Valencia must have greeted this weekend’s guests to Mestalla with a frustrated sigh of ‘that could have been us.’ Atletico Madrid visited the sunny south-east and came away with three points that put them top of the table for the first time since January thanks to goals from the French pairing of Antoine Griezmann and Kevin Gameiro.
Sunday’s encounter showed us clearly how starkly contrasting both sides’ last five years have been.
As recently as 2011/12, Valencia were somewhat secure in their position as Spain’s third best team. Led by now PSG boss Unai Emery, Los Che finished 3rd three seasons running, with Atleti just another team struggling to consistently qualify for the European spots along with Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, and Villarreal in La Liga’s “second tier.”
Just two years on from Valencia being top dogs of the “second tier,” Atletico were top dogs of the first, realising the astonishing achievements that Los Che so dearly wanted – breaking the Barca-Madrid duopoly and stunning the world by winning La Liga.
The home side weren’t without their chances. On Sunday, Diego Alves did what he does best and saved not one, but two penalties, keeping his team in the game. Five years ago, they had the chance to solidify their stance as Champions League regulars, but instead blew it with impatience and board-level turbulence.
Unai Emery’s fantastic achievement of managing Valencia to 3rd place between 2009/10, 2010/11, and 2011/12 was just not deemed good enough for the fans who wanted to compete with the 100-point chasing Barcelona and Real Madrid. Valencia fans are known for being a difficult bunch to please, and some of the quickest fans in Spain at releasing the infamous white handkerchiefs of disgust that somehow now seem as common as the white jersey at Mestalla.
Valencia earned 71, 71, and 61 points in those 3rd place seasons, falling a significant way behind the title-chasers but during a period when Barca and Madrid pushed each other to almost unbelievable record-setting new heights. Both teams, and perhaps Spanish football as a whole, were playing to peak levels and dominating football both domestically and in Europe. Emery surely cannot be blamed for being unable to shake that duopoly up.
However, the feeling on the coast was that Valencia had become stagnant, showing no signs of progression in an environment where the team should have been flourishing. In his final season at Mestalla, Emery’s Valencia did finish with 10 points fewer than the previous campaigns. So he left, eventually for Sevilla and three consecutive Europa Leagues, and Valencia chose Mauricio Pellegrino to be the man to take the project forward.
He was sacked by December, and impatience with managers has come to define Valencia’s last five years. Cesare Prandelli has just been named as their 10th manager since Emery’s departure.
They had another chance to reestablish themselves among Europe’s elite in 2015, after Nuno Espiritu Santo guided them back into the Champions League. In Nuno’s first and only full season at the club Mestalla was restored as a fortress, with Barcelona the only visiting team to claim victory there all season (thanks to a 94th minute goal).
That season’s heroics came largely thanks to the brilliant defensive partnership of Shkodran Mustafi and Nicolas Otamendi. But like so many other brilliant players before him, Otamendi left the club the following summer, leaving a noticeable gap behind him. That gap would ultimately play a huge in role costing Nuno his job, like so many other managers before him.
Meanwhile in the away dugout on Sunday, it was Diego Simeone who was celebrating – the man who has come to define Atletico Madrid.
Since Cholo took over the helm at the Calderón, Atleti have gone from strength to strength, and have proven themselves as the example to all other clubs looking to break into world football’s elite. Before Simeone, los Colchoneros struggled to qualify for Europe on a regular basis, and languished in 10th place when the Argentine was appointed. In his first half season, he brought them from mediocrity to two points away from the Champions League.
Simeone has given the team stability, something Valencia severely lack. His influence has been clear over the last half decade and on Sunday it was on show again, bringing on Yannick Carrasco and Fernando Torres early in the second half for both of them to play important roles in the opening goal of the game within minutes/seconds of their introductions.
With success built on the back of a water-tight defence and prolific warriors leading the line of attack down the years, Atleti are now established as one of Europe’s top teams. They’ve broken Spain’s duopoly, and replaced it with an exhilarating three horse race.
Atletico won the league in 2013/14 with Diego Costa up front doing the job of two men. He battled for every aerial ball sent his direction, and finished the moves off that started with him laying off those passes to the awaiting wide men. This year, the Madrid outfit may perhaps be best suited to win the title again since that famous season, with Kevin Gameiro emerging as one of the most important players in los Colchoneros’ arsenal.
The speedy striker has featured in all of Atleti’s league games this season, with Griezmann occupying a slightly more withdrawn role in the spaces between opposition lines of defence and midfield. With Griezmann’s abilities to attack open space and unlock defences with his phenomenal passing range, having a partner like Gameiro to distract other defenders and race for balls played into empty channels is the perfect way to get the best out of him. Griezmann is currently La Liga’s top goalscorer with 6 goals in only 7 games.
The fortunes of Valencia and Atletico Madrid in the last five years could barely have been any more opposing. Atleti are in the position to keep that trend up on their end of the bargain, while Valencia’s problems seem bigger that what just a manager can fix.
This article was first published on 30th March 2015
Speculation is rife of Barcelona’s right sided defender moving to PSG this summer, but Alves couldn’t be phased when asked about the matter in an airport this week. At first, he only ignored the questioning reporters, before deciding to change his tune.
And we do indeed mean “change his tune” quite literally – grabbing the microphone out of one reporter’s hand and singing what he was presumably listening to on his headphones to them.
Does dodging the question in this manner suggest a summer transfer is on the cards? He made no effort to deny the rumours, instead just entertaining the fans.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the best strikers in the world, winning league title after league title for the past fifteen or so years all across Europe. Back in 2002, the 20-year-old wonderkid, then of Ajax, was also a regular for the Swedish national team, who starred in this amusing little skit at the Swedish Football Awards.
The video shows Ibra scoring a headed goal against Hungary, and getting knocked unconscious by the onrushing goalkeeper. Zlatan then wakes up from his dream in his ‘real-world’ life as a bellboy in a fancy hotel convinced he is a football star.
“Are you okay, Zlatan? You fell down the stairs,” the hotel manager asks him.
“I’m a professional footballer. I play for Ajax and the Swedish national team. Look, I’m number 9!” the striker responds, pointing to the team photo on the wall.
“Number 9 is Peppe Eng,” the manager tells him.
This article was first published on 13th April 2015
Steven Defour was once the darling of Liege, their young talismanic captain who led them to glory – two league titles, one Belgian cup, and two Belgian supercups in a five year spell at the club. A stint at Porto followed this, prior to a move back home – but this time to Liege’s bitter rivals Anderlecht.
Naturally, Standard fans didn’t appreciate this turncoat move. Back in January, Defour went back to Liege for the first time in an Anderlecht jersey. The home fans welcomed him in fantastic fashion, erecting a gigantic tifo of Defour decapitated with a massive sword, with the words “Red or Dead” scribbled across it.
Defour was so rattled by the gesture that at one point during play, he received a pass only to run towards the Liege fans and shoot the ball at them, reacting ferociously to the abuse he was receiving. The Belgian international was sent off and Liege won the match 2-0.
The teams met again this week, and Liege rolled Anderlecht over, eventually storming out to a 3-1 win. Nearing full time, Defour tried to have the last laugh by making a show of his former team, attempting a roulette spin. The move did not work out, and instead Steven Defour came off having another horrible memory to live with against his former team.
The winner of two World Cups, Mané Garrincha was one of Brazil’s finest ever talents. Brazil never lost a match with him and Pelé on the pitch, such was the influence that he had, and he became known as The Joy of the People.
Garrincha was a trickster first and foremost; teasing defenders up and down the wings, inspiring fans to chant the bullfighting cry of ‘olé’ for the first time. The story of Garrincha is one of the most fascinating in world football, as the little speedster was born with a number of physical defects that would have in theory prevented him from excelling in football.
Manuel Francisco dos Santos, as he was born, had a right leg that bent outwards, and a left leg six centimetres shorter than the other. His spine was also slightly deformed, but nothing could stop Garrincha from dazzling crowds and bamboozling defenders.
He wasn’t given a starting berth in the first two games of the 1958 World Cup but was introduced to the world against the USSR, in Brazil’s third game. The USSR were favourites for the whole tournament, giving the Brazilians a lot of nerves. Brazil attacked from the very beginning of the match, with Garrincha twisting and turning Soviet defenders, before setting Pelé up to just about miss the target, hitting the crossbar.
With Pelé missing the next World Cup through injury, Garrincha stepped up to the plate and provided enough flair and penetration with dismantle any opponent that stood in their way. Brazil and Garrincha lifted the 1962 World Cup, after years of controversy and hardship for the troubled winger.
Garrincha suffered with alcoholism, as his father did. Mané also fathered at least 14 children, between two wives, a number of mistresses, and a Swedish girl while on tour there with the Brazilian national team. Garrincha died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of only 49, and spent his last years in a poor physical and mental state.
Garrincha was something of a forgotten legend when he passed away, and the memory and joy he gave to the people is something that should be remembered forever. He had so many adversities and obstacles to overcome in his life, but still managed to win the World Cup on two magical occasions. In many ways, Mané Garrincha was truly the Joy of the People.
This article was first published on 28th April 2015
AFC Bournemouth’s recent financial troubles have been well documented today and yesterday after they all but clinched promotion to the Premier League by beating Bolton Wanderers last night. They began the 2008/09 season on -17 points at the bottom of League Two. On the brink of going under, the Cherries instead regrouped and fought back in the face of adversity and have somehow now found themselves in the promised land.
Stories like Bournemouth’s are why everyone loves football, a true underdog victory. Whether they finish bottom of the table next season or manage to survive again, the fact will remain that they made it to the top tier of English football – for the first time in their history – and became the 47th team to play in the Premier League, something unimaginable when they were five minutes from liquidation in 2008.
Here, we take a look at some of the other best romance stories that football has gifted us.
Blackpool – Promoted to Premier League 2010
Blackpool, under the guidance of eccentric manager Ian Holloway, stunned the football world by their valiant performances in 2009/2010. They played nothing but attacking football, earning praise from across the league, and were promoted to the big time via the playoffs, beating Cardiff City in the final. They were widely tipped for relegation from the Championship the year they went up, but they made up for their shoestring budget by playing with as much heart and guile as they could muster. Their top flight stint was to prove ill-fated, as a collapse in form in the second half of the season saw them relegated on the final day.
In only 2000/01, Blackpool were playing in the fourth tier of the English football pyramid. They had something of a meteoric rise to the top, capturing the hearts and minds of fans up and down the country. These days however, Blackpool fans are constantly protesting about the failures of the Oystons, who have spearheaded the club’s demise down to the third tier once more.
Eibar – Promoted to La Liga 2014
Eibar are still in the middle of their fairytale, after winning promotion in the unlikeliest of circumstances last season. Everything was against them – even the league itself. From a town of less than 30,000 inhabitants, the tiny club bounced between the fourth and second tiers for most of its history. Two seasons ago they weren’t expected to make much of a splash in the third tier, but earned promotion. Last year they were widely expected to go straight back down, but ended up winning the league, and by the half way point of their only top flight campaign to date, they sat in 8th place.
Eibar had to struggle through much more than on-pitch adversaries to reach Spain’s top flight. For some bizarre reason, teams in the second tier in Spain had to have a certain amount of expenditure corresponding to the average of the league. Eibar’s financial policy has always been about not spending more than they have, therefore not getting into any debt. Eibar are one of very few Spanish teams with absolutely no debt for this reason. It was this financial policy that meant they didn’t spend much money, resulting in the league threatening to relegate them to the third tier after they won Segunda just last summer, prompting in fans and romantics across the world pitching in to buy shares in the club, helping them achieve their goal of playing in the top tier – something they had fairly earned by their on-pitch endeavours.
Montpellier – Ligue 1 winners 2012
Since 2012, PSG have since grown and grown to the point of French and European powerhouses, given the backing they have from their new owners. The summer before the season, they splashed over €100 million on a new playing staff, not to mention bringing in veteran Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti, who was made the highest paid manager in French football history. Montpellier on the other hand, broke their highest transfer fee paid with the signature of Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud for a whopping £1.7 million.
Giroud went on to score 21 goals for Montpellier that season, as they stormed to a hugely unlikely championship title by pipping PSG on the final day of the season. Their first ever title was seen by an average crowd of only 17,492, and led to their first ever campaign in the Champions League. The following season, the dream was over, as the capital club stormed to the title and finished 30 points ahead of Montpellier.
Atletico Madrid – La Liga winners 2014
For such a long time it seemed like the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid may never be broken again in Spain, as the big two looked miles ahead of the chasing pack not only in terms of quality but finances as well, which should in theory maintain the quality gap. Atletico Madrid had finished 9th and 7th before Simeone took over mid way through the 2011/12 season, and once the Argentinian entered the fray, things changed.
Last season, Atleti displayed incredible consistency, beating teams week in week out with magnificent efficiency. Diego Costa took on more responsibility to find the goals once Falcao left, and ended up scoring for fun. Throughout the year, he was asked whether his team could win the title, and throughout the season he answered no, but they were taking things one week at a time. Simeone transformed a group of players – largely the same squad finishing 9th and 7th – and made them champions, finishing ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid and Leo Messi’s Barcelona. More than that, they almost capped things off with a Champions League title, but suffered unimaginable heartbreak at the hands of their city rivals in the final after leading until the 93rd minute.
Swansea City – League Two 2005 to Premier League 2011
The Swans have already achieved the best ever Premier League points tally/finish, and are setting that club record higher with every result they get between now and the end of the season. One of their biggest achievements has to be the fact that they are now Premier League mainstays, rising from humble beginnings to one of the most established teams in the league.
Eleven years ago, Swansea finished level on points with Boston United, now playing in the Conference North. They even finished below Oxford United in the 2003/04 League Two season. Excellent management of the club has allowed them to grow step by step, were promoted in 2004/05, 2007/08, and to the Premier League in 2010/11, and even featured in the Europa League last season after winning their first ever trophy in English football the season before.
This article was first published on May 18th 2015
The final round of games in the Iranian league this weekend saw one of the most bizarre and controversial finishes to a title race football has ever seen!
Tractor Sazi went into the final round of games in pole position, clear of second placed Naft Tehran, who they were playing on the final day of the season, on goal difference. Third placed Sepahan were one point below first and second going into the last game.
Leading 3-1 after an hour, a first title in 52 years seemed a sure thing for the Tractor boys. But the occasion must have gotten to Toni Oliveira’s men, and Tractor were pegged back to 3-3 with nine minutes remaining, as well as getting a red card! Former Bolton Wanderers midfielder Andranik Teymourian found himself on the scoresheet before getting himself sent off amid the excitement.
Then, for some inexplicable reason, Tractor went about playing for the point instead of going for the win. They were under the impression that Sepahan were drawing their game too, leaving them a point behind. Tractor officials complained that their television and radio feeds of their opponents’ game blacked out with three minutes remaining, and were told that Sepahan’s game finished 2-2, meaning Tractor were champions.
The announcement came over the tannoy at Tractor’s stadium that they were the league title winners, and the 90,000 fans in the ground went wild.
However, Sepahan won their game 2-0, rather than drawing 2-2, meaning Sepahan were champions. Apparently, Tractor officials gave the news of their league title clinching in attempt to stop fans in the ground from rioting, but when the real news broke that they had thrown it away, the riots truly began in earnest.
The club soon found out that telling your fans you’ve won the league is not an effective way of preventing a riot. Large rubbish bins and stadium seats were soon in the air, as fans made their dissatisfaction clear.
Footage of the outrageous league finish can be seen below, with Arabic commentary.