Category Archives: Ramblings of a Football Anorak

3 Dark Horse countries who could win the World Cup

world cup

The FIFA World Cup is drawing ever closer, with excitement really starting to build on amongst the entire football fraternity. The ongoing international friendlies give every coach a chance to try and test different players, tactics and formations before he jets for Russia.

There are clear favourites to win the tournament, as world powers look likely to march ahead in the tournament. While there will be no end of discussion and chattering about favourties for the glitz and glamour event, there are also going to be teams that would surely love to spring a surprise in Russia.

It is always easy to predict the favourites but much more difficult to expect how well the ‘dark horse’ teams will perform in Russia this year. Of the 32 teams qualified for the World Cup, I have identified three teams that will enter the tourney as ‘dark horses’ and stun the bystanders, making the betting and prediction even harder.  Here are the three teams I feel have a great chance to defy the odds and can beat most of the teams in their group.

  1. Egypt

Egypt will enter the World Cup on excellent form and boasting in their lineup will be an incredibly gifted player capable of dragging his team single-handedly to World Cup glory. That name is Mohamed Salah, Egypt’s best player by a country mile. The Liverpool winger has been a revelation in the Premier League this campaign and has earned a lot of plaudits.

Salah has the potential to pull his team deep into the tournament and punch above his weight during the group phase that will have the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uruguay. That by any means and that leaves Egypt with a golden opportunity to go deep in the tournament. But for defying the odds, they will surely need their charismatic figure to deliver in every single game.

  1. Croatia

Croatia are a well-oiled side than many think but will face a daunting task when they will come up against Brazil, Nigeria and Iceland. While Nigeria and Iceland have all the artillery to spring a surprise, Brazil considered as hot favourites in the World Cup, where does it leave Croatia?

The Croatians have nothing to fear and in Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic, they have a formidable side any team on their day. They will surely draw love from their fans and that should be enough for Croatia to make a mark, and who knows, can go onto win the World Cup.

  1. Australia

It would be the biggest shock in World Cup history if Australia made it to the World Cup final, but they may just have a better tournament than expected. The ‘Socceroos’ have managed to qualify for every FIFA World Cup since 2006 but they have failed to lay down a marker.

In the 2014 World Cup, Australia locked horns with the likes of Chile, Netherlands and Spain in the group phase, failing to win a single game. However, the fans will feel the current side have come a long way from their last dismal outing in the World Cup.

This time around against the likes of France, Peru and Denmark, the Socceroos have a brilliant chance to progress from the group stage and once they enter the knockouts, can upset anyone they face.

Can Leeds Return to The Glory Days or Is It Just a Pipe Dream?

Can Leeds Return to The Glory Days or Is It Just a Pipe Dream?

 

Leeds United fell hard and fast. In the blink of an eye, they went from Champions League semi-finalists to League One. Unlike Wolves, they stopped the rot on the pitch, only for an infestation in the boardroom to erode the club’s soul.

The fans never gave up, for which the club should be grateful but rarely show any appreciation of. They believed better times lay ahead, even with storm clouds permanently stationed about the West Yorkshire city.

Elland Road, a seething cauldron, spoiled on glory, refused to bow under the pressure as the lunatics ran amok in the asylums. And now, the faithful may be rewarded with a run into the promotion play-offs. Can 2017-18 be the year when the Phoenix rises from the ashes?

To return to the glory days, you must know when they were. Dominant in the late 1960s through to mid-70s, Leeds were champions twice and runners-up five times. FA Cup winners, League Cup winners (when it was a trophy worth winning), Fairs Cup winners and losing finalists in the Cup Winners Cup and Champions Cup.

At once, they were one of England’s most feared and despised teams.

Twenty years on and they were champions again; still hated outside of their home city but the last champions of the Football League. The Premier League brought with it reflected glory as David O’Leary’s vibrant team became a fixture in the European places.

Leeds United Team in Champions League Semi Finals vs Valencia
Leeds United Team in Champions League Semi Finals vs Valencia

He led them to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup and Champions League, the former overshadowed by tragedy when two Leeds fans were callously murdered in Istanbul. A year later, Valencia ended the fairy tale with a crushing win in the Mestalla.

That’s real glory. Can Leeds return to those heights or is glory now becoming a permanent fixture in the Premier League?

If promotion is hard, staying in the top flight is harder still. Brighton, Huddersfield and Newcastle are all struggling to do that with arguably better squads than Leeds currently have. Youth and enthusiasm are on United’s side but there’s a gap to top of the table Wolverhampton Wanderers which doesn’t lie.

The current squad, a mix of enthusiastic players and loanees but is it Premier League quality? If you look at the players brought in, on permanent deals or just for the season, the test is how many would make it in the top flight? How many are coveted? While that isn’t by any means a definitive benchmark, it’s an indicator of quality.

Standing them in good stead is the way Thomas Christiansen integrated a high turnover of players into the first team. Leeds will need the same next season if they reach the Premier League, leaving the XI almost unrecognisable from that which takes the field now. They can win promotion but almost certainly face the drop immediately.

Goals are an issue, but the weakness is also a strength. Kemar Roofe is their leading scoring with six this season in the Championship. As a number, it’s at the level where a team in a division higher is generally struggling.

However, Roofe is part of a multi-pronged attack, with goals coming from all areas of the pitch. Alioski, Phillips, Lasogga, and Saiz all have five goals each in the league. Leeds strength is that they are not reliant upon one player for goals; they have a number who can score, making them difficult to defend against.

If only they were so tight at the back. Conceding more than a goal per game on average will slow progress, as it is now. Four of their defeats this season have been by a single goal margin; scoring once might have been enough to win a game in Revie’s era but the current group are not modelled to defend that way.

Despite reaching seventh, there’s a feeling Leeds have yet to hit form. The seven-match unbeaten start to the season is very much a distant memory. Since then, two three-match runs of defeats punctured the promotion balloon, allowing the air to seep out.

Deflating as they were, hope is once more rising. The draw at home to Aston Villa was the prelude to back-to-back wins over QPR and Hull; Leeds are coming again and face a Christmas programme which will surely see them take a maximum twelve points from the four games.

The Championship is a division in which the promotion race changes fast and a strong run in the second half of the season could secure an automatic place. From thereon in, they need the owners to develop deep pockets if the visit to the Premier League is to be anything but a short stay.

 

Kevin De Bruyne – From Being A Chelsea Reject To Becoming A Modern-day Great

Manchester City have been in spectacular form throughout the season and are the favourites to win the Premier League title, having received numerous accolades for their performances. Their attack continues to be regarded as the best in the league right now and rightfully so. After all, very few teams can boast of having players like Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and David Silva. However, one player who has been a stand-out performer this time is Kevin De Bruyne.

Once rejected by defending champions Chelsea, De Bruyne has enjoyed a meteoric rise to where he is today. Upon initially joining the Sky Blues, the player took a lot of time to settle in. He did not hit the ground running but he made a place for himself eventually and is now indispensable to the squad’s success. Not only has he carved a spot for himself in the hearts of the Manchester City faithful, De Bruyne has also impressed all the critics and rival fans with his fantastic displays.

In 19 appearances for City across competitions, De Bruyne has scored 5 goals and provided 10 assists. Stats may not always paint a clear picture but in this case, it surely does. He recently became the fastest midfielder to be involved in 50 goals for Manchester City and it goes to show how far he has come in his career. De Bruyne is impacting the game in ways that is truly commendable and it is safe to say that he is arguably in his best form in a City jersey.

It is not just De Bruyne’s numbers that look so impressive. His displays on the field continue to shock and awe many, especially with the way he applies his masterful touches to maintain fluidity in the game. When it comes to midfielders in modern football, most of them are either good at executing or they are good thinkers. The young Belgian maestro boasts of both these qualities in abundance and he continues to improve under Pep Guardiola’s watchful eye.

Considering his growth and influence right now, it is baffling as to why Chelsea let him leave in the first place. The Blues have not been the best at recognizing and honing young talent over the years and De Bruyne seems to be the perfect example of that. Interestingly, Antonio Conte’s men are quite weak in the midfield area whenever N’golo Kante is absent. Even if the former Leicester City man is a part of the match-day squad, he cannot make as much of an impact to their attack like De Bruyne does for Manchester City. As far as Chelsea’s other options go, Cesc Fabregas is more of a thinker while Tiemoue Bakayoko is better at executing. Things have not turned out the best way for the summer arrival, while Danny Drinkwater is also yet to make an impact.

It might seem like Chelsea have many options in the middle of the park but unfortunately, none of them have lived up to their billing – except perhaps Kante. One can attribute most of their troubles to their midfield woes this time and it is ironic that a player rejected by them is working wonders at a rival club in the same area.

To make matters worse for the Stamford Bridge club, they were subjected to more than a glimpse of his lethal attacking prowess as Manchester City paid them a visit. The champions-elect were brutally dominating the Blues but the match was still goal-less until the last half-an-hour or so. And then De Bruyne unleashed his true form against his former club. The player linked beautifully with teammate Gabriel Jesus on the edge of the box and they were simply too fast for any of the Chelsea defenders. Before they could even react, De Bruyne struck the ball straight into the net and there was nothing Thibaut Courtois could do to stop him.

In fact, it is not just De Bruyne’s individual brilliance that has been excellent. The midfielder has been a blessing for the likes of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling. Adept at making accurate passes even in the most challenging situations, Sane and Sterling only need to be speedy enough and De Bruyne finds them with his sublime passes. The 26-year-old makes things happen for City at all times and he does it in a way that nobody else in Guardiola’s squad can. It almost seems like he is so much more than their chief playmaker at this point. He can find spaces even when there are none and he makes these passes which often seem impossible.

De Bruyne has already established himself as one of the best midfielders in the Premier League this season but if he is to achieve a similar status across Europe, he needs to win trophies. Considering the situation right now, Manchester City seem like the strongest title-challenger but we have a long way to go and the league is known for being highly unpredictable. One injury can change everything for a team or a player but if De Bruyne can manage to continue like this, the Sky Blues might just lift the coveted league trophy at the end of the season. If that happens, it will be a major step for the golden-haired midfielder towards securing the status of a superstar across Europe.

From being a Chelsea reject to becoming a modern-day superstar for Manchester City, De Bruyne has certainly come a long way. When he joined the Citizens from Wolfsburg back in 2015, nobody expected him to achieve so much in such a short amount of time. If he continues playing like a well-tuned symphony under Guardiola’s tutelage, there is no limit to what De Bruyne can achieve in the future.

Match Preview – Aston Villa vs QPR

Aston Villa entertain QPR at Villa Park tomorrow in what is certain to be a tense 90 minutes for all involved.

Harry Redknapp’s men can go to within one point of the villains with a win at Villa Park, following consecutive league victories at Southampton and at home to Sunderland.

The products of Redknapp’s January transfers were prominent in last weekend’s 3-1 win over Sunderland, with both Andros Townsend and Jermaine Jenas on target in a result which left the hoops level on points with second from bottom Reading.

Rangers have injury concerns over a number of first teamers heading into the game.  However, Armand Traore, Adel Taraabt and Julio Cesar are all expected to return in tim to face Villa, with only Tal Ben Haim and Andrew Johnson confirmed to be missing.

Paul Lambert’s Villa themselves go into the game off the back of a positive result, having beaten Reading 2-1 in a ‘relegation 6 pointer’ last weekend.  Villa won the game through goals from Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor, although whether or not the Benteke strike was in fact a Stephen Kelly own goal is still open to debate.

Lambert too has injury concerns over several of his squad, with only Darren Bent and Karim El Ahmadi standing a chance of being fit for their second ‘relegation 6 pointer’ in a week.  For the likes of Chris Herd, Richard Dunne, Gary Gardner and Marc Albrighton this game will come just too soon.

This match is set to be a tense affair with no player wishing to make a mistake so close to the end of the season, but this game will offer incredible drama, particularly for the neutral as both clubs fight to survive the Premier League drop.

Aaron Sharp

Ryan Nelsen looks to familiar ground for signings

Following his appointment in January at Canadian side Toronto FC, former Blackburn, Spurs and QPR defender Ryan Nelsen has turned to pastures old when signing new recruits.

Nelsen’s four signings since taking the Toronto hot seat have all come from England, a part of the world that New Zealander Nelsen knows very well landed on our shores with Blackburn Rovers following his move from D.C. United.

Nelsen has recruited John Bostock, a player he would have seen at close quarters from his time with Spurs.  Bostock, a player who showed bundles of promise as a teenager at Crystal Palace, appears to have gone backwards since moving to White Hart Lane and has endured a succession of loan spells with an array of football league clubs.

Nelsen also raided another of his old clubs, in persuading winger come forward Hogan Ephraim to make the switch from Queens Park Rangers.  Ephraim has been a victim of the cash injection made by Tony Fernandes at Loftus Road and has fallen down the pecking order behind an influx of big name signings.

In addition to Bostock and Ephraim, Nelsen has added a couple of experienced head to his squad in the form of Darel Russell and Rob Earnshaw.  Russell, a League winner last season with Charlton Athletic, moves from Portsmouth.  While Earnshaw, the only player to score a hat trick in the Premier League, all three divisions of the football league, the FA Cup, League Cup and at International level was a free agent having left hometown club Cardiff City at the end of January.

Aaron Sharp

English goalkeeping on a high

Over the past two years, Manchester City keeper Joe Hart has earned a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. 

Although comparisons with the likes of Gigi Buffon may still be slightly premature, Hart is sure to be pushed all the way at International level by a wave of both emerging and resurrecting keepers.

West Brom keeper Ben Foster has recently re-flung his hat into the England ring, having previously retired from International football when the national team was under the stewardship of Fabio Capello.  Foster has enjoyed a second consecutive fine season with the baggies, playing a major role in Steve Clarke’s men’s early emergence in the Champions League positions.

North of the boarder, Celtic number 1 Fraser Forster has made the step up to star on the big stage this season, turning in a man of the match performance in the hoops historic 2-1 home vectory over Barcelona at Celtic Park in the Champions League.  Forster is yet to make his England debut, but has been called into two of Roy Hodgson’s squads to date.

Norwich’s John Ruddy was perhaps surprisingly called into England’s squad for Euro 2012 before being ruled out of the tournament with a broken finger.  Ruddy’s call up came as no suprise to the Norwich fans who have seen the consistently dependable performances from the ex Everton stopper.

Perhaps the most long term challenger to Hart is going to be Jack Butland.  Butland benefitted from the injury to Ruddy to take his place in England’s Euro 2012 squad at the age of just 19.  Butland has enjoyed a whirlwind past 12 months which has seen him represent Team GB at London 2012, become arguably the best goalkeeper outside of the Premier League with Birmingham before his January move to Stoke City, a deal which included a loan back to Birmingham for the remainder of the season and making his full England debut against Italy in Berne.

Not only are all of these keepers showing the ability to push Joe Hart for the number one shirt, they are all still relatively young for a goalkeeper, with Foster the oldest at just 29.  These keepers are all set to get better as they get older, and that can only be a good thing for English goalkeeping.

Aaron Sharp

Nottingham Forest – This season’s ‘momentum’ team

Every season one team comes from nowhere to mount a serious promotion challenge.  Will that tag fall on Nottingham Forest this season?

Forest promised so much for this season after a summer of investment from the Al-Hasawi family.  Manager Sean O’Driscoll assembled a squad that on paper many had down a certainties to be in the promotion shake up come May.

After an indifferent first half of the season which had Forest languishing in mid table, O’Driscoll was sacked on Boxing Day after an excellent 4-2 home win over Leeds United.  The Forest owners turned to former manager Billy Davies in an attempt to realise their talented squads potential.

Since his return to the city ground, Davies has masterminded wins in each of their last five games which has left Forest sat in 6th place in the Championship with just 9 games remaining.

Last season, eventual champions Reading were relegation candidates after the first two months of the season but were to go and a mammoth winning run on their road to the Premier League.  We have seen it season after season that one club comes from absolutely nowhere, timing their run to the promotion places to perfection, and more often than not, will find themselves playing Premier League football at the start of the next season.

Aaron Sharp

Does Jonjo Shelvey need to leave Liverpool?

Having recently falling down the midfield pecking order at Anfield, could Jonjo Shelvey benefit from a fresh start away from Merseyside?

There has been speculation recently about a reported bid from Stoke City, although it is believed that Liverpool’s valuation of the player was not met, with the Reds reportedly holding out for £7m.

Shelvey burst on the scene at just 16-years-old at Charlton Athletic and was quick to thrust into a regular starting berth under then manager Alan Pardew.  Even at such a tender age, Shelvey showed all the makings of a potential top player.  He had a superb engine with a deft touch and his eye of a pass was sharp.  He also had an eye for a goal, becoming the clubs youngest ever goalscorer scoring from 20-yards out against Norwich City in the FA Cup at the Valley before he had turned 17.

After two full seasons with the Addicks, Liverpool came calling and signed Shelvey for an initial fee of £1.7m in May 2010.  Since then, Shelvey has had to prove himself to three different managers and although Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish both used him in their squads it was current manager Brendan Rodgers who has seemed most keen on Shelvey, leading him to have made almost 30 first team appearances this term.

However, January signings Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho have meant a slight change in the way Liverpool way.  Steven Gerrard has been deployed slightly deeper and the resurgences shown by Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen, as well as the return from injury of Lucas Leiva have all conspired against Shelvey.

At 21-years-old and having made his full England debut this season, it may be of benefit to the player to seek regular starts at pastures new.  The man dubbed by many upon his arrival at Anfield as the ‘Next Steven Gerrard’ risks his career becoming stagnant at Liverpool, which would be a waste of such great potential.

Aaron Sharp