By Mario Melchiot

3rd Round Romance

The 3rd round of the FA Cup is always one of the biggest days in England’s football Calendar. The chance for fans from smaller teams all over the country to see top clubs in action and hope for an upset. For neutrals, it also brings so much excitement as the non-league and lower-league clubs do everything they can to topple the giants of English football. Anything can happen in the Cup!

This weekend we saw many great examples of this. Wigan earned a replay against Bournemouth with a 2-2 draw at Dean Court, and now have the advantage going into that game on their home turf next Wednesday. Norwich also managed to hold out for a goalless draw against Chelsea, and Wolves showed us that they look ready for the Premier League with a dominant performance against Swansea which ended 0-0.

But the real magic of the cup was shared by the likes of Newport, Coventry and Notts County, who all knocked out teams a few league’s above them in the football pyramid. Coventry’s win over Stoke was the result of the day on Saturday. Mark Hughes was sacked after the game, after also losing five games out of seven in the Premier League, but the Sky blues deserved the win and it was a welcomed success for the fans who have been through some tough times lately.

Leeds United suffered another shock exit after their defeat to Sutton last season. This time around it was Newport who managed to come back from a goal down to win 2-1 with a late goal from Shaun McCoulsky. The goal took Newport into the FA Cup fourth round for the first time since 1979, before the club’s manager Michael Flynn was even born. The dramatic finish was exactly what the neutral wanted to see, with wild scenes in the home end and a frustrated atmosphere in the Leeds camp. It was a classic FA Cup 3rd round story.

Notts County are the world’s oldest club still playing at professional level, now in League Two under the management of Kevin Nolan. They travelled to Brentford who are two tiers above them in the Football League, and through a curling left-footed strike from Jon Stead, became the 1-0 victors.

It didn’t end there though, and Fleetwood Town and Shrewsbury both earned replays against Premier League opposition. For these clubs a replay is sometimes better than a win because of the finances the fixtures and TV money bring. Now they have to focus on getting the job done, and with nothing to lose the pressure and expectation will be on their opponents. That will allow them to play with freedom and for the players, it’s an opportunity to show their individual abilities in front of all the watching eyes.

The FA Cup draw has thrown up some more opportunities for giant killings too, with Newport facing Spurs at home and Yeovil hosting Manchester United.

We all know who the favourites will be in these games, but the beauty of the FA Cup is that anything can happen, and the big clubs might be in for an uncomfortable ride. The smaller, bumpy pitches, and tight dressing rooms can all work in the lower club’s favor on matchday. Ultimately it’s 11 against 11, and the team who wants it the most will come out on top.

#mmlove

Travelling with King George

In life we all meet people that do extraordinary things.

Growing up I saw the great AC Milan excel a lot on TV because they had the Dutch legends Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard playing there.

One day a truly great Milan player caught my eye. It was Arsene Wenger that brought George Weah to Europe when he was the manager of Monaco. Weah won the French Cup at Monaco before moving to PSG and winning the French League, and then onto AC Milan in 1995. That year he was the best player in the world, winning the Ballon d’Or and Serie A title.

The next thing I knew I was making my professional debut and was playing against the legendary George Weah. Sometimes we don’t realise what a small world we live in, but not too long after that, King George (as we liked to call him) moved to Chelsea. It was when he was sat next to me in the dressing room that I had that ‘oh my god’ moment.

Not long after that George asked me to come over to his home. I got to his house and found him relaxing, but I was so in-awe that I could not stop talking about how great I thought he was and how much I enjoyed watching him on TV. He asked me what I wanted to drink (maybe because I was taking so much) and I asked for a Coca-Cola. He pointed to the fridge, so I grabbed one, cracked it open and sipped away like one of their famous commercials.

The next visit to his home was similar. He asked me what I wanted to drink and the story repeated itself. I grabbed a coke and continued to talk so much because I was still not over the idea of hanging out with King George. Next it was visit three, and again he asked the same question, and again my answer was Coca-Cola. But this time I got a different response.

He pointed at the cabinet and said grab a glass and get some water from the water dispenser.

At that time I was 21 years old and thought water was boring. He told me water was one of the best fuels for your body, so learn to love it if you want to have a long career. I took his advice and to this day water is one of my go-to drinks, and I learned to dislike fizzy, sugary drinks.

But that was just the start and some of the biggest advice he gave me was that I needed to visit and learn about more countries. So we scheduled my first trip to Paris. I felt like a little kid going to the candy store with his big brother as he showed me around. Going to places like L’Avenue and Hotel Costes for the first time.

Then I was introduced to African dance and culture. Man, we danced for hours and King George kept telling me “I don’t want to see you sit in a chair, you dance and dance just like on the field. When you stand still you’re easy to play against.”

My mouth stopped talking but my feet kept going.

The next trip was Miami and after that New York, both for my first time. In Miami we just hung out at his home with his family, and when we moved on to New York we did the Staten Island where my brother almost got robbed. He turned up at a liquor store but then the crooks got told he was with the great George Weah and they left him alone. Later we had a huge barbecue in the middle of the street, played basketball and chatted with some locals of Liberian-descent. That is where he told me about wanting to be President of his country, because his people loved him all over the world.

When I thought I was done with traveling, he told me he had to pick up an award from ESPN and asked me if I wanted to go with him to Washington DC. At the awards night they showed interviews of people talking about George. The clip of this 16-year-old kid is still present in my mind. He stood with a machine gun and his own army of grown men behind him. He said, “I love George Weah and he is the only man in the world that my army and I will put our guns down for.”

My eyes were big and wide, just like the first day I met George. And just like when I saw the news reports this week that he is now the president of Liberia.

My big bro, the legend, King George – I wish you the very best in your life’s new beautiful chapter, and thank you for giving so many beautiful memories. Long live my glasses of water!

#mmlove

Festive Football Predictions

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and for football fans it’s that little bit better with four rounds of matches to entertain us over Christmas and New year. The festive schedule is busy and we might hear some complaints from managers, but as a fan we couldn’t ask for more!

Leicester have got the toughest schedule, with four games in the space of less than 9 days. But of the leading teams it Man United who have the most congested Christmas fixture list. Mourinho might have a few things to say about that as he has some catching up to do with their Manchester rivals sitting 11 points clear at the top of the tree. Man City have an extra 30 hours between their first and last fixture compared to United, but both will have their strength in depth tested.

City have already broken many records this season, but there’s no sign of them slowing down with another rampant performance against Spurs at the weekend. They face Bournemouth, Newcastle, Palace and Watford. Roy Hodgson’s side have shown a resurgence lately and look like they might have turned their season around, but few will fancy them to topple the league-leaders.

As for Newcastle, Bournemouth and Watford, none have won any of their previous 5 games. You wouldn’t be surprised if Man City won all four games by 3+ goal margins, and they surely have the squad and quality needed to put in the great performances that are needed.

United have got to face Leicester, Burnley, Southampton and Everton over 9 days, and a few of those results could go either way. Burnley have been a bogey team this season and are currently sat above Spurs in the table. Sean Dyche and the Clarets are having an amazing season so far! They’re a tough team to beat, and while you’d expect United to beat Southampton at home, Leicester and Everton are both in fine form, each winning four of their last five games.

Rooney would love a goal at Old Trafford, even if he wouldn’t celebrate it, and everyone knows Big Sam loves to cause an upset. Keeping a team fit to play in the Premier League gets you instant performances and dedication so you can plan to get more results from there.

If Mourinho gets his tactics right it could be a clean sweep for United, but he always keeps his games tight, and if a few players need resting they might not get the results they need. When his teams are winning he likes to stick with his starting 11. But if he’s not careful a few players could burn out or get injured.

Chelsea have got Everton, Brighton, Stoke and Arsenal. Again, Big Sam will be looking to continue Everton’s form and it could be a tough game at Goodison Park like it always has been, but you’d fancy the blues’ chances against Stoke and Brighton. Arsenal is the big game that everyone will have their eyes on.

It finished 0-0 in September but hopefully there’ll be plenty of goals at the Emirates. Arsenal have only beaten Chelsea once in the Premier League since 2011 (W7 D4 L1) and Conte will looking to make up some ground on the Manchester clubs.

Arsenal’s other fixtures are Liverpool, Palace and West Brom. The Baggies have been struggling lately and Wenger will look to get a confidence boost there ahead of the Chelsea game. The trip to Selhurst Park might not be so straightforward but most people would back the Gunners to take all three points there.

But it’s the Liverpool game that will also be interesting. If Wenger takes all 12 points from the four games he’d be extremely happy, but it would be a shock to most fans.

Liverpool are either quite poor or very good and score goals for fun. There seems to be no in-between and Klopp will of course be hoping for the latter over the next couple of weeks. After Arsenal they face Swansea, Leicester and Burnley. As with United, Leicester and Burnley could both be tough matches, but if the Reds are at their best you’d expect them to take at least 7 points from those three fixtures because there’s not a lot that can stop them when they’re on form.

One thing I know for sure is that after December I don’t see Man City slowing down and losing their comfort at the top of the table, with the way they are bossing the league at the moment. But the rest will be battling for second spot as Man United look far from comfortable.

#mmlove

Friendly Rivals

It has been both great and painful having friends who all support different football teams. And now writing this blog, it makes me realise that’s why our dynamic is so interesting.

Every weekend it’s the same. I either watch the football games with them or we discuss the action together over text message. Whenever Chelsea play and lose I get abuse from my friends. It has now reached the stage where if I don’t get any messages during the big games I’d worry that there must be something wrong with my friends.

They would come in with comments asking me how, with all that money, the blues can’t beat a struggling West Ham. And now since drawing Barcelona in the Champions League everyone is already sending me texts with skulls, crossbones and smiles. They are saying Messi has never scored against Chelsea in eight attempts, and that he will be out to redeem himself and get revenge.

I know they are going to be tough games, and we also have Man United and Man City to play between each leg. But isn’t one of the greatest things about football, or life in general, beating the odds?

But back to the Premier League because I’ve got an interesting group of friends, with some supporting Tottenham, Arsenal, and Liverpool. Those rivalries are some of the biggest in football and sometimes fans get as much satisfaction from seeing their rivals lose than seeing their own team win. And unless your a Man City fan, you will have had your turn to get the abuse this season. But the strangest thing is when a friend hasn’t watched their team and you will get a text saying “don’t tell me the score because I have recorded it.”

When I was a kid, a player, and even as a pundit, I would always watch a game back to learn more and prepare. Now that I’m a fan of the game I can’t really enjoy watching it when it’s not live on TV. I do love the highlights, but nothing compares to watching the action unfold in real-time for 90 minutes. Sometimes it can be torture but they all say if you don’t know the score it must be a live game. They make a good point! Most of the excitement comes from not knowing how the story will conclude.

Watching it and discussing it with friends that support other teams is what really makes the game so exciting though. This week it was Mr Liverpool’s time for the taunts because the Reds failed to beat Everton. When Lovren conceded the penalty my phone was on fire. I won’t be sharing all the messages but I’ll give you an idea of what my phone goes through.

Mr Liverpool: How we didn’t win this game is beyond me! The ref is a professional W***** #fact”
Me: Haha
Mr Liverpool: The ref definitely took money
Me: Easy now tiger

And then it was my turn to get it.

“The dutch mafia bought the ref! #fact”, knowing that he has a Dutch international, Wijnaldum in his side.

I’m sure fans all across the world love giving their friends stick when they don’t get the results they expect. I love this game, but the passion of friends make it that extra bit more interesting.

#mmlove

Pushing For Promotion

Wigan are back at the top of League One as we approach the halfway point in the season. Their 3-1 win over Rotherham two weekends ago was enough to swap places with Shrewsbury after they slipped up against Bradford.

It’s tight at the top of league one with seven points separating the top six, and the Christmas period will be a crucial period for Wigan to keep their form and cement their position as league leaders. If they can start the new year in pole position it will give them the belief needed to keep winning.

Will Grigg scored his 40th goal for the Latics goal on his 100th appearance and looks to be getting back to his goalscoring best from the bench. This season he has some tough competition up front with Nick Powell, Gavin Massey, Ivan Toney and Ryan Colclough all firing, and that healthy competition has seen Wigan score 36 goals so far this season, the most in the league.

They’ve also conceded the fewest number of goals with some very solid defensive performances, particularly from Dan Burn. He was suspended for the game against Rotherham but traveled to the game to show support for his teammates. That shows the togetherness and team spirit that will be key for the Latics success in these tough leagues.

“Dan came with us off his own back to show his support for the lads which shows how good the spirit is inside the dressing room. They all enjoy working together and training together, and I think that shows out there on the pitch,” said first team coach Anthony Barry.

Their record at the back and up top shows they deserve to be at the summit of the table and I’m confident the lads can continue to deliver the goods for the remainder of the season.

#mmlove

Top 5 Young Talents of 2017

Every so often a teenager comes along and lights up the world, making seasoned pro’s at the top of the game look average. It normally takes a few years for these players to mature into World Class footballers. Ronaldo and Messi are two good examples, regarded by many as the greatest pair of footballers the world has ever seen, but they didn’t hit their full stride until they reached their early 20’s.

There are some exceptions – Neymar and Mbappe became global superstars before their 20th birthdays, and Pele is another classic example, becoming the top scorer in the Brazilian league aged just 16. These guys are all the rarest of talents that don’t come around too often. But there are many exciting young players currently making their way up the ranks at their clubs, who could become future Ballon d’Or contenders if everything goes to plan!

Justin Kluivert

Patrick Kluivert scored the winner in the 1995 Champions League final at the age of 18, bringing the most coveted club cup back to Ajax. Now his son Justin is 18, and broke his way into the Ajax first team last season after some dazzling performances for the reserves. At the weekend Justin managed something his dad never did for Ajax, scoring a hat-trick and taking home the match ball. Patrick was Ajax’s top scorer in two of his three seasons there, but he never scored a hat-trick for them, so Justin already has some bragging rights.

Justin’s three goals against Roda were all world class. He showed his rapid pace, slick dribbling, and excellent finishing abilities with all three goals. He plays on the left wing and loves to cut inside onto his right foot, and will be a dangerous player just like his dad.

The key thing that Justin has just like his dad is that they are so confident at such a young age and never worry about who their opponent is. That’s why they will take you on no matter how good you are.

Andreas Christensen

Andreas Christensen became the first player from Chelsea’s academy since John Terry to start and finish three consecutive Premier League matches for Chelsea at the weekend. The Danish international is now 21, and it looks like he might have displaced David Luiz in Conte’s back three.

Christensen was on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach for the previous two seasons, and was voted player of the season in his first year ahead of Granit Xhaka. Gladbach tried to sign him permanently following that, but Chelsea rejected the £14m bid and now he is growing into a key member of the blues defensive set up. It means David Luiz will have to work very hard to fight his way back into the team!

Timothy Weah

Another player with a famous dad, Timothy Weah is aiming to follow in George’s footsteps. Weah Jr has been born and raised in the USA, but moved to France in 2014 to sign for his dad’s former club PSG. He plays as a forward, either wider on the right or through the middle, and bagged a hat-trick for PSG youth on his debut in the UEFA youth league. He also scored a hat-trick for the United States at the Under-17 World Cup in their 5-0 win over Paraguay.

He has big boots to fill with Mr Geroge, as I like to call him, going to the very top and winning the Ballon d’Or. But it looks like he has passed some of those skillful genes on!

Phil Foden

The Stockport-born midfielder, who turned 17 in May, became Man City’s youngest-ever Champions League player when he came on against Feyenoord last week. There has been plenty of excitement around Foden after he played a key part in England’s Under-17 World Cup victory, where he won the Golden Boy award for best player of the tournament.

He plays in the centre of midfield and came on for Yaya Toure in the UCL. After the game Yaya said: “Phil Foden is fantastic. I think he is the future.” Big words from a city veteran who has been training with Foden all season.

Vinicius Junior

Vinicius Junior became the second most expensive Brazilian transfer of all time, behind Neymar, when he was bought by Real Madrid for €45m in the summer. That was despite the fact he had never played a professional game of football. He was the top scorer and elected the best player at South American under-17 championship, and the Real Madrid scouts obviously saw something special when they paid that sum for his future services.

The Brazilian was immediately loaned back to his starting club Flamengo and is due to move to Spain on his 18th birthday next year.

#mmlove

Best of the Rest

Before the season began, the bookies had Burnley as near even odds to be relegated from the Premier League. then on the opening day of the season, they shocked fans around the country with a 3-2 win over 9-man Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Since then they’ve taken points from Anfield and Spurs’ temporary home Wembley, as well as wins at Goodison Park and St Marys.

Last season they struggled on the road while keeping one of the best home records in the league, but this term they look to have overcome their problem. Only Man City have lost fewer times after 12 games and the Clarets are sat in 7th position, level on points with Liverpool and Arsenal, and just one point behind Spurs. The top six is made up of the usual suspects, and leading the chase is Burnley.

Their win against Swansea at the weekend was the first time they have won three consecutive top-flight matches since 1975. What a lot of people don’t realise is that not long after that, in the early 1980’s, Burnley were almost relegated to the conference. They were in financial difficulty and if they had lost to Leyton Orient on the final day of the season it’s likely that they would have folded.

They ended up winning 2-1 and rebuild the club, gradually becoming a solid Championship side before earning promotion to the Premier League in 2010. They were later relegated before returning twice, and they are now one of the toughest teams to beat. It has been a crazy rollercoaster up to this point but Sean Dyche has got them playing good, technical football and they seem to be unphased by anybody.

Most people will still associate Burnley with no-nonsense football, but that’s no longer a fair assessment. They’re solid at the back and have conceded the third least amount of goals so far, but their goals are what have made the difference.

The biggest surprise for any top side that plays Burnley is that they are always up for a fight. When it’s a cold, rainy day, you would think these guys maybe could have an off day but they consistently play the game like it’s the Champions League final. (People will say because it’s always cold and rainy there). The only things that can stop them are key injuries or if they can’t physically keep bringing the high energy levels until the end of the season.

Next up they have another big test as Arsenal visit, and a shock win would see them leapfrog the Gunners. But if they stay consistent and focused over the next few months they will be closer to European football than Championship football for the first time in half a century.

#mmlove

Right Man For The Job?

David Moyes will become just the fourth manager in Premier League history to take charge of his 500th game this weekend, and he’ll need to make it a good start in his new role at West Ham.

When you look at his achievements at Everton you would have to say he did an amazing job. He was at the club for just over a decade and achieved five top-six finishes, and when they had a bad season he would get them out of the relegation battle with his disciplined way of working.

I remember going to Everton knowing the team would give you a hard time and would never be easy to beat. They would play like the Germans do – it ain’t over ’til the final whistle!

But I think when he became the coach that got them into Europe the club kept believing he was the man to take them to the next level. And then there came the big move to Man Utd. That was a different show. He was required to work with better players and had more sources to tap into to bring in the players he needed and wanted. He was offered a four-year contract but in the end it was a short spell when he was sacked after 8 months.

Now fast forward and he’s at West Ham, a team that is known for consistently producing great talents like Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole. The club has changed over the years with a new owner and new stadium, and they displayed some great football at times under Bilic, but it wasn’t enough. He had the best points per game ratio of any West Ham manager in the Premier League, but after a string of poor results the club wanted more, and they made sure everyone knew it by showing him the door.

I do understand the club want bigger things and will do whatever it takes, but appointing David Moyes wasn’t the answer the fans wanted. I’m also not sure he is the man. He’s the kind of manager that has the experience to keep your club safe, but can he take them to that next level the club clearly strives for? Can he make Europe a normality so you can push on to greater things? I’m not sure. West Ham was one of the most competitive teams in the league but now they are falling behind their London rivals like Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham.

They want more, so David prove the doubters wrong, because I have my doubts too.

#mmlove

Maestro

The architect, the metronome, the professor, maestro, Mozart. Andrea Pirlo has picked up a few nicknames throughout his career and they tell you the story of what kind of player he was.

The Italian has announced his retirement after a 22 year career that saw him win the World Cup, Champions League (twice) and Serie A (six times). But perhaps his greatest achievement has been developing the ‘Pirlo role’. A position that is now recognised by fans and players all around the world, to have that role named after him might be the biggest footprint of his legacy.

Pirlo has been one of the best players to watch over the last couple of decades, dictating the pace of play and controlling the midfield in every game he played. Like a boss, we would say. He didn’t have the pace, strength or height of many commanding midfielders, but he more than made up for it with his brain.

Pirlo is a football genius. He see’s things on the field that nobody else does and always looks cool, calm and relaxed, even in high pressure situations. That’s because he says he doesn’t feel pressure, and you have to believe him when you look at moments like his no-look pass assist in the World Cup semi-final against Germany, or his panenka against Joe Hart at Euro 2012. Andrea has explained that he only decided to do that during his run-up because he saw Hart making twitchy movements.

In his book he wrote: “I don’t feel pressure… I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, 9 July, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.”

He was so good because he combined his cool character with anticipation and an ability to find space, so he had more time on the ball than the rest of the field. Not to mention the majestic way he would ping inch-perfect balls from midfield, pulling the strings for AC Milan, Juventus, and Italy. It always looked effortless and his heat map would probably just show a blob near the center of the pitch. But that’s all he needed to make his impact.

He would play the game on the big stage the way most of us pros would play on the street or in the park. Pros know that you can’t play with the pace you do on the streets at a high level. But Pirlo did. And seeing him bring both to the top level was a joy to watch, and it’s crazy how he made it all possible by staying ice cold.

When He played for Italy against Holland at Euro 2008 we were told by Marco Van Basten: “you take Pirlo out and they lose 60% of the brain power.”

We did and we ended up winning that game.

It has been rumored that Pirlo might join Conte at Chelsea as a coach. I don’t know if they’re true, and he will probably want to take a break and spend time with his family back in Italy before making his next move. But here is to hoping that he could become part of the blues setup!

Maybe Buffon said it best: “When I saw him playing I thought to myself, ‘God exists’.”

Hearing that from a legend made me smile and I nodded in agreeing. I’m sure that if I was around him I would be watching with big eyes, mesmerized, just like I did watching him on tv.

You will be missed Maestro!

#mmlove

Repeating the Leicester Miracle

Claudio Ranieri left Leicester in February, to conclude one of the greatest football stories ever told in one of the worst possible ways. The cult hero was sacked just 9 months after the miracle season with the Foxes just one place above the relegation zone. It wasn’t supposed to end that way, but Leicester’s Thai owners had run out of patience and that is just the way the game is today.

Fast forward to October and Leicester had just sacked Claudio’s former assistant who had stepped in when the former was dismissed. Ranieri has revealed that Leicester had contacted him for a shock return to the club, but the Tinkerman explained that he responded simply “no thanks.”

Now he’s got his attention on a different project in France. Ranieri is the manager of Nantes, the 500-1 outsiders who finished 44 points behind the league winners last season. But now they’re chasing a European spot, just 9 points behind undefeated PSG.

When asked about comparisons between Nantes and Leicester’s title-winning team, Claudio shruggs it off. Only one team has conceded fewer goals than them in Ligue 1 this season and they love to defend (something he teaches to all of his defenders) and then counter-attack, but most importantly they’re shaping up to be overachievers. When the Fearless Foxes won the PL their win ratio was 60.5%. Nantes’ is 60% so far this season.

Nantes will not win the French League. Ranieri has himself said it would be “impossible” to stop PSG this season, who have been the strongest team in the Champions League both in attack and defence with 17 goals scored and none conceded. In reality, they are a closer comparison to this season’s Burnley, who are just 3 points behind Chelsea in the Premier League at the moment.

The squad doesn’t have the talent that Leicester had with N’Golo Kante, Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez. Defensively they are very solid, but they haven’t managed to score nearly as many goals as Leicester did. But that said, it took Ranieri’s Leicester 10 games before they kept a clean sheet, so maybe a little more time is needed before Nantes start scoring freely.

“For us, it is important to stay at this level, not to win or fight for the league,” says Ranieri, which will sound familiar to anyone who followed his press conferences in 2015-16. Avoiding relegation is the goal for Nantes, but if their form continues (and we know anything can happen) they could sneak a European spot.

It might just take an offer of free pizza to get them there!

#mmlove