Imagine this scenario.

You are a kid with sweet tooth who has been let go wild in a chocolate factory. You have enormous choices in front of you. You can pick as many permutations and combinations as you like. But you can’t pick all of them. Every chocolate has certain value and you can pick only 15 chocolates whose combined value can’t go more than 100.

You look around for different categories, sub categories and try to pick some absolutely best chocolates of your choice which have more value and some lesser known varieties who have less value but will combine well with your choices.

It is confusing but pretty decent scenario for a kid and he wont be flustered much.

But then your best friend / school mate is also offered a same deal. Also, you’ve been told that the title of “The Greatest Chocolate Lover” will be decided on who has a best combination of chocolates in terms of taste and how well they combine with other chocolates and elevate the platter.

This completely changes the picture. The fight for the title takes away the innocence of “Charlie in the Chocolate Factory” and you suddenly get serious about the choices you have to make.

I’m not talking about daft chocolate situation anyway. It’s FANTASY FOOTBALL. We all know how ruthless it is. We all strive hard to gain that reputation of being a champion fantasy football manager regardless of circle we’re playing in. It could be corporate friends, pub mates, school buddies, lads from the park team or even your siblings. This completes the transformation from being Charlie in the Chocolate factory to being a big time Charlie in the Dugout.

We wish that only players which are on our team sheet to have a fantastic day out on the pitch, regardless of the ream result. The basic dilemma starts with the decision whether to go by heart of head. We all have our certain favorites and whether to include them in our team is a hardest decision to make. Sometimes or rather most of the times, they are very expensive and then you have to build a team around them. Which means picking up cheapest players available from the lesser teams or mostly newly promoted teams.

The confusion starts with the picking up team names of our choice and designing a colored kit. We all want our team name to stand out in the league than just write ‘akshay xi’. We will spend a lot of time over picking the correct name and hope our team lives up to that.

Designing Hoops, Stripes of Plain Jerseys, shorts and socks is another problem. You will think whether your fantasy team’s kit should resemble to your real favorite team or you want to add funk to it by having fluorescent green shirt with pink sleeves and yellow shorts.

Very first hurdle is a moral issue. Whether to pick up players from the rival teams. It’s different that Championship Manager or Football Manager, where you can buy a player from the rival team and his loyalty too. But here it is different, you are not really buying that player and making him play for you but you link fortune of your fantasy team with the that player’s performances for the rival team. In short, if you are an Everton fan and pick Steven Gerrard, then you secretly on openly hope that he’ll bang in Goals, whip in crosses and make some crunching tackles for Liverpool. Will you openly celebrate a Gerrard’s brace in the derby just because he’ll give you extra points and make him captain just because he’ll double those points? Now that’s a crime, Isn’t it?

Or if you do not hate any one, you have all the pleasure in the world to have Messi, Ronaldo, Xavi playing for one team. Even have Rooney and Aguero as your strikers.

Once you decide to overcome this issue, the next hurdle is to decide whether you want to stick with the players from the big teams or take a chance with good bargains from mid table teams. You want Rooney, Aguero, RVP to feature in your team but most likely you have to go with Danny Graham, Grant Holt and Nickea Jelavic to compliment one of those three big strikers. So it becomes inevitable for you to watch, read, sleep & breathe football all the time to keep updated with the performances and potentials of the players.

Next up is the formation. In Football Manager, we can go with 4-3-3, Diamond, Attacking 4-4-2, Defensive 4-4-2 and what not. Well, Fantasy football just allows us numerical formations where all the players who play in that position will be judged by the same criteria. So forget about Xavi, Iniesta’s intricate passing, Messi’s mystical runs, Ronaldo’s nutmegs. They all go out of the window and you want players who’ll bang in goals and make crunching tackles, deliver successful crosses, and who can keep a clean sheet.

I have often lost points by picking up the good and solid players who’ll be dog fighters over those who’ll bang in goals. So many times I’ll pick the players I like to watch on the pitch over a winger from the same team who’ll cut inside and unleash a rocket or a striker who’s anything but lethal in front of the goal.

Other headache is you can’t pick more than 3 players from the same team even if you can afford them. So even if you are a Man United fan, there are high chances that you might end up with a player from Aston Villa, Fulham, Stoke or even Sunderland for that matter instead of going for De Gea, Vidic, Valencia and Rooney. You might have to choose Dean Whitehead of Stoke in your midfield, because you already have Aguero, Kompany and Joe Hart of Man City.

Of course, you’ll have to make your choices discretely in fear of your mates might copy your team. In school / college exams we often starved for copying answers of a nerd. But here it is a different case. You WILL NOT disclose your team even to your best of mates nor you’ll let him get a wind of your weekly substitutions. Secrecy in fantasy football is much higher than national secrets.

The squad allocation adds up to the misery. You can only pick 2 GK, 5 DF, 5 MID and 3 ATT. So this mess up all the ideal team equations. One good GK is must. So we spend money for him and with another GK comes straight from the Cheapest GK list.

Once GK position is resolved, another headache is of Strikers. Your Fantasy Team’s future depends on how do you want to approach the season. Do you go with 2 good strikers who will cost you incredible sum (more than 11) or pick 3 decent priced strikers (7-10) who might come from non favorite teams but who will bang in goals and leave you enough money to buy you other good players.

Picking midfielders is another pain in the brain. It all depends on your forward line and money they’ve left you to spend. We’ll straightaway do a cheeky dip in the MIDs list to see if they’ve listed any forward players in that list who play regularly and score goals (Dempsey is a classic example). If there are any, they straightaway go in our team. These midfielders cost you more than others but less than forwards. This also gives you freedom to play around with rest of your midfielders and attackers.

If you’ve already chosen 3 Attackers, than you have to decide whether you’ll play with 2-5-3 or 4-4-3 formation. But both these formations mean you can’t have all the good players in your team. You will be able to choose at the most 2 really good Midfielders. You’ll have to blend them with 2 decent ones and one relatively unknown lad. It’s nothing different for defenders as well. It all depends on the money you are left with. Whether you want to pick good steady CB or you want to try fullbacks who march up and down and try to whip in crosses and may get lucky with the assists or goals.

You often choose picking your team just one day or few hours from the opening day of the season, taking into account all the latest transfers and injuries. I’m no different, I’ll pick my team only on 16th August. 🙂

Once you decide with your team, real fun starts when the league gets underway. You have to be really sharp and aware for all 38 weeks as far as suspensions, injuries and current form is concerned. That means you often indulge yourself on physioroom.com to keep yourself updated about injuries and you’ll end up reading a lot of reports and news on the websites.

You will make a point to watch every live episode of Monday Night Verdict or Football Focus to stay on par with the pack rather than watch a repeat episode in the next evening. You make your life revolve around statistics of clean sheets, goals scored, assists, match winning goals, tackles, and interceptions, in turn letting your social life go for a toss.

We will dig in the past records to check how Frank Lampard has done against Stoke or how effective Andy Caroll is against a team which has highest passing percentage.

You’ll make a dash to computer on every Matchday before the deadline so you can change your line up within time. You’ll curse yourself if you have Theo Walcott in your line up who struggles and toils for 90 minutes for peanuts and leave Seb Larsson on the bench who scores a brilliant match winning free kick. You’ll be absolutely gutted if your mate has Seb in his starting line up and to add insult to injury, has made him a captain.

More confusion is added to the recipe when you are allowed to make only 1 change free of charge to your team. Any more changes will cost you more 2 points each from your total. This makes you fret over all kinds of injuries and suspensions. When you have Mario Balotelli suspended for 3 games in your team and Gabby Agbonhalor travelling to Chelsea, United and West Brom in succession. Who will you replace with a free change?

To make matters worse and adds further dilemma when your best scoring forward comes against your best scoring defender or keeper. How you wish that you had more free transfers?

We want all our players to do very well on the match days. We feel absolutely gutted when they play miserably irrespective of their team’s result. But when your favorite team’s has a bad form and your in-form fantasy striker from is playing against them. What do you pray for? Will you pray for maximum points from the striker or 3 points from the team?

You decide to pick Demba Ba next week for his game against Sunderland at home, but he scores a sensational hat trick on this matchday against Chelsea and his value increases by 2. This adds to more frustration as you haven’t picked Ba for the weekend, and you can’t afford him for the next weekend as his value has gone up.

We will often spend our entire Fridays and Saturday mornings day dreaming about our players and praying on the Matchdays. It is true that you can pick whoever you fancy, but in reality fate of your team is entirely in the hands or say feet of those players.

We keep on hoping that all the research, brain storming, hair ripping and prayers over 38 weeks, will pay huge dividends and bragging rights among our bunch.

It makes me wonder, Who is the real master and who is the real puppet?

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Our community of football fans can be quite naive. We are quick to pass judgements on people, their characters and their status in society. We also spend no time in throwing superlatives as big as ‘legend’, or even ‘god’ based purely on their on-field performances.

What we don’t consider or conveniently choose to neglect is that some footballers sometimes fail completely off the pitch when it comes to living up to these names. Crime has crept its way into football, and several footballers are getting lured into that slightly darker world. It has not just limited itself to petty thefts, cheating and domestic violence, but has gone all the way up to murders, rape and match-fixing. Two recent incidents from non-Premiership football have got me thinking hard on the issue.

Luke McCormick, a former England youth international, was a goalkeeper at Plymouth Argyle from 2000-2008. He was Plymouth Argyle’s first-choice, and has spent most of his professional career at the club. He rose through the club’s youth ranks, and has twice been voted Argyle’s Young Player of the Year.

While coming back from a wedding in June, 2008, Luke ignored a plea from a friend to stop driving and pull over at a service station. Having more than twice the permissible level of alcohol in his blood, he fell asleep on the wheel, and crashed his Range Rover straight into a Toyota with a family inside. Two children aged 8 and 10 were killed on the spot, while their father suffered serious injuries.

Whatever McCormick does, he can never undo what he did that night. He was eventually sentenced to seven years in jail, which is presumably the maximum for the offence. However, because he’d been a ‘good prisoner’ and showed sufficient remorse, he was allowed to be released early, after serving half of the sentenced term.

Following his release from prison, Jeremy Wray, chairman of Swindon Town, saw this opportunity to sign him, and announced, “The guy’s done his time. He wants to come back and give something back to society. The best way we can do that is to rehabilitate, and that’s the role Swindon can play.”

Whether Luke should be rehabilitated and accepted back into mainstream society, and if it should be through football, is big moral question. Football fans were stirred, and gave a mixed reaction. A poll on thetownend.com, a fans’ website, has 54% opposed to the idea and 4.6% threatening to withdraw their support.

A few Swindon fans I’ve spoken to are the ones who are opposing the idea. One said, “He has not been punished – he’s been on an extended training session. This has got nothing to do with rehabilitation; it’s about getting a good player for peanuts.”

While it is a fundamental right for someone to be given the chance to rebuild his or her life at the end of a prison sentence, and it’s just a coincidence that Luke’s bread and butter is football, which allows him a more celebrated life than a common man. It pains to imagine the plight of the family members of the accident victims, who will surely be gobsmacked if and when they see Luke McCormick on television, playing football, being cheered on, and earning plaudits.

Personally, I’d think that one would be in favour of giving him another chance to rebuild his career only if he’s serious about contributing something to society, perhaps by educating people on drunk driving. If his motive is just coming back to professional football and basking in its glory, then the beneficiaries of this so called rehabilitation are Luke himself, and Swindon Town. My faith in his ‘rehabilitation’ was destroyed when, in spite of everything, he was spotted drinking openly on 14th June, 2012, a week after being released from prison.

Ched Evans, an ex-Man City starlet, was sold to Sheffield United for £3million in 2009, and quickly became the ‘Rooney’ of the Blades. Evans wore the coveted No.9 shirt for them, had scored 35 goals for them over the past season, and was also a certainty for ‘Team GB’ at the Olympics.

However, rather than finishing the season on a high and training for the Olympics, he’s being detained at Altcourse Prison in Liverpool, where he is serving a five-year sentence following his conviction for rape.

The brief, disturbing details are these. The intoxicated victim — who could barely stand up — was initially picked up on a street corner by Evans’s friend Clayton McDonald, another footballer, who took her back to his hotel for before passing her onto Evans, by texting him, “I’ve got a bird”.

Back at the Premier Inn in Rhyl the following morning, the girl woke up alone in bed. By then, Evans and McDonald were long gone. McDonald left through the front door, Evans via a fire exit.

In other words, the 19-year-old girl was ‘roasted’ (the term footballers use for group sex) and raped while Evans’ brother and a mate tried to film proceedings on a mobile phone from a window outside the ground-floor room.

Evans claimed that the young woman had consented to sex, telling detectives, “We could have had any girl we wanted. We are footballers, that’s how it is. Footballers are rich; they have got money, that’s what girls like.”

Could there be a more sickening illustration of the reckless arrogance that seems to be in the DNA of many modern footballers? It is often the flip side of wealth and celebrity status, particularly when it arrives at such a young age.

The ugliness didn’t just end here. Within hours of the verdict, an internet backlash against the rape victim had begun. In the process, even though victims of serious sexual offences are granted lifelong anonymity by the courts, her identity was revealed on Twitter.

Maybe the culprits weren’t aware of the anonymity law or, more likely, given the ferocity of the personal abuse, they just didn’t care. Three of the men who allegedly named her (there are literally dozens who did so) have now been arrested.

A number of footballers joined the campaign, including a teammate of Ched Evans, who has now been suspended by Sheffield United. In the eyes of many supporters, the real victim is Evans himself, and their ‘beloved’ Sheffield United, which was deprived of his services as the side missed out on promotion from League One. A ‘Justice for Evans’ website was created, and there’s a similar page on Facebook as well.

This incident also brings back memories of Manchester United’s notorious Christmas party in 2007, when up to 100 girls from across the city were bussed to a local hotel. That infamous night also ended in an allegation of rape, this time against Manchester United defender Jonny Evans. He was arrested, but eventually did not face charges.

However, the father of all criminal footballers is none other than Les Bleus’ captain in the first ever World Cup, Alexandre Villaplane. Born in Algeria in 1905, Villaplane was the first player of North African origin to represent France. He won the first of his 25 France caps against Belgium in 1926, and was appointed captain just before the inaugural World Cup.

In 1929 he was signed by Racing Club de Paris, where he got acquainted with the underworld. He was later transferred to Antibes in 1932. The club won the southern section of Ligue 1 and then beat SC Fives Lille in the playoff, but later it was discovered that the match had been fixed. Antibes were stripped off their title and the team’s manager was banned, but the real plotter of this scandal was Villaplane. After being released by Antibes, Villaplane joined second division outfit La Bastidienne Bordeaux. He was released after three months as he rarely turned up for training and went AWOL most of the time. That was the last the world of football heard of him.

Until, however, he appeared in the news again after being imprisoned for fixing horse races in Paris. Even after all of this, it was World War II that took Villaplane’s misdeeds to an entirely new level. He was recruited by French Gestapo, a gang which was involved in smuggling and black marketing for the Nazis. They regularly tracked down Jews, resistance fighters and various other enemies of the Reich.

In 1944, The Brigade Nord Africaine (BNA) was set up with instructions to ‘cleanse’ the Périgord region, by the orders of The Nazis. At its helm was Villaplane, promoted to the position of SS sub-lieutenant. His unit quickly became notorious for its cruelty.

Despite the barbarity of the BNA, resistance fighters became more in number. Villaplane began to realise that Germany may not win the war, and started to hedge his bets. He staged public acts of mercy, allowing many of the people he was supposed to be pursuing, to escape, cultivating the appearance that he was only working with the Nazis to help save his compatriots.

In August, with the allied forces closing in, Parisians rose up. Troops from the French army, over half of them African, arrived to complete the liberation of the French capital. The heads of the French Gestapo were tracked down and put on trial, then sentenced to death. On the day after Christmas, Villaplane and others were taken to the Fort de Montrouge in the outskirts of the city, and shot dead.

Thomas Fuller has correctly said, “He that falls into sin is a man; that grieves at it, is a saint; that boasts of it, is a devil.”

The question is – are footballers totally and utterly beyond anything that resembles normality? Would any other person with a different profession find it so easy to re-enter the workforce after serving time in prison for rape, robbery, manslaughter or assault? Or should we just accept the fact that, footballer or not, if a person has served his time and paid his dues to society, he is entitled to be given a second chance to live his life as and how he wants.

What role do the clubs and the PFA have to play in terms of education of young players and rehabilitation of those who’ve been charged with crime? Also, it poses us fans a big question, whether we are right to turn a blind eye to grotesque acts by these players, and be ignorant and arrogant in their defence.

It’s an open ended question and everybody is entitled to have their opinion. But the underlining fact is that no one, footballer or not, is beyond morality.


The above article by me has been published in July edition of ‘90 Minutes‘, India’s first and the best football magazine.

Story of Maverick’s remarkable achievement with Swindon Town.


On a sunny afternoon of May 6th 2012, an English band ‘Toploader’ was belting out their biggest cover hit ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ at County Ground in Swindon. On the stage, a non band member in his mid 40s dressed in denims, immaculately fitted chequered Jacket, trademark black leather gloves and dark shades was giving the chorus. His voice was anything but hoarse but surprisingly audience of more than 15000 people loved every minute of it.

And why not?

The concert was a part of ‘Party on the Pitch’, an event that was hosted to celebrate Swindon Town FC’s promotion to League One (3rd tier of English football). And the man who was giving the chorus was none other than their talismanic manager, Paolo Di Canio.

From being one of the teams who played in inaugural Premier League season in 1992-93, Swindon have seen continuous downward journey. In the past five seasons, the Robins have had a whooping six managers and fallen from mid-table stability in the Championship to relegation from League One.

It was not only the promotion that got Swindoners excited, but the manner in which it was achieved was phenomenal. And di Canio – a man who epitomizes intelligence, passion, skill and fierce loyalty was at the heart of it.

Early Sparks

Born into the working-class Quarticciolo district in Rome which was a hotbed of AS Roma support, he chose to follow their bitter rivals: Lazio.

At the age of 17, Di Canio signed up for Lazio’s youth team. Simultaneously, Paolo struck close chord with ‘Irriducibili’ (Lazio’s hardcore ultras which are feared all over Europe) and became their active member. When not playing, he travelled with them to away games. In his autobiography Il Ritorno (The Return), he recollects, “I’ve had bricks thrown at me by opposing fans. I’ve been tear-gassed and beaten by police.” Also he describes being just five yards away when Bergamo chief of police getting knifed.

Known to never hold back his opinions and effectively communicating them to people by all means possible, he has had bust ups with almost every manager he’s played under. Notably infamous spats with Trappatoni at Juventus and Capello at Milan (which literally had ended in exchanging punches) ended his flourishing career in Italy.

Milan eventually sold Paolo Di Canio to Celtic. Having played in combustible Derby d’Italia, Derby della Madonnina and Eternal Deby della Capitale, Paolo relished his chances to play in Old Firm Derby.

For his part Di Canio was a nothing less than a sensation in Glasgow. An outrageously gifted player, the skilful Italian rapidly became the darling of the fans. His commitment to the game and dedicated efforts to consistently elevate his own standards and of his team mates is second to none. Due to his team mates’ standards or lack of it, Paolo was increasingly getting frustrated. In one of the training sessions, Paolo Di Canio stormed off the pitch and let his manager Tommy Burns know in no uncertain terms that he thought the calibre of player he was asked to work with was below him.

In his first and only season at Celtic, Paolo was voted Player of the Year by the fans. He eventually ended up with a row with club’s chairman and was soon traded to Sheffield Wednesday. He took a final dig at the chairman by saying “I don’t play for liars and traitors,”

From Barbarian to Immortal

Under Ron Atkinson at Wednesday, Paolo seemed to flourished and he was a top scorer in his first season for the Owls. His fiery temperament quickly made him fans idol and earned him a nickname ‘The Volcano’. He literally put that name to test in his second season.

In a never-seen-before moment in English Football, while playing at Hillsborough in a match against Arsenal, Paolo Di Canio was sent off and later suspended for 11 matches and was fined £10,000 for pushing referee Paul Alcock.

No wonder Big Ron had once said about him, “I have managed a few nutters in my time, but Di Canio takes the biscuit.”

Paolo was finished at Wednesday and was sold to Harry Redknapp’s West Ham in January. There he cemented his place in the heart of West Ham fans. He quickly established himself as a maverick on the pitch.

His performances earned him high praise and he scored one of the best goals in the history of the Premier League: an exquisite volley in mid-air – for West Ham against Wimbledon in the 1999-2000 season. The extraordinary goal was declared as Goal of the Decade back in 2009.

“Paolo,” said Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, “did things with the ball that made you gasp. Other footballers would pay to watch him train”.

Another very famous incident took place in December 2000, which many felt was one of the finest example of sportsman spirit in the game, as he made the decision to catch the ball rather than put it into the unguarded net when Everton goalkeeper Paul Gerrard was lying badly injured. As a result he won the FIFA Fair Play award and was lauded for his behaviour. Who’d have thought it?

He again demonstrated his flair for the unconventional by staying loyal to the West Ham fans and turning down Fergie’s attempts to lure him to Old Trafford. “There was no way I could ever have betrayed the fans at West Ham,” he told The Independent. “Football has never been a business. Football is a passion.”

Recently West Ham have opened the ‘Paolo Di Canio Lounge’, within the West Stand of Upton Park as a tribute to their hero.

Il Retorno

By the same time, his boyhood club Lazio were struggling on the pitch and off it. They were broke and unfancied, and a long way from their largesse of old; what’s worse, they were lingering in the shadow of their eternal city rivals, Roma.

Although Paolo had extended the contract with Charlton; he decided to answer SOS from Lazio. He could only apologise to the Charlton fans for his decision: “This is possibly the most difficult career decision I have ever had to make and I can only apologise to Alan Curbishley and the supporters of Charlton, for whom I have the greatest affection,” he said. “The supporters were always right behind me and I hope they will not be angry with me and will understand that, where your family is involved, you sometimes have to do things which are very painful.”

Lazio’s situation at the start of 2004 season was so bad that they only pulled together a third of their squad on the final day of the transfer market. Di Canio chose to accept a 70% pay cut from Charlton just to answer Lazio’s SOS call.

A remarkable incident in his first game epitomized his passion towards Lazio. Paolo di Canio duly started in the season opener against Sampdoria. Paolo released his fellow strike partner Simone Inzaghi (brother of Pippo and even less masculine than him) one on one with the keeper through a back flick. Inzaghi was fouled and earned a penalty.

Inzaghi started walking towards the penalty spot as he was designated penalty taker, but Di Canio already had the ball in his arms. “It is mine. MINE!” he shouted at Inzaghi. A frustrated Inzaghi looked over to the sidelines, where manager Caso is shouting at him to go and take the kick. But Di Canio was in no mood to give up the ball. Di Canio duly slotted the ball away, and he raced towards the Sampdoria fans to celebrate. The rest of the team followed him bar Simone, who stood looking hurt in the centre-circle.

As soon as Di Canio had finished squabbling with the Sampdoria players post-goal, he raced up and grabbed Simone by the shirt, incensed by his lack of celebration. So furious was Di Canio’s expression that players from both teams raced to separate the two.

William Wallace and “Il Duce”

‘The Volcano’ erupted again January 2005 on the occasion of Derby della Capitale. Paolo scored for Lazio and while celebrating a goal in front of Irriducibili, he raised his right arm to join them in their trademark Roman fascist salute. He repeated the salute twice more in Lazio colours, and as a result he has been branded by some as an ideologically committed, fully fledged fascist activist. There is no denying the DVX tattoo on his shoulder (the Latin appellation for Benito Mussolini) symbolizes the respect Di Canio has towards ‘Il Duce’.

In the wake of this adrenaline boiling derby, it was Paolo’s roommate who suffered most. Apparently the poor chap was made to stay awake all night as Paolo di Canio had watched DVD of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart repeatedly to pump himself up. In the days where players ‘loyalties can be easily bought, Di Canio’s struck ‘Not for Sale’ tag.

A few years ago an Italian journalist asked him about Francesco Totti; a player who achieved, at Roma, the same iconic status Di Canio enjoyed with their detested rivals, Lazio.

“Totti has said that he wouldn’t sit at the same dinner table with me,” Di Canio replied. “I said that was no great loss because if you tell Totti there are tensions in the Middle East, he’ll assume that a fight has broken out on the right side of midfield.”

Di Canio took shelter in the teaching of Samurai Culture to curb his channelize his energies. As a manager he is a less volatile than he was as a player, partly through his study of Samurai culture and the spiritual teachings in the traditions of Hagakure, and Bushido.

The code of Honour and Loyalty was the nucleus in the Samurai culture and the man who lived all his life by it, took no time in adopting it.

New Chapter

After quitting Lazio in 2006 he moved to Serie C2 side Cisco Roma where he got the chance as a player-manager. After hanging up his boots in 2008, Paolo swiftly moved towards coaching. Not only did Di Canio pass all of his coaching badges to UEFA Pro standard at Italy’s Coverciano facility but, according to his biographer Gabriele Marcotti, he topped in all subjects.

A clever footballing brain, immense experience and tactical acumen bolstered Paolo’s resume, but his volatility, eccentricity and a despised political stance meant appointing him at the helm would be a big social and political risk.

With Dietemar Hamman, George Burley also in contention, Swindon’s interim Chairman Jeremy Wray looked for passion, pride and professionalism in the candidates for the position of manager at the club. None other than Paolo fit the bill perfectly and Wray took a massive step into unknown.

His appointment brought in mixed reaction amongst the fans. Many loved the idea of having an enigmatic, animated and furiously passionate character in the dugout but others were sceptical as this was Di Canio’s first management job.

Immediate impact on his appointment was negative as one of the club’s sponsors, the local trade union who paid £4,000 per year as part of Swindon’s many sponsorship deals, pulled out of their long-term partnership with Swindon, citing the reasons of him being a Neo-nazi.

Paolo’s made a nervous start to the campaign as initially he struggled to identify players with right skills and qualities to fit his system. He underestimated levels of League 2 players and brought in many foreigners (mainly Italian) players from the same level. Once he found out the players who were not up to his standards, he quickly let them go. What he brought with him was not only passion, but incredible professionalism and clear vision on how to take the club forward.

A few stars failed  to cope up with tough regime and decided to move on. Di Canio branded them as bad apples and deemed it necessary to get rid of them. Looking at his overzealous emphasis on training and as few days off as possible, Harry Redknapp referred to Di Canio as “absolutely mad”.

From Chihuahuas to Rottweilers.

After thumping Crewe at County Ground in his first game in charge, Robins lost next 4 league games in a row including a fierce derby game against Oxford United, where di Canio was sent off in the stands.

Next game brought a defining point in the Robins’ season. In an ugly incident after the 1-3 defeat to Southampton on 30 August in the 2nd round of the Carling Cup, Leon Clarke who was signed from QPR just 11 days prior took issue with Swindon’s fitness coach Claudio Donatelli and literally abused him over a planned training session in the morning. Di Canio literally leapt to the defence of Donatelli and man-handled Clarke as the Englishman entered the tunnel and told him that he would “not play in my team.”

This incident brought his loyalty towards his staff and dedication towards the job in front of the world. Di Canio held one on one meeting with every player and clearly stated his expectations from them. Swindon won 4 out of their next 5 matches. But when The Robins lost 2-0 away to Macclesfield Town and it brought out rage in Di Canio.

In a post match comment he said, “With some players, if he has a chihuahua character, I can’t make a chihuahua into a rottweiler. He could be a proud chihuahua but he remains a chihuahua. So many players at the moment are Chihuahuas away from home. This is the truth.”

This outburst galvanized the team as they went on 10 matches unbeaten run before Torquay brought Robins down. But the unstoppable Swindon bounced back and won their 10 next League games in a row. Swindon were galloping not only in the League but Paolo’s army marched into Wembley for Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final and slay Roberto Martinez’ Wigan in FA Cup’s 3rd round.

Conquering Trauma.

Paolo Di Canio would’ve taken Newport County’s job in March 2011, but his father took ill and Paolo being extremely close to him, stayed at home to look after him.

In October 2011, prior to Swindon’s trip to Plymouth Di Canio’s father passed away and in an extremely unfortunate coincidence Di Canio’s mother passed away a day prior to the return fixture against the same team as Swindon were inching closer to the promotion.

Paolo did the unthinkable and stayed in England, most importantly was in the dugout as he saw Swindon defeated Plymouth 1-0 at the County Ground.

Having come close to quitting the club, Paolo stayed on to deliver the promise he’d made to the fans in the pre season about promotion. Swindon thumped Port Vale 5-0 in the penultimate match and secured the title.

While Di Canio principles are attacking, he is also pragmatic – and typically Italian. As he told the Independent: “Obviously I’ve always said that I’ll try to play attractive football for this league. I want to win, attack with five players, but also not concede a goal.”

Robin without the Hood

Along with incredible passion, commitment, extremely animated antics in the dugout what Paolo Di Canio brought along with him on the touchline was sublime Italian sense of fashion. On the match days he would always wear Olive coloured beanie hat, same coloured hoodless Military Style Parka and beneath that he’d wear Swindon scarf.

As season went on, Swindon Town’s merchandising store was getting flooded with the requests for Di Canio style Parkas. Di Canio starting the tradition of waving the scarf in front of fans after every home game and fans would respond with great verve and energy.

Next season will bring new challenges. Paolo will need new players who can help not only maintain his standards but surpass them. Di Canio must make sure the impact of ‘Second Season Syndrome’ is kept to minimum. Paolo’s contract with Swindon is only with 2 years and he’s kept mum about renewing it, leaving fans and his players in limbo. (This was at the time of writing the original article in May, now he has extended the contract with Swindon Town till 2015).

With a Hammer’s crest tattooed on his left bicep, there’s no secret that Paolo would love to manage West Ham one day. Now Hammers back in the Premier League under Sam Allardyce, Di Canio must focus on Swindon.

He “Came, Saw and Conquered”. And yes, he “danced in the moonlight” too.


I would like to thank @STFCgj and @lairy_official for their valuable inputs for this article.

After a massive disappointing season, I’ve taken a break from writing till Euro 12 commences. But I’ve been reading quite a bit of football related stuff these days.

Rather than how Real Madrid and Chelsea won La Liga and Champions League, last season will be remembered for how Barcelona blew it up despite having so much talent at their disposal.

I also watched a lot of Barcelona matches and rather than focussing on their tactical aspects, like million other people got mesmerised by their possession play and intricate passing. Those who stayed awake could put 1+1 = 2 and rationalize Barcelona’s tactical approach. But how many of them went a step ahead and wrote book on How to beat them is hard to find.

Although Pep Guardiola has stepped down from the helm after conquering the world, I was sure that the myths about Barca’s tactics would’ve continued even in Tito Vilanova’s tenure as well. All that would’ve turned out to be true had I not come across “Objective Barcelona: How to beat the most powerful team in the world” by Bruno Miguel Espalha.

Bruno has been a lifelong Benfica fan from Lisbon. He’s been obsessed with this project and really an immense credit should go to him for writing down such a bold topic.

Incredibly easy to understand, the book isn’t even thick as your remote control. In just 55 pages, the book gives you complete understanding of how Barca’s ‘Tiki Taka’.

Initial part tells you how Tiki Taka was evolved from Cruyff’s total football. Best part about the book is with the help of graphics and actual still’s from the matches, author has so easily illustrated Guardiola’s 4-3-3 and experiment’s with 3-4-3 system. The book also breaks down his playing model focussing on Defensive Phase, Transitions and Offensive Phase.

Although Barça’s build up play from the back has been seen on TV thousand times, it is really interesting to actually refer to diagrams and read about it. Also with the help of tactical images and actual imagery it is very interesting to know how Barca narrow down the pitch and expand it depending on the situation. We must’ve heard pundits try to break down the system and speak about it, but it really sticks in your mind once you have it in hand with a language that is easy to understand.

Bruno dedicates next chapter exclusively to Dead Balls. How Barcelona executes their set pieces and how they defend against the opponents has been illustrated wonderfully.

Later in the book, Bruno has touched the points like How to defend against Barcelona, importance of pressing Busquets and stopping Messi. Last part of the book gives you complete analysis on how and When Barça has scored and conceded the goals since Pep Guardiola has taken charge.

On the website, he has done tremendous job on illustrating the tactics with the help of video clips. Watching those videos reminded me of Championship Manager’s match engine.

I’m including table of contents from this book, so the readers will know how deep the study and thought process has gone into it.


Table of Contents

FOREWORD
CHAPTER I – INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER II – BEGINNING OF A DREAM
CHAPTER III – THE ARCHITECT
CHAPTER IV – THE ARTISTS – 2011/2012
CHAPTER V – GUARDIOLA’S TACTICAL SYSTEM
Description of the 4-3-3 System
Playing model implemented by Pep Guardiola
The 3-4-3 Experience
Fundamental characteristics of the players
Key Players
CHAPTER VI – DEFENSIVE PHASE
CHAPTER VII – TRANSITIONS
CHAPTER VIII – OFFENSIVE PHASE
Build Up From The Back
Build Up From The Midfield
Build Up On The Final Third Of The Field
Lionel Messi Movements
CHAPTER IX – DEAD-BALLS
Kick-Off from Barcelona
Goal Kicks for Barcelona
Corner Kicks Against Barcelona
Corner Kicks for Barcelona
Wide Free Kicks Against Barcelona
CHAPTER X – STRATEGY TO ADOPT
How to Defend Against Barcelona
Defending in 4-3-3
Defending in 4-4-2
Attacking Barcelona
Pressing Sergi Busquets
Stopping Messi
CHAPTER XI – STATISTICS
Goals Scored and Conceded By Game Period
Goals Scored By Type
CHAPTER XII – THE FUTURE WITHOUT GUARDIOLA


The amount of time and effort has gone into this project of demystifying Barcelona has been incredible and it should be duly appreciated and rewarded.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are Barcelona fan or hate them to the core, the book is must read for all football lovers to know the mechanical process that goes in so the outcome is such a beautiful poetry.

I wonder whether the Author sent the rough draft of the book to Real Madrid and Chelsea clubs for review.

You can buy the book form Amazon.com and it comes for the Kindle too.

For easier reference, I’m including few details about the book so that the readers can have a quick look and get their own copy.

Author: Bruno Miguel Espalha

Objective Barcelona: How To Beat The Best Team In The World

Website: http://objectivebarcelona.net/

ISBN: 978-989-20-2907-8

© 2012, Bruno Miguel Espalha (brunoespalha@objectivebarcelona.net)

A different outlook towards European transfers from 2011-12 season.

For football fans the season of 2011-12 has been nothing less than iconic. If enthralling finish to the season finale was an icing on the cake, then it was the transfer activity that helped to bake such a delightful cake. The gossips and speculations which were started during the preseason were more than enough to last till midseason window, also some of them are still going on. In terms of player transfers, this season has been record-breaking.

Never before football world has seen so much of money being spent on the players transfers. Not only cumulative expenditure by European clubs on sheer acquiring players was astonishing, the sheer volume of player movement was higher than before.

Most of the clubs in the various leagues haven’t been able to balance between expenditure and income through the transfers. Very few clubs have actually registered a profit purely through buying and selling their players (not considering profits through any other source)

Have a look at the staggering figures above. English Premier League which is considered as one of the best football leagues has become a major attractive product even for the players. 518 players arriving and 479 players leaving in 20 Premier League clubs (albeit players going/returning from Loans are included) give the perfect testimony of how much cut throat competition is amongst the players willing to succeed and how little margin available for the players to establish themselves in the league. English clubs have shelled more money than any other club in Europe or probably in the world as well.

Rapid globalization of the sport and incredible money there’s on the offer though ever improving television deals, sponsorship deals and corporate tie ups means clubs must strive hard to elevate their performance on the pitch and bag more and more success.

Success at any COST has become mantra in football as even Dutch sides, usually famous for exporting their talent have signed in 259 players and let go of the same number. Although their selling power isn’t what it used to be, as they could muster only 111m £ from their sales, they’ve signed the players for far less average value than of any other league.

Billionaire’s Clubs

Much credit for this frenzied activity across European football can be given to changes in clubs’ ownership. Oligarchs and Petroleum tycoons have set their eyes on football as their muse and have gone on acquiring stakes in various clubs across Europe and pouring in their money in order to make these clubs the European powerhouses.

Being acquired by Sheikh Mansoor from Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, Manchester City have not taken a break from their last season’s spending spree and continued to pour in money in the transfer window. Chelsea hasn’t stopped doing so since 2004 by grace of their Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. Well, both the clubs finally reaped some rewards though. Paris Saint-Germain in France, Málaga CF in Spain who have recently been acquired by Middle Eastern oil rich sheikhs, have started to flex their muscles and recent exploits of Russian “Goldmember” Suleyman Kerimov in war-torn town of Makhachkala meant all these went on to pour incredible money in the club and lure players by giving them ridiculously high salaries.

This money indeed opened the opportunity for minnow clubs to put their best players in the showcase and sell them to big clubs to earn a fortune and invest that money to improve their training facilities and youth setups. Not to say, money which has been earned by selling players isn’t always entirely poured into upgrades but sometimes that money can help club secure their survival and sometimes Chairman takes it in his pockets to pay is personal debts (Mr. Glazer)

Big Stats

Have a look at the clubs who topped the in their leagues in terms of spending money and earning money. Amongst all the big spenders, only Juventus could manage to win the league title where as in France it was PSG’s title to lose and they did exactly that. Chelsea’s spending did not buy them a league title but their old guard bought few years ago won them the Europe’s biggest trophy.

In Spain surprisingly Atlético de Madrid outspent traditional big spenders Real and Barça. Also they’ve been only club in Europe who topped their league in terms of spending and earning most money on transfers. Arsenal filled up their coffers by cashing in on Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri. Lille topped in Ligue 1 last season by selling Cabaye, Rami, Gervinho and Moussa Sow, and it is certain that they’ll earn more money this season from only 1 player, Hazard.

FC Utrecht in Holland sold their starlet Ricky van Wolfswinkel to Sporting Lisbon, Strootman and Mertens to PSV and spent that money to buy Alexander Gerndt from Helsingborgs of Sweden which turned out to be Holland’s most expensive import of the season.

The table below shows European leagues’ top imports, exports and top inland transfers.

Balázs Dzsudzsák was transferred from PSV to Anzhi in August for 12.5m £ but played in only 8 games before breaking a collar-bone during a match against Rostov. Although the injury was supposed to keep him out for remainder of the season, he was transferred to Dinamo Moscow in January for 16.5m £. He made his début in March for Dinamo and played in 9 games.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already moved to AC Milan from Barcelona in 2010-11. But this move was on loan with an option to make a move permanent at the end of the season. Having scored 21 goals and 13 assists in total 41 appearances in his first season for Milan, they wasted no time and purchased Zlatan for 21m £.

Out of these expensive imports from each league Only Kun Agüero managed to win a League title and ironically it was Kun himself who dramatically scored a winner in dying seconds in final game to win the title on goal difference.

Falcao on the other hand did not win league title as Atlético Madrid finished 5th (44 points behind Real Madrid). But he played an instrumental part during Atlético Madrid’s Europa League win over Athletic Bilbao where he scored a cracking brace in the final.

Following table shows how many players from these 7 leagues were transferred to foreign clubs.

Although England have relied on their neighbours Scotland for fringe players, they turned to Spain for their marquee signings, spending more than 7 times money than they paid for players coming from Scotland.

English teams signing players on high wages mean the chances of quality players leaving England is very remote as they really can’t be afforded anywhere else. English clubs sold only 8 players to Russia and managed 41.5m £. Out of these 8, Yuri Zhirkov and Christopher Samba were sold to heavy spenders Anzhi for 13m £ and 12.5m £ respectively.

After Russia, English clubs sold 27 players to Spain for cumulative 31.5m £. Well, out of these 27, Cesc Fàbregas’ transfer to Barcelona fetched 30m £.

Bundesliga players don’t really move to English Premier League. Out of 22 players sold to English clubs, only 7 players were fetched money. Dissecting further, out of these 7 players, 3 were signed by Arsenal for their youth team. Only Papiss Demba Cissé, Per Mertersacker and Pavel Pogrebnyak have made their mark as regular first team players.

German clubs have shown faith on their neighbours Austria, Holland, Switzerland, Poland and Czech Republic as out of 339 players signed from foreign clubs, 137 were signed from these 5 leagues. Only 35 players have been signed from France (17), Italy (10) and Spain (8).

Let’s have a look below on the season’s top 20 transfers and see how they fared.

1) Falcao: Having seen Kun Agüero and Diego Forlan in the summer Atlético Madrid spent 41.5m £ Falcao and were repaid every penny of it. In his first season in Spain, Falcao scored 24 League goals and 9 Europa League goals. He continued his lethal scoring in European games as he helped Atlético to win their second Europa Leaue title in 3 years. By achieving this feat, Falcao won back to back Europa League titles.

His lethal scoring means Atlético Madrid went on 9 matches’ unbeaten streak out of which 7 were victories. During this streak he scored found the net 8 times and provided 2 assists. His heroics in the League and Europe mean he has successfully put himself on the radar of major buying powerhouses. Chelsea might launch a bid for him.

Score: 9/10

2) Kun Agüero: Manchester City’s 39.5m £ were paid in most sensational fashion as he scored a vital winner in the last seconds which ended City’s 44 year wait for the League title. Kun scored a brace on his début against Swansea and never looked back. Although initially taunted for scoring only at home games, his 9 out of 30 goals in the historic season have come away from home.

Somewhat failed to shine in Champions League, Agüero has a challenge in front of him to score against big guns playing away from home. 23 league goals, 8 assist and 5 MoM awards meant an incredible transfer hit.

Score: 9/10 

3) Javier Pastore: Initially linked with all the big European clubs, Pastore was sold to Nuevo (oil) rich PSG for 37m £. 22-year-old Javier Pastore scored 13 goals and provided 6 assists in the league.

Pastore’s performances have been inconsistent over the season but at least he seemed to have chosen the right club. Big money signing like him meant he got plenty of playing time in PSG. PSG’s ambition backed by Petro dollars from Sheikhs means more quality signings will be made over the summer.

Pastore too, hasn’t impressed in Europa League this season as PSG crashed out in the group stages. If Pastore manages to play in maximum games, he’ll continue to flourish.

Score: 8/10 

4) Cesc Fàbregas: Cesc’s transfer saga must’ve been like one of those never-ending daily soaps. When he put a pen to paper and officially wore Barça jersey, there were many doubts on how he will fit in Barca’s tiki taka system considering Iniesta – Xavi’s irreplaceable duo and emergence of Thiago Alacantara.

But he proved his doubters wrong as he slotted in very well in Barca’s system. Till February, he had scored all of his 15 goals and was Barca’s 2nd leading goal scorer behind Messi. But since his last league goal has come on 9th January against Espanyol.

Towards end of the season Cesc had been extremely wasteful as he squandered a lot of importannt chances. He has a lot to prove to Barça faithful and repay their faith.

Score 6.5/10

5) Fábio Coentrão: When Coentrão arrived in Real Madrid with a 26.5m £ price tag, he was seen as a complete solution to left-sided defensive problems. But after initially featuring in Real’s all the matches and playing complete matches, Mourinho seemed to have lost faith in his abilities as Coentrão was overlooked in the favour of Marcelo.

Coentrão only started 12 league games and 7 Champions League games during his first year in Spain. Clearly a case of lost confidence, unless he shines in Euro 2012, his place in Mourinho’s starting line up will still be in a limbo.

Score: 5/10

6) Samir Nasri: He went to City for winning the titles and that’s what he did after moving from Arsenal for 24m £. He played a vital role in City’s first ever Premier League title.

He scored 5 goals and provided 9 assists and started 26 games for City in his first season. Although his goal scoring record in City has not been more prolific than in Arsenal, but in City goal scoring was primarily taken care by their forwards. Whenever Nasri got to play in City’s star studded line up, he made sure that his performances didn’t go in vain.

Score: 8.5/10 

7) Samuel Eto’o: Check http://www.best-reviewers.com/how-much-money-does-samuel-eto-o-make-6285.htm. The website basically a great humiliation tool which shows you by how much money he’s earned since your’ve entered the website. You may close the website for your pleasure but he’ll still keep on earning that money for his prowess.

When unknown Anzhi Makhachkala appeared in the news and their plans to lure Eto’o to Russia, the world maybe laughed on them. But before everyone could realise, Eto’o was off to Russia in a 24m £ deal which’ll offer him 350k £-a week salary.

Since scoring on his début to salvage a draw for Anzhi, Eto’o scored 13 goals in 22 League matches. Anzhi’s inconsistent league form prevented them from mounting a serious challenge for European competitions.

Only few months in Russia’ Eto’o was linked with a loan move to Inter and a move to MLS. Although nothing like that happened, but he’s now linked with PSG.

With Guus Hiddink in charge of Anzhi for the coming season, it is yet to be seen whether Eto’o sticks around for pure footballing reasons or answer’s PSG’s call.

Score: 6.5/10

8) Juan Mata: Undoubtedly Chelsea’s best signing since few years. He’s been an absolute catalyst and a perfect bridge between Chelsea’s slow defence and quick counter attacks. It’ll be wrong to judge Mata’s contribution just in terms of stats.

His all-round game surely brought much more to Chelsea than just 6 goals and 13 assists. His vision, passing, through balls and finishing certainly makes him one of the scintillating player to watch.

Mata has surely justified his 23.5m £ price tag by playing key role in Chelsea’s historic Champions League winning season.

Score: 9.5/10 

9) Alexis Sánchez: Like Pastore, Udinese’s versatile striker Alexis Sánchez was coveted by almost all the major clubs who were trying to lure him into big money signing. But he finally he answered Barcelona’s 23m £ call.

Even after his move, there were lot of doubts on how much playing time he’ll get in the presence of Villa – Messi – Pedro. Injuries too did not help his cause much as he was sidelined twice for lengthy spells.

Due to injury to David Villa, Sánchez got to play more games than he might’ve anticipated. Messi’s sensational form meant Alexis’ good performances often went unnoticed. In his injury marred first season for Barça, he managed to pay 31 games and score 15 goals and provide 5 assists.

He’s young and can play everywhere in attack. If he can keep himself away from injuries, he can surely be one of the great talenst to watch.

Score: 7.5/10 

10) Zlatan Ibrahimovic: What to say about him? Moody, Maniac but Maverick nonetheless. He spearheaded AC Milan on his own and launched a serious title bid for consecutive Scudetto with AC Milan. Prior to finishing second in this season he holds a unique record of wining 7 league titles in last 7 years with different teams.

Although not his first season in Milan as he’d spent a previous season on Loan, he technically became Milan player this season when his loan deal was made permanent by Milan. He scored 28 goals in the league and 35 in total and finished as Serie A’s top scorer.

There are still question marks over his temperament. But surely ranks as one of the best strikers in the world football at the moment.

Score: 8/10

11) Stewart Downing: In 36 League games only thing he’s got to show is 72 shots and 19 of them on target and No goals or assists. Even for him it must be difficult to remember what he actually did in Liverpool.

He was the most expensive English player to be transferred this season for 20m £. But under his presence Liverpool broke their barren trophy spell and won the Carling Cup. Probably this is his biggest contribution. He can be used as a lucky charm in the coming season.

There’s nothing more to say.

Score: 4/10 

12) Romelu Lukaku: Top scorer in Belgian league at the age of 16, Lukaku was a hot prospect and when Chelsea signed him for 19.5m £, it was certain that he would go on to lighten up the Premier League.

But he was completely overlooked by AVB till he was in charge of Chelsea. Even after Roberto Di Matteo took over, Lukaku could not knock the doors of the first team.

He’s still 19 and with a monstrous physic and power, the future is still bright for him, provided he gets the opportunities.

Score: Hate to do this, but an absolutely zero impact in his season, 4/10

13) Manuel Neuer: His first season in Bayern colors has been poor for Bayern in terms of results. Not to say Neuer has been fantastic in the season. At 19.5m £ transfer fee, he became world’s 2nd expensive goalkeeper behind Buffon.

After his mistake on 1st day cost Bayern a home defeat, he went on to keep clean sheets in next 12 consecutive games, beating Bayern’s record.

An excellent shot stopper and great distributor of the ball, Neuer’s vulnerabilities in coming off his line were exposed at times. Bayern’s penalty shoot out hero in the Semi Final, scored a penalty in Final’s shootout but he was let down by rest of his team mates who couldn’t convert their penalties.

By keeping 17 clean sheets in the league he ensured Bayern conceded least goals in the Bundesliga.

Score: 7.5/10

 14) Santi Cazorla: Has to be Málaga’s player of the season. Santi Cazorla sealed an 18.5m £ move from Villarreal in the summer. He figured in Málaga’s all 38 league games.

Santi being a versatile midfielder played in every position in the Málaga’s midfield. Having a squad built around him, Cazorla fulfilled the role of playmaker to the best.

He scored 9 goals and provided 5 assists and ensured Málaga finish 4th and qualifies for next season’s Champions League qualifiers. Week in- week out, he produced consistent performances on the pitch regardless of Málaga’s inconsistent form. Santi probably is an only Non Barca-Madrid player who can claim his place in La Liga’s team of the season.

Score: 9/10 

15) David de Gea: When Sir Alex Ferguson signed this lanky 20-year-old goalkeeper from Atlético Madrid for staggering 17.5m £, he was convinced that David de Gea will successfully replace Van Der Saar. But De Gea took a long time to adjust with physical style of English football and his vulnerability against long shots was exposed in his first ever game.

He made a lot of mistakes early in the season which resulted in letting in lot of goals and even United’s untimely exit from the Champions League. De Gea improved with every passing game. He showed tremendous shot stopping abilities and good concentration and helped United to mount a serious title challenge for the League.

But he still needs to improve tremendously to be considered as one of the best goal keepers in England and Spain.

Score: 7.5/10

16) Phil Jones: Jones is another youngster bought by United with a long-term vision to replace Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. United splashed 17m £ for this versatile 20-year-old player from Blackburn. Jones’ versatility might’ve counted against him as he played in Central defence, Right back and Centre midfield positions.

After showing scintillating form early in the season, Jones suffered recurrent injuries which hampered his growth in the 1st year at Old Trafford. Later on in the season, Jones showed the signs of lacking confidence in him own abilities.

Jones is very comfortable on the ball and is good likes to dribble in the opponent’s box every time he can. Although he’s one for the future, his first season has been of mixed performances

Score: 7/10

17) Balázs Dzsudzsák: Hungarian marksman Dzsudzsák  has been double transferred from PSV to Anzhi to Dinamo Moscow in the same season costing Anzhi a 12.5m £ and Dinamo a 16.5m £. Due to his injury he missed most of the season at Dinamo.

Despite getting 630 minutes in 9 matches after his injury, Dzsudzsák is yet to open his goal scoring account.

Unfortunate lad, but he’s got to justify his price tag in coming season.

Score: 4/10

18)   Ashley Young: 3rd of United’s summer signing, Young too suffered lot of injuries in his début season at Old Trafford. Young has been excellent on wings but at times he’s been very ordinary.

Although he could play in only 25 matches (19 starts), Young scored 6 league goals and provided 7 assists.

With Valencia cementing his spot on the right-wing, Young has to fight Nani for the permanent berth on the left-wing. To succeed at United, Young has to show consistency in his performances.

Score: 6/10

19) Jordan Henderson: Liverpool spent 16m £ for this youngster from Sunderland. Although it appeared that he’s been played out of position far too often, he actually has started 20 out of 31 games in his favoured Central midfield position.

Another failed signing from Liverpool’s “Moneyball” experiment, Henderson can compete with Downing for ‘Wasted Resources of the Year’ award.

Henderson’s previous season in Sunderland was really good and he successfully orchestrated their midfield.  He couldn’t find any rhythm what so ever in Liverpool jersey.

Score: 5/10

20) Gökhan Inler: Inler’s acquisition for 15.5m £ from Udinese was final piece in Napoli’s jigsaw. They needed a midfield dynamo to back their attacking trio of Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik. Inler provided just that.

From Centre Midfield position, Inler averaged 2.8 tackles and 2 interceptions per game. He also averaged about 50 passes per game with 86.5% success rate. Considering Napoli’s counter attacking style these stats shows Inler has proven to be good initiator of attacks.

His both goals came in the Champions League and at the crucial moments. Inler gave consistent performances despite Napoli’s mixed results.

Score: 7/10


Real Madrid finally won League title after 4 years, Manchester City won it after 44 years. Montpellier won their first ever Ligue 1 title and Borussia Dortmund won League and Cup double. In Holland Ajax won their 30th League title.

All these teams will be looking to freshen up their squads by bringing in few new faces where as Barcelona, Manchester United, PSG, Bayern will be looking to avenge their league defeats by revamping their squads.

New season is certain to break more transfer records. We just have to see how many of them rise up to the occasion and deliver; else we’ll still be singing “Oh Caroll!”.

The jury is still out on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer


“And Solskjaer has won it.”

Clive Tyldesley immortalized these words on that fateful night of 26th May 1999 in Barcelona, after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had just scored a dramatic injury time goal in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich.

This goal certainly cemented Solskjaer into the folklore of Republic of Mancunia. Many people still will say that the goal was a fluke and before his flick was more of a natural reaction than aimed. It could be.

But the crucial chances always fall to the man who’s best prepared to take them.

This goal can’t be categorized as a mere fluke, but it rather the one that epitomized Solskjaer’s professional attitude, tremendous work ethic and a terrific tactical awareness.

The term often associated with him is a “Super Sub” that is because number of important goals he has scored after coming off the bench. Out of his 366 appearances for Manchester United, he came off the bench for 150 times and out of 126 goals, 28 were as substitute. Believe me none of those goals were meaningless.

Shortly after signing a fairly unknown forward from a Norwegian club Molde FK for £1.5m in 1996, he came off the bench on Aug 25 1996, equalising against Blackburn Rovers and maintaining United’s unbeaten home run (stretching it to 32).

On Jan 24 1999, he arguably triggered the momentum which climaxed in the Treble. Taking the ball from Paul Scholes, Solskjaer pounced with a late goal to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup. A fortnight later against Nottingham Forest, he came off the bench to strike four times in 12 minutes. Then came the magical flick in the Champions League final. He scored his final goal for United on Mar 31, 2007 against Blackburn as well, that too as a substitute.

Although being taunted as a bench warmer, Ole never sat in dugout listening to music on iPod or playing games on iPad. He always sat watching the game with a hawk’s eye, analyzing the trends, understanding the balance shifts. His tactical insight gave him an edge over other substitutes. Due to such a strong study of the game, he was always mentally prepared to come on and do exactly what was required. He never sulked about being named as a substitute.

That’s not all.

Solskjaer also maintained notes of every game he played and every training session he took part in. That reflects his dedication to learn the game and also his attention to meticulous detail. He did not do this just because it was fun, he did it because he knew, this dedication and sacrifice will be turn out to be a major aid in the dream he had as a 10-year old kid, “To be a manager”.

These notes were not just stats and formations from the games or diagrams on how to run around the cones, these were notes of players around him, his own insecurities and what Sir Alex Ferguson said at various tactical meetings. Direct from the horse’s mouth.

Big 20 Seconds for OLE20GEND

A dreadful knee injury at the start of 2003-04 season meant he could play in only 24 games till the start of 2006-07. He signed a one year deal with United in 2006, which would allow him to develop his coaching skills and earn the required UEFA badges after he hangs his boots.

After failing to recover from another surgery, on 26th Aug 2007 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally surrendered to his damaged knee and informed Sir Alex Ferguson: “I can’t play anymore.”

It took just 20 seconds for Fergie to decide his fate. “Don’t worry,” Ferguson told Solskjaer. “You were fantastic, you had a great career, why don’t you join my coaching staff?”

Following his retirement, Solskjaer worked for Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, coaching the strikers on the first team for the remainder of the 2007–08 season.

Reserved

At the beginning of 2008-09 season, Solskjaer was confirmed as a full-time coach of Manchester United’s reserve side. It was a perfect step for his managerial career. Ambitious boys of age 18-19, bubbling to burst into the first team were pitted with an equally ambitious coach who was ready to launch himself on the big stage.

Although first league campaign ended in a disappointment as United reserves finished 7 points behind Sunderland in Premier Reserve League North. But he guided them to win Lancashire Senior Cup by beating old foes Liverpool.

In his first season he nurtured fantastic youngsters like Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverly, Rafael, Fabio, Ben Amos and Magnus Eikrem (who went on to play a key role for Solskjaer later on).

Solskjaer’s second season for the reserves was historic. He made a winning start to the 2009-10 season by winning Lancashire Senior Cup again. His reserves side went on to win Premier Reserve League North comfortably. Biggest prize was sealed in the Premier Reserve League playoff final when they beat Aston Villa reserves on penalties.

Ole’s success and potential was rewarded when he was offered a role as a head coach of Norway. Without showing any greed, he made a rational decision to turn down the offer as he realised that this prestigious job was offered to him too soon.

Somewhere in the middle of October 2010, Molde FK where he began his professional career approached him to take over as a manager.

Under him Manchester United Reserves’ performance in the league was pretty impressive.

New Beginning

The year 2011 was Molde’s centenary year. Seven times in the preceding 99 years, Molde had been runners-up in Norway’s top flight. They had been runners-up in 2009 but slumped to 11th in 2010, prompting a change of coach for a new season when temporary coach Uwe Rösler left for Brentford after steering the club away from relegation.

According to the managerial path plotted by Sir Alex Ferguson, it was important to choose a club with an owner and people around are trustworthy. Solskjaer too thought it was a right time to move back to Norway, accepted the offer form Molde after lengthy discussion with Ferguson.

Solskjaer took former Manchester United coaches Richard Hartis and Mark Dempsey as his assistants. Reinforcing the United connection is one of Molde’s star players, attacking midfielder Magnus Eikrem, the Molde-born player who spent five years at Old Trafford before returning home with him.

The difference in being at Manchester United for 14 years and managing Molde must’ve been huge. At United you are protected from the media by the Manager who backs his players and you get accustomed to winning in front of 75,000 almost every week. To go from that to a small town whose population is 1/3rd of Old Trafford’s capacity and where the team have an average crowd of 8,000 is a big change, but Solskjaer was well equipped to handle the pressure.

Unlike other managers, Solskjaer did not overhaul his first team. He took over the same squad from previous year but made a decent investment on young players from the futuristic perspective.  He was very shrewd in the transfer market. Through his transfer dealings the club made 2.024.000 £

Although he didn’t bring in hoards of new players, what he brought in was a direct learning from the master Sir Alex Ferguson himself and maximum professionalism. From his 14 year experience at United, Solskjaer realized that if he wants to bring success to the club, he needs to make it a better place to work for the players. As a player, every little irritating thing in the dressing room or in the training facilities can take away your motivation and they can be easily fixed.

He focussed on smallest things like changing the dressing room design and office layout to the big things like changing the formation. With the available resources, Solskjaer adopted an attacking 4-3-3 formation. He also stressed on better training facilities, resources. In introduced better diets for the players and importantly, a dress code to unify them.

Molde’s Aker Stadion is situated on the riverfront and certainly is world’s one of the picturesque sight. It has a capacity of 11,800 people. When the news of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as a manager broke out, the season ticket sales rapidly went up. Apart from the season tickets, average matchday attendance increased by 17.5% from 8355 in 2010 to 9817 in 2011.

The Season began on a shaky note. In Solskjaer’s first game in charge, Molde went down 3-0 to Sarpsborg 08 FF, a club which was merely 3-year old and was newly promoted to Tippeligaen. By 3rd weeks, Molde were 14th in the league and the clouds had started to hover above Solskjaer’s future.

There was already talk in the public that Solskjaer’s methods were better suited to the high-calibre professionals at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground than in Norway’s top flight.

But 4 victories and a defeat in their next 5 games saw Molde up to 4th place but only 2 points off the leaders.

Notes to the rescue

Molde next travelled to bottom placed FK Haugesund and were hammered 5-0. Morals were low morals in the gloomy dressing room when Solskjaer walked in. There he delivered a masterpiece straight from notes he’d taken Sir Alex Ferguson’s team talk.

‘If there’s anything about you now lads, I would take all your money, your mortgage, and put it on us winning the league because we will. You’ll never get better odds than now.’

He knew those words off by heart. They were said 15 years earlier during his first season at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson tried to lift his players after an equally demoralising 5-0 defeat to Newcastle and 6-3 upset at Southampton.

United bounced back and went on to win the league by 7 points, and Solskjaer wanted Molde players to respond in the same manner.

Well, the words did hit the bull’s eye as Molde thumped IK Start Kristiansand 5:1 at home in a typical Manchester United style backlash. When Strömsgodset IF were beaten in the next week, Molde gained a top spot which they never relinquished.

A 2-0 win at Tromso at the beginning of October put Molde in the driving seat, but they made it difficult for themselves, drawing their last three games and conceding a last-minute equaliser at home to Stromsgodset when the title was more or less in the bag.

Molde FK were confirmed as Norwegian champions for the first time in their history after SK Brann’s 6-3 victory at Rosenborg BK left Molde eight points clear with two fixtures remaining.

Down to earth approach

Humility has always been a core DNA of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’d always maintained that rather than him, quality shown during training and several players consistently surpassing their own standards has been a main reason for their success.

Strenght, determination and skills of Goalkeeper Espen Bugge Pettersen, defender Vegard Forren, midfielder Makhtar Thioune and forward Davy Claude Angan found a perfect match with the flair of Magne Hoset and Magnus Eikrem to ensure that Molde were the most consistent team as they grabbed 8 out of 15 away wins in the top flight.

In an Interview given to Norwegian TV station NRK he said, ‘The players have won the league for the first time in a hundred years and when I see my skipper lifting the trophy it will be amazing, I used to play with him here at Molde. He’s always been at this club and he’s never won the league so, for me, that’s fulfilment.’

Return to England?

Ole has kept no secret of the fact that he would love to manage a top team and despite few offers from England, Ole is content to wait at Molde for some time till he feels he’s ready for the big step. He did not guide them to their first ever League title in their centenary year, Molde now have the opportunity to play in the Champions League, joining the competition at the second qualifying round next season.

Not only this, but already Mancunians are predicting and wishing for the super sub to take his place in the United’s dugout only as a Manager.

United defender Rio Ferdinand seemed to think so, writing on Twitter that: “He will be a premier league manager very soon + a top 1 too.”

Former team-mate David Beckham also got in on the act, telling Norwegian media that Solskjaer was “a great player and an even better person. Maybe he’ll be Manchester United manager one day,”

In truth, it has been an inconsistent season for the new champions, and Solskjaer knows that patchy form by the other frontrunners have contributed majorly towards this feat. If Solskjaer is to be seriously considered as a long-term replacement for Ferguson, he’ll need to learn the fine art of picking up points even when his side is not playing well.

Parting Shot:

Winning title for the first time but to win it again is a massive challenge.

It was a case of “Under Promise – Over Deliver”. Nobody had predicted Solskjaer to win a league title in his first year. But now there are new expectations to repeat the title and do well in Europe.

To do it all over again is a classic trait of his mentor Sir Alex Ferguson, and that’s what he has to achieve, till then the jury’s verdict will still be pending.


The above article has been published in May issue of ‘90 Minutes‘, India’s first and finest Football magazine.

Here’s my weekly blog on Swansea City FC. I’ll be writing this for www.premiershipflavour.com


Elvis HASN’T left the building

In this third edition of the blog, a quick look at Swansea’s failure to sign Gylfi Sigurdsoon, Positives from the trip to OT, and why ELVIS hasn’t left the building

The Swans for Europe?

How far Swans have come from that fateful day 9 years ago? Swans struggling for their existence on the Pitch and off it, had to beat Hull City to maintain their Football League status.

Fast forward to 2012. Swansea had not only ensured a stay in the top flight for another year, they were actually hoping to sneak their way in Europe.

The Swans are currently on top of the Premier League Fair Play Rankings. As Dutch Eredivisie, Norwegian Tippeligaen and Finland’s Veikkausliiga have been granted an additional place in Europa League, Swans too, were hoping for an additional place in Europa League. However, due to the Premier League sitting low in 13th in the overall rankings, the Swans won’t get a chance to play European football.

In my opinion that this is a blessing in disguise – as there will be no extra distraction to possibly hinder their League progress. Of course, it would have been wonderful experience to travel across Europe and belt out ‘Swansea o Swansea.

#GetGylfi

The Swans board has acted wisely and swiftly to bid for Premier League March Player of the Month Gylfi Sigurdsson’s lone move from Hoffenheim to be made permanent. Gylfi’s performance for the Swans since his arrival in January has certainly upped his price. 7 goals and 3 assists in 16 appearances for the club meant this 22-year old Icelandic was no longer available for his January market value of £5.3million.

It is well understood that Swansea’s initial bid has been turned down by the Germans who want £8.2million him. It is becomes a problem with one of your Loaned in players delivers success and at the end of his loan term has to return to the old club. There’s nothing much other club can do about it. The call lies with the parent club.

Although Hoffenheim have promised Swans that they’ll be the first to know about any developments related to Gylfi’s future, it is believed that they are waiting for other clubs to bid him with more money.

Brendan Rodgers knows this well and has already met the Chairman to discuss summer targets. He was quoted, ‘ We have got a number of targets, we want to retain our hunger and at this level you have to always be striving to improve and we will be looking to bring in a number of players in order to do that.’

‘We want to keep developing; our work is continual on and off the field. We want to prepare as quickly as we can and in order to do that we want to bring in hungry players for next season.’

At the Theatre of Dreams

Away stand at the Old Trafford was packed on Sunday as thousands of Swans had headed north, much like Birds migrating from places to places.

With City winning 0-2 against Newcastle and almost but had sealed the title, United were playing with pretty depleted spirits. United had to score 9 goals to go ahead of City on goal difference and that was mere impossible task.

United squandered numerous chances before the half time and finally managed to lead with only 2-0 at the break. But Rodger’s side showed incredible resilience to keep United at the bay.

Considering it was their first ever visit to Old Trafford and many of the players stepping in the Theatre of Dreams for the first time in their lives, you can’t take anything away from the spirited performance.

Swansea didn’t budge from their style or play nor did they get intimidated. 81% passing accuracy and 6 shots on target at OT is certainly incredible.

It was wonderful gesture by Brendan Rodgers to introduce Alan Tate with moments of the match remaining. A decade long Swans stalwart defender who had captained at both youth and reserve level of United could make a comeback at the venue which surely had been his Theatre of Dreams.

Elvis HASN’T left the building.

If you look at the signings at the club this season, Only Danny Graham and Gyfil Sigurdsson do not belong to the bunch that has got Swansea promoted to the Premier League.

Huge credit goes to Brendan Rodgers to reward those heroics by sticking by them throughout the season.

Nothing can be more deserving for these hardworking players, support staff and everybody else involved with the club that final game of season to be played at Liberty Stadium. From Vetch Field on 3rd May 2003 to the Liberty Stadium on 13th May 2012, the journey has been incredible.

Believe you me; this is going to be one hell of a party place.

At the start of the season bookies had said ‘There was more chance of seeing Elvis Presley than Swansea staying at this level.’ And we will see thousands of Elvis flocking in at Season’s finale as Brendan Rodgers has appealed to the fans if as many fans can wear Elvis Presley costumes to the final home game.

Town of Swansea has been ‘Presleyd’ since all the costume shops are being bombarded with Elvis clothes and accessories. Most people are queuing up for Wigs and Glasses, many of them are asking for renting and buying costumes too.

With ‘Falling in Love with You’ being already a major hit in the stands, Final whistle will have the Liberty Stadium ‘ALL SHOOK UP’ with a guarantee.

I just hope fans don’t invade the pitch after the final whistle as everybody who has been associated with the club in this fantastic journey deserved a lap of honor.

Don’t rob them of that.