It seems inappropriate to suggest that the worldwide pause on sport, as the consequence of an unprecedented global pandemic, came at a ‘good time’ for anyone.
For Paul Pogba, though – who is in line to start a fifth straight game for the first time this season when Manchester United take on Southampton on Monday – you could certainly make the case.
The Frenchman’s injury troubles caused him to miss 22 league matches prior to the break, but since returning to the starting lineup against Sheffield United last month, he has looked a rejuvenated figure. His reinstatement into the team has coincided with four straight wins, each by a three-goal margin, that have United in the driving seat for a Champions League place.
“You can call it a proper team,” he told United Review, the club’s official programme. “Sometimes before we were maybe too defensive or too offensive and we didn’t have this balance or this control. Now you can see we have that balance and there is more structure – we’ve been working hard on that.
“The improvement is huge and you can tell that. It’s always good to have that improvement, but you don’t want to stop it, you know you have to keep working.”
United’s uptick in form has many suggesting they could challenge Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the table next season. Abridged league tables, calculating points won since Bruno Fernandes’ January arrival, have United out in front, but Pogba is refusing to get ahead of himself for now.
“There is a lot of stuff to do, we are not there yet, but we are on the way, and if we keep doing what we’re doing now, then I think there is nothing that can stop us to get to where we should be.
“We feel great. That is the mentality now – you have a positive mentality when you have a good result, but you also have to have the ability to get through the games like we did in the last few games.
“Every game is a final and we have to get the result that we need – that’s the mindset. It’s never enough for us”
As Eden Hazard delivered the contractually-obliged rendition of keepy-uppies in the Santiago Bernabéu in front of a crowd bigger than some La Liga attendances, he was fulfilling a lifelong dream.
A decade after Zinedine Zidane first declared that he would take the Belgian to Real Madrid with his eyes closed, the Spanish giants finally got their man in the summer of 2019.
That presentation may have been the first time Hazard donned an official Madrid shirt, but he has been kitted in the colours of Los Blancos since childhood.
Footballers often revel in the fact that they can point to tattered photos of their younger selves dribbling in the garden with a ball that comes up to their knee. But Hazard can go one better. As his mother told Les Parisien: “Eden scored goals before his birth thanks to me!”
Carine Hazard, like her husband Thierry, and all four of her sons, was a footballer and only stopped playing when she was three months pregnant with Eden. In fact, Mr and Mrs Hazard even met at a stadium.
Their eldest son also joined the family business, making his name across the border at Lille. In each of his four full seasons with the club, Hazard won either Ligue’s 1 Player or Young Player of the Year award.
Manager Rudi Garcia experimented with Hazard through the middle on occasion, but he was largely stationed out wide, nimbly weaving between the forest of opposition legs at any chance he got. During his time in the French top flight, Hazard averaged 5.7 dribbles per 90 minutes – a greater rate than Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Adama Traoré this season.
This ability to bamboozle continued after his move to Chelsea in 2012 as Hazard’s physique – along with his quick feet – proved fundamental to his evasiveness. Jim Pate, a senior physiologist at the Centre for Health and Human Performance, explained the genetic edge the 5’7, 76kg Hazard has over an opponent.
“What differentiates Hazard from just being small is that he has a large amount of body mass, which is all muscle,” he told The Telegraph. “So he’s on an equal ground in terms of mass, but because he is lower to the ground he can get up underneath the bigger guys. He becomes the fulcrum on the lever.”
To accompany his dribbling, Hazard’s end product improved each season at Lille. His final campaign with Les Dogues in 2011/12 brought a staggering return of 20 goals and 16 assists – three of these strikes came in his final match for the club after some less than orthodox preparation.
As his former teammate Rio Mavuba told The Independent: “We decided to go have a little drink. A little drink that dragged on somewhat. The following morning, Eden was still drunk. That evening against Nancy, not even with 30 minutes played, Eden had already bagged a hat-trick.”
Obviously this was an extreme example, but Hazard’s general approach to what is – at its heart – a children’s game, has always been refreshingly simple: have fun.
During his final season at Chelsea, Hazard explained this unique view of the sport to France Football: “I don’t know if I’m apart. I may be apart from the best players in the world. Because the best think about goals, assists, trophies. And I have never been like that. So yes, maybe…afterwards, in professional football, there are a lot of players like me who want to have fun.”
And at Chelsea, that’s exactly what he did. Incidentally, a tidal wave of goals, assists and trophies flowed during his seven years at Stamford Bridge as Hazard became arguably the most exciting Premier League player of the past decade.
Hazard thrived in a Chelsea shirt when he could bounce passes off a focal point through the middle, flicking an incoming ball round the corner – with his back to goal – and sharply spinning to collect the return. This is why he described Olivier Giroud as the ‘best target man in the world’ and a ‘pleasure to play with’. However, this propensity to spin on his ankle is considered the root of his injury woes at Real Madrid this season.
Yet, prior to his Spanish sojourn, Hazard’s appearance record was remarkable, clocking up at least 30 league games for 11 consecutive years. Despite the revolving door policy of Chelsea’s managers, Hazard won over every incumbent. Even José Mourinho, a spiky character at the best of times, eventually came to overlook Hazard’s particularly casual approach to defending.
In their second season together, Chelsea won the Premier League title and Hazard was crowned PFA Players’ Player of the Year. When highlighting an opponent in team meetings, Mourinho was even known to say he was ‘no Maradona, no Messi, no Hazard’.
Even though his talent has taken him to the height of the sport, Hazard still plays with the same freedom of a kid in an oversize replica shirt, kicking the ball around in the garden with his brothers.
As he told Chelsea’s website: “Like I said before, I just want to enjoy my football. If people remember me as a good player it’s fine. I hope they will! But I just try to give my best in the moment. That’s it.”
Wolves will look to maintain their chase for a Premier League top-four spot when they travel to face Burnley on Wednesday evening.
Fresh off a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Everton, the Midlands side need three more points to stay in touch with Manchester United and Leicester, while also keeping the likes of Sheffield United, Tottenham and Arsenal at bay behind them.
But it won’t be an easy game against the Clarets, who haven’t lost in their last five matches. They managed to hold champions Liverpool to a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Saturday and will be confident of producing a similar performance to further their own hopes of qualifying for the Europa League.
When Is Kick Off? Wednesday 15 July What Time Is Kick Off? 18:00 (BST) Where Is it Played? Turf Moor TV Channel/Live Stream? BBC One (UK), FuboTV (US) Referee? Mike Dean
Burnley have multiple injuries to deal with, particularly in defence. Captain Ben Mee has been ruled out with a thigh strain, while Matthew Lowton (foot) will also be unable to play.
Midfielder Jack Cork (ankle) and striker Ashley Barnes (groin) are also sidelined, which limits their options even further.
As for the visitors, only Pedro Neto is a slight doubt with a muscle issue picked up against Everton. Nuno Espírito Santo may choose to give Diogo Jota a start after his bright cameo off the bench in their recent win, while veteran midfielder João Moutinho was also benched on Sunday and may return to the starting lineup in Lancashire.
The Clarets are in good form, going unbeaten in their last five fixtures. A 1-1 draw against the Reds was a fantastic result, as they became the first team to avoid defeat at Anfield in league action this season. Sean Dyche’s side have also only conceded twice in their last five home games.
As for Wolves, they rebounded from two straight defeats with their 3-0 victory over the Toffees. Star striker Raúl Jiménez ended a run of three consecutive blanks in front of goal with his successful penalty on Sunday and will be expected to provide the goals at Turf Moor.
Here’s how both sides have fared in their last five matches.
Liverpool 1-1 Burnley (11/7) West Ham 0-1 Burnley (8/7) Burnley 1-1 Sheffield United (5/7) Crystal Palace 0-1 Burnley (29/6) Burnley 1-0 Watford (25/6)
Wolves 3-0 Everton (12/7) Sheffield United 1-0 Wolves (8/7) Wolves 0-2 Arsenal (4/7) Aston Villa 0-1 Wolves (27/6) Wolves 1-0 Bournemouth (24/6)
With the race for the top four still on, Wolves will be looking to replicate their performance on Sunday so that they remain in the hunt for Champions League football.
But it will be a difficult ask to win away at Burnley, who are in great form and also harbour European aspirations of their own, and a win could move them as high as eighth place.
It promises to be a close game at Turf Moor, as both sides will be desperate not to lose, and with their defences likely to have strong games respectively, a draw appears to be the most likely outcome.
Champions Liverpool head to the Emirates on Wednesday night to take on Arsenal, in a match that means much more to the hosts than the visitors.
The Gunners were dealt a blow to their hopes of Europa League qualification on Sunday, losing 2-1 to Spurs in the first men’s north London derby at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to fall to ninth in the league – four points from a Europa League berth.
The Gunners need a win to have any hope of competing in the Europa League next season, while Liverpool can only afford to drop two more points all season if they’re to match Manchester City’s record of 100 points in a single Premier League season.
When is Kick Off? Wednesday 15 July What Times is Kick Off? 20:15 (BST) Where is it Played? The Emirates Stadium TV Channel/Live Stream? Sky Sports (UK), fuboTV (US)
The hosts will be without Eddie Nketiah, the striker still suspended after being sent off in his side’s 1-1 draw with Leicester last week. Matteo Guendouzi remains exiled from the first team, with all indications that he won’t be included again this season, while Calum Chambers, Bernd Leno, Pablo Mari and Gabriel Martinelli remain injured and will not feature. Mesut Ozil is still Mesut Ozil.
For the visitors, captain Jordan Henderson is out with a knee injury sustained against Brighton. Centre-back Joel Matip will miss the remainder of the season with a toe injury picked up in the Merseyside derby, while James Milner is recovering from a thigh problem and is a major doubt for Wednesday night’s clash.
The Gunners have dropped points in their last two Premier League outings, drawing with Leicester and losing to Tottenham, throwing away all the momentum they had achieved in their prior four-game winning streak.
As decent as Liverpool’s results have looked since the restart, the Reds have only won five of their last 12 matches in all competitions – and three out of six since the restart, including a 4-0 clobbering at the hands of Manchester City at the beginning of the month.
Here’s how both teams have fared in their last five outings.
Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal (12/7) Arsenal 1-1 Leicester (7/7) Wolves 0-2 Arsenal (4/7) Arsenal 4-0 Norwich (1/7) Sheffield Utd 1-2 Arsenal (28/6)
Liverpool 1-1 Burnley (11/7) Brighton 1-3 Liverpool (8/7) Liverpool 2-0 Aston Villa (5/7) Manchester City 4-0 Liverpool (2/7) Liverpool 4-0 Crystal Palace (24/6)
Look at Liverpool’s front three. Now look at Arsenal’s back three. Now look back at Liverpool’s front three. You can see where we’re going with this.
Chelsea winger Willian is understood to have rejected the offer of a three-year contract to play for Inter Miami, the MLS franchise co-owned by David Beckham.
The Brazilian signed a temporary contract extension with Chelsea until the end of the coronavirus-delayed 2019/20 season but is expected to move on this summer – preferably to a club in Europe – having failed to come to an agreement over a longer term deal.
The Telegraph report that Willian was offered a three-year contract worth in excess of £100,000-per-week by Inter Miami to head to North America, which would have taken the former Shakhtar Donetsk star through to the end of the 2023 MLS season – also making him one of the best paid players in the league.
With Willian due to turn 32 next month, multi-year deals can be difficult to come by for players of his age, which is thought to be the main reason he was unable to agree an extension with Chelsea.
Miami, who are debuting in Major League Soccer this season, have only used two of the three ‘Designated Player’ spots available to them – it is the rule, sometimes nicknamed the ‘Beckham Rule’ that was introduced when the former England captain joined LA Galaxy in 2007, allowing clubs to pay a certain number of players over and above the normal MLS salary cap.
But the Telegraph writes that Willian rejected the offer because he wants to remain in Europe.
It is not ruled out that the former Anzhi Makachkala winger could yet remain at Chelsea beyond this season. He is thought to be biding his team before he makes a final decision, which could be influenced by which clubs have Champions League football to offer.
Willian has previously been linked with Premier League rivals Tottenham, who initially tried to sign from Anzhi ahead of Chelsea back in 2013. In February, the player revealed in a feature for The Players’ Tribune that he remains friendly and in personal contact with former Chelsea boss and current Spurs coach Jose Mourinho.
“We had a special relationship. He demanded a lot, so there were some conflicts, but that’s normal. He would challenge me and call out my mistakes, but if I had played well, he would also say something like, ‘Today you killed it’,” he explained.
“I loved his man management, how he organised training, how he spoke in meetings. I learned a lot from him. Even after he left Chelsea, he spoke well of me. We are still friends. Sometimes we exchange messages.”
In the same feature Willian also described London as a ‘second home’, although Spurs may be a less appealing option if they fail to secure European football for next season.
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