Club football is quickly upon us. A summer which has not been short on action thanks to the World Cup is coming to an end, in the footballing sense, with the return of football to Europe’s biggest leagues.
With most clubs now certain on their targets for the season, and the make-up of most squads largely determined at this point, all eyes will be on the men on the sidelines as they look to lead their teams to glory.
Here are the five managers under the most pressure before a ball’s even been kicked this season.
JOSE MOURINHO (MANCHESTER UNITED)
No manager enters the season under more pressure than the man in charge at United. Guiding the side to their best finish of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era lost its sheen when it involved ending up in second, 19 points behind the league winners. That those winners were Manchester City only added to the hollowness of that finish.
Mourinho needs to deliver a major trophy this season. Premier League would be best – as much as the Champions League remains the holy grail for any top European club, England’s most successful club doesn’t want a long absence from the top of the table at home. Add to the sense Mourinho’s style is antagonising some of United’s players and holding them back, plus his traditional third-season struggles, and the decorated manager has something to prove.
JULEN LOPETEGUI (REAL MADRID)
Taking over Real Madrid is never easy. Doing it in a contentious manner which destabilises the national team – and kills your own dream of managing your country at a World Cup – makes it harder. And having to follow a club legend who won three straight Champions League titles is impossible.
But none of that makes Julen Lopetegui’s job as hard as the loss of Cristiano Ronaldo. Lopetegui would probably back himself to get Madrid playing to a system which would negate the loss of the player himself, but the pressure of being the first manager of the post-Ronaldo era is something else. The Spaniard has a big job ahead of him.
MASSIMILIANO ALLEGRI (JUVENTUS)
Allegri may have won the Serie A title for four seasons running with Juventus, but having Ronaldo in your team changes the equation. It’s obvious the transfer was made with the Champions League in mind. Juve have lost two finals in the competition under Allegri, and now they have a player who can take them over the hump.
Not to mention, Ronaldo’s chase for more Ballon d’Or awards will put pressure on Allegri and the rest of the team to match his levels. The player himself will be under pressure as well, but the onus is now on the Italian to maximise the remainder of Ronaldo’s prime years.
LUCIANO SPALLETTI (INTER MILAN)
Inter Milan have backed Spalletti in the transfer market. Radja Nainggolan from Roma is the headline arrival, but the incomings also include right-back Sime Vrsaljko, coming off a good season at Atletico Madrid, and promising Argentine youngster Lautaro Martinez.
The beast that is Juventus will be hard to slay, but Inter are perhaps best-equipped to challenge the reigning champions. At the very least, Spalletti can’t afford another season where Champions League football is only secured thanks to a final-day miracle.
NIKO KOVAC (BAYERN MUNICH)
Kovac has done the required apprenticeship to take over the reigns at Bayern Munich, impressing at Eintracht Frankfurt. But he wasn’t the man the pundits had backed for the job, with Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann having been installed as the favourite. Kovac will have to justify the faith the club have shown in him.
At the same time, he also needs to figure out how he’s going to replenish a side that has a few key players nearing 30 – Jerome Boateng, Robert Lewandowski, and Mats Hummels are all 29 – and others, like Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery, who are nearing the end of their careers.
Trying to manage those egos while blooding the likes of Serge Gnabry, Leon Goretzka, and Kingsley Coman – already disgruntled with reduced playing time last season – will be a challenge.
Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were teammates until a month ago. Now, two players whose careers have been intertwined for the last five seasons have stages to themselves – and with that, the responsibility to deliver.
At Real Madrid, Bale needs to show he can be the star now Ronaldo’s gone. For Ronaldo, a change of club after a shock transfer to Juventus comes with the pressure of delivering European club football’s biggest trophy.
There’s no wonder the duo top our list of the players under the most pressure heading into the new season. Here’s our top five…
Bale has been given the impossible task – step into Ronaldo’s shoes. The Portuguese star’s departure allows him to take centre-stage at Madrid, something he’s been aching to do for years. But that comes with a level of responsibility Bale has arguably never had.
He’ll have help from the talented squad around him – arguably, it’s Isco who’s set to be Real Madrid’s real star player. However, this season is all about whether Bale can deliver at anywhere near approaching Ronaldo level for Madrid.
Speaking of Ronaldo…he has one mission at Juventus: win the Champions League. It’s not going to matter if his goals fire the club to a seventh straight Serie A title – they were favourites to do that before he joined. That domestic dominance has made European glory the holy grail.
He needs that trophy for himself, too. Ronaldo may just win the Ballon d’Or at the end of this season because of his exploits from last season, but he’s not winning any more just by helping Juventus win another league title. It’s Champions League or bust for both club and player, and Ronaldo will back himself to deliver.
It’s almost ridiculous to think that a player whose performances were vital to his country winning a World Cup has anything left to prove. Yet Pogba must know unless he can replicate that standard with Manchester United, questions will continue to be asked.
And the Frenchman will be aware the truth in manager Jose Mourinho‘s comments – as tough as it is to star at a World Cup, the environment made it easier for him. Can he do that over a whole season, with all the distractions the modern-day club footballer has to deal with?
Arsenal‘s Ozil received some unfair and harsh criticism thanks to Germany’s shock group-stage exit at the World Cup – and that’s before taking into account the over-the-line comments from fans and pundits which were racially charged.
It is admirable he has withdrawn himself from consideration for the national side until the racism he’s experience is dealt with. Players should be allowed to take principled stands like that.
However, he has also put the spotlight on himself. If he can’t be consistently brilliant for the Gunners, he’ll be criticised again – and the focus will be solely on his play, rather than anyone else’s poor behaviour towards him.
This World Cup was supposed to be a redemption tour for Neymar after the heartbreak of Brazil 2014. But his side’s quarter-final exit has put the pressure squarely back on his shoulders. Although he showed glimpses of his prodigious talent, he rarely looked like a top-three player in the world, which is where he was when he moved to Paris Saint-Germain a year ago.
Not to mention, much like Ronaldo at Juve this year, Neymar was bought by his club with the Champions League trophy in mind. He was injured in between the first and leg of PSG’s Round of 16 tie against Real Madrid last season – but the side still lost the first leg with him in their XI.
Delivering a better result will reestablish his reputation, and put the pain of this summer behind him.
The Clarets needed extra-time to beat Aberdeen in the second leg of their Europa League qualifying tie, Turf Moor’s first taste of continental competition in 51 years.
The Dons were probably not the kind of side fans hoped for when they sealed their place in the competition, but they were worthy opponents, drawing 1-1 at Pittodrie and only succumbing 3-1 in the return leg after extra-time goals from Jack Cork and Ashley Barnes.
Prior to that they had provided the game’s defining moment, teenager Lewis Ferguson cancelling out Chris Wood’s opener with a sublime bicycle kick.
Burnley head to Turkey next week and a meeting with Istanbul Basaksehir.
“Our fans literally just wanted to get into Europe so they could have a European tour. I’m pleased we achieved that for them,” said Dyche.
“It’s on my CV too, a win in Europe, whatever way you look at it.”
We'll leave you with the goal that kept the Clarets on their European tour!— Burnley FC (@BurnleyOfficial) 2 August 2018
What a Corker! pic.twitter.com/4DD1ClEX0s
Dyche’s mind is most keenly focused on matters closer to home though. Wood was taken off at half-time after complaining of a sore thigh and hip and there were worries over Aaron Lennon and Stephen Ward before the end too.
With the Premier League opener against Southampton following three days after the Turkish trip, he is already beginning to feel his resources stretching.
“We’ve got to be careful, tonight was weird because we’re drawing and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve still got a Premier League campaign coming’,” said Dyche.
“It’s tough because we wanted to win, but I can’t lose my players. Whatever happens this is still not as important as the Premier League and I’ve made that clear to everyone.
“As soon as I found out Woody (was struggling) he’s got to come off. Aaron had a tight hamstring and he almost ran back for one, so I’m shouting not to. The bigger picture still has to be there.”
Dyche has a few days now to hatch a plan for his next assignment – with preparation and pronunciation on the agenda.
“I can’t even say the name yet, but we’ve had people sussing things out, we’ll be all right,” he said of Basaksehir.
Aberdeen boss Derek McInnes was upbeat in defeat, buoyed by the manner of his side’s performance over two legs.
The financial might of the teams may be considerably different, but there was no deficit in heart or commitment to the cause.
“My first thought is disappointment for my players, but there’s no criticism,” said McInnes.
“We can’t afford to be too disappointed because we now have to focus on the domestic game and Rangers on Sunday.
“We were very good over two ties to go toe to toe with a team like Burnley. We’ll dust ourselves down and take the positives and there’s plenty of them.
“There was nothing in the game for me. We knew a second goal would have finished them, but we never got the goal and they did.”