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Back in the Premier League

Newcastle confirmed their return to the Premier League with a 4-1 win over Preston on Monday night. When they were relegated last season few would argue that they didn’t deserve to go down. The Magpies had been flirting with relegation for a few seasons and the club had declined from the days of European football.

But when Rafa Benitez announced he was committed to Newcastle the fans were optimistic and bought a record number of season tickets for a Championship club. Newcastle rarely showed signs they weren’t promotion contenders, never dropping lower than 4th since September.

Newcastle are a big club and they deserve to be in the Premier League, but it’s not as easy as Rafa made it look. Aston Villa are another big club that went down with Newcastle, and they’ve been stuck in mid-table, even as low as 20th at one stage in the season. They’re now 12th and 27 points behind Newcastle, which shows how difficult it can be in the Championship.

It will be interesting to see how Newcastle adjust back to Premier League football next season. Rafa is a great manager but will need investment to compete with the ever increasing quality.

Brighton’s promotion to the top tier was a little more surprising, but they thoroughly deserved it after becoming the league’s team to beat this season. Chris Hughton is another great manager and maybe he was underestimated. They have some good players like Anthony Knockaert who won the Championship’s player of the season after scoring 15 goals and 8 assists from midfield.

20 years ago Brighton were nearly relegated from to the 5th tier, saving themselves on the final day of the season. It’s great for the fans who stuck with them through it all, to see Premier League football next season.

The race for the final promotion spot is well and truly on now. The playoffs are always tense as so much rests on it, so they are a bit of a lottery.

Huddersfield have been consistently knocking on the door of automatic promotion all season and David Wagner looks like a top manager. Their form has dipped a little bit lately but they just need one win from their final three games to confirm a playoff spot. Reading have also been a strong team under Jaap Stam and it wasn’t too long ago when the Royals last tasted top flight football so they know what they need to do.

Sheffield Wednesday have won 5 on the bounce and are just coming into form at the right time and Fulham have been the league’s best team going forward scoring 82 goals in their 44 games so far. Leeds slipped up at the weekend and now have an uphill battle to claim the last playoff place. They need to win their final two games and hope somebody else goes winless.

The games are played frequently over the season to squeeze all 46 fixtures in. That’s why for the ones who think this league is easy should think twice because there aren’t many leagues that are as physically challenging.


The Title Race Is On!

The title race definitely just got a little shaken up.

More teams below the blues now believe they can catch up. It’s exciting for the neutral but as a Chelsea fan you’re thinking it’s almost done and dusted a few weeks back, but after this weekend you might start to feel the breath of Spurs on the back of your neck.

Conte admitted that Chelsea’s title chances had been reduced to “50 per cent probability” after the defeat to United. Spurs have won seven games in a row – 12 in a row at White Lane – to close the gap to just four points.

My dear friends are supporting Arsenal and Spurs. We’re all 3 on a group text so you can image the banter that flies around. One gets the “is your dad ever going to leave Arsenal?” jokes. The other one hears “you came so close and choked.” They tell me that I always play with 12 men because Conte never sits still and always joins in the game.

Now that the excitement is back in the title race, people are starting to enjoy it more. There are 6 games to go and Chelsea can’t afford to slip up.

I do think the game at Old Trafford was going to be a battle with so many last minute injuries. Then when the game started it took Chelsea to long to get out of United’s grip. They also didn’t play with the same levels of energy and killer instinct they normally have. But you have to give Mourinho credit for getting the tactics right. He knows that Chelsea team better than any other opposing manager and he used that to his advantage.

There is some other news that came out of the blue corner this week. John terry is going to leave Chelsea. We all know that all beautiful things must come to an end, and to enjoy it longer you need to create a new one.

But what a career JT has had. I remember him coming into the Chelsea dressing room being super shy, and years later he became the face of Chelsea because he was the guy the team and fans looked to if they need to dig deep for a win. He would always lead by example.

If John can use the same motivation and determination he had while playing for Chelsea I am sure he’ll be going somewhere exciting.

I wish him all the best #mmlove

Midfield Maestro

David Silva is a man that doesn’t need awards to be respected by the pros and ex-pros.

When you play every game and make it look that easy you know you have something that’s out of this world. When I look at Silva I always ask myself why his opponents don’t press him. When you give him so much time on the ball he will find the free man – but it’s not only finding the free man that makes him great. If he has three options he will always pick the one that can score a goal, where someone else would pick the player that is the obvious choice but also the safe one.

That’s why lots of people think football is easy – really it’s the pros job to make it look easy. But some look like they don’t even break a sweat, and Silva is a prime example.

I used to get frustrated seeing how people played against him, especially in the UK when I had the opportunity to see him more often on TV. But then I had a closer look and understood that they are trying their best to stay with him but he always finds the free space that will allow him to turn, look up and pick the right pass.

He’s the master of creating time. I understand why Pep holds him in the same bracket as Xavi and Iniesta. No matter how hard you hustle them you will get booked because they will frustrate you and then you end up tripping them.

David Silva is a master at that. Just when you think you got the ball he will use a little toe poke to push the ball from you, and you’re late. Yellow card.

I’ve always been a fan of the players that master time on the ball and I’ve practised it a number of times, and trust me, it ain’t easy but it helps. Silva has it naturally. He knows where the free space is to receive the ball and have it under control within seconds. He also knows what he’s going to do with it before he gets it.

Try it the next time you play and you might get it for 20 minutes straight, which goes to show how difficult it is to do it for 90. And good luck because you’ll need it.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.