Tuesday, May 26, 2015

RUNNERS AND RIDERS


A long and winding Summer awaits Manchester City and its legions of bedraggled and semi-bedraggled followers.

The compulsive chatter has begun. People in the know point and gesticulate hither and thither about the undulating path through hot, hazy days of transfer bedlam. With mobile phones set to melt and agents hurrying over the horizon with arm's-length lists of demands, the silly season is upon us. Dmitri Seluk, that man of immaculate white suits and large, fuel-injected boats, is already out-foxing the outfoxables, as is the ill-begotten fellow looking after Raheem Sterling's future. James Milner stands on the brink.

So, the question begs to be asked, where now for City with their loosening purse strings and their grand ideas?

Firstly, the good news with which to start the bonfire: Last summer's paltry spending, hampered by a UEFA cap of £49million, and possibly the one biggest reason for City's 2nd place finish, a whole eight points behind champions Chelsea, will no longer be an item. If we are to believe Manuel Pellegrini, this was the one big reason for gap between City and Chelsea. In a way, he has something of a point, although few will feel sorry for the manager of a club that could still shoot off €40M plus on Eliaquim Mangala and live to tell the tale.

Certainly, City's progress in continental competition found itself bound by red tape from the start, with the club embarking on a 4th consecutive Champions League campaign with its legs tied together.

Meanwhile, every man woman and child in possession of ears and eyes has a clear idea of what City need to pull it all back together again. Although talk of wholesale renewal and massive overhaul is in the air, the excited hyperbole may well give way to a smaller number of crucial signings, rather than the scattergun collecting of medium-skilled artisans of recent close seasons.

Denayer: superb season at Celtic
Stevan Jovetic's set of matching Samsonites no doubt stand ready by the hall door and, if only a tiny fraction of the stories on offer at the click of a button come to pass in the next two months, City's squad next season will be approaching the population of an Alaskan seal colony in the mating season and will be managed by a conglomerate of at least seven extremely high profile continental managers with the trusty and continued support of Brian Kidd.

Here, then, are a host of the runners and riders, their suitability or lack of it and the likelihood of any of them showing up on the breezy Costa del Irwell anytime in the next 60 days or so:

1) Managers: A month or so ago Manuel Pellegrini was what was then being quaintly called a dead man walking. Mention was being made (here as elsewhere) of his slightly drawn, weather-beaten look. Now there appear to be signs of life after City's vigorous pursuit of runners-up spot came up trumps, ending the season on the traditional six-game winning streak. Clearly still alive, but a bit under the weather, the question is whether the Chilean remains fit for purpose. There is a distinct feeling that now City have secured 2nd spot in the Premier League, another 12 months of Manueline persuasion would not be out of the question. His season review in the desert will be a sticky one, but the feeling is that he might just survive it.

If so, who are the players he will need to reinvigorate City's challenge at the top?

Meyer: Schalke flier
GOALKEEPERS: No real reason to spend more money in this area when Joe Hart is clearly the number one (in
the country) and more than good enough to remain as such now that he seems to have ceased to believe what his advisers have been whispering in his ears. Willy Caballero has proved a capable enough deputy on the odd occasion he has been called upon. The scenario was dealt with here  in full.

DEFENDERS: City's need here is at full back, particularly on the left, despite Aleksandar Kolarov's abrupt reawakening in the final weeks of the season. One year on from heralding the fact that the club had four excellent athletes to cover the two spots, only one of them continues to be fit for purpose at the very top level. This means that Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna could all walk this summer. Some of the following might be up to replacing them and making City's work on the flanks look a little more productive:
  • Abdul Rhaman BABA is currently one of the best left backs in Germany and doing great work up and down the left flank at the season's surprise package Augsburg. Previously at Greuther Furth, he has close control, a good engine and measured approach to the sometimes gung-ho world of attacking full backs. Baba has been part of an excellent Ghana side for a couple of years too. Another excellent African defender, this time on the right, is Serge AURIER, who now belongs to PSG and has shone brightly since the 2014 World Cup finals. Although good at his job, he is proving to be a bit of a loose cannon, calling ref Bjorn Kuipers a son of a bitch and stating that his dream move would be to the Emirates, thus not the Etihad. Southampton pair Nathaniel CLYNE and Ryan BERTRAND have both had excellent seasons for the Saints and Clyne is currently dithering over a contract extension. Both would add pace and grit to the full back berths, with Bertrand showing up well not only in the season closer between the two sides but throughout a profitable ten months work for Saints. Closer to home, Everton's Seamus COLEMAN has been a regular and dependable threat down the right for the Toffees, producing gritty pace going forward and a dogged presence at the back. City may well be reluctant to look at FC Porto after the debatable value of recent transfer raids in northern Portugal, but the current crop developing under Julen Lopetegui is rich in promise. Rampaging right back Danilo has already signed up for Real Madrid for next season, but on the left ALEX SANDRO is arguably as good as his right side partner. Fast, athletic and disciplined, he has close control and a real spirit of adventure and would also be a good fit on the troublesome left side of City's defence. 
  • With Pellegrini expected to stick with his main central defenders if he stays at the club, City are well stocked in this department with Kompany, Mangala and Demichelis fighting for two spots and the excellent Jason Denayer (44 appearances this season and 6 goals) and Karim Rekik due back from champion seasons at Celtic and PSV respectively. Despite the fact that the departure of Mateja
    Alex Sandro: a risk shopping at Porto?
    Nastasic last summer still puzzles many, there is unlikely to be further interest shown in reinforcing this section of the side. If there were to be, the Dortmund pair of SUBOTIC and HUMMELS could do a job in the Premier League, as could Atlético rock Diego GODIN. Closer to home rumours have linked City to John STONES at Everton, although he is as yet a little inexperienced and might provide the club with a Mangala-like first season of wildly oscillating bedding in, which is the very last thing City need after this year's shenanigans. Stones is clearly a great centre half in the making, although much the same has been and continues to be said about Mangala. Southampton's José FONTE, older and wiser, has grown into a central defender of necessary stature, however, and - on the back of his best ever season in the Premier League - would be a useful addition to the back-up ranks.
MIDFIELDERS: If we are to believe the rumour mill, City's midfield could also see some interesting revolving-door-action, with - until a few days ago - Yaya Touré almsot certainly on his way to Inter and Samir Nasri touted as a possible departure too. Long term Liverpool candidate James Milner appeared to be wishing the crowd a long farewell in the last games of the season and is almost certainly becoming a Liverpool player as you read these words.

On top of all this, Fernando's first term contribution has been largely measured in misplaced passes and nervous dallying and on another occasion he too might not have survived the cull, had there not been so many others around him heading for the exits. Now there seems little point in offloading a player, who is ostensibly back up anyway. Fernando will surely get a second chance to show he is up to the fast moving midfield action of the Premier League.
Nainggolan: free spirit.
  • The obvious big name candidate for Touré's roaming role in the middle is Paul POGBA, who has shone so brightly at Juventus for two seasons now. But, Pogba may already be under close inspection from Paris St Germain, Real and Barcelona and Juventus' rise to the Champions League final has hoisted him into a spotlight where all the Giants of Europe are now looking interestedly at him. If Touré stays and Pogba fits alongside him, City will have the strongest middle two in the Premier League bar none. If Pogba goes elsewhere, and European football expert Andy Brassell thinks another Southern European location might be his destiny, there are plenty of others, adept at either playing the pivot role or working on their impersonations of Yaya's box-to-box antics: Rumours used to circulate about Everton's Ross BARKLEY and English nationals will always be of interest for obvious reasons. Like team mate Stones, he does not appear to be the finished article and he is ending a less impressive season at Goodison this time around, hampered by injuries and patchy form in an underperforming side. PSG's Marco VERRATTI, however, is at 22, already the finished article and may just come free if Pogba swaps Turin for Paris. Verratti is a fantastic, mischievous little player in the traditional Italian "digger" mould, a ferret and a nuisance, who gets through massive amounts of work and would be a big hit in the Premier league. Don't mistake the ferretting style for a lack of technique, however. Verratti has been superb for PSG this season, with high pass accuracy rates and assist totals going ever upwards. Andy Brassell describes him as one of PSG's "un-transferrables", however, so replacing Yaya may well turn into a bit of a headache if Pogba heads south and Verratti stays put at PSG. Ilkay GUNDOGAN of Dortmund has also been mentioned in dispatches and is another energetic midfield performer apparently attracting the attention of neighbours United. He has also had injury troubles and has been part of the severe downturn at Dortmund in Klopp's final year, making his price and his reputation a little lighter perhaps. Down the East Lancs road, the Liverpool duo of Jordan HENDERSON  and Philipe COUTINHO have both had great seasons amongst the smouldering rubble at Anfield and may be tempted by the Champions League football City can offer, although Coutinho would be a Nasri replacement. Arda TURAN at Atlético would provide a new impetus with his sleeves rolled up attitude whilst the Portuguese-based pair of FC Porto's Hector HERRERA and William CARVALHO of Sporting might provide back-up but would not fill a Yaya Touré sized gap, although rumours persist about Arsenal's continued interest in the latter to do something similar at the Emirates next season. Two more candidates are PSG's energetic Blaise MATUIDI and Roma's canny Radja NAINGGOLAN, who played excellently against City in this season's Champions League games. FC Porto's CASEMIRO is also a brilliantly stable blocking midfielder in the mould of Nigel de Jong, with the added bonus that he can shoot accurately, which De Jong only managed twice in his illustrious time at City. Added to this impressive field must be the flair and ability of Atlético's brilliant KOKE, FC
    Kondogbia challenges Belgium's Fellaini
    Porto's Algerian flier Yacine BRAHIMI, the want-away Morgan SCHNEIDERLIN of Southampton, Geoffrey KONDOGBIA of Monaco and long-standing City target ISCO at Real Madrid. It may be a year too early for Kondogba, according to Andy Brassell, whose watching brief on French football makes him one of the most well-qualified to pass judgement. The same might be said of Schalke starlet Max MEYER, who might not dovetail too well in a side that already contains the mercurial dribbling and short-passing game of David Silva. 

    Andy Brassell: "I like the idea of City having someone who can dribble in the centre of midfield, but how would he play instead of Silva? Best having him develop where he is for now."

    Denis PRAET at Anderlecht and Napoli's Dries MERTENS are two more skilful wide players, who have shone for their clubs. The former is 21 while Mertens at 28 is reaching his peak and showed a good turn of speed and a cool head at last year's World Cup finals in Brazil. Another wide player being linked with a transfer north is Benfica's flying lef winger Nico GAITAN. The left footed Argentinean could be ripe for a move from Benfica, as he is one of the last members of the older generation to have hung around at the Estádio da Luz.
FORWARDS:
  • With the touted departures of Stevan Jobvetic and Edin Dzeko, City will be in the market for one, maybe two strikers to give Aguero and Bony a run for their money. Whilst the papers naturally follow the fortunes of goal machine Alexendre LACAZETTE at Lyon (27 goals in 33 games does tend to draw the attention a little), there are others that could also provide an interesting option to the obvious pursuit of anyone who is a league top scorer. 
  •  
  • Andy Brassell: "Lacazette is the real deal. A great finisher, incredible work rate (having come into the Lyon team as a winger). Unlikely to go this summer though, unless an absolute mega offer is received".

    The much touted Raheem STERLING would not come cheap either but would also provide a more energetic and direct danger from the flanks than City have achieved with Jesus Navas, Scott Sinclair and Adam Johnson in recent seasons. The hoped for return of Portuguese-Brazilian prodigy Marcos LOPES from his loan spell at Lille should herald an important year for the youngster, as he tries to break into the first team ranks. First he will join the Portugal U20 squad and it is to be hoped that the many youth tournaments will not take their toll on him. Another Belgian getting a lot of attention is Wolfsburg's passer extraordinaire Kevin DEBRUYNE, another Chelsea cast-off,
    Lopes: ready for action?
    who has really come good in the Bundesliga. Debruyne is the ideal all action figure to sit in the hole behind a main striker and would provide a stream of passes through to the likes of Aguero at the business end of the pitch. Marco REUS and Jackson MARTINEZ may well feel it is time to leave Dortmund and FC Porto respectively, but there are many suitors for these two players and City would be unwilling to join a bidding war for strikers that are probably not their first choices. Another of Schalke's brightest stars, Julian DRAXLER might also come into the equation. Andy Brassell again: "Draxler has huge mental as well as technical strength and is a real leader of men (the pressure of playing at Schalke has been too much for many after all). Where would he fit in for City, though? Similar quandary to Jovetic in that sense...". In Germany, Monchengladbach's Patrick HERRMAN is one to watch and Bayer Leverkusen's Christoph KRAMER might have been an interesting option, had he not just signed for the Werkself from Borussia.
City clearly need to aim high this summer, if they are to turn themselves from merely dangerous challengers to the team to beat. For this reason, the likes of Denayer, Rekik and Lopes should be brought back on board and bedded in for the new campaign. Clyne for Sagna and Bertrand for Kolarov/Clichy would suffice at the back if the afore-mentioned youngsters return to challenge the central three of Demichelis/Kompany/Mangala. Pogba must surely be the summer's main target, ahead of everything and everyone else. Failing to land the Juventus player woud mean having to target the next best thing, which probably comes in the shape of Veratti. Neither player will be easy to shift, however, and City may well come up short in the face of competition from Europe's elite in the case of Pogba and from PSG refusing to budge, in the case of Verratti. If Nasri is lost, then Coutinho, Turan or Isco would provide tangible creative quality in midfield. Meanwhile in the front ranks, the expected need for two more strikers leaves a choice between Sterling and De Bruyne, if not both. Another EDS starlet Kelechi Iheanacho might save the club a pound or two if he manages to make good his own words of becoming one of the game's superstars.

Clearly a lot of talking is to be done if City are to kick off next August with the personnel they need to mount a more convincing challenge on four fronts in 2015-16.

My warm thanks to Andy Brassell for offering his opinions on the French and German-based players for this article. You can of course follow him, if you have been remiss enough not already to do so on Twitter here

Monday, May 18, 2015

SHELLING OUT AND SAVING UP

Michel Platini, remembered these days less and less as one of the most beautifully balanced midfield craftsmen ever seen gliding across a football pitch and more for his pronoucements from inside a baggy but expensive suit about FFP and related niceties, has seemingly opened another can of worms with the news that UEFA may well be considering relaxing their own carefully constructed financial fair play regulations this summer.

If this comes as music to the ears of some, it must be making those at Manchester City and Paris St Germain vibrate with indignation. In the long run, however, it is likely to be good news for well run clubs like City, who have done their best to comply with stringent UEFA legislation.

The president of UEFA has intimated that there may well be some changes afoot, with the limits that clubs have been battling to stay inside set to be remodelled and, therefore, those clubs cut a little more slack.

City, who some have said were rumoured to be close to taking UEFA to court over the huge fine handed down to them last summer, might just be regretting not doing so now, after a massive curb on transfers and Champions League squad numbers played a significant part in a disappointing season for the Blues. With defensive woes knocking a considerable hole in City's performance over the season, it is intriguing to know what (or more poignantly who) any extra cash might have been spent on instead of the likes of Bacary Sagna and Willy Caballero. Practically all City's restricted budget was blown on the ill-fated Eliaquim Mangala from FC Porto.
 
"I understand that we are in a world of false bottoms, but we say this openly. I think we’ll lighten things up."

False bottoms indeed. And plastic party noses too, somebody at the back of the hall added quietly.

FFP rules were first implemented 4 years ago, to attempt to curb certain clubs from spending what UEFA deemed to be "beyond their means", but allowed certain clubs massively in debt to carry on regardless. Those clubs under wealthy new ownership appeared to have to tread water. The moves were enthusiastically received by the drawbridge crew of Manchester United, Milan and Bayern Munich, aware that new money could mean only one thing, the one element that puts the greatest frighteners on all of the elite clubs - extra competition on a broadly flat playing field.
City have done their best to fit in and the latest financial figures showed they are in a much improved financial position. Manchester United (£145.5m), Liverpool (£113m), Arsenal (£92.5m) and Chelsea (£82.6m) have all spent more than City's £68m net since the penalties were introduced two years ago.

The monster clubs of Europe, grown fat on yearly Champions League pay outs that have allowed them to maintain a slot ahead of the challengers in their domestic leagues now find themselves in a brave new world where Zenit can afford to pay €40m for Alex Witsel and still have plenty left over for Hulk, whilst Monaco thought nothing of shelling out €45m for Porto's James Rodriguez.

Suddenly in a bit of a dither, United, Barcelona, Bayern and Real Madrid have started to do what they have always been able to do down the years: shell out big fees in a desperate bid to lock the stable doors before too many of the horses have the chance to bolt.

One or two horses have already fled across the prairies. The others didn’t make it out of the ranch before the irate farmer burnt the place to the ground. It has always been a thing of wonderment when viewing which English clubs voted for FFP in the Premier League, like turkeys voting for prolonged and lusty Christmas banquetting. Stand up and take a bow, flightless birds Everton and Aston Villa, suddenly smitten by the idea of never ever being able to compete on anything like a high European level again. European winners both, they now look utterly plucked.

For others, a summer of intrigue is opening up coquettishly on the horizon. Liverpool’s American owners FSG went on record as saying that they bought the club on the back of FFP, citing it as a 'key aspect' to their continued interest in the deal. Arsene Wenger, the author of the financial doping quote, has since taken comfortably to paying some of the Premier league's highest tarnsfer fees for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. The dizzying changes of attitude and position could only really take place in football or politics, where morals dissolve quicker than a water borne aspirin, when exposed to fast corroding cash.

"This will be for the Uefa Executive Committee to decide. You’ll know the outcome at the end of June," said Platini today.
There will be penty of interested parties waiting to see what these outcomes are. Taking a
Moratti: "No more shelling out"
cursory glance at the Serie A table will tell any avid accountants what FFP has ended up securing for the likes of Milan duo Inter and Milan. Grown heavy on sustained big boy status, the pair now find themselves rubbing shoulders in the still waters of Serie A midtable. Milan, long in favour of anything that kept them at the top of the tree, have seen FFP explode in their faces, as Berlusconi’s patronage nears an end. Inter too, for decades propped up by the millions of the Moratti shipping family, have seen the false bottom fall out of their football world.

Both now find themselves vying for elbow room with Hellas Verona. Milan, Sacchi's Milan, the elegante double European champions, the last team to retain the trophy, slum it three points ahead of Sassuolo, counting points and pennies.

Moratti it was, who famously bleated to Platini (along with Chelsea's Roman Abramovitch) that he "didn't want to shell out" anymore. Milan too are said to be now deeply in favour of this mooted relaxing of the stringent FFP rules. They've leant one way and now they are leaning the other. They are lucky that Platini's language has softened somewhat since he announced with one eye on City's spending that "FFP regulations must be strictly adhered to". Suddenly, now that some of these clubs are being deeply inconvenienced by it, it seems to be time to loosen the ropes again. One has to admire the barely concealed self-indulgence.

Perhaps the recently announced FFP fines for this season should have been a forewarning of all this, as significantly deflated fines were handed out to Sporting Lisbon, Monaco, Kuban Krasnodar and others recently, making City's €49m fine look like the unbalanced victimisation many called it to be when it was announced.

It would seem that the very clubs that FFP seemed set to protect are now experiencing the opposite effect. Manchester United, up to their ears in their fascinating Glazernomics, which have seen the club mired in huge debt, found it necessary to break the bank vaults last summer with an stonishing outlay on Di Maria, Falcao (perhaps the most profligate transfer in football history), Herrera, Rojo, Blind and Shaw. For a king’s ransom, they look like securing 4th place.

Do not underestimate what it means to them to be back on the Champions League ladder, however, as this is where the Money has always been coralled. United will be happy to be back in the fold, even if they do have to negotiate a potentially tricky qualifying round first. What Milan and Inter wouldn’t give for that.

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