The opening day of a new football season is always special, but this one is particularly significant for me.
After moving back to Everton this summer, the chance to pull on the Blue shirt again and play at Goodison Park in the Premier League, in front of my family and friends, really excites me, which is why our opening game against Stoke cannot come soon enough.
I have always been a fan of Everton Football Club so when the opportunity arose to come back to my boyhood club this summer, I jumped at it and the last few weeks have certainly lived up to my expectations.
The Everton fans have been brilliant since the news of my return was announced. The reception they gave me was fantastic.
Hopefully, now I can start to repay them with good performances and goals as we all strive to take the club to the next level.
After a busy summer in the transfer market – manager Ronald Koeman has made seven new signings so far and there could be more to follow before the transfer window closes – our fans are excited about the season ahead, and rightly so. In terms of the Premier League, our first aim must be to improve on last season, when we finished seventh in the final table.
We also want to go as far as we can in the cup competitions and we’ve made a good start on that front, beating the Slovakian team MFK Ruzomberok over two legs to reach the Europa League play-offs later this month.
For me personally, to win a trophy at the club I’ve grown up supporting would be great. The last time we won something was in 1995, so to bring some silverware back to Goodison would be right up there.
We know it’s going to be challenging competing on four fronts but the manager has made some great signings, bringing in the likes of Davy Klaassen, Michael Keane, Jordan Pickford and Sandro Ramirez, meaning the competition to make the starting XI is going to be intense.
As players, we all know we will need to play well to keep our place in the team. Our preparations for the new season have gone well – we are unbeaten in six matches – and I, personally, feel good going into the opening weekend.
Pre-season is always a difficult time for a footballer. Because you are training hard before and after the games, you never really feel match sharp. But that is precisely why we play friendlies and you could see all the hard work starting to pay off in training this week, where there was an extra sharpness and quality in our sessions.
Now we need to show that today. We know we’re in for a tough start.
Stoke are never an easy team to play against but if we can begin the season with a win, it will give the squad that extra bit of confidence and belief going into a tough run of fixtures against Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United.
And, of course, an early return to Old Trafford, where I spent 13 fantastic years playing in great teams and winning trophies in front of fans who never ever stopped supporting me, will be a strange feeling.
But I hope they understand that playing for Everton was the only way I would be back there playing for an opposing Premier League team. We must all concentrate on getting a good league run going and achieving some consistency in the Premier League.
If we can do that then we’ll see where we are at Christmas time and reassess our goals.
“Milan, Milan, only with you…” go the words of the club hymn, the song a familiar sound to anyone who has attended a match at San Siro as it blasts out around the historic venue that has seen so many glorious moments.
The famous names to have pulled on the instantly recognisable red-and-black stripes reads like a who’s who of world football, and no stadium in Italy quite able to match the big match atmosphere generated when the Meazza is full.
Sadly over recent years those occasions have been few and far between, the team slipping into mid-table mediocrity. Yet this summer has seen the new owners quickly set about demolishing the malaise that had begun to seep into every part of the club.
Where once Silvio Berlusconi used the club to raise his profile and popularity, Chinese entrepreneur Yonghong Li – a 48-year-old who even his own compatriots know little about – now seems hellbent on doing the same.
The sale took months to complete, a saga that looked repeatedly doomed, but even when it was finalised there was very little talk coming from Yonghong Li and his collaborators.
While he may not have landed at the training ground in a helicopter and has none of the brash pomposity so synonymous with his predecessor, Milan’s owner appears to have quickly grasped the notion that, when it comes to Italian football, money talks.
Milan finished sixth last term, 28 points behind league winners Juventus and 23 away from a Champions League berth. That more than highlighted the gulf they needed to bridge, and new sporting director Massimiliano Mirabelli was also acutely aware that they would enter the Europa League in late July, more than a month before Serie A got underway.
Incredibly, he has sliced through Italy’s notoriously slow and ponderous transfer market to already complete signings for four players.
Central defender Mateo Musacchio was part of a Villarreal backline that conceded the second-fewest goals in La Liga, while left-back Ricardo Rodriguez was a target for Arsenal.
Franck Kessie was wanted by Antonio Conte at Chelsea but rejected them and Roma to join the Rossoneri, before the stunning acquisition of one of Europe’s most promising young strikers shocked everyone.
“When I retire, Portugal will be in good hands because they have already found a great striker: Andre Silva,” Cristiano Ronaldo told La Gazzetta dello Sport, and now the 21-year-old will lead the line for Milan.
Serie A will have four spots in Europe’s elite competition next term, but while rivals Fiorentina, Inter and Roma all appointed new men in recent weeks, the Rossoneri had Vincenzo Montella firmly established on the bench.
Even with the future uncertain and his squad seriously flawed, the coach worked on improving their defence last season and that will stand them in good stead moving forward.
Centre-back Alessio Romagnoli continues to blossom into a cornerstone of a genuine contender while goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma is arguably the most talented teenager in the sport.
His contract situation will need to be resolved, but a recent interview allayed many fears among the club’s supporters after months of agent Mino Raiola performing his usual routine.
“Everyone knows that my wish is to stay at Milan,” Donnarumma told GQ.
Fans of the Rossoneri will hope that is more than a convenient soundbite, but what Yonghong Li, Mirabelli and Montella have done is provide the supporters two gifts they needed: hope and enthusiasm.
Serie A has always been at its most potent when the red-and-black half of San Siro has been among the title contenders.
It appears that this Serie A giant has finally reawakened after sleepwalking through the last few seasons. How long before this great club is celebrating once again?
Life runs at a different speed on the heaving, intoxicating streets of Bangkok. This bustling southeast-Asian city, which represents the latest stop on the UAE’s testing path to World Cup 2018, boasts a cornucopia of sights and sounds, as climate-controlled megamalls in sophisticated Sukhumvit contrast wildly with the otherworldly neon-lit streets of the infamous Khao San Road.
Time flashes by on slender thoroughfares packed with cars, tuk-tuks and distractions. This ephemeral sense of moments racing by is surely now familiar to new coach Edgardo Bauza, who couldn’t be blamed for feeling his first fortnight spent with a squad full of unfamiliar faces has been all too brief ahead of Tuesday’s critical World Cup 2018 qualifier against Thailand.
But it is into this maelstrom that the man – sacked by his native Argentina in April after just eight unsatisfying matches – has been thrust into.
There is no luxury of a bedding in period for someone whose Middle Eastern experience stretches to five months at Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in 2009, no opportunity to make amends at a later date if his opening steps are out of sync.
The tactician who was unable to craft a tune out of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain’s Angel Di Maria and Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain, must now prove he can secure the White’s second-ever entry to the World Cup with the foreign talents of Al Jazira marksman Ali Mabkhout, Al Ahli’s Ahmed Khalil and versatile Al Nasr tyro Tariq Ahmed.
The stakes could not be higher for the current UAE Football Association hierarchy. If the candidate chosen after an unnecessarily sinuous route to a successor for Mahdi Ali gets off to a false start, then the ‘Golden Generation’ they inherited last year will never get to play a World Cup at their peak.
A loss will mathematically end all third-and-final round hopes, with a draw of little use. Successfully navigating the Road to Russia, apparently, represented the predestined apogee of a group of players who stormed to 2008’s AFC U-19 Championship, ran-out at the London 2012 Olympics, lifted the 2013 Gulf Cup and finished an incredible third at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Nothing less than three points now are required from Bauza’s competitive debut. Fail to do so and there will be no trip to Russia next summer, while the pressure should ramp up to excel on home soil, no matter how far away the 2019 Asian Cup feels right now.
But this is just one of the tests he must pass. An inability to do so at the ageing Rajamangala National Stadium, of which the uneven pitch hardly appears conducive to the exemplary playmaking skills of Omar Abdulrahman, cannot be countenanced and no excuse accepted.
The early signs appear promising. A warm-up against Laos last Wednesday finished in an impressive 4-0 thrashing. With the outmoded 4-4-2 formation of Ali consigned to the past, detailed work on the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 utilised throughout the Arabian Gulf League – and favoured by Bauza during his career – has been undertaken.
Although against opposition ranked just 172 in the world by FIFA, a clean sheet was kept and the scoring instincts of two-goal Mabkhout and Khalil remained in evidence.
Bauza has been hands-on and engaging on training pitches in Dubai, Malaysia and Bangkok in the last two weeks. Not even the sticky, mosquito-ridden conditions of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in the last few days could bridle the enthusiasm and dedication of the 59-year-old.
With an Arabic/ Spanish translator by his side and whistle regularly put to his mouth, his new charges were willing pupils as they got to hear a new master’s voice after a decade spent under Ali’s vigil for various youth and senior sides.
Where timing has definitely been on Bauza’s favour is in meeting Thailand – nicknamed the War Elephants – at this juncture. Vice-captain and 40-goal striker Teerasil Dangda’s forced pull-out through injury yesterday saw him become the fifth certain starter consigned to the stands for Serbian Milovan Rajevac unpropitious competitive bow.
The hosts also sit bottom of Group B, with just one point gained from seven deflating matches. Bauza must prevail this evening in a steamy Bangkok. If he does not, the repercussions will stain what should have been UAE football’s glory years.