[​IMG] On Saturday, the season for Europe’s major leagues will come to a close with the Champions League final taking place in Kyiv, Ukraine. It will be between Real Madrid, seeking their 13th Champions League title, and Liverpool, seeking their 6th. The build-up to the final has been somewhat overshadowed by fans facing ticketing and logistical problems which have meant that what should be a happy, enjoyable occasion has turned into a stressful and expensive trip for many. Sadly, relatively low ticket allocations for fans at UEFA finals has become par for the course, with both sets of fans only receiving about 16000 each in a stadium that holds over 70,000, but the real problems for this final have been transport and accommodation. Local hotels have well and truly cashed in on the event, by not only raising their prices to exorbitant rates. Rooms that were $25 per night are now going for closer to $2500 per night. People who had booked rooms at the lower rates before the semi-finals had been played have found their bookings has been cancelled and their rooms have been re-sold for more money. Despite this, most of the rooms have been sold; some to ticketless fans, many, many more to UEFA’s battalion of sponsors and officials, which means that there are people in possession of tickets who can’t find accommodation. It should be noted that many Kyiv residents have been horrified by the price gouging and are appalled that it could lead people to think of Ukrainians as exploitative, have been kind enough to invite fans to stay in their own homes, but for people attending the game to be reliant on the generosity of complete strangers is a situation that should never have been allowed to happen. That of course assumes fans can get there in the first place. Flights have been chartered, but there are only limited slots available for chartered flights at Kyiv’s airports; as I’m writing this, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson and Mayor of Kyiv, and former World Heavyweight Champion, Vitaly Klitschko are trying to find a solution to help the 1000 Liverpool fans who’ve had their chartered flights cancelled due to a lack of landing spots in Kyiv. Real Madrid have returned around 1000 tickets because their fans can’t get there, Liverpool may end up doing the same. Other fans have found creative ways to get there; some have flown to neighbouring countries and are taking colossal train journeys, renting motor homes are chartering buses to get them there and back. Now to the game itself. I’m probably jinxing it by writing this, but this has the potential to be a truly great final. Real Madrid will be the clear favourites; they come into this game looking for their third successive Champions League title, have better players than Liverpool and a ton more experience. But, Liverpool will be happy to be the underdogs. Had you asked them earlier in the season. Most Liverpool fans were just happy to see them back in the Champions League and would have settled for getting out of the group stages. What Liverpool lack in experience- they have an average age of 24, they make up for in enthusiasm. What they lack in individual playmaking flair, they make up for in having a system that creates a lot of chances. Having been able to see both teams in person this season, I think that they are far more equal than people may think. Both teams have the same weaknesses and inconsistencies as each other, which will mean that neither side will be afraid of the other and each will have worked out several ways they can win. Finals can often be quite tight and cagey games, I think this one will be much more flowing and open (may have jinxed it again). Most Liverpool games descend into barely-organised chaos at some stage, and this game will probably be the same. Real Madrid will be looking to attack and Liverpool don’t have the players to be able to sit back and defend. Even though Liverpool’s defence is far better than it’s given credit for, Real Madrid will be confident that they will get chances. They will probably aim to go after Liverpool’s 19-year-old right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had his first really shaky game since breaking into the Liverpool team in the semi-final second leg in Rome, betting that his inexperience may give them a way in. Also, Real Madrid will know that Dejan Lovren can be extremely error-prone at times and will look to capitalise. On the other hand, Liverpool will be equally confident that their pressing game, superior pace and rapid counter-attacks will see them have a lot of the ball in the final third of the pitch and that the guile of Roberto Firmino and the blistering pace of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah will see them have chances to score. In the game I saw Real Madrid in a few months back, they lost to a goal on exactly the sort of counter-attack that Liverpool specialise in. For Liverpool to win, they probably need to be leading at half-time. Liverpool’s Champions League run has largely been due to the blistering starts they have made in games that has blown teams away. Liverpool play with their defence stepping up and compressing the pitch, and then the midfield and attack pressing to win the ball and then going forward in waves. If Real Madrid can figure out how to stop that, or pass around it, then they can stop Liverpool. If the game comes down to substitutions, then Real Madrid will probably win as they have far better players to bring on than Liverpool do. Liverpool’s decision to have a small squad, coupled with a few injuries means that they have extremely limited options in terms of making substitutions to change the game. If anything happens to one of the front three, they don’t have anyone who can provide anywhere near the same attacking threat. In the semi-finals and for the last few games of the season Liverpool played the midfield trio of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum in every game, with no midfielders on the bench because they had no more midfielders available to use. Liverpool’s midfield options have improved due to Adam Lallana and possibly Emre Can being back from injury, but even so their bench contains nowhere near the quality of the Madrid one. Similarly, Madrid’s superior experience will come into play if they are in front coming into the later stages of the game. They know how to see games like this out. Liverpool’s worst moments in the Champions League this season is when they have been caught in two minds between carrying on attacking and sitting back to defend, so if Liverpool have a narrow lead in the late stages of the game, Real Madrid will still fancy their chances. I don’t think anyone will pretend that this year’s Champions League finals contains the best two teams in Europe. I also don’t think anyone can deny that Real Madrid have the better players. But, Liverpool will be quietly confident their team matches up against Real Madrid’s weaknesses well and Liverpool have found ways to overcome more talented teams than them before. Either way, this game has the potential to be a classic.
[​IMG] Today, Glasgow Rangers ended their near season-long search for a manager by appointing former Liverpool and LA Galaxy player Steven Gerrard on a four-year contract, which will begin at the end of this season. Gerrard’s only coaching experience to date is as coach of Liverpool’s under-18, where he did a solid job. Gerrard has announced that his assistant will be former Scotland midfielder Gary McAllister and he will also be joined by fellow Liverpool academy coach Michael Beale. At first glance, this seems like a great move for all concerned. Scottish football gets a big name in football coming to coach in its league; which in turn will boost the profile of the Scottish game and boost TV ratings. Rangers get a whole lot more attention from outside of Scotland and potentially become a more attractive proposition to new signings. Gerrard gets his first go at football management in the rare position of coming to a massive club, but doing so in almost unheard of circumstances, as nobody necessarily expects him to come and start winning trophies straight away. If he can establish Rangers as the second-best team in the Scottish Premiership ahead of Aberdeen and Hibernian, maybe beat Celtic in a game or two and goes deep in the two cup competitions and takes Rangers further in Europe than the disastrous campaign this season, that’ll be seen as a job well done. So, this is a no-brainer, right? Well, no. This is actually a massive risk by both Rangers and Gerrard. Make no mistake about it, Rangers are a gigantic football club. They have a vast fanbase-they average close to 50,000 fans every game- and facilities that are the envy of most clubs. But, they are also something of an empty shell of a club. For all of the shiny exterior, they are completely hollow inside. This is a club that is suffering on and off the pitch. This season Rangers have managed to go out of European football in July after blowing a 1-0 first leg lead to lose 2-0 Progres Nederkorn of Luxembourg, a team that not only had never won a European game before, but had only ever scored one European goal. That defeat was the beginning of the end for manager Pedro Caixinha, who was pictured trying to appease fans while being stood in a shrub. [​IMG] When Caixinha was fired in October, Rangers failed to find a replacement and appointed former Reading defender Graham Murty as Caretaker manager. Rangers have stuttered ever since. The job was just too big for Murty, who after two recent humiliations to arch-rivals Celtic, was somewhat unfairly fired. With one game left at the time of writing, Rangers could finish as high as second or as low as fourth. So not only will Gerrard will take over a team that isn’t pulling up trees, he’ll also be taking over a dysfunctional group of players that are utterly demoralised and even worse, are at each other’s throats. The 4-0 Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Celtic saw midfielder Andy Halliday swear at a Rangers fan after being substituted, then Greg Docherty and Alfredo Morelos had to be pulled apart from each other in the tunnel after the game. Then, in the dressing room following the game, veteran striker Kenny Miller and club captain Lee Wallace got into such a furious confrontation with Murty they’ve both been suspended by the club and aren’t expected to ever play for Rangers again. So, Gerrard’s first job will be to restore some order to the chaos that has been the Rangers dressing room and then start to help the team regain their confidence. It seems evident that new signings are needed; though the already announced signing of Scott Arfield from Burnley is a good one. The question is do Rangers have the means to do so? If you remember, back in 2012, following some financial mismanagement that was so serious it led to criminal charges being laid at former owner Craig Whyte, who was acquitted, Rangers went bankrupt and, depending on your point of view, they either restarted back in the bottom division of Scottish football, or an entirely new team that bears a strong resemblance to Rangers did. Ever since, Rangers have bounced from financial crisis to financial crisis. They have been losing around £7m per year and are now completely reliant on loans from club directors to keep going. A lot of Rangers fans believe the club is in exactly the same position they were in when they went bankrupt. A few months ago, betting was suspended on Rangers being relegated for financial problems. While all of this has been happening, Celtic have not only established themselves as the dominant force in Scottish football- they’ve just won their seventh successive title- but are now head and shoulders above the rest financially largely thanks to some smart work in the transfer market, where they’ve managed to buy players cheaply then sell them on for a large profit. The gap between them and the rest is massive. If Steven Gerrard is serious about wanting a career in football coaching, then he’s taking a serious risk in starting at a club with so many unknowns. I’m sure he wouldn’t have taken the job had he not been given guarantees about the club’s finances; Gerrard turned down the job at MK Dons because he wasn’t convinced by what he saw. The wrongly held belief in England is that the Scottish Premiership is an ‘easy’ league, and therefore winning it is no great achievement. The average English fan, who will probably know nothing about the current realities of Rangers, will be expecting Gerrard to be winning titles immediately. If he doesn’t win a title at Rangers, and at this moment that is a very remote possibility, Gerrard will unfairly be tarred with the “couldn’t even win a title in Scotland” brush and that may be the end of his coaching career before it’s really begun. All coaches have to start somewhere. Rangers have decided that Gerrard’s lack of experience doesn’t matter. Maybe they’re right. Maybe Steven Gerrard will galvanise Rangers and then go on to have a coaching career as glittering as his playing career was. But, there’s an equal chance that this could blow up in either of their faces. Rangers are taking a chance on a completely unproven coach rather than a coach with a track record of steering a team through some troubled times. Gerrard is taking a risk on a club that has been a basket case for years and one that could stop his career at the first hurdle. Either way, this appointment is nowhere near the no-brainer that people may think it is.
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One thing you often hear when fans talk about their team, is the idea of identity, or the lack of it. They mean the defining characteristics of a particular club, manager or set of players. That identity is different for different teams and can change all the time. For some clubs, that identity is woven into its fabric and always remains constant no matter what goes on around it. The most famous example is Athletic Bilbao whose Basque identity is so important to them that they have a self-imposed unofficial policy of only signing players who are from the Basque country. Another club who had a clear identity was Glasgow-based Scottish League Two club Queen’s Park. They were notable for two things. That they played at Hampden Park, the stadium that’s used by Scotland and one of the stadiums that’s regularly used by UEFA. The other was that they have gone their entire 152-year history retaining their amateur status. But now both are about to change. Queen’s Park will leave Hampden at the end of this season, and yesterday, its members voted to allow players to be paid for the first time in the history of the club. Queen’s Park were formed in 1867, which makes them the oldest football club in the world outside of England and Wales. Their club motto is Ludere Causa Ludendi, meaning ‘to play for the sake of playing’, which reflected their amateur status. Queen’s Park are an incredibly important club in the history of football. When they formed, football was actually a prohibited activity in Scotland thanks to a law from 1424, and was played under weird sets of rules that each team could set. It was Queen’s Park that established the association rules from England as the dominant code in Scotland, and later into Ireland. They organised and provided the entire Scotland team for the first ever international game v England in 1872, and the reason that Scotland today play in dark blue shirts is because that was the colours of Queen’s Park back then (they adopted the black and white hoops they play in now a few years later). The reason we have half-time, free-kicks after fouls and a crossbar on the goals is because they all were innovations introduced to the game by Queen’s Park. Passing the ball to teammates was a radical idea introduced to the game by Queens Park and replaced the old kick-and-rush style of play common at the time. Queen’s Park were one of the eight founder members of the Scottish Football Association (SFA) and, alongside Kilmarnock, are the only ones still in the Scottish League system today. Initially, they were incredibly successful. They won the inaugural Scottish Cup in 1874, and won it another nine times in the next 20 years. They were invited to play in the English FA Cup on several occasions and made it to the final twice. But, as with the other amateur clubs of the time, Queen’s Park couldn’t keep up with the advent of professionalism and started to fall behind. They resisted joining the Scottish Football League for 10 years, until they found arranging fixtures too difficult and joined in 1900. For most of that time, they’ve been in the lower divisions of Scotland and are currently in Scottish League Two, the bottom division in the Scottish Leagues. That’s still an incredible achievement as for all of that time, they’ve remained amateur, paying players nothing more than their expenses. That amateur status though means that the club has always been vulnerable to losing their players for nothing, as they are free to leave should they get offered professional contracts. In the bottom two divisions of the Scottish League, and the Highland and Lowland League below that, virtually every club is semi-professional and operates on a part-time basis. Players will have day jobs, or be in full-time education, but will be paid to train and to play football, with the amounts varying from about £50 ($65) a week to the best players, or former big names, getting more like £500 a week, which can add up to a nice sum of money on top of a regular job. Queen’s Park couldn’t compete financially with other clubs, but had one big thing in their favour, which was that Queens Park’s home stadium is, for the moment, Hampden Park, the stadium used by the Scottish national team. Queen’s Park have played at Hampden Park since they had it built in 1903 (it’s the third stadium they’ve played in called Hampden Park!) and it has been the home of the Scotland national team for years. While they may not have been able to pay wages, the chance to play league football at an iconic stadium every other week was a carrot Queen’s Park could dangle in front of prospective signings. That’s all about to change. The SFA’s 20-year lease on using Hampden runs out in 2020, and they indicated they weren’t willing to renew it. The SFA dangled the idea of moving Scotland games out of Hampden to share between Ibrox or Celtic Park in Glasgow or to Murrayfield, the Scottish rugby union stadium in Edinburgh. This left Queen’s Park with a problem. They rely on the money from the Scotland games, and were faced with the prospect of having a massive stadium that they couldn’t pay for and, had Scotland left, they would have had to pay back a huge amount of government funding they had received. The SFA knew they had Queen’s Park over a barrel and following some fractious negotiations, with Queen’s Park accusing the SFA of lowballing them, including an offer for £1, Queens Park eventually agreed a sale of Hampden Park to the SFA for £5.1m, with the SFA taking on all the liabilities of the stadium. From next season, Queen’s Park will play at Lesser Hampden, a small stadium next to Hampden Park that has been used to host youth team games and will spend the money from the sale in renovating that. There was always something a bit daft about a club that struggles to get 600 fans for a game playing in a stadium that holds 52,000, but it still seems a shame that they have to leave the place they’ve called home for so long. Queen’s Park do manage to entice players away from other clubs, but for the most part they rely heavily on their excellent academy to produce players for them. Queen’s Park has produced Liverpool player and current Scotland captain Andy Robertson, as well as his fellow current Scottish internationals Lawrence Shankland and Barry Douglas. Sir Alex Ferguson started his playing career there too.
However, there was a growing sense that things couldn’t continue as they were. A few years ago, the Scottish League, the SPFL, introduced promotion and relegation to the league. This was designed in part to prevent teams who were consistently terrible from being allowed to fail season after season without any consequence, but also to give an incentive to the ambitious teams from the Highland and Lowland Leagues that sit below Scottish League Two on the football pyramid to keep going. At the end of the season, the Highland and Lowland League champions play each other, with the winner taking on the team that finished bottom of League Two for their league spot for the next season. That’s a prospect that is frightening to Queen’s Park. Their amateur status means they are always in danger of having their players picked off, and they know that one bad season could see them out of the league. There would be no guarantee of getting back in either; the Lowland League contains some wealthy, ambitious sides and relegated teams have found it tough. East Stirlingshire haven’t looked like coming back since being relegated, and Berwick Rangers, who were relegated from League Two last season have had a torrid time. The straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back was the loss last summer of four players that had come through the Queen’s Park academy and were part of the team that reached the semi-final of the Scottish Youth Cup. Those players, who likely would’ve been in the first team this season, were offered professional contracts and left, and the amateur status of Queen’s Park meant that they received nothing to show for all of the time and expense they’d spent developing those players. That, coupled with the fact that they missed out on some signings last summer to teams in the Lowland League because they couldn’t even offer them a modest contract, meant that the board called a meeting of the club’s members to discuss allowing them to pay their players. They needed 75% to agree; in the end over 90% did. Club president Gerry Crawley said “The committee of the club plotted a course to try to defend ourselves against the threats of other ambitious clubs around about us wishing to become a senior league club "We are keen to arm ourselves to fend that off and progress ourselves. It was head against heart. The heart of a lot of the membership would be we really don't want to do this, but we have to do it." This was a brave move, but probably the right move to make. Without a change, Queen’s Park would have faced the prospect of losing one of the things that made them attractive to other players without solving any of their other problems. Now, they can attract other players. They can receive fees for the players they develop. They can look to a brighter future away from Hampden Park. One of the members put it best saying, “A huge cheer went up when the results were delivered. In a perfect world we would have stayed amateur. However, our world has changed”
Shame to end on a note of unresolved drama
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[​IMG] Yesterday, the transfer window has closed here in England. For years, people have called for the transfer window to close before the start of the season, rather than a few games into it, and this is the first year it’s happened. The transfer window closing before the start of the season makes sense; teams have all summer to strengthen, and shouldn’t be given longer just because they failed to do so. However, it’s a very strange move by English clubs to close their transfer window weeks before the rest of Europe does. That means there’s now going to be a few weeks of uncertainty as English clubs will worry that their players can be picked off by clubs across Europe, and they won’t be able to replace them. As for the transfer window, Manchester City improved an already daunting squad by adding midfielder Rodri and making Joao Cancelo the world’s most expensive full back. Spurs not only improved their midfield by adding Tanguy Ndombele and Giovani Lo Celso as well as adding Ryan Sessegnon, one of the brightest talents in English football, but maybe more importantly, established their credentials as a club with the ability to attract some of the best players around, with only a late change of heart by Juventus preventing Pedro Dybala from joining. In what I think will be an open battle for 4th this season, Chelsea were banned from making transfers having already added Christian Pulisic; Arsenal have made some pretty impressive moves, and will hope Kieran Tierney and David Luiz can help out in defence, which was their Achilles heel last season, while Nicholas Pepe adds an extra dimension in attack. Manchester United have had a strange transfer window, with some good signings having been made, but then seemed to go on tilt towards the end of the window; being linked with all kinds of players and not getting any of them; which hints at the lack of an overall plan and once again begs the question of why they don’t have a sporting director. Everton have made some impressive looking signings, but still have some glaring weaknesses that they haven’t really addressed and may be a good outside bet for the top 4, as might Wolves, who were very good last season and have further strengthened. The notable absentee in lists of transfer activity was Liverpool, who spent the least of all 20 Premier League clubs, only spending £1.3m on young Dutch defender Sepp van den Berg (they also signed Harvey Barnes from Fulham, with a tribunal to set the fee at a later date). Liverpool came as close as you can get to winning the league last season, and did win the Champions League, so it seemed the perfect chance to go out and get the players that would take them over the top domestically and make them able to challenge for and win trophies on a consistent basis. The official reason for Liverpool’s lack of activity was that the players they wanted either weren’t available, or were only available at prices that Liverpool weren’t prepared to pay. Many Liverpool fans see the logic in that; Liverpool have had success taking a more measured approach to transfers in recent seasons. Besides, Liverpool already have a very strong team, haven’t lost any key players and are a relatively young side, with the only aging player being the seemingly evergreen James Milner. I can also see the logic in Liverpool’s stance, but at the same time I think Liverpool are unnecessarily taking an incredible risk. Liverpool desperately need depth. They don’t have much by way of options from the bench to change games or to cover injury. Choosing not to add to that is a big call. Last season, Liverpool’s worst run of form was the run of 2 wins and 4 draws from 6 games from late January to early March. While that run was by no means a disaster, and included draws at tough away grounds such as Goodison Park and Old Trafford, and was then followed by a 9 match winning streak to end the season, it was the reason why Liverpool didn’t win the league as Manchester City pulled off an incredible 14 game winning run to end the season. That run of 7 games in 33 days (there was a Champions League game in there too) showed all the deficiencies in Liverpool’s squad, namely the lack of a fourth forward who was anywhere near as good as the other three. This meant that they couldn’t do anything when Roberto Firmino ran out of gas and was playing while running on fumes and Salah went through a dry spell. Rather than having strengthened, Liverpool go into this season even weaker than last season. The only player Liverpool have signed for the first-team squad in the last 13 months is former West Ham goalkeeper Adrian, who was signed on a free transfer to replace the departing Simon Mignolet as backup to Alisson. Liverpool will depend on a lot of square pegs having to fit in round holes. They don’t have a natural back up to Andrew Robertson at left-back or Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back now that Joe Gomez has been crafted into a centre-back. Should Dejan Lovren be sold, they could be forced to field a 17-year-old at centre-back should anyone get hurt. Last season, Jürgen Klopp showed that he was comfortable with having midfielders James Milner, Fabinho and Gini Wijnaldum fill in in defence if needed, but that will leave Liverpool exposed elsewhere. In the midfield, Liverpool will be needing contributions from Adam Lallana, who hasn’t done a great deal in his Liverpool career, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who’s back after a serious knee injury and Xherdan Shaqiri, whose form fell off a cliff last season. In attack, the big danger is fatigue or injury. Liverpool’s front three spent the summer at the Copa America and the African Cup of Nations, and they will surely feel the effects as the season goes on. Sadio Mane hasn’t had a pre-season as he was given extra time off. The back-up options are sparse; Daniel Sturridge left after his contract expired and Harry Wilson has been allowed to go out on loan. This means that Liverpool’s backup options in attack will largely depend on Divock Origi. Origi will likely get a lot of minutes this season, and while he went on an incredible run of form at the end of last season, that went far above anything else he’d shown in his years at Liverpool. So it’s big question mark as to what productivity can be expected from him, and how the team differs when he plays. Other than Origi, the only true forward in the Liverpool squad is Rhian Brewster, a young player who has impressed at age group level but is untested at the first-team level. Klopp doesn’t have a great record in bringing young players through, so rather than Brewster I suspect he’ll prefer Oxlade-Chamberlain or Lallana in attack. The lack of options limits what Liverpool can achieve this season. They can’t compete on all fronts like other clubs can, as they don’t have a big enough squad. Liverpool’s record in the domestic cups under Klopp is dreadful; they haven’t won a league cup game in two seasons, and have never gone past the fourth round of the FA Cup under Klopp. That bad record is likely to continue. Liverpool tend not to buy players in January (Virgil van Dijk being the only player signed in January under Klopp), as they don’t believe you get value for money, so it’s unlikely that they’ll go out any spend, unless there’s an emergency. For Liverpool to have a successful season, they will be relying on key players to avoid injury, fatigue or suspension. Last season the front three of Salah, Mane and Firmino only missed 6 games between them. It’s unlikely they’ll be that fortunate again. Maybe the best comparison for Liverpool is last season’s Spurs team. They too didn’t buy anyone in the off-season, then started the season well and were in the title picture only for a combination of fatigue and injury and derail their league campaign. Liverpool’s transfer dealings in the past few seasons have been excellent, and they’ve earned some good faith from the fans. Also, Klopp seems happy enough with having a small squad. But, the risk seems unnecessary to me. If the players who could improve the starting XI weren’t available, then fair enough; but it’s a stretch to suggest there was absolutely nobody out there who could have some for a moderate fee just to bolster the squad and give better options than playing someone out of position. Throughout the history of the Premier League, Liverpool haven’t been able to consistently contend, season upon season. After coming so close last season, hopes were high that they would be able to build on that progress. Recent history suggests that taking such a passive approach to transfers doesn’t work. Let’s see if Liverpool can change that.
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