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

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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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Nolito: Celta Vigo’s plucky late-blossoming underdog

On Sunday evening Villarreal host Celta Vigo at El Madrigal as they go in search of their 8th consecutive home win in La Liga which will equal a record for the Yellow Submarine. Currently sitting sixth, 8 points off 4th-placed Valencia in the race for the Champions League qualification places, Villarreal are in devastating form having lost 2 of their last 15 games and are firm favourites to beat Celta as manager Marcelino welcomes back a number of first-team options.

After a patched-up team earned a 1-1 draw against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last week, Marcelino will once again his most creative player, winger Denis Cheryshev, available after the Madrid loanee was prevented from playing against his parent club. Front two Uche and Luciano Vietto were left on the bench in Madrid while so too centre-back pairing Mateo Mussachio and Victor Ruiz in a ploy designed to keep players fresh for the Copa Del Rey semi-final which was lost to Barcelona in mid-week.

With that out of the way, Marcelino is able to place more of a focus on running Valencia and Atletico for the last two Champions League spots so he is likely to return to the full-strength, barring his injured captain Bruno Soraino, side that has often proved irresistible this season. However among all the gifted players appearing in yellow on Sunday evening, Celta will also have a precious talent in their ranks in the form of Nolito Agudo-Duran.

Celta are on an impressive run of form of their own having gone five unbeaten and Nolito has been central to the upturn which has Eduardo Berizzo’s men looking upwards once again. The winner over Cordoba, the penalty which set up the 2-0 win over Atletico and the late equaliser to earn a point away at Real Sociedad were all vital in a run that has seen Celta acquire 11 points from 15 to move up from 12th to 9th.

For Nolito, who as a 28 year old won his very first call-up and cap for Spain against Germany in a friendly last November, the timing of a resurgence in form has been perfect as he aims to stay in Vincent Del Bosque’s plans for La Roja’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Ukraine next month.

A run of 5 goals in his first 8 games, which positioned Celta 6th in La Liga at the end of October, a barren sequence of 12 games without a goal would follow as Celta went 10 games without victory between November and late January. For both club and player it has been a welcome return to goal-scoring form.

What makes Nolito’s rise to prominence is that the 28 year old winger hasn’t done it the easy way. After learning the game on a concrete court near his flat in Cadiz as a young boy, Nolito started with Andalusian side Ecija Balompie in the Spanish third-tier, he was then noticed by Barcelona who took him to Catalonia as a 22 year old.

Even though he continued to thrive in the third division for the B side, scoring 16 goals over two seasons as the B team won promotion to the 2nd level after an 11 year absence, he would make just 2 senior appearances under Josep Guardiola and an offer of a professional contract at the Nou Camp would be rejected.

Nolito has admitted that his move to Barcelona was made too early but the impression Luis Enrique, who coached him with the B side at Barca remained huge. “Luis Enrique has marked me for good and for bad. He is a person who has always been direct and clear with me, has always told me the good and bad things he says, “It marked my career because it was a stage in my life was going up or going down. Luis Enrique was key.”

The winger then moved to Benfica where he would complete just one season of the five year deal he initially signed, even though it was successful as he netted 15 goals in 48 games as the Portuguese giants won the domestic cup. In his second season he managed just 6 games for the reds and he was shipped back to Spain on loan with Granada as chances of long-term future at the Stadium of Light wavered.

Flashes of his brilliance were only sporadic as Nolito seemed to stagnate once more, but his move to Celta in July 2013 proved pivotal as he was re-united with Enrique. 14 goals followed in his debut season and even though his coach has since departed for Barcelona, the winger has continued to thrive under Berizzo.

The audacious back-heel to tee-up Joaquin Larrivey for the game’s only goal as Celta stole a 0-1 win in the Nou Camp back in November would have been particularly sweet; he was finally finding the platform to produce his brilliance on a regular basis while the coach who seemed to be the only one who could coax that consistency from him was sitting on the opposite bench.

Nolito has made all 24 of his appearances for Berizzo on the left of a three-pronged attack and he has produced a total of 8 goals and 6 assists, as well as creating a total of 61 chances for his team-mates in a productive campaign so far. His 8 yellow cards shows an edgy side to his game that he will have to smooth out but for a player whose confidence has often appeared brittle in the past, Nolito has also produced in the big games, assisting against Barcelona and scoring two penalties in the 2 meetings with Atletico, the second a reward for a sensational performance in which he was man of the match.

Nolito has been here before however, having been the stand-out performer in Enrique’s Barcelona B side that contained the likes of Marc Bartra, Martin Montoya, Christian Tello and Thiago but not quite making the cut in Catalonia, he is fully aware how quickly a player can fall from grace.

He will line up against another bright young talent in Villarreal’s Vietto, who is interesting the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, on Sunday evening, aiming to keep the striker at bay in the competition for the Spain squad at the end of March.

With Villarreal’s array of stars on show, don’t be surprised if it is Nolito, Celta’s plucky late-blossoming underdog, who has a huge say in the proceedings.


Written by Adam Gray

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Gheorghe Hagi: The Maradona of the Carpathians


Short summary

The article presents the career of one of the greatest Romanian football players of all time in detail. Gheorghe Hagi was Romania’s best scorer and the national team’s leader during its most fruitful period. He played for top teams like Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona.

Also, Hagi became Turkey’s hero after leading Galatasaray Istanbul to the all-time best performance in Turkish football: winning the UEFA Cup. The article includes a chapter on the player profile, depicts his activity after ending the football career and discloses some of his personal preferences.


Long summary

Every country has a huge talent, a symbolic football player within one generation. Zinedine Zidane was France’s football player of the ’90s, Raúl González was Spain’s football player of the ’90s, Del Piero is a symbol of Italian football and Romário is a symbol of Brasil in the’ 90s. Who was Romania’s symbolic football player in the ’90s?



Gheorghe Hagi was born on May 2, 1965, in Săcele, Constanța. His parents were Macedonian farmers. Little Gheorghe was declared the most technical football player of the Hope Cup and his name appeared in “Sportul” newspaper on September 7, 1976. Hagi played for the junior team under sixteen (four matches), for the junior team under seventeen (13 matches, 1 goal), for the junior team under eighteen (32 matches, 9 goals) and for the Olympic team (four matches). His first coach was Iosif Bükössi.


Club and national team career

Hagi started playing for F.C.Farul Constanţa (1982-1983), scored 7 goals and then moved to Sportul Studenţesc (1983-1987), where he scored 58 goals. Gheorghe Hagi started playing for the national team at the age of 18, in a friendly match against Norway, in 1983 (0-0).

Hagi was loaned to Steaua București in 1986, after the Romanian team won the European Champion Clubs’Cup in 1986. Steaua București (“Steaua” meaning “The star”) is the Army football team, was and still is the most prestigious Romanian football team. Hagi scored 76 goals in 97 matches and won three national championships and three national cups while playing for Steaua.

Hagi won the 1987 UEFA Super Cup (1-0, against Dynamo Kiev), scoring the decisive goal. Gheorghe Hagi was the leading scorer (four goals) in the 1988 European Champion Clubs’ Cup (he was equal to five other players). The owner of Panathinaikos wanted Hagi so bad in 1988 that he offered 8 million dollars to the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu to allow the transfer to Panathinaikos, but the communist leader refused.

He considered the valuable football players as national values and did not allow them to leave the country until “they had done their duties” to Romania. Some of the football players left Romania illegally (Miodrag Belodedici - Red Star Belgrade, Marcel Răducanu - Borussia Dortmund), others continued to play in Romania in spite of the considerable offers from major clubs (Ion Voinescu - Arsenal Londra, Vasco da Gama, Florea Dumitrache - Juventus Torino, Nicolae Dobrin - Real Madrid, Cornel Dinu - Bayern München, Ilie Balaci - A.C. Milan, Rodion Cămătaru - F.C.Kaiserslautern, Benfica Lisabona).

While other Romanian football players were allowed to leave abroad at the end of their careers (Rodion Cămătaru - Charleroi, Boloni -Racing Jet de Bruxelles, Tudorel Stoica - Lens, Victor Pițurcă - Lens). Steaua reached the 1989 European Champion Clubs’ Cup final (lost 0-4 to Milan).

After Romanians gained their liberty in the 1989 Revolution, Hagi was transferred to Real Madrid for 4.3 million dollars, where he played for two seasons (1990-1992) scoring 15 goals.

From there, he joined Brescia (1992-1994), helping the team to return to the first division (Serie A) scoring another 15 goals in the process.

Hagi led Romania in the 1984 UEFA European Championship and the 1990 FIFA World Cup and then he achieved the greatest performance in the whole Romanian football history, namely acceding to the 1994 World Cup quarter-finals in United States. He scored three times there, including a brilliant lobbed goal from 40 meters against Colombia.

Hagi’s goal against Colombia (3-1) was also voted the fifth in a poll hosted on, gathering 9,297 votes. There were 341,460 votes online from over 150 countries worldwide for the greatest goal ever scored in FIFA World Cup history. Romania lost on penalties to Sweden (2-2, 4-5, after penalty kicks) in its 1994 World Cup final match. Hagi was the fourth football player in the world in 1994 (50 points), according to FIFA. He was selected in the 1994 FIFA World Cup All-Star Team.

Hagi’s performances attracted F.C.Barcelona’s interest and the Spanish club transferred him for 3 million dollars. Hagi scored 7 goals for Barcelona in two years (1994-1996), winning a second Spanish Super Cup for his team.

Hagi with the 2000 UEFA Cup trophy.

Hagi with the 2000 UEFA Cup trophy.

Hagi joined Galatasaray (1996-2001), where he won four championship titles (1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999) and two national cups (1999, 2000). He scored 50 goals in 132 matches for his team. Gheorghe Hagi became Galatasaray’s leader and won the UEFA Cup (1999-2000) in a penalty shootout against Arsenal. Galatasaray Istanbul became the first Turkish team to win a major continental trophy and Hagi was the hero. Three months later, Galatasaray won the European Super Cup (2000), defeating Real Madrid.

Adrian Păunescu, a poet, convinced Hagi to return to the national team in an emotional and carefully prepared TV show in 1999, one year after his retirement. Hagi was cheered by his fans at three o’clock in the morning. It was a night to be remembered… Hagi retired in 2001 after 125 caps.


Player profile


Gheorghe Hagi was a great leader on the pitch, blessed with sublime vision, a creative, ingenious and precise passing ability, a disconcerting dribbling and an outstanding ball control. He was a greatly feared shooter from any distance and position. He also had a fine free kick technique. Hagi wore number ten.


Fair play

Although Hagi was mostly fair and disciplined player throughout his career, he was eliminated several times in the final years of his career, including during some important games like the final of the 2000 UEFA Cup against Arsenal, in extra time, when playing for Galatasaray (won 0-0, 4-1) (94 minute) and the 2000 European Championship quarter-finals, when playing for Romania (lost 0-2 to Italy).

He also attacked a Turkish referee in 2001, leading to a lengthy suspension (six matches) (Galatasaray- Gençlerbirliği SK 2-1).


Various records

Hagi was the top scorer in 1984-1985 season and then again in 1985-1986 season. He scored 141 goals in 222 matches in domestic games (0,63 goals per game). His domestic record is only second to Dudu Georgescu (Dinamo Bucureşti), who held the record (47) for goals scored in one season for a long period (1977-2012, which was eventually surpassed by Lionel Messi- 50 goals) and who also won the European Golden Shoe in 1975- 33 goals, who bagged 252 goals in 370 matches.

Hagi’s percentage (0,63 goals per game) is very close to Dudu Georgescu’s percentage (0,68 goals per game), a very rare performance for a midfielder. Hagi was declared the best Romanian football player of the year seven times (1985, 1987, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1999, and 2000). He has also scored 32 goals in 95 games in European Cup tournaments.

As an offensive midfielder, Hagi compensated for the weakness of the Romania national team’s attack in many cases. A midfielder is rarely the top scorer yet Hagi surpassed the very durable record of Iuliu Bodola, a football player of the ’40s (1939, 30 goals, 48 matches) in 1997 and still holds the first position (35 goals), which Adrian Mutu equaled in 2013.

Gheorghe Hagi played in three World Cups (1990- Italy, 1994- United States, 1998- France) (equalling the old national record of Nicolae Kovacs, present in the World Cup Final Tournaments in 1930, 1934, 1938 and playing 12 matches) and in three European Championships (1984- France, 1996- England, 2000- Belgium and Netherlands).

Gheorghe Hagi also surpassed Boloni‘s record for caps (108 matches for the national team) which had lasted ten years (1988-1998). Hagi holds the second place (125 caps) after Dorinel Munteanu (134 caps). Hagi led Romania 65 times (continuously 1990-2001), holding the present record (the next one is Cristian Chivu, Internazionale Milano, 50 times).


Post-football career

Hagi coached the Romania national team, Bursaspor, Galatasaray (twice), FC Politehnica Timişoara and Steaua București. He won a National Cup as Galatasaray’s coach in 2005. He founded “Academia de Fotbal Gheorghe Hagi” (Gheorghe Hagi Football Academy) for training football talents and also founded Viitorul Constanţa, which promoted to the First Division in 2012.

Beside his coaching activities, Hagi is a businessman, he owns the four stars Iaki Hotel in Mamaia. In addition, Hagi is National Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF Romania, supporting children in difficulty.


Private life

Hagi is married for the second time. His first wife was Leni Celnicu (1990-1995) and he is now married to Marilena Vlahbei, Gheorghe Popescu’s sister. He has two children from the present marriage, Kira (15 years old), who has humanist inclinations, and Ianis (13 years old), who plays football. Hagi has two older sisters, Sultana and Elena.

Gheorghe Hagi is a close friend of another great Romanian football player, Gheorghe Popescu, who was FC Barcelona captain. Hagi enjoys listening to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Mariah Carey. He likes Johan Cruijff as a football player and coach, J.F. Kennedy as a politician and Napoleon as a historical figure.

His favorite actors are Al Pacino and Michelle Pheiffer. Hagi likes eating macaroni and drinking red wine and prefers Hugo Boss clothes and BMW cars.



“Maradona of the Carpathians”, as Gheorghe Hagi is sometimes called, is a hero in Romania and Turkey alike for helping both countries decisively establish their greatest national or club performances. The Romanian Football Federation declared in 2008 that Hagi is the most valuable Romanian football player in the last 50 years.

Miodrag Belodedici (the Romanian football player with the best club success, namely that he won the European Champion Clubs’ Cup twice, in 1986 with Steaua București and in 1991 with Red Star Belgrade), Gheorghe Popescu (winner of the 2000 UEFA Cup with Galatasaray, was also Barcelona captain in the 1996-1997 season) and Cristian Chivu (winner of the 2010 Champions League with Inter Milan) are the other Romanian football players with international performances.

“The King”, as some people called Gheorghe Hagi, is one of the most popular Romanian sport players abroad, along with the great gymnast Nadia Comăneci and the tennis player Ilie Năstase of the ’70s, and along with football players Adrian Mutu and Cristian Chivu of the present generation.



Written by Vladimir-Adrian Maftei

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Luis Suarez: El Pistolero adjusts to life at Barcelona

Despite the initial successes that 2014 brought Luis Suarez, he must have been somewhat relieved to finally see the back of last year. Following his sensational form at Liverpool, that saw him crowned the PFA player of the season, he secured a deal to join Barcelona in the summer. However, all of that was then overshadowed by the biting incident at the World Cup. A worldwide ban was deemed the suitable punishment and his career in Spain was delayed until late October.

Suarez’s new club Barcelona had failed to win anything the previous season and despite still being one of the best clubs in Europe were in some state of disarray. New head coach Luis Enrique had been tasked with ensuring that the club were once again seen as the greatest club side in the world and early season expectations were not fully realised.

With further dramas going on away from the pitch surrounding the club’s transfer dealings, the arrival of Suarez for El Clasico on October 25th could not have been bigger. The game however did not go as the Catalan’s had hoped and a 3-1 loss to their most bitter of rivals did little to appease the uneasiness surrounding the club. It was thought that a three pronged attack of Messi, Neymar and Suarez could reap havoc against any defence they faced, but in such a high profile game their lack of game time together took its toll.

Playing alongside or indeed with Messi as a forward has tested even the very best players Barca have bought in recent years. When Thierry Henry first joined the club, he really struggled and just could not adjust his game to make a difference in the Catalan colours. It took him until his second season to really appreciate what was required of him. Adjusting to playing with a player as good as Messi must be like nothing else you have seen throughout your career. His technical ability and speed of movement make him incomparable with anyone else in this era and being able to even get near his wavelength is a testament to those that achieved it.

Last season saw the introduction of Neymar at Barcelona and he too struggled to integrate with Messi initially. However, the Brazilian had also had a run of games at the start of last season where he had scored several goals so at least his confidence remained high. With Suarez initially being asked to play on the right hand side of the attack, his predatory instincts unfortunately became a little rusty as confidence too betrayed him.

Following a couple of bad results, Enrique switched Messi over to the right hand side and put Suarez in the middle. First of all, this provided the Argentine with the space he craves to open up defences and secondly with players focusing their attentions on the right it allowed Suarez a little more time in the middle. Whilst his goal scoring has not been as prolific as it was at Liverpool last season, his overall contribution in recent weeks has been outstanding.

Learning when to move, when to release the pass and when to go alone is normally second nature to a forward. Playing alongside Messi and Neymar though makes things slightly trickier due to their fantastic ability.

Fortunately for Barcelona, they have purchased someone who is certainly in that group of select few who are capable of it. It certainly took Suarez a little time to adapt to his new surroundings, but it seems that we may now be close to seeing him at his best.

With the Champions League knock out round starting this week, it could not have come at a more opportune time. Sides struggled to cope with only Messi and Neymar last season and with Suarez approaching top form they will prove a handful to whoever they face.


Written by Andy Hunter

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Pre-season friendlies: Have they become a victim of football’s obsessive media scrutiny?

Pre-season friendlies are an established part of football’s close season. With the pressure of the various league competitions forcing clubs to be ready to hit the ground running, friendlies play an important role in ensuring players’ fitness and bedding in new signings.

Having spent several weeks with little to no physical exertion, footballers can be forgiven for being sluggish in their first few weeks of training. More than this, the summer transfer window sees the majority of teams face at least some upheaval in their squads, as departures need to be plugged and new faces accepted.

Additionally, coaches can play around with new formations and blood potential stars, luxuries not permitted in the ultra-competitive league format. Over recent years, however, friendlies have created more and more media interest.

Real Madrid’s pre-season match against Shamrock Rovers, featuring the debut of the one-and-only Cristiano Ronaldo, was a tepid affair, settled only by a late Benzema goal. Having spent over 180-million-pounds that summer, many expected Real to annihilate their opponents. The score, though, was not where the popular interest lay. The match was an exhibition, an opportunity for Real to showcase the attacking talent that they held, and to allow salivating fans their first chance of seeing Ronaldo in action.

More than this, the friendly served as a glorified fitness check, ensuring the Madrid players were in acceptable shape. Friendly in name only, this type of fixture does possess a serious drawback – the attitude of the opponents. Refusing to lie down and die, Shamrock attempted to match their superior foes through sheer physicality. Although an accepted part of football, a problem for managers is the risk of losing their star players to injury in an ultimately meaningless friendly.

Another footballing superpower, Manchester United, took a different approach to their pre-season preparations. Renowned for having a huge following in the Far East, United took the team to them, playing a series of fixtures in China. This not only swells their coffers in the short-term through merchandising, but also serves to raise their profile even higher.

Additionally, their friendlies against inferior opponents have allowed new summer signings acquired in previous years such as Michael Owen a chance to show his prowess by netting four goals in as many matches. This helped eases fans’ worries over his suitability for the team, and encouraged high hopes heading into that season. United’s financial gains were surely welcomed, but is this reason enough to justify the trip?

Every club must balance their accounts, but United may well have let greed choose an unsuitable pre-season. Another example of a pre-season friendly that raised the hopes of fans and players alike is provided by Villarreal’s 27-0 demolition of third-division Navata in 2009. Whilst United’s success on tour and Villarreal’s record-breaking victory can have a psychological impact on the team and the fans, that wasn’t why they were scheduled.

Results aren’t important in friendlies. An example of this: Newcastle’s 6-1 humiliation at the hands of League One side Leyton Orient. It was a result that hinted at the possibility of malaise gripping the club, but it doesn’t hide the talent still resting there. The fixture meant nothing to the players who would have shown more fight in a competitive match. Although it would have been another blow to severely weakened morale, that one result will have no effect on the club’s overall season.

Symbolic of the hyperbolic world of friendlies was the Wembley Cup, a competition featuring Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, Celtic and Egyptian Champions Al-Ahly. This served the traditional purpose of a pre-season competition by allowing players to adjust into vaguely competitive football again.

However, the marketing aspect of the competition demonstrated how serious friendlies could be, portraying a glorified training session as one of the prizes of European football. The crowds that swelled to Wembley (with a two-day ticket reaching £100) illustrated the moneymaking potential of pre-season, and football as a whole.

Friendlies should be merely opportunities for players to prepare for the upcoming campaigns. Instead, they become more victims of football’s obsessive media scrutiny. Victories and defeats should count for nothing, but are seized upon and used as evidence to praise or vilify players and teams. These stories are lapped up by fans, desperate for any indication of how their team will fare in the coming season.

The financial side of friendlies just demonstrates how commercial modern football is, with fans charged for the privilege of watching their team prepare.


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Diego Maradona: A Controversial Career

Diego Armando Maradona is widely considered to be the best player ever to grace the football field. Regardless of his playing ability, he is certainly one of the most controversial figures the sport has ever seen. Here is a look back at the life of the diminutive but contentious man.

Born and raised on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, his talents were first spotted playing for his local side Estrella Roja, aged just 11. He was quickly picked up by Argentinos Juniors, where he eventually debuted aged fifteen, going on to score 116 goals in 166 league appearances, spanning five seasons. Boca Juniors payed £1 million for his services in 1981 and he helped them to the league championship in 1982, scoring 28 goals in 40 games for the club.

The national side called soon after Maradona had turned professional and he debuted in February 1977, in a 5-1 friendly win over Hungary. The 1978 World Cup came too soon and he was left out of the squad that went on to clinch the trophy on home soil. His first international goal came against Scotland at Hampden Park, as Argentina won 3-1.

By the 1982 World Cup, Maradona was an important part of the national side and although Argentina disappointed during the competition, the player earned himself a move to Spanish giants Barcelona for a then world-record fee of £5 million.

His time in Spain was not easy, suffering badly through injury and illness before falling out with directors and demanding a move, which eventually saw him transferred to Napoli for £6.9 million, another record breaking fee. He still managed 38 goals in 58 Barca appearances, winning three medals in 1983.

During his seven years in Italy, Maradona enjoyed the most successful spell of his career, winning two Serie A titles, a UEFA Cup as well as two other domestic medals. He also enjoyed international success, winning the World Cup in 1986 as captain and narrowly failing to defend the title in 1990, losing out in the Final to West Germany.

The first of these tournaments featured the infamous match between England and Argentina, in which Maradona deliberately punched home the opening goal, before scoring what would later be voted FIFA Goal of the Century, single handedly beating five players with eleven touches and cooly firing past Shilton. Controversy about the “Hand of God” raged, but critics were silenced with two goals in the semi-final, before setting up the winner in the final.

By now, his personal problems were building. He developed a cocaine habit and was repeatedly fined for missing matches and training, not to mention allegations of fathering an illegitimate son. A failed drugs test saw Maradona hit with a 15 month worldwide ban and his career would never recover. He returned to the game with Sevilla, where he played for a year before returning to his native Argentina.

On the international front, he played just two games in the 1994 World Cup before being sent home after failing another drugs test, this time for the stimulant Ephedrine. He never played for Argentina again, after winning 91 caps.

Turning his hand to coaching, he had two short and unsuccessful managerial jobs, lasting no longer than four months, which led to him coming out of retirement as a player. He returned to former side Boca Juniors, where he scored 7 goals in 31 games, before finally calling time on his 37th birthday.

After quitting football, his health deteriorated and he struggled with obesity. In and out of rehab with his cocaine problem, he eventually suffered a heart attack in 2004. The following year he had gastric bypass surgery to fight his weight problems, but was back in hospital after less than a month with hepatitis and alcohol abuse related problems.

Later that year, he hosted a chat show in his native Argentina, where he remains something of a celebrity. In 2007 he claimed to have stopped drinking and that he had been drug free for more than two years.

The news that broke at the end of October 2008 surprised many. Diego Maradona would be the new Head Coach of Argentina after the resignation of Alfio Basile, his first game in charge was on November 19th at the scene of his first international goal, Hampden Park, against Scotland. He was also, for a brief period, in charge of a club based in the UAE, Al Wasl.

As magical as he was in his playing days, with the question marks against his health, his tax evasion case and his dip into the field of management it remains to be seen how the great man will fare in that realm. One thing is for sure though, we’re in for a roller coaster ride.


Written by Dominic Field

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Lionel Messi: A history of winning and record-breaking on the football stage

When come across the word ‘Messi’, our brain inevitably starts a slideshow in front of our eyes which depicts a man weaving his magic on the ball and breezing through the defence of any opposition to score immaculate goals. This man may not be the tallest footballer around but his stature in the world of football is higher than anyone else.

The popularity of one Lionel Messi can also be gauged from the fact that for many of us the word football and Messi are synonyms. He has been mesmerising billions of his fans all across the globe with bag full of tricks on the field, relentless attacking style of football, inch perfect passing, ability to create half chances into fabulous goals and the spirit to put personal interests behind team interests.

Owing to these qualities and more, Messi has reached a legendary status in the game of football and is unsurprisingly compared to another legend of the game, Diego Maradona, who himself declared the man as his successor.

The career of this great footballer has not been paved on smooth roads. Born in Rosario, Santa Fe Province, to parents Jorge Horácio Messi and Celia María Cuccittini, Leo Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency at the age of eleven. Due to dearth of resources to meet the necessary expenses for his treatment, Messi’s family had to move down to Spain wherein FC Barcelona’s director offered help after being acquainted with his unreal talent.

Messi started his stint as a footballer with FC Barcelona’s junior teams and quickly moved up the ranks to become one of the youngest players to feature in La Liga. He never looked back ever since and has scored more than 350 goals for his club! Messi also plays an integral and pivotal role as the football captain of Argentina and has scored over 40 goals for his country.

Apart from scoring a plethora of goals at different levels, Messi’s incredible talent has also earned him a room full of awards and accolades. This FC Barcelona frontline player has won a record four FIFA Ballon d’Or awards, three European Golden Boot Awards and 2008 Olympic Gold Medal. He also led Argentina to the finals of the FIFA World Cup 2014 and was adjudged player of the tournament, winning the Golden Ball Award. Messi has also won 21 team trophies at the club level.

Many people around the globe feel that nobody can hold a candle to Messi and he is the greatest player of this era. There are others, however, who believe Cristiano Ronaldo gives Messi a run for his money and even tops him. In terms of sheer number of records, both these players have crossed the 400 goal mark for their respective clubs and countries combined and have regularly won many prestigious awards.

On the personal front though, Ronaldo is perceived as brash character while Messi has always been a humble and shy individual. All in all, both these players are exceptionally talented and will go down as two of football’s all-time greats.

While the gap between Messi and Ronaldo has narrowed after the later moved to Spain, it’s Lionel Messi who is the best player on the face of this planet and in the opinion of some people - the best player ever!


Kelly Jules is a sports blogger who primarily writes about the game of Golf and shares her views about other games like soccer, cricket and tennis via different platforms. Visit her blog to read knowledgeable posts.

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Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo: An Infographic that compares the two living legends

Messi or Ronaldo? A popular and divisive debate among football fans. Two players with different styles, but both wonderful and enjoyable to watch and admire. Below is an infrographic provided and created by the folks at Guarantee Tickets that compares stats and other details between the two living football legends. Regardless of all the records and stats the two behold, both are a pleasure to watch, so let’s enjoy their presence and talents while their still around and in their prime.

The stats highlighted are up until the end of 2014. Ronaldo has since won another Ballon d’Or to make it 3 for the Portuguese talisman to magical Messi’s 4.


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Martin Odegaard: Madrid get the Norweigan prodigy but may have already damaged the promise of his career

The rumours, no matter how unlikely, concerning Gareth Bale’s exit from Real Madrid, with Manchester United the possible destination, continue to flow. He has 36 goals in 18 months in Madrid, but the strained relationship between Real’s record £85 million signing and the fans, first showing itself last January after misplacing a pass against Granada before the boos returned earlier this month after he failed to pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, has so far undermined his time in Spain.

Winning goals in the finals of the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League have been highlights but in the minds of Real Madrid fans- expecting Ronaldo levels of return on his world record fee- they have counted for little in a stint that has been hampered by injury, accusations of poor work-rate and the form of Isco in his absence.

Bale hasn’t been poor since joining from Spurs, far from it in fact, but he so far hasn’t reflected the billing to which Madrid projected him with that obscene transfer fee, which is of course isn’t the Welshman’s fault. Now a similar predicament faces 16 year old Martin Odegaard.

Odegaard was in Madrid last week for his unveiling after making a £2.2 million move from Stromsgodset- the fee is set to rise to a potential £8 million should he reach simple objectives- in front of a packed press room, the excitement was clear.

Madrid already had the symbolic victory of beating Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Arsenal and Paris St Germain to the Norwegian’s signature and the potential is huge. The midfielder is Norway’s youngest ever debutant and goal-scorer, his former manager Ronny Deila described him as “special and to celebrate his signing, Real released a mouth-watering video to showcase his undeniable talent to the world. It is not just his ability that separates his brilliance but an attitude that so many believe will see him stay on the route to the top.

Describing the lengths Real went to securing his services can give some indication into the extent of Odegaard’s ability. To ensure his signing they have given Hans-Erik Odegaard, Martin’s father, a role as youth team coach, while also paying the teenager an £80,000-a-week wage.

That has already caused issues among Madrid’s reserve side, where Odegaard is likely to spend his first months in Spain as Madrid seek to run his development with caution, with captain Sergio Aguza making clear his envy of the riches the Norwegian has been given. Aguza will also be denied the same opportunities, Odegaard will train with the first-team but will play with the reserves.

Odegaard only has to look to Aguza, a player who also joined Real as a 16 year old only to see his career fail to take off, for warning. The midfielder is now 22 but has yet to make a first-team appearance for Real since joining them in 2008, managing 23 appearances for the B side while staying mostly a regular for the Castilla team in the third tier of Spanish football.

It is unlikely Odegaard’s career, given the clear signs of an extraordinary talent, will follow a similar path of stagnation, but Aguza is just one of many cases of players who have failed to successfully realise their true potential as they age into the maturity of late-teens and early-20s.

Madrid will also be familiar with many of those cases. Samuel Eto’o was a fellow 16 year old signing but he only managed 3 games for Real before leaving for Mallorca while Esteban Cambiasso was also 16 when he joined from Argentinos Juniors. The Argentine would be loaned back to his native league on a couple of occasions before moving to Inter Milan on a free as a 24 year old. It would then ire Madrid to watch him lift the Champions League, alongside Eto’o and another Real-reject Wesley Sneijder, in the Bernebau in 2010.

Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo would all fail to make the cut in Madrid’s academy but total over £130 million in transfer fees over the past five years. Real would not reap that money, nor the brilliance of Eto’o, Cambiasso and Sneijder in their prime, and would instead have to keep subscribing to the ‘Galactico policy of constant investment in order to wrestle league and European dominance away from bitter rivals Barcelona.

Again, this would be irksome to Florentino Perez and Real, aware that Barca’s juggernaut under Pep Guardiola was founded on a group of supremely gifted academy products. How Madrid longed to replicate that, but simply found it beyond their reach. “You have to know how to manage a youth system, and Madrid aren’t doing that” said Negredo, who failed to make a single appearance for Real despite two spells with the club.

Whether Real will heed the lessons of the recent past and alter their approach in managing precious young talent will now come under intense scrutiny with Odegaard, as the club try desperately to nurture and mould their own Ballon D’Or winner instead of attempting to break the bank on one every summer.

But such are the finances already involved on a player unable to drink alcohol in his native country and only just out of compulsory education, the attention on the Norwegian will be microscopic. The private jets, the VIP treatment and the packed press-boxes, with all that comes ludicrously high expectation.

Odegaard will have to be very special to justify it all, anything less and the critics will find their voice. They may have compromised Odegaard’s career before it has even truly begun.



Written by Adam Gray

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