The 10 biggest questions for European soccer in 2013-14
With the Confederations Cup now behind us and the new European soccer season less than 40 days away, there are plenty of talking points looking ahead to season 2013-14. Here are ten questions that we have been asking this summer:
1. Has there ever been a summer merry-go-round like it? Pep Guardiola. Jose Mourinho. Rafa Benitez. Walter Mazzarri. Manuel Pellegrini. Laurent Blanc. David Moyes. Carlo Ancelotti. Never before have so many high-profile coaches started new jobs at the same time. On top of that, look at the players on the move: Edinson Cavani, Radamel Falcao, Neymar, Carlos Tevez, Mario Gomez, David Villa. Who knows, soon we might add Luis Suarez and Gonzalo Higuain to that list. Not so long ago, players would not want to risk switching clubs 12 months before a World Cup year; fears of adaptation and a loss of form convinced them to stay an extra season. No longer: this summer is unique for its market moves, the amounts of money changing hands and the number of unknowns surrounding all the top teams going into the new season. For all the concern about competitive balance across Europe's top leagues, season 2013-14 could be the most unpredictable yet.
2. Who is behind Monaco's rise? If Paris Saint-Germain thought last season's first title success since 1994 would be the first of many, they did not bank on AS Monaco owner Dmitry Rybolovlev. The Russian billionaire, who took over the club in December 2011, promised to spend €100m over the next four years; since winning promotion to Ligue 1 this summer, he has spent €130m alone on Falcao, Joao Moutinho and James Rodriguez (and signed Ricardo Carvalho on a free).
But it is not quite that simple: the French league has voted that Monaco be based in France, and not the Principality, from June 2014: at the moment it is subject to Monaco's tax breaks which, put simply, mean that they can pay Falcao a €10m annual salary, while a French club would have to pay an additional €14m on top. Cue outrage from Ligue 1 presidents and a legal case that is still ongoing.
We actually know very little of Rybolovlev, short of the fact that he once spent 11 months in a Siberian jail and Forbes has estimated his wealth at over €7billion. Soccer is not his only indulgence: his art collection features Picassos and Van Goghs and is valued at over €700million, while he has properties in Monaco, Palm Beach, Hawaii, Gstaad, Paris and New York. He speaks no foreign languages and hates doing interviews. Ten years ago, Roman Abramovich was the first Russian oligarch to change the spending patterns in the Premier League: Rybolovlev is almost as reclusive. Will he, like Abramovich, have to wait nine years for Champions League triumph?
3. What is it about Zinedine Zidane's phone manner? He can't use his dark eyes and his brooding demeanor, so just what is it that Zinedine Zidane says to young players on the phone to convince them to join Real Madrid? Last summer it was Raphael Varane: the young Lens centre-back rejected Manchester United and was one of the breakout stars of the season. This month, one call from Zidane has persuaded Isco to sign for Real Madrid instead of Manchester City, and convinced Asier Illaramendi to move from Real Sociedad -- both were part of Spain's European Championship-winning Under-21 side this summer. Zidane will have more attention on him this season, as new Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti has named him assistant coach. While this may be an opportunity for Ancelotti to be appreciated as a coach -- which he wasn't by his bosses at Chelsea or PSG (until it was too late) -- the prospect of Zidane one day replacing him is already an enticing one.
4. Can Pep make history with Bayern? How can Guardiola improve Bayern Munich after one of the most dominant seasons in European soccer history? Bayern romped to a record-breaking Bundesliga win, was a deserving Champions League winner -- beating Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semifinal -- and sealed the treble with a 3-2 Cup final win over Stuttgart. Guardiola's early training sessions have been scrutinized like no other. His first target is to repeat the sextuple he won with Barcelona in 2009, for that Bayern needs to win the European Super Cup (against Chelsea), the German Super Cup (Dortmund) and the Club World Cup.
After that, it's the Champions League. In the last 20 years, no team (nor even a national league) has successfully defended its crown in the competition. Were Pep to pull that off, he would secure his status as the best coach of his generation. However, he will have to learn the culture of Bayern, where club legends loom large at the merest whiff of trouble, and handle the dressing-room, which has more egos than he was used to at Barcelona.
5. Will there be a shock in World Cup qualifying? England coach Roy Hodgson was reported to be upset that the Premier League fixture-computer threw up some tough derby matches before the international break for World Cup matches in September. The counter-argument? England plays Moldova at home and really should be winning that one anyway.
Hodgson's team is one a few that runs the risk of missing out on Brazil 2014: Portugal is clear of Russia in Group F, but has played two games more, while Spain cannot afford to slip up with France breathing down its neck. In South America, 2010's third-placed side Uruguay is still five points behind Chile and currently in the playoff position. Oh, and while we're at it in South America, when will people start taking Colombia seriously as a World Cup outside bet? Now third in the FIFA world rankings, it's maybe not such a dark horse now...
6. Who will be the new Dortmund? Dortmund lit up the European game last season with a charismatic coach, offensive game plan and some exciting young talents that had breakout seasons. But who will be next season's Dortmund? Will it be Fiorentina, with Vincenzo Montella as coach and a front three that could comprise of Joaquin, Mario Gomez and Giuseppe Rossi, or how about Atletico Madrid, with Diego Simeone in charge and David Villa in to replace Falcao? It might be worth keeping an eye on Everton, with Roberto Martinez as coach, or even Napoli, who has Rafa Benitez as coach, Dries Mertens and Jose Callejon as new signings and, in Italy Under-21 striker Lorenzo Insigne, one of Europe's most exciting young players. The most likely candidate, though, is Dortmund again. Klopp has at least one more year in charge, and their new signings Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were highly coveted by other clubs. Sokratis, its first signing of the summer, cost €9m from Bremen: it might have money to spend but can still spot a bargain.
7. Can Neymar and Messi work? "You have the best player of all time alongside a brilliant footballer? I'm sure they'll work fine together." So said Guardiola on the prospect of Neymar linking up with Lionel Messi at Barcelona, but it might not be that simple. You have two players used to being kingpins at their clubs, and Messi doesn't exactly have a great track record with such power struggles: in the past, the likes of Samuel Eto'o, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry and David Villa have all tried, and struggled, to forge a long-term partnership with the brilliant Argentine. Not to mention how Neymar might fit into Barcelona's 4-3-3 system. Neymar's move is a fascinating one, particularly as it comes one year before Brazil hosts the World Cup. He is a guaranteed starter for the Selecao but a tricky season in Spain will increase the pressure on him next summer. "Neymar is different, there are not many players out there like him," said Carles Puyol. "This club is not panicking, we are building something." Last season, Messi was injured at just the wrong time: one (but not the only) reason for its Champions League defeat. Neymar's arrival might put an end to the Messi-dependencia for a while, but it also throws up plenty more questions.
8. How does Porto keep doing it? It won last season's Portuguese title in dramatic circumstances and has made over €60m by selling James and Moutinho to Monaco, but can Porto continue to find unpolished South American diamonds and turn them into gems? It might not keep winger Christian Atsu, but has already signed two attacking players, Ricardo Pereira and Carlos Eduardo -- this time from Portuguese clubs -- for less than a combined €1.5m. Two Mexican talents, center back Diego Reyes and midfielder Hector Herrera, cost €6.5m each but the real buzz is over Juan Quintero, a Colombian No. 10 who played so well at the Under-20 World Cup that he might yet earn a starting place in the World Cup team next summer. Quintero did not shine for Pescara last season, but is soon to complete a €10m move to join his compatriot Jackson Martinez in Oporto. In another two years, he might be worth triple that.
9. Which manager will Jose Mourinho wind up first? There's no Mancini. No Benitez. Sir Alex Ferguson, of course, will be the biggest loss to the Premier League this season; a whole generation of Manchester United fans have grown up and not seen another coach on the touchline. But that leaves Mourinho without an obvious target to rile as the Premier League season gets underway. Mourinho is the press darling that England's fourth estate welcomed back with open arms: until his opening press conference, that is, when he cut a humble, sometimes dour, and definitely not soundbite-friendly figure. He has previous relationships with some coaches still around: Arsene Wenger, whose Arsenal side is not a title-winning threat, and his former assistant Andre Villas-Boas, with whom he fell out with at Inter. Going after AVB, who earned goodwill after an excellent first full season at Spurs, would damage Mourinho. We will know more within a few weeks of the season: in Week Two, Chelsea travel to Manchester United for David Moyes's first home game in charge, and one week later, another meeting with his La Liga rival nemesis Guardiola in the European Super Cup final. We all agree that it would be dull if Mourinho's humility was permanent.
10. Did anyone mention FFP? That's right, this is the season that UEFA's Financial Fair Play regulations kick in, as far as UEFA being able to take action against clubs based on previous years' accounts, but doubts remain about just how strongly UEFA will act if a big club is still making heavy losses. UEFA have allowed enough wriggle-room for clubs to be showing signs of moving towards financial stability but the question we should be asking is, what is fair about it? As Soccernomics author Professor Stefan Szymanski put it in this piece: "UEFA, with the support of many politicians, want us to use warm phrases emptied of their original meaning as camouflage for the pursuit of an agenda which has little to do with fair play and much to do with the exercise of power." On the whole this summer has been a relatively FFP-free zone. That might change once Cavani, Falcao and Neymar start banging in the goals.