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VfL Wolfsburg Preview: Kevin and Perisic go large

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VfL Wolfsburg enjoyed an excellent 2013/2014, a season in which the 2009 Champions finished 5th – their best return in the league since those heady days – which, thanks to an excellent Rückrunde, has set die Wölfe up for what seems like a yet more promising season, with a very real chance of breaching the top four spots. The squad is much stronger than at this point last season, with the addition of depth, with the likes of Sebastian Jung and Aaron Hunt adding to the side’s defensive and midfield ranks, as well as blooding of youngsters such as Robin Knoche and Junior Malanda, and of course, some headline signings, including Belgium star Kevin de Bruyne, who returns to Wolfsburg off the back of an impressive World Cup.

These improvements have added to what was already a very deep and impressive squad; Wolfsburg are one of the few clubs in the Bundesliga who can be run in a similar way to an English club, with automobile giants Volkswagen bankrolling the whole operation; despite having some of the league’s smallest attendances, die Wölfe can stretch to large transfer fees and larger wage bills than you’d expect. Still, the playing side of the club needs to be run well, and this has been an area of the club which has been riddled with problems since their title win back in 2009, employing no less than four different managers – 6 if you include caretakers (including two spells for Lorenz-Günther Köstner) – but the balance finally seems to have been struck with the current man in the hotseat, Dieter Hecking. While Hecking is not the most exciting managerial personality, and doesn’t play the most tactically interesting style of football, he has run a steady ship at Wolfsburg since taking the job 18 months ago, easily negotiating a mid-table finish after some Magath mayhem had left the club in trouble earlier in the season, before the aforementioned 5th place.

It’s been a steady 18 months or so of development for Hecking as well as his squad. If this is to continue, though, Hecking will have to find a way to crack both Europe and domestic competition at the same time; he’s not had to contend with European football at all in his managerial career so far, which could prove a major stumbling block if he or his side don’t get to grips with the level immediately.

Nevertheless, Wolfsburg’s stated aim will be for a second consecutive stab at European glory, whether in the Champions League or Europa League. Anything less would – at least considering the ambition of the club, visible in their signings and audible in the noises coming from their camp – be a failure of vast proportions, and could quite rightly bring Hecking’s so-far successful stint to an abrupt end. The stakes are high for die Wölfe, and the purchase of a top forward – something Wolfsburg have targeted all summer long – is still in the early stages, having already missed out on Alvaro Morata and Romelu Lukaku.

The New Boys

Wolfsburg’s summer business started, honestly speaking, late last season, with the addition of midfielder Aaron Hunt on a free, after the Werder Bremen man’s contract expired at his old club. Perhaps better known to non-Bundesliga fans as that half German, half English guy who’s quite good, Aaron Hunt was easily Werder Bremen’s best player over the past 3 or 4 seasons, and has worked with Wolfsburg’s sporting director Klaus Allofs before – when Allofs was at Bremen, obviously – which was, no doubt, a large part of the reason Hunt made the switch to Wolfsburg in the first place, given the reported interest from the likes of Besiktas.

One large question raised by the arrival of Hunt, though, is where he’ll find his slot in the team – indeed, if he’ll even managed to carve out a starting role. The likes of Luiz Gustavo, Kevin de Bruyne and Ivan Periši? are fairly nailed-on starters in midfield, with Maximilian Arnold, Vierinha, Junior Malanda and Daniel Caligiuri all competing for starting roles too, which could limit Hunt’s impact; as good as he is, a lot of his best moments at Bremen came from being the key man, which he already clearly is not following this change of scenery. That said, we should see a different side to his game, perhaps, allowed to play solely to his own strengths rather than carrying passengers – which is what Bremen’s midfield has been for the last few seasons, basically.

The other signing – another strong move by Allofs, too – is Sebastian Jung. The right back came from Eintracht Frankfurt for a fee of €2.5m, with his stock having stalled a little after that excellent season when Frankfurt reached sixth as a newly promoted side; whether this was the added load of games that Jung had to contend with, being a one-season wonder, or just a slight temporary dip in fortunes is up for debate, and we’ll likely find out more this season, but even in his unimpressive most recent season, Jung showed glimpses of why people are touting him as a potential long term replacement of Philipp Lahm for the German national team. While there are actually better candidates, that’s slightly irrelevant in this instance and that Wolfsburg have managed to sign a player who is clearly highly rated – probably more so on promise than actual ability at this stage, admittedly, for a fee of just €2.5m is absolute crazy. For parallels, look at Callum Chambers’ move to Arsenal – Chambers is a bit younger, and a bit more promising, but the difference in quality is not, and will never be equivalent to over £10m. In that respect, great business by die Wölfe.

Another point to make is that Wolfsburg are in the market for a striker, but any moves have so far – as has already been mentioned – proved futile. They do really need one – no team aspiring to a top 4 finish should hang their hopes on the shoulders of an ageing (yet still good, in parts) Ivica Olic and constantly injured (yet still good, in parts) Bas Dost. Perhaps the most intriguing link that is still possible is a move for young AS Monaco starlet Anthony Martial; aside from being ridiculously good on Fifa, Martial has the benefit of being talented and well regarded, having made 19 professional appearances for two of France’s top clubs – Lyon and Monaco – at just the age of 18. That’s ridiculous. He’s scored only two goals along the way, which might hint at him being a longer term solution, if indeed he does sign at all, but it would be a statement of intent from Wolfsburg, who are also linked with Fernando Torres – which begs the question: why?

The Key Men

Kevin de Bruyne is the highest profile name in VfL Wolfsburg’s ranks and with good reason; de Bruyne was Belgium’s main man at the World Cup, having made the £20m switch to Wolfsburg last season. A creative midfielder who really needs no introduction, de Bruyne also played alongside Aaron Hunt in his breakout season on loan to Werder Bremen; quite clearly, a re-ignition of this partnership would really benefit the rest of the team, especially with the potential lack of goals up top. Ivan Periši? will be another key player in this area; the offensive midfield is clearly Wolfsburg’s best position, and Periši? is returning to Wolfsburg off the back of a seriously impressive Rückrunde and having been one of Croatia’s brighter sparks during their mixed bag of a World Cup campaign.

In goal, Diego Benaglio will again be crucial; with the Swiss custodian missing for parts of the last season, Wolfsburg realised that back-up goalkeeper Max Grün just isn’t on quite the same level as the usual starter. Benaglio is seemingly irreplaceable wherever he goes – still a nailed-on starter for Switzerland despite strong competition from Yann Sommer and Roman Bürki, Benaglio is probably one of Wolfsburg’s most important players – when he’s on song, the rest of the team invariably are, too. At the age of just 30, Benaglio’s not even reached his peak yet – which is a scary thought.

Finally, viewers of Wolfsburg games should keep an eye on Ricardo Rodriguez, the Swiss left back whose set pieces are some of the most dangerous aspects of Wolfsburg’s (and the Swiss national team’s) play. Rodriguez knows where the goal is, whether from free kicks or penalties, scenarios in which he has a great record from, as well as setting up a lot from corners and indeed open play. So, what we’ve established is that Ricardo Rodriguez is a very good full back going forward – is that it? No. Rodriguez is also a formidable defender, and Wolfsburg were very rarely troubled down the left hand side last season – the right hand side was always much weaker. That sort of begs the question as to why Rodriguez is still at Wolfsburg, but whatever – with the addition of Jung, that side might not even be a problem area anymore, and so it’s hard to see Wolfsburg having any real defensive weaknesses whatsoever next term, what with Naldo and Knoche’s good partnership at centre back and the likes of Timm Klose in reserve. The defence – with Benaglio behind it – is easily Wolfsburg best asset, and if they can find goals, they’ll have a great season.

Prediction

It would take not being able to cope whatsoever with Europe for Wolfsburg to fall apart massively – and that could be laid directly at Dieter Hecking’s door, should it happen. But it has to be said that, should a prolific striker join this already formidable squad, a top 4 push should be attainable. It’d take one of the others falling off, or a ridiculously strong season, but it could – and probably will happen. And, given their outlay over the past few years, Wolfsburg would, quite honestly, have no grounds to celebrate anything below a top four finish.

Champions League

Are Tottenham Hotspur potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Tottenham
Photo: Reuters

Of the five Premier League clubs that have progress to the last 16 of the Champions League,  Tottenham Hotspur are the surprise package.

Their lacklustre domestic form, coupled with a devilishly difficult group that featured European heavyweights Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, meant few expected Spurs to be in the draw for the knockout stages.

But Mauricio Pochettino’s charges, playing their home matches at Wembley Stadium while they await the completion of their brand-new stadium at White Hart Lane, exceeded all expectations.

Their reward is a daunting two-legged tie with last season’s runners-up, Italian powerhouse Juventus. Here, The Boot Room assesses Tottenham’s chances of lifting the trophy.

Performances so far

When the groups were announced, the odds were stacked massively against Spurs finishing in the top two.

Although Cypriot outfit Apoel Nicosia appeared on paper to be favourable opposition, the presence of two clubs with an enviable Champions League pedigree, in Real and Dortmund, looked to be too big a challenge to overcome.

So for Tottenham to remain unbeaten and qualify as group winners was a huge fillip for Pochettino. The victory at home to Real on a magical night at Wembley will live long in the memory, as will the hard-earned point they earned in the corresponding fixture at the Santiago Bernabeu.

That was the only match in which they dropped points, having completed noteworthy doubles over Dortmund and Apoel.

Squad strength

Although Tottenham finished second in the Premier League last season, questions continue to be asked about their strength in depth.

In Harry Kane, the north London club boast arguably the most in-form striker in world football, while the likes of Dele Alli, Cristian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are regularly rated among the elite footballers in Europe.

Beyond that, however, Spurs have some issues.

Despite signing Davinson Sanchez, Serge Aurier and Fernando Llorente last summer in an effort to bolster his resources, the suspicion remains that Pochettino is over-reliant on a few individuals – especially Kane. If he were to get injured for a prolonged period, then Tottenham’s goal scoring potency and their effectiveness would be severely diminished.

Manager

Pochettino has been a revelation since swapping the Southampton hot-seat for Tottenham’s in 2014, taking the club to the next level.

The Champions League was not new territory for Spurs, who had qualified for a single season under Harry Redknapp’s stewardship, but the Argentinian manager has made their presence in the competition commonplace.

One criticism often aimed at Pochettino is that, for all his good work in transforming Spurs into a genuine force to rival the very best in the Premier League, he is yet to win any silverware.

He twice lifted the Copa del Rey with Espanyol, but his time in England has so far proved fruitless. With such a talented squad at his disposal, it is high time he saw tangible reward.

Chances of winning

Despite their magnificent effort to top Group H, Spurs are one of the outsiders to win the Champions League this season.

Their potential path to the final has already been complicated after being drawn against Juventus in the last 16. However, should they achieve the not-so-small matter of knocking out last year’s finalists, who would bet against them going all the way?

Domestically, Tottenham have struggled to reproduce last season’s form and have dropped far too many points, particularly at home. But this has been in stark contrast to their performances in Europe.

They can take great heart from their displays against Real and Dortmund and should believe they belong at this rarefied level. And with a striker as prolific as Kane in their team, anything can happen.

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Champions League

Are Manchester City potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

With a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the table, Manchester City are all but guaranteed to be crowned this season’s Premier League champions. However, manager Pep Guardiola, not to mention the club’s fiercely ambitious owners, will have an even greater prize on their minds.

The Cityzens have never won the Champions League, but such has been their form in all competitions that they must surely be in contention to lift the most coveted trophy in European football. Here, The Boot Room analyses Manchester City’s prospects of becoming the first English club to win the Champions League since 2012.

Performances so far

Mirroring their fortunes in the Premier League, Manchester City dominated the first stage of the Champions League, qualifying for the last 16 with ease as Group F winners.

Drawn with Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk, City won their first five fixtures – scoring 13 goals in the process – before an unexpected defeat with a weakened team to the Ukrainian outfit ended their 100 per cent record and removed some of the gloss.

The two wins over Italian giants Napoli – 2-1 at the Etihad and 4-2 away – were particularly impressive given their form in Serie A. Paired against Swiss side Basel in the last 16 – the round at which they bowed out of the competition last year – City are very highly fancied to book their spot in the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Guardiola has assembled one of the strongest squads in European football; one to rival the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since last season, the Spaniard has focused on strengthening his defence. Out went Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, who were all deemed surplus to requirements, while in came upgrades Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson has been a revelation since arriving from Benfica and shored up a back line that had been their Achilles heel.

Another summer arrival, Bernardo Silva, has been used more sparingly but provides depth in central midfield. City also boast in their ranks arguably the best player in Europe this season, Kevin de Bruyne, who has been a tour de force in central midfield alongside the guile and subtlety of David Silva.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, currently sidelined through injury, provide genuine potency in front of goal.

Manager

Although the investment has been substantial, Guardiola must take credit for improving his young stars. The rise of Raheem Sterling is a pertinent example. The England star flattered to deceive last season but has been rejuvenated, scoring for fun and providing real creativity in City’s all-conquering side.

As a player, Guardiola never experienced Champions League glory with Barcelona but he twice guided them to the trophy as manager, in 2009 and 2011. He could not repeat the feat at Bayern Munich, although he did capture the Bundesliga title on three successive occasions.

Now in his second season in Manchester, the 46-year-old is yet to win silverware. However, given City’s current position as runaway Premier League leaders, that is sure to change – perhaps in spectacular fashion.

Chances of winning

It’s no surprise City are rated favourites by bookmakers to lift the prestigious cup later this year. One only needs to look at their record this season to see they are the form team in Europe. In a division as competitive as the Premier League, their 19-match winning sequence was an extraordinary feat.

With a favourable last-16 tie, City will believe they can progress to the last eight and beyond. Football is an unpredictable game, but nobody would be shocked to see them walking out in the showpiece final in four months’ time. And with Guardiola at the helm, they have the ideal manager to mastermind the club’s maiden European title.

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Champions League

Are Chelsea potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Antonio Conte will be looking to emulate his Italian counterpart Roberto di Matteo, by leading Chelsea to Champions League glory this season. The Blues’ champagne moment six years ago was the realisation of a dream Roman Abramovich had held since he gained ownership of the club in 2003.

Chelsea are the reigning Premier League champions, having claimed the title in Conte’s first campaign in charge. But the former Italy boss’s honeymoon period is now over, amid a run of mixed results and speculation of player unrest. Here, The Boot Room assesses Chelsea’s prospects of lifting the Champions League for a second time.

Performances so far

The Blues were in the same group as both Atletico Madrid and Roma – as well as minnows Qarabag – and they finished level on points with the Italian club at the top of the standings. The highlight was a 2-1 victory away to Atletico, courtesy of a stoppage-time winner from Michy Batshuayi. A routine double was completed over Qarabag, but it was their results against Roma that shaped the final standings.

Even though both clubs ended on 11 points to qualify for the last 16 and Chelsea had a vastly superior goal difference, the Blues could only follow up their 3-0 defeat in the Italian capital with a 3-3 draw at home. This proved costly, with Conte’s side finishing second and being drawn against Barcelona, which has significantly dented their chances of making it into the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Chelsea captured the Premier League at a canter last season, thanks largely to the goals of Diego Costa and the brilliance of Eden Hazard. Despite the summer arrival of Alvaro Morata, Costa’s departure has been a big loss. Surprisingly, Nemanja Matic was permitted to join Manchester United, while David Luiz has fallen out of favour under Conte.

Antonio Rudiger, Danny Drinkwater and Tiemoue Bakayoko have added depth to the squad, while the rise to prominence of Andreas Christensen has been an unexpected bonus. Ross Barkley is the first of their signings in the January window and perhaps more will follow. Most important is proper competition for the misfiring Morata, with Chelsea currently lacking a cutting edge in tight games.

Manager

A three-time winner of Serie A with Juventus (to go alongside last season’s Premier League crown), Conte is without doubt a manager of immense repute. After Jose Mourinho’s reign had turned sour, the 48-year-old was the perfect successor. He revitalised Chelsea and turned them into champions after adopting a 3-4-3 formation that proved to be a masterstroke.

Conte has a unique style of management. His demonstrable shows of passion are loved by supporters, but his intensity has sparked rumours that he is not universally liked by his players. Costa fell foul of his wrath last summer, while Brazilian centre-back Luiz is the latest to be marginalised. Conte’s public clashes with his superiors over failed transfer targets have increased the tension.

Chances of winning

When Chelsea won the Champions League in 2012, they had to beat Barcelona over two legs in the semi-finals. If they want to lift the prestigious trophy again this year, it’s a feat they will need to repeat. Although the Blues are more than capable of competing with the very best in Europe, they would much rather have avoided opponents of Barcelona’s class at this stage.

Chelsea only have themselves to blame for not topping Group C, which would likely have given them a smoother passage to the last eight. Barcelona, the runaway La Liga leaders, are by no means unbeatable, but they will be the favourites to progress and Chelsea will need to be at their very best over both games to stop them.

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