Three right-wingers Man Utd should be considering this summer

Several times throughout the past season, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal lamented his side’s lack of a pacey right-sided attacker.

The veteran Dutch coach, despite spending around £250m on incomings during his time at Old Trafford, has been unable to recruit a suitable right-winger. It may be argued that, if used correctly, Argentinian superstar Ángel di María would have been a perfect fit to fulfil this role during his ill-fated season in Manchester – particularly as di María has excelled on the right of Paris Saint Germain’s front three since his £44m summer switch.

But alas, that wasn’t to be; through a combination of mismanagement and a lack of commitment on the player’s part, the di María experiment fell flat on its face.

Di María’s departure has seen Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard operate on United’s right-wing, both with limited success.

Mata, lacking the pace and energy of a traditional winger, is much better suited to playing centrally. And although Lingard has demonstrated a commendable work-rate, and no shortage of pace, the England under-21 international does not have the requisite technical ability to be considered a long-term solution to the Red Devils’ right-sided problem.

After a season which has seen United fall short of their primary targets, and unable to secure Champions League football for next term, van Gaal’s future at the club is uncertain. Rumours that the former Ajax boss will imminently be replaced by José Mourinho are gathering pace by the day.

But whoever is in charge at Old Trafford over the summer, the identification and introduction of a right-sided attacking player will be high up on their to-do list once the transfer window opens. Here are three players who would be a good fit.

 Sane2

Leroy Sané

Schalke 04’s 20-year-old winger Leroy Sané is destined for the top. Blessed with electric pace and a maturity beyond his tender years, the Germany international is set to take this summer’s European Championship by storm.

The son of a former Senegalese international footballer, Sané has the pedigree of one of Europe’s finest young talents. Already a key player for Schalke, the Essen-born speedster has notched nine goals in all competitions in the season just passed, and registered seven assists.

Capable of playing on either wing, or centrally as a number 10, Sané has been most effective when deployed on the right-side of Die Königsblauen’s attack.

United reportedly scouted Sané during the last game of the Bundesliga season, a 4-1 victory over Hoffenheim in which he scored.

If the Red Devils are to make a move for the coveted youngster, they will have to fight off local rivals Manchester City. The Citizens hold a long-standing interest in Sané and are expected to make an offer in excess of £30m for the youngster’s services.

Despite only having one full international cap to his name, Sané has been selected in Joachim Löwe’s provisional 27-man Germany squad for Euro 2016. A few impressive performances in France could lead to the Schalke player’s value sky-rocketing, so any suitor would be wise to move quickly and tie Sané down before the tournament begins.

OLHANENSE vs BRAGA - TACA DE PORTUGAL

Rafa Silva

Another man set to play a key role for his country at Euro 2016 is Portugal’s Rafa Silva. The 23-year-old Braga winger has had an outstanding season at club level, and is now hoping to add to his six international caps in France this summer.

Netting 12 goals in all competitions and laying on four assists, Silva helped Braga finish fourth in the Liga NOS, and reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League before being eliminated by Shakhtar Donetsk.

Lightning-quick over short distances and a strong dribbler, Silva also has the knack of making perfectly timed off-the-ball runs in behind the opposing defence. A confident finisher with a good first-touch, Silva’s ability to find space and score goals in reminiscent of Pedro in his FC Barcelona prime.

United scouts were in attendance at the Estádio Municipal several times last season to cast their eye over Silva, with the Old Trafford club believed to be weighing up a £12m offer.

Brandt

Julian Brandt

Sané is not the only 20-year-old winger to have caught the eye in the Bundesliga recently. Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt has been in outstanding form over the last few months, and he too has been selected as part of Germany’s provisional Euro 2016 squad.

In an extraordinary run between 20 March and 30 April 2016, Brandt became the first player since Dieter Müller in 1976 to score in six consecutive Bundesliga games. That brought Brandt’s goal tally to 11 in all competition, along with three assists.

Manager Roger Schmidt tends to deploy Brandt on the left wing for Leverkusen, but the Bremen-born youngster regularly swaps positions with right-winger Karim Bellerabi throughout matches, as Brandt is confident with both feet.

Brandt is an excellent dribbler with exceptionally quick feet, allowing him to wriggle his way out of tight situations to create space in a way which other player wouldn’t deem possible. Having evidently developed his finishing in recent months, Brandt appears to have the coolness of a seasoned veteran, even though he only has 65 Bundesliga appearances to his name.

Brandt has yet to make his full international debut for Die Mannschaft despite eight appearances at under-21 level. This did not deter Löwe from selecting Leverkusen’s rising star as part of his provisional Germany squad though, with his end of season form being simply too good to ignore

 

5 possible big-money summer transfers

With the season winding down across the continent, talk begins to turn to the usual transfer window excitement.

In recent years, it feels almost as though the post-season transfer merry-go-round has received more coverage, and garnered more giddiness amongst fans on social media, than the action on the field.

Everyone is already making up their transfer wish lists, imploring their club to splash the cash on new arrivals from home and abroad. Whether it’s the latest up-and-coming prospect, or an established world star, speculation is rife about who the big movers will be this summer.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at five players who seem likely to be switching clubs this summer, with vast amounts of money changing hands.

John Stones

Everton v Watford - Premier League
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – AUGUST 08: John Stones of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Watford at Goodison Park on August 8, 2015 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)

The 21-year-old England international was heavily linked with a move away from Goodison Park last summer, but Everton remained resolute in their refusal to accept a substantial offer from Chelsea — believed to be around £40m.

But one year on, it seems almost certain that Stones will be on the move this time around. Another season of top-flight football under his belt for the Toffees has given the young defender some valuable experience. However, Stones’s performances this term have drawn criticism from several quarters; there is no doubt about the former Barnsley player’s ability with the ball at his feet, but his concentration and decision making has been brought into question.

These are all obstacles that Stones is very much expected to overcome, though. And the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and even Barcelona are rumoured to be undeterred by the talented youngster’s errors, as they are believed to be weighing up huge offers.

Renato Sanches

sanches

Benfica’s talented 18-year-old midfielder Renato Sanches has taken the Liga NOS by storm this season, after making his first-team debut in October last year.

The young Portuguese has become a vital part of the Águias’ midfield, in which he operates in a box-to-box role. Though still a very raw talent, with aspects of his game — such as his short-passing — in need of refinement, Sanches posses a wealth of attributes which have marked him out as a future star: boundless energy-levels, physical strength and athleticism, positional awareness and lightening-quick acceleration to name a few.

Having also broken into the senior Portugal side this season, Sanches is set to take this summer’s European Championship by storm, and Manchester United — current favourites to secure his signature — are keen to wrap up a deal in the region of €60m before the tournament commences.

Granit Xhaka

xhaka

Borussia Monchengladbach’s 23-year-old midfielder Granit Xhaka has been tipped for a move to the Premier League during the transfer window, with Arsenal said to be leading the chase for his signature.

The combative Swiss has a questionable disciplinary record, having been sent off three times in the Bundesliga this season. But the six-foot tall midfield anchorman could be just what the Gunners need: offering protection for the backline and adding some much-needed steel in the middle of the park. A deal worth in excess of €30m is reported to be in the offing.

Ilkay Gündogan

gundogan

Another man believed to be departing the Bundesliga for the Premier League this summer is Borussia Dortmund’s Ikay Gündogan.

This season, the German international playmaker has fully recovered from a back injury that had kept him out for 18-months. Having rediscovered the kind of form that saw him guide BVB to an unlikely Champions League final back in 2013, Gündogan has been key to Dortmund’s resurgence under Thomas Tuchel .

With Pep Guardiola taking the reigns at Manchester City when his contract with Bayern Munich expires, the Catalan tactician will want to re-shape the midfield he inherits from the outgoing Manuel Pellegrini. Gündogan possesses the requisite passing skills and vision to help mould City’s midfield in Guardiola’s image, and a €30m move is being lined up.

Romelu Lukaku

Lukaku

In addition to Stones, Everton could also be set to lose Romelu Lukaku this summer.

The powerful Belgian striker has made clear his desire to play Champions League football, and he feels he may have to leave Goodison Park to do so.

The 22-year-old has had the most productive campaign of his career this season, registering 25 goals and six assists across all competitions.

With Everton having forked out £28m to sign Lukaku from Chelsea two years ago, the Toffees will expect a considerable profit if they are to sell. That doesn’t seem to have put off his potential suitors though, with Manchester United and former club Chelsea said to be willing to pay as much as £60m to acquire the Antwerp-born forward.

 

 

 

 

Recent work published elsewhere

Here are links to some pieces that I have had published elsewhere recently.

I wrote this for FanFeud about how Dimitri Payet’s form for West Ham this season is causing a selection headache for France boss Didier Deschamps: http://www.blog.fanfeud.co.uk/dmitri-payet-is-giving-france-manager-didier-deschamps-a-selection-headache/

For uMAXit Football, I wrote about 5 tactical innovations Pep Guardiola could bring to Man City next season: http://www.umaxit.com/index.php/articles/5-tactical-innovations-pep-guardiola-could-bring-to-manchester-city

Over at FourFourTwo, I suggested a tactical switch that could bring free-flowing football back to Man Utd, and how Marcus Rashford could be best utilised: http://www.fourfourtwo.com/features/how-marcus-rashford-could-be-ideal-false-9-manchester-united

And finally, a long-form piece for These Football Times about the early career of José Mourinho: http://thesefootballtimes.co/2016/02/29/jose-mourinho-the-early-years/

David Alaba: the evolution of a full-back

With the news this week that David Alaba has committed his future to Bayern Munich until 2021, let’s take a look at how, under Pep Guardiola’s guidance, the Austrian has revolutionised the role of a full-back.

A product of Bayern’s youth system, Alaba spent the majority of his formative years as a midfielder within the academy set-up. Indeed, in recent months, Alaba has played a key role in his country’s qualification for the up-coming European Championships as centre-midfielder for the Austrian national side. But it was at Left-back that Alaba broke into the first-team at the Allianz Arena.

Under the leadership of Dutch tactician Louis van Gaal, Alaba was given his head in senior football with Bayern as part of the rear-guard. Manchester United fans will be well aware of van Gaal’s penchant for slotting midfielders into the full-back positions (Anthony Valencia and Ashley Young have both been utilised at full-back during the former Ajax coach’s tenure). However, the decision to convert Alaba into a defender — whether by luck or judgment — over time, has proved inspired.

Since returning from a loan spell with Hoffenheim in 2011, Alaba has established himself as a first-team regular with Bayern. His combination of skill, pace, athleticism and defensive instincts has earned him the reputation of being the best left-back in the world.

But when Pep Guardiola became Bayern manager in 2013, he saw the potential for more in Alaba.

Guardiola found space for Alaba within his system that would allow the Austrian to take up a central attacking-midfield position whenever Bayern were in possession. Recognising the influence that Alaba could exert on his team’s attacking movements, Guardiola wanted his left-back to double as central spearhead in the final third, where he could wreak havoc on the opposition’s defence.

Having had the privilege of attending Bayern’s recent 5-0 drubbing of Werder Bremen at the Allianz Arena, I will use this match as a case study to illustrate how Alaba’s role within the team has evolved into much more than that of a conventional full-back.

Bayern lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, with a starting XI of Manuel Neuer, Alaba, Joshua Kimmich, Mehdi Benatia, captain Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Franck Ribéry, Kingsley Coman and Thomas Müller. This would be the shape that the German champions would revert to whenever they lost possession, but with the ball, the fluidity of Guardiola’s side was in full effect

4-3-3
Without the ball – 4-3-3
When in possession, Bayern morphed into a 2-3-5 shape. Kimmich and Benatia would hold the fort at the back, with Alonso positioned in front of them in central midfield. Götze, who began the game just to the right of Alonso, pushed right up into an inside-forward position, slotting in between Müller and Coman, while Lahm moved up into the midfield space which Götze had vacated.

With Ball - Alaba left-mid, Thiago inside-forward
With the ball – Alaba left-midfield, Thiago inside-forward
On the left-side things got even more interesting. Similar to Lahm, Alaba was tasked with occupying an advanced positon whenever his side were in possession of the ball. But the position which Alaba was to take up, depended entirely on the movements of his teammates directly ahead of him.

Thiago, it seemed, had two options: he could either hold his position in midfield, to the left of Alonso; or push up into an inside-forward position to the left of Müller — just as Götze had done on the other side.

Depending on which option Thiago plumped for, Alaba would take up the other: if Thiago went forward, Alaba moved into midfield; if Thiago stayed put, Alaba raced from left-back all the way up to inside-forward.

With Ball - Thiago left-mid, Alaba inside-forward
With the ball – Thiago left-midfield, Alaba inside-forward
Furthermore, Alaba would also have to take into consideration Ribery’s position. The Frenchman, who started on the left wing, had licence to roam infield to occupy the inside forward spot if he so wished. If the mood had taken Ribery and he decided to saunter centrally, Alaba would have to re-calibrate and move out to left-wing.

This sort of move is drilled into Bayern’s players on the training field. Right at the beginning of his time in charge, Guardiola demanded that the main pitch at Säbener Strasse, Bayern’s training ground,  should be divided up into five vertical lanes. The former Barcelona coach drummed into his players that no two men should occupy the same lane at any one time. Thus when Ribery decides to switch to the inside lane, Alaba must move outside.

With Ball - Alaba left-wing, Ribery inside-forward
With the ball – Alaba left-wing, Ribery inside-forward
The tactics employed by Guardiola overwhelmed the Bremen defence. It finished 5-0 and it could’ve been more. The away side were unable to cope with the sheer number of Bayern players committed to attack. Whenever Bayern surrendered possession, they immediately initiated the six-second press demanded by their manager, while reverting back to their more solid 4-3-3 shape. Like clockwork.

So Alaba, nominally the left full-back, operated in as many as four different positions in this match alone – he has even filled in at centre-back of late, due to a defensive injury crisis. The fluidity with which he was able to do so is a testament to the manager and his coaching methods. The ease and poise with which he was able to perform in each differing role, is a testament to just how much Alaba has evolved as a player. A Jack of all trades, and master of every single one.

Football’s Virtual Reality

Each year, the distinction between video game simulations of football, and the real-life incarnation of the beautiful game, becomes more and more blurred. The advancement in graphic quality of games such as the FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer series mean that, upon first glance, you may be forgiven for thinking you are looking at the real thing. The attention to detail poured into the creation of the most recent version of Sports Interactive’s Football Manager, means that your average armchair fan can take the reins at his or her favourite club, running the rule over the minutest of details within a manager’s remit – from alterations to the size of the pitch, down to the individual training regimen of the youth team’s third-choice left back.

Last May, in an attempt to blaze a trail into a growing market, VolksWagen owned German club, VFL Wolfsburg, hired two professional gamers to represent them in the world of “eSports”. The idea behind it being that these video game whizzes will compete in popular international FIFA tournaments against fellow enthusiasts, many of whom are paid to represent major companies and brands, thus raising the profile of the Bundesliga club.

“We recognise E-Sport as being important and want to be a leader amongst Bundesliga clubs in this area.” Said Klaus Allofs, Wolfsburg’s Sporting Director. “Our goal is to create a binding connection between real football and the digital version. FIFA is becoming more and more realistic from year to year and it enjoys great resonance amongst the professional players and fans alike.”

The latest addition to Wolfsburg’s eSports roster is David Bytheway, a 22-year-old from Wolverhampton. Bytheway was spotted whilst representing England in last year’s FIFA Interactive World Cup. The young Midlander told the Metro: “It just started at home with me, just playing against friends but suddenly I’m part of this football club.” New hope for Black Country youngsters dreaming of playing for Wolves (the Bundesliga side share a nickname with the Wanderers from Wolverhampton).

The aforementioned management simulation series, Football Manager, has also recently infiltrated the real world of football, with professional clubs plundering the game for its vast ocean of stats and data.

The game’s developer, Sports Interactive – with the aid of a global network of over 1300 scouts in 51 countries – has compiled a database of 300,000 footballers, each with a range of statistics which the developers feel accurately represent their abilities. Players are scored up to a maximum of 20, on attributes ranging from long shots and heading, to leadership and positioning. Also recorded are the players’ suitability to certain positions, notes on their temperament and a full history of appearances and goals for every club they have represented.

With such a comprehensive pool of information, it’s easy to see how Football Manager’s database could be useful to professional clubs. Whether it is being utilised as a tool for unearthing rough diamonds in far-reach locations, or simply to corroborate information already gathered by the club’s own scouts. In 2008, Everton signed an official deal to allow them to use Football Manager in conjunction with their own scouting operation. And in 2014, Sports Interactive teamed up with sports analysis company Prozone, sharing data to create Prozone Recruiter, a scouting resource made available to any club willing to pay a premium.

Aside from the professional use of football simulation games, many footballers enjoy them recreationally too. Hurriedly organised FIFA tournaments between teammates have killed many otherwise humdrum hours in hotel rooms on away trips, serving as an informal bonding session to boot. The more cerebral player may prefer to pass the hours testing their managerial acumen playing Football Manager: Joey Barton has previously mentioned that he feels playing the game has helped him while studying for his coaching badges; Swansea’s French striker, Batafembi Gomis, revealed that, upon signing for the Welsh club, he used his favourite game to learn about his new colleagues.

The exponential growth in both popularity and quality of football video games shows no sign of slowing down. With clubs at all levels looking to utilise any new method that they feel will give them even the slightest competitive advantage, we can expect the role of these games to continue to grow and evolve, becoming even more relevant to the football world. The virtual is becoming a vital part of reality.

Juventus vs Napoli: A Tale of Two Argentinians

Before Christmas, the Serie A title race looked like being contested between as many as five teams. That number now appears to have been whittled down to just two. Juventus and Napoli.

The two protagonists will meet at Juventus Stadium in Turin on Saturday night (13 February). The visitors currently sit atop the Serie A table, two points clear of the Bianconeri, riding a winning streak of nine matches. A victory for Maurizio Sarri’s men would represent a giant leap towards their first Scudetto since 1990, back when a certain Diego Armando Maradona was the king of Naples.

But that will be easier said than done, as the reining champions are currently surfing a hot-streak of their own. Fourteen consecutive victories have seen Massimiliano Allegri’s team claw themselves back into the title picture, after an abysmal start to the season which had seen them languishing in the bottom half, at one time 11 points off the pace.

The reasons behind the current form of each side are manifold. Napoli have looked like an attacking juggernaut ever since Sarri, upon taking over from Rafael Benítez in the summer, implemented a fluid 4-3-3 system that has revitalised Marek Hamsik, while allowing Lorenzo Insigne to blossom into one of the most exciting players in the league.

As for Juve, their early season woes can largely be put down to the fact that they let go such key figures as Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal during the close season, after finishing runner’s up in last seasons Champions League. The squad had been somewhat overhauled and new recruits needed time to settle. And settle they have; Allegri’s men boast the sternest defence — shipping just 15 goals so far this season, and only one since New Year — while remaining a potent goal threat at the other end.

Two men in particular, however, have stolen the show so far this season. Argentinian striker’s Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala.

Former Real Madrid man Higuaín had been somewhat written off at the end of last season, after a costly last game penalty miss against Lazio — which saw Napoli miss out on Champions League qualification — followed by a disappointing Copa America, again missing a penalty in Argentina’s shootout defeat to Chile in the final.

But the 28-year-old has bounced back in spectacular style this season, amassing a remarkable 24 goals in 24 games. Even the staunchest of Higuaín’s critics would have to admit that the player has turned a corner this term, as he cruises towards being crowned this season’s capocannonieri (Serie A top scorer). And the Ciucciarelli will be relying on their number 9 continue to provide the goals that they hope will bring the Serie A title to the San Paolo in May.

With a price tag of €32m (plus a further €8m in conditional add-ons), Dybala’s transfer from Palermo to Juventus last summer raised many eyebrows. Although a player of obvious talent, the 22-year-old Argentinian looked a way off being the finished article for the Rosanero last term.

However, Juve’s faith — and money — now seems well invested.

Without wanting to burden the young player with too much responsibility too soon, Allegri chose to use Dybala sparingly during the early part of the season. But that wasn’t to last long. Whenever the new man made a cameo appearance, he sparked the then turgid Old Lady into life, providing a dynamism and creativity they had been severely lacking.

Dybala’s style has been characterised as that of a ‘9-and-a-half,’ not quite an out-and-out poacher, but not quite what the Italian’s would call a ‘trequartista’ (a kind of advanced playmaker, think Roberto Baggio or Francesco Totti). Instead, adopting a role somewhere in between. In contrast to his time at Palermo where he was a more straightforward ‘number 9,’ Dybala has become equally adept at dropping into the space between the opposition’s midfield and defence, wreaking havoc with his accurate link-up play, and forging opportunities with his incredible touch and vision. With 13 league goals and seven assists to his name already, Dybala’s influence seems to grow with every game.

This game promises excitement and no shortage of star power; there will be key battles all over the pitch. Whichever team is top of the table after the final whistle is blown, it’s a safe bet that their Argentinian marksman will have played a key role.

 

Laurent Blanc Signs Contract Extension with PSG

Paris St. Germain manager Laurent Blanc has put pen to paper on a two-year contract extension, tying the former Marseille and Internazionale player to the French champions until 2018.

This news will effectively end any speculation around Blanc’s future this summer. Rumours had begun to circulate that Blanc was on a shortlist of managers being lined up by Manchester United should they decide to replace Louis van Gaal at the conclusion of the season. There had also been whispers that PSG were looking at replacing the Frenchman with a more box office name, such as the available Jose Mourinho. 

PSG currently sit a virtually insurmountable 24 points clear at the top on the Ligue 1 table, boasting an unbeaten record. The Parisiens welcom Engilsh Champions Chelsea to the Parc des Princes on Tuesday night (16 February) for the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie.

Breaking: Jan Oblak Signs New Contract Until 2021

Atlético Madrid have announced that their Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak has signed a new contract, keeping him at the club until 2021.

The 23-year-old has earned a reputation as arguably the best goalkeeper in La Liga over the last 18-months, and has kept an impressive 14 clean sheets so far this season.

Oblak was signed from Benfica in 2014 for a fee in the region of €16m, a hefty price tag for a young goalkeeper who had only played 21 times for the Portuguese club’s first team.

Brought in to replace Thibaut Courtois, who was returning to Chelsea following three seasons at the Vicente Calderón, Oblak initially had to play second fiddle to the more experienced Miguel Ángel Moyà. But when Moyà was ruled out due to injury in March last year, Oblak stepped in and has remained manager Diego Simeone’s first-choice stopper ever since.

The news of Oblak’s commitment will be welcome amongst Atléti supporter, especially with the prospect of a transfer ban looming, meaning replacing a player of the Slovenian’s quality would be near impossible.

 

Barcelona vs. Atlético Madrid: The Most Important Game In Spain?

In the last two seasons, a fixture between FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid has decided the destination of the Primera División title. Atlético secured their first title in almost two decades with a draw at the Camp Nou in May 2014, while Barcelona exacted revenge and, in turn, confirmed their 23rd La Liga championship last season at the Vicente Calderón.

The two sides will meet again on Saturday (3pm (GMT), 30 January, 2016) at the Camp Nou, each looking to gain an early upper hand in what is shaping up to be a close, intense battle to be crowned champions of Spain in May. Locked on 48 points, Barcelona, who have a game in hand, sit top of the table with only goal difference separating them from Atlético.

The fact that this game takes place in January, months before the end of the season, means that, no matter the outcome, neither side will be ruled out of title contention. The stakes are not quite as high as they were when these teams met in the closing weeks of the 2013/14 season, when a Diego Godin header made Diego Simeone’s men champions. Nor is there quite as much on the line as there was last season, when Lionel Messi’s goal at the Vicente Calderón put the Catalans mathematically out of reach.

But a victory here would represent a giant stride towards a second league title in three years for either team.

Los Rojiblancos travel to Catalonia on the back of a slight dip in form, having followed up last weekend’s goalless draw with Sevilla by falling to defeat in the Copa del Rey, at home to Celta Vigo in midweek.

Simeone’s men have been rather reliant on Antoine Griezmann to supply their goals this season, with the Frenchman finding the net on 12 occasions, four times as many as second highest scorer Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. Atleti’s Argentinian coach will need to decide who best to pair up with Griezmann in attack; Luciano Vietto’s recent form, though unspectacular, has been encouraging, while Jackson Martinez has thus far fallen way short of justifying the €30m fee paid to FC Porto for his services last summer.

With Fernando Torres looking unlikely to end his goal drought which stretches back to September, Simeone may be tempted to throw 20-year-old prodigy, Angel Correa, into the fray. The Argentinian — similar to Carlos Tevez in both style and stature, despite playing slightly deeper — has been brought along slowly since joining from San Lorenzo, predominantly utilised as an impact substitute. However, his superb goal against Celta on Wednesday night may have given his manager food for thought.

Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique, has batted away suggestions that Neymar will be unable to line up on Saturday. The Brazilian appeared to injure his foot in the process of scoring a sublime goal towards the end of Wednesday’s Copa del Rey quarter-final, second leg victory over Athletic Bilbao. Enrique, affectionately know to Barça fans as “Lucho”, confirmed during his pre-match press conference that he has no concerns over starting his flamboyant number 11: “He has a bruised foot. Risky would be not playing him.”

In the same press conference, Enrique also confirmed that left-back Jordi Alba would be fit to start, having recovered from a minor hamstring injury. Gerard Pique will also return following a one-match suspension.

One of the more interesting selection decisions for Enrique will be whether to start former Atlético player, Arda Turan. The Turkish international, who signed for Barcelona last summer, was unable to play when the two teams met earlier in the season due to Barça’s year-long registration ban. With the ban now served, and Turan now registered and recovered from a recent illness, the fiery midfielder would no doubt relish the opportunity to compete against his former teammates.

Coming into the game, Atlético boast the sternest defence in La Liga, having conceded only eight goals in 21 games this season. A remarkable record which is a credit to the organisation and work ethic of the entire team. Veteran Uruguayan centre-back, Diego Godin, remains the leader at the back for Simeone’s men. His partnership with 21-year-old compatriot, José Giménez, has made the departure of Miranda to Internazionale in the summer look like good business.

And Atleti’s resolute backline will most certainly be put to the test at the Camp Nou. Barça’s attacking trio of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez have scored 45 league goals between them already this season. A record made even more impressive when you consider Messi was sidelined for two months earlier in the campaign.

Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, the Clasico, remains the grandest fixture in world football; the one anybody with even a casual interest in the game tunes in to see. But over the last few years, meetings between Barcelona and the other side from the capital have proven decisive; the game in which the championship is won and lost; akin to a final. It may never reach the status of a Clasico — that’s a matter of history and rivalry. It is unlikely to receive the same level of attention (after all, how often do you see Real vs. Barça kick off at 3pm (GMT) on a Saturday). But settle in, because whenever you see Barcelona and Atlético Madrid face off, you might just be watching the most important game in Spain.

Sergio Busquets: Overlooked But Never Undervalued

The shortlist for the 2015 Ballon d’Or was announced in November last year and, to no-one’s surprise, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar Jr. were the three men named.

A few dissenting voices made a case for the inclusion of Luis Suarez; the Uruguayan enjoyed a phenomenal year as part of the dynamic ‘MSN’ trio that spearheaded FC Barcelona’s march to multiple trophies. Fewer still decried the exclusion of some of the game’s other eye-catching headline makers such as Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski or Thomas Muller.

However, anyone who watched (and I mean really watched) Luis Enrique’s Barcelona team in 2015 will understand that Sergio Busquets, despite lacking the star power of the aforementioned candidates, is worthy of some recognition. Furthermore — for those who appreciate just how important Barça’s number 5 is to his team — the fact that Busquets was not named in the FIFA/FIFPro Team of the Year is baffling.

Since making his debut for Barcelona’s first team in September 2008, Sergio Busquets has established himself as a vital part of the Blaugrana’s midfield. He’s the man responsible for shielding the back four, filling gaps when one of Barça’s defenders decides to liberate themself of their position. He’s the man who looks to nip opposition attacks in the bud, tracking runners, intercepting errant passes, and tackling with tenacity and accuracy.

But for all his defensive acumen, the 27-year-old has equal influence over Barcelona’s attacking play. Although rarely a goal scorer — Busquets has found the net just six times in 230 Liga games —  the Spanish international plays a part in the majority of his team’s attacking moves. He collects the ball from the defence and advances the play, dictating tempo and setting up attacks from deep. He is the puppet master moving his team mates around the pitch and putting them in possession in areas where they can be most effective.

The role of defensive midfielder, or pivote as it’s known in Spain, has long since been a crucial part of any Barcelona side. The role is demanding and often thankless, with praise reserved for the strikers and playmakers further up the pitch. A successful pivote must be a great reader of the game, he needs to be able to see moves developing before they happen. He must also be an astute passer as loss of possession in this deep area can often result in a scoring chance for the opposition. Equal parts Makelele and Pirlo.

Busquets’s style echoes that of another great Barcelona pivote, both in terms of physique and technique. Pep Guardiola, the man who gave Busquets his first team debut, captained Barça through the 90s and ran the Camp Nou midfield, marked out by his tall frame and pinpoint passing. Guardiola had an effortlessness to his game, he made everything that he did look easy, elementary. This is a quality that Busquets shares with his former manager, as the great Johan Cruyff once remarked of the Catalan: “With the ball he makes what is difficult look easy: he disposes of the ball with one or two touches. Without the ball, he gives us a lesson: that of being in the right place to intercept and running just to recover the ball.”

Upon first glance, Busquets seems unremarkable. You won’t see him attempting to dribble past four players, he’s unlikely to be shooting from 35-yards, no step-overs, no showboating (aside from perhaps the odd perfectly timed drag-back to create a yard of space for himself). But keep an eye out for Barcelona’s number 5, he’s the one running the show; he builds the stage on which Messi, Neymar and Suarez perform; the beating heart of the Barça midfield.

Don’t expect to see Busquets stood on stage, challenging Messi and Ronaldo’s dominance of the glittering individual prizes any time soon, he’s well aware such honours are reserved for the more flamboyant superstars of the game. “I care more about the praise from my coaches and teammates.” Busquets told Spain’s TV3 in November.

“I wont say I’m not excited,” added the midfielder, in reference to his two teammates being shortlisted for the upcoming Ballon d’Or. “But I don’t feel it’s something that should warrant priority of great value.”

Ever the team player, Busquets understands that such individual awards, though gratifying for recipients, amount to little more than popularity contests. The greatest accolades come as a result of season-long hard work and collective organisation. And by fulfilling his on-field duties with such aplomb, Busquets has come to embody the team ethic. He’s the connection between attack and defence, the point at which graft marries with technique and know-how. The glue that bonds Barcelona.