It's a Knockaert

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

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World Cup Preview and Predictions

Only a few more days until the biggest event in sport finally gets under way in Brazil, and excitement is going through the roof. Multiple football matches every single day for a month, almost all the world’s superstars on display, and the excitement of uncovering the next big thing – nothing beats the World Cup. So here are my predictions for how the tournament will play out, immortalised forever on the internet for future mockery/admiration.

Group A



The hosts. The most successful nation in the history of the competition. The world’s most exciting young player. The pressure is all on Brazil to deliver nothing less than the trophy, and they certainly seem well equipped to do it. They have the flair and creativity you would expect in the established attacking trident of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk, and a very solid defence featuring Thiago Silva, probably the world’s best central defender. If they have any weakness it is the lack of a truly world class striker, but Fred is still a force to be reckoned with, and a decent bet for the Golden Boot winner. There was a question mark about the lack of competitive matches in the last few years, as they have not had to play qualifiers for this tournament, but their comfortable victory at last year’s Confederations Cup has dispelled those worries. They should have no trouble topping this group – so long as nerves don’t get to them.


Despite having one of the most talented squads of all the African nations, Cameroon have been very underwhelming in recent years. They lost all 3 games at South Africa 2010, and they failed to qualify for the last 2 African Cup of Nations tournaments. Their talisman forward Samuel Eto’o is no longer the force he was, but they have several decent defensive players, such as midfielder Alex Song and defenders Nicolas N’Koulou and Aurelien Chedjou. They also have pretty awful team spirit, with them refusing to board their plane to Brazil due to a row over bonuses. Don’t count them out, but they are fairly unlikely to make it through to the next round.


Croatia struggle their way through qualifying, losing both games against Scotland, but they have made it to Brazil and have a team that seems to get better every tournament. The midfield is bursting with creativity thanks to Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic, and up front they have Mario Mandzukic, who scored 3 times at Euro 2012 and is set to be one of the most in-demand strikers in Europe this summer. They are less impressive defensively however, and lack any decent wingers. It should be a straight shoot-out between them and Mexico for second place in the group.


Mexico always seems to do alright at the World Cup – they have reached the last 16 in the last 5 tournaments – but they are lucky to have even qualified for this tournament. They finished 4th in their qualifying group, their worst result in history, and had to get through a playoff with New Zealand to reach Brazil, which they won 9-3 on aggregate. They have had 4 managers in the last 6 months, and probably the best Mexican player, Carlos Vela, remains absent from their squad, after a six month suspension for throwing a wild party in 2010 after a friendly with Ecuador. Star man Javier Hernandez barely plays these days for Manchester United, but Giovani Dos Santos had a good season with Villarreal. There is also late bloomer Oribe Peralta, one of the most prolific strikers outside of Europe. If they fix the numerous problems from qualifying, they could extend their run of last 16 finishes, but I wouldn’t bet on it.


1. Brazil

2. Croatia

3. Mexico

4. Cameroon

Group B



The ‘other team’ in an otherwise incredible strong group, Australia really don’t stand much of a chance. Tim Cahill continues to defy his years, recently becoming the Socceroo’s top scorer. To make matters worse, their player of the year Robbie Kruse is missing the tournament with torn knee ligaments. However, a trademark of their qualifying campaign was scoring late goals, and that kind of never-say-die attitude will do them well in a group in which they are likely to be the whipping boys.


A rapidly improving nation in recent years, Chile must be cursing their luck to have been drawn into this strong group, otherwise they would have been nailed-on to reach the last 16. However, they are more than capable of pushing Spain and Holland all the way. They play an energetic, physical style of football that is capable of disrupting their European rival’s patient passing football. Star men Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal have had excellent seasons. However they have a terrible disciplinary record, and the shortage of players at the back can leave them exposed.


After being arguably the best team at the 2010 World Cup, losing a third final to Spain, Holland haven’t really pushed on from that. They had a catastrophic Euro 2012, losing all 3 group games, but they had an easy time in qualification, gaining 28 points from a possible 30. They are taking a relatively young squad to Brazil, but the main men are still the experienced and world-class talents of Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie. As always, the defence is the weak point. They have no trouble disposing of weaker sides, but come up short against the world’s best. This tournament is beyond them, but with so many promising youngsters, they should return to threaten at future tournaments.


The holders of the World Cup, and having won the last 3 major international tournaments they played in, Spain are rightfully one of the favourites. A squad bursting with world class midfielders, a solid defence, and many experienced players who have won it all in the game, no team will be happy about facing them. However, there is a perception that Spain’s tiki-taka style of play is outdated, and that teams now know how to beat them – the 7-0 demolition of Barcelona in last season’s Champions League, and their 3-0 loss to Brazil at last year’s Confederations Cup are cited as examples of this. However, they have a new weapon in their squad – Diego Costa. The antithesis of tiki-taka football, Costa is a physical, often violent centre forward, who offers them a completely new way to play. The question is though, will he even play, or will they play a midfielder such as Cesc Fabregas up front?


1. Spain

2. Holland

3. Chile

4. Australia

Group C



Appearing in their first World Cup finals for 16 years, Colombia finished second in the South America qualifying and are a force to be reckoned with in Brazil. Much of the news surrounding them in the build up has been the loss of star man Radamel Falcao to injury, but even without him they have an excellent squad that should win this group. Prolific strikers such as Jackson Martinez, Adrian Ramos and Carlos Bacca will fill Falcao’s role, and they have pace and creativity in midfield with Juan Cuadrado, James Rodriguez, Fredy Guarin and Juan Quintero. The defence is decent if not spectacular, their weakness is a history of unprofessionalism. The manager has brought in a psychiatrist to help concentration levels, and chosen a training camp away from journalists. Colombia have enough talent to win this group.


Greece continue to reach tournament finals ahead of more talented teams due to their defensive, difficult to break down football. They shocked the world by winning Euro 2004, and you feel that they have at least one shock win in them per tournament. No one will enjoy playing against them, or watching them for that matter. Star striker Kostas Mitroglou is their biggest hope for goals, but he has hardly played in the last 6 months as Fulham. They are the outsiders in this group, but that is a role they will relish.

Ivory Coast

The last chance for this golden generation to achieve something on the biggest stage, Ivory Coast have been unlucky to be drawn in difficult groups in the last 2 World Cups, but this time round they have every chance of progressing from the group stage. It is certainly the last World Cup for talisman Didier Drogba, and he will be determined to go out with a bang. Yaya Toure cemented his place as one of the best midfielders in the world this season, and they have pace as well through Gervinho and Serge Aurier. Other than Drogba, they have other prolific strikers like Wilfried Bony and Lacina Traore. They shouldn’t struggle to score goals, but the real mission will be to keep it tight at the other end. If they can, they will qualify.


Japan are a rapidly evolving footballing nation, and there are few better nations in the world at keeping the ball. They have excellent creative players like Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, and Shinji Okazaki is a decent Bundesliga striker. They took part in the best game of the Confederations Cup last year, losing 4-3 to Italy, showing they are capable of giving anyone a game. They have played together for years, and won the Asian Cup in 2011. They have no lack of self belief, setting themselves the target of reaching the semi finals.


1. Colombia

2. Ivory Coast

3. Japan

4. Greece

Group D


Costa Rica

In a group with 7 World Cups between them, Costa Rica are the odd ones out. When the star player was loaned out by Fulham in a season they got relegated, you know you don’t stand much of a chance against the likes of Luis Suarez and Wayne Rooney. Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, on loan at Olympiakos, is key to their counter-attacking football, with a 5-4-1 formation most likely to be used. The excellent form of goalkeeper Keylor Navas could be crucial.


For once, expectations amongst England fans are low. However, we hadn’t been drawn in such a pig of a group, it is entirely possible England could have reached their normal target of the quarter finals. There are lots of promising youngsters eager to impress, and a Liverpool connection that could be beneficial, especially when the Reds had such a good season. While Uruguay are most likely to top the group, it is almost to close to call between England and Italy for second place. The fact that Italy outplayed us so emphatically at Euro 2012 leads me to believe they we won’t progress past the group stage, but the future is bright for this group of players.


Italy had a very good Euro 2012, reaching the final before being demolished by a rampant Spain, and had no trouble qualifying for this tournament. Much attention is on the fact they haven’t won a match since September 2013, but the Azzurri are historically poor in friendlies. They have a blend of experience in Pirlo, Buffon and Chiellini, and outstanding young players such as Ciro Immobile, Marco Verratti and Lorenzo Insigne. As always, much pressure will be on Mario Balotelli, but for me he shouldn’t even be starting for Italy, as Giuseppe Rossi is their best option up front – but he has been left at home. Negating the stereotype, they are a little dodgy in defence, and play nice attacking football.


The current holders of the Copa America should not be underestimated. They won the last World Cup to be held in Brazil, stunning the hosts in the final, and are dreaming of repeating the feat. The front pair of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani is the best in football, and defender Diego Godin has had the season of his life. They reached the semi-finals of the last World Cup, although they made hard work of qualifying this time round, having to go through a playoff. If Suarez is fully fit, I make them favourites to win this group.


1. Uruguay

2. Italy

3. England

4. Costa Rica

Group E



Ecuador’s qualifying campaign was marred by the shocking death of star striker Christian Benitez of heart failure, and it has given their squad a massive sense of togetherness. During qualifying they were unbeaten at home, largely due to playing their games 2,800 metres above sea level, an advantage that won’t be available in Brazil. They have 2 very fast and tricky wingers in Antonio Valencia and Jefferson Montero, and forward Felipe Caicedo is a powerhouse who scored 7 in qualifying.


After complete meltdown and mutiny in 2010, France go into this tournament with less expectation but more reason to be optimistic for a long time. Despite coming so close to being knocked out of the playoffs by Ukraine, they managed to salvage it and won their most recent friendly 8-0 – albeit against Jamaica, but Benzema and Giroud being in confident mood can be only helpful. They have also left out Samir Nasri, who was considered a disruptive influence, meaning less chance of infighting. They have also been drawn in the weakest group, giving them an excellent chance of reaching the last 16, or maybe the quarter finals. The loss of Franck Ribery is a blow, but they have a plethora of young talents like Pogba, Griezmann and Varane.


Honduras have reached their second consecutive World Cup, and since reaching the second round looks a little beyond them, the aim is simply to achieve their first win at a finals. Lacking any real stars, they depend on a simple 4-4-2 and collective effort, as seen in the recent friendly draw with England. Strikers Bengtson and Costly scored 16 in 16 between them in qualifying, so don’t rule out the chance of them nicking a few goals on the break.


Switzerland being one of the 8 seeded teams perplexed many, but they actually have quite a decent squad with many promising young players. Xherdan Shaqiri of Bayern is the main man, and they have 2 excellent full-backs in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Diego Benaglio is a top keeper, and there is plenty of steel in midfield with Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami. Should they manage to top the group, the quarter finals are a realistic possibility, but the chances are their tournament will end against Argentina in the last 16.


1. France

2. Switzerland

3. Ecuador

4. Honduras

Group F



It’s 50/50 with most people as to who they’re tipping to win the World Cup –  Brazil or Argentina. With the best selection of attacking players in the world, and a defence that is better than it has been at recent tournaments, so it would be a brave man to bet against them claiming their third trophy. If the two South American rivals should win all their games, it will lead to a final between the two of them, an absolutely thrilling prospect. Argentina’s front three of Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi should score goals in abundance, which makes up for the less than stellar defence. Angel Di Maria in midfield is one of the most in-form players in Europe, while Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago protect the defence. Defending set pieces is a weakness, which is why natural centre back Marcos Rojo plays at left back. Lionel Messi has yet to set a World Cup alight, and he won’t have a better chance than now.


After falling at the final hurdle of the playoffs during qualifying, Bosnia have finally qualified for their first competition finals, and they won’t be happy to just make up the numbers. They are the only debutants at this World Cup and they will be very fired up to do well. The front pairing of Dzeko and Ibisevic was prolific in qualifying, Miralem Pjanic and Senad Lulic are excellent midfielders, and Asmir Begovic is a top keeper. The defence is the weak point, and a real lack of depth – Dzeko and Ibisevic are the only strikers the manager has ever called up. Get a result against Nigeria, and the last 16 is a realistic aim.


Probably the biggest unknown quantity at the World Cup, Iran will set out to defend and try to snatch a goal on the counter attack. They have the potential to really frustrate the more illustrious teams in their group. Preparation for the tournament has been disrupted as it has been difficult arranging friendlies. Manager Carlos Queiroz has plenty of top-level experience from his time at Manchester United and Portugal. He works his players hard but protects them in public as well.


The current African champions will look to improve on their disappointing 2010 campaign. Jon Obi Mikel, used as a holding midfielder by Chelsea, is the main creative force, while Emmanuel Emenike is a prolific and powerful striker. There are pacey widemen in Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa to provide him plenty of chances. Very tough to call whether they or Bosnia will go through behind Argentina.


1. Argentina

2. Bosnia

3. Nigeria

4. Iran

Group G



After coming so close to glory at the last 4 tournaments, there is a lot of pressure on Germany to go all the way this time. The injury to Marco Reus, one of the stars of the Bundesliga season, is a blow but they still have a very talented squad, with the only real issue being who plays up front. Mario Gomez has been injured all season and misses out, while Miroslav Klose is now 36. Schurrle, Muller, Podolski and Gotze are other options, and it seems as though Muller will get the nod –  he has the striker’s ability to be in the right place at the right time. The defence is looking solid, and Neuer is one of the world’s best keepers. Germany have the talent to go all the way, and anything less than semi finals will be seen as failure. They have also lost just once since August 2012, when a reserve team lost to the USA. There are some worries that the player’s won’t be able to handle the conditions as well. A lot of key players also struggled with injury and loss of form, including Mesut Ozil.


Ghana have done well at the last 2 World Cups, but this group looks a little too difficult for them. Key players like Michael Essien are declining, but they still have players at top European clubs such as Kwadwo Asamoah, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Andre Ayew. Asamoah Gyan has been scoring goals by the bucketload, albeit in Qatar. They will give all three teams in the group a difficult game, and may even snatch a few good results, but it is hard to see them making it to the last 16 again.


Portugal are a team that always reach the later stages of tournaments, without realistically threatening to win. Cristiano Ronaldo is in the form of his life however, and his performance in the playoff against Sweden was absolutely incredible. The rest of the team isn’t bad, but won’t really scare the real contenders for the trophy. In particular, they lack anything close to a decent striker. They should be able to get through this group, and beating – most likely – Belgium in the next round isn’t out of the question either.


The USA are no mugs, but they really are up against it in this group. Qualifying from it would be a pretty monumental shock. Key players like Dempsey and Bradley have abandoned European football for the easy option of the MLS, while key striker Jozy Altidore had a pretty terrible season. They do have the exciting young talent Julian Green of Bayern Munich, who chose to represent the US over Germany. A big talking point is the exclusion of Landon Donovan, who has spearheaded their attack for over a decade. The US could possible have snuck their way through a weaker group, but it’s pretty unlikely they will oust Germany or Portugal.


1. Germany

2. Portugal

3. Ghana

4. USA

Group H



Of all the African sides, Algeria are best placed to have a good World Cup, with exciting players like Sofiane Feghouli, Nabil Bentaleb, Saphir Taider and Leicester City’s very own Riyad Mahrez. Their group is one of the weakest – while Belgium should win it, second place is very much up for grabs. Valencia’s Feghouli is the star man, creating many chances for his team mates with his excellent passing and skill. The main problem is the lack of a decent goalkeeper – 6 of the 7 goals conceded during qualifying were from set pieces, mainly due to individual blunders. Key defender Bougherra is also on the wane.


They’re finally here. Belgium have seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the most talented nations in football, and they’ve finally reached their first competition finals since 2002. Now, can they live up to the considerable hype? Their squad is made up of a few genuine world class players like Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Kompany, and youngsters with the potential to become just as good, including Romelu Lukuku. Adnan Januzaj and Kevin de Bruyne. They have many quality midfielders and wingers that can’t fit into the starting XI, meaning they have many options from the bench. The midfield is solid, but they lack a decent striking alternative if Lukaku gets injured, with Christian Benteke missing the tournament. Another problem is that they play natural centre backs at full back due to the lack of decent options there. There is also the chance that the pressure could be too much – they are expected to go far in this tournament, and it is a fairly young team – can they handle the pressure?


Russia were expected to do well in Euro 2012, but capitulated horrible and crashed out in the group stage. Capello has come in as manager, and will want to do better with Russia than he did with England in 2010. An advantage is that their 2 centre-backs and goalkeeper Akinfeev all play together at CSKA Moscow, and have been doing so for a long time. However, key midfielder Roman Shirokov is ruled out with injury, meaning a lot of pressure is on the fairly young Alan Dzagoev. Striker Aleksandr Kerzhakov looked very unimpressive in 2012. This group isn’t too impressive, so they should get through, before being eliminated by Germany or possible Portugal.

South Korea

World Cup regulars South Korea made suprisingly hard work of qualification, only finishing above Uzbekistan on goal difference. Korea are a fast, attacking team who can be dazzling to watch. Leverkusen’s Son Heung-Min is the main man at only 22, and will be the main threat during their counter attacks. The team is young but has a good amount of European experience. However, the defence and goalkeeper are nothing special.


1. Belgium

2. Russia

3. Algeria

4. South Korea

Knockout Rounds

Here’s how I see the latter rounds unfolding. (click to enlarge)


I’m predicting a final between South America’s biggest rivals, and that hosts Brazil won’t choke on the immense pressure they are under. I also see France, Belgium and Colombia all reaching the quarter finals, which would be a decent result for each of them. Whatever happens, it’s going to be an amazing World Cup.


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Facing the Abyss: Five Teams in Danger of Relegation

All across Europe, teams near the foot of their respective leagues are starting to panic as the prospect of relegation becomes more and more likely. Relegation is disastrous for any football club, but even more so in the current financial climate, as the loss in revenue can be crippling and it is not uncommon for teams to go into administration, or even go out of business after dropping out of their country’s top division. This season, there are several teams in real danger of relegation that you might not have expected to be back in August.

English Premier League: Fulham and Sunderland


Fulham and Sunderland are two of those teams that always flirt with relegation at some point in the season, but eventually the quality in their relatively expensive squads lifts them out of danger into a boring mid-table position. This season however, they have both been in trouble since the first day and are running out of time to sort things out.


After 13 years in the Premier League, which has included a run to the Europa League final and escaping relegation on the final day, Fulham look to have run out of steam and inspiration. A squad with players such as Dimitar Berbatov, Bryan Ruiz, Scott Parker and Lewis Holtby ought to be well clear, but some of those players have been accused of laziness and lacking the ‘fight’ for a relegation battle. As such, Barbatov and Ruiz were shipped out in January and they broke their transfer record to sign Konstantinos Mitroglou – who has gone on to make just two appearances. Sacking two managers also hasn’t helped with stability – Rene Meulensteen replaced Martin Jol in December, who only had 16 days of experience as the main man at a football club, and he was then replaced by notorious megalomaniac Felix Magath, the first German manager to take charge of a Premier League club. The Cottagers are currently five points from safety, but they are at a disadvantage because of their significantly worse goal difference, and have also player more games than the sides just outside the bottom three. As it stands, they look the most likely team to drop out.


Despite several magical moments provided by the on-loan striker Fabio Borini – including a late winner in the Tyne-Wear derby, a winning goal against Chelsea and putting the Black Cats ahead against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final – Sunderland have had a very disappointing season. They took a big gamble in appointing the unpredictable Paolo Di Canio as boss, and it has backfired spectacularly. After splashing the cash on several little-known players from obscure foreign teams, he then fell out with his players and was sacked after just five games in which they mustered only one point. They appointed Gus Poyet to replace him, who had done well at Brighton in the Championship but results haven’t improved enough to lift them out of danger. They currently have home games remaining against fellow strugglers Swansea, West Brom and Cardiff, coupled with away games at Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Spurs, so they simply have to win their home games if they are to survive. Currently four points from safety, but with a game in hand on several of their rivals, they have shown this season that they can pull off a shock win when they need to – but will they be able to do enough?

Bundesliga: Hamburg and Stuttgart


Stuttgart and Hamburg are two of Germany’s biggest and most storied clubs, but they are both in danger of the drop. Stuttgart were Bundesliga champions as recently as 2007, while Hamburg have been in the Bundesliga since World War One, and have never been relegated from the top flight.


The five-time champions Stuttgart have missed only two seasons of the Bundesliga since it’s conception in 1963. They surrendered a two goal lead to lose to Dortmund at the weekend, and have only one win in 2014. They face Bayern, Schalke and Wolfsburg in their last six games, they need to get something from their next game against Freiburg to try and kickstart a comeback.


German legend Franz Beckanbauer has said it would be ‘unthinkable’ to see Hamburg in the Bundesliga 2, and with players like Rafael van der Vaart in their squad it would be a huge shock to see them go down for the first time in their history. They and Stuttgart are both only two points from safety, so they still have their future in their hands.

La Liga: Real Betis


After last season’s 7th placed finish and entry into the Europa League, Betis seemed to be heading in the right direction. It has all gone very badly wrong this season, following the sale of star man Benat and the long-term injury of star striker Ruben Castro. Popular manager Pepe Mel, who led the club out of the Segunda and into Europe was sacked, their President has recently resigned and they are still in administration. All the signs of a club in chaos. The only highlight of their season was a decent Europa League run, but that ended in heart breaking circumstances – a penalty shootout defeat to bitter city rivals Sevilla. A massive eight points from safety with seven games to play, if they were to escape the drop it would be one of the most dramatic turnarounds in football history – but they have been looking more like their old selves lately, so don’t right them off just yet.

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The Best of the Rest in La Liga


For a long time now, La Liga has been dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, leading many to dismiss it as a boring, two-team league. Atletico Madrid are now starting to match them, but the gulf between these three teams and the other 17 is not getting any smaller. With these three teams dominating not only Spain but Europe as well, it has meant that a lot of talented players from La Liga are going unappreciated when they deserve to be recognised as the quality players they are. So, here is my La Liga XI, not including any players from Barcelona, Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid.

Goalkeeper: Willy Caballero – Malaga

Willy Cabellero was one of Malaga’s stand out players in their run the the Champions League quarter-finals, pulling off heroic saves in the games against Dortmund. He has been strongly linked with a move to Manchester City, where he would be reunited with former manager Manuel Pellegrini, and Malaga are said to want £12million for him, a serious amount of money for a 32-year old, which shows how highly he is valued by the Andalucian club.

Right-back: Hugo Mallo – Celta Vigo

22-year old Mallo broke into Celta’s first team in 2011 and has been one of their more impressive players in a difficult period for the club. He missed seven months of the last campaign with injury, but is now back in the team and linked with a move to Everton or Manchester United. He has also played in Spain’s under-21 side, and he has been touted as the replacement for Alvaro Arbeloa.

Centre-back: Inigo Martinez – Real Sociedad

Real Sociedad surprised everyone last season with their 4th placed finish in La Liga, and defensive rock Inigo Martinez was one of their stand-out players. Still only 22 years old, Barcelona want him as a replacement for Carlos Puyol, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are also interested, and he has been named in Spain’s senior squad. It would take a very large transfer fee to convince Sociedad to sell, but should they fail to retain their place in the Champions League it may be necessary.

Centre-back: Mateo Musacchio – Villarreal

Villarreal have taken to life back in La Liga as if they never left, picking up their impressive performances from before they were relegated. 23-year old Argentine centre back Musacchio has been a big reason for their success, which has inevitable led to him being linked with Real Madrid and Chelsea. There is some confusion over the player’s contract – some say it expires at the end of the season, but the Villarreal president says he is contracted until 2018, and that interested clubs will have to pay 50million Euros to sign him.

Left-back: Juan Bernat – Valencia

Juan Bernat

Juan Bernat has filled the role left by Jordi Alba brilliantly, and is one of Spain’s most promising young players. He is very similar in style to Alba, at home playing left back or left midfield, and the academy product is a firm fan favourite. With Valencia struggling in the league, it remains to be seen how long they can hold on to their talented youth product.

Centre-midfield: Benat – Athletic Bilbao

Benat was the best player at Real Betis last season, as they managed to qualify for the Europa League. That they now sit rock bottom after selling him shows how important he was, and it was something of a surprise that he signed for Athletic Bilbao, a club who finished 5 places below Betis. He has also gained 4 caps for Spain, no easy feat when you consider the midfield talent they have available.

Centre-midfield: Ruben Pardo – Real Sociedad

Only 21 years old, Ruben Pardo has admirably filled the hole left in Sociedad’s midfield by the £30million departure of Asier Illarramendi. With an impressive 2 goals and 5 assists in 11 starts in the league this season, he is one of the clubs most prized assets and has been called the next Xabi Alonso. It won’t be long before he is starting every game for them.

Right-wing: Carlos Vela

No stranger to Premier League fans, having spent 6 seasons as an Arsenal player, albeit most of them out on loan, Vela has looked like the player we all thought he could be since moving to Sociedad. He has made himself at home on the right wing, a departure from his normal position up front, but it has paid dividends with 34 goals in 86 league games for them. It is rumoured that Arsenal have an option to buy him back for just £3.5million, and with them crying out for another striker, they could do a lot worse than turning to a former player – although whether he would want to return to a club where he wasn’t given much of a chance is another matter.

Attacking Midfield: Ivan Rakitic – Sevilla

According to, Ivan Rakitic has statistically been the 9th best player in the whole of Europe so far this season, with an impressive 8 goals and 6 assists in 17 league games. The Croatian is now the club captain, and is a very versatile player who has played also in defensive midfield and on the wing.

Left-wing: Antoine Griezmann – Real Sociedad

Yet another Sociedad player, and probably the best known player on this team, young Frenchman Griezmann has been impressing in Spain for a while before he caught the world’s attention with a spectacular overhead kick goal against Lyon in this season Champions League qualifiers. This season has been his best yet, with an excellent record of 12 goals in 17 games in the league, and it seems his days at Sociedad may be limited, as Manchester United and PSG are waiting in the wings. He needs to work on his crossing however, and only has 2 assists to his name this season, but if he can then he will be a big player for France and a major club in the years to come.

Striker: Giovani dos Santos – Villarreal

Another player who wasn’t given the chance to show what he can do for a Premier League club, Dos Santos has reinvented himself as a striker at Villarreal and repaid his transfer fee with 8 goals and 5 assists in his 16 league appearances. He put in a remarkable showing on the day I am writing this, contributing 2 goals and 2 assists in a 5-1 crushing of Real Sociedad, becoming the first player in the history of Villarreal to contribute to 4 goals in one game. His talent was never in question as he would always impress for Mexico, but it has taken Giovani a while to find his home at club level, and found it he now has at El Submarino Amarillo.


My Top 100 Footballers 2013

Trying to rank footballers is a largely pointless exercise – how can you ever say for sure that an ageing goalkeeper is better than an up-and-coming winger? Still, it’s good for creating debate and it’s kept me occupied for several hours of a boring Friday night, so here are my Top 100 Footballers for 2013 – and if I’m still doing this blog next year, I might even do it again, to see how it changes.

100. David Luiz – Chelsea and Brazil

99. Federico Marchetti – Lazio and Italy

98. Carlos Tevez – Juventus and Argentina

97. Antoine Griezmann – Real Sociedad and France

96. Mathieu Valbuena – Marseille and France

95. Lorenzo Insigne – Napoli and Italy

94. Shinji Kagawa – Manchester United and Japan

93. Simon Mignolet – Liverpool and Belgium

92. Samir Nasri – Manchester City and France

91. Yohan Cabaye – Newcastle and France

90. Gianluigi Buffon – Juventus and Italy

89. Mario Balotelli – AC Milan and Italy

88. Jan Vertonghen – Tottenham and Belgium

87. Laurent Koscielny – Arsenal and France

86. Alvaro Negredo – Manchester City and Spain

85. Daniel Agger – Liverpool and Denmark

84. Jack Wilshere – Arsenal and England

83. Per Mertesacker – Arsenal and Germany

82. Tim Krul – Newcastle and Holland

81. Joao Moutinho – Monaco and Portugal

80. Pedro – Barcelona and Spain

79. Mario Gomez – Fiorentina and Germany

78. Hulk – Zenit St Petersburg and Brazil

77. Koke – Atletico Madrid and Spain

76. Sandro – Tottenham and Brazil

75. Blaise Matuidi – PSG and France

74. Wayne Rooney – Manchester United and England

73. Julian Draxler – Schalke and Germany

72. Pablo Zabaleta – Manchester City and Argentina

71. Giuseppe Rossi – Fiorentina and Italy

70. Raphael Varane – Real Madrid and France

69. Javier Mascherano – Barcelona and Argentina

68. Ilkay Gundogan – Borussia Dortmund and Germany

67. Roman Weidenfeller – Borussia Dortmund and Germany

66. Stefan Kiessling – Bayer Leverkusen and Germany

65. Hernanes – Lazio and Brazil

64. Daniel Alves – Barcelona and Brazil

63. Claudio Marchisio – Juventus and Italy

62. Henrikh Mkhitaryan – Borussia Dortmund and Armenia

61. Borja Valero – Fiorentina and Spain

60. Gerard Pique – Barcelona and Spain

59. Santi Cazorla – Arsenal and Spain

58. Mehdi Benatia – Roma and Morocco

57. Thibaut Courtois – Chelsea (on loan at Atletico Madrid) and Belgium

56. Marcelo – Real Madrid and Brazil

55. David Villa – Atletico Madrid and Spain

54. Alexis Sanchez – Barcelona and Chile

53. Dante – Bayern Munich and Brazil

52. Eden Hazard – Chelsea and Belgium

51. Hugo Lloris – Tottenham and France

50. Thomas Muller – Bayern Munich and Germany

49. Sergio Ramos – Real Madrid and Spain

48. Diego Costa – Atletico Madrid and Spain

47. Xabi Alonso – Real Madrid and Spain

46. Oscar – Chelsea and Brazil

45. David Alaba – Bayern Munich and Austria

44. Andrea Pirlo – Juventus and Italy

43. Mats Hummels – Borussia Dortmund and Germany

42. Karim Benzema – Real Madrid and France

41. Paul Pogba – Juventus and France

40. Giorgio Chiellini – Juventus and Italy

39. Jordi Alba – Barcelona and Spain

38. Marco Reus – Borussia Dortmund and Germany

37. Daniele De Rossi – Roma and Italy

36. Angel Di Maria – Real Madrid and Argentina

35. Arjen Robben – Bayern Munich and Holland

34. Mario Gotze – Bayern Munich and Germany

33. Vincent Kompany – Manchester City and Belgium

32. Gonzalo Higuain – Napoli and Argentina

31. Iker Casillas – Real Madrid and Spain

30. Marek Hamsik – Napoli and Slovakia

29. Javi Martinez – Bayern Munich and Spain

28. Luka Modric – Real Madrid and Croatia

27. David Silva – Manchester City and Spain

26. Toni Kroos – Bayern Munich and Germany

25. Juan Mata – Chelsea and Spain

24. Robin Van Persie – Manchester United and Holland

23. Sergio Busquets – Barcelona and Spain

22. Manuel Neuer – Bayern Munich and Germany

21. Sergio Aguero – Manchester City and Argentina

20. Bastian Schweinsteiger – Bayern Munich and Germany

19. Radamel Falcao – Monaco and Colombia

18. Isco – Real Madrid and Spain

17. Edinson Cavani – PSG and Uruguay

16. Gareth Bale – Real Madrid and Wales

15. Cesc Fabregas – Barcelona and Spain

14. Mesut Ozil – Arsenal and Germany

13. Arturo Vidal – Juventus and Chile

12. Robert Lewandowski – Borussia Dortmund and Poland

11. Xavi – Barcelona and Spain

10. Neymar – Barcelona and Brazil

9. Yaya Toure – Manchester City and Ivory Coast

8. Philipp Lahm – Bayern Munich and Germany

7. Thiago Silva – PSG and Brazil

6. Franck Ribery – Bayern Munich and France

5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic – PSG and Sweden

4. Luis Suarez – Liverpool and Uruguay

3. Andres Iniesta – Barcelona and Spain

2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Real Madrid and Portugal

1. Lionel Messi – Barcelona and Argentina

Let the debate begin…