While Chelsea ran away with the Premier League title this season, their rivals know that the Stamford Bridge outfit will be under much more pressure next term. Defending their place at the summit of English football, Antonio Conte’s men will also have to negotiate the delicate balancing act of domestic and European commitments.
Those who trailed in their wake this term will hope a return to the Champions League causes some distraction, simultaneously seeking to bolster their own squads in pursuit of offering a genuine challenge to Chelsea.
Manchester City will of course use their enormous financial might to help Pep Guardiola do just that, but other clubs will be forced instead to exhaust other avenues. One option of course is to pick up players discarded by the newly crowned champions, which Juventus’ Juan Cuadrado and the presence of Kevin de Bruyne at the Etihad prove can be an effective tactic.
That he spent time with Chelsea is unlikely to factor into Liverpool’s pursuit of Mohamed Salah however, with his performances at AS Roma far more important than anything he did during a brief stint in West London. Indeed, the Egyptian winger made just 19 appearances during his 12 month spell with the club, arriving in January 2014 and leaving for Fiorentina just a year later.
Quickly establishing himself as a fan favourite with the Viola, Salah burned his bridges with their proud supporters by forcing a move to Roma in the summer of 2015. That came despite a pre-arranged agreement between the Tuscan side and Chelsea, the transfer eventually resulting in a bitter legal battle that left a bitter taste in the mouths of those on the Curva Fiesole.
Nevertheless, he began to play for Giallorosssi, drifting in and out of games as his impact mirrored the inconsistent displays of the team in general. Coach Rudi Garcia was replaced by Luciano Spalletti and rather than persevere with the former’s 4-3-3- formation, he instead opted for a system that allowed Salah to operate in something of a free role behind Edin Dzeko.
The Bosnian striker finished this season as Serie A’s leading scorer after bagging 29 goals, but his new sidekick weighed in with 15 of his own while Salah’s 11 assists were just one behind Jose Callejon’s league-high mark. Constantly laying on chances for his team-mates, the 71 scoring opportunities created by the 24-year-old was more than any other Roma player as his pace and skill allowed him to torment defences across the peninsula.
His running both with and without the ball that had caused problems for even the best defences, as his recent display in the win over Juventus served to highlight. There, Salah reminded everyone why he was such a hot commodity when he burst onto the scene with Basel just a few short years ago.
Completing two take-ons and 19 of his 23 pass attempts, he ran roughshod over the Champions League finalists, but also showed glimpses of the increased effort he has made when Roma lose possession. According to WhoScored.com, he registered career highs in both tackles (1.4) and interceptions (0.6) per 90 minutes, adding weight to the reported interest from Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool.
The German boss is known for his “heavy metal” approach, one predicated on his players’ ability to condense space and press opposition defenders relentlessly. That is something that many would previously have expected Salah to struggle with, but his increased defensive awareness – which has been inspired by both Spalletti and the infectious efforts of Radja Nainggolan – show that he could adapt accordingly.
An initial £28m offer was rejected by Roma, but it is believed that Liverpool continued discussions with the player and Sky Italia report that Salah has agreed personal terms with the Anfield side over the past few days. They will hope that development forces the issue at the Italian side, while Salah will be under no illusions about what to expect if he does indeed get a second crack at life in England.
“It was one of the key moments of my life and my career in terms of learning,” he says of his brief spell at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. “I was young, just 21, and suddenly I was alongside one of the best tacticians in the world, with exceptional players. I didn’t play much, it’s true, and I was not necessarily happy. I wanted to show what I was capable of. I was sad not to be able to do that.”
His development at Roma hints at both a vastly improved and increasingly mature player, now it seems Mohamed Salah may well get another chance to show Premier League fans what he is capable of.
Manchester United’s longest-serving captain Bryan Robson has tipped Paul Pogba as a future leader at Old Trafford.
The 24-year-old France midfielder rejoined United last summer for a world-record transfer fee of £89 million, having left to play for Juventus in 2012.
Nobody played more games for United than Pogba last season and he scored nine goals, including the opener in the 2-0 win over Ajax in the Europa League final.
But the expectations raised by his transfer fee and strong performances for Juve and France in last summer’s European Championships have led some pundits to brand his first season back in England a disappointment.
Robson, however, is not one of them and he believes Pogba will eventually take over as Red Devils captain.
The former England and United skipper, nicknamed ‘Captain Marvel’ during his playing days, said: “I think he’s improved us. When he’s been missing we’ve missed something.
“He maybe dwells on (the ball) a bit too long for a central midfielder sometimes – you want to move it quicker – but Paul has got real ability and he can see a pass that splits defences. When he’s not in the team, we don’t have that.
“I think if Paul starts improving his performances, he could be a captain for United who leads by example.”
Robson’s former team-mate Gary Pallister agrees and believes Pogba also brings a physical presence to the team that has been lacking in recent seasons.
Both Robson and Pallister were record signings when they joined United in 1981 and 1989, respectively, so understand the pressure that a big fee can bring, although believe Pogba has the character to overcome that.
“I think he’ll be better for a bit of a rest and the hype of the transfer fee has played its part in that. And he’s just lost his father, which is tough,” said Pallister.
“I think with a full pre-season behind him, you’ll see the best of Paul Pogba.
“He’s got that infectious way about him, he loves life and he seems to really enjoy playing football, so I think he’d be the type of player to follow. If Pogba starts playing the way we know he’s capable of, he ticks all the boxes for (the captaincy).”
Robson, who was club captain at Old Trafford between 1982 and 1994 and also led England 65 times, believes Ander Herrera is another player with leadership qualities and praised Antonio Valencia’s “determination”, a trait he wants to see the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling add to their games.
United finished the Premier League season in sixth place, 24 points behind champions Chelsea, but Robson is adamant the campaign was a success as the club won three trophies and qualified for next season’s Champions League, something they failed to achieve in 2015/16.
That failure sealed Louis van Gaal’s fate as manager and he was replaced by Jose Mourinho a year ago, prompting many to predict a strong title challenge in the season just finished. That challenge never really got going but Robson saw clear signs of improvement.
“People dismiss the Community Shield but as a player you always wanted to win it because it gives you confidence going into the season,” he said.
“And the EFL Cup was a good win – Southampton gave us a really good game in the final.
“Now, if that had been it, you’d say it’s been an OK season. But to go and win the Europa League and qualify for the Champions League you’ve got to say it’s a very good season, especially when you consider the way the team were going.
“OK, we won the FA Cup (under Van Gaal ) but we weren’t playing the football the fans wanted to see and the squad was a little bit weak. (Mourinho’s) four signings improved the squad (last summer), so you’ve got to say it’s a very good season.”
Provided by Press Association
Ivory Coast legend Yaya Toure signed a new one year contract with Manchester City on Thursday, a reward for sterling performances after returning to favour mid-November.
The 34-year-old midfielder – a four-time African Footballer of the Year – had fallen out with City manager Pep Guardiola but regained his trust and has been retained unlike several other players who like him were out of contract and been allowed to leave.
“I’m delighted,” Toure told the club website.
“I told myself the journey at City is not done and when I received a call from Txiki (Begiristain the football director) and talked to the manager I was very delighted.
“When I was first coming here (in 2010) I was trying to be part of a new story, of something special at this club.
“I am very lucky now to be part of a great club with great players around me who are helping me to achieve my targets.”
Toure, who skippered Ivory Coast to their 2015 Africa Cup of Nations triumph over Ghana ending a 23 year drought, added the desire to win more silverware remained as keen as ever.
In his seven years at the club Toure has been part of two Premier League winning sides – scoring 24 goals in the 2013/14 campaign.
He has also played a significant role in their Cup successes, scoring in the 2011 FA Cup win over Stoke and the 2014 League Cup victory over Sunderland as well as a penalty in the shootout win over Liverpool in the 2016 final.
“Of course I want to win trophies, that is very important to me,” said Toure, who has scored 81 goals in 299 league appearances for the club.
“I want to enjoy it at this age still and remaining here is a massive, massive thing.
“It is a great club, going in the right direction with new players who are coming in. Our mentality is always to win week in, week out and I’m delighted with the fans as well.”
Begiristain for his part said despite Toure’s age the former Barcelona star remained firmly part of Guardiola’s plans.
“Yaya has been a fantastic servant for Manchester City and continues to be a vital member of Pep Guardiola’s squad,” said Begiristain.
“He is one of our most experienced and popular players and we couldn’t be happier that he is staying with us as we embark on what we all hope will be a very exciting season.
“Yaya has been central to the successes we’ve had over the past seven years and he has a vital part to play next season.”