The end is in sight for Ronaldo at Real Madrid

The Portuguese picked up his third Pichichi prize at an event in the capital on Monday, but admitted he doesn’t know how long he will remain at the Santiago Bernabeu

The end is in sight for Ronaldo at Real Madrid

Another award for Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese picked up the prestigious Pichichi prize for the third time on Monday, but hinted he may not be at Real Madrid beyond the expiration of his current contract in 2018. “Two more years and then we’ll see,” he said.

Since moving from Manchester United to Madrid in 2009, he has already gone on to become the club’s all-time top goalscorer. That honour arrived earlier this season as he overcame Raul’s record of 323 strikes and he was celebrating his ability to put the ball in the net again on Monday.

Leading figures from the football world were present at Madrid’s Teatro Goya to see Ronaldo receive his third Pichichi prize for finishing as La Liga’s top scorer in 2014-15 – the 48 goals in 35 games he hit last season his best return yet in the Primera Division.

So Cristiano has now won the award as many times as Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. This term, however, he has competition from several other players. Ronaldo (19) is level with club colleague Karim Benzema and one behind Barca’s Luis Suarez (20), with Neymar (16) not far back. Messi, meanwhile, has 12 after spending almost two months on the sidelines between September and November.

And even if Ronaldo retains the trophy this time next year, it is unclear how many he can win. The Portuguese is out of contract in 2018 and said on Monday: “I will stay for two more years and then we’ll see.”

Coach Zinedine Zidane dismissed doubts over Cristiano’s future recently when he said: “As long as I am here, he’ll be here as well.” That, however, is no guarantee of longevity because Madrid coaches rarely get more than two or three seasons – especially under current club chief Florentino Perez.

Carlo Ancelotti is the best example of that and the Italian coach was present at the MARCA ceremony on Monday to pick up an award for his success as coach last year – even though a failure to claim a major trophy in the second part of the campaign ultimately cost him his job.

Ronaldo and Ancelotti embraced affectionately outside the theatre, the two men still close after leading Real to La Decima in 2013-14. But the Italian is now part of the club’s past – and the Portuguese may no longer represent the long-term future for Madrid either.

Ronaldo’s remarkable record in front of goal has continued this term, with 30 goals in 29 matches so far in 2015-16. But a failure to convert against top teams like Barcelona, Atletico, Paris Saint-Germain and more, plus an inability to influence outside the area and a noticeable decline physically show quite clearly that he is no longer the player he was in his early years at the Bernabeu.

Madrid, of course, are now banned from signing players for two transfer windows. With the sanction suspended during the appeal process, Real should be allowed to complete deals in the summer, but they will be unable to strengthen their squad again after that until January 2018.

And by then, replacing Ronaldo is likely to be top of their list of priorities. Because he is already slightly past his physical peak and at the age of 33, the time may just be right for the two parties to go their separate ways. In addition, failure to add more collective trophies to his underwhelming total of seven since 2009 could also hasten his departure.

So while Cristiano has been brilliant by and large for Madrid these past seven seasons and Monday’s award was another reminder of his extraordinary goalscoring skills, it now appears the end may be in sight for the prolific Portuguese at Real. And much like the player himself, his club will surely be thinking along similar lines. “Two more years and then we’ll see.”

OFFICIAL: Crystal Palace sign Adebayor

The Eagles have scored only one goal – an own goal – in their last six Premier League matches but have now bolstered their attack with the arrival of the Togo striker

OFFICIAL: Crystal Palace sign Adebayor

Crystal Palace have signed free agent Emmanuel Adebayor on a six-month contract.

The Togo international was released by Tottenham in September and has been without a club since, but has now signed a deal with the Eagles until the end of the season.

Palace boss Alan Pardew has made clear his desire to sign a striker this month and the club have also been linked with the likes of Nicklas Bendtner, Loic Remy and Emmanuel Emenike.

Palace’s only goal in their last six Premier League games was an own goal scored by Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen on Saturday.

Adebayor was reportedly close to joining Aston Villa in the summer but was eventually let go by Spurs having failed to find a new club, and has not played since May 3 of last year.

The former Arsenal and Real Madrid player will wear the No.25 shirt at Selhurst Park.

Neymar is very, very, very happy at Barca – Zubizarreta on Madrid rumours

The Catalan club’s former sporting director is confident the Brazilian will resolve his contract saga and remain with the La Liga champions

Neymar is very, very, very happy at Barca - Zubizarreta on Madrid rumours

Neymar is completely content at Barcelona and will remain with the club, according to former Camp Nou sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta.

A goalkeeper for Barca and Spain during his playing days, Zubizarreta served on Barcelona’s board from July 2010 to January 2015.

Neymar’s controversial move to the Camp Nou came during this period and, while the ramifications of that deal are still being played out in Spanish court rooms, the Brazil captain has dazzled on the field in an irresistible forward trio alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez.

Speculation has swirled over the 23-year-old’s future as he mulls a fresh contract with the Spanish, European and world club champions.

But Zubizarreta echoed the thoughts of coach Luis Enrique when he told Cadena Cope he could not envisage the forward leaving.

“Neymar is happy at the club,” Zubizarreta said. “Very, very, very happy at the club ”

Zubizarreta oversaw the acquisitions of Neymar and Suarez either side of Barcelona being hit by a player registration ban for breaching Fifa rules on the transfer of youth players.

Suarez arrived during the appeals process before the punishment spanning two full transfer windows took hold – meaning close-season signings Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal were only able to make their Barca debuts earlier this month.

Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have landed similar sanctions for comparable offences, although Zubizarreta maintains that Barcelona were innocent of any wrongdoing.

“Barca did nothing wrong with the signing of underage players,” he said. “We complied with the law and were supported by the Catalan Federation.

“Fifa understood that a rule had been breached but we disagreed with them.”

Barcelona are level on points with Atletico at the top of La Liga, with Madrid four points further back.

Zubizarreta expects the title race to go down to the wire and be influenced by the three clubs’ participation in the latter stages of the Champions League.

“The league will be decided in the last 10 games” he added.

Luis Enrique targets further Barcelona success after a remarkable year

What an absolutely extraordinary week Luis Enrique has just had.

Exactly one year ago, he was about to rise from what seemed to be footballing ruins, and the events of the past few days have been a brilliant way to mark that anniversary.

In turn he has been idiosyncratic, daring and shrewd, but above all, the Barcelona manager has been true to himself.

It’s one of the all-time great comeback stories.

For context, do you remember early January 2015? Barcelona appeared to be mired in crisis.

There was the standup row with Lionel Messi in training on the Friday before losing to Real Sociedad — with the Argentinian and Neymar left on the bench — followed by the sacking of Luis Enrique’s friend and mentor Andoni Zubizarreta a couple of days later.

Four points behind leaders Real Madrid and only in second place ahead of Atletico Madrid because of their goal power, Barca were as close to Valencia in fourth as they were to first.

(One year later, a four-point gap between Real Madrid and league leaders Atletico was enough to see Rafa Benitez sacked at the Bernabeu.)

After losing in San Sebastian, Luis Enrique’s next match was at home to Elche in the Copa del Rey, and fewer than 28,000 fans turned up at the Camp Nou to see it. Albeit that he was a Barcelona hero as a player, it looked like a vote of no confidence for “Lucho.”

“The sacking of ‘Zubi’ weakens my position and makes me sad,” he admitted in his press conference.

The rest is history and represents one of the most astonishing turnarounds in football. Barca played scintillating football and barely misplaced a footstep in winning La Liga, the Champions League and the Copa del Rey.

But now it feels like the continued superlative football, especially from the MSN of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, as well as Barcelona’s five-trophy haul since that traumatic January, might be combining to leave some of Luis Enrique’s excellence in the shade.

So, how about this for his last week of work?

1. Barcelona 4-0 Granada

Messi hit a hat trick two days before he would collect his historic fifth Ballon d’Or, but the man of the match, by a distance, was Sergi Roberto. Perhaps the success story of Barcelona’s season so far, it was already clear just how much faith his manager has in the 23-year-old.

Comfortable in right or left midfield and stellar at right-back in Dani Alves’ absence, Sergi had already put in a stunning performance “overloading” Madrid in midfield and attack during the 4-0 Clasico win.

But this was an exponential step forward.

The single most demanding and specialist position in Barcelona’s version of the 4-3-3 formation is in central midfield. It’s called the “Pivote” and there’s a gatekeeping role.

Possession passing through this position needs to be ultraswift and shrewd, with no hesitation, no mistakes. It’s like speed chess.

If the player in this position loses the ball, misses a tackle or misjudges where to be, then it can leave Barcelona horrifically exposed.

Sergi deputised for Sergio Busquets in the middle of midfield and played brilliantly, looking as if he had trained and performed there for several seasons.

This was an exceptional decision by Barcelona’s manager and, suddenly, a relatively inexperienced footballer, who many would have been relaxed to see leave the club the previous summer, had shown he was the perfect deputy for a player who seemed not to have a proper replacement.

Luis Enrique retained Sergi, promoted him, used him in his preferred position and then kept on testing how many more challenges he could pass. Great vision by the coach.

2. Ballon D’Or Award

You might think him rude, and I don’t think he’ll be distraught if you did.

But Luis Enrique profoundly disapproved of the 2014 ban, which FIFA imposed on Barcelona for transgressing the rules on when and how to sign juvenile footballers. Accordingly, he was true to himself and refused to attend.

The Ballon d’Or itself, without its recent ties to FIFA, is an award of prestige and merit and one which puts winners in esteemed company. To opt not to turn up on a point of principle is, you’d have to say, staying true to personal values — something which the demands of modern football often undermines.

3. Espanyol 0-2 Barcelona

Eleven days after their city rivals harassed and pressed Barcelona into submission in a very aggressive 0-0 draw in La Liga, Luis Enrique saw no danger, only an opportunity in the second leg of this cup tie.

Now I have a vested interest here, having written for ESPN FC back in December 2013: “Why, given the myriad of tactical niceties out there, is this club hidebound to never, ever think about reducing deficiencies and augmenting remaining strengths with a team shape of 4-2-3-1?”

It transpires that Luis Enrique is open to that way of thinking and, against Espanyol, he lined his team up in such a formation. With a whole host of niceties that made the decision stand out:

– Drawing conclusions from Sergi’s performance against Granada, the two organising midfielders in this new tactical scheme didn’t include Busquets who, having played several hundred minutes more than at the same stage the previous season, was rested. That’s vital if he’s to be on form for the trophy-winning part of the season. In his absence, Sergi was paired with Rakiti, and the two functioned like hand in glove. Nice work, coach.

– The formation also facilitated Munir El Haddadi at centre-forward, Messi at No. 10 and Aleix Vidal as a winger. Munir, evidently classy in technical terms but shorn of goal confidence this season, was deployed nearer to his perfect position instead of wide right, which is largely the case when he substitutes for one of the MSN. This, with Suarez suspended, was probably the only formation in which Munir can start in the No. 9 position and the youngster responds by scoring twice. Round peg, round hole. Ring the bell for the coach.

– Messi, who has already been playing as a hybrid between the front line and that which Xavi Hernandez used to occupy, was returned to the position where he orchestrates everything. He plays superbly and sets up Munir’s first with a shimmering pass. “We want a formation which gives Messi, our best player, the most time on the ball, and we might well use this setup again this season,” admits Luis Enrique. Ring the bell twice.

– Vidal, who is technical, clever, quick and adventurous, not only turned in a vibrant performance on the right of the attacking three behind Munir but also saw the opportunity to change position late on and overload Espanyol down Barca’s left. It is a surprise move via which he supplies Munir with the second goal. Following Sunday night’s 6-0 win over Athletic Bilbao, it means that in the four games since the two players became eligible, Luis Enrique has used Arda and Vidal in five different positions, from where they have combined for three goal assists. Just ring the bell again.

Thus, it has been a great week, featuring personal excellence from the coach, as well as three Liga and Copa wins with an aggregate 12-0 scoreline.

But there’s no time for Luis Enrique to pat himself on the back, not that it is a propensity of his anyway. The Copa del Rey quarterfinals bring two more meetings with Athletic Club, starting on Wednesday at San Memes, where Barca lost 4-0 in the Super Cup last August.

And beyond that tie, everything is building to a miniclimax on Jan. 30, when current leaders Atletico play at the Camp Nou. In the same fixture last year, one week after that Real Sociedad defeat, Luis Enrique’s Barcelona sprang to life and never slowed down until everything was won in June.

Culled from soccernet.com

Lionel Messi not winning Ballon d’Or would be ‘madness,’ says Thierry Henry

Thierry Henry says it would be “madness” if Barcelona star Lionel Messi is denied the Ballon d’Or trophy on Monday.

Thierry Henry says it would be “madness” if Barcelona star Lionel Messi is denied the Ballon d’Or trophy on Monday.

Along with Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barca teammate Neymar, Messi is a finalist for the award, which will be announced on Jan. 11.

Messi, who led his club to a historic Treble last season, has been named world’s best player a record four times in his career. And Henry, who played with the Argentine from 2007-10, has declared it would be an injustice if the Blaugrana No. 10 did not add to his collection this time around.

“All we can do is enjoy what he does because what he is doing is not normal,” Henry told Barca’s official website on Thursday.

“We used to say that a player who got 23 to 25 goals in a season was an incredible striker, but Messi does that in three months.

“We had incredible players in that [Barca] team [that Henry played in] and whenever you did not know what to do, you always looked for Messi.

“I think it would be madness if he does not win the Ballon d’Or. He deserves it because the team won another Treble.

“But what I do not understand is why Suarez isn’t there.”

Barcelona beat Juventus 3-1 in the Champions League final last year and look the early favourites to lift the trophy in 2016, which would make them the first side in the Champions League era to repeat — a feat Henry believes will happen.

“In a single game, Bayern [Munich] can win it and you have to be careful with PSG too,” he said.

“You never know what might happen, but I think Barca can win it again.”

‘Ranieri old, Wenger a failure’ – Mourinho mockery coming back to haunt him

The Chelsea boss has made fun of the Leicester and Arsenal managers, plus Manuel Pellegrini, but they are challenging for the title while he languishes near the foot of the table

'Ranieri old, Wenger a failure' - Mourinho mockery coming back to haunt him

Throughout his coaching career, Jose Mourinho has often had the last laugh. The most successful coach in the past decade along with Bayern Munich and former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, the Portuguese has relished putting down some of his counterparts. This season, however, it no longer seems so clever.

On Monday, Chelsea travel to Leicester for a meeting with the Premier League’s surprise package in 2015-16 – and his old foe Claudio Ranieri.

The Portuguese replaced Ranieri at Chelsea for his first spell in 2004. “It was the end of the cycle,” he said back then. But he later attacked the Italian when the two men were working in Serie A, Mourinho at Inter and Ranieri at Juventus.

“Ranieri has the mentality of someone who doesn’t need to win,” he said in 2008. “He is almost 70 years old, he has won a Supercup and another small trophy and he is too old to change his mentality. He’s old and he hasn’t won anything.”

The Italian was actually 56 at the time, while he has won a little more than Mourinho gave him credit for: a Copa del Rey and a Uefa Super Cup with Valencia, plus a Coppa Italia and a Supercoppa Italiana at Fiorentina. Nevertheless, Mou’s Inter side beat Ranieri’s Juventus to the title and he kept his reputation as a master of mind games.

Ahead of Monday’s match, however, Mourinho’s Chelsea are languishing just a point above the drop zone while the Italian’s Leicester side sit only one from the top with a game in hand. So, perhaps logically, it was a more gracious Jose who spoke on the eve of the game.

Nevertheless, there was still a hint of damning his rival with faint praise. “I think he won manager of the month,” the Portuguese said of Ranieri. “He should win manager of the half-term… the first six months.” And he couldn’t resist a barbed comment to go with it. “Last year, Ranieri was sacked by Greece for losing to the Faroe Islands,” he said. “Now, top of the league. It’s exciting.”

It’s nothing new, of course. Mourinho has often attacked Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, famously calling the Frenchman a “voyeur” in his first spell in charge of Chelsea, before labelling the Gunners boss a “specialist in failure” last year. He has also questioned how the 66-year-old has been able to stay in his job for so long.

But ahead of Leicester’s game at home to Chelsea on Monday, Arsenal are on top of the Premier League, while the question marks these days surround the future of Mourinho and not Wenger, who has put together an excellent side in north London on a much tighter budget than the Portuguese has had at any of his clubs with the exception of Porto.

And the other team looking like title contenders at the moment, Manchester City, are managed by another of Mourinho’s many adversaries: Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean coach was replaced by the Portuguese at Real Madrid and when the former later visited the Santiago Bernabeu as Malaga boss, he quipped: “If Madrid sacked me, I would go to a big team in England or Italy. I wouldn’t go to Malaga.”

It is all very well making such remarks while winning league titles and Champions Leagues, but Mourinho’s current tenure is proving much less successful, despite winning the Premier League and the Capital One Cup last season, and he may have to reassess his options if his Chelsea spell is brought to an end in the coming months.

In the Premier League, he has already had to do so and after last weekend’s shock defeat at home to promoted side Bournemouth, he said: “Our objective is to fight for the top four, but maybe now we have to think of finishing in the top six.”

It is quite a fall from grace and whatever does happen in the rest of the season, Chelsea’s current predicament means there is now little room for Mourinho’s customary smugness and arrogance.

And if Ranieri, Pellegrini or Wenger walk away with the title next May, it will be they who will have had the last laugh. For Jose, meanwhile, it’s just not funny any more.

Culled from goal.com

Boring Van Gaal is sucking the life out of Man United

After crashing out of the Champions League the finger of blame is largely being pointed at the Dutchman who is steadfastly refusing to accept criticism of his playing style

Boring Van Gaal is sucking the life out of Man United

If you find it a surprise that Manchester United have been knocked out of the Champions League, you clearly haven’t been watching their games this season.

Having spent a gargantuan £283 million in the transfer market, Louis van Gaal succeeded only in turning United into one of the dullest, rigid, lifeless teams in the competition. By the time they arrived in Wolfsburg needing a victory to be sure of progression, it was clear they were swimming against the tide.

Somehow, Van Gaal has sucked the life out of one of the world’s greatest clubs. Fans no longer look forward to arriving at Old Trafford in the same way they used to.

Players don’t seem to have the same appetite and belief as their predecessors. And when visiting teams begin to batten down the hatches with 20 minutes to go they do so safe in the knowledge that the worst is over. Fergie time and the avalanche of late, crucial goals is now just a distant memory.

After a September during which the Red Devils scored 15 goals in six games, the humiliating 3-0 defeat to Arsenal was a real watershed moment for United. From there Van Gaal looked to tighten up first and worry about attacking later. Rather than accept that selecting two immobile thirty-somethings in Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield was a grave error, he decided that his side needed to become tougher to break down at the expense of greater expression in the final third.

There is a monotony to United which reflects Van Gaal’s approach. The only thing that changes in training is the time. When they arrive at Carrington morning, noon or night, the players are put through exactly the same exercises week after week. After going through their warm-ups on a match day it is the same training drills which are performed by the starting XI whether the opposition is Cambridge or CSKA Moscow.

There has been many an occasion when Van Gaal has waxed lyrical about the wonderful football displayed by his Ajax sides of the mid-1990s, but lately he has turned to more recent examples of his work when suggesting that Man Utd fans should fans should have known what they were getting when he was appointed,

“When they don’t like the style of play for Manchester United, everybody knows in advance that all the teams of LVG plays like that. In Barcelona, or Bayern Munich or AZ we have played like that,” said Van Gaal in defence of his tactics after the 0-0 draw with West Ham at Old Trafford on Saturday.

But while he believes that United fans should have foreseen the current situation, the same charge can be levelled at the 64-year-old. This is a club which has been built on playing football the right way. Even in the days in between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, the likes of Tommy Docherty and Ron Atkinson had United playing an attractive brand of football, while Dave Sexton – the manager who bridged the gap between the reigns of the two – was criticised for a more functional, conservative approach.

Van Gaal didn’t walk into this job with his eyes closed. He knew the demands associated with Manchester United. He had seen what happened to David Moyes, yet even in the Scot’s short spell in charge there was a more willing approach to attacking than Van Gaal has employed.

What’s more, Van Gaal cannot claim that he has not been given the tools with which to build a fast-flowing, attractive lineup. A British record fee of £59.7m was splashed out on Angel di Maria, and while he had not been the manager’s choice, he was the kind of player most bosses would love to work with. The Dutchman was forever switching Di Maria around and eventually helped to make the Argentine attacker’s position in the squad untenable.

Yet even since he has been given carte blanche in the market he has been unable to get the best out of explosive talents. Memphis Depay was his marquee signing last summer for a fee potentially rising to £31m, yet the Netherlands World Cup star has so far failed to show anything like his best. Anthony Martial, meanwhile, has been pushed from pillar to post since his deadline-day transfer, and the lack of appropriate service has seen him struggle to find the net.

Similarly, Ander Herrera has cut a frustrated figure as a result of his lack of playing time while Juan Mata has looked a shadow of himself when shoved out to the right wing for game after game. It was no coincidence that Martial’s best opening in weeks came on Tuesday in Wolfsburg from a killer ball by Mata, playing in the No.10 spot vacated by the injured Wayne Rooney. If Van Gaal had had a fully-fit squad available to him, there is little doubt Mata would have been used as a right winger, if at all.

And that brings us to another point. United’s lack of strength in depth left them incredibly exposed as they kicked off against Wolfsburg, and two further injuries only made matters worse as the match went on.

Van Gaal insisted earlier this season that he was able to pack off a number of former first-team squad members in the summer because of the versatility of a string of current players. Yet such a viewpoint is always dangerous since it only takes a few absences to leave the squad looking stretched.

The likes of Guillermo Varela, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe and Marcus Rashford may well become excellent senior players in time, but the truth is that right now they are getting a look-in with the first team more out of necessity than out of choice. If United had even half the depth of cover of previous seasons to call upon then such youngsters would be getting an outing when the time was right, not when the situation demanded it.

Louis van Gaal is not the only man to blame for United’s current malaise, and indeed he has steered his side into a comfortable top-four position from which they are well placed to challenge for the Premier League title this season.

However, the Champions League failure is a huge step backwards for the club, and the Dutchman has to take a large share of the responsibility. Having a belief and sticking to it can be a very positive quality, but the belligerence and stubbornness with which Van Gaal stands by his failing ‘philosophy’ is threatening to undermine his attempts to make a success of his Manchester United reign.