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Nemanja Matić – Player Profile

Serbian central midfielder Nemanja Matić signed for Olympique Lyonnais from Ligue 1 rivals Rennes for €2.6 million in the January 2024 transfer window. The thirty-five year old becomes the oldest player in the current Lyon squad and has joined on a two-and-a-half-year contract, taking him through to summer 2026.

Matić had only spent half a season at Rennes, having joined them from AS Roma in the summer of 2023. However, he was reportedly unhappy with the schooling arrangements for his children in the Breton capital and consequently pushed for an early departure. He was in the stands at the Groupama Stadium to witness Lyon’s 2-3 defeat to Rennes in late January and completed his transfer in the immediate aftermath of the match.

Saving Lyon’s Season

Matić was thrown straight into the Lyon starting XI the following weekend for the visit of Marseille, and his calming presence at the heart of the midfield prompted an instant upturn in Lyon’s fortunes. They secured a 1-0 victory over their bitter rivals in a hard-fought contest, which proved to be the start of a winning run that lifted the club out of the relegation zone and into mid-table.

A tactically and positionally disciplined defensive midfielder providing a protective screen in front of the defence was exactly what Lyon had been missing in the first half of the season. Matić may no longer possess the speed and energy of his peak years in the Premier League, but he has the experience and awareness to compensate.

A recurrent problem had been the bombardment of shots that Lyon were facing from around the edge of the box due to opposition players being given too much time and space in dangerous areas. Matić is adept at sniffing out danger and closing players down before they get into a shooting position. Furthermore, his composure and assuredness in possession and his expansive range of passing have helped Lyon transition more effectively from defence to attack.

Growing up in Serbia

Nemanja Matić was born in Šabac, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants in the west of Serbia. It sits on the right bank of the River Sava, which meanders its way downstream towards its confluence with the Danube in Belgrade, around 50 km to the east. Back in 1988, that was at the heart of the former Yugoslavia. However, as the country disintegrated in the bloody conflict of the early 1990’s, Šabac founds itself just 25 km from the border with Bosnia.

Growing up in the nearby village of Vrelo, Matić lived in the shadow of that war for almost a decade from the age of two onwards. Indeed, Vrelo was a target of the NATO bombing campaign of Spring 1999 as Matić approached his eleventh birthday, which was the motive behind his decision not to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day later in life.

Initially coached by his own father in the youth sections of FK Vrelo, the young Matić was on the books of various Serbian clubs before breaking through to make his senior debut at FK Kolubara during the 2006-07 season. Based in the southern suburbs of the capital, FK Kolubara were competing in the Serbian League Belgrade division, which is one of four divisions at the third tier of the Serbian football pyramid.

An early move abroad

However, after just a few months in the first team, Matić was scouted by Slovak club Košice and joined them permanently in January 2007. He quickly became an integral part of their line-up and spent two and a half seasons learning his trade in the Slovak Superliga, picking up a Slovak Cup winners medal in 2009. In 2008, he had been joined at the club by his younger brother, Uroš Matić, also a midfielder, but the two weren’t together for long as Nemanja was snapped up by Chelsea for €1.75m in August 2009.

The twenty-one year old Matić only made three appearances during that debut season for Chelsea as they won a domestic double under Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti. Therefore, he didn’t qualify for a Premier League winner’s medal, but he did pick up an FA Cup medal, having played 25 minutes as a substitute in the 5-0 win over Watford in the Third Round and being on the bench for the 1-0 win over Portsmouth in the final at Wembley.

His Chelsea debut had come in a 4-0 home win against Wolves in November 2009, where he replaced former Lyon star Florent Malouda in the 69th minute. His only other outing came in the final league game of the campaign, an 8-0 crushing of Wigan Athletic at Stamford Bridge in which he replaced Michael Ballack in the 70th minute.

Not yet ready for Chelsea

The following season, Nemanja Matić was loaned out to Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie, where he soon established himself as a first team regular. He made twenty-nine appearances and scored two goals as he helped them avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth. By then, Chelsea had decided that Matić was surplus to requirements and they moved him on to Benfica in the summer of 2011 for a fee of €5 million.

It would cost José Mourinho five times that amount to re-sign him for Chelsea in January 2014 after two and a half years in the Portuguese capital. During that spell, Matić actually faced Chelsea in the UEFA Europa League final at the Amsterdam Arena in 2013. Unfortunately for him, Benfica were beaten 2-1 by his former, and future, employers but Matić had the consolation of being named as the Portuguese Primeira Liga Player of the Season at the end of that campaign.

Bossing it in the Premier League

The three and a half years that Matić spent back at Stamford Bridge between 2014 and 2017 were perhaps the best of his career. He picked up two Premier League titles and was in the PFA Team of the Year for 2014-15. Having been virtually ever-present in midfield for the Blues since his return to the club, it was somewhat surprising that they allowed him to leave in the summer of 2017 to link up with Mourinho again at rivals Manchester United for a fee of around £40 million.

Matić quickly established himself as a key component of the United midfield and the five years that he spent at Old Trafford is the longest period that he settled at one club during his itinerant career. He slotted into the team as a long-term replacement for Michael Carrick at a time when the Red Devils were struggling to forge a new identity in the post Fergie years. Unfortunately, despite some consistently solid individual performances, Matić was unable to help the team collect any silverware.

It was a case of so near yet so far on several occasions. He once again lost out to Chelsea in a final when United were beaten 1-0 by the Blues in the 2018 FA Cup decider and it was double disappointment that season as they also finished runners up in the Premier League. A similar thing happened in 2020-21 when, now under the stewardship of Ole Gunnar Solskjær, they again came second in the league and lost the UEFA Europa League final on penalties to Villareal.

Following in José’s footsteps

Matić’s final season at Old Trafford was underwhelming on all fronts as they limped to sixth place under interim boss Ralf Rangnick and he was allowed to depart on a free transfer in the summer. He was signed for a third time by José Mourinho, who was by now in charge of AS Roma.

Matić spent a single season in Italy, where he made fifty appearances across all competitions, helping Roma to a sixth place finish in Serie A and the quarter-finals of the Coppa Italia. It was, however, Roma’s European campaign that provided the most excitement as the club made it all the way to the UEFA Europa League final in Budapest, where they faced Sevilla. It represented a chance for Matić to make it third time lucky in that competition after his two previous final defeats, However, he was forced to settle for a runners-up medal once again following more penalty shoot-out heartbreak.

Nemanja Matić’s international career with Serbia spanned eleven years from 2008 to 2019, during which time he accumulated 48 caps and scored two goals. The highlight was the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he played in all three matches as Serbia finished third in Group E behind Brazil and Switzerland.

Lucas Perri – Player Profile

Lucas Estella Perri is a Brazilian goalkeeper who signed for Olympique Lyonnais for €3.25 million from Botafogo in the January 2024 transfer window. Having recently turned twenty-six, he arrived in Lyon to initially serve as a back-up for long-term custodian Anthony Lopes, replacing erstwhile reserve goalkeeper Rémy Riou, who moved on to Paris FC.

Born in Campinas, São Paulo state, Perri spent his early years in the youth setup of local clubs Ponte Preta and São Paulo, before graduating to the São Paulo first team squad aged seventeen in 2015. However, for the next couple of years he continued to feature primarily for the youth teams and his senior appearances were restricted to the relatively minor Copa Paulista.

He notably won the U-20 Copa Libertadores in 2016, keeping a clean sheet in the final, a 1-0 win against Liverpool of Montevideo at the Estadio Defensores del Chaco in Asunción, Paraguay. He earned his first cap for the Brazil U-20 team the same year, saving a penalty in a 2-1 victory over Uruguay.

A long wait for first team chances

In January 2019, by now aged twenty-one, Perri was loaned to Crystal Palace for a six month period, but he never made the first team squad for the Eagles and returned to São Paulo at the end of the season. A few months after his homecoming, in December 2019, he made his first, and indeed only, Série A appearance for São Paulo in their final game of the season, a 2-1 away win at Centro Sportivo Alagoano.

A frustrating couple of years followed, during which Perri was on the fringes of the first team squad and only made a handful of sporadic appearances. His path to the starting eleven remained resolutely blocked by first choice goalkeeper Tiago Volpi and it became clear that he needed to look elsewhere to gain experience.

Successful stint in Série B

Salvation came in the shape of a move to Náutico, based in Recife in Pernambuco state. Perri was immediately installed as first choice goalkeeper at the north-eastern club and he soon helped them triumph in the Campeonato Pernambucano. He made a telling contribution in the final against Retrô, saving two penalties in the 4-2 shoot-out victory following a 1-1 draw.

Náutico’s Série B campaign didn’t go quite so well. They were in the thick of a relegation battle and wins were few and far between, although Perri himself earned plaudits for his personal performances. That was despite only keeping three clean sheets in twenty-two matches and picking up the only red card of his career to date. He impressed enough to catch the eye of Rio de Janeiro’s Botafogo, competing in Série A, and they paid São Paulo around €350,000 to cancel his loan to Náutico and sign him permanently in August 2022.

Finally hitting the big time

Lucas Perri was part of the Botafogo squad for the last fifteen games of their 2022 Série A campaign, but he spent most of them on the bench as understudy to Paraguayan goalkeeper Gatito Fernández. However, he did make four appearances and managed to keep three clean sheets in them as Botafogo finished eleventh in the table.

2023 was to become his big breakthrough season. He took over as first choice ‘keeper during Botafogo’s Taça Guanabara campaign (the first stage of the Carioca championship) and never looked back. April brought some silverware in the form of the Taça Rio, and Perri was then ever-present in the 2023 edition of Série A as Botafogo set the early pace at the top of the table before fading to finish fifth. He also earned his first call-ups to the full Brazil squad in the second half of the year, as a third choice ‘keeper behind Ederson and Alisson.

Lopes’ long-term successor?

Perri has earned a reputation as something of a penalty saving specialist and is also known for occasionally distributing the ball up-field by punching it boxing style over an impressive distance. He has a big physical presence, standing almost half a foot taller than Anthony Lopes, and he exudes confidence.

As Botafogo and Lyon are both part of the Eagle Football Holdings multi-club ownership group headed by American businessman John Textor, it was no surprise that they opted to redeploy Lucas Perri to Lyon as soon as the January transfer window opened. He will provide some much needed competition to Lopes for the number one spot and, being seven years Lopes’ junior, will expect to inherit the shirt from him in the future.

The cut price €3.25 million fee that Lyon paid was well below Perri’s market value, which was estimated to be upwards of €8 million at the time. An arrangement over the fee is one of the advantages of buying from a partner club, but Botafogo do have a 50% sell-on clause in the contract, so they stand to benefit if he is successful at Lyon and moves on in a big money deal.

Gift Orban – Player Profile

Gift Emmanuel Orban is a Nigerian striker who joined Olympique Lyonnais from Belgian club Gent for a fee of €12 million in the January transfer window of 2024. He made his Lyon debut later that month in a 3-2 defeat at home to Rennes. He came off the bench at half-time to replace Mahamadou Diawara with Lyon trailing 3-0 and helped his new team claw their way back into the game in the second half.

That performance earned Orban his first start in the following match, which was the ‘Olympico’ clash against Marseille at the Groupama Stadium. Playing on the left side of attack, he put in a good shift and caused the visitors a few problems before he was replaced by Malick Fofana with twenty minutes left to play, having helped set Lyon on the way to a hard-fought 1-0 win.

Gift Orban didn’t have to wait much longer to open his scoring account for ‘Les Gones’. He was handed another start three days later in a crucial Coupe de France Round of 16 tie against Lille, leading the line in place of Alexandre Lacazette, who was being rested. His big moment came in the 40th minute when he latched onto a through ball from Rayan Cherki to finish off a slick passing move with a cool dink over the out-coming goalkeeper. He proved to be a handful for the Lille defence until he was replaced by Lacazette mid-way through the second half of the 2-1 win and he looks like a very useful addition to Lyon’s roster of attacking options.

Scouted by Stabæk

Born in Benue State, in the eastern central region of Nigeria, Gift Orban was playing for Bison FC when he was spotted by representatives of Norwegian club Stabæk whilst playing in an amateur tournament. Aged nineteen, he was invited to spend the winter training with Stabæk, but he returned to his homeland upon the expiry of his visa. However, he had impressed enough people to convince them to make a formal move for him a few months later, in Spring 2022.

Orban was initially thrown into the club’s reserves, competing in the fourth tier of Norwegian football, but it was immediately apparent that he was too good for that level. They moved him up to the first team squad at the end of May and he hit the ground running. He scored or assisted in almost every game between then and the end of the season, finishing with 19 goals and seven assists in 24 games across all competitions. Despite having missed the first third of the season, he was joint top scorer in the OBOS-ligaen (Norway’s second division) and won the Young Player of the Year award. Stabæk finished second in the table and won promotion back to the top flight, thanks largely to Orban’s performances.

A Gift for Gent

Such was his impact in Norway that bigger clubs from around Europe started to take notice and Gent took the plunge in January 2023, shelling out €4.6 million for his services. Unfazed by the step up in standard, Gift Orban wasted no time in finding his feet at his new club. He scored a brace in his Jupiler Pro League debut at Westerlo (a 3-3 draw) and plundered fifteen goals in sixteen appearances during that second half of the season and play-offs, via which Gent qualified for the Europa Conference League.

However, it was his exploits in the 2022-23 Europa Conference League knock-out phase that made headlines around Europe. Three minutes after coming on against Qarabag in the Intermediate Stage 2nd Leg, he scored a goal to level the tie and then scored in the penalty shoot-out that saw Gent progress to the last 16. There they faced Basaksehir and, after a 1-1 draw at home, he went to Istanbul and scored the fastest ever hat-trick in UEFA club competitions, breaking Mo Salah’s record. His goals in the 31st, 32nd and 34th minutes were only three minutes and twenty-five seconds apart and set Gent on their way to a 4-1 win. Sadly they were knocked out by West Ham in the Quarter-Finals.

Moving on up

Orban wasn’t quite as prolific in the first half of the 2023-24 campaign with Gent. His rapidly burgeoning reputation meant that he was now a marked man and he only managed three goals in the Jupiler Pro League prior to his January move to Lyon. In mitigation, his numbers were adversely affected by the lack of playing time he was afforded in the league – he only started nine of Gent’s first twenty games as coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck rotated his squad to cope with the dual demands of domestic and European football.

On the European scene, Orban was consistently in the starting line-up and he scored a hat-trick against Pogon Szczecin in the Europa Conference League qualifiers and another triple against Breidablik in the group phase. His five goals helped Gent to second place in Group B made him joint top scorer in the 2023-24 Conference League group stage. These exploits contributed to his transfer value quadrupling in the space of twelve months at Gent, and Lyon moved to secure his signature amidst interest from a host of big clubs around Europe.

MUACOL players at AFCON 2023

Five MUACOL players were called up to their respective national team squads for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations, which somewhat confusingly took place in January 2024, in the Ivory Coast. There wasn’t a huge amount to celebrate for any of them as they all experienced somewhat disappointing campaigns. You can read a summary of their involvement below.

Manchester United players at AFCON 2023

Goalkeeper Andre Onana was called up by Cameroon for the tournament, although he seemed a bit reluctant to go. Perhaps he was fearful of losing his starting place at United to his Turkish understudy Altay Bayindir, as he delayed his departure until the last possible moment. He played in United’s Premier League match against Spurs on the 14th of January and had hoped to make it to the Ivory Coast in time for Cameroon’s opening fixture against Guinea the next day.

However, in the event, he arrived too late and missed that game. He finally took his place in the starting line-up for the second Group C match against Senegal, but was unconvincing in a 3-1 defeat, which resulted in him being dropped for the 3-2 win over Gambia that qualified Cameroon for the second round.

Onana remained on the bench throughout the subsequent 2-0 defeat to Nigeria that saw Cameroon eliminated from the tournament, so his involvement in the competition amounted to ninety underwhelming minutes. It did, however, mean that he was able to return to England in time for United’s 4-3 win at Wolves on the 1st of February. He’ll be relieved to have only missed one match – the 3-2 win at Newport County in the FA Cup.

Sofyan Amrabat was ever present for Morocco during their Africa Cup of Nations campaign. He met up with the squad in time for their 3-1 win over Sierra Leone in a warm-up match, before helping them top Group F with wins over Tanzania and Zambia and a draw with DR Congo. Playing in his usual defensive midfield role, he was powerless to prevent Morocco’s surprise elimination by South Africa in the second round and he ended the tournament on a personal low by picking up a red card for a second bookable offence in stoppage time.

Athletic Club players at AFCON 2023

Iñaki Williams was the sole Athletic Club player at the tournament, representing his native Ghana. However, he was used sparingly by coach Chris Hughton. He came off the bench for the last half hour in the opening game against Cape Verde with the score at 1-1, but had little impact and Ghana succumbed to an injury time winner.

Hughton did hand Williams a start in Ghana’s second Group B fixture, a clash with highly fancied Egypt. He played the first 73 minutes on the right side of attack before being replaced with Ghana leading 2-1, and could only look on from the bench as Egypt equalised soon after he had left the fray.

Williams was only brought on with a minute of normal time remaining in the final group match against Mozambique. Ghana were two goals to the good at the time, and looked to be coasting into the second round. However, a late capitulation saw them concede twice in stoppage time and crash out on the back of a 2-2 draw.

The silver lining was that Iñaki Williams was able to make it back to Bilbao in time to take a seat among the substitutes for their Copa del Rey quarter-final against Barcelona the following day. He boarded a plane from Abidjan to Paris just a couple of hours after the final whistle and flew through the night before transferring to a flight to Bilbao the next morning.

It was all worthwhile because he came off the bench just before the hour mark with the score at 2-2 and played a decisive role in slaying the Catalan giants. He scored what proved to be the winning goal at the start of the second half of extra time and then set up his younger brother Nico to make it 4-2 and wrap things up in the final minute.

Olympique Lyonnais players at AFCON 2023

Ernest Nuamah was also in Chris Hughton’s Ghana squad, but he didn’t get a lot of playing time. He featured as a substitute in a warm-up game against Namibia at the Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi, replacing Jordan Ayew for the last twenty minutes. It was a similar scenario in Ghana’s first group game against Cape Verde in Abidjan where he came on in the 62nd minute with the score at 1-1 but was unable to prevent an eventual 201 defeat. He was then an unused substitute in the 2-2 draws against Egypt and Mozambique that sealed Ghana’s elimination from the tournament.

Mama Baldé started at centre-forward in Guinea-Bissau’s opening match against the hosts, Ivory Coast, at the Stade Olympique Alassane Ouattara in Ebimpé, in the north of the capital Abidjan. However, he wasted a couple of chances and ended up getting substituted with five minutes to go. He appeared to have picked up a minor knock prior to being replaced with Dálcio.

Guinea-Bissau’s second Group A fixture was against Equatorial Guinea at the same venue. This time Mama Baldé started on the left side of attack, but things didn’t go his way and he was again withdrawn before the finish by coach Baciro Candé. This time he was replaced with Marciano Sanca after 63 minutes with Guinea-Bissau trailing by four goals to one. They went on to lose 4-2. Mama Baldé wasn’t involved at all in the final group match against Nigeria where a 1-0 defeat confirmed their exit from the competition.

Malick Fofana – Player Profile

Malick Fofana is a Belgian winger who signed for Lyon from Gent in the January transfer window in 2024. The eighteen-year-old had caught the eye competing in the Belgian Pro League over the previous eighteen months, convincing Lyon to shell out €17 million to secure his services.

Born in Aalst, in East Flanders, to a father of Guinean descent, Malick Fofana spent the early part of his youth career with local clubs such as FCV Dender EH and Eendracht Aalst before joining Gent as a nine year old. He would go on to spend the best part of a decade on the books of ‘The Buffalos’, as they are known.

Having progressed through the ranks, Fofana signed his first professional contract with Gent in January 2022, a couple of months before his seventeenth birthday. By then, he had already represented Belgium at Under-15 level, and been promoted to their Under-17 squad. Indeed, he helped the Red Devils qualify for the 2022 UEFA European U-17 Championships in Israel, scoring four goals along the way, but only played a small role in the finals as Belgium went out at the group stage.

First Team Debut in the Super Cup

A couple of months later, at the start of the 2022-23 season, Malick Fofana made his senior debut for Gent in the Belgian Super Cup. Gent were there in their capacity as Belgian Cup holders, and they faced reigning champions Club Brugge at the latter’s Jan Breydel Stadium. Unfortunately Gent went down 1-0 to a 39th minute goal from Denmark’s Andreas Skov Olsen as Fofana looked on from the bench. He had to wait until the fifth minute of added time for a taste of the action, when he replaced Gent captain Sven Kums, and he was unable to alter the result with his late cameo.

Fofana made his first appearance in the Julipiler Pro League, Belgium’s top division, later that month, and his first start came in a 2-1 win at home to Westerlo in August 2022. However, he spent the majority of the next few months playing for Jong Gent, the club’s development squad, in the third tier of Belgian football.

Come January 2023 he was deemed worthy of a regular place in the first team squad and started to feature in most games as Gent chased Europa Conference League qualification, which they eventually achieved via the play-offs. He was also heavily involved in Gent’s run to the Europa League quarter-finals, where they lost to West Ham.

Malick Fofana ended the 2022-23 season with 33 senior club appearances to his name, and a solitary goal, which came against Cercle Brugge in the Belgian Cup. He also progressed to the Belgian national Under-18 team and even picked up a cap for the Under-20s, all of which earned him a contract extension from Gent in summer 2023.

A big money move to Lyon

The 2023-24 campaign was the first that Fofana began as an established first-teamer. He played primarily down the left flank for Gent, and occasionally at centre-forward, as the team hovered around third spot in the table and progressed from their Conference League group. He added four goals and six assists to his career tally in the first half of the season and stepped up to the Belgian Under-21s before Lyon snapped him up in early January.

Malick Fofana’s Lyon debut came as a substitute in a 3-1 defeat at Le Havre in Ligue 1, but he got his first start five days later in the sixth round of the Coupe de France. He scored the opening goal in a 2-1 win against Bergerac and retained his place for the following match against Rennes. However, that one didn’t go so well and he was substituted at half-time with Lyon trailing 3-0, having struggled at left wing-back.

Lyon made five other signings during that January 2024 transfer window, so Fofana faces stiff competition for a starting role. He’s still an inexperienced and raw talent and it remains to be seen whether he’s ready to hold down a starting place or be used more as an impact substitute during the remainder of this season. One thing is for sure, however, and that’s that his rise over the past eighteen months has been meteoric. If he continues to progress at a similar rate then he has a bright future ahead of him.

Adryelson – Player Profile

Adryelson is a Brazilian centre-back who signed for Olympique Lyonnais from Botafogo for €3.58m in the January 2024 transfer window, aged twenty-five. He’s the second player to make the move from Botafogo to Lyon since the clubs have both been part of American businessman John Textor’s multi-club ownership project. He’ll hope to make a bigger impact in France than his compatriot Jeffinho, who spent less than a year at Lyon, largely sitting on the bench, before returning to Botafogo.

Adryelson made his Lyon debut as a late substitute in the 3-1 defeat away at Le Havre just a few days after completing his transfer. He was brought on for Rayan Cherki in order to plug a hole in defence created by Duje Ćaleta-Car‘s red card as Lyon ended the game with nine men. His first start came five days later in a 2-1 win over Bergerac in the Coupe de France. He picked up an early yellow card and looked a bit rusty before being replaced at half-time, so it’s safe to say that his best is yet to come..

Growing up in rural Brazil

Adryelson Shawann Lima Silva, to give him his full name, was born in Barão de Grajaú, a rural town of some 19,000 inhabitants on the northern bank of the Parnaíba river that forms the border between the states of Maranhão and Piauí. The son of policeman, he made his way in local youth football before being picked up by Sport Recife from Pernambuco state, based on the coastal city of Recife some 1,000 km to the east of his home town. He was just thirteen when he joined the junior ranks of ‘the Lions‘ in 2011.

In March 2015, before he had made his senior debut in club football, Adryelson was included in the Brazil squad for the South American U-17 Championship in Paraguay. His debut came as a substitute in their opening 3-2 win over Colombia. He then played the full ninety and scored in a surprise 3-2 defeat to Venezuela but was an un-used substitute throughout the remainder of the tournament as Brazil went on to lift the trophy.

His Sport Recife debut came the following month in the state league, the Campeonato Pernambucano. However, it was to be his sole outing in that 2015 season and he only added three more appearances during the course of the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. He continued to cut his teeth in the youth teams and spent a seven month spell on loan at Palmeiras before finally getting his breakthrough in the second half of 2018.

Finally first team football

Adryelson made his Série A debut aged 20 in a home match against high-flying Internacional in front of around 10,000 fans at the Estádio Adelmar da Costa Carvalho. His 79th minute equaliser laid the platform for Sport Recife to snatch an unlikely late winner through Mateus Gonçalves, with an assist by former Lyon legend Michel Bastos, who was winding down his career back in his homeland. That result ended a three-game losing streak for Sport Recife and Adryelson kept his place in the starting line-up for the remainder of the season. He helped bring about an upturn in form for the Lions, but the damage had been done earlier on in the campaign and it wasn’t quite enough to avoid relegation to Série B.

The 2019 season was a much happier affair. Adryelson only missed a handful of games as Sport Recife bounced straight back, finishing second in the table to secure promotion. He also won his first (and only) cap for the Brazil U-23 team in a 5-0 friendly win against Qatar. Back in Série A for 2020, Adryelson helped Sport Recife avoid relegation with a 15th place finish and he was ever-present bar two single-match bans for accumulated yellow cards.

The following season he spent the year on loan at Al-Wasl in the UAE Pro League before returning to Brazil for the 2022 Série A campaign. It was at that juncture that his eleven year association with Sport Recife came to an end in some acrimony due to a dispute over unpaid wages. A tribunal ruled that he could leave on a free transfer and he duly signed for Botafogo.

Almost a champion

It didn’t take Adryelson long to integrate the first team at the famous old Rio club and he helped them to an eleventh place finish in 2022. Botafogo began the 2023 Série A season in fine form and soon hit the top of the table. At one point their lead stretched to a massive thirteen points but they failed to win any of their last eleven fixtures and eventually slipped down to fifth. They also made the quarter finals of the Copa Sudamericana and did manage to capture the Taça Rio, a minor competition for Rio state clubs.

Ultimately though, what had looked set to be a very promising season ended in disappointment. On a personal level, however, Adryelson had looked impressive and he earned his first call up to the full Brazil squad in October when another centre-back, Nino, dropped out through injury. His notional transfer value had likely risen far higher than the €3.58m that Lyon paid for him, but when you’re buying from a partner club you can come to an arrangement on fees. There is a 50% sell-on clause, so Botafogo stand to benefit from a future transfer should he do well in France.

The road back to fitness starts here

It’s the new year, the holiday period is over and, like many people, my thoughts have turned to getting fit. I’ve put on a fair bit of weight recently and being in my mid forties, it’s probably going to be hard to shift. Middle-age spread has started and it needs to be stopped.

Until about six months ago, I was at the peak of my fitness. I’d been running seriously for ten years and had experienced near continuous improvement. Indeed, I recorded a new 10K PB last June. However, by then I had been running with a dull pain in my pelvis for a few months, so I decided it was time to take a rest and investigate the cause.

During those six months, I’ve piled on about six kilogrammes and I’d like to shed them before I consider starting to train seriously again. Following some recent scans, I’m cautiously optimistic that my injury is healing, so I’m setting myself an ambitious target of losing six kilogrammes in six weeks to get back to my racing weight. I don’t want to put any additional strain on my poor muscles and joints by making them carry even more weight than they used to before I got injured.

The only way I’ll have a chance of actually making that target is to write it down and publish it, so I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. So there it is in print, and I’m going to keep a diary tracking my progress to help keep me focused on the goal over the coming weeks.

I’ll attack the challenge on two fronts, by reducing my calorie intake and by gradually increasing my level of physical activity, which has basically been nil over the past month. I’ll try to eat as healthily as possible and start off with some yoga and strength building exercises and easy cycling before moving on to anything more strenuous, assuming I don’t get an adverse reaction from my injury.

It feels as though it’s a long road back to full fitness stretching ahead of me, and to be honest it’s pretty daunting. I don’t know if I have the mental discipline to stick rigidly to my plan, but I’m starting off with the best intentions. Hopefully I can get back into decent shape by the summer.

Mamadou Sarr – Player Profile

Mamadou Sarr is a central defender who made his debut for the Lyon first team in their final home match of the 2022-23 season. He came off the bench to replace Maxence Caqueret in the 83rd minute of a 3-0 win against Stade de Reims.

Sarr is a product of Lyon’s famed youth academy. He enrolled with the club back in 2018 at the start of his teenage years, and progressed rapidly through the ranks. His first steps in the Under-19 team came in the 2021-22 season when he was still only sixteen.

Early success at youth level

During that 2021-22 season, Sarr was a lynchpin of the Lyon team who won the prestigious Coupe Gambardella – the French equivalent of the FA Youth Cup. He was ever present from the Round of 16 onwards and scored in both the quarter and semi finals. The final against Caen at the Stade de France finished 1-1 and Lyon went on to win the penalty shoot-out 6-4.

Just nine days after that final, Sarr was in action for the French national U17 selection in the UEFA Under-17 European Championships in Israel. He played the first two group games – 6-1 and 4-0 wins over Poland and Bulgaria respectively – and was rested for the third match. Back in the starting line-up for the start of the knockout phase, he helped France to penalty shoot-out success against Germany and Portugal in the quarters and semis, but was on the bench for the final against the Netherlands. Nevertheless, France won 2-1 to secure the title and Sarr lifted his second trophy in less than a month.

The following season, 2022-23, Mamadou Sarr was promoted to the Lyon reserve squad playing in the Championnat National 2. He featured regularly in the team but it was a disappointing campaign that ended in relegation. Sarr also made nine appearances in friendlies for the France U18 team during the course of the season and, as mentioned above, was handed his senior Lyon debut in late May.

Waiting to take his chance

This season, Sarr has been shunted between the reserves, now in the Championnat National 3, and the first team bench. His second senior appearance came against Toulouse in December, again as a late substitute and he got a few more minutes in the Coupe de France Third Round win versus Pontarlier. He has also won his first caps for the France U19 team.

Should he make the grade, Mamadou Sarr will have two options at international level, as he also qualifies to play for Senegal by virtue of his father. Pape Sarr was a defensive midfielder who represented his country at the 2002 World Cup and spent most of his career in France. He began with Saint-Étienne and went on to wear the colours of Lens, Istres, Brest and Paris FC.

Young Mamadou has clearly inherited some of his dad’s football talent, and is showing promising signs that he can follow in his father’s footsteps and forge out a career as a professional. It’s too early to tell whether he’s headed right to the top, but he certainly has bags of potential.

Mid-Season Report: Manchester United

Manchester United Men:

It has been a pretty dire first half of the 2023-24 season for Manchester United. Their injury hit squad has struggled in the Premier League and crashed out of two cup competitions with barely a whimper. Off-field controversies surrounding Mason Greenwood, Antony and Jadon Sancho were a distraction, as was the drawn-out takeover saga that dragged on until Christmas Eve.

A poor start saw them lose three of their first five league games before a narrow win at Burnley dragged them into the top half of the table. An easier run of fixtures helped them claw their way up to the dizzy heights of sixth place in late November but they have struggled to find any kind of consistency. Their longest unbeaten run is just three games and they took just seven points from their last seven matches of 2023 as they dropped back down to eighth.

Manchester United’s Champions League campaign was an unmitigated disaster. They managed only one win in Group A, and even that required a last minute penalty save from Andre Onana to secure a 1-0 victory over FC Copenhagen at Old Trafford. Despite scoring three times in each of their away games, only one point was gained on the road, in a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw at Galatasaray. They lost each of the other four fixtures by a single goal but were frequently left to rue basic individual errors and, at times, some incomprehensible refereeing decisions. Ultimately, they finished rock bottom of the group.

As holders of the League Cup, some supporters may have hoped that they would make a decent fist of defending that trophy. However, after seeing off Crystal Palace in the Third Round, they were humiliated 3-0 at home by Newcastle United in the last sixteen. The FA Cup remains their only hope of silverware this season and they face Wigan Athletic away in the Third Round of that in January.

Few Manchester United players have enhanced their reputations during this period, but one ray of hope was the eighteen year old Kobbie Mainoo, who performed with a maturity beyond his years when he was introduced to the midfield. It was also nice to see Scott McTominay get back amongst the goals – he’s the top scorer – and for Harry Maguire to experience something of a renaissance.

The rest of the squad were largely disappointing, with new signings such as Onana and Rasmus Højlund yet to justify their price tags. The lack of creativity and goals was a major issue and Antony, in particular, continues to frustrate on the right wing. A return of zero goals or assists is simply not good enough for a forward at any level.

Manchester United Women:

It’s a tall order for the Manchester United Women’s team to repeat last season’s WSL title challenge and second place finish, especially given the resurgence of rivals Manchester City and Arsenal. The summer departures of key players Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo were a disappointment, but there were some decent signings such as Melvine Malard on loan from Lyon.

United began the season well with a win at Villa and a draw against Arsenal but came unstuck over two legs against PSG in a Women’s Champions League qualifier and therefore failed to make the group stage of that competition.

Since then, their form has been decent and they are currently joint fourth in the Women’s Super League table alongside Liverpool on 18 points. Their only two defeats so far in the league have been at home to Manchester City and Liverpool. They have yet to face leaders Chelsea – that test is coming in January – but they’re going to have to start winning some of the games against their direct rivals if they are to climb any further up the table.

United have been faultless so far in the FA Women’s League Cup, thrashing Everton 7-0, winning 1-0 away at Liverpool and beating Leicester City 3-1 to top Group B with just Manchester City still to play. A draw there would be enough to secure their place in the next round.

Manchester United U-21:

The Manchester United U21 team plays in the Premier League 2, which is a competition for the 26 clubs with Category One academies. There’s a new format to it for the 2023-34 season, as explained in this article. It’s slightly convoluted, but essentially it’s a single league of 26 teams and the top 16 qualify for the end-of-season knock-out play-off competition to decide the champion. The top twelve qualify for next season’s Premier League International Cup.

The peculiarity is that you don’t face all the other teams in the league. You play just twenty matches against a selection of teams from pre-defined seeding pots. United’s games thus far have been nothing if not exciting, with plenty of goals at both ends of the park. In fact, there have been no clean sheets, either for or against them, in any of their fixtures!

The Red Devils got off to a poor start, losing twice, before an astonishing 10-1 win against Stoke and a 5-5 draw with Sunderland. The goals have kept flowing since then and United have gone unbeaten since a 4-2 defeat at home to Arsenal in September. That run has left them in tenth place in the table and in decent shape to qualify for the knockout stages next spring.

The U21 team were also representing Manchester United in the EFL Trophy. That’s a cup competition for teams in League One and League Two of the English football pyramid, plus sixteen Category One academy teams. United were drawn into Northern Section Group E.

As per the regulations, academy teams play all their ties away from home. United started with a creditable 1-1 draw at Stockport County and won a penalty shoot-out for a bonus point. However they were then hammered 8-1 at Bolton and edged out 4-3 by Salford City to finish bottom of the group.

Manchester United U-19:

The Manchester United U19 squad competed in the UEFA Youth League in a group that mirrored the senior team’s Champions League group alongside Bayern Munich, FC Copenhagen and Galatasaray. They performed equally badly as their senior counterparts, finishing bottom of the group with just four points from their six games.

Bayern beat them 2-0 both home and away and they lost 1-0 at home to Copenhagen and away at Galatasaray. They did manage to find the net in their other two matches, a 3-0 home win over the Turks and a 2-2 draw in Copenhagen but they were nowhere near good enough to progress in the competition, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

Manchester United U-18:

The Manchester United U18 team competes in the Premier League U18 North division alongside twelve other clubs. I’m happy to report that they have been absolutely tearing it up so far this season. They sit nine points clear at the top of the table at the turn of the year, with a game in hand over second placed Liverpool.

They raced out of the blocks in August with a 4-0 away win at Middlesbrough followed by a 4-1 win at Stoke and haven’t looked back since. In fact, they have won all ten of their PL U18 fixtures to date, averaging 3.4 goals per game and accruing a goal difference of +28.

United also safely negotiated their first test in this season’s FA Youth Cup with a 1-0 win against Derby County in the Third Round in December and they’ll face Swindon Town in Round Four. The only blip on their otherwise perfect record so far this season has come in the U18 Premier League Cup where they lost 1-0 to Wolves in October. However, they comfortably beat Southampton and Reading to top Group F.

Mid-Season Report: Athletic Club

Athletic Club Men’s Team:

It has been a very positive first half of the 2023-24 season for the Athletic Club men’s team. They have performed above expectations, playing some exciting attacking football, and are in contention for Champions League qualification.

They overcame an opening day defeat at home to Real Madrid to climb up to fifth spot after round three of the La Liga season and have hovered around that position ever since. The only other two defeats came in tricky away fixtures at Real Sociedad and Barcelona and their current unbeaten run stretches back to the 22nd of October.

Athletic Club negotiated the first two rounds of the Copa del Rey, dispatching UE Rubí and CD Cayón away from home and they face a trip to Eibar in round three in early January 2024, so there’s solid progress on all fronts.

The Williams brothers, Iñaki and Nico, have been in scintillating form in attack, both scoring and providing the ammunition for Gorka Guruzeta, who has plundered eight goals himself so far. Oihan Sancet has been pulling the strings, with three goals and four assists of his own as the Bilbao attacking machine terrorises defences up and down the country. They’ll approach 2024 with much optimism.

Athletic Club Women’s Team:

It has been a mediocre season so far for Athletic Club Femenino as they aim to improve on their ninth place finish in the 2022-23 Liga F Primera División. They have been strong at home but disappointing on their travels, with only one win on the road prior to Christmas. They end the calendar year in joint eighth place in the table, level with Levante Las Planas and UDCA Tenerife on 16 points from 12 games, but with an inferior goal difference to those two.

Athletic Club are a comfortable thirteen points clear of the relegation zone, so there’s no concern on that front, and they can aim to move up the table in the new year. They are only two points behind seventh placed Real Sociedad and three points behind Sevilla in sixth, who they held to a 1-1 draw away from home in their last match of 2023.

Athletic Club entered the Copa de la Reina at the Third Round stage in November and easily dispatched Granada with a thumping 4-1 away win. They were handed a tricky looking home tie for the Round of 16, where they will face Madrid CF in mid-January 2024. Madrid are currently fourth in the Liga F table and have already won away in Bilbao this season, so it’ll be a tough test for Iraia Iturregi’s team.

Bilbao Athletic:

Athletic Club’s reserve team, commonly known as ‘Bilbao Athletic’, are currently competing in the Segunda Federación (or Segunda B), which is the fourth tier of the Spanish football pyramid. It sits below La Liga, La Liga 2 and the two regionalised groups of the Primera Federación. Bilbao Athletic were relegated from the Primera Federación at the end of the 2022-23 season and are now in Group 2 of the five group Segunda Federación.

Chasing an immediate return to the third tier, they got their campaign off to a slow start with a draw and a defeat in their opening two matches. However, they then embarked on a thirteen match winning run which continued right up until their final game of the year when they were held to a 1-1 draw away at Gernika. By then, they had built up a commanding lead at the top of the 18 team Segunda B Group 2 table and look on course to secure the one and only automatic promotion spot. They go into 2024 with a seven point lead over second placed Utebo and will have high hopes of maintaining that until the season’s end in May.

Bilbao Athletic also fielded a team in the 2023-24 edition of the Premier League International Cup, where they were in Group C. They earned a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace in their opening game in September, but were narrowly edged out in their subsequent two fixtures. A 1-0 defeat at Everton in November was followed by a 2-1 reverse at Fulham in December. They have still to face Liverpool in January, but are unfortunately already out of contention for a top two spot in the group that would qualify them for the next phase.

Club Deportivo Basconia

CD Basconia is effectively the third team of Athletic Bilbao and they currently compete in the Tercera Federación, which is at the fifth tier of the Spanish football pyramid. The Tercera Federación is divided into 18 groups of 18 teams and Basconia are in Group 4, which corresponds geographically to the Basque County. Only the champions of each group are promoted automatically and the second to fifth placed teams qualify for the promotion play-offs. Basconia finished fourth in 2022-23 and they are hoping for a repeat performance this time around.

They began the 2023-24 season somewhat inconsistently, and were struggling in the bottom half after the first six games. However, their form improved from the middle of October onwards and they went on an eight match unbeaten run up to the end of the year, winning six and drawing two of their most recent fixtures. That run has hauled them up to fifth place in the table at Christmas, with a comfortable five point gap to San Ignacio in sixth. Basconia are only five points behind Beasain in second, and eight behind leaders Vitoria, so there’s everything to play for in the second half of the season.