30 April 2018

Sevilla all at sea as Montella sees the door

Club struggling to adjust to life in the post-Monchi era

Joseph Sexton @josephsbcn

If Barcelona securing a 25th La Liga title in A Coruña ranked as the weekend’s least surprising news, then events a day before and 1,000 kilometres to the south must have run it a close second. Following Friday’s limp 2-1 defeat at 17th-placed Levante, Sevilla parted company with Vincenzo Montella.

The former Milan and Fiorentina boss had been in the job for less than four months. Yet despite taking them to a first Champions League quarter-final in 60 years — at the expense of Manchester United, no less — the question remains as to why he was ever appointed in the first place.

To say this season has been a rollercoaster ride for the club would be an understatement, but with no wins in their last nine matches, the simple fact is that Montella took a side who were in fifth position — two points behind Real Madrid in fourth — on his arrival to eighth, and outside the European places.

Remarkably, they have shipped five goals on six occasions already this season — most recently in last week’s Copa del Rey final against Barcelona — with their goals against column in La Liga a whopping 54; three more than bottom-placed Málaga.

Vincenzo Montella struggled and was shown the door by Sevilla at the weekend

“If Sevilla outran Barça like Montella said,” local daily Estadio Deportivo's editor Joaquin Adorna wrote witheringly last week, “Then it must have been some pretty brainless and pointless running.”

All of this off the back of their highest-ever single season playing budget, their record transfer total outlay, and their most expensive individual signing.

To analyse how we got here, one needs to look back to a couple of key departures last summer.

First of all, rockstar sporting director Monchi — the man who unearthed the likes Dani Alves, Júlio Baptista, Seydou Keita, and José Antonio Reyes, as well as bringing in the likes of Ivan Rakitic for peanuts — left the club after 17 stellar years in his post.

The current Roma recruiter set up a network of over 700 scouts worldwide, and netted the club an incredible €200 million net transfer profit during his tenure. It also represented the most successful period in the club’s history, with nine trophies; including five Europa Leagues.

Secondly, manager Jorge Sampaoli left to take charge of the Argentina national team. That left the club scrambling to find a like-for-like replacement for the Marcelo Bielsa disciple, and the obvious choice was Bielsa’s former assistant Eduardo Berizzo following his excellent three year run as head honcho at Celta Vigo.

The performances didn’t always convince under Berizzo, but the results were for the most part sound. However, having fallen out with the midfield lynchpin Steven N’Zonzi and been left fuming at the recruitment work of Monchi’s successor Óscar Arias, there was palpable tension in the air.

Arias in turn paid with his job last Thursday. In another piece entitled ‘Arias’s mortal deadly sins’, Estadio Deportivo laid a litany of failures firmly on his doorstep. 

With their record defensive signing Simon Kjaer enduring an injury-wracked campaign, they had only two fit centre backs for most of the season, and he was castigated for failing to secure the likes of Michy Batshuayi or Daniel Sturridge on loan in the winter, opting instead for Everton flop Sandro Ramírez.

Above all, the piece concluded, “he failed to recognise or learn from his mistakes.”

Into the breach steps their former manager Joaquín Caparrós, thirteen years down the road. Having spoken — but given little away — on the radio over the weekend, he was a little more generous at his official presentation on Monday.

“I’ve looked at the players,” he began. “And they’re in good physical shape, not as tired as they look from the outside.

“Now we need to work on the mental side, and break this cycle of poor results. I know the talent and quality of these players, now let’s see if we can achieve what we need to.”

What they need do is to overhaul seventh-placed Getafe to make it back into Europe. What will hurt more than anything is to see crosstown rivals Real Betis staring down at them from the lofty heights of fifth.

When Berizzo was sacked, somewhat heartlessly, a week after a successful operation on a cancerous tumour on December 22nd, Betis were languishing in 14th. 

The time between then and now has seen a stunning 16 point swing in favour of the side who won for the first time in over a decade by 5-3 at Sevilla in Montella’s first league game in charge.

They will contest the return fixture on Saturday 12 May in Caparrós’s second game in charge, the penultimate round of the season. But he refused to be drawn on the derby on Monday.

“We’re not going to think too far ahead. A few fine details will change, but nothing more. We need to take it step by step and not think beyond next Friday’s game [against Real Sociedad]. We have to be ready.”

22 October 2016

Celta host Depor in hotly anticipated derby clash

LaLiga Santander Vying for supremacy in Galicia

My piece for MARCA

In a weekend that throws up some cracking fixtures in LaLiga one particular gem may have slipped your radar, but it's one you could do a lot worse than tune into at 12.00 local time (11:00 GMT) this Sunday morning; The Galician derby, los portugueses against los turcos; Celta v Deportivo.

Portuguese and Turks?

Well, yes.

The reason why both clubs have ended up being nicknamed as such by fans of the other is somewhat contested, but the most readily accepted explanation is that Celta Vigo's moniker is down to the city's location some 20 minutes drive from the Portuguese border.

Portugal is a nation which the Spanish like to look to in their worst moments to reassure themselves that there's always somebody worse off - so it's something of a slur.

For Depor's part, it's thought that the 'Turk' reference comes via the Ottoman navy's sacking of the city during the 16th century.

It's a testy rivalry, and although the away allocation has been sold out once again there have been many flash points throughout the years.

La Voz de Galicia has reported that rather than the supporters clubs handling the ticketing for travelling fans, it's been left to the club itself this time round.

The game has also been given the highest alert level by police according to the local press, hence the supporters' groups passing the buck on something that is normally very much their jealously-guarded domain.

That said, it would be a great surprise were we to witness anything of the magnitude of the deplorable scenes when the clubs met in a promotion play-off back in the 1980s in Balaidos.

There's also a contrast to the game played at around this stage last season when both sides were flying high - the hosts in currently sit in 12th position and the visitors in 15th.

While Celta rallied after three defeats and a draw in their opening four games with four straight wins before last Sunday's crushing defeat at Villarreal, Deportivo have only won a solitary match since the opening weekend.

Both sides were scoring for fun twelve months ago, and although Celta stuck four past Barcelona in their last home outing, they've only managed five in their other seven matches.

Depor's record is even worse with neither of the newly arrived pair of Florin Andone and Copa Libertadores winner - and player of the tournament - Marlos Moreno finding the net in a campaign where they've netted just five in total to date.

Of course, it was always going to be hard replacing Lucas Perez's threat up front in any event, the local lad departing for Arsenal late in the summer window.

Gaizka Garitano, the miracle-working former Eibar boss has been criticised for his side's lack of an attacking strategy but to his credit, he's run a tight ship at the other end and despite being hit for four at Camp Nou last week they've conceded the joint fewest goals in the bottom half of the table; indeed two fewer than third-placed Sevilla.

They make the journey south without captain and defensive lynchpin Sidnei, who's agreed a new deal in principle with the club this week, and they also are without regular starter Juanfran.

Celta signalled their priorities by resting a whole raft of players for Thursday's Europa League clash with Ajax.

They had to come behind twice against the Dutch side, with Fabian Orellana coming off the bench to strike a stunning equaliser late on in a game where they possibly edged the play overall.

The familiar defensive shortcomings were there to see as both the Amsterdam side's goals could well have been avoided, Facundo Roncaglia in particular guilty of standing off his man for the second.

Iago Aspas, a Vigo native who's no stranger to controversy in this fixture - his foolish sending off in April 2013 at Riazor looked to doom Celta and keep Depor up - stoked the flames on Friday. 

"You've got to say we're the favourites," he said to gathered media.

He also intimated that their league position, and the fact that Celta have had to rotate as they fight on two fronts proves they are the better side.

"I expect it to be an intense game and they'll probably sit back once more, in recent years they've struggled to get on the ball against us," he concluded.

His words were put to Depor full-back Fernando Navarro, who refused to be drawn on the matter.

"Well if he thinks they're favourites, that's his business," he huffed.

Navarro did note that Depor have suffered from refereeing decisions this term too. 

"Maybe our luck will change this weekend and we'll start being treated like other sides have been treated against us."


18 July 2016

Pokemon Goal!

Finnish team celebrate goal by searching for Pokemon

My piece for MARCA

Two of the world's most popular games cross paths

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and now the latest craze has spread to football, with a team in the Finnish league deciding to celebrate by looking for Pokemon.

The Nintendo augmented reality game has officially arrived to the world of sport.

Players for Finnish side Rovaniemen celebrated a goal by pretending to catch one of those elusive beasts.


Negredo reaches agreement with Middlesbrough

Forward will not travel with rest of Che squad to Holland

My piece for MARCA

Alvaro Negredo will not be a Valencia player much longer after he was omitted from the travelling group for their training camp in the Netherlands to complete his move to newly-promoted Premier League side Middlesbrough.

The former Sevilla and Manchester City striker has agreed to terms with the club managed by Aitor Karanka and is now due to travel to the Northeast of England to undergo a medical.

After a decent opening season, the forward has found himself surplus to requirements at Mestalla and the club are satisfied with Boro's 6 million euro offer.

Also not travelling with the squad is the Argentine Rodrigo De Paul who, having spent the second half of last season on loan to Racing Club back home, does not figure in coach Pako Ayestaran's plans for the coming season.


Former players praise Del Bosque in new book

UEFA dedicates chapter to iconic Spanish coach

My piece for MARCA

In a new book called 'The Greatest Coaches in History' published by UEFA, the former Spain and Real Madrid boss Vicente Del Bosque is profiled in the final chapter.

The chapter notes his ability to bring the best out of exceptional talents to mould them into exceptional teams, and includes glowing words from several players who've played under the recently departed Spain manager.

Steve McManaman, who won two Champions Leagues under his tutelage at Real, said that there should be statues in his honour in every town in Spain.

"We reached seventh heaven on July 12 2010," said Iker Casillas, referring to the World Cup final in South Africa.

"He was equally calm in the difficult times and the moments of glory, he helped all the players and the fans.”

Xavi also spoke about the man behind the public persona.

"He's the most human person I've ever come across in a dressing room and the world of football.”

The Brazilian Ronaldo only played a single year under him, but was no less effusive in his praise.

"I think he's the coach who understood me the best," he said.

"All the players loved him because he did what needed to be done with the least amount of fuss."


Real Madrid close in on Andre Gomes

Valencia star seen as heir to Modric

My piece for MARCA

From the moment Euro 2016 came to an end, Real Madrid have been working hard to make Valencia's Andre Gomes a Blancos player.

Los Che had been hoping to hold for a transfer fee of around €65 million but the Champions League holders hope to tie up the midfielder for closer to €50m up front with around €5-€10m in performance related extras.

Injuries hampered Gomes' progress last season but the midfielder is nonetheless on the radar of many top clubs, including Juventus, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Chelsea.

He is considered by both the coach Zinedine Zidane and club chiefs to be the perfect alternative to Luka Modric, who the club have struggled to replace when absent in the past and - with the Croat due to turn 31 soon - his long-term heir in the starting XI.

Indeed, Madrid tried to secure the player last summer but were bluntly dismissed when Valencia's response was that no discussions would take place until an offer of €80m was on the table.

Their financial situation is somewhat more precarious now given that Los Che are currently out of European football, but still have to keep in mind financial fair play restrictions as their primary aim is a return to continental competition.

Furthermore, the player is thought to be keen to move up in the world, both in terms of sport and finance, which Valencia are unable to satisfy at present.

Real hope that the relationship between the two clubs - with Valencia owner Peter Lim and Blancos president Florentino Perez both on good terms - will help smooth the passage of any deal to bring the midfielder to the Spanish capital this summer.


Ex-Real defender Cicinho talks of booze obsession

Confesses to seeing Jesus Christ while drunk and alcoholism

My piece for MARCA

In an interview due to be published later this week, the former Real Madrid and Roma wing-back Cicinho has laid bare the full extent of his battles with alcohol.

Now plying his trade with Sivasspor in Turkey the player was also critical of the current generation of players in the national side.

"The worse things got, the more I would drink," he told EPSN Brasil.”

I couldn't just stop at one or two, I'd have to drink until I collapsed."The 36 year old describes the events of one particularly heavy day's drinking.

"I had an encounter with Jesus one time after knocking back 18 caipirinhas and 14 beers," he said.

He also confessed to being less than impressed with his successors in the Brazil team following their group stage exit in this years Copa America.

"Today all they seem to care about is taking selfies, there were even players asking not be picked for the Copa."


17 July 2016

Umtiti pens open letter following Lyon exit

Sign promising defender from Ligue 1 outfit

My piece for MARCA

Making sure not to forget the debt of gratitude he owes to his former employers Lyon, Samuel Umtiti has published a letter to thank everyone back at the French club.

Barcelona have signed the Frenchman who spent 14 years with Les Gones.

"At the age of 22 and for the first time in my life, it's time for me to say goodbye," he wrote on Twitter. "What does that mean? We normally say goodbye when we take a break from something, but that is not the case here.

"I'm not turning my back on Lyon, erasing 14 years of my life, nor am I turning my back on my home; I'm taking all that with me. Lyon is a feeling, it's humility, it's hard work... It's my family.

"I might be moving away geographically but I will never be gone. I'm like that son going out into the world to make his dreams come true, but always in the hope of returning home some day.

"I have so much gratitude and I don't want this message to appear to be a mere platitude. I want to express this gratitude with dedication and sincerity.

"I want to thank Regis Molouba for believing in me. Thanks to Cyril Dolce, Armand Garrido, and Bruno Genesio for helping me through the ranks. Thanks to Remi Garde for giving me my first break in the senior team, all of these people have helped me throughout my career at Olympique.

"My thanks also to Jean-Michel Aulas, who has trusted me and always pushed me to go forward.

"Thanks to everyone who helped me succeed. The coaches, staff and administrators. I would like to thank all the players I worked with at Lyon, with whom I shared the pleasures of hard work and victory. Also CARRE 5, my agents, who have always been there for me.

"I will never forget the fans of Lyon and their encouragement at the Gerland, and off the field too.

"And finally, thanks to my mother, who has been my biggest supporter. Thanks to you, I learned how to become a professional footballer.

"Now it's my turn to live up to everything you have given me."