March but, despite having scored less than his rivals, his 9 Premier League goals are extremely hard to ignore. That is certainly the case with Real Sociedad, Newcastle, Everton, Arsenal, Liverpool and most recently Manchester United, all whom have expressed an interest in signing Ings once his contract expires in June.

Amid the rumours that have circulated since October which have told of Ings rejecting a new contract offer at Burnley, seeing a £4 million bid from Liverpool turned down in January and having signed a pre-contract deal with Real Sociedad, it has indeed been testament to the man-management skills of Dyche and the application of Ings that his performances have not suffered in the face of such rife speculation.

The 23 year old has missed just 3 league matches and although he’s rated as Burnley’s 6th best player by, his 9 goals, 4 assists and a rate of 1 chance created per game make Ings by far their biggest threat.

Both goals in the victory over Stoke, vital goals in draws with Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion and the winner over relegation rivals QPR have been indications to his cool-touch in-front of goal but many will point there is much more to his game than goal-scoring.

A player who is as comfortable turning with his back to goal and creating space between the lines as he is heading in a cross past David De Gea at Old Trafford, he is an intelligent reader of the game, one who operates with astute movement and a desire to run in behind defenders and in to space. Running is certainly something he does a lot of, both off the ball and on it, it was not a surprise to recently hear his manager saying that the striker can be “criticised for trying too hard.

His work in providing Ashley Barnes for his recent goal against West Brom is an insight into the striker’s ability; the look over his shoulder whilst anticipating the long ball, the clever feint of the shoulder and the movement to retrieve the follow-up. Then he displays the strength to hold off two defenders before finding Barnes in the centre with an improvised cross.

The link-up with Barnes, Scott Arfield and George Boyd, with whom he played off in the victory over City, has been superb at times this season, often more deserving than the 25 points from 18 games Burnley have accrued. His understanding with Sam Vokes in the build up to Ings’s goal against QPR is almost telepathic, a sign of a player perfectly in synch with his team-mates and thriving off their service.

After scoring 26 goals to fire Burnley into the Premier League last year Ings was named the club’s player of the year and he looks set to retain that accolade by scoring the goals that could well keep them there against all expectation. If he manages to achieve that, few will begrudge him his decision to end his four years at Turf Moor and pursue his ambitions elsewhere.

When it is announced on Thursday, Hodgson’s next England team could be too soon for Ings who is likely to stay in the under-21s, for whom he has 4 goals in 7 appearances, but if he continues on his current path many senior caps are sure to come.


Written by Adam Gray

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