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Will the second half of the 2016/17 campaign be as intriguing as the first?

The Boot Room

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The end of 2016 sees most of Europe’s top leagues take a break from what has been a fascinating first half of the 2016/17 season.

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Teams in Spain, Germany, France and Italy will go off on their various holidays to refresh themselves while the Premier League hogs the festive spotlight. One can’t help but look out for the only source of quality football during that period with some sort of joy, amusement or, if you’re an Arsenal fan, apprehension. With a glut of games beginning on Boxing day through to the New Year, there’s a good chance we’ll see a surprise or two in the world’s most entertaining league.

Chelsea lead the pack by six points but only four points separate second place Liverpool from fifth placed Tottenham. Manchester United seems to finally be picking up some steam and can certainly challenge if they get through this period unscathed. Last seasons surprise title winners, Leicester City, are only three points away from safety but a period without Champions League football should bring some good results. Of the promoted sides, Middlesbrough and Burnley are almost halfway to the vaunted 38-point safety net.

There have been the usual eye-popping results in the Premier League so far this season with Leicester thrashing Manchester City, Bournemouth‘s comeback win over Liverpool and the Swansea/Crystal Palace slug-fest among them. Arsenal, however, continue to be the enigma they are each season. There will likely be more twists and turns before the season ends but it might come down to a race between Liverpool and Chelsea given their lack of European commitment.

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While most of Europe’s leagues have a familiar look there’s no telling what will happen when the remaining leagues restart in January.

The biggest surprise so far is in France, where Nice hold a two point lead heading into the break. Lucien Favre’s side have done extremely well so far, beating Monaco, Marseille and Lyon at home while tying Paris Saint-Germain away. The French champions lie in third, behind Monaco and ahead of Lyon, while Marseille have moved up to sixth. PSG’s domestic form has been shocking, with four losses already to date, and the recently appointed Unai Emery is on the hot seat. Just like the leaders in the Premier League, Nice have no European commitments while their main challengers do. Monaco may just have the best chance to haul them in if Emery can’t right the ship but Nice have certainly made Ligue 1 much more interesting this season.

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Another team that has eyebrows raised are proving the motto of their majority owner. Red Bull Leipzig might not have adhered to the traditional ownership expected in Germany but that is one reason they have been so successful. The newly promoted club sprouted wings to quickly rise up the divisions and sit second in the league right behind Bayern Munich. That, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s inconsistent domestic form, has the traditionalists in Germany breathing into a paper bag despite the challenge to Bayern’s hegemony. The other heavyweights in the league, Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, are in eight and eleventh respectively while Wolfsburg languish in 13th place. As is the case in France, the defending champions have a new manager, Carlo Ancelotti, and their main challengers currently have no European commitments. Bayern’s talent and Ancelotti’s experience mean the Bavarians will still likely come out on top and they made sure to put their opponents in their place with a 3-0 win in final round of the year.

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While things in Germany and France vary from what was expected there’s definitely a familiar look in Italy and Spain.

Juventus haven’t been as dominant as in recent seasons but the Old Lady leads the league with a game in hand on her rivals. Roma and Napoli continue to fight it out for the role of challenger but Juventus has beaten both teams already this season. The surprise of the season in Italy is the resurgence of AC Milan. Vincenzo Montella’s reputation has certainly been enhanced by the work he has done reviving a fallen giant. Without much money to work with, and a mixed bag of talent at his disposal, Montella has his side sitting fifth and in the hunt for a Champions League spot. Only two point separate Milan from second place Roma and if they get a few reinforcements in January they could solidify a Champions League spot. While Montella hopes to end the season as he started a fellow Italian is trying to undertake a similar revival in La Liga with Valencia.

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Cesare Prandelli took charge of Valencia at the end of September but has been unable to stop the club’s free-fall. Los Che stand 17th in the league after only one win in their last nine games. Relegation is a strong possibility. At the top half of the table eyes may roll seeing the familiar names of Real Madrid and Barcelona occupying the top two spots. It hasn’t been all easy for either side though, as Madrid have yet to look particularly dominant while Barcelona have suffered some shock results, notably a loss to Alaves at home. Atletico Madrid’s luck seems to have run out as they trail the leaders by 11 points in sixth place with Sevilla, Villarreal and Real Sociedad above them and Athletic Bilbao right behind.

Each league has had its share of surprises in the first half of the season and there’s more to come.

There have been managerial changes aplenty at some of Europe’s top sides to go along with the usual player transfers. Those changes have undoubtedly played a role in the current scenario in Europe’s top leagues as new managers taking time adapting to new clubs and, sometimes, leagues has certainly had an effect.

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Emery and Ancelotti were targeted by PSG and Bayern to improve their clubs chances in Europe but that wasn’t expected to come at the expense of domestic success. Questions may continue to be asked of Emery as he tries to steer an extremely ambitious club but Ancelotti has the experience to see his side over the line. Whether they meet expectations in Europe as well remains to be seen. In England, Jurgen Klopp has benefited from a full preseason with his side and no European distractions. There are still kinks to iron out but Liverpool look well-placed to challenge at the top. Ditto for Antonio Conte and league-leading Chelsea. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are coming to terms with work that’s needed to fix their new teams but you would bet on both Manchester clubs to be in the running at the end. Real Madrid’s impressive streak certainly bodes well for Zinedine Zidane’s current and future prospects in the hottest seat of them all. Whether he can avoid the drop-off the team had the last time they went to the Club World Cup remains to be seen.

The first half of the 2016/17 season brought plenty of surprising moments on the pitch. The big teams each have their issues to deal with, whether it be new managers, players in poor form or navigating multiple schedules. There’s sure to be more in store as we get into the business end of the season.

The Boot Room is a football analysis website, bringing original and creative content to the fans of the English Football League.

Manchester United

“Imagine thinking Phil Jones is better”: Newcastle fans react to Jamaal Lascelles omission

Newcastle fans can’t believe Jamaal Lascelles is not going to the World Cup this summer.

Max Cohen

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Jamaal Lascelles
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Chelsea narrowly defeated Manchester United in Saturday’s FA Cup Final, thanks to Eden Hazard’s first-half penalty.

United centre-half Phil Jones conceded the spot-kick, felling the Belgian in the box and drawing the ire of Twitter in the process.

Newcastle United supporters were baffled at Jones’ poor cup final performance and criticised England manager Gareth Southgate for selecting the 26-year-old defender ahead of Jamaal Lascelles in the World Cup squad.

Against Chelsea, Jones made headlines for his high-profile mistake 20 minutes into the match.

The defender was caught flat-footed just inside his own half when Cesc Fabregas played a lofted ball in the direction of Eden Hazard.

The Belgian’s first touch was excellent and left Jones for dead, putting the Englishman on the wrong side of the ball.

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Hazard then cut back across Jones, before the defender lunged into an ill-timed challenge that got nowhere near the ball.

In a cup final of such importance, mistakes such as Jones’ can prove immensely costly. And as United lost the match by the solitary goal, the centre-back’s error was devastating.

And the Manchester United defender’s poor showing incensed English supporters, who were furious at his inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s 23-man team.

In particular, Newcastle United fans felt aggrieved that Jones was selected in front of their captain Jamaal Lascelles.

Lascelles has been superb all season for the Magpies, marshaling the Newcastle defence while leading the club to an impressive tenth-placed finish.

Unlike Jones, who has been an inconsistent feature in United’s side, Lascelles featured in 33 Premier League matches this season – ten more than the United defender.

The Newcastle United faithful expressed their discontent at the England manager’s defensive team selections, arguing Lascelles would have proved a far more effective option in Russia.

And as one intrepid Twitter user noted, when Newcastle United played host to Chelsea just one week ago, Lascelles kept Hazard in check and held the Blues scoreless. Jones, on the other hand, capitulated in the face of the Belgian’s skills.

England face Belgium on 28 June in their final group stage match; Newcastle and Three Lions fans alike will be praying Phil Jones does not feature.

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Tottenham Hotspur

After injury-stricken season, new Tottenham contract offers hope for Harry Winks

The 22-year-old put pen to paper on a new deal at White Hart Lane.

Max Cohen

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Harry Winks
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This week began with deflating news for Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Harry Winks.

On Wednesday, England’s World Cup squad was announced, with Winks missing out due to injury – a saddening sight as many believed he would have been a key player if fully fit.

But, just a day later, the 22-year-old was handed a massive boost when he signed a new five-year contract for Spurs.

The deal offers much-needed hope to a player who has endured a horrid 12 months, revealing that Mauricio Pochettino firmly believes in the central midfielder despite his recent injury woes.

Winks’ heartbreak began on 1 April 2017, when the youngster was stretchered off before half-time in Tottenham’s clash away at Burnley.

The right ankle injury ruled out Winks for the closing stages of the 2016/17 campaign, and the Englishman hoped to return rejuvenated for the following season.

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Initially, it seemed as the creative midfielder had overcome the ankle pain, as Winks starred in a  number of Spurs’ high-profile matches in the fall.

Impressing in Tottenham’s famous Champions League wins over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, he was rewarded with an England call-up in October.

Yet, in a league match against Palace the following month, he was forced off at half-time due to a recurrence of the ankle injury.

After that point, Winks’ season was never the same. Limited to just a handful of FA Cup appearances in 2018, Winks last played in the Premier League on Boxing Day.

The midfielder is now set to undergo ankle surgery this week, hoping that next season he can finally start anew and recapture his top form.

Now that Winks has a stable long-term future at the club, his rehabilitation process will be filled with far less stress and apprehension.

Mauricio Pochettino views the 22-year-old as integral to his future plans at White Hart Lane, and the boost of an extended contract is brilliant news for the England international’s fledgling career.

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Leicester City

Who is Leicester City’s new signing, Ricardo Pereira?

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He may come to the Premier League as a regular in a league winning side set to travel to the World Cup as a Champions League regular, but few had heard of Porto full-back Ricardo Pereira when it was announced that terms have been agreed for him to join Leicester City.

The deal was confirmed on the club’s official website as the 24-year-old put pen to paper on a five year contract which will be confirmed on June 9th, when the international transfer window opens.

Yet, those who know Pereira well will not be surprised. The right-back was Claude Puel’s undisputed first choice at OGC Nice during his spell in France and was one of the first names on the current Leicester boss’ team-sheet week in, week out.

(Photo credit should read FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)

Then, Pereira was deployed as both a right-back and a left-back, with his versatility being one of his biggest strengths in the eyes of Puel. Since then, he has added another dimension to his game, improving his attacking play and featuring in a more advanced role in midfield and even as a forward on the right hand side for Porto.

The Portuguese side have relied on the number 21 as they returned to the top of Liga NOS this season and his fine form has earned him a spot in his national team, adding to his two caps from 2015 with another in November and then being selected ahead of Barcelona’s Nelson Semedo for Fernando Santos’ World Cup squad to travel to Russia.

A strong dribbler who likes to overlap down the flank, he is a clear upgrade on Danny Simpson provided he can rapidly adapt to the pace and physicality of the Premier League.

With a WhoScored rating of 7.59 in 2017/18, Pereira is one of the most highly rated full-backs in Europe and possessed some of the best statistical returns in the world in his position. His signing for the Foxes represents a step in the right direction in the club’s quest to return to European football.

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