Sardar Azmoun: The Iranian Messi?

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Iran haven’t always been rated as one of football’s superpowers, but the nation has been on a bit of a rise recently. A very promising 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign in Brazil was followed up by an impressive Asian Cup performance this year, as they made the quarterfinal stage after topping their group with nine points. Indeed that Asian Cup performance raised many eyebrows, as a certain 20 year old stood out from the crowd.

That 20 year old is Sardar Azmoun, a talented and rather slightly built forward who has been ruffling a few feathers in the Russian Premier League. After moving into football at the age of nine he was offered his first professional contract with local side Sepahan, and although he didn’t made an appearance for the first team he did win the national title in 2012.

Despite never actually taking to the field two time Russian champions Rubin Kazan saw enough to take a punt on the 17 year old, and that’s where his rise really did begin. In his first season in Kazan head coach Kurban Berdyev opted to train him up with the youth team, and he eventually made his first team debut in July 2013 in a UEFA Europa League qualifier.

His first goal didn’t take long to come either, as in just his second game against Molde he found the net. That persuaded Rubin to give him more playing time, and he slowly became a first team mainstay scoring in the Russian league for the first time in October of the same year.

His gradual progress was already attracting attention from all around Europe, as Rubin came out and publically stated that he wasn’t for sale despite offers from the likes of Arsenal and Internazionale. Newspaper reports in Britain have been touting him as the ‘Iranian Messi’, and while that may be a bit steep, you can see the comparisons.

Just like his Argentinian counterpart Azmoun has a low sense of gravity, and is exceptional with the ball at his feet. A perfect example is his wonder goal against Qatar in the Asian Cup group stages, where he quite beautifully twisted away from his marker. His raw technical talent has pushed him to the fore of Asian talent, and just in January this year Liverpool and Tottenham were rumoured to having offered Rubin £5 million for his services.

And then something rather strange happened. In late February Rubin decided that for whatever reason he would be sent out on loan to struggling Rostov, a team that are languishing in 16th and last place of the Russian league. Why? Even I am struggling to work this one out. In Russia it made very few headlines, as few seemed bothered by the move.

The only problem in his game though, and a potential reason for the loan deal, is his lack of goals. Yes, he’s full of talent and ability, but this campaign he has hit the target only once (and that was back in August 2014). Rubin are a team that traditionally struggle for goals, and they will be hoping that Sardar can start scoring with more regularity with Rostov.

Even the fact that Rubin were prepared to loan him out shouldn’t put off potential buyers. He is still only 20 years old, and those flashes of potential which we have seen have been enough to show what he is capable of. The main question for him is when to make the move abroad.

In Russia you can progress to a certain extent, but to realise his potential to the full a move to Western Europe will be needed. Some players though go either too early and get lost somewhere along the line, or opt to go too late when nobody wants them. His technical ability would suit a team like Arsenal perfectly, however his small frame would make it difficult to compete in such a physically demanding league.

This summer will surely see more offers coming up, and if the price is right, Rubin will have no other option than to give up their hottest talent. The only issues that remain are when the right time to go is, and where is the best place to let his talent flourish. Two issues that are going to decide how big he is going to become.


Written by Shaun Nicolaides

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Mario Mandzukic: Simeone’s demands on the Croatian may see his time at Atletico cut short

A couple of hours after Diego Costa spearheaded a ruthless Chelsea to their League Cup final victory over Tottenham at Wembley, his former club Atletico Madrid fired a blank in a goalless stalemate with Sevilla. Manager Diego Simeone said he was happy with the point his team took from the Roman Sanchez Pizjuan, but it came as an indication of how targets have been lowered at Atletico who continue have their grip loosened on the La Liga title.

Simeone’s comments were significant, “We go game by game. It’s a good point because we compete against a direct rival” in referring to Sevilla who finished the game 7 points behind fourth-placed Valencia in the race for Champions League qualification. Having already lost 5 times, 1 more defeat than they managed in the whole of last season’s title-winning campaign, that is the fight Atletico are in now, contesting Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal for third and fourth place.

It is perhaps why Simeone started without a recognised centre-forward in the Pizjuan on Sunday evening, preferring to stymie Sevilla and earn a point that marginally benefited Atletico in the hunt for the top 4. Or maybe it was symptomatic of the problems left behind by Costa’s departure, the lack of a striker who can thrive in a counter-attacking style.

Fernando Torres has been a handy addition in January but he is by no means a long-term solution, and Atletico improved when he emerged off the bench with his direct brand of running. Though it was telling that he was introduced fifteen minutes before Mario Mandzukic, the £19 million acquisition of last summer who arrived as Costa’s replacement.

It was Mandzukic’s first occasion as a sub in this campaign after previously starting the 21 games he has been available for, and in Seville it was clear that the Croat hadn’t reacted well. After coming on in the 75th minute, the striker failed to track a runner on the right-side as Sevilla launched an attack and it was an action that Simeone was sure to notice. “We need people who understand that nobody is more important than the team” said the manager in the post-match press conference, possibly aiming such criticism at his striker.

After also losing David Villa in the same summer as Costa, in doing so relinquishing the partnership that linked together for 40 goals last season, Simeone acknowledged that to replace them it would necessitate a shift in style. In came Antoine Griezmann from Real Sociedad and he was charged with linking midfield to attack and stretching the play with his electric pace.

After initially struggling to adapt to Simeone’s demands for high intensity and energy, the Frenchman is now a regular in the side, playing just behind Mandzukic. Griezmann’s absence from the bigger games earlier in the season as he struggled to adapt to Simeone’s demands should come as a warning to Mandzukic that should he continue with his passive attitude, passengers will not be tolerated at the Vincente Calderon.

It was a problem that simply never would have existed with Costa, their relentless attacking force who constantly epitomised the intense, unrelenting work-rate that Simeone demands from his team.

Now missing the athleticism and power that Costa provided in the counter-attacking approach that worked so effectively last term, Atletico have had to use a more patient approach with intricate passing and a high-defensive line to play to the strengths of the less mobile Mandzukic.

As a consequence they have conceded more, scored less and have 6 points less than they did at this stage last season, with the gaps in defence bigger and the attack far less potent than it was with Costa leading the line. The Spanish international had hit 21 La Liga goals by this stage last season compared to Mandzukic who, while he hasn’t been a complete disaster in front of goal with 20 goals in all competitions, only has 12.

One harks back to the words Simeone spoke in his first news conference as Atletico coach, and his desire to see an “aggressive team, one that is strong, committed and quick on the break.” The Argentine will be aware that hasn’t quite been the case since Costa departed and Mandzukic came in.

More worryingly for Mandzukic, Atletico have already started to be linked with other strikers, Edinson Cavani the most notable as the Uruguayan seeks to end his troubled spell with PSG. Such is Simeone’s determination to land Cavani, it has been reported in French newspaper L’Equipe that signing the 28 year old is a requisite for the manager putting pen to paper on his own new contract, for which talks have recently begun.

While Simeone has made no secret of his desire to remain at the Calderon it seems like he is set on reuniting his team with a lethal South American attacking powerhouse, hence his ultimatum for Cavani.

Atletico will now have to demand the best form from Mandzukic as they aim to fend off Valencia for third place as they aim to avoid the uncertainty of a Champions League play-off, but with Cavani’s shadow now looming and a €50 million price-tag slapped on the Uruguayan, it could be Mandzukic, with Simeone losing patience on the post-Costa experiment, being sold to make way.


Written by Adam Gray

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Infographic: 10 of the Premier League’s most expensive teenage stars

Below is an infographic 10 of the Premier League’s most expensive teenage stars by the team at HowToBet4Free and designed by NeoMam Studios.


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Mohamed Salah: The Egyptian Messi grabbing his chance to prove his worth at Fiorentina

Chasing a Champions League spot, Inter Milan backed Roberto Mancini in January with the loan signings of Lukas Podolski, Davide Santon and Xherdan Shaqiri as well as the permanent signing of Marcelo Brozovic for £2.5 million from Dinamo Zagreb as Inter looked to close the gap on a flagging Lazio in third. Fiorentina meanwhile, sitting in sixth as the January window closed, were weakened by the loss of Juan Cuadrado who moved to Chelsea for €33 million.

Mohamed Salah would come in on loan as a makeweight but it was expected that La Viola, now bereft of Cuadrado’s energy and dynamism on the flank, would fade away in the race for third while Inter’s strengthening would see them mount a significant challenge. However that script hasn’t quite been followed, with Fiorentina now unbeaten in their last 8 and now just 3 points off third-placed Napoli after beating Inter in the San Siro at the weekend with a goal from Salah.

It just had to be him. The Egyptian scoring has become a regular sight in Italy since he made the move as Jose Mourinho’s bargaining chip in the move for Cuadrado. The goal against Inter was the winger’s 4th goal in the 6 games since moving to Florence and his winner followed a trend of netting vital goals; openers in the win over Sassuolo and the draw with an in-form Torino, plus the decisive second in the 2-0 Europa League victory over Tottenham Hotspur.

It was no wonder why manager Vincenzo Montella leapt at the chance to introduce Salah, whom he started on the bench following his mid-week excursions, for the injured Kouma Babacar once the Senegalese striker limped off with injury in the 13th minute. “I wanted to make the most of Salah’s extraordinary form that is why I chose him ahead of Alberto Gilardino” he said, “I know that when a player is going through that kind of form, it’s the duty of a coach to encourage it.”

Encouragement is a commodity Salah didn’t really receive from Jose Mourinho who would hand him just 18 appearances in the 12 months following his £11 million move from Basel in January 2013. The 22 year old would be limited to only 4 starts for Chelsea this season, in the two meetings with Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League and one against Shrewsbury in the League Cup which first exposed the signs of Mourinho’s growing frustration with the Egyptian.

His fourth, in the embarrassing FA Cup capitulation to Bradford City, was the final straw and together with Andre Schurrle, he was packed off as a new stringent Chelsea made room for the £26 million to be spent on landing Cuadrado.

Cuadrado’s relentless energy and work-rate made him appealing to Mourinho as those traits made the Colombian defensively diligent as well as an effective attacking option. Both Schurrle and Salah failed to offer enough in the defensive side of their games and so Mourinho’s patience tired. The difference in dynamic between Salah and Cuadrado has seen a small shift from Montella’s 3-5-1-1 to a 4-3-3 which has given the Egyptian more scope to focus on attack. The January recruitment of Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino to accompany the likes of Mario Gomez, Josip Ilicic and Babacar in a talented front-line has also helped Salah to settle in seamlessly.

After the victory over Spurs, Montella was perhaps being mischievous when he reflected on January’s swap deal. “Who did better out of the Cuadrado exchange?” he asked, “Fiorentina earned a lot of money and, on the pitch, they are similar players.” Salah’s scant defensive contributions suggest they are not that similar, but his new manager is left under no illusion where the Egyptian is most dangerous. “Salah is a player that, even if he takes some breaks, is devastating over 40 or 50 yards,” said Montella.

The 22 year old has been operating mainly from a preferred position on the left-side for La Viola, while in the San Siro he showed the confidence and fitness to produce an impressive display as an emergency centre-forward. Montella, who knows a thing or two about playing as a forward, said “I think he can play any position in attack. He attacks the space well and is very good at getting straight into the tempo of a game when coming off the bench.” For a team that has struggled with injuries to Giuseppe Rossi and Gomez, in Salah they may have stumbled upon an unexpected solution.

It has been reported that the manager has instructed his directors to keep Salah at the club, with €1 million the price to keep him at the club on loan for next season while a further €18 million is the agreed buy-out clause due in the summer of 2016.

If the Egyptian continues the resurgent form he has started with in Florence, it will turn out to be a bargain.


Written by Adam Gray

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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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Lars Bender: Is the Leverkusen star the answer to Arsenal’s holding midfield dilemma?

Arsenal have long been searching for a defensive midfielder and recent rumors suggest that they are in pole position to sign Bayer Leverkusen’s Lars Bender.

The 25 year old German international and twin brother of Borussia Dortmund’s star Sven Bender has been enjoying a good spell at the Bay Arena attracting attention from major sides like Barcelona. But because of the transfer ban the Catalan side is facing, the Emirates seem to be the ideal destination for Leverkusen’s co-captain.

Lars Bender joined Bayer Leverkusen on August 18, 2009 from 1860 München. This season he has made 24 appearances in all competitions for Leverkusen scoring one goal and assisting two more, which is not bad for a defensive midfielder.

He has also helped his team progress to the last 16 stage of the UEFA Champions League in which they will face last year’s finalists Atletico Madrid and they are also fighting for a Champions League spot in the Bundesliga. Lars’ form and rise grabbed the attention of Germany’s national team manager Joachim Loew who handed him his international debut on September 6, 2021 and has since made 19 appearances, scoring four goals in the process.

Bender is a key player at the center of the pack for his team. His ability to drop back and help his central defenders alongside his amazing skill and composure with the ball makes him a good candidate for Arsene Wenger, who had to rely on youngster Francis Coquelin recently after Mathieu Flamini’s unreliable performances. It’s rumored that Wenger is willing to pay 22 million Euros in the summer for Bender.

Besides his ability with the ball, Bender is also a good team leader and never seems shy of making important decisions on the pitch. Also, his aggressive play and neat tackles can only help him settle into the Premier League quickly. That is probably why he is wanted by Arsenal and why he just might be the right signing for the North London club.


Written by Brook Genene

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Juan Cuadrado: Mourinho continues to operate under the scope of FFP but finds a diamond in the Colombian star

When Jose Mourinho returned to media commitments after his silence before and after the 1-1 draw with Manchester City last week, in protest to Diego Costa’s suspension for stamping in the League Cup semi-final with Liverpool, he would turn his attentions to City and the Financial Fair Play regulations that he believes they are in breach of. In a provocative mood after a recent period in which his relations with the media have notably soured, the Portuguese would ask for a points deduction to hit teams that fail to comply with FFP.

Of course that comes with Mourinho and Chelsea sitting in a comfortable position in relation to FFP, with the club recently tightening up their transfer policy to adhere to UEFA’s rules. “It was explained the profile of club Mr Abramovich wants, with total respect to the FFP rules. To keep the team strong, with the possibility to compete against the ones financially more powerful or against the ones who don’t care and don’t respect FFP, we had to work very hard” said Mourinho. “In my area, I tried to do that, analysing the players we can sell and those we can buy”.

Since he re-took control of the London club in the summer of 2013, Mourinho has recouped well over £150 million through selling Juan Mata, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, David Luiz and most recently Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah. They have helped to balance out luxurious forays into the market to sign Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas for a combined total of £62 million, but the new approach is markedly different to the past transfer windows that Arsene Wenger was quick to remember in response to Mourinho’s FFP criticisms, the ones where David Luiz and Fernando Torres would be acquired for £72 million with very little coming in return.

Mourinho calls the new policy of sensible business and the close analysis of players to ensure they are buying and selling the correct players for the correct amount of money “a challenge” and it is one that will inevitably provide errors as well as vindication for the Portuguese’s judgement along the way. For instance, for every Lukaku sold, struggling for form in the Premier League after joining Everton permanently for £28 million, there will be a De Bruyne, now leading Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga challenge to Bayern Munich with 11 goals and 13 assists since his £17 million move to Germany.

Schurrle, who was one of Mourinho’s first signings after returning to Stamford Bridge, has now followed De Bruyne to Wolfsburg after failing to hold down a regular place in a side that has its attacking spots inhabited by the likes of Willian, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Diego Costa. With Chelsea’s strong record on injuries enabling Mourinho to remain consistent on his team selection, it has been difficult to get back into favour once injured or omitted from the side, regardless of name or reputation. Hence the sales of Mata and Schurrle, a World Cup winner who was signed for £18 million just 18 months earlier, such is Mourinho’s demanding nature and ruthless obedience to FFP.

With Mourinho bringing in Juan Cuadrado from Fiorentina for a fee of £27 million, the German was the one to bite the bullet as Chelsea attempted to balance their finances, together with Mohamed Salah who has moved in the opposite direction to Florence in order to facilitate the move.

Since being signed by Mourinho last January, Salah made just 13 Premier League appearances (only 6 of them starts) and the £11 million spent to get the Egyptian winger can be bracketed as erroneous. Boasting two impressive performances against Chelsea in the Champions League earlier that season and a record of exciting form for Basel, it can be argued Chelsea’s indulgence was justified, but it is indicative of the risk taken when attempting to find astute bargains when restricted by new rules on expenditure.

Fiorentina hold the option to extend Salah’s stay in the summer and manager Vincenzo Montella has welcomed what the Egyptian winger will bring to his team, following his debut as a second-half substitute in the 3-2 win over Atalanta at the weekend. “Salah is an unpredictable and talented player” opined Montella, but that wasn’t enough for Mourinho who cherishes high-work rate and defensive contribution as well as attacking craft and guile in attack.

Failure to comply with those demands have also previously done for Lukaku and Mata but in Cuadrado, an all-round winger who has often played right-back during his time in Italy, Mourinho has seemingly found an option that possesses pace, trickery and vision as well as defensive diligence. Montella noted as such when bemoaning his loss, comparing him with the incoming Salah and saying “from a defensive standpoint, Cuadrado guarantees us a lot more than Salah. Cuadrado is a player that has always arrived with a smile and given everything to Fiorentina.” It means that Mourinho can now call on an alternative to Willian on the right flank without sacrificing the defensive graft the Brazilian offers.

Arriving on the back of an impressive World Cup showing for Colombia and a productive half-season in Italy that has yielded 4 goals and 4 assists, the 26 year old will bring an extra dimension to Chelsea’s attack with his directness and searing pace. According to Opta, the 413 completed dribbles Cuadrado has completed since making his Serie A debut in 2009 is 28 above any other player and it suggests the type of fearless attacker Chelsea have brought in.

His tireless work-rate sees him clock between 10km and 12km per match and that is a trait that Cuadrado, speaking after he made a 10-minute cameo debut in Saturday’s 1-2 win at Aston Villa, owes to a recurring nightmare which sees a witch constantly chasing him.

With Mourinho trying and failing to address his squad’s lack of genuine attacking strength in depth last January, the exciting Cuadrado looks like he could be the answer, all for a modest £26 million. They will just have to hope that witch continues to chase him.


Written by Adam Gray

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Everton and Aaron Lennon: A match in need of resurgence

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Aaron Lennon appeared glum as he posed for photographs with the Everton shirt he will be wearing for the rest of the season after his deadline day loan move. Everton sit twelfth in the table as they meander through a troubled campaign, boasting just 2 wins from their last 11 games and facing the potential loss of Kevin Mirallas, the brilliant Belgian winger who looks set to move on before entering the final year of his contract in the summer.

Lennon now has the opportunity to suggest to Roberto Martinez that he is indeed happy at Goodison Park, at fault of a lousy photographer, and can be a long-term option when the Toffees come to the hurdle of replacing Mirallas. The 4 month audition is likely to begin with Saturday evening’s Merseyside derby and it will present the 27 year old with the chance to rejuvenate his career after stagnating at Tottenham under Mauricio Pochettino.

Lennon has made just 3 Premier League starts from 9 appearances for Tottenham this season as Pochettino has preferred the habit of cutting-inside the full-back, prevalent in the likes of Andros Townsend, Erik Lamela and Christian Eriksen, but not in Lennon, the throwback to the conventional style of charging at the defender on the outside and sending over crosses.

Electrifying pace has always been the most distinctive weapon in Lennon’s armoury, a trait that convinced Sven Goran Eriksson to take the winger up to the 2006 World Cup with England at the tender age of 19. 12 months earlier and Lennon had just sealed a £1 million from Leeds, with whom he became the youngest player to ever appear in a Premier League match, to Spurs and in his debut season with the London club he was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year, attracting even more hype to his talent. “We thought he was going to be an absolute superstar,” said Jamie Carragher on training with the teenager with England in 2006.

The early part of his career at White Hart Lane continued on that upward curve, receiving nominations for the PFA Young Player of the Year again in 2006-07 and 2008-09, the latter season also seeing him pick up Tottenham’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year gongs, as well as the supporter’s Young Player of the Year. A new five-year contract came in March alongside a recall to Fabio Capello’s England squad in the same week, with 2009 proving to be his most productive year with England as he earned 6 caps.

Lennon was then a young player in red-hot form, pushing for a regular spot with his country and was also a certified favourite with the Spurs fans, a point where he would find his career hit a zenith then betray his promise like the unforgiving nature of football so often can. It is indicative of his career’s stagnation that despite the level he was at during the latter end of the last decade, the 2008 League Cup remains his only professional honour to date.

Groin injuries would tamper his 2009-2010 campaign and though he made the cut for Capello’s squad for the 2010 World Cup, starts in the opening draws with USA and Algeria would be overshadowed by the collective destitution of England’s showing. Only 2 caps have followed since the debacle of South Africa as he has struggled with consistency for Spurs.

Rapid speed has always been a deceiving factor of Lennon’s play, over the course of his Premier League career he has developed a potent final-product and has registered 45 assists for Spurs in domestic competition, a figure only bettered by Darren Anderton’s 67. Over the past two seasons, he has recorded better crossing accuracy and more successful crosses than anybody at the club.

Last season Spurs’ interim coach Tim Sherwood would praise Lennon’s defensive contribution. “Until you’re in the job as a manager, you don’t appreciate him” he said, “what he does out of possession probably makes him the best defensive player we have got on the pitch. He is so diligent.” Those attributes will certainly appeal to Martinez at Everton, a coach that values intent in pressing and defending from the front as much as technical ability, as he requires his new player to subscribe to the club’s work-ethic as they ploy to climb from mid-table to compete for Europa League qualification.

To do that Martinez will be aware that Everton will need to be more productive going forward as all of the current top 8 have managed more than their 31 goals, and Lennon will be key in providing support to Mirallas, Ross Barkley, Steven Naismith and most importantly Romelu Lukaku, the £30 million striker who finds himself still facing the jury after managing just 7 goals since moving from Chelsea in the summer. Lennon will be required to provide solid cover to right-back Seamus Coleman as well as bomb forward to join in with attacks.

His lightning pace will allow him to do that, with the blistering run to set up Peter Crouch for Tottenham’s goal vs AC Milan in 2011 in the San Siro still fresh in the memory. That is the level that Lennon will be aiming to return to as he aims to stop being the forgotten man at Spurs. Everton will be desperately hoping he can come good on that aim.


Written by Adam Gray

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Paul Pogba: The Octopus goes from strength to strength with Juventus, but it’s unclear how long it will last

With the January transfer window atypically slow-moving, speculation was inevitably rife when Paul Pogba announced that he still “loves Manchester United” and that he “would never speak ill” of the club that let him go to Juventus for just £800,000 in compensation back in 2012.

With United now tapping into their gigantic revenue streams in order to again become a major force in the transfer market, Pogba has emerged as a possible target to solve their seemingly endless search for a dynamic box-to-box midfielder who belongs with the elite of the game.

His Juve team-mates however believe they are wasting their time trying to undo such costly misjudgement and believe United are currently paying for their misjudgement, looking on in green-envy as the Italian side reap the services of a supremely gifted footballer.

“For whatever reasons they chose not to give him a chance - and that is a mistake they will have to live with now,” said his midfield partner Andrea Pirlo while goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has also spoken of his bemusement regarding how easily Pogba was allowed to leave. “We all asked ourselves, after seeing him train with us for the third or the fourth time, when he was still unknown, whether the people in Manchester couldn’t see very well” he said.

Since seeing right-back Rafael picked ahead of him for a game against Blackburn in December 2011-which Pogba says was his cue to leave Old Trafford- the Frenchman has won 2 league titles with Juventus as well as 2 Coppa Italia trophies. He won the under-20 World Cup with his country in 2013, a tournament in which he was voted best player, before emerging with the seniors to earn 22 caps and a headline role in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, where he won FIFA’s award for best young player.

“Young” is the significant word with Pogba. It is startling to be reminded of his 21 years when he is galloping through opposition midfields, brushing off all-comers and dancing past them with sublime technique, all measured with a stunning maturity that belies his raw age.

The youngest among this year’s list of Ballon d’Or nominations, he was described as “imperious” by the Guardian in last year’s run down of the best young prospects in Europe and has won both Tuttosport’s Golden Boy and Guerin Sportivo’s Bravo awards in successive years. In the case of the latter, he became the first Juventus player to do so since Alessandro Del Piero in 1996.

Pogba certainly has the capacity to replicate Del Piero’s achievements in Turin but it is unclear if he will be with the Old Lady long enough to do so with manager Massimiliano Allegri admitting that an offer in the region of £75 million would be hard to reject and that “everybody has a price”.

With a handful of clubs around Europe, both able to afford that huge fee as well as subscribing to Allegri’s view that the midfielder could develop into the best in the world, it should not come as a surprise if Juventus, in a league that can no longer rival England and Spain in attracting the established stars of the game, were to see Pogba plucked away from their clutches.

The growing impact of Financial Fair Play means he will only be available to a select number of clubs but the Frenchman’s agent Mino Raiola says they will have to reach astronomical sums if they were to land the midfielder. “Paul is the most expensive player of them all. He would cost more than Messi and Ronaldo” he said. “In the world of football, few can afford to sign him. If Paul was in the market today, he would be the world’s most expensive footballer.”

Pogba signed a new five year deal to treble his £23,000 weekly wage as recently as October but Raiola has drummed up interest from the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, PSG and United by refusing to rule out a summer move for his client. There is a five-year deal with Juventus and what June and July brings, we will see in June and July”, he said, possibly assured that Juve’s struggles in Europe, having failed to go past the quarter-finals of the Champions League despite cantering to successive Serie A titles over the past 2 years, will see his party hold the aces in negotiations.

Nicknamed “Paul the Octopus” in Italy for his long, strapping legs that resemble tentacles when he is running, there are inevitable comparisons to former French powerhouse Patrick Vieira, who used supreme fitness to combine strong defensive qualities with a creative talent in attack.

Pogba, who has 6 goals and has averaged 1.5 created chances and 2.2 shots per game as well as 2.4 tackles per game for Juventus in Serie A, a rate just short of Chelsea’s destroyer Nemanja Matic to provide some context, shows what an all-round force between both boxes the Frenchman is becoming as he grows into his fearsomely athletic 6ft 2 inch frame.

He was again superb in the weekend’s 2-0 win over Chievo, scoring a fine goal before having a role in the build-up to the second, also producing his own highlight-reel of skill as he toyed with Chievo’s hapless players who struggled to get the ball away from him. A total of 25 chances created this season, together with the 47/66 dribbles he has completed which stands in excess of 70%, certainly conveys a likeliness to Vieira, to whom comparisons started as early as his debut in a Manchester United shirt as a 16 year old back in 2009.

Except the stream-train that charges his way from deep in his own half to the edge of the opposition penalty area, carrying the ball with poise and elegance and is marked by a distinctive gold streak in the middle of his hair, is now in the black and white of Juventus and not the red of Manchester United.

It is unlikely he will ever end up back there, but a long-term future for the Old Lady doesn’t seem to be on the cards either. Allegri’s message to Juventus’ fans over the 21 year old’s fate is clear; ‘For now, let’s just enjoy having him.’


Written by Adam Gray

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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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