Why this is the opportune season for Atletico Madrid to win La Liga

‘We can’t give up now’ says Zidane after Real Madrid defeat at Levante

In the last 14 seasons, only Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid has beaten both Real Madrid and Barcelona to the La Liga title. Since then, they’ve finished 16, 3, 15 and 14 points adrift of the Champions but they can reclaim the throne in 2018/19 and we explore the reasons why it’s a possibility.

For a club aiming to reach the pinnacle of European football, patience and perseverance are two crucial traits. They will stumble on their road to success, they will endure heartbreaking losses and they will have to make peace with their best players leaving for greener pastures. However, the most difficult paths often lead to the most beautiful destinations.  

If any club epitomizes the abovementioned statements, then that’s Atletico Madrid. They started the 21st century in the Spanish second division, they lost their superstars year in year out and they even lost two Champions League finals in a heartbreaking manner to their archrivals. However, Atletico Madrid has slowly and steadily become a force to reckon with and the Diego Simeone has played a huge role in this change of fortunes.

The 2018/19 season will be Atletico Madrid’s eighth season under Simeone and in the previous seven seasons, the club has enjoyed unprecedented success. With Simeone at the helm, Atletico’s most notable achievement is beating the odds to win the La Liga in 2013/14. Now, through efforts of their own and otherwise, the stage is set for them to reclaim the league title.

A summer like no other

Atletico Madrid’s success has often come at a cost and the cost is losing their best players. For instance, two of the Premier League’s best players, Sergio Aguero and David de Gea are former Atletico Madrid players. Even two of Atletico Madrid’s current stars, Diego Costa and Filipe Luis, moved to Chelsea before returning to Atletico Madrid.

However, this summer was different. One of the major transfer stories of the summer was the future of Antoine Griezmann and the Frenchman was heavily linked with a move to rivals Barcelona. It seemed like Atletico were braced for the exit of yet another key first team player but Griezmann quashed all rumours and instead, flamboyantly announced his contract extension with Atletico. 

Other in-demand first-team players such as Lucas Hernandez and Jose Maria Gimenez also signed new contracts in the summer while they retained the services of Diego Godin and Jan Oblak amidst strong interest from Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.  

In addition to retaining their best players, their summer transfer business was impeccable. They replaced their veteran captain Gabi with one of Spain’s most promising young midfielders Rodri. Their squad lacked natural wide players with pace as well and that was addressed with the arrival of Thomas Lemar and Gelson Martins.

The result of an excellent summer is arguably the best Atletico Madrid side in recent history.

Rivals in a rut

Even if Atletico Madrid perform to the best of their abilities, to win the league title, they will need their rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona to slip up and drop points unexpectedly. The current situation at Real Madrid and Barcelona will definitely aid Atletico Madrid in that aspect.

For Barcelona, the departure of Andres Iniesta and concerns over the pragmatic approach of Ernesto Valverde are the major reasons of concerns this season.

The Catalan club previously showed difficulty in coping with the departure of an influential first-team player when Carles Puyol and then Xavi Hernandez left the club. Most Barcelona fans would concur if you state that Puyol and Xavi were never truly replaced. The departure of Andres Iniesta in the summer leaves a similar gaping hold in the Barcelona team and one that won’t be easily filled. 

The other concern for Barcelona is the direction in which the club is moving under Valverde. Barcelona’s playing style under Valverde was a far cry from the free-flowing football Barcelona fans were spoilt with in recent years but it yielded them a domestic double last time around.

This season, Valverde switched from the 4-4-2 system that worked for him to a more attacking 4-3-3 to use offensive players like Ousmane Dembele but the results haven’t been convincing. Barcelona are without a win in their last three La Liga games with two of those games ending in a draw at home to Girona and Athletic Bilbao and the third a defeat to bottom-placed Leganes. 

Reverting to the 4-4-2 system with four midfielders might give some respite to Valverde in terms of results in the league at least but the system was exposed in Europe last season when teams used high-energy pressing and runners behind Barcelona’s four-man midfield or simply bombarded them with long balls over the top. In addition, a certain Luis Suarez has performed like a shadow of his former self in this formation.

While Valverde sorts out the system and personnel he wants to use, Barcelona are bound to drop more points in the league. To compound his problems, Samuel Umtiti is out of action for several months with a knee injury.

As for Real Madrid, they are going through a period of transition and a huge one at that. There were two departures from the Los Blancos squad in the summer and both sent shockwaves in the football world.

Five days after Real Madrid clinched their third consecutive Champions League title, Zinedine Zidane stepped down as manager after being in charge of the club for only two and a half seasons. He cited the club’s “need for a change” as a reason behind his decision. 

Around a month after Zidane’s departure, a bigger shock awaited Real Madrid fans as Cristiano Ronaldo transferred to Juventus after a nine-year stint in the Spanish capital. In nine seasons, Ronaldo became the club’s all-time leading goalscorer with 450 goals in 438 and was also the club’s leading goalscorer in his last eight seasons by a significant margin.

Real Madrid had to find a replacement for Zidane and Julen Lopetegui was given the honour. However, the club opted against finding a direct replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo. This puts more pressure on the likes of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Marco Asensio to find the back of the net. 

Lopetegui’s stint as Real Madrid manager started with a 4-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. His side gathered wind in their sails from there on but a recent 3-0 defeat to Sevilla followed by a 0-0 draw with Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu has fans already questioning the team’s temperament in big games.

The period of uncertainty that’s going on at Barcelona and Real Madrid should give a much-needed boost for Atletico Madrid in the La Liga title race. 

The Diego Simeone effect

Atletico Madrid fans don’t have any of the concerns of their rival fans. They have a manager who has instilled a winning mentality into the side and found success with his conservative approach.

In addition, the strike force of Antoine Griezmann and Diego Costa is arguably the best Simeone has ever had at the club. They only played together in the second half of last season and we may not have seen their best yet.

Diego Costa Antoine Griezmann Atletico Madrid

Costa was without match practice in the first half of last season nor did he have a full preseason with Atletico Madrid. Griezmann, on the other hand, is coming back after winning the World Cup. They’ve already shown glimpses of their brilliant linkup play and that will only get better as the season progresses.

Seven games into the current league season, Atletico Madrid are fourth in the table and two points behind the leaders Barcelona. However, they’ve already played Valencia, Celta Vigo and Real Madrid in away fixtures.

There are enough reasons to believe that this is Atletico Madrid’s league title for the taking but only time will tell if that is going to be the case.

Top 10 stars currently plying their trade in Chinese Super League

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The Chinese Super League has proven to be a lucrative destination for many stars in recent years. Several players, a number coming from Brazil, have successfully moved to China in the prime of their careers. We rank the Top 10 stars who are currently lighting up the CSL.

#10. Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan)

Renato Augusto is the only Brazilian player who still plays for the Brazil national football team despite moving to the Chinese Premier League.

The 30-year-old midfielder started his career with Flamengo before moving to Bayer Leverkusen for what has so far been his only stint in Europe. Despite being a fan favourite at Leverkusen, he returned to Brazil with Corinthians before moving to Beijing Guoan in January 2016.

Augusto has been at Beijing Guoan since, playing 66 games and finding the back of the net 12 times.

#9. Graziano Pelle (Shandong Luneng)

Graziano Pelle is best known for his two-season long stint in the Premier League with Southampton. The Italian striker played 81 games for the Saints scoring 30 goals which include some spectacular finishes.

Pelle joined Shandong Luneng in July 2016 and became the fifth-highest paid footballer in the world earning an estimated £13.5 million per season. However, his performance hasn’t justified the wage he earns as the Italian has scored just 22 times in 63 games.

#8. John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA)

John Obi Mikel spent almost the entirety of his professional career in Europe with Chelsea. He played 374 games for the Blues in ten and a half seasons winning nine trophies.

Although he was used as a squad player throughout his Chelsea career, he played a crucial role in helping the club win the Champions League in 2012 and played 120 minutes in the final against Bayern Munich.

Mikel joined Tianjin TEDA in January 2017 on a free transfer and has been with the club since. The Nigerian is currently their vice-captain.  

#7. Hulk (Shanghai SIPG)

Hulk’s professional career took off with an Asian club before he found success in Europe. The Brazilian forward was in Japan playing in the first and second division before joining Porto.

He spent four seasons with Porto before moving to Russia to play for Zenit for another four years before moving to Shanghai SIPG. The 32-year-old has been a huge hit in China, scoring 46 times in 82 games and was named in the Chinese Super League Team of the Year in 2017.

#6. Ramires (Jiangsu Suning)

Ramires is one of several former Chelsea players to have moved to China in recent years. He spent five and a half seasons with the Blues and won every major trophy. He also won the honour of becoming Chelsea Players’ Player of the Year in 2011/12 thanks to his performance resulting in their UEFA Champions League triumph.

The Brazilian midfielder joined Jiangsu Suning in January 2016 and has scored 17 times in 71 games. During the 2018 European summer transfer window, he attempted to force a move back to Benfica but the deal collapsed after his club activated a clause in his contract to extend his deal until January 2019.

The result of his actions was his banishment to the club’s reserves. However, this may soon see him make a return back to a European squad.

#5. Oscar (Shanghai SIPG)

Of all the players who moved to China in recent years, the most shocking transfer has to be that of Oscar. He was 25-years-old when he moved to Shanghai SIPG and there were offers on the table from Atletico Madrid and Serie A clubs. 

The Brazilian midfielder has played 72 games and scored 25 goals for Shanghai SIPG so far. He’s currently enjoying a fantastic season with the club and if Shanghai SIPG wins the Chinese Super League then they will end Guangzhou Evergrande’s run of seven straight title wins.

#4. Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang)

Yannick Carrasco was only 24 when he moved to China and was playing regular football for Atletico Madrid. He moved to Dalian Yifang alongside fellow teammate Nicolas Gaitan in February 2018. 

Chinese multinational conglomerate Wanda Group owned a 17% share in Atletico Madrid and they sold that stake to take full control of Dalian Yifang. Wanda group used the money from Atletico Madrid and invested it in Carrasco and Gaitan.

Speaking on his exit, Carrasco claimed“I decided to leave Atletico and start a new adventure with Dalian Yifang, to join the Wanda group project, the Chinese championship is booming, the working conditions are excellent, the new infrastructures are modern and they are available for both players and fans.”

#3. Ezequiel Lavezzi (Hebei China Fortune)

Ezequiel Lavezzi is best known for his two hugely successful stints with Napoli and PSG. He played 188 games for Napoli scoring 48 goals before moving to PSG where he became a huge fan favourite en route to picking up nine trophies.

The Argentine only played 10 games in his debut season owing to injuries and failed to find the back of the net at all. However, in the following two seasons, he scored 30 goals in 47 games.

#2. Paulinho (Guangzhou Evergrande)

Paulinho moved to China in 2015 after two forgettable seasons with Tottenham Hotspur. He was a huge hit in the Chinese Super League and his form for  Guangzhou Evergrande earned him a recall to the Brazil national team.

He scored 28 goals in 95 games for Guangzhou Evergrande and also won six trophies including the AFC Champions League.

In 2017, Paulinho made a shock return to Europe with Barcelona and played a key role in helping the club win the La Liga. A year later, he returned to Guangzhou Evergrande and in 13 games, he has already scored 10 times.

#1. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune)

Javier Mascherano is easily one of the greatest ever players to play in the Chinese Super League.

Mascherano moved to Hebei China Fortune in January 2018 after seven and a half seasons with Barcelona during which he won 19 trophies. He has played 21 games in China and scored once to equal his goal tally for Barcelona.

He is currently teammates with compatriot Lavezzi and former Lazio and Juventus midfielder Hernanes.

5 famous current superstars with Asian descent

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FIFA’s eligibility rules give players the opportunity to play for the country in which their biological parents or grandparents were born in and because of this rule, some current superstars who represented or are currently representing European countries had the opportunity before to play for an Asian Country.

Without further delay, let’s get on to the list.

Yohan Cabaye – Vietnam

The 32-year-old Yohan Cabaye currently plays for UAE club Al-Nasr but the entirety of his football career before the most recent move is split between two clubs each in Ligue 1 and the Premier League.

Cabaye, who has 48 caps for France, is of Vietnamese descent through his paternal grandmother. In fact, he once admitted that he would have played for Vietnam if he wasn’t picked for the France senior team but that was never going to the be the case as he was a fantastic midfielder in the prime of his career.

The French midfielder has stated that he wants to visit the country of his grandmother and contribute to the development of football there.

Alphonse Areola – Philippines

The Paris Saint-Germain academy product is a World Cup winner with France but he didn’t make his senior debut until after the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Areola made his professional debut for PSG at the end of the 2012/13 season before spending the next three seasons on loan at Lens, Bastia and Villarreal respectively. In 2016/17, he shared goalkeeping duties with Kevin Trapp before becoming the outright first choice goalkeeper for the Parisian club in 2017/18.

The 25-year-old is currently first in line to take over as France’s first choice goalkeeper once Hugo Lloris steps down but his international career could have been very different.

Areola was eligible to play for the Philippine national team because both his parents were of Filipino heritage. In fact, back in 2011, the Philippines manager, Dan Palami, invited him to consider playing for the team, but he declined.

Interestingly, the Philippines’ current first choice goalkeeper is Neil Etheridge of Cardiff City who was born in England from a Filipino mother.

Radja Nainggolan – Indonesia

Radja Nainggolan is a former Belgian international who has spent his entire professional career with Italian clubs. He notably played for Cagliari and AS Roma before moving to Inter Milan in the summer.

The 30-year-old midfielder who is nicknamed ‘Ninja’, is the son of a Belgian mother and an Indonesian father of Batak background. His father abandoned the family when he was just a child and it was his mother who raised him with his three half-brothers and twin sister.

His first name Radja in Bahasa Indonesia means ‘King’. Nainggolan has a huge fan base in Indonesia and often uses his social media accounts to communicate with the fans and show support to the Indonesian football team. He has visited the country several times and also expressed his desire to develop football there.

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David Alaba – Philippines

David Alaba’s father and mother are from an African and Asian country respectively and he plays football for a European country. Talk about being Cosmopolitan? He was born in 1992 in Vienna, Austria to a Nigerian father and a Filipino mother.

Alaba’s mother, Gina, was named Miss Philippines, in the country of her birth in the 1980s before she emigrated to work as a nurse in Austria and it was here that she met and married his father, a prince, who works as a rapper and also as a DJ.

The 26-year-old has predominantly played as a left-back but is also capable of playing in midfield and in the heart of the defence. He has spent almost the entirety of his professional career with Bayern Munich winning as many as 15 trophies.

Alaba might go down in history as the greatest player from Austria having won the Austrian player of the year award a record six times between 2011 and 2016.

David Silva – Japan

David Silva is into his ninth season with Manchester City and when he ultimately leaves the club, he will go down as one of the greatest players ever to represent the club having played a crucial role in winning nine trophies including three Premier League titles.

The 32-year-old midfielder was born in Spain to a Spanish father and a mother of Japanese descent according to the Canarian media. However, unlike the other players mentioned in this list, it is unclear whether Silva would have been eligible to play for the Asian country in which he has descendants because FIFA’s rules only allow a player to represent a country in which his biological parents or grandparents were born.

Silva is a FIFA World Cup and two-time Euro winner with Spain, he has the sixth highest number of caps for the country and also scored the fourth highest number of goals.

Five uncapped starlets who could play for England soon

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It has been a good couple of years for England in international football. The seniors reached the semifinal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup while they were crowned champions at the U-17 and U-20 levels in 2017. Some fantastic young English players are coming to fore and Fox Sports Asia handpicks five uncapped ones who could line up for England soon and maybe play a part in their Euro 2020 campaign.

Mason Mount (Derby County, on loan from Chelsea)

Chelsea have one of the best youth setups among the Premier League clubs and Mount is one of the most promising in a long list of players to come through the Blues academy in recent years.

The 19-year-old midfielder is currently on loan at promotion-seeking Championship club Derby County playing under former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard with whom he has drawn comparisons. Mount is a set-piece specialist and also has an eye for goal. It is probably the goalscoring exploits and the ease with which he finds the back of the net from outside the box that has raised the Lampard comparisons.

He spent the 2017-18 season on loan at Eredivisie club Vitesse scoring 14 times in 39 games. This season, he has scored five times in 11 games for the Rams which is the highest in the squad.

Mount may not break into the England senior team this season while playing in the Championship but he has the attributes and time to do so before Euro 2020.

James Maddison (Leicester City)

When Gareth Southgate names the next England squad and James Maddison doesn’t find a place in it, then it would be a huge shock. The Leicester City midfielder has seamlessly switched from the Championship to the Premier League and he has ensured that his side doesn’t miss Riyad Mahrez.

The 21-year-old attacking midfielder rose to fame last season when he scored 14 goals and assisted 8 more for Norwich City in the Championship. As a result, he was named Norwich’s Player of the Season and included in the Championship PFA Team of the Year.

Maddison has started all of Leicester City’s league games this season scoring three goals and assisting a further two. His dribbling, passing, composure, close control and setpiece skills have also caught the eye.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it was evident that England lacked midfielders with excellent technical ability and that shortcoming can be alleviated to a huge extent with a midfielder like Maddison in the ranks.

Phil Foden (Manchester City)

Phil Foden has the chance to be the first player from Manchester City’s fabled Elite Development Squad to become a first team regular.

Foden is highly rated by Pep Guardiola who is renowned for bringing the best out of talented young players. The City gaffer has heaped praise on the teenage midfielder since breaking into the first team.

After Foden’s goal and assist in the win over Oxford, Guardiola once again sang praises of the 18-year-old.

“He has the quality to stay here for 10 years because I think he wants to stay, I think the club wants him to. But step by step, he needs to play regularly, but I think he has all the skills to play with us.”

Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)

Jadon Sancho has played only 124 minutes of football in the Bundesliga this season but he has bagged five assists which is more than anyone in Europe’s Top 5 leagues.

The 18-year-old was part of Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad but a contract dispute over assurances of playing time forced him to move away from the club and he subsequently joined Borussia Dortmund as a first-team player taking the No. 7 shirt left vacant by Ousmane Dembele.

Borussia is known for giving opportunities to young players and Sancho’s decision to join the club has proved to be a good one. In 20 first-team games for the club of which there were only eight starts, he has two goals and 11 assists.

Sancho was also part of England’s U-17 World Cup-winning squad although he had to return to Dortmund midway through the tournament. No member of that English squad is closer to their first senior international call-up than the winger.

“When our opponents ease off a little and Jadon comes into the game, then he’s a weapon for us every single time, we’re happy to have him up our sleeve and he always gives us a boost”,  Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus said after Sancho’s impressive cameo against Nuremberg last month.

Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham)

Fulham are currently enjoying life back in the Premier League but if it wasn’t for the remarkable form of a then 17-year-old left-back turned left-winger, the Cottagers would have still been playing in the EFL Championship. Such was the impact of Ryan Sessegnon.

To put things into perspective, last season, Sessegnon became the first-ever player from outside the English top flight to be nominated for the prestigious PFA Young Player of the Year award. Although he didn’t win that award, he won an unprecedented five awards as he was named the Championship Player of the Season, Championship Young Player of the Season, Football League Apprentice of the Year and named in the Team of the Season and EFL Club Developed XI.

In 2017-18, he had 16 goals and eight assists to his name of which there were some crucial ones in the play-off round which propelled Fulham to the Premier League.

Several top European clubs were keen on signing Sessegnon in the summer but the 18-year-old opted to stay at Fulham to ensure he gets regular first-team action and Premier League exposure.

Five managers who could replace Jose Mourinho at Manchester United

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10 points from seven league games, a cup exit and strained relationships with his own players. Jose Mourinho’s situation at Manchester United eerily reminds us of his final season at Chelsea and it may not be long before he is shown the exit door. We list out five men who United could turn to if they decide to fire Jose.


Blanc hasn’t taken up a managerial role since leaving Paris Saint-Germain in 2016. For many, the Frenchman may not seem like the ideal candidate to replace Mourinho because winning the Ligue 1 with PSG and the Premier League with Manchester United are different ball games. Lest we forget, Blanc has also won the Ligue 1 with Bordeaux in 2009.

PSG failed to win the Ligue 1 in the first season after his departure while they won it thrice in a row with him at the helm. In addition, they reached the quarterfinal of the Champions League with Blanc every season but haven’t gotten past the Round of 16 since his departure.

As a player, Blanc represented Manchester United in the final two seasons of his playing career and as a result, he will already know the expectations that come with the job. His appointment might also please his compatriots Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial who have been alienated by Mourinho.


United fans would love a manager who deploys an attacking style of play and can also bring to fore talented youngsters from the academy. Jardim ticks both these boxes.

He was hired by AS Monaco in 2014 after an impressive season with Sporting CP in Portugal. He inherited a side that finished seventh in the league in 2012-13 while scoring and conceding 36 goals. The average age of the side he worked with was just 24 but they finished second in the league, seven points behind champions Benfica, and scored 18 goals more and conceded 16 less than in the previous season.

The Portuguese manager impressively won the Ligue 1 with a young Monaco side in 2016-17 and that side racked up 95 points while scoring 107 goals! He also took them to the semifinal of the Champions League that season while beating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City along the way.

Although still employed, United should be able to convince the 44-year-old to part ways with Monaco.


Conte may not be high up the fans’ lists given his pragmatic approach but the former Chelsea boss makes sense for more than one reason.

Firstly, the Italian has already shown that he’s capable of acing the Premier League. Chelsea won the league in his debut season in England with 93 points while also breaking a couple of league records on the way. In addition, his Chelsea side reached the FA Cup final in both seasons he was in charge and won the 2018 final at the expense of United.

Secondly, he may be able to solve one of United’s big concerns – bringing the best out of Pogba. Pogba moved to Juventus in 2012 and played under Conte for two seasons. It was under the Italian’s tutelage that the Frenchman rose to fame and became one of Europe’s most coveted midfielders.

Conte had unresolvable issues with the Chelsea management and it was one of the reasons behind his departure. If United can provide him with the players necessary to make his system work, then the partnership has the potential to work wonders.


Of all the names mentioned in this list, Pochettino will be the most difficult for United to pursue. Spurs will do everything they can to avoid losing their manager during the course of the season and this is a manager who has helped raise the profile of the club.

The benefits of hiring Pochettino is similar to that of hiring Jardim. United get a manager who favours offensive football and also has a fantastic track record working with young players. However, Pochettino will be less of a gamble than Jardim because the former has over five-and-a-half years of experience managing in the Premier League.

If Man Utd are keen on appointing Pochettino and have to wait till next summer for his services, then they will need someone to take charge till the end of the current season. Chelsea have gone through similar situations in the past and they found a solution like appointing Rafa Benitez in 2012-13 or Guus Hiddink in 2015-16.


Should Mourinho be sacked, an outright favourite for the post is Zidane. He left his role at Real Madrid in the summer after two-and-a-half seasons of unparalleled success. Nine trophies including three Champions League titles in his first job as a manager has seen his stock rise.

The 46-year-old is no stranger to managing a club with huge expectation and superstars, so the United job, if it becomes his, won’t be a new challenge in that aspect. However, it will be a tough job nevertheless.

Zidane, the player, is an idol to many modern-day superstars including Pogba and this should give added motivation for the 25-year-old midfielder to stay at Old Trafford and perform to the best of his abilities.

Zidane took over as Real manager midway through a season and won the Champions League. United fans would love nothing more than a repeat of that feat with their beloved club.

Deportivo Alaves: The La Liga side everyone should be talking about but isn’t

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Six games into the season, a little-known football club from the Basque Country by the name of Deportivo Alaves sit fourth in the La Liga standings, level on points with Atletico Madrid who are third by virtue of better goal difference and only two behind Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Fox Sports Asia tells the story of this season’s surprise package. 

If at the start of a season, you were asked to predict the top four in La Liga, picking the top three would not have posed much of a challenge as you’d only have to arrange Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid in some order. However, selecting the fourth could be a tricky proposition.

In the last six seasons, while the top three were the usual suspects, five different teams namely Valencia, Villarreal, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad have finished in the fourth place. The 2011-12 season was the last time Atletico finished outside the top four and in that season, Valencia were third and Malaga were fourth.

All of which means that the final Champions League spot in Spain’s top division is up for grabs and that position is now occupied by a surprising contender in Deportivo Alaves. However, if Alaves manage to pull off this feat, then it will be a fairy tale along the lines of Leicester City’s miraculous Premier League winning campaign in 2015-16.

Promotion to the LaLiga and a brilliant debut season

Before their most recent promotion to the La Liga, Alaves were best known for reaching the final of the 2001 UEFA Cup which they lost 5-4 to Liverpool in extra time courtesy of a golden goal — unfortunately an own goal.

In 2016, they earned promotion to the La Liga as Segunda division champions and followed it up with a 9th place finish in the league in 2016-17. More impressively, they reached the final of the Copa del Rey but lost 3-1 to Barcelona.

Alaves’ performance in 2016-17 was aided by some smart loan signings. They signed eight players on a loan deal of which Theo Hernandez from Atletico and Marcos Llorente from Real were the most notable names.

Managerial shuffles and relegation battle

Ahead of the 2017-18 season, the club’s manager Mauricio Pellegrino signed for Premier League side Southampton and he was replaced by Luis Zubeldía from Argentina. Just like in 2016-17, Alaves also roped in eight loan players but that wasn’t enough to build on the success of their previous campaign.

They started their season with four straight defeats without scoring and that was the end of Zubeldia’s stint as the manager. He was succeeded by Italian manager Gianni De Biasi under whom the Albanian national team had qualified for Euro 2016.

Managed by Biasi, Alaves won two league games but lost six more. As they slipped towards an impending relegation, the club decided to part ways with Biasi and appointed Abelardo Fernández who famously played for Barcelona but retired as a player at Alaves.

When Abelardo arrived, Alaves were at the bottom of the table with only six points from 13 games.

The Abelardo era kicks off

Abelardo’s first game in charge was two days after his appointment away to Girona FC. His side were trailing the game 2-0 with 20 minutes left but they won the game in the third minute of added time courtesy of a hat-trick from Ibai Gomez. The Spanish manager also won his second game to double the team’s points tally from before he took over.

Alaves ended the 2017-18 season in 14th place and lost only 10 games under Abelardo The Basque club started the current season with a 3-0 defeat to Barcelona followed by a goalless draw against Real Betis but they won the next three games which included a 5-1 win away to Rayo Vallecano.

After six league games, Alaves are currently fourth in the league table level on points with Atletico Madrid and just two points behind both Barcelona and Real.

Incredibly, Alaves have picked up 52 points since Abelardo was appointed as the manager and in the same period, only Barcelona (71), Atletico Madrid (65) and Real Madrid (62) have picked up more. This gives a better perspective of the progress Alaves have made under the Spanish manager.

Alaves do not boast any big names but they have a fantastic manager who has instilled a winning mentality into the side and made them more than the sum of all parts. If they can beat the likes of Sevilla and Valencia to finish fourth in the league at least, it will be a remarkable achievement for the small club from the north of Spain.

Has Spurs’ progress under Pochettino reached an impasse?

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After a spectacular start to the new season which included a 3-0 battering of Manchester United, Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur side has succumbed to consecutive defeats at the hands of Watford, Liverpool and Inter Milan. Fox Sports Asia examines what’s bugging the North London club. 

History will always have a place for the likes of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho and it’s not only because they are fantastic managers. They are managers who won the most prestigious trophies with the biggest clubs in Europe. A couple of decades down the line, the chances are that they will be remembered for the trophies they won rather than the brand of football they played.

While history will be kind to the Mourinhos and Guardiolas, it may not be so for the ill-fated gaffers like Mauricio Pochettino. You’ll have to dig deep into the deeper echelons to know the grandeur of his managerial tenure.

When Pochettino took over as the Tottenham Hotspur manager, a certain Harry Kane was the club’s third choice striker and was best remembered for below par loan spells with Norwich City and Leicester City. Dele Alli was playing for League One side MK Dons and Younes Kaboul was the club captain. There are more examples to cite but by now, you get the picture, don’t you?

Four years later, Kane is the England captain, a Premier League and World Cup golden boot winner among other things; Alli is a two-time winner of the PFA Young Player of the Year award and Spurs’ club captain is Hugo Lloris who is also a World Cup-winning captain. Once again, there are more examples to cite, but you get the picture, don’t you?

However, one thing hasn’t changed. Pochettino hadn’t won a trophy as a manager since 2014 and he is still waiting to break his duck. And that perhaps is why history will not be kind to the Argentine tactician.

If success was measured by the number of trophies won, then Pochettino is a failure, but thankfully, that alone isn’t always the yardstick to measure success.

Before Pochettino took over, the average league position of Spurs in the Premier League era was between 8 and 9 and their best ever league finish was fourth which they achieved just twice. In stark contrast under Pochettino, Spurs have an average league position of around three and their best league finish was second with 86 points in 2016-17.

In fact, Spurs should consider themselves unlucky not to win the Premier League in 16-17 because the average points tally of title-winning teams in the Premier League era was 85.91 at the start of the season. Now, it has climbed to 86.73 thanks to Manchester City’s record-breaking season.

The Spurs fans who had to wait 22 long years for their team to finish above Arsenal in the league table know how much the team has developed under Pochettino but the question is, has this Spurs team hit its peak under the charismatic Argentine?

A tricky period for Spurs to navigate through

In August 2018, Spurs achieved something that no other Premier League club had done before. They became the first club to sign no players in the summer transfer window.

Despite finishing third, second and third in the previous three seasons, the North London club didn’t add to their squad in a bid to try and mount a strong challenge for their first league title in 58 years.

Spurs didn’t opt against signing any players in the summer because they felt the squad they had was adequate. They didn’t sign any players because they were unwilling to match the asking price of their transfer targets like Aston Villa’s asking price of £32 million for Jack Grealish.

Tottenham’s home stadium, White Hart Lane, was demolished at the end of the 2016-17 season and a new modern stadium is currently under construction at the same spot. This is what’s stopping Spurs from splurging money on transfers.

When Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates, they too went through a period of financial scrutiny which overlapped with a few years of trophy drought. Spurs fans will have to brace themselves for a similar situation.

The new stadium was set to be ready for the 2018-19 season and the recently concluded game against Liverpool was set to be the first game in the new look White Hart Lane. However, things haven’t gone according to the plan.

According to the Guardian, Spurs have taken out £400m in bank loans which are repayable over a five year period and when the club announced its financial results for the year ended June 30, 2017, the cumulative spend on the new stadium had increased from £115.3m to £315.1m.

While under such a financial crunch, it will be incredibly difficult for Spurs to compete with their Premier League rivals. In fact, since Pochettino took over, Spurs have a net spend of £50m which is not just the lowest among the Premier League’s Big 6, it is lower than many mid-table clubs and even the recently relegated Stoke City and West Brom.

To make transfers more difficult, Spurs wage structure is capped at a basic £100,000-a-week. Considering this, it will be difficult for Pochettino to find players who can improve his current squad.

Moreover, there is no shortage of admirers for the club’s key players and it was evident when Manchester United pursued Toby Alderweireld in the summer. The likes of Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane are linked to some of Europe’s biggest clubs quite often and it remains to be seen how long Spurs can keep hold of their best players without winning a major honour or offering higher wages.

Tough start to the season

Spurs started the current season with three wins in their first three games including a 3-0 win over United at Old Trafford. There was plenty of reason for optimism after such a strong start but then it all came crashing down.

They lost all three of their next three games by a 2-1 scoreline and in two of those games, Spurs took the lead. In addition, quite unlike Spurs, they conceded four of the six goals in these games from set-piece situations.

One of their defeats was against Liverpool and in the same fixture last season, Spurs dominated the Merseyside club and romped to a 4-1 victory. This year, the 2-1 scoreline flattered Spurs as Liverpool were quite wasteful in front of goal. While Spurs didn’t sign a single player in the summer, Liverpool enjoyed arguably the best summer among all Premier League clubs and maybe, that has made all the difference.

In their most recent game against Inter Milan, Spurs dominated the game and still ended up on the losing side after conceding two late goals. Every dropped point could be the difference between the knockout stage and Europa League or even worse.

The season has only started and there is still time for Spurs to turn things around. That being said, it will be a miracle if Spurs win a big trophy such as the Premier League or Champions League this season.

If history has taught us something, it is that good managers working on a limited budget can only take a team so far. Arsene Wenger at Arsenal or Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund are prime examples. How this season pans out will give a much clearer image on whether or not there is a brighter future for Spurs with Mauricio Pochettino at the helm.

Five major talking points from Round 1 of the Champions League

Napoli’s Gattuso calls Messi the ‘greatest player of all time’ ahead of UCL v Barcelona

Injury time winners, comeback victories, controversies, sensational goals, upsets and fantastic individual performances. The first round of this season’s Champions League had all the ingredients to get the viewers off their seat.

FOX Sports Asia takes a look at the major talking points following the first group stage fixtures.

Lionel Messi is playing like a man on a mission

He scored 45 goals and assisted 18 more in all competitions in 2017/18, he also won the European Golden Boot and won the domestic double with Barcelona. However, Lionel Messi’s brilliant season was deemed not worthy enough to be even nominated in the Top 3 for the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award and the FIFA Best Men’s Player of the Year award.

The Argentine came into the 2018/19 season on the back of a disappointing outing at the World Cup and getting snubbed for two prestigious awards must have hurt him badly.

After six games into the ongoing season, the 31-year-old has 7 goals and 3 assists to his name already.

Messi scored the first goal of this season’s Champions League with a trademark free-kick and bagged two more by the end of the game to complete his eighth Champions League hat-trick, which is also a tournament record. His hat-trick also took his tally of goals in the Champions League group stage to a record 63.

If he keeps up this form, then it will be very difficult to overlook him for the Ballon d’Or award.

Neymar and Mbappe purchase hurting PSG badly

It’s no secret that PSG craves the elusive Champions League trophy. They’ve signed numerous superstars and gone through several managers to get their hands on Europe’s most prestigious club trophy to no avail.

The Parisian club signed Neymar for a world record fee last summer and followed it up by permanently signing Kylian Mbappe this summer for £166m. Although it might look like fantastic business at first, these two transfers have left PSG in a rut.

PSG was under investigation for breaking Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules and in the summer, a verdict was delivered which cleared them of any wrongdoing but they had to raise £53m in income by the end of June. In addition, UEFA added that the club would remain under close scrutiny.

In order to keep their prized assets and to ensure that they don’t break any FFP rules, PSG had to sell several players in the summer. In addition to the retiring Thiago Motta, eleven players left the club in the summer of which six players left on a permanent deal. This left PSG with a thin squad.

Against Liverpool, PSG was without the suspended Marco Verratti, meaning, they played a three-man midfield consisting of Marquinhos, Adrien Rabiot and Angel Di Maria. Of the three, only one player is a midfielder. Marquinhos is a defender by trade and Angel Di Maria’s is at his best when he’s used as a winger. 

The makeshift midfield was overrun by Liverpool with ease and the 3-2 scoreline flattered PSG who were the second best team for most of the game.

When Liverpool subbed on Roberto Firmino for Daniel Sturridge, PSG had to bring on Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting for Edinson Cavani. This gives a perspective of how bad PSG’s squad depth is at the moment. So, it goes without saying that injuries to one or two key players will annihilate any hope PSG have of winning the Champions League.

Spurs’ progress under Pochettino maybe reaching an impasse

The North London side came into the season without making a single addition to their squad and have also been troubled by the delayed inauguration of their stadium.

They started the season with three wins in three but followed it up with three defeats in three. Spurs have lost all of their last three games by the same 2-1 scoreline and in two of those games, they took the lead. Four of the six goals they conceded in these defeats were from set-pieces which is a bigger worry as it is very unlike them.

The latest of the defeats, came against Inter in their opening game of Group B. Spurs dominated for the most part but lost after conceding in injury time. The fact that they are in a group with Barcelona, Inter Milan and PSV means that a single point may turn out to be the difference between Europa League and the knockout stage. 

Maybe, Spurs have gone as far as they can under Pochettino with their current squad. Only time will tell.

Time for VAR in the Champions League?

Dubious refereeing has marred big Champions League matches several times in recent history and none as infamous as the 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in the 2009 semi-final.

Refereeing wise, this season hasn’t gotten off to a great start either. There were questionable decisions in several games but the elephant in the room is the red card shown to Cristiano Ronaldo against Valencia.

The Portuguese was shown a straight red less than half an hour into his Champions League debut for Juventus. Ronaldo held Valencia’s Jeison Murillo’s head asking him to get up after a dive but the referee deemed it worthy of giving a red card.

In the same game, a high-boot to the face of Joao Cancelo only merited a yellow card.

The introduction of VAR is a necessity at least in the knockout stages where a single wrong decision can turn a tie on its head. It could also help bring a certain level of parity on decisions made by different referees on similar offences.

Guardiola’s Champions League woes continue

There’s no harm in stating that Manchester City got the easiest group among all the English clubs in Champions League this season and yet, they started their campaign with a 1-2 loss to Lyon at home.

The defeat was City’s fourth straight defeat in the Champions League and in the process, they became the first English club to do so in the competition’s history. Also, three of those defeats were in a home match.

Guardiola won the Champions League twice with Barcelona with the most recent triumph coming in 2011. Since then, none of the three clubs he has managed have replicated their league dominance in Europe.

Incredibly, starting from the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the semifinal of 2012, a team managed by Guardiola has won the away leg in a knockout fixture twice in thirteen attempts! His teams have lost seven of those games and drawn four, while the two victories have come in the first knockout stage, against Arsenal with Bayern Munich in 2014 and then against Basel with Manchester City in 2018.

The Champions League is something Manchester City covet and Guardiola’s recent record doesn’t bode well.