Sunday, 30 December 2018

Bundesliga: December Review

The Bundesliga delivered on entertainment once again in a jam-packed December. 5 rounds of matches were played before the winter break in Germany. Borussia Dortmund take a 6-point lead at the top going into 2019 after a stunning first half of the season. Bayern Munich are in 2nd place and are hunting them down. Meanwhile, Nuremberg prop up the table along with Hannover. These two make up the relegation zone and are a further 3 points behind the relegation play-off place which is occupied by Stuttgart. Heading into the winter break we’ve also seen the 2nd managerial departure of the season with Bayer Leverkusen dispensing of Heiko Herrlich after 18 months in charge.

It has been a terrific first half of the season for Lucien Favre and Borussia Dortmund with the yellows flying at the top with a 6-point lead and only 1 league defeat that coming in December against improving Fortuna Dusseldorf. Dortmund’s young guns are flying and thoroughly enjoying their season. Marco Reus has also found a new level and is playing some of his best football after a season free from injuries and at times has been unplayable. Dortmund had another strong month collecting 4 wins from their 5 games including victories over Schalke and Borussia Monchengladbach. Dortmund are oozing confidence and no doubt Favre will want that momentum to carry into what could be a very special 2019. Meanwhile, while Bayern Munich have flattered to deceive at times this season, they endured their best month and run of form under Niko Kovac winning all 5 of their league games which has seen close on Dortmund at the top and open a cushion on the sides below. Bayern are on their best run since winning their opening 4 league games and Kovac’s ideas it seems are finally getting across to the players and a much-improved month for Bayern has them full of confidence heading into 2019. However, Kovac knows there is still plenty of work to be done including replacing the departing Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben who wave goodbye at the end of the season. The top 4 is made up by Borussia Monchengladbach and RB Leipzig. It has been a magnificent first half of the season for Dieter Hecking and Gladbach with the club sat 3rd in the table. Gladbach have impressed many this season and striker Alassane Plea has been one of the signings of the season notching 9 league goals and his overall play has been very good. Meanwhile, Gladbach’s talisman Thorgen Hazard is also having an excellent season playing a key role in their much-improved season. They are 9 points behind Dortmund at the top having lost their most recent game against the league leaders, but overall December wasn’t too bad with Gladbach collecting 7 points from their 5 games. Could Borussia Monchengladbach be dark horses for the title? If they can maintain their terrific form, they could surprise a few in the second half of the season. Despite this being somewhat of a transition season for RB Leipzig, they are enjoying a strong season so far and find themselves in 4th place. Sporting director Ralf Rangnick has done an excellent job so far this campaign as he keeps the seat warm for Julen Naglesmann. A good month for Leipzig saw them win 3 of their 5 games and open a 4-point cushion on 5th place Wolfsburg. An important 2019 lies ahead for Leipzig with Champions League qualification the aim and so far, so good for the young guns of Leipzig.

December was an excellent month for Wolfsburg and Fortuna Dusseldorf. Wolfsburg have made terrific strides in December going unbeaten including 3 wins in their 4 December games. Overall, they have won 4 of their last 5 and have charged into the Europa League places. Terrific wins over Augsburg, Nuremberg and Stuttgart and a draw with Hoffenheim have seen the Wolves storm into 5th place in the Bundesliga table. Bruno Labbadia has been under pressure for much of this season with Wolfsburg really stagnated in the Bundesliga table, but a terrific month sets them up excellently for 2019. Daniel Ginczek and Wout Weghorst are finding the net more consistently and taking their chances. Labbadia does have his critics as all managers do but certainly an excellent December has dampened some of those voices. Meanwhile, at the wrong end of the table, Fortuna Dusseldorf have certainly had their best month in Bundesliga since their promotion. 3 straight league wins have seen Fortuna climb out the relegation zone and into 14th place, 7 points clear of the bottom two. Terrific victories for them including a home success against the runaway leaders Dortmund. The form of Doni Lukebakio has caught the eye with the young striker on loan from Watford becoming the integral man in this team. He has scored match winning goals this season for them. 7 league goals for the Watford loanee and certainly Javi Gracia may be watching him with interest from afar. Frederick Freindholm will be delighted with his team’s improvement in December and no doubt will want that positive momentum to carry through to 2019.

Despite having a relatively good December, Bayer Leverkusen decided to dismiss Heiko Herrlich stating stagnation in the development of the team. Despite enjoying arguably their best month of the season, Leverkusen are 9th in the Bundesliga table, 8 points behind 4th placed RB Leipzig. Bayer Leverkusen have been largely flat this season and Herrlich has taken the brunt of their poor first half of the season. They go into the new year winning 3 of their last 4 league games and new manager Peter Bosz will want to build on that. Bosz arrives following an ill-fated spell at Dortmund last season but will be remembered for his success with Ajax. Bosz has a reputation of developing young players with the likes of Frankie De Jong, Donny Van Beek and Matthijs De Ligt at Ajax breaking through under his leadership. Bosz inherits a talented, hungry, young side which includes Julian Brandt, Kai Havertz, Leon Bailey, Paulinho. Lucas Alario and Tin Jedvaj. A team full of talent which hasn’t showcased its best so far this season and the Leverkusen hierarchy will be hoping Bosz is the man to unlock this team. Bosz’s reign begins with a home game against high-flying Borussia Monchengladbach and he will targeting a first win as his new side searches for a 4 win in 5 games. Many will Bosz is a gamble following his disappointing spell at Dortmund, but will he prove his critics wrong and get Leverkusen into the top 4? A fascinating second half of the season lies ahead for Leverkusen.

Meanwhile, times are proving tough for the bottom 2 Nuremberg and Hannover. Nuremberg end the first half of the season rock bottom with just 11 points from their 17 matches. Michael Kollner’s side are desperately struggling for form, goals and confidence. 4 straight defeats to end 2018 and overall are winless in their last 11 matches collecting just 3 points in that time. They are very leaky at the back and usually when they concede first, the floodgates open. They haven’t scored since their 1-1 draw with Bayer Leverkusen at the beginning of December. 4 defeats with scoring is a major issue for them. Their home form which was good at the start of the season has faded off and they remain winless on their travels this season. Just 13 league goals scored this season and their top scorer has just 2 goals. These are damning statistics for Nuremberg and their suffering fans. They must ignite their season in 2019 if they are going to get out of trouble. Michael Kollner is under pressure but because of his success getting Nuremberg promoted, he will feel he can get them out of trouble. They kick off 2019 with a crucial home game against mid-table Hertha Berlin. Things are no better for 17th placed Hannover. Like Nuremberg, they have collected just 11 points from their 17 games this season. Andre Breitenreiter’s team are clearly suffering second season syndrome following their excellent return season last time out. They are winless in 6 matches and lost 3 of their 5 games during December heaping more pressure on the manager. Key players such as Niklas Fullkrug are struggling to recapture form from the previous season while the loss of Salif Sane at the back has really hit them hard this season. Goals are allusive for Hannover as well notching just 17 league goals and that simply isn’t good enough. Breitenreiter knows how to get teams out of trouble having had success with Paderborn in the past and he will hope to recapture that managerial magic to get Hannover out of their hole and ignite their season during 2019. Survival is the aim for the basement two and they must find a win sooner rather than later. The relegation play-off place is occupied by Stuttgart who haven’t quite had the managerial bounce yet under Markus Weinzierl. 3 wins from his 10 games in charge with the other 7 being defeats. While they are slowly scoring more goals, they are still leaking far too many and they cannot find a way to stop conceding. 3 defeats from their 5 games in December has left them 16th just one point behind Augsburg. Weinzierl will certainly have seen plenty of positives during his first 10 games which has seen them face Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayer Leverkusen, Schalke, Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim. A real baptism of fire for Weinzierl but he has seen his side beat rivals Augsburg and Nuremberg during his short reign so far. Plenty to pounder for the Stuttgart manager as he aims to steer his side away from danger.

Sides enduring tough Decembers included Augsburg and Werder Bremen. Another winless month for Augsburg has seen their slide continue. Augsburg are winless in their last 6 games and haven’t won since their victory over Hannover at the end of October. Overall its 1 win in their last 10 and 2 wins in their last 12. Manuel Baum is severely feeling the heat following a poor first half of the campaign and must find a win to get Augsburg going again as 2019 dawns. The managerial axe could fall on him if things don’t improve in the new year. They start 2019 with a crucial home game against Fortuna Dusseldorf which is certainly must win. Meanwhile, Werder Bremen have endured their first real dip of the season winning just once in December and overall have won once in their last 9 games. Leon Kohfeldt has done a good job with the usually slow starters, but their slump has seen them drop into the bottom half of the table. However, despite their struggles to secure victories, they are still scoring goals.

December delivered an excellent month of Bundesliga football and as the new year approaches the excitement will build with the return of the transfer window in January and the beginning of the 2nd half of the season. January has plenty of exciting games to come including Hoffenheim vs Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen vs Borussia Monchengladbach, Augsburg vs Fortuna Dusseldorf, Schalke vs Wolfsburg, Hertha Berlin vs Schalke, Dortmund vs Hannover, Wolfsburg vs Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich vs Stuttgart and Fortuna Dusseldorf vs RB Leipzig. The Bundesliga returns on the 18th January with plenty of football to be played as the 2nd half of the season dawns.

Ligue 1: December Review

December did deliver some action in Ligue 1 however, many of the teams saw their matches postponed due to the ongoing gilet jaunes protests across the whole of France. Despite the protests, there was plenty of action as PSG lost their 100% record but maintained their unbeaten league record. While Guingamp and Monaco continue to prop up the table. We also saw the 5th managerial departure of the season with Rennes sacking Sabri Lamouchi following a slow start to the season.

PSG continue to dominate Ligue 1 and end 2018 with a 13-point cushion at the top and two games in hand on nearest rivals Lille. A draw against Bordeaux at the start of December saw their 100% record go and they followed that up with another draw against their bogey side Strasbourg. But despite their draws, they are utterly dominating Ligue 1 and go into 2019 full of confidence with Ligue 1 title seemingly wrapped up at this early stage. Christophe Galtier’s Lille didn’t have any matches called off during December and did collect 8 points from their 5 games which saw them sneak into 2nd place. Nicolas Pepe the star of their side playing a key role in their victory over Nimes which saw them play a large part of the game with 10 men. Lille fans will be absolutely delighted with how they’ve played during the first half of the season and will hoping the team can continue that form going into the remainder of the season. Keeping Nicolas Pepe during the January transfer window will be key for Lille’s chances of securing European football in May. The rest of the Champions League places are made up by Lyon and Montpellier. Lyon are where many expected them to be, comfortably sitting in the Champions League places and attempting to catch PSG at the top. Genesio’s young lions are winning plaudits across Europe for their attacking emphasis and free flowing football. They put Monaco to the sword during December but ended 2018 with a draw against Montpellier leaving them 15 points behind PSG having played a game more. Genesio will argue they are where they need to be, but they are clearly still a class below PSG. In contrast, I don’t think a top 4 finish was on the Montpellier agenda but at the halfway stage of the season they find themselves inside the top 4 on ahead of St Etienne on goal difference. Michel Der Zakarian is doing a terrific job and has assembled a good strike force in Andy Delort and Gaetan Laborde with pairing notching 14 league goals between them. A mixed December for Montpellier winning just once in their 3 matches losing one and drawing the other. Despite this, Der Zakarian will be delighted with his team’s performances and position at this stage of the season.

So, Sabri Lamouchi became the 5th manager to lose his job this season as Rennes decided to part company with Lamouchi following a heavy 4-1 defeat at home to Strasbourg. Lamouchi left Rennes sitting in 14th in the table. His replacement is Julian Stephan, who oversaw the B side at the club and he has made a terrific start to his tenure winning his first 3 league games in charge. Stephan was in caretaker ship for victories over Lyon and Dijon and no surprise was given the job on a permanent basis and he celebrated that with a thunderous 4-0 win over Dijon. 3 straight league wins all with clean sheets is a dream start for any manager and no doubt Stephan will want that momentum to continue in 2019. Rennes are now 8th in the table just 4 points off the Champions League places but have played a game more than some of the sides around them.

Times continue to be tough for the bottom 2 Guingamp and Monaco. Guingamp are struggling and so far, the new manager bounce is yet to take affect however, they ended 2018 with a crucial win at Monaco seeing them close the gap to just 6 points off safety. Jocelyn Gourvennec will be absolutely delighted with the determination and passion to clinch that priceless win. A clean sheet to boot also helps the side but Gourvennec will be fully aware there is still plenty of work to do during the 2nd half of the season and will be looking to add new faces as the transfer window approaches. Thierry Henry is desperate for something to give at Monaco with Henry collecting just 7 points in 9 games since replacing Leonardo Jardim. 6 defeats in 9 games have highlighted Henry’s struggled to get them going so far this season. Goals are in short supply and they just cannot win at home this season. The Principality stadium is eating Henry’s young team alive with points becoming allusive. Henry knows they are still in touching distance of safety. They will start 2019 in the relegation zone 4 points behind 17th placed Amiens and Henry will be fully aware of the task at hand and certainly injuries haven’t helped his course with over 14 senior players injured at one stage this season. Henry will no doubt explore the transfer window and aim to add a few new faces to ignite their flailing season.

December brought us some action despite the ongoing unrest in France and the new year is dawning for all Ligue 1 clubs and that means the transfer window is upon us and no doubt that will bring drama of its own. Plenty of football to come in the new year and some mouth-watering fixtures including Amiens vs PSG, Nice vs Bordeaux, Marseille vs Monaco, the derby between Guingamp and Rennes, Monaco vs Nice, St Etienne vs Marseille, the derby between Lille and Amiens, the derby between St Etienne and Lyon, Marseille vs Lille, Dijon vs Monaco and Strasbourg vs Bordeaux. A huge month of games to welcome in 2019 but can teams get their seasons going in the new year? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

La Liga: November Review

La Liga is becoming extremely fascinating following another terrific month of excellent goals, brilliant football, surprise results and more managerial changes. Sevilla lead the way with just 6 points separating the top 7 sides in the league. Meanwhile, Huesca and Rayo Vallecano continue to prop up the table and are now joined by Ath Bilbao in the relegation zone.

It was another excellent month for Pablo Machin and Sevilla with the leaders notching 7 points from their 3 games. Machin has firmly got his ideas across and is slowly implementing his style which brought him excellent success with Girona. A good November saw Sevilla climb to the summit with a draw at Real Sociedad and crucial home wins over Espanyol and Valladolid. The likes of Pablo Sarabia, Gabriel Mercado and Wissam Ben Yedder are enjoying their football and the confidence is clearly oozing while new signings Tomas Vaclik, Andre Silva and Roque Mesa have integrated well in the team. Sevilla are full of confidence and go into a crucial December aiming to maintain top spot. Meanwhile, Barcelona endured by their standards a very poor month. A shock home defeat to Real Betis ended the month and so far, things haven’t fully clicked for the defending champions this season. Defending is proving their big issue this season with Barca conceding nearly double what they conceded throughout the entirety of last season. Conceding 2 against struggling Rayo Vallecano, 4 against Betis and poor goal against Atletico Madrid has left the fans and Barca hierarchy concerned. A disappointing month saw Barcelona lose top spot and have Messi injured for much of it. Valverde has been critical of Barcelona’s individual errors and he will be hoping Samuel Umtiti’s timely comeback from injury will help steady a shaky defensive ship. The Champions League places are made up by Atletico Madrid and Alaves. Simeone’s consistent Atletico continue to be a difficult side to shake off and are firmly title contenders. Despite a clear lack of goals with just 17 notched so far in La Liga but their defensive record speaks for itself. Their efficiency allows them to be very difficult to beat and they are on the longest unbeaten run in the league which stands at 11. Simeone’s team are just 2 points off the top and the fans will be confident they can charge towards the title. Meanwhile, 4th placed Alaves could only be dreaming of pushing the big boys at the top but Abelardo’s team find themselves there. The Basque club are 3 points off the leaders but endured a disappointing November losing 2 of their 3 games but they did win the other match. But the bigger picture is brighter for Abelardo’s team winning 4 of their last 6. Frustrating away defeats to Eibar and improving Leganes have highlighted Alaves’ weak elements but whose to say they cannot sustain a shock charge to the title.

Real Madrid have endured its fair to say a poor time with disappointing displays and angering results for both fans and Florentino Perez. With Loportegui gone, Santiago Solari has stepped up and steadied the unhappy ship. After his first 4 games in caretaker charge, Solari was given the job on a permanent basis. However, his first game in permanent charge was a horrendous 3-0 defeat against Eibar with the Basque club outclassing their giant opponents. Solari will fully expect Los Blancos to respond going into December starting at home to Valencia. Solari does have an injury hit list which is substantially high and has incorporated the likes of Jesus Vallejo and Juan Sanchez into the team and so far, have settled very well. Despite their struggles for much of the campaign, Real are just 6 points off the top and will feel that gap is still possible to claw back. A big December looms for Los Blancos with key league games and the club world cup so Solari will demand Real find a way to get back to their best.

Sides who enjoyed November includes Eibar, Girona and Real Sociedad. November 2018 will certainly be remembered fondly by Eibar fans who arguably picked up their greatest ever victory as a football club smashing Real Madrid at fortress Ipurua by 3 goals to nil. But overall the tiny Basque club in the shadows of their big rivals enjoyed an excellent November winning 2 of their 4 games, drawing 1 and losing to Rayo Vallecano. The experienced team are full of spirit and work hard and that can only be admired. However, one of Eibar’s big Basque rivals also enjoyed November with Real Sociedad winning back to back games to end the month and remained unbeaten throughout the month. Asier Garitano in his first big job in La Liga following his brilliant time with Leganes has been mixed with their struggles at the Anoeta clear for everyone to see. However, they have the best away record in La Liga notching 13 points on their travels so far this campaign. Garitano is slowly getting what he wants out of his talented squad and November was the first real month where fans and pundits have seen what Garitano’s Sociedad are about. They lie 8th in the table just 5 points off the Champions League places and they will be hoping to carry their good form into December starting with a tricky trip to the Benito Villamarin where Real Betis await them.  Meanwhile, the smallest club in Catalonia are also enjoying their season and November in particular. Eusebio Sacristan has done an excellent job and certainly carried on the good work of Pablo Machin. An unbeaten November saw Girona climb into the top 6 just outside the Champions League places. Girona are improving and overall are unbeaten in their last 5 games and have built some real confidence and momentum. Cristian Stuani is vital to their success this season with the Uruguayan notching 11 goals this season continuing his excellent form in 2018 and the previous campaign. Girona are exceeding all expectations once again with arguably a weaker side than the previous season but a team with momentum and confidence is always difficult to beat and Girona have an abundance of both right now.

Meanwhile, one side struggling is Celta Vigo and during November decided to make a change in management with Argentine Antonio Muhamed sacked after just 5 months in charge. Muhamed won just 3 league games and leaves Celta having won just 1 of their last 9 games. Just 2 months after being sacked by French club Nantes, Miguel Cardoso finds himself back in football and has been given the task of igniting Celta’s season. However, he didn’t start well as he called his new side Deportivo during his first press conference. Deportivo being Celta’s big rivals. Cardoso arrives after disappointing spell in France but will be remembered for his success at Rio Ave guiding them into the European places. However, he started with a defeat to home strugglers Real Sociedad going down 2-1 at the Anoeta. While they were plenty of positives from Cardoso’s first game, it was a defeat down to poor mistakes. Celta Vigo need to recapture their play during the early parts of the season which saw them collect half their points during August. Iago Aspas is their key figure and generally when he doesn’t perform, Celta usually don’t win games and Cardoso must get him back to his best. Cardoso will be generally happy with the team’s performance at Real Sociedad and he will hope to build on that performance going into December’s matches with games against Huesca and Villarreal to come.

Times are proving tough for the bottom three sides Huesca, Rayo Vallecano and Ath Bilbao. Francisco just cannot buy a win in charge of Huesca. He has yet to taste victory since replacing Leo Franco in October. But from a Huesca perspective, November was an improvement with the club drawing twice and losing the other match. 5 games for Francisco and so far, there is some improvement, but they end November bottom with just 7 points from their 13 matches as well having the worst attack and defence in La Liga. Huesca must find a win and fast with their debut La Liga season turning into one to forget. They end November 6 points off safety and while that gap isn’t too bad to claw at, they must find a win and fast to really ignite their survival charge. Things are no better for Rayo Vallecano with the Madrid club in a similar place to Huesca but have a slightly better defence and attack. Vallecano are stuck on 10 points, three adrift of Leganes in 17th. However, they go into December with some confidence having ended the month with just their 2nd win of the season beating Eibar. Their first at home this season and Michel will be hoping Vallecano can build on that with an important December coming up for the club. Meanwhile, Ath Bilbao just cannot get their season going and the pressure is mounting on Eduardo Berizzo with the club winless in 12 league games since their opening day success against Leganes. The likes of Inaki Williams, Iker Muinain and Aritz Aduriz are not performing to their usual standards and they just cannot find a way to win matches. 8 draws in their 12 matches isn’t good enough and with fan unrest the pressure is on Berizzo and they must beat Levante in their first game of December otherwise the axe is highly likely to fall on the likeable Argentine.

December is always a crucial month across European football and La Liga is no different with plenty of football to come before the winter break. There are plenty of mouth-watering games to come including Real Madrid vs Valencia, Alaves vs Sevilla, Barcelona vs Villarreal, Arch rivals Leganes and Getafe lock horns for their 1st meeting of the season, Ath Madrid vs Alaves, Espanyol vs Barcelona in the first Catalonian derby of the season, Valencia vs Sevilla, Real Madrid vs Rayo Vallecano, Sevilla vs Girona, Two Basque derbies for Alaves against Ath Bilbao and Real Sociedad and Barcelona vs Celta Vigo. La Liga is no doubt the most exciting league in Europe with a tight top 7 fighting for the title and European football. Will Berizzo survive at Bilbao? Will someone take control of La Liga? We shall find out as the festive period approaches.