Bundesliga Transfer Update – July 29th

It’s now late July and the club teams which make up the Bundesliga only have one more month to sign, trade, and transfer new players for the 50th campaign of the season. Overshadowed by the EPL and La Liga transfers, the Bundesliga has already made exciting and intriguing signings that have gone under the radar in the soccer world. In no specific order, here are some of my favorites:

 

Luuk De Jong to Borussia Monchengladbach

If there is any benefit to the departure of Marco Reus from the squad, it’s the the new funding that Monchengladbach has received to sign new, fresh talent.  Luuk De Jong is no exception, he signed for 15 million Euros on a five year deal earlier this month. De Jong knocked in a whopping 25 goals in 32 appearances last year for FC Twente during their regular season, adding in an extra 7 in other tournaments. Although he was linked with Newcastle, De Jong stated that Monchengladbach was the club for him: “I’ve told Twente that I only want to go to Gladbach. Borussia are playing in the qualifying round of the Champions League, and it’s best for me to take the next step in my career. The Bundesliga is one of the best leagues in Europe. I need to go there in order to take the next step with the [Dutch] national team.”

Transfer Rating – 7/10

A great finisher, and also great in the air, De Jong has much potential. Although he was one of the best in Holland, De Jong has admitted that it will be more difficult for him to become a star player in the Bundesliga because of the level of play. If he can overcome the minimal issues going against him (pace of play, movement off the ball), he should be able to shine for Monchengladbach.

 

Marco Reus to Borussia Dortmund

Reus turned down Bayern Munich to join Dortmund for 17.5 million Euros on a five-year deal. Reus, who was recently voted as the Bundesliga player of 2011-2012 by the German players union, is coming off his best season to date with 21 goals scored in 37 appearances for his former Borussia Monchengladbach side. Along with this, he also had a short, but impressive two games with the German national team during the most recent Euro tournament. Between 1996-2006, Reus played on the Dortmund youth squad, cementing a fondness for the club which would later make the current transfer an easy one.

Transfer Rating – 9/10

Unfortunately for Reus, his name will soon (if not already) become synonymous with Shinji Kagawa. The hole that Kagawa will leave at Dortmund will be huge. Reus was signed on as an obvious replacement for the Japanese international who just signed with Manchester United. Marco will have very high expectations but should be able to fulfill these. He’s an intelligent winger who is quick, a great dribbler, and deadly with one-on-one attacks.

 

Xherdan Shaqiri to Bayern Munich

The quick and speedy Xherdan Shaqiri will be sure to hear plenty of jokes after signing on with Bayern Munich. Last year’s Champions League match-up between FC Basel (including Shaqiri in the line-up) and Bayern ended in a one-sided 7-0 win for the Germans. Shaqiri, after playing on the losing side, has interestingly enough signed on this year to help the Bavarians win a title. The 20 year-old self-proclaimed “street footballer” committed to a four-year deal for 11.6 million Euros. After the signing, Shaqiri stated that he would not partake in the Olympics for the national team from Switzerland: “I have to integrate into my new team. It was clear to me from the start that I was inclined towards Bayern, even if every player dreams of competing at the Olympics…it would certainly have been a great experience, but I can only integrate fully if I’m 100 percent here.”

Transfer Rating – 8/10

Shaqiri is still very young but has provided much success in the past for his former club. With 38 appearances and 14 goals for Basel last year, Shaqiri will be itching to make it onto the starting 11. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery aren’t getting any younger, so the addition of Shaqiri will definitely have a positive effect on the squad. Whether his “street football” style will be able to work with the current Bayern style of play is another question.

 

Dante to Bayern Munich

It’s going to be tough for Monchengladbach after losing Reus and now Dante. The Brazilian defender, who signed for 4.7 million Euros, had this to say about the trade: “Bayern are one of the world’s biggest clubs and there I can have the chance to play at the very highest of levels and win titles…I am now 28 years old and want to take that next step in my career…Borussia tried all they could to keep me and give me a new contract. I’ve been here for three and a half years now and I’ve had a wonderful time. For that I’d like to thank everyone at the club and the fantastic supporters. It hurts to leave but decisions like this are a part of every player’s career.”

Transfer Rating – 7/10

Bayern were prone to small, yet important mistakes in the back last year. These mistakes cost them their chance to win the Champions League title, the cup final to Dortmund, and the league title. Boateng and Badstuber will more than likely start over the Brazilian but if he proves to have a season similar to his most recent one, we might see him starting regularly over them.

 

Granit Xhaka to Borussia Monchengladbach

Signing from FC Basel for only 8.5 million Euros, Xhaka might be the steal of the tournament. The 19 year old has the intelligence of a player ten years older than him and was even considered the best in Switzerland by the former Basel coach Thorsten Fink: “Xherdan Shaqiri is the best talent in Switzerland…after Granit Xhaka.” With the ability to create sublime long passes while also playing a great defensive game, Xhaka has been named the “young Schweinsteiger.”

Transfer Rating – 9/10

There is plenty of hype about Granit and he should be able to follow through. His only weakness might be his occasional risky decisions which have allowed for counter-attacks, but this shouldn’t be too detrimental to the squad. He has a consistently high pass completion rate, has a mature playing style and is aggressive defensively. Look out for this guy next year.

 

Mario Mandzukic to Bayern Munich

After a very impressive showing for Croatia during Euro 2012, Mario Mandzukic signed with Bayern Munich for 13 millions Euros from Wolfsburg. With the addition of Mandzukic, Bayern will have three deadly players (Pizarro and Gomez) who will be able to play as strikers. Mandzukic netted 20 goals in 56 appearances for the Wolfsburg side and will be sure to add more (he just scored against his old club in a pre-season game) for the Bavarians this season. According to Mandzukic, the trade was an easy decision: “I had other offers, but I want to win the title with Bayern. That is why you play football. The decision was not difficult. I cannot wait to finally get started. I must perform well in training and will use all my skills to play regularly. I look forward to playing alongside Claudio Pizarro and Mario Gomez – it will make me an even better player.”

Transfer Rating – 8/10

With Olic out, Bayern needed somebody to replace him. Mandzukic may not start over Gomez, but he definitely has the potential to become a better player. Unlike Gomez, Mandzukic plays a larger role in the creation of plays. Pizarro will more than likely be more of a sub providing guidance to a potentially deadly Mandzukic and Gomez combination. If the Croatian international performs the way he did at the Euros, he will be well worth the trade.

 

More important signings (honorable mentions):

-Phillip Wollscheid (Nurnberg to Bayer Leverkusen)

-Bas Dost (Heerenveen to Wolfsburg)

-Theodor Gebre Selassie (Slovan Liberec to Werder Bremen)

Scout Report: Jean Marie Dongou

Date of Birth: 22/04/1995 (Age 17)
Club: Barcelona
Country of Birth: Cameroon
Position: Forward

La Masia may have the fortunate knack of regularly producing and nurturing supremely talented footballers, but you’d think that even they would have had their decade’s worth of wonder-kids in Lionel Messi. You’d be wrong. Working his way through the Barcelona ranks is a player that the staff are getting equally as excited about, someone equally as prodigious.

At the tender age of 17, Marie Dongou is younger than your average powerhouse centre-forward, but that just makes his footballing aptitude all the more remarkable. The Cameroonian has been playing several years above his age group ever since he entered the World-renowned academy and has made quite the impression amongst those in the upper echelons of Barcelona with his phenomenal knack for goal scoring. He made his widely anticipated debut for Barcelona B in late January this year and it’s surely only a matter of time before he’s playing for the first team in La Liga.

The build of a weight-lifter, the pace of a sprinter and buckets of unbridled power, stereotypes yes, but truths nonetheless. In fact, the player is a stereotype in himself, the type of striker that makes centre-backs feel genuinely scared, the type of striker who’ll be 10 yards past you in the blink of an eye. A real centre-forward. But to label him as purely a physical specimen is to do the player a great injustice.

His standout quality is undoubtedly his eye for goal, Marie Dongou is a player who has found the back of the net at every level he’s played at. When combined with his aforementioned physical attributes and his creative movement and footballing intelligence you have a striker with seemingly infinite potential, or as his youth team coach, Oscar Garcia puts it “The kid has no limits, no ceiling, so long as he continues his development the way he is.”

You’d think that being only 17 years old and already being touted as the “next Samuel Eto’o” would inflate your ego somewhat, but Jean Marie Dongou is widely acknowledged as being comfortable with his footballing ability and very down to earth. Unlike many of his peers, he can’t be found on social networks like Twitter, declaring it not for him and deciding he’d rather focus on football. Refreshing to hear from a player of his age and ability. His evident hard working attitude and humility will come in handy as he inevitably works his way further and further up the Barcelona ladder, such personality traits are surprisingly rare to see in a youth player, but are so vital if he wishes to make that final step a real success.

Although that step might still be a way off yet, it’s still possible to catch Marie-Dongou in action, to form your own opinion of him before he hits the big time. He’ll be featuring in this year’s NextGen Series, a competition designed to bring players like him to the fore and the young Cameroonian will also be on show for the Barcelona B team, where he has netted 1 goal in just the 1 appearance so far this season.

If Jean Marie Dongou can continue to improve and grow as a player then the comparisons between him and Cameroon’s biggest footballing superstar, Samuel Eto’o, are likely to come thick and fast. The two bear an uncanny footballing resemblance, and fittingly it was only thanks to a link that Eto’o created that Marie Dongou got the opportunity to enter La Masia at the age of 13. The man widely accepted to be Africa’s most successful ever player may have found his heir, a man to fill his shoes once he’s gone, if not grow too large for them. Barcelona will have themselves a whole new superstar on their hands in the next few years, as they say, remember the name.

The Football Anecdotes

Here are some very funny and interesting anecdotes about football teams around the world. A big thanks to /r/soccer over at Reddit for making this article happen.

Arsenal FC

The UEFA cup final of 2000 was held between Arsenal and Galatasaray. The latter won the trophy on penalties. The whole team was celebrating in the dressing room when they heard a knock on the door. They opened it and saw Arsene Wenger with a bottle of champagne in each hand, he then said ”I brought these thinking we would win but since you won, you deserve these.”

Another one:

When the Arsenal team was given the chance to see the Queen, Eboue was more interested with her dogs; he was rolling on the floor and playing with the royal Corgi’s.

Chelsea FC

When Roman bought Chelsea FC in 2003, Gianfranco Zola, one of the best ever players in Chelsea’s history, had returned to Italy to play for Cagliari in his swan song.

Zola partially left because his salary was going to be reduced (before the takeover) – something Roman saw as no obstacle. So he tried to lure Zola by offering him a blank cheque. Zola had already committed to the club and could/would not break his word, and the president of Cagliari would not sell him either.

It was then that Roman tried to buy Cagliari, the entire team, itself.

Everton FC

If you look at the above picture, you’d know that Duncan Ferguson is a guy that you shouldn’t mess with. Well, some burglars got it all wrong. In 2001, two men tried to rob his home in Liverpool but they were unsuccessful.  Ferguson confronted them and was able to detain one of them who subsequently spent three days in hospital.

Sunderland A.F.C.

During Sunderland’s dreadful 19 point season and back when Howard Wilkinson was manager, Steve Cotterill, his assistant, would constantly be writing on his notepad throughout the games. In a match, Steve suddenly stopped writing and looked up towards the pitch when someone in the crowd shouted: “What’s the matter Steve? Can yer not spell Shite?”

In the same season, Wilkinson, also known as Sgt Wilko, asserted that “in his mind we’re (Sunderland) already safe” when they were about 10 points off safety.

Nottingham Forest FC

Martin O’Neill had a really bad run of form for Nottingham Forrest so Brian Clough dropped him. He was dropped for a couple of weeks until he had had enough. He went into Clough’s office and asked him why has he been dropped into the second team. team. Brian Clough’s answer?

“Because you’re too good for the third”

Liverpool FC

In the dressing room, before the kickoff of the Liverpool – Manchester United match, Bill Shankly, Liverpool’s manager at the time, went through the teamsheet with his players & ridiculed the opposing lineup. “Alex Stepney” he began, “A flapper of a goalkeeper. Hands like a Teflon frying pan – non-stick. Right back, Shay Brennan. Slow on the turn, give him a roasting. Left back is Tony Dunne. Even slower than Brennan. He goes on an overlap at twenty past three and doesn’t come back until a quarter to four.”

The Liverpool players were growing in confidence as Bill was ridiculing the United players. “Paddy Crerand, now he’s a deceptive little [bleep]. Slower than he looks!” And so Shankly demolished the whole team, “David Sadler. Wouldn’t get a place in our reserves. And finally, John Aston. A chicken, hit him once and you’ll never hear from him again.”

Shankly had finished, but Emlyn Hughes wasn’t so sure. “That’s all very well boss,” he piped up, “but you haven’t said anything about George Best, Bobby Charlton or Denis Law.”

Shankly, furious, turned to his captain and said “Are you trying to tell me that you can’t beat a team that’s only got three players in it?”.

Manchester United FC

During the ’99 era, the players decided to throw a party in a private club. Obviously, this was forbidden by the coaches so no one opened his mouth about it. When the first couple of players arrived, they saw Alex Ferguson sitting in the empty room, waiting for them. He took their cellphones and ordered them to sit down. When everyone had arrived, he gave them a furious rant, then killed them in training for days.

Turns out one of the player’s mums had talked about it, and it got back to Fergie.

Southampton

The locker rooms cleaner entered the changing area and saw David Prutton sitting there naked while flicking his balls. He turned up to the cleaner and said “Shit isn’t it?”. Then went back to flicking his balls.

Santos FC

In 1967, Santos traveled to Lagos, Nigeria, which was in the middle of a brutal civil war, to play an exhibition match. In order to allow both sides of the conflict to see the greatest ever (Pelé) play the game, a 48-hour ceasefire was called and honoured. A single footballer stopped a war.

Toronto FC

Danny Dichio scored Toronto’s first ever goal in the 24th minute of the 5th game of the inaugural season. The club handed out free seat cushions for the game, which turned out to double as excellent frisbees. In every game since, Toronto’s fans sing Dichio’s name in the 24th minute.

Philadelphia Union

In 2010, when it was announced that an MLS team was going to be set up in Philadelphia, there was a meeting with supporters and management types. The supporters had name tags that said “2010″ on them. The club president himself misread the tags and asked “our name is the ZOLOS?”, the nickname has stuck since.

Tottenham Hotspurs

Spurs were having a training session one day and someone kicked the ball over the fence. Paul Gascoigne said ”don’t worry I’ll get it”, and completely vanished for the rest of the day. Next day, approximately 24 hours later, Gascoigne jumps back over the fence with the ball completely straight faced saying ”I got it!”

Coventry City FC

There is a legend that there is a Leicester City shirt buried underneath the Ricoh Arena. A construction worker supposedly did it for a laugh.

Inter Milan FC

Julio Cruz worked for Banfield in Argentina as a groundskeeper. One day in training, he was summoned by the manager because they were missing a player. He showcased some of his talent and was promptly signed by Banfield.

Boca Juniors FC

A young man decided to get a tattoo of the Boca Juniors crest, but his tattoo artist was a River Plate fan, so the artist substitued the crest for a penis.

Click here to see the tattoo

If you have any anecdote that no one has heard of, please feel free to share it with us.

FA Cup semi-final Preview: Arsenal vs Manchester City

Arsenal take on Manchester City in what is expected to be a thriller of an encounter in the FA Cup semi-final stage. Both clubs have struggled to play up to their expectations in the Premier League with the former going through a dismal run prior to their Cup clash this weekend.

Arsene Wenger’s side have won the famous old trophy in two of their last three seasons, and this would offer them a slight advantage if they get through their early exchanges with the Citizens.

Despite this, the Mancunian giants should not be taken lightly with the likes of Leroy Sane, Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling pulling the strings upfront in recent weeks.

Players to watch for:

Alexis Sanchez – Arsenal:

The Chilean’s future has been the topic of speculation since the turn of the year with reports suggesting that he could link up with Guardiola at the Etihad in the summer.

Regardless of this, the 28-year-old would be doing no favours to the Manchester-based club as he seeks to win some silverware with the Gunners in what has been a disappointing campaign by their standards.

Sanchez has provided 23 goals and 14 assists across all competitions for the north London giants, and he could be tipped to get on the scoresheet from his preferred position on the left wing.

Leroy Sane – Manchester City:

The former Schalke 04 ace has managed to become a regular in Guardiola’s starting XI following a period where he was often picked from the substitutes’ bench.

Sane netted the first goal in the 2-1 league win over the Gunners at the Etihad whilst he also found the scoresheet in the 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture earlier this month.

The German attacker remains key to the Citizens’ forward play, and the Gunners may have a tough afternoon with Wenger likely to stick with his new 3-4-2-1 formation.

Injury Update:

Arsenal:

Arsene Wenger confirmed in his press conference that the likes of David Ospina, Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi would miss out on the crunch Cup encounter. Danny Welbeck remains an outsider to make the matchday squad with a late fitness test likely to determine his inclusion.

Manchester City: 

The Citizens will be boosted by the return of Gabriel Jesus to light training following his recovery from a metatarsal injury. Other than that, John Stones and Bacary Sagna remain doubtful with the latter having just returned from a groin problem.

Probable Lineups:

Arsenal may not make any changes from the 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough on Monday night, and this could see the likes of Rob Holding and Olivier Giroud retain their places. No place for Hector Bellerin!

Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Petr Cech; Gabriel, Rob Holding, Laurent Koscielny; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Granit Xhaka, Nacho Monreal; Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil; Olivier Giroud.

The Manchester City XI has seen regular changes at the heart of the defence but Guardiola could stick with a similar squad with goalkeeper Claudio Bravo making way for Wilfredo Caballero.

Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Wilfredo Caballero; Jesus Navas, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi, Gael Clichy; Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Leroy Sane; Sergio Aguero.

The Rise of Borussia Mönchengladbach

Borussia Mönchengladbach – a club that was struggling at the bottom of the Bundesliga table not even a year ago –  is making waves this season. Yet this is nothing new for the club based in the city of Monchengladbach in the North-Rhine Westphalia. After the formation of the Bundesliga, Monchenglach had to struggle to enter the top tier of German football. However, once they were there, they did well and even challenged for titles with powerhouse Bayern. Impressively, they became the first Bundesliga club ever to successfully defend their title in 1971.

Die Fohlen, as they are known, won the German Cup and under coach Hennes Weisweiler, the team won three back-to-back Bundesliga titles in the 70′s. They even came close to continental domination but eventually lost out to Liverpool in the European Cup final. Their downfall began in the 80′s and continued throughout the 90′s as they were struggling in the bottom half of the Bundesliga table. At one point, they were even relegated to the 2.Bundesliga and remained there for a couple of seasons. As a result of this, Dutch manager Dick Advocaat was recruited in 2004 on the back of his success at the Euros with the Dutch national team that same year. However, things did not go as planned and he left the club in 2005. Jupp Heynckes, a club legend and the current coach of Bayern Munich subsequently took over, but they were relegated again. Still, they managed to claw their way back into the Bundesliga the following year.

Lucien Favre was appointed manager last season just as they were about to go down again. Under his stewardship, they avoided relegation. This season, Favre is working wonders with the team, presently 4th in the table. They were second just a few weeks ago and were giving Bayern a run for their money. With 7 games remaining in the season, a Champions League spot is very much a possibility.

Much of this revival has to be attributed to Favre who had previously coached Hertha Berlin before having no team to manage for two years. One would have to believe that he has worked his magic with the squad because barely £2 million was spent in the summer. He implemented the quick, dynamic style of play that won him the Swiss league twice with FC Zurich. Germany saw a sign of what was to come when Favre’s side defeated Bayern 1-0 at the Allianz Arena on the opening day of this season. The return leg even saw the Fohlen win it 3-1 in scintillating style. A Win against Schalke followed by good games against BvB made many football fans stand up and take notice.

Yet Favre is not the only person deserving of praise. Twenty-two year old midfielder Marco Reus has been a revelation this season. He has been heavily involved in the team’s build-up play and the fact that Dortmund have triggered his buy-out clause of 18 million in order to have him within their ranks at the end of the season just goes to show his worth. Another notable player is teenage goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen. Once Favre took the reigns at the club, this young keeper, who was previously playing for the B team of Monchengladbach, caught his eye. Poor form of then first-choice keeper Logan Bailly gave the youngster a deserved chance. The club fans also had a key say as they encouraged their new manager to give the youngster a run in the team. The Gladbach youth product has drawn comparisons to Manuel Neuer and it probably won’t be long before he gets his chance in the German national team. Central midfielder Roman Neustadter and Brazilian centre- half Dante have also attracted the attention of scouts across Europe as they have both been integral to the team’s scintillating season. Granted, Die Fohlen last won the league way back in 1977 but the future is definitely looking bright.

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What does Damien Comolli’s departure mean for Liverpool?

In their first few months of owning Liverpool, FSG made a number of major changes. Firstly, there was the appointment of Damien Comolli to the newly-created post of Director of Football. Then there was the decision to replace Roy Hodgson as manager with Kenny Dalglish. Since then, FSG have been pretty low-profile for the past year or so. That changed this past week, when they came over and made some changes as a consequence of what has been,. Despite one cup win and the possibility of another, a dismal season for Liverpool. The biggest change that was made was the dismissal of Damien Comolli. John Henry and Tom Werner then went back to Boston to attend the Red Sox’s home opener, but are due to return to Liverpool this week, leaving fans wondering if there are more changes to come., and if so, what those changes could be.

It seems as though Comolli has been made to carry the can for what has been a disastrous league campaign, with Liverpool nowhere near the owners stated aim of a top four finish. It was always going to be much easier for the owners to get rid of Comolli than Kenny Dalglish. There is no real emotional connection between Comolli and the fanbase, certainly nowhere near the connection Kenny Dalglish enjoys. There was also the fact that the majority of fans don’t really know what exactly Comolli’s job was.

Director of football has always been one of those jobs that nobody quite knows just what it entails. It’s like that person you meet at a party who tells you they work in ‘solutions’ or one of those other indefinable corporate jobs. To the best of my knowledge (and I may well be wrong here), the duties of a Director of Football are to look after all aspects of the playing staff other than coaching and tactics. When it comes to transfers, I always believed that Kenny Dalglish would have identified which players he wanted, and then it was Comolli’s job to try and agree a fee and get the transfer done.

Last summer, Liverpool spent big in a bid to regain a position in the Premier League’s top four and the Champions League qualification that comes with it. Huge fees were paid for players such as Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson as well as the British-record transfer fee paid for Andy Carroll. It’s fair to say that, despite the signings showing some recent signs of improvement, they have by no means provided value for money. Therein lies the problem for the owners.

It was always a slightly ludicrous notion to suggest that Kenny Dalglish had little to no input on transfers, as some fans seem to think. For starters, Dalglish said that all of the players signed, where done so at his behest. Also, for all of his faults, Dalglish has shown remarkable loyalty and faith in those much-maligned players, by playing them regularly even when their performances have not merited a starting place in the team. It is unlikely Dalglish, or any manager, would have shown such loyalty to those players had they been foisted upon him rather than being his choice, especially as such loyalty may yet cost him his job.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from FSG removing Comolli from his post? There are a few possibilities.

Firstly, it is possible that the owners believe that the problems Liverpool have had this season begin and end with Comolli, so will take no further action with regards to firing anyone else. I believe that this is unlikely, as it would be in my opinion, an incredibly short-sighted and naive view to take. Yes, it is clear that the transfers made have not remotely provided value for money, but it is also true that on many occasions this season the team has looked underprepared and unmotivated for games, team selection has been wrong, as has the use of substitutions. Too often this season the tactics have been completely wrong. None of these problems have anything to do with Damien Comolli.

Secondly, it is possible that Comolli’s departure may mean that Kenny Dalglish steps aside as manager in the summer and takes that role. I believe this is also unlikely because I truly believe that if Kenny Dalglish ever thought he was not the right man to manage Liverpool, he’d graciously bow out and let the right man take over. Dalglish’s still being manager suggests to me that he still believes he’s the right man for the job, which in turn means he won’t step aside anytime soon. Also, there is the problem that Dalglish’s presence as a Director of Football may be off-putting to potential managers as they wouldn’t want the spectre of such an iconic and popular figure looming large in the background. Just ask Roy Hodgson how that goes.

Thirdly, there is the possibility that Comolli’s dismissal is a warning shot to Dalglish, that he should shape up or ship out. There may be a bit of truth to this, but I do believe that Kenny Dalglish does still have the full support of the owners, but they It may just be that FSG are acknowledging that many fans are not happy with the way the season has gone and with the direction the club is going in, and have taken action.

There definitely seemed to be a response from the players at the FA Cup semi-final on Saturday. For the first time in months, whatever was said at half-time seemed to have any kind of effect, and it was a positive effect at that. After a pretty poor first-half showing, Liverpool came out and played with far more purpose and belief than they have displayed in months and played some excellent football in the second half, eventually coming away with a deserved 2-1 win.

There is also the possibility that Kenny Dalglish has said that he cannot work under a Director of Football, so that’s why Comolli was removed from his position. This seems really unlikely to me, as Dalglish has been a Director of Football a couple of times in his career, so will know better than most how to develop a good working relationship with one. That may actually have been part of the problem with Comolli. I always got the impression that their working relationship was so good and their faith in each others’ ability to do the job was so high, that they were incapable of being critical enough with each other and themselves, and the team suffered as a result. Both Dalglish and Comolli have been on record saying that the players have done a “fantastic job” and that the squad “is complete”, despite all evidence to the contrary, and FSG has recognised this and made a change.

It’s also within the realm of possibility that Comolli threw in the towel himself. I think we all know the truly horrible feeling of having giving something your absolute best efforts, done all you can think to do, but still fall short of expectations. It’s no secret that Comolli has used statistical analysis in order to try and find success, which goes some way to explaining why Downing, Henderson and Adam, all amongst the Premier League’s most creative players last season, were signed. It is possible that Comolli is at a loss to explain why those players have no delivered so far, and got sick of all of the flak that he and the club were taking for the transfer fees paid for those players and decided to call it a day. It’s definitely possible, but I don’t believe Comolli’s the kind of guy to pick up his ball and go home because of a bit of criticism and some frustrating results.

Comolli wasn’t the only departure that day. Liverpool announced that their Head of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Peter Brukner, is to leave at the end of the season. With Peter Brukner, I got the impression that the reason for his departure was that he was brought in to set up a department, not to run it long-term, so now that what he was brought in to implement is up and running, his role has come to an end, rather than he was fired for any reason.

It is unclear just what the purpose of FSG’s visit to Liverpool this week will be. I don’t think that FSG will fire Dalglish, and I’m not totally convinced they should. They may well say to him that he should step down at the end of the season, and hope that an FA Cup win will provide the perfect swan song to his managerial career, but I don’t believe he’ll be summarily dismissed.

There is also the matter of appointing Comolli’s successor as Director of Football. FSG seem to really like that particular model of running a club and seem to want to persist with it. There have been a few names linked with the job already, and it would seem strange to me if FSG had acted without having a replacement in mind, so it will be interesting to see what happens this week.

Why the F*@K is Montpellier so good?

Without the big-spending of PSG, the support of Marseille or the incredible front office of Lyon, Montpellier are on top of Ligue 1. Figuring out why a team promoted just three years ago is leading the title race could prove to be even more confusing than their success itself. Is it because the “top dogs” don’t have any teeth? Or is something special happening?

The Top Dogs:

Lyon, over the past few years have proven to be the most successful club at buying low and selling high when it comes to talent. They’ve sold on players like Benzema, Malouda, Essien and Ben Arfa; all of whom were acquired from middling teams in Ligue 1 and put into the veritable talent showcase of the Champions League. However, the ceiling appears to have been reached, most notably through their inability to find a buyer for Michel Bastos over the last few transfer periods. Bastos, presumably one of the most talented wingers in Europe and a World Cup starter for Brazil in 2010, is at the turning point in his career where he is as good as he will ever be. Nonetheless, his age essentially guarantees that his next contract will be his last.

PSG have become “Manchester City: French Edition” over the past season, winning bids on some of the more promising players from all over the world, with a bottomless pool of money and a conviction to improve their quality with blank checks. Their transfers, like teams in similar situations (Malaga, Man City, Chelsea, et al.) appear to have been scouted through video game rosters and ratings, as opposed to scouring the earth for hidden gems.

To generate income, most teams in France tend to hold on to players for as long as possible in the hope of cashing in on their talent or notoriety. PSG are going the other direction. If some talent is held back in Ligue 1 for a king’s ransom, then PSG would be the one’s paying to get their kings. Yet they still (and may always) lack that indefinable characteristic of the truly great teams– that intractable pedigree of accomplishments, both recent and traditional. If PSG ends up on top at the end of the season, it can be explained away that they simply bought it.

If Marseille were to win, it would be the result of overcoming the perennial implosion that has affected the team since the glory days of the early 1990s. In any given season it seems that Marseille can only beat themselves; an opponent who they have damn near stomped to death on many occasions as of late. Marseille fields some of the best players in France at their respective position: Gignac, Remy, Cheyrou, Valbuena, Mandanda, etc. In fact, one gets the impression that if they took all the French players on Marseille’s squad and declared them the national team, they would have a pretty good argument for being one of the better national teams in Europe. But they won’t win the league. Whether it could be just the pressure of playing in a situation where your own fans anxiously await the time when they can turn on you, or just awful management… it just won’t happen for Marseille this year.

And now to our unlikely hero:

Is Montpellier succeeding based on the failures of the powerhouses? Or is there something genuinely remarkable happening?

Montpellier have the best goal differential (+26 for now) and the best striker in Ligue 1 (Olivier Giroud with 18 goals so far), additionally, they possess only a few players that have been tracked by larger teams and even fewer players that have been capped by the FFF during what has been one of the more miserable eras in its history. How are they doing it?

You world have to go back to 1991 to see anything you’d call success at a high level (a draw against Manchester United in the Cup Winner’s Cup). Nothing about their table position seems to make sense. Their talisman, Olivier Giroud, was playing for Tours until last season when he left for Montpellier. Mid-table, Ligue 2, Tours (a team so unremarkable that he’s already listed as a “Notable Former Player” on Wikipedia).

Certainly he’s the most valuable player for Montpellier, but a striker cannot exist in a vacuum. Statistics aside, the real star may very well prove to be Younès Belhanda. Belhanda is a local kid and Moroccan national who is having a marquee season after a few stutters early on. He’s had an assist or a goal almost every game since the restart of the year and ought to be on track for a big transfer this summer.

Belhanda may prove more enticing than even Giroud come transfer season, as his age and potential are the sort of thing you’d expect a top four deal-seeking English team to be salivating over. He’s a safe bet, as somewhat incomplete target strikers are more of a gamble for teams than utility mid-fielders with a lot of room for growth.

As a player, Belhanda is living up to his potential, and as a team Montpellier is living up to theirs, which is perhaps the reason they are accomplishing what no one would expect them to do. Surveying them as a squad, they shouldn’t be much better than any other bit-part player in Ligue 1… but sometimes a bit-part player steals the scene, and in Montpellier’s case, the league.

Estonia make European football history!

On Tuesday, history will be made in European football by one of its smallest nations.

On Tuesday evening, France will play Estonia in their final warm-up for their EURO 2012 campaign. It will be the last opportunity for Laurent Blanc to try a few fringe players out, or maybe try a different formation, or to give his starting side for the EURO’s more experience of playing together, before their EURO opener against England six days later.

This game will probably mean far more to Estonia however, as once they’ve played France, they will make history by becoming the first team to have played each of the nations currently in UEFA.

Estonia is a small nation of about 1.3m people nestled on the Baltic Sea, which lies to the west of Russia and due south of Finland. Football is extremely popular in Estonia and the Estonian league system consists of 12 leagues over 5 tiers of football, with 146 teams competing.

Unlike some of the other confederations of world football, who don’t have too many members, such as CONMEBOL or the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation), who have relatively small numbers of members, it is difficult to play all of the other UEFA members due to the sheer number of different countries you have to have played, with UEFA currently comprising a whopping 53 members.

Playing every other UEFA nation was made harder following the large expansion of UEFA in the early 1990’s, which followed the fall of communism and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia into individual nations. UEFA has kept expanding ever since, admitting countries such as Kazakhstan in 2002, and Montenegro in 2007, with more countries seeking UEFA membership.

Estonia’s achievement is even more special when you remember that Estonia only regained its independence following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1990, and were admitted into UEFA in 1992. Estonia played some of the UEFA nations in their first spell as an independent country between 1920 and 1940 before they were swallowed into the USSR, such as Germany.

Estonia owes their impending record to a bit of luck in terms of who they have been drawn against in qualifiers and some organisation by their FA, the EJL, to play the other nations in friendly matches. Estonia have been trying to arrange this friendly with France for a couple of years, after being drawn in the same EURO 2012 qualifying group as Serbia meant that they only had France left to play, just so they will be the first team to complete the set of European opponents.

Estonia got off to a bit of a rough start upon their readmission into UEFA. They at one point went three years without a win between 1993 and 1996. The team achieved infamy when they failed to turn up to a home game against Scotland in protest at FIFA’s decision to move the kickoff time, due to Scotland complaining about the brightness of the floodlights, a decision that was only taken the morning of the game.

Estonian football is on the rise following the national team’s excellent performance in the EURO2012 qualifiers, where they made the playoff, losing to Ireland over two legs. Estonia currently are ranked 54 in the world, which puts them ahead of EURO 2012 co-hosts Poland, as well as many other nations who have recently qualified for major tournaments. Earlier this year, Estonia achieved their highest ever world ranking when they managed to crack the top fifty for the first time, achieving a ranking of 47. Considering it was less than four years ago Estonia had their lowest ever ranking of 137, this is quite an achievement.

The Sad Story of Michael Johnson

It is a sad reality of football that players get released from their contracts. This happens on a regular basis and for a variety of reasons. The vast majority of these names pass way under the radar, usually consigned to nothing more than a line or two on the club website, before hopefully finding a new club.

Last week, news broke about a player who had been released by a Premier League side. In fact, he’d been released in December, but the club had kept it quiet. The reason why this player’s release is notable is that could well mean the end of a career that had promised a lot when it began.

It’s hard to imagine now with Manchester City currently being the defending Premier League champions and, thanks to the enormous wealth and largesse of their owners, are able to attract some of the best players on the planet to play for them; but cast your mind back to before City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group and Thaksin Shinawatra before them, and Manchester City’s circumstances were very, very different.

During the 2006/7 season City were a team that had struggled badly in the league the previous season, and had spent the majority of the 2006/7 season flirting with relegation, playing some truly dismal football along the way. Their biggest problem was a chronic lack of goals, with City only managing to score a meagre 29 goals in the Premier League that season.

The one bright spot for City that season was the continuing emergence of some great young talent from the team’s academy. The previous season, Manchester City’s academy team had made it to the final of the FA Youth Cup, which is the leading competition for academy teams in England, losing narrowly to Liverpool in the final. There were two particular standouts in that City team; one was Daniel Sturridge and the other was central midfielder Michael Johnson. Both players joined City’s first team squad for 2006/7.

Despite City’s problems in front of goal, it was Johnson rather than Sturridge who made the bigger impact on the first team, appearing ten times in the league including a run of seven consecutive starts that was only ended by injury. That summer, Shinawatra took over at City; manager Stuart Pearce was replaced by Sven-Goran Eriksson who, thanks to Shinawatra’s money, brought in a host of big-money signings, including Elano and Martin Petrov, which brought some much-needed excitement to the team.

With all of the new faces in the team, Johnson would’ve been forgiven for thinking his first-team opportunities would have been limited, but actually, the opposite turned out to be true. Johnson was in the starting lineup straightaway and was not only acquitting himself well, but taking a starring role. People were starting to sit up and take notice; Arsenal and Liverpool reportedly expressed an interest in him and people were talking about him becoming an England regular, with many people in the game calling him the best English centre-midfield prospect since Steven Gerrard.

For once, such statements weren’t just English media hyperbole. Johnson was the real thing. He was a midfielder who was good at all facets of midfield play. Usually, when a young player, even a highly-talented one, comes into the first team, they have all of the requisite skills required by a top-level player, but don’t possess the understanding of the game that more experienced players do. Johnson was different in that he seemed to understand what he had to do immediately and he played like a seasoned veteran rather than the teenager he was. City realised that Johnson was a special player, the kind that doesn’t come around often, and wasted no time in signing him to a long-term contract.

However, that season Johnson picked up an abdominal injury that required surgery. Nobody thought too much of it at the time, especially as he was able to return to playing later that season, but early the following season he had a recurrence of the same injury and missed the rest of the season. The following season, Johnson made his comeback, scoring in a league cup match against Scunthorpe, but suffered a cruciate ligament injury in training and once again had a long spell out injured.

In a bid to get his career back on track, Johnson was loaned out to Championship side Leicester City, who were then managed by his former City manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson. However, that move didn’t work out and what was supposed to be a season-long loan ended up being terminated after only three games.

Being injured can be a pretty lonely experience for a player. Things have improved somewhat since the days where managers treated injured players like they didn’t exist, but even now injured players struggle with feeling excluded from the everyday banter and team-bonding. That was the case for Johnson, while he was out injured, he was left alone with his thoughts and gradually, doubts started to creep in.

Being a Premier League footballer is a career that comes with its own set of pressures. Sure, the money is superb, but there are people watching and judging their every move both on the pitch and off of it, and people like us writing and reading about it online. Some players take those pressures in their stride, for others, there’s an adjustment period and sadly, there are players who just can’t cope. Johnson fell into the last category.

As much as Johnson’s physical condition was a concern to City, just as concerning were the terrible abdominal pains that Johnson started to suffer from. City’s medical staff couldn’t find a physiological reason for this abdominal pain and came to the conclusion that it was psychosomatic. These pains seemed to rear their head most frequently at times when it looked like Johnson was ready for a first-team comeback.

Add to that the fact that Johnson was a young guy with money who had just moved out of his parents’ house. In the periods where he was inactive due to injury, Johnson succumbed to the usual temptations any young man faces. He wasn’t exactly diligent with his diet and as a result, his weight ballooned. He also started drinking too much and was banned from driving after two drink-drive arrests last year.

City tried their best to help him, where many other clubs would have cut him loose. For starters, they honoured his contract, and kept him around the first-team, even giving him a squad number this season. They brought in sports psychologists in a bid to help him cope with the pressures of being a professional footballer. They helped him get other forms of therapy. They even allowed him a fully-paid leave of absence in the hopes that he would be able to
overcome his problems and find a way back to football and begin to fulfil his potential.

However, this proved to be to no avail and there came a point where even a club with the resources of Manchester City couldn’t keep around a footballer who didn’t seem to want to play football anymore. Since Johnson had signed the five-year 25k/week contract after his breakthrough season, he’d made only 4 appearances for the club and hadn’t played at all for three years.

It is a measure of how highly Johnson was regarded by Manchester City as a person that they allowed him to slip away quietly without any announcement of his release at all. It is highly likely that had the picture which appeared on Twitter of an overweight Johnson in a takeaway never seen the light of day, it still wouldn’t be public knowledge that Johnson was released.

In theory, Johnson is by no means finished as a footballer. He’s only 24 and if he was able to get his body in better shape, there would be plenty of clubs happy to take a chance on such a talented player.

However, it seems as though that’s not going to happen. It seems as though Johnson has had enough of football and just wants to be left alone to live a life outside of the public eye. The only comment Johnson had after his release became public knowledge was to say “I have been attending the Priory Clinic (a famous UK clinic for people with mental health issues) for a number of years now with regard to my mental health and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.”

It will be a crying shame if a player as talented as Michael Johnson never plays again. However, the most important thing for Johnson is that he finds a way to battle his inner demons and find some happiness in the future. Hopefully his story will make other Premier League clubs think about ways they can help players, especially young players, adjust to life in the Premier League so that no other hugely talented players like Michael Johnson are not lost to the game.