Claudio Ranieri Has a New Job: Repeat the Leicester City Miracle at Nantes

Nantes

London – “Stupefied” was how Nantes president Waldemar Kita described himself upon learning that his club’s manager, Sergio Conceição, wanted to leave this summer. Kita’s surprise was warranted; Conceição had been at the club for just six months – time enough for him to quietly instigate a revolution – and he had signed a new three-year contract just days before.

Conceição had taken over last December after René Girard’s limp stewardship of the club had come to an end after a 6-0 defeat at home to Lyon. They were second from bottom, facing a relegation scuffle and barely treading water until Conceição took over. He ramped up the intensity in the squad, molded them into an aggressive, attacking outfit and dragged them to an outstanding seventh-place finish with the air of a parent who was furious to discover his children had been misbehaving at school.

Conceição’s remarkable work at Nantes earned him a job offer from Porto and left Kita in want of a new manager. The president knew a certain type of man was needed to invigorate his club, eke the best out of the players and bring the cantankerous fans back onside. He needed to create expectation and excitement for the whole club. A marquee replacement was required. Rather than choosing to appoint another cost-effective, journeyman coach – such as Girard or Michel Der Zakarian – Kita turned to former Juventus, Chelsea, Valencia and, of course, Leicester City boss Claudio Ranieri to maintain the Conceição resurgence.

Once Nantes had bypassed an archaic rule that forbids Ligue 1 clubs from employing managers over the age of 65, the president was able to reflect on pulling off a sizeable coup. Nantes are by no means a small club – their total of eight league titles makes them France’s third most successful side after Saint-Étienne and Marseille – but appointing a recent Premier League winner is unprecedented.

Ranieri arrives with his reputation intact. His success may be somewhat tainted in England after Leicester’s dramatic slump last year and the supposed squad unrest that contributed to his sacking, but that will be largely overlooked by Nantes fans and the French media as a whole. Ranieri will arrive in western France with something on an aura.

The situation at Nantes draws a number of parallels with his appointment at Leicester two years ago. Thanks to Conceição, this Nantes side are an exciting, finely tuned and effective outfit who ended the season in terrific form. The same was true for Leicester, who won seven of their last games under Nigel Pearson before he was sacked at the end of the 2014-15 season. Ranieri was able to pick up where Pearson had left off (with a little help from N’Golo Kanté), without making many major adjustments in terms of style, shape and personnel. He would be wise to do the same at Nantes.

The jinking attacking midfielder Amine Harit (19) and the guileful Valentin Rongier (22) both enjoyed superb breakout campaigns under Conceição, while the powerful forward duo of Emiliano Sala and Préjuce Nakoulma have proven virtually unplayable at times this spring. Without the specter of Europa League football to impinge on their domestic form, Nantes are ready to push on in Ligue 1.

The 4-4-2 that Conceição employed and the more intense, combative, pressing style he introduced after Christmas somewhat mirrors the shape Leicester used to such good effect in the early months of their title-winning campaign. And Ranieri knows French football, having spent two seasons at Monaco from 2014 to 2014, when he guided them from from Ligue 2 to second place in Ligue 1.

Ranieri’s team is in good shape but there are a number of issues he will want to address this summer. Keeping this group of players together will be a priority. Gillet, the 33-year-old Belgian international who leads the side, said his future would have depended on whether Conceição stayed, but Ranieri’s arrival could change that. He is a cool, experienced head in midfield and the team look defensively frail without him. Ranieri will also want to hold on to the talented group of young players who came to prominence last year, especially full-back Léo Dubois, defensive midfielder Rongier and the precious Harit (who has been linked with Schalke and Arsenal this window).

The squad needs of an overhaul in the wide areas if he sticks with a 4-4-2 or switches to a variation of 4-3-3, keeping Harit infield rather than on the left flank where Conceição often deployed him. Jules Iloki, Alex Kacaniklic, Felipe Pardo and Yacine Bammou have all failed in varying degrees to fill the right flank effectively with only Adrien Thomasson achieving moderate success. With Harit likely to take up a central role eventually – where he has played for France’s Under 20 side – at least one proven winger will be needed.

Diego Carlos has grown in stature at centre-back over the course of the year following his arrival from Estoril but he needs a solid partner in defense. Time seems to be up for the imposing but ageing Oswaldo Vizcarrondo, whose recent outings have crossed the border from stoic to lumbering. With Ivorian defender Koffi Djidji also unbefitting of the job, Ranieri will have to find a suitable partner for Carlos. He will also have to solve the goalkeeping situation after longtime No1 Rémy Riou fell out of favor under Conceição due to some poor displays. Maxime Dupé stepped up from the youth team to replace Riou but his form has proved erratic.

Ranieri’s success may ultimately depend on the mood he can engender around the club, on the stands and among the players. Conceição’s fearsome discipline, organization and ferocious insistence that his players never let up on their opponents turned Girard’s flaky, tepid group into steadfast warriors almost overnight. Through sheer force of personality and some astute tactical tweaks he reinvigorated the squad and had them passionately buying into his rhetoric. He was a true leader. Ranieri’s aura will give him a head start but providing the players with the same fire, hunger and discipline in the long term will be his real challenge.

Despite the understandable hype and excitement, Nantes fans should be cautious. Ranieri has an impressive CV, a lot of experience and pulled off an unfathomable achievement in winning the Premier League with Leicester City (by an absurd 10-point margin in the end), but his record remains a little chequered. The home loss to the Faroe Islands that ended his spell as Greece boss before his arrival in Leicester is still a standout failure and, before success with Monaco, his brief time at Inter ended with disappointment.

Nevertheless, Ranieri’s appointment is an electrifying one for Nantes and Ligue 1, arguably the most eye-catching signing in the club’s history. He was once asked about his love of tinkering with the team and responded: “I can’t change now. I’m like Frank Sinatra. I always do it my way.” Hopefully for Nantes, Ranieri’s way will again be the right way.

The Guardian Sport

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from Last Weekend’s Action

Arsenal

London – Gabriel and Arsenal falter under pressure, Crystal Palace have a problem with fan behavior, Sunderland must keep Didier Ndong while Hull’s Harry Maguire continues his excellent form:

1) Palace fans throwing objects gives cause for concern

Sean Dyche laughed off the fact James Tarkowski had been struck by a plastic cigarette lighter as Burnley’s players celebrated their first goal but Crystal Palace will find the incident far from amusing. This was the third time a visiting player has been struck by an object thrown from that corner of the Holmesdale stand since the club returned to the Premier League in 2013. Wayne Rooney and more recently Fabricio Coloccini were the others hit and the Metropolitan police appealed for witnesses over the coin flung at the Newcastle defender. The Football Association spoke with Palace on both occasions but took no action. The incident is sure to be included in the referee Bobby Madley’s match report. Palace upgraded their CCTV after the Newcastle incident. “It’ll be dealt with, but it’s very disappointing,” Sam Allardyce said. “You don’t want to see that.”

2) Koeman knows Everton have hit glass ceiling in top flight

Ronald Koeman is looking increasingly annoyed at Everton’s present situation – held at West Ham last week, overrun in the end by Chelsea to end a sequence of eight wins on the bounce at Goodison – yet he knew the score when he came to Merseyside from Southampton. Everton are best of the rest, a nailed-on seventh. This season, with Chelsea back, Spurs going well and Arsenal hanging in there as usual, a top-six finish was always likely to be beyond Everton’s grasp. That situation will apply most seasons unless one or more of the big six unexpectedly hit the buffers, and it is for that reason that Everton face a difficult summer trying to keep Romelu Lukaku. Everton are not quite successful enough to retain their best performers, yet in playing if not in financial terms they cannot afford to sell them. Everton have improved under Koeman, though the significant step upwards seems as far away as ever.

3) Clement makes heartfelt plea for video replays

After Marcus Rashford wrongly won a penalty when diving in this 1-1 draw, Paul Clement made a strong argument regarding video technology. Swansea’s manager said: “When we played Burnley at home, a cross went into the box, their player has handled it, and he [the referee] gave a penalty to Burnley. A simple look at any kind of device sorts it out in less than a minute. I saw in the France-Spain game they trialed it. They reviewed an offside decision, it took 48 seconds and the correct decision was given. It’s unbelievable that in this day and age with the technology available, the only people that don’t get help are the ones who most need it. We can see it, you can, the fans, everyone apart from the officials. It has to be done. It’s long overdue.” Neil Swarbrick, the referee here, deserved help to avoid making the latest mistake a quick replay would have avoided.

4) Mourinho running out of defenders for run in

Manchester United missed the chance to move third with a 1-1 draw against Swansea, but the damage to their top-four aspirations was relatively light given Manchester City’s slip at Middlesbrough. After the match Mourinho blamed a busy fixture list for “punishing” his team’s success in cup competitions, and threatened to play the reserves in their last league game of the season in order to rest his team for the Europa League final three days later – but a depleted United must get there first, or risk missing out on Champions League football and regretting the 10 Premier League home draws, like this one, which have stalled their season.

5) Guardiola waiting anxiously on Agüero injury update

While Pep Guardiola faces an anxious wait to discover whether the injury to Sergio Agüero here will sideline his key striker, Steve Agnew is similarly concerned to learn if he has done enough to become Middlesbrough’s manager next season. Like Guardiola at City, Aitor Karanka’s interim successor has not always convinced but this was the Teessiders’ best performance of the season and suggested he could yet mastermind a Championship promotion bid. Although Boro are not mathematically down, their survival chances are fading in much the same manner that City’s hopes of a top‑four finish will recede should Agüero be unavailable.

6) Maguire shining in Hull’s relegation dogfight

Marco Silva has undoubtedly been the driving force behind Hull City’s turnaround since the turn of the year but their captain, Harry Maguire, has also come to the fore. The 24-year-old, who joined Hull from Sheffield United for £2.5m in 2014, was used sporadically by previous managers but has been at the heart of Hull’s resurgence. The challenge for Silva, regardless of which division they are playing in next season, will be retaining the defender, whom he has suggested should be in England squad. “Of course, it is an important player to us, a young player as well and it’s important for Hull City to keep these types of players,” said Silva, who confirmed the club had not received an official approach for Maguire. The center-back, after a difficult first 12 months in east Yorkshire, almost joined Bristol City in 2015 but Steve Bruce rejected the offer and the player, although he has had to bide his time, is reaping the rewards.

7) Butland return is good for Stoke and England

England have lacked for good news on the goalkeeping front for some time but the return of Jack Butland for Stoke, after more than a year out since his injury against Germany, offers one piece of encouragement. Butland was probably the standout performer in an otherwise meaningless goalless draw with West Ham on Saturday. His saves from André Ayew and Manuel Lanzini caught the eye but it was his commanding overall presence in the box that might have most impressed the watching England manager, Gareth Southgate. “All top clubs need keepers like Jack,” said the Stoke manager, Mark Hughes. They need good strikers too, of course, and Stoke must hope Saido Berahino’s luck finally changes soon. The forward is still goalless for his new club and was agonizingly close to breaking his duck when denied by Adrián’s one-handed save.

8) Sunderland need to keep hold of French gem Ndong

Sunderland’s relegation represented the “worst day” of David Moyes’s career and his Wearside tenure may now end in divorce but the former Everton, Manchester United and Real Sociedad manager did something right in the north-east. When he invested almost half the club’s £30m summer spend on the little-known Gabon midfielder Didier Ndong, from Lorient in France, eyebrows were raised – and not least in Ligue 1 circles. Ndong, though, has frequently proved to be Sunderland’s best outfield player this season (the brilliant young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has been the real star) and, typically, kept his side in the game up until Josh King’s late winner for Bournemouth. Sunderland’s record signing is still a bit raw but his high‑energy enterprise could serve the team extremely well in the Championship. Providing Sunderland can keep hold of him, of course…

9) Gabriel mistake exemplifies Arsenal fragility once more

It was a moment that summed up Arsenal’s afternoon at Tottenham Hotspur and, also, a broader theme of their season. One-nil down to Dele Alli’s goal, it was vital that they kept things tight for a few minutes, tried to ride out the storm. Enter Gabriel Paulista. It was a ridiculous challenge from the Brazil defender, one that he did not need to make and it presented Harry Kane with his penalty, three minutes after Alli’s goal. Game over. Gabriel lacked the composure when the pressure was at its highest and it felt like yet another instance of Arsenal’s fragility. This was an ordeal for them. Quite simply, Tottenham wanted it more. They ran harder and further; they dominated the 50-50s and, were it not for Petr Cech, the final scoreline would have been heavier. Thanks to results elsewhere, Arsenal’s top-four hopes are not dead. Playing like this, they will be.

10) Everything has turned out fine for Leicester after all

It has been a wild season for Leicester City, a rollercoaster ride that led to Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal and at one stage looked like ending with English football witnessing its first top-flight champions to be relegated since 1938. Yet when the dust settles on this chaotic campaign, and people look back through the record books in years to come, everything will point to a perfectly acceptable season on the back of the unthinkable 12 months earlier. After flying the flag for English football in the last eight of the Champions League, Leicester are now on course, with three of their final four games at home, to finish in the top half of the Premier League. “If somebody said we’d got to the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finish 10th, then a lot of people would have been snapping people’s hands off for that,” Danny Drinkwater said after this win.

The Guardian Sport

Kasper Schmeichel’s Champions League Brilliance Confirms His Rise to the Elite

Kasper Schmeichel is congratulated by team-mate Ben Chilwell after helping his team reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

There was something a little eerie about Kasper Schmeichel’s penalty save towards the end of Leicester City’s uproarious Champions League defeat of Sevilla. Mainly it was the element of real-time deja vu about the whole thing. Not just because Schmeichel had also kept out a penalty from Joaquín Correa in Seville. This was a save that seemed oddly inevitable from the moment the kick was awarded, to be already happening even as Steven Nzonzi frowned and placed the ball on the spot, Schmeichel bobbing on his toes and doing that funny little Bruce Lee-style beckoning gesture with his fingers.

Schmeichel knew what was about to happen. Nzonzi definitely knew: his kick was terrible, a flaccid, scuffed thing lacking any menace, spite or basic human will to live. It almost bounced twice before it got to Schmeichel, who had to wait before grabbing it, the only danger that he might be deceived by the lack of pace, like a batsman playing too early at a slower ball.

Nzonzi has never scored a penalty in his career. He may not take another. Although he will, you imagine, get to see this one again in those moments after he closes his eyes and starts to drift off to sleep. In the stands Leicester’s supporters celebrated with a sense of gathering triumph. In the press seats harassed, sweating newspaper hacks began to batter away with sudden conviction at their early-edition copy. From that point it was clear Leicester were going to win this tie on the details.

The most obvious of which is that in Schmeichel they have a goalkeeper who has proved beyond any doubt, a decade into a picaresque career – the Falkirk years, that Darlington adolescence – that these high-pressure moments really do lift his game.

Even the most talented sportspeople can fade into the action at the highest levels. Others are able to find that rare space beyond the nuts and bolts of actual talent (which is, as they say, overrated) where victory becomes an act of spirit and champion will.

Schmeichel has made fewer saves per game in Leicester’s Champions league run than he has in the Premier League. Against Sevilla on Tuesday he made three all night, each a key moment in isolation. Very good goalkeepers will tell you this is the sign of a very good goalkeeper. Afterwards Craig Shakespeare, who knows Schmeichel well, was asked if there was a better keeper in Europe. “Possibly not,” Leicester’s manager replied without missing a beat.

Comparing top-class goalies has always been one of the more fruitless aspects of football’s urge to rank and list. Beyond a certain threshold so much depends on form and luck and the players in front of you. Plus, of course, there are some very good goalkeepers around the place these days, the position itself energised by the trend for keepers who can drive the game from the back, from Hugo Lloris’s sweeper-keeper schtick to the comedic regista-manqué stylings of Claudio Bravo.

Schmeichel’s brilliance across both legs of the Champions League last-16 stage confirms his own rise, aged 30, to the elite goalkeeping caste. No doubt further rumours of a move from Leicester – Barcelona and Real Madrid have been mentioned, a little fancifully, in the past – will mushroom in time.

Signing Schmeichel would instantly improve at least four of the current top seven. Peter Schmeichel, his father, was once such a huge Liverpool fan he told the club he would pay his own travel costs from Denmark if they offered him a trial (Graeme Souness turned him down: he already had David James). Liverpool also seems the most likely destination for Schmeichel Jr should he become available, and indeed an excellent fit.

If such man-of-the-moment recognition has been quite a long time coming, Schmeichel has also impressed wherever he has been on his 10-year meander through the divisions. Another oddity of Schmeichel v Nzonzi is that in a bizarre parallel world they might even have been England team-mates had the Football Association’s overtures towards both men been successful.

Schmeichel was sounded out as a possible England player as long ago as 2007, the same year he made a Premier League debut in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City team. Joe Hart’s emergence stopped his progress and two years later Schmeichel moved on to Notts County, where he had the grace and generosity to tear up his own contract when the club hit the buffers.

There is a sense of the world turning his way in recent years. Goalkeeping itself has changed a little. Schmeichel is hardly a titch at 6ft 2in. But the one real doubt in his younger days was the idea he might fail to “dominate his area”, to provide a genuinely imposing old-school physical presence.

Ten years on from his City debut the best keepers tend to be mobile, integrated into the defensive back line, agile rather than imposing.

Schmeichel is the same height as Marc-André ter Stegen, taller then Bravo, and just two inches off Manuel Neuer. If he doesn’t quite have the eye-popping ball skills of Neuer or Ter Stegen his distribution is at least decisive and precise. Stats suggest Schmeichel has the longest kick of any goalkeeper in the Champions League. His ability to launch hard, flat accurate passes 60 yards downfield is key to the way Leicester play when they play the way Leicester ought to play, all deep defence and fast breaks.

This is the other side of Schmeichel’s wonderful performance against Sevilla. There will be a temptation to announce that none of the other teams left in the Champions League will want to play Leicester City now. In fact the opposite is true. All of the other teams left in the Champions league will want to play Leicester City. Show me a plucky underdog: I’ll show you an underdog.

On the other hand, if Sevilla’s possession-heavy impotence at the King Power tells us anything it is that Leicester’s style may just be a good fit with the remaining Champions League teams. Most of the European grandees left tend to commit players forward as a matter of seigneurial right. Deep defence, an excellent goalkeeper and swift accurate forward passes are the best response. More of the same from Schmeichel, Leicester’s best player in Europe this year, and they may just have a chance of bloodying another nose along the way.

(The Guardian)

Kanté was a Champion already but Conte Has Made him Better

Kanté

London – There was no fumbling for the right words, or even the slightest of pauses to contemplate how best to elaborate, in his second language, on all things N’Golo Kanté. Instead, Antonio Conte snapped right back with the kind of compliment that carries proper weight. “He is an example to all,” said the Chelsea manager of a player making the difference. “N’Golo is a fantastic guy, a fantastic player, with great commitment and great behavior. Yes, a great example.”

Almost nine months into Kanté’s career at Chelsea and the temptation is already there to take him for granted. The Frenchman is setting new standards in Chelsea’s midfield, just as he did at Leicester City, but the world has grown used to his lung-busting efforts.

That blur of tackles and interceptions, whether snapping at opponents and wrecking their most intricate passing moves, or setting his own side on the offensive by stealing back possession and neatly clipping a team-mate into space, feels like the norm. They are to be expected. It is what Kanté does.

His club-mates occasionally cannot help themselves and heap praise on their dynamo. Eden Hazard echoed the former Leicester assistant manager Steve Walsh’s words last week when he cooed at Kanté’s display in victory at West Ham. “When I’m on the pitch it’s like I see him twice,” he said. “One on the left, one on the right … I think I’m playing with twins.”

Those freakish energy levels which were integral to driving Leicester to the title have been maintained.

And yet, worryingly for their immediate opponents, the 25-year-old already feels like an upgrade on last year’s phenomenon. Conte welcomed a title winner to the ranks in the summer, a player whose defensive attributes have seen him muster more tackles (269) and interceptions (215) than anyone in the Premier League since the start of last season. But he had also spied someone he could improve.

At the London Stadium last week the manager had deadpanned that Kanté “made 50 passes, and five mistakes, so he has to do better”. The hefty dose of sarcasm flew over the heads of the members of the audience and he had to explain through a chuckle he was kidding, but the joke, like its subject, had legs.

“My own task is always to try to improve my players, and we are already talking about great players,” Conte said. “N’Golo played very well in the past, last season, with Leicester, and he’s playing very well also with us. But we are working on some aspects to try to improve him, to make him a more complete player. In the pass, yes. I think he has a lot of room to improve in the pass, and to look to make his first pass a forward pass. He can improve on these aspects, definitely.”

The statistics suggest he already is. Last season’s pass accuracy of 86.5 percent in his own half and 78 percent in that of his opponents has already leapt to 90 percent and 86.9 percent respectively. Only César Azpilicueta, with 1,534, has completed more than Kanté’s 1,413 for Chelsea in the league this season.

Admittedly, he may be playing different kinds of passes now, with this team more comfortable dominating possession. But he has adapted and excelled, and all the destructive aspects to his game which steel an entire team – the feverish tackling and ability to read where to be to pinch back the ball – remain intact. Witness how he anticipated West Ham’s Robert Snodgrass’s pass towards Sofiane Feghouli at the London Stadium last week before Chelsea, via Kanté’s delivery to Hazard, sprang from one end to the other in 11 seconds to open the scoring.

Conte’s only complaint may be the fact the France international has been shown twice as many yellow cards this term, but that would merely be quibbling. Besides, the manager sees himself in Chelsea’s No7. “I like a lot these type of players, who have great generosity and great ability to work for their team,” he said. “I was this type of player. It’s important to have players like this if you want to win: not only great talent, but players who run a lot during a game. He’s stronger than me. I think I was stronger than him when it came to scoring goals but, in the other aspects, there is no contest. He is stronger than me.”

Leicester’s former manager Claudio Ranieri would occasionally urge Kanté off the training pitch, wary that a player who expends this much energy in practice sessions might be jaded when it came to matches. “But I’ve never tried to do this,” Conte said. “I don’t want to stop him because, in my career, I remember Giovanni Trapattoni [while manager of Juventus] tried to stop me [running] during training, telling me to go into the changing room because I had to run during the game. And I wasn’t happy. I wanted to stay with my team-mates.”

The midfielder may be the best means of suffocating the impact of an opponent Conte knows well. The Italian had secured Paul Pogba for Juve in 2012 for negligible compensation from United, and saw a similar eagerness for self-improvement. Pogba, he said, is a “top player, with good technique, physically strong, and great stamina”, but he is one Kanté will enjoy nullifying.

“N’Golo is quiet, but he always has a smile on his face,” Conte said. “You try to talk with him, and he’s smiling. During training sessions he works a lot, but always with a smile. It’s a good smile. Not an assassin’s smile, but the smile of a really good guy.” It is also that of a winner.

The Guardian

Premier League: 10 Talking Points from the Weekend’s Action

From the plight of David Moyes and Aitor Karanka to the unstoppable force of Fernando Llorente, there was plenty to chew over this weekend. Composite: BPI, Rex/Shutterstock, EPA, Getty Images

1) Pochettino’s side finally look set to end Arsenal streak

In a cartoon history of Arsenal’s ongoing run of springtime top-four escapology acts – the battle, above all, to stay ahead of Spurs – Arsène Wenger would probably be depicted right now wriggling furiously inside a sealed lead trunk, still rattling his padlocks but descending towards the seabed. Tottenham are six points ahead of Arsenal with 11 games to play, to Arsenal’s 12. Tighter spots have been negotiated. But as Spurs beat Everton to take their half of the weekend’s London-Merseyside derby exchange it was hard to avoid the feeling that 22 years down the line the quest to finish ahead of Wenger-era Arsenal has its best chance yet of success. Tottenham have a better goalkeeper, better defense, better midfield, better gameplan, a greater sense of cohesion generally. All that is missing is that final wrench of the neck muscles. Arsenal go to White Hart Lane in April. Barring a genuine reverse of the prevailing tide, it could be a fairly traumatic experience. Barney Ronay

2) Strange times for Wenger and Arsenal

Here was Arsène Wenger’s rebuff to the importance of Arsenal regaining a top-four berth following their 3-1 defeat at Liverpool: “I’ve been asked this question many times in March. So we just have to focus on the next games and turn up with performances.” Wenger’s response implicitly concedes his side are in a perennial struggle for a Champions League berth rather than in a fight for the title. Of his reasoning behind the decision to drop Alexis Sánchez, Wenger said: “[To play] direct – I mean to win the balls in the air, winning the second ball.” Wenger, the pass-and-move chief advocate, playing the punt upfield stuff? When it was put to him that he hardly ever (if ever) uses long ball, Wenger said: “We sometimes play that way. For example, in this game.” Still, we now know rather more. Nonetheless, these are odd times for Wenger, and the club he adores. Jamie Jackson

3) Maguire dreaming of England

There were few positives for Hull City to take from this defeat at the King Power Stadium. After dropping two points against Burnley last week, they let go of another lead against Leicester and are four points from a safe position with 11 games remaining. Despite Marco Silva’s positive early impact, the sense is growing that Hull’s squad is not strong enough to stay up. Much will depend on whether Harry Maguire can maintain his impressive form. While Andrea Ranocchia struggled badly alongside him in central defense, failing to cope with Jamie Vardy’s pace, Maguire produced two stunning blocks to deny Leicester certain goals. “To be thought of for an England call-up is very special to me,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed of as a kid. The gaffer said some nice things about me that can only give me confidence but for me to play for England I’ve got to play well for Hull City week in and week out.” Jacob Steinber

4) Shaw still cannot convince Mourinho

It seemed to sum up Luke Shaw’s season that, even as he made his first Premier League appearance since October, he was substituted so Jesse Lingard could take over as an auxiliary, attacking left-back. With José Mourinho concentrating on other issues, the only mentions of Shaw afterwards came from the Bournemouth assistant manager, Jason Tindall, who thought Andrew Surman’s challenge on the 21-year-old did not merit the first of his two cautions. Shaw hobbled away, as he did from an earlier crunching challenge, but initial fears that his injury problems would recur were unfounded. He went untested defensively, with Bournemouth pegged back, but there were signs of the attacking verve that prompted his swift rise. He delivered a penetrative pass to release Paul Pogba, who should have scored, and, after Marcos Rojo’s traumatic afternoon at left-back in the EFL Cup final, suggested he has more to offer than the Argentinian on the flank. Richard Jolly

5) Karanka’s numbers not adding up

Steve Gibson has a big decision to make. Should Middlesbrough’s owner sack Aitor Karanka or keep faith with the stubborn Basque? Under Karanka’s management a lot of good things have happened at Boro (promotion and the dramatic improvement in Adama Traoré’s wing play), but now something is very wrong: 10 Premier League games without a win, 433 minutes without a league goal, just four league victories this season and unwanted status as the division’s lowest scorers highlight problems exacerbated by dissent between manager and some players. If the club hierarchy has been disconcerted by Karanka’s willingness to blame fans and the club’s medical staff for setbacks while persisting with a cautious tactical mindset, obvious replacements seem thin on the ground. A largely Spanish backroom team would almost certainly depart with Karanka and require swift replacement. Louise Taylor

6) Moyes’s men must make most of March games

Sunderland battled gamely for much of the first half but Manchester City were patient and the result was never in doubt after Sergio Agüero’s goal. By the time Martin Atkinson blew the final whistle, gloom had fallen over the Stadium of Light. With 11 matches left, Sunderland are bottom of the table, six points off Crystal Palace in 17th place and in desperate need of yet another miraculous survival bid. The task looks beyond this bedraggled group. As Aston Villa found out last season, years of stagnation catch up with a club in the end and there has always been a sense that Sunderland’s feats of escapology were merely delaying the inevitable. But they should not give up yet. There was no lack of effort against City, who were simply too classy in attack. Sunderland have two winnable fixtures before the international break and they could put points on the board against Burnley and Watford if they keep fighting. JS

7) Purchase of Llorente paying off

When Athletic Bilbao reached the 2012 Europa League final, embarrassing Manchester United along the way, Fernando Llorente led the line with poise and class for Marcelo Bielsa’s vibrant side. He was one of the most respected forwards in Europe and part of the Spain squad who won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. But his best days appeared to be behind him when he joined Swansea City from Sevilla last summer. His early performances in England were less than encouraging. Yet the 32-year-old has thrived under Paul Clement and made some vital contributions in Swansea’s battle for survival, the latest coming when he scored two towering headers in the 3-2 win against Burnley. He had already scored twice in wins against Crystal Palace, Liverpool and Sunderland and his late intervention against Sean Dyche’s side brought his tally to 11 goals this season. Still got it. JS

8) Redmond goal a reminder of his ability

The complaint from Southampton fans after the 3-1 home defeat against West Ham last month was that their team’s attacking spark had fizzled out under Claude Puel. They have responded well since then, though. They played some outstanding football despite losing the League Cup final last weekend and the 4-3 win at Watford on Saturday means they have scored eight in their past two league outings. With Charlie Austin still out with a shoulder injury, the arrival of Manolo Gabbiadini from Napoli in January has restored Southampton’s menace. The Italian scored for the fourth consecutive game against Watford. But this time it was not all about Gabbiadini’s goalscoring exploits. Nathan Redmond had not scored a league goal since October, but the young forward underlined his potential with two smart finishes. His talent should not be underestimated. JS

9) Pulis can afford to give youth a chance

Poor Jonathan Leko. The West Brom teenager was given a rare opportunity from the bench against Crystal Palace. With the home side 1-0 down to a superb Wilfried Zaha goal, the prodgiously talented Leko was asked to use his skills to open up a determined Palace rearguard. Instead he was the player robbed by Andros Townsend on the edge of the Palace box at the beginning of another superb solo goal. Leko can look at both goals and observe the efficiency required to make the difference at Premier League level. But he will never get the chance to practise it unless he plays. With West Brom on 40 points there were some supporter grumbles after the match that the players might have taken their collective foot off the pedal. Tony Pulis is not a manager renowned for throwing caution to the wind but giving Leko and other promising Baggies youngsters such as Sam Field their head might keep the first team on their toes for the rest of the season. Paul MacInnes

10) Arnautovic needs to maintain hunger for goals

Marko Arnautovic’s two goals against Middlesbrough on Saturday were only his fourth and fifth of the season, but it’s still easy to see why some have compared him to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There are obvious differences, but the Austrian’s touch for his first goal was one his Swedish counterpart would have been delighted with, plucking a long pass from the air with a Zlatanesque certainty. Not that the comparison entirely holds up, according to his manager. “He needs to enjoy scoring more than he does to be compared to Zlatan,” said Mark Hughes after the game. “I think he’d be just as happy with an assist, which as a striker I get a bit confused about.” Despite the relative lack of goals, Arnautovic is still Stoke’s most dangerous attacking threat, something he displayed with a buzzing pest of a performance against Boro. “At times we probably lean a little bit too heavily on him,” said Hughes. “When he’s in the vein of form he’s shown today, he’s very difficult to stop.” A few more goals from him, and perhaps Stoke will be, too. Nick Miller

(The Guardian)

Leicester City Getting Rid of Claudio Ranieri Now Is Hardly Madness

Claudio Ranieri pictured after the 2-1 first-leg defeat to Sevilla in the Champions League, his last game as Leicester City manager. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Like all the best fairytales Leicester City’s title story came to an end on Thursday night with a bracing little touch of cruelty. This is usually the way of these things: poisoned apples, hungry wolves, the doomed gingerbread house. Or, as in this case, someone getting the chop.

And so farewell then, Claudio Ranieri. We’ll always have Leicester city center on a muggy night in May. We’ll always have Robert Huth leaping above the floodlights to score at Spurs. Not to mention those oddly foggy memories of Riyad Mahrez sending Joe Hart and Martín Demichelis halfway to the Manchester velodrome with an insolent little swivel en route to a goal and a victory that gave the title pursuit an air of unstoppable ascent.

We’ll always have the memory of those press conferences where you pretended, shrewdly, to be a bumbling, cartoon Italian uncle from a processed tomato sauce advert, thereby giving everyone a laugh and avoiding the need to say too much and risk derailing that beautifully pure, straight-line toboggan ride through winter and spring.

Perhaps we might be able to forget, for now, all that slightly annoying dilly-dong business. Or emerge without any lasting memory of the sourness of the ending, an abrupt departure via club statement that in time will melt away, leaving just the cloudless memories of the most sensational league title victory in modern football history.

As the mists surrounding Ranieri’s departure begin to clear there are probably two things left worth saying. First, the narrative arc is now complete. A wild, improbable, but still oddly symmetrical story reached its pitch in May when Leicester fans in pizza suits danced in the stands, the skies thundered, everybody cried and Andrea Bocelli hit the big fat, emotional high notes.

Ranieri’s arrival at the King Power had been met with wariness and some suspicion. His success brought glorious disbelief. His departure has been followed now by a wave of sentiment, a collective intake of breath at the sheer audacity of this tale of rise and fall.

On which note – and notwithstanding the sense of outrage, the continuing Claudio Ranieri memorial garden-of-hope shtick – the second thing to say is that sacking him does make sense. It might not be the kindest option, which would have been to wait until the summer either way. But getting rid of Ranieri now is hardly madness.

The sacking of a 65-year-old manager who spent more than £80m in the close season, went out of the FA Cup to League One opposition and now faces relegation is hardly out of keeping with football’s wider history. Managers have always been disposable patsies, balm to the ire of the crowds, a stick to be waved, vaguely, at the players. The great Stan Cullis was sacked by Wolves two days after returning from a convalescent home in Eastbourne. The Everton manager Johnny Carey was sacked in a London taxi. Peter Cormack was sacked by Cowdenbeath at a roadside burger van on the Forth Bridge. Leicester were heading for relegation. The great book of football truisms says sacking Ranieri might just reverse the process.

The anomaly springs, of course, from the sheer scale of last season’s glory, a sense that the greatest title victory of the age might be enough to buy a little more time, to provide a sentimental insulation, to suggest the manager responsible is still the best man to turn it around. And yet there is no real case for applying such extended logic here.

There is still no sensible explanation of how Leicester actually managed to play so relentlessly above themselves for nine months. Momentum from the season’s end, perhaps. Talented, much-travelled players performing at their absolute best, and all at the same time. A simple gameplan. The failure of opponents to adjust in time. A steady hand. Magic. Fairy dust. Luck.

Ranieri was responsible for at least half of this. It has been suggested the only real change made to Nigel Pearson’s team of the season before was the addition of N’Golo Kanté. A cruel judge might even say Pearson’s team won the league while Claudio’s team, replete with new faces and relentless tinkerings, are currently fourth from bottom.

This isn’t quite right. Ranieri did shift things around last season. Jamie Vardy played centrally the whole time. Counterattack and tight four-man defence were relentlessly applied. Ranieri got more than any manager has before out of Danny Drinkwater.

Is it the changes since that have been so profoundly unsuccessful? In his hands Leicester’s players have become again what they always seemed to be, a mix of hopeful, in-out might-still-be’s. Meanwhile Ranieri has become Ranieri again, the same slightly twitchy manager sacked by Greece in his last job after his rejigs and hunches had confused the players.

This is the nature of fairy stories, magical transformations. They don’t last, and often to dramatic effect. There is a casual cruelty in the fact it should be that powerfully bonded dressing room, source of Leicester’s strength, that should end up getting rid of Claudio. Reports suggest the players have questioned his selections and tactics, cue for head-shaking from some.

But then the players were probably right. Ranieri’s selections have been weird at times. The dressing room may have been lost. But so too have quite a lot of games.

Against Millwall Leicester were unrecognizable in personnel and spirit. Against Sevilla Ahmed Musa started ahead of Demarai Gray, source of some consternation among the players. Winning the league the year before doesn’t change any of this. Trajectory is everything in football. And Leicester really were heading down, despite having already embarked on one of the least impressive big-money spending sprees in recent footballing memory. Much is often made of Tottenham’s splurging of The Bale Money. But Islam Slimani, Musa and Nampalys Mendy are right up there when it comes to low-impact, big-money transfer hauls. Musa was reportedly so spooked by the shift in physical intensity from the Russian league he needed a break to recover in early season. Ranieri is only one part of the recruitment team. But this really doesn’t sound very Leicester, does it?

There is no sign of relief, either. Leicester have lost seven of their last nine games. They still have to play Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester City, all of whom might fancy a little payback after the operatic humiliations of last season. Never mind panic, betrayal, moral turpitude, lost footballing souls and all the rest. Sentiment rather than good sporting sense would have kept Ranieri in place for this.

But then there is a lot of sentiment about. Perhaps the oddest thing about Leicester’s league title was how hungrily it was seized upon, consumed, adopted and generally hailed as a yeasty moral fable for our time among those who follow this strange, increasingly ossified elite sport with its layers of alienation, its corporate certainties.

And yet the achievement here was always essentially sporting in nature, an alchemy of discipline and fine margins, clear thought and hard-headed professionalism. The 20th-richest club in the world – just behind Internazionale, ahead of Monaco, Sevilla and Porto – has a right to expect a certain level of achievement. In reality it seems the players have been distracted, unable to cope with the magnitude of their own unexpected success.

The manager has been unable to clear heads, reset the dials, engender enough fear and competitive desperation to reboot the machine. Leicester won the title last year by being ruthless and clear-sighted. The same qualities have now dispensed, rightly or wrongly, with one of the chief architects of that success, a final note that leaves Ranieri free to take a final tour of the hot spots, to land that China gig, safe in the knowledge nothing will ever dim the narrative luster of that single, pared-back year of living gloriously.

(The Guardian)

Will Deadline Day Signings Be Key for Palace, Hull, Southampton and Leicester?

Hull City appear to have made an eye-catching acquisition in signing Andrea Ranocchia on loan from Internazionale. Photograph: Claudio Villa/Inter via Getty Images
Luka Milivojevic, Crystal Palace

The 25-year-old Serb has joined Palace from Olympiakos for a fee in the region of £12m and has been signed primarily to add extra steel and security in front of Sam Allardyce’s back four, although six goals in 17 appearances for the Greek champions this season is a more than decent return for a defensive midfielder. Milivojevic was highly regarded as a youngster in his own country, where Robert Prosinecki was an early admirer and instrumental in securing his services for Red Star Belgrade. From there the player went to Greece via a season in Belgium with Anderlecht and when Vítor Pereira moved from Olympiakos to manage Fenerbahce in 2015 he tried to take Milivojevic with him. Olympiakos decided their captain was too valuable a part of their title-winning side to allow to leave cheaply and Palace appear to have met an asking price that deterred a few others. It is not usually too difficult to work out what Allardyce wants in a defender but in addition to strength and discipline Palace will be hoping Milivojevic can bring organisational qualities and a degree of leadership to their defensive unit. Olympiakos feel they have lost their best player.

Kamil Grosicki, Hull City

The Polish winger’s club career has been a slow burner – he has reached the Premier League at the age of 28 after a decade spent in the relative backwaters of Poland, Switzerland, Turkey and France – though there is no doubt Hull have signed a fully fledged international. After making his debut for Poland in 2008 Grosicki is now just short of a half century of caps, and played in all five games at Euro 16 for the side knocked out by Portugal at the quarter-final stage. Exceptionally quick, in Poland he is rated alongside Jakub Blaszczykowski as the national side’s main attacking threat after Robert Lewandowski, though his willingness to track back has been criticised and at club level so has his temperament.

Whether Grosicki can be an adequate replacement for Robert Snodgrass is anyone’s guess. A strong and direct runner, he is not quite as versatile a player and may not weigh in with as many goals, although as Hull have also signed Lazar Markovic on loan it is possible Grosicki will be asked to play more of a central role. Everton, who like to think they know a good winger when they see one, have been linked with the player in the past but Burnley almost brought him to England first. The player had passed a medical and agreed terms at Turf Moor last season before Rennes unexpectedly upped their £7m price and the deal fell through.

Manolo Gabbiadini, Southampton

Southampton have done more than just obtained cover for the injured Charlie Austin with the acquisition of Gabbiadini from Napoli. With the striker costing £14m, rising to a possible £17m over the course of a four-and-a-half-year deal, Claude Puel has signed a player for the foreseeable future. That is the theory, anyway. There must have been a reason why the 25-year-old lost his place at Napoli, even if 16 goals in 56 appearances represents a reasonable return. Signed by Rafa Benítez shortly before the manager left for Real Madrid, Gabbiadini never really found favour with Maurizio Sarri and could not hold down a regular striking place even after the departure of Gonzalo Higuaín.

There is no reason why a player capped six times by Italy should not score goals on the south coast, although with Jay Rodriguez, Shane Long and Nathan Redmond still at the club (at least one was expected to go out on loan or be sold) and Austin back before the end of the season it remains to be seen how Puel will deploy his striking options. The manager is expected to ease the player in, as he was being used mainly as an impact substitute at Napoli and has played a full 90 minutes only once this season. Gabbiadini has revealed conversations with Graziano Pellè helped persuade him to try his luck with Southampton. For two seasons Pellè led the Southampton line as stylishly as only a powerfully built Italian can but he is now in China. Southampton must hope that is not a portent.

Molla Wagué, Leicester City

Leicester’s new centre-back acquisition does not appear to have much immediate prospect of displacing Wes Morgan or Robert Huth, which is just as well because there is no need to. The France-born Mali international has been signed primarily as cover and would probably not be ready for the step up in any case, having played only five times for Udinese in Serie A this season. Wagué is fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations, where Mali were eliminated at the group stage, although his club career has never really taken off since leaving Caen, where he played alongside N’Golo Kanté, for Granada in 2014. He has still to make a single appearance for Granada, who sent him out on loan to Udinese, for whom he has played 37 times in three years. Although Leicester’s league position is worsening by the week they are probably not that desperate yet. Claudio Ranieri feels he needs numbers to cover emergencies and give his first-choice defenders a rest, yet his regular backline is vastly experienced, and experience, especially of the Premier League, is precisely what Wagué lacks. The 25-year-old defender may be introduced at some point on Sunday but is unlikely to make his first start against Manchester United.

Andrea Ranocchia, Hull City

Not many players come to the KCom Stadium on loan from Internazionale, and on the face of it Hull have made an eye-catching acquisition in an Italian defender with 21 caps. Yet though Ranocchia briefly captained Inter following the retirement of Javier Zanetti he subsequently lost his place as well as the armband when Roberto Mancini returned as manager and has spent the past year on loan at Genoa and Sampdoria.

The good news for Hull is that Ranocchia is big, strong and powerful in the air. The slightly less good news is that, at 28, he seems to be slowing up and becoming a little error-prone. Some of his blunders at Inter were magnified via social media and the defender ended up being ridiculed by his own fans, though Antonio Conte remains an admirer and kept faith with the player when in charge of the national team. Looking on the bright side, Ranocchia could bring presence and leadership to a Hull defence that already seems to have tightened under Marco Silva. He made his debut as a second-half substitute in the goalless draw at Old Trafford on Wednesday and will relish the responsibility of trying to keep Hull up, although the Tigers need to score more goals themselves if they are to escape from an unpromising position.

(The Guardian)

The Worst January Transfers Every Year since the Winter Window Started

Michael Ricketts was signed by Middlesbrough from Bolton for £3.5m in a move that never worked out for the forward.
2003 Michael Ricketts, Bolton to Middlesbrough, £3.5m

At 11.30pm on the first ever January transfer deadline day, Middlesbrough sealed the signing of the striker who was intended to revolutionize their team. “I was stuck in a rut at Bolton, training was the same all the time, things weren’t going the way I planned,” he revealed. “Hopefully that’s going to change here.” It didn’t change there: at the end of the following season, 18 months, 12 league starts and three goals after his arrival, he left for Leeds on a free transfer.

2004 José Antonio Reyes, Sevilla to Arsenal, £20m

When José Antonio Reyes arrived he declared he was “the happiest man in the world, but at the same time the saddest”, suggesting an emotional attachment to his homeland he could never quite shake off. His time in London started well but then came a match at Old Trafford in which Gary Neville roughed him up a bit: “I’m not going to deny an element of intimidation. Reyes couldn’t handle the rough and tumble.” He didn’t score again for four months, never reached his former heights and left in 2006.

2005 Jean-Alain Boumsong, Rangers to Newcastle, £8.2m

Rangers owned Boumsong for only six months, in which time his value somehow increased from free to more than £8m. “He has a great desire to be the best,” said Graeme Souness, and the manager remained loyal to the blunder-prone center-back for as long as the board were loyal to him, a little over a year. Six months after that the Frenchman was sold for a near-£5m loss. “When I’m good, nobody talks about it,” he complained. “All right, I’m no Beckenbauer but with time I’ve figured out what I can do and what I can’t.” One list, sadly, was much longer than the other.

2006 Hossam Ghaly, Feyenoord to Tottenham

After 16 months and 17 league starts, Ghaly came on in the 29th minute of a game against Blackburn, was taken off again in the 60th, tossed his shirt at Martin Jol on his way off the pitch and threw away his Spurs career in an instant. That summer Birmingham bought him for £3m but they found a way to cancel the deal after he fell out with Steve Bruce inside three days. He nearly played for Spurs again in January 2009, when he was named on the bench, but fans booed him so furiously he was sold to al-Nassr within weeks.

2007 Julius Aghahowa, Shakhtar Donetsk to Wigan, £3.5m

As the end of January 2007 approached Wigan were bottom and on a run of eight successive league defeats. “There’s no disguising it – we’re in the shit,” surmised their manager, Paul Jewell. Enter Aghahowa, a fleet-footed Nigerian whose acrobatic goal celebration had made him one of the breakout stars of the 2002 World Cup. Paul Jewell insisted the club had “really done our homework on this one” and that he had “watched him personally on two occasions”. Wigan’s fans didn’t see much more of him: a little over a year, three managers, a total of 23 appearances and not a single goal after his arrival he left again.

2008 Afonso Alves, Heerenveen to Middlesbrough, £12.7m

In 2006 Manchester City signed the hapless Greek striker Georgios Samaras; in 2014 Cardiff spent £2m on Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who played nine times before having his contract cancelled; and in 2008 Middlesbrough spent nearly £13m on Alves. All three players were bought from Heerenveen, a club that should be avoided at all costs by spendthrift English chairmen. Alves scored 48 goals in 50 appearances in the Netherlands; he had a few (approximately two) good days in his season and a half in England, before he turned up late to pre-season training in the summer of 2010 and Boro swiftly sold him at a £6m loss.

2009 Savio Nsereko, Brescia to West Ham, £9m

West Ham boasted that they had beaten off “fierce competition” for the German striker, player of the tournament in the European Under-19s Championship the previous year. What followed was a period in which, by his own admission, the player “lost grip on reality”. He certainly lost grip on his first-team place, starting once before the season ended and immediately being offloaded to Fiorentina at a loss of over £6m. He never played for the Italian side, enduring a series of failed loans that included one at 1860 Munich, cancelled when he went missing for a week before being discovered in his sister’s house, and another at Juve Stabia when he disappeared to Thailand and allegedly faked his own kidnapping.

2010 Michel, Sporting Gijón to Birmingham, £3m

Halfway through the month this was still the biggest deal completed by any Premier League club. His new manager, Alex McLeish, announced that the Spaniard “is in a great age group and has got good legs”. Less encouragingly, the Scot also revealed he would probably come to “realize he might have a problem getting into the team”. And so it transpired, with the arrival of Craig Gardner a few days later pushing him from third-choice central midfielder to fourth. He eventually started six games, and tasted another six as a substitute, before being sold to Getafe for half the price they paid for him.

2011 Jean Makoun, Lyon to Aston Villa, £6m

This was the January of Januaries, the greatest ever top-flight transfer splurge. Torres and Carroll tend to hog the limelight, leaving forgotten disasters such as Tottenham’s £1.5m move for Bongani Khumalo (“He’s got potential, he’s not expensive and we like him,” said Harry Redknapp. “He’s desperate for a chance, and we’re going to give him a chance.” No they weren’t: four and a half years and not a single first-team appearance later they released him on a free transfer). Still, Makoun stood out among the more big-money, high-profile humiliations. “He’s exactly what we need,” said Gérard Houllier after the deal for the midfielder was completed. Turns out he wasn’t: seven league games, three bookings and a red card later he was gone.

2012 Marvin Sordell, Watford to Bolton, £3.2m

Owen Coyle hijacked Sordell’s mooted move to Cardiff in a last-minute deadline-day intervention, and in the remainder of the season gave him three substitute appearances, all away from home, two lasting less than 10 minutes. The following season Sordell started the first three games and then hardly played until February, an absence his new manager, Dougie Freedman, blamed first on the player’s mental state – “He’s homesick, there isn’t even a fancy word for it” – and then on his refusal to disconnect from social media. “He’s got small issues off the field with his tweeting. It could be bordering on an obsession.” He left for Burnley after 30 months and 13 starts.

2013 Vegard Forren, Molde to Southampton, £4.2m

The Norwegian defender pulled out of a trial with Liverpool when Southampton agreed terms with Molde and declared the move “a dream come true”, insisting he was no Forren mercenary. “There’s no doubt that this is where I want to be,” he beamed. “There is a good, young squad here and the way they play fits me well.” Not for long it didn’t. On the very day his transfer was completed Southampton sacked Nigel Adkins and replaced him with Mauricio Pochettino. That summer, no appearances later, his agent declared his player was “patient, ready and committed” to the Southampton cause. Three weeks later he returned to Molde.

2014 Kostas Mitroglou, Olympiakos to Fulham, £12.4m

In the first half of the 2013-14 season Mitroglou had scored 14 goals in 12 league games and a Champions League hat-trick, while Arsène Wenger described him as “a true finisher who can’t be ignored”. It turned out he could be ignored: in the second half of that season, following his switch to Fulham, there was one start, two substitute appearances, a couple of knee injuries and no goals. He wasn’t helped by the fact that René Meulensteen, the manager who signed him, had been replaced by Felix Magath by the time he made his debut; that summer he went back to Olympiakos on loan.

2015 Andrej Kramaric, Rijeka to Leicester, £9.7m

On 7 January 2015, the day they completed the club-record signing of the Croat, Leicester were bottom of the league with three wins in 20 games. None of their subsequent success can be accredited to a forward who scored twice in his first half-season under Nigel Pearson, after which Claudio Ranieri arrived, announced that he was “a fantastic player but at this moment I choose another kind of striker” and proceeded to give him only 22 minutes’ action. The player insisted that “fans are sorry I do not play. They are very fond of me”, though given their team’s results they might just have been delirious. A year after his arrival, he departed for Hoffenheim on a loan that became permanent for an undisclosed fee.

2016 Oumar Niasse, Lokomotiv Moscow to Everton, £13.5m

Roberto Martínez acclaimed Niasse’s “real hunger and desire to be successful” but still picked him to start only two league games. Of the 13 remaining matches between his arrival and the end of last season he was active for just 19 minutes, 14 of them in a game against West Ham in which Everton were 2-0 up when he came on, and 3-2 down at the final whistle. He has no squad number for this season, though he’s had a few games for the under-23s, whose manager, David Unsworth, thinks the striker is “outstanding”, that “his work rate has been incredible” and that he “needs to carry on what he’s been doing”. Namely, not much.

(The Guardian)

European Absence Gives Liverpool Chance to End Long Wait for League Title

Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur - EFL Cup Fourth Round

Arsène Wenger must be a genius if he can come up with a points total that will be necessary to win the title. Between 82 and 86 points, since you ask. Either that or he was having a little joke, which has been known to happen. “He must have more experience of the English league than I thought,” the Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said, making his own little joke. “Because I have no idea how many points it will take.”

Leaving aside the matter of how Wenger expects a more competitive league to result in a higher points total than the 77 that meant Claudio Ranieri’s side claiming the title last season (they would finish the season with 81), the one thing that can be said with certainty about Leicester’s success is they were greatly helped by having no midweek distractions. No Europe to start with, out of the League Cup in October and a third round exit from the FA Cup. Several managers made the point that playing just one game a week was an advantage to Leicester, and while there may have been an element of sour grapes in defeat to that observation, that does not mean it cannot be true.

As a result Leicester find themselves in Europe this season, and whether deliberately or not, they seem to be concentrating their efforts on the Champions League. No one can blame them, they might never get another chance, and unless there is a sudden upturn in Premier League results they do not appear likely to repeat last season’s table-topping feat. Fair play to them though, by virtue of beating Crystal Palace at the weekend they were the only English team involved in European competition to return to the domestic programme with a victory, even if the Foxes remain in the bottom half of the table.

‘At the top end, it is becoming clearer than ever that Liverpool are in prime position to do what Leicester did last season and profit from being able to concentrate on the league. It would be insulting to describe Jürgen Klopp’s side as the new Leicester, given the histories of the two clubs, so let us just say they have a similar opportunity. Liverpool are currently joint top with City and Arsenal, the three clubs separated only by goal difference, and would have hit the heights and the headlines before now but for their inexplicable collapse at Burnley, and an inability to keep a clean sheet apart from when playing at home to Manchester United.

They are advancing in the League Cup, one of the competitions in which they reached a final last year, though as Klopp was able to name an entirely new team for the visit of Tottenham, fixture overload is unlikely to be a worry. Liverpool’s second-string side even includes a first-rate striker in Daniel Sturridge, the England international whose goals took his side into the EFL Cup last eight. And though the forward’s inability to hold down a first-team spot at present will always be a talking point around Anfield, the fact is he is far from the only player with a strong case for being promoted from the reserves.

Leicester succeeded last season with a small squad, relieved that no serious injuries knocked them off their stride. Liverpool have a much larger and stronger squad, and still only the domestic competitions to worry about. Klopp said at the start of the season that being out of Europe was the last thing a club of Liverpool’s stature wanted, though he did not deny it could be turned to their advantage. The feeling at the start of the season was Manchester United too could make a strong push for the league as long as they could find a way to limit the collateral damage Europa League football might inflict, though early indications are that they are failing on both those fronts, despite or perhaps even because of their lavish summer spending.

Klopp’s summer spending was not quite as lavish, though acquisitions such as Sadio Mané (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m) could hardly be described as frugal, but the point is the manager has the squad he wants and a way of playing that is already proving successful. If that already sounds like Leicester of last year, the key to what would be a first title in 27 years might be to emulate the Foxes and move out in front at the top of the table. The next couple of months appear to offer an opportunity. Between now and Christmas Liverpool are not scheduled to meet a top six team until they travel to Goodison on 19 December, by which time it is by no means certain Everton will still be in the top six.

Ronald Koeman’s side had no excuse for losing at Burnley at the weekend. They failed to create enough chances in a game they dominated and paid the price, but they could not point to tiredness as a contributing factor as they had no European involvement to disrupt a full week of preparation.

Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, on the other hand, were – and after dropping points in the Premier League on their return, they could argue that they were handicapped by a greater workload than their opponents. In theory bigger clubs have bigger squads, and Champions League regulars can usually name two different sides of almost equal strength. In practice, however, rotation comes with complications of its own and the greater factor in the league match is normally the comparative freshness and readiness of an opponent such as Bournemouth, Chelsea or Middlesbrough, who will have had the whole week to work towards a single game. Chelsea are perhaps unused to being billed among the feisty minnows raring to go, yet as they took the lead against Manchester United with just 30 seconds on the clock it rather proves the point.

City also dropped league points at the weekend, though that is a different scenario again. Their opponents, Southampton, had also been in European action during the week, probably feeling quite good about themselves after occasionally outplaying Internazionale at San Siro but still returning home on the end of a 1-0 defeat. City had played a day earlier, but could not accept their humbling in Barcelona quite as philosophically, after having to chase around the Camp Nou with 10 men and ending up on the wrong end of a 4-0 scoreline. “That was tiring,” Guardiola admitted, quite reasonably, before making the point that not only do games in England come thick and fast – City at the moment are in the middle of a sequence of six matches in 18 days, two of which are against Barcelona – but Premier League encounters tend to be contested over the full 90 minutes with few opportunities for resting on a comfortable lead or taking a late breather.

For Liverpool, the biggest test of the rest of the year will be Manchester City at home on New Year’s Eve. Can their match against City on the last day of 2016 really be billed as a title showdown? It is Liverpool’s task in the coming weeks to make sure that it will be.

(The Guardian)

Jamie Vardy Crashes Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s Ballon d’Or Party

Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring their first goal. Paul Burrows / Reuters

The Ballon d’Or is back in France Football’s possession, even though they contrived to elongate the release of this year’s shortlist to such an extent it made Fifa’s ceremonies seem snappy in comparison. At the conclusion of the nine-hour announcement on Monday there was still an air of predictability about it all.

Barring the most surprising result in the award’s 60-year history, Cristiano Ronaldo will be named the world’s best player for a fourth time on 9 January, with Lionel Messi trailing behind. While there were a couple of notable omissions from the list, which will not be cut to three as in previous years, all of the world’s best attacking players are present.

Having retaken sole ownership of the award following six years of sharing with the governing body, the magazine decided to drip-feed batches of five players to its website in alphabetical order hours apart and it was not until the final portion that the sole England player to be included, Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, was announced.

A total of 30 rather than the squad of 23 used recently were named and the manner in which the nominees were made public also meant the soporific Ronaldo-versus-Messi debate plumbed new depths. Some of Ronaldo’s fans wondered if a conspiracy was afoot because the Real Madrid star had no exclamation mark at the end of a tweet confirming his inclusion while the rest did. On the other hand Messi’s supporters moaned the Portugal captain featured in the first batch because he was filed under C rather than R.

Above the inexorable pettiness fastened to this vainglorious contest the dearth of British players among the world’s best was again laid bare. Gareth Bale, after a remarkable year for club and country, has claims alongside Atlético Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann to be considered next best after Ronaldo and Messi. But the Wales and Real Madrid attacker is the only other Briton featured aside from Vardy, who was 350-1 with some bookmakers before the announcement. Those odds shortened immediately but it would be quite a shock to see him announced in the top three.

There are eight Premier League players on the list but when it comes to the winner, the Messi‑Ronaldo duopoly shows no sign of abating. This year Ronaldo is the overwhelming favorite because he won another Champions League and led Portugal to the European Championship. Significantly for a player who at times has appeared as concerned by personal titles as much as team honors, it would leave him just one behind the Argentina attacker.

It is in the battle for third where the real interest resides. Griezmann and Bale are obvious contenders, with Barcelona’s Luis Suárez and Neymar, who brought such joy to Brazil during the Olympic Games, sure to feature high up when the results are announced.

For the sixth time in eight years, the podium will probably belong solely to La Liga. Spain continues to dominate with 13 nominees shared between Real, Barça and Atlético. The figure of eight Premier League players is embellished by two of those arriving in the summer. Would Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Paul Pogba be entitled to a place based on their performances since joining Manchester United? Probably not.

Riyad Mahrez’s inclusion is deserved after his role in Leicester’s title win, West Ham United’s Dimitri Payet dazzled for France in the opening days of Euro 2016 and it is not easy to dispute the inclusion of Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero and Kevin de Bruyne, both of whom have looked exquisite at different junctures. Nonetheless, they will all be tailed off when the results are announced in January.

The last Premier League player to win was Ronaldo in 2008 and for a league so desperate to claim it is the world’s best this annual jamboree makes for grim viewing.

Elsewhere on the list there are four goalkeepers but no place for Spain’s and Manchester United’s David de Gea. Instead, France and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris is joined by Germany’s Manuel Neuer, a finalist in 2014, Italian veteran Gianluigi Buffon and Portugal’s Rui Patrício.

Perhaps the most baffling outcome is the shortage of defenders. Only the Real pair of Pepe and Sergio Ramos, plus Atlético’s Diego Godín are included, which seems odd considering the defensive nature of Euro 2016. The Italy and Juventus pair Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini, Barcelona’s Gerard Piqué and Bayern Munich’s Jérôme Boateng all have a right to feel aggrieved.

Then again, only two defenders have ever won this award – Fabio Cannavaro in 2006, after leading Italy to the World Cup, and Franz Beckenbauer in 1972 and 1976. Even before Fifa’s brief rebranding, this was a contest about more than just performances on the pitch. It is worth bearing in mind Suárez said recently that he would never win the award because it is “more to do with marketing and press than for achievements on the pitch”.

The Uruguayan has a point but at least there has been a change to the voting system. Journalists are again in sole control rather than sharing the burden with national team managers and captains. If nothing else it strips away one layer of politics.

Ronaldo and Messi petulantly refused to give each other a vote in previous years, highlighting the level of selfishness among the world’s best. But the latter would need a lot more than one insolent vote to sway the results, for this was Ronaldo’s year.

(The Guardian)