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Keeping Pace

I have to give Sarri credit because if you asked me at the beginning of the season if he would get Chelsea to the position they are right now, and playing that quality of football this quickly, I would have said no chance.

It’s always hard for a manager to adjust to their new team, and often you will see them try to bring in many new players that fit their style, but Sarri has proven that you don’t have to do that. All you have to do to make a big impact is lift the spirit of the team. You can see that he has successfully done that because everyone is motivated and happy to be part of the team, regardless of the system they are playing in.

I watched the game against Everton this weekend and it was one of the first times I have seen Chelsea struggle this season. Everton were so well organised and looked like if they were going to hurt Chelsea, it was going to be on the counter-attack. In the end I do think the 0-0 draw felt like a loss, because to stay in the title race you need to win.

Everton have always been a hard team for Chelsea to beat, but still, in the form the Blues are in they should have won that game at Stamford Bridge. A consolation for Sarri is that he broke the record for longest unbeaten start in the Premier League as a new manager at 12 games, beating Frank Clark’s record with Nottingham Forest 24 years ago.

With City leading the race and knowing that they can beat any team you just have to keep doing your job and getting maximum points on the board, just hoping that Pep’s side will slip up and you can take advantage. In this game you never know when that is going to happen – they dropped points against Burnley, Huddersfield and Crystal Palace last season. But City are so focused and looks like they have the drive to win the title again this year.

There is still a long way to go, and Chelsea just need to focus on themselves and take each game as it comes. The big clash is just a few weeks away when City visit Stamford Bridge in early December, and that could be a turning point so we need all the momentum we can get going into that game.


23 Proud Years

Wigan fans marked the end of an era with a standing ovation in the 23rd minute against Leeds at the weekend – in celebration of the 23 years the Whelan family have owned the club. Sunday’s game was the last under their reign, and although it wasn’t the result everyone at the club wanted, it was a time to reflect on the beautiful moments Wigan have experienced as a club.

“It is a massive disappointment not to be able to send them off with a win, especially considering everything they’ve done for the club, the town and the community over 23 years. But they’ve had plenty of highs and lows, and they’ll know each are part of the journey you go through in this game,” said Paul Cook after the game.

It all started in 1995 when Dave Whelan bought the club while they were in League Two (then called Division Three) for around £400,000. He always had big ambitions for the club, stating early on that the Latics would be a Premier League side. In his second season they earned promotion to League One, and it was a short few years later when they earned 100 points to win League One and earn promotion to the Championship.

In 2005 Dave Whelan’s dream was realised when the Tics reached the Premier League. By November, Wigan were second in the league and most fans were pinching themselves. Over the following eight years the Tics defied the odds and the critics to remain in the top flight.

I could see his great drive and determination when I was about to sign for Wigan in 2007. While at the ground I turned around and there he was walking down the tunnel towards me. He had this big smile on his face, and as he shook my hand he rested his left on my shoulder and asked what I thought of the new stadium.

I said it looks great, and he agreed and said “I think you should play here.” I asked him to reconfirm, “do you really want me to?” and he said, “yes and I would like to be my Captain so that you can keep us in the Premier League.”

He looked me in the eyes just like a businessman would do to see if you made a shift and see if his offer was good enough to be accepted. I said “let’s go inside and sign.” The terms had already been agreed the previous week when I was away on international duty, so all I’d needed to do was fly in to see if I liked the club.

We walked in and as I signed the deal the objectives were clear, which is how he had built the club. He would set targets and would do whatever it took to achieve them. And that’s exactly what his grandson David Sharpe did, too, when he took over in 2015.

I first met David in Los Angeles when he walked up to me and introduced himself in a restaurant. Soon after that we went for a hike with his brother and his wife. The young chairman’s determination and intelligence was spot on. He knew what he wanted and worked hard like his Granddad to achieve it.

That determination is the reason why I signed for this great club and I am honored that I was accepted by the fans from day one. Thank you my Wigan people! #mmlove

RIP Vichai

This is one of those moments in football but also in life that nobody would ever want to witness.

As the chairman of a football club who is committed to watching your team play, you sit in the stands as your side fight hard to win the game. You’re surrounded by the loyal fans who cheer on the players and celebrate as your team levels the score after some hard work, going on to try and win the game as the coach puts his ego aside and realises the star man Vardy is needed more than anything.

The main man comes on and changes the game, as the whole team understands what they need to do by finding the space he can run into behind the opposition defenders. That has been Leicester’s trademark for the last couple of years and a big part of what made them so successful, along with their fearless team spirit and high energy.

As a successful businessman, after the game you have places to be, and as usual plan to take off from the pitch. You maybe even sit and think about what’s next for your football club.

And that ends up being the last thing you think about. The last moments of your life as a tragedy unfolds just metres from the fans leaving the stadium.

Vichai was the architect behind Leicester City’s miracle season, investing in the team and appointing Claudio Ranieri. By all accounts he was a great man and his legacy goes well beyond the football pitch. He invested millions into the local hospitals and charities in Leicester. He made the impossible dream a reality for Leicester City, and the Fearless Foxes will be forever remembered in the history books. He made people all around the world believe that anything is possible, not just in football or sport, but in life.

There were four other victims, including the pilot, who has been hailed a hero for directing the helicopter away from fans in his last moments.

RIP Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Eric Swaffer, Izabela Roza Lechowicz, Kaveporn Punpare and Nursara Suknamai. #mmlove

Clockwise from top left: Eric Swaffer, Izabela Roza Lechowicz, Kaveporn Punpare and Nursara Suknamai

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha

Your Captain Speaking

This weekend was one of those great adventures. I’ve been on my friend Eric’s case for the last two weeks about us going flying. I checked out my phone on Sunday morning to see a text from Eric.

‘Goooodmorning! Where would you like to go?’

I joked that we should go to Vegas, and when I got the radio silence I quickly suggested we should go to Santa Barbara. Without hesitation, Eric agreed: ‘Yes let’s do it.’

I turned up at Van Nuys Airport in San Fernando Valley, LA at 11am with a big smile on my face. I was excited and called my bro Eric. He said he was on the way and turned up a short time later with another friend, Dimity. The three of us got ready for take-off, but the funny part was Dimitry explained how to close the plane doors, but said we needed to keep it open for now because we have to put fuel in the plane and he didn’t want me to get hot and put the AC on. I said OK as we drove to get the gas, and he reiterated: “Make sure you close the door properly, because when we’re in the air we don’t want the door to open up.

I said “Ok that would be a good start, and the last thing I would like to worry about.” I checked the door 3 times before we took off.

We were all set and ready to go. The sky was clear and we flew nicely over to Santa Barbara. When we landed the first thing we needed to do was grab some lunch so we headed to an old, but cool fish restaurant. It was a real boys trip and we laughed and told stories, having so much fun that we almost forgot that we had to be back at the airport. When we realised we had 15 minutes to get there.

We got the check and we were away to the airport. As we get there the boys said I will sit in the front now. I was so ready to relax and had grabbed some m&ms to chill and enjoy my chocolate and the view. This wasn’t that case. As we flew over the water they told me it was my turn to fly. I looked at them both and was like, “really?”

This is the second time because I had already tried it over Malibu and Santa Monica on another occasion. That time it went wrong because when we started to slowly drop, I panicked and let go of the wheel. Eric told me to never ever do that: “If you let go it is like letting go of your life so hold on no matter what.”

This time I was determined to do well and stay calm.

As we are cruising above Santa Barbara I am looking down at the blue water and I manage to keep the plane steady. I was also wearing a black t-shirt so you could not see it but I am telling you the first couple of minutes my body got hot and I started sweating like crazy. Imagine having not only your life but also the lives of your two friends in your hands.

After a while I was calm and enjoyed the scenery as we were heading back to LA. As we landed I was so excited, thanked my boys for giving me an experience I would never have had without them. They were cool because it’s a normal thing for them, they fly all the time.

But now I can say it. I flew a plane.


Back To Where It Began

I was super happy when I saw Thierry had got the Monaco job.

It’s the club where he started his career and it must be great for him to go back to where it all started. We have seen the likes of Gerrard, Lampard and Vieira make the move from player to coach recently, and I love to see them because there is always something that changes in them. I met up with Frank, Patrick and Thierry this summer and when we spoke it brought back memories of how my coaches would make me feel.

They all have a lot to think about but they were always ready for it and enjoy the responsibility that comes with the job. Vieira was calm, cracking jokes, and was his usual gentleman self with a bag of knowledge. Interviewing him and hanging out is always fun.

I bumped into Frank in London when I was walking down the street and he hopped out of his car. It was great to catch up and we talked about how he made the right decision to bring Jody Morris with him to Derby. It was great to see the happiness on his face when we talked about his coaching role.

Thierry and I had lost contact for a couple of years, but over for a summer I went to a barbecue in Los Angeles at one at of my dear friend’s place. It was a great surprise to see him there. They had both kept it quiet and didn’t let up that he would be there, so we had that moment where the kid in us came out, with the jokes and being happy to see each other.

We had a long chat about life and coaching. We talked about him getting ready to go on what ended up being a great journey with the Belgium national team, where he ended up taking them all the way to the semi-finals of the World Cup with Roberto Martinez. When he started talking about feeling ready to go after it, all the jokes stopped and the conversation shifted to a more tactical one.

He spoke about his views on managing a team and how he would be doing it. One thing he made clear is that he is a manager that loves to see attacking football, because not only was he one of the best at it, but he just loves that style of playing. I am excited to see how he develops as a coach. He has the experience to handle the situations on the field so if he can get that knowledge across to his team and they understand his way of playing, there could be something very interesting happing in Monaco.

Monaco are in the Ligue 1 relegation zone with just six points from their opening nine games. It is a big task to turn things around, but Thierry has the character, knowledge and attitude to make it happen. The renewed energy in the squad that comes with a new manager will also be a bonus that will see Henry get off to a start as good as Lampard, Gerrard and Vieira have made.

Today professional footballers are starting their careers younger and you can play the game longer, but now that coaches are getting in the game younger as well it can only enhance the game even more.
Bonne Chance Mon Ami. #mmlove

The Entertainers

While most of the attention has been on Mourinho’s turbulent start to the season, as well as the unbeaten starts made by Chelsea, Liverpool and City, Arsenal are the team that have quietly performed just as everyone at the club would have hoped for. They’ve done it without making a lot of noise and have just played the game really smart. Emery has made sure the forwards started to gel and get the service they needed, and the 5-1 win over Fulham was their ninth consecutive win in all competitions. But we see you and are all aware of how good you have been doing now.

When a new manager comes in it’s normal for every player to be at his best, to ensure they impress and stay in the team. After losing their opening two matches against Chelsea and City, fans would have been a little bit anxious, but six games later they are among the teams to beat trailing the leading pack by two points.

Chelsea, Liverpool and City are all level with six wins and two draws, and Sarri was smart in taking the pressure of the team by saying he want to be where Liverpool are now in two years. That gives him two years to build and eases pressure in the title race, but the team started to perform from the getgo. Even though at times they have looked shaky at the back, after the game against Liverpool they looked like Champions That doesn’t come as too much of a surprise when you have Hazard, the best player in the league, in your team.

As a player, when you come from a manager that wants to control everything, it helps when you have a new manager that resembles a dad – only needing you to listen when it matters. I think that’s what Sarri brings to the team, and they look more relaxed and you can see they are having fun. Conte had them smiling when they were winning but when the result wasn’t always coming in you could see there was a problem that was bigger than the results. You could see the players didn’t feel free to express themselves and try new things.

Klopp said: “I really think the most important thing for football is entertaining the people. We don’t save lives, we don’t create anything, we are not good in surgeries, we are only good in football. If we would not entertain the people, why would we play it then?”

I totally agree with that. We get paid for to entertain the people in the stadium and on TV s across the world. The fans are the ones who we can make have a great day or week. To be part of their happiness is a special thing, and when things go well it’s amazing to feel their joy. We don’t need to talk about when things go bad because they make sure we know about that!

When players are having fun it shows and the football is often much better to watch, which is how Chelsea have looked this season. There are of course occasions where we go for the result and it maybe doesn’t look that pretty, but it’s still entertainment because we put everything on the line and do whatever it takes to win.


Copa Libertadores

Just as we start to settle into the new season in Europe, across the globe in Brazil the 2018 season approaches its conclusion. Each side has 10 games left to play in the Brasileirão and just four points separate the top five.

The league doesn’t get much coverage in most parts of Europe, but you don’t have to keep up with the latest to know how much of a big deal the title race is in Brazil. In Europe, most league’s have the big teams that dominate for long periods, but in Brazil it is much more unpredictable.

Palmeiras are the current leaders on goal difference, with Internacional matching their tally of 53 points. Sao Paolo, Gremio and Flamengo are also in the race. Internacional were relegated in 2016, before making a quick return to the top flight when they finished second in Serie B last season. Now they’re one of the favourites to win the Championship again.

But the league is not the big trophy that every player wants to win more than anything else. In South America, the Copa Libertadores is the most prestigious trophy for a footballer. Like the Champions League in Europe, it’s the one that the players dream about winning, but you could argue that it’s an even bigger deal in South America.

Deco said he would exchange his two Champions League medals that he won with Porto and Barcelona for a Libertadores success. All the fans in the tournament even sing “The Copa Libertadores is my obsession.” The atmospheres are fierce and the games are heated and unpredictable. A tiny club called Independiente Del Valle, who were in Ecudaurs third tier a decade ago, knocked out Argentinian giants Boca Juniors and River Plate to reach the final in 2016.

That’s because the biggest players from the continent are usually snapped up by Europe’s big clubs, which keeps the playing field a lot more level and makes it hard for clubs to have long periods of success. Another thing is the difference in conditions in different parts of South America. Some clubs play at high altitude and clubs have to travel thousands of miles to reach opponents’ stadiums. When they get there the atmosphere is crazy and it’s not uncommon to see riot police by the side of the pitch. The tension in the air can affect even the most experienced players.

But that’s the beauty of football in South America. 10 different teams have won the Copa Libertadores in the last 10 years and it has become one of the most competitive tournaments in the world of football.

The quarterfinal second-legs take place this week and a few of the teams fighting for the Brazilian title are still in the competition. Palmeiras face Chile’s Colo-Colo and Gremio play Argentinas Atletico Tucuman, while Cruzeiro, who are 7th in the league, try to overcome a two-goal deficit against Boca Juniors.

We all know what the biggest stars from Brazil have done throughout history, and we always see new stars coming through and building a bigger dream elsewhere. This will continue because the mentality of the Brazilian is to always be better and to challenge themselves.

I will always have a connection to Brazil because if you love football, you have to enjoy when a new Brazilian star pops up.

The passion that lives in South America is a level you might never experience somewhere else, and that’s why they are so good at handling pressure on the bog stage.


One Step Behind

Chelsea’s perfect start to the season ended at five straight wins as the first points were dropped at West Ham. It means Liverpool go top of the Premier League as they managed to put three past Southampton to take maximum points from their opening six games. “They are a step forward of us at this moment … We have to work then maybe in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool,” said Sarri.

I totally agree with his statement. I don’t think the team is ready to weather every storm they need to if they want to win the title this season. As Sarri explained, Man City and Liverpool have had more time together, to build and become the teams they are right now. Sarri has been at Chelsea for less than two months, and will need more time to get onboard with his style and philosophy. He admits the teams is already showing improvements defensively, but more work is needed to improve in attack.

But this is the Premier League and time is never on your side when it comes to delivering top performances by a top team. The star man Hazard is looking happy again and that is exactly why it would not have made sense for Chelsea to let him go in the summer. He is scoring and he’s now the player with the experience and that level of responsibility in the dressing room and on the field that most big players have.

These players dominate with their football as much as they do verbally, and I think it all started to emerge with the Belgium national team. You would hear news come out of the Belgium camp about what he was saying and I thought, yes that is a captain.

Now it is time for the team to push on because this weekend is the game everyone has been looking forward to. The blues play Liverpool twice this week and the Carabao Cup game on Wednesday night will be a dress rehearsal for the big Premier League clash. It will be a big test for Chelsea, especially with the striking force that Liverpool possess. All players know how enjoyable it is to play against your old team as you try to show them what they are missing. Salah will the one doing whatever it takes to get Liverpool the win at Stamford Bridge and his battle with Alonso will be interesting.

We all know about Alonso and his qualities going forward because his goals and creative attacking ability are a joy to watch. But this weekend it will be his defending and pace that will be tested, and if Luis comes over to help they will both have their hands full. I always looked forward to playing against Liverpool because every club with a great history is so much more enjoyable to beat.


Crunch Match

It was one of the biggest matches of his career. There was a trophy at stake, but the real prize was something much more valuable.

In South Korea, it is compulsory for all men to attend military service for 21 months before they turn 28. After turning 26 last month, Son Heung-Min was running out of time and it looked like he would be taking a hiatus from the professional game, to swap the football boots for military boots. But there was one thing he and his teammates could do to avoid the service.

Being a world-class footballer does not exclude Korean’s from duty, but winning an Olympic medal, or a gold medal at the Asian games are the only ways South Korean footballers can become exempt. Son could have been made exempt in 2014 if he had played at the 2014 Asian Games, but Bayer Leverkusen refused his release at the time. South Korea went on to win gold, and the squad were allowed to continue their football careers without interruption.

A few other South Korean footballers have also managed to escape their duties. The squad that reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup were all given special exemptions. But for Son it all came down to the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.

South Korea had beaten Vietnam 3-1 in the semi-finals and faced Japan in the final. Both teams had played at the World Cup so both squads were familiar with eachother. Neither team could break the other down and after a goalless 90 minutes it went to extra time. Son knew that he would need to pull something out of the bag to return back to the Spurs camp and Premier League and Champions League football, and that’s exactly what he did.

In true Hollywood style, Son set up both of Korea’s extra time goals to win the game 2-1. Sone sank to his knees at the final whistle as everyone at Spurs sighed with relief. Son has been one of the key men at Spurs over the past few seasons.

This is a player you can’t keep your eyes off because he is full of determination, energy and surprises. You always see him unlock the door for Spurs by scoring a goal or setting one up. He’s very good at doing the simple things well and those are often the hardest. If Spurs are to go all the way this season they will need everyone including a confident Son to be firing at their best.

Bayern Munich have shown their interest in the midfielder, but Levy will want to keep hold of him unless he receives an offer he can’t refuse.

“As a footballer, this is not the limit of my ambitions. I think what’s important is the future, and I’ll try to accomplish what people want from me,” Son said.


Flying Hornets

Before the season kicked off, Watford’s primary goal for the season was the same as it has been since their promotion to the top tier in 2015. To avoid the drop, at all costs.

But four games into the new season and the board are worried that Javi Garcia’s will become a target of their Premier League rivals after their impressive start. The Hornets have a 100% record and sit pretty with Chelsea and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League. It’s the first time in the club’s history that they’ve won their opening four games, but they passed their toughest test on Sunday with a 2-1 win against Spurs.

It’s too early in the season to make any predictions, but Watford already have a third of the points that were needed to secure survival last season. The magic number to avoid the drop was just 34 points, but the teams battling to stay up will be aiming for 40 this time. With Watford’s current form they could achieve that by Christmas and be pushing for Europe. It sounds crazy, but all you have to do is look at what Burnley did last season. It could go completely the other way though. If the wheels come off and form dips they can find themselves in a tough spot, but Watford are one of those opponents that are always tough to play.

They might not have the world-class talent of the Big six, but the likes of Troy Deeney will make your afternoon as difficult as possible, and you could see the movement on both of their goals against Spurs.

Deeney has the perfect mentality for a captain and forward, and he’s the player you need in the team when the game’s not going according to plan. It’s easy to show the value of a player when a team is winning, but when it goes wrong you see it stand out even more, when the captain is the first to lead the attack and defence by demanding more from his team and showing that he is up for it.

Javi Garica has done a great job of using that to the advantage and build a team with the right qualities. He’s made sure Watford have the experience in defence and in goal, a physical midfield that is difficult to overrun, and the forwards that have the power and speed to give any team a hard time.

Watford have slowly built their team rather than trying to overhaul their squad with new players. Eight of the starters that faced Spurs were at the club in 2016, while captain Troy Deeney has been there since 2010. Watford even reached the semi-final of the FA Cup two years ago and now in their fourth consecutive PL season look like they’re serious about staying in the top flight.

It’s easy to draw parallels with Watford and the Leicester side that won the Premier League in their ‘miracle season.’ The season before they became Champions, Leicester placed 14th in Premier League, with 41 points and a record of 11 wins and 8 draws. Last season, Watford placed 14th with 41 points and the exact same record. But that’s almost certainly as far as the comparison can go. But it will be interesting to see how long their run will go on for, and where the Hornets will finish come May.

Their biggest enemy is the amount of games in the calendar, because they have been playing with the same players every game and that will give them something to think about when one or two pick up injuries or need to be rested. Let’s hope they keep their run going and stay in the mix after December, because that’s where most outsiders start to fall off.

But for now we will be watching them closely because the underdogs always bring the excitement.