Kunle Ajao

Kunle Ajao

At fulltime, Paris St. Germain looked beaten, looked spent, as the players stood on the pitch at the Parc des Princes, while some crouched. But unlike most of the Champions League games from which Le Parisiens have incurred criticism, their look of tiredness was merely physical; no emotional or psychological beat down, rather just fatigue from going hammer and thongs late on, as the French champions salvaged a point in the dying embers against Napoli. ‘The players used up a lot of energy tonight…’ said manager Thomas Tuchel.

‘We are happy to (have) finished on a positive note’, said Angel Di Maria, scoring of PSG’s late equaliser. ‘You have to fight to the very last second if you want to reach your objectives.’ And PSG did fight in this game, something they’ve been chided for lacking in this competition. According to many, and not without reason, as a result of the lack of intensity with which the Ligue 1 is played, when opponents on the continental front up the ante, PSG look suspect.

But here, it was Tuchel’s side who raised tempo, starting very much on the front foot, Kylian Mbappe proving a handful for Mario Rui, and only a lack of communication from Neymar and Edinson Cavani prevented them from a shot at an early lead. ‘Our first 15 minutes were very good’, said Tuchel, ‘but then we lost our structure, our confidence and we started losing the ball.’ And the German was spot on in that assessment, as after their dominant opening quarter of the game, PSG seemed to take their foot off the gas.

Napoli grew into the game, Jose Callejon scratched a shot at Alphonse Areola, who was then beaten moments later by Dries Mertens, but had to be grateful to the underside of the bar for keeping the score level. But neither he nor the frame of the goal could help the hosts on the half hour mark, when Callejon’s brilliant pass found Lorenzo Insigne, whose first-time finish was as unerring as it was impudent. Suddenly PSG were chasing the game, chasing the group, defeat here, coupled with Liverpool’s lead at home to Red Star Belgrade at the time, meant they were much outside the top two in Group C, looking in.

‘At half-time, I told the players we had to play more simply, faster and with more disciplined’, Tuchel said. ‘We needed to improve.’ And aided by a switch to a back-three – Thilo Kehrer came on for Juan Bernat – PSG did show improvements. Their equaliser came with a touch of fortune, Mario Rui diverting an Mbappe cross into his own net on the hour, but it came about as a result of the pressure the hosts had generated. ‘We had a lot of chances, crosses, and we saw the real Paris St. Germain in the second half’, said Thomas Meunier.

Another spanner would be thrown into their works, though, as Mertens gave Napoli the lead for the second time with 17 minutes left, after a ricochet fell his way, a situation Tuchel described afterwards as ‘very frustrating’. All of PSG’s hard work looked undone, but again, unlike previous Champions League games, they didn’t spend time licking their wounds. ‘…we fought back a second time and that shows a good mentality’, noted the manager.

With the clock running, it was Di Maria, who had a rather inconsistent and unconvincing game, popped up with an equaliser. ‘The second half was excellent’, said the Argentine. ‘We need to build on this second (half) and keep improving.’

The result leaves PSG outside the top two in Group C as the group stage reaches the halfway mark, but Tuchel is still siding with optimism, and on evidence of this game, with good reason. ‘We have three matches left in the group and we want to win our head-to-head with Napoli first of all’, the manager added. ‘It lasts 180 minutes and we have played 90. It’s 2-2 and we have the chance to win it in two weeks.’

  • Swashbuckling Schwarzgelben

It’s unheard that Atletico Madrid lose a game 4-0 under Diego Simeone, but that’s mood which Borussia Dortmund are in at the moment. The Bundesliga leaders took Los Colcheronos to the woodshed at the Signal Iduna Park, with a double from Raphael Guerreiro either side of goals from Axel Witsel and Jadon Sancho. Die Schwarzgelben have scored 37 times in 12 games so far this season; 10 of those games they have won, and are still unbeaten under Lucien Favre.

  • United very much a cut below

Paul Scholes, on BT Sport, noted the ‘air of acceptance’ that surrounded Manchester United’s defeat at home to Juventus on Tuesday, and the former Red Devils midfielder was absolutely spot on, as rarely have 1-0 wins looked so dominant and inevitable. United improved in the second half, but the best – and really, only thing – they could muster was Paul Pogba hitting the post, thanks to some sloppy play from Rodrigo Bentancur, proof of United’s second half improvements owing much to Juve’s complacency more than anything else. Another winning return to Cristiano Ronaldo, as the Bianconeri remain one of two sides in the competition to not have conceded.

Elsewhere:

  • It was the first test without Lionel Messi and it was a test passed, as the Barcelona skipper watched from the stands while his teammates did the job of dispatching Inter at the Nou Camp. Goals from Jordi Alba and Rafinha, the former Inter loanee, who was brought into the line-up as a replacement for Messi; so who needs Leo after all.
  • Inter’s defeat doesn’t seem so costly, as PSV and Spurs opted to play out a 2-2 draw in Eindhoven. Spurs had come from a goal down to lead, and looked utterly in control, but failed to kill off the game (sound familiar?) and things took another turn when goalkeeper Hugo Lloris got sent off. There was no hiding how damaging the result was to Mauricio Pochettino’s side, who said post-match that his team’s Champions League campaign is ‘nearly over’.
  • It was Hoffenheim’s turn to find a late goal after conceding them in their opening two games, Joelinton popping up in the second minute of stoppage time to rescue a point in a 3-3 draw with Lyon. The result, though, leaves Julian Nagelsmann’s side one defeat away from elimination.
  • There were whistles at the end at the Bernabeu, despite Real Madrid ending their miserable run of form with a win. The performance was much more improved, even if it was only against Viktoria Plzen, who still made a fist of it, and only lost 2-1. Asked whether Julen Lopetegui would be the manager in the Clasico this weekend, director Emilio Butragueno answered yes with certainty. Asked whether Lopetegui would still be the manager after the Clasico, ‘you hear rumours’, was Butragueno’s response. That clarifies that.
  • It’s been 12 years since Ajax saw the light of Champions League knockout stage, but the Dutch side are close to it again, after Noussair Mazraoui’s late winner saw off Benfica, and keeps them top of Group E. Erik Ten Hag’s team are one win away from making the last 16.

Results

PSV 2-2 Tottenham

Club Brugge 1-1 Monaco

PSG 2-2 Napoli

AEK Athens 0-2 Bayern Munich

Real Madrid 2-1 Plzen

Shakhtar Donetsk 0-3 Manchester City

Young Boys 1-1 Valencia

Ajax 1-0 Benfica

Liverpool 4-0 Red Star Belgrade

Roma 3-0 CSKA

Dortmund 4-0 Atletico Madrid

Barcelona 2-0 Inter

Hoffenheim 3-3 Lyon

Manchester United 0-1 Juventus

Galatasaray 0-0 Schalke

Lokomotiv Moscow 1-3 Porto


There was a moment at the Bernabeu on Saturday, when, midway through the second half, Real Madrid were two down against Levante. Gareth Bale tamely put an attempt wide, then moved to gesture the crowd to get onside, trying to roar the Bernabeu faithful to back the team, but the Welshman got whistles and jeers. That reaction just about sums up the tired atmosphere that is currently associated with Real Madrid, from the crowd to the face of the manager himself, the sense of fatalism is palpable.

Julen Lopetegui’s days as Real Madrid manager, 132 of them so far, already look numbered. At his unveiling, the former Porto coach described it as his happiest moment, just a day after being sacked by the Spanish national team on the eve of the FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Spanish football federation took offence at being informed that Lopetegui had taken the Real job just five minutes before it was announced, and opted to dismiss the manager. As Lopetegui was unveiled by the European champions, the sceptical view was that why would he risk a chance to coach Spain at the World Cup for a job at a side that could easily get rid of him.

The chance to manage Real Madrid doesn’t come often, was the view of many, including Lopetegui himself, but this job is perhaps football’s most poisoned chalice, and less than five months in, the toxicity at the club is hard to miss. The possibility of the Lopetegui project at Real getting blown to bits was not far-fetched, but it wasn’t expected to be this catastrophic, this early on.

Despite Los Blancos losing to Levante this weekend, the biggest surprise was that they scored a goal, ending their run of over eight hours of football without finding the net, a new club record. They haven’t won since the end of September, a run of three defeats in four league games, four in five in all competitions, crisis standard for a side like Real Madrid.

Which makes their next immediate fixture, a Champions League Matchday three game at home to Czech side Viktoria Plzen, an absolute must-win. It is not a case of getting a victory that would be sniffed at, or bagging a win that would come a few ‘yeah, but’ reactions; this is simply about getting the job done and getting over the line, about three points that would come any which way.

Lopetegui looks to have run his race at Real, and a certain form of unavailability of managers right now seems to be what’s granting the former Real goalkeeper a stay of execution, and a win here might not change his fate at the Bernabeu dugout. Failure to win, though, and the need for him to be gone might just outweigh the necessity of an immediate replacement.

Elsewhere:

  • There’s also a feeling of last chance saloon at Spurs, although it’s not with the manager’s fate. Rather, it looks like the eleventh for Spurs to save their Champions League season, after starting with two defeats. They travel to face a PSV side who are also pointless so far in Group B, and a draw here could leave both sides realistically playing for no more than a Europa League spot.
  • Napoli lie in top spot in Group C as they travel to the Parc Des Princes on Wednesday, Carlo Ancelotti coming face-to-face with his former charges Paris St. Germain. It’s also a meeting against a former club for Edinson Cavani, facing Napoli for the first time since leaving in 2013; more importantly, it’s a chance for one side to steal a march on the other in this tight group.
  • Sticking with reunions, it’s a meeting of Manchester United and Juventus, old Champions League foes, at Old Trafford, a game which sees Cristiano Ronaldo return to his old stomping ground. That the Portuguese has already had to attend a press conference means his meeting with his former club is overshadowing the fact that Paul Pogba also faces old friends on Wednesday.
  • Four days after his Monaco rein began with defeat to Strasbourg in Ligue 1, Thierry Henry’s next game in charge of the principality club is a trip to Belgium, as his side visit Club Brugge, in their continued search for a first Champions League victory since April 2017.
  • Conceding a late equaliser on Matchday one, losing to another late goal on Matchday two, Hoffenheim have been burned more than once in this competition this season already. Die Krachgauer host Lyon in their third game in Group F, and another failure to win would be a dent in their last 16 hopes.

Fixtures

Barcelona v Inter

Shakhtar Donetsk v Manchester City

AEK Athens v Bayern Munich

Young Boys v Valencia

Real Madrid v Plzen

Hoffenheim v Lyon

PSV v Tottenham

Club Brugge v Monaco

Roma v CSKA

Dortmund v Atletico Madrid

Ajax v Benfica

Manchester United v Juventus

Liverpool v Red Star Belgrade

PSG v Napoli

Galatasaray v Schalke

Lokomotiv Moscow v Porto


Jose Mourinho had said he wouldn’t go overboard celebrating Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, a sign of respect to his former side. And on Saturday lunchtime, he was hardly noticeable at the beginning, as he almost invisibly took his seat in the dugout. The manager may have been quiet in the dugout – until the final minute, that is – but on the pitch, his side were full of noise, responding from a setback once more, and very nearly getting a win at SW6 for the first time in five years.

‘The team played very well’, said the Portuguese. ‘As a team, we played very, very well. Individually, in the second half, they (the players) raised the bar, especially the attacking players who brought the game into a different dimension.’ That latter part was the area in which United’s first half was very much far from satisfactory, the only attempt they made was when Romelu Lukaku headed a cross wide from close range.

For much of the first 45, United were listless up front; the only area in which they were lacking. Their defending was very much better than the one in the first half at home to Newcastle a fortnight ago, although their defending of the corner that led to Antonio Rudiger giving Chelsea the lead would have caused the manager irritation, as it did Paul Pogba, the principal culprit.

‘We conceded a goal from a set-piece, but we were in the game so the distance between the first and second half was not as big as it was against Newcastle’, Mourinho added. And the first half was nowhere near as shoddy and hapless as it was against the Toon at Old Trafford, but Chelsea still looked comfortable, Eden Hazard not getting as much room as he has had this season, but the Blues were still in control. ‘…for 60 minutes we played our football’, said Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri. ‘Then after it was 1-1 we didn’t play our football, only long balls and we didn’t win the second balls. In this type of football United are better.’

And in and around the time United got their equaliser, they had started to look like the better side, a sustained spell of pressure arrived, Chelsea goalie Kepa had to parry away an attempt from Juan Mata seconds before Anthony Martial found the net. Then United were on top, Chelsea, as Sarri said, took their foot off the gas, even though David Luiz headed an attempt wide and Ngolo Kante forced a fine save from David de Gea.

Paul Pogba had taken control of the game, Mata was getting the freedom to roam, with Hazard and Jorginho’s influences for Chelsea subdued, and when Martial rifled home his second left, the goal seemed inevitable, and from there on it looked like there would be only one winner. Chelsea looked shorn of ideas, the passes were no longer coming off, and a first defeat at home to United since 2013 looked on the cards.

But at the last minute, something would come. With the clock running, the time for patient build-up had passed, and the Blues had to go for it, and after Luiz hit the bar with a header and De Gea saved the rebound from Rudiger, Ross Barkley popped up with the leveller in the final minute of stoppage time. ‘I’m really pleased with everything apart from the result, which is an awful result for us’, said Mourinho.

Mourinho was also at the heart of some handbags right after Barkley equalised, with one of Sarri’s assistants, Marco Ianni, celebrating the goal right in front of the United gaffer, in what seemed like a taunt. ‘…I’m not annoyed with anything’ replied Mourinho when asked about it. ‘What happened was with Sarri’s assistant and Sarri was the first one to come to me to say he would resolve the problem internally with him and, after that, his assistant came to me in Sarri’s office to apologise to me.’

Mourinho said he accepted Ianni’s apology, but most importantly, there’s a level of acceptance to United’s performances of late. There’s still enough room for improvement, but the Red Devils’ new-found knack for responding to adversity should be taken seriously.

  • Terriers show fight even if win and goals remain elusive

Another home game, another scoreless outing for Huddersfield, who haven’t celebrated a goal at their own ground since April. But unlike most performances in that time, here at home to Liverpool, the Terriers played with intent and intensity, and were very unlucky to lose to the Reds. ‘We don’t have luck,’ said manager David Wagner, and it’s hard to argue with that, on the evidence of this game, where they had more than 10 shots, but one on target, would feel they should have gotten a penalty, and also struck the post via skipper Jonathan Hogg.

‘The most important thing is that the group is mentally strong, they have shown today they are tight and that they have the willingness and desire to perform in a Huddersfield Town kit’, added Wagner, who as well as midfielder Alex Pritchard, has expressed belief that the wins will come. If they keep this up, it’s surely just a matter of time.

As for Liverpool, it was another unconvincing display, as Jurgen Klopp himself noted, but Mohammed Salah’s goal keeps them level on points with leaders Manchester City.

Elsewhere:

  • Speaking of Manchester City, the champions weren’t at their sparkling best, by their lofty standards, but still went on to put five past Burnley. City have a goal difference margin of 10 more than any other side at the moment, and there was also another moment of joy in seeing Kevin de Bruyne back in action.
  • Cardiff are finally up and running, as Neil Warnock’s side came from behind at home to beat Fulham, scoring four goals in a single game for the first time in Premier League history. As for Fulham, another defensively slapdash day sees them drop into the bottom three. If they keep conceding at this rate, they’ll end up shipping 103 goals.
  • Still at the bottom, Newcastle have dropped to the foot of the table, after losing to Brighton, a fifth successive home loss. There were boos again at fulltime, most of which were probably directed towards Mike Ashley, but surely Rafa Benitez has to start coming under pressure for losing some winnable games on home soil.
  • It was a trip back down to earth for Wolves, who were victims of Watford’s quickfire form, conceding twice in 58 seconds, for a first home defeat of the season.
  • Another game, another narrow win for Spurs, who 1-0’d their way victory again, this time at West Ham. Mauricio Pochettino’s side remain far from convincing, but are still only two points from the top.

Results

Huddersfield 0-1 Liverpool

Bournemouth 0-0 Southampton

West Ham 0-1 Tottenham

Cardiff 4-2 Fulham

Chelsea 2-2 Manchester United

Newcastle 0-1 Brighton

Wolves 0-2 Watford

Manchester City 5-0 Burnley

Everton 2-0 Crystal Palace

Monday Night Football: Arsenal v Leicester


 

If ever you could say a club are doing a ‘go unnoticed’ challenge at the moment, then it’s Arsenal. The Gunners have won nine successive games in all competitions, have the second-best attack so far, have won four straight away games for the first in almost two years, have racked up 60% of their away league goals of last season, and are just two points off the top of the table. Yet Unai Emery’s men have hardly graced the spotlight, operating in the shadows, unnoticed but effective.

Perhaps there is a fair amount of reasoning to that. The Gunners are still adapting to life under Emery and the sense of building up expectation this early is still very much ill-advised. But life under Emery is going well so far, and there’s a different feel to things as an Arsenal fan, no sense of dread at the expected fatalism that’s bound to come, rather than continuing to dive into the unknown with a sense of adventure and excitement.

There’s no building angst for home games, and away matches are not approached with a defeatist atmosphere even before kick-off, as it had been for some time in the past. Players have also spoke of the increased intensity in training, which has shown in matches, and there’ also being improvements in forms of players, the likes of Hector Bellerin and Alex Iwobi finding their feet after an almost regressive stagnation last term.

There’s always the check on Arsenal’s form, on the point that the defence still looks very much shaky, and has only kept two clean sheets so far. Plus, there’s the fact that for all of Arsenal’s improvements, they’ve hardly completely convincing, and the highest-placed side they’ve beaten in the league so far are ninth-placed Watford; the two games in which they’ve come up against teams whose levels they aim to get to, they’ve suffered defeat, played off the park on home soil by Manchester City on the opening day, before looking defensively haphazard at Chelsea a week after.

So, it’s important to keep things in perspective. The Gunners host Leicester on Monday night, and with the glass half-empty perspective of their form meaning that every win so far has come with at least an ounce of ‘yeah, but’, this is not the time to slack off. Because nobody expects the problems that have dogged Arsenal to be gone after just four months, wins will still be met with scepticism for now, and failures to attain victory will be followed up by derisive snorts of ‘see, there you go’.

But right now, the Gunners should continue to go about their business quietly and away from the limelight. Operating in the shadows hasn’t failed them so far, and the chance of a perfect ten looms very large.

Elsewhere:

  • It’s a return to Stamford Bridge for Jose Mourinho, as he takes his squad on another save-the-boss quest, this time in a trip to the capital. Whether their comeback win over Newcastle was a form of defeating defiance or a turning point will certainly get more evidence, as they face a Chelsea side with a number 10 in absurdly good form.
  • Sit back and ignore them and check the scores after, or see them on the goal rush, it’s the first six-pointers of the season. First off, bottom-placed Cardiff host fourth from bottom Fulham, with the Welsh side still seeking their first win of the season; a clash of lacklustre attack against leaky defence. Then the other is the clash between Newcastle, second from bottom, host Brighton, six points ahead of the Toon.

 

  • Sticking with the bottom-dwellers, Southampton are winless in five league games, losing four, their only win of the season coming in a game where they managed to be so poor yet won at Crystal Palace. The Saints visit sixth-placed Bournemouth (can’t believe that was mentioned so casually), and a defeat at the Vitality stadium will surely see the start building on Mark Hughes at the South Coast… or maybe not.

Fixtures

Arsenal v Leicester

Chelsea v Manchester United

Everton v Crystal Palace

Bournemouth v Southampton

Wolves v Watford

Huddersfield v Liverpool

Manchester City v Burnley

Cardiff v Fulham

Newcastle United v Brighton

West Ham v Tottenham

 


No retirement. No injury. Just a case been taken out of the firing line for a while. John Obi Mikel still waits in the wings, like a sort of Captain Nigeria, shield in hand, waiting for the phone to ring, signalling a call from Gernot Rohr to get going again. To thrust himself back into the thick of national action once more.

But the Super Eagles have been getting by without the skipper, without the man who’s been part of the national furniture for more than a decade. In recent past, on good days, our traits have been die-hard commitment, and an unyielding never-say-die attitude, partly because the fans demand that, and also because we lack creative nous; until lately, with the – whisper it quietly – positional re-invention of Alex Iwobi.

The Arsenal man has spent most of his time with the national side deployed out wide, the result being mostly minimal, cutting inside and shooting has never been his ilk, neither has it been running at defenders, skipping past them and delivering an inch-perfect cross. Lately, he seems to have found his most effective base of operations, as the playmaker, the man positioned beside the centre-forward but given the license to roam and drift, looking for the perfect pass rather than running in behind, or running at opponents from out wide.

Iwobi is certainly the biggest winner from Rohr’s shift from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1, especially with the presence of two more robust midfielders shielding him most defensive responsibility, reducing his need his track back, something he’d have to do if he was used as a winger, something neither he nor the team would really have benefitted from.

But with Rohr having stated that there’s more than a window for the return of Mikel, what happens when Mikel does return? His presence in the side as the skipper, his ability to galvanise and mobilise the side is – truth be told – underrated, and in his absence, Ahmed Musa has played the role of player more often than that of leader, hence the return of the regular captain is a bonus. But someone would have to be the fall guy when the Tianjin Teda man does make his way back into the fold.

If Rohr opts to stick with the 4-2-3-1 when Mikel returns, then that leaves Oghenekaro Etebo perhaps the most likely to drop out of the eleven. Etebo has had a sticky patch of late, playing far below his usual self in both Libya games, and would make the most sense as the fall guy should Mikel return. But on his day, especially with two less attacking-minded midfielders with him, Etebo can offer a threat going forward, and his seeming tirelessness means he can bomb on to and fro both ends, like a mathematical equation of pseudo-defensive midfielder plus pseudo-attacking midfielder equalling the perfect man in the middle.

So, does Rohr go to a 4-3-3 and keep Etebo and Mikel in the side? It’s worked when it’s been done, so it’s far from a far-fetched idea. But deploying that formation means dropping Iwobi to the bench, or shafting him to the wings, where he’s usually ineffectual, and robbing the side of a more incisive wide-man, particularly with Rohr’s current setup apparently restricting the full-backs’ attacking plays. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, and Iwobi enjoying himself in that No. 10 role is reaping dividends all across the attack.

A three-man midfield and Iwobi in the hole in front of them could also work, something of a 4-3-1-2, with all of Mikel, Etebo, and Wilfried Ndidi playing alongside Iwobi. But that means the full-back have to spend most of the time bursting lungs from one of the end of the pitch to the other, and, perhaps most crucially, means the midfielders have to drift wide much more often, and can Etebo and Mikel (the most likely to be required to fill those roles) really do that?

It’s the kind of conundrum that Rohr is likely to find himself in come the future, but does it have to be a bad thing? The presence of these sort of potential questions also means the tendency for tactical flexibility increases.

For now, though, it’s a case watching Iwobi flourish, and seeing the rest of team benefit from it. Rohr will cross that Mikel bridge when he gets to it.


If Odion Ighalo had some semblance of pettiness in him, he’d start holding us to his goals. The forward who’s been much-maligned, particularly due to his misses in the World Cup in Russia, has taken Nigeria to the cusp of a first Nations Cup appearance in six years, contributing five of the Super Eagles’ seven goals (over 70%) in the double header over Libya.

If Ighalo had been previously accused of not coming to the party in an Eagles shirt (and four goals between 2015 and 2017 means those accusations are not so wide of the mark), then on Tuesday’s second leg against the Mediterranean Knights it was the rest of the team who failed to RSVP coach Gernot Rohr’s call to remain focused and not rest on the laurels of Saturday’s win, slacking off and blowing away a two-goal lead, before the Changchun Yatai forward rescued the points late on.

Ighalo then came out to speak on the amount of stick he received after Nigeria were knocked out of the World Cup by Russia less four months ago.  ‘They said a lot of things’ said the former Watford striker. ‘To my innocent kids, to my wife, even to the extent they threatened my life and the life of my family’. Death threats. Ighalo is the latest line of footballers to suffer from this and yet carry on with his business like a professional.

But why does it always have to be so? Being a footballer, especially representing your national side, requires quite the thick skin, but why? Yes, fans financially and emotionally invest in the teams, and perhaps have a right to voice their displeasure when the results are way far from satisfactory, but certainly not to this level. Dejan Lovren received death threats last season when his form for Liverpool was appalling. Loris Karius, also Liverpool, received death threats after his errors cost the club in Champions League final against Real Madrid. Suddenly in football, when the occasion is big, your safety and psychological well-being are on the line.

It’s always to the players’ credit that they try as much as possible to face the football and focus on their game when all this is going on, but the responsibility put on footballers to be calm in the face of absurd levels of criticism is just as absurd as the levels of criticism the players come under. And how does the world expect footballers to keep their minds on the football and get out of the said form they’re been criticised for being in, when there are of psychologically disturbing thoughts on their minds.

Asking a footballer to focus on the football and look to get back in form when his family face constant threats is a bit much, that the footballers also manage to keep their focus on the football more than anything else during that time merits some serious praise. In this age where footballers are encouraged to come out to speak if ever they’re suffering from depression and such psychological distress is no longer an unknown, expecting a player to stick with the football amidst animosity and intimidation seems unfair.

It’s the Nigeria whom some of its people give Ighalo and his family death threats for blowing opportunities at the World Cup, that some of its people also proceeded to kidnap John Obi Mikel’s father and inform of it hours before that same World Cup encounter against Argentina. Nobody pummels the finance people with death threats when the economy sinks, nobody fuels exaggerated criticism towards the people in the power sector because electricity continues to fail, so why should footballers be any different?

It’s important to keep in mind that these footballers are playing for their teams, not their lives, and maybe, maybe, just maybe, some things are much more important than football.


It was unconvincing and shaky, but it did the trick, as Nigeria completed a qualifying double over Libya with a 3-2 win.

Odion Ighalo was once again the main man in front of goal, as his double edged us past the Mediterranean Knights in Tunisia, in a game where virtually everyone in a green shirt could have performed much better:

Francis Uzoho: His game swung one way and then the other, a couple of basic errors were made, and position-wise he was found wanting on some occasions. Did produce some really good saves on the day. (7)

Ola Aina: Started this game from the off, but like the first leg, he barely went forward. Most importantly, though, he was caught out napping on a few occasions, including for both Libyan goals. (5)

William Troost-Ekong: Not at his best at the back on the night, as, like Aina, he failed to read the threats for both of Libya's goals. (6)

Leon Balogun: Also far from his best on the night, like the entire backline. Carried the ball with usual confidence and adventure, but will have better games. (6)

Jamilu Collins: Offered little up front, and didn't do much to the back either. Perhaps playing twice in four days took his toll on the newbie, but he was found wanting on occasion. (6)

Wilfried Ndidi: Didn't do a bad job in midfield, but a player of his quality will feel he should have done much better. Was loose on the ball on some occasions, and will miss the next game after getting himself needlessly booked for dissent in stoppage time. (6)

Oghenekaro Etebo: If he was quiet in the first leg, he was next to non-existent here. Didn't quite show his guile in the middle, and barely put a foot right. Deservedly substituted. (5)

Samuel Kalu: Didn't get on the ball as much as he liked, and couldn't quite run at the defence like he usually does. Deservedly taken off as well. (6)

Alex Iwobi: His range of passing was still on show, as he continues to embrace the role of playmaker in the Eagles setup. But some of his decision-making in the final third were very much questionable. Involved in the opening goal with a well-timed pass. (7)

Ahmed Musa: A much better day at the office for the skipper than on Saturday. Was unselfish in setting up Ighalo for the opener, and showed impressive persistence in scoring the second. Faded after the break. (7)

Odion Ighalo: Followed up his treble on Saturday with a brace here, and his hold-up play was also commendable. His first goal might have been a tap-in, but his second showed his attacking prowess. (8)

Substitutes

John Ogu: Came on for Etebo, but looked nothing like his calm and assuring self in midfield, looking all over the place instead. (5)

Henry Onyekuru: His impact was minimal but he still proved lively. Very nearly found the net with a shot from a difficult angle. (6)

Semilore Ajayi: Came on deep into stoppage time, a time-wasting substitution, and had virtually no impact. N/A


The Super Eagles are well and truly up and running, after following up their win in Seychelles in September with victory over Libya at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, to go above the Mediterranean Knights and into second place in Group E of the 2019 African Cup of Nations qualifying. An Odion Ighalo treble did the trick as Nigeria considerable light work of the North Africans, a kind of trouncing that might make their former coach accuse us of using metaphysical powers.

So, how did the players fare in the Eagles’ success in Uyo:

Francis Uzoho: The goalkeeper had very little to do on the day, but when required he did his bit with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency. Made a terrific reflex save to deny Libya’s Mohammed Anis Saltou early on. (7)

Shehu Abdullahi: Had a quiet 15 minutes, before going off injured. The Bursaspor right-back will hope to recover before the return leg on Wednesday. (6)

William Troost-Ekong: Did very well to quell the threat of Anis Saltou, particularly when the ball was on the ground, and hardly looked troubled. Unfairly booked late on. (8)

Leon Balogun: Had little trouble to deal with in the game, moping with ease and effectiveness. Made an error midway through the second period, but it amounted to little. (7)

Jamilu Collins: Perhaps a tactical instruction, but didn’t go forward as much as you’d expect a full-back to, spending most of the game tucked in at the defence. The one time he went forward, he struck the crossbar from close range. (6)

Wilfried Ndidi: Came close to scoring in the first half, when his header hit the outside of the post, and had his usual calming display in midfield. Booked for a foul midway through the first half. (7)

Oghenekaro Etebo: Another tireless display in the middle from the Stoke man, although he didn’t get forward as much as he usually does. By his standards, a little quiet day at the office. (6)

Ahmed Musa: Not the best performance from the skipper, who spent the first half tasked with crossing from the right, as opposed to his typical cutting in from the left. His passes were mostly a yard or two off, even his assist for Ighalo’s third goal was grateful to a defensive mishap. (5)

Alex Iwobi: The in-form Arsenal man carried that rich vein of form to the national scene, as he flourished in the No. 10 role. Played a part in the second and third goals, with a couple of well-threaded passes. (9)

Samuel Kalu: Looked lively throughout and did well to track back and provide support to Collins, particularly in the first half, but his decision making was quite lacking, a couple of one-touch-too-many situations as well as some ill-advised shots. Seemed desperate to find the net, but when he did, in stoppage time, it was a brilliant finish. (7)

Odion Ighalo: The striker who’s been subject of some criticism in the national side of late, offered a retort with a top-class performance. Bagged his first hatrick for the Super Eagles, and his work ethic wasn’t lacking, which helped in winning that early penalty. (10)

Substitutes

Ola Aina: Came on early for the injured Abdullahi, and after a rather nervy first half, steadied himself. Like Collins, he didn’t get forward as much, but was tidy in defence, particularly after the break. (6)

Henry Onyekuru: Came on for Musa, and could have scored with his first touch. Did well to set up Kalu for the fourth goal. (6)

Isaac Success: Barely had an impact on the game, particularly because he spent little time on the pitch. Played in Onyekuru with a good pass late on, but had little else to shout about. (5)


Katsina United’s brave fall on penalties, to Kano Pillars, in the semi-final of this year’s Aiteo Cup has a story in it, an unfancied northern side with an impressive (by our standards) youth system coming within only two games from continental football is worth talking about. But will we talk about it? Do we ever talk about how what happens in our football?

It’s a continuous cancer that eats up at our game, and this year’s federation cup only serves as one of the effects, another evidence in a long list of incriminating metaphorical documents that show why and how our football is lacking. Nobody has any interest in it, nobody wants to be interested in it, and nobody wants to interest us in it; so club football in Nigeria just goes past, like the most redundant extra in a movie set.

So, who’s to blame? Who bears the brunt of culpability over this increasing shitshow that is our game? Perhaps the most Nigerian thing about our football is the fact that no one will take responsibility, or be held accountable, so we let the mediocrity and haphazardness drift on.

Who’s to blame? The league body, because it’s more than happy to schedule two semi-finals in the same day (Rangers’ win over Nasarawa in the second semi also took place on the same day), at noon as well. The league body, because it moves league games to Monday mornings. The league body, because it cancels games set to be played on Easter holidays and reschedules them for the first working day after, because the fans they’re meant to attract won’t work to pay to see games. The league body, because it keeps no information on its players whose most reliable source of income are paltry bonus fees over continental games. The league body, because its marketability is as awful as its football, its lack of palpable revenue generation does its best to put off any prospective owners lingering out there.

Who’s to blame? The federation, because it’s more interested in grabbing sponsor finances than the players and clubs. The league body, because it would rather focus on its elections, as if the national ones don’t bother and sicken us enough. The federation because there are supposedly no funds to release to the league, but there are funds to fight over.

Who’s to blame? The media, because we’re more interested in covering the administrative elections than what happens on the pitch. The media because you tune in to an hourly programme on the radio, supposedly dedicated to sports in the morning of the cup semi-finals, championed by those who bellow media patriotism in your face, but you get nothing on the cup semi-finals until the programme’s final three seconds. The media because the said-renowned sports newspaper in the country doesn’t give a hoot and a half about the cup, that’s supposedly prestigious and reputable in nothing but name these days. The media because the only television that gives the league a lick apparently can’t tell a razor blade from a cutlass.

Who’s to blame? The country, because these days everything going on is a microcosm of its state. The country because we’d rather design supposedly indigenous brands in Asia. The country because its economy makes being a match-goer so ridiculously fanciful, its bashed in whatever scale of preference it falls in. Support the NPFL on Twitter, but do nothing nowhere else.

Are there solutions to these problems? Obviously. Are we ever going to talk about and get to the point of applying them? Don’t be absurd.


‘You’re getting sacked in the morning’ chants came Jose Mourinho’s way early on from the Newcastle fans at Old Trafford, but this was one of those times when that overused line of words had some justification. The morning before the game against the Toon, news had started circulating about the Portuguese manager’s impending dismissal, with UK’s Daily Mirror bringing out an ‘exclusive’, which, after supposed information from ‘top sources’, stated that Mourinho was getting the sack irrespective of what happened against Newcastle. Manchester United’s board were quick to dismiss such reports, but given how the two previous managers had been dismissed, many would be forgiven for thinking there was an element of truth about the rumour.

And things looked to be going even more south on the pitch on Saturday, less than 15 minutes had been played when United found themselves two goals down, strikes from Kenedy and Yoshinori Muto from Newcastle, courtesy of some atrocious defending, seemed to put Mourinho on the brink of a p45. That the goals were easily avoidable, as well as the overall play of United in the first, once again raised the issue of whether the players were playing for the manager. At fulltime it seemed like they were, a remarkable fight-back turning a nightmarish afternoon into the stuff that’s made United so reputable and historically formidable.

Not that the manager was prioritising the players playing for him over winning for the club. ‘If the players play just for the manager, they are not good professionals because, one day, they like the manager and they play for them, and the next day comes a manager they don’t like and they don’t play for him…’ said Mourinho post-match. ‘So I think it’s ridiculous talk’.

From Mourinho’s demeanour on the pitch, it seemed like he knew a lot- if not everything- was on the line. His usual sulk of resignation when United concede bad goals lately wasn’t there, instead there was yelling, bellowing, gestures of obvious displeasure, and the tactical move of taking off Eric Bailly after 20 minutes and bringing in Juan Mata.

That was one of the changes that showed United were out to risk it all on the day, as well as the removal of Scott McTominay for Marouane Fellaini before the second half began, which meant Paul Pogba played as something of a false centre-back. ‘Of course we had some tactical touches, of course we risked a lot, of course we went in different directions’ said Mourinho, while forward Romelu Lukaku also echoed his manager’s point risking it all. ‘We thought let’s just go for it, give everything we have got’.

And it did look like United were going hammer and thongs for it, especially in the final 20 minutes, wave after wave of attack, roared on by the Old Trafford faithful, before Juan Mata and Anthony Martial dragged them level with two goals in six minutes. ‘I think, at halftime, we had a good conversation’ said Mourinho. ‘We didn’t promise each other that we are going to win the match, because we couldn’t promise that. We promised each other that we were absolutely going to give everything without any fear...’ I think the boys they deserve (the win), but even if the game ends with 2-2, even if we don’t score the last goal, the feeling would be a positive feeling…’

But they would score that last goal, an Ashley Young cross was met by the head of Alexis Sanchez, who hasn’t had the best time since swapping Arsenal for United in January. The Chilean started this game on the bench after his poor run of form, and his goal was only his fourth for the goal, but it says something that it was one of the players who has quite underperformed lately that would complete their turnaround on Saturday.

So, the question: Is this a turning point for Mourinho and United or a stay of execution? United’s kitchen-sink final 20 minutes, as pleasing and rewarding as it turned out, left holes that other sides would have capitalised on, just as other teams would have taken even more advantage of that dire first half. They travel to Chelsea next, after the international break, and whether sets the tone for their season to get back on track under Mourinho, or is just a mighty gesture of defeating defiance, remains to be seen. But at least there’s defiance in them. For once in a long time, they simply left it all on the pitch.

Cherries keep going

‘It was an incisive, efficient performance and we dealt with the physical contest really well’, said Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe after his side’s 4-0 at Watford. The comfortable victory, after which Howe said his side could still play better, puts the Cherries in sixth-place, and in the top four in terms of league goals, only Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have found the net more often this season. The side from Dorset have 16 points after eight games this term, it took them 17 matches to reach that much in the last campaign.

Goalless at Anfield (!!)

Well congratulations and nice going to us all, our salivation over the Liverpool v Manchester City game jinxed it, as it produced only goalless game of the weekend. There was no shot on target until the 56th minute, just one overall in the first half, and there was even a penalty miss from City’s Riyad Mahrez. Absurd!

Elsewhere

  • Nine wins in a row for Arsenal, up into fourth place, braces from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and a cheeky finish from Aaron Ramsey to boot. Only Man City has scored more league goals than Unai Emery’s side so far. It’s all coming together nicely for the Gunners.
  • So it’s a trio of twenty at the top, with City, Chelsea and Liverpool all locked on 20 points. Before Liverpool and City contrived to play a goalless stalemate, Chelsea made light work of Southampton at St. Mary’s, Eden Hazard getting on the score-sheet, as is customary, while Ross Barkley got his first for the club.
  • For Southampton, they could look back at a glaring three-yard miss from Danny Ings with the score still goalless, as their woeful run of form continued, despite the positives on show. They’ve now lost their last 31 games against top-half opposition, and since December, haven’t won as many games on their own turf as Leicester City. Yes, really.
  • It looks to be coming together for Marco Silva and Everton as well, who grabbed a second successive win, away at Leicester, thanks to a gorgeous piece of finishing from Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has three goals in two games, and looks to be hitting form for the Toffees. Leicester, for the second time in four league games, had Wes Morgan sent off.
  • Two goals in three games for Huddersfield. Don’t make it a familiar feeling, lads!
  • Crystal Palace didn’t win at home. But you knew that already.

Results

Fulham 1-5 Arsenal

Brighton 1-0 West Ham

Burnley 1-1 Huddersfield

Manchester United 3-2 Newcastle

Leicester 1-2 Everton

Liverpool 0-0 Manchester City

Crystal Palace 0-1 Wolves

Southampton 0-3 Chelsea

Watford 0-4 Bournemouth

Tottenham 1-0 Cardiff

 


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