For fans of club football, the international break comes as a big irritant. It’s like you have ordered for the delicious biriyani, midway through your meal and that dish takes ages to arrive. The season ahead stays extremely exciting with four English Premier League teams in the last eight of Champions League and two of them fighting neck and neck for domestic glory. After the highs of last year’s Champions League final (a match that had everything), FIFA World Cup and Centurions Manchester City, we can’t wait to see how this season pans out.
International break, however, is a good time for reflection at how the club football season has gone by so far. Here’s my list of most talked about ten moments of the season, so far, each of which, will be referenced in future too.
10) FC Barcelona signing Kevin-Prince Boateng
The best club around (won two trophies last season, alive in all competitions this season and comfortably ahead in the league), FC Barcelona, made a shock winter loan signing in forgotten journeyman Kevin-Prince Boateng. No past data justified the signing, no on field performance has justified that signing so far too. He simply doesn’t seem to cut out for FC Barcelona. It seems. Or does it? Paulinho came last season and had his small role in winning two trophies for the team. Arturo Vidal, initially written off, is one of Barcelona’s important players this season. Will the Prince have the final say?
9) Mourinho sacked third time, ‘virus’ Pogba wins
Jose Mourinho has been sacked the third consecutive time and it seems we have seen the best of him already. Because, we saw the best of Manchester United and Paul Pogba, after Jose left. As the reds continue doing well on pitch, questions will be asked ‘Did Pogba & co purposely under perform under Jose?’ Or ‘Is Jose well past his prime?’. Football is after all a team game, so blaming only Jose Mourinho and sparing the onfield performers doesn’t seem justified. But then, isn’t Jose the person who re-defined football management by making a manager look bigger than the team?
8) Mahrez penalty miss still haunts
He rebelled against Leicester City management to sign for Manchester City last season. He came to Manchester, started fitting into the team well and then his moment arrived. He urged to take the penalty kick at Anfield, Guardiola agreed to that demand, a crucial 85th minute opportunity to lead at Anfield. A stadium where City hasn’t won for long. But Riyad Mahrez skied. The night ended at 0-0 and Liverpool started believing more. The title race will likely go down to the last match day of the season and this missed penalty will be referred till then. Will Mahrez, the Premier League player of the year, two seasons ago, have the last say?
7) Origi right place right time
If the English Premier League title race really goes down to the last day, it will be also due to Divock Origi never giving up. At Anfield, Merseyside rivals, Everton bossed the game and had two point blank chances to score. The score remained 0-0 till injury time as the scouse were getting impatient. Impatience finally cost Everton custodian Jordan Pickford and his team. Off a routine high ball, which he should have tipped over the bar for a corner, he decided to grip… and then spilled. Origi was there to make it 1-0. Liverpool believed even more. Their determination to stay in a tough rugged title chase will be discussed for long. So too nights like these, that help win titles.
6) Barcelona bullies the best team in Europe
Kings of Europe, but unarguably the second best team in Spain; or maybe third best team! Real Madrid faced FC Barcelona four times this season and managed to draw one game while losing three. Nett score 10-2! El Clasico now has too much one sided-ness look to it. And every time Barcelona beat Real Madrid, two questions got rude awakenings.. ‘Does winning Champions League really make you the best team in Europe?’ and ‘Why can’t Barcelona do better at the Champions League?’.
5) Neymar shock at PSG exit
Paris Saint-Germain managed to throw away a 2-0 away goal lead to lose at home 1-3 to Manchester United. It didn’t send as much shock waves, as it should have, as just the previous night, Real Madrid threw away something similar, at home to Ajax. But the Parisian team have questions to answer. Over the last decade, aside eliminating Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea twice, PSG haven’t been able to eliminate any decent team from Champions League knockout stages. For a club desperate to win the Champions League, this doesn’t bode well. For Neymar, who left FC Barcelona with similar ambitions, his shocked face is an image we can’t forget soon. PSG squad will see changes, Neymar’s jersey may see a change too!
4) Ole & Zizou, what then Pocche?
With Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Zinedine Zidane set to manage their respective elite clubs next season, what’s then for the contender to those thrones? Mauricio Pochettino, widely tipped mid season, to take either of those jobs sooner, now has an unsure future. Two months ago his Tottenham team were being talked about as EPL title contenders, now, everything has changed. Can Pochettino restore his ‘ready to manage an elite club’ status back by end of the season?
3) Ronaldo & Champions League, a evergreen happy married life
Talk of comebacks in a season and Cristiano Ronaldo’s name always makes to the list. Talk of Champions League best players in a season and Cristiano Ronaldo’s name is always forefront in that list. Atletico Madrid believed they had done the job at Madrid. Their manager Diego Simeone displayed a ‘crotch salute’ in front of the home fans and promised to sell watermelons in Madrid should Juventus manage to overturn the 0-2 deficit at Turin. Ronaldo had reminded journalists at Madrid that he held five Champions League trophies to Atletico’s zero. Fans booed his arrogant stance then, but he had the last laugh. At Turin, he had fewest touches of the ball amongst 22 players on field, but scored three goals. At 34 years old he is still the master, the magician and the game changer. And still inspires one |Lionel Messi to come out the next night and score three goals!! How lucky are we to be living in this era watching these two maestros continuously up the bar and challenge each other?
2) Kepa Arrizabalaga signals news lows of player power
If the ‘player power’ misgivings at Manchester United, under Jose Mourinho, weren’t enough for a season, the world’s costliest goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga took player power ridiculousness to another level. The evenly contested Carabao Cup final was heading towards penalty kicks when Chelsea bosses Maurizio Sarri & Giafranco Zola wanted a ‘seemingly struggling’ Kepa to be substituted with a penalty stopper specialist Willy Caballero. But Kepa refused to be subbed. Zola kept howling, Sarri tore open his jacket, almost walked off the field, David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger tried to negotiate…all this fiasco happening with play being halted. It was something never seen on a football field and something that will be referred in future. Manchester City won that penalty shoot out as Pep Guardiola’s men collected their second trophy of the season. But the night didn’t belong to them, for all the wrong reasons.
1) Neil Warnock in tears for Emiliano Sala
Argentine & Nantes striker Emiliano Sala never played a minute in the English Premier League, but the league and football fans from England showed the highest standards of class for the striker. Sala met with an ill-fated flight crash while en-route to sign for Cardiff city. Football fans, globally, were shocked at the news and the next few days was all about tributes pouring for the departed soul. Cardiff manager, Neil Warnock, had tears, in his eyes, while entering the field in their first match after the incident (vs Bournemouth) and then cried openly after the game. Images that wont be forgotten. The Cardiff City players won that game 2-0 and as Warnock walked around the field giving a round of applause for the tearful fans, he could not hold back his own tears from coming out, repeatedly.
Rest in Peace Emiliano. We will miss you, your goals, your smiles and your eyes.
I have authored the book ‘The Pep Guardiola Centurions – Against all odds’. If keen to read, you can buy it from the following links.