Andres Iniesta has confirmed there’s been no progress in his contract talks with Barcelona, but admits he has been heartened by the team’s promising start to the season.
The veteran midfielder, whose current deal expires at the end of this season, hit the headlines last week when club president Josep Maria Bartomeu claimed a new contract has been agreed in principle, only for Iniesta to immediately state that was not true.
And after delivering an eye-catching personal performance in Tuesday’s 3-0 Champions League victory over Juventus, including an inch-perfect pass to tee up Lionel Messi’s second goal, Iniesta revealed there has been no progress in his talks with the club.
“There’s no news, and if there was you would know about it,” sniffed the club captain, who appears to be less than happy that his contract talks have been given such prominence.
“But what bothers me is what happens on the pitch. I want to be happy and for things to go well. I put collective the above the personal, and I’m happy with how everything is going.”
Iniesta can certainly have no complaints about his team’s current form, with the 3-0 win against Juventus extending Barca’s winning streak to four games, during which time they have scored 12 goals without conceding any.
After an inconsistent season under former boss Luis Enrique and a frustrating summer in the transfer market, there’s a growing sense that new manager Ernesto Valverde is starting to take his team in the right direction.
And Iniesta agreed with the sentiment that Barca are gradually re-establishing themselves as a major force to be reckoned with, suggesting that Valverde is succeeding in implementing an effective team structure as he said: “If the team is functioning well, we all look better.
“Starting to win against opponents like Juventus is not easy. We controlled the game well – they had few chances and we completed a very good game.”
The skipper’s words were echoed by Jordi Alba, whose rampaging running down the left wing has been a feature of Barca’s performances in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Alba fell out of favour for stretches of last season under former boss Luis Enrique, but his newly restated importance to the team is shown by the fact that he had more touches of the ball than any other player in the victory over Juventus.
And the Spain international, who has clearly held off Lucas Digne for the role of Valverde’s preferred left-back, expressed the sense that his teammates are once again enjoying themselves on the field of play, noting: “You have to suffer to win games like that, but we are having fun.
Alba also believes new signings Nelson Semedo and Ousmane Dembele have given the team a timely boost, saying: “The majority of us are the same players as last season, but the new arrivals have been a plus.”
And he praised the whole team for their excellent defensive record, saying: “It’s not just the defenders, everyone is working hard.”
Just as Paul Pogba was beginning to justify his price tag, injury struck – but don’t feel too sorry for Manchester United, they are not hamstrung in the slightest.
A team of that talent and depth has an abundance of options to fall back on. Indeed the man who replaced Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, scored the opener against Basel in a typically robust display.
So how should United line up without their conductor-in-chief? Below we outline three options that Jose Mourinho should seriously consider.
What may seem like the most obvious alternative may not be staring Jose Mourinho in the face as far as he is concerned.
Ander Herrera did not even make the matchday squad for the game against Basel, despite having just played 77 minutes of competitive football this season so far.
A player who was a firm fan favourite last season has been shoved to one side by the arrival of Nemanja Matic – but the Spaniard has reason for fresh hope.
If anyone in the United squad resembles Pogba’s style of play it is Herrera, who is as bubbly as a shaken-up fizzy drink.
Herrera is not the most disciplined of midfielders but just as Matic has freed up Pogba, so too can he take much of the defensive responsibility off his replacement.
Though it is unfair expect the same raking passes or blink-and-you’ll-miss-him counter-attacking, plugging in Herrera for Pogba would cause the least disruption to a winning team.
Matic’s presence really is a tactical game-changer for United. Where once United’s midfield was in a state of flux, the Serbian is the sinew that keeps it all together.
Which is why if Mourinho wants to keep that devastating quickness through the middle intact, he should take a good look at dropping Henrikh Mkhitaryan back into midfield.
The Armenian makes more than his fair share of head-scratching decisions and losing the ball anywhere near the centre circle would be anathema to Mourinho.
But – against weaker teams in particular – imagine Mkhitaryan driving into the final third with Marcus Rashford to one side and Anthony Martial on the other.
A 4-3-3 could work, with Mkhitaryan being the central tip of that trident along with Matic and Herrera/Michael Carrick/Fellaini.
It would be exciting just to see Rashford and Martial play together instead of the personal relay team they have been running between the bench and the field.
Mourinho could instead elect to change United’s style of play and push Fellaini far up the field just behind Romelu Lukaku.
Playing Fellaini deeper in midfield may work against some European teams as the tempo tends to be a touch slower in contrast to the high-octane Premier League.
Where Pogba is also aerodynamics, Fellaini is as agile as heavy machinery. As Steven Gerrard put it, ‘in the middle of the pitch, he never used to hurt you or harm you, you’d play against him all day’.
Closer to the box, however, and Gerrard admitted it was a different story. Fellaini will never play an eye-of-the-needle pass but he has plenty of needle – ie. elbows – to bother the most seasoned of defenders.
Combine Fellaini and Lukaku, and the box will be a no fly zone for most opposing centre-backs. Keep lumping in the crosses and Mourinho will finally have succeeded where
David Moyes’ aerial bombardment, with 5ft11 Wayne Rooney leading the line, could not.
Playing that way would open United up to all sorts of criticism but Mourinho has already professed his love for Fellaini. It wouldn’t be pretty, but most weapons are ugly after all.
Shanghai SIPG coach Andre Villas-Boas accused Guangzhou Evergrande of dirty tricks after his side’s epic AFC Champions League quarter-final win, claiming the hosts masterminded a series of road “accidents” to delay SIPG’s arrival at the stadium.
Evergrande almost pulled off a miracle in overturning a 4-0 first-leg deficit, before SIPG emerged battered and bruised from a remarkable all-Chinese encounter on Tuesday with a penalty shootout triumph after the tie had finished 5-5 on aggregate.
It is the first time that SIPG have reached the last four of Asia’s premier club competition, but former Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur manager Villas-Boas was seething afterwards.
The Portuguese lashed out at Iranian referee Alireza Faghani, who sent off two SIPG players in extra time, but reserved his fiercest ire for Evergrande, the two-time Champions League winners.
Video footage posted online, apparently shot from the SIPG team coach on the way to the game, appears to show a succession of five holds-ups on the road involving the same cars in the southern Chinese city.
“We came in the bus for this game. The same two cars suffered three accidents in front of us so this is a problem,” Villas-Boas said after the game, pointing the finger squarely at Evergrande.
“This is the greatest achievement for SIPG ever because it looks like one club is dominating the AFC because this club can do everything. They can block hotels, cause people to have accidents in front of us.”
– ‘It’s a disgrace’ –
Evergrande did not immediately comment on Villas-Boas’s claims.
In the footage, the road is blocked on five occasions as two or three silver-coloured cars stop after supposed collisions, though it was not clear if they ever made contact.
Some Guangzhou fans and media countered that SIPG had started the unsavoury gamesmanship during the tie’s first leg.
Following SIPG’s 4-0 rout last month in Shanghai, Evergrande coach Luiz Felipe Scolari claimed the air conditioning in the away changing room had been broken, describing it as “like a sauna”.
SIPG reportedly experienced the same at Tianhe Stadium on Tuesday, with the air conditioning not working properly and no hot water.
Villas-Boas, whose side will face either Kawasaki Frontale or Urawa Reds of Japan in the last four, also raged against referee Faghani, who left SIPG with just nine men on the field at the end of 120 minutes.
Faghani also booked SIPG goalkeeper Yan Junling during the penalty shoot-out for unsporting conduct, which will rule him out for the first leg of the semi-final.
“It’s a disgrace, it’s a disgrace,” Villas-Boas exclaimed.
Scolari was magnanimous in defeat on Tuesday night, but could not resist hitting back about the air conditioning.
“Should we move the AC in Shanghai Stadium to Guangzhou for them to experience?” he asked.
Provided by AFP Sport