By Mario Melchiot

Could Celtic Compete In The Premier League?

I have always been impressed by Celtic.

They won the Scottish Premier League for the 6th consecutive season this weekend and it was party time for the green half of Glasgow. If there’s one jersey that I see everywhere in the world then it’s the famous green and white hoops of Celtic. It’s a club with great history and a great following.

But the Scottish League faces a fair amount of criticism and difficulty because it has been a two-horse race for so long. The last time either Celtic or Rangers didn’t win the league was 1985 and some people might argue that the same is true in Spain, but Barca and Real keep winning the Champions League so that sets them apart from a lot of leagues.

On a number of occasions I had interest from the Scottish League, where Rangers and Celtic called my agent, but I wanted to stay in England. Looking back I don’t regret my choices but sometimes I wonder what it would be like to watch one of the coolest derbies in the world. I would have loved to play in the Old Firm Derby – who doesn’t want to play the games where everything is at stake.

After Celtic confirmed their title win with a 5-0 win against Hearts at the weekend, Brendan Rodgers said Celtic would be a top six or maybe top four team in the English Premier League. I totally understand his reaction. He has learned a lot in his spells at Liverpool and Chelsea and he and his team were on a high of lifting the trophy, still undefeated with three games to play.

They are buzzing with confidence off of the back of that, but I think the only way to justify his claim is for Celtic to do well in Europe. If Brendan Rodgers can take Celtic further than the group stage in the Champions League, or further in the Europa League he will be able to silence the doubters. But until that happens the Scottish League will not get the respect they are looking for.

Without the financial support the Premier League has Celtic will always struggle to compete with the top teams in England. But the windfall they will make from European football might be the first steps if they can get further in the competition. If Celtic did play in the Premier League, perhaps after a few seasons they would have strengthened enough to compete with the top six, if they invested in adding more quality to their squad.

For now they will have to hope they draw an English team in a European competition and show the world they can walk the walk.

#mmlove

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Hazard had a difficult season last year and on a few occasions we talked about his drop of form, injuries and the drama that was happening at the blues.

Now that is all behind us because my favourite Chelsea player is back to his best. When he’s at his best there is no stopping him. He’s built like a tank and with his low centre of gravity and agility is for sure one of the hardest players to stop when he changes direction.

He’s deadly in a 1v1 situation, can score and set people up and l would say “that’s the player I would pay to go and watch.” That’s why Chelsea are consistently doing well this season – because I know the eyes are on him and it won’t be long before another club will try to lure him away from Chelsea. His age would make him a great investment that everyone would bank on (including Chelsea, I hope!)

Jermain Defoe is the perfect example of a player who will never stop scoring. If I look at Defoe play now and compare it to the day’s I was playing against him, it’s not a big difference and he’s still hard to mark. He maybe lost a bit of his pace but when he’s around the box you can’t really see that. When there is something happening around the box you can’t take your eyes off him because the ball will always drop his way.

He also has one of the shortest back lifts, so he will surprise you with his quick strike. He always seems like a player that is enjoying himself out on the pitch and seems to know every player he plays against personally. But I hope the defenders stop getting tricked for their sake, because the nicer he is the more he will do what it takes to score against you, and most times he does.

Falcao has always been one of the strikers to watch, especially when he was at Atletico Madrid. I don’t know how but that club always seems to find top strikers.
Look at Fernando Torres, Deigo Costa and now Antoine Griezman who is on everyone’s wish list. They all have similarities – high energy players that don’t give up if they miss a chance because they know they will get another one. They score easily and play with a lot of passion and confidence that natural leaders always possess.

And Falcao has all of that. Some people in the UK would ask what is Mario smoking, when Falcao arrived at Man Utd after his tough injury he never got back to his best. Then he went to Chelsea and I thought I would see the best of him but he still failed to get up to speed. But now the mean man has found his form again in the most exciting young team in Europe. Monaco is full of great young stars and they are one of the best teams to watch at the moment.

The thing that these three, Hazard, Defoe and Falcao have in common is one of the most beautiful things in life. When people think you can’t or would never be able to do something and you prove them wrong.

#mmlove

International Round-Up

Almost 16 years ago England earned a shock 5-1 victory over Germany in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers. Qualifiers are often easy to forget but England fans still remember that night in Munich. Tomorrow the two nations face each other again in a friendly, but it will likely feel like more than that as the English love beating the Germans.

With the World Cup just over a year away, the international break will be good chance to see some of the favourites face off, as well as some crucial qualifiers.

The world champions will probably look better than England on paper, but the last time the two faced England came back from two goals down to win 3-2 just before the Euros. Barring a major disaster, both nations will be at the World Cup in Russia and Germany are likely to go into the tournament as favourites again.

Lahm, Schweinsteiger and Podolski will have all left international duty, but the Germany squad is like a conveyor belt of talent and the next generation is starting to come through. Players like Leroy Sane and Timo Werner will join the experienced leaders like Neuer, Muller, Kroos and Hummels.

The standout game of the friendlies is France vs Spain. Both these powerhouses top their qualifying groups and will be hoping to show their dominance ahead of the World Cup where they will be among the favourites. France have got so much depth and talent, with the engine man Kante in midfield alongside Pogba and Griezmann. France were disappointed not to lift the Euro Cup after losing to Portugal in the final last year so will be hungry to redeem themselves at the World Cup.

You can never count out Spain who have got quality all over the pitch, from David de Gea in goal and Sergio Ramos at the back, to David Silva in midfield and Diego Costa up front.

Brazil will also be in the mix as favourites to lift the cup next year. They will have to put their shock 7-1 defeat to Germany on home soil in the last World Cup behind them, and the stars like Neymar, David Luiz and Coutinho will need to shine. Gabriel Jesus could also be one to watch in Russia after making an exciting first impression in the Premier League before his injury.

It will be Messi’s last chance to win the World Cup, but it’s not certain that Argentina will even make the plane to Russia! They are 5th in the South American qualifying group and if the stay there they would have to win a playoff against the first-place team from Oceania to secure their place. They’re one point from automatic qualification, but also just one point from not qualifying at all so it’s crunch time for the Argentinians. They face Chile on Thursday and still have Uruguay and Ecuador to play, and will ideally need to pick up 6 points.

Holland missed out on a big tournament last year, and it was strange not seeing them at the Euros so missing them again in 2018 would be a big loss.

I’ve missed out as a player myself so I know how it feels, and even now looking back I think it’s one of the biggest disappointments. We are known as a nation that produces a lot of great talent and as a small nation that only has around 17m people we have players at the best teams in Europe. Our great style of playing is mastered by the Spanish and sometimes feels like it is copied from the Brazilians: Keep the ball so the other team can’t score and when they’re tired you score.

I think it is time to go back to basics and realise that the beautiful game sometimes has to wait. The focus needs to be on winning so that the confidence comes back the beautiful game will follow.

The World Cup is the best competition to watch, with the excitement of the smaller nations punching above their weight and powerhouses going face to face.

#mmlove

Pep’s Biggest Challenge Yet

Manchester City desperately want to change the way things have been going for them in the Champions League.

After becoming one of the biggest forces in English football, City have qualified for the competition every season since 2011. But they have failed to make it past the last 16 every time until their best effort last year when they made the semi-finals. Last year they were knocked out by a single Real Madrid goal over 2 legs, a Fernandinho own goal at the Bernabeu. That was a close one and a good effort by the sky blues, but their previous 4 attempts must all go down as failures.

It’s no easy task to change their luck in the Champions League because a team that has so many big names and is so strong tactically comes with the pressure of high expectations.

City brought in one of the best managers in the world in Pep, and he brought in some more big hitters, so the league and the Champions League are a must.

If Man City don’t win any silverware they have to view this season as a failure.

Just like Chelsea last season. Just like Liverpool, who long to win the league, they’ve craved for so long, and Arsenal, who want more than the FA Cup.

Pep knows it’s a big task because coming to the Premier league is arguably his biggest challenge yet. It started beautifully and even I thought his magic doesn’t look like it can be stopped. He came fresh from Munich and got his new team off to a flyer in Manchester.

But then he quickly understood that off days in the Premier League can cost you dearly. Smaller teams can easily beat the giants and when you lose two in a row the confidence drops, even amongst world class players. Yes he has brought in some exciting young players like Sané and Jesus, but even they need time.

The Champions League is the other obstacle and if there is one manager in the Premier League that knows how to win it, it’s Pep. But he knows this hurdle will take a lot more energy and knowledge than he probably expected.

He came to Manchester to bring City more trophies so I’m sure he is well aware of the pressures, and the need to succeed.

#mmlove

The Heat is on in the Championship

We’re reaching that point in the season where the Championship is certainly heating up! With so much to play for at the top of the table, passions are high among the fans, players and managers alike.

The league leaders have changed 16 times so far this season, but Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle currently lead the pack by 3 points with 10 games left to play. Last night the Magpies were frustrated by a 0-0 draw with Reading, but they have a lot of Premier League quality in the side such as Jonjo Shelvey and the Championship top-scorer Dwight Gayle.

It would be hard to bet against Newcastle returning to the Premier League in August but anything can happen! Brighton and Huddersfield are both hot on their heels and showing signs that they could both have a good go at Premier league football.

Chris Hughton’s side just missed out on promotion last season, losing out to Boro on the final day of the season, and they were unbeaten until December this term. And despite dropping a few points recently they look in good shape heading into the final stretch. Huddersfield are also looking good, holding Man City to a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup recently before their replay defeat.

The Terriers were quite unlucky against Newcastle at the weekend, dominating possession but not producing enough in the final third and conceding a few scrappy goals. They’ve shown character bouncing back with a win against Villa last night though and you certainly can’t count them out!

At the other end of the table it looks like Rotherham are as good as down, but Wigan, Bristol City, Wolves, Burton, Blackburn and Nottingham Forest are all fighting for survival.

Wigan are two points from safety because they won a must-win against Birmingham last night. It’s important to win the coming games to create the momentum needed for the players to get that belief back. There is no better feeling than when everyone heads in the same direction with winning spirit.

The morale of the fans and the atmosphere in the DW stadium will change because the players really need the Tics fans to get behind them. That’s all I was banking on when I was in the same situation.

Anything can happen in this league, teams still have to play each other and the losses and wins can come against virtually any other side. It’s going to be an exciting couple of months in England’s 2nd tier!

#mmlove

The ‘Makelele’ Role

I remember the first time I met with Claude Makelele in the Chelsea dressing room. I knew him from watching him play for Real Madrid behind one of the greatest players ever, Zinedine Zidane. Claude was doing an amazing job and sometimes it looked like he was bossing the midfield by himself.

Seeing him on TV out-jumping players for headers and stealing the ball back for his team – I thought this must be a big player. But when he walked into the dressing room at Chelsea I almost laughed, thinking is this the guy that I was so impressed by, holding the Madrid midfield on his own.

We hit it off straight away but I don’t think there are many people who wouldn’t. The man has a smile as big and bright as Stamford Bridge. You can’t miss it because he’s always smiling.

I can tell you that he was a real presence in the dressing room as well as on the field. Whenever we were struggling and needed a soldier to make sure we survived, we could count on Claude. He was so intelligent and always gave the team what it needed.

No two players are the same but when I look at Kante he does have some clear similarities to Makelele. The good part for him is that we had learned in Makelele’s time to respect the players that aren’t always on the scoreboard or in the limelight when the team wins. These guys save their teams from a lot of trouble and can make the team look comfortable.

Kante digs deep and acts like the engine, getting the rest of the team to put more a of a shift in. Every team needs a player like that. Back in my playing days we always use to say we needed a dog in the team. The one that hustles and gets us the ball back quicker than we can ourselves, but some of these guys wouldn’t know what to do with the ball when they have possession so it’s like playing with 10 men.

But the likes of Makalele and Kante have changed that. They’re leagues above the dog style player we used to describe back in the day. Kante is a luxury player because when you have that understanding of the game that he has its top quality.

If you don’t believe me go to Leicester and ask them what they miss the most in their team. Trust me it will be a midfielder that can help them get the ball back, control the game and make them feel at ease.

#mmlove

Ranieri’s Romance is Over

Claudio Ranieri’s romance with Leicester City is over.

The coach that pulled off a miracle last season and become a club legend has been sacked, and who knows when they will ever lift the Premier League trophy again.

I know they are in a difficult situation, facing a relegation battle, but clubs expect players and coaches to be loyal, so should surely return the favour.

They should be building statues of the man who won them the trophy most clubs around England – including Leicester until last season – could only dream of.

This really is a crazy and unforgivable decision. You can say what you like about their performance this season, but give the man more time and show him a bit of respect. Every time you hear or read a statement that a club is behind their manager, you know in reality his days are counted and they already have a replacement lined up. They are just waiting for the right timing to let him go.

One of the reasons why I loved playing football was because I had more control of my own destiny. I just had to make sure I did well in the team and performed well for myself. When you are a coach there are a lot more factors and this situation is one of those.

But what were Leicester thinking? That they were going to win the title again this season?

This season was always going to pan out differently. Now teams want Leicester to boss possession and understand that it is harder than waiting for your opponent to makes a mistake and capitalising on it, as they did last season.

They have had to deal with the added difficulty of being the team to beat. This season their opponents have sat back, let them have the ball and then counterattacked. That’s exactly how Leicester played last season, the only thing they’re lacking now is that energy and the will to win that was so apparent last season.

Sometimes you have to realise as a club that you reached the highest achievement in your history. Now it’s time to focus on building a great foundation for the future. There is only one solution to achieve that, and that is respect and time.

Champions League Preview

The Champions League makes a long-awaited return this week and I can’t wait to see Europe’s elite in action. The last 16 always comes with plenty of goals, some one-sided matches as well as the occasional upset.

PSG and Barca is perhaps the stand out tie in terms of quality – two giants of Europe who’s sides have huge amount of world class talent. There have been 21 goals in last six games between the sides, so we can expect to see more over the two legs. Messi has already scored 10 goals in the Champions League this season and we all know how prolific Barca’s front trio can be. At the over end of the field Cavani is having a great season and PSG haven’t lost since mid-December.

Arsenal have got a huge test in their clash with Bayern Munich. The Gunners have crashed out of the Champions League in the last-16 for 6 years in a row, so they were probably hoping for a much nicer draw than Bayern when they topped their group this time around. Bayern are the favourites but if Arsenal can get a result at the Allianz it will be in their hands when they host the 2nd leg in a couple of weeks. Even if Arsenal find themselves on the backfoot for 90 minutes, when you have players like Ozil and Alexis in your team, a goal can come from nothing.

I think Man City are a team desperate to win the Champions League, especially now with Pep at the helm. They came close last year, knocked out of the semis by Real Madrid. They have been a little inconsistent in the Premier League but if they can sort their defensive problems out, play their best football and stay focused they could go all the way! Their first task is to get past Monaco who top the French League and have scored a crazy 105 goals. It should be an exciting matchup!

The most interesting game might be Leicester vs Sevilla. Leicesters form in the league has been a little bit miserable lately and they haven’t scored a goal in 10 hours of football in the Premier League. But their Champions league form seems to have been completely separated from their league form so far, so you can’t count them out based on that. Sevilla will be their toughest test yet, currently keeping up pace with Barca and Real in La Liga.

My eyes will be all on the Barcelona vs PSG game for sure.

It’s a great Champions League evening and I expect Real or Barca to go all the way to the final but they aren’t guaranteed of winning it, and you should never doubt the Germans.

#mmlove

The Fight For Survival

It’s really starting to heat up at the bottom of the Premier League table. Just two points separate the bottom six going into the weekend and making a call on the favourites to go down is certainly getting harder at the moment.

Hull appeared to be a team on the brink of relegation before the turn of the new year, having only won two games out of 18 since August. They brought in Marco Silva from Olympiakos, and many fans and pundits were sceptical, but it seems they have their fighting spirit back and look capable of getting a good run going.

The surprise party at the bottom for me is Crystal Palace. Who doesn’t believe in Big Sam? Relegation battles are his forte and for years this man has pulled off some miracles by taking teams out of trouble at the bottom. When he went to Crystal Palace I was thinking he’s going to get them fit and give them all a wake-up call, and then we’ll start seeing an improvement.

It slowly started to work and the win against Bournemouth was a great boost, but then came Sunderland and Defoe – who I still think is one of the best strikers in and around the box. He scores consistently at every club he plays for, every season, and age doesn’t seem to be slowing him down.

Sunderland look like a great team on paper and have enough quality to survive, but they keep being punished because of their organisation most of the time. They sometimes attack with the whole team and when they lose the ball they’ve committed too many players forward so it’s easy to run right through their defence.

Leicester City have come out with a statement that shows a lot of confidence in Claudio Ranieri, and his ability to resolve their current situation.
It must be mentally challenging going from a team that would beat everyone with a 10 out of 10 performance. That’s no longer the case and you can see how hard it is when you have a great team but lack the spirit and belief. The individuals that were doing so well last season need to stand up.

I know there’s quality in that team even though their key player Kante went to Chelsea. Yes he is a big loss for Leicester but they could have fixed it because it was a move they could see coming. The energy and work rate and understanding of the game he has would of course be noticed by any top team. He’s now heading for a second title and his old teammates are battling to stay in the league.

Let me tell you relegation is still the only thing I regret happening to myself. Now the pressure is on the likes of Morgan, Vardy and Mahrez. the question is now can they carry the team in these crucial remainder of the season? They were a joy to watch but now they need to help the rest. I know it is bad to say but the captain and any other experienced players are where the squad start looking for help when times are tough, and that’s the case now at Leicester. Ranieri needs to start asking more of the stars of last season.

I don’t think all three teams currently in the relegation zone will go down – at least one, and with better organisation and fitness maybe two will be safe. At this point I still think Big Sam has a great chance but he needs to get back to his old ways and transform Palace into a team that no one wants to play against.

Let’s see what changes this week because I think the bottom is as exciting as the top and that’s why I love the Premier League.

#mmlove

Is the FA Cup Dead?

The FA Cup has always been one of the greatest football competitions, especially of course for fans in England. Everybody knows anything can happen over the 90 minutes of a cup game and lifting the trophy, or watching your team lift it, is one of the greatest feelings.

But it’s not just the final that holds all the glory. The earlier rounds are some of the best games because non-league and lower-league clubs get a chance to play with the giants of English football. Watching David take on Goliath is always entertaining, and giant killings are maybe what make the FA Cup so special.

Some of these non-league players are firemen and plumbers during the week, and they are given this chance to be a football hero at the weekend. There are loads of famous FA Cup stories. Shrewsbury knocked out Everton in 2003, Wrexham knocked out Arsenal in 1992 and just this weekend we saw a handful of cupsets.

Lincoln City and Sutton United made it through to the 5th round after beating Brighton and Leeds respectively – the first time two non-league teams have made it to the last 16. Oxford also breezed past Newcastle, Fulham thrashed Hull and Wolves toppled Liverpool.

But all of these bigger sides that were knocked out fielded much-changed starting XI’s. it’s great to give young players and reserves a chance, but does playing them all at the same time show a lack of respect for the FA Cup?

Take a look at Newcastle for example. Their fan travelled down to Oxford expecting their side to progress to the next round, but Oxford walked past them with ease because they wanted to win so much more. For Oxford and their fans, there is a huge motivation to make it to the next round as it’s seen as a big achievement for the club and they want to see how far they can get. The money the club makes from staying in the competition and TV is also valuable to the smaller clubs.

But for Newcastle all the club wants is to be promoted to the Premier league. It’s estimated that promotion to the Premier League is worth £170 million, and even finishing in last place in the PL helps a club earn £97 million. Meanwhile the prize for lifting the FA Cup is £1.8 million, which is insignificant in comparison.

Financially there is nothing for the big teams to play for. And the main priority for the clubs is to make as much money as possible. The fans don’t care about the club’s balance sheet so much, they just want to cheer their team on and see them win some silverware.

To the fans, the oldest knockout competition in football certainly isn’t dead. The smaller clubs will always be more motivated to win because they go into the game like it’s a dream come true.

For the bigger clubs, it will help for sure if they can somehow increase the prize money or offer a Champions League spot for the winner. But then again I don’t mind seeing the smaller teams getting a good run because the big clubs rest their stars.

The culture of the FA Cup has to be protected because it’s the oldest and biggest domestic cup competition in the world.

#mmlove