Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Malcom files: The rise of Bordeaux's Brazilian starlet, in the words of those who know him best

Malcom, the darling of the gossip columns after a superb year with Bordeaux, has always had unflinching commitment sewn into his DNA.

It helped him cope with the physical demands of playing with adults when he still listed kite-flying and marbles among his pastimes. It won him an army of admirers – and a league title – in Brazil before his move to Ligue 1 in January 2016.

It made a non-issue of the challenge of adapting to life in Europe, and now it looks set to propel him towards the upper echelons of the game.

It also made a big impression on former coaches and team-mates, some of whom I spoke to for this big profile piece for The Independent.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Willian is the ultimate luxury squad player for club and country – but is that enough for him?

On Saturday, Willian played in his 50th consecutive Premier League game. No one else has a longer active record. He celebrated in style, too, helping Chelsea to a 4-0 win over Brighton with a goal-of-the-season contender.

Yet that milestone is probably a bit misleading: only 21 of those 50 appearances have been starts and while Antonio Conte clearly likes having him around, it is also obvious that, when push comes to shove, Willian does not feature in his first-choice XI.

That the Brazilian accepts the situation with good grace – and seems able to turn it on whether he starts or climbs off the bench – makes him a superb squad player. And the situation is repeated at international level, too.

The question I address in my latest Unibet blog is whether that is enough for a player of such obvious ability.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Yes, Ronaldinho's was a career of two halves. But who cares when the first one was so joyously compelling?

We'll always have the buck-toothed, bright-eyed boy-Ron, Inho himself, practising his tricks on his pet dog Bombom. We'll always have the fearless teenage phenomenon, his physique playing catch-up to his matador swagger, taking the piss out of World Cup winners and almost giving Galvão Bueno a heart attack.

We'll always have Paris, the launch-ramp years, the one-man flash-forward to a time when other Brazilians (and Uruguayans and Argentines and so on) would reproduce these ridiculous feats of skill but never quite match the sugar-rush thrill of their novelty.

We'll always have the yellow-shirted summer feelgood envoy, the player whose swivelling hips and megawatt grin briefly made all those half-baked allusions to samba semi-acceptable, and sometime haunter of David Seaman's dreams.

Mainly, though, we will always have Barcelona. The toe pokes and masterstrokes. The overhead kicks and overhead flicks and he's taking the mick but Jesus, you just have to love him.

Read my piece on Ronaldinho's retirement on the Unibet blog.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Is Philippe Coutinho the solution to Barcelona’s succession puzzle after the Neymar mess?

The careers of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho have long been entwined. The two have been friends since representing Brazil at an U16 tournament in Girona in 2008; you will probably have seen the photos of them together, looking sheepish in oversized shirts.

"It was instinctive," Coutinho later revealed. "We have a similar way of playing, so we kept looking for each other. We had a good connection and had a lot of fun." They drifted apart a touch after Neymar made the step up to the senior Brazil side but the affection remained: "The player I'd most like to play with at Barcelona is Coutinho," said Neymar last year.

That wish never came true, of course, but there is nonetheless a pleasing circularity to his Seleção cohort stepping into his shoes. The question is whether Coutinho can be what Neymar wasn't: the solution to Barça's succession puzzle.

Read more in my latest Unibet column.