Quote of the month
As The New Saints lead Europe’s charts on a 16-match league-winning run (17 if you include last season), manager Craig Harrison explains that the lack of a fit squad has proved no obstacle to motivation, “It’s been tough, the list of people who aren’t 100 per cent fit goes on and on, but the lads have been fantastic. With the run we’re on, we don’t need to motivate the players, it’s more a case of calming them down.”
Ralph Hasenhuttl outgunning Carlo Ancelotti
‘Arsene Who?’ This headline would have disappeared into forgotten archives if Wenger had been sacked soon after his recruitment at Arsenal. The reason why we remember this ironic headline two decades on is because he was the first foreign manager in history to win the English league championship and followed it up with doubles, invincibles and a record-breaking six FA Cups. We now know ‘who’ Arsene is!
Similar headlines were doing the rounds in Germany not so long ago when ‘Ralph Who?’ took over at RB Leipzig in May. Ralph Hasenhuttl is his name. Not only has it become household, but it is also echoing animatedly along the tables of every beer hall in every village, town and city throughout Germany.
RB Leipzig’s reputation for being the club hauled from obscurity by the ample finances of Red Bull made them the most detested face of football in Germany. Founded in 2009, starting in the bottom echelon of Germany’s league system, money helped them reach the Bundesliga within seven years of existence. The German public were sickened by this ‘English Premiership’-style financial powerhouse, leaving all other clubs grasping without the same aid. The press influenced public opinion with an equally-vitriolic perspective of Leipzig’s ‘free’ runway to the top.
But a funny thing is happening, because Leipzig are literally topping the Bundesliga ahead of Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich! And every non-Bayern football supporter in the country wants Bayern to fail. So when they see Leipzig outgunning Germany’s football giant, money becomes a secondary obsession. Now the obsession is, ‘Can Hasenhuttl topple Carlo Ancelotti!’
Hasenhuttl is becoming the reason behind Leipzig’s success rather than money, or at least that’s the shift in public opinion. The press are now pro-Hasenhuttl and, consequently, pro-Leipzig!
The 49 year old is Germany’s version of Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri, albeit much less experienced. He won promotion from the third tier of German football with VfR Aalen four years ago, and won promotion from the second tier with FC Ingolstadt two years ago, so he is not without prior success, but his name was nonetheless vague in the public consciousness. As were his squad of players.
Hasenhuttl’s side is now Germany’s solitary bearer of the title ‘Still Unbeaten’ this season, and are currently on an eight-match winning streak, a run bettered only by Welsh club The New Saints and Bulgarian club Ludogorets Razgrad.
The final round of Bundesliga matches to finish the year includes the most intriguing fixture in Europe so far: Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich vs Ralph Hasenhuttl’s RB Leipzig. Mark your diaries for 21st December. This battle is rivalling even Spain’s Clasico as the one to whet the appetite as we head towards the end of an amazing year for the underdog.
Stale Solbakken’s extraordinary journey from broken heart to broken records
How many people know someone personally who has been pronounced clinically dead and lived to tell the tale? Roy Hodgson knows one; he was manager at FC Copenhagen when his midfield stalwart Stale Solbakken suffered a major heart attack in March 2001 before it stopped beating. In the ambulance on the way to hospital, out of the blue, his heart began pumping again.
Out of such adversity comes not only opportunity but sheer bloody-minded determination to make the absolute most of every day that he shouldn’t have lived.
Solbakken’s enhanced attitude to life became FC Copenhagen’s blessing when they handed him the managerial reins in 2005, and so began the Danish club’s most successful period in history. Five league titles in six years and a first-time qualification for the Champions League group phase, defeating Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United along the way.
Solbakken’s next two appointments were surprisingly short-lived: a one-year spell at German club FC Koln followed by a six-month stint at Wolves. Following just six appearances as a player for Wimbledon 15 years earlier, it’s fair to say his experiences in English football were utterly forgettable, or actually, utterly memorable for all the wrong reasons as far as Wolves fans were concerned. A handful were so concerned they decided to vandalise Solbakken’s car when the team were struggling precariously close to the bottom of the Championship.
Wolves’s loss was Copenhagen’s gain as they rescued Solbakken from the depths of English depravity in August 2013. Danish Cup triumphs followed, and last season they brought back the Danish league title.
This season, Solbakken is lifting the club to heights no other club in Europe can reach. 20 games unbeaten in the Danish Superliga is a club record, and Solbakken still has an opportunity to lead Copenhagen beyond the group phase of the Champions League. Copenhagen’s only defeat remains the 1-0 loss to Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City, and if Porto fail to beat Leicester and Copenhagen triumph over Club Brugge in the final round of group matches, Solbakken and his players will find themselves in the hallowed – and unchartered – territory of the knockout phase!
Georgi Dermendzhiev lifting Ludogorets Razgrad to unprecedented heights
Georgi Dermenszhiev has spent most of his career playing the role of assistant to various head coaches in Bulgaria, but as soon as he was given his first big chance with Ludogorets Razgrad, he radically changed the club’s status from domestic champions to Champions League qualifiers.
His first major achievement arrived in the summer of 2014 when he guided Razgrad to the Champions League group stages for the first time in their history. Pitted with Real Madrid and Liverpool was daunting enough, but four points including a 2-2 draw against Brendan Rodgers’ Merseysiders was applauded across Bulgaria and noticed throughout Europe.
Dermenszhiev led Razgrad to two further league titles, last season finishing a record 14 points clear of second placed Levski Sofia (they only play 32 games per season!). Another series of challenges in the Champions League qualifying rounds were successfully negotiated, culminating in a tactically astute victory over former European Champions Red Star Belgrade.
Facing yet another highly improbable task in a group with PSG and Arsenal, Dermenszhiev’s side are currently third and favourites for a route into the Europa League. They were just two minutes from securing a historic 2-2 draw with Arsenal before Mesut Ozil scored a goal of such individual brilliance it will go down in Champion League folklore.
Whether tomorrow evening’s final Champions League match secures Razgrad’s passage into the Europa League remains to be seen, but for now their priority is focused very much on the domestic front. Dermenszhiev has led his group to a club record 13-match winning run, stretching back three months.
The Bulgarian press are now publishing lists of other clubs who have achieved record winning runs in the annals of European football history. Razgrad still have a long way to reach Benfica’s 29-match winning run between 1971 and 1973 (a run managed by Englishman Jimmy Hagan), but Dermenszhiev is nonetheless forging a side whose reputation is being touted as the greatest in Bulgarian football’s 82-year history.
Monaco’s Jardim reaching for Wenger’s former haven, with the help of… Radamel Falcao!
Following the final match of last season, Monaco’s press room was packed with French journalists expecting the club’s manager to be informed his days were, if not over, severely numbered. One journalist was unashamedly direct with his question to Monaco’s hierarchy, ‘Is Leonardo Jardim finished?’ To which the reply was a very hesitant ‘we’re going to take a few days to reflect’, signalling the impending end for the Portuguese manager in L’Equipe, amongst other sports daily newspapers.
A director at the subsequent board meeting must have presented a compelling case for Jardim’s continuation because he’s still enjoying the haven once occupied in championship-winning manner by Arsene Wenger.
Although Jardim would need to reach the Champions League final to better Wenger’s achievements at the club, two resounding victories over Mauricio Pochettino’s flailing spurs have not only silenced the berating voices on the terraces, but have also reversed their appraisal of Jardim’s managerial qualities.
His team carved out 11 shots on target against Tottenham, nine of which were saved by Hugo Lloris. The 2-1 score-line flattered Spurs.
Jardim’s post-match tweet was triumphant and selfless, ‘We top the group and qualify for the last 16. To the players!’
One of those players is Radamel Falcao. Jardim explicitly instructed his board to retain Falcao’s services during the summer, criticising the club for loaning him out to Manchester United and Chelsea in the first place. The Columbian has repaid his manager’s faith with 11 goals in 15 games, also repaying a portion of his £265,000 a week tax-free salary! His goals have propelled Monaco to third in the table.
19 goals in Monaco’s last five league encounters make Jardim’s team the in-form predator of European football. Just three points separate Jardim from Lucien Favre’s Nice at the top of Ligue 1 with Unai Emery’s PSG sitting ominously just a point further back.
The criticism levelled at Jardim’s appointment two years ago was that he only had one league championship to his credit, a Greek title with Olympiacos. Should Monaco achieve the unlikely task of finishing the season ahead of Paris Saint Germain, Jardim’s name would glow in the English press whenever a big club’s managerial vacancy becomes available.
Top five managers in November
November’s Battles: The Results
· England: Jose Mourinho (Manchester United) 1-1 Arsene Wenger (Arsenal)
· Germany: Thomas Tuchel (Borussia Dortmund) 1-0 Carlo Ancelotti (Bayern Munich)
· Italy: Vincenzo Montella (Milan) 2-2 Stefano Pioli (Inter Milan)
· Russia: Igor Shalimov (Krasnodar) 2-1 Mircea Lucescu (FC Zenit)
· Spain: Diego Simeone (Atletico de Madrid) 0-3 Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)
Battles to watch in December
· England: Pep Guardiola (Manchester City) vs Arsene Wenger (Arsenal)
· Germany: Carlo Ancelotti (Bayern Munich) vs Ralph Hasenhuttl (RB Leipzig)
· Italy: Massimiliano Allegri (Juventus) vs Luciano Spalletti (Roma)
· Portugal: Rui Vitoria (Benfica) vs Jorge Jesus (Sporting Club)
· Spain: Fran Escriba (Villarreal) vs Diego Simeone (Atletico de Madrid)