Classic11 Football Blog

It has been a testing season for the fans of West Ham United. After bidding farewell to their beloved Upton Park in a campaign where the Hammers almost earnt a Champions League qualification berth, their fans have this year had to become accustomed to new, contrasting and somewhat alien surroundings at their new home at The London Stadium.

Whilst that was never going to be an easy transition, the fruition of their football played in Slaven Bilic’s second season has become the more alarming agenda in East London in recent months. Questionable tactical decisions, an alarming rate of losing games from winning positions, lack of attacking outlets in the team and a very disjointed look to West Ham’s first x11 has resulted in this season proving every bit as uninspiring and anticlimactic as last year’s was exhilarating.

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Sitting in 15th place in the Premier League on 39 points, the Hammers appear to have just about secured safety for next year, any other outcome would simply have been a financial calamity with serious implications for the club to ponder in the new stadium. However, one win in the last eleven games doesn’t signify progress for a side that were riding the crest of a wave last year and claimed the scalps of Man Utd, Tottenham, Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool (the last three away from home).

There is a considerable degree of sympathy to be had for Bilic in this difficult season of transition; particularly the 2016 summer transfer window which significantly highlighted the somewhat haphazard recruitment policy at the club. 9 incomings were signed last summer (to improve the squad size in preparation for the Europa League); from 5 different European leagues with only Andre Ayew and a 34-year old Alvaro Arbeloa boasting any Premier League experience. Not only have the majority of the recruits failed to settle, the squad chemistry and unity has been affected, so much so that last season’s star-man Dimitri Payet saw fit to demand a transfer back to his previous club Marseille; a mutiny which the club could only make way for, receiving £25m in January for Payet in the process.

Another cause for bemusement among West Ham fans is the tactical choices in most of Bilic’s squad selections; frequently opting to play experienced players out of position such as the likes of Havard Nordtveid and Jonathan Calleri rather than playing younger squad members like Sam Byram and Ashley Fletcher in their natural positions. Only last Saturday in their 0-0 away draw at Stoke, West Ham’s main attacking threat Andre Ayew was withdrawn on 69 minutes with no signs whatsoever of any injury for Mark Noble. Ayew’s clear bemusement at the substitution verified this.

It must be pointed out that this isn’t the first time a Slaven Bilic side has waned in the final furlong of a season. In 2014/15 at Istanbul club Besiktas, the Black Eagles had spent much of the campaign at the top of the table, but flagged badly in the final third of the season and eventually finished third (eight points behind the eventual champions Galatasaray). Besiktas

have in fact gone from strength-to-strength since his exit, currently on course for a second straight Super Lig title in Turkey.

West Ham have three ominous looking fixtures before the owners will review Bilic’s position at the end of season; Tottenham and Liverpool to visit the London Stadium on the 5th and 14th May respectively along with a tough final-day away fixture at Turf Moor. Three fixtures that despite not being so domestically crucial given West Ham’s virtually assured safety, will do so much to shape their future and direction from the dugout. Much to ponder for David Gold & Sullivan.

A 90th-minute winner from Isco rescued the three points for Real Madrid at Sporting Gijon on Saturday afternoon after twice coming from behind at the Estadio El Molinon.

Zinedine Zidane’s side have shown on repeatable occasions that they have the character and willpower in their ranks to snatch vital points at the death of games. They have notched an incredible 13 goals after the 90th minute this season, indicative of their mental strength and indomitable spirit.

Gijon took the lead in the 13th minute when Mikel Vesga’s sublime chip bamboozled Real’s centre-backs and Duje Cop slotted home with a well-placed volley past Kiko Casilla. However, just three minutes later, Isco showed superb feet in Gijon’s box, dancing around challenges before curling a masterful finish into the far corner to level the game.

Vesga (the Athletic Bilbao loanee) was again at the forefront of the action at the start of the second-half when he looped in a header over the out-of-position Casilla to restore Gijon’s lead over the leaders.

This time, Gijon just about made their lead last 9 minutes as Danilo’s pinpoint cross found Alvaro Morata who made no mistake finding the net with a clinical header to level the game once again.

Real turned up the pressure in the final quarter and at the moment the fourth official was preparing the electronic display for injury time, Isco was turning on the edge of Gijon’s box to rifle a shot into the left-hand corner to snatch victory and maintain their title-charge momentum.

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Nery Barcelona limp to victory to keep pace

A brace from Lionel Messi and a Paco Alcacer goal in an entertaining first-half ensured Barcelona laboured to an unconvincing victory over in-form Real Sociedad to keep pace with Real Madrid in the Saturday evening fixture.

On 17 minutes, a smooth combination between Paco Alcacer and Luis Suarez set up Lionel Messi who smashed a left-footed pile driver into the bottom corner.

Twenty minutes later, Messi was on-target again with a scuffed tap-in that despite being far from the level of quality his repertoire of magic normally produces; it was just as significant as it meant the Argentine is just two goals short of the 500 milestone.

Inigo Martinez then showed great improvisation for Sociedad in Barcelona’s box firing a shot across the goal past Marc-Andre ter Stegen which ricocheted off Samuel Umtiti to bring them back into the game.

A high-tempo end to the first-half ensued as Paco Alcacer was slipped in by Lionel Messi to restore his side’s two-goal cushion before Barcelona’s recent defensive woes were again highlighted as barely a minute later, Xabi Prieto ghosted in behind the back four and met a square ball over the top with a cool side-footed volleyed finish.

The three points keeps Barcelona 3 points behind leaders Real but such an unconvincing display is far from the ideal on the eve of their biggest week of the campaign; they host Juventus on Tuesday evening (where they will need to overturn a 3-0 deficit) and face the El Classico next Sunday; a domestic make or break encounter for Luis Enrique’s men.

 

Atletico dispatch Osasuna to strengthen grip on 3rd

Yannick Carrasco scored twice as Atletico Madrid comfortably beat rock-bottom Osasuna 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon in a game that also saw two missed penalties for Diego Simeone’s men.

As star-man Antoine Griezmann had been left on the bench by Simeone in preparation for the Champions League tie in midweek at Leicester, it was Carrasco who took centre stage as he drove home a powerful shot from the edge of the box on 29 minutes.

The Belgian midfielder was again on the scoresheet at the start of the second half, heading in Nicolas Gaitan’s cross to notch his 10th of the season.

On the hour mark, Filipe Luis confirmed the points for Los Colchoneros and notched his third goal in four La Liga matches curling a close-range opportunity around Osasuna goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu with his weaker right foot.

After Angel Correa was felled in the 88th minute, Carrasco wasted the chance to score a hat-trick from the penalty spot, before Thomas Partey also saw an attempt saved just seconds later with an impressive save from the Italian goalkeeper.

 

Elsewhere in Spain

-Sevilla were unable to close the gap on 3rd-place as they were held to a 0-0 draw at Valencia, keeping them three points adrift of Atletico Madrid.

-A second-string Celta Vigo warmed up for their Europa League quarter-final return leg tie at Genk with a dazzling 3-0 win away at Granada to hand new boss Tony Adams a sobering defeat in his first match in charge. Jozabed, Marcelo Diaz and Claudio Beauvue with the goals for Eduardo Berrizo’s men. Granada are currently seven points adrift of safety.

On the evening after Barcelona’s 6-1 hammering of Sporting Gijon came the announcement that many quarters of the Spanish media were expecting to be made from the Catalan club (admittedly closer to the season end) that manager Luis Enrique would be leaving his post at the end of the season.

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As unusual as it is to broadcast a decision of this nature after such a resounding victory, it must be said that after the 4-0 first-leg away reverse in the Champions League to PSG and continuous conflicts with the local Spanish press, many felt this announcement would only be a matter of time.

Despite this first-leg battering, Barcelona produced one of the most spectacular comebacks ever seen in European Cup history overturning the four goal deficit to beat PSG 6-1 in Catalonia with three goals scored in the last five minutes of the game in the most dramatic of circumstances.

Away from the CL, the season is far from over for Enrique’s men. Still in the title race (leading Real Madrid by one point who have a game in hand); with a Copa Del Rey final against Alaves to contend, the former Barcelona midfielder has a chance to end his managerial stint with the Catalonians with a treble.

Having pointed to one of the identical personal reasons for his departure as his predecessor Pep Guardiola citing weariness and mental fatigue after three seasons in the role, it is debated as to which personality that will have the stomach and endurance for this pressured managerial position. The following 4 names are being touted as the most likely replacements:

Ernesto Valverde

One of the early favourites for the job. Valverde has been in charge of Athletic Bilbao since 2013 and has since led them to Champions League qualification, a Spanish Super Cup victory over Barcelona and a Copa Del Rey final.

A diplomatic character who has played for Barcelona in his career for two seasons and who will not be afraid to make important squad decisions to reinvigorate an ageing Barcelona team.

In addition to his achievements at Bilbao, his side became known for an intense pressing game, much akin to that of Mauricio Pochettino’s current model at Tottenham Hotspur. However, his record at the clubs he has coached (particularly Bilbao and Olympiakos) also implies he brings a stout defensive resoluteness to sides. At Bilbao, a team that had conceded 65 goals in La Liga under previous coach Marcelo Bielsa let in only 39 under Valverde - going from 12th to 4th in the process.

In Greece, Valverde delivered three titles at Olympiakos over three seasons, with an attacking possession-based philosophy that produced a 68% and 75% win rate in his two spells respectively, signifying the level of dominance Olympiakos enjoyed under Valverde.

A well-rounded, calm and collective individual whose excellent media-relationship skills makes him the typical “Barcelona fit” required to occupy the hot-seat and be the front-facing figure at a club surrounded by such complex internal politics within the hierarchy.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 8/10

 

Jorge Sampaoli

Since joining Sevilla last summer, Jorge Sampaoli has impressed with the 2016 Europa League Champions, particularly improving their domestic performance in La Liga, so much so that they are competing with La Liga giants Real Madrid and Barcelona in a three-horse title-race (Sevilla currently sit 4 points off leaders Barcelona).

He made his name with the Chilean national team, famously claiming a Copa America title in 2015.

The frenetic, bold and attacking style seen at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan this season has won the hearts of many a football neutral this year and will no doubt result in many Barcelona fans calling for the Argentine to make the move across Spain to take their club forward to future glories.

The Barcelona tradition of appointing managers either from within their internal coaching structure or previous players may work against the possibility of an approach as the Sampaoli fits neither category, having had no previous association with the club in his career to date.

An outspoken and passionate individual, whether or not he will fit the mould of FC Barcelona can only be decided by the boardroom.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 7/10

 

Ronald Koeman

Having played for the club for over six years between 1989 and 1995 and with an impressive managerial CV, the Dutchman will inevitably be linked with a hot-seat vacancy at the Camp Nou.

Having managed at a host of renowned and esteemed European clubs in his seventeen-year managerial career including PSV, Ajax, Valencia and Benfica, the Dutchman would naturally bring a wealth of experience to Barcelona.

Two successful seasons at his first English Premier League club Southampton resulted in a 7th and 6th league table finish, both in campaigns where he had to contend with the sales of star players from the club.

Having signed a three-year deal with Everton last summer, Barcelona would be forced to pay a substantial compensation package to the Merseyside club for Koeman.

Many feel however that it may prove too great a step up at this moment in time; particularly as many in Spain remember his unsuccessful spell at Valencia in a campaign where his side plummeted to 15th in La Liga and had finished bottom of their Champions League by the time the Dutchman was dismissed.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 5/10

 

Mauricio Pochettino

The current Tottenham Hotspur manager is a dark-horse in the running. Having transformed the North London club into a title-chasing outfit has been no mean feat for the former Espanyol boss.

With a clear ideology for an intense, high-pressing attacking style for his teams, many would argue that the Argentine would be an excellent fit at Barcelona.

However, repeated failures to progress to advanced rounds in European competitions has cast doubt over the psychological toughness of his side and one may feel this may be a jump too steep too early in Pochettino’s career.

Likelihood of a Barcelona approach- 5/10

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

Bayern boss Hamburg

Robert Lewandowski scored a hat-trick as Bayern Munich crushed Hamburg 8-0 on Saturday afternoon to celebrate Carlo Ancelotti's 1,000th competitive outing as a head coach.

The current German Champions put in a domineering performance at the Allianz to ruthlessly dispatch relegation-threatened Hamburg, a week after their off-colour performance against Hertha Berlin in a 1-1 draw.

Robert Lewandowski was Bayern’s saviour in that fixture and he was in an imperious mood on Saturday, notching his hat-trick by the 54th-minute to increase his goal tally for the season to 19, joint-top scorer in the Bundesliga along with Pierre Aubameyang.

Other goal-scorers in Munich’s dismantling of Hamburg were Arturo Vidal who opened the scoring with a powerful drive on 17 minutes, David Alaba, Arjen Robben and a brace from young Kingsley Coman.

Sitting five points clear of 2nd placed RB Leipzig with one hand firmly in the Champions League Quarter-Final (following the thrashing of Arsenal in Munich); Ancelotti’s doubters from pre-Christmas are diminishing by the week.

 

Leipzig continue remarkable season

RB Leipzig produced a dominant performance to see off Cologne 3-1 at the Red Bull Arena to maintain pressure on leaders Bayern, in a season where they are continuously defying expectations in their first-ever Bundesliga campaign.

Leipzig overpowered and outplayed Cologne from the kick-off and within 5 minutes Emil Forsberg notched his seventh of the season after he was played in from Timo Werner following a weak clearance from Cologne goalkeeper Thomas Kessler.

The trio of Forsberg, Werner and midfielder Naby Keita was proving too hot to handle for Cologne and on 34 minutes Keita’s cross was inadvertently turned into the net by Cologne defender Dominic Maroh to put Leipzig in control of the encounter.

Cologne briefly retained a hope of taking something from the game after Yuya Osako scored a close-range finish in the 53rd minute but shortly after Timo Werner grabbed his 13th of the season to clinch the points for Leipzig who are unbeaten in every game they have scored in the Bundesliga this season.

 

Dortmund strengthen grip on third

Borussia Dortmund won away from the Westfalenstadion for only the second time since November after beating Freiburg 3-0 at the Schwarzald-Stadion thanks to goals from Papastathopoulos Sokratis and a brace from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

In his 150th Bundesliga appearance, Sokratis opened the scoring for the visitors on 13 minutes when the Greek defender headed into the net from Marco Reus’ whipped free-kick into the penalty area.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang stole the show in the second-half, notching his 18th of the season on 55 minutes after tapping home following some bamboozling midfield trickery from Marco Reus to play the Gabonese forward through.

Aubameyang was again on the scoresheet shortly after, 20 minutes from time to seal the points for Thomas Tuchel’s men, converting a tap-in from Erik Durm’s cross.

After a shaky first-half of the season, Dortmund appear to be finally getting into full stride and are on course for an automatic Champions League spot following this commanding performance in Tuchel’s 100th Bundesliga victory.

 

Elsewhere in Germany

-Mainz moved up to 10th in the table after an impressive 2-0 away win at Bayer Leverkusen to increase the growing pressure on Roger Schmidt. Defender Stefan Bell opened the scoring with a bullet header in the third minute from Levin Oztunali's corner before the provider turned scorer with a free-kick that deceived the Leverkusen back-line and found the far corner on 11 minutes. After being torn apart on their home patch by Atletico Madrid in the Champions League midweek game (a tie that is virtually over with the Spanish side boasting 4 away goals), Schmidt’s position is being questioned by many quarters of the German media with his tactics and relationship with his players in doubt.

-Werder Bremen’s 2-1 victory over Wolfsburg on Friday night courtesy of a Serge Gnabry double in the first-half has spelt the end to Valerien Ismael’s short spell in charge of Wolfsburg who sit just two points above the relegation zone. Ismael lasted 15 Bundesliga

games in the job having initially only been appointed on an interim basis on the 17th October following Dieter Hecking’s (the now Monchengladbach coach) sacking.

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

West Ham’s sale of Dimitri Payet to Marseille for the figure of £25m was confirmed by the East London club on January the 29th.

The 29-year-old’s legacy status with the West Ham United fans has transformed from messiah to pariah in the past two months at the club in a period where they needed him most. Payet has delivered a series of poor performances and his body language has shown nothing short of complete disinterest. However, this is not the first time in Dimitri Payet’s career that he has displayed an unprofessional attitude to force a move away from a club at the time.

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After a remarkable first season in the Premier League where he was named the Premier League’s Player of the Year at the London Football Awards as well as claiming West Ham’s annual Hammer of the Year trophy, Payet signed a 5-year contract extension in February 2016 that increased his wages to £125,000 a week. Not only did West Ham heavily reward the player for his outstanding first season impact in the Premier League, they put him onto a global stage in one of the world’s top league’s and in doing so earned him a national team recall from France manager Didier Deschamps.

West Ham fans revered him. How sour it turned this campaign.

This season has seen Payet show glimpses of his clear world-class talent with exceptional goals against Middlesbrough and Liverpool but for the most part fail to match the playing standards of his first season at the club. When Slaven Bilic confirmed to the press on January the 12th that the player did not want to play for the club any longer and had gone on strike, all knew there would be no going back.

At the tender age of 16-years-old, Dimitri Payet from the small French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean, had his first major opportunity in mainland France to break into professional football at Le Havre spurned after four tumultuous years where his difficult character was criticised by senior coaching figures at the club as well being accused of a lack of motivation. Payet was thereafter forced to return to the island of Reunion in 2003 and subsequently joined AS Excelsior.

On 18 May 2010, Payet who was then playing for Saint-Etienne, was involved in a notable physical altercation with teammate and captain Blaise Matuidi during the team's 1–0 defeat to Toulouse. Payet was on the receiving end of scathing criticism from teammate Yohan Benalouane for displaying a lack of aggression at the time and was then confronted by Matuidi. Both quickly went face-to-face with the Payet delivering a blow to Matuidi's head before the two were separated by referee and teammates. Payet was subsequently substituted and fined by the club’s president.

The following year, after impressive form for Saint Etienne and English interest from Chelsea and Liverpool, Payet sought for a move to Paris Saint-Germain in the wake of a reported bid from the Parisian club in January 2011 (pre-PSG’s Qatari ownership). Saint-Etienne rejected all interest only for Payet to consequently refuse to turn up for training and was demoted to the reserves.

Turning 30 years of age in March, Dimitri Payet is in danger of seeing a career so full of unquestionable world-class flair fail to reach the heights (domestically) that his talent warrants. He has left the Premier League; one of the world’s finest leagues to return to Ligue 1; a division where he has grafted and plied his trade in for the majority of his career, largely out of the limelight. Links with leading global clubs such as the likes of Real Madrid and Chelsea will die down; his chances of maintaining a first x11 spot with the French national team could also arguably be affected in the long-term, with younger pacier options coming through the French ranks playing at bigger European clubs. This is not an individual who has been dealt a hard hand by the footballing world; his career path has been predominantly determined by his mental attitude throughout; a symptomatic issue surrounding the modern-day footballer in recent years.

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane on Wednesday night confirmed that the Premier League race is very much still on going into the New Year.

Antonio Conte’s side have recently found a level of consistency and momentum to win an extraordinary and record-equalling 13 straight league games in a run where a formation of 3-4-3 appeared to be tailor-made for Chelsea’s side.

Five points clear (1st with 49 points) of second-placed Liverpool, Chelsea are no doubt a rejuvenated side this season, with a manager who has succeeded in rediscovering the players thirst for glory at the club, crucially of those world-class individuals who were so out-of-form and criticised in Eden Hazard and Diego Costa under previous management. They are one of only two clubs not to have a single injury currently affecting the first-team squad and after failing to qualify for European football in last year’s treacherous campaign, they are benefiting so greatly from the lack of Cup distractions.

However, Tottenham’s dominance and superiority in the London Derby on the 4th January highlighted not only that Chelsea are by no means infallible, there are weaknesses in the team (lack of free-scoring, susceptible full-backs and possibly centre-backs too) but also that there are five other hungry teams in the hunt who boast too much quality to be ruled out of the race at this early stage; the sides are listed as follows:

Liverpool: 2nd with 44 points- Arguably one of the most impressive free-scoring sides in the league. Jurgen Klopp’s side play with a high-intensity expansive freedom, averaging almost 2.5 goals per game. Goals can come from any of their midfielders, wingers or forwards. The likes of Adam Lallana, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino are enjoying the form of their careers. Jurgen Klopp’s tactical astuteness was revealed in the recent 1-0 victory at home to Man City where their usual open free-flowing style was sacrificed to absorb City possession in an impressive defensive performance; a trait they will be obliged to repeat in forthcoming big games this season.

Squad depth and injuries could well be the biggest potential hurdle to Liverpool’s title challenge as their most gifted player in Philippe Coutinho has been out injured since November (is nearing a first-team return). Their other major worry is the constant uncertainty between goalkeepers Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet; the majority of Liverpool’s fellow challengers have a world-class goalkeeper they can call upon. What Klopp would do to have this luxury.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

 

Tottenham: 3rd with 42 points- Not only have Tottenham just resoundingly beaten leaders and London rivals Chelsea, they are in scintillating form; having won their least five games consecutively, blowing away both Southampton and Watford with 4-1 away wins. They boast one of the best goalkeepers and centre-backs respectively in Hugo Lloris and Toby

Alderweireld, combined with the most attacking, buccaneering full-backs in the Premier League in Danny Rose and Kyle Walker. Dele Alli’s exuberance and ability is shining through after a poor European Championships and quiet start to the domestic season and Harry Kane’s goals and leadership show no signs of relenting. Tottenham look a side hungry for honours to illustrate their remarkable tutelage and progression under manager Mauricio Pochettino since his arrival in 2014.

Whether Tottenham can banish the memories of last year’s capitulation at Stamford Bridge, is another matter. They are due to restart their Europa League campaign again in February in the knockout-rounds and they do lack the experience and arguably squad-depth that other contenders can boast, but the ability and talent is there in abundance.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 8/10

 

Man City: 4th with 42 points- Despite boasting some of the world’s top talents and a manager who has claimed a title in six of his seven seasons in club management, defensive problems have been rife this season; resulting in City trailing leaders Chelsea by seven points, a shortfall that was not predicted by most upon Pep Guardiola’s arrival to the club. John Stones is still learning the game, Claudio Bravo has proved vulnerable, Vincent Kompany is frequently injured and Pablo Zabaleta and Alexsandar Kolarov are inconsistent at best. There is also a worrying discipline problem at the club, receiving seven red cards this season in all competitions; more than any other Premier League team.

However, on their day Man City are a formidable force and with their world-class trio of Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, City pose a creative attacking outlet that can unlock the sternest of defences at any point in a game. City fans will look back to the 2013/14 season (when City overtook Liverpool on gameweek 37 to clinch the title after winning their final five games of the season) for title-marching inspiration. In their recent 5-0 win in the F.A Cup 3rd tie at the London Stadium, City displayed a cutting edge and an exhibition of ruthlessness that will give them momentum going forward.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

 

Arsenal: 5th with 41 points- The side that typically divide so many an opinion. Arsenal have endured an inconsistent campaign thus far that has offered many similarities to every previous season for the past ten years. Capable of a mesmerising creative style and devastating counter attacking-play on their day (displayed best in their 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in September), but suffer from that soft underbelly, the lack of a commanding centre back (despite Shkodran Mustafi’s impressive arrival last summer) and a rousing leader.

An injury list that does not seem to relent, poor away form, the imminent Champions League knockout ties to nemesis Bayern Munich and the enduring worries regarding the

expiring contracts of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil does not favour their prospects of assembling enough impetus to challenge leaders Chelsea.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 6/10

 

Man United: 6th with 39 points-A team boasting an array of superstar footballers and ego’s for any global club to envy. A fairly inconsistent first three months of the season consisted of a very disjointed looking United team, with various new signings and certainly their manager taking time to settle. Many dropped points this season have in fact come at Old Trafford in games they have completely dominated but have struggled to break down resolute, stubborn defences. The demanding Thursday-Sunday schedule will recommence in February as they return to action in the Europa League.

However, it must be said that after seven straight wins (in all competitions), United are rightly in buoyant mood as they are experiencing a consistent run of form that will build significant momentum for a title charge if they can maintain their current run; despite being 10 points off leaders Chelsea at this halfway stage. United also have strength in depth, having the luxury of being able to call on the likes of Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial from the bench when chasing a game. Furthermore, there is certainly no shortage of winners or experienced heads in the squad, with eight of the current squad holding Premier League titles to their career honours history.

Chances of overhauling Chelsea: 7/10

 by Hal Walker - @HalWalker

After a winless run of three games for Diego Simeone’s men, a second-half strike from Saul Niguez ensured Atletico Madrid returned to winning ways with a 1-0 win at home to Las Palmas, but why do doubts remain over the Atleti side this year?

It has been an extraordinary year Los Colchoneros who despite finishing 2016 in 6th place (one point behind Villareal in 4th), reached the Champions League Final in May only to be beaten on penalties by their Madrid neighbours and have comfortably secured qualification to the last-32 in this year’s European campaign, qualifying as group winners.

However, Atletico’s form has been inconsistent at best this year and many pundits are already ruling Simeone’s side out of the title race; an honour they famously won in 2014 and have narrowly missed out on in the two campaigns since.

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They have lost three of their last seven fixtures and looked particularly poor in their 3-0 defeat to Villareal at the El Madrigal on the 12th December, in a game that was compounded by goalkeeper Jan Oblak’s shoulder injury that could see the Slovenian stopper ruled out for up to four months.

A trademark that has been clearly missing is what has been so well instilled into them in recent seasons by Simeone in their energetic high pressing game; off-the-ball instructions to smother and stifle opponents high up the pitch, allowing the Atleti midfielders to win possession when the opponent is vulnerable deep in their own half. Recent performances have been lethargic with no real intensity in the midfield or in attacking situations.

A particular concern may be that of the recent goal-drought suffered by French striker Antoine Griezmann who is without a goal since the 2nd October, his worst in his La Liga playing career. The striker, who was confirmed as third for the 2016 Ballon d’Or had notched 6 goals for the season before this period.

Simeone will look to the upcoming winter break in La Liga as a crucial point in their season as his side will look to revive their domestic form, but particularly to rediscover their freshness and high-octane pressing tactic that wears down opponents so effectively.

Despite stuttering results for Atleti domestically thus far this season, no faults or lack of confidence have been evident in their 2016/17 Champions League form, having beaten Bayern Munich to top their group table with relative ease. As last

year’s beaten finalists, they may well fancy the competition as their best chance of silverware this season, in possibly Simeone’s last in the Spanish capital.

Despite them only being nine points behind La Liga leaders and city rivals Real Madrid, a title charge in the New Year will surely be too much to expect from Atleti in both sides’ current form, particularly with Simeone’s burgeoning desire to lift the Champions League as a manager in his career. However, if they can build on scrappy results like the 1-0 result at home to Las Palmas, keep developing the club’s young rising stars (Angel Correa, Yannick Carrasco & Jose Jiménez) and make sensible signings to improve the first x11, confidence will build and 2017 could be Atletico Madrid’s year.

They simply have too much character, passion, talent and energy to fall away

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