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Real Madrid, Gareth Bale and why it’s not just about the football

At the Santiago Bernabeu, the stage is literally set for what could be the unveiling of the world’s most-expensive footballer. Gareth Bale’s proposed move from Tottenham to Real Madrid has understandably monopolised recent back pages as fans await the conclusion of a transfer saga that has left many questioning the financial implications of the reported £85 million deal.

Aside from the moral qualms many have about such an astronomical figure, most fans have been left querying whether Bale is worth the record-breaking fee. The Welshman is a phenomenal footballer on a par with other Premier League heavyweights; Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. Yet these players aren’t nearly attracting the astronomical figures to their names as Bale. Robin van Persie, last season’s top goalscorer, was bought for a measly £22.5 million last year. One of the finest all-round English players of the last decade, Wayne Rooney, was only recently valued at a mere £25 million by Chelsea. Luis Suarez, scorer of 30 goals last season, has attracted massive offers from Arsenal but that famous 40 million and a one pound pales in comparison to the reported Bale fee.

The residing question then is this: what exactly are Madrid up to? Gareth Bale is undoubtedly a superb footballer. Not even the most ardent of Arsenal fans would question that. For club and country, the midfielder scored 31 goals last term. He single-handedly won games for his team in sublime fashion on more than a handful of occasions. These are facts that nobody can deny. They are also facts that fans of Manchester United (Rooney and van Persie) and Liverpool can boast of their stars yet no record transfer fee hangs over the heads of these players. Real Madrid president Florentine Perez obviously sees value in the Welshman and is willing to part with £85 million to prove it.

Real Madrid are no strangers to blockbuster signings. In 2001 it was Zinedine Zidane (a then world record £45.6 million). In 2009, it was Kaka (another world record of around £56m) and then Cristiano Ronaldo (yet another world record fee of £80 million). At a cheaper, but no less significant, level they signed David Beckham from Manchester United in 2003 for £24.5 million.

Real Madrid is unashamedly a brand and each of the players mentioned slotted perfectly into the on-going mission to solidify the Galácticos as the largest global brand in football. Through sponsorships and worldwide touring Madrid have become the most recognised football club on the planet.

Gareth Bale

With Beckham they acquired Europe’s most valuable sporting personality. From the very beginning of his Spanish adventure David Beckham was helping his new club recoup the money they had dished out on him – even his medical was sponsored by a health-care firm. Add this to multi-million pound Adidas deal to match Madrid’s and a merchandising agreement that reportedly had Beckham handing 50% of his personal sponsorship earnings to Madrid then it is safe to say that the Spanish giants have an idea of how to spend money to make money.

‘Brand Madrid’ seek players that are able to enhance not just their on-field success but also that off it. Jose Mourinho’s managerial credentials need no clarification yet he was considered surplus to requirements at Madrid as his controversial antics were just not in keeping with the angelic sheen of the nine-time European Cup winners. When Mourinho was seen to poke then Barcelona assistant Tito Vilanova in the eye the Spanish press called it ‘deplorable’. Not an image football’s biggest commercial club wished to convey.

Madrid were often linked to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez this summer, a player with statistics that at times outshine Bale’s, yet this interest never gathered any momentum and it can only be assumed that this is down to the tainted image of the Uruguayan. Like Mourinho, Suarez is capable of too much brand-damaging controversy to justify spending such amounts of money regardless of his talent.

Just a quick glance at Real Madrid’s history of signings provides a clearer picture of why they are willing to spend such an enormous amount on a clean-cut, fresh faced, superstar in the making. In Bale, Madrid have a young star in the making that they will be able to mould and shape to fit their own needs. In Madrid, Bale has a platform to expand his own brand. It was not so long that it was revealed Bale was attempting to trademark his heart-shaped goal celebration – he is clearly aware of the benefits of building his own brand beyond the game and the benefits of a Madrid move will not be lost on the 24-year-old.

Even on a brand-building level, Bale at such a price will still be seen as a gamble for Madrid. Unlike, Zidane, Kaka, Ronaldo or Beckham, he is not a pre-packaged global star just waiting to become a shirt-selling machine. He doesn’t yet transcend sport like, say, Beckham did. The more cynical of supporters will assume the long drawn-out pursuit of Bale by Madrid is merely a clever marketing ploy to allow the world time to catch up and get to know the world’s most expensive footballer-elect before the eventual finalities are complete.

Simply by being attached to such lucrative and high-profile transfers in recent history, Real Madrid have ensured their names in both the history books and newspapers all around the world; the Gareth Bale situation is no different. Madrid are being talked about by football fans and non-fans alike the world over, and that is just the way the like it as the brand continues to flourish with the latest star commodity preparing his keepy-up skills for the big Bernabeu reveal.

by Jack Poland

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Nani for sale? Why Manchester United should think again

It looks like this summer, which is already a transitional one at Manchester United, much of the old Trafford faithful may get one of their long held wishes. For a few seasons now, the majority of the Champion’s supporters seem to have been of the opinion that Portuguese winger Nani doesn’t quite cut the mustard. It now seems that the club are ready to let the player go.

The reason for the large contingent of fans that want to see the wide man moved on is that Nani can be an incredibly frustrating player. Admittedly his crossing is inconsistent, his form often patchy and his decision making below the standard of other top wingers. Despite his failings, Nani is, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s own words, a match-winner. The 26 year old has pace, trickery and can shoot with both feet. United fans seem to forget that for stages of the 2011-12 season, the former sporting man virtually carried the side. In several games when United were struggling to break down opposition, it was his individual brilliance and flair that unlocked the door. If Nani does end up leaving United this year it will also be with a few spectacular goals in his scrapbook. Frustrating-yes, a textbook confidence player-yes, but United’s worst winger, no, not by a long shot.

Nani

Granted, as an attacking wide man, Nani is a few classes below the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s and Bale’s of this day, but If the club are ready to sell wide players, they should perhaps look at some of their other options first. Antonio Valencia for example had a terrible season. He generally offers a steadier and more consistent option to his team-mate and he applies himself better in his defensive duties. Valencia though, lacks the creative spark offered by Nani. He cannot frighten the full back the way the Portuguese can and the amount of United moves which ground to a halt last season because the Ecuador man put his foot on the ball are countless. Ashley Young is another who failed to deliver last term. Young is more similar to Nani in that he is dangerous in a shooting position and can worry defenders but he has become injury prone, is a year older and failed to net a league goal last term in 17 appearances. Nani scored twice in 10 and Valencia just once in 29.

With Wilfried Zaha arriving and Shinji Kagawa also in the mix for an attacking midfield berth, competition will be fierce but even if Nani doesn’t start he can provide an injection of pace and attacking threat from the bench. New manager David Moyes will of course be forming opinions on which members of his new squad he rates highly and will have his own plans of who to bring in but he would be unwise to dismiss the winger’s effectiveness.

It would appear that Moyes and the club may have already made up their minds with Galatasaray claiming United have set an asking price of £8.5 million. That would surely represent a bargain for any side looking to add some creativity. Nani will never be a Cristiano Ronaldo, but he can be a devastating weapon. United don’t have to keep him but he certainly shouldn’t be the first to leave. His chances were very limited last term and regardless of where he is strutting his stuff come the start of the new campaign fans can expect excitement as long as he gets a chance.

Chelsea’s Torres, Manchester United’s Rooney, Barcelona’s Messi and the biggest football contracts of all time

The Biggest Football Contracts of All Time

With the most recent investments into the game the price of players contracts are once again starting to soar. Take a look below to find out more on the current top ten earners in world football and their seasons rates. (Warning: you may be surprised by some of the names on the list.)

10. Cristiano Ronaldo (€10 million)

The Portuguese forward earns a hefty sum at Real Madrid, but he only just cracks our top ten list. Ronaldo came to prominence in the Sporting Lisbon youth team, where an exceptional performance in a friendly against Manchester United earned him a transfer to the English club. After a rocky beginning in England, Ronaldo developed his game and led the side to three English Premier League titles, two League Cups, one UEFA Champions League trophy and the Club World Championship. Success has followed him to Real Madrid, where he won La Liga last season.

9. Lionel Messi (€10.5 million)

Lionel Messi

He is widely considered the best player in the world, yet Messi is only ninth on this list. He is Barcelona’s most dangerous player, often being their sole threat on goal. Messi broke the record for most goals scored in a calendar year in 2012. He has already won three UEFA Champions League crowns, along with winning the Ballon d’Or on four occasions.

8. Dario Conca, Guangzhou Evergrande (€10.6 million)

Conca is an Argentine international who plies his trade in China’s major league. This contract is a massive surprise, given the fact that Conca is not among the world’s elite players.

7. Fernando Torres, Chelsea (€10.8 million)

Along with paying £50 million to Liverpool, Chelsea gave Fernando Torres a bumper contract. Unfortunately, he has rarely showed the quality to justify such a financial expense. He has struggled to recapture his Liverpool form and is likely to be sold this summer.

6. Didier Drogba, Shanghai Shenhua (€12 million)

Didier Drogba

Ironically, Drogba is the man Torres was signed to replace at Chelsea. The Ivorian moved to China where he was on a handsome contract for half a season. Unfortunately, financial problems meant the cancellation of the deal allowing Drogba to move to Turkish giants Galatasaray, with employment lawyers now likely to get involved.

5. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City (€12.5 million)

Despite failure in the UEFA Champions League for two consecutive seasons, Aguero led City to last season’s Premier League title. More will be expected in future seasons from the Argentine star.

4. Yaya Toure, Manchester City (€13 million)

From Barcelona’s reserves to Manchester City’s first team, Yaya Toure made a massive jump when he left Spain. Not only did he earn a starting spot, but he got one of the best football contracts in history. His performances have lived up to the billing as he is often City’s best player.

3. Wayne Rooney, Manchester United (€13.8 million)

Wayne Rooney

A summer after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, United faced the possibility of Rooney leaving too. Instead, he was coaxed into staying by the manager and was rewarded with the third highest football contract. He has won four Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League at Old Trafford.

2. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG (€14.5 million)

Ibra continued his nomadic club journey to PSG this summer, signing a massive contract with the French giants. He will be the spearhead of their bid to dominate European football.

1. Samuel Eto’o, Anzhi Makhachkala (€20 million)

Why would a footballer leave Inter Milan (European champions at the time) for Russian football? The answer is €20 million euros a season and the largest contract ever given to a football player.

Author Bio
Jamie Stevenson is an avid copywriter who writes for a variety of websites, including specialist employment solicitors Slater & Gordon.

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

Manchester United out of the Champions League – expect a red response

United to bite back?

Manchester United exited the UEFA Champions League last night amid a storm of controversy, after a truly dramatic encounter with Spanish giants Real Madrid. The fixture, which saw the return of former Old Trafford idol Cristiano Ronaldo and another top-of-the-bill tactical duel between Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, certainly lived up the pre-match expectations.

What nobody saw coming though, was the actions of referee Cuneyt Cakir. The Turkish official brandished a straight red card for United’s Nani after the winger caught Alvaro Arbeloa with an accidental high boot. The impact of the decision on the home side was brutally clear by the end of the 90 minutes, but as the analysis of the incident spins around Europe, NMO now takes a look at what the turn of events means for the English domestic season.

Fans of Manchester City were likely to have watched on chuckling as United’s European dream came crashing down in shower of perceived injustice. The more perceptive among them however, will know that when that red card came out of Cakir’s pocket it was not just a watershed in the game but also a beacon, signalling the end for City’s aspirations of defending their league title.

Sir Alex Ferguson

While United are galloping 12 points clear at the Premiership’s summit. Roberto Mancini will surely have been clinging to the faint hope that his arch rivals’ European endeavours would prove a distraction, causing them to drop a few points and allow his own side to rein them in.

With the possibility of two-leg quarter and semi-finals now eradicated, the Old Trafford side will be able to fully focus on regaining the crown that was so dramatically snatched from them within the final minutes of last season. Expect Ferguson to field strong sides now in all of United’s league fixtures until the title is claimed, which could well be before the end of April. The top two of course, still must meet for a second time this season, with City scheduled to make the trip across town on the April 8. Had United progressed to the quarter-finals this crucial six pointer would have fallen bang in the middle of their two European ties. This would surely have been an advantage, which has just been removed from Mancini’s list of reasons to be cheerful.

Looking for more immediate potential fallout we should search no further than Old Trafford this coming Sunday. Chelsea are the visitors in an FA cup tie which represents the Blues’ last realistic hope of silverware this season. It is a all too well known a fact that when Ferguson’s United are knocked down they get back up again and the backlash for whichever side happens to be in front of them is usually severe. As the Madrid players celebrated, Ferguson was incandescent with rage. United players lost their cool and wrongly vented their frustrations with Mr Cakir. If Rafa Benitez was looking on he would be right to be concerned as before him was the perfect example of the old cliche; a wounded animal.

That animal will take to the field against Chelsea on Sunday and it would be foolish to think that United players will be wallowing in self-pity. Fergie is likely to freshen his side. Rooney will surely return and we will see a line-up with a simple brief: attack with ferocious intensity.

The impact of United focusing solely on their domestic challenges is likely to spread down the table. Arsenal, Chelsea and Aston Villa all have league fixtures that would have coincided with United’s Champions League schedule if they had continued in the competition. Each of those clubs must surely now feel the chances of much needed points in those games has just diminished slightly.

It is easy of course to look at the what ifs but we can briefly consider this United side and whether or not they were strong enough to compete on three fronts and repeat the treble success of 1999. The answer, ultimately, is of course no but had the Cuneyt Cakir shown yellow rather than red, the class of 2013 would most likely still be on course to scale similar heights.

The midfield quartet of Giggs, Scholes, Keane and Beckham probably sets the 99 side apart from the current crop but the United of today has more strength in depth, a formidable lead in the league and with Barcelona’s progress uncertain, had Fergie’s charges gone through, they would be looking like the team to avoid. Unfortunately for those still to play them in the league this season, avoidance is not an option.

Manchester United vs Real Madrid: Does the winner of the tie become favourite for the tournament?

Champions League football returns tonight with a mouth-watering last 16 clash between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford. The tie is on a knife-edge after an end-to-end 1-1 draw between the teams at the Santiago Bernabeu a couple of weeks ago, with the game very unpredictable. However, with the calibre of the defeated opposition, will the victorious team become frontrunners to lift the trophy at Wembley come May?

Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho will know that progression will give their respective team a massive psychological boost and lift confidence heading into the quarter-finals. Plus, with the possibility that Barcelona could be eliminated by AC Milan, the winner of this tie has every chance of going all the way.

United have all but wrapped up the Premier League title, with a 12 point advantage at the summit and only ten games to play. The Red Devils are on a run of scintillating form, and a 4-0 victory over Norwich at the weekend is a continuation of recent victories.

Shinji Kagawa and Cristiano Ronaldo

Ferguson will be pleased with how the tie is positioned given the draw in the Spanish capital, and now knows that victory at home will send his side through. However, this will be no easy task.

At the turn of 2013 Real Madrid looked to be a faded force from the team that lifted the La Liga title last season, with internal wranglings and inconsistent form making the headlines. However, over the course of the last month Los Blancos have set the record straight; back-to-back victories over arch rivals Barcelona show that on their day Madrid can beat anyone in world football.

The 3-1 victory at Camp Nou in the Copa Del Rey will be of specific relevance to the United clash. Madrid sat back and allowed Barca to have the ball, defended diligently and pressed the Blaugrana’s main attacking players. Consequently, when this pressing resulted in a turnover, Madrid hit their Catalan foes on the break clinically and with devastating precision.

At Old Trafford United will be expected to have the bulk of possession and look to kill the tie off by scoring the goals needed to win the game. The English side must be wary of committing too many men forward however, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria in particular have all the attributes to punish.

The absence of Phil Jones will mean that the hosts lack a real physical force in the centre of their midfield, and as such the likes of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, if selected, will need to work their socks off to close Madrid’s playmakers down.

A fixture that would be a fitting final, both teams will treat this game as such, and come full-time a new favourite to lift the 2012-13 Champions League crown could well book their place in the last eight.

Can Wayne Rooney ever be called “world-class”?

Watching Wayne Rooney’s performance against Real Madrid this week, one word sprang to mind – selfless.

It is a word that describes many of his performances in the Champions League, certainly in recent years, as he regularly sacrifices his attacking intent for the good of the team.  But it is also a trait that may prevent him from ever breaking into that elite group that some argue contains only two.

One school of thought is that ‘world-class’ equals ‘showman’.  While the other claims it is more akin to ‘catalyst’.  The very best – in the case of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – are both.

Wayne Rooney

And yet, in Europe at least, Rooney is neither of those.  He works tirelessly, carrying out his manager’s orders with a tenacious energy and unquestionable will to win.  But on nights like Wednesday, few would call him world-class.

Is it the case that Ronaldo and Messi are at the peak of their sport because they are allowed to be, because they are rarely given other jobs to do?  Similarly with the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, who make the game adapt to them rather than the other way round?

Rooney is an outstanding footballer.  Of that there is no question.  And he has evolved perhaps more than anyone else currently in the Premier League, from a fearless teenage striker to a deep-lying forward who sprays passes, creates for others and still finds time to score plenty himself.

But he is too good at too many things to ever be allowed to do just one.

This is a man who as a boy tore league and international defences apart, who scored a hat-trick on his debut for Manchester United and didn’t look surprised.  And so the footballing world may always wonder what would have happened if he had remained that player – if that were even possible.

In a game that evolves, players who do the same should be championed, and 155 goals in 336 appearances are proof enough that Rooney was and remains an outstanding talent.  You just wonder, although United would be weaker without everything he brings to every area of the pitch, what would have happened if he had focused on just one.  Perhaps then we would be talking of three not two.

For United fans, he will go down as a legend.  While for English football, he will be remembered as possibly the best of his generation.  And of course at only 27, there is plenty yet to come.

But he has evolved in such a way as to prevent the possibility of joining those termed world-class, not when it is defined as one man standing out from ten more.

Instead he does what is asked of him.  And with every win he contributes to, he will be happy, even if the world doesn’t always notice.

Real Madrid vs Manchester United: The game where anything can happen

According to Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, this is ‘the match the world is waiting for’.  When you consider the talent on display, the numerous subplots and their history, it is hard to disagree. In short, when Manchester United face Real Madrid, anything can happen.

Just look at the sides’ eight previous meetings in Europe’s premier competition; 31 goals have been scored between them, 11 of which came in the epic quarter-final of 2003. Many are predicting a similar total this time round, but the tie could just as easily be a tense affair where goals are at a premium.

Much depends on how United cope with their former player Cristiano Ronaldo.  If they manage to shackle him, they will nullify Madrid’s most potent threat. But if they don’t, they may be torn apart by the Spanish side’s incisive counter-attack. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope his instructions are carried out to perfection, whilst being blessed with a little luck on the side.

Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho

Phil Jones has found fitness and form at precisely the right time and he, along with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, will bring the regimented energy the Red Devils need to keep the likes of Angel Di Maria, Mesut Ozil and Ronaldo at bay.

In defence, Rafael will hope his man-of-the-match performance against Everton can be replicated in a competition where his rashness has proved most costly. While the rarely-spotted partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic will have to be at their very best.

At the other end, the likely attacking trio of Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa will have chances they must take. It is games like this that Kagawa was bought for, and that van Persie has the ability to win with one movement.

Aside from Ronaldo, Madrid’s strike-force is out of form of late, but both Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema possess such natural ability that they can punish the smallest misjudgement. Meanwhile, even Kaka was hailed by Spanish newspaper Marca as being back to his best after a rare start in Saturday’s 4-1 win against Sevilla.

First legs of knockout competitions are too-often cagey affairs.  And don’t bet against the pressure on Madrid to perform – from a home crowd desperate for success in a season that is fast becoming a write-off – to have a bearing on the game. Already 16 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and with a fight to stay in the Copa del Rey, the Champions League may be Mourinho’s only chance of a trophy this season; a trophy that would go down in history as the fabled Décima – their tenth European title.

Too often, pre-game hype is unjustified; but not this time. It may be the second leg that ultimately proves to be the one the world is waiting for, because it is then that a winner will be decided.  But this week’s match will be both clubs’ biggest challenge so far this season – for United to raise their game in a year when they have hardly needed to, and for Madrid to prevent theirs from ending three months too soon.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil and Euro 2012 distractions

Whilst Euro 2012 is on the Ninety Minutes Online team have outsourced their considerable resources to cover the tournament for other leading media outlets. As such posts for the next while may well be sparse.

However just quickly, after watching the Germany vs Portugal game last night a few things came to the fore. Firstly, Mesut Ozil steadied a rocky Germany ship that was in no way sure to beat Paulo Bento’s men. The Real Madrid playmaker showed poise and confidence on the ball and it is easy to see why he is so highly regarded at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Another Real Madrid man, Fabio Coentrao, had an enterprising game for Portugal at left-back, showing solidity in defence but a real attacking threat when he ventured forward.

However, Los Blancos’ main man Cristiano Ronaldo was decidedly muted and did not look like the player that scored against every Primera Division team in 2011-12. Playing predominantly in a wide position CR7 struggled to make any impact on the game; Nani looked more dangerous on the other flank. Ronaldo’s claim to be amongst the best players to have ever played the game hinges on whether he can replicate club form on the international set-up, and last night’s showing did little to inspire confidence that he can be talked about in the same light as Pele, Maradona, Cruyff etc.

Whilst Ronaldo toiled, Messi starred. The current Ballon d’Or holder scored a meticulous hat-trick in Argentina’s 4-3 win over Brazil to show why he is the world’s best; check out this wonderful winner.

Enjoy the remainder of Euro 2012

Lionel Messi vs Diego Maradona: How the rise of the Champions League is at the expense of international football

When you think of great players of decades gone by, such as Pele or Diego Maradona, their World Cup performances instantly spring to mind. Comparing players from different eras is always difficult, but two of the best of the current generation are without doubt Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The crucial difference is that the current top two have reached their exalted status of ‘best players in the world’ almost totally through their performances in club football – Messi for Barcelona and Ronaldo for Manchester United and Real Madrid. Despite this, the current Ballon d’Or holder failed to score in his most recent World Cup finals in 2010 or the Copa America finals in 2011.

This is just one indication of the rise of the UEFA Champions League and the relative decline of international football. The Champions League, rather than the World Cup, is now sometimes spoken of as the greatest prize in football. Here we examine some of the possible reasons for this shift:

Player motivation – Players of teams able to challenge for the Champions League title are, without exception, rewarded handsomely for their efforts by their clubs. In this era of the super-rich footballer, playing international football has become something of a labour of love. After a career in which he enjoyed massive success with Manchester United but had precious little joy with England, Gary Neville said:

“There have been times when I’ve reflected on my international career and just thought ‘Well that was a massive waste of time’.”

Imagine what effect Neville’s words might have had on a young player just starting his international career.

Club spending power – The clubs in the major European leagues, such as the Premier League and La Liga, are the richest in the world. Their resources allow them to assemble an array of talent from all corners of the globe, from South America to Africa and the Far East. With these resources at their disposal, the leading club sides are arguably stronger than some of the top international teams.

Entertainment value –  The Champions League is quite simply often better to watch than international football. An average of 2.65 goals were scored per game in the group stages of the 2011/12 Champions League, whereas in the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, this figure was only 2.06. With six group games as opposed to three, the fear of the consequences of losing a group match is lower in the Champions League. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson described the last six World Cup finals as ‘like pulling teeth’.

Television coverage – In many European countries, Champions League football is covered by a satellite sports channel, while international football is largely shown on general terrestrial channels. Sports channels thus have more time to cover their events in greater depth.

Supporters’ attitudes – Possibly influenced by the saturation coverage of the Champions League, and other factors, supporters of bigger clubs sometimes have little regard for international football. In England it is often supporters of lower division clubs that provide unstinting support for the national team. As an example, the fans of Manchester United have a song that mocks England’s lack of success on the world stage.

With Euro 2012 and football at the Olympics coming up this summer, will international tournaments come back into modern players and fans’ preferences?

By Martin Saxon

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