Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top 10 Players of 2018

As with my list of ten best teams of the year, the list of 10 best players is also very personal, on players that have impressed me or whom I consider have had a great season. So here we go:

10) Christian Eriksen: He almost single-handedly qualified Denmark for the World Cup and has also contributed to Tottenhams good (albeit unsteady) season. For Danish fans it is great to have a world class player again.
9) Harry Kane: Has stepped up to become one of the most dangerous strikers in the Premier League and perhaps in Europe, where he is sought by some of the bigger clubs.
8) Pierre Emerick Aubemegyang: In my view Africa's best players, although at national team level Gabon are not in the World Cup and had a disappointing Africa Cup of Nations at home. But in the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund he has been their star player, and is being sought by big clubs as the Germans are struggling.
7) Luis Suarez: Not the main scoring role any more, but participates in Barcelona's awesome attacking force. Although overshadowed by Cavani, he was part of the Uruguay National team that qualified for the World Cup, where he will be one of the stars to watch, as always!
6) Lionel Messi: Absolutely out-of-this world player, who has taken on the responsibility at Barcelona, where they totally depend on him, and for Argentina, whom he almost single-handedly qualified for the World Cup. But titles have not been forthcoming this year, and the dependence on him is a risk both for Barcelona and for Argentina.
5) Kylian Mbappe: He was the find of the season in 2016-17 for AS Monaco, being absolutely splendid in their making the semifinals. He then went on to Paris Saint Germain in August, where he has been one of the stars alongside Neymar in what is one of the most exciting teams in the world at the moment. He also got his debut on the French national team and scored his first goal in a World Cup qualifier against Netherlands. Expect to see him at the World Cup!
4) Kevin de Bruyne: Much of Manchester City's success in this season is because Kevin de Bruyne has stepped up in his role as playmaker, where he is showing his world class. Also on the Belgian national team he is a core player, and is one of the superstars to watch out for in the World Cup.
3) Cristiano Ronaldo: The Portuguese has had a wonderful season winning everything with Real Madrid and also qualifying for the World Cup with Portugal. He is another out-of-this world player.
2) Lieke Martens: When the Netherlands won the European Championship this year it was in particular thanks to this splendid playmaker, who also changed to FC Barcelona, immediately becoming a core player in their current narrow lead in the league.
1) Neymar: Perhaps he was the most spoken about player ever when he changed from Barcelona to Paris St. Germain this year, becoming the most expensive transfer ever. But his qualities are unquestionable: there was a hole in Barcelona's offense initially when he left, while he in France he has been the super star of a team that is aiming for the highest. For the resurrected Brazil side that qualified in awesome style for the World Cup, he is also a superstar, and there is no doubt that Neymar is looking to take all titles in 2018!

As always, there were some splendid players who could not make the list, such as Nadia Nadim, Pernille Harder, Luka Modric, David De Gea, Gianluigi Buffon, Mohamed Salah...

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Top 10 Best Teams of 2017

This is my highly personal list of what I consider the most noteworthy (not necessarily the best or my favourites!) teams of the football year 2017:

10) Gremio: Winners of the South American Copa Libertadores they became the third Brazilian club to take a third title. They represented South America in the Club World Cup.
9) Panama: Panama qualified for the World Cup for the first time ever in a dramatic final round of CONCACAF qualification which left the giant favourites of the USA out, and a small and underestimated Central American country with a huge and well-deserved party!
8) Manchester City: After a 2016/17 season without titles Manchester City is now a well-oiled machine under Pep Guardiola, leading the Premier League in style, and so far cruising through the Champions League. Although they went out of the 2016/17 Champions League in the last-16 against Monaco, that was plausibly the most incredible match of a year with many incredible matches.
7) Manchester United: Jose Mourinho is the easiest man to dislike in modern football, but one cannot deny his amazing skills as a manager; after some initial difficulties he is taking Manchester United back to the top. They won the Europa League, have cruised during their return to the CL (and must be considered favourites against Seville in the last-16) and are the greatest threat against Manchester City's dominance in the Premier League.
6) Chelsea: Winners of the Premier League (and FA Cup finalists only to lose to their rivals of Arsenal), they have nevertheless had more difficulty in the PL this season, as other teams have made things more difficult. In any case they are through in the CL, where they will face mighty Barcelona.
5) Wydad Casablanca: a fantastic football year for Morocco (who also qualified for their first World Cup since 1986) is best represented by the success of Wydad Casablanca, who won their second CAF Champions League title ever in a memorable two-legged final against Al-Ahly.
4) Paris St. Germain: After winning the league for 4 seasons in a row the French title in the 2016/17 season went to Monaco, which was a disappointment for the ambitious French side, who also were eliminated from the CL in a memorable but disappointing two-legged clash against Barcelona. But with the arrival of Neymar Paris St. Germain are one of the most exciting teams to watch in Europe, and are first in the league as well as have been playing outstandingly in the CL, where they will face Real Madrid in what promises to be one of the most exciting matches in 2018.
3) Juventus: Juventus won the Italian league in 2017 for the sixth season in a row, and made it to their second CL final in three years, disappointingly losing to Real Madrid. They have struggled more in the new season, as they trail Napoli in Serie A. In the CL they trailed Barcelona in the group stage, but will face up and coming Tottenham in a very interesting last-16 encounter.
2) Real Madrid: Had it not been for their last few months, where they trail Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Valencia in the Spanish league, they may have made first spot. However, nobody can deny that they had a great year, taking the Spanish title, the Champions League title, the Spanish Super Cup, and the Club World Cup. Undoubtedly a great side is in a low form currently.
1) Netherlands Women: During a year when Dutch men's football had a horrible year, and national team football was generally boring, the women gave us a fantastic European Championship (far better than the men's in 2016), won in a memorable final by the Dutch hosts against a great Danish side. The Netherlands are my team of the year!

Some other teams who deserve to be on the list, but did not make the top ten are FC Barcelona, Liverpool, Valencia, Monaco, Independiente, Tigres de UANL, FC Qarabag, Brøndby, Denmark's women, Cameroon, Iceland, Trinidad & Tobago...

Saturday, December 23, 2017

End of the year in Spain

For Real Madrid it has been a good year: winners of the Spanish League, the Champions League, the Spanish Super Cup (when they trounced Barcelona) and lately the World Club Cup against Gremio. Zinedine Zidane has been a genius managing the Spanish side, so it must be strange for him to end the year in such a bad way by losing 0-3 at home to their arch-rivals from Barcelona, and almost surely disqualifying themselves from the title race, being 14 points behind Barça.
Will this mean the end of Zinedine Zidane as manager? In my view that would be cruel to the best manager that Real Madrid has had for a long time, and I think he could bring them back (all eyes will be on the Champions League), but Real Madrid does not work like that.

Two teams that will not be champions

Liverpool and Arsenal tied 3-3 in a very entertaining but poorly played match. "Entertaining for the neutral but not for the knowledgeable" as I saw on a tweet that was later deleted. Liverpool are currently on a roll; they play intense and high pressure, and with a Mohamed Salah who is at the top of his career (I have never been a big fan, and I am still of the opinion that he misuses too many chances) they are a scoring machine. But football is also about defending, and here Liverpool can in no way be hoping to win the title! 0-2 ahead, in full control, and it only took them 3 minutes they fall apart! While defending is absolutely dreadful, you also have to question why they were not 4-0 ahead against a dreadful Arsenal. On top of that you have a goalkeeper in Mignolet who costs goals: I still wonder where his hands were on Xhaka's equalizer.
Jurgen Klopp is a great manager because of his approach to football, confidence in his young players and passion for the match. But if he does not also focus on defending, he will remain a great manager without titles.

Arsene Wenger has given Arsenal more titles than such a club could ever hope for. That said, one has to wonder whether he is over the top, or whether it is even his responsibility that his players seem unmotivated for such a match. Arsenal's first half was a disgrace in attitude and fight in front of their fans. There were some improvements in the second half, where Alexis Sanchez 1-2 goal seemed to give them some faith. But in the end one came away with a bad impression of players like Alexis and Ozil, who really only show glimpses of their quality. Maybe Arsenal needs an overhaul, and maybe, just maybe, it will have to start with the man who they owe everything to, Arsene Wenger.

In any case, a great match, but I will come with a daring prediction (because all prediction about the PL are notoriously hard): none of these teams will be Premier League champions!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Champions League 2017-18 last-16 draw

There will be some really exciting clashes in the last-16 of this season’s Champions League:

  • Tottenham-Juventus: The English were the surprise by winning their group ahead of Real Madrid, but have at the same time not been too steady in their league. They are now facing another of the great teams of Europe, and will have to play their best. Juventus has not looked as impressive as in the previous season, but will surely not forgive any mistakes by Tottenham.
  • Basel-Manchester City: Basel finished second in their group by defeating the other Manchester team, United, in Switzerland. But over two matches they are surely the underdogs against a Manchester City side that remains among the favourites for the title.
  • Porto-Liverpool: The undefeated English side will be favourites against a Portuguese side that is nevertheless no pushover. That said, Porto was not as impressive in the group stages, only passing by hapless Monaco and an inexperienced Leipzig. Liverpool must be happy and expecting a quarterfinal, which may prove their weakness.
  • Sevilla-Manchester United: Sevilla could not get past Liverpool in the group stages, and the Spanish side are a shadow of their past years’ Europa League side. In the meantime Mourinho is creating a powerful Manchester United side that is likely to move past Sevilla.
  • Paris St. Germain-Real Madrid: Surely the most awaited match of the last-16 as the defending champions are facing one of the new top contenders for the title. While Real Madrid has been looking in a slight crisis in both la liga and in the CL, PSG has been cruising through both the French league and the CL (most scoring team, and only once to Bayern Munich). This clash will nevertheless be a big test for the French side: can they defeat the champions? Can Neymar outshine Ronaldo...?
  • Shakhtar Donetsk-Roma: The Ukranians made it after a last match victory against Manchester City, ahead of the Italian favourites from Napoli, who probably underestimated Shakhtar throughout. Roma should not underestimate them, but will probably also be considered favourites to make it to the quarterfinals.
  • Chelsea-Barcelona: This encounter is a neo-classic clash of the Champions League, as these sides have faced one another in some memorable encounters, and this promises to be another. Barcelona have been awesome, while Chelsea can mostly blame themselves for not having won the group, and now faci g the toughest rival of them all.
  • Bayern Munich-Besiktas: Bayern Munich did not win their group but ended behind PSG which is always a disappointment for the Germans. That said, they will be happy for the draw, as Besiktas are probably the most underrated side left in the competition, despite them winning their group undefeated (but what many consider a weak group), and with experienced players. That said, Bayern Munich must surely be considered favourites.
Cannot wait for the knock-outs to begin!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Tigres: Mexican champions

Since I arrived in El Salvador I have been watching a lot the Mexican league, and I have really enjoyed a great league, with excellent teams, players and fantastic atmosphere. The second leg of the Apertura final was played tonight. It was a historic final as it was the first time the two arch rivals from Nuevo Leon, Rayados de Monterrey and Tigres UANL, faced one another for the title.
The first match, at UANL had ended 1-1, and since Rayados had been strong all season, they were probably favourites as they were to play the second leg at home in a fantastic stadium with an incredible atmosphere.
And it all seemed to go the way of the home team as they went ahead 1-0 after two minutes on a goal by the Colombian Dorlan Pabón. Nobody had scored more than one goal in Monterrey during this clausura tournament, so things seemed to be going the right way for Rayados.
But Tigres were well organised and in particular Enner Valencia was causing a lot of trouble for Rayados left back. It was Eduardo Vargas who equalised, and shortly after Another Colombian, Francisco Meza scored a second for the away team.
Francisco Meza, central defender, played a fantastic match in defense, and crowned it with the goal that would eventually be the winner.
In the second half Rayados attacked well, but Tigres defended better. Towards the end Rayados got a penalty, but Aviles Hurtado (yet another Colombia) was shooting for the moon when he kicked the ball high above the goal.
Could not help but feel sorry for Rayados, who were the best team throughout this tournament and their great home fans, who must be heartbroken.
As to myself, I am thrilled by having discovered the excitement of the Mexican league, and I now hope to be able to visit Mexico to watch some football, and maybe find myself a Mexican club to support!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Champions League 2017-18: group stages

Living in El Salvador time difference has made it challenging for me to follow the Champions League live. But I have watched matches after the fact, trying not to hear results beforehand (which is why I have been off Twitter during matches). Today I saw Liverpool’s trashing of Spartak Moscow, to give them a slightly surprising first place in the group. All in all, English teams have been doing better in previous years, even leading to some slight surprises.
  • Group A: Manchester United under Mourinho has been excellent albeit in a relatively easy group, where Swiss Basel took second place (and were the only team that managed to defeat United). CSKA Moscow took third place, while the Portuguese giants of Benfica were a huge disappointment with 0 points.
  • Group B: The least surprising group with Paris St. Germain and Bayern Munich cruising through, only taking points from one another, but PSG winning the group on goal difference. Everything the minnows of Celtic and Anderlecht did will quickly be forgotten.
  • Group C: Roma were slightly surprising as they won a group for the first time since 2008. Back then, it was also ahead of Chelsea. Both teams were better than the disappointment of Atletico Madrid, who were basically eliminated by the Azerbaijani debutantes from Qarabag, who got their only two points by two draws with the Spanish giants!
  • Group D: Another group without surprises with Barcelona cruising to first place and Juventus taking the second spot. Sporting took third place, completely unthreatened by a disappointing Olympiakos. 
  • Group E: One of the four undefeated teams in the CL is Liverpool. With their trashing today, they are the second most scoring team after PSG (who is nevertheless not undefeated). They won the group in style ahead of a Sevilla side who in the 2016 Europa League final had been one level above Liverpool. All credit to Klopp, who has a long term plan for Liverpool. Spartak Moscow still took third place, while Maribor managed to finish with a draw against Sevilla.
  • Group F: Manchester City only lost the last match, when they were already group winners, and should be a team to look out for this season. In the meantime Shakhtar Donetsk were a slightly surprising runner up, ahead of Napoli, who had probably expected to make it. Feyenoord took all hopes from the Italians by winning their last match with nothing to play for.
  • Group G: The big surprise was in this group by Besiktas, winning as one of the four undefeated sides.   Many will not expect much from them, but one must watch out for a team with such experienced players as Pepe, Gary Medel, Ricardo Quaresma or Alvaro Negredo. This may not be the last surprise they make. FC Porto took second place just ahead of German Leipzig. In the meantime last years’ semifinalists from Monaco were a shadow of themselves having lost so many of last season’s stars.
  • Group H: The other big surprise winners were Tottenham. Not because they are bad, but more because everyone was expecting Real Madrid to win the group. Instead Tottenham took first place undefeated, including a memorable win against the Spaniards. Tottenham are unstable though, and cannot be considered favourites. But Real Madrid of course still are. In the meantime Borussia Dortmund are in the Europa League where they will be considered favourites. Apoel trailed them all.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Shout out to the World Football phone in

The BBCs World Football Phone In just celebrated its 20 year anniversary, and as always I greatly enjoyed the show. I have been listening to the show on podcast since 2006, when I was in Ghana. During my time in Mozambique it became a staple on my rather dull life, and I think I have barely missed a show since then, as I have been in Venezuela, Liberia, and now in El Salvador.
In all these places the show has been a fantastic companion. I am rather more dark and pessimistic than the show is, but the positive spirit of the show has always put me in a good mood, and made me feel I am part of this family of worldwide football fans, who love the game, and can have a pint and laugh at our silly discussions about the beautiful game.
This is more rare than common, which makes the show so much more special!

2018 World Cup groups

After the highly awaited draw the groups are as follows:
Group A:

  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia 
  • Uruguay
  • Egypt
The hosts are opening against Saudi Arabia, the first time an Asian side will be playing the opening match. But the favourites of the group are likely Uruguay, who should be happy about the draw. 

Group B:
  • Portugal 
  • Spain
  • Moroccob
  • Iran
Portugal versus Spain is already one of the most highly expected matches of the tournament, and these sides are surely the favourites to win the group, although Morocco and Iran will have everything to play for and low expectations. Surprises could happen in this group.

Group C:
  • France
  • Australia
  • Peru
  • Denmark
The French are surely huge favourites in this group where the other three teams (who all qualified through play-offs) are to play for the scraps. Don’t expect much from Australia, but likely Peru and Denmark will play for second spot.

Group D:
  • Argentina
  • Iceland
  • Croatia
  • Nigeria
One of the most interesting groups: Argentina’s eternal non-performing favourites again drew the African giants of Nigeria (Argentina-Nigeria is now a modern mini classic), Croatia’s incredible midfield, and the highly expected debutants from Iceland. This is one of the groups to watch.

Group E:
  • Brazil
  • Costa Rica
  • Switzerland
  • Serbia
Brazil’s favourites for the title got a good draw, where the Serbians are a team to watch. Expect Costa Rica and Switzerland to fight for the scraps, although both teams are capable of surprising (something the Ticos surely showed in 2014).

Group F:
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Mexico
  • South Corea
There is always a group of death, and this is it with the defending champions of Germany against three strong sides from Europe, Asia and North America. While Germany are favourites all of them could take points from Germany, and one another.

Group G:
  • Belgium
  • Panama
  • Tunisia
  • England
Another group where the two European sides are huge favourites and will likely fight between them for first and second spot. The debutants from Panama will be an interesting addition, while Tunisia could make some upset.

Group F:
  • Poland
  • Senegal
  • Colombia
  • Japan
Expect ugly things from Polish fans in a group where Poland (who were the weakest side in pot 1) are only weak favourites. Colombia and Japan have solid sides, while Senegal is highly capable of surprising.