Manchester United are a club slowly but surely learning from their mis- takes; or, more specifically, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is slowly but surely learning from his mistakes.
After three summers of bold promises, bungled bids, vastly inflated fees and last-minute signings that resulted in an imbalanced and patchwork quilt of a squad, already things are starting to shape up a little more orderly for United.
The appointment of Jose Mourinho, as bizarrely delayed as it was, has obviously helped given the Portuguese coach’s eye for detail and organisation on and off the field. But with Zlatan Ibrahimovic joining Mourinho, just uttering those names for United fans generates more excitement than the majority of the football served up by Louis van Gaal’s side last season.
And although you can argue those additions are largely open goals for a club with almost infinite wealth – where else were Mourinho or Ibrahimovic realistically going to go? – it’s what’s potentially on the horizon that will really give us a proper indication of where Woodward is in terms of his new found recruiting acumen.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan was one of the best players in the Bundesliga and is the sort of goal-scoring attacking midfielder United have craved; as talented as the likes of Ander Herrera and Juan Mata are, they don’t possess a consistent goal threat. While Paul Pogba is a player every elite club in Europe has designs on at present.
What unites Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic is not only the
prospect of them all wearing red and taking to the field against Bournemouth on the opening day of the season; it’s agent Mino Raiola.
The rambunctious Italian got his big break facilatating Pavel Nedved’s transfer from Sparta Prague to Lazio in 1996 and has since grown in stature to become one of Europe’s ‘Super Agents’, in the mould of another of Woodward’s favourite, some would say only, go-to guys: Jorge Mendes.
Raiola has traditionally operated in the Italian market but in recent years has expanded his portfolio beyond those borders, most specifically at Paris Saint-Germain with Ibrahimovic.
Raiola-Mourinho good collaboration: the agent will have his fee by Ibra deal. And now will try to finalize on next days for Mkhitaryan #MUFC— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) June 30, 2016
AS report #mufc have opened negotiations with Raiola for the transfer of his client Paul Pogba, following successful talks over Mkhitaryan.— Colin Millar (@Millar_Colin) June 28, 2016
But now he is beginning to make a dent in England with Pogba his potential golden goose and also the acquisition of Everton and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku as a client.
It’s no surprise he’s steering his clients towards United. The Red Devils cannot afford another season in the twilight zone of the Europa League and Mourinho will simply not suffer the sort of summer of frustrating inactivity experienced by David Moyes and Van Gaal. He had enough of that at Chelsea 12 months ago and look how that ended up.
Not unlike PSG, they are prepared to spend big, not just in transfer fees but also wages and despite growing interest from Real Madrid, the belief is Raiola would prefer Pogba to return to Old Trafford rather than move to the Bernabeu.
There is also the position of Woodward and this being a make or break summer for him. He’s leaning on Mourinho to deliver on the field which, history tells us, should happen, certainly in the coming season.
But with that he needs to provide some stellar names that go well beyond United’s status as a fallen giant and a team not operating in the Champions League. The only way to tempt Pogba away from European champions Madrid and Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo etc, is to work with the man whose advice and negotiating so far in his career has been exceptional.
Which is why Ibrahimovic and Mkhitaryan are not only common sense signings in a tactical sense, but also a relationship-building one. Raiola may be getting very wealthy from his new-found relationship with United but it’s a mutually exclusive partnership.
Not just to United, but Woodward as well.
Chester, 27, made his debut for the club in Ronaldo’s final season at Old Trafford and will now come face to face with the Real Madrid forward after helping Wales beat Belgium to seal a last-four date with Portugal.
And having been an inexperienced teenager when he first trained with the Portuguese star, he is now relishing this prospect of locking horns with him again at the European Championship.
“I was lucky enough to train with Cristiano a few times and it was evident then what a great player he was,” Chester told Sport360. “Since he’s gone to Real Madrid his game has changed and he’s got even better – he’s turned into a goal machine. He’s obviously one we’ll have to watch.
“I was lucky as a young lad at United to see all those great players, including Ronaldo, at the top of their game. He was always very professional away from the pitch too, working in the gym and looking after himself. It was the players’ extra work off the pitch that was one of the biggest things I took from my time at United.”
The battle between Real Madrid team-mates Ronaldo and Bale will undoubtedly dominate the build-up to next week’s semi-final in Lyon and, having played with them both, Chester insists it is the Welshman who is the best player at Euro 2016.
“It’s going to be a great battle between Cristiano and Gareth, I’m sure the media will hype it up,” said Chester. “Gareth and Cristiano play together at Real Madrid but I’m glad that we’ve got Gareth on our side.
“He’s the best individual in the tournament. If we defend and play like we have done, we’ll give ourselves a great chance of beating Portugal.”
Another ex-United presence in the Portugal ranks is Nani, a player who impressed Chester at close quarters.
“Everyone has seen the ability he has. Physically was thing that surprised me the most when he came to United. How fit, strong and quick he was. He’s got great ability.”
Asked whether Wales can now go on to win the European Championship, Chester responded with a resounding “yes”, with the West Brom centre-back proud of the progress Chris Coleman’s side have made.
“I think it’s an understatement to say we’re delighted,” Chester added. “I don’t think it’s quite sunk in, the whole journey we’ve been on since the start of the tournament. Before we came here we wanted to give a good account of ourselves and play football the way we want to play. We’re doing that at the moment and getting great results.
“We spoke after the England game, we played with a lot of fight and determination but we didn’t play with our identity. It was an important moment and now we know that the performance is the most important thing – hopefully the results will then come, just like it did tonight.”
Ahead of their gigantic last eight tussle, UAE-based fans of Germany and Italy preview the game.
To gain an insight into the mindset of the fans we asked them to share their predictions, likely line-ups and players to watch.
Do you agree or have they missed the mark? Use #360fans to let us know your thoughts on Twitter.
GERMANY – Frank Scheunert (Hedge Fund Manager, Dubai)
Germany have now produced two impressive attacking performances in a row – both yielding possession of above 70 per cent – while we have also yet to concede a single goal so far in Euro 2016.
Nevertheless, the game against Italy will be totally different strategically as the Azzurri have once again proven defensively masterful at this tournament. They started off with a great display against Belgium and followed that up with a remarkable performance against Spain, winning 2-0 despite only having 25 per cent possession in the match.
Antonio Conte’s team will be difficult opposition to overcome, though I think the ageing Gianluigi Buffon may be a weak spot, and Germany know only too well that Italy are capable of another upset having lost to them in the Euro 2012 semi-finals.
Italy might have a couple of important leaders missing, with Thiago Motta suspended and Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Candreva potentially out with injury, which should bring a level of confidence. Indeed, with Germany at full strength we should be feeling very optimistic about our chances of possession. We showed perseverance against Northern Ireland and will need the same again if we are to break down Italy.
PREDICTION: Germany 1-0 Italy
LIKELY GERMANY XI: Neuer; Höwedes, J. Boateng, Mustafi, Hummels; Khedira, T. Kroos; T. Müller, Özil, Draxler; Gomez.
GERMANY PLAYER TO WATCH: Thomas Muller – I feel like a broken record here but this has GOT to be the game that Muller finally opens his account for the tournament. The Bayern Munich forward has had plenty of chances and it’s only a matter of time he finds the net.
ITALY PLAYER TO FEAR: Giorgio Chiellini – He is having a wonderful tournament and has shown his quality – able to play against all sorts of forward lines and still keep them out, he’s a wily centre-back and the battle between him and Muller could be intriguing.
WHERE TO WATCH THE GAME: ON42 at the Media One Hotel – around 600 German fans are expected!
ITALY – Colin Scicluna (Teacher, Dubai)
Dare I dream? Dare I shed the pessimism? As I write, my hands shake with pride at what this Italy team have accomplished. A confident, cynical, talented, well-organised Azzurri took the Spanish to school on Monday.
We thought once Franco Baresi retired we would suffer and then Paolo Maldini came along. We thought once Maldini hung up his boots we would be doomed and then came Fabio Cannavaro. Now, we have Giorgo Chiellini and co. carrying this mantle of Italian defenders with skill and substance. Antonio Conte put the Spanish in a corner with dogged pressure high in their half and with the quick transitions from defence to attack. He shouted, cried, kicked the ball in the stands, jumped on the subs bench and rejoiced when Graziano Pelle sealed the match up in Lille on Monday. This was his victory. Roman Abramovich and Chelsea fans must be licking their lips!
It’s been a ridiculous, beautiful journey, and now we have Germany. Back in Italy, everyone is wondering who did the draws for this tournament. How can one half be so much tougher than the other? However, we have more pressing concerns than lady luck. Thiago Motta picked up his second yellow of the tournament against Spain and will miss the clash, while Daniele De Rossi is injured and now doubtful. This leaves a gaping hole in midfield and Conte will have to tinker once again.
The Germans look really good in this tournament and will also be seething at the fact that they have never beaten Italy at a major international championship. Hopefully this will not be the first time!
PREDICTION: Germany 0-0 Italy (Italy to win on penalties)
LIKELY ITALY XI: Buffon, Chiellini, Bonucci, Barzagli, Florenzi, Parolo, Giaccherini, De Sciglio, Sturaro, Pelle, Eder.
ITALY PLAYER TO WATCH: Mattia De Sciglio – The full-back had a poor season with Milan but with this Italy team, he is really making an impact. His marauding runs on the left wing mean he is a great attacking outlet, while he has been defensively disciplined too.
GERMANY PLAYER TO FEAR: Mesut Ozil – He may have missed a penalty in the last game but overall he has made this Germany team tick at Euro 2016. He will need to be patient if he is to unlock the Azzurri backline though!
WHERE TO WATCH: Barasti, where the Spanish fans will now surely support Germany but the Italian fans will still be loud!