Juventus are Entirely Dominant in Italy. When Will their Rivals Step Up?

sport

London – To the majority of football supporters, the Italian game is a fallen giant. Serie A is seen as a fading image of what was once the best league on the planet – an image that remains vivid only in the memories of older generations. Its keenest aficionados will disagree but, given that most people only experience Italian clubs through European competitions, can they really be blamed for holding such a gloomy view of Serie A?

This year has followed a familiar trend, with Juventus the only team still in Europe at the start of April. Napoli were beaten by Real Madrid home and away in the last-16 of the Champions League, while Roma did not even make it to the group stage after their defeat to Porto in the qualifiers. Instead, they dropped into the Europa League, where they lost to Lyon in the last-16. But at least they went further than Fiorentina, who were knocked out in the first knockout stage, and Inter and Sassuolo, who both finished bottom of their groups. Inter, champions of Europe just seven years ago, finished below Sparta Prague, Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Southampton.

Italian clubs have proved disappointing in Europe and the country’s stadiums and academies are still outdated, but there are reasons for optimism. A number of clubs are competing for places in Europe and others have shown signs that they can step up and challenge for the title. Juve continue to raise the bar every season but, if the chasing pack continue to improve, there is significant evidence that Italian clubs are on their way back to the elite. There is now considerable quality, verve and excitement in the league – and more than a glimmer at the end of the tunnel.

Despite Juve’s seemingly comfortable glide towards a sixth successive Scudetto, this season has revealed a tough battle for the top six positions in the league, with fans likely to be on the edge of their seats until the last minute of the last game. At the very top of the table, Juventus sit nine points above Roma and 10 above Napoli, but both clubs possess the technical excellence required to challenge the leaders. They just lack that intangible quality: a “winning mentality”. Juventus have played some of their least entertaining football this season but Napoli and Roma (who have both outscored them in the league) have still been unable to exploit their occasional slip-ups. For instance, Juventus could only draw with Atalanta on Friday night but Roma responded by losing the derby 3-1 to Lazio on Sunday afternoon.

Napoli have shown glimpses of sheer brilliance under Maurizio Sarri this season and are perhaps the only Italian club to have gone out of Europe with pride, after winning their Champions League group and then putting up a hearty display against Real Madrid in the last-16. With one of the most aesthetically pleasing styles in Europe and their place in next season’s Champions League qualifiers all but guaranteed, they look ready to step up in the league and in Europe.

Lazio, who sit seven points behind Napoli with four games to place, are building a fine squad under Simone Inzaghi and have the potential to compete the elite next season. They have recovered well after the Marcelo Bielsa scandal in the summer – when he resigned after just two days in the job – and have the Coppa Italia final against Juventus to look forward to.

Remarkably, the last automatic Europa League place does not belong to Milan, Inter or Fiorentina – who sit in sixth, seventh and eighth – but to Atalanta, the season’s surprise package. Gianpiero Gasperini’s team have provided a blueprint for success for provincial teams who are willing to invest and trust in local talents, which has been sorely in the Italian game in recent years. Indeed, though Atalanta may lack the necessary prestige to keep hold of their most promising starlets – with midfielder Roberto Gagliardini already having joined Inter and defender Mattia Caldara bound for Juventus in two years – Gian Piero Gasperini’s men have been a breath of fresh air and positive ambassadors for Italian football.

The youngest team fielded in Serie A this season belongs to Milan, who have regularly put out an XI with an average age of just 24. Vincenzo Montella has a solid core of young talents – including 22-year-old Alessio Romagnoli, 19-year-old Manuel Locatelli, 23-year-old Suso and 18-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma – and they earned some good experience by beating Juventus to win the Supercoppa Italiana for the first time in five years in December.

The club has an experienced CEO in Marco Fassone and their new Chinese owners say they want to retain their young talents while adding quality to the squad. It will take time and effort, but it’s a project that excites the owners, according to Fassone. “We’ll have a significant budget for the next transfer window,” said the CEO last month. “The goal for the coming years is to build a very competitive and ambitious Milan.”

Inter, also acquired by Chinese owners within the last year, are determined to kickstart their climb back to the top. After numerous managerial tribulations – with Roberto Mancini leaving shortly before the season began and Frank de Boer sacked midway through the campaign – and some dubious investments in the transfer market (namely Brazilian forward Gabriel Barbosa and French midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia), Inter’s main aim should be to restructure the squad in the summer. If their new owners prove competent and ambitious, both Milan clubs could be back on their feet soon.

The Milanese giants have a long way to go if they want to catch Juventus. The Old Lady are the only domestic champions left in Europe this season and are on course to win a treble in the next month. But Milan and Inter – like Roma, Napoli, Lazio and Atalanta – know what they have to do: knock Juve off their perch, both domestically and in Europe.

The Guardian Sport

Milan Make Their Point, Hope New Owner Signals a New Dawn

sport

“Closing.” That English word has dominated the Italian sports pages for more than two years now: seven letters that became a shorthand for the day when Silvio Berlusconi would sell Milan. A good many people doubted it would ever arrive. The man they call Il Cavaliere was thought too proud to relinquish his favourite plaything: a football club that not so long ago billed itself as “the most titled in the world”.

Owning Milan had granted Berlusconi not only the chance to demonstrate his self-touted sporting acumen but important social and political capital as well. Was he really prepared to let all that go? Successive failed takeovers made it easy to believe he might not be.

First came an extended flirtation with Bee Taechaubol, the Thai businessman who had supposedly been willing to cough up half a billion Euros for a minority stake in the club. Then there was the talk of a US investment group and a mysterious “Chinese dame”.

Finally it was the turn of Yonghong Li, who made an initial €100m down payment towards purchasing the club in August last year. Yonghong Who? Well, quite. Gazzetta dello Sport sent reporters to China and struggled to turn up good information on the financier, the extent of his wealth or the identities of his partners in his Sino-Europe Sports (SES) consortium.

Nevertheless, a date was set for “closing” the sale in December 2016. It did not happen. A further €100m payment was madebut final settlement of the account was pushed back to February and then March. There was still no deal done by the start of this month but now SES has been dissolved and replaced by a new investment vehicle named ‘Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux’.

This was a turning point at last. Just when many fans had abandoned hope, Yonghong Li completed his takeover on Thursday, at a valuation of €740m including debts. His timing, in the end, felt rather perfect. The Derby della Madonnina was scheduled for Saturday – Milan taking on an Internzaionale team who were themselves bought out by the Chinese commerce giants Suning last June.

Not that the two ownership groups should be viewed in equivalent terms. Suning are one of China’s largest retailers, whereas Yonghong Li’s resources remain unclear. He is reported to have financed his deal in part through a €300m loan from Elliott Management Corporation, a fund with a reputation for investing in distressed debt.

Only with time will we know what Milan’s future truly looks like. Among the terms of the sale was a line stipulating that: “The buyers have confirmed their commitment to perform an important recapitalisation and strengthening of the assets and financial position of Milan.” Even with substantial investment, though, it would not be easy in the next 31 years to equal the five Champions League titles that arrived during Berlusconi’s equivalent time at the helm.

One thing we do know is that both Milan clubs’ new owners are looking towards their home country as a source of future revenue growth. It was no coincidence that Saturday’s derby should be scheduled for 12.30pm local time – putting it into a prime time TV slot back in China.

The hope was that this game might serve as an advert to win over new fans. And, as a spectacle, it delivered. Before a packed San Siro, Milan and Inter played out a helter-skelter game of variable quality but undeniably high drama. One not settled until its own improbable “closing” in the 97th minute.

Milan had started more strongly, forcing Inter on to the back foot with their high press. Gerard Deulofeu overran a through-ball inside the area but recovered to force a save from Samir Handanovic, and then later hit the post from close range. Suso forced the Inter keeper to tip away another shot at full stretch. And yet, somehow, the Nerazzurri went in at half-time with a two-goal lead. If Antonio Candreva’s opener, chipped home after a long pass down the right channel, had arrived against the run of play, then Mauro Icardi’s strike eight minutes later felt cruel indeed. This was ruthless counterattacking from Inter but only a mix of Handanovic’s saves and Milan’s poor finishing had kept them from falling behind.

The second half, though, would reverse the script. Ivan Perisic should have made it 3-0 to Inter but shot straight at Gianluigi Donnarumma when clean through on goal. Milan pulled a goal back through Alessio Romagnoli in the 83rd minute before equalising with the last kick of the game.

It was a goal that would once have provoked weeks of debate. A corner from the right was flicked on before being volleyed acrobatically goalwards by Cristián Zapata at the back post. On a first viewing it was not clear whether the ball had crossed the line but the referee, Daniele Orsato, received confirmation via the watch on his wrist. As Inter’s players arrived to protest, he held his arm out for them to see.

Even the late timing of the goal could be justified. The fourth official had signalled for a minimum of five additional minutes but Orsato made it plain he would not start to count these until Inter finished substituting Candreva with Jonathan Biabiany – a move which added a further minute. With the ball going behind for a corner at the end of the 96th, he ruled that this should be the final action of the game.

As San Siro reacted to the decision, cameras cut to the owners in the stands. First came the shot of a delighted Yonghong Li, cheering and hugging those around him. Then we cut to Steven Zhang, son of Suning’s largest shareholder, Zhang Jingdong, stony-faced beside Javier Zanetti.

These are the new faces of Italian football, standing where Berlusconi and Massimo Moratti once did. That will take some getting used to. Milan Ultras in the Curva Sud did not offer the most diplomatic of welcomes, with one banner (aimed at the league organisers, rather than the new owners themselves) protesting at the early kick-off by illustrating a man having money shovelled into his mouth by chopsticks under the words ‘all you can eat’.

In any case both new regimes will hope to have more significant appointments ahead. The draw felt like a victory to Milan, not only because they had recovered from two goals behind but also because it keeps them two points ahead of Inter in the table. But they are still only sixth, good for a spot in the Europa League third qualifying round.

The long wait for “closing” is over. What fans want now is a fresh start.

The Guardian Sport

After Flooring Klitschko, Anthony Joshua Now Has the World at His Feet

sport

London – One image above all lingers in the memory from Anthony Joshua’s world heavyweight title victory over Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night. It is of the 27-year-old from Watford glowering at his crumpled opponent in a pose strikingly reminiscent of Muhammad Ali after he had knocked out Sonny Liston.

Ali quickly went from having Liston to the world at his feet. Joshua’s entourage and assorted experts lined up on Sunday to predict that he would soon follow suit.

After his 11th-round victory Joshua was serenaded by the 90,000 crowd and excitable television executives from the US cable rivals HBO and Showtime. But it was his promoter, Eddie Hearn, who made the sweetest music.

“Anthony is now the biggest star in British sport, and the biggest star in world boxing,” he exclaimed, before promising to take Joshua into new markets, including China, the Middle East and Africa. Already he had held talks about a fight at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing.

Perhaps the only one not getting carried away was Joshua himself. “I want to be a champion outside the ring first and foremost,” he told reporters long after Saturday night had given way to Sunday morning. “Without the belts, or the boxing, I am a good man. I am a family man. I don’t flip tables and punch people in press conferences. Boxing is a tough sport, I just try to express myself in the ring.”

It is that humility – as well as Joshua’s exceptional physical and sporting ability – that has made him the overwhelming favourite for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award and had sponsors beating a path to his door. Already he has endorsements from Under Armour and Jaguar and nearly a dozen other brands. Mark Borkowski, a PR and brand expert, expects that number to mushroom. “He represents hope,” says Borkowski. “That is why people buy into him. He also looks great – and he has a massive female following. His appeal goes far beyond boxing’s hardcore.”

There is something else, too. “He is also very honest, and people like that transparency,” adds Borkowski. “After Saturday’s fight he made a big deal of praising Klitschko, and also said he hoped young kids watching would want to emulate and surpass what he had achieved. I don’t think those were media-trained soundbites. You are not going to remember a script after 11 rounds of someone trying to knock you out.

“Britain hasn’t had a gentleman boxer since Henry Cooper or Frank Bruno – but Joshua is a gentleman fighter. This is someone who could unify the belts but also get a whole new audience into boxing.”

The days when millions tuned into ITV in the 1980s and 1990s to watch the likes of Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and “Prince” Naseem Hamed fight were thought to be gone for ever. But the sport is slowly percolating back into the mainstream. One recent survey found that while 20% of millennials say they do not follow sport at all – an answer given by only 9% of over-35s – a growing number do like boxing.

There will be those who will argue – with some justification – that the gory sight of two people trying to knock each other into oblivion is primitive and queasy; especially with what we know now about the long-term dangers of concussion in sport.

That argument has been harder to refute in the past year. Not only has the promising welterweight Mike Towell lost his life after being knocked down in a title eliminator but two others – Nick Blackwell and Eduard Gutknecht – have been in comas following serious beatings.

Yet Joshua knows better than most that boxing seems to have a unique power, particularly among working-class kids, to improve health and turn lives around. He was born to Nigerian immigrants, who split when he was four or five, and showed immense sporting prowess when he was young, running 60 seconds for the 400m as a 12-year-old.

Yet, having left school at 16, he fell in with wrong people and started partying, drinking and smoking and getting into trouble. A year later he was facing a custodial sentence for fighting but was instead given an ankle tag. It was at that point he went to Finchley amateur boxing club with his cousin Ileyemi, intending to do a keep-fit class and lift weights. Instead he developed a taste for boxing and was quickly promoted to the GB Olympic squad.

There were bumps along the way – in 2010 he was arrested and given 100 hours of community service for being in possession of 8oz of cannabis, while wearing his Team GB tracksuit – but slowly the discipline of boxing turned his life around. He won a world championship silver in 2011, an Olympic gold at London 2012 and his first world title in 2016. He is estimated to have made £10m from Saturday’s fight, yet when he is not training in Sheffield he lives with his mum, Yeta Odusanya, a social worker, in a small, ex-local authority house in Golders Green, north-west London.

Inevitably there will be questions about whether Joshua can stay humble and grounded. But Hearn has no doubt of his class – inside or outside the ring. “Anthony always delivers,” he says. “He’s like gold dust. This is a golden time for boxing and for Anthony. He is about to go to stratospheric.”

After he defeated Liston, Ali hollered loudly about shaking up the world. Times have changed since then, of course, and no boxer will ever have the impact “the greatest” did.

But, in his own quiet way, Joshua hopes to have everyone talking about the heavyweight champion of the world again.

The Guardian Sport

Tottenham Clash with Arsenal Takes Pochettino Back to Another Demolition Derby

sport

London – It was a demolition derby – in more ways than one. There were penalties, a red card and red-raw tempers. Mauricio Pochettino will never forget it. The Tottenham Hotspur manager was an Espanyol player at the time and the visitors to the club’s Estadi de Sarrià were Barcelona.

The date was 9 February 1997 and it was the last derby to be staged at the ground that Espanyol had called their home since 1923. At the end of the season the bulldozers would move in. With the club in financial crisis, Sarrià had been sold to property developers. The fans were dismayed and distraught.

Twenty years on, and Pochettino can feel a rerun of history, albeit with tweaks to the plot. Tottenham are primed to say farewell to White Hart Lane at the end of the season, or at least that remains the plan. The club will confirm before Sunday whether they are to take up the option of using Wembley as a temporary home next season while work is completed on their new stadium, which is being built on the current White Hart Lane site.

There has not been a grand countdown to the closure of the Lane, where Tottenham have played since 1899 – certainly nothing, for example, to rival the long kiss goodnight that West Ham United gave to Upton Park last season. This has been partly down to the fact that at no point have the club said that they will for sure leave their old home at the end of the season. Moreover, they will not leave the area on the permanent basis. They will not even leave the existing footprint.

But the emotions are swirling among the supporters and, right on cue, it is Arsenal who will visit on Sunday for what should be the stadium’s final north London derby and second-last fixture. Tottenham entertain Manchester United on Sunday 14 May.

Pochettino’s mind will go back to the final derby at Sarrià, when a Barcelona team under the charge of Sir Bobby Robson had looked to inflict more misery on their neighbours. Barcelona had not lost against Espanyol in 10 years.

Robson’s lineup featured Ronaldo (the Brazilian one), Luís Figo, Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique and, alongside Robson in the dugout, was the assistant manager José Mourinho. But, riding a wave of emotion, Espanyol would triumph 2-0, with the Romania striker and West Ham flop Florin Raducioiu scoring the goals.

Both were penalties, the first having been awarded early on when the Barcelona defender Fernando Couto leaned into a challenge on Pochettino and levered the ball away from him with an arm. It was a controversial decision and the Barcelona players went crackers, with Figo and Guardiola booked for their role in the mass protest to the referee.

The touchpaper had been lit. Figo was sent off midway through the first half for a shove on Sebastián Herrera, who went down easily, and, towards the end, there was something thrown from the crowd at the Barcelona substitute Giovanni. Luis Enrique would floor a jeering Espanyol fan on his way out of the ground and Pochettino was reminded recently of how he had charged into a tackle on Ronaldo, taking the ball but clearly hoping to clean out his man as well. Ronaldo got himself out of the way.

Espanyol fed off the passion of the crowd at Sarrià throughout the campaign and, although they would finish 12th in La Liga, only five clubs won more home matches. Pochettino has sensed something similar this season. His Tottenham team have been determined to wring every last drop out of White Hart Lane and they go into the Arsenal game on a run of 15 consecutive wins in all competitions at the stadium.

“It’s a special season for us at White Hart Lane – we can all feel it,” Pochettino says. “It’s very special every time we play. The fans are more open to help the team and the team is more focused, trying to repay the support of the fans. It’s a moment in which we feel very comfortable at the stadium and you start to miss it before you leave. Every time you are there, you start to miss it.”

Pochettino has vivid memories of Espanyol’s last match at Sarrià – a 3-2 win against Valencia – and, at full time, many fans invaded the pitch. Some of them took patches of the turf, which they attempted to keep alive at home. They could not bear to say goodbye and there was the feeling that they had been let down by the club’s owners and the local government which, in their eyes, tended to be more helpful to Barça.

Espanyol would move into the vacant Olympic Stadium and they spent 12 seasons there, enjoying great success; twice, they won the Copa del Rey. But it simply was not a football stadium and they could not wait to leave. In 2009 they got a home of their own – the new-build Cornellà-El Prat, which has since been renamed as the RCDE Stadium.

“The last season at Sarrià was very emotional, with a big history,” Pochettino says. “As a player, I felt how emotional it was – the last game against Valencia; the day that the stand came down; how the people cried. It was very, very emotional. And now it’s happening at White Hart Lane. Many, many years later, I am living and feeling the same.”

Whenever Arsenal visit White Hart Lane the atmosphere is frenzied but this time it stands to reach the next level. The expected confirmation of the stadium’s imminent demolition will give the occasion an acute significance.

All of a sudden, Tottenham really do seem set to say farewell. Buckle up. Like Pochettino’s Espanyol, they intend to go with a bang.

The Guardian Sport

Tottenham Prove Themselves Up to the Terms of a Testing Trial at Selhurst Park

sport

London – The only question for Tottenham Hotspur to answer in south London was a psychological one. Did the damage that Chelsea inflicted at Wembley on Saturday, in another chastening semi‑final experience for Spurs, extend to the Premier League title race?

Ideally Mauricio Pochettino would have picked somewhere other than Selhurst Park to see whether his players could come up with a response and, in the process, silence the inevitable criticism that was destined to come his way if they ended up dropping points.

Crystal Palace, after all, had vanquished Arsenal and won at Chelsea and Anfield in the space of 22 days, and there is something about Selhurst Park under the lights at this stage of the season – the mind strays back to that improbable comeback against Liverpool three years ago – that seems to turn up the heat on title challengers.

In that sense the script was written for Spurs to come up short, particularly after the way things unravelled for them at a similar stage last season – this game was almost a year to the day since they drew at home against West Bromwich Albion, leaving them with too much ground to make up on Leicester City.

All of which makes the way Spurs managed to chisel out three points against a resurgent Palace team all the more impressive. It felt like a victory for the manager as much as his players, especially after Pochettino went for the jugular at half-time, changing the system and personnel to bend this contest in Tottenham’s favour.

Much improved after the interval, Spurs kept probing and their persistence was rewarded with little more than 10 minutes remaining when Christian Eriksen picked up the ball about 25 yards from goal and unleashed a right‑foot shot that flashed beyond Wayne Hennessey and into the corner of the net. Pochettino, who had cut an anxious figure for much of the second half as he stood on the edge of his technical area with his arms folded, exploded into life as he sprinted down the touchline, thrusting two fists into the air. Seconds later the travelling supporters were singing about hunting down Chelsea and the mood had been transformed.

Pochettino was quick to stress afterwards that this was not about sending a message to Chelsea, with the Argentinian refusing to engage in what he described as “mind games”, yet it was hard to overstate the importance of this win, especially in the context of that 4-2 defeat against Antonio Conte’s side four days earlier.

At times in the first half it seemed as if Spurs were still suffering. They looked flat, Palace were snapping into tackles and Spurs lacked discipline and composure with and without the ball. Victor Wanyama, booked for a foul on Luka Milivojevic, looked like a red card waiting to happen, with Harry Kane called over at one point in the first half by Jon Moss, the referee, to help get the message across to his team-mate that he was straying dangerously close to being sent off.

With that in mind it was not surprising that Wanyama was withdrawn at half-time. Mousa Dembélé, Wanyama’s midfield partner, also failed to reappear for the second half after suffering an ankle injury, prompting Pochettino to introduce the more attack-minded Son Heung-min and Moussa Sissoko. The back three was scrapped, Eric Dier moved into a deep-lying midfield role behind Eriksen and Dele Alli, and Tottenham, on paper at least, were unrecognisable from the team that started the game.

They were bold changes and ultimately everything paid off for Pochettino and Spurs, courtesy of that goal from the increasingly influential Eriksen. The Dane has now scored five times and created 11 in his past 12 matches in all competitions, signalling his importance to a team that refuses to give up hope of catching Chelsea.

Their next assignment is against Arsenal and it was pointed out to Pochettino that a Spurs victory at White Hart Lane on Sunday would ensure that they finish above their north London rivals for the first time in 22 years. The Spurs manager responded by suggesting his team were thinking of “bigger things than only to be above Arsenal”, and everyone knew what he had in mind.

The Guardian Sport

Newcastle are Back in the Premier League – What Happens Now Depends on Mike Ashley

sport

Why did it take so long to confirm promotion?

Given that Benítez invested £55m in 12 players last summer (although he achieved a £30m transfer profit after raising £85m in sales from his newly relegated squad) many neutrals expected Newcastle to be up by March at the latest. In contrast, those with intimate knowledge of the Championship believe Benítez has worked wonders, fully earning his £5m-a-year salary.

They point out that, during the previous five seasons, only one side, Burnley, have secured immediate automatic promotion the year after dropping out of the Premier League. Chris Hughton, who has taken Brighton up and also won the Championship with Newcastle in 2010, ranks among those who believe the second tier is infinitely tougher than seven years ago, with players considerably fitter and, thanks to advances in match analysis techniques, managers better prepared tactically.

The Tyneside challenge was further complicated by the reality that opponents viewed trips to St James’ Park, with its invariable 52,000 full houses, as “cup finals” and raised their game accordingly. Visitors also tended to turn up in packed defence mode, which does not suit either Newcastle’s or their manager’s preference for playing on the counterattack.

Will the club be sold in the coming weeks?

Watch this space. It is quite possible that nothing will happen and Newcastle simply continue under Mike Ashley’s ownership but senior club sources acknowledge that there has been discreet interest from assorted parties in recent months. If – and it is only an if – a takeover does happen, expect it to be as sudden and unexpected as Manchester City’s switch to Emirati control.

Possible buyers? Well, the state of Qatar is reportedly weighing up purchasing a Premier League club and rumours of Chinese interest refuse to disappear. Ashley would demand a high price, and is sufficiently contrary to suddenly decide to keep the club, but purchasers are attracted by those 52,000 crowds, Newcastle’s international reach – the former chairman Freddy Shepherd may have exaggerated slightly when he once claimed his was the world’s eighth most popular team but the club are undeniably high profile – their rare city-centre location in a regional capital and, of course, the transformative presence of Benítez.

Will Benítez stay?

The million-dollar question. In January – when Ashley refused to allow his manager to buy the winger and central midfielder he craved – the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager indicated he could well depart this summer.

Benítez, long admired by, among others, West Ham United, would not lack offers but the January frosting of relationships has long since thawed. Indeed, harmony is said to now be restored, with two recent transfer summits to discuss summer spending having proceeded “positively”.

Critically, the manager appears to have regained charge of recruitment, with the influence of Graham Carr, the once powerful chief scout who has Ashley’s ear, much diminished. The big concerns are that Benítez and Ashley rarely speak directly and that the former is keener on buying the odd player older than 25 than the latter.

Benítez’s affection for the club and the city runs deep and he would like nothing better than to stay at St James’ Park, win a trophy and take Newcastle back into the Champions League – but he is not a complete romantic and will walk if things are not to his liking.

The problem is Ashley and the Spaniard like to be in control, and Benítez is perhaps far too practised a political operator for the owner’s comfort. Last summer Ashley’s edict to club staff was: “What Rafa wants, Rafa gets” but the mood music is no longer quite the same.

How important is the manager staying to the club’s future?

They say no one is indispensable but Newcastle fans would tell you that Benítez is the exception to the rule. His amalgam of tactical shrewdness, smart man management and genuine warmth – (long term “Rafaology” students say he is revealing his “human side” much more these days) – have helped re-connect previously fractured bonds, between club, supporters and city.

A regular at football related community events on Tyneside, Benítez has invested the job with the sort of class and dignity not seen since Chris Hughton’s days at St James’ Park. Significantly his CV dictates he possesses the sort of “pulling power” capable of attracting some of Europe’s best players to Newcastle but will Mike Ashley facilitate a top tier “Rafalution”?

The Spaniard is clearly not quite sure as, with promotion secured, the politics have begun in earnest. “You never know,” he said when asked on Monday night to confirm he would still be in charge come August. “That is football. I’m really pleased to be here. Hopefully we can put in the foundations for something that will be a guarantee for the future. I am sure if we do the right things, we can prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.”

The subtext will not be lost on Ashley.

Does the squad need overhauling?

Most definitely. Benítez bought players specifically to win promotion but if he is to keep the team in the top division, let alone achieve his ambition of taking Newcastle back into Europe, major surgery will be required. It has been agreed that a minimum of six recruits are needed, with a centre-half, a left-back, a holding midfielder, a creative midfielder, a winger and a couple of strikers looming large on the managerial shopping list.

Who might Benítez buy?

Time will tell but there are a few clues to be going on with. Bas Dost, the prolific Sporting Lisbon player, is a striker he tried to sign last summer and could do with now – but the Dutchman would not come cheap. Carr, incidentally, is also a Dost fan, having urged Ashley to buy him for years.

Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is another at the pricey end of the radar, while Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend returning to Newcastle seems a real possibility. Hull City’s midfielder Sam Clucas and their centre-half Harry Maguire have been scouted by Newcastle and Benítez is said to also like the Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross as well as Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson.

Further forward, a move for Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge has been discussed and Newcastle have conducted background checks on the character of Burnley’s principal striker, Andre Gray.

Benítez remains very enthusiastic about the creative midfield talents of Fulham’s Tom Cairney and Manchester City’s Fabian Delph has been mentioned but the second ruptured cruciate ligament sustained by the Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson may remove him from the equation, scuppering a long-mooted move.

Who from the existing team should prosper in the Premier League?

Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark. Isaac Hayden could also develop into a useful top-flight midfielder and Karl Darlow surely deserves a chance in goal. After scoring so many goals, Dwight Gayle, too, should play a part but it is not entirely inconceivable that he could be sold on for a profit to fund signings. Expect plenty of departures, however.

Will Benítez be able to take Newcastle back into Europe?

Why not? Europe represents the Spaniard’s natural habitat and an arena he feels Newcastle should be competing in. But, barring a takeover, it all depends on the scale of Ashley’s vision.

The Guardian Sport

Uefa Must Cut Out the Slapstick, Play Straight Role in Helping Referees

sport

London – It would be a great service indeed if Uefa ditched the Champions League anthem for the remainder of this season’s competition and replaced it with Dance of the Cuckoos, the theme tune from Laurel and Hardy. The players could still line up and listen to it with awed reverence, of course, because that would provide an amusing and instantly shareable meme for folks wishing to illustrate the contrast between what the competition purports to be and the farce that it often is.

The quarter-final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich was trailed as a high-brow duel that would offer the thrills of a blockbuster and the substance of an art-house classic. Instead it risks being remembered as a goofy skit splattered with decisions so spectacularly wrong as to provoke a physical workout, being at once breathtakingly, eye-poppingly and thigh-slappingly rum.

The game was afflicted by so many significant distortions – such as Artur Vidal’s unearned red card and Cristiano Ronaldo’s bogus goal – that Real’s victory belongs in the same category as Barcelona’s tainted comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, which might not have happened if not for rampant diving by the players and decisions made by officials who performed as if freshly graduated from the School of Rough Guesses.

Real’s victory came on the same night as their neighbour, Atlético Madrid, progressed to the semi-final by beating Leicester City 2-1 on aggregate, the first goal coming from a penalty awarded for a foul outside the box. That, too, was a significant distortion, although at least Marc Albrighton was not sent off, unlike Andreas Beck, who was dismissed during Besiktas’ defeat against Dynamo Kyiv in the group stages for a challenge made outside the box – and made on him, to boot.

Whether or not we agree with Arsène Wenger’s suggestion that Arsenal might not have lost to Bayern Munich, let alone by 10-2, if the right decisions had been made when it came to red cards and penalties, it is clear that this season’s Champions League has been devalued by a succession of flamboyantly wrong decisions.

It is not just the Champions League, of course. On Sunday, Ross County were able to nick a late equaliser against Celtic thanks to a penalty awarded when Alex Schalk’s audition for the RAF Falcons parachute display team was mistaken for a foul. And earlier this month the referee Keith Stroud was given a 28-day suspension for awarding a free-kick to Burton Albion instead of ordering Newcastle to retake a penalty after encroachment by Dwight Gayle.

Stroud’s case is different to the other examples because he was punished for not knowing or momentarily forgetting the law he was supposed to be enforcing, the law being an ass is no defence, although an ass it certainly is in this instance – why, after all, should a team be allowed to retake a penalty kick after encroaching? In the other instances the referees could plausibly claim that any mistake they made was due to more pardonable shortcomings to do with the difficulty of seeing every movement precisely when trying to keep track of several bodies and a ball all at once.

There is no error that a human cannot make. That, basically, has been the excuse of football’s governing bodies for decades. It has been years since that excuse has been acceptable. For a long time the refusal to use technology to help eradicate mistakes amounted to a suspicious dereliction of duty. Why would the authorities choose to leave matches so exposed to human fallibility when they know that that also leaves matches more vulnerable to human venality?

Anyone who has watched football for a while is likely to have seen decisions even more blatantly incorrect than the one made by the Ghanaian referee Joseph Odartei Lamptey during November’s World Cup qualifier against Senegal, when Kalidou Koulibaly had a penalty given against him for handball even though it was obvious to most onlookers that the ball had hit his legs. Fifa gave that referee a life ban last month but has yet to explain fully why. We could try to guess but what we are after is accuracy and transparency.

So let us be thankful that soon there will be more clarity in refereeing thanks to the increased use of technology. Following successful trials, such as in the recent France-Spain friendly when correct decisions were made on two goals following referral to an official watching replays in a truck behind the stand, video-assisted refereeing will be introduced in several competitions next season, including the FA Cup and the Bundesliga. And Tuesday’s fiasco at the Bernabéu has even got Uefa to thinking that it should finally be seen to do its utmost to ensure accurate decisions are made in the competition it trumpets most loudly.

Technology should ensure that more correct decisions are made but is no guarantee of perfection. Earlier this season the HawkEye system used in Serie A led to a goal alert being wrongly sent to the officials in charge of the Sampdoria-Genoa match after the ball hit the crossbar and bounced down well short of the line. Media reports blamed a short-circuit.

Several weeks later in France something similar happened in the Bordeaux-Rennes match – a representative of the manufacturer, GoalControl, was later quoted in Le Monde explaining that the machine may have malfunctioned after being confused by the goalkeeper’s fluorescent yellow jersey. Fortunately on both occasions the contraptions were over-ruled by the referees, who had their wits about them and struck blows for justice and the most old-fashioned of devices, the human eyes. But we don’t want to keep relying on them alone.

Video-assisted refereeing would limit the number of slapstick routines in matches and reduce the chances of every Champions League game descending into another fine mess.

The Guardian Sport

Maria Sharapova’s Return to Tennis would Sit more Easily if She Showed Contrition

sport

London – A week or so ago, the legal definition of British prisons was changed: they are no longer places of punishment. The new prison and courts bill, put forward by the justice secretary, Liz Truss, proposed that it was more important that they reform and rehabilitate offenders, and prepare them for a return to society. The news was not universally greeted with Nordic cool reasoning. The Sun called the legislation “alarming”, while Paul Nuttall, this week’s Ukip leader, said that it “beggars belief”. Stories of “holiday camp” inmates drinking, drugging, even frying steaks in their cells were rehashed.

But it makes you wonder – what should be the purpose of drugs bans in sport? Here, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: instinctively, I’m kind of with Nuttall. I want the doping cheats to be punished. Reforming and rehabilitating them, ach, less bothered about that. Individuals will always use illicit means to improve their performances, but if they are busted, they should know that real, stinging deprivations await them.

And ideally – let’s go full Nuttall now – I would like some contrition. Doping offences are not a victimless crime: most obviously, the legitimate winner or medallist who is presented with their reward years after the event to the sound of no hands clapping. And for us, the sports fans, it’s just really tedious to have to replay events you have watched and speculate on what part banned substances played. I had seven years of that with Lance Armstrong, and frankly now I’m cooked.

All of which brings us to the return on Wednesday of Maria Sharapova. Of course, Sharapova is not an Armstrong-level villain: she tested positive last year for meldonium, an over-the-counter cardiac supplement – which is thought to improve exercise capacity – that had recently been banned by the International Tennis Federation. We can’t even call her a “doper”: she was not trying to gain an unfair advantage, according to the court of arbitration for sport, but had simply made an administrative mistake, failing to read a bunch of emails that were sent to her.

So what’s the problem? Everyone skims their emails and we don’t have the excuse of being world-class tennis players. Sharapova blundered, she sat on the sidelines for 15 months and now she’s free to return. She’s been given a wildcard to the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, an offer that tournament is perfectly entitled to make. Roland Garros and Wimbledon will presumably extend a similar invitation in due course. Sharapova will be back on the world’s biggest courts, whatever anyone’s misgivings, and doubtless as formidable and noisy as ever.

This is only an issue if we hold on, somewhat indignantly, to the idea of punishing offenders. Certainly everything seems to be falling into place rather nicely for Sharapova right now. Stuttgart has delayed her first-round match against Roberta Vinci until Wednesday, the day her ban expires. She will have been further buoyed by the news this week that Serena Williams is pregnant and will miss the rest of the season. Sharapova, who turned 30 this week, hasn’t beaten Williams since the Russian was a teenager.

Sharapova is a ferocious competitor and would not have enjoyed missing a calendar year of grand slams, but objectively things could be much worse. Of her major sponsors, only Tag Heuer dropped her; Nike, Evian, Head and Porsche – who, by happy coincidence, bankroll the event in Stuttgart – all stuck with her. And during her ban, she’s had plenty of frying-steak-in-her-cell moments: she was on front rows at New York Fashion Week, in selfies with Elton John at a tennis event in Las Vegas, glammed up for the Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

She’s also, presumably, had plenty of time to work on her forthcoming autobiography. The title, appropriately enough: Unstoppable.

Where the Sharapova situation is trickier for me is the bit about being contrite. She’s not. She gives no indication of feeling that she has done anything wrong. In fact, her strongest criticism is saved for the ITF, which she believes should have taken her aside and – “just an official to an athlete” – told her about the positive doping test and worked out how to handle it. Instead, she feels, they chose to make an example of her.

There is a problem here. Tennis has a reputation as a clean sport: nearly all of the very few positive tests have been for recreational drug use. Martina Hingis had a small amount of cocaine in her system; so did Richard Gasquet, although he argued (successfully, bizarrely) that it entered his system after he had kissed a woman in a Miami nightclub and had his ban reduced. Sharapova, in fact, is the first real case regarding a name player and a potentially performance-enhancing substance.

The truth is that, should you be so inclined, tennis is an excellent sport to cheat at. It is, in Ukip parlance, legendarily “soft on crime”. With the exception of one journeyman player – Wayne Odesnik, an American now banned for 15 years – authorities have never caught a player using EPO, human growth hormone or synthetic testosterone. Last year, an ESPN survey of 31 professional tennis players found that almost a quarter personally knew a player who had used performance-enhancing drugs. Two-thirds believed that the sport did not do enough testing.

A World Anti-Doping Agency report in 2014 revealed that the ITF found a comparatively tiny number of miscreants in tennis: one in 985 drug tests was positive, versus one in 274 in track and field and one in 296 in pro cycling.

Sharapova has skilfully sidestepped this controversy, though to be fair she has worked really hard during her career to improve her movement. There have been a few grumbles from fellow players about the decision to offer her wildcards, rather than making her earn her ranking points again – “disrespectful” said Caroline Wozniacki – but they have been easy enough for tournament organisers to ignore. There’s a countdown to Sharapova’s return on her Twitter page, almost as if a gross injustice will soon be overturned. “I’m a gentle soul,” she has told us. “I’m not made of anger, hostility or resentment.”

I’m not made of anger, hostility or resentment either, but why, then, does it feel as if no lessons are being learned?

The Guardian Sport

Brighton’s Long March Ends in Chris Hughton’s Completion of a Job Well Done

sport

London – Two days after an exhausted Brighton had lost to Sheffield Wednesday in last season’s play-off semi-final, the club announced that the manager, Chris Hughton, had signed a new four-year contract. In the afterglow of ostensible failure that sort of thing might have been regarded as inadvisable by some, but not Brighton. Hughton is part of a plan, one that has brought them to the Premier League.

It has been a plan 20 years in the making. Year Zero for Brighton was 1997, when they eked out a draw on the final day of the season against Hereford to stay in the Football League. It was a point that saved them not just from relegation but quite possibly from oblivion, the club having been run into the ground and out of their old home. Over the next two decades the former chairman Dick Knight, followed by the current chairman and benefactor to the tune of nearly £250m Tony Bloom – boyhood fans both – first saved what was then a shell of a club, then oversaw its transition.

That defeat by Sheffield Wednesday was Brighton’s third play-off semi-final defeat in four years, the difference now being that in the previous two it had been the respective managers’ final games in charge. Gus Poyet, having taken them from League One to the play-offs, was dismissed owing to an apparent breach of contract, then a year later his replacement, Oscar García, resigned. Hughton arrived at the end of 2014, after one of their few mis-steps, the appointment of Sami Hyypia, had been corrected reasonably swiftly, and set them back on the right path.

When the players talk about Hughton, most refer to his calm authority, a steady head when pressure presents itself. It has become something of a cliche to say he is tougher than his nice guy reputation suggests but it nonetheless forms a big part of why he is successful and respected. “He never gets too high emotionally but gets his point across when we don’t do the job,” the midfielder Dale Stephens says. Hughton seems like the perfect manager for Brighton, one whose understated ambition and ability not to panic when others might, matches their own.

After last season’s disappointment, when they led the division for a couple of months, recovered from a winter blip and faded at the last, Hughton and those above him nonetheless recognised they were on to a good thing, and patience was all that was required. Given the strength of the teams relegated from the Premier League, that might have been regarded as a gamble but, if it was, then it has paid off handsomely.

An already fine squad was added to judiciously, Shane Duffy arriving from Blackburn to form the division’s best central defensive partnership with Lewis Dunk, while Glenn Murray returned to add a few more goals up front. The summer’s biggest task was keeping hold of key talent: Stephens wanted to leave for Burnley but six bids were rejected while Newcastle made moves for the sparkling Anthony Knockaert.

Knockaert is Brighton’s star man, the Championship’s best player, a twinkling and devastatingly effective winger who can often look like an intensely frustrating team-mate to play with. Knockaert will often go for a more difficult option, the path of most resistance by ignoring players in ostensibly better positions. But his faith that it is better for him to keep the ball and do things on his own is usually justified: against Wolves on Good Friday he twice headed towards goal with colleagues madly flapping their arms for a pass but twice he went ahead and scored himself. It is tough to argue that a player is being selfish when he can win games on his own.

Knockaert is a rare concession to individualism in a team who move as a collective. The Frenchman wins games but a more prosaic explanation for their success is strength in depth. Last season’s player of the year Beram Kayal has missed large chunks of this campaign and Brighton have barely blinked. Duties on the opposite flank to Knockaert have been shared by the assorted talents of Jiri Skalak, Jamie Murphy and Solly March. Three strikers – Murray, Tomer Hemed and Sam Baldock – have reached double figures, in addition to Knockaert’s 15. Hughton’s adherence to a fairly traditional 4-4-2 system is not especially fashionable but he has found a formation to suit his players, surely one of the absolute basics of good management.

Brighton play efficient football, not the direct game the former Norwich manager Alex Neil suggested they did earlier in the season, but neither is it often frilly. They can be functional but that is what is required to get out of the Championship. Because of this, along with their individual talents, Brighton are perhaps better than any other side at winning games while playing badly: one example that sticks out is the win at Birmingham in December, when goals in the last 10 minutes from Murray and Knockaert nabbed a 2-1 win. Afterwards Hughton admitted they had been poor for 80 minutes but few cared.

Then there is the old-fashioned notion of team spirit. Most successful sides will present the image of that intangible idea of togetherness but at Brighton it seems genuine and perhaps deeper than most. The story of the squad travelling to France to attend the funeral of Knockaert’s father is well-known but that does not make it any less extraordinary, or valuable. “Because of what the club did for me I could stay here all my life,” Knockaert said about this act of solidarity, later describing it as “the best moment of my life”.

The sense of unity seems to extend to the rest of the club. It does not hurt that all staff, not just the players, will receive a bonus now promotion is secured. For away trips Bloom will often be seen not on the team coach and in the director’s box but among fans on the train and the terraces. In February the TV cameras picked him up celebrating a Murray goal against Brentford with the uncoordinated glee of a kid. This is a club where lines between those in the stands, on the pitch and behind the scenes are blurred.

The Guardian Sport

Ronaldo has Done so Much for Real Madrid – So Why Do some Fans Whistle him?

Sport

Madrid – There are supposed to be about 1,300 words in this article. It is tempting to just spend 1,287 of them listing the things that Cristiano Ronaldo has done at Real Madrid – and there are more than enough of them to take up all that space, that is for sure, from the two Champions League titles to the 395 goals – and then leave just enough room at the bottom to add: “On Tuesday night at the Santiago Bernabéu some Real Madrid fans whistled him. Dicks.” On one level at least that would probably sum it up quite nicely and we could all get on with life but while it can look that simple, it’s not always.

Cristiano Ronaldo was whistled on Tuesday. You might not have heard it on television and you might not have heard it if you were in the stadium either but he did and at one point he lifted his finger to his lips. “I don’t tell them to be quiet, never, I only ask them not to whistle because I always give my best in every game. Even if I don’t score goals, I try to work hard to help Real Madrid,” he said after a Champions League quarter-final in which he scored a hat-trick. Real Madrid knocked out Bayern Munich 6-3 on aggregate and Ronaldo scored five.

His statistics might look like they broker little argument and they certainly do not invite whistles but there is an argument: stupid though it sounds, he wasn’t playing well on Tuesday. When the whistles came, Madrid were struggling and it seemed likely they would get knocked out. Ronaldo had slipped over a couple of times and rarely looked a threat. When he was sent running through, his shot was saved at the near post by Manuel Neuer when some supporters thought he should have played in Karim Benzema. It wasn’t until the 76th minute that he had a decisive impact but by the end he had scored a hat-trick, his 41st for the club. He has 100 Champions League goals.

Daft though it may appear when he has 31 goals this season, for the first half of the campaign he wasn’t playing well, although he has been impressive since Christmas. He didn’t always play that well last season either and yet it ended up being the best of his career: a double European champion and the winner of the Ballón d’Or for the fourth time. He is evolving: more a No9, less a player who dominates games. It just so happens he is about the best No9 you could imagine. “I don’t know who doubts Cristiano Ronaldo,” Cristiano Ronaldo said after the victory over Bayern Munich.

He also noted the people “who love me” don’t doubt him. The whistling wasn’t loud and it wasn’t done by that many. The majority of Madrid fans cheered him on Tuesday night and every night. They didn’t whistle but he heard the ones that did and it stung. Maybe that is human nature and even if it is a few, you may wonder why it is any at all: Ronaldo certainly does.

Madrid’s fans have cheered Ronaldo and they chant his name. They have celebrated his successes as their own. In the summer, they wanted Portugal to win the European Championship. When he won the Ballon d’Or, a gold mosaic engulfed the Bernabéu. They fight his cause in the endless debate against Lionel Messi as if it was another title for Madrid and a succession of managers and team-mates have said he is the best player in the world. Thousands of supporters wear his shirt – more than wear anyone else’s – but still some have whistled him and the Bayern game was not a one-off.

His frustrations are played out on the field, externalised and ostentatious, and when he reacts to the fans’ frustrations it doesn’t help. If he mutters something under his breath, it makes the news, lip readers reveal his words. The way he plays contributes to it, as does his body language, that hint he is an individual in a team sport; the way it can sometimes appear to be about him. There is something about the way players and managers talk about him being the best that could feel forced, too: Rafael Benítez’s baffling reluctance to do so contributed to the manager’s downfall at Madrid.

While Ronaldo’s triumphs have been celebrated some fans think the team should have won more; this is Madrid, after all. He is the holder of the Ballon d’Or, a player who, with Messi, has dominated European football for a decade. The demands at the Bernabéu are gigantic; you have to be perfect, especially if you are the best in the world. Besides, everyone gets whistled at Madrid; whenever the issue is raised you are remind of that. Gareth Bale has been whistled , Zinedine Zidane tells people it has happened to him, even Alfredo Di Stéfano got it at times.

The Guardian Sport