By Mario Melchiot

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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


Meeting David Blaine

I went for a catch-up dinner with a friend of mine called David.

He told me about this nice restaurant he always goes to that serves Sushi that tastes out of this world and wanted us to meet there. As I walk into the restaurant it looked really old school. But luckily I brought my mindset of going to a great Italian restaurant – because the best Italians are family run, passed on from generation to generation, mostly vintage-looking but serving freshly made food by grandma and grandad.

That was the case here because grandad was still making the dinners and the son would run the orders. That’s why they are closed at the weekend and only open for a few hours each day.

As I walked in I saw no one else than one of my favourite magicians, sitting behind my friend David. I asked him do you know who is sitting behind you and he said he didn’t. I know why. Because his mind was on that amazing sushi, but my mind was thinking this dude is super dope. When I had just moved to London he had begun an endurance stunt where he sealed himself in a glass cube suspended 30 feet in the air for 44 days, with no food, just water.

It was of course David Blaine.

This all was during the time I was at Chelsea and every time I got home from training I would watch his progress via the webcam they had set up for people to see how he was doing.

The day he came out he was so weak and I thought he was close to losing his life.

As he got ready to leave the restaurant I couldn’t stop myself from walking up to him with the classic question, “aren’t you David Blaine?” He said yes and I told him his tricks are out of this world. The gentleman he is, he thanked me and asked me where I was from. I answered with a smile and thought this is my chance for a picture, and asked him to do a trick.

The picture was not a problem and then he flipped a pack of cards out and within a few seconds the whole restaurant got up and it turned into little event.

We are all around him and he asked everyone to come closer. He asked the owner’s son to shuffle the cards then he asked a couple to pull a card out and show everyone before putting it back in the pack. The guy does it and David asked him to shuffle the cards again.

He asked for his age and he answered 25, so David took 25 cards out and at the last card he goes “was this your card?” The guy said “no it wasn’t” and I thought David, did you just mess up.

His mood changed a bit and he goes to the girl “what’s your age?” and she answered 22. He asked her to count 22 and his card will be the next one. She counts and at the last card the guy said that was also not his card. Imagine how the room was at that point. You could hear a pin drop and David asked “are you sure you know your card?”

The guy turns red and get’s uncomfortable but answered “yes I know what my card was.” David goes how can we go trough a pack of cards and your card isn’t in it?

David said “guys, he killed the trick” and the guy tried to defend himself. But David said “he killed the trick because he wanted to steal the card – you’re hiding it behind your watch.”

Everyone turned and looked at his watch and the card was right there, the 2 of hearts. The whole restaurant couldn’t believe it, this is not normal.

David then grabbed his cards and waved goodbye. I was just buzzing that I have a picture with the best there is.


Talking Points: Zidane & China

There are a lot of great things happening in football that everyone is talking about at the moment, so I’ve decided to chime in on a couple of the most interesting talking points.


First of all, it’s hard for me to say anything wrong about one of the greatest legends in football history.

I’ve learned so much from watching Zizou play and I had the chance to play against him a couple of times in my career and it was a joy! I even remember buying the DVD where he explains his famous roulette trick. The second thing was something I would always advise any youngster to do.

He said the quicker you have the ball under control the faster you can do what you want with it. It’s easy but you still see people trying to dribble a bouncing ball and when they lose it or it goes out they are upset. I get it, but Zizou was one of the best at it. Get the ball under control first then dribble, because then you don’t have to look at the ball but you can look over the ball to see your opponents and teammates.

Now seeing him excel as a top coach is great because I’ve witnessed a lot of top players finding it hard to make the transition from a great player to a great coach.

He’s made Real Madrid play great, attacking football. In his time as a player the Galacticos were great and a joy to watch but sometimes struggled to defend. Of course they didn’t need to worry bout that because Zidane and his colleagues would always score more goals than their opponents.

His Madrid are defensively stronger and are a strong force going forward as well. I mean it also helps having a machine in the team that doesn’t break down like Ronaldo.


You’re probably wondering what I’m going to say about the Chinese Super League because everyone has their own opinion, so that’s why I’m giving mine.

It’s hard these days for players to say no to the huge deals that are being thrown at them. That’s why China has broken the market and they knew they would. They came in and attacked the football market from every angle. They started with interesting names, people where you can see why they said yes. For example players like Pelle – he knew that offer would not come again so he must have thought I’ll take this offer and my family will be set for life.

Then Tevez came and I thought wow, that’s crazy, but again it’s understandable because it’s probably his last move. I know he said he was going home and wanted to retire in Argentina but then China came and he must have begged his wife. I imagine she must have thought very hard and long, slept on it for 2 weeks and then gave him a wink: ‘ok you can go’.

The surprise for me was with Oscar because he’s such a great talent in his peak. I know he wasn’t playing at Chelsea so it could be that he thought his price had gone down as a player, and he still managed to get an offer so he better take it.

But I would have loved to see him shine in a league that currently has more prestige. China could have in the future but I can’t be upset with him for taking it. If you think of it from his point of view, you sit on the bench, and even though he makes great money, players want to play! And bear in mind if the coach doesn’t like him at all, the club will maybe buy a new midfielder very soon and he won’t be playing at all.

Have we thought about that? Because it’s easy to judge if you aren’t in their shoes and never will be.

I don’t want to see more young players going there too early. Be patient, enjoy your football in the top leagues so the likes of me and the rest of the fans can keep enjoying your best years on TV and in the stadiums closer to home.

Did I retire too early? No, and the game has changed big time. That’s why you should enjoy your time, never be greedy or jealous of somebody else’s success. And when it’s done, enjoy watching the ones who are living it after you and making the most out of it in their own way.


A New World Cup

When the first World Cup was played in 1930, 13 countries took part and Uruguay were ultimately crowned champions. Football has grown a lot since then, and over the years more teams have been added to what is to many the greatest competition in the world.

In 1934 the competition expanded to 16 nations and involved elimination games only, with Italy becoming champions on their home soil. In 1950 the tournament didn’t even have a final. A second group phase was played and the table leader, Uruguay, were champions yet again.

Several tournaments and several changes followed until in 1982 the tournament became a group stage followed by a knockout stage with 24 teams taking part. It was 1998 when the World Cup expanded to 32 teams becoming the competition we all know today.

Overall the format has changed no fewer than eight times over the course of 20 World Cups, with more teams gradually added and the format switched. And yesterday another change was announced as FIFA members unanimously voted to add a further 16 teams to the competition, which from 2026 will consist of 16 groups of 3 teams.

This is one of the most drastic changes of all.

Gianni Infantino, the Fifa president, says the main reason for the expansion is to give more countries a chance to experience joy of a World Cup. It will give many more fans around the world a chance to join in the party and cheer on their country on the biggest stage.

But an extra 16 nations means the quality is going to be diluted. The World Cup Finals have been reserved for the best nations in the world and 32 teams seemed like a sweet spot where smaller nations or countries with less football development could still qualify if they really earned it, but every game was still entertaining.

With the new format there will be a lot of these lower ranked nations and some games will feel more like World Cup qualifiers than the finals. It also makes it less of an achievement to qualify for the finals as it’s less exclusive.

I do like it when the lower ranked countries make it. Why not? But still it shouldn’t be made too easy! This comes from a man that missed out on one and made it a must to make it to a big tournament before I retired.

In the past, nations like Zaire, Honduras, Senegal, and Trinidad & Tobago have all known that special feeling of qualifying the for the finals, and sometimes they made a few surprises with shock results over bigger nations. But with the new format there will be nations like these in each group, and with just one team from each group failing to qualify for the 2nd round the competitive edge could be missing.

I know there is money involved regarding the sponsorships that come with the World Cup but I always looked at the World Cup as a tournament for the best teams in the world. If you want to be part of it you need to work. Let’s hope this doesn’t kill the quality and we can see all the top players there – we don’t want anyone getting injured because of the duration of the tournament.

Keep us entertained and money will come no matter what. The World Cup is a brand so big no one will be able to stop it from growing.


Mr Zlatan

Today it’s time to write about a player who has already achieved so much but shows no signs of stopping.

When you think Zlatan Ibrahimovic has done it all he manages to come up with something great yet again, and then again.

It all began with his move from Malmo to Ajax, where he won the Erividisie twice before Juventus snapped him up. At Juve he won Serie A twice in two seasons and then moved to Inter where he won the league a further three times in a row.

From there he won La Liga with Barcelona, another Serie A title with AC Milan and then four consecutive Ligue 1 title’s with PSG before his move to Man Utd. If you look at the league finishes his teams have had, you’ll see that in the last 15 seasons he won the league title with each club he played for, every year, except twice. On both those occasions his team finished 2nd (once with Ajax and once with AC Milan).

Those stats alone are phenomenal. And then you look at his individual scoring stats. He’s one of two players, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, to have scored in every minute of a football match during their careers. He’s also the only player to have scored in the Milan derby, El Clasico, the Manchester derby, Le Classique in France, and De Klassieker in Holland.

When he moved to Man Utd many people asked why considering his age. Isn’t his time done and shouldn’t he be playing in a different league where you go just to play out your last years? But Zlatan doesn’t listen to the rumours, he does it the Zlatan way. He’s never taken an easy route but makes it look easy.

He started off well in Manchester and kept scoring but then it stopped and the team started to struggle for a few games. It didn’t take long for him to get himself and his great connection with Pogba going again though, and Mourinho’s side are now back on track.

You can see how his influence isn’t just limited to scoring goals but also assisting teammates.

Look at Mkhitaryan’s goal that could easy be the goal of the season, or Zlatan’s header that looked so easy to set up Martial for his goal at the weekend.

I’ve always liked they guy from the first time I met him in Amsterdam. If you ask PSG players I know some will tell you he was too much because if you’re around Zlatan you have to man up or he’ll walk all over you. But be honest, isn’t he the player that can win league titles for you? Any player out there knows that all we play for is winning trophies.

Winning the league with United is maybe a call that’s not so easy to make but one thing for sure is that he will do whatever it takes to get into the Champions League.