Advertisements

Chelsea’s striker search – Is Fernando Llorente the man to replace Didier Drogba?

Chelsea’s summer splurging has been a sincere statement of intent, as new faces such as Oscar, Marko Marin and Eden Hazard will have the Stamford Bridge faithful excited ahead of the new season. However, one area that the Blues are thought to be keen to strengthen is at centre forward, with stalwart Didier Drogba leaving the club after eight years for pastures new. Although a raft of different strikers have been touted as the Ivorian’s replacement, surely a move for Fernando Llorente would make sense?

The burly frontman has been a hero in the Basque country over the last number of years, and has been a key reason for Athletic Bilbao’s development into a respected and dangerous attacking side. The 27-year-old has scored over 80 goals for the San Mames outfit, and been rewarded at international level with 20 caps for world champions Spain. However, after spending the entirety of his career at the club, Llorente has made the decision to explore other options.

 “Llorente has told us that he does not want to renew his contract with the club,” Bilbao president Josu Urrutia revealed at a press conference recently.

” I can tell all clubs that want to sign one of our players that we are not a selling club. They will have to pay a player’s buy-out clause.”

Juventus are thought to be leading the chase for the targetman, however the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and many others have been linked with a move for Llorente in the recent past. Surprisingly, Chelsea are one club that have not had any real accredited interest in the Spaniard. Whilst the likes of Radamel Falcao, Hulk, Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain, Andre Schurrle and others have all been speculated with a move to west London, Llorente could well be the best option.

Although Roberto Di Matteo is eager to add a creative and expansive element to his new-look Blues side, the direct approach and physical threat of Drogba will surely be missed. Llorente has the stature, work rate and aerial ability to replicate the qualities that saw Drogba lead the side to double success in 2011-12. With Juan Mata, Oriol Romeu and Fernando Torres already at Chelsea Llorente would have compatriots to help him adjust and is certainly suited to the English game. The move makes sense as it would allow Di Matteo to alternate between the pace and threat in-behind of Torres and the aerial and direct approach of Llorente.

The Spaniard will not be short of suitors this summer, but a move to the Premier League has seemingly been in the pipeline for a number of years. Given the circumstances Chelsea looks like an ideal destination, and Llorente could well be the final piece in Roman Abramovich’s jigsaw.

Advertisements

Europa League final: La Liga’s second tier Athletic Bilbao and Atletico Madrid fight for glory

Whilst much of the talk around Europe over the last couple of weeks has been about Barcelona and Real Madrid’s inability to reach the Champions League final, two of the teams in their shadow have made sure that there will be one all-Spanish final this season. Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao will meet in the Europa league final on the May 9th in Bucharest.

Atletico’s season has been turned around by the appointment of Diego Simeone in December, after a run of poor form in the league that left them in danger of not qualifying for European football at all next season. As things stand now though they are in fifth place and still have a chance of getting into fourth and with it Champions League football next season.

Los Colcheneros have not finished outside the top 10 since 2005 and have twice finished inside the top four. Their consistency is even more remarkable considering the almost constant sales of their best players such as Fernando Torres, Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan. Also in this time they have proved their strength on the European stage by winning the Europa League in 2010 and then beating Champions league holders Inter Milan in the Super Cup later that year.

The main man behind Atletico’s success this season though is their new scoring sensation Radamel Falcao. Signed for a club record €40 million in the summer of 2011 after an incredible record of 73 goals in 83 games for Porto, he has lived up to expectations. His record of 33 goals in 46 games this season has proved his ability and the Colombia international is still improving. If Atletico have long-term ambitions to break into the Primera Division top four again and stay there, they must keep hold of players like Falcao.

Atletico’s run to the final has been fairly comfortable and scare free. They comfortably finished top of a group containing Udinese, Celtic and Rennes, before cruising past Lazio, Besiktas, Hannover 96 and maybe a little surprisingly, Valencia, winning home and away in every round.

There is no doubt they will face a stern test in the final though in the form of Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao. Former Argentina and Chile coach Bielsa joined at the start of this season and has turned the San Mames outfit into one of the most exciting and attacking teams in Europe. This style of football, which has already been compared to Barcelona’s, has seen Bielsa linked with the Chelsea and Camp Nou jobs in some quarters. Since finishing 17th in 2006-2007, the Basque team have made steady improvements year after year and currently sit tenth in the table; the appointment of Bielsa may be the final piece of the jigsaw.

Bilbao’s improvement this season was evident in the Spain squad for the friendly against Venezuela. Javi Martinez, Andoni Iraola, Fernando Llorente and Iker Munian were all included with only Barcelona having more players from a single club in the squad. Much like Atletico though, Bilbao must hold on to these players if they have long term ambitions of making the step up to Champions League football, but with a number of English clubs already being linked with 19-year-old Munian, Llorente and Martinez, this may be difficult.

Bilbao’s route to the final has been nothing short of exceptional. After coming top of a relatively easy group with the exception of big spending Paris Saint-Germain, they have upset some big European names in the knock out stages. After winning through on away goals against Lokomotiv Moscow they caused the upset of the competition by knocking out Manchester United. Incredible attacking performances home and away gave them victories in both games and in truth the 5-3 aggregate scoreline could have been much worse for the English champions. From then another high-scoring victory over Schalke followed although they did need a late Llorente goal to get past Sporting Lisbon in the semi-final.

There is no doubt that this could be one of the biggest seasons in Bilbao’s history with the chance of a cup double as they meet Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final later this month. Victory in both of these finals will certainly put Athletic Bilbao’s name on every European football fan’s lips.

Both teams attacking styles will surely mean a great spectacle and an open game in Romania’s capital city on Wednesday and it may come down to a battle between two of La Liga’s best strikers in Falcao and Llorente to determine who takes the Spanish bragging rights in Europe this year.

By Chris Newman

La Liga’s dominance in the Europa League a lesson for the Manchester clubs and Tottenham this season

La Liga’s dominance of Europe’s second most prestigious tournament should serve as a timely reminder of what the Premier League is missing out on.

This week sees the return of the Champions League, with much of the attention focusing on Chelsea’s clash with Barcelona, while Bayern Munich face off against Real Madrid.

Yet for all the glitz and glamour of the tournament, just 24 hours later, another set of European fixtures could make for interesting viewing.

On Thursday evening, Atletico Madrid and Valencia will play in the semi-final of the Europa League while Athletic Bilbao head to Portugal to face Sporting Lisbon.

The line-up stands as a testament to the depth in quality that exists in Spain with Atletico and Bilbao reaching this stage of the competition after navigating a tricky group and knock-out phase.

This was undoubtedly evidenced during Bilbao’s demolition of Manchester United. Entering the competition after being dumped out of the Champions League, United were fortunate to escape with a 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in the first leg, but even then manager Alex Ferguson sensed the tide of the tie was against them.

Speaking to the BBC then, the Scot admitted that, “They were the better team,” with the second leg to come looking “uphill fight.”

The comments spoke volumes for the quality of Marcelo Bielsa’s Bilbao team, given number of times Ferguson has come out fighting when the Reds have faced seemingly insurmountable odds. They were quickly confirmed too with a 2-1 defeat in the return fixture.

Yet in truth, Spain’s continued love affair with the Europa League should come as little surprise to those who have followed the competition over the years.

From Sevilla’s back-to-back wins in the mid-2000s to the more recent win for the likes of Atletico Madrid and with notable runs for the likes of Espanyol, Getafe and Villarreal, Spanish league sides have always taken a keen interest in the pursuit of the trophy.

It is an understandable focus too, with much of the domestic game swallowed up by the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

But despite the notable similarities in the English game, with the economic powerhouses of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City dominating proceedings, Premier League perceptions of the competition portray it as a nuisance.

Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp described the competition as “a killer” to his side’s chances of competing for Champions League qualification warning “Thursday and Sunday every week…you’ve got no chance in the Premier League with that”.

Yet the relative progress of a Stoke City team with far less resources than the likes of Tottenham, alongside solid league form, indicates that this may be an incorrect assumption.

Spanish clubs are not the only nation reaping the benefits of Europa League football either, as Germany continues to enjoy relative success in the tournament, with the unfancied Hannover 96 and Schalke 04 progressing to the quarter-finals stage via the group stage.

Is it any coincidence then that Spain, Germany and other Europa League enthusiasts Portugal, excel most at international level?

Encouraging English participation in this tournament could make for a more rounded domestic game, and could offer some solace for fans tired of the continued chase for the so-called ‘success’ of finishing fourth in the Premier League.

Fulham’s previous run in the competition demonstrated the thrills and passion that the Europa League can bring to fans and the game as a whole with few Cottagers fans able to forget the famous victory over Juventus en route to the final.

For the English game to reap any notable reward from the tournament though, a change of perception is required among the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham.

The Europa League is no killer – it could breathe new life into the English game.

By Jack Beresford

Five playmakers Manchester United should target as Paul Scholes’ replacement

Paul Scholes took the option to retire at the end of last season, but Manchester United missed the playmaker’s creativity and guile so much that the 37-year-old came out of retirement to aid the Red Devils in their title charge.

Sir Alex Ferguson chased Wesley Sneijder as a potential replacement last summer, but with the Dutchman out of form and sure to be an expensive option, here are five alternatives that the Scottish manager has witnessed first hand, and who will be in his thoughts once the transfer window reopens.

Eden Hazard

By now, the talent and ability of the Belgium international is evident for all to see, and Hazard is one of the hottest prospects in European football. The 21-year-old’s attacking abilities helped Lille to the Ligue 1 Championship last term, and he has matured with the chance to play Champions League football this campaign.

With Hazard already admitting that he will leave the Stade Lille-Metropole this summer, suitors such as Manchester City, Real Madrid, Arsenal and Tottenham are all in the hunt for the starlet, but Sir Alex has also made it across the channel to watch him in action.

 

Iker Muniain

Given Athletic Bilbao’s excellent performances over two legs to dump United out of the Europa League, the English champions are more than aware of this Spanish prodigy’s talent.

Marcelo Bielsa’s men have evolved into an excellent side this season, with the 19-year-old schemer catching the eye in the process. With the ability to be the future of Spain’s creative midfield once the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta retire, the bigger boys of European football are sure to be circling San Mames in the near future.

Christian Eriksen

A product of the fabled Ajax youth academy, Eriksen has technical ability and poise in possession in spades. The 20-year-old has won the Eredivisie, experienced Champions League football and also faced United this term in the Europa League.

As one of Denmark’s shining lights, Eriksen will be given a chance to star at Euro 2012 this summer, which may make it difficult for the Amsterdam Arena outfit to hold onto their superstar.

Nicolas Gaitan

Benfica’s exciting attacking midfielder has been linked with a move to Old Trafford since he proved a thorn in the English team’s side in the Champions League earlier this term.

The Argentine has skill and pace in bundles, but whether he has the passing range and guile of some of the other candidates remains to be seen. Sir Alex may still try to sign the South American, but as more of a winger or second striker.

 

Luka Modric

The Tottenham talisman is the life and soul of a much-applauded Spurs side; the Croatian is also the White Hart Lane club’s most prized possession. Another excellent season under his belt, Modric will more than likely be the subject of attention this summer.

Spurs fought off advances from Chelsea a year ago, rejecting a £40 million offer, but the eastern European playmaker’s future depends on where Tottenham finish in the Premier League this term. The most expensive of the five options but arguably the most gifted, Sir Alex budget will play a part in any potential move for Modric.

Honourable mentions must also go to Adam Mayer of AZ and Younes Belhanda of Montpellier. The duo have been pivotal in their team’s current campaigns, with the underdog sides both fighting for their respective titles. The pair may be a bit inexperienced to step straight into the United first team, but have the potential to make a move to the Premier League this summer.

Published – Bleacher Report

%d bloggers like this: