What to look out for this year
Spotlight on some of the key questions facing football in the coming months
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
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
leaving... Arjen robben
Abroad...Milan and juventus contested the 2017 Italian super cup in Qatar