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Kalidou Koulibaly – The perfect Antonio Rüdiger replacement

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A big summer of change awaits at Stamford Bridge. As the chosen bidder Todd Boehly sat in the executive box at the Bridge last Saturday, he saw Chelsea squander a 2-0 lead to be held by Wolverhampton Wanderers – an occurrence that has become way too frequent with the club hanging in limbo following the sanctions handed to their outgoing owner Roman Abramovich.

Not only have the sanctions directly affected a team who seem to have lost a chunk of their momentum, but their indirect impact has also been felt – there seems to be a lot of player uncertainty at the Bridge at the moment, with multiple defenders seemingly on their way out of the club. While Andreas Christensen, César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso are all linked with a move to Barcelona, key man Antonio Rüdiger has recently signed a contract to join Real Madrid following the end of the season – majorly weakening the Blues on the defensive front.

While the other departures would certainly deal a blow to their defensive depth, it is the German defender’s loss which is likely to be felt the most – Rüdiger cemented himself as one of the first names on the team sheet over the past year or so, imposing a dominant figure on the left side of Thomas Tuchel’s back three. Not only has Rüdiger been one of Chelsea’s key defenders under his compatriot Tuchel, but he has also proven to be integral to the Blues when it comes to progressing the ball – adding to his reputation as an intimidating leader on the pitch. As a result of his impending departure, the West London side are likely to dive into the transfer market this summer looking for the required reinforcements: and a few names have already been linked.

While Chelsea continues their pursuit of Sevilla defender Jules Koundé following their failure to land the Frenchman last summer, he is likely to slot into the right side of the back three instead of the left. In order to plug the gaping hole that Rüdiger will leave, Chelsea are reportedly interested in RB Leipzig’s Joško Gvardiol and Villarreal’s Pau Torres – both of whom have been touted as a direct replacement for Rüdiger. The latest name to join this shortlist is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, as the defender is reportedly looking for a move away from Naples.

With his current contract at Napoli set to expire next summer, Koulibaly’s agent Fali Ramadani has reportedly offered the Senegalese defender to a number of top European clubs this summer. Chelsea are reportedly one of the clubs interested, having previously shown interest in the defender as far back as in 2016 – and with only one year to go until his deal runs out at Napoli, Stamford Bridge has been earmarked as a potential destination for the Senegal captain. The move seems to make perfect sense from the club’s perspective, as when purely comparing by profiles – Koulibaly is the closest to Rüdiger amongst all of the Blues’ other defensive targets.

HOW CAN KOULIBALY FIT INTO THE BLUES’ SYSTEM?

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A big, dominant centre-back who is an imposing presence at the back much like Rüdiger, the Senegalese is aggressive and physically strong – making him a suitable heir for the departing German. Inspire by his mammoth stature standing at 195 cm, Koulibaly has bags of recovery pace and is very quick over short distances like his potential predecessor – an attribute that has made Rüdiger such an intimidating opponent over the past year. While his physicality makes him the most similar to Rüdiger out of the other names in the shortlist, it is Koulibaly’s experience and reading of the game that makes him stand out as the foolproof solution to Chelsea’s woes.

At 30 years old, Koulibaly is approaching the prime years of his career as a centre-back – a career that has seen him cement himself as the main man in defence for both club and country. Napoli and Senegal owe a lot of their success to Koulibaly, who has built a reputation for himself as one of the best central defenders in the world courtesy of his reading of the game. Koulibaly’s anticipation helps him rack up a lot of tackles and interceptions, while his positioning ensures that his teams are barely caught sleeping at the back – as the Senegalese is ever-present to cut out the danger whenever his teams require him to. Koulibaly also has a reputation for being adept in the air, as the intimidating centre back wins a majority of the aerial duels he takes part in.

Besides the physical characteristics and defensive attributes that make Koulibaly such a difficult defender to go up against, the Senegalese is also known for his passing ability and technique. Koulibaly is reputed as a world-class progressor of the ball from deep, with his passes, carries as well as accurate long balls to switch play – something that he particularly excelled at under the tutelage of Maurizio Sarri. Koulibaly is known to be a good passer with both feet as well as carrying the ball out of the back, an attribute that he shares with his potential predecessor as well. Rüdiger has been the Blues’ chief ballplayer in defence over the past year, and as far as the progression duties bestowed on him are concerned – Koulibaly can fit the bill to quite an extent.

Apart from the many similarities, one of the major differences between Rüdiger and Koulibaly is while the former was dominant on his right foot, the latter is left-footed – making him a more natural option on the left of the back three. While it is Koulibaly’s imposing physique that makes him the ideal physical replacement for Rüdiger, his ball-playing ability makes him more of a fit for Tuchel’s system than Gvardiol or Torres. Koulibaly’s versatility in defence also helps him slot into a back three or a back four according to the team’s requirement, while he has also been deployed as a defensive midfielder in the past due to his confidence and composure on the ball.

Upon joining Napoli from Belgian outfit Genk in 2014, Koulibaly has racked up a total of 234 appearances for the Serie A club over eight seasons – where the Senegalese was a regular starter for five different managers. Now a mainstay in the heart of the defence, Koulibaly’s heroics as a left-sided centre back for Luciano Spaletti’s side has helped ‘Gli Azzurri’ concede a modest 31 goals in 36 games this season, a tally that puts them on par with title contenders AC Milan and Inter Milan in terms of goals conceded. His 60 appearances for Senegal to date add international experience to his portfolio and makes him the complete defender that he is considered to be.

WHAT MAKES KOULIBALY A BETTER FIT THAN THE OTHER TARGETS?

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It also has to be considered that the role that Rüdiger played for Tuchel often involved certain intangibles. As a result of his indomitable presence on the pitch and his relationship with his teammates in the dressing room, Rüdiger became a leader in the dressing room – pushing his younger teammates onto greater things. Leadership and character are intangibles associated with Koulibaly as well, as he has led the Naples outfit from the back for a number of years now, besides donning the armband for his national team over the past few years. Koulibaly led the Lions of Teranga to African Cup of Nations success earlier this year, leading a fearsome defence that also included Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy – someone Koulibaly knows all too well.

Not only does Koulibaly have an understanding with Mendy, but he also has experience playing alongside midfield metronome Jorginho – having turned out for Napoli together under former Chelsea head coach Sarri. Koulibaly’s expertise in French and English will help him settle in more quickly compared to the other names on the shortlist, helping him communicate with his potential teammates in West London. The character that Koulibaly brings to the table is likely to rub off on some of his juniors in defence, as he could help in the development of the likes of Trevoh Chalobah, the returning Levi Colwill or indeed, Jules Koundé – reminiscent of the impact that another experienced campaigner Thiago Silva had when he joined two summers ago.

Reports coming out of Italy have suggested that Chelsea are currently in talks with Ramadani, however, it is felt that a “super offer” is needed to convince Napoli to sell a player who is such an important cog in their machine. Chelsea will also have to conduct business with Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis, who has a history with the London club having dealt with Marina Granovskaia when the Blues struck a double deal to land Sarri and Jorginho from Napoli in the summer of 2018. De Laurentiis holds a reputation as one of the toughest negotiators in football, and it will not be easy to strike a deal. However, if the Blues do end up bringing the Senegalese to London, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Chelsea will have found their ideal replacement for the departing Antonio Rüdiger and a more natural profile suited to their needs.












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Huddersfield Town vs Nottingham Forest: Match Preview

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Huddersfield Town and Nottingham Forest square off at Wembley Stadium on Sunday with a place in the Premier League up for grabs for the winner.

Helped by a strong second half to the season, the two clubs finished in third and fourth place respectively in the Championship standings and will feel that they deserve the opportunity to join Fulham and AFC Bournemouth in the English top flight.

Last season, Huddersfield and Forest finished in 20th and 17th respectively. This campaign, they have considerably transformed those fortunes. There was even a time when Nottingham Forest occupied the bottom spot in the division before Steve Cooper arrived at the helm. Such is the unpredictability of the division that the two clubs will square off once more for the coveted last place in the Premier League, and their spots in the showpiece are justified after outstanding years in the second tier.

Between December 4 and March 11, Huddersfield put together a 17-match unbeaten streak in the league, and just two defeats have come from 28 matches at this level.

Meanwhile, since Steve Cooper’s first game in charge on September 25, Forest have accumulated 76 points from 38 games, the best return in the Championship regular campaign over that period. Makes you wonder what might have been had the Midlands club appointed the former Swansea boss heading into the 2021/22 campaign.

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Forest conceded five goals fewer than any other team during that period, also the two clubs lost fewer games than Fulham and Bournemouth over the same stint.

Nevertheless, the playoffs were not straightforward clashes for both clubs who were tested to their limits. Huddersfield Town were pushed all the way by Luton Town, the Terriers requiring a late Jordan Rhodes in the second leg at the John Smith’s Stadium to prevail 2-1 on aggregate.

The drama was saved for Nottingham Forest’s reverse fixture with Sheffield United, Cooper’s team seemingly home and dry when leading 3-1 on aggregate at half-time at the City Ground before the Blades took the game to extra time, even almost winning the tie in the final seconds of the added 30 minutes.

All of the momentum was with the visitors until the heroics of Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba, who saved three penalties to earn his team a spot at Wembley.

The fact that Nottingham Forest toiled under the weight of expectancy during the normal time will only encourage Huddersfield boss Carlos Corberan, and his team who were one of just a few teams to win a league fixture at the City Ground during 2020-21.

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All things considered, that will certainly count for little.

The money and prestige on offer mean that both teams will be under intense pressure on Sunday, even if it is Forest who will be looking to end a 23-year absence from the big time.

Huddersfield supporters will be taking the positives from their last two playoff finals ending in victory, most notably five years ago when they defeated Reading on penalties to earn a first-ever appearance in the Premier League.

WHERE AND WHEN?

Venue: Wembley Stadium.
Date: Sunday, 29th May 2022.
Time: 16:30PM (BST).

MATCH OFFICIALS

Referee: Jonathan Moss.
Assistant referee: Marc Perry, Tim Wood.
Fourth official: Craig Pawson.
VAR: Paul Tierney.
Assistant VAR: Ian Hussin.

LEAGUE FORM (LAST SIX):

Huddersfield: WWWWDW

Nottingham Forest: WWLDWL

TEAM NEWS

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Having proven his fitness with two substitute appearances during the playoffs, Keinan Davis could return in attack for Forest.

Steve Cooper will certainly need the Aston Villa man’s energy, intensity, bullish strength and hold-up play in attack in order to take control of proceedings better than they managed last time out against Sheffield United in the second-leg of their Play-Off semi-final tie.

That would see Sam Surridge drop down to the substitutes’ bench in what is likely to be the only alternation made by Cooper.

Huddersfield are hoping that Danny Ward can take his place down the centre of the front three after coming off injured during the second leg versus Luton.

Rhodes is on standby should the club’s top goalscorer miss out, while Sorba Thomas will almost certainly come back into the team after shaking off a knee issue in time for the semi-finals.

Duane Holmes will likely miss out as Corberan may almost certainly show preference to a back three in order to match the formation of their opponents.

PLAYERS TO WATCH OUT FOR

LEVI COLWILL

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The teenager has been a first-team regular in Huddersfield Town’s promotion push ahead of their Championship Play-Off final, featuring in 29 of their 48 games.

There will almost certainly be scouts from a host of Premier League teams in attendance at Wembley, with Crystal Palace, Southampton, Everton, Arsenal and Brighton among the others who reportedly want the talented centre back.

The 19-year-old has been a monstrous and colossal presence at the back for Corberan’s side, helping them to 11 of their impressive 20 clean sheets this campaign.

Throughout, he’s averaged a scintillating 1.3 interceptions per game, 1.8 tackles, 4.1 clearances and also winning 65% of his total duels and 64% of his aerial duels highlighting his tremendous all-action defensive style at the heart of the Huddersfield backline.

Where his immediate future lies is unclear, with a host of Premier League clubs scouring for his services this summer. His parent club Chelsea do want him back for preseason in July, with a view to providing him with first-team opportunities next season, but even that looks unlikely seeing as Thomas Tuchel will certainly be strengthening an ageing backline.

Another loan move may be on the agenda for him, as his development and maturity is showing no signs of letting up. A stupendous defensive talent.

BRENNAN JOHNSON

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Wales manager Robert Page certainly thinks Johnson could play for a top-six Premier League team now and those clubs who wanted him in January have seemingly missed out.

The Forest forward heads into Sunday’s final on the back of a tremendous breakthrough season for club and country. “Brennan is the future of Welsh football and I think he’s top-six (Premier League) now,” Page said.

Arguably the most gifted footballer in the second tier, the 21-year-old holds a superb record heading into the Wembley showpiece, registering 18 goals and 10 assists in 48 outings for Steve Cooper’s men.

Any chance Forest have of entering the Premier League for the first time in 23 years will again rest on his young and broad shoulders.

Exceptional work ethic, athleticism, dynamism, courage and technical ability on the flanks that even most wingers in the English top-flight would kill for.

Johnson is indeed a Premier League-quality player, and he’ll be hoping he is gracing such a prestigious competition with his beloved boyhood club.

PREDICTED LINEUPS

Huddersfield predicted XI vs Nottingham Forest: Nicholls (GK); Lees, Hogg, Colwill; Pipa, Russell, O’Brien, Toffolo; Sinani, Ward, Thomas.

Nottingham Forest predicted XI vs Huddersfield: Samba (GK); Worrall, Cook, McKenna; Spence, Yates, Garner, Colback; Zinckernagel; Davis, Johnson.

SCORE PREDICTION

Huddersfield Town vs Nottingham Forest: 1-2












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Why Eddie Nketiah staying makes sense for Arsenal

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Eddie Nketiah staying at Arsenal is all but confirmed with David Ornstein reporting that the 22-year-old is now set to change his mind and sign a new deal with the club

Let’s take a look at why it made so much sense for both parties in the end.

BUMPY ROAD

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Nketiah came into the season off a really positive pre-season. But even with that in mind, he was still our 3rd striker in the pecking order. As the season went on, the opportunities were limited…

With both Aubameyang and Lacazette on the roster and wings spaces filled by genuine wingers, all of his appearances came in the cups. He started all of Arsenal’s cup games up until the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup. He scored 5 in 5 games in the Carabao and 0 in 1 in the FA Cup.

Noted, most of these games, except one, came against non Premier League opposition and that makes it hard to stand out.

When Aubameyang left for Barca in January, Lacazette picked up form and Eddie found it hard to nail down a starting spot despite the rise in minutes. His off the bench appearances weren’t enough for him to showcase just how much he’s grown as a player.

“People have so many expectations of you, but bro I’m coming on for 9 minutes. We’re winning 1-0, the aim is to hold on to the lead. When I’ve had substantial time like 15-20 (Palace, Wolves, Brighton), I’m able to do something and show myself.” [Eddie Nketiah on @Podcast_TBG]

SPACE TO GROW

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Lacazette’s form dipped and the results warranted a change. Nketiah’s minutes gradually increased until he became a nailed-on starter for the last 8 games in the Premier League.

With 5 goals in 8 games, he’s shown he CAN be trusted. But goals don’t tell the full story of his breakthrough this season.

We’ve seen a player who’s matured. He wasn’t getting pushed over, he used his body well in duels, he didn’t have a problem with intricate plays outside of the box and he pressed well. And the stats back it up.

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image credit: @oh_that_crab / instagram

The sample size is small with ten ’90s played but you can see how much of a well-rounded player he transformed into. He used to have noticeable balance and on-ball issues alongside the game being played at too fast of a pace for him sometimes. Ironically, his balance and speed of movement look like his strengths now. He ironed out a lot of his flaws and he keeps working on improving his skillset as a centre forward.

MUTUAL BENEFIT

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He previously stated that he wants to get games on the regular but there aren’t many Premier League clubs who in my opinion can offer that. Competition for places in this league is brutal, let alone for a 22-year-old striker. He would probably have to leave the league and drop down the level of the club he’d be playing for by a level or two.

Europa League, cups and acting as a deputy to the first striker seems like enough room for game time and continued improvement under Arteta.

With rumours over a new wage spike continuing to swirl, one has to question exactly why is that seen as that big of an issue? Arsenal will not find a similar level of a player who wants to be a “backup” for nothing less than £20m-£30m. In fact, Arsenal saved money by re-signing him.

Not only is his career on an upward trajectory, but his skillset is also very valuable and he’s already shown he’ll keep the starters on their toes and that’s EXACTLY how you raise the level of competition in the squad.

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Does Richarlison emerge as stand-out option for Tottenham?

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An exciting period of rejuvenation under Antonio Conte saw Tottenham Hotspur secure a coveted Champions League spot in the recently concluded 2021/22 Premier League campaign. Now, with reports suggesting the Italian’s temptation to remain at the club despite having previously hinted at his ambition to move elsewhere ahead of the new campaign, Spurs are expected to spend lavishly in the transfer market as they look to bolster their squad in a bid to close the gap between them and the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City next season.

With certain positions expected to be addressed given the lack of quality personnel, Spurs will be keen on bagging their targets with minimal competition this summer, given the likelihood of numerous Premier League clubs needing to address key areas this summer. Moreover, with promising potential from across Europe and England’s lower tiers likely to take a big step to the Premier League, Spurs will be looking to identify, strengthen and prepare their squad for a potential title challenge following the upcoming campaign.

While the likes of Filip Kostic, Alessandro Bastoni, and Ivan Perisic have been sounded out as key targets for Spurs this summer, recent reports from the Daily Mail Online suggest the North-London club have added Everton striker Richarlison to their potential list of attackers this summer. Having played a pivotal role in Everton’s fight to avoid relegation, the Brazilian is expected to seek an ambitious given the club’s financial precarities, despite being contracted to the club until 2024.

An Appetite To Succeed

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With Spurs lacking an out-an-out backup to Harry Kane, the Brazilian’s versatility and tenacity make him a perfect addition to pair up alongside the Englishman or serve as an added force to bolster the attacking third under Conte. A blistering six goal in nine league fixtures ensured Richarlison played a significant part in Everton’s penultimate phase of the season, eventually culminating in the Merseyside club retaining their place in the Premier League for the forthcoming campaign.

Besides single-handedly guiding the team out of relegation, Richarlison remained pivotal to the team’s prospects throughout a testing Premier League campaign. The Brazilian emerged as Everton’s only player to hit double-digit figures in goal contributions (15) alongside having made the joint-fifth highest number of league appearances (30) in the recently concluded league season. Moreover, with Spurs in need of a Premier League proven option to compliment Harry Kane, the Brazilian serves as a refreshing candidate to fulfil the role.

A Transfer Soup

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With numerous clubs reportedly interested in securing the 25-year-old striker’s services, Spurs will be wary of engaging in a tussle for the Brazilian. Although Everton are yet to sound out potential suitors for the striker, given their need to raise funds through sales, Richarlison is likely to be listed on the transfer market sometime over the summer window.

Paris-Saint Germain are Real Madrid are reported to be the two other clubs interested in the player, however, with several promising strikers emerging across Europe, it remains unlikely the two European giants prioritize his signing over other areas this summer. Manchester United are the only other club expected to move for him provided they fail to land their priority striker, however, given their need to solidify other areas, it remains unlikely the Brazilian finds himself at Old Trafford next season.

While many expect Richarlison to remain at Everton given his long-term contract with the club, a tempting offer for his services could push the Toffees into considering a sale of their most valuable asset from last season. While the offering of a lucrative deal at Everton remains on the cards, given the club’s need to prioritize adequate funds for Frank Lampard, the potentiality of securing a decent transfer fee could see the Toffees cash in on numerous players this summer. Valued between £45mn to £55mn, the Brazilian could emerge amongst one of six players reportedly expected to arrive at Tottenham this summer, with Conte expected to target silverware with the North-London club heading into the 2022/23 Premier League campaign.

MUST READ: Fraser Forster closing in on Spurs’ move as he undergoes medical at Hotspur Way



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