Real Betis Keep their Heads to Leave Real Madrid Assessing Early-Season Damage


London – Thirty-five different teams over 73 games stretching back almost 18 months had tried and failed to stop Real Madrid scoring. Real Betis went one better.

Manchester United couldn’t do it, Manchester City couldn’t do it and Bayern Munich couldn’t do it. Juventus couldn’t do it either. Nor could Borussia Dortmund, Napoli or Sporting Lisbon. The other Sporting, from Gijón, couldn’t do it. They came from Mexico, Japan, Poland and Cyprus and failed too. Barcelona tried four times but they couldn’t do it. Sevilla and Atlético had five goes each. Nope, no good. Along came Valencia, Deportivo and Celta, Osasuna, Espanyol and Villarreal, but they couldn’t do it and nor could Las Palmas, Eibar, Athletic, Cultural, Granada, Málaga, Alavés or Leganés. Real Betis, on the other hand, could. In fact, on Wednesday night they only went and did something even better.

Thirty-five different teams from eight different countries had tried over 73 games and six competitions stretching back almost 18 months and none of them had stopped Real Madrid scoring, but Betis were almost there. There was still time for it to slip away, especially against the team with a thing for agonizing late goals and they were nervous but they were near. It was 11.47pm and the scoreboard at the Santiago Bernabéu, like scoreboards everywhere, had stopped on 90 minutes – information denied when it’s most needed. Alongside, it read: Madrid 0-0 Betis. The board went up: five minutes, one last bugle call, a record awaiting, fans screaming at them to pour forward.

Victory over Real Sociedad on Sunday extended Madrid’s run of scoring in consecutive games, equaling the record set by Santos in the sixties. Three days later, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning from a five-match ban, they were set to break it. On Tuesday Marca’s front cover ran a picture of Pelé with the headline “O’Rei Madrid”: Madrid the King. Thing is, if you’re going to come for the King you’d better not miss, and Madrid had: Ronaldo had thumped over, Bale had hit the post with a wonderful flicked volley, and Betis goalkeeper Antonio Adán had flown. Twenty-seven shots Madrid had taken. But, Zidane said afterwards, “the ball didn’t want to go in”.

Actually, it did. “We had 26, 27 chances,” Zidane said, while Betis’s manager Quique Setién admitted: “They put the ball into our box 20, 25 times.” There were superb saves too and Setién added: “To win here you know you’ll suffer and you know your goalkeeper has to be spectacular: winning here without suffering is a utopia.” But while goalkeeper Adán needed to be spectacular – and on a couple of occasions he really was – while chances were wasted, the siege rarely looked as incisive as expected and, like Madrid’s draw against Levante, it wasn’t as if there were countless chances. Nor were Betis barricaded in – and proof of that came with what happened next.

Adán had just made another save, a comfortable one from Borja Mayoral, and the clock was ticking. But he didn’t boot the ball as far as possible and nor did anyone take it to the corner and keep it there. Instead, they played. Before the game, as they gathered in a circle, Betis captain Joaquín Sánchez had appealed for “personality”. “We’re going to defend with the ball,” he said, “and then we’re going to enjoy having it, eh.” As for the manager Setién, he urged them: “Don’t stress; be calm, especially with the ball. Have faith in what you do. Let’s have it, choose well.” His assistant, Eder Sarabia, paced. “We have to reach the end alive; that’s the key. We’ll have chances for sure.” And so it proved. With 92.11 on the clock, something to cling on to, Adán rolled the ball out and it began.

Javi García carried it forward. It went left, towards the touchline, inside again, across the middle and over to the other side, back to the middle, and round it went. When it came to Cristian Tello, he dashed toward and spread it to Antonio Barragán. There, on the right edge of the area, Betis outnumbered Madrid. Barragán clipped a lovely ball over to Antonio Sanabria, moving into space near the far post and he headed down into the net, before racing towards the corner flag and skidding to his knees. High, high above him, fans in green and white went wild. All around the rest of the stadium, Madrid’s supporters turned for the exit; 93.20, the clock said, and Betis were in the lead.

In a weird sort of way, for all that Madrid sought the goal and a 0-0 draw would have been huge enough for Betis, it had been coming too. They’d had opportunities early, Dani Carvajal clearing one off the line, and even as the game tilted Madrid’s way they protected themselves with possession where they could, and three or four times they had come away cleanly, only to take the wrong decision, misplace a pass, or crash into one-man wall Casemiro. Sometimes, those mistakes put them in trouble and, hearts racing, you could sense fans pleading with them to just put their bloody foot through it. On the touchline, though, the message was different.

“You have to be intelligent to have the ball, keep it, make them run, have some calm in moments of tension. In the last 20 minutes you watch them and you can think: ‘How did you miss?’ You see passes that are relatively easy they don’t make. But after all the effort, the running, you can’t ask them to have the same precision as in the fifth minute,” said Setién. What he could ask them to do was keep trying.

Betis made changes and saw Víctor Camarasa, their best player until then, forced off just before half-time. Reading the line-up on the Metro, seeing no Sergio Leon, Joaquín or Andrés Guardado, frankly the temptation was to turn back. But they had only gone and done it. Real Betis had become the first team in 74 games to stop Madrid scoring, the record shared, not taken, from Pelé’s Santos, and then they’d scored themselves. They had won at the Bernabéu – the first time anyone other than Barcelona or Atlético had beaten Madrid there in six-and-a-half years and the first time Betis had left with a victory for 19. For Setién, it was a third consecutive game against Madrid without defeat. “Is it going to be a long night?” he was asked. “As long as I like,” he smiled.

“It’s only three points but it’s three prestigious points,” said Setién. Three points that will reinforce their identity, too, one that is still being forged. And few coaches have an identity quite so clear cut as his. “In these days when everyone thinks you have to run, fight, work, compete, I ask my players to think,” he added.

For Zidane, there was a lot to think about. This was Madrid’s third home game in the league and they have not won any. With a little more luck they could, and probably should, have won all three; the shot count for the three is up near 80; that scoring run surely shows they have no goalscoring crisis. But Madrid do lack a little fluidity and the chances are not always as clear as the stats suggest. The truth is, they don’t look quite right.

“At home we’re finding it harder to generate football,” Isco admitted. This night was occasionally chaotic and clarity was rare: at one point they had briefly had 12 men on the pitch because Luka Modric didn’t realize he was the one coming off – and not everyone was happy he was – while Lucas Vázquez twice had to ask Zidane where he was supposed to be. As the ball went forward, it was too often just put into the box. Casemiro said it was “hard to understand” but also suggested they had needed to have a bit more “head”. They also need more points – and fast.

It may only be momentary but the damage done is significant. Two draws, against Valencia and Levante, and a defeat against Betis, is their worst start at home in 20 years. Only twice before – in 1969-70 and 1995-96 – have they not won in the opening three games. Worse, it leaves them, in the words of one front cover, “SEVEN POINTS!” behind Barcelona already. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it’s like that and that’s the way it is. “That’s football: you have to accept it,” Zidane said. “Maybe last year we won some games we didn’t deserve to: now it’s the other way around.” He also reminded everyone there’s a word he likes even if everyone else doesn’t, one that sums him up: tranquility.

“Should you be worried?” he was asked. “No, I don’t think so,” he replied.

The Guardian Sport

Champions League: Group-by-Group Analysis


London – Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United all look likely to reach the last 16 of the Champions League, but Tottenham have been dealt a harsh hand with favorites Real Madrid. The Guardian Sport examines the draw with a group-by-group analysis of who will likely qualify to the next round and who will leave the tournament early:

Group A
Benfica, Basel, Manchester United, CSKA Moscow

José Mourinho will be pleased with the draw, no doubt. United have bought wisely in the summer – Romelu Lukaku has added goals and will be joined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they get through the group – and Nemanja Matic looks an inspired piece of business to strengthen the midfield. Benfica are still the best Portuguese team in the competition despite selling Ederson, Victor Lindelof and Nélson Semedo this summer. Bruno Varela is a very good replacement for Ederson and they have kept Pizzi and Álex Grimaldo. CSKA, meanwhile, have had a relatively poor start but have improved in the past few weeks. Igor Akinfeev has finally kept a clean sheet in the Champions League after 11 years of failing to do so and in the new manager, Viktor Goncharenko, they have a more attack-minded man in charge compared to Leonid Slutsky. Basel, who have just been hit by the retirement of club legend Matias Delgado could well finish bottom. Ricky van Wolfswinkel now leads their line.

Prediction 1 Manchester United 2 Benfica 3 CSKA Moscow 4 Basel

Star player Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Manchester United)

Group B
Bayern Munich, Anderlecht, Paris St-Germain, Celtic

All eyes will be on the French club this season as they have finally, after years of trying, made the kind of signing that should see them elevated to the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona. The impact of Neymar’s arrival on PSG cannot be overestimated and it is easy to forget now that they came within minutes of eliminating Barça last season, even without the brilliant Brazilian in their team. In Bayern they have a superb group opponent but are the German champions stronger than last season? Arguably not with Philipp Lahm and Xabi Alonso having retired. Corentin Tolisso has arrived from Lyon for £36.4m and James Rodríguez joined on loan from Real Madrid, but he has struggled to recapture his 2014 World Cup form. Celtic can probably snatch third place from Anderlecht – and possibly trouble Bayern and/or PSG at home – but this, sadly, looks like quite an uneven group.

Prediction 1 Bayern Munich 2 Paris Saint-Germain 3 Celtic 4 Anderlecht

Star player Neymar (PSG)

Group C
Chelsea, Roma, Atlético Madrid, Qarabag

Atlético Madrid are the team to beat considering their Champions League record of two finals in the past four years. They are working under a transfer ban and have had to loan out their only summer signing, Vitolo, who arrived from Sevilla for £31.8m. At least Antoine Griezmann decided to stay. Chelsea looked out of sorts against Burnley and then back to their defensive best in their 2-1 win against Tottenham, however Antonio Conte had two attempts at the Champions League at Juventus but was eliminated in the quarter-finals in 2012-13 and at the group stage the following year. Roma have had a summer of wholesale changes under their new sporting director, Monchi. Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rüdiger (to Chelsea) and Francesco Totti will be hard to replace but they have brought in 10 players. Qarabag became the first team from Azerbaijan to qualify for the group stage. The manager, Gurban Gurbanov, has been there since 2008 and prefers to play three up front with the South African Dino Ndlovu as the focal point.

Prediction 1 Atlético Madrid 2 Chelsea 3 Roma 4 Qarabag

Star player Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid)

Group D
Juventus, Olympiakos, Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon

A horribly competitive group with Juventus favorites having eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-finals last season. Both teams, however, have lost important players with Leonardo Bonucci joining Milan in a shock move and Neymar jumping the Barça ship for Paris Saint‑Germain. Juve looked defensively shaky in the Italian Super Cup defeat against Lazio but they still have a superb squad and have added Federico Bernardeschi from Fiorentina for a whopping £35.7m. There is unhappiness among Barça fans after a summer during which they failed to secure Marco Verratti and signed the former Spurs midfielder Paulinho instead. They are still pursuing Philippe Coutinho and have signed Ousmane Dembélé, though. Olympiakos should finish third and are enjoying a renaissance under their new manager, Besnik Hasi. The Greek club have spent almost £20m on players this summer; Sporting, third in Portugal last season, will struggle to compete against the other three teams and Jorge Jesus’s side could still sell the midfield linchpin William Carvalho.

Prediction 1 Juventus 2 Barcelona 3 Olympiakos 4 Sporting

Star player Lionel Messi (Barcelona)

Group E
Spartak Moscow, Liverpool, Sevilla, Maribor

An even group with Liverpool slight favorites ahead of Sevilla, who are on their third manager in three years. Sevilla, who beat Liverpool in the 2016 Europa League final, now have Eduardo Berizzo in charge and while they have sold Vitolo to Atlético they have signed Éver Banega, Jesús Navas and Nolito. Jürgen Klopp has assembled a squad with an enormous amount of speed up front but they are still suspect at the back. Spartak were outstanding last season as they won their first title since 2001 but are 11th in the league and Massimo Carrera (Antonio Conte’s former assistant) may get the sack. The Dutch winger Quincy Promes, though, is a huge threat. Maribor have won one of 12 Champions League group games in their history and the former Leeds manager Darko Milanic has a huge task to improve on that record, especially as they have lost their best player, the attacking midfielder Dare Vrsic, after failing to agree a new contract.

Prediction 1 Liverpool 2 Sevilla 3 Spartak Moscow 4 Maribor

Star player Sadio Mané (Liverpool)

Group F
Shakhtar Donetsk, Napoli, Manchester City, Feyenoord

There can be no excuses for Pep Guardiola this season. He has spent more than £220m this summer with an astonishing £128.5m on full-backs. They should qualify comfortably but already, this season, Everton have exposed weaknesses at the back. Napoli are one of the most exciting sides in Europe, Maurizio Sarri’s side crushing Nice 4-0 on aggregate in the play‑offs. Goals can come from everywhere with Dries Mertens, José Callejón, Lorenzo Insigne, Arkadiusz Milik and Marek Hamsik all in the squad. Shakhtar won the Ukrainian league by 13 points last season but they have lost their best Brazilians, such as Alex Teixeira and Douglas Costa, in recent seasons. Playing in Kharkiv rather than Lviv should help the atmosphere. Feyenoord won the Dutch title for the first time in 18 years last season under Gio van Bronckhorst but they are now without arguably their three most influential players in Dirk Kuyt (retired), Terence Kongolo (Monaco) and Rick Karsdorp (Roma).

Prediction 1 Manchester City 2 Napoli 3 Shakhtar Donetsk 4 Feyenoord

Star player Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli)

Group G
Monaco, Besiktas, Porto, Leipzig

One of the more even groups with, frankly, all teams capable of going through. Monaco are the favorites despite losing some of their key players, with Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy and Tiémoué Bakayoko all joining Premier League clubs. And there has been the saga about Kylian Mbappé’s future. Not helpful. Porto have a new manager, Sérgio Conceição, and have sold the prolific André Silva to Milan but have retained the even more prolific Tiquinho Soares. Rúben Neves, of course, has joined Wolves. RB Leipzig will make their Champions League debut having kept Naby Keïta and Emil Forsberg but they lost their first league game of the season, against Schalke, and looked lackluster. Big-spending Besiktas will hope to do well as part of their president’s plan for a more global profile. They have won the past two league titles and have a competitive team with this summer’s additions of Álvaro Negredo, Pepe, Jeremain Lens and Gary Medel among others.

Prediction 1 Monaco 2 Porto 3 RB Leipzig 4 Besiktas

Star player Youri Tielemans (Monaco)

Group H
Real Madrid, Tottenham, Borussia Dortmund, Apoel Nicosia

The reigning champions look favorites to complete the first hat-trick of European Cup wins since Bayern Munich in 1974-76. All their stars have stayed and are now being pushed to even greater heights by younger players such as Mateo Kovacic, Marco Asensio and Dani Ceballos. Dortmund are still a force to be reckoned with but there is no doubt the departure of Ousmane Dembélé has cast a long shadow over the club. Thomas Tuchel has been replaced by Peter Bosz as manager while Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang is staying and Julian Weigl is fit again. Spurs’ chances probably depend on whether they can perform at Wembley and why shouldn’t they be able to now that they are playing league games there, too? In Harry Kane and Dele Alli they have a pairing that can hurt most defenses. Apoel are likely to finish last in the group, having lost Pieros Sotiriou, their top scorer last season, to FC Copenhagen.

Prediction 1 Real Madrid 2 Borussia Dortmund 3 Tottenham 4 Apoel

Star player Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

*The Guardian Sport

Theo Hernández’s Move to Real Clouds Gentleman’s Agreement with Atlético


London – It has been called a number of things over the years: a gentleman’s agreement, an unwritten rule, a non-aggression pact. But since the sale of Santiago Solari from Atlético to Real Madrid in 2000, no first-team regular has moved directly between the two clubs. In a footballing world dominated by obscene money, media manipulation, agents and even transfer bans, there seems little room for honoring tradition these days, but between the Madrid clubs, there does seem to be a special bond. Chairmen and directors of both clubs share a meal before each derby, and often greet each other like old friends. It is hard to imagine the same being true in Manchester or Milan.

Some have suggested that the pact is a myth, but when rumors emerged in 2012 of Real making a move for Atlético’s Radamel Falcao, their then-manager José Mourinho explained that “there is a non-aggression pact. I think it’s a forbidden subject.” When Antoine Griezmann was asked about a potential summer switch earlier this year he said: “Madrid is impossible compared to my club. I believe that they have a pact between them.”

So when Real Madrid announced last week that they had signed Theo Hernández from Atlético for an initial €24m, there were a few raised eyebrows. Admittedly Theo might not be regarded a first-team regular; indeed – unlike his father Jean-François and brother Lucas – who made 24 appearances for Diego Simeone’s side last season – the 19-year-old has never made a competitive appearance for Atlético despite being with the club since the age of 11. But after last year’s breakthrough season on loan at Alavés, there is no denying that the deal is not without significance, and is seen in many quarters as the most important transfer between the two clubs since Hugo Sánchez’s move to the Bernabéu in 1985. It is certainly the most expensive.

So why did Atlético let him go? In truth they had little choice, owing to a release clause in Theo’s contract. After he “repeatedly rejected the proposals to renew” – according to a bitter statement from Atlético – and attracted interest from others including Manchester City and Barcelona, his agent, Manuel García Quilón, made it clear in May that he wanted to sign for Real. Gentleman’s agreement or not, Atlético had no choice but to sell, even to their local rivals, although according to reports in Spain, Real have added more than €2.5m to the transfer fee in performance-related bonuses – something they were not obliged to do – as a gesture of goodwill to their neighbors.

Prior to the beginning of last season, Theo had not even made his professional debut. On his right hand, he has recently tattooed five numbers, one on each of his fingers, and one on his thumb – 28816 – to remind him of the date that he did grace La Liga for the first time, on 28th August 2016. That professional debut with Alavés was a drab 0-0 draw against Sporting Gijón, but Theo has since admitted “I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.” In his second game, he helped Alavés to a famous 2-1 over Barcelona at the Camp Nou. “I thought that playing in the first division would be a bit harder,” he has since admitted.

That tattoo is a daily reminder as to how far Theo has come in such a short space of time. It will serve him well among his new superstar team-mates to keep a sense of humility and retain the work ethic which has catapulted him from relative obscurity to one of the most exciting players in Europe. Off the pitch he can appear shy. His manager at Alavés last season, Mauricio Pellegrino, now at Southampton, protected him somewhat from the spotlight, and even likened him to “a child”. But there is no hiding at the Bernabéu, as he found out when his unveiling went a little awry.

Physically at least, Theo appears already fully grown. Standing at 6ft1in, he is strong in the air and the tackle, but it is his pace that sets him apart: his long legs mean he has a preposterous stride and top speed. Often the only thing to stop him is the byline – the only defender to make more successful dribbles in La Liga last season was Atlético’s Filipe Luís.

In many regards, he is not too dissimilar from a young Gareth Bale, a raw, attacking left-back who loves to get forward. Many times this season he has left defenders for dead in the way the Welshman has become famous for, seizing on a loose ball and then simply setting off. On one occasion against Barcelona in February he ran the length of the pitch, leaving defenders in his wake, only to be foiled by Marc-André ter Stegen. No doubt he is relishing the prospect of playing with Bale, as well as learning the finer subtleties of his role from arguably the world’s best left-back, Marcelo. Theo will get plenty of opportunities to deputize for the Brazilian with Fábio Coentrão moving on to Sporting Lisbon on loan, and he could also play further forward as a left winger if necessary.

His left-foot is a potent weapon, fizzing crosses and set pieces into the box. In the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, he scored a delicious direct free-kick to level the scores, a dipping effort that found the top corner from 25 yards out. Equally, against Real Madrid in October he was a menace, providing an excellent assist to give Alavés the lead.

Theo’s rise has not been without incident. Eligible for both France and Spain, it is thought he has now chosen to represent the latter internationally, despite representing France at every age group since the Under-18s, a decision that has reportedly left France officials furious.

On the pitch as well, there is a discipline problem: Theo’s eagerness often gets the better of him. He received 14 yellows and two red cards in 38 appearances last season, meaning that in 39 percent of matches he went into the referee’s notebook.

Room for improvement then, but it is easy to see why Real Madrid paid up, why they handed Theo a whopping six-year contract, why president Florentino Pérez showered him with complements at his official unveiling on Monday evening at the Bernabéu. The fee of €24m looks a snip for a player that has all the tools to become the world’s best full-back. What is less clear is that if this is the beginning of a new era between Real and Atlético. Previously Los Blancos steered clear of signing Atlético’s finest players. Time will tell as to whether Theo’s deal is an isolated incident because of his release clause and the fact he made his name away from Atlético, or if the two clubs’ gentleman’s agreement is now dead.

The Guardian Sport

Beyond the Premier League Bubble: the Biggest Transfers in Europe this Summer


London – Premier League clubs, Tottenham aside, have been busy in the transfer market this summer. Arsenal have made Alexandre Lacazette their most expensive player; Liverpool have broken their transfer record to sign Mohamed Salah (and they want to break it again on Naby Keïta); Everton have made Jordan Pickford the most expensive British goalkeeper ever; and Manchester City have made Kyle Walker the most expensive defender in history. But, despite its vast riches, not every player wants to play in the Premier League. Below we look at the best players who have opted against moving to England to play elsewhere in Europe.

Andrea Conti: Atalanta to AC Milan, £21m

Atalanta did well to convince Alejandro Gómez to pledge his future to the club, but that hasn’t prevented some of their best players from leaving. Roberto Gagliardini joined Inter in January and Franck Kessie moved to AC Milan earlier this summer. Earlier this month, Vincenzo Montella’s side also signed Andrea Conti on the back of his stunning campaign for Atalanta in Serie A. The 23-year-old was directly involved in more goals (13: eight goals, five assists) than any other defender in Europe’s top five leagues last season. Chelsea were linked with Conti earlier in the year and he would have been the perfect fit for Antonio Conte’s side at right wing-back.

Anthony Modeste: Köln to Tianjin Quanjian, £24m

Frenchman Anthony Modeste landed a surprise move to the Chinese Super League earlier this month, despite interest from West Ham. The 29-year-old rattled in 25 league goals for FC Köln last season, while no player won more aerial duels (151) in the Bundesliga. Modeste endured a disappointing stint at Blackburn in 2012 but that did not deter West Ham in their search for a new striker. Only RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg (nine) won more of our man of the match awards than Modeste (seven) in the Bundesliga last term, so Slaven Bilic has missed out.

Youri Tielemans: Anderlecht to Monaco, £21m

Monaco acted quickest to sign Youri Tielemans this summer, fighting off interest from Manchester City. Anderlecht’s sporting director, Herman van Holsbeeck, said: “Monaco is the ideal club for Youri. Youri really wanted to go to a club where the coach would love to work with him. Last season, he said to me: ‘I won’t go to Manchester where I am just another number on a list’.” The 20-year-old Belgium international is coming off the back of a number of mature performances for Anderlecht in the league and Europa League. He scored 13 goals in 37 league games for Anderlecht last season as they won the Belgian league and he also chipped in with three more goals in Europe.

Corentin Tolisso: Lyon to Bayern Munich, £37m

Bayern Munich made Corentin Tolisso the most expensive signing in Bundesliga history when they paid Lyon €41.5m for his services. Arsenal had monitored the Frenchman’s situation, though Bayern moved swiftly to sign Tolisso, who scored eight goals from central midfield in Ligue 1 last season. His range of passing makes him ideal for the German champions: he averaged more passes per league game (65.4) than any other Lyon player last season, though an 83.8 percent success rate leaves room for improvement. That being said, Tolisso is only 22 so will refine his skills over time. The Premier League’s loss is Bayern’s gain.

Dani Ceballos: Real Betis to Real Madrid, £14.45m

Dani Ceballos’ move to Real Madrid leaves the European champions inundated with central midfielders. The 20-year-old is a star in the making. He made the third most successful dribbles (81) in La Liga last season and was named the player of the tournament at the European Under-21 Championship this summer. The all-action midfielder was linked with a move to the Premier League earlier in the year but that won’t be happening any time soon: Real Madrid are believed to have included a €500m release clause in his contract.

James Rodríguez: Real Madrid to Bayern Munich, £8.5m loan fee

Dani Ceballos’ move to Madrid left Zinedine Zidane with too many midfielders so he sent James Rodríguez on a two-year loan to Bayern Munich, where the player will work under his former boss Carlo Ancelotti. Despite his limited time on the pitch last season, Rodríguez still made more key passes per 90 (3.4) than other La Liga player. He has just turned 26, and Chelsea and Manchester United will feel aggrieved to have missed out on his signature.

Dani Alves: Juventus to Paris Saint-Germain, free

The one that got away for Pep Guardiola, who was said to be livid when Dani Alves moved to Paris Saint-Germain. The 34-year-old was on the verge of signing a two-year deal with Manchester City, but opted to move to Paris. “I did speak with City officials,” said the Brazilian right-back. “But I have friends here and my wife loves this city. I was a little bit selfish when I went to Juve, I didn’t listen to my wife or friends. This time, I tried to be less selfish and to please everyone. I believe in happiness. That’s why I made the decision to come here. If Guardiola feels wronged, I apologize.” It helped that Paris Saint-Germain were willing to pay him £230,000 a week, nearly double what City offered. Alves made the second most key passes (31) in the Champions League last season and had the best cross accuracy (38 percent) of players to have attempted 50 or more crosses in Serie A last season. No wonder Guardiola was so disappointed. City signed Kyle Walker for £50m instead.

Nelsinho: Benfica to Barcelona, £25m

Barcelona failed to convince Arsenal to part with Héctor Bellerín, so instead turned their attention to Nelsinho, the 23-year-old right-back who had been linked with a move to Manchester United. The Portugal international was the defender with the second more tackles (93) and assists (six) in the Primeira Liga last season, so Barcelona will be hoping they have finally found a long-term replacement for Dani Alves.

Douglas Costa: Bayern Munich to Juventus, £5.3m loan fee

Liverpool and Tottenham were both linked to Douglas Costa, but the lure of Juventus was too strong for the Brazilian. “This is the perfect club for me at the perfect moment,” said Costa when explaining his decision to leave Bayern Munich on loan. “Ancelotti is a nice guy. He treats everyone the same, but I need to play. I need to evolve. There is one year left until the World Cup, I need to be on the pitch helping my team.” Costa made more successful dribbles (148) than any other player in the Bundesliga in the last two seasons – and he will have more time on the pitch at Juventus, where he hopes to provide “many assists” for Gonzalo Higuaín.

Leonardo Bonucci: Juventus to AC Milan, £35m

Arguably the biggest deal of the summer came in Italy as Leonardo Bonucci made a tremendously nostalgic move, leaving Juventus to join AC Milan for £35m. Manchester City and Chelsea were both linked with a move for Bonucci; Pep Guardiola once described the center-back as “one of my favorite ever players” and Antonio Conte has been keen to link up with a player he coached at Juventus and Italy. However, his raking long passes – Bonucci made more accurate long balls (230) than any other player in Serie A last season – are unlikely to ever grace the Premier League.

The Guardian Sport

La Liga in Review: Real Madrid Crowned Champs, Numerous Managers Get the Axe


London – Luka Modric went to lift the trophy but there was nothing in his hands, just a look on his face that said it all. Beside him, Gareth Bale was giggling. Real Madrid won the league, shouting, embracing and leaping around the pitch at the Rosaleda where they had just defeated Málaga on the final day, but there was something missing. “What do you mean, no trophy?” the Croatian asked Madrid’s press officer. “They’ll hand it out at the start of next season,” came the reply. “So now we celebrate here, we go back to the dressing room, and that’s it.” That’s it?! Modric gave him a look; baffled, Bale did too. And off they ran to join the rest.

They had no idea. How could they? It happens every May, but this was the first time in five years that Madrid had won the league, only the second in eight years – a wait that was too long, which is why they had made it a public priority from the start, and when it finally came the sensation was that something had shifted in Spain; a fortnight later, that feeling deepened. First, rivals Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Luis Enrique departing with just the one trophy and leaving Ernesto Valverde to step into his place, a big task ahead. In Cardiff, Madrid won again, becoming the first team to retain the Champions League.

It seems daft to suggest that this is the start of something for a team that had just won their third European Cup in four years – an end in itself, a run arguably unmatched since the 1970s – but that was how it felt, and it was the league title, perhaps the real measure of any team, that did it. Even at the club whose identity was built in Europe, the home front seemed to matter most in 2016-17. Put the two titles together and it was historic. Eight times Madrid had won the European Cup since 1958, but not once had it come with domestic success. Now, it did; now, they genuinely felt like the best team in Spain and beyond. The European Super Cup and Club World Cup were theirs too.

By the end of the campaign there was little argument, but it hadn’t always been like that. This was a curious season that often defied easy analysis. In the autumn, Zinedine Zidane had been asked if his team was in “crisis” and it wasn’t such a silly question. “No,” he had replied, “but we can’t carry on like this.” They hadn’t been beaten, and they wouldn’t be for months either, but while they went 40 games without defeat Madrid didn’t always convince. There was always something about them, though, an ability to find a way through.

Gerard Piqué saw something suspicious in it, insisting “we know now how this works” and later talking about how “strings” are pulled from the directors’ box at the Bernabéu. Ultimately, no team could match the variety Madrid had, nor the strength in depth. Atlético’s Filipe Luís said it best: “They have a really good squad: they adapt to every single game. They can build from the back, they can play long ball, they have good counterattacks, they have good set pieces, so it is really hard to play against them.”

Eventually, they had control too. Modric and Toni Kroos, aided by Isco, had not been at the forefront all the way through the year, but by the spring they certainly were. So, of course, was Cristiano Ronaldo – suddenly there in the decisive weeks, ending this season fitter, more important and just better than before.

“We’re not always going to win late in games,” Zidane had warned and he was right. Although they lost points late too, Madrid clinched points with goals in the final 10 minutes in a quarter of their matches, Sergio Ramos playing comic book hero with rare regularity. Yet as they entered the final weeks those late goals were replaced by early ones, a sense of assuredness previously absent.

Those final three matches in seven days were supposed to be hard but Sevilla, Celta and Málaga were all defeated. Ten goals, Madrid scored – then they got four against Juventus. They had scored in every game this season, via every route and almost every outfield player – only Fábio Coentrão didn’t score. This title was all of theirs, Zidane taking rotation to new levels. Twenty players went over 1,000 league minutes and it became normal to see eight or nine changes at a time. “It’s harder to beat Madrid’s B team than their A team,” Deportivo manager Pepe Mel said. Their squad was so strong there wasn’t even a place on the bench for James Rodríguez when they got to Cardiff.

“They deserve it,” Andrés Iniesta conceded, but Barcelona also knew they were complicit in handing over the league title. For all the brilliance of the front three, and a record 116 goals scored, they never rid themselves of that feeling of vulnerability. They won at Madrid, Atlético, Athletic, Valencia and Sevilla, but Alavés, Celta, Deportivo and Málaga defeated them. Even when they were winning, it didn’t feel quite right, so reliant were they on Lionel Messi. At times, the midfield that once defined them just wasn’t there. When they drew at Real Sociedad in November, they were overrun and grateful for the point. That was part of the portrait of their year, painfully revealed in Paris and Turin. “It will be hard to win the league like this,” Piqué said and so it proved.

Below them, Sevilla momentarily looked like they might compete for the league, their candidacy presented when they became the first team to defeat Madrid, but Leicester did them a lot of damage and they fell away, Samir Nasri disappearing having previously made a case to be the best player in Spain. As for Atlético, when they were held at Leganés in week two, Antoine Griezmann said they’d be “fighting relegation”. He was wrong of course, and they overtook Sevilla, but they didn’t fight for the title. Atlético did, though, fight for the Champions League, where they were knocked out by their city rivals for the fourth year in a row, the last European night at the Vicente Calderón a so very atlético way to bid farewell, singing on through the storm, glorious defeat visited upon them once more. They’ll miss heading down the aptly-named Melancholics’ Way to the place with a motorway under the stand, crumbling foundations shaken by the noise. Small wonder there were tears on the final day. Appropriately, there were also two goals from Fernando Torres.

Up at their new stadium, right out on the other side of the city, miles from their heartland and named after the club’s Chinese shareholding, Atlético will be back in the Champions League next season with Sevilla, while three others will grace the Europa League. Fran Escribá was in swimming trunks and on his way down to get an ice cream when Villarreal called him; the same time this year, he’ll be preparing for Europe. They’ll be joined by Real Sociedad, who became one of the country’s most attractive teams under Eusébio, and Athletic Bilbao in a competition out of Spanish hands for the first time in four years.

It was close, mind you. Alavés had to lose the Copa del Rey final for Athletic to get there. It was the second final in their entire history, led out by Manu García, the local boy whose name was on the shirt when they played their first ever final, against Liverpool 16 years ago. His was the kind of story that makes football worthwhile, but it wasn’t to be. Eibar missed out too, although the miracle was that there was even a chance that Ipurua might host teams that big. “No one talks about us,” striker Sergi Enrich said, but they should have done.

Espanyol briefly hovered there and at one point, Las Palmas thought they might just make it too – but then the collapse came. The relationship between coach and board broke down and so did the team. Las Palmas had been top in week three, playing the best football around, but won just three times in the second half of the season. “It’s incredible to have seen this team before and to see it now,” Quique Setién said.

At the bottom, Betis dangled as precariously as the scoreboard hanging over one end of the stadium, Málaga were falling apart until “The Cat” used up his seventh life – yes, in Spain it’s seven – and Míchel came to sort them out, while Deportivo were occasionally on edge too. They beat Barcelona, though, and Pepe Mel saw them clear. For a while, Valencia genuinely feared the drop. And as for first division debutants Leganés, they fought to the penultimate weekend, which was one week less than they had expected. They all struggled a little but they all had one thing going for them. Well, three things: Granada, Osasuna and Sporting. Between them, they went through eight managers, but it made no difference.

The bottom three were not alone in sacking managers: three men went over Christmas, season of goodwill and all that. Nor, in fact, were they the worst: Valencia went from Pako Ayesterán to Voro to Cesare Prandelli and back to Voro again – the temporary caretaker solution the club turned to for a fifth time and the man who soon had the best record in their history, better than all those actual managers. Valencia’s very own Winston Wolfe, Voro, he rescued them not once but twice and was then ushered off again.

The first man Voro replaced, Ayesterán, had gone so early it doesn’t feel like this season any more and he was swiftly followed by Paco Jémez at Granada: it was only week seven but he’d been complaining from the start, begging to be sacked. He was replaced by Lucas Alcaraz, Granada through and through, the manager with a gate named after him at the stadium, but he was saddled with a sorry side and didn’t see out it to the end. Nor did “revolutionary” Abelardo, who was Sporting Gijón. Enrique Martín Monreal, another coach who embodied his club, thought he might last the season but was sacked oh so sooner – sorry – and his replacement Joaquín Caparrós didn’t win a game. So they, like Granada, ended with three different coaches and relegation.

Tony Adams was of course the man who took over at Los Cármenes. He did so with seven games to go, put there by the owner, his boss at the Chinese company DDMC. He promised to kick his players “up the arse”, even though he knew it was a lost cause. Many laughed, and it was often funny, but Adams the manager blinded people to something more profound: Adams the sporting director seeking to restructure the whole club.

The Guardian Sport

Real Madrid’s Mixed Messages Put the Ball back in Cristiano Ronaldo’s Court


London – “That’s not something I am contemplating.” The phrase was repeated often but that did not make it any more true. On Monday night Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, insisted he was not even thinking about a series of scenarios that he certainly is thinking about. He has to. As he said himself: “Things happen and you look for the best solution for everyone.” What happened was that the Portuguese daily A Bola broke the story that Cristiano Ronaldo wants to leave Spain; the question now is whether that solution actually involves him walking away, eight years after his arrival. And if so, who provides an escape route? Who gives him somewhere to go?

It is what he wants, the report said. Other reports followed, with none of them denied. A Bola is close to Ronaldo’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and Pérez gave them a certain credence; although there was the usual proviso applied to press reports, this was no flat dismissal of baseless rumors. The headline that started it all was stark: “Ronaldo wants to abandon Spain.” Here is the thing: depending how this is managed, it may not be such a bad thing for Madrid either. Their position is a strong one, if unexpected. Managing this is not just about getting what you really want or even what can be achieved in return; it also includes the apportioning of responsibility. “Abandon” is a word Madrid would have welcomed: if it happens, he did this.

Roughly translated, two more words were also significant: “right now”. It is only June. Pérez said he has not spoken to Ronaldo yet. He said he would do so when the Confederations Cup ends. Even after that, there may be a long way to go. At the very end of the interview with Onda Cero radio when, having said that he was “not contemplating” any changes in the squad, he was talking about potential signings, Pérez noted that he liked those that get done just as the window is swinging shut, late on August 31. “Let me rest a bit,” he said. “I pick up strength in August.” That is applicable to Ronaldo too, if need be. Time, he will feel, is on his side.

But first, way before that, comes the next step: let’s hear from Ronaldo. Your move. Pérez’s appearance was, in essence, a means of returning the ball, sending it back into Ronaldo’s court. If he started the game, he has to play it. Pérez talked about finding out through the media, about how the last time he had seen Ronaldo the Portuguese had been excited about the future, and about how this was all a bit “strange”. He said he knew only what he had seen in the papers. He claimed, less conclusively and less convincingly, not to have spoken to Mendes. Now he wanted to talk to Ronaldo, he said. A way out of this mess, a way back into Madrid, was offered – if not an easy one. Time was bought too, tranquility.

The A Bola story emerged because Ronaldo’s camp wanted it to; the lingering doubt is whether it really is an exit strategy or something else. Having taken that first step, Madrid had to act. Pérez chose to express his innocence, surprise and an image of serenity. In a sense, Pérez has called Ronaldo’s bluff. It is easy enough to hide behind the media – the story can always be denied if need be. The message was clear: if that’s what you want, say so publicly. Ronaldo was being forced to play his hand. It is some game now, with Mendes and Madrid on either side of the table.

Pérez noted that Ronaldo remained under contract, said that he was “a Madrid player” and, in an interview with Marca which appeared the next day, that he would “continue to be”. He said: “The best thing for him and Madrid is for him to stay.” He also said: “Right now, Cristiano is a Real Madrid player and something very strange would have to happen for him not to be, and I am not [even] contemplating that.”

All that is true, but there’s that “right now” again and he also said: “We’ll see what happens.” As for “something very strange”, this situation was already one he had described as strange. Pérez is more than capable of denying the truth but this was still not an absolutely unequivocal “not for sale”. Pérez didn’t even raise the buy-out clause of €1bn (£882m), although he did confirm it when it was mentioned. He said: “We’ll listen to Ronaldo.” He also said there had been no offers. Which is one way of inviting them, perhaps. The door was not closed on any eventuality.

There may never be a good time to lose Ronaldo, Madrid’s outstanding player as their most historic season reached its decisive chapter, but faced by his desire to leave – if that is really what it is – there may be ways of making this work. Madrid could see it as an opportunity, even if the timing is not perfect. At 32, he is still in remarkable shape, but they were going to have to face a post-Ronaldo future at some stage. If they can command a gigantic fee, that would enable them to do so with confidence, bringing the budget to sign others. Eden Hazard and Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé are players they have actively pursued, and the strength in depth this season allows for optimism, even in Ronaldo’s absence.

If this situation can be resolved, with Ronaldo staying, then fine. If it cannot, they must make the best of it. His departure is an eventuality that must be allowed for, even if it is an uncomfortable one; it must be contemplated, even if they claim not to be contemplating it. The way it plays out matters, not just the way it ends – including how the fans respond. If he stays, that too must be managed and cannot come at any cost.

In the interview Pérez also offered up a defense of his player, who the following day was called before the judge to testify on July 31 charged with tax evasion, which he denies. The defense responded to the idea that Ronaldo has felt isolated, not protected by his club and criminalized by Spanish society. Yet if the threat of departure was designed to put pressure on the Spanish state, to encourage Madrid to intervene, or to engender sympathy from the public, it is not clear that it will work. Pérez’s defense, like the claim that he will stay, was not watertight, nor taken to extremes. Instead, the terms of any negotiation, to stay or to go, were already being hinted at.

Pérez’s defense of Ronaldo, “an honest man”, “not driven by money”, who “does a lot for others”, stopped short of Madrid taking responsibility for his tax problems and focused on his irritation with the media rather than the club. Pérez said at one point it was “nothing to do” with Madrid, and it would make no sense for the club to pay any fine. He insisted that Ronaldo “would not want that”, although that is something he reportedly does want. Some of those reports are said to come from sources close to the presidency.

Conversations with Mendes would clarify the veracity of those reports. They may already have done so. For now, Real Madrid’s president insisted, the next conversation will be with Ronaldo in 12 days’ time. We will listen, Pérez said. They will watch, too. It is Ronaldo’s move.

The Guardian Sport

Ronaldo Accused of Tax Fraud in Spain


The regional state prosecutor in the Spanish capital Madrid accused football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo of tax fraud.

The Real Madrid and Portugal forward defrauded Spain’s tax office of 14.7 million euros ($16.5 million) in unpaid taxes on Tuesday, the prosecutor said in a statement.

He accused Ronaldo of four accounts of tax fraud from 2011-14, saying he had knowingly used a business structure created in 2010 to allegedly hide his image rights income in Spain.

This involved a “voluntary” failure to comply with his tax obligations in Spain, the statement from the office’s economic crimes section said.

Ronaldo used what it deems a shell company in the Virgin Islands to “create a screen in order to hide his total income from Spain’s Tax Office.”

The prosecutor also said that he “intentionally” did not declare income of 28.4 million euros ($31.8 million) made from the cession of image rights from 2015-20 to another company located in Spain.

Additionally, the prosecutor accused Ronaldo of declaring 11.5 million euros ($12.8 million) earned from 2011-14 in a tax return filed in 2014, when the prosecutor said Ronaldo’s real income during that period was almost 43 million euros ($48 million). It added that Ronaldo falsely claimed the income as coming from real estate, which “greatly” reduced his tax rate.

Ronaldo became a Spanish tax resident in January 2010 and in November 2011 opted to follow the Spanish tax regime that applies to foreigners working in Spain, the statement said.

He should have paid a tax rate of 24 percent in 2011, and 24.75 percent in the three following years, it said.

Ronaldo’s agency had previously said he was up to date on his taxes.

Last month, tax officials said Ronaldo adjusted his tax declarations and paid an extra 6 million euros ($6.7 million) in 2014.

Real Madrid declined to comment.

A four-time Ballon d’Or winner, the 32-year-old Ronaldo is Europe’s leading football player. He has led Madrid to back-to-back Champions League titles and its first Spanish league in five seasons, and helped Portugal to win last year’s European Championship.

Ronaldo, who led Real Madrid to their 12th European Cup earlier this month, is the latest in a long line of football players in Spain – among them Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Neymar – who have been caught up in cases over tax or transfers.

On Tuesday, the state prosecutor cited the verdict against Messi as precedent for the case against Ronaldo.

In May, Spain’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Messi and stood by a Catalan regional court’s 21-month prison sentence for defrauding authorities of 4.1 million euros on image rights. He is unlikely to go to prison as under Spanish law sentences under two years can be served under probation.
Spain’s High Court in May cleared Neymar of fraud but he still faces a corruption trial in Spain in connection with the value of his 2013 transfer from Santos to Barcelona. He has denied wrongdoing.

Between 2005 and 2010, foreign players in Spain were protected under the so-called “Beckham law” allowing them to curb their taxes. But as the financial crisis bit deeper, that exemption was lifted, paving the way for the cases.

Europe’s Top Leagues are becoming more Predictable – so why are we Watching?


London – Juventus have won Serie A for the past six years and Bayern have picked up five straight Bundesliga titles but average attendances are stable and TV income up. The Guardian Sport assess the picture across Europe’s five biggest leagues.

There was something familiar about Gianluigi Buffon hoisting the Serie A trophy aloft after the game against Crotone at the end of May. Now, when had we last seen that? Ah, yes, in 2016. Oh, in 2015 as well. 2014? Yep, very much so. 2013 and 2012? Of course.

Juventus have racked up six consecutive Serie A titles. In those six seasons they have picked up nearly 200 points more than Internazionale. Their dominance has been spectacular.

It is very much the same story in Germany, where Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga five years in a row since Borussia Dortmund secured the double in 2012. In France, Paris St-Germain have won four of the past five league titles.

Where is the fun in that. True, England and Spain have had a slightly better spread of teams who have won the league and the main cup (six different teams over the past six years in England and three in Spain) but the dominance of a few clubs means that, at least in Italy and Germany, we pretty much know in August who is going to win the league.

So why do we still care? Why do we still watch? The Guardian Sport examines how the dominance of a few teams is affecting their league and whether there are signs of fans turning off their TVs or not going to the stadiums.


After Juventus won a record-breaking sixth consecutive Scudetto, it’s fair to say that things are getting repetitive at the top of Serie A. The problem is that they have pushed the bar so high.

Back in 2011-12 Juve claimed their first title in this sequence with 84 points. Roma and Napoli exceeded that number this season, and yet neither has looked close to dislodging the Bianconeri.

The standard of the league is decidedly uneven. Juventus have re-established themselves as one of the best teams on the planet, and to some extent have dragged the chasing pack up with them. Napoli play some of the most entertaining football in Europe, and acquitted themselves better against Real Madrid in the Champions League this season than the 6-2 aggregate defeat suggested. Roma, too, have improved.

But there is a significant gap between those teams and the next tier. Lazio and Atalanta – the latter especially impressive for their development of homegrown talent – were compelling, but neither truly threatened the top three. The Milan clubs seem to be trapped in permanent disarray – albeit both are expected to spend big under new Chinese owners this summer. Fiorentina remain frustratingly flaky.

And as you drift into the bottom half of the table, so talent levels fall steeply. Hardly surprising when you consider that 13 teams posted total revenues below €68m on their 2015-16 accounts.

Overall, it is a mixed picture. Juventus’s European exploits have restored some prestige to Serie A, but also highlight how far others have fallen behind. Calls for the division to be reduced back to 18 teams are growing louder but the Italian Football Federation’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, called them “pure utopia”.

Serie A’s TV deal works out at around €1.13bn per year. Predictability may have harmed the league’s marketability but Juventus’s strong performances in Europe are also a counterbalance. Half-empty stadiums, the poor performance of the Milan clubs and a struggling national economy are more tangible concerns.


The accusation is as relentlessly repetitive as it is tiresome, not to mention a little baffling. Who chants for a league rather than a team? And why get so wound up about it? Why does it occupy people so much, to the extent that any reference to Spain, however innocuous, is guaranteed to immediately get a least one “pub league” or similarly dismissive comment in reply? The accusation is flawed, too, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely false.

Spanish football does have more than two clubs: Atlético Madrid won the title three years ago and have reached two of the past four Champions League finals. That underlines the fact that if Spain is a two-horse race – and there’s an element of that, Madrid and Barcelona having won all bar one of the past 10 titles – it is not because the rest are a bunch of donkeys. Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo and Villarreal have in recent years reached semi-finals or beyond in Europe, which Spanish football has dominated. Celta, 13th in La Liga, were one dreadful miss away from eliminating Manchester United and taking yet another Spanish team to yet another final in this season’s Europa League.

Meanwhile, this season has not lacked surprises. Madrid dropped points against Eibar and Las Palmas. Barcelona lost the title against Deportivo, Celta and Málaga. For much of the year, Sevilla looked as if they might challenge for the title. Teams did compete with Madrid, the champions, who needed goals in the last 10 minutes in a quarter of their games. It wasn’t a stroll – and if their “B Team” kept winning in the final weeks, just look at how good those reserves are. Few doubt that Madrid or Barcelona would win the Premier League too; they don’t just dominate domestically, they dominate Europe in this super club era.

And yet Sevilla fell away, were knocked out of the Champions League by Leicester (whom they had overrun in the last-16 first leg), and it is true that by the end of the domestic season it was a familiar duo competing on the final day, as they had been all season, and there were few real shifts: the same top four, same next three and same bottom three all year. It is also true that at the bottom some of the teams could not really compete (although Madrid needed a last-minute winner to defeat relegated Sporting Gijón, for example), and there simply is not the money that other leagues have – even if that is improving a little.

It is not Scotland in the sun but there are problems, even if the last couple of years have seen them mitigated a little, not as bad as it was six or seven seasons ago. Spain’s “other” clubs cannot compete economically and are a long way off Premier League teams in that regard. Another thing: fans are treated horribly in Spain, with kick-off times decided late and dictated entirely by TV (whose coverage is poor) and subject to change, with supporters criminalized and utterly voiceless.

Madrid’s and Barcelona’s enormity does eclipse everyone else and however brilliant they are – and they are brilliant – that can be discouraging. It is impossible to imagine it ending, too. But, then, everyone thought that the season that Atlético ended up as champions – a colossal, almost miraculous success that was rightly celebrated but might have hidden a deeper, troubling reality.


There are different ways of being predictable, and following what everyone thought was a refreshing intervention by Leicester City last season the Premier League’s big six clubs have quickly closed ranks to keep the major prizes between themselves. Six is quite a high number of course, and not many thought at the start of the season that Arsenal and Manchester United would be the ones missing out on top-four places, or that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City would end empty-handed. The same six into four situation will pertain next season too, and anyone who feels English football is always the same old story is advised to pick their 2018 top four in August and see how their guesswork looks nine months later.

England must be doing something right if clubs of the stature of Manchester United cannot always get their own way, and half a dozen potential title candidates is a lot healthier than the situation we used to have when the top four was set in stone and only Arsenal or Chelsea would take it in turns to challenge United’s dominance. Yet though this has been a reasonably lively and absorbing contest at the top of the table the big six are not the whole story.

Beneath the top six this season are Everton, seemingly stuck in a permanent no man’s land between the achievers and those with relegation concerns, followed by a long gap and then Southampton in eighth place with 46 points. To put that in perspective, 46 points is less than half of what Chelsea accrued and only five points more than Swansea and Crystal Palace managed after seasons haunted by fears of dropping into the Championship. Although entertainment might by sparkling in the upper echelon, the league as a whole cannot be considered healthy if two-thirds of it has no real purpose except ensuring survival.

Has the league’s TV deal suffered? No. The Premier League’s present TV deal is worth a monster £5.136bn over three years. Money is pouring into English football, and owners are no longer flaky types seeking self-promotion but investors who know how to turn a profit. The English top flight is divided into haves and have-nots, certainly, but remains watchable through being unpredictable at both ends.


That Bayern Munich have just sealed a fifth successive Bundesliga title – and by a margin of 15 points despite looking under-par for much of the campaign – is undoubtedly a concern. It’s only the second time that German football’s behemoth has managed such a run. The truth is, though, that Bayern’s dominance is partly a result of competitiveness, with Borussia Dortmund’s successive title wins in 2011 and 2012 almost provoking them to become their best-ever.

The other part of the equation is the club adopting a more internationalist strategy. Despite the image of Bayern’s approach being to take away their competitors’ best players, and signings such as Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels accentuating that feeling, they have been more adventurous in the transfer market in recent years, buoyed by profits from the Champions League and the Allianz Arena, which they now fully own.

Bayern’s dominance does drive international interest to the Bundesliga, and discovering the full picture often keeps people glued. Even if the title race was a non-event this year, there was drama throughout the rest of the table, in terms of the European places and at the bottom. On the season’s final day, almost half of the teams still had something to play for. The success of Europe-bound Freiburg, and the struggles of giants such as Hamburg, show it’s not always about money correlating to success.

Attendances are reassuringly stable – this season’s slight dip should be wiped out in 2017-18 with modest Darmstadt and Ingolstadt relegated and replaced by the better-supported Stuttgart and Hannover.


Back in August it looked like the same old Ligue 1. PSG, despite changing their manager and losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were going to win a fifth league title in a row and probably a third domestic treble in a row too. Only a few weeks before, this great Paris side were crowned champions with a record 96 points and a 31-point gap on second-placed Lyon. Predictability had hit French football as in the nineties with Marseille and the noughties with Lyon.

Then, Monaco had a freak season where they exceeded all expectations but deserved to win their first league title in 17 years. Nice pushed PSG all the way for second place and for the first time the top three teams finished the campaign with 78 points (for Nice) or more (87 for PSG and 95 for Monaco).

Marseille have started their American revolution since the takeover of Frank McCourt and will invest up to €200m in the summer to compete for the title. Lyon, thanks to some investment from China, will also be ready to splash some cash, especially if they lose their two best players Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso, which is looking likely.

Bordeaux are going in the right direction under their bright manager, Jocelyn Gourvennec. It will be fascinating to see Lille’s progress under Marcelo Bielsa next season, and Sérgio Conceição has worked wonders at Nantes since taking over in December.

Overall, PSG have been the perfect driving force for Ligue 1, with the other historic clubs trying to catch them up. The Parisians are still the richest and most powerful but Monaco showed this season that winning Ligue 1 is not a given any more.

The Guardian Sport

Real Madrid Crowned Kings of Europe after Historic Triumph


Cardiff – Cristiano Ronaldo continued on writing history by scoring twice in the Champions League final on Saturday, making Real Madrid the first team to retain the European title in the league era.

Goals by Casemiro and Marco Asensio completed Real’s 4-1 victory against Juventus in Cardiff to seal the Spanish capital’s record 12th Champions League title.

The Portugal superstar’s opener was cancelled out by an astonishing Mario Mandzukic strike, but goals from Casemiro, Ronaldo and Asensio secured Madrid’s third Champions League triumph in four years.

Now a four-time Champions League winner, Ronaldo finished as the competition’s top scorer for the fifth season running, substantially enhancing his chances of matching fierce rival Lionel Messi’s tally of five Ballon d’Or crowns.

“We’re very happy to be the first team to win the Champions League in two consecutive years,” said Ronaldo, who has now scored exactly 600 goals for club and country in his extraordinary career.

“I finished the season very well. It is another record, a record that these players deserve and we are delighted.”

Zinedine Zidane, a head coach for only 17 months, became the first boss to oversee back-to-back European Cup successes since Arrigo Sacchi’s fabled AC Milan team won the tournament in 1989 and 1990.

“It’s a tremendous joy for the players and for this immense club,” Zidane told beIN Sports Spain.

“I am happy because it is not easy to win things like La Liga and the Champions League, and this year we did it with hard work and desire.”

Victory crowned a glorious season for Madrid, who have pulled off a La Liga and European Cup double for the first time since 1958, having also won the Club World Cup and European Super Cup.

Zidane’s joy was his former club Juve’s despair, Massimiliano Allegri’s side crashing to a fifth successive defeat in Champions League finals and seventh in total, extending their own desperately unwanted record.

The first Champions League final to be played beneath a closed roof saw Juve hit their heads against a familiar ceiling as they missed out on a chance to complete the first Treble in their history.

The Italian champions had substitute Juan Cuadrado sent off after he was shown a second yellow card for a gentle push on Sergio Ramos that drew a lamentable overreaction from the Madrid skipper.

“We thought we had enough to win the game. I cannot explain why we played like we did in the second half,” said Juve captain Gianluigi Buffon, now a three-time beaten finalist.

“Real Madrid deserved to win in the second half. They showed their class and the attitude needed to play in this kind of game.”

Following an elaborate pre-match ceremony involving American pop act Black Eyed Peas at the Principality Stadium, Juve settled first.

Gonzalo Higuain worked Keylor Navas twice, while Miralem Pjanic’s snappy half-volley forced the Madrid goalkeeper into a smart one-handed save.

Madrid drew first blood in the 20th minute when Ronaldo flicked the ball wide to Dani Carvajal before artfully sweeping the Spaniard’s return pass into the bottom-left corner via a nick off Leonardo Bonucci.

It was a fine strike, and it made Ronaldo the first player to have scored in three finals in the post-1992 Champions League age, but it was quickly cancelled out by Mandzukic’s masterpiece.

Bonucci’s flighted pass from deep was volleyed into the box by Alex Sandro and Higuain chested the ball down before teeing it up for Mandzukic.

The Croatian forward took a touch with his chest and then, as he fell, hooked a sublime volley over Navas’s despairing dive and beneath the crossbar.

But after the break, it was Zidane’s men who set the tempo and in the 61st minute Casemiro put them ahead.

The Brazilian midfielder unleashed a shot from 25 yards that flicked off the heels of Madrid old boy Sami Khedira before spinning past the helpless Buffon.

Three minutes later it was game over as Ronaldo netted his 12th goal in this season’s tournament, moving him a goal clear of Messi, and 105th overall.

Luka Modric sped to the byline on the right and crossed as Ronaldo darted ahead of Bonucci at the near post to guide a shot past Buffon.

Cardiff native Gareth Bale made an appearance as a late replacement for Karim Benzema, having been out since April 23 with a calf injury.

Sandro headed wide from a Dani Alves free-kick, but Juve’s fire went out when Cuadrado was given his marching orders and substitute Asensio added to their misery with a late tap-in from Marcelo’s cut-back.

Marcelo, Dani Alves Make Champions League Final a Battle of the Full-Backs


London – “Three months ago some people wanted to strangle him,” Massimiliano Allegri said with a smile, but that night they just wanted to hug him. The story goes that when Dani Alves arrived at Juventus, Gigi Buffon took him to one side and asked him to teach them how to win the Champions League. He might not be able to do that exactly but Allegri was speaking just after Alves had taken them to Cardiff, delivering the pass for the first goal and volleying home the second in Monaco. He had already provided two assists in the first leg of the semi-final in Turin, one with a superb backheel. Juventus were in the final again, two years after they lost to Barcelona in Berlin– when Alves was on the other team.

On the other side this time, facing him, will be Marcelo, who after Real Madrid’s recent clásico defeat bemoaned: “It’s my fault.” His crime: not committing the foul that might have prevented Lionel Messi from winning it. Few noticed then that he had provided the late assist for James Rodríguez to equalize in the first place – but they did when six days later he scored late to tighten Madrid’s grip on the title. Five days before that, he had finally broken Bayern Munich, in the 109th minute of the Champions League quarter-final, weaving through, hurdling challenges and leaving Ronaldo an open goal to finish off the German champions.

And so here they are, meeting again, this time in Cardiff on Saturday. International team-mates and for so long opponents in club football’s biggest rivalry: two “defenders” who are so much more than that. Full-backs? Footballers, full stop. Brilliant, too. Brazilians, both. Different, breaking the mold. “I don’t want to be just another player,” Alves says, and he is not. Nor is Marcelo. Automatons? No, thanks. Better to embrace the game, enjoy it – and, lest it be forgotten, win it too. Between them they have 53 trophies in total, soon to be 54. They are key men, arguably even the key men, in the best two teams in Europe.

Over the years it has not been hard to find their critics, but seek them among their own and it is a different matter; even some will admit these are men who can take a bit of getting used to. They cannot defend, detractors say, but that line is as facile as it is flawed. It also feels as if it goes beyond football: if you dare to smile, as they do, the accusation deepens, as if the sport has to be a deadly serious business, as if enjoying it means you are not committed, when they clearly are.

Every squad needs personalities – “contagious” is the word Zinedine Zidane uses to describe Marcelo – and fun does not equal frivolous; you do not play for eight years at Barcelona and a decade at Madrid without dedication. Juventus do not sign you and Barcelona do not decline without you; if they thought they would not miss Alves, they were wrong. “People automatically think that because you attack, you can’t defend. Not true,” Alves said. That was five years ago but it could have been yesterday. He has not changed; it is others who have, some recognizing his contribution late, a process that finds parallels with Marcelo, now more than ever.

It should not have taken so long. It is not just that it is false that they cannot defend; it is, Alves says, that the terms need tying down. “What,” he asks, “is ‘defend’? That no one ever dribbles or attacks? Bloody hell, football would be boring, wouldn’t it? You can prepare [only] to defend but then the guy dribbles past you anyway … what, you think you’re the only one that’s quick? If you ‘defend’, you don’t attack; if you ‘attack’, you don’t defend? What’s football for? To win. And to win you have to score more. The winner isn’t [just] the team that defends incredibly; if you defend well but don’t score, it’s worthless.”

Even in Brazil, they have not always rushed to embrace the pair. There may have been occasional doubts – Marcelo did not start the 2014 final against Atlético Madrid in Lisbon and Alves’s relationship with the Barcelona board was always fraught – but what they offer far outweighs any flaws. If they attack, it is because their managers want them to, because they are good at it. They are following orders, not breaking them. They have played well over 1,000 games between them, at the most demanding clubs on earth.

Marcelo started playing what Brazilians call futsal and Spaniards fútbol sala – indoor five-a-side – at the age of four. His brother-in-law plays professionally and in his first couple of years at Madrid Marcelo would often escape to play too, even joining competitions. In an interview with a futsal magazine, among the few he has given, he admitted he would like to see out his career on the court rather than the pitch, back where it began. Marcelo’s brother-in-law highlights his “dribbling and technical skill, the ability to improvise to get out of difficult situations when no one thinks he can”.

In part, that is inheritance rather than coincidence: Marcelo and Alves are products of their environment and experience. Futsal is played with a smaller, heavier ball that flies round the court, almost always on the floor; a game of touch, speed, technique and thought. “I had the pleasure of playing futsal at school,” Alves said. “And what it gives you is intelligence: it’s a sport where you need to use your head. There’s very little space, the marking is very tight, so you need to be smart, very quick thinking. In football people who have that intelligence have a big advantage over others.”

It is not just that they are “defenders” who attack; it is that they are defenders who play; it is the way they attack. Full-backs bombing up the line are one thing, Alves and Marcelo are something else: they come inside, take responsibility, create, seek one-twos, take people on – and not just with the drop of a shoulder and a burst of speed, as if they were No10s, only in the wrong position. “Full-back” is just a clue and sometimes it is a red herring.

This season Marcelo has been arguably Madrid’s best player. At Sevilla everything went through Alves. At Barcelona he provided more assists than anyone in Spain, after Messi. At Juventus, he has created more chances than anyone in the Champions League. “Did you see him?” asked a beaming Allegri after he performed so superbly against Monaco. “Did you see his assists? That’s what a central playmaker does.”

It is similar to what Marcelo does too. Jorge Valdano says: “He brings the ball out with outstanding naturalness and ease; he goes through the middle of the pitch as if it was his own home and, when he gets to the top of the pitch, he has the solutions a forward has. We’re used to full-backs like Gordillo or Roberto Carlos who plough the wing; Marcelo goes by planting flowers.”

As for Alves, Giorgio Chiellini admitted he was “crazy for our culture” and that assimilating him was “hard at first”, but he was “like Messi”, on “another level technically”. So here they are, Brazilians of similar spirit, players who love to play. In purple is Marcelo, seeking his third European Cup in four years; in black and white Dani Alves chasing his third treble in eight seasons, and his 34th major title. It is not bad for two defenders who cannot defend. Who wins no one knows yet but it should be fun finding out.

The Guardian Sport