Was Zlatan’s the best goal ever?

With only the odd speck of archive footage to rely on it would hardly be fair for me to judge on whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stunning effort last night was the best goal of all time.

It wouldn’t however be too much of a stretch of the imagination to say that it was one of the very best of my lifetime.

Ibrahimovic

Zlatan’s performance and his wonder-strike last night were a shot in the eye for all his doubters

 

So, in honour of his outrageous effort in Sweden’s 4-2 win over England at their brand new Friends Arena I have put together a selection of clips of the best goals that I have ever witnessed.

So, sit back, relax, enjoy and make up your mind as to which you think is best…

First of all…. Here’s Zlatan!

Next up…. Wazza!

The next contender… Scholesy!

Carrrrloooossssss!!!

Don’t forget… Ronaldinho!

Zidaaaaannneee!!!

Can’t forget D-Becks!

Messsssiiiii!

Rooonnnnaaaalllddddoooooo (‘s goal that wasnn’t…)

and another from Ronny which did count…

Best penner ever?

Thierry Henryyyy!!!

Bergkamp!!

and another…

Giggsy!

Gus Poyet!!!

Neymarrrr!

Finally, some bloke from Glentoran…

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Euro 2012 Group C: Can anyone topple Spain?

Italy:

The Italian national side may have endured a few years of indifferent form but they remain the most recent side to have won a major trophy aside from Spain who accompany them in group C.

Spear-headed by ‘Super-Mario’ Balotelli the Italians will go into the Euros knowing that in being drawn with the reigning champions they have immediately become only the second favourites to progress from their group but also that they have a huge chance to send out a statement of intent by either beating Spain or by finishing above them in the group.

Balotelli Italy

Balotelli will have to keep his emotions in check if he is to deliver for Italy at the Euros

As ever with the Italian national side there is plenty of experience to call upon in the form of players like Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgo Chiellini, Daniele De Rossi, Anrdrea Pirlo and Antonio Di Natale but the squad they’ve named for the Euros is arguably their most exciting and refreshing selection for quite some time in major tournament football.

In and around the experienced figure-heads of the squad there is plenty of youth and plenty of talent and it isn’t limited to just one area of the field either. At the back the likes of Angelo Ogbonna and Ignacio Abate look like big prospects and up top they have included the likes of Fabio Borini and Sebastian Giovinco to support the ever-eccentric Balotelli.

One to watch… Mario Balotelli: It may well feel like Balotelli has been around forever given the antics on and off the field which have made him so well known but this will be the very first major tournament appearance for Italy. There is no doubting his ability to succeed and be a star at the Euros but huge questions still remain about his temperament and it will be interesting to see if he can keep his emotions in check.

Euros nostalgia: Italy have a rich history in World Cup football but their Euros record is poor by comparison. In two of the past four tournaments they have failed to get out of their group but they did reach the final in 2000 when they were felled by an extra-time winner from France’s David Trezeguet. The only time Italy have won the tournament was way back in 1968.

Tournament prospects: It appears to me as if Italy will be hugely reliant on the ability of Balotelli up-front as he is their real stand-out player. There is a decent blend of youth and experience at Italy’s disposal for the Euros and in spite of the turmoil in domestic Italian football at the moment it would still be a surprise if they weren’t to make it out of the group.

Spain:

Reigning champions Spain have an awful lot to live up to this summer given their fantastic performances in the last two major international competitions but their technically gifted squad should be confident of landing a third straight piece of silverware.

Iniesta Xavi

Spain’s ‘Golden Duo’ in midfield will team up once again

One area which could be exploited by other teams is their defence which will be missing their rock of a centre-half and the man that would have been their captain, Carles Puyol. Any potential problems at the back for Spain may not just be caused by Puyol’s absence but also the form and versatility of their other defensive options.

Their other truly world class centre-half, Gerard Pique, hasn’t enjoyed his finest season with Barcelona this year and he may well be partnered by Sergio Ramos, a man far more accustomed to playing at full-back, in the heart of Spain’s defence.

Another potential creak in the Spanish rear-guard is their lack of a natural left-back. They will probably opt to play Valencia’s Jordi Alba in this position but he isn’t exactly a natural defender. He is very strong going forward has the pace and stamina to get up and down the left flank all game long but it is unclear up to now whether he possesses the discipline to play in such an important position on one of world football’s biggest stages.

Another major miss for Spain this summer is that of David Villa who hasn’t recovered in time from a broken leg suffered at the back end of 2011. However, as much as Villa is a big loss one would have to think that Spain have more than enough in reserve to cover his absence as their squad still possesses so much attacking strength and depth that players such as Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Fernando Torres all might struggle to find a place in the starting line-up.

One to watch… Fernando Llorente: The powerful Athletic Bilbao forward has played a huge part in his clubs impressive cup runs both in Europe and in domestic football this season and in the absence of David Villa and the absence of Fernando Torres’ best form it could be down to him to lead the line for Spain and to provide the bulk of goals needed to win a tournament like the Euros.

Euros nostalgia: The previous European Championships in 2008 saw Spain underline their undoubted potential. Inspired by the coinciding rise to prominence of Barcelona and their famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand of football, Spain passed their way to the most elegant of major tournament victories sealing their triumph with a 1-0 win over big-tournament specialists Germany in the final.

Tournament prospects: Given their recent successes in major tournament football Spain will go into the Euros as the team to beat and rightly so. They may appear a little damaged by a couple of major injury-enforced absences but the depth of quality at their disposal should allow them to cope with such losses and go deep into the competition. I have a hunch that this might be the tournament where they are finally denied victory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get to the final once again.

Republic of Ireland:

This is the first time that the Republic of Ireland have qualified for a major tournament since the World Cup in 2002 and their Italian-heavy coaching contingent deserve an enormous amount of credit for the work they’ve done in getting their side back to this level.

There are a few survivors from the World Cup in 2002 still present in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and they will be hoping that these more experienced players can help them try and stand up to the likes of reigning champions Spain in the group stages.

James McClean Ireland

McClean has been a great find for Sunderland and he hopes to be much the same for Ireland

To be drawn in the same group as Spain on their return to major tournament football might appear a little unlucky for Ireland but their players and their fans will just be delighted to be back at this level and to be being thrust into direct competition with the world’s best side.

One to watch… James McClean: Sunderland’s power-house of a winger was plucked from the relative obscurity of the Irish leagues last summer and since Northern-Irishman Martin O’Neill has taken the helm at the North-East club McClean has been thrust into their starting line-up and has excelled . The youngster’s meteoric rise to prominence was sealed when Giovanni Trapattoni named him in Ireland’s squad for the Euros and now he has the opportunity to impress on an even bigger stage.

Euros nostalgia: Ireland’s only previous taste of the Euros came under Jack Charlton’s management back in 1988. They narrowly missed out on a semi-final place but took away with them the precious memory of defeating England 1-0 in their opening game of the tournament.

Tournament prospects: Ireland go into the Euros as huge underdogs and most people, myself included, will expect them to end the group stages propping up the rest of teams in Group C. The excitement surrounding them competing in one of world football’s biggest competitions will undoubtedly inspire them and I expect them to give everyone in their group a good game but ultimately I can’t see how they will get enough points on the board to challenge for a place in the quarter-finals.

Croatia:

Ever since Croatia took their first steps into international football as an independent nation in the early 1990’s they have never looked back and they have often impressed and punched above their weight in major tournaments.

Modric Croatia

Modric will be key to Croatia’s hopes at the Euros

This time around the Croats will head into the Euros armed with a squad including one of world football’s most highly-rated attacking midfielders in Luka Modric and they will hope that their chief playmaker can help them compete strongly in the group stages and get them into the reckoning for a place in the last eight.

Though they might not possess one of the more eye-catching squads in European football Croatia should not be underestimated as they have a lot of very decent players to accompany the likes of Luka Modric and perhaps none more so than their striker Nikica Jelavic who has been a major hit at Everton since signing from Rangers in January.

One to watch… Nikica Jelavic: Having established himself as the most threatening striker in the SPL in his time with Rangers, Jelavic has now made the big move south of the border and into Premier League football and in his first few months in England he has proved himself time and again and his form towards the end of the season was as good as pretty much any other striker in the league. If the Croatian front-man can carry this form into the summer then Croatia could spring a few surprises once again.

Euros nostalgia: Croatia are responsible for one of the most famous nights of English football’s recent history after defeating them by three goals to two at Wembley in the final game of their qualification group for the 2008 tournament. This victory saw Croatia become one of the teams to qualify at England’s expense and thus denying one of Europe’s finest sides on paper a place in the previous European Championships.

A brief summary of Group C:

On paper it appears as if reigning champions Spain will be the huge favourites to win Group C and I can’t see anybody preventing them from doing so.

Beyond this though I am struggling to work out exactly what the outcome of the group will be but I suspect that Ireland will finish bottom of the group and therefore I think that it is between Italy and Croatia in the battle to qualify for the latter stages of the tournament.

If it were simply down to the quality of the sides on paper then I would plump for Italy every time but Croatia have demonstrated several times in the past that they aren’t afraid of a challenge and Italy may well be inhibited by the ongoing investigations into corruption and match-fixing in their domestic leagues. It is a really tough call and I am clueless as to who will progress alongside Spain.



The Summer Sales: Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao amongst those likely to pay for their success

As the summer draws closer and the vast majority of Europe’s domestic leagues are winding up for the summer break and the transfer window that comes with it, rumours are rife about who could go where and why they might seek pastures new.

It is the time of year when all sides who have either performed beyond their means or who have been outgrown by their leading lights fear the most as they head into the year’s most lengthy and protracted period of transfer-related vulnerability.

We have already seen clear examples of what this summer’s transfer window may have to offer as the Bundesliga’s relegation threatened Cologne have lost their talismanic local hero Lukas Podolski to Arsenal for what appears a bit of a bargain. Arsenal have also moved to try and avoid last season’s mad rush for recruits on deadline day by attempting to secure a deal for Yann M’Vila who is also fast becoming too big a fish in the small pond that is Rennes.

Podolski

Podolski has a fantastic international record

In addition to  players like Podolski and M’Vila shining at their clubs and attracting attention from ‘Big-Time’ clubs from around Europe, there are also whole clubs around Europe who may pay the price for their success and they could be set to lose multiple players over the forthcoming summer.

Benfica, having forced their way ahead of Porto in Portugal’s domestic pecking order for much of the Portugese league season and having entertained en-route to a place in the last eight of the Champions League are now surely set for a summer of fending off interest in their most-prized assets.

Gaitan impressed against United and will have attracted interest from SAF

Arguably the hottest property at the club is their versatile attacking midfielder Nicolas Gaitan who has attracted many potential suitors with his strong performances both in Portugal and in the Champions League. It is the creative talents of the 24 year-old Argentine which have earned himself a now regular slot in amongst Argentina’s rather special attacking contingent in the national squad and that have drawn interest from huge club’s like Manchester United who have been linked more closely with securing his services than any other side.

Another huge talent plying his trade at Benfica is Swiss international Axel Witsel who has this season emerged as one of Europe’s most talented and

Witsel has shone this season and a big club will surely come calling

combative central midfielders. His consistently strong and disruptive performances amongst Benfica’s talented midfield impressed has I’m sure impressed many scouts at the top European clubs, and perhaps never more so than in Benfica’s Champions League group games which resulted in them outdoing both Manchester United and FC Basle.

Benfica’s impressive displays this year may have gone some way towards re-building their reputation and improving their financial outlook but if they don’t manage to hold onto the likes of Gaitan and Witsel then it could well have cost them dear when it comes to the strength of their playing personnel.

Another club who could come under the radar of many of Europe’s top clubs are Borussia Dortmund who have for the second season running overcome Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race.

Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa and Gotze both look set to fly the nest at Dortmund

Already it is being said that Shinji Kagawa might have agreed a deal with Manchester United which would be a major loss for the German club and others may well follow him out of the door as Dortmund have failed to cash in on their domestic success with a strong return to European football.

Centre-backs Neven Subotic and Mats Hummels have both impressed greatly over the past couple of seasons and have also become key players in their respective national set-ups and it would be absolutely no surprise if Europe’s major forces tried to recruit either one of them.

The jewel in Dortmund’s crown though is Mario Gotze the diminutive, young attacking midfielder and he again is being linked with a move away having featured regularly in transfer talk throughout much of the past two years. If he were to part company with Dortmund it would perhaps be the greatest loss of them all as he is very much the golden boy at the German Champions and he is the very embodiment of all that has been positive about their re-emergence as a major force in German football.

Another side likely to be the subject of a lot of transfer attention are Athletic Bilbao who have won many admirers during their European adventures this season. Though their Europa League campaign ultimately ended in major disappointment when they lost 3-0 to fellow Spanish side Athletico Madrid, many of their young and talented squad have caught the eye of on-looking scouts and as they are a side struggling to break into La Liga’s upper echelons and into real contention to secure Champions League football they will surely lose a hold of some of their stars this summer.

Iker Muniain Javi Martinez

Bilbao have entertained in the Europa League

The two most sought after members of their squad would appear to be versatile holding-midfielder and captain Javi Martinez and their star striker Fernando Llorente both of whom were a part of Spain’s world cup winning squad in 2010.

Martinez, who has for a long time been linked with Real Madrid and Barcelona, has starred for Bilbao and has demonstrated great maturity in captaining a side who have impressed under his leadership in spite of his relatively tender age. Not often is one so young placed in such a position of responsibility at a football club but Martinez has led by example providing much of the thrust which has made his Bilbao side such a dynamic force this season. He may be reluctant to leave such a prominent and valued role at his boyhood club but he will also be aware that he must be playing Champions League football if he is to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a regular in Spain’s line-up.

The same can also be said of Llorente who’s sublime volley against Manchester United in the Europa League will live long in the memory. If his talents aren’t also taken onto the next level, which is surely regular Champions League football, then perhaps he will miss out on the opportunity to stay ahead of the likes of Fernando Torres in Spain’s pecking order.

It would be a surprise if Bilbao managed to hold on to both Martinez and Llorente in the wake of their hiccup in the final of the Europa League and their consequent failure to secure Champions League football for next season but perhaps they can be hopeful of holding onto another of their prodigious talents Iker Muniain who is maybe a step behind the likes of Martinez in terms of his development.

The diminutive forward has provided great support for Llorente over the course of this season and though Bilbao have the means to hold onto him for now it might well be beyond their power if he decides that he is already primed for a first crack at Champions League football. There will certainly be no shortage of sides willing to look into the possibility of tempting him away from the San Mames if he does want out so expect rumour a plenty about where his future might lie this summer.

A big factor in Bilbao’s attempts to hold onto their emerging stars could be whether they manage to hold onto their Coach Marcelo Bielsa who has a fine record since taking charge and could perhaps be on the hit list for many of Europe’s top clubs. The club’s directors will though be breathing a huge sigh of relief that Barcelona have turned to Tito Vilanova as Pep Guardiola’s successor as Bielsa was the name on everbody’s lips as soon as the job became seemingly up for grabs.

If Bilbao’s agonising shortcoming in trying to secure Champions League football hasn’t already proved enough for their skipper and other key players, then surely the loss of Bielsa would put the final nail in the coffin in terms of sealing their respective decisions to part company with the Basque club.

It is indeed sad for football that many emerging sides tend to lose the best of their playing crop every time they show any major signs of development and bridging the gap that lies between them and the more dominant clubs in Europe but that is the nature of the modern game. Money talks and so does the opportunity to play at a higher level on a more regular basis, so expect the likes of Benfica, Dortmund and Bilbao to pay for their success and have to fight valiantly in order to hold onto their most prized assets.

Other names to watch out for in this summer’s transfer market:

Radamel Falcao (Athletico Madrid), Hulk (Porto), Papiss Demba Cisse (Newcastle), Cheick Tiote (Newcastle), Eden Hazard (Lille), Loic Remy (Marseille), Gonzalo Higuain (Real Madrid), Dani Alves (Barcelona), Robin Van Persie (Arsenal), Ricky Van Wolfswinkel (Sporting Lisbon), Ola John (FC Twente), Luuk De Jong (FC Twente), Cristian Eriksen (Ajax) Gregory Van Der Wiel (Ajax), Leighton Baines (Everton), Stephane Sessegnon (Sunderland), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), Edinson Cavani (Napoli), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli)

A tale of two diminutive Spaniards

As we all know too well, English football is deprived of creative attacking midfielders with superb craft and much sought after ‘end product’. One particular area of the world though is thriving in this department and you may not be surprised to hear that this is Spain.

Silva and Mata

Silva and Mata are amongst a wealth of creative talent at Spain's disposal

Think Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Juan Mata, Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Canales and Javi Martinez and on the basis of the weekend’s performance Mikel Arteta and you arguably have a list of 8 or 9 experienced and/or enormously talented individuals capable of unlocking defensive doors, playing the killer pass and even getting themselves in the mix for plenty of goalscoring opportunities themselves.

In England on the other hand we are really limited in this crucial area. Gerrard and Lampard still have their moments but it would be hard to deny that they are past their best, Paul Scholes is re-emerging since his brief retirement period as arguably England’s best ball-playing midfielder but he too his way beyond the wrong the side of 30 and beyond this I’m struggling to think of any match-winning playmakers that we have at our disposal.

Jack Wilshere is probably England’s up and coming force in this role but he has already been on the receiving end of a string of injury concerns and may miss out on the Euros this summer and even putting such issues aside is he really better than the likes of Thiago, Canales, Mata and Martinez the emergent midfield forces in and around the Spanish squad? I personally don’t think so.

The other hope for England in this sort of role is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but it is very unclear just where he will end up being best utilised in the future for club and country as he is very much in the developmental and fledgling stage of his career at present.

The lack of current and emerging options in this pivotal attacking role is alarming and perhaps why the major English forces in the Premier League have turned to Spain to find their diminutive playmakers.

Manchester City have David Silva operating ‘in the hole’ behind the forwards as their most trusted playmaker, Chelsea have Juan Mata fulfilling much the same role in their line-up and Vicente Del Bosque must be licking his lips when thinking about how two of his dead-certs for the Euros have plied their trade in the Premier League this season.

Juan Mata Chelsea

Silva and Mata have been two of the most impressive playmakers in the Premier League this season

At times, both Spanish attacking central midfield players have been the driving forces behind their team’s runs of form and when they have been at their best they have been almost impossible to handle.

Silva may have looked a little ‘burnt out’ in the latter stages of this season, which of course will be of concern to the Spanish management as well as Manchester City’s but perhaps this is just a knock-on effect of his fellow team-mates’ slumps in form? Even if it is just a personal form issue, one good thing for Spain to come out of Silva’s stuggles to light up the Premier League in the second half of the season is that City have been lost without him, which suggests that he is a hugely influential and instrumental player when he is at his best.

This theory might be for those of a sunnier, glass-half-full disposition but it is a theory that I’m sticking too. I think that as soon as Silva is re-united with his international team-mates before the Euros that he will feel refreshed and will have a new lease of life not often seen in City’s recent struggles.

While City have struggled in the absence of Silva’s best form, Chelsea have begun to flourish as a result of Mata’s rise to prominence.

Perhaps it is the way that Mata was being deployed by Andre Vilas-Boas that was slightly inhibiting the Spaniard’s form in his first few months at the Bridge or perhaps it is just a case of him taking a while to settle in but one thing is for sure and that is that Mata has now begun to express himself as we know he can and that Chelsea are reaping huge benefits as a result.

Mata has far outdone David Silva’s efforts of late and it is little coincidence that their two sides have had coinciding contrasting fortunes, so much so that Chelsea could yet be contesting a Champions League and an FA Cup final whereas Manchester City now look like ending the season trophy-less and dejected.

One might even go as far as to argue that Mata’s recent efforts mean that he deserves to jump Silva in the queue to be part of Spain’s starting play-making unit at the Euros. Whether this will be the case or not though, it is clear that Spain’s finest ball-players are a step ahead of England’s at present and that they have an embarrassment of riches in this role which could well drive them to a third consecutive major tournament win this summer.

One interesting point which I will make though is that England have no one closer to such talents and such attacking influence than Paul Scholes and that his contributions since returning to United this season mean that whoever takes the England to the Euros this summer simply must try again to persuade him out of retirement. If Scholes isn’t a part of the England squad then do we really have anybody who can compete with Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta, Fabregas, Silva and Mata not to mention a couple of other huge talents?

 

 

Could Milan teach Barca a Nou Lesson?

We all know too well that Barcelona can be a force of nature and that for now they are without question the Kings of European football. They have elevated football to a new level and founded upon the strong and composed defensive unit they have put together their more attacking options have become the envy of all clubs in world football.

Pep Guardiola has fashioned a side worthy of enormous praise and adulation not just for the results that his side have achieved but also for the way they that they have played their football en route to becoming the continent’s and in fact the world’s most feared side.

Barcelona Milan

Magical Messi couldn't quite force a way through at the San Siro

As it stands though, Barca have come away from the first leg of their Champions League quarter final in a position of genuine precariousness, as for the third time in this season’s competition they have failed to beat Milan.

Sure they still managed to get a draw out of their away leg, and sure Milan looked a totally different side when travelling to Arsenal in the previous round when compared with the ruthlessness and discipline they showed at home to the Londoners but Barcelona’s inability to find the net at the San Siro could well be a cause for significant concern and could yet cost them dear.

Barcelona’s dominance has been such over the past few years that they have at times seemed untouchable. When you think back to Wembley last year in the final of the Champions League and how they totally overwhelmed Manchester United for 80 of the 90 minutes and matched them for the other 10 you can’t help but heap praise on the side that Pep Guardiola has built and nurtured at the Nou Camp but this season has perhaps exposed a few chinks in their armoury.

The three successive draws against Milan aside, they have struggled to keep pace with Real Madrid in La Liga and at present they look set to lose their crown as Spain’s number one side even if they do overcome the Italians and go on to land another European success. They have been  too sloppy and too often against grossly inferior opposition at times this season and perhaps there is fuel in the argument that complacency has creeped into a side, who have after all, been repeatedly told by almost everybody that they are invincible.

You could hardly level any suggestions of complacency at Barcelona on the night though against Milan, as they continually switched the play from flank to flank and probed in and around the opposition’s penalty area in a persistent attempt to find the elusive away goal which would surely have made them overwhelming favourites to progress.

There was no lack of effort and no lack of ideas but Milan were just about as good as any side have been at negating the threat of the Catalan’s undying thirst for stringing passes together and building pressure.

Time and time again, Milan made the right intervention, the crucial intervention, at the perfect moment. Whether it was an interception, a tackle, a save, or a block, the Rossoneri just seemed to come up with the goods every time and never more so than  when Luca Antoinini demonstrated an exemplary bit of last ditch defending which thwarted one of Barcelona’s unusually low count of genuine clean breakthrough’s in the match.

Not only did they demonstrate phenomenal commitment and composure at the back but it would also be fair to say that Milan could even have won the game.

They too produced  a couple of potentially match-winning chances and had it been for some more convincing efforts when the opportunity knocked then they could feasibly have been heading to the Nou Camp buoyed by a hard-earned victory rather than just the clean-sheet which, in itself, is more than admirable.

Though it may feel to them as if they could have nicked the tie and be going to Spain with the goals-advantage the Rossoneri must surely be satisfied with their efforts on the night.

Throughout the vast majority of the 90 minutes Milan were oh so organised in defence and proved to themselves as much as anyone else that it is possible to shut out their much vaunted opposite numbers. The chances they did manage to create must too be a sign of great encouragement for them as they head to the Nou Camp on a mission to de-throne the kings of Europe and they must believe that a fourth draw in a row against Barcelona is possible and with the shut-out on home turf already achieved they now know that a draw might well be all they need.

I personally still fancy the Catalans to progress but I only think they will manage to do so by a very fine margin and if I were a betting man then I would back Barca to come out as 2-1 winners at the Camp Nou but I do still harbour the belief that Milan are well set up to try and cause a massive shock.

They are blessed with having some very experienced players through the core of their side, which is crucial when taking on a side like Barcelona who play with such intelligence and cunning but they too have younger, stronger and more offensively able players amidst their ranks.

The likes of Robinho, Kevin-Prince Boateng and the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic may at times seem withdrawn or off-colour but their maverick and mercurial nature provides such a threat that they could really harm Barcelona just as they probably could any side in world football.

I can’t see the second leg of this tie doing anything other than exciting and perhaps even shocking a few people out there but whatever the outcome I am looking forward to the fourth instalment of the Barca-Milan battle this season with great anticipation. It is beautifully poised and that is what knock-out football is all about.

 

Can England’s elite take financial strides to try and match Barca’s brilliance?

Big Summer in Prospect for England’s Elite:

With Barcelona’s demolition of Manchester United last week resonating through the footballing world, Europe’s top clubs will certainly be feeling the need to improve their ranks. It may seem unrealistic that any team can invest and bring in anyone of the level of genius which graced the hallowed turf of Wembley last week, but that shouldn’t stop the British clubs assault on the transfer market this summer. The topsy-turvy nature of events in the Premier League this season means that any one of six teams will be going in to the new season with dreams of winning the title. I will consider the chances of each of the four most prominent contenders and weigh up their potential movement in the forthcoming transfer window.

Arsenal:

The events over the closing weeks of the season will have seen manager Arsene Wenger sick to the very pit of his stomach. The enthusiasm and verve present amongst his team of young stars for much of the season simply appeared to fizzle out, and with it their chances of silverware were lost without a trace. The moment which encapsulated all the frustration of their campaign was the late winner scored by Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final. Having gone without any silverware for several years, to then go and throw away a lead in a cup final against a side who went on to be relegated from the Premier League is beyond disappointing. It is criminal, absolutely criminal. Not only did this moment of footballing agony demonstrate a lack of nerve but it also highlighted their need for an experienced and imperious central defensive pairing and a top quality goalkeeper.

In terms of goalkeepers they have plenty of options, though the experienced ones would probably prove to be the wisest investments. I believe the man they should target is Shay Given. He is a fantastic shot-stopper who has experience at the highest levels of international football and european club football, all the attributes of a fantastic keeper. This is a transfer which could very feasibly happen as Wenger is rumoured to be a long-time admirer of the Irishman and he has been rather frozen out at Manchester City this season.

In addition to a keeper it is very important that Wenger breaks his own policy of only investing in youth and invests in a battle-hardened experienced centre back that preferably has premiership experience. A good buy would be Chris Samba of Blackburn Rovers who has been immense this season and has shone above the turmoil at the club and their battles against relegation. He wouldn’t cost the world and would be keen for a big move having had a transfer request rejected by the club in the most recent transfer window.

It is these defensive areas which need the most attention at the club this summer, but perhaps other areas could do with strengthening too. One option could be to invest in a new holding midfield player as an alternative to the young Alex Song, who has certainly demonstrated some promise this season but needs time and competition to drive his career in the right direction. The obvious investment here would be Scott Parker who this season has demonstrated outstanding mental strength, desire and tremendous ability whilst captaining a sinking ship. With West Ham relegated to the Championship Parker will be looking to ply his trade elsewhere and I believe Arsenal would be an ideal fit for a player of his talents.

One final suggestion for Arsenal could be to invest in a striker. Their over reliance upon the injury prone Robin van Persie has become a serious concern, and whenever he is unavailable they struggle to come up with the goals necessary to win a Premier League title. This may seem a controversial suggestion but former Spurs and current Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov could well prove a fantastic signing for the ‘Gunners’. He is creative, skilful and elegant which would be in-keeping with Arsenal’s  philosophy and he is a proven goal scorer at the highest level. Such talent coupled with the fact that his omission from Manchester United’s Champions League final squad seems to have signalled his departure, could well prove this to be a viable option.

Potential Ins: Given, Samba, Parker, Hazard, Berbatov, Benzema, Gervinho. Potential Outs: Almunia, Fabianski, Scquilliaci, Fabregas, Arshavin, Chamakh

Manchester United:

Manchester United have had a fantastic season, but their lack of quality ball players and central players with the drive to track the opposition were exposed by Barcelona’s majestic performance against them last week.

With the departure  of old-hands Edwin Van Der Sar and Paul Scholes this summer there appears to be the need for investment in goal and in the middle of their midfield. It seems as though David De Gea of Athletico Madrid has won the battle for the coveted keeping vacancy at Old Trafford, and I would say he is a wise investment. He may only be very young, but he has already had a taste of Champions League football and has emerged as one of Europe’s finest young keepers.

So that leaves the need to invest in a midfield play maker to replace Scholes. A few names have been touted for this role such as Luka Modric of Tottenham and Inter’s Wesley Sneijder. Both of these players would be exceptional signings and an ideal replacement for one of United’s most loyal and talented servants of all time. Another possibility that is rife with rumour amongst the media is for United to sign Samir Nasri in a cut-price deal due to his contractual wrangling at Arsenal. Sir Alex Ferguson is a canny operator and it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that he could make this deal happen, and if he did it would be a remarkable coup given Nasri’s form over the last year.

Another potential problem for Manchester United  to deal with this summer is that it seems certain that Dimitar berbatov will leave the club. He won the golden boot this season and losing him would effectively leave a void of twenty to twenty five goals a season. Sir Alex Ferguson may well entrust some of his young charges like Javier Hernandez, Danny Wellbeck and Federico Macheda with this responsibility but their does appear to be justification for movements in this direction during the window.

Potential Ins: De Gea, Sneijder, Modric, Nasri, Benzema. Potential Outs: Van Der Sar (confirmed), Scholes (confirmed), Berbatov

Chelsea.

What a season Chelsea have just had. It has been tumultuous to say the least and the recent sacking of Carlo Ancellotti will have done nothing to steady the ship. However, there is a very definite need for them to improve the depth of their squad and a new manager at the helm usually means that their will be money made available for transfers.

Areas of concern for Chelsea could be the wide areas of their midfield and in attack. It seems likely with the amount of money invested in him that Chelsea will remain faithful to Fernando Torres in spite of his lacklustre form since signing for the club. Such faith coupled with the apparent inability of Didier Drogba and him to blend as a partnership could see Drogba their talismanic striker leave this summer. If he does go then Chelsea will need to invest in this area as they can’t afford to part with a player of Drogba’s stature without having lined up a replacement. Karim Benzema would fill the role very nicely and Real Madrid would perhaps be willing to part with him, alternatively they could try and lure Sergio Aguero from Athletico Madrid as they are failing to make the strides necessary to keep hold of a player of his talents. Young Brazilian talent Neymar has also been heavily linked with a big money move to the club.

In midfield their appears the need for greater creativity and innovation in order to supply the likes of Torres with greater effect and regularity. An option here would be to try and lure Kaka from Real Madrid. However, since Ancellotti has been sacked by the club this has become an even more remote option given the link between the two men, an alternative could perhaps be Luka Modric.

Potential Ins: Kaka, Modric, Aguero, Benzema, Neymar. Potential Outs: Ferreira, Bosingwa, Drogba, Sturridge.

Manchester City:

Now that City have seemed to join the elite of English football by securing the FA Cup and Champions League qualification, could it then be time for them to make a real assault on European football. If this is to be the case then they need to strengthen again.

In defence this season Vincent Kompany has been a revelation but given Kolo Toure’s absence from the game for a failed drugs test and Joleon Lescott’s lack of experience at the summit of European football this could be an area that needs strengthening. A possible option could be Bolton Wanderers’ Gary Cahill, a very talented young man who would certainly provide a good alternative to Lescott in the heart of their defence.

Another chink in City’s armour could be in defensive midfield where current first teamer Gareth Barry’s form has appeared to slump over the past twelve months. One option for his replacement could be Scott Parker who seems to have grappled this position away from Barry at international level for England. He is likely to be subject to much interest this summer given his impressive form but City’s millions and the prospect of Champions League football may be enough to tempt him to sign up.

On final area of concern for City is in attack where they must do all in their power to keep a hold of their star player Carlos Tevez. He is one of their only ‘X-Factor’ players and in truth is pretty irreplaceable. However, if he does decide to leave then City will have to come up with an exceptional replacement. Possible options could be Benzema, Berbatov and Aguero but in truth these players could pale in comparison to Tevez and his consistently fantastic contribution to the club.

Potential Ins: Anyone! (Benzema, Berbatov, Aguero, Kaka, Cahill, Parker) Potential Outs: Anyone! (Tevez, Barry).

Whatever unfolds between now and September it appears that we are set for a turbulent summer of big money and major transfer activity, which could perhaps exceed anything like what we have seen in the past. If this is is the case then it will prove to be a hugely exciting period and one which could potentially shape the balance of power in English and European football for years to come.

Below are my predictions for the next English season:

Premier League Top of the table: 1. Manchester United, 2. Manchester City, 3. Chelsea, 4. Liverpool, 5. Arsenal, 6. Tottenham

Premier League Relegation: 18. Blackburn Rovers, 19. Wolverhampton Wanderers, 20. Norwich City

FA Cup: Chelsea

League Cup: Liverpool

Champions League: Barcelona