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Assessing the English sides’ chances in the Champions League

After the hectic domestic festive season fixture list, the focus on Champions League football is set to return, with the knockout stages to be played next month.

England have four representatives in the final 16 teams, with Manchester United, City, Arsenal and Chelsea all eyeing up a place at this year’s Champions League final in Lisbon.

The Premier League sides have been given stern challenges in the next stage, but what are their chances of progression?

Chelsea vs Galatasaray

Jose Mourinho has experience of lifting the Champions League crown with Porto and Inter, and will be charged with bringing Europe’s top trophy to west London this season.

Didier Drogba

The Blues have been handed the task of 180 minutes against Turkish champions Galatasaray, with a number of familiar faces set to feature for the opposition.

Didier Drogba will return to face his former club, while ex-Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini is at the helm of the eastern European outfit. With a former Mourinho favourite in the form of Wesley Sneijder also in Gala’s ranks, it should be a test for the London side.

However, despite Galatasaray’s progression at the expense of Juventus in the group stages, Chelsea will fancy their chances of making the quarter-finals.

Arsenal vs Bayern Munich

Defeat to Napoli in their final group stage fixture has come back to haunt Arsenal, with the Gunners facing European champions Bayern in the next round. That said, Arsenal fans will have rushed to buy Champions League tickets when the draw was made, as the tie should be of the highest order.

Pep Guardiola’s star-studded squad will be motivated to retain their crown, and eliminated the north Londoners on the way to the title last term.

Arsene Wenger will be buoyed on by his side’s win at the Allianz Arena in the tie last season, and will look to improve on home soil this time round.

In what is set to be an explosive encounter, the Emirates Stadium side will need to be at their best to progress.

Manchester City vs Barcelona

A real glamour tie, this one pits a new force in European football against one of the perennial mainstays.

Yaya Touré

The sheer quality on both sides will make this a top-notch encounter, with Lionel Messi and co’s visit to fortress Etihad sure to be an eye-catching clash.

Yaya Toure will feature against his former club, while City’s credentials will be thoroughly put to the test at Camp Nou.

The winner of this tie will be confident of making it to the latter reaches of the tournament, and the clash could go either way.

Manchester United vs Olympiakos

The easiest of the four ties was handed to Manchester United, who face Greek side Olympiakos over two legs.

With domestic form the cause of agony for David Moyes, the Scottish manager will hope for a comprehensive progression through to the quarter-finals of the European tournament.

The opposition have one deadly striker in their midst in the form of Kostas Mitroglou, who has the ability to end United’s dream on the continent.

Despite a hostile environment in the away leg, anything other than a United progression would be something of a shock here.

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Manchester City want Blaise Matuidi, but he’d be perfect for Arsenal

PSG midfield destroyer Blaise Matuidi has just a year left on his contract, which is of great interest to Manchester City who are rumoured to be interested in him as they transition away from Roberto Mancini’s 4-4-2 to Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1. Matuidi could possibly partner Yaya Toure deep in midfield in this new formation. However, if he does become available, he looks like an interesting option for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.

Aaron Ramsey played well as the pure defensive shield as Wenger tweaked his system over the second half of last season and this new role allowed him to afford the defence good protection leading to them being the second tightest unit in the league. He is a good worker and interceptor of the ball and improved steadily in the role. However, unlike Marouane Fellaini whose rampaging menace would be near enough neutered playing this role at Arsenal, it is something Matuidi is amongst the best in Europe at doing. If Arsenal bought Fellaini and restricted him to being a pure shield, a simple and limited role, they would be wasting their time spending so much. However, with Matuidi the upgrade as this pure defensive minded shield would be big, big enough to justify the outlay.

Blaise Matuidi

If you don’t know much about Matuidi, just know this. PSG bought him to replace Claude Makelele. It sums his game up and shows what he would offer Arsenal. Wenger is teaching Ramsey to play that role and what is required is superb positioning and sensing of danger, tackling skill, intercepting ability and the awareness to select the correct distribution option. Ramsey is doing decently at getting stuck in but his distribution isn’t ideal for the job. Matuidi already has it all. He’s also a huge presence on the field with his leadership and reliability. Arsenal could do with a few more players that can be relied on to perform at the same level every week. Tactically it would also allow Wenger to continue to use Jack Wilshere further forwards where he seems to see his future.

The doubt in all of this is whether or not PSG would let him leave. Although he only has a year on his contract he is a key player for them. He has played 80 games in his two seasons in Paris and despite their infatuation with star power whoever ends up managing them, maybe Andre Villas-Boas, will be well aware of his importance. You can have all the attackers you like but unless you have someone with the discipline and sense of responsibility to work for the team and position themselves effectively then the team can’t win. He’s probably worth about £10-12m given his contract situation but it’s hard to see how PSG would let him leave. If they do though, Arsenal might hold an advantage over Man City.

At Arsenal Matuidi would be a guaranteed starter. At City, he wouldn’t have the same security. City have just spent £34m on Fernandinho to be their play maker. Manuel Pellegrini is an advocate of the 4-2-3-1, which would likely see Fernandinho partner Toure in the two, particularly if rumours linking the club to Isco come true. At Arsenal, his only competition would be Aaron Ramsey and he is much better at the role they would compete for.

Tottenham’s AVB to PSG? Should he stay or should he go? It all depends on Bale

Real Madrid are not going to be popular with Spurs fans this summer. Not only are they actively courting their star man Gareth Bale but they may now also be responsible for them losing their manager Andre Villas-Boas. Real’s first choice to succeed Jose Mourinho as manager is PSG boss Carlo Ancelotti, and Ancelotti hasn’t hidden his desire to take up the offer. If he goes, PSG will need a new manager, and with their own first choice Guus Hiddink committing to another season in Russia the French champions have turned their attention to Villas-Boas. It is conceivable that Real Madrid may even cost Spurs both Bale and AVB. In fact, one may cause the other.

Andre Villas-Boas came to Spurs last summer with plenty to prove after his disastrous spell at Chelsea ended in disarray and sacking. He had been the hottest managerial name in Europe in the summer of 2011, fresh from an unbeaten and Europa League winning season with Porto and as one of the Jose Mourinho stable he had impeccable pedigree. However, by 2012 his reputation was sullied, seemingly unable to impose himself on the Chelsea dressing room that he had once been a mere analyst to. It was therefore a big leap of faith from Spurs to appoint him, and to essentially sack Harry Redknapp in order to do so. He was very grateful to the club for trusting him and he repaid them with fifth place and a points total that would have guaranteed Champions League qualification in most seasons. He took Gareth Bale from star to megastar and helped turn Jan Vertonghen in to one of the signings of the season. He did a great job at Spurs, and his reputation is quickly regathering, particularly in light of his work with Bale.

André Villas-Boas

This has made him a desirable proposition for PSG. They have their own burgeoning megastar in Lucas Moura who they will feel AVB can teach and coach up in the way he did with Bale. PSG invested nearly £40m in the young Brazilian so they need to get the most out of him and AVB has shown he can do that. The other reason they are turning to him is that they are very big on the ‘project’ in Paris. They want a long-term manager and they want him to win them multiple Champions League titles. Well, Villas-Boas is only 35 and has already shown he can win a European trophy, so he is a very logical choice. PSG play a 4-2-3-1 system, which is what Spurs used last year, so PSG wouldn’t need to overhaul the personnel either. It all makes sense.

The pros to staying at Spurs are that if Bale stays he has one of the best players in the world at his disposal. His job is under absolutely no threat, the club seem willing to commit money to him in the transfer market and they gave him his opportunity to return to management at a major club. He may feel a sense of loyalty.

The cons to staying at Spurs mostly revolve around Bale. If Spurs sell him then despite pocketing a massive transfer fee they would have sold one of the top five players in the world. It’s all well and good signing decent replacements in different positions, but without Bale it will be much harder to get in to the Champions League. This could be something AVB feels he can’t achieve at Spurs. With such congestion at the top of the Premier League, seven teams to fit in to four, three will always miss out and more often than not Spurs would likely be in that three without Bale.

The pros of going to PSG are that he will have a ton of money at his disposal, far more than Spurs could offer. He also would be taking over a better team. Spurs have three elite players, but PSG have twice that. They are near enough guaranteed to get in to the Champions League every year, which then gives him an opportunity to win it. PSG seem willing to be patient with a manager.

The cons to moving to PSG are that the club has only had success so far. If, as is likely, they struggle to make an impact on the market this year despite their money and don’t progress in Europe the patience of the ownership would be tested. They haven’t had to experience a negative outcome yet. If he did fail he would have failed at two of the richest clubs in the world, pretty much ending his chances of getting another go somewhere else.

It would be a big decision for AVB to make. If Spurs keep Gareth Bale and add to their squad he should stay. No one in the Premier League has a player like Bale so with the right additions they could even compete to win the league. If they sell Bale he should go to PSG where he would have more chance at winning regularly.

Do Chelsea own Lazar Markovic’s rights?

For many months Chelsea have been linked with Serbian wonderkid Lazar Markovic so it came as a bit of a surprise when Benfica last night announced on their club website that they had in fact signed him, for five years to boot. The sense of confusion was then added to when the chairman of Markovic’s old club Partizan Belgrade was quoted as saying ‘It is true, Chelsea will send Markovic out on a loan for two years.’ So what’s going on? How can two clubs both claim to own the same player? The truth could be a little of both.

Chelsea have a recently established history of loaning players to countries with more favourable work permit restrictions to continue their development. The loaned Alex to PSV in order for him to accrue Dutch national qualifying time and loaned Slobodan Rajkovic, another Serb, to various Dutch teams for the same reason. If they were to return to the Chelsea first team squad they would do so having attained Dutch residency, thus making eligible for registration as an EU national and therefore exempt from work permit laws.

In the scenario where Chelsea own him themselves; as a 19 year old with only seven first team international caps, Markovic would not qualify for a work permit for Chelsea. Sending him to Portugal would be a way of ensuring that he does. He can gain Portuguese residency far more easily than in England, and would also be playing in a good league for a team that is perennially in the Champions League.

Lazar Markovic

The links between Benfica and Chelsea have tightened over recent years and this could be a way of utilising them. The two clubs are still on good terms after the deals for Chelsea to buy Ramires and David Luiz that saw Benfica net yet another Serbian, Nemanja Matic, in to the bargain. The two clubs were of course in Amsterdam together for the Europa League final and it’s not hard to conceive of them discussing a way in which Markovic could end up at Benfica for a little while before heading to Chelsea.

The other option is that Benfica actually do own him but that he is parked there with Chelsea owning a first option on him should they choose to take it up. If the clubs wanted to avoid accusations that they had worked together on the deal it possibly is why there is so much confusion.

The reason for thinking this could be the case is a possible issue of mistranslation of the Partizan chairman. There is some discussion as to whether he has been misquoted, possibly saying that Chelsea and Benfica were still in discussion over an arrangement; Chelsea wants to loan Marković to Benfica for two years, and honestly speaking, I hope to God that they don’t come to an agreement so that Lazar can stay six more months at Partizan

So is Markovic worth all this confusion? The evidence suggests that he is. Last season he scored seven and assisted seven in just 19 games from his left forward position. He is quick, direct and skilful, the qualities which both Chelsea and Benfica look for in their forwards and attacking midfielders. To have gained seven senior caps at just 19, whilst being injury hit last season too, is very impressive. In fact, he was only 19 in March, so a lot of his achievements came when even younger.

The only way for this to all be cleared up would be for Chelsea to come out and clarify their position but it looks like one of two things. Either Chelsea bought him and loaned him to Benfica or the two clubs have a gentleman’s agreement forged on recent good relations that sees Markovic go to Lisbon and probably to Chelsea in future.

Rangers and Celtic? ICT and Ross County are a new driving force in Scottish football

Since 1985 the Scottish football league championship has only been shared by two clubs – the Glasgow giants, Rangers and Celtic. Things really shook up in 2012 with the demise of Rangers F.C.  Suddenly, focus shifted to the Edinburgh clubs, as Hibs and Hearts enjoyed the limelight as thousands made their way to the national stadium for the showcase Scottish Cup Final.

This year two small clubs who have only been in the national league setup since 1994 have been a breath of fresh air for the Scottish Premier League and have both secured a top-six place for the first time in their short histories with games too spare. 2013 has definitely been year of the Highlanders – Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Ross County.

After the astonishing and embarrassing summer of chaos in Scottish football the scaremongers’ and doomsday merchants (mostly the majority of the media and worryingly leaders of the Scottish game) have had little effect on the high-flying highland clubs. Football is flourishing in the area and with the possibility of European football for either club, it sums up the progress made from both clubs in their short time in the leagues; many around them have stagnated or gone in the opposite direction.

Derek Adams

This is Ross County’s first season in the SPL, and after a solid start some shrewd signings by Derek Adams in the January transfer window has seen the Staggies rocket up the league with top-six secured with a game to spare. A home victory over Celtic after being 2-0 down is bound to be one of the highlights of the season so far for the fans, who must be pinching themselves.

Inverness have been in the top division for eight out of the last nine seasons, but despite coming close have never made it into the top-six positions when the league has split; well until this season. They have been in the top three for the majority of the season and now are in a great position to try and secure a spot in the Europa League competition next year (if they can keep their highland neighbours behind them that is).

Terry Butcher

Other highlights include players receiving their first international call ups and the club narrowly missed out on their first national final, thanks to a semi-final defeat on penalties. Manager Terry Butcher has also shown great faith in the club (probably much to the dismay of his bank manager) by turning down a move mid-season to Championship side Barnsley.

So with both clubs now in the top division and finishing in the top six, what now?

The immediate goal for the Highland clubs in the remaining fixtures of the season is to finish in that coveted third spot, which will guarantee entry into the Europa League. However both clubs shouldn’t be resting on their current success and should be implementing a long-term plan for the next 20 years.  The most important thing is for both clubs to become established SPL sides that are still heavily involved with the local community. Whilst currently attendances are steady, most supporters will probably admit to previously having an allegiance to one of the ‘big’ clubs, whether it is Rangers, Celtic or Aberdeen, whilst the teams they followed were in the Highland League.

If in the future both clubs are continually present in the Premier League, children and newcomers into the area will grow up and see ICT or County on a par with these other teams and be proud to support their local team in the SPL.  The potential for both clubs to increase their fan base is greater than the majority of other SPL clubs, who perhaps have an ageing support in comparison with the Highlanders.

Also it is important both clubs remain in the top division to keep the rivalry alive; there is few better feelings than beating your close rivals, the feeling of excitement and nerves before and during these games will keep fans interested and coming back.  With top-six finishes the fans are guaranteed one more Highland derby. Who knows; this one could decide which of the Highland clubs could be heading to Europe…Who would have dreamt of that in 1994!

By NMO’s Scottish football expert Sandy White

Chelsea, Tottenham and Newcastle have a real chance of Europa League glory

Even though there is no English interest in the Champions League, the same cannot be said of the Europa League where there are three teams battling to make the final at the Amsterdam Arena on May 15th. All the English teams face tough tasks though, and the draw has conjured up four ties between teams that have never met before.

Chelsea v Rubin Kazan

Whilst Chelsea may have been installed as bookmakers favourites following the draw they take a step into the unknown against the Russian outfit. Chelsea have been far from convincing in Europe this season, crashing out of the Champions League as holders at the group stage and then scraping past Sparta Prague and Steaua Bucharest in the first two rounds of this competition. Rubin meanwhile have been mightily impressive in getting to this stage. They topped their group ahead of Inter Milan who they thumped 3-0 at home. They then followed that by knocking out the holders Atletico Madrid 2-1 on aggregate, which included a 2-0 victory in the Vicente Calderon.

John Obi Mikel

Rubin have a mixture of nationalities in their squad including their danger man, the Venezuelan striker Jose Rondon who has scored five goals in the competition so far. While he is their main threat up front Rubin also have a solid backline, which has only conceded four goals in their 10 games so far and two of those came in the first group game away at Inter. Make no mistake; this is a massive test for Chelsea, and with the away leg coming second the Blues may need a couple of goals advantage to take to Russia. These two games also come in a spell of six games in 16 days for Chelsea and all that may add up to a shock in this tie.

Tottenham Hotspur v FC Basel

The easiest looking tie for the English clubs on paper begins at White Hart Lane as Spurs take on the rank outsiders FC Basel. Tottenham cruised through their group as runners-up behind Lazio and have then fought their way through two tough ties against Lyon thanks to a late Mousa Dembele goal and against Inter Milan on away goals. Basel started the season in the Champions League but lost out to Cluj in the final play-off round. Having dropped into the Europa League they finished second in a weak group behind Genk before seeing off Ukrainian minnows Dnipro. They were impressive in the last round though, knocking out Liverpool’s conquerors Zenit 2-1 on aggregate.

Benoit Assou-Ekotto

Basel have a good blend of youth and experience with the Swiss pairing of Marco Streller and Alex Frei still scoring goals at this level. Over two legs though Spurs will surely be a class above and if Inter Milan struggled to contain the likes of Gareth Bale then it is hard to see how the Swiss will fare any better. Being at home first does make things harder for Tottenham as they have not been too convincing away from home thus far, but they will surely be too far ahead after the first leg for it to make a difference.

Fenerbahce v Lazio

The only tie that does not contain an English team but it is still very tough to call. Fenerbahce are another team who came down from the Champions League after losing their play-off to Spartak Moscow. Their path through the group stage was easy enough finishing top of their pool, however during the knockout rounds they have been unconvincing in getting past Bate 1-0 on aggregate and Plzen 2-1 over the two games. Lazio have been much more impressive, topping the group ahead of Spurs and then scoring five times in each of their knockout rounds against Borussia Monchengladbach and Stuttgart.

Raul Meireles

Both sides have a lot of experience running through their teams. Lazio have the likes of Miroslav Klose and Lorik Cana while Fenerbahce have some well-known faces in the form of Joseph Yobo, Raul Meireles and Dirk Kuyt. Lazio may well just have the edge in this tie though through their goal threat. They have the Czech striker Libor Kozak who has managed eight goals in eight games so far and the unpredictable Mauro Zarate. With Lazio at home second they have to be favourites and will have too much firepower for an unspectacular Fenerbahce side.

Benfica v Newcastle United

The final tie should be an absolute cracker as Portuguese heavyweights Benfica take on Newcastle. Newcastle have been solid if unspectacular so far, coming second in their group behind Bordeaux and then going through 1-0 on aggregate in both knockout rounds against tricky opposition in the shape of Metalist Kharkiv and Anzhi Makhachkala. Benfica are another team that dropped out of the Champions League, finishing third in their group behind Celtic and Barcelona despite a creditable 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. They have won every game in the Europa League so far though beating both Bayer Leverkusen and Bordeaux home and away.

Moussa Sissoko

Benfica’s main threat is of course their goal machine Oscar Cardozo who already has three in four games in this competition. They also have exciting young midfielders in Nicolas Gaitan and Nemanja Matic and the experience at the back with Luisao and Ezequiel Garay. Newcastle could not have wished for a tougher task and a lot will depend on how their young team cope with the intimidating atmosphere in Lisbon in the first leg. If Newcastle can continue their solid defensive form then they may give themselves a chance of a special European night at St James Park in the return game.

By Chris Newman

No Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United or City: Champions League quarter-final preview

For the first time since 1996 there is no English representation in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Despite this, the draw has still thrown up some potentially exciting ties that are bound to produce plenty of goals and talking points.

Malaga v Borussia Dortmund

Probably the least glamorous looking of the ties but has the potential to be one of the most entertaining. Both teams have been extremely impressive in getting this far. Malaga topped their group, remaining unbeaten, and finishing ahead of AC Milan and Zenit, before overturning a first-leg deficit against Porto in the last 16. Dortmund meanwhile were put in the so-called Group of Death alongside Manchester City, Real Madrid and Ajax. They too remained unbeaten though, and also finished first in their group before sweeping aside Shakhtar in the last 16.

Mario Gotze

While most people will look at Isco as Malaga’s main threat, the experience they possess with the likes of Joaquin, Toulalan, Saviola and Demichelis is not to be under-estimated though, and they will be prepared for the occasion. Dortmund’s youth and attacking style may just prove to be too much for the Spaniards however, and with the guaranteed goals and creativity of Mario Gotze, Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski along with home advantage in the second leg, the Germans may well be a good outside bet to make it all the way to Wembley.

Real Madrid v Galatasaray

The second favourites meet the rank outsiders in this quarter-final tie. Madrid cruised through their group, even though they finished second to Dortmund, and then controversially saw off Manchester United over two tense games. Galatasaray just edged through their group ahead of CFR Cluj and their attacking prowess saw them score three in Germany to get past Schalke.

Didier Drogba

There is no doubting the Turkish side’s attacking options. Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder were the big name signings in January but they also boast the joint top scorer in the competition with Burak Yilmaz. Add to this the experience of Felipe Melo and Hamit Altintop in the midfield and they certainly have a strong core to their team. Over two games though it is hard to see a defence which has already conceded in all but one game in the competition so far this season containing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Galatasaray do have the advantage of being at home for the second leg but they cannot afford to be more than a goal or two behind after their trip to the Bernabeu.

Paris Saint-Germain v Barcelona

Undoubtedly the tie of the round, the big-spending French team against the side who have raised most of their players through their youth team. Despite a couple of wobbles along the way against Celtic and in the first leg against AC Milan, the Catalan giants still remain the team to beat. As they showed in the second leg against Milan they are still unstoppable when they are on form. PSG were very impressive in topping their group and despite a nervy second leg against Valencia they deservedly fought their way through.

Jordi Alba

The biggest problem for the French side in the first game will be the continued suspension of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. To have any chance against Barcelona they will need their strongest team and it will be a big blow to not have their talisman. Not that PSG are a one-man team though. Ezequiel Lavezzi continues to show his talent with five goals in this tournament and they have the exciting young talents of Lucas Moura and Javier Pastore. The problem they may find though is getting the ball to these players, but if they can there is no doubt they can cause Barcelona problems. It would be no surprise if Paris Saint-Germain got a positive result at home but as Milan found out in the last 16, it needs a big lead to take to the Nou Camp for the return game.

Bayern Munich v Juventus

The final tie pits together two of the heavyweights of European football over the years. Bayern have been very impressive to this stage and despite their second-leg defeat to Arsenal they still dominated in terms of attempts at goal and possession. Juventus came through a slow start to qualify first from a group containing Shakhtar and defending champions Chelsea, before brushing aside the challenge of Celtic.

Andrea Pirlo

Bayern will be determined to make amends for their final defeat to Chelsea last year and they certainly have a team who find it easy to create chances and, certainly at domestic level, score goals. They are coming up against a side though that is more of a stereotypical Italian team. Solid at the back and good in possession, Juve play the game at their own pace. They may be short of big names but they have an Italian core that are well drilled and know exactly what they are doing. This is probably the hardest of the quarter-finals to call, but it may well be that Bayern’s extra options in the attacking third will be enough to see them through; but only just.

By Chris Newman

Tottenham thriving as AVB gets the best from Gareth Bale

Andre Villas-Boas has taken a lot of criticism whilst he has been in England, mostly as a result of his ill-fated spell as John Terry’s assistant at Chelsea. However, his work at Tottenham is starting to regain him the respect that he garnered whilst sweeping all before him during his one season at Porto.

One of the views being put about is that he is quite lucky to have Gareth Bale in the form of his life, but how about the idea that it is because of AVB’s teaching that Bale is achieving the levels that he is? Bale’s explosion in goalscoring form has coincided with AVB moving him in to a central role. In reality he has a roaming license, popping up all over the pitch. He is top of every dribbling statistic in the major five European leagues and he now has the freedom to do that from all over the field. The Wales international has become particularly dangerous from deep central areas, powering straight at defences; see his goals away at Norwich, West Brom and the first at West Ham. His finishing has always been quite good, but out on the wing he had less chance to demonstrate it.

Gareth Bale hugs manager Andre Villas-Boas

AVB isn’t actually the first to deploy Bale in the middle. Harry Redknapp played him in behind the striker a couple of times last season, including a two-goal plunder away at Norwich, but he didn’t stick to it. This was partly because he liked Rafael Van der Vaart in there, but mainly because he liked the two wide pacey wingers to put crosses in to the box.

AVB comes from a different tactical school to Redknapp. He deploys his best player in his best position and figures the rest out from there. Even if it means playing him in a different part of the pitch to where he might be expected to play. He did the same at Porto with Radamel Falcao. He told him to stay central and let the chances come his way, particularly after a barren start to the season.

Radamel Falcao

In his first season in Portugal Falcao had scored 25 goals in the league but just four in Europe. During Villas-Boas’ only season at the club he scored 16 more domestic goals, in only 22 games, but what made his name were the 17 he scored on Porto’s run to victory in the Europa League. When Villas-Boas arrived he made noises that he wouldn’t make any special adjustments to fit around Falcao, but there were subtle changes. He tweaked the Porto system meaning Falcao won the prized berth in the middle of the front three, and this showed the Colombian that he was Villas-Boas’ main man.

The same thing is happening with Bale. AVB is nothing if not a relentless worker and something of a football junkie. He meticulously plans his training sessions and his tactical game plans but at the beginning of the season he was struggling to get the best from Bale. It has been a slow transition but he has allowed the Welshman more and more license to get himself in to areas that the opposition don’t want to him to be. Where do they least want Bale? Running straight at them through the middle of the pitch. Where do teams least want to see Falcao? Lingering around in the box waiting to pounce on anything that comes his way.

These meticulously planned training sessions are a big factor in helping these players attain their maximum potential. Bale is the type of player who would spend all day on the training ground if he could, and having an innovative and thinking coach like AVB who is able to provide him with different challenges and stimulus every day is something that he buys in to. His work ethic has been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo and the fact that he has such a good coach and teacher is what is taking him on to another level.

After his spectacular season at Porto, Falcao headed to Atletico Madrid for £35 million, full of confidence and with the reputation as one of Europe’s hottest strikers. He has only continued on from there and is now considered amongst the top three pure strikers in the world. Tottenham fans will be hoping that the AVB affect won’t end with Bale, but it is clear that as a coach and teacher Villas-Boas knows how to take very good players and make them some of the best in the world.

Tottenham must play their best team against Lyon in Europa League

Tottenham are back in European action tonight, and face a tough game against Champions League evictees Olympique Lyonnais. With the first game at home at White Hart Lane, the English side have a great chance to take the tie by the scruf of the neck before travelling to the Stade de Gerland. An added bonus for the north London side is that their elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Leeds means that there is no game for Spurs this weekend.

Spurs’ main priority must be a top-four finish in the Premier League and hence a place in next season’s Champions League hat, however continued progression in the second-tier Europa League is seen by many as a blight on their domestic ambitions. Andre Villas-Boas is a known advocate of the Europa League after winning the competition as Porto boss, and has pledged from the start to try to progress in the tournament. Despite this, the inclination to leave key players such as Gareth Bale on the sidelines as to save them for Premier League fixture still exists.

However, with no Premier League fixtures this week due to the FA Cup, Villas-Boas’ men have a full week off before facing Lyon again in France. Instead of fielding a team that is close to its best, the Portuguese trainer would be best advised to start with all the club’s best players, and try to lay a marker in the ground.

Gareth Bale

Lyon are no soft touch and are an experienced and seasoned European campaigner, despite not being at the powers of their Ligue 1 dominant selves in the 2000’s. The side has quality without, and the visitors will not sit back and soak up pressure but rather look to win the game in England and seal progression next week. Spurs must watch Bafetimbi Gomis carefully; the mobile striker has a goal every other game this season to date. Despite this, Lyon have lost their last two games in France, with a 3-1 reverse against Lille last time out.

Spurs, bouyed on by good recent form, and fielding a strong starting line-up should expect to win the game; one which would be common place should they qualify for the Champions League next term.

Shakhtar Donetsk vs Borussia Dortmund: The game no one expected

When the draw for the group stage of the Champions League was first made, few would have imagined this being a second-round match.  But both clubs have reached the knock-out stage on merit and are more than capable of serving up a classic.

Drawn in what many called “the group of death”, Borussia Dortmund showed the rest of Europe what Bundesliga fans had grown accustomed to: topping the group unbeaten, taking four points off Real Madrid and consigning Manchester City to an early exit.

Jürgen Klopp’s team are fast becoming the talk of Europe, in no small part due to the number of their players regularly linked elsewhere.  But for now their squad remains intact and has every chance of making a real impact in this year’s competition.

Marco Reus

Currently 15 points behind Bayern Munich, Klopp will see Europe as more than an escape hatch from domestic inconsistency; he will see it as a chance to replicate the club’s 1997 Champions League success.  In what is likely to be Robert Lewandowski’s last season for the club, the Polish striker can punish a team with the second worst defensive record in the group stage.

But then you would also have said that of Chelsea, who lost 2-1 in the Ukraine and only won at Stamford Bridge after Victor Moses’ 94th-minute rescue act.

Shakhtar have been making steady progress in Europe since their 2009 Europa League success, and much like Dortmund, came through a tough group with aplomb.

Currently on a break from domestic competition, the Ukrainian champions and league leaders have been keeping match fit with a series of friendlies.  Whether that will be enough to keep out the likes of Lewandowski and Mario Götze, and find a way past the imposing defensive partnership of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić, is another matter.

But having won all but one of their 18 league games so far, and having played their part in ousting reigning European champions Chelsea, Mircea Lucescu’s team will be confident of going further. With the creativity and goal scoring threat of Luiz Adriano, Alex Teixeira and Fernandinho, the dark horses could beat the other dark horses at their own game.

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