Football Index

Guillem Balague: Team of the Year – Excluding Premier League & La Liga


Italy’s Serie A may not be the most glamorous, best supported, or wealthiest league in Europe but it still manages to contain seven of the starting eleven you voted for in our European team of the year outside of La Liga and Premier League players.

And not surprisingly five of them come from the ‘Old Lady’ herself (Juventus) and even less surprisingly one of them is Cristiano Ronaldo, who – did you ever doubt it? – has well and truly hit the floor running in this latest phase of his spectacular career. My bet with a colleague of mine at the BBC of him scoring 40 goals all competitions still looks decent (he said there was no hope of that!)

But seven Serie A titles and four league and cup doubles on the bounce will be outshone if the phenomenon from Madeira can help bring to Turin the Champions League they covet so much and have not lifted since 1996.

That’s mostly why Juventus moved heaven and earth to bring him to the club and it has, so far, proved to be a shrewd move both on and off the pitch. Ronaldo is a serial winner who can already boast five Champions League winners medals, more than any other player in the history of the game. Could he possibly win a sixth? Why not?

In fact, only two of the 11 will not have a chance of winning a Champions League medal this year. Inter’s Samir Handanović and Koulibaly will miss out on the knock out stages following Tottenham’s triumph in Barcelona although the Slovenian goalkeeper has done more than enough to continue to be considered one of the top shot-stoppers in Europe.

With 228 appearances for Inter he is nicknamed Batman because of his acrobatic saves and he has twice been named Serie A Goalkeeper of the Year one of only three non-Italian keepers to win the award.

The first Juventus player is Joao Cancelo at right back, a player mainly known for his speed, energy and offensive capabilties, as well as his technical skills, creativity and crossing ability. He has jumped to a new level in the last five months.

On the other flank there is his teammate Alex Sandro, a quick, energetic and similarly attack mindedleft-sided defender who can play just about anywhere on the left and has been likened to his Brazilian compatriot, Roberto Carlos.

Between them at the centre of the defence is the man mountain that is Giorgio Chiellini quite simply one of the finest defenders in the world, equally strong in a flat back four or as one of three and more than capable of putting in a shift as a left back. Again, he has shown leadership values as well as some of his best performances this year.

Alongside him is the strong yet elegant, cultured and accomplished Senegalese/French defender, Kalidou Koulibaly only recently the target of a £95m bid from Manchester United. Just how highly this club rate him is confirmed by the fact that the bid was immediately rejected by Napoli.

In midfield there is Nabil Fekir who so nearly became a Liverpool player only for the deal to collapse at the 11th hour. The midfielder’s form for Lyon since then would suggest that the Academy youth product from France’s second city could still be a vital part of the club’s Champions league campaign.

Next to him is the classy, creative, playmaker that is the Italian from Pescara, PSG’s Marco Verratti who has won five titles with the French club since his arrival in 2012. Frequently compared to that other great Italian Andrea Pirlo there is also no small amount of steel and graft behind the finesse and because of his rugged defensive qualities Verratti is also more than capable of putting in a shift as a defensive midfielder.

Next to him in the central area of the midfield is the Juventus Bosnian, Miralem Pjanić who may not be the fastest nor the strongest midfielder in the world but more than makes up for it with a very high level of creativity and tenacity that make him invaluable in just about any midfield position. Add to that a vision, passing and dribbling skills plus his strength from dead ball situation and you have a player more than worth his place.

And alongside him Lyon’s, Memphis Depay, a player re-born following a difficult spell at Manchester United and now firmly established as one of the new young crop of players and automatic starter in Ronald Koeman’s the revitalised Netherlands, who he has represented at the highest level 44 times since he was 19-years-old

A certain flashiness both on and off the pitch probably didn’t help his cause in the Premier League but he now seems to finally have his naturally angry nature under some kind of control and at his best is reminiscent of the left wing equivalent of Arjen Roben cutting in from the left onto his right foot.

And finally to play alongside Cristiano up front, who else but Neymar, the most expensive player in the world and football’s very own Mr Marmite. Whether you think he is the most fouled player on the planet or the one with the lowest pain threshold ever, there is no doubting that he is clearly one of the world’s current crop of superstars and worth his place in any top XI list.

Electric pace and explosive finishes that bring to mind the skills of Ronaldinho at his best, he is in many ways the complete player, equally strong with both feet as well as with his head.  He has also been blessed by being able to play alongside the greatest players in the world first at Barcelona with Messi and Suarez and now at PSG with the likes of Mbappe and Cavani.

In the opinion of many of the real greats (Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Xavi) he will eventually become the best player in the world. Maybe not the most popular, but certainly the most influential man around. I do believe that is the case too.

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Football Index

The Surprise Leaders Of La Liga: Sevilla

With just 13 games played, Pablo Machin’s Sevilla sit loud and proud at the top of La Liga although even their most ardent fans would probably admit that it is probably more by luck than judgment; more by accident than design.

Just six points separate the top seven clubs as everybody seems to be taking points off everyone. Could Sevilla conceivably maintain their challenge all the way to only its second-ever La Liga title? (The last one was in the 1945-46 season).

Probably not but it has certainly been a topsy-turvy season that has seen shocks aplenty – Real Madrid thumped 3-0 at Eibar and the then top placed Barcelona going down to the then bottom place Leganes, to name but two – so just about anything looks like it could be possible.

But what is most interesting is how Sevilla managed to get themselves into this position.

While they are certainly the form side having lost just once in nine games with a return of 22 points from a possible 27, it was changes forced upon them by injury that precipitated the upturn in their fortunes.

That, and the fact that Pablo Machin is holding a number of trump cards in his hand.

Machin has always favoured playing three at the back plus the use of two defensive midfielders. Unfortunately injuries suffered by the two men specifically picked for that job (Ibrahim Amadou and Maxime Gonalons) meant he had to improvise. When he placed Ever Banega in that position he will have been more than pleasantly surprised to see the midfielder take to the task like the proverbial duck to water.

If Machin has one quality it is his ability to adapt and his decision to opt for one holding midfielder instead of two and play a second forward (Ben Yedder) up front came after a 2-0 home defeat by Getafe. He felt the players were demanding it, he realised changes were needed. So far it has proved to be his ‘eureka’ moment.

No player in La Liga has won the ball back more often than Banega this season and the balance is further established with Franco Vazquez playing to his left and Pablo Sarabia to his right, two players that up to then had been considered to be far more attack-minded than their new roles demanded.

But somehow this shake it and see combination has brought home the ‘jamon’ and Machin has also been helped by some seriously impressive form from some of his other players, at both ends of the pitch.

In the Czech, Tomas Vaclik, Machin has probably got the, currently, most impressive goalkeeper in La Liga while up front Andre Silva, currently on loan from AC Milan but whom Sevilla want to buy, is having the season of his life. He has been aided and abetted by Wissam Ben Yedder who Machim orignally wanted to sell, but who has also subsequently shown everyone just effective he can be.

Jesus Navas, back in his beloved hometown since August last year, is enjoying a real swansong of a season and is crossing the ball as well, if not better, than he ever did in his heyday.

But much will now depend on what business Sevilla can do in the upcoming winter window because they will almost certainly need to strengthen in depth if they hope to strive for La Liga glory.

The reason for that is clear to see. With Amadou still in the process of getting to match fitness and Gonalons out of the picture, when Machin has attempted to re-cycle the side as he did when he played Roque Mesa in the defensive midfield role, what you got was a weaker looking Sevilla although a great goalkeeper and two in-form strikers have been able to mask the problem.

He will, therefore, be looking to add another holding midfielder and another striker to take the pressure off Andre Silva and Ben Yedder. They do have the Dutchman, Quincy Promes, and Muriel, although neither has made too much of an impact since they arrived at the club.

And it is also perhaps worth pointing out that it will cost them a cool €35m should they decide – which they surely will –  to sign Silva on a permanent basis when his loan spell ends, more than €15m more than they have ever spent on one player (Luis Muriel) in the club’s history.

Whoever they buy will have to hit the floor running because Machin will know better than anyone that he will need reinforcements if he is to keep up the momentum and level of competitiveness that will help them to mount a serious challenge for the title.

Win it or not they certainly look like a very good bet indeed for a top-four finish and aided by a good wind and similar strokes of good fortune such as those already enjoyed, who knows what might pan out at the end of what is proving to be a wonderful and intriguing season.

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FootballIndex Futures

FootballINDEX Blog: Six Spanish Youngsters To Watch

La Liga is bursting with young Spanish talent and it proved a difficult job to choose just 6 players to watch but I did just that. Read on to discover my choices.
Ferran Torres (£1.57, here)
With just about every club in Europe including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool looking to steal Ferran Torres away from Valencia, this April saw the club sign the 18-year-old to a new deal until 2012 with a buyout clause of €100m.
With all potential predators suitably discouraged, Torres broke into the first team squad of the club where the young midfielder/winger has spent his entire footballing career from the age of six.
He made his La Liga debut on 16 December, playing the last nine minutes in a 1–2 loss at SD Eibar.
He has also represented his country at Under 17 level 24 times and made five appearances for the Under 19s.
There is plenty of competition for his place on the right wing or on the right-hand side of midfield with players like Carlos Soler, Guedes and Cheryshev but there are still many in Valencia that believe he should be in the starting XI.
Many believe he would benefit from more playing time and there was talk of a loan deal to Real Sociedad although Marcelino rejected the idea and has made it more than clear that the youngster is very much part of his future plans.
He has also grabbed the attention of UEFA who have included him in their list of the 50 young stars to follow this season.
Abel Ruiz (£1.98, here)
Valenciano from the small town of Almussafes, Abel started with Valencia before joining the Barcelona Academy as a 12-year-old
An old-fashioned number he plays in a similar style to Robert Lewandowski and has also been compared to a young Marco Van 
According to Diario Sport, he has already attracted the attention of a number of Premier League clubs including Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City.
In fact, he is so highly rated by the club, that in June when he extended his contract for a further three seasons with an optional two more, they also included a staggering 100m€ buyout clause. This is in place to deter any bids to entice him away from the Camp Nou.
An elegant centre-forward with a nose for goal, Ruiz has a physical presence as he is 1.82m tall but he can also play on the wing. “I’m a more direct player, a good finisher,” he told Diario Sport earlier this year when asked to explain his style. “I hold the ball well with my back to goal and I consider myself a complete forward.
He is the top goalscorer in the history of the Spain under-17 team on 27 goals and is also its most-capped player with 37 appearances. He is also the top goalscorer in the history of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship finals: 8 goals (shared with Amine Gouiri and Odsonne Edouard) and the top goalscorer in the history of UEFA European Under-17 Championship on 16 goals (shared with José Gomes)
Carles Alena (£2.21, here)
Already a member of the first team squad he is, to many, the answer to Barcelona’s search for a long-term midfield influence following on from the likes of Iniesta and Xavi.
Although hampered by injuries, he is now back to full fitness and is expected to feature in the first team at some point in the season. If he does he will be the first player from La Masia since Sergi Roberto to nail down a place in the first team.
A left-footed midfielder who is an excellent striker of the ball, Carles Aleñá has been an FC Barcelona player since the age of eight. His natural ability has seen him rise quickly through the youth teams to reach Barça B. When he was a still officially an U19A player, he was already a fixture in the B squad.
Aleñá is a different kind of midfielder. With a great left foot, he is strong and not afraid to take players on. Furthermore, he is not afraid to come inside and use his technical ability to shoot from outside the box
On 30 November 2016 he made his debut for Luis Enrique’s first team in the Copa del Rey tie away at Hércules which ended 1-1. The midfielder from Mataró scored Barça’s only goal of the game with an excellent effort from outside the box.
On 6 September 2017, Aleñá signed a contract extension with FC Barcelona for the next three seasons with a buyout clause of 75m€.
Fran Beltran (£1.45, here)  
Born in Sesena in the South of Madrid, Fran Beltran is generally regarded as one of the hottest young prospects in La Liga
Aged just 19 he was on Getafe’s Academy, he joined Rayo Vallecano’s set up aged 14 and played in their reserves in the third division when he was just 16.
He signed a five year deal with Celta Vigo in August of this year after they paid his  €8m buyout clause. While Celta were ecstatic about having signed him Rayo were less than impressed about how things panned out, claiming that while things may have been done legally, morally Celta had been found wanting in their handling of the deal.
Celta meanwhile couldn’t have cared less claiming in a press release that they had signed him because he was, “a talented player who shows great physical fitness, defensive strength and ball-winning qualities and brilliant intelligence with his control and distribution of the ball.”
He made his debut in the Primera Liga on 18 August, starting in a 1–1 home draw against RCD Espanyol.
Since then he has been an automatic starter in all but one of the league games this season when he came on from the bench. He previously made his debut with Rayo at just 17 and made 71 appearances for them between 2016-18 and he has already represented his country at Under 17, 18 and 19 level.
Achraf Hakimi (£1.86, here)
Achraf Hakimi has much in common with Dani Carvajal and not just because they are both Real Madrid players who play as right backs.
The 19-year-old Hakimi is currently the right back of preference at high-flying Borussia Dortmund who are taking the Bundesliga by storm and where the Madrid born Moroccan International is on a two-year loan deal.
It was only after taking the advice of Carvajal who had previously been on loan at Bayer Leverkusen that he opted to go to the Bundesliga and so far it is proving to be a very wise decision.
He had already made his debut for the Real Madrid first team and with regular first-team options limited in the coming season it suited all parties that he should improve as a player at the highest level possible
“I had a lot of offers, but Dortmund’s was the one that had me convinced,” Hakimi said. “The team likes to play very attractive football and they try to make young players better. I had Carvajal in front of me at Real, but he told me to make the most of the opportunity: go there, play and enjoy it.”
“He’s playing so well,” said Dortmund head coach Lucien Favre. “He’s great going forward and he does a good job at the back. He played at left-back for Morocco, but prefers to play at right-back. He has so much potential.”
So much so in fact that his performances have earned him the right-back berth ahead of the established Dortmund legend, Polish defender, Lukasz Piszcek.
In addition to his club football he has already represented Morocco 19 times as a full international making his debut when aged just 16.
Marc Roca (£1.23, here)
These are truly heady days at Espanyol who find themselves after eight La Liga games in fifth place, separated from a fourth-placed Real Madrid by virtue of just one goal fewer scored.
An ever-present in the starting line up this season central midfielder Marc Roca, a product of the Espanyol academy that he joined as an 11-year-old back in 2008.
New Espanyol coach, Joan Francesc Ferrer ‘Rubi’, has placed his faith in Roca in the vital pivot role linking defence and midfield and the young Catalan has rewarded him by taking to the role like a duck to water.
Although it was the previous coach, Quique Sanchez Flores that gave him his chance in the first team, he spent most of his time on the bench and played just 100 minutes all season.
Now almost certainly one of the first names on Rubi’s teamsheet, much of Espanyol’s early form has been attributed to Roca’s great start to the season and he has been rewarded with a call-up for Spain’s under 21 side for both of their forthcoming qualification games for the European Championships.
He previously came onto the radar of various Premier League club including Liverpool and Southampton and Espanyol’s recent run of good form will once again push the 21-year-old defensive midfielder right back into the spotlight.
Any attempts to lure the central midfielder away from will come at a much higher price now however following his signing of a contract extension that should keep him at the club until 2022 and includes a buyout clause of €40m.
All of these players and more are available to trade on Football Index here:
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FootballIndex Futures

Guillem Balague column: ‘Barcelona have problems, but Tottenham should be wary’


Guillem Balague will be writing a regular column throughout the season and also appearing every Thursday on BBC Radio 5 live’s Football Daily podcast, when the focus will be on European football.

You can download the latest Football Daily podcast here.

Few people know better than Mauricio Pochettino that there is never a ‘good’ time to face Barcelona.

Even so, the Catalans’ current form suggests the timing of Wednesday’s Champions League group match is as good as it’s ever going to get for the Tottenham boss.

After just seven La Liga games, Barcelona have already dropped seven points. They had only dropped six by the halfway point last season.

They are without a win in three matches. A defeat at lowly Leganes a week ago was followed by a tame home draw against Athletic on Saturday.

What’s going wrong at Barcelona?

Two points out of a possible nine in the league and eight goals conceded in their past seven games suggests a vulnerable team way short of their best form.

Much has been made of uncharacteristic mistakes by centre-back Gerard Pique, with three errors in recent games leading directly to opposition goals. But while he certainly needs to improve his intensity and concentration, Barca’s problems go a lot deeper than that.

They are struggling to maintain pressure high up the pitch, and with Ivan Rakitic playing in a more advanced role, the pivotal Sergio Busquets is cutting an isolated figure further back in midfield.

And there is a deeper problem. Too often this season their attacks have been more individual than collective and sometimes too direct. When Barcelona attack as a unit they defend as one as well – but right now, when they lose the ball, there are often big gaps between defence and midfield. Opponents have been exploiting this space.

There is also a lack of strength in depth, with a second string not of the required standard and not making a sufficient impact. OK, trying to fill the boots of the likes of Lionel Messi and Busquets is probably the toughest gig in world football, but, even so, Barca have certainly spent big to bolster their squad.

Philippe Coutinho, bought from Liverpool for £142m in January, works wells enough in an attacking role, but the club’s midfielders require a more patient ball distribution and the Brazilian’s defensive work needs to improve.

Ousmane Dembele, who joined from Dortmund for £135.5m in August 2017, is not settling in as well as he could. The France forward is struggling with the language, is shy and surrounded by his own people all the time. He was certainly not helped by the bad injury he suffered at the beginning of his Barcelona career.

To his credit, he has scored five goals so far this campaign, but he does not understand enough of the Barca style to help the fluidity of the game or to take the right decisions at key moments.

Malcom, Arturo Vidal, Arthur and Clement Lenglet – all arrived in the summer; all remain on the periphery.

At the same stage of last season Barcelona had seven successive league victories and had conceded just twice. True, they are top of the league on 14 points – but that is the lowest number to head the table at this stage for 25 years.

The next five games for Barca will probably go a long way to defining their season: away to Tottenham and Valencia and then at home against Sevilla, Inter and Real Madrid.

Will Pochettino end up at Barcelona?

Pochettino managed Barcelona-based Espanyol from 2009 to 2012, before moving to Southampton and was a player for them before that.

The Argentine knows Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu socially and the two men were spotted in the same restaurant in the city last year – which set a lot of tongues wagging.

The Barcelona president has known Pochettino for more than a decade and their kids have gone to the same school. Bartomeu has numerous business interests and partly helped to redevelop the harbour in Southampton when Pochettino was in charge there.

And it is true that when the Pochettino family look for a rest from their busy schedule it is Barcelona where they feel they have their European roots.

But Pochettino would no more manage Barca than he would contemplate joining Tottenham’s north London rivals Arsenal.

And anyone thinking that current boss Ernesto Valverde is in danger of losing his job might be a little hasty.

A couple of recent briefings from the club have led the local media to wonder whether the board are 100% convinced – even though the official line is that the Spaniard is the right man to lead the team.

He has been accused of being too conservative with substitutions, of not getting the best out of the new players, of not rotating enough in the first few games – and now of rotating too much.

And the humiliating quarter-final defeat by Roma in last season’s Champions League – losing 3-0 away after a 4-1 win at home – is a stick constantly used to beat him with.

But Messi, now the captain, has positioned himself very much on Valverde’s side. After Saturday’s disappointing 1-1 home draw with Athletic Bilbao, the manager used strong words with his players and had the backing of his skipper.

Champions league the number one priority

Winning the Champions League once in the past seven years is bad enough, but the fact Real Madrid have won it four times in the past five seasons has made that immeasurably worse.

Even before a La Liga ball had been kicked this season, Messi made his feelings clear when he said the club would “do everything possible” to bring the Champions League trophy back to Barcelona.

“Last season was very good because we won the cup and La Liga, but the Champions League sticks in our throat, especially given the way we were eliminated,” the 31-year-old Argentina forward added.

Messi, a Champions League winner in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015, is not the only one desperate for success in the competition this season. It matters in the boardroom too.

The Champions League isn’t just about the glory, but also very much about the money.

The club expect to generate income of 960m euros (£855m) this season, but more than half of their budget is wages. The Champions League is vital to keep the money rolling in to meet this staggering and ever increasing bill, as well as to attract the type of players needed to win it.

So, although Barca are going through a difficult phase, I would urge caution for any Spurs fans predicting anything other than a very tough test on the wide open spaces at Wembley.

Ultimately, this season Barcelona and Valverde will be judged by what they achieve in the Champions League – and their first XI, fully focused and determined, remain a match for any team.


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FootballIndex Futures

Guillem Balague: Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs

OK, OK, we were secretly hoping that FootballINDEX‘s latest recruit, Guillem Balague would make an appearance at the London Trader meet last Friday but unfortunately this was not to be the case.

Guillem is going to be a great addition to the FI family. The man boasts 1M+ followers on Twitter and it’s hardly surprising given he is an incredibly popular and talented football journalist and pundit. Guillem is a regular on SkySports Revista de la Liga and has also written for some of Britain’s top newspapers as well as several Spanish newspapers.

Guillem has recently written the Sunday Times Best Selling Book “Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs” which is a truly fascinating read. Balagué was granted unprecedented access to Pochettino and his backroom staff for the duration of the 2016-17 season, and was therefore able to draw on extensive interview material with Pochettino, his family, his closest assistants, players such as Dele Alli and Harry Kane, and even a very rare conversation with Daniel Levy to tell the manager’s story in his own words. From Pochettino’s early years as a player and coach to his transformation of Tottenham into one of the best teams in England, the book uniquely reveals the inner workings of the man and of his footballing philosophy. It also lays bare what it takes to run a modern-day football team competing at the highest level over the course of a single campaign. The result is the most comprehensive and compelling portrait of a manager and of a club in the Premier League era.

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