Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus and Real Madrid star Toni Kroos among best free-kick takers

Alex Rea 6/02/2019
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Borussia Dortmund captain Marco Reus

This might be a little niche, but the wide free-kick in football is actually one of the most dangerous weapons.

Delivery can take different forms, from the flatter cross, whipped assist to the back post or even low and direct across the deck.

It’s a set-piece usually reserved for your midfield creator and so we’ve taken a look at five of the best from Europe’s top-five leagues.

TONI KROOS

Real Madrid's Toni Kroos

Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos

Kroos has arguably the most consistent delivery into the box. Right or left side, he aims for the towering defenders Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, and does so by wrapping his foot around the ball to swing in deadball crosses with pace. He recently assisted Varane with a beauty at Villarreal, finding the Frenchman at the back post with perfect precision. He should actually have more assists were it not for Real’s profligacy.

MARCO REUS

No surprise to see Borussia Dortmund’s mercurial skipper make the list. He’s at the heart of Dortmund’s production line and the Germany international has enjoyed a stellar campaign, creating six goals, one of them a fine free-kick in their win over Schalke back in December. The set-piece was actually deep and wide to the left touchline, but he caressed the ball to the front post and Thomas Delaney headed in. Reus’ technique is always crisp and the connection invariably clean.

CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN

Spurs playmaker Christian Eriksen

Spurs playmaker Christian Eriksen

Eriksen is a genuine specialist. He’s assisted two Premier League goals this season with a free-kick and one in particular stands out. Remember Eric Dier’s passionate celebration at the Emirates to equalise against Arsenal? It arrived after he gently flicked Eriksen’s curled set-piece from the left to the near post, the pace of it meaning Dier only needed to glance his header home. Eriksen is a menace from wide positions and the way he places the ball in between the line of defence and goalkeeper makes his free-kicks so difficult to clear.

MIRALEM PJANIC

Miralem Pjanic and Cristiano Ronaldo

Miralem Pjanic and Cristiano Ronaldo

Anywhere within a 10-20m radius outside the box and Pjanic is lethal. He doesn’t really use a lot of backlift or pace with his delivery, but rather opts to clip and chip balls into the box. Naturally, one of the beneficiaries of his quality is Cristiano Ronaldo. He opened the scoring against SPAL in November after Pjanic lofted the ball from the right and without needing to break stride from the left-side of the box, the Portuguese smashed a half-volley into the opposite corner.

KEVIN DE BRUYNE

Kevin De Bruyne

Kevin De Bruyne

The Belgian has endured an injury-hit campaign and so the opportunities to unleash his dangerous wide free-kicks have been too few. However, you cannot deny the calibre of his set-pieces. He’s almost unmatched as far as the Premier League is concerned because of his variety. Floated, fizzed or bent into the box, De Bruyne is pinpoint accurate, something we routinely come to expect from him.

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Madrid Derby leads a line of entertaining fixtures in Europe's top five leagues

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The Champions League knockout stages are just around the corner. The cup competitions in top European footballing nations are reaching a climax. Amid these knockout ties, a host of tantalising fixtures await us this weekend, in the top-five European leagues.

With a congested schedule calling for some rotation, it will be interesting to see how the teams approach the weekend fixtures.

We help you come up with a schedule which prioritises the best games of the week.

LA LIGA

FIXTURE: Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid

WHERE: Wanda Metropolitano

WHEN: 9th February, Saturday

TIME: 6:15 PM (GST)

The biggest game of the weekend will be played at the Wanda Metropolitano as the Madrid Derby awaits to play its part in shaping the title race.

Atletico Madrid will want to put the disappointment at Benito Villamarin behind them and claim bragging rights against Los Blancos.

Real Madrid are victim to some harsh scheduling. They faced Barcelona in the Copa del Rey, Atletico Madrid in La Liga and then Ajax in the Champions league over a seven-day period. Hence, one can expect Santiago Solari to rotate heavily during this crucial phase.

Alvaro Morata faces his former side and will hope he improves on an indifferent debut against Real Betis. Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema will be key for Madrid’s chances.

Antoine Griezmann will again lead the attack for Atletico Madrid

Antoine Griezmann and Raphael Varane

PREMIER LEAGUE

FIXTURE: Manchester City v Chelsea

WHERE: Etihad Stadium 

WHEN: 10th February, Sunday

TIME: 8:00 PM (GST)

With Liverpool managing to gather just two points out of a possible six in their last two games, the Premier League title race is hotting up. Every game that features Liverpool and Manchester City will be key in determining the champions, let alone a game against a team from the top four.

Chelsea arrive to this clash after smashing five past Huddersfield, while the defending Champions breezed past a sub-par Arsenal.

Maurizio Sarri’s side handed City their first defeat of the season in December and could do a double over the defending champions on Sunday. This will make a huge case for their bid for a top-four spot.

Pep Guardiola will have his sight on the title and his mind on exacting revenge for the result in December.

Sergio Aguero takes on Gonzalo Higuain in the battle of the nines.

Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri

Pep Guardiola and Maurizio Sarri

SERIE A

FIXTURE: Fiorentina v Napoli

WHERE: Artemio Franchi

WHEN: 9th February, Saturday

TIME: 9:00 PM (GST)

Fiorentina host Carlo Ancelotti’s Nappoli at the Artemio Franchi on Saturday. A win for the hosts could allow Juventus to pull 12 points clear – assuming they make short work of Sassuolo – and essentially end the title race.

In the last five meetings between the two sides in the league, Fiorentina have won once and Napoli have twice. The visitors are favourites to extend their head-to-head dominance on Saturday.

However, the hosts recently decimated Roma 7-1 in the cup competition and will be confident heading into this fixture.

Lorenzo Insigne could hand Napoli the three points, while Fiorentina will be looking up to Giovanni Simeone for inspiration.

Lorenzo Insigne

Lorenzo Insigne

BUNDESLIGA

FIXTURE: Bayern Munich v Schalke 04

WHERE: Allainz Arena

WHEN: 9th February, Saturday

TIME: 9:30 PM (GST)

The Bundesliga will see quite a few interesting fixtures this weekend, with RB Leipzig taking on the revelation of this season, Eintracht Frankfurt and league leaders Borussia Dortmund hosting Hoffenheim.

At Allainz Arena, Bayern Munich will aim to put their disappointment at Bayer Leverkusen behind them and strengthen their bid to a title defence.

Schalke have been at the receiving end of setback too, having lost 2-0 at home to Borussia Monchengladbach last week.

The head-to-head tilts the tie heavily in Munich’s favour and a Schalke win will be seen as a massive upset, given their form.

Daniel Caligiuri and Robert Lewandowski will spearhead their respective attacks into battle on Saturday and attempt to decide the tie on their own.

Robert Lewnadowski

Robert Lewnadowski

LIGUE 1

FIXTURE: OGC Nice v Lyon

WHERE: Allainz Riviera

WHEN: 11th February, Monday

TIME: 12:00 AM (GST)

A European spot battle in Ligue 1 sees Nice host a high-flying Lyon on Sunday night.

The visitors start as favourites after they handed Paris Saint-Germain their first defeat in the league this season.

On the other hand, Nice have been underwhelming and find themselves struggling to score goals. They enter this tie from a 4-0 hammering by Lille last weekend.

The pair have won two games each in their last five meetings and this tie could be a more open affair than what the table says. Besides, Nice have an added incentive to win the game, given they are just three points below a European spot.

AC Milan target Allan Saint-Maxim could steal the game for the hopes as Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay look to see off Nice in style.

Nabil Fekir

Nabil Fekir

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Barcelona vs Real Madrid: Why Ousmane Dembele could replace Lionel Messi

Andy West 5/02/2019
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Ousmane Dembele and Lionel Messi

The first of three Clasicos in the space of less than a month takes place on Wednesday night as Barcelona host Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final first leg.

Both clubs would readily admit that the cup comes third on their list of priorities for the season, and respective managers Ernesto Valverde and Santiago Solari have heavily rotated their starting line-ups during the earlier rounds.

However, the high profile of a Clasico contest – and the bragging rights which will inevitably follow – could tempt the coaches to field their strongest possible line-ups at the Camp Nou. But for Barca, the question of whether that will include their key player is the main talking point, and the first of our three big questions ahead of the game.

MESSI OUT, DEMBELE IN?

Ousmane Dembele

Ousmane Dembele

Barcelona are sweating on the fitness of captain Lionel Messi after the Argentine took a bang to his thigh during the 2-2 draw with Valencia at the weekend, and Valverde – and Messi himself – are being forced to decide whether they are prepared to take any risks or let Messi fully recover for the tough run of games that lie ahead.

The next few weeks will see Barca face tough trips to Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Real Madrid and Real Betis in La Liga, as well as resuming their Champions League campaign with a last 16 tie against Lyon. Having Messi available for those games is a much bigger priority than taking a gamble to proceed in the Copa del Rey – irrespective of the identity of their semi-final opponents – and it would be a dangerous game if Barca rush back their star man for this first leg.

There is, however, better news on the injury front with the probable return of Ousmane Dembele from an ankle injury and illness which slowed the latter stages of his recovery. Dembele resumed training on Monday and would be a logical natural replacement for Messi on the right.

And Barca’s concerns over heading into a Clasico without Messi will be assuaged by the fact that they did exactly that during the Argentine’s injury absence in October, and still managed to win 5-1 anyway.

SELECTION DILEMMAS IN MIDFIELD BATTLEGROUND

Philippe Coutinho

If Messi is able to play, Dembele could be restricted to the bench or positioned on the left wing to replace Philippe Coutinho, who is continuing to struggle for form. In fact, Coutinho could lose his place in the team even if only one of Messi and Dembele are available, with manager Ernesto Valverde weighing up the option of seeking to control the contest by strengthening his midfield.

Barca have generally lined up in a 4-3-3 formation this season, but last year they played plenty of games in a 4-4-2 shape and there is a convincing argument that Arturo Vidal should be selected for his physical capabilities to complement the more technical skills of Arthur, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, while youngster Carles Alena also looks worthy of more playing time.

Madrid boss Solari likewise has plenty of possibilities for his three midfield places, with Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and out-of-favour Isco competing to substitute regular starters Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric – especially with Saturday’s league derby trip to Atletico Madrid rapidly approaching.

TWO OUT OF FOUR TO ACCOMPANY BENZEMA 

Karim Benzema

Karim Benzema

One player surely set to start is Karim Benzema, who has produced some of the best football of his career over the last month. The French forward has always been a silky-smooth contributor to build-up play, but now he is also adding end product by scoring six goals in his last four games.

The bigger question for Solari, however, is who will accompany Benzema on the flanks, with four players – Marco Asensio, Gareth Bale, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez – all available to fill just two places.

Bale has just returned from injury and delivered a disappointing performance in Sunday night’s victory over Alaves, being replaced by Asensio – also coming back after injury – after an hour. But the only way for Bale to regain rhythm and match fitness is by playing, and Solari therefore could well decide this is the ideal stage for the Welshman to follow the path towards full sharpness.

Meanwhile, teen sensation Vinicius is hoping to continue his meteoric rise by playing in El Clasico for the very first time, giving him a first real opportunity to shine on a truly global stage. However, he has played a lot of football in recent weeks, starting the last nine games in a row, so this could also be the opportunity for Solari to rest the youngster – and keep him as a surprise package to spring upon Barca in the second leg or league clash in a few weeks’ time.

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