Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge is Limping towards Life on the Sidelines


London – Just before Daniel Sturridge was withdrawn from proceedings on a grey northeast afternoon, he could be seen sitting on the turf clutching his left boot and looking in distress. He soon rose to his feet and headed to the bench as Roberto Firmino came on for him as one of two 74th-minute Liverpool substitutions, the striker’s expression turning to glumness as he did so. For those who follow Sturridge’s career it was a poignant moment and for the most pessimistic, further evidence that a player who once shone so brightly so often is slipping further into the darkness of a career unfulfilled.

It feels almost like a trick of the mind to remember it was only three years ago, at the climax of the 2013-14 season, that Sturridge was being spoken of as being among the most deadly finishers in Europe. It was the days of Brendan Rodgers and Luis Suárez, a doomed but thrilling title charge and, for Sturridge, 25 goals in 33 appearances. He was at his peak, ready to kick on, ready to become an Anfield legend. And then came the painful demise, literally given Sturridge’s injury record. A long and varied list, taking in more than 640 days on the sidelines since he arrived from Chelsea in January 2013, and it would not come as a surprise if that moment of distress against Newcastle was the onset of another forced absence.

That is where we are with Sturridge, and to some extent it is unfair given the player’s attempts to get himself in shape to be a potent force for Liverpool once more. He underwent hip surgery in May 2015 and, the previous Christmas, flew to Boston in order to get fit. But the knocks have taken their toll and chipped away at the player’s talents.

There have been goals – 26 in 76 appearances since the 2013-14 season – and hence excitement and intrigue at the rare start he was handed against Newcastle by Jürgen Klopp as the German looked to shake up a side that has shown a severe lack of ruthlessness in front of goal. Firmino was dropped to the bench, not a major surprise given the Brazilian’s somewhat tired displays in recent weeks, and Sturridge took his place as the focal point of a three-man attack, with Sadio Mané to his left and Mohammed Salah to his right. With Philippe Coutinho also deployed in midfield it was all set up for Liverpool’s No15, who had scored seven times in seven previous outings against Newcastle, to take his chance, in more ways than one. But ultimately he failed to do so as Liverpool drew 1-1 for the second time inside a week.

Graeme Souness, the former Liverpool captain and manager turned Sky pundit, described Sturridge’s performance as “labored”, while the judgments on social media were even more damning. The post-match statistics also did Sturridge few favors – he had just one shot on target during the entirety of his time on the pitch. And it was a decent opportunity, too, with the player clean through on goal following Ciaran Clark’s horrible slice just outside Newcastle’s area on 50 minutes. The Sturridge of old would have buried it; this version hit a tame shot straight at Rob Elliot’s feet and watched on as Salah also failed to convert the rebound.

In fairness to Sturridge, he did try to impact proceedings, during the first half in particular. Facing a deep-lying and compact back four, he drifted back in order to pull defenders out of position as well as to initiate attacks. On 19 minutes he put Salah through with a well-weighted pass and shortly after it was possible to hear the traveling supporters chant his name. They clearly appreciated Sturridge’s efforts, which while lacking Firmino’s relentless pressing did involve the closing down of opponents, as seen after just two minutes when Sturridge forced Newcastle’s captain Jamaal Lascelles to clear the ball out for a throw. But Sturridge’s display deteriorated after the break and it felt symbolic that he should be replaced by Firmino – for that is what has happened to the England international on a broader level following Klopp’s arrival at Anfield two years ago. A one-time regular is now a regular back-up option.

“It’s time,” the manager said when asked before kick-off why he had decided to start Sturridge, and few could disagree with that given Liverpool went into Sunday’s encounter having scored just seven times from their previous 126 shots. A high-quality finisher was required at a time when many of Liverpool’s top-four rivals have one of their own – Romelu Lukaku, Sergio Agüero, Alvaro Morata, Harry Kane. There was a time when Sturridge could stand shoulder to shoulder with them all, but no longer. The sharpness is not there, either with his movement or his finishing, and who knows when he will start for Liverpool again? Given their next two Premier League games are against Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – either side of an important Champions League trip to Maribor – it is unlikely to be for some time.

“He was so disappointing,” Souness said. It was, and is, hard to disagree.

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Kevin De Bruyne’s Perfect Touch Delights Pep Guardiola, Keeps Silvas at Bay


London- Just before the hour mark, and as Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Leroy Sané amid applause from the home supporters on the back of a devastating display in front of goal, Kevin De Bruyne could be seen speaking with David Silva and Sergio Agüero. The Belgian went over to each in turn and appeared to be telling them what to do. It was impossible to pick up what he was saying, but given everything that had happened up until then, it would not have been a surprise to have learned that his message was a simple one: “Keep going, lads, I’ve got this.”

Manchester City’s biggest home win over Liverpool since September 1935 was a collective pummelling – and one aided by Sadio Mané’s initially controversial, but ultimately justified, sending-off – but what it highlighted amid the showers and sunshine of an early autumn afternoon is just how good De Bruyne is, and just how central he could be, in more ways than one, to City reclaiming their status as champions.

The 26-year-old was sensational here, assisting City’s first two goals, scored by Agüero and Jesus, playing a role in their fourth – put away by Sané – and generally providing a muscular, intelligent and technically excellent display from an advanced midfield position.

De Bruyne did not stand out by a distance among those in blue, but he did stand out, and at times appeared to be playing a completely different game to everyone else, such was the time and space he was able to find on the pitch. Little wonder Agüero and Silva listened so intently to his instructions – they knew as much as anyone that De Bruyne was in control of proceedings; that he well and truly had this.

“I am so happy with his performance,” said Pep Guardiola of City’s No17. “He is good on balls on the feet. He is good running, attacking the space. He is a complete player, one of our captains.”

With his two assists here, De Bruyne has now provided 39 in all competitions since arriving from Wolfsburg for £51m in August 2015. There have also been 23 goals and numerous man-of-the-match displays. Yet he cannot consider himself undroppable, and especially while Guardiola continues to deploy a system containing a three-man midfield in which Fernandinho provides the defensive support to two playmakers.

De Bruyne is competing to fill one of those spots not only with David Silva but also Bernado Silva, who is increasingly getting up to speed after his late arrival from the Confederations Cup and having signed from Monaco for £43.6m in May. Then there is Yaya Touré and Ilkay Gündogan to consider, with the latter returning to City’s matchday squad on Saturday for the first time since tearing cruciate knee ligaments in December. The competition is fierce and standards for those involved in the battle for recognition simply cannot drop.

De Bruyne appears to be aware of that if his display here is anything to go by. Deployed alongside David Silva for a fourth league match in succession, he tormented those in red from start to finish, starting off in a right-sided position but continuously moving across and through the lines. On 20 minutes he popped up on the left and caused Liverpool’s right-back Trent Alexander Arnold such concern with his incisive running that the teenager, so assured so far this season, found himself with no other option but to yank the midfielder down just outside the area and subsequently receive a yellow card.

Five minutes later came De Bruyne’s first assist and it told you so much about his assurance and ability. There was a touch to control the ball after it came his way from Fernandinho inside the centre circle and then, with nonchalant ease, a perfectly weighted through ball to set Agüero running free through the heart of the visitors’ defence. The Argentinian’s goal made it six from six home league games against Liverpool.

The second assist, in first-half stoppage time, was more straightforward but no less perfectly executed – a left-wing cross that Jesus fired past Simon Mignolet via a header from an unmarked position – and then, on 77 minutes, came the pass to Sané, which eventually led to the German scoring the first of his two goals. Again De Bruyne was in a central position and, again, Liverpool had no idea how to handle him.

It should be noted that post-Mané’s sending off Liverpool were incredibly poor, all but giving up en route to their heaviest defeat under Jürgen Klopp, but that should not take away from City’s performance, one full of swagger and ruthlessness, and which suggests that for all their defensive frailties, which again were on show here, they have enough in attack to win the title.

And at the heart of it was De Bruyne, the reserved figure who catches the eye time and time again. Drop him if you dare, Pep. “This season he is in a good mood, maybe because he is a father,” said Guardiola. “We are a lucky club to have Kevin.”

The Guardian Sport

Roberto Firmino Stands Tall for Liverpool Amid Familiar Defensive Frailties

London – Liverpool arrive in Germany on Monday in less than ideal shape for their Champions League qualifying play-off first leg with Hoffenheim. Questions are once again being asked about their defensive capabilities following a somewhat shambolic showing at Watford on Saturday and with uncertainty continuing to surround the future of Philippe Coutinho.

Fresh season it may be but for Liverpool that fresh optimism is already being tested. It is too early, of course, for total doom and gloom, and especially so with Jürgen Klopp around. Liverpool’s fiery manager will no doubt have his team fired up for Tuesday’s encounter at the Rhein-Neckar-Arena, instilling in them the belief that they can take a crucial step towards their ambition of returning to the group stages of Europe’s elite competition for the first time in three years.

For Klopp the match represents a return to a venue he knows well from his Borussia Dortmund days while for one of his players in particular, the sense of familiarity will be even stronger as he attempts to emphasise his credentials as a vital part of Liverpool’s pursuit of former glories. Roberto Firmino spent four-and-a-half years at Hoffenheim before moving to Merseyside for £29m in June 2015. During that time the Brazil forward developed a reputation for being one of the most hard-working, astute and creative players in the Bundesliga, something that has burgeoned during his time at Liverpool after a difficult start during the final days of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at the club.

It was not until Klopp arrived in October 2015 that things changed. The 25-year-old was moved into a central attacking role as part of the manager’s fluid 4-3-3 formation and immediately flourished, and it was somewhat of a shame that Liverpool’s late collapse at Vicarage Road overshadowed another excellent display by their false No9, who is now their actual No9 following a change of shirt number over the summer.

It was Firmino who led Liverpool’s second-half fightback after they found themselves 2-1 down at the interval, using his clever and relentless movement to unsettle Watford’s back four as well as being the man who directly contributed to the two goals the visitors scored in that period – playing the pass that led to the 55th-minute penalty, which he scored himself, as well as the lofted cross-cum-shot that Mohamed Salah converted to make it 3-2 shortly after.

Had Miguel Britos not equalised three minutes into injury time with a goal that was scored from an offside position but nevertheless highlighted Liverpool’s brittleness at set pieces, with Stefano Okaka having done the same via a header after eight minutes, it is likely there would be more positivity surrounding Klopp’s team right now, and specifically focused on their attacking play, which once again was excellent at the weekend.

Salah shone on his debut after his £34m move from Roma in June, while on the other flank Sadio Mané simply picked up from where he left off last season, scoring a sumptuous goal on 29 minutes and generally terrorising those in yellow and black with his devastating pace.

And in between them was Firmino, a player who can be fully appreciated only by being observed in the flesh such is the amount of work he does off the ball, something Klopp alluded to last month: “People say he does not score enough. What?! He is the best player without scoring with how well he reads the game for the benefit of others.”

Having scored 47 times in 151 appearances for Hoffenheim, Firmino has maintained a scoring rate of almost one goal every three games at Liverpool (24 in 80 starts across all competitions) but, as Klopp, says, his benefit to the side is broader than that. There are the runs into channels to drag defenders away, the runs at defenders to start a counter press and, as witnessed on Saturday, the perfectly weighted passes under pressure that led directly to scoring chances, for himself as well as others.

What felt apparent at Watford is that Firmino is now the established leader of Liverpool’s attack, and while it would be devastating for the club to lose Coutinho – with Klopp’s ambiguous comments after the Watford game only adding to the sense that the 25-year-old may well be on his way to Barcelona after all – they at least have another Brazilian who can be relied upon to get, and keep, those in red on the front foot.

Life under Klopp has not been plain sailing for Firmino. The forward suffered a slump in form during the winter months of last season, a period when he was banned and fined £20,000 for drink-driving. But he undeniably appears revitalised and refocused before his return to south-west Germany this week.

Hoffenheim, upwardly mobile under the management of Julian Nagelsmann, pose a serious danger to Liverpool but they will be more wary of their opponents than the other way around, and particularly so of Firmino, the man one German newspaper once described as a “master of moving around without anyone noticing”.

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Sol Campbell: ‘I’m Prepared to Go to a Non-league Club and Just Get a Win Bonus’


London- During his playing days Sol Campbell went about his business, on and off the pitch, with ice-cold assurance, so it is gripping, on a warm afternoon in west London, to hear him speak with burning desperation about his desire to become a manager. The former England defender may look relaxed as he sips a cappuccino outside an Italian restaurant off the King’s Road but it soon becomes clear that he is at his wits’ end about, as he puts it, “building another career”. Campbell has standing, qualifications and coaching experience but he cannot make the breakthrough and such is his frustration that the 42-year-old is willing to offer his services for free.

“It’s proving difficult and if I have to start at the bottom, I will,” he says. “People may think that I just want to manage in the Premier League but I’m prepared to go to a non-league club, and if they can’t pay me a salary just pay me a win bonus. I’m up for that. I won’t be up for that four or five years down the line but definitely for the first year, as long as it’s a good club with ambition. I’m itching to start, I just need a chance, even just an interview in which I can say: ‘Take me for free and I’ll show you what I can do.’”

It was in May 2012 that Campbell called time on a playing career that earned him 73 caps and two Premier League titles with Arsenal and he has largely spent the proceeding five years preparing for a life in management. A course with the Football Association of Wales earned Campbell a Uefa pro licence and then in February he took up an invitation to become assistant coach of Trinidad & Tobago, working alongside the former Wrexham, Swansea, Crewe and T&T centre-half Dennis Lawrence as part of the island’s attempt to qualify for next summer’s World Cup.

“It’s going really well given the budget and infrastructure we have is limited,” says Campbell. “With the head coach Dennis, Stern John [a fellow assistant coach and a former T&T striker] and a few others, the quality of training has been excellent and we’ve gone toe to toe with some of the big countries only to have been let down by some interesting decisions from officials.

“I go over in two-and-a-half-week blocks and usually eight days before the game we’re building up for. I mainly work on the defensive side but I’m also there to add a general level of quality to the setup. I’ve enjoyed the challenge.”

Alongside his work in the Caribbean, Campbell has visited Italy to watch training sessions at Sampdoria and Milan and travelled to the United States to observe his former Arsenal team-mate Patrick Vieira manage New York City. Each experience has been enriching and strengthened not only Campbell’s desire to manage but his openness to doing so abroad. To that end he is planning to develop his language skills. “A little bit of Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French,” he says. “Something that gives me a base to work from.”

But the ideal scenario for Campbell would be to secure a job in England, because he has a young family, so he can continue his ambassadorial work with Arsenal and because that is where he spent the entirety of a playing career that began at Tottenham Hotspur in 1992, ended at Newcastle United in May 2011 (he officially called it a day 12 months later) and in between earned him a reputation as one of the finest central defenders of his generation. Familiarity breeds comfort but for Campbell the search for a post on these shores has become increasingly disheartening.

“I’ve spoken to a couple of agents to help get the word out that I’m available but so far there’s only been tentative inquiries,” he says. “Some clubs may be thinking: ‘We don’t want to talk to Sol because of his history,’ but that’s what an interview is for – meet the person and get to know what he’s actually like. If I don’t impress you in an interview then fine, but at least give me that chance. That’s all I want; to talk to a chairman or owner about my philosophy and what I can do for their team. I’m a winner. I love to build. I’ve got great ideas. I’ve got the passion. I’m very diligent, and if given a chance I’ll work my rear end off to be a success.”
Campbell’s passion is emphatic and what also catches the attention is his mention of “history”, which, it becomes obvious, is in reference to his outspokenness on British football’s attitude to race. In an interview with the Guardian in September 2013, Campbell suggested “archaic” attitudes to black players in this country would force him to begin his coaching career abroad and six months later, in an extract from his biography that appeared in the Sunday Times, he accused the Football Association of being “institutionally racist”.

In both instances it can be argued Campbell has a point, and as for opportunities for black coaches the situation has, if anything, got worse. In September 2013 there were four British and Irish BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) managers working across England’s 92 professional clubs – that figure is now down to two: Chris Hughton at Brighton & Hove Albion and Keith Curle at Carlisle United. Last month Heather Rabbatts stood down as a nonexecutive director of the FA because of her frustration at the lack of British black coaches in football.

Campbell would, then, be within his rights to stand by his views but he is keen to stay away from such controversy. “I don’t want to rub anyone up the wrong way,” he explains. “I’ve got to the stage where I don’t want to keep banging the same drum. I’m a doer and I just want to do it. Whatever attitudes, prejudices, stereotypical ideas that are in front of me, I will break them. But the only way I can break them is by getting a job, and if I need to start in the gutter, I will start in the gutter and work my way up. Money isn’t an issue.”

And how would a Sol Campbell-led side, here or abroad, perform? “Very defensive but amazing on the counterattack,” he says. “Like Arsenal of old.”

There follows a chuckle, with Campbell clearly aware that replicating the style of play that made him, Vieira and others not only title winners under Arsène Wenger but invincibles is easier said than done.

Campbell is serious, however, when tackling the assertion that one reason he may struggle to break into management is because of the widely held view that great players generally fail to become great managers. “Zidane. Cruyff. Rijkaard. Pep. Even Deschamps – they’ve all achieved a heck of a lot as managers and they were all great players,” he replies. “So no, I’m not buying that. It’s about being given a chance, that’s all I want. And once I get into the system, that’s it, I’ll be flying.”

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Frank de Boer Arrives at Crystal Palace With Proven Vision to Pull Off Grand Plan


London – Rewind to the 1998 World Cup and Dennis Bergkamp’s winning goal for Holland against Argentina at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. It is a moment of breathtaking skill that has been much replayed but often lost in the telling is the pass that made it happen. It came from the boot of Frank de Boer as he edged towards the halfway line and, as well as displaying great range, highlighted a quality Crystal Palace are banking on the Dutchman bringing to the club, having appointed him as their latest manager: vision.

Confirmed as Sam Allardyce’s successor at Selhurst Park on a three-year deal, De Boer’s principal task is keeping Palace in the Premier League. However, the decision of the club’s chairman, Steve Parish, and the American major shareholders, David Blitzer and Josh Harris, to opt for De Boer over, say, Mauricio Pellegrino and Sean Dyche, is also based on a long-term strategy of developing young talent and integrating it successfully into the first team, allowing Palace to become less reliant on big-money signings and quick-fix loan deals, as has been their way in recent years. In that regard De Boer fits the bill perfectly.

After all, this is a man who in his three years in charge of Ajax’s youth academy, from 2007-2010, helped nurture Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind and Toby Alderweireld, players who also benefited from De Boer’s coaching when he took charge of the first team in December 2010, alongside, among others, Jan Vertonghen, Siem de Jong and Jasper Cillessen. It is some roll call – a group who not only improved under De Boer but won Eredivisie titles before moving on for fees that allowed Ajax to invest money in and give opportunities to more young talent, such as Davy Klaassen, who has just joined Everton for £26m.

During his nine-year coaching spell at Ajax, up until May 2016, De Boer undeniably underlined not only his eye for a player but his ability to get the best of the resources at his disposal and the hope for Palace is he can transfer that alchemy from Amsterdam to Beckenham.

It will not be straightforward. For a start there is no guarantee Palace’s academy contains players whose potential is anywhere near that of Eriksen, Alderweireld, Blind and the rest, and even if there are, such are the physical rigours of the Premier League they may struggle to assert themselves sufficiently should they complete the rise to first-team level. But having become Palace’s fifth long-term manager in four years, De Boer has been told he will have time to fully implement his way of working; to give youth – from this country and abroad – a chance and if it does not work at first, try and try again.

For De Boer this is crucial, given his last managerial stint, at Internazionale, ended last November after 14 games in charge across 85 days. It was a brief tenure at a particularly shambolic time in the Italian club’s history and led to De Boer arguing, quite justifiably, that he needed more time to succeed at San Siro. The 47-year-old’s decision to move to England, having previously been linked with vacancies at Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Everton, has in part been based on assurances he will not be sacked hastily for a second time in succession.

There can be no guarantee, especially in the Premier League. Seven managers were sacked in the division last season, including one at Palace, Alan Pardew, after a start to the campaign in which the club slumped to within a point of the relegation zone just before Christmas. Should De Boer find himself in the same position at the same point in the year, then for all the talk of long-term plans it would not come as a shock if Parish pulled the trigger again. So De Boer will have to succeed in the short as well as the long term and his five and a half years in charge of Ajax’s first team suggest he is capable of that.

Having been appointed manager on a temporary basis as part of Johan Cruyff’s velvet revolution, De Boer made an instant impact at the club he represented as a player for 11 years and helped win the Champions League, alongside his twin brother, Ronald. He won his first match, a 2-0 Champions League game away to Milan, and, having then been given the job on a long-term basis, led Ajax to the Eredivisie title at the first time of asking.

Three successive title triumphs followed and while it is easy to belittle that achievement given this is Ajax, the 2010-11 championship was in fact their first in seven years and the reason De Boer took over as manager from Martin Jol in the first place was because the club was in a mess: bloated after years of unsuccessful spending and racked by an internal conflict until Cruyff eventually got his way over the board and instilled a technical heart at the club made up of former players. Alongside De Boer it included Wim Jonk, Marc Overmars and Bergkamp.

Cruyff wanted to see Ajax return to their guiding principle of developing young talent and giving them a chance to flourish in the first team, with De Boer leading the operation. And that is what they, and he, did, with the fruit of that work most vividly illustrated by the side who reached the Europa League final last month. Led by De Boer’s successor, Peter Bosz, the average age was 22 years and 282 days.

In De Boer’s final two seasons Ajax missed out on the title to PSV Eindhoven but on both occasions they finished second and ended the 2015-16 campaign with 82 points, their highest total under De Boer. There was no slow death to his tenure, the standard remained high throughout and during that time Ajax played a brand of football that was easy on the eye and had definite ties to the club’s distinct traditions.

Influenced by Cruyff during his time in Ajax’s academy and by Louis van Gaal in the first team, De Boer implemented the principles of both men as manager. His players were encouraged to express themselves, to be tactically flexible but also to work as a unit, specifically when pressing aggressively in order to trigger a quick transition. It worked more often than not and along the way there were some particularly notable scalps, including Barcelona, who were beaten 2-1 at the Amsterdam Arena in November 2013, and 13 months earlier Manchester City, who were defeated 3-1 at the same venue. Ajax all but ended City’s hopes of qualifying for that season’s Champions League knockout stages with a performance that brimmed with fast and elusive attacking play.

That should excite everyone associated with Palace and it helps the club’s cause that De Boer favours a 4-3-3 formation that deploys traditional wingers. Palace have just the men in Andros Townsend and last season’s outstanding performer, Wilfried Zaha. The 24-year-old signed a five-year contract extension with the club last month and, as an academy graduate, represents the type of player De Boer is tasked with developing while also keeping the Eagles soaring in the top flight. It is an ambitious brief but the signs are that Palace have the best man possible to see it through.

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Alexandre Lacazette: Lethal, in Demand and Hungry to Prove Worth for France

Alexandre Lacazette has been called up for the first time in two years by the France coach, Didier Deschamps. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

It is early March and time is running out for Lyon in their Europa League last‑16 first leg with Roma at Stade des Lumières. The hosts lead 3-2 but are desperate to extend their advantage before the return in Italy. They drive forward and, two minutes into stoppage time, Mathieu Valbuena plays a sideways pass to Alexandre Lacazette who, lurking in a central position just outside the visitors’ area, takes a touch before hitting a swerving drive into the top corner of the net.

Nothing unusual there – the goal was Lacazette’s 27th of the season – but his celebration raised eyebrows. The striker stood still, steely faced, and waited for his teammates to come to him. Asked afterwards if what he did had been a tribute to Eric Cantona’s famous celebration after he scored for Manchester United against Sunderland in 1996, Lacazette replied that it had not. Instead, he was too exhausted to do anything else.

Cue more surprise. Because Lacazette, part of the France squad to face England in Paris on Tuesday evening, is a player whose burgeoning reputation has in part been built on a high work-rate. The 26-year-old is a relentless mover, someone who never stops running, never stops closing down opposition defenders, never stands still. Well, not usually anyway.

“Lacazette is the type of guy you have to explicitly tell: ‘Please, ease up,’” says the European football writer Andy Brassell. “He gives everything in every game, which has led to a few knocks and injuries. But it’s in Lacazette’s nature to work hard, and particularly so for Lyon as they’re his childhood team. Wearing that shirt means a lot to him.”

The commitment is total but that alone does not explain why the boy from the Mermoz district of France’s third-largest city is not only part of the national setup but has also drawn interest from clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid. Along with the hard work there is also high-quality movement, pace, link-up play and ruthlessly efficient finishing.

Lacazette has scored 127 goals in 274 appearances for Lyon since his debut for them in May 2010 and in 2015 became the first player in the club’s history to score 25 goals in a Ligue 1 season, something Karim Benzema and Sonny Anderson did not manage.

The most recent campaign brought his best output for Les Gones – 37 goals in 45 appearances, with 28 of those coming in France’s top flight. Lacazette’s shot‑conversion rate (33.3%) was the best of any forward who scored 20-plus goals in Europe’s leading five divisions – better than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (26.7), Harry Kane (26.4), Luis Suárez (24.2) and, yes, Lionel Messi (20.7) and Cristiano Ronaldo (15.4).

“Lacazette is a natural talent,” says Julien Brun, a Paris-based commentator for beIN Sports. “Physically he is not that strong but he is very fast, hard-working and clever. He is loved by Lyon fans but supporters of other teams in France are more skeptical about him. Some even mock Lacazette by calling him ‘Penalzette’ because, they say, most of his goals come from penalties.”

Eleven of Lacazette’s 37 goals for Lyon last season did indeed come from the spot, but there were plenty of occasions when he showed that he is not only a clinical finisher but also an all-round one. There was the goal against Marseille that displayed Lacazette’s composure from an acute angle, the one away to AZ Alkmaar that showed he is comfortable with both feet, the one against Nice that he set up himself with a Dennis Bergkamp-at-Newcastle like touch and then there was that long-range strike against Roma, which was as unstoppable as it was late.

What Lacazette has also displayed since graduating from Lyon’s much-respected Tola Vologe academy is adaptability. Given his debut by Claude Puel he started as a winger before being moved into attack by Puel’s successor, Rémi Garde. Lacazette has subsequently thrived, having been deployed as the support and main striker in a 4-4-2 as well as the sole forward in a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, with the latter used by Bruno Génésio, who took over from Garde in 2015, for much of last season, one in which Lyon finished fourth in Ligue 1 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League.

All of which makes Lacazette’s record at international level somewhat curious. Having scored France’s winning goal in the final of the Under-19 European Championship in 2010 he seemed destined to make a quick impact for Les Bleus’ senior side. But since his debut against Uruguay in June 2013 Lacazette has made only 10 further appearances under Didier Deschamps, scoring once. He did not feature during France’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat by Sweden last Friday and although an argument can be made that there is simply too much competition ahead of him, primarily in the shape of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappé, there is also a prevailing view that Deschamps simply does not rate him. Lacazette’s inclusion in the squad to face Sweden and England was his first call-up in almost two years.

“What may prove key to Lacazette’s progress with France is his relationship with Griezmann,” says Brassell. “They have been friends for decades having grown up together [Griezmann is from Mâcon, a city just outside Lyon] and played together at youth level for France. They have a great understanding on and off the pitch and with Deschamps having decided to build the team around Griezmann he may decide that the best way to get the most of his main man is to pair him with Lacazette on a regular basis.”

That is believed to be a feeling shared by Atlético, who rather than wanting to sign Lacazette as a replacement for Griezmann see him as the perfect partner. Griezmann is also said to be keen on his countryman joining him in Madrid and despite the court of arbitration for sport recently upholding Atlético’s transfer ban for the upcoming summer window, Lacazette is expected to sign for them, most probably joining in January for a fee in the region of €50m.

What is for sure is that he has outgrown Lyon and the next step is to prove to the wider world that he is the real deal, a process that could be kickstarted at Stade de France on Tuesday, with Deschamps expected to deploy Lacazette at some point against Gareth Southgate’s side.

“His character is very strong,” says Brun. “You can see that by the way he has lived up to expectations ever since coming into Lyon’s first team. Lacazette answered the questions about him in a positive way and he is young enough and good enough to do that for France as well.”

(The Guardian)

Wladimir Klitschko: ‘This May Sound Arrogant, But I Am Like Mount Everest’

Wladimir Klitschko: ‘One thing I believe is I don’t feel my age. It’s not empty words. I am getting in the best shape of my life.’

Stanglwirt is a sprawling bio-hotel located in the Austrian Alps and which at first glance looks like the setting for a slow-burning, creepy horror movie. With its mountainous background and somewhat kitsch interior – heavy wood paneling, stripy sofas – it brings about memories of the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. Walk through the lobby, past the staff dressed in lederhosen, and it feels like only a matter of time until a clock goes off, a cuckoo springs out and a body falls down the stairs.

But on this spring visit there is no horror to be had. Instead, amid the restaurants and bars, the spas, saunas and swimming pools, resides a story of redemption. Or, as Wladimir Klitschko puts it, fulfilling an obsession.

The heavyweight is here to prepare for his bout with Anthony Joshua at Wembley Stadium on 29 April. Stanglwirt has been his pre-fight base since 2003 and a place he describes as a “home away from home”. It is easy to see the appeal – for all its “Here’s Johnny!” qualities, the complex, now more than 250 years old, is a beautiful place to spend some time. Pristine, picturesque, warm, friendly and with plenty to do and consume. For Klitschko it is somewhere to get his mind and body right, which now more than ever is important for a boxing great who, as he admits, is about to take on a career-defining challenge.

Klitschko has not fought since his shock defeat to Tyson Fury in Düsseldorf 17 months ago. It was an outcome that not only stripped the Ukrainian of his WBA, IBF and WBO titles but also of his cloak of near-invincibility. Dr Steelhammer, a fighter who had secured 53 of his 64 victories across a 27-year career by knockout, was outgunned by a man who dressed as Batman for one of their pre-fight press conferences. Fury was a joke, yet after a unanimous points decision on 28 November 2015 he was the one laughing.

Much has happened to Fury since that night and one of the consequences has been Klitschko missing out on a rematch that would have provided him with a chance to prove he is no busted flush after a fourth defeat since turning professional in 1996. “Unfinished business,” as he puts it. Now, finally, comes the chance for him to go again against a British fighter.

Joshua, the IBF champion, poses a different threat to Fury – a year younger at 27, stronger and more deadly. Then there is the setting: a stadium Klitschko has never fought at, in front of a 90,000 sellout crowd. He goes there on the back of his longest period of inactivity since first lacing up a pair of gloves, and having just turned 41. Little wonder this most assured of men is full of questions, full of doubts, as he spoke at Stanglwirt.

“This fight is 50-50,” Klitschko said. “Can the younger guy make it? Has the older guy still got it? Question marks are making this event really interesting. I’ve never had a pause for a year and a half. Is it bad? Is it good? Will I have rust? I want the answers myself.

“One thing I believe is I don’t feel my age. It’s not empty words. I am getting in the best shape of my life, physically and mentally. I don’t see I’m stuck and not improving, even in a sport I’ve been involved with for so long. That’s what interests and excites me.”

Klitschko certainly looked well as he spoke, flanked by his manager, Bernd Bönte, and his trainer, Johnathon Banks.

The body remains imposing and defined, his face chiselled and those hands continue to look like weapons of mass destruction. Asked to predict how the fight with Joshua will go, Klitschko raised his fists and nodded towards them in turn. “Funeral or hospital? Hospital or funeral? I don’t need many punches to knock a person out.”

That was a rare moment of trash-talking bravado from the veteran (alongside the moment he claimed Joshua gets confidence from his muscles and is better suited to bodybuilding).

Generally Klitschko was respectful of his opponent, borne partly out of the fact Joshua goes into their fight on the back of a perfect professional record – 18 wins from 18 fights, all achieved via knockout – and partly because of the respect Klitschko developed for the man from Watford, having invited him to be a sparring partner in November 2014, before taking on the Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev.

“He impressed me with his attitude,” Klitschko says. “He was in the background and learning. Sometimes you need to be quiet and just watch, and he was observing everything. He could also box, so I gave him credit and I was there in the arena when he won gold [at London 2012]. Every medalist in the super-heavyweight division at the Olympics has to be considered successful. He has a lot of potential and so far has done good.”

Unlike Fury, Joshua is likely to engage with Klitschko from the first bell, looking to plant his feet and unload bombs as often as possible. On one hand that provides the challenger with a standing target – not to mention a supposedly vulnerable chin – but on the other it means he will have to engage himself, something Klitschko did only in the 12th round of the Fury fight when his uncharacteristic hesitancy against a moving target had given him no choice but to go for broke. Ultimately it was too little, too late.

Klitschko insists he has learned from his mistakes and will be fully prepared for the challenge by the time he arrives in London on 26 April. Until then it is a case of working hard and staying focused, something that was there to see at Stanglwirt.

The scene was a converted tennis court in the bowels of the hotel. In the middle stood a ring while at one side were three punchbags hung in ascending order and at another a basketball net where, at around 8am, Banks shot hoops with another member of backroom team as Klitschko went through a series of stretching exercises. Two television screens had been set up showing Joshua’s previous fights, everything taking place to the sound of Motown classics. It was a relaxed start.

Banks and Klitschko eventually underwent some pad work inside the ring. It was, in keeping with the mood of the morning, a relatively gentle session but the sound of thudding fists carried enough of an echo to remind onlookers of the power coming Joshua’s way later this month. The 27-year-old is the favorite with most bookmakers but complacency would be foolish against a man who has been there, done that, and is entering the ring not because he needs the money but because he is determined to remind the world he remains one of the most durable heavyweights and, yet again, has what it takes to be a champion.

“Failure is an experience and I’m coming after a defeat [against Fury] with a totally different attitude,” Klitschko says. “I learned more about myself, about boxing, through that defeat. Unfortunately I cannot change it, or have a second shot like in golf – there’s no mulligan for me. But I’m not a destroyed man.

“This may sound arrogant but I am like Mount Everest. You can climb it during a certain period of time – during two weeks in April I believe – and say: ‘I conquered Everest.’ Then you’ve got to run down because it’s going to take you down if you miss the time.

“Some make it back but a lot of people die, so is Mount Everest defeated? No, it’s still there and it’s going to take another life this April.”

(The Guardian)

Raheem Sterling in Shape to Show Liverpool he Made the Right Move


London – It is a little under two years since Raheem Sterling made the move which, perhaps more than any other, has come to define him. It wasn’t a drop of the shoulder or a sprint past a full-back or a shot at goal, but instead an interview. That interview is the reason why the winger will once again be the subject of abuse from the away end when Manchester City host Liverpool on Sunday.

“I don’t want to be perceived as a money-grabbing 20-year-old” was the standout line of Sterling’s chat with the BBC on 1 April 2015 as he sought to address criticism regarding his decision to turn down Liverpool’s offer of a £100,000-a-week contract. It was April Fools’ Day but Sterling was fooling no one, certainly not as far as those on the red half of Merseyside were concerned. Instead they saw the interview – one that was said to have left the Liverpool hierarchy aghast – as a blatant attempt by Sterling and his agent, Aidy Ward, to engineer a move from the club where he had been since the age of 14 and developed into one of the most exciting talents in English football.

Sterling did leave Liverpool shortly after, joining City for £49m. There have been four matches against his former club since – three Premier League defeats and a League Cup final victory – and in each Sterling has heard loud and clear what those who once adored him think of him now. There will be more of the same at the Etihad Stadium, but as the abuse comes his way Sterling may for the first time reflect with absolute certainty that he made the right decision moving to Manchester, that the acrimony has been worth it and his insistence that his decision to leave Liverpool was based on career development rather than cash has been vindicated.

Some would argue that point was made on the day – July 14, 2015 – Sterling moved from a club that could no longer consider itself a regular Champions League participant to one that is and, despite ongoing stutters in the competition, has the financial muscle to win it in the near future. Going to City also bolstered the player’s chances of winning the Premier League and with that cup victory over Jürgen Klopp’s side at Wembley last February, the 22-year-old, who grew up in the shadow of the national stadium, now has a medal to his name.

Sterling’s first season at City was something of an ordeal, characterized by inconsistent displays and a groin injury, sustained exactly 12 months ago, that led to him losing his place in Manuel Pellegrini’s starting side. A change of manager has brought a change in fortunes, with the player’s form improving to such an extent that he has arguably been City’s most consistent performer this season.

Sterling has made 23 Premier League starts (the joint-highest at City), scoring six goals (the second-highest behind Sergio Agüero) and providing five assists (the joint second-highest, alongside David Silva). There have been a further 12 appearances and three goals in the Champions League and FA Cup, and although it can be suggested other players within Pep Guardiola’s squad have shone brighter than Sterling, most notably Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus, none have made a more rounded impact.

The football writer and City supporter Stephen Tudor puts Sterling’s improvements “entirely down to Pep Guardiola’s alchemy”, and there is no doubt the manager deserves credit for the manner he has nurtured the player since taking control at the Etihad.

Indeed, the process began before then, with Guardiola calling Sterling while the player was in France as part of England’s Euro 2016 squad. The youngster was struggling, his club form seeping into his international displays, and as criticism came his way from supporters as well as on social media, Sterling could have crumbled. Instead he was boosted by praise from one of football’s most revered figures. It was the ultimate, out-of-the-blue pep talk.

“As long as you work for me, I’ll fight for you,” Guardiola told Sterling, and the player’s response has been emphatic. He has not only worked but provided City with thrust, incisiveness and speed from the right side of their attack. The manager has also encouraged him to express himself, something that was not the case under Pellegrini, whose insistence on two-touch football and keeping dribbling to a minimum locked a player of wonderfully natural wing-play into a tactical straightjacket.

“I have more freedom to express myself [under Guardiola],” Sterling said recently. “I have the authority to be myself and create chances.”

He was at it again during City’s 3-1 defeat at Monaco in midweek, cutting inside Benjamin Mendy and hitting the shot that led to Sané’s 71st-minute goal and a moment of brief hope for the visitors to Stade Louis II.

This has not been a wholly uplifting season for Sterling, however. Despite having scored as many league goals as he did throughout last season, his finishing remains weak, with figures from Opta showing a shot-conversion rate of 12.24 percent. There has also been the ongoing abuse, more recently during City’s FA Cup quarter-final victory at Middlesbrough when boos came his way from some home supporters.

Sterling has become the poster boy of the perceived greed over glory culture in English football, a perception ignited by his BBC interview and fuelled by over-the-top media coverage, the high-water mark of which was the tabloid newspaper story last summer that criticised him for showing off a “crystal-encrusted bathroom sink” on social media. Buried in the frothy mouthed telling was that the sink was in a house Sterling had recently purchased for his mother, Nadine.

“Sterling’s strength of character has allowed him to come through a period of ridiculous vilification,” says the City-supporting author Simon Curtis. From those who truly know Sterling comes the firm sense that he is far from being a bling-obsessed waster. Frank McParland, Liverpool’s then academy director, said shortly after Sterling, at 17 years old, received his first England call-up in September 2012: “He’s a really nice boy and when he’s on the pitch he has a real determination to push himself.”

Sterling’s next opportunity to do so comes on Sunday. He has yet to make a telling impact against his former club, with the player all but marked out of proceedings by James Milner when the sides met at Anfield on New Year’s Eve. With City and Liverpool separated by one point and one place as they chase Champions League qualification, Sterling must feel this is the ideal time for him to wound those he knows so well.

He has the talent, form and opportunity to make it clear, once and for all, that he was right to go from red to blue.

The Guardian Sports