It's a Knockaert

The ramblings of a football obsessive and Game of Thrones nerd.


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Premier League Predictions 2015/16

Arsenal

In

Petr Cech – Chelsea, £10m

Out

Carl Jenkinson – West Ham, Loan

Wojciech Szczesny – Roma, Loan

Abou Diaby – Released

Lukas Podolski – Galatasaray, £1.8m

Ryo Myaichi – St Pauli, Undisclosed

Yaya Sanogo – Ajax, Loan

Best XI:

Cech

Bellerin Mertesacker Koscielny Monreal

Ramsey Wilshere

Walcott Ozil Alexis

Giroud

The Gunners ended last season strongly, with players such as Ozil, Walcott, Wilshere and Giroud in good form. Cech is an excellent signing, albeit the only one they’ve made so far. There is very little between them and the two Manchester sides at the moment, and if they can get off to a strong start there is no reason why they can’t finish as high as second, or even make a strong title challenge.

Aston Villa

In

Scott Sinclair – Man City, £2.5m

Micah Richards – Man City, Free

Jordan Amavi – Nice, £7m

Idrissa Gueye – Lille, £9m

Mark Bunn – Norwich, Free

Jordan Ayew – Lorient, £10m

Jose Angel Crespo – Cordoba, Undisclosed

Out

Christian Benteke – Liverpool, £32.5m

Fabian Delph – Man City, £8m

Shay Given – Stoke, Free

Darren Bent – Derby County, Free

Enda Stevens – Portsmouth, Free

Andreas Weimann – Derby County, Undisclosed

Matthew Lowton – Burnley, Undisclosed

Yacouba Sylla – Rennes, Undisclosed

Antonio Luna – Eibar, Undisclosed

Best XI:

Guzan

Richards Okore Clarke Amavi

Grealish Sanchez Veretout Sinclair

Ayew Gestede

Despite the renewed optimism at Villa Park since the arrival of Tim Sherwood, Villa only managed to finish 17th last season. They’ve made some intriguing signings this summer, but in losing Vlaar, Delph and Benteke, they’ve lost the entire spine of their team, and they go into this season with a lot of unknown quantities and youngsters. If the new foreign starlets can hit the ground running, and players like Sinclair and Richards rediscover their best form, they could push for a mid-table finish. It’s a big if, though.

Bournemouth

In

Tyrone Mings – Ipswich Town, £8m

Sylvain Distin – Everton, Free

Artur Boruc – Southampton, Free

Adam Federici – Reading, Free

Joshua King – Blackburn Rovers, Tribunal

Christian Atsu – Chelsea, Loan

Filippo Costa – Chievo, Loan

Out

Ian Harte – Released

Josh McQuoid – Luton, Free

Darryl Flavahan – Released

Mohamed Coulibaly – Released

Miles Addison – Released

Brett Pitman – Ipswich Town, Undisclosed

Best XI:

Boruc

Francis Cook Distin Mings

Ritchie Surman Arter Atsu

Wilson Kermorgant

Bournemouth were the story of last season, securing an improbably Championship title and Premier League football for the first time ever. Now however they face the biggest challenge in their club’s history to stay up. There’s a huge lack of top-flight experience in their squad, but momentum can be crucial, and they have plenty of that.

Chelsea

In

Radamel Falcao – AS Monaco, Loan

Asmir Begovic – Stoke, £8m

Nathan – Atletico Paranaense, £4.5m

Danilo Pantic – Partizan Belgrade, £1.25m

Out

Petr Cech – Arsenal,  £10m

Patrick Bamford – Crystal Palace, Loan

Didier Drogba – Released

Filipe Luis – Atletico Madrid, £6m

Marco van Ginkel – Stoke, Loan

Danilo Pantic – Vitesse Arnhem, Loan

Christian Atsu – Bournemouth, Loan (subject to Premier League approval)

Josh McEachran – Brentford, Undisclosed

Tomas Kalas – Middlesbrough, Loan

Gael Kakuta – Sevilla, Undisclosed

Mario Pasalic – Monaco, Loan

Kenneth Omeruo – Kasimpasa, Loan

Andreas Christensen – Borussia Monchengladbach, Loan

Isaiah Brown – Vitesse Arnhem, Loan

Lewis Baker – Vitesse Arnhem, Loan

Best XI:

Courtois

Ivanovic Terry Zouma Azpilicueta

Matic Fabregas

Cuadrado Oscar Hazard

Costa

Chelsea are the strongest team in the country by some distance at the moment, and it would be a huge surprise if they were not to retain their crown. They’ve yet to properly improve their first eleven, bringing in only rotation options thus far, although the rumoured signing of Baba Rahman would be a good addition. Their main target this season has to be the Champions League, after last year’s disappointment.

Crystal Palace

In

Patrick Bamford – Chelsea, Loan

Yohan Cabaye – PSG, £13m

Alex McCarthy – QPR, £3.5m

Out

Jack Hunt – Sheffield Wednesday, Loan

Shola Ameobi – Released

Lewis Price – Sheffield Wednesday, Free

Owen Garvan – Released

Peter Ramage – Released

Stephen Dobbie – Released

Jerome Thomas – Released

Best XI:

Speroni

Kelly Mariappa Dann Souare

Cabaye Jedinak McArthur

Puncheon Bamford Bolasie

Palace have defied all expectations made for them and cemented themselves as a solid mid table side. In Yohan Cabaye they have made one of the signings of the summer, and their target now has to be pushing on to a top half finish. What they really lack is a prolific forward – could Patrick Bamford be that man?

Everton

In

Gerard Deulofeu – Barcelona, £4.25m

Tom Cleverley – Manchester United, Free

David Henen – Olympiakos, £0.2m

Out

Sylvain Distin – Bournemouth, Free

Luke Garbutt – Fulham, Loan

Antolin Alcaraz – Released

George Green – Oldham, Free

Best XI:

Howard

Coleman Stones Jagielka Baines

McCarthy Besic

Mirallas Naismith Deulofeu

Lukaku

Last season was bitterly disappointing for Everton, and Roberto Martinez simply must return to the top half if he is to keep his job. The return of Deulofeu is exciting, and Lukaku will want to improve on his solid if unspectacular first season as a permanent Everton player. Ross Barkley also has a point to prove after going off the boil, and keeping hold of John Stones is crucial. Top half should be the minimum requirement, and they seem well placed to achieve it without the distraction of the Europa League.

Leicester City

In

Robert Huth – Stoke, £3m

Shinji Okazaki – Mainz, £7.5m

Christian Fuchs – Schalke, Free

Out

Esteban Cambiasso – released

Anthony Knockaert – Standard Liege, free

Ben Hamer – Nottingham Forest, Loan

Paul Gallagher – Preston, Free

Chris Wood – Leeds, Undisclosed

Tom Hopper – Scunthorpe, Free

Adam Smith – Northampton, Free

Best XI:

Schmeichel

De Laet Huth Wasilewski Fuchs

Mahrez James Drinkwater Schlupp

Ulloa Kramaric/Okazaki

The future prospects of my club are shrouded in uncertainty. Nigel Pearson, idolised by Leicester fans and despised by everyone else, has finally gone after a fantastic spell in charge. Esteban Cambiasso has followed him out the door, along with fan favourite Anthony Knockaert. The Thailand sex scandal has done further dampened the club’s image after several bizarre incidents involving Pearson last season. And on the pitch, we have no idea what to expect. The great escape was simply a thrilling time to be a City fan, but for much of the season we looked totally out of our depth at this level. Claudio Ranieri is a big name, but it has been a good few years since he was an elite manager, and most fans would have liked to see more signings but this stage. N’Golo Kante seems set to be announced imminently, and he would go some way to filling a certain Argentine’s shoes, but the midfield still looks like a weak area, especially with Matty James facing several months out. The good news is we have plenty of strong attacking options, and have kept hold of Riyad Mahrez, our most creative player. This season could go one of two ways – we build on the brilliant end to the season, or all the turmoil and upheaval causes us to implode. Most likely it’ll be something inbetween.

Liverpool

In

Christian Benteke – Aston Villa, £32.5m

James Milner – Manchester City, Free

Danny Ings – Burnley, Tribunal

Roberto Firmino – Hoffenheim, £29m

Nathaniel Clyne – Southampton, £12.5m

Joe Gomez – Charlton, £3.5m

Adam Bogdan – Bolton, Free

Out

Raheem Sterling – Man City, £49m

Glen Johnson – Stoke, Free

Steven Gerrard – LA Galaxy, Free

Andre Wisdom – Norwich, Loan

Lloyd Jones – Blackpool, Loan

Jordan Williams – Swindon, Loan

Kevin Stewart – Swindon, Loan

Sebastian Coates – Sunderland, Undisclosed

Brad Jones – Released

Javi Manquillo – Atletico Madrid, Loan terminated

Best XI:

Mignolet

Can Skrtel Sakho

Clyne Henderson Milner Moreno

Firmino Coutinho

Sturridge/Benteke

The much-publicised departures of club icon Steven Gerrard, and Raheem Sterling for a huge fee have had much attention, but Liverpool have quietly made some very good signings. Nathaniel Clyne, Christian Benteke and James Milner are established Premier League players who would improve any team they played in, while Roberto Firmino has been one of the Bundesliga’s best players for the last few years. The gaps are narrowing between the top clubs, and the Reds have a great opportunity to make a return to the top four, after missing out last year.

Manchester City

In

Raheem Sterling – Liverpool, £49m

Patrick Roberts – Fulham, £12m

Fabian Delph – Aston Villa, £8m

Enes Unal – Bursaspor, £2m

David Faupala – Lens, Free

Out

Stevan Jovetic – Inter, loan

Edin Dzeko – Roma, £14m (pending)

James Milner – Liverpool, Free

Scott Sinclair – Aston Villa, Undisclosed

Micah Richards – Aston Villa, Free

John Guidetti – Celta Vigo, Free

Dedryck Boyata – Celtic, Undisclosed

Seko Fofana – Bastia, Loan

Best XI:

Hart

Zabaleta Kompany Mangala Kolarov

Sterling Toure Fernandinho Silva

Aguero Bony

City are looking a lot weaker going into this season than they have done for quite some time. Sergio Aguero remains the best player in the league, and can win games on his own, but there are a lot of questions about the rest of the team. Vincent Kompany is no longer the elite defender he was, and Mangala hardly made the best impression in his debut season. Yaya Toure is starting to show his age, and they have lost the always reliable Edin Dzeko, along with Stevan Jovetic, leaving their forward options depleted in the likely event of an Aguero injury. Raheem Sterling has arrived for a record sum, and has shown good form in pre-season, but this squad needs much more.

Manchester United

In

Morgan Schneiderlin – Southampton, £25m

Bastian Schweinsteiger – Bayern Munich, £14.4m

Memphis Depay – PSV Eindhoven, £31m

Matteo Darmian – Torino, £12.7m

Sergio Romero – Sampdoria, Free

Out

Robin van Persie – Fenerbahce, fee to be agreed

Nani – Fenerbahce, £4.5m

Tom Cleverley – Everton, Free

Reece James – Wigan, Undisclosed

Saidy Janko – Celtic, Compensation

Ben Amos – Bolton, Free

Tom Thorpe – Rotherham, Free

Will Keane – Preston, Loan

Angelo Henriquez – Dinamo Zagreb, Undisclosed

Best XI:

De Gea

Darmian Jones Rojo Shaw

Schneiderlin Schweinsteiger

Di Maria Mata Depay

Rooney

It looked touch-and-go at times, but Louis Van Gaal’s extremely expensive United side made their return to the top four after the horror show that was the David Moyes era. The spending has not stopped this summer, with the midfield issues being well addressed, and the additions of Memphis Depay and Matteo Darmian are also highly impressive. Angel Di Maria seems set to leave for PSG, but going on last season’s performances, he won’t be a huge miss. The possible departure of David De Gea is another matter entirely – he would be very hard to replace. Another striker needs to come in, after the departures of Van Persie and Falcao left Wayne Rooney as the only established forward. A title challenge beckons.

Newcastle

In

Chancel Mbemba – Anderlecht, £8.5m

Aleksandar Mitrovic – Anderlecht, £13m

Georginio Wijnaldum – PSV, 14.5m

Out

Sammy Ameobi – Cardiff City, Loan

Jonas Gutierrez – Released

Ryan Taylor – Released

Adam Campbell – Notts County, Free

Remie Streete – Port Vale, Free

Best XI:

Krul

Janmaat Coloccini Taylor Haidara

Sissoko Tiote

Cabella Wijnaldum De Jong

Cisse

Newcastle fans finally got their wish for the departure of Alan Pardew, only to be saddled with the double inept Steve Carver, who did his very best to send them down the second tier. Steve McLaren now holds the reins, and he has made one very impressive signing in Georginio Wijnaldum. They probably won’t go down, but they’re a long way from making the top half.

Norwich

In

Graham Dorrans – West Brom, £3m

Youssuf Mulumbu – West Brom, Free

Andre Wisdom – Liverpool, Loan

Robbie Brady – Hull, £7m

Out

Javier Garrido – released

Mark Bunn – Aston Villa, Free

Carlton Morris – Hamilton, Loan

Cameron McGeehan – Luton Town, Undisclosed

Sam Kelly – Port Vale, Free

Remi Matthews – Burton, Loan

Best XI:

Ruddy

Martin Turner Bassong Olsson

Tettey Mulumbu Howson

Redmond Jerome Hoolahan

Norwich have bounced back up to the Premier League at the first time of asking, and their squad seems almost the same as the one that went down two years ago. A stable, if somewhat boring team, Norwich will probably be fighting off relegation for most of the season.

Southampton

In

Jordy Clasie – Feyenoord, £8m

Juanmi – Malaga, £5m

Cuco Martina – FC Twente, £1m

Cedric Soares – Sporting CP, £4.7m

Maarten Stekelenburg – Fulham, Loan

Steven Caulker – QPR, Loan

Out

Morgan Schneiderlin – Manchester United, £25m

Nathaniel Clyne – Liverpool, Undisclosed (fee understood to be £10m plus add-ons)

Artur Boruc – Bournemouth, Free

Jos Hooiveld – Released

Cody Cropper – MK Dons, Free

Omar Rowe – Released

Jake Sinclair – Released

Dani Osvaldo – Released

Best XI:

Forster

Soares Fonte Caulker Bertrand

Clasie Wanyama Ward-Prowse

Rodriguez Pelle Mane

Southampton were perhaps the most impressive side in the league last season, finishing a hugely credible 7th despite a host of big departures. They have lost two more important players in Clyne and Schneiderlin, but Ronaldo Koeman seems a hugely impressive manager who can cope with it. The Europa League will have some impact on their league form, but it will also raise their profile around Europe and allow them to attract better players. Another strong season beckons.

Stoke

In

Glen Johnson – Liverpool, Free

Phillipp Wollscheid – Bayer Leverkusen, £2.75m

Joselu – Hannover 96, £5.75m

Shay Given – Aston Villa, Free

Marko van Ginkel – Chelsea, Loan

Jakob Haugaard – FC Midtyjlland, £0.6m

Moha El Ouriachi – Barcelona, Undisclosed

Ibrahim Afellay – Barcelona, Free

Out

Asmir Begovic – Chelsea, Undisclosed

Steven Nzonzi – Sevilla, £7m

Robert Huth – Leicester City, Undisclosed

Jamie Ness – Scunthorpe, Free

Thomas Sorensen – Released

Wilson Palacios – Released

Andy Wilkinson – Released

Best XI:

Butland

Johnson Shawcross Muniesa Pieters

Arnautovic Whelan Van Ginkel Afellay

Bojan Diouf

Stoke continue to go under the radar despite two successive top half finishes. They have shed their ‘physical’ tag under Mark Hughes and are now attracting more skilful players such as Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay. Begovic and Nzonzi will be missed but they will endure as they always do.

Sunderland

In

Jeremain Lens – Dynamo Kiev, £8.5m

Younes Kaboul – Tottenham, £3m

Adam Matthews – Celtic, £2m

Sebastian Coates – Liverpool, £1.96m

Out

El-Hadji Ba – Charlton

Santiago Vergini – Getafe, Loan

Best XI:

Pantilimon

Matthews Coates Kaboul Van Aanholt

Larsson Giaccherini Gomez Cattermole Johnson

Defoe

The Black Cat’s nine lives are surely almost up. Sunderland always seem to get out of relegation, but no team can sustain that forever. Another long season beckons.

Swansea

In

Andre Ayew – Marseille, Free

Franck Tabanou – St Etienne, £3.5m

Eder – Braga, £5.2m

Kristoffer Nordfelt – Heerenveen, £0.6m

Oliver McBurnie – Bradford City, £0.25m

Out

Jazz Richards – Fulham, Undisclosed

David Cornell – Oldham, Free

Alan Tate – Released

Gerhard Tremmel – Released

Best XI:

Fabianski

Rangel Williams Fernandez Taylor

Ki Shelvey

Montero Sigurdsson Ayew

Gomis

Despite the loss of Wilfried Bony, Swansea continue to be one of the most upwardly mobile clubs in the league. Andre Ayew was one of the most in-demand free agents this summer, and Swansea did well to secure him. They will fancy their chances of claiming a Europa League spot.

Spurs

In

Toby Alderweireld – Atletico Madrid, £11.5m

Kevin Wimmer – Cologne, £4.3m

Kieran Trippier – Burnley, £3.5m

Out

Paulinho – Guangzhou Evergrande, £9.8m

Benjamin Stambouli – PSG, £6m

Etienne Capoue – Watford, Undisclosed (fee believed to be in the region of £6m)

Younes Kaboul – Sunderland, Undisclosed

Lewis Holtby – Hamburg

Best XI:

Lloris

Walker Alderweireld Vertonghen Rose

Dembele Mason

Lamela Eriksen Chadli

Kane

Spurs continue to float around in their zone of not good enough for the top four, too good to fall out of the top seven. The excellent Eriksen and Kane will provide goals, and Alderweireld is a solid defender to protect one of the league’s best keepers. Erik Lamela will surely come good eventually, and young midfielders Ryan Mason and Nabil Bentaleb established themselves last season. Will it be enough for the top four? Probably not, but we’ll see.

Watford

In

Etienne Capoue – Tottenham, £6m

Valon Behrami – Hamburg, £3m

Jose Holebas – Roma, £1.8m

Miguel Britos – Napoli, Undisclosed

Jose Jurado – Spartak Moscow, Undisclosed

Matej Vydra – Udinese, £6m

Allan Nyom – Udinese, Undisclosed

Sebastian Prodl – Werder Bremen, Free

Giedrius Arlauskis – Steaua Bucharest, Free

Steven Berghuis – AZ Alkmaar, £4.6m

Out

Jonathan Bond – Reading, Undisclosed

Lewis McGugan – Sheffield Wednesday, Undisclosed

Juanfran – Deportivo La Coruna, Loan

Best XI:

Gomes

Britos Angella Ekstrand

Anya Abdi Capoue Jurado Holebas

Deeney Ighalo

Watford seem to be going down the QPR route of spending big and spending often in their quest for survival. Many players from Serie A have come in, thanks to their link with Udinese, and long serving players like Troy Deeney will be itching to show what they can do at the top level. They have huge depth to their squad, which could be crucial.

West Brom

In

James McClean – Wigan, £1.5m

James Chester – Hull, £8m

Rickie Lambert – Liverpool, Undisclosed

Out

Graham Dorrans – Norwich, Undisclosed

Youssuf Mulumbu – Norwich, Free

Chris Baird – Derby County, Free

Best XI:

Foster

Dawson Chester Lescott Pocognoli

McManaman Yacob Fletcher McLean

Berahino Lambert

West Brom were many people’s favourites to go down last season, but the appointment of Tony Pulis kept them up. With Pulis in charge, it’s hard to see them going down, but their first eleven is hardly the most inspiring. They will certainly be around the bottom three for most of the season.

West Ham

In

Angelo Ogbonna – Juventus, £7.9m

Dimitri Payet – Marseille, £10.7m

Carl Jenkinson – Arsenal, Loan

Pedro Obiang – Sampdoria, £4.3m

Manuel Lanzini – Al Jazira, Loan

Darren Randolph – Birmingham City, Free

Out

Stewart Downing – Middlesbrough, £5.5m

Dan Potts – Luton Town, Free

Paul McCallum – Leyton Orient, Free

Carlton Cole – Released

Guy Demel – Released

Jussi Jaaskelainen – Released

Nene – Released

Best XI:

Adrian

Jenkinson Tomkins Ogbonna Cresswell

Noble Obiang

Payet Zarate Jarvis

Sakho

West Ham had a decent season, but decided to part ways with Sam Allardyce in favour of Slaven Bilic. They pulled off quite the coup in luring Dimitri Payet, one of the best players in Europe last season, and they will hope to land a top half finish.

Table Prediction

1. Chelsea

2. Manchester United

3. Arsenal

4. Manchester City

5. Liverpool

6. Tottenham

7. Swansea

8. Southampton.

9. Everton

10. Stoke

11. Crystal Palace

12. West Ham

13. Newcastle

14. Watford

15. West Brom

16. Aston Villa

17. Leicester 

18. Norwich

19. Bournemouth

20. Sunderland

Championship Prediction

1. Middlesbrough

2. Derby

3. Ipswich

4. Brentford

5. Wolves

6. QPR

7. Hull

8. Birmingham

9. Burnley

10. Blackburn

11. Cardiff

12. Nottingham Forest

13. Bristol City

14. Sheffield Wednesday

15. Charlton

16. Bolton

17. Leeds

18. Fulham

19. Preston

20. Reading

21. Huddersfield

22. MK Dons

23. Brighton

24. Rotherham

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The Mummer’s Farce is Almost Done

I’ve experienced almost every emotion that exists during season five of Game of Thrones. Scepticism became hope, which became disgust, which became hope again before very quickly returning to disgust, and has now settled down with a state of blissful nirvana. Because Game of Thrones has finally jumped the shark. Any semblance of a story as deep as A Song of Ice and Fire is gone, and in it’s place is a clusterfuck of scenes designed to provoke shock and outrage, characters forced together for no logical reason, characters contradiction themselves and making brainless decisions, and the complete death of character development.

S P O I L E R S

Jon and the Night’s Watch

Jon is one of very few, perhaps the only, character to emerge from this season in a better-than-terrible state. Most people’s highlight of the season is his dramatic battle with the white walkers at Hardhome, which is possibly the only change made which improved on the books. Jon’s arc in ADWD isn’t one of my favourites, and another glimpse of the real enemy would have certainly livened it up a bit, as there have been precious few thus far. Also, a long-standing theory that Valyrian steel can be used to kill the walkers was confirmed.

In other episodes, we had the death of Maester Aemon, which was the most moving moment of the season. Peter Vaughn has been an underrated actor on the show and will be missed. Mance Rayder was burnt by Stannis, and it was seemingly the real deal, not Rattleshirt wearing a glamour as in the books, rendering Mance’s character on the show basically pointless. We had our unnecessary Melisandre nude scene when she bared all to seduce Jon, and failed. Sam came to the rescue of Gilly, who was going to be raped by some more disreputable watchmen (because they just love using rape as a catalyst for male character development), and she rewarded him with sex! Yay! Except no, just no.

The climax, which everyone had been dreading, came in the final scene of the season. The Benjen tease in the ‘previously on’ turned out to be nothing more than bait for Jon to come out into the courtyard and get stabbed. Olly had the last stab, in the most heavily foreshadowed event possibly of all time.

Plotline Overall Rating: 6/10

Stannis Baratheon

Oh, it all started off so well. The Stannis scenes in the first few episodes gave us all hope that he was finally getting the treatment he deserved as one of the most beloved characters. A bonding moment with Shireen had us all delighted, and when Melisandre suggested burning her, he told her to get to fuck. And then he burned her. In the next episode. Because he lost some supplies.

Seriously???

Stannis LOVES Shireen. He may not express it often, but he told his knights to seat her on the throne of DIE TRYING if something should happen to him. And when she was burning, it was SELYSE who came running to her and fell to the ground crying. And then there’s the fact that Stannis Baratheon, the finest military commander still alive, was somehow thwarted by Ramsay Snow, a bastard with no military training. Did he not have guards posted? How did twenty men just ride into his camp and burn his supplies?

Selyse promptly hung herself in the next episode, in a frankly pathetic reason to get her off screen now that they had no further use for her. Stannis and his forces marched on Winterfell, having no idea that the Bolton’s were charging straight for them, and were routed. Stannis fought off a couple of soldiers before collapsing to the ground wounded. And there was Brienne, who must have some kind of GPS given that she can track down any character she pleases. A far cry from the Brienne who spent a whole book walking around hopelessly looking for Sansa. She also seems to be acting as some sort of eraser for D&D, removing characters they no longer want. And that was that. Stannis Baratheon was dead. It’s fine though, because Book Stannis won’t be anywhere near as incompetent.

Plotline Overall Rating: 3/10

Sansa, Theon, and the Boltons

After Sansa’s transformation to Darth Sansa at the end of season four, all the build up focussed on how she was going to become a major player in the game of thrones. She would learn from Littlefinger, and finally gain some agency after being constantly at the mercy of the series’ cruellest characters. So how did that turn out?

She was married to Ramsay Snow by Littlefinger, in a move that made absolutely no sense for him, and had him force himself upon her in the most harrowing piece of television I’ve ever seen.

Even the rape scene, horrendous as it was, focussed more on Theon’s reaction to it, because rape is only there to develop male characters. And given that it was Theon who rescued her in the end, and not Sansa herself, it’s clear that it was there purely for shock value, not as a catalyst for her to develop agency. Their story ended with Theon chucking Myranda off a wall, and then the two of them leaping from the same walls to an unknown fate. Book readers will know that they land in a deep patch of snow, but show watchers are probably assuming that they’re dead, or at the least have broken bones. Ramsay meanwhile, seems to have become D&D’s favourite character, having a ridiculous amount of screen time. They’ve really gone overboard with the whole ‘bad guys always win’ thing.

Plotline Overall Rating: 2/10

Dorne

Oh, boy.

Dorne is one of my favourite plotlines in the books. Arianne is the strongest female character in the series, the Sand Snakes, while cartoonish, are pretty badass, the unveiling of Doran’s plot led to an insane amount of hype, and Ellaria’s impassioned plea for peace was a welcome relief from all the lusting for vengeance.

None of that made it in.

Instead, we had the Sand Worms wearing matching costumes, an Ellaria who seems to have gone a little bit mad, giving Myrcella the kiss of death just one season after she said ‘We don’t hurt little girls in Dorne’, a passive Doran who seemingly has no plan at all, and a vomit-inducing romance between Myrcella and Trystane. What was the point of recasting Myrcella if she was just going to die?? Every Sand Snake scene was awfully cringeworthy, not least the farcical battle in the Water Gardens when they happened to show up at exactly the same time as Jaime and Bronn. Oh yeah, Jaime and Bronn are in Dorne. No one really knows why.

A complex and fascinating plot featuring multiple strong female characters was totally discarded for a buddy comedy with two characters who deserve better. I’m done here.

Plotline Overall Rating: 0/10

King’s Landing

King’s Landing has been at the heart of Game of Thrones’ best storylines so far. This continued in AFFC, with Cersei’s ascent to power and following descent into madness and imprisonment, made for great reading. By contrast, Cersei seemed to have her shit together more this season than ever before. Littlefinger rocked up, for… reasons unknown. Meanwhile, Margaery and Tommen…

Yeah, that scene was as weird as you can imagine.

Loras was finally punished for the heinous crime of being a token gay character. The High Sparrow apparently has more power than anyone in Westeros. Olenna had a half-hearted attempt to have her grandchldren set free, but he put her in her place. Then there was another highly anticipated scene, Cersei’s walk of atonement. It certainly captured the spirit of the scene from the books, and Lena Headey put in surely the acting performance of the season. An acceptable effort. And we got a glimpse of Robert Strong. Hype.

Plotline Overall Rating: 5/10

Tyrion, Daenerys and Meereen

Tyrion seemed at a bit of a loose end this season. He spent most of the season travelling to Meereen, forming a short lived partnership with Jorah Mormont. It wasn’t a patch on meeting the long-thought-dead Aegon motherfucking Targaryen, and exiled lord Jon Connington. He finally met Daenerys, something long awaited, but they weren’t together long before Daznak’s pit, the scene I had been most eagerly awaiting,. It came immediately after the burning of Shireen, and I wasn’t paying much attention due to my disgust, but it was a huge let down. Whereas in the book, everything was going swimmingly before Drogon showed up, and he began burning innocents by the dozen, in this adaptation he arrived as a deus ex machina to save Dany from a random Sons of the Harpy attack. Despite the fact the whole reason Dany married Hizdahr and re-opened the fighting pits was to achieve peace, but what is logic. Dany flying away on Drogon’s back was badly CG’d, and her story ended with her surrounded by Dothraki while Jorah and Daario set off on a merry quest to find her. The buddy comedy is sorted for next season, have no fear. Jorah was incredibly annoying this season, btw.

Oh, and then there was Barristan’s death. The most noble and celebrated living knight, cut down by some randoms in masks while the Unsullied continued to be more useless than the Stormtroopers from A New Hope. What was the point in even reintroducing him?

Plotline Overall Rating: 6/10 (only because the dragons look so cool)

Arya, Braavos, and the Faceless Men

This storyline actually turned out alright.

Having Jaqen back was cool, even if it completely contradicted the point of the Faceless Men, there were some very impressive special effects on show, and the hall of faces looked awesome. Arya spent a lot of time training, before Meryn fucking Trant showed up with Mace Tyrell. Apparently we didn’t have enough reason to hate Meryn yet, so we got to see him picking out young girls to fuck (he’s a pedo apparently?) and then knocking them about a bit. Lucky us. Arya killed him in predictable bloody and psychopathic fashion, and then she was blinded. I actually have hope that this story could turn out ok, because they really love Arya on this show.

Plotline Overall Rating: 7/10

To sum up, the show is now so far removed from believability, enjoyability, and the canon of ASOIAF that I don’t have it in me to get angry any more. They’ve tossed out depth and complex plots for cheap shocks (raping Sansa, burning Shireen), having characters contradict themselves (Stannis, Ellaria), and giving us CGI heavy action sequences to make up for it. The simple fact is that D&D are poor writers. Good writers let the characters drive the story, whereas they are trying to force characters into the book storylines that they want, no matter how illogical they are. Next season we enter the complete unknown, as we’re at the end of the the book’s timeline. What will happen is anyone’s guess, but I’m not too worried about the possibility of The Winds of Winter being spoiled, because we’re now so far away from what most of the characters are actually doing. Sansa is in the Vale, flirting with Harry the Heir. Theon and Asha (remember her?) are captives of Stannis, who all agree is likely to defeat the Boltons. Jaime and Brienne are headed for deadly showdown with Lady Stoneheart (who??) in an encounter that keeps me up at night with worry. Euron is ravaging the Reach, with a potential dragon on the way. Barristan is marshalling the defence of Meereen against all the scum of the world. The storylines of major characters, especially the big four (Tyrion, Dany, Arya and Jon) most likely will be spoilt however, and for that reason I’ll be giving next season a miss.

Overall review of Season Five:

I’ll conclude with a formal congratulations for Balon Greyjoy, sole remaining contestant of the War of Five Kings. Long may he reign!


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11 Truly Underrated Players

The word ‘underrated’ has become misused in football. The same old players are always mentioned, to the extent that they are no longer underrated, but overrated if anything. A truly underrated player is someone who consistently plays well, but doesn’t receive much attention for it. So with that in mind, here are 11 players who could be called truly underrated.

Nabil Fekir – Lyon and France, CAM/ST, 21

The subject of an international tussle between Algeria and France, Nabil Fekir has elected to represent France, the country of his birth. He has been overshadowed by the remarkable scoring exploits of team-mate Alexandre Lacazette, but he has been just as crucial to Lyon’s good season. Capable of playing as an attacking midfielder or a striker, he has 11 goals and 7 assists in Ligue 1 this season. Probably the best-known player on this list, he is destined for great things.

Nicola Sansone – Sassuolo and Italy, LW, 23

Sassuolo have defied expectations of a swift relegation and become a solid mid-table side in Serie A over the last two seasons. Their first choice XI features ten Italian players, and the attacking trident of Sansone, Zaza and Berardi has attracted rave reviews. Sansone is the least heralded of these three, An inside forward with a powerful long-range shot, it would not be a huge surprise to see him called up by the Azzurri in time to come.

Franco Vazquez – Palermo and Italy, CAM/ST, 26

Another Serie A player who is overshadowed by a team-mate is Franco Vazquez of Palermo. His partnership with Paulo Dybala has been described as mesmerising, and unlike anything else in Serie A. He is the top assister in Serie A this season, with 9 assists, as well as 7 goals. Despite being born in Argentina, he has just accepted his first call up to the senior Italian team. When Dybala inevitable moves on in the summer, his new club would do well to consider bringing Vazquez in as well.

Robin Knoche – Wolfsburg and Germany, CB, 22

Wolfsburg have been having an excellent season, and the strong centre-back partnership of Naldo and Knoche is a big reason for it. A local lad who came through Wolfsburg’s academy, he has been a regular for the last two seasons and is rumoured to be close to a call up to the world champions’ senior squad. Knoche boasts maturity beyond his years with his calmness in possession and ability to position himself perfectly.

Jordan Amavi – Nice and France, LB, 21

France seem to have an endless conveyer belt of talented young left backs, Amavi has both the attacking and defensive qualities to make it ahead of competitors such as Lucas Digne and Layvin Kurzawa. Already a regular for OGC Nice, he also currently holds a place in whoscored.com’s Team of the Season.

Wissam Ben Yedder – Toulouse and France, ST, 24

Toulouse are currently staring down the barrel of relegation from Ligue 1, and should they suffer that fate there will be a long queue of teams interested in striker Ben Yedder. The player of Tunisian descent managed to score over 15 goals in each of the last two seasons, and currently stands on 10 for this season. He has skill and speed in abundance, but he is also decent in the air. His biggest problem is consistency.

Nolito – Celta Vigo and Spain, LW, 28

The La Masia graduate has found his home at Celta Vigo, after bouncing around various clubs for most of his career. 14 goals last season led to a debut cap for Spain, and he has followed that up with 8 goals and 8 assists this season. Lots of players struggle after leaving Barcelona, but Nolito has thrived.

Giannelli Imbula – Marseille and France, DM, 22

Marcelo Bielsa has revolutionised Marseille this season, and Imbula has been ever-present for them this season. Chelsea were reportedly prepared to part with £25m to acquire his services. A tough-tackling holding player, he is also strong in possession and excellent at carrying the ball forward. Eligible to play for the Democratic Republic of Congo or Belgium, he has elected to represent France, and should do just that in the near future.

Denis Cheryshev – Villarreal and Russia, LW, 24

Russian winger Cheryshev has been Villarreal’s player of the season so far, and has impressed so much that Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, from whom he is on loan, has said he plans to incorporate him into his first team next season. He has an impressive 9 assists, and after a long time spent at Castilla, next season could finally be the time for his Bernabeu breakthrough.

Allan – Udinese and Brazil, CM, 24

Udinese have a fantastic track record of turning unknown South Americans into stars, and combative midfielder Allan has the potential to be the next. An excellent all-rounder, he has been crucial for the Zebrette this season, and has been linked with both Milan clubs. He is Serie A’s top tackler, averaging 4.6 per game, but he is also a skilful attacker.

Felipe Anderson – Lazio and Brazil, LW/RW, 21

Formerly Neymar’s partner in crime at Santos, Anderson will not remain an unknown for much longer, as on current form he is arguable the best player in Italy. He struggled with injury and form in his debut season for Lazio, but this season he has become absolutely crucial. Despite only starting 12 games, he has 8 goals and 6 assists so far. He has spectacular pace and dribbling ability, as well as a lethal long shot, as evidenced by his wonderful goal in the Rome derby. He is also equally comfortable on either foot. This array of attributes, as well as his young age, should propel him to a brilliant career.


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My Top 100 Footballers 2014

After the release of FourFourTwo’s annual ranking of the top 100 footballers currently playing, I was prompted to compile my own ranking, following on from last year. It’s impossible that a perfect ranking could be created that everyone agrees with, because it’s entirely based on opinion, but here is my list for this year anyway. It isn’t based on who had the best 2014, simply who I think the best players are overall right now. In brackets is how their position has changed from last year’s list, which you can find here: https://mattdale95.wordpress.com/2013/12/21/my-top-100-footballers-2013/

100. Radja Nainggolan – Roma and Belgium (NEW)

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99. Memphis Depay – PSV Eindhoven and Holland (NEW)

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98. Marc-Andre ter Stegen – Barcelona and Germany (NEW)

Recreativo de Huelva v FC Barcelona: Pre-Season Friendly

97. Alessio Cerci – Atletico Madrid and Italy (NEW)

96

96. Mathieu Valbuena – Dynamo Moscow and France (No move)

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95. Daley Blind – Manchester United and Holland (NEW)

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94. Santi Cazorla – Arsenal and Spain (Down 35)

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93. Simon Kjaer – Lille and Denmark (NEW)

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92. Luiz Gustavo – Wolfsburg and Brazil (NEW)

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91. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – Borussia Dortmund and Gabon (NEW)

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90. Giuseppe Rossi – Fiorentina and Italy (Down 19)

Giuseppe Rossi

89. Jose Callejon – Napoli and Spain (NEW)

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88. Jackson Martinez – Porto and Colombia (NEW)

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87. Gianluigi Buffon – Juventus and Italy (Up 3)

Juventus FC v AS Roma - Serie A

86. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – Schalke and Holland (NEW)

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85. Borja Valero – Fiorentina and Spain (Down 24)

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84. Stevan Jovetic – Manchester City and Montenegro (NEW)

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83. Marco Verratti – Paris Saint-Germain and Italy (NEW)

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82. Carlos Vela – Real Sociedad and Mexico (NEW)

81

81. Marcelo – Real Madrid and Brazil (Down 25)

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80. Daniel Sturridge  – Liverpool and England (NEW)

79

79. Ilkay Gundogan – Borussia Dortmund and Germany (Down 11)

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78. Antoine Griezmann – Atletico Madrid and France (Up 19)

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77. Antonio Candreva – Lazio and Italy (NEW)

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76. Kevin De Bruyne – Wolfsburg and Belgium (NEW)

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75. Blaise Matuidi – Paris Saint-Germain and France (No move)

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74. Samir Handanovic – Inter Milan and Slovenia (NEW)

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73. Mario Mandzukic – Atletico Madrid and Croatia (NEW)

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72. Kevin Strootman – Roma and Holland (NEW)

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71. Lukasz Piszczek – Borussia Dortmund and Poland (NEW)

70

70. Oscar – Chelsea and Brazil (Down 24)

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69. Andrea Pirlo – Juventus and Italy (Down 25)

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68. Marek Hamsik – Napoli and Slovakia (Down 38)

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67. Raphael Varane – Real Madrid and France (Up 3)

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66. Arda Turan – Atletico Madrid and Turkey (NEW)

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65. Gonzalo Higuain – Napoli and Argentina (Down 33)

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64. Vincent Kompany – Manchester City and Belgium (Down 31)

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63. Giorgio Chiellini – Juventus and Italy (Down 23)

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62. Juan Cuadrado – Fiorentina and Colombia (NEW)

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61. Paul Pogba – Juventus and France (Down 20)

SS Lazio v FC Juventus - TIM Supercup

60. Roberto Firmino – Hoffenheim and Brazil (NEW)

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59. Wayne Rooney – Manchester United and England (Up 15)

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58. Daniele De Rossi – Roma and Italy (Down 21)

27-3-2010 Roma-Inter

57. Hugo Lloris – Tottenham and France (Down 6)

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56. Pablo Zabaleta – Manchester City and Argentina (Up 16)

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55. Ricardo Rodriguez – Wolfsburg and Switzerland (NEW)

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54. David De Gea – Manchester United and Spain (NEW)

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53. Robin van Persie – Manchester United and Holland (Down 29)

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52. Carlos Tevez – Juventus and Argentina (Up 46)

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51. Nemanja Matic – Chelsea and Serbia (NEW)

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50. Cesar Azpilicueta – Chelsea and Spain (NEW)

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49. Javi Martinez – Bayern Munich and Spain (Down 20)

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48. Xabi Alonso – Bayern Munich and Spain (Down 1)

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47. Franck Ribery – Bayern Munich and France (Down 41)

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46. Juan Mata – Manchester United and Spain (Down 21)

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45. Mehdi Benatia – Bayern Munich and Morocco (Up 13)

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44. Mesut Ozil – Arsenal and Germany (Down 30)

mesut ozil

43. David Alaba – Bayern Munich and Austria (Up 2)

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42. Radamel Falcao – Manchester United and Colombia (Down 23)

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41. Miralem Pjanic – Roma and Bosnia (NEW)

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40. Mats Hummels – Borussia Dortmund and Germany (Up 3)

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39. Alexis Sanchez – Arsenal and Chile (Up 15)

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38. Edinson Cavani – Paris Saint-Germain and Uruguay (Down 21)

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37. James Rodriguez – Real Madrid and Colombia (NEW)

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36. Gareth Bale – Real Madrid and Wales (Down 20)

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35. Karim Benzema – Real Madrid and France (Up 7)

Real Madrid's Benzema celebrates after scoring during their Spanish first division match in Madrid

34. Sergio Ramos – Real Madrid and Spain (Up 15)

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33. Marco Reus – Borussia Dortmund and Germany (Up 5)

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32. Javier Mascherano – Barcelona and Argentina (Up 37)

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31. Ivan Rakitic – Barcelona and Croatia (NEW)

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30. Eden Hazard – Chelsea and Belgium (Up 22)

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29. Mario Gotze – Bayern Munich and Germany (Up 5)

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28. Bastian Schweinsteiger – Bayern Munich and Germany (Down 8)

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27. David Silva – Manchester City and Spain (No move)

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26. Koke – Atletico Madrid and Spain (Up 51)

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25. Diego Costa – Chelsea and Spain (Up 23)

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24. Robert Lewandowski – Bayern Munich and Poland (Down 12)

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23. Isco – Real Madrid and Spain (Down 5)

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22. Diego Godin – Atletico Madrid and Uruguay (NEW)

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21. Yaya Toure – Manchester City and Ivory Coast (Down 12)

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20. Arturo Vidal – Juventus and Chile (Down 7)

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19. Thibaut Courtois – Chelsea and Belgium (Up 38)

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18. Jerome Boateng – Bayern Munich and Germany (NEW)

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17. Cesc Fabregas – Chelsea and Spain (Down 2)

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16. Thomas Muller –  Bayern Munich and Germany (Up 34)

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15. Angel Di Maria – Manchester United and Argentina (Up 21)

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14. Arjen Robben – Bayern Munich and Holland (Up 21)

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13. Sergio Busquets – Barcelona and Spain (Up 10)

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12. Toni Kroos – Real Madrid and Germany (Up 14)

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11. Neymar – Barcelona and Brazil (Down 1)

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10. Thiago Silva – Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil (Down 3)

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9. Luka Modric – Real Madrid and Croatia (Up 19)

Real Madrid's Luka Modric celebrates after scoring in their La Liga victory against Real Mallorca

8. Andres Iniesta – Barcelona and Spain (Down 5)

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7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden (Down 2)

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6. Sergio Aguero – Manchester City and Argentina (Up 15)

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5. Manuel Neuer – Bayern Munich and Germany (Up 17)

Borussia Dortmund v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Final

4. Philipp Lahm – Bayern Munich and Germany (Up 4)

Philipp Lahm playing for Bayern

3. Luis Suarez – Barcelona and Uruguay (Up 1)

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2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid and Portugal (No move)

2

1. Lionel Messi – Barcelona and Argentina (No move)

1


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Top 20 Favourite Moments of ASOIAF

It’s pretty much common knowledge now that A Song of Ice and Fire is the greatest story of all time, and that the books are unfathomably better than that terrible fan fiction show on HBO. Recently on Twitter, some people have been working out their top ten favourite moments of the story, however when I began compiling my list I realised that there were far too many amazing moments to narrow it down to just ten, so I have listed my top twenty. Included herein are moments that made me laugh, moments that made me cry, moments that made me think about life. This story has it all.

20. A Feast for Crows – Jaime VII

There was a rap upon his door. “See who that is, Peck.”

It was Riverrun’s old maester, with a message clutched in his lined and wrinkled hand. Vyman’s face was as pale as the new-fallen snow. “I know,” Jaime said, “there has been a white raven from the Citadel. Winter has come.”

“No, my lord. The bird was from King’s Landing. I took the liberty … I did not know …” He held the letter out.

Jaime read it in the window seat, bathed in the light of that cold white morning. Qyburn’s words were terse and to the point, Cersei’s fevered and fervent. Come at once, she said. Help me. Save me. I need you now as I have never needed you before. I love you. I love you. I love you. Come at once.

Vyman was hovering by the door, waiting, and Jaime sensed that Peck was watching too. “Does my lord wish to answer?” the maester asked, after a long silence.

A snowflake landed on the letter. As it melted, the ink began to blur. Jaime rolled the parchment up again, as tight as one hand would allow, and handed it to Peck. “No,” he said. “Put this in the fire.”

19. A Dance with Dragons – Jon II

This is wrong, Jon thought. “Stop.”

Emmett turned back, frowning. “My lord?”

“I will not hang him,” said Jon. “Bring him here.”

“Oh, Seven save us,” he heard Bowen Marsh cry out.

The smile that Lord Janos Slynt smiled then had all the sweetness of rancid butter. Until Jon said, “Edd, fetch me a block,” and unsheathed Longclaw.

By the time a suitable chopping block was found, Lord Janos had retreated into the winch cage, but Iron Emmett went in after him and dragged him out. “No,” Slynt cried, as Emmett half-shoved and half-pulled him across the yard. “Unhand me … you cannot … when Tywin Lannister hears of this, you will all rue-“

Emmett kicked his legs out from under him. Dolorous Edd planted a foot on his back to keep him on his knees as Emmett shoved the block beneath his head. “This will go easier if you stay still,” Jon Snow promised him. “Move to avoid the cut, and you will still die, but your dying will be uglier. Stretch out your neck, my lord.” The pale morning sunlight ran up and down his blade as Jon clasped the hilt of the bastard sword with both hands and raised it high. “If you have any last words, now is the time to speak them,” he said, expecting one last curse.

Janos Slynt twisted his neck around to stare up at him.  “Please, my lord. Mercy. I’ll … I’ll go, I will, I …”

No, thought Jon. You closed that door. Longclaw descended.

“Can I have his boots?” asked Owen the Oaf, as Janos Slynt’s head went rolling across the muddy ground. “They’re almost new, those boots. Lined with fur.”

Jon glanced back at Stannis. For an instant their eyes met. Then the king nodded and went back inside his tower.

18. A Dance with Dragons – Epilogue

File:Mike Capprotti Varys.JPG

“Varys?”

The eunuch set the crossbow down. “Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children.”

I have children. I have a wife. Oh, Dorna. Pain washed over him. He closed his eyes, opened them again. “There are … there are hundreds of Lannister guardsmen in this castle.”

“But none in this room, thankfully. This pains me, my lord. You do not deserve to die alone on such a cold dark night. There are many like you, good men in service to bad causes … but you were threatening to undo all the queen’s good work, to reconcile Highgarden and Casterly Rock, bind the Faith to your little king, unite the Seven Kingdoms under Tommen’s rule. So …”

A gust of wind blew up. Ser Kevan shivered violently.

“Are you cold, my lord?” asked Varys. “Do forgive me. The Grand Maester befouled himself in dying, and the stink was so abominable that I thought I might choke.”

Ser Kevan tried to rise, but the strength had left him. He could not feel his legs.

“I thought the crossbow fitting. You shared so much with Lord Tywin, why not that? Your niece will think the Tyrells had you murdered, mayhaps with the connivance of the Imp. The Tyrells will suspect her. Someone somewhere will find a way to blame the Dornishmen. Doubt, division, and mistrust will eat the very ground beneath your boy king, whilst Aegon raises his banner above Storm’s End and the lords of the realm gather round him.”

“Aegon?” For a moment he did not understand. Then he remembered. A babe swaddled in a crimson cloak, the cloth stained with his blood and brains. “Dead. He’s dead.”

“No.” The eunuch’s voice seemed deeper. “He is here. Aegon has been shaped for rule since before he could walk. He has been trained in arms, as befits a knight to be, but that was not the end of his education. He reads and writes, he speaks several tongues, he has studied history and law and poetry. A septa has instructed him in the mysteries of the Faith since he was old enough to understand them. He has lived with fisherfolk, worked with his hands, swum in rivers and mended nets and learned to wash his own clothes at need. He can fish and cook and bind up a wound, he knows what it is like to be hungry, to be hunted, to be afraid. Tommen has been taught that kingship is his right. Aegon knows that kingship is his duty, that a king must put his people first, and live and rule for them.”

17. A Storm of Swords – Epilogue

The outlaws parted as she came through, saying no word. When she lowered her hood, something tightened inside Merrett’s chest, and for a moment he could not breathe. No. No, I saw her die. She was dead for a day and a night before they stripped her naked and threw her body in the river. Raymund opened her throat from ear to ear. She was dead.

Her cloak and collar hid the gash his brother’s blade had made, but her face was even worse than her remembered. The flesh had gone pudding soft in the water and turned the colour of curdled milk. Half her hair was gone and the rest had turned as white and brittle as a crone’s. Beneath her ravaged scalp, her face was shredded skin and black blood where she had raked herself with her nails. But her eyes were the most terrible thing. Her eyes saw him, and they hated.

“She don’t speak,” said the big man in the yellow cloak. “You bloody bastards cut her throat too deep for that. But she remembers.” He turned to the dead woman and said, “What do you say, m’lady? Was he part of it?”

Lady Catelyn’s eyes never left him. She nodded.

Merrett Frey opened his mouth to plead, but the noose choked off his words. His feet left the ground, the rope cutting deep into the soft flesh beneath his chin. Up into the air he jerked, kicking and twisting, up and up and up.

16. A Storm of Swords – Jaime IX

File:White Book.jpg

Jaime sat alone at the table while the shadows crept across the room. As dusk began to settle, he lit a candle and opened the White Book to his own page. Quill and ink he found in a drawer. Beneath the last line Ser Barristan had entered, he wrote in an awkward hand that might have done credit to a six-year-old being taught his first letters by a maester:

Defeated in the Whispering Wood by the Young Wolf Robb Stark during the War of the Five Kings. Held captive at Riverrun and ransomed for a promise unfulfilled. Captured again by the Brave Companions, and maimed at the word of Vargo Hoat their captain, losing his sword hand to the blade of Zollo the Fat. Returned safely to King’s Landing by Brienne, the Maid of Tarth.

When he was done, more than three-quarters of his page still remained to be filled between the gold lion on the crimson shield on top and the blank white shield at the bottom. Ser Gerold Hightower had begun his history, and Ser Barristan Selmy had continued it, but the rest Jaime Lannister would need to write for himself. He could write whatever he chose, henceforth.

Whatever he chose …

15. A Feast for Crows – Samwell IV

Sam donned his blacks to say the words, though the afternoon was warm and muggy, with nary a breath of wind. “He was a good man,” he began … but as soon as he had said the words he knew that they were wrong. “No. He was a great man. A maester of the Citadel, chained and sworn, and Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, ever faithful. When he was born they named him for a hero who had died too young, but though he lived a long long time, his own life was no less heroic. No man was wiser, or gentler, or kinder. At the Wall, a dozen lords commander came and went during his years of service, but he was always there to counsel them. He counselled kings as well. He could have been a king himself, but when they offered him the crown he told them they should give it to his younger brother. How many men would do that?” Sam felt the tears welling in his eyes, and knew he could not go on much longer. “He was the blood of the dragon, but now his fire has gone out. He was Aemon Targaryen. And now his watch has ended.”

14. A Storm of Swords – Arya XIII

File:Yoann Boissonnet Titan's Daughter.JPG

I have no home, Arya thought. I have no pack. And now I don’t even have a horse.

The captain was turning away when she said, “What ship is this, my lord?”

He paused long enough to give her a weary smile. “This is the galleas Titan’s Daughter, of the Free City of Braavos.”

“Wait,” Arya said suddenly. “I have something else.” She had stuffed it down inside her smallclothes to keep it safe, so she had to dig deep to find it, while the oarsmen laughed and the captain lingered with obvious impatience. “One more silver will make no difference, child,” he finally said.

“It’s not silver.” Her fingers closed on it. “It’s iron. Here.” She pressed it into his hand, the small black iron coin that Jaqen H’ghar had given her, so worn the man whose head it bore had no features. It’s probably worthless, but …

The captain turned it over and blinked at it, then looked at her again. “This … how …?”

Jaqen said to say the words too.  Arya crossed her arms against her chest. “Valar morghulis,” she said, as loud as if she’d known what she meant.

“Valar dohaeris,” he replied, touching his brow with two fingers. “Of course you shall have a cabin.”

13. A Dance with Dragons – The Sacrifice

The banker studied her with shrewd dark eyes. “You are the Lady Asha of House Greyjoy, unless I am mistaken.”

“I am Asha of House Greyjoy, aye. Opinions differ on whether I’m a lady.”

“The Braavosi smiled. “We’ve brought a gift for you.” He beckoned to the men behind him. “We had expected to find the king at Winterfell. This same blizzard has engulfed the castle, alas. Beneath its walls we found Mors Umber with a troop of raw green boys, waiting for the king’s coming. He gave us this.”

A girl and an old man, thought Asha, as the two were dumped rudely in the snow before her. The girl was shivering violently, even in her furs. If she had not been so frightened, she might even have been pretty, though the top of her nose was black from frostbite. The old man … no one would ever think him comely. She had seen scarecrows with more flesh. His face was a skull with skin, his hair bone-white and filthy. And he stank. Just the sight of him filled Asha with revulsion.

He raised his eyes. “Sister. See. This time I know you.”

Asha’s heart skipped a beat. “Theon?

His lips skinned back in what might have been a grin. Half his teeth were gone, and half of those still left him were broken and splintered. “Theon,” he repeated. “My name is Theon. You have to know your name.”

12. A Storm of Swords – Arya XIII

The boy didn’t seem to hear him. “I came for the girls,” he whimpered. “… make me a man, Polly said … oh gods, please, take me to a castle … a maester, take me to a maester, my father’s got gold … it was only for the girls … mercy, ser.”

The Hound gave him a crack across the face that made him scream again. “Don’t call me ser.” He turned back to Arya. “This one is yours, she-wolf. You do it.”

She knew what he meant. Arya went to Polliver and knelt in his blood long enough to undo his swordbelt. Hanging beside his dagger was a slimmer blade, too long to be a dirk, too short to be a man’s sword … but it felt just right in her hand.

“You remember where the heart is?” the Hound asked.

She nodded. The squire rolled his eyes. “Mercy.”

Needle slipped between his ribs and gave it to him.

11. A Game of Thrones – Jon VIII

File:Marc Simonetti jonandaemon.jpg

“Jon, did you ever wonder why the men of the Night’s Watch take no wives and father no children?” Maester Aemon asked.

Jon shrugged. “No.” He scattered more meat. The fingers of his left hand were slimy with blood, and his right throbbed from the weight of the bucket.

“So they will not love,” the old man answered, “for love is the bane of honour, the death of duty.”

That did not sound right to Jon, yet he said nothing. The maester was a hundred years old, and a high officer of the Night’s Watch; it was not his place to contradict him.

The old man seemed to sense his doubts. “Tell me, Jon, if the day should ever come when your lord father must needs choose between honour on the one hand and those he loves on the other, what would he do?”

Jon hesitated. He wanted to say that Lord Eddard would never dishonour himself, not even for love, yet inside a small sly voice whispered, He fathered a bastard, where was the honour in that? And your mother, what of his duty to her, he will not even say her name. “He would do whatever was right,” he said … ringingly, to make up for his hesitation. “No matter what.”

“Then Lord Eddard is a man in then thousand. Most of us are not so strong. What is honour compared to a woman’s love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms … or the memory of a brother’s smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”

10. A Dance with Dragons – Davos IV

“Soon I must return to the feast to toast my friends of Frey,” Manderly continued. “They watch me, ser. Day and night their eyes are on me, noses sniffing for some whiff of treachery. You saw them, the arrogant Ser Jared and his nephew Rhaegar, that smirking worm who wears a dragon’s name. Behind them both stands Symond, clinking coins. That one has bought and paid for several of my servants and two of my knights. One of his wife’s handmaids has found her way into the bed of my own fool. If Stannis wonders that my letters say so little, it is because I dare not even trust my maester. Theomore is all head and no heart. You heard him in my hall. Maesters are supposed to put aside old loyalties when they don their chains, but I cannot forget that Theomore was born a Lannister of Lannisport and claims some distant kinship to the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. Foes and false friends are all around me, Lord Davos. They infest my city like roaches, and at night I feel them crawling over me.” The fat man’s fingers coiled into a fist, and all his chins trembled. “My son Wendel came to the Twins a guest. He ate Lord Walder’s bread and salt, and hung his sword upon the wall to feast with friends. And they murdered him. Murdered, I say, and may the Freys choke upon their fables. I drink with Jared, jape with Symond, promise Rhaegar the hand of my own beloved granddaughter … but never think that means I have forgotten. The north remembers, Lord Davos. The north remembers, and the mummer’s farce is almost done. My son is home.”

9. A Storm of Swords – Tyrion X

Tyrion stared up at his father’s hard green eyes with their flecks of cold bright gold. “Guilty, “ he said, “so guilty. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Lord Tywin said nothing. Mace Tyrell nodded. Prince Oberyn looked mildly disappointed. “You admit you poisoned the king?”

“Nothing of the sort,” said Tyrion. “Of Joffrey’s death, I am innocent. I am guilty of a far more monstrous crime.” He took a step toward his father. “I was born. I lived. I am guilty of being a dwarf, I confess it. And no matter how many times my good father forgave me, I have persisted in my infamy.”

“This is folly, Tyrion,” declared Lord Tywin. “Speak to the matter at hand. You are not on trial for being a dwarf.”

“That is where you err, my lord. I have been on trial for being a dwarf my entire life.”

“Have you nothing to say in your defence?”

“Nothing but this: I did not do it. Yet now I wish I had.” He turned to face the hall, that sea of pale faces. “I wish I had enough poison for you all. You make me sorry that I am not the monster you would have me be, yet there it is. I am innocent, but I will get no justice here. You leave me no choice but to appeal to the gods. I demand trial by battle.”

“Have you taken leave of your wits?” his father said.

“No, I’ve found them. I demand trial by battle!”

His sweet sister could not have been more pleased. “He has that right, my lords,” she reminded the judges. “Let the gods judge. Ser Gregor Clegane will stand for Joffrey. He returned to the city the night before last, to put his sword at my service.”

Lord Tywin’s face was so dark that for half a heartbeat Tyrion wondered if he’d drunk some poisoned wine as well. He slammed his fist down on the table, too angry to speak. It was Mace Tyrell who turned to Tyrion and asked the question. “Do you have a champion to defend your innocence?”

“He does, my lord.” Prince Oberyn of Dorne rose to his feet. “The dwarf has quite convinced me.”

8. A Storm of Swords – Jon X

It’s done, Jon thought, they’re breaking. The wildlings were running, throwing down their weapons, Hornfoot men and cave dwellers and Thenns in bronze scales, they were running. Mance was gone, someone was waving Harma’s head on a pole, Tormund’s lines had broken. Only the giants on their mammoths were holding hairy islands in a red steel sea. The fires were leaping from tent to tent and some of the tall pines were going up as well. And through the smoke another wedge of armoured riders came, on barded horses. Floating above them were the largest banners yet, royal standards as big as sheets; a yellow one with long pointed tongues that showed a flaming heart, and another like a sheet of beaten gold, with a black stag prancing and rippling in the wind. Robert, Jon though for one mad moment, remembering poor Owen, but when the trumpets blew again and the knights charged, the name they cried was “Stannis! Stannis! STANNIS!”

7. A Dance with Dragons – Theon I

theon robb

Theon led the way up the stairs. I have climbed these steps a thousand times before. As a boy he would run up; descending, he would take the steps three at a time, leaping. Once he leapt right into Old Nan and knocked her to the floor. That earned him the worst thrashing he ever had at Winterfell, though it was almost tender compared to the beatings his brothers used to give him back on Pyke. He and Robb had fought many a heroic battle on these steps, slashing at one another with wooden swords. Good training, that; it brought home how hard it was to fight your way up a spiral stair against determined opposition. Ser Rodrik liked to say that one good man could hold a hundred, fighting down.

That was long ago, though. They were all dead now. Jory, old Ser Rodrik, Lord Eddard, Harwin and Hullen, Cayn and Desmond and Fat Tom, Alyn with his dreams of knighthood, Mikken who had given him his first real sword. Even Old Nan, like as not.

And Robb. Robb who had been more a brother to Theon than any son born of Balon Greyjoy’s loins. Murdered at the Red Wedding, butchered by the Freys. I should have been with him. Where was I? I should have died with him.

6. A Game of Thrones – Bran IV

That night, after the plates had been cleared, Robb carried Bran up to bed himself. Grey Wind led the way, and Summer came close behind. His brother was strong for his age, and Bran was as light as a bundle of rags, but the stairs were steep and dark, and Robb was breathing hard by the time they reached the top.

He put Bran into bed, covered him with blankets, and blew out the candle. For a time, Robb sat beside him in the dark. Bran wanted to talk to him, but he did not know what to say. “We’ll find a horse for you, I promise,” Robb whispered at last.

“Are they ever coming back?” Bran asked him.

“Yes,” Robb said with such hope in his voice that Bran knew he was hearing his brother and not just Robb the Lord. “Mother will be home soon. Maybe we can ride out to meet her when she comes. Wouldn’t that surprise her, to see you ahorse?” Even in the dark room, Bran could feel his brother’s smile. “And afterward, we’ll ride north to see the Wall. We won’t even tell Jon we’re coming, we’ll just be there one day, you and me. It will be an adventure.”

“An adventure,” Bran repeated wistfully. He heard his brother sob. The room was so dark he could not see the tears on Robb’s face, so he reached out and found his hand. Their fingers twined together.

5. A Clash of Kings – Tyrion XIV

Finally, he rolled over the side and lay breathless and exhausted, flat on his back. Balls of green and orange flame crackled overhead, leaving streaks between the stars. He had a moment to think how pretty it was before Ser Mandon blocked out the view. The knight was a white steel shadow, his eyes shining darkly behind his helm. Tyrion had no more strength than a rag doll. Ser Mandon put the point of his sword to the hollow of his throat and curled both hands around the hilt.

And suddenly he lurched to the left, staggering into the rail. Wood split, and Ser Mandon Moore vanished with a shout and a splash. An instant later, the hulls came slamming together again, so hard the deck seemed to jump. Then someone was kneeling over him. “Jaime?” he croaked, almost choking on the blood that filled his mouth. Who else would save him, if not his brother?

“Be still, my lord, you’re hurt bad.” A boy’s voice, that makes no sense, thought Tyrion. It sounded almost like Pod.

4. A Clash of Kings – Bran VII

At the edge of the wolfswood, Bran turned in his basket for one last glimpse of the castle that had been his life. Wisps of smoke still rose into the night sky, but no more than might have risen from Winterfell’s chimneys on a cold autumn afternoon. Soot stains marked some of the arrow loops, and here and there a crack or a missing merlon could be seen in the curtain wall, but it seemed little enough from this distance. Beyond, the tops of the keeps and towers still stood as they had for hundreds of years, and it was hard to tell that the castle had been burned and sacked at all. The stone is strong, Bran told himself, the roots of the trees go deep, and under the ground the Kings of Winter sit their thrones. So long as those remained, Winterfell remained. It was not dead, just broken. Like me, he thought. I’m not dead either.

3. A Storm of Swords – Jaime V

“Has my tale turned you speechless? Come, curse me or kiss me or call me a liar. Something.

“If this is true, how is it no one knows?”

“The knights of the Kingsguard are sworn to keep the kings secrets. Would you have me break my oath?” Jaime laughed. “Do you think the noble Lord of Winterfell wanted to hear my feeble explanations? Such an honourable man. He only had to look at me to judge me guilty.” Jaime lurched to his feet, the water running cold down his chest. “By what right does the wolf judge the lion? By what right?” A violent shiver took him, and he smashed his stump against the rim of the tub as he tried to climb out. Pain shuddered through him … and suddenly the bathhouse was spinning. Brienne caught him before he could fall. Her arm was all gooseflesh, clammy and chilled, but she was strong, and gentler than he would have thought. Gentler than Cersei, he thought as she helped him from the tub, his legs wobbly as a limp cock. “Guards!” he heard the wench shout. “The Kingslayer!”

Jaime, he thought, my name is Jaime.

2. A Feast for Crows – Arya II

She stood on the end of the dock, pale and goosefleshed and shivering in the fog. In her hand, Needle seemed to whisper to her. Stick them with the pointy end, it said, and, don’t tell Sansa! Mikken’s mark was on the blade. It’s just a sword. If she needed a sword, there were a hundred under the temple. Needle was too small to be a proper sword, it was hardly more than a toy. She’d been a stupid little girl when Jon had it made for her. “It’s just a sword,” she said, aloud this time …

… but it wasn’t.

Needle was Robb and Bran and Rickon, her mother and her father,  even Sansa. Needle was Winterfell’s grey walls, and the laughter of its people. Needle was the summer snows, Old Nan’s stories, the heart tree with its red leaves and scary face, the warm earthy smell of the glass gardens, the sound of the north wind rattling the shutters of her room. Needle was Jon Snow’s smile. He used to mess my hair and call me “little sister,” she remembered, and suddenly there were tears in her eyes.

Polliver has stolen the sword from her when the Mountain’s men took her captive, but when she and the Hound walked into the inn at the crossroads, there it was. The gods wanted me to have it. Not the Seven, nor Him of Many Faces, but her father’s gods, the old gods of the north. The Many-Faced God can have the rest, she thought, but he can’t have this.

1. A Storm of Swords – Jaime IV

“Jaime,” Brienne whispered, so faintly he thought he was dreaming it. “Jaime, what are you doing?”

“Dying,” he whispered back.

“No,” she said, “no, you must live.”

He wanted to laugh. “Stop telling me what to do, wench. I’ll die if it pleases me.”

“Are you so craven?”

The word shocked him. He was Jaime Lannister, a knight of the Kingsguard, he was the Kingslayer. No man had ever called him craven. Other things they called him, yes; oathbreaker, liar, murderer. They said he was cruel, treacherous, reckless. But never craven. “What else can I do, but die?”

“Live,” she said, “live, and fight, and take revenge.” But she spoke too loudly. Rorge heard her voice, if not her words, and came over to kick her, shouting at her to hold her bloody tongue if she wanted to keep it.

Craven, Jaime thought as Brienne fought to stifle her moans. Can it be? They took my sword hand. Was that all I was, a sword hand? Gods be good, is it true?

The wench had the right of it. He could not die. Cersei was waiting for him. She would have need of him. And Tyrion, his little brother, who loved him for a lie. And his enemies were waiting too; the Young Wolf who had beaten him in the Whispering Wood and killed his men around him, Edmure Tully who had kept him in darkness and chains, these Brave Companions.

When morning came, he made himself eat. They fed him a mush of oats, horse food, but he forced down every spoon. He ate again at evenfall, and the next day. Live, he told himself harshly, when the mush was like to gag him, live for Cersei, live for Tyrion. Live for vengeance. A Lannister always pays his debts. His missing hand throbbed and burned and stank. When I reach King’s Landing I’ll have a new hand forged, a golden hand, and one day I’ll use it to rip out Vargo Hoat’s throat.


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Premier League Preview 2014/15

After the excitement of the World Cup, excitement levels are sky high for the return of domestic football, and another unpredictable season is in store in the Premier League. The title race is as open as it has been for years, although Chelsea are most people’s favourites, and the newly promoted teams should give some of the stagnating mid-table clubs a run for their money in the battle to avoid relegation. Stars from the World Cup will want to prove they weren’t just a flash in the pan, and the next generation of English players will want to stake their claim for a place in the England squad. It’s going to be a good one. 

Arsenal

Last season: 4th

Major arrival: Alexis Sanchez

Alexis has arrived for a fee of around £30m from Barcelona after starring at the World Cup in the impressive Chile side. He was one of Barcelona’s best players last season, and it is rather surprising that they have let him go. He can play either up front or on the wing, and the acquisition of a genuine world class player could spur them on as the signing of Mesut Ozil did last season. 

Youngster to watch: Gedion Zelalem

German midfielder made his debut last season in the FA Cup at just sixteen years of age, and have led to comparisons with Cesc Fabregas. He has shown some impressive form in pre-season, and is expected to make his Premier League bow this season.

Point to prove: Mesut Ozil

There were some who said that Mesut Ozil was a disappointing signing for Arsenal, and while he certainly wasn’t poor, he will know he can do better. Winning the World Cup won’t have harmed his confidence, and now he will want to prove that he is one of the best players in the Premier League.

Area to strengthen: Central defence

The sale of Thomas Vermaelen has left them rather light on defensive options, with no recognised centre backs other than Koscielny and Mertesacker. Wenger seems to intend to deploy Callum Chambers in that role, but another addition seems like a necessity.

Best XI:

Ospina

Debuchy – Mertesacker – Koscielny – Gibbs

Ramsey – Wilshere

Sanchez – Ozil – Cazorla

Giroud

Prediction: 3rd

Aston Villa

Last season: 15th

Major arrival: Aly Cissokho

Villa’s transfer business is far from inspiring, with only Cissokho, Joe Cole, Kieran Richardson and Philippe Senderos coming in. Cissokho earned the ire of Liverpool fans last season with some poor performances, and will need to improve if he is to help Villa beat the drop.

Youngster to watch: Jack Grealish

18-year-old Grealish is an attacking midfielder/winger who had an impressive loan spell with Notts County next season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him given a big role for Villa, as he seems ready for the step up.

Point to prove: Charles N’Zogbia

The tricky Frenchman missed the whole of last season injured, and will want to break back into Villa’s first team after his so far disappointing move from Wigan. We all saw what a good player he was for the Latics, and if he were to get back to that form, he will be a crucial player.

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

Villa seem very reliant on the goals of Christian Benteke, and the big Belgian is ruled out until November. Without attacking reinforcements, they may struggle for goals. 

Best XI:

Guzan

Lowton – Okore – Vlaar – Cissokho

Westwood – Delph

Agbonlahor – N’Zogbia – Weimann

Benteke

Prediction: 16th

Burnley

Last season: 2nd (Championship)

Major arrival: Michael Kightly

Kightly was on loan at Burnley last season, and a crucial player in their unexpected promotion. They moved quickly to secure his permanent signing from Stoke.

Youngster to watch: Danny Ings

Last year’s Championship Player of the Year is still only 22, and Burnley’s hopes of avoiding the drop lie mainly on his ability to find the back of the net. 21 goals last season suggest he has the talent to make the step up.

Point to prove: Matt Gilks

Goalkeeper Gilks was unable to keep Blackpool up the last time he was in the Premier League, he’ll want to right that wrong this time with Burnley.

Area to strenghten: Midfield

Burnley’s whole squad looks worryingly weak, but the midfield in particular is very short on top flight quality. A talented midfielder can make a big difference to a team.

Best XI

Gilks

Trippier – Shackell – Mee – Lafferty

Kightly – Marney – Jones – Wallace

Ings – Vokes

Prediction: 20th

Chelsea

Last season: 3rd

Major arrival: Diego Costa

Up front was Chelsea’s biggest weakness last season, and they have plugged that hole with the £32m signing of Costa, who was prolific in La Liga last season. There are some whispers that last season was a fluke, and that he will flop, and he did have some injury problems towards the end of last season. He’ll be very important for Chelsea.

Youngster to watch: Lewis Baker

Young midfielder Baker has been playing well in pre-season, setting up all three goals in a 3-2 win over Wycombe. He is known for his quality set pieces and moments of magic. 

Point to prove: Cesc Fabregas

Another major arrival is former Arsenal captain Cesc, who’s dream move to Barcelona ended acrimoniously. He is back in the league where he made his name, and a fresh start may help him return to his Arsenal heights, as the naysayers claim he is no longer a world class player.

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

Chelsea’s squad is bursting with quality and depth in every position, but if there is a weak spot it remains the striking position. If Costa should be injured the only alternatives are a 36-year-old returning Drogba, and Fernando Torres. 

Best XI:

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Terry – Cahill – Luis

Fabregas – Matic

Schurrle – Oscar – Hazard

Costa

Prediction: 1st

Crystal Palace

Last season: 11th

Major arrival: Brede Hangeland

Fulham’s former captain has rocked up at Selhurst Park on a free transfer, and brings a wealth of Premier League and European experience with him.

Youngster to watch: Sullay Kaikai

Palace have produced several quality wingers recently who have gone on to play for big clubs, and Kaikai is cut from the same cloth as Victor Moses and Wilfried Zaha. Tony Pulis has said he will play a part this season. 

Point to prove: Glenn Murray

Murray fired Crystal Palace to promotion with 30 goals in the Championship, but played very little part last season after a long injury. Fit again now, can he regain his scoring touch?

Area to strengthen: Full back

Full back seems to be a weak spot for Palace, a position that is crucial for both attacking and defending. At least another right back seems essential.

Best XI:

Speroni

Mariappa – Dann – Hangeland – Ward

Puncheon – Ledley – Jedinak – Bolasie

Chamakh – Gayle

Prediction: 18th

Everton

Last season: 5th

Major arrival: Romelu Lukaku

Everton were derided last season for relying on loan players like Lukaku and Gareth Barry. They soon shut the haters up by signing both of them permanently, the former for a record fee of £28m. A huge statement to sign one of the best young players in the world for such a fee, Lukaku will be aiming for 20 goals this season. 

Youngster to watch: Ryan Ledson

The latest bright young thing to come out of Everton’s academy, it won’t be long before midfielder Ledson follows Wayne Rooney and Ross Barkley into the first team. He was named on the bench last season against Southampton at just 16, and then went on to captain England in their victory at the under-17 European championships. 

Point to prove: Leighton Baines

Baines’ excellent performances for Everton over the last two years led to much excitement as he became England’s first choice left back at the World Cup. However, he failed to transfer his club form to the national side, and now some are calling for him to make way for Luke Shaw. If he continues to dominate the left flank for Everton, it might remind people just what a good player he is.

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

Everton are another club reliant on a big Belgian for goals. Another striker to lessen the pressure of Lukaku would be beneficial.

Best XI: 

Howard

Coleman – Stones – Jagielka – Baines

Barry – McCarthy

Mirallas – Barkley – McGeady

Lukaku

Prediction: 7th

Hull

Last season: 16th

Major arrival: Jake Livermore

Livermore was on loan at Hull last season, and has made the move permanent for around £8m. 

Youngster to watch: Andrew Robertson

Left back Robertson arrived in the summer from Dundee United, after being named the Scottish Young Player of the Year. He has already made his debut for Scotland, despite only being a professional football for less than a year. 

Point to prove: Tom Ince

He had long been touted as a future star, perhaps mainly thanks to his rather more famous dad. Ince reportedly turned down Inter Milan for Hull, which says a lot about how Hull’s reputation has been enhanced. He didn’t exactly make waves while at Palace last season, now he has another chance to show he is Premier League quality. 

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

Hull have a lot of average strikers, and not really any top draw ones, which will be needed for their Europa League campaign.

Best XI:

McGregor

Rosenior – Davies – Chester – Figueroa

Snodgrass – Huddlestone – Livermore – Ince

Jelavic – Long

Prediction: 15th

Leicester City

Last season: 1st (Championship)

Major arrival: Leonardo Ulloa

Eyebrows were raised by our signing of Brighton striker Ulloa for around £7m, as he is 28 and has never played in the Premier League. However he is undoubtedly a quality target man, a style of striker we have been missing. He will make Nugent and Vardy work for their place. 

Youngster to watch: Tom Hopper

Young striker Hopped played at centre back a few times in pre-season, and if he makes his permanent position there, it would be the second time a striker from our academy has found his dome in defence, after Jeffrey Schlupp. It would be a surprise if he started in the Premier League, but if safety is secured with a few games to go, he might make his Premier League debut towards the end of the season. 

Point to prove: David Nugent

David last played in the Premier League in 2009/10 and couldn’t keep Burnley from relegation. He failed to make the step up at Portsmouth, this could be his last chance to make in the top division.

Areas to strengthen: Full back

Left back in particular is a weak area, with only the ageing Paul Konchesky and the raw Jeff Schlupp to choose from. There is also no real cover for Ritchie De Laet at right back. At least one more full back, preferably one who can play on either side, would be nice. 

Best XI:

Schmeichel

De Laet – Morgan – Wasilewski – Schlupp

Knockaert – James – Drinkwater – Mahrez

Nugent – Vardy

Prediction: 14th

Liverpool

Last season: 2nd

Major arrival: Adam Lallana

£26m seems rather excessive for Southampton’s former winger Lallana, but the fact is that English players will always be overpriced. He is still a good player, and will be a good addition to the Reds. 

Youngster to watch: Jordon Ibe

Yet another young winger in the mold of Raheem Sterling, Ibe made his debut for Wycombe at the age of just 15. He has already played for Liverpool’s first team, this could be his breakthrough season. 

Point to prove: Steven Gerrard

It seems ridiculous to suggest that the legend Steven Gerrard has anything to prove, but following the infamous slip that gifted the title to Man City, and subsequent international retirment, it has been suggested that he is now past it. He’ll be determined to right his mistakes and lead Liverpool one place better. 

Area to strengthen: Full back

The calamitous Glen Johnson on one side, and the average Jose Enrique on the other, Liverpool need better full backs for their Champions League return. Jon Flanagan is showing promise, but is he ready to become the first choice right back?

Best XI:

Mignolet

Flanagan – Lovren – Sakho – Enrique

Gerrard – Henderson

Sterling – Coutinho – Lallana

Sturridge

Prediction: 5th

Manchester City

Last season: 1st

Major arrival: Fernando

Fernando is a feisty defensive midfielder from Brazil, signed from Porto for £12m. He gives City more midfielder options, and more defensive solidity for difficult games.

Youngster to watch: Karim Rekik

The 19-year-old Dutch defender spent last season on loan at PSV Eindhoven, and his solid season in the Eredivisie has earnt him a chance to break into the first team at City. He has said he won’t return to the Etihad unless he is assured of at least 20 first team games.

Point to prove: Sergio Aguero

All of City’s Argentine contingent will be fired up for glory after World Cup heartbreak, no more so than Aguero who failed to score once during the tournament. He has become somewhat injury prone in the last two seasons, if he can stay injury free all season it will be a big boost for City. 

Area to strengthen: Left wing

For all their attacking midfielders, City don’t have a specialist left winger, sticking David Silva or Samir Nasri out there normally. A proper left winger would be helpful. 

Best XI:

Hart

Zabaleta – Kompany – Demichelis – Kolarov

Navas – Toure – Fernandinho – Silva

Aguero – Dzeko

Prediction: 2nd

Manchester United

Last season: 7th

Major arrival: Ander Herrera

United have finally addressed the midfield problem, with young Ander Herrera coming in. He is creative, can get box-to-box and doesn’t shy away from a tackle. A complete midfielder. 

Youngster to watch: James Wilson

18-year-old striker Wilson scored twice on his United debut during the last game of the season, and the club have turned down loan requests for him, suggesting he will be more involved this season. 

Point to prove: Marouane Fellaini

Fellaini’s first season after moving from Everton for £27m was not a success, and many United fans want to see the back of him. He showed he can play if in the right role at Everton, but with Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Shinji Kagawa also available for that position, he’ll have to impress when given the chance. 

Area to strengthen: Centre defence

The release of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand has left United’s back line rather inexperienced. Although they have no European football to contend with this season, another quality defender will be needed to help them back into the top four. 

Best XI:

De Gea

Rafael – Jones – Evans – Shaw

Carrick – Herrera

Mata – Rooney – Kagawa

Van Persie

Prediction: 4th

Newcastle

Last season: 10th

Major arrival: Remy Cabella

Cabella has already proved popular with Newcastle fans, and the winger was one of Montpellier’s best players. He is full of skill and creativity, and will provide plenty of entertainment as well as goals and assists. 

Youngster to watch: Rolando Aarons

The winger has shown stunning form in pre-season after being pivotal for the youth team’s FA Cup run last season. He is set to play a part at St James’ for at least part of the season. 

Point to prove: Hatem Ben Arfa

Frozen out of the first team picture by Alan Pardew, Ben Arfa remains popular with Magpie’s fans and is a mercurial talent. Should he remain at the club, he has some work to do to get back in the team. 

Area to strengthen: Centre defence

They could do with some more cover in defence, particularly at centre back. Should Fabricio Coloccini ask to leave again, another defender will definitely be needed. 

Best XI:

Krul

Janmaat – Coloccini – Yanga-Mbiwa – Santon

Sissoko – Tiote

Ben Arfa – De Jong – Cabella

Gouffran

Prediction: 8th

Queen’s Park Rangers

Last season: 4th (Championship)

Major arrival: Steven Caulker

Caulker did well for Cardiff last season despite their relegation, and continues to be touted as a future England player. He can learn a lot from Rio Ferdinand. 

Youngster to watch: Jordon Mutch

Mutch has also come in from Cardiff, and he was another bright spark in their doomed campaign. Youth is something QPR were lacking in, and he will help that.

Point to prove: Adel Taarabt

Taarabt seems set to remain at QPR for the season, and after showing glimpses of what he can do the last time QPR were in the Premier League, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. 

Area to strengthen: Left back

Neither Armand Traore or Yun Sook-Young are amazing, and the position could be improved on. 

Best XI:

Cesar

Onuoha – Caulker – Ferdinand

Isla – Mutch – Faurlin – Traore

Taarabt

Remy – Austin

Prediction: 17th

Southampton

Last season: 8th

Major arrival: Dusan Tadic

Tadic was excellent in the Eredivisie last season, and comes in as a replacement for Adam Lallana. A skillful dribbler, he be a major player for the Saints. 

Youngster to watch: Matt Targett

As one wave of young talent reaches the end of it’s time at Southampton, another ready to step into it’s place. Luke Shaw has departed, and Matt Targett is ready to step into his boots at left back. No new left back has been bought, other than Ryan Bertrand on loan, suggesting Ronald Koeman has faith that Targett can become his new first choice in the position. 

Point to prove: Gaston Ramirez

Ramirez was one of the most promising players in Serie A when Southampton shelled out £12m to buy him. His reputation has suffered somewhat since his arrival, as he failed to become a regular, but with all the players departing St Mary’s, he now has a chance to cement his place in the starting XI and become an important player. 

Area to strengthen: Centre defence

The departure of Dejan Lovren means that defensive reinforcements are badly needed, with only Yoshida, Fonte and Hooiveld available. 

Best XI:

Forster

Clyne – Fonte – Yoshida – Bertrand

Schneiderlin – Taider

Ramirez – Tadic – Rodriguez

Pelle

Prediction: 12th

Stoke 

Last season: 9th

Major arrival: Bojan Krkic

Bojan was one of the most exciting young players in the world when he burst onto the scene at Barcelona, but his career has not followed the expected trajectory, and he now finds himself at Stoke. It has been several years since he had a good season, so it will be a tough job for Mark Hughes to get him back to his best, but if he can, Stoke, have pulled off a real coup in landing him. 

Youngster to watch: Dionatan Teixeira

The Brazilian-born Slovak defender has just signed for the club, and faces a tough job breaking into a formidable defence, but Mark Hughes clearly rates him and thinks he has great potential. 

Point to prove: Jack Butland

Once touted as England’s future number one, Butland has fallen off the radar somewhat after failing to oust Asmir Begovic from between the sticks. He needs to be playing regular Premier League football, or his promising career may be over before it has begun.

Area to strengthen: Right back

When the best option for a position is Phil Bardsley, you know you have a problem.

Best XI:

Begovic

Bardsley – Huth – Shawcross – Pieters

Sidwell – N’Zonzi

Arnautovic – Bojan – Odemwingie

Diouf

Prediction: 9th

Sunderland

Last season: 14th

Major arrival: Jack Rodwell

Another player once destined for greatness, his career has been hampered by injuries and an ill-advised move to Manchester City. Sunderland have offered him a chance to rebuild his career, and it feels like a last chance for him to prove himself.

Youngster to watch: David Karlsson

The Danish winger signed last summer but failed to make a breakthrough in the Premier League with all the turmoil at the Stadium of Light. In what should be a calmer season this time around, he may get a chance to impress.

Point to prove: Costel Pantilimon

In his few appearances for Manchester City, Pantilimon showed that he has what it takes to make it as a first choice keeper, and now he has his chance to prove it. Vito Mannone may prove stern competition, but Pantilimon has all the ability to make the keeper’s jersey his own.

Area to strengthen: Defence

The whole defence looks rather weak, with ageing players like Wes Brown and John O’Shea coupled with bang average defenders like Modibo Diakite and Patrick van Aanholt. If they want to avoid another season of struggle, reinforcements are needed. 

Best XI: 

Pantilimon

Jones – O’Shea – Diakite – van Aanholt

Giaccherini – Cattermole – Rodwell – Johnson

Fletcher – Wickham

Prediction: 13th

Swansea 

Last season: 12th

Major arrival: Gylfi Sigurdsson

Former loan player Sigurdsson has returned permanently to the Liberty Stadium. He didn’t get many chances to impress at Spurs but always seemed to do well when he did. He is known for his excellent set pieces and long range goals. 

Youngster to watch: Kyle Copp

Just 17 years old, attacking midfielder/striker Copp is regarded as one of the best young players in Wales. He has yet to hit the headlines yet, which may be good for him, as it will keep him grounded and working hard to break into the first team.

Point to prove: Lukasz Fabianski

Much like Costel Pantilimon, former bench-warmer Fabianski is set to be handed the chance to make it as a first choice keeper. Formerly derided as ‘Flappy-handski’, he now has a chance to banish that nickname for good. 

Area to strengthen: Goalkeeper

MIchel Vorm has left, and Swansea are left without a keeper of proven Premier League standard. Fabianski has been good and horrific on occasion, and in goal is the one position you want to be certain of having an assured presence. 

Best XI:

Fabianski

Rangel – Williams – Bartley – Taylor

Britton – Shelvey

Montero – Sigurdsson – Routledge

Bony

Prediction: 10th

Tottenham

Last season: 6th

Major arrival: Ben Davies

Spurs have addressed the problem left back area by snapping up the promising Ben Davies from Swansea, rated by some as a better prospect than Luke Shaw. A Wales regular at just 21, he could prove a shrewd signing.

Youngster to watch: Cristian Ceballos

Former Barcelona youngster Ceballos has impressed for Spurs’ reserve side, and given their struggles with strikers last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was given a chance in the first team this season. 

Point to prove: Erik Lamela

His first season at Spurs after a big money move was nothing short of a disaster – rarely started, played out of position, and missing the last few months injured. Everyone knows what a good player he is from his time at Roma, now he needs to start showing it for Spurs. Missing out on the World Cup will surely have fired him up more. 

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

Spurs’ only striking options are Roberto Soldado, who flopped miserably in his first season, the inconsistent Adebayor and the relatively raw Harry Kane. Another addition may be needed.

Best XI:

Lloris

Walker – Kaboul – Vertonghen – Davies

Sandro – Dembele

Lamela – Eriksen – Townsend

Adebayor

Prediction: 6th

West Bromwich Albion

Last season: 17th

Major arrival: Brown Ideye

Brown Ideye has become West Brom’s record signing, following his £10m move from Dynamo Kiev. The fee seems rather a lot, although his scoring record in Ukraine was respectable.

Youngster to watch: Jack Rose

Academy player Rose is regarded as a very promising goalkeeper, and highly thought of at the club. 

Point to prove: Stephane Sessegnon

Sessegnon was a star player for Sunderland, so it was a surprise when he joined WBA last summer. He is an exceptionally talented player, and should be bossing games for the Baggies. They will need him to do just that this year if they have any hope of staying up.

Area to strengthen: Centre forward

The forward line looks very light on goals, which will probably be their downfall. A striker who can score consistently is a must. 

Best XI:

Foster

Wisdom – Olsson – Lescott – Pocognoli

Mulumbu – Yacob

Morrison – Sessegnon – Brunt

Ideye

Prediction: 19th

West Ham

Last season: 13th

Major arrival: Mauro Zarate

Sam Allardyce has been told to get his team playing more exciting football, and Zarate is just the player to do it. A brilliantly tricky player with an eye for the spectucular, he will get Hammers fans off their seats if he hits it off in the Premier League. He is still remembered fondly by Birmingham fans after his brief loan spell at St Andrews. 

Youngster to watch: Diego Poyet

The son of Sunderland manager Gus, Diego has signed from Charlton this summer after being voted their player of the season at just 19. If he becomes anywhere near the player his dad was, West Ham have a gem on their hands.

Point to prove: Ravel Morrison

Yet another court appearance has many Irons fans wanting rid of the enigmatic youngster. Prodigiously talented, yet clearly with a couple of screws loose, Ravel is definitely in last chance saloon now. 

Area to strengthen: Centre defence

The Hammers looks light on options and quality in central defence, which needs addressing.

Best XI:

Adrian

Jenkinson – Tomkins – Collins – Cresswell

Jarvis – Noble – Nolan – Downing

Zarate – Carroll

Prediction: 11th


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World Cup 2014 Best XI

The World Cup is over, and it has been a great tournament that will be remembered for a long time to come. These are the players who I think had the best tournament.

GK: Manuel Neuer, Germany

There were an amazing number of outstanding goalkeepers at this World Cup – Tim Howard, Keylor Navas, Guillermo Ochoa and David Ospina to name a few – but Neuer is my pick for the best keeper because he is so much more than just a brilliant keeper – he is almost another defender, with his seemingly mad dashes out of his area to sweep up through balls. Before the tournament, I believed that Thibaut Courtois was the world’s best keeper, but Neuer has convinced me otherwise with his superb performances.

RB: Serge Aurier, Ivory Coast

The Ivory Coast may have bowed out in the group stage yet again, but Aurier was a real stand out player for them at right back. He got 2 assists in their first game, and his crossing throughout was excellent. His great showings seem to have earned him a move to PSG for next season.

CB: Mats Hummels, Germany

Hummels was solid at the back throughout the tournament for Germany, and also contributed 2 goals against Portugal and France. Centre-back partner Boateng was also solid.

CB: Mario Yepes, Colombia

At the ripe old age of 38, Yepes was excellent at the back for the thoroughly impressive Colombian side that reached the quarter finals. He may not have the legend status of other veterans at this World Cup, but his performances were no worse for it. 

LB: Daley Blind, Holland

He caught the eye in Holland’s first game against Spain with 2 assists, and went on to have a strong tournament in a variety of positions – left back, defensive midfield and centre back, also scoring against Brazil. Holland’s usually weak defence is starting to show signs of improvement. 

CM: Toni Kroos, Germany

Arguably one of the best midfielders in the world at the moment, Kroos was crucial to Germany’s success, contributing 2 goals and 3 assists. Bayern have made a very big mistake in allowing him to leave for Real Madrid.

CM: Javier Mascherano, Argentina

Probably Argentina’s best player in their run to the final, Mascherano showed that despite being played at centre back for the last 2 seasons, he remains a world class defensive midfielder. His tackle against Arjen Robben in the semi final was one of the moments of the tournament. 

RW: Arjen Robben, Holland

Robben can be a frustrating player, but he was at his brilliant best in this tournament. He tore Spain apart in their opening game, and was Holland’s stand out player as they laboured through the knockout games. He drew criticism for diving, but will he care? Unlikely.

AM: James Rodriguez, Colombia

He was hardly an unknown prior to the tournament, but in the last month James Rodriguez has announced himself as a star in the making with the world watching. 6 goals and 2 assists in 5 games is a phenomenal return, and scoring the best goal of the tournament doesn’t hurt either. The Golden Boot winner, and he should have won the Golden Ball as well. 

LW: Neymar, Brazil

It was a tournament to forget for hosts Brazil, but the pre-tournament prediction that Neymar would be carrying them proved to be true. He scored 4 goals and assisted once, and his injury was not only a blow because he couldn’t play, it was psychologically devastating for the Brazilians. He is the only Brazilian player who can look back on the tournament with pride. 

ST: Thomas Muller, Germany

10 World Cup goals at the age of 24, it is very likely that Muller could overtake team mate Klose as the all time top scorer. He won the Golden Boot in South Africa, and was only one short of doing so again this time round. He may not be the most technically gifted of Germany’s players, but his importance to them cannot be overstated. 

 

Honourable Mentions

Matt Besler, USA

Luiz Gustavo, Brazil

Juan Cuadrado, Colombia

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Philipp Lahm, Germany

Karim Benzema, France

Robin van Persie, Holland

Mathieu Valbuena, France

Alexis Sanchez, Chile

Blaise Matuidi, France

Tim Howard, USA

Keylor Navas, Costa Rica

Ivan Perisic, Croatia

Hector Herrera, Mexico

Jose Gimenez, Uruguay