Writing an article like this will get most people a platinum card to the sacred hall of Football Hipsters, or get them a one way route to the exit from the Football Man club. Either way, Cabral Opiyo is taking the risk to bring the list of some of the less mainstreamEuropean clubs that might just cause a few heads to turn this season.
Vincenzo Montella ‘the little aero plane’ has been binned by the no nonsense Della Valle and the hugely impressive Paulo Sousa has been installed at the Florence outfit’s helm without much ado. The quick, one touch passing is already in place, irrepressible pressing is set to be introduced too and the only way is up for the Viola. The retention of Borja Valero, one of the most dynamic, multi functioning and high output central midfielders in Europe, shamefully under rated will complement the spine of the team and add on to the talents of the ever high octane Mati Fernandez, the burgeoning Milan Badelj, precocious forward Federico Bernadeschi, who slew Barcelona, the fit again sublime talent of Giuseppe Rossi, last season’s stars Khouma Babacar and the rapidly improving Josip Ilicic. Not many Serie A sides can cope with Fiorentina at their devastating best and Paulo Sousa could add that extra dimension, that huff and puff that could finally blow down Europe’s second tier competition, the Europa league and they’ll be eager to fill the power vacuum vacated by serial winners Sevilla.
When Carlos Bacca struck the winning goal at the National Stadium in Warsaw you instantly knew he was a goner, such is the annual turnover at Sevilla but with the omnipresent sporting Director Monchi at the helm, fans were not worried, a replacement, maybe better, would be sourced and he would perform guaranteed. Ex-Cappocanoniere Ciro Immobile is the man tasked with filling those shoes, with the enigmatic but high performing Kevin Gameiro seemingly content with energy conservation on the bench. Yehven Konoplyanka has been brought into Seville for free, while the ever probing mercurial talents of Ever Banega still reside at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, complemented by the steel of Iron man Gregorz Krychowiak, the ball carrying abilities of Steven Nzonzi, the industry of Michael Krohn Dehli, the assuredness of Vicente Iborra, the raw talent of Gael Kakuta, prodigious skill of Denis Suarez, the cunning of Vitolo and one half of the Vidal-Tremoulinas flank raiders. Added to that is the shrewd capture of La Liga veteran Adil Rami, Daniel Carrico and the security and safety that goalkeeper Beto offers. They change gears during the season, from possession energy conservation in the first half of the season to full throttle intensity in the second half, who’s to say they won’t storm the knockout stages of the Champions League?
It all boils down to the foresightedness and philosophy of football inculcated in the club by charismatic coach Lucien Favre, more than casually mentioned in conversations that place him on the hot seat at Sabener Strasse to replace Pep Guardiola. The playing style oozes class and Borussia Park is a cauldron on match days, Bayern Munchen’s Kryptonite, this time they overcame the usual Ruckrunde slump and stormed into the Champions League. An attacking quadruplet of the ‘take on’ king Raffael, incredibly gifted Patrick Hermann, speed merchant Ibrahima Traore and overshadowed sibling but terrific attacking midfielder Thorgan Hazard whets the appetite. Arguably the league’s most superb goalkeeper Yann Sommer, Manuel Neuer not considered, also plies his trade for the Foals. It’s the blindingly fast transitions and ability to either monopolize possession or soak pressure and sucker punch over committed teams that piques the imagination. The newly acquired abilities of the influential Lars Stindl and intimidating midfield General Granit Xhaka and busy body Andre Hahn ensure that the engine room is purring like a cat in a mice colony. The bench is very able to handle any injuries or lulls in form what with Josip Drmic, disturbingly erratic but electric forward Branimir Hrgota and Mahmoud Dahoud waiting in the wings. Knockout stages at least with commandeering Captain Martin Stranzl at the helm.
The Messiah is home. Jorge Jesus did the unthinkable, crossed the divide of a heated city rivalry and with that flushed his heroic status accumulated at the Estadio Da Luz and clogged the pipes of goodwill of those fans willing to look past his eccentricities. At Sporting he was hailed as a returning prodigal son, finally Manna from the benevolent heavens. Apart from frequently saying that he’s the best manager in world football to anyone who cares to listen, Jesus is actually a very principled coach whose teams go out to express, enjoy and entertain themselves and the fans. He did extremely well to keep Benfica as champions considering the annual turnover of players. With meager resources and a bullish ego maniac president at his new club, things could go extremely swimmingly or stupefyingly haywire. I put down their possible ascendance purely to the coach complemented on the pitch by former football manager whizz kid, now grown up Diego Capel, the sublime talents of Joao Mario, elegant Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz, midfield powerhouse William Carvalho, catlike goalkeeper Rui Patricio and combined firepower of Islam Slimani and Teofilo Gutierrez.
Stefano Pioli stands on the touchline, face inscrutable, totally nondescript, it is very scary to be a player under him not knowing whether he’ll throttle you if you come within an inch of him or if he has a bouquet of flowers behind his back. He has revolutionized an under performing, demotivated and sluggish squad into a high octane, super intensity juggernaut. Led by the evergreen Miroslav Klose and the frighteningly tricky Felipe Anderson, a unit that is more than the sum of its parts sprinkled with a bit of quality has over performed and raised a few hackles around Europe. The youth infusion in the team is a plus and they’ll be needed to keep up the high energy game, Ravel Morrison’s exploits have landed him on the peninsula in a city where he should thrive on the raw emotion. Promising forward Keita Balde, midfield metronome Danilo Cataldi, much vaunted defensive talent Stefan De Vrij and the experience of Captain Lucas Biglia, along with aide in chief Ogenyi Onazi and defense destroyer Antonio Candreva make for a scary line up. If they start the season fit and firing I back them to bloody a few noses in Europe.
Nuno Esprito Santo prowls the touchline at the Mestalla like a man possessed, in your face and very intimidating; his team perfectly mirrors his approach on the pitch led by cunning but very productive club Captain Dani Parejo. They broke Real Madrid by snapping their twenty two match winning streak and scared the living daylights out of eventual champions Barcelona. It looks very likely that they’ll keep defensive lynchpin Nicolas Otamendi freeing him up to continue his impressive co ordination with Weltmeister Shkodran Mustafi and flank stallions Jose Gaya and Antonio Barragan. As if a midfield boasting the buzzing of Enzo Perez and creativity of Andre Gomes wasn’t enough, attacking forces Pablo Piatti, Sofiane Feghouli, Alvaro Negredo and one touch one goal man Paco Alcacer have been retained and exciting forward Zakkaria Bakkali and elegance personified Santi Mina have been added. Peter Lim is sparing no expense to return Valencia to the very apex of Spanish and European football; can they do an Atletico and claim the title? Maybe, this is football after all, but in the champions league they will make a noticeable impact.
Les Gones(the kids) aptly I might add used their impressive academy grown talents to lead Ligue un till the riches of Paris St Germain overwhelmed them as they ran on fumes as the season wound down. Hubert Fournier was a largely unheralded appointment but his team made Europe sit up and take notice of the former champions. The defense that contains unassuming goalkeeper Anthony Lopes, Henri Bedimo, experienced campaigner Christopher Jallet and unshakeable Samuel Umtiti provides a platform for the prodigiously talented Corentin Tolisso, Clinton Njie, Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir to go all out steadied by the influence of dependable captain Maxime Gonalons and lieutenants Steed Malbranque and Jordan Ferri. The most admirable team of this group due to their paucity of quality options in the market and their largely home produced use of players. Forget the Emirates cup debacle and with wise additions like Rafael Da Silva they can only progress if they aren’t plundered by Europe’s rich teams (Over Jean Michel Aulas’ dead body).
Maurizio Sarri is a largely uninspiring choice of coach looking from outside in, but anyone who followed Empoli’s meteoric rise has nothing but respect for this man who stuck to his guns even in a relegation threatened team, they played football ‘the right way’ and pulled down many pants on their way to a fifteenth place finish. Napoli’s squad would compete for the premier league title, without any exaggeration, vastly stacked with attacking options but highly unbalanced and further misbalanced by Rafa Benitez’ tinkering. Sarri has already brought in midfield conductor, the provincial Pirlo, Mirko Valdifiori, Allan the league’s most proficient tackler and most valuable midfielder in my opinion. They should serve as a launch pad for the attacking five of Marek Hamsik, Gonzalo Higuain, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens. Cover in midfield is deep and contains the metronomic passer Jonathan De Guzman, David Lopez, Gokhan Inler, Eduardo Guzman and Jorginho. For impressive forwards like languid Manolo Gabbiadini and electric Omar al Kaddouri to sit on the bench you know the squad is exceptional. The only prize that will satiate eccentric owner Aurelio De Laurentis will be the Europa league and a sustained Scudetto challenge. I won’t put it past Sarri to do just that.
Written by Cabral Opiyo
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