Everyone get the tinfoil hats at the ready, because we’ve got a conspiracy unfolding before our very eyes.
Atlético Madrid stalwart Saúl Ñíguez – who has previously been linked with Manchester United as well as Arsenal – has teased an announcement over his future in just three days’ time.
The 25-year-old has been one of the standout midfielders in La Liga in recent seasons, and has been an ever-present of the Champions League campaign that saw Atléti stun Liverpool back in March. He has made close to 300 appearances for Los Rojiblancos, and with his contract not up until 2026, an exit has never seemed hugely likely, given his value to his boyhood club.
It was a bit surprising, then, when a cryptic Tweet appeared on the player’s official account, which reads: “New club. I’ll announce it in three days.”
Some, naturally, have read the tweet as concrete evidence that he is leaving Atlético in three days time, but that seems a little far-fetched for now.
Such an ahead-of-time announcement would come as out of character for a player whose contract runs until 2026 and who has never so much as hinted at an exit from the club he has served since he was 13 years old.
He’s also one of their prized assets, and his contract status means that he would be very difficult to sign at the best of times; let alone in a summer when a global pandemic is set to slash transfer spending across the board.
The timing of the announcement – hours before the transfer window officially opens and less than two weeks before La Liga resumes – also seems suspect.
This could simply be Saúl’s attempt to poke fun at the infamous ‘La Decision’ saga, which saw his former team-mate Antoine Griezmann announce a special broadcast on Spanish TV, teasing a move to Barcelona in 2018 before deciding to stay put in Madrid.
Or, more likely still he’s announcing a new endorsement, off-field collaboration project or part-ownership in a lower-league side, following Gerard Pique’s example. Some on Twitter suspect the Spain international is even getting involved with his own esports team.
Clearly, Saúl does have something ‘club’ related to announce in three days’ time, and what that could be remains a mystery.
But let’s wait and see before we go mentally assigning him the number seven shirt at Manchester United.
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As we’ve heard many times, sometimes a bit of adversity can be the making of a season.
From Calciopoli ahead of Italy’s 2006 World Cup win to Craig Bellamy assisting John Arne Riise at the Nou Camp having threatened to brutalise him with a golf club days before, in sport, chaos has a strange habit of begetting order.
Except for the majority of times, of course, when it does not.
Here 90min pays ‘tribute’ to the individuals who’ve been popularly blamed (rightly or wrongly) for undoing their clubs season, with partying, transfer controversies, missed sitters and more…
Yeah, alright, the biggest factor in Newcastle crashing and burning in 1996 was probably Kevin Keegan allowing his head to throughly depart the building during a crucial part of the run-in.
But, as the story goes, the arrival of Asprilla from Parma in February is also to blame..?
Well… probably not. Though Asprilla is often blamed for his casual approach to both life and football, and Keegan is blamed for shifting Peter Beardsley to the right wing to accomodate the forward, almost everyone involved with the disastrous campaign has flatly denied that the short but scintillating stint of the Colombian had anything to do with it.
In truth a lack of quality/organisation at the other end of the pitch was more responsible for the club’s dramatic downfall.
What do you reckon the most frustrating season in your club’s history is? Times it by 10 to the power of a million and you’ve got Bayer Leverkusen’s unwanted treble of 2001/02.
Ballack had already cost Leverkusen the league in 2000 with an uncharacteristic own goal against minnows Unterhaching, but in 2001/02 things were looking up with Die Werkself competing for league, DFB-Pokal and Champions League glory.
The legendary German midfielder was once again at the center of things as Leverkusen spectacularly choked in all three, casting a shadow over the season by agreeing a pre-contract with Bayern Munich in January.
The bright side? Leverkusen profited off their own misfortune by trademarking the phrase Vizekusen (literally ‘Neverkusen’).
The circumstances of Manchester United losing the title to Blackburn in 1995 just aren’t discussed enough.
With Kenny Dalglish’s side losing to Liverpool, United just needed to beat West Ham to win the league.
Famously, West Ham stopper Luděk Mikloško had other ideas as United somehow slumped to a 1-1 draw, but unusually the biggest culprit on the day was Cole, who spurned two of the simplest one-on-one chances you’ll ever see.
Anyone who has been watching The Last Dance on Netflix will know that Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson sanctioning defensive powerhouse Dennis Rodman’s 72-hour Las Vegas bender worked wonders for the team – the same wasn’t quite true for Fiorentina and Edmundo.
Fiorentina were first in the league in February of 1999, with the enigmatic Brazilian Edmundo forming a lethal strike partnership with Gabriel Batistuta, but decided he fancied attending carnival in Rio de Janeiro while Batigol was injured.
Fiorentina lost all three games during his ‘holiday’, he alienated the entire team, and the craziest part – Edmundo’s leave of abscence was actually sanctioned by Fiorentina.
It feels a little gratuitous to include Gerrard on this list after his 2014 tumble famously set Demba Ba clean through at Anfield.
The midfielder was an imperious set-piece wizard in a deeper role for Liverpool that year, scoring 13 goals in the Premier League. Meanwhile, draws to Aston Villa, West Brom and losses to Hull and Southampton earlier in the season were just as damaging for the Reds as the Chelsea loss.
But also, Gerrard did say Liverpool weren’t going to let their title lead slip, and then he… y’know slipped.
Mesut Özil will probably look back fondly over his career, when he retires, reflecting on all the joy he had linking up with an enormous variety of forwards… except Olivier Giroud.
With Arsenal firmly in the title race by December 2015, and Özil in one of the most abundantly creative periods of his career, all Giroud had to do was stick the endless feast of pinpoint through balls into the back of the net.
The end result? A 15-game scoring drought which allowed Leicester to steal in and win the league, though the Frenchman’s final day hat-trick at least kept Spurs at bay.
Pierre van Hooijdonk (Nottingham Forest)
The Dutch hotshot was a man who just liked to score goals (and lots of them). The one thing holding him back? Literally everyone else.
Van Hooijdonk has since spoken about the low regard in which he held his superiors at Nottingham Forest, from ‘pub manager’ Ron Atkinson to the ‘primitive’ training routines of Dave Bassett.
Thus it transpired that after a barnstorming first full season in English football, which saw Van Hooijdonk’s 29 goals promote Nottingham Forest, the Dutchman disgusted his teammates by going on strike to force a move, promptly relegating his side by depriving them of their main striker.
So deeply was the snub felt amongst the playing staff at Forest, that they would simply celebrate with whoever assisted Van Hooijdonk during his sporadic appearances.
Sometimes, it’s not always one of your own players to blame when the title slips out of your grasp, and Martin Taylor remains a scapegoat amongst Arsenal fans to this day for his horror tackle on Eduardo in 2008.
While Taylor’s intention has since been established as most probably to play the ball, it sent Arsenal’s season into freefall with their young star out of action, seeing them squander a lead of five points over Manchester United in February by going on a four-match winless run.
Eduardo himself remains one of the most intriguing ‘what if’ moments in Arsenal’s modern history, although he’ll always be remembered as part of a landmark case in football’s legal history when banned for diving by UEFA in 2009.
Every team needs a backup striker – someone ready to sit on the bench and fight for their chance to impress – and Manchester United are no different. They brought in Odion Ighalo for exactly that reason, but the Nigerian might not be around for much longer.
Parent club Shanghai Shenhua are eager to bring Ighalo back as soon as possible, and although United are working to extend the loan into next season, that might not be possible.
Sure, replacing him with a big-money signing would be the dream, but with the focus being on improving other areas of the squad, money is no longed unlimited.
If United do lose Ighalo this summer, here are six ‘budget’ options they could turn to to replace him.
Edinson Cavani didn’t get too many opportunities at Paris Saint-Germain this season as loanee Mauro Icardi dominated the lineup. Now that the Argentine has sealed a permanent switch to the Parc des Princes, Cavani’s time at the club looks to be over.
His contract is set to expire at the end of the season, and with a renewal in Paris looking unlikely, United would be wise to move in. His wage demands might be fairly high, but with no transfer fee to pay at least, it can be done.
The 33-year-old is still a prolific, deadly striker who is capable of scoring goals out of nothing, and his experience would only benefit Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood.
Signing Luka Jović permanently is neither feasible nor sensible this summer, but striking a loan deal for the struggling Serb might be a smart piece of business.
We haven’t seen the best of Jović during his year with Real Madrid, and Los Blancos might just be interested in sending him out on loan before his value plummets even further. A chance to rediscover his best form with United could be best for everyone.
The Jović who bagged 27 goals in 48 games for Eintracht Frankfurt was among the scariest strikers around, and he could be a valuable addition to the furniture at Old Trafford.
Mario Götze’s time at Borussia Dortmund will be coming to an end this summer, and although he isn’t the bruising striker which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is looking for, the German could bring something new to the team.
His high-pressing style would help United remain on the front foot during games, forcing defenders into making mistakes deep in their own half. While he might not be the man to score the chances which get created, the fact that opportunities will arise should be good enough.
Even if there are no minutes at striker to come by, Götze could drop deeper into midfield and try pull the strings with his passing. It’s a signing which could boost several areas.
Easily the biggest risk on this list, D’Mani Mellor would also be the cheapest option as he would only need the call-up from the academy.
The 19-year-old was part of the young group who travelled to face Astana in the Europa League in November 2019, and although he still has some growing to do, why not let him do that with the first team?
Solskjaer is not afraid to turn to youngsters when needed, so Mellor would still see plenty of minutes, and it could turn into a stroke of genius.
If the goal is to lure bruising strikers back to the Premier League from China, then turning to Salomón Rondón should be high up on the agenda.
Always up for a physical battle, Rondón comes with 140 games of Premier League experience and is exactly the kind of reserve striker United need.
Similar to Ighalo, a loan deal for Rondón would see United cover a large part of his wages, and an option to buy would allow United to make it permanent if the Venezuelan comes up trumps.
It’s been a tough year for Teemu Pukki, who began the season as a Ballon d’Or contender and is likely to end it by dropping back to the Championship.
In a Norwich City team which has struggled for goals, Pukki has still managed to hit double figures. The 30-year-old can hang in the top flight, albeit not as a starter for somebody like United.
If the Canaries drop down, Pukki could well be available for pennies, and that’s what should make him so appealing to United. He wouldn’t expect consistent minutes, yet would still be a reliable goal threat when on the pitch. The dream.
Three years ago Federico Bernardeschi’s stock was as high as his fringe was long.
In the summer of 2017 the then 23-year-old had just become the youngest player to ever hit double figures for Serie A goals, he opened his account for the Italian national team and secured a £36m move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
However, Bernardeschi’s career hasn’t quite followed that same upward trajectory and, much like his hair, his time with Juventus is looking increasingly short.
The Tuscan-born left-footer had that breakout season on Fiorentina’s flanks and in his first two campaigns with Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve, he endured a stop-start period trying to secure a place on the right-wing.
However, this year the incoming Maurizio Sarri has almost exclusively played him behind two forwards in the number ten position. Bernardeschi appears uncomfortable and almost clumsy in this role and is yet to register a single Serie A goal or assist in 2019/20.
Still only 26 years of age, there remains plenty of time for Bernardeschi to realise more of his potential. Although, it increasingly looks as though that development will continue outside of Turin, with a host of Premier League clubs among those to have been reported an interest.
Diego Simeone and his La Liga battlers spent more than £200m last summer – perhaps in an attempt to lose that characterisation – yet still, somehow, made a profit in the transfer market. However, the links between the Rojiblancos and Bernardeschi look tenuous at best.
Simeone’s side religiously stick to their compact, brilliantly drilled 4-4-2, often using players who would be considered central midfielders out wide (for instance, Koke or Saúl Ñíguez). The personnel who may have played wide in a 4-3-3 – as Bernardeschi ideally would – often find themselves deployed through the middle. Which is a role Bernardeschi has already shown signs of struggling within.
Likelihood Rating: 1/10
Suitability Rating: 1/10
Bernardeschi would certainly fit within the 4-2-3-1 Mikel Arteta seems to have favoured in his brief time at Arsenal. However, the likelihood of any high-profile player doing anything but leaving the Emirates is slim given the financial standing of the club in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
One of the reasons for Arsenal’s lack of spending power is also the reason why Bernardeschi wouldn’t have a guaranteed spot in the starting XI: Nicolas Pépé.
The Ivorian right-winger may have coughed and spluttered in his debut campaign but the £72m transfer fee has earned him a longer adjustment period and somewhat limits Bernardeschi’s appeal.
Likelihood Rating: 1/10
Suitability Rating: 3/10
Naturally Manchester United have been linked to Bernardeschi – as they are with any footballer to have featured in a single minute of Champions League football.
But the Italian could pose a solution to their lack of depth on the right, if that role exists in their formation of choice. There are a myriad of possibilities for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to choose from in order to get the best of out Paul Pogba and January-recruit Bruno Fernandes. But, if the United boss opts for a 4-3-3, Bernardeschi could neatly slot onto the right-hand tip of the attack as a more senior alternative to Daniel James.
Likelihood Rating: 4/10
Suitability Rating: 5/10
Milan have not been deterred by their failed attempts to secure Bernardeschi’s signature in January, with the Rossoneri’s interest in Juve’s man still keen.
As an inverted, left-footed winger, with a propensity for low-quality but a high-volume of shots, Bernardeschi would be filling the void left by Suso. The Spaniard joined Sevilla on loan in January in a deal which is set to be made permanent if certain criteria are met.
The seven-time European champions have fallen quite a way from those heights, but they have at least made attempts to address the club’s financial instability and enticed club legend Paolo Maldini back to proceedings at San Siro in the last year or so. A move within Italy may suit Bernardeschi and his young family – he became a father in August – and present a chance to revamp his career.
Likelihood Rating: 6/10
Suitability Rating: 7/10
As all clubs – and businesses en masse – try to adapt to the restructured financial landscape carved out by the coronavirus pandemic, the fabled swap deal has risen to the surface of the gossip columns. Juventus seem to be at the centre of several proposed arrangements with a reunion for Sarri and Jorginho among them.
Bernardeschi has been touted as a makeweight to facilitate a return to Serie A for Chelsea’s deep-lying midfielder. While Sarri will no doubt be pleased by the suggestions, Chelsea would also benefit from this arrangement.
With Willian and Pedro both just weeks away from the end of their contracts, Bernardeschi would be a capable replacement on either flank. The move to London would also sate his love of the ‘genius’ street artist Banksy by seeing some of his work in the flesh. So, a desirable move for all concerned.
Bayern Munich had be crowned as Bundesliga champions quite a few weeks before they traveled to London at the end of the 2012/13 season, while the curtain came down on a historic season under Jupp Heynckes days later in their domestic cup final in Berlin.
The Bavarians had achieved something no-one in Germany ever had before. It’s something which no-one has achieved since either. But this season, Bayern Munich look as close as they ever have before to matching the success of Heynckes’ side.
The Bundesliga title hasn’t been decided yet by any stretch, but Bayern Munich’s win over Borussia Dortmund last week has opened up a healthy lead over Lucien Favre’s team and it’s one which will almost certainly prove too steep for the Black and Yellows to claw back.
As far as the DFB-Pokal is concerned, Bayern Munich will fancy their chances too. They’ve won 10 domestic cups since the turn of the century, losing another two finals as well, and they’re already in the semi finals of this season’s competition.
Eintracht Frankfurt shouldn’t get in their way from yet another trip to Berlin, where Bayer Leverkusen will almost certainly be waiting for Hansi Flick’s side – Die Werkself face fourth division side Saarbrücken in their semi final – to decide the 77th Pokal final.
Domestically, it should be business as usual. But it’s in the Champions League where Bayern Munich will ultimately be judged by the court of public opinion.
So far, it’s difficult to argue against Bayern Munich winning Europe’s elite competition. They passed through the group stages with a perfect winning record – they were the only side to win all six group stage games – and put on quite a show too, especially against Tottenham Hotspur.
They maintained that form when the knockout stages got underway and perhaps put in one of their best performances of the season, cruising past Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to all but guarantee their place in the quarter finals.
Of course, Bayern Munich won’t beat the rest of the teams in the competition on form alone. They’ve been knocked out by Liverpool, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid throughout the seven years since they last had their hands on the trophy.
But based off what we’ve seen from all the teams left in the competition this season, it’s very difficult to bet against Bayern Munich winning a sixth Champions League trophy.
The only thing which looks like it will work against Bayern Munich is how the fixture schedule plays out, and it’s something which could ultimately prove to be the downfall of the club’s dreams of another treble.
As domestic football in Germany is so much further forward compared to elsewhere on the continent, Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal football should be completed well before UEFA consider bringing European football back.
The Champions League and Europa League is expected to return at the start of August, which as things stand should give domestic competitions the chance to finish before European football returns.
But with things as they’re currently scheduled, Bayern Munich could face over a month without competitive football before the second leg of their Champions League last 16 match against Chelsea.
Returning at the Allianz Arena with a three-goal lead will undoubtedly prove to be a blessing. It will give Bayern Munich the chance to ease back into things after so long away from the pitch, but without enough game time in their legs, a quarter final match against a side like Liverpool or Paris Saint-Germain could be one hurdle too many.
There’s no doubt Bayern Munich are one of the strongest contenders for the Champions League. They have the best-performing player on the planet this season in Robert Lewandowski, they’re very strong in midfield and even have a makeshift defence which has impressed.
But if Bayern Munich are going to match their success from seven years ago, the Bavarians will have to do everything they can to ensure a month-long break isn’t what ends up defining their impressive, resurgent 2019/20 campaign.