Tag Archives: Football

South Africa’s Baxter: ‘We can’t give the country hope’

British manager has taken Bafana Bafana to the last eight of the Africa Cup of Nations despite chaotic preparation and underfunding

South Africa head coach Stuart Baxter, centre, celebrates with his players after the win over Egypt. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP

There are times when Stuart Baxter surveys the agonies surrounding South Africa’s football team and asks himself whether the benefits really add up. “It’s not one of those you get used to,” he says. “You’re constantly wondering if it’s worth it. Constantly.”

It is easier to answer that question during a week when, against all odds, Bafana Bafana have hauled themselves back among Africa’s elite. Baxter calls South Africa “a country of extremes” and he should know, given that he is two years into his second spell managing the national team. On Saturday night the dial swung to paroxysms of euphoria as they outplayed Egypt, host country of the Africa Cup of Nations, in front of a baying home crowd and reached the last eight with a 1-0 win. For the 65-year-old Baxter, taking South Africa through to next Friday’s final would be the pinnacle of a globetrotting career that has never been defined by his Anglo-Scottish upbringing.

“Winning this would be the biggest,” he says, with Nigeria posing the next challenge in Wednesday’s quarter-final. “Without sounding egotistical I think this would represent a massive personal victory for me, partly because it’d be coming far more quickly than it should and partly because this is such a big tournament.”

Africa Cup of Nations: Hosts Egypt stunned by late South Africa strike

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It was 1996 when South Africa, only four years out of a lengthy Fifa suspension and still buoyant in the early stage of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, won their first and only Cup of Nations. Baxter has brought Mark Fish, their defensive cornerstone back then, into his backroom staff to maintain a connection but he is at pains to point out that so much has changed since then. At that time Bafana Bafana, managed by Clive Barker, could ride the wave all the way home; these days they face a smothering pall of negativity that he believes places unrealistic demands on the sport’s role.

“The whole country was full of optimism in ’96,” he says. “Full of hope and belief in the future. I think the team reflected that hope. When we beat Libya to qualify this time, the sports ministry wrote to me and said: ‘You’ve given the country hope’, and for me that’s where all this negativity stems from.

“If the country is dependent on a result by the national team to give it hope, we fail. We can give it hope for five minutes, but every defeat is met with such negativity because on wider level those hopes and dreams have been flattened. There’s too much going wrong in the country: getting the electricity shut down every day, the water shortages, the unemployment, you name it. The country’s not hopeful and they’re in a mental stage of depression; I think that gets reflected. They cannot accept any more negativity so one bad result is met by a tirade.

“We can’t give the country hope. We can’t. Only temporarily. I’m just happy we can give them a night off where they can wear the shirt proudly.”Sign up to The Recap, our weekly email of editors’ picks.

South Africa lost to Ivory Coast and Morocco during the group stage, squeaking past lowly Namibia in between, and only reached the knockouts on goal difference as one of the best third-placed sides. The dissenting voices were deafening at that point; Bafana’s early matches had been turgid, although Baxter points out that their preparation for this tournament verged on the disastrous, with funding issues seeing their schedule decimated and only one friendly, against Ghana, eventually being played. An already young, reconstructed squad arrived in Egypt badly undercooked and Baxter says their performance against the hosts, in which they obeyed his instructions to play an aggressive, attacking game to the letter, was the kind that banishes any weariness.

“That’s basically why I’ve hung in there, because the players have shown such an interest in wanting to be better, such a genuine pride in themselves when they get it right,” he says. “They’ve been so loyal and patriotic that I’ve always gone that extra mile.”

Baxter is used to doing that. His story is well told by now but a quick refresher course in his life and times underlines what a journey it has been. He has coached in eight countries, won titles in Sweden with AIK and South Africa with Kaizer Chiefs, bitten his lip when fired after two games in Turkey and contributed significantly to football’s explosion in Japan. Were it not for the Midlands inflection – Baxter was born in Wolverhampton – it would feel like a chat with Roy Hodgson, as much for his urbanity and unaffected studiousness as for his winding road here. But unlike Hodgson he has never heard a loud clarion call from home, despite a few offers earlier in his career.

South Africa celebrate during their win over Egypt. Photograph: Samuel Shivambu/EPA

“As it’s moved forward there hasn’t been the opportunity, and that’s because I fall between two stools really,” he says. “I’m not the exotic foreigner and I’m not the big-name English knight in shining armour; I’m neither the José Mourinho nor the Frank Lampard, and the game in the Premier League has become about perception.Advertisement

“I’m not saying that’s the alpha and omega of it, but it’s why I’m realistic to know I’m not going to have a queue of people saying: ‘He’s won leagues all over the world and he’s a Brit, let’s bring him back.’ I’ve become a little, not exactly cynical, but non-expectant. When the phone rings it’s from other places: I’m exotic and attractive there but back home I’m not.”

He fancies another crack at the Champions League, in which he competed with AIK, but feels confident in his capacity to set down roots anywhere in the world and describes himself as “pretty easily transportable”, moulding himself to the project at hand. “I’m not this instructor going round the world teaching football according to the theories of Stuart Baxter,” he says. Perhaps there is an extent to which, in an era where philosophies and grand visions tend to seduce more than sheer practicality, that has held him back too.

Not that there will be any sense of regret when South Africa walk back out at Cairo International Stadium, the venue stunned into dumbfounded silence by Thembinkosi Lorch’s 85th-minute winner those few short days ago, to face Nigeria. “We have to do it as underdogs again,” he says. “They are one of the best, but if we can put together a gameplan that gives them the problems we gave Egypt then we have a chance. At this stage it sometimes takes on its own life. The difference in the squad now, the belief they have, is absolutely night and day.” Dawns like that are why, for all the brickbats and moments of doubt, Baxter comes back again and again.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

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Premier League 2018-19 review: failures and surprises

From Manchester United to Shkodran Mustafi, some of those who may well wish to forget this past campaign

Welcome to the review of the 2018-19 Premier League season. We have nominated some contenders for this category but this is just to get the discussion going: offer your suggestions below the line …

Manchester United

A purple patch following José Mourinho’s sacking aside, it has been a truly disastrous season for United. There are any number of overriding images from this latest sorry damp squib – Alexis Sánchez, whose £490,000-a-week wages translate to an hourly rate of around £2,900, skulking around nonplussed, Fred floundering in countless midfield duels, Paul Pogba strutting round and simultaneously causing Roy Keane to self-combust, an off-colour David de Gea making yet another uncharacteristic error or the grimace on the face of Phil Jones. Take your pick, it has been a torturous time. The final descent of Mourinho’s reign was spectacularly sullen but, six months on, things are not much better. Ole Gunnar Solskjær has declared this as the end of the road for some players – Sánchez’s limp down the tunnel at Huddersfield was symptomatic of an entire campaign – and, in truth, the chance to start over cannot come soon enough.The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Signed for £17m last summer, the winger is Brighton’s club-record signing but has badly struggled to live up to that fee. A quick glance at his numbers says it all: this time last season, Jahanbakhsh was heading into the World Cup with Iran off the back of a glittering campaign in which he scored 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar. Not only have the goals dried up, they have been non-existent, with Jahanbakhsh still to register a single goal or assist for Chris Hughton’s side. He has completed 90 minutes just three times in what has been a difficult season, punctuated by niggling injuries and compounded by conceding a soft penalty at Arsenal earlier this month. The 25-year-old studied to become an auto mechanic before turning professional in the Eredivisie and, despitestalling in his maiden season in Sussex, Hughton has expressed confidence Jahanbakhsh will fare better second time around.

Jahanbakhsh is challenged by Spurs’ Danny Rose last month. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP


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Yerry Mina

For an entourage of Everton officials, deadline day last August was spent in Spain. A lot of effort went into frenetically arranging meetings, medicals and signing off paperwork as they got a £28m deal for Mina and a season-long loan for André Gomes over the line. Everton are yet to fully reap the rewards of that labour. Mina formed a trio of headline arrivals from Catalonia, with Lucas Digne having already signed from Barcelona. Gomes and Digne have enjoyed excellent campaigns but the same cannot be said for the towering Colombia defender. Mina did not start a game for Marco Silva’s side until November because of a foot problem and has not featured since March following a hamstring injury picked up on international duty. Mina has not become useless overnight but his first season at Everton has been desperately disappointing.

Yerry Mina reacts after a goal for Manchester City during their 3-1 home win over Everton in December. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters

Shkodran Mustafi

That there is, a rather cruel, 10-minute montage of Mustafi’s mistakes doing the rounds speaks volumes. The Arsenal defender has too often proved a defensive liability, typified by his hopeless display in defeat against Crystal Palace, when he gifted away not one but three goals. On the face of it, signing Mustafi for £35m three seasons ago appeared a masterstroke, a player Arsène Wenger had been crying out for. Arsenal had snapped up a World Cup winner, someone with – stereotypically at least – all of the desired attributes synonymous with a German centre-back. He seemed a cure to their decade-long defensive woes. What Arsenal really acquired was a flimsy imitation of a top-quality defender. For Mustafi, along with Denis Suárez, who mustered up just four substitute appearances after being borrowed from Barcelona in January, it has been a poor campaign.

Shkodran Mustafi on his way to a hat-trick of Palace gifts. Photograph: Warren Little/Getty Images

Jean-Michael Seri

After being touted for a move to Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, when the £25m midfielder rocked up at Aldershot Town last summer for a Fulham pre-season friendly, his arrival was greeted with considerable fanfare. Seri’s signing was supposed to be a major coup but, barring the odd glimpse of class, Fulham must feel short-changed. Before a ball had been kicked, Fulham fans were giddy at the prospect of Seri, and the raft of new faces, catapulting them into the upper echelons of the Premier League. Therein lies the problem. Seri has little appetite to play in England’s second tier, and André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, another who endured a miserable debut season, led to the break-up of a trusty three-man midfield that had Fulham purring in the Championship: Tom Cairney, Kevin McDonald and Stefan Johansen. They could do worse than leaning on that trio again next season. For Seri, signed from Nice, a return to Ligue 1 surely beckons.

SOURCE: The Guardian, UK

10 most creative players in Europe’s top five leagues

The players who have created the most chances since Opta records began – July 1, 2006 – have been revealed. 

The results are fascinating, no less because they speak to who’s come to prominence when and for how long they have the dominated.

Names on the list are a relative who’s who of silky playmakers and offensive flair players.

Only two have managed to create more than 1,000 chances at league level since 2006; perhaps most surprising is Dimitri Payet, who at 31-year-old has never played for a truly elite side. The Frenchman has created 1016 chances since the summer of 2006.

At the top, however, is the sometimes-maligned-often-vaunted Mezut Ozil, with 1033.

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We also got in touch with Opta who have provided us with even more information about the top 10 chance creators. Armed with games played, minutes and assists of each player, we’ve ranked Europe’s chance-creating elite using a per 90 minutes filter.

Find out if Mesut Ozil can keep top spot as the countdown begins.

10. Cristiano Ronaldo

1.83 chances created per 90

Italy: Serie A: Juventus vs Napoli

Games played: 401
Minutes played: 34,107
Total chances created: 695
Total assists: 111
Clubs played for: Man Utd (06/07 to 08/09), Real Madrid (09/10 to 17/18), Juventus (18/19 to present)

The Portuguese attacker starts off the list with a decent chance-creation output in what has been a career defined by his relentless scoring. The number (695) might be higher had he not transformed into a roaming, free-form type of striker in his mid-twenties and latterly, an out-and-out goalscorer.

9. Marek Hamsik

2.15 chances created per 90

SSC Napoli v Genoa CFC - Serie A

Games played: 400
Minutes played: 30,952
Total chances created: 740
Total assists: 80
Clubs played for: Brescia (06/07), Napoli (07/08 to present)

Slovakia’s finest ever player and Napoli’s all-time top scorer, Marek Hamsik has been a consistent performer in the period since 2006, in fact that’s basically when he came to prominence, scoring 10 goals in 40 games for Brescia before being brought to Naples in 2007 for £4m. A truly two-footed player, Hamsik’s passing is sharper than the career-defining mohawk on his head.

8. Lionel Messi

2.33 chances created per 90

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Games played: 402
Minutes played: 33,213
Total chances created: 861
Total assists: 151
Clubs played for: Barcelona (06/07 to present)

A real talent, is Messi. Not much we can do here that isn’t tired and done, but he’s obviously a creative force as well a goalscoring record-setter. With 861 chances created, he’s fifth on Opta’s total list but eighth when using the per 90 filter with 2.33 chances created on average.

Messi does lead the way for assists (151), however, which add to his 382 La Liga goals for Barca in this period. Remember the name.

7. Juan Mata

2.51 chances created per 90

Sevilla FC v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg

Games played: 355
Minutes played: 25,960
Total chances created: 723
Total assists: 79
Clubs played for: Valencia (07/08 to 10/11), Chelsea (11/12 to 13/14), Man Utd (14/15 – present)

The much-loved Spanish magician places above more glossy names on this list, with 2.51 chances created per 90 to his name since 2006/2007. Since leaving Spain for London, and later Manchester, Mata has always been a fan favourite with his consummate technique and predilection for scoring curling free-kicks.

6. Eden Hazard

2.61 chances created per 90

Chelsea v Olympique Lyonnais - Pre-Season Friendly

Games played: 363
Minutes played: 27,377
Total chances created: 794
Total assists: 77
Clubs played for: Lille (07/08 to 11/12), Chelsea (12/13 to present)

The dribble king of Stamford Bridge, Eden Hazard has been in the news a fair bit of late as he continues to dream aloud about what the future might bring. But as of right now, he is one of if not the best player in the Premier League, and he has been at that level for a while. His numbers back it up: 2.61 chances created per 90, 794 chances created and 77 assists in all. Much more than a take-on merchant, it seems.

5. David Silva

2.69 chances created per 90

david-silva

Games played: 374
Minutes played: 29,604
Total chances created: 886
Total assists: 100
Clubs played for: Valencia (06/07 to 09/10), Man City (10/11 to present)

Probably the best player City have had since they became one of the richest clubs in world football. Silva was whizzing about in La Liga when Opta’s stats began studiously jotting every minute down, and 12 years later, he sits fourth in overall chances created and fifth when calculated per 90.

4. Cesc Fabregas 

2.98 chances created per 90

Chelsea v Vidi FC - UEFA Europa League - Group L - Stamford Bridge

Games played: 372
Minutes played: 28,174
Total chances created: 932
Total assists: 133
Clubs played for: Arsenal (06/07 to 10/11), Barcelona (11/12 to 13/14), Chelsea (14/15 to present)

A creator-in-chief, Fabregas has made a career out of lofting passes and playing cute slide-rule balls that weren’t there to begin with. The Spaniard comes fourth since the summer of 2006 for chances created per 90, with 2.98 and holds the record as the youngest player to record 15+ assists in a single Premier League season. He’s also the only player to provide 10+ in six different Premier League campaigns.

TL;DR: Fabregas is good.

3. Dimitri Payet

3.06 chances created per 90

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Games played: 404
Minutes played: 29,844
Total chances created: 1016
Total assists: 104
Clubs played for: Nantes (06/07), Saint-Ettiene (07/08 to 10/11), Lille (11/12/19 to 12/13), Marseille (13/14 to 14/15), West Ham (15/16 to 16/17), Marseille (16/17 to present)

It’s amazing to think Dimitri Payet is third on this list, and second on the overall tally concocted by Opta, considering he rarely factors into the conversation when the game’s best playmakers are compared. But that he obviously is, 1016 chances created since 2006 is remarkable, considering he’s not often played in particularly strong club teams.

His brilliance from set-pieces propels him up this list, but to be one of the most consistent creators since records began – one of three to average over 3.00 chances created per 90 – is a testamant to the quality in those deliveries.

2. Francesco Totti

3.07 chances created per 90

AS Roma v Genoa CFC - Serie A

Games played: 284
Minutes played: 20,405
Total chances created: 696
Total assists: 73
Clubs played for: Roma (06/07 to 17/18)

Despite Totti’s legendary one-club career, he has perhaps always lacked that one incredible stat to back up his talent rather than his longevity. Scoring 307 goals through his Roma career is sensational, of course, but to be ahead of the likes of Lionel Messi and other great playmakers of the modern era should silence any of his critics.

The Roma No.10 was turning 30 the season that Opta began collecting this data – he only played four league games as a 29-year-old – so the fact he is second on this list should be considered a special achievement.

The king of Rome does not quite take the chance-creating crown, but he’s closer than you ever would have thought.

1. Mesut Ozil

3.5 chances created per 90

Arsenal v Paris Saint Germain - International Champions Cup 2018

Games played: 354
Minutes played: 26,561
Total chances created: 1033
Total assists: 128
Clubs played for: Schalke (06/07 to 07/08), Werder Bremen (08/09 to 09/10), Real Madrid (10/11 to 12/13), Arsenal (13/14 – present)

The German playmaker tops the bill both for chances created in total (1033) since 2006 and for chances created per 90 (3.5). What else can you can say? He lives for setting others up and should be considered as one of the best playmakers of his era because of that. Body language is not a factor.


SOURCE: Squawka Football/Opta Franz

13 players you definitely forgot were still in Premier League clubs

Premier League squads have plenty of players, including some you may have forgotten about.

13 players you definitely forgot were still in Premier League clubs

Premier League squads are now so big and clubs are so rich that the incentive to offload the deadwood is great but often difficult. Many squad players may be on favourable terms and so trying to find them a move elsewhere proves difficult, so they just stay where they are. They don’t play, and then they fall out of our memory.

Here are 13 of the Premier League’s most “wait, he’s still there?” men:

Carl Jenkinson

Arsenal, 26 years old

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Yes, Big Jenks, possibly the last of the Arsenal meme players, is still at Arsenal. A remnant of a bygone era in more than one way, Jenkinson never really cut the mustard at the Emirates even though his impassioned plea to Theo Walcott to actually defend in Arsenal’s 8-2 loss to Manchester United will go down in history.

Cohen Bramall

Arsenal, 22 years old

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Remember 2017 when Arsenal signed this young left-back basically because he was blisteringly fast? It was kind of like what Arsene Wenger did with Gael Clichy, except Arsene Wenger just didn’t have the sauce anymore. Bramall played a bit in pre-season and was then loaned out. Away from Wenger’s guidance, he failed to grow, and Arsenal have failed to offload him since Wenger’s departure.

Anders Lindegaard

Burnley, 34 years old

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If you cast your mind back, you will actually remember a time when Sir Alex Ferguson dropped David De Gea for Anders Lindegaard. It was a wild and hectic time in the world. Lindegaard signed for Burnley just over a year ago, yet only debuted in July 2018, as a sub, in Europa League qualifying. He played one more game in Europe and hasn’t featured since. Even so, with Joe Hart, Tom Heaton and Nick Pope all ahead of him in the Turf Moor pecking order, you could make an argument that Lindegaard is the world’s best fourth-choice goalkeeper.

Emerson Palmieri

Chelsea, 24 years old

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Hey, remember when Chelsea signed Emerson Palmieri to be Marcos Alonso’s back-up? No, us neither. He did very little in his first half-season and has only featured in the League Cup and Europa League this season. That said, he signed for Chelsea just one month after returning to fitness after an ACL injury, which means he probably won’t reach  100% sharpness until January 2019. So watch out for this guy in the run-in!

Lucas Piazon

Chelsea, 24 years old

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In addition to cultivating the best youth academy in the country, Chelsea also went through a period of signing great young talents. Lucas Piazon was one such talent. A future genius, the new Kaka! Well, not exactly. He’s been on more loans (5) than he has played games for Chelsea (3) and was last seen playing for Fulham in the Championship. Yet he’s still somehow bound to the Blues!

Vicente Iborra

Leicester, 30 years old

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When Leicester signed Iborra, it made a lot of sense. They had depth in defensive midfield but no one as enormous as Iborra. Yet the Spaniard never really settled in the Midlands; but instead of absconding back to La Liga as Roque Mesa did, he’s stuck around apparently. Maybe Jamie Vardy’s parties are really great?

Divock Origi

Liverpool, 23 years old

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Divock Origi was once ready to explode as a next-level talent under Jurgen Klopp. Then he didn’t, because he’s not a next-level talent. He is a good striker, though, and has generally done quite well on his loans away from Merseyside. Yet the Reds never shifted him out this summer, and he’s still there, training and watching assorted teenagers pass him in the pecking order.

Lazar Markovic

Liverpool, 24 years old

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One of the more inexplicable wastes of talent in the Premier League, Lazar Markovic should have been magnificent. But Jurgen Klopp has had as much interest in playing him as he does with playing slow, patient, possession football. Markovic was on loan to Anderlecht this year and was supposed to move back there permanently. Yet the deal fell through (some say over money, Markovic says otherwise) so now he remains at Liverpool, unregistered and unnumbered.

Eliaquim Mangala

Manchester City, 27 years old

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Mangala should have been a colossus for Manchester City, but something just never clicked for him in the Premier League. Every now and again he had a run of games where you thought it’d come good, but no. You’d figure his contract would have run out by now (he signed for City in 2014!) but no, there’s still time to go on whatever megabucks offer he was given. So he’s gonna chill and ride that deal out.

Rolando Aarons

Newcastle United, 22 years old

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Rolando Aarons should have been Newcastle’s next big thing, but sometimes talent doesn’t coalesce in the way you want. In the end, despite the incredible promise of his debut as a teenager, Aarons was just a dude. People will remember him from back then and will assume he has moved on somewhere, but no, he’s still a Magpie – even if he has managed to secure a loan FC Slovan Liberec.

Vincent Janssen

Spurs, 24 years old

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Oh goodness, where to begin? Signed to be a back-up to Harry Kane but was so comically inept at everything (save penalties) that he became a joke. Pochettino had no use for him, so he spent last season loan in Turkey. If you’re thinking he was sold this summer, you’d be wrong. Yeah, sure, he’s not registered in Spurs’ Premier League squad, nor does he have a shirt number, but he’s there. No, seriously!

Stefano Okaka

Watford, 29 years old

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One of the many strikers that Watford have paired with Troy Deeney, Okaka looked like he could be the real deal for a hot minute there. He scored on the opening day of last season in a 3-3 draw with Liverpool but hasn’t found the back of the net since. In fairness, he’s also barely played since then as the Hornets have found other, better options. Though Watford haven’t sold him, and apparently even turned down an offer from Bursaspor to loan him. Maybe he’s really funny?

Reece Oxford

West Ham, 19 years old

West Ham United Training and Press Conference

Reece Oxford wasn’t just tipped to be West Ham’s next big thing, but also England’s. Oxford made his Hammers Premier League debut in a 2-0 away win at Arsenal in 2015 at the tender age of 16 but put in the kind of performance you’d expect from an experienced 30-year-old. Since then, however, things just haven’t ignited for Oxford with loan spells at Reading and Monchengladbach proving to be wholly unsuccessful. Oxford’s big saving grace, though, is that he still just 19-years-old and may yet discover the key to unlock his undeniable talent.

 

Sierra Leonean referee collapses and dies while officiating a match

Sierra Leonean referee Victor Marah died after collapsing while officiating a community league football match in Freetown on Tuesday.

The incident happened a few minutes before the end of a well-attended match between Kroo Bay and Falcon 12 FC.

Attempts were made to revive the 27-year-old but he was pronounced dead after being rushed to hospital.

The exact cause of death is not yet known.

Marah took part in a Confederation of African Football (Caf) referees’ course in Cairo just a few weeks ago.

The course was the latest step in Marah’s career that could have seen him eventually become an internationally recognised match official.

“I can’t believe the news. This is a great loss to Sierra Leone football.” a Sierra Leonean Caf referee’s instructor and assessor Sanusi Rachid told BBC Sport.

“He was promising, and we had earmarked him to be a referee Sierra Leone should be proud of in the future.”

“This was why we nominated him to represent Sierra Leone in a Caf referee promising course last month in Cairo where he excelled.”

Family sources have confirmed that Marah will be buried on Friday.

Sierra Leone’s top referees officiate community football (non league) matches in the absence of official league football.

This is the first time in Sierra Leone a referee has collapsed during a match and died.


Cover Photo: Victor Marah. Photo: BBC

Premier League: 10 things to expect this weekend

Iheanacho looks to impress, what now for Mourinho’s shambolic defence and no change for Rafa at Man City.

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Clockwise from top left: Watford’s Roberto Pereyra, Newcastle manager Rafael Benítez, Everton’s Ademola Lookman and Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho. Composite: Reuters; Getty; Everton via Getty; BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

1) Iheanacho has his chance to impress against Liverpool

Despite not dropping a point or conceding a goal, Liverpool have yet to really hit their stride in the current campaign. West Ham took very little beating in their opener, while subsequent victories over Crystal Palace and Brighton were a mite laboured. An away trip to Leicester on Saturday lunchtime should provide another reasonably stiff test ahead of what is likely to be a more challenging trip to Tottenham Hotspur after the international break. Leicester clearly missed the searing pace of the suspended Jamie Vardy against Southampton and Kelechi Iheanacho struggled to impress in his role as replacement. The striker got off the mark for the season against Fleetwood Town in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday and with Vardy sitting out the last instalment of a three-match ban , he needs a big performance against the – thus far – impregnable two-man portcullis that is Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez, if he is to stake any sort of claim for keeping Vardy out upon his return. BG

2) Wolves might be able to overrun West Ham in midfield

West Ham are feeling a bit better about life after their Carabao Cup win over the 10 men of AFC Wimbledon, but it will not be easy for them to back up their first competitive victory under Manuel Pellegrini when Wolves visit the London Stadium on Saturday afternoon. While Wolves only have two points from their first three games, they earned plaudits for their brave approach in last week’s home draw with Manchester City, and the newly promoted side could earn their first league win if Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho undermine Pellegrini’s suggestion that Jack Wilshere could become the East End’s answer to Andrea Pirlo. West Ham have suffered in midfield so far and a fourth consecutive defeat would see them equal their wretched start under Avram Grant in 2010. They finished bottom that season. JS

3) Can Burnley take advantage of United’s shambolic defence?

Amid all the ongoing hoop-la surrounding Manchester United’s defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur and José Mourinho’s subsequent post-match meltdown, it is easy to forget that for long periods of the game Manchester United actually played quite well. Their players created chances and moved with a sense of speed and urgency that was conspicuous by its absence in what was an embarrassingly sluggish performance in defeat against Brighton. There is, however, little or no getting away from the fact that their defence is a shambles and that Mourinho’s first choice rearguard is comprised mainly of defenders playing for other teams. Of those he has at his disposal, Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville could scarcely have been blunter in their assessment of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof on Monday Night Football, while the sight of Ander Herrera in a back three left them and everyone else – including, possibly, Herrera – totally flabbergasted. Whether or not Burnley are good enough to take advantage of this chaos remains to be seen, but it will be difficult for Sean Dyche to plan how best to do so when he, like the rest of us, has little idea what or who exactly his players will be up against. BG

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho watches Paul Pogba during their game against Tottenham. Photo: Paul Currie/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

4) Will Emery find space for Özil against Cardiff?

The official line from Arsenal was that Mesut Özil was absent because of illness when they secured their first win of the Unai Emery era by beating West Ham. Yet that was accompanied by whispers of Emery clashing with Özil before the West Ham game and it will be fascinating to see if Arsenal’s manager finds space for the German in his starting 11 against Cardiff City on Sunday. The sense that Emery will not indulge the midfielder as much as Arsène Wenger did will grow if Özil, who signed a three-and-a-half year contract worth £350,000 a week in February, finds himself on the bench at the Cardiff City Stadium. JS

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Will Mesut Özil be on the bench for Arsenal again? Photo: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

5) Goals, goals, goals at Stamford Bridge

Goals and lots of them, is this previewer’s prediction for the encounter between Chelsea and Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge, although who’ll score the majority of them is anyone’s guess. Despite winning their opening three games, scoring no fewer than eight goals in the process, Chelsea’s defending has at times been little short of slapstick and the in-form Josh King and Callum Wilson will be rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of running at David Luiz and Antonio Rüdiger. Bournemouth have scored two goals in each of their three league games so farand banged in another three against MK Dons in the Carabao Cup. The porousness of Chelsea’s back four suggests this streak is unlikely to end before the international break. With Chelsea similarly prolific up front, this has the makings of a potential humdinger. Cue a stampede of shrewdies to the bookies, getting their money down on a scoreless draw. BG

6) It’s Pereyra vs Lucas Moura at Vicarage Road

Tottenham will have to beware Roberto Pereyra’s flashes of brilliance when they visit Vicarage Road on Sunday. Pereyra has scored three goals in Watford’s first two home games and the improving Argentinian, who has struggled for consistency and fitness since leaving Juventus in 2016, has played a major role in his side’s immaculate start to the season. Yet Tottenham have also started with three wins and they will pose Javi Gracia’s side their toughest test so far, not least because Mauricio Pochettino has his own bewitching South American to call upon. Outstanding in the 3-0 win at Old Trafford, Lucas Moura has given Pochettino’s attack an even sharper edge. JS

7) Saints could take a roughhouse approach to stopping Zaha

Southampton were Crystal Palace’s first opponents under Roy Hodgson after Frank De Boer’s ill-fated spell in charge at Selhurst Park last season and emerged victorious courtesy of an early Steven Davis goal. Christian Benteke’s wretched form has been documented at length in previous editions of this column and elsewhere and having replaced him as a substitute three times already this season, the Norwegian striker Alexander Sorloth staked his claim for a start in Palace’s starting line-up by scoring the only goal of the game against Swansea City in the Carabao Cup earlier this week. If Southampton can shackle Wilfred Zaha, they’ll go a long way towards shackling the entire Palace team. Extremely aggressive as a player, Mark Hughes will no doubt have noticed the systematic fouling employed by Watford in what proved an ultimately futile effort to keep the winger quiet last Sunday. These roughhouse tactics did work for over an hour, however, which may prompt Hughes to instruct his Saints to turn sinners for the afternoon. Following calls for more protection for Zaha from his manager, team-mates and assorted pundits, Saturday’s match referee Martin Atkinson may become the latest to incur the increasingly tedious wrath of Hughes. BG

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Wilfried Zaha is challenged during Crystal Palace’s game against Watford. Photograph: Joe Toth/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

8) This could be Lookman’s chance to get a look-in

Everton entertain Huddersfield without Richarlison, who is suspended following his moment of petulance against Bournemouth last weekend. The 21-year-old Brazilian has been hugely influential for the Toffees so far this season, earning himself an international call-up in the process, but Marco Silva must now plan without him for two Premier League games. Richarlison’s impetuousness could have a big bearing on the future of Ademola Lookman, who has been angling for a move away from the club before the European transfer window closes today due to his frustration at a lack of first-team opportunities. With his fellow wingers Nikola Vlasic and Yannick Bolasie out on loan, now that a short-term opportunity has presented itself, the youngster’s hopes of securing a move to RB Leipzig look to have been stymied until January at earliest. BG

9) Fulham give Jokanovic a test of his talents

Slavisa Jokanovic’s decision to change his entire starting eleven for Tuesday night’s Carabao Cup win over Exeter City has given him something of a selection headache ahead of Fulham’s visit to Brighton. Summer signings Alfie Mawson and Sergio Rico made accomplished debuts, while Ryan Sessegnon, Aboubakar Kamara and Stefan Johansen also earned plaudits, with Jokanovic admitting several of his fringe players have given him plenty to think about. Having made so many apparently shrewd purchases over the summer to swell the ranks ahead of life in the Premier League, he’ll be pleased to see the players who helped secure promotion are not prepared to give up their first team places without a fight. His efforts to keep everyone happy will be a test of his talents as a manager, but for now it is a pleasant problem for him to have. BG

10) Pragmatist Benítez unlikely to change his approach

Three matches in and Newcastle already look to be in a battle for survival, even if there is no particular shame in losing to Tottenham and Chelsea, or failing to take all three points against Cardiff City. Next up is a trip to Manchester City and it’s difficult to imagine Rafael Benítez will change the negative tactics that earned him and his side so much opprobrium last weekend against Chelsea. As awful as Newcastle were to watch, their approach almost worked and it would be exceptionally naïve to think Benitez will kow-tow to critics, order his players to buckle their swashes, play an expansive game that seems to be beyond their collective skill set against such accomplished opposition and risk getting thrashed. A pragmatist who is trying to make the best use of the limited tools made available to him while working with one hand tied behind his back, Benítez will try and probably fail to come away from the Etihad Stadium with a point. Wolves have proved City are not infallible, but despite being new to the Premier League, serious summer investment means they already look far more well equipped to stay in it than Newcastle’s comparatively motley crew. BG

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Liverpool 3 7 9
2 Tottenham Hotspur 3 6 9
3 Chelsea 3 5 9
4 Watford 3 5 9
5 Man City 3 7 7
6 AFC Bournemouth 3 3 7
7 Leicester 3 2 6
8 Everton 3 1 5
9 Arsenal 3 -1 3
10 Crystal Palace 3 -1 3
11 Fulham 3 -2 3
12 Brighton 3 -2 3
13 Man Utd 3 -3 3
14 Wolverhampton 3 -2 2
15 Cardiff 3 -2 2
16 Newcastle 3 -2 1
17 Southampton 3 -2 1
18 Burnley 3 -4 1
19 Huddersfield 3 -8 1
20 West Ham 3 -7 0

Champions League draw: clubs, pots, format and all you need to know

Liverpool will be on the harder side of Thursday’s draw after Benfica won a play-off, with Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham the other Premier League clubs involved.

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Liverpool, runners-up in the Champions League last season, will be in pot three in Thursday afternoon’s group-stage draw after Benfica saw off Paok Thessaloniki in the play-offs.

Had Benfica lost then Liverpool would have joined Manchester United and Tottenham in pot two. Manchester City are in pot one.

The draw, which begins at 5pm BST, will determine the make-up of the eight Champions League groups. One team from each pot will be placed in each group. No teams from the same country can be drawn in the same group and Uefa has also ruled that clubs from Russia and Ukraine cannot face one another.

Pot one consists of the holders (Real Madrid), the Europa League winners (Atlético Madrid) and the champions of the six highest-ranked nations. Pots two to four are determined by the club coefficient rankings.

The one surprise in Wednesday night’s play-offs was the elimination of RB Salzburg by Red Star Belgrade, who came back from 2-0 down in Austria to draw 2-2 and advance on away goals.

Pot one Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Juventus, PSG, Lokomotiv Moscow

Pot two Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Manchester United, Shakhtar Donetsk, Benfica, Napoli, Tottenham, Roma

Pot three Liverpool, Schalke, Lyon, Monaco, Ajax, CSKA Moscow, PSV Eindhoven, Valencia

Pot four Viktoria Plzen, Club Brugge, Galatasaray, Young Boys, Internazionale, Hoffenheim, Red Star Belgrade, AEK Athens

The draw will be covered live on theguardian.com/football


Cover photo: The draw for the Champions League group stage begins at 5pm BST on Thursday. Photo: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

A league of their own: six of the best football video games

As the new season hits its stride, we look at the best footie games available for 2018/19 on the PS4, Xbox, PC and phones.

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It has been a rare old summer of football. England’s heroic – or at least, much better than expected – efforts in the World Cup were followed by three weeks or so of cold turkey, with nothing but the opaque machinations of the transfer window to keep us occupied. But already, the season has resumed, in all its relentless glory. If you want to join in but were born with two left feet, flex your thumbs instead with one of these games – the six best on the market right now. Video game football isn’t just about pretending to be Harry Kane or Pep Guardiola: some of these take a strikingly original approach to the beautiful game.

FIFA 18 / FIFA 19 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

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The luxury option … Fifa 19. Photo: EA Sports

EA Sports’ expensive and luxurious Fifa 18 is undoubtedly football games’ equivalent of the Premier League. It’s a money-making machine, thanks primarily to Fifa Ultimate Team, which encourages you to purchase Panini-sticker-like player packs to build up a dream team. But it’s also the slickest, most polished and by far the most popular football game around, with an excellent Journey mode that lets you control an aspiring pro and build him up to an international superstar, and a Career mode that lets you control your favourite team on and off the field.

If you have mates who play football games online, the chances are that peer-pressure will more or less force you to get Fifa 18. But it’s worth checking which yearly iteration of Fifa they all play: EA Sports’ obsession with churning out a new game every year means that they are nearly indistinguishable from each other. Fifa 19 is due out on September 28, and will include the full Champions League licence for the first time, tweaks to the player-touch engine, and an offline friendly, quick-to-start Kick-Off mode. It’s also the only major footie game to feature women’s teams.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2019 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

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Silky skills … NWM Schalke vs Bayer Leverkusen in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019. Photograph: Konami

For decades, Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) and Fifa slugged it out like Barcelona and Real Madrid, but in recent years, Fifa’s bigger budget has seen it pull away. But PES still has a lot of fans, thanks to the silkiness of its passing system and on-pitch feel. Off the field, it is less impressive, with a baffling menu system, spotty licensing and elements that feel as though they were implemented merely to keep up with Fifa, rather than designed to provide football-related fun.

PES 2019 will be released on 28 August, and its previously awful equivalent of Fifa Ultimate Team, myClub, has been revamped. It includes more licensed teams and players than PES 2018, too, although there is still no official Premier League licence. Whereas Fifa is all about style, PES makes up for its superficial shabbiness with on-field substance. The football game of choice for non-conformists.

Football, Tactics & Glory (PC)

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Determinedly retro … Football, Tactics & Glory. Photo: Creoteam

Truly original football games are as rare as England senior teams who reach the later stages of tournaments. But Football, Tactics & Glory – currently in Steam Early Access but poised for a full release soon – feels unlike anything else. It is turn-based, and successfully applies strategy-style gameplay to the beautiful game.

It has a very basic management element that has you building up a skilful, complementary team, but it’s what happens on the pitch that makes it stand out. You are given three turns in which to get the ball to a forward and score; if that isn’t going to be possible, you can order your player to hold the ball, making it more difficult for the opposition to get hold of it and take their turn. And you can sometimes pull off special moves that earn you an extra turn.

It’s far from perfect: its graphics are determinedly retro, the dialogue between you and your club employees is stilted at best, and it won’t impress you if you’re looking for something glossy. But, importantly, it feels unique.

Football Manager (PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android)

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Intimidatingly complex … Football Manager 2018. Photo: Sega

If you seek the definitive, all-encompassing football management experience, covering everything from on-field tactics to keeping dropped players happy and working with the medical staff to ascertain why certain injuries keep occurring, then Football Manager 2018 is what you need.

Sports Interactive’s definitive football management game will also startle you from time to time by coincidentally mirroring situations that crop up in the real footballing world. It is huge, containing pretty much every player in every league around the world. Indeed, it has so much depth that it can seem intimidatingly complex.

If you don’t want a game that can completely swallow your life, you may want to check out Football Manager Mobile, which preserves most of the PC game’s rigour but is considerably simpler. Football Manager 2019 will add the official Bundesliga licence when it arrives on 2 November, and have a spruced-up appearance. In the meantime, you can pick up Football Manager 2018 surprisingly cheaply.

Sociable Soccer (PC)

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Pick up and play … Sociable Soccer. Photograph: Combo-Breaker

In the early 1990s, the very British Sensible Soccer held sway as the king of football games. Now, the arcade-style game is back in the form of Sociable Soccer, lovingly crafted using modern, 3D tools by Sensible Soccer originator Jon Hare’s Tower Studios.

Currently, Sociable Soccer is only available via Steam Early Access on PC, so it is by no means the finished article. Online play hasn’t been added yet, and at the moment, you can’t be caught offside. But its trademark all-action, two-button, pass-and-move gameplay is intact – including that famous after-touch when you shoot. If you’re looking for an incredibly moreish pick-up-and-play football game, it’s in a class of its own.

Tower Studios has signed a deal to put out a mobile version in China, which should make it to the UK before long – and should speed the PC version towards a full release. Console versions are also planned, and the finished game will feature a player-card system similar to Fifa Ultimate Team, except with flashes of British humour. The return of this classic, cleverly updated for modern sensibilities, fills a hole in the market for arcade-style football.

New Star Manager (iPhone)

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Intuitive … New Star Manager. Photograph: New Star Games

The follow-up to the Bafta award-winning New Star Soccer, created by one-man-band Simon Read, is even more compelling. This time, instead of taking charge of a single player, you’re at the helm of a whole club, so there are plenty of managerial tasks to perform. Once the games kick off, it is up to you to take control, moving players and passing with a simple, intuitive interface, then timing your shot right once you’ve got the ball to your forward.

New Star Manager pulls off the difficult trick of being simple to grasp but having plenty to dig into. If you love football and have an iPhone or iPad, you’d be mad not to download it, and an Android version should arrive soon. Read’s reputation as one of the up-and-coming stars of the games industry continues to grow.


Cover photo: The beautiful game … SC Corinthian celebrate in Pro Evolution Soccer 2019. Photo: Konami

Wenger award by George Weah ‘controversial in Liberia’

The news that Liberian President George Weah is to award his former football coach, Arsène Wenger, with the country’s highest honour has generated some controversy in Liberia.

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Some people are saying that it should not be given to an individual for what they have done for the president personally.

Wenger will be inducted into the country’s Order of Distinction and be given the title of Knight Grand Commander of the Humane Order of African Redemption – the highest rank possible – on Friday.

It is an honour normally bestowed on people for their work that impacts broader society.

President Weah, the only African to have been named World Player of the Year, was signed by Wenger in 1988 when the Frenchman coached Monaco.

He said that Wenger “took care of me like his son” when he went to Monaco, adding that “besides God, I think that without Arsène, there was no way I would have made it in Europe”.

Wenger, who stepped down as Arsenal manager in May after 22 years, is credited for nurturing several African stars during his career.


COVER PHOTO: George Weah (left, pictured here in 1993) has said that Arsène Wenger (right) “took care of me like his son”. Photo Credit: Getty Images