Southgate taking a big risk after Belgium selection.

Bill Gates once said “To win big sometimes you have to take big risks.” He obviously was not referring to the final group game of a World Cup finals but Gareth Southgate’s lineup in Kaliningrad against Belgium echoed a similar sentiment.

As fans we expected some changes. A couple, maybe even four at a push, but the moment it was revealed that England were to change eight of the outfield players that played in the 6-1 annihilation of Panama on the Sunday just gone, the sentiment was that Southgate had taken a big risk in order to cement a place for his England side on the so-called “easier” half of the draw.

The risk is such that defeat to Colombia in the round of 16 – a game in which the England camp and fans alike seem to have forgotten about – on route to the quarter-final has the potential to open Gareth Southgate up to the fate that many an England manager before him has suffered. More than likely Southgate’s job as England manager will come to an end if he fails to progress past the first knockout round.

Overlooking Colombia, a sound team in their own right who will be a difficult test for England, is dangerous. The consensus that England have an easier quarter-final – against Sweden or Switzerland as oppose to Brazil or Mexico – is also hardly as cut and dried as some believe.

Sweden were largely unfancied coming into the tournament but topped a group containing current world champions Germany. Whereas Switzerland came through their group in second place after beating a lot of people’s dark horses for the tournament, Serbia, and draw with Brazil – the team England seemingly wanted to avoid had they won the group. This “easy” quarter-final is not as easy as it seems. Neither is any game of football. Have we not learnt from history?

We only have to look back to Euro 2016 at England last major tournament. After navigating their way through an easy looking group in second place, a first knockout fixture awaited against Iceland. The quarter-final beckoned, surely. Iceland? Easy. That word again. We all know what happened there.

The problem facing England now as they head into Tuesdays game against Colombia is that for all the praise heaped on them so far this competition, they now have no momentum. It ground to a halt on Thursday night in a drab 1-0 defeat to Belgium. Winning is a habit – one that England don’t enjoy much at tournaments – and is one that you need to develop at a World Cup, and keep for as long as possible. Losing – also a habit – is one to avoid at all cost. Viewing a loss, even in one game, because of how a tournaments draw may look after it as acceptable is a bad habit to get into.

Nations such as Brazil, Spain, Germany and such like who have achieved glory at a major finals don’t adopt such attitudes towards games. They have the confidence and the belief that they are capable of despatching any team they are drawn against.

We now face a Colombia side who have won their last two group games without conceding a goal. A side full of confidence heading into the knockout phase to play a team who is on no win streak, has no momentum going, and has not won a knockout match at a major tournament since 2006.

Ironically, had we put out a side to beat Belgium in Kaliningrad and won the group, the path to the quarter finals would arguably have been easier. There’s a hard work and a pace about Japan but Colombia will hold a sterner test for England in the round of 16.

England have played some good football in this tournament so far. They’ve changed the way the nation views their team. The country saw a young side, afraid of nobody, playing the style of football we’ve longed for in the past. The optimism was building, and fast. To drain some of that optimism with a performance such as the Belgium one could prove to be a major error of judgement on the part of Gareth Southgate. Time will reveal, and only on Tuesday evening will we truly know the impact of the Belgium defeat on this side.

It could prove to be a masterstroke, of course. There are two sides to every coin. There are also two sides to every tournament’s knockout phase, and despite arguments on the contrary, there is no easy side to any draw.

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Time for Argentina to release the rest.

As Argentina got their 2018 World Cup campaign underway yesterday, within minutes you could sense the emphasis on playing through Lionel Messi.

This is a tactic that it understandable given the talents of an individual widely regarded as the greatest player in the world today, and in some circles the greatest of all time.

Therein lies the problem. Such is Lionel Messi’s talent that Argentina seemingly have to seek out the Barcelona star with every single attack. There were times yesterday, in their Group D opener against Iceland, when Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Maximiliano Meza were in space and seemed like the logical option for a pass, and yet the only outlet worth considering was to get the ball into Lionel Messi who was surrounded at all times by two or three of his Iceland counterparts.

This has become a long running theme for La Albiceleste.

In the 2014 World Cup in which Argentina were runners-up to Germany, once again they relied heavily on the little number 10 to help them advance through the tournament. Their opener in the group stages of that tournament was a struggle against a resolute Bosnia and Herzegovina in which a Messi goal proved decisive. And at the end of a dismal outing in their following fixture against Iran in Belo Horizonte, which if it wasn’t for a wonderful point-blank save from goalkeeper Sergio Romero Argentina could easily have fallen behind, it took a Lionel Messi wonder goal in the 94th minute to seal the victory. While there was to be narrow victories without a goal from Lionel Messi the over reliance on him to produce would hinder Argentina in the final, losing 1-0 to a Mario Gotze goal on extra time.

Fast forward to qualification for this year’s competition in Russia. Argentina were forced to go through a final group game versus Ecuador, in which Lionel Messi grabbed a hat trick, in order to make it to Russia.

In the fixtures in which Lionel Messi did not feature for Argentina, it almost appears as if La Albiceleste were short of another plan to see off the opposing teams.

Without Messi, Argentina went down 2-0 at home to Ecuador, were goalless in Paraguay, drew 1-1 with Brazil, had a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to a Lucas Biglia goal in Colombia.

With Messi back in the squad victories followed. He produced the assist for Gabriel Mercado’s winner in Chile, was heavily involved in Mercado’s first against Bolivia and scored the second to secure the victory. The winning goal was then scored at home to Uruguay.

He was out of the national side once again when Argentina could only draw 2-2 in Venezuela and drew by the same scoreline against Peru. Defeat at home to Paraguay followed, once again with no Lionel Messi involvement. You get the point. Messi would go on to be heavily involved in the following three games – two victories and a loss to Brazil – before a ban for abusing a match official would force him to miss the next four fixtures. In this time La Albiceleste would fall out of the automatic qualification places in their group, once again unable to rely on the genius of their influential captain to drag them through.

He would return for the all important final game in Ecuador. Lying in sixth place in their group and in need of a top four finish to qualify, once again Argentina had only one thing in mind. Give the ball to Lionel Messi. They did, and he did what he does with such ease time again. His hat trick after Ecuador took the lead ensured Argentina would not miss the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

To their opening group game of World Cup 2018. Minnows Iceland, making their World Cup debut are the opponents. For all their possession of the ball, all their attempts on goal, they couldn’t find what was required. The emphasis placed on playing through Messi is one that has the potential to seriously hinder this Argentinian team.

In Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain amongst their ranks they have match winners throughout the squad. Attacking talent the envy of most others at the tournament. Yet still Argentina continued to seek out Messi with every attack. Stood if marginal space, but with at least three Icelandic players ready to immediately smother, Messi should have become the decoy for the pass. The final ball that should have been landing at the feet of their other attacking options. Instead time after time the ball was forcing its way into the path of Lionel Messi, amounting to wayward attempts on goal while better options were available.

Messi’s failed spot kick was the result of this Argentine performance. The responsibility they have placed on their captain taking its toll. After drawing the game 1-1 against a determined and impressive Iceland, Argentina are simply going to have to work on a plan B, or C. The Messi option, as wonderful as it can be at times, should be just that. An option. One of many, not THE option. In many cases, the number 10 was forced to leave his position and drop to the halfway line in order to get the ball of a team-mate, such was their indecisiveness in finding an outlet elsewhere other than Lionel Messi.

If Argentina are to progress from Group D, of which they were overwhelming favourites, this over reliance on their maestro has to stop. As Aguero once again proved his lethality inside the 18 yard box, and with others around Messi capable of producing for La Albiceleste, it’s time for Jorge Sampaoli to unshackle the rest of his squad and relieve the at times insurmountable pressure placed on Lionel Messi.

 

Russia vs Saudi Arabia preview. World Cup 2018.

As Robbie Williams warms up his vocal cords ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, we shall skip any coverage of the action before a ball is kicked – however tempting – and dive straight into the football.

Our hosts for the summer are Russia who take the field in the inaugural game of football at the tournament. They will be facing a Saudi Arabia side who have not participated in a World Cup finals since 2006 in Germany where they finished at the foot of their group with a solitary point.

Whereas it is fair to argue it is not the ideal fixture to be the curtain raiser of the tournament, it is nonetheless an interesting tie.

For Russia, following a dismal European Championships in 2016 where they finished bottom of their group, picking up only a point in their game against England, and in the wake of the hooliganism that plagued the opening weeks of that tournament, all eyes will be on Russia this time around.

After dispensing of the services of Leonid Slutsky after they crashed out of Euro 2016, Russia appointed Stanislav Cherchesov. Following retirements of some of the old guard who represented the country after that disastrous showing in France, Cherchesov announced the size of the task at hand by stating he would practically be starting from nothing. A total rebuild of the squad.

A switch from four to three at the back was the immediate change and an influx of young defenders all trying out for the three centre back spots in the team. Due to injuries there is no way of predicting which three defenders will get the nod for the opener against Saudi Arabia. One player who will almost certainly start the first game of the 2018 World Cup is Yuri Zhirkov. The 34-year-old former Chelsea man will be deployed as left wing back for Russia. Given his age, and the responsibility he will have in this position, this could be exploited as a potential weak spot of this Russian side.

At the other end the goals have not exactly been flying in under Cherchesov. Russia have scored just 26 goals in the 20 games under the former Legia Warsaw manager. In Fedor Smolov they at least have a striker in some sort of form. Smolov has hit 4 goals in his last 8 games for Russia and will be relied on heavily to fire Russia out of the group.

Coming into the tournament on the back of a sequence of seven games without a victory is hardly ideal preparation for Russia. Defeats to France and Brazil bring no shame but a 1-1 draw with Carlos Queiroz’s Iran, and defeat to Austria in May is hardly the way Cherchesov would have wanted to be entering the competition. With the added pressure of being the host nation, victory is the opening game is vital for the mood of the country. It will be a tough ask for the Russians to escape Group A with Uruguay and Egypt expected to qualify, so extra onus will be placed on the game against Saudi Arabia at Stadion Luzhniki.

As for their opponents, Saudi Arabia come into the tournament on the back of three defeats, but two win in their last five. The three defeats coming against Italy, Peru, and Germany, in which an own goal from defender Omar Hawsawi proved the difference.

Prior to the three defeats came back to back victories over Algeria and Greece that brought with the two clean sheets. Under former Barcelona striker Juan Antonio Pizzi, they opt for a 4-2-3-1 with the three attacking midfielders also expected to flood the midfield when Saudi Arabia are out of possession.

In qualifying (under Bert van Marwijk) Saudi Arabia went into their final game against Japan in the hope of securing a crucial three points, vital in sending them to Russia. After a goalless hour, Fahad Al Muwallad’s right footed rocket into the top corner sent the home fans into ecstasy. Saudi Arabia held on for the important three points and are now set to make history in becoming the first Asian side to feature in the opening game of a FIFA World Cup.

Like their hosts there is a real possibility of goals being hard to come by. The three attacking midfielders expected to play, Salem al-Dawsari, Yahya al-Shehri, Taisir al-Jassim and forward Fawad Al Muwallad, will be tasked with finding a way through Russia’s defence. In Salem al-Dawsari, widely regarded as the best player in Saudi Arabia at the minute, the Saudi Arabian fans believe they have just the man. Al Jaber, his president at Al Hilal is backing the 26-year-old attacker to make a name for himself this summer on the world stage.

Also like their hosts the hope of achieving qualification from Group A looks slim, such is the quality of the other two sides, so getting off the best possible start is paramount to their ambitions here at the World Cup. They will have expectant support in the stands and plenty of support from the sporting officials back home, and the Saudi players will be hoping the spirit of this side can carry them to victory in the opening fixture.

It may not have the hallmarks of a classic opening fixture to kick off the 2018 FIFA World Cup but there’s no denying there is plenty riding on the outcome of this game for both sides.

 

 

 

Pressure cooking Bilic at West Ham. 

In the pressure cooker that has become the London Stadium, Slaven Bilic cuts a distressed figure. Try as he may, it is proving difficult for the former Croatia defender to get anything from his West Ham United players anymore.

The 3-0 reverse at home to Brighton on Friday night could prove to be the final nail in the Bilic coffin. It also the 22nd time The Hammers have conceded three of more times in a game under Slaven Bilic. This is a damning indictment of his time there.

The Brighton result was seen by many, if not all, of the West Ham faithfully as unacceptable, the final straw in what has been a lamentable beginning to the season for the Irons. The club find themselves sitting in 17th position in the Premier League, two points adrift of safety, and with the bottom three sides all still to play this weekend could see themselves drop into the relegation zone come tea time on Saturday afternoon. This situation could potentially prove to be the end of Bilic at West Ham.

Even after looking at the sorry state of the league position, the, at times, egregious defensive displays, the lack of fire power up front – West Ham have scored just 8 goals in their 9 league fixtures this season – it is easy to possess a degree of sympathy with Bilic. He has been hung out to dry on occasion by his bosses at the club. None more so than this season, when after a poor start to the campaign owner David Sullivan publicly apportioned the blame on a failure to sign players on Bilic. In a statement released on the club’s website Sullivan spoke of how The Hammers had been close to signing William Carvalho, the Sporting midfielder and a player Bilic said he wanted, only for a deal to collapse. This led Sporting president Bruno de Carvalho to label Sullivan, and his co-owner David Gold, as the “dildo brothers” and deny claims they almost signed Carvalho.

Further cracks were beginning to appear in the relationship between owners and manager when Bilic, encouraged to react to the dildo brothers comment, instead of coming to the defence of his bosses, said “it made me laugh” and that he found it funny.

It was not the first occasion of which Sullivan and Gold had criticised Bilic over summer recruitment. Sullivan in particular had blamed Bilic over the failure to sign players such as Grzegorz Krychowiak and Renato Sanches, who signed for West Bromwich Albion and Swansea respectively. Bilic, unhappy with the decision of his bosses to go public instead of speaking to him privately, came out defending his corner, stating that “this is not exactly what happened with those two you mentioned” after being asked about Sullivan’s comments.

It is true that most of the sympathy afforded to Bilic will more than likely come from fans of a neutral persuasion. If you are a West Ham fan then it is what you see week in week out on the pitch that you form your judgements on. Whether you are in support of Bilic or not, ultimate football comes down to one thing. Results. The common cliché dragged out for occasions such as these is that the sport we so admire is a results based business. Unfortunately for Bilic this is a fact.

Across last season and this West Ham have played a total of 57 games under Slaven Bilic. They have been victorious in only 19 of these. This is yet another statistic that further serves to condemn Bilic to what most expect to be his dismissal.

So who replaces the 49-year-old should his services be dispensed of? Could it be Carlo Ancelotti? Recently a free agent after being sacked by Bayern Munich, Ancelotti is thought to be taking time out before a return to management but could he be tempted to return to the English capital? What of Thomas Tuchel? He has previously been linked with the West Ham post and the former Borussia Dortmund head coach is currently out of a job after leaving the club in May of this year.

There also appears to be a race for the services of Burnley manager Sean Dyche. His achievements in Lancashire only strengthen his case of making another step on the managerial ladder. The former Watford manager would certainly get West Ham’s shaky defence restored to some degree of stability, and with players like Marco Arnautovic, Lazini, and Antonio at West Ham, added to Javier Hernandez up front, counter attacking football, which Dyche has almost perfected at Burnley, would be conceivable at West Ham.

Or maybe even a return for Sam Allardyce? For much of the reasons Sean Dyche would be a good fit for The Hammers, Allardyce could also become a strong candidate for the position. He was often criticised for his style of play in his previous spell at the club but there’s no denying his ability to bring relative stability to a struggling club.

Whatever happens over the coming days at West Ham United, something needs to change. If Bilic is afforded more time then the players and board have to accept their share of the responsibility which comes with the territory of carrying a football club up, or down, a division. Should he be sacked then it is of the utmost importance that the owners get the next appointment absolutely right.

Marco Silva. The foreigner proving the pundits wrong. 

When Marco Silva was appointed Hull City manager on January 5th 2017, the appointment left many scratching their heads, none more so than former Arsenal player turned pundit Paul Merson.

Merson was not hesitant in unleashing a derogatory rant in front of the Sky television cameras shortly after Silva came to England. His insistence that he himself could win the league with Olympiacos, and that it was easy to win 17 games in a row in Greece, made the quips even more bizarre. Phil Thompson, a colleague of Merson’s at Sky, stated it was a “slap in the face” of British managers. The former Liverpool player and coach also asked the question of Silva “what does he know about Hull?”

As it turns out Marco Silva could have known very little about Hull City but the one thing he does know a lot about is football. And how to manage football teams.

On his arrival at the helm of Hull City, the Tigers were in trouble. The club was bottom of the Premier League and Silva would be tasked with ensuring survival over the remaining 18 league fixtures. Despite this feat not being achieved, he had given Hull City a fighting chance, he had given them hope. His impressive home record of being unbeaten in 7 consecutive games in the league before suffering defeat in his last two was not enough to ensure the Tigers survival.

Following Hull City’s relegation to the second tier Marco Silva decided against taking up the option of an extra year. Instead becoming somewhat of a free agent, and there would be no shortage of clubs vying for the signature of the Portuguese coach.

There was talks with Porto. A move back home and also a chance to manage in the Champions League. It was rumoured strongly that Crystal Palace would be the club to appoint Silva before opting for Frank De Boer. In the end it was Watford who secured his services.

Marco Silva was officially appointed head coach of Watford on 27 May 2017, replacing Italian coach Walter Mazzarri. Watford suffered under Mazzarri. The Hornets had slumped to a 17th place finish after a dismal run of six consecutive defeats to end the season. Once Marco Silva arrived at Vicarage Road he immediately got to work. Explaining to the squad the rewards for being disciplined both on the field of play and off it. The Portuguese wasted no time in implementing his philosophy, the way he thinks the game of football ought to be played, onto his new squad. There was summer signings following Silva into Vicarage Road. It is unfortunate that due to injuries Silva has been robbed of some of the talents at his disposal. Highly rated midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah was picked up from Chelsea for a fee thought to be around £5.6m but after featuring in the opening five game of the season, he succumbed to a knee injury picked up in training and is expected to be out until the middle of November at least.

Still this has not stopped Marco Silva from guiding Watford to their best ever start to a top flight season. The club currently sat aloft in 4th position in the Premier League, it has been an impressive start. They have lost only once in the league, albeit a 0-6 annihilation at home to Manchester City, and are currently unbeaten away from home. Victories on the road at Bournemouth, Southampton, and Swansea, plus a draw at Tony Pulis’ West Brom have ensured Watford have gone four games unbeaten away from Vicarage Road for the first time since the 2014/15 season, when the club won promotion from the Championship into the Premier League.

Players have spoken of Silva’s preparation of opponents already this season and it was the fixture at the Liberty Stadium in September where we caught a glimpse of the true capabilities of Marco Silva. A true look into his reading of a game, and of the opposition. Watford were a goal to the good at half time and looking comfortable, good value for their lead. Silva had seen that Swansea had been pushing forward towards the end of the first half, trying to adopt a three-man attack. The Portuguese could have been forgiven for keeping things as they were, but he had anticipated the changes Paul Clement was about to make. Indeed the Swans did come out with two strikers and Ayew playing just off them. Silva had also sent his Watford side out with a change of plan. He switched from a back four – used throughout the campaign until this moment – to a back three to combat Swansea’s changes. I took time for his side to adjust and before long Swansea had equalised, but instead of seeing this as an opportune moment to revert to what was successful in the opening 45 minutes, he stuck with the plan and got his reward. With Watford pressing into the last minutes, the found a way through and Richarlison, the 20-year-old summer recruit from Fluminense, and one of the buys of the summer so far, crashed home the winner.

Sterner tests had come at home for Marco Silva and Watford with an opening day draw with Liverpool displaying the character we have seen throughout the season thus far. The defeat to City, they were not the first, and they certainly are not the last team to be put the sword by Pep Guardiola’s array of attackers. Arsenal were the third big test to arrive at Vicarage Road. A fixture in season’s past, perhaps even the present season, would be classed as a so-called “bonus game”. A game in which Watford were not expected to be victorious therefore any points gained would therefore be the bonus. Arsenal had read the script. With six minutes of the first half remaining Per Mertesacker put them ahead on this, his first outing of the league season. Ironically it was Mertesacker who was singled out by Watford captain Troy Deeney when he questioned the Gunners lack of “cojones” in his post match interview. “Whenever I play against Arsenal, I’ll go up and think ‘let me whack the first one and see who wants it.’ Deeney goes on “I came on today and jumped with Mertesacker, I didn’t have to jump, actually. I nodded it down and the crowd got up – ‘yeah! we have got somebody who can win it.’ And they all just backed off.”

Deeney had arrived off the bench as a substitute for Andre Gray and in less than 10 minutes had equalised from the spot. With the home crowd growing ever more vociferous in the final stages, up popped Tom Cleverly to fire the ball into the roof of the net for the Hornets third 90th minute winner in a row.

Next up for Watford and Silva is a huge test for their impressive away from. A trip to Stamford Bridge, a visit to Antonio Conte’s Premier League champions Chelsea. With defeats in their last two games, Conte’s constant bemoaning of a lack of depth to his squad, and the never-ending saga of a return to Italy for the former Azzurri boss, who would write Marco Silva’s side off here?

It will not quite be dizzying heights that the late Graham Taylor’s Watford side reached, finishing 2nd in the top flight in the 1982/83 season, but Silva may just be on for guaranteeing Watford’s best ever finish to a Premier League season. If he achieves this, will the big boys come calling? Merson’s old side Arsenal could do worse than look towards Marco Silva as a replacement for Arsene Wenger.

Unknown Quantity Proving Quality at Leeds United.

When Thomas Christiansen was announced as the new manager of Leeds United, he was an unknown quantity to say the least. The former Bundesliga top scorer and Apoel manager could not have sat atop many Leeds supporters list of choices for new manager. Almost a month into the new season, though, he and many of his relatively unknown signings are providing plenty of quality at the Elland Road club.

After new owner Andrea Radrizzani acquired 100% control of Leeds from controversial former owner Massimo Cellino, it was thought the top priority would be to tie down boss Garry Monk to a long-term contract. For reasons not made entirely clear by either party, talks with the former Swansea boss never reached the conclusion many fans had hoped it would. Monk left the club in May. With the departure of Monk, under whom Leeds had enjoyed their best season since the 2010/11 campaign, it was difficult to envisage which direction the club would be heading in. Radrizzani, seemingly, knew all along.

Following the practically unknown Thomas Christiansen into Elland Road would be a host of summer signings. Many of these signings were also strangers to much of the Leeds United support. With a manager and much of his playing staff having no experience of the division, United fans expecting consolidation, perhaps a mid table finish, could be forgiven.

After a mixed pre season (arguably the best result being a 1-1 draw with Borussia Monchengladbach) it was time to see what Leeds were really about this season. The fixture list pitted United against newly promoted Bolton Wanderers in their opening Championship clash. It was the first opportunity for many of the Leeds United fans to cast their eyes over the summer signings. Any doubts over the new regime were swiftly cast aside when Kalvin Phillips opened the scoring after just 7 minutes. Leeds cruised into a 3-1 lead by half time and, despite Bolton scoring a second half spot kick, were comfortable in victory. The game had showcased some of the quick, attacking play that would become systematic under Thomas Christiansen.

Port Vale, under former Leeds United midfielder Michael Brown, were the first side to visit Elland Road in competitive action this season. Despite Vale taking the lead through another of United’s old boys, Michael Tonge, the free-flowing attacking play seen at Bolton three days earlier was back in full effect. United swept aside the League Two side with ease. A 4-1 victory helped along by the electric Samu Saiz scoring a hat trick. The summer addition already looks to be a superb piece of business, brought in from Spanish side Huesca for a fee believed to be around £3.1m.

Following the impressive Carabao Cup game at home to Port Vale came two goalless draws at Elland Road. Blanks drawn despite having opportunities to win both matches. The fact the draws came against two of last seasons better performers gave reason enough for not dwelling on the results too much.

The next fixture however saw Leeds travel to recently relegated Sunderland, managed by former Leeds boss Simon Grayson. This was seen as arguably the toughest test of the season to date. Recently a Premier League side, the Black Cats had started well. Notching a win and two draws in the league when many thought they would be in big trouble once more. Ahead of the trip the speculation surrounding the future of Leeds’ 30-goal-striker last season, Chris Wood, was rife. There was word a bid from Premier League club Burnley had been accepted, casting doubt over whether Wood could feature for Leeds at the Stadium of Light. Hours before kick off the news broke that Chris Wood had informed Leeds United of his desire to sit the game out. From the outside looking in this appeared a disaster for Leeds. From the inside, particularly Thomas Christiansen, there was no such feeling. Leeds went on to beat Sunderland 0-2. Samu Saiz, we will hear this name a lot throughout this season, was involved in everything that was positive for the visitors, including getting on the score sheet once again. In his interview following the full-time whistle, Thomas Christiansen was inevitably asked about the future of last seasons top scorer, Chris Wood. His response was telling. “There is no one above Leeds”, Christiansen says, “today was proof again that we are not winning games because of the individual player, but as the team.” The departure of Wood would be confirmed two days later.

An impressive start in the league and cup was set to continue as Leeds were drawn against opposition once more from League Two, South Wales outfit Newport County in the second round of the Carabao Cup. The tie was originally drawn as a home fixture for Newport but the resurfacing of the pitch at Rodney Parade meant they were granted permission to switch the tie to Elland Road. A touch of class from Andrea Radrizzani preceded the fixture when he revealed Leeds would be allowing Newport to keep their percentage of the gate. The second cup game of the season brought the second cup hat trick of the season. This time Kemar Roofe, given the nod up front, would be heading home with the match ball, turning the tie after a poor start from United. Samu Saiz, him again, would not be letting Roofe take all the plaudits, mind. Once again he made sure he got his goal and Ronaldo Vieira wrapped up a 5-1 victory and progress to the 3rd round.

Given the likelihood of Chris Wood not featuring in the cup tie against Newport should he have still been a Leeds player, there was still a question mark as to how his departure would affect Leeds in the league. After sweeping aside Sunderland on their own patch without him, another stern test awaited at the home of Nottingham Forest. The Reds had begun the campaign rather impressively under Mark Warburton with 5 victories from a possible 6 in all competitions. There were no match for Thomas Christiansen’s men as another comprehensive away performance was delivered. Leeds running out 0-2 winners after goals from Roofe, enjoying his role as the front man, and the ever impressive Ezgjan Alioski.

After all the talk of how impressive last season had been under Garry Monk, the start to that season and this could hardly be more dissimilar. After five league games of the 2016/17 season, Leeds had found themselves sitting rather worryingly in 21st position with only the solitary victory their name. By contrast, this season, after what would more than likely be defined as a tougher start, Leeds United find themselves perched as high as 3rd place, unbeaten in all competitions.

After making 17 summer signings in the window, the majority of them relatively unknown and rookies to the division, this seems a remarkable beginning. The club finally looks to be in good hands, being run the correct way, the fans are enjoying what they are witnessing, and there is truly no doubt that Thomas Christiansen, the unknown quantity, is proving quality at Leeds United.

Mourinho should be careful. He is giving his players excuses to fail.

Jose Mourinho should be wary of the way he goes about his press conferences in the run up to the Europa League final. The constant rolling out of excuses potentially gives his players one should they fail to win on 24th May in Stockholm.

Manchester United face Ajax in the Europa League final but Mourinho’s continued griping over schedules, fatigue and almost anything you can think of, could surely have a detrimental effect on his squad. The negativity surrounding the build up to Manchester United fixtures recently is usually followed by an uninspiring performance from the team on the field.

Take for instance the game at Old Trafford in which Jose Mourinho’s side hosted newly promoted Burnley. Prior to that fixture Mourinho made sure to avert the public to the fact his side had just played five games in quick succession allowing for only two days rest in between. That performance against the Clarets wasn’t all bad, and but for some woeful finishing from United’s attacking threats, and a superb performance from Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton, Manchester United would have run out comfortable winners. They did not, of course. Drawing the game 0-0 with yet another under performance from the team in which Jose Mourinho had already made excuses for his players to do so.

There have been other instances of course. Prior to the game at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal in May, Jose Mourinho called it “impossible” to go there and play for the win after having to play in the Europa League away at Celta Vigo the previous Thursday. United would go on to lose the game at Arsenal 2-0. Again a poor performance excused beforehand by their manager.

Bemoaning the draw at Old Trafford with Swansea before this, Mourinho claiming he had now given up and lost all interest in the Premier League and would rest his players for games in the competition, again was reason enough to expect dismal performances from his side. United have only won one of their five fixtures since the Swansea game, none in the Premier League. The performances of Mourinho’s side have left an awful lot to be desired, even for the most staunchest of Manchester United supporters.

There is no denying that the scheduling for clubs also participating in European competitions could be, and should be, handled more appropriately, but if you wish to be the manager of a top club challenging for honours both domestically and on the European front, this is simply something you must do. The schedule is always going to be packed. It is the same for clubs across Europe who aim to deliver European success.

One of Jose Mourinho’s more favoured justifications for failure is the fact his players have played so many matches this season. This is indeed true, but in the 2008-9 season Sir Alex Ferguson still managed to win the Premier League, win the League Cup, and reach the final of the Champions League, albeit losing to Barcelona, despite playing two more games than this current Manchester United squad will do this season.

There is also the case of the Chelsea squad of 2006-7 who, under the guidance of Jose Mourinho, played more fixtures than any other team in the entire history of the Premier League, managing to win the FA Cup, the League Cup, and finish second in the Premier League, whilst also reaching the Champions League semi-final stage.

The excuse of too many games and fatigue just does not stand up. The Manchester United squad has under performed. Allowed to do so by their manager, forgiven for it, even. This is a squad that is the most expensively assembled squad in history, costing over £600m. A squad that includes over 30 players that should have the resources to cover a schedule such as this without question. Mourinho’s persistent moaning over just about anything has given this squad an almost free pass to fail. Any points dropped against the likes of Swansea, Burnley, Southampton, sides that Manchester United should be seeing off with ultimate ease, are lost in the reasoning that this squad and their manager are hard done to.

There is no debate here that this Manchester United squad should have enough to over come Peter Bosz’s young Ajax side in the wonderfully named Friends Arena on May 24th. Should the Red Devils fail to deliver a performance and silverware in Stockholm, their manager, Jose Mourinho, would have already given them the excuses to do so.