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VfL Wolfsburg Preview: Kevin and Perisic go large

The Boot Room

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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

Gareth Bale’s red-hot Real Madrid form should scare Liverpool

The Welshman has scored 11 goals in his last 15 appearances.

Max Cohen

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Gareth Bale
Photo: Getty Images

In Real Madrid’s final league match of this season on Saturday, Gareth Bale swept home a lovely right-footed finish to open the scoring against Villarreal.

That goal marked the Welshman’s 11th goal in his last 15 appearances for club and country; a remarkably prolific run of form that should scare Liverpool ahead of next weekend’s Champions League final.

Injury problems have marred much of Bale’s time at the Bernabeu, and he suffered a lengthy two-month absence from the first team this fall.

Yet, after returning from his injury lay-off, the former world-record signing has hit full form in the last two months.

In that time period, the winger has scored a hat-trick for Wales, braces against Las Palmas and Celta Vigo, and a crucial goal versus Barcelona.

This spring resurgence presents a worrying prospect for Liverpool’s defence, who already will have their hands full trying to keep Cristiano Ronaldo in check in Kiev.

(Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

Add in Gareth Bale hitting full form, and suddenly the task at hand for Jurgen Klopp’s men appears far more difficult.

The 28-year-old also has quite the decorated history for los Blancos in cup finals. In his debut season for Real, Bale scored sensational winning goals in both the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals.

The following season in the European Cup final, the Welshman assisted Real Madrid’s sole goal and scored his penalty in the ensuing shoot-out; his cup final record is simply superb.

Combined with Bale’s recent tremendous goalscoring form, the prospect of facing up against the powerful winger might strike fear in the Liverpool backline.

But the Reds have proven adept in stifling some of the best attacks in Europe this season.

Liverpool famously restricted high-scoring Manchester City to just one goal over 180 minutes in the quarterfinals and the Reds will have to conjure up that heroic rearguard performance in order to stop the on-form Gareth Bale next weekend.

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Champions League

Liverpool should pursue a swap deal with Emre Can for Sami Khedira

The Juventus midfielder could be tempted to the Premier League this summer.

Josh Kerr

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Khedira
Photo: Getty Images

Liverpool should make Sami Khedira their primary replacement for Emre Can, who is expected to join Juventus on a free transfer at the end of the season.

The German international is coming to the end of his third season with the Serie A outfit after joining from Real Madrid on a free transfer in 2015, with just a year left on his contract.

With the Serie A outfit’s midfield options already at full strength and the likely addition of Can, this summer could lead to a few clear-outs in the middle of the park for Juventus.

This should prompt Jurgen Klopp to pursue his fellow countryman Khedira, who is said to be interested in a move to the Premier League.

Reports from The Sun suggest Liverpool have been ‘alerted’ to Khedira’s availability this summer during negotiations with Juventus over Can.

The 24-year-old midfielder’s deal expires at the end of the season and Liverpool face the serious prospect of losing him on a free.

A move for Khedira would make perfect sense for Jurgen Klopp’s side, who are needing to strengthen a midfield that has endured so many injuries throughout the current campaign.

(Photo by Javier Soriano/Getty Images)

With the addition of Naby Keita, Khedira could prove to be the established central defensive midfielder who allows the Reds midfield three to tick, similar to the role Sergio Busquets plays at Barcelona.

The World Cup-winning midfielder spoke of his fondness for the Premier League in an interview with Bild, saying: “The Premier League has always fascinated me. Winning the title there would complete my collection.”

Liverpool have been breathtaking in Europe this season and Khedira’s experience of winning four-domestic titles in his career could be the addition the Reds need to compete with the dominance of Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.

The German international, who has nine goals and seven assists this season, has one year remaining on his Juventus contract and may be allowed to leave to join the Reds if he desires, with Can likely to join as his ready-made replacement.

Massimiliano Allegri has always possessed a knack for quickly replacing players who have decided they want to leave Juventus, with Fernando Llorente, Carlos Teves, and Paul Pogba all leaving the Italian side in recent years.

Therefore, the likely arrival of Can could be a link to Khedira’s desires to pursue new challenges elsewhere. If so, Liverpool would be the perfect destination for the Juventus midfielder.

The Reds’ high-pressing, all-out, attacking style of play could appeal to the former Real Madrid star, who would undoubtedly be excited by the prospect of joining up with compatriot, Jurgen Klopp, on Merseyside.

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Liverpool

Liverpool will be delighted with Real Madrid’s weakness in latest defeat

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Photo: Getty Images.

Real Madrid are undoubtedly a daunting prospect for any side in Europe, particularly given that they have already seen off the champions of France, Italy and Germany in the Champions League this season, but there may be hope yet for Liverpool.

Zinedine Zidane’s team have struggled domestically this campaign and find themselves 18 points behind league champions Barcelona, who were, of course, earlier knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool’s semi-final opponents AS Roma.

Los Blancos are on track for their worst points return since Cristiano Ronaldo joined the club from Manchester United in 2009 and this week’s surprising defeat to Sevilla, who Liverpool drew with both home and away in the group stage, showed some weaknesses which will have Jurgen Klopp licking his lips.

Sevilla v Real Madrid - La Liga

SEVILLE, SPAIN – MAY 09: Head coach Zinedine Zidane of Real Madrid looks on prior to the start the La Liga match between Sevilla FC and Real Madrid at Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium on May 9, 2018 in Seville, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

The first thing to point out is that Real Madrid were without many of their key men, the likes of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Marcelo were all rested whilst Gareth Bale was suspended. Cristiano Ronaldo, Dani Carvajal and Isco were all absent through injury and whilst the latter returned to training on Friday, the first two could face a race against time to be fit for Kiev.

Despite that, the weaknesses on show were not new to Real Madrid this season as they again struggled against a side who were not afraid to be physical and attack on the counter.

Early on, Zidane’s side dominated but Sevilla twice countered incisively, once by going long through the middle, as Liverpool were accused of doing time after time against Roma with a stunning impact, and once down the flanks with pace, just as Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane possess in abundance.

After going behind, the nerves got to Real Madrid and even captain Sergio Ramos seemed to struggle with the pressure as he fired a penalty onto the crossbar and then deflected a cross into his own net.

A late comeback with Ramos not making the same mistake again and Borja Mayoral scoring after coming on as a substitute saved some face for the reigning European champions, but Liverpool will relish facing a disjointed defence like that.

Of particular interest, beyond Real Madrid’s struggle with pace on the flanks and long balls through the middle, will have been Zidane’s experimenting at right-back, this time choosing versatile Nacho at full-back in place of Carvajal, rather than Lucas Vazquez who started there against Bayern Munich.

Nacho, who would be favourite to play against Liverpool if Carvajal is not fit, is a reliable option who makes few mistakes, but has previously struggled up against the pace of a player like Sadio Mane.

Liverpool may have a mountain to climb, but tactically, the path is there for Liverpool to exploit Real Madrid’s weaknesses.

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