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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.


Can Mourinho Fix United?

I don’t think firing top managers early in the season is ever a good thing.

Mourinho has not got the results that everyone expects from a team like United – it’s the club’s worst start to a league season in 26 years, after picking up just three points from their opening three games. When Jose was appointed, everyone at the club wanted trophies. He has brought some but now they naturally want more to relive the greatest years like Sir Alex did in his legendary time at the helm, where the side not only won games, but played attractive football as well.

Over the years, Mourinho has always been about one thing only – winning trophies. He’s not been known for playing the most beautiful game, but the most effective one. That is fine because you would think “who cares?” when you’re in that moment of lifting the trophy at the end of the season. But things have changed and the neighbours aren’t the same team that United have cast a shadow over for so long.

City are the new team to watch and have successfully brought in the superstars along with a world-class manager that is devoted to making his side the mean team in Manchester. The City brand is slowly building into the global brand that United have built over the past few decades.

Football is more than just winning on the field because it’s a capital gain business. That’s a game that Man United have played better than anyone in recent years, with so many big brands wanting to associate with the club when they have been winning trophies, and their revenues have kept growing as a result. But City are starting to catch up.

The Skyblues aren’t going to overtake the empire that United has built in a couple of years – United are the richest club in the world ahead of Real Madrid, Barca and Bayern, while City are ranked as the 5th richest club today, and according to Forbes United’s operating profit was almost 50% more than any other club in the world last season. But City are growing fast and their platform of having a team around the globe is helping them understand the market better and faster.

Now that Mourinho isn’t winning games, the pressure is on both the field and also behind the scenes for the brand. I always said it; Mourinho is a great manager and his best times were at Inter and Chelsea (first time around) because he had great strikers and always three top wingers that had pace and could score goals. This set up worked perfectly with his approach of sitting deep, and he could overpower teams that were trying any type of tactic against him. That has changed because it seems like on the past few occasions he has been struggling to find the perfect right winger to create the balance his team needs. That’s why he was trying to bring Willian over from Chelsea.

He has always been in control of the press but in this last conference they got under his skin too much, and that’s not the Mourinho I know, who juggles the press and his team so that he can stay calm and relaxed. He maybe doesn’t have all the players he wanted, and City and the big rivals Liverpool are both looking good, but I still think he has enough to get his team going.

He just needs to make them play like a team again – a team that are hard to break down defensively rather than one with the open style of play that people want to see. He needs to stop focussing on things happening outside the training ground, because the more you focus on something else the less likely you are to see the real problem.

I strongly believe he can turn things around. It will take some work, but he has enough experience to weather the storm.


Cherries On Top

10 years ago Bournemouth had just begun the new season in League Two with -17 points, which had been docked for financial problems. It was a dire position to be in and relegation out of the football league looked almost certain for the Cherries.

Just after Christmas, with the club struggling on and off the pitch, and many points between them and safety, Bournemouth brought in a new manager. The man they chose had been at the club as a player since 1995, before becoming a youth-team coach and then caretaker manager. Despite his two games as caretaker boss both ending with defeat, Eddie Howe was appointed as the permanent manager.

And it turned out to be the best decision by the board, with Howe bringing Bournemouth out of the relegation and into safety. And it was all uphill from there. The following season the Cherries earned promotion to League One despite having a transfer embargo. He took a job at Burnley soon after that, but returned to Bournemouth the following season.

Again, Howe helped the club earn promotion by finishing runners-up in League One. It only took two Championship seasons and Bournemouth were in the Premier League. It had taken the club just seven seasons to rise from the depths of League Two to the Premier League, and Eddie Howe had been there for most of the journey. Now that Arsene Wenger has left Arsenal, Howe is the current longest-serving manager in the Premier League, as well as the youngest. And like Wenger, the legacy he is building at the club could be felt for years.

With the money the club has made from three seasons in the PL, Bournemouth are looking to build a new stadium and training ground, and they have just broken their transfer record by bringing in Jefferson Lerma for £25m. Eddie Howe says he wants more, including a run in the FA Cup, and if they can maintain their PL status for a few more seasons they will be able to invest in more talent and new facilities that will only see them improve.

The TV money has come in at a perfect time for a club like Bournemouth. The money can make such a difference to the smaller clubs, whereas the bigger clubs already had financial power, so although it helps it isn’t a game changer the way it is for smaller clubs.

Bournemouth have done a great job of building a good team, instead of getting random star players so that the side looks good on paper. I think that’s one of the things that hurts most teams battling to survive in the PL. When you don’t have the financial support like a Man Utd or a Man City you need to be smart with your transfers. That is one of the reasons why, if Bournemouth keep slowly and smartly building their squad and don’t get carried away, they should have a great season again. And soon enough a new stadium will be waiting.


The Premier League Is Back!

We were only without football for a few weeks this summer, but the transfer window has closed, the Premier League is back and the race for the title is underway. A new season is always an exciting time for players and fans, as we start to see how teams are shaping up, from the reigning champions to the newly promoted.

Man City’s campaign was off to a perfect start as Pep Guardiola hopes to become the first manager since Sir Alex to win back-to-back PL titles. At times it looks like City have had no summer break, playing just as well as they had at the end of last season. Pep says they will only get better, but no team has won the PL twice in a row since Man United in 2008, so it will be interesting to see if City can keep up their standards for another season.

It’s clear that Arsenal will need time to adapt to Unai Emery’s style of play, and fans will need to patient as the club brings in new players that fit his system. It could be a few years before the team starts to shape up exactly how Emery wants it, but an opener against City was never going to be easy, so they could have seen a lot worse than a 2-0 defeat.

Chelsea’s trip to Huddersfield saw the debut of Kepa Arizzabalaga, who after a nervy start grew with confidence and left with a clean sheet. The blues did struggle too much for me during the first half though, and that’s never good so let’s hope it’s just because they are building. I am happy Hazard stayed because without him, the team would have a tough time this season. He will also help us lure more stars to the club. It’s too early to judge Sarri but it won’t be an easy one this season.

Huddersfield looked positive in much of the first half but they are likely to be in for another tough season. They stayed in the PL in dramatic style last time out, and it could go down to the wire again for the Terriers.

Jurgen Klopp will be one of the happiest managers after the opening weekend. His side take an early lead in the table after their 4-0 victory over West Ham, with goals from Mo Salah, Sadio Mané and Sturridge, who scored with his first touch in a Liverpool shirt since last December. It was a great moment for him and he of course brought out the famous dance in celebration.

If Sturridge can keep fit and get back to his best he could become a key cog Liverpool’s set up this season. Salah is under pressure to perform after last season’s amazing hoard of 44 goals, but he looked comfortable and confident, while Mane and Firmino also looked sharp. The new man Keita also looked impressive in midfield and offers a lot to the team, from his strength and pace to his vision and dribbling.

Wolves are the new boys that everyone has their eye on, with their ambitions to finish in the top half of the table. They’ve brought in some talent to build on already impressive side and the star man Ruben Neves has already shown early signs he is capable of stepping up to the Premier League with a great free-kick and assist against Everton. Some eyebrows were raised when Everton bought Richarlison for £50m, but the young Brazilian showed his abilities with a brace at Molineux.

The teams that are expected to start well have done in the opening week. Klopp has built his squad and this is the season they need to go for it, because he has the team to do it. Spurs also kept their game together, and if they don’t slip up during a crucial moment in the season, they could be closer to winning it.

Man City will be disappointed with anything less than winning the title again, but Mourinho in particular, will do whatever it takes to make sure Pep doesn’t win back-to-back titles. United are always the talked about team and that’s the way Jose likes it.



Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Juventus was the big news of the summer transfer window. Ronaldo has been the star man at Real Madrid for 9 years, writing himself into the history books at the prestigious club. There was lots of speculation around why he wanted to move, it might have come down to agreements or personal issues with Perez, but whatever the reason it is an exciting new challenge for Ronaldo after 9 glittering seasons in La Liga.

Juve paid €130m for Cristiano, but within 24 hours of his arrival they had sold €60m worth of shirts with the superstars name on the back. They’ve now completely sold out of shirts that they had planned to sell over the whole season, before the first match has even kicked off. That’s the effect Ronaldo can have on merchandise, but we’re yet to see his impact on the field with Serie A kicking off next week.

“After the experiences in Manchester and in Madrid, I’d like to mark the history of Juventus,” he said after signing. Nobody will doubt that he will leave his mark in Italy. in 438 games for Real, Ronnie scored 450 goals, had 138 assists and won the Champions League four times in five years. It feels like he was breaking a new record every week at some stages.

He also won four Ballon d’Ors in Madrid and it will be interesting to see if he can win any more at the age of 33+.

After his medical at Juventus, staff said that he still had the physical capability of a 20-year-old. We all know that Ronaldo is the ultimate athlete and works harder than anyone, but that is crazy at the age of 33.

Who knows how many more seasons Ronaldo has in his tank, but one thing we all know is that he’s going to keep scoring and winning trophies for the Old Lady. Juve have wone Serie A seven times in a row, and four consecutive league and cup doubles. The only trophy missing is the Champions League, which they haven’t won since 1995. I will never forget that because it was the final they beat Ajax and it was my first time with the first team.

Juve have made the final twice in the last few years but it was Ronaldo who has stood in their way. Now they have him on their side they might be able to go one better and lift the cup.

Italian football is slower and more defensive than La Liga, but Ronaldo has done it time and again against the best teams in Italy un the UCL so we know he won’t struggle to adapt.

He says: “I’m going to try to show that I am a top player, as usual. I’m going to work hard in training. I don’t think I have to show what I am more than that – you know my stats. But I am very ambitious and I like challenges. I don’t like to stay in my comfort zone, I like to seize new challenges.”

They will challenge him a lot more and the Italian defenders can be tough, but because of the new regulations I think it’ll be hard for the defenders and I hope we can see him shine as usual. The game needs superstars like him to do well and I have no doubt that Ronaldo can do it again.

When you have a mindset like his, you have to look for new challenges and set new goals for yourself, and who is better at that than Ronaldo.

I don’t think Juve was a hard pick. It’s a great team that has been at the top for a long time. Some will say the Italian league isn’t as competitive, but I have played against Italian teams and it was never easy. The Champions League will be the big competition that everyone will be excited to watch, with more eyes on Juve than ever.


Managers in the Making

Thierry Henry was the centre of speculation last week when it was reported that he had verbally agreed to become the manager of Aston Villa. Arsenal’s all-time top scorer left his punditry role at the end of last season to focus more on his coaching role with Roberto Martinez for the Belgium national side, where he helped to take the Red Devils all the way to the semi-finals.

But amid all the rumors the new Aston Villa owners came out and said that they were backing Steve Bruce, and he would stay in the hot seat at Villa Park. It wasn’t Henry’s time to show what he’s got just yet, but the Frenchman has said that management is his long-term ambition and I’m sure many fans would like to see him at their club.

But being a great player doesn’t always translate to instant success as a manager. Gary Neville found that out with his brief spell at Valencia a couple of years ago. It was always going to be tough for Neville in Spain as he doesn’t speak fluent Spanish and the expectation at a club like that is huge for a manager with no experience.

Alan Shearer also had a tough time in his managerial job at Newcastle. Shearer is the Premier League’s all-time top scorer and one of England’s best ever players, but he couldn’t save the Magpies from relegation in 2009. He took charge with eight games to play and won just five points from a possible 24, as Newcastle were relegated to the Championship. I would be interested to see if these two would consider another go at management because they have learned a lot more now.

Maradona is another famous example, as he took charge of Argentina in 2008. He oversaw a 6-1 defeat to Bolivia in World Cup qualifying, and despite making it through and winning his opening games of the tournament, was exposed by a 4-0 defeat to Germany in the quarterfinals.

Being a manager is one of the toughest gigs in sport and today there’s no room for failure. If you have a streak of bad results there is instant pressure from the media, the fans and eventually the board, and there is always somebody waiting to take your place. Patience isn’t a word in the dictionaries at most football clubs now and they demand instant impact.

Some of the world’s top managers today were great players not so long ago, so we know that is possible to carry that success through from the pitch to the sideline. Zidane, Guardiola, Simeone and Pochettino have all been doing amazing things since retiring as players not too long ago.

And now there are two Premier League greats who do have the opportunity to show their managerial prowess this season. Super Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard has already shown his passion and demand for high standards at Rangers when he revealed he gave his players a half-time rant in their friendly with Wigan. It seemed to work too as his team came out and scored three in the second-half to win 3-0. After five games in charge, his side are still yet to concede a goal and are on track to qualify for the Europa League.

Gerrard was a very intelligent player that could be tough when he needed to be. Now he’ll need to use those attributes to build a solid team and keep them motivated.

Lampard has a long season ahead of him with Derby and the Championship is one of the toughest leagues now with so many clubs challenging for promotion. The board will likely expect Frank to reach the playoffs and it won’t be easy, but Lampard is a winner and has the leaders mentality to drive his players to be the best they can be.

I think bringing Jody Morris onboard was one of the best moves for Lampard. You need good staff that you can trust and that bring quality to areas that you might lack as a new manager. If someone knows about the next upcoming stars it’s Jody, and he has done well for Chelsea’s youth academy helping them win a number of trophies. Now that he’s Frank’s assistant I hope they will stick together for a long-time and build something great.


The Modric Story

Five years ago when Luka Modric signed for Real Madrid from Spurs for €40m, the Croatian was voted as the worst signing of the season in a La Liga poll. Many fans said he was a flop after scoring just one goal and playing an average of 35 minutes per game during the first half of the season.

Fast forward to summer 2018 and Modric has just been awarded the World Cup Golden Ball after leading Croatia to a World Cup final. He has also been instrumental in Real Madrid’s three consecutive Champions League victories, and after Ronaldo’s exit is now seen as Madrid’s most important player by many. He is now selling more shirts than any other Real Madrid player, and Barcelona fans voted that he would be the player they would most want to steal from their rivals.

He’s one of the top midfielders in the world today, and his story is extraordinary. Modric grew up during the Balkan war, and when he was six years old his grandfather, who was a soldier, was shot and killed near his home. His family fled the area to and became refugees, and their home was burned to the ground after they left. Luka and his family lived in a hotel for seven years, and it was in the hotel car park where he ran around with a ball practicing.

He says playing football in the streets helped him take his mind off the brutal realities happening in the war zones not far away, and he and his sister even had to look out for mines as they walked down the streets. Modric says his experiences made him stronger and shaped him as a person, and maybe a reason why he has risen to such great heights. He was rejected by a few clubs when he was a youth because he was considered too small and weak, but he eventually earned a contract with Dinamo Zagreb when he was 16, after impressing at a tournament in Italy.

He still hadn’t made it though, and it took a loan spell in Bosnia for Zagreb to realise his worth. Modric was voted best player in the Bosnian Premier League and was given a long-term contract at Zagreb. This allowed him to buy a flat for his family and he later won the league with Zagreb in his first full season. It wasn’t long before the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal showed an interest, but Luka was patient and went with a move to Spurs instead.

He spent four years in London, and initially, there were concerns as some pundits and rival managers said he was too much of a lightweight for the Premier League. “Critics push you forward to show people they are wrong. Maybe I look lightweight but I am a really strong person mentally and physically,” was his response. And he did prove them wrong, becoming a key player for Spurs before becoming a Galactico and signing for Madrid.

That mental toughness was also apparent when he missed a penalty for Croatia against Denmark in the last 16 of the World Cup, before scoring his penalty in the decisive shootout.

When you have the technique and the vision that he has, you play like you don’t feel pressure. He will ask for the ball even when he is in the tightest of situations, and he still manages to get himself out of it. Having a player like that in the team means you know you will play great football – he has the ability to influence the team just like a caption or a top goal scorer.

Real Madrid do need to find a good replacement for Ronaldo though, because good ball-playing midfielders like Modric need attackers that think and play alike, or they will be lost in who to give the ball to.