Tuesday 30 October 2018

Perhaps Perez is the Real Problem

Football must be baffling to a civil engineer as logic never seems to apply anywhere or at any time. So, it is for Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid President, who has axed his manager just four months after disrupting the Spanish national side on the eve of the 2018 world cup, by employing their manager at the time, Julen Lopetegui. The same man has proved a failure in less than four months to Perez, who after seeing his club suffer a 5-1 thrashing in the El Clasico at the Nou Camp in Sunday, decided to cut his losses. Which is just a figure of speech given Lopetegui has had to be paid an estimated €18m to end his three-year contract prematurely. 

At a time when Perez thought he could enjoy the fruits of his labours and that fourth Champions League title in five years, his world has been rocked by Cristiano’s demand to leave, his manager Zinedine Zidane’s resignation and yet another humiliation by arch rivals Barcelona, with the club entering another rocky period under his tenure. This latest upheaval resurrecting that infamous Perez period in history when Real Madrid hired a new manager every season for about ten consecutive seasons. An instability that was marked by two just successful periods of three years or so; the first under Vicente del Bosque and the second under Zinedine Zidane who also brought nothing but trophies to the club. 

Now, in 2018 Perez knows any new potential manager will see the squad needs a major revamp, a costly exercise the club do not want at this time, particularly on the foot of the pay-out given to Lopetegui to rescind his services. With a large number of players also on the wrong side of thirty any incoming boss needs to sell before buying. Plus, assimilate the volatility of employment at club under Perez, who during the day runs a very successful construction company that works like clockwork but at night struggles with the standard unpredictability of football. 

There is also a whiff at Real, following so much silverware, of an over powerful dressing room at Santiago Bernabeu that under Sergio Ramos is now getting more vocal. A similar syndrome which in years gone led to surprise departures of legends and captains such as Fernando Hierro, Raul and Davo Suker. If Ramos recent public comments about Antonio Conte are any indication, saying respect ‘must be earned’ no matter who you are after the El Clasico, this is an early warning sign of trouble ahead 

Indeed, former Real Madrid manager, John Toshack experienced that power at play in his time and relied on his lengthy track record at Liverpool under Bill Shankly, his record-breaking years at Swansea City, Real Sociedad and Besiktas to box clever with some of his bigger dressing rooms superstars; Pedrag Mijatovic, Clarence Seedorf, Oscar Ruggeri and Emilio Butragueno. Ironically his third-choice goalkeeper at that time was Julen Lopetegui.

Although one senses already that Perez may have cooled on the idea of Conte to avoid untimely dressing room tension and opening another battle front at this time. But if the stories of Conte’s toughness are to be believed it is clear the Madrid squad feel they are above that these days and will decide who their own boss will be. Which bodes well for temporary appointment, Santiago Scolari, and guarantees that players will do their best over the coming two weeks of his trial to make him look good and the right man for the job. 

Unlike Lopetegui whose fate was sealed the moment he  was forced to leave the Spanish national job in the manner he did a few days before the start of 2018 World Cup. He also had no chance in the wake of Zidane success and was almost expected to win every game from the start. How Lopetegui thought he could he walk the line under Pérez leadership after just renewing his contract with Spain shows a lack of clear thinking. That failure in judgement now sees him out a second job after a bad run of results. 

If Perez is good at firing he is much less able to hire successfully and will now resort to the available internal candidate, Santiago Solari, as no other alternatives are immediately available, given Pochettino’s exit clause is astronomical, and Roberto Martínez only rumoured to be in the mix and Conte his original candidate entangled until very recently in a dispute with his employers at Stamford Bridge. Or if now available is apparently not the players preferred choice. 

Anyway, if the Italian is the choice he will demand some new additions to the squad, particularly at the back where Sergio Ramos is clearly passed his sell by date, and where Rafael Varanne remains far from the finished article his promise led all to believe. Yet the lure of Madrid always wins out. Rafa Benitez jumped at the chance to return home to the Casa Blanca but only lasted a total of eight games. His demise leading to the promotion of Zinedine Zidane by default and against all odds. 
Ironically, Zidane then proved himself as one of the most successful managers ever at the club along with Vincente del Bosque, also another internal promotion in his time. Yet the latter paid it for by losing his job despite winning the Champions League. Similarly, Zidane was a choice that surprised all, as the Frenchman seemed more at home in backroom roles. However, by default proved an inspired choice. 

But his unexpected resignation last June after securing the third successive Champions League trophy shows that working under Perez is a health hazard. Catching his president totally wrong wrong footed leaving Perez to plunder the national team to hire Lopetegui. 

Once again Perez finds himself without a plan and searching for a new candidate. 


Monday 10 September 2018

Martin.. Give us Some Memories

For a nation currently ranked 59th in the world we are not short of ambition in terms of our footballing expectations at international level. An expectation based on very little facts, too much imagination and an excess of hope. None of which was dampened seemingly by the events in the EURO 2012 when the Republic of Ireland was drawn in the 16 nation tournament in the same group as Croatia, Italy and Spain. The telling facts showed our players far inferior in every aspect with the telling results in each of those matches confirming the same. Leaving the apologist’s extolling the idea that against the world champions little more could have been expected. Or the rationale that Italy were world champions in 2006. With some more tame remarks when explaining away the Croatia result. 

All a far cry from that potentially great night against Spain in Suwon when against ten men Ireland missed a chance to clinch a quarterfinal place. Only to lose on penalties in the end to a scabby one from Spain's normally majestic Gaizko Mendieta, along with a miss from the usually reliable Matt Holland. Even more remarkable as it was on foot of the now tired football civil war tale that was Saipan. 

None of which saved Mick McCarthy from an ignominious exit in the end as exaggerated national expectations could not be met in the EURO2004 campaign and he was replaced by the youth miracle worker, Brian Kerr. An appointment that filled the ballroom in The Shelbourne Hotel as it was hailed as a defining moment in Irish soccer with one of the nation's own taking the reins. 

But as history recalls, a Thierry Henry goal yet again - this time in Lansdowne Road - ended that dream with Kerr now living out in punditryland far removed from the beautiful game. Along with Eoin Hand who had his time in the 1980’s with the national team in those twilight years prior to Jack Charlton and the Holy Grail of EURO 1988 - all courtesy of Gary McKay’s unlikely goal for Scotland in the winter of 1987 against Bulgaria. 

Which for those who fans who marched to the Neckarstadion in June 1988 along the banks of the Rhine was irrelevant as it offered a chance to do battle against an England of Peter Shilton; Trevor Stevens; Kenny Sansom; Neil Webb; Mark Wright; Tony Adams; Bryan Robson; Chris Waddle; Peter Beardsley and Gary Lineker. All household names to Irish football viewers and all big enough thanks to Match of the Day to shiver your timbers.

But such is the beauty of sport that Ray Houghton ended that national sense of fear, as he did again in 1994, allowing Republic of Ireland fans suddenly to believe. Perhaps too much.... 

So much so that Ronnie Whelan's shinned goal against Russia a few days later - which put Ireland into the lead - nearly sent the nation into orbit. A place we do not seem to have returned from since the Charlton team reached the quarterfinals in Italia 90, courtesy of Packie Bonner's penalty save in Genoa. And David O’ Leary’s magic goal a few moments later. 

The euphoria only to be repeated in Giants Stadium in New York four years later when the might of another footballing superpower was again undone by a cheeky goal from Houghton. Ably supported it has to be said by some cataclysmic defensive work from Paul McGrath – and the sorcerer’s apprentice at the time, Phil Babb. The legend that was Jack though was finally unravelled at Anfield one cold December night in a play-off with Holland for the EURO 96. The defeat leaving man fans dreams extinguished. 

For a time it was a taste of real life as the Republic struggled to find their way back to the big time. Something Mick McCarthy finally set right in 2001 winning the play off against Iran which took the Republic of Ireland to Japan and Korea. A major tournament for the first time in eight years and only the third world cup. 

It was a result that reignited Irish fans sense of entitlement with a trip to the far blue Asian yonder which saw them squeeze out the group and into the knockout stages. Despite being drawn with Cameroon Saudi Arabia and Germany. Only to fall against Spain that hot summer night in Korea.

With the era of Stephen Staunton now almost air brushed out of Irish footballing folklore, it proved a sad demise for one of the longest serving premier league players of his era. Who with the now departed Bobby Robson compounded the expectations for the fans even when faced with the might of Germany at Croke Park. Having been close to the situation at the time it was sad to see an Irish legend undo the goodwill that had been earned over decades at Liverpool and Aston Villa. But such is football, and the likes of minnows Cyprus, that his name is probably only equalled in many ways by Kerr who did much to put the youth game on the world map. But was unable to transfer similar success at senior level as those needed results could not be delivered.

As FIFA rightly reminded the Republic of Ireland this week with the ranking, the nation is way down on a global scale. No matter what Sky Sports tell us about the Premier League week in and week out, Irish players are increasingly less relevant at the top clubs. Which in a sense is a red herring given that 65% of teams are populated with non-English players, as the top teams barely reliant on players from these islands. Be they Irish Scottish Welsh or English such is the transfer game now. Excluding the unprecedented Gareth Bale move to Real Madrid. 

Indeed, long gone are those Arsenal days on Match of the Day of Liam Brady, Dave O’Leary and Frank Stapleton. Or even the golden oldies of Gerry Daly, Ashley Grimes at Manchester United. Or Steve Staunton, Ray Houghton and John Aldridge at Liverpool. Such is the game now that Irish players are much further down the food chain.

Hence Giovanni Trapattoni was limited in his options. Or more limited than some previous national managers who benefited from a raft of gifted players that seemed to prove a seismic force on any given day. The dismantling of Holland on September 1st 2001 a vivid example of the possible dream with Ireland as the team undid Edwin Van der Sar, Jaap Stam, Philip Cocu, Marco Van Bommel, Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Albeit the nation came very close at Stade de France in 2009 against France in the second leg play off- had it not been for the hand of God. Or Monsieur Thierry Henry that night. 

However that was the sole night of elation that Il Trap could rustle up over five years, depriving the national sport those moments that live long in the memory. Instead proffering a litany of score draws and vacuous victories that were boring to behold and testing to follow. Even that rainy night in Bari against Italy, which could have been a cracker had we the courage to chase the win. But such is the defensive mind-set that colours Trapattoni's view of the game it proves diametrically opposed to the football so prevalent today. Or that played by Jupp Heynckes, Pep Guardiola, or Juergen Klopp of BVB Dortmund. Their philosophy being, we will always score more goals than the opposition and won't obsess with defending. 

Thankfully Champions League at the knockout stages is about that and it is no surprise that the likes of Juventus struggle in the tournament every year. Clearly the Italian ways work in Serie A, even if it is not as pronounced these days as was practiced by Il Trap during his years there. 

In truth Irish football followers live for those days in Stuttgart 1988, Genoa 1990, New York 1994 or Ibaraki 2002. Games where the impossible happens even against the footballing aristocracy. With Trapattoni there were none of those moments which most other managers this century were able to produce at some stage. As were the many ones that made 1966 World Cup winner Jack Charlton the most loved English man in these parts 

Now for those of who know little about Martin O’Neill, he too helped bring such moments to his people as a player. In fact Northern Ireland pre-empted the Chariton era in Valencia in 1982, when Gerry Armstrong scored the goal that shocked the hosts Spain in their opening world cup match. A goal that sent O'Neill’s team into the second stage group where they were unhinged by a France side that contained the best In Europe at the time; Dominique Rochteau, Michel Platini, Alain Giresse, François Battiston, Marius Tresor, Manuel Amoros and Jean Tigana. 

Nonetheless Northern Ireland gave their fans a lift that has yet to be equalled, despite also qualifying for Mexico 1986.

One has to believe that running through his mind when deciding about the FAI job is that he could give the Republic of Ireland one of those moments again. Or at least get the players to believe in such a moment,

Don’t forget too with Nottingham Forest he also won two Champions League trophies beating Malmo in 1978 and then Kevin Keegan’s HSV Hamburg in 1979. Memories that fans in Sherwood Forest still talk about.


OSM - All rights reserved

Quotes - Martin O'Neill

You cannot afford to rely on history, you have to make it.

Martin O'Neill

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Manchester United Now Need ZZ

Felix the Cat was a well-known comic strip cartoon in cinema in the early part of the 20th Century and featured the friendly feline in some entertaining adventures. Becoming very popular with movie goers during the silent movie era and then tragically faced a rather swift demise with the arrival of sound in the mid-1920’s. The arrival of new technology brought competition in the shape of a mouse and company called Disney. 

In Portugal in 1963 there was the arrival of José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix on the other side of the River Tagus from Lisbon, in the municipality of Setubal, a son to professional footballer Felix, and his wife Maria, the proud owner of one international cap for his country. Although his son Jose, would also play the game he was not good enough to make it in the professional ranks preferring as a result to focus on coaching at an early age instead. Manchester United is now Mourinho’s eighth club as manager. In the wake of United’s defeat to Brighton it looks as if he may need use of his ninth life as the club CEO, has emerged from the woodwork to offer the dreaded vote of confidence. 

However, it all should be of no surprise as Manchester United’s hiring record has been inconsistent historically in terms of managers. The exceptions being Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. The latter spared being shown the door by a handful when a run of 6 losses suddenly saw a win against Nottingham Forest and triggered a run to the FA Cup Final. The subsequent victory over Crystal Palace, albeit in the replay, was the start of Fergie’s career as we know it and now a major part of the club’s history. It all coming after three fruitless years with Ferguson under intense pressure as the 1989/90 season progressed as the club were without a league title since 1967. 

So, the FA Cup became the route to salvation as in those days as it also automatically earned qualification in the European Cup Winners Cup. Trophies then followed thick and fast as Ferguson captured the Premier League 11 times, the European Cup twice, the European Cup Winners' Cup, the Club World Cup, the FA Cup five more times and the League Cup four times. Although that legacy will never be surpassed any manager arriving at Old Trafford needs to live with that weight of history on his shoulders. 

Unfortunately, the real problem was that after such a lengthy stewardship there was a lack of succession planning, So Manchester United since 2013 are still trying to deal with post Fergie era and now on their fourth manager since he left. Indeed, living a turbulence more akin to a club such as Real Madrid, who following the summary departure of Vicente Bosque, saw ten managers in as many years arrive at the club. Yet despite all that upheaval – they since made modern footballing history - by winning three consecutive Champions League trophies.

A sign of the changing times of a post-Mourinho era at the Bernabeu as those victories came courtesy of just 2 and a half management changes; Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benítez and Zinedine Zidane. Albeit Rafa lasted only a quarter of season before he was let go with Zidane then promoted from within. A formula that made Liverpool Club successful when those in the famed boot room each stood up in the post Bill Shankly years. That saw Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Ronnie Moran Roy Evans, Graeme Souness and Sir Kenny Dalglish

Indeed, it proved an internal production line that enabled Liverpool deliver success and minimise upheaval for decades. Something Manchester United failed to value once they went public in 2012 where the day to day footballing things ceased to be of the same value perhaps and big business, leveraged debt, commercial sponsorship became the main currency of choice. The commercial needs to reduce the debt of the Glaser family meaning financial investment types were the new Directors, and the arrival of as Ed Woodward in the top roles. 

Perhaps underinformed about those subtle workings of a football club perhaps but the key commercial decisionmaker all the same. With the hiring of Jose Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix one of those errors viewed from a neutral corner. The fact that Mourinho has straddled periods at both Real Madrid and United shows how far the man from Setubal has travelled in his eighteen years. On the other hand, it also highlights the contradictions of the man and his behaviour over the years, despite all the accumulated silverware over that time.

On the field he has more than proven his ability. Now as those days fade into history the fact remains his last league title was with Chelsea in 2014/15, and the las trophy at European level was the Europa League with Manchester United in his first full season, and the invincibility at Champions League level a distance back to the 2009/2010 with Inter Milan. All this decline on the field showing the limited value these days of “Parking the Bus” and it has been accompanied by some increased off the field histrionics also. Which saw him depart controversially from the Santiago Bernabeu, then part ways with his biggest patron twice, Roman Abramovich, and then secure the role at United despite misgivings of some the club stalwarts. Allegedly a key one being Sir Bobby Chariton, normally a good litmus test for all things good at United. 

In hindsight it seems that there were some reasons for such views and now Woodward - the enthusiastic proponent of Mourinho - is now having to resort to corporate speak to explain his star man’s increasingly unusual behaviour. Yet a sign of the times that the CEO bears a CV showing scant experience at managing mano-a-mano at a football club. An environment which is still somewhat Luddite in many of its activities and only guarantees the unpredictability of match results every weekend. Meaning the issues cannot be resolved by Pareto Charts, Budgets forecasts or net asset value calculations. 

Indeed, the only certainties about football is that players need to be paid - and those costs are rising every week - and managers come and go. Unfortunately, at United Mourinho currently seems to be moving from hero to zero and his every move now under increasing scrutiny as he fumbles to secure supposedly easily wins only weeks into the brand-new season. However, history tells us that Mourinho struggles in his third season anywhere and the noises out of Old Trafford suggest that he may be entering that familiar wind tunnel. This unrest often raising its ugly head once he signs a contract extension and as he seems to then almost seek a break up in order to sail off into the sun with his termination. 

In January Mourinho signed a contract extension committing his future to the club until 2020 with the option of another year. At Chelsea he signed a new four-year contract in August 2015 that would supposedly keep him at Stamford Bridge until 2019. But he was gone from the club within four months. That same articulateness that made Mourinho good newsfeed on his arrival to Chelsea – and the infamous Special One comment – is now rather tiresome and he would do better off to keep quiet and say very little. Both in victory or defeat. However, shorter news cycles these days and the social media thunderstorm seems to feed Mourinho’s addiction to offering some off the cuff remarks. So, these days he seems to relish the limelight more than ever and his quotes circle the sporting the world in seconds adding to his box office appeal apparently. 

Not unlike Sven Goran Eriksson, who initially was an intriguing interviewee with his thoughts sounding more plausible in his IKEA voiceover accent to an audience desperately desiring England’s footballing success. But when his off the field activities added spice to his aloof persona and the footballing department proved the lesser of his strengths, the end was only matter of time. Again, a demise coming at a high cost to the FA but lucrative for the Swede. Something that Jose has developed an adept expertise as his salary is reported to be almost double that of personal and professional arch-rival – Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Who quietly secured the Premier League in 2017/2018 and came close the previous season. Suggesting Ferguson didn’t wholeheartedly offer Pep the role at that famous dinner in Manhattan years ago. Fearing perhaps for his legacy by Pep’s possible arrival. Instead now, after a few successful seasons at Bayern, finally see the man managing on the blue side of the city. Although the truth was that Pep is more United’s speed and it proved an opportunity lost

What is not lost, and is on record at Real Madrid, was the way Mourinho intimated his intended departure from Madrid immediately after the 2013 Champions League defeat at the UEFA post-match press conference more or less. Despite signing a contract extension in January 2012 to keep him and his backroom staff at Real Madrid until 2016. It was his third consecutive exit in as many seasons from the Champions League and clearly failing to deliver the Holy Grail he promised president, Florentino Perez. 

Only securing one La Liga title in those three years – losing a number of Clasico’s to boot -but adding a fourth country to his own Palmarès in which to win such a League title. Following wins with Chelsea; FC Porto twice 2002 and 2003; Internazionale Serie A: 2008–09, 2009–10; and Real Madrid in 2011–12 he joined that small club that includes Carlo Ancelotti - the first manager to win titles in four of the 'big five' leagues, FC Bayern, AC Milan (2003/04), Chelsea (2009/10) and Paris St-Germain (2012/13); Ernst Happel, Tomislav Ivić and Giovanni Trapattoni.

The other matter - or elephant in the room – was the level of spending by Mourinho - yet never managing to resolve some of the key problems and overspending on players who were never the quality required to win the big matches. For instance, £25million on Fábio Coentrão who had Jorge Mendes as his agent, as did another £25million signing Ángel Di María; Ricardo Carvalho (£7million), José Callejón (£4million) and Diego López (£2.5million). He also bought Rafaël Varane (£8million) and German midfielders Mesut Özil (£12million) and Sami Khedira (£10million). With only the 2018 world cup medal winner, Varanne, still at the Madrid club. In addition, after Luka Modric was bought to the club from Tottenham Mourinho almost refused to play him until he had in option the Champions League meeting with United in 2013. Since that moment the Croatian midfielder has become indispensable to Real Madrid, yet never regarded as such by Mourinho funnily enough. All this created turmoil and since the departure of Mourinho eight seasons ago all that white noise has dissipated, and four champions leagues were won under just two different managers. The reign of Zinedine Zidane the essence of quiet focus off the field and inventive play on the field. 

Last season saw an early exit in the Champions League for United as Mourinho’s latest team were beaten by Sevilla in the round of last 16. Which any amateur coach would have predicted given the contrasting styles of the managers and now surely questions that supposed invincibility in the competition of the self-proclaimed Special One. An invincibility which had its origins in 2004, when a year after winning the UEFA Cup against Celtic in Sevilla, Porto steamrolled a strong Monaco side with fast and furious playing system. Good enough to attract the attention of the powers that be at Stamford Bridge. The other part to the Mourinho conundrum is the relationship with Jorge Mendes the so-called Super football agent, who worked on Mourinho's appointment as United manager as his fellow countryman heads up his own sports agency, GestiFut. It was in 2004 when Mendes first worked with Mourinho when the Porto boss joined Chelsea and was able to vastly enhance his profile as a result, with numerous Portuguese players signing up his services including Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira, Tiago and Maniche - all following Mourinho to Chelsea. 

The pair have continued to work together, with Mendes securing lucrative deals for Mourinho at Inter Milan, Real Madrid and on his return to Chelsea. Some of the players bought by Real Madrid for instance were not always highly rated or even well-known but represented by Mendes. A number of examples – Coentrão and Pepe - detailed in The Special One: The Dark Side of Jose Mourinho y Diego Torres (translated by Pete Jenson). A depressing review of his time at Real Madrid in facts and figures. So as United announce they are to appoint a Director of Football - following Mourinho frustrations - on the lack of recruiting at Old Trafford over the summer, he has historically always has had difficulty with these roles over the years. So, he was surprisingly positive when Woodward announced the news. At Chelsea it was Denmark’s, Frank Arnesen; then at Real Madrid it was Argentinian world cup winner, Jorge Valdano. 

In fact, when United were considering Mourinho replace Louis van Gaal - and could have a £300m transfer fund - the former Danish international feared that Manchester United would be forfeiting their ideology: "Mourinho is very demanding and sometimes the players can't take it," Arnesen said. “He made some drastic changes [at Chelsea] and it cost him. In 2014 former Real Madrid General Manager, Valdano said Mourinho pales in comparison to Pep Guardiola. The former player and coach of the Madrid club - well positioned to opine – and coaching the club to the league title in 1995. In his book ‘The 11 Powers of a League’ Valdano explains

“He's a figure who is perfectly suited to these bombastic, shallow times. I couldn't understand him because he is in the antithesis of my sensitivity. Intelligence and ego are enemies. And when they collide, the ego wins.", Valdano continued "If Guardiola is Mozart, that makes Mourinho [Italian composer Antonio] Salieri. He would have been a great musician if Mozart had never existed. I've never heard him say a single thing about football worth remembering, whether in public or in private.

"He had one of the best squads in the history of Real Madrid. He always remained just outside the door of the Champions League. That was the big challenge which he did not manage to succeed at."

Then what about his famed relationship with the players and that so-called rapport. Well, aside from the early years of wielding magic at Porto and his next role at Inter winning the treble in his second season - in the shadow of AC Milan – it is somewhat sketchy. Indeed, currently at Old Trafford the record suggests otherwise with the unrest with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial. 

As Mourinho seems to like upheaval it is contrasting approach to that of Pep is refreshing, as he praises his young players holding the fort in pre-season. At Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp was busy telling Nathaniel Clyne to put his family before football after the birth of his son recently. Meanwhile Mourinho is publicly questioning why Martial is not cutting short his time with his loved ones to return to work. Then post Russia 2018 as Pogba is being showered with praise from all corners of the globe, Mourinho’s first public contribution was to warn the Frenchman that he needed to bring all his form from back to the Premier League. The technique now tiresome, for fans, and so it must be for players who are new breed and no longer kowtowing to some of those older fashioned values.

Mourinho is unable seemingly to move from a basic formula that worked before, to a newer version of himself, and now looks and sounds like a dinosaur facing extinction. At the Bernabeu he lost the dressing room when he had issues with club captain and Spain world cup winning captain, Iker Casillas, a move that was his most ill-advised during his time at Real Madrid. In that sense any tales of unrest at United have a rather familiar ring. With the biggest names usually attracting the most negative attention. The standard Mourinho modus operandi. At Real it arose after when Casillas and Barcelona captain, Xavi, shared a common concern about the increasing aggression in the El Clasico with the two working together to find a solution. When Mourinho, found out he took exception and considered Casillas' actions as a sign of weakness and a betrayal. Always revelling in the "us against the world" dressing room atmosphere such a hallmark of Mourinho’s management style. From that moment the clock was ticking for Casillas at his alma mater and he eventually moved to Porto.

At Chelsea his contretemps with Eden Hazard in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, saw the former Chelsea team doctor Eva Carneiro receive the full wrath of Mourinho and to led her ultimately losing her job. Carneiro’s lawyer told the employment tribunal that she heard Mourinho, angered by her decision to go on the field that day, call her a “daughter of a whore” in Portuguese. The club eventually settled the claim and apologised “unreservedly” to Carneiro over the incident. Chelsea also accepted that Carneiro had done nothing wrong and was a “highly competent and professional sports doctor”. But by that time Mourinho had already been sacked as the Chelsea manager because of a “palpable discord with the players” according to the club’s technical director, Michael Emenalo.at the time. It is this break down with players that seems a character flaw that flares up at every club he joins. It may also explain the underlying reason for some poor transfer decisions and that more often than not involve players who are enjoying very good spell or even at the peak at whatever club he arrives as manager. 

At Chelsea Juan Mata was sold soon only months after gathering a number of individual player awards in the Premier League and club honours. His arrival at Madrid following Manuel Pellegrini’s departure saw Raul and Guti – two club stalwarts – swiftly moved on with little fanfare or fuss. Arriving at United it was only matter of time before the club icon, Wayne Rooney, was offered a one-way ticket and he ow plays in the USA. Then the stories of selling Romalu Lukakau, Kevin de Bruyne suggest a trend of wanting also to buy rather than rely on patience to work with readymade squads. 

Then the treatment Eden Hazard and the constant criticism of the Belgian in early 2014 season - when the player was at the peak of his powers – was nothing short of bizarre. I nit disgraceful. A form coincidentally that Hazard never repeated until this summer’s world cup in Russia. Bonucci was deemed surplus at Inter and then went on to win six Serie A titles with Juventus. Even two seasons ago Bonucci was coveted by Guardiola who was ready to pay £43m before the defender penned a new four-year deal. Then Mohamed Salah moved to Liverpool from Roma returning to the Premier League after being previously loaned by Chelsea to Serie A side during Mourinho's second spell at Chelsea. Last season Mo won the PFA Players award and broke numerous goal scoring records. 

The reality maybe that Mourinho is finding all this hard to accept and the timely reminders of former players succeeding may be irritating. Also, he now has to watch some of the younger guns coming up the management ranks and attracting some of his media space. His football style no longer earning the same plaudits, or enthralling fans and his message now rather repetitive, sounding self-absorbed and rather stale. The arrival of Klopp at Liverpool, his nemesis Guardiola succeeding in the same city, never mind the same league, and then a new face at Arsenal to perhaps add more competition and steal some newspaper column inches. 

All this as United suffered a disastrous season last year as Manchester City took the Premier League title, Liverpool reaching the Champions League Final and Chelsea winning the FA Cup. Back in February Bristol City knocked the Reds out of the EFL Cup and leaving a very empty trophy cabinet for United to polish. Not forgetting defeat in the Champions League in the last 16. Leaving Mourinho a sultry and cranky figure facing into a new season which started with that defeat to Brighton. 

No longer, able for the moment, to wield his magic as he did once upon a time. Even after buying the world ‘s costliest player in Pogba. – with whom he still seems unable to get the best out of as yet. Yet anyone watching what the player in Russia for France knows the player is not the issue. 

Therefore, it made perfect sense this week to hear the name of Zinedine Zidane linked as an option for Manchester United should Mourinho be moved on early. In all his last four managerial roles the self-appointed Special One has not stayed a full three years; at Milan it was two years before accepting the lure of Real Madrid just moments after winning the Champions League for the Italian club. He stayed just three years at the Bernabeu when Abramovich offered an escape route to London. But then Mourinho did not even make his third Christmas party with the Blues. Now all eyes are on him again given he arrived at United in May 2016 and is now just starting his third season.

On his arrival the club Woodward explained the decision: “José is quite simply the best manager in the game today,” the executive vice chairman said. “He has won trophies and inspired players in countries across Europe and, of course, he knows the Premier League very well, having won three titles here. I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome him to Manchester United. His track record of success is ideal to take the club forward.” In recent weeks those words have become vacuous waffle as Woodward and Mourinho seemingly having difficulty even talking to each other according to some reports. 

But if Jose leaves he will be using his ninth life and if Zidane is the choice he has to leave a life he enjoys in Madrid with his Spanish wife. A move to England may not be on his agenda as the language is not one of his strongest. But these days with private jets family mobility is much easier for high flying footballers or managers. Indeed, Rafael Benitez during his time at Napoli and Madrid never moved the family from the Wirral. Maybe even still hasn’t through his time at Newcastle. And Mourinho stays at The Lowry while his family live in the London home and never moved to Manchester.

Yet if United are serious about restoring their legacy then Zidane is the manager to lead that effort, as he is low on histrionics and high on achievement. Both as a player - bar the world cup final against Italy in berlin ) and now with a rookie managerial CV that would rival some of the greats of the game already. His low-key nature is exactly what the game needs at Manchester United and would be good news for investors, the share price and the overall value as a brand. Although Zidane wanted a break from the game if the right offer comes along things change. Similar to Klopp, who despite being on a break from football took the call when it came from Fenway Sports Management to join Liverpool.

Looks like Mourinho maybe using his ninth life sooner than planned. 

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Wednesday 25 July 2018

The Hazardous Road to Eden

Its summer time in Madrid and always a volatile time when Real Madrid president Florentino Perez ruminates over possible new signings. These moments are often accompanied by club clear-outs which over the last few summers have seen the departure of James Rodriguez, Mesut Ozil, and Alvaro Morata – not long after returning from Juventus. All of whom followed the departure of Angel di Maria to Paris Saint German months previously.

Open rumours now suggest that Neymar is the new target – although he has no buy-out clause - but cost PSG £198M when he moved from Barcelona a few seasons ago. If Neymar did arrive in Madrid he would join a distinguished roster of his countrymen that played at the Santiago Bernabeu over the decades. Regretfully, few of whom have been outstanding during their stay, as the likes of Kaka arrived past his peak; Robinho never matured into the promising talent he was; with Ronaldo similarly arriving late in his career and not making a good account of himself beyond 2002 season. The injuries beginning to take their toll on his body. 

The most successful being Roberto Carlos and in more recent seasons, Marcelo. Both allegedly defenders yet more devastating in attack than in their primary roles. Although Casemiro was a favourite of previous manager. Zinedine Zidane, in the middle of the park, it remains to be seen whether he hits it off with new boss Julen Lopetegui. Who traditionally seems to have a preference for more agile players. Then if either Eden Hazard or Neymar Jr arrive at the club it will change the shape of and team and Casemiro no longer looks the right fit. 

Both Hazard and Neymar are players with very different CV’s, the Brazilian having been injured for part of last season and not the same force since his success at Barcelona. The Belgian playmaker meanwhile a steady-eddie at Stamford Bridge since 2012 and able overcome a very difficult season under Jose Mourinho two years ago. With Hazard probably more of what Madrid need given the talented Modric is now on the wrong side of thirty-three – and possibly also facing prison time in Croatia. 

Though an argument can be also made that Neymar fits well into that left-wing spot now left vacant by Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus. Although it is Gareth Bale’s more natural position as he has been accommodated on right side playing second fiddle to Cristiano for the past three seasons. The Welshman made his name at Spurs rampaging down the left flank and that was what made him attractive to Madrid and saw him debut for Wales side under John Toshack. Himself a former Real Madrid manager.

What does seem very clear is that James Rodriguez is not making a return to the Spanish capital from Bayern Munich after his two-year loan period. With an unsettle Matteo Kovacic now looking for more game time after Croatia’s World Cup success and prepared to go elsewhere. Although many might baulk at Madrid’s release clause of €264M. In addition, Karim Benzema has one of the highest buyout clauses at £886 million which makes his future look tricky at 30 years of age. But Perez may have to wheel and deal in order to reduce the playing squad and secure the names he so badly wants. So, anything is possible 

Yet as all managers find out when they arrive at Madrid the club’s commercial needs overrule the playing needs and if Karim has to play to attract a buyer then that is what will happen Also, the attacking midfielders Isco and Marco Asensio were tipped for a bright future at the Santiago Bernabeu and have hefty release clauses. But they maybe on their way too so Perez can fund a Hazard or Neymar’s arrival. Yet Asensio offers the club a huge profit opportunity having been bought for less than 4m euro back in 2014. 

The German Tony Kroos has also attracted interest from the Premier League and at 28 - with three Champions league medals and a World Cup - might feel a change might be good. But he just signed a new deal until 2020 amidst rumours that either of the Manchester clubs were keen on signing him. But Real Madrid perhaps couldn’t afford him to lose him if Perez is targeting the 2019 La Liga title. Although as a life sided player he does add to the clutter with Bale now about, and a Neymar and Hazard. However, that is where Lopetegui has to earn his wages and do his magic to keep all the players happy.

Regardless the road to Eden is well over €200M… so there will be real change aplenty in Madrid this summer. 

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Monday 23 July 2018

Team Sky Sing Duet for Pyrenees

Chris Froome has insisted he would be willing to sacrifice his chances of a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title to help teammate Geraint Thomas achieve victory. Thomas and Froome are first and second in the general classification heading into the final week of the Tour, with Thomas one minute and 39 seconds ahead of his teammate.

Team Sky – and Thomas – had continually insisted that Froome was their team leader, but the tone has shifted in recent days and for the first time on Monday Froome said he would be happy to help Thomas if necessary. Abuse of Team Sky will continue all the way to Paris, warns Brailsford

“As long as there is a Team Sky rider on the top step of the podium in Paris, I’m happy,” Froome said. Asked directly if he would sacrifice his hopes of a fifth Tour crown to help Thomas, Froome simply said: “Yes.”

Froome had said before the Tour he was aiming to come good in the third week, following his efforts in winning the Giro d’Italia in May, but, asked if he had identified places where he might attack and make up time on Thomas, he dismissed the question.

“All this talk of attacking or not attacking … we’re in an amazing position, we’re one and two,” he said. “It’s not up to us to be attacking. It’s for all the other riders in the peloton to make up time on us and dislodge us from the position we’re in.”

There are now only six days until the Tour reaches Paris, but Thomas said he was trying not to shift his mindset despite holding yellow.

“Obviously the closer you get, the more you want to stay on the podium, but I’m still not really thinking about it,” he said. “I’m thinking day by day. The dream was to be in with a shot of a podium and that’s still on the cards. I’m trying to keep the same mindset.”

Thomas and Froome may be in a strong position on the podium, but Team Sky were hurt on Sunday night when Gianni Moscon was disqualified from the race for striking the Fortuneo-Samsic rider Elie Gesbert early on stage 15 to Carcassonne.

“It’s disappointing, but there’s nothing we can do,” Thomas said. “What’s done is done. We just concentrate on the last week. We’ve still got a strong team. We’re a rider down but all the boys are riding well together.”

The team principal, Sir Dave Brailsford, is planning to review whether Moscon should face further punishment for his actions after the Tour, but refused to rule out terminating the contract of a rider who has a chequered disciplinary record.

“Obviously Gianni has left the race, which is very disappointing,” Brailsford said. “He’s really disappointed. He’s let himself down, he’s let his team down and now he’s gone home. From a team point of view, I’m going to keep the focus on the rest of this race here, and then next week I will gather the facts, look at the process and go from there.”

Brailsford accepted Moscon’s actions were unlikely to help Team Sky as they continue to face ill-feeling from elements within the Tour crowd, with Froome having been jostled and spat at, while Thomas has heard boos on the podium when collecting his yellow jersey this week. “I don’t know how people are going to react but it’s not going to calm people down,” he said.

Friday 20 July 2018

Take me to Paris now - Geraint Thomas

This was clearly not 2015 and despite all the expectations on Thursday at the Alpe d’Huez Stage 12 of the Tour de France. Neither was it a deja-vu for Nairo Quintana or Team Movistar as the Colombian was unable repeat that 10km attack on Chris Froome of three seasons ago. In fact, as they deepened into the stage Quintana went backwards and was unable to muster a response to Team Sky duo of Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome in this key stage. The talented Colombian perhaps now seeing his climbing powers wane and powerless in this decisive Alpine stage on Thursday. A day which saw hm drop to ninth place a trail by 3,56 with only one more mountain stage to finish left in the Pyrenees. 

Over the past two days the Team Movistar attack has been muffled with Marc Soler and Alejandro Valverde making some moves on the way to La Rosiere on Wednesday with little or no impact. Similarly, on the 175,kms stage the next day more shapes were thrown when Valverde joined the second breakaway a few minutes further up the road  - before easing back int the peloton just shortly before the final climb. The logic seemed to suggest then that it was Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa who were tasked with attack on this third and final climb of the day. But  when it eventually happened  it was rather feeble with Team Sky probably the most surprised of all with it lack punch. 

Then as the stage progressed the lead group  was joined by Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida  who was looking menacing at one point  and the seemingly every present Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb. As the start of the climb approached it was already clear that the runaway stage leader Kruijswiljk would not take the Maillot Jaune on this occasion and  would be reeled in before the stage was over. Depending on what was left in the dutchman’s tank.  Although the pace he had set in ascent of Col de la Madeleine was starting to fade and the peloton was happy to accept the pace marked by Team Sky. Not ceding the stage yet it seemed to breakaway rider.  This was a  stage famous for hustle and the noisy fans with this year’s event proving  definitively that a long day-on the mountain side sun for many might do more harm than good.

The traditional Dutch Corner passed without incident and it was further up the climb that there were difficulties. One of which forced Nibali to abandon the Tour after a fall caused by some spectator encroachment . Then Chris Froome was hit at one point and soaked up  much booing on his way up the mountain. A general disorder suggesting changes may be imminent in crowd management in the future for the sake of rider’s safety. Notwithstanding, Froome still tested his companions to see if they could match his effort  as they continued along the narrow road gap afforded them by roadside spectators. As they moved up the mountain group reduced to just four on the last sector – Dumoulin, Froome, Thomas and Romain Bardet. 

The Frenchman had attempted to escape for a number of kilometres but to no avail. In the end he settled back into the race for the finish which saw a short discussion take place between  Dumoulin and Thomas. Before the washman set off for the finish line. It was Bardet who came third behind a weaker looking Froome.  A result which puts Sky in control of the race and Thomas with a firm hold on the yellow jersey into next week. Perhaps even Paris depending on the Team Sky’ strategy over the coming days.

Stage winner Thomas said afterwards: “Honestly I'm speechless. I don't know what to say. Not a chance in hell I thought I was going to win today. I just followed Dumoulin, Bardet and Froome were attacking - obviously a bit of bad luck for Nibali, I rode over his back wheel. I nearly came down myself. I don't know what to say.”

“This is just unbelievable, can we just go to Paris now?” continued Thomas, “I said yesterday this race is made for me now, today I can be happy for sure now.


Thursday 19 July 2018

Frosty Reception for Team Sky

If cyclists were to use football parlance then Wednesday at La Rosiere was such a moment for Mikel Nieve of Mitchelton-Scott to feel “gutted” when after a lengthy breakaway on Stage 11 of the Tour de France, his efforts fell asunder. Just a few hundred of metres from the finish line. His former Sky teammates, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, flashing past Frosty – as he was named by Sky – to leave the Spaniard fifth despite a hard day’s work. Indeed, leading on his own on the final kilometres of the climb. But such is the sport of cycling that it so often features thankless moments and drains any sentimentality one might feel. Perhaps part of the overall fascination of the sport even amidst the perennial drug allegations. 

The sheer physical demands of the Alpine stages are always full of drama and require super human effort. Which although can offer enthralling spectacle it also means that performance enhancement is part and parcel of it all. A history of the Tour which goes well beyond just Lance Armstrong and a total list that is almost endless: Alberto Contador, Marco Pantani, Pedro Delgado, Thomas Ullrich, Richard Virenque – to just name a few. Curiously, in recent times it is the fate of the one-time domestiques of Team Sky that offer a footnote to these events. As once outside the team and that bubble their air of invincibility as individuals fades. All of a sudden real life embraces them one by one with Nieve experiencing that on Wednesday.

Australian Richie Porte, a one-time favourite perhaps to win the Tour - based on his work at Team Sky - fell victim yet again to injury this year after another accident ending hopes of a Grand Tour victory. In 2015, and indeed 2013, Porte’s hard work were key to Sky victories at the Tour. So, in 2016 when he declared he was leaving for BMC and seen as an ideal replacement for fellow countryman Cadell Evans, a victory was almost expected. Unfortunately, last year a bad fall ended his chances as it has this year on the cobbled roads to Roubaix on Sunday. 

Mikel Landa was another who spent a season as a domestique at Team Sky and fulfilled his fair share of duties at the Giro, Tour and Vuelta for \=Froome & Co. Like a number of the prominent Spanish cyclists he came from Euzkatel-Euzkadi - a Basque team which lost its funding in 2013 - with many promising riders on the books. But last year Landa moved to Team Movistar which placed him alongside Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. If not as an equal it promised a future more appealing than slaving for Froome or Thomas for yet another season. 

On the way to La Rosiere Landa showed flashes of ambition but under team instruction no doubt remained in the peloton with Quintana as Thomas and Froome raced away. The frustration of not seeing Movistar battle was lessened by the breakaways of Valverde and Marc Soler on Wednesday. Perhaps the team hatching plans for Alpe d’Huez stage on Thursday’s long stage. Which may stifle the criticism of Movistar’s lack of ambition and willingness to compete with Team Sky despite a gala a roster. Although the team showed they have the ability to upset but perhaps lacked the belief on Stage 11. On Wednesday there was a sense of their talent and a possibility beyond just the team prize.

Meanwhile it was left to Nieve to make the run on his own. Another of that Eustakel generation Nieve showed why he nurtured his own ambitions outside the Sky team. The climbing specialist moving to Orica-Scott on a two-year deal in 2018. A reward for the 33-year-old after he assisted Froome in winning the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Tour de France. With a strong CV, Frosty has ridden in 13 Grand Tours and achieved five top 10 placings. At La Rosiere he was unlucky as G forced the issue just as Frosty ran out of steam. Perhaps victim of inside knowledge that only a former teammate of the Spanish rider would have at hand. Leaving him in his wake with Froome, Tom Dumoulin of Sunweb and Damiano Caruso of BMC all taking the first four places on the stage. 

Thursday may haunt Nieve as he wonders about the far-reaching power of Team Sky or Lady Luck. A bit like Porte no doubt. But both riders have had good seasons already and these are just short-term hiccups. In fairness, Nicholas Roche had a short sojourn at Sky and has battled with BMC Racing over recent years more competitively and unshackled. Looking at a top five place at La Vuelta at one stage in 2017. More importantly, enjoying the sport more now with BMC rather than just a being a Team Sky domestique. Viviani signed for Team Sky from Cannondale in 2015, riding the Giro d’Italia in 2015 and 2016 as part of the British team. However, he was reportedly unhappy about not being selected for his home Grand Tour in 2017 and departed despite having one year left on his contract. A move to Quick-Step this season saw him enjoy a very successful Giro D’Italia in Israel.

Obviously the most famous former Team Sky rider, Bradley Wiggins, winner of the Tour 2012 shared his views on the team with Eurosport this week, highlighting the possibility that Thomas might take the yellow jersey in Tuesday’s first Alpine stage, 

“This is where it gets difficult, as we hit the first mountain stage,” Wiggins said. “If Geraint stays where he is and takes the yellow jersey they’ve got a real problem on their hands.

“Both riders have got this joint leadership role, but that’s dangerous. But the quality they have in that team, they could end up first or second.”

Wiggins continued, describing the Team Sky principal, Dave Brailsford, as “divisive” and “self-serving.” He said: “Does Dave B come in and do his usual and be quite divisive and get in each other’s ear and kind of keep them both motivated for the same goal and there be a natural selection?

“Dave will be telling them they can both win it, as a way of motivating them, as a way of playing these cards deep in to the race. He’s quite self-serving. For him it’s about the team winning, it’s not about the individuals or the characters. He will always be in those riders’ ears constantly, and he has been, up till now as you can see.”

Last year Dan Martin revealed he declined a contract offer from Team Sky the British World Tour outfit seeing the Irishman as a replacement for Landa and offered the chance to focus on some events, including one-week stage races, for himself with Team Sky. But when it came to the Tour de France he would then ride for Chris Froome. However, when UAE Team Emirates saw him as outright team leader for the Tour de France it was an easy switch from Quick-Step. In the 2018 Toru Martin has looked strong and clearly hay with his choice.

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Thursday Stage 12