What to look out for this year

Spot­light on some of the key ques­tions fac­ing foot­ball in the com­ing months

World Soccer - - Contents -

1WILL MAN CITY BE PUN­ISHED FOR FFP VI­O­LA­TIONS? One of the rev­e­la­tions from the Foot­ball Leaks in­ves­ti­ga­tion was the al­le­ga­tion that Manch­ester City had mis­led UEFA re­gard­ing the true ex­tent of their Abu Dhabi own­ers’ fi­nan­cial in­put. As a re­sult, City could face sanc­tions for breach­ing Fi­nan­cial Fair­play reg­u­la­tions.

Pos­si­ble pun­ish­ments in­clude be­ing banned from the Champions League, but such a move is likely to pro­voke a fu­ri­ous re­sponse from their wealthy masters, whose funds to mount a le­gal chal­lenge ap­pear to be lim­it­less.

It re­mains to be seen whether UEFA has the stom­ach for a ma­jor le­gal bat­tle – es­pe­cially when Gianni In­fantino has a pro­posal for a lu­cra­tive al­ter­na­tive com­pe­ti­tion in the form of an ex­panded Club World Cup.

2WILL LI­ONEL MESSI PLAY AT THE COPA AMER­ICA? The Barcelona star has not ap­peared for Ar­gentina since last sum­mer’s World Cup, and new na­tional coach Li­onel Scaloni has de­clined to say whether Messi will re­turn to his squad for the Copa Amer­ica, which will be played in Brazil be­tween June 14 and July 7.

“I’ve not spoken with him about whether he’s com­ing to the Copa Amer­ica,” Scaloni said be­fore Ar­gentina’s Novem­ber friendly against Mex­ico.

The draw for the South Amer­i­can tournament is set to take place on Jan­uary 24 in Rio de Janeiro.

3HOW WILL AJAX FARE IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE LAST 16 FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 13 YEARS?

A 2-0 win in Athens over Greek champions AEK was marred by vi­o­lence from home fans, who threw a petrol bomb at vis­it­ing sup­port­ers. But the score­line also con­firmed Ajax’s place in the Champions League knock­out stage for the first time since 2006, when they lost to In­ter­nazionale in the round of 16.

The spring cam­paign could prove to be a last hur­rah for Ajax’s exciting young­sters Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, who are both be­ing courted by the likes of PSG, Manch­ester City and Barcelona.

4DO WE NEED A THIRD UEFA CLUB COM­PE­TI­TION? UEFA is ex­pected to an­nounce more de­tails of its new third club com­pe­ti­tion, which is set to start in 2021. Un­der the work­ing ti­tle of “Europa League 2”, the new tournament will fea­ture 32 teams, with games tak­ing place on Thurs­day evenings, as with the ex­ist­ing Europa League.

As a re­sult, the Europa League will be re­duced to 32 teams, with only clubs from Europe’s 15 top-ranked na­tions tak­ing part in UEFA’s sec­ond com­pe­ti­tion. Sides from coun­tries with lower co­ef­fi­cients will en­ter the new tournament.

A new fea­ture of both the ex­ist­ing Europa League and its new sis­ter com­pe­ti­tion will see an ex­tra play-off round be­tween the group stage and knock­out phase, with teams ranked sec­ond in their Europa League 2 groups and the third-ranked teams of the Europa League groups fac­ing off. The winner of the play-off would then progress to the last 16 of the new tournament.

UEFA pres­i­dent Aleksander Ceferin said: “The new UEFA club com­pe­ti­tion makes UEFA’s club com­pe­ti­tions more inclusive than ever be­fore. There will be more matches for more clubs, with more asso­ciations rep­re­sented in the group stages. This com­pe­ti­tion was borne out of on­go­ing di­a­logue with clubs.”

5WILL ANY CLUB AP­POINT ARSENE WENGER? The for­mer Arse­nal man­ager has main­tained a low pro­file since leav­ing Lon­don last sum­mer. But that has not stopped spec­u­la­tion link­ing him with high-pro­file jobs at Real Madrid and Bayern Mu­nich, while the 69-year-old French­man was said to be Ful­ham’s first choice to re­place Slav­isa Jokanovic.

6Will pres­sure groW to ex­pand Qatar 2022 to 48 teams? For the past six months, FIFA pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino has been qui­etly push­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an ex­panded World Cup in 2022, four years be­fore a 48-team tournament is held in USA, Canada and Mex­ico.

Qatar is plan­ning to build eight sta­di­ums, but that would not be enough to ac­com­mo­date a big­ger fi­nals – and nor do they have the ho­tel in­fra­struc­ture to cope with ex­tra vis­i­tors.

Any ex­pan­sion would have to in­volve other Mid­dle Eastern coun­tries, but Qatar is in­volved in a bit­ter dis­pute with neigh­bours Saudi Ara­bia and is cur­rently sub­ject to a trade block­ade.

The po­lit­i­cal di­men­sion is that the 2022 fi­nals could be billed as the Mid­dle Eastern World Cup. In­fantino re­cently ad­dressed the theme in a speech to G20 lead­ers, say­ing: “Foot­ball can bring us to­gether and make the world a more pros­per­ous, ed­u­cated, equal and, per­haps even, peace­ful place.”

What price In­fantino do­ing what his pre­de­ces­sor Sepp Blat­ter tried des­per­ately but failed to achieve by win­ning the No­bel peace prize?

7Will gianni in­fantino be re-elected un­op­posed? The Swiss-Ital­ian lawyer faces re-elec­tion as FIFA pres­i­dent in June 2019. De­spite fac­ing crit­i­cism for con­tin­u­ing where Sepp Blat­ter left off by, for ex­am­ple, lim­it­ing the pow­ers of FIFA’s ethics com­mit­tee (so that it did not in­ves­ti­gate him), he is likely to be re-elected un­op­posed.

His ex­trav­a­gant fi­nan­cial com­mit­ments to FIFA’s non-Euro­pean mem­bers are likely to de­ter any po­ten­tial chal­lengers.

8are in­ter­nazionale too de­pen­dant on mauro icardi? The Ar­gen­tinian striker was voted Serie A foot­baller of the sea­son for 2018, the first non-Ju­ven­tus player to re­ceive the award since Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic in 2011.

The joint top-scorer in last sea­son’s Serie A with Ciro Im­mo­bile, he has con­tin­ued his rich form into 2018-19 with a string of key goals for In­ter­nazionale, but the club face grow­ing crit­i­cism that they rely too much on him and that their chal­lenge in the spring could fal­ter if he suf­fers a se­ri­ous in­jury.

9is Jose mour­inho in ter­mi­nal De­cline? Manch­ester United were set to en­ter the new year sig­nif­i­cantly be­hind the Pre­mier League’s top five of Manch­ester City, Liver­pool, Chelsea, Arse­nal and Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur, with man­ager Jose Mour­inho com­plain­ing that their ri­vals have out­spent United. But the facts do not stand up to scru­tiny.

United’s func­tional play­ing style un­der Mour­inho, his crit­i­cism of play­ers and the poor form of ex­pen­sive sign­ings all sug­gest that an­other tro­phy­less sea­son will surely see an end to his res­i­dency in Manch­ester.

10who’s re­spon­si­ble for Dort­munD’s re­vival?

Borus­sia Dort­mund were favourites to go into the new year as the Bun­desliga’s win­ter champions af­ter a string of im­pres­sive per­for­mances. It had been a stark con­trast to the pre­vi­ous sea­son, when Dutch coach Peter Bosz was fired in De­cem­ber 2017 fol­low­ing a run of poor re­sults.

Young guns Jadon San­cho, Chris­tian Pulisic and Ja­cob Bruun Larsen have brought a new flair to Dort­mund, but coach Lu­cien Favre has also over­seen a thor­ough trans­for­ma­tion of the side.

Span­ish striker Paco Al­cacer has been a rev­e­la­tion up front, while new sign­ings Axel Wit­sel, Thomas De­laney and Achraf Hakimi have all quickly ac­cli­ma­tised to life at the West­falen­sta­dion.

11how will GreGG berhal­ter fare as usa coach? The for­mer USA de­fender was ap­pointed as na­tional coach af­ter a long se­lec­tion process and re­placed in­terim boss Dave Sarachan – the for­mer as­sis­tant to Bruce Arena, who stepped down af­ter the US fail­ure to qual­ify for the 2018 World Cup.

Berhal­ter spent five years in charge of Colum­bus Crew where he earned a rep­u­ta­tion for blood­ing young­sters and he will be ex­pected to do the same in his new role, with new faces in­tro­duced at the CON­CA­CAF Gold Cup, which will be played in the USA from June 15 to July 7.

12can niko ko­vac last the sea­son in charGe at bayern mu­nich?

The Croa­t­ian, who ar­rived from Ein­tra­cht Frank­furt last sum­mer, has been un­der ex­treme pres­sure fol­low­ing a string of poor re­sults, in­clud­ing a 3-2 de­feat to Bun­desliga lead­ers Borus­sia Dort­mund, a re­sult which opened up a seven-point gap be­tween the two teams.

His­tory sug­gests that the Bayern hi­er­ar­chy may wait for a com­plete sum­mer over­haul in the trans­fer mar­ket rather than mak­ing Jan­uary ac­qui­si­tions. It re­mains to be seen whether Ko­vac will be sac­ri­ficed and an in­terim coach brought in un­til a big-name re­place­ment ar­rives.

13Who Will host the 2019 AfricAn nA­tions cup? In early De­cem­ber, CAF stripped host Cameroon of its right to stage the 2019 fi­nals, due to be held from June 15 to July 13, fol­low­ing de­lays in prepa­ra­tions and con­cerns over se­cu­rity.

CAF had taken the de­ci­sion in July to add an ex­tra eight teams to the tournament, which im­me­di­ately raised ques­tions about Cameroon’s abil­ity to hold an ex­panded 24-team com­pe­ti­tion. But when CAF pres­i­dent Ah­mad went to Cameroon in Oc­to­ber he told the coun­try’s state pres­i­dent, Paul Biya: “CAF has no Plan B, nor have we ever con­sid­ered tak­ing the Na­tions Cup away from Cameroon.”

Mo­rocco, who re­fused to host the 2015 fi­nals be­cause of con­cerns about an out­break of the ebola virus, had been tipped to step in as emer­gency hosts, but they de­clined to do so. South Africa and Egypt are now the likely can­di­dates to fill the role.

14hoW Will the pre­mier leAgue’s neW ceo fAre? Su­sanna Din­nage will overnight be­come one of the most pow­er­ful women in foot­ball when she suc­ceeds Richard Scu­d­amore as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Pre­mier League in Jan­uary.

Din­nage is an ex­pe­ri­enced TV ex­ec­u­tive, hav­ing spent more than a decade in se­nior po­si­tions at Dis­cov­ery, in­clud­ing time at Eu­rosport.

Her ne­go­ti­at­ing skills will be needed to main­tain Scu­d­amore’s achieve­ment in ob­tain­ing record lev­els of rev­enue from TV deals.

In the short term, diplo­matic skills will be more of a pri­or­ity as the Pre­mier League seeks to smooth over the furore over Scu­d­amore’s £5mil­lion “golden hand­cuffs” deal.

15WIll ItAly’s su­per cup In sAudI ArA­bIA go AheAd? The Ital­ian Su­per Cup is sched­uled to be played be­tween Ju­ven­tus and Mi­lan on Jan­uary 16 at the King Ab­dul­lah Sports City sta­dium in Jed­dah, Saudi Ara­bia.

How­ever, there have been calls for the game to be moved away from Saudi Ara­bia in re­sponse to the global out­cry at the mur­der of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi.

While the game is sched­uled to be broad­cast by Ital­ian TV sta­tion RAI, the jour­nal­ists’ union at the state broad­caster de­scribed the plan to play in Saudi Ara­bia as “ab­surd” and “in­ac­cept­able”.

16WhAt fu­ture for Isco At reAl MAdrId? The mid­fielder lauded by for­mer Real coach Zine­dine Zi­dane has en­dured a tough time un­der Madrid’s new boss San­ti­ago So­lari, who left the Spain play­maker out of his first seven start­ing se­lec­tions.

There have been sug­ges­tions that Isco’s sup­port for pre­vi­ous coach Julen Lopetegui may have counted against him with the new regime, though So­lari in­sisted that “I’m sat­is­fied with him” af­ter an ef­fec­tive sec­ond-half sub­sti­tute ap­pear­ance against Va­len­cia in early De­cem­ber.

Isco’s re­lease clause – a re­ported 700mil­lion – will likely de­ter any po­ten­tial suit­ors. But that will not stop trans­fer spec­u­la­tion around one of La Liga’s best play­ers in 2019.

17hoW WIll VAr IM­pAct on the chAMpIons leAgue And pre­MIer leAgue? The use of VAR at last sum­mer’s World Cup was a nov­elty for ev­ery­body in­volved, but it was also widely con­sid­ered to be a suc­cess. So few com­plaints were raised when UEFA an­nounced in early De­cem­ber that the sys­tem, planned for the 2019-20 Champions League, will be fast-tracked into the knock­out stage of this sea­son’s com­pe­ti­tion.

UEFA’s de­ci­sion fol­lowed the widely ex­pected move by the Pre­mier League to in­tro­duce VAR for the 2019-20 sea­son.

18Where next for Ar­jen robben? The 34-year-old Dutch winger has an­nounced that this sea­son will be his fi­nal cam­paign with Bayern Mu­nich but that he is not yet ready to re­tire.

“I can say that this is my last year and it is good like that,” said Robben. “The club moves on and I may move on. It is the end of a very good and long pe­riod.

“I won’t stop com­pletely yet.”

Back...Ajax are in the Champions League knock­out stage once again

FFP...Manch­ester City could face sanc­tions

Re­turn... Li­onel Messi

New chal­lenge... Arsene Wenger

Tro­phies...room for one more

serie a’s best... mauro icardi

Host venue...al rayyan sta­dium

pres­sure...Jose mour­inho

safe bet...gianni in­fantino

on the up ...borus­sia Dort­mund

un­der threat... niko ko­vac

new faces...Gregg berhal­ter

hold­ers...cameroon won the African na­tions cup in 2017

pow­er­ful...su­sanna Din­nage

surplus...Isco

suc­cess...VAr

leav­ing... Ar­jen robben

Abroad...Mi­lan and ju­ven­tus con­tested the 2017 Ital­ian su­per cup in Qatar

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