Opinion: Leeds must show they have bouncebackability after first defeat

For Football League World, Lewis Steele looks at how Leeds United need to recover from their first league defeat. 

Leeds suffered their first league defeat of the season last weekend as ex-manager Garry Monk led his Birmingham side to a 2-1 victory at Elland Road.

It was far from disastrous, with Leeds playing satisfactory on the day, but it was a loss nevertheless and the question now is how Bielsa’s men respond to this setback.

Often, football is a game of clichés. A lot of the words and phrases commentators, pundits and fans use when talking about football would not make sense in a non-sport setting. One of the most common clichés is ‘bouncebackability’. It may not be in the Oxford Dictionary and would certainly lose you marks if you used that word in a formal piece of writing such as an exam, but it is a word generally accepted in the footballing world to mean: can said team recover from a big loss?

This is often where titles or trophies are won and lost. The mark of all good sides in any league in the world is the attribute to mentally put setbacks aside and move on. Think of Manchester City last season: you could argue that they play better after a loss or draw, going on big runs.

If Leeds are serious about promotion, this is a crucial thing they must do. Having the talent on the pitch is one thing, but it doesn’t win you titles or promotions. Team spirit, mental grit, bouncebackability – the mental aspect is just as vital as the talented pool of players at Bielsa’s disposal.

Next up for Leeds is a tough trip to Sheffield on Friday night where they will face Jos Luhukay’s Sheffield Wednesday side who will be well up for the Yorkshire derby on the back of a win at Villa Park last time out. Should Leeds win, it will send a serious message to the rest of the division that they are true candidates for promotion. On the other hand, a loss would send out signals that they can be broken and do have weaknesses.

The rise of Edin Džeko from besieged Sarajevo to breaking records across Europe

As originally featured on This Football Times, Lewis Steele charts the rise of Edin Džeko from the war-torn Sarajevo to the top of the footballing ladder.

The story of most world-class footballers starts on a local park, where the future star would spend hours a day kicking a ball around with friends from an early age. The standard edition is usually a case of something along the lines of: “he would rise with the sun and play football until the sun set at night”. A scout would spot the player and sign them up for the city’s top academy, where the kid would ease their way through the ranks of the academy setup and eventually make their name in a prestigious first team.

But, for Edin Džeko, it was different. The land the Bosnian spent his days on was worlds away from a fancy park with flat, even playing turf and an expensive ball. In fact, the park that Džeko mastered the techniques and traits that saw him work his way up the footballing ladder was in the centre of a war torn Sarajevo, which was populated with a rare blade of unharmed grass and a ball only in shape, rather than the average football that you can buy over the counter in a sports shop.

Many footballers have stories of tough beginnings to life and how they have been inspired— but this is the story of Edin Džeko’s meteoric rise from the minefields of Yugoslavia to the pinnacle of European football, where he has cemented his name as one of the most prolific strikers of the past decade or so.

For most of the formative years of Džeko’s upbringing, his hometown Sarajevo was a heavily targeted area for ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations by the Bosnian Serbs in the Bosnian War, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, and left a devastating trail of savagery and broken families in its wake.

Known as ‘The Siege of Sarajevo’, the siege was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, as the Bosnian capital was attacked by forces of the ‘Yugoslav People’s Army’.

During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed the suit of other states and declared independence. The Bosnian Serbs had the strategic goal of creating a new Bosnian-Serb state known as Republika Srpska. They encircled Sarajevo with a siege force of more than 13,000, assaulting the city with artillery, tanks and other arms.

In the years of the war, nearly 14,000 people were killed, including over 5,000 civilians. Edin Džeko and his family lived in the middle of Sarajevo, so the sound of bombs and explosions were not rare.

Luckily, the Džeko family survived, but that didn’t prevent the events having a long lasting negative affect both physically and psychologically.

The family home of the Džeko’s was destroyed in this period, along with 35,000 other homes in the city. They had to move between substandard homes, if they could be described as ‘homes’, probably better described as a living space secured with not much more than a door diseased with bullet holes from the conflict, with no more than one meal per day.

Edin Džeko is tough, with a strong mentality. What was going on outside wouldn’t stop him from expressing his passion: football.

At the time of Džeko’s birth, Yugoslavia was becoming one of the powerhouses of football. The national team reached the quarter finals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy, to be knocked out by Argentina led by the great Diego Maradona, whilst Red Star Belgrade won the 1991 European Cup. Shortly after this, however, the conflict started as the Yugoslav army went to war with separatist Croatia, before Bosnian Serbs aimed to remove all other ethnicities from their land.

Sport as we know it today was virtually rendered into non-existence, especially in a competitive sense. There were no organised matches or tournaments to watch, as the war plagued leisure activities in Bosnia. This did not affect one thing: passion. The people loved sport, especially football, and Edin Džeko was no exception to this.

Bosanki Dijamant, which translates to ‘The Bosnian Diamond’, spent a large majority of his childhood kicking a ball of rolled up duct tape around the war torn surroundings in his hometown.

His mother, Belma, was skeptical of the idea of her young son being on the streets, but conceded that for Edin, the only way to disconnect from the tragic conflict was for him to follow his dreams and play football.

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 07.56.41

Despite this, one day Belma refused and told her son that he must not leave the house on that day. She made the right call. That day, the field and area where the future Bosnian captain played, was bombed and all but destroyed.

The kids of today perhaps take their upbringings for granted, if you compare them to Džeko and other children of Sarajevo. The modern childhood probably consists of days playing video games and spending some time outside with friends. For Džeko, however, it was a matter of life and death – it is hard to play in a field that may be blown up the next minute.

These harrowing experiences never thwarted Džeko’s dream: to be a footballer. He never dreamt of being the star that he is today, he never thought about the fame, he never considered the money he could one day make. For Džeko, it was the simple fact that he lived and breathed football and he wanted to express his ultimate passion.

Often in life, bad experiences shape us. The war helped Džeko mature at such a young age – he had to, there was no other option if he wanted to survive. Football was one of the few things Džeko had in his tarnished childhood, so if anything, the war grew his love for the beautiful game that he has become a master of.

Džeko continued to follow his dreams and just after the war, was signed up by his first professional club, FC Željezničar Sarajevo. The name Željezničarmeant ‘railway worker’, originating from the group of railway workers who established the club in 1921. Finally, it looked as though Džeko had made his break in professional football and completed his dream.

Sadly, however, it didn’t work out for Džeko at the most successful club in modern day Bosnia. Fans and journalists close to the club described Džeko as ‘klok’, a slang word that best translates as (wooden) ‘log’ in English. Despite his childhood idol being Andriy Shevchenko, Džeko played as a midfielder in his early days. He was too tall and his lanky structure meant he struggled, as he lacked the technical abilities needed to thrive as a creative player. He was labeled lazy and told he was not cut out to be a professional footballer.

To succeed, he had to move – both playing position and country. And so he did. In 2005, Džeko moved to Czech Republic club FK Teplice for the fee of €25,000. Years later, one of the Željezničar directors claimed this fee felt like their club had “won the lottery”. After two good goal-scoring seasons in the Czech leagues, Džeko was signed for VFL Wolfsburg by Felix Magath for a €4m fee.

During his time at Wolfsburg, Džeko was part of one of the most historic seasons in German history, playing a huge role as Die Wölfewon their first ever Bundesliga title in 2008/09. Along with Brazilian Grafite and fellow Bosnian Zvjezdan Misimović, Džeko completed what was known as the ‘magisches Dreieck’, or‘magic triangle’, as the trio led Magath’s side to unprecedented glory.

The next season, Džeko scored 22 goals and won the golden boot in the Bundesliga. After years of struggling to impress professional scouts and coaches in his homeland, Džeko was thriving in Germany. He left his comfort zone and excelled – all those hours in the minefields of Sarajevo paid off, as Džeko looked like a natural born finisher with predator-like instinct of when to pop up in the box.

The Volkswagen Arena was the first place where Džeko truly played with no pressure and for this, he molded into a top striker.

His ex coach at Željezničar, Jiří Plišek, said: “I met him [Džeko] for the first time in 2003 when I started to coach Željezničar. He was 17 and amazingly no one saw him as any kind of talent, but I saw his gift.”

Sadly, this has been one of the themes running through the career of The Bosnian Diamond: many do not appreciate him for what he is and many do not notice or appreciate his vast array of talent – almost a case of, to quote teenagers going through high-school breakups, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it’.

That was the case for fans of his next club, Manchester City. In the Premier League,Džeko was often viewed as ‘good, but not great’, and would almost certainly feature in a fantasy XI made up solely of ‘super-subs’. In Manchester, Džeko played a huge role in two title wins for City under Roberto Mancini and then Manuel Pellegrini.

The first time round, Džeko was the prequel to the Agüero-ooooo goal, where his header leveled the score before Argentinian Sergio Agüero scored the most memorable goal in Premier League history to win his side their first league title in a whopping forty-four years. Three seasons later, Džeko played a pivotal role in City’s 13/14 title win, scoring 26 goals despite often playing second fiddle to the partnership of Sergio Agüero and Alvaro Negredo. Again, Džeko will often be secondarily cited as a reason for City’s success, instead many will note the brilliance of Yaya Touré’s heroics or Steven Gerrard’s unfortunate slip against Chelsea.

Džeko turned down the opportunity to play for the national teams of countries he played in, such as the Czech Republic and Germany. Instead, whenever he wins a trophy, as he did plenty of times in the sky blue of Manchester City, he drapes himself in the blue and yellow flag of Bosnia, grasping the flag aloft with the same pride as he held high the iconic Premier League trophy two times.

Now, Džeko is a dime of Bosnia. When he scores a goal for the national team, it represents much more than a goal to add to the score-sheet: it is a goal for every Bosnian that went through physical and mental pain in the 90’s; it is a goal for peace; it is a dedication to all those that were not as fortunate as Edin Džeko to survive and become a sporting great, or a national icon.

Muhamed Jonjić, ex-defender and first ever captain of the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team in 1995, speaks extremely fondly of Džeko: “We see him rise through all that and make his global career, to become a great – a Bosnian great, a world great – but he stayed the same boy. Genuine, kind and straightforward – that’s the beauty of his greatness.”

Džeko kept his humble character despite being a superstar. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup that Bosnia qualified, which is another story in itself, Edin Džeko took part in a charity friendly to raise funds and awareness for floods that engulfed villages and cities in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, that caused damage beyond repair. Along with his other team-mates, Džeko and the Bosnia national team played against 100 children from families affected by the devastating floods.

That day, there was only one Edin Džeko, for obvious reasons, but on the pitch, every child tried to imitate their hero, by wearing shirts with ‘Džeko #9’ on the back and trying to play football in the style of their role model.

After seemingly conquering England and Germany before it, Džeko sought a new challenge, so moved to the eternal city of Rome, signing for AS Roma. Whilst the Bosnian has no Serie A titles to his name, his legacy will live on with the Giallorossias he won the golden boot with 29 goals in the league, and has been part of many famous nights in Rome.

It was indeed Edin Džeko that started the unforgettable comeback as his side ‘rose from their ruins’ in Rome to defeat the mighty Barcelona, who had a 4-1 advantage going into the second leg. His name will rarely be mentioned when talking about that day, as it is when discussing City’s title win in the last minute against Queens Park Rangers. This adds to the common theme that Džeko goes rather unnoticed in the wider footballing community, and is vastly underappreciated.

Screen Shot 2018-09-27 at 07.57.28

The story charting the journey of Edin Džeko is inspiring. It may not be the tale of a glittering career, dusted with Balon d’or’s and World Cup trophies, nor will Džeko go down as one of the best strikers to grace our leagues, but the story carries weight nevertheless.

It is the story of a boy, who kicked a ball around a park and went home at night not knowing if the park would be there the next day. It is the story of a Bosnian child who watched buildings and families be destroyed one by one alongside him, who went on to be a great. It is the story of how tragedy shaped ones passion and how a young man with a dream went on to represent his beloved Bosnia at a World Cup, despite having the chance to play for Czech or German national teams.

Edin Džeko will never be spoke about in the same breathe as the greats at his clubs. But, as the only player to have 50 or more league goals in England, Germany and Italy, he should be regarded as one of the most underrated players of his generation.

The war child from Sarajevo disproved the feeling that it was not possible to succeed from Bosnia as a sportsman, by clinging on to his love and passion for football at a time when there was little else to smile about. Džeko remained humble and rose from the depression of his house covered in bullet holes, to conquer three of the best leagues in the world.

As a story, Džeko’s career has a few chapters left yet. He isn’t a player that relies on pace. Instead he uses his ‘slow and lazy’ approach, which saw him sold by his first club FC Željezničar, to light up the biggest stages in world football. Thus, there is still life in the big Bosnian yet.

If you have learned one thing from this story, make it be: do not undermine or underrate the talent and character of Edin Džeko – he will continue to prove you wrong, just as he has done from a young boy through to becoming Bosnia’s greatest ever player and a prolific goal-scorer around the continent.

Opinion: Jack Grealish must prove his worth following new deal

For Football League World, Lewis Steele calls for Jack Grealish to step up to the next level whereby he starts ‘winning games on his own’. 

Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish penned a new big-money deal on Monday, keeping him in contract at Villa Park until 2023.

The intricacies of the contract were not disclosed however, many strong reports have suggested Grealish’s wage has doubled to around £50k per week.

Money talks: the fact Villa were willing to fork out such a substantial fee on Jack Grealish speaks volumes about his reputation at the club. The hierarchy obviously see him as irreplaceable and of the utmost importance to any promotion bid Steve Bruce’s side may launch.

However, is Grealish really worth this amount of money? Villa think so, but realistically only time will tell.

For the player, he needs to show the Villa faithful exactly why he is worth so much. By a significant distance, Grealish is Aston Villa’s best footballer. There is little doubt about that. However, does he have it in him to start winning more matches on his own and subsequently push Villa to the higher ends of the table.

The reported wage should be reflective of this ability. If Grealish does do the aforementioned and start influencing games to his true potential, it will be worth every single penny.

If Villa do earn promotion, there is no doubt Grealish will be a huge factor and also no doubt that this new deal will be cited. Fans of other clubs have criticised Villa in the past days, but should Grealish launch them to the Premier League, this new deal is worth it tenfold and more.

Grealish did indeed deserve the transfer saga linking him to big Premier League outfits, but with this new deal, he needs to up his game further and start influencing games on a higher level, catapulting Villa back to the top flight.

Opinion: 5 things Manchester City need to change if they are to win the Champions League

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 10.36.33

Humans are habitual, they get a sense of pride and fulfilment by collecting things. Often, they are tangible items, things of little monetary value, yet of huge sentimental value. For most people, their hobby could be collecting antiques or empty bottles. I am not one of those people, as my biggest passion is in sport. Every gig or football match I attend, I keep the ticket stub safe and attach sentimental value to them, knowing that one day a decade or two down the line I will look back and remember everything about that night, with tickets from big City games or concerts of my favourite artists springing to mind.

Some collections are finite, many are not. A sticker book for example, you get a feeling of fulfilment once you have got every sticker – as a kid, you would spend your break at school trading sticker books and be in a never-ending search for the all allusive shiny sticker to complete your sticker book (usually some forgotten iconic player such as Ivan Campo, but that’s just my experience).

Yet, often, collections aren’t tangible. For me, I have a collection of Manchester City memories, but this collection is metaphorically similar to the sticker books of primary school days. It is missing one sticker.

I am only 21, I can’t brag that I was with City for three decades through the poor times. I wasn’t at York away and I was only two years old when Paul Dickov scored that goal in ’99. I have been lucky to see majorly good things at my club City and have mainly happy memories watching them win trophies at the Etihad, or on a sunny day at Wembley.

But yet, something is missing. One piece of my collection is missing: the Champions League.

I have been treated to watching some of the greats of the Premier League era strut their stuff at the Etihad, under the tutelages of the iconic Roberto Mancini and then Manuel ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ Pellegrini, through to the best manager in world football, Josep Guardiola.

The FA Cup and the League Cup have been ticked off my list, too. One thing is left to conquer: the Champions League. Then I could say with pride: “I have seen City win everything there is to win in England” (N.B. the Europa League/UEFA Cup of old and Community Shield are rendered somewhat irrelevant in my mind, although I have ‘ticked off’ the latter twice).

Evidently, City winning the Champions League would bring a sense of fulfilment to me. If I could get a ticket to the final, I am sure it would be remembered in the best days of my life. I am also certain that if City were to do it, it would be in peak ‘typical City’ fashion, probably scoring a last minute winner via a goal scored by the most unlikely source: let’s say for arguments sake it would be Kyle Walker who accidentally got in the way of Aguero’s shot and deflected it in off his backside.

If City are to do it and win the jugular, so to speak, Pep Guardiola seems the man to do it. Yet, in his first two seasons in Manchester, it hasn’t gone too well. In 2017, it was the free-flowing Monaco who played City off the park in the principality, whereas in 2018 it was Klopp’s Liverpool who got one over on City yet again.

The ghosts of Anfield and the Stade Louis II may haunt Pep Guardiola and although he puts on a brave face and adopts the attitude that the Premier League is much more important, the Catalan coach will hurt inside and have nightmares about his Champions League shortfalls in Manchester.

So, enough of the boring personal analogies and more of the football, what do Manchester City have to do to win the Champions League? Here, I have listed five things that Guardiola’s men must do (or change) to win Europe’s elite competition:

1. Believe

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 11.20.57.png

“The only difference guys, between Real Madrid, Barcelona and us is that they are f*cking believers.”

“To climb the highest mountain guys is not about this, it’s about this”, Guardiola said as he pointed to his footballing brain.

These words from Guardiola stuck with me. They were said prior to the Liverpool defeat over two legs in the Champions League last season. City’s coach lauded over his team, saying on the field they were the best in the world, but one thing is holding them back: belief.

It is the singular word that I cited when previewing City’s European season for Breaking the Linesand is also the word that I used when describing City’s spineless performances against Liverpool and Manchester United in that catastrophic week that saw them lose the Manchester Derby and then be knocked out of the Champions League.

That day in the loss to United I used the word ‘winners’. It may be slightly different to ‘belief’ but the essence is the same.

When you look at Real Madrid, you see natural born winners: Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Cristiano— not anymore, but at the time, you almost knew they would win the Champions League because of this plethora of leaders who have ‘been there, done that’ and have the experience to conquer Europe again.

It is the sort of player that if a game is not going their way, they can turn it in the favour of their team (more on that in part 4).

On the pitch, I have every belief that City are the best team in the world with the best coach at the helm. But do they have the belief?

Do they believe in themselves to think not just “we can have a chance at the Champions League this season”, but “we will win the Champions League this season”. They have belief in the Premier League, they filmed the infamous Etisalat advert where they are referred to as Champions in February.

I’m not saying they should do a Germany of Russia 2018 and book their hotel for the final in advance, which would be in Madrid for the final at the Wanda Metropolitano, but City players need to believe they have what it takes to win the Champions League.

If City do that, they can win it.

2. Resilience

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 17.26.01

Again, referring to that defeat at Anfield, as well as that demolishing at the Stade Louis II in Monaco, City showed they have little resilience in big games.

“But, City had a great defensive record in the league last season and Otamendi got into the team of the year”, I hear you say.

This is not an assassination of City’s defence. They have a great back four with some of the best talents in the world, including two marauding full backs and a quartet of central defenders who all bring something different to the table.

Resilience in these terms isn’t a question of how many goals a team can prevent, it is how they react to a goal being scored.

When City go one goal behind, you can almost physically see the morale drop – the body language becomes languid, the chins drop, players start pointing the finger about.

At the annual loss at Anfield, City always start well and are usually as good as their opponent, if not the better team, but when Liverpool go one goal up, the heads collectively drop and it is almost that defeat is accepted at that moment.

City have so far lacked the ability to proverbially say: “Right, five minutes, let’s get our heads and compose ourselves, then go from there.”

It was this that cost them in Monaco, Liverpool and multiple league games in Pep’s tenure, especially in the 2016/17 season. It is not a coincidence that often when City go 1-0 down, they go 2-0 down shortly after.

It is a fundamental flaw of the team that needs fixing, one that I am sure Guardiola is working on to put right. Things in football don’t go your way all season, there will be moments when you struggle on the pitch.

City’s resilience in this way has cost them in the past two seasons, and is an issue they must fix.

3. The fans

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 17.39.27.png

14th September, 2011: Manchester City v Napoli. It is Manchester City’s first ever Champions League match. The stadium is packed with fans, with many missing out on tickets for one of the biggest nights in the clubs history. People get to the ground abnormally early, going against their usual match day routine because it’s a huge night and they want to be in to soak up the atmosphere.

Unfortunately for City, they were knocked out at the group stages that season, with Bayern Munich rampant and a Napoli side led by Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik dominant. But, this wasn’t seen as a disaster at the time, after all it was City’s debut season.

A few managers and Premier League titles later, City are one of the best teams in the world. The fans do not match that. Where has the attitude that you should feel honoured to be in the Champions League gone? Where has the anticipation of these cold nights in Manchester where you can see mist descending in the South Stand gone?

Champions League group stage matches are now on the same level as a home cup tie with lower league opposition, with the club’s methods of getting people through the doors failing, evidently.

The attendance at the home fixture to Lyon this week was 41,000 – it’s an issue for another discussion but it highlights the overriding problem: City fans have a disconnection with the Champions League and only turn up when it’s the business end of the competition, or when the big boys such as Barca and Bayern play at the Etihad.

One can’t help but wonder whether the attitude of the fans trickles down on to the pitch, whether the blasé, ‘can’t be bothered with this competition attitude’ affected the players in the Lyon defeat.

Whether it be prices, travel, work commitments, weather or whatever else, many City fans think it is better to stay at home on many European nights.

When thinking about this, I asked the fan base what the best atmosphere they have experienced at the Etihad was. The results were interesting, but one answer came up time and time again.

The Aguero goal? No. The Manchester Derby where City virtually won the league? No.

In fact, it was City’s Europa League quarter-final second-leg tie with German outfit Hamburg. City did not qualify that night, but the atmosphere has stuck with fans for the ten years after.

The whole ground was behind the team and it reflected on the pitch. The great Elano hit the woodwork more than once, and the collective “Ooooh!” from the crowd left ears ringing around the stadium for minutes to follow.

The 1894 Group do a great job of creating an atmosphere in the South Stand, and the flags and banners for some Champions League nights has been admirable in recent years.

However, should City really progress and be serious about the Champions League, the mindset of the fans must change and they must try and will City over the line as they tried to do in the second leg to Liverpool last season, or in the triumph against Paris St-Germain in 2016.

Whether this starts with moving on from booing the Champions League anthem and focusing more on their own team, I am not sure, but with a rocking Etihad Stadium (like we know it can be, but 9 times out of 10 isn’t), City can really go far in this competition.

4. Keep De Bruyne fit

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 18.07.21.png

Now, obviously, this is out of the control of Manchester City FC, but… if City are to win the Champions League, they need their star man fit, just as Real Madrid needed Ronaldo to help them to their record three-on-the-bounce.

Kevin De Bruyne is more than City’s best player, he is a leader. Maybe not in the conventional sense, like a Vincent Kompany or a traditional captain barking orders and encouragement to his players. However, De Bruyne is a leader in the fact he leads by example football wise.

When the rest of the players are having an off day, Kevin De Bruyne is always the one to step it up and up his game to another level, which rubs off on the other players.

He is also often the player to score the goals in the tough games, earning him the ‘big game player’ tag.

Without De Bruyne, especially in the away games and tough home ties, City look void of ideas, lacking a driving force with a brain from midfield.

Should City progress further than ever in this competition, they need this leadership figure on the pitch.

5. Adaptability

Screen Shot 2018-09-21 at 19.28.36

“I only believe in Plan A. Plan B is to get Plan A to work” – Marcelo Bielsa.

The Argentinian coach El Loco is one of Guardiola’s inspirations in coaching and the Catalan certainly adopts some of the ideologies of the revolutionary coach who is now at Leeds United. 

It is a view that is admirable. You very rarely see Guardiola sub on a 6 foot 5 target man if chasing a goal (not that he has any to do so, anyway), nor do you see him put on an extra defender in midfield, unless it is to run down the clock in the 93rd minute.

But, is it a view that is flawed?

As a Manchester City supporter, we often purr over the attacking and exciting football we are treated to at the Etihad, whilst criticising the somewhat ‘boring’ defensive performances we see over the city, but sometimes in big away Champions League ties, could Guardiola slightly alter?

It wouldn’t be drastic. It would not be a Mourinho of Chelsea and play David Luiz alongside Nemanja Matic and Ramires in a stubborn midfield. It would be more of a ‘let’s not commit every single man forward when we go forward and be more conservative’.

Guardiola has a plethora of options up his sleeve to adapt his attacking setup to break down stubborn sides such as those who ‘park the bus’ and sit in deep at the Etihad – he can switch formations in game with ease, as we saw in the win over Arsenal at the Emirates earlier this season, but can Guardiola learn to adapt his sides to be more solid at the back?

Pellegrini’s City couldn’t win the Champions League because of Pellegrini’s stubbornness to change from his 4-4-2 (a midfield duo of Toure and Fernandinho at the Bernabeu, nightmares).

Guardiola should learn these lessons and slightly alter his team in big away fixtures in the latter stages of this competition.

Despite the loss to Lyon, Manchester City have a real chance of winning this seasons Champions League, with a number of factors in their favour.

Last season, for one reason or another, City fell short in the Champions League. Despite this, they are ready to win Europe’s elite competition and if they put a few minor faults right, they are worthy favourites.

Also, if you read this you may think it is dramatically overreacting: it is. That’s what Manchester City fans do, they will never change. No matter how good City get, the fan base will always go into games expecting to lose: after all, City are the club who beat Barcelona and drew to Middlesbrough in the same week.

On a personal note, the Champions League is still a distant dream, but when I have my realistic head on, I know that Manchester City are worthy favourites. If they put these few things right, City can (will?) win it. 

Opinion: Bernardo Silva proves City will be in good hands when his namesake retires

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 01.37.31

When Manchester City announced the signing of Portuguese winger Bernardo Silva from AS Monaco in the summer of 2016, eyebrows were raised at the £43m price tag.

Rival fans criticised Pep Guardiola and City for spending big money on a player who only really had one top season under his belt, and wasn’t even a guaranteed starter at The Eithad, with Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané seemingly dislodgeable in the starting eleven.

Yet, supporters of the ever-growing club who announced a club record income and further profits this week, were delighted at the signing of the Portuguese trickster who starred in Monaco’s surprise Champions League run under coach Leonardo Jardim.

From all corners of the Etihad, the winger was an exciting acquisition and fans started to speculate. Although he played predominantly as a right-winger in his opening season, fans had a vision for Bernardo Silva: to eventually be moulded into a central midfield player where he could star for City.

In fact, it was more than become a midfielder that City fans tasked and envisioned Bernardo Silva with, it was to take the reign of David Silva, Manchester City’s greatest ever player.

He first made his name amongst the City fan base in February 2017, during the Champions League clash between City and Bernardo’s Monaco.

Kylian Mbappé’s performances over two legs were heavily dissected as ‘a star was born’, but for many, Bernardo Silva was the shining light both at the Etihad and the return leg at the Stade Louis II, where Monaco played Pep Guardiola’s side off the park.

That performance in the principality of Monaco surely took the eye of Guardiola, who reportedly contacted the Portuguese star.

Fast-forward a few months, Bernardo Silva signed for City, becoming Guardiola’s first signing of a summer that will be remembered long in the memory of City fans, as they added the likes of Ederson, Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to strengthen weak areas and set them up for a record-breaking season.

Although he made the most appearances for City last season, Bernardo Silva took a few months to get going, only really making substitute appearances in the first half of the season.

In the second half of the season, perhaps helped by the injuries of Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva came into his own, with fine performances against many top opposition that saw him on the scoresheet against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal to name a few.

This pre-season signified a change for Bernardo Silva, however. After a below-par World Cup for Portugal, he returned to Manchester and was one of the first of City’s sixteen that went to Russia to join the pre-season tour of the United States.

There, Guardiola worked and worked on Bernardo Silva as a midfielder. After some eye-catching displays on tour in the States, it would seem that following a season used to settle into the new tempo of the Premier League, Bernardo Silva was ready for a place in Pep Guardiola’s demanding midfield.

In beating Chelsea 2-0 at Wembley in the Community Shield, his coach was full of praise.

“The performance of Bernardo Silva was a masterpiece,” Guardiola said.

“Right now, it is Bernardo and 10 others.”

“He is so intelligent, he is clever. He is a fighter, a competitor. I think he is the guy most beloved in our team and today he showed me a lot of things.”

Although Bernardo Silva showed promising glimpses at Wembley and in the victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, which included a well taken goal, the performance of Silva yesterday against Fulham was mesmeric.

City defeated Jokanovic’s side with ease at the Etihad, with goals from Sané, David Silva and Sterling, it was Bernardo Silva who was the name on many fans lips leaving the ground.

Bernardo managed five key passes, an 89.7% pass accuracy as well as 5 chances created. A smile could be seen on the face of the player who was awarded man of the match in the stadium.

The little magician, who was nicknamed ‘Messizinho’ when playing for SL Benfica, showed why he earned such names.

After David Silva made it 2-0 to City, I tweeted my joy for the player.

On a personal note, sometimes when I watch players I get a buzz inside. It is very rare and only a handful of players can bring this out of me. Lionel Messi did it when he was making his name at Barca, Kylian Mbappé was another with his performance against Argentina at the World Cup, Kevin De Bruyne against Stoke City when he racked up assist after assist in a 7-2 win, but it is rare.

Bernardo Silva did that. Watching him live at the Etihad yesterday was a pleasure.

I compared him to City’s biggest stars, the midfield partnership that ran the Premier League last season. The midfield partnership that sadly, only has a year or so left. If they had years ahead, there is no doubt they would go down as one of the best midfield duo’s in recent history, along with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta or Kroos and Modric.

Sadly for City fans, David Silva’s career is coming to an end. El Mago will be remembered as one of the greats of the Premier League era, but sadly, it is nearly over and the day of his departure is ever approaching.

But yesterday, City fans showed something that proved to them that Bernardo Silva could take that role and leave City in safe hands for years to come.

His nonchalant touch, his passing ability, the way he drove forward and linked the midfield and attack – just a few things to note from a memorable performance.

Screen Shot 2018-09-16 at 01.36.51

“It’s almost impossible to be more pleased as a manager. That’s why he deserves to play all the minutes he’s playing. He’s a good example for us, all the guys”, said Guardiola after the game.

“Thank you so much to Manchester City for buying him.”

The only thing holding Bernardo back from getting full marks and a 10/10 was the fact he didn’t add a goal, missing a couple of chances that he could have done better with.

Soon, David Silva will move on, it will be a devastating day for all concerned with City, but yesterday especially showed that City are in great hands – Bernardo Silva is the heir to the throne that David Silva has reigned from for his eight-year stay in Manchester.

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

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 16.21.36

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.

Screen Shot 2018-09-12 at 16.22.14

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.