Manchester United’s win at Juventus shows Jose Mourinho is getting back to his best beneath the ‘classless’ persona

“It’s Mourinho time,” proclaimed the Daily Telegraph. “Second miracle in Turin,” announced the iPaper in reference to that comeback from Fergie’s boys who partied in 1999. A more functional “United pass Turin test,” runs the headline across the back of the Daily Express.

But it was The Times who captured the essence of this thrilling final eight minutes including stoppage time, complete with the image that has been unavoidable on social media ever since.

“The Special comeback”. And this performance, both before, during and after from Jose Mourinho, bore all the hallmarks of a man many had thought lost touch with the game several years ago.

The Portuguese cupped his right ear to the Curva Sud. ‘Where’s the abuse now?’, signified the gesture. There were no expletives, no need for dangling a little finger to his dissenters. Paul Scholes was asked for his thoughts on Mourinho by BT Sport presenter Gary Lineker.

You could see across his face he didn’t thank Lineker for the question, knowing that even his rather low-key response would become an instant overnight banner for online media outlets.

Scholes, never forgotten as being a fans’ favourite of 700-plus appearances placed in the awkward position of needing to praise a United performance, provided only a brief response, seemingly not wanted to become the headline.

“This is everywhere he goes,” said Scholes. “You need to win with a bit of class sometimes, shake the manager’s hand. I don’t think there’s any need for it but that’s the way he is.”

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That was it, but The Sun grabbed it. “No Class,” became the splash, and instantly Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Juventus, their finest result in Europe since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, was ‘tainted’.

Should Mourinho’s antics overshadow United’s win?

Another United performance was instantly bookended by one man again. Not Ashley Young for his role in making Wojciech Szczesny take a step the wrong way before Juan Mata’s unerring free-kick or for his inviting cross which led to Alex Sandro’s own goal.

Not Mata himself and not Marouane Fellaini, a man who in many ways shares traits with Mourinho for his much-maligned displays. No, it was all about Jose, again.

Mauricio Pochettino spoke last week of wanting to ‘bring the glory’ back to Tottenham Hotspur, and this was Mourinho providing his club with another glorious night, a back-from-the-dead, milestone victory.

On the eve of a Manchester derby, their city rivals were putting six past Shakhtar Donetsk at the Etihad, but there was little intrigue in that beyond Raheem Sterling kicking his foot into the ground to win a penalty. Even a 6-0 win felt a hollow victory following the fresh leaks being serialised by German outlet Der Speigel.

You run out of superlatives for Pep Guardiola’s side, but the intrigue remains constant surrounding Mourinho.

You can imagine the immediate delight that the night’s pantomime villain felt as he was escorted away down the tunnel. This is his happiest habitat, but the United boss conceded afterwards that he had perhaps acted a little irresponsibly.

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He said: “I didn’t offend anyone at the end, I just made a gesture that I wanted to hear them louder.

“I probably shouldn’t have done it, and with a cool head I wouldn’t have done it. But with my family insulted, including my Inter family, I reacted like this.”

Mourinho had vowed before the game that he would not respond to the Juventus fans again after brandishing three fingers at them during United’s defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago – representing the Treble he won with Inter Milan in 2010.

“Before I said that I would not do it, but then I did,” he added. “You remember what they did to me, but that sign is not an offence.”

I promise I won’t point three fingers, but I’ll use another signal. In the heat of battle, it was peak Mourinho.

It’s easy to point the finger at this ego-maniac and grimace a little at his calls for an encore from the supporters who’d been abusing him for 90 minutes. He came out fighting with members of the media who dared to suggest it had been a show of disrespect, a lack of class.

“Do you understand Italian?” he asked one female reporter who reflected on how Mourinho’s action had irked home supporters. She responded she didn’t, to which the manager gleefully replied, “Ask the FA, they will translate for you!”

He didn’t end there. In the post-match press conference, when asked by a Spanish journalist, “Do you think your celebration lacked respect?” Mourinho replied: “You understand Italian, so you know what they were calling me for 94 minutes, and you think it’s offensive to cup my ear?

“It was offensive what they did to me. That was offensive! It wasn’t offensive me asking for more [after the game]. It was not offensive asking for a little bit more now.”

“Did they say they would kill your family [in cold blood]?” asked the journalist.

“No, if they did I would go straight home,” replied Mourinho.

He had been an animated observer, frantically flapping his hands on the sidelines shortly before Cristiano Ronaldo’s glorious opening strike.

He knew then that, after an hour of putting the hard yards in, the thighs of his players were beginning to burn. He emerged from the dugout and sought to cajole Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez into one final high press before being replaced by fresher legs.

Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof had ridden their luck a little, losing the deep run of Sami Khedira as he struck the outside of David de Gea’s post, while Paul Dybala had come even closer, thudding the crossbar after cutting inside unopposed.

Then, with the game appearing to have hit a slight lull, a trademark lofted pass from Leonardo Bonucci found Ronaldo peel off the shoulder of Lindelof with the ball leaving his foot like a fireball that flashed past De Gea.

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But half an hour later, the small pocket of vociferous United fans were left breathless on a night which evoked memories of the club’s most celebrated European triumphs under Ferguson.

This would turn into Juventus’ first defeat of the season, a result which seemed impossible in the 10 minutes after Ronaldo’s first Champions League goal since his summer move from Real Madrid.

Miralem Pjanic twice came close to doubling the lead, but Mourinho had the last laugh, tilting the spotlight in one arm raise away from the hapless Szczesny – culpable for both United goals – onto him.

Rodrigo Bentancur and Bonucci both approached the offender before Young intervened. It didn’t matter, it seemed, what the offended had been chanting throughout this match, which throws qualification from Group H into a three-horse race.

It was nothing Mourinho hadn’t heard before. Nothing overly personal, just generic tit for tat. Showering down from all directions came the words “Figlio di puttana”, which translates to “son of a bi***”. Then in unison, “il triplete mettilo nel culo”, which roughly translates to “the treble, put it in the a**”.

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Revisiting Mourinho’s relationship with Juventus

Mourinho’s two seasons in Serie A – between 2008 and 2010 – were dominated by success.

Juventus were still reeling from the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal and their relegation to Serie B when Mourinho arrived in the country, so they weren’t seen as direct rivals to the title, but what he achieved in his second season truly got to the heart of a rivalry that remains to this day.

Being crowned champions of Europe has eluded Juventus since 1996, and the club have never achieved a treble of trophies as Mourinho did in 2009/10.

While that campaign showcased Mourinho’s brilliance, here he demonstrated his powers of recovery, which have become synonymous with his side during the autumn.

Since trailing Newcastle 2-0 at half-time on October 6, United have recovered from losing positions at Chelsea, Bournemouth and now in Turin.

Mourinho experienced a frosty relationship with the Italian media towards the end of his two-year stay in the country. It reached a new low in December 2009 when he was accused of physically and verbally abusing a journalist after Inter drew with Atalanta.

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Andrea Ramazzotti of Rome-based paper Corriere dello Sport was reportedly pushed and insulted as he approached the Inter team bus – the tension reaching a head in the same week he had criticised the Italian media for suggesting he could be sacked if Inter failed to qualify for the Champions League knock-out stages.

“Last year we won the league and this year we are top. This season in the Champions League we took two more points in qualifying than last season. I thought Italy was a country where all that mattered was results. That seems to apply to everyone but me.”

By February 2010, Mourinho had been fined £35,000 for another gesture following the 0-0 draw with Sampdoria, crossing his hands to imitate being handcuffed towards TV cameras and supporters.

The Italian FA took a dim view of him insulting the referee, who had sent off two of Mourinho’s players during the stalemate, banning him for three matches.

“Well done, well done, remember your family is watching you on TV,” Mourinho told the match official, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica.

Mourinho’s Inter would finish champions come May, while Juventus languished in seventh – some 27 points adrift.

As the Milanese club were enjoying a record-breaking season, becoming the first side to win the Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League – Juve were averaging crowds of 22,924 at home matches.

Ciro Ferrari, the club’s manager who Mourinho had referenced in that December outburst to the Italian media, lasted until late January before he was replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni, who would oversee the final four months of the one of the most troubled seasons in Juve’s history.

What’s kept the rivalry fresh in the mind?

As Mourinho was thriving amid the backdrop of his stormy relationship with the media, Juventus were surrendering a 3-1 first-leg lead to Fulham in the Europa League semi-finals.

The club’s fans haven’t forgotten, and their ire towards Mourinho has been kept at a healthy level thanks to his run-ins with Antonio Conte during the Italian’s time at Chelsea.

Conte, a fan favourite as a player at Juventus, brought the glory days back to the bianconeri following Mourinho’s successful stint, upstaging him in many ways with three successive league titles with the final one in 2014 coming with record haul of 102 points.

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The sight of the Italian filling the dugout at Stamford Bridge – a place he once called home – led to the inevitable regular feuds which reached a head in February this year when Conte labelled Mourinho a ‘fake’ for showing his support to Claudio Ranieri after his Leicester sacking.

Back in 2008, Mourinho had said of Ranieri, who was the then-Juventus manager: “I studied Italian five hours a day for many months to ensure I could communicate with the players, media and fans.

“Ranieri had been in England for five years [at Chelsea] and still struggled to say ‘good morning’ and ‘good afternoon.’”

Juventus are now in a much healthier position than Inter, having won each of the last seven Scudettos – but Mourinho won’t let them forget the feat that still eludes them.

A fortnight ago, supporters of the Old Lady sung the Italian equivalent of “You’re getting sacked in the morning.” At a time when they’ve been heavily backed as one of the favourites of this year’s competition, Mourinho was never going to miss this opportunity.

Tactical changes, tough love at heart of United resurgence

The back story to Mourinho’s ear-cupping should be known, and revisited, at times when we reflect on his behaviour. It’s not often you get such an open goal to remind critics of your qualities and having been schooled by Juventus only two weeks ago, he didn’t need a second invitation.

But the greater point that shouldn’t be lost at the Allianz Stadium is that Mourinho is more relevant than ever in this time of exposés and frivolous FA appeals.

All we hear is fake outrage from both sides, towards a man who may well refer to a ‘manhunt’ again, after a commission’s decision to dismiss a conduct charge after he swore into a camera in Portuguese.

This has been the year of comebacks already for United, winning on six occasions having trailed – starting against Conte’s Chelsea in a 2-1 home win in February.

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Lingard came off the bench to score the winner, while United were trailing 2-0 at Selhurst Park with 35 minutes remaining in March, only to complete the turnaround in stoppage time.

Fergie Time is back under Mourinho – and the latest tribute was thanks to another inspired substitution, with Mata coming off the bench to score after Fellaini had instilled an air of uncertainty in the Juventus defence.

The resurgence of Luke Shaw, Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial has been visible amidst all the furore of United being off the pace in seventh place. Mourinho’s tough love may still bring the best out of Alexis Sanchez, who has looked far more engaged since being moved to centre forward in the absence of Romelu Lukaku.

Look a bit deeper, beyond the mild irritation of a middle-aged man goading others and you see bundles of courage, determination, tactical brilliance and hope that this marriage dismissed already as inconvenient might yet bring sustained success.

As they head to the Etihad this weekend, Mourinho has had the better preparation than his counterpart Guardiola. The exertions of Wednesday night may still be felt come Sunday, but confidence is restored.

Few teams can afford to start as sluggishly as United have in recent league games against swashbuckling City, but few have the powers of recovery that Mourinho has been busy building behind his ‘classless’ persona.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When is the optimum time to sack a Premier League manager?

The third international break is looming large, and the Premier League is still to see a managerial casualty. There is a growing feeling that is about to change.

A lot has changed since the inaugural season, when it wasn’t until February 1993 that Ian Porterfield was dismissed as Chelsea boss.

The months between October and December have become the most common period when sackings have been made. Five of the 10 managerial departures mid-season in 2017/18 took place between these months, with all five taking place at clubs in 17th place or lower at the time. But it hasn’t always resulted in success.

In fact, West Brom, Swansea and Stoke all changed managers between November 20 and January 6 but all three clubs ended up being relegated.

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Conversely, by the time Pulis lost his job at The Hawthorns (November 20), Roy Hodgson had stepped in for Frank de Boer at Crystal Palace (September 12) while Leicester had already replaced Craig Shakespeare with Claude Puel (October 25).

David Moyes had taken over from Slaven Bilic at West Ham (November 7), and Everton were close to finally finding a replacement for Ronald Koeman, sacked on October 23.

The reason for the length of time it has taken for a first managerial dismissal this time around is largely due to the Premier League table quickly resembling the natural order. No club can claim to be grossly underperforming given the circumstances.

But the first managerial sacking will reverberate around the boardrooms at all clubs involved in the relegation battle, a case of who blinks first, but never has having a contingency plan been so important.

The case of Swansea during the 2016/17 season, when Francesco Guidolin was replaced by Bob Bradley only for Paul Clement to take over by January is the prime example that strikes fear into many owners.

Hull replaced a newly-appointed manager in the same season, with Mike Phelan lasting until the New Year before Marco Silva’s arrival. The Portuguese was unable to keep the Tigers up, but he earned himself a move to Watford.

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By virtue of the panic which comes with missing out on the millions in TV revenue, we now see a strategy, with managers offered contracts on a short-term basis, in arrangements that suit both parties.

Sam Allardyce at Crystal Palace and Everton, David Moyes at West Ham, Carlos Carvalhal at Swansea, Paul Lambert at Stoke and Mark Hughes with Southampton. The threat of relegation is leaving boards with two options.

With Moyes and Allardyce available and with track records of keeping clubs up, they represent the premium option, commanding high wages, and control on transfers even on short-term deals.

Both have rebuilt their reputations, but the other option is those who have a point to prove – the unglamorous, the tarnished or the unknown. Lambert fell into the first of these categories while Alan Pardew certainly falls into the second after failing at West Brom.

Clubs perennially in precarious positions don’t afford managers time to develop their philosophy, and the knock-on effect is that players are beginning to expect a change of direction when results nosedive with the autumn leaves.

What has been the upshot of a change in approach at boardroom level?

We are now seeing record numbers when it comes to just how wretchedly bad some sides start seasons before the ultimate consequence is dished out. Newcastle moved out of the relegation zone after a first win at the 11th attempt.

Huddersfield ended a seven-month wait for a win against Fulham, scoring a first goal at home in 658 minutes – in typical fashion, it was later credited as an own goal.

Both they and Newcastle won courtesy of goals from set pieces. Cardiff lost again at home while Crystal Palace lost a seventh game already this season at Chelsea, yet they sit 14th in relative mid-table obscurity.

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Southampton ended a 505-minute wait for a goal when Danny Ings struck a first-half penalty at Manchester City. To reach the modest sum of 50 goals scored this season, according to Opta’s Duncan Alexander, Hughes’ side would have to take 1,129 shots, so poor is their finishing. They had 450 shots in total last campaign.

Boards are responding to the way players feed off the notion that it takes a lot more money to overhaul an entire squad than change the manager. The lack of intensity from Fulham players who know they face a relegation wage drop was startling.

Now, we see a different, short-term strategy where firefighters masquerade as managers, knowing that they are likely to be those being put out either at the end of the season or not long into the next.

Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham weren’t expected to struggle after a record-breaking transfer window, but Monday night’s 1-0 loss to Huddersfield left them at rock bottom.

The chaos and uncertainty which reigns at Craven Cottage can also be felt at St Mary’s, where Southampton manager Hughes is reportedly one game away from the sack.

Hughes became Saints’ fifth permanent manager in the past five years only in May but defeat at home to Watford this Saturday could prove the final straw.

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He announced his “affinity” with the club was the main driving force behind his decision to agree to take charge of the strugglers last March on a temporary basis, but the club were then warned about extending their association with him longer term.

While it is still early, it would appear the sack race among sides directly involved in a relegation battle can be condensed to five, possibly six, runners and riders.

Huddersfield’s David Wagner works under an owner in Dean Hoyle who has gone on record to state he will not be sacking the German this season, regardless of whether or not they survive relegation.

Therefore, we could have ruled out that possibility even before a performance against Fulham that was full of blood and thunder, and a clear demonstration that everyone at the John Smith’s Stadium are pulling in the same direction.

The on-goings at Burnley, who have conceded 13 goals in their last three games, has been viewed as a regression to the norm following last season’s freakish seventh-place finish, where no fewer than 12 games were won by the odd goal.

Their defensive solidity has evaporated, with the very same partnership of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee who kept 12 clean sheets last term having had their rear-guard breached on four or more occasions already in four of the 11 games to date.

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“This is the norm where we expect Burnley to be,” said Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football. “What they did last season was off the scale, so it was never going to be the same.”

Sean Dyche has rarely come under pressure during his six years at the club, even when Burnley went straight back down in the 2014/15 season. Their immediate return vindicated the board’s decision to keep the faith.

But can Dyche be ruled out of the sack race? Right now, I’m not so sure. After the highs of last season, Carragher assessed how certain players now feel they can move on from the principles that have served them so well, choosing the wrong options on the ball.

Their Europa League exertions can no longer be used as an excuse, while the blame can hardly be placed at Joe Hart, who has made 50 saves this season – five more than any other goalkeeper.

The minority still who feel Dyche has taken the club as far as he can would argue that the same core group of players for the last three seasons now need a new voice with a change in philosophy to freshen up Turf Moor.

The feeling at Burnley is that if things persist as they are, chairman Mike Garlick will continue to back Dyche long into the season, meaning the obvious candidates to bring new ideas and an injection of confidence may have already taken up positions elsewhere.

Burnley could yet become a victim of their success if a ruthless approach isn’t taken. When the late Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha sacked Claudio Ranieri in February 2017 – nine months after winning the Premier League title – it was met with strong criticism.

But the Foxes were one point above the relegation zone with 13 matches remaining, and there was a distinct possibility of their fairytale success having an unwanted ending.  On a smaller scale, Dyche is currently eating into the credit he has amassed for last season.

By next February, if Burnley remain perilously close to the bottom three, you wonder if a mutual parting of ways will also be in everyone’s interest.

Aside from the exceptions that can therefore be made for both Burnley and Huddersfield, no manager from Crystal Palace down is safe – although in the case of Newcastle, it remains more a case of the club not being safe from their manager walking away.

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Only six teams have conceded fewer goals than Rafa Benitez’s Magpies – the top four, Wolves and Watford – which is likely to form the basis for achieving a third straight season in the top flight.

Teams are having to improve just to stand still, but Newcastle are treading water under owner Mike Ashley, merely existing from one season to the next.

Will Watford’s model become the norm?

The mediocrity of many teams below the top six means Watford’s model of hiring and firing has never looked so healthy under Javi Gracia.

The Hornets failed to even score in any of their eight away games under his stewardship last season, but the Spaniard is now overseeing a squad playing with any such shackles unclipped by four straight wins at the start of this campaign.

Cardiff are a hard sell for any perspective manager, even without Neil Warnock’s regular robust dismissal of his side’s chances of survival.

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You feel if owner Vincent Tan genuinely believed the club could stay up, he would’ve sacked Warnock already – possibly before a ball was even kicked.

The likelihood is that the south Wales club will look to example of Burnley four seasons ago in the hope that a year in the top flight will in the long-term help them come back stronger, but not so many owners can live with the uncertainty of slipping back into the fiercely competitive Championship.

The question of when to sack has in many cases become more crucial than who to appoint. Each season, there are many examples of clubs surviving one managerial change, but never has a Premier league club survived two.

What are the obvious trigger-points for sacking a manager?

  1. Haphazard team selection
  2. Struggles despite investment in squad
  3. Waning attendances
  4. Club representing an attractive proposition
  5. Upcoming fixture list

The five reasons above alone place Jokanovic on borrowed time at Fulham, despite a public vote of confidence from chairman Shahid Khan and his record of having guided the club to promotion only six months ago.

A sense of momentum was built then, aided by a consistency in team selection. The Serbian picked the same back four and goalkeeper for the final 15 games of last season as promotion was secured via the play-offs.

Twelve summer signings to the tune of £100m-plus spent has led to too much competition, with Jokanovic responding from one setback to the next by merely trying to find another solution in terms of personnel.

Maxime Le Marchand’s return to the defence at Huddersfield was the 19th alteration to the back four by Jokanovic in just 11 games – and his time is all the more precarious given Fulham’s status as a London club.

As it stands, he ticks many boxes in the race to become the first manager to be sacked, but there is also the question of giving any potential successor a decent set of fixtures with which to start.

Fulham face Liverpool this Saturday, by which point Jokanovic’s fate may have already been sealed, but the fortnight that follows before their next fixture screams a time for change.

After the international break, the west Londoners are at home to fellow strugglers Southampton – a perfect ‘first fixture’ for both should a new man be drafted in.

“I remain confident,” Jokanovic said after the defeat in Yorkshire. “Part of the job is in the hands of my players, part of the job is in my hands, but part of it is in the board’s hands too.”

Khan sacked Rene Meulensteen just 11 days after the Dutchman received the “100 per cent backing” of Khan in 2014. The omens aren’t good for Jokanovic, whose likely departure could trigger a domino effect.

Good week, bad week: Brahim Diaz turns on the style for Manchester City as Bayern Munich defender Rafinha apologises for Halloween costume

In a new weekly blog, Ben Grounds looks at those in the world of football to have starred and suffered over the past seven days…

Good week

Ross Barkley

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When Barkley joined Chelsea in January, you could have forgiven supporters for shrugging their shoulders. Another hamstring injury and some rather harsh words from Antonio Conte following his debut at Arsenal were all he had to show for his first six months at the club.

But after a very tough pre-season, he is now reaping the rewards. The midfielder is starting to get the credit he deserves with the potential having always been there. His goals and assists in the win over Burnley mean he has now scored in three successive league games for the first time in his career.

Barkley arrived at Stamford Bridge with no guarantee he would start, but his flying form is now making a mockery of the £15m exchanged with Everton for his services. The player himself deserves immense credit for how he’s turned things around but producing on a consistent basis is now key.

His three goals and three assists have come from just eight shots and five chances created – one every 14.7 minutes on the pitch – and the competition for places at Chelsea means he can’t afford to rest on his laurels as witnessed after several false dawns at his former club.

Roberto Martinez

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Another man whose stock has certainly risen since leaving Everton, Martinez landed on his feet in the Belgium job after his time at Goodison Park turned sour – and the Spaniard is now being heavily linked with the Real Madrid vacancy.

Martinez is a man who certainly interviews well, earning his current post off the back of compiling a detailed presentation of where the national team went wrong in losing to Wales at Euro 2016.

His man-management skills appeared to have masked the fact he only has a League One title and FA Cup winners’ medal to show for his honours’ list on his CV, but his style of football has earned him admirers among Madrid’s hierarchy.

The Belgian FA have issued a warning that they will not tolerate any ‘tapping up’ over their head coach, who has a contract until 2020 that does not have a release clause – meaning Real’s negotiators will need to agree compensation with his present employers to secure his services.

But having led the county to third place at last summer’s World Cup, Martinez must wonder if he will ever have a better chance of managing one of the biggest clubs in the world – a pipe dream when he became the subject of ridicule on Merseyside.

Eddie Howe

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Harry Redknapp has been in the news this week for his rather cutting analysis of Gary Neville’s cutting analysis of Tottenham, but the manager-turned-pundit was full of praise for the job Howe is doing at Bournemouth.

“If Mourinho left United tomorrow, Eddie Howe wouldn’t even get a mention,” Redknapp told ESPN. “I’ve watched Eddie in action at Bournemouth, seen his coaching sessions first-hand, and the intensity and quality of his work is absolutely top-class.

“But when a top job comes up, he never gets a look-in and it’s the same for a lot of good, young English managers.

“It’s different if you’ve managed in the Portuguese league and have a good agent. Club owners seem much happier going down that route.”

It’s hard to disagree when you reflect on the remarkable job Howe continues to do on the south coast, with the Cherries booking their place in the Carabao Cup quarter-finals this week having thrashed Fulham at the weekend.

It’s just a shame they now face a tricky trip to Chelsea in the next round, with the likelihood being that Howe will need to win something before he can be expected to earn the full respect of a top-six dressing room. But his side is full of players he has improved.

Brahim Diaz

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Diaz scored his first two goals for Manchester City as Fulham were swept aside in the Carabao Cup – offering the club a reminder of his qualities with his contract up for renewal ahead of its expiry next summer.

The 19-year-old Spaniard has only made 14 appearances in all competitions since arriving from Malaga two years ago, but negotiations are currently at an impasse with Real Madrid reportedly interested.

With all the talk centred on Phil Foden, Diaz is the old kid on the block, but having been the difference on his first start at the Etihad on Thursday, Guardiola admitted his frustration at having to leave his talented teenager out of Premier League matchday squads.

He said: “There are no words to explain how tough it is. Winter is coming so everybody is going to play.

“They can be upset with me, no problem when they react like that on the field. We can dream but the reality of football… football can break your dreams.” Diaz showed why he could be a star for the future.

Tom Heaton

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One of the more unusual stories of the week that saw two figures brought back into collective conscience, it was revealed that Sir Elton John texted Watford’s chief executive Scott Duxbury to advise him to sign Tom Heaton.

The club’s honorary life president is a regular at Vicarage Road, but the Financial Times reported that he is far from taking a back seat when it comes to giving his views on the team.

Duxbury said he regularly contacts the 71-year-old, and after Watford were recently beaten 4-0 by Bournemouth, Sir Elton not only disclosed that the team were suffering as a result of Ben Foster being in goal, but that they should pursue Burnley’s Heaton.

Foster has kept two clean sheets since the aberration against the Cherries, but Heaton has been on the decline ever since dislocating his shoulder at the start of last season. Sean Dyche has suggested he will let the ‘keeper leave in January, with his last appearance coming in the Carabao Cup defeat at Burton in September.

Having not returned the same player following his injury, such a glowing reference must surely act as a shot in the arm for Heaton to show he’s still standing.

Bad week

Edinburgh derby

The Scottish Premiership has enjoyed something of a renaissance this season since the arrival of Steven Gerrard at Rangers, but the competition made headlines for all the wrong reasons on Wednesday following a tempestuous draw between Edinburgh rivals Hearts and Hibernian.

“This should be a showpiece game,” Hibs manager Neil Lennon said after being struck by a missile that left his jaw throbbing. Both sides are enjoying fine starts to the season, but this was a night of high emotion that overstepped the mark.

The typically feisty derby boiled over during five mad minutes as after Florian Kamberi was sent off for a mid-air challenge on Ollie Bozanic, Hearts ‘keeper Zdenek Zlamal was punched by a Hibs supporter in ugly scenes at Tynecastle.

There have been discussions about allowing alcohol back in the stands during matches, but this was a shameful reminder of what can occur even with it constricted to the concourses, while Lennon was struck by a coin after appearing to goad the Hearts fans for a disallowed goal.

Jon Moss

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While I’m loathe to criticise referees (especially those whose decisions have directly impacted upon my own club’s fortunes), it’s hard to ignore those made by Moss in the two games he officiated in this week.

The 48-year-old was criticised by Southampton manager Mark Hughes, ironically against Everton, for being “30 yards behind the play” when awarding a free-kick which led to his team conceding a late equaliser in May.

Hughes argued that Moss was “probably getting his breath back” in a tone that has punctuated his entire managerial career – but the referee was well-placed to see Idrissa Gueye’s touch on the ball as Anthony Martial theatrically went to ground inside the box last Sunday.

Moss pointed to the spot as Manchester United went on to beat Everton 2-1 at Old Trafford, and he compounded his bad week at the crucial moment in Chelsea’s 3-2 win over Derby on Wednesday.

Cesc Fabregas smashed Chelsea in front shortly before half-time, despite an obvious barge by Davide Zappacosta on Tom Lawrence right in front of the linesman in the build-up.

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Derby manager Frank Lampard said: “The fourth official said it was off the pitch. The VAR looked at it. I’ve looked at it and the ball wasn’t off the pitch, the foul wasn’t off the pitch, so it was blatantly a foul.

“I turned round thinking we’d got the foul, then looked back and they were in our box. VAR should clear up the ones that go slightly wrong. It didn’t tonight.”

Moss has not been put in charge of a Premier League game this weekend and will instead by the fourth official at Molineux for Wolves’ home game with Tottenham.

Huddersfield

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It was another bleak afternoon for Huddersfield at Vicarage Road after more shambolic defending contributed to a 3-0 loss to Watford last Saturday.

The Terriers aren’t as defensively robust as they were last season, when their good start to the season provided the cushion which ultimately helped them stave off relegation.

They haven’t had the same early springboard this time around, while they remain just as limited as an attacking force. David Wagner’s side have scored just 14 goals in 2018, comfortably the fewest of any team in England’s top four leagues this calendar year.

Striker Laurent Depoitre had just four touches inside the Watford penalty box, while they are yet to score at home this term.

With Fulham the visitors to the John Smith’s Stadium this weekend – a side that have conceded the most goals after 10 Premier League games (28) – they have to come out of their shell.

Jang Hyon-soo

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South Korea defender Jang received a lifetime ban from playing for the national team and a £20,600 fine after he was found to have falsified records relating to his military service exemption.

As trotted out by the British media throughout the first month of the season in relation to Son Heung-min, all able-bodied South Korean men must complete almost two years’ military service as part of efforts to maintain a deterrent against the North but athletes can earn exemptions by winning a medal at the Olympics or gold at the Asian Games.

The exemption conditions state that athletes must undergo four weeks of basic military training and undertake more than 500 hours of community service over a three-year period.

But Jang, who was part of the team that won gold at the 2014 Asian Games, admitted this week he submitted false records detailing how many hours of community service he has performed.

The 27-year-old – who plays for FC Tokyo – has now been given an additional five days of compulsory service by the sports ministry, and he said: “I am sorry to have disappointed everyone for such a shameful issue.”

Rafinha

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Jang is not the only player this week issuing a grovelling apology. Everyone knows how footballers love to dress up for Halloween, but there’s always one who gets his costume spectacularly wrong.

Ghosts and ghouls were again upstaged by the more inventive outfits on show, but Bayern Munich defender Rafinha caused social media outcry after dressing in traditional Arab clothing while holding a bomb.

A picture of several of Bayern’s players dressed up for the occasion was tweeted by the German champions on their official Twitter account, which has over four-and-a-half million followers.

Rafinha can be seen dressed in traditional Arab clothing, wearing a fake moustache and holding a box with the word ‘vorsicht’ – meaning ‘caution’.

The right-back has since apologised, saying: “Halloween is a scary celebration with exaggerated costumes. It was not my intention to anger anyone through my disguise or hurt someone’s feelings.”

The mind boggles at how the outfit got the nod of approval from the player, his team-mates and the club who initially tweeted it in the first place.

Good week, bad week: Mesut Ozil shows Germany what they’re missing while Romelu Lukaku fails Juventus audition

In a new weekly blog, Ben Grounds looks at those in the world of football to have starred and suffered over the past seven days…

Good week…

Mesut Ozil

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The week started with the kind of individual performance which made us fall in love with football. Ozil has often polarised opinion, as Graeme Souness said in his assessment of the German following his spellbinding display in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester.

Souness is a hard taskmaster who has frequently criticised Ozil for his work rate, but it was as though the playmaker was aware of the special guest on Monday Night Football and decided to put on a special clinic, telling the Scotsman, “Hold my water.”

It didn’t stop Souness from reaffirming his belief that Ozil needs to produce his excellence on a more consistent basis, but the manner in which he cut Leicester’s defence to ribbons with his deftness of pass and dummies showcased why the Premier League needs players like him.

Mohamed Salah

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The sceptics were beginning to wonder had he been a one-season wonder. All the key attacking metrics were down on last campaign, his body language suggested fatigue, frustration, even a touch of selfishness.

But Salah is beginning to show the signs of his menacing best of January to February earlier this year, sparked then by a goal that booked Egypt’s place at the World Cup. On this occasion, on a far less prestigious stage, he helped his country to victory over eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), and it appears to have had the same effect on his form.

Salah has scored three goals in a week to steer Liverpool to wins over Huddersfield and Red Star Belgrade, and in so doing became the fastest player to reach 50 goals for the Reds in all competitions – taking just 65 games.

To put that into perspective, Salah’s half-century of strikes is 22 games quicker than Ian Rush and 29 faster than Robbie Fowler. Luis Suarez took 7553 minutes for his first 50 goals, compared to Salah’s 5116. After a ‘drought’ of four games, he appears to be doing just fine.

Mr Bonucci and Mr Chiellini

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino called it an ‘absurdity’ that six sides in Italy’s lower leagues are still unsure which division they’re playing in, but the country’s top-table is still in fine fettle.

English clubs have been defeated on three occasions by Italian outfits already this season, with Inter Milan and Napoli dispensing of Tottenham and Liverpool respectively, and the latest triumph owed much to the wiliness of two famed stalwarts.

Juventus’ 1-0 victory over Manchester United was a travesty in scoreline given their superiority, but Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were so accomplished up against Romelu Lukaku that it moved Jose Mourinho to remark the pair should give a lecture in the art of defending at Harvard University.

Andre Gomes

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Fresh from his very assured Premier League debut in Everton’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, Gomes was present alongside the rest of his team-mates at the annual event for the club’s official charity.

The Portuguese midfielder gave a frank admission of his struggles to overcome mental health issues during his time with Barcelona last season, and Gomes endeared himself to Everton supporters during a touching moment with a supporter at the Everton in the Community (EITC) event.

The young fan with Down’s syndrome appeared to be overcome with emotion at playing with his idols, and Gomes was only too happy to provide him with a hug in footage that underlined the importance of staging such events in binding a football club with its community. 

Frank Lampard

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The fixture list was enough to make any Championship manager’s eyes water, but this fledgling 40-year-old has relished the challenge – and so have his players.

Then leaders Sheffield United were first beaten at Pride Park on Saturday before fellow promotion rivals West Brom were clinically dispatched 4-1 at The Hawthorns. The weekend’s trip to second-placed Middlesbrough holds no fears for Lampard.

His Derby side have come a cropper following dizzying highs already this season – Leeds put four past them in August while Millwall, Rotherham and Bolton have already recorded home wins – but Lampard has impressively managed a group containing several young pros to within two points of the top.

With Chelsea hosting the Rams in the Carabao Cup just reward for the scalp of Manchester United in the previous round, Lampard has the perfect stage on which to showcase why he is fast-becoming one of the country’s most exciting young managers.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

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He’s not quite the forgotten man of Stamford Bridge (that unwanted title still was bequeathed to Danny Drinkwater some time ago), but Loftus-Cheek became the first English player to score a hat-trick for Chelsea in Europe since Peter Osgood and Tommy Baldwin 47 years ago.

The midfielder scored a hat-trick in Thursday’s Europa League win over Bate Borisov, but finds himself below four other midfielders in the pecking order.

Loftus-Cheek has played just 33 minutes of Premier League action compared to N’Golo Kante (810), Jorginho (810), Mateo Kovacic (476) and Ross Barkley (301).

Blues manager Maurizio Sarri admits he has a “tactical problem” and is struggling to fit the 22-year-old into the side – but Loftus-Cheek was out to prove a point against the Belarusians.

His first senior hat-trick was aided by abysmal defending, but with Ross Barkley receiving all the recent plaudits, this was a timely reminder to Gareth Southgate of his abilities.

Bad week…

Romelu Lukaku

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Lukaku must be tired of being called a pussycat by Martin Keown. But the bulky Belgian looked laboured in Manchester United’s defeat to Juventus, extending his barren run to eight games without a goal in all competitions against the side he had talked up wanting to join one day earlier this month.

Jose Mourinho’s touchline row with Chelsea assistant Marco Ianni showed the ringleader is still busy cracking his whip, but it’s left his lion overwhelmingly tamed.

He can still perform his trick of miscontrolling the ball and passing straight to an opponent, but Lukaku looks a shadow of the player United signed for £75m. A rest is unlikely given Everton are the visitors to Old Trafford this Sunday.

Mourinho said afterwards, “[The concern is] not just with the goals he’s not scoring but also his confidence, in his movement, his touch. He is not linking the game well with his team. I have to agree his moment is not sweet.”

The striker’s big chance conversion rate is down 26 per cent on last season, while his minutes per goal this term stands at 276 compared to 106 at the same stage of last season.

Lukaku can point to an almost non-existent supply-line but with his last shot on target in the Premier League coming against Watford on September 15, he needs to do a lot more to shake off the current malaise.

Julen Lopetegui

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Real Madrid’s dreadful start to the La Liga season reached its nadir as they were beaten 2-1 by Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, heaping yet more pressure on manager Lopetegui.

It’s is hard to know where to point the finger at Madrid at the moment, with Lopetegui apologists criticising Florentino Perez for a lack of investment in the first team stretching back two years.

Put simply, and on a much grander scale, the side are now failing to reproduce the same results with a weaker squad in the same manner Southampton no longer do following a spate of high-profile departures. But Lopetegui looks set to be the fall guy in all of this, with Real reportedly eyeing up Antonio Cone as his replacement.

With the decision seemingly already made that the former Spain head coach is not the right fit, a victory over Barcelona in El Clasico this weekend could prove an almighty inconvenience for the club’s hierarchy.

Lionel Messi

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The last time Messi missed an ‘El Clasico’, Donald Trump was about to host the first season of Celebrity Apprentice. Much has changed in the 11 years since, but Messi will be absent once more from the Camp Nou showdown this weekend.

The Argentine has been in scintillating form this season, scoring 12 goals in all competitions, but he’s now been ruled out for three weeks after breaking his arm in the 4-2 win over Sevilla last weekend.

Barcelona have enough quality at their disposal to counter the loss of their talisman – witnessed during the Champions League over Inter Milan in midweek – but with Ernesto Valverde’s side just one point clear at the La Liga summit, the Catalans now face the ultimate test to show they can function in Messi’s absence.

Hugo Lloris

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Lloris began the week in fine form. The Frenchman produced three vitally important saves to keep out Marko Arnautovic and preserve his team’s clean sheet as Tottenham recorded their best start to a Premier League season against West Ham. Positionally he remains sound.

But all the good work at the London Stadium was undone in Eindhoven. Spurs were in control and on course for a much-needed 2-1 win at PSV when Lloris came haring out of his goal to swipe the legs of Hirving Lorenzo. It was reckless, unnecessary and deserving of the red card that has severely compromised his side’s Champions League hopes with the hosts coming back to salvage a point.

The 31-year-old made being the sweeper-keeper his trademark, but having been caught in no man’s land against Barcelona, his poor judgement is beginning to make him a liability. Putting his recent indiscretions off the field to one side, Lloris’ uncharacteristic mistakes before, during and after France’s World Cup triumph points to a drop in focus that provides Mauricio Pochettino with a fresh problem to solve.

Slavisa Jovanovic

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The wheels have come off at Fulham following a promising start. Over-reliant on Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goals and porous defensively, Jokanovic faces a make-or-break home game with Bournemouth at Craven Cottage this weekend.

The Serbian is coming under increasing pressure following the 4-2 defeat at Cardiff which sent Fulham cascading into the bottom three. It’s not been so much a bad week for the Premier League newcomers as a bad two months, with things getting increasingly worse.

Fulham’s disastrous defence has conceded nine goals in their last two games, conceding 25 in total – comfortably the most in the division. Jokanovic looks no closer to finding the right combination at the back with 61 shots on goal allowed in just nine games.

They also come out bottom on the ‘expected goals against’ metric, with their xGA of 19.53 far higher than the likes of Cardiff (13.89) and Huddersfield Town (13.49). Mourinho remains the favourite to become the first managerial casualty of the season, but Jokanovic is not far behind. His position looks very precarious.

Thomas Frank

Managers with a bad run of results has spread further west of the capital. There’s a familiar theme here with October offering a natural point for struggling clubs to seek a new voice. But for Brentford, under different circumstances, there has been an unwelcome change.

The Bees were buzzing along happily under Dean Smith, in the play-off spots on October 6 after a 1-1 draw at Leeds. But they’ve now gone eight games in all competitions without a win, losing four – including Frank’s opening two games against Bristol City and Preston.

Smith sought pastures new, partly due to his boyhood ties to Aston Villa, but perhaps also with a sense he had maximised his potential growth at Griffin Park. Frank has been promoted from his position as assistant, but he has thus far created the opposite of a managerial bounce.

The Dutchman will point to shoots of recovery in the second-half fightback at Deepdale, but the trip to high-flying Norwich offers little scope for respite following a tough start.

Behind closed doors but nothing to see as England’s search for missing link continues

Hopefully we won’t have to experience this again. It was a great chance for England to kick-start their Nations League campaign, but it resulted in an opportunity wasted in subdued, soulless fashion in Rijeka.

They had the home crowd silenced for them, but for all the build-up of how Gareth Southgate’s side would cope with playing behind closed doors, it really was a case of ‘nothing to see here’ in Croatia.

The second-half was considerably better than the first, pierced on the hour-mark by the unmistakable sound a bin lorry makes when reversing. It turned out to be an ambulance but it just about summed this up. It was rubbish.

Josip Pivaric produced a fine last-ditch sliding tackle to prevent Raheem Sterling from the type of far post tap-in he’s made his trademark at Manchester City, while Eric Dier headed Jordan Henderson’s corner onto the post.

Harry Kane rattled the woodwork in the second period while Marcus Rashford missed two gilt-edged chances that sums up his current lapse in confidence that has travelled with him from Manchester.

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England recorded just one shot in the first half – the fewest amount in the opening 45 minutes of an away game since June 2015 against the Republic of Ireland.

Here was proof that players need support from the stands, a revenge mission that will be remembered fondly only by the 16 hardened souls who stood atop a hill outside Stadion HNK, unable to even see one of the goal-mouths.

Before the second half, they could be heard singing, “Pickford, give us a wave?” The goalkeeper duly obliged for the biggest cheer of the evening.

Having found their voice and form, moments later came the ironic chants of “Your support is f****** shit” and slightly more impassioned “F**k off UEFA, we’ll do what we want!”

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They saw the first England international born in the 21st Century, with Jadon Sancho introduced with 13 minutes remaining, the youngest player to play for the senior team since Sterling at 18 years and 201 days.

His lively cameo will have been their one takeaway from this glorified training game, but there was little to get excited about.

Three months on, England confronted their World Cup semi-final foes, rekindling memories of the summer of 2018, Glenn Hoddle’s Love Train, Harry Maguire’s head, Boxpark Croydon and all that.

But it was a Nations League six-pointer in front of an official crowd of zero, and there were zero goals and zero talking points.

Of course, those 16 were the lucky few – around a hundred members of the media, 65 dignitaries from the English FA and the same from their Croatian counterparts were inside, while roads had been blocked off by police aiming to discourage fans from making the 102-mile trip from Zagreb.

Around 500 Three Lions supporters had instantly pressed the ‘purchase’ button when this fixture was first announced, a week before FIFA confirmed the game would be closed to the public as part of a punishment handed to Croatia after a swastika was marked on the pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.

It was the first time in 988 senior internationals dating back to 1872 that England contested a game behind closed doors. Only three previous games involving English teams have been played under such conditions.

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Most recently in 2014, Manchester City faced CSKA Moscow in a Champions League match in Russia, while you have to go back as far as the early 1980s for the other two occasions.

West Ham hosted Real Madrid B in a Cup Winners’ Cup match in the 1980-81 season while Aston Villa’s home European Cup tie against Besiktas in 1982-83 was also played in an empty stadium.

Former England defender Martin Keown feared the conditions might in fact add pressure to the young players, but it was Sancho who provided the injection of energy in the final quarter of an hour in this snoozefest.

So what, if anything did we learn? Southgate had played his preferred formation of 3-5-2 for over a year, but he dispensed with that on Friday night.

“We think it’s time for the team to evolve a bit,” he said prior to the match. “3-5-2 has been fantastic for us really. We maximised the talents of the players across the summer, but in a couple of the matches against the better teams, we’ve suffered a bit without the ball.

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“We wanted to have a look at a back four, I think it suits the players we’ve got playing tonight, it still gives us the opportunity to move the ball and be a threat, but hopefully we’ll cover the spaces that were a bit of a problem for us in the last couple of games.”

Southgate cited his side being overloaded by Switzerland in midfield and down the flanks towards the end of his time using the old formation, but the shift towards a more attacking system was designed to suit an extra midfielder, and to find the missing link.

Ross Barkley returned to the side for the first time since May 2016 – his first game under Southgate – as part of a three-man midfielder in front of a flat back four. He has looked in good physical condition, and the former Everton midfielder was played in the same position that has led to his resurgence at Chelsea.

This was Southgate acknowledging the need to try out a different approach if England are to ever beat the leading nations when it matters, but what it showed was that an in-form Barkley is the same player he was at Everton without Eden Hazard.

With Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard absent, this was his chance to stake a claim. A chance for England to exorcise some demons from 93 days ago? Barkley has had to wait considerably longer than that, admitting this week he’d watched the Croatia defeat among fans during a family holiday.

That friendly against Australia was the last of his previous 22 caps, coming on as a second-half substitute, while you have to go back more than three years for his last competitive start – against Lithuania in October 2015.

But he was a largely peripheral figure, outshone by the rich talent in midfield whose company he shared, bizarrely opting not to appeal what looked a good shout for a penalty when he was clipped by Ante Rebic inside the box.

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Barkley was not alone in scurrying down blind alleys, but there was little to suggest he will be the long-term answer to England’s search for a midfield playmaker.

Two chances in quick succession were squandered by Rashford, showing too much of his intentions on both occasions as he opened up his body and found the gloves of Dominik Livakovic, but neither side controlled proceedings for any significant period.

There was an eerie feel to this fixture in a stadium with a capacity of 8,217 on the northern Adriatic coast, with Southgate warning his players to watch their language due to the absence of an atmosphere.

Only Henderson was clearly heard barking profanities at Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic after a decision went against him. “Are you the f***** ref?!” he said after 30 minutes. It was an all-too brief reminder of what was at stake.

The introduction of the Nations League has brought a competitive edge to what might otherwise have been a pointless friendly, but while the noises coming from the two sides revealed an eagerness to avoid relegation from the top tier of UEFA’s fledgling competition, the empty stands appeared to hinder both sets of players.

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This was a vastly different experience to the contest played in front of 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium three months ago, and there were very few conclusions that could be drawn on a very bumpy pitch.

Henderson was again England’s most creative player here. His two set pieces led to Dier and Kane hitting the woodwork – with the Tottenham striker having now gone six internationals without a goal – and the striker’s offside finish also came from a Henderson pass.

That says a lot about England’s missing stardust, and Kane might well have wished to have seen Sancho introduced sooner given the raw, fearlessness he showed. Ben Chilwell, on his first England start, looks primed to grow into the role at left-back after a confident display.

England were the better side, but for once, their failure to beat another leading nation was somewhat overshadowed by the conditions.

They head to Seville next knowing this odd night will not live long in the memory, but also that they must be far more clinical in front of goal against Luis Enrique’s in-form Spain side in far more raucous surroundings.

Southgate reflected afterwards: “You want to perform in front of a crowd. It raises the level of the game, but I thought our players were really good. We defended well and pressed well.

“If we’d been a bit more ruthless with our chances, we would’ve won the game.”

 

Tottenham vs Barcelona: Philippe Coutinho and Mauricio Pochettino cross paths again as key men in search to regain stability

It was the 67th minute and the game was already up. Tottenham had snaffled all three points in a contest many now view as a seminal moment in Jurgen Klopp’s time as Liverpool manager.

But Philippe Coutinho was still buzzing around, desperate to leave his mark, forcing Hugo Lloris to produce a save fit to rival those from any Premier League season, flying with his wrong hand to tip his trademark curling shot onto the crossbar.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino leapt from his technical area in appreciation of the immense skill on display, wary of the danger any side trailing by three goals still possess when Coutinho is in such a mood.

Tottenham would see out the match, and while Liverpool have undergone major reconstruction since that defining defeat, Klopp’s ability to turn his side into title contenders this season has largely been thanks to the £146m raised by Coutinho’s sale.

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The Brazilian returns to Wembley this Wednesday night a Barcelona player hoping to land a significant blow to Pochettino’s hopes of taking Tottenham beyond the Champions League group stages.

Inter Milan have already shown to Spurs’ cost why they are the dangerous, floating pot four side everyone was desperate to avoid, and it was via the Nerazzurri that Pochettino would first learn of Coutinho’s immense talent.

It was in January 2012 when Inter boss Claudio Ranieri shipped out a 20-year-old Coutinho to Espanyol, then managed by Pochettino. It was an uncertain point in his career, having failed to leave a lasting impression at the Milanese club since his £4.5m move from Vasco da Gama in 2008.

But Coutinho flourished under Pochettino, scoring five goals in 16 games during his loan spell. One eye-catching free-kick struck underneath the wall against Malaga was a brief glimpse into the kind of skills he would produce many years later at Liverpool.

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Pochettino’s side in fact dipped collectively in the second half of the season with Coutinho in the side, drifting away from the Champions League spots to finish with a mediocre campaign.

But the Argentinian allowed Coutinho to develop character traits that would ultimately lead him to become the game’s second-most expensive player in history.

Pochettino offered Coutinho the chance to revitalise his career, through a steep process of development, despite the side’s free-fall to within five points of relegation.

Espanyol recorded just two victories during the loan spell, but the player will always be grateful to the man he faces again on Wednesday for the role he played in his career.

In December 2015, Coutinho said of his loan spell under Pochettino: “It helped me, the style in Spain when I went to Espanyol.

“And Mauricio Pochettino, who was the manager there at the time, gave me a lot of confidence. He always encouraged me to play and show my skills.

“And he told me to enjoy it. In that sense I have been lucky with all my managers. They have all encouraged me to play my game.”

In the end, it was Coutinho’s goals which kept Espanyol afloat. Learning how to produce the level of off-the-ball intensity required to stay in a Pochettino side would ultimately serve him well for life under Klopp.

But the appreciation between player and manager is mutual given Southampton were scouting Coutinho when they first came across the 46-year-old they would later appoint as Nigel Atkins’ successor at St Mary’s.

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By the end of Coutinho’s loan at Espanyol, Liverpool scouts were watching his performances, and it was clear that his future lay on a bigger stage.

In March 2013, two months after the pair had coincidentally arrived at roughly the same time on English shores, Pochettino said of Coutinho: “Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet.

“Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate and that makes us doubt whether he fits the mould of a typical Brazilian player or a European one because his work ethic is outstanding.

“What is important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid – a great, humble person. I do think Coutinho has that same quality that Ronaldinho and Messi have, but he has much to prove yet.

“What is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player – really dedicated and responsible to his own players.”

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The 26-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and following his successful spell on Merseyside, Coutinho’s has taken his intense work rate with him to Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde.

It has been a torturous week for the Catalans, dropping seven points in seven days for the first time since 2003, two draws and a surprise defeat to bottom club Leganes underlining the difficulties Valverde has had in finding the same spark from last season’s double-winning team.

Coutinho was handed the unenviable challenge of not only shouldering his hugely overinflated transfer fee but also of replacing Andres Iniesta’s guile and game intelligence.

For all of his qualities, that was always going to prove an uphill task, but one of the primary reasons behind Barcelona’s current instability is the absence of a controlling midfielder.

Ivan Rakitic has understandably struggled to get back up to speed after helping Croatia reach the World Cup final, while Arturo Vidal has not been signed to provide the same qualities that Iniesta possessed.

Coutinho is no longer the new signing, especially given his previous stint in Catalonia, and with Tottenham not exactly at their most stable themselves, Wembley’s vast pitch provides the perfect setting for the playmaker to show Pochettino how far he’s come.

 

Season start shows importance of finding a working defensive partnership

Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Just three defensive pairings that have been instrumental to the success of previous Premier League title winners.

But while Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have received plenty of plaudits in the opening fortnight of the season, it is the sight of Callum Wilson running through the centre of the London Stadium like on a Boxing Day raid of Westfields that is my takeaway image.

In those seven seconds worth of distance run, the Bournemouth striker provided the perfect example of why finding the right defensive double act is paramount to success at any level of the game.

With Fabián Balbuena dangling a leg, former strikers Ian Wright and Chris Sutton debated on BBC 5Live this week how many goals they would score in the English top flight if they were still playing.

It’s not the first time this has been a subject of conversation among TV pundits in recent seasons, but it has never been more pertinent.

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Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho lamented the club’s failure to land his primary target of a centre-back with the summer transfer window drawing to an end.

Prior to United’s pre-season friendly defeat at Bayern Munich, he said: “My CEO knows what I want and I still have a few days to wait and see what happens.

“The other clubs who compete with us are really strong and already have fantastic teams. Or they are investing massively like Liverpool, who are buying everything and everybody.

“If we don’t make our team better, it will be a difficult season for us.”

After the unconvincing win over Leicester, the defeat by Brighton served to underline Mourinho’s point, as Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof showcased their deficiencies with the 34-year-old Glenn Murray running amok against a defensive partnership worth £60million.

The United manager has tried several different combinations involving Bailly, Lindelof, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, but with his third season now underway, the highest proportion of games played by a given partnership is Jones and Smalling on 13.

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In a managerial tenure that now stretches to 78 league games, the numbers indicate that Mourinho isn’t convinced by any of the six combinations – and his failure to identify the bedrock of his side has influenced how his team is structured, throughout.

The presence of Toby Alderweireld returning to the Tottenham defence on Monday night against United will be a sore point for Mourinho, even if the Belgian was reportedly overlooked based on his preference to play in a back three.

Conversely, Liverpool look set to thrive this term after solving their defensive issues. From the opening match, the absence of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren has allowed Gomez to form a partnership with Van Dijk.

Gomez is very highly regarded by Gareth Southgate – and would have gone to the World Cup were it not for the need for ankle surgery – but England’s loss is proving to be Liverpool’s gain so far after an encouraging start alongside the world’s most expensive defender and in front of the world’s second most expensive goalkeeper.

For Klopp, it has paid to find a working partnership in defence, and Everton manager Marco Silva had seen enough in a run of five pre-season games without a win to convince his sporting director Marcel Brands that something simply had to be done.

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Brands worked tirelessly to bring Yerry Mina to the club, in the face of United being touted as a potential alternative and with his rising cost following his displays at the World Cup with Colombia.

But Mina has thus far had to watch on from the stands, nursing an injury sustained in Russia, while fellow deadline-day arrival Kurt Zouma will also need to bide his time for opportunities.

While both Zouma – on a season-long loan from Chelsea – and Mina will have been penned in as Silva’s first-choice pairing, the Portuguese has been impressed by Mason Holgate’s first start since January in the 2-1 win over Southampton.

Mina has been ruled out until mid-September, meaning Holgate and Zouma will once more be fighting over one spot against Bournemouth alongside Michael Keane, who looks to have reacted well to two new arrivals in his position.

A clean sheet at the Vitality Stadium on Saturday would further enhance Holgate’s claims to retain the jersey, even when Mina is fit and raring to go. Van Dijk’s £75m fee is now seen as a bargain but unearthing the best defensive partnership doesn’t always come at a price.

Silva has been careful not to blood all five of his new signings at once, an issue that has been handled differently elsewhere in the Premier League, with contrasting results.

Fulham have lost both their opening games having brought in 12 new faces, while Fabri has faced faced 15 shots already this term – more than any other goalkeeper.

West Ham are also on zero points as Manuel Pellegrini seeks solutions to an early-season injury crisis coupled with the need to blood nine new players. Calls for £24m buy Issa Diop to start at Arsenal could be met after Angelo Ogbonna’s horror-show against Wilson.

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Gunners boss Unai Emery and his desire to implement his own style with players who appear incapable of fitting to his set philosophy has filled plenty of column inches this week – but while on another day, more clinical finishing against Chelsea might have brought about a different end result, it was in defence that the same old weaknesses were laid bare.

The absence of Laurent Koscielny coupled with an unkind set of opening fixtures meant that Sokratis Papastathopoulos was always in for a baptism of fire, even before he was partnered alongside Shkodran Mustafi.

Having conceded at least twice in their opening two games, Arsenal’s array of attacking talent face having to score a minimum of three goals to win games at present, and while Chelsea were victorious last Saturday, Maurizio Sarri’s change in formation has left them potentially more exposed at the back.

David Luiz has been reinstated alongside Antonio Rudiger, while Cesar Azpilicueta has been moved to right back. Sarri knows the importance of a strong defensive unit having signed Allan for £10.3m from Udinese to play alongside Jorginho as a protective shield in his first season at Napoli.

But Sarri didn’t seek to sign a centre-back, and in earmarking Jorginho as his primary target and essential to achieving his objectives, the 59-year-old has thus taken a different approach.

Luiz has been identified as the mercurial footballer that he is; ruffle him up the wrong way, and he can be a liability, but he showed he can be a world-beater in Antonio Conte’s first season in charge.

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Sarri will hope that the Brazilian forges a relationship with the Portuguese-speaking Jorginho in front of him, while having a point to prove after being cast aside by Conte last season. If Luiz repays the faith instilled in him, the loss of Thibaut Courtois will be significantly minimised as Kepa Arrizabalaga finds his feet in England.

Pep Guardiola is known for rotating but even the Manchester City manager acknowledges the importance of stability in the heart of defence. John Stones – who was victim of his reluctance to tinker during the run-in last season – has been restored after a good summer with England.

His partnership with Aymeric Laporte looks set to flourish as Vincent Kompany is gradually phased out, and the importance of deciding on a first-choice pairing is only more critical beyond the top six.

Huddersfield conceded six goals at the Etihad in the absence of Mathias Jorgensen, while Crystal Palace lost for the first time in 16 games with Mamadou Sakho and James Tomkins as their defensive partnership against Liverpool last Monday.

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The sale of Van Dijk to Liverpool midway through last season severely compromised Southampton’s chances of survival, achieved on the final day despite the 1-0 loss to City, and Mark Hughes will hope the Dutchman’s replacement Jannik Vestergaard provides greater solidity.

Having made an encouraging start in keeping a clean sheet against Burnley, illness kept Vestergaard out of the defeat at Everton, where the Denmark international’s aerial presence would have been felt as Richarlison rose to head in what proved the decisive second goal.

Van Dijk has seen his stock rise at a time when the art of defending has been lost; Jamie Carragher described him as capable of surpassing Alan Hansen at Liverpool.

Tipping him to become a “legend” is high praise indeed and reflects the influence he has since his arrival at Anfield – but the defender’s performances have been accentuated by the struggles experienced elsewhere throughout the league.