Saúl Ñíguez is the heartbeat of Enrique’s new-look Spain side

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From being carried off the pitch at the BayArena in Leverkusen with devastating kidney problems, to being tipped as a mainstay in the new look Spanish midfield for years to come, Saúl Ñíguez is proving he is more than just a name easily made into a ‘Better Call Saul’ pun for tabloid newspapers, but a top class player. Lewis Steele charts his rise and offers his opinion on where the Atletico star goes from here: 

Spain’s wins over England and Croatia in the international break represented a changing of the proverbial guard in many aspects. Most notably, the week represented a change in the dugout in Luis Enrique, who fills the seat that Fernando Hierro sat in for all of a month after Julen Lopetegui departed from Spain on the eve of the World Cup. As well as the managerial change post-Russia, mainstays David Silva and Andrés Iniesta announced they were to step down from international football, both on the back of illustrious international careers. This paved the way for Enrique to experiment with his side, and perhaps give caps to midfielders who have been on the periphery for the past few seasons.

Let’s not feel too harsh on Enrique who lost Silva and Iniesta, as it is common knowledge in the football world that Spain have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to central midfielders. However, one man who particularly took the light in Spain’s wins was Atlético Madrid’s Saúl Ñíguez.

Ñíguez, 23, scored in both fixtures as Enrique’s side convincingly did away of Russia’s runners-up Croatia in a 6-0 win, days after an impressive victory over England at Wembley.

For Saúl, it has been a tough start to his international career, with few minutes available. In Russia, he played a grand total of zero minutes. Even when the likes of Iniesta were replaced, there were players further up the pecking order or midfield hierarchy. It was a frustrating summer for the Atlético star.

However, Saúl showed in these games that he has what it takes to be a pivotal part of the next generation of Spanish superstars, a symbol of a new formed Spain.

La Roja were never convincing in Russia and were dumped out by the hosts on penalties, so it was perhaps wise to call an end to the international careers of the legends that will be remembered for the triumphs between 2008 and 2012, where they will go down as one of, if not the, best international sides of modern history. Along with Silva and Iniesta, Spain also said goodbye to Gerard Piqué, while Jordi Alba and Koke didn’t make the cut, with Chelsea high-flyer Marcos Alonso getting the nod over the former. In fact, only three World Cup winners remained in the 23-man squad Enrique picked.

The break brought positive performances from many of Spain’s young talent, including Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, José Gayà and Rodri. But Saúl stood out, perhaps symbolically more than anything else. Real Madrid’s star Asensio was excellent in front of goal, but we know Spain for the beautiful passing side they are, and Saúl captivated that in abundance, as he was the heartbeat that kept the Spanish ticking from minute one, to the final whistle.

The England performance won Saúl plaudits, but it was the game against Croatia that will be remembered by Saúl and his family for decades. The game was held at the Martin Valero stadium in Elche, which coincidentally, is where Saúl started his career in football.

Elche CF, the team from the town just inland from Alicante on the Mediterranean Coast, play in the Segunda Division, but boast an impressive 33,000 seater stadium which has played host to a rare few international games over the years. They are the club where the Ñíguez family made their name: father Jose Antonio played as a striker for the club for nine years, Saúl’s eldest brother Jonathan plays there now, while other brother Aaron played there for two seasons before moving on to pastures new.

So, on Tuesday night, the homecoming so to speak of Saúl Ñíguez was a huge incentive for the locals to go out and buy their tickets for the fixture. Everyone in the Martin Valero stadium went to see the boy that is slowly becoming the best thing to ever come from Elche.

In fact, the last time La Roja played at Elche, Saúl was thirteen. That day Spain beat Italy 1-0 through a David Villa goal. The teenager would have watched that game, and surely dreamed of potentially playing for Spain at his home stadium one day.

Although Saúl was tipped to be a star from this age, it was a long road to the top. His talent was spotted at Elche, with his elegant style noted by many top clubs. Thus, he was headhunted. At just the age of 11, Saúl moved to Madrid and signed for… Real Madrid.

Yep, that’s right. Atletico fans can’t even claim Saúl to be one of their own, technically.

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It was a tough time for Saúl across the city, as he was subject to bullying from fellow academy players.

He told El Mundo: “During that year with Real Madrid I learned many things, I matured a lot. It was a difficult year because many non-sporting things were happening.”

This was a mental setback for Saúl, but a physical injury was to follow that could have ended Saúl’s career.

In the years leading up to now, the midfield metronome had a serious kidney injury which meant he would often be out of breathe and at worst, urinate blood.

In 2015, away at Leverkusen in the BayArena, Saúl departed in the arms of the physio unable to continue, and remembers violently vomiting.

It looked like Saúl’s career was to fizzle out, but the young man showed determination to recover and it is paying dividends now, as he is moulding into one of the finest midfielders in the world.

Saúl has a knack of netting in big games, notably a goal v Bayern in the Champions League semi final of 2016, or his goal more recently in the UEFA Super Cup v Real Madrid.

If he can carry on, on this trajectory, Saúl Ñíguez could go down as one of the greats. With Spain looking to move away from the plagued ‘tiki-taka’ craze (a whole story in itself), Atletico’s dynamo will be crucial, as he has been early in Luis Enrique’s side as the heartbeat of La Roja. 

Want a midfielder good enough to replace Iniesta and Silva? Better ca— finish it, I can’t bring myself to recycle the most used headline in the history of headlines.

 

 

Who Are Ya? Meet Huesca, Barca’s opponents taking La Liga by storm

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Barcelona host minnows Huesca on Sunday, which may not be the most exciting encounter of the weekend, but if you are a fan of little clubs taking on global giants, this one is for you.

Huesca have visited this stadium once in their history, that was in 2014, where Barcelona won 8-1, topping off a 12-1 aggregate win in the Copa del Rey. A lot can change in four years, especially in football – Huesca are no exception to that.

The game at the Nou Camp has a cup tie feel to it. That is credit to Huesca, the team from Aragon who only dreamt of games like this for the rest of their history, which started in 1960.

Sociedad Deportiva Huesca are two games deep into their inaugural season in in the Spanish top flight, and are currently taking the division by storm, registering 4 points from a possible 6.

When promoted, Huesca were ordered to renovate their stadium, Estadio El Alcoraz. It made history as the smallest ground in La Liga history, but have since added an extra 2500 to their ground. And why not? If history is anything to go by, Huesca fans should take their chance whilst they can and go and watch Oscence – the nickname given to people of the town.

Another nickname they use is azulgranas, due to the colours of their shirt, which is the same as the Barcelona Blaugrana. Why? Because Huesca were setup by a group of Barcelona fans, thus decided they would play in the same colours. They become the fourth team in La Liga to wear these colours, with Eibar and Levante being the other two.

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If the part where I described Huesca as minnows was understated or misunderstood, let me reel off some facts ahead of this encounter to drill home that point: you could fit the whole population of the town of Huesca into the Nou Camp, nearly twice; Lionel Messi’s weekly salary is greater than Huesca’s summer transfer budget; the club ran on just €100k per year when president Peton took over.

Speaking of Peton, he is the man behind Huesca’s success story. As the CEO, Jose Antonio Martin Otin (known as Peton), the ex-player revamped how the club was run slowly but surely since he took over a decade ago.

The side were looking down the barrel of relegation to the fourth tier, but they dodged the bullet and won the relegation playoff. Shortly after, they were promoted to the second division. Huesca were relegated not long after but remarkably, achieved two promotions in four years to enter La Liga for the first time ever.

Peton repeatedly says: “If you don’t understand this club, leave.”

Striker Alex Gallar understands the club as well as most, spent the majority of his career in the third and fourth tiers, but has had a Vardy-esque rise to the forefront of Spanish football, and scored a brace on Huesca’s opening day win against Eibar.

With little budget, Huesca have to rely on loan deals. Axel Werner represents a nice loan signing from Atletico Madrid, but the star man is Cucho Hernandez, on loan from Watford. The 19-year-old Colombian forward netted 16 goals last season in the promotion campaign and will be vital to the bid for survival.

Huesca won the hearts of social media with their last minute equaliser against Bilbao last weekend at San Mames – they are a romantic football story. Everyone loves a minnow, so the whole of the world that are not Barca fans will be rooting for the small side from Aragon in the Nou Camp on Sunday.

Should Huesca stay up, they will need a miracle. Sides like Eibar and Girona have showed it is possible, but the side with a 7500 capacity and a population smaller than the capacity of the Nou Camp, will need to show the fearless character they have in their opening games at Eibar and Athletic.

 

 

 

Opinion: Pep Guardiola’s all time XI

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Pep Guardiola is the man at the forefront of the Manchester City side that is quite literally tearing up the record books and re-writing them.

The Catalan is seen by a large majority of football fans as the best coach in world football, having brought success to Barcelona, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City.

You could be the best manager in the world, but you need good players to carry out your ideas on the pitch, like a craftsman needs good tools to succeed in a job.

Guardiola has never been short of that – he has always had the best players in the world to help his successes. But, who are the best?

At Barcelona, Guardiola built a team that is recognized as one of the best club sides of all time, and possibly the greatest of recent history. Building on a rich footballing philosophy passed down from Johan Cruyff and reconstructed by Guardiola and co, Barcelona had some of the best players in the world with a talented pool of homegrown players such as Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Valdes.

Following winning two Champions League titles, Pep decided he had taken Barcelona as far as he could, as well as got bored of the politics of the club, so left. A year later, he joined Bayern Munich, where he monopolized the Bundesliga, winning seven trophies in three years.

In early 2016, Manchester City appointed Guardiola as their boss. Since then, he has won two trophies in two years, including a 100 point haul in the Premier League, breaking all sorts of records in the process.

If there were to be a hypothetical ‘Best XI’ of all the players Guardiola has managed, who would make it? Would any of Guardiola’s current crop at City make it?

Let’s find out…

Pep’s tried and trusted 4-1-4-1 formation is his most used setup, so that is what we have chose for our fantasy XI.

Goalkeeper – Manuel Neuer  

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This wasn’t the straightforward decision it may seem from the outset – Victor Valdes is very underrated in popular media for one reason or another. However, Neuer would surely get the nod in a Guardiola XI. When the Catalan coach arrived in England in 2016 one of the biggest headlines was that he wanted away with Joe Hart, instead to buy a ‘Guardiola goalkeeper’: a ‘keeper as adequate with his feet as he is with his hands.

The 2014 World Cup winner is just that. Whilst one of the best shot stoppers we have seen this century, arguably the best goalkeeper of the past decade or so, he is perfectly capable with the ball at his feet and has popularized the ‘sweeper keeper’ role that is so prominent on the continent now.

City’s current number one, Ederson, surely looks up to Neuer as an inspirational figure he can learn from.

Manuel Neuer represents a no brainer decision for the goalkeeper spot, being potentially the most complete ‘keeper of the past decade or so.

Right Back – Dani Alves  

Dani Alves, now of PSG, represents potentially the best right back of this generation, embodying all the needed characteristics of the ‘modern full back’.

The money Guardiola spent on full backs in 2017 was no coincidence, as full backs are central to his system. He likes fast, attacking full backs that are comfortable to tuck inside and play as auxiliary midfielders to pack the middle when ordered to do so.

Alves is everything Guardiola wants in a full back. Signed from Sevilla in 2008, the Brazilian revolutionized wing back play at club level in a similar way his Brazilian counterparts Cafu and Roberto Carlos did at international football at the 2002 World Cup.

Just as we see with Walker and Mendy now at City, Alves was given responsibility as a buccaneering right-back in name but a winger in style, often playing higher than the midfielders as he helped to break down stubborn outfits.

Centre Back – Gerard Pique

Oft cited as a teachers pet of Guardiola’s school of thought, Gerard Pique is probably the biggest individual success story for Pep.

Brought back to his boyhood club just as Guardiola took charge, Gerard Pique developed a formidable pairing with Carles Puyol at the heart of the Barcelona defence and blossomed into one of the best defenders in the world.

Leaving Manchester United after making just 12 appearances in four years, Guardiola nurtured Pique from a benchwarmer at Old Trafford to a pivotal part of the team who won the ‘sixtuple’ at Barcelona, as well as international triumphs with Spain.

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Centre Back – Carles Puyol (C)

 The captain of all of Barcelona’s success is a guaranteed feature in this side. The centre-back, known for his iconic long curls, spent all of his career at Barcelona, after graduating from La Masia.

Puyol gets the nod over Jerome Boateng, who was unlucky to miss out, because he was a mainstay in Pep Guardiola’s side that won everything there was to win at club level, not to mention his triumphs with Spain.

Now retired, Puyol managed nearly 600 appearances for Barcelona and will be remembered for his innate leadership traits, as well as his clever style of defending, which overcome the fact he wasn’t the typical defender in the physical sense. 

Left Back – Philipp Lahm

Mr. Versatility himself was another easy decision in this team. In truth, he could have slotted in at right back, defensive midfield or even centre back, if needed. That’s how he was as a player too, the dream player for all coaches.

Guardiola saw Lahm as his most important player, probably as he does Fernandinho at City. He trained the reliable full back to one of the best defensive midfield players in the world, in the role Guardiola calls ‘El Pivote’.

Pep added a new dimension to the already accomplished game of Lahm, helping him captain his country to World Cup glory in 2014, whilst also leading Bayern to domestic success.

His leadership, versatility and tactical nous will make Lahm go down as one of footballs finest.

Defensive midfielder – Sergio Busquets

Dubbed the Octopus of Badia, Sergio Busquets is potentially the most cool defensive midfielder football will ever see. After a year together at Barcelona B, Guardiola promoted Busquets to the first team and no one has questioned that decision since.

For the decade to follow, Busquets has been Barca’s midfield lynch-pin and one of the first names on the team sheet every week.

In a position where the energetic midfield destroyer Fernandinho was a possibility, Busquets gets the nod for the way he manipulates the pitch in a unique manner: he is not quick, but he has one of the best brains in world football, and can pick a pass to the forwards, in an effortless style. His passes are weighted to perfection, almost giving the receiver telepathic instructions of which way to turn with their first touch, due to the crisp nature of the pass from Barca’s brains.

 Central midfielder – Kevin De Bruyne

The Belgian midfield maestro has been unplayable since he settled into his deeper lying role under Guardiola and was the star man that drove City to the title, registering man of the match performances against each of the other top six sides.

De Bruyne roams around the pitch picking passes and has the most assists in the league since joining City. His shooting range is phenomenal, as are his venomous crosses, making him City’s most devastating asset.

Central midfielder – Xavi

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Potentially the best midfielder of the generation, Xavi Hernandez is Pep-Ball to a T. The reliable and consistent mover of the ball won a staggering 31 trophies in his career, most notably eight La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues, a World Cup and two European Championships.

He was the man that made the greatest club side of the century tick, as well as a mainstay in the great Spain team that won three tournaments on the bounce.

Assisting Messi for a total of 31 goals, Xavi was the heartbeat of Pep’s fast football that caught the hearts of many football purists around the world, making him a no brainer in this fantasy eleven.

Winger – Lionel Messi

If you ever needed an example for a dictionary definition of ‘no brainer’, here we have one. Lionel Messi slotted into this team without so much as a seconds thought.

Guardiola is often cited as the man who developed Messi to what he is today, teaching him new aspects of his game whilst admitting Messi helped him shape his managerial career.

Whether it be as a false nine, or in the case of this team a winger, Messi is the best player in the world and the best player I have ever seen.

Pre-Guardiola, Messi had devastating running traits and the ability to manipulate the ball and the opponent, but Pep added the end product to his game, turning Messi into the most prolific forward of all time, hitting unprecedented heights.

Striker – Sergio Aguero

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When Guardiola arrived in England, question marks were asked of Sergio Aguero. Can Aguero function in Pep’s system? Will Pep sign a new striker to replace him? Will Jesus keep him out of the team?

Manchester City’s record goal scorer has answered those questions, and then some. The Argentine striker now has a higher strike rate than Robert Lewandowski when Pep was at Bayern, and David Villa at Barca.

Having undergone a knee operation at the tail end of last season, Aguero looks as sharp as ever and will have his sights set on more records as he climbs up the list of Premier League all time top scorers.

Winger – Franck Ribery

Regarded by many as the greatest non-German to represent the red of Bayern Munich, Franck Ribery was unstoppable when fully fit and in form at Bayern.

In 2013, the French star finished third in the Ballon d’or rankings, claiming later that he felt he deserved to win ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. That season, Ribery took all the Bundesliga awards, as a team and individually, with Ribery citing politics as the reason Ronaldo tipped him to the illustrious award despite winning no trophies that season.

Under Pep, Ribery often played the ‘false nine’ role made famous by Lionel Messi. Due to this multifunctional characteristic, Ribery gets the nod over his Bayern teammate Arjen Robben, who also excelled under Pep.