When Italian giants Inter Milan take to the field at Celtic Park on Thursday, the Europa League tie will deliver a huge slice of nostalgia for any serious student of the game. Almost 50 years on from Celtic’s greatest triumph, as they beat a previously all-conquering Inter side in the 1967 European Cup final, there are likely to be many references to the club’s Lisbon Lions. Yet while many will be looking to the past, seeing Mauro Icardi line up for the Nerazzurri will perhaps offer fans of Manchester United a glimpse of their not-too-distant future.
– FA Cup: Man United rally to beat Preston, book Arsenal tie
– EXCLUSIVE: Raul – from the Galacticos to the Cosmos
– #360business: New EPL TV deal has some fearing for future
– #Quiz360: Win dinner for 2 at Jumeira Rotana hotel, Dubai
The Argentinean striker has been linked with a move to Old Trafford repeatedly over the past few weeks, with reports in both England and Italy discussing the possibility of a Dh188 million (€40m) move this summer. Icardi is seen by many as a far more viable reinforcement for Louis van Gaal’s side than Radamel Falcao, who recently turned 30 and would cost around Dh230 million (€55m) to sign on a permanent basis from Monaco.
Still just 21, Icardi has been guilty of allowing his private life to make the headlines all too often so far in his career, his much-publicised relationship with Argentine media personality Wanda Nara seeing the couple become a national story. Previously married to Icardi’s former team-mate Maxi Lopez, the three parties have made public comments that reflect poorly upon them all.
Yet none of that should detract from the fact Icardi is a seriously talented striker, who chose to leave Barcelona in 2011 saying that “if a youngster wants to grow then certain decisions have to be made.” He opted to join Sampdoria in Serie B, a move he never regretted as he quickly proved capable of scoring in the biggest games. Icardi made his debut for the Italian side in a must-win match against Juve Stabia, coming on as a substitute as the club desperately sought a victory essential to their hopes of promotion to Serie A.
Netting the winning goal, he followed that up with a strike that gave Sampdoria a derby win over fierce rivals Genoa. That he was making his first top flight start for the club hinted that they had discovered something special, and that feeling would continue, as his double helped the Blucerchiati to an improbable victory away to Juventus. A meeting with Pescara would reveal a very different side to the widely disliked Icardi, the match coming just days after Sampdoria President Riccardo Garrone passed away following a long illness.
With the Stadio Luigi Ferraris filled with former players and coaches looking to pay homage to the man who had saved the club from bankruptcy, Icardi helped the team deliver a fitting 6-0 victory as he netted four times. “It is a day I will remember for all my life,” he said afterwards. “Scoring four goals in Serie A doesn’t happen often. I dedicate them to the President.”
“I don’t know why I keep getting roped in with football’s ‘bad boys’. I really don’t care either. The unhappy people are those who listen to others. I never listened to anyone and I’m very happy.”
He would add another goal in a win over Roma and then seal another win over Juventus on the final day of the 2012-13 season, by which time it had already been revealed he would join Inter. Icardi has continued to deliver in the same vein for the Nerazzurri over the past 18 months, netting 27 goals in just 52 appearances for the club, including two more strikes that have taken points from an otherwise dominant Juventus.
He has now scored five goals in four games against the Bianconeri, but has had problems in Milan, accused of being anonymous when the side struggle. He and Pablo Osvaldo had a major on-field spat back in January, when Icardi opted to shoot, rather than pass to his compatriot, and the fiery on-loan Southampton striker attempted to physically confront his team-mate. The younger man admitted he had “messed up,” but Osvaldo was deemed the guilty party by Roberto Mancini and has since been released by the club.
While Inter have struggled this term – currently sitting in 10th place – Icardi has been in fine form, a brace against Palermo last week taking his tally to 15 in all competitions, averaging a goal every 131 minutes. While his work-rate when the Nerazzurri are not in possession must improve, on the ball he is a wonderfully talented player worthy of a place at any of Europe’s biggest clubs.
He is a genuine threat in front of goal, and would provide Manchester United with an ideal replacement for either Falcao or Robin van Persie, who make a similarly minimal contribution to build-up play but come alive when the ball is in the opposition penalty area. According to statistics from WhoScored.com, Icardi averages just 15.9 passes per game, numbers similar to the aforementioned duo, who make 18.4 and 20.0 per game respectively.
That he has more goals than the two combined is obviously the most telling statistic however, and Celtic are certain to struggle to contain him over the two legs. Manchester United sent scouts to watch him last week, and Icardi has proven to be a consistent threat as he now scores with alarming regularity. That he could soon be doing so for the Old Trafford Club should worry defences across the Premier League and beyond.
Stubborn resistance and a Branislav Ivanovic header earned Chelsea a 1-1 draw in the Champions League last-16 first leg with Paris St Germain at Parc des Princes.
Jose Mourinho’s men are well placed to advance to the quarter-finals after Ivanovic netted a vital away goal, although Edinson Cavani equalised and PSG showed enough for Chelsea to be wary in the second leg on March 11.
Not sure quite how David Luiz got away with this… https://t.co/v0rtekTO0t
— James Maw (@JamesMawFFT) February 17, 2015
Chelsea advanced to the semi-finals at PSG’s expense last term on away goals after losing 3-1 in Paris and Demba Ba’s last-gasp strike in the return in London.
The Blues had won just once in six prior attempts on French soil, at PSG in Mourinho’s first European match as boss in September 2004.
Chelsea’s bus became stuck entering the stadium and Zlatan Ibrahimovic caused the visitors all kinds of difficulties once the match began.
Courtois made three saves from headers in the first half, the pick from Cavani, before Ivanovic’s header against the run of play.
Cavani equalised after losing Cahill to meet Blaise Matuidi’s cross and both the Uruguay striker and Ibrahimovic had chances to double PSG’s lead.
The Swede was denied by Courtois in stoppage time to leave Chelsea in control of the tie heading to Stamford Bridge.
There are three weeks and a day before the return, by which time Chelsea’s confidence may be boosted by silverware, with the Capital One Cup final against Tottenham on March 1.
The episode with the bus led to jokes Chelsea would “park” theirs and deploy defensive tactics.
The shock FA Cup exit to League One Bradford granted Chelsea a rare free weekend and five days’ preparation for PSG.
Xabi Alonso saw his 100th Champions League appearance ended prematurely, although his red card did not cost Bayern Munich as they secured a goalless draw against Shakhtar Donetsk.
The first leg of this last-16 tie was a tetchy affair and one which Pep Guardiola’s side managed to get nowhere near the level of performance managed in their 8-0 Bundesliga drubbing of Hamburg at the weekend.
Shakhtar looked rusty – no surprise given they have not played a competitive game since matchday six — and failed to capitalise on Alonso’s second-half sending off.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder was given his marching orders for a second bookable offence with 25 minutes remaining, but it did little to change the match played out in sub-zero temperatures at the Arena Lviv.
They exited the competition at this stage to Borussia Dortmund two years ago and early on it looked like a similar fate would await, with Rafinha forcing Andriy Pyatov into a save inside the opening minute.
The Shakhtar goalkeeper could only watch on helplessly shortly after when Bastian Schweinsteiger met a lovely, clipped ball from Arjen Robben, although the strike flew just wide.
Robben was squeezed out after being the beneficiary of a free-kick routine, before the Dutchman playing in Thomas Muller to hit a cross-shot that Olexandr Kucher cleared from danger.
Shakhtar were struggling to get a grip of their visitors and tempers soon began to fray, with Darijo Srna fortunate not to be sent off for moving his head towards Jerome Boateng’s after Alonso was booked for a poor challenge.
The Spanish official was having a lot to deal with in what was becoming an increasingly tetchy match, with Douglas Costa perhaps fortunate just to receive a yellow card after catching Ribery with his elbow.
There was a break in play after a challenge between Luiz Adriano and Alonso – a collision both recovered from, albeit the latter was soon exiting the field.
The midfielder was adjudged to have brought down Alex Teixeira and received a second yellow card, reducing Munich to 10 men for the final 25 minutes.
It was one of 35 fouls on the night, with the sides sharing eight bookings and Alonso’s red in a forgettable first leg to a last-16 tie which resumes at the Allianz Arena on March 11.
When the Champions League anthem welcomes the Real Madrid players on Wednesday night, one of their most cherished sons will be otherwise engaged.
Raul will be half the world away in Hong Kong alongside his New York Cosmos team-mates as the latest chapter in a phenomenal career prepares to be written.
But memories of the 37-year-old’s legendary actions will not be far from the minds of both groups of supporters set to witness the world’s premier club competition kick back into life with a round-of-16 clash between Carlo Ancelotti’s champions and Schalke 04.
It is difficult to know where to start when listing the striker’s achievements in the fabled Los Blancos shirt. During 16 years of exemplary service – which began when gifted to them by city rivals Atletico’s short-sighted decision to temporarily disband their youth academy – he broke nearly every record going.
Raul is the club’s all-time top scorer with 323 goals, his 741 appearances the most ever totalled and until overtaken by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi he was the Champions League’s leading marksman on 71 strikes.
Six La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions League titles, four Supercopa de Espana titles, one UEFA Super Cup and two Intercontinental Cups were gained under his omnipresent influence.
As a local boy wearing the armband during an era detailed by the extravagant Galacticos policy, he represented the chord between club and city prior to leaving five years ago.
A fresh task awaits after his October arrival in the Big Apple, where as an elder statesman of the game he will attempt to breathe energy into North America’s most iconic soccer franchise.
“I am very happy to move to such a historic team as New York Cosmos,” he told Sport360. “They are a very important team in the history [of North American football].
“Cosmos have great history, but they also want to have a big future. This is really important.
“I will try to help the team in the field, and help develop the young players in the academy – that is a big point for why I came to the Cosmos. I hope to show a good performance from myself, scoring plenty of goals and to help the team win titles. I also want to make sure the crowds at the games enjoy watching them.”
Raul arrived this winter following successful spells at Schalke and Qatar’s Al Sadd as he continues to sample life away from the all-encompassing Bernabeu that once defined him.
The Cosmos are in the early stages of a rebirth after being lost to the collapse of professional American teams in the mid 1980s. His name is in kind with the fabled players of yesteryear – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto all previously donning the green jersey.
The North American Soccer League is Raul’s arena of combat, which is the second division in US football. This a far cry from the star-studded outfit he skippered at Real, teaming up alongside Zinedine Zidane, Iker Casillas, Luis Figo and David Beckham.
A familiar face, however, could be present when the NASL Spring Championship kicks off on April 5. Former strike-partner and three-time Ballon d’or winner Ronaldo is a co-owner of opponents Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
The 38-year-old ex-Brazil international has even hinted at making a playing return sometime in the near future. Whatever his role, Raul only had kind words for the player whom he previously terrorised defences alongside from 2002 to 2007.
He said: “It is very important that Ronaldo is an owner of a team in the United States. When I see him, I will give him a big hug.
“We have a lot of memories playing together as strikers at Real Madrid. He was the best striker in the world when I was playing for them, and he also has a big heart.”
Back in Europe, a new star is carrying the weight of Real’s no7 jersey. Cristiano Ronaldo is the heartbeat of the side, proving a worthy successor to Raul.
A barely-believable 205 La Liga goals have been registered during 185 appearances since joining for a world-record fee six years ago.
Raul praised the impact of the man he teamed up with during his final campaign at the club, revealing he will be rooting for Ronaldo to continue firing Real to silverware.
He said: “Cristiano [Ronaldo] is doing very well in Real Madrid, scoring lots of goals. The no7 shirt is very important in the club and for me, personally.
“Emilio Butragueno, Juanito, lots of very good players in Madrid have worn it.
“Cristiano is currently at the top, performing to a high level in every game. He is amazing. I hope he continues, so that Real win titles.”
Raul vowed to retire when his stint at Al Sadd came to an end last year, but was tempted by a final adventure in the States. With the end of his playing career approaching, a fitting time has arrived to look back.
A huge haul of trophies, scoring in two UEFA Champions League finals and making more than 100 appearances for Spain now lie in the past. When asked to reflect on his work, events that bookend his career stand out. He said: “It is difficult to choose just one moment. My mind always goes to my first professional game at Real Madrid when I was young [against Real Zaragoza on October 29, 1994].
“I had this dream for so long about becoming a professional. My first game was incredible, my family and friends were just so happy I had played a match. I have a lot of memories, I won so many trophies alongside such great team-mates.”
Football moves on at pace, with Real gaining the long-awaited 10th European Cup – La Decima – last May without him, and their esteemed former captain is not ruling out No11 this term.
“I hope they can win it again,” he said. “No team has won the Champions League twice-in-a-row. There are a lot of strong teams left in the competition but Real can do it.”